Monday, February 22, 2010

I'm not who you think I am / I'm the king of Siam

They asked me to be this week's guest contributor over at Robot 6's weekly What Are You Reading? feature. As you can imagine, when asked to write some pithy blurbs about recent comics, I turned in an epic, rambling digression about Blackest Night, Siege and Jack Kirby's Eternals. I apparently have no ability to self-edit.

Did I pass the audition?

Number Seven on the top ten list might come tomorrow, or it might not - I have to go out of town later in the week due to a family emergency, so I reserve the right to fuck off for a few. I'm really enjoying the effort of putting together those articles - it's nice to write something a bit more structured and self-consciously thought-out for a change, as opposed to my usual mode of rambling digression. But they are a fair bit of work for all that, so I don't see myself having time for more than one a week until the end of the line. Hopefully they are worth the wait for my loyal readers, all three of you. (Hi, mom!)

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Five Best Batman Villains, Part 2

2. Bane

Bane suffers in fan memory partly due to the undeniable influence of the Poochy Effect. He was specifically designed by his creators with one goal in mind: to be Batman's Doomsday. In theory, he should be a mess, but just as I have a soft spot for Doomsday, I think Bane is one of the company's most underutilized characters.

For all that people complained about Doomsday, he was the perfect villain for his story: an irrational, wrathful force of nature with no real motivation other than hatred, he was the living embodiment of everything Superman had sworn to fight. So what if he was grown in an editorial test tube and plopped down into an event storyline that culminated in one of the most egregiously hyped events in an egregiously hyped era of comics? So what if he was the spitting image (no pun intended) of all the worst excesses of the Chromium age - that was clever satire, whether intended or not. The squarest superhero of all up against a monster from the darkest recesses of Rob Liefeld's id. It was fun and holds up a hell of a lot better than, say, Bloodstrike or The X-Cutioner's Song. Superman got to go down fighting the good fight in the most unambiguous, blatantly heroic way conceivable. That was Doomsday's purpose, and for that he did an admirable job.

Building a better Batman villain was always going to be a trickier prospect. It had to be someone who represented - like Doomsday for Superman - some kind of polarized opposite who could take Batman apart with the same ease. The whole point of the exercise, after all, was to ultimately redeem the heroes by providing a situation against which their "old fashioned" heroic ideals could ultimately triumph - providing an explicit rejoinder to all the crappy copycats clogging up the stands during the period. (The real battle in the last part of the Knights saga, after all, was not a rematch between Batman and Bane but between Batman and the Punisher-lite Azrael.) Just as Doomsday was a cartoonish, over-exaggerated creature of pure menace, the ultimate monster for the ultimate hero to slay, Bane needed to represent a similar kind of iconic challenge to Batman - and because, like, Doomsday, he was only needed for the first act of the overall story arc, he could be as monstrously efficient as possible without necessarily stretching credulity.

So: what was - is - Batman's greatest attribute? More than anything else, what has always been Batman's greatest super-power?

His will.

Bane, regardless of his origins, is a truly great villain because he was the first (that I can recall) who was ever smart enough to use Batman's greatest strength against him. I recently went back and re-read Knightfall and was pleasantly surprised by just how well it held up. It's a really solid story: for months leading up to the event, Bane was a secretive presence on the outskirts of Batman's world, gradually lining up adversaries and manipulating events in such a way as to keep Batman running through hoops to the point of exhaustion. FInally, just when seams began to show in Batman's powerful facade, he lowers the boom: he demolishes Arkham Asylum and lets loose every single one of Batman's worst foes. After this, Batman has no choice: he has to push himself to the limits of endurance and beyond in order to capture every single one of these madmen. He's driven, but he's only a man and he can't take the strain. Batman successfully overcomes every obstacle Bane throws in his path, but all the while Batman knows there's something else out there, something waiting for him, something with the mind to set the entire city on fire for the single purpose of running his chosen prey through the most taxing gauntlet of his life. Suddenly, Batman is afraid.

And Bane knows this. He knows that Batman is too brave, too willful, too defiant to ask for help - he knows that Batman wouldn't just get on the JLA horn and call for Superman's help. He knows that Batman, when pushed, will isolate himself from his friends and family. He also knows that Batman is not a creature of magic or endowed with superhuman endurance: if pushed long and hard enough, he will eventually reach his absolute limit. And when it's time, Bane is there, waiting for Bruce Wayne when he returns home to Wayne Manor, reaching out with his big meathook hands and crushing Batman with all the effort it would take to break a ragdoll. That's all it takes, and Batman is done.

After that, it's no real surprise that Bane fell into disrepair. It's even explicitly addressed in the story: once you've broken Batman, what's left? He has no real interest in crime for its own sake, he's not a thief by nature or a sociopath. He is simply the physical incarnation of WIll, but with no direction he was useless. A lackey, a pawn, a mercenary - none of these really fit, but there wasn't anything left for him to do. No one since then - with the exception of Gail Simone - has really figured out what Bane should do, since he already accomplished the one impossible task he initially set out to do. It doesn't matter that he eventually got beaten by Azrael, it doesn't matter that he's been humiliated in the years since. The fact is, he hasn't half been trying since he broke the Bat. And in his heart of hearts, Batman knows this.

This is what keeps him up late, with cold sweat curling down his back. Not psychotic killers, not amoral gangsters, not grotesque monsters - it's that eyeless mask, the so-simple-it's-inescapable luchador mask that seems to encapsulate every hateful emotion ever felt. Batman knows that, when the chips were down, and when Bane truly put his mind to it, he was able to take Batman apart like a cheap watch.

The only thing that gives him any comfort at all is that, for the longest time, Bane hasn't had any real goal, any real direction to channel his seemingly limitless will. What scares Batman the most, more even than the Joker or Two-Face or Zsasz or Darkseid, is the thought of what Bane could do if he ever really put his mind to it.

1. The Penguin

The Penguin is the greatest Batman villain for the simple reason that he's the meanest. He's not crazy, he's not super-strong, he's not endowed with any real overriding mania or fixation. He has motifs, yes, but ultimately he's perfectly sane. He doesn't go to Arkham, he goes to real big-boy jail.

What the Penguin has that no one else has is a simple abundance of pure, unadulterated spite. He's a short man with a paunch and a beakish nose. He's been picked on and derided and underestimated his whole life, dismissed by his social betters and spit on by women. He's ruthless and cunning and amoral because those are the cards life dealt him.

I admit I'm not the biggest fan of his current status quo: the evil-nightclub-owner-slash-gangster routine has been stale for a while, because it essentially neuters him by turning him into a static threat. He has a base of operations but no real active agenda anymore. That should change: the Penguin should be out and about, stirring shit up and hatching master plans. When the Joker steps into a room, you know he's going to kill you just because he's crazy; but when the Penguin steps into the room you know it's because he has a reason to be in that room, and if you are in his way he will not hesitate for one second to pop open a trick umbrella and shoot your kneecaps. He might not kill you just for the sake of killing you but he knows how to make you wish you were dead if you ever cross him. He's cold, cruel and calculating. He's resourceful and cunning, because that's how you get ahead in the world.

In Batman's world there's madness, obsession, will and strength - but ultimately it all comes back to crime, pure and simple. The Penguin's motivations are pure because he simply resents the whole damn world and will not rest until he gets his. The Penguin is a criminal, nothing more and nothing less, with avarice in his heart and hatred in his eye.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Ten Best Comics of the Aughts:

8. Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth
by Chris Ware

The collection of Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan marks, to my reckoning, the first true comic publishing event of the decade. If any one book can be labeled as catalyst for our current era of prolific change, creative dynamism and commercial acceptance, this is it.

With that said, we're at a loss to actually describe the thing. Probably because it's so important, even though it's been out a decade (and existed in its serialized form throughout the nineties), we still haven't quite digested what Jimmy Corrigan means. I think it's a good rule of thumb that it's difficult to judge the significance of a work of art until it ceases to be a primary document and becomes a historical object. In this respect, JC's significance can't be measured because there are still cartoonists using it and Ware's work in general as a direct template for present innovation and pastiche, keeping the work alive in the present. You can't really say that for Maus or even exactly contemporary works such as David Boring. (Personally? I had David Boring in the race for which millennial comics magnum opus had the biggest crossover potential. Boy howdy did I miss that call.)

You can see Ware's style and substance pasted across an entire generation of cartoonists - without any fear of contradiction, he is the most influential cartoonist of the last twenty or so years. His work - and certainly, JC is a perfect example of this - arrives in a mist of artificial nostalgia and studied self-embarrassment. This has the intriguing effect of making what is in actuality very difficult and formally adventurous work appear old-fashioned, even hokey. The reader knows its a put-on but buys the conceit anyway, sort of a clinically depressive inversion of Stan Lee's supremely confident, knowing huckster. Ware's constant self-effacement insulates the work from criticism on the grounds of willful obscurantism or needless intellectualizing - self-defeating traps that have swallowed up many lesser cartoonists. In essence, we have major work from a major, medium-defining talent, presenting with such bashful earnestness and almost painful attention to historical precedent that it is perceived less as a challenge to conventional notions of canon than the quiet rediscovery of a forgotten keystone.

Ware writes very sad stories which are then placed in a stifling matrix of technical mastery, the total effect of which is to create an atmosphere of uniquely claustrophobic dread and metaphysical helplessness. Ware's trick - if it can be called a trick - is to understand the comics page less as a series of static images mashed together in order to create a continuity of action or effect, and more as a technical diagram. This allows, in his cosmos, for an information-rich narrative style to instill constant intimations of a deterministic universe. Maps, catalogs, encyclopedias, game boards, advertising, newspapers - all broken down into their essential elements as information vehicles, repurposed into serving as the templates for new kinds of comic book pages. There is nothing intuitive about the way Chris Ware structures his page: they don't flow like Kirby, they don't stroll like Crumb, they certainly don't express emotion like Kurtzman. What they do, however, is to create a constant awareness in the reader of the act of reading a comic. There are no concessions towards ease of reading: it's all deciphering. There is conscientious effort necessary, and this effort keeps the reader's consciousness from ever fully embracing the story on its own terms. This ensures the maintenance of a distance between reader and characters that makes empathetic connection difficult - but not impossible.

This is one of the reasons why Ware's work thrills: it is uniquely comics in a way that seems almost preposterously pure. You can't imagine JC in any other medium, because the medium is so inextricably bound with the message that - shorn of the context - the story itself loses a great deal of its meaning. Jimmy's story is that of a bewildered man-child lost in an uncomprehending world of adult responsibilities and relationships. It is told in a particularly cold manner, which should not be mistaken for misanthropy on Ware's part. The reader has to work to overcome the emotional distance instilled by Ware's heartbreakingly exact technique in much the same way that Jimmy has to work to overcome a lifetime's habits of loneliness. But ultimately Ware wants you to do this: he isn't setting the reader up to be any kind of cruel, unresponsive God over the bewildered Jimmy - he's inviting the reader to inhabit Jimmy's life, to cross through the barrier of the page and see the world as Jimmy sees it. The realization dawns in the final pages that Ware's dizzying technique is itself the final metaphor: he draws Jimmy's world in such aching, dehumanizing precision precisely because Jimmy's soul is so achingly, precisely dehumanized.

Jimmy Corrigan's triumph is the triumph of a soul reborn - in halting, painful half-steps, but forward progress nonetheless from the heart of very dark terrain. For all the bad things that happen in the book, Ware's final sequence is one of hope. After struggling through the wreckage of his family history for hundreds of pages, after coming up short for so long, Ware refuses to allow Jimmy to end his journey without some glimmer of rebirth. That is why the book lingers long after the final pages have been turned, and that is why Ware is more than merely a consummate craftsman or dedicated antiquarian: he possesses an insight into human character that would serve him well in any medium. That he has chosen comics is our deepest pleasure.

10. X-Force by Peter Milligan & Mike Allred
9. Schizo #4 by Ivan Brunetti

This list is composed of English language comic books originally released between 2000 and 2009.

Jimmy Corrigan was first compiled in 2000 by Pantheon in what was up to that time one of the most beautifully-designed hardcover collections ever produced. (If it doesn't appear quite as singularly impressive now, it's because we've been spoiled with the ensuing decade's worth of fantastic book design, much of it by Ware himself, as seen in his fantastic work for Fantagraphics' Krazy Kat and Drawn & Quarterly's Walt & Skeezix series.) Although there was a later softcover release (attesting to the book's real-world success), the initial hardcover - with its gorgeous gatefold book jacket - is still the preferred means of experiencing the story if you haven't already. Interestingly, the hardcover is still available from Amazon whereas the softcover appears to be out of print.

Ware has never been a particularly prolific artist but he is amazingly consistent: his work is time-consuming and painstaking, but he keeps to a steady output. His next major narrative, Rusty Brown, is currently being serialized in almost-yearly installments of Acme, although another, more ambiguous but potentially more rewarding serial, Building Stories has also been published throughout the same period. I admit I have become, in reference to Ware, that most execrable of specimens: he who waits for the trade. I know I'm missing out on a lot of great unique design work and features that will almost certainly not be found in the inevitable collected editions - but life just sort of works out that way sometimes. Honestly, the Rusty Brown "prologue" printed in Acme #15 kind of put me off the current project - so amazingly depressing, like Jimmy Corrigan only with the added benefit of self-flagellating, pitiless recriminations over childhood nerdiness. (Which, as long-time readers of this blog should be aware, hits a bit close to home.) I'm sure my unformed opinion will be proven wrong by my exposure to the sure-to-be-remarkable collected edition. His new work can also be seen in the pages of the New Yorker, where bits and bobs of Building Stories occasionally surface, as well as frequent appearances as featured cover artist for that august publication.

If I had to recommend the next step for any curious reader already familiar with Jimmy Corrigan, I would go with Fantagraphics' collected edition of Quimby the Mouse: yet another beautifully designed volume, this one devoted to the strange adventures of the titular mouse as he makes his way through a melancholic, occasionally menacing world of tight formal grids and impeccably paced physical movement. Whereas Ware's more "serious" work (all things being relative) is occasionally overwhelming in its bleakness, Quimby manages to remain a thoroughly fun reading experience despite its similarly bleak subject matter. (Might have something to do with the inherently comical nature of a cartoon mouse vs. the inherently tragic nature of a cartoon human.) Somewhere in the middle of the decade Ware also curated the thirteenth issue of McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, another tour de force of book design that also doubles as one of the best "alt"/"art" comics anthologies ever published. If nothing else, it offers a fascinating insight into Ware's personal understanding of comics and cartooning history, and can also be seen as a kind of companion to Brunetti's Yale anthologies, albeit one designed with a more idiosyncratic and less consciously pedagogic agenda. Finally, my own personal favorite books of Ware's are his sketchbook compilations, of which two have been published under the Acme Novelty Datebook rubric. I love sketchbooks and personally believe that a well-organized sketchbook reveals more about an artist's insight and craft than a thousand well-conceived critical essays: so far, Ware's sketchbooks bear out my opinion.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Five Best Batman Villains, Part 1

5. The Joker

Many of the Joker's problems can be explained by the fact that the character is criminally overused. In order to be effective, a villain should be used sparingly. In recent years, it's been hard for classic villains like the Joker, Lex Luthor, Dr. Doom and Darkseid to maintain their luster since they've been demoted from threats to - for all intents and purposes - supporting characters. How can you possibly get excited about Lex Luthor if he's featured in fifteen comics every week? Familiarity breeds contempt, and nowhere is this more true than for villains, for whom familiarity means simple boredom.

The Joker is Batman's archnemesis, for better for worse. Batman's rogues' gallery is filled with dark reflections of the hero, funhouse versions of the Dark Knight that accentuate different facets of the Caped Crusader's personality. The Joker, though, works on more than just one or two surface levels, and represents something far more frightening than most of Batman's foes: he's something deeply sinister wrapped in a profoundly anodyne exterior, he's evil dressed as the least threatening guise possible. The Joker's power comes from this juxtaposition. He's a clown - not even a particularly impressive clown, just a schmoe with green hair and white greasepaint in a comical purple tuxedo. Except . . . it's not greasepaint. Somehow, that's his actual skin, chalk white and gleaming in the moonlight. And he's laughing, really laughing - not some sinister, throaty chuckle, like a cackling movie villain, but real, genuine hysterical laughter. He's really enjoying himself, he thinks it's all quite hilarious. Only, you might not like the punchline. You might not "get" his sense of humor.

The best live-action Joker is still Cesar Romero. Why, you ask? That's absurd. Heath Ledger's performance is undoubtedly "better," if by that you mean he is convincingly menacing and sinister and monstrous. But you know what? The Joker in The Dark Knight doesn't really seem like the Joker I know and loathe. He's a filthy, muttering monster. Cesar Romero? Dude is just batshit crazy, and obviously having the time of his life. That's the Joker you can see turning a considerable talent for chemistry to the sole purpose of developing a gas that makes people laugh themselves to death. That's the Joker willing to build a giant automobile with his face on it just because it'll piss Batman off. That's even the Joker who'd walk into the United Nations building as the newly-appointed ambassador of Iran with the sole intention of killing every last assembled head of state, just to see if he can actually get away with it and piss Superman off in the bargain.

The Joker is Batman's #1, but he needs some time off to get his mojo back. We're so used to a Joker with preposterous, credibility-demolishing body counts, it's easy to overlook just how freaky the idea of a grinning clown with homicidal urges might actually be.

My suggestion? Kill the Joker. Dead serious here: make a big deal of it, huge event - "The Death of the Joker." Get it on the evening news, even. Make it as solid and ironclad a death as conceivable, and then keep him dead. Obviously no one is stupid enough to imagine that the Joker will be dead forever, so they'll be looking for him to come back sooner rather than later. But keep him cold for a while, and what's more keep him out of comics altogether, as much as you can - no prestige format books, no Legends of the Dark Knight, nothing. And then, after a few years of this - maybe four or five, if you can possibly keep it up that long, then you bring him back. I promise you, if you could keep the Joker dead for a significant enough amount of time, his comeback would be a big fucking deal. It might actually be interesting, which is something Batman's archnemesis hasn't been in a long, long time.

4. Anarky

There is a very simple question at the heart of Anarky's character which defines his dynamic with Batman: how is it possible that the avatar of law and order in Gotham City is a violent, extra-legal vigilante? The state - by definition the monopoly of force, whose most basic justification for existence is the preservation of public safety and civil order - is unable to control the forces of chaos within itself, and must depend on the goodwill of an unlicensed super-hero - a free agent existing in direct opposition to the state's putative monopoly of force - in order to maintain itself. What justification can the state offer for its own existence if it can't fulfill its most basic covenant? The existence of Batman, and his continued tacitly-approved operation, shreds the social contract. Without Hobbes and Rousseau, we're left with Marx and Bakunin. Without even the pretense of direct democracy, government devolves into republicanism, and from republicanism it lowers itself to oligarchy, and from oligarchy the nature of the state as the mechanism of naked, unrestrained power stands revealed.

That's the idea, at least. Admittedly, most of the charm behind Anarky lies less in the execution than the potential. Historically, he's been strongly associated with his creator, Alan Grant, who conceived him as a potent challenge to Batman on the grounds of challenging Batman's legitimacy as a representative of the state's worst authoritarian tendencies, unfettered by legalisms and loosed upon the city's permanent economic (supposedly criminal) underclass. There have been precious few Anarky stories, and some of these haven't been that great, but in terms of sheer potential Anarky reveals one intriguing idea after another. The idea of a character who commits crime not out of insanity or avarice but a genuine, principled opposition to Batman and the socio-economic forces which he (wittingly or no) represents is fascinating. In fact, it's not hard to see in Anarky a variation of Frank Miller's conception of Batman in the first 2/3 of The Dark Knight Strikes Back - a principled terrorist bent on destroying authoritarianism through individual initiative.

The best part about Anarky is that, regardless of where you sit on the political spectrum, he nevertheless represents a coherent philosophical challenge to the Powers That Be who, based simply on the ingenuity with which he challenges Batman, cannot be easily dismissed. Add to this the fact that the character is, ultimately, an immature and callow teenager, untested by experience but motivated by nothing so much as an unimpeachable sense of self-righteousness - sort of an anti-Robin. In Anarky you have the potential for one of Batman's greatest challenges - not just a physical or mental or even spiritual challenge, but a challenge to his ideology.

3. The RIddler

The Riddler is one of, if not the most high-profile casualties of DC's post-Crisis, post-Dark Knight tonal shift. Neil Gaiman did a great Riddler story in a 1989 Secret Origins special that explicitly defined the character's problems in the superhero climate of the late 80s and beyond: he was a gimmick villain whose greatest wish was to pull off a perfect score and have fun doing it. He wasn't a killer, he certainly wasn't a sociopath, he liked goofy themed henchmen, outsized deathtraps and played the game by a generally outdated set of "gentlemen's rules." This was a great story (and is probably the only time you'll ever see Gaiman, Bernie Mireault, Matt Wagner and Joe Matt between two covers, let alone working on the same story), but it was so memorable that it stuck the Riddler in time as an anachronistic bumbler. Sure enough, the next couple decades were not kind: he was egregiously suckered by Bane in the lead-up to Knightfall, abandoned by his own traitorous henchwomen soon afterwards, repeatedly humiliated (both in the context of the comics themselves and by creators seemingly too embarrassed by him to do anything interesting), and generally shat upon mercilessly. Let's not even mention Hush, which still doesn't make a lick of sense.

But why does it have to be this way? Think about it: the most popular (non-childrens) books in the world are mysteries - be they whodunnits or crime thrillers or conspiracy stories. Seeing that Batman is - or at least was once - the "World's Greatest Detective," it makes sense that he would have an arch-nemesis devoted exclusively to the creation of mysteries. Nowadays, the most detecting Batman ever does is call in a question for Oracle or one of his other assistants. It doesn't help that few Batman writers seem able to write a genuine mystery to save their lives. But how about a Batman villain who isn't a psycho, who isn't necessarily even a violent criminal - just, say, a man with a mania - some might even say an obsession - for making things fit, for putting together all the pieces to puzzles that other people don't even perceive. And of course, when he figures things out, he isn't content just to enjoy his own private knowledge, he has to share - or at least, he has to leave the clues there for anyone with the brains necessary to follow his formidable train of thought.

Batman has psychotic killers, megalomaniacal world-beaters, tragic monsters and even alien despots in his rogues' gallery, but the one thing he doesn't really have is a purely cerebral foe, someone who can match the Detective wit-for-wit, someone whose most basic metier is designing the perfect crimes. The Riddler has been a joke for over twenty years, but he doesn't have to be. What Batman needs is his very own Professor Moriarty. Thankfully, he already has one, sitting in the corner and slightly dusty from disuse, but a very sturdy concept nonetheless.

Monday, February 08, 2010

The Ten Best Comics of the Aughts:

9. Schizo #4
by Ivan Brunetti

Sometime in the early years of the previous decade, Ivan Brunetti discovered the Golden Mean of cartooning. By which I mean: he had been a good cartoonist before, but at some point in the years between the release of Schizo #3 and #4, Brunetti matured into one of our best living cartoonists, an artist with an absolutely impeccable understanding of the craft and construction of comic strips. His timing is perfect; his lines are perfect; it doesn't feel stifling or over-thought or too precious. His strips breathe and choke and swoon in all the right places.

He's a depressed man, Mr. Brunetti, and this fact has historically stood front and center in his work. This is certainly within keeping of the historical preoccupations of "alt" cartoonists of his generation, and Brunetti mined that vein for richer lodes than most. The problem is, of course, that serious depression isn't really a healthy way to live, and as funny as it can be to wallow in misery, at the end of the day misery is still inescapably miserable. As hilarious as his joke books - Hee! and Haw! - were and are, they're also steeped in some serious, distasteful and intense self-loathing. You know it because like recognizes like:

With that said - and at the risk of careening over the edge into dipshit armchair psychology - the formal mastery on display in Schizo #4 seems to have brought with it a calmness, a sensation (at least from the reader's perspective) almost akin to serenity. The stories are still sad and the world is still full of misery, but somehow Brunetti crossed the threshold from making art that merely reflected the despair of living, to art that uses that selfsame despair as the foundation of an attempt to find consolation for those left alive.

The most impressive facet of Brunetti's skill is how thoroughly he inhabits every design element on a page, with every piece conceived as part of singular whole that builds meaning from its dense context. He was always something of a stylistic magpie, but his most recent work pulls deeply from the most profoundly simple sources: John Stanley, Ernie Bushmiller, and especially Charles Schulz. Although these are frequently-dropped names in cartooning circles, reading Brunetti you feel strongly that there is a monstrous chasm between homage and deep comprehension. It's not just style, it's the way Brunetti creates visual patterns that carry the eye across the rows of panels; the way his characters often seem to stand still while the world moves pivots around them (keeping the reader's eye directly where he wants it to linger); even the way his lettering doesn't merely clutter up the top of the panel but often invades the horizontal plane, forcing the eye to cross the illustration - to take in both the visual and linguistic elements of the panel in one gulp. The motion in a row of four panels is always to the right, just as the eye reads.

Lots of people have attempted to copy Schulz's four-panel rhythm, but few people have ever really understood the way Schulz's rhythm was dictated less by the beats of a gag and more by his commitment to the understanding that his gags only worked if played entirely straight. That's why Peanuts has gained such a melancholy reputation, but that's also why the strip retains its bite: comedy is tragedy once removed, or so the saying goes. Play it straight and we're not simply laughing at Charlie Brown for a brief moment, but we're lingering on the sensation for a while longer.

(Read "Whither Shermy?" in it's entirety here.)

Brunetti isn't necessarily telling jokes anymore, but amazingly even in the process of telling the life stories of such renowned jokesters as Piet Mondrian, Søren Kierkegaard and Louise Brooks, he manages to illustrate not merely their pathos but their preposterousness as well. Humor in the face of adversity is not obscenity but instead a kind of dignity. Is their any more dignified figure in twentieth century art than Charlie Brown, America's own homegrown Job?

(Read "Louise Brooks" in its entirety here.)

In paring his style down so radically, Brunetti is left at times with little more than stick figures. But at no time is the reader left with the impression that anything necessary has been omitted. Rather, reading a Brunetti page is a reminder of just how very little a comic needs to be effective. Study this piece here, one of Brunetti's recent New Yorker covers. Although abstract in many ways, it is nevertheless completely legible: by which I mean, with just a few perfect lines Brunetti is able to communicate more than all the complex crosshatching in the world. Arms and legs are no more than spaghetti strands of India ink, and yet they carry the burden of tiny, imagined lives, heaving and sighing and trembling with earned vigor. With very little he accomplishes very much, and to date, Schizo #4 is his magnum opus.

10. X-Force by Peter Milligan & Mike Allred

This list is composed of English language comic books originally released between 2000 and 2009.

Schizo #4 is available for sale from the Fantagraphics store here. Additionally, much of Brunetti's past work is available in recently released hardcover compilations: Misery Loves Comedy, a collection of the first three issues of Schizo and other miscellany, and Ho!, reprinting his previous dirty joke books Haw! and Hee! Brunetti is currently on the faculty of Columbia College Chicago, where he teaches comics and design. Never the most prolific artist, in recent years his output has mostly been that of an educator, having compiled two volumes of the impeccable Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons and True Stories for Yale University press, as well as the instructional manual Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice, included with the ninth (and so far most recent) issue of Buenaventura Press' fantastic Comic Art magazine. The Cartooning pamphlet is the product of Brunetti's work as a teacher and theorist on the subject of comics, and is therefore of prime importance for anyone interested in either Brunetti's cartooning or comics in general. Comic Art #9 is available for sale from the publisher here.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Five Worst Batman Villains

5. The Joker

This guy is only #5 out of respect for all the good Joker stories that there have been. Unfortunately, most all of those stories were published before 1988, which is coincidentally around the time The Killing Joke was published. It's not like the Joker was a harmlessly comical jackanape before the late 80s, but man, turning him into a quasi-genocidal embodiment of mass murder and psychological torture as a way of life really stretches credulity, and that's saying something in the context of a book predicated on a mentally ill billionaire dressing like a bat in order to beat up criminals with the putative support of local law enforcement. I had even forgotten, until Tucker reminded me, the bit in Joker's Last Laugh where - having almost destroyed the entire planet by drugging a whole bunch of deadly super-villains with Joker toxin and trying to kill the President of the United States - the Joker is once again saved by the Dark Knight performing CPR after Nightwing almost beats him to death. Seriously: the character has become so perversely demonic that keeping him alive in-story warps and distorts every other character and plot element around him. The Batman - and half-a-dozen other heroes - have saved his life so many times, it's stupid. And sad. Still: we'll always have "The Laughing Fish," and he was good on Batman: The Animated Series.

I mean, seriously, heroes don't want to kill villains, even the worst villains, because that would prove that "we're no better than them!" Does that mean a cop who fires his gun is no better than the bank robber firing at the cop? Really? I'd like to see you explain that to the local police union. The answer to this question is simple: don't turn every villain into a mass-murderer and we can go back to not caring if the Justice League forgets to read Felix Faust his Miranda rights.

4. Killer Croc

Quick - name one good Killer Croc story. OK, there was the one from the Doug Moench / Kelley Jones run where he goes down to Louisiana to live with Swamp Thing, that wasn't bad. But still: the fact that we all instantly thought of that one episode of B:TAS where he floats downriver and lives with the community of circus freaks ("Sideshow") kind of indicates that this guy has pretty limited range. Seriously: he's a crocodile man who likes to eat people, and is dumb. That's genius, right there.

3. R'as al Ghul

In theory - and based on his first, good appearances in the 70s - R'as should be a classic villain. In practice, he's become perhaps the most boring immortal megalomaniac supervillain in comics, with vaguely defined motivations, unbelievably generic henchmen (League of Assassins? What's next, the Club of Robbers? The Group of Rapists?), and contrived family drama. You know a villain has hit the skids when his main function is to appear in secondary and tertiary spinoffs in order to lend "gravitas" to the proceedings. In actuality, he's become the biggest, most impotent heel in supercomics. The problem is - this heel no longer has any heat whatsoever, he'd get booed off the undercard at a County Fair exhibition match. Darkseid had this problem for a while, too - absolutely overused and trivialized for a good decade and a half from the beginning of the 90s tright up until Final Crisis. He'll probably lay low for a while before they bring him back, and if they play it right he'll have been sufficiently rehabilitated so as to be once again cool. R'as? They tried that with him already (remember how he was dead for, like, six months or something?), it didn't take. The last readable R'as al Ghul story was in Legion of Super-Heroes, which doesn't say good things about his ability to be anything more at this point than stunt casting.

2. Black Mask

Why this character persists is beyond me. He's a crime boss with - get this! - a black mask, who is also a gruesome murderer who likes to torture women to death. That's class, that is. This guy would be a good villain in Punisher MAX, you know, as long as Frank got to shoot him in the head when the story was over. As it is, across the street at DC, this guy gets to linger on for years despite having nothing even remotely resembling a fanbase. He doesn't even have an interesting origin or compelling visual - he's got a black face! He's the Al Jolsen of supervillains! And then we're supposed to believe that Catwoman feels guilty about murdering this guy? A future installment of "Nobody's Favorites" if ever there was one.

1. Mr. Zsasz

What is this guy's gimmick, again? He likes to murder people in gruesome and torturous fashion, and for every life he takes he carves a line on his body. Do you see how many lines this guy has on his body? At least the Joker doesn't carry around a scoreboard on his body with a chit mark for every man, woman and child he's killed. This guy, though? Walking proof of just how bad Batman is at doing his job, not to mention how bad the Gotham Police are at doing theirs. If this guy were real (I know, poor parlor game to play with super comics, but still) - if this guy were real he'd be the worst serial killer in American history, and it wouldn't matter how crazy he was, they'd grease the rails all the way to the chair. There ain't a city, state or municipality in the United States liberal enough to let a guy like this get off on an insanity plea - he'd get the chair in Berkeley. He's just a monumentally stupid idea for a super-villain. You know how some people say there's no such thing as a bad character, there's just bad writers? Mr. Zsasz is proof positive that, Yes, Virginia, there are indeed bad characters, character who should be locked in a dark hole and never remembered, because their very presence in a story forces the reader to confront unpleasant questions regarding the basic unspoken ethical premises on which superhero comics are built. And not in a good way.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Blogging About Blogging, Yadda Yadda

Quick question: with all the changes that Blogger is undergoing, am I going to need to change my site anytime soon? I haven't received any notices from Blogger , but I did receive something from Haloscan recently saying I was going to need to drop the service because it was going away. I don't like the Blogger comments function but I guess it'll be what we have going forward (soon as i get around to changing it). I really don't know what the hell I'm doing so if I need to change anything on this template, I should probably start mulling it now.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

The Ten Best Comics of the Aughts:

10. X-Force
By Peter Milligan and Mike Allred

The desire for fame is one of the oldest urges in human society, hardwired into our cultural DNA stretching all the way back to Gilgamesh and Achilles. It's a primal urge, a yearning for significance and symbolic immortality in the face of certain (mostly) inescapable facts of human existence: mediocrity, anonymity and death. The invention of celebrity, however, is a more recent development. Contemporary society did not invent celebrity but we've certainly perfected the phenomenon to an absurd degree.

X-Force, in its original incarnation under Rob Liefeld, is one of the most significant books of the 1990s. Unfortunately, its significance is almost wholly negative: it was, in a word, terrible, and is a vital touchstone for anyone wanting to comprehend the very worst impulses of an entire generation of mainstream comics creators and readers. X-Force was borderline illegible. But it sold in the millions, amazingly enough, and its success - more than any other book of the era, I'd argue - paved the way for the very worst of what was soon to follow.

When Liefeld left Marvel in 1992 to cofound found Image, he left X-Force in even more of a shambles than it had originally been. His new Image book - the young company's very first release - was Youngblood, a book even worse than X-Force, shorn of what little charm had been endowed by the latter book's inherited context within the beloved X-Men franchise. The premise was simple enough: Youngblood was a team of government-sponsored superheroes who lived as celebrities in our current (or, current as of 1992) media-saturated landscape. It should go without saying that Liefeld's reach wholly exceeded his grasp, and whatever potential this concept may have had in its earliest days was left entirely unfulfilled by the finished product.

Fast forward another decade. Rob Liefeld has dwindled away to deserved near-obscurity; X-Force has floundered following year after year of successively duller stories (what had been under Liefeld at least passionate crap had become more of the same truly mediocre crap); and Marvel, fresh from the near-death experience of the late 90s and under new management, has suddenly decided to upend their entire apple-cart. The existence of books like Milligan & Allred's X-Force singlehandedly redeems every other boneheaded decision made in the heady days of "Nu-Marvel." For the historical record, there was also Grant Morrison's challenging - if ultimately anticlimactic - output on New X-Men and Marvel Boy, Morales & Baker's underrated Truth, the first volume of Brian K. Vaughn's Runaways. A few great comics makes up for, say, the gay-baiting Rawhide Kid, Marville, "U-Decide", and - well, off the top of my head, I'm thinking that the Silver Surfer series they did that didn't actually feature the Silver Surfer is pretty representative as well. Throwing things up against the wall to see what sticks results mostly in shit-covered wallpaper, but occasionally a few nuggets adhere.

(SPOILERS, I guess.)

Milligan & Allred pick up on the outskirts of the thematic territory Morrison was staking in New X-Men: mutants have become ubiquitous and are increasingly mainstream, updating the original minority metaphor to represent the changed reality of - if not a "post-racial" nation (whatever that means!) - at least a nation wherein racial and sexual minorities have as much right to the public spotlight as any straight WASP. The new X-Force is, fittingly, the book that Youngblood might have been in a different, kinder universe. The new X-Force begins with as gutsy an opening salvo as any comics since Alan Moore's "Anatomy Lesson" remade Swamp Thing, and I think the comparison holds up significantly: in both cases, these "bold new directions" turned a somnolent franchise upside down in the most violent way possible, but in doing so shone a light on lost potential that had been there from the very beginning, unnoticed.

The first issue of the relaunch, #116, sets up the book's new premise, introducing an entirely new team of mutants . . . and then butchering all but two of them. It's horrific: not merely because it's shocking (and it definitely was shocking on first release), but because Milligan is cruel enough to spend an entire issue building up a group of faux "heroes" whose petty avarice was rivaled only by their incompetence, and then annihilate them wholesale. Sluk and Gin Genie aren't given any opportunity to redeem themselves/ Fame is a meat grinder, and the hapless members of X-Force are every bit as likely to end up as literal hamburger as their counterparts in the worlds of teen pop and prime-time soap operas are to end up in rehab. These characters have made, we see, an irrefutably Faustian bargain: in exchange for being on the cover of magazines and having statues in franchise restaurants, they're tools of the military-industrial complex, hired killers fighting terrorists, mass murderers and other "enemies of the state." It's not even that the members of X-Force have traded anything significant for their material gain: they don't have any ethical organs whatsoever, they are nothing more than the product of their appetites (for fame, money, sex), appetites that are ruthlessly exploited for the benefit of nationalistic, militaristic corporatism.

The book's great progression, we see, occurs only after the initial X-Force team has been destroyed, and the replacements have been recruited: among them, Mr. Sensitive, a Zen warrior whose powers necessarily imply pacifism and reason, and the Anarchist, a parody of the self-righteous angry black celebrity (think LeBron James). Over the course of the run, X-Force develops a conscience, and in the process the strangest transformation occurs: characters who had been repulsive and venal reveal themselves as more than merely the sum of multiple stereotypes. The book begins by wallowing in action movie stereotypes - such as one might find in the most casually, unselfconsciously jingoistic military triumphalism - and slowly peels away the layers of bravado until all that's left, in the final pages, is a very real fear of death - not the Technicolor mass slaughter of the early issues, but a personal and wrenching, intimate death, the opposite in every way from the callow fame and fortune that initially characterizes the team. Of course it's the character you love the most who ultimately has to die: it could never be any other way.

Mike Allred would not have been anyone's first choice for an X-book, and yet here delivers some of the best work of his career specifically because it is so doggedly committed to effacing expectations. The most gruesome spectacle appears as both horrifying and strangely attractive, candy-colored intestines and super-deformed mutant freaks illustrated with the loving and slightly goofy detail of a Ramona Fradon Metamorpho story (tellingly, Allred would later illustrate a Metamorpho story for DC's Wednesday Comics anthology). One of the book's most telling features is the conscious decision to appeal to - if not a direct stylistic homage - at least a general notion of a "Silver Age" feel, somewhere between Bruno Premiani and Ross Andru. The juxtaposition between style and content contributes to the generally queasy atmosphere, half palpable dread and half sublime absurdity.

The new X-Force was far more violent and sexual than Liefeld's original vision of the series - it's worth remembering that this is also the book that served as the catalyst for Marvel's decision to sever ties with the Comics Code Authority - but the sex and violence served far more of a purpose than mere titillation. The closest comparison that occurs is Bret Easton Ellis, particularly Glamorama - another exploration of fame and celebrity, another book predicated on the idea that these concepts have become corrosive and alienating forces within the contemporary body politic. Milligan connects many of the same dots Ellis does, bridging the gap between amoral celebrity culture, psychological trauma and unreasoning violence with a frightening clarity. It's brutal, but so is fame as a phenomenon: in exchange for eliding the ego barriers separating the individual from the panoptic gaze of hungry celebrity culture, the individual becomes less a person than a sign, a symbol of a commodity, plastic, able and willing to be manipulated and mutilated in the service of the market.

By any measure the last decade was a good one for superhero comics - as crass and distasteful as much of the more popular mainstream product became, there was a profusion of interesting, eccentric and worthwhile work done in and around the margins. For those with the patience to whether the storms of increasingly cynical marketing gimmicks and never-ending crossovers, the rewards were great - the aforementioned Nu-Marvel books, Automatic Kafka, Powers, Promethea, to name just a few. You could even say that the genre redeemed itself after the poor showing of the previous era. But even in strong company, X-Force is still the best superhero comic of the decade - nothing else comes close.

This list is composed of English language comic books originally released between 2000 and 2009.

Amazingly, Miligan and Allred's work on X-Force appears to have fallen out of print. It was originally compiled into a single, huge hardcover entitled Famous, Mutant and Mortal, which is currently available new from between $235 and $600 on Amazon. A mere pittance! (That is the version I own, although I also bought the individual issues in serialized form as they were released.) Although that is probably the best format available for the series, it was also released in two smaller softcover trades - the unimaginatively titled New Beginning and Final Chapter. These also appear to be out of print, but available for a far more reasonable price than the hardcover.