Monday, February 28, 2005

Hey Yo

It's the new remix right here.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Because You Demanded It...

It's A Trap!

PS - Here's a warning to all you punks out there - step to my wife, you get the shiv.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Or Else #1

It's a testament to Kevin Huizenga's talent that I regard the advent of a new "Glenn Ganges" story to be probably the single most exciting comics event possible right now. After career-making appearances in the fifth Kramer's Ergot and the first Drawn & Quarterly Showcase, he is poised to become the leading cartooning talent of the moment - and considering that the past few years have also revealed the likes of Jeffrey Brown, Mat Brinkmann, Marjane Satrapi and Paul Hornschemier, this is no small statement.

The main feature in Or Else #1 is "NST '04", an eleven-page Glenn Ganges tale. Surprisingly, Ganges has proven a remarkably elastic vehicle for Huizenga's multi-faceted and complex narratives. So far we've seen Ganges rake leaves and water his lawn, eat a meal with an ogre and play golf with an over-zealous evangelical scholar. Ganges' almost aggressively banal and engagingly normal existence provides a surprisingly facile lever into just about any odd situation that Huizenga wants to explore: Ganges' adventures - like our own daily adventures - are disjointed and seemingly random, sometimes profound and sometimes prosaic, and intercut with daydreams and fantasies. The context of Glenn Ganges' life allows Huizenga access to the most phenomenal range of topics imaginable.

"NST '04" is broken up, chronologically, without any indication of the time span elapsed. The "present", in the context of the story, involves a late-night trip to a cemetery with Glenn and his girlfriend. (I say "girlfriend" because this story seems to occur at a time before other Ganges stories, before they were married and living together considering that this story is an amended version of "NST '99”, which would make sense.) But what could perhaps have been a relatively straight-forward story of a lazy Indian summer night is given extra weight and heft by the way Huizenga plays with the timeline - events from the story's subjective "past" are played out simultaneously with stories from the "present", allowing parallel narrative threads to develop and comment upon each other. Once you read the story for the first time you can then go back and piece together the different threads in order to form a more cohesive arc, and in so doing this you perceive any number of additional factors that went unnoticed during the first reading.

Any Ganges story presents a smorgasbord of closely-intertwined thematic elements. "NST '04" seems to be concerned with the variability of time perception from an almost relativistic perspective. In a brief conversation (taken from a random point in the "past") touched upon in the course of the narrator's reminiscences, there's one quote that strikes the reader as particularly revealing:
...but still, he's after a description of the world outside time, from a perspective he himself knows is impossible... outside the world of accident and succession...

Huizenga knows that the perception of time is absolutely critical to the perception of dramatic irony - in order for there to be any surprises or harsh juxtaposition, there must also be causality, events flowing smoothly in ordered succession. But, as humans, we are simply unable to perceive the kind of asynchronous universe envisioned by Gödel to exist in the realm of theoretical physics, so we are basically stuck with an intrinsic sense of time, a sense of narrative flow and causality that flows inexorably even if our perception of time is upset or rearranged.

"NST '04" uses the cartooning medium to illustrate how the "future" can be used to comment ironically on the "past", from the subjective perspective of the reader's vantage. If you were to clip apart and paste together all the panels of "NST '04" so that they read in objective chronological order, you'd have a slightly interesting but unexceptional story - basically a big set up for a very small gag. But as it is the narrative as a whole gains momentum on the principle of a kind of accumulated simultaneity, so that at the end of the story, when all the pieces are placed together on the page, they succeed in adding up to far, far more than the sum of their parts.

The story's "climax" - a beautifully rendered two-page sequence of increasingly impressionistic bike-riding - would have taken place somewhere nearer the middle of the story, instead of coming as it does at the 3/4 mark, just before hitting the contemplative note on which the story glides out. Again, as with many other Ganges stories, Huizenga knows when to back away from the rigid stylistic straightjacket with which he approaches the Ganges universe - portrayed in a kind of EC-Segar-meets-Ron-Rege-Jr. deadpan - and insert just the right splash of stylistic flair necessary to deliver a crucial epiphany.

There is another Ganges story in the book, "Jeezoh", which tells the bizarre myth of the Jeezoh, an iconic figure in "Midwestern American beliefs" who aids the spirits of prematurely dead children who suffer in Hell. At five pages long it is just long enough to be weird, disturbing and somehow melancholy all at the same time. This story will probably be more significant if you've read any of the Ganges stories dealing with infertility, however - particularly the story in the first D&Q Showcase wherein Glenn and his wife must deal with their crippling inability to have children.

"Chan Woo Kim" is entirely different from Huizenga's Glenn Ganges stories, even if it obliquely touches upon many of the same issues involving abundance and infertility. text from the adoption papers of a young Chinese orphan are juxtaposed against sparse scenes of Asian landscapes. The effect is not unlike that of pure poetry, in particular haiku, where sparse language and selective imagery combine to create the very pointed effect of a brief and vivid sensory experience.

The book is rounded out with a one-page "Fight or Run" gag that is probably the closest thing to a superhero story we'll get from Huizenga. The small deformed figures remind me of something you'd expect to see in a Mat Brinkman or Marc Bell tale, and the whole thing hinges on a visual pun that is both clever and funny.

Or Else #1 is only 32 pages long, and it's a little smaller than the average comic, but it is one of the most concentrated and powerful doses of comic book goodness that has crossed my path in quite some time... at least, since I saw the last new Kevin Huizenga comic. If you don't already have a copy, you should.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Why does Aquaman look so sad?

JLA Classified #1-3

You will have to look hard to find a more enjoyable modern mainstream superhero comic than Grant Morrison's run on DC's JLA during the late 90s. Yeah, the last third was pretty weak, and Howard Porter's art is still a matter of taste, but storylines like "Rock of Ages" and "DC 1,000,000" were, and remain even to my jaded eyes, simply wonderful. If there must be superhero books, then by God, they should all aspire to be that good.

So when I heard that Morrison was planning to return to the JLA for a three-issue mini - the inaugural run of DC's new JLA Classified anthology - I was slightly excited. Now, as I said, it is true that the last year or so of Morrison's JLA weren't worth the paper they were printed on. But he's been on a role lately, with his well-received run on X-Men (slightly overrated but it did get me to buy an X-book for the first time since . . . hmmm, I'll say "a while" and leave it at that), The Filth (which I lauded in the pages of no less than The Comics Journal), not to mention the double-whammy of Seaguy and We3 . . . so the little tickling skepticism in the back of my head - the one that said maybe a return to the well-tilled soil of the Justice League franchise was ill-conceived - was silenced for the time being.

Well, turns out my skepticism in this instance was well-founded. JLA Classified #1-3 is the one of the most uselessly self-indulgent failures I've seen in quite a long time - an almost total creative short-circuit. It fills me with grave doubts as to the wisdom of Morrison's new Seven Soldiers meta-crossover . . . if, as has been implied, this JLA story laid seeds that will bear fruit in the Seven Soldiers event, perhaps said event will indeed suck.

There's more information packed into these three comics than was present in the entirety of his X-Men run. Not only is it densely packed, but it's also maddeningly cursory. There is just so much stuff going on that it is just about impossible to get your bearings at any point during the three issues. The sensation is not unlike that of walking into a movie after having missed the first reel - but the feeling persists for the entirety of the story. You never get the chance to catch-up because by the time you're starting to grasp one thing that was thrown out to explain a key plot point two panels back, there's another insanely elaborate plot device waiting to be thrown at the reader like a rubber chicken. Not very aerodynamic.

Morrison's attempt at "ultra-compressed" storytelling just doesn't work. Storytelling in a visual medium is dependent on rhythm. Rhythm in narrative gives the story it's structure and shape. Once you have a grasp of this structure and shape, then you can manipulate the rhythms to interesting effect: inevitably, form follows function. But the how of storytelling should never supersede they what - elsewise, what's the point? To show off this really cool post-post-modern structural gimmick you developed? Reading this story made me think that Morrison concocted the structure and shape of the story before actually figuring out what the story was all about, and while that may impress a few semiotics professors in the audience, it doesn't impress me.

What we have here is effectively an action film with all the parts that don't contain explosions or witty quips edited out: all the necessary exposition, all the character drama, all the little things that make the story distinctive and memorable to most people are gone. Imagine a prose story composed only of verbs and occasional nouns: it would perhaps be an interesting experiment, but I have a hard time thinking that anyone would want to read it.
Batman flies Pluto robots fight explode run explode hit quip jump punch monkey quip.

The essential minimum of information might be broadcast, but it's a staccato and unpleasant effect - like a symphony of crescendos, without any room for the audience to catch their breaths. They used to put a lot of information in stories back in the "Golden" and "Silver" ages, too, but they also allowed themselves the use of copious expository devices such as narration and thought balloons.

There is something inherently cynical about this type of delivery. It almost strikes me as passive-aggressive on Morrison's part: the fans want the cool moments and Batman's sly quips, so how about we write a story composed of nothing but clever quips and pin-ups? Certainly, from that point of view it's little different from what many of the Image founders were doing - look at something like Youngblood, especially the early, unformed issues that were nearly incoherent. (Thankfully, I got my issues out of the quarter box when I became morbidly fascinated with Liefeld's Image-era output.) It's much the same thing, only without the sheen of intellectually playful formalism: strip down the superhero story to the bare bones necessary to communicate the "cool" moments that the fanboys wet themselves over.

Morrison is one of the few interesting mainstream writers who seem genuinely enthused by the storytelling possibilities of the superhero genre - despite my critical misgivings, he succeeds in wringing blood from the proverbial stone on a regular basis. I'll certainly give him the credit for producing consistently interesting books, without the cynical baggage that accompanies the comparative work of peers like Warren Ellis and Garth Ennis. It's obvious to anyone paying attention that Ellis would much rather be writing hard sci-fi and speculative fiction than comparatively pasteurized fare like Iron Man, and only does the one in order to better enable him to do the other. Ennis seems to enjoy writing the Punisher, but every time he has been talked into trying a more conventional superhero, the results have been halfway between stilted and cynical. This is a man who told no less an authority than Wizard that he loathed superheroes - and looking at the passion and discipline he brings to his war comics, its hard to see why he should be bothered writing superheroes if he doesn't feel like it.

Morrison doesn't loathe superheroes: he is very publicly in love with them. Why, then, has his return to the JLA struck me as so atypically cynical and uninteresting? Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Seaguy and We3 and The Filth were essentially creations cut from a whole cloth. At the end of the day, the Seven Soldiers project will be judged a success by how ably it succeeds in refitting a slew of third- and fourth-tier copyrights for DC - when discussing the project, I've read Morrison discussing how much he relished the storytelling challenges presented by the books, but I have never seen one mention of the actual characters or concepts involved. Could it be that, like his JLA Classified, the Seven Soldiers is less a story than an experiment? If that turns out to be the case (and really, we can't know that for a good while yet), then I don't suppose I will be the only one who walks away disappointed.

Of course, there are a certain number of readers who will be immediately repulsed by any mention of the corporate nature of superhero comics, choosing instead to believe that they are spontaneously-formed emissions from the artistic Godhead, but in the sense that the corporately-driven editorial mandate influences the creative output, it remains an important distinction to draw. Ignoring this supremely important factor in the books' genesis would be akin to refusing to acknowledge that Dickens' works were created for serial publication, or that George Eliot was really - gasp! - a dame! Morrison left DC after his first run on JLA in part over dissatisfaction stemming from the stories he wasn't allowed to tell: no Hyper-Crisis or whatever, no definitive Superman with his writer buddies. Well, he's getting his chance to do Superman, but you don't have to be a rocket scientist to predict that he'll be on a tight leash with DC's long-awaited "Ultimate" line: Brian Michael Bendis didn't get to turn Uncle Ben into a child molester, and Morrison is probably not going to be allowed to make Jimmy Olsen a chain-smoking Klan member.

Working with the "really cool" superhero properties that carry significant narrative heft on account of their cumulative history carries a hefty price tag. Just ask John Byrne, of all people, why he left his "Ultimate" Superman. Morrison may never get to tell the Superman stories he wants to tell, whatever type of Mega-Meta-Monkey-Crisis-on-Infinite-Infinities he wants to write, for whatever reason. Maybe a project like Seven Soldiers is his consolation prize, on account of the fact that he can conceivably do pretty much anything with limbo-jockeys like these and still remain in the confines of the corporate playground he likes so much?

I expect that I will continue to enjoy Morrison's (comparatively) independent work more than his mainstream superhero books. I would dearly love to be surprised in this manner, but somehow I don't think that that will happen. I will read and probably enjoy the Seven Soldiers books, to an extent, but don't expect to see me camping out in front of the comic shop until they announce the Seaguy sequel.

hey! It's the Global Guardians! I know, like, five people who were waiting for them to make a come back...

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

The Hurting's Weekly Out-Of-Context Mark Trail Panel

For the Week of 02/23/05

But there are apparently thirty-foot tall pelicans rampaging across the countryside.

Extra Special Mark Trail Comic Book Cover From 1958!!!

Man, he sure looks smug, doesn't he?

For the Week of 02/16/05
For the Week of 02/09/05
For the week of 02/02/05
For the Week of 01/26/05
For the Week of 01/19/05
For the Week of 01/12/05

Tuesday, February 22, 2005


Still not a whole lot going on, but here's my obit for the good Doctor Hunter S. Thompson, posted courtesy of Popmatters. Took me about an hour to write so caveat emptor.

Monday, February 21, 2005


Falling on your ass while walking dogs in the snow is neither fun nor profitable. As a matter of fact, it hurts like holy Fuck.

I'm not doing anything I don't have to today.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Frank's Vacation

PUNISHER WAR JOURNAL - August 23rd, 1:00 AM

Tonight is the culmination of three month's hard work. It's taken me that long to track down every shred of information I could find, steal or extort on the subject of the Mendoza drug cartel. Enrique Mendoza himself has called a top-secret meeting of all his top lieutenants - the first meeting of its kind in years. They've planned this meeting down to the very last detail, picking an abandoned cabin in the middle of the New Jersey Pine Barrens. They don't think there's another soul anywhere for ten or twenty miles - and they might be right, because whether or not I have a soul left at this point is debatable.

One of the advantages of such an isolated location is that I don't have to worry about either cops or civilians. Barring the unforeseen, I can be as loud as I want. So instead of bothering with bullets, if all goes according to plan I'll be able to kill the upper hierarchy of the biggest drug cartel on the East Coast, in addition to dozens of representatives and ambassadors from competing families and syndicates, from half a mile away. Not bad for a night's work.

I've been camping out in an outcropping of rock on a nearby hillock for two days now, so I'm tired and just a little bit cranky. I'm in the mood to shoot a couple stinger missiles. The last convoy of dark luxury sedans and Hummers just rolled in from the city. There are probably fifty people, jammed into a small cabin only a little bigger than an outhouse. The walls are old, dry wood: once a fire starts, anyone who isn't killed in the initial explosion will probably suffocate or burn to death in the fire. And just in case any of these unlucky mooks happen to make it out what's left of the front door, I've got a long range rife with a hunter's scope and a thousand rounds in my backpack.

I'm just leaning over to where I've stashed my missile launcher behind the rock when I hear something behind me. The night was quiet and calm, but suddenly I heard the sound of breathing and ruffled polyester behind me. Whoever the #%!!! it is is clearing his throat.

"I am from ... Beyond!"

I roll over to look behind me, the Glock in my shoulder holster already out and aimed at the space directly behind me before my eyes can catch up.

But there's no one there - or at least, not where I was aiming. He's standing about four feet above the ground, in a silver-white track suit and white leather boots. He's dressed like a Studio 54 reject with a Jehri curl haircut, and he's looking at me like a small puppy looks at a tennis ball.

Great. The last thing I needed tonight was a costumed Loony Tune.

"I am from ... Beyond!"

"Yes," I whisper, "you mentioned that. Could you please go away? I'm in the middle of something." I lower my gun and grit my teeth. I don't recognize this joker, but if he can levitate like that there's a strong likelihood that I don't have anything that could stop him. With enough planning, these guys are easy to handle - but when surprise is on their side sometimes it's better to cut your losses. Most of them have some pretty naive ideas about life, but there's not a one of them that couldn't beat me to within an inch of my life if I wasn't careful.

"I desire to understand what you are doing."

Hmmm. He doesn't seem angry. He seems .... stupid?

"I'm about to kill about fifty very bad people."

"These people - they have hurt you?"

"If you're not going to try and stop me, could you move? I've been planning this for months and if they see a six-foot tall disco freak standing four feet above the ground on a nearby hill, they'll probably want to investigate."

"You need not worry, Frank Castle. No one can see or hear me at this moment, except for you. I do not wish our conversation to be interrupted. Now - please, have these men hurt you?"

I sigh and answer his question. If this guy is as powerful as he seems I don't think I have any choice but to humor him. "No, not me personally. But they've hurt hundreds - thousands - of people, both directly and indirectly. They're all killers, and they're all in the business of smuggling and selling illegal drugs. The Mendoza cartel is second only to the Kingpin in terms of the volume they move on the East coast, and after tonight their organization will be effectively dead - decapitated."

"I see. These ... drugs create societal disharmony?"

"Yeah. They destroy lives, kill people -- children -- promote crime and poverty. They're a plague."

The guy in the tracksuit doesn't seem interested in going anywhere. "I have tried drugs. I have taken heroin. It was ... stimulating."

"You've shot heroin?"

"Yes. I believe you know ... Cloak & Dagger?"

"Yeah, but they're not exactly on my Christmas card list."

"They helped me to understand the nature of drugs."

"Well," I said slowly, thinking to myself that this conversation was getting more and more surreal by the moment, "then you understand why I've got to do this."

"Yes, I can understand the utility of such an act. But - I have followed you, secretly, for many weeks. I have seen what you do - you kill criminals, you plan to kill criminals, you dream of killing criminals. I understand what you do but I do not understand why you desire to do it."

"So, uh, that's all you want to know?"

"Yes. I initially came to this universe to understand the nature of desire. I have met many beings in my travels who have helped me to understand this concept - but you are unique."

"Thanks, I guess. I don't care about being unique. I just want to see that what happened to me never happens to anyone else again."

"Ah. You are referring to your family."

"Yes," I winced inwardly. What didn't this joker know about me?

"You are not insane, despite your monomania. I believe you understand perfectly well that you will never eradicate crime on Earth . . . so why do you continue in what you know is a futile mission?"

"Because it's what I do. I kill people. It's just ... what I do."

"Interesting." He seemed to be thinking, almost as if his mind were a millions miles away. Who knows - perhaps it was. Finally, he lifted his head and resumed our conversation.

"I have met many other costumed adventurers on your planet. Many of them are in constant conflict between what they identify as their desires and what they acknowledge as their duties or responsibilities. You, however, are unique, in that you identify your desires and your duties as identical - there is absolutely no conflict in your perceptions. Rather, you act with no compunctions despite the fact that there is no way for your desire can ever be truly fulfilled. Am I correct?"

"Yeah, I guess. I don't usually think about it much, but yeah, I guess that's right."

He beamed and seemed relieved. "I am happy to hear your words. So often I have been confused on this planet ... so many people do not understand the nature of their own desires. In particular, the one you call Spider-Man is especially perplexing ..."

I didn't want to hear him babbling about the spandex guys any longer than I had to. The Mendozas weren't going to be in that hut forever, and there was always a chance one of their perimeter guards could stumble upon me, and then life would get a lot more complicated.

"Look, have I answered all your questions? I've got an appointment."

"Yes, yes, I know! But I am so happy to hear your answers and to understand your desires so fully that I will be pleased to help you. You say that you desire the death of all criminals, yes?"

"Uh, yeah." I wasn't quite sure where this was going.

"And by that you don't simply mean drug dealers, correct?"

"No. There's drug smugglers and dealers ... but maybe not all the street guys, some of them are just junkies who deal to get high. There's murderers, serial killers, rapists, child molesters, terrorists, crooked dictators, corrupt cops ... if I had a million years I could never get them all."

"Yes, but you would keep trying until you died, correct?"


"What would you do if they no longer existed?"

I finally leaned back and laughed. This guy was a real piece of work. "I have no idea. I don't anticipate I'll ever get the chance to find out."

"It would be very interesting to discover just what you would do if you no longer had any purpose."

"I don't know. I guess I'd take a vacation . . . and then find something else to shoot."

He just smiled and snapped his fingers. I didn't hear or see anything, didn't feel anything except maybe a faint breeze in the air.

"What the hell did you do that for?"

"You will see. Perhaps you should return your attention to the cabin."

I turned away from Fruit Loops and looked back at the cabin through my binoculars. Where there had been fifty or so well-dressed mooks huddled inside a log hut not five minutes ago, it was empty. The lamps were still lit but from where I could see there wasn't a soul left in the building.

"What the #@!!? Where'd they go?"

"Nowhere. They no longer exist."

I ignored him this time, grabbing an automatic rifle and jumping off the outcropping. I landed on my feet and ran down the hillock, warily approaching the hut.

Sure enough, it was totally empty. There were empty coats on the back of chairs, still-smoking cigarettes in the ashtrays and a fleet of cars parked on the dirt road outside. But there wasn't a soul anywhere to be found.

I turned around and Space Case was standing right behind me, again, still floating about four feet up in the air.

"What the hell did you do?"

"I merely fulfilled your desire. It was relatively uncomplicated and easily accomplished: it was a pleasure to find someone on your planet with such straightforward moral prerogatives."

"Yeah, whatever." I felt slightly dizzy. If I understood him correctly he had just made my job a lot easier.

"Um," I grasped for words. "Thanks, I guess?"

"No need to thank me, Frank Castle! I should thank you for having illuminated such a thorny area of human nature for me. I believe now that I am one step closer to truly understanding the nature of desire."

"Great, glad to hear it."

And with that he was gone, and I never saw him again.

PUNISHER WAR JOURNAL - September 13th, 2:00 PM

I was the only person on the planet who knew just why every prison in every country had been suddenly emptied, and why a large percentage of all the suspected murderers, rapists and drug dealers on the planet as well. There were dozens of folks in every prison who didn't disappeared, and all of were later exonerated by the resources of a suddenly empty-handed criminal justice system. Many of these "left behind" had been on Death Row. I guess Mr. "I Am From Beyond" knew what he was doing.

I was happy to see that only a small percentage of policemen disappeared. Of course, there were also about fifty or so countries that experienced sudden coup d'etats when their autocrat or ruling generals disappeared. Half a dozen American senators and a handful of congressmen were gone too. I felt bad for the families that experience seemingly random disappearances - respected fathers and beloved mothers who vanished along with the hardened criminals. By the time these disappearances were made public, however, I knew better than to doubt what I had seen: somewhere in their pasts, those seemingly upstanding people had done bad things.

Spider-Man and Daredevil and the rest of those clowns spent a lot of time sitting on their hands. There were still giant monsters and space aliens to fight, but it's been three weeks and there hasn't been so much as a mugging anywhere from Bangkok to Bangor. I am beginning to expect that what Mr. Beyond did was a lot far ranging than I suspected at first, because there haven't been any crimes, anywhere, ever since that night.

Me, I took my first vacation in years. I grabbed some cash from a safe house in Brooklyn and spent an extremely pleasant two weeks at an all-inclusive resort in Maui. No one knew what had caused the disappearances, so travel was fairly light. I got a hand-job from a Vietnamese masseuse and had sex with a thirty-five year old travel agent from Nebraska.

I spent a lot of time thinking. I wondered if Mr. Beyond or whomever was still watching me - wondering to see what I would do next.

Well, I've finally decided on a logical course of action. There aren't any criminals left to kill. But after all this time I don't see myself settling down again. I'm actually a pretty odd fellow when you get down to it.

It's a hot Indian Summer in the Bronx. I can hear the Steve Miller Band playing softly over the radio somewhere down the street. Children are playing on the sidewalk, boys with toy guns for their games of cops and robbers (harmless play, considering that there's a good likelihood there will never again be another bank-robbery), girls jumping double-dutch and playing hopscotch on chalk-drawn grids.

I've got a high-powered sniper's rifle with Teflon bullets, enough weapon to blast a hole the size of a toaster oven in a rhino at five hundred yards. I'm half a block away when the target comes into range.

Little Janie MacPhearson had a birthday party yesterday. She got a Barbie dollhouse that her dad spent two hours trying to put together, a large stuffed bear and two Disney DVDs. Her mother spent an hour braiding her hair into a long cord running all the way down her back, downy-soft blond locks catching the sunlight as she skips rope.

Little Janie is nine years old, and she must be stopped.

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Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Just In Case You Missed Last Night's Update

... here's the new remix.

What Harold Ross Saw, Part Two

The recent decision by the editors and publisher of Mad magazine to accept paid advertising represented not only an indelible break with (at the time) almost fifty years of tradition, but a critical blow to what many perceived as the magazine's essential identity. Mad had always been an equal-opportunity offender. Since the earliest days of Kurtzman's spectacular genesis through the long decades of relatively mediocre but engagingly consistent material produced under Al Feldstein and subsequent editors, the one abiding principle of Mad was that it held nothing sacred, from the President on down to the "Usual Gang of Idiots" themselves.

You'd be hard pressed to argue that the magazine ever improved on the template of its first twenty-four issues, and even the most die-hard partisan would probably admit that the jokes have usually been as stale as Dave Berg's cultural references. But that was part of the charm. Mad was a staple of American childhood for fifty years not because it was the most innovative or interesting magazine on the racks, but because it served as one of the very few gateways available for children to the contrarian philosophy that has been vital to the intellectual and societal advancement of this country. Perhaps you could argue that the scattershot, egalitarian anarchy represented by Mad has contributed to the gradual coarsening of pop culture. But in order to make such an argument you'd have to effectively prove that Mad was also responsible for the commensurate trends of arrested development among wide swaths of our adult population.

(Mad was never a paean to arrested development: if it has always reveled in the kind of broad scatology that 8-12 year olds find consistently amusing, that is because the magazine knows that its audience consists primarily of 8-12 year olds. It may not be the most sophisticated satire, but again, just the fact that authority figures and the socio-economic factors that they represent can be mocked and derided serves in itself as a perpetual epiphany for pre-teens everywhere. The assumption, which I believe to be more than adequately supported by the anecdotal evidence of fifty years of underground cartoonists, television sketch comedians and punk rockers, is that this kind of healthy skepticism and inherent distrust for authority, once inculcated, can eventually grow into a more sophisticated expression than fart jokes.)

But the appearance of advertising in Mad, while probably an inevitable result of rising publication costs and increasing competition among print media for the youth audience, represented something more important for the magazine than merely a new coat of paint. Although it might seem a specious comparison, Mad has traditionally been held by its readership with a similar brand of regard as Consumer Reports: both magazines were expected to be absolutely unbiased in their respective fields of product testing and satire. Although most of their audience probably couldn't rationalize it as such, there was a relationship of trust whose foundation was an unspoken agreement that Mad held no cows as too sacred for tipping.

And, of course, this was an adequate philosophy for so long as the magazine remained a privately held corporation in a relatively stable magazine market. The writing was on the wall the moment that Mad became a fully-owned subsidiary of the Time/Warner megalith: Alfred E. Neuman had a new master above and beyond mere japery for the sake of japery. The fact that Warner Brothers movies are cover-featured on Mad months in advance of their actual release is just a sign of the times. Perhaps Gaines should have taken the magazine with him into death, because it would almost have been better for Mad to stop publishing than to become so wholly compromised. What message is this sending the next generations of satirists, that pure satire can only exist on the condition that it "plays nice" with corporate interests that it would otherwise take every opportunity to eviscerate?

But Mad's ideological compromise is ultimately merely a small indicator of the changing times in publishing. Things are tough on the magazine racks, as more and more specialized publications vie for pieces of an increasingly diverse, fractured and inattentive readership. The New Yorker is an amazing example of an aged and perhaps cumbersome institution that was able to use the previous decade's unprecedented crisis of fractured media as impetus to change and grow dynamically. Whether or not these changes -- as with Mad -- have resulted in a compromised presentation is still a matter to be decided.

Its common knowledge that the audience for general interest magazines has been on a long and steady decline, but it is also a well-known fact that The New Yorker has bucked this trend by entering the 21st century well in the black. The reason for this commercial renaissance is usually seen to be closely associated with the recent and successful commodification of their most distinctive feature: cartoons. The Cartoon Bank website, with its digital library reaching back eighty years, has been by all accounts one of the most improbably successful merchandising programs in magazine history (probably nowhere near as successful, in real terms, as all the different Sports Illustrated videos and calenders, but it's an issue of scale we're dealing with here). The question is whether or not the magazine's renewed attention to the cartoon comes at the expense of the actual artform itself.

(Of course, I'm not comparing the actual publication with any theoretical magazine you or I could imagine: that would be a mug's game. It's not hard to imagine that any imaginative editor with those resources who wasn't saddled to The New Yorker's longstanding editorial traditions could easily put together a cartooning staff that would put any lineup, past or present, to shame - but that's just daydreaming, and I want to make it perfectly clear that my complaints are far from hypothetical.)

If Mad erred by disregarding the most important aspects of its cartooning heritage in order to survive in a changing marketplace, The New Yorker seems to have profited by choosing an almost diametrically opposite tack. They have exploited one of the magazine's most well-known and established features, and are reaping the deserved rewards of eighty years of attention paid to a medium which their peers -- many of whom no longer exist -- gradually chose to de-emphasize and eventually ignored altogether. But now that the cartoons have become fully recognized as one of the magazine's signature commercial strengths, the danger looms that the cartoons themselves have ceased to become relevant as anything other than a perpetual commoditized resource.

To put it bluntly: the one panel "gag" cartoon, insomuch as it is observed in the pages of The New Yorker is something of an anachronism. There is something almost aggressively reactionary in such a thickly proscribed format, and the unexceptional output of the majority of the magazine's contributors is perhaps merely a symptom of this moribund format.

It's easy for history to obscure aesthetic judgment: in most cases, the only examples of historical art that survive and thrive in the popular imagination are the exceptional, the interesting, or the strange. Most of us will never know just how much crap has been subsumed by the silt and mud of history (and in some cases, the unexceptional quality of what has survived raises the fearful specter of just how bad the stuff that didn't make it through the ages actually was). So it would be a grave mistake to look back on the "Golden Age" of The New Yorker as a wonderland solely composed of talents on par with Steig, Addams and Thurber - just as it would be a grave error to assume, based solely on the examples of Mac Raboy, Jack Kirby and Alex Toth, that the "Golden Age" of mainstream comics was an era of unrivalled draftsmanship, peerless design and rugged dynamism. Most of it was crap, and the same goes for The New Yorker's gag cartoons.

But regardless of the fact that not everyone gets to be born a natural illustrative genius, the fact is that the magazine seems to be happy with the modest crop of gag cartoonists it currently cultivates. Whenever anyone great pops up in the magazine, they're invariably a hired gun: Crumb or Ware or Tomine or Burns or a few others. It should go without saying that these gentlemen are on an entirely different scale of reference than most cartoonists on the magazine's regular payroll - and the fact that this disparity between the relatively uninspired work of the average New Yorker cartoonist and that of the hired guns who periodically show up has never really been addressed is slightly baffling to me.

I dread the magazine's yearly cartoon issue. First, it goes without saying that the cartoon issue devotes significantly less space to its specialty than the corresponding issues devoted to style, food, movies or fiction. I can understand that much, given the fact that cartooning is perceived by most as a much smaller cul-de-sac than it actually is, and an entire issue devoted to the subject would alienate many more readers than it would attract. But while they may print a few selections from established and acclaimed cartoonists, the focal point of the issue is inevitably an extended portfolio selection by the magazine's established cartooning staff. It goes without saying that they hardly deserve the extra focus.

Again, there's a dichotomy here. On the one hand, the magazine is tentatively acknowledging the interesting and unique talents of some of our best cartoonists. But on the other there's a stubborn adherence to the "gag" panel and the kind of torpid formalism that such a restrictive format invariably demands.

The New Yorker has defined itself in rigid obeisance to the talented men and women who created and shepherded it through its formative years. It has the reputation now as the "magazine with the cartoons", for better or for worse - enough so that Seinfeld could easily devote part of an episode of a nationally broadcast television program to poking fun at them. But while the decision to capitalize on this reputation has yielded unexpected dividends for the magazine, it has effectively marginalized them as a player in the field it once helped to define.

Visionary talents like the aforementioned Steig, Addams and Thurber built their careers and reputations alongside that of the magazine itself, helping to define a unique visual and editorial identity. These pioneers used the magazine as a platform to push American cartooning forward in the twentieth century in much the same way as Punch did for British cartooning during the nineteenth. But while these giants are rightly hailed for their contributions, the magazine's forward momentum in the medium stopped when the editors stopped cultivating talents who could grow into the kind of skill and insight that Thurber or Steig mastered over their long careers. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that cartoons are such an important element in the magazine's current commercial fortunes: it doesn't pay to cultivate artistes for what are -- essentially -- menial positions in the cartooning world.

Steig commands an authority in The New Yorker's self-mythology similar to that which Stan Lee and Jack Kirby possess in the lore of modern Marvel. And just as generations of (mostly) mediocre craftsmen have been utilized in an attempt to keep the forward momentum of Lee, Kirby and Ditko's characters and concepts moving forward without essentially damaging the copyrights, The New Yorker purposefully cultivates inferior cartoonists in order to perpetuate the magazine's brand.

If there's any doubt about the efficacy of this argument, examine the careers of the great cartoonists who do occasionally pop up in the magazine's pages. The greatest argument for the fact that The New Yorker has essentially abdicated its position as a leading light in the cartoon firmament is the fact that the good cartoonists who do appear have all built long and storied reputations long before selling their first pieces to the magazine. It used to be that the best cartoonists in The New Yorker were homegrown, talents who had been drafted and defined by the magazine, and who had in turn imparted their skill and prestige to the magazine which had allowed and encouraged them to flourish artistically. Now, all the best cartoonists come to The New Yorker already defined and established. Its a similar situation to that of short fiction, which the magazine also still publishes: The New Yorker still publishes some good stories on occasion, but no one could mistake them for a leader of the field. They may also publish some good cartoons now and again, but their historical contributions to the continuing definition of the medium have essentially come to an end.

Monday, February 14, 2005


New remix here. Enjoy.
The Curmudgeon Manifesto

1. Comics From Your Youth Are Always Worse Than You Remember Them Being

2. No Matter How Smart They Are And How Wide-Ranging Their Reading Tastes, All Conversations Between Comics Fans Inevitably Turn To Superheroes

It’s the only common ground between many disparate tastes, and this common ground inevitably defines the dialogue.

3. The Best Newspaper Strips Are Really Only Any Good In Comparison To Their Crappy Peers.
This is regardless of how much you may like Doonesbury, For Better Or For Worse or Boondocks - next to Garfield, Get Fuzzy is a work of staggering genius.

4. Dropping The Cover Price Will Not Save Mainstream Comics.
There is no way that newsstand owners would ever back such a high-maintenance, high-volume and low-profit line.

5. The Amount Of Food That Your Favorite Indie Cartoonist Eats In Any Given Month Is In Direct Proportion To How Much They Sell Out.

Have you ever noticed how skinny Chester Brown is?

6. The Best Manga Will Probably Never Be Translated.
But boy oh boy, we got ten metric shitpiles of violent boy-rape yaoi.

7. The “New Mainstream” Will Probably Not Save Comics – They Just Don’t Have The Resources.
But it sure is fun to watch Larry Young try.

8. Political Cartooning Is A Toothless And Decrepit Old Man Who Needs To Be Put Out Of His Misery
See, the elephant is the Republicans, and the Donkey is the Democrats, and the balloon is deficit spending . . .

9. Comic Books Will Always Be Marginalized.
The general public does not possess the critical capacity to judge the difference between whatever superhero nostalgia/rape “blockbuster” is being hyped and an honest-to-Gosh good comic based merely on the press both types of books get.

And Finally . . .

10. Nothing We Say Matters.

Because in the end, WE as much a part of the problem as THEY are (however it is that you define “WE” and “THEY”).

Have A Nice Day!

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Friday, February 11, 2005

Twisting My Arm

Let it be known by all and sundry that I hate memes. As you may have noticed, I go out of my way not to participate... I don't know why, really. It just seems slightly uncomfortable to me... kind of like a party where the hostess passes out cards with witty conversation topics on it.

"So, Helen tells me you're an engineer . . . what do you think about the AIDS crisis in sub-Saharan Africa?"


I seem to have been put into a corner. I was called out about this whole music meme thing that's going around... and really, as much as I wish I could just maintain my standard curmudgeonly remove, I would be a churl not to answer the challenge. If even Warren Ellis answers the siren call of the meme... who am I to balk at destiny?

1. Total amount of music files on your computer:

Only about one and a half gigs. I got out of the habit of downloading music a long time ago... I am a hoarder by nature, and its hard to hoard digital files.

2. The last CD you bought was:

Hmmm. I think technically the last CD I bought was the new Death in Vegas, Satan's Circus, on import from here (because they had the cheapest price I found). But that was on the Internet - the last CD I bought in a brick & mortar store was probably the new Ludacris, The Red Light District, which was actually a birthday present for my better half.

3. What is the song you last listened to before reading this message?

"Archives Of Pain" by the Manic Street Preachers. I'm supposed to be interviewing Nicky Wire next Friday so I'm boning up on my Holy Bible.

4. Write down 5 songs you often listen to or that mean a lot to you.

Just off the top of my head:

1. "Hey Boy Hey Girl" - The Chemical Brothers
2. "Harmony" - Elton John (One of maybe fifty or so tracks from his early material that I could have picked but didn't)
3. "Camera" - REM
4. "The End of the Tour" - They Might Be Giants
5. "Let Me Ride" - Dr. Dre (Perhaps I'm dating myself here...)

5. Who are you going to pass this stick to? (3 persons) and why?

No one. I usually wear a condom when I have sex with strangers, for the express purpose of not passing noxious memes around.

What Harold Ross Saw, Part One

Is there any publication with more of a self-satisfied sense of exaggerated importance than The New Yorker? I ask not out of pique but of honest curiosity.

I haven't been to the comic book store on Wednesday for a long time, and my household only sporadically observes Christmas, but the weekly coming of The New Yorker remains a ritual of fierce priority. Every Tuesday it appears in our mailbox, placed there by the loving hands of the postman -- it's a tragedy, as my long-suffering wife will attest, if the magazine turns up late a day. I've read it for long enough to get a strong feel for its rhythms and bents, its prejudices and pretenses. I can say that while it remains a highlight of my week it is also a singularly exasperating habit.

Every year they produce an anniversary issue -- a big, fat self-congratulatory present, celebrating another year's existence. Certainly, it goes without saying that publishing a magazine for 80 years running is no mean feat, especially considering the fact that The New Yorker did not often make a habit of running in the black for much of its storied history. But for God's sake, how many issues does Time devote in the space of a year to the ostensible subject of how great Time is? You can be forgiven for celebrating anniversaries at five- or ten-year intervals, but publications and institutions are not individuals, and their specific birthdays are dates of middling significance.

In any event, every year brings another hulking squarebound New Yorker anniversary edition to my house, and every one of these brings with it another idiotic Eustace Tilley cover. This year's Tilley was illustrated by none other than Chris Ware -- a sequential diagram of the archetypal Tilley/butterfly meeting. Ware's almost invisible linework is, of course, beautiful and almost preternaturally assured, but the subject matter could not be more fatuous.

Whether you regard The New Yorker as one of the last great bastions of highbrow rectitude, or merely an enduring monument to the precocity of the middlebrow American intellect, the magazine is perpetually enjoyable in direct inverse to the monotony of its self-mythology. And certainly there are few publications in the history of publishing that have made as great a contribution to the history of cartooning: certainly Punch and arguably Mad have made greater contributions, but I can think of no more. It should also be noted that in an era when magazine cartooning has almost died out, The New Yorker is one of only two major mainstream publications (the other being Playboy, founded by a struggling cartoonist) to continue publishing cartoons on a consistent basis. But even if you give them credit for their contributions to cartooning history, you are still left with the unavoidable conclusion that the magazine is nowhere near close to fulfilling its self-appointed historic prerogatives in regard to the artform.

Oh, they publish some of the best cartoonists in the business -- very occasionally. Robert Crumb and Chris Ware have both contributed features, and many of the biggest names in alternative comics and cartooning have contributed spot illustrations and portraits for the magazine. But these sporadic appearances appear alongside the regular weekly contributions of the magazine's usual gag cartoonists -- and the comparison is not flattering.

James Thurber, William Steig and Charles Addams are all dead. Nowadays, the appearance of a good cartoon in the magazine's assortment of regular gags and illustrations seems to be a matter blind luck. Alongside the perpetually wonderful contributions of Gahan Wilson and the perpetually amusing work of Gerald Scarfe, you have work by tyros such as Bruce Erik Kaplan and Matthew Diffee. Kaplan makes Ted Rall look like the spiritual reincarnation of Gil Kane. Embarrassingly amateur work appears every week alongside work by competent but unexceptional draftsmen such as Edward Koren and Roz Chast and the brilliant work of Gahan Wilson, but in such a way that no discerning aesthetic continuum is detected. Sure, the New Yorker may at least still print the cartoons, but the fact that they seem to regard cartooning skill as an interchangeable commodity reduces the whole of comics past and present to an acritical mush in the minds of anyone who pays the magazine her due respect in all other realms of art.

Certainly, I trust the magazine to be able to give me a fairly comprehensive and knowledgeable assessment of modern dance, classical composition, "fine" art, cinema, literature and photography (a relatively recent development). They have even, over the past year, made incredible strides in the once-taboo field of pop music critique. But considering how large a part cartooning has played in the evolution of the magazine's style, history and mythology, isn't their casual treatment of cartooning something of a joke?

Next: Eustace Tilley vs. Alfred E. Neuman

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Oni Love Can Break Your Heart

Wet Moon - Book One: Feeble Wanderings

Having no expectations at the outset, the first volume of Ross Campbell's Wet Moon series was a delightful surprise. Although it is not, perhaps, a singularly unique work -- Campbells's influences as an illustrator are plain -- the book is defined by a strong feel for character, and an intuitive understanding for the authority that small incidents carry in the process in elucidating the mystery of personality.

When the book first arrived I admit that I was unfamiliar with Campbell, and the vaguely Goth-y looking cover art (bringing to mind all sorts of bad Anne Rice and Jhonen Vasquez connotations) had me expecting something much less compelling than what I actually found. Certainly, the bulk of characters in this book could probably fit into the conventional "Goth" rubrick, but that's hardly important: its not a book about any particular sub-culture, its about regular people who happen to dress in a certain way. Just by opening the book and reading the first dozen or so pages you get a perfect feel for the quiet understatement that defines the book's narrative: Campbell isn't afraid to devote space to his characters' interacting with their environments, walking through unfamiliar spaces and defining their personalities through body language.

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Cleo has company.

The dialogue is similarly minimal, and yet somehow far more illustrative than the sum of its parts would suggest. Again, Campbell gives his characters room to define themselves through everyday banter, of both the witty and puerile variety. Without having to ever state anything so didactically, his characters slowly emerge into pleasingly rounded figures, people with endearingly lonely, frustrated, horny, embarrassed and confused reactions to their rather mundane surroundings.

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They're not saying a whole lot of anything, but how they say it reveals a lot.

Campbell's art is informed by Charles Burns, and shares Burns' enduring fascination with the rounded lines of the human figure, as well as the surpassingly grotesque imagery of the unexpected. His characters can be attractive and repulsive at the same time, and its an engaging, naturalistic effect -- there's a lot of perception in his visual eye. Just look at the way that his female characters are drawn with an eye towards their imperfections. There is a great deal of subtext in Wet Moon dealing with body images and the way each of the characters percieve themselves. There's an unsettling dichotomy in most comics art, where characters are either fully attractive or despicably ugly - perhaps it's just not very fun to draw normal people. Nonetheless, that is exactly what Campbell does here, drawing a group of otherwise unexceptional and yet vigorously realized characters in the full swing of a very vivid fictional reality.

Campbell lack's Burns' eye for the deep black of a well-brushed ink line, choosing instead to adopt the intricately defined thin-line approach of Jacen Burrows (who is himself an obvious student of Geoff Darrow). Its an interesting effect, and while I can honestly say I am never fully satisfied with the computerized gray tones that occupy most of the book, they are used to good effect. Campbell uses grey ink washes for selected scenes, and they are significantly more attractive - but I can probably understand why they were used sparingly. Inserted only as a moody counterpoint to the regular narrative, they provide a useful contrast.

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Here we see Campbell's moody inkwashes used to add depth to Cleo's unhappy day.

The one problem I have with the book is the rather awkward insertion of (possibly) supernatural elements. The characters and situations set up in this first book are so interesting that I am hesitant to see these few macabre elements accentuated in future books. As it is, the mysteries are only briefly touched, and hardly enough to detract from the understated character drama which serves as the book's prominent attraction. If the story evolves a more elaborate and involved plot in later volumes, Campbell should take great pains to ensure that this more understated quietude is not forgotten. I could easily see buying and enjoying half a dozen or more books focused on these fascinatingly vivid characters.

Wet Moon is an immediately engaging and deeply satisfying book which serves as an excellent introduction to a new and promising talent. It's probably the best thing I've seen from Oni so far in this series

(Special Thanks to Randall C. Jarrell @ Oni for the help with promotional materials - except for the part where he sent me an attached file so big it crashed my computer!)

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

The Hurting's Weekly Out-Of-Context Mark Trail Panel

For the Week of 02/09/05
Oh my God, Mark is having an epileptic fit!

For the Week of 02/02/05
For the Week of 01/26/05
For the Week of 01/19/05
For the Week of 01/12/05

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Yo Heave Ho

New remix up here: "Ultimate Hamlet".

Enjoy! More stuff later.

Monday, February 07, 2005

And Now A Word From Our Sponsor

Hello Dear,








Now, is it me or is Mr. Johnson getting a bit fresh here? I mean, how did he begin his letter to me? I met him, what, once at a cocktail party, and now I'm "Dear"?

Friday, February 04, 2005

(X) + (Y) = You Suck
How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Spandex

There are two conventionally accepted ways of reading Marvels, and both seem to involve accepting the basic narrative at more or less face value. The first reading is the positive reading, in which the "cool" superhero visuals and supposedly "deep" story graft retroactive meaning onto 60s Marvel comics through their use of culturally accredited naturalistic signifiers to evoke a more "realistic" and believable milieu. The second reading is essentially the flip side, with the book's assumed attempt at servicing fandom's long-cherished insecurities taken as proof of an unmistakably negative and self-defeating urge for poisonous nostalgia.

The third reading, which I have attempted to illustrate, takes the initial position that neither the story or art elements in Marvels were ever meant to be taken entirely on face value, and that the book supports multiple narrative interpretations which have, unfortunately, rarely been explored. I have heard many otherwise intelligent people profess the opinion that Marvels is totally devoid of critical interest. Certainly, anyone who has read this blog for any amount of time knows that despite my abiding affection for certain superhero books and characters, I am hardly one to ever give a book - especially a superhero book - a critical "free pass" just because I happen to like it. Affection in this context is basically nostalgia, and I like to think that most folks smart enough to think about comics on the kind of reasoned and balanced level necessary to follow most of the erudite and educated discussions (and many of the puerile and pointless ones as well) that fill up the "Comics Blogosphere" also know enough to separate their own feelings of nostalgic affection from their more seasoned critical appraisal.

Certainly, it might sometimes be a hard line to draw - but I believe its still an important one. It doesn't necessarily follow that there is any sort of Platonic ideal of "greatness" to which art can aspire - although I don't discount the notion entirely - but it does mean that every critical consumer of art has a responsibility, if only to themselves, to process their stimuli in a reasoned and knowledgeable manner. Why I think X is better or more significant or more profound than Y tells me a lot not only about X and Y but about the way I think and the ways that X and Y have influenced the thoughts of others.

But with that said, sometimes the most significant obstacle for any person to overcome on the subject of aesthetic merit is their own preconceptions. I know that despite the fact that I try to keep an almost impossibly open mind, sometimes I betray rank prejudices. It's natural and desirable to be placed in positions of second- and third- guessing your own preconceived notions. On the flip side, a more treacherous trap might be the temptation to fit any new piece of input through predesigned filters. Everyone has their own pet theories or their particular interpretations that they like to be able to apply to whatever crosses their path. It's a familiar impulse, as anyone who has spent any time in academia will attest.

(One of the most frustrating experiences of my life was a Shakespeare class taught by an avowed structuralist professor. He knew his Bard inside and out but his interpretations of the plays and the poetry always seemed - to me - needlessly reductive, totally lacking in any understanding of why people actually ever cared about these plays. Although it is always interesting to look at familiar works through novel prisms, there reaches a point where you have to be able to admit that any particular critical perspective - Marxism, feminism, formalism, et al - is merely a tool, and some tools are simply less effective for certain applications as they are for others.)

So with that in mind, Marvels is a uniquely conceived work, in that it seems to have been designed to offer a strikingly opaque critical reflection. If you go looking for something simple and nostalgic, you'll find ample evidence of that for an enjoyable read, and if you go looking for more meaty subtext, you'll find that Busiek and Ross have included that as well, just under the surface where most people maybe wouldn't bother or care to look. The fact that Ross' work has become so divisive hardly helps: so many people feel so strongly about it one way or the other that an original and unbiased opinion can sometimes be hard to find, and the opinion that Marvels stands slightly apart from the rest of his output by virtue of the subtle disconnect between art and narrative is not widely-held.

In a lot of ways, its a much more challenging work to try and get an accurate read on than any of its immediate peers. Watchmen is pretty obvious a complex narrative, with numerous very visible signifiers that could lead you to any number of rewarding and diverse interpretations. The Dark Knight Returns is perhaps a more focused work than Watchmen - even if the thematic content is much more messy and inexact than in Watchmen, with its analytical approach to the intricate interplay between formal elasticity and thematic development - but it also betrays a number of not-so subtle clues which can easily be put to the service of explication.

But understanding what Busiek was trying to say with Marvels presents the reader with multiple conundrums. For one thing, Marvels is perhaps the only one of the great post-modern deconstructionist superhero works to start from a position of affection. (This affection is in itself perhaps the first real stumbling block for many readers, being as they have been conditioned to expect deconstructionist superhero narratives to come clouded with cynicism and pervading dread.) The "starting point" for Watchmen and Dark Knight, to say nothing of Marshal Law or Animal Man or Squadron Supreme, is a pervading sense of moral decay, be it in society, in the mind of the protagonist or in the very fabric of the superhero narrative itself (or, more likely, all three). Marvels takes a necessarily broader approach, beginning as it does at the very beginning of superheroes, and taking them not to "The End" (or, as in Kingdom Come, some kind of an artificially constructed eschatological incident), but merely at an ending, the specific point where one person in particular decides to get off the treadmill.

There's nothing massive or monumental or cosmic about it, and at no point in the narrative are the stakes higher than the natural peaks and valleys of one man's unique but unexceptional career in journalism. It works because it was and remains a singularly unique way of approaching something that had already been torn apart and put back together in as many ways as you can imagine, perhaps the last meaningful statement that was possible before superheroes entered their present fugue state of Baroque decadence. Because Busiek chooses not to smash all of his toys in a huff at the end of the piece, some people chose to interpret this as an acquiesce to circumstances, a passive acceptance, even an example of moral cowardice. But it's a lot more ambiguous than that.

Up until very recently, it would have been impossible to understand the English-speaking comics world without at least a layman's grasp of superhero comic history. The fact is that most significant artists and every significant movement in comics since around the time we now call the Silver Age has defined itself either by its proximity or opposition to the commercial dominance of mainstream comics. Certainly, if you want to appreciate underground comix (Crumb & Co.) or the post-underground generation (Spiegelman, Pekar and their peers) without an understanding of what was considered aboveground comic books when said artists first burst on the scene, you'd be missing one of the most crucial pieces of historical context necessary to understanding why these books were significant. Once you get past the post-underground generation and enter the 80s and 90s, with the black & white boom, the Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly generation, and all the little fits and spurts in between, you're dealing with a pile of cartoonists who were almost universally inculcated on American mainstream superhero comics, if not exclusively, then at least partially. Try to understand the genre subtext of Jaime Hernandez's Locas stories without at least some knowledge of Jack Kirby (how the heck could you explain Penny Century?). Look at the weak and aggressively unmasculine presentation of the self in which autobiographical artists like Chester Brown and Joe Matt revel. Just imagine Jimmy Corrigan or David Boring shorn of their critical passive-aggressive relationship to superhero nostalgia.

It's only in the past five years or so that we've actually gotten to the point where up & coming cartoonists haven't automatically and unknowingly felt the need to define themselves in relation to superheroes - the Fort Thunder crew seems to accept superhero comics as merely a small component in the general pop-culture melange they reflect, and other talents who have recently ripened, such as Dave Cooper, James Kochalka and Jeffrey Brown, seem to possess none of the antipathy towards the material that defined their precedents. (In fact, its worth pointing out that all of these creators have dipped their toes into superheroes on occasion, producing works which are undoubtedly less significant in relation to their broad ouvres, but which certainly look like they were a lot of fun for the creators in question!) All of these significant talents have no problem with admitting the influence superheroes may have had on their early development, but they hardly feel the shadow of Jack Kirby breathing down their necks and forcing their art to bend in a contrarian opposition to the wind. Its such a dirty, shameful and almost painfully intimate subject for most cartoonists of the generation just previous to the current, that it's amazing they get anything done considering how much of their time they spend ruing the fact that they read and enjoyed X-Men in their unformed childhoods.

(Perhaps this is stating the case a bit too strongly, but no one ever said this wasn't the Mighty Marvel Age of egregious exaggeration?)

Even though the vast majority of his career has been spent in the mainstream superhero worlds, Busiek also feels this ambiguity (jusr read his interview in The Comics Journal if you don't believe me), and in many ways Marvels was designed as a response to this, as a deliberate and precise attempt to get inside the mind of the superhero comic and try to understand why it still exerts such a powerful hold on so many people. To do this, he did the only really radical thing that had yet to be done on a meaningful scale: instead of taking the genre apart from the outside, he started from the inside and worked his way out.

This is one of the most fundamental aspects of Marvels significance, and also goes great lengths towards explaining just why some people feel so alienated by the book. If you've spent any part of your life reading superhero comics, you're intimately acquainted with the omniscient first- and second-person narrative modes for most books. Most all superhero stories take place with you peering over the hero's shoulder, privy to their actions and their thoughts, seeing what they do and hearing what they hear. On a very basic level, this creates a strong sense of possessive intimacy on the part of the readers, some of whom identify powerfully with fictional characters whom they spent more of their childhood with than flesh-and-blood friends.

Marvels upends this equation entirely. Instead of being a fly on the wall for Peter Parker's ongoing crises and a passive participant in his thrilling adventures, you see him no more than in passing. For someone with a lifelong affection for these characters, it could be an almost heartbreakingly profound disassociation, like seeing an old flame in passing who doesn't even recognize you. Ingrained reading protocol dictates that you follow Spider-Man as he swings across the city, not that you get left behind on the street below - and the disconnect between what the reader intuitively expects and what the narrative provides can be revealing. Certainly, not everyone who reads the book could have such a negative reaction based merely on their attachment to the characters, but there is something to be said for the fact that Busiek and Ross' casual inversion of the established norms of superhero narrative has produced some startlingly visceral responses. Part of understanding Marvels, at least for me, was understanding that the point of the book was to place me outside of my comfort zone - not merely to sit in judgment of superhero comics from an omniscient remove, as in Watchmen, but to try and provoke a more nuanced rapprochement with an obviously thorny and contradictory subject matter.

The success or failure of Marvels as a narrative has relatively little to do with whether or not you have ever read a superhero comic before, and requires no knowledge of the complex continuity which it utilizes during the course of the story - unlike, say, The Dark Knight Returns, it's possible to comprehend the book's important themes without any knowledge of the characters' labyrinthine pasts. In fact, I daresay that an above-average awareness of superhero contunity might actually predicate an incomplete reading experience, as it's all-too easy for the initiated to get caught up in the book's minutiae, and to get thrown by the understated inversions that compose the book's delicately assembled structure. From a certain angle, it stands apart from the traditional narrative flow of superhero history even moreso than Watchmen or Animal Man, both of which provided violent breaks with established mores. Marvels provides just as much subversion, albeit from a different direction, by putting the entire structural underpinning of superhero narrative on its head, and not by dissecting the inner workings of superhero psyches and their grand existential crises. The questions here are nothing less than how and why we read superhero comics to begin with - and if Busiek's answers are ultimately more ambiguous and perhaps forgiving than Moore or Morrison's, it is to be expected, considering Busiek's more gregarious and humble nature.

Psychological naturalism is perhaps a MacGuffin in certain respects: while this was certainly a very important element in Busiek's inversion of genre, it was by no means the paramount element. To say that psychological realism is not an expected attribute of superhero comics is merely stating a fact, and the fact that injecting small doses of naturalism into a superhero story can still create profoundly odd and sometimes extremely telling effects in the reader is no more than a reminder that the genre is, at its purest, doggedly surreal in character and rigorously formal in execution. Changing this equation can still provoke powerfully informative reactions from educated readers.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

It's not Brak, despite my wife's protestations.

Oni Love Can Break Your Heart

Love Fights Vol. 2

Although I keep giving Andi Watson a chance, I never quite like his work as much as I think I should. For some reason, despite the numerous similarities between his work and work which I do enjoy on a regular basis, there are always reasons why it never matches up with my expectations. Love Fights remains true to form by presenting an agreeable, if inconsistent work that nevertheless succeeded in entertaining me despite numerous flaws.

I enjoyed Geisha, although I thought the story in the Geisha Special was much stronger than the original limited series. I actively disliked Breakfast After Noon, which has to be one of my least favorite comics ever - I can't really say its a bad comic, because it was certainly executed with the same competence as the rest of his material, and many intelligent people have professed to love it. But I thought the characters were pathologically unlikeable, which severely hampered my ability to appreciate whether or not said characters ended up together or not in the end. I rather wanted to throw them both down an elevator shaft (I had a similar reaction to High Fidelity, oddly enough, and for much the same reasons).

Love Fights is much more enjoyable than Breakfast After Noon, but for whatever reasons it is still strangely limpid in places. I think, however, that I may have succeeded in pinpointing one of the reasons for my dissatisfaction with Watson's work: the artwork, which manages to be simultaneously appealing and repellent to me.

On the one hand, he's got an extremely interesting and bold style, very much unlike anything else you are likely to see in comics. His style shares a great deal in common with those of certain particularly ascetic single-panel cartoonists, albeit with even more of superfluous detail sucked out. All that's left is almost the skeleton of a drawing. On a cover or a pin-up, it looks fantastic, with a strong sense of design that draws your eye inward.

But the drawback of this is that it is a very difficult style with which to tell a story. Its almost as if we were seeing thumbnail sketches of the story instead of the actual story itself. The forms and shapes on the page lack any heft, resembling the bare outlines of composition more than they do actual storytelling. You could perhaps draw a comparison with Seth: but whereas Seth's work actively draws the reader into the narrative, despite it's clear minimalism and efficiency of design, Watson's emaciated linework actively draws me out of the story. Perhaps this is merely personal preference, but I'd be interested in hearing if I were the only one with this problem.

The story in Love Fights is similarly problematic. The narrative thrust of this second volume hinges on a plot element that contains a hole big enough to drive a truck through it: mainly, that if comic book companies are privy to the exact details of the superheroes' every adventure, then they would also not only be privy to secret adventures, but to adventures which the heroes didn't remember themselves, despite the fact that said "secret" adventures were detailed in publicly published and distributed comic books. I have a hard time believing that the superheroes would be unaware of intimately important facets of their existence that were publicly known to anyone who produced or read their comic books.

But if you can leave aside that significant problem, the story is actually quite clever. It hinges on a number of familiar superhero tropes that Watson manages to weave in and out of the narrative quite dexterously. The only problem I have here is the fact that for large chunks of the book the precarious balance between the romantic and superhero elements is pretty much moot by the overwhelming superheroics. The first book, even though it sets up an incomplete mystery, is much more thematically satisfying because of the deft way in which Watson doesn't allow either of the genres to overwhelm the other. This volume leans very heavily towards the superheroic, at the expense of the romantic stuff which remains Watson's bread and butter.

The book's conclusion will no doubt seem perfect for fans of Watson's earlier work, although it struck me as similarly problematic. If I may be blunt, the problem I have here is that I have simply no patience with characters who don't have the guts to say what they mean instead of dancing around what they really want. Perhaps this is my own personal bias sneaking in, but I have a big problem with people who can't come right out and say what they mean when the chips are down. In real life, people like that are called flakes - and I have about as much patience for fictional flakes as I do for the real world kind.

But despite my dislike of his typically weak characters, Watson still manages to redeem the book through his realistic and telling bits of character interplay. Although there are a number of exposition-heavy scenes that derail the book's conversational rhythms, the majority of the book flits along with a keen ear towards the kind of believable and beguiling syntactical flow which remain perhaps Watson's greatest strength.

So while there are enough problems to keep me from whole-heartedly recommending it - and there are certainly a number of idiosyncracies native to Watson's work which prevent me from becoming as fully immersed in the book as I would like - there were still enough good things about it to keep me interested. Although his batting average with me is still far more miss than hit, there's just enough here that works to keep me interested in whatever he does next.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

The Hurting's Weekly Out-Of-Context Mark Trail Panel

For the Week of 02/02/05
That's not all your wife gave Kelly.

For the Week of 01/26/05
For the Week of 01/19/05
For the Week of 01/12/05

Remember, kids, Liam Gallagher of Oasis sez:

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Another Look At Marvels

Wow, I told him not to have the beans...

Eleven years after its publication hit the mainstream comics industry like a thunderclap, Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross' Marvels continues to be one of the previous decade's most well-remembered and widely read works. However, there is a growing sense among some that critical consensus has passed the book. The problem, rather, seems to me that Ross' extravagant post-Marvels career has succeeded in casting a pall over his early collaboration with Busiek.

It's easy to look at Ross' aesthetic preoccupations, as they have been exposed and elaborated ad infinitum over the last decade, and see them writ large across Marvels. Indeed, it would be hard to argue that Ross' tendencies toward nostalgic stasis were not a factor in the work's success and later short-lived critical acclaim. Kingdom Come, however, presented us with the specter of nostalgia gone mad, palpably yearning with every page to return to some sort of pre-modern "Silver Age", when moral considerations were simpler and circumstances more innocent. Of course, it goes without saying that such an age only ever exists in the mind of the beholder, and after the fact as well: it is impossible to feel nostalgic for the present. The critical factor to remember when considering the merits of Marvels as opposed to Kingdom Come - and indeed, in context with all of Ross' work - is that the regressive tendencies which define Ross' later work are continually subverted and complicated by Busiek's narrative. There's a subtle dialogue throughout the work that places it above and beyond Ross' other output.

(Its worth pointing out that the unexpected and unprecedented success of Marvels quickly placed Ross in a league of his own in terms of the fiscal and conceptual heft he subsequently carried to whatever projects he chose. While I don't doubt that Mark Waid was an equal partner in the execution of Kingdom Come, the book's aesthetic - such as it is - can be laid almost solely at Ross' feet.)

Psychological realism is a chimerical goal in the context of superhero comics. Genre conventions actively and aggressively undermine the type of naturalistic analysis that you might expect from, say, Jane Austin or Philip Roth. While there is no doubt that this peculiar limitation can and has been exploited as a strength on occasion, enabling certain stories to be told within the constraints of the superhero genre that would be impossible or improbable within another context, this limitation also served as a singular challenge for Busiek in the conception of Marvels. The question behind Marvels was whether or not, shorn of any considerations of complex mythology or hackneyed narratological conventions, the superhero genre could be a vehicle for real and penetrating human drama.

The answer, at least in the context of Marvels, is a rousing affirmative. Whether or not Busiek's later attempts to explore the problem, in particular his own Astro City, have been successful is another matter entirely. Although I have found Astro City to be an enjoyable book, it has never struck me as more than a moderately successful concept. It has often seemed as if, in place of the traditional storytelling dynamics which animate superhero narratives, Busiek has filled his own book with the kind of quotidian slice-of-life "subtle epiphany" stories that clog the arteries of modern short prose fiction. While I can certainly appreciate that type of story when done well, it seems rather foolish to have exchanged one set of straightjacketed genre conventions for another, especially if you still insist on having superheroes and masked mystery men wandering around in the background. (In Busiek's defense, this is not the only type of story that he has used the Astro City series to tell - and some of the other, later stories have been far more satisfying, to my eyes, than the early, more "grounded" experiments.) The "trick" of Marvels - which Busiek imported almost entirely intact for his later series - was such that it really could only work once. This particular tack made Marvels an unerringly convincing piece of work, but it was unique - and the means of successfully transplanting it into another format while maintaining its original vibrancy has so far eluded many creators, Busiek included.

Yeah, I can fly. Chicks dig the flying.

So, how exactly does one go about selectively applying conventional psychological reality to one of the most pointedly odd and deliberately artificial constructs in the history of fiction - i.e. the Marvel Universe? The answer: very carefully. There's an old joke about Marvels that ably illustrates the slightly futile notions which underlie the book, which goes somewhat along the lines that any approximation of what an "average Joe" would experience in the Marvel Universe would start and end with:
"AAAAAAAGH, Oh my God that green man can rip a tank apart with his bare hands, I'm going to shit my pants in abject terror now ..."

... which is roughly where Marvels begins, actually. The public debuts of the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner are met with disbelief, terror and panic, in equal proportion, which is pretty close to what you can imagine would happen in "real" life.

One of the many brilliant observations in the course of Marvels is the fact that the societal upheaval that would otherwise be implied by the mere existence of extra-human powers was subsumed by the general world upheaval of World War II. By the time the super-heroes returned in the early 60s, it is a much shorter leap to imagine that these strange and fantastic super-beings could only be considered of a piece with the generally strange state of world affairs in the 60s: this is, after all, the same hyperbolic era that gave us the Space Race, the Missile Gap, the Atomic Age and Beatlemania. If superheroes were already a historical fact, their re-emergence during the Cold War could only be considered a relatively natural outgrowth of the already odd and superheated circumstances of world geopolitics.

Busiek took a rather inspired leap here by intuiting that the real-world problems and conditions which had served as metaphorical inspirations (or, as is more likely the case, retroactive associations applied until they assumed the weight of truth) for Marvel's Silver Age heroes could in fact serve as a more subtle counterpoint to those heroes in a "real world" setting. Therefore, the X-Men and the struggle for mutant equality, long a metaphor for our real-world civil rights movement, is placed in its' narrative context alongside the civil rights movement - and we are allowed to see an anti-mutant riot, in the wake of the first Sentinel attack, that quickly escalates into a race riot as well. The Fantastic Four are Camelot-era celebrities on par with the Kennedy's and the Beatles, and the coming of Galactus is presented as the Biblical apocalypse and nuclear Armageddon rolled into one shining silver package. Also, although this is a more subtle argument, its hard not to see the constant, ingrained ingratitude of the Marvel Universe's populace as a reaction to the resoundingly unpleasant experience of returning Vietnam veterans during the sixties and seventies - veterans who, even if you disagreed with the war, had fought for their country and who mostly failed to receive even a modicum of respect or appreciation for their efforts.

The problem, however, with dissecting these characters' metaphorical origins in such a literal manner is that it rather violently jars the characters out of the dynamic stasis they have enjoyed for the past thirty-odd years. Its fitting that Marvels pulls to a definitive conclusion by the end of the so-called "Silver Age" - the death of Gwen Stacy. It would have been increasingly difficult to keep up the facade of "real world" believability in the face of decades of stasis - not even counting the problems of aging characters, what do you do with the X-Men in a world where the civil rights movement is illustrated in a compellingly realistic fashion? How would you explain the fact that, as opposed to civil rights for African-Americans, mutant rights are still perpetually stuck in the early 60s? Most modern X-comics (that aren't written by Grant Morrison) know enough not to look too closely at this problem. Similarly, Busiek knows enough not to force his conceit to carry more weight than could be logistically feasible. The heft of psychological and historical verity is simply more than you can expect these type of stories to bear for very long without breaking.

The Silver Age in Marvels is not, as many have argued, some sort of Edenic paradise stricken by a "loss of innocence" following Gwen Stacy's death. Perhaps that might be Alex Ross' interpretation, but its hardly supported by the text. Busiek is after a far more subtle argument, and it is to his credit that he is able to use Ross' ability to encapsulate these iconic moments so masterfully against itself.

As readers of superhero stories, we take it for granted that the world outside the windows of the Baxter Building or the offices of the Daily Planet is quite similar to our own, save for a few subtle but important distinctions. These distinctions are usually unimportant, as they compose the bedrock of the suspension of disbelief which enables most superhero stories to be told without collapsing into heaps of superheated nonsense. Its not as if these distinctions don't exist in the world of Marvels - they do, because the book is placed very firmly in the context of the conventional Marvel Universe. But the story's protagonist, news photographer Phil Sheldon, isn't allowed to ignore them. It may be a bit heavy-handed to point out that he loses one eye in order to gain this wisdom (its hardly a book wrought with mythological symbolism), but the fact is that he becomes the one person in the Marvel Universe who is allowed to perceive his reality in anywhere near the way that you or I would on a consistent basis - and far from granting him any sort of sublime perspective into the magical nature of these wonderful superheroes, it almost gives him a nervous breakdown.

When Busiek was interviewed in the pages of The Comics Journal, he asked Ross to paint the cover for his interview. It's a striking piece, featuring an outstretched palm holding a pile of superhero logos in the form of pocket change. Busiek's message was that while comic-book superheroes - increasingly relevant only to a small coterie of fans - are becoming more and more consciously iconic in presentation, they are losing a great deal of the cultural elasticity that enabled them to become such powerful metaphors in the first place. In other words, if the image of Superman ceases to mean anything besides mere nostalgia - if the main fashion that the comics industry presents these characters to the outside world is Alex Ross' super-dignified and stolid icons - then we shouldn't be surprised that the superhero genre primarily appeals to older folks who look to the Super Friends as surrogate parents.

(Of course, it would be extremely disingenuous of me if I didn't also note that the massive success of the Spider-Man movies has gone hand-in-hand with the kind of "super-dignified and stolid" presentation that we decry Alex Ross for presenting. The Spider-Man we see in the movies is as humorless and uninteresting to me as a life-size Alex Ross painting might be - totally shorn of any of the off-kilter weirdness and humor that made Lee & Ditko's creation so appealing in the first place. But then again, their success has less to do with any colloquy on aesthetic morality than the fact that kids like to see Spider-Man beating up bad guys, be he a humorless drip or not.)

I bet he goes through so much damn turtle wax...

Its not hard, in retrospect, to read Marvels as a refutation of Ross' entire career. There's very little in the way of pleasant, rosy-tinted nostalgia in the face of race-riots or mob hysteria. Over the course of his thirty-year career, Sheldon eventually perceives - rightly so - that the only ways in which a society could rationally react to the presence of these "Marvels" would be either to worship them as gods in blind and unreserved gratitude or to loathe them as the unnatural and destructive abominations they become in Ross' paintings. Both reactions would be honest and explainable - the real disassociation comes when Sheldon begins to realize that people take these "Marvels" for granted, just like politics and the weather. Sheldon doesn't realize it, of course, but when he begins to perceive this societal disconnect, he has come face-to-face with the very same suspension of disbelief that enables his reality to exist at all.

Most people didn't think about the omnipresent specter of nuclear annihilation every day, any more than most people can think about the constant risk of terrorist attacks we live under today. Of course, these things are always flitting around the corners of our minds, but in all seriousness, any real, profound and constant awareness of the enormity of these threats would cause most people crippling existential agony - every man woman and child would be walking around with a "hundred yard stare", waiting to find the bullet that has their name on it. It is simply human nature to make the best of any situation - and if that means putting the constant threat of annihilation by Galactus out of your mind, so be it, most people would either choose not think about it at all or just go nuts. Events such as September 11th have the power to break down our own societal "suspension of disbelief" in unpleasant ways.

Genres are defined by their restrictions. It is through subverting and violating these restrictions that the meaning and implication of narrative can be explored. A narrative such as Grant Morrison's Animal Man or Watchmen presents the reader with obvious novelty, but Marvels presents a surprisingly radical reinterpretation of superhero narrative within the context of an unthreatening paean to the lost values of a "Silver Age". There is no Silver Age in Marvels - or at least not one worth returning to - merely a biting and slightly cynical examination of the ways in which we perceive the unimaginable - death, mortality and the threat of the unknown - in the context of our own brief lives. The ultra-realistic Alex Ross art is merely the "candy coating" around a particularly deliberate and thorough dissection of the assumed conventions of superhero narratives. Its slightly depressing to see how unflinchingly the fanboy mentality accepted Ross' interpretation of these characters as some kind of "Gold Standard", without any appreciation of the subtle ironies implicit in his approach to superhero illustration, the same ironies that Busiek was able to so handily exploit in the service of his story - but then, its highly probably that Ross himself doesn't see the irony of his own career.

Or, to put it bluntly, I believe Marvels to be one of maybe a half-dozen works which have best used the context and trappings of superhero stories to truly profound effect. Its one of the rare "important" superhero books that actually does get better with age, gaining in significance in spite of an almost universal misunderstanding of its thematic structure.

He needs some Visine in a bad way.