So, there's a comic book convention in New York now. I guess I didn't read the advertisements very closely, because based on the involvement of Publisher's Weekly I thought it was going to be one of those pros-and-publishers only business conventions, like the yearly Toyfair. Obviously it didn't hurt attendance either way. Or maybe I should read the advertisements better? Not that I was even slightly interested in going, in any event.
It is something of a frequent sensation with me, whenever I get around to seeing so-called "classic" movies in the horror genre which I somehow never saw before, to be massively disappointed. I am reminded of Carnival of Souls, which I saw a few months ago on one of those giant multiple public-domain film packages you find at Best Buy - it's a comically bad film, so inept and unscary that when I read, after the fact, of its supposed status as a "classic", I had to wonder if the writer in question was pulling my leg.
I had a similar moment this past weekend when I finally got around to watching The Wicker Man. Oh, I hear you bristling - how can you fault The Wicker Man, "still one of the best genre films ever made" (to quote the wags at Amazon.com)? Well, simple: it wasn't scary at all. Sure, it was creepy in a couple places (but not even very creepy at that), and unlike Carnival of Souls, it was well-paced such that I didn't feel myself falling asleep at the ostensibly "scary" parts, but it was in no way scary, or even thrilling. In fact, I daresay my pulse didn't register above its usual "tepid" throughout the whole film.
For one thing, it's extremely difficult to film a horror / suspense movie in broad daylight, and the vast majority of The Wicker Man takes place in the sunny daytime. For another, I'm rather sick of movies wherein law enforcement is assumed to be incompetent as a matter of course. So while, yes, the movie wasn't bad in terms of any Ed Wood-esque silliness, it simply falls apart on closer examination. Why isn't there a telephone on the entire island? I have a hard time believing there was any corner of the British isles untouched by telephonic communication by the early 70s. There should have at least been a scene where the cop discovered the lines had been cut or were down - simply as a matter of the filmmakers touching all the bases. And it's all well and good if you manage to trick one rather buffoonish copper, but what happens when his fellows come looking for him? Sure, you can sink the plane out in the ocean so there's no trace of him having been there, but there's still the matter of the initial missing persons case that will still be investigated. What will the police do when they find out the case was filed fraudulently? Are we supposed to believe that the investigative officers who pick up the scent after the end of the movie are going to be Bennie Hill-ish buffoons? Or that the widowed fiancee will never inquire? I have a hard time believing that the folks on that island weren't eventually caught and put on trial; and sure, getting burned to death in a giant wicker bonfire is a bad way to go, but from the perspective of a moviegoer it takes the sting out of it to know that the crooks who did it are going to inevitably meet their just rewards after the credits roll. Stupid crooks just aren't very scary movie villains, and the townspeople in The Wicker Man - Pagan sex-rites and all - definitely qualify as stupid crooks.
I have to say thaat throughout the movie my mind kept flashing forward to the much more interesting movie they oculd have made if a more interesting investigator had found his way to the island . . . like, say, John Shaft. That would be a movie worth watching.
But alas, it was not meant to be. At least I didn't find myself laughing uproariously throughout, as I did during Crash. I have to wonder what the academy was smoking when that piece of garbage got nominated for an Oscar - not that I expect the Oscars to be any objective arbiter of good, but Crash is simply horrible. It's part of a genre of films I like to refer to as "movies made with the express purpose of making white people feel good about themselves". Oh my, you can here them saying, let's make a movie about racism, it will be so brave for us rich Hollywood types to tackle "man's inhumanity towards man", or something like that. And we'll have all these great character actors pissing their talent away by playing stereotypical characters who do stupid things for two hours without gaining a shred of insight or interest above the level of a bad Aaron Spelling TV movie. And - oh my! The racist, sex pervert cop will redeem himself by saving a black person's life! And the good, non-racist cop will shoot a defenseless black man! And the white people get to feel so good about themselves because they can see that black people are racist too, and Persians are hot-blooded and violent, and Asians participate in the slave trade, and the white people get to feel good again because Sandra Bullock hugs her minimum-wage Hispanic maid and cries when she realizes that she is a vapid cunt with no real friends! And we'll just sort of steal the multiple-storylines-set-in-a-single-day-in-Los Angeles gimmick from many other, better films such as Lawrence Kasdan's Grand Canyon, Robert Altman's Short Cuts, and Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia, and hope nobody over the age of sixteen sees this one, because then they might be tempted to call us on the carpet for this lazy, inflammatory, cheap and altogether dishonest piece of junior-high-caliber shit. Hey, we may even pick up an Oscar or two, because people are stupid!
So, yeah, I didn't like Crash. I am tempted to say that there should be a drinking game for the movie, where you take a drink every time someone starts yelling at another person for no appreciable reason, but then I think you'd probably get alcohol poisoning about a third of the way through. The only remotely good thing about this movie is the blink-and-you-miss it Mirina Sirtis cameo - and that's only good if you get off on the Where's Waldo-like joys of seeing Star Trek characters shoehorned into bit parts of regular movies. What can I say? It's a loooong two hours.
You know, the fact that there will probably be an Essential Spider-Ham long before we see a Showcase Present Sugar & Spike is kind of sad, in a way. I am pretty sure at this point that everyone at DC has signed a blood pact to never reprint any Sugar & Spike stories until the year 2628, when hyper-intelligent dinosaur robots rule the Earth.
But if you think about it, Spider-Ham is just a weird idea. I mean, perhaps the idea of a "funny animal" version of Spider-Man makes sense for a couple minutes, but if you really think about it, who's the market here? Ideally, Spider-Man would have to have some cache in order to be recognizable as a spoof character, but if a kid recognizes Spider-Man enough to want to read about his furry version, wouldn't he just want to buy a real Spider-Man comic? It's conventional wisdom that kids don't like to be talked down to: kids comics sell, but not if they are packaged as deliberate attempts to "dumb down" the content of the regular books - that is more than anything likely to get the kids to rebel and go for the "hard stuff". So: the audience for Spider-Ham is, ultimately, 20- and 30-something collectors who know enough about Spider-Man to write an encyclopedia, and who get a kick out of seeing funny-animal versions of their favorite web-slinger and his foes. All of which points to the fact that there is a surprising ground-swell of support for the character, and Marvel could most certainly stand to bring his adventures back into print.
The only conceivable reason I can think of for not doing so is the fact that so far Marvel has not really delved into their 80s and 90s stock for the Essential volumes. There have been a few, such as the Moon Knight volume and the X-Men and Wolverine books, but for the most part Marvel seems to have stuck with a roughly chronological focus, bringing all the sixties stuff into print, and then moving on to the seventies, and we're just now starting to see a concentration on eighties stuff like Moon Knight and X-Factor. I imagine we'll see a Power Pack volume in a bit, and probably another Punisher book. If they managed to pull the licensing strings with Toho for a Godzilla book, why not a ROM book? I know there would be a market for it (especially if they made sure to include all the Dire Wraith material from Avengers and X-Men. So, yeah, if we saw an Essential Ant-Man (we did, and it's probably my single favorite comic book of all time), Spider-Ham is only a matter of time. It would probably sell a lot better than the Essential Werewolf by Night (what were they thinking? Oh yeah, they were thinking that the Essential Tomb of Dracula flew off the shelves - but the difference is that Dracula was good whereas Werewolf by Night was teh suckzord.)
All I gots to say is that there better be another Essential Luke Cage coming down the pike before too long. I've been savoring the first one like a fine wine, but even rationing myself to only a single Cage adventure a day, pretty soon I'm going to be at the end. At which point I will be unhappy.
Finally, a bit of art I scanned while selling an old (1930) copy of Boccaccio's Decameron I came across in a yard sale, illustrated by a man named Jean de Bosschére:
This is the second part of an article written by me in the year 2002. Intially intended for publication in The Comics Journal, it has sat in my hard drive for four years. It is serialized here for your enjoyment as a historical curiosity.
Unless otherwise indicated, the actual text has not been altered.
It has been said before but it bears repeating: without Alan Moore, there would have been no Vertigo. His centrality to the Vertigo story is, on the face of it, surprising -- considering that the man never wrote a single word for the imprint.
It would be hard to imagine a more unlikely candidate for the job of sparking a massive revolution in mainstream comics than DC’s Swamp Thing circa 1983. It bears consideration that any one out of hundreds of obscure and mostly forgotten DC characters could have been lucky enough to exploit the same unique combination of creative and commercial coincidences that resulted in Swamp Thing’s success. The character’s first run in the early 70’s had been a mild cult favorite due to the initial creative team of Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson, but he was granted another series a decade later only as a result of the release of a largely forgettable Swamp Thing movie. If Moore hadn’t come along its probable that the character would have faded right back into the figurative and literal swamps of his origin.
In hindsight the Swamp Thing was a perfect fit for Moore’s first major American assignment. He had won notoriety for his work on Marvelman (later published in the US as Miracleman) and V For Vendetta, both very British and both extremely dark. The character of the Swamp Thing, almost alone among mainstream superheroes then and now, had his roots planted firmly in the horror genre. His second series, after an uneventful and unremembered initial 20 issues, was a low-profile title with miniscule expectations. It was the perfect vehicle for an untried and unproven British maverick like Moore.
As with many things, its difficult to gauge just how effective Moore’s stories were at the time because his run has, in the ensuing two decades, become legendary in mainstream circles. However, the success of Moore’s Swamp Thing work -- especially the early stories -- can be appreciated primarily through Moore’s deft grasp of the horror genre. Horror hinges on the creation of suspense, and suspense is a primarily product of deft pacing and palpable mood. The sad fact is that the rudiments of craft necessary to suspend disbelief and instill dread in the reader are extremely rare in any genre, and the comics field is no exception. That Moore’s Swamp Thing was actually scary remains nothing short of a revelation.
Read Swamp Thing #21 – Moore’s debut, entitled “The Anatomy Lesson” -- and regardless of how many times you have experienced the story it still seems spooky, unhinged and jarringly removed from conventional mainstream narrative conventions. The framework of the story is deceptively simple. The sinister General Sunderland’s murder at the hands of an enraged Swamp Thing is foreshadowed from the very first page of the book. By the time the reader reaches the murder itself -- which is presented as a fait accompli -- the real horror has become the realization on the Swamp Thing’s part as to his true nature. There is gore and violence, but in choosing to focus (in this instance) on the more insidious, intangible dread of existential dehumanization instead of banal physicality, Moore struck a path that would come to define the “sophisticated suspense” of the pre-Vertigo wave. The Swamp Thing’s existential predicament would become the dominant theme of Moore’s run on the character, and this approach to psychological horror would later become the hallmark of Neil Gaiman’s early Sandman stories.
Note from 2006:I actually think states the case fairly well. I think it's worth mentioning that few books following Moore's run on Swamp Thing have done a very good job of conjuring up that level of psychological dread. The first year-and-a-half of Gaiman's Sandman came pretty close, and certainly Moore's own From Hell, but otherwise, most horror in comics barely succeed above the level of shlock. That was as true in 2002 as it is now.
It's amazing how I can still remember the bulk of "The Anatomy Lesson" without even having to refer to my copy of the Saga of the Swamp Thing trade. The very first page of the story, featuring Jason Woodrue looking out the window into the rainy night, still conjures a feeling of ghastly foreboding, even after all these years. I think that Bissette and Totleben were put on this earth to draw creepy shit, and as such there's no mistaking Moore's Swamp Thing for pretty much any other comic ever made.
Oddly enough, I'll always associate this story with the Beatles' White Album, a tape of which was playing on repeat the first time I read the story. "Mother Nature's Son" may be grimly appropriate, and likewise I can't hear that song without thinking of ol' Swampy...
Many years ago, in the Pleistocene era when dinosaurs walked the earth and Milo George was still editor at The Comics Journal - an event that, much like the Clinton Presidency, helped to define a generation and also gave us fodder for many, many oral sex jokes - I wrote an article on the tenth anniversary of DC Comics' Vertigo imprint. Now, for various reasons this article never actually saw print, living a long life in the e-mail limbo of various editor's inboxes until, finally, I realized that the article was so long past it's shelf life as to be distinctly smelly. If you've been a writer for any amount of time in pretty much any capacity, you know that these things happen. Best just to move on with one's life - no harm, no foul.
But, the other important part of being a writer is that you never throw anything out, in the hopes that any seemingly insignificant scrap of scribbling can one day be salvaged and put to good use. So, one day recently it occurred to me that I had a perfectly good article sitting in my hard drive that might be of some small interest the readers of this blog. Sure, it's slightly out of date, and there are a few instances of anachronistic comments that seem positively silly in retrospect - but unless otherwise indicated, the actual text has not been altered. It was especially interesting to see my comments - written almost four years ago, long before current conventional wisdom had solidified - pertaining to the birth of the trade papaerback economy and The Sandman's position at ground zero of said revolution, which somehow manage to seem both perspicacious and naive at the same time, if such a thing is possible. At a certain point old articles stop being embarrassingly out of date and become objects of historical interest - does this piece qualify? U-Decide!
So, for the foreseeable future, sit back, put up your feet, and imagine you're sitting in a different era. There's a Bush in the White House; we're all still really fucking scared of hot Islamist death falling on us from a clear blue sky; giant crime-fighting cats roam northern Nova Scotia; and just forty years ago a group of four young moptops from Liverpool had emerged to help teach a country still grieving the death of Camelot to smile again. But most importantly, no one except for Neilalien had any clue what a "Blog" was, and certainly no one knew that people like myself would one day use the medium to terrorize a fearful nation with their warmed-over pseudo-journalistic leftovers. Enjoy!
DC’s Vertigo imprint celebrates its first decade of publishing this year. The line launched in January of 1993 with the publication of the first spin-off from Neil Gaiman’s successful Sandman series -- the first of two miniseries starring the Sandman’s sister, Death.
The initial announcement of the launch in July of 1992 did not pass unheralded, but in retrospect the event was assigned far less significance than it would eventually assume. Tucked quietly into the “Miscellanea” section of The Comics Journal’s 152nd issue -- alongside the announcements of a pending alliance between Eclipse Comics and HarperCollins and the firing of then Popeye artist Bobby London -- the announcement was both inevitable and underwhelming.
There were many more pressing events in the headlines of the day. The summer of 1992 was the high water mark of the “Image Revolution”. Forces across the industry, spurred on by the scent of Marvel’s blood, were gathering their armies for the battles that would become the bloodbaths of 1993. Few would remain unscathed as the industry entered a decade-long period of instability and recession, marked by brutal distribution wars, bankruptcies in the highest corridors of power, and mainstream creative lethargy of an almost apocalyptic nature.
But here we are, ten years later. There are many important questions to be asked about Vertigo’s eventful history to date, but the most pressing of them would have to be the following: How exactly was Vertigo able to use the economic and creative instability of the middle 90s to successfully position itself as the most influential imprint in all of mainstream comics? Traditionally, Vertigo books don’t sell anywhere near the top of Diamond’s sales charts. They don’t usually attract the “hot” artists and they don’t have the “hot” characters or licensed properties. Vertigo is, ultimately, just another arm of the Time / Warner / AOL conglomerate -- and the majority of their editorial aesthetic reflects this.
In art, a revolution is only as good as its marketing. There was no great tidal flux of creative combustion that demanded the creation of the imprint. There were, instead, a series of incremental creative advances made by isolated individuals within the DC hierarchy that necessitated the creation of new ways to market comic books. Its telling, given the paucity of truly important comics published in the mid-to-late 90’s, that the handful of good books that compose Vertigo’s foundations and backbone were enough to serve as sufficient catalyst to change the face of the industry.
Note from 2006: I think I overstate my case pretty critically here. As the rest of the article demonstrates, there's a subtle difference at play: Vertigo didn't actually change the industry; Vertigo was merely the first to move towards a series of changes in the existing retail model which seem, in retrospect, inevitable. The imprint has always been a much more quiet presence than their influence would imply. Certainly, he success of the line's aggressive TPB backlist and targeted marketing served as a catalyst for others to follow suit, but they only changed the environment around them to the extent that they needed in order to find a successful niche which had yet to be filled. Of course, this niche would eventually prove to be of enormous importance to the future of the industry, but by the time people realized this Vertigo had already been following a fairly steady blueprint for quite some time.
The Hurting's Weekly Out-Of-Context Mark Trail Panel
For the Week of 02/15/06
(From the way Elrod draws the ominous long shot with those figures on their knees, it's easy to imagine that the next thing Mark does will be to put a bullet in their heads and kick the bodies into the fetid swamp water, for the gators to eat.)
The Hurting's Weekly Out-Of-Context Mark Trail Panel
For the Week of 02/08/06
OK, we've been doing the Out-Of-Context Mark Trail panels for a while now - a little over a year - and I think everyone knows the drill. I take the weirdest Trail panel in any given week, spotlight it, make a pithy comment. Yadda yadda. The whole enterprise hinges on the fact thatMark Trail, despite being ostensibly about the adventures of a gruff he-man forest ranger dude, is quite possibly the most boring strip on the newspaper pages, failing even to surpass the tepid likes of Apt 3-G or -- shudder -- Judge Parker. Hell, even Judge Parker had the whole "Work It Like A Claw And Call Me Randy" thing going on - the best Trail gets is weird talking animals, and let's face it, you can only see so many sea turtles spouting incongruous dialogue before the concept wears thin.
But somehow, the recent Ozark dog-napping storyline seems to have rekindled some kind of crazy fire in Elrod's belly. Seeing serious violence break out in the pages of Mark Trail is somewhat akin to seeing your beloved grandmother smoking heroin out of an iguana's skull (I like the image so much I used it twice), but I would be lying if I said it wasn't fun. In fact, I dare say - seeing Mark and Andy bust out and wreak terrible havoc on their captors is positively . . . Airwolf!
(Holy shit. Not only does Mark actually command Andy to fight a giant alligator, Andy actually does it.)
(OK, I've owned rottweilers, and I've seen some pretty fierce dog fights - I've got a scar on my chest from the time I was stupid enough to get between a rottweiler and a great dane - so I am not one to underestimate the courage or machismo of a dog. But still - tackling an alligator like that, and also knowing well enough to stay away from its jaws - that's simply amazing. I think Andy is probably well-qualified to leave Mark Trail and join the New Avengers now. At the very least - and with apologizes to my homie Dave - Andy's incredible bravery deserves a hearty F*@% YEAH!!! )
(OK, everyone who's ever mocked Mark Trail, myself including, needs to back the fuck off and bow before the awesome might of a man who can hold an alligator at bay with a stick. It may seem foolhardy, but that's just how he rolls. And notice Andy survived his battle without so much as a scratch? That's hard-core.)
(Notice that all it takes is a little violence and Mark is back in Nam again? I hope he remembers he doesn't need to kill the swamp folk... although, actually, if Mark went into full-on flashback mode and just started chopping their ears off to make a necklace that would probably be fun as well.)
(You know that scene in Casino where Joe Pesci gets it in the back of the head and is then dumped in a shallow grave out in the cornfields? That's kind of what I'm envisioning for the next week of Mark Trail.)
First, thanks for publishing so many Essential volumes, and for publishing artist-specific hardcover tributes which - even if I can't afford to buy them all - are still something we'll probably never see from DC. So I appreciate that.
But more importantly - and the reason I am writing you today - I want to ask what the hell you're thinking re: this whole new costume for Spider-Man thing. I'm not asking this as a fan - because I don't buy any Spider-Man comic books anymore, and I haven't in a long time. I'm merely asking this as someone concerned for the mental health and well-being of everyone responsible.
There's an old saying that goes something along the lines of "insanity consists of doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different resutls each time". I've heard this attributed to Benjamin Franklin, but the provenance is possibly older. It's a recurring idea in addiction literature, particular the literature of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous: if drinking leads to negative, self-destructive and injurious consequences, why do so many alcoholics rationalize their backsliding behavior with the old "one drink won't hurt me" shtick? They've seen, time and again, that one drink leads to two drinks leads to losing your wife and children and job, but somehow, if they've got a little bit of sobriety under their belt, they think that just one beer will be enough to tide them over . . .
Now, imagine a comic book company as an alcoholic. It's easy to understand why certain negative behaviors are repeated year in and year out - because the negative repurcussions are so far removed from the original incident that it's easy for an institution to forget. People don't seem to have a memory for these types of things that goes back longer than a few months, let alone years or decades, so the same mistakes get made over and over again. No one wants to remember that certain behaviors have negative consequences because it's easy to lose track when the short-term results are so gratifying. But some negative consequences are more immediate.
If you will allow me to mix my metaphors: if the comic book company is a recovering alcoholic / drug addict, the different sales gimmicks and strategies represent differing levels of drug abuse. Something like a line-wide crossover is so ubiquitous and accepted that it's essentially the equivalent of chain-smoking cigarettes. The short term gains are small but the long term negative consequences are such that it's easy to pretend that they don't exist - until you've been smoking for thirty years and your doctor tells you that you have six months to live. You probably know, in your head that you should quit, but it's just so easy to smoke one more pack . . .
Something like buying your own distributor and trying to leverage a dwindling retailer base with strong-arm tactics . . . that's more like smoking heroin out of the skull of an iguana after downing half a bottle of 151 while careening down the LA Freeway at 90 miles an hour. If you live at all, the hazy memory of your brush with death will probably keep you on the straight-and-narrow for a good long while.
But changing Spider-Man's costume, that's like crack cocaine: a cheap, nasty high that lasts just a few minutes and results in long-term health problems. Everyone knows its a short-term thing. No one even pretends that any new Spider-Man costume is ever going to stick around. It's going to be a punchline in six months, if it isn't already. There really is no excuse: you can't even say it's about merchandising anymore, because really, there's not exactly a huge market for Scarlet Spider or Web-Armor Spider-Man action figures. No - the only gains to be had are an extremely short term blip in sales that results from morbid curiosity, and then the long, long hangover that results in having chipped away at a little more of the dignity that Stan Lee, Steve Ditko and John Romita originally gave the character.
It's a joke. Everyone seems to know it's a joke but the people actually responsible. Why is this? They don't seem to be particularly unintelligent. They are, each of them, perfectly capable of producing good work. And yet - somehow, they are pooling their resources with the stated goal of doing something that has already been done half a dozen times, doesn't work, has never worked, and only gets worse as the years go by. I wonder - I really, really do - how these decisions are made.
You may be asking yourself - what about the first time? The black costume was pretty cool. To which I will answer: yes, despite it's somewhat shifty origins in Secret Wars, the black costume was pretty cool. I wouldn't go so far as to say that it improved on the original (surely an impossible task), but it was damn striking, a minimal design meant for maximum visual impact. It was just plain cool. And then what? They turned the costume into Venom, which is the comics equivalent of using heroin with a dirty needle and contracting Hep-C. Your liver is scarred forever and your life expectancy is significantly shortened. Sucks, don't it?
So, yeah, it's just not a good idea. It's not too late, Marvel, you can still put down the pipe and retain some of your dignity. It's not as if I'm personally invested in the decision, but it makes me wonder why certain people are inexplicably drawn to jackass behavior, despite every rational impulse that should be popping into their heads. Listen to the voice of reason. Do it for the children.
Actually, because Milo asked - here's the full, unexpurgated "Green Lantern sits on his ass and looks slightly retarded while the city burns around him" panel. Actually, it's not just a panel, it's a full page of Hal Jordan jackassery:
PS to Milo - Dude, I thought I was the only person in the entire world who knew how dangerous and deadly a scourge the Ass-Cancer is! ROKK!
Heidi Macdonald posted a link to her MySpace page. Nothing too unusual there. But if you actually read the thing, look at what she's got listed under her income...
Heidi - in case you didn't catch the news, I'm single now. Ahem.