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 the  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 (Jerri 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 lofty 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?"

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Killing Time

A while back, I read The Umbrella Academy by Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba'. Not a fan of Way's music, I was prepared to dislike it, but I instead found that it was very good. It was a funny, sad, and thoroughly weird superhero comic, owing as much to Edward Gorey as it did to X-Men. If that had been the end of it, I would have been completely satisfied. Most of the celebrities who dabble in comic-books never return anyway, as it was only ever a diversion from their usual routine. By contrast, Way actually has stories to tell, and an investment in the characters he's created with Ba'. Things are far from over, but the question was whether the sequels would maintain the established quality or fall into weirdness-for-weirdness' sake.

The Umbrella Academy concerns a family of adopted brothers and sisters, born with strange powers and trained to use them by a distant, unforgiving father. Their childhood was bizarre and unhappy, and consequently they grew into bizarre, unhappy adults. Once estranged from each other, the family was forced into an awkward reunion after the death of their father and the apocalyptic threat posed by their sister Vanya. The world was saved, but the family is as dysfunctional as ever.

If that sounds depressing, there are also talking chimpanzees, kill-crazy robots, weaponized classical music, and an undead Gustave Eiffel to liven things up.

The second volume, called Dallas, focuses on a new menace. One of the brothers ("Number Five") has been traveling in time, and has returned trapped in the body of a ten-year-old. His sister, Allison, suspects that he knows more than he's telling and is on his trail. He's also being pursued by an army of ruthless assassins, the worst of whom being two sugar-crazed psychopaths called Hazel and Cha-Cha. These killers are employed to correct anomalies in throughout history, and Number Five was roped into working for them during his travels. After being ordered to assassinate President Kennedy in 1963, he rebelled and has been evading capture ever since.

Allison, still suffering after an injury robbed her of her powers, is abducted with Number Five and forced into a time-traveling conspiracy. Their brothers, after narrowly defeating Hazel and Cha-Cha, attempt to follow them, and are briefly waylaid in 1963 Vietnam (which was, apparently, infested with vampires). The comic culminates at Dealy Plaza. I don't think it's much a spoiler to say that President Kennedy is killed, but the true culprit and their motives will come as a surprise. A crisis is halted, but the family winds up as fractured as ever, and the siblings go their separate ways to heal.

If that synopsis is any indication, Dallas is far more elaborate than it's predecessor. The time-travel plot was unexpected, but brings the comic's fascination with the stainless-steel sixties into the forefront. This time, rather than just emulate the visual aesthetics of that era, the comic uses the fabled fall of "Camelot" as an effective metaphor for the disillusionment of growing up. When they were kid superheroes, things were hardly idyllic, but there was a certainty to things...and their battles always ended with ice-cream.  Now their live are unpredictable and their talents are barely sufficient in dealing with the various terrors that come their way. Everything is sour, and everyone's depressed, especially Luthor ("Spaceboy"), whose milk and cookie diet and TV addiction has left him fat and lethargic. Formerly the leader, it was interesting to see his descent into ineptitude, and his struggle to return to fighting form.

Absurdity and darkness are similarly amplified, and they mix together in peculiar ways. With their funny-animal masks and fixation with deserts, Hazel and Cha-Cha could be escapees from a hyperactive Nickelodeon cartoon if it wasn't for their vicious murders. Superhero comics are rife with motor-mouthed psychopaths, but their violence succeeds in being brutal and unsettling. Even when their shadowy boss is revealed to be a sentient gold-fish, they are no less sinister, and it speaks to Way's talent that such incongruous tones are so well balanced.

The only thing out of place is a puzzling reverence for JFK. The President is scarcely seen, but he has a heavy presence. Here, JFK is a broad symbol for decency and heroism, a depiction that speaks more to his place in American folklore than his true persona. It's one of the few things in The Umbrella Academy that doesn't feel like a personal expression from Way and Ba'. Instead, it seems like shorthand pathos; a pantomimed cultural reference without any emotional connection to either creator.

Fortunately, that doesn't distract much from the main proceedings. Dallas is fun, gripping, clever, and downbeat. More importantly, with this second volume, The Umbrella Academy has crystallized into something more distinct. It feels like its own beast, and its influences are less immediate. I certainly hope that the third volume has a something like a happy ending for this family of freaks, but then doomsday is always on the horizon in this series. We'll see what happens.

Further Listening
R.E.M., "World Leader Pretend"

Monday, May 19, 2014

In His Image

I saw Gareth Edward's Godzilla this weekend, and while I was entertained, I didn't think it was anything special, as meticulously rendered mass destruction has become remarkably commonplace in today's pop culture. However, there was a throwaway line that stuck with me, in which Godzilla is compared to a god. As an atheist, I thought it seemed like an entirely appropriate comparison.

It also felt entirely appropriate that this was the day that I read Supergod.

Written by the famed British comic writer Warren Ellis, Supergod was released in 2010 by Avatar Comics. As a publisher, Avatar's principal focus had been big-breasted amazons and gore-splattered zombie comics, and this garnered them a reputation for purveying lowest common denominator material.  Perhaps in a bid to change this, Avatar sought out work from prominent writers, among them being Alan Moore, Jamie Delano, and Jonathan Hickman. Ellis has been by far the most enthusiastic partner, and to date has written 21 mini-series and one-shots for Avatar. The majority of these were science-fiction comics or pulp-pastiches.

Supergod, however, was a superhero comic and the third and final installment in a thematic trilogy. Despite his ambivalence for superhero comics, Ellis is usually cited among the most innovative superhero writers and won great success for The Authority and Planetary. His work for Avatar, however, was unremarkable. The first entry, Black Summer, featured a dysfunctional gang of Nietzscheans and the assassination of George W. Bush. It felt uninspired; like the kind of lazy polemic that Mark Millar would write. The follow-up, No Hero, lacked even that distinction. Supergod, with its shriekingly obvious cover image of a generic superhero, crucified and packed full of Kryptonite, threatened to be the worst of the three.

Somehow, I rather liked it.

Supergod concerns an arms race to create super-powered saviors. To no surprise, these projects have quite a ruinous effect. The sky is black with plumes of oily smoke and the only light comes from the heaps of burning wreckage. It's the end of the world again. A typically acerbic Ellis-type scientist contacts another unseen survivor to relate to him how these superbeings were created and how their conflict demolished the planet.

Back in the 50's, Britain was the first nation that attempted to create superhuman life. The project was couched in terms of weapons engineering and space exploration, but at its heart the goal was to create a transcendent being...one that would hopefully serve Queen and Country. Believing the mysteries of space sufficiently transformative, a trio of astronauts was sent up with the vague idea that they'd come back as something divine. When the rocket returned, the project leaders discovered the astronauts have become fused together with some kind of extraterrestrial fungus. Probably not the radiant space-god they were expecting. 

The resulting hybrid creature is a giant with three passive Roswell faces and countless mushrooms sprouting from its body. They call it Morrigan-Lugus, after two Celtic deities. Sealed away in a secret chamber, Morrigan-Lugus is looked after by a staff of scientists, who find their reasoning overwhelmed by feelings of devotion and awe, even as their bodies become infested with mushroom spores. Perhaps caused by hysteria, or perhaps by some psychotropic effect, Morrigan-Lugus inspires prayer and bouts of ferocious masturbation.

A pagan god, to be sure.

The United States, however, re-engineers a subject into "Jerry Craven," a clean-cut cyborg embodiment of the Religious Right. Despite its human appearance and codename, it has such frightening power that must be kept pacified in an artificial environment of white picket fences and Budweiser beer.

Others follow. Iranian scientists labor over a being whose power is only matched by its mindlessness, hoping that this vacuous vessel will be operated by the pure will of Allah. The Chinese create a nuclear buddha with a penchant for molding flesh. In war-scarred Somalia, scientists work in a makeshift laboratory through the haze of marijuana smoke to construct a robot to house the preserved head of Haile Selassie.

At the dawn of the 21st Century, India succeeds in making Krisha, a blue-skinned angel with the broad mandate of preserving its country. Unable to understand human life, Krisha first sets out to deal with the overpopulation problem by exterminating millions of Indians.

The world panics. The other superbeings are either let loose by their creators or seek out Krishna of their own accord, as it represents the only thing on the planet that could threaten them. Nuclear missiles are launched, cities are incinerated, and even the moon itself is sundered. Afterwards, the world is left a smoking wasteland and Britain becomes a mass grave.  Aloof and dispassionate to the end, Morrigan-Lugus has grown to gargantuan size and strides through the Thames to survey the world it now unquestionably rules.

Mushrooms, we are told, only grow on dead things.

Warren Ellis is one of the most influential and popular writers of mainstream comics, but his stuff doesn't hold a lot of appeal. Early on, I greatly enjoyed Planetary, but gradually I became irritated by his curmudgeonly affectation and his very immediate shortcomings as a writer. While he has a great intellect, a fertile imagination and a talent for keen observation, Ellis frequently falls short in the execution, and Supergod is no different.

The storytelling here is decidedly unambitious, and everything is related through the narration of the main character. This device becomes problematic when there are moments shown that he could not have possibly observed. It doesn't help that this scientist speaks precisely like Warren Ellis, and the effect is very much like reading a story treatment rather than a story itself. The artwork, by Garrie Gastonny, is serviceable but suffers from boring character design. Morrigan-Lugus, while unusual, is ultimately colorless and Jerry Craven is a haggard nobody in a flight-suit. Only Krishna, with its decorative armor and jewelry, looks both distinctly Indian and godlike.

Supergod has some very interesting ideas that are never adequately explored. For instance, why is humanity compelled to create gods in the first place? For many, there is a powerful unconscious need for a savior authority; an all-powerful parent figure to structure our lives and solve our problems. Parts of the superhero concept seem to stem from this. I've read a number of sociologists and psychologists assert that humans are hardwired for religious belief, and Supergod asserts that this is a biological survival mechanism evolved to foster social altruism. Ultimately, however, this drive has mostly just produced regressive, phobic, reactionary, and violent behavior and our failure to recognize and rectify this has caused some serious damage. Apocalyptic superhero stories are a dime-a-dozen, but the out-of-control superbeings of Supergod are the disasters of religion writ large.

This potential for dramatic depth, or at least blistering satire, is never achieved. Instead, Supergod is mainly a series of escalating catastrophic spectacles. We are told that it was folly to believe that a superbeing would have the same values as ordinary humans, and that their thoughts are unknowable. Put simply, one of these entities is described as being "without sanity." However, Ellis does not rise to the challenge of writing creatures with convincingly inhuman minds. Instead, they think and act like idiot children: selfish, literal-minded, possessing only rudimentary goals, largely unable to anticipate the consequences of their actions. Basically: stupid. That's a very human quality. Perhaps they just inherited it from their creators. It boggles the mind that the scientists who built these creatures never thought to install any kind of fail-safe measures.

So...why do I like Supergod? What sets it apart from the other superhero comics Ellis wrote for Avatar? If Supergod works at all, then like 2014's Godzilla it succeeds purely on a level of entertainment. That may sound odd, given that it revolves around genocide, but Supergod is grimly inventive in its destruction of civilization. Warren Ellis is one of the few comic writers that has an understanding of, and appreciation for, esoteric theoretical science and Supergod has some of the most thrillingly bizarre bits of mad science to ever appear in a superhero comic. There are lovingly detailed passages of the specifics of tactical precognition, bacteria that shit circuitry, cloned brain components, and annihilation fields. Even for Ellis, it's far out stuff.

Mixing gods and superheroes could yield more interesting results, but Ellis seems to have had fun with this one. It's never as bold as it wants to be, but it's clever, exciting, and memorably strange. This comic would be ideal for those who like John Wyndham or Nigel Kneale. Supergod is far from profound, but its certainly enjoyable. Ask for it in your prayers.

Further Reading
In his capacity as repairman for failed concepts, Ellis is relaunching Rob Liefeld's Supreme, and this new take promises to be something quite different.  He's also been given the Project Superpowers line of "Golden Age" superheroes from Dynamite Comics. Both new series will debut this summer.

Further Listening
Ghost, "Monstrance Clock"

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Buried Gold

As the "Golden Age" of superhero comics grew more distant, the majority of the stories published during this time became lost due to the post-war scarcity of those comics. Consequently, it has received comparatively less attention in pop culture than the eras that succeeded it. Some comics historians like Jules Feiffer and Jim Steranko took care to fully capture its nuances, but in time the "Golden Age" was unfairly and condescendingly characterized as having crude illustrations and simplistic, moralistic stories...and being generally boring. It was acknowledged only as a starting point; well before things got really interesting.  The conventions of "Silver Age" and "Bronze Age" superhero comics have been examined in depth and homaged for decades, but the "Golden Age" has usually been overlooked. 

Due to the efforts of some hardworking historians, enthusiasts and collectors, we now have unprecedented access to this previously arcane age. In Supermen!, editor Greg Sadowski has compiled several exploits of forgotten superheroes, and these stories are anything but boring. They're strange, inane, funny, creepy, and sometimes even beautiful. The basic appeal of the superhero comic is here in its most primal form. 

The selections are ordered chronologically so we can see the superhero's embryonic development. The earliest superheroes are approximations of characters from newspaper comics and pulp magazines. There are a couple of nattily dressed magicians, a masked crimefighter with a fedora, and a number of Buck Rogers clones flying around in rocketships and battling against tin-can robots.  Gradually, the characters become more recognizably "super." Skyman is as timeless a design as any; a striking combination of daredevil aviator and circus strongman. Proper superpowers arrive as well, and we can see the very first depictions of super-speed and laser-eyes and all manner of absurd paranormal abilities.

These comics are certainly primitive, but nonetheless weirdly arresting. There are a number of great moments in this book. A statue of George Washington is brought to life and castigates two hoodlums before dragging them off to jail. The Flame, a superhero equipped with Tibetan training and a trusty flamethrower, incinerates a swarm of grinning skeleton men. The Claw, an hysterically evil crypto-racist supervillain, rises from his lava pit by the light of the full moon to impale a treacherous henchman on one of his giant talons. Stardust and Fantomah, two warped creations of Fletcher Hanks, nearly steal the show.

The artwork showcased here tends to be quite good, as many of these were drawn by future comic legends. Early work by Jack Kirby, Will Eisner, and Jack Cole (among others) appears in this book, and it's interesting to see how their respective styles evolved over the years. The futurist/cubist features that Kirby became known for are absent, and his drawings here are generally more naturalistic. On the other hand, Basil Wolverton (known for his rubbery grotesque cartoons in Mad Magazine) seems to have arrived fully formed, and his freakish designs make for a very odd superhero comic.

The stories themselves, however, are hit or miss... and this is the biggest problem with Supermen! The material seems to have been chosen based on what was available, as seemingly many entries have little else to merit their inclusion. This is not a "best of" compilation, nor has it been assembled with any specific intent. It's rather like a mix-tape, offering a random sampling to the uninitiated. Fortunately, given that all of these comics are in public domain (and nearly all of them can be found for free online), it's no longer difficult to find these comics for yourself. If anything Supermen! is just a taste, rather than a definitive summary. However, it does give a great job of showing the raw creativity of the "Golden Age," and imparts a greater appreciation for the development of the superhero. Joe Bob says check it out.

Further Reading
For a more personal look at the "Golden Age," there's Jules Feiffer's The Great Comic Book Heroes. Shamelessly plagiarized by Quentin Tarrantino (long story), the book is full of insightful, funny memories of comic reading during the early forties. For another high-quality anthology, Greg Sadowski has also edited Four-Color Fear, a wonderful collection of 1950's horror comics.

Further Listening
Tangerine Dream, "Stealing the Silver Cross"

Monday, May 5, 2014

Oh that Alan!

When Alan Moore transitioned to DC Comics in the eighties, he was a very talented writer with literary ambitions, surrounded by an army of pulp writers churning out disposable entertainment for teenagers. In such an environment, Moore could have found success by just being mediocre. Fortunately, the distinction between Moore and his contemporaries could not have been more radical. He was an iconoclast, and in a short period of time he produced comics of considerable merit. They were unlike most anything else available.

In the face of censorship and treacherous business practices, he worked hard to produce a body of work that has had a deep, lasting influence on not only superhero comics, but comics in general. He expanded the parameters of what could be done and brought new recognition to comics, and by doing so helped to pave the way for other great writers and artists. For all this work, Moore deserves to be acknowledged.

However, none of this can eclipse the fact that he's a ridiculous asshole.

When you examine Moore's interactions with the public over the past few decades, you can see his worst qualities fermenting into greater and greater potency. He has this radioactive aura of an ego gone wild. Early in his career, he was placed on an impossibly high pedestal of critical acclaim; not only by virtue of his comics, but also because everything else was completely rote. The quality of his comics was undeniable, but things were not kept in proportion. I think that Moore unfortunately became accustomed to people telling him that he was a genius.

He made some allusions to this in a few interviews. But no matter how self-aware or disciplined you may be, it's very difficult to avoid all those accolades changing the way you think of yourself. Somewhere along the line, Moore must have accepted that, yes, he was a genius. And he further concluded that, given this status, everything that he said was remarkably insightful and brilliant.

So, currently, you have a man who can spew forth the most petulant absurdities and use astonishingly ill-conceived arguments, but all with the resolute self-assurance of someone convinced of their own genius. He believes himself to be an artist of the highest possible integrity, and accordingly demands the highest level of respect, all while displaying great hypocrisy and obnoxious behavior.

And very few people are willing to call him out on this. His standing, for many, is unimpeachable. Moore has been all but deified, and those few who voice legitimate criticism are met with the full force of his verbose wrath. Insufficient praise is intolerable to Moore. Despite repeated claims of being above the fray, he will always fire off meticulously crafted invectives whenever feeling threatened. He has even banished former friends and collaborators from his life for perceived slights.

It's time for a reappraisal and demystification of Moore. Given that his most accomplished comics are growing ever more distant, and in light of his recent tantrums, it ought to be asked whether Moore is still deserving of such prestige. Is his reputation as an innovative force of creativity still warranted? Given the frivolous nature of his current projects, the answer would appear to be "no."

Setting aside Lost Girls (a project that debuted in the early nineties but was not completed until 2006) and some worthless Lovecraft-pastiches (written to pay off a tax bill), Moore's primary endeavor has been the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Originally conceived as an adventure comic (and enjoyable as such) the series steadily mutated into a bleak doomsday tale that served as a self-righteous condemnation of perceived deficits of popular culture. Moore clearly believed it to be an astute, challenging piece of work, but it's nothing of the sort. It represents a new creative nadir. 

Moore lives in a self-imposed exile, having apparently long ago decided that the world was unworthy of his participation. Despite his seething contempt for contemporary culture, he demonstrates a woeful lack of understanding for anything introduced after 2003. Indeed, he appears to consider this ignorance a kind of virtue. Consequently, for all its fury, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is broad and toothless; it fails completely as a serious critique because it has no real awareness of its subject matter.

What it does have is a monstrously elaborate contrivance of characters and elements appropriated from the works of other writers across several centuries. This is nothing new for Moore, who has made his career utilizing the material of others to great effect. Here, however, it feels hugely disingenuous. To denounce culture as stagnant and incestuous, while plundering worlds of literature, film, and pulp, is a very questionable tactic. Additionally, the core conceit of creating a shared world of borrowed adventure characters is entirely unoriginal, having been famously used by Philip José Farmer in his Wold Newton book series. Moore's only real departure from Farmer's formula has been the application of relentless gloom. All of characters in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen have been left to soak in a caustic brine of cynicism. The results leave a bitter taste.

At the end of the day, for all its elaborate structure and innumerable references, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is a dismal, meager story. It offers nothing but failed plans, broken romances, desecrated wonders, and painful death. It's the same old apocalypse dirge that Moore has been delivering since 1985. It's the story of inevitable entropy. It's the story of "Things Get Worse."

That isn't brilliant.

That's myopic.

Alan Moore has written some superlative comics. He's also a lugubrious malcontent with a grotesquely disproportionate sense of entitlement. His legacy is assured, but he's shown that he can no longer create anything meaningful or offer anything besides acrimony. Moore isn't a philosopher, or an historian, or a magician. He's certainly no genius. These days, he's a only good for a laugh. It's time for the comics world to move on from Alan Moore.

Further Listening
Joe Maneri, "Paniots Nine"

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Fun with Fonts

The appeal of Blogger is twofold:
 -1). It's very simple to use
 (and more importantly)
-2). It's free.

It suited my needs just fine. There were random glitches, bizarre formatting errors that cropped up without any rhyme or reason, but they were easy enough to correct and never really felt like a big deal.

But! Recently I've discovered that the fonts are acting up, in a way that leaves this blog looking amateurish and ugly. Depending on the browser, the title font is seen in some illegible curlycue font, or comic-sans.

I don't understand why this happens, or why it shifts to those particular fonts, but it's an embarrassing problem. Comics-Sans, after all, is the font equivalent of a "kick me" sign.

So, hopefully it ought to look like this:

But, if the text looks like a bundle of yellow barbed-wire or...anything else, understand that it isn't by my design. As I try to fix it,  I hope you'll be able to look past the font and read the stuff I've written.

Further Listening
Gwar, Jack the World