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.
Comics Time: The Adventures of Tintin: The Seven Crystal Balls
The Adventures of Tintin: The Seven Crystal Balls
Little, Brown and Company, 1975
$10.99, not adjusted for inflation Buy it from Amazon.com
You know what reading this reminded me of? Watching the Wachowski Bros. Speed Racer. Maybe it's the luscious candy colors, maybe it's the miraculously smooth line, maybe it's the rounded figures, but in much the same way that Speed Racer aspired to be nothing but a wholistic yet obviously CGI world, Tintin is clearly a cartoon, yet draws your eyes in irresistibly and sensually, as though you could predict what would be behind every tree, what you'd see if you turned around and looked in the other direction, what the backs of each character look like when they're facing front. I think what I'm trying to say is that it's fluid? You could jump right in and move around. Obviously the panel transitions help a great deal: Hergé often adds what would appear to be extraneous frames of Tintin walking from here to there, or an extra beat or two during a conversation, just to give a slightly more total sense of Tintin's world. He also ever-so-slightly violates the 180 degree rule now and then as his characters move from place to place--he does it as they shift direction so you don't notice it as much, but it reinforces that sense that if you spun a camera all the way around them in any direction, that pastel world of lines and shapes and colors would be visible the whole time. Immersive, maybe that's the word too. Man, what a stylist!
Plotwise it's, y'know, kind of slight: The members of a Peruvian archaelogical expedition that unearthed the mummy of an Incan ruler are being systematically assaulted by some sort of gas or powder that's knocking them into comas; the dispersal method appears to be shattered crystal balls. During the investigation, Tintin's friend Professor Calculus is kidnapped. There's a shootout—now that's what kids' entertainment needs these days!—but the kidnapper escapes with Calculus in tow. It actually is rather engaging for its simplicity (I was curious to discover just how the kidnapper's getaway car dodged the cops), the comic business is often funny (I liked Snowy the dog's ill-fated attempts to chase Captain Haddock's cat), and I guess it's just my ignorance of the European album format that had me feeling gypped that the book ended without resolving the story. Newsflash: Tintin is a fun comic.
The State is doing a special for Comedy Central in 2009, and we're finally releasing the box-set of our MTV series in the spring.
I'll see it when I believe it, as they say. (Via Whitney Matheson.) Sadly, unless something massive and wonderful changed regarding clearances, the official DVDs will lack the original series' ruthlessly dead-on and era-specific MTV-style music cues. I'm as much of fan of the Shudder to Think guy's pastiches as anyone who's seen Velvet Goldmine and Wet Hot American Summer a double-digit number of times, but without "Cannonball," the pants sketch is just not gonna be the same.
* Guillermo Del Toro wants Mike Mignola to do design work for The Hobbit and its sequel. Two great tastes that taste weird together if you ask me. (Via Jason Adams.)
* National security blogger Spencer Ackerman doesn't much care for Brian Michael Bendis and Leinil Francis Yu's Marvel event comic Secret Invasion. There's a lot of that going around, but what's particularly interesting about Ackerman's take is that he rightly points out just how much squandered potential there was in the basic concept. As Americans we've learned an awful lot about militant religious zealotry, terrorist infiltration, and foreign invasion and occupation over the past few years, but you wouldn't know it from reading Secret Invasion, a book ostensibly about militant religious zealotry, terrorist infiltration, and foreign invasion and occupation. Ackerman also points out that even if Bendis had really delved into these issues--which I think we can agree make for more interesting plot mechanics than seven issues of inconclusive mob scenes in New York and the Savage Land--the story would pretty much just be Battlestar Galactica.
* Speaking of BSG, the show returns on January 16th, prologue webisodes launch on scifi.com on December 12th, and the latter will contain hot man-on-man action. Finally! Seriously, dropped ball on the potential Michelle Forbes/Tricia Helfer and Lucy Lawless/Tricia Helfer same sex shenanigans we could potentially have already seen, BSG writers.
* My pal Josiah Leighton on Mark Rothko, C.F., the sublime, and the Yale University art department.
* Caprica, the Battlestar Galactica prequel series, has been greenlit. Meanwhile, the Cylon prequel TV movie Edward James Olmos is directing will be called Battlestar Galactica: The Plan and will air after the main series is over. I suppose it's about time to start getting excited about Lost and BSG coming back, huh? (Via AICN.)
* My pal Kiel Phegley presents a lengthy and impassioned list of reasons he loved Batman #681. Sample:
3. Morrison's Batman is the killer B Side to All-Star Superman.
Simply put, if Morrison and Frank Quitely's All-Star Superman is "Hey Jude" – the soft, wholesome crowd pleaser that plays through the expected notes of the genre to perfection – then Morrison's Batman run is "Revolution" – the wild, jagged face melter that mixes the genre's raw essentials up to remind you that the artists started on the fringe of things and will always live there to some extent. Beyond the obvious "reinforce the core of the character by making them repeatedly fight twisted versions of themselves" motif that runs through both, Morrison delivers in each series an epic story that conforms to the core of what is appealing and essential in each property that still entertains after 70 years by embracing the style of each character within his scripts. All-Star spun the science fiction slice of altruistic Americana take on Superman to perfection by bolstering the insanity of the Silver Age with scripting style that focused on the big, boy scoutish, heart-wrenching images. "R.I.P." and its predecessors similarly shined up the improbably unkillable gothic detective myth that is Batman through a careful balance of horrific villainy, baffling detective story plotting and oddly endearing childhood trauma. As fucked up as these issues of Batman have been, when all the trades are in hand, I'm positive you'll be able to hand them to a person and say, "THIS is what Batman's all about" in the same way people have been doing with All-Star.
* Tom Spurgeon reviews Lilli Carré's The Lagoon, which sounds just up my alley.
* My pal TJ Dietsch reviews several horror movies, including Midnight Meat Train--the most positive take from someone of my acquaintance I've come across so far.
* Maybe it's just that between my recent re-read of World War Z, that real-world plagues piece I did for Marvel's The Stand, and my Twilight-derived hankering to re-read 'Salem's Lot, I'm in the mood for a good viral-infection flick, but this Scottish not-zombie horror flick The Dead Outside seems promising to me. (Via Dread Central.)
* This shot from Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is breathtaking for several reasons, ranging from the most earthy and obvious to the eventually revealed real reason we got this shot in the first place. It's an establishing shot, you see. (Via Stacie Ponder.)
* Alvin Buenaventura went to see Liquid Liquid play a week or two ago, and here's some footage of the band doing "Cavern" at the concert. Someone needs to explain to me what karma lottery Richard McGuire had to win in a past life to be the guy responsible for both "Here" and the bassline from "White Lines" in this one.
When it comes to art, I like to be able to get everything in one place. I don't like it when bands leave the single off the album, and I want comic collections to contain every relevant strip they can. Yet I closed Against Pain, a collection of Ron Regé Jr.'s anthology contributions and one-off comics, wishing that it was shorter and contained less stuff. Regé is a cartoonist whose work I really treasure--I consider his Skibber Bee Bye one of my formative comics reading experiences and truly one of the best books of the decade, even now--but his oeuvre has at least as many misses as hits. That uniform line weight conveys the sense that everything is equally important, which is a core component of Regé's philosophical project in most of his mature comics; the misses tend to be instances when this psychedelic, pantheistic take on both art and life comes across as mush rather than mind-expansion. Against Pain's flaw is that its editorial approach is similarly egalitarian, and similarly problematic.
In my experience, Regé is at his best when being his most ambitious. For example, Skibber feels like a freaking comet colliding with your brain, so big and sprawling and heavy is it compared to the rest of Regé's usually much shorter works. Against Pain collects several, uh, let's call them "suites" of comics that, though shorter, display genuine thematic fence-swinging. "We Must Know, We Will Know" (great title!), recently included by Ivan Brunetti in his second Yale University Press Anthology, is a series of candy-colored, interconnected strips about, of all things, math--how the unsolvable is solved, how models of certainty give comfort and how uncertainty gives freedom. A suite of "Pain" comics, I think created with funding from Tylenol (!), mines similar territory involving the mind's hold on how we interact with the physical world, our own bodies included. There's a lengthy Spider-Man parody called "High School Analogy" that works quite well as just that, but also reminds us how much fun the Spidey character can be when he really is a sullen teenage dirtbag and not a babe magnet. "She Sometimes Switched to Fluent English and Occasionally Used a Few Words of Hebrew," the minicomic about a failed, female Palestinian suicide bomber that was included in Chris Ware's McSweeney's #13, contains perhaps the most direct articulation of Regé's governing philosophy in the entire book: "All of our human lives are equally valuable*," he says, before adding the footnote "or equally worthless...take your pick" as a seeming acknowledgment of the horrendous tit-for-tat brutality of this true story. It also presents a startling insight into the culture of young suicide "martyrs": What if you lived in a place where low-level warfare could turn everyday teen angst into tragedy at a moment's notice, and if there were organizations that thrived by transmogrifying that angst into violence? As a counterpoint, almost, there's Regé's legendary collaboration with his friend Joan Reidy, "Boys," a series of simple nine-panel sex comics that are at turns lovely, funny, disturbing, sad, angry, and hot, which I induce from experience is likely many readers' history with sex in a nutshell.
But there's a lot of other stuff in here, and most of it isn't nearly as successful. Perhaps counterintuitively given the rubric I just spelled out, one of the more frustrating strips is also one of the longest: "Fuc 1997: We Share a Happy Secret But Beware Because the Modern World Emerges" kind of tells you everything you need to know about its take on young love in the title, but continues for page after page of digressions, doubled-up strips per page, background colors that turn Regé's wire-lined characters into oddly clunky forms, and just generally not-super-interesting lovelorn melancholy. A lot of the other material feels disjointed, Regé's unorthodox layouts and wide-eyed narration throwing a lot of competing ideas and images at you all at once, often for just a page or two at a time before shifting to an entirely different strip and resetting what's left of your attention span completely. A naive girl from the Balkans, an odd "sound sculpture," a nearly incomprehensible cover version of a Lynda Barry comic about getting stoned, random splash pages, three dream comics crammed into one strip you have to read in tiers...like I said, it's a lot of stuff to get a handle on, with very little to help you do so or, at times, to show you why you'd want to. The book ends with one of the odder choices I've seen from an anthology lately, back-loading most of Regé's older, rougher, less visually mature work. It's sort of like a Chris Ware anthology that contains that thing from Building Stories about housesitting or the World's Fair issue of Jimmy Corrigan but ends with a solid chunk of Potato Head strips.
Listen, I'm extraordinarily grateful that a big, hardcover anthology of Ron Regé strips exists. After Highwater closed down, who even thought that would be possible? Seeing Against Pain on my bookshelf makes me wonder which Earth in the Multiverse is the one we're on, and where Superman's rocketship landed to change history so that comics projects like this could go from "you've got to be kidding me" to "buy it for 20% off on Amazon" in about half a decade. And again, I'm grateful to have all the comics I listed a couple paragraphs ago in one accessible place. And since I've never felt that Regé's overall career was a model of consistency, I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that his career-spanning anthology isn't either. I can do the editing in my head, and I will, because all comics are not equally valuable, or equally worthless.
* There's a good chance that the excellent Batman #682, which runs through about two-thirds of Batman's career in the space of 22 story pages, will get overlooked because DC created the impression that Grant Morrison's Batman run ended with last week's (!) #681. Douglas Wolk annotates the issue so that maybe that won't happen.
* I saw this Steven Grant essay about how bad comics stunk in 2008 linked here and there, and I'm sorry but it just seems patently ridiculous to me. Aside from his cockamamie Comic Foundry-style conflation of celebrity with artistic success, anyone who argues that only two Best Of-worthy comics were made in 2008 simply either was not paying attention or has horrible taste.
* Viggo Mortensen talks to AICN about possibly being involved with The Hobbit 2: Imladris Boogaloo or whatever it's going to be called, revealing the existence of a neat-sounding outtake from the original LotR films that showed Aragorn and Arwen back when they first met. (Via TORN.)
* Ta-Nehisi Coates on season five of The Wire(SPOILERS AHOY):
I thought [the notion that The Wire avoided agitprop] was less true in Season Five, when a clear ideology did emerge, but it wasn't left or right. The ideology was nihilism. Now, nihilism was always at work in The Wire, but at the end, I felt like it just became too much. It felt like a desire to show futility of systems became the author of plot, not character. I thought that the press angle was poorly done--and saying "Yeah well it's reporters who are objecting" is a weak, ad-hominem defense.
I thought the serial killer turn--particularly the way Freeman embraced it--was hastily executed. I most disliked the ease with which Marlo took over the city's drug trade. I even hated the manner of Omar's death--not that he was killed by Kinard, but that he was basically brought back into the plot, simply to be killed. He really served no major plot point. It all felt deeply cynical.
Oh, MAN, is all that refreshing to hear from somebody else, particularly because mypastattempts to point out very specific plot-based flaws in the show, including three of the ones Coates notes, were greeted with sneeringderision. As I've said before, it's no coincidence that most of the writing about The Wire you see online these days comes from political bloggers, so it's nice to see one--a liberal who grew up in inner-city Baltimore, no less--basically tell me I'm not crazy. However, I do disagree with Coates's contention that the show, and season five specifically, was nihilistic. Nihilists believe in nothing, but it seems pretty clear that David Simon believes in David Simon, and in David Simon-esque figures generally.
* Finally, rest in peace, Paul Benedict. You were just as God made you, sir.
My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down
David Heatley, writer/artist
Pantheon, September 2008
128 pages, hardcover
$24.95 Buy it from Amazon.com
The prospect of reviewing these intensely autobiographical comics by David Heatley is a daunting one because there seems to be no way to do so without reviewing David Heatley. Oddly, I've never really felt that way about his work before when I've encountered it. I thought his surreal "Overpeck" serial in MOME was powerful--as good as his dream comics might have been had he not labeled them "dream comics" and thus neutered their disquieting illogic. I'm also on the record as a great admirer of his "Sex History" strip as it appeared in Kramers Ergot 5 (the 48-panel grids were a brilliant way to convey such an overwhelming amount of uncomfortable information), and a defender of the "Portrait of My Mom" and "Portrait of My Dad" strips that appeared in Ivan Brunetti's second Anthology of Graphic Fiction (they displayed Heatley's underappreciated sense of humor and comedic build-up within each sub-strip). In none of these cases did I feel like I was evaluating Heatley as a person.
But My Brain put me in that uncomfortable position, perhaps--almost certainly, in fact--because my reaction to it was so viscerally negative. There are plenty of comics I've read that left me thinking "that should have been done differently"; this is the first I've read in a long time that made me think "this shouldn't have been done at all" (and wasn't written by Jeph Loeb). The primary culprit? "Race History," a black-and-white (no pun intended) companion piece to "Sex History," detailing Heatley's relationships, however slight, with various black people he's known. I'm trying to think of how to put this...there's probably a way to take this idea and not make it just as dehumanizing and racist as it seems it would be, just as dehumanizing and racist as the behavior and mentality one assumes it's designed to expose and excoriate, but boy howdy did Heatley not find that way! There's something almost literally nauseating in this interminable onslaught of alternating bigotry and white liberal guilt. The point where my disgust for the strip became insurmountable was a scene where young David is sleeping over at a friend's house, and the kid's mother helps take care of David's stomachache. "Try laying on yo belly. It should settle yo stomach down," she says, in dialect reminiscent of late-'70s Marvel Comics street toughs, before David thinks "I forgot she's a doctor." And blam! It struck me how disgraceful it is to take this human being, who has a family, who worked the crazy hours and racked up the crazy student loans and god knows what else that all doctors do, reduced to a "blackcent"-spouting cameo in some guy's ungodly long (seriously, at one point I closed the book and saw how many more black-trimmed pages of the strip I had left and my draw literally dropped) narcissistic display of how he's spent his entire life looking at black people as being black before people.
I think the grossest thing about the strip, the part that prevents me from saying "well, he's just cataloguing his own faults, he's aware of how awful this is" is that even when his relationships with black people are healthy, mutually enjoyable ones, Heatley still seems to view them as trophies to prove his enlightenment. Every positive interaction with a stranger, every move to a black neighborhood that goes well, every friendship, every professor who helped him--it's all the same as when he joined the Free Mumia movement, or the truly insufferable album (and sometimes movie/tv) reviews peppered throughout the strip where he proves how able he is to appreciate African-American culture. His review of the series The Wire has got to be the ne plus ultra of the genre:
One of the greatest works of art I've experienced in any medium. It unfolds with the kind of masterful pacing, sense of truth, reality, and tragic inevitability usually found in Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. It's certainly the only TV show to alter my race conscious. I notice certain young black men who would have been invisible to me before, hidden behind the screen of my own ignorance and fear. I'd like to think I know something of their stories now. Awareness and compassion by themselves don't change the world, but they're a start. Speaking of which, did you know it's Barack Obama's favorite show, too?
This right next to a strip where he reacts to some jerky lady on the subway smacking him with her purse by coming home and beating a chair with his umbrella while shouting "YOU FUCKING NIGGER BITCH!" This incident just happened, too!
What I'm trying to say is that Heatley has loads more work to do on himself before he's able to tackle this subject with anything remotely approaching insight or a worthwhile perspective. By contrast, when the original "Sex History" strip ends, you think to yourself, "Well, he's aware that he's behaved pretty ridiculously, and he's trying much harder to be better about it." Meanwhile, it's not a "Woman History" strip where every female human he's ever met is reduced to their primary and secondary sex characteristics, but a strip about his sex life--that's a naturally proscriptive framework that I don't think says anything untoward about how he views the people with whom he was sexually involved, male or female. You might have specific problems with how the focus is almost always on his pleasure rather than theirs, but that aside, the way he depicts sex--a combination of embarrassment, fun, awkwardness, beauty, predation, squalor, pleasure, depression, eroticism--maps pretty neatly to the way I imagine most of us have experienced it over the course of our lives. But "Race History"...I'm sorry, but if the word "nigger" occurs to you in anger, maybe it's not your place to talk about which members of the Wu Tang Clan had the best solo records?
This sort of retrospective inability to see that personal flaws require more than mere acknowledgment to be overcome gradually starts to bleed out into the other strips I once reacted more favorably to. The version of "Sex History" that appears here has been famously self-censored, placing neon pink bars across any images of penetration or ejaculation, and most erect penises in general. (It's sort of like Greedo shooting first, only here, no one shoots at all.) A one-page epilogue added to the strip seems to reveal the rationale: Heatley has decided that his use of pornography qualifies as sex addiction, and through the help of a 12-step program he no longer uses porn or masturbates. Presumably, he's neutering the strip to bring it in line with his newfound enlightenment. Now, this defeats the purpose of the strip, which is to be "apocalyptically revealing" as I once put it, and it's sexist and hypocritical in an MPAA way, since you still see plenty of bush and titties. But worst of all, the 12-step higher-power imagery that pops up here and elsewhere--in the "Self-Portrait" strips that decorate the covers, the end of "Race History," and the birth of Heatley's second child in "Family History"--lends the whole affair a scent of sanctimony. Heatley has opened his life to God, God is literally cradling him in the palm of his hand, and however racist and sexually messed-up he may be, everything's okay. But everything's not okay! The first step is admitting you have a problem, but that's only the first step! I know, I know, you can argue that Heatley is aware of all of this, that every moment of oblivious self-contradiction or narcissism or bigotry is committed to paper with full knowledge of exactly what it means. That's fine, that's fair, that's probably actually true. That's good enough for David Heatley the person, but it's not good enough for David Heatley the artist. I need more.
* Another thing about the end of Secret Invasion: So now Iron Man, title character of the hugely popular and effervescent film starring Robert Downey Jr., is not just a privacy-invading, gulag-running tyrant, but an incompetent one to boot, who is now staggering out of office in ignominy? That's one way to play it, I guess. I'm not one to assert real-world allegories, but if you had to pick one real-world political figure with that basic career trajectory...let's just say it's not a person with whom I'd align the lead character in Marvel Studios' main movie franchise.
* That being said, whatever problems I may have with the multi-year Civil War/Initiative/World War Hulk/Secret Invasion/Dark Reign uber-event as a story or as a vehicle for likable characters whose core concepts remain intact, I'm impressed as hell by it as an editorial/organizational/marketing mechanism. If you're the kind of person who's interested in the status quo of a shared corporate superhero universe in and of itself, I'd imagine it's rather exciting to see all the ducks in a row on such a consistent basis.
* Now here's something that College Sean T. Collins would have paid money to see: A French prankster played Mario Kart in real traffic. This is the result. Just wait till you see the banana peels. (Via Topless Robot.)
* Look at the cover for Antony & the Johnson's upcoming album The Crying Light. (Via Ryan Catbird.)
Kramers Ergot 6
Sammy Harkham, editor
Alvin Buenaventura, assistant editor
Carlos Gonzales, Shary Boyle, Matthew Thurber, Jason T. Miles, Andrew J. Wright, Sammy Harkham, Fabio Viscogliosi, C.F., Dan Zettwoch, Mark Smeets, Marc Bell, Bald Eagles, Chris C. Cilla, Martin Cendreda, Paper Rad, Jerry Moriarty, Gary Panter, Suihô Tagawa, Vanessa Davis, Souther Salazar, James McShane, Shary Boyle, Jeff Ladouceur, Ron Regé Jr., Elvis Studio (Helge Reumann & Xavier Robel), Tom Gauld, John Porcellino, writers/artists
Chris Ware, Tim Hensley, Paul Karasik, contributors
Buenaventura Press/Avodah Books, 2006
$34.95 Buy it from Buenaventura Buy it from Amazon.com
Can I just say how much I love how this volume of Sammy Harkham's landmark anthology series opens? Credits pages in big, no-nonsense, all-caps letters alternate with splash page pin-ups and blown-up panels from the strips to come. It's like the book has an opening credit sequence. I coincidentally paged through it at the same time as listening to "Speed of Life," the opening track on David Bowie's album Low, and it was as delightful a comics-reading experience as I've had all year.
That said, this may be the least immediately impactful post-volume-four Kramers. In some ways that's to be expected: The previous volumes, particularly 4, were so groundbreaking that at a certain point you kind of just have to stand there and say "wow, we're standing on the ground we broke a while ago, how about that?" As a matter of fact, I think this is the farthest-out volume, least "alt," most "art/underground" collection of the three--there's a degree to which it takes for granted that you're willing to slug it out there on the borderland between comics and fine art and tugs you deep into the realm of the non-narrative and non sequitur.
For the most part, that's a fine decision. There's rough stuff to ponder from Bald Eagles, whose self-pitying, society excoriating autobio strip is transformed into something of a sci-fi fantasia by art so maniacally detailed it makes Geof Darrow look like John Porcellino, and from Chris Cilla, who serves up a sordid, coprophilia-tinged story of undercover cops gone very very bad. There's stunning color work to be found in the rainbow psychedelia of Shary Boyle's series of disturbingly sexualized 18th-century illustration riffs, in the green-on-pink shimmerings of Matthew Thurber's goofball saga of a high school overtaken by a Mayan human-sacrifice cult, and in the lush pastels of World War II-era manga-ka Suihô Tagawa's deceptively adorable funny-animal war propaganda. There's the de rigeur contribution from the reliably hilarious Paper Rad, a literal interpretation of "Kramer's Ergot" that made this Seinfeld fan laugh out loud. Competing takes on minimalism--C.F.'s explosively dynamic sci-fantasy and John Porcellino's suburban haiku--bookend the collection. This is all exciting work, bursting with visual vitality and a certain distaste for the rules. It's mostly loud and it'll get you funny looks when you read it on the train (trust me), but it's also very intelligent, rarely if ever shock for shock's sake.
However, I do feel like there's a higher quotient of work here that doesn't quite, uh, work. I've seen enough of the oft-anthologized donkey strips of Fabio Viscogliosi and Fervler & Razzle strips of Souther Salazar to last me for quite some time. Bald Eagles and Jason T. Miles aside, most of the autobio work here--from James McShane, Vanessa Davis, and Ron Regé Jr.--works any better here than it does in the other anthologies you might have seen it in lately. Marc Bell's stream-of-consciousness illustration/text combos just make me wish he was making more of his hysterically funny, rewardingly weird comic strips instead. I think the formal strength of Gary Panter's Dal Tokyo strips reprinted here is diluted somewhat by being surrounded by so much similar material, so much illogic'n'markmaking. On the flipside, the more straightforward strips--Tom Gauld's latest "two lonely coworkers in a weird environment" strip, Harkham's tale of discontent in the shtetl, an emo little thing from Martin Cendreda, another story of mild hijinks in a midwestern church that occasionally uses diagrams from Dan Zettwoch--feel drowned out by the visual cacophony of your Bells and Elvis Studios and the monumental fine-art splash pages of your Boyles and Jerry Moriartys.
But I tend to be quite forgiving to anthologies that serve up a selection of inconsistent but thrilling-at-its-best work, and in that sense Kramers Ergot 6 is no exception. Indeed, the entire Kramers project seems to me to be one of juxtaposition, a when-worlds-collide affair. Not all those worlds are going to be equally interesting, but that's fine when the ones that are are so rich and rewarding of your comics-thinking time and attention.
* Bettie Page is in a coma. I had the pleasure of interviewing Ms. Page a while back and it's one of the high points of my professional life. Not only was in-her-prime Bettie a contender for the title of "sexiest woman in human history," but her sexiness was almost antithetical to the antiseptic, angry, emaciated "sexiness" that is today's norm. I wish her nothing but health and happiness.
* They're gonna make a Bourne sequel based on a non-Bourne Robert Ludlum novel, The Parsifal Mosaic. Based on the description, there are a couple of ways they could go with this, depending on what aspects of the set-up they choose to emphasize.
* Speaking of Bourne, Jon Hastings responds to my lengthy post comparing the Bourne and nu-Bond series. I find that even while I agree with many of his specific observations, the conclusions he draws from them--that the action scenes are hard to parse, that there's no sense of space in them--are more or less the opposite of mine. But it's a free country, no matter what those dastardly CIA types are up to. (Also, Rambo is my favorite movie of any kind so far this year, Jon.)
* This riff on the technologically ensured inescapability of bad news about the economy reminded me a lot of the bit in World War Z about "Land Warrior" communications link-ups between the soldiers and the effect that has on morale when your fellow soldiers start getting eaten by zombies. (Via Ta-Nehisi Coates.)
* Speaking of Coates, he spots and participates in an ongoingmultiblogdebate regarding the use of torture in...World of Warcraft. I noticed this back when Bruce Baugh blogged about it--the deliberate slaughter of non-combatants, as well--but to me it just scanned as "well, yeah, you're playing a member of an evil death cult." Some players seem to hold that point of view as well, but others are upset about it on moral, storytelling, and/or gameplay grounds varyingly. Bruce?
* I think it's pretty amusing that Rich Johnston is treating the fact that writers of event tie-in titles must conform to the wishes of the writer of the main event like it's news, especially when his specific contentions regarding the difficulty therein are being expressly rejected. But at least he's running the correction, which is more than he did with me when I was administrator of Wizard's message board and he wrongfully accused us of banning him, then promised a retraction when I busted my hump figuring out why he couldn't access the board and fixing the problem for him, a retraction he never issued.
The other day I praised Marvel for how together it is in terms of getting all its books on the same page for its meta-story-driving events. But as you might glean from posts like Marc-Oliver Frisch's regarding the preview solicits for Dark Reign, the next big overarching plotline--or even, perhaps, from Marvel's October sales chart--there are a couple of massive potential pitfalls to this storytelling model. First of all, as I alluded to earlier, the big story could be (and, for the most part, has been) stupid. Secondly, I think that as exciting as having one giant unified meta-story can be for fans, the problem lies where the rubber hits the road--when you need to take a million different characters and storylines and filter them through that giant unified meta-story.* Not every superhero concept, writer, or artist is a good fit with Skrulls doing the Cylon thing. And even when there's not a direct Secret Invasion crossover going on, virtually everything Marvel publishes now reflects the Brian Michael Bendis brand of superheroics, i.e. superheroes as seen through the lens of crime, black ops, and/or the military-industrial complex. That's gonna work fine with some characters and creators but less so with others. Even ones that do lend themselves to that tone are being potentially cut off from exploring other fruitful avenues. For example, right now New Avengers is prepping for a storyline involving the magical supervillain Dormammu, Doctor Strange's archnemesis. This could be a psychedelic freakout like Promethea or Seven Soldiers: Zatanna, it could be Lovecraftian, it could be an old-school Ditko magic rumble, the narrative could be fractured and fractalled and messed with in a way appropriate to magic, but instead, I imagine will read like all the other down-and-dirty superhero comics Bendis has written, only with magic. I'm not sure that's a great idea. It's worth noting that Bendis, a Sean T. Collins fave who has written a solid shelf's worth of very good superhero comics I'm happy to own, has already done a "down-and-dirty" magic story, Daredevil: Decalogue. That "magic via crime" spin led to some genuinely frightening, weird, and memorable comics. But the shock of the new is gone, replaced by the sense that it's one way or the highway, and I think Marvel's suffering for it.
* In a way, Marvel theoretically has a leg up on DC in this regard, for the same reason that Marvel's Universe has always felt like a more cohesive, common-sense grouping than DC's: Virtually every important Marvel character and concept was created by the same dozen or so guys--Golden/Silver Agers like Simon, Everett, Kirby, Lee, Ditko, and Romita Sr., plus a few later folks like Wein, Claremont, Miller, Bendis and so forth. By contrast, you could come up with at least that many names integral to the creation of the Big Seven Justice Leaguers alone! But that's not to say that every character in the Marvel Universe can comfortably fit in the same story; when you look at it that way, I wonder if Marvel isn't now experiencing in micro (characters from a recognizably uniform universe nonetheless suffering when forced into line up and march in unison) what the DCU has long exhibited in macro (characters from a huge number of writers, artists, and even companies pooled into the same sprawling universe and looking kind of weird next to each other oftentimes).
* A judge in Australia has ruled that Tijuana bible-style imagery involving the Simpsons kids constitutes child pornography. (Via Tom Spurgeon.) In light of the Christopher Handey case here in the States, it's important to note and loudly decry these kinds of rulings--particularly since even in the comics commentariat there are prominent, impassioned, and woefully misguided voices who applaud such decisions and say they feel oppressed by those of us who rightly recognize them not just as the first step toward potential legal action against everything from A Child's Life to A Contract with God to Blankets, but as bad, freedom-curtailing rulings in their own right.
* The live action film adaptation of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's excellent We3--a comic that had no small impact on my becoming a vegetarian--will be helmed by Kung Fu Panda director John Stevenson, according to produce/wheeler-dealer Don Murphy.
* A trailer has leaked for McG's post-apocalyptic continuation of the Terminator series, Terminator Salvation, and for now you can still see it here. I had less than no interest in Terminator 3: This One Has Tits and even less interest in anything else McG has ever directed, but the second you throw Christian Bale and some Mad Max imagery into the fairly entertaining Terminator mythos, you've got my attention, I'll admit.
* And if you're willing to jump through some iTunes hoops, here's the San Diego Comic Con Watchmen footage.
* Good reviews of good comics part one: Jog reviews Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips's Criminal.
* Good reviews of good comics part two: Tom Spurgeon reviews Brian Ralph's Daybreak.
Three things that could have made last night's very good Gossip Girl episode even better
1) Jenny stages a guerrilla fashion show at the funeral; models dance on the coffin 2) Rufus returns home from comforting the bereaved and strums a sensitive ballad on his acoustic guitar nevermind, that actually happened
2) Wallace Shawn kisses the bride to the tune of the Kings of Leon's "Sex on Fire"
3) While snuggling with the unconscious Chuck, Blair whacks him off
Dennis P. Eichhorn, writer ∆, Rick Altergott, Peter Bagge, Jim Blanchard, Ariel Bordeaux, Rupert Bottenberg, Chester Brown, Ivan Brunetti, Charles Burns, Howard Chackowicz, David Chelsea, Dan Clowes, David Collier, Dave Cooper, Robert L. Crabb, Lloyd Dangle, Julie Doucet, Michael Dougan, Gary Dumm, B.N. Duncan, Gene Fama, Mary Fleener, Drew Friedman, Renée French, Roberta Gregory, Sam Henderson, Gilbert Hernandez, Jaime Hernandez, Sean M. Hurley, Gerald Jablonski, Peter Kuper, Carol Lay, Jason Lutes, Kent Myers, Bernard Edward Mireault, Carel Moiseiwitsch, Terry Moore, Pat Moriarity, Joe Sacco, Seth, Leslie Sternbergh, Carol Swain, Holly Tuttle, Colin Upton, J.R. Williams, Jim Woodring, Joe Zabel, Mark Zingarelli, artists
Swifty Morales Press, 2004
$19.95 Buy it used, and cheap, from Amazon.com
How is Denny Eichhorn not a major cult figure? I'm honestly curious, and maybe some of my older readers can fill me in, since obviously he was a big deal in '90s altcomix culture. But I can't remember ever discussing him or his work with any of my friends or peers; the few times I've brought him up in the context of being one of three writers who's made a go of creating alternative comics without drawing them himself, alongside Alan Moore and Harvey Pekar, I've gotten funny looks. Heck, I didn't even really know what I was talking about, not until I read this collection. And shit the bed, I sort of feel like I need to physically pass it around to all of my friends until they're all on my wavelength. To quote The Big Lebowski, "I won't say 'a hero,' 'cause what's a hero?"--but Denny Eichhorn is a goddamn inspiration.
I think the great trick of this collection of some of Eichhorn's sex/drugs/violence-soaked autobio strips--drawn by the above host of collaborators, all of whom seem perfectly at home with their material, which is really a testament to them and Eichhorn both--is editor and publisher Caleb Wright's chronological arrangement of them. That way, we get to know Eichhorn as a child first, and by the time his most outré misadventures head our way, it's too late to detach ourselves from him. So sure, it's funny to watch Peter Bagge draw Eichhorn getting so freaked out by his first Mad magazine he pukes, or Pat Moriarty showing a mix-up at a pharmacy that leads to young Denny being sold a pack of condoms for a science project, or early-vintage Dave Cooper (already a dazzlingly slick illustrator) presenting the story of how the cops broke the crazy next-door neighbor's dick free of the glass bottle it was struck in. (There will be blood.) Even in the first serious bouts of violence we see, teen- and college-age Eichhorn is in the right; when a double-page Joe Zabel/Gary Dumm spread shows us exactly what happens when Eichhorn smashes a glass bottle into the face of his attacker, or J.R. Williams shows the toe of Eichhorn's boot literally splattered with the remains of his assailant's eyeball, you almost can't help but cheer even as you recoil, laugh with triumph even as you shake your head with disbelief. It's like the autobiographical comics equivalent of the climax of Rambo.
So when you finally start seeing hints of how Eichhorn's tendency toward illicit behavior can bring out the worst in other people, and vice versa, it becomes a lot harder to write him off. Yes, there's a way of looking at things where tipping off the part-time prostitute who's hosted a week-long gangbang of the entire freshman class of Eichhorn's university that the cops were on to her was the right thing to do--but this more or less ensured a continued life of abusive neglect for the baby she plies with cola and calls "Shithead" when she's not fingercuffing the football team. There's no reason to believe that the string of sex workers with whom Eichhorn has off-the-books dalliances are anything but the carefree lust-for-life types they (and Eichhorn!) appear to be--until one turns out to be the accomplice of a pair of serial sex murderers (and a serial killer in her own right), and another sticks a gun in her mouth and pulls the trigger mere hours after sticking Denny's cock in her mouth and pulling his. That last strip may contain the most memorable cartooning in the entire anthology, which is really saying something amid the Saccos and Colliers and Chelseas and Woodrings and Doucets: Carel Moiseiwitsch's deep blacks and deranged linework evoke Rory Hayes as the soon-to-be-suicidal woman literally attacks Eichhorn's genitals, and caps things off with the post-orgasmic entreaty "REMEMBER ME!"--no narrative caption set-up, no establishing shots, just the woman's demonic face.
This is not to say that it's all eye-gouging and self-destruction. A lot of Eichhorn's doping, drinking, and fucking are perfectly delightful for everyone involved, and a lot more are embarrassing but hella funny in hindsight. You've gotta love a book that includes a story about a dominatrix that ends with the sentence "Then it hit me: I shoulda pissed on his head!" and whose genuine, if off-kilter, father-son bonding strip involves giving your dad weed. It's the gestalt of the thing that makes it so memorable, and enough to put you off comics about the awkward night Brooklyn Hipster had that one time forever. It fits right in with Boy'sClub, the Manly Movie Mamajamas, and other vicarious portraits of the less savory side of masculinity pushed to its illogical conclusion. If I could get 20 copies of this I'd give them away as stocking stuffers.
* Watchmen, Watchmen everywhere: Here's that San Diego footage you ordered. (Via Tor.)
But even though the relevant image is in the above promo and several other trailers we've seen already, it wasn't until I took a look at this reshuffled trailer (via AICN) that I realized something...
You know that shot of the police and reporters around the body of Dollar Bill, with his cape stuck in the revolving door so he got shot to death? It occurred to me that that's the first time a lot of superhero-movie viewers are going to see anything even remotely like that. For the most part, superheroes in these movies don't die, and when the villains die they bite it in the most dramatic fashion possible. I imagine seeing a costumed superhero lying unglamorously, unheroically dead on the ground Law & Order-style will be pretty striking for some people.
* Speaking of Tor (we were a few paragraphs ago), Douglas Cohen has posted a pair of Robert E. Howard 101 articles--one for Conan and one for Kull. Come the New Year, I think I'll be reading fewer comics and more prose, and for the past several weeks the hunger for pulp has been growing in me, so these were welcome guides.
DD: Here’s the conundrum on this one. And this is reflective of the world that we live in now – the world of collected editions. The R.I.P. story was always meant to play through to the end of Final Crisis - always. The thing is, we had to come up with a very complete story in “Batman R.I.P.” as it existed in its title. The reality is that the “Batman R.I.P.” story does not conclude until Final Crisis #6. There are also issues #682 and #683 of Batman that feed directly into Final Crisis #6, and we’ll have a big finale to the Batman storyline. That’s how it plays out.
But as I said, because we live in the world of collected editions, we needed a conclusion in the Batman series, so that we could collect it properly within Batman, without having to bring in segments of Final Crisis to complete the story.
NRAMA: So – fundamentally, “Batman R.I.P” did not end in Batman #681?
DD: Correct. We have the two parts that we’re in the middle of now, and they lead us into Final Crisis #6 which gives us a definite conclusion to the Batman story. That’s how Grant designed the story from the start, and that’s how the story plays out. So, the people who are looking for the big finale, the stuff that Grant was talking about – he knows how big an ending he has, because he wrote it in Final Crisis #6. That story has been so planned out that it reflects events from the pages of Final Crisis #1 in order to pull it all together.
So the Batman story has been hinted at in Final Crisis #1 - we couldn’t allude to it, because we didn’t want to play our hand too early with that. The fascinating thing about what Grant has done is that he’s telling a major story in the life of Batman while he’s telling a major event across the DC Universe with Final Crisis. And the two are linked.
NRAMA: So Final Crisis #6 is like when you’re driving on, say, I-40 and it merges with another for a while, and you get the road signs telling you that you’re on two highways at the same time…and you follow another highway out other than the one you went in on.
DD: Exactly. And Batman #682 and #683 are reflective of things that took place earlier in Final Crisis as well.
HUMPHREY: All right, settle down. Settle down. Now, before I begin the lesson, will those of you who are playing in the match this afternoon move your clothes down onto the lower peg immediately after lunch, before you write your letter home, if you're not getting your hair cut, unless you've got a younger brother who is going out this weekend as the guest of another boy, in which case, collect his note before lunch, put it in your letter after you've had your hair cut, and make sure he moves your clothes down onto the lower peg for you. Now,--
HUMPHREY: Yes, Wymer?
WYMER: My younger brother's going out with Dibble this weekend, sir, but I'm not having my hair cut today, sir.
WYMER: So, do I move my clothes down, or--
HUMPHREY: I do wish you'd listen, Wymer. It's perfectly simple. If you're not getting your hair cut, you don't have to move your brother's clothes down to the lower peg. You simply collect his note before lunch, after you've done your scripture prep, when you've written your letter home, before rest, move your own clothes onto the lower peg, greet the visitors, and report to Mr. Viney that you've had your chit signed.
--Monty Python's Meaning of Life
Hahaha, I kid, I kid. I'm actually enjoying Batman and Final Crisis as much as any superhero comics I can remember so this is no skin off my ass whatsoever, but I'd imagine these kinds of things are frustrating for a lot of readers--my pay Rob Bricken, for example.
Then again, perhaps it's just an expectations game. Nobody throws their box set of Lost Season Four across the room in anger because it doesn't wrap up the story--it's part of an ongoing series. The degree to which the final issue of Batman: R.I.P. was billed as a landmark event probably hurt DC on that score, but with superhero comics in general and Grant Morrison DC superhero comics in particular, the train keeps a-rollin' all night long, you know? Of course, maybe a better example is if the season finale of Lost Season Four felt more like just another episode. I dunno. I like these comics, I'm not complaining!
From there on out, Morrison's rapidly intensifying crunch of information and characters starts making the book exciting in its rush forward. Ex-Monitor Nix Uotan is tossed in a room for being immune to Anti-Life, but his drawings of superhero characters remind us that even the worst revisions can be undone, and hope is possible! Two pages later a man solves a puzzle cube and villains' skin vaporizes!
Wait - now Libra is killing people and commenting on sexual violence toward superheroines. Lex Luthor is pissed! Ok, now we're in an evil throne room and dudes are spoiling the next issue of Batman and keeling over stone dead! That's what you get! Shit! Now Darkseid is God! Oh fuck! Frankenstein's quoting Milton! Wait! Now time is falling apart! The President of the United States has a gun! A hole in the sky at the hanging! Eyes in the night! Everyone on Earth is pumping their fists! Comics are suddenly flying at us and it's like an evil version of JLA: World War III transforming into Flex Mentallo and a man has a liquid television cloud for a helmet and LIGHTNING FASTENING HIS JACKET!!
Whew! That's the stuff right there! I mean, I'm probably setting myself up for a fall here, but now I hope this series continues to spasm inward and issue #6 is like some berserk DCU version of Poison River with scene transitions every panel, like random background characters from Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen #136 bursting in screaming "THE METABONDS HAVE UNTETHERED" followed by Guy Gardner in a time vortex going "hhn" then a close-up of Batman's groin halfway across the globe followed by supervillain heads burning; it'll be so compressed there won't even be room for dialogue, just selected alphabetic characters, whisking us back to the primal force of phoneme like a word balloon Lettrism, at which point Kamandi initiates the chiselling phase of Darkseid's face.
You really should read the whole review. It's pretty much everything I'd say about the book and why it's so good (even though that Green Lantern trial scene was bobbled pretty badly by Carlos Pacheco).
* MoCCA will be moving to the Armory at Lexington and 26th this year. As much as that early June weekend in the Puck Building has become a welcome fixture of my summer, I'm glad they've moved the festival to a bigger building--it seemed clear this year that the two-floor solution they'd worked out just wasn't working out for the people on the second floor. It's also nice to see them shifting to an equally old-timey building instead of convention rooms in a hotel or something.
* Radically shifting gears (you're welcome), here's the poster for The Unborn, the upcoming horror movie written and directed by Dark Knight credit-holder/Blade III: Trinity impresario David S. Goyer and starring Odette Yustman's pooper.
You know what the best thing about this poster is? Okay, fine, second-best thing? Well, you see that creepy ghost kid in the mirror? You know, the one mandated by the Osment Act of 1999, requiring the presence of at least one creepy kid in all supernatural horror movies? He's a Holocaust victim! The word you're looking for is "class." (Via STYD.)
Here's a hard one to wrap your head around. Maggots is a book that almost prides itself on its insular incomprehensibility. Originally and infamously drawn over the pages of a Japanese book catalog, its panels are meant to be read in a chutes-and-ladders zig-zag that skips, stutters, and shifts direction entirely the second you finally feel like you have a handle on it. In a sense, the first effect you get from reading the book is to learn how to read it. Slowly, your eyes become better at detecting characters' changes in direction, their movements up or down, how they sit down or stand up or lie down, how they eat or fuck or simply walk up to one another. Eventually these clues enable you to read enough panels in the proper order--or at the very least get some kind of overall sense of what's happening on a page--so that you can understand what's going on.
So what's going on? Well, that'd be kind of difficult to grok even if the book weren't constructed like a clue someone found in the Orchid Station on Lost. Basically, a bunch of little munchkiny guys run around (literally, a lot of the time) behaving in ways that frequently lead to violent confrontation, whether that involves giants, or rabbits with samurai swords, or people stealing each other's eyeballs, or the victims of eyeball theft coming back to exact their revenge. The "story" isn't so much a plot as it is a sense of ever-present danger, the idea that the cute li'l business we're seeing involving eating raisins and sticking the container somewhere hard for someone else to get to afterwards could at any moment give way to a legion of attacking mice, or some sort of death-mask-wearing sorcerer, or some genuinely unpleasant knifework.
The tension is maintained by Chippendale's art, which feels like a peak into a hermetically sealed limbo of endless black, occasionally interrupted by secret trapdoors, ladders, and at least one food stand. Panels are tiny, cramped, filled in as much as they can be, careening wildly from one end of the page to the other. Even the white space is busy, showing the text of the catalog underneath. No matter how much our hero Hot Potato and his comrades and enemies run, jump, climb, crawl, and even fly, there doesn't seem to be any way out for them. Of course, this makes the moments when Chippendale pulls back for a dazzling spread--a field of flowers, the arrival of that sorcerer guy, a massive staircase--all the more impressive. That's the oldest trick in the book, but there's a reason for that: It works.
And so, in its weird way, does Maggots. This isn't going to be launching a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle-style wave of imitators anytime soon, even among the most Fort Thunder influenced cats around today--a 344-page experiment in graphic novel form? It's a miracle this thing ever got published. And it's certainly a challenging, at times frustrating read, with not a whole lot in terms of immediate satisfaction going for it. But once you get into that groove of letting your eyes weave back and forth across the pages, you just start appreciating the aesthetic qualities of the thing. Those chunky black panels. Chippendale's Muybridge-like proficiency with breaking physical action down into its constituent beats. The character designs. The humor ("We have a no pants, no service policy." "Do you have pants back there? I'll take them." "Sorry--no pants, no service"). The genuine, if raw, eroticism of all those bizarre sex scenes (I actually think this strange, avant garde comic captures the awkwardness and explosiveness of long-distance relationship reunions as well as any I've read). The random, astutely observed moments of quotidian business (there's a great, two or three panel bit where Hot Potato scoops up a cat who was crawling around the sink that brought a smile of familiarity to my face). Even the sumptuous texture of the cover underneath the dust jacket. This is not a comic for everyone, duh, but if you've been interested in it in the past, I think you'll find it interesting.
* I linked to this interview with Hans Rickheit a while ago, but since he's long been my number-one "altcomix cartoonist who should be a bigger deal," I really ought to emphasize that he's apparently doing a graphic novel for Fantagraphics. Outstanding news.
* Ben Morse Rickey Purdin suggests 10 things Hellboy and the BPRD could have done instead of what they did in Hellboy II: The Golden Army.
* Quote of the day:
When you do a comic book that seems so easily translatable into film and television, the things film and television does very well begin to expose the comic as unsatisfactory when it comes to aping those elements....Actors have compensating virtues when it comes to suspension of belief. They're real, they have a natural physicality, they bring an incalculable number of tics and idiosyncrasies to the table. This comic misses all of those things, and seems exposed for it.
--Tom Spurgeon on Boom!'s The Remnant. This passage struck me because it's exactly what I thought about those first Joss Whedon-scripted issues of the Buffy Season Eight comic book.
* I could read Jon Hastings talk about different kinds of action movie filmmaking all the livelong day. I suppose I do have to say that I think that in both the nu-Bond and Bourne movies, I'm not seeing the lack of sense of spacial integrity/intelligibility that Jon is seeing. I don't think I ever had a hard time figuring out who was who or what was happening where. Anyway. Where does Rambo fit in your taxonomy, Jon?
Okay, so obviously the thing that strikes you initially is that these stories are completely insane. They treat the basic structure of superhero comics--"villain commits crime, hero captures villain," as Karasik's mother puts it in the afterword--like the bare necessities for a spirited game of Calvinball--all you need is Calvin, Hobbes, and a ball, and the rest is up to your imagination. And Fletcher Hanks's imagination was twisted beyond description. It's not just that the demises his godlike heroes Stardust and Fantomah cook up for their villainous prey are brutal, it's that they're needlessly baroque. So Stardust doesn't just feed a racketeer to a giant golden octopus--He wraps up the bad guy in his giant flexible hand, whisks him away to a desert island that he first overwhelms with a tidal wave, then lifts up into the air, drops the guy onto, flips over, and puts back down, after which the guy is flushed through an underground lagoon onto the shore, and then and only then does the golden octopus eat him. Similarly, Fantomah doesn't just toss a ring of diamond thieves to a pit of cobras--she whisks them away to the jungle pit of death, where she fuses them into one person, who is terrified by the creatures of an unfound world, flees up a mountain only to find a dead end, gets scared off the cliff by a giant floating paw, and gets caught by a whirlwind that blows him into a cave filled with giant albino cobras who kill him, after which Fantomah floats his body out into midair, where the unfound world creatures summon another disembodied hand from the cliff surface to grab it and drag it back into the cliff, where it presumably remains to this day. The picture of Hanks as a naive dispense of two-fisted justice doesn't do justice to these comics at all. They have a stream of consciousness feel to them that makes Final Crisis seem straightforward and restrained. They're more than just goofy and violent and mean, though they're certainly all of those things--they're unrestrained, unhinged.
But even more than that, they're things of great beauty! I can't stress that enough. Hanks may have been a lot of things, but he truly was a wonderful visual stylist. A favorite tactic involves suspending his various thugs, heroes, corpses, jungle creatures, weapons of mass destruction etc. in mid-air, an effect that is dynamic and still at the same time, suggestive of great power and great restraint simultaneously. There's a lovely panel of multicolored planes dropping matching bombs, another of a red sky filled with the floating silhouettes of giant panthers. Indeed, any time Hanks gets to draw a lot of the same thing at once is a good time to be a comics reader. That aforementioned albino cobra pit, an army of giant disembodied flaming pink claws--they're almost always beautifully arranged within their panels and dazzling in their multiplicity, a signature effect as recognizable as Kirby krackle or Ditko hands. Hanks wasn't a perfect cartoonist by any stretch--anatomy, obviously, was not his strong suit, and it's those goofy underbites and mircrocephalic heads that give him his Ed Wood rep--but what he did well, he really did well.
* Here are six clips from the already much-maligned The Spirit, directed by Frank Miller. It looks pretty and fun to me. A lot of my friends are freaking the fuck out over this movie, but look, they can't all be There Will Be Blood, and superhero movies could use a Road House/Speed Racer/Sin City hybrid. Hell, any genre of movies could use that. (Via AICN.)
* The Fantagraphics blog coughs up some deets on Fanta's upcoming Hans Rickheit graphic novel. It's called The Squirrel Machine and is slated for release in 2010. I'm a fairly outspoken Rickheit activist so this is really delightful to me.
* Kenneth Branagh is directing Thor. How about that, man. This brings the total number of superhero movie directors who have had sex with Helena Bonham-Carter to two. As far as we know.
* They're remaking The Crow, They in this case being Stephen Norrington, the guy who did The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Blade. I would be lying if I said High School Sean T. Collins never dressed up like the Crow for Halloween then ended up not even going out, instead lurking around his parent's house in pancake makeup and a black leather trenchcoat, so this news concerns that part of me. The graphic novel was actually rather good I always thought. (Via Bloody Disgusting.)
* Marc-Oliver Frisch describes his requirements for how a superhero story would constitute good Art, and then runs down some prominent writers in terms of whether they make the grade. It's good reading even if he uses the dreaded "transcend the genre" criterion--worth a read, particularly if you're looking to better understand the kinds of folks who are smart, demanding readers but still stick primarily with superheroes for one reason or another.
* Speaking of whom, my pal Ben Morse, an indie comics tyro, gives Kazimir Strzepek's world-building exercise The Mourning Star a go.
* My media discovery of the month: Mashed in Plastic: The David Lynch Mash-Up Album. It's a seamlessly flowing collection of 18 mash-ups that draw from the soundtracks of David Lynch films and Twin Peaks, linked together and sprinkled throughout with astutely mixed audio clips from the movies. Before you say to yourself "That sounds kind of cheesy," I simply advise you to take the couple minutes necessary to download the record and listen to either "The Voice of Love Is Crying" or "I'll Be There in Twin Peaks"; if you are a David Lynch fan and you don't get chills, I'll eat my weight in garmonbozia. Production credits and videos are at the link as well. Be warned, though, that you might stand to see something spoilery if you're not up to speed with all his movies. Twin Peaks virgins especially should proceed with caution. (Via Jason "Shaggy" Erwin.)
* I always wondered who all these people who supposedly fainted after hearing Chuck Palahniuk read the story "Guts" from his horror novel/anthology hybrid Haunted were. As it turns out, they're a lot like FourFour's Rich Juzwiak. Wow. It's worth a read not just because it's funny that the guy you've come to know and love through his cat videos or R&B reviews or ANTM recaps is part of a cult phenomenon, but because he also speaks to that same sense of "failure" as a fan of the extreme that I felt when I switched off Inside.
* Tor.com's Douglas Cohen finishes off a series of posts on Robert E. Howard's fab four sword'n'sorcery heroes with one on Bran Mak Morn.
* Stacie Ponder pays "a small tribute to that 80s horror trend where chicks wore sports jerseys as pajamas." Jo Beth Willicious.
* Finally, John Cei Douglas sends Christmas greetings from Deadwood. (Via Matthew Perpetua.)
Comics Time: American Splendor: The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar
American Splendor: The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar
Harvey Pekar, writer
Kevin Brown, Gregory Budgett, Sean Carroll, Sue Cavey, R. Crumb, Gary Dumm, Val Mayerik, Gerry Shamray, artists
Ballantine Books, August 2003
$15.95 Buy it from Amazon.com
I find myself a bit stymied in trying to figure out how to kick off this review, since this material has already been digested and processed by so many people. I guess I'll go with talking about R. Crumb's art here. Obviously it's the strongest of Pekar's collaborators--I know, shocker, right? Indeed I'm a little surprised he could persuade other artists to take a crack at it. Befriending the foundational artist of alternative comics back before he was famous, becoming inspired to do comics in the first place because of that friendship, and then finagling a series of collaborations out of him--that's the most auspicious comics career kick-off this side of Marc Silvestri and Michael Turner getting paying work out of their first ever comic-con visits. But while it's easy to see that Crumb's technique is superior to the other cartoony guys in the book, and that his more impressionistic approach is somehow more visually stimulating and rewarding than the photorealists, I liked his character designs the best. Crumb draws Harvey and his friends and coworkers like tiny little guys out of a fairy-tale world, only with collared shirts. Pekar is a slightly hunched-over, wild-eyed ogre or hermit, his pal Mr. Boats is a roly-poly sage or scribe of some kind--that kind of thing. No? But the caricatures lose none of the nuance needed to convey Pekar's little insights and pet peeves regarding the workaday modern world. There's a beautifully accurate bit of body language at one point where Crumb is listening to his visiting friend while leaning against a file cabinet, and the sneer shared by those two women in that strip where the guy tries to sell them okra cracked me up.
I suppose it's details like that that I enjoyed the most, not just in the art, but in the writing. Pekar's penchant for describing his life's most mundane details in what you'd imagine to be a voice just a few decibels louder than comfortable conversational level is what provides these stories with the energy they need to keep from being soul-crushingly dull, but that energy doesn't overwhelm his capacity for keen observations. For instance, there's this passage from a strip about how Harvey's failed second marriage actually taught him that he could, in fact, be happy given the right circumstances:
Yeah, I got what I thought I needed and it turned out it really was what I needed. What a wonderful feeling! It's like, y'know, when you're not used to building stuff, like you're not mechanically inclined, and you put something together from instructions in a book and you think you've done it right, but still you have no confidence. So then you turn it on and it works. Boy, what a rush!
Folks, you should have seen how thrilled I was when I managed to properly install my TiVo on the very first try! I knew exactly what Pekar meant, and that thrill of recognition was another LOL moment for me.
I think that's what I take away from this collection: It's kinda cute! Pekar's an irascible guy, obviously, with no shortage of qualities that might make him tough to take in real life, but there's something about his extravagantly straight-faced presentation of himself that's comical and adorable. Yeah, a lot of the art is stiff or unprofessional, and yeah, a lot of the stories end like one of Brak's Tales of Suspense, but when faced with life's vicissitudes, a storytelling approach that acknowledges how they can weigh on you but still makes them look slightly ridiculous strikes me as being a pretty healthy one.
* Jane Espenson talks to SciFi Wire about her script for the upcoming Battlestar Galactica TV movie The Plan. As SciFi Wire puts it:
Jane Espenson, who wrote the upcoming movie Battlestar Galactica: The Plan, said that the telefilm will retell the initial story of the SCI FI Channel series, but from the perspective of the Cylons, and that it will take advantage of revelations that will come in the upcoming new episodes of the show's fourth and final season.
But you should read the whole thing because it's interesting to hear her talk about the process, which heavily involved director and star Edward James Olmos.
* Clive Thompson offers the best explanation I've yet seen about the use of torture in World of Warcraft, and suggests how it could have been done better. Because I'm thick, I'm only now grokking that torture was mandatory across all character types, not just the "evil" ones. That seems pretty dopey to me. Regardless of its provenance in fantasy literature--Gandalf and Aragorn at the very least credibly threatened to torture Gollum for information--I think most of us look at torture in fiction differently than we might have decades ago. (Via Bryan Alexander.)
* Here's a great photoparade from the Kramers Ergot 7 signing at Desert Island in Brooklyn. I actually did the responsible thing and canceled my pre-order in hopes that someone would get it for me for Christmas. Fingers crossed! (Via Tom Spurgeon.)
* Worn Free specializes in reproducing T-shirts worn by rock stars. I didn't see anything that said "must buy!" to me, but I'd imagine some people reading this blog wouldn't mind grabbing that Lester Bangs "FREEDOM OR DEATH" shirt.
* I remember reading textbooks that said "nobody knows why the dinosaurs died out." Since then we're now on our second prevailing theory: Looks like the asteroid idea is being phased out in favor of massive volcanic eruptions in India. Meanwhile, scientists in the Sahara have found the remnants of a prehistoric river chock full of fossils, including those of a 60-foot crocodile. Six-year-old "I Want to Be a Paleontologist When I Grow Up" Sean T. Collins is tickled pink by all of this. (Via HuffPo.)
* Here's an insane CBS News story about a cult called SIST from a small town in Wisconsin and how they allegedly tried to hire a hitman to kill 60 people in the town, including pretty much the entire local government. It sounds a little like the "hitman," who was actually just a motorsports salesman who says he played along with the group for a while in order to recoup $100K they owed him, sort of entrapped them into the scheme. But even so, the group appears to be really nuts and the mayor has installed bulletproof glass on her door and the group's lawyer wears a fedora and calls CBS a communist organization...it's fantastic.
* Not to be confused with the star of Crank, Jason Stratham of The Cold Inclusive specializes in extremely detailed and bizarre accounts of fictional sexual encounters with celebrities. "The Very Last Fucking of Steven Tyler" has a dystopian science-fiction feel to it, for example, while "Everyone Says I Love You" contains the following passage:
So. You’re on top of [Drew Barrymore], “giving her one,” as they say in post-war British literature, and she stares right up at you and says “You like that? You like fucking People magazine’s most beautiful person?”
Beautiful, magical, complex, and possessed of the irresistible, quiet confidence of those for whom making art is less a choice than a given, Capacity impressed and delighted me as much as any book this year, and as much as any debut since the first issues of Skyscrapers of the Midwest. In Theo Ellsworth's constantly unfolding details and army of mysterious, dreamlike characters, you will see the fantastical echoes of artists like William Blake, Hieronymus Bosch, Clive Barker, and Marc Bell. But before you picture a nonsensical riot of whimsy and/or grotesquerie, dig the comic's conceit: Ellsworth, represented here by several characters that correspond with different aspects of his mind, invites you the reader (whom he directly addresses with a recurring fill-in-the-blank ______ slot where your name is supposed to go) to join him as he walks you through a sort of artistic autobiography, in which he both presents you with the contents of the minicomics and abandoned projects he's done over the years and provides them with context. It's an enormously endearing set-up, one that never drifts into preciousness even when the comics in question feature ultra-earnest doggerel poems about the horror of war or the nature of thought.
As a title, Capacity really does do the trick. Aside from the fact that the book is itself a braindump of as much of Ellsworth's comics as he could fit, Ellsworth's knockout art style is characterized by its...I want to use the word "prolixity" but that's pejorative. Basically, scaly reptiles or dragons will seemingly have thousands of individually drawn scaled. Feathered ogres or furry monsters will have countless feathers or tufts of fur. A man surrounded by little creatures will wear clothing and hats that consist of villages of houses that contain other people and creatures who have their own house-clothing that contain other people and creatures, and so on and so on. It's filled to capacity, in other words, but not in the crazed, violent manner of your Joe Colemans and Bald Eagles, or even the goofball non sequitur chaos of the aforementioned Marc Bell--here, the ripeness and rifeness of the imagery is inviting, immersive, evocative of environments you want to enter and explore. That's a central trope of Ellsworth's own relationship with his ideas, which he seems to regard as independent entities. Such is his deadpan sincerity on that point that an idea that can seem laughable or pretentious when proposed by other artists here just makes you go "well, certainly."
By the end of the book, I was so engrossed by the uniqueness of Ellsworth's project and the skill of its execution that I never even really thought about how potentially disjointed such a book could seem in less assured hands. But not only does it all flow rather seamlessly, there's a final-pages reveal/twist that cleverly and delightfully links together long-abandoned story strands to uncover a throughline that was there all along. It's a wildly successful little story-as-puzzle moment, like a great Grant Morrison comic or David Lynch film. It makes you want to go back and re-read the whole thing, not "to see what you missed" or anything but just because it would be fun and rewarding to do so. I have a feeling this will be a book I'm diving into every now and then for a long time to come.
I enjoy Pitchfork's year-end best-of lists, but I enjoy them even more when I think of them as countdowns and imagine Casey Kasem reading them. "Coming in at number 34, here's Fuck Buttons with 'Sweet Love for Planet Earth.'"
* Sean T. Collins on dead tree: The new issue of Maxim (Hillary Duff's on the cover) features a piece I did on The Spirit, complete with Frank Miller interview quotes. "Is it crazy? You bet your fuckin' ass it is" may be one of those quotes.
* B-Sol at Vault of Horror has posted the fruits of his latest labor: The Top 25 Horror Films of the Modern Era. Like his previous Top 50 of All Time list, it was culled from lists submitted by a wide variety of horror bloggers and website writers. There are some interesting selections on there, both good and bad, and I think once again the theory that films need a little time to percolate in our minds before we feel comfortable saying "it's the best" is borne out.
* Bad law is bad law update: Tom Spurgeon calls our attention to the case of Dwight Whorley, whose child pornography conviction included charges related to cartoon imagery and prose fiction in addition to actual pornographic photographs of children. Given recent commentary about whether unseemly speech should be protected, this seems like an instructive case to me. I don't think you'll find anyone who doesn't think Whorley deserves to rot in prison for possessing the pornographic photos. On the other hand, the activities depicted in the cartoons and the fiction are imaginary, involving imaginary people. I don't think that's a crime, and I don't think it should be classified as a crime, and I don't think anyone, even a bastard like Whorley, should be convicted for it. Bad law is bad law.
* More grim news: The case of the murder of Adam Walsh, the young son of John Walsh, has long been a fascinating one to me, for a few reasons. First of all, John Walsh's reaction to his son's killing--creating America's Most Wanted and thereby helping to capture countless murderers and other criminals--is the closest thing to a real-life superhero origin story I've ever seen. Secondly, Adam's supposed killer is an infamous figure in serial-killer lore, Ottis Toole. Toole was the occasional partner in crime of Henry Lee Lucas; the two inspired the excellent, trailblazing horror film Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, and depending on how you credit their often altered or retracted confessions, they're either among America's most prolific murderers or its biggest bullshit artists. This article by the AP's Matt Sedensky on the Hollywood, Florida authorities' recent closing of the Adam Walsh case, officially pinning the blame on the long since executed Toole, points out the many lingering inconsistencies and flaws with the investigation, the confession, and the supposed case-closing. It also brings up something I either never heard or had forgotten about: the suspicion among some quarters that Jeffrey Dahmer, who lived in Florida at the time of Adam Walsh's disappearance, might have been responsible for the murder.
The Mystery of Woolverine Woo-Bait
Joe Coleman, writer/artist
Fantagraphics, December 2004
$4.95 Buy it from Fantagraphics
We serial-killer buffs are an odd lot. I think there are different ways people come to a fascination with famous multiple murderers, but one of the most common and influential in terms of the resulting art and pop/junk/cult culture artifacts is to see them as a real-world extension of Famous Monsters of Filmland. When you've cycled through the Universal monsters, the Hammer horrors, the BEMs and giant irradiated monsters of '50s science fiction, Vampira and Zacherle and the creature-feature hosts, "collecting" knowledge about ghoulish characters like Ed Gein and Albert Fish can seem like the next logical step. I think you also see the earlier serial killers--Fish, Gein, Richard Speck, Albert De Salvo, Carl Panzram, right up through Charles Whitman (technically a mass murderer, or spree killer depending on how you look at it) and Charles Manson--were and are presented in much the same way that horror movies were to children of the '50s and '60s, as an antidote to rules and parents and conformity. The dark side of the American dream and all that.
I'm not coming to serial killers like that. Maybe I did once; not anymore. Joe Coleman, on the other hand, is the patron saint of that approach. A trash-culture outsider-art icon, his paintings treat serial killers like medieval saints, surrounding them with the facts of their often horrendous upbringings and even more awful crimes. Woolverine Woo-Bait, originally released in 1982 and here combined with a six-page continuation that actually came out five years earlier, is sort of the comics embodiment of his aesthetic. Serial killers themselves play only a small, inspirational role, representing the "conception of the psychological make-up required to survive or mutate in the post-atomic era," but in addition to their cameos, you've got the aliens from Mars Attacks, acromegalic character actor Rondo Hatton, an entire old-school freak show, mad scientists, zombie Holocaust victims, crazed square-jawed soldiers, Ed Wood repertory players Vampira and Tor Johnson, rape, disembowelment, cannibalism, a woman with two functioning sets of male genitalia where her breasts should be, Jo Jo the wolf boy...if you spent some portion of the '90s on a David Lynch/John Waters/psychobilly-inspired sojourn through the rotten edges of post-War American culture, you'll know what you're in for. Coleman draws it all like a man possessed, placing his panels against backdrops and borders of schizophrenic detail. The plot is negligible--suffice it to say people do disgusting, violent, perverse, and occasionally breathtakingly racist and anti-Semitic things to one another; the point is to uncontrollably vomit all this junk back in everyone's faces. There's a part of me that will always have an affinity for this kind of thing, that will always enjoy being on the outside. There's another part that stands there and says "Well, here we are, we're Outside...now what?" Are violence and suffering holy, as Coleman argues? Or is it that they're important to expose, that ripping off the scab like this comic does has a value to it, but there's something unspeakably sad underneath and a failure to acknowledge or address it is an American dream of its own?
* Tom Spurgeon kicks off his annual holiday interview series with a conversation with Fantagraphics co-honcho Kim Thompson. It's both uplifting to hear a great publisher talk about what he does and why/how he does it, and depressing even to hear him joke that had he known then what he knows now he might never have given it a try.
* John Jakala casts a skeptical eye at Brubaker/Fraction/Aja et al's Immortal Iron Fist as compared to similar manga series. To me, though, the way he critiques it just makes it clear that IIF was going for something different than Naruto or Bleach. I suppose it's possible they tried to do a balls-out superhero manga and failed, but it seems unlikely. It's certainly fine to prefer one to the other, of course.
* The Daily Cross Hatch asks a plethora of comics personages to list their favorite books of the year. I could have done with a few fewer NYC comics scenesters plugging their buddies' books, but it's still an interesting sampling of opinions. Capacity gets a lot of love, which is terrific given how close I came to overlooking the book entirely. My favorite bit is Dash Shaw's praise for the great Ross Campbell's Wet Moon 4:
Campbell knows who he is and what he likes and his comics are born out of his personality and obsessions. His work is unique and untouchable. This man is at peace with himself. That is an enviable life. If Optic Nerve was awesome it would look like this. The Abandoned 2 was going to be his masterwork but I’m okay with more Wet Moon instead. Fuck Tokyopop.
I don't necessarily agree with the Optic Nerve dig, but Shaw's dead on in detecting a kinship there. It's just the look and the milieu of Campbell's stories that prevents altcomix slice-of-life lovers from jumping aboard, or really even acknowledging its existence. Read Wet Moon!
Thanks to the magic of the special feature listed on the packaging of countless bare-bones DVD releases as "scene selection" I am currently watching Cloverfield sans its opening twenty minutes. The movie had been steadily growing on me since I first saw it a little less than a year ago; it's not unlike The Mist in that regard, but oddly it is unlike I Am Legend, which ending aside I preferred to the other two entries in Winter '07-'08's apocalyptic monster movie festival at the time but since find myself largely uninterested in revisiting. My guess, and I think I've said this before, is that it's because I'm a monster man at heart, and IAL's critters were the weakest part of that movie while the monsters in Cloverfield and The Mist were highlights.
Anyway, the destruction of Manhattan by the bastard offspring of Lovecraft and Toho is just as awe-inspiring and as soul-crushing as I remember it being. I'm not going to say it's a relentless grinding down of your nerves, because there's the fanservice "girl knows about Superman" humor in the tunnel scene, but it's grim and it plays those 9/11 notes expertly. Is it the best giant-monster movie I've ever seen? You bet. I'd already had a hunch it might end up on my all-time favorites list the next time I update it, and so far...yep. The stuff that I like here is really the kind of stuff I like, you know?
But then there's the stuff I don't like, and in skipping ahead to the moment where the excrement hits the air conditioning I stumbled across exactly what that is. Behold the final line spoken by one of our partygoers before the attack begins:
You gotta learn to forget the world and hang on to the people you care about the most.
In all seriousness, it's not even that I disagree with the sentiment. In fact that's pretty much how I'm living my life these days! It's just that nothing about how it's expressed throughout the movie rises above the most predictable, clichéd ways of doing so. Lizzy Caplan excepted, the performances don't help either. I'm struck in this re-watching by how one-note lead actor Michael Stahl-David's performance is; it seems like he based his character's reaction to trauma solely on what he's seen such things look and sound like in the movies. Compare and contrast with the three actors in The Blair Witch Project, which I also re-watched recently, and, well, there isn't any comparison. The special effects show a lot more seams on the small screen too, oddly enough, I guess because it's easier for the eye to parse the constantly moving camera.
Good movie anyway. Heck, I'm leaning toward great movie anyway.
The Other Side #1-2
Jason Aaron, writer
Cameron Stewart, artist
32 pages each
Originally written on November 22, 2006 for publication by The Comics Journal. I went in for vitriol back then.
Agent Orange and The Other Side might seem different on the surface, in that the former is a chemical defoliant used during the Vietnam War and the latter is a comic book about the Vietnam War. But look a little deeper and you'll find that they have two important characteristics in common: They both led to the destruction of trees, and they are both fucking awful.
No shopworn Vietnam shibboleth goes un-beaten-into-the-ground by writer Jason Aaron, who uses an apparent real-life friendship with author Gustav Halford, whose book The Short Timers was adapted into Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, as an excuse to pilfer every last sample-ready soundbyte from that film, strip it of context, and fire it like a Deer Hunter Russian-roulette bullet directly at the reader's brain, with predictably hideous results. Nearly every line of dialogue seems to consist solely clichés strung together like a necklace of human ears: "IF YOU ARE NOT SQUARED AWAY AND BORN-AGAIN-HARD...THE GOOK WILL FUCK YOU UP BEYOND ALL RECOGNITION!" Complementing this one-dimensional portrayal of the American fighting man as an obscenity-spewing kill-crazy redneck motivated alternately by bloodthirsty chauvinism, pants-shitting terror and batshit insanity is the depiction of the Vietnamese everysoldier as a pristine holy warrior who talks like a cross between Mao and the Mandarin. The series' parallel structure only highlights the unintentional hilarity of the characterizations. I couldn't possibly illustrate this more clearly than by simply transcribing issue two, page one—which is split into two panels depicting the two main characters and their fellow soldiers—in its entirety:
NARRATOR: The Twelfth Lunar Month in the Year of the Sheep. Vietnam. Somewhere between the coastal city of Vinh and the Laotian border. Deep within the holy sanctuary of the rain forest, we begin our historic journey with a cheer.
LEAD SOLDIER: For the liberation of our compatriots, the defense of our families, the defeat of our oppressors and the reunification of our fatherland…
ALL: Let's march south!
NARRATOR: December 1967. Vietnam. Quan Nam province. Chest deep in the stinking mud of Danang, I begin my tour of duty digging holes for men to die in.
SOLDIER 1: Welcome to the exotic Indochinese Peninsula, new guy. Where heroes die young, and assholes live forever.
SOLDIER 2: Where dinks don't die, they just go to hell and regroup.
SOLDIER 3: You think it sucks now? Just wait 'til you're wasted.
SOLDIER 4: Whoopee, we're all gonna die.
Can you guess which side is which? Holy Christ, it makes that scene from Platoon where the guy shows Charlie Sheen the picture of his sweetheart back home look inspired. Even poor Cameron Stewart gets fragged: His poppy, buoyant art has been a treat in semi-revisionist superbooks like Catwoman, SeaGuy and The Manhattan Guardian, but here his figurework goes from solid to stolid to squalid, losing all sense of movement and stripping the battle scenes (massacres all, naturally) of any power to grip, excite or terrify, not that they'd have much of a shot at doing so as written anyway. What was that quote from Full Metal Jacket again? Oh yeah: "I am in a world of shit."
I saw Twilight a couple weeks ago and Let the Right One In this evening, and frankly I'm panicking. Why? Because we are raising a generation of children that is woefully unprepared for the vampire threat.
Children, vampires are not your friends. They're not your soulmates. They're not your first love. They don't glitter in the sunlight. They don't solve Rubik's Cubes and send you messages in Morse code. They will not protect you from bullies, runaway vans, or other vampires. They will not whisk you away from your coldly beautiful northern-latitude environment to be united with them forever. They will bite you on the neck and suck your blood out until you die. I really can't stress that last point enough, children. The only thing to do when you run into the bloodsucking undead is to grab yourself a good sharp wooden stake and drive it straight through their hearts. This is because, as I said, vampires are not your friends.
I'll be taking up a collection to purchase and mail copies of The Lost Boys to every 11-year-old in America shortly. For now, I suppose I'll just have to talk about the movies, dangerous pro-vampire propaganda though they both may be.
I don't run screaming from (or screaming at) Twilight the way a lot of horror fans do. The Missus really liked the books, for two reasons I think: 1) She enjoyed their vampiric mythos/hierarchy/taxonomy; 2) She enjoyed how they depicted the ideal teen-girl romance. A beautiful boy who loves you more than life itself, won't have sex with you until you're married, and never needs to sleep so he can stay up in your room all night holding you and talking? Sign the 16-year-old Missus up! And indeed I can appreciate those aspects of the story as well. True love among teenagers really doesn't have a whole lot of pop-culture support at this point--god knows I could have used some when I was a kid--and there's something, I dunno, rebellious about the notion that this girl knows her heart better than anyone else. Yeah, I suppose there's a creepy Mormon subtext to all this, but the fact that its vampires we're talking about will hopefully get some undergarments in a twist anyway.
I haven't read the books so I can't speak to how well the film does or doesn't get it, but one thing it does very well is take advantage of gorgeous Pacific Northwest scenery. Watching our tormented young vampire bound around amid the Washington rainforests, all those rich greens and blues, makes you wonder why more movies can't be set there. It also does high school pretty well: aside from the two leads, or really maybe just Robert Pattinson's Edward Cullen, most of the kids you see are convincingly teenaged, awkwardly but not miserably coming to terms with becoming their own individual people. There's a lot of nervous joking and showing-off of boobs and things like that. Credit director Catherine Hardwicke's experience on Thirteen.
It's not a terribly good movie for all that, though. To be blunt, Pattinson and Kristin Stewart as Bella deliver most of their lines like they're barely holding in a bowel movement--every word feels forced out through clenched teeth and short breath. Bella is an aggressively uninteresting person, with the possible exception of her endemic clumsiness, but even that just makes her seem more Mary Sue-ish as half the guys in the high school, not to mention the drop-dead gorgeous vampire, fall all over her. I've heard complaints (including from the Missus, who found the movie very heavy-handed given that nearly everyone who saw it would have read the books and didn't need things hammered home) that the romance and attendant "I'm a vampire" confession come on too fast, but I didn't notice it. For me the big pacing problem was with the antagonist vampires, who have a few foreshadowing attacks, then basically come out of nowhere (in the middle of a vampire-family baseball game, of all things), upend the entire story, and get dispatched within the space of about 20 minutes total during the latter third of the film. It felt like the filmmakers just threw up their hands and spliced it in at random. The whole project feels a bit like the work of people who aren't quite sure they're gonna pull this thing off.
Let the Right One In, on the other hand, is a film that feels like every frame was considered and labored over. That leads to an extremely laconic pace--you really feel every one of its 114 minutes--but, at its best moments, a feeling like you're watching No Country for Old Men with vampires instead of Mexicans and snow instead of desert. Like that film, and Twilight for that matter, it makes excellent use of its unique locale, in this case the snows of Sweden. The visual emphasis on the contrast between black night or gray day and white snow is constant and engrossing, and the opening-credits snowfall alone is a hall-of-fame image. I think that many of the memorable horror movies of recent years have been exceptionally well made and lovely as films, from The Descent's opening sequence and use of reds to I Am Legend, Cloverfield, War of the Worlds, and 28 Days/Weeks Later's use of ruined and abandoned cityscapes to The Mist's handheld immediacy to The Ruins fashion photography-derived cinematography, but this is the loveliest, the filmiest, of the lot. It is, in the words of Ricky Jay in Boogie Nights, a real film.
And lest you think it's all landscapes and creatively framed portraits, there's a plethora of memorable horror images to be found here as well. Indeed, the care given to making the non-horror material so beautiful seems to reinforce the similar attention paid to crafting unnerving scares, and vice versa. The murder set pieces are chillingly blasé, with a tinge of Hostel matter-of-factness. The few overt moments of vampire supernaturalism are subtle and freaky enough that at first I wasn't even sure I'd seen them correctly. Gore is far from constant, but it's creative and hard to shake when it does show up. The film has the power to shock using the basic tenets of vampire lore, which is saying something given how shopworn such things can be. And when it shifts gears into sequences involving more run-of-the-mill violence, particularly in the final scene with the bullies, it's just as disturbing. The only unsuccessful moment involves an attack by a pride of CGI cats that stands out for its obvious special-effectness in a film where the digital work is frequently so subtle as to be in the "did I just see what I thought I saw?" category--it also has countless similar scenes of cute animals attacking people for laffs in shitty post-There's Something About Mary comedy trailers for the past decade going against it. over. But even there I'm basically okay with it, since it jibes with the lore and since compared to what usually happens to cats and dogs and things in horror movies these days it's refreshingly good-natured.
The visuals are deployed in service of a rewardingly complex story about a bullied tween and the girl next door, and there really isn't any monkeying around about whether or not she's really a vampire. We learn pretty damn quick that she sure is, which I again thought refreshing--after all, no one goes to a vampire movie like it's a mystery. The pleasure and complexity of the film is following the basic plot as it intersects with three prominent and nuanced subplots.
First there's the vampire girl Eli's adult caretaker, who by the time we meet him is old and increasingly bad at his job of murdering people and supplying Eli with their blood. (Reminiscent of Mahogany in "The Midnight Meat Train," even in methodology.) He's a sad figure, but the film surprised me with how far it was willing to take that sadness, how furious it seemed to ultimately be about it. And bless its heart, it never comes right out and says what we all suspect about how his relationship with Eli began. It hangs there like a reproach against the film's own resolution.
Then there's the saga of Eli's victims. Normally horror stories that take a sympathetic approach to their monsters "blame the victim," as it were, showing the humans who the monsters hunt and then who eventually hunt the monster to be provincial, small-minded, and just as evil in their own way as the creatures they're fighting. The humans are the real monsters, etc. Not so here, even when all the cues we're receiving from their age and their rough-edged ways and their drinking and smoking signal us to expect otherwise. All told, the lives of three perfectly good-hearted people who genuinely care about each other are cruelly snuffed out by Eli. She's not a bwa-ha-ha cacklingly evil vampire in the Dracula/'Salem's Lot mode, she's portrayed as someone whose well-being we should care about, but neither she nor the film make any bones about the fact that she murders innocent people to survive. As a result the movie plays with audience identification in the same unexpected, effective fashion as, say, The Wicker Man. Who are we rooting for, and what does that say about us?
Finally there's our hero, Oskar, and the bullies who bedevil him. There's plenty of comeuppance dealt out in all the right places, and it's always pretty satisfying...for a time. But one bully cries, another is clearly miserable with his role as a Judas goat, and the ringleader is equally clearly doing unto others what has been done unto him. When their time comes, I snorted a "serves 'em right" laugh or two, but I didn't laugh for long.
But even beyond the bully storyline proper, what they do is give Oskar a reason to do what he does and be how he is. Something that the bullying has done to him psychologically prepares him to fall into the arms of Eli, if you will--that's something we never see with Bella and Edward. At age 12, an outcast clinging to fleeting moments of genuine happiness with his divorced parents, a hapless victim of children who are perhaps even more miserable than him and certainly less redeemable, an inability to see beyond the end of the school year...you can see why he would care so deeply for this little girl who shows him kindness, lets him in on her secrets. For that matter you can see why the reverse would be true (provided you're willing to grant vampires that luxury, which for some reason seems to be a whole lot less of a problem for horror fans with this movie than with stuff by Stephenie Meyer or Anne Rice). Perpetually 12 years old, trapped in a relationship long past its expiration date, exposed daily to suffering, possibly the victim of abuse herself in some long-ago life...she needs a kindred spirit. If Bella and Edward's relationship is a romantic ideal, Oskar and Eli's is one grounded in personal psychological shortcomings and damage, as well as tenderness and vulnerability and play. Their relationship feels real. Doomed, sad, and real.
Comics Time: Planetary Book 3: Leaving the 20th Century
Planetary Book 3: Leaving the 20th Century
Warren Ellis, writer
John Cassaday, artist
$14.99 Buy it from Amazon.com
Originally written on October 23, 2005 for publication by The Comics Journal. I was an angrier person back then.
THE DUDE: How's the smut business, Jackie?
JACKIE TREEHORN: I wouldn't know, Dude. I deal in publishing, entertainment, political advocacy--
THE DUDE: Which one's Logjammin'?
--Joel and Ethan Coen, The Big Lebowski
Warren Ellis wants you to take him seriously. I don't. Partially it's because he, the man who coined the term "pervert suits" to refer to superhero costumes, has heaped as much scorn on supercomics as the day is long, and noisily stormed away from the genre in a rage to try his hand at the wave of the future he dubbed "pop comics," has spent most of his career as a Comics Superstar writing thinly veiled Super Friends fanfiction and is currently the author of Ultimate Fantastic Four, Iron Man, the "Ultimate Galactus" trilogy (!) and JLA: Classified. Partially it's because this supposed anti-establishmentarian could not write a comic that didn't feature a select group of badass illuminated übermenschen using their secret knowledge of the world to shape it into a better one for the good of the sheeplike plebes from whom this knowledge must be kept at all costs if his life depended on it. And partially it's because his mobile-podcast-Delphi-forum digital-revolutionary comics-activist persona, his relentless touting of (say) Godspeed You Black Emperor! accompanied by diatribes about how (say) Avril Lavigne is bullshit, his name-dropping of his fetish-model friends and his close pal "Bill" Gibson, and his desire to utilize the Internet to cultivate groups of people who think and act exactly like he does coupled with his willingness to rage against the Internet when it cultivates groups of people who do not all remind me too much of an over-earnest black-clad Newcastle Brown Ale-drinking college sophomore who writes record reviews for the campus daily while not busy reading up on the connection between Terrence McKenna and the Rosicrucians at Disinformation.com. (I know this--because I was that college sophomore!!!)
But mostly, I guess, it's the superhero thing. I feel for Ellis because he's so obviously conflicted in his feelings about that which Siegel & Shuster and Lee & Kirby hath wrought. How else to explain the cognitive dissonance of his Jan. 8, 2005 "Streaming" column for the comics news website The Pulse, in which he dismissively proclaims the following:
"I think possibly [excellence] is measured in how something grabs at you, how it makes you feel, what it does to your brain, what it says to you. For some people, yeah, that's going to be all about what's in Green Lantern's underpants or whatever, and that's okay. Personally, I look for the Rock And Roll and the Manic Pop Thrill elsewhere. My point, if I have one at all, is that this year the majors are focussed [sic] on each other, and on making millions off the handful of old characters we already know. There are no surprises to be had out of "mainstream" DC and Marvel in the coming year. Which means it's down to the rest of the medium to provide them.
This, of course, while Ellis was busy accepting Avi Arad's dirty American dollars for rejiggering armored avenger Iron Man (he used to use repulsor rays--now he's into the societally transformative power of cellphone technology!), armored dictator Dr. Doom (he used to rule an Eastern European nation with an iron fist--now he's rules a commune of hipsters in Amsterdam with mind-controlling cyber-tattoos!), and godlike planet-eater Galactus (he used to be a big huge guy in a purple helmet--now he's a virus-like swarm that's the living embodiment of the Fermi Paradox! And oh, he's called Gah Lak Tus now, because that's less ridiculous somehow!).
The point, I suppose, is that people who developed a coterie of camgirl acolytes by shitting all over superhero comics probably shouldn't write them without expecting to be hoist by their own petard, and not coincidentally creating some of the dullest freaking superhero comics in the history of forever. (Thank goodness Marvel has only managed to actually release two issues of Ellis's Iron Man, as I think that's about as much technophilic tedium anyone could take before pulling a Unabomber.) At the very least, such people should develop a much deeper cover for their closeted compulsion to write stories about metahuman do-gooders blowing things up with their awesomeness. And that, in a nutshell, is what Ellis has done in Planetary, the title that like as not is what enables people to refer to him in the same breath as an Alan Moore or a Grant Morrison without involuntarily giggling.
Planetary concerns a trio of superpowered individuals--a temperature-controlling albino named Elijah Snow (get it?), a superstrong/superfast/supertough PVC enthusiast named Jakita Wagner, and a long-haired technopath named the Drummer--who flit about the world investigating various bits of pop- and pulp-culture fictional ephemera that, it turns out, happen to constitute the world's real "secret history." Basically, there really is a Godzilla, a Doc Savage, an Incredible Shinking Man (a blacklisted Communist sympathizer subjected to cruel experimentation by the United States government, naturally)--it's a bit like the plot of Return of the Living Dead, in other words--and it's up to our trio of "mystery archaeologists" (to use the pretentiously juxtaposed job description assigned them by Ellis) to use this knowledge for good, or something.
Their primary opponents in this quest are the Four, a team of enormously powerful metahumans who rule the world and just happen to be badass what-if versions of the Fantastic Four. In many ways they resemble the titular superteam from another Ellis creation, The Authority, who are a team of enormously powerful metahumans who rule the world and just happen to be badass what-if versions of the Justice League, except that the Four are bad guys and the Authority are good guys. Now Ellis, that lovable scamp, has been known to claim that the Authority are the villains of their comic, but to paraphrase Harrison Ford, "You can say this shit, Warren, but you sure can't type it"; you'd have to be a mystery archaeologist to unearth evidence of the Authority's villainy from the text itself, which reads like a prolonged MASH note to the group's hyperviolent Lefterventionism. (Shit, man, you wanna read a genuine critique of the superheroes-take-over idea, read Mark Gruenwald's Squadron Supreme.) Regardless, that the man who's derided supercomics as a go-nowhere culture of remixes has created at least two comics that revolve around Fatboy Slim dance versions of Big Two teams says more about Ellis than his inescapable "what I'm listening to/what I'm reading" lists, despite his efforts to portray things to the contrary.
Planetary has a couple of things going for it--neither of which is its endless recycled riffery on superior genre entertainment. "Hey, it's the Hulk--only DEADLIER!" "Hey, it's a John Woo movie--only WEIRDER!" "Hey, it's Sherlock Holmes--only he's the leader of the ILLUMINATI and he's brought DRACULA as his MUSCLE!" "Hey, it's Tarzan, only he FUCKS MONKEYS!"--you've now experienced the majesty of Ellis's condescending chop-shop work on stuff he's too embarrassed to straight-up enjoy. Perhaps the nadir of this tendency is the issue in which a troupe of Vertigo-character analogues appear and are rejected as the hopelessly dated relics of their Thatcherian era--after which Ellis's Vertigo character, Transmetropolitan's Spider Jerusalem, shows up and is duly crowned the trail-blazing heir to Gaiman, Moore et al. In other words, pretty much everything sucks--until Ellis puts his stamp on it, at which point it's the tits. This is morally and aesthetically superior to milking "The Death of Gwen Stacy" for thirty years how, exactly?
But everything's drawn beautifully, which is Planetary's first virtue. Artist John Cassaday can get a little lazy with the backgrounds, but his figure work is astonishing (no pun intended, X-fans!), all warm curves shot from fascinating angles. He's an excellent choreographer of action (see Chapter 16's wire-fu homage) and a prodigious talent when it comes to conveying Ellis's admittedly sharp pacing choices (as in the the silent five-panel sequence where the team's attempt to infiltrate the Four's headquarters is discovered and thwarted with literally earth-shaking violence). Cassaday's go-to colorist Laura Martin is every bit as compelling here. Avoiding both the vomit-like palette of greenish browns that mars much of DC's "serious" output and the Skittle-explosion Photoshop slop of the big guns, her sensible and sensual colors perfectly fill out the contours of Cassaday's pencils. Her monochromatic work is always a sight to behold--like her contemporary Dave Stewart, she can do more with one color than most colorists can do with, well, all of them.
Virtue number two is a structural one. Earlier volumes of Planetary were interesting for the way Ellis bypassed the traditional climactic slugfest of superherodom for an approach that genuinely mirrored that of (yep) archaeology. More often than not, Snow, Wagner, and Drums would show up after the action took place--investigating gargantuan radioactive lizard corpses on Monster Island, watching a spectral flashback to a Hong Kong cop wrongly slain, and so forth. As Ellis's subconscious yearning to write Secret Wars took over this tactic was mostly abandoned, but it's been replaced by what may end up being the most drawn-out prelude to a final confrontation between protagonists and villains in superhero comics history. Each issue contains a small step forward or push backward for the Planetary team's quest to thwart the Four, who are so powerful that they're nearly omnipotent and therefore require a whole lot of planning and effort to thwart. Volume Three culminates with the team's first successful mano-a-mano with a member of the Four (the Human Torch knockoff)--it's taken eighteen issues for them to take out their adversaries' weakest link. Ellis craftily builds the Four into such a formidable obstacle that we're more than willing to follow the Planetary crew's long and winding road for the sense that they'll surmount that obstacle in the end.
It'd be nice if our drivers on that road were at all interesting, though, and that's ultimately Planetary's fatal flaw. Swap the color schemes and the sex organs and you'd be hard pressed to spot the difference between main characters Elijah Snow and Jakita Wagner at all. Consisting of virtually nothing but the type of deadpan "I'm incredibly blasé about this outrageously cool thing that I'm looking at"isms that Ellis has somehow made a career out of, their dialogue is completely interchangeable; indeed, one of the few non-Cassaday pleasures to be had from Volume Three is the flashback sequence from back when Snow still spoke in a Claremontian down-home American dialect, since if there's any other way in which Snow is different from Wagner--or Apollo, the Midnighter, Jack Hawksmoor, Jenny Sparks, etc etc etc--I'd love to hear about it. (I'm reasonably sure Spider Jerusalem smoked more, but of course tracking the number of times Ellis added "substance abuser" to "ubercompetent badass" and called it a personality would require a whole 'nother essay.) Ellis characters are little more than dim echoes of things that made other characters interesting, wrapped in skin, adorned with a superpower and a kewl outfit, and pushed on-panel to kill a few hundred thousand people, kick someone in the junk, and recite whatever Ellis read on Metafilter that day.
They're just superheroes with a slightly better iTunes playlist. One with lots of podcast subscriptions, no doubt. Sigh. Warren, call it "Galactus" and be done with it, already.
* Wow: a judge has granted 20th Century Fox's copyright ownership claim over the Watchmen film. He appears to be encouraging Fox and Warner Bros., which made the movie, to work something out rather than giving the thumbs up to Fox's stated goal of preventing the film's release, though. And somewhere in Northampton, Alan Moore raises a chalice to Glycon in thanks.
* Shaggy reports that Gossip Girl Season One will be on sale at Target on Sunday for the low low price of $17. Mark your calendars.
* Speaking of bargains, Fantagraphics is having a 25% off/free shipping sale on orders of $50 or more at its website through the end of the year. Go blow some Christmas cash.
* A part of me is glad that They're having trouble funding the next Narnia movie. A bit of this is due to me falling on the Tolkien side of the Tolkien/Lewis debate that dates back to Tolkien and Lewis themselves, but it's also because everything I've seen about the Narnia movies so far looks like a desperate, transparent Tolkienization of the source material. (Via AICN.)
* Bloody Disgusting says they have some plot details about the Ron Moore-scripted prequel to The Thing, but it looks to me like they got their wires crossed and are reporting the plot of the original as the plot of this prequel. Seriously, what they've posted doesn't make any sense. But hey, Ronald D. Moore and The Thing. That's not too shabby.
* And Bloody D redeems itself with its annual Top 10 Best and Worst Horror Movie Posters lists. I certainly don't agree with all their choices--I think Doomsday's logo approach stuck out in a sea of murky blue, for example--but they're dead on when they call for one-sheets and posters to show more effort than just running a still through Photoshop.
* This is interesting to me: political blogger Matthew Yglesias, who is a bit of a comics nerd but not a huge one, disliked The Spirit but not in a venom-spewing, "fuck that douchebag" kind of way--he thought the plot was cockamamie, basically. Not a word about the crazy dialogue or the hambone acting or the tone vis a vis Eisner's originals. I am really, really curious about this movie.
* I move in a couple of circles online: One consists of people who are apt to like Marnie Stern, the other consists of people who are apt to like Brian Chippendale's Maggots. David Allison falls in the overlap of that particular Venn diagram, as demonstrated by the aforelinked post comparing the two.
* Frank Santoro reports that those expecting a screaming match or fisticuffs to erupt upon the Kramers Ergot 7 Tour's Brooklyn stop-mandated meeting between Santoro and David Heatley have been let down. Alas, those of us expecting a heated discussion, followed by understanding, followed by the tender blossoming of friendship as two stalwart altcomix souljaz hugged it out once and for all are also let down.
* Seeing ADDTF blogfather Bill Sherman post about making it all the way to the 27th and final volume of Iron Wok Jan, a series he was blogging about perhaps even before I started this blog, made me feel incredibly old all of a sudden.
* Jon Hastings presents his best stuff of 2008 list. He took a cartooning class taught by Matthew Thurber???
* Finally, your quote of the day:
COVINA, Calif. – Six bodies were found Thursday in the ashes of a home where a gunman in a Santa Claus costume opened fire during a Christmas Eve party before setting the house ablaze, police said.
And now a word about the only Stephen King novel mentioned in a Nirvana song
My favorite Stephen King books are The Stand, It, Night Shift, and Skeleton Crew, two epics and two short story collections. This gives rise to my oft-repeated maxim that King is at his best over 1,000 pages or under 100. But when recommending a King book of a more traditional length I always say 'Salem's Lot. It's the most fondly remembered normal-length novel from my middle-school King-reading, though I never returned to it the way I frequently do with the other four. Thinking about it recently, I wondered why that was and what I'd think of the book now. I was already in the grip of my usual autumnal interest in horror apocalypses, fueled this year by working with Marvel.com on The Stand, watching the first-person zombie movies Diary of the Dead and [REC], and re-reading World War Z. Plus, I finally had the shelf space to take all my books out of storage, which meant that I had easier access to the thing. Put it all together and it's a recipe for a re-read.
I was really delighted with how much I still enjoyed the book. It now seems obvious to me why it stuck out in my mind all these years even while King books I was really enthusiastic about at the time--Christine, say--receded: It's a trial run for my two other favorite King novels. Like The Stand, it's horror gone viral, and it centers on a black prince. Like It, it's about how the lowercase-e evil of small towns can feed the uppercase-E Evil of monsters, and the idea that places can be evil too.
Unlike those two gigantic books, however, and unlike the other King novels with which I've had recent experience, the Dark Tower series, 'Salem's Lot is short. Things happen with a speed I'm unaccustomed to from King, even from his short stories. (Those tend to focus on a small cast and a simple idea, so they feel efficient rather than fast.) Sometimes this was, well, if not a bad thing then at least an awkward thing. The main character (and the first of King's writer protagonists), Ben Mears, makes friends with somewhat unrealistic rapidity upon his return to the town he called home for a brief period during his boyhood; having the character note this himself as he meets cute with his love interest Susan is a worthy save attempt, and much less annoying than similar tactics tended to be in those damn Dark Tower books, but it's still problematic. Mears and his acquaintances tend to speak in a clipped variation of King's trademark just-folks banter during these encounters, and it can ring hollow, particularly during his chats with Susan's dad and with the town's English teacher.
Speaking of, King's treatment of the townsfolk is more a series of sketches than the more fleshed-out town history and psychological geography he gave Derry in the very similar storyline of It. Most of the small-town types he introduces--the desperate housewife and her telephone-man romeo, the sleazy real-estate mogul, the teenage mother who beats her baby, the mean bus driver who I constantly pictured as Snake Eyes from You Can't Do That on Television--are introduced to move the plot along and/or provide a vampire foot soldier somewhere down the line, while doing the bare minimum necessary to make the point that some shitty stuff goes on behind closed doors. Some--the school bully, the local dairy, the old guys down at the store, the town gossip--are hardly returned to at all. Though I think all these little portraits are effective and feel as true as King's Maine men usually do, the negative ones don't add up to "this town deserves to die" the way the similar elements in It's Derry did; in that book, a lot of the bad shit directly enabled the monster (race riots, lynch mobs, psychopathic lumberjacks and schoolchildren, the people who looked away when Beverly was threatened), whereas here it's kind of just hanging there for purposes of metaphorical comparison.
Shakiest of all, and this won't surprise the horror skeptics out there, is the speed with which Ben's new English teacher pal Matt leaps to the conclusion that vampires are battening on the townsfolk. Aside from a joke with the doctor that we didn't even hear until it was brought up after the fact, there really wasn't anything that happened in Matt's orbit to put him in mind of vampires with such speed and certainty. The two of them convince a lot of people really fast, too, and again, no matter how many times King makes his characters say "I know how hard this is to believe, but it's the only explanation," it still doesn't make it work.
Amusingly, the one character with the sanest reaction to Ben and Matt's belief, Susan (she believes them that something terrible is happening in town, and that maybe the person perpetrating these things has vampires on the brain, but she just has a hard time swallowing the notion that movie monsters are murdering people all around her), ends up paying the ultimate price for her lack of total confidence in their theory. And that's part and parcel of where the speed of 'Salem's Lot really works for it: establishing that head vampire Kurt Barlow is not fucking around by having him kill and/or swallow the souls of main characters and their loved ones without breaking a sweat. Even though I knew what was coming, it was still shocking to see Susan killed and turned after making a grand total of one mistake, or junior protagonist Mark Petrie's parents get their skulls smashed open (by slamming them together--what an image!) a matter of seconds after they're first informed of the vampire threat. Indeed, the vampires take down the whole town in a matter of days. That's the part that reminds me of The Stand--it's not just that the vampires spread like a virus, it's that the show is pretty much over for the Lot the second Barlow bit into his first schoolkid, just like how America clocked out the moment Charles Campion pulled into a rest stop for a burger.
In fact, what the book does best of all is convey that vampires are really, really scary. In this early work, King's ability to demonstrate the terror of his monsters by describing just how scared shitless his protagonists are by them had lost none of its potency through repetition. When he talks about characters pissing and shitting themselves after their first undeniable vampire encounter, by god you believe that's exactly what you'd do in their shoes. When he describes (over and over again until it feels like a drumbeat) how the sinister Marsten House sits black and crazy atop a hill overlooking the entire town, radiating waves of mystery and malice outward, you feel those waves. His characters' bodies and nervous systems react to being close to the vampires the way your pets do to dangerous animals or strangers--it's a feeling you can grok.
And the vampires themselves are memorably creepy. I loved how King describes their attempts to smile as a tightening of the mouth muscles that never reaches their eyes at all, how their voices may be capable of speech but sound no more human than the barking of a dog. I love the arrogance of Barlow, that awesome Dracula-esque letter he left behind to mock his pursuers. I love the never quite squared away linkage between Barlow, his late serial killer penpal Hubie Marsten, Marsten's possible appearance as a ghost or zombie to a young Ben Mears, and the nature of the evil entity the two of them apparently worship (not to mention the tenuous continuity of all this with the Lovecraftian prequel story "Jerusalem's Lot" which showed up in Night Shift years later but I think was actually written before the novel itself). I love mocking despair of the catchphrases: "I will see you sleep like the dead, teacher." "Even now one laughs! Even now your circle is smaller!" For me that last one is up there with "WE ARE IN THE HOUSE OF THE DEAD NADINE", and as I sit here in the dark writing it I'm getting chills.
I could be wrong, but I get the sense that vampires were pretty played out at the point that this book was written, and that 'Salem's Lot was an attempt to punch up their ability to terrify the way Night of the Living Dead gave a jolt to zombies. I'm really grateful for the attempt. One thing I've been thinking about a lot lately is that there's no reason that supernatural magical entities can't be just about the scariest things ever. From the Black Lodge to the Blair Witch to the Ring, the great thing about them is that they not only have the power to kill you, they can...I want to put this right...they can tear a hole in you. You know? And where you used to be they can put nothing, a seething black electric cackling nothing.
Comics Time: Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!
Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!
Art Spiegelman, writer/artist
72 pages, hardcover
$27.50 Buy it from Amazon.com
I wonder if Art Spiegelman really believed it when he wrote this:
Although Breakdowns figures prominently in my life and my development as an artist, I was still startled when Pantheon expressed interest in re-issuing the book. I couldn't help but worry that, once the scarcity factor was removed, Pantheon would be lucky to sell as many copies as the 1978 edition.
The print run of that edition: approx. 2,500 usable copies.
I wonder if he believes this, too:
Arteests get to be shamans; us cartoonists are mere "communicators." As Chris Ware succinctly put it years later: "When you don't understand a painting, you assume you're stupid. When you don't understand a comic strip, you assume the cartoonist is stupid."
I wonder because that same Art Spiegleman is the guy who wrote this:
[The young Art Spiegelman] was on fire, alienated and ignored, but arrogantly certain that his book would be a central artifact in the history of Modernism. Disinterest on the part of most readers and other cartoonists only convinced him he was onto something new in the world. In an underground comix scene that prided itself on breaking taboos, he was breaking the one taboo left standing: he dared to call himself an artist and call his medium an art form.
While the hard-won pages the self-important squirt gathered in Breakdowns were among the first maps that led to comics being welcomed into today's bookstores, libraries, museums and universities, he wasn't making a conscious bid for cultural respectability.
The discoveries I made while working on the strips in that book have somehow been absorbed by those interested in stretching the boundaries of comics over the past thirty years, even if only second or third hand.
Well, if you do say so yourself, Mr. Spiegelman!The thing is, it's the Spiegelman of the latter two quotes who has history on his side. It's entirely possible he really does possess a Ware-like self-esteem problem, but whereas Mr. Acme Novelty Library's vicious self-deprecation is seemingly seamless and never-ending, Spiegelman alternates his "aw shucks who the hell's gonna buy the best-of collection from the little old Pulitzer Prize winner" routine with bold--and largely substantiatable--claims about his work's iconoclasm and import, and with impassioned defenses of its merit and his high opinion thereof.
It's this collision of opposite levels of confidence even more so than Spiegelman's oft-discussed High Art/Low Art dichotomy that characterizes this new edition of Breakdowns. Why else surround a re-release of his long out-of-print collection of experimental comics--really ground zero for "alternative comics" as we know them today--with a sizable autobiographical comics prologue (the "Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!" of the title) and a lengthy prose afterword detailing his entire comics career through Breakdowns' initial publication? It's as though today's post-Maus, post-Pulitzer, post-New Yorker, post-9/11 Spiegelman can see that the early, seminal works of an artist of his stature deserve a high-end forum for public consumption, yet can't quite bring himself to provide it without appending at least as many pages again of "wait--I can explain!"
I'm all for that explanation, by the way. Spiegelman's a cartoonist whose biography is a familiar one--the seismic influence of MAD, emerging in the work of him and his underground comix contemporaries and passed on to another generation years later through his work on Wacky Packages and Garbage Pail Kids; his involvement with the undergrounds, his growing dissatisfaction with their emphasis on the shocking and scatalogical, and his efforts to carve out a space for comics as art/literature; and of course his parents' suffering in the Holocaust, his mother's suicide, and his at times crippling survivor's guilt. But it's enlightening to hear it all straight from the horse's mouth, whether through the somewhat discursive comic memoir that kicks the book off or the linear who what when where why and hows of the prose afterword. His father's frugality (and ignorance of prevailing beliefs regarding comics and juvenile delinquency) ends up leaving little Art in the possession of stacks of bargain-bought EC Comics instead of the more staid funnybooks he'd previously been exposed to. The rise of his friend R. Crumb convinces young Spiegelman that comics are in good enough hands for him to tune in, turn on, and drop out for a couple of years, culminating in a trip to the psychiatric hospital. Seeing his housemate Justin Green work on Binky Brown inspires him to ditch the fantastical outrages of the undergrounds for the based-on-a-true-story horrors of his first "Maus" strip. His girlfriend's matter-of-fact self-defense during an argument--"I didn't do anything!"--leads Spiegelman to realize he's actually angry at his late mother, and thus produce his breakthrough comic, "Prisoner on the Hell Planet." As a person whose own involvement with comics is owed just as much to a series of right-place-right-time coincidences and connections, it was fascinatingly familiar even when I was learning the details for the first time.
But what of the comics themselves? The original Breakdowns material is yet another illustration of Spiegelman's warring tendencies. In some, he aims to make "art comics" by aping High Art styles--"Hell Planet"'s Expressionism, "Don't Get Around Much Anymore"'s Cubism-cum-Art Deco, "Ace Hole: Midget Detective"'s Picasso femme fatale. (Can you beat Pablo's portraiture as a visual metaphor for "two-faced"?) In others, Modernist painting schools don't enter into it, as he unapologetically guns for comics themselves, smashing them apart to see what makes them tick and rearranging them as he sees fit--"Nervous Rex: The Malpractice Suite"'s non sequitur visual and dialogue sampling and splicing; "Day at the Circuit"'s choose-your-own-moebius-strip panel layout; "Little Signs of Passion"'s self-reflexive use of color, deferred-gratification sequencing, and distracting snippets of pornography; "Zip-a-Tunes" and the front and back covers' monkeying with zipatone and color separations. Spiegelman jumps back and forth between attempting to demonstrate his place in the tradition and using form to display a disinterest or even antipathy for tradition, focusing instead on pulling apart the pieces of his chosen medium and angrily stitching them back together. I suppose that itself is a tradition, especially in 20th century art (and Spiegelman never quite peels himself away from his pissing match with the museums), but in comics it even now reads like a revelation.
It looks nice, too. Perhaps the biggest impact this volume will have is settling the question of whether Art Spiegelman can draw. That is a question, right? I've certainly heard emperor/clothes kvetching about Maus's cramped black-and-white panels and ugly figurework (as though those sorts of things never occurred to him when he was trying to determine how best to visually represent the Shoah). Maybe it's those children's books he's done in the interim, but I found the comics in the prologue to be adorable little things, with an inviting color scheme of sky blue and cantaloupe orange and endearing caricatures of his parents. (Seeing the stars of Maus drawn as cute middle-aged human beings was unexpectedly poignant for me.) Meanwhile, the chops displayed in a variety of styles in the Breakdowns material, from underground-standard riffs on funny animals and old-time strips to those High Art pastiches to his experimental zeal with layout to a really rather breathtakingly bold choice of colors (especially for the time) are argument-enders. Dude could draw the hell out of a blowjob, by the way.
You don't have to be a Pulitzer Prize winner to figure out that the title Breakdowns was selected by Spiegelman in 1978 for its double meaning. After all, about half the comics in the original collection dealt with Spiegelman's personal and psychological traumas, while the other involved taking the unexamined stuff of a popular art form and, yep, breaking it down. Thirty years later, it feels even more apt. By now, Spiegelman's had a chance to freak out over the success of the very kind of comics his work helped make possible--a breakdown over the breakdown, if you will. Indeed, you can't help but wish he'd continued producing work of the caliber of Breakdowns' better pieces on a regular basis throughout all this time, instead of rather infamously backing away from it for years following Maus's smash success. You walk away from Breakdowns hoping he'll pull himself together in time to continue pulling things apart.
* Tom Spurgeon keeps on posting terrific interviews with interesting comics figures. My favorite at the moment is with Kurt Busiek, in part because Tom used a question of mine about my favorite moment in one of my favorite Superman stories, Up, Up and Away!
* I found Tom's interview with PictureBox's Dan Nadel really informative in terms of how Nadel sees his company and his mission--not to mention the breaking news that PBI is closing its brick-and-mortar store.
* Tom got Eddie Campbell to talk a bit more about his belief that the big New York publishing houses will push comics/graphic novels (I'm not sure which, exactly--terminology means a lot more to Campbell than it does to me!) toward children's literature. I don't buy that anymore than I buy the notion that they'll push it all toward boring memoirs. I just don't think they have that kind of power or that level of investment.
* And if you've got two hours to kill, you're encouraged to dig in to Tom's astonishingly long interview with Tucker Stone about the year in mainstream comics. It's a treat to hear Stone's thoughts on the genre in snark-free mode. However, I do disagree with this assertion:
when you're working on the biggest super-hero character of the year, and your job is to do that characters big bestseller of the year, then that isn't the time for you to put out something that any Batman fan, even the dumbest one, calls "confusing."
I don't know what it is about superheroes that occasionally draws this sort of thing out of critics, but you rarely see people demand that the big summer movie or the big autumn hip-hop record be more simplistic lest some people get turned off. Keep in mind that even though Tucker's not a fan of Batman: R.I.P. on a qualitative basis, that's not what he's talking about--this criticism would hold even if it were a great comic, as long as it was still confusing to some readers. That seems proscriptive and self-defeating to me.
* The Spirit came out and tanked. Questions of its quality aside, I was always perplexed by the decision to make it a Christmas movie. For what it's worth, no one I know who's seen it hated it, but I know very few people who saw it, which is part of the problem. (I'm at the in-laws' and unlikely to see it till next week at the earliest.) Harry Knowles and Heidi MacDonald both point to problems with the editing as among the film's more insurmountable, which again is different from the fanboy buzz about the film, which seems more related to a desire to make Frank Miller suffer personally.
* French director Pascal Laugier talks to AICN about his film Martyrs--part of a trinity of well-regarded, hardcore French horror films of late, along with Inside and Frontier(s)--and his upcoming Hellraiser remake. It's interesting to hear him talk about how easygoing his working relationship with Bob Weinstein has been, that's for sure. I also was struck by this passage about "cynical," "self-referential" horror directors:
"I love the same films that you do, guys. We all know where it comes from, isn't it fun?" Some people find it fun, [but] I don't. I know it makes me sound like an asshole - very arrogant, very pretentious - but who cares? I don't. I pay... I go to see movies to be amazed. I go to see movies to believe in what I see. So that's why I love for example M. Night Shyamalan. He's brave enough to take some risks to make the audience believe something amazing. You know? Sometimes he succeeds, sometimes he miss the points but I will always feel more respect for him than for A LOT of cynical directors.
* Jog takes the last vestiges of my post-"finding out the guy who wrote Benjamin Button also wrote Forrest Gump" interest in seeing the Brad Pitt/Cate Blanchett/David Fincher film out back and shoots them repeatedly at point-blank range. You've gotta love the American Beauty-style sexism about who's allowed to follow their bliss.
* The Vault of Horror's B-Sol reviews Let the Right One In, referring to the central human/vampire relationship as "a pure and beautiful friendship." I think we mistake codependence for pure and beautiful friendships at our own peril.
* Shaggy presents his favorite films of 2008, with an emphasis on "edge of your seat" filmmaking.
* Ben Morse reviews The Wrestler from the perspective of a life-long wrestling fan trying to sell the flick to non-fan audiences.
* Chris Ware is only 41 years old. Look on his works, ye mighty, and despair.
I Got Dem Ol' Konfuzin' Event-Komik Blues Again, Mama
In thinking about the stuff Tucker Stone and I have been discussing in the comment thread here and the things Tim O'Neil is saying here, I laid out a few things in my own head in terms of where I stand on Batman: R.I.P. and Final Crisis. I thought writing them down would help clarify where I'm coming from on all this.
1) There's "Batman: R.I.P." the multi-title crossover Batman event and Batman: R.I.P. the Grant Morrison/Tony Daniel comic. Similarly, there's "Final Crisis" the multi-miniseries DC Universe event and Final Crisis the Grant Morrison et al comic.
2) The sense that I get is that Morrison was barely involved with the planning of the wider R.I.P. event, if he was involved at all; it was a creation of editorial and the direction to the other titles involved was just "there's some bad guys called the Black Glove, and eventually Batman disappears--go to town." On the flipside, Morrison and his friend and sounding board Geoff Johns are writing virtually all of the Final Crisis event, so their involvement is obviously more extensive.
3) I think that the R.I.P. event was badly mismanaged as an event, with tie-ins that actively contradict the main storyline and each other. I'm not as grumpy about the way the main storyline apparently continues through two post-R.I.P. Batman issues and into the main Final Crisis comic, because I already planned to read all of that regardless and have been enjoying it thus far. However, I again think that this was a case of event mismanagement--it should have been made clear to readers far in advance how the story would proceed.
4) I don't think the Final Crisis event has been as much of a mess, at least in terms of getting all the story ducks in a row. Some of the tie-in minis seem to have little to do with the central New Gods storyline, but they haven't contradicted it, either. Obviously there are scheduling problems, but the main problems with this event stem less from stuff that's going on within the Final Crisis umbrella and more with the stuff that's going on outside it. Right now, its relationship to the rest of the line is impossible to ascertain. And there are also a lot of questions about the planned follow-through--all this "Faces of Evil"/"Origins and Omens" business afterwards. It probably shouldn't take a multi-month, multi-event program to explain the status quo of your shared universe, not just after your big blockbuster but at any time.
5) That stuff being said, ultimately I couldn't care less about any of that, either as a critic or as a consumer. That's because, as both a critic and a consumer, I'm under no obligation to follow DC's preferred method of following these stories. I'm quite happy to limit my involvement to those titles I choose to follow and evaluate their stories on their own terms. (One of the nice things about the tie-ins being so peripheral is that it makes such a decision even easier than it usually is, which for me is pretty dang easy.)
6) I've really, really been enjoying the Batman R.I.P. and Final Crisis comics proper. To the extent that they are confusing, I think those are deliberate storytelling choices, and I've gotten a lot out of them.
7) On a fundamental level I have no problem with event comics being demanding, because I simply do not believe event comics, or any kind of popular art, must be simplistic to be viewed as successful.
[ 7.5) For what it's worth, I think you put yourself in an awkward position as a critic when your criticism is basically a thought experiment where you purport to speak for the needs of an audience you acknowledge to be slow, or at least slower than yourself, and interested in uninteresting things.]
8) But that doesn't mean I don't recognize that Batman R.I.P. event has been a head-scratching mess, the Final Crisis event less so but still pretty perplexing. They really should have been easier to follow.
9) The point is that there's an important distinction to be made between the confusion that stems from Morrison's scripting of the stories proper, which for me is fair game as a critic, and the confusion that stems from DC corporate/editorial/marketing's handling of the events surrounding those stories, which seems to me like a separate and unrelated concern.
10) Even when you get right down to brass tacks and talk strictly about the stories, my attitude is to err in favor of the stories I enjoy the most. If Final Crisis contradicts Countdown to Final Crisis, if the Joker in Morrison's Batman: R.I.P. is different than the Joker in Paul Dini's Batman: R.I.P. tie-in, I'm going to ignore the latter, weaker story information in favor of the former, stronger story information.
11) Moreover, this is made possible because nothing in Batman: R.I.P. or Final Crisis proper forces the incorporation or acknowledgement of those weaker stories. It's a different matter when the basic character or plot points of a story stem directly from some external source--that's how most of Marvel now operates vis a vis their events, so that unless a creative team on an individual series comes up with a particularly clever write-around for the circumstances dictated by the event, you really do need to incorporate other comics into your reading of the comic at hand.
12) The point I really want to make is that we have far more autonomy as readers than most of the event-comics commentary (a term I prefer to criticism in this case given how much more than writing and art is being discussed) I'm seeing lately would let on.
Will Eisner's The Spirit is a virtual symphony of dudes getting socked in the head. I think that's what I ultimately took away from my read of this best-of collection of 22 Spirit 7-pagers, assembled by persons unknown using criteria unknown. No matter how far Eisner stretches the parameters of his strip; no matter if it's the masked vigilante/bounty hunter's origin story, or a standalone tale about an ill-fated criminal or plastic toy tommy gun in which the Spirit happens to show up on the final spread; no matter if it's a surprisingly psychologically astute portrait of a soldier who loses it after coming home from the war or society girl whose depression leads her to take up with criminals and then commit suicide-by-shootout, or a whacked-out EC riff about a killer granny with images and dialogue as crazy as anything Frank Miller could possibly put on screen--no matter what, somebody, somewhere, somehow, is gonna get clocked on the noggin.
That all but universal action beat, and the presence of the nattily attired Spirit himself, give you a throughline as you watch Eisner and his studio's style evolve from the barely recognizable 1940 origin story to the trademark caricature, pantomime, and big-city atmospherics of the 1950 capstone strips. By the end, Eisner's Gene Kelly-esque action choreography is at the height of its unique, humorous appeal; it tickles me to observe how naturally he'd apply the same play-to-the-balcony techniques he used for slobberknockers and machine-gun massacres to the body language of his late-period melodramas a couple-three decades hence.
I came into this collection expecting one dominant Spirit storytelling mode to emerge, one style to prove self-evidently definitive. But based on this sampling, the Spirit really could be all things to all funnybook fans: harsh or poignant, stark or silly, realistic or far out, surprisingly rich or divertingly slight, Humphrey Bogart or Tex Avery, a Hero or a Maguffin. Eisner's experiments with form only reinforce the natural diversity of his subject matter. Everyone's entitled to their Spirit. Me, I'll go with the one that entails the most people getting cold-cocked.
This is my final comics review for 2008. Thank you for spending Comics Time with me this year! -Sean