Thursday, November 6, 2008

Hey, Kids! Comics!

I’m in a much better mood starting out than I was last time, although that’s quickly being tried by the two chunky middle schoolers next to me playing Magic: The Gathering (apparently, there are no life points rewarded for using inside voices)(although God save you from the unholy wrath of the portly middle-aged security guard lady should you smoke a cigarette within spitting distance of the front door. The Spring Valley Library: where the peace can be disturbed, but not pussy-ass non-smokers).

So anyways, what I thought I’d do this time around is write about the comics I’m reading these days, using some of the books I bought the first two weeks of July to serve as a nice cross-section. I’m sure I’ll find plenty to piss and moan about, but I wanted to try and mix in some sunshine, which is much easier to do if I’m just talking comics themselves versus comics-related stuff. So, yeah.

American Splendor #4 (Vertigo, vol. 2): Although I’ve known who Harvey Pekar is for some time, I’d had relatively little exposure to his actual work until Vertigo put out first his The Quitter with Dean Haspiel, and then the first AS mini that came out last year or whenever. I coulda sworn I had an issue of the original series, and I wanna say it was magazine-sized, but I’m probably wrong (I don’t have it now, and I don’t think I woulda gotten rid of it).

Anyways, my first (and for a long time, only) real exposure was through the superlative documentary Comic Book Confidential, which I taped off the Learning Channel in high school (and which I believe is now available on DVD, so do yourself a favor and hunt it up. And then do myself a favor and burn me a copy). The story he reads in that documentary about his obsession with collecting jazz records struck an immediate chord with me, having myself (as I’m sure goes for a lotta you) been saddled at an early age with that unyielding compulsion to collect all manner of (what can be summed up as) useless shit.

And then of course, there’s the movie, the cult popularity of which I’m certain is why Vertigo became interested in publishing Harvey’s work in the first place (not that Harvey’s talent went unsung until it was displayed in the moving pictures, but that I don’t see Vertigo [as friendly as they can be to stuff off the beaten path] as part of a massive conglomerate [in fact, the same massive conglomerate that distributed the movie American Splendor on video] putting money and effort into something they may not see as particularly marketable). Back before that flick came out, when I read that Paul Giamatti was gonna play Harvey, I was not only excited to see Giamatti in something decent for a change (I saw Duets not for him so much as the great Huey Lewis)(no, I didn’t), but because you don’t often see such smart casting (hey, I thought I wasn’t gonna talk about movies this time)(but one more quick movie-related anecdote: of all people, my father actually saw this before I had a chance to, and he called me all excited about it and how I should see it immediately because “Jim, you’re just like this guy.” Maybe not exactly true [Harvey Pekar, for example, is talented], but the point is I wasn’t sure whether I should be flattered or insulted).

Anyways, all this to say that my familiarity with Pekar’s body of work has mostly been passing, but always enjoyable. As noted, I identify heavily with Harvey and his life, for even if I’m not a crabby packrat of an old man, it’s only because I’m just rounding the corner of age 31. As usual, this issue is all about Harvey and his day-to-day life as a writerly, mildly hypochondriacal techno-phobe, but this is the first issue (that I’ve read, anyways) where all the little stories connect to tell an overall one about Harvey’s writing process (which is [again] not remarkably a lot like mine. In fact, just last night, as so often happens, I thought of an idea as I was drifting off to slumberland, and as also so often happens, instead of doing the sensible thing and getting up to write it down, I [like Harvey] tried to etch it into my brain and found today that I [unlike Harvey] had failed). There’s also art from a buncha great guys, including two of my all-time favorites, Darick Robertson and San Diego’s own Rick Geary (actually, I guess he and his wife moved to New Mexico last year. And this shithole town is all the worse for it, let me tell you).

It only took fifteen years or so, but I’m damn glad I started buying American Splendor.

Astonishing X-Men #25: I was damn excited for this issue, since the main reason I bought all the trades in the first place was because one of the finest writers in the industry today, Warren Ellis, was taking over and I wanted to be up to speed when the Internet Jesus saw fit to take his pen to one of Marvel’s top books. Needless to say, I wasn’t disappointed (it should be pointed out here that I’m likely to read Ellis’ grocery list if it gets published, so any notions of objectivity on my part very well may fall to the wayside). Coming as no surprise, Ellis turns in a noir detective story working undercover as something else, in this case, a superhero story (see Gravel, a noir detective story working undercover as a magic/fantasy story; Anna Mercury, a noir detective story working undercover as a cyberpunk story; Wolfskin, a noir detective story working undercover as a sword and sandal story; and Fell, a noir detective story working undercover as a...well, a noir detective story). So that’s good for all concerned (i.e., me), except that I am a bit anxious to find out what’s to become of Kitty Pryde (unless that’s been answered in a book I don’t read. I don’t think Kitty’s even mentioned in this issue, which leads me to think this is the case, although it wouldn’t be unlike Ellis to eschew previous storylines in order to start fresh [along with the team itself in their new San Francisco headquarters][those of you who remember my Spider-Man rant a while back may wonder why I’m not being a bear for continuity here, and with good reason. What it mostly boils down to in this case, I guess, is that Ellis isn’t seeking to change anything, just to bypass this particular character/storyline. Also, the true mark of a good writer is one who can sneak shit past you and you don’t care. I submit the film Pulp Fiction as Exhibit A][and who’s to say he won’t come back to little Kitten eventually?][stop me before I parenthesize again]). Ellis does bring back Storm (perhaps this’ll be a tradition for Astonishing writers: re-introducing female X-Men that we [and by “we,” I mean, “I”] have lost touch with) for what seems to be an extended visit, thereby (along with Armor) balancing out the testosterone levels in the group, and also giving the White Queen someone else to catfight with. Never having been a slouch in the dialogue department, Ellis also hews closely to the book’s well-established snappy patter (and I mean, not that Whedon’s dialogue did anything less than pop off the page, but seriously, who better to continue with that brash, ice queen, razor-sharp sarcasm of Emma’s that was first established by that nutty limey Grant Morrison than yet another nutty limey like Warren Ellis?[yes, I realize that Morrison, as a Scot, would take deep umbrage to my terming him a “limey,” but I’m an American. If you talk funny and watch a lot of soccer, you’re a limey]). So all the possible new writer pitfalls seem to have been avoided, or at least satisfyingly danced around.

As far as Simone Bianchi’s art, yeah, it’s good. But what one should know about my take on art is that it pretty much sucks (my take on art, not art itself [usually]). I have a laundry list of artists who I consider to be nothing short of genius. But in my day-to-day comic book reading, I’m really far more interested in the story. I feel that art best serves the story if it isn’t distracting, either by being terrible (far too often the case) or those rare occasions when it’s just too damn good. Take Alex Ross, for example. I don’t really like reading the stuff he’s done because I read pretty damn quick, and with the vast amount of talent shown upon his pages, it seems sacrilegious to burn through, say, Kingdom Come. I can easily put on my art appreciation hat and come all over artists all day (though I’m sure that would make them, if nothing else, uncomfortable). I dunno, I guess what I’m trying to do here is not come off as some sort of philistine, y’know? Maybe it would just be better for all concerned if I just kept my trap shut unless I have something to say about the artist, not a bunch of claptrap about what I don’t have to say (I should probably just keep my trap shut altogether...).

All that being (not) said, the only quibble I have is with how Bianchi signs his covers, with one of those big obnoxious autographs-in-a-box, which is followed in short order by those of the inker and colorist (they’re not gonna be outdone, by God). This habit of cover artists seemed to spring up about 15, 20 years ago (I’m looking at you, Todd McFarlane), but didn’t really bother me until a few years ago, I guess, when I became a pain-in-the-ass nitpick. But, pain-in-the-ass or not, I maintain that it’s touches like this that make comic book art interfere with the rest of the overall project. I’m not saying Bianchi’s swinging his dick around and saying, “Hey hey, looka me!” But my eye can’t help but be drawn to these nearly caption-sized signatures, and that’s just annoying. I’d be willing to give a pass for anything about the size of Tim Bradstreet’s signature (and that’s a pretty good size), but anything bigger than that, you’re running the risk of being a big douche. And nobody wants that.

Cable #5 (Vol. 2): I began this by writing a big rave about the works of Duane Swierczynski, mostly for the stellar novel, The Wheelman. But I was digressing over here like my grandfather on a Sunday afternoon drive, so I’m trying to at least stay a bit on topic now.

Cable was never a favorite character of mine. Oh sure, I was swept up in Liefeld fever back in the early ‘90s (as if those awkward early adolescent years weren’t painful enough, I had to latch on to all that crap so I could remember it years later and wince), but I just didn’t care. Yes, I bought Cable’s solo series well into high school, but I couldn’t tell you a single thing about it now. I haven’t blocked it out on purpose (oh, if only it were in my power to do shit like that, and I could erase those dreadful few weeks in my early 20s when I greased up my hair like a four-eyed Fonzie), it’s just that that stuff was so bland, I couldn’t have retained it if I tried.

Bishop was a little different. I really dug Whilce Portacio’s stuff, and although that doesn’t really hold up all that much, I’ve always liked the character. His back story was nothing new, really (hell, he was just kind of a black version of Cable, if I’m remembering at all correctly), but despite his dumb mullet, I always thought he looked pretty cool with that face tattoo and all. And he was certainly a much better black character than most of Marvel’s at the time (remember that god-awful Cage series? Yeesh)(a lotta bad memories in this piece. Such is [my] life). I mean, that’s kind of a dippy fanboy-ish thing to say—“Bishop rules!”—but y’know. That’s what I was.

Now I find it no surprise that writers of my generation are harkening back to halcyon days of our youth and reviving these characters. But what is so invigorating is how they are going about it. Guys like Swierczynski (and in this group, I’m including Ed Brubaker, Brian K. Vaughan, Brian Michael Bendis, etc., all guys who are about my age and have a fuck of a lot more to show for it) clearly have soft spots for all the crap we devoured between bouts of Gyromite and that week’s new episode of In Living Color. But they’re more interested in the spirit than the execution of that time (I’m mostly talking from about 1990-1993, which I see as being one of the darkest for superheroes), and that is a good, good thing.

For example, in this arc of the current Cable series, we find ol’ Nate on the run from Bishop just after the events of Messiah Complex. Now, I’m such an idiot, that I didn’t even see the parallels between the two characters as clearly as I do now that I’ve begun writing this (I knew there was a reason I was doing this shit). Two guys with opposing agendas but both from a bleak future (and both with bad-ass cybernetic anatomy). One’s white and one’s black, although I hedge to make this a racial thing. For one thing, it’s clearly more about drawing physical distinctions between the two principals, much like in the movie Unbreakable (which, although a piece of shit, still had some things right). For another, I’m not even sure how conscious the decision was to have this weird anti-Defiant Ones (enough with the movies already!) vibe, but I’m relatively certain no one’s out to make the black guy look like an asshole.

In fact, now that I mention it, Swierczynski does a swell job painting these two as well-matched antagonists, guys who used to be friends but have had a major (really major—one could even say “apocalyptic”) political falling out. Bishop is not demonized, nor is Cable an angel straight from heaven. It’s not easy to not demonize a guy who wants to kill an infant (oh, did I mention that was going on? Ah, fuck it, this isn’t a synopsis, go read it if you want the plot laid out. Come see me if you want meandering analytical bullshit), but Swierczynski is that kind of a writer.

(Whereas I suck at writing. See, I’m writing this Cable part straight on the computer instead of hammering out a rough draft first, so I’m adrift on a poorly-made idea in a sea of even more poorly-made ideas [like this analogy].)

Well, let me just say this about Ariel Olivetti’s art: the first I really came across it was in the current Punisher War Journal, and while I thought it was good, it seemed a little too cold and computer-y to me. Maybe this book just suits his style better, or maybe he’s just growing on me.

All right, kids, that’s enough from me for now. I have a bunch more books that I wanted to get into this time, but as usual, I fucked around and waited too long. Plus I’ve got a buncha other shit I wanna get to tonight. So more from this July stack next time.

No comments: