Thursday, July 29, 2004

Travels With Larry Part XIX

A Brief Pit-Stop On The Road To Nirvana

I’ve been spending a lot of time reading and digesting the output of AiT/Planet Lar comics for quite a while now. Some of you who have been following this feature for a while might be wondering just why I am still keeping at, just why I am bothering to devote so much of my time and effort to reviewing books that most other bloggers dispatch in short order. Why be so, well, critical all the time?

As with many things in this here comics world, the answer comes by way of Kim Thompson and Tom Spurgeon. A few years ago (actually, five years ago if the date on the website is correct) Thompson wrote an essay for the Comics Journal that said, in as many words, More Crap Is What We Need. By this he didn’t mean absolute crap, merely middle-of-the-road genre fiction, the kind of unpretentious and enjoyable entertainment that formes the backbone and bedrock of every other popular medium.

As an industry, we’ve spent the last twenty years or so working at a furious pace to remove the taint of juvenilia from the medium. As a result of this unstinting hard work and laboriously ascetic worldview, we have succeeded in creating a world where, in at least some limited capacity, Comics Are Art. It may be fragile and it may be slightly shallow in places, but there is an honest-to-God artistic community growing up around English speaking cartoonists in North America.

Ten years ago the publication of Louis Riel, The Fixer, Persepolis, Quimby the Mouse and the collected Frank and Palomar volumes would have each been cause for amazing celebration. Each of these books, if they had landed twenty years ago, could have created (in my opinion) the kind of fervor that followed the release of Maus. But they were all released in the space of one single calendar year during 2003, and we all pretty much took it in stride. This is what our medium has accomplished.

But it’s not enough that we produce Art of the highest caliber. Sure, that is the reason we’re here at the end of the day (or at least the reason I’m here, I don’t know about you). But as
Kim Thompson says so eloquently:

"[Comics] need a middle ground somewhere between Utter Shit and Great Art. Otherwise the marginalization will continue, and the genre stuff will turn into modern network TV (i.e. horrible beyond belief) and the good stuff will turn into modern poetry, and we'll all be fucked."

Perhaps it might be damning with faint praise to refer to AiT/Planet Lar’s output as "somewhere between Utter Shit and Great Art". But that’s more or less where I imagine Larry Young himself sees himself. There’s not an AiT/Planet Lar book I’ve read yet that I think would qualify as quote-unquote Great Art (although I will hold my tongue on that note – the collected Demo, whenever the hell it gets here and whatever form it takes, might just be a breakout book for the company with the art snob crowd). But on that same note there’s not a book from the company that I have yet to read that seemed anything less than genuinely sincere in its effort to entertain, amuse and divert the reader.

Now, of course, intentions don’t amount to shit when we’re talking about Art . . . but they do mean a great deal when we’re talking about marketing. This is Larry Young’s secret. This is why he annoys the living piss out of some people. This is, not coincidentally, why he’s making a comfortable living publishing black & white graphic novels out of his house, and why the print run of every new book he releases is bigger than the last. Larry Young saw an opening and he took it. It’s as simple as that. He perceived an industry where a vicious intractable dichotomy existed between the High Art and the Utter Shit. You were either with Fantagraphics and D&Q or you were sitting outside the Android’s Dungeon every Wednesday morning and waiting for Paul Levitz and Joe Quesada to shit down your collective throats.

Any moron will tell you that that is not a healthy industry.

Imagine a world where movie theaters only showed to kinds of films: A+ art pictures or grade Z genre schlock. There are people who love to watch nothing but high quality films, refusing to sully their palates with anything but the most thought-provoking world cinema. There are also folks who really, really love nothing better than bad teen horror flicks, raunchy stoner comedies and late-night Cinemax soft-core porn. But that’s not the movie industry. Except for rare instances, movie theaters make their bread and butter off the stuff that Average People want to see.

People like family comedies and historical dramas and police procedurals and action extravaganzas and sci-fi blockbusters and childrens’ adventures and westerns and romances and horror and biopics and detective thrillers. Every one a genre that you would easily expect to see on a cinema marquee, every genre that you would expect to see on your television or on the stands at your local bookseller. And almost every single one of them notably absent from the shelves of your local comic book store.

In his recent lengthy article on the company (in issue #260 of the Journal), Tom Spurgeon opined that "Young and [Mimi] Rosenheim have the freedom to publish what they like; they seem to prefer quirky, broad-based entertainment to strict, idiosyncratic artistic achievement." Anyone attuned to the Journal’s usually high critical standards may see this as a backhanded compliment. But I don’t really think this is an indictment of the company so much as a pure statement of fact.

Larry Young projects the image of an Everyday Guy. As Spurgeon so ably puts it:

"If one is to believe the online rhetoric around Young, spending time near the publisher would be roughly equivalent to joining a comic-book fraternity, where comics chat is interspersed with talk of fine liquors to be consumed and aggressively macho movies to be celebrated."

It only makes sense to refer to this as an "odd subset" of comics culture when one considers just how odd the majority of comics culture is. Something like what Spurgeon describes may seem alien to the hermetically sealed world of comics fandom, where every day is 1964 and girls is icky, but in the real world this is the type of chummy mystique that sells product. People want to be cool.

Only in comics could it be considered unusual to appeal to the general public’s sense of social inadequacy. That may seem like a harsh term, but lets look at this a bit more closely. Why is Playboy still considered cool after all these years? Well, besides the naked women. The fact is that there’s so much more explicit pornography available than you can find in Playboy, and its usually racked less than a foot away at that. So why do they buy it? It has something to do with those ads that they always run (or at least they used to always run them, back when I paid attention to the magazine): What Kind of Man Reads Playboy? Why, a dashing, well-dressed, intelligent and suave fellow, that’s who, who is usually doing something very fun in a sophisticated manner with a beautiful woman on his arm. Even if you’ve never opened up an issue of the magazine, you probably know that stereotype, because every time Hugh Hefner appears on the television or in a photograph that’s the image he’s selling.

When you buy an AiT/Planet Lar comic, you get the feeling that Larry Young himself is slapping you on the back and offering you a cigar from his own personal stash. He’s a friendly, outgoing fellow who wants nothing more than to bend his elbow for a while with some good friends and discuss the latest baseball scores. Whether or not the real Larry Young fits this profile is irrelevant. That’s how he does what he does.

At some point, however, this is going to backfire. The fact is, comics are selling well in bookstores and general media outlets. From what Young has said, much of the company’s sales come from outlets that wouldn’t know a Previews order form if it hit them on the head. There’s going to reach a point where he’s not going to be able to hand-sell every comic that leaves his house. If the only impetus behind the successful publishing company is his personality, this is a fragile brand on which to build a publishing empire. At some point he’s going to have to step back and become less intimate with his customers, simply by virtue of the economies of scale that follow in the wake of success.

But until that point he is fortunate to have a birds-eye seat for the remaking of the comics industry. It would be foolish to claim him as an industry messiah or savior based simply on the fact that he sells comic books well. But the fact is that if the American industry does survive, it will be because it followed at least partly in Young’s footsteps.

There’s a point at which we can’t compete with the manga invasion, simply on the grounds of the fact that the American industry doesn’t have the library of cheap, facile entertainment at our fingertips that Tokyopop and Viz do. For better or for worse, we’re having to create our competition from the ground up. Although it must be noted that AiT/Planet Lar does not (yet) publish any books in the handy-dandy 6"x9" manga format, they do price their books quite competitively to the average manga volume. You get around a hundred pages of black and white comics at regular size for about the same as it costs to get a couple hundred pages of comics at the same price but a much smaller format. Joe Quesada has famously stated that the economic means to produce OGNs is simply not in place yet for American mainstream comics. Well, they better learn pretty damn soon or the entire market is going to outgrow the puny efforts of the "Big Two". Perhaps they should hire Larry Young to run their R&D departments.

I think I’ve been as harsh as anyone towards those AiT/Planet Lar books I haven’t enjoyed. I think, for instance, that I am the only person in the entire western world who didn’t fall all over themselves for Ursula. I did get a kick out of Planet of the Capes, however, when many intelligent and thoughtful commentators found themselves scratching their heads. This may sound bad but the quality of the individual comics is almost besides the point here. The important thing is that a gifted and insightful marketing man has found economic traction in the comics industry. If you want to start a successful comics company in 2004, I would follow Larry Young’s lead.

Spurgeon notes:

"[Young and Rosenheim] may have cruised past the point where they flesh out their line with detritus from the second Image boom and tossed-off "pop comics" and into a groove where they can settle into fruitful relationships with a select group of artists and writers, creators with the potential to evolve into superior craftspeople who can fulfill, expand, and even redefine the company’s general creative vision."

There is something slightly worn about a lot of the company’s output. For every sterling Codeflesh that they save from premature extinction, there’s an oddball like Johnny Dynamite or Sky Ape. Even some of their more prestigious projects, such as Warren Ellis’ Switchblade Honey, have suffered from a slight B-movie quality. I liked Switchblade Honey, but if you remember my review I was also extremely dismayed by Ellis’ introduction wherein he basically said the book was a tossed-off in-joke. It wasn’t perfect but it was fun, in the same way that a pilot episode of a promising television show can be: they don’t have expensive sets yet and the writing is still finding a voice, but there’s something fun that makes you want to tune in the following week. In the future I hope that Young will be able to inspire a higher degree of commitment and enthusiasm from his creators, because the commitment and enthusiasm he brings to the act of marketing even the dodgiest product demands to be met head-on. If I were a comic book writer I would want Larry Young in my corner, and with his track record I wouldn’t think of giving him anything less than my A-game.

At the end of the day it comes down to this: if you want to find the New Mainstream in comic book publishing, look to wherever Larry Young is. He publishes a lot of crap but he also publishes some real gems, with an entire spectrum of quality in between. He publishes something for everyone, and that’s is something I cannot say for anyone else in our entire industry. If there is any justice in this amoral business of ours, he will die a rich, rich man and it is not without a small smattering of professional jealousy that I say that.  

(Let us merely hope that Young never divorces Rosenheim and decides to turn Astronauts in Trouble into an ongoing screed against the all-consuming power of the Marxist/feminist/homosexualist axis. Already seen that one, thanks.)

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Milo George Can Have My Man-Babies

You know, this whole blogging thing is a cruel, cruel mistress. For some reason, I feel compelled to do it even when I have absolutely no motivation whatsoever.

But you know, that's OK, because even if I'm not quite feeling up to my normal self I can still look forwardto Milo George's daily postings. Somehow, amazingly, he has become the shining beacon of this here blogoverse. If you had told me this six months ago I wouldn't have believed you, because, honestly, he was working for the Comics Journal back then. Myself and Dirk Deppey notwithstanding, (me being on the Journal's masthead as a contributing writer and Dirk being, you know,  the current holder of the Slave-Driving Overseer position), the Journal's ethos does not seem to be one that would jibe with a tribe thirty-odd grown-ass men talking about how cool (or lame) the latest issue of Catwoman is.  But I forget the fact that George is nothing if not a resolute iconoclast. He likes to piss people off, in case you forgot. 

I owe George a lot because it was during his tenure on the magazine that I first started contributing regularly. I got my foot in the door during Anne Elizabeth Moore's run, but for whatever reason she didn't want to print the strange manifestos on Wolverine's dietary habits which I kept scrawling on two-ply toilet paper and sending into Fantagraphics. I liked Moore's Journal except for the fact that I was not published in it very often. I was published more often in George's Journal. I liked this. It always struck me as interesting that the George who I interacted with on a professional basis was always kind, intelligent and very courteous... as opposed to the other, Evil Milo George who apperantly lived in Mild-Mannered Milo's colon and said nasty things to nuns and orphans.

Thanks to him, my career as a Comics Pundit exploded. I even get form e-mails from Gary Groth himself now. Of course, I don't get any response when I reply to these letters, but it's a start, right?

Well, his blog seems to be run by the Evil Milo, and we are all the better for it. In my links bar he's the one current comics blogger I link to, and there's a reason for that (besides the obvious facts that ADD and Journalista! are defunct). The reason is that he makes me laugh on a more consistent basis than any of you other pitiful fuckers. I really could care less about your Heroclix tournaments or your thoughts on this week's issue of Batman: The Flexible Sigmoidoscopy Adventures. I want to know what your squirrel name is, dammit.    

So this is why Milo George is now, and shall always be, My Hero.  He ain't gonna sell out to The Man. He's gonna Tell It Like It Is, or Die Trying.

Which is a roundabout way of saying that I just don't feel like writing anything of value today. I know I committed to this whole Louis Riel thing, and I still gotta continue my in-depth (ie: endless) look at AiT/Planet Lar... but you know, I just feel incredibly tired tonight. So I think I'll turn in early. Peopel are still recovering from Nerd Prom anyway, so I don't really feel to bad about it.

If anyone cares I've also been promoted to Staff Editor at Meaning, if you've been paying any attention to my work over there, hopefully you will enjoy as I spread my Chulhu-like tentacles throughout the entire critical organism.

Also, the wife got purple hair last week. We don't have any good pictures yet, but as soon as we do I'll link to them.

Also again, if anyone reading this runs a medium-to-large comic based online resource, drop me a line. We should talk.

Sunday, July 25, 2004

Um, Yeah.

So I devoted part of this weekend to sitting down and finally reading the Getting Riel commentary Dave Sim published in Cerebus #295-297. I really don’t know what the hell I was expecting.

As I said in the first chapter of Can’t Riel Just Get Along?, I think that Louis Riel is a very important work, so I was looking forward to hearing what the author (Chester Brown) had to say. Sim is nothing if not intelligent, and I was hoping that if anyone would be able to get to the heart of Riel, it might be him.

But of course I seem to have been mistaken in this matter. Sim can – and does – speak eloquently on the subject of comic book history and art when he wants to. But the Sim of Getting Riel is instead the Sim we all know and love from Tangent. I can’t fault him as such, because he admits very openly that he filters everything in his life and experience through the litmus of whether or not it is pro-God or anti-God (pro-YHWH). He looks for the finger of God in all events, be they news stories or the behavior of his friends and family. So, obviously, any issues that may have been tangentially raised by Riel are brought back at the end of the day to Sim’s religious preoccupations.

Credit where credit is due, Brown seems to honestly be enjoying some of the intercourse, even if he is noticeably silent on certain of Sim’s salient points. They are obviously good friends (even if, perhaps, Sim would dispute my Marxist-feminist definition of "good friends") and considering the fact that both hold decidedly different views on the state of the world they seem to enjoy the give-and-take (what there is, of course).

Brown seems to have the patience of a saint. Sim repeatedly claims that no one talks to him because of his outspoken views and his dogged resistance to Marxist-feminist ideology. But honestly, I think the main reason that people may avoid Sim these days is the fact that every bit of conversation he reprints in Cerebus is filled with defensive and, frankly, endlessly selfish digression. For instance, there’s a sequence where Sim hectors Brown for having fallen behind on their voluminous conversation by failing to respond to Sim’s faxes in a timely enough manner. But, of course, Sim fails to take into account the fact that Brown was then in the midst of what must have been a very busy and productive time: the lead-up to the national release of the collected volume of Brown’s largest and most important work to date in a single volume. Rather, Sim sees that Brown is hesitating and prevaricating on account of his ingrained Marxist-feminist resistance to any competing ideological viewpoint. Brown explains that he was busy and Sim apologizes in a very half-assed way.

You get the idea that Sim seems to think that a lot more people spend a lot more time thinking about him than they actually do. Which is understandable: he thinks he’s the only person left on the planet who understands the original "True" meaning of God’s scriptures. I don’t think he’s insane nor do I believe he’s delusional (two concessions I am sure he would see for the condescending liberal apologias that they are). But I do think that there’s not a lot he has to say on these subjects that will be of interest to me, being the Marxist-feminist agnostic that I am. Whether or not the voice of God in the Book of Exodus is actually God or God and another ersatz spiritual entity trying to trick Moses (as Sim believe the entire Jewish creed to have been "tricked" by YHWH into worshipping a false god) is of little import unless you actually believe the Bible to be something more than a collection of stories, which I don’t. What can I say, I’m funny like that.

I think that agreeing to hold these conversations with Sim has to be part of a concentrated effort on Brown’s part to appear more "normal". I mean, considering the fact that he lives an aggressively ascetic existence, is a strident libertarian and is very frank about the fact that he occasionally pays for prostitutes, he looks positively normal next to Sim, who argues that the act of enjoying food is a distraction from the contemplation of God.

I’m about halfway through the last part of Getting Riel and I don’t really hold to much hope for finding the intense discussion of craft and formalism that I was hoping for from Sim. So, I guess that means if I want something done right I’ll have to do it myself.

In other news, it seems as if there was some sort of comic book convention over the weekend, or something, I don’t know. Apparently it was revealed that living and breathing people produce the comic books you and I take for granted, and not soulless robots from Mars. And the comics world was stunned as famed science-fiction author Philip K. Dick was reported to have returned from the dead in order to write a Black Widow limited series. This was later confirmed to be a hoax, as Dick is not scheduled to return from the dead until 2006, when he is scheduled to write an episode of NBC’s hit dramady Scrubs.

Friday, July 23, 2004


Computer problems had me wrestling with the great digital beastie all evening. So, since everyone's in San Diego anyway, how 'bout we just call it a week.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Part One – The Interminable Introduction

I’m about to cause a ruckus.

Everybody’s talking about Eightball #23. Well, I haven’t read it yet. As I get older and the comics industry metastasizes further I find it eminently easy to procrastinate these things. It’s not going to fall out of print anytime soon.

Instead of debating why Eightball #23 is the single greatest issue of any comic book ever since Marvel Two-In-One Annual #7, I have been deeply involved with Chester Brown’s Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography. I am surprised more people haven’t been talking about this since it was completed and collected in 2003.

Perhaps it strikes some as a particularly odd work. Based on Brown’s past track record, a historical biography is perhaps the last thing anyone could have expected. Or maybe it wasn’t.

Let there be no doubt, it is a slightly odd work, but I mean that in the best possible way. Brown is that rarest of cartoonists, able to create and elaborate a fully functioning and cohesive reality in the confines of a strict six-panel grid. It’s odd because everything Brown does takes us deeper into his head. Even a seemingly dispersonal work such as Riel succeeds in pulling us deeper and deeper into his mind. The process only stops when we realize we are seeing the world through his eyes and no longer through our own.

I believe that Chester Brown is the greatest English speaking cartoonist alive today.

It’s not that there aren’t many who could offer a reasonable claim to the title. Of course, there is Crumb, the legend and the celebrity. But his glory days are behind him. Art Spiegelman could perhaps have been a contender if he hadn’t spent the fifteen years following Maus basically jerking-off and doing covers for the New Yorker. I haven’t read more than isolated strips from the In The Shadow of No-Towers series yet, so I can’t offer any opinion as to whether this is as compelling an artistic rebirth as R. Fiore would have us think.

Los Bros Hernandez are both incredibly talented, but the fact is that we have been lulled into complacency by the fact that their work is consistently great. As much as I feel slightly ashamed for saying so, I almost take them for granted now that Love & Rockets comes out on a regular basis again. Gilbert still manages a way to work on ten zillion projects on the side. They’re all fantastic, more or less, but predictable in their greatness.

Dan Clowes and Chris Ware are the two great formalists of our time. But unfortunately their recent works have seemed to be spiraling into an abyss of increasingly constrained asceticism that threatens to extinguish all light and hope from their horizons. Take Rusty Brown or David Boring for example: two undeniably great works (one still in progress), but on that same token, you couldn’t find two more alienating and spiritually oppressive works on your entire comic book shelf. It’s a tonal limitation that they need to outgrow.

Seth’s work has always seemed similarly atonal, albeit from a slightly different perspective. It says something that my favorite work of his is his Sketchbook. Joe Matt is disqualified as a result of having spent the last five years literally jacking off, to the detriment of any output.

Alan Moore would be a contender if he knew how to draw.

Joe Sacco is strong candidate. Hmmm, better move on.

Phoebe Gloeckner’s work is good, but the best from her is yet to come. I get the same feeling from Debbie Dreschler and Richard Sala. Jim Woodring and Kim Deitch, however, have probably peaked. Considering the undeniable and unimpeachable strengths of The Frank Book and The Boulevard of Broken Dreams, its hard to see either of these artists topping these magnificent achievements.

Eddie Cambpell could conceivably be considered a contender if he ever finishes his History of Humor. I haven’t read Jimbo in Purgatory yet so I’ll refrain from judgement on Gary Panter – it looks like his definitive work to date but from what I’ve seen it also looks to be an incredibly dense and adversarial reading experience.

Barry Windsor Smith is limited by his subject matter. Likewise, Lynn Johnston, Erik Larsen and Kyle Baker are all effortlessly adept craftspeople, but similarly limited by their formalistic dedication to the idioms of their specific genres.

Thankfully, Dave Sim is retired, which saves an awkward pause as the members of the Feminist-Homosexualist Axis shuffle their feet and fidget in their seats.

There’s not a syndicated strip cartoonist active today, save for Johnston, to even be considered.
Jessica Abel, Charles Burns, Dave Cooper, James Kochalka, Tony Millionaire . . . all excellent, but none essential.

Which leaves us – or me, at any rate - with Mr. Chester Brown.

Brown’s work has evolved by broad strokes since his humble beginnings. The disturbing, surrealistic comedy of Ed The Happy Clown transformed into the ravishingly painful intimacy of The Playboy and I Never Liked You. Although I’ve always preferred to regard these last two works as two parts of a whole narrative, there is a marked change in tone and content between them. I Never Liked You succeeded in stripping the comics medium down to its barest raw nerve, a slowly throbbing membrane pulsing in a swelteringly claustrophobic darkness.

From these successes Brown entered a period of rapid artistic growth and expansion. The narratalogically ambitious Underwater strips started with the simple goal of charting the growth and progression of language and perception in human life. Unfortunately, his pacing proved far too ambitious and the project was subsequently abandoned. His strip adaptations of the New Testament proved similarly explorative. If these projects were met with varying degrees of bafflement by his fans and critics, one can only surmise that towards the end of the Underwater experiment he began to feel similarly unmoored.

The reason for this supposition is merely the existence of Louis Riel. Although Brown had been no stranger to heavily-researched non-fiction comics, the impetus to create a 240 page graphic novel on the life of a reasonably obscure figure of Canadian history must have been daunting. Brown remedied the problems which had eventually derailed Underwater by working from a full script in advance. Amazingly, by confining himself to a rigid stylistic formula and committing to a prior blueprint, Brown was able to create his most confident and kinetic work to date.

Chester Brown has made a career out of consistently defying even the highest expectations placed on his work by prior experience. More than any other cartoonist alive today, he has never stopped growing and changing and improving since the day his first strips were published. Louis Riel is a work of impossible virtuosity, an example of formalistic rigor almost unparalleled in the medium’s history. The worst part is that it’s easy to imagine that Brown yet has it in him to surpass even this magnum opus.

Louis Riel is quite simply one of the greatest comics ever produced. It enters a rarified sphere, side-by-side and shoulder-to-shoulder with works such as Peanuts, Maus, From Hell, Gilbert’s Palomar and Jaime’s Locas, Woodring’s Frank strips and Jimmie Corrigan as the vanguard of the English-speaking world’s contribution to the cartooning arts. It’s just a damn fine book.

And now that the puffery of this Interminable Introduction is over, perhaps now the real fun can begin.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

We Are All The Sluts of Trust

I admit I'm a little bit tired because I didn't get any sleep last night. Plus, we have to get up in the morning. So, any elaborate posting will have to wait another day. I'm planning to run the first installment of my examination of Chester Brown's Louis Riel tomorrow, so check back in for that. Also, perhaps we shall see a Very Special Episode of Travels With Larry... or perhaps not, maybe on Friday.

But I'd just like to let everyone know I have just been informed that I have been selected to participate in the Village Voice's Fazz & Job Critic's Panel. I've only been working for Popmatters for three bare months and I think that's pretty amazing.

That is all.

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.

Sunday, July 18, 2004

Identity Crisis #2

Whether or not the series is well written is totally beside the point. Whether or not the art is pretty is totally beside the point. Whether or not the characters are in character is totally beside the point.

The fact is, one of the longest running female characters in all of superhero comics was brutally murdered. As if that wasn’t bad enough, she was raped in a flashback in the following issue.
This is a superhero comic, full of brightly clad costumed characters who right for truth and justice. This is the kind of comic book that children would love to read: all the cool characters from all of DC’s coolest books, together in one place and kicking ass. And yet, somehow they have taken the unmistakably wrong step of taking their superhero universe forever out of the province of children’s entertainment and into the realm of brutal, misogynistic snuff books.
It would be one thing if this were a Vertigo book. It would be one thing if this were labeled a Mature Readers book. But it’s not. This is a general audiences book. Did anyone notice the fact that Identity Crisis hasn’t carried the Comics’ Code Seal of Approval? The Seal never really meant much, but DC made such a big deal out of keeping it after Marvel dropped it. Most DC books still carry the Seal, but not Identity Crisis. Isn’t it a bit odd that the biggest thing to happen to their Superhero Universe since . . . well, probably Zero Hour . . . shouldn’t be read by the target audience for most of their superhero comics in the first place?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to tell you that you can’t tell superhero stories that deal with mature themes. But I don’t think it’s really appropriate to have the Flash and Green Lantern and Hawkman mulling over the morality of lobotomizing rapists. I don’t think its appropriate to have a big bright superhero story where a prominent female character is brutally raped on-panel.

Do you want to explain to your child what is happening in these panels? Do you think it’s appropriate for DC to abdicate their responsibilities in making children’s comic books actually child-friendly just because kids don’t buy the books anymore? Well, its obvious from this that they don’t want kids buying the books, because there is no way any responsible parent is going to let a young child read this comic.

Comic book villains have grown coarser and harsher since the 80’s. The stakes have been raised. There is no better way to get to a hero – at least for a few issues, until the death is conveniently forgotten - than the death or dismemberment of a loved one.

Of course, Gwen Stacy died first. But somehow, as bad as that was, it was acceptable in the context of the story because it was obvious that it was an unbelievably Bad Thing. Furthermore, Norman Osborn paid the ultimate price for his crime one issue later. But things went downhill from there.

Barbara Gordon was shot and crippled by the Joker.

Alexandra DeWitt, Kyle Raynor’s girlfriend, was murdered and stuffed in a refrigerator by Major Force.

Vesper Fairchild. Sarah Essen. Joanna Pierce. Donna Troy. Jean DeWolff. Queen Hypollita. Betty Banner. Karen Page. Mockingbird. Hell, even Ultimate Gwen Stacy.

Do I have to go on?

I’m not the first person to mention this. I’m not even probably the one-hundredth. But there’s something wrong here, something very, very wrong.

What is wrong with this industry? Why is it considered OK to kill, maim and rape females by the boatload, when most male supporting characters breeze on by?

But most importantly, why is it OK to have a graphic rape scene be the centerpiece of your massive intracompany crossover event?

It’s not. Period.

(Of course, if you want the whole depressing litany, check this out.)

(And seriously folks, what is the big frikkin’ mystery here? Does no one remember the last Big DC Event, Batman & Superman #1-6? Here’s a hint:

It was L*X L*TH*R!!! People, it's not that hard!

Oh no, I just gave away the mystery! I hope in doing so that I saved you some hard-earned money. And no, I didn’t actually pay for these books myself either. Neither should you, they’re exploitive crap.)

Travels With Larry Part XVI


I am torn by this book.

On the one hand, Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba are obviously very talented. I don’t know how they manage their division of labor, but the end result is a very smooth and likeable product. Occasionally, they get a bit ambitious with angles and POVs, but such stylistic missteps are hardly hanging offences.

On the other . . . I think their story is callow and unconvincing. If I didn’t know, I would have guessed that Moon and Ba are young. Sure enough, they’re just twenty-eight. They seem to have a clear understanding of the kind of stories they want to tell, but a faltering instinct as to how to actually go about telling these stories.

Ursula is the story of Ursula and Miro, two children growing up in a magical kingdom. From an early age they are affectionately in love with one another. Then, Ursula is forced to leave Miro, and return to her kingdom. Miro grows up as the prince of his father’s realm, and when the time comes for him to choose a suitable bride he leaves in search of Ursula, who we have just learned is actually a fairy.

I can see what they’re trying to do. They’re trying to craft a fable, a modern-day fairy tale on the nature of true love. They want the reader to walk away in a romantic swoon, swept away by the passion on display.

I can see the bare bones of this, but they just don’t have the chops necessary to pull it off properly.

In a story, everything has a reason for happening. It may seem unfashionable to talk about narrative in terms of nuts and bolts, but I’m not giving away any magic tricks here. One thing happens because of another thing. Cause creates effect.

There are no real obstacles keeping the lovers in Ursula apart. They separate when they are young, but they come together again at the end. They have a couple problems, but really, nothing worth mentioning. They are absolutely convinced at every step of the power and purity of their bond, and this has the unfortunate effect of rendering everything that passes from about page 10 to about page 70 moot.

One of the great existential problems in art – all art, not just comics – is the question of how to communicate momentary, transformative epiphany. We’ve all seen movies about artist where a painter is struggling in his studio, grappling with some intense creative dilemma. They have a furrowed brow, they steam and fuss and act generally upset . . . and then, blammo, there’s a lightbulb over their head and they somehow, in an instant, get it.

The problem is not that the world doesn’t work this way. It does. The problem is that that showing why and how someone changes their mind, or has a creative epiphany, or falls in love, is almost impossible. This is why Crime and Punishment is still such an important work in the history of literature, all these years on. But it’s also slightly depressing. Character is, and remains, absolutely indefinable.

So, most stories wisely don’t deal with the intangibles of character. Most authors – even brilliant authors – avoid the subject altogether (to say nothing of the postmodern insistence that all art be funneled through the restrictive prisms of mimesis and semiotics). Fairy tales and fables, because they mostly hail from a time before naturalistic character examination became fashionable or even conceivable, tackle character on faith: that is, there is faith on the part of the author and the reader that character is a tangible and unchanging attribute. Characters in fairy tales act on their motivations as a matter of autonomic reflex. There is no hesitation. There is no waiting fifteen years and saying "Oh yeah, I loved that little girl that I haven’t bothered having any contact with whatsoever since she left". Even Romeo and Juliet knew how to write letters.

Which brings me to the problem at the heart of Ursula. The book doesn’t play fair with readers because, ultimately, things happen for no reason and the characters ring false. If Miro loves Ursula, why did he wait until they were both grown - from the looks of things in their mid-20s – to track her down? She’s obviously not in school anymore. She’s working in a bar by herself. If his love for her was as solid and unyielding as we are supposed to believe, why didn’t he do anything until his father told him it was time to find a mate?

All these questions point to instability at the very center of Moon and Ba’s conception of romantic love. We just aren’t given any reason to believe that these two people want to be together, other than the fact that they say they do. How do you communicate such an indefinable feeling, such an intangible and incommunicable character trait? Through action.
Lets look at Snow White. There’s not a lot of deep character examination here, but the characters are perfectly believable at every step of the line. Snow White is awakened from a death-like sleep by Prince Charming, because she has been waiting all her life to be delivered by a handsome prince, in one way or another. She was singing about it at the beginning of the movie. It makes perfect sense in the context of Snow White that a magic kiss would restore the sleeping maiden to life and that they would instantly fall in love and live happily ever after. She wanted to fall in love because every thing that happened to her in the course of the story illustrated the fact that she needed someone to love her, to save her from situations both demeaning and perilous.

But Ursula puts the falling in love at the very beginning of the story. This isn’t a very effective plot mechanic because, ultimately, if we are supposed to believe that they are in love, then nothing else should matter. And yet many, many years pass before they are reunited.

When he finds Ursula, we learn that the reason for her absence all these years is that when fairies fall in love they explode. Um, OK. She explodes, and yet no one is hurt. There are at least three people and one bird caught at ground zero of a two-page explosion, and yet none of them, even the girl who exploded, are harmed. In fact, it isn’t even mentioned that she appears to have destroyed an entire city block.

And instead of answering for his absence by performing a great deed, he basically hops aboard a helicopter and goes straight to her. Sure, he’s caught in an explosion, but that’s hardly a massive feat like slaying a dragon or something – he is caught unawares and, anyway, no one is hurt in the conflagration to begin with. Anyone can get caught in an explosion, especially if they’re magic explosions that don’t hurt people. And if they don’t hurt people, um, what’s the big deal?

Couldn’t this have been covered in a letter? They’ve given the story an indefinable time period, with high technology and modern fashion commingling with mythical elements such as fairies and talking birds. Don’t they have a post office or telephones or even fax machines? Why was someone who was considered fine enough stock to be a childhood companion to a royal prince stuck tending bar in a small diner?

All of these little problems add up to a very big problem, and that is the fact that this story just doesn’t hold together. All the pretty pictures in the world don’t mean anything if you have based your story on a faulty premise.

Friday, July 16, 2004

God Needed A Driver

Courtesy of our pals over at AiT/PLanet Lar, here's some preview art from Stuart Moore and John McCrea's forthcoming WILL STARR.

According to today's press release:

"Remember all those great sci-fi TV shows of your youth? Full of colorful new worlds, mind-stretching concepts, and complex characters? Well, this story isn't about them. It's about the OTHER shows -- the ones you watched, reluctantly, when the good ones weren't on. The ones that never made any sense, that bored you to tears -- that you always hoped would be good, every time you turned on the TV, but that never were,” says writer Stuart Moore.

"I really don't know where in my brain this book came from. It's not nice, wholesome entertainment, like most of what I write. It's really twisted, nasty, and depraved. It starts off with a giant dildo smashing into a swinging bachelor from 1979, thrusting him into suspended animation for 400 years till he wakes up to become a hotshot, coke-fiend space pilot of the future. Then it gets kind of sick. Basically, it's a lot like the '70s."

The book should be out in Spring. I have to admit I'm looking forward to this, for two reaosns: one, I've always had a soft spot for McCrea's work, ever since his run on The Demon all those years ago. Secondly, I think I've liked AiT/Planet Lar's sci-fi offerrings the best out of everything of their's I've read.

So, call me a sold-out shill for The Man if you want, but this is still a book that I want to read.


I’ll be honest with you: I had absolutely no idea what to expect before I began this book. I know nothing about the current state of childrens’ literature. I haven’t even seen a Harry Potter movie.

I certainly wasn’t expecting something as delightful as this. Quite honestly, I am surprised that the authors – Dan Danko and Tom Mason – got away with some of the stuff in here. It’s hardly ribald or inappropriate, but it is damn funny in places, and a lot of the jokes are a bit obtuse for most kids. The promo materials say this is intended for grades 6-8, and maybe that seems a bit old for me . . . but then again, I’m not an educator. I was reading Heinlein and Victor Hugo in sixth grade. In any event, I don’t think there’s anything here that a precocious fourth grader would have trouble with.

The story begins as Guy Martin has just recently been inducted into the League of Sidekicks in his alter-ego as Speedy, the Fastest Boy Alive (not the drug addict with a bow and arrow). Despite his fairly impressive power, he’s the low man on the totem pole, having been assigned to a distinctly unimpressive superhero Pumpkin Pete. Pete, as you may have guessed from his name, possesses the proportional strength, speed and agility of . . . a pumpkin. He’s not really that great of a superhero, as you can imagine.

In fact, most of the superheroes and sidekicks here seem like refugees from the Legion of Substitute Heroes – Exact-Change Kid, Earlobe Lad, Boy-In-Plastic-Bubble Boy, and Spelling Bea, just to name a few. The heroes are set upon by the Brotherhood of Rottenness, led by the evil marionette Peenoh Keyoh (say it out loud), and taken to their floating satellite to be thrown into the sun.

Danko and Mason seem to know their superhero mythology inside and out, and have no problem at all with gently skewering it. When you refer to something as "deconstructionist", you’re usually referring to very dark and ponderous works like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns or Powers. But Sidekicks, while certainly a lot less weighty than any of those fine books, does about a good job - on its own level - of poking some darn funny holes in the concepts and mythologies of superheroes. Even a kid who’s never read a comic book and may just be familiar with characters like Batman and Spider-Man from the movies and cartoon shows will have no trouble getting most of the satire.  I don't know why in the world you would want to lead a 6th grade discussion on Derrida, but if you did want to do so, this and Duck Amok would be a good place to start.

Now, I don’t want to read too much into what is proudly a childrens’ book, but I definitely believe that Danko and Mason deserve a lot of credit for crafting a deceptively interesting work. I’m no dummy. The book took about an hour to read, and it was a light read at that. But the fact of the matter is, this is a far sight more enjoyable than most of the gloomy and torpid crap that passes for "adult" superhero comic books. It may not have the horribly misogynistic murder of long-running female supporting characters, like seemingly every other book on the shelves today, but somehow it manages to be entertaining despite all that. It’s fun, it’s breezy, and the characters are instantly recognizable. So what if I’m a good decade or two out of grade school myself, it’s still fun. At $4.95, it’s a better bargain than most regular 32-page pamphlets.

But as it is there is a lot of stuff here that seems like it would go over the head of most kids. For instance, there’s a scene-stealing appearance by a sidekick called Latchkey Kid, who sits in a room in the back of the headquarters while everyone else is out fighting evil, drinking soda and watching TV by himself. I doubt most kids would get that. Speedy and Exact-Change Kid race to their Sidekick Super Rocket of Blastingness, only to find that it is a cardboard box with dials and knobs colored on the outside. I laughed but I think something like that would fly over most kids’ heads.

Also, Peenoh Keyoh’s evil master plan involves turning everyone in the world into puppets. Now, last I checked most grade-school kids probably won’t catch obscure Silver Age references like this . . .

Now, it’s not perfect. For the most part it manages to avoid the sort of scatological humor that books like Captain Underpants trade in, but there is a character named Le Poop who incapacitates his foes with super-stinky . . . flatulence. I suppose even Hamlet had Polonius. It’s not really dwelt on for long, but all the same why do I have the frightening but persistent thought that this will be the kids’ favorite part?

There’s a lot of other stuff as well, such as a small subplot featuring Guy’s unrequited love for Prudence Cane, and Cane’s subsequent courting by Mandrake Steel, AKA Charisma Kid. It’s nothing new if you’ve ever read Spider-Man, but that’s hardly the point. This stuff is absolutely primal. If you’re a kid, you’ve felt isolated and put-upon and unappreciated, and that’s exactly what Danko and Mason understand. Just like the kids identify with Harry Potter and Spider-Man, they’ll identify with Speedy and his rather pitiful pals. That’s the beauty of superheroes – they’re a broad enough metaphor to accommodate just about anything, when done well.

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m quite critical of the superhero genre. But this is the type of superhero book I have no problem with. A book like Sidekicks is a wonderful, upbeat example of superheroes done right, suitable for all ages (and by that I mean you should still get a kick out of it if you’re older than 12). I look forward to continuing the series and seeing what plans Mason and Danko have in store for these wonderfully silly characters.

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Me and Edith Head

My opinion of this mini-comic increased exponentially when I discovered that I was not the intended audience. The story, by childrens’ author Sara Ryan and Steve Lieber, was initially published in Cicada magazine in 2001. Cicada, according to their website, is dedicated to teenagers and young adults. That seems like a perfect fit.

One of the weird facts of life in youth publishing is that children and teens always want to read what they think the age group above them is reading. Hence, Seventeen magazine is bought by girls who are not yet seventeen, as the actual seventeen year-olds have moved on to Vogue. I think that this story would best appeal to pre-and-early teens, who maybe haven’t yet experienced the kind of rigid social stratification encountered herein.

The story is fairly straightforward. Katrina is your average high-school girl – full of insecurities and surrounded by difficulty at home. She’s not conventionally pretty and maybe even a little bit plump, so she dresses to cover up her perceived shortcomings. Like a lot of undernourished high-school girls, she gravitates towards drama. But the role of Titania in the school production of "A Midsummer’s Night Dream" goes to a wispy blonde, and she is stuck in the role of costume designer.

This doesn’t necessarily jibe with my own experiences. For one, important jobs like lighting, sets and costumes would only go to people who both expressed an interest and had some expertise in the area – not simply to people who failed the auditions, because the people who failed the auditions were usually not very bright. For another, the best rolls never go to the prettiest actresses, they go to the best actresses. Perhaps Katrina had a horrible audition, but I have a hard time seeing that with her obvious intelligence she wouldn’t have grabbed at least a supporting roll.

But, those are small qualms. The story unfolds in a fairly predictable - albeit satisfying - manner. Despite the initial disappointment of not having won the role she wanted, eventually Katrina sees the value of her part, and gains a degree of confidence and self-assurance from learning about the world of fashion, which is where Edith Head comes in. This coincides with the disintegration of her family life following her parents’ divorce. This narrative arc has been intelligently structured to appeal specifically to things that kids understand and relate to on an everyday basis.

Comics aimed specifically at pre-teens and adolescents are in woefully short supply. While its very true that many mainstream comics are definitely written from a perpetually adolescent perspective, the actual stories themselves are not something that would appeal to the average teen. While this short book does a wonderful job, it also points to a glaring omission in the output of many large publishers. Of course, now that Scholastic, the proverbial 800-lb gorilla of the kids publishing world, has entered the graphic novel arena, perhaps this will change.

I don’t know if I would recommend this mini-comic to someone who wasn’t already a fan of Lieber’s work. It’s a good story well-told, but again, I haven’t seen the inside of a high-school in many a year. Looking back on high-school like this doesn’t present a lot of challenges to older readers such as myself, but I can easily imagine how this might be a revelatory comics experience to someone just facing their teenage years. I wish there were hundreds of cartoonists working in this vein for that specific demographic.

Perhaps that’s one of the reasons manga is so damn popular?

Family Reunion

This is an excerpt, illustrated by Lieber, of Sean Stewart’s new novel Perfect Circle. I’d be interested to know what Stewart’s actual prose voice reads like, because the unfortunate fact is that any distinctive style he may have is sublimated by the graphic adaptation process. This has long been the bane of all but the most virtuoso adaptations, and in the space of a mere eight pages Family Reunion is not well-served.

When books are adapted to film or television, the directors and associated crew try – if they try at all, that is – to find some sort of visual style that will allow them to visually replicate the mental sensation of reading a particular writer’s voice. Hence, Jane Austen adaptations are often crisp and dry, with a hint of biting wit and subtle sarcasm. Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas attempted to replicate Thompson’s signature style by creating a film that was spry and rambling, with a vivid and garish visual vocabulary to match the overheated accent of Thompson’s prose.

Of course, when you’re discussing comics, the first literary adaptations that spring to mind are the Classics Illustrated ones. There were actually a few good CI adaptations done during the series’ resurrection in the early 90s – I have fond memories of Kyle Baker’s work on Alice in Wonderland, as well as Gary Gianni’s O’Henry omnibus. More recently, David Mazzuccheli adapted Paul Auster’s City of Glass to universal acclaim, and P. Craig Russell has made a cottage industry of adapting the world’s most famous operas, starting with his multi-volume adaptation of Wagner’s imposing Ring of the Nibelung saga.

So it’s not as if powerful and evocative literary adaptations are an impossibility. But if there is one lesson to learn from Faimly Reunion, it is that comics are by nature a far more decompressed art form than prose. In order to successfully adapt prose, you need to learn how to adapt mood and tone as well. Unfortunately, in the space of a mere eight pages there’s not much mood or tone on display here.

The vignette follows William Kennedy on an afternoon family picnic. Kennedey has the ability to see the dead, and he is being haunted by the ghost of an uncle who died in Vietnam. Over the course of the story it is revealed that, rather than having died and honorable death in combat, the uncle actually died of a drug overdose brought on by the traumas of war. It’s an interesting story, but unfortunately the brief context of this short mini doesn’t allow for much besides the bare facts of the narrative.

Perhaps if they had presented a longer adaptation of the same material, or merely chosen to tell the same story in more pages, it would have read better. But as it is, I find myself unimpressed with the story. Lieber’s art, as usual, is technically impressive, but again, in the space of eight pages there’s not enough room for him to stretch.

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Hoo Ha

Well, Chinese Bizarro Spider-Man is on his way to his first adventure, courtesy of the United States Postal Service. Where’s he headed? Why, to the wilds of Boston, and a stayover with Jamie Tarquini, AKA Pmpknface. I’m sure he’s going to have a wonderful time. Where’s he headed next? Could it be your town?

Boy, the fact that Alf is back on TV sure makes me sleep better at night. It’s as if some primal injury has been healed, or as if some cosmic injustice has been righted. Many thanks to TV Land for this momentous occasion in human history.

Travels With Larry Part XV

Scurvy Dogs #5

Perhaps I was too harsh on the first bundle of Scurvy Dogs that I reviewed a few weeks back. Sometimes opinions can change – that’s part of what having an open mind entails. Perhaps issue #5 was simply better than the previous issues. Whatever the answer, I enjoyed it quite a bit.

Of course, everyone know that "humor is subjective". If you repeat it often enough it becomes a mantra. It has also been used by many critics to cover up the fact that A) they don’t get whatever the humor is, or more likely B) they get it, alright, but they don’t find it funny because it’s cheap, puerile, stupid or vulgar. But regardless, there is so much that goes in to whether or not any particular person will find any particular thing funny that these things are impossible to predict.

For instance, most cheap-gag SNL oriented movies made in the last fifteen or so years leave me cold, but I find Chris Farley and David Spade’s Tommy Boy and the first two Adam Sandler movies quite funny, even after repeated viewings. Of course, you couldn’t pay me enough to get me to sit down and watch Mr. Deeds, but I’ll gladly give him those first two flicks. I loved Cabin Boy, as I have said before, even though the majority of the English speaking world steers as clear of that one as they possibly can.

My wife thinks that Robert Schimmel is the funniest man alive, but I only find him intermittently amusing. I think that Ivan Brunetti is the funniest cartoonist alive, but the one time I tried to get her to read Schizo she said it was the most horrid and disturbing thing she had ever seen. So, different strokes for different folks.

Scurvy Dogs seems to have ensnared quite a few of my fellow bloggers in its briny grip. I always pay attention when events find my opinion to be at odd with common consensus. I haven’t changed my opinion on Wilco yet, but I sure am glad I bothered to give Radiohead another listen after initially dismissing them many years back. Likewise, if enough people say that Scurvy Dogs is funnier than two peglegged monkeys in a cage match, I’ll probably want to reexamine the back with a new set of eyes the next time it crosses my radar.

Sure enough, I found myself quite enjoying the latest issue of Scurvy Dogs. Some of my initial criticism still holds true: Ryan Yount is still not what I would call a master draftsman, not by any means. His very minimal art conveys just enough story to get the meaning of the jokes across. If I was going to recommend any course of action, it would be to spend this coming downtime studying up on some of the cartooning fundamentals that are keeping me from liking Scurvy Dogs as much as, perhaps, I could learn to. By which I mean: draw some damn backgrounds, already. Yeah, they’re hard to draw and stuff, but they can add a considerable bit of heft to any comedic presentation. Like on page four, in the first panel, there’s a potted plant behind the television screen. It’s such a beautifully drawn plant, I wish every panel had a potted plant in it.

But besides that, the fact is that Scurvy Dogs #5 caught me on a good day. For whatever reason, I wanted to laugh, and I found plenty of opportunity herein. My wife got sick of me tapping on her shoulder to show her funny panels. She did not think the microwaved emu gag was nearly as funny as I did.

I think that a great deal of my personal problem with Scurvy Dogs has been the fact that the book is very obviously the product of two fairly intelligent twenty-somethings. Like a lot of intelligent, college-educated folk, they know too much about pop culture – junk culture – and think that laughs can be easily gained just by name-dropping certain obscure cultural references to the right crowd. The fact is, that’s what passes for humor among quite a few lazy young comedians. I don’t think it’s a very strong or smart way to run your comedic career because, frankly, there are only so many people who find Mannix or Thompson Twins references automatically funny. At some point, there need to be actual jokes, not just clever cultural signifiers. Sometimes I laugh at jokes like this, but rarely twice.

I think, over the course of these five issues, I can detect a growing and gradual awareness of this fact on Yount and Boyd’s part. Even if you have no idea who Mickey and Andy Rooney are, the picture of them facing off like aging sumo wrestlers is funny. A pirate beating Gabe Kaplan to within an inch of his life isn’t so funny. A pirate computer is funny, especially with game software like King of Savate and Marion Barry’s Civilization.

Somehow, Yount and Boyd are getting better at hitting my strike zone. I don’t know how and I don’t know why, but they are subtly honing in their skills as both humorists and cartoonists (although their improvement in terms of the latter is lagging behind the former). In any event, whereas previously I just plain didn’t enjoy the book, this time I am happy to say I can offer it my qualified recommendation.

Monday, July 12, 2004

The Funk Has Hit The Fan

So I finally saw Spider-Man 2. Sure enough, it was an enjoyable film, save for a handful of plot qualms. Which I won’t go into, because that’s not really something I want to talk about. Other people have already made great hay out of the inconsistencies therein.

But something did bother me that I haven’t noticed anyone else talking about. The fact is, I am really distressed at how they took the most happy-go-lucky superhero in the world and turned him into a very grim fellow. I mean, Peter Parker was always having a bad day, but being Spider-Man is supposed to be fun. He’s supposed to be flinging a never-ending stream of wisecracks at his foes. But the movie Spider-Man is just kind of boring in that respect. Now, of course there are some issues about being able to film it so that you can hear the wisecracks above the tumult of whatever action is happening, but hey, this is a movie where nuclear fission generator supply stores take cash from men in grimy trenchcoats. I’m sure they could figure it out somehow.

Anyway, after we got out of the movie we dropped into the local Dollar Store to buy something or another, and I made a momentous discovery. Staring back at me out of a huge wall of cheap knock off toys was something that I could only describe as pure genius: Chinese Bizarro Spider-Man.

His package was sparse, with pictures of Zorro, Superman, Batman and company filched from various comic book and movie stills. The only legend on the blister card was "Hero", in addition to the small words "Made in China". I paid the dollar and liberated my webby friend from his plastic prison.

There are no words to describe the joys of Chinese Bizarro Spider-Man. The plastic he’s made of feels about as heavy as tissue-thin balsa wood. The mold he was made from had big thick lace-up boots and gloves. He’s supposed to have a light-up chest cavity but it doesn’t work. The seams on the plastic could cut a small child. He’s got a slightly misshapen head with what looks like a brain tumor embedded on the right side of his face. It is simply the best damn Spider-Man toy I have ever seen, and it fills me with an indescribable joy.

So here’s what we’re going to do. Everyone’s talking about creating new "memes" on the blogosphere or whatever. Most of these memes are stupid, the blogging equivalent of those surveys that get passed around the back of history class in tenth grade. "Do you like Jimmy Newsome? Who’s your favorite cheerleader?" But this time we’re going to do something that’s actually fun. Chinese Bizarro Spider-Man is going to go on a long trip. Where’s he going? Well, that’s up to you.

The first blogger who e-mails me their name and address gets Chinese Bizarro Spider-Man in the mail. Then they get to have whatever adventures they want with our slightly retarded red plastic friend. Hopefully they’ll post pictures and tell us all about it. Then, when they’re done, they mail him off to someone new, and they do the same. Hopefully, CBSM will be able to tour the world and meet all sorts of new friends. Then, when there are no more bloggers to see, he will return to me and assume a place of honor on my shelf.

It’s as simple as that. So, who’s first?

Amazingly, Friday’s post about Quasar seems to have hit a nerve with a few people. I am sure glad to be able to share my enthusiasm for the series, and I got a couple letters to prove it:


"Liked your thoughts on Quasar... I ignored this series as it originally came out (the 90s were when my interest in Marvel and DC were at an all time low), but a few years ago I came across a whole stack of them in the bargain bins and bought them because... well, they were there. Just as buyer's remorse was about to set in, I actually read them and was completely charmed by them.

"Re: your comments on the "White Room" and the heroic purgatory; I don't know if you haven't seen the story or if you just didn't want to stray off topic, but have you read Gruenwald's sequel to his earlier "What If the Avengers Had Become Pawns of Korvac?" It was backup story in What If (duh)... I believe the issue had a Bill Sienkiewicz cover of Conan with a gun... anyway, it explicitly jibes with your observation. The Universe, after being Ultimate Nullifed by Korvac, is an empty void. Dr. Strange, the Silver Surfer and Phoenix (previously exiled by Korvac) return to it... The Surfer and Phoenix immediately take off for a living universe to call home (no doubt causing X-fans to get all excited at the possibility of a returned Phoenix), while Dr. Strange, reasoning that he as Sorcerer Supreme (a position not unlike Protector of the Universe, I suppose) has the responsibility to remain at his post, and he does so, for eternity. Creeped me out as a kid, too... I either didn't catch or forgot about the similarity between the two stories until you mentioned it...

"Since you have me thinking about Gruenwald, and mentioned the tension between the quality of his ideas and that of his prose, I'm halfway tempted to draw a tortured, belabored comparison between Gruenwald and Philip K Dick, another writer often accused of the same flaws and, I believe (per an old "Question of the Month"), Gruenwald's favorite. There really isn't that much similarity between the two; Gruenwald's writing certainly isn't as fevered as Dick's, although some moments in Quasar -- such as the Deathurge or the Unbeing sequences -- have a similar sort of melancholy that made me wonder where his writing would have gone if he had pursued that. And I don't know if the passion of Gruenwald's contemplation of comic book reality is quite on the level of Dick's spiritual questing... but this unnerving "white room" motif does certainly give me pause.

"Well, thanks to you and Dave Fiore, now I have to go hunt down and replace all those Captain America issues I got rid of when I purged my collection several years ago... convention bargain boxes, here I come...

"Thanks for yer time...
--Chris Keels."

You know, I had forgotten about that issue of What If? as well, which is odd considering that that is one of my all-time favorite series. But yes, that is a damn creepy story, and perfectly in line with some of Gruenwald’s later ideas as explored in Quasar. The responsible hero is rewarded for his steadfast sacrifice with . . . oblivion? Purgatory? That’s kind of grim, whichever way you slice it.

"Just wanted to let you know, you're not alone in your appreciation of QUASAR. I still have enormously fond memories and a complete run of that series and still flip through it now and again when I want a bit of a grin.

"Possibly my favorite story line was the visit to the New Universe. That was Geuenwald (sp?) just showing us all how it could be done when you had someone who cared.

"Anyway, thanks for the great review and memories.


"Rick Jones, really"

Yeah, I love the New U visit as well. Ironically, everyone knew Gruenwald was absolutely adamant about not just folding up the remnants of the New U into the Marvel Universe. He wanted the New U to be unique, even in death. But, I guess he was just too fond of the characters and concepts to let them go, because it was pretty obvious by the time 1991 rolled around that there wasn’t ever going to be a New U revival if he didn’t do it himself.

I have a great fondness for the New U myself and I think it’s ironic that many of the unique aspects that were once considered to be radical and weird about the New U were eventually incorporated into stories all across the mainstream. Why, just take a look at any issue of Shooter’s Star Brand and tell me you don’t see a precursor for any number of Nu-Marvel books, from Ultimate Spider-Man to Supreme Power. This is another conversation for another day, however.

Oh, and Rick? Good job on the whole Hulk thing. We’re all grateful for the giant green weapon of mass destruction. Really.

But in all seriousness, as much as I enjoyed that trip down memory lane, I must confess to being slightly embarrassed by the whole thing. Somehow I ended up talking about superhero comics for five whole days last week – someone really needs to be watching me to make sure I don’t get into this kind of trouble in the future.

I think it’s interesting to look at these things from the economics side: how do things like tone and continuity impact the way the books are perceived and sold? How do fan perceptions affect the bottom line? These are some very meaty questions that I think offer many rewarding lines of thought.

But really, just riffing about how much I love old superhero books is hardly the most difficult thing in the world to do. I could do it in my sleep. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I want to devote this blog. At least part of the time, to discussing meatier comics, things that I actually think are worth the time it takes to discuss them. Nostalgia is fun, but really, as much as I love Quasar its hardly Gravity’s Rainbow. The problem is, books like the D&Q Showcase take a lot of time and effort to write about, because they offer so much more of interest for the critic to discuss, so many interesting avenues to explore. But again, I want to make the effort because I think it’s something worth doing.

So, hopefully soon we’ll get that discussion about Love & Rockets Volume 2 started. I’ve also been thinking about Louis Riel a lot as well, and why I believe it to be one of the very best comics every produced. Travels with Larry will still continue for the foreseeable future as well, or at least until I run out of AiT/Planet Lar books to discuss. If Larry Young has his way, that day will never come. (He likes to be the center of attention, in case you haven’t noticed.)

Friday, July 09, 2004

Remember The Maine

I hate Kyle Raynor.

It’s not that I had a particularly strong attachment to Hal Jordan, or even the concept of Green Lantern to begin with. No, the problem I had with Kyle Raynor, and the entire run of Green Lantern after Hal went nuts, is the fact that the book was basically "Quasar done wrong".

If you’re like most folks, you probably don’t remember much about Quasar, except perhaps the fact that Wizard at one point made a monthly habit of mocking him. But here’s the skinny: the first issue of Quasar hit the shelves cover-dated Oct of 1989. A little more than five years later the last issue of the series, issue number 60, shipped with a cover date of July 1994. The book had some ups and downs, but overall it’s probably Mark Gruenwald’s most concentrated statement on the subject of superheroes and comic-book universes. He put a lot of himself into the book, probably more than he put into either Captain America or Squadron Supreme. Quasar was a character close to his heart, and it’s hard not to see his bitterness during the book’s last year or so, as the gaping jaws of cancellation that had threatened the book since the very beginning finally closed in for the kill.

Quasar was a fellow named Wendell Vaughn, born and raised - like Gruenwald himself - in Wisconsin (Quasar was born in Fon Du Lac, about twenty minutes south of Oshkosh, where Gruenwald was raised). He started out as a SHIELD agent before accidentally putting on the quantum bands that had been briefly worn by the Atomic Age superhero Marvel Boy. Of course, once you put on the quantum bands, they can only be separated from your arms by death, so he was stuck being a superhero.

He just wasn’t very good at it to begin with. He didn’t really know how to use his bands as anything other than a third-string Green Lantern knockoff. He bounced around the MU for about a decade with sporadic appearances in titles like Contest of Champions and Marvel Two-In-One. Finally in ’89, for whatever reason, he got the call up to the proverbial "majors" after he was awarded his own title and a membership in the mighty Avengers.

The creative duties for Quasar’s new book fell to the team of Gruenwald and Paul Ryan, fresh off a well-remembered – if slightly less than successful – run on the New Universe’s D.P.7. Ryan split after the first half-dozen or so issues, replaced in quick succession by rising stars Mike Manley and Greg Capullo. Manley went on after about a dozen issue to launch the fairly successful Darkhawk title, while Greg Capullo actually lasted twenty, minus a couple fill-ins. As we all know, Capullo left Quasar to assume the art duties on X-Force, where he stayed until he was snapped up by Todd McFarlane to work on Spawn. After Capullo, unfortunately, Quasar saw a progression of less exciting - albeit stridently professional – artists take their turns pushing pencils for the book. If you remember Marvel in the early 90s, you certainly remember that quite a few books had less than the best art. This was due to circumstances stemming from the exodus of the "Image Seven." Right after that happened, Marvel made an extremely sharp increase in the number of titles they produced on a monthly basis in order to attempt to choke off shelf-space from burgeoning competitors such as Image, Malibu, Valiant (remember them?) and Dark Horse (who tried a superhero line of their own in the summer of ’93). So, a lot of books in the mid-and-lower tiers of the Marvel publishing empire got short shrift, artwise, and this certainly didn’t do a lot to help the long term health of books, like Quasar, which were already on the fence sales-wise.

Anyway, the first thing Gruenwald set about doing with the character was to totally revamp and redefine his powers and abilities. It was immediately established that the quantum bands, far from being mere random artifacts, were actually the traditional weapons of the Protector of the Universe, an office that had previously been held by none other than the Kree Captain Mar-Vell. (Mar-Vell, of course, had not possessed the Quantum bands, but the slightly less powerful Nega bands, which was a consequence of the Q-bands being lost with the 50s Marvel Boy and in SHIELD custody for a few decades). The Protectorship of the Universe came with a cosmic mentor – Eon – who was responsible for instructing Quasar in how to use the powerful tools he had been given, and how best to fulfill the awesome responsibilities.

So far, so good – the first year of Quasar was pretty unexceptional. Vaughn established his civilian identity as a security consultant based in Manhattan, with office space in Four Freedoms Plaza (the Fantastic Four’s office tower HQ after the Baxter Building was demolished in the late 80s and before it was reconstructed in the early 00s). He even – ahem – wore glasses and slicked his hair back when he was in civilian identity. He was also pretty close to Eon for this first year. The Big E gave Quasar the job of tracking down all of Earth’s rogue extraterrestrials, and this, in addition to trying to juggle his newfound superhero responsibilities with his attempts at carving out a new civilian identity, made for quite a full plate.

If the series had continued in this vein, it would have been a good, if unspectacular, superhero book, in the vein of about a zillion others. But, of course, that’s not how it worked out. Things took a turn for the left pretty quickly.

For starters, his secret identity soon went out the window. His business fell to pieces. Both his friends and his enemies saw through his front, and the latter had no qualms about exploiting this weakness.

His "cosmic mentor" was revealed to have been manipulating him in subtle and not-so-subtle ways since the very beginning of their relationship. Eon had flat-out lied to Quasar on a number of important subjects, up to and including re-animating Quasar’s dead father for weeks after the latter had suffered a fatal heart attack. Eon himself was eventually killed, leaving Quasar helpless (and to also be killed) before Maelstrom, who was able to use the stolen Quantum bands to achieve God-like power, power enough to rival Thanos with the Infinity Gauntlet. (A later issue of Quasar offered a glimpse of an alternate reality where the last two beings alive were Thanos and Maelstrom, fighting over existence with galaxies and black holes as their weapons.)

Of course, Quasar got better (as he would do two more times before his series wrapped, next in the course of the Infinity Gauntlet [although everyone died in that one so I don’t know if it counts], as well as in the course of the Infinity War). He was able to implement everything he had learned over the course of his first twenty-five issues in order to become supremely powerful and far more confident than he had been at the series' commencement.

So you can see my frustrations with Green Lantern. It took Wendell Vaughn about 25 issues to become fairly confident in his role as Protector of the whole friggin’ Universe, while Kyle Raynor, a decade and change on, is still essentially a stumblebum. The Quantum bands, as elaborated by Gruenwald, are essentially the same thing as a Green Lantern ring, only without any power limit. There’s no central or portable power battery. The Quantum bands are powered by an entire parallel dimension composed of quantum energy. Quasar, with the bands, can do just about anything he wants, from massive expenditures of energy to instantaneous teleportation from one side of the universe to the other. Like a Green Lantern, his power is only limited by his imagination, but unlike Kyle Raynor, Quasar set about to rigorously probe and test the limits of his power until he realized that said power was nearly limitless. Meanwhile, Kyle Raynor is sitting around New York and hanging out with Jade, or something.

The second half of Gruenwald’s run on Quasar was patchy. On the one hand, you have a wonderful string of issues featuring Quasar exploring the universe and the multiverse, answering fundamental questions about the very fabric of the Marvel Universe. On the other, you have the recurring participation in crossovers like the Infinity War and Operation: Galactic Storm, both of which effectively derailed the series for three months at a time. (Although it must be noted that Gruenwald was able to get some interesting mileage out of Quasar’s death in the Infinity War, which I shall discuss in a bit.) Additionally, odd characters like The Punisher started showing up, quite incongruously, when it became obvious that the frequent crossovers alone were not enough to keep the book afloat.

Quasar, when taken as a whole, serves as a potent antidote to the kind of cynicism (of which I am very guilty, albeit defiantly so) that labels all superheroes as inherently fascistic. Sure, Gruenwald understood that the existence of superpowers opened up the door to disastrous abuse – which is a question he explored in the pages of Squadron Supreme. But the questions he wanted to answer with Quasar had nothing to do with the corrupting tendencies of power, but with the exhausting possibilities of infinite responsibility. If great power is accompanied with great responsibility, what then of infinite, or at least near infinite power? At the end of the series, after a series of progressively meaningless conflicts, Quasar fakes his own death and heads out into the greater universe, because he finally recognizes that there is no way he can fulfill so much as an infinitesimal fraction of his responsibility if he stays close to Earth.

When we next saw Quasar, a year or two later in the pages of the short-lived Star Masters series, alongside the Silver Surfer and Beta Ray Bill. He was attempting to fill the universe with quantum "satellite" transceivers, a sort-of early warning system/communication grid by which far-flung quarters of the universe can contact their erstwhile protector. Even though Eon had been a manipulative SOB, Quasar was still driven by the responsibilities Eon had given him. Quasar even acted as a parent towards Eon’s offspring, Epoch.

It was later revealed, following Quasar’s third death, that when a Protector of the Universe passes from life, they are brought to a pseudo-mystical "White Room" to sit in immobilized silence for eternity. Was it a trick by Eon, to punish those who had had the temerity to believe they could protect the entire universe? Was it a cosmic mistake? A preparation for something greater? Gruenwald never lived to reveal the answer to that question, but it is revealing that his conception of the ultimate reward for great heroes was an endless purgatorial nothing.

Quasar is nothing less than the sum of Gruenwald’s (woefully abbreviated) lifetime of thinking on superheroes and superhero comic books. It was obviously a labor of love. There’s an early story featuring a cosmic foot race, wherein all the fast-running characters from the MU were brought together by the Runner (an Elder of the Universe) to race for the privilege of racing in the universal speed trials. At the end of the race, a blond figure materialized on the racetrack, emerging from a cloud of lightning bolts, with the remnants of a red uniform and bright yellow boots. He was a total amnesiac, except for the memory of what his name could have been . . . perhaps "Buried Alien"? Just because Gruenwald worked down the road at Marvel didn’t stop him from paying tribute to one of his favorite childhood heroes, DC’s Silver Age Flash, in the wake of his demise during the Crisis on Infinite Earths.

Some of the most memorable moments from Quasar were moments like those, dedicated basically to exploring the unenlightened corners of the Marvel Universe, and exploring the very nature of fictional universes. How are fictional characters created – and at what point do characters take on a life of their own? Shades of Animal Man! How do Gods – or at least near-Gods – die? Who mourns the passing of cosmic beings? How about the birth and creation of cosmic deities? How are comic book universes structured – what separates mere alternate realities from entirely separate multiverses, like the Marvel Universe and the New Universe? Some of these questions might seem a bit wonkish, but Gruenwald’s enthusiasm for these cosmic questions was truly contagious. As preposterous as it sounds, he believed every bit of it, he believed that it mattered, on some level, and that by answering one deep question of comic book lore he only asked a dozen more.

But the best thing about Quasar, as a character, was the fact that in terms of attitude he was just about one of the most unlikely super-characters in comic book history. From the very first he regarded fighting and violence as awkward necessities, to be avoided at all costs. In the early days, at least, he always addressed both his peers and his opponents as "Sir". When he grew more powerful, he put a premium on being able to stop his opponents in nonviolent ways – immobilizing them or destroying their weapons or simply teleporting them elsewhere. He didn’t want to fight, which is probably the oddest thing a superhero can do. I think perhaps this was Gruenwald’s way of signaling his own personal protest against the overwrought violence of 90s comics, but that's just my guess.

So, is it any surprise that Quasar was an unpopular book? It’s a miracle it lasted as long as it did. I think that after a certain point he lost interest in writing Captain America, or at least it seemed so from the rather insipid plots he was throwing out every month. At about the time his Cap lost it’s focus, Quasar started getting real interesting. Unfortunately, since Gruenwald’s passing the character has been used sparingly, if at all. He's had a few moments in the revamped Avengers, but other than that the low point was undoubtedly the Maximum Security X-Over that featured Quasar being chosen as the host body for – ah – Ego the Living Planet. It was such a lame plot point that no one since either.

Which makes sense, as crappy as it may seem. By the time his own series had run its course, Quasar had been elevated from a third-string supporting character to someone with nigh-limitless power at his disposal, and with both the knowledge and the confidence to use it judicially. He was transformed from a Marvel Two-In-One punchline to the single most powerful member of the Mighty Avengers, perhaps the single most powerful human being in the Marvel Universe, period, someone able to go toe-to-toe with the Silver Surfer and . . . hold back for fear of hurting the Surfer. So of course it makes sense that he’s not going to be hanging around Avengers’ mansion too often - "oh yeah, Ultron? I threw him in a black hole while I was watching TV."

In case you haven’t figured out, I love Quasar. I said yesterday that it was in my top two or three superhero books of all time, but the thing is, I racked my brain all day and I honestly couldn’t think of one that I had more fondness for. Sure, there are many better series, many more consistent series, and many superhero books that I would rate as "important" before I even got around to thinking of Quasar. But in terms of my personal favorite, a super-hero title that I would write myself in a heartbeat if given a chance? Well, there aren’t too many of those, but at the top of the list would have to be Quasar.

Well, I have just permanently destroyed my Comics Journal cred. Join me next week as I wax poetic on Atari Force.

Travels With Larry Part XIV


I didn’t want to like Hench. It’s not that I had any preordained antipathy towards the book, but as I have stated before I think that the whole concept of superhero parody is getting to be more played out than the superheroes themselves. Imagine my surprise, then, to discover that Hench isn’t actually, as it may appear to be, a spoof or parody book. It is a very funny book, but it plays things straight. In doing so the book manages to somehow achieve a bit of emotional poignancy, despite the constant flow of silly situations.

The most controversial aspect of the book seems to be the art. Admittedly, Manny Bello’s work is rough. Although his figures and design work is strong, he seems to struggle with complicated perspective and especially with texture. Sometimes entire pages pass by without background details. I have to question why the decision was made to publish the book in the form of rough pencils. I realize the answer to that was probably either a creative decision, fiscal decision – or possibly both – but it the book suffers for it. Many of Bello’s more problematic areas could have been "fixed in post", as it were.

But, regardless of that, the book still manages to get by. There is an endearing quirkiness to Bello’s pages. He draws everyone with an exaggerated slovenliness that definitely adds considerable ballast to the book’s humor content.

As for the story itself? Well, that’s the real star of the show. Adam Beechen has set out to answer one of the great imponderables of superhero comic book – why the hell would anyone want to be a villainous henchman? This is putting aside the psychotic gun molls who usually hang out with Batman villains – those gals usually have a few screws loose themselves. I’m talking about the meat-and-potato dudes who put on the funny costume and lug the death-rays while their boss is busy eating filet mignon and snorting coke out of his psychotic gun moll’s belly button.

Surprisingly, Beechen actually comes up with quite a good answer. It’s mostly ex-athletes, sidelined by injury or by life, anxious to get into another profession where they can feel the same kind of adrenaline rush they used to. They need the money and most of them are smart enough to bank the proceeds from a few successful jobs to hold them over the long stretches of prison. It actually makes a lot of sense – people do stupider things on a regular basis.

So, we follow one henchman, Mike Fulton, as he embarks on a life of crime. Initially he’s just in it for the money, but later on, after his family leaves him and he winds up in jail for longer and longer periods, he becomes addicted to the sense of danger and, more importantly, the camaraderie of the criminal fraternity.

So, in some respects, it’s a story that you’ve heard before: the criminal lifestyle proves too much of a lure for our hero to resist. But the difference is, this isn’t just your garden-variety world of mob dons and machineguns. No, this world is filled with colorful and deadly villains who can melt your flesh, summon the forces of Satan or irradiate your body until your penis falls off. As I said earlier, the book plays it totally straight, which makes some sequences absolutely priceless:

"Randy introduced me to my new boss the next day. I think he was happy to meet me. He kept praising ‘Ashtoth,’ or somebody. Then he gave me my uniform and some weapon he called an ‘iron shemeleth.’ Said it would ward off the forces of justice. He gave me the code name ‘Baal-Yiggurth.’ I never felt like such an asshole in my whole life."

I must admit that I laughed my ass off.

So while Hench is by no means perfect, it does have one saving grace that trumps any qualms I could mention about the art: it made me laugh. So, all things considered, it’s OK in my book.