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The Pain...When Will It End by Tim Kreider. Fantagraphics Books. $12.95
This book arrives looking much like any softcover collection of newspaper comic strips from a publisher like Andrew McMeel, except that the cover features not a Gary Larson cow or Berke Breathed Opus -- it's a guy sawing off his own arm in order to plunge hundreds of feet to his death. That should give you a pretty good idea of the tone of much of Kreider's one-panel cartoons.

Kreider has great control of his line, though I wasn't that impressed with the style. What matters most here, though, is that Kreider is a very intelligent, often quite funny, misanthrope. Where other cartoonists "poke fun at our foibles," Kreider punctures them with a fisherman's gaffe, hoisting them aloft, gore-streaked and still warm and beating. Still, some of his most successful gags are gentler, such as "Male Anorexia", wherein a pot-bellied guy examines his shirtless self in the mirror and proclaims, "Looking good!" It's a simple, clever gag that works on the level of highlighting male cloddishness and self-delusion, but also reminds us that women in Western society aren't allowed to feel comfortable with their own bodies the way men are.

Elsewhere, however, Krieder often goes overboard with easy, nihilistic jokes, presenting humanity -- mostly men -- as nothing more than dark, hateful impulses and ignorance. One cartoon has a funny premise, with General Tso and Colonel Sanders offering their mutual respect prior to what one assumes will be a battle to the death over who is the master of cooking chicken, but then Krieder sabotages it with a cheap thought balloon from Sanders, calling Tso a "slanty-eyed bastid." Gee, a Southern gentleman actually being a racist, how original. Krieder makes errors of excess frequently, filling his panels with lots of gore and effluvia in place of funny punchlines, but when he's on, he's very sharp.

A Few Brief Thoughts...

I'm getting ready to hit the San Diego Comic-Con myself, so I just wanted to offer a few brief thoughts. Actually, maybe just one, not-so-brief, though: Why all the hubbub over Brad Meltzer's Identity Crisis? I thought the first half of #1 was fantastic, and as of #2 it's still kept my interest. I don't find it cynical at all that the JLA essentially lobotomized a villain after he raped one of their wives. I just find it interesting, and if you just want to think of these heroes as perfect and incapable of such an act, then just ignore this series. Brad Meltzer is a crime novelist--he doesn't write Little Golden Books. So many superhero comics readers cry out for more realism in their comics, more characterization, but you give them something genuinely real and shocking and they can't handle it. I mean, I absolutely think there should be an all-ages JLA book, to match the cartoons, and hey, there IS one, in an artistic style easy to differentiate from the more adult versions. I'm a parent, I can handle it, just like I can figure out that my four-year-old can handle the Spider-Man cartoons on DVD but isn't ready for the Tobey Maguire version.

Myself, I love that there are choices, but most arguments come down merely to the arguer not liking this or that version because that's not what they grew up with, and not what they think their kids can handle. Sure, rape is extreme behavior and not the usual thing one finds in superhero comics, but that doesn't make it wrong. It's drama, and Meltzer is using whatever he can to create a compelling story with, frankly, a lot of old-hat characters who have spent much of their careers being dull and one-dimensional. I thought he justified it well, with some very good scenes for Ralph Dibny that in a short time made you feel for his loss and made you root for him to get revenge. I can understand fans being upset -- you're supposed to be -- but it can't be because Meltzer has changed the characters for his purposes. I mean, the only reason anyone even cares about Sue or Ralph Dibny is due to the changes made by Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis on their Justice League run, playing up the comedy of Ralph as an embarrassing, if endearing, goofball, and Sue as his long-suffering, but loving, wife.

And of course, the reason Justice League stands out is that it was a radical departure from the straight-laced team book it had been, making these heroes into fools. Still heroes, but fools. Now Meltzer has kept them heroes, but heroes whose compassion for a friend and whose ratcheted-up sense of justice once led them to make an error in judgment. Did they slice Dr. Light into pieces and piss on him? No, they tried to remove or detach the part of him that made him a monster, much as a sexual predator may be chemically castrated by the State. They're not the State, and it wasn't their right, but that just makes for compelling drama. If that's not what you want, there are several uncompelling team books on the stands from DC to choose from.

See ya at the Con! I'll probably hang at the IDW or Dynamic Forces booths, among other places, and will be at Dick's Last Resort Friday night. Have fun.

-- Chris Allen



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