Comics Worth Avoiding: Piranha Press

24 Jan

I have a confession to make: I never really liked Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I got into the comic book around 1987 because I had a crush on some girl who was into it. Wanting to impress her, I made an investment of time and money (the former mine, the latter my parents’) to get the first four trade editions of the comics and become an expert overnight. There were aspects I enjoyed, such as the unsubtle satire of Marvel Comics’ writing and the fact that it was independently-produced, but by and large I felt it was boring. The only thing oddball about the series, in comic book terms, was the title. The characters went through the same one-dimensional foibles and well-timed action scenes as any other dumb superhero book on the market, and did it worse than a lot them besides. But for an excuse to hang around this girl, I got into the Turtles and acted like a devoted fan. We even assumed the characters’ monikers as our nicknames: I think she was Donatello, I was Raphael.


The massive popularity of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the industry-wide shit storm that followed has been well-documented and opined upon. I don’t want to do that. I want to relate my memories of the time, and to my recollection, virtually all of that black-and-white comics shit was awful. In the wake of the Turtles’ direct market success were dozens if not hundreds of sub-par, cheapo action comics, seemingly written by retards and drawn by spastics. I remember a direct Turtles’ knock-off about radioactive hamsters or something, a third-rate parody of second-rate satire. I recall a comic with the tantalizing title of Reagan’s Raiders. I didn’t take any of this shit seriously, and neither did anyone I knew. Maybe I was a little too young to appreciate this crummy renaissance of underground comix, and it was all enjoying robust sales and positive critique among the older high school crowd. But the prepubescent set that I ran with thought the black-and-white comic books revolution was a load of bullshit.


Even worse than these black-and-white action comics were the black-and-white “artsy” comics, each attempting to emulate American Splendor in its own way, most of them falling well short of that relatively attainable goal. If we weren’t buying Hamster Vice, we sure as fuck weren’t going to check out some girl’s maudlin poem framed by a bunch of doodles she made while chatting on the telephone. It was just a lot of garbage that got play during a brief sliver of time when speculating on comic book collecting was profitable and trendy. And that’s where I remember Piranha Press stepped in, DC Comics’ answer to the unasked question that was the chaotic landscape of comic books in the late 1980s. Again, someone more knowledgeable and capable than I can detail the wherefores and particulars of how the imprint began. I was only familiar with the title because (as mentioned before) my father worked in comic books and brought home every Marvel and DC title, every week. That meant I was taking crap like Secret Wars II and Piranha Press titles along with the Batman.


Like I say, I don’t know the specifics behind how Piranha Press began, but I can guess that it was DC’s attempt to exploit the burgeoning black-and-white comics market. They probably appointed someone eccentric to head it up, and he hired a bunch of his friends, regardless of their talent and acumen. What resulted was a sporadic but runny stream of shit that spewed forth from DC like a million continuity reboots. DC was enjoying some great success in the adult comics market with graphic novels like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, yet the stuff coming from its “funny books for folks what don’t like funny books” line was the most puerile, forgettable claptrap. There was a series called Gregory by Marc Hempel that was a study in wasting the reader’s time. And there was this ridiculous series called Beautiful Stories for Ugly Children that featured these rejects from a introductory creative writing class printed alongside grotesque–and possibly well-rendered–pen and wash drawings, however you couldn’t tell how good they might be because the black-and-white pulp printing turned them into featureless grey smudges. And I was ostensibly getting copies direct from the printer, not handled and shuffled around by some distributor or store owner. I’m guessing the hapless fools who actually purchased copies of Beautiful Stories for Ugly Children thought it was a story interspersed with a series of Rorschach blots.


No comic exemplifies the backwards stupidity of Piranha Press and its low standards than Kyle Baker’s Why I Hate Saturn. I’ve hated this comic for years, but before writing this essay, I did a search online to see how many people agreed with my accurate and unassailable assessment of this junk. I was surprised to find mostly positive reviews of the work, describing it as quirky and innovative and a whole bunch of other shit that flat out does not apply. I like Kyle Baker, I think he’s a terrific draftsman, and Why I Hate Saturn is, for the most part, meticulously drawn and well-paced. The lettering is also kind of fun. But the story is so meandering and pointless that you end up wishing the words were excised altogether so you could flip through the nice pictures unmolested. It’s clear that the deadline was approaching fast while creating this book, since the last half of the story is jammed in the last eight or so pages. The comic, like Piranha Press as a whole, is a nice experiment that ultimately fails miserably. However, Piranha Press did sort of morph into the Vertigo imprint, so it did some good in the world.

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