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 Viet-Nam (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"

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

Monday, April 21, 2014

Phantom Love

Peter Milligan is a writer who usually gets mentioned in the same breath as Grant Morrison, if he's mentioned at all. He just can't shake the second-stringer status, despite an impressive body of work. When he's firing on all cylinders, Milligan is capable of producing comics with great intricacy, satanic wit, raw horror, and breathtaking beauty. His comics have a bold, singular confidence; an effortless grace that makes other so-called adult comics feel desperate and pompous.

In short, he's really good.

In the early 90's, Milligan was one of the many writers from the U.K. to write comics under DC's newly created Vertigo imprint. He joined up with artist Duncan Fegredo and the result was Enigma. It's among the best superhero comics that I've read.

Enigma focuses on a young man named Michael Smith, who lives a perfectly pointless existence in the suburbs. He goes through his days with the painful awareness that there is something missing in his life, but he can never quite grasp what that might be. He's already succeeded in achieving everything that his middle-class background has conditioned him to desire: he has a reasonable job, an apartment, lots of towels, and a girlfriend who fucks him every Tuesday. But, try as he may, Michael cannot understand the source of his discontent. In one of my favorite lines, Michael is described as feeling like "a rumor drifting through a world of hard facts."

His malaise vanishes after bodies start piling up in back alleyways, all with their brains sucked out of their skulls. Michael is struck by these perverse crimes, sensing something momentous. Fascinated, he begins his own investigation and discovers that the perpetrator is none other than the Head, a macrocephalic monster in an old-fashioned swimsuit. Michael recognizes this creature from The Enigma, a strange superhero comic that he was obsessed with as a kid. Soon later other bizarre, terrifying villains emerge.

Along with their enemy, the most frightening of all.

The Enigma.

Silent and unknowable, the Enigma is largely hidden beneath a flowing purple cloak and a pristine white mask. He dispatches the grotesque villains with a cold brutality, and Michael watches him with awe. Michael becomes determined to uncover the true nature of the Enigma; a quest that ends with him discarding his old life like a husk, and discovering a new identity. He's gay. He loves the Enigma, more than he has every loved anyone in his life. But is the Enigma capable of loving him?

I don't want to reveal too much about Enigma, which I suppose is appropriate. There are many twists and turns, and describing thing further might ruin it all, particularly a brilliant revelation at the end. Plot details are best kept cryptic. But there are some things that I can talk about, not the least of which is Duncan Fegredo's outstanding artwork.

Fegredo perfectly realizes shadowy urban environments without ever making things exaggerated. The trash cans, the crumbling brick walls, and the rusting fire-escapes all have a convincing presence that fully immerses the reader. The city feels familiar and naturalistic in a way that other ostensibly "realistic" superhero comics have never equaled.

More arresting, however, are his characters. The way Fegredo draws people is fiercely biological. They have creased faces and sinewy bodies and protruding joints (elbows and knuckles are especially prominent). They remind me very much of Egon Schiele's portraits. Like Schiele, his figures are very expressive, and there is a strong undercurrent of eroticism. This becomes overt in the presentation of the Enigma. Superheroes are usually rather ludicrous in their costumes, and it's a difficult thing to make a superhero character compellingly beautiful, but Fegredo invests the Enigma with an appearance that blends elegance and raw power.

Similarly, it's a hard thing for comic-book writing to be lyrical. Most attempts are florid, purple prose. But that isn't the case here. Peter Milligan has some powerfully evocative stuff in Enigma. True to his name, the Enigma is an aloof and distant superhero, but the exquisite agony that he feels at being surrounded by mere mortals is conveyed through many striking passages. An entirely alien mind, with inhuman values, is conveyed with poetic skill.

All of this sets the Enigma above the rest. Watchmen is often cited as the pinnacle of mature superhero stories, and while it's excellent, it can't be said that it makes any kind of deeper observation about the world outside comics. It's all sterile geometry. It's not really about anything. Enigma, on the other hand, has much to say about universal human themes, especially identity and desire. It explores the extent to which others shape us and how we, in turn, shape ourselves. It does this with a finely balanced mix of wisdom, menace, and humor.

Experience it for yourself, and see what you think.

Further Reading
Duncan Fegredo recently illustrated several story arcs of Hellboy, melding his style with creator Mike Mignola's to interesting effect. Currently he's illustrating MPH for Mark Millar. That's unfortunate. As for Milligan, check out  Shade, the Changing Man, Rogan Gosh, and The Extremist, along with the aforementioned X-Statix. Like I said, the guy's good.

Further Listening
New Order "True Faith"

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Green-skinned Everyman

I first started reading Erik Larsen's The Savage Dragon in the spring of 2006. I had just finished the second trade paperback of Warren Ellis and John Cassaday's Planetary, and I felt disappointed. It had all the right elements to be a new favorite, but the more I read, the less I liked it.

With a splitting headache only making my mood worse, I decided to head down to the comic shop and find something that'd really deliver the goods. Something loud and colorful and weird. I browsed through their shelf and came across the first trade paperback of The Savage Dragon. I wasn't very familiar with the character, but I instantly liked his mohawk fin. I flipped to the back and found a section filled with sketches of other villains and heroes. The designs were eccentric and it brought back fond memories of drawing monsters in my social studies textbooks.

So, with no expectations, I bought it. Over the course of that weekend, I think I must've re-read it eight times. The next week I started buying each issue on the stands. All very surprising.

The Savage Dragon, written and illustrated by Erik Larsen, concerns the life of an incredibly strong, green-skinned, fin-headed amnesiac. Found unconscious in a torched vacant lot, the Dragon later joins up with the Chicago Police Department and for much of the series acts a police officer and battles against an army of criminal "super-freaks." Like Doonesbury, the characters of The Savage Dragon age in real time, and since the comic's debut in the early 90's, the eponymous Dragon has had children, written an autobiography, and even (briefly) became President of the United States. Currently, the comic is transitioning its focus to the Dragon's teenaged son, Malcolm.

Larsen is one of the original founders of Image Comics, and The Savage Dragon is the only one of the original Image series still being written and illustrated by its creator. Larsen has been drawing variations on the Dragon for his entire life. The series was based on characters that he developed for fanzines, and those in turn were based on childhood drawings. His enthusiasm is infectious.  There are few things as rewarding as reading a comic made by someone who loves their job, and Larsen's devotion to The Savage Dragon is obsessive in just the right way.

While seeped in the traditions and mythology of superhero comics (especially those from Marvel), The Savage Dragon has a radical approach. The Dragon doesn't wear a mask, doesn't conceal his identity, isn't tormented by personal problems, and works openly in his community. He has an appealing, working-class integrity that is impossible to find in other superhero stories. He's also flawed; not in a perfunctory way like most superheroes, but just like you or I. Great care is taken to show that he can be obstinate, reckless, or irritable and sometimes he just simply fucks up. When this happens, he works hard to deal with the consequences and learns from mistakes. The Dragon evolves. For a comic filled with countless bizarre monsters, goofy supporting characters, and endless fist-fights, this strong characterization makes things feel believable.

The Savage Dragon is a true original, both in style and in content. There is a deliberate refusal to adhere to the conventions of traditional superhero narratives. The meter oscillates rapidly; sometimes the Dragon's life will be going great and other times things are disastrous. There can be moments of great warmth and tenderness, followed by astonishing violence, followed by absurdist comedy, and the contrasting tones can be difficult to reconcile. The plotting succeeds in being every bit as random as real life can be, without ever being an unsatisfying read. While mainstream superhero comics are predictable and stale, The Savage Dragon is exhilarating. You can never anticipate Larsen's next move. The comic is continually changing.

Larsen also plays around with structure. Depending on the needs of the story, he's keen to experiment with different panel-layouts, different coloring schemes, and a variety of inking styles. One issue was done in a Watchmen-style nine panel grid, while another was composed entirely in splash-pages. He's continually challenging himself to do something new and interesting.

Another, purely fun aspect of The Savage Dragon are the team-ups. A longtime proponent of creator's rights and independent comics in general, Erik Larsen has been eager to have his creation rub elbows with an array of guest-stars. In addition to regular collisions with his brethren at Image Comics, the Dragon has encountered Hellboy, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Madman, Marshal Law, Destroyer Duck, Jack Staff, and many, many others. On one occasion, he even battled Don Simpson's Megaton-Man, in a knowing parody of brainless superhero fights.

I quickly grew to love The Savage Dragon, but for many it's an acquired taste. While the comic has a small, devoted fan-base, it has never enjoyed the success of other Image Comics offerings (like Spawn). Larsen's cartooning style (a rugged, kinetic mixture of Walt Simonson, Herb Trimpe, and Frank Miller) couldn't be further from the vogue. There is also an unfortunate but undeniable streak of sexism in the comic, and while the emphasis on T&A has diminished over time, it can be tiresome. Additionally, Larsen himself is famously outspoken, and he may have alienated some readers with his vociferous opinions on various comics. However, his strengths as a comic-creator and the quality of The Savage Dragon overshadow all this.

If you're looking for an entertaining superhero comic, and you've grown exhausted with Marvel and DC, then I'd heartily recommend switching to The Savage Dragon. Accept no substitutes.

Further Reading
Erik Larsen created a 24-Hour comic called Herculian, which is included with many of his comedy strips in an oversized volume of the same name.  He continues to illustrate The Savage Dragon, and has said numerous times that he intends to do so until he dies.

Further Listening
Tiger Army "When Night Comes Down"