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 falling out 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, heavy 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?


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


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 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?"

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 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"