Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Ten-Cent Plague

The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America
by David Hajdu
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008

Hillary Brown
It's very hard to start off this review, partially because it's a book book, with words and no pictures (except for a small signature of b/w stuff in the middle) and is fairly long; partially because David Hajdu's book, as its subtitle implies, has Big Issues in mind; and partially because everyone and his/her brother has already weighed in on it: Louis Menand in the New Yorker, Jeet Heer in Slate, Bart Beaty at the Comics Reporter (a multi-part series!), etc. What do we say, we nonintellectuals and nonexperts? I'll say that I liked the book a good bit, despite its repetitiveness at times (it's easy to mix up this hearing with that hearing or remember how Estes Kefauver was involved in what, especially some time after reading it). It's mostly well-written, although it skates between total pop history and total academic history, with a few too many facts for the former and a little too much glossiness for the latter. The point of view most reviews seem to take is irritatingly contrarian: "Wertham wasn't so bad. He was a good guy. He didn't like racism, he was misused by the committee, Hajdu shouldn't pillory him [whether he does or not is up for debate], and, besides, the comics that ended up being destroyed weren't really art anyway." I understand the need to play devil's advocate, to think about points counter to those being made by an author you're reading, to try to say something new, but seriously, people? How can you read Hajdu's account of adolescent-led bonfires of comic books and campaigns of intimidation and come down on the side of the book burners?

Garrett Martin
Who's coming down on the side of the book burners? Beaty's not. Neither is Menand. They're just pointing out some facts about Wertham that generally aren't well-known these days, and that Hajdu mentions but generally elides. I've known about Wertham and his book since I was in elementary school, but all I've ever heard about him are one-sided attacks from the comics industry and First Amendment defenders. I had an utterly negative impression of the man, and although I won't be singing his praises anytime soon, he doesn't seem to be the totally scorn-worthy son-of-a-bitch that I and most comics fans thought he was. Hajdu does portray Wertham in a more balanced and nuanced light than most pro-comics writers, but he still basically presents the doctor as a straight-up villain, as a savvy self-marketer and demagogue who uses comics to increase his own rep and book sales. And since those assertions can't be factually proven, I don't think there's anything irritatingly contrary about writers criticizing Hajdu's mostly one-sided depiction of Wertham. Also, I don't remember Wertham having anything to do with any of the book-burnings. Didn't most of them happen in the late '40's, before he ever wrote Seduction of the Innocent? Did Hajdu mention any statements Wertham made supporting the bonfires?

Anyway, I agree that this'll be a hard review to get through. Let's give it a shot, though. It's a really quick and enjoyable read, full of great quotes from various Golden Age creators both famous and obscure, and makes a convincing argument for the culture war over comics being a harbinger of the generation gap and cultural upheaval to come over things like drugs and rock music. Still, I don't think I can respect it as a work of serious scholarship. You mention the book's odd limbo-state somewhere between pop and academic history. It's real, and I kind of have a problem with it. Like Beaty points out in his Comics Reporter piece, Hajdu did a lot of legitimate research into the comic-burnings of the '40's, with copious first-person accounts from participants and ring-leaders. But then he neglects to mention various aspects of the Senate hearings that didn't necessarily support his thesis. It's weird to do a lot of research in an overlooked area while not making full use of another openly available and widely researched source. Now, a sober, academic chapter on the hearings would probably be about as exciting as EC's post-code comics, but methodology is important, and you can't really have it both ways. So you have to wonder, what is the purpose of this book? Is it a serious piece of cultural scholarship, or a spirited editorial in defense of the comics? Obviously Hajdu's aiming for both, but he only sporadically supports his points with facts and evidence.

HB: Maybe I'm just an anti-censorship nut (caveat: I am), but I felt that Beaty and Menand, in pointing out the upside of Dr. Wertham, really minimize the downside. On the other hand, I didn't come to this with impressions from elementary school. It is a little ironic for Hajdu to criticize Wertham for faulty scholarship while missing some apparently big stuff in his own book, but it seems to me, admittedly without having read Wertham except in paraphrase, that the doctor's academic sins are worse. He clearly didn't advocate for book burning, but he seemed to draw a pretty strong causative connection between comics and juvenile delinquency, and his title alone ("Seduction of the Innocent") is loaded with stuff that makes my eyes bug out. I'm sure, being a scholar of the weird, that you've at least picked up a copy of Vance Packard's The Hidden Persuaders, and Wertham's argument and, even more so, the ways in which it was used come off a little bit like seeing the word "sex" imprinted 100 times on a Ritz cracker. Whether or not art is an influence on morality and behavior seems to be a point Hajdu is particularly interested in, as when he pinpoints Bill Gaines's mistake in testimony as admitting that they might be linked then backtracking. It's also something I'm studying, and I guess my point is: I don't care. That is, it shouldn't matter whether they're linked or not. It's much too complicated to figure out, and I'd rather there be more art in the world than less. I'm not big on Wertham because he seemed to be arguing, at least somewhat, for less.

The book burning stuff is definitely one of the best parts of The Ten-Cent Plague, especially the interviews with participants, and Hajdu contextualizes it pretty well with regard to the time without necessarily explicitly saying 1950s = fascism in America. And the portrayal of the early EC gang is strong as well. You really get a sense of the seat of the pants quality of EC as an illustration of the entire industry. A lot of the rest of the book hops around a bit much in time, and I wouldn't mind seeing a bit more on the connection of the WPA Federal Art Program to comic books, but good history is darn hard to write. It's incredibly difficult to combine facts, narrative, good writing, and a somewhat neutral outlook, and I can't think of the last bit of history I read that scored well on all accounts. Do you think the book's getting better reviewed in the popular press than in the comics press? I wouldn't be surprised.

GM: Well, that's the difference, then, as I am decidedly and avowedly pro-censorship. Actually, no, I'm opposed to that, too, but I don't have a problem with ratings scales like those used by the MPAA and the ESRB. Beaty says Wertham was arguing for something similar with comics; I have no idea how true that is, but it wasn't a bad idea, and Marvel now has its own in-house ratings that are somewhat similar. Anyway, I don't know how I feel about Wertham. Yeah, his science was suspect, and I disagree with his views on comics, and by stoking the public furor over them he stunted the maturation of the medium and/or artform for decades. Still, without the overreaction of the public we maybe never would've seen the advent of the Silver Age and those ridiculously fantastic superhero comics that spawned or informed so much of what I loved growing up. And you know what, honestly? Those EC comics are really overrated. The art is sometimes great, and the stories often powerful in their brutal concision, but too often the twist endings are a big let-down, frequently either blatantly obvious or almost non-sensical. Yeah, they were subversive in the early '50's, but their value remains more historical than artistic. Mad's the only EC comic that really holds up all that well, no matter how outdated the references and jokes are.

Anyway, Hajdu does a great job handling EC's history, and after reading some of those quotes I grew amazed at how many of those old EC guys are still alive. Feldstein, Jaffee, Elder, Jack Davis (a Georgia grad!), John Severin, Jack Kamen, and Al Williamson are all still kicking in their 80's or late 70's. It's also really depressing to see how many people have died since Hajdu interviewed them over the last few years. I counted at least eight names in the list of interviewees who have died since 2005, including EC's business manager Lyle Stuart, Will Eisner, and Arthur Drake. But this is the most satisfying and enjoyable part of The Ten Cent Plague, the great number of quotes and personal stories Hajdu has collected that gives a good first-person view of the era in question. I do think the structure of the book is a bit disjointed, and ends too abruptly after the enactment of the Comics Code, but between the chapter on the comic bonfires and the recollections from the artists involved, The Ten-Cent Plague is certainly a useful piece of comics history.

And, yes, I would think that critics who aren't necessarily comics enthusiasts, or who are writing for mainstream outlets, would be more positive about the book, if only because they would be approaching it with more of an open mind. Honestly, though, the only articles I've seen outside the enthusiast press are by comics critics like Jeet Heer and Douglas Wolk (whose review for the Boston Phoenix can be found here), so, shit, I've got no idea! What do you think? And how badly did you want to run out and pick up those pricey hardcover EC reprints they've been putting out lately?

HB: You act as though Jared and I don't already have one and lust after more. We also have a much older hardcover black-and-white collection of Aces High, which gets dissed briefly in passing in the Hajdu (as one of the lame comics Gaines tried to put out after the Code was instituted). I haven't read it yet, but I certainly will. Basically, I think you're probably right about much of the EC stuff being rubbish, but, dude, much of early Spider-man is kind of rubbish too. Comics didn't really start developing until later, right? And a lot of them still suck. Saying "most examples of the genre" suck is pretty much a waste of time in any field because it's almost always true. It's also interesting that Hajdu disrespects Silver Age stuff by quoting Stan Lee as saying that he wasn't trying to challenge anyone with his superhero stories when he started doing them again. My guess is that you can take that with as much salt as you can anything Stan Lee says.

Note: Jack Davis is not only a Georgia grad, but still does stuff on campus, which is pretty incredible. That probably contributes a good deal to my sympathy for the artists and writers who lost their jobs due to the Code and the changing of the industry. Also, Al Feldstein should be at Heroes Con in Charlotte, which Team Brown is considering attending.

I was going to ask you if you thought they'd reprint It Rhymes with Lust at some point, but now I see that they already have. The story of that and of the romance comics in general was also very appealing to me, as it's not the kind of thing you tend to hear about from most comics nerds, or at least not the ones I know.

How do I feel about ratings on comic books? Do they really come into effect? Will surly cashiers who want to undermine society and, thus, work in comic book shops really refuse to sell images of sex and violence to impressionable youth? Or is it a moot point since those youth have to get their moms to drive them everywhere anyway?

GM: Any intelligent shopkeep would probably refuse to sell adult comics to kids if they knew about that shit that dude in Rome, Georgia, has gone through.

Lee/Ditko Spider-Man, and early Marvel in general, is certainly rough and corny in spots, but most of those comics had something great and distinctive about them at the beginning, be it the art, the concept, the character, whatever. EC's crime and horror comics gets praised all-encompassingly, though, even though they were amazingly repetitive and rarely as clever as you'd expect. Granted all I've read are a few of the Gladstone reprints from the early '90's, but even as a kid I was slightly disappointed in 'em.

HB: And thus we trail off... Although I did remember while posting this that I wanted to praise the cover art by Charles Burns, who is an absolutely marvelous choice for the job, considering how much his work appears to have been shaped by the sex and grossness of EC and yet how darn arty it is. Take that, Dr. Fred!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Little Nothings

Little Nothings: The Curse of the Umbrella
by Lewis Trondheim
ComicsLit, 2008

Hillary Brown
If you have to buy one of these books with the words "little" and "things" somewhere in the title, Lewis Trondheim's is the one you should buy. This was my first Trondheim, but it made me fairly rabid to go out and read more, whereas the Jeffrey Brown actually may have made me (slightly) less likely to read his other stuff, for fear of being annoyed. What's interesting is that they cover what seems to be the same basic material, as evident from their titles--the small stuff in life that could easily fall between the cracks and, to present the most accurate picture of what we all go about doing on a daily basis, should really be preserved and polished and served up in comics--but France > the United States in this instance. I don't exactly know what it is that I like better about Trondheim's stuff other than pretty much everything. Even if a story continues for more than a page, each page can stand on its own, keeping the observational humor brief. The art is carefully done and beautifully colored with watercolors. Nothing looks messy. And it's both funny and more relatable, at least to me, even though I'm certainly not 40 or a parent. Basically, this is the best of diary comics, and it's what I hope for from the form, which is why I'm so disappointed when they fail to live up to it.

Garrett Martin: Yeah, I pretty much agree on every point. The thing that makes all the difference, really, is that, while Brown was basically just telling us what's been going on in his life, Trondheim is a true story-teller. Obviously they're both telling stories, but reading Brown was like a one-sided conversation with a friend, whereas Trondheim knows to keep his stories quick and witty enough to thoroughly engage his audience, while also packing in some low-key insightfulness. Or, shit, even wisdom, of the everyday and kinda obvious sort.

Not to continue harping on Brown, because I did like his book, but comparing the two is really very telling. I thought Brown's stories almost invariably could've lost a few panels or even pages. Trondheim rarely ever uses more than three panels to make what are basicaly very similar points. And even in Trondheim's longer stories, he tends to end every page with some sort of punchline or humorous observation, which keeps thigns moving quickly. I also felt Brown's typical layouts and small, tightly detailed panels grew progressively more claustrophobic, and thus somewhat boring and lifeless. Trondheim doesn't even draw borders, his panels floating and flowing into one another. It's less rigid, less uniform, and, like the humor, contributes to a smoother read. It's weird to read a book like Brown's, think "man, it'd be better if he did this instead," and then immediately read another book with a very similar premise that utilizes many of the techniques that you thought would improve the first. Did you have any idea that the two books would kind of mirror each other like this, when we were discussing what to read?

HB: Nope, I had no idea at all, although if I'd done a bit more research, I probably would have. One of the things that I think is particularly impressive about the Trondheim is the seamlessness with which it's been translated. I read a decent bit of fiction in translation, especially through the New Yorker, and it's usually fairly easy to tell when something's been run through two brains. It gets flattened out, and there's much less use of idiom. Maybe it's easier to do this in a dialogue-light comic book, but I wouldn't think so, especially when it's one that has so many jokes. It's also interesting to note (in the colophon, which is the only place you can find it) that Trondheim didn't translate his own book, so that adds to the impressiveness.

Another thing that I think is somewhat crucial in drawing a distinction between the two books is the personality of the central character. Brown's guy is indecisive and, well, kind of blank at times, which can happen when you take an inside-out view of someone, but Trondheim's character is a goofball prankster. He's always coming up with ways to mess with people, which should make come off as a jerk but somehow doesn't, maybe because his pranks are small and not very mean or maybe because we've already seen him behave like a decent person for a number of pages.

GM: Yeah, I bet Trondheim's kids get embarrassed all the time. It's always awkward when your parents cut the fool, even if they're good at it. And I could see some folks complain about that, how Trondheim never really presents himself in too negative of a light, even when he's fucking with people. I said Jeffrey Brown was maybe too unguarded; do you think Trondheim goes too far in the other direction? Do you think he opens up enough to make this a truly successful memoir? Shit, does a memoir have to delve into the bad stuff and the black areas to be a wholly rounded artistic endeavor? I certainly don't think so, but I'm sure there are people who will say that. As good as Little Nothings is, it's still a pretty light book, in terms of narrative structure, emotional depth, etc. If you don't find Trondheim's art and humor as charming as I do, you'd might think this book was boring and meaningless. But then it's that focus on the sensational aspects of memoirs that has led to the improbabilities of Augusten Burroughs and the outright lies of many others. Also, Trondheim and his publishers seem to acknowledge that Little Nothings is something of a minor work for him. So I don't know if my question serves any point. But still, I'll ask it again: is Little Nothings too light to be taken seriously, and does a memoir have to be concerned with Big Issues to be artistically great?

HB: No! For one thing, I don't think it's really a memoir. It's just stuff. But, even if it were, I think it's a bit more like David Sedaris than Augusten Burroughs: small observations, mostly funny, some dark (the stuff about having two cats in case one of them dies), highly structured in a way that seems as though they're not. Even that is stretching as a comparison. It's really more like the world's most awesome sketchbook. Or maybe he's a fan of Italo Calvino's Six Memos for the New Millennium, which proposes "lightness" as one of many virtues art should/will take on and equates it with "precision and determination, not with vagueness and the haphazard." Big issues can weigh you down. Jokes let you float up.

GM: I think it was a sketchbook, wasn't it? Stuff he doodled for his website? [Sidebar by HB: And, really, even if you don't speak French you should go to his website and click on the ruler ("jeux") to play a hilarious game.]

Calvino sounds like a smart guy. I don't know much about fumetto, though; is he the dude who does Corto Maltese?

HB: Yeah, but clearly it's better than a sketchbook because it's clean and plotted. I'd bet there's a sketchbook that exists for this sketchbook.

You joke, of course, but Calvino apparently was inspired by comics in writing his book of short stories Cosmicomics. I've actually read that one, and I'm not sure I see it (the best way I could characterize it is as a series of stories about different stages of the universe--the time when the moon was so close to Earth you could reach it with a ladder, the time when matter condensed from nothingness), but there's also apparently a story in another book of his t-zero that he actually tells you to imagine as written in panels. Maybe we should read it!

GM: I think we should definitely read it, considering that Calvino's narrator Qfwfq was an inspiration for Morrison's infant universe of Qwewq, in which Superman created our this here real world.

Anyway, yeah, Little Nothings is a great book, pretty much all-encompassingly. I plan on reading many more of Trondheim's comics in the very near future. I hope he has other observational / personal books like this, in addition to his fictional work. A couple of years ago a friend got into John McPhee, and for about a year that's all he read or talked about. It is entirely possible that Lewis Trondheim is about to turn me into that guy. Not McPhee, but the other guy I was talking about. My friend. The one who read McPhee. And now lives on Staten Island. In the abandond remains of GI Joe's super-secret underground hide-out. With an Asian girl.

HB: No! I'm also going to be that guy. Donjon!

Monday, April 21, 2008

Little Things: A Memoir in Slices

Little Things: A Memoir in Slices
by Jeffrey Brown
Touchstone, 2008.

Garrett Martin: Little Things is subtitled A Memoir in Slices, and that's exactly what it is, a series of short stories about Jeffrey Brown's life that aim to highlight the importance of the tiny, quotidian details that make up human existence, including frequent trips to the bathroom. I'll readily admit that I'm not much of a memoir or mini-comic kind of guy. Not because I dislike them, per se, I just hardly ever feel the urge to spend money on either. So yes, I've never read Jeffrey Brown before, other than flipping through The Incredible Change-Bots at the store a few times. And I've got to say, despite appreciating Little Thing's premise and Brown's art, I do have a few reservations about this book.

But first: what are your initial thoughts?

Hillary Brown: I haven't read Jeffrey Brown's Bighead, but I do have it, and it's my impression that it's his most famed work. I was equally disappointed in parts with Little Things, although not, in some ways, entirely. I don't mind the premise, and, while I wouldn't say I read a ton of mini-comics in paper form, I'm definitely a fan of some that address more quotidian elements of life (including those by Mary Jessica Hammes, the aforementioned David Yoder, and Ryan Pequin. The thing is, you either need to keep it shorter or create something that's more of a narrative and less just one thing after another. I don't mind repetition. We all find ourselves doing the same things over and over again, like procrastinating or screwing around on the computer or going to the record store, and sometimes the routine that repetition creates can be comforting to experience, even through someone else's eyes, when it makes us feel that our worthless lives are at least shared with others in their utter mundanity. That said, there is a fine line between simply expressing the basic outlines of daily life and, um, being boring. Some of these "stories" feel a bit like listening to someone ramble on about a dream with no end and no point in sight.

GM: Right. Little Things is like talking to a friend at a bar, if your friend was a complete stranger, didn't listen to a word you said, and charged you $15 for the honor.

But so, I don't want to say that most of these stories are pointless, but, like you said, there's hardly ever much to them. Far too often Brown fails to mold his recitation of daily livin' into a compelling narrative. The stories often seem to be missing the pages where things like conclusions tend to go. And the nigh-total focus on girls, music, and drawing in coffee-shops wouldn't become boring and claustrophobic if Brown used those topics to say anything interesting or profound.

Would you agree that this book is claustrophobic, between the small cramped panels and repetitive themes and images? I pretty quickly got conditioned to expect certain things in these stories, and even when Brown breaks from his typical structure, opens up his tight panels, and moves the setting from the hipstery regions of Chicago to a national park in Washington, I kept on expecting the story to eventually involve a girl, the Decemberists, and a car crash, somehow. The story in question is a nice change of pace, but those expectations undermine it a bit.

HB: Actually, that story, about visiting his park ranger friend, might be my least favorite. It comes off like some kind of aimless hippie wandering/communing with nature that's supposed to be profound, but I would almost always rather look at cartoony drawings of people than cartoony drawings of a mountain.

Claustrophobic is a fair characterization, although he improves some toward the end of the book in creating things that are more like stories than just one incident after another. Some of the problems, admittedly, are with layout, which doesn't create clear distinctions between one story and the next. Some have title pages. Others don't. And when you have a lot of the same elements in ostensibly distinct stories, it makes it even more difficult to draw lines between them. I've heard there are 13 stories in the book, but I don't know if my count equals that or not.

All of these problems could apply almost as well to something like the Scott Pilgrim series: immature hipstery dude obsessed with comics and indie music sleeps with a series of girls, behaves stupidly, has interactions with friends and animals, not a whole lot happens. But the major differences are that 1. Bryan Lee O'Malley understands and uses story structure, and 2. He puts in jokes. Jokes make a lot forgivable. There are some parts that are funny in Little Things, mostly because of moments of self-recognition, but much of it is not. Is this an attempt at profundity? I tend to think of Jeffrey Brown as kind of a funny guy from what little I know of his stuff.

GM: You can draw some parallels with Scott Pilgrim, but I don't think they're too similar. Scott Pilgrim is fictional and takes place in a ridiculous fantasy world that just happens to look a lot like Toronto. We're supposed to think Pilgrim is immature and shallow and kind of dumb, but he's an upbeat guy and fundamentally decent so we're still interested in his growth into a normal adult, albeit one who will still happen to live in a weird manga video game. Little Things is almost smotheringly realistic, and although Brown definitely seems like a nice guy, and somebody you'd like to be friends with, he doesn't make for the most interesting of protagonists.

Have you started reading Little Nothings by Lewis Trondheim yet? I think that's a better comparison for Little Things, and not just because of the similar titles. Trondheim's book also presents small glimpses of everyday life, but his cartoons, which are almost all just a page long, are genuinely funny and incisive. Trondheim accomplishes what Brown sets out to do, but quicker, simpler, and with greater humor. Not that there isn't humor in Little Things, as you mention above, but it often gets bogged down by the details.

Getting back to the Pilgrim comparison: I do think that Brown recognizes his own relative immaturity, and his growth is a muted theme in Little Things. The final story, in which he gives up his cat in order to move in with his girlfriend and child, is a pretty clear "I have matured now" statement, and placing it at the end seems like putting a capstone on the girls 'n' Death Cab type of story. I sound pretty down on Brown, but I didn't dislike Little Things. He's obviously a really talented cartoonist, and this is a fine book, overall. I'd love to read something from him that isn't so closely focused on his real life, though, or that's edited better, or that's less about the concerns of twenty-something white urban hipsters. That last story points to a promising future, right?

HB: It might point to a promising future, but if you're going to do this kind of thing, you can't hold back so much on the personal details, can you? Maybe I'm just nosy as hell, but the abrupt jump to maturity, while clearly aiming to protect his privacy, struck me as wasted potential. Or maybe I just feel sorry for the cat, which was one of my favorite things about the book. I haven't gotten to the Trondheim yet, but it's up next.

What do you think about the messiness of the art in Little Things? For me, it can either be pleasingly unconcerned with neatness and reflective of the improvisational nature of these comics or, um, messy. I'm not the neatest person in the world, but I am compulsive, and sometimes his lettering placement or inability to fit everything into a panel or sloppiness with regard to explanation and timeline kind of bug me.

GM: I like the art. It's the best thing about this book. It perfectly fits what Brown is angling for, I think, all messy and modest while remaining technically proficient, kinda scruffy and rough around the edges but with its shit still together. I mean it's not great, or anything, and I'm not necessarily clamoring to see more, but, y'know, it's charming without being twee or disingenuous. And he draws cute cats. His lettering ain't so hot, but its scratchiness adds to the intimacy, I suppose. The hand-madedness.

And yeah, pulling the door to now that he's got a family is kind of antithetical, I guess, but I can't muster up any degree of disappointment over it. If anything, his comics would be better if they'd always been more guarded.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

we would rather have a beer with Superman.

in response to Anthony Burch’s “Why Superman Will Always Suck”

HILLARY BROWN: The answer to Burch’s column is that Batman can be sort of an a-hole, whereas Superman is infinitely kind and, in fact, submissive to the desires of mankind. He could take it all over with his pinky finger, but he chooses to serve. I might not believe in God, but hating on Superman is like hating on Jesus, isn't it?

GARRETT MARTIN: Maybe, and I'm not quite cynical enough to do either. And I'm hesitant to discuss that article, because, frankly, it's kind of fanboyish, and doesn't say anything new or all that interesting (I know, this is like the pot calling the kettle a useful receptacle in which to boil water, but whatever). All the things that make Superman a bad character, according to Burch, makes him a good character for science fiction and fantasy stories. Go back and read the Silver Age Superman comics they've been reprinting in those huge Showcase Presents phonebooks. Yeah, Superman fights crime in them, but that's almost always tangential to the ridiculous, non-sensical fantasy that make up the bulk of the stories. There are no limits to the stories you can tell when your lead character can do just about anything. So Superman, as a character, may not have much need of an imagination, but he provides a much greater opportunity for creators to flex their imaginations than Batman or most other superheroes. It's not the character's fault if those imaginations don't always extend past rote superhero junk.

HILLARY BROWN: Also, fanboys can't grow up to be Superman, whereas there is a tiny, tiny possibility that they could someday be Batman. Basically, the fact that Batman is a vigilante, while Superman works with the entrenched power structure, is as scary as it is liberating. I don't automatically trust power, but when it comes to changing the way things work, I would prefer that it happen within the system, at least to some extent, because the system isn't run by one person. Vigilantism makes for very interesting movies and other instances of media, but collectivism, while it has its own evils, at least has checks and balances.

GARRETT MARTIN: Well, both dudes would be kinda terrifying, were they real, but I think "ominpotent space-alien" would instigate more pants-shitting than "outlandishly clad billionaire vigilante". And anyway, Superman works with the entrenched power structure because, for his first 50 years, comics always depicted the entrenched power structure to be right and just. Even Batman cooperated with the cops, when necessary. Burch might as well say that Superman sucks because superhero comics generally weren't cynical until the last twenty years or so.

And talking about politics and values, I don't see when or where Superman has ever been blatantly right-wing or conservative in the political sense, outside of Frank Miller comics. If somebody thinks preserving "the American Way" makes Superman inherently right-wing, then that's saying more about that person's own ideology than that of the fictional character.

But so: I think it's pretty obvious the original article isn't entirely serious. Does it make us look foolish to respond seriously?

HILLARY BROWN: And "the American Way" is pretty loosely defined. He's just good. He believes in freedom and justice and not hurting people, all of which work beautifully in the abstract and are interesting to see when attemptedly embodied.

You're right that the article isn't entirely serious, but neither is it a joke about this sort of thing. It's just half-assed. And half-assedness is something Superman would be against, wouldn't be?

GARRETT MARTIN: He would do everything he could to help reshape that half into one hell of a fully-formed ass.

Right, the "American Way" of Superman constitutes the same morals and virtues that most cultures believe they embody. It's not just lip service with Superman, though, and that's why he is inspiring and so damn super.

Monday, April 14, 2008

J. Edgar Hoover: A Graphic Biography

J. Edgar Hoover: A Graphic Biography
by Rick Geary
Hill and Wang, 2008.

HILLARY BROWN: Okay, so I'm fairly obsessed with Rick Geary as a writer/artist. He's best known, at least currently, for his "Treasury of Victorian Murder" series, of which I've read all but the Lincoln assassination one, so I was curious to see how his stuff would translate to a less macabre story. After all, the ToVM stuff features Jack the Ripper and Lizzie Borden and the Bloody Benders (a family in the American West that murdered passers-by in order to rob them), which means lots of knocking people on the head and gushing of fluids. The gruesome subject matter tends to be minimized to some extent, though, by Geary's art, which is exclusively black and white and looks more stylized and woodcut-like than realistic. It's strange and jumpy, but the way he lays out facts (clearly having done a tremendous amount of research, to the extent of creating elaborate maps and timetables, so that the reader knows just where and when each event in a chain took place) is both drily humorous and helps steadily lead one to the place Geary wants you to go without ever pointing directly. No one gets horribly murdered in his biography of Hoover (spoiler!), but the style is much the same on the whole, divided into short chapters that are both thematically and chronologically organized, drawing mostly on concrete evidence but mentioning the occasional juicy rumor. That is: was Hoover gay? He certainly never says so, but he does build a pile of evidence that could be used to reach that conclusion. The only major difference in this work as opposed to ToVM is that Geary doesn't get to do his lettering anywhere but in the chapter heads. Maybe he works faster without having to do it, but I'm a big fan of his fancy, wavery letters. But enough of an introduction. What did you think? I presume this was your first Geary?

GARRETT MARTIN: I'm familiar with Geary's work, but I'd never read any of his books before. I'm impressed by how detailed the art is, despite the relatively stark black and white design. The book remains visually interesting despite being a series of heavily cross-hatched drawings of white men and buildings. In that regard it's like a really long editorial cartoon, but one that's been worked on and pored over and not just dashed out on a cocktail napkin between Old Fashioneds. There doesn't seem to be a lot of people making non-fiction historical or biographical comics, despite the graphic novel's recent increase in respect and popularity. The fact that Geary can successfully create a straight-forward biography that is fact-based but not dry, remains unbiased despite a controversial subject, and entertains throughout despite a lack of traditional comic narrative is a testament to his skill.

So, having never read anything else by him, how does this compare to Geary's other books?

HILLARY BROWN: It compares pretty favorably. It's not as good as my absolute favorites of his, but, really, I haven't encountered any bad Geary so far. The weakest one I've read is the first Treasury of Victorian Murder, and that was mostly because he was still figuring things out and that book contains three shorter stories as opposed to one longer one. But he's managed to do new and interesting things with even fairly familiar stories. I would say that this biography is a little more direct than some of his other approaches (for example, in his book on the assassination of James Garfield, he draws parallels throughout between the lives of Garfield and his assassin), but it certainly doesn't suffer. I've been wondering what led Hill and Wang to recruit him for this story in particular. They've published a few of these contemporary history books done as graphic novels, but I can't figure out a trend as far as subjects or authors/artists. I did notice at least two references to the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, which is the subject of his next book (he's apparently moving on to the 20th century), but other than that the only connection I can even think of is Hoover's own liking for comics, something David Hajdu covers a bit in The 10-Cent Plague:
"Comic books had carried accounts of realistic crimes, solved by people not wearing tights, years before Charles Biro went to work for Lev Gleason. One of the first, a feature based on FBI case histories, had been J. Edgar Hoover's idea. Hoover, who used the press to build a personal myth that he made the foundation of his empire within the federal government, subscribed to all five Washington newspapers, mainly for the comic strips, Hoover told writer Jack Alexander of The New Yorker. His favorite characters were Dick Tracy and Secret Agent X-9, because, as Alexander wrote, Hoover 'consider[ed] them highly important influences in creating a public distaste for crime and derive[d] a keen inward satisfaction from seeing their flinty-jawed heroes prevail over evil'." (Hajdu 61-62)
I wonder if there's any chance Geary got to pick his topic, or if Hoover was selected (by whoever) because of his connection to comics. He appears to be doing Trotsky next, according to this interview.

GARRETT MARTIN: Here's an article explaining Hill & Wang's Novel Graphics line, of which this volume is a part. They're pretty obviously angling for classroom use, and this book would be well-suited for that.

And man, Andy Helfer used to edit the awesome Giffen / DeMatteis Justice League comic. I hadn't noticed he edited this book, and almost this whole line of graphic novels. Apparently he picked the topic, according to this interview, where he also calls the Hoover book his favorite (I guess at one point he was scheduled to write the book, too). Hoover is a good subject for a series like this, because he's vitally important to his era, but generally gets glossed over in history class due to time constraints. I mean, shit, the kids gotta know every little thing about every single president, including the names of their dogs and how many times a day they shave; there's no time to talk about some random piddling bureaucrat, unless it's in the lesson about John Lennon and/or transgender issues.

It also makes great sense from a comics viewpoint, though, and not just because Hoover was personally a fan of the medium. The hard-fisted, straight-laced g-man has been a staple of comics and popular media for decades, and contrasting that fictional archetype with the real model had to be alluring to Geary (and probably Helfer, too).

HILLARY BROWN: Who conducted that second interview? "Is the Randy black?" Anyway, I'm glad you liked this, and I'd hope you'd give some of Geary's other stuff a try. He's not like anyone else making comics I can think of. I should also note that, if you like his work, you can email him from his website and he'll sell you a page for $80.

GARRETT MARTIN: That interview came from Newsarama, a site that's like a decade-long Rickroll, but without the catchy song. It's been scientifically proven to stagger even the stupidest of comics fans. Anyway, yes, I dug this book, and will probably jam some more Geary in the future.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

I take quarter water sold it in bottles for 2 bucks...

Hillary Brown: This entire discussion was prompted by a comment from Karate Media elsewhere, which went like so:
What I'd like to see, more than just straight reviews of comics, is intelligent discussions about the peripheral concerns. For example, the economics of comic books. For me, I have almost completely stopped buying comics because of the cost. Paying $3-$4 for a single issue is way outside my budget -- sure, it's less than a movie, but you don't get the same entertainment value (or time spent enjoying). And it's more than an hour-long TV show download from iTunes or Unbox -- and I'd still argue that you're probably getting more for your money from the TV show. Add to that the fact that it seems that the big two insist on constantly having ongoing mega-series that cross over into every book. Or having each title's stories be ultra-long arcs. Maybe I've got rose-colored glasses, but I don't remember the late-80s/early-90s being so much like this. The Breyfogle/Grant run on Detective Comics, IIRC, for example, was more 1- or 2-issue based stories. Of course, this may be why I moved on to more of the Vertigo sort of comics, and independent titles -- they tend to avoid the bombastic sales push of "main" DC and Marvel. But I kind of think I'm right in their target audience - I still have boxes of bagged and boarded comics, and I would gladly follow a number of current titles - if I could afford to. Yes, there are the trades, but there's an - ahem - trade off there. If everyone buys trades, then there's no way of gauging a title's success, which means it's harder for the company to support putting out a trade. Plus, if the individual issues aren't being bought, a title might not even last long enough to warrant a trade. In the past 20 years, the cover price of a comic book has gone up what? Over 300%? Is this to comparable to anything else in the marketplace? Movies? CDs? Milk? The argument, I guess, is that we're getting better paper stock and better coloring and whatever else they claim we're getting for our money. And I guess the writers and artists are getting paid better (are they?). But I don't really care about better paper. And better colors? Well, Lynn Varley is great, but I wish someone had blown up her copy of Photoshop before "The Dark Knight Strikes Again." Could comics be cheaper? If they were, would it invite more people like me to start buying them again? Is it even a concern, or am I just a lone nut who doesn't have enough money?
And, at the time, I responded like so:
My guess (and I think we may want to do a post about this on the comics blog) is that it's similar to cable TV, which is the other example I can think of that has increased dramatically in price without that much of a payoff for the consumer and is also addictive. If you want to follow a story as it's going on, you need cable (or possibly Dish or whatnot). You could buy the show on DVD, but then a) you may be subjected to spoilers and b) it may not come out on DVD if it's not successful to some extend in the first place.
I then passed the buck...

Garrett Martin: It is totally addictive, of course. But also the very act of going to the shop every Wednesday, picking up your books, talking to the employees, etc., is just as much of a nostalgia stroke as the comics themselves. And that nostalgia can't be underestimated, since it's the only thing keeping this segment of the industry afloat.

Three bucks is a lot, definitely too much for a reading experience that lasts fifteen minutes, at best. But most stores do offer discounts of some sort to customers with a pull list, and that removes some of the sting. Personally, though, I don't care about glossy paper or computer coloring; I'd actually kind of love it if comics were still on newsprint and looked completely hand-made. And also: it seems like the entire magazine industry has increased prices to a greater degree than other segments of the economy. Time and People have doubled in price since the early '90's, just as comics have done.

It is true that storylines in most comics now run for five or six issues, which just happens to be how many issues they collect into the standard trade paperback. Critics call it "writing for the trade", noting that stories with enough plot to fill two or three issues worth of old comics are now stretched out to twice that number. Decompression is a more unbiased term, and proponents support the style because it supposedly leads to a more cinematic and/or manga-fied pace and scope. I hate it in theory (when applied to superhero comics), and mostly in practice, but there have been enough good "decompressed" comics for me to realize it does have some value. But these comics almost always read better in trade than month to month, and thus usually don't get me to part with my three bucks.

If you're looking for one or two-part stories, that's all Paul Dini has been doing on Detective Comics. All-Star Superman is also mostly self-contained, although each issue contributes to a larger story. That's like the old days, though.

Hillary Brown: Jared and I were talking about the development culture-wide of arc-based media, and I guess comics are part of the same trend, which is most visible in the way television has evolved. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the first example I can think of, TV-wise, that contained plenty of isolated episodes but also episodes that made up a continuous narrative and a season-long arc that would develop in both kinds of episodes. This kind of structure is clearly different from the discrete episodes of something like Seinfeld (which had elements in common and running jokes, but could exist separately without losing much) and from the more long-form narrative of soap opera (including a show like Dallas, which can't be watched out of order nearly as well but also doesn't have an end in sight, leading to a sense that the writers are spinning their wheels). My guess is that the trades function like very short seasons for comics writers, providing a beginning and an end, which can both connect to predecessors and followers and create that nice balance between too much and too little form, allowing writers to explore a theme and develop a plot at a reasonable pace without seeming to add tons of filler. In reality, it's very difficult to do this well, and the schedule comics come out on isn't as friendly to the form as the schedule on which TV shows are produced. I remember when 24 used to take a month off, before broadcast TV realized it might lose its ass to cable and started doing less mid-season hiatus stuff, and it drove me nuts to be waiting on the resolution of a cliff-hanger for that long. Maybe I'm just not patient enough. All I know is that if I'd read Runaways month by month, I would have been tearing my hair out in anticipation, and sometimes that tension is too stressful to bear.

As far as price is concerned, I guess individual comics are the equivalent of convenience foods, in that a bag of whole carrots is a much better deal than already sticked little packages ready to put in your lunch, but with the higher price comes immediate gratification. How much money are Marvel et al making off of $3 comics? Are they really necessary to keep the companies in business, or is it about returns to stockholders?

Garrett Martin: I'm sure they make a decent amount of money off the top sellers, but most of the profits for Marvel and DC come from movies, licensing, ancillary stuff like that. Sometimes, though, the periodicals exist just for amortization purposes, and the eventual trade is the primary money-maker. I'm pretty sure that holds true for more creator-centric books, like Ex-Machina and much of the Vertigo and Icon lines.

From the Silver Age on, superhero comics had a pretty distinct standard narrative style. Subplots would overlap and flow into each other, coming to the forefront and receding as necessary, and often not reaching a conclusion for months or even years. At the same time, every issue had to offer a relatively self-contained experience, even if it ended with a cliffhanger, as they almost always did. Soap operas are probably the closest analogue I can think of. So individual issues were satisfying but still left you anticipating the next. Even when creators changed, the editors usually made sure the serial nature and overarching storyline were continued; it was rare for a new writer to take over something like Captain America in the '70's and start completely from scratch. So, if anything, I'd say that serialized tv shows like Buffy and Lost were strongly influenced by the comics their creators read as kids back in the '60's, '70's, and '80's. It's odd, then, that, as its traditional narrative style became embraced so thoroughly by television creators, comics themselves would break away from that, become more self-contained, and take story-telling notes from the movies. Compound that with a market for trade paperbacks that grew increasingly more viable throughout the '90's and 2000's, and you'll see a fairly substantial break with the traditional superhero narrative.

The recent season-style breakdown of story arcs and even entire series isn't inherently a problem. Good writing is good writing, no matter how it fits into continuity. And it's not like the old style is extinct. But the trend of big-name creators being allowed to come in and ignore most of what's happened over the last however many years is pretty annoying. Mark Millar's current run on Fantastic Four is a great example. His first issue was a complete break, in terms of both story and tone, from what Dwayne McDuffie had been doing over the previous year. It's the sort of jarring change that only happened in the past when a writer was fired in the middle of a storyline. On one hand it's great that writers are given so much freedom these days (how else could Grant Morrison's career exist?); it's a shame, though, that so few are interested in working within the framework they've inherited.

Hillary Brown: Yeah, but isn't continuity off-putting to newcomers? I'm not saying it should be tossed out the window, but every time I start reading about this Earth or that Earth or trying to put together why a complicated chain of events happened the way they did, I get aggravated. I'd actually make the analogy to Lost there, in that I'm less interested in putting together the pieces if a) you make it too difficult for me and b) you don't make it clear/sustain my faith that there's a payoff in store.

I don't know if I buy your analogy that Joss Whedon was specifically influenced in that way by the comics he no doubt read growing up. From my experience (admittedly limited) reading, say, the early issues of Spider-Man, of which I've made it through three trades, they certainly don't seem to be arc-based as much as soap-opera-based. Small things evolve (Peter Parker goes to college; Mary Jane enters the picture), but I rarely feel that there's much building toward a point or a major climax. I do think you're right about the current time-frame operating more like movies. Maybe something in between would work better? Or maybe it would slow down the narrative even more. I don't necessarily mind a bunch of talking, but I like my heart to race (Vaughn is particularly good at pacing).

Garrett Martin: Well, Spider-Man was always more openly a soap opera than most Marvel comics. And we can we just use the term Marvel in this discussion, since they pioneered this sort of serialization. Also those specific Spider-Man issues are pretty early; the Marvel style that held for most of the Silver and Bronze Ages didn't necessarily become line-wide 'til the later '60's. But look at something like the introduction of Galactus, in Fantastic Four #48 - 50. It's a finite story, with a beginning, middle and end, that both mingled with and launched various subplots that ran for months prior and after. Or Steve Gerber's celebrated Defenders run in the '70's, particularly the ten-issue arc where two initially separate stories involving the Headmen and Nebulon eventually cross paths, along with battles with various random villains like Plantman and the Porcupine, only to climax in a double-sized annual guest-starring President Ford. There's a definite ending to the primary conflict, but it bleeds seamlessly out of and into different storylines. And finally, and probably most importantly, look at Chris Claremont's work on Uncanny X-Men in the '70's and '80's. That was like 15 straight years of soap-addled superheroics with major climaxes punctuating nigh-endless stories that almost choked on the dangling subplots. I think they clearly influenced what Whedon did with Buffy, and the only reason that influence isn't more obvious is because Whedon had the clear-cut structure of a 22-episode season w/ three-month break to contend with.

Continuity can be off-putting to newcomers, but it doesn't have to be. One old-school technique I'd rather not have return is how they'd recap everything in-story, through a page or two of expository dialogue, or even flashback panels that reused art from previous issues. A good writer should be able to address and exploit continuity naturally within his story, without completely alienating new readers. The recap pages Marvel occasionally runs at the front of an issue also help out a good bit. And the problem with multiple Earths that you mention is a direct result of DC regularly fucking up on the continuity front for like four decades now. Every so often they try to fix and streamline their continuity issues, but all that ever does is make it even more confusing.

Hillary Brown: The _Uncanny X-Men_ omnibus is pretty high on my must-read list. It's just a question of taking that monster off the shelf. But this should motivate me to get around to it. What were we talking about again? Economics?

I do think that what I've already gotten through of The 10-Cent Plague (upcoming!) has illuminated some of those financial issues. I like nice paper, but I wouldn't say this glossy stuff counts (although it is more archival), and, more to the point, most people don't care. If the big companies went back to printing on newsprint, I'd think they could drop their prices significantly (paper is often the biggest single expense on a book, or at least one of), which would make people like me more likely to pick up an issue whenever they come out. But, from what I understand, that's not too predictable either. If the New Yorker can fill that many pages 47 weeks a year, why can't comic book companies put out issues on time? The idea of waiting a month or more certainly makes me a lot less likely to spend even a paltry $3 on a book.

Garrett Martin: Comics get delayed because the editors let it happen. They'll continue to assign writers and artists with a history of lateness to their books as long as those creators continue to sell. And, other than in extreme situations, like Alan Heinberg's Wonder Woman run, I don't think there's any evidence that lateness drastically affects sales. All-Star Batman and Robin, by Frank Miller and Jim Lee, has shipped nine issues in 30 months, and it's still DC's highest selling title. Also, sales data supposedly shows that trade paperbacks sell better if the art is consistent throughout, and since that's become such a major part of the business Marvel and DC would rather delay a periodical than have a fill-in artist potentially damage long-term sales of the trade. That's another big change over the last few decades; in the past, if a script or art was in danger of missing the deadline, the editor or bullpen would step in and make sure something was ready to go to press, no matter what. Sometimes that meant running inventory stories in the middle of an otherwise unrelated arc, but at least the book shipped on time. And if you regularly missed deadline you wouldn't last long as a professional. Now though it's basically tolerated on an institutional level at both major companies.

As a regular reader of "floppies" or "pamphlets", I'll say that delays can be frustrating, but generally aren't a huge deal. I mention Casanova a lot, but that's because it's one of the best comics around right now. Casanova seems to miss its ship-date fairly regularly, but that hasn't hurt my enjoyment or ability to follow the story. If you're patient enough to follow a series issue to issue, then you'll probably be patient enough to wait out a short delay. The real problems come when a book is delayed for months, or several times in a row, and then the reader loses confidence that the comic will ever actually appear. That happened with Heinberg's Wonder Woman, and is happening right now with the much bally-hooed Richard Donner / Geoff Johns arc of Action Comics, the final chapter of which has been rescheduled three or four times now.

Paper's definitely a big reason that prices have escalated so rapidly, but I wonder how closely the retail price increase reflects the greater manufacturing costs incurred by the glossy paper. I seem to remember higher-ups at Marvel or DC claiming that the cost difference between glossy paper and newsprint isn't big enough to really impact retail price, but that seems somewhat hard to believe. In addition to paper, creators get paid better than they used to.

The biggest reason, though, is the loss of newsstand distribution. As recently as twenty years ago you could still find comics in gas stations, book stores, and supermarkets; now, though, they're basically confined to the direct market. Barnes and Noble and Borders carry some Marvel and DC periodicals, but that's about the extent of their newsstand distribution. The reader base has drastically shrunk as a result, and so they've had to raise prices to make up for the lower circulation. If a comic sells 100,000 copies an issue, it's a block-buster success today; twenty-five, thirty years ago, it'd be on the verge of cancellation. Despite the high cover price, they still make less money per issue than they did back in the day, but ostensibly trade sales will make up that difference. Three bucks an issue is prohibitive to most right-thinking individuals, but remains acceptable to the most addicted and/or enthusiastic of readers.

Hillary Brown: It's not just paper, though. It's that the switch in paper, I believe, means you probably can't run these books on a web-fed press anymore. Web is dramatically cheaper than sheet-fed because it's much faster and you don't have to sheet the paper (you just pop the whole roll on) or flip it to print the other side.

You're right about having to go to a specialty store for most individual issues of comics, though. Do you think this web distribution/digital comics thing is going to affect prices, too, or change the business model?

Garrett Martin: The only way the big two's prices will ever go down is if they embrace digital distribution whole-heartedly, but I don't think digital comics will replace the physical item any time soon. It's not like the music industry, where the way you physically interface with the product has completely changed. Downloading an MP3 provides the exact same end-result as buying a CD for most music listeners now, but is cheaper, more convenient, and takes up less space. Reading a comic on a computer screen is a different physical process from reading an actual comic, though, and I think it'll be a while before most readers adapt to that. I'm sure it'll happen eventually, but times will have to get exceedingly tight for either company to completely make that switch.

One thing they can do to expand their reader base is to place more focus on all-ages comics, collect them in digest form, and then market the hell out of them to kids. Kids still read comics, they're just reading Naruto instead of Batman. DC and Marvel both have kid-friendly titles, but they're all out-of-continuity and have little appeal to long-time comics nerds. There's no reason they can't produce comics that are appropriate for kids but also appeal to older readers; Pixar has perfected the art of true all-ages entertainment, and if the big two were smart they'd crib as much as possible from them. DC's made some good first steps with their recent Flash relaunch, but they kind of half-assed it a bit and the book is now seriously struggling. Blue Beetle is another DC title that should appeal strongly to both kids and adults, and that they're thankfully still supporting despite disappointing sales in the direct market. Reaching out to kids isn't just a good way to expand the current reader base, but also to insure that there are enough people interested in these characters and concepts to keep them going after the current generation of 30 and 40 something readers eventually dies out.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Batman: The Killing Joke

Batman: The Killing Joke
by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland
DC Comics, 1988; remastered and rereleased in 2008

Garrett Martin: I first read Killing Joke when I was 12, and thought it sucked. That was still during my knee-jerk anti-DC Marvel Zombie phase, though, and should be discounted. I next read it in my late twenties, though, and still thought it sucked, although I wouldn't use such an ignorant-looking term outside the company of friends. Let's call it overwrought and melodramatic, with just enough sexually-charged violence to make me pretty uncomfortable. Ah, screw that, let's just say it sucks.

Hillary Brown: So I reread it last night. I first read it not that long ago. I don't think it sucks, but I think its impact has diminished, and it doesn't retain the same kind of gleefully weird vulgarity as The Dark Knight Returns, to set up a parallel between the two that my edition, with a foreword by Brian Bolland, explicitly sets up. It's as though Moore really wants to go to new places and new heights of "extreme"-ness, but, you know, he doesn't even show nipple and it degenerates into a chat-fest. I think it has strengths and I think it has weaknesses, but why don't you go deeper into the suckiness and we'll see where we end up.

GM: Well, that vulgarity is a problem, especially since it isn't "gleefully weird". It's just dirty and unimaginative. Oh yeah, and gratuitous. Sure. When people complain about how casually sordid comics have become, Killing Joke should be exhibit A. It's a perfect example of ratcheting up the sex, violence, and "mature content" while still being about as thick-headed as whatever Tom DeFalco* comic came out that week.

But the main reason why Killing Joke fails: it tries to give a sympathetic backstory to the Joker. The Joker really doesn't need much of an origin, and especially not one that makes us feel sorry for him, or tries to justify, in any way, what he's become. That undermines what makes the character so powerful and memorable. Granted, Moore sets it up so readers or other writers can decide for themselves how valid this origin is (y'know, within the Joker's fictionalized whatsis etc), but this is still basically held up by DC as the character's true backstory. The only thing Moore does with the Joker's origin that doesn't bother me is still kinda underwhelming, since Moore used the exact same motivation (and shit, even almost the exact same line) for the Comedian in Watchmen. Now, on top of that fundamental flaw, you've got a slim plot weighted down with rudimentary psycho-babble and all that unnecessary sexually-charged violence crap we mentioned above.

No amount of pretty pictures (and that Bolland, he is a good one, even if his pre-Joker looks exactly like Lyle Lovett) can make up for this misguided story.

HB: You really think it's that vulgar? I mean, so he shoots Barbara Gordon in the spine and takes nekkid pictures of her. In the grand scheme of things, especially again considering what Frank Miller would do shortly, it doesn't seem all that bad to me, but I also don't have any associations with her character, so it doesn't exactly hit me emotionally. I understand abstractly how the plan is supposed to work to drive the commish insane, but it's not surprising that it doesn't work, as it doesn't really affect the reader either (at least not this jaded one). I mean, if you're going to do sexually charged violence (and if there's any comic in which it belongs, I kind of think it's Batman), you should have bigger cojones about it.

I'm not opposed to the idea of exploring a villain's background sympathetically. I think what Tim Burton did in his first Batman movie (inspired by this comic, I believe) works pretty well. It just doesn't quite have enough material for a full-length story. It should be a background element. I know Moore isn't a huge fan of this book in retrospect, probably because he recognizes it's not well-balanced enough between Joker and Batman. He tries to set up parallels, but, despite the amount of talking that happens, there's no real examination of the psychology of
either character. Trauma as an explanation for psychosis works better with the hero in this case than it does with the villain, as it results from a childhood experience of the former and an adult tragedy for the latter.

It's also difficult to figure out where Moore is coming down on any of the issues he raises, which isn't necessarily a problem, when you're trying to set up a complicated adult world, but mostly comes off as muddled in this case. Is there really a thin line between sanity and insanity, as the Joker suggests, or is sanity not that hard to hold onto, as the example of Commissioner Gordon demonstrates? Is insanity a valid option? Is Batman a more admirable figure partially because he comes from money, as opposed to the Joker, driven to crime by harsh economic conditions? How much tragedy is there in comedy? Is it better to enforce the law according to its letter or to behave like a vigilante, and can you pick and choose
depending on the situation? All of these (well, most of them) are interesting things to consider, but Moore dances about on top of them, spending far too much energy on the first one without ever answering it satisfactorily and not digging into the economic and governmental issues, which he's usually more invested in discussing.

Okay, the art and the new coloring. I was rereading from our edition of D.C. Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore, which has the old coloring, not done by Bolland, but I've seen some examples of the new stuff (here ), and I'm not sure which I prefer. I do sort of hate the look of the old flashbacks, but the new ones look a little slick, and they call attention to Bolland's occasional awkward character positioning. You flipped through the new edition more extensively. What do you think?

GM: Before I get to the art, or any of the stuff you brought up, please let me rant a bit more. I've got some viewpoints; maybe they're reactionary? I do think a lot of this story's content is inappropriate for an in-continuity Batman comic, unless it's within a genuinely great story (which this ain't), and serves a worthwhile point (which this don't). There's no need to be so explicit; at the very least they didn't have to show the photographs, which do contain nudity, including what appears to be at least one nipple. It's made worse that, for a couple decades, and until just earlier that same year, Barbara Gordon was a superhero herself. The Women in Refrigerators stuff gets overplayed, but I think this is a legitimate situation to get upset over. Moore takes an utterly capable female character with a long history, has the villain paralyze her, take nude photos, and alludes to rape, just to get a reaction out of a male character (or two). Total textbook example, tearing down a female in order to develop a male. Granted Gordon went on to be a more important and fully-developed character, but it took other creators to clean up the mess Moore left. Now, I don't think I'm a prude (Casanova is like 33% sex, and that doesn't bug me one bit), but I do think what is supposed to be a milestone book for one of the most mainstream superhero characters ever should be more suitable for an all-ages audience, especially considering this book was released at a time when kids were still actually reading comics.

And maybe the attack wouldn't seem so unnecessary if the Joker's scheme made more sense. The Joker blatantly states that anybody could become as insane as him (or as Batman, another character I will also argue is ill-served by depictions of insanity) if they have a seriously bad day. So Moore has the Joker do all that crazy mixed-up Batgirl brutality in order to affect a change in another character that will supposedly reflect a character trait that I believe the Joker doesn't even possess, or is better off not possessing. But, y'know, his plan fails anyway. Now, I don't really see the Joker as being insane; if he is, then he's so insane that he's circled back around to sanity (yes I hate this construction too but please bear with me thanks). A Joker that's just fuckin' nuts is a less interesting Joker. An insane mass murderer is nowhere near as horrifying as a coldly calculating one, especially one who just happens to act like a damn clown in order to creep people even more the fuck out. And although, again, Moore leaves some room here at the end, bringing up the Comedian justification, Killing Joke is still all about showing why the Joker is so damn crazy and insane. Toss in some insufficiently creepy visual cues lifted from Freaks (that are just as goofy as the '90's Reznorish / Marilyn Mansonian interest in such imagery, despite clearly predating it), the strained "we is the two sides of this one here coin" biz concerning the Batman / Joker relationship, and an incongruous climax where Bats and the Jokester laugh it out despite one of them terrorizing and paralyzing some of the other one's dearest friends, and you've got one seriously bad comic.

Any way, you're right, Moore doesn't devote enough attention to any of the issues you mention to let us know what he personally thinks. Maybe if the story was more detailed and/or thought-out some of the issues I raise wouldn't stick out so much. I would think Gordon's resilience is Moore's way of saying that it does take a lot to drive a man insane, but he focuses so little on Gordon after his rescue that the point seems muffled and trivial. And as interesting as an examination of their disparate economic situations at the time of their respective foundational personal crises would be, Moore doesn't even attempt to bring that up. A lot of opportunities were missed with this one.

Let me get back to what I was saying above about the Batman / Joker relationship. There's nothing wrong with trying to define a hero and his archrival as mirror opposites; that works great for Superman and Luthor, and strengthens both characters. But the Batman / Joker dichotomy put forward in Killing Joke, and mostly continued on to this day, is limiting. Saying they're both insane, but one is insanely obsessed with fighting crime while the other is insanely obsessed with being one hell of a hopeless asshole, is a little too pat and psychologically simplistic. Why can't the mirror image be as simple as the Joker's willingness to kill anybody for no good reason, compared to Batman's unwillingness to ever kill anybody for any reason? How does labelling them as, basically, complements to each other's distinct strand of insanity do anything other than further narrow the available options for future Batman / Joker stories? Furthermore, after killing Robin and paralyzing Batgirl twenty damn years ago, what the hell else could this dickhead do that's even more damaging to Batman? Beat him in a game of Clue? More than with any other comic book adversaries, Batman and the Joker have been painted into a corner. Moore and Killing Joke aren't neccesarily to blame for that, but they did help kick up a dirt cloud that still lingers in the air today.

Okay, sorry for the ramblin'. Unfortunately I didn't get a chance to flip through the remastered edition (the shop done sold out somehow), but from scans at The Beat and at other sites the new coloring doesn't seem to add or detract much from the book. I've never liked the garish colors from the original, but Bolland's touch-ups look muted and dull. I don't have any problems when it comes to the process of updating or rejiggering older works (we can still watch the original Star Wars whenever we want, you damn babies), but Bolland's changes don't seem major enough to warrant any complaints from even the staunchest of fanboy whiners. But then, I've only seen a few pages, so what the hell do I know.

*: I'm being too harsh to DeFalco here. Dude wrote some fine comics back in the day.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

All Star Superman #10

All Star Superman #10
by Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely, and Jamie Grant.
DC Comics, 2008.

Hillary Brown: Okay, so first let me say that it's difficult generally for me just to pick up one issue of a comic. I don't like just getting a piece of the story and I read too fast, which is why I buy trades. Coming in at issue #10 makes it even more difficult. That said, Morrison does a good job giving you pieces of the background without seeming excessively expository (like, for example, J.K. Rowling, who never quite figured out how to do it perfectly for both readers of every book and readers of a particular book; it always came off a little clunky). It's clear that Superman is dying of something and has decided he needs to perform a list of great feats. That's most of what you need to know. And, luckily, I do know a bit of the Superman backstory, due at least partially to most of the seasons of Smallville but also to reading individual arcs and issues here and there (like in D.C. Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore), so I know about those Kryptonians in a bottle and a couple of other things. On to the story itself. I love Morrison's view of Superman as, essentially, God, a view that's clear from the cover of this issue, but a god that's involved in people's lives in a very personal and individual way. He might be busy saving the whole planet, but he also spends a lot of time on much smaller issues, such as helping a group of terminally ill children or stopping a suicide. There's something about that commitment to the small by a hyperpowerful being that's quite touching. Morrison doesn't think Superman is lame. He thinks he's wonderful. And there's no question that comes through. I will, however, quibble with the need for a time stamp in some panels and the fussy, mixed-up nature of the narrative in general. I'm not opposed to creative structuring, but it just feels a little unnecessarily complicated, a statement that Morrison can't do anything simple, and it comes off a little bit like the location and time jumping of a Bruckheimer film. Too harsh?

Garrett Martin: Hey, feel free to be as harsh as you need. That wasn't too harsh at all, though. But anyway, the All-Star Superman series has always been dressed up like a film - hence the movie-style credits that appear near the end of every issue - and since they're going for the largest audience possible, it would make sense to rip off Bruckheimer. Although, I don't think that's what they're doing. If you're going to compare the screwy chronology to a recent director (or producer, or whatever), I'd think Tarentino makes the most sense. There's nothing wrong with jumbling the timeline if it maximizes the drama without making the story incoherent, and All-Star Superman #10 succeeds at both points. And, really, this particular story wouldn't have much suspense or that satisfying of a climax if everything was shown chronologically.

But the structure isn't what makes this issue so great. What it comes down to is one of Morrison's defining strengths, and that is imparting the essential qualities of these ridiculous comic book characters more immediately and concisely than any other current writer. Morrison's Superman has infinite empathy and patience for mankind, and remains focused on bettering life for all of "us" even up to his deathbed. Morrison perfectly summarizes not just that but also Superman's relationships with Lois Lane and Lex Luthor in about a page each, while still finding space for both various references to past stories and crazy new ideas that fit in perfectly with the old.

When I typed "us" above, I was obviously referencing the climax of this issue, when it's revealed that Superman invented our world in order to see how humanity would get along without him. Turns out since Superman didn't exist, we had to invent him. Some critics have complained about Morrison returning again to the metafictional games that permeate his work; I don't see this as repetition, but instead the continuing refinement of one of his defining themes. Myths have power if we let them, and superhero comics can inspire us as much as any myth.

HB: Yeah. I guess I didn't mean the mixed-up chronology was Bruckheimer so much as the callouts to time and place. Bruckheimer movies only move forward. But wait. Is it absolutely certain it's our world Superman created? I guess I assumed that it was merely a parallel Earth. Did I miss something huge? Or is it that Morrison's so excited about what he gets to do that he's not always as clear as he could be. I'm not opposed to the elliptical, but when you're also dealing with back and forth in time, you have to be a little more careful, no? (Sidebar: Tom Spurgeon has a nice review of the same issue here.)

GM: I immediately recognized it as our Earth. I think we're definitely supposed to infer that, considering the Shuster-style Superman drawing at the end. If that's not Morrison's intention, then the issue loses a good bit of its resonance and impact. And honestly, I didn't have any problem with the timeline, but I guess I can see how that'd be confusing.

I'm glad you pick up on Morrison's excitement, even if you turn it into sort of a back-handed compliment. Morrison obviously loves this medium, and the superhero genre in particular, which is why his attempts to write more intellectually and emotionally mature comics don't resort to the same sordid, grim'n'gritty shock tactics as other writers.

And by the way, Frank Quitely's art is as great as ever, even if he seems to have some irrational fear of detailed backgrounds. His figures are always surprisingly emotive, both through body language and facial expressions. You can tell how greatly Superman cares for man and the Kryptonians trapped in Kandor simply by looking at him.

HB: I definitely didn't mean it to be a back-handed compliment. I guess I'm just trying to say that reading this issue in isolation without either having read the ones leading up to it or having the best knowledge of the Superman backstory (e.g., it's clear to me that that panel is a comic book artist coming up with Superman but not necessarily that it's the folks who came up with Superman in our world, and this is probably because I haven't read any early Superman) may lead to some slight disappointment. And, while I want the story to be graceful and transcendent, and it definitely leans in that direction, I find the jumping around detracts from that goal.

Quitely's art is a teeny bit blocky for me, and I think it contrasts a touch with Morrison's gentleness as a story writer, but I do like it on the whole. He does great things with that Superman curl, and I like the older-style costume. His lines could be less sketchy though. Also, is this computer colored?

GM: Yep, the coloring is digital, hence that slightly unnatural sheen. I used to dislike computer coloring, but I've gotten used to it, and Jamie Grant uses it to fine effect on All Star Superman.

Anyway, I finally read the Morrison chapter in Douglas Wolk's book Reading Comics over the weekend, and although it doesn't deal specifically with All Star Superman, Wolk does make some good points about Morrison's career and overriding themes that sort of feed into this discussion here. It's worth checking out, and maybe one day I'll click on that link above and actually buy myself a copy.