Thursday, March 31, 2005

Things That Confuse Me

I know that DC said that events like Identity Crisis and Countdown would change the tone of their superhero books, but I must admit that their announcement regarding the "bold new direction" of their flagship title has me slightly baffled...

What the hell? It's an ostrich!

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

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

For the Week of 03/30/05

Perhaps this is Elrod's way of working autobiographical elements into the strip.

("A few drinks of scotch." That's what the coroner's report will say in the morning when they find the old man frozen to death.)

For the Week of 03/23/05 For the Week of 03/16/05
For the Week of 03/09/05 For the Week of 03/02/05
For the Week of 02/23/05 For the Week of 02/16/05
For the Week of 02/09/05 For the week of 02/02/05
For the Week of 01/26/05 For the Week of 01/19/05
For the Week of 01/12/05
Hokey Smoke

What's that? You say the Official Rejected Breakfast Cereal Mascot Archive has actually been updated? Alert the media!

Black Panther #1-2

I loved Christopher Priest's Black Panther, but I wasn't particularly sorry to see it go. Unfortunately, the last year of the title suffered pretty badly from the fact that it was so near cancellation - all the rather breathless attempts to bring back readers succeeded only in muddying the waters further. Besides, as much as I like Priest's work, he does have a tendency to write some of the most unneccessarily confusing comic books in existence... it had gotten more and more involved until the Byzantine plotting had reached a point of diminishing returns. Still, 62 issues is nothing to sneeze at, especially considering that Priest & Co took a character who had been something of a joke - the living definition of a "token" hero (or at least that's how he was in most of the books he showed up in, Messrs. Kirby & McGregor notwithstanding) - and made him into the black Batman he always should have been. The Black Panther went from perpetual cameo-fodder to one of the meanest, smartest and toughest hombres in the entire Marvel Universe in the space of just a few years, and considering the dearth of interesting minority characters in comics this is definitely to be applauded.

So I was excited about the new book. I don't buy too many mainstream superhero books these days, but I'll always give anything John Romita Jr. does at least a flip-through in the store (unless its a Spider-Man book, in which case I have no interest). I am pleased to announce that Reginald Hudlin's relaunch is everything a relaunch should be: everything that worked about past series, with everything that didn't work jettisoned and a whole bunch of new balls thrown up in the air all at once. Simply put, these were two of the best superhero books I've read in quite some time. Hudlin has been wise to retain all of the bits of Wakanda lore that Priest so painstakingly built the past few years, along with the Panther's essential characterization as an ominous and shadowy operator... but gone is confusing density that made the book a chore for even longtime readers such as myself in the title's last year.

Subtext in superhero comics is a hard thing to pull off. Some of the very best spandex books have always dealt with meaty subtext, but it's very easy to go overboard into the realm of unnattractive didacticism. The beauty of Priest's Panther was the way he was able to weave thematic touchstones like post-Colonial African politics, international finance and the Rwandan genocide into a very natural superhero narrative. It made as much sense for Priest's Panther to be involved in these things as it does for Captain America to be involved in the metaphorical exploration of whatever is going on in the United States. My only warning to Hudlin is not to go too far with his political commentary: it's pretty obvious where the story is going in terms of the United States' foreign policy objectives, and whereas I suspect we agree on most issues in regard to our country's current direction, the temptation to go too far into the realm of blatant caricature of our current policy undercuts the story's intent.

But be that as it may, I'm here for the duration. John Romita Jr's art remains a wonder to behold. The second issue is especially well-done, with about two-thirds of the issue devoted to rather brutal hand-to-hand combat. Drawing well-conceived and elegant action scenes is something of a lost art, but JRJR gives us a good view of every combatant, a good feel for the kinetic energy of such a dangerous battle, and a real sense for the raw physicality on display. There are many, many artists currently drawing a paycheck from the Big Two who could do a lot worse than to study what he does here, because I have a hard time thinking of anyone currently working who does it better. He's surpassed his dad in everything but name - he's somehow got his own dad's glamour in addition to Kane's grace and form and Kirby's sheer energy. (It doesn't show if he's not drawing Spider-Man, but he's also gotten pretty good at evoking Ditko's mood. Too bad most of his Spider-Man stories just aren't written very well or I'd buy those, too.)

This is an impressive book, and I look forward to seeing what the future will bring.

Monday, March 28, 2005


New remix up here - featuring a visit to a certain Town Without Pity you may have heard has a big movie coming out...

Also up at Popcultureshock, I have a new review of Mat Brinkman's Teratoid Heights. They're going to be switching to a new format in the next week or so and they asked me to start contributing some reviews to broaden the site's coverage of non-spandex type books. My goal is to have one or two interesting looks at left-of-center books a week, written with a more general readership in mind than the reviews I write for this blog (which can, let us be frank, be quite wonkish). I hope you enjoy. Comments are always welcome.

Friday, March 25, 2005

"Been living so long with my pictures of you / That I almost believe that they’re real" -
Number Three in an Open-Ended Series of Thoughts on the Aesthetics of Comics

"I prefer comics where it seems like all the panels on the page exist in a latent state with each other, where the flow of the page is an indivisible whole, a totality. But with something like Price Valiant, I don't see a flow there from panel to panel. It doesn't seem like one panel laid the seed for the next panel. It was more like, here's a bunch of ideas and key narrative points, and its like a storyboard in some way. . . . I mean, there is a continuity - I'm not denying that - but it seems to me a continuity that's decided after the fact. . . . It seems to me that's not quite cartooning, by my definition, but it's comics.

- Ivan Brunetti,
The Comics Journal #264

Asceticism has been the dominant flavor of "serious" comics for a long time, and while this has proved useful in terms of helping to create and nurture a more critically aware self-image within the medium, it has also become an unfortunate psychological crutch.

Within the comics community, and in those mainstream media outlets where the form is gaining increased recognition, the image of the modern cartoonist is almost invariably similar. Whereas past generations presented cartoonists as robust men with indefatigable work ethics and amiable demeanors - the image of the perpetually sturdy Milt Caniff sitting at his drawing board springs immediately to mind, or Will Eisner looking infinitely dignified in one of the many promotional photos taken of him in the 1940s - the current generation has retreated as far in the other direction as possible. Those cartoonists who dominate the critical discourse (at least in North America) are almost to a man figures who typify isolation while celebrating detachment and spiritual reserve - Chris Ware, Dan Clowes, Seth, Chester Brown, Ivan Brunetti, Charles Burns, Adrian Tomine.

The act of drawing seems almost physically painful for these artists, who never let an interview opportunity pass without mentioning the "heartbreak" of cartooning, or the burdens of extreme perfectionism. It seems for these gentlemen almost as if the joy has gone entirely out of drawing, and the strain is beginning to show in their work, with artists like Ware, Clowes and Tomine beginning to drift further into their reflexively ascetic navels and producing comics that are defined almost entirely by their absence of dynamism - be it narratological or psychological.

The quote by Brunetti at the top of the page typifies, for me, some of the intrinsic problems of this aesthetic fascism. Comics is a particularly flexible and endlessly inventive medium. Because both the language and the form are perpetually malleable, comics can accommodate an almost infinite variety of approaches. The problem is that in reaction to certain historical prejudices - the economic domination of mediocre mainstream comics and aesthetically numb assembly-line production methods - certain very specific schools of cartooning have been elevated to preeminence over others. This has had the unfortunate side-effect that the least intrinsically robust creators have created an environment wherein those peculiar stylistic attributes which typify their cartooning have become dominant.

The most important counter-agent to this trend is time. As we are, under any measure, still in the first-bloom of the form's growing mainstream respect and acceptance, these trends will hopefully level-out as larger audiences inspire larger and more diverse pools of creators. The philosophy that exalts the painstakingly-crafted narrative-strip format of Clowes and Ware over, say, the lushly-illustrated and more static approach of Hal Foster's Prince Valiant is totally arbitrary. The exaltion of narrative clarity over virtuoso drawing is similarly limited, and says much more about the subjective tastes of the observer than any useful objective standards for evaluating comic art. The growing critical recognition for the more illustrative fantasy work of artists such as Charles Vess, P. Craig Russell and Jeff Smith is proof that any imposed boundaries are essentially useless - and that any considered critical vocabulary has to be able to approach apples as apples and oranges as oranges. (To some degree as well, talent has long been considered subservient to genre in critical response - and while there is some validity to the notion that genre acts as a subconscious constraint upon lesser talents, history has proven time and again that transcendent talents can transcend the constraints imposed by the most limited of genres.)

It is also important that serious comics not be suckered into exchanging one set of arbitrary guidelines - the domination of colorful superheroes and children's entertainment - for another more parallel to current literary trends. The most exciting cartoonists of the last few years have shown a resolute willingness to break out of the confines of asceticism in order to embrace less naturalistic and far more exotic modes of storytelling. Just look at Mat Brinkman's Teratoid Heights - perhaps the most wildly imaginative and deeply transgressive work of the last five years, and so clearly removed from any notion of asceticism that is seems to exist on another planet entirely from the likes of Jimmy Corrigan. Likewise, the release of the monumental Locas and Palomar compilations has refocused attention on the frequently overlooked Los Bros Hernandez, a turn of events which invariably means a return to the appreciation of beautiful illustrations as a key component of comics appreciation.

But the most important release of the last few years may yet be Gary Panter's Jumbo in Purgatory. Almost impossibly dense and mannered, it upends the entirety of the last decade's consensus on comics aesthetics in one fell swoop. Not only do Panter's pages refuse to coalesce into anything resembling a conventional narrative "flow", the sheer density of information communicated in every panel makes the work almost impossible to appreciate on anything but a level of intense concentration. The split between allusive literary meaning and elaborate visual metaphor creates a powerful effect that a more integrated narrative form might find impossible.

The focus on narrative clarity in comics has produced works of staggering focus and depth, but the imposition of unity on these separate elements into a smooth and seamless whole limits the amount of information that can be reasonably transmitted in any given strip. We may soon see a resurgence of cartoonists who will want to disassemble the seamless narrative form of the ascetics and play with the contrast and cooperation between visual and verbal elements in a more expansive and elaborate fashion. There is as much potential for subliminal communication in a beautifully feathered brush-line as in an astringent and mannered pen-stroke.

The First Part
The Second Part

Thursday, March 24, 2005

A Very Important Question

Everyone has seen Crumb, and knows that Robert Crumb was sexually aroused by Bugs Bunny. It occurred to me to ask, on a similar tip, if anyone has ever been sexually attracted to the Thing? Considering how many Fantastic Four/ Thing stories have revolved around Bashful Benji's love life, it surprising how little this is explored. Seriously, it seems like he would be a natural icon for the gay community, with all the metaphorical interpretations his gruff and rocky exterior could inspire. (And the first person to mention that dumb scene in Mallrats gets their IP banned.)

Gay men, strange women - we want to hear from you!

i'm here, I'm queer, I'm covered in orange rocks.

Monday, March 21, 2005


New remix up here. This one won't make any sense unless you know a fair amount of nerd trivia, so caveat emptor.

Hey, Mister - The Fall Collection

When Top Shelf announced their recent sale, I bought a pile of books that I knew were good for me - some Glenn Dakin, some Tom Hart, a couple anthologies. I also bought the third reprint compilation of Pete Sickman-Garner's Hey Mister series, and hey, guess which one I read first . . .

I don't think I've ever heard anyone else discussing the series, which is a shame. It's funny. Consistently funny. It operates on a slightly lower key than Dork or Angry Youth Comics, which might go a long ways towards explaining its invisibility. It's a lot more subtle than either of the above, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that Sickman-Garner is nowhere near the virtuoso cartoonist that either Evan Dorkin or Johnny Ryan are. His humor depends a lot more on sustained mood and character, not so much on the slapstick or silly, and very rarely on the scatological.

Basically, Hey, Mister is a valentine to squalor. Sickman-Garner's world is a threadbare and depressing place. Every wall is cracked and every piece of plaster is chipped. Even when something is clean it looks limp, washed out with industrial-strength fluorescent lighting and scrubbed by an underpaid immigrant cleaning lady. Enthusiasm doesn't really exist in this world, except for the torpid kind of enthusiasm that comes with screwing over rich people or going to the liquor store.

Sickman-Garner's world is inhabited by three hapless rejects, the titular Mister, the eternally grumpy Aunt Mary and Young Tim. Their relation is never defined, except to say that they aren't blood even though they seem to be perpetually bound together as roommates and companions. Probably because no one else would put up with them. Mister is secretly infatuated with Mary, which is funny because Mary is just surly. They know where they stand on the totem pole of life - at the bottom, with no illusions as to the fact that their existences are pretty much the definition of superfluous. As depressing as it sounds, its all pretty damn funny.

Whatever happens in the course of a Hey, Mister adventure, you can be assured that it will be fairly pitiful. They journey up Jack's beanstalk to find a pig that pees whiskey, only to find the giant passed out in his underwear on the floor. Young Tim gets a job assisting Jesus with the Rapture, only to be damned (literally) because of office politics.

Aunt Mary gets knocked out while working at the Nature's Pantry supermarket, but instead of waking in a wonderful, Technicolor Oz she wakes up in . . . the Nature's Pantry supermarket, with half-a-dozen miniature Tim's dancing around her like Munchkins. Her "fantasy" concludes with a lunch-break in the cafeteria, before waking up back in sordid reality. Eventually, overwhelmed by the stupidity of the world around her, she runs into the countryside in search of peace and contentment. She sits under a tree and plucks an apple from a tree . . . but the apple has a worm.

Every silver lining comes with a cloud in Hey, Mister. Surprisingly, considering the resolutely sordid nature of the adventures, Sickman-Garner actually manages to wrest quite a bit of pathos out of such pitiful situations. Mister, Mary and Tim are essentially decent people turned rotten by the absolute pointlessness of everything around them, and the realization that they are neither beautiful nor rich enough to be allowed access to anything better in life, and too smart to be able to ignore the difference. They don't really expect things to get better, but they still possess the capacity for disappointment. This capacity is perpetually exploited in the pages of Hey, Mister.

By far the highlight of the book is "Dial 'M' For Mister", an updated Pygmalion wherein Mister is adopted by Hera (yes, of the Greek pantheon) in order to fulfill a wager that Aphrodite will sleep with anyone. The only problem is that Mister sees through the gods' vapidity, and ultimately becomes disappointed when faced with the fact that he is unable to have the one thing he truly wants. Of course, there's no such thing as a happy ending in Hey, Mister, and the eventual ironic fulfillment of Mister's greatest desire leads to the book's most inspired moment of comic despair.

Hey, Mister officially counts as a "buried treasure", one of the more sublime examples of farce I've seen in quite some time. Sickman-Garner is a talented humorist who somehow manages to make even the most pathetic situation funny merely by dint of the fact that his characters remain perpetually, disconcertingly familiar.

Friday, March 18, 2005

"Waiting For the Gift of Sound and Vision" - Number Two in an Open-Ended Series of Thoughts on the Aesthetics of Comics

Artforms are defined by their limitations. Literature is limited to words strung together from component alphabets. Music is soundwaves given shape by modulations in tone regulated by temporal frequency. Cinema is composed of a series of pictures projected on a screen (or reflected across a cathode ray tube) at roughly the rate of 24 times a second, creating the illusion of movement.

The definition of comics is something more vague, however. Smarter men than I have tried for quite a while to coin definitions, with mixed results - invariably, every proffered definition excludes something at the expense of wittingly or unwittingly emphasizing something else. Whether it's Scott McCloud kicking Bil Keane out of the cartooning fraternity or R.C. Harvey closing the door on Al Hirschfeld, the rush towards academic certainty is never quite as fulfilling as it may seem on the outset.

Better, then, to define comics by the process of negative exclusion. It's far easier for a group of like-minded individuals to agree on what isn't comics than what is, so better to start there and work backwards. Comics is not cinema, or animation, because comics depend on static images whose relation to each other remains fixed in both time and space. Comics is not "fine" art (i.e. gallery art - let's not get into installation art!), because fine art is usually composed of singular pieces intended to be considered in isolation.

But wait - you say - what about paintings that are conceived as series? If you accept something like Superman #75 as comics (that was the infamous "death" issue composed solely of a series of splash pages), then what about every Renaissance painter who did multiple paintings on the death and resurrection of Jesus? Does that make Ruebens a cartoonist simply because some of his paintings can be "read" in sequence? And if you say that it matters which medium the work is presented in, what about all the painted comics? Some may be better than others, but there can be no denying that both Moonshadow and Kingdom Come are comics. What about "Guernica"?

Er. Um.

This is what happens when you try to define something that is, by necessity, very ambiguous. Best not to bother. People know what a movie is without having to argue about it, for the most part, just as people know what literature is. Sure, they may want to argue over what constitutes a novel and what constitutes a prose poem or novella or villanelle, but at the end of the day you're not going to confuse a book of Shakespeare's verse with a DVD of Othello.

Let us simply assume, for the sake of argument, that anything which we can conceivably consider to be comics is comics. Does this mean we have to actively include every different permutation of form in every single discussion? If I want to talk about Curt Swan and Wayne Boring do I have to name-check the Bayeux Tapestry?

Don't be silly.

The fact is that the moment you try to peg down what is or isn't comics, someone, somewhere will disagree, and point to some form of comics that disproves the theory. If you are too inclusive, you lose the focus that the definition was created to instill.

Comics are a purely visual art - which excludes any sort of music or spoken component. Comics are a static art - meaning no motion or movement on the part of any of the visual components in relation to each other (but not, perhaps, in reference to the reader, or you'd never be allowed to turn a page). But besides those two limitations, that leaves the field pretty wide open.

There are undoubtedly semiotics fans out there who will protest that words and sentences, dependent as they are on the static juxtaposition of symbols to accrue accumulated meaning, are comics as well. It's certainly hard to argue with that kind of logic, but it also seems to be a limited concept for further inquiry. While the letters in any alphabet are essentially arbitrary, their meaning is fixed in the mind of the beholder (assuming said beholder is literate). The actual linguistic content of words and sentences is the medium by which literature gains its power, not any uniquely evocative properties of the letters themselves, which ideally (from the perspective of the writer, who hardly wishes to be upstaged by his typeface!) serve as a value-neutral conceptual vehicle. Of course, lettering in comics can get away with being very evocative, as anyone who has ever read an issue of Cerebus can attest.

So we are left with porous and uncertain boundaries. Comics evolved partly out of the tradition of fine art and illustration, and incorporate many elements of those fields. Likewise with literature - words and literary forms have been inextricably bound with comics since the very beginning. Cinema - including the tradition of animation - sits as well on the borderline of cartooning, incorporating many of the formal and structural attributes of the field while remaining distinctively recognizable.

It's useless to try to pin down what is or even what isn't comics, because that brand of rhetoric has proven to be a tar-baby for any number of qualified theoreticians. Better simply to say that comics is a particularly large and amorphous entity which sits at the borders of multiple different forms. This isn't to say that just because something falls into the "none of the above" category, it's automatically comics, but it at least gives us common ground for our discussions - the negative exclusion creates at least the broad outline of a working definition.

Comics are a liminal medium, a hodgepodge of different elements combined to create allusory meaning greater than the sum of its parts. The thresholds which separate comics from its cousin mediums are crucial to understanding the medium's unique strengths, but should never be mistaken for the entirety of the picture.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

"The Gap That Grows Between Our Lives" -

Number One in an Open-Ended Series of Thoughts on the Aesthetics of Comics

If there is one fact that recent discussions have grudgingly revealed to the informed reader, it is that the language and conceptual space which we use to discuss comics is woefully inaccurate and pitifully sparse.

The Comics Journal has recently run two fascinating interviews with individuals working on the exact opposite of the aesthetic spectrum: Ivan Brunetti and Brian Michael Bendis. Both men discussed their craft and the overriding principles behind their body of work, and yet it seemed at times as if they could have been talking about two totally different artforms. True, even under the best of circumstances a high practitioner of ascetic formalism and a prolific popular storyteller would probably have little in common - but it would at least be nice to be able to infer that they share the same medium. The dearth of accessable critical discourse is a crippling handicap towards the medium's broad aesthetic advancement.

I think that the problem rests on the fact that comics is a hybrid medium. Until very recently, whenever comics criticism has popped up, it has taken a hybrid form - by adopting either literary or cinematic lexicons and basically shoehorning the content to fit the language. While it is true that both traditions have much to contribute to our understanding of the medium, it is also true that inexact literary analogies and didactic cinematic correlaries have done a lot to hinder both the critical and popular discourse.

The elephant in the drawing room whenever anyone brings the subject up is Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics - a great book that was also an unmitigated failure in terms of the author's stated goal, i.e. to create an ongoing critical dialogue on comics in the confines of the medium itself. I think the fact is that although McCloud presented a number of interesting ideas in a cogent and thoughtful format, he essentially shot himself in the foot by presenting them in the ostensible guise of a Grand Old Tome, which could either be accepted as absolute truth or rejected as foolish apostasy. Of course he didn't intend such a schism, but it did occur, and as a result anyone who tries to discuss the broad scope of comics critically almost has to dismiss the book entirely before they begin.

But even if you give McCloud the credit for trying to start the dialogue, you are still left with the fact that he didn't do much in the way of exploring the language that needs to be developed before such a discussion can even occur. Too often, any meaningful discussion between professionals devolves into mere craft (and certainly there's a lot of craft masquerading as criticism in UC). Craft is important but ultimately only as a small facet of a larger organism.

Strangely enough, despite the domination of those two fields on the medium, the third obvious contributor, the critical perspective of "fine" art, is almost totally absent from any comics dialogue. This probably says more about the insulated nature of fine art than comics. But that's one less set of baggage - preconceptions, limitations and jargon - that we shall ultimately have to jetison.

I believe that if you conceive comics as merely an annex to literature or an offshoot of cinema, you are criminally unprepared and essetially unqualified to undertake any rigorous discussion of comics aesthetics, craft or history. If you're not ready to discuss comics as comics, you aren't ready to discuss comics, period.

Marvel Super Pages

This review owes its existence to my homie Neilalien, without whom I would probably never have known this book existed. If you don't already own a copy you're probably out of luck until someone puts it up on Bittorrent. Only 200 were printed, and judging from the number on the inside cover I got one of the last ones. This at least makes up for me not picking up that copy of Cooper Skeber #2 all those years ago when I saw it in the store . . .

It seems impossible to discuss Johnny Ryan's work without presenting some sort of caveat, but I bristle at the notion that such a talented cartoonist needs any sort of excuse. His chosen subject matter just happens to be graphic scatology and pornographic crudeness. Perhaps the most dismissive thing certain people can find to say about Angry Youth Comics is that it's juvenile, but anyone for whom that is the be-all-and-end-all of put-downs is in actuality just stating a fact. Johnny Ryan is to juvenilia as Crumb is to women with big asses: he elevates a freakish preoccupation into high art. It's OK not to like it if you don't find it to your tastes, but don't dismiss it out of hand.

Scatology has a fine tradition in the comics. Certainly, most children are at some point fascinated by the notion of societal taboos which they do not have the capacity to understand: bodily excretions, sex, death, incest, cannibalism. Oftentimes these preoccupations predate the capacity for language: by the time you know how to write, you don't want to write about poop anymore. So, that's where cartooning comes in - anyone can draw poop. It's easy. Just grab a brown crayon and go to town.

To violate societal norms once is scandalous and profound. To violate such norms twice is merely pique. But to do so repeatedly, and indeed to make such serial inversion into your raison d'etre, remains an unnerringly accurate method of cultural explication. Just look at how well Catch-22 holds up (really well), and look at how shocked people were when Brett Easton Ellis wrote American Psycho just a few short years ago. When it comes to holding an unflattering mirror up to society, nothing succeeds like excess.

Ryan's already-prodigious body of work exists as a necessary bromide to all the self-conscious and explicitely serious cartoonists out there, all the sad-boy caricaturists and the conscientious graphic novelists. Taken singularly his work may not add up to much, but together it becomes powerfully suggestive satire. Which is not to say that poor ol' Loady McGee is ever - God forbid - profound, but the incessant lack of profundity in Loady's adventures creates a definite ironic weltschmerz that sets the work in sharp contrast with some of the more pedantically profound cartoons of our era.

Marvel Super Pages really hasn't a lot to do with the characters involved. All you need to know about Iron Man to enjoy Ryan's take is that the chracter wears a suit of armor and really likes to drink. The Vision is a robot with a pipe wrench for a penis and the Scarlet Witch is an oversexed mutant. Captain America is deeply closeted with a flat-chested Asian girlfriend. You get the idea. if Ryan weren't such a canny caricaturist, it might get old, but he's got an intuitively loose and appealing style which belies the complaint that he can't draw. In another universe he'd be a storyboard artist in the "Golden Age" of animation - his lines are clean and his figures are loose. He’d be the one who drew all the suspiciously-well-drawn Tijuana Bibles in his off-time – stuff like Mickey Mouse and Blondie having anal intercourse. The quiet mastery of craft underscores his canny storytelling, and this is why the endless stream of shit-and-cunt jokes remain so engrossing.

So let us all salute Johnny Ryan, one of our most vital and bold cartoonists. I don't know how long he can keep it up - honestly, there is no telling how long this will remain funny - but until something better comes along I'm just glad to be along for the ride.

UPDATE: It looks as if, against all my expectations, they might still have one or two copies for sale here. Go get ‘em, Tiger.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

The Greatest Green Lantern of Them All

Yes, after all these years of patiently waiting, DC is once again bringing back the greatest emerald ring-slinger in comic-book history. What's that you say? Hal who? Hell no, I'm talking about my main man G'Nort!!!

Aaaah, G'Nort.

You can take your H.E.A.T. and shove it, pal - around here, we go by G.I.G.G.L.E.:
Is the

But seriously - that's not hard, with competition like this:



Yalan Gur.

I mean, are we supposed to take these things seriously? I say, give G'Nort his own damn series - I'd buy five copies, and I think all the hundreds of thousands of G.I.G.G.L.E. members across the world would second that...

Monday, March 14, 2005


New remix up here. Bone appetite!

Friday, March 11, 2005


Is there any point in heaping further laurels on the team of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely? Everyone and their proverbial mother has already spoken at length about the exquisite formalistic synthesis on display in We3, and I find it hard to disagree with the consensus that they have both found their ideal collaborator in the other. There are so many complicated and elaborate ideas on display over the course of these three issues that is almost amazing to think that two discrete individual minds were able to achieve such a remarkable clarity in the execution of such an ambitious set-piece.

The problem is that, aside from the realm of pure craft and formalism, the story has a nasty tendency to crumble the closer you look at it. Sometimes ambitious writers overreach - it's a fact of life.

All art is manipulation of a kind. Different artists and different mediums allow for varying degrees of complicity with their audience: sometimes it's appropriate to let the audience see the strings, sometimes it isn't. The problem is when, in overreaching, the audience becomes aware of the author's presence despite the author's best intentions toward transparency. This type of tonal shift is known in layman's parlance as "screwing up".

The fact is, anyone with any familiarity with Morrison's work can see his fingerprints all over We3. From Animal Man straight on through to The Filth, the relationship of animals to man, and vice-versa, has been at the very forefront of his thematic preoccupations. The moment I saw the first preview art for this series, I instantly knew that this was a distinctly "Grant Morrison" series, something that would betray a close allegiance to the author's own moral prerogatives simply by nature of their intimate kinship with the subject matter. You can pretty much see the same type of thing with Garth Ennis' War Stories books, or Warren Ellis' hard sci-fi: these books and subjects are close to their hearts because they most explicitly explore issues and ideas that consistently recur in the subtext of everything else they do.

But the problem with intimacy is that it can lead to bad judgment. Because of Morrison and Quitely's privileged collaboration, We3 had the potential to be truly magnificent, but it also had the potential to be a shambling mess. I am not going to say that it falls wholly towards the latter side of the spectrum, but it comes awfully close.

The moment anyone decides to use cute animals as protagonists in any sort of narrative, the reader's emotional investment is almost always amplified. It doesn't matter who you are: if you have grown to maturity in an industrialized Western country, you will have a natural sympathy for pictures of doe-eyed kittens and scruffy puppy dogs. It can be a powerful tool in the hands of any storyteller (just look at the enduring success of Watership Down or Bambi), but it isn't used very often outside of the realms of children's literature because of the fact that it can so easily backfire.

Let's be blunt: there is no reasonable way that any of the animals in We3 should have survived issue three, based on what had been previously established. The set-up was underway for a massively depressing third issue, an apocalyptically sad finale with Bandit, Tinker and the unfortunate bunny (who I don't recall being named) either getting blown up, ripped to shreds, or dying slowly without their medication. The only way for Morrison to save his cuddly protagonists was basically to lie to us, by saying that the story's previously accepted perimeters were null and void. It was a grating moment of blatant manipulation on the part of a writer who damn well should have known better. It's one thing to change the rules as you go (which, as Dave Fiore accurately points out, is pretty much what Dave Sim did for the entirety of Cerebus), another entirely to insert a blatant deus ex machina simply because you have written yourself into a corner.

(Of course, if he had finished the series in the logical way, it would probably be considered the most unremittingly grim book published in many a year: its a fact of life that grown men and women who sit stolidly through the likes of Schindler's List or The Killing Fields can weep like small children when Bambi's mother is shot or Charlotte dies for her children. I for one still maintain that Milo & Otis is one of the greatest films ever made, simply by virtue of the fact that it is probably the greatest animal adventure ever recorded - and I invariably tear up when they head back to the farm at the end!)

First, it's established that the three animals will die without their medication, which evokes the common knowledge that most medical transplants require strict regimens of anti-rejection medications to prevent the body from rejecting foreign organs/objects. Therefore, we are led to believe that the three animals have become inextricably bound to their cyborg parts, much like Darth Vader, and because of the surgical enhancements made to them in the process they would die without them.

Second, this thesis is supported by the fact that it is deemed necessary to kill the three of them in order to bring their part of the project to a conclusion. Obviously, if the animals' armor and cybernetic enhancements could merely be taken off, there would be no plot. The doctors would merely have freed the animals from their cybernetic encumbrances and the We3 would have spent the rest of their natural lives as pampered guests of the research facility, being the subjects of continued observation on the basis of their having survived a very unique and quite experimental research program. Usually when animal subjects are used in tests it is with an idea of gaining the absolute maximum amount of data necessary, and if the animals could survive the procedure that turned them into super-soldiers, it is most logical to assume that the researchers would be most interested in studying the aftereffects of the procedure on live animals, as opposed to corpses.

But that's essentially surmise: the basic fact is that if the animal's armor could be taken off with the apparent ease that my dog can slip out of the cone we put around his neck after a visit to the vet (which is essentially what Bandit and Tinker do in the final pages of the third book), there is no conceivable way that the plot hangs together. If the doctor who freed them from the lab knew that the animals could be liberated from their metal armor in just a few moments, and that their cybernetic enhancements were no more involved than something a homeless man with no obvious medical training could harmlessly remove, than even if you accept that the Powers That Be wanted the animals dead (which is a dicey proposition considering the nature of the science involved), if she had been so set on ensuring the animals survived despite her bosses' wishes, she could simply have absconded with the three of them - sans armor - and taken them home in her car.

Morrison wanted so very badly to touch us with this story, but the effect was much more calculated - and for me at least, quite alienating - than he probably desired. Throughout the story I found myself unconsciously fighting the soporific effect of Morrison's intended emotional manipulation. The effect, even without the galling inconsistencies, was somewhat akin to that of a nagging grain of sand caught in a delicate mucous membrane.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Return of the Elephant

I have been debating for quite some time just how to go about reviewing Paul Hornschemeier's Return of the Elephant. It's a difficult book to approach critically, simply because so much of its impact depends upon a gradual inversion of the reader's assumptions. I don't want to give anything away for anyone who hasn't read it yet. That is not to say that there is a "shock" revelation at the ending of the book, as in an M. Night Shamalyan movie -- more to the point, until the book is almost over, you have simply not been given enough information to understand what is going on. The reveal, while jarring, is all the more effective because it is not truly a surprise at all. It merely makes sense, and in such a way as to cast the entire narrative in a wholly new and different light.

This almost seems like an attempt by Hornschemeier to break out of the reader expectations created by his earlier successes, notably the acclaimed Mother, Come Home. Much of his earlier work has been characterized by an almost mannered emotional delicacy, attuned to small moments of character nuance that necessitated a strong degree of empathetic response from the reader. Anyone who picks up Return of the Elephant expecting a story in this mode will not only be disappointed, they will be rightly repulsed. The story begins in that mode, with seemingly sympathetic characters is recognizably quotidian surroundings. Readers have been conditioned to expect certain things from certain types of stories, and Hornschemeier has enough awareness of the trappings of this genre to skillfully manipulate the reader into a false sense of security.

If you've read any Optic Nerve you know how these sorts of things are supposed to play out. Uncommunicative but empathetic and essentially decent characters stumble through a series of prosaic adventures, revealing themselves gradually to the reader until, presumably, the book ends with a greater insight into the vagaries of human behavior. These type of character sketches are the bread and butter of a certain kind of young cartoonist, the po' faced sensitive lad (or lass) with a lot of insight but certain insurmountable social anxieties which are inevitably revealed in their work. It can be a satisfying mode despite its limitations.

Hornschemeier wants to get under your skin. Reading this book, the reader's expectations are massaged in such a way that we expect a certain type of narrative to emerge. When in fact, the narrative slowly builds towards an entirely different kind of revelation than the one which we have been led to expect, the feeling is one of small black ants crawling underneath your skin. Truly unsettling. It's a short book, and it doesn't take very long to re-read -- and once you do, you will find that what you had taken to be a sparse and naturalistic narrative was actually dense with symbols and thematic signifiers. None of this is revealed until the end, when it becomes obvious that this is an entirely different book than you had been expecting at the outset.

The thing that keeps Return of the Elephant from being merely a trick, a gimmick, is the haunting simplicity of the eventual revelation. The front and back covers, which may seem on first examination to foreshadow a slightly whimsical tale of nostalgia or recollection, become thick with ominous portent. The elephant on the cover changes from a slightly goofy Babar figure to a disfigured and horrid monster, more akin to John Merrick's Elephant Man, reflecting the book's preoccupation with twisted and altered perceptions.

It's a small book but it carries a big impact, hitting like a kick in the chest and staying in your thoughts for a few days afterwards. It's definitely not for the faint of heart. It gives me hope for Hornschemeier's future projects, that he seems so willing to play against type and toy with the expectations of his audience in order to deliver something so blatantly horrifying. Perhaps the acclaim that accompanied his earlier work will not go unjustified.

(You can purchase a copy of Return of the Elephant here if you so desire – I don’t get any cash for this one but don’t let that stop you!)

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

I would like a place I could call my own /
Have a conversation on the telephone

New remix up here. This one was an absolute bitch to put together but I'm pretty happy with how a few of these came out.

Not a lot of new content, though. I spent a lot of time tweaking with the sidebar tonight so there's not so much crap to load when you read the page. This blog fulfills a very important secondary purpose for me by keeping all of my various articles and features organized, but there's no reason the general public should have to load all those links when they come to look at funny Mark Trail panels. So, all that stuff (including, of course, links to all the remixes) is still there, but it's one click away for your convenience.

Friday, March 04, 2005

DIY Remix

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Leave your funny captions in the comments. The winner gets a prize - and that prize is a karate chop to the nuts! No substitutions, please.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Oni Love Can Break Your Heart

Sidekicks Vol. 1: The Transfer Student

Now this is a book that I enjoyed quite a bit despite my initial reservations. Just on the surface, it seems to be the kind of hoary genre mash-up that is so prevalent in American comics these days - in this case, you have the traditional manga boarding school scenario crossed with superheroes. Its also got enough of the surface trappings of manga to remind me of all the bad American manga which I've studiously avoided throughout the years. Two strikes against it before I even crack the damn thing open.

But my initial reservations were soon rendered moot, because this is a delightful book. The lion's share of the credit for this fact can probably be lain at the feet of Takeshi Miyazawa, whose work I was very slightly familiar with before (he did the art for Marvel's short-lived Mary Jane series, which may not have made much of an impact but sure had some nice looking covers). Miyazawa has an intuitive feel for physical form that deftly broadcasts the perfect illusion of dimensionality. His figures have the rounded and supple contours of reality, and it seems as if he takes a delight in the almost methodical rigor with which he varies the angle of his compositions. But from all angles, his people look impressively solid, with a weight and mass that belies their ink & paper existence.

Miyazawa also possesses an impressive touch with expression. Every character has a distinctive and consistent face, and every face is wonderfully pliable. If Miyazawa sins, it is perhaps the oldest sin in the (comic) book: there's not an ugly or even uninteresting face anywhere to be found. I have to wonder if there's ever been a high school anywhere in the history of the world with such a photogenic student body and faculty. But even here, it's easy to forgive because every face is attractive in a different and memorable way. It also doesn't hurt that Miyazawa has a way of drawing every female character to look irrepressibly cute.

I have, in the past, been critical of J. Torres' writing. He has impressed me as being particularly prolific with no care given to quality - producing reams of material that rarely manages to rise above the realm of passable. I couldn't tell you whether or not Sidekicks would be as memorable a book for me if Miyazawa had been replaced by someone with a less interesting style, but the fact remains that Miyazawa is good enough to paste up the cracks in what could have been a standard boarding school hi-jinks scenario. If the characters are recognizable, Miyazawa's art manages to animate them beyond the realm of cliché. It's worth remembering that every character type in fiction exists for a good reason, and sometimes the most compelling people are also completely predictable. The art is what elevates Sidekicks above the realm of mere pastiche, bestowing a sheen of compelling reality onto what might have, in other hands, been a completely uninteresting exercise filled with stock characters and familiar situations.

Thankfully, the super-hero elements are neither intrusive or superfluous, merely granting a slightly interesting perspective on character interactions. You could have conceivably created the exact same characters and situations in the context of a school for magicians or musicians or even electricians - but the superhero bits give it a vantage into the American mentality that perhaps an authentic manga in the same vein but in a different milieu would not.

Love As A Foreign Language Volumes 1 & 2

As enjoyable as Sidekicks was, I found the first two volumes of Love As A Foreign Language to be uninteresting in almost inverse proportion. Here we have J. Torres paired with a young artist who does not impress, Eric Kim, and the result is uniformly tepid.

This is a story of cultural disassociation, of a young man named Joel trapped in Korea for the duration of a teaching contract and hating every minute of his stay. Joel's ennui is illustrated rather literally, through tediously repetitive sequences featuring identical scenarios recurring multiple times. It would be one thing if Kim possessed the acumen to attempt something more subtle with the story's rhythms, but it's mostly just boring.

Joel is a whiner, the kind of unsympathetic protagonist who presents absolutely nothing in the way of distinction for the reader to either identify with or be interested in. He interacts with a blank featureless world of empty rooms and white walls, encounters multiple characters who look alike and whose facial expressions rarely stray away from the stock manga catalog. The series is supposed to be based around Eric's relationship with Hana, the new secretary at his school - but by the end of two volumes Hana has yet to emerge as anything other than a total cipher, a hook on which Torres can latch his somnolent plot, but otherwise nothing but another in the long sequence of vaguely Asian ingenues with vapid expression who populate the Korea of Love Is A Foreign Language.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

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

For the Week of 03/02/05

Most people pay extra for the drugs.

For the Week of 02/23/05 For the Week of 02/16/05
For the Week of 02/09/05 For the week of 02/02/05
For the Week of 01/26/05 For the Week of 01/19/05
For the Week of 01/12/05

Oni Love Can Break Your Heart

Queen & Country: Declassified

I've a confession to make before beginning this review: there is no genre of fiction as resolutely uninteresting to me as the espionage thriller. I don't even really like James Bond, and even though I realize that the Bond movies are about as far from an accurate representation of the spy world as Spongebob Squarepants is of invertebrate biology, just the merest whiff of traditional spy genre signifiers is usually enough to make me instantly lose interest.

So I approached Queen & Country with no small trepidation. For not only was this supposedly a spy book, but from what I had heard this was a heavy-duty spy book: thick with procedural detail and told with the kind of deadpan naturalism that has over the last fifty years evolved into the default tone for every extant subgenre of thriller. But let it never be said that I am one to shrink from a challenge: despite my ignorance and traditional antipathy for the genre, I was committed to giving one of the most acclaimed genre books of the last few years a fair hearing.

Based on the example of this volume, I will say that Greg Rucka seems to have a natural feel and enthusiasm for the genre. Although I was (and remain, for the most part) ignorant of the specific mythology surrounding Queen & Country, the narrative is laid out with painstaking and methodical transparency, so that despite my unfamiliarity I knew basically what was going on at every point in the story. This isn't an adventure so much as a procedural, and the permeating sense of creeping moral ambiguity is offset by the absolutely banal nature with which the proceedings are presented. Spying is as much a job here as anything else, and it comes with the same petty politics, backstabbing, and shitty recognition as anything else. So, even though Paul Crocker's job is probably a bit more stressful than yours or mine, it is still recognizably a job - and this focus on concrete professional details provides effective thematic ballast. Like a particularly well-crafted episode of Law & Order (not a program I regularly watch but one that I can appreciate), it presents a universe shorn of moral certitude but buffered by the presence of inherently decent and conscientious men.

I have no idea how "realistic" the spy milieu is presented in this book, but the important thing is that it feels roughly accurate, which is undoubtedly the effect Rucka and Hurrt were aiming at. The mundane, almost aggressively banal presentation of office and field work carries with it a convincing aura of authenticity: there aren't any doomsday devices or fancy gadgets, just men, guns and paperwork. Of course, for all I know the real spies could very well have fancy gizmos and flying shoes, but again, the visual and thematic milieu of low-tech naturalism is well rendered.

The most enjoyable facet of the book, for me, was the attention paid to historical and architectural detail. If Brian Hurtt's figures sometimes seem rubbery or lacking in dimension, the book excels in the believable representation of physical dimension. The backgrounds are rich with the kind of detail that most artists simply have no interest in rendering: elaborate street scenes, authentic regional architecture and delineated interiors. If I had to guess, I would say that Hurtt had studied architecture at some point in his career, because he seems far more comfortable with the detail-rich world of objects and buildings than with the somewhat less defined world of people. His prowess with the technical pen, as seen on the streets of Prague and the understated interior of the Crocker's residence, is impressive.

Action sequences are often a stumbling block for non-superhero comics: oftentimes, the more realistic the action depicted is, the less convincing it becomes for the reader. Rucka and Hurrt seem to have a good rapport here, because there are some fairly complicated sequences throughout the book that are handled with excellent clarity.

Ironically, the same attributes which make Queen & Country so blessedly unique in today's market also serve to make it a less than satisfying read for me. As I said, I'm not a spy fan, so while I can definitely appreciate the fact that this is an extremely well-done book, I must also reiterate that it serves a very specific function, which you will either appreciate or not. I have to respect Rucka for producing something that steadfastly resists the industry's seemingly inexorable trend towards hybridization: there are absolutely no concessions made to the authors' purely Platonic ideal of their genre. Considering the fact that the only moderately saleable police procedurals currently being produced in comics all involve spandex, and that the brain trust at Marvel remains convinced that the only conceivable way to produce a romance book is to tie it into Spider-Man continuity, the presence of a doggedly un-fantastic book like Queen & Country in our domestic comics market is something of a triumph. While the presence of something more in tune with conventional mainstream tastes could conceivably have raised the book's profile, the fact that it remains uncompromised is definitely a point to Rucka's credit.

If the following decades prove fertile ground for the diversification of American comics, then there is no doubt that the spy thriller - after all these years still a staple of mainstream American prose fiction - could very well become one of the medium's most promising and popular genres. If this is the case, then Queen & Country could stand as the forerunner to a new generation of popular comics, a founding father of the long-foretold "New Mainstream". In a perfect world books like this, with inescapable populist appeal and the kind of engrossing procedural verisimilitude that successfully carries so many popular TV and movie franchises, would sell millions of copies. I guess in the world of comics they have to be content with making their money back from the initial printing.

Solo #3: Paul Pope

For whatever reason, I have never warmed to Paul Pope's work. This has only been exacerbated by the fact that so many of my peers in the comics blogosphere seem to be hopelessly enraptured with him, to the point where a new Pope comic is usually accompanied by all sorts of absolutely specious hyperbole, usually rendered in capital letters and a slightly disparaging air of moral certitude. "Of course, Paul Pope is a genius," they will say, "and as a genius he demands our utmost obeisance!"

Well, perhaps, and perhaps not. He is certainly a capable draftsman, and his compositions are usually interesting, but his faces betray a puckered sameness and his linework is adolescent and overwrought. I wouldn't dream of judging his writing from such an inadequate sample, but there was nothing here to mark him as anything but a journeyman with a flair for understated melodrama. I certainly found nothing to dislike in "The Problem With Knossos" or "On This Corner", but neither were they in any way spectacular examples of their respective genres (mythological pageant and urban slice-of-life).

Of course, it also doesn't help matters that his "tribute" to Jack Kirby, "Are You Ready For The World That's Coming?" is not really a tribute so much as a straight retelling of Omac #1, right down to the pacing and dialogue. It'd be one thing if it were accurately credited as such, but the credits page clearly states: "all stories written and illustrated by Paul Pope" - which is a claim that even a cursory examination of the Kirby comic in question will reveal to be bullshit. As much as that grates, you can probably (hopefully?) chalk that one up to missed communication - easy enough, I suppose, to forget a story credit, but if this issue is ever reprinted they need to fix it.

Ironically, the Omac story is the best thing in here, even if a Kirby homage is probably nowhere near the most advantageous light for any young artist to present themselves. It works because Omac was one of Kirby's most deliciously dense and thematically bold creations, a chunk of total sensory overload that puts most of Grant Morrison's attempts to create similarly hyperbolic narratives to shame. Pope's slavish recreation reveals it to be a surprisingly relevant missing link in modern comics history. There's so many ideas being thrown out in every panel, strange concepts and subliminal perceptions, and a not-so-subtle sexual anxiety slathered all over the page in seemingly abstract, barely-representational primal shapes. Of course, Pope falls short of the template, but it is an interesting and fulfilling exercise in that it helps to reveal nuance and power underneath Kirby's own lines. A career composed of this kind of thing would be hopelessly futile, but as an occasional lark this kind of imitation can be instructive and engrossing.

There's a Robin adventure that is notable for the fact this is perhaps the most brutal depiction of Robin being beaten up by thugs I've ever seen. This story also features the coloring of up-and-coming talent James Jean, who produces some remarkably subtle effects with aqueous pastels, very much redolent of Al Columbia's nauseating color work. Definitely appropriate for a story that features a bunch of crooks and a clown-faced psychopath beating up on a fourteen-year-old boy before trying to throw him in an industrial plastic-shredder. Cheery stuff, fun for the whole family.

All things considered, this is an interesting book that still falls noticeably short of the endless hosannas being heaped upon it and its creator. Pope is certainly talented, but his particular appeal continues to elude me. His precociously febrile linework and trout-faced people seem like the hallmarks of an as-yet undeveloped talent with a lot of work yet to go before he outgrows the inordinate stylistic flair with which he has attained his current peak of popularity.

Now that’s a comic book cover! Don’t ask, just buy it!!!