Thursday, February 28, 2008
Wednesday, February 27, 2008
One of the most important factors in the unique - and to a large part singular - success of Howard the Duck was the book's dogged determination to break down every possible convention of mainstream adventure comics. Nowadays, genre conventions are flouted on a daily basis - in the wake of Watchmen, flouting genre conventions has become a kind of convention in and of itself. People have been bending and breaking the boundaries of superhero stories for so long that there really isn't a lot you can do to shock people anymore. I think, after Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol and Animal Man, and Marshal Law and Marvels, there is very little left to be done in the way of actual transgressive boundary-smashing. When the "shocking" homosexual love affair between a talking French monkey and a disembodied brain in a jar has filtered down to become accepted canon in mainstream superhero comics, and the black satire of Marshal Law (and Judge Dredd) has been eclipsed by the unintentional self-parody of Youngblood, that the superhero genre has become essentially invincible. The organism has evolved in such a way as to be capable of defending itself against any possible criticism, from without or within.
But it didn't used to be that way. Howard was distinctive because it didn't just satirize genre conventions: the self-aware superhero parody has been around almost as long as the superhero, himself, going back all the way to the original Sheldon Mayer Red Tornado and "Superduperman & Captain Marbles". Steve Gerber understood that critiquing superhero comics on their own terms was still essentially a capitulation to the genre's demands. The trick was to neither accept nor deny the premise, but to walk in a third direction altogether. Ergo, Howard didn't fight super-villains, he chose simply to walk away from unnecessary altercations. The most interesting concepts in Howard's run were never the villains - who remembers the Space Turnip? Even Doctor Bong was, let's be honest, one bad joke stretched a good ways farther than it should have been. (And, it must be noted, Howard's most effective foil was really just a delusional old lady in a fur coat.) But fiction needs conflict, so from where did Howard's conflicts arise? Often, the fact that he had no interest in doing what he was supposed to be doing. If given a choice between two equally absurd options, Howard always chose to opt-out of artificial dichotomies.
A long time ago I read and interview with Gerber where he admitted that one of the primary influences for Howard's adventures was the character of Mersault in Camus' L'Etranger. Initially - and for a long time afterward - I thought this was just so much pretentious twaddle. But after I had a few years to sit on the idea, and had gone back and re-read the original Howard run, it made some degree of sense. Mersault was a man adrift, unwilling or unable to understand the nature of social obligation, simply incapable of choosing between equally bad options when faced with inescapable absurdity. He couldn't even feel grief for his own dead mother, let alone for the man he killed on the Algerian beach. His lack of passion ultimately damned him.
Howard isn't dispassionate - if anything, he's too passionate, bound up by his frustrated self-destructive libido and strangled by his own perfectly conceived sense of futility. Howard is the prototypical paranoid, anxious Jew, a web-footed counterpart to Nathan Zuckerman and Woody Allen, filled with dynamic energy that can only be fully expressed in constant self-criticism. Howard can't simply lie down and die, like Mersault - he is constantly propelled forward by circumstances beyond his control, hurtling headfirst towards impending doom, perpetually helpless.
So what do you do with a character in a superhero comic book who isn't a superhero, has no interest in fighting super-villains, and wants nothing more than to be left alone while the rest of the world chokes on its own bile? Simple: let the duck run for President. There are few jobs more inherently futile than that of being a politician. It's telling that even when given the biggest microphone in the free world with which to speak, and given the opportunity to speak the proverbial "truth to power", no one really believes him.
Tuesday, February 26, 2008
Tuesday, February 19, 2008
And we're back.
A lot of times when people die in the industry I don't feel the need to say anything about it, not out of any desire to be callous but more out of a wary respect - if I don't have anything particularly perceptive or personal to say, or so my thinking goes, best not to say something fatuous and risk seeming insincere or, worse, opportunistic. But I didn't feel the need to be so chary with Steve Gerber: not merely was he a significantly important presence in the comics industry, but he actually wrote a great many comics I personally loved. We had known his health was fragile for a long time, but I guess it was hard to believe that he was really in jeopardy. He was enjoying something of a second wind in his comics work, so why not in life as well? Charles Schulz didn't die until he was damn well good and ready.
But alas, the hints of future greatness will have to remain just that - hints. Although we haven't seen enough to really judge, the first few issues of his Dr. Fate revamp really seemed to have a lot of potential. It was very much a "Gerber" book, in that you couldn't imagine it having been written by anyone else: all the conflicts in the book were somehow symbolic of the protagonists own psychological struggles; said psychological elements of the book were foregrounded (the protagonist was even a psychiatrist); and you even got the feeling that this was, again, more than merely a paycheck but in fact a deeply personal project for Gerber. His Dr. Fate was emerging out of a morass of bad decisions and worse luck, trying to rejoin the human race while also, almost incidentally, dealing with the burdens of mysterious mystical powers which had dropped in his lap - kind of like a veteran comic book writer working his way back into a medium-profile mainstream assignment after many years of relative inaction.
The supernatural elements were really only a catalyst for something that was setting up to be much more interesting, providing the character hadn't been hijacked by DC's Never-Ending Crossover (I guess we'll never know how that would have turned out). In terms of tone it owed a lot to J.M. DeMatteis' previous run on Dr. Fate, an eclectic take on the character that sprouted up in the same fecund period as Neil Gaiman's Sandman but - for me at least - never seemed to fully cohere despite its good intentions. It was interesting to see Gerber working in the post-Vertigo character-driven mode popularized by Alan Moore in the 80s, especially considering that it was Gerber's own 1970s work on Howard the Duck and Man Thing that directly paved the way for Moore's genre-defining work on Swamp Thing. But even though it was aware of its past, Gerber's Dr. Fate was still very much its own book, heading in its own very peculiar direction. Based just on the first handful of issues I read, I would call it a moderate success. From what I saw Gerber was still working on the series when he passed, so any ending we get will probably be truncated in some manner.
I'll talk more about the specific excerpts from Howard the Duck I posted last week, and why I picked them, hopefully tomorrow.
Monday, February 11, 2008
I saw a great movie over the weekend, one which I want to take this opportunity to recommend to every one of you: Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party. Tobolowsky is a name you might conceivably recognize, even if you don't remember why. He's been floating aroudn the periphery of Hollywood for over two decades, appearing as a character actor in a wide array of films and television shows. You undoubtedly would recognize his face, even if you never heard his name. He was in Groundhog Day and Mississippi Burning and Memento, as well as Heroes and Deadwood (although I have never seen the latter two). This is what he looks like:
See? Told you you'd recognize him.
Anyway, as you might have guessed, Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party is about exactly that. The film follows him around during the day as he makes preparations for the party, and later during the party itself. The reason why Mr. Tobolosky deserves to have a film devoted to his birthday party becomes abundantly clear very quickly: the man is a storyteller par excellence. This is not necessarily something you may have guessed from any of his numerous film roles, considering they're usually very small, but the man has an almost hypnotic ability to capture and hold an audience with the force of his personality. You don't really even notice the fact that the film consists solely of Tobolowsky talking - when the film is over you want him to keep talking. It's hard not to understand exactly why, among those who know him, the man has such a sterling reputation as a raconteur. That's not a word used very often these days but I think it certainly fits.
Are some of the stories too good to be true. Probably. But the rules of real-life partygoing apply here just as well: if the storyteller is worth his salt you don't really mind the occasional whopper. And the dogged earnestness with which Tobolowsky unfolds his yarns makes you want to believe them, in any event. It's not outside the realm of possibility that he actually has lived through all these amazing things - certainly not. The point being, the stories are so fun it doesn't really matter. (For my part, I don't think he's lying at any point in the movie, but there's probably a bit of exaggeration somewhere along the line. It has been routinely pointed out that my bullshit detector is poor-to-nonfunctional, anyway.)
This is a great movie, simple in conception but engrossing in execution. It's the kind of tiny, almost imperceptibly small movie that you can imagine easily overlooking if you didn't know to look for it. I read about it in a magazine over a year ago and was delighted when it finally became available on Netflix. It's perhaps the least flashy movie ever made, but all the same you don't want it to ever end. Thankfully, when it does end, there's a whole other movie's worth of fun stories appended in the extras. The ones that got cut seem a bit bawdier than the ones which didn't, but other than that there is no appreciable difference in quality whatsoever. All told there's three hours worth of stories on the DVD, and they're all worth savoring. This is a unique film, not really like anything I've ever seen before, but definitely worth the effort to track down.
Thursday, February 07, 2008
Having read superhero comics for as long as I have - a long time, kids - I realize I have different expectations from the genre than I used to. Specifically, for all the crappy comics I've read and still occasionally peruse, my senses have become extremely attuned to subtle pleasures. I think anyone who reads mainstream comics for long enough develops this kind of attitude, whether or not they ultimately choose to stop reading the books or stick around out of habit. Sometimes (actually quite often) I ask myself why I bother still keeping tabs on what's going on in these horrid, horrid things - and the fact is I do get something out of reading them, as haphazard as my reading / perusing habits may actually be. It's relaxing, I guess, in the same way that watching football or reality TV would be for someone else: something so familiar, so well-worn as to be almost an instinctive pleasure at this time. Not a very acute pleasure, certainly (except in rare cases), but a nice break after a long day of reading, say, Piers Plowman (to pick a totally random example). I can't, and won't try to defend the practice on anything above a creature-comforts level, but there you go.
I read a couple books recently that I particularly liked, not necessarily because they were good books (one was pretty good, the other not really), but because they both had an ear for the kind of plausibly familiar small-scale world-building moments that, for the most part, are and have always been rare in superhero comics. And yet, those are traditionally the moments people remember best: the Beast had a dog named Sassafras in the pages of New Defenders, Clark Kent's favorite book is To Kill A Mockingbird. James Robinson's Starman was filled to the brim with this kind of thing, and they helped make that book what it was.
Nightwing #141, by Peter Tomasi and Rags Morales, begins with a brief conversation between Superman and Nightwing in the courtyard of the Cloisters museum in New York. It's not a long scene, but right before Superman is about to fly away, the night watchman stumbles upon the two heroes:
Just that one line of Superman's put a smile on my face - "You mean, having the three of us patrolling it" - so corny, and yet at the same time exactly what you know Superman would say in that situation. It just sounds "right": a tiny gesture, but a satisfying touch nonetheless.
A totally different moment, but nice nonetheless, in Moon Knight #15, by Mike Benson and Mark Texeira. Now, Moon Knight is by no means a good book - it's trashy and lurid, in much the same way as Doug Moench's early Moon Knight stories were, but without the manic charm that gave the earlier series its vigor. But there is one really good thing about the book, and I'm surprised - given the attention paid to such matters - that it hasn't been mentioned more: specifically, the relationship between Moon Knight's retired aide-de-camp Frenchie and his boyfriend Rob Silverman. Now, Frenchie is one of those characters that was always coded as "gay" in the context of the series for those who cared to look - I seem to recall passing mention of heterosexual relationships, but nothing serious (was Frenchie straight when Chuck Dixon wrote the book?). But instead of continuing to beat around the bush(master), the latest Moon Knight series "came out" and left no room for ambiguity: not only is Frenchie gay, he's in a serious, committed relationship, and everyone is OK with that. In fact, I daresay the relationship between Frenchie and Rob as we see it now is probably one of the best relationships in comics today, in terms of the two characters actually acting in a fashion that vaguely resembles real people:
Again, it's hardly rocket science: just a nice, quiet moment between two characters, the kind of moment that might easily be overlooked in the slightly sensationalistic context of the rest of the book. (Later on in the same issue, Moon Knight finds Bushmaster's face in a box and tries it on - yes, his dismembered face. So classy!) But considering the (deserved) flack that mainstream comics get for their almost total failure to represent the gay lifestyle as being composed of anything besides A) victims of hate crimes and B) lipstick lesbians, it's nice to see a well-rounded, empathetic and non-exploitive portrayal of a male homosexual couple in the pages of a medium-profile book like Moon Knight. Both characters are interesting and dynamic, integral to the plot but in such a way that their function to said plot has no relation to the incidental fact of their sexuality, which is dealt with in the same matter-of-fact way that, say, Peter Parker is obviously heterosexual. Maybe it's slipped under the radar because it's not a series particularly favored by the bloggeratti, but notable and pleasing nonetheless.
Monday, February 04, 2008
Hunh. I went online to check today, thinking it had only been a couple of days since I last posted, and it turns out it's been a week. Weird how that happens. Life has a way of sneaking up on you when you least expect it.
So I'll say a little something about probably the last subject any of you expected to ever see me writing about: football. Normally, I hate football. Of all the professional sports, it has always seemed the most gratuitous to me, the martial metaphor of trench warfare up and down the field, divided by moving Maginot lines, with highly-specialized teams of tactically-precise monsters ramming into each other over and over again in a brutal spectacle of attrition . . . the line between sport and sublimated, commercialized carnage is never so thin. It grates on me, especially considering that not only is the the game pretty harsh, but it's usually not even very interesting - the endless stop-and-start procession of downs and plays is just boring, especially considering just how much time is spent standing around the field doing not a lot of anything.
But I checked in with the game tonight, not out of any real interest in the game itself as such but rather a strong antipathy towards New England sports teams. You see, since I've lived in New England I've come to hate New England sports fans, with their asinine sense of entitlement. It's not like that's a new phenomenon in sports, but ever since the Red Sox won their first World Series they've ever so gradually shifted from loveable underdogs to, well, the new Yankees. They expect to win. And this attitude is almost as bad with Patriots fans. There is nothing in sports so loathsome as a franchise that is expected to win by dint of its presumed greatness. (This doesn't apply so much in the case of individual athletes, like Tiger Woods, for whom groundbreaking individual achievement is still a pretty awesome thing to behold. It's hard to resent an individual their hard work and talent, but easy to resent the hubris of a monolithic, ubiquitous corporate brand.)
But I'll be damned if this wasn't a great game. I mean, I can't remember the last time I enjoyed watching a football game, or hell, that I even watched a football game, period. Probably about a decade. But the last quarter or so of this game (about when I turned it on) was pretty riveting. Knowing how heavily favored New England was to win, it was really heartening to see the underdog win. All throughout the game my apartment building had been noisy and boisterous, and I could hear yelling and banging through the walls whenever New England made a good play. I had been anticipating a horrific clamor when the Patriots won but instead . . . silence. Total, deafening silence throughout the four floors of my building, and indeed, throughout the entire neighborhood. A very satisfying silence.
I wish I had some money down on the Giants. I imagine there are going to be a lot of unhappy bookmakers when the sun rises.