25 February 2010

The Art of Jaime Hernandez

Tim Hodler's got a great post about the upcoming Art of Jaime Hernandez book by Todd Hignite coming later this year from Abrams ComicArts. I can honestly say there is no book, not even Dan Clowes' Wilson, that I'm more looking forward to this year, so I was happy to see Tim gave it a mostly positive review.

But I wanted to respond to some of the points Hodler made in his post, and since I wanted to use images, I decided to post it here, rather than in the comments.

First, Hodler writes:

"I imagine most people first experience (Love & Rockets) in the collected volumes, in which the stories are mostly separated by artist. How many of their fans have never actually read an individual issue of Love and Rockets? The currently produced book-like issues still collect Gilbert and Jaime (and Mario) together, of course, and they still preserve the old brothers-putting-on-a-show feel to a remarkable degree. But for future readers, the original comic-book context—not just the intermingled stories, which often seemed to be commenting upon each other sub-textually (whether or not that was literally the case), but the letters pages, ads, short gags, lists, et cetera—may be as unimaginable, and unimportant seeming, as the context that surrounded serialized Victorian fiction (not to speak of that surrounding ancient Greek poetry!) is to readers of Dickens or Thackeray (or Homer) today."

Having spent years analyzing Love & Rockets, I completely agree with Hodler on this point. The first volume of Love & Rockets was originally conceived as a serialized comic book, and it loses some of its character in the current collections. Here are five things I came up with off the top of my head:

1. Oversized artwork - The original issues were larger than the new collections, and given how dense some of the middle issues get, the larger size opens the stories up and lets them breathe a little bit.

2. Front and back covers - The original issues featured stunning full color front and back cover illustrations, which are absent from the collections. The wraparound decade covers were particularly awesome, featuring scenes with all the major characters drawn by both brothers.

3. Letters pages - Hodler mentions this in passing, and he's absolutely right. The series included some pretty spirited and intelligent letters pages over the years. They also served as a who's who among later alternative cartoonists, showing the tremendous influence Los Bros had on the current generation of artists. Off the top of my head, Ho Che Anderson, Andi Watson, Evan Dorkin and Steve Rude wrote fan letters, and I'm sure I've forgotten some others. The first few issues also included some impassioned essays by Gary Groth that are worth reading for the die hard fans. None of this material has been reprinted.

4. Graphic design - It's an overlooked aspect of most comics, but Love & Rockets, particularly the latter half of the first series, included some amazing design work. The movie poster-style interior cover from issue #43 above, designed by Dale Yarger and Monster X, is something I would gladly frame and hang on my wall.

5. The interplay between stories - From the crossover cameos, like Maria in "Flies on the Ceiling" and Izzy in "Poison River," to the stray panels drawn by the other brother, these little hooks and inside jokes are completely lost when read out of context of the single issues.

Also lost is the subtle influence the Brothers had on each other. For example, Gilbert's storytelling style in "Bullnecks and Bracelets" (in issue #19), which jumps from one character to another in small chapters, was very likely influenced by Jaime's similarly organized "8:01 am to 11:15 pm" from issue #18. Similarly, the narrative style of Jaime's "Angelitas" in issue #45 is clearly inspired by Gilbert's "Pipo" in #43.

A case could certainly be made that the longer, multi-part stories hold up better in collected form than they did in individual issues. Certainly "Poison River," with its additional 50 pages and chapter structure reads better as a single book, yet still, little things are lost. For example, in issue #35, which featured the seventh chapter of "Poison River" and the fifth chapter of "Love & Rockets X." In "Poison River," Luba celebrated her 17th birthday, while in "Love & Rockets X," her daughter Maricela also celebrated her 17th birthday. By presenting the two stories in the same issue, Gilbert offered readers a fascinating contrast of mother and daughter at the same points in their lives. Admittedly, this is not critical to enjoying Gilbert's stories, but it's just one of those things that's lost in translation.

I don't mean to trash the new collections at all. I own them and they're certainly nice, and an incredible price point for new readers. And the sheer quality of Los Bros work is transcendent in any format. In the comments section of Hodler's post, Jeet Heer argues that "it's better to just focus on the stories and forgot about any attempt to re-create the original reading experience." That's probably true for the vast majority of readers, but I share Hodler's sentiment that this is a book that rewards those willing to track down the single issues.

Finally, one last point I wanted to comment on. Hodler writes:

"I keep wanting to see Gilbert’s art. I mean, Gilbert is certainly a near-constant presence in the book; Jaime and Gilbert’s careers are too intertwined to separate entirely in the text and photos. But I couldn’t help wishing to see some of his drawings included as well."

I whole-heartedly agree! I've never understood the people who don't like Gilbert's art. The man is one of the great character designers in comics history, and has proven he's among the greatest writers ever to work in the medium. I know it probably won't happen, but I would personally pay good money for a follow-up Art of Gilbert Hernandez book, and I'm sure I'm not the only one.

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29 January 2010

So Long, Mr. Salinger!

A couple years ago I wrote a review of Grant Morrison’s controversial prose issue of Batman (#663) which, despite its excessive length, I was quite proud of. The basis of my analysis was a comparison of Morrison’s story, especially his unusual use of narration, to J.D. Salinger’s infamous “Hapworth 16, 1924.” Salinger has long been one of my favorite writers; so much so that several years ago I voraciously tracked down and read all of his unpublished stories online. I also reviewed Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters here. Although I am saddened by his death, like most fans, I’m also excited by the prospect of 50 years worth of stories finally coming to light. Imagine if Alan Moore had stopped publishing after Watchmen and you kind of get a sense of the anticipation most Salinger fans have lived with for decades. Anyway, despite the fact that it's mostly about Grant Morrison, in honor of Mr. Salinger's passing, I’m reposting my review here unedited.

Batman #663
By Grant Morrison and John Van Fleet
Published in March 2007 by DC Comics, US $2.99

Believe it or not, Grant Morrison’s “The Clown at Midnight”, published in Batman #663, has a lot in common with J.D. Salinger’s final published short story, “Hapworth 16, 1924.”

Having crafted The Catcher in the Rye, one of the most celebrated American novels of all time, Salinger was at the apex of his profession when he wrote “Hapworth.” But when the story first appeared in the pages of The New Yorker in June of 1965, the initial critical reaction was one of distinct outrage.

The crux of the problem was Salinger’s unconventional use of language. “Hapworth,” which is the sixth published tale in Salinger’s series of stories focusing on the eccentric Glass family, (the others include “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” “Franny,” “Zooey,” “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” and “Seymour: An Introduction”) is extremely long-winded, with paragraph-length sentences often encompassing dozens of only tangentially related ideas. The story is written in a manic, rambling, almost incoherent stream-of-consciousness style, in this case as a letter from seven-year-old “wise child” Seymour Glass to his parents from summer camp. The voice Salinger evokes is so academic, so laden with obscure literary references, faux-religiosity and neo-classicism (which, even allowing for creative license, seems implausible when attributed to a seven-year-old) that most readers, even those with Ivy League educations, felt lost and frustrated with the “impenetrable text.” As Janet Malcolm of the New York Times Book Review writes, “it was greeted with unhappy, even embarrassed silence…The critical reception…was more like a public birching than an ordinary occasion of failure to please.” As a direct result of the story’s unprecedented critical backlash, Salinger famously decided to stop publishing his writing.

Of course, the comparison of J.D. Salinger and Grant Morrison, a literary master to, of all things, a Batman writer, may sound absurd, but the strong public outcry against Morrison’s story within the online comic community is not unlike “the public birching” that Malcolm describes. For example, FreakComics.com’s Joe Louis writes in his review, bluntly titled “Batman #663 Sucks REALLY Badly,” “For those of you who didn’t have the extreme displeasure of reading Batman #663, don’t bother. It is not a comic book, it is a novella, and a badly written one at that. Yep, that’s right I said it: Grant Morrison wrote a terrible short story and it got shoved in to the pages of Batman #663 with some horrible art by John Van Fleet.” Tucker Stone, of the Factual Opinion, writes a similar, if less reactionary assessment, stating that the story “seems a bit thrown together, like a late night prequel while (regular artist Andy) Kubert finishes penciling the upcoming chapters,” and goes on to call the issue “a bit off-putting.” Even Joe McCulloch (of Jog The Blog), the comic blogosphere’s critic-laureate, proclaims that the book “winds up about fourteen pages over my personal limit of overextended metaphors and raised-eyebrow faux-pulp.”

But as Janet Malcolm wrote about Salinger’s reviled and misunderstood “Hapworth,” “negative contemporary criticism of a masterpiece can be helpful to later critics, acting as a kind of radar that picks up the ping of the work's originality. The ‘mistakes’ and ‘excesses’ that early critics complain of are often precisely the innovations that have given the work its power."

“The Clown at Midnight” features the highly anticipated return of the Joker, who has been absent from the DC universe after being shot in the face. More significantly, however, this issue marked Morrison’s return to the character after an 18 year gap since his Arkham Asylum graphic novel with Dave McKean was first published in 1989. Though critics remain divided as to the quality of Arkham (interestingly, Jog describes it as “the single shittiest comic Morrison has ever written on his own”), few can dispute that its portrayal of an insane Joker leading a veritable circus of lunatics running loose in the asylum was, if nothing else, unforgettable.

Yet within days of its release, the flood of critical disdain for Batman #663 began. Like Salinger, by far the overwhelming majority of these criticisms focused on Morrison’s unusual prose style. At his excellent blog, “I Am Not the Beastmaster,” Marc Singer writes that “the faux hard-boiled narration…is just bad,” also describing it as “overheated” and “overbaked.” Other critics found similar dissatisfaction with Morrison’s excessive use of metaphors and description. Jog calls the book a “soggy shock show” that’s “just badly written,” while Don MacPherson, at his “Eye on Comics” blog, complains that the book is “marred by…unnecessarily verbose descriptions of peripheral details.” Several critics even extracted individual sentences which struck them as particularly potent examples of Morrison’s “mistakes” and “excesses” and cited them, out of context, as evidence of their conclusions.

While these criticisms are not without some merit, Morrison’s language is actually perfectly suited for its subject matter. The writer uses this “overheated” narrative style not simply as a vehicle for moving the story forward, but as a tool to infuse it with a frantic mania, giving the story an overall sense of insanity. While, admittedly, on an individual sentence by sentence basis, some of Morrison’s conjured images do fall flat (Chapter 2’s descriptions of Gotham City are probably the most glaring examples), the onslaught of outlandish metaphors has the overall effect of creating the sound, rhythm and mood of a madman’s ranting. For example, in Chapter 6, Morrison takes us first inside the Joker’s cell at Arkham, and then drops us right into his head, at the height of his madness. Morrison’s prose matches the chaotic mood one would expect of such a bizarre setting. He writes:

“In the white empty cell, the flat, pressurized silence is relieved by these three things only – the crawling ticks of fluorescent lighting, the slow crackle of breathing – if breathing sounded like paper being torn and torn again and torn again, obsessively, into tiny scraps – and the pin-thin whine of a mosquito that rode in on Batman’s cape and now finds itself locked in a madhouse with something bad for company.

No movement registers either until you look very closely to see the jaws working in stealth beneath surgical gauze and pins. Don’t even think about those sly mandibles chewing down on some poison mantra as the dreadful eyes track the poor mosquito’s lazy flight-path, the way a spider’s might, triangulating its victim.

He’s scrolling through a list of things that make him laugh. Blind babies. Landmines. AIDS. Beloved pets in bad road accidents. Statistics. Pencilcases. BRUNCH! The Periodic Table of the Elements.”

Morrison’s style here is as intentional a device as it is fitting, and like the Joker has done time and time again, it happily calls attention to its own eccentricities. The sheer stylistic madness of the narrator shares an element of the Joker’s madness, crafting wildly imaginative, disturbing and hallucinatory metaphors that are both cringe-inducing and absolutely perfect for this particular tale. Despite the many complaints about Morrison’s use of “purple prose,” it is this wholly distinct and original voice that is the book’s greatest strength.

Another of the common criticisms leveled at Batman #663 is that Morrison offers nothing new in the Joker/Batman paradigm. Jog refers to the issue as “a rather typical Joker story,” adding that “by the final page it’s pretty clear that it’s just more Batman, more Joker, more Harley Quinn, another slugfest, another imprisoning, another run around themes that have been worked out a dozen times before.” Marc Singer expresses a similar sentiment, citing that “Instead of break out of that paradigm, ‘The Clown at Midnight’ looks for a new way to present the same old homicidal Joker” (referring to the classic take on the character established by Denny O’Neil and Neil Adams in the late 70s).

Of course innovation in mainstream superhero comics is a difficult proposition. The editorial constraints inherent in writing superhero books are daunting. You cannot kill off characters (with the rare exception), good must triumph overall, status quo (usually that which was established within the character’s first year of existence) must always, eventually be restored, and action (specifically violence) must govern each story. In addition, most of the more well-known mainstream books have been around for nearly a half century – Batman for more than seventy years – so the volume of back-story, continuity, and popular understanding of a character of such iconic stature greatly limits a writer’s options. This sentiment was perhaps best expressed in Steven T. Seagle’s classic Charlie Kaufman-esqe graphic novel, It’s A Bird, in which the writer’s struggle to find anything original to say took center stage, while the character of Superman became merely a prop.

Yet, despite the claims of some critics, this latest Joker story is much more than a simple variation on a familiar theme. Morrison has delivered a unique and wholly original take on the character which not only takes this weight of history into account, but attempts to do something new stylistically as well. The key to Morrison’s new Joker is the concept that he is perpetually reborn, in both a literal and metaphorical sense. Using this idea, Morrison has found a clever way to reconcile the cumulative history of the Joker without changing the fundamental elements of the character, nor discarding any of the variations that have come before. He has also created a novel approach to explain the Joker’s progressively deteriorating state of mind, while also commenting not only on the fixed, cyclical nature of the Batman/Joker duality, but on the nature of mainstream superhero comics in general.

This concept of “perpetual rebirth,” as applied to the Joker, was first introduced in Morrison’s own Arkham Asylum graphic novel, though back then he referred to it as a “superpersona.” Buried in the middle the Arkham’s erratic script, Dr. Ruth Adams, a psychotherapist to the criminally insane, first introduces Batman, and readers, to this theory on the Joker’s “super-sanity”:

“Unlike you and I, the Joker seems to have no control over the sensory information he’s receiving from the outside world. He can only cope with that chaotic barrage of input by going with the flow. That’s why some days he’s a mischievous clown, others a psychopathic killer. He has no real personality. He creates himself each day.”

Though Arkham Asylum did not explore this idea of the Joker’s perpetual self re-invention further, (focusing rather on the duality of Batman’s identity), the concept of rebirth remains a familiar theme in Morrison’s body of work. As Timothy Callahan, author of Grant Morrison: The Early Years, points out, “ritual and transformation are the centerpieces of (“The Clown at Midnight”), just as they are in Arkham Asylum, only this time it’s the other side of the mirror that’s featured.”

But what exactly is this transformation the Joker undergoes? How exactly does he “create himself”?

The key to understanding this concept requires an understanding of another related theme that pervades much of Morrison’s body of work: the blurring of the popularly understood concepts of space (the “universe”) and time (“continuity”) in the fictional world of comics. In Morrison’s classic run on Animal Man in the 80s, the writer deconstructed the largely artificial concept of “continuity,” expanding the borders of the superhero universe to include, quite literally, everything that has ever been written (though, no doubt for legal reasons, this concept was confined to the "DC universe” only), regardless of continuity. His “comic book limbo,” where long-forgotten characters reside, waiting until they are resurrected by modern writers, was one of the most novel concepts from that revolutionary series, and the idea that stories could intersect in ways that were previously unimagined, is a theme that continues to influence Morrison’s current writing.

In “The Clown at Midnight,” Morrison returns to this idea again, but here the writer takes it one step further, granting the Joker, not macro-awareness of the real world, as he did with Animal Man (in the classic final issue of Animal Man, the main character meets Morrison, his creator, face to face and suffers the ultimate revelation: that he is merely a fictional character), but rather an acute self-awareness of his broader context, his full history. Jog picks up on this as well, noting that “the Joker is acutely self-aware of his many different characterizations over the years, and…his lack of any ‘core’ personality has dropped him into a pattern of necessary reinvention.” This is a key point the casual reader may have missed in the deluge of prose. Morrison’s Joker is not only aware of his colorful history, he has full memory and perspective of his many different incarnations throughout his seventy years of existence. Indeed, in Morrison’s story, this revelation is the very source of the Joker’s madness.

Morrison sheds light on this self-awareness in Chapter 8 by acknowledging the major historical transitions in the Joker’s character:

“His remarkable coping mechanism, which saw him transform a personal nightmare of disfigurement into a baleful comedy and criminal infamy all those years ago (he is, here, referring to the Joker’s origin and early exploits in the late 30s and 40s) – happily chuckling to himself in the garage as he constructed outlandish Joker-Mobiles which gently mocked the young Batman’s pretensions in the Satire Years (presumably the 50s) before Camp (undoubtedly the 60s), and New Homicidal (from Denny O’Neil forward), and all the other Jokers he’s been – now struggles to process the raw, expressionistic art brutal of his latest surgical makeover.”

In a scene which Marc Singer describes as “arresting,” Morrison goes on to describe the Joker’s frightening transition and rebirth:

“Multiple Joker voices vie for control as he prepares to give blasphemous birth to himself like the Word of God in reverse. His only regret is that Batman isn’t here to witness his obscene display, his rampant pathology in full flower.”

Ultimately, the Joker’s rebirth is a physical manifestation of the creative process, a painful awareness of new hands pulling the strings, accompanied by a profound sense of disillusionment that none of it matters, for the cycle will begin anew before too long. This new spin on the Joker explains not only his varying depictions over the years, but casts the character’s evolution and 70+ year history into a new light. The ultimate irony, of course, is that Batman has not been granted such self-awareness, and, as the Joker points out in his endless frustration, all he wants is for “the goddamn Batman to finally get the goddamn joke.”

Morrison also uses this concept of “rebirth” as an interesting and unique way to pay homage to many of the past Batman creators. His prose narrative with scattered spot illustrations, which is more short story than sequential art, is not actually a unique concept. As Timothy Callahan notes, “this issue pays homage to a prose Batman story, entitled ‘Death Strikes at Midnight and Three’” published in 1978 in DC Special Series #15 by Denny O’Neil and Marshall Rogers. “Both titles share the word ‘Midnight,’ which probably isn’t a coincidence,” Callahan notes. Callahan also points out that Morrison himself attempted a similarly-styled Batman story in an obscure UK publication very early in his career. “Two years before he published Animal Man and Arkham Asylum with DC Comics, he contributed a prose story entitled “The Stalking” to the 1986 Batman Annual published in England. The story, a three-page narrative with illustrations by Gary Leach, describes Catwoman’s excursion into the Batcave as she attempts to uncover Batman’s secret identity.”

But “The Clown at Midnight” actually pays tribute not just to the prose writers of the past, but to every creator who has worked on the Joker since his first appearance in Batman #1 in 1940. From the more obvious artist references like “Aparo Bridge” and “Finger Street,” to the more obscure inclusion of two minor characters from Alan Moore’s classic one-shot, The Killing Joke (circus sideshow henchmen, Solomon and Sheba), Morrison is clearly going out of his way to acknowledge the many great Batman creators of the past. In fact, this issue contains many familiar elements that can be traced all the way back to the Joker’s earliest appearances. In Chapter 2, for example, Batman displays a playing card discovered at the clown funeral massacre which is a clear indication that the Joker was behind the murders. The card Batman holds contains the very first image of the Joker from Batman #1, the famous playing card face by Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson. Marc Singer also calls attention to the similarities this current Joker story has in common with the classic “Joker’s Five Way Revenge” (from Batman #251) by Denny O’Neil and Neil Adams, which “recast the Joker as a vicious murderer for the first time since the early forties.” In that story, which was deservingly included in DC’s Greatest Joker Stories Ever Told anthology, the Joker murders four of his ex-henchman, each in a cruel and creative manner, all the time leaving carefully crafted clues to lead the Batman on a chase like some helpless rat struggling through yet another booby-trap laden maze. “The Clown at Midnight” clearly draws its underlying “henchman murder’ sub-plot from this classic issue. And as noted above, Morrison even pays homage to himself. “Morrison attempts to canonize his Arkham Asylum interpretation of the mutable multiple-personality Joker who burns through ‘superpersonas’ like a Vegas dealer runs through decks of cards,” Marc Singer notes.

Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, Morrison’s concept of “perpetual rebirth” is also a keen commentary on the enduring status quo of iconic comic book characters. Mired in countless origin stories, series re-launches, new creative teams and endless retreads, the classic DC and Marvel characters (not to mention all the superhero rip-offs published by others) are all, in a sense, stuck in a cycle of endless rebirth. Each writer and artist brings to the character a slightly different voice, a different look, a nip here and a tuck there, but for the most part, these changes are cosmetic. They are never drastic enough to fundamentally change the character’s core personality or appearance, which, in the strict editorial shackles of a licensed and copyright-protected corporate property, cannot be altered. But it is these subtle variations, the result of decades of storytelling by hundreds of different creators, which Morrison refers to when he discusses the “multiple Joker voices” (in fact, it is these varying styles that infuse most superhero comics with what little entertainment value they still retain). It is a particularly apropos analysis of the state of superhero comics, and Morrison’s exposure of this deeper truth within the thematic layers of his “rather typical Joker story,” shows the writer’s superb understanding of the nature of the industry.

John Van Fleet’s artwork has also been the subject of much scorn by several prominent online critics. Marc Singer referred to it as “plasticine” while Jog wrote that “the thoroughly disappointing illustrations…weigh the story down with computer-augmented chintz.” Don MacPherson calls the art “stiff” and “confusing,” while Joe Louis complains that it “looks like bad video-game screen cuts (which) don’t capture any sort of drama, suspense, or action that normal comic art might do.”

While, of course, in comics, as in all art, there is always subjectivity and bias on the part of critics regarding the aesthetic value of the work in question, there is no doubt that Van Fleet’s computer animation style is well-crafted. The artist’s style, which relies heavily on photo manipulation, painted art and CGI-like effects, may not appeal to everyone, but his compositions, figure poses and characters are competently rendered, and his use of colors, lighting and perspectives is impressive. At its best, it’s imaginative and downright creepy. His image of the Joker, having just removed his facial bandages after extensive reconstructive surgery (above) is perhaps the single most horrifying portrayal of the character, and certainly conveys the insanity that befits Morrison’s script.

The main problem is that Van Fleet’s art struggles to justify its own existence. In such a dense narrative script, the artwork is almost irrelevant. In a more traditional comic, with actual panel to panel action, the artist’s digital style works much better (see the artist’s work on the Vertigo mini-series Shadows Fall for an example), but here, Van Fleet is forced to punctuate a story which already overwhelms the reader. As a result, the art feels crammed into the text, squeezing out what little space it can find on the crowded pages. At best, these are visually striking spot illustrations whose sole purpose is to give readers a breath before the next dose of “overheated” prose.

Another area where the book falls short, inevitably, given the volume and function of the script, is the interplay between art and text which the best comics (of which Moore and Gibbons’ Watchmen remains the gold standard) use to convey story elements. Here, Van Fleet’s art carries absolutely none of the storytelling responsibility, and, as such, serves simply to break apart long blocks of words at its best, and as a distraction at its worst. If there is a failing in the book’s execution, this is it. Even in Neil Gaiman’s similarly-formatted illustrated novel, Stardust, the author knew when to step aside and let his artist convey that which simply could not be as effectively or beautifully conveyed with text.

The other main failing of this particular issue lies not with Morrison or Van Fleet, but with DC’s editorial and design staff who chose the utterly banal and “pedestrian” Andy Kubert cover to hide what is one of the most original Batman stories in years. The stock cover is nothing other than another in an endless string of clichéd Batman vs. Joker images, with nothing new or interesting whatsoever about it. There is no hint of what a radical departure from the previous 662 issues lies behind its cover. It’s not even an aesthetically appealing image, with Batman in an awkward, shadowy action pose staged against the backdrop of a giant, hovering Joker card, inexplicably crying tears of blood. When the editors were willing to take such a bold step as to green light a story which is so far outside the norm of the typical Batman comic, it seems preposterous to then shackle the book with such a mundane cover. It undermines the creators’ attempts at innovation, and is the kind of frustrating, counter-intuitive decision that induces fits in longtime readers and retailers.

If there is one other complaint that has been written time and time again about Grant Morrison, it is that he often bombards readers with dozens of new and interesting concepts, but never lingers on them long enough to flesh them out. This was his fatal flaw in Arkham Asylum, in which he never (until now) explored his own concept of the Joker’s madness. His New X-Men and Marvel Boy runs, for example, were also riddled with seeds of ideas that were never developed. At his best (We3, Kill Your Boyfriend, Animal Man), Morrison has focused on his “bizarre ideas” long enough to deliver a clear and logical conclusion, but whether he fleshes out his new “Clown Prince of Cruelty” long enough to take advantage of his own interesting premise will go a long way in determining this issue’s place in history. Twenty years from now, if readers have a better sense of a Joker whose multiple identities can manifest themselves into a single, ever-evolving character, then perhaps this issue will be looked upon as one of the greatest Joker stories of all time. However, if Morrison, as the writer is prone to, simply abandons this idea, and moves on, then this issue may forever be seen by readers as, at best, a curious anomaly, at worst, a self-indulgent excess and a failure. Don MacPherson expresses this skepticism of Morrison’s commitment to his new Joker, stating that “it’s a novel and compelling take on the character, though I honestly don’t expect the notion to be explored beyond this self-contained story.”

In general, superhero comics are usually too afraid to branch out this far from the norm, and, judging from the general reaction of righteous nerd-rage, for good reason. Comic fans, for all their posturing and angry demands for new and innovative storytelling, do not embrace change. Sure, some minority of them does, but the continued survival of corporate superhero books proves that a built-in nostalgia market will continually consume the products and stories it loved as children. This is not necessarily bad, but the point is that it is often difficult for a market so classically conditioned, so Pavlovian in its blind loyalty, to swallow such a strange and bitter pill as “The Clown at Midnight.” In reality, superhero fans want just enough maturity and characterization sprinkled into their children’s stories to make them feel good about their childish hobby. They want to delude themselves into thinking that comics have grown up, and that the stories are much better than we remember them as kids (which is debatable), but the fact is that superhero comics have not grown up and will never grow up. The “Ultimate Universe” is no different than the regular Marvel universe, and “Infinite Crisis” is just a repackaging of “Crisis on Infinite Earths.”

So in the end, I understand why readers had a hard time with this issue. It’s different, and takes the typical comics reader way outside of their comfort zone. There are no panels, text balloons, or any of the familiar storytelling tropes, and where readers are used to consuming their comics in quick, ten minute snacks, this issue demands your attention for an hour or more.

In that sense, Morrison’s Batman story fails. It is not a comfortable, familiar, predictable reading experience. Nor is it consistent like a bag of Doritos or a Big Mac, where we know what we’re getting even before we’ve consumed it. What’s worse, it’s smart and sarcastic and not quite straight-forward. It looks and feels like no other Batman comic that has ever been published, and like the best David Lynch movies, it requires real thought, a second (and perhaps third) reading, and certainly some degree of imaginative interpretation. It is different, and it is challenging and it knows exactly what it is doing.

Ultimately, while it may not be perfect, “The Clown at Midnight” is utterly original, and as Salinger’s young Seymour Glass writes to his parents in “Hapworth,” "close on the heels of kindness, originality is one of the most thrilling things in the world, also the most rare!"

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13 January 2010

Not Comics: One Fan's Reaction

I don't do this very often, so please indulge me as I take a rare break from comics blogging to speak about something that's been on my mind.

Having grown up for the first 18 years of my life in St. Louis, I am a lifelong Cardinals baseball fan.

How big a fan?

Even now, living less than 5 miles from Shea Stadium (I know it's now called CitiField, but to me it'll always be Shea), I still think of the Mets as "pond scum," a leftover jab from the heated rivalry of the '80s, before the divisional realignment.

I strictly adhere to the two “Cardinal” rules: I never boo my own players (except when they give you the finger) and I never root for the Cubs.

I still think Don Denkinger cost us the '85 World Series.

I own all kinds of Cardinals memorabilia, from pennants to jerseys to hats to baseball cards to programs to a Wheaties box with Chris Carpenter on it. My son has a full wardrobe of Cardinals gear.

I've even made the journey to Jupiter, FL to see the Cardinals in Spring training and have a baseball autographed personally by 2006 World Series MVP David Eckstein.

As a surprise, my wife actually invited Albert Pujols to our wedding (the autographed reply card he sent back hangs framed in my office).

What I'm saying is, I'm as die-hard and loyal a member of Redbird Nation as you're likely to find.

So, you can imagine the excitement I felt during that magical summer of 1998 when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were assaulting the record books with their home run bonanza. I literally read every newspaper article I could find those last two months, as they both closed in on Roger Maris' sacred record. I tried desperately to get tickets to those final games that season, but had to settle for watching the record breaking game with my dad in a sports bar (still a great memory).

By 2005, of course, the dream had been shattered.

It was obvious to everyone after McGwire's Congressional testimony that he'd used steroids. His infamous line about not wanting to talk about the past was as bad as an admission of guilt.

Still, a small part of me remained in denial. You see, unlike Jose Canseco or Alex Rodriguez, Mark McGwire always seemed like a true gentlemen. This was a superstar who unashamedly did promo ads for a charity to erase the stigma of bedwetting. Was he really the type to lie under oath?

And then there was his sterling reputation within baseball. Everyone who ever played with McGwire (except, of course, for Canseco) swore up and down that he was a top notch teammate, a great guy in the clubhouse, as the saying goes. Tony LaRussa, the Cardinals Manager, staunchly defended him.

So, while I knew, we all knew, deep down, that he was guilty, it became easy enough to live with the possibility, however implausible, of innocence. Afterall, in America, you're innocent until proven guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt, right?

Well, not really. These days, celebrities are guilty the moment an accusation or rumor hits the Internet. Proving innocence is almost besides the point, the reputation, once tarnished, rarely, if ever recovers.

Anyway, yesterday's admission that he did in fact use steroids probably barely registered with most people. If anything, I expect a "well, duh!" kind of reaction from most baseball fans. We already knew that, right? What's the big deal?

But to me, it hurt.

Why? I'm still not sure.

And it's not because I feel let down, or that I wanted him to remain silent on the issue, it's more because now, after nearly five years, his admission just feels kind of pathetic.

It feels desperate.

Why is Mark McGwire suddenly coming forth, on a random Monday in January, 2010, to unburden his guilty conscience? Why now, when he had so many other, better opportunities to do so?

He says he didn't confess back then because he didn't want to subject his family to a federal investigation. Plus, his lawyers advised him against it. He was just protecting his family. Who could fault a guy for that?

Yeah, I guess.

But then why didn’t he cooperate with Senator Mitchell’s investigation? Why did he go into exile, instead of using his celebrity to deliver an anti-steroids message?

Personally, I think he’s finally coming clean because he desperately wants to get back into baseball (as the Cardinals hitting coach) and still hopes he can salvage his reputation. Perhaps he also thinks a sincere admission, one that was forthright and honest, even if carefully choreographed, with the requisite amount of tears, apologies, candor and TV face time, might somehow resurrect support among the baseball writers of America who vote for the Hall of Fame.

Or maybe he really was just tired of living with the secret.

Whatever the case, McGwire's admission feels like too little, too late. It's almost worse than his infamous non-admission.

As Americans, we’re often quick to rush to judgment, but we're also quick to forgive. We love a sincere apology and we're extremely willing to give second chances to the deservingly contrite. Look at Andy Pettitte or, hell, even Bill Clinton.

But at what point does sincerity melt into theatrics? Were McGwire's tears heartfelt or coached? It’s hard to tell anymore. Is he really so moved to emotion, after so many years, or is he simply telling us what he, and his team of PR experts think we want to hear?

And I'm sure Mark McGwire is a good guy. He seems like a sincere, caring, passionate man. He's probably incredibly generous and kind. I have no doubt he's a great dad and husband (though I thought that of Tiger Woods, too, so who really knows).

But despite the fact that I'm sure he means it, his whirlwind talk show apology tour just rings hollow. I still wouldn't support his admission into the Hall of Fame (which seems pretty unlikely anyway).

I know I sound overly cynical, especially for a Cardinals fan, but like it or not, McGwire’s a part of my team again. I still don't know how I feel about him being the Cardinals hitting coach. I worry that his presence will be more of a distraction than a benefit, and that he'll take some of the spotlight off the team's players, especially MVP Albert Pujols.

But most of all, I just wish McGwire had been smarter. Of course I wish he hadn't used steroids, but that aside, I wish he'd been honest when it mattered most. I wish he'd had more respect for the millions of loyal fans in St. Louis and around the country who supported and cheered him when he was deceiving us all, and for the much smaller number of us who gave him the benefit of the doubt even after the truth became apparent.

Any true fan of the Cardinals is a loyal reader of Bernie Miklasz, the sports columnist for the St. Louis Post Dispatch, who almost always has his finger on the pulse of Redbird Nation. In his latest column, Miklasz wrote: "I don't believe McGwire will ever be voted into the Hall of Fame, and I don't think he cares about that. This was about something else. McGwire doesn't need my forgiveness, or yours. More than anything, he wants to be able to forgive himself. And this was a start."

If that's the case, I sincerely hope McGwire feels better.

I sure don't.

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11 January 2010

The 15 Best Back Issues I Read in 2009

Remember those days when you could sift through long boxes for hours?

I still love to do that, and am just as happy buying back issues as new comics (though these days eBay is my preferred supplier). In fact, with the price of new comics, back issues are usually a much better deal. As you'll see below, my strongest interest is in '80s and '90s independent stuff, but I love to try all kinds of things. The great thing about collecting comics is that there's always new areas to explore.

Anyway, in addition to my best of 2009 list, these are the best back issues I read last year:

1. Birdland - I think I've said more than enough about Gilbert Hernandez's vastly under-appreciated erotic series.

2. Cartoon Cavalcade (edited by Thomas Craven) - This was an unusual and unexpected find at the Strand bookstore - a 450 page hardcover comics anthology from 1944. And for only $7.00! My first instinct was that I had just scored a major find, and that the book must be worth a lot more, even missing its dust jacket, but it's actually available through Amazon's used book service for about the same price. The book is a wonderful helping of pre-war cartoonists, mostly politically-minded humorists in the New Yorker/Harper's vein, although there's plenty of diversity on display. The book is divided into three sections by period, and each section is accompanied by an introductory essay, putting the politics of the time and the cartoonists included into context. It's a great primer for anyone interested in learning about comics pre-history, or just looking for some damn fine black and white illustrations.

3. Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary - I didn't read the high-end, hardcover McSweeney's reprint, but rather the original Last Gasp pamphlet from 1972, on browning newsprint with torn pages and one staple missing. Yet somehow it felt like the perfect way to experience this underground classic for the first time. The story of Justin Green's struggles with adolescence, paranoia and crushing Catholic guilt over his emerging sexuality are timeless and fascinating; clearly this book was the blueprint for later autobiographical cartoonists like Chester Brown, Joe Matt, Jeffrey Brown, etc. But what fascinated me most about this book was the incredible amount of symbolic and representational panel compositions. This book is a study on how to tell comics stories in a non-linear sequential format, allowing the text to carry the narrative while the artwork spirals off into one fascinating visual metaphor after another. I'm glad I finally got around to reading this book, and I can definitely see why it's considered one of the best comics of the century.

4. Disappearance Diary – I reviewed this book here. It's easily one of the best manga books I've ever read.

5. The Wild, Wild Women - I wrote a short blog piece about my discovery and fascination with the great satirist, Virgil Partch, aka "Vip."

6. Hate #1-30 – I'd read some of these issues years ago, but I finally filled in the holes and read the entire 30 issues for the first time this year. This series gets better with age, and is one that absolutely MUST be read in the original issues rather than the collections. Bagge’s letters pages are gems unto themselves, including the classic "Buddy look-a-like" and "win a date with Stinky" contests. The final six issues also featured loads of incredible backup stories by all kinds of great artists, including Adrian Tomine, Alan Moore, Gilbert Hernandez, Rick Altergott, Dame Darcy, etc. Now if I could just track down all those Hate Annuals; they're surprisingly hard to find.

7. Eclipse Magazine #1-8 and Eclipse Monthly #1-10 - These two early '80s anthology series included at least four masterpieces - Trina Robins' outstanding adaptation of Sax Rohmer's Dope (seriously, why hasn't this been collected?), Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers' Coyote and Cap'n Quick and the Foozle, the first Ms. Tree graphic novel by Max Allen Collins and Terry Beatty, and Doug Wildey's Rio (one of the best Westerns I've ever read). The latter series also included Steve Ditko's Static and tons of other great short strips.

8. Vanguard Illustrated #1-7 – This was another great anthology series from the early '80s. I went a little scan-crazy writing a tribute to this forgotten series over at Unattended Baggage.

9. Doctor Strange #48-53 –The classic story by Roger Stern and Marshall Rogers.

10. Spider-Man #27-28 – Can you tell I went through a bit of a Marshall Rogers phase this past year? I know this may seem like an odd and kind of random inclusion, but this story reunited Rogers with Don McGregor (writer of the incredible Detectives Inc. series, also from Eclipse, which was reprinted in HC by IDW this year, though sadly not in color). This was a surprisingly good Spidey story focused on guns and children, rather than the latest villain du jour.

11. The Adventures of Tintin volume 2 - I'm almost embarrassed to admit that up until this year I'd only read the first volume of the Adventures of Tin Tin, so this year I decided to check out the second volume from the library, and man, I get it. You don't have to be a kid to appreciate the stunning, immensely detailed artwork of Herge. Nor do you have to be a kid to get caught up in Tintin's exciting adventures, or laugh at Snowy's comic relief. These books are timeless; "King Ottokar's Sceptre" in particular was just awesome, though all three stories were amazing. I'll definitely be looking for vol. 3 in 2010.

12. A1 vol. 2 - The second volume of this British anthology series wasn't as good as the first one published by Atomeka Press, but it did contain one forgotten gem, the "King Leon" three-part story by Peter Milligan and Jamie Hewlett. There were also some decent short pieces, and generally great art.

13. Heavy Metal - I recently discovered a new favorite artist - Jose Maria Beroy. While on a trip to Philadelphia over the holidays, I randomly picked up two old issues of Heavy Metal for $5 - the July 1989 issue and the November 1991 issue. Both contained stories by Beroy. Beroy is an immensely talented Spanish artist who's done very little work in English. His style reminds me of a cross between Darwyn Cooke and Bryan Talbot. He apparently did a Deadman mini-series for DC comics in 2002, and some Star Trek special one-shots for IDW as well, so I have a few back issue purchases in my future, but if you have the opportunity, get yourself a copy of the July 1989 issue of Heavy Metal and see what I mean.

14. Doctor Strange Classics #1-4 - Inspired by ADD's great post on old Baxter paper reprints, I sprung for these on eBay and oh, what a treat! The great Steve Ditko, in full color, on perhaps his greatest superhero story, all for under $10. Technically, I don't think these are Baxter paper, but still, they're not too shabby and a great, cheaper alternative to the Marvel Masterworks hardcovers!

15. Mr. A – Speaking of Ditko, I also took advantage of the Ditko reprints that came out this year. I don’t agree with Ditko’s Ayn Rand-inspired objectivist philosophies, but the artwork in this book is the best Ditko work I’ve seen (though I’m far from a Ditko completist). I'm looking forward to reading The Avenging World and Wha!?! next.

So, those were my favorites. How about you?

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02 January 2010

What $37 Gets You...

So today is my 37th birthday (which I'm proud to share with Lynda Barry) and every year I treat myself to some random back issues. There are only three rules I try to follow:

1) The comics have to be total impulse buys (not something off my want list, or stuff that I had been planning on getting anyway),

2) Comics only, no trade paperbacks or graphic novels, and

3) The total cost has to be under $37 (basically, my age).

Here's what I got this year at Midtown Comics (who, luckily for me, was having a 40% off all back issues sale):

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31 December 2009

The Best (and Worst) of 2009

What a year 2009 was!

The comics industry continues to experience an unprecedented enthusiasm and expansion that is both exciting and overwhelming. There's simply so much great stuff - from breakthrough mainstream books to original graphic novels to self-published minis to repackaged classics to international translations to webcomics - that it's impossible to keep up with everything anymore.

Yet I did read a ton of good comics and graphic novels (both new and old) in 2009, and I believe that my choices of reading material, at least in part, reflect conscious, if somewhat impulsive critical distinctions I made in order to decide how to allocate my limited time and money.

All this is to say that this year's list reflects ten of the very best books I read, but should be considered with all the usual caveats that come with these sorts of lists.

10. Stitches: A Memoir (published by WW Norton) - David Small's highly personal account of the artist's struggle to overcome childhood trauma and abuse was tailor made for "best of the year" lists like this one. Small's simplified art manages to convey a tremendous depth of emotion as he recreates all the painful memories of his childhood in excruciating detail. Stitches is an extremely quick read, and is told in a pretty straight forward, chronological manner, but the book feels overstated, as if Small were, in some way, romanticizing his own struggles. Parent-child relationships are vastly complex and Small’s childhood was undeniably difficult, and I do applaud him for creating a successful and happy life for himself despite his hardships (and I have no doubt creating Stitches was incredibly cathartic), but I found the presentation of the story to be emotionally lop-sided and frustratingly over-simplified. Still, it’s a great book, beautifully illustrated and deeply moving.

9. The Stuff of Legend #1-2 (published by Th3rd World Studios) - This was the surprise of the year for me. I bought the first issue on an impulse based solely on the art of Charles P. Wilson III, but was very impressed with Mike Raicht and Brian Smith’s imaginative story as well. Part Toy Story, part Alice in Wonderland, The Stuff of Legend is original and visionary in its own right. Set during 1944, it's a dark spin on a classic children's story – a boy is kidnapped by the Boogie Man, and his loyal toys form a group to go rescue him - but the world-building, largely due to Wilson III's incredibly rich, detailed artwork, is transporting. I can't wait to see where the creators go with this and I only hope they don't get pulled onto other, higher profile projects before finishing this story.

8. Waltz With Bashir by Ari Folman and David Polonsky (published by Metropolitan Books) – With all the other great memoirs released this year, this book flew under the radar a bit, but it shouldn't have. Adapted from the film of the same name, Waltz chronicles Folman’s compelling journey into his own repressed memories of the 1982 massacre in Lebanon. Through a series of interviews and recollections, Folman eventually pieces together the string of events which lead him to be present during the atrocities. The real draw, however, is Polonsky's stunning visuals. Anyone who’s read the latest Actus anthology, How to Love, knows that Polonsky is an extraordinarily gifted illustrator, but the images in this memoir, captured as still images from the animated film, are striking. Starting with photographs or film, Polonsky draws characters and objects over the scenes, then uses an incredibly vibrant palette to add color and textures atop the images. The resulting panels are as rich as Moulin Rouge stills, and as stunningly detailed as Miyazaki’s Nausicaa.

7. A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge (published by Pantheon Books) - Three years ago I met Josh Neufeld briefly at MoCCA and we traded minis. At the time, I was shopping around a photo-travel memoir I'd made based on a two-week trip I'd taken to Sri Lanka with my wife. When I approached Josh, he showed me a similar photo-mini (Katrina Came Calling) that he'd compiled with several months-worth of blog posts he'd written during his time spent volunteering for the Red Cross. A couple years later, when I first heard about this new project he was working on (through Smith Magazine), I wrongly assumed he was adapting his blog posts into a graphic novel. While that would have made for an interesting project, it would not have been nearly as impactful as the graphic novel that resulted. The tragedy of Hurricane Katrina was a crisis that dominated the headlines, but Neufeld's book takes a much more personal approach, offering six vastly diverse, first-hand accounts of the days leading up to and following the hurricane. There's a lot to love about A.D. It sheds light on the human side of the tragedy; it's personal without being preachy. It also avoids taking cheap shots at the government (not that it wouldn't be justified, but it’s like beating a dead horse at this point) and, by the way, it's incredibly beautiful.

6. Scalped by Jason Aaron and R.M. Guera (published by DC Comics) - Scalped has replaced The Walking Dead as my favorite mainstream series. I have been a fan of Vertigo from the beginning, and am usually curious enough to read any new series, but I'll admit it took a while for this book to settle on me. The praise it's garnered seemed grossly exaggerated after reading the first two trades, and my inclination was to just chalk it up to the fanboy culture, which is prone to over-praise any mainstream book with a semblance of depth and characterization. But the reality is, this book just keeps getting better, and, starting with the "Dead Mothers" storyline (vol. 4), Aaron has moved past the setup phase and plunged into the deep end of his epic story. "High Lonesome," the fifth collection, featured far and away Aaron's best writing to date, and lead artist R.M. Guera has grown by leaps and bounds in terms of his panel and page compositions, as well as his overall draftsmanship since the early issues. The setting - an Indian reservation - was always at the heart of the story's appeal, but at this point, the narrative has moved beyond clichéd noir stereotypes and intelligently incorporates the heritage and harsh political realities of Native American culture in a respectful and interesting way. The lead characters, particularly Dashiell Bad Horse and Lincoln Red Crow, continue to become more rounded and interesting as the series continues. Aaron also has a knack for dialogue that's up there with Brubaker and Ellis. Even if this series peddles in human misery more than most, the tangled plot threads and fascinating characters have won me over. I'm in for the long haul.

5. Tales From Outer Suburbia (published by Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic) –There's something magical about the stories in this book. Reading them is like reading a Steven Millhauser collection; the language is exquisite (in Tan's case, the language is largely visual), and there's an undercurrent of mystery flowing through everything, yet it's so beautiful, one just stares in awe without questing the nature of the vision. Tan alternates text and visuals in a wholly original way, sometimes relying on prose to carry the story, other times using silent sequences of comic panels to conjure his spectacular worlds. There's no one even close to doing what Shaun Tan is doing, and this book, like The Arrival before it, is simply wonderful.

4. 3 Story: Secret History of the Giant Man (published by Dark Horse Books) - Matt Kindt is really becoming an elite creator. Super Spy was on my Top 10 list last year, and this latest effort, in many ways, is even better. In 3 Story, Kindt’s writing is sharp, wistful and full of poignant character moments and heartache, while his pages display a broad range of storytelling techniques and art styles. It’s a more focused story than Super Spy, exploring the life of a single character. Also, the wonderfully designed die-cut cover on the hardback version, which shows the Giant Man’s eye peering into an apartment, sets the table perfectly.

3. Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli (published by Pantheon Books) - It's been interesting following the mixed reactions this book has received after the initial flurry of overly effusive praise. On the one hand, most critics and fans seem to agree that the artwork is first rate. Mazzucchelli's compositions, storytelling flow, and formal experiments with figures, depth, colors and printing are well-documented and extraordinarily beautiful. I suspect students of the medium will look to this book for inspiration and ideas for years to come. On the other hand, the story itself has received more of a mixed reaction. Personally, I think it’s a fine story, although it deviates into more of a character study in its second half. But what I think is troubling to many people, including me, is that Asterios Polyp himself is just not a very likable character. He's distant, bland and somewhat arrogant. Where readers want him to open up, to cast off his cold, drab exterior, instead he remains frustratingly aloof. I don’ think that this, in and of itself, makes the story a failure, but it does explain why so many have found the book less than satisfying. Yet despite these flaws, the artwork alone is so masterful, it definitely merits inclusion as one of the ten best books of 2009.

2. Studs Terkel's Working: A Graphic Adaptation (published by the New Press; edited by Paul Buhle, adapted by Harvey Pekar) - It's a crime how overlooked this excellent anthology has been in the comics press. I did a lengthy review of the book for the Comics Journal, and in so doing, I rediscovered Terkel, whose The Good War and My American Century I had read long ago. This collection features dozens of stellar interpretations of everyday people, from migrant farm workers to jazz musicians, barbers to hookers. While not perfect (what anthology is?), its hit rate is in the 80-90% range, and many of the stories are so powerful, they'll forever change the way you view certain occupations. The book, on the whole, paints a fascinating portrait of blue collar America, and is also a study in the deep and meaningful ways that our jobs impact our identities. It's also a reminder that Terkel is a national treasure and one of America's great writers. Working is unquestionably 2009's overlooked masterpiece.

1. You'll Never Know: A Graphic Memoir - Book One: A Good and Decent Man (published by Fantagraphics) – I recently went back and re-read “Migrant Mother,” a short story by Carol Tyler that appeared in Twisted Sisters #1 (Kitchen Sink Press) way back in 1993 (and was also included in Late Bloomer) and one thing immediately hit me – Ms. Tyler has a been an exceptional cartoonist for a long, long time. Yet, for some reason, unlike many of her peers, it seems like Tyler never gets enough credit for her long and impressive career. Hopefully that will change with this book.

Although this is only the first volume (and it’s unclear how many more are planned), You’ll Never Know feels like Tyler’s masterpiece, the crowning achievement that she’s been building toward. It’s at once an autobiography, a family history, and a historical exploration of World War II. While Tyler’s work in that old story was solid, there’s no doubt that her skills have improved over the years. Her artwork here is much sharper, her figure work has improved, and the way she approaches page composition is something that was absent in her earlier work. And her use of watercolor in her more recent stories is stunning.

You’ll Never Know is laid out to read like a scrapbook, which means that Tyler sacrifices some of the narrative continuity for the more authentic and scattered feel of a family album. But, while this may frustrate some readers, it also gives the book an intimate feeling that other memoirs lack, almost as she made this for her father without any intention of showing it to anyone else. Hopefully it won't be too long before the next volume.

Honorable Mentions (in no particular order):

A Mess of Everything (published by Fantagraphics) - Miss Lasko-Gross’s follow-up to Escape From Special is absolutely wonderful. This was the eleventh book on my best of list; a really excellent, funny, beautifully drawn autobiography of growing up in a very unconventional environment. Highly recommended!

Johnny Cash: I See a Darkness (published by Abrams ComicsArts) – I won’t say too much here since I have a review of this book forthcoming at the Comics Journal’s website, but if you’re a fan of the Man in Black (or even if you’re not), you definitely won’t be disappointed by Reinhard Kleist's book.

The Comics Journal #300 (published by Fantagraphics) - I'm still plowing my way through this book, but so far, the interviews I've read I've mostly enjoyed. My favorite is probably the discussion between Dave Gibbons and Frank Quitely on the way each uses technology in their artwork, but Sammy Harkham's discussion with Jean-Christophe Menu also offers insight into the French comics scene (it was fascinating to learn that pull quotes on books are a uniquely American phenomena).

Syncopated (published by Villard Books) – I reviewed this for TCJ here. Although technically the fourth volume of the anthology, this was the first volume published by a major book publisher (the other three were self-published). This fourth volume is also the strongest overall. Like its predecessors, Syncopated focuses on “non-fiction picto-essays” by a range of artists, and this volume includes at least three gems by Alex Holden, Sara Glidden and editor Brendan Burford, as well as strong contributions by several others.

Unwritten #1-8 (published by DC Comics) – This may shape up to be the next major Vertigo series, though it’s probably too early to call. However, Mike Carey and Peter Gross are certainly off to a great start, and the fifth issue, a standalone story, was a particularly strong effort all around.

Sleeper Car (published by Secret Acres) - New Theo Ellsworth always gets consideration for my best of the year list, but I thought this single issue of short comic stories was stronger than his last couple books. I especially liked the surreal and hilarious story, “Norman Eight’s Left Arm” which showed Ellsworth at his most playful. In a perfect world, Ellsworth would be appreciated for the genius that he is, and his name would be mentioned in the same breath as Panter, Woodring, etc. but until then, he’s alt-comic’s best kept secret.

Supermen!: The First Wave of Comic Book Heroes 1936-1941 (published by Fantagraphics) - This was actually far more enjoyable than it looked at first glance. Featuring an eclectic assortment of rare, long-out-of-print American superhero short stories, the highlight of the book was actually editor Greg Sadowski's mini-essays about each piece in the end notes, which shed light on the formative years of the industry. Sadowski also did a great job selecting an all-star cast of early work from luminaries including Siegel and Shuster, Simon & Kirby, Fine & Eisner, Wolverton, Cole, Hanks, etc. The reproduction of each story is top notch, with bright, vivid colors, slightly oversized pages and thick paperstock. It's the kind of book that would only appeal to the hardcore geek like me (the casual fan of literate graphic novels like Maus, Persepolis, etc. would likely be bored), but for those fans interested in the early years of the industry, it's a very well-done collection.

I Am Legion #1-6 (published by Devil’s Due) - I wanted to like this series more than I did. I think the artwork, the production quality and even the writing in the first several issues were top notch. But eventually the story lost me. Not that I didn't understand it, but that it just came back down to earth a little, retreating into familiar genre formulas and climactic battle scenes. It's still a cut above the typical horror/adventure series, and John Cassaday's artwork is always worth a look.

Reich #1-6 (published by Spark Plug Comic Books) - Inspired by my research for my Birdland essay, I purchased and read all six issues of Elijah Brubaker's ongoing biography of Wilhelm Reich. I admire what Brubaker is doing here, hitting all the highlights of Reich's life, while trying to keep perspective on the man himself, not just his crazy ideas. So far, it's working, even if Brubaker has yet to reach any of the truly controversial aspects of Reich's later work. It's also worth noting that Brubaker has a stylized and highly appealing way of drawing figures. His characters almost look like grown up Peanuts characters, and it's this charming linework that makes this series a must read. I predict, once finished and collected (which is likely years away, based on how much of Reich's life remains unexplored), that this will stand with Louis Riel (an obvious influence) as one of the great graphic biographies.

Jonah Hex #50 - I have never, in my life, bought a Jonah Hex comic before (even though my own son is named Jonah), and knew absolutely nothing about the character, but the obvious draw of Darwyn Cooke on art was enough for me to at least take a look. The fact that it arrived during a particularly light week led me to buy it, and I'm glad I did. It's a wholly accessible, self-contained story, and Cooke's artwork, which features some great inking experiments, was enjoyable. But what truly surprised me was how satisfying a story it was. Palmiotti and Gray really turned in a solid script, and it almost made me want to go back and read back issues. Almost.

Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? (published by Abrams ComicArts) - I've seen a few negative or lukewarm reviews of this book, which I think are pretty unfair. The story is a little light, I'll admit, but Fies is a cartoonist with tremendous range. I love the way he varies his style in this book to reflect the maturity of his lead character, and his use of digital tools, from embedded photos to digital coloring and effects, is impressive. There's also a sweetness to this book that I found refreshing. So many graphic novels these days focus on human tragedy and violence. It was a pleasant change of pace to read about a boy who loved and idealized his father, even if the end result was a little sappy. Not quite a top 10 book, but far better than the criticism it’s received.

Mome (published by Fantagraphics) – Although there was no single standout piece for me like in past years, this anthology continues to impress.

Zegas (published by Act-i-vate) - My favorite webcomic of the year, though I am hardly the best person to judge since I still prefer good old paper and ink.

Low Moon (published by Fantagraphics) – I reviewed this book for the Comics Journal. I didn’t think it was Jason’s best, but it was still very, very good, and Jason’s style remains eminently appealing.

The Walking Dead (published by Image Comics) - I still enjoy Robert Kirkman's post-apocalyptic zombie serial, but this year the series has stagnated a little. The plot increasingly relies on uncharacteristic violence, strange coincidences or the arrival of unexpected characters to drive it forward, and focuses less on the psychology of the small band of survivors that made it so compelling in the beginning. I also feel like the artwork has felt more rushed this year, possible due to the monthly deadlines which the book has done well adhering to, and as a result, it relies on larger and fewer decompressed panels. I'm still invested enough to keep reading, but it’s starting to feel like your favorite show in season four or five; the things that made it so wonderful those first few seasons just aren't fresh anymore.

2009’s Biggest Disappointments:

Not surprisingly, all mainstream superhero books…

Wednesday Comics (published by DC Comics) - This series had everything going for it. The oversized dimensions, the high profile creators, the sense of excitement and anticipation. But by the third issue it was clear that despite the unique concept, it was more of the same, bland superheroics. Sure, there was some nice artwork - Sook's Kamandi and Pope's Adam Strange being the two standouts - but these single pages hardly justified the price.

Batman and Robin #1-6 (published by DC Comics) - I just don't get the big deal over this series. It's not even in the same league as All Star Superman, and instead of waiting for Frank Quitely to finish each issue, DC is making the same mistake Marvel made with Morrison's New X-Men run by rotating one artist after another, making the whole series feel rushed and inconsistent. I am looking forward to Cameron Stewart's upcoming stint on the book, but really, this is hardly Morrison's best work.

Strange Tales #1-3 (published by Marvel Comics) - I was kind of hoping for more serious takes from some of the creators here, but instead, they all took the parody and lowbrow route. It still had some highlights, including Peter Bagge's Incorrigible Hulk, which was really the lynchpin of the whole series, but the high sticker price was frustrating, especially for the ultra-thin glossy paper which made the whole thing feel like a cheap catalog.

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30 November 2009

Alan Moore's Lost Treasures - #6 in a 6 Part Limited Series

“The Bowing Machine”

The third issue of Raw (volume two), the digest-sized final collection of Art Spiegelman’s art comix series, is the best single volume of a comics anthology ever published. Included among the book’s extraordinary contents are Spiegelman’s own penultimate chapter of Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, a classic 32 page excerpt of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat (the famous “Tiger Tea” sequence), an exquisite Gary Panter sketchbook, “Thrilling Adventure Stories,” the first glimpse of the genius that was to come from Chris Ware, “Proxy,” a highly under-appreciated collaboration between novelist Tom DeHaven and Richard Sala, and Kim Deitch’s masterpiece, “The Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” The anthology also includes strong pieces from Lynda Barry, Muñoz and Sampayo, Drew Friedman, Marti, Justin Green, Kaz, and several lesser-known but equally talented European artists, not to mention the brilliantly sarcastic R. Crumb cover. With such an impressive lineup, it’s easy to see how a little story by Alan Moore got forgotten in the mix.

Yet “The Bowing Machine,” Moore’s unlikely collaboration with Amy and Jordan creator, Mark Beyer, is among the highlights of this impressive book. The story, which runs all of nine pages, is a subtle exploration of the socio-political tensions that arose between the US and Japan in the early 90s as Japan’s economy returned to international prominence. In the very first panel, Moore’s nameless Japanese protagonist describes, in scathing fashion, the toxic influence that foreign investment has had on Japanese culture: “Ah, there is so much money, rolling west in giant waves of dollar green topped with a silver froth of dimes, to break amongst the broken crab-claws down in Tokyo Bay.” Once again we are immediately confronted with evidence of Moore’s unparalleled grasp of the English language.

The story quickly narrows its focus onto a single rivalry between the narrator and a co-worker, both employees of an unnamed Japanese company, as each struggles to curry the favor of their superiors that they may ascend the corporate ladder. The personal competition between these two is a metaphor for the larger competitive tensions that existed between the US and Japan, and Moore plays a note-perfect riff on international politics in the way he depicts these two rivals, each going to ritualistic extremes of politeness in their professional behavior, while secretly harboring a seething mutual hatred for one another.

Eventually the story takes a Steven Millhauser-esque dive into obsession as the protagonist becomes a self-trained master at bowing to his superiors. The importance of the bow as a professional and cultural ritual is keenly understood by the Japanese narrator, but as one of the story’s many newspaper articles describes, “It is not enough to just bow in Japan. The exact angle of the bow must be determined by the nuances and subtle shades of a complex system of social intercourse. But today, as the country continues to absorb the ways of the West, older Japanese are worried that the new generation is losing the gentle art of bowing.” In the narrator’s hands, this simple social grace is once again elevated to a high art, and becomes the foundation upon which he briefly stakes his professional reputation.

But of course, the American rival has no concept of the bow’s importance in traditional Japanese culture, and instead seeks to best his rival by use of technology. He purchases the “bowing machine” in an effort to learn to bow in the same impressive manner as his Japanese rival, never understanding that bowing is a revered cultural tradition, not some mundane skill one can learn on the weekends with a simple machine.

The story ends with a bitter irony when, despite his ignorance, the rival becomes entangled in the bowing machine for several days, and suffers a crippling back injury in which he is permanently bent forward, like some hideous monstrosity. When he returns to work, hunched in his grotesque posture and relegated to a wheelchair, the Japanese narrator realizes he has been bested in their silent competition. His superiors, whether out of pity or admiration, are unable to ignore the immense sacrifice they perceive he made in pursuit of cultural sensitivity, and are moved to promote and favor the tragic figure over his upright, majestically bowing rival. Thus, a grave miscarriage of justice prevails as the accident victim is shown favor and privilege within the corporate culture.

Mark Beyer’s art is an acquired taste. His style is over-simplified and to the untrained eye, may seem childlike and unattractive. But upon closer examination, his panels are deceptively complex. First of all, Beyer makes great use of colors and patterns, using meticulous hatching and shading, as well as bright swaths of primary colors to add tone and texture to his panels. In addition, Beyer rises to the considerable demands of Moore’s script, which calls for several recurring images that inform the story’s underlying themes. In particular, the arcing posture of the bow itself, noted not only in the physical act depicted throughout the story, but also in the breaking arc of the “waves of dollar green,” operates as a visual motif for the cynicism and defeatism of the main character. Beyer also incorporates newspaper articles, both in Japanese and English, to convey a large quantity of story context (including a brief history of the machine’s invention) in a relatively small amount of space. Finally, each page features a shifting series of symmetrical wallpaper patterns, set against stark black backgrounds, adding a distinctively Japanese aesthetic to the story.

In the end, this is one of Alan Moore’s most cynical tales. Its focus on the unspoken bitterness inherent in international politics is a brutal indictment of American arrogance. What lingers most is the final image of the rival, pathetically mangled in his wheelchair. Though victorious, his bastardization of a sacred cultural ritual, not to mention the self-destructive nature of his behavior, makes him a loathsome and disgusting figure. His victory is pathetic and hollow, and, in the story’s larger metaphor, it portrays America as a scrupulous giant, blindly destroying the world in search of the all-important profit. Moore’s final words are scathing in their indictment of America's globalization and the impact it's had on the world.

“Now he has laid himself so low that I can never rise above him.”


That's it! I really hope you enjoyed this series of posts. If you're still hungry for more Alan Moore short stories, I also recommend checking out:

1) "Brighter Than You Think" - an awesome mini-biography of occultist John Whiteside Parsons, illustrated by Lost Girls collaborator, Melinda Gebbie, which appeared in the anthology Top Shelf Asks the Big Questions.

2) "Tapestries" - a great little story about the horrors of war that appeared in Real War Stories #1 (Eclipse Comics, 1987). Illustrated by Miracleman collaborator, John Totleben (with Stan Woch) and Stephen Bissette.

3) "The Bojeffries Saga" - the majority of this story originally ran as a back-up in Fantagraphics' Dalgoda and Flesh and Bones, and was recently collected by IDW.

4) The New Adventures of the Spirit #1 and 3 - The first issue features a new, full length collaboration with Dave Gibbons, while the third issue contains a short story with stunning illustrations by Daniel Torres. Both issues published by Kitchen Sink Press.

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