Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Does Whatever A Catfish Can
OK, I am not an Aquaman fan. Truth be told, I just have no opinion on the character one way or another. But strangely enough, some of the other members of this here blogosphere are downrigth obsessed with the fellow in ways which would seem unhealthy. But that's just me.
Anyway, one of the side effects of this group dementia is the fact that Alan Davis' covers for the current Aquaman series are reprinted everywhere ad nauseum. Which is, you know, not a bad thing since Davis is a damn fine artist. But the cover for the most recent issue gave me pause:

Does is not seem that if someone were really swimming that fast their skimpy yellow tube top would, um, slide off? 
Postmodernbarney has stepped up to the plate in the defense of Identity Crisis here.  He makes a few very cogent points, and if this conversation is of any interest you should probably read up on what he has to say. But I would like to offer a few clarifying points:
1) I have no attachment to Sue Dibney's character whatsoever. I guess I liked her in the Giffen/DeMatteis books, but again, she's hardly a fan favorite by any stretch of the imagination. My reaction to the story would have been the same if it had been a totally new character or Lois Lane.  
2) I think the fact that this is not explicitly targeted at kids is a weak argument. True: It doesn't have the JLA logo on it. True: It doesn't have any media tie-in that would make it attractive to younger kids. But the fact remains that the books is filled with characters who are regularly featured in kid-friendly books as well as frequent media tie-ins. You can't publish a kid-friendly Spider-Man and then turn around and publish a Spider-Man: Child Molester book, because regardless of whether or not the books are marketed at the same audience, they both have a garishly clas crime-fighting superhero who has appeared in two of the most popular family movies of our times on the cover. DC has long walked a fine line here with their variety of Batman books... there have been many Bat-related titles over the years that have been very seriously not for kids, but these haven't really been much of a cause for worry because they have mostly been priced out of the range of most kids, and also featured darker subject matter that wouldn't interest younger fans (ie: not a lot of garishly clad do-gooding).
3) I also don't see any profit in comparing IC with books like Fables or any other revisionist/reimagined fairy tale/children's book stories. It's not the same thing at all. It would be one thing if Disney had followed up Snow White and the Seven Dwarves with Snow White Gets Raped By A Negro  (or whatever would have turned on that kinky old racist Walt Disney) and then insisted that it wasn't aimed at children .  But if someone wants ot do a story where Snow White is a "dirty girl" or whatever, that's OK because Snow White has been public domain for centuries. A very important part of art is the constant reimagining and recontextualization of old ideas. Saying that disliking IC means we have to boycott Lost Girls is just silly. By the same token, I love Dan O'Neill's infamous "Air Pirates" books (I even own a copy of Dan O'Neill's Comics And Stories which I found through sheer luck, let me tell you). But if Disney had published the O'Neill books it would have been irresponsible, because they have a brand and an interest in ensuring that that brand retains a stable, family-friendly image - which is the same situation I think DC is in with their DCU superhero brand. You can't have it both ways, because an inconsistency in tone and subject matter across a disparate line of related books will inevitably come back and bite you on the ass. If Identity Crisis is as important as they say it will be, it will have repercussions on books like Teen Titans and JLA and Batman and Superman - all of which do have ongoing media tie-ins and do attract readers of multiple age groups. 
4) Basically, for me, it boils down to this: would you want your eight-year old to stumble upon that rape scene in a comic book? If you have Superman and Batman on the cover of your comic book, you have to presume that regardless of what the current market realities may be (which is certainly a subjecton which  I bow to Postmodernbarney's eminent knowledge), that book is instantly attractive to children on that basis. Are you willing to gamble with the future of this industry that no kid is going to read this comic, and that no angry parents are going to make a stink and call Bill O'Reilly and organize protests against Time/Warner for publishing "filthy misogynistic pornography"? That's the world we live in. Bill O'Reilly has a list of comapnies on his website that are partly French - provided so that his listeners can boycott them. I checked that myself because I thought it was a joke. The way this country is right now, this was the exact wrong comic book to publish at the exact wrong time.   
5) I do not presume to say whether Metzler's intentions were misogynistic or not. But regardless of his intentions, and regardless of the fact that - by definition - a murder must occur in a murder mystery, the events in this story happen in a tradition of stories which have featured an overwhelmingly disproportionate amount of violence against women throughout its history. Why couldn't they have killed the Elongated Man and thus brought Sue to the forefront? Well, I guess because then they wouldn't have gotten to draw a neato-keen rape scene! I am not a woman (obviously) but you don't have to be a woman to feel uncomfortable around this topic. Abdicating moral responsibility simply because you cannot presume to judge what a theoretical member of an opressed group may find offensive is just, I'm sorry, a cop-out.
6) I think Supreme Power is probably the best mainstream title being published today (excepting Kyle Baker's Plastic Man, considering the two books are on totally different plateaus of greatness). I am quite surprised at this since I've never liked any of Straczinsky's (sic?) writing anywhere else I've encountered it. But it keeps me riveted month in and month out. It's hardly wank material.
Well, hmmm. That's a bit more than I wanted to write about that!
But before we lay the topic to rest, I would like to say that Rose at Pieratikos has unwittingly inspired a brilliant, if kooky thought, when she asked "why isn't anyone concerned abotu Zatanna's boyfriend." Well, the only boyfriend of her's we've seen with any regularity is none other than John Constantine, who for many years has been a "friend with benefits" type. I'd love to see Dr. Light try to snag John Constantine... that would make for fun reading.

Travels With Larry Part XVII
True Story, Swear To God: 100 Stories

I have but one problem with this book, and it’s a simple enough problem to address: I can’t stand it when strip collections fail to include even rudimentary publication info for the strips they reprint. Even just a little "Originally published on XX/XX/XX" would be helpful. This strips are printed out of chronological order, so it’s quite difficult to pay attention to things such as artistic growth and stylistic change. Sometimes he signs the strip with a date, sometimes he doesn’t. It makes life difficult for those, such as myself, who care about these things.

But that said, I like Tom Beland’s work. I like it quite a bit. He seems to have mastered a deceptively simple tone that allows him to deal with everyday reminiscences in a baldly emotional fashion without crossing over into the realms of treacle or sap.

If Beland were anything but a cartoonist, he would be a millionaire. There’s nothing really that difficult to grok here. True Story, Swear To God is the story of Beland’s life, told in anecdotes across the course of many years. While sometimes the sentimentality may seem cloying, I never doubt that it is 100% heartfelt and sincere (some cynics would probably say that was worse).

Anecdote is not autobiography. Autobiography is the accumulation of anecdotes into a narrative. The cumulative effect of reading 100 of Beland’s strips between two covers gives an enviable view of his thoughts and preoccupations. Usually comics autobiography carries a disproportionate weight, as if the cartoonists are attempting to convey matters of the profoundest importance through the reiteration of their lives. Beland doesn’t fall prey to this, despite the fact that his life is full of weighty occasions. His life is merely what it is, and he wisely leaves any conjecture on any deeper themes to his readers, to parse together from the disparate strips or not, as their temperament suits them.

By presenting his life in the format of a daily gag strip, he escapes much of the burdens carried by more profound cartoonists such as Eddie Campbell or Chester Brown. In terms of tone, he is much closer kin to Carol Lay and Lynn Johnston. While neither Lay’s strips For Better or For Worse are strictly autobiographical, Beland seems to do a good job of combining Lay’s mannered lyricism with Johnston’s keen grasp of the mundane. True Story, Swear To God doesn’t quite achieve these heights, not yet, but there’s every indication that he’s the kind of dedicated craftsman whose technique and approach will only improve as the years go by.

As it is, its strictly impossible to dislike this strip. I’m not going to tell you its perfect or anything, far from it. But Beland seems to have a dose of humility far in excess of most current cartoonists of any stripe. As such, True Story, Swear To God succeeds as that rare artifact that is exactly what it presents itself to be.

I confess that I felt a tug of kinship with Beland as his story unfolded. Although it wasn’t a bus stop at Disneyland, I met my wife through similarly far-fetched circumstances. I moved across the country as well, and I will disagree with anyone who doesn’t think that Oklahoma is about as foreign to a Californian as Puerto Rico. So, on a personal note, I saw nothing untoward or unrealistic about Beland’s casual and unassuming reaction to his changed circumstances. Life is strange.

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