Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Strange Tales #1

Strange Tales #1
by a kabillion writers and artists
Marvel 2009

Garrett Martin
: Comparing Strange Tales to DC's Wednesday Comics is as tempting as KFC's new Double Down sandwich. That's to say it's incredibly tempting. Both comics see a gaggle of acclaimed artists semi-unexpectedly working on some of the hoariest corporate properties around. Both are liberally doused with tasty portions of Paul Pope. Each one features great work alongside some pretty drastic misfires. Neither of them will sell anywhere close to whatever new piece of mentally deficient psuedo-political horseshit and/or zombified torture-porn tops the direct market sales charts this month. When you get down to it though they are two pretty different propositions. There's an almost straight-up inverse nostalgia-to-mockery ratio between the two. Neither are 100% to either extreme, but Wednesday Comics skews closer to loving tribute while Strange Tales mostly takes the piss (as Captain Britain would say). That makes Strange Tales a quicker, more enjoyable read, but also makes it feel less substantial, both physically and artistically. Is it wrong to immediately compare the two like this?

Hillary Brown: No, it's kind of what you have to do. That said, I found Strange Tales much more complete and, therefore, more satisfying. The fact
that only Peter Bagge's Hulk story ends on any kind of a cliffhanger makes this book more of a thing unto itself. Yes, it's uneven, and some pieces are too short, but Michael Kupperman doing Namor? Jason doing Spider-man? James Kochalka doing the Hulk? And, be still my beating heart, Dash Shaw? This book pushes my nerd buttons (which, as our readers may have gathered, are not unfriendly to superhero whatnot but light up far more readily for the indie stuff, despite your best efforts) way harder. This has nostalgia, but it is, as you point out, a very different kind. There's plenty of love here, but, yes, it's much more smirky, which I like. One of my formative comics experiences was reading a Peter Porker: The Amazing Spider-Ham comic (maybe in the back of one of the Spidey-MJ wedding specials, about which I remember far less), and this is totally on that level... mostly. There are indeed weaknesses, including Nick Bertozzi's MODOK piece. How you gonna make MODOK unfunny?

GM: Whoa, I loved the MODOK piece. It is funny, up until the end, which is surprisingly sad and touching. I don't think it's my favorite piece, but it's stuck with me longer than anything else. Before rereading it over the weekend the only stories I could remember were Pope's, Shaw's, and Bertozzi's. But yeah, Strange Tales is more immediately enjoyable, and Wednesday Comics (which I'm behind on but have been buying every week) provokes far more groaning and consternation, but overall the latter is more memorable. I love Kupperman and Nicholas Gurewitch, their strips in Strange Tales are better than almost everything in Wednesday Comics, but in my mind their Strange Tales stuff has already been subsumed by their overall body of work. It's just another hilariously absurd Kupperman strip, but with Namor, a dog, and a barrel instead of Twain and Einstein. Jason's Spider-Man is really funny, but less than a footnote to the guy's career, you know? Some Wednesday features are too reverent or serious (that Superman nonsense is the worst stuff I've read this year), but when you look at the two you can definitely tell which one's had more attention and care put into it. That wouldn't matter without quality work, but thankfully there's enough of that in both to make 'em each worth our whiles. But damn, you've got to admit those Victorian She-Hulk and anime Spider-Man strips stink Strange Tales up a bit.

HB: I so do not have to admit that. I think anime Spider-man is cute and Victorian She-Hulk is... well, it's kind of uneven. I guess I'm not crazy about that one. You're right that this is not a fabulous addition to anyone involved's career, but does it have to be? Isn't Strange Tales just a chance for a goof, for an artist/writer to play around with a brief and humorous idea? Whereas Wednesday Comics feels a little cramped by its space. It's as though those contributors wanted to do even bigger, more expansive ideas, and being limited to a page means the focus is way more on art than on story. Of course, I gave up after two issues, so what do I know? Attention and care are all very well and good, but there's something to be said for slapdash and funny, at least to me. As far as MODOK goes, I just think the layout is a damn mess, and I've read better MODOK stuff.

GM: The Wednesday comics that feel cramped are the bad ones, y'know? And the size is vital to the good ones. Compare Pope's Strange Adventure strip to his Inhumans piece in Strange Tales; both look amazing, but it's a lot easier to notice and admire all the tiny details when they're blown up to ungodly proportions. The newsprint even helps his muted color palette, too.

Anyway, yeah, enough with the faulty and unjustified comparisons. I'm sounding more negative about Strange Tales than I am. It's pretty damn great, but let's talk about those two strips I dissed. Yeah, the Spider-Man one looks adorable, especially the kindly old spider-man who offers Spider-Man a tasty treat at the end, but the bland "be yourself, don't try too hard to fit in" message makes it feel like a bad afternoon special, or something. And the premise isn't clever or funny, but just silly. I appreciate what Molly Crabapple was trying to do with the Victorian parody in her She-Hulk strip, but, again, the execution is less clever than the idea, and the art just left me cold.

Thankfully everything else here is far better. I'm glad to read some Johnny Ryan comics that don't make me feel like an asshole for laughing. His Punisher thing made me laugh harder than Gurewitch or Kupperman, which is a bit of a shock.

HB: Oh, I know what you mean with the Wednesday stuff. It's more that they're still only getting a page at a time, and there's only so much you can cover in a page. The tiny details are lovely, but do they advance the plot?

I think your points on anime Spidey and Victorian She-Hulk are both totally justified. The former has cute art, and the latter has a good premise, but neither capitalizes fully on the potential that's there. You're also right about Johnny Ryan. I think the Punisher strip takes a tiny bit long to get going (if I had to complain about anything), but it's funny and well-realized, and it ends well, which is the most important thing. I'll take a great ending over a great beginning that peters out pretty much any day. Are you looking forward to the next one of these? I certainly am.

GM: Definitely getting the next two. I wish more Dash Shaw Dr. Strange was coming, but then I kinda wish every good artist did more Dr. Strange. Who would you like to see in this book?

HB: Lucy Knisley, Laura Park (I'd like to see more Laura Park period!), Josh Cotter, Chris Ware (I'd like to see him get to be more humorous), Patrick Dean (wouldn't he do an awesome job?), the Hernandez Brothers.... who wouldn't I like to see in it?

GM: Yeah, Patrick Dean would be excellent. That guy should be far better known than he is. Brian Chippendale would be great, too. I'd love to see some daily newspaper strip guys like Richard Thompson of Cul de Sac, Mark Tutulli of Lio, and Pearls Before Swine's Stephen Pastis. Or even some of the classic MAD guys, like Jaffee and Aragones. They might be wholly owned subsidiaries of Time Warner, though.

Oh, this is probably mandatory: how does this compare to Bizarro Comics? Still haven't read that.

HB: Well... it's been a while since I have, and I suppose I should go pull it off the shelf. I think this maybe has a higher percentage of stuff that really clicks, but that's prettier. What mostly sticks with me from that is Evan Dorkin, of whom I'm not a huge fan. And I think (again, don't hold me to this) that the pieces are longer, and they should be short. So, I like this better because I just read it.

Stay tuned for guest appearances, perhaps some kind of an interview, and more. We're trying to rev this puppy up again. Also, if you're checking us out in Google Reader, click on over and take a peek at the new Colleen Coover-drawn logo up above.

Sunday, September 20, 2009


by Dash Shaw

Hillary Brown: So, even though I bought Bottomless Bellybutton fairly recently, my first experience with Dash Shaw was actually chapter 1 of Bodyworld, his webcomic that's due to be published as a book in the nearish future and was posted in serialized fashion. Let me say that it kind of blew my head off, which is not an experience I'm that used to having. Not since the Matrix pizza twirling performance in Pizza! The Movie has my brain been so thoroughly confused and delighted at the same time (which is not to denigrate Shaw's work by comparing it to a bunch of douchebags twirling pizza dough but rather to provide a comparable for the experience of addlement and amazement). So then I went and read Bottomless Bellybutton (which we should cover soon), and then I went back to Bodyworld, and I was still totally impressed. I'm not sure Shaw maintains that mind-reeling pace throughout the whole twelve chapters--this is a sizable thing--but he certainly does for quite a bit of it, which is notable enough. It's kind of like the Internet got put into a comic and then directly injected into your brain, and I guess what I mean by that is that he's got this way of jumping extremely quickly between different things (scenes, thoughts, characters) that is disorienting and, perhaps more accurate, reorienting. It's like clicking on link after link to see where they go and discovering the connections between this and that all over the place. (This is hard to describe.) Anyway, I find it exhilarating, and I think it really captures something webcomic-y, as opposed to book comic-y, especially in the last chapter, which has a massive scrolldown panel. It's also important for the themes of the book, which I guess you could summarize as loneliness versus sublimation of identity. So, am I hyping it too much?

Garrett Martin: No, not really. It is like a controlled Wikipedia trawl, popping off on what feels like tangents without losing sight of its goals. And yeah, when people talk about the internet's infinite canvas, BodyWorld should be exhibit A (or maybe B, after this amazing Drew Weing strip.) Thing is, I don't know "reoriented" BodyWorld leaves me. I remain thoroughly disoriented after three (partial) readings. That's the point, though, right, that it's impossible to really know other people, and even if something made it possible to completely share their thoughts and experiences, it'd still be impossible to make any sense of it?

HB: Yeah, that might be the point, and yet, it's also so easy for us to overlap. We have so much in common, with our fears and desires, our self-hatred and desire of obliteration, our need to rub our parts together and take whatever will get us out of our own skulls for a little while. I think you're right when you bring up Wikipedia, as well as that Weing strip (which I'd never seen before, despite being a big fan of his stuff), and there's something that's extremely pleasurable about that disorientation. I guess, although I've never been brave enough to take anything hallucinogenic, that it's probably analogous to what that experience can be like at the best of times--or extreme religious experience, for that matter. Both involve this sense of scale, of not being quite able to grasp the full hugeness and connectedness of everything while at the same time being able to put your finger on just enough of it to get a sense of it. It's not like thinking about infinity, for the most part. That's too big. It's more like being up on top of a really tall building. But it's also funny. Did you think it was funny?

GM: Yes. I chuckled. The humor's never forced or obvious, though. It's like David Lynch's humor, less overt than a natural part of the unusual atmosphere.

And both psychedelics and "extreme religious experience" involve not just that increased awareness, but the willful sacrifice of your own God-damned mind. I felt like I had to do that a bit to even begin to understand the drug trips in BodyWorld. I don't know if there's any better way to visualize what happens in those scenes, though. They required great attention to follow, but the more I focused on them the less visual sense they made. Is that intentional, or simply a result of attempting something that can't be done in static two-dimensional illustration?

HB: I think it's intentional. This "book" (and, obviously, to call it a book is kind of a stretch, although it's going to be one in April) is very into empathy not only in terms of the obvious content, but also in terms of the way it works on the reader, which is an unusual experience. The only thing I can think of, off-hand, to compare it to is Paradise Lost, at least the way Stanley Fish looks at it, in which it creates the same narrative in the reader's relationship with Satan that it does on the page with Adam and Eve's. Clever shit, yo.

GM: Too clever for me to write about. It's intimidating. Where's the punching? Where are the steroid guys complaining about how the punching isn't as simple as it used to be back in the good old days of punching? I'm way outside my comfort zone. Speaking of which, are you ready to go on Tyrese Gibson's Mayhem?

HB: Okay, there's not very much punching. But there is a little. And there's kind of a lot of sex. Shouldn't that keep the layman interested? I think it's the most original thing I've read in years, and it might be kind of important as far as, like, the future of comics..

GM: It's definitely important, no doubt. Could it be so idiosyncratic that any attempt to follow in its footsteps will feel too much like a rip-off? Maybe it could inspire major artists to do more web work, but then I think that's already happening and Shaw wasn't exactly the most famous of men when he started this. But yeah, there should be more comics like Body World, comics that hurt your mind through thinking.