Wednesday, July 29, 2009

hello there!

This space would've been occupied by a post on Dash Shaw's BodyWorld, if I wasn't an idiot who didn't realize some chapters took up more than one webpage. We should have a conversation about that up in the next week. In the meantime you can go take a look at my review of Darwyn Cooke's The Hunter in today's Boston Herald.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Wednesday Comics #1

Wednesday Comics #1
by too many people
DC Comics 2009

Garrett Martin: Great, more opinions about this thing. These opinions are the best, though, because they're ours.

Maybe I need to get more serious about discrimination. The format and concept of Wednesday Comics are so appealing that the stories would have to be the most unfortunate things ever (like yogurt commercial bad) to turn me off. I actively enjoy the feel of newsprint, I love the massive size of the Ignatz line and classic comic reprints, and the line-up of features contains some of my favorite characters and concepts. So, again, it'd have to be Tony La Russa awful to let me down.

Wednesday Comics #1 is far from the best thing ever, but it's still pretty damn good. There's at least one bummer (sorry to join the dogpile, Teen Titans), but every other strip is at least acceptable. Even the Wonder Woman comic, which is just horrible from a storytelling perspective, is salvaged by nice art that fully exploits the massive amount of space. The natural limitations of serializing a story like this make it impossible to authoritatively say if something is awesome or not, but most of the fifteen features start off nicely in this first issue. Maybe it gets a bit repetitive to read set-up after set-up, but that shouldn't be a problem as the series progresses.

But before we get into specific strips, what were your immediate impressions?

Hillary Brown: Well, I like reading it in public, which is what I ended up doing, as I picked it up downtown then ran some errands on the bus. It made me think about how it's a smart piece with multiple positives for DC. The format is nostalgic, of course, which is why nerds will buy it, but it also serves as a PR piece for the company. People will go, "Hey, what's that dude reading that's so big and colorful and looks like the funny pages?" and then they too might go out and buy it. So I appreciate it as well as kind of like it. I'm not that big on newsprint, though. I'm a philistine who would prefer to read the paper online, but I do like print books over electronic versions. I just don't like the way newsprint rubs off and makes my fingertips feel dry.

But enough about that weirdness. I think I really like about half the strips/am curious where they're going, which is probably good enough, and there's a lot of good art, especially Joe Quinones's work on Green Lantern, which is just lovely. I'm more into the strips that I'm already more familiar with, which isn't shocking. I'm not sure anything completely wowed me, but I want to know where Superman, Batman, The Flash, Wonder Woman (although I think the layout of that one is a mess; credit for innovation, but minuses for just, like, too much stuff on the page), and Teen Titans (yes, the art is terrible, but it's one of the few doing something different with its narrative, even if it is a bit contemporary for the format) are going. I appreciate some of the others, although they're more of a goof than a continuous story of any kind, and I've read a little bit of the stuff they're imitating, but they're not why I'm coming back, you know? Also: hand-lettering on some of them! Yay. So, what are people saying? I haven't read a thing about it yet.

GM: See, I'm sitting here trying to pick out the one I'm most interested in after the first week, and I realize that there are about eleven I'm equally excited about. I loved the blatant Prince Valiantness of the Kamandi strip, even though there's almost nothing to that story just yet. I agree on Quinones' art, and Busiek is one of the very few writers I trust to capture the spirit and style of Cooke's New Frontier without ruining everything. Paul Pope's art looks intrinsically alien when compared to standard superhero stuff, and makes perfect sense in a Flash Gordon-style Adam Strange strip. Mike Allred's mid-century style is probably as good a replacement for Ramona Fradon as you can find, and hopefully Gaiman can do a fine Bob Haney on Metamorpho. I could go on like this, but I don't want to put our readers to sleep, even though it would boost the average visit length on our sitemeter stats. Let me say real fast, though, that splitting The Flash page into two strips was a fantastic idea, and I hope they make the Iris West romance-style comic a weekly feature.

One strip that didn't grab me: Superman. Lee Bermejo's art is impressively realistic, especially at this size, but I don't think it's a good match for Superman. If any feature here called out for traditional superhero art, it's this one. Wayne Boring and Curt Swan are both gone, of course, and I imagine age makes it hard for many old-timers to work (although damn Joe Kubert's Sgt. Rock still looks fantastic), but I'm sure they could've found an artist that better united comic's most venerable character with this intentionally antiquated format. It doesn't feel like a comic strip as much as a single page of a comic book blown up really large.

Anyway, the response has been largely positive among those who've actually read it. I know the price is a big issue for many, but I don't regret shelling out four bucks for something this fun. That price is the biggest, most common complaint. Overlall I think response is splitting down standard lines; those who like comics for fun or appreciation of the artform are receptive, those who buy them 'cuz they've been following Wish Fulfillment Man for thirty years and care about what happens next over quality don't care. And then you've got fanboy toads who will automatically hate anything DC or Dan Didio does.

HB: Yeah, I guess that's a fair complaint about the Superman strip. It does feel more contemporary in its artwork, probably because of the amount of shading and depth and all that, which makes it feel more computery and photo-referenced. I can see that. But it's also got a nice cliffhanger set up right away, which is a good way to keep some people (me) reading, and (and this is weird) I like the facial expressions. Maybe I just have a boner for Superman.

I totally concur on splitting up the Flash strip, and it's one I'll remember for that reason, whereas the Sgt. Rock piece is really just notable for its pretty punching art. I guess, overall, it really feels like the old Sunday papers, where there was plenty of stuff I'd skim or skip to get to the things I actually wanted to read. Is $4 a little much for that? I guess, but it doesn't feel crazy. I wonder what Eddie Argos thinks. Have you heard the newish Art Brut song "DC Comics and Chocolate Milkshakes"?

GM: Never heard it. It's good? I've read a few of his comic reviews. Seems like he has solid taste.

A lot of folks think DC missed a good opportunity here by not getting this series into book stores and newsstands. Do you think a complete comic novice would be able to get into Wednesday Comics? I think it'd be great at getting lapsed fans back into the habit, like the guy who bought 100 or so comics from me at our yard sale this past weekend. I should've given that guy my copy of this, now that I think about it.

Also, did you like #1 enough to pick up the second issue tomorrow?

HB: He does have good taste, and it's a very entertaining song (he's in favor of both things).

I'd like to think Wednesday Comics serves as a good way in for novices, but my guess is that it's not. Even to me, a great deal of the enjoyment comes from the nostalgic aspects and what we already know about the characters, but, yes, I think it could hook the lapsed. Ideally, they would have given away the first issue and started charging $4 after that, but that might not have been economically feasible. I do think I'll go get issue #2, but a) it may have to wait until Thursday, as my local shop doesn't really start unboxing until Wednesday afternoon, and b) I have another errand to run over there anyway. I'm not sure what I'll do after that.

GM: They did run the Superman strip in USA Today last week, and will be putting the rest of that series up on the USA Today website. Character aside, I don't think that's the series most likely to pull people in, though. Not traditional enough. It seems like two-thirds of this issue was already on-line as official previews well before its release, but, y'know, on comic fansites, where the only people who'd see it have known about the series for months now.

Anyway! Hopefully the quality remains high, with sales to match. I'd like to see this done every year with different creators. Maybe one day Chris Thorn could write that Blue Beetle / Booster Gold epic he's been sitting on for years.

Thursday, July 9, 2009


by Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece
Vertigo 2008

Hillary Brown:
Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece's Incognegro actually came out in 2008, but it's still worth covering, especially considering that "timely" isn't exactly the middle name of this blog. It seems like something more graphic novel-y and less comic book-y--much as I hate to make that distinction--especially for Vertigo, and if I were going to compare it to anything, I guess it'd be something like Howard Cruse's Stuck Rubber Baby in its examination of prejudice and historical change that nonetheless is driven by a strong narrative. Incognegro is definitely a good read that way, and I've seen people say it might end up as a movie, which seems like a good fit. It doesn't have to be a comic by its very nature in some ways (for example, the pacing of the plot twists is more classically novelistic or cinematic), but in others, it's hard to imagine it being done realistically as a movie. I mean, it can be done and it has been done. It's just... more difficult. And this is where it gets very difficult to talk about the book without ruining it for anyone, so maybe I should steer away from the whole "how do you adapt it into a movie" thing.

I think it's a pretty well-crafted book, and because it is, and because it's a compelling subject, I feel doubly guilty that it didn't grab me as much as it could have. Sometimes it feels a little stagy, you know? What did you think?

Garrett Martin: Oh yeah, it’s definitely stagy, and kind of predictable. Okay, there are a few major plot twists I did not see coming, but by the end of the first act I could pretty much tell which major characters wouldn’t make it to the end.

So. I don’t want to sound like a mouthbreathing superhero guy. There should be more comics set in the ‘30’s. There should be more comics about normal people. There should definitely be more comics that deal with serious real-life issues without being overly sentimental or narcissistic, and that don’t involve aliens and/or unsightly mutants crying. So I applaud Incognegro’s intent and existence. And it’s not bad, really. But it’s also not what it could have been, what it maybe should have been. Which is a movie. Or a TV show. Or something where the imagery of lynching would be more resonant, more impactful. Lynching photos are the most shocking, bracing, depressing artifacts of American history. They are exceptionally powerful. Somehow that power doesn’t carry over to present-day drawings of fictional lynchings. As disturbing as those scenes are in Incognegro, they aren’t as disturbing as they should be. There’s an immediate visceral reaction to one of those photos, from both the gore and the usually gleeful participants. It’s heightened by realizing that, as a Southerner, those participants could very easily have included some of my ancestors. I’m shocked at how little I felt during those scenes in Incognegro compared to photos of real events. I’m often surprised at how emotional I get over certain comics (see our George Sprott review, or talk to me about Nick Abadzis’s Laike), but Incognegro left me unmoved. Why is that? Who should I blame? Myself? The form? Johnson or Pleece?

HB: I'm really glad you brought up this point because I felt similarly. There's an emotional impact that's missing from this book, and I'm not sure why that is or even if it's a bad thing. Some of it is, as you point out, a hazard of the form, but it may also be Johnson's reticence when it comes to melodrama. His characters aren't the type to freak out over much, or maybe we don't get to know them well enough to get teary. It's not a book that grabs for your heart, though. Its concerns are more historico-political, I'd say. Maybe we're a couple of cracker assholes, but I don't quite think so. It's much, much harder to wring emotion out of something that's already got a lot there, at least when you're hardened by mucho media consumption, as I know I am. It's almost easier to make some pathetic lonely person's simple, miserable life sad than to get the same kind of response to a Holocaust story, and that's not to fault the creators, even, so much as to point to a fact of human nature, which is that we compartmentalize and desensitize ourselves to survive. Photographs of lynchings manage to breach that wall of nonresponse (or do for now; Susan Sontag argues, in On Photography, that one of the problems with photography as a medium is that it exposes us to a much wider range of images, to which we then become desensitized), but I think it's much harder for drawings to do so.

GM: Maybe it's the distance or abstraction inherent in a drawing, and maybe it's Johnson's avoidance of melodrama, but I'm pretty sure Johnson wants to rend our guts and consciences with those scenes. There are at least two two-page lynching spreads with all the details of a photograph, the cheerful white people and their children taking photographs and selling momentos, etc. So even without the melodrama Johnson and Pleece are still aiming for an emotional weight that I just personally don't feel. I'm glad I'm not the only one!

I guess the personal miseries of the George Sprotts and Jimmy Corrigans are more powerful because we can see more of ourselves in them? Or at least their situations? I'm not naive or optimistic enough to say that something akin to lynchings or the Holocaust could never happen again, at least not in the part of the world we were both amazingly lucky enough to be born in, but the possibility feels so outrageously remote that their interest and importance is solely historical. And very little art of any kind can beat actual historical documents when it comes to making us feel like all kinds of shit.

That's kind of why I don't necessarily agree with Sontag. Photographs of lynching might have inured me to Incognegro, but that doesn't mean I don't consistently recoil from those photographs on sight. If she's saying photography desensitizes us to non-photographic images, then yeah, she's maybe got a point.

HB: Well, right. That's where Sontag's argument breaks down or is maybe more of an academic exercise than a broad description of reality. Theory only goes so far, and it deals in generalities. My guess is that I could become desensitized even to photographs of lynchings, but I'm not about to try to get to that place. In the meantime, either I'm desensitized, because of photography, to cartoony drawings of same, or Pleece just can't capture the horror, or something. It's very difficult to be able to get the desired emotional reaction without crossing the line, PETA-style, into just grossness, isn't it?

GM: Johnson could've gotten us there if he made us care more about the characters. Maybe if the book was longer, or a part of a series, with more time to establish and develop characters beyond symbols, Incognegro would've been more successful. I guess it's obvious that the emotional component should begin with the writing, at least in a book like this where you can clearly delineate the writing from the art.

HB: Yeah, I think you're right, but people still might want to read this. Just because we're being picky doesn't mean it's not a worthy topic or a pretty good and speedy telling of the tale, right?

GM: Oh, right! Incognegro is well-scripted, well-plotted, and finely drawn, but the lack of subtlety and character development in either the script or art dulls its impact. It's a good concept undercut by a lack of depth.