Friday, May 29, 2009

George Sprott

George Sprott
by Seth
Drawn & Quarterly 2009

Garrett Martin:
Dudes like Seth and Chris Ware are more brutal than even the bloodiest Garth Ennis war comic. They make a grown man cry, this grown man here. A grown man named me. Seth draws those tears understatedly, though, unlike Ware, who basically hurls onions, lemon juice, and thumbtacks at your eyes ‘til something flows. Whereas Ware offers up non-stop disdain and condescension, Seth treats his characters with respect, no matter how flawed or unlikable they are. Part of the greatness of George Sprott 1894-1975 is Seth’s well-rounded depiction of the title character. He’s certainly flawed, but can’t be summed up as either likable or unlikable. He’s a beast to some and angel to others. So he’s like a real person, then, and not a thinly veiled personification of some mental or emotional malady.

Sprott hit me hard in my weakest spot: my brains. Particularly those brains that deal with time. History and the passage of time fascinate me, but the more I experience the latter the more frightened and confused I become. Nostalgia cripples me, to the point where a mundane song by Asia still occasionally stops me dead for hours. That constant eternal loss is always Seth’s topic of choice, but with Sprott he doesn’t play it for laughs or self-pity. Seth’s developed the patience and discipline to deal with weighty emotional issues without resorting to stereotypes or navel-gazing, thus producing a genuinely great work of literature. And art. Literart. Fuck it, comic book.

Despair over lost time and old lives can’t just be a dude thing, can it?

Hillary Brown: Gosh, that's awfully harsh on Ware. You know, I'm not sure where everyone gets the idea that he hates his own characters. I'm not sure I've ever seen that tendency in him. He is, however, more depressing than Seth. I really liked this book too. It didn't make me cry, but it is my favorite of the three we've covered. I don't think crippling nostalgia is just a dude thing, but I also don't know of any ladies who have it going on, self included. My guess is that it goes hand in hand with the kind of obsessive personality that seems to be far more common in dudes, the kind of need for completeness in things and, perhaps, a legacy. Is it something to do with not being able to have children? Anyway, I'm not saying I'm not ever a sap, but I don't get teary-eyed too often. I do think this book is rather effective in its evocation of emotion, though, of a whole person in just the way you point out, and it's pretty genuinely touching, even if Sprott might not be the most pleasant person to be around. It's calm and beautiful, too, and all the unreliable narrator stuff is interesting. Did you read any of this when it ran in the NYT?

GM: Never saw any of it in the Times. I'm sure it's less powerful when doled out in chunks. Wouldn't give you a well-rounded view of the man, y'know?

And I don't think I'm being harsh to Ware. I doubt he hates Jimmy Corrigan, but he's such a depressing, pathetic character, and little has changed for him at the end. And there's no question that Ware holds the Rusty Brown characters in complete contempt. Those are the only two things I've read by him, other than occasional strips here and there, and there's not even the possibility of hope or redemption in either of them.

But okay, George Sprott. And Seth. I hate I'm out of town next week; Seth's doing a reading or whatever at Harvard on the 2nd. Is nostalgia related to obsessiveness? I am definitely obsessive about a number of things, and most of them are interests I've had since childhood. Indeed, interests a man should maybe be embarrassed about, and would be just a few decades ago. I habitually dwell on crap from my youth without even realizing it; if that happens because I can't have a kid, does that mean women have children in part to relive their own youth?

I don't really know why this book touched me so much. I don't know why comics hit me so much harder than novels or film. They do, though, when they're done well. That line about how one day you're thirty and you notice a new group of young people, realize you're not part of them, and then everything speeds up 'til the end: that hit me hard. Especially with today being my birthday.

HB: Poor old Garrett. It's not that I don't ever hear time's winged chariot hurrying near, but I guess I don't think about it all that much. Sure, death gets closer all the time, but there's a lot of good stuff in store before that. It's a good line though, and I think it does get at the heart of what's touching about this book. Maybe it's the mix of nostalgia that's already there in the form combined with the specifically backward looking tone of Seth's stuff and then the subject matter on top of it all that makes this a killer? Also, yeah, I do think women have children to have a do-ever. What do you think child beauty pageants are about?

GM: I thought, like conservative talk radio, child beauty pageants were created specifically to disgust rational people.

And your analysis is spot-on. George Sprott is like a perfect storm of things-that-make-me-rue-the-passage-of-time. If it had one of those musical greeting card microchips playing "Heat of the Moment", it'd probably make my heart immediately explode.

Are we really doing We3 next? Can't we just do something about punching?

HB: Nope. Mushy lovey teary stuff. Woo!

Friday, May 22, 2009

Wimbledon Green

Wimbledon Green
by Seth
Drawn & Quarterly 2005

Hillary Brown:
Why Wimbledon Green, and why now? Um, it's in the library? That really is part of the reason, but I think I've also been wanting to read more by Seth since It's a Good Life If You Don't Weaken, and I know you just read his brand-new one, which I haven't yet. Sometimes one really craves minimalistic Canadian melancholy, and it makes a nice contrast with the glorious Georgia spring, meaning you don't get weighed down too much. Also: this is Seth's goof-off book, which he establishes at the beginning in an introduction that talks about how it's more sketchbooks than anything else, something his brain kept working on while he was otherwise occupied. I totally get that, and it's not without its charms, but even with the warning the lack of resolution is a little disappointing. It's almost as though you're just starting to get really into the book, to enjoy it on a level beyond its affectionate tweaking of comic book collectors/nostalgists (and that one evil character is basically Seth, right? or at least the main character from IAGLIYDW?) and to want to know what happens when, poof, it's over and you're left without any answers to the mysteries evoked. You know that J.J. Abrams article in Wired that I linked to on my blog? This is the downside of mystery, and the worry of this kind of evaporation with no pay-off is why I stopped watching Lost. Am I some kind of philistine for wanting answers? I like things with endings!

Garrett Martin: I wouldn't call you a philistine, but maybe a little too literal-minded? What did you think of the ending of, say, The Wrestler (the first recent film with an ambigulous ending to come to mind)?

I like ambiguous endings, but I don't think ambiguity fits Wimbledon Green so well. It's hard to say what does fit a work like this, though, one that's so clearly a goof without a singular, focused style. Green's definitely minor compared to IAGLIYDW and George Sprott (that arrive yet?), but almost anything would feel slight compared to those two. I pretty much love Green for what it is, an entertainingly half-baked lark. And it didn't depress the hell out of me like those other two, which is always nice (seriously--Sprott almost had me in tears on the train the first time I read it). I find endless joy in Seth's art, even when it's rough and unfinished; the character designs alone make me love Wimbledon Green. The extended Barks/Scrooge McDuck homage vacuum seals the deal. And I appreciate that Seth's mockery of collectors is mostly breezy, avoiding the bleak tone of Chris Ware's tiresomely brutal Rusty Brown while still dealing with petty, unsavory men. The self-pity with the Jonah character (yeah, obviously meant to be Seth) is a little heavy-handed, but if that's a straight-up self-critique of IAGLIYDW's navel-gazing, then it's pretty knowing and funny.

HB: Um, I thought the ending of The Wrestler was annoying, a pussing out kind of move, a way of not having to choose. Choose, damn it! Anyway, you're making me remember all the things I liked about the book, especially his washes. I did get George Sprott and we can cover that next if you'd like. I'm weirdly looking forward to it, even though you say it's depressing. I think what frustrates me about Wimbledon Green is that it's so close to what I really want, which is romp and resolution. Carl Barks could do it. Why can't Seth? It's like he's resisting going all the way over into entertainment.

GM: Avoiding entertainment? That's all this book is! I think the lack of a clear ending is more a result of the book's overall lack of planning. Sure, Seth could've come up with something more solid, but he lets you know right from the start that Wimbledon Green is pretty tossed-off. I'm really curious to see your thoughts on Sprott; Seth uses the same scattered, episodic framework, but to a more well-rounded and definitive end.

What do you make of the Jonah character? Extension or parody of the self-disgust found in IAGLIYDW?

HB: Truly satisfying entertainment has a good ending. That's all I'm saying. I feel cheated when I'm really enjoying something and then the ending leaves me feeling unconvinced. And I agree, you're right, that in this case it's because of the lack of planning, but also: who says he had to stop where he did? I think Seth could've kept going and resolved all of the issues he raises. He just wanted to end it. That's a wuss move. I know I was warned but damn it.

Re the Jonah character: I think it's more a parody, and it's nice to see that sense of humor.

GM: Maybe Seth should've taken his time and finished this off appropriately. Maybe it shouldn't have been published at all, since even the creator effectively sees it as being inessential and unimportant. Doing that would've deprived us of some genuinely fun comics, though, and that would've sucked. Sure, a resolution would've been nice, but the absence of one doesn't make me enjoy the Barks homage of "The Green Ghost #1" any less. I do wonder if Seth felt pressure, either from his publisher or his own bank account, to get some product out that year, no matter how unfinished it may have been.

HB: Yeah. "Seth, you big moneymaker you, if we don't have this arty, unfinished book that only old-timey comics nerds will really appreciate in our fall catalogue, we're totally going under as a company!" That's how I imagine the conversation going.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, vols. 1 and 2

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, vols. 1 and 2
By Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill
Wildstorm, a while ago

[Ed note: Lord, we are sorry for the delay on this. More stuff coming up soon, including Seth and, hopefully, Lucy Knisley]

Hillary Brown: Ooookay. Sometimes I think I'm going about Alan Moore in a backwards way, being that I feel he really should be approached systematically and yet I've done nothing but skip around here and there in his oeuvre, probably leaving me with a scrambled view of it all. Point being, I just now, within the past week or so, got around to volumes 1 and 2 of his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The good thing about this is that it means I've entirely forgotten the movie version, except for a vague taste of garbage in the back of my mouth. The bad thing is that I'm an idiot for not reading it sooner, despite hefting volume 1 in my hand year after year in the store and, eventually, deciding against it. This is not to say it doesn't have flaws, for it has many of the same that Moore's works tend to. He has a problem shutting up, and the backs of both books are overstuffed with extra content, including a lengthy Quatermain story that I'm sure plays in somehow but made me lose my patience. Sometimes I think he'd really rather write the regular kind of novels than the kind that also has pictures, but he's so good at the latter. The other flaw is a strength in some or even most lights: his determination to push the envelope. Most of the time, it results in thrills. Occasionally, it makes you roll your eyes and go, "Oh, Unca Alan. There you go again with your buggery and BDSM tendencies." But only occasionally. I'm sad, in the end, that there's not much more of it for me to read right now. Has any other writer produced so many promising starts to great series that didn't end up panning out? Time for me to put a cork in it and let you go.

Garrett Martin: There's always The Black Dossier, if you need more LXG action. And isn't the next full volume out on Top Shelf soon? It's not like this is gonna wind up unfinished, like Big Numbers or something.

So yes, Alan Moore wheels out his little tropes maybe a bit too often. You can say the same about Morrison, Gaiman, Ellis, Ennis, pretty much any of that class of big-name "better-than-comics" comic writers. Maybe I'm just more in sync with their standard themes, but Morrison and Moore are the only two who consistently write interesting stories even when they're falling back on their normal whatever. But I don't think League is just Moore's normal whatever; it's a little deeper and more thoughtful than the gimmick. It's not straight-up pastiche like 1963 or Tom Strong. And even if you are only looking to spot the reference, Moore will keep you busy.

HB: Right, and I'm sure I'm going to keep seeking out more of this stuff and more of Moore's writing in general. He's too interesting for me not to. I don't see why you're so confident it won't wind up unfinished though. If anything's become clear to me over the past year (not due to this blog but due to other events), it's that anything ever getting finished is kind of a miracle. There are so many opportunities for a work to be left incomplete, whether through fault of the author or not. I'm sure Moore's dangling series owe plenty to his somewhat irasicble personality, but he also seems to have a huge brain and tons of interests, which means he has a lot of projects, even if a bunch of them aren't as expansive as they could be.

So you want to talk about why I like Moore better than Morrison? Because I don't really know. No sodomy jokes!

GM: Maybe it'll go unfinished. It seems weird to say that about this book, though, since the next volume comes out in like two weeks. And even if the series didn't continue Volume II offers enough resolution for me. Ends on kind of a bummer, sure, but the most popular book ever ends in the destruction of all creation, and nobody complains about that.

I am confused by your stance on sodomy. Neither dude is averse to buggery, or at least depictions of and/or jokes about. Granted you don't see that too much in Morrison's superhero epics, but The Invisibles and (remember?) Kill Your Boyfriend should scratch whatever such itch you may have. But man, if that's what you're looking for, then Garth Ennis will probably keep you set for life, right? Anyway, I doubt we could possibly say anything new or insightful about the old Moore vs. Morrison debate.

HB: Downer, dude. I have faith in our ability to say new and insightful things, and I'm not familiar with the debate anyway. How about you summarize it for me?

GM: Okay. Barbelith has a solid thread about this here. Discussions about the two tend to run in circles and eventually almost always boil down to straight-up fanboyism. Basically they are two quite similar fellas with similar interests and skills who, perhaps because of those similarities, apparently don't much care for each other. Morrison's definitely praised and criticized Moore publically, both in interviews and potentially in his own work, whereas Moore (as far as I know) has never really acknowledged Morrison. Anti-Morrisonites might say he's a lesser artist trying to get attention by tackling the master, anti-Moore-isons maybe think he's a crazy old pretentious coot who's entirely too full of himself. Moore's the better writer in a technical or literary sense, but Morrison's comic book ideas are bigger, better, and more comic book-y. Is there a great Moore superhero comic that isn't either total pastiche or cynical deconstruction? Morrison routinely updates traditional comic book ridiculousness for an educated contemporary audience without either ridiculing or eulogizing the past. He's also more optimistic and hopeful, and that's why Morrison barely gets the nod in my book. If Morrison wrote Extraordinary Gentlemen it would probably be unrecognizable and not quite as good; the same is true if Moore wrote Doom Patrol, Invisibles, or X-Men.

Anyway! League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. It's about as good as a Victorian-era Justice League comic could ever be. Hopefully Moore and O'Neill finish it before Disney somehow figures out how to copyright all these characters.

HB: How about "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow"? I wouldn't call that either pastiche or deconstruction. Anyway, your larger point is probably right, and maybe it's the way that Morrison's ideas tend to require a little more obsessive knowledge of comics than I have that gets under my skin a bit. I should chill out.

And yes, the book is really kind of great. It's a little long-winded, but the plots are sharp and the characters interesting, and it's just generally a good way for the snake god worshiper to work out his obsessions.