Sean T. Collins has written about comics and popular culture professionally since 2001 and on this very blog since 2003. He has written for Maxim, The Comics Journal, Stuff, Wizard, A&F Quarterly, Comic Book Resources, Giant, ToyFare, The Onion, The Comics Reporter and more. His comics have been published by Top Shelf, Partyka, and Family Style. He blogs here and at Robot 6.
* So like I said, I've been guestblogging over at Robot 6. My first post was on a little story you might have missed about Disney buying Marvel. Oh, hadn't you heard?
* There have been a lot of silly reactions to the news, the most popular being the comment-thread favorite that Disney will somehow water down or neuter Marvel into a family-friendly affair. (Heaven forbid!) I think this is quite obviously nonsense, as the relatively (not completely, but relatively) untrammeled creative trajectories of Disney-owned ABC and Miramax and Hyperion (and even Pixar, in a way) would attest. A slightly more sophisticated and therefore even more baffling idea is that Disney's going to come in and, necessarily, shake up a moribund superhero line--see Ben Schwartz at The Comics Reporter for one such argument. I just can't figure out by what standards Marvel's superhero line is in trouble. Sure, you may not like what Quesada, Bendis et al have done by tying the whole Marvel U. together with black-ops shenanigans, but look at how the comics sell! Particularly relative to the competition, by which I mean "the entire rest of the North American comics industry," Marvel could barely be doing better. I'm all for a theoretical Marvel Comics that's a mass-market juggernaut on par with Twilight or something, but for now Disney has a roc-sized bird in the hand--why go after the two in the bush?
* Proof that God may exist after all: Rambo 5 has been greenlit. This sequel to my favorite movie of 2008 will see John Rambo doing battle with Mexican druglords and human traffickers in order to rescue a kidnapped young girl. The big question is which real-world issue Stallone will be gunning for here: illegal immigration, or the killing fields of Juarez? Given his apparent politics you might expect the former, but given Rambo I'm leaning toward the latter.
* I'm currently two videos deep into a five-part video essay called A Tale of Two Summers: The Evolution of the Modern Blockbuster. Analyzing the summer movies of the pivotal years 1984 and 1989, it's written by Aaron Aradillas and edited by the great Matt Zoller Seitz. The first 1984 segment tackles the rise of MTV and music-video-style editing, the Reagan Era zeitgeist, and the birth of the new teen movie in Risky Business and Sixteen Candles. The second 1984 segment chronicles the birth of PG-13 and the concomitant rise of the "cynical spectacle" of "dark escapism" as Hollywood's "summer blockbuster default mode" with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Dreamscape, Gremlins, and Red Dawn. I don't think I'd ever seen or even heard of Dreamscape before, nor, for some reason, did I realize that Temple of Doom could just have easily been called Indiana Jones and a Series of Shots of People Falling from Great Heights. Lotsa lulz to be had in the editing, too--I particularly liked the juxtaposition of Prince's "Dearly beloved" speech from Purple Rain with the gawking, apocalypse-fearing crowd surrounding Dana Barrett's building at the start of the final act of Ghostbusters. 1989 promises to be juicy as heck.
* I always marvel at Jog's ability to keep his sentences under control when he writes long reviews--mine run me all over the place, like I'm trying to walk a manic Great Dane. Anyway, his review of Inglourious Basterds; if mine was about the film's violence, his is about pretty much everything else. Indeed, the bipolar nature of the rough stuff in the film that so entranced me seems to have confounded him. See what you think.
* God knows I'm a sucker for good World of Warcraft blogging, so I dug this little Matt Maxwell piece about a particularly well-imagined and exciting final boss of a particular part of the game. Besides effectively communicating the baroque, multifaceted maneuvers you need to pull off to survive the fight to a noob like me, he also emphasizes how a good game will catch you off guard even when, as is the case with many WoW players, you've been hacking away at it for a very long time. Also there are giant insects.
* Having finally watched the finalthreeparts of Matt Zoller Seitz and Aaron Aradillas's five-part video essay on the evolution of the modern blockbuster via the summer movies of 1984 and 1989, I have to say it really only lives up to the latter half of that particular billing. If there is a case to be made that the smaller movies they talk about--pioneering indie films like Do the Right Thing and sex, lies and videotape; teen movies like Heathers and Say Anything; mainstream Hollywood movies with no explosions like Field of Dreams and Dead Poets Society--did any sort of cross-pollinating with the big movies they discuss--Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Lethal Weapon 2, The Abyss--to lead to "the modern blockbuster" as we know it, they don't make it. Nor do they specifically cite Batman as the kick-off for the way we think of Summer Blockbusters today, which is always how I'd remembered it; nor do they discuss what kind of audiences went to these movies, which I figured was where the linkage with all the teen movies they were talking about would come. But that said, it's still a fun tour of what made all these flicks tick, and anything that touts the brilliance of Tim Burton's Batman, still the best superhero movie ever made by a comfortable margin, is okay by me.
* My God, I really can't remember the last time I heard horror sites go on about how terrifying a movie was like they've been going on about Paranormal Activity. "Awesome," sure; "terrifying," no. "Scariest Movie of the Decade," apparently?
* Real-World Horror: It's long been clear that Pat Buchanan is a Nazi sympathizer--he wrote a book about it recently!--which is just one of many reasons why I've long loathed Pat Buchanan and marveled at his continued place in the firmament of publicly acceptable punditry. But there's something about his latest piece on the topic, "Did Hitler Want War?", that is disturbing me more than usual. I mean, part of it is just the obvious ridiculousness of his "No" answer to that question. You don't have to have recently read a thousand-page biography of Adolf Hitler (though it helps!) to know that "Hitler didn't want war" is only true in the sense that he would perhaps have preferred to have Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union surrendered to him voluntarily, with Western Europe and Britain then dutifully entering into vassalhood, than to go through the time and expense of conquering them forcibly. (And I'm not even sure I'll grant you that; Hitler and his ruling clique, and even the less Nazified elements of the German military, strongly believed in the salutary effect of military conflict and conquest on the character of a nation. They didn't want to get into just any war, mind you--they wanted wars they could win. But given that natural precondition, war was a-okay.) But more than that, we're living in a time where there is a cottage industry among this country's right wing dedicated to confusing and obfuscating the origins and goals of Hitler and the Nazi Party in order to score short-term political points. Most notably this is being done by deceptively interpreting "National Socialism" as actually having something to do with socialism on the Left. Now, this is just plain stupid, like arguing that because it's called The People's Republic of China, the Red Chinese are Republicans. But it's also outrageous, and offensive, and contrary to any number of readily available accounts of the thoughts, words, and deeds of Hitler and the Nazis. It is, in other words, a deliberate assault on the facts surrounding the deaths of millions and millions of people, including the systematic genocide of six million Jews in the Holocaust, which concept Buchanan cannot even bring himself to acknowledge. It's morally monstrous and its practitioners are moral monsters.
I think there's this presumption that people who are anti-death penalty get there out of some sympathy for criminals, or some wide-eye naivete. Maybe some people get there that way. I came up in an era where young boys thought nothing of killing each other over cheap Starter jackets. I don't have any illusions about the criminal mind. I don't believe in the essential goodness of man--which is exactly why I oppose the death penalty.
I didn't want to like this comic. I didn't even want to read it. There's something...off-putting about that cover, a weird combination of Klasky-Csupo/Gary Baseman character design I never found that appealing and just a lot of brown, empty space. The interiors similarly failed to pull me in--lots of crosshatched backgrounds and clothing placed behind and draped around a cast of sub-Muppets. In order to keep myself sane, my usual criteria for whether I'd even read a comic at all is that I at least have to enjoy flipping through it, so I was sorely tempted to leave this on the shelf and would have done so but for the good things I half-remember hearing about it. Plus, it seemed like it'd be a quick read.
What I didn't count on is the writing. Good Lord. I'm still not 100% sold on his art, but the Chris Wright stories collected here are sharp as a knife, just as incisive, just as likely to leave a wound. Most concern older people coming to terms, or failing to, with their failures: a painter who seems to have traded acclaim for ability, an astronomer who falls in unrequited love with his assistant, a witch who cultivates fine blends of pipe tobacco for an unappreciative Satan, a famous author whose equally gifted but resentful son comes between him and his young wife, another painter whose drinking gives him an outlet for his extravagant self-loathing and a cover for his fear of failure. I suppose these are all fairly well-trodden paths--you don't have to have read Asterios Polyp recently to feel like you've gotten your fair share of stealth-autobio art about the struggles of artists. But Wright is distinguished by the swift and brutal way he deals with the themes. The ends of his stories tend to leave the characters staring down the abyss in matter-of-fact fashion--literally, in the case of the astronomer, who can only gaze once again into his telescope, and in the case of the famous painter, who must trade his blank canvases for the blankest canvas of all. Other stories end with no-nonsense cris de coeur: "What's wrong with me?" asks the alcoholic painter; "FUCK!" yells a man whose confrontation with God over the heartache he feels has been abruptly cut short mid-sentence when God vanishes with a Nightcrawler-style BAMF. The lead-ups to these grand finales are unsparing as well, particularly the story about the father and son authors and the father's wife--that one takes a swing-for-the-fences turn for the disturbing that still manages to preserve the humanity and agency of all the characters involved rather than reducing any of them to something for someone else to react to. Wright accomplishes that in part by pushing the most extreme reactions off-panel, just one of any number of extremely shrewd storytelling choices he makes in here.
And you know, the art does have stuff to recommend it after all. Populating his stories with dollar-store Fraggles may be off-putting at first glance, but it can keep the stories from getting too maudlin or too on-the-nose. It also strangely enhances the period feel of the material--watching these creatures roam around in 19th-century garb reminds me of half-remembered cartoons in which anthropomorphized animals acted out human conflicts in old-timey settings. But his strongest visual flourish is the way he can slowly zoom in and out of abstraction in the middle of his stories, focusing only on the patterns created panel to panel by hands, eyes, stars, candles, enabling our minds to make sense of the images as the characters similarly grapple with their thoughts and emotions. Wright eventually lets this get away from him a bit toward the back of the book in a series of abstracted one-page strips and illustrations--the strongest of these, a short and bitter near-poem about alcoholism, is also the most straightforward. But the way he works such sequences into his traditional short stories bespeaks confidence and skill. This is already one of the best-written comics I've read in quite some time--goodness knows where a few more years at the drawing table will take him.
Agents of Atlas #10
Jeff Parker, writer
Gabriel Hardman, Paul Rivoche, artists
Marvel, September 2009
Credit for this excellent superhero comic must go first and foremost to colorist Elizabeth Dismang. Coloring this nuanced, engaging, and lovely in a superhero comic is a rare treat indeed, and from nighttime parking lots to forgotten mad-science labs to the red hair of the goddess Aphrodite to the sheen of a killer robot, Dismang imbues this issue of Jeff Parker's strong off-model Marvel super-series with warm, sumptuous, tactile hues. Put it together with the just-so minimal-realism (is there such a thing) of Hardman and Rivoche and you have the best-looking variation on modern Marvel's noir-naturalism house style since David Aja on The Immortal Iron Fist (or that Ann Nocenti Daredevil story everyone's talking about). Right now I'm looking at a panel where Venus asks a wistful-looking Namora if she's thinking about her old comrade and lover Hercules, and the team nails the emotion of it just as well as they handle the machine guns and robots of the action sequence that follows it. It's really a joy to look at.
And that makes all the difference, doesn't it? Books like Agents of Atlas, operating at the margins of the mainline superhero universe of which they are nominally a part, live and die on the strength and cleverness of their ideas, or specifically the variation they represent on the usual superhero ideas, if you follow me. But there are a lot of perfectly clever, perfectly nice minor superhero comics out there--you've probably read a lot of them--with art that never rises above the functional, and therefore who cares? But you care about the Agents of Atlas after reading a gorgeous-looking, well-constructed issue like this. Parker packs its pages with idea after idea--you get more exposition on this whole "warring Dragon Clans" idea that makes for a nice fit with the kinds of things Iron Fist fans would appreciate; you get a crazy Weapon Plus-style look at the decades-old killer-robot production program Atlas has instituted; you get a big giant battle with souped-up automatons. But more importantly, you also get that great calm-before-the-storm feeling you'll remember from your favorite action movies, with the characters collecting their thoughts, bonding a bit, but also making damn sure they're ready for whatever's about to come through that door. I know that sounds like such a cliche, but here it feels fresh, rooted to this specific motley crew of characters drawn from the various corners of the Marvel Universe and thrown together by the accident of when they were first published. You'll believe a top-notch, visually and emotionally engaging comic can be made out of an Atlantean queen, a siren, a talking gorilla, a mute robot, a Uranian-Earthling hybrid guy, a dragon, a bunch of knowing yellow-peril/dragon-lady pastiches, a thawed-out secret agent from the '50s, an Art Bell knockoff, and some warp zones. Like Mike Mignola, John Arcudi, and Guy Davis's B.P.R.D., it's an ensemble action book with brains, looks, and heart. Well done all around.
And sure, part of the reason for that is that he takes a hammer to superhero comics I think quite highly of--he dresses down Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev's Daredevil run at length, and dismisses Ed Brubaker, Steve Epting, Mike Perkins et al's Captain America run with a snide parenthetical aside. But more than that, I was surprised by the haphazard manner in which Ng conflates several totally different issues--the lack of credit given to today's artists vs. the lack of detail present in today's scripts vs. the cinematic (as opposed to, um, comics-matic) nature of much of today's comic art.
Meanwhile some of his specific lines of attack seem poorly observed to me. For example: Far be it from me to mount a spirited defense of the art of Pia Guerra on Brian K. Vaughan's Y: The Last Man--its nondescript, not quite cartoony, not quite realistic, Vertigo-house-style stiffness is the reason I didn't read that book until after it ended. But that same, let's say, obviousness is precisely why the book clicked with so many non-comics readers of my acquaintance: It's among the easiest comic art to read that you'll ever come across. Moreover, the whole point of Y is to hew as closely as possible to the real world we know (with one big difference). How are the fervidly imagined dreamscapes of Grant Morrison and Cameron Stewart's Seaguy a relevant point of comparison in either respect? It reminds me of that time a few weeks ago when everyone got on Dan Nadel's case for supposedly comparing Darwyn Cooke to John Stanley, an apples-to-oranges comparison he wasn't actually making--only this time that really is what Ng is doing, even though he occasionally throws in a perfunctory "far be it from me to compare Alex Maleev to Jack Kirby" disclaimer.
I also think it's a mistake to view the Moore/Morrison method of scripting as the pinnacle of the form. That's not to deny the brilliance of either writer, mind you, nor the effectiveness of their best scripts. It's just that with Morrison, there are just as many collaborators who were unable to make his meticulous method work as who succeeded, if not more. And with Moore, that method seemed to do exactly what Ng is decrying elsewhere, which is end up leading audiences to give all the credit to Moore and not his wide array of gifted artistic collaborators. These pitfalls aren't the fault of either writer, of course, and in the normal course of things I wouldn't even bring them up as strikes against their techniques. (Perhaps I'd go after the "plethora of references, symbols and incidental details" Ng lionizes in the work of Morrison and (by implication) Moore; my suspicion of fiction designed to be decoded rather than read is well-documented on this blog.) But the way Ng selectively highlights elements of M&M's methods to make one point even though they'd count against his melange of other points necessitates my doing so. Basically I don't think micromanaging every panel and page is the one true path any more than the far sparser scripting of today's marquee writers is. Further, if these issues have anything to do with, say, Marvel and DC's occasionally unfortunate choice of trade dress for their collected editions, that point needs to be much more rigorously argued than what Ng's up to in his piece.
* Remember when I said that Rambo V was going to be about Rambo vs. Mexican druglords? It's actually going to be about Rambo fighting a monster. Seriously, a genetically engineered monster, created by the government's top secret science-fiction labs, running amok in the Arctic, the whole nine yards. I really, really don't know how to feel about that. On the one hand, Rambo was my favorite movie of 2008, and I think it really established that killing his way through Third World hellholes is Rambo's milieu. On the other hand, I'm not sure there's any place for that particular concept to go after that movie--seriously, they shot kids and jammed rifle barrels into the bullet holes, where else could Stallone take it? And as the Rambo films have come closer and closer to replicating Sylvester Stallone's platonic concept of war as some sort of necessary horror, maybe actual horror is the only way for that concept to become even purer. Click the link to listen to a voice mail Sly left on Harry Knowle's phone about it. I am totally serious.
* Curt Purcell takes on his horror-movie nemesis, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and comes away pleased, if not transformed. Curt's right to believe that seeing this film during one's formative years as a horror fan is a seismic experience; I remember renting it with some buddies and watching it stoned as a lark and ending up feeling like I'd been in some sort of horrible accident. I think what's most interesting in Curt's post is how he hones in on how the film's much-touted documentary-style ugliness is actually a studied series of deliberate choices--one thing that emerges from repeated viewings of the film is that this ostensible ugliness crosses the line into beauty on several occasions (the Pam shot, the final shot, the long shot of the van pulling over to pick up the hitchhiker, some of the nighttime work, etc etc etc).
* As you may have heard, this is a landmark week for popular culture: Crank: High Voltage comes out on DVD today. I...I just can't describe...please see this movie. It makes everything else look like it's half asleep. I don't care if you can hear the bass in Beatles songs that aren't "Don't Let Me Down" now^: You will never feel more alive than you do while watching Crank: High Voltage.
* Lost in my bookmarks: My erstwhile Robot 6 coblogger Chris Mautner caught this fascinating interview with Alan Moore by Mania.com's Kurt Amacker about all things Marvelman. The newsy bit is Moore's statement that his Marvelman material is likely going to be reprinted by Marvel, with his blessing but without his name attached (a decision having to do with his distaste for the material retrospectively, his distaste for Marvel generally, and his distaste for the mainstream American comics industry at large). But even more interesting to me is Moore's account of the long and ugly-sounding saga of his involvement with the Marvelman rights dispute--I, for one, had no idea that the rights to the character seem to have been quite literally stolen out from under Mick Anglo, who legally never ceased to maintain them. I also really liked this bit about Moore's intentions upon writing the character's relaunch/revamp:
"I'd got a vague idea that there was a way that I thought superheroes could be done that would be more gripping and more intense than the way they were being done at the time."
Having not read Marvelman I can't speak to whether or not he pulled it off. But I've read Watchmen a few times, and I think that Moore's current disdainful view of the genre, and that of many critics who use Moore's superhero work as a cudgel against the genre in general, obscures the fact that at its heart, that book's a cracking good superhero story that succeeds on exactly the grounds Moore stipulates above. I wouldn't be surprised to find this true of Marvelman as well.
* I said earlier on Twitter that I love the Beatles and that the current onslaught of Beatles coverage couldn't go on long enough as far as I was concerned. (This was before I read Chuck Klosterman's egregious AV Club piece. Ugh. But still.) In that light I recommend Pitchfork's overview and album-by-album coverage of the Beatles' catalog's CD rereleases, all of which can be found by clicking that link. Mark Richardson's overview explains in easy-to-grok detail what's going on with the remastering and packaging and why you should (or shouldn't!) care. Tom Ewing's album reviews (he's done the five pre-Rubber Soul records so far) chart a steady course between the Scylla and Charybdis of Beatles criticism--tediously reverent supplication and equally tediously wrongheaded skepticism--neither throwing his hands up in surrendered awe nor spitting out barbs about the emperor's new clothes but focusing instead just on what they're doing with each song and each album and how it does or doesn't click. This being the Beatles, it mostly clicks hard, and Ewing's open about that, which I appreciate.
I also appreciate the case he lays out for the creative identities of each of these early records. I think I've described before how the Beatles fit on a continuum with J.R.R. Tolkien and Monty Python for my adolescent self--art as a dizzying torrent of information, a multifaceted array of reference-making and world-building. And so, as I imagine was the case for many fans of my ilk, it's really the psychedelic and post-psychedelic material that clicked with me hardest--Sgt. Pepper onward, for the most part, during my teen years, and to a lesser extent Rubber Soul and Revolver after that. These records, of course, also fit most neatly with the rockist philosophy that largely held sway among music critics prior to this decade--the belief system that holds "John was the only true genius in the group" a truth to be self-evident. (This viewpoint still lives, by the way--I saw Mikal Gilmore say exactly that in a supplement to his recent Rolling Stone cover story on the Beatles' break-up and I was momentarily stunned. That's what a decade of poptimism and being surrounded by Macca boosters will do to you.) Now, I never disliked the early pop smashes, far from it. (Except maybe "Twist and Shout," because that's how much I hate Ferris Bueller.) In fact I always liked them a lot--they just didn't fire my imagination. Since then I've come to love them. But I'd never really sat and processed a case for the albums some of them came from as albums--as full-length statements by artists, as opposed to soundtracks and odds'n'sods collections of radio staples and covers and slow-dance pop ballads churned out by record labels--prior to reading Ewing's work here. It's really rather exciting and I recommend it if this isn't something you'd ever really considered before.
Sweet Tooth #1
Jeff Lemire, writer/artist
DC/Vertigo, September 2009
Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! have a recurring...concept, I guess? called "Brown Town." Sometimes it's used as a euphemism for potty humor: "That 'Poop Tube' sketch was a little too Brown Town for our parents." Sometimes it's just a funny-sounding nonsense phrase, as in their unsolicited candy jingle-cum-Doobie Brothers pastiche "Rolo Tony." But I like to think it's meant to describe where we're often taken by colorists for Vertigo comics.
Jose Villarrubia's Lee Loughridge impersonation aside, this is a fascinating little comic just because of how different it is from pretty much everything else Vertigo has done this decade. There's no fabulous and violent rock'n'rollin', there's no in-your-face ugliness (except for one shot--pun intended), there's no modern-mythmaking, no real echoes of Gaiman or Ennis or Ellis or Azzarello or Willigham. And there's no writer/artist team, either--it's just Jeff Lemire, author of Top Shelf's Essex County trilogy and creator of some of the best damn convention sketches you will ever see. It's tough to imagine a better fit for this story of an isolated deer-boy hybrid left on his own in an unforgiving post-apocalyptic world after the death of his father than Lemire's shaky, nervous line, which has always had a vulnerable deer-in-the-headlights quality and which isn't toned down or slicked up a bit for this major-label effort. Even the bloodspatter remains an abstracted splash of red rather than an HBO Original gorefest. The art holds color well, moreover, though as I said, it might be nice if colors other than brown were deployed for that purpose. Instant-classic cover, too, perhaps the best the imprint has seen...I was gonna say since Dave Johnson on 100 Bullets or James Jean on Fables, but this strikes me as potentially iconic in and of itself in a way that those storied cover-art runs only were in toto.
In one of those self-promoting editorial columns Vertigo creators do during a series launch, Lemire suggests that what sets Sweet Tooth apart from your average monthly comic is the quietness of his approach, an approach he's carrying over from his altcomix, the idea being that when something really fucked up happens, it'll be that much more startling. I think he's right, so far, one issue in. Now, there are things I'm not so sure about--the boy's dialect scans a bit like Claremontian cliche at times, while his bumpkin naivete and the hunters' gruff bad-guy-ness are a little too high-pitched to maintain that delicate quietness Lemire's striving for. And this is a bit picayune, but I feel like a lot of shots crop off the characters' feet for no reason? But regardless, this is a very likeable book, a comic you want to succeed really for all the right reasons: It's clearly the product of a personal vision rather than an attempt to fill some kind of niche, it has lovely art, it attempts to win you over to its characters rather than bash you over the head with their badassness, and it honestly seems like it could go anyplace at all at this point. I'll be following it.
* CBR and my friend Kiel Phegley landed Joe Quesada's one and only interview about the Disney/Marvel acquisition until the completion of the deal. I found it funny how Kiel dutifully asked question after specific question about the future of Marvel and Disney's various comics enterprises only for Quesada to offer variations on "no comment" due to legal concerns. But it's still an interesting interview in terms of the tick-tock of Quesada's involvement with the merger, and his repeated and adamant assertion that this will change Marvel's existing creative direction not one iota.
* Pitchfork is still on the Beatles beat, with reviews of Rock Band and everything from Rubber Soul through Magical Mystery Tour. Scott Plagenhoef's reviews of those records aren't quite as revelatory as were Tom Ewing's takes on the earlier albums, but it would be tough to be since so much more has been written and thought about these ones. It'd be very, very difficult for me to find a new in for Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, you know? But the Magical Mystery Tour review comes pretty close, articulating that childlike-wonder, storybook feel I allude to from time to time. And it was nice to see all four albums get wall-to-wall 10.0s--no earlier-funnier-stuff revisionism for Sgt. Pepper, no "it's nice, but not really an album" for Magical Mystery Tour. Best band ever, best albums ever, why fuck around? I'm really curious as to what they'll say about the White Album and Abbey Road, for which I see more and more detractors because of the fractured nature of the band at the time of their recording. But who cares, honestly? I must have missed all the complaints that Big Boi should have had a bigger role in the recording of "Hey Ya." The White Album contains every emotion I've ever had, so I don't care if they weren't holding hands while they recorded it, or if John, George, and Paul's songs all sound different. That's the appeal!
It's weird that you pretty much only have Dirk's frontal assault on the one hand and then a slew of panegyrics, from Brian Hibbs and Heidi MacDonald to Kurt Busiek and Marv Wolfman, on the other. You're not seeing much in the way of "he did a good job on these things and a lousy job on these things," or even just "he was mostly good but lousy on this issue" or "he was mostly lousy but good on this issue." I think Brian might have inadvertently gotten to the heart of the divide with this comment-thread explanation of his concerns about the industry in the post-Levitz era:
...Paul, specifically, was an agent that always kept the DM in mind as one of his primary and most important markets.
Maybe whether or not you view Levitz as a hero or a villain comes down to whether you share his apparent prioritization of preserving the Direct Market, the beating heart of North American comics culture, as currently constituted over other concerns, be they commercial or creative. Although I think it's more complicated than that, since I've heard from more people than Dirk that Levitz's role in DM history during the '90s wasn't always indisputably that of someone with its long-term best interest at heart. I've heard similarly conflicting things about his role in the evolving conception of creators' rights, a split perhaps best characterized as one between incrementalism and absolutism. I dunno, man, I just read comics.
* Anyway, CBR's Jonah Weiland interviewed Levitz and incoming DC Entertainment honcho Diane Nelson about the restructuring and reshuffling. The news here is that Levitz's Publisher role will be filled by a person to be determined later rather than becoming part of Nelson's job; also, Nelson's assurances that DC's editorial/creative direction won't be touched aren't quite as absolute as were Bob Iger's regarding Marvel. Then again, Nelson's admittedly not a comics person, and it sounds unlikely that she'll dive into that end of DCE's business all that much initially simply because she'll need a crash course on it first.
* This would feel like bigger news if it weren't for all the seismic goings-on involving Disney and Marvel, Kodansha and Tokyopop, and Warner Bros. and DC over the past crazy week and a half, I think, but New York Comic Con is merging with New York Anime Festival. Which makes it sound like a) North America now has its second-biggest public nerd-culture gathering pretty set in stone, and b) the con wars are going to change the shape of the North American con scene above and beyond whether or not more Wizard/Shamus shows are started or shuttered.
* Hey, while we're talking about Warner Bros. (we were, a while ago, remember?), Joel Silver's WB take on He-Man and the Masters of the Universe is dunzo, leading to much rejoicing from the expected quarters. And me, too, probably--that treatment sounded like crap. Sadly, I think the failure of Speed Racer combined with the success of the Transformers movies and G.I. Joe signals that the weirdness of He-Man will be well and truly drained from the property by the time it hits the silver screen. I'd be happy to be wrong about that, though.
* The final slew of Pitchfork Beatles reissue reviews is up. The late-model Beatles albums have found themselves out of favor over the years for reasons quite different than, say, Sgt. Pepper, but I've always loved them, the White Album and Abbey Road in particular. The point of the Beatles is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and if anything I think that's even more true when those constituent parts are all the more visible. In his review of the White Album, my favorite album by anyone ever, Mark Richardson puts it best:
Listening as the tracks scroll by, there's a constant feeling of discovery.
I don't think that would be true if the band were still functioning like a well-oiled machine. Sure, you might have gotten something astonishing if they were, but why bog yourself down in hypotheticals when the actual is so sprawling and all-encompassing and astonishing already?
Once again, I was pleased to see 10s for those two albums, and 9-pluses for Let It Be and Past Masters. It's difficult to pinpoint a time when the Beatles weren't at the height of their powers, and they were the best band of all time, so again, why beat around the bush? Plus, on a cheeky level, giving Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Magical Mystery Tour, The Beatles, and Abbey Road all 10s will enable the "which album is the best?" debate to continue unimpeded. (I almost wish they'd given one an 11.)
One last thing: I know comparing anything to the Beatles is like some sort of reverse Godwin's Law, but when you read things like this, the magnitude of their achievement becomes very, very difficult not to overshadow pretty much every creative enterprise undertaken ever since:
The Beatles' run in the 1960s is good fodder for thought experiments. For example, Abbey Road came out in late September 1969. Though Let It Be was then still unreleased, the Beatles wouldn't record another album together. But they were still young men: George was 26 years old, Paul was 27, John was 28, and Ringo was 29. The Beatles' first album, Please Please Me, had come out almost exactly six and a half years earlier. So if Abbey Road had been released today, Please Please Me would date to March 2003.
Breathtaking. Look on their works, ye mighty, and despair.
God bless America
Land that I love
Stand beside her
And guide her
Through the night with a light from above
From the mountains
To the prairies
To the oceans white with foam
God bless America
My home sweet home
As he followed her inside Mother Abagail's house he thought it would be better, much better, if they did break down and spread. Postpone organization as long as possible. It was organization that always seemed to cause the problems. When the cells began to clump together and grow dark. You didn't have to give the cops guns until the cops couldn't remember the names...the faces...
Fran lit a kerosene lamp and it made a soft yellow glow. Peter looked up at them quietly, already sleepy. He had played hard. Fran slipped him into a nightshirt.
All any of us can buy is time, Stu thought. Peter's lifetime, his children's lifetimes, maybe the lifetimes of my great-grandchildren. Until the year 2100, maybe, surely no longer than that. Maybe not that long. Time enough for poor old Mother Earth to recycle herself a little. A season of rest.
"What?" she asked, and he realized he had murmured it aloud.
"A season of rest," he repeated.
"What does that mean?"
"Everything," he said, and took her hand.
Looking down at Peter he thought: Maybe if we tell him what happened, he'll tell his own children. Warn them. Dear children, the toys are death--they're flashburns and radiation sickness, and black, choking plague. These toys are dangerous; the devil in men's brains guided the hands of God when they were made. Don't play with these toys, dear children, please, not ever. Not ever again. Please...please learn the lesson. Let this empty world be your copybook.
"Frannie," he said, and turned her around so he could look into her eyes.
"Do you think...do you think people ever learn anything?"
She opened her mouth to speak, hesitated, fell silent. The kerosene lamp flickered. Her eyes seemed very blue.
"I don't know," she said at last. She seemed unpleased with her answer; she struggled to say something more; to illuminate her first response; and could only say it again:
Starting off a review of a Brian Chippendale comic by talking a plot seems like the laziest most wrongheaded way to start off a review of a Brian Chippendale comic, like an unwitting parody of all the lame comics criticism that other comics critics criticize for focusing on writing rather than art. Shouldn't I be saying something about markmaking or snake-style layouts? Maybe, but much more so than with Chippendale's Maggots, the creation of which predated and the publication of which followed this book, the plot of Ninja matters. Not just as a driver for the imagery, but to Chippendale, and to me.
The book starts with these silly little comics about a ninja--basically, fighting against Cobra from GI Joe--that Chippendale drew when he was 11. They look like a child artist's representation of a sidescrolling Nintendo game, like Ninja Gaiden: After breaking into a bad-guy base, the ninja will move forward or up or down and discover a new opponent, and we watch as he figures out a way to defeat or avoid each enemy. Most of these strips end when the ninja, having stolen some valuables from the evildoers, successfully escapes from their lair and returns to his home (complete with its incongruously normal front door). What Chippendale does in this collection is every so often insert a brand-new, recently drawn strip between the stuff he drew as a kid, fleshing out the Ninja's home life and world at large. Meanwhile, in the world of the kid strips, the bad guys become less involved with...whatever it was they were up to before the Ninja showed up, and more and more fixated on capturing and killing the Ninja in retribution for all the havoc he's caused them.
The problem for Chippendale is that his younger self was apparently less dedicated to making art than his grown-up incarnation--like many kids who spent their youths creating their own, enthusiastically derivative fantasy worlds to play in, he eventually ran out of steam, and his final Ninja strip from that era is unfinished. The solution? A new penultimate strip, in which the bad guys build a doomsday device that gets out of control and begins absorbing reality as we know it. Now, when 11-year-old Chippendale's last Ninja strip abruptly cuts off mid-page, leaving rows of blank panels unfilled beneath it, it's not just a kid losing interest and putting his pencil down to go play Nintendo or skateboard--it's the end of a world as we know it.
Cut to 18 years later, and to the bulk of the book. Now, in typical Fort Thunder fashion (prefigured to an astonishing degree by the space-based action of the kid stuff) we explore the city of Grain and its surroundings, where the Ninja and his enemies once lived. Only now, with the Ninja gone and his "killing villains for fun and profit" activities curtailed, the city's gone to hell. Not the openly dictatorial hell that the old Bad Guys might have ushered in--they seem to have been consumed by their own device, unless I missed something--but a quotidian nightmare of corrupt public officials, rapacious corporate raiders, callous resource thieves, brutal cops, and relentless, even violent, gentrification and homogenization. Everyone may still look like refugees from Super Mario or the Masters of the Universe, and the level of violence and dimension-hopping and overall weirdness remains consistent with that, but in essence their concerns are the same as those of an artist who returns home from a tour with his noise-rock band to discover the place he'd lived and worked in for years had chains on the doors so the city could raze it and install a supermarket parking lot.
Of course none of this is super-apparent from the get-go. I spent a decent amount of time waiting for the Ninja to show up again after the 18-year jump, storming back into town to take it back. But as we watch Chippendale's little groups of characters--good, bad, and ugly alike--go about their zany business, it becomes apparent that there's a build to the eventual reveal of "What happened to the Ninja?" to rival any slow-burn mystery-villain storyline Marvel or DC have done this decade. And once you find out, the solution is elegantly simple, childlike, charming, and utterly inspiring. I'm not going to spoil it, but suffice it to say I closed this book feeling better about humanity than I've felt in quite some time. Maybe there is a solution after all.
Okay, so, the art. The collage material is an eye-candy orgy as you'd expect, one of the purest distillations of that aspect of Chippendale and the whole Providence scene's output as I've seen so far, though for the life of me I couldn't figure out what role it was playing in the narrative--it didn't seem to pop up at logical reality-warping breaks, like when the Bad Guys' machine ran amok and caused a House of M style fade to white--until I read in PictureBox's synopsis of the book that they're just chapter breaks. More immediately grokkable and impressive to me were the many, many bravura moments in the comics themselves--painstakingly delineated Dore-style deserts, a city covered completely in OCD stripes, characters becoming aware of a spy camera filming them in a scene simultaneously "shot" from their perspective and that of the camera, two scenes taking place at the same time but on different vibrational planes suddenly smooshed together in strips as though they were pieced together from two separate shredded documents, a brutal torture sequence and hot sex scene both showing up in the book's final act. And Chippendales back-and-forth panel flow is so addictive (and much more consistent than in Maggots) that I found myself trying to read other comics that way after finishing Ninja. There's a certain magic to these elements that feeds into and plays off of the narrative even when it doesn't have any strict narrative cause, like any great spectacle.
But ultimately this is a book about an idea: the need to persevere in your pursuit of fun, which in most of the ways that matter is a synonym for Good with a capital g. Sometimes, compromise may be necessary--after all, the Ninja was slicing up bad guys not just because in the world of the comic it's the right thing to do, but for their loot; and (still trying to avoid being spoilery, though this may skirt the edge) his ultimate fate does not necessarily provide a happy ending for everyone. But you can reclaim the comics you made when you were a kid and build them up into a statement on where you are as a grown-up without sacrificing the buoyant illogic and unfettered imagination that came through originally. You can hang on to the important things you found in your arts-commune idyll even when the outside world finally smashes down the walls around you. You can still think ninjas are cool.
Is it just me, or are the Beatles the best argument in favor of recreational drug use ever? It's universally acknowledged--indeed it's all but written into the band's official unofficial hagiography--that the full flowering of the band's genius stemmed directly from their discovery of marijuana and LSD. Before drugs they were awesome-to-behold hitmakers, yeah, but after drugs they recorded Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Magical Mystery Tour, the White Album, and Abbey Road, and transformed human society, more or less. Certainly that's the contour of the storybook version of their career as will become canon for a generation courtesy of Rock Band--the missing ingredient is elided, but all of a sudden they go from a rockin' live act to godlike beings performing psychedelic masterpieces in "dreamscapes." Best of all, drugs didn't contribute to their break-up, and none of them O.D.'d! Drugs were terrific for the Beatles. And yet even as we trumpet the treasures that pot and acid helped John, Paul, and George mine from their brains, the government will be spending millions upon millions of dollars telling kids that recreational drug use is always horrible. Lying to them, in other words. (Drink up, though!)
My friend Rob Bricken, aka Topless Robot, has a recurring feature at his site called Fan Fiction Friday, the goal of which is to plumb the abyss of horror that is the collective imagination of the nerd Internet. This week's installment is about a woman having sex with a baby Pokemon teddy-bear thing. But where it really takes off is when the author (search the page for Brickhousebunny21) shows up to complain and threaten. He leads with WHOSE RESPONSIBLE THIS?, as meme-worthy a phrase I've seen on the Internet since "I am aware of all Internet traditions." It's an ALL YOUR BASE ARE BELONG TO US waiting to happen. I'm working it into my repertoire immediately. The next time I'm outraged by something on the Internet, I'm damn well gonna try to find out whose responsible this.
* Speaking of sales, Top Shelf and PictureBox are both having great ones right about now. The Top Shelf sale boasts some real steals, while the PictureBox sale ends tomorrow. Shop early, shop often!
* Cameron Stewart will be drawing the third arc of Grant Morrison's Batman and Robin! Announcement here; more art here; interview here; attempt to read the tea leaves as to what this means for Frank Quitely's previously announced second arc and Frazer Irving's never officially announced but talked about by Morrison and Stewart arc here.
* One of the reasons I've been enjoying (and repeatedly linking to) Curt Purcell's Blackest Night posts is because as a lapsed reader of superhero comics who's been away from them for quite some time, he's coming at the project with a set of assumptions we devotees don't have, and without another set of assumptions that we devotees do have. In his latest post on BN, he voices disappointment that despite ten or so issues of Blackest Night comics if you count all the tie-ins, the only thing that's really happened is some old superheroes and supervillains have come back as Black Lanterns and attacked other superheroes. Having spent the past eight years or so reading superhero comics on the regular, it was weird to me just to see Curt use the phrase "ten issues later" to describe where we're at with Blackest Night--by my reckoning, i.e. by the numbering of the main BN series, we're only two issues deep. It would never occur to me that anything important would happen in any of the tie-ins, except perhaps the Johns-authored Green Lantern and Tales of the Corps issues. There are a couple of routes recent event comics have taken to make their tie-ins matter: You can use them to fill in all the important story details that your main-series slugfest elides, as did Secret Invasion scribe Brian Bendis in his vastly superior New Avengers and Mighty Avengers issues; or you can make the tie-ins have little, if anything, to do with the main series, as Grant Morrison, Geoff Johns, and Greg Rucka did with their Final Crisis minis. The problems here are obvious, though: The former can leave fans feeling like we could have lost a few boring battle splash pages in favor of actual information, while the latter can leave fans scratching their heads and ruing their purchases.
* The quote of the day comes from Squirrel Machine author Hans Rickheit:
I have now graduated from being someone who draws comics that no-one reads to a person that draws comics that no-one comprehends!
A murderers’ row of comics critics will address general issues facing comics criticism today and will candidly discuss several new and recent works in a lively, no-holds-barred, roundtable conversation. Rob Clough, Sean Collins, Gary Groth, Chris Mautner, Joe McCulloch, Tucker Stone and Douglas Wolk will share their acute critical insights with moderator Bill Kartalopoulos.
The New Action
For decades, independent cartoonists have labored to distinguish their work from the corporately-controlled material popularly associated with the form. In the process, artist-driven comics have frequently avoided genres such as adventure, fantasy, and science fiction. Recent years, however, have seen a wave of cartoonists who embrace genre and have explored new ways to activate comics’ ability to depict movement, action, and spectacle. Sean Collins will discuss these topics and more with Shawn Cheng, Benjamin Marra, Brian Ralph, Frank Santoro and Kazimir Strzepek.
SPX is Saturday, September 26th and Sunday, September 27th. Please come and say hello!
Given what I've been reading lately I can't help but compare Hans Rickheit to Fort Thunder. Like Brian Chippendale, Mat Brinkman, Brian Ralph et al, Rickheit spent the late '90s and very early '00s living and working in a combination art gallery/performance space/flophouse in a New England college town--theirs, Fort Thunder, in Providence; his, the Zeitgeist Gallery, in Cambridge. Like them, he saw his one-time shangri-la end before its time--theirs by municipal diktat, his by fire. Like them--and, like them, perhaps unsurprisingly given his years-long conflation of room and board with bristol board--he creates comics centered on the exploration of space, rooms, houses, environments. And like them, he fills that space with marks, so that reading one is almost a tactile, exploratory experience itself.
But the similarities are not complete. Unlike Ralph's cavemen or Brinkman's monsters or Chippendale's warriors, Rickheit's Edwardians are observers at least as much as explorers. Though they move about in his strange, gristly world, they are not of that world. More often than not they're limned by a fine white void; it serves the purpose of making them pop against his often overwhelming backgrounds, yes, but it also reinforces their separateness, their otherness. They wander through strange environments constructed by unknown architects, gazing through lenses and orifices at any number of bizarre transmixtures of human, animal, and machine. They are constantly seeing things, to borrow the title of a book by Rickheit's visual and thematic kindred spirit Jim Woodring. When we see what they see, the effect is reminiscent of catching a glimpse of an older family member as he or she masturbates, or strips to reveal what Rickehit's friend E. Stephen Frederick refers to in his memorably Kenneth Smithian introduction to The Squirrel Machine as "secondary hair."
In the comics of the Fort, exploration is, at worst, value-neutral. In Ralph's comics they lead mostly to mischief and lessons learned (though that changed somewhat in the bleak zombie comic Daybreak), in Chippendale's they usually lead to freedom or adventure, and in Brinkman's, for every bleak wordless parable of creatures lost in an endless maze, there's another LOL-inducing story of a beast barging into a castle to take a dump on the king's throne. In Rickheit's comics, though, the explorations and the visions waiting at their conclusions are unmistakably disturbing. They reveal creatures and creations of arcane origin and dubious value, frequently hidden inside a smoothly artificial or warmly organic surface like a grotesque parody of birth, or a Cracker Jack prize. When you end up at the end of one of Rickheit's wonderings, there's a sense that, to quote Trent Reznor, "Now I am somewhere I am not supposed to be, and I can see things I know I really shouldn't see." That's no less true for our desire to see them. In this, he has more in common with Josh Simmons than with the Fort, though unlike the House author, up until this point the damage incurred in Rickheit's characters' travels is more psychological than physical.
This changes in The Squirrel Machine, Rickheit's Fantagraphics debut and for all intents and purposes a simultaneous coming-out party and summation of all that has gone before. In the past--his Xeric-winning erotic coming-of-age nightmare Chloe, his dewily sexualized surrealist gag strip Cochlea & Eustacea--Rickheit imbued his character's journeys into what he refers to as the Underbrain with a sliver of redemptive power. Chloe finds something that replaces what she lost; Cochlea and Eustacea's antics are as funny and horny as they are freaky. But here, the downbeat direction hinted at by C&E's fate in the last issue of Rickheit's self-published anthology Chrome Fetus emerges in full flower, and the result is awesome to behold.
In Rickheit's story of the brilliant brothers Torpor, William and Edmund, art does not provide the antidote to the encroaching cruelty of the civilized world, as it does in Chippendale's Ninja. On the contrary, the art of William and Edmund is wholly dependent on the taking of life. Their childhood games aren't free-spirited enactments of the struggle of good against evil, and they're not really games, either. They're attempts to follow their brains as far as they can take them. Other beings--the animals who are their chosen medium, their hapless mother, the angry townsfolk and mocking bullies--factor in only as means rather than ends. Even exploration itself is represented as a frightening loss of control by its most prominent exponent here, Edmund's sleepwalking. There seems to be no escape from the power structure of oppressor and oppressed.
The one exception to that rule is for those with whom they can form a sexual connection--but even that will only be allowed to take them so far. Visually, Rickheit tips his hand after the book's first big sex scene. It's weird, hot stuff as always from Rickheit, rooted in memorable details that serve to knock you off balance and make you vulnerable like the characters themselves. But in the middle of the act we cut to a stunning two-page spread, silent, no people present--simply incredibly byzantine images of the Torpor family home, utterly cluttered with the detritus of their inventions. Pipes and chains and ropes and stairs and beams and wires crisscross the panels, creating along with the gutters a dense thicket of tangents and congruences. The eye is led everywhere and nowhere all at once. The message is clear: Sex offers no escape. And like art, it can, and likely will, destroy and degrade and subjugate. When life and love, of a sort, finally do reassert themselves at the book's end, it's horrifying and drawn in a fashion that makes it look less like a natural thing and more like a terrible apparition, or a special effect.
It's strange, but of all the dizzying details Rickheit deploys in The Squirrel Machine, the one that stood out the most to me came early on in the book: A distant water tower topped not with the usual tank, but with what looks like a giant version of the old-fashioned, grated helmets divers once wore. It sits atop a tower and beside a train trestle that are both as realistic as you please, but there it is, a mute monument to illogic. In Grant Morrison and Dave McKean's Arkham Asylum, Amadeus Arkham recalls his fateful initiation into his mad mother's "other world":
A world of fathomless signs and portents. Of magic and terror. And mysterious symbols.
This has long been the world Rickheit has chronicled. The allure in both cases is that these portents can be scryed, these symbols can be decoded, this world can be mapped. But it's only in reading this book--a painstaking chronicle of the lack of solace provided by art to the powerless--and thinking back on the diver's-helmet tower that I realized that in our darkest moments, it's easy to see that world as our world too--only the symbols can't be read. When exploration is punished, when everything we see feels like something we oughtn't, when theoretically life-affirming forces are either nipped in the bud or exposed as brutal frauds, doesn't it all seem as maddeningly inscrutable as a giant diver's helmet on top of a water tower? That there's some reason for it all, something lurking beneath the surface, something we will never, ever get to?
* Patrick Swayze died yesterday. He was the star of the movie Road House, the foundational text of the Manly Movie Mamajama and a favorite way for The Missus and I to while away a couple of leisurely hours on the weekends. As such it's difficult to exaggerate the enjoyment he's given me over the past four years or so. I'm really sorry he died.
* My fellow MMM attendees are also as upset as you'd imagine. Rickey Purdin is posting a Swayze sketch a day every day for the rest of the month, while if you read only one emotional tribute to the man and his movies, make it Chris Ward's.
* Now that I'm done plugging my own appearances (I'm presenting an Ignatz Award too! Okay, now I'm done) I want to point out that SPX's programming slate for this year boasts and more.
1) The idea that somewhere between Marvel's current domination of the rump Direct Market and holding it to the sales standard of Stephenie Meyer or James Patterson there's a middle ground in which it, and the DM overall, simply does a better job of getting comics to the kinds of people who are interested in buying comics. There probably are plenty of runners left on the bases, particularly in terms of Marvel's book program. And this is really just a subset of larger point regarding the potential for major structural changes resulting from these moves, not just trying to push a little harder or stretch things out a little further in existing directions.
2) The speculation that Jim Lee may be named Publisher of DC. Why not!
* I can't believe there are only six issues of Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris's Ex Machina left! This was always my favorite of BKV's creator-owned titles, though now I'm hopelessly far behind and am going to have to catch up in trade. In the back of my mind I always reminded myself that the series revealed it was going to have a down ending right on the first page of the first issue, and I'm excited to see what that down ending is.
* It only just occurred to me after reading his review of New Avengers #49 that Ninja author Brian Chippendale named his new blog Marvelous Coma because it's going to be about Marvel comics. Holy smokes. Meanwhile, you can't tell me that issue wouldn't have been better if it had Chippendales suggested extra page in it.
* For a long time I've thought about the kinds of superhero comics readers who follow characters rather than creators in terms I borrowed from Jerry Seinfeld's routine about sports fans: Like people who love a player when he's on "their" team but hate him after he leaves even though the only difference is the uniform, fans who'll buy any goddamn Batman comic regardless of who's writing or drawing him are, in essence, rooting for laundry. But I'd never thought of using this analogy in defense, or at least in explanation, of that weird completist behavior the way Tim O'Neil does in his latest X-Men essay. Tim likens fans who'll buy the X-Men no matter what to fans of the Cubs or other perennial also-rans, where not only are you expected to stick with the team through thick and thin, the thin periods actually increase rather than decrease your devotion. Of course, I don't like sports either. Anyway, Tim also advances an argument as to why the X-Men franchise cratered in the '00s: He blames Grant Morrison, though not in the way you're thinking. (My theory is that Marvel doesn't really grok the outsider concept anymore, hence the mangling of the mutant-minority metaphor in House of M, but Tim's got a point.)
* I stumbled across Chris Mautner's review of Jeff Lemire's Sweet Tooth #1 in my RSS reader today, and his throwaway line about the deus ex machina at the end of the issue got me thinking: The serialized comic book can be a real turkey of a format for long-form stories, can't it? I thought the ending was by far the weakest and most pat thing about the issue, and it's not hard to see how it was nothing more or less than an in-story solution to the logistical problem of having to stop the issue there instead of going on in the laconic fashion Lemire's independent projects afford him. I actually think this hurts more in "serious" books like this than in superhero comics--with superheroes, you've sort of been raised to expect that cliffhanger. Here, it's kind of like watching an hour-long drama that has to end with every commercial break and start up again four minutes later.
I had a whole long tedious review of these comics written out and five seconds ago I deleted it. Didn't even copy it to the clipboard first! I think it's stupid to write a boring review of an exciting comic. (Not that it's stopped me in the past...) And Night Business is definitely an exciting comic, the kind of thing you want to sneak into the hands of all your teenaged cousins or spill beer and pizza grease on during the Crank 2: High Voltage/Road House/Predator movie marathon you're having this Friday night.
The point I was trying to make in the scrapped review was that Night Business isn't a pastiche of '80s trash-culture thrillers as found in straight-to-video late-night-cable exploitation movies or "adult" independent comics from fly-by-night "publishers" so much as it's a re-creation of them. Dolly Parton (whom, coincidentally, Marra has drawn) famously said "it costs a lot of money to look this cheap"; while I doubt that Night Business cost anyone a lot of money, its cheapness is clearly hard-earned. Benjamin Marra's art is studiously amateurish and ugly in a totally consistent fashion--precisely the way that the art of someone whose natural talent is totally outgunned by his boundless enthusiasm and obsession bordering on dedication would be. These blocky, blockheaded, stiff figures--everyone, male and female, looks like their bodies are 85% gristle--seem like the thought-through product of a worldview, like they're the output of someone who's drawn page after page after meaty, pulpy page of these people without ever thinking twice about what anyone will think of it (beyond, perhaps, "they'll fuckin' love it!"). The layouts are simple, all business, as if to say "enough of all the frou-frou, let's just see what happens next." Every outfit is peeled from some hair-metal or porno fantasy world where men are either leather and denim street toughs or sharp-dressed sharks in suits, and where women routinely walk around in lingerie and heels. The City (capitalized like a motherfucker) consists almost solely of strip clubs, alleys, morgues, and the preposterous offices of an exotic-dancer management empire; everything is lit by streetlights or neon. In order to offset some of the icky taste that might be left in your mouth by doing a story about the serial murder of strippers while spending page after page depicting the naked bodies of those strippers (necessarily, I think; look how toothless Robert Rodriguez's strangely prudish grindhouse homage Planet Terror ended up being without it), the series takes a page from every bard of the urban nightpeople since Steve Perry's small-town girl took the midnight train going anywhere and builds up the hopes, desires, and dreams of each dancer as she takes it off to the leering crowds. Sure, they're all pure-dee hokum, but in a world where the men's emotions can all be expressed by grimacing and never rise above the complexity level of a Blackest Night tie-in issue's Lantern Corps appearances, they're the most psychologically fleshed-out characters in the book. The effect isn't just reminiscent of some bargain-bin Scarface, it's identical. If it weren't for the ironic author photo and bio giving the game away at the back of each issue you'd never know that Marra is, on some level at least, kidding. And by that point, who cares? Smoke 'em if you got 'em and bring on issue #3.
* A very happy 5th blogiversary to the best comics blogger, Tom Spurgeon!
* Because I'm a nincompoop, when I linked to SPX's programming slate the other day I didn't actually mention anyone who was on it. How about John Porcellino, Jeffrey Brown, Matt Furie, Lisa Hanawalt, Kate Beaton, Eleanor Davis, Hellen Jo, Matthew Thurber, and a metric ton more? Fantagraphics in particular is apparently out to just murder people: Its guests include Kevin Huizenga, Gahan Wilson, Hans Rickheit, and Al Columbia, while they're debuting Ganges #3, Portable Grindhouse, The Squirrel Machine, Steve Ditko's Strange Suspense, Al Columbia's Pim & Francie, Mome Vol. 16, Jacques Tardi's You Are Here...ye gods.
* Jason Adams presents links to relevant news and views on a trio of films of potential interest to readers of this blog: the Aliens/28 Weeks Later-model-following sequel [REC]2, the David Lynch-produced, Werner Herzog-directed My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, and (get this) the remake of the Coen Brothers' Blood Simple by Hero and House of Flying Daggers director Zhang Yimou, Three Guns.
* In both a post and the comment thread that follows, Joe "Jog" McCulloch says some provocative things about Frank Quitely's work on Batman & Robin. I don't agree with his conclusions--I'm not even sure I agree with his assertions; I don't think I ever once read one of those issues and thought "man, Quitely's action scenes are too slow and too tough to parse"--but I do take a perverse pleasure in iconoclasm. Of course, after Batman & Robin #4, Jog's plea for people to quit acting like Quitely's an impossible act to follow can only cause a single tear to slowly fall from one eye, like Frodo.
Here's the thing: Morrison's worked with worse artists on this run. Although I wouldn't say Tony Daniel is one of them; and as with Daniel, Tan at least has been imposed on Morrison for a story arc about extreme '90s-style anti-heroism, so his Image-derived style makes some sense. But Daniel, Andy Kubert, and the guy who drew the two Final Crisis tie-in issues didn't make their debut on the book directly following one of the two or three best superhero artists working today. JRJR would have punked them out just as badly, and (this is the point) through no fault of their own.
Or: "What If N.W.A. Weren't Making All That Shit Up?" The idea of a Bush I-era hardcore hip-hop outfit who actually are gun-toting, ho-pimping, mass-murdering drug kingpins as outlined in their platinum-selling rap career is so fucking brilliant a high concept I'm stunned I've never seen it in action before. It's difficult to remember now, in an age when Jay-Z has more number-one album debuts than anyone but the Beatles and the President jokingly banters about Kanye West's antics, but when my generation of white kids was growing up, "rapper" was a career that took on the same sort of quasi-mystical air as "cowboy" or "ninja." Obviously there really were people who did those things for a living--okay, maybe not ninjas so much anymore--but the word, the concept, had a totemistic quality above and beyond "performer who composes and recites rhymes over beats." Now, I was never a huge gangsta fan, but the less criminally minded but equally angry Public Enemy were one of my favorite groups of any kind during middle school, and from Flav's accessories to Chuck D's barn-burning baritone to the marching, uniformed S1Ws to that crosshairs logo, P.E. came across like a black G.I. Joe squad. The kinds of hip-hop that politicians and parents groups rent their garments over back then were tailor-made for action-hero status, and that's what Marra delivers here. Watching his N.W.A. manques roll up on a rival MC's compound and strafe his bodyguards with machine-gun fire fulfills a long deferred desire to see the larger-than-life lyrics of such groups made real, or at least as real as an action comic would make them.
It's so effective in that regard that it's tempting to overlook the obviously problematic racial territory we're in. What we have here is a white guy taking Easy, Cube, Ren, and Dre's lurid cop-killing, bitch-fucking, crack-pipe-illuminated fantasy world and drawing it, and that's a bit of a sticky wicket, innit? It's an ugly portrait, even if you're just painting by the numbers left by the subjects. Fortunately, aside from the all-too-real hairstyles of that era, the visual stereotyping is kept to a minimum; Robert Crumb's "When the Niggers Take Over America" this isn't. But the irony is that while, to me, Crumb's comic is an obvious parody of white racism, Gangsta Rap Posse's lack of Crumb's corrosive irony and sarcasm might make it tougher for some to take despite its simultaneous lack of Crumb's most outre visuals. Similarly, the dialogue's ebonics are a far cry from Crumb's pidgin dialect, but it's also never half as clever, say, the lyrics from Straight Outta Compton, which were so wickedly funny that they came across like the group letting you in on the joke. Here, it's a little tougher to tell if the joke's on them.
But it seems to me that what Marra's doing is simply taking vintage gangsta and treating it like any other kind of genre fiction. Perhaps the big clue is the sequence where the GRP's manager complains that the record label's been waiting for their new album for two years--how could they possibly have time to maintain their recording career when they've got an organized crime empire to run? The Gangsta Rap Posse doesn't exist in continuity with Malcolm X or the Last Poets, they're in the tradition of Robert E. Howard or the film library of Golan and Globus, and Marra's using "Fuck tha Police" here the same way he used exploitation cinema in Night Business, or maybe even the same way Bryan Lee O'Malley uses Mega Man in Scott Pilgrim. He's working much, much edgier territory here than either of those works--it has a lot more in common with Johnny Ryan than O'Malley--but you get that same thrill of cross-pollination and unexpected magpie influences. So I'm down. And I'm really hoping the GRP come up against a fictionalized black-nationalist paramilitary organization version of Public Enemy in the next issue.
In light of recent events--namely the passing of Patrick Swayze and the release of Crank 2: High Voltage on Blu-Ray--my friends and I are convening for the first time since last October for a three-movie marathon of mirth, mayhem, and manliness: The 14th Manly Movie Mamajama. The booze, the junk food, the heckling, the gratuitous violence and nudity, the homoeroticism...it's all so close I can taste it. What better time to take a stroll down MMM memory lane?
THE MANLY MOVIE MAMAJAMA
MMM1: ROADS AND/OR WARRIORS
1. Road House
2. The Warriors
3. The Road Warrior
MMM2: DYSTOPIAN FUTURES AND/OR KURT RUSSELL
4. The Running Man
5. Escape from New York
6. Big Trouble in Little China
MMM3: VERHOEVEN IN VER-GOSHEN
8. Total Recall
9. Starship Troopers
MMM4: GET WELL, FIDEL
10. Red Dawn
11. Invasion U.S.A.
12. Rambo: First Blood Part II
13. The Monster Squad
15. The Thing
MMM6: FEMININE FILM FEST
16. Terminator 2: Judgment Day
18. The Descent
MMM7: STALLONE IN THE DARK
19. Over the Top
20. Death Race 2000
21. Rocky IV
MMM8: MMMY BUDDY
22. Dead Heat
23. Point Break
24. Tango & Cash
MMM9: NIGHT OF THE LIVING NIGHTS
25. Night of the Comet
26. Night of the Creeps
MMM10: MONSTER MOVIE MAMAJAMA
29. King Kong Lives
30. Reign of Fire
MMM11: SWAYZE FROM THE HEAT, OR "THEY SAVED PATRICK SWAYZE'S PANCREAS: A VERY SPECIAL MMM"
31. Road House
32. Steel Dawn
33. Point Break
MMM12: THE MODERN MANLY MOVIE
MMM THE 13TH: SUFFERING IN SUFFERN
37. The Lost Boys
38. Slumber Party Massacre II
39. Dead Alive
MMM14: MEN. MOVIES. MAYHEM.
40. Crank 2: High Voltage
41. Road House
Alert readers will note that both Road House and RoboCop are re-runs. In Road House's case--our first threepeat--the reasons are obvious. In both cases we figured there's no possible way a new film could follow the nigh impossible to fathom insanity of Crank 2. We went with the familiar and awesome instead.
For a full explanation of the MMM phenomenon, click here. But to fully understand, you have to be there.
* Remember when superhero events flowed from series to series rather than relying on a central tentpole with tangential tie-ins? Curt Purcell does, and in his latest Blackest Night post he discusses the pros and cons.
* My Strange Tales Spotlight interview series at Marvel.com is about to kick into high gear again in anticipation of issue #2. First up: Jonathan Hickman.
* Happy birthday to two of my favorites: Craig Thompson and Stephen King. Over at his blog, the former explains how the latter's insights helped him rescue his long-gestating graphic novel Habibi from a creative impasse.
* Two posts in a row might be too few to refer to as "a roll," but Tim Hensley sure is on something--jiminy christmas look at these Samm Schwartz spreads from Tippy Teen. Wow, Hensley is to the Archie aesthetic what CF, Frank Santoro, Ben Jones, Kaz Strzepek et al are to '80s action-adventure comics, isn't he?
* Meanwhile, Trent (?) reports that a deluxe edition of some kind is coming in 2010. I have an iTunes playlist consisting of every original track and NIN-created remix coming from that entire period, up through and including the mostly-acoustic Still EP, placed in logical order based on the extended vinyl version of The Fragile as well as general euphoniousness, that I call "The Complete Fragile." Hopefully it's something like that.
Clive Barker's Seduth
Clive Barker, Chris Monfette, writers
Gabriel Rodriguez, artist
Ray Zone, "3-D conversion"
IDW, October 2009
$5.99 Ordering information from IDW
"Surprise": I love Clive Barker. Actual surprise: I was not looking forward to reading this Clive Barker comic. Despite its being touted as Barker's first straight-to-comics work in two decades, the presence of a co-writer dampened my enthusiasm. So too did the 3-D aspect--we've all been burned by gimmickry. As for IDW's involvement, I'd been mightily impressed by Kris Oprisko and Gabriel Hernandez's lovely, lyrical Thief of Always adaptation, but Seduth artist Gabriel Rodriguez's cartoony art on the company's Great and Secret Show--admirable though it may have been for committing a full 12 issues to the effort--struck me as project-deflatingly wrong for the work. In my head, I see Barker as his own adapter, whether as filmmaker or painter or drawer; after that, I cut to the Gothy Hellraiser/Tapping the Vein aesthetic of the Epic Comics days, or to an altcomix style like C.F.'s that has never actually been applied to his stuff. Dude's transgressive; let's keep him that way.
Rarely have I been as happy to be wrong as I was about Seduth. Story first: Holy smokes, is this dark. It's as savagely nihilistic as anything Barker's done since the Books of Blood, or the story of Hellbound: Hellraiser II, which in its potentially apocalyptic nature and certain specific geometrical and extradimensional imagery is perhaps its closest point of comparsion. Heck, Seduth's done-in-one short-story nature makes it feel like an adaptation of a lost BoB outtake. But whereas most adaptations belabor the point, ladling unnecessary prose atop redundant illustrations for an oomph-sapping length of time, then suddenly eliding entire sections, this thing just leaps out of the gate and proceeds at an inexorable pace to its hopeless conclusion. If anything, it's almost too rapid-fire, rather than the usual tedious legato-staccato juxtaposition you'll find in comics versions of prose writers' works. And whatever the division of labor between Barker and Monfette, the transitions are seamless, even to this seasoned observer of Barker's work. After well over a decade of fantasy from the man, not even of the "dark" variety in many cases, I'd all but forgotten he had this kind of thing in him.
Meanwhile, whatever his deviation from my platonic Barker-adpatation ideal, Rodriguez steps up big-time. Yes, his work is cartoony rather than romantic or abstracted, the directions I'd go in, but its cartooniness is rock solid and reminiscent of some of the form's most skillful current practitioners--some Tony Moore here, some Philip Bond here. Most of all it relies on a thick, confident line, which turns out to be perfectly suited to 3-D. From what I've been told, 3-D effects specialist Zone was involved in the project nearly from its conception, consulting with Barker, Monfette, Rodriguez, and project major domo Robb Humphreys on what kind of effects he'd like to employ in a perfect world. Barker appears to have given him carte blanche, because there's nary a jump-scare "look out, a hand's reaching out at you and a knife's flying at your face!" cliche in sight. Instead, it's all about layering, playing off the congruences and tangents of Rodriguez's line to draw the eye in and around the page; the effect is dazzlingly unpleasant in all the right ways. Perhaps it's just all the Chippendale and Rickheit I've been reading talking, but it struck me as an extremely effective and, yes, alternative way of exploring space on the page, to the point where I'm now curious to see what a Fort Thunder alum might do with this particular toolkit. But it can be used for spectacle as well, and it is, particularly in one back-to-back splash-page sequence in which Rodriguez, Zone, and colorist Jay Fotos produce an effect reminiscent of Dr. Manhattan's line about the light taking him to pieces in Watchmen. Barker, who's been vocally mainlining the work of Grant Morrison, was surely inspired by Morrison's Final Crisis tie-in Superman Beyond both in the use of 3-D in the first place and its narrative role as a sign of extradimensionality, but I think the special effect is more nuanced, more effective, here.
So three cheers for Seduth; it made a believer out of this skeptic. Barker has long been thwarted by obstacles in terms of getting his ideas out to the public, from a studio sitting on his movie to a publisher rejecting his photography collection as too explicit to his own overflow of ideas getting the better of him to the point where he advances many projects but completes few. Comics famously has one of the lowest idea-to-finished-product thresholds in the arts; here's hoping he continues to make such good, focused, no-nonsense use of it as he does in this short, sharp shock.
* Longtime ADDTF fave Robert Burden returns with another time-lapse video of one of his colossal action-figure paintings, this time around a 6 foot by 8 foot portrait of Battle Cat. Someday I'm taking the mirrors off my bedroom ceiling and replacing them with one of these things.
* After watching the season premiere last week I was pretty sure I wasn't gonna do this again. I've got a lot on my plate and that thing was kinda lackluster. I appreciate Serena riding a horse like Gandalf or Goldfrapp, but it was mostly lame shit like the done-in-one non-story with Chuck and Blair's roleplaying and Vanessa getting angry at Dan for, essentially, being a character on Gossip Girl. Whatever coolness Vanessa's vagina absorbed from Chuck's penis last season got burned through pretty quickly. I was glad they seemed to be introducing new main-ish characters for what seemed like the long haul--Chuck and Serena's secret brother, Georgina, Carter, that redhaired girl from the CW show that got cancelled last year--but other than that, meh.
* This, on the other hand, was more like it. Backstabbing, secret plots, hookups, comedies of manners, Chuck referring to his apartment as "the Basscave," someone asking Blair her opinion on Battlestar Galactica...swell!
* I fully support Deorgina, or Georgdana, or whatever you call it. But the funny thing was that when Blair asked Dan to take her to the party, I was ready to fully support Dair or Blan or whatever you'd call it. I realized that I'm basically just very, very excited by any new pairing. If Cherena or Serenuck or whatever you'd call it happens, I'm going to be fucking thrilled about that too. Not as thrilled as I would be by Chate/Nuck, but thrilled.
* I thought having all of Blair's usual crazy snobby stuff turn her into a pariah in the college world of pizza and big red plastic cups was really funny and clever.
* College girls of the world, please don't follow Dan's advice about not dressing like Blair dresses. Dress like Blair dresses.
* Oh Nate, keeping the boarding pass in your pocket? You are too beautiful for this world.
* Serena is getting really, really annoying. Poor, misunderstood Serena, doing all kinds of stupid impulsive annoying shit and then later standing there looking and sounding half asleep issuing explanations and pseudoapologies while barely making eye contact with the aggrieved parties. If she keeps screwing shit up for Chuck I hope he has her assassinated.
* I liked how when the Bible-thumpers showed up they ruined everything. Because they do!
* Can anyone figure out why Secret Brother gave Vanessa a bum steer on that professor and then flipped out about it? How does that advance his plot? The Missus and I were totally baffled.
* Man, Phoenix can't whore "1901" out hard enough, can they?
* Finally, I think there have been like four Marvel.com What The--?! videos released since I last linked to them: You can find the full YouTube playlist here. If you've ever wanted to hear the Blob say "Keep fucking that chicken," now's your chance!
* Wow, Watchmen's DVD release pattern seems actively designed to alienate the movie's relatively few fans. After releasing a "director's cut" that was not, in fact, the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink cut that director Zach Snyder had been promising for as long as the movie's been in production, Warner Bros. is now finally putting out that "Ultimate Cut"--but it doesn't include DVDs of the theatrical or "director's" cuts, charges you for a digital copy and the motion comic each on its own disc, tosses in some extras that apparently were already available on the other editions, and tops it all off with the goofiest cover imaginable. Aggressively irritating.
* Please oh please let a Gary Numan/Trent Reznor collaboration get off the ground. Still, I don't get the impression that Trent likes when his potential collaborators let the cat out of the bag too early.
* For a long time since the advent of near-universal cellphone usage I've thought about old movies that depended on people not being able to get in touch and how some entire plots wouldn't work if the characters could just reach into their pockets and pull out a cellphone. Turns out a lot of horror and thriller screenwriters have thought about this problem to, and their solution is just to drop coverage. Leave it to Rich Juzwiak, pop culture's leading obsessive compulsive, to compile all the "shit--no signal!" scenes he could find into one 4 minute 56 second montage.
* Today the Strange Tales Spotlight falls on R. Kikuo Johnson. Elsewhere on Marvel.com: Preview pages for issue #2 from Johnson, Tony Millionaire, Matt Kindt, and Jonathan Hickman, plus (wait for it) Peter Bagge's variant Red Hulk cover.
* Now They're making a He-Man & the Masters of the Universe movie at Sony/Columbia instead of Warner Bros. I share Rob Bricken's skepticism about this project given that the template for successful live-action adaptations of '80s action-figure franchises is Michael Bay's Transformers and Stephen Sommer's G.I. Joe. I feel about it the same way I feel about the news that They're rebooting Fantastic Four with a guy who wrote for Heroes--there's some gonzo magic in the originals here (not that Lee/Kirby FF is comparable to He-Man, mind you, but you get what I mean) and it's gonna be dumbed down and smoothed out unless I'm gravely mistaken.
* Jason Adams is going to see Paranormal Activity tonight. Would you believe I had passes too but wussed out because of SPX this weekend? Would you also believe I had chances to see The Hurt Locker and Gamer this week but decided to go home and veg out instead? I am such a lousy genre-film fan. Jason, please tell me how it is without spoiling it.
* Matt Maxwell reviews Cloverfield. Contra Matt, for me it's precisely Cloverfield's use of a ground-level POV that reinforces the enormity of the monster and the damage it does. It stops look like a model and starts looking like the neighborhood I work in getting leveled.
* Re: reviews—What Tom said. I don't get the merest fraction of the grief a blog with the Comics Reporter's reach must get, but the reason I always warn people who send me their work that I can't guarantee to review everything I read is to spare them any anguish and aggravation if I don't review it--I've told them this sort of thing happens right from the jump--and hopefully spare them the cash if they don't think it's worth their while to send it in the first place based on that warning. I genuinely cannot read and review everything I receive or buy or acquire--there's just too much of it! I'm up front about this because I don't want struggling creators or publishers to waste money anymore than they do!
And with me in particular, there's another aspect of the situation worth noting: it's a rare day indeed where I'll feel inclined to force myself to read and review a book I suspect I'll find unappealing--I'm not getting paid for this, life's too short, there are too many comics I like that deserve the attention, I just prefer to read things I enjoy over things I don't, etc etc etc. So at least occasionally (not all the time, people who've sent me books I haven't reviewed! but occasionally), not reviewing everything I'm sent is doing the sender a favor, unless they're of the "all publicity is good publicity" school of thought. (An unaccredited school if you ask me!)
If you treat theology as a game in which you begin with the assumption of an all-loving, all-powerful God and then devise such arguments as you can to respond to seemingly contrary data, then you can come up with theoretically possible replies to the problem of evil. The trouble is that all such explanations must compete with the atheist alternative. If the universe seems completely indifferent to human needs and wants that is because it is. If our bodies can fall prey to all manner of crippling, awful diseases it is because evolution is a messy process that did not have us in mind.
If all of this suffering, pain and death seems so pointless that is because it is.
Tomorrow I'll be heading down to Bethesda with the illustrious Rickey Purdin, David Paggi, and Matt Powell for this year's Small Press Expo. I've got a few official duties to attend to while I'm there, and I'd love to see you at them:
A murderers' row of comics critics will address general issues facing comics criticism today and will candidly discuss several new and recent works in a lively, no-holds-barred, roundtable conversation. Rob Clough, Sean T. Collins, Gary Groth, Chris Mautner, Joe McCulloch, Tucker Stone and Douglas Wolk will share their acute critical insights with moderator Bill Kartalopoulos.
The New Action (4:30pm, Saturday | Brookside Conference Room)
For decades, independent cartoonists have labored to distinguish their work from the corporately-controlled material popularly associated with the form. In the process, artist-driven comics have frequently avoided genres such as adventure, fantasy, and science fiction. Recent years, however, have seen a wave of cartoonists who embrace genre and have explored new ways to activate comics’ ability to depict movement, action, and spectacle. Sean T. Collins will discuss these topics and more with Shawn Cheng, Benjamin Marra, Brian Ralph, Frank Santoro and Kazimir Strzepek.
(Yeah, sorry, Brian Ralph had to bow out, unfortunately. Still not too shabby, though, huh?)
In addition, I will be presenting the award for Outstanding Series at the Ignatz Awards on Saturday night at 9pm. (Not sure where--just follow the trail of starry-eyed cartoonists I guess.) Here are the nominees:
Danny Dutch, David King (Sparkplug) Delphine, Richard Sala (Fantagraphics/Coconino) Interiorae, Gabriella Giandelli (Fantagraphics/Coconino) Reich, Elijah Brubaker (Sparkplug) Uptight, Jordan Crane (Fantagraphics)
And of course I'll be traipsing all over the show floor, black San Diego Comic Con tote bag and David Bowie sketchbook in tow. See you there!
As dense and rough-hewn as his more recent comics are spacious and delicate, yet some how retaining an easy, breezy, open feel, Storeyville is an object lesson in how to create and maintain an immersive atmosphere in comics. On giant pages stamped with a gutterless 3-by-5 15-panel grid and colored with admirable restraint by the extremely effective Katie Glicksberg, Santoro traces the progress of his protagonist Will through shantytowns, railways, and harbors as he searches for his old friend and mentor Reverend Rudy in order to make amends for some mysterious past transgression. Nearly every panel-sized vista we receive into Will's journey is a deep-focus wonder, perspective leading us down roads, over fields, through cities, onboard ships, the characters frequently popping against the background like figures in some sort of altcomix View-Master. Realism and impressionism engage in a constant back-and-forth, leading to subtle shifts in your visual and emotional focus during any particular scene as well as reflecting, one assumes, similar shifts for Will himself. The nearest point of visual comparison is Ben Katchor, but while Katchor's surround-sound POVs and time-faded inkwashes are used in the service of a surrealist magnification of vanished urbanity in which a slightly deranged objectivity is constantly maintained, Santoro's subjective use of some of the same tools paradoxically gives Storeyville a WYSIWYG tone to it, as though he's telling it like it is. The reason for this becomes clear when Will and the Reverend finally meet up, and both Will's supposed crime against his pal and his ensuing need to atone are shrugged off. Consumed with both guilt and a hope that the act of alleviating it will open up a new path for his future, Will couldn't possibly be an objective observer of his surroundings; his view of himself really did determine his view of the world and his possible place in it. Highly recommended.
* Paranormal Activity had some midnight screenings here and there last night and was the talk of Twitter this morning; lots more "SCARIEST MOVIE EVER"s to chew on. On the "first-hand reports from people I trust" tip: Jason Adams, Stacie Ponder, Jason Adams again. Nutshell: Jason says it's really scary, but that's all it is; Stacie says it's really scary, and that's exactly what it should be. I love a horror movie that's so intensely suspenseful and frightening it's a physical experience, but the last time I got one of those it was [REC], and for me that was just a particularly effective movie-long jumpscare. It has a certain naive charm, but no muscle. If you're going to compare something to The Blair Witch Project, I want it to traumatize me the way The Blair Witch Project did. Is it too much to ask for horror art to inflict emotional damage?
* Real-World Horror: Some people cannot wait until they have an excuse to excuse torture.
* The Incredible Hercules team of Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente talk about (separate) work on Incredible Hulk. That book hasn't been doing it for me, certainly not on the level that Herc does, but those guys are worth paying attention to. Also, suddenly I have a vision of the original Hulk himself making a return to this franchise and having a big storyline involving him fighting every other Hulk and Hulk-esque character one at a time until he's the undisputed King of the Hulk People again: Red Hulk, Skaar, the other Son of Hulk guy, A-Bomb, Abomination, the Blue Hulk if there's a Blue Hulk someplace, Thundra, Lyra, She-Hulk, let's throw Juggernaut and Colossus and Hercules and Thor and the Thing and the Blob in there too, just non-stop giant dudes and chicks whaling away on each other until the Hulk stands atop them all in purple pants. I would buy each issue three times.
Report? Ha! "Report" implies that I've got some sense of the gestalt of the show this year, and I definitely don't. Between driving down on Saturday morning rather than Friday night, traffic, getting lost (me only!), getting locked out of our hotel room because the lock's battery died, and doing two panels back to back, my friends and I ended up with a lot less time to prowl and browse than we normally do. Any big-picture view of the con I might have could be only be pieced together from a small handful of hurried circuits of the show floor, plus what turns out to be the very limited perspective one has from being "on stage" during panels or award shows.
1) It sure looked crowded! When my buddies and I rolled into the show floor on Saturday afternoon around 2:15 or so, I basically did a vaudevillian double-take upon seeing just how many people were packed in there. Maybe I'm just mentally comparing it to the wider aisles (and cavernous environment) of this year's MoCCA, but I don't think so--it seemed much busier than the last two SPXs I went to, both in this same venue. I talked to one exhibitor who met his sales goals for the entire weekend before day's end Saturday, and another who said foot traffic was up but sales were flat, and somewhere between those poles were a lot of people who said things were going very well indeed. More support for my theory that cons and festivals and whatnot are going to continue to do well throughout the Great Recession even as the industries they're tied to struggle because they offer not just a commodity but a community, not just a purchase but an event?
2) This was one of those shows where I didn't end up buying anything I'd never heard of before. I know a lot of people NEVER have that happen to them, they always come away with some kind of hidden treasure, and honestly that's probably the right thing to do, or try to do. But man, I was just soooooo overwhelmed by the amount of high-quality product by creators and publishers I was already following. Three new Cold Heat comics, for pete's sake! New comics from Theo Ellsworth, Kevin Huizenga, Jeffrey Brown, John Porcellino, James McShane, Matt Wiegle, Tom Neely, the whole Buenaventura Press altcomic revival...it was nuts even if you stayed away from the big, readily available elsewhere book-format debuts from Porcellino and Al Columbia and Gahan Wilson and Carol Tyler and so on and so forth. (Which I did, with the exception of a personalized copy of Driven by Lemons that Josh Cotter was nice enough to comp me, so it didn't count anyway.) I spent a lot of money at this show and feel like I barely scratched the surface.
[2.5)Speaking of barely scratching the surface, only four new Bowie sketches this time around. But they're doozies. Stay tuned!]
3) Man, people love this show. Multiple presenters at the Ignatz Awards talked about how great it felt to go to a place where everyone knew what a minicomic and a graphic novel was. And it's true! That's a major selling point for a show like this. There's not a huge local contingent here the way there is at MoCCA or many of the other altcomix-friendly shows, so it really does feel like a weekend retreat for people who make and like good comics. In my case I'm traveling five-plus hours each way for a 24-hour immersion in looking at, buying, reading, and talking about comics, basically. It feels like a vacation.
4) Now here's the punchline: Looking over my 2008 SPX report, I see I said many of the same things! "Busy, bustling show filled with happy altcomix creators and fans with tons of killer debuts to the point where you end up feeling dazed and dizzied and unable to take it all in" appears to be the default mode for SPX at this point. No one seems to be reminiscing over the old Friday/Saturday cookout/softball game/Dean Haspiel's Topless Revue-model SPX anymore, either. When you look up "undisputed highlight of most attendees' con season" in the dictionary, you'd find SPX's picture, basically.
5) People asked me how the Critics' Roundtable panel went and I had to tell them "Good!...I think." It turns out that it's hard to tell how a panel went when you're on it--you're sitting there listening to the questions, listening to the other panelists' responses, and formulating your own answers when you aren't busy actually saying them. It was a big group up there, but I was surprised with how well things flowed and how much everyone was able to speak when it suited them. I didn't get the sense that anyone dominated the conversation or that anyone just disappeared into the background.
In terms of what was discussed, it seems like it focused a bit more on the ins and outs of writing criticism, as opposed to focusing on the state criticism itself, if you follow me. We talked a lot about the advantages and disadvantages of writing online versus writing for print, the blogging format, the pace of production, the back and forth between critics online, and so on. If I recall correctly, the last couple of panels had a lot more discussion of whether or not there was enough valid criticism out there, how it stacked up compared to criticism in other fields, etc. This group appeared to take for granted that yes, there's plenty of valid comics criticism out there (even Gary!), and we're doing just fine, thank you.
There were a couple of topics I'd have liked to get a few more words in on, though. The one that comes to mind right away is Tucker Stone's dismissal of the notion of "critical discourse," likening it to the mouthbreathers who leave comments on YouTube. I don't remember exactly who said what, but someone else added that much of the "critical discourse" online consists of people reviewing the week's superhero comics. But I doubt anyone on the panel was thinking of either of those things when using that term. Actually, I doubt anyone on the panel even reads any of those things. For me, the only critical discourse worth talking about is the other people on that panel, and critics like them--people whose work I like and respect, in other words. Why would you care what people you don't respect think about anything? You can pick and choose what "critical discourse" you participate in, and do what you can to advance it.
This actually ties in with an earlier topic of discussion: the need to write for an audience. I said that I couldn't keep track of my hit counts if I wanted to, which is true. I mainly write for me. But there is a form of feedback I can monitor, and which does matter to me: the responses of other people I respect. For a long time I've said I judge how my blog's doing by who shows up to comment--it's pretty much all my friends and bloggers I like, which makes me feel like I'm doing something right. Heck, at this point my favorite comics critic, my favorite music critic, and my favorite film critic have all told me they like what I'm doing around here. Not only is that the critical discourse that matters, that's the hit count that matters.
While we're on the subject of audience, though, this one was packed. It was flattering!
6) If anything, I have even less of a sense of how my "New Action" panel went, since it was up to me to host it and shape it and keep it moving. With four participants--plus a late assist from the audience from the great Lane Milburn of Closed Caption Comics--it was a manageable size, so again, everyone who wanted to weigh in on a subject could. Moreover the four guys on the panel--Frank Santoro, Ben Marra, Kaz Strzepek, and Shawn Cheng--were each coming at the "alternative action comic" from a different direction, with different goals, and producing different results, so it ended up being very interesting to me to hear how similar their motivating inspirations were given how different their output was. I think the way the panel came to focus on issues like recapturing the joy of childhood, play, games, the thrills that genre art once gave you, the simple act of drawing, and so on (hopefully) gave the audience a hook on which what was a fairly oblique concept could be hung. I mostly hope that what they took away was that they should go upstairs and buy Cold Heat, Night Business, The Mourning Star, and The Would-Be Bridegrooms--not to mention Prison Pit, Powr Mastrs, Scott Pilgrim, Street Angel, New Engineering, The Mage's Tower, Daybreak, The Comics of Fletcher Hanks, Ninja, and any number of similar comics that combine visceral thrills with deeply rewarding approaches to character, art, and world-building. (Listen to the panel here.)
7) I loved the Ignatzes! I'd never gone before, and I have to say it felt nice to see an award show where a) so many people and books who would have been my choices for nominees for awards were in fact nominees, and b) so many of those nominees won! And instead of a giant half-empty room it was a small room filled with an SRO crowd, most of whom were drinking beer and all of whom were thrilled to be there and thrilled for the winners. I presented the award for Outstanding Series, which gave me an opportunity to vent a little bit about how Diamond's decision to raise its order minimums disproportionately stuck it to these kinds of comics, which elicited some appreciative whoops from some people in the audience, which made me feel like a rabble-rouser. Best of all, Jordan Crane's Uptight wound up winning that award--Jordan's work played an indispensable role in making me a reader of alternative comics in general, and in a very real sense I wouldn't have been up there presenting that award at all if it weren't for his comics, so it was a huge personal thrill and privilege for me to be able to make that announcement. Congratulations, Jordan!
* My latest Strange Tales Spotlight interview is with Jhonen Vasquez. He's doing a MODOK comic!
* Honestly? Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are is not for me. I like Maurice Sendak's original picturebook as much as the next guy, but because I've been a brilliant genius from a frighteningly young age I got through my picturebook phase pretty quickly and never latched onto any of them as hard as I did, say, The Hobbit. Meanwhile the whole indie-whimsy, Yo Gabba Gabba, "fairy tales for grown-ups" thing is very, very much not my thing--you can take your Arcade Fire-soundtracked wide-eyed wonder and pound it up your sister's ass, to be blunt. So there's that. On the other hand, Vice Magazine's Johnny Ryan-curated comic tribute to Where the Wild Things Are, featuring Ben Jones & Christina Gregory, Benjamin Marra, Dan Zettwoch, Esther Pearl Watson, Frederic Fleury, Hellen Jo, Jordan Crane, Josh Simmons, La Merde, Lisa Hanawalt, Mark Todd, Martin Ontiveros, Matt Furie, Matthew Thurber, Nick Gazin, Ray Sohn, Ron Rege Jr, Sakabashira, Sammy Harkham, Shintaro Kago, Skinner, Ted May, Tony Millionaire, and Vanessa Davis? That very much is my thing. (Via Ben Marra.)
* I was really glad to see Acme Novelty Library #19, the best graphic novel of the year, be named the best graphic novel of the year at the Ignatz Awards. And since I kvetched during the Critics Roundtable panel about how little discussion we saw of that book, I'm gonna link to my review again. (I stole this idea from Ken Parille.)
* Brian Chippendale on the Fantastic Four: He reviews some Millar/Hitch and Hickman/Eaglesham issues, argues that Mat Brinkman deserves a huge Pantheon book deal (agreed!), then assembles his own FF with Frank Santoro, Richard Corben, Jungil Hong, and Rashied Ali. It is a fucking awesome post.
If today's writers can't find a place for a Chinese genius vampire hunter turned brain in a mechanical body who can pose as a Sherlock Holmes robot at will, perhaps they aren't really earning their paychecks.
* This episode could have ended right after Blair failed to understand the sock-on-the-doorknob "sexile" signal and walked in on Dan and Geogina dry-humping. Fuck, the whole show could have ended right there. If I wasn't quite sold on the potential of "Gossip Girl Goes to College" before then, I sure am now: Besides offering an endless array of scenarios in which we can watch beautiful young people do it, it also presents Blair and the gang with their greatest challenge yet. How can someone who's accustomed to occupying presidential hotel suites for her trysts get used to sleeping on a twin bed just a few feet away from where a couple other kids just banged one out? Brilliant. I am so on board for this.
* I think it's funny how Blair looks like this fresh-faced little munchkin all the time while Serena usually looks like an attractive 40-year-old.
* I did not like Blair's dress during the second half of the episode at all! It looked like a Deee-Lite video threw up on her.
* I did like how ambitious and ridiculous the big schemes were in this episode. Chuck and Blair hiring various people to ruin Carter's relationship with Serena, Georgina orchestrating a pair of elaborate ruses to pit Chuck and Blair against one another--it was like that Mark Waid JLA run where someone uses Batman's contingency plans for rogue JLA members against them. When I saw where the Chuck and Blair photo thing was going I was ready to turn against another goofy done-in-one storyline, and indeed it seems like the writers can't quite figure out what else to do with that pair right now other than stand-alone hijinx, but it was so baroque and silly I couldn't stay mad.
* You know, I was really pulling for Georgina. I wanted her turnaround to be legit. Okay, so I suppose there have been an awful lot of redemption arcs on this show: That's Serena's story, which is easy to forget since her real rampages took place prior to the pilot. To an extent it's also Chuck and Blair's stories, as they slowly transformed from heartless monsters into...monsters with hearts, I guess. Jenny had a rise and fall and rise arc as well. And now you've got reformed bad boy Carter, too. But there's something about Georgina's potential redemption that would have really worked for me. Here's someone whose behavior was bad enough to horrify even the likes of Chuck, who the whole gang had to team up against to stop; then she became a Jesus-freak punchline; I think it would have been interesting to see her as someone now more or less comfortable between the two extremes, really trying to keep on the straight and narrow. I dunno, maybe that's what we'll get eventually, but I was a little bummed out that she was puppet-mastering Chuck and Blair. It's also tough to tell if we're supposed to interpret her Dan wallpaper as sweet or stalkerish--I hope it's the former.
* Man, that was a poorly acted reveal between Scott and Vanessa, wasn't it? Maybe it was the editing, though--it felt rushed. I really don't understand why Vanessa didn't out Scott there at the auction. Who is this kid to her, compared to the Humphreys? But hey, at least we found out the reasoning behind that weird professor-recommendation party freakout last week. That was baffling!
* When they finally got around to showing Nate, it was like, "MEANWHILE, on another show..." But boy is he beautiful. I hope this Capulet/Montague storyline gives him something to do. Maybe he'll tangle with Carter? He needs an antagonist other than his father or grandfather, is what I think it is--someone that reveals him as his own person rather than someone constantly reacting to the people who got him where he is.
* I don't know what it was, but I thought Ed Westwick was a fucking scream in this episode. I mean, he always is, but The Missus and I found ourselves rewinding and rewatching certain moments that weren't even laugh lines or whatever, just watching him smile or listening to him talk or watching him walk around. He's truly magnificent.
* Regarding the auction scene, watching three hot kids spend thousands of dollars on things they don't even actually want is almost erotic.
* Superhero-comic tyro Rob Bricken of Topless Robot and his chum Matt Wilson review Wednesday Comics, breaking it down into lists of the Best, Worst, and Just Okay strips. As much fun as it can be for me to bust on Rob when he whiffs on the "facts" of the current Marvel and DC Universes--and believe me, that's a lot of fun--I still really love when he writes about superhero comics, because in a lot of way's he's such low-hanging fruit for those publishers. He's a giant nerd in virtually every other regard but superhero comics, he has a rudimentary knowledge of the basics, but he's basically coming to them afresh--can they hook him? I won't spoil the answer, although perhaps you can guess.
* Real-Life Horror 2: I suppose I should weigh in on the Roman Polanski arrest, huh? How's this: Rosemary's Baby is one of the all-time great horror movies, Chinatown is overrated, what he went through during the Holocaust and with the Manson murders is awful beyond imagining, and people who drug, rape, and sodomize 13-year-olds as they scream "no" should go to fucking prison.