Sean T. Collins has written about comics and popular culture professionally since 2001 and on this very blog since 2003. He has written for Maxim, The Comics Journal, Stuff, Wizard, A&F Quarterly, Comic Book Resources, Giant, ToyFare, The Onion, The Comics Reporter and more. His comics have been published by Top Shelf, Partyka, and Family Style. He blogs here and at Robot 6.
So, Battlestar Galactica. As I've mentioned before in passing, this season's emphasis on the show's increasingly baroque mythology--both in the literal, religious sense and in the X-Files metaplot sense--has turned me off a bit, in no small part because it's attracting the same kind of crazed devotion that Lost does from the some of the same Lost fans of my acquaintance who are also driving with that show too. To me the biggest symbol of this is the new opening sequence, which has shifted from laying out the need-to-know details about the Cylon threat to the equivalent of Lost having a thing at the beginning of every Season Four episode asking "Who's in the coffin?" And duh, I'm obviously not the only person to connect the Final Five with the Oceanic Six.
That being said, I still find it engrossing, suspenseful, and completely unpredictable. And while the overemphasis on the mysticism, mythology, and Starbuck (Vision-Quest Variant) has obscured this somewhat, it's still frequently moving and profound. There was a time recently when I was very, very down, and suddenly the sinister appeal of Gaius Baltar's "God loves you because you are perfect" gospel of absolution from personal responsibility became frighteningly clear. Laura Roslin's terminal illness storyline is as grueling as such storylines get (favorably reminiscent of similar plotlines from The Sopranos and Deadwood). The Final Four Outta Five are fascinating to watch in action. The Cally episode was heartbreaking. And so on and so on.
Which brings us to this past week's episode, "Sine Qua Non." I was thrilled to see Apollo and Tom Zarek back in action--the former has obviously been criminally underused this season, particularly considering how his blockbuster conduct at the Baltar trial set him up to become a strange and powerful new moral center for the show. I was thrilled to see a return to the political machinations, the struggle for a traumatized society to overcome turmoil, that had driven the show through its first three seasons. I liked seeing Romo Lampkin, that weird Shakespearean fool of a character, come back. I liked the kitty-cat. I liked the fistfight between Bill Adama and Sol Tigh. (Of course, I like everything about Sol Tigh.) I liked the clue that Sol's impregnation of the captive Six afforded us as to the fundamental difference between the Final Five and the main Seven--perhaps even the reason the Five were kept secret in the first place. Certain things were sloppy, like Lampkin's meltdown (though we've seen that sort of thing from this show a lot in the past, including Athena's meltdown in the previous episode), but still, I thought, good stuff overall.
So I was kind of surprised to see how much people hated this episode. My Tori Amos messageboard friends, Jim Henley and his commenters, the House Next Door's commenters--"worst episode ever" was thrown around quite a bit, and since this series included "Black Market," that ain't just whistlin' Dixie. In some quarters, the episode is seen not just as an isolated incident, nor as the hallmark of a lousy season, but as a sign that the entire show has been a complete waste of time.
This made me think: What is the defining characteristic of "the entire show"?
It’s odd, but I’m discovering that I don’t know the show as well as I know other shows I’ve followed this intently. With the exception of something obvious like “Fragged” (an episode cited as successful by Jim), I don’t really remember episode titles or what happened in them. I don’t even remember what came when! Maybe because Battlestar's seasons are so much longer than those of the other shows I’ve caught up with at least in part via DVD (The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, and back in the VHS days, Twin Peaks), they tend to blend together? Maybe it's just harder to track what each season is "about" plotwise, as opposed to The Sopranos's villain-of-the-season structure or Lost's mystery-of-the-season structure or The Wire's urban-blight-of-the-season structure?
But also now that I’m thinking of it, I would say that what I think this show is “about” thematically is harder to pin down than in those other cases. For me, The Sopranos is about how easy it is to be bad and the excuses people will find to do it; Deadwood (which I haven’t finished yet! one episode to go in Season Two is where I’m at) is about the consequences of choosing to do good despite the ease of doing otherwise; Twin Peaks is about the existence, and corrosive influence, of evil; Lost is about how we react to failure; and after watching the pooch-screwing final season of The Wire, I feel like that show is about being an op-ed piece.
What is BSG about? It used to be easy: It’s about the effect of war and atrocity on society. I still think that’s the case, though the Final Five guessing-game and the mysticism dilute it a bit. But last night’s episode (wonky decision-making by the Adamas and the quorum included!) made me think that maybe it’s cohering back into something even grander, and that now it's about the end stages of this particular human civilization--that they’re all too far gone to make it work anymore. That notion has been cropping up explicitly in dialogue for the past few episodes, I think, and things like Kara’s mutiny-provoking vision quest, Bill Adama’s dereliction of duty, Tigh frakking the Six, Cally’s meltdown, Tory’s journey to the dark side, Baltar starting a religious movement whose message (”God loves us because we are all perfect”) is essentially a total abdication of personal responsibility, Athena getting paranoid and murdering the Cylon leader, Roslin instituting a Bush II-style pseudo-autocratic way of governing, the Quorum adopting a feel-good interim president despite all the obvious conflicts, even Lee giving a dog to a guy who talks to his dead cat--heck, a cynic like Lampkin losing his shit in the first place--it all points to the show depicting a society in its terminal stage. It’s easy to see how it could all be read as sloppiness, but I’m thinking (hoping?) otherwise. And man, won't it be impressive if that's where the series goes?
Kramers Ergot 4
Anders Nilsen, David Lasky & Frank M. Young, Renee French, Lauren Weinstein, Marc Bell, John Hankiewicz, Mat Brinkman, Ron Rege Jr, Sammy Harkham, Jim Drain, Ben Jones, Dave Kiersh, C.F., Stepan Gruber, Joe Grillo, Josh Simmons, David Heatley, Souther Salazar, Genevieve Castree, Allison Cole, Leif Goldberg, Tobias Schalken, Jeffrey Brown, Billy & Laura Grant, Jason T. Miles, Kenny, Andrew Brandou, writers/artists
Sammy Harkham, editor
Avodah Books, June 2003 Buy it from Gingko Press Pre-order a fancy-sounding hardcover re-release from Amazon.com
For me at least it's difficult to separate Kramers Ergot 4 from how it came into my life. The book made its debut at the first MoCCA festival, joining Craig Thompson's Blankets in the "big giant powder-blue books that knocked everyone out" sweepstakes; all three events--Kramers, Blankets, and MoCCA itself--turned out to be milestones in my comics-reading life. In terms of Kramers, even for someone weaned on Highwater and NON such as myself, this was heady stuff. I seem to remember there being passionate, even angry debates on my then-stomping grounds of the Comics Journal message board over whether it should have "wasted" pages on non-comics content like collages, and then other debates about whether those non-comics pages are, in fact, comics. It all seems pretty meaningless now--I don't even remember what side(s) I was on--but I suppose the point is that the book really introduced me to completely non-narrative comics, a strategy I don't think I'd given much thought to until then. I feel as though in a very real way it introduced comics to non-narrative comics, at least by virtue of becoming the most high-profile and influential release of that nature to date in the then-young decade. If you look at that contributor list and compare it to people's 2007 Best Of lists, you can probably see the power it had.
In my defense, it is a powerful book. I would say it is in fact a book designed to overwhelm, from the sheer size of the thing to its small-army contributor list to the "yes, but is it art?" nature of so many of its contents. I mean, the textless Mat Brinkman "monsters clash on the Rainbow Bridge" cover is a statement practically begs comparison to the great Hypgnosis album covers for Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, even sharing a rainbow with The Dark Side of the Moon. Now that I think of it--and I promise I hadn't, not even before my initial pass at this review--Dark Side is a great point of comparison in terms of how KE4 functions as a unit rather than as a collection of individual pieces. (There was little question in my mind as to whether I could approach talking about this anthology the same way I've done with MOME.)
See, one thing that struck me in giving the book a cover-to-cover read-through (the first time I'd ever done so) is that there are a surprising number of straightforward narrative strips given the book's outré reputation. There are humor strips (Cole and Jones), autobio/slice of life (Brown), biography (Lasky & Young), underground-type sex'n'violence (Simmons), ruminative mythology-based storytelling of the kind that's proven so popular (Nilsen), and just plain storytellin' (Harkham). Even John Hankiewicz's contribution has a discernible plot. Sure, they're sprinkled throughout multimedia collages and Fort Thunder joy-of-markmaking exercises and multiple title pages and so on, but they're there--sort of like how between the cut-up studio banter and looped analog samples and proto-ambient keyboards and psychedelic freak-outs, you can find unindictable masterpieces of rock-single construction like "Time," "Money," and "Us and Them" on Dark Side. Similarly, even these more easily graspable bits are, for the most part, pretty challenging in tone and content. Simmons' contribution had me ready to put the goddamn book away the second he had a character take scissors to a puppy's eye, Brown's series of vignettes about dealing with the homeless, dangerous, or mentally ill is the most socially- and self-critical strip he's ever done all at once, and Harkham and Nilsen's contributions, "Poor Sailor" and a pair of Sisyphus strips, will no doubt make their creators' all-time highlight reel. It's kind of like creating a pop concept album about the pressures of late 20th-century capitalist society driving you insane until you die.
I'm not making this comparison because it's cute. (I'm certainly not arguing that they sync up together, Wizard of Oz style.) I'm saying that Kramers Ergot 4 is put together the way it is on purpose, for the disorienting, overwhelming effect it has on the reader, how the narrative work lowers your guard for the nonnarrative, how the nonnarrative gooses your synapses and prepares you to focus on things you're unaccustomed to focusing on in the narrative--how marks are arranged on the page, figures as symbols rather than as characters, design, the emotional impact of the strips rather than the plot-intellectual one. Instead of being a concept album, it's a concept anthology. Hence the Dark Side comparison: In both cases there's a sense of sprawl, of a thing you can't possibly take in on the first pass and must return to and grab bits of meaning here and there, discovering new things each time. In both cases the material rewards repeat visits (I'm not sure I ever even read the Simmons strip before / I only figured out that the guy was saying "I certainly was in the right" a couple months ago). In both cases, as I've gotten older, I've grown to appreciate them more.
* Horror triumphalism alert! You've got to get a kick out of Bloody Digusting's take on The Strangers' $20 million box office success this past weekend:
Un-freakin-believable! This weekend horror took a huge step forward by taking on not only INDIANA JONES IV, but the highly anticipated SEX AND THE CITY in a three way box office battle. Obviously Rogue Pictures' The Strangers (review) took the number three slot, but to pull in $20 million opening weekend against two giant blockbusters in the middle of summer is such a wonderful sign. Hopefully this will light a fire under Rogue's ass to greenlight Hack/Slash, which is now near the top of my list as most anticipated horror films in the works. Hurray for horror!
It's probably churlish to unpack this point by point, but: a) one horror movie doing very well does not mean "horror took a huge step forward"; b) one stylish, upscale-marketed horror film does not make an adaptation of a splatstick comic book whose heroine has posed for Suicide Girls any more likely; c) hooray for horror indeed. At least B-Sol at the Vault of Horror frames the reason to be excited for The Strangers' haul purely in box-office terms, citing it alongside Prom Night and presumably The Happening (though oddly omitting Cloverfield or the holiday-season smash I Am Legend) as signs of a strong financial year for the genre. As always I caution against touting the success of films of various origin, style, tone, content, and intent as some sort of victory for Our Beloved Genre.
* LOST SPOILER WARNING: I sadly forgot to link to this last week, but man oh man, is Lost's Harold Perrineau angry about how things went down for him on the show. Maybe slightly less so now, but hoo doggy. For what it's worth, if I were him I'd be angry too; it's easy to see how Michael could have become a main focal point of the show upon his return, and that not happening would be disappointing for any actor. However, given the horrendous paternal history of virtually every character on the show, his argument that the severing of Michael from Walt reinforces stereotypes about irresponsible black fathers really doesn't hold any water. I mean, it's not like Locke, Ben, Jack, Claire, Aaron, Kate, Sawyer, Sun, Alex, Hurley, and Penelope have great male role models either! (Via The Tail Section.)
* I've frequently talked about how much I loved, and love, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe--the prototype for the genre-mashup "art of enthusiasm" I enjoy so much today. El Mayimbe at Latino Review has a lengthy synopsis of a draft screenplay for a new film adaptation of the franchise by Justin "The New David Goyer" Marks. On the one hand, Mayimbe says:
It's a hard and edgy PG-13 tinkering on [sic] a [sic] R. The script has ZERO CAMP or CHEESINESS. NO FUCKING ORKO EITHER! The writer takes the MOTU mythology very seriously. Whatever made the cartoon corny is not in here at all. In fact, there is not a single beat of comedic relief [sic] in the script.
Which, you know, barf. God forbid we don't take a franchise that featured a half-skunk half-man named Stinkor seriously!^ However, it's possible that to translate the awesome-(in the awe-provoking sense)-to-a-five-year-old quality of the original toys and cartoons to a modern blockbuster audience, you have to jump into the madness of it all with both feet; winks and nods toward admitting the original was goofy may just lead to a a watered-down G.I. Joe-style attempt to flatten the weirdness into a conventional action-flick mold. The screenplay sounds fun enough, ripping off Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films (right down to an "in ancient times" prologue nominated by a powerful woman from the film's present) and the superhero-in-training movies of today just as unabashedly as the old He-Man stuff ripped off Heavy Metal and D&D, which is probably as it should be. And the He-Man world's po-faced mixture of fantasy and science-fiction is apparently a very big deal to Marks. So we'll see. (Via AICN.)
* A good day for rants, part one: Ken Lowery bemoans Hollywood's perennial failure to follow up for-women smashes like Sex and the City with more movies for women. Romantic comedies--which my mother calls "sappy crappies"--don't count.
* Curt Purcell responds to CRwM's epic series on torture porn, defending the "High Horrorism" of supernatural horror and arguing that fusty Victorian/Edwardian notions of dread actually date back to prehistoric, even primordial times. It's a great post, though I want to add two things: 1) I don't think CRwM went nearly as far in the "supernatural horror sucks because it's too unrealistic" direction as Aaron Weisbrod's old Dark But Shining essay on that notion, and good on CRwM for that; 2) the comment thread at Curt's post is the usual roundelay of pro forma, largely baseless responses to the torture porn issue (they suck; they're just slasher movies but not as cool; the term "torture porn" is insulting to the horror genre) that Curt and CRwM's posts on the topic have commendably avoided.
* A good day for rants, part two: Look, I've got a lot of problems with the superhero movie wave of the past few years, including (heck, especially!) the supposedly good flicks, let alone the real dreck. Even so, I found Chris Nashawaty's anti-superhero-movie piece at EW to be perhaps the most sloppily researched and argued genre-entertainment thinkpiece it's been my misfortune to come across in literally years. You truly have to read it to believe it--it's so bad I don't even know where to begin.^^ Fortunately I don't have to: My pal Zach Oat at Movies Without Pity takes a chainsaw to Nashawatay's strawman arguments, factual distortions, generally abysmal critical judgment, and sucker-punching of Stan Lee. (The Man is a complicated figure in comics history who has a lot of things to answer for; churning out drab, cookie-cutter ideas during his '60s-era heyday is most certainly not one of them.)
^ Do no fanboys realize that hating Orko, Snarf, the Ewoks, et cetera because they make fucking He-Man, Thundercats, Star Wars, et cetera too silly is ridiculous beyond comprehension? Have they never watched the rest ofHe-Man, the Thundercats, Star Wars, et cetera?
^^ Okay, that's not quite true: Anyone who apparently loves Independence Day forfeits their right to complain about X-Men: The Last Stand. Or, really, anything else.
If you are attending MoCCA this weekend, won't you please consider buying Murder? It's a 44-page anthology of comics (some never before seen by anyone anywhere) written by me and drawn by Matt Wiegle, Matt Rota, and Josiah Leighton. Matt Wiegle designed it and put it together, so you know it's nice-lookin'. It (and I) will be available, along perhaps with another interesting item or two of mine, at the Partyka table. The cover looks like this:
Final Crisis #1
Grant Morrison, writer
J.G. Jones, artist
DC, May 2008
I first read this while standing in Jim Hanley's Universe during my lunchbreak the day it came out. My first impression was basically flat. Brief, largely undramatic scene after brief, largely undramatic scene featuring a myriad of unconnected characters from across the sprawling DC Universe--a product of hundreds or thousands of writers and artists over going on eight decades, cobbled together by corporate fiat...there was certainly a lot going on. It's got to be the most continuity-heavy Major Event launch...well, ever. Or at least since Crisis on Infinite Earths #1.
That said, I don't really care about whether it fails as a launchpad, jumping-on point, blockbuster, next chapter in the DCU, whatever. I just wonder if it succeeds as a Grant Morrison comic, because I don't care about "The DCU" in the slightest, but I do care about the writing of Grant Morrison. And after that first read, I felt that I really didn't have enough to go on. I did enjoy seeing Martian Manhunter get punked out, though. As I always say, kill 'em all. I also thought it was hilarious that Morrison was writing this mega-massive-major tentpole summer blockbuster comic the same way he wrote his weird opus Seven Soldiers--super-dense, chock full of elided dialogue and action, and necessitating multiple reads to make heads or tails of it.
Then I got a copy of it in the mail from DC, so I was actually able to sit down with it, re-read the whole thing, and flip around and re-read certain parts. And you know what? Now I kind of love this comic. It's creepy, weird, totally jam-packed with ideas, paced in a very daring way for what's supposed to be a popcorn comic (no big reveals, no shocking moments, no wish-fulfillment--compare it to the entertaining but comparatively straightforward "shocking season premiere" feel of Secret Invasion), it has a kind of nauseatingly blasé death for one of the DCU's oldest mainstays, I love the Dark Side idea (Jack Kirby's evil demigods falling to earth and taking human form), major plot points are conveyed simply through panel transitions and body language...I keep coming back to the Martian Manhunter's death, which has more impact precisely BECAUSE it's neither a big hero moment or a failed attempt at a big hero moment ("Not like this! NOT LIKE THIS!"). The pacing of it conveys the lack of regard for human life that these douchebag villains have. And certainly the shittiness of evil, as opposed to its grandiose awesomeness, has been a running theme of Morrison's superhero work for a long time now.
Sometimes the art is rushed-looking--Superman looks like he's stupid, and the table at which the Secret Society of Super-Villains parlay with mysterious asshole villain Libra changes sizes from panel to panel. But there's a lot of great facial-expression stuff in there too, as in the Anthro vs. Vandal Savage fight, the confrontation between Boss Dark Side and Terrible Turpin, the Anti-Life kids...
Even the deadweight Monitors from Countdown seem like they have a weird society instead of just running around proclaiming shit like they used to. And who cares whether it ignores what happened to the New Gods in previous would-be event miniseries over the past year? Ignoring stuff you don't care about is done every time a superhero writer working on a decades-old character hits a key on his laptop--so what if the thing he's ignoring happened three months ago instead of in 1957? It's a very good comic for me.
For today's daily webcomic on Top Shelf 2.0, editor Leigh Walton has been kind enough to repost my and Matt Rota's It Brought Me Some Peace of Mind. It's the story of a man named Andrei Chikatilo and his enthusiastic, if idiosyncratic, patronage of the Ukrainian mass transit system. I hope you enjoy it.
This is as good a time as any to remind you to be on the lookout for my 44-page comics anthology Murder, designed by Matt Wiegle, at the Partyka table at MoCCA. I hope you enjoy that too!
* Now here's a great one, horror fans: Film blogger Girish Shambu initiates a discussion of horror movies, specifically whether there are films or filmmakers whose work is so revolting or frightening you can't bring yourself to (re-)watch them. The post and the extremely rewarding comment thread address horror from the perspective of bona fide cineastes whose primary interests in film lie elsewhere--a really fascinating viewpoint for those of us immersed in the genre on a daily basis. Curt, CRwM, B-Sol, Bruce, Ken, Jon, Steven, Jason, I hope you're reading...
* Lionsgate has changed the release date for The Midnight Meat Train again. Now it's not coming out till August 1st. For those keeping track at home, it's gone from May to August to July back to August again. Either they saw how The Strangers did and want to give it a little more breathing room instead of putting it up against Hellboy II, or they really just don't give a crap.
* Curt Purcell returns to CRwM's torture-porn post series, this time singling out the aspects he found really successful.
* Call me crazy, but $115 for every single tie-in issue of the DC summer event Final Crisis seems not unreasonable to me. That's going to be six or seven different trade-paperback collections when all is said and done, right? If you're really into DC, it's sort of like buying two or three complete-season HBO on DVD box sets. The other thing to think about with these sorts of cost-analyses for sprawling multi-title crossovers is that the kinds of people who are crazy enough to buy every single issue for completism's sake--the people who plunk down money for Countdown: Arena or the World War Hulk issues of Heroes for Hire--have long ago made the bargain with themselves that this is how they will spend their disposable income. You might as well bemoan the cost of limited-edition Nikes to a sneaker collector who's got a closet full of them. (Via Topless Robot.)
* The Onion A.V. Club interviews Joel McHale, the host of The Soup. One thing both the interview and the comment thread get at is that part of the reason the show is so funny is because Joel's contempt for the stupid shit he's making fun of is clearly genuine. (Via Jim Treacher.)
I was challenged and intrigued by the idea of, and the ideas in, this debut graphic novel, comprising various interlocking minicomic and anthology strips. "The Aviary," as we slowly come to realize, is a term for a strange, insular city peopled by various subconsciously resonant weirdos: an art-porn impresario who is also an anthropomorphized monkey, a sexy but viciously nasty receptionist, a limbless stand-up comedian, and so on. Popping up throughout is a blinking bird-headed doll/automaton called the Silent Bird-Man, alternately a symbol of reproachful authority and libidinous secrecy. Some clever shifts in the temporal order of the events being presented lead to a mobius-strip vibe reminiscent of one of David Lynch's psychogenic fugue films; yes, it's a shorthand way to connote depth and weirdness, but it's an effective shorthand way to do that. On a script and story level, the project falls somewhere between Ed the Happy Clown and Asthma, not nearly as assured as either (easy anachronism is a sure-fire way to lose me, comics writers of America), but promising for how it plays with those tools.
The problem is the visuals. Tanner's pen-and-ink line is reminiscent in some ways of Rick Geary's--not least because of its old-timey affectations--but his overall sense of page design and panel framing lacks Geary's inventiveness and storytelling brio. I think literally every single shot of every single character in the book is either head-on or in three-quarter profile, like they're spending the whole book cheating to the audience. And they're almost always shown in close-up or medium-shot--seriously, you're as likely to see feet here as you are in a Michael Turner comic. The combined effect simultaneously makes the comic feel artificial and saps it of its energy. This is all compounded by an overuse of word balloons and figures that break the panel walls for no discernible reason, again making the images feel stagey. Meanwhile, the character designs blended together for me, making the already byzantine plot even more difficult to follow.
Overall, this is what you'd call a promising debut, but not in the blandly complimentary way that's usually said--I really mean it's noteworthy for the promise it demonstrates with regard to potential future works. What I'd like to see is Tanner throw this against the wall hard, to see what sticks, to see what's broken, and to see how he can put something new, different, and better together with the pieces.
* The creators of The Wire have apparently decided to make a show that's even easier for the writers of sociocultural thinkpieces to wax enthusiastic about and are adapting the nonfiction Iraq War book Generation Kill as an HBO miniseries. AICN's review sums up the team's, uh, appeal:
As you know, Ed Burns and David Simon were the writers/creators/producers of HBO’s “The Wire.” In my opinion, “The Wire” is hands-down the best show ever made. Period. End of discussion. Sure, I love “The Sopranos,” “Lost,” the Whedonverse, and several other TV staples, but what makes “The Wire” excel above all the rest, is its journalistic approach to filmmaking. Simon and Burns use TV, as a writer uses a notepad. No flash or bombast. No overreaching character arcs designed to bludgeon you to death with their profundity. They’re intent is not to entertain, but to inform.
* Finally, I just want everyone looking to keep cool tomorrow from 11am to 6pm to know that my table at MoCCA, in same corner as PictureBox and Pantheon, is perhaps the most air-conditioned place in the New York metro area. Just sayin'.
* Not everyone who gets stranded on a deserted island winds up on one with Elizabeth Mitchell on it. No, some folks--like five divers who got swept 20 miles away from their boat by the current and had to seek shelter on the Indonesian isle of Rinca--wash up on a beach where they get attacked by a Komodo dragon. Try to imagine spending hours adrift at sea, desperately swimming to the first land you can find, then looking up and finding a dinosaur is chasing you. (Via Tim F.)
* A new batch reminds me that stills from Midnight Meat Train are always pretty. I've got high hopes for this film and it'll be a shame if the release is uber-limited or otherwise botched.
* Go, look: Mat Brinkman in the studio! (Via Monster Brains.) At MoCCA this weekend my table was directly across from PictureBox, and they had these killer Mat Brinkman pieces that stared me in the face all weekend long, silently tempting me to buy them despite how they'd probably go over when presented to the relevant persons as decorations for my new house.
* Finally, does anyone have a problem viewing this blog in terms of the body column being too wide so you have to scroll right to read each sentence, in Explorer or any other browser? Please email me if so.
Aqua Leung Vol. 1
Mark Smith, writer
Paul Maybury, artist
Image, April 2008
$17.99 Buy it from Amazon.com
Here's a book you can't help but compare to other, similar projects that are mining this same vein of ad-hoc epic and homegrown myth(os)-making. Consider it the "A Star Wars of One's Own" school. (I've dabbled in it myself.) The book I kept thinking of when reading it is Mouse Guard. This one comes out on top in virtually every way.
First of all it's the rare independent comic that comes equipped with not one but two editors, including one seemingly solely dedicated to copyediting. And man, does it help! The story is a coming-of-age hero quest that frequently indulges in knowingly arcane dialogue, and it's really easy to aim for "fancy" and end up hitting "gibberish." This doesn't happen here, which is a blessing right there.
Second, there's Paul Maybury's art. Don't get me wrong, I think Mouse Guard's Mark Peterson is obviously a gifted illustrator, and also a better sequential artist than he perhaps might get credit for. But Maybury is something of a revelation here, his thick brush line (apparently this is his first-ever brush art!) at different times approximating the Paul Pope-Becky Cloonan art-blob vibe, the more manga-inflected Vasilis Lolos punk-action thing, some Bryan Lee O'Malley-isms in the character designs, and--out of left field--almost Fort Thunder-ish use of images-as-texture (a wall of "STOMP" sound effects, a two-page spread of arrows, a splash page consisting solely of clashing colors, and an opening map that looks like Ron Rege drew it), occasionally peeling back to an effectively crude, almost childlike minimalism. Colorist Russ Lowery is a break-out star here too, combining Lolos's candy-coated palette with Dave Stewart's subtlety and lushness. Smith's script gives the pair plenty of room to play, with almost abstract combat scenes and bravura sequences like the Spaceball One-sized sea-monster whose jaws take fully four pages to traverse our viewpoint.
Speaking of Smith, he brings a most welcome sense of humor about the grandiose nature of this project to the table, something Mouse Guard lacks entirely. Will you wish he hadn't kept The Hero with a Thousand Faces next to his laptop as he wrote this story? Sometimes, yeah. (Enough with the fucking absent father figures already, genre writers of America!) At first the epic saga-osity of the material gets the better of him--he burdens the story with something like four introductory sequences, and lets an omniscient narrator tell things that should be shown early on. But the structure smoothes out as the book goes on. Meanwhile he frequently undercuts any portentousness with a wink and a nod to his diverse sources, from the inclusion of a little octopus sidekick that feels like something out of a Japan-only video game to shots of the titular young hero peeking up girls' skirts, flashback-sequence from Splash-style. And the approach to the violence is more Indiana Jones than Star Wars, if that makes sense--while it does move the plot and is supposed to inspire the awe of any good action sequence, it also unfolds like a choreographed routine and draws attention to that fact. What's more, he sticks the landing with a climactic battle that feels climactic yet also naturally subservient to whatever will happen in the subsequent volumes.
Overall there's really nothing here that leaves you feeling like everyone involve needs to get out of their parents' basement in some fundamental way--it feels like grown-ups knowingly playing with their old action figures more than grown-ups trying to pretend that those action figures are for grown-ups. Nor does it mistake the modest aim of telling the story of its creators dreams for the delusional grandeur of Telling The Story Of Our Collective Unconscious. And oh yeah, the lettering and logo by Fonografiks is really kinda perfectly METAL. I even like the paper and cover stock. It's a good time.
"I want to address that," Fuller said. "Because if we don't do Rosemary's Baby, somebody else [will]. They're not going to pass on it. And, like I said, being horror fans like we are, we would want to take the opportunity and take a shot at it, rather than read about someone else doing it. So all the s--t we get for doing these things--it really just comes out of being huge fans and wanting to take a shot, you know?"
Fuller added that they have not come up with a story for the reboot of Rosemary.
This line of reasoning in almost beautiful in its utter lack of cluefulness on every level. But don't worry, everyone, "it really just comes out of being huge fans." See, he's one of us, my fellow idiots horror buffs! (Via the equally appalled Jason Adams.)
* Here's a very, very, very long examination of the final scene in The Sopranos that makes a fairly convincing case for interpreting it in one particular direction rather than another. It goes in for close-reading that borders on clue-spotting, but that is by no means the sole source of its argument--the most convincing aspects are the ones drawn from a series of increasingly less cryptic statements I'd never heard before from creator David Chase. (Via Keith Uhlich.)
* This interview with Grant Morrison about Final Crisis #1 is, as they say, FULL OF WIN. In large part the questioner, Newsarama's Matt Brady, focuses on continuity discrepancies between FC #1 and various miniseries from the past year or so, particularly the widely rejected weekly "spine of the DC Universe" series Countdown. Morrison's answers, which explain that most of the events we've seen so far that contradict what happened in his comic were written after his was completed, are beyond delightful:
Obviously, I would have preferred it if the New Gods hadn’’t been spotlighted at all, let alone quite so intensively before I got a chance to bring them back but I don’t run DC and don’t make the decisions as to how and where the characters are deployed.
...bear in mind that Countdown only finished last month so Final Crisis was already well underway long before Countdown and although I’ve tried to avoid contradicting much of the twists and turns of that book as I can with the current Final Crisis scripts, the truth is, we were too far down the road of our own book to reflect everything that went on in Countdown, hence the disconnects that online commentators, sadly, seem to find more fascinating than the stories themselves.
The way I see it readers can choose to spend the rest of the year fixating on the plot quirks of a series which has ended, or they can breathe a sight of relief, settle back and enjoy the shiny new DC universe status quo we’re setting up in the pages of Final Crisis and its satellite books. I’m sure both of these paths to enlightenment will find adherents of different temperaments.
I don't know why this particular interview is reducing me to Internerd speak, but that's just pwnage all over the place. It also scratches a real itch for me because I've spent most of the time since the issue came out debating with some friends of mine whether or not Grant "should" have tweaked a line or two to "fix" the "problems" of his comic not lining up with Jimmy Palmiotti & Justin Gray's or whoever it was that did the New Gods stuff in Countdown. Even aside from the temporal/logistical issues Morrison himself points out, the answer is "of course not." He's a writer, not a janitor, and his obligation is to tell a good story, not to provide a seamless experience for devotees of a shared fictional universe cobbled together from the work of thousands of disparate creators by corporate diktat.
Anyway, the interview also explains how the issue connects with similar elements in Seven Soldiers, sticks the book into Identity Crisis a bit, and confirms my theory as to why the book took an offhand approach to Martian Manhunter's death:
we wanted to open with a nasty, execution-style death of a superhero as a way of demonstrating how far behind us the Silver Age is. We’re conditioned to expect the hero to fall after a noble struggle or to give his life saving the universe but this had to be different. The scene was very much about calling time on expectations and letting our readers know up front that the rules have changed. Evil is getting away with it. Things are going to get nastier and grubbier and scarier before it’s over, just like in the real world.
* Fun fact I learned from Zach's review: Lou Ferrigno voices the Hulk in the movie! Fun fact I learned from the roundtable interview: The RZA was on set! Fun fact I learned from the roundtable interview number two: Liv Tyler knows Gizmo's little song from Gremlins by heart! (Even if she calls the movie Goonies.)
* Grant Morrison's implied suggestion that fans with beef over the continuity blips in his Final Crisis #1 should be so kind as to sit on it and rotate went over like gangbusters with me, but some other folks are more skeptical. Tom Spurgeon says it's unfair to fault fans conditioned for functional continuity to expect it, while in a lively comment thread on thishyere blog Jim Treacher argues that by working on a story completely dependent on continuity and then rejecting pleas for said continuity, Morrison's trying to have it both ways. Sean of the late, lamented Strange Ink and Bruce Baugh weigh in with counterarguments in that same thread.
This very good funny-animal comic stands out from the anthropomorphized pack because its visual metaphor strengthens the impact of its more outrageous moments rather than diluting it. Anyone can get some mawkish sentimentality out of casting a cuddly critter in their tale of modern urban ennui, or flip the script and go for some guffaws by doing the umpteenth Fritz the Cat mammals-with-mammaries sex farce. Hartzell aims elsewhere in Fox Bunny Funny.
The first highlight is the violence. We meet our fox protagonist as an awkward adolescent in a broadly drawn conformist suburbia of sitcom vintage, where his fellow foxes kill and consume bunnies with gusto. When our hero is discovered hopping around behind closed doors wearing a bunny costume (I've gotten caught doing worse), he's shipped off to a fox-scout camp where he's trained to use an impressively horrible beartrap-shooting weapon on bunny-shaped bullseyes. When he proves an excellent marksman, his scoutmaster drags him along on a bona-fide hunt...to the town where the bunnies live with all the same civilizational niceities as the foxes. Hartzell depicts their rampage with disturbing imaginativeness--the foxes run bunnies in cars off bridges, plow through restaurants in their SUV, then smash their way into a bunny family's home, burst in on their Anne Frank attic hideout, and slaughter them. Eventually the hero flees to a bunny church (the suffering of the bunnies analogized to the suffering of Christ), but when he's discovered frolicking with the congregation by his fellow scouts, he can't take the pressure and leads the slaughter himself. Obviously, making both predators and prey into human-style civilizations heightens the savagery of the foxes' attacks on the bunnies. It may be a metaphor for war or racism or meat-eating or all three at once; mostly it comes across as a refreshingly harsh indictment of human brutality and stupidity in all its forms.
The second strong point is the depiction of a shared fox-bunny counterculture. After the murder in the church, we join our hero years later, where he's a perfectly normal member of the bunny-eating masses. When a bunny prankster attacks his house, he's led on a chase through the proverbial and literal rabbit hole into a West-Village-meets-Haight/Ashbury urban freak mecca, where bunnies and rabbits of all genders mix and mingle enthusiastically. Hartzell saves some of his most exciting cartooning for this sequence, including a Where's Waldo/Hard Boiled-style two-page spread of the scene. What's special here is that comics, particularly alternative comics, takes the existence of a counterculture for granted. Hartzell sets up the structure of Fox Bunny Funny in such a way that the discovery of this counterculture feels like a legitimate revelation. Do you remember when you were younger, and you first started pursuing countercultural interests and hanging out with the freaks or 'bangers or emo kids or skaters or whatever they were where you grew up, or first journeyed to a big city and saw that people could be weird or gay and not be looked at like zoo animals for it, and this simple fact felt like both an explosion of self-liberation and a massive "fuck you" rebuke to society at large? Hartzell nails that. And then he goes one step weirder and more asseritve with the conclusion. All with impeccable, wordless kids'-book cartooning. I think I love this comic.
* FourFour's Rich Juzwiak pays photographic tribute to Anton Corbijn's biopic of Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis, Control. Unforgivable that I still haven't seen this, I know.
* I've been waiting for the right time to link to Karl Kerschl's lovely webcomic about a mute Sasquatch/Yeti and his misadventures in a forest, The Abominable Charles Christopher, and today's installment seems like the right time:
I finished Death Note the other day, and wow. I had no idea a comic book could be that thrilling and suspenseful! Nothing was off limits, no one was safe, and because of that the suspense sequences were viscerally, physically exciting, as much so as any movie. The car chase, the hideout siege, the moment-to-moment final showdowns between Kira and his antagonists--I was tearing through the pages and cheering and gasping like I don't think I've ever done with a comic before. Well done, Ohba and Obata.
I'm five episodes into the final season of Deadwood, and...I almost don't know what to say. So I probably am not going to say much of anything until I can sit and think of an entry point to talking about the series. It's moving and magnificent on an episode to episode basis, that's for sure. Today I watched a scene and at the end of it I had an enormous headache, and I suddenly realized I'd literally been holding my breath. Blown away.
It's making me a lot less impressed with The goddamn Wire, too.
Paradise Kiss Vols. 1-5
Ai Yazawa, writer/artist
Approx. 180 pages each
$9.99 each Buy them from Amazon.com
Originally written on September 28th, 2004 for publication in The Comics Journal
I never really understood the notion of style (as opposed to fashion) until the lead singer of the Dandy Warhols explained it to me. Courtney Taylor-Taylor, the ectomorphic frontman for the Portland-based purveyors of retro-decadent glam pop, told me during an interview that style is merely the outward manifestation of a person's insides. "How should my clothes fit and how should my hair look [is determined by] which look for me will better represent, at first glance, what I am about," he said. (A fringe benefit, he later added, was that this acted as a filter against meeting people who don't already like you, so you end up involved in fewer dead-end conversations.)
Coming as it did at a point in my life where I was in the throes of an obsession with David Bowie, Roxy Music, Velvet Goldmine, and the entire glitter aesthetic (one which continues to this day), Taylor-Taylor's words were a revelation to me. Though a combination of poverty and laziness has kept me from perfecting the type of personality-in-wardrobe-form the rock star was advocating, I continue to applaud those with the creativity and willpower to make a go of it.
It's undoubtedly this reverence for style, combined with a comics fan's appreciation for a unique story well told, a singular artistic sensibility, and stories about and for teenagers that condescend to neither character nor reader, that leads me to dig Paradise Kiss. Published by manga giant Tokyopop and prepared for the English-language audience by a bevy of translators and adaptors, Parakiss (to crib a familiar abbreviation the characters themselves use when referring to both the clothing design studio around which the comic centers and, in regular breakings of the fourth wall, the comic itself) is a pip of a series, five volumes of angst, lust, and fabulous, fabulous clothes.
Yazawa's art serves as a wonderful descriptor of all three. Fans of the McCloudian notion that art and story are indistinguishable in comics will find much to love here, since (to these relatively inexperienced eyes) the graphic conventions of shoujo manga (the razor-thin line against acres of white backgrounds, the effete, wire-thin figures, even the riot of pseudo-dialogue and untranslated sound effects peppered throughout translated works) are for once harnessed to a story that makes sense out of them. When studious and beautiful prep-schooler Yukari gets drawn into the world of four students at a high school for the arts, Yazawa's intricate and ornate draftsmanship does effective double duty, skillfully capturing not only the sensuous and emotional confusion our heroine feels as her world changes, but the gorgeous, Velvet Goldmine-quoting boy (George) who seduces her, and the exquisite, anachronistic clothes he designs.
Those clothes are a highlight, undoubtedly; I found myself looking forward to each chapter's title page, since those pages boast pin-up images of Yukari ("Caroline," to her Anglophilic new friends) and the rest of the crew in painstakingly drawn couture. Such moments also pop up in the narrative as well, as during the climactic fashion show, which is lovely enough from both a graphic and storytelling point of view that it ably bears the four volumes' worth of weight placed upon it. In all cases it's evidence that the apparent frivolity of Yazawa's art is icing on a cake that's not just substantive, but no less delicious for it.
The same can be said of her writing. We're largely in teen soap territory here, but that's undercut with a surprising deftness in characterization, brutal at times (George's attention-starved ex-model mother, George himself in his egocentricity and sexual predation) and unexpectedly warm at others (gruff punk Arashi's unechoed concern at the way Yukari is ditching her previous life more or less on a whim, young George's gift to his budding drag-queen friend Isabella). There's also a sexual frankness that's quite refreshing: Sex is treated neither as an idealized pathway to spiritual perfection nor as a sweaty and sordid means of disease transmission, but as something that can be a great deal of fun and, therefore, a great deal of trouble. When Yukari walks in on her new friends Miwako and Arashi fucking on a pool table because neither of them has any privacy in their bedrooms, early in the first volume, I'm sure I'm not the only reader who thought "yep, that's about right." (The fact that the scenes are so opulently drawn reminds us, to paraphrase Trainspotting, that if it weren't so pleasurable we wouldn't do it.)
If anything, it's this fidelity to the actual experience of teenage sexuality and gender issues that can be off-putting. At no point does Yukari (or Miwako), seem to think of her own pleasure as paramount when it comes to sex; the act is typically initiated either through pressure (in one alluded-to incident, physical) or as a surefire way to change a painful subject, and is always seen through the lens of the boy involved--how it makes him feel, about the relationship, about her; how she feels about the relationship, about him. Of course, I've seen little evidence that this unfortunate state of sexual affairs for Yukari is not indicative of how nearly all teenage girls are conditioned to view sex, so perhaps Yazawa is to be applauded for telling it like it is rather than chided for not setting a better example. Ditto her portrayal of Yukari's entrée into the world of professional modeling--the poor girl is chided on several occasions to stop eating so much, a scene that will make the eating disordered in the book's audience either cringe in horror or chuckle in recognition. (Speaking of that audience, how cool is it to read a comic book that assumes its reader is a girl? And one in which beautiful male characters are paraded around as eye candy and objects of the gaze?) Moreover, high school may suck, and we all wanted to escape from it, but if you're a girl looking for freedom from conformity, stricture and misogyny, the fashion industry is not exactly a place I'd advise you to run to. Then again, all the characters seem to gain some awareness of this art-cum-industry's faults, particularly in the book's unusually nuanced epilogue, so it's not like Parakiss is peddling the same line of bullshit as Cosmopolitan.
In other words, Paradise Kiss is about style, not fashion, despite its industry trappings (and despite appearing in serialized format in a Japanese fashion magazine). For George, Yukari, and the rest of the Paradise Kiss studio, the clothes are never about riding the crest of a trend or obeying external expectations--despite the fact that their success as designers (and as people) would be far more likely if that were the case. The clothes are about representing, at first glance, what they as young men and women (and drag queens) are all about. A bunch of precocious, horny, fucked-up 17-year-olds may not know what they're all about, of course, but maybe that's what makes their sense of style, and this manga, so enthralling.
* Shock Till You Drop reports that Ryuhei Kitamura's adaptation of Clive Barker's Midnight Meat Train will receive a limited 100-theater release. So much for The Strangers saving R-rated horror, eh wot?
* At least one of those rumored Battlestar Galactica TV movies looks like a going concern for this year, while the show's Sopranos-style "final season part deux" may pick up an additional 2 hours to go from 10 to 12, according to the Chicago Tribune's Maureen Ryan. I'd have been marginally more excited about this news before the current half-season, but hey, I hear tonight's episode is a real mind-blower. We'll see. (Via Jason Adams.)
* I enjoyed Keith Uhlich's essay on the new four-film Rambo DVD box set a great deal, because I think in comparing John Rambo varyingly to Frankenstein's monster, Tintin, and the Hercules of Greek myth he gets at the heart of the character: Rambo is war. He's offensive, heroic, and disturbing, easy to harness to propagandaiacal aims yet always too strange, complex, and dangerous to stay harnessed. (Via The House Next Door.)
...I'm thinking that it must be the Thin White Sketchbook, Part 3!
Last weekend was the MoCCA Art Festival 2008, and me and my David Bowie sketchbook (previously seen here and here) were back in action. As always, I couldn't be more pleased with the results.
Molly Crabapple: Eyes to the skies and halfway between classy and goofy, as is the wont of Molly's dandies.
CF: CF seemed excited to draw Bowie, until he flipped through my sketchbook, which he said was intimidating. He handed this back, saying "He was a great Nazi sympathizer." That's something of a misrepresentation, as a matter of fact--and something of a disconcerting addition to the sketchbook--but one does not look gift sketches in the mouth, I suppose.
Michel Gondry: Yes, that Michel Gondry. The fact that I have a sketch of David Bowie by the man who directed the video for "Everlong" is pretty goddamn wonderful if you ask me. Gondry insisted I buy his comic book in exchange for the sketch, which seems fair.
Jason: The most underappreciated cartoonist around, given his talent, Jason commanded huge sketch/autograph lines at the show. He actually apologized for "getting the clothes wrong" on this, but Bowie as an anthropomorphized doggie version of The Little Prince? No apology necessary.
Tom Kaczynski: A mash-up of Bowie's two most stylish eras. My favorite sketch of the show. Look at that luscious red!
Bill Plympton: Yes, that Bill Plympton. When I saw this animation legend's name on the guest list for the show, I got pretty excited. It paid off.
Andy Runton: Runton draws his trademark character Owly as any other character you like. He went for one of Bowie's well-dressed crooner phases for me. Compare and contrast with the CF, if you will.
Dash Shaw: I get kind of a silent-movie expressionist vibe from this one, don't you?
Kazimir Strzepek: This shot of Bowie, based on his soldier-boy look from the film Just a Gigolo, looks like it could have come right from one of Kaz's post-apocalyptic fantasies.
Matthew Thurber: Thurber made a pretty wild Bowie minicomic called What Kind of Magic Spell to Use, an alternate-reality take on the recording of the Labyrinth soundtrack with producer Steve Albini (!). Needless to say he was a must-get on my list.
Don't forget to check out the sketches I got at MoCCA 2007 and SPX 2007, or see the whole shebang as a Flickr set. Drink to the men (and women) who draw sketches for you and I! Drink, drink, drain your glass, raise your glass high!
Alex Robinson's Lower Regions
Alex Robinson, writer/artist
Top Shelf, October 2007
$6.95 Buy it from Top Shelf
The kind of comic for which the phrase "your mileage may vary" was invented, Lower Regions (its official title; I went with the long version above to preserve the obvious pun) is Alex Robinson's loving tribute to the pulp-Tolkien fantasy hodgepodge of the Dungeons & Dragons games of his youth. As such I really enjoyed it. I didn't play D&D as a kid, mind you--not until after my freshman year in college, and then only for one glorious, Sam Adams-soaked summer--but as an avid Tolkien reader since kindergarten and a He-Man action-figure fan extraordinaire, I kind of get the D&D aesthetic through osmosis via its antecedent and offspring. Robinson develops an impressive assortment of monsters and thugs for his pneumatic barbarian heroine to bloodily dispatch, throwing in the buckets of gore and hint of gratuitous, seedy sex/nudity that was a big unspoken part of the attraction of the earthier brands of heroic fantasy for nerdy adolescents. (What's up, Xanth?) The comic is wordless, as these kinds of things tend to be, and if that means that the action choreography and (particularly) the attempts at conveying thought or speech are occasionally muddled, well, you really only have to get through a page or two max before you come to the next axe getting lobbed at an ogre's head. Robinson's goofy character designs, which have kept me away from his straightforward comics, obviously work quite well here. I'd say that the opening image of a band of goons and creatures led by some kind of sexy topless demon-priestess will tell you all you need to know about whether you'll enjoy the rest of the book.
I feel like I've taken an inordinate amount of guff for looking forward to The Incredible Hulk. For starters I've been mercilessly taunted by the "Ed Norton is a prima donna artsy-fartsy asshole who should just shut up and make movies" brigade. Then there's the "nobody cares about this movie, Iron Man has all the buzz, it's the hippest happenin'est superhero movie around baby" fanboy-EW-wannabe contingent. And lately I've even got into it with a small army of people who prescribe to the absurd notion that Jennifer Connelly is more attractive than Liv Tyler. (The hell you say!) And oh yeah, some people just think it's a mediocre movie.
Well ha ha ha ha ha, you're all wrong! The Incredible Hulk was basically exactly what I was looking for in a Hulk movie. Three rock-solid action sequences that made tremendous use of their physical settings (the chase through the Brazilian urban sprawl was particularly stunning), with the consequences for the combatants easily parseable amid the CGI rubble. Terrifically vulnerable leads in Edward Norton and Liv Tyler--the former imbuing Bruce Banner's every move with a sort of hangdog desperation that his life as a human being with anything to offer anyone is over, the latter using her breathy voice and just-wept eyes and lips to convey the awkwardness of running into someone you used to love as well as you're gonna see in a movie. Moments of memorable, borderline-poetic action spectacle that more than make up for seeing the seams of the SFX--the savagery of the Hulk vs. Abomination fight is as strong as anything from the second and third Spider-Man films, which had some excellent, beautiful fights despite their other flaws.
Then there were little surprises--the sneak-attack emergence of the Mr. Blue character as a bit of a mad scientist, which really snuck up as organically as possible in a big Hollywood blockbuster. Moments of glamor and wit, like Tyler's sultry tossing and turning, Norton's weird breathing exercises, and the very funny "we can't have sex or I'll Hulk out mid-coitus" moment. And the biggest twist of all: The fact that this was more or less an Abomination origin movie, showing us Emil Blonsky's journey from black-ops badass at the top of his game to a first-time loser obsessed with his defeat, at which point, enter superhero pseudoscience. That's your superhero-movie origin structure in a nutshell, and here it's used on background to cook up the antagonist. Clever!
I'm quite glad I saw it in a theater full of cheering, clapping people, in midtown New York City, at 5 o'clock on a Monday. It was a hoot, as good in its way as Iron Man, with those characters' cleverness replaced by these characters' awkwardness. It works.
* The big news of the day is that Stan Winston has died. Winston contributed make-up and special effects to some of the most iconic films of the past thirty-odd years of fantastic fiction, including The Terminator and Terminator 2, Predator, Aliens, The Monster Squad, The Thing, Jurassic Park, Iron Man and more. He was the most influential visualizer of horror this side of Jack Pierce and Ray Harryhausen. He'll be deeply missed.
* David Lynch talks to The Atlantic about where he gets his ideas, advancing the theory that they exist fully formed prior to his conceptualizing them and he merely catches them like a fisherman catches fish. If there is an artist who displays a bigger contrast between demeanor and creative output than Lynch, I have yet to encounter him. (Via Matthew Yglesias.)
* Also from the "reviews of films I haven't seen" files, here's an absolutely enthralling roundtable discussion of...Krull? Oddly enough for someone who was as big a He-Man fan as I was, I never got into the sword-and-sorcery flicks of the early '80s. This is probably because I was also a huge scaredy-cat. I do remember some well-meaning family member renting Beastmaster for me, and I started bawling uncontrollably when it looked like some sorcerer person was going to make some pregnant lady's belly pop and they had to stop the movie.
* Finally, your quote of the day comes from an episode of the BBC music special Sounding Out from (I'm assuming) 1972:
Every time you go to a gig, you have a cursory look at the audience, but you know what it's gonna be like. They're always, to a man, gonna be between 16 and 20, the young, white, affluent kids of the particular town you're in. They're all gonna have long hair. They're all gonna have slightly tattier clothes than they need to wear.
Two of the better responses I've read to the mid-season finale or whatever the hell they want us to call it of Battlestar Galactica this past Friday are Todd VanDerWeff's and Alan Sepinwall's (the latter via Whitney Matheson). The title of Sepinwall's review is really sheer genius, by the way.
As I think I've said around here before, while I'm not of the opinion that the show j***ed the s***k this season (or at any time in the past), I haven't been thrilled with the way its emphasis has shifted from examining the human conscience through the prism of war and atrocity to an ourobouros-like fixation on its own mythology. (It's kinda cute how, in keeping with the final episode's title "Revelations," Comix Experience honco Brian Hibbs is recounting his realization of this fact like it's a genuine revelation; be warned that he doesn't bleep out the Dreaded Phrase like I just did.) So in keeping with that, I was at first disappointed with the way that the ep had to rush through, gloss over, or ignore entirely the major character beats that one would think should accompany the astonishing events that transpired. Some great reaction shots from Michael Hogan and Katee Sackhoff and a mourning montage from Edward James Olmos doesn't really cut it, given the enormity of what they're all learning and doing.
But then it occurred to me that perhaps I'm simply being less charitable toward the show than I used to be. Back in the day I used to praise the show for the liberties it took with conventional episodic drama pacing, how it would change the emotional status quo for individual characters at a breakneck rate and have confidence in the audience to follow along and construct the through-line on our own. The example that comes to mind, and I know it's not the best one, is the rapidity of Lee and Dualla's relationship from first flirtation to full-on thing goin' on, but hopefully you get the drift. I think getting grumpy with the show becoming a show about itself--coupled, not incidentally, with my first-ever viewings of Deadwood, a show that is about nothing but the characters' reactions to adversity and tragedy--has made me look askance at this particular episode in ways it might not deserve.
At any rate, the penultimate, celebratory montage and the final, grim tracking shot were quite magnificent, among the strongest visuals in the show's history and on a par with the best visual moments from rival genre exemplar Lost (a show that pays a lot more attention to the memorable image than BSG, historically). I rewatched them with my wife, who doesn't watch the show at all, and with minimal set-up from me even she was able to appreciate their impact. If push had come to shove during the strike, it'd have made a wonderful series finale too.
But in taking us to Earth in all its burned-out glory, the final minutes of the episode enable us to make sense of the preceding demi-season in ways that were impossible to do before. I said last week that I was no longer sure what the show was "about," but that was because I was seeing the sudden monomania about Finding Earth through the prism of the belief that we wouldn't actually reach it until we only had a couple-three episodes left in the entire series. If that were the case, I figured we were in for an ever more regressive examination of continuity minutiae, the onset of which felt completely arbitrary. But by taking us to Earth now--a move probably necessitated, as an astute friend of mine pointed out, by the possibility that the show wouldn't make it through the strike, and Ron Moore's desire to see his promise to the fans fulfilled come what may--that makes this half-season "about" the desperation of these characters to find their new home, and the crazy, erratic, illogical, life-upending moves they're willing to make to get there. It makes sense as a whole. And of course it will be exciting as hell to see what happens now that these two formerly warring societies, still pursued by the more extreme Cylon faction, have had all their dreams turn to shit.
* Looks like Clive Barker is getting behind a fan campaign to persuade Lionsgate to give Midnight Meat Train a wider release. Here's a brief statement from Clive to that effect (via STYD), and here's a longer, more formal letter from Barker on behalf of an email drive. Hey, why not? Polite but firm pleas to expand the film's release beyond the rumored 100-theater limited run may be directed to Lionsgate investor relations at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Lionsgate as a whole at email@example.com or (310) 449-9200.
* In the interest of accuracy, here's the SciFi Channel's response to earlier reports of an extended back-half ofBattlestar Galactica's final season. They're only confirming that the finale "extends beyond the time allotted for the episode."
A lot of kids went to college and they talk about their college years as so great. I never went to college; for me, college was Twin Peaks. I was able to have David Lynch direct me beautifully and slowly into a scene. That was my kegger.
* This video for the Junior M.A.F.I.A.'s "Get Money" constructed from edited footage of Destro (in the role of the Notorious B.I.G.) and the Baroness (Li'l Kim) from G.I. Joe is very very funny, but it also has the effect of all great Biggie tracks, which is to flabbergast me that Puffy was ever responsible for something this good. (Via Topless Robot.)
Comics Time: Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer
Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer
Ben Katchor, writer/artist
Little, Brown & Company, 1996
$12.95 Buy it from Amazon.com
Glimpses of lost New York City are both thrilling and sad. The times I've encountered them--the absurdly ornate urinals in the Marvel Comics lobby a few office buildings ago, an elaborate and unused pneumatic tube system in an office I once visited while working as a production assistant on a short-lived David Milch cop show, tiny mom and pop repair shops with Eastern European names on small streets buried beneath bridges or behind the entrances of tunnels--have left me wondering how wonderful these things must have seemed in their heyday, and how futile the enterprises must seem now.
What a stroke of genius, then, to create an entire comic strip about lost New York--the lost past of anyplace really; no need to be chauvinistic about it. Double-genius to make it about an imaginary lost New York--eerily, surreally plausible business that never existed but might have. Licensed expectorators with the proper permits to spit in the faces of whoever those who hired them designate. A tripwire system running from the graveyard to the apartments of the bereaved, to alert them if their loved ones have risen from the dead. A bus line-slash-roving theater that strategically places actors along its route for the viewing enjoyment of its riders. A system of cattle ranch-style marks on the collars of laundered work uniforms to stake out the turf of rival commercial laundries. The niche businesses that Katchor's everyman protagonist Julius Knipl encounters on his perambulations (that's really the best word for his long-strided journeys through the city) fit neatly in the cracks of our waking life amid the uncountable multitude of sights and sounds in the city, to the point where it's easy to convince ourselves we really have seen the brand of the Mansoyl Towel and Apron Supply Co. on the sleeve of the busboy at the restaurant where we spent our lunchbreak.
What I'm trying to get at is how well Katchor conjures up the repleteness of the city. In a town conjured from the accrued history of millions of people over decades of time, there is, almost literally, something for everyone. A big part of this is the way he frames his panels, using odd angles halfway between a normal stage view and the cantered frames of Expressionist film, disorienting us, showing us not just businessmen and their stock in trade but suggesting their showrooms' dusty corners and the chipped paint of their ceilings, the airshafts of their tenements and the shadows cast by their radiators as the afternoon light strikes them through a lead-painted windowframe. It's a tactile environment, one you can dive right into with no sense that beyond the panel border, there's a calm cool nothingness.
But the best way to get across what I'm saying, I think, is by pointing out one of the strip's recurring devices: Experts who can interpret minute variations of everyday human behavior to further their business ends. There's one who can predict the turns of the economy based on the frequency and severity of brassiere-strap slippage. Another has set up a rooftop observatory to pinpoint the degree to which everyone limps. In the collection's climactic, longer piece, "The Evening Combinator," a newspaper publishes accounts of people's dreams, the details of which are gleaned from studying the grooves in their mattresses, the cadence of their snoring, how their eyes look as they wake up.
What comes across from these strips is the sort of dizzying impression that the city is big enough and full enough for someone to have devoted a lifetime to the refined research of this sort of arcana, and that there's enough demand for it to make a living. For me it triggers memories of the first time I realized that everything that gets done on planet Earth gets done because someone does it--a trip to Disney World, when it occurred to me that it's someone's job to clean one specific bathroom at one specific ride in one specific section of one specific park...and so on and so on and so on...To conceive of a world, an environment large enough to accommodate the minutiae we see in Julius Knipl is exhilarating, and a little frightening, like looking at an ocean made of rumpled men in shirtsleeves, men offering a handshake, men you can do business with.
* Crisis at DC Comics: Dick Hyacinth offers a wide-ranging musing on the failure of Final Crisis to ignite the audience, while Douglas Wolk focuses on its implications for New Gods/Fourth World continuity.
This minicomic collection of strips culled mostly from magazines by MOME contributor Tom Kaczynski is a showcase for both his humanistic critiques of techno-capitalist society and his almost horrifyingly proficient use of color. Seriously, has he done any color work in MOME before? Because this stuff knocked my socks off. Give this man an Eisner for his fruity red-oranges alone!
The comics themselves are a strong selection, packing a lot of variety and value into a five-buck mini. Cartoony cover character Ransom Strange kicks things off by exorcising a corporate Cthulhu knockoff that had been plaguing some poor modern man with credit card debt and body image issues. (If only it were that easy!) It's a funny, fun little metaphor, one I actually think could be expanded upon.
Next up is a lengthy, luddite comics essay pitting the Web-based post-print world against Kaczynski's preferred realm of "meatspace," which here comprises everything from printed books to taking a dump. While I agree with Kaczynski that anti-print evangelism gets tedious, anyone who's blogged as much (and enjoyed it as much!) as I have should be able to tell you that you can get a lot out of not being an ink-stained wretch and not idealizing the pre-Internet age. (Would something like MOME be as successful as its been without the Internet to pass the word around?) The strip kind of confuses its case by lumping advertorial in print magazines in with the evils of the digital age, as though a) that's new and b) one has anything to do with the other. If you're going to create a good-evil dichotomy between analog and digital, you can't have it both ways. Still, though not quite successful on a philosophical level, it's a lovely-looking strip, with judiciously chosen images representing the various ideas and idea-spouters and Kaczynski's precise use of thicker blacks creating a memorable Easter Island sequence.
The collection is rounded out by five one-page strips that really showcase Kaczynski's color palette to a range of affect. There's a pair almost Julius Knipl-style anecdotes about a just-shy-of-believable quirks of our commoditized ideas and emotions--a resort community designed to provoke existential ennui called Taedium Plains, and "Boris Lecture, the famous architecture critic," who can't quite bring himself to completely purge his book collection Zizek-style every couple of months. A third strip preserves Kaczynski's trademark linkage of phsyical and mental artchitecture in depicting how the male member of a couple compartmentalizes his memories according to the bedrooms in which they took place. A fourth recounts the domestication of the cat with adorable clarity, and the fifth and final strip is a tale of excessive consumption of gross junk food on a road trip familiar to anyone who's ever grabbed a bag of Combos in a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike. Lovely, enjoyable, occasionally provocative stuff, all in color for five bucks.
Because I fail at self-promotion I've neglected to mention that my comic book Murder is on sale at the Partyka table at Heroes Con right this very moment. If you're there you might consider buying it. If you're not, you still might consider buying it.
SPOILERS FOR THE HAPPENING AHOY. Sorry, I tried, but I just couldn't do without.
Before you read anything I write about M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening you should stop and read everything Jon Hastings has to say on the subject. He does yeoman's work as a Shyamalan apologist, trying to defend what were (to him and to me) obviously conscious choices made by Shyamalan in this movie against critics whose (to him and to me) increasingly comical and depressing conservatism led them to believe Shyamalan was trying to make a completely different movie and just screwed it up.* A movie that knows its place, basically. For god's sake, do these people not understand there's more than one way to skin a cat?
As you can gather I liked it. I'm not over the moon for it--in Shyamalan's oeuvre I prefer The Village (haven't seen The Lady in the Water but I sure am gonna now, and while Jon is quite right to point out that it's doing something entirely different than Spielberg's thematically and structurally** similar War of the Worlds, I find I prefer what War of the Worlds did. But the vituperative response to it is really completely unjustified. And while I know it's a mug's game to dismiss critics on an ad hominem basis, it's tough for me to see the hostile reaction as anything but its own ad hominem rejection of Shyamalan for being too serious and too big for his britches, refusing to deliver the crowd-pleasers he's apparently supposed to be delivering. That, and as I alluded to above, I'm literally sitting here shaking my head that people could watch (say) Mark Wahlberg's performance in this movie, or John Leguizamo's, and it doesn't occur to them that they weren't gunning for The Departed in terms of acting style. It's like people complaining that Nicholson was over the top in The Shining.
I think the way to look at The Happening is as a satire with violence instead of comedy. (I'm a big fan of this kind of substitution, hence my theory that Eyes Wide Shut is a horror movie with sex instead of violence.) What you have here is a film in which the Earth basically decides to take a small corner of itself and murder all the people on it that it can. Then it stops, and then at the end of the film it picks another corner and starts again. Throughout, the horror imagery is of people calmly methodically killing themselves--in essence, reducing everyone's personal stories and goals and ethics to a bloody punchline.
The death that struck me hardest is that of John Leguizamo's grumpy, sort of unlikeable math teacher. Here's a guy who despite the possibility of losing his own wife still finds the time to make his buddy's wife, who he's never liked, feel like a piece of shit; who also has the presence of mind to help keep a fellow survivor calm by getting her to work through a math puzzle in lieu of freaking out; then BOOM, he wanders out of a car wreck that killed his fellow passengers, plops himself down in the middle of the road, grabs a piece of glass and goes to work on his wrist. And when you think about it, what are the final two scenes--life goes on with Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel, while life ends in Paris--but that same sick joke writ large?
So yeah, what I like about The Happening is that it's the anti-Signs Not that I didn't like Signs, because I do, it's just that this movie is nihilistic where that one was optimistic perhaps to a fault. Is Shyamalan really this angry about climate change? Did the critics just break him down? Who knows, but I'll eat it. As Wahlberg sing-songily deduces his way through the catastrophe, people keep dying and dying, and as he and his wife (and the poor little girl they're supposed to be keeping safe) decide to make one last grand gesture of love, the dying stops, and ultimately it's all sort of meaningless. Meanwhile a billboard outside a model-home McMansion poised to turn the middle of nowhere into an exurb proclaims, in the familiar and infuriating language of American advertising, "You Deserve This!" Indeed.
* Surely the Betty Buckley sequence illustrates that Shyamalan knows how to be really, really scary and could do so throughout the film if he felt like it. He didn't!
** Very similar, in fact: initial urban outbreak, flight through the highways and byways, commandeered cars, the shattering of ad hoc groups, savagery among survivors, offerer of refuge becomes immediate threat and also happens to be nuts, last horrible moments, threat peters out, kinda happy ending. Shyamalan just adds an extra scene that shifts the balance, which is just one reason why, as Jon says, it's incorrect to view him as a Spielberg manqué.
Kramers Ergot 5
Sammy Harkham, Ron Rege Jr., Mat Brinkman & Neil Burke, Souther Salazar, David Heatley, Chris Ware, Elvis Studio, Gabrielle Bell, Kevin Huizenga, Anders Nilsen, Gary Panter, Jordan Crane, Leif Goldberg, Paper Rad, Fabio Viscogliosi, J. Bradley Johnson, C.F., Marc Bell, Dan Zettwoch, Tom Gault, writers/artists
Sammy Harkham, editor
Gingko Press, 2004
$34.95 Buy it from Gingko Press Buy it from Amazon.com
Can anyone here tell a story? You bet your ass. Unlike the preceding, breakout volume of Kramers, where narrative and non-narrative work were on more or less equal footing, the conventional comics hold pride of place in this installment. I mean, that's a judgment call, obviously. Maybe it's just me not liking the way a lot of the fine-art-inflected work here--the humor-strip-via-collage by Souther Salazar, Leif Goldberg's paintings--look on a two-dimensional printed page. Or maybe it's just me thinking that the more far-out sequential art--J. Bradley Johnson's non sequitur-laden gag (?) strips, Fabio Viscogliosi's T. Rex-quoting series of epigrammatic illustrations, even work from the usually reliable and hilarious Paper Rad and Marc Bell--is sort of unfocused and not quite up to snuff. Heck, Gary Panter's contribution is just thirty seemingly random pages from thirty years' worth of his sketchbooks--an impressive achievement, to be sure, but the sort of thing that would be just as interesting as a blog post as it is in an avant-garde anthology.
So the spotlight is stolen by the storytellers. Two contributions in particular are real world-beaters, strips that leapt right out at me during my first flip-thru of this book years ago and continue to set a standard for my appreciation of short-story comics. The first is David Heatley's apocalyptically revealing "My Sexual History," a complete rundown of every embarrassing/erotic/both detail of Heatley's sex life from his childhood through his marriage (excepting some stuff with his wife he chose to keep private). I've seen this dismissed, by Johnny Ryan's parody strip for example, as mere exhibitionism, but that ignores the sophistication of Heatley's approach to designing the strip: the uncomfortable avalanche of intimate details is conveyed through an eye-oppressing 48-panel grid (!) on each page.
The second hall-of-famer here is Kevin Huizenga's "Jeepers Jacobs," the story of a preacher grappling with both the concept of Hell--which he's defending the literal truth of against less orthodox theologians--and how to deal with his new golf buddy, non-believer (and Huizenga's trademark everyman) Glenn Ganges. Huizenga handles the sort of suburban-fundie character that 99% percent of his audience presumably loathes on sight not just with sympathy, but with intelligence, setting up his arguments and weaving his faith throughout his daily routine in a fashion we'd recognize from our own political or aesthetic pursuits. The ending's a killer too; I know others had a different experience, but I didn't see it coming at all.
And there's more. Jordan Crane starts down the road of violent morality plays he's still fruitfully pursuing today; Chris Ware's segment from Building Stories feels a bit too much like a chapter from an ongoing serial but it's still, you know, Chris Ware's Building Stories; comparatively linear work from Elvis Studio and Mat Brinkman alternately tickles and horrifies; Tom Gauld has a series of knee-slapper vignettes involving the writing habits of famous authors; Dan Zettwoch's lengthy story about a church-group field trip that may or may not end in disaster doesn't hold interest for its duration, but I kind of appreciate its ambition. Overall, the avant garde tag means less for this volume than the more apt description of "very good."
* B-Sol at the Vault of Horror concludes his series on the modern zombie movie, taking us from the mid-'90s video game Resident Evil through the 28 Days Later-inspired zombie renaissance to the present day. If anything, I think he undersells the degree to which this decade has seen George A. Romero's zombie films, particularly Dawn of the Dead, enshrined as the apotheosis of contemporary horror, the template against which other horror movies are now judged by critics.
* I was pretty convinced I blogged about this when I saw it but apparently I didn't: Quentin Tarantino says that his long-discussed World War II action epic Inglorious Bastards (which I didn't realize was a remake, of a movie by Enzo Castellari) will be split into two parts, Kill Bill style.
* Kristin Thompson notes that the London Times has largely retracted an article that made it sound like Christopher Tolkien was trying to singlehandedly take down production of the Hobbit films in some sort of grudge match.
* Lara Flynn Boyle rounds out her week of blogging about Twin Peaks. As with past entries you wonder if she correctly remembers who any of her female castmembers were, but aside from that it's a fun glimpse into just how green she was at the time.
* Speaking of back and forth, I enjoyed a little comment-thread debate I had with my favorite music writer, Matthew Perpetua, about the new album from renowned sample-pirate Girl Talk--go here and here. I also recommend you listen to him offer a pretty even-handed assessment of GT's ouevre generally and new album Feed the Animals specifically on NPR. I think I finally grok his objection to the aspects of GT's work he doesn't like: the result of its juxtapositions are sometimes merely additive (eg. cocky rap vocals plus cock-rock metal anthem equals cocky cock-rap) or non sequitur (eg. big hip-hop beat plus Dawson's Creek theme song equals "haha that's hilarious!") rather than "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts" (eg. Young Jeezy's "Soul Survivor" plus "Scentless Apprentice" plus "Passin' Me By" plus "Juicy" plus "Tiny Dancer" equals a song about the horror of being trapped in a seemingly inescapable sociopolitical/mental environment and the euphoria of transcending it).
* In labeling The Incredible Hulk a failure with interesting visuals, Reverse Shot's Matt Connolly serves up a couple of great lines about facial hair and your quote of the day:
As if in response to Lee’s intellectualized (which is not to say intelligent) infusion of convoluted psychological underpinnings into comic book mythology, director Louis Leterrier and screenwriter Zak Penn have streamlined their film’s focus to the body itself, specifically the male specimen: how it flexes, morphs, and bulges in frightening and entrancing ways.
This makes a lot of sense. After all, what else is Tim Roth's Emil Blonsky looking for but gamma-Viagra, and what else is the purpose of the scene where Bruce refrains from bedding Betty due to his uncontrollable prowess than proof that his Jade Giant is bigger than Blonsky's?
* Check it out: Monster Brains' Aeron Alfrey has a creature gallery of his own--1,000 beasts strong!
* Long ago, when reviewing Children of Men, I wondered if the film's depiction of anti-immigrant hysteria amid economic privation of the sort that could be alleviated by immigrants made sense given what one would think would be the native people's self-interest. This post from Matthew Yglesias points to a real-world analogue that shows it makes all too much sense, unfortunately.
That's the video for the exuberantly sleazy "Pay for Me" by Whale. Even back when it first came out, when I was still in the throes of being very very very fucking serious about everything I listened to, I saw that hilarious first shot of them using a vinyl copy of Pearl Jam's Vitalogy to scratch with and thought "GodDAMN that's fucking VICIOUS." That sort of blow against tedious authenticity brings a smile to my face I can only compare to the look on a supervillain's face when something evil is about to go down.
* Now that I've finally seen all three series in their entirety, it was my great pleasure to finally dive into Matt Zoller Seitz, Andrew Sepinwall, and Andrew Johnston's debate over which TV drama is the greatest of all time: David Milch's Deadwood (Seitz), David Simon's The Wire (Sepinwall), or David Chase's The Sopranos (Johnston). I still think they left out a David (Lynch and Twin Peaks); also, having followed a Netflix-enabled viewing of The Wire with one of Deadwood, I think I can say without fear of contradiction that Deadwood makes The Wire look like T.J. Hooker; but have you even doubted for a second that the debate (available in both podcast and text form) is a fascinating one?
* Since finishing Deadwood last night and thereafter immersing myself in whatever online commentary I could find (Seitz's columns on the final season for the Newark Star-Ledger have tragically been disappeared), I've learned of the ignominious fate HBO relegated the show to and just gotten angrier and angrier with each passing hour. It's to the point where I can check out this pretty bitchin'-lookin' Deadwood: The Complete Series DVD set and merely be enraged that they have the gall to call it "the complete series." Cocksuckers.
* Is it just me, or does this USA Today article on the Avengers movie bury the lede? It quotes Jon Favreau as "revealing" the character line-up every nerd on earth already knew (Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, the Hulk) but sorta glosses over the fact that, according to the article at least, he's actively working on the Iron Man sequel he supposedly hadn't even been contacted about. I don't know if it's just an assumption by the reporter or what, but it seems like news. Anyway, I'm making this the fourth item in this post because I care about it a lot less than I care about Deadwood, but what's up with the rest of the nerdosphere? Did I miss something? (Via SciFi Wire, who also whiff.)
* Dread Central's Johnny Butane has a post on an interesting-sounding showcase of the reality-horror films [REC], Butcher, and Home Movie at the upcoming Fantasia Festival.
* Speaking of [REC], quick question, horror fans: Why can't I find this movie on Netflix? Am I doing something wrong?
* Shit the bed, it's a Quintesson action figure! These suckers duke it out with Golobulus and Cobra-La for the title of "weirdest addition to a major '80s action-figure/cartoon franchise."
* Finally, Nigel Tufnel's green skeleton shirt...Chris Knight's "I HEART Toxic Waste" tee...bouncer shirts from the Double Deuce..."STEPHEN KING RULES" from The Monster Squad...FoundItemClothing.com is one "BULL SHIT" t-shirt from The Jerk away from being the greatest t-shirt retailer ever.
This effective little minicomic draws strength from combining a satisfyingly crude pair of short, silly stories with a surprisingly sophisticated visual approach. There's no doubt that the CCC collective is indebted to Fort Thunder and related artists, but like the best of that crew, Milburn isn't just throwing marks on a page, he's building something out of them, describing an inhabitable physical space. Loose figurework that suggests a rock-solid skeletal structure beneath the surface, deftly chosen camera angles--particularly in the second story, "Wasteland"--and a willingness to fill the panels with information from top to bottom, even if just with thick blacks or hatching (this is the kind of comic that makes you realize how frequently artists waste the top third of a panel) give the book the oomph it needs. The two stories play different gross-out notes, one just cute and goofy and the other sexualized and violent--and god help me, I just realized that the common link is, in a sense, sausage-eating. You can connect the dots, I'm sure. They're unassuming little things to be sure, but the basic ideas--an old Yoda-like lady-creature telling the younglings about the time she won a competitive eating contest against a bunch of other monsters, and three fratboys whose drunken perambulations lead one into coitus with a hag-thing and the other to be literally skullfucked to death by a minotaur--are rolled out with minimal fuss or pretension and a great deal of self-evident enjoyment. Funny punchlines for both, too. Not for everyone, then, but certainly for me.
* Brian Heiler salutes the 10 Greatest Playsets of All Time. I'm the proud former owner of three--the Terrordome, Castle Grayskull, and the Hall of Justice. Notable omissions: the USS Flagg, the Defiant, the Fright Zone, Snake Mountain, Ewok Village...
* Hey, lookit this: In today's Archive Spotlight at Top Shelf 2.0, you can relive the glory of me and Matt Wiegle's action-adventure strip "Destructor Comes to Croc Town." Watch one angry man in a suit of armor unmake a civilization!
* Discussion of Final Crisis #2 continues. Here's Joe McCulloch wondering whether "good Grant Morrison superhero comic" and "good DC Comics event lynchpin thing" work at cross-purposes:
And then there's that odd taste of self-awareness, even a little tiredness - Superman hoping the Martian Manhunter will be revived sometime in the future, Lex Luthor acting utterly bored at the death of some expendable superhero (in an Event comic! *yawn*). Like Didio implied, these characters have seen it all. Is it good for the health of DC comics, rather than the DC Universe? Hell, I don't know. And while I'm aware that if things get so bad they board up the windows it'll mean less chances for people like Grant Morrison to write comics, I still find it awfully tough to shift my focus onto what's Good For the Industry when I'm trying to interface with a particular work - my problem, folks.
* And in the comments at thishyere blog, Sean B. of the late, lamented Strange Ink addresses the nature of the threat presented by this series' big bad guy, a Darkseid in human skin, as opposed to the traditional event-comic villainy:
It's about the superfolk of DC coming to see that evil is not just the flaming spear flying into your Martian chest - beneath all their day-to-day conflicts with the various baddies of the physical world, the real battle has been fought and lost already. A crisis of faith - that what you do makes no difference at all when Secret Gods are pulling the strings. It's almost Kirby by way of Lovecraft in a way?
That is dead-on and brilliant.
* Tom Spurgeon explains at length why the Claremont/Cockrum/Byrne-era X-Men worked. Tom's tolerance for superhero stories is pretty low, so watching him unpack why these superhero stories clicked on any number of levels is pretty compelling.
* Jim Treacher recommends some genre novels by erstwhile comics writers Duane Swierczynski and Charlie Huston.
Originally written on January 3, 2005 for publication in The Comics Journal
Marc Bell is commonly associated with the deliberately lo-fi cartoonists centered around institutions like Sammy Harkham's Kramers Ergot and Tom Devlin's nigh-irreplaceable Highwater Books (of which the publication of Bell's great graphic novel Shrimpy & Paul and Friends is arguably the crowning achievement). But like a pre–VH1 Fashion Awards Lenny Kravitz, Marc Bell is a man out of time, and I mean that in the best possible way. (Seriously, have you heard Mama Said?) With its maximalist energy, idiot-savant detail, and high-spirited insanity, Bell's art is much more at home amid the 1960s undergrounds, right down to the Fleischeresque eyes of many of its characters and the ragtimey shuffles they frequently perform. But Bell's comics have the added benefit (at least that's what I think it is) of being largely gratuitous-obscenity-free, which basically means (like if Gary Panter's Pee-Wee's Playhouse sets had their own book) they're the most enthusiastically, wondrously weird kids' comics ever. You're just unlikely to relinquish any copies you buy to an actual kid, is all.
Worn Tuff Elbow #1 is Bell's latest sequential-art effort and the first issue of his new ongoing series at Fantagraphics (Bell being one of the House That RAW Built's promising outreach efforts to the under-35 generation). The fact that it demonstrates Shrimpy & Paul was not a blow-your-wad burst of brilliance alone makes it notable, even if the comics weren't so enjoyable on their own terms. Every page is packed with eyeball kicks both visual (a little fellow labeled "Just passin' thru" appears in one panel, only (sure enough) to be gone by the next) and verbal (an inside-cover preview of book's contents begins with the rib-ticklingly staccato intro "COMING SOON!!!" "(i.e.: in about 4 pages)" "TO THIS HERE COMIC BOOK" "(THAT IS IN YOUR MITTS RIGHT NOW!)"). Panels lengthen vertically to accentuate the larger-than-life owner of the titular elbow, and flatten out along the pages' bottoms to depict the ground-level life of the little people whose oppression at the hands of a mad Frenchman (it's that kinda book) form the core of the story. (Yes, there is a story!) Nonsensical, delightful, restorative comics.
This morning I woke up to the sad news that artist Michael Turner has died. (Via Tom Spurgeon.) Presumably this is as a result of the cancer that he'd struggled with for years and years. A few years ago, while I was working at Wizard, I helped put together a book about Mike and his art--I literally wrote the book on Michael Turner--and during the days I spent with him I was really struck by what a kind, friendly guy he was. It'd be pretty easy for a dude with Turner's looks and superstar-artist-in-the-Image-mold status to be a conceited jerk, but he wasn't, at all, and that was evident not just from my own interactions with him but with the obviously genuine love and devotion his friends, co-workers, and family displayed about him. I know his art comes in for abuse over its excesses, but I always thought it had a real glamour to it--indeed, the original idea for my David Bowie sketchbook arose from me wondering "If I get the chance to get a Michael Turner sketch, who should I ask him to draw." I would love to have seen what he'd have drawn in that book, and now I won't get the chance. He was really way, way too young for this to happen to him, and I'm terribly sad about it.
* Finally, here's something I've been putting off linking to for some time. Just when you thought you'd heard the worst story of incest and child abuse that could possibly surface this year, you see this story about a Czech woman who over a period of months partially skinned alive her son, who she kept chained in a basement naked in his own filth, and consumed the flesh along with her family, including a 34-year-old woman posing as the boy's 13-year-old sister, all of whom were members of the Grail Movement cult; the crime was discovered when a neighbor installed a baby monitor that accidentally picked up live footage of the imprisoned boy that his mother would watch for pleasure.
[Editor's note: This is the first in a series of interviews I'll be posting that were rescued from WizardUniverse.com's now-defunct archives. Originally posted on June 22, 2007.]
I CAN HAS COMIX?: GILBERT AND JAIME HERNANDEZ
In Wizard Universe's new alternative comics interview column, Los Bros Hernandez reveal how their shared love of punk rock, sexy girls and Silver Age classics helped their epic series Love and Rockets launch the indie scene as we know it
By Sean T. Collins
I'll admit that it took me a while to hitch a ride aboard Love and Rockets.
Despite the near-universal acclaim the series and its creators have received over the 25 years since the series' first issue took the comics world by storm and kick-started a small-press revolution--the fruits of which can be seen at this weekend's MoCCA Art Festival in New York City--there's something daunting about it. For starters, it's not just a straightforward one-man show: It's an umbrella title for the work of Los Angeles-born brothers named Gilbert and Jaime (and sometimes even older sibling Mario), collectively known as "Los Bros Hernandez."
What's more, both Gilbert and Jaime have developed their own mini-mythoi within L&R, featuring enough characters to rival your average superhero universe. In Gilbert's case, you have the busty, hammer-wielding femme fatale Luba and her friends, lovers, family and enemies, all swirling around the fictional Latin-American town that gives Gilbert's "Palomar" saga its name. Jaime's stories center on unlucky-in-love mechanic Maggie and her obnoxious punk-rock best friend/sidekick/sometimes-lover Hopey, wild women who are the stand-out members of a loose-knit group of L.A. ladies dubbed "Locas." Both casts of characters age in real time, meaning some people who started the series as teenagers now have teenagers of their own, with their own adventures. The warts-and-all presentation of the series' leads (particularly Jaime's, in my case) can leave you as pissed of as you'd be at your own obnoxious friends.
And to top it all off, Love and Rockets has spawned two separate ongoing series using that title, a raft of trade paperback collections, two massive hardcovers housing nearly the entire "Locas" and "Palomar" sagas, and countless spinoff miniseries, graphic novels and even adult comix. Put it all together and it's enough to make the friggin' Legion of Super-Heroes' continuity seem easy to follow.
To celebrate L&R's 25th anniversary, publisher Fantagraphics recently began releasing awesomely affordable, handily portable softcover digest collections, starting at the beginning of both brothers' epic storylines and giving readers their best chance ever to get in on the ground floor. With the first volumes (Jaime's Maggie the Mechanic and Gilbert's Heartbreak Soup) already in stores, the second installments--The Girl from H.O.P.P.E.R.S. by Jaime and Human Diastrophism by Gilbert--launched this week, with some of Los Bros' best work ever on board.
I could go on about both brothers' mastery of character development, creating people as flawed, funny, and fascinating as your best friends. I could wax rhapsodic about their sophisticated storytelling, which relies on the readers' intelligence as it bounces back in forth in time and between dozens of characters. I could point out that at different times, it's the funniest, raunchiest and scariest comic you'll ever read. I could talk for ages about the gorgeous art--Jaime's sharp, sexy, stylish classicism and Gilbert's earthy, equally sexy surrealism. And I could say that while you hear a lot about "creating a universe" in comics, no one's ever done it better than Los Bros--when you read an L&R story, you feel like you're catching just a small glimpse of a world as big, sprawling, messy, funny, horny, heartbreaking and real as our own.
Instead, in this joint interview with Gilbert and Jaime, I'll let Los Bros themselves explain the inspiration of the series, reveal the dark secrets of the stories in the new digests, and announce their pick for the greatest superhero comic of all time. Through it all, it's clear that when it comes to creating thrilling uncategorizable comics in Love and Rockets, the brothers are still armed and dangerous.
WIZARD: Take us back to 1981 when you guys started the books. What made you say, "Let's do this"?
JAIME: Let's see, 1981…I was being paid to go to junior college, so I didn't want a job. I was just taking art classes and stuff like that. I wasn't thinking about what I was going to do with my life--I just liked drawing comics. By that time we were drawing comics for ourselves, but we were starting to draw them with ink on the right paper and everything, not just on a piece of typing paper with a pencil. We wanted to print it somewhere but we didn't know where, because it wasn't your normal Marvel or DC fare. There wasn't really much of a market for this stuff, we thought. We were still punk rockers in bands and we were just doing comics. We wanted to draw comics the way we wanted to see them, and we weren't really seeing much of them out there.
GILBERT: Comics were our amusement for years, and what we were into was not what the mainstream companies were into at the time. We figured that by printing an underground magazine we would get it out there, mostly to see what the response would be--just something to do, really. It turned out that when we finally got our stuff together and put out a 32-page Love and Rockets comic, a fanzine/underground type thing, we were luckily noticed right away by Fantagraphics. The timing was just right--they were ready to publish their own comics. It took a little climb to get Love and Rockets going, but the response was very good, even in a small way at first, so that encouraged us to continue.
It's not too often that people in the alternative comics area have that kind of success right out of the gate, but I guess you guys didn't have a lot to compare it to. Before Love and Rockets there were the undergrounds, but they were sort of a different beast.
GILBERT: Yeah. Cerebus and ElfQuest were actually encouraging in the sense that it could be done, getting a following for a black-and-white comic. It wasn't necessarily mainstream. Even though they were both geared for that audience, they were successful on their own.
Jaime, you had more "mainstream" elements in your early work, with its sci-fi flavor. Was that an attempt to tap the normal comics-reading audience, or was it just you following your bliss?
JAIME: It was pretty much just me. I liked drawing rockets and robots, as well as girls. [Laughs] It really was no big game plan. It was almost like, "Okay, I'll give you rockets and robots, but I'll show you how it's done. I'm gonna do it, and this is how it's supposed to be done!" I went in with that kind of attitude.
That's definitely a punk attitude.
JAIME: Yeah. I'd see something was being done in other comics and I'd say, "Ah, no, no, that is not the way to do it. This is the way to do it." That gave me encouragement to just do it. In the beginning, I was putting my whole life of drawing comics since I was a kid into this comic. When the characters started to take over, the other stuff started to drop out because it was getting in the way.
And the result was a book that's been credited with inventing alternative comics as we know them, though that couldn't have been your intention at the time.
GILBERT: I think that we did create a path, at least, using all our influences and what we saw about comics that we knew of since we were kids. That developed into mainstream comics in the '60s, and undergrounds in the late '60s, and then in the '70s you'd have mainstream companies that would also publish black-and-white magazines--different things bouncing around here and there with a different format. That was encouraging to us as well. I think what happened with Love and Rockets is that since there really weren't the kind of comics we were doing, that is bringing our mainstream influences into a new kind of comic, a new kind of underground, let's say. An underground with more going on, hopefully. [Laughs] At least I would like to think so. It basically created a path for everybody to at least get on, not necessarily making it easier, but just [having] something there. It was just a different road to go down, and I think that is what we did somehow.
In each of your main storylines, you've both created these big, sprawling, interconnected casts over the years. Is that something that two of you talked over, or did it evolve spontaneously and separately out of what you both were interested in doing?
JAIME: I would say that it just kind of happened as the characters started to write themselves. I think because Gilbert started creating all-out characters, it just seemed like a good idea to me, or something. On my end, I basically just created characters that would fill in the gaps of the story. If I needed someone to say something in the back that was totally unrelated to the characters, I would create a character later on. What started out as a drawing of just somebody, I decided, "Hey, I'll make that someone's boyfriend." While in the beginning they were just there to color up the place, after a while they started to take on lives of their own. That is how the characters started to multiply. What about you, Beto?
GILBERT: It would probably be my mainstream influence, with me. Like in, say, Peanuts: You could follow the strip with Charlie Brown and Linus for a few days, and then it would shift to Lucy and Violet. But you wouldn't lose what the strip was about; it was because all the characters were so well informed that you are always in the Peanuts world. Even if sometimes it was about Snoopy or Sally Brown or whatever, you were always there. That's on the high end, but in the middle there would be the Marvel Universe, actually, for me. I always liked what fans complain about now: the fact that they were all interconnected. If you needed something heavy and metallic and electronic, you went to Stark Industries. If you needed power, you went to Reed Richards' unstable molecules. I always liked the crisscrossing of that. Of course it went into madness eventually [laughs], but at first it was very intriguing to a kid. It was something new for superheroes, that interconnecting. In the Hulk comic you could mention Stark Industries, and Iron Man or Tony Stark was nowhere near it but you knew what they were talking about. That is what I liked about it: that interconnecting, even when stuff is off camera. That is pretty much what inspired me to go ahead and do that with mine. That way, you just have a larger canvas to work from.
That's a big part of L&R's appeal--you get the sense that we are following this handful of characters right now as they do things during the course of their day, but that if we just took that camera and moved over a couple of blocks, you could catch someone else in the middle of what is going on in their lives, too.
GILBERT: Yeah, and another aspect is that is how our family worked as well. That's something we brought from home. Our family, our cousins, aunts and uncles were all interconnected the same way. That was an influence as well, the family unit.
JAIME: Yeah, it was a big family. Our aunt had six kids and our other aunt had six kids.
Talk a little bit about your main characters. In your case, Jaime, it's Maggie and Hopey, the stars of The Girl From H.O.P.P.E.R.S., and with Gilbert it's Luba, the main attraction in Human Diastrophism.
JAIME: Maggie started back in high school, where I wanted to create a character I could put into any type of story I wanted--send her to outer space, back to time, to her grandma's house. She was just a drawing at first, and I just started to think wherever I go, Maggie goes. It took a while, but I put a lot of my thoughts into her, and that's why she's the main character and the stories follow her. I created her friend Hopey out of just wanting a sidekick, and seeing the punk girls in L.A. at the time; that was when I was first going to the punk shows. They just kind of hit off together. My Betty and Veronica, you could look at it that way. Or my Batman and Robin. [Laughs] They just worked. When we did the first issue, that was the first response I got: "I like your girl characters." I went, "Cool, because I like doing them!" [Laughs] That is basically how that started, and Maggie continues because I know her so well and I can put a lot of stuff into her.
GILBERT: My work around the beginning was similar to Jaime's: a science fiction, two-girls-hanging-out-type thing. Once Jaime's came out, the response to it was immediate. I could see how much more defined it was [than mine] and how much potential it had. Jaime had already grabbed it and was working that side of it just fine, so I abandoned my stuff and thought, "What is it I really want to say that's different?" I just kept going back to the idea of this imaginary Latin-American village [called Palomar]. The more I thought about it and the more I felt it out, the more it seemed right. It was completely different from what Jaime was doing. Even from the beginning I thought that Love and Rockets should be a bigger thing. It shouldn't be just all the same thing, and since Jaime was taking care of that part of it, then doing something completely different but still on the same page would make Love and Rockets a bigger thing, a bigger work of art. So that's where the encouragement came from, bouncing off the fact that Jaime's was done and already the response was good, so all I had to do was fill in the rest. I was a little freer, actually, to do something that might not have been commercially viable. I think that Palomar was a little chancier than doing the girl/rocket stuff at the time.
JAIME: I could tell you that Gilbert's approach helped me a lot in taking the girls out of the science fiction, to handle stuff more at home. Gilbert was the older brother, anyway, so he really did everything before me, ever since we were little. [Laughs]
GILBERT: What's very interesting about the science fiction stuff is that the question we get asked the most, at least out loud, is "Where is the rocket? That's the real Love and Rockets." Oddly, that's the smaller segment of the audience--they're just more vocal. The real audience is the one who followed Maggie and Hopey's adventures as real girls, so to speak, and the Palomar stories. That is the real Love and Rockets reader. But for some reason we have the most outspoken ones saying, "When are you going to do the rockets? It's called Love and Rockets!" That's fine, we love doing rocket stuff, but the real Love and Rockets is what we are famous for.
You mentioned that the audience has changed, and now the less genre-y things are actually more commercially viable. Jaime's had his work published in The New York Times, your recent collections have gotten major mainstream-publication review acreage--could you ever have seen this coming?
JAIME: I think that for me, it was more a case of, "One of these days, sure, I'd like my character standing next to Charlie Brown and Betty and Veronica and Superman." But I was just hoping we would be able to continue doing it and hopefully make a major living off of it because I didn't want to do anything else with my life. It was like, "Oh boy, I can continue!" But "How long is this going to go?" I wasn't even thinking about it. Twenty-five years later, I'm going, "Wow, a quarter of a century and I'm still allowed to do this?" It's amazing. I just think back to all the talented people I knew in the past who had to stop because they just couldn't live off of doing their comics.
GILBERT: The one time I got thrown was when we were getting a lot more attention doing Love and Rockets and people were really accepting what we wanted to do in it. What really threw me was when I got to a point where readers would tell us, "I used to read Batman, but now I read your stuff." I thought that was really creepy. I'd go, "You mean you'd rather read us than Batman?" Batman, Superman, all that stuff--they were icons when we were growing up. Nobody ever thought somebody would rather read stuff that wasn't that. It just threw me and was something I never really thought about, that someone might like a different kind of comic outside of the Big Two. For us it was always a note of encouragement: "We just better step up to the plate then. If this is what they are saying about us, if this is what they like about us, then we better be good!" And we've done our best to stick to our guns about giving the most honest comic we can--coming from our point of view, of course. But it threw me for a bit. It seemed like we were being scrutinized for a while, like, "Okay, this stuff is getting more attention than The Incredible Hulk, so let's see what they're gonna do next." We were like, "Oops!" The only thing you can do is try to get better. Otherwise you'd crumble if you tried to compromise or change things.
What do you think of the new digest versions of your work?
GILBERT: For me, I just trust our publisher. I don't have the say of how it is going to be packaged, because I couldn't tell you how, so I have to trust them a lot. I think it's great if it'll just give us shelf space. Don't colorize it or something like that. [Laughs] But as long as it's presentable and someone will put it on their shelf, that's all I can ask for.
Jaime, your latest digest includes "The Death of Speedy" and "Flies on the Ceiling," two of your best-known--and darkest--stories. How did each of them come about?
JAIME: Back before "The Death of Speedy" and "Flies on the Ceiling," I did this story about Speedy talking to his friend about his sister Izzy. He mentioned how she was all normal and then she went to Mexico and came back weird. When I wrote that, I didn't know exactly what happened to her. I got that question every time: "What happened to Izzy in Mexico?" I'd say, "Oh, I'll tell you one of these days." But to myself I was saying, "Yeah, when I find out!" [Laughs] It took almost 10 years to write. It all came from that, and it took on many forms and shapes and sizes till I finally did "Flies on the Ceiling." With "The Death of Speedy," certain continuity was building up in the drama, and all of this was building up to where I wanted to kill somebody. I wanted someone to die. But it was another one of those things where I thought, "I'll show you how to have someone die." I was going to challenge myself and everybody else. Speedy became the guy just because of the way things were going: I wanted to kill a main character, and he was a victim of my plans. [Laughs] It didn't have to be him, but it ended up being him. Years after that I asked myself, "Should I have ever killed him?" It was just one of those things that he fell victim to.
Do you ever wish you could bring him back to life, Superman-style?
JAIME: That's the cool thing with Love and Rockets: You can always have flashbacks. It doesn't mean they come back to life; you just tell a story that happened not to screw with history. Which I get really close to, sometimes, just because it's tempting. I can always bring Speedy back--just in the past. I don't want it to become formula. I have to do it right.
Gilbert, in your case, again, it's fairly dark material, since "Human Diastrophism" is about a serial killer preying upon Palomar. What made you let loose this violence on these characters in this town you created?
GILBERT: There was no direct line, no conscious effort to be that dark. It just sort of came out as the stories were developing. Whatever darkness there was is from my unconscious. I don't really know what the source, but I just wanted darker stories. I was also tired of the cramped format, doing a few pages an issue; I wanted to do a longer story, and the longer the story is, I feel I have to give more. I was basically doing stories unchecked, throwing everything in that I could. In those days I would write stories thinking, "When I finish this story, if I get hit by a truck the next day, then I'll be satisfied that this is my last story." I don't do that anymore. Now I think, "Oh, that was my first story," and that works just as well when I work. "This is my first story, I'm just getting started, I'm just learning." In the old days it was the other way around: "Okay, if I'm done with the story then I'm done, but I better get down to business." I wanted to do the world in a microcosm that had death and rebirth. Everything that you can imagine in an epic story, I tried to stick it in one big story. Like Jaime's story, I chose a character because whenever you are dealing with a story that big and that universal, the characters that you hurt the most have to be ones you care about, unfortunately. You can't just make up a character and kill them, because it doesn't matter. If it's a character that the readers cared for to a degree, that's what gives the story more resonance, especially in a large story like that. We don't really do it to shock or anything, but it's just part of life.
That is what I was going for with that. And once I was done with it and it did get very good response, then what do you do after that? You just start all over and do your damnedest not to cheapen the story. You try not to refer too much to that story, unless it's little things you need that you left out or something. Jaime and I are clever enough to bring back those characters in a legitimate way, without cheapening it. In Jaime's "The Death of Speedy," you never really see what happened--it could have been somebody else and not Speedy who was killed. There's that little twist that you can do and make it convincing. The same with Tonantzin setting herself on fire in my story. I could very well say it wasn't her, it was a set-up. I'm just saying that we're able to do stories where we can make it work--we're just not going to. It's too easy, it's too pat, and it just cheapens the earlier story.
The characters in both the "Locas" and "Palomar" stories aren't like the ones in Peanuts or in Riverdale High or in the Marvel Universe--they age in real time. Why'd you make that choice, and do you ever regret it?
JAIME: First of all, it was Gilbert's idea to actually age them. I'll let him explain.
GILBERT: I was thinking of a sprawling epic that took years to complete. I think I aged them too quickly for my taste now. I definitely regret that it was a little too quick compared to how long we have been doing it. We've been doing it for 25 years and that is not really too quick, but it is in terms of comics because I'm still doing them. I'm not done with the characters that are getting older. What happens is you get the "Tiny Yokum syndrome": The old strip Li'l Abner was about a bachelor who was being chased by a lovely woman, [and eventually] they married and had a kid. Well, now Li'l Abner is responsible. He can no longer have wacky, nutty adventures because he's married and has a kid. He has to stay home and take care of the family. What they did was create a character, his little brother, named Tiny. Basically, Tiny had the adventures that Li'l Abner could no longer have--but we don't know Tiny, we know Li'l Abner. The problem that happened with aging my characters too quickly is that I had to come up with characters to replace the older characters, and it's not as good. I've had several characters to replace my main character Luba, but none of them are Luba. That presents itself in that way, even though some readers probably don't even know who Luba is because they only read the new ones. That's fine, but it's something I regret a little bit, and I keep pushing the main characters back.
Jaime, earlier you compared Maggie and Hopey to Betty and Veronica, but in this case there's no Archie. Both of you focus on female characters. Was that a conscious choice? Did you just like drawing girls or did you really think you had something to say about women?
JAIME: I think it all started when I was a budding teenager and Gilbert was a teenager, and he said, "Jaime, you should start drawing girls." And I went, "No, I can't do that--Mom will kill me!" And he just goes, 'No, it's cool," because he was drawing girls left and right. I started and I thought, "Oh God, I can't draw girls--[mine] are so terrible!" Then after a while you couldn't stop me. It all started from wanting and liking to draw women. They are much more fun than drawing men. I thought, you can have your cake and eat it too if you do your comic starring the women instead of the men. You can have men, but you get a lot more done if you are drawing a character you like. At the same time, it's something Gilbert talked about earlier: When I was young, I always felt that if I was going to put something in my comics, I had to back it up. I had to step to the plate and be responsible. So there was always talk about T&A--"You just like women as objects" and stuff. I was like, "No I don't--look!" So I started making them characters. I thought, "That's easy! Just do it! I don't have to feel responsible to create 10-hundred male superheroes to 10 female superheroes--I can just concentrate on the female superheroes!" That's how it started for me. Gilbert was well on his way before me, being the older guy. I just followed along.
GILBERT: A lot of Love and Rockets is just simply what we wanted to do, even superficially--if we feel like drawing a person wearing these clothes, doing this thing, just because we feel like drawing that. Most of the time it's a woman doing it. Then we started giving the characters personalities, like Jaime said, having our cake and eating it too. There was a weird little rub there because we kept getting asked, "Why are you doing women?" Just the fact we were asked that all the time, it was like, "Something is wrong here if you have to ask us why. Why do anything? Do people ask Frank Miller why his stories are so violent?" People are fine with violence but they're nervous about women for some reason. So we are always up to the challenge. We stick our elbows up and go, "Look, we're gonna do this and we're gonna do it as best we can." We kept getting encouraged--the more we did it, the more good response we got. Then every once in a while, "Why do you do women?" and I thought, "It is really a boys' club out there, isn't it?"
JAIME: It was almost like the more they told us not to, the more we did it. It was like, "I don't see anything I'm doing wrong here. What am I afraid of?"
Who do you consider your peers? What other comics out there interest you?
JAIME: It's harder for me to say now, because I've gotten so locked in this Love and Rockets world of mine, creating my stories and not looking at anyone around me, so I don't know. I guess it's competition on the shelves: "Who's taking up my shelf space?" That's how it is [now]. When Gilbert and I started out, it was like we were welcomed by the mainstream when the comic first came out, but we didn't have the heart to tell most of the mainstream, "We don't want to do what you guys are doing." I didn't want to be an assh--- about it or anything--we were getting all this support--but we thought, "Oh, so you're gonna do Secret Wars? After we talked about how there's a new comics world, you're gonna go back and do that? Well, fine, you do that, but don't ask me why I'm not." It wasn't till more alternatives and people with their own goofy comics like ours started popping out that we started to get these peers coming out of the woodwork. I would say when the Peter Bagges and the Dan Clowes started coming out too, we kind of formed this little… I don't want to say club, because everyone lived in a different state. [Laughs] But we liked seeing each other at conventions and events like that.
GILBERT: Were you talking about peers now?
That would be the follow-up. Are you also "head-down," like Jaime?
GILBERT: I am, pretty much. I'm just so focused on getting work out that I look for influences and for other things to inspire me, [and] rarely is that another comic book these days. One reason is that alternative comics, as far as series go, are barely there anymore. Love and Rockets is one of the few that comes out on a relatively regular basis that continues this old tradition that is pretty much gone now. It's mostly graphic novels and online comics. It's just different, and a different way to get ahold of comics. The alternative comics they call pamphlets now are simply not around like they were. I don't look at comics on the Internet. I don't really look at the Internet too much. I'm focused on writing the best comics I can, and that takes up most of our lives, really. I don't want to dis anybody or ignore anyone--I'm just not really focused on things outside at this time.
JAIME: I find that when I go to a comic store I leave with an old Marvel or DC archive 99 percent of the time.
It is kind of a golden age for that stuff. The sheer volume of old stuff that is coming into print in really nice books is amazing.
JAIME: Gilbert told me recently that they did the complete [Steve] Ditko Amazing Spider-Man, and I'm just achin' to go and get that.
GILBERT: Actually, that just came out, and here is a plug for Marvel. I think that now that that's collected, the Ditko-[Stan] Lee Spider-Man, I think we finally have a book to show and put down and say, "This, for me, is the best superhero comic ever right here." There has been stuff that has been pretty close, like [Will Eisner's] The Spirit and [C.C. Beck's] Captain Marvel and other things, but this, to me, is the grail of superheroes. It's great to have it in a package like that. Which means I have to rebuy it. [Laughs] I've bought that stuff so many times now in different formats.
JAIME: So this is what we're influenced by, see? [Laughs] We have nothing to show about the new stuff--this is all stuff we liked when we were kids.
What does Love and Rockets have that would appeal to the kinds of readers who haven't said yet, "I used to read Batman, but now I read you guys?"
JAIME: It's more difficult these days, because there are more ways of getting ahold of comics with the Internet and different things now. I think what hooked people, the mainstream readers, from reading Batman or Superman and went to Love and Rockets is that [we] were serialized at the time. New stories about Maggie and Hopey were continued from issue to issue, new stories about Palomar continued from issue to issue. The reader could identify with that, reading a serialized adventure that was similar, superficially, to reading a Batman comic. Now Love and Rockets is different, a little more fragmented, a little more experimental, a little more idiosyncratic, I think. It's different from how mainstream comics are read now. I get a bunch of free [mainstream] comics every month, and I look at them, and you got to be really into them to know what's going on. You have to be a fan of that particular book to know what is going on. It's a different day now, a different way to look at comics now, so it's probably not as easy to grab that audience these days.
I know when I started getting into you guys it was difficult because of the array of formats and editions that were out there: You had the ongoing series, the trades, the spinoffs…But I feel like now, with the digests, it's nice and easy. In the same way that now a lot of the superhero comic book companies are collecting the complete Lee-Ditko Spider-Man and all these big giant historical runs of series in these easy-to-follow collections, it's now a better time than ever to get in on the ground floor of Love and Rockets and start from the beginning pretty easily and affordably. I've seen it happen around the office--those digests spread like wildfire.
JAIME: I imagine that is what is going to happen with reprinting this old stuff. It's sort of like seeing 11-year-old kids with Ramones shirts now--three of the main Ramones are dead. [Laughs] Their music is over 30 years old now, and 11-year-olds are into the Ramones! So you never know. There could be a Lee-Ditko Spider-Man comeback with kids. Who knows?
GILBERT: I met an 8-year-old kid a couple of years ago whose mom kept badgering him: "This guy draws comics! Tell him who your favorite Spider-Man artist is!" And the kid, under his breath, goes, "Ditko." I was like, yes! [Laughs]
JAIME: Ditko quit in '67, so it was a long time ago. It's kind of cool, things being in perpetual print.
Any closing words of wisdom?
GILBERT [in mock-pretentious voice]: We're not only mainstream geeks here-- we're actually progressive artists. [Laughs] I'm kidding. I don't know about the progressive part and I don't know about the artist part. [Laughs] We're going to continue doing Love and Rockets projects that strike our fancy. And I have a couple of other books coming out. One will be a Dark Horse miniseries which will eventually become a graphic novel called Speak of the Devil--that's in stores this July. I have another graphic novel coming out in June called Chance in Hell, and that's my first actual graphic novel with Fantagraphics. It's in the digest size--not quite as small as manga, but around that size. Hopefully, the casual reader will be like, "Hey, there's a small book--it must be manga!" [Laughs] That could help!
Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms is an exercise in addressing a bottomlessly complicated subject in a breezily simple fashion. That complicated subject is the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and its lingering physical, psychological, and sociocultural side-effects on residents of the town and their families. That simple fashion is Kouno's writing, which sort of brushes against the topic like a breeze while telling stories of romance, friendship, and family, only to occasionally slam into it with gale-force intensity; and Kouno's art, the pictorial equivalent of young-adult prose, warm and just so. (And it takes some kind of mental masterstroke to make your characters look like Peanuts when you superdeform them.)
As such it's perhaps fitting that simple things keep the book from really doing all it might otherwise be capable of doing. For one thing, in both of the stories (one set in the '50s, the other in the '80s and '00s) the main characters simply look like little kids even when they're supposed to be in their 20s. Since so much of the plot is driven by looking into the past and contrasting children with adults, it's becomes a major obstacle to understanding just what's going on--particularly in the second story, which was already too loosely constructed by half. Another flaw, and this is maybe nitpicky, is the typeface used for translated Japanese text. Comic Sans? The cover is lovely so I know someone at Last Gasp makes good design decisions, but that wasn't one of them, and it knocks me out of the story whenever it shows up.
But those complex moments...they hit hard. The first story, "Town of Evening Calm," could with minimal tweaking become a first-rate horror story, so powerful is the way its sense of impending, at-any-moment suffering and death sneaks up on the reader. Two moments in particular--I don't want to spoil them--practically reach out of the book and punch you in the face, a testament as much to Kunuo's pacing as to the horror of the topic itself. The second, two-part story, "Country of Cherry Blossoms," relies more heavily on knowledge of the stigma victims of the Bomb (and even their descendants) face in Japan for its power, knowledge I didn't really have, sad to say; but the way it develops the ticking-time-bomb themes established in "Town" creates a satisfying sense of connectedness that the two otherwise unrelated stories lack. The flaws irk, the strengths stick.
* In this month's Maxim I've got a little piece on ugly movie heroes, tying in with Hellboy II: The Golden Army. I don't think it's online, but there are worse ways you could spend a few bucks than for some nerdy snark and sexy ladies.