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.
* Screw the UPS guys and their shorts: Tom Spurgeon's epic annual guide to the San Diego Comic-Con is the #1 sign that summer's here. If you're a long-time reader like I am, it's fun (if a little daunting) to note the changes he's made to it following the dawn of the Con's Six-Month-Out Sellout Era. At any rate it's the next best thing to going to the show. I do, however, miss the joke about being the Jerome to Paul Pope's Morris Day.
* I'm about a week late to CollegeHumor's video list of unanswered Lost questions. As you might expect from the sort of mentality that would lead one to create such a list, it's a fairly even mix of fair, unfair, picayune, "hey, good point," "dude, they totally answered that," "c'mon man, use context clues," and "jeez, would you prefer them to have used midichlorians?" Spoilery, duh.
There are pros and cons to be found in this one. Let's start with the pros. As Alan Moore understood when constructing the punchline for his big shaggy-dog joke at the superhero genre's expense, the giant-monster horror/sci-fi subgenre is ripe for comedic exploitation, not in the sense of creating funny-looking Mighty Morphin Power Rangers-style creatures, but in the sense of "How the hell does something of that size and disposition appear out of nowhere, anyway?" Cartoonist Jorge Diaz milks the most out of that "no one expects the Spanish Inquisition giant monsters!" idea by piling one on top of another in this brief teaser for his longer Monstrosity anthology: an irradiated meteor creates one giant monster, our military response to that giant monster attracts two more giant monsters from outer space, our military response to those giant monsters unleashes another giant monster from a parallel dimension, and we deliberately unleash still another giant monster to combat the first three. Meanwhile, those giant monsters are, in turn, a "Squirrelzilla," two massive alien environmentalists, a skeletal fish-god, and a giant hummingbird summoned by two tiny, elderly Japanese former-schoolgirls. It's all cockamamie, but no more cockamamie than, well, any giant-monster movie or comic you've ever seen. Meanwhile, the story is presented in recap by a harried news anchorman in a deadpan recitation that further emphasizes the ridiculousness of it all--as does the material's presentation in this tiny minicomic, which shrinks each TV-monitor panel down to a meticulous-looking grid and serves as an ideal showcase for Diaz's tight, cartoony line and design work.
The cons, by now, might be obvious to you--most so, "Squirrelzilla" and two giant alien environmentalists just aren't that funny a pair of gags. Nor is the plot's resolution, which involves luring the beasts to a Monster Island-type destination with sonic rhythms that cause them to hump each other. It's broad stuff, overly so. But by contrast, the design for the giant hummingbird is both funny and strong--its tail twirls off behind it in strands, casting off stars and hearts and other beautiful illustrative super-kawaii filigrees. So too is the design of the diminutive, antennae'd Japanese ladies who summon him, all stooped shoulders and wrinkled, benevolent faces. The image of a giant fish skeleton wreaking havoc manages to be both amusing and genuinely weird. There's also a great throwaway panel of a herd of elephants dancing in line thanks to that sonic frequency thing. In essence, the more Diaz tries to nail down very specific ideas and images rather than playing to the cheap seats, the better he both looks and reads.
* A pair of bloggers tackle two of the three major recent altcomix releases that begin with the letter W: Tucker Stone on Jim Woodring's Weathercraft and Christopher Allen on Wally Gropius. I don't think I agree with Chris's take on Gropius, which I feel is only superficially superficial; Tucker's piece is more or less on the futility of having a take on a book like Weathercraft. Both books are doozies and both pieces are worth thinking about.
"Somebody's Calling Me" was written in the middle of the night, and usually I'm pretty purposeful about my grand theft, like stealing the guitar sound from [Robert] Fripp for "All I Want" and stuff like that. "Somebody's Calling Me" was written in my sleep, and the original was just the piano and the beat and the singing. And that was it, because I was on Xanax and asleep, and that's what I did in the middle of the night. But then when I was working on it, putting in the little synth sounds and stuff like that, I was totally like, "Ha ha, this sounds like 'Nightclubbing.' Let's put some crazy synth sounds on it." Once you find out it sounds like that, you just have to allow yourself to use what you like, or else you're trying to hide it--and that's usually a way to make a boring song. I'd rather have a song I like that sounds like another song, than a song that I'm hoping nobody notices sounds like another song that I'm not that into.
I think that there's a whole school of story-tellers presently working who are fascinated by the aesthetics of the weird and supernatural, the fantastic and unseen, but utterly bored with whole people and tight narrative. The Sixth Sense ruined it up for everybody. We're all sitting around waiting on some undisclosed secret. You don't need a great protagonist. But you do need a twist.
Wally Gropius is more than just the main character of Tim Hensley's elaborate and arch parody of '60s teen-comedy and child-billionaire comics--he's more like the language it's told in, or better yet the font it uses. Hensley arranges him in poses whose pantomime exaggeration recall the primary mode of body language in any given Archie comic, but always in some bizarrely off-model and angular variation thereof. His pipe-like arms and legs, his clasping, grasping, pointing hands, even his squinting eyes and trapjawed mouth and flattened cranium (his hair color says "Archie Andrews" but his skull says "Dick Briefer's Frankenstein") all conspire to make him as much a pictogram as a person. Watching him and his equally gangly, geometric cohorts stretch and sprint and smash their way across Hensley's brighly colored backgrounds and block-lettered sound effects is like reading your favorite poem--or even, as we see in a panel that became my Rosetta Stone for the book, Wally Gropius itself--as translated into a language with a totally different alphabet. What you know is in there, somewhere, but to use a frequently repeated line from the book, you just can't quite put your finger on it.
Hensley pulls off a similar switcheroo with the writing itself. Instead of the instantly dated "hip" slang used by the middle-aged men who wrote the comics that Wally Gropius uses as a springboard, he subs in a nonsense patter that apes the self-assured argot of the plutocracy. Whether it's Wally's oblique strategies for his beloved Jillian Banks's recording session ("You really almost had it there, but it's still kind of teal. Can you sing it with a bit more cadmium?"), Wally and Thaddeus's simultaneously ratcheted-up and abstracted fight over dating ("But, Dad, I wanna be a lothario speedwagon. Troubadours don't submit to picture brides. They engage in felching with awestruck camel toe." "Again with the CAMEL TOE! My own son!"), or the frequent direct references to finance and industry ("Petroleum is the seat of the soul," "What good is Mammon if one can't purchase reliable athmosphereic conditions?" "Wally, will you please clean your room? There are far too many denominations about."), I can't help but hear echoes of the ouroborosian discourse, cocksure and utterly divorced from reality, that led the economy off a cliff.
And wonder of wonders, the book finds its own way to be really funny amid all these highfalutin hijinks, and often in a direct, even lowbrow way. Obviously anyone who's read this stuff has gotten a kick out of the sound effects, from the slamming bank-vault door that goes "TRUMP!" to Wally vomiting up a bellyful of money with a "HEAR$T!" The thing is filled with eyeball kicks like that, my favorites being the library bookshelf filled top to bottom with Tom Clancy, the baseball-stadium jumbotron sponsored by Summer's Eve, and the Buddhist monk lighting himself on fire next to a placard that reads "U.S. OUT OF NORTH AMERICA." There's a diarrhea joke, there's a cameo from an '80s pop-culture icon, and there's an incest sequence that is one of the most shocking, hilarious, perfectly paced things you'll read all year.
"Well, Mom, what does it say?" asks Wally over a memorable shot of a disemboweled bird from whose entrails his mother hopes to divine the future. (Of course, we never get the answer.) I think you can figure out what Wally Gropius is saying, provided you keep in mind the combination of confidence and impenetrability that Hensley hits on so memorably in both writing and art. The tale's in the telling.
Seanmix | Make Tonight a Wonderful Thing: The Best of Steely Dan
Bodhisattva / Black Cow / Rikki Don't Lose That Number / Reelin' In the Years / Hey Nineteen / Black Friday / The Caves of Altamira / Any Major Dude Will Tell You / Sign In Stranger / Pretzel Logic / I Got the News / Bad Sneakers / My Old School / Babylon Sisters / Your Gold Teeth / Peg / Josie
Steely Dan were simultaneously the apotheosis of the smooth, slick '70s radio sound now known as yacht rock and the most vicious satirists of the sorts of people who listened to and made it--themselves included! Has there ever been another act like that? Maybe if LCD Soundsystem had found a way to make an entire career out of songs as scathing as "Losing My Edge"? Anyway, that's just one of the ironic contrasts that makes the Dan so compelling and compulsively listenable to me. You've also got the fact that songwriters and core (and by the end, only) bandmembers Donald Fagen and Walter Becker created a "jazz-rock" sound wherein the improvisatory, beauty-from-mistakes heart of jazz was entirely replaced by obsessive studio tinkering. You've got them recruiting an army of ace session guys and genuine virtuosos, from Skunk Baxter to Michael McDonald to Wayne Shorter, to support one of the most sardonic singing voices in rock history. You've got them devolving into precisely the sort of coked-up abusive solipsistic rich California bohemian assholes they made a career out of skewering. There's a lot going on--but if you want to just kick back and enjoy the wordplay, the absurd musical proficiency, the summertime grooves, and the sick licks, go right ahead.
This is a collection of some, but by no means all, of my favorite Steely Dan songs from their initial 1972-1980 run. Believe me, it was a bitch to cut it down this far--"Any World (That I'm Welcome To)," "Throw Back the Little Ones," "Parker's Band," and "Deacon Blues" were all in the playlist at one point, and I could just as easily have included "Home at Last," "Aja" (so yes, basically the entirety of Aja), "Doctor Wu," "Do It Again," "Dirty Work," "Midnite Cruiser," "Kings," "Show Biz Kids," "Everyone's Gone to the Movies," "Night by Night," "Kid Charlemagne," "The Royal Scam"...really, these guys wrote just a ton of solid, hook-laden songs about their proto-hipster demimonde and the criminal underworld with which it occasionally intertwined. Enjoy.
* It's only one book right now. It's a major movie character people will recognize, and it comes from a run of comics that's both quite good and seems appealing to fans of those movies. It's going onto the very zeitgeisty iPad, Dirk Deppey be damned. And of course it can bask in the awestruck adulation that's always generated whenever DC or Marvel is the first to do a particular thing--y'know, like kicking off your link roundup with words like "gamechanger."
* More importantly, if you buy the comic for the iPad in its three chapter-long chunks for $2 a pop, it ends up costing you $1 more than the $4.99 print version. In other words, it's a way to get people who don't want or can't go to a comic shop, or to whom the very idea of buying print comics at a comic shop is totally irrelevant, to buy the book without incentivizing the people who do go to the shops every Wednesday to pick up the print version to ditch the shop and buy it online instead. That's a pretty neat way to square the circle. It doesn't answer how they'll competitively but not destructively price a book that doesn't contain 66 story pages, and it certainly doesn't mitigate against the already overpriced monthly pamphlet format in the first place, but still, it seems smart.
* Anyway, if you wanna get a picture of what's at stake with the dawn of day-and-date digital release, here are some recent pieces to read:
* Finally, to reiterate something I allude to above, Matt Fraction's Invincible Iron Man run has been really good, and it makes me happy to be able to fully get behind a comic that will be making a big popcultural splash again--just like I was able to do when Ed Brubaker's Death of Captain America storyline hit big.
* Tom Spurgeon talks to the great retailer, convention organizer, and too-infrequent-these-days blogger Chris Butcher about various and sundry things. One thing I've always meant to say about Chris is that he and I tussled now and then in the earlier days of the comics blogosphere, but a couple years back I bumped into him in the Chicago airport as we both waited to transfer onto the same flight to San Diego, and he simply could not have been friendlier during the time we talked and ate lunch together, especially considering he was with a few people and I was all alone. Chris is an opinionated guy, and any opinionated person who puts his opinions on public display over the course of years is going to get in arguments with other opinionated people from time to time, by the very definition of being opinionated. But it's the opinions that matter to a fellow like Chris, not scoring cool points on his own behalf nor kicking other people in the teeth, and I think that's a good indicator of why his TCAF show is the success that it is. Dude cares about good comics.
* I've said it before and I'll say it again (and said it long before The Sopranos, because that's how fucking awesome I am): Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" is basically Joy Division's "Transmission" in terms of structure and sentiment, and both are incredible songs.
* My big problem with M.I.A. in that infamous Lynn Hirschberg profile, in terms of the thing that made me think less of her as a person, didn't involve saying provocative and simplistic things about politics, which is par for the pop-star course a lot of the time, nor whether she did or didn't order or eat fancy french fries, which I think anyone who either has enough money or is being taken out to lunch on the New York Times' expense account might want to do--it was the part where she called Lady Gaga ugly. That's just straight-up middle-school Mean Girls nastiness. Moreover, I think it comes from M.I.A.'s envy of Gaga's career as the superstar arty weirdo of pop, which Gaga carved out for herself through talent and ambition and which M.I.A. has only been able to come within shouting distance of thanks to the commercials for Pineapple Express. I listen to a lot of musicians who have behaved abominably toward people--David Bowie's entire career is littered with close friends and collaborators who suddenly found themselves summarily cut off--so it's not a dealbreaker, but I think it's a lot more revealing about M.I.A.'s personality and maturity than all the stuff about the Tamil Tigers and truffle fries.
Iron Man 2 entertained me from beginning to end. Who knew that what I was looking for in a superhero movie was wall-to-wall banter, occasionally interrupted by games of Rock'em Sock'em Robots?
To me it was a fine second act that picked up where the first film left off in the sense that it presupposed you were fond of these characters and the Iron Man concept. That way, it could have Tony and Pepper and Rhodey take their BFF chops-busting patter just a little too far, make it a little too manic, as their collective situation took a turn for the worse. It could make Tony's cockiness, like at the Senate hearing, seem like it clearly has the potential to be destructive for him, even if in the moment you enjoy his triumph over his rivals. It could make the quest of rogue nations and unscrupulous scientists to produce Iron Men of their own feel totally logical, difficult to pull off but dangerous should they succeed, not just to the country but to Stark personally.
With that foundation, you just trot out a suite of funny performances from actors who make their every appearance on screen feel like a pissing contest with the other characters, an attempt to impress them with their intelligence and wit and charm, even though the situation is such that that usually doesn't cut it. Robert Downey Jr. pulled off pushing Stark's charm offensive into purely offensive territory, and then dialing it back down in a way where you'd forgive him. Sam Rockwell played Justin Hammer like the scrapped pilot episode of Tony Startk, before it was recast and recut and became a huge hit; I enjoyed how he was always nervously projecting alpha-male vibes even though he was constantly two steps behind of everyone he dealt with. Don Cheadle has Terrence Howard's easy familiarity with Tony built in, but I bought the way he was constantly on the lookout for a way both to take care of his friend and best him in some way or other--a friendly rivalry where both the friendship and the rivalry were intact. I'd actually forgotten how effective and adorable Gwyneth Paltrow is in the girl friday role, and thought it was funny that she brought that same skill set of quietly but firmly dismissing idiocy in favor of getting the job done to her new role as CEO. Mickey Rourke was scary and convincingly single-minded--I dug how he mostly avoided giving a Hannibal Lecture and never deviated from a simple goal of revenge, which as we learn was sort of justified to boot. The two iffiest performances are the proto-Avengers turns from Samuel L. Jackson and Scarlett Johansson, but in both cases what you might see as weaknesses I ended up digging: Nick Fury feels like he dropped in from a whole 'nother movie, which I guess is how the world's top spy would feel in a superhero world like this one, and even if it wasn't intentional, maybe emotionless and dead behind the eyes is precisely how an experienced double-agent spy-assassin like the Black Widow would be.
Normally I'd argue that as with any superhero story, the proof is in the pudding, and the pudding is the fight sequences. In this case, the movie is so much more a battle of wits than a battle of emotion that I think that's actually less true than it usually is, but as it turns out the fights were fun and as well choreographed as you're likely to see in a superhero movie. They took advantage of their environments, they utilized the unique capabilities of the armor suits involved, and with the exception of the flying chase (which was way too darkly lit, probably to hide the CGI work) their stages and stakes were easy to understand. I mean, you have to hand it to a fight scene where a key beat is having your limo driver run a dude over and pin him to a chainlink fence.
Most importantly, I never felt like my intelligence was being insulted, and trust me, after going to see freaking Clash of the Titans in the freaking theater, I definitely needed that from my summer action blockbuster. If anything, I felt like the stupidity of the cool-guy trappings Stark surrounds himself with was being winked at--that gloriously tasteless AC/DC stripperobics routine at the beginning, for example, felt like the movie was Steely Danning the G4 generation. And the addition of characters never felt like superhero-sequelitis to me; the various combinations of players moved the plot forward rather than weighing it down or making it scatterbrained. A delight! I hope you enjoy it if you see it.
You could be forgiven for thinking Michael DeForge's solo anthology series would be, and I'm using this word in its value-neutral sense, a mess. In terms of the vibe DeForge's work gives off in single illustrative images, or in his dense and frequently deliberately illegible all-font/logo-design installment in Frank Santoro's Cold Heat Special series, or in his xeroxed minicomics, or even on the covers of these very comics, the operative word is "noise." And it's a sort of noise that owes more to both the toner-smeared world of zine culture and the fine-arty fine-lined zaniness of Canadian art-toonists like Marc Bell or Keith Jones, than to the chunky, punky, living, breathing environments of the Fort Thunderites. Throw in those noxious, acidic greens on the slick covers, and it might present the kind of surface your eye would bounce right off and move on.
Don't let it! Because as it turns out, DeForge's actual comics, as contained in these two issues, are straightforward, funny, and sharp as a knife. Inside, he wields a precise line to create character designs that read like a slightly more avant-garde version of what you might see on a post-millennial Nickelodeon cartoon. The storytelling and punchlines are always crystal-clear even as the material bounces back and forth between long-form, surreal horror stories and laser-precise gag strips. In the latter category, which mostly crops up in the first issue, DeForge uses anthropomorphized dogs and the superheroes of the Justice League to skewer the foibles of college students and their immediately post-graduation counterparts with laser precision. (Dog #1: "Lately, I don't even know if I enjoy walks." Dog #2: "You're overthinking it. Did you finish The Wire yet?"; Green Lantern: "Things have been crazy for me lately". Batman: "Is that why we're spending League money on art school?!" Green Lantern: "We all voted on that, Bruce! We all voted!")
The longer stories fruitfully work that horror-comedy sweet spot a lot of young cartoonists are mining these days, a great thrill to me because the comedy tends to actually be funny, and the horror black as midnight. In issue #1, a cartoon conscience rebels against God after being sent to dissuade yet another comics artist from suicide, only to be sentenced to a Hell inhabited by cartoon characters and their creators. What starts as a lampoon of art-comics culture every bit as successful as the college stuff veers into nightmarish action-horror territory as our hero narrowly, and I mean very narrowly, escapes evisceration and ritual sacrifice at the hands of two former funny-animal characters whose appearances have devolved into monstrous deformation and shadow. In issue #2, virtually all the page space is devoted to a long and no-fucking-around nasty horror story about a little kid who manages to domesticate a large spider whose brethren are simultaneously ushering in a quite lethal and disgusting plague-style demise for his uncaring family and abusive classmates. Imagine Skyscrapers of the Midwest weaponized and you're almost there.
With these two issues--cogent in conception, confident in execution, and surely just an early step in a promising stylistic evolution--DeForge has landed himself on my must-watch list. Give 'em a shot, see if he lands on yours.
[Al Columbia:] My dad, for some reason, didn't have the sense that a child shouldn't see horror movies. He took me to see a lot of horror movies when I was a kid, or I'd get to see them on TV or HBO. He didn't seem to have that filter: "Oh yeah, maybe he shouldn't watch that. It could be disturbing." So I was exposed to a lot of very disturbing images at a young age, which later in life came back in a strange way to haunt me, which I would never have expected.
[Nicole Rudick:] In what way did they haunt you?
Intrusive thoughts of a violent nature haunted me, made me pretty sick, actually, for a few years. I couldn't get them out of my head.
Images from those films?
I believe they had to have been, or the movies had to have influenced something. They were unwanted images. They weren't fantasies but constant terrifyingly violent images or ideas piercing into my everyday life. I'd be watching TV and the next thing you know the newscaster . . . I would imagine, without warning, something bad happening to the people on TV or to somebody I knew. I couldn't really look at someone without them immediately becoming dismembered or in some way murdered in my head.
Does that still happen?
No, not anymore. But it happened for a good three-year period, about three or four years ago, where I couldn't do anything. I couldn't work on anything. I almost couldn't function properly in everyday life. I never knew when it would happen. Not only were they scary images, but there was a spiritual quality to it that made me feel like something was in jeopardy, something wasn't right with me.
That's certainly how Pim & Francie felt. Anyway, like I said on Robot 6 one of the most striking things about the rest of the interview is how drawing comics only makes things worse for Columbia. This reminds me a lot of what Josh Cotter said about what was going on behind Driven by Lemons. My two favorite comics of 2009 were both the products of mental illnesses that were exacerbated rather than ameliorated by their creation. Jeez.
* My blog chum and former classmate Eve Tushnet has been profiled by The New York Times! Eve and I have a lot of pop-cultural overlap but virtually zero sociopolitical overlap. Haha--to cope with our mutual freshman year, she became a Catholic, while I started drinking.
* Real-Life Horror: Megadittos to Atrios and Andrew Sullivan on the installation of torture as a Republican Party platform plank.
One would have to assume that because of the overwhelming popularity of the iPad Marvel App, there are people who have it who may never have ventured into a comic shop or perhaps lost interest in comics many years ago and are curious as to what's been happening in our fantastic universe. The hope is that we capitalize on that and the high profile of Iron Man, get readers interested in this single story and from there, if they want to purchase more or purchase that issue, they are directed to comic shops. So it's a sales and marketing test and just one of a few we have coming up.
* Gorgeous dance music, glass half empty edition: "Dancing on My Own" live, by Robyn. Man is she magnetic, man does she sell the longing. America, if La Roux can get onto Top 40 radio, if Katy Perry and Ke$ha can have big hits by crassly recycling the years-old melodic progression of "Love at First Sight" by Kylie Minogue, then surely we can make this a hit. The middle-school girls of America are waiting to be knocked on their asses by this song when their summer crushes spurn them for someone else. Let's make this happen.
These are sort of more what I anticipated when I got a package full of Michael DeForge comics in the mail--arty, xeroxy, at times consciously illegible transmissions from an alien design aesthetic. That's almost all there is to Sloe Black, a small zine showcasing a series of vaguely humanoid shapes constructed with twisting, dripping, rope-like lines, and triangles and dots repeated with an almost schizophrenic intensity. These aren't comics or narrative images, not by a longshot--they're a visual braindump, they're what you sort of imagined abstract painting was supposed to be about. It's sort of like getting a sense of what DeForge's "sound" is before you hear it applied to a song structure.
You get more of that sort of thing in Gags. Though the art is slightly less far out, it's still drawing on that same basic melty, drippy, metal-illustration-influenced visual vocabulary, with a series of portraits of monstrous, faceless figures made of goo and teeth. But they're juxtaposed with a series of well-chosen non sequiturs from everyday dude-life. "You don't understand--playing drums is my life" reads the all-caps caption for a beast with a mouth growing out the side of its head and a knife with which he's exposing his own ribcage; "Fuckin' Carlos man--dude scares off so much pussy" says a beast whose body sits atop its head rather than the other way around. Besides having a flair for the zine-culture grotesque, DeForge has a great comedic ear for what happens in the company of bros.
* Tom Spurgeon notes that it would never have occurred to him that Al Columbia's disclosure of mental illness in his Comics Comics interview might be a hoax. I wouldn't have mentioned it if someone else hadn't done so first, but the thought did cross my mind (though only briefly and with much less conviction than it did for Patrick Ford, apparently). I see that one or two people seem to think that thinking this might be the case is some kind of slam of or insult to Columbia, so I wanted to explain what was going on there, at least for me. I think for a lot of people reading that interview, it was literally the first glimpse into Al Columbia that you've gotten outside of his comics. It certainly was for me; I wasn't around when Columbia was more of a fixture on the scene. So I for one had no idea whether he was more likely to be a puckish prankster fabulist in the Tony Millionaire mode than someone who really was repeatedly hospitalized for violent hallucinations. Wondering if the former was more likely than the latter wasn't an insult to Columbia, as some of the people in that CC thread suggested. It was a way of choosing the interpretation that was more common in terms of outsized comics personalities, and the interpretation that pointed toward a much less horrifying and terrible situation for Columbia himself.
You can't understand New Painting and Drawing until you have it in your hands. It shimmers, as though the Platonic ideal of the color Orange just gave birth to a bouncing baby book. I actually think the Platonic ideal is a good concept to keep in mind when looking at Paper Rad honcho Ben Jones's stuff. It's like, "So be it--if I must draw a dog, then let it be the best of all possible dogs!" So you get a dog that is as wide-eyed and jolly as any dog you've ever petted, but he's also bright orange and pink and yellow and aqua and another shade of orange, and he looks like he just stepped out of some sort of electronic animal shelter run by Shigeru Miyamoto, and he's placed against a background of white-and-gold diagonal stripes, the better to pop him off the page and into your eyeballs. You get religious-iconography pastiche, but the icon is like Jesus and Mary and a Greek Orthodox saint all rolled into one, and he's wearing Joseph's Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat and a Ring Pop, and he's got a mustache and is pointing almost like Buddy Christ, and he's placed against a sky that looks like Apocalypse Tron. Jones's obsessive use of patterns, stripes, brick fields and so on, each tier done in as bright a neon as you please, serves to foreground everything, backgrounding nothing. Every part of every drawing is designed to be as exciting as possible. It is such a thrill looking at this book.
Buenaventura Press is no more, completely shut down as of this past January. I talked to Alvin this afternoon and he told me it all comes down to a single problem that is legal in nature. Beyond that, he's keeping his powder dry for now.
This is a real loss for comics. From keeping the pamphlet-style altcomic alive to publishing the seminal, indispensable Kramers Ergot to creating high-quality prints to just generally being a reliable friend of the best cartoonists around, Alvin and Buenaventura are and were the real deal. I hope this works out.
Like his excellent minicomic Archaeology, James McShane's Studio Visit explores the intersection of memory and environment. And like the cleverly conceived but ultimately more interesting in practice than in theory log-comic from Kramers Ergot and Ivan Brunetti's Yale Anthology of Graphic Fiction, it explores the Heisenbergian interaction of lived experience and the recording thereof. It's not as successful a comic as the former, nor as flat a comic as the latter. What it is is gestural, I think--McShane's minimal lines, both of art and narration, get across a day in the life, from aspects of his daily routine to memories of past experiences evoked by objects he comes across in his house to his thoughts on process and his past works. That last bit's maybe the most interesting--I was fascinated to hear that Archaeology was assembled in an almost Burroughsian cut-up fashion, and I also appreciated the quiet confidence in his explanation of how his very formal methods make him a better observer of what's worth drawing. I think his...taste, maybe? gets away from here a bit--the memories he recounts of fun adventures in nature with friends are a bit on the twee side, the balletic image he chooses to represent "presenting the mundane with elan" is knowingly cheesy but cheesy nonetheless, and his vision of "growing" a story is depicted with too-literal gardening imagery. But the book isn't intended to be anything more than what the title implies: a visit to the space, mental and physical, McShane inhabits when he works. This is where he was working on that particular day. It's the recording of a step on a path, not of a destination reached.
* Today on Robot 6 I asked Johnny Ryan, Matt Furie, Lisa Hanawalt, Eric Reynolds, Brett Warnock, and Chris Pitzer for their reaction to the closure of Buenaventura Press. I also rounded up online commentary from Ted May, Tom Spurgeon, Heidi MacDonald, Jason Leivian, Frank Santoro, Tim Hensley,Tom Neely, and Chris Butcher, whose post on the matter deserves a link all its own.
* Yesterday HBO aired a teaser for Game of Thrones (note the absence of the indefinite article), its upcoming series based on the fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin, as well as a still of Sean Bean as Boromir Eddard Stark. I am over the goddamn moon for these books, so I'm quite excited about this.
* Scott Pilgrim videogame trailer! To quote me sainted mother, Holy Moses Gaboses. Of course I will never play it because it's not on the Wii, but still, this is hitting Double Dragon nostalgia buttons I didn't know I had.
* I love Batman. I'd have included the horseback shot or that shot of him jumping out of the Bat-Tank to fight the Mutant Leader, though.
Ex Machina Vols. 1-9
Brian K. Vaughan, writer
Tony Harris, artist
with John Paul Leon, Chris Sprouse, artists
various page counts
$12.99 each Buy them from Amazon.com
There's something lovably clunky about Ex Machina. Before we get to the lovably, let's talk about the clunky, from the ripped-from-NPR political factoids that in some cases all but replace actual dialogue to the silent-movie mugging and gesticulating of Tony Harris's photoref'd art. In my re-read of the series in three or four sittings prior to its imminent conclusion with issue #50, I was struck by just how clunky it is, particularly at first--much more so than I remember it.
Those first few issues get over largely on the strength of Brian K. Vaughan's unfuckwithable high concept, the most button-pushing such idea in a career already full of them: Main character Mitchell Hundred is a New York City civil engineer whose contact with a mysterious artifact gives him the ability to communicate with machinery, inspiring him to launch a second career as a masked vigilante which culminates in his diversion of the airplane aimed at the second tower on 9/11 and leads to his election as mayor months later. So strong is that final page of the first issue, with one tower standing next to the light beam used to memorialize the second, that it's easy to forget how Hundred's politics are a "both sides make good points" centrist-pragmatist-contrarian hodgepodge that's both unwieldy and unconvincing. Having the aforementioned both sides shout their points at Mitchell and one another via his various advisors, staffers, and constituents doesn't help matters, especially because they're usually concocted in such a way as to smack you over the head with "hey look how ideologically diverse this city is, you can't pigeonhole anyone, we're here to challenge your preconceptions, it's not as simple as Left/Right black/white etc etc." If you meet a priest, you can bet he'll also be a boxer who takes the Lord's name in vain; if a gay couple's gonna get married, you're damn straight they consist of one of the city's, like, eight black firefighters and a Log Cabin Republican. Meanwhile they all point and shrug and flail about like they have some sort of neurological condition. It's quite silly-sounding and silly-looking at times.
And yet! Just because a choice of how to write or draw something isn't the choice I would have made doesn't mean those choices can't work on their own terms. For example, I always preferred Ex Machina to the other BKV book written in this vein, Y: The Last Man, because of Pia Guerra's stiff art on the latter--even though I think that stiffness, that neither-fish-nor-fowl not quite naturalistic not quite cartoony look that was Vertigo's house style for so long, is a big part of what makes that book such a hit with people new to comics: It's simple and clear, yet not "childish." Rereading Ex Machina this time around, I had a few flashes of suddenly thinking "Guerra Was Right": Maybe her simplified, styleless figures are the perfect vehicles for Vaughan's dialogue in his sociopolitically tinged series, where complex ideas are boiled down into streamlined approximations thereof in much the same way. Maybe Harris's almost fumetti-like fealty to his models is what makes Vaughan's Trivial Pursuit: Fiorello LaGuardia Edition dialogue feel so weird here and there.
But you know what Harris does have, in spades? Style, even glamour. Compared with the white glare of that other famous photorealist, Alex Ross, Harris's art is awash in thick blacks that seem to make his figures both shine and swirl, and their eyes light up the room like Ellen DeGeneres's when your'e watching American Idol in HD. (Seriously, that woman has unbelievable Lord of the Rings eyes.) Their world of constant grinning and shouting may be one uncanny valley removed from our own, but it's still a world it seems like it'd be fun to hang out in, argue in, get embroiled in a political crisis or hostage situation in. It's buoyant, it's bright, and even the recurring grand-guignol violence feels like some sort of pop-art explosion as much as a series of brutal murders.
And in reading all nine of the currently collected volumes back to back, I discovered so much to enjoy about Vaughan's writing, or more specifically his plotting. I'd never noticed before that each arc features a masked "villain" of some sort, even if it's more likely to be someone who stole a fireman's outfit from the set of Third Watch than a genuine "bad guy." I also never picked up on the fact that while Hundred and his confidants self-consciously refer to Jack Pherson--a super-powered stalker who gained the ability to communicate with animals in an attempt to crack and duplicate Hundred's power--as his "arch-enemy," the book also features a real arch-enemy in the sense of a character plotting behind the scenes to take Hundred down for pretty much the series' entire duration. In other words, like many heroes, Hundred has a "fighter" arch-enemy and a "thinker" arch-enemy. And by contrast with so many serialized genre entertainments of the past decade, the mythology elements are doled out so judiciously I'd forgotten they even existed. Seriously, you can go for twenty issues at a time before a given reference to the mystery of Hundred's powers is repeated or followed up on; I can think of at least one very major one from the book's second arc that still hasn't been mentioned again. Once you get into it, even the speech becomes easy to enjoy. Vaughan clearly has a blast cussing, for one thing. Moreover, behind the didactic dialogue lurks the satirical concept that the only way to power through the avalanche of ossified bullshit that is politics and government is for a superhero to essentially bully people into it.
But it's important to note that Vaughan in no way thinks this is a good idea. Indeed, the real secret to Ex Machina's success for me is that Vaughan announces, from the first page (set after Hundred's term ends; everything that follows is a glorified flashback), that the story is a tragedy. Hundred's personal heroism and political maverickiness will all end in unspecified disaster, perhaps for him, perhaps for the whole city--and as the issues go by, it seems possible that it'll end in disaster for the whole world. All the characters who argue and chuckle and backslap their way through this whole NYC morality play have no idea what kind of story they're actually in, but we do. Some rough beast is slouching toward Gracie Mansion, and the tension between the zesty surface gestures and the dark heart beneath is what will ultimately make these ten volumes worth returning to.
* This interview of Benjamin Marra by GQ's Alex Pappademas is really fabulous for a variety of reasons, even beyond the fact that it's an interview with Benjamin Marra in GfuckinQ. First of all, it's the longest interview with Marra I've seen so far. Second, it was done over the phone rather than by email, so you're getting more or less unadulterated Marra as himself, rather than the more studied "man of art, man of lust" voice you get whenever he sits down in front of a keyboard. Third, because it's long and because it's done in real-time, it goes in all sorts of directions--like this part, which may be the most interesting thing I've ever seen anyone say about, of all things, True Blood:
I think about that show True Blood, which is this awesome sex and violence soap opera, it's total cult stuff, and people love it--and that's done by Alan Ball, who's done some really arty kinds of things.
Right. American Beauty and stuff. And now he's doing this show--and I say this positively--that's complete trash, in a lot of ways.
Yeah! And that's the reason why I like it so much. It's not apologetic in any way. It is what it is and it makes no bones about it. It's really just stripped-down, basic, well-executed entertainment.
I remember talking long, long ago about Invasion U.S.A. and how difficult it would be today to recapture that level of unthinking mayhem without resorting to Shoot 'Em Up-style ugly self-consciousness. I think the two great arguments that no, this can be done are the Crank series and the comics of Benjamin Marra.
* At the latter, he's got a great post up on Bushmiller, Nancy, iconicity, and "pure cartooning," the gist of which is (I think) that it behooves us to divorce value judgments from our descriptions of the relative simplicity or complexity of a cartoonist's visual style. "Maybe it's as simple as wanting to keep clear the distinction between description and prescription," he says. Smart stuff that reminded me of his last push back against the notion of "pure cartooning", which he brings back up himself.
* Do not read this unless you've read all the books, but George R.R. Martin's latest blog post reveals that he wrote a certain chapter in a certain book last even though it wasn't the last chapter in that book, which makes a lot of sense given what happens in it.
Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka
Naoki Urasawa, writer/artist
Takashi Nagasaki, writer
Based on Astro Boy: The Greatest Robot on Earth by Osamu Tezuka
200 pages or so each
$12.99 each Buy them from Amazon.com
I was over the moon for the first three volumes of Pluto, suspense mangaka Naoki Urasawa's Watchmen-style reimagining of a classic Astro Boy storyline--and for precisely the same reasons lots of other smart critics weren't. I love stories about emotionally wounded men (or in this case, robots) crying over the death of puppies and children. I love stories about people paralyzed by grief and loss. I love stories about people who lay it all on the line, and lose it all, to save other people, and then how those other people handle being the reluctant beneficiaries of that sacrifice. In a word, I love melodrama. If it involves robots, so much the better. And in Pluto, I felt for the first time that Urasawa was connecting with something more than mere story.
Ultimately the series fails to fully live up to the magical magisterial melodramatic pomp of that first volume. As I found to be the case with Monster (although certainly not to that extent), Urasawa's technique of drawing out characters' climactic realizations and confrontations for page after page eventually dilutes their impact. In this particular case, the murder mystery at the story's heart ends up being solved in a fashion that's both disappointingly straightforward in terms of motive and unnecessarily, distractingly complicated in terms of execution. And since this is a super-robot story, the climax must come about through combat, ironically the one thing that Urasawa's visual vocabulary does not enable him to portray in the most thrilling of all possible ways; particularly given the environment in which the final battle takes place, it's difficult to get a handle on where you are, what's going on, or what the consequences for each beat might be. Like the characters whose fate will be determined by the battle's outcome, you just have to take it on faith that the involved parties know what they're doing and things will come out in the end.
That said, the robots, and their surreally obtrusive appearances in Urasawa's meticulous blend of realism and slick cartooniness, never ceased to be a joy to look at and never stopped lodging themselves in my brain. The repeated use of flashbacks to horrible events that haunt the main characters had that same effect on me. I came to care about these people/"people"--well, more like I came to be intrigued by them. I wanted to find out what happened to them to make them the way they are, and for things to work out for them, and I was frequently surprised when things went bad way before I thought they would. And in the end I appreciated the book's blend of deep, unshakable, even scientific pessimism about human nature with an impassioned insistence that we can reject that programming if we try--in a fashion that's a lot more convincing than the similar moral throughline in Monster, by the way. It may not stick the landing, but it's a thing of beauty in flight.
Comics Time: Neely Covers Comics to Give You the Creeps!
Neely Covers Comics to Give You the Creeps!
Tom Neely, writer/artist
I Will Destroy You, May 2010
$6 Buy it from Tom Neely
Tom Neely's "cover versions" of various classic (or in some cases just old) horror comic covers have been a highlight of the Internet ever since he started putting them up on his site and on Robert Goodin's never-miss-a-day Covered site. So naturally a collection of them is gonna be a treat if you're into that sort of thing. But I think this minicomic is worth the price admission for more than just horror-hound eyecandy.
For one thing, it's more like an eye-dessert cart, in large part due to the colors. People ought to be studying that lush midnight blue background in Adventures Into Terror, that sickly purple twilight in Beware the Clutching Hand and Unearthly Spectaculars, the candlelight effect giving way to a rich orange shadow in Creepy #79. That the comic's paper holds them as well as it does is a testament to Neely's skill as a self-publisher in addition to his instincts as a colorist.
For another, this collection is a sort of capsule version of the horror gospel according to Tom Neely. Not so much in the selections as in the interpretations, a picture emerges of what it is that Neely finds frightening; put simply, it's the vulnerability of the body. His figures are both rail-thin and out-of-shape, a brand of body horror not far removed from black-and-white photos of the prisoners of Andersonville or Auschwitz. They grasp and point with arms that look like they could be snapped in half like twigs--honestly, Beware the Clutching Hand could serve as the title for Neely's whole oeuvre. And there's a horror of hair here as palpable as anything outside of The Ring. Weedy black locks cascade out from the heads of women like snakes and sprout from the heads and faces of men like anemones, suggesting an intense loathing of the way our bodies behave beyond our control. It's like a zombie apocalypse perpetrated by sentient armpits and groins. All told, it's much more than a series of kitschy nostalgic pin-ups. Creepy? You betcha.
But Dan wants to shake up our sense of history. I've taken the issue up with him during a panel in TCAF and he’s made the point elsewhere as well but in essence he's challenging the view of old fogeys like me who see a major epistemological break between the world of commercial comic books and the world of the undergrounds. For Dan, it is all comics, and the formal properties that unite Marsh and Sharon Rudahl (for example) outweigh the social, cultural and economic divide.
Still, and this might be a testimony to my age and the extent that I was formed intellectually in the 1980s when the divide between commercial comics and the alternative press was especially large, I'm not sure I fully buy the argument Dan is making in Art In Time. It seems to me that the undergrounds did represent a fundamental break with the past. I'm not sure if I can define it in words, but the best underground comics (Crumb, Deitch, Spiegelman, Justin Green) cut deeper into human experience than any of the commercial cartoonists, no matter how good they were, ever did. The experience of reading an underground comic is different from reading a commercial comic book. Even with the best commercial comics, you have to make allowances or read between the lines to find the spark of individuality.
Man, there's some heavy stuff going on in there. I think it's pretty clear that from a critical-consensus standpoint, Heer has lost this particular argument. In large part, the task of the '00s in both critical and comics-making terms was reclaiming commercial and genre comics as subjects worthy of investigation and capable of holding their own with the art/lit/underground end of things. Obviously, in his dual role as both critic and publisher, Nadel arguably represents the apotheosis of that viewpoint.
* This argument of course has parallels with poptimism vs. rockism in music criticism; nowadays you couldn't possibly say that "the best underground music cut deeper into human experience than any of the commercial musicians" without being laughed off of Tumblr, and rightly so, because that's a ridiculous statement. (I understand that the music and comics industries of the mid-20th century aren't directly analogous, but that's why we have analogies.) And of course this isn't very different from the critics who fought for the legitimacy of rock and roll, or jazz, or from the Cahiers crowd taking Hollywood seriously as art, and on and on and on.
* (It's worth considering, of course, that the reason people like Nadel, or me, can treat genre and commercial comics seriously is because the previous generation of critics fought so hard against genre and commercial comics to make room for alt/art/lit/underground books in the discussion. With that work done, we can go back and fill in the gaps. Nadel's compatriot Tim Hodler said as much at SPX a while back.)
* All that being said, what I worry about as the next generation of critics comes up is that the availability of genre/commercial comics to them in terms of something that's seen as okay to talk about seriously is once again crowding out the conversational space for nongenre/noncommercial comics. Pop quiz: Can you name more than one critic who writes mostly, or even often, and well about alternative comics who wasn't already doing so three years ago? I think there's a fairly large generation gap in terms of who's talking about what, especially in internet terms.
* (NB: It's entirely possible I'm an insulated idiot who's missing out on someone totally obvious and awesome, so it's worth noting that this is not a rhetorical question. If I'm being stupid, help me be less stupid.)
* Related, in some way: Stereogum assembled a fascinating artists' roundtable on art-pop duo CocoRosie's latest album Grey Oceans, the gist of which is essentially that dude-ism is preventing people from taking the band as seriously as they should be taken. To a certain extent I think this is seeing hoofprints and thinking "zebra": The woman with the mustache's voice is certainly an acquired taste, and I'm sure that's what turns a lot of people off of the band. (Also, the indie-rock press is always super-excited to throw accusations of racism/sexism/homophobia/classism at itself, which is oddly hilarious to me.) But what CocoRosie does is not soooooooo weird that it's not within the boundaries established by countless other weirdos in the indie-rock world, and moreover no one's making the argument that the masses are unfairly ignoring the band--they're saying this is being done by critics, who in theory ought to be able to handle 'em. Indeed it's weird to me that the consensus hasn't lined up in their favor beyond the usual "naw, this isn't for me" responses anything gets. I think there's something to that, and I wanna say that the one commenter who explodes with rage and flings around phrases like "these sisters stink like bullshit" is an indication that the roundtable hit a nerve. (No, not in the comic-convention-panel "if people hate it, then good, we're doing something right" way...it's just clear all sorts of baggage and preexisting resentment is being brought to the table, as is the case nine times out of ten when a critic substitutes anger for insight.)
Pitchfork: Okay, you're old. How do you think your age informs your music?
JM: I think it's a huge part of it. I've kind of been thinking about this a lot lately. Because for a while I was really angry. ‘Cause I was like, "What the fuck? We should suck. We should be being wiped off the stage by kids every night." I just didn't get it. I spent years saying that and being kind of wound up. Like, where the fuck are the kids? Then I started thinking that energy that used to be kids-- early rock and then punk, what was really going on was that there was no marketing to kids.
If you made advertisements, you made them to 40- or 50-year-olds. Because they had money, they had jobs. You didn't advertise to kids. The only thing that was targeted to kids was like, funny hair products and rock'n'roll. So you had this one thing to navigate, and that was where all your energy was.
But now kids buy shit. They really buy shit. Kids buy designer stuff. So you're being constantly pounded by marketing. And if you want to be a rebel, well, there's rebel clothing companies. There's rebel stick-on tattoos. You can get a rebel skateboard. You just pick your rebel mode and there's a whole online shopping network that you can be a part of. So kids may look punk or feel punk, but what they're kind of doing is the same as like, being really swept up in high school sports or something. But when I was a kid, you didn't know. I was like, "I guess Kraftwerk is punk?" I remember I got Sex Pistols, Kraftwerk's Computer World and Venom on the same day. And I thought it was all punk. It was just everything that was weird. Everything that wasn't Bruce Springsteen-- who turns out to be a lot punker than I thought at the time.
So I just think it takes a couple decades to kind of clear your brain now. So it makes more sense to me that I could find my footing when I was 30 instead of when I was 19. It seems a little more clear. You know, novelists are older now. Things are happening later in people's lives. They're kind of living lives and then creating things about the lives they've lived. Rather than being an artiste at an early age and coming out with a ball of fire. That energy has been co-opted because you haven't immunized yourself yet against media. It's easier to get swept up things then take a couple of years to get over your, like, indie rock hangover. I'm scraping the fucking Quarterstick Records crust out of my eyes when I'm like, 27. You know, "Why am I playing in 5/7? How is that fun?"
* I'm glad Ken Parille decided to un-delete his post on "hyper-aggressive misreading" by critics, i.e. when someone goes completely buckwild on a book in a fashion that's both disproportionate to the offense and ultimately inimical to actual insight--into the book, that is; it provides plenty of insight into the creator. Be sure to read the comments, too--the first sentence of the first response made me laugh out loud.
* My favorite LCD Soundsystem song is probably "Sound of Silver," in large part because James Murphy's vocals sound like Heaven 17's. Turns out that was exactly what he was going for. I dunno, I get really excited when I accurately trainspot. The aforelinked Fresh Air interview with NPR's Terry Gross comes via Matthew Perpetua, who pulls the following killer quote from Murphy on the sort of hipster-band checklist at the end of "Losing My Edge":
At the end, the reason why I yell all the band names, is because I suddenly realized that this is what you do when you know things. Knowing things, knowledge, or your attachment to things, your self-association with other bands, or books, or whatever. It's often like this weird amulet that protects you. Like "No, I am serious, look at my library, listen to this!" I can list all the books I've read, and now you know I am a serious person. And so it's just supposed to be this amulet swinging around me to protect me from being seen as anything I didn’t want to be seen as.
Michael DeForge, writer/artist
self-published, May 2010
no price listed Visit DeForge's website
The second panel in this comic, a view of the buildings lining a city street--here, you can see it yourself--literally made me say "whooo" out loud on the train. Yeah, I'm quite frankly impressed as hell by what I've seen from Michael DeForge so far. This minicomic contains two nightmarish short stories, both of which pivot off of characters from popular comics (Spider-Man and freaking Foxtrot respectively) as is DeForge's apparent wont, and they're maybe the tightest things I've seen from him yet. The first involves Spider-Man recounting to his therapist a sex dream he had about Aunt May and Doctor Octopus; it's not a "haha look the famous corporate icon is doing something dirty" joke, it's a way to make this sort of uncomfortable Freudian stuff even more up-close-and-personal by using the familiar visual vocabulary of a hugely popular pop-culture staple to keep everything painfully simple to understand. The second shows a loinclothed character wandering through a wasteland whose geological features seem to consist solely of viscera, killing a phallic animal, and offering its disembowled corpse to the colossal, godlike, bifurcating head of a cute comic-strip kid. Again, this kind of "cute thing doing gross thing" material might read as overly broad in less skilled hands, but DeForge appears in complete control of his line, his figurework, his character designs, his backgrounds, his use of zipatone, his cartoony satirical representations of Spidey and Doc Ock and Aunt May, his pacing, his punchlines, his choice of nightmare imagery (sidewalk-as-thin-membrane is gonna be hard to shake when I walk to the comic shop today)...it's very, very sharp, it does exactly what it wants to do.
Carnival of souls: Special "DC digital day-and-date download" edition
* Gamechanger part deux: DC Comics unveils its own digital-comics plan. This includes an app for the iPad and iPhone, plus digital comics available through comiXology and PlayStation and eventually the DC website to boot. The 26-issue biweekly series Justice League: Generation Lost is going day-and-date immediately (y'know, if you've been wondering whether we'd see moves toward that sort of thing by the end of the year or anything). The company is also publicly announcing the existence of creator royalties for digital sales, though of course no figures. (Kudos to Matt Maxwell for being the first person I saw to notice all this.)
;) In all seriousness, now that day-and-date digital is happening with both big companies to one degree or another, I'd like to hear what Dirk makes of it. Do you think it's just a frogmarch to the death of the DM at this point?
For me, a movie like Avatar and a television show like Glee have the same amount of crossover interest with comics: none. Your comics may have vampires and werewolves in them but my comics have aging local talk show hosts and southern California post-punk culture in them. I don't understand why your interests are more legitimate in terms of seeing them represented by offerings in other art forms than mine are.
* More music should sound like Goldfrapp. Actually it's quite easy to construct a mindset wherein Goldfrapp is the logical conclusion/fulfilled promise of the Glitter Band, electroclash, and Doctor and the Medics doing "Spirit in the Sky," and I would encourage you to do so.
1) With the exception of the introductory story, this entire book features three tiered panels per page. In superhero comics this format is known as "widescreen"; it connotes power. It's powerful here, too, but it's a power to oppress and crush rather than soar or punch in action-movie style. They're like miniature trenches.
2) In one memorable sequence early in the book, soldiers leap up from their trench and charge their opposite numbers. Their charge is depicted against a blank white background in lieu of any kind of detail for the sky or the horizon. You see men cut down by invisible bullets--no speed lines, no blurs, certainly no enemy firing.
3) One particularly strong page in the sequence uses panels of two soldiers leaning forward to sandwich a grisly shot of a soldier being blown backwards--hat flying off and blood streaming out behind him--by a bullet to the head.
4) Tardi's art frequently piles detail on detail--meticulously researched trenches filled with the detritus of war, huge gatherings of massed soldiers in impeccably drawn uniforms and toting forests of guns and bayonets--but one thing he rarely if ever does is bury his protagonists in the visual cacophony. Flipping through the book, it's impressive how he uses various tricks to pop them out from their surroundings. Most frequently, he'll use the device of having people face directly out at the reader in weird little pseudo-portraits of them against their backgrounds. This is where the strength of his portraiture--his signature taciturn squinty-eyed stubbly everymen--comes in.
5) But he also uses a lot of forward motion, characters moving or leaning from the left-hand side of the panel to the right, serving as guideposts for your eyes and thus standing out to you.
6) It's actually interesting to see the cases where people face right to left instead. I don't think it's always used for effect--it's not like every single time is like that famous sequence from Safe Area Gorazde where Sacco drew people fleeing through a forest from right to left, "against the grain" of the reading experience if you will, to drive home the difficulty of their journey. But flipping through, I see some notable cases--a man seizing a suspected traitor, wounded Englishmen leaving the front, two soldiers from opposite sides of the conflict hiding out in a basement together, a soldier who gets lost in No Man's Land sitting and trying to figure out which way to head...in most cases it suggests an inability to escape.
7) The whole book seems smeared with zipatone, dingy and dreary, like you're being rained on. It makes the un-shaded parts--that attack sequence, a series photo-like images of the wounded and disfigured veterans toward the end--practically radiate from the page.
All of which is to say that this is Tardi's thesis, as articulated in his foreword:
There are no "heroes," there is no "protagonist" in this awful collective "adventure" that is war. nothing, but a gigantic, anonymous scream of agony.
...and but for my own personal history I'd be tempted to dismiss this as Captain Obvious territory. But the specific and unique awfulness of World War I is that trench warfare by its very nature highlights the pointlessness of the deaths of its participants: Untold thousands upon thousands of men standing up, moving forward a few feet, and being blown to pieces, gaining no ground, rinse, repeat for years on end. Add to this the French experience of many many soldiers being executed by their own side on entirely spurious or totally unfair accusations of dereliction of duty, a duty that was frequently impossible for them to execute. Tardi is brining very specific and very effective weapons to bear in his chillingly successful effort to convey this particular horror.
Natsume Ono, writer/artist
Viz Signature/Ikki, January 2010
$14.99 Buy it from Amazon.com
I'm gonna go so far as to say don't waste your time with this one. Sure, the cover makes it look like an imported slice-of-lifer of the sort that's at least surface-level appealing to American altcomix readers like me. But inside is a story so rife with tragedy, maudlin melodrama, and ludicrous implausibility it feels less like, say, Solanin and more like something you'd waste a couple Saturday afternoon hours watching on Lifetime. Its confusing intro at first makes the book seem like it's going to be about a totally different person and scenario and then gets barely a dozen pages before lobbing the first in an onslaught of absurd coincidences, all of which come in lieu of a plot that emerges organically from character. When we finally do get around to telling the story of our protagonist Ian--a young man recovering from abuse and hoping to reunite with the older sister he suspects was secretly his birth mother--it quickly becomes clear that Ono's art isn't up to the task she sets up for herself, in which the characters' appearances and who looks like whom are a major plot point. She's not really making up for it with style or layout either: Her angular line and big-eyed emo-haired impossibly slim characters are pleasant enough for a time, but they wouldn't look out of place in an undistinguished minicomic being sold at a MoCCA table, and her panels feel cramped and at times illogically placed. There's a comparatively strong, thoughtful, intriguing subplot-cum-A-plot involving a young writer who befriends Ian with the intention of writing a novel about his tragic life but quietly falls in love with him. It nearly rights the ship, but only nearly, especially once it's capsized once again by the most over-the-top plot twist of the lot. I'll say this for the book: it reads like a breeze--even if that's in part because the art is slight and you're racing through the narrative since it doesn't reward dwelling.
* This month, Partyka's Guest Artist is...Partyka's Matt Wiegle, who in addition to daily sketches is posting his sumptuous illustrations for Barnes & Noble's Sparknotes series. This one's from Huckleberry Finn.
I don't have much of a use for Hot Topic, but I like that it exists.
This is because it democratizes punk by commodifying it. If you're a thirteen year old from the suburbs, you don't need to run the gauntlet of gate keepers to invest in a subculture; you just need to convince your mom to drop $20 on a t-shirt for you. Liberating!
Amen, except for the part about not having much use for Hot Topic--I started shopping there as an adult. (Via Nate Patrin.)
Without reaching to the Soviet bloc for examples, one case of such an artificial and untenable code is the American demand that all politicians be monogamous and drug-free. The press both creates this untenable expectation and exploits violations in order to entrench its power over the political system.
The demand that political journalists either not hold, or never express, their own political opinions is another such artificial and untenable code. Politically interested actors who attempt to enforce this code by revealing the private convictions of reporters do not have the moral goal of ensuring that political reporters have no political opinions; such a goal would be absurd. Rather, they aim to aggrandise their power over journalistic organisations by exacerbating the hypocrisy of those organisations' official codes of conduct, and then exploiting evidence of that hypocrisy when useful.
A while back I realized why the press focuses so much on "hypocrisy," and "flip-flopping." In the "he said/he said" framework that the establishment media deems the only acceptable way to convey news, it's verboten to discuss whether what either side "said" is factually accurate, let alone practically desirable, let alone morally sound. No, the only standard to which any political actor can be held is the standard he sets for himself. Thus, the gravest sin a politician can commit is "flip-flopping" from a previously articulated position, even if this is the result of a perfectly rational evolution of opinion rather than some craven cave-in to the prevailing political winds. In the eyes of the establishment press, you're much better off holding and sticking with a completely odious position than you are ever changing your mind one way or the other. (Via Andrew Sullivan.)
In comics, there's a lot of evidence of devaluing entertainment and fun, especially within the current indie and underground spheres, instead focusing on a tone of pseudo-artistic seriousness and pretension.
Ben says this sort of thing all the time, like in every interview he does. And I eat up all of his comics and all of his interviews with a spoon. Yet at the same time, when I see bloggers say stuff like that, dismiss huge swathes of alternative comics by reducing them to an easily mocked stereotype, I pretty much flip out. What's up? Well, here's the part where I'd take a page from Tom Spurgeon and say it's okay for an artist to say things we wouldn't accept from a critic if those things are obviously said in service the sort of art they make. In terms of his personal satisfaction as a comics reader or his utility as a critic, I think he's shooting himself in the foot by writing off alternative comics, but that's not the issue. Po-faced trash is what gets Ben fired up as a creator, and he's excellent at making it himself, so it's hard to hold his biases against him.
But wait! I've done exactly that when I've seen other artists pull similar stunts--cf. my reaction every time Alan Moore lambastes Hollywood filmmaking in one breath while saying he doesn't watch any of it with the next, or dismisses superhero comics as a creatively bankrupt regurgitation of other people's ideas. What's the difference? Well, it's specific to Moore. Here's a guy who's made his career out of drawing sophisticated adult ideas from pop, pulp, trash, and kids' stuff, whether we're talking about Marvelman, Watchmen, Lost Girls, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, even From Hell to an extent. That makes it extra-frustrating when he dismisses today's pop/pulp/trash out of hand, or acts as though he has a principled objection to working with other people's ideas.
So what's the difference between me saying this and people making fun of John Kerry? I like to think that in my case, first of all, the "hypocrisy" angle isn't nearly as important as whether or not good or crap art is made as a result. I'd be perfectly happy to attack or defend Moore as an artist rather than as a person who did one thing but said another. Moreover, it's not just the hypocrisy that rankles, it's the fact that Alan Moore, of all people, oughta know better, right? We expect more from him because he's displayed such a nuanced understanding of how much is really going on under the surface of storybooks and Victorian adventure novels and Captain Marvel knock-offs and Ripperology and on and on and on. So in the end the comparison with Marra's oft-articulated viewpoint on literary comics isn't even the right one to make--it'd be more apt if Marra was making Night Business while dismissing Rambo, not dismissing, I dunno, Asterios Polyp.
* Oh yeah: Benjamin Marra drew a picture of Sylvester Stallone in Cobra.
Shitbeams on the Loose #2
Andy Rementer, Ron Rege Jr., Jason Overby, Dave Nuss, Andrew Smith, Hector Serna Jr., Brent Harada, Robyn Jordan, John Hankiewicz, Grant Reynolds, Ryo Kuramoto & Amane Yamamoto, Rusty Jordan, Luke Ramsey, writers/artists
Rusty Jordan, Dave Nuss, editors Revival House, October 2009
$9 Buy it from Revival House
I picked this up on the strength of that gorgeous Andy Rementer cover, which at the time I thought was by Ron Rege Jr. That's actually a pretty appropriate way to have discovered this artcomix anthology, in which there are several pieces strong enough to make you think "hey, this was worth taking a flyer for nine bucks" and several others that you could mistake for the work of other cartoonists and then some stuff that you just move on by. I'm always up for new John Hankiewicz, and thus my favorite piece is his wordless sequence of four full-page images, which paint a quietly creepy portrait of some kind of dark domestic fairy-tale. It's followed by some bravura inkwork by Grant Reynolds in service of a gruesome underwater flying-saucer sci-fi tale, peppered with non sequitur quotes in big block letters that feel like faintly received transmissions from the strip's helmeted voyager. And I was tickled by both Dave Nuss's look at the underpaid centurion who stabbed Christ in the side and the stylized drawing of "tubgirl" (google at your own risk) that Andrew Smith provided for the back cover. Beyond that? There's some not-his-best stuff from Rege (really, this time), a "comic about comics" from Jason Overby whose visuals fail to live up to insight of the text, and some stuff that'll remind you of Ben Jones, Matt Furie, Michael DeForge, Bald Eagles, you know, the whole wildandwoolier end of that scene. It's inessential, but if you like this sort of thing, it's the sort of thing you'll like.
Half exhausted from staying up so late on a work night, half delirious from the ambien I took to smooth my transition into beddy-bye once I got home (right, that's the ticket), I discovered at the midnight screening of The Twilight Saga: Eclipse I went to last night that the movie flies right by. I'm reasonably sure this is actually true and not merely a product of my two-in-the-morning brain, and I'm reasonably sure it's a compliment as well.
The two earlier installments of the series, Twilight and New Moon, were distinguished by their weird, physics-defying property of requiring a lot of time to do not so much. Both earlier films were dominated, after all, by sequences of Kristen Stewart's Bella getting to know a hot boy who's secretly a monster, sequences that took up what felt like over half of each film's running time. In Eclipse, there's not, like, a new hot mummy or Frankenstein or zombie or ghost kid for her to meet/stare at/be stared at by, so that portion of the narrative is gone.
The other really odd thing about the each of the first two movies is the detachment of the final-reel climax from, basically, the whole rest of the film. In Twilight you have a few scattered scenes involving the vampire trio who end up serving as ersatz antagonists, but their initial confrontation with the Cullen vampire family, their rogue member's decision to hunt and kill Bella, his attempt to do so, and his death at the hands of the Cullens all takes place within approximately 20 minutes toward the end of the movie. New Moon is slightly better in this regard--Robert Pattinson's Edward does at least mention, in passing, the idea of baiting the ruling super-vampire council the Volturi to should he ever want to kill himself, which is where things end up. But Edward's first-reel fake-breakup with Bella and her loooooong subsequent getting-to-know-you stuff with Taylor Lautner's teen wolf Jacob mean that once again, the showdown with the sinister vampire antagonists comes out of nowhere and is wrapped up rapidly. Eclipse breaks that pattern too. Pretty much from the jump, you and the characters know that Victoria--the female vampire from the initial film's trio, now played by Bryce Dallas Howard in a bad wig and out for vengeance for the death of her mate at the Cullens' hands--is breeding an army of powerful, out-of-control "newborn" vampires to storm Bella's hometown, overwhelm the Cullens and the werewolf tribe, and murder Bella. So the Cullens and werewolves train to fight the newborns, the newborns attack and are defeated, and the inevitable Edward-Jacob team-up dispatches Victoria. The end!
So,yeah, Eclipse has a rather welcome sense of direction. Credit genre-vet director David Slade, perhaps? Certainly the 30 Days of Night helmer has fun with the sort of shattered crystal statue effect deployed here (for the first time in the series so far, because why the heck not) for what happens when you dismember a vampire, and with the series' second conspicuous murder of a child while our heroes stand by and do nothing, and with a memorably nasty flashback of the werewolf tribe's first encounters with "the cold ones." Alas, two other key flashbacks aren't as much fun: Our glimpses of the origins for Rosalie Cullen (Nikki Reed) and Jasper Cullen (Jackson Rathbone) explain why the former's such an asshole and give the latter something to do other than look like a constipated Harpo Marx, but Rosalie's "birth" is sexually violent in a way that brings author Stephenie Meyer's sexual politics uncomfortably to the fore, while Jasper's Civil War roots can be compared all too directly and unfavorably to True Blood. (Even if I kind of like the idea that there were small armies of vampires running amok in the South, just 'cuz I can hear Shelby Foote describing this in my head. "Vampahs were fairly common throughout the Confederacy at this pahticuluh tahm...")
But who cares about frou-frou shit like plot momentum and horror and decent vampire effects--what about the sturm und drang of young love? Eclipse is both the best and the worst of the series in that regard. The Bella-Jacob storyline, starring Kristen Stewart at her loveliest and Taylor Lautner at his most shirtless (apologies to Mike Nelson, Patrick Swayze, and Road House), is where the real emotional heat is. Jacob's in that familiar, gut-churning position where he's formed a powerful bond of love with someone...who just happens to love someone else even more. It's a common enough situation for teenagers, whose hearts are bigger than their brains (apologies to Clark Griswold, Cousin Eddie, and National Lampoon's Christmas Vacations) and often their consciences; it can feel good to have that second person to love, to use that person's love for you, even as it feels horrendously painful for them, and by extension for you. In much the same way that it's kind of gutsy for this series to go to bat for true teenage love, it's also doing something here that you really don't see very often, and good for it.
But the goodwill it engenders here is all but undone by the increasingly icky Bella-Edward relationship. It doesn't help that Robert Pattinson is starting to suffer from diminishing returns--maybe it was just me or maybe it was how he was shot or made up, but in this movie he started looking less beautiful and more pouty and pasty, his face an immobile rubber mask. But the real problem is the bizarre message is sent by Edward and Bella's quid-pro-quo relationship here. Edward wants to get married, Bella wants to become a vampire and to fuck Edward, so they essentially make an even exchange that once the former happens, the latter will, too. It's unpleasantly, nakedly transactional, and it's a perfect reflection of the simultaneous, stupid prudery and prurience of the faith-based abstinence movement. Save sex for your true love, it's deeply wrong to have sex outside of marriage--so once you fall in love, get married in a hurry so you can fuck your brains out! It's the first time the benightedness of Meyer's ideas really knocked me out of the swoony broody young-love material. (Meanwhile, Bella's entertaining quartet of human friends, particularly series MVPs Anna Kendrick and Michael Welch, were all but absent--we really could have used a healthy dose of their realistically hormonal hijinx.)
Given my wife's Twatlight membership, I knew I was gonna be seeing this movie in the theater, one way or the other. And as was the case with New Moon, going at a time when going is an event unto itself was the way to go. The only way to go, I'd say. When you're seeing this movie in the sort of audience where Jacob's potentially fatal wounding and subsequent reversion from wolf to human form is greeted primarily with a collective moan of realization that holy shit he's naked, you're sort of borrowing eyes that look right past all the problems. They're fun eyes to borrow, and necessary ones to boot.
* Matt Seneca on a variety of comics of interest, from those strange Silber Media ultra-minis to the Frazer Irving issue of The Return of Bruce Wayne (which I thought was hamstrung somewhat by how hard it was to tell Bruce apart from his equally jut-jawed, furrow-browed puritan antagonist).
* I read Paul Cornell and Pete Woods's Action Comics #890 today and it was very entertaining. Here's an interview with Cornell about it, conducted by my indefatigable, inescapable pal Kiel Phegley. It's good that Cornell's in DC's bullpen in case, you know, certain things don't work out.
* One other quick Superman note: I've been a supporter of the New Krypton material over the past couple of years, and I certainly enjoyed reading it as it came out, but I have to say the ending kind of smushed it all for me. That's a lot of time to devote to a story in which the combined efforts of every character in the DCU who wears an S on their chest fails to save 100,000 people.
* In the interest of equal time, wow, that was a lot of talking in Avengers #2.
* Real Life Horror: Here and here you can find a pretty breathtaking look at how abjectly the four widest-circulation newspapers abandoned the plain-truth description of waterboarding as torture once the United States started doing it.
* Well holy smokes, look at this mash-up of Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese movies. Here you have over seven minutes of scenes from basically the best movies ever made by my two favorite directors of all time. I could do a little dance, this made me so happy. SPOILERY AS ALL GET-OUT for GoodFellas, The Departed and probably lots and lots more besides. (Via everyone.)