Thursday, March 19, 2015

Conquering Heroes

I didn't regularly visit a comic shop until my final years of high-school, and even then I was combing through the spinner racks to find 25-cent back issues of D.P. 7 and Justice. I didn't have any interest in new comics, and the result was that I was entirely disconnected from comics fandom (probably a healthy thing). For many years I had no idea what the popular or influential titles were, or who was writing what, and later in college I decided to see what I had been missing.

It was clear that all the cool kids were fans of something called The Authority. It had been out for years, but the online and comic-shop hype was unreal. This was hardcore superheroics. It was as if  Ridley Scott, Neil Stephenson, and Katsuhiro Otomo had been given the keys to the Justice League. This was a grown-up comic.

Or so I heard.

I first read the series in 2005. I found it entertaining, but shallow, and I was dismayed by its popularity. While the series has faded away over time, its influence can still be felt. It's clear that The Authority served as the prototype for the mainstream superhero comics of the 21st century, especially their manifestation in blockbuster movie franchises. In this way, I believe The Authority is as influential as Watchmen. But while that comic was an expertly crafted work that can be reread again and again, The Authority was all sound and fury, and has aged very poorly. It's so much a product of its time, and like The Matrix, Rancid, and 24, it now feels faintly embarrassing. People thought this was cool?

The Authority was created and written during its initial run by Warren Ellis (then freshly famous for Transmetropolitan) and future superstar Bryan Hitch.  The set-up is incredibly straightforward. An eponymous team of superheroes  have set themselves up as a global defense force. They deal with massive threats to civilization and are unafraid to use lethal force (in fact, lethal force is preferred). Unlike the Avengers or the Justice League, they answer to no government, corporation, or institution. Orbiting Earth in their invincible space-ship, they are basically presented as ascendent counter-culture; the morally-minded radicals having at last wrested control from the corrupt Powers That Be to guide the world to a better place.

Actually, they're just a bunch of assholes.



The characterization here is quite poor, and the members of the Authority all have the same personality, distinguished from each other by affectations and costumes. In fact, they kind of  blend together into a narcissistic hive-mind. True to Ellis fashion, they all speak with the same verbose sarcasm, bitch incessantly, and revel in ultraviolence while professing high morality. The comic is not concerned with their motivations, fears, or convictions. It instead concentrates on their actions.

Leading the team is Jenny Sparks (who we know is awesome thanks to her chain-smoking and Cool Britannia shirt). She hand-picked the others in the group, with each representing one of the superhero archetypes. The resident super-scientist is the Engineer, who has the chrome skin of the T1000 and can turn her hands into guns that never run out of bullets. The magician is called the Doctor, a casually omnipotent "shaman" who dresses for dance-hall raves. The urban type is John Hawksmoor (named after a Baroque architect), who is linked to city environments and has a degree of control over them.

The most well-known figures from The Authority are Apollo and Midnighter, pastiches of Superman and Batman from an era marked by many such analogues. These two stood out from the crowd by virtue of their being lovers. This was laudably progressive in a time when most gay characters where obscure and marginalized, but they're still one-dimensional. Apollo is every bit as dull as people accuse Superman of being. Midnighter has inherited of his forebear's smugness but none of his pulpy charm. He comes off as a tiresome sadist, who gleefully lectures opponents about his fighting prowess before giving demonstrations, like Steven Seagal in bondage gear.


(Rounding out the team is Swift, a woman with a large pair of wings. Her inclusion feels a little sad.)


In later interviews, Ellis described The Authority as having a satirical tone in the tradition of Judge Dredd. The characters were supposedly intended to be morally ambiguous, and the story was a tongue-in-cheek exploration of unilateral power. This feels suspiciously revisionist. A 1999 interview with Ellis yields a more accurate description: "[a] big stupid thing with explosions." While it is often said to be a political comic, The Authority is devoid of any meaningful observations about...anything. It is simply a very loud superhero comic, sprinkled with storytelling techniques from manga and action movies. There is no satire present here, nor is there any depth.  The comic is slick, slight, and opportunistic. 

In its shallow, careless way, The Authority reads like a celebration of domineering power, rather than a condemnation. It seems to suggest that fascistic overlords are acceptable as long as they're sufficiently fashionable. For all the self-righteousness that Ellis lends his team, their primary interest appears to the thrills and glory afforded by their superhero status. There are several scenes of the group marveling at how awesome their lives are, untroubled by their acts of mass-murder, and the implied collateral damage.
 

More problematic, however, is that these snarky demi-gods simply cannot be bothered to show up on time. Again and again, when disaster strikes, its only after civilization has been reduced to a smoking crater that the Authority shows up to punch the crisis away. Prefiguring 9/11 disaster porn, multiple Hi-Def doomsdays occur over the course of this comic. Buildings explode into flames, debris rains down on crowds of screaming bystanders, and countless people are slaughtered by otherworldly menaces. Tokyo is devastated by an onslaught of space pickles and silverfish, and presumably millions die. It all amounts to a justification for more fuck-yeah moments of ultraviolence. For all it's pretense of realism, your average Hulk comic does a better job at showing consequences of catastrophe than The Authority.


Emerging from the vapid world of Jim Lee's Wildstorm imprint, The Authority can't help but look smart. The plotting and dialogue is undeniably superior, and Hitch's artwork is quite handsome,  emulating the best bits of Alan Davis but with a cinematic flair for dense battle scenes. Still, it's difficult to accept that this comic was once threatening. It's effective, bur hardly radical. But then, that was all that was needed. The Authority would become one of the greatest successes of the 90's, and Marvel and DC were quick to absorb and assimilate its traits into their house styles. Mainstream superheroes developed a new taste for extreme tactics, as they grew apart from the mere mortals they supposedly protected. They banded together into monolithic mega-teams, and fought against crises and swarms rather than passé supervillains. When no threat was available, they now fought each other. Now every petty argument and rivalry could potentially blossom into a war.


But The Authority itself was intrinsically unsustainable, and the escalation of explosive spectacles
left the series with nowhere to go. After Mark Millar took over the writing duties, the veneer of intellectualism was gone and it became a procession of deep-fried Scottish rape jokes. Eventually The Authority (along with the whole Wildstorm imprint) hobbled along to a predictable apocalypse. These days, Warren Ellis seems ambivalent about the series, and I suspect he'd much rather be thought of as the writer of Transmetropolitan. The revolution ushered in by The Authority was won by the wrong side. The comic has the dubious legacy of transitioning superheroes from their outsider influences to cryptofascism. It's responsible for the legions of Special Forces superheroes bellowing "STAND DOWN!" at each other. Superhero comics didn't grow up after The Authority.

They just grew a trashy moustache.



Further Listening
The Horseflies, "Time is Burning"

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Inaction Comics

The 80's and 90's saw the values and aesthetics of  Underground Comix gradually replaced by "Alternative Comics." The shock humor and the drug-fueled manic energy was replaced by alienation, arch sarcasm, and flat affect. The depressed, too-cool Generation X had arrived. Of the many comic creators to come out this era, Daniel Clowes is one of the most celebrated. I find that I'm ambivalent about his comics. Ghost World was difficult to ignore thanks to its ubiquity and the acclaimed movie adaptation, but I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. It was funny, sad, and overall did an excellent job of capturing the malaise of directionless post-high school youth. I was less taken by his other work. Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron was fun, but didn't impress me very much. David Boring lived up to its name. Ice Haven and Wilson were tedious.

In 2011, after moving into my new apartment and getting the shiny new internet hooked up, I went online and read that Clowes had done a superhero comic. It was like hearing that Jim Jarmusch had made a cop movie. I was curious and excited. What aspects of superhero comics would appeal to Clowes? Would kind of tone would it take? Satire? Horror? A low-key drama? Much later, I was loaned a copy by a friend. The cover displayed a Ditko-ish figure armed with a comical yellow ray gun. The title promised bug-eyed pulp. Looked good.

Shame about the insides, though.

The Death-Ray concerns a man named Andy, who briefly tried to be a superhero during his teenage years. When we meet Andy in 2004, he's a balding, middle-aged man who seems deep in denial about himself and his past. Back in the late seventies, however, Andy is just a kid with a bad haircut. His mother and father died, leaving him to be raised by his grandfather Pappy and his grandfather's black maid Dinah. Andy is totally unexceptional, a complete outsider. He doesn't fit in with any groups, has no heritage to speak of, doesn't have any passions or interests (beyond a crush on Dinah), and his peers regard him with indifference or mild contempt. Nonetheless, he believes that he is destined for something huge.

Andy's only friend is Louie, a belligerent punk rock fan who resents nearly everyone. Coming from an unhappy Catholic family, Louie is confrontational and escalates conflict whenever possible. Andy admires Louie, and follows his friend's every word. Louie likes Andy because he's the only one who respects him. The two are classically co-dependent.

In another attempt to be a tough-guy, Louie takes up smoking as "cigarettes turn you into a whole different person." He encourages Andy to do the same, and after some mild hesitancy, Andy lights up. That night, Andy has a feverish episode of superhuman strength and he comes to realize that cigarettes somehow make him invincible.

The two discover that Andy's scientist father bestowed his son with super-strength that would be activated by his first cigarette, an absurd origin that is the comic's only bit of humor. Soon Andy inherits his father's other gift: a bright yellow gun that makes its targets disappear without even a puff of smoke. The gun only works for Andy, as demonstrated by the annihilation of squirrel. Andy feels somewhat guilty about the animal's death, but for Louie great power brings great possibilities.


At Louie's behest, Andy becomes a superhero, but things don't work as they hoped. There isn't much need for superheroic intervention. When they are unable to find any real crime to combat, Louie tries to provoke others into attacking him so Andy can justify a retaliation. Nobody takes the bait, but Andy's initial ambivalence begins to wear off and he latches onto broad platitudes about right and wrong and the American Way, in some kind of deluded attempt at a superheroic code.

Merely being an asshole is enough to warrant a savage beating or an execution. Without any real thought, they launch attacks against anybody Louie holds a grudge against, but there is never any feeling victory or achievement. They get drunk and vaporize Louie's sister's boyfriend. Both feel regretful afterwards, but ultimately the squirrel's death was more traumatic. Louie, sensing that he is no longer in control, begins to see how wrong they've been and how dangerous Andy's power is. But Andy has grown increasingly distant as his grandfather falls into dementia and Dinah leaves. Eventually, Louie and Andy fight and Louie is instantly destroyed. Andy makes various perfunctory attempts to abandon the gun and become an adult, but he inevitably slips back into his murderous ways whenever the opportunity presents itself. The comic ends abruptly with a flippant, cop-out Choose Your Own Adventure segment in which we are presented with three potential futures for Andy. In one, he kills everyone on the planet and wanders the empty streets alone. In another, he commits suicide. In the third, his aimless life continues for another twenty-five years, every plan ending in failure, he kills some more people and "probably dies of lung cancer." Ta da.

Reading The Death-Ray was an empty experience. This is an extremely weak effort from an otherwise talented artist; a maddeningly aloof comic that wastes an interesting premise. It's billed as an examination of teenage malaise using the conventions of a superhero comic. There's certainly great potential there, as most superhero comics are regrettably adolescent in their sensibilities; vehicles of puerile wish-fulfillment violence. Two teenage fuck-ups plotting the deaths of those who slighted them could be quite upsetting in this happy time of high-school massacres.

But, for all its pretensions, The Death-Ray has all of the insight of the ray-gun revenge movie Laserblast. It neither entertains, nor elucidates, nor surprises. Bookended by apathetic philosophizing, the story concludes that people are foolish and that power is often abused, something that has been said to much better effect countless times elsewhere. All of its observations are superficial and obvious.

Even the artwork doesn't feel up to Clowes usual high standards. The overall composition is strong, and narration is intermixed with real-time dialogue to allow for fluid scene transitions. However, the lively characters of Ghost World have been replaced by a mob of dead-eyed mannequins. The comic is full of stiff, inexpressive figures. This may or may have been a deliberate choice. The Death-Ray is set in a universe where everyone is in denial, emotionally-stunted, vacant, or an asshole. I'd call it misanthropic if it wasn't so listless.

Time Magazine described The Death-Ray as being "like Holden Caulfield with his phaser set to kill." The Guardian applauds its "allusions to US foreign policy and acute teen ennui" and asserts that "Clowes demonstrates what the comic book can do and what literary fiction can't." I wish I could read that comic. I find it remarkable that such a piece of work inspired such preposterous hyperbole. It's dry, vapid, and fails to do or say anything interesting. A thorough disappointment.


Further Reading
Go read Popeye. Popeye is always fun.


Further Listening
The Rev. Horton Heat, "Galaxie 500"


Wednesday, January 14, 2015

All Said and Done


Look at this mess. How did this ever happen?

I have a theory about artists and fame. Regardless of the medium (whether it's music, visual arts, or writing) and regardless of whether it's perceived as Low Art or High Art, I suspect that once an artist has achieved a level of popularity, once they've thoroughly made their mark on their chosen medium, then there's very little that they can't get away with. While I cringe at the current trend of expressing everything in terms of "brand," in this case the "brand" of these artists is so well-established that their work becomes an automatic success based on that strength alone. David Bowie could put out a show-tunes album, for instance, and it'd probably be heralded as a masterwork of irony.

Not that he's likely to, but you get the idea.

Context and consensus exert a more powerful influence than most people would care to admit, and I don't claim to be immune. I get very credulous when it comes to certain authors and movie directors and such, championing shoddy works only to gradually see my error. But I always try to judge things based on their individual merits. Does it succeed in what it's trying to do? Does it affect me in an interesting way?

Which brings me to Alan Moore and Frank Miller. I think there's a great hesitancy from the comics community to give them appropriate criticism, and separate their past work from their remarkably inferior current projects. Everything is subjective, and everyone has different tastes, but I think there's a willingness to overlook substantial failings.

Comparing the two is an apples-and-oranges situation, but while they have very different attitudes and approaches,  Moore and Miller will forever be associated thanks to their role in groundbreaking superhero deconstruction. And both have become caricatures of themselves, their particular mannerisms and predilections becoming increasingly overbearing. Similarly, their iconoclasm has decayed into bitterness. I couldn't tell you what's going on in their respective lives, but neither man seems especially happy.  There's a sense that they're aggravated by the state of comics, culture, youth, and the world at large, and their recent comics have been diatribes against everything they no longer have the patience to examine. "Old Man Yells at Cloud."

Maybe I'd feel differently if I had been alive during their heyday. Perhaps I'm lacking in appreciation.  However, I can't help but feel alienated. I began reading Moore and Miller reprints in high-school and I enjoyed their stuff. These were outstanding comics, operating on rare wavelengths. I admired Moore's intelligence and craftsmanship, and I was encouraged Miller's fiery refusal to compromise his ideas. Both men were strong advocates against corporate comics duplicity and for creator's rights. But none of that can change the fact that their recent output has been terrible.



Comics that are unworthy of serious critical analysis receive attention due to their context in the greater body of work. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is glorified slash fiction gone rancid; a tumorous expanse of references and literary sampling, impressive only in terms of scope. Had it been produced by anyone else, it would have been regarded as a grisly novelty, but thanks to the considerable weight of Moore's reputation, it is annotated with the kind of obsession usually seen in monastic Bible scholars. There's nothing particularly clever about an evil Harry Potter whipping out his malformed cock to piss lightning all over battered, useless heroes. Whether intended to be shock horror or satire, I resent the idea that it would be effective as either. The only thing this stuff can provoke is a search for better stuff to read.

Meanwhile, Holy Terror, a delusional screed born out of Miller's 9/11 trauma, was more immediately recognized for what it was, but nevertheless there were those who scrutinized every hateful, ink-splattered page. Much like his similarly demented All-Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder, there were suggestions that the excess and stupidity of the comic was in spirit of irony or polemicism. There followed a debate in the comics community regarding the intent of the piece. If Frank Miller's name wasn't on it, would this have ever happened? Would it have been rightfully dismissed as garbage?


As I wrote earlier, everyone has different tastes. It's perfectly fine to be a fan, but too many fans become apologists. Comics ought to judged by their individual qualities (bad or good), rather than by the profile of their creator. And we shouldn't become complacent when we know that creators are capable of better things. At this stage, both Moore and Miller have unprecedented opportunities to make the most audacious comics they could conceive, and this is what they came up with?

Cantankerous, indulgent, and irrelevant, these comics have very little to offer. But they sold well and (even today) are much-discussed. It's frustrating to watch this happen while interesting, offbeat comics of every genre can still go unnoticed.

They appear to be at the exhausted end of their careers, creating comics out of a zombie auto-pilot instinct rather than any deep inspiration. Just as Stallone does another Rocky movie when things dip into uncertainty, an ailing Miller has reportedly returned to Batman to write another Dark Knight comic. Moore has gone back to his horror roots with new chapter for Garth Ennis' tedious apocalypse series, Crossed (Moore's main contribution is an arbitrarily mutated dialect of English in the spirit of Russell Hoban's Ridley Walker). He has also announced plans to write a digital comic called Big Nemo, with an adult version of Windsor McKay's comic-strip character. Creatively, both men have fallen back on very easy choices, but I'm sure that these comics will be talked about for years to come.

Further Listening
Negativland, "Drink it Up."



Monday, December 29, 2014

Rob Liefeld Thinks I'm Crazy

It's a safe bet that most comic critics have aspirations of writing comics themselves, and I'm no different. I think about comics constantly, and I've filled notebooks with stories. However, most days this goal seems about as feasible as becoming an astronaut. The path to writing comics professionally is even more uncertain than the path to illustrating comics (which is itself no easy achievement).

In February of 2013, I was on some comics site and I read that Rob Liefeld was holding (in endearingly all-caps) an EXTREME TALENT CONTEST. He was looking for writers.

Often called "controversial" or "divisive," few comic creators have raised hackles quite like Liefeld. He's the closest that superhero comics has come to a Vanilla Ice, enjoying massive popularity in the early nineties before becoming something of a joke. He's famous for his dumb, action-movie/videogame sensibilities and for his attempts to pass off considerable artistic deficiencies as deliberate stylistic choices. Returning to Image Comics after a long fallow period following an acrimonious break-up with the publisher he helped found, Liefeld surprised many with relaunches of his old titles Prophet and Glory. They boasted excellent, highly unorthodox stories and artwork by established indie creators. Glory was probably my favorite superhero title of the year and I found myself unexpectedly appreciating Liefeld for allowing such unconventional interpretations of his characters.

Probably hoping to repeat the success, Liefeld's EXTREME TALENT CONTEST invited writers to submit pitches for five-page stories featuring his EXTREME CHARACTERS. The winning three submissions were to be illustrated by Liefeld himself in the pages of his newly relaunched Youngblood and Bloodstrike titles.

The next day, working at my dishwashing job at a trendy cafe, filth up to my elbows as I tried to unclog a drain, I realized something.

Why couldn't I give it a shot? What did I have to lose?

When I returned to my apartment that night, I was excited by the idea, seeing it as a fun challenge. Thanks to a brain hardwired to catalogue superhero comics, I already had a familiarity with Liefeld's EXTREME CHARACTERS, but I went to the internet to do some research. With a five page limit, I decided it was best to focus on a single character, but which one? Liefeld was nothing if not prolific, and his "universe" contained legions of snarling super-soldiers.

In this end, I settled on this guy:

Crypt. He looked like a forgotten member of GWAR. When I was eight, my cousin had the action-figure, and I remember being repulsed by his bulging veins and blood-splattered accessories. Online, I found various detailed write-ups of the character's back-story; a predictably overblown origin in cloning, time-travel, and serial killings. Ultimately, none of it mattered. Crypt was a simple barbarian psychopath. You could tell everything you needed to know just by looking at him.

I took the assignment seriously, and tried to think of a story that would be neatly composed, but with moments of appropriately EXTREME action. I wanted to write something genuinely unusual, something unexpected that would stand out among the many other submissions. Something that would remain faithful to the absurd, nu-metal spirit of the character while being intelligent.

Eventually, I had what I felt was a good pitch.

It would be a quick "whatever-happened-to?" story, explaining what Crypt had been up to since the 90's. I reasoned that this monster would eventually be held accountable for his crimes. He was arrested by some "garden variety cosmic beings" and convicted of countless murders. But Crypt stood defiant, and (after all) what kind of sentence would be fitting for such a killing machine? What kind of a punishment could be met out on a character so EXTREME?

The answer was like a comically cruel Twilight Zone episode. Crypt was transported into a "life-trap," a prison existence wherein he would live forever without meaning or purpose. A prison of the mundane. This brutal warrior, born to slaughter, was now a wage-slave at a fast food restaurant. He was now powerless, stripped of his axes and guns and weak as a kitten. Despite looking like a 'roided-up grim-reaper, Crypt was ignored by the rest of the world, treated like just another slob. He woke up at five, flipped burgers for ten hours, and then returned home to a trailer too small for his massive physique and watched TV. Every day was the same. Crypt had been there so long, that to his horror he was beginning to forget his past. It was even becoming a struggle for him to remember his own name.

The story would have been funny, but also faintly tragic. It was an undignified, banal fate for supervillain. The everyday horror of endless drudgery is far worse than Crypt could ever hope to be, and I intended for readers to feel sympathetic. It would have ended with Crypt sleeping in his chair, blissfully dreaming of murdering superheroes on scorched battlefields. Dreams were now his only escape.



I thought it had the potential for a memorable little five-pager, and so I clicked the Submit button and waited. The process had been enjoyable, and suddenly I felt excited. I tried to have zero expectations, but in the back of mind there was the inevitable bubbling anticipation.

Maybe it could work.

As unlikely as it seemed, maybe this could be it. Maybe this could be my "big break." Eventually my mind was flooded with rosy hypothetical futures in which I found success writing Liefeld properties before ascending to more personal projects (culminating in multiple Eisner awards and the conquest of many planets). No doubt, every other submitter had the similar hopes.

To my amazement, my pitch seemed to get his attention.








With a combination of excitement and amusement, I showed Liefeld's tweet to my friends. What a surreal turn of events. Was it possible that Rob Liefeld was going to illustrate a story that I had written?


Nope.

Liefeld released names of the winners some time later. He was so pleased with the results that he selected five submissions rather the initial three. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed, but eventually I just started laughing. I'm glad to have made an impression. It seems to have been for the best anyways: now, nearly two years later, Liefeld has yet to illustrate any of the stories and his Youngblood and Bloodstrike comics have again fallen into limbo. Given the number of projects abandoned by Liefeld, maybe they'll never see the light of day. Meanwhile, I continue to write. Perhaps if I keeping working, I'll get something made.

Perhaps I'm just crazy enough.


Further Listening
Sisters of Mercy, "Temple of Love"

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Compromise

Everything that could be said about Watchmen has already been said. I'll bet even that observation has been made once or twice before.  

Watchmen has been analyzed, criticized, annotated, imitated, exploited, condemned and celebrated more than any other superhero story. Its dense, complex structure has been laid out in detail and the significance of every symbol has been discussed. As such, it seems like a waste of time to write about Watchmen; maybe even worse. I think that over-discussion can diminish a work of art, and while my feelings about Alan Moore and Watchmen have changed considerably since I first read the comic in high-school, I can't deny that a tremendous amount of thought and work went into making it. But now its parts have been exposed for everyone to examine, and its processes seem less miraculous as a result. The once radical comic has become commonplace.

Consequently, I'm very hesitant to write anything about Watchmen. This blog is supposed to bring attention to great superhero stories that haven't become household names, and everyone is familiar with Watchmen. However, it would feel odd to exclude it. The success of Watchmen showed that superhero stories could be far more than disposable pulp entertainment. It also proved that there was a market for such stories, and in doing so paved the way for a number of the comics featured on this blog. For this it rightfully demands recognition. 

Plus... I still like it.

And that can be difficult sometimes. I think that contemporary comic readers tend to like Watchmen for all the wrong reasons. Raised on a diet of cynical ultraviolence, they find the comic's superficial grittiness to be its most appealing trait and they sadly overlook its more impressive qualities. The character of Rorschach has developed a particularly troubling fan-base. In much the same way as certain guys idolize Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver, so too will fanboys gush about the most "badass" moments of this disturbing, mentally-ill vigilante. 

My favorite sequence from Watchmen involves Rorschach, but it isn't when he breaks the fingers of a lowlife bar-goer or terrorizes a geriatric ex-con or even when he drowns a murderous dwarf in a prison toilet. Instead, it's a quick moment in issue ten that I feel challenges many of the commonly held assumptions about this character. I thought that I'd write about that.

The sequence takes place shortly after Nite-Owl and Silk Spectre have freed Rorschach from prison. Despite that every cop in the city is now searching for them, Rorschach is insistent that they return to his old apartment so he can collect his journal and a secondary costume. Indeed, he cannot be complete without his ever-shifting black and white mask.

They are interrupted by Dolores Shairp, Rorschach's landlady. Shairp appeared briefly in the previous issues, once to demand rent and then later appearing on TV after Rorschach's capture by the police, claiming that he made sexual advances. Shairp is disgusting and verminous. Crooked teeth, greasy hair, her fat, sagging neck covered in blemishes, and always surrounded by a brood snot-nosed kids. She's emblematic of all the calculated griminess Moore and Gibbons have invested in their artificial New York.


Investigating the noise, Shairp discovers Rorschach, with Nite Owl behind him. She's instantly quaking with fear, as her confused and frightened children cower behind her. 

Despite Nite Owl's urging to leave, Rorschach approaches Shairp menacingly, about the "slur on reputation." It's a scary moment. Given his fanaticism, we have every reason to believe something terrible is going to happen. What's he going to do? Beat her senseless? Burn down her rat-nest building? "How much did they pay you to lie about me, whore?" Crying and stammering, Shairp begs him not to say that in front of her kids, as "they don't know." One stares up at in horror Rorschach, crying. Rorschach looks down at him, and his fierce, rigid face has softened into an expression of pity. A miserable frown. He turns and leaves.

Shairp is left in the hallway, surrounded by her kids, tears streaming down her face.

And that's it. Just a page. It has no real effect on the story. Rorschach and Nite Owl resume their investigation into the end of the world, and we never see Shairp or her kids again. But I like this moment the most because it alludes to a previously unseen complexity and ambiguity, not only in Rorschach, but also in the relentless cynicism of the comic itself. Rorschach, with his horrible devotion to binary, black and white morality, has condemned the world as a harsh, random place that deserves only punishment. Watchmen doesn't really offer any evidence against this nihilistic argument. Its world is a cruel one, and Rorschach's response (while terrible) has a twisted logic to it.

The encounter between Rorschach and Shairp again shows that he's a wretched superhero, but it also depicts him doing something that he's never done before. He shows mercy. Shairp's kids, frightened and living in squalor, clearly remind him of his own terrible childhood. But unlike his abusive mother, Shairp actually cares for her children. She's trying to protect them from harm. This revolting figure suddenly becomes vulnerable and, feeling sympathy, Rorschach is forced to reassess his judgment. In an instant, he compromises his code and his entire worldview, and just walks away.

Maybe things aren't as irredeemable as they may seem.

Despite loudly identifying as an anarchist, Alan Moore has always had a fascination with precisely ordered systems. More than any of his other comics, Watchmen is a triumph of structure over substance. It's a meticulously constructed doom machine; diamond-hard and just as transparent. As it clinically delivers characters to their ultimate defeat, there is precious little that feels compellingly spontaneous or organic. This scene is a rare moment of ugly, but genuine, humanity, and it usually goes unnoticed amidst the preordained apocalypse.

Once I was obsessed with this comic, but my interest has waned over time. It lacks the audacity of The One, the rage of Marshal Law, and the insight of Enigma. Watchmen now feels sort of empty. But while I no longer find it as engaging as I once did, I am still impressed by its scope and craft. I hope that people come to see Watchmen not as the ultimate end of superhero, but a gateway drug to better, weirder things.



Further Reading
While Moore's body of work is well known, I feel Dave Gibbons doesn't get enough credit. For proof of his considerable talent, take a look at The Originals, his stylish crime comic.


Further Listening
Devo "Race of Doom"

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

All the Way to the Bank

I saw some promotions for Kingsmen: The Secret Service, an adaptation of Mark Millar's recent comic. It got me thinking.

Is this Millar's troll face?

His practiced grin is almost like his signature, like Stan Lee's aviators and moustache, and nearly as ubiquitous. Millar is one of the most successful writers of superhero comics, and his multiple movie adaptations give him uncommon clout. More than anything else, it was Millar's action-oriented, ruthlessly commercial approach that has shaped 21st century superhero comics, especially their depiction in blockbuster movie franchises.


While he has a commendable record of charitable donations, and an ostensible dedication to creator-owned work, I find him obnoxious and I dislike his comics. But I have to admit that I have a morbid curiosity about his popularity, and what it implies about the state of mainstream superhero comics and the readers of those stories. 

Millar has an undeserved reputation for being an ideas man. I think this is probably because of his early associations with Grant Morrison, and Morrison's great influence in young Millar's first works. But, with their friendship terminated long ago, the contact high is gone. Those searching his comics for anything offbeat or innovative will be left starving. Millar's comics are little else but obvious ideas realized in a pedestrian manner, made distinct only by the insertion of indulgent ultraviolence and perfunctory PC-baiting; racism, the violation of standard taboos, predictable misogyny, and the almost constant depiction of rape. Designed to offend, these scenes are ugly, mean-spirited and tiresome.


But never shocking. It feels too insincere to shock, too calculated for publicity. He certainly did well by DC's ham-handed attempts to censor the disagreeable portions of his run on The Authority. It lent his otherwise unremarkable reputation a badge of punk notoriety, which he parlayed into his comics for Marvel. Cheap sleaze and nastiness has become his trademark, another item in his playbook for self-promotion. Like Donald Trump, Millar loves superlatives and hype, and each new comic is his groundbreaking masterpiece; the next Watchmen or Dark Knight Returns.

Anybody remember War Heroes? 1985? Supercrooks? I hear the movie versions are coming out any year now.

Millar is unashamedly a fan of superheroes (and I can hardly fault him for that), especially the deconstructionist superhero comics of the 80's that he grew up with. The non-superhero titles he's done all failed to register, and you can tell that his heart wasn't in it. His ill-conceived attempts at experimentation, like Trouble and The Unfunnies, have been failures. It's clear that his sole obsession as a writer is that old chestnut: "what if superheroes were real?" and all of his notable comics have asked variations of this question.

For Millar, the answer is a high-concept pantomime of Frank Miller, Alan Moore, and Grant Morrison: violent, sarcastic, movie-ready, and deliriously self-important. The execution is prosaic. He's committed to three-act story structure, first person narration, and contrived analogues of established characters with personalities that range from asshole to psychopath. This limited repertoire is reworked for each new comic, but with diminishing returns. Millar's last few efforts haven't exactly set the world on the fire, and the movie adaptation of Kick Ass 2 was dismissed as a box-office disappointment. As trends in mainstream superhero comics transition towards a bizarre corporate approximation of indie comics, Millar's schtick could well be a fading flavor-of-the-month. Possibly, possibly not.

Right now, Millar is as rich and famous as ever, and I wonder about his fans. Those that I've met weren't very encouraging: inarticulate, pompous, angry nerds. Are they all like this? Are they alone in their apartments, laughing along to the bloodshed, thumbing past the moments of hollow sentimentality, and smirking as the stuck-up bitches get gang-raped? Is there really a huge population of readers hungry for prepackaged sadism and disaster porn?

Hopefully,  these are just the most vocal fans, and not representative of Millar readers as a whole. I suspect that the majority are merely boring, and for them Millar's brand of cynical edginess is a spicy alternative to Geoff Johns or J. Michael Straczynski. It probably feels quite adult to those in arrested adolescence. Whatever the case, Millar's fandom speaks to his shrewd salesmanship of his garish sensibilities.  His skill at self-promotion is so good, I think that even he believes his hype. Earnest appraisals by Sequart writers and frequent unearned inclusion among the great U.K. comics writers have also helped. He's even been awarded membership in the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for his contributions. Convinced of his talent, Millar is only too pleased to reap the great rewards. His legacy is one of repugnant, empty-headed movie pitches disguised as comics.

Will superheroes ever escape Millarworld?

 

Further Listening
The Lost Sounds, "Destructo Comet"


Thursday, November 13, 2014

"He is the Madness"

A few years ago, I was out of work, broke, and spending many hours at the local library. Every day was the same: I'd apply for jobs online, search the want ads, and then ascend to the third floor where they kept their "graphic novels." It was a mishmash of handsome Fantagraphics reprints, beat-up Marvel and DC paperbacks, and some offbeat stuff that I'd never seen before. Wedged in the shelves was a copy of Rick Veitch's The Maximortal. I knew nothing about it, beyond that it had been described as a "superhero horror story." That sounded like my kind of comic, and being a huge fan of Veitch's The One, I jumped straight in.

And, after thirty pages, I put it down again.

It was repulsive and gratuitous. A complete mess. I picked up my things and left in a foul mood.

The next day, I was confused to find myself reading it again.

And eventually, I bought a copy of my own.

The Maximortal is a nasty piece of work about Superman and the ideas that character represents. The spirit of comic can be plainly seen on the cover: a visual echo of the famous image of Superman tearing open his shirt to reveal his "S" emblem. Here, there is an exposed heart (perhaps an allusion to "getting to the heart of the matter"), crackling with otherworldly power. Then, there's the masthead. The familiar red and yellow font from Superman comics has been appropriated and warped to vertigo-inducing effect. The story inside is similarly warped. The Maximortal is Superman gone toxic. It's a Mad Magazine parody mutated into something horrible, a hideous Dorian Gray portrait that exposes gruesome truths. It's a very ugly comic, indiscriminately vicious, and at times bewilderingly stupid. Frankly, it's astonishing.

The Maximortal begins at the 1908 Tunguska event, in which several acres of Siberian forest were demolished by a mysterious explosion. Scientists believe that it was likely due to a meteorite collision, but here it's due to the arrival of a superhuman being. In an encounter reminiscent of the more lurid UFO abduction tales, an anonymous Siberian encounters and is raped by a unearthly humanoid, who promptly lays an egg, which she hurls into space. The entity then transforms from female to male, salutes, and vanishes.

The egg returns ten years later, landing in the United States and attracting the attention of Meryl and George. Out hatches a creature that resembles a musclebound man compressed to child-size. Meryl, convinced that the thing has been sent by angels, decides to raise it as a child, and names it Wesley Winston. Not surprisingly, little Wesley proves to be dangerous and uncontrollable. He's an idiot toddler with superhuman power, and maims and kills many, many people, including his poor adopted father. Wesley is eventually pacified into a deep slumber inside the remains of his eggshell, and is taken by the military.

Many years later, young Jerry Spiegel and Joe Schumacher wait in the offices of Cosmo Comics, hoping to get published. Jerry, the writer of the duo, had visions of a bold figure during his many sleepless nights; a champion of truth and justice who would protect ordinary people from the forces of evil. Shumacher, the artist, has realized this figure as a strongman clad in a blue costume and a red cape. They call him True-Man.

Cosmo Comics is owned by Sidney Wallace, a rat-faced son of a bitch who blends together the many real life crooked publishers in the so-called "Golden Age" of comic books (with a little bit of Walt Disney for good measure). A cruel, egomaniac bully, Wallace makes a fortune on True-Man, having stolen the rights through underhanded means. Spiegel and Schumacher labor in obscurity, constantly abused and humiliated by their satanic employer.

Meanwhile, Dr. Robert "Uppenheimer" has been studying the thing called Wesley Winston. Stationed at Los Alamos, he was originally working to develop an atomic bomb, when his attentions to turned to the bizarre super-child. Eventually, "Little Boy" is dropped on Japan, but rather than a bomb, it's instead a capsule containing Wesley, who obliterates Hiroshima and Nagasaki with a laser-eyed glare. Retrieved for further experimentation, Wesley is accidentally exposed to comic books belonging to Uppenheimer's son and transmutes into an exact likeness of True-Man.

Weaving together Dr. Uppenheimer's work and the toils of Spiegel and Schumacher are the bizarre schemes of a Mexican mystic. He saw a vision of the super-being while high on peyote and partaking in a ritualistic bat guano bath, and is now obsessed with stealing such power for himself. Every superhero needs a supervillain, and The Maximortal features this grubby, zombie-eyed mystic. Just as True-Man ostensibly represents truth and justice, this man embodies all that is loathsome and wrong. In what is the most literal-minded symbolism that I have ever seen, he is called El Guano, and he practices his magic through shit.

Yes sir.

El Guano manipulates Uppenheimer with a glob of hypnotic excrement, and later harvests samples of Spiegel's feces. Instead of a bubbling pot of witches' brew, he has a stinking, reeking pot of dung, into which he dissolves True-Man movie serials and pages of True-Man comics (after, of course, wiping his hairy ass with them).

It's this massive element of what-the-fuck that threatens to completely derail The Maximortal. I don't know whether it was intended to be transgressive, or if it was supposed to be a sophomoric joke, or if it (somehow) just felt right on an intuitive level, but it's aggressively puerile. It's the kind of thing that I would expect as a one-off gag in some underground comix, but this stuff makes up a good portion of the story, and the shit-alchemist is the principle force that drives the plot forward. None of it works. It's impossible to become absorbed and invested in the story when you have to process a shit-encrusted mescaline-head dabbling in sorcery.

As El Guano draws closer to obtaining ultimate power, Schumacher succumbs to lung cancer, having been worked to death by Wallace. Spiegel, devastated at the death of his friend, dresses up in a True-Man costume and climbs to the top of the Wallace Building to commit suicide. Elsewhere, Dr. Uppenheimer regretfully destroys the True-Man super-being in his laboratory.

Upon its destruction, the True-Man entity becomes self-aware. Suddenly, across time and space, every facet of the True-Man idea is linked by a consciousness, from the True-Man character, to the comic books themselves, to the actor portraying True-Man in the movies, the True-Man statue on the Wallace Building, the True-Man costume worn by Jerry Spiegel as he prepares to jump to his death. Everything associated with True-Man begins to harmonize into a cohesive, living force extending beyond reality. It's the alien superbeing from the beginning of the comic. This is the Maximortal. The idea that walks like a man.

El Guano subverts the Maximortal for his own destructive purposes, but his ride doesn't last long and he's left a maggot-ridden husk. A reborn True-Man manifests on Earth in front of an awe-struck Jerry Spiegel, and his presence promises a mad new era of gods and monsters. Meanwhile, the Maximortal itself journeys backwards in time to Tunguska. Marveling in its sentience, it prepares to give birth to itself.



With a long history of mistreated, ripped-off writers and artists, the ultimate sin of superhero comics is how the men responsible for creating this genre and creating an American icon (Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster) were cheated and ignored. The cruel irony is that Superman, the original superhero, the champion of truth and justice, made a lot of crooked businessmen very wealthy while his creators struggled to make a living. Their youthful optimism was replaced by frustration and despair at seeing their great character taken from them, and never getting any of the profits. It wasn't until the Richard Donner Superman movie that DC Comics finally acquiesced to paying Siegel and Shuster a yearly pittance for producing the most recognizable character in the history of pop culture. Far too little, far, far too late.

On one level, The Maximortal is the story of this crime writ large, and it seethes with righteous indignation. Unfortunately, the story is crassly told. The comic uses broad caricatures rather than characters, and this is especially problematic when it comes to "Spiegel" and "Schumacher." The creators of Superman were genuinely interesting men and are poorly represented by these fictional stand-ins. While this certainly wasn't the intent, the depiction feels mean-spirited. Spiegel and Schumacher are feeble, credulous rag-dolls, defined only by their desperation. They exist only to be tormented. I felt numb to the plight of such one-dimensional characters, and attempts at pathos fall completely flat. The death of Schumacher, intended to be an emotional gut-punch, is instead merely gruesome. Spiegel's attempt at an heroic suicide, is completely undercut by yet another bewildering reference to shit.

If Marshal Law was distinctly Freudian in its deconstruction of the superhero, then The Maximortal is framed through Nietzschean philosophies. In his essay, "Curse of the Superman," (included in The Maximortal collection), Rick Veitch argues that Nietzsche was not only the singular influence on Superman, but also had the poisonous legacy of legitimized nationalism, racism, and imperialism in the early 20th century. This reading of Nietzsche doesn't seem particularly nuanced, but it's interesting to see how this interpretation shaped the comic.

In its final form, the Maximortal is not only externalized from ordinary human values (like any transcendent Nietzschean "overman") but also reality itself. It has literally been refined into naked force, unrestrained by gaudy superhero trappings or even linear progression of narrative. The hoary old sci-fi cliche of the time paradox ending is here used as an allusion to Nietzsche's "eternal recurrance," in which events inevitably repeat themselves across infinity. It's the depiction of these esoteric ideas that elevate The Maximortal out of mere ugliness. The climax of the varied forms of True-Man attaining sentience is eerie and thrilling. Spacetime warps and flows in a sequence of hallucinogenic brilliance.

The Maximortal has many, many flaws, and I still agree with my initial appraisal: it is gratuitous and repulsive. But it's also ambitious, sometimes outrageous, and monstrously original. Seek it out. It will purge your mind of the banality of mainstream superhero comics.


Weird shit, indeed.


Further Reading
Around the same time as The Maximortal, Rick Veitch collaborated with Alan Moore on Supreme, an entirely different examination of Superman, that serves as an interesting counterpoint.


Further Listening
Frank Zappa, "Who Are the Brain Police?"