Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Phoning It In

Well, as usual, the Christmas season has sat on my head and farted. So naturally, this piece is late, and naturally, I've been scrambling to come up with a decent topic to write about. So for this month, neglecting the sort of clever(?) framing devices I so often go in for, I'm just gonna talk briefly about a couple hardcovers I read recently that I can give my highest recommendation, before I have to get back to all the other writing I've been putting off because the day job has been kicking my ass.

Thanksgiving Day is the last day of serenity I'm allowed over the normal course of the holiday season, before the grindstone rams itself into my nose. I tend to eschew the generic family get-togethers, not becuase I don't like my family or anything, but because I'm awful goddamn selfish with my time. Happily, this year, I got to spend a lazy day laying around with a cute chick, a Band of Brothers marathon, and a copy of Harvey Pekar's The Beats: A Graphic History.

Generally speaking, I've never met a beatnik that I liked. I've never found the iconoclast-lit from the Ike years to be anything much to write home about on a roll of butcher paper while all whacked out on bennies. I think the main reason I even ordered this book, aside from Pekar's involvement, was that I've been kicking around an idea for a piece of fiction that takes place in the '50s and I thought this'd be a good piece of research. That didn't turn out to be the case so much, but I am glad I dropped the twenty-two bucks on this book, as it turned out to be the first truly unflinching look at this admittedly highly influential generation of creative-types.

My own personal tastes aside, the main reason I'd never really dug the work of these way-out cats was that their adherents are so volatile and steadfast, it's nearly to the point of mania. Nothing will put me off something quicker than a buncha other jerks really liking it. On top of that, most of the rabid beatnik fans I've known in my time have been utter morons in every other sense. Kinda guilt by association. I mean, I always liked Ginsberg. Kerouac seemed like a cool enough dude, but his work was so boring to me. And even though I've never actually read any Burroughs, my opinion of him was colored negatively 'cause he had all that nice calculator money with which to cultivate a fashionable heroin habit as well as a shooting-my-girlfriend-in-the-face habit (although he kicked one sooner than the other). Now Pekar, et al, clearly have a sense of respect for these writers and their work, but they don't let their personal feelings intrude nearly as much as I do. The book is broken down into extended chapters on the Big Three mentioned above by Pekar and artist Ed Piskor (who has a real nice, very Clowes-y style that suits the topic well). Pekar's usual charmingly straight-ahead prose style is in full effect, giving the leaders of the Beat movement their due, while far from ignoring the seamy underbelly. Drug abuse is not romanticized, but rather shown to be just as detrimental to these writers' careers as it was helpful (how did they get any writing done when they were throwing up so much?). Kerouac's womanizing is discussed as thoroughly as his contributions to world culture, not to mention his own complacent involvement in a murder. Pekar presents all these simply as facts, not wishing to influence the reader in any other way, which is such a refreshing take on this (or any) subject, that I find words are failing me now. Needless to say, I feel the urge to give some of these guys and their work another shot. The book finishes out with short sections on a number of lesser-known writers within the beat scene, guys I'd actually read before, like Amiri Baraka and Robert Creeley, to a slew of guys I'd like to read more of, like Phillip Whalen and Tuli Kupferberg. So whether you're already an avowed beatnik or merely curious about what the hell they were on about back in the 1950s, give this book a whirl. In fact, if you don't wanna shell out the cash, you oughtta go check and see if it's at your local library. And if it ain't, tell 'em I said to order a copy already.

Next up is Josh Cotter's Driven by Lemons.
I am an unabashed fan of Cotter's work, considering his previous book, Skyscrapers of the Midwest, not only the best book of 2008 (along with Jeff Lemire's Essex County trilogy) but also probably the most important comic book of my generation. For his next outing, Cotter decided to go for something a little more experimental. Apparently, he just started doodling in a sketchbook and then just kinda let it go from there. According to some interviews I read (my memory may not be doing Cotter service here, but I think you'll be able to follow me), Cotter said he wasn't gonna go back and edit or "fix" anything, that he wanted the narrative to evolve naturally. Now, as much as I like to put up a kinda artsy-fartsy pretense (even if with a façade of macho-ness), this sorta talk made me as nervous as anybody. Skyscrapers was not only hilarious but heartbreaking, and although he often went into the symbolic and the sublime, Cotter never jumped the narrative track so totally that it became opaque or came off as pretentious or obtuse. Running the risk of that now had me worried, especially at the cost of a double sawbuck, MSRP. But I kept the faith, and reasoned that something like this would probably much more likely succeed right out of the gate, like if I took the plunge right along with the guy, I wouldn't regret it, rather than if I hemmed and hawed. And turns out, I was right (I know, I could scarecely believe it myself). Driven by Lemons is not conventional by any means. But not only is it aesthetically lovely, doing things in a format not entirely unfamiliar yet markedly different, also the story isn't as hard to follow as I had worried. Granted, a lot of it went right past my head, but not unlike a Pynchon novel, it's hilarious and exhilirating even when I don't know what the hell is going on (not unlike life itself either, now that I think about it). For twenty bucks, I got plenty to chew over and digest, leaving plenty left over for multiple re-reads, so the book even pays for itself. How often does that happen? So do yourself a favor and pick this book up. If nothing else, you'll look a lot smarter to foxy art school girls. Trust me, I know what I'm talking about.

No, I don't.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Only Crime Is the Cover Price.

I was as excited as anyone, if not more so, at Vertigo's announcement of its new crime imprint, Vertigo Crime: a line of original hard-cover graphic novels specifically within the noir/mystery/crime genre. And despite uncharacteristic optimism on my part, right up until the first two books were delivered to my store, I was pretty damn disappointed.

Crime fiction comes a very close second to comical books when it comes to my personal favorite media (rounding out the list are cave paintings and smoke signals). And probably the very best part of the super-hero speculation market bottoming out in the late '90s is that other genres began to thrive. Yes, superheroes still are king, but the spate of quality horror, sci-fi, western, and crime comics over the past ten years is proof that this is not an unchallenged monarchy. Yes, yes, a lot of it is crap; 90% of everything is. But guys like Brian Azzarello and Ed Brubaker have helped to truly blaze the trail of crime comics today (I'm not gonna cram 100 Bullets or Criminal down your throat now, although your throat would certainly thank me later).

At one time, I was a registered Communist. But then I figured out that people really pretty much suck, and that put the kibosh for me on any notion of workers (or anybody) uniting. But Marxist theory still manages to color a lot of my thoughts on art and artists, particularly (and naturally, I'd say) as concerns the business aspect. I really wish I could ignore all this stuff and just accept the creation for what it is, but sometimes what it is truly seems to me to be a cynical jab at a genre I dearly love strictly for the sake of a buck.

This is not to impinge the creative impulses of the writers and artists involved, as much as it may sound otherwise. I like to think of it more as a calling on the carpet of Vertigo and its editors and what I see as a concession to their parent company that they make all too eagerly. What do I, an industry outsider, know of the machinations of Time/Warner's editorial policy? Fuck all. But I'm the one plunking my hard-earned money down to read this stuff, and I am well able to tell you just how worth it I think it is.

Here's what all this babble boils down to: Vertigo are a buncha pussies. I've said as much before, but right now, I don't feel like I can belabor this point. Back when Vertigo was just starting--before it was a specific imprint even, but really just a "Mature Readers" warning on the covers of Swamp Thing, Sandman, Animal Man, et al--they were really taking some risks, hiring these heretofore relatively unknown writers and artists to tell some realistic, oftentimes discomforting stories. Now, they hedged their bets by generally relegating these creators to characters that had no real following, that were B-list at best. It would still be most of a decade before DC or Marvel let guys like Neil Gaiman or Grant Morrison near their real money-makers. But in my opinion, this kind of editorial limiting turned out to be a plus because by kinda forcing (and hell, I'm not altogether certain these nutty European dudes weren't queueing up for these also-ran characters) these guys to work with unpopular characters, they had a lot more room to explore, a lot more stories to tell.

But now here we are today, in a much unfriendlier economic environment. I will allow that Vertigo is already an imprint of DC Comics, which is itself a subsidiary of Time/Warner, which is conglomerated with whichever faceless, soulless corporation it's conglomerated with these days. Therefore, I'm well aware that the bottom line is always gonna be profit, and so creativity is often (if not always) going to take a backseat to this motive.

But do they have to be so fucking obvious about it?

The only realm wherein Vertigo is getting any real trouble from Marvel MAX (its direct rival) is in the crime genre. Criminal is an obvious feather in Marvel's cap, and I would argue that Incognito acts in much the same way, even if the story premise is fairly different. Also, the gravy train that Garth Ennis made of The Punisher puts much of Vertigo's output to shame. But that's about it, that's almost the entirety of Marvel's muster on this front. Vertigo, though known for more of the mystical magical Gaiman-esque stuff, has also produced some masterful crime/crime-related comics, 100 Bullets not being the least of them. But there was also the Gary Phillips-penned mini Angeltown, Andy Diggle and Jock's The Losers and Peter Milligan's revamping of Human Target (both woefully cancelled a few years ago), and the fortunately still rather successful Scalped. So clearly, Vertigo is capable of making some good creative decisions.

But I would say upon launching this admittedly ambitious crime imprint that now is the time to take some real risks. Publish some classic noir stuff. And not classic in the sense of the same ol' thing, or anything like that. But classic in the sense that 100 Bullets was a classic almost from its initial pitch: tough guys, bullets, tits, and swear words. How hard could that be?

Well, instead the first two releases were boring rehashes of Vertigo's flagship character and of its top-selling crime title, respectively. Dark Entries, written by Ian Rankin and illustrated by Werther Dell'Edera, is toted to be a classic haunted-house tale (as espoused on the cover by Warren Ellis, if memory serves)(I've already re-sold my copy, so I don't have one to hand). Yeah, that sounds good, I guess. But couldn't I just read one of the million fucking other classic haunted-house tales Vertigo has published in its nearly twenty year history? Do I really gotta cough up twenty bucks for a hard-cover that I finished over lunch?

Oh, but it's a Hellblazer story, you say, with that John Constantine character. And I say, re-read the last paragraph, but substitute the phrase "classic haunted-house tale" with "John Constantine story," and I'll meet you in the next paragraph.

Filthy Rich, Vertigo Crime's second offering (which came out the same week as the first--thanks, Vertigo! I didn't need to buy groceries this week anyways!) was a bit more satisfying, but I still felt a bit cheated. It was written by Brian Azzarello, whose stuff I will probably always read. The guy knows his crime, and he writes cracking dialogue. But the art by Victor Santos...I dunno, I feel like I may be going out on a limb with this, but I'm gonna do it anyways: Santos is a fine artist in his own right, and his style certainly fits well with this genre. But for my money, his similarity to long-time Azzarello collaborator and co-creator of 100 Bullets Eduardo Risso is simply too close for comfort. It could most definitely be argued that the use of negative space, black-and-white, and a lot of pictures of guys lighting cigarettes are simply part of noir-comic art, of which Risso has done tons. So naturally, there's gonna be some areas of comparison. But if you also factor in the notion that since 100 Bullets concluded not too long ago and Vertigo has lost a major money-maker in that book, it's also completely possible that they're trying to recoup that loss by proffering up this substitute, that I would at my most charitable describe as weak.

And the future does not look too bright. The next offering from Vertigo Crime is a book by reputed crime novelist Jason Starr. This may raise some eyebrows amongst my fellow crime cronies, but I really haven't liked anything I've read by Starr so far, so I fear no end to my trepidations with this line of books. The next two books, though, are written by two of my favorites, Peter Milligan and Christos Gage. But at twenty bucks a pop? My comics budget is stretched thin enough. Had I reason to believe that my investment would be worth it, I'd find the money somewhere. But so far, I've been disappointed in this line, even if not with the works of Milligan or Gage. So it seems I'm not immune to the profit-motive either. Thing of it is, I don't have the backing of one of the wealthiest entertainment conglomerates in the world.

And that's my base-line complaint: can't Vertigo afford at least some balls? Yes, I concede that the business of business is business, but with this business, isn't the smart investment quality product as opposed to tired "legacy" characters and in-house rip-offs? Especially from a line that has thus far produced some of the highest quality output of the past two decades, and with the money and marketing to get those books into the hands of folks who'd never cross the threshold of a geeky-ass comic shop, am I asking too much of them?

Believe it or not, dear reader, I'd rather light a candle than curse your darkness.
Fortunately, there are other books out there worth your time and money. Just a couple weeks ago, Dark Horse Comics released the anthology Noir. For a mere $12.95, you get stories by such heavy-hitters as David Lapham, Jeff Lemire, and the team that brings you Criminal, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. That story alone is worth it as introduction to that fine monthly. There's also The Mammoth Book of Best Crime Comics. I'm not a hundred percent on the availability of this tome at your local shop as it is at least a year old, but I'm sure the magical internets can produce you a copy if you simply ask. I haven't had a chance to dig into this giant myself, but it's on the TBR stack as we speak, and its beautiful Jordi Bernet cover beckons me daily, as do promises of stories by Alan Moore, Will Eisner, and Dashiell Hammett, author of what I consider the finest crime novel ever, Red Harvest. This book has a cover price of $17.95, yet easily outweighs both the twenty-dollar Vertigo Crime books put together.

So be a good Commie, and only buy crime comics with the Jimmy the Worm hammer-and-sickle seal-of-approval. And I'll see you all down at the Hugo Chávez rally this weekend.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

In My Corner

NOTE: I wrote this a couple months ago, but didn't post it because it was too whiny. I still think that, I just don't care as much. I hope you gag on it.

After so many years, I finally got fed up pissing and moaning about my childhood, particularly my relationship with my father, so I more or less knocked it off. The old man and I actually get along okay these days, although I only talk to him twice, maybe three times a year. Even less, come to think of it. There's still a lot of that bile simmering beneath the surface, and it tends to come out in my writing more often than not. I don't fight that, because at least it's a creative way to deal with that sort of shit, much moreso than going on Dr. Phil and crying about it. But I still tend to avoid talking about it directly, if for no other reason than it's very un-Dude.

Worry not, this still has to do with comics. But I've had a couple things knocking about in my head that I've been wanting to write about, but have been lacking a (somewhat) interesting way to go about it until today. Today, I read Ultimate Spider-Man #133, and there's a really nice interview in the back with writer Brian Michael Bendis. If you've read any Marvel comic at all over the past ten years, chances are Bendis either wrote it, or a major story-arc that he wrote had a large editorial influence on it. The guy has more or less become the Stan Lee of this current generation, and in no way is this more obvious than the fact that he re-started the whole Spider-Man saga and saw it through to its timely end (well, sorta. I guess the book will continue, but the Ultimate universe as we've come to know it so far is pretty much nixed). So the interviewer made sure to address this, and Bendis talked about not just how much of an influence Lee was on him as a writer, but as a person. And he said something that I can certainly relate to, and is a subject I've given considerable thought over the years: in regards to how emotional he got over Stan Lee's gracious acceptance of him as Lee's title-bearer, Bendis says, "So I didn't have a father and then Stan Lee is nice to me and I act like he's my father."

This type of psychology should be no stranger to those of us fellows immersed in comics. Comics, particularly super-hero comics, are largely escapist. As young lads, what we're often trying to escape is dissatisfaction with our home lives. I'm painting in broad strokes here, but I've noticed that most of us fall into three categories: we had no friends, we had no fathers, or our fathers were total shitheads. I've read where Ed Brubaker has said, since he was an army brat and was moved around constantly, comics were the one constant in his life, as he was never in one place long enough to form any lasting friendships. Bendis, according to the aforementioned interview, dearly loves his mother and has no problems with how she raised him and his brother, but he definitely felt the absence of a male role model.

Guess which category I fall under. Boo-hoo, I know. But if you'll humor me, I'll explain why Stan Lee, as much as I love the guy, isn't my father, nor is Steve Ditko or Harvey Kurtzman or even Alan Moore or Chris Claremont or Frank Miller or any of the hundreds of other comics creators who began molding me into a man from the tender age of 11.

When I was 13 years old, me and Ryan Moore (no relation) were playing Butts Up after school. The plan was to hang out, go back to my house around the block and hang out for a while, and then come back for some lame-ass 8th grade dance. Only Ryan thought it would be more fun to pull the fire alarm while I wasn't looking. Ooops. So naturally, as the klaxon sounds and the day-care kids are lined up out on the softball field, I panic, hop on my bike, and book it home. Only thing is Mr. Reinike had seen me and Ryan down there on the handball courts just a few minutes earlier. So Dr. Quiocho, the principal, calls my house just as I pull huffing and puffing into the driveway. Man, was my dad pissed, so pissed he barely said a word as we drove back. Dr. Quiocho, bless her, a woman I'd always found to be fair even if kinda scary, waited until Ryan had been hauled onto the carpet as well before accusing me of anything. And Ryan, being in general an all-right guy, 'fessed up immediately and made it clear I had no hand in any of these shenanigans. Dr. Quiocho then excused me before she ripped Moore a new asshole in front of the firefighters who had been called down there erroneously. I followed my dad out as Quiocho blamed Ryan for the hypothetical deaths of orphans as their house burned down because the fire department was busy down at Joan McQueen Middle School because of him.

We weren't two steps out the door before my dad turned to me and said, "You probably dared him to do it, didn't ya?" Now, I'm a little guy, physically, and I was a little kid then. Yet never, before or since, have I ever felt smaller. I looked up into the face of the man who had sired me, and I saw there the disappointment that he would be denied giving me a whipping, as well as the utter surety that my worthless snot-nosed ass was the brains behind this operation. There was no way I was not culpable in any, if not all, of this because I was a miserable piece of shit, all overwhelming evidence to the contrary be damned. I looked over my shoulder at a couple of the firemen outside the office. They'd heard what my old man said to me, and I swear I saw the pity in their faces: "Man, tough break, kid."

I certainly don't believe this one incident led me and/or my self-esteem down the road to wrack and ruin. But it is, I think, pretty indicative of the environment I was raised in, and that environment had a profound effect on me. I've spent the rest of my life feeling like I never really have anybody in my corner, that the only person who gave a fuck about me was me. This is an exaggeration: I'd take a bullet for any one of my friends, and feel certain they would say the same. But when I talk with people who are close with their families, the one saving grace those families seem to have, even when they're driving you up a wall, is that "they're always there when you need them."

Yeah, well, I'll have to take your word for it.

But let me tell you another story now, a much happier one, as far as I'm concerned. This is a story I first read about in Gerard Jones' excellent Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book. Back in the late '30s, Will Eisner, creator of The Spirit, was running his own "shop," as they called it--basically, an office where comics artists could rent out space (that's really simplifying it, but I digress). Now, at this building, there was a towel service that was run by some Mafia goons, and they were constantly jacking the prices up, as Mafia goons will do. So one day, Eisner demands to see a representative about these price changes, and up comes a guy straight from central casting: big, broken-nosed, black shirt, white tie. Eisner says he's gonna find another towel service, and the guy lets him know, subtly but firmly, that that would not be a good idea.

Just then, in walks one of Eisner's fellow comics artists, a little five-foot-two guy. Before Eisner can even say anything, his buddy knows just what's going on: this is a goddamn shakedown. "Is this guy giving you any trouble, Will?" he says, ready to fly headfirst into the shit. And Eisner's like, No, hey, it's all under control. "Do you want me to beat him up?" the artist says, and at this point, I can only imagine the expression on this mobbed-up dope's face: here he is at a 'business meeting,' and in walks this sawed-off Jew threatening to beat him up. "Who is this guy?" he asks Eisner. Eisner says this guy is one of his best artists, and nothing had better happen to him or nobody's gonna be able to pay for any towels anyways. The goon says, "We don't want no trouble; we just want to do things business-like." And that was it; the price hikes stopped (for a while, anyways).

Who was that guy, Eisner's best artist?

Jack fuckin' Kirby, that's who. The guy who would go on to pretty much co-create the Marvel Universe as we know it with Stan Lee: the original artist of Captain America, The Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Iron Man and The X-Men, just for openers. The guy whose name is probably more closely associated with comics than any other.

"Let me know if he comes back, Will," he says to Eisner, "Tell me if you want me to beat him up." This little half-pint was ready to start swinging before he even knew the play; all he saw was his buddy Will Eisner getting bullied, and that was that. Didn't matter that the guy was probably twice Kirby's size. Eisner's his associate, and ain't nobody fucking with anybody associated with Jack Kirby.


I've not always been the biggest Kirby fan. I don't buy The Jack Kirby Collector. I went to one of Mark Evanier's Kirby panels at WonderCon '08, and those guys are far more familiar with the man and his work than I'll ever be. And if you wanna get technical, the guy was far from the best artist ever, with no formal training at all. But I'll tell you one thing for sure: Jack Kirby's always been there when I've needed him.

Always in my corner.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

No Fun to Hang Around

Greg and Bert down at the shop seem to prefer the days when comics were fun. When I rolled my eyes at the Fantastic Four movie, Bert defended it as being a "fun movie." And yeah, I guess I may be a little on the cynical side. Sure, I still get a boyish thrill from a lotta comics, books that I grew up on, books that I probably wouldn't care less about had I not been reading them since sixth grade. But many superhero books, especially from the Silver Age, are really cornball, moreso than even nostalgia can overcome. So, generally speaking, I find that fun just ain't no fun.

The rise in popularity of the anti-hero during the '80s was a backlash to this notion of fun, and can be traced back to Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns. That book is nothing short of genius, and it was so huge that its aftereffects are still felt in the genre today, what Wayne down at the shop refers to as a "watershed moment" in comics. In Comic Book Confidential, Miller himself talks about how the Silver Age Batman stories became so trite and goofy that no kid could really relate to him, y'know, there was no depth to the character. Kids may be dumb, after all, but they're not idiots; if you give them stories with depth and meaning, they're going to respond to them. Plus you'll have stories that grown-ups can enjoy as well. So Miller brought this notion into his work by making Batman darker, more of a tortured soul, and the world of crime and depravity in which he fought more bleak. This way, when the hero wins at the end, he's overcome something more meaningful than second-rate Bond-villain-type traps, resulting in a much more satisfying kind of story.

The Dark Knight Returns truly did save the character from the Adam West-type goofball crap, but unfortunately, the trend took off and just went too far. In this, comics are really no different than any other mass media: hey, everybody, jump on the bandwagon! Soon, Batman became a parody of himself in the other direction, this brooding, mopey sad sack. Anti-heroes like the Punisher, Ghost Rider, and Wolverine skyrocketed in popularity, guest-starring in more books in the late '80s/early '90s than Barack Obama does today. Embarrassing attempts at making characters more relevant to the times abounded--the Black Knight went from being a medieval man-at-arms to a mullethead in a leather jacket, complete with five o'clock shadow and earring. Yeesh. I tried to no avail to find visual support of this goofy move on Marvel's part, but trust me, he looked like how your uncle might dress if he was trying to fit in at a Zeros show. It's really a shame that the comics industry perpetuates this follow-the-leader mentality that is so prevalent in movies, TV, etc., especially since the medium is superior to any and all of these other forms.

But that's nearly twenty years ago now, and this current generation of creators seems to be instilling a trend of its own, a trend one would hope won't get hammered into the ground like the Vision in Incredible Hulk #300. As I've been drafting this piece in my head, I've been trying to come up with a term to describe this trend. These aren't traditional super-heroes by any stretch, but they're not quite anti-heroes either. They share many traits with that latter, but like Frank Miller's Batman before they both became cartoon versions of themselves, there's more depth, more character, more for the reader to chew on and digest. So, until someone comes up with a better name, I'm gonna call them the no-fun heroes (cue the Stooges).

There are already a number of titles out there that well exemplify the no-fun hero, so I thought here I'd give you the quick skinny on a few that are available at your local shop right now, and then a short list of others you can dig out of the back-issue bins. So first up, we have the latest book by one of the writing-est motherfuckers in the biz these days, Absolution by Mr. Christos Gage. The main character is John Dusk, one of a small band of superheroes (or in the parlance of the book, "enhanciles") who work with the police department to combat super-powered crime. In his nearly ten years on the job, Dusk has seen some terrible, terrible things, humanity (super or otherwise) at its very worst, defilement of human beings that haunts him. He can't sleep, he hallucinates, he's generally more miserable than when he started this do-gooder business, and the cracks begin to show. First, he uses excessive force on a supervillain. Hey, no big, the guy had it coming, right? So if Dusk covers it up a bit to keep himself out of trouble, we understand that. Later, Dusk arrives on scene at a domestic disturbance where a guy has bashed in his old lady's head. Pushy and loudmouthed, the guy keeps needling Dusk. And needling him. And needling him.

What really strikes me about what Gage and artist Roberto Viacava are doing here is simply how exhausted Dusk is. Dusk doesn't sit in his cave and look stalwart. He's not menacing or brutal; he doesn't even have perpetual stubble. He's just a guy doing his job, and nothing will tire a guy out quicker. When anybody gives in to the temptation to sit around and navel-gaze, even so-called heroes, it's understandable, but it's also a form of giving up. A guy like Dusk is like that tree that won't bend in the wind. Eventually, it breaks. He begins to utilize his powers, not to strike a blow for justice and ensure the safety of all, but just to try to get some fucking sleep without the victims of horrible rape and disfiguration pervading his dreams.

As far as I know, Christos Gage has created the first story about a superhero/serial killer. Stories about either one are a dime a baker's dozen, but to combine the two, I mean, shit, that was probably the entirety of the pitch. Gage: "Hey, I wanna do a book about a supe who goes John Wayne Gacy." Avatar: "Where do we send your check?" And it's a topic simply overripe for a superhero book. Take any one superhero--Spider-Man, let's say. The guy is indirectly to blame for the death of his beloved uncle, his best friend's dad throws his girlfriend off a bridge, an alien tries to possess him and then later eat his brains. Hell, the shit Carnage did alone would be enough to send anybody around the bend. Yet, Spidey's still out there fighting the good fight, cracking jokes all the while like an agile Henny Youngman. And it just doesn't fly with me anymore.

The superhero as a model of morality in the face of extreme adversity is not a trope that must be done away with. I'd say it still has some relevance, even in these modern times with their modern socks. But hey, why not explore some other avenues? The days of white hats and black hats are long over. It may not be much "fun" to not have a good guy to root for or a bad guy to boo and hiss. But I think it's plenty of fun to read about a truly conflicted character, a character divided against himself, and losing moral ground in this battle by the day. So go down to the shop and by issues 0 and 1, or however many are out by the time you read this. Absolution ain't no fun, which means it's tons of fun.

Absolute power corrupts absolutely. That's the Machiavellian sensibility that the old-timers like Siegel & Shuster and Stan Lee were working against. Those guys wanted a world where those in power accepted that power as a responsibility, not a burden. Sure, it's a lofty concept, but never mind the fact (or, if not fact, at least high probability) that it is unrealistic, it more importantly just gets really boring when it's the only idea being bandied about.

So what happens (if and) when that corruption takes place? Irredeemable, Mark Waid's current no-fun monthly over at Boom! Studios with artist Peter Krause. Not unlike what Alan Moore did with Supreme a while back, Waid is using the recognizable archetypes from the Superman diegesis to tell a Superman story that DC would never publish in a million years. Here's Waid's own basis for the book: "How do you go from being the greatest hero in the world — someone that everybody knows, and everybody loves, and everyone recognizes — to the greatest villain in the world? What is that path? It's not a light switch, it's not an on-off switch, it's not something that you wake up one day and just become evil."

Irredeemable is the complex story about what would happen if Superman (in the personage of the Plutonian) figured he'd had enough and decided to take over the world. He slaughters millions, destroys whole cities, and generally terrorizes the human race. When his former teammates attempt to track down Modeus (the Plutonian's Lex Luthor) to help stop this, the Plutonian, in his omnipotence, begins picking them off along with his rogue's gallery. The guy's had enough. He's been toying with humanity for too long, and their petty bickering amongst themselves and their underlying intense fear/hatred of him and his power finally pushes him over the edge. A guy tries to do his job, and it just wears him out. Like with Absolution, we can see that superhumans ain't so super sometimes. Now in fandom, I get the feeling that guys who still look to their superheroes as models of behavior seem to think there's something wrong with this idea. But shit, fellas, you're grown men now, and I shouldn't have to qualify this by saying you don't have to agree on any kind of moral level with these stories. I mean, I happen to, and quite a bit in fact, but I can still remain objective, so that really has little bearing on the discussion here. And one thing anyone would be hard-pressed to argue is it's at the very least an interesting concept, one that's been flirted with but rarely so directly addressed.

Mark Waid, unabashedly the biggest Superman fan on the planet, really shows a lot of balls in taking this subject on. But what pushes the parallel with Superman all the way home for me is Krause's very John Byrne-esque style. To tell this story in the style of the guy who a lotta people think fucked Superman up is pretty telling, indeed. That's a bit of speculation on my part, perhaps, but clearly Waid and Krause are interested in the exploration of other themes within superhero comics rather than just good guys versus bad guys. Also, notice how in none of these are we departing from the other earmarks of superhero comics: there are still super-powered beings and plenty of slam-bang gee-whiz action. But enough already with the high-handed morality of the Golden Age, the Silver Age with all its goofy trappings and greasy kids' stuff, and none of this bad-assery of the 1980s and 90s covering up for a severe lack of real depth. Let's tell some fucking stories here, yeah? That's my idea of a fun time.

Waid and Krause may love the subject of their criticism, but Garth Ennis hates superheroes. Always has, it seems, and even though he writes like a maniac, he really hasn't written that many super-hero books. Probably his most well-known book, Preacher, was basically a modern-day Western that decried the existence of an omnibenevolent God. Heady stuff, to be sure, but these days Ennis is going after a much more sacred lamb. The Boys is about a black-ops CIA team formed precisely to keep super-humans in line. For in this comical-book universe, the most common super-power is corruption itself.
Here's where the cynicism train pulls into the station, so have your tickets ready. Super-hero comics are escapist not only because these characters can perform feats of unbelievable strength, thereby giving vent to daydreams of power for the average reader, but also because they tend to be idealized personifications of high morality. In kind of a Platonic way, a character like Superman, or Captain America, or whomever, represent the capital-"G" Good that we all aspire to, the Form of Good (man, it's been awhile since I've read The Republic, so I hope I'm not fucking this up too bad). Now, never let it be said that I'm somehow against escapism. But on the other hand, I tend to lean more towards existentialism and nihilism than I do idealism, and pretty much believe in nossing, Lebowski. It'd be great if there was an ideal form of Good to aspire to, especially if that form was written by John Arcudi and drawn by Lee Bermejo. But there isn't: there's just people. And people, to the extent of a vast amount of my experience, are miserable pieces of shit. So if any of most the people in the world were actually to acquire super-powers in real life, I don't believe they'd become anything more than super-powered pieces of shit.

And I think it's pretty safe to say Ennis feels much the same way. With Darick Robertson, he's populated a world where the "super-heroes" all look great for the cameras and their books sell like Thanagarian hotcakes. But in reality, these heroes exploit their powers for their own personal gain, more worried about the bottom line of their merchandising deals than they are in dealing with the public they're supposed to be protecting, more worried about where their next piece of pussy is coming from than in rescuing cats out of trees. These supes are, to a one, over-sexed, drug-addled, and cash-obsessed. There is truly no level of depravity they won't sink to. On top of that, there is also an analogue Bush administration that works hand in hand with the attendant arms manufacturer (which, of course, manufactures supes), and with this, Ennis drives home the fact that there are no heroes, no pie in the sky. In the aforementioned Comic Book Confidential, Stan Lee talks about how during the early '60s, superheroes enjoyed a renaissance because Kennedy was in the White House and there was a feeling of heroism in the air. But clearly, those days are long behind us (I mean, the new guy is working out, but a lot of damage has been done). If the Bush administration proved anything, it's that there are no heroes, that people in power will utilize that power only to fuck more power out of those with less than they. The only ones who can save us are us.

My words cannot begin to describe the world of unbridled hedonism and pure unadulterated amorality Ennis has set up for these characters. But honestly, it's nothing less than anyone in the real world has sunken to. The Boys themselves, being of all different backgrounds and motivations, represent how each of us as individuals are responsible not only for ourselves, but also to keep the assholes out there in line by denying them the power over us they so need. Sadly, Mighty Mouse is not in fact on his way. But fuck the superheroes--we can do it ourselves. That may not be the most fun message, the one most enabling of escapism, but that's kinda the point, isn't it?

As I said, all these books should be well available at your local comic shop. Absolution should just about be up to issue #2 as I post this. Boom! has got a great deal going right now: the trade paperback collecting the first four issues of Irredeemable is now on sale for a mere ten bucks (less than I paid for the individual issues--not a complaint at all, they're well worth it, but just so you, the discriminating consumer, knows), and the 5th issue has a cover price of a mere 99 cents. So get on top of that. The Boys is now up into the 30s, but there is currently a spin-off mini-series, Herogasm, which would be a good jumping on point while you're waiting around after your shop orders you the four trades already in print. Then, while you're down there, you can dig around for some other titles that fit this no-fun bill: No Hero and Black Summer, both by Warren Ellis and Juan Jose Ryp for Avatar; The Punisher Kills the Marvel Universe by Garth Ennis and Dougie Braithwaite for Marvel (obviously); The Pro by Garth Ennis and Amanda Conner (see a pattern forming?) for Image; and of course, the book you all should have read by now, the book that really opened this discussion and proved what super-hero comics were capable of, Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.

Until next time, I'll maybe go out, maybe stay home, maybe call Mom on the telephone. Well, c'mon.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Distinguished Competition

I like the Beatles more than the Stones. Mostly, I think, 'cause I grew up on them more, but also 'cause, like Rev. Norb once said, "Oh, sure, the Stones are bad boys, but the Beatles were better because they were funnier and smarter." These kinds of simple distinctions are kinda annoying when people lob them at you--Beatles or Stones, Raw or Delirious, Joel or Mike--but that doesn't change the fact that they're true sometimes.

I grew up on Marvel way more than DC. But for a while there, when I came back into collecting full force again after my little on-leave a while ago, DC piqued my interest a lot more than it ever had. Maybe it was 'cause I didn't really have a history with those characters. Like, after not reading any books steadily for about five years, I couldn't enjoy a Marvel book because I was just too anxious worrying about all the continuity I'd missed or (even worse) forgotten. But right around when 52 ended, my interest in DC all but waned entirely, while Bendis has pretty much insured that I'll buy every major Marvel crossover until it actually is 2099.

That being said, I'd like to talk about some of the things DC does right, stuff that Marvel never seems to be able to do. For openers, DC's current weekly Wednesday Comics. If you haven't seen these, do yourself a favor and go grab 'em up. I believe the fifth issue should just be hitting the stands as I write this. Just buy one so you have something nice to look at. What these books are, see, are over-sized newsprint comics, the format of the old Sunday funnies where comics got their start back in the Golden '30s. Unless you're gung-ho, the creators' names won't mean much to you, but heavy hitters like Azzarello & Risso and Kyle Baker were enough to get me to pre-order them. The format is kinda awkward (don't try to read them in the park on a breezy day), but I'll tell you, and not to sound cornball, but they are simply beautiful works of art. Big, lavish splash pages; intricate sequential plotting; it's enough to make my mouth water just thinking about it. And they're on actual newsprint! I don't care what a cranky old man I normally sound like, I'm not nearly old enough to be nostalgic for the radio days, but newsprint was used for comics almost exclusively up until the mid to late '90s, when everybody started using that higher stock paper that's still just way too slick, especially for my punk-rock sensibilities. So hop on down to the shop and grab these up.

The western is a genre on a whole that DC has all over Marvel, always has and always will. I've raved about Jonah Hex in these pages before, but that's really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the vast and colorful western back-catalog DC has. El Diablo, the Jekyll-and-Hyde of the Old West. Bat Lash, the pretty-boy ladies' man who can blow your guns out of your belt at fifty paces. Scalphunter, the baddest redskin to ever wield a tomahawk and, now that I think about, at least a distant relative to Scalped's Dashiell Badhorse. What does Marvel have? The Rawhide Kid? Hey, I love Kirby as much as the next guy, but c'mon. Plus, Marvel had to go and try to make that character more relevant recently by making him gay, and we all know how well attempts like that work out (Northstar, anyone?). Sure, it was done tongue-in-cheek (ahem), and the book was still worth it for the Severin art, but I dunno. Just kinda gay, you ask me. Who else? Two-Gun Kid? Kid Colt? I dunno, these characters are to DC's stable as the corny oaters of the old days are to the spaghetti westerns of the '60s. Two-Gun Kid and Kid Colt are like Gene Autry: boring in their stark morality, that bullshit "good guys always win" routine. Jonah Hex is Clint Eastwood; there ain't no morals in them thar hills, and it ain't always the best man who wins. Usually the opposite, in fact. When you wanna a good western, go to DC.

And finally, there's Gail Simone. It's rare that I follow the works of any women writers. I say this just as a statement of fact, not to further any kinda misogynist agenda (I can do that later, if you want). But there it is, and this is not just in comics, but in pretty much all other media I enjoy. Why that is, I don't really know, or at least I don't have a really good reason. But when it comes to writers like Gail Simone, then I notice how much I could be missing by having my comic collection be such a sausage-fest. I'd seen her name around a bunch and I'm sure I must have read a thing or two by her, but the first thing I remember really grabbing me was her opening run on the current Atom series. I began picking that book up originally because Grant Morrison had had much to do with it editorially, kinda setting the book up and then letting Simone run with it. But after a while, you could really see how much was his and how much was hers and how grateful I was for it. Normally, that kinda disjunction would be really off-putting, but in this case, it was really nice to see the story come into its own on its own, and pretty much under Simone's own power.
If I wasn't so lazy, I could go dig those out, re-read them and let you know where exactly that happens, but there you go. You oughtta just go down to the comic shop and pick up the first couple trades of that series, and also her Secret Six, also on DC. And as far as I know, she's never done anything for Marvel, not anything of as much significance anyways. Maybe she will at some point; I mean, hell, it's not like the old days when you had to sign a loyalty oath or anything. But until then, Gail Simone is another feather in DC's cap, one that Marvel is sorely lacking.

Of course, there's Vertigo, which is still DC's strongest asset, and WildStorm puts out some good stuff, but I still think of that as Jim Lee's company, I don't care where the money's coming from now. Marvel doesn't really have much in the way of direct competition there in the way of (for lack of a better phrase) smaller press-type stuff, although what they do have is pretty significant: Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' Criminal and Incognito, and of course, Garth Ennis' pure-genius run on The Punisher. The strength of those three books alone is almost enough to fairly well eclipse DC. Still and all, Vertigo has alone put out some of the most important comics of the last couple decades, and WildStorm continues to open doors for a lotta unknown guys (notably here, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips). So that's technically another win in their column.

But DC still sucks. Their characters have been around a whole lot longer than Marvel's and therefore are way more overused, even compared to how overused characters like Spider-Man and Wolverine are. Both companies have pretty equally painfully embarrassing eras, but Marvel still manages to come off as the younger, hipper publisher, the Pepsi to DC's Coke. I mean, to any non-collector, a passing glance at books from either company from any era would look about the same, so an argument like this is mostly intellectual (so to speak). But then, internally, within the comics industry, I think DC has fucked up way worse and way more often than Marvel. We can all agree Quesada's pretty much a putz, and Stan Lee's high visibility these past few years has been more embarrassing than the Invisible Girl's costume from the '90s. But! DC has thoroughly angered Alan Moore and his giant snake-god, and that's just not cool. WildStorm sent Ennis and Robertson's The Boys packing, which is incredibly short-sighted and immature of them and definitely Dynamite's major gain. They killed Vic Sage, but that's more of a personal complaint, since The Question was actually one of the very, very first comics I read that really grabbed me. Need I mention the Tim Burton Batman movies? Oh, and the current logo from since about '05 is still lame.

So I'm still a Marvel zombie, through and through (ironic, since I think Marvel Zombies is one of the lamest books out there right now). But that doesn't mean I can't tip my hat when the Distinguished Competition comes along and shows me a great comic book. And maybe if they keep it up...

Well, let's not lose our heads here.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Jeff Lemire: #1 in Our Hearts

Hands down, my best experience at the Con last year was meeting Jeff Lemire. Moreso than completing my Ultimate Spider-Man collection; moreso than getting a free copy of the first two seasons of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia; moreso even than the time I ate my weight in Godfather's Pizza.

I was at the Bud Plant booth (or was it Comic Relief?), and I saw the third volume in Lemire's Essex County trilogy. I nearly lost my mind. Although it had only been providence that I'd come to pick up the first volume, I know for sure I would have ordered the third volume, but as near as I could recall, it hadn't been solicited yet. But then again, I get so much stuff every month, and even purposefully try to forget what I order (so as to be surprised when it gets in my hands or less disappointed when it don't), so who even knows now? As you can imagine, I was in a panic.

Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, and John suggested we go over to the Top Shelf booth and get to the bottom of this. As we approached said booth, I coould see the volume in question there on the table. I marched up and asked the first guy I saw if this volume had in fact been solicted by Diamond yet. He informed me that no, it hadn't, but they'd brought some copies down just for the Con. So I said set 'em up, country music, my buddy here and I will relieve you of a couple. The guy said, yeah, all right, and when he got up to transact the sale, I saw his badge: "Jeff Lemire, professional." "Oh, shit, it's you," I said. Jeff nodded, as though it had never ocurred to him that he wouldn't be him.

So we shot the shit with him for a bit. It's rare that any professional I've met has ever been less than gracious, but when they're as engaging and friendly as Jeff was, it really makes me re-think the whole misanthropy bit (but only until I go outside again, usually). Jeff had a stack of original watercolors for sale of DC superheroes, and John bought a couple off him (my budget was sadly depleted by that point). And then listen to this: when John mentioned that he'd gotten his mitts on a copy of Lost Dogs, one of Jeff's early books, and then I added that I'd been yet to track a copy down, Jeff says, "Oh, just e-mail me your address and I'll send you one." Are you kidding me? Of course, I took him up on it, and he not only sent me one, but also another early book of his, The True North, all complete with a big sketch on the envelope. Is this guy a fuckin' sweetheart or what?

If you haven't read Essex County yet, then lucky for you, the collected edition will be available this August, complete with all three volumes as well as the two mini-comics I also bought from Jeff last year, and tons other bonus stuff. The story follows the lives of Lester Papineau, Lou Lebeuf and Anne Quenneville, three people whose only connection at first seems to be the small Canadian town they live in, but which turns out to be only the most obvious connection. Their individual stories tie into each other in much deeper, many more complicated ways. Lemire masterfully reveals their roots and the commonality of their ostensibly disparate lives. Essex County is tied for my favorite book of 2008 with Skyscrapers of the Midwest by Josh Cotter (about whom you shall be hearing more from me, as well as his upcoming new project, Driven by Lemons, in these very pages), and that is no limp competition.

As beautiful as the book is on a whole, it is the first volume, the story of young comic-book collector Lester, that hooked me, since it is very much like looking into a mirror of my own lonely childhood, and the story truly captures how a life of fantasy and imagination can be very necessary and, at the same time, extremely frustrating. But regardless of who you are or your background, if you are unable to identify with the characters in Essex County, you might want to check with your doctor because you may not be a human being. And those are the stories that tend to resonate: stories about people.

Also lucky for you, Jeff Lemire has wisely been scooped up by Vertigo and will now get the wider exposure he and his work so richly deserve. First, we have shipping this month, July 8th, the hardcover The Nobody, Lemire's loving tribute to The Invisible Man. Then, mark your calendars for September, for that is when the first issue of Jeff's first on-going monthly will hit the spinner-racks. And your luck has yet to run out: the first issue (also from Vertigo) carries a cover price of a mere dollar. To pass up on that would be foolish, to say the very least.

As if Lemire didn't have enough on his plate, he was so kind as to allow me to pester him with a few questions via the electronic mails. So without further ado, Jeff Lemire in his own words.

This is gonna sound dumb, but: is it Le-MEER? Or Le-MIER?


Has being a new dad dramatically affected your work routine? I imagine it must be handy that you work at home, no?

It's hard to stay focused some days, but in general he is still new, so he sleeps a lot and I haven't really had to sacrifice much work time, because my wife is so fantastic to watch him most of the day. Sometimes he sits next to my drawing desk when I work. And his tiny tiny hands are great for cleaning out my ink jars too!

In the March Wizard interview, you talked about how you've read The Invisible Man a bunch of times and seen the Universal film as well, and how this was the genesis for The Nobody. Were you at any point worried that the source material would begin to sort of interfere with your adaptation? Like the ghost of H.G. Wells hovering over your shoulder while you worked or something?

Ha! No, not really; from the start I knew I wasn't doing an adaptation, just taking the basic set-up and doing my own thing with it, so I didn't really rely or think too much about the source material once I got started, other than to make a few nods and allusions to it here and there for fans of the book to pick out.

Unless I'm mistaken, the up-coming Sweet Tooth is your first monthly book. Is the pressure on? I've read where you said Essex County took you three or four years to get finished. How sorely are you going to miss being able to take that long on a book?

It is my first monthly, but luckily I work really fast. I generally do 2-4 pages a day, so keeping up the deadlines on Sweet Tooth is not a problem, and I am also able to juggle working on longer form work as well, so each has its advantages. It can be freeing to work in 22 page chunks and then let it go and keep moving forward.

Sweet Tooth takes place in the U.S., even if it's a kinda warped vision of one. I wonder if you could talk a little about Canada vs. America. What I mean is Canada has a distinct culture and perspective, but a lot of Canadian artists who tackle the American problem seem to get it spot on. I guess what I'm getting at is do you think Canadians have such an insight into the American perspective because theirs is very similar? Very different? Or is it just because we're neighbors?

I think anyone who can take a step back and look at anything from a little distance can bring a fresh and insightful perspective, that someone who is in the middle of it may not always have. I think that's why Canadians are generally so adept at commenting on America. We are similar enough that we can relate to and understand the American experience, yet just far enough removed that we have a broader perspective sometimes.

You've done album cover artwork for bands like Art Brut and catl. Are you a big music guy? What kind of stuff do you listen to? Do you draw with music playing or do you need silence?

I am a big music fan, and am constantly listening to music while I work. My favorites would be Nick Cave, The Pogues, The Clash, Tom Waits, John Cale, Warren Zevon. I also have a soft spot for 80's pop like Depeche Mode, the Cure, New Order, The The.

You've said in interviews that you'd like to do some superhero stuff in the future, especially the Doom Patrol. Without giving too much of any future plot-lines away, what kinds of stories would you want to do with the Doom Patrol, or Batman, or any other beloved characters?

I would really only take on an established character if I could take it and do my own thing with it, really tell a story my way. Having said that, I would strip The Doom Patrol down to their original incarnation. They are freaks, grotesque outsiders who want badly to do the right thing, but the other superheroes look at them as unfortunates. They are the pariahs of the superhero world, and only have each other in the end. A really sad, lonely superhero story.

I want to ask you about alienation in your work, but I'm having a little difficulty framing a question around it. I'll try this: do you feel that comic-book collectors (y'know, guys who were a lot like Lester when they were kids) experience a special form of alienation?

I know I sure did. I spent a lot of time in my own head as a kid, and still do, and I think that seems to often be a shared trait of comic book fans and creators. I'm not sure why that is, but comics seem to draw people looking for escape and adventure from their own experiences.
As always, I encourage you to go to your local comics retailer and ask--nay, demand--that they order any and all of the above for you because you're a law-abiding citizen who supports his/her small retailers instead of going to bullshit supermarket Borders or something. But if your retailer is dragging their feet and/or you're just a lazy-bones, follow the link for ordering information on the complete Essex County, and check back here for further info on how to get your greasy mitts on some of the finest comics being produced today.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Post-Apocalypse Always Rings Twice

One of my favorite episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 is episode #501, Warrior of the Lost World, a big Road Warrior rip-off. I remember reading somewhere (I've been digging through my copy of The Amazing Colossal Episode Guide, but I can't find the exact passage) where Kevin Murphy was ragging on the makers of this flick (or maybe it was City Limits, I dunno), but his point was this was one of the more boring sub-genres to come out of scienti-fiction, the whole end-of-the-world thing.

Now I've always been a big fan of the end of the world and have been looking forward to it for some time. But I also remember thinking Murphy was right; it's a shame, but that shit's been done to death.

It's too bad nobody told Bob Fingerman.

I've been a fan of Fingerman's since before I even started reading comics. In fifth grade, I got big into Cracked, actually preferring it to Mad. And Cracked of that era was full of great artists: John Severin, Bill Wray, Daniel Clowes (known then as "Stosh Gillespie"), as well as Fingerman. It went downhill pretty quick, and then I started blowing all my money on X-Men comics. All of the above guys, though, stayed visible to me still: Severin, I came to realize, was already a legend in the field; Bill Wray's contributions to The Ren and Stimpy Show were instantly recognizable to me; Clowes, of course, went on to do Eightball. But I completely lost track of Fingerman. I've finally found him again, but unfortunately, it was after World War III when I did.

The first issue of Fingerman's From the Ashes came out this last month. It stars Fingerman himself and his lovely wife, Michele. The time is now and the place is New York City. After the bombs have fallen, Fingerman and his wife find that they are among the very few survivors in the rubble of the Big Apple. The cover pretty much says it all: Michele looks vaguely worried and Bob yawns loudly as the mushroom clouds devour civilization. Now, the perspective of being just kinda bored with the death and destruction of everybody and everything you've ever loved is an interesting one to be sure, but the thing of it is, the whole premise is just kinda boring. I still love Fingerman's art, and there's a couple of chuckles here, but overall, it's a big so-what.

Frankly, I blame zombies. I love the works of George Romero, and Shaun of the Dead is a brilliant movie, but zombies have made zombies of us all. How Kirkman's The Walking Dead has lasted this long is beyond me. I read the first couple of trades, and while the art is pretty decent, especially when Tony Moore was on the book, the story was only not completely boring when it was bald-facedly ripping off any number of zombie movies. And then it was just boring and kinda aggravating.

Look, my point is this: I love the tendency of creators towards the destruction of the entire human race. It really rings of that Reagan-era punk-rock ethos that spawned Road Warrior and its many Italian-made knock-offs. And as things seem to do every couple of decades, this attitude in the popular arts seems to be enjoying a resurgence, all the less surprising given the Bush Jr. administration's similarities to the Gipper's. But here's how it is, folks: unless you're Simon Pegg or Cormac McCarthy, you're bringing nothing new to the table. This shouldn't stop you entirely (in the interest of full disclosure, I myself have dabbled with this topic in my own fiction and, as of this writing, have a zombie story now awaiting rejection from Murky Depths), but it oughtta at least make you stop and think of a new angle. Y'know, technically, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy could be considered "post-apoc," but it's seldom remembered that way since it has so much else going for it. The same could be said for McCarthy's The Road or any number of episodes of The Twilight Zone.

So flog this dead horse if you must. But in the meantime, I'll be re-stocking my fall-out shelter with Joe R. Lansdale novels.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Whaddaya Want for Nothin'?

All right, this is probably gonna be a short one because I'm gonna try to not lapse into the negative, sorehead that I am.

Saturday, May 2, 2009 is Free Comic Book Day. But before you get all amped up, you oughtta know that not every comic book store in the land participates. Most do, I think, but then again, I don't really go to any comic shop regularly besides the one I work at (which will not be participating). Thing of it is, the "Free" in Free Comic Book Day only applies to you, the consumer. The retailers still have to pay for these books. Ostensibly, they will make their money back when the droves of people who come in for their free comics--people who normally wouldn't peruse a comic book store--find that they cannot resist plunking down a few bucks for some non-free comics. On paper, that sounds great. But the reality can often be a whole 'nother story.

For years, I worked at 7-Eleven. I know that sounds like a real sweet gig, but you might be surprised. Anyways, every July 11th (7/11, get it?) is Free Slurpee Day. Without fail, our store would be jam-packed with people slavering for their massive 8 oz. cup of iced sugar water, absolutely free of charge. And not just the regular customers, of which we had plenty. But people I had never seen before, people I feel certain hit every 7-Eleven in the county in order to really clean up on this whole free Slurpee deal.

All right, I get that. It's difficult to resist the allure of something for nothing. But here's where it's gonna be hard for me not to lapse into negativity. One year, my boss decided he wasn't gonna participate in Free Slurpee Day. As a franchisee, he had to pay for all those cups every year, and apparently he wasn't seeing much return on his investment. Whatever, I didn't really think much of it at the time. In retrospect, I should have expected the uproar this caused that mid-summer's day. I guess it was sorta like if I called you up and said, "Hey, cruise by my house and I'll give you a dollar." Then when you showed up, I was like, "Sorry, dude, I'm flat broke." It'd be really annoying, but hey, it was only a dollar, right? What's the big deal?

Jesus Christ, you shoulda seen some of these fuckin' people. One guy in particular stands out: this big, red-faced guy, losing his shit on me because he was gonna walk out of the store without a shotglass' worth of free Slurpee. "Well, what's the point of this promotion if you're not gonna participate?" I dunno, sir. To piss you off, I guess. Certainly makes me happy.

But what the Southland Corporation was probably hoping was that instead of going to the Arco to buy your cigarettes or to the grocery store to buy your beer, you'd hit up your local Sevvie instead so you could also get a piffling little frozen treat. It's the same reason they put toys in Happy Meals: it's usually the best-tasting part. But if you're just gonna come in and grab your free crap and take off, well, then, who needs you?

My point to all of this is to ask all of you out there who are planning to go get free comics to do me and you and everybody concerned a real favor: buy a comic book, you cheap fuck. I know some stores will limit how many books you can take, but I also know that the one time my store participated, we let everybody have one copy of all 17 or 18 titles we had available. So let's say you walk into a comic shop this first Saturday of May and grab up six free comics. Once you're done with that, take some time and pick yourself out a non-free comic. The average cover price is $2.99, and every comic shop in America will knock at least 15% off the cover. That's why comic shops opened in the first place: they cut out the middleman newspaper distributors by dealing with the comics companies directly (more or less) and are able to pass the savings on to you. So instead of just getting six free books, you're getting seven for the price of one, with a discount, no less. A damn good deal, no matter how you slice it.

If you don't know what you might like, ask somebody who works there. Generally speaking, comic-shop workers are just a hair below record-store clerks when it comes to customer care. But again, I know I am always happy to foist a book I like onto some unsuspecting sap, and if the shop you're in is participating in FCB Day, it's because they want you to be there. So they will more than likely fight every anti-social urge they have (and believe me, that will be no small feat) in order to hold your hand and help find the right comical book for you. And if you're a halfway (hell, a 1/3 of the way) decent-looking chick? You'll have more assistance than you'll know what to do with, I assure you.

Also, this may seem silly to have to point out, but all comics are not superhero-oriented, nor are they all for kids. Some of the books stores will be handing out gratis revolve around The Simpsons, Star Wars, that Pixar Cars movie. If you like tattooed devil chicks, check out Mercy Sparx. There will be a sampler of Love and Rockets, one of the more well-known alternative comics of the past 25 years. All sorts of shit; here, see for yourself. And from there, you oughtta be able to find comics tailored to whatever goofy thing you're into. It really doesn't take much effort.

So support Free Comic Book Day by going out and buying some comic books. Don't be such a goddamned cheapskate all your life.

(There, how's that for positivity? Tune in next month when I try to join Up with People.)

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Giving the Virgin Finger (or, Douche ex Machina)

(Note: this blog takes place after the events of Ex Machina Special #4--Jerk-off Jimmy)

Brian K. Vaughan is one of the finest writers in comics today, and the guy I often point to when asserting that this most current generation of comic book creators is the best yet. Taking a large cue from the likes of Alan Moore, Vaughan is able to deftly and seamlessly weave all manner of symbolism and synecdoche into his stories, with sub-plots running perfectly parallel until just the right moment of reveal, while the overall work most often parallels itself with the world as we know it. His dialogue is cuttingly clever without ever being cute. The characters are always multi-dimensional, and his cliffhangers no less than nail-biting.

But above all this, the one thing about Vaughan's writing that I've especially come to appreciate is the sort of backwards route he sets for himself in his story-telling, literally so in his issue of Midnighter a couple of years ago. It's often very much as if Vaughan starts at the end of the story and then works backwards, allowing himself a different insight into the characters and their actions. But in his mode of story-telling, he also leaves landmines behind him, inherent gnarls in the weaving that he can't ignore or jump over. Vaughan forces himself to not only take on tough stories, but with such an engaging style, he forces his readers to come along with him.

Take for instance Ex Machina (quick recap: Ex Machina is the story of civil engineer Mitchell Hundred, who gains the power to communicate with machinery. Naturally, he becomes a superhero, and not long after saving one of the two towers during 9/11, he successfully runs for mayor of New York City). In an editorial Vaughan wrote a while back (I tried to dig it up, but no soap), he talks about how a lot of interviewers have asked him if Ex Machina is a love letter to New York City. And he began just saying yes because it was easier than explaining that the book is more like hate mail, that even though he loves the city dearly, there remain many and varied issues which need to be addressed critically. So again, we see the seemingly contradictory style of Brian K. Vaughan: let's take something beloved, let's explore its seamy underbelly, and therefore we can make it more beloved.

Ex Machina Special #4 is hate mail to comic book nerds.

The plot of this issue revolves around the Gardener, a nutcase who thinks he can talk to plants. The plants tell him to kill Eddy Romans, newspaper publisher and one of Mayor Hundred's most vocal critics. The Gardener believes he's gained his Floronic Man powers from close interaction with Hundred, and is therefore acting on the Mayor's orders to kill Romans. It's not implausible within this universe, and Hundred is a little worried. But as it turns out, the guy is just a looney tune. And the Hundred mayoralty lives to fight another day.

It's a hell of a good story, in more ways than one. There are a few times where Vaughan seems to be critical of both the comic book industry and collectors. And again, my hat is off, not just at the balls one needs to take a crack at something like that, but being able to pull it off as well, even if part of me was more than a little offended.

If I sound a bit divided, there's good reason. Since reading this issue, I've had quite the internal struggle between my personal awe at Vaughan's ultimate point and my personal awe at the path he took to get there. I've been trying to somehow conciliate these two attitudes, and I'll tell ya, I'm having a bitch of a time.

In these following first two examples, I'm being made uncomfortable, and that's just fine. If any kind of literature doesn't jar you at least a little bit, then it really should make no claim to being literature. Early on in the book, Hundred takes a crack at the intelligence of Romans' readers, and Romans responds with "Coming from a man who was weaned on comic books?" Now, you know and I know and Vaughan knows that readers of comics are not stupid, at least not because they read comic books. This is an old attitude, ingrained in a lot of writers, especially journalists. My hackles sit up here a bit, but that's it.

Later, Romans tells his girlfriend that he actually genuinely likes Hundred, but what pisses him off is that Hundred is "a nerd. He's constantly trying to...to impose order on an inherently chaotic world, like the asexual fanboys who obsess about continuity mistakes in bad sci-fi shows." Okay, again, fair enough. This hits a little bit closer to home, but Romans is not the most reliable narrator, the most informed critic of such things. People like Romans seem to define nerds as those clinging to an ideal of perfection that is impossible in the real world, and must sublimate that in their chosen realms of fantasy and science fiction. This is a sign of weakness to Romans and his ilk because nerds don't have the strength to deal with reality head on.

And I'm going to have to go ahead and concede this, at least partially. His implied judgement that nerds are foolish or pitiful for engaging such behavior can most certainly be debated. But it has been my experience that a lot of us so-called nerds are more than a little obsessive-compulsive and have a hard time living happily in what can be a cruel and harsh world.

But then the Gardener, Romans' supposed antithesis, chimes in. After murdering Romans, he explains to Hundred that Romans was debilitating the planet with his newspaper, and that the comic book industry was next on the Gardener's hit-list: "They're the worst offenders of them all. At least newspapers are eventually recycled. But comics are virgin paper going into virgin hands that tuck them away into poisonous plastic. Forever."

I admit here to my utter chagrin that the effects of comic book collecting on the environment was an issue I had never given any thought. And even for a fairly socially unaware guy, I think this is something that should have occurred to me before, just as an intelligent(-ish) person. But really, since I do tuck my books into plastic in order to keep the environment from destroying them, it does seem anathema for me to be especially considerate of the environment. Since Hundred ends up pretty much agreeing with this diamond of logic in the Gardener's rough, I think it can be inferred that Vaughan does as well. Therefore, he remains critical of the industry he loves and has made such spectacular use of. Further, even though I think it's safe to say that Vaughan doesn't believe that comic book collectors are, to a one, sexually frustrated social retards, it is also safe to say that he's not totally off the mark as regards our lifestyle and its (certainly, in my case) heretofore ignored detriments upon this island Earth. So he remains critical of his industry and his public. To take such a stance, which may be considered "biting the hand," takes sheer guts, and I heartily commend Brian K. Vaughan for doing so, all the while delivering a hell of a good read.

That being said.

I honestly do my best in every day of my life to remain logical and rational. And every day of my life, I fail spectacularly. As I hope I've illustrated above, I am capable of coolly analyzing a work, remaining as objective as is humanly possible, and thereby reaching a conclusion based solely on the merits of that work and not just my personal gut reactions to it. But I still have personal gut reactions, and I'd only be hurrying the approach of my impending ulcer if I tried to tamp those reactions down.

So here goes:

Hey, man, I ain't been a fucking virgin for years now.

Calling comic book nerds on the carpet for a socially irresponsible lifestyle must have seemed like a good idea at the time. But here's something you may not have thought of: what do a buncha asexual fanboys give a shit if the world blows up tomorrow? Sure, no more new comic book day. But if it also means that every jock meathead, every numb cunt, every smarmy hipper-than-thou douchebag in the world writhing in pain and agony? Count me the fuck in.

I didn't get into this shit to make any friends, chief. I fucking hate people. I truly, truly do. People as a species are miserable, loud, brutal and stupid. And cries of "Save the planet!" are just thinly disguised pleas of "Save the people!" Fuck the people. The earth can save itself, man, it's not going anywhere. If the environment is altered to where we as a species can no longer live in it, I dunno, sounds like problem solved to me.

I've got no use for your society, your reality. Am I trying to impose order on an inherently chaotic world? Why would I bother? I already have the Marvel Universe. I know a lot of nerds want to champion the ideals of their funny-book heroes, want to move those ideals into the real world. And yeah, I'd say that's pretty stupid. I'm not interested in attaining ideals of perfection in this, the "real" world. I get to work Saturdays in a comic book store, e.g. perfection attained. Everything else can take a flying fuck at the moon.

You want comics on recycled paper? I can get behind that, sure. But taking a dig at my lifestyle, ostensibly to shame me into it? That's like me calling the gay community a bunch of faggots for letting the state of California tell them who they can and can't marry. It's not the name-calling I find offensive; it's the very idea that I'm gonna be stupid enough to fall for such a bullshit argument. That's the kind of "logic" gym teachers and drill sergeants use, and it's just that sort of asshole behavior that led me to withdraw so completely from society-at-large. Get this straight, motherfucker: I love comic books more than people. You wanna improve life on this planet for everybody? Hey, I won't stand in your way. But if you're gonna be a fuckin' dick about it, you can just cram your social awareness up your ass sideways, pal, because the sooner the human race dies out, the better off the human race is.

Get bent.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

You Never Open Your Mouth Until You Know What the Shot Is.

(or: Peter David Was Kind of a Jerk to Me Once, and It Was One of the Better Things That Has Happened to Me.)

When I was 15 or so, Peter David wrote an article for Wizard about how to become a writer. Like most adolescent comic book nerds in the early '90s, I dreamed of working in comics one day and idolized the aggressive art stylings of your Jim Lees, your Todd McFarlanes; these guys were bigger than rock stars to me. But I was also aware that to be a comics artist, one had to be able to do things like draw really well (Rob Liefeld, the obvious exception here). So I had kinda resigned myself to a more realistic aspiration, like lettering or being a janitor at Marvel or maybe even scripting.

So although I seemed to feel that a good script was second to representations of giant guns, big tits, and intricate capewear, I still knew a fine writer when I saw one. And Peter David most certainly is that. I was well familiar at the time with his work on The Incredible Hulk and X-Factor, and I was also well familiar with the notion of some that he was an opinionated loudmouth and something of a blowhard. Whether or not this is true matters little to me, because not only does this bear no relevance on his work, which continues to be of the highest quality, but because simply put, the guy knows what he's talking about. And as I've come to find out, if you know what you're talking about, it doesn't matter how you put it; conversely, if you don't know what you're talking about, then shut your big yap.

What I remember of the above-mentioned article was nothing ground-breaking, a point I believe David concedes immediately within said article. But it was certainly the first time I'd read anything strictly pertaining to the art of writing, and it stuck with me. Obviously, I don't remember it word for word, but his advice consisted of stuff I'd never really thought of, like read constantly and showing your works-in-progress to friends and family is not a smart move. Stuff like that stayed with me well into my early 20s when I decided I wanted to be a professional writer.

My writing regimen at the age of 21 was basically this: get home from work at about 10 PM, watch NewsRadio, then write and drink until I was too cross-eyed to see what I was doing. Do this once, maybe twice a week. Every other night, go out to the bar and talk to your friends about all the genius ideas you've been having until they're bored too cross-eyed to see what they're doing. Self-discipline is important to an aspiring writer, so I was very strict with myself on this, and at the risk of sounding immodest, I can say I was able to produce some of the worst short stories and most bored friends ever seen in the late twentieth century.

When I was 25 or so, I met Peter David at the San Diego Comic Con. Although I'd remained a big fan of his work, I was always too intimidated to talk to him before. But at this point, hell, we were practically colleagues. So I stood there at his table, a copy of his novel Sir Apropos of Nothing gripped in my sweaty hands. And while I waited for him to finish his rendition of "Trouble" from The Music Man (hey, don't ask me), I daydreamed about me and Pete getting together for drinks and discussing our current projects in between his bouts of enthusiastic praise for my stuff. Man, it was gonna be great.

When I finally put my book down in front of him, I told him how that article in Wizard those years before had been great and was an early inspiration for me to go into writing.

And he said, "Yeah? So how many comics have you written?"

Well, the answer was (and technically still is) none. I was quite taken aback by his bluntness, being nervous enough already, and I muttered something about having written some short stories (which, I believe, at the time could have been counted on one hand if you only counted the ones that were even passably readable).

And he said, "Yeah, short stories are sorta like comics. That's good."

What a fucking dick! I screamed in my brain. But as it turns out, I was screaming at myself. Yeah, Peter David was kinda abrupt with me, kinda harsh. I mean, his actual words were fairly harmless, as you can tell, but it was more the directness of the questions, the tone that wasn't encouraging so much, like that of my elementary school teachers ("Good job, Jimmy!"), as it was demanding. I remember kind of jerking back like I'd been struck. But if anybody needed a slap in the face right then, it was me. Having been (and mostly still being) an amateur writer with dreams of literary grandeur, I had managed to overlook a trifling detail: work. I wanted all the trappings of an artistic lifestyle, all the attention and not having to work at 7-Eleven, but without any of that bothersome effort. There have been many, many times in my life when I've wanted to kick my own ass, but few stand out in my mind like this one.

And so kick my own ass, I did (figuratively speaking, of course. I'm in no shape to beat up a 5th grader or even a less formidable opponent like myself). I got back to work. I wish I could say that I wrote day and night until my right hand cramped into a useless claw, eschewing all social interaction or personal grooming in order to heed my muse. That wouldn't quite be true (except maybe the personal grooming part). But I certainly began to focus more on what I was doing than on what I wanted to be doing after the Edgar Awards ceremony. And, in actuality, my output decreased significantly, but definitely for the better. Any shit-faced moron can crank out three stories a week, just so long as those stories suck royally. It takes time and effort to write something decent, and even more time and effort to shut the fuck up about all the time and effort you're putting into your work. Let the work speak for itself, I realized, and that way, if nothing else, I just won't need to talk about it. It'll be right there in black and white.

I'm certainly not breaking any publishing records these days, nor do I expect to any time soon. But I did have another short story accepted for publication this week, just days after yet another short story was published. I've got a lot of projects going, and actually have other irons in the fire as far as future publishing prospects go. And I've got Peter David to thank for a large part of this. So, if you ever read this, Peter, I'm sorry if I make you sound like an asshole here. But I simply wouldn't have you any other way.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Q: Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes? A: Quis Gives a Shit?

I watched the movie version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead when I was 18 or 19 years old. I didn't get it. It had been a couple of years since I'd read Hamlet, and even then I don't think I'd been paying close enough attention. A few years later, I had to read Hamlet again for some other class, so I also read the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. I enjoyed it much more, a lot more of the Hamlet stuff certainly made sense to me. But there was still a certain something lacking (in me, not the play). Finally, a couple years after that, I saw a performance of the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Despite the fact that, aside from the three leads, it was really typically as bad as every other community college production I'd ever seen, I finally really got it. This is a play about two characters in a play who realize what shitty roles they have in this play with the help of another character in the play who plays a guy in another play. It's a meta-play, and by the very dint of what that term implies--a work of art that attempts to address the heights and limitations of its own medium within itself--it can be nothing else. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead only works as a play, just as Scream could only work as a slasher-flick, not a TV show or an interpretive dance. It's Garry Shandling's Show was a show; it wasn't ever It's Garry Shandling's Post-modernist Sculpture.

Watchmen is a super-hero comic book about comic book super-heroes.

The first time I read Watchmen, the pirate comic sub-plot confused the shit out of me. I knew it had to mean something, as it was featured so prominently, but by the time I finished the book, I'd forgotten all about it, immersed as I'd been in the rest of it. The next couple times around, I got closer, but still didn't know what it was all about. Then, it finally clicked and I got what I'm sure you who have read it also get: the whole thing is an allegory for Ozymandias and how, in his rush to save humankind, he's lost his own humanity. I dunno about you, but when the gentle delicateness of this imagery hit me, well, to say I was moved would be an understatement. Watchmen is a comic book about superheroes and examines what a world with actual superheroes would truly be like. And how do Moore and Gibbons underpin this? With a comic book within the comic book.

For all the movies I've seen that have changed my life, either drastically or in small doses; for all the film moments that have made me weep until my chest hurt or laugh until my throat was raw; for all the stories, characters, and bits of dialogue that have stirred me, inspired me, helped to shape the very man who writes these words, I am well aware of the power of the cinema. But there is one thing a movie can't do for sure and that's create a comic book within a comic book.

It can be argued that the above trailer shows that Zack Snyder and his associates feel that, while Tales of the Black Freighter doesn't quite fit into the over-all film adaptation of Watchmen for its theatrical release, it is still a highly regarded aspect of the story, which is why they have made a separate animated production of that sub-plot to be released in conjunction with the DVD of the Watchmen feature film, to be enjoyed in your own home.

It could also be argued that the hype machine has been working so much overtime that Warner Bros, et al, know they can sell one and a half movies for (at least) the price of three: when the legions of suckers see Watchmen in the theaters at least one time each, and when they each buy both DVDs.

I'll think I'll just go rent Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead again.