Wednesday, September 29, 2004

A Broken Frame

The best part is, the list on this cover was continued in the back of the issue, and they actually continued to print names in the letters pages for many issues after.

I actually liked Alf. Looking back, having seen a few of the original episodes on TV Land recently, there was a rather mordant streak to the series that I didn't really get the first time around. The fact that Alf was the last survivor of his home planet was an element that crept into the series every now and again, and also helped account for Alf's strangely infantile worldview. It's not like Superman, who (at least post-Crisis) never knew a Kryptonian until many years after his arrival. Gordon Shumway, like the Martian Manhunter, is the last survivor of his race, and he carries this burden through his adventures on earth. It only makes sense that he is pathologically committed to bad jokes and strange childish non-sequitors. He's got the biggest load of survivor's guilt/PTSD on the planet. He's trying to stay sane the only way he can, considering he's kept virtual prisoner in the Tanner's house.

Of course, this did not stop him from participating in some of the notable events of the day, such as the Evolutionary War:

Which means, of course, for those of you paying attention, that Alf is officially as much a part of the Marvel Universe as Godzilla, the Transformers, the Micronauts, ROM and Co. Meaning, he could very well be featured in Brian Michael Bendis' New Avengers.

I'd buy it.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Speak & Spell

Got the new remix up over at the 'Shock. Although I swore I wouldn't go back to the Identity Crisis well so soon (for fear of it becoming a gimmick), the temptation to play with Flash #214 was just too much. For everyone who's been trying to figure out just who the killer is, (and for people who don't care but like to see me put cuss-words in the mouths of heavily copyrighted characters), I think I may have it figured out. Really, the parameters of the "mystery" are set so high that only a very small group of characters could convincingly pull it off. Captain Boomerang? Only if he's being mind controled by Braniac and pumping Bane's leftover venom. Of course, if my jokey guess is correct, I'd be extremely surprised, but still, it's pretty much the only one that makes a damn bit of sense.

Also, thanks to to few people who awknowledged my birthday. I don't really blog at all about personal stuff - for good reason. One, I'm very private, and two, I knwo that most people just aren't interested.

But I was kinda interested to see that my birthday (09/26) is actually a common birthday around the blogosphere. Trash Heap had their birthday yesterday as well (it is also thanks to him that I found out we also share a birthday with Tracy Thorne of Everything But The Girl - yay!!!). He got a big pile of birthday loot, which looks really cool.

If you're wondering what I got for my birthday, I would like to begin by saying that my wife is the most wonderful woman in the universe. We don't have a lot right now, but we get by, and she makes it all worth while. Anyway, she baked me a loaf of the most wonderful pumpkin bread in the universe. This stuff is delicious - put some margarine on it and it's to die for. The best part is that she says it is simplicity itself to make - as opposed to banana bread, which is kind of a hassle - so I should be getting more in the future.

Anyway, that was my birthday. Another year older, another year closer to the never ending abyss of eternal sleep. Yay!!!

Sunday, September 26, 2004

Around the Sun

Everyone who follows this blog knows that I try, at all times, to avoid talking about overtly nerdy things. Yes, all of us who have comic book blogs have nerd skeletons in our closets. Very occasionally, I have written about some more – ah – embarrassing subjects, such as my love of Mark Gruenwald’s Quasar or the second Secret Wars. (Man, aren’t working permalinks grand?)

Although I know you all love it when I talk about boring things of which you have no interest, and would much prefer it if I simply stuck to posting old Alf covers, I have decided I have something to say on a matter of great import to all of our lives.

Yes, I would like to talk to you today about Star Wars.

Like just about everyone of a “certain age”, I have a fondness for Star Wars. Of course, when I was younger I loved ‘em. Now that I’m older, I still love ‘em, I have just learned to have perspective on this, as with all things.

It’s OK to love something like this completely and without reservations. You just need to realize that you have an aesthetic blind spot when it comes to whatever it is. I love Quasar, but it would be extremely disingenuous of me to sit here and tell you that it was anything other than a good superhero comic book - which it is. It’s not a great undiscovered work of American literature, its just a superhero comic. That doesn’t mean I don’t have a great deal of affection for it, and there’s any number of other mediocre-to-horrible books that I also love in an unreserved fashion. I mean, seriously, who else will love Marvel Two-In-One Annual #7 if I don’t?

I have the same relationship to Star Wars. I love the fact that I can sit down with a Star Wars movie and be instantaneously transported back to my youth. I love the fact that I have a deep connection to something like that. But when the lights go up or the tape rewinds, the movie is over, and life goes on.

Ultimately, the original Star Wars is a much worse movie than its influence would imply. The effect that Star Wars, along with Jaws and the whole cult of the summer blockbuster, had on mainstream filmmaking was undoubtedly deleterious. Perhaps these changes would have happened without George Lucas and Steven Spielberg to nudge them into being. Something would probably have come along, simply because of the way the money was organized in Hollywood by the 80s. That’s a conversation for another time, however.

Ultimately, I love Star Wars for what it is, and I’m a lot happier that I don’t try to build up all sorts of shoddy critical scaffolding around what is, ultimately, a popcorn flick. You won't hear me talking about how Lucas was influenced by Joseph Cambpell or any of that bullshit. He wanted to make a modern-day movie serial, and I’ll be damned if he didn’t succeed admirably. The mythical junk he picked up to decorate the explosions and swordfighting was just that – junk that had been hanging around in one form or another for thousands of years. I don’t believe he ripped off Kirby’s Fourth World either, because it’s not like Kirby was the first person to ever invert the “prodigal son” myth.

My absolute favorite Star Wars movie is The Phantom Menace.

What is this, you say? Heresy! Anathema!

Allow me to explain.

The Phantom Menace is just the most gleefully enjoyable of all the Star Wars films. It’s basically fun, fun, fun from start to finish. It’s delightfully unpretentious. It is basically everything fun about going to the movies wrapped up in.

People always complain about how it’s a “kid’s movie”, because of Jar Jar and the Gun-Guns and the pod race. Well, you know, I’m sorry they made a giant sci-fi action-adventure extravaganza that was, you know, appropriate for the audience it was aimed at. Ultimately, all the dark and depressing horse manure that the fans want to see onscreen is more a reflection of the fact that they want the movies to resemble their homemade fan-fiction where Luke and Han have explicit hardcore sex on Chewbacca’s space-chess table in the Millenium Falcon.

“Oh, why can’t George Lucas just make the dark and gritty Star Wars movies that I want to watch, because I am in my thirties and I grew up with them and want them to reflect my older worldview? Why can’t the prequel trilogy be rated a hard R with lots of violence and cussing, just like how I imagine the characters to be when I’m playing with my action figures . . .”

Well, you know, The Phantom Menace was aimed at the exact same audience the original Star Wars was aimed at: small children. I have yet to hear a small child say they were disappointed with The Phantom Menace, anymore than you were likely to find a kid who was let-down by the original Star Wars back in ’77.

My least favorite Star Wars movie was always Empire Strikes Back. Why? It was the most boring of the original trilogy. Instead of the cute Ewoks or the mischievous Jawas, we got the repulsive Ugnauts. Instead of explosions and cool swordfights, we basically get a bunch of heavy exposition. Tell me that the last reel of Empire can even hold a candle to the last reel Jedi, and I will call you a fool.

The Phantom Menace makes me giggle with childish glee every time I watch it. The pod race, Darth Maul, Jar Jar’s antics – I never tire of any of it. And, of course, we cannot forget the greatest Star Wars character of them all . . .


So I’ll probably get the original trilogy on DVD now that it’s out, one of these days when I have some money. I’ll probably enjoy the hell out of it. Will I care that Lucas has gone in and retouched some of the scenes and added a few things? Hell, no. It’s a children’s movie, hardly Citizen Kane. As long as my inner eight-year-old squeals in delight, I’ll be happy.

Friday, September 24, 2004

Sunday Is My Birthday

Hint, hint.

Swamp Thing, Vol. 4, #1-6

Although I am nowhere near as obsessive as some people, I am quite fond of Swamp Thing. I have fond memories of the first film (but of course it goes without saying that the second is horrible). It also goes without saying that Alan Moore’s run is probably the best Vertigo book ever (even if Vertigo didn’t publish it until years later). The Wein and Wrightson run still holds up surprisingly well. And, although this is a slightly more controversial notion, I believe that Mark Millar’s run on the book is perhaps the best thing he’s ever done.

That said, I’ve kept my distance from subsequent interpretations of the character. Why? Well, come on. Mark Millar wrote as good a conclusion to the character’s adventures as you could imagine. When they brought the book back with Tefè as a hip riot grrrl, I saw that this was definitely a relaunch I could pass on. Sure enough, it didn’t last long.

Because of the fact that I just don’t seem to be buying very many comics lately, I decided to sit out this latest version as well, at least initially. But I had a chance to read the first six issues, so I sat down last night to see what was up with ol’ Swamp Breath.

I don’t think I’d ever read anything by Andy Diggle before, but the overwhelming feeling these issues imparted was one of extreme utility. This was a disappointment. The best Swamp Thing stories have always had some sort of stylstic flair, be it Wein & Wrightson’s pulpy atmosphere, Moore’s unvarnished virtuosity, or even Millar’s high lyricism. Diggle seems very much to be plodding along, putting one panel after another in a very unengaged manner. I am not going to say that the issues feel padded, or are poorly done, but there’s not a single moment throughout the entire six issues where I really felt blown away. It was all very competently executed, but if the best you can do is a competent Swamp Thing, you have no business doing Swamp Thing.

In retrospect, the whole point of this story seems to have been to undo all the weird stuff that had been done by Millar and whomever wrote the Tefè series. At the end of the first arc, they’ve put Swamp Thing back where he was roughly halfway through Moore’s run: after he realizes he’s a "plant who thinks he’s a man", but before he assumes the mantel of the earth elemental (with all the baggage that implies). Although I am sure they felt this was something they had to do in order to make Swamp Thing an interesting character again, it comes off as uselessly reductive and, frankly, just plain uninteresting. The godlike Swamp Thing that Millar left us with at the end of his run was an interesting idea with lots of untapped potential, while the idea of a man-monster shambling around the Bayou again is not only uninteresting, its been done, and its been done to death. Worse yet, I’m sure they think they are opening up all sorts of story possibilities by doing this (in terms of the status of future elementals), but quite frankly this sounds like nothing more than scattering the pieces simply so you can make a big show out of putting them upright again. Very, very predictable, and very unnecessary. How about a new idea?

It just seems a terrible waste. The whole story reads like rote Vertigo, and that is hardly fitting for one of the most revolutionary characters in the history of mainstream comics. I’m glad I didn’t pay any money for this, and that’s about the most damning thing I can think of to say.

Bricktop A1 Special

If there is one thing in this world that I am sure of, it is that Glenn Fabry can draw the hell out of just about anything.

I have always been lukewarm on his painted work. Call me a punk, but it always seemed a bit off to me. Not that it wasn’t a perfect fir for Preacher, but there’s something disturbing about the way the skin in his paintings looks like crinkled papyrus.

But man, in the realms of pen & ink, he is simply untouchable. (I am pretty sure, by the way, that the bulk of his work is done directly on the page with a brush and maybe a technical pen [like a Rapidograph]. There’s just too much detail work for it to be otherwise. His thumbnail pencils must look like Paul Smith.) He can draw like a son of a bitch, and that’s just the fact.

The story in this compilation is, as you might imagine, pretty damn surreal. Despite what you may have heard, there are no actual radioactive bricks afoot, but there might as well be. There’s a whole lot of things happening for no reason whatsoever, and I personally love it. It’s chaos, pure and simple, things thrown on the page simply so Fabry can draw them. A pig on a motorcycle? Check. A midget sheriff? Check. Fundamentalist Christian bowling leagues? Check.

This basically your average hanging-out-getting-drunk-getting-into-trouble type story, except that the trouble happens to involve lots of explosions and beaver costumes. I read it only a couple days ago and already the details have slid away from me like so much gossamer. It doesn’t matter, because flipping through the book to reacquaint myself with the salient points only inspires me to gape at the purty pictures some more.

At only $3.50 for 32 pages, there’s more story in here than most $20.00 TPBs. This is an absolute steal, and if you are in the mood for nothing more than watching a virtuoso at work, there is no way you can possibly be disappointed by this stellar collection. If you’ve had enough of the decompressed storytelling that all the kids are talking about these days, this book should serve as a pleasant enema.

If I have one complaint, it’s the same complaint I had with Atomeka’s brilliant A1 Issue Zero compilation, as well as any number of other books lately. There’s no original publication data for the stories! It is so easy, just take a half-inch on the inside-cover to tell us when and where the stories were originally published. Makes my life easier, OK? Deal?

BTW, Here’s a scan of the San Diego Edition I found at Mile High Comics (which is where I get all my cover scans because I’m lazy). Neat, eh?

Thursday, September 23, 2004

In Time - The Best of REM 1988-2003

Tuesday, September 21, 2004


I am here today to tell you about the greatest CD in the history of the universe:

Tell me your soul does not cry out to hear “If You Like Wolverine Clap Your Hands” (real song title! Could I make this up?).

I will even make it easy for you to add this CD to your collection:

Trust me.

If you haven’t been checking out what Jon at Mae Mai is up to lately, you need to go do so. He’s got an especially interesting post about how most people misuse the term avant garde, and how there does not seem to be an actual avant garde anywhere in comics. I don’t know about America, but I do know that Bart Beatty has talked about many things in his Eurocomics columns that seem to fit both the colloquial and historical definitions. Other than that – well, how about Garfield?

We’re going to try an interesting experiment here. I may not like it. I may discontinue it at any time. But we’re going to give it a try.

That’s right, we’re going to try some comments. We’ll see what happens.

Working permalinks and now a comment section? My God, we are truly living in the twenty-first century.

Travels With Larry Part XXIII

Last of the Independents

I haven’t seen Charley Varrick, so I can’t speak to any similarities that may exist between Last of the Independents and Don Siegel’s 1973 caper film. I have, however, seen about as many action/thriller/tough guy films as I can possibly stand, so I feel somewhat confident saying that there is really nothing new afoot in the plot of Independents.

The expectations of genre and the exigencies of plot ensure that Independents plays out with the familiarity of a medieval Passion Play. The characters are identifiable types, and their actions are set into irrevocable motion the minute the gears of the plot slip into action. You know, more or less, every significant thing that’s going to happen in the course of the story because the steps have been laid with precision. There aren’t really any twists to speak of. Things proceed with a grudging finality.

If this sounds like a particularly harsh criticism, it’s not, not really. The audience for these type of stories know exactly what to expect whenever they go to see a thriller of this type, just as audiences know and gratefully expect predictable thrills from their blockbuster movie franchises and their romance novels and their television sitcoms. There is a satisfaction in this type of repetitive storytelling that cannot be discounted. There can be no greater sin than flouting genre conventions when fulfilling genre conventions is your raison d'être.

I can’t criticize Last of the Independents for being overly predictable, because its obvious that the genre homage is the exact goal they were aiming for. If you like that sort of thing, you will like this sort of thing.

Where Independents really shines is in the obvious attention that has been paid to the formalistic elements of the comic in relation to its cinematic cousins. There are certainly many reasons to gnash one’s aesthetic teeth over the preponderance of literal imagery and narrative in mainstream and new-mainstream outlets. I may, for instance, find Brian Michael Bendis’ approach to temporal geography fascinating, but the fact remains that he is essentially using the comics page to replicate as closely as possible the effects of a motion picture. His narrative style, being as close to a “house style” as anything Marvel currently publishes, will probably be the most influential approach to narrative in the mainstream for at least the next decade. The legacy of nü-Marvel is an unfortunately literal one.

Matt Fraction and Kieron Dwyer have a similar but subtly different - and, in my tentative opinion, more successful - approach to their craft. Instead of focusing on a naturalistic passage of time, they are much more concerned with a naturalistic and unerringly cinematic exploration of motion and perspective on the comics page.

This book could easily be used as storyboards for a movie. (I wouldn’t, however, have any interest in seeing a movie adaptation of this, for the simple reason that the story isn’t very unique – it’s the exploration of craft in the static comics form that makes it such a fascinating artifact.) On the most basic level, the book is flipped onto its side. Each page is roughly 10 1/2 x 6 inches, which comes out to about the proportions of a cinema screen.

About half the pages throughout the book feature a sequence of images drawn from the same perspective and featuring sequential action in successive panels. There’s a particularly masterful sequence about a quarter of the way into the book (no page numbers! Drat!) featuring the two main characters (Cole and Justine) tossing in bed, unable to sleep after they rob the bank at the beginning of the book:

They’re both awake. He looks over to her. He moves to put his hand on her shoulder. He pulls his hand away. He leans back in bad and lights a cigarette. She rolls over on her back and looks at the ceiling alongside him.

It’s a very complicated and restrained sequence. The story itself may not be very interesting, but Fraction and Dwyer’s acumen is quite engrossing.

Its interesting to note that almost every sequence plays out in obeisance to an imaginary camera. Usually, if the angles change, the panel retains a focal point. There’s a sequence about two-thirds through the book where the male protagonist (Cole) is being ambushed in an auto parts store. Pay close attention to how the panel perspective slowly wheels around to give the reader a view of everything in the scene, and the specific physical relationship between Cole and his attackers. There’s a quick cut to show Justine’s reaction from a hidden vantage.

There’s a page towards the end of the book where Cole is being pursued through the burning amusement park by a group of mob thugs. The top of the page is a long establishing shot, showing Cole being chased and returning fire. The bottom of the page is a sequence of three wordless panels: Cole jumps a turnstile. There’s a cut away from Cole as we see one of the goons shoot. Then we cut back to Cole, a close-up shot with most of his body and half his head cropped by the panel borders, as the bullet that was fired in the previous panel hits his shoulder.

There’s a great deal of interesting things to learn from Independents. Certainly, I don’t think I can recommend this book any higher to anyone interested in an intimate look at the nuts and bolts of narrative storytelling. Larry Young could publish a totally wordless edition of this book and the essential story would be perfectly intact: there aren’t that many comics you can say that for.

I question their dedication to the goal of replicating the action movie experience on paper, however. It seems like an essentially limiting excercise. Last of the Independents works well as a formal breakdown of cinematically-influenced comics narrative, but in all honesty the plot is about as interesting as a sack of rocks. If Fraction and Dwyer re-team anytime soon, I will expect them to raise their stake significantly. Their notable storytelling acumen cries for a keener application.

Oni Love Can Break Your Heart Part IX

Spaghetti Western

Scott Morse suffers from the fact that I have always mixed him up with Scott Mills. I dislike Mills’ work intensely, and anything that makes the association is automatically tarred by that brush – sorry to say, but people are arbitrary bastards, and I am no exception to this rule.

This book gets another strike against it because of the fact that – oh, come on people. It’s a sideways-printed modern-day Western with sepia-toned art. It was published almost a full year after Last of the Independents, so you can't argue that they developed the idea simultaneously. Now, people swipe ideas all the time: sometimes its movies about giant asteroids, sometimes its reality TV shows about up-and-coming boxers. But you can’t expect people not to notice.

But, all things considered, there are significant differences between Spaghetti Western and Last of the Independents. For one thing, whereas Fraction and Dwyer were feelin’ nostalgic for a certain brand of gritty modern caper flick, Morse is concerned with paying homage to Sergio Leone’s famous – ahem – spaghetti westerns, right on down to the grimacing, poncho-clad cowboy with the permanent squint and a thin, hand rolled cigar between his teeth.

But it’s a somewhat strained nostalgia. The book owes less to the actual thematic content of Leone’s films than something like The Sunshine Boys: an ultimately sympathetic and overly sentimental approach to the idea of “one last heist” by two aging desperados. The two protagonists just dress up like Clint Eastwood on account of the fact that they like Eastwood better than John Wayne – which is certainly understandable.

Morse takes a different tack on the cinematic format. Instead of divvying up the action into panels and sequences, every page is treated as a full panel, or a “movie screen”, complete with black bars running across the top and bottom. I will say that Morse makes better use of the sepia tones than Dwyer does in Independents. The book looks to have been illustrated with colored pastels or chalk – if not some computer process that approximates the effect.

Morse presents an interesting alternative to the overly formalistic narrative. By presenting every page a completed panel, he allows every panel to become more significant, and design therefore becomes a much more communicative element than in a strictly narrative book. Unfortunately, Morse’s highly stylized approach is only partially successful. For one, I read the book in less than five minutes, which is hardly a good thing when discussing a $12 purchase.

There seems to be a group of younger cartoonists who are applying the highly stylized tools of graphic design to their comics work. It’s not as if this is a new phenomenon, but the fact is that some styles tend to overwhelm the narrative. For me, Morse’s very broad and blocky style just didn’t click. It seems as if he had more fun drawing the pictures than in communicating the story, and I can’t help but feel that his distraction comes through in the finished product.

Of course, there are a few more books by Morse in my box, so I will have ample opportunity to discover whether this is merely a singular antipathy towards Spaghetti Western or a larger discomfort with his chosen style.

Holding Pattern

Man, it's late. No big reviews or anything.

But I will point out that the latest Comic Remix is up over at PopCultureShock - its a blast from the past with Doctor Solar #16, from all the way back in 1966.

Also, if anyone ever pays any attention to the reviews I do for Popmatters, I'm particularly proud of my review of Orbital's new album which went up earlier today.

More fun stuff tomorrow.

Monday, September 20, 2004

My permalinks work now. I am very happy about this.

Travels With Larry XXII


Of all the books I’ve gotten from AiT/Planet Lar, the one I’ve most dreaded reading was Badlands. This is not out of any antipathy towards the creators or the subject matter or to the book itself. No, the reason I secretly dreaded Badlands was that I have been wanting to read this book for a long time. Anticipation is deadly.

I first read about Badlands when it was initially published to considerable acclaim back in 1991. Of course, as was often the nature of these things, I didn’t catch it when it first appeared and it quickly fell out of print. This was the way things worked in the days before the trade paperback became the industry standard that it is today. Stories were rarely compiled, and when they were compiled, they quickly fell out of print. Considering the fact that even massively important works like Lee & Kirby’s Fantastic Four and Barks’ Donald Duck have been out of print as often as they’ve been in, this is a status quo that benefited nobody but the short-sighted companies who didn't have the resources to keep their books in print, or even a market that desired them in the first place.

Larry Young is the furthest thing from shortsighted, and I imagine that this is why Steven Grant and Vince Giarrano’s Badlands is currently back in print.

I am not necessarily going to say that this is a timeless classic, but it is very good. Steven Grant’s profile and stature within our community has risen considerably in the last few years as a direct result of his weekly columns for Comic Book Resources. The man who wrote Marvel’s first Punisher limited series is now writing a column for The Comics Journal. Whether anyone coming to Badlands now - over a decade after it first saw print - will find a reflection of the knowledgeable thoughtfulness that Grant has since made his calling card is not mine to say. It’s a violent and ugly story, full of paranoia and exploitation, but it is told well.

The circumstances revolving around the assassination of President John F. Kennedy could not be better suited to the generic requirements of noir. The naturalistic – and extremely paranoid - notion of a monolithic and unknowable world seeking to crush the protagonist fits hand-in-glove with the amazingly intricate and arcane machinations of the various parties involved in Kennedy’s death. It would be easy to imagine Kennedy’s own life as a naturalistic struggle against the sinister forces arrayed against him – but Kennedy’s story is not now the one that interests us.

Conrad Bremen, unlike John F. Kennedy, is fictional. The events surrounding his slow descent into the labyrinthine circumstances that led up to November 22nd, 1963 in Dallas almost certainly did not occur. This isn’t like From Hell, where Alan Moore picked an already-disproved theory (i.e., that William Gull was the Ripper) and simply applied every bit of natural ingenuity he had to creating the most fascinating narrative he could. Badlands makes as much sense as any serious attempt to map the events leading up to the President’s death, even if it makes no pretence of being anything but fantasy.

The plain and simple truth of the matter is that we will most likely never know the exact circumstances surrounding JFK’s death. Unless you are one of those blessed few who believes the Warren Commission report, you will probably live a long life without ever hearing The Truth in this matter. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of murder mysteries can see the problem when examining Kennedy’s death: everyone had a motive. Everyone had something to gain. Everyone had a vendetta. Everyone wanted Kennedy dead, and even if not everyone had the means to carry off the elaborate preparations leading up to the execution, there were dozens of bit players with enough tangential connections to cast suspicions on even the most unlikely culprits. This is why everyone from Fidel Castro to the CIA to J. Edgar Hoover is implicated, and why we will probably never know just who did what, if anything.

I have to wonder how effective Badlands would be for someone who didn’t have at least a passing acquaintance with the players involved. I would like to point out to Larry Young 9if he's paying attention) that this is a volume that could definitely profit from the kind of historical bibliography that Moore wrote for From Hell and Chester Brown provided for Louis Riel. If you didn’t know that the “Sam G.” being referred to was Sam Giancana, would the book make any sense? If you didn’t know that Jack Ruby owned a strip bar named The Carousel Club, would the connection register at all? If you didn’t know how intimately Lee Harvey Oswald was entwined with American pro-Castro groups, would that reference mean anything at all? Ultimately, I don’t know.

For me, at least, the book was successful as a piece of historical fiction because I could understand the majority of the references. I must give Grant credit, because most mediocre historical fiction is rather pedantic. He doesn’t spoon-feed the reader anything, and in fact he insists that the reader do a lot of the proverbial “leg work” themselves. Ultimately, there is no one climactic moment when everything comes into focus: we know about as much as Connie Bremen does about his circumstances at any given moment – which is, not a whole hell of a lot. Even though we know Connie pulled the trigger and shot Kennedy, we don’t know who paid the men who put him up to it, we don’t know how or exactly why they did it, and we don’t know if he was even the only shooter that day. Grant has done a wonderful job of replicating the fog of uncertainty that hovers around these events. Bremen’s dilemma is fictional, but his confusion is very real.

There might be some who walk away from this book thoroughly defeated by the unrelenting pessimism that permeates every character and every situation. Certainly, there’s not a single “white hat” in the entire story. Conrad Bremen is just not very bright, in addition to being extremely violent and very suggestible. These characteristics make him a perfect patsy, but a mostly unsympathetic protagonist. Anne Peck, the proverbial "boss's daughter", is a manipulative nymphomaniac. Janetty, the oily crook who sets the wheels in motion at the behest of his shadowy bosses, is a vindictive, rape-crazy homosexual (because we all know that all homos want to rape unsuspecting, helpless heterosexual men). There’s not a redeeming character in the bunch, and I have to say that although it is an exhausting piece of work for just that reason, it is also appropriately grim. Reading Badlands is like watching a handful of insects trapped under an upturned wine glass, scrambling to find a way out before they die, and turning on each other when they realize that it’s a hopeless proposition. I don’t think I am particularly offended by these negative stereotypes so much as repulsed, which is – I imagine - the idea. Everyone is trapped by circumstances, and (almost) everyone dies for being an unrepentant bastard. You don’t end up in situations like this unless you did something to piss someone off at some point.

Perhaps the book’s unremitting bleakness is part of the appeal. Certainly, given a career of writing essentially harmless morality plays for mainstream audiences, I can see the appeal that something like Badlands would have had for Grant – a kind of moral enema. Although the characters are crude and the history probably needs an appendix, there are many masterful turns throughout. Its by no means a perfect book, but if I had read this when it actually came out I would have not been so surprised by Grant’s recent transformation into an eminance grise.

Thursday, September 16, 2004



First, if anyone cares, I spent some time rejiggering the sidebar, so that all the articles are alphabetized now. If anyone wants to be able to easily reference anything of mine online that I wrote, have a ball.

Second, I would like to direct your attention to Dave over at The Intermittent, who weighs in on the Question question. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I will say much the same thing that i said to Matthew Rossi yesterday: yes, that is a very good point.

Ultimately, a great deal of the problem is political. There is a sense of moral obligation here, because the option of legal and economic obligation was taken out of the creators' hands a long time ago. Now, Steve Ditko is, of course, the last creator to whine about bad work-for-hire contracts - he's always made a point on these things, to the extent that he refuses any ancilliary income of the kind that people like Stan Lee, Chris Clarement, Dave Cockrum, etc, have occasionally recieved. But the fact remains: so much of mainstream comics' creative legacy is built on basically irredeemable and immoral business practices, and it is those business practices that mean that stuff like Veitch's Question happens all the time because, basically, that's the way things work.

I could not agree more with him when he says:

The history of art is a history of theft. There is a reason that historically copyright only protects a creator for so long; absent the introduction of new works into the public sphere things stagnate. At some level, we encourage later artists to steal from their elders. To rework their concepts into new forms. This is a good thing; and it's not as if these later works somehow erase the source material. No amount of later work can unring that bell, though they can suggest that the original tone was off-key.

But the fact is that it all smells sour in the specific context of the comics industry because the creator has almost never been protected, and has only been protected sporadically in the past decade or so (with Epic's first incarnation and the coming of Image - both of which were [are] 100% pro-creator in their approach to copyright).

It's all very muddy. But I think that at the least, there are moral expectations created by the lack of any formal recognition. If I worked in corporate comics in any capacity, I would try to hold myself to a high standard here: it is possible to be creative and to innovate without directly disrespecting people who are still alive to see it and who would feel the slight. Of course, as I said, some people are different: Stan Lee is famously blaise about this. He loves change, and he has always maintained that he doesn't care what anyone does with his creations as long as they keep them interesting and relevent. Steve Ditko is not Stan Lee, however, and the way he looks at the world could not be more different. I think that is worth respecting, don't you?

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

The Dave Johnson Sketchbook Volume One

I should say up front that I love sketchbooks. I love Fantagraphics’ Crumb Sketchbooks series, I love Chris Ware’s recent Acme Novelty Datebook, I even love Seth’s humongous Vernacular Drawings, and I’m not usually very swift on Seth’s material in general. Some people think sketchbooks are superfluous, but I can’t get enough of them. There is nothing like a good sketchbook for spending many, many hours in quiet contemplation of the cartooning arts.

But I didn’t know what to expect from the first volume of Dave Johnson’s sketchbook series. I will admit to being only vaguely familiar with his work, enough to recognize his style and know that he does the covers for Vertigo’s 100 Bullets, but not enough to know much more than that.

This book is only moderately satisfying. On the one hand, it’s obvious that Johnson has an uncanny eye for design. I don’t read 100 Bullets but I know that the covers are beautifully constructed pieces of modern design. This sense of deign is obvious here, as we see sketches in various forms of completion and many character concept pieces at various stages.

On the other hand, this book lacks the heft and breadth of a truly satisfying sketchbook. Pretty much everyone who comments on this book mentions the dozen or so pages of space ship designs towards the end. There’s nothing wrong with these designs as such, but they are just not very interesting. The sketches included here have obviously been cherry-picked and compiled, and unfortunately that is not as successful an approach as it may have looked to be on paper. Some of the pieces have been obviously warped and mushed to fit the page size as well.

There’s a lot of what looks like video-game design work here. Some of it is fascinating, some of it is not so much. Now, there are as many different kinds of artists as there are artists, but it seems like material in this 56 page book has been chosen to make Johnson seem like someone who sits around all day drawing monsters and spacemen. There’s not a lot of variety, and it’s the variety of subject matter that you usually see in most sketchbooks which gives the reader a particularly telling look into the thought processes of the artist at work. Based on this book, Dave Johnson’s thought processes are focused on spaceships and mad scientists, with the occasional pirate babe thrown in for good measure.

I would be interested in reading the other two promised books in the series. I would also be interested if they decided to release a volume devoted to Johnson’s life drawing and pastoral scenes, even though such a book would probably not appeal to the mad scientists and space-ship contingent.

Oni Love Can Break Your Heart; Part VIII

Lost At Sea

There has been some discussion lately on whether or not the comics world is fixated on youth. Is it or is it not odd that even decades after the emancipation of serious cartoonists from the world of childrens’ literature, a large percentage of supposedly “serious” works in the field still focus on children and teenagers? Are there deleterious and harmful unconscious prejudices at work here?

Examine the example of Persepolis. As many critical raves as the two volumes of Persepolis has garnered, there are still many who maintain that the book represents a retrograde approach to serious comics literature: the subject matter may be heady, but it is still a story told by a child. Why is it so hard, some ask, for the medium to create honestly and compellingly adult narratives?

Bryan O’Malley’s Lost At Sea is hardly going to silence this debate. Although O’Malley is obviously influenced by the works of James Kochalka, Tom Hart and Craig Thompson, he is still a compelling cartoonist in his own right with the kind of canny grasp of spatial dynamics that is refreshing to see in a young cartoonist.

The story itself manages to successfully walk a very fine line. Usually, adolescent/teenage angst can seem very petty and uninteresting to anyone over the age of eighteen. O’Malley manages to somehow communicate his characters’ depth of feeling as well as the inherently superfluous nature of their trauma, without condescending to either the audience or his characters. The narrative is actually fairly complex, and allows for a surprisingly nuanced approach to what could be, in the hands of a lesser talent, a plainly uninvolved conflict. It takes a lot of skill to paint the self-involved traumas of the heartbroken teenager as anything other than solipsistic drama, and amazingly, O’Malley seems to have a keen grasp of this problem.

I liked this book. I was really taken with O’Malley’s convincingly involving narrative, which managed to make me care about the kinds of characters at whom I would normally scoff. This book would be absolutely perfect for a younger teen just entering these self-involved years, and maybe for older teens as well, for whom these characters might ring too closely for comfort.

Part of growing up is realizing that the sorrow and heartbreak of adolescence is universal, and that everybody feels awkward and ungainly. Its only in hindsight that you look back and realize that everyone was feeling exactly the same way you were, and that your self-absorption was entirely characteristic. There have been a lot of comics produced on this subject, tackling these particular years, and while I am certainly the last person to argue against generic diversity, one more can’t hurt, especially if its this good.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004


Whoa Nelly! It’s that time of the week again! Click on over to PopCultureShock to see me remix Superman #208. It’s not as wacky as last week’s. But it is still funny, I hope.

There’s nothing I like better than getting letters in the old e-mail. For one thing, it makes it look like I’ve got all sorts of new content up when all I did was reprint a letter.

But seriously – a well-written missive, whether agreeing or disagreeing with any of the positions I take here, lets me know that you people are at least paying attention. Which, of course, fills me up with all sorts of warm & fuzzy feelings. Of course, I think now that I have admitted to having warm & fuzzies, I will have to turn in my Fantagraphics card . . . and after I worked so hard to get it, too!

Anyway, this letter comes to us courtesy of Mr. Matthew Rossi:

"Steve Ditko's address is supposedly listed in the phone book. If the creators of the new Question series, the creative team behind the Justice League Unlimited cartoon and the producers of the recent Spider-Man movies wanted to kick an old man in the nuts, they probably could have saved a lot of trouble and just done it the old fashioned way."

I doubt that any of them had any desire to injure Ditko. Rather, they simply wanted to present the characters he had a hand in creating in as effective a manner as possible. While I agree with you in regards to Doc Ock - it added nothing to have him be sympathetic - I disagree with you on the subject of The Question. (By the way, have you seen Polite Dissent? Scott's talking about Hawk and Dove this week, it's a Ditko double dose.) To be fair, you're right that Ditko's objectivism drenches the book.

However, it was an artistic failure. The polemic overwhelmed the art: I think that's why Dennis O'Neil's version was as well received as it was. (This also may be why the Kesel *Hawk and Dove* series lasted as long as it did, or why DC ultimately made Hawk into a third rate bad guy, but I digress.) Had the series been successful as art as well as a polemic, it would have led to an outcry when DC allowed it to be revamped (no such outcry came when they massively revamped Captain Atom, either, another Ditko creation rooted in a particular philosophy, time and place which seemed outdated when DC tried to integrate them) whether or not the audience for the comics shared Ditko's philosophy. I sincerely doubt most readers are as ultra-pacifistic as the Silver Surfer has been portrayed (the most recent, baffling 'alien abduction' version aside) and yet you're quite correct that readers would protest if he suddenly became a vicious alien conquerer or what have you. That's because as presented to date, the Silver Surfer *really is a character*: he has defined character traits that have been presented in action and dialogue and have not, as in the case of the Question, just been an excuse for another sermon on the way the universe exists outside of perception or the inflexibility of Good and Evil.

In short, the question you asked as an introduction to your post (When is a character not a character?) can *actually be applied* to Steve Ditko's work. Captain Atom and the Question *aren't characters at all*: they're thinly veiled authorial mouthpieces for tropes Ditko (or Ditko and Gill, although really, Captain Atom doesn't even have the dubious distinction of being as interesting as The Question – he suffers from comparison to Doctor Solar, Man of the Atom, even though he beat Phillip Solar into print by two years) want to present to their audience. By comparison, Ditko's work on Spider-Man is much more satisfying: the moral absolute is there, no doubt, but it is presented in a story that endures and is readable to this day. Watching Spider-Man risk his life to come up with a magnetic inversion unit to capture the Vulture or to alter his webbing in order to counteract the advantage of Doc Ock's arms showed that Peter Parker was more than a costume: he was a living, breathing, thinking superhero, someone putting his life and his wits on the line to stop some right bastards. (This is why I agree with you on Doc Ock but disagree with you on the Question of the Question: Doc Ock was used effectively as a compelling foil for a fully realized superhero: the Question was never used effectively by Ditko.) It's interesting to me to consider that in the
Question's origin (annual #2, I think) he beats a man violently for giving him LSD *and making him doubt his own senses* - The Question's only moment of characterization is that of a person so inflexible in his worldview that he resorts to violence when it's threatened.

The only way to use The Question effectively is to divorce him from Ditko's philosophy: in essence, to take Ditko's polemics out, and use the visual. That's the reason O'Neil's version is as well received as it was: it was the first time The Question *was a character at all* instead of another mouthpiece uttering dialogue that Ditko himself would have said. (This is a fine line to walk, obviously, and I'd be willing to admit that Ditko's original conception of Vic Sage as a crusading reporter rooting out corruption *could* have worked artistically, I just don't believe it *did*) Also, O'Neil didn't change everything up front: he had The Question's objectivist philosophy itself bring the man down in a rather brilliant (and later unfortunately revisited by the Batman Knightfall storyline) series where Victor Sage's established violent tendencies and black and white viewpoint ended up in his own near-destruction: the later philosophical tendencies of the series seemed to many (myself included) to fit the idea of a man who called himself The Question but who had, up until that point, *resisted asking any.* The polemic became a quest. It was simply a superior work to Ditko's strident demagoguery.

Is this 'a kick in the nuts' to an old man? Maybe. But it's hard to argue that he didn't set himself up for the kick: he combined his obvious visual design genius with his ridiculous and unsupportable philosophy: The Question, Hawk and Dove, Captain Atom and Mr A aren't as beloved as Spider-Man and Doctor Strange for a reason, and that reason is that the latter two were much more fully realized as characters (even though Strange comes the closest to a black and white moral outlook of any realized character, it's more palatable here because Strange is dealing with black magic and demons from outside dimensions, and also because Ditko's unquestioned visual genius is gorgeously evident throughout his run on the character) - just as we're not expected to allow the risible dialogue of Rob Liefeld forever define the characters he created for Marvel (okay, so the return of Liefeld to X-Force doesn't help my case here) we don't have to accept Ditko's moral compass be forever infused into the characters he created for others if the result is substandard storytelling. In other words, The Question wouldn't keep being altered from Ditko's original conception if that conception was any good. The same with Captain Atom, and it can hardly be argued that Ditko enfused him with any particular objectivist viewpoint: he simply wasn't a very compelling character, no matter how appealing his visual was.

In the case of Doctor Otto Octavius, it wasn't a necessary change: the character has endured for decades, he's an established presence in the Spider-Man canon, his malevolence serves to highlight Peter Parker's essential nobility and willingness to risk himself for no reward. Perhaps this is the problem with allowing art and polemic to mix: if not done with exquisite care, it's so jarring and off-putting that it dooms the characters created in this manner to endless revision.

"But at the same time, the crucial defining elements of the character have to be retained. Ultimately, it's a fine line to draw. There have been some extraordinarily wild reinterpretations of characters over the years, but respectful creators have always managed to keep healthy connections to the characters' original incarnations. As much as Alan Moore's Swamp Thing was a different book than Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson's, it was still essentially a book about a macabre half-human swamp monster finding his way in the world."

Yes, but it wasn't about Alec Holland, a human scientist whose bio-restorative formula brought criminals to his lab and who, drenched in the formula and set on fire by an explosion, plummeted into the swamp and found himself transformed into a much-encrusted mockery of a man (to borrow a phrase from Ted Sallis' origin): Moore changed the character much more dramatically than O'Neil changed Vic Sage and yet managed to retain the original conception, even though it turned out that the Swamp Thing was a plant entity that had consumed Alec Holland's body like a planarian worm, a moss and peat colony that *thought* it was Alec Holland. In comparison, O'Neil doesn't change who the Question always was: he simply has his own violent tendencies and onerous philosophy bring him low (a humbling lesson in hubris) before building him back up again, recommitted to his idea of investigating corruption having learned from his defeat. To me, that's a prime example of the crucial defining element of the character being wholly present while the polemic is muted, and it's why the O'Neil run is artistically superior to Ditko's, even though Ditko created the character.

Still, a thought provoking post on your part: would they be as quick to revamp an unabashedly bleeding-heart liberal character, like Don Hall, into a two-fisted objectivist? Naah. They just kill him and replace him with a woman. (I have Scott's post on Polite Dissent going in my head at the same time I have yours.) I'm interested in your reaction once you get to read The Question as the new series presents him. Thank you for humoring so massive and didactic a letter on my part.

Matthew Rossi

No, my friend, thank you for taking the time to write such a cogent and thoughtful letter.

The thing is, it’s hard to argue with success. There is a part of me that wants to forgive O’Neil’s Question simply because it is so well regarded, and it was obviously a labor of love from all concerned. Ultimately, the difference between O’Neil’s Question book and, say, Joe Casey’s Cable, is that while both of them were pretty overt breaks with the characters’ peculiar pasts, the former pretty obviously had nothing to do with Ditko’s intentions. Rob Leifeld, on the other hand, loved what people like Joe Casey did with his creations. If I recall correctly, Len Wein was pretty happy with Moore’s Swamp Thing as well (although I could be mistaken, as I can’t remember where I read that).

In my mind, it comes down to a hypothetical question: if Ditko owned his creation, what kind of stories would he want to see that character involved with? Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a single Mr. A story written or drawn by anyone but his creator. I think its safe to say that he would probably guard the Question as zealously, if the copyright were his. So where do we draw the line between the creators’ intentions and the pursuit of a good story? That is a question we shall all have to answer ourselves, and despite my previous comments, I’m far from decided on the matter myself.

But as for Ditko’s characters: you’re 100% right. Without a canny collaborator, his characters are pretty tissue-thin (and I say that as someone with an unabashed love for the man’s work). But then again, you can say pretty much the same thing for Ayn Rand, so you can't say the apple fell far from the tree on this issue.

Travels With Larry XXI

True Facts

I’m going to speak a while here on the subject of my good friend Larry Young.

I think I can say “good friend”. I’ve never met Larry. He probably doesn’t even know what I look like. We really have no relationship outside of the fact that he sends me free comics every now and again. I don’t even like everything he sends me, and I’m not afraid to tell him so. We share a small connection in that he lived for the better part of a decade in Worcester, MA, which is where my wife and I are currently encamped. But besides that, and outside of comics, we probably don’t have too much in common.

But there is one thing about Larry Young that no one can dispute: the man knows his comics. He has many detractors, this must be said. There are people all across this industry, and some even in this blogosphere, who regard him with a strong, leery distrust. There are some who accuse him of being obnoxious or overzealous in the support of his books, sometimes to the point of being downright offensive. While I can’t speak for anyone but myself on this matter, my opinion of Larry’s character was pretty firmly set in stone very soon after our first (virtual) encounter.

Waaaay back in the Paleolithic era, when I first began the Travels With Larry series, I wrote a pretty negative review of something or another from the AiT/Planet Lar catalog. I don’t remember the book in question, but I do remember what Larry did: he wrote me a short but succinct e-mail, thanking me for giving the book an honest appraisal. In an industry where there are so many prominent people who have seemingly never learned how to take criticism (you don’t need me to name names), the fact that someone out there actually had the wherewithal to appreciate an honest negative review really impressed me.

Besides: if Larry didn’t zealously promote his own books produced by his own company, something would be seriously wrong. The fact is, its his job to be out there in everybody’s face, asking them if they’ve read Demo, and if they haven’t well why the hell not?

Larry. Young. Is. The. Bunny.

I have a sneaking suspicion that the Larry Young we see online and at conventions isn’t really the “real” Larry Young – not the Larry Young who reads the paper at the breakfast table in the morning with Mimi and who watches the sun set at night over the clear Pacific. No, the fact is that the Larry Young who uses the Internet as his pulpit in order to spread the gospel of AiT/Planet Lar is probably as much of a fiction as those astronauts of his stuck up on the moon. I don’t doubt that there’s some of the real him in there, certainly, the same as there’s some Bruce Wayne inside of Batman. But my theory is that the over-the-top, lovingly fervid Larry we all know and love is an act.

Allow me to explain.

True Facts lays out in very unambiguous terms Larry Young’s considerate and knowledgeable approach to the world of comics. He’s someone who’s been on both sides of the counter, in addition to being behind the desk and manning the phones at every step of the rest of the process. He probably knows as much about the physical process of making and selling comics in America as maybe a handful of people alive today. To read the essays in this book is to see that he knows what he’s talking about.

He doesn’t state it explicitly, but I think if you read between the lines any observant reader can see the Secret Origin of Larry Young. Basically, he decided to create a persona, a LARRY YOUNG, in order to sell his comics. Think about it: comics, as an industry, are small, and there has never been a more successful long-term marketing strategy in this industry in the last fifty years than the cult of personality.

Don’t believe me? Think about how long it took Marvel to stop flogging Stan Lee’s gregarious huckster persona – and even when they did that, they sort-of tried to replace him with Joe Quesada as a K-Tel version. Think about the enormous success of Image in those first few years: people were buying hundreds of copies of Spawn because they believed in the power of Todd MacFarlane to ensure the books’ value (even if they couldn’t probably have rationalized the impulse as such).

There are dozens of lesser personalities dotted throughout comics history, but each of them managed to carve a career out of a singular marketable personality. Dave Sim. Jim Shooter. John Byrne. Frank Miller. Robert Crumb. Jack Kirby. Neil Gaiman. Alan Moore. Gary Groth. Grant Morrison. Warren Ellis. Julie Schwartz. Mark Alessi. Brian Pulido. Rob Liefeld. Brian Michael Bendis.

Need I go on?

Whether on purpose or not, each of these gentlemen cultivated a specific image and personality which they were able to attach to their products. When Larry Young decided to take the step from being the majordomo for San Francisco’s Comix Experience to becoming a comic book publisher, he sat himself down and figured out just how to go about doing this successfully. Which is where LARRY YOUNG comes in: he couldn’t just hire Stan Lee to hawk his books, he had to become Stan. When you meet the Buddha, you must kill the Buddha.

You. Must. Be. The. Bunny.

And sure enough, pretty much every day for the last five years, Larry Young has done a damned good job of being LARRY YOUNG. You have to respect that, even if you might find it deeply annoying or even disingenuous: it takes guts to sell comic books in this economy, but sell them he does.

The majority of the advice in True Facts falls into two seemingly mutually-exclusive categories. First, do the most obvious thing. Second, do the least obvious thing.

The logic behind the first rule is obvious. If you’re going to make a comic book and try to sell it, you have to do all the grunt work, and you have to spend all the long and hard hours selling the damn thing. This involves doing what every self-publisher since the dawn of Sim has had to do every single day to keep afloat: all the boring but essential stuff that gets your comic out of your head and into the hands of a welcome customer.

The logic behind the second rule is even more obvious. If you follow Rule Number One and do everything you need to do in order to produce the book and ensure that it looks good and that people can buy it, well, then it behooves you to take extraordinary steps to get your book off the pages of the catalog and into the retailers’ heads and into their customers’ willing hands. This isn’t like printing or writing or drawing or writing press releases: this takes all the ingenuity you can possibly muster. There’s no right or wrong way to do it. The only right way is the way that sells your comic. Sometimes it means doing the most outrageous thing you can imagine. Sometimes it means just doing what everyone else is doing, only before everyone else is doing it.

I don’t think that this is necessarily a “definitive” guide to producing your own comics, because I honestly don’t know if such a thing is possible. Its hardly a perfect book, because there are many times when LARRY YOUNG the strident industry cheerleader supplants Larry Young, the personable industry commentator. The tone is occasionally didactic, but I can live with that. Next to Sim and Ditko, Young’s prose is a walk in the park.

The last five years have seen AiT/Planet Lar grow steadily and consistently in a climate of muggy attrition. They’ve done a lot with very little. Looking back at the first few years of their output, and the rather threadbare nature of some of those releases, I have to wonder how they managed to make it as far as they have. But the answer is quite simple: LARRY YOUNG believed in his company, even if no one else did. Now that the company has been around for a while and has some modest successes under its belt, it will be interesting to see where it goes. Any company is always just one special book way from massive success, and it will be interesting to see if they can marshal their resources towards accomplishing this goal.

Before I leave the topic, I should say that there is one column in particular that really tickled my fancy. Some of the chapters are pretty dry and informative. Some of the chapters are more freewheeling. But Chapter Seventeen was the chapter that really spoke to me.

Basically, this chapter details Larry’s experience buying back issues for Comix Experience. They have an interesting but very sensible approach to the practice: they buy their back-issue comics by the pound. (Or at least, that’s how they buy their quarter box fodder – I doubt that if you walked into the store with a box full of primo-grade silver-age Amazing Spider-Man or Flash comics you would be bellying up to the scale – but I digress.)

Anyway, this was such a delightful column for so many reasons. Anyone who reads this blog knows that I wear two hats in my role as a comics commentator: I try to maintain a modicum of critical perspective, but I also enjoy the role of the occasional industry spectator as well. I enjoy discoursing on both the aesthetic and economic prerogatives behind this here funnybook business. Some of the happiest times of my life were spent in the Comic Empire of Tulsa, shooting the shit with Mike about the business of selling comics. Anyone who has been in business as long as Mike has (about twenty years, give or take) knows a few things, and one of the most important thing he has learned is that you have to keep your quarter boxes full. Regardless of how big or small your shop is, if you have quarter boxes they will invariably be the most pawed-through inventory in your shop. Hell, even I must admit to buying things like near-complete runs of Alpha Flight for the simple and unimpeachable reason that the books were only one shiny quarter each.

It’s a very Zen realization: no matter how much you love comics, no matter how much particular stories or creators or characters have affected your life, the vast majority of comics aren’t worth more than 50 cents a pound on the open market. All those umpteen-million copies of Turok Dinosaur Hunter #1 with the chromium cover? It’s somebody’s favorite comic book, certainly, but there’s also a good chance you can find it right now for the mere price of one shiny quarter somewhere near you. It breaks my heart to see books like Quasar or old Steve Ditko Marvel Tales reprints or Solar, Man of the Atom in the quarter bins, because they mean a lot to me. But this is the free market, Baby. They’ll find good homes.

This is the Larry Young I like. I do business with LARRY YOUNG, but it’s this Larry Young who I could listen to talking about comics all day long.

Monday, September 13, 2004

New Adventures in Hi-Fi

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel: Serious Party Dude

Well, I’ll be damned. Seems that being a comics blogger means that every now and again I get some really cool advance information.

It seems that CGC (Comics Guarantee Corporation), the company famous for bringing legitimate third party grading to comics collectibles, is branching out. In a few months, expect to see an announcement that the massively successful company is going to be leading the way into a new era of comics criticism. Thankfully, someone has forwarded me the employee manual dedicated to this new endeavor, which I am more than happy to share with you!

The CGC Guide to Comprehensive Aesthetic Judgement


Welcome to this exciting new phase in the development of the American comic book. CGC is proud to be taking this bold step into the realm of criticism. It is our deepest hope that the trusted professionals here at CGC will be able to bring order to the proverbial chaos by delivering a standard, consistent and unbiased critical standard by which to judge comic books.

As with our condition grading, CGC will grade comic book aesthetics on a scale of 1-10, with fractional increments ranging from 0.5 (the absolute worst) to 10.0 (the theoretical best). Many have traditionally regarded aesthetic criticism as a deeply subjective field, but we here at CGC have spent many long hours devising a foolproof numerical formula to aid in the process of aesthetic judgements. Naturally, these mathematical formulae are the property of CGC, LLC, and should be regarded as among our most jealously guarded corporate resources.

So You Want To Be A Critic

Not just anyone can be a comic-book critic. In order to be a fair and impartial judge of a comic’s aesthetic qualities, the critic has to put aside his or her personal prejudices.

For instance: If you are a Superman fan, and believe that Superman could beat Batman in a fair fight, would you be able to honestly judge a comic which featured Batman beating Superman? Think long and hard on this question.

In order to account for interpretive differences among competitive schools of literary theory, CGC has established a list of critical approaches. Read through the list and find the group of thought you most identify with, and then follow the accompanying rules in order to handicap your scoring.

1. Formalism

This specialty focuses on the techniques used in art, to the exclusion of any historical, biographical or societal factors which may be considered in other fields of criticism. A Formalist of the Russian school will appreciate the text as a discrete and independent body of work to be analyzed on its own terms. This focus on the inherent artiface of art brings the critic into a close consideration of the work’s style as it relates to the text’s meaning.

A Formalist will seek to regard comics independent of their origins. There must be no consideration of the economic, societal, biographic or other factors involved in the production of a comic book. For instance, if you have prior knowledge based on having read an interview in Wizard that John Byrne was actually asleep for the entire duration of his work on West Coast Avengers, you must be able to parcel this information off to a separate and sleepy part of your mind. A Formalist must be able to judge Byrne’s work on West Coast Avengers purely on the basis of the technique involved as it relates to narrative construction.

2. Structuralism

Based originally on the work of Saussure, Structuralism can be confused with Formalism, but usually only by stupid people. Structuralism can be seen as a natural outgrowth of linguistic and philological studies, where language is considered as a functioning system separate from content.

Seeing as how comics consist of a vocabulary of words and pictures, and Structuralist interpretation of a comic must take into account the specific properties of visual narrative. The accepted method for examining the Structural quality of a narrative is to take your comic book and cut all the panels out separately. Then, using a bulletin board, try to pin the panels back together in a way that creates a brand new narrative on the subject of French colonialism.

3. Marxism

Marxism isn’t just for Communists anymore! Marxist literary theory occurs when a text is judged on its relation to the social theories of Karl Marx. If you often complain of The Man keeping you down, you might be a Marxist.

If you read The Avengers as a veiled metaphor for American economic capitalism, you are probably a Marxist. If you see Fascism everywhere, and especially in your escapist superhero fantasies, are seeing the world through the blinkered eyes of a committed Marxist.

4. Feminism

Feminist literary theory revolves around one central tenet: Boys are icky. Some commentators have drawn parallels between Feminist theory and Marxism, based upon both systems’ reliance on social progressivism as a litmus test for critical worth. But Marx had a penis.

5. Hegelian

Hegelian theory, which contains many striking similarities to Marxism (as Marx was a follower of Hegel), focuses on the study of history as a progression of appositive forces in constant point and counterpoint. The constant conflict of ideas throughout history creates a dialectic which can be read as a definite qualitative progression.

A Hegelian theorist might regard the history of comics within the framework of Fichte’s previously established classification of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. For instance: if you establish the 1996 Avengers crossover “The Crossing” as your thesis, and introduce “Heroes Reborn” as your antithesis, and regard the Busiek/Perez “Heroes Return” run as the synthesis, then you are a Hegelian.

Note: Most who claim to have read Hegel are lying. Comics graded by supposed Hegelians will be regarded with the suspicion traditionally reserved for professionally restored comics, with a “conditional” grade.

6. Traditionalist

If you think that 1-4 are full of shit and 5 is too reactionary, please report to your Office Manager for your dunce cap and a copy of Harold Bloom’s Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds. Please masturbate to pictures of Dead White Men on your own time, We’re Not Racists, You Are.

A traditionalist thinks that Hal Jordan is a far superior Green Lantern to Kyle Rayner, and regards the Jim Shooter-era Valiant Comics as a literary achievement of greater value than Krazy Kat.

7. Objectivism
Objectivists believe, in a rejection of traditional post-Enlightenment values, that reality is based on consistent and unchanging values, which remain the same regardless of individual perception or opinion.

Objectivist criticism follows different rules than conventional literary technique. A=A: assign every letter of the alphabet the value of its number in the traditional alphabet (i.e., A=1, B=2, C=3 and so on). Count every letter in the captions and word balloons of your comic book according to this point scale. Divide this score by 100 and you have established your comic’s objective quality.

Have you identified your field? Good! Its time to grade your comic the CGC way!

1. Does your comic have pirates? (If yes, add 1 point; if no, subtract 1 point)

2. Does your comic feature a cameo from a real-life political figure? (If yes, add 1 point; if no, subtract 0 points)

3. Does your comic feature a member of the Super Friends, or a variant thereof (i.e. Supergirl or Aqualad)? (If yes, add 2 two points; if no,. subtract two points)

4. Does your comic feature a dated cultural reference? (Subtract 1/8 point for every dated cultural reference. Add 1/8 point for every ironic cultural reference [eg: “This guy makes John McCain look like Spiro Agnew])

5. Does your comic feature a post-Marxist critique of Cold War politics? (If yes, add 5 points; if no, subtract 5)

6. Does your comic make you sexually excited? (If yes, add 2 points; if no, subtract 1 point)

7. Does your comic make you sexually confused? (If yes, subtract 2 points; if no, subtract 2 points)

8. Does your comic feature an ad for Amazing Sea Monkeys? (If yes, add 2 points; if not, subtract 1 point)

9. Does your comic feature a monkey? (If yes, add 3 points; if no, subtract 2 points)

10. Does your comic feature a monkey holding up a librarian with a gun for a copy of Moby Dick? (If yes, add 10 points; if no, subtract 5 points)

If you identified yourself as a Formalist, please answer questions 11-15. If not, advance to the next section.

11. Does your comic feature any post-modernist meta-fictional devices? (Add 1 point per device; if no, subtract 4 points)

12. Does your comic feature the Author as a participant in the narrative? (Add 2 points if yes; subtract 2 points if no)

13. Does your comic feature a hologram cover? (Add 1 point if yes; subtract 1/2 points if no)

14. Does your comic contain an easily misconstrued plot point which can be interpreted ambiguously? (Add 3 points if yes; subtract 2 if no)

15. Is your comic actually enjoyable? (If yes, subtract 5 points; if no, add 3 points)

If you identified yourself as a Structuralist, please answer questions 16-17. If not, please advance to the next section.

16. Are you a semiotics professor? (If yes, add 5 points; if not, subtract 5 points)

17. Make a graph analyzing every panel transition used in your comic, according McCloud’s definitions as established in Understanding Comics. Feel free to make up sub-categories. Present at your next academic conference. (Add 5 points if your comic was published by Image between the years 1993-1995; subtract 3 points if your favorite cartoonist is Bil Keane)

If you identified yourself as a Marxist, please answer questions 18-20. If not, please advance to the next section.

18. Does your comic feature the boot of the economic imperialist crushing the faces of the noble proletariat? (If yes, add 5 points; if not, subtract 5 points)

19. Does your comic feature reactionary elements of the parasitic bourgeoisie getting their comeuppance? (If yes, add 3 points; if no, subtract 2 points)

20. How much is your comic worth? If your comic is actually worth any money, you might want to consider getting it slabbed and becoming a Hegelist.

If you identified yourself as a Feminist, please answer questions 21-24. If not, please advance to the next section.

21.Does your comic feature a man? (If yes, subtract 5
points; if no, add 5 points)

22. Does your comic feature women in bikinis? (If yes, subtract 7 points; if no, add 2 points)

23. Does your comic feature violence against women? (If yes, subtract 5 points; if no, add 2 points)

24. Does your comic feature people sitting around drinking coffee? (If yes, add 2 points; if no, subtract 1 point)

If you identified yourself as a Hegelian, please answer questions 25-27. If not, please advance to the next section.

25. Does your comic feature the modern incarnation of a Golden Age character? (If yes, please add 5 points; if no, please subtract 3)

26. Does your comic contain footnotes or endpapers? (If yes, please add 3 points; if no, please subtract 5 points)

27. Does your comic make you feel like a special butterfly? (If yes, please add 6 points; if no, please subtract 3 points)

If you identified yourself as a Traditionalist, please answer questions 28-30. If not, please advance to the next section.

28. Does your comic contain a checklist, of any kind? (If yes, please add 3 points; if not, subtract 1)

29. Does your comic help you to understand why you are, in fact, a racist? (If yes, add 3 points; if no, subtract 2 points)

30. Are you still fantasizing about that Jane Paulie lady you saw on Letterman? She was so totally speaking to you through the cathode tube, wasn't she? Just at you? (If yes, add 2 points; if no, subtract 3)

You’re almost done! Tally up your numbers, and then process them according to this formula (Calculus may be required if you receive a positive infinitude):

Your comic’s score

Divided by

The number of members of the Legion of Superheroes inside the book

Is multiplied by

The number of X-Men inside the book

This total is finally subtracted from your age when you first read The Dark Knight Returns.

And Voila! You have graded your comic aesthetically!

Please test your own results against these examples. If your results vary, please see your Office Manager for clarification.

Batman #617 – 9.8

Muggy-Doo, Boy Cat #2 – 7.6

Underwater #6 – 4.6

Force Works #5 – 10.0

Friday, September 10, 2004


Well, howdy do - seems that I have been remiss in my duties here. If you recall, I sent my good pal Chinese Bizarro Spider-Man on a long and fateful trip. His first stop was Pmpknface’s Journal, and his first adventures, including an epic encounter with a turtle and a romantic rondevous with Batgirl, were chronicled here.

Well, that was a while back. The whole matter slipped my mind for a while (hey, I’m a bust man!) but I got to wondering just what the hell happened to my little buddy. Turns out he’s had some more adventures with ol’ Pmpknface here. Not only that, but CBS-M’s initial adventures were even "remixed" by the Mighty Mae Mai here. A splendid time was had by all! Where is our pal going to end up next? Last I heard he’s still in Boston chilling with Pmpknhead, but who knows where he’ll turn up next? Maybe here? Or here? What about here? Watch this space!

Now that I have a better webtracker, I am finding that some interesting people occasionally link to yours truly. In particular, a German site named Welt em Draht had something to say about yesterday’s Ditko post. I couldn’t understand exactly what he was saying, so my old pals at Babelfish translated it for me, and now it makes perfect sense!

Tim O'Neil, in whose headings R.E.M. weeks broke out, which personally very pleasant I find, are also further one of humans in Blogosphaere, which have to say really interesting things. Topic today: Steve Ditko, or more exactly: the kind as with is gone around its figures. Trip is the new The Question series and the guest appearance of The Question in the Justice League Cartoon. Tims position is that one not from the conservative characters, which Ditko in its objectivistic conception of the world created and for which clear property bad goods exist suddenly liberal of characters make may. It throws also a view of it, why the actually completely nice Doc Ock in the second mirror-image the one film Ditko in the grave would let rotate, if it would still not live.

Man, the wonders of modern technology know no limits, do they?

My good pal Dave over at Motime replied to my thoughts on his first Squadron Supreme post here. At the end of the day, I have to realize that Dave and I will probably never see eye to eye on this. I dislike formalists myself, but I also recognize the fact that I have some budding formalistic tendencies in my own thoughts on occasion. The fact is, I don’t think that I would ever judge a work of art "in the language of a dog show judge", but I can certainly understand why Dave might be so wary of this approach.

Dave is someone who is absolutely steeped in modern academia. I’ve had my own brushes with academia (dating back to my own college daze), and what I have seen of the formalist/structuralist (I realize there are subtle differences but for the sake of argument I’m conflating them) perspective on art and literature chills me to the bone. I remember very clearly a particularly galling Shakespeare lecture where my professor stated in no uncertain terms that it was a mistake to ascribe human psychological motivations to fictional constructs. I was stunned: this man was supposed to be teaching us about Shakespeare, probably the most uniquely human author who has ever lived, and he was trying to tell us that these wonderfully vivid plays were merely linguistic patterns and memes rearranged on paper? I remain deeply skeptical of anyone who comes at literature from this perspective. If you discount the essential humanity of art, than we are on a slippery slope that will only end when we judge all aesthetic achievement as a function of mathematical perfection.

That said, I have the highest respect for craft. I believe that craft is one of the most important tools an artist can use. Those who distrust craft usually have a shaky understanding of it, and it shows in their art. It shows in the fact that their artistic expression is limited by their limited artistic vocabulary. Craft without soul is meaningless, but when an artist of the first caliber is able to wield craft in the service of truly great art, the results are sublime. This is why Watchmen is so great. Form follows function: the meanings of the narrative, all the intricate layers and interpretations and themes and dialogues, are inextricably bound into Moore and Gibbons’ consummate use of craft to communicate their story. Gruenwald’s artistic collaborators on Squadron Supreme simply didn’t have the same level of skill, so their ability to communicate the story’s themes was stunted.

But if there is anything this discussion has convinced me, its that I need to go back and re-read on Squadron Supreme its been a few years . . . and by a few years I mean quite a while!

Oni Love Can Break Your Heart; Part VII

Hopeless Savages

Note: This isn’t the cover on my edition, its actually a pin-up.

I have to say that this was very disappointing. There are some scattered bits of cleverness here, but on the whole it is something of a hodgepodge mess.

The concept is this: a pair of punk icons, Dirk Hopeless and Nikki Savage, marry and raise a brood. The children (saddled with the hyphenated Hopeless-Savage moniker) are apparently all super-ninjas, or something. They don’t fight crime but they all seem to know how to kick ass.

I will admit that while I admire a lot of punk (need I say that I love the Clash and the Ramones and Black Flag and all that?), the rigid orthodoxy of certain old-school punk attitudes leaves me baffled. A lot of it strikes me as the same old sort of “be different from everyone else by being just like us” nonsense that has typified counter-cultures since the dawn of pop-culture.

The brood’s parents are kidnapped by paramilitary skinheads for nebulous reasons. In order to find their parents, the remaining three Hopeless-Savages have to find their missing brother Rat, who hadn’t been heard from in ten years. The thing that really rubbed me the wrong way was how this family regarded it as some sort of heretical sin when Rat decided to stop being a punk rocker and, you know, grow up. He gets a normal haircut, gets rid of his piercings, shows up in slacks and a button down shirt, and suddenly he’s not even a member of the family anymore. That hardly seems fair, and it comes of as repulsively chauvinistic. The fact that, after they do find Rat -- working a perfectly respectable 9-5 job -- and refuse to acknowledge him as their brother until he is back in full punk regalia and talking in a bad gutter-cockney, is simply abominable.

The story is very sloppily constructed. The kidnapping scheme is predicated on an unwieldy and rather daft idea, and plot revelations are parceled out at the very last possible moment. For instance, before the climactic action sequence, one of the characters announces that their band has a gig in three hours. This is just sort-of dropped into the story like the proverbial anvil, and the narrative runs with it. There’s no sense of pacing whatsoever, because the story regularly stops in its tracks to feature gratuitous flashback sequences.

I realize this is all intended with tongue-planted-firmly-in-cheek, but I have a hard time laughing at what is, ultimately, a poor concept. I realize that the juxtaposition behind the undomesticated punk lifestyle and the suburban family motif is intended to be humorous, but throughout the book I just couldn’t shake the feeling that this is an extremely juvenile scaffolding on which to build a series (there are two more books so far in the series).

Christine Norrie’s art is competent, but there is a noticeable decline in quality throughout the course of the story. Chynna Clugston-Major (or is it just Clugston now? Didn’t I see that somewhere?) provides the art for the story’s flashback sequences. Her work is as charming as ever, even if I don’t care much for the story itself.

If it sounds like I’m being unduly harsh . . . well, I guess I am. But this book went out of its way to push every button in my book. I find myself repulsed by these characters and their selfish machinations, and I have no desire to have anything to do with them ever again.

A-1 Big Issue Zero

As much as I loathed Hopeless Savages, I absolutely adored the first issue of Atomeka’s new A-1 anthology. Most of these stories are reprints of features that have appeared elsewhere, but even taking that into account, this book is the most fulfilling comics reading experience you will have this month.

The book begins with seventeen pages of Alan Moore and Steve Parkhouse’s fabled Bojeffries Saga. Every time you so a mention of this book, the analogy that is inevitably called to mind is “Charles Addams meets H.P. Lovecraft”. As much as I hate to agree with conventional wisdom, that is exactly what this is – and wonderfully so. The Bojeffries clan is essentially the Addams Family (the original New Yorker Addams Family, not the adulterated TV or movie versions) with Lovecraft’s post-Gothic sensibility grafted on. Even though these stories are – what, twenty years old? – they are still delightfully whimsical and precociously amusing in the way that only dreadfully, morbidly mordant can be.

There’s a five-page story by Steve Dillon that is about as beautiful as you would expect. This is obviously from early in his career (some original publication dates would have helped, guys) but his trademark clarity and gravity is still very much evident, even if his line is less sure than it would one day be. It’s a simple story about heartbreak, with no mystical or magical tomfoolery whatsoever. I’ve been a fan of Dillon’s for a long time – way before Preacher was so much as a twinkle in Garth Ennis’ pants – and his work is always a treat for me.

The one feature I’m not entirely sold on is Ronald Shusett and Steve Pugh’s Sharkman. This first episode didn’t really impress me, but Steve Hugh’s art has never looked better. They’re scanning this stuff directly from the pencils, and he has an extremely facile way with subtle gray shading.

The book finishes up with Dave Gibbons and Ted McKeever’s fabled “Survivor”. You’ve already heard about this story, I’m certain, and none of my praise will have any influence If you haven’t already read it. Leave it simply be said that its one of the very best things that either of these gentlemen have ever produced, and certainly one of the best superhero deconstructions, period.

The volume is rounded out with a wonderful four-page Flaming Carrot story by Bob Burden and Garry Leach. Hyperbole is useless: if I hype, you will assume I am merely exaggerating; and if I am demure, you will ignore. Leave it be said that this is a very smart and very satisfying package. Hopefully they will be able to continue this level of quality. If they can create as interesting a package every month (or quarter, or bi-month, or whatever) then the A-1 series should be thunderously successful, and deservedly so.