Tag Archives: comic books

Our Mothers, Our Whores

29 Sep

I was born a male. I have lived my entire life as a male, and barring something unexpected I expect to die a male. It is not a source of pride, really, but an incontrovertible and undeniable aspect of who I am. I am a male, my astrological sign is Leo, I wear a size 11-1/2 shoe. These are simply facts about who I am.

I considered myself an “Enlightened Man” long before I’d even hit puberty. Owing largely to a strong maternal figure and a liberal upbringing, along with generally being more bookish than rowdy, I had a cadre of platonic girl friends at an early age (which, incidentally, endeared me in no way to the boys at school.) I was raised to respect women, to assume their intellect as I would assume any man’s. And for a long time, I thought I did this–even admitting an opposite sort of prejudice where I expect more from women than men, because I think women are generally smarter and better at constructing logical arguments. And so I went in my smug little way, happily traipsing along, silently denouncing the cat-calls of blue-collar workers and frowning disapprovingly at my friends’ misogynistic comments. Whatever vitriol being heaped upon men by feminists certainly did not apply to me, because I was an Enlightened Man.

Recently it began to dawn on me that I may have been, to borrow a French phrase, full of shit. There has been lots of warranted feminist outrage on the internet lately, from GamerGate to the wrongful termination of Jennifer Williams, to the #YesAllWomen twitter campaign, it seems like women are using the digital platform to take a stand for themselves. My gut reaction was to largely ignore these controversies because I didn’t think I should get involved. Surely I’ve never denigrated a woman or made her feel uncomfortable. I’m one of the “good guys,” the fellows that compliment ladies on their clothing and ask women for relationship advice and only look at their boobs for a few seconds rather than entire minutes. I believed I was supporting the fight for feminism by not diluting it with my testosterone. And then I decided to go against common sense and check the comments section.

I was absolutely stunned by the aggressive, angry responses I saw to these current events. Venomous, hateful threats of violence and rape. Denouncing what women wrote as divisive libel, women being called stupid and fake and sluts. Claims that women should take their grievances to lawyers or the police–I suppose to the Men Are Being Mean To Me Department, headed by Sergeant Don’t Worry Your Pretty Little Head–instead of bringing these discrepancies to light. It made me ashamed to have been born a male, and that’s when it dawned on me that perhaps I have been an unwitting misogynist all my life.

I have never physically hurt or threatened a woman, I don’t think I’ve even yelled at women. But I’ve definitely dismissed women for being “hysterical” or “crazy” when they complained about inequities. I’ve certainly leered at women inappropriately–and thought I was somehow better because I did it quicker than some other men. I’ve told women I like their blouse or hairstyle, never thinking that maybe women in specific and people in general don’t feel like striking up casual conversations based around the fact that you’ve been scoping them out. At a young age, I was taught that if you like a girl, go ask her out; the worst she could do is say, “no.” I wasn’t taught to respect others’ privacy and not to open a relationship by asking someone to entreat partnership with a stranger. The discrepancies between my thought and deed piled up. I considered myself a swell guy for considering most men idiots while regarding most women as geniuses. It didn’t occur to me that I was actually giving guys a pass while rigorously subjecting women to my expectations.

As it turns out, I am a male, and I feel all of the entitlement that men feel towards women–that they should be grateful for my existence, that they should be buoyed by my attention, that somehow I was doing them a favor with my condescension. I even considered my non-involvement in Feminism as some kind of benevolent acquiescence to women. “You go girls!” I thought in self-satisfaction, “Tell those nasty men off!” Never thinking that I might be one of these “nasty men,” or even that my non-involvement was more evidence that I marginalized women and their silly feelings. It’s both a comforting and terrifying thing to learn that I can have profound realizations about myself this late in life. It’s nice to know I can still learn and grow, but about what else am I kidding myself?

I find I am the subject of a lifetime of conditioning, despite my Ms. Magazine mom, and that my lifetime is but a sliver of societal conditioning stretching back to the dawn of humanity. We all come to accept some things as simply true: sex sells. Women work hard to look pretty and should be regarded for it. If a woman wears certain clothing, she wants you to gawk. These aren’t concepts I arrived to through careful consideration but by observing the world around me and being trained by the same concepts that train everyone else. We are all in this together, men and women, all of us educated from womb to tomb that boys like farts and girls like flowers, and never the twain shall meet. And, if you don’t get my point by now, that’s absolute bullshit.

How will I proceed? Well, for one thing, I’m going to cut the crap. I can silently appreciate a blouse and roundly chastise my friends for misogynistic comments. I can attempt to regard women on their merits and not based on some condescending notion about their superiority. The problem isn’t that women aren’t running the world, it’s that women by and large aren’t running shit. That even well-respected women in positions of power can be called “emotional” for speaking their minds. And I might have counted myself among those who waved off women’s problems as “Woman Problems.” The one thing I know for sure is that women aren’t going to become equal by screaming into a vacuum that no man can hear. It will be up to us, menfolk of the world, to change our perception of women and how we treat them if we’re going to see true gender equality. If you believe in fairness and respecting others as you would want to be respected, then I don’t see how you could do any less. And if you don’t believe in fairness and think women should be seen and not heard, then go fuck yourself and throw yourself into the mouth of the nearest live volcano.

Maus vs. Watchmen

24 Oct

There are two graphic novels that get mentioned in circles where people do not read graphic novels: Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen. These two titles are considered more “literary” than your average comic book fare, and for good reason. Maus did earn a Pulitzer Prize, among other acclaims, and Watchmen is the only graphic novel to receive the Hugo Book Award. The two works are very special, and couldn’t be more different: Maus is a roughly-drawn, black-and-white memoir, while Watchmen is a full-color superhero story with some social commentary. Why, then, do both of these books get bandied about by smarty-pants comic book snobs? You’d think that fans in general would eschew one or the other, being that they are so contrasted. It would be like if your two favorite foods were chocolate and parsley.

The main thing that Watchmen and Maus share is that they’re in their perfect medium: comics. As straight text books they would be too complicated, as cartoons or movies they lose all of their frozen-frame nuances. Maus is primarily the retelling of the author’s father’s experience in Jewish ghettos and concentration camps during the Nazi regime in Europe. He does so by portraying the Jews as mice, the Nazis as cats, and other ethnic groups as various animals. In the second book in this two-part work, the author addresses the reader directly, in human form, but with a mouse mask obscuring his face. This is a gimmick that would not work in written form, it would make absolutely no sense. Watchmen is even better-suited for the comic book format since it is at once a commentary on comic book history and the superhero genre, as well as an engaging narrative about a compelling cast of fictional characters. There is even a comic book within Watchmen, a pirate-themed title called Tales of the Black Freighter, the events of which parallel occurences in the main tale, in (what has since become) traditional Alan Moore style. Indeed, I worried about how this might be handled in the Scott Snyder film version of Watchmen; to have a meta comic within a movie isn’t very meta at all. Happily, they excised it from the movie altogether and instead told only the surface story, leaving the unworkable comic book commentary in the book where it belongs (there was a butchering of Tales of the Black Freighter in horrible cartoon form on some DVD editions, but we can pretend it didn’t happen.)

What interests me is that these two wildly different books get mentioned so often during discussions of the genre. We’re certainly not suffering from a dearth of graphic novels, high-falutin’ or otherwise. The obvious answer is that these were two of the first graphic novels to treat the genre seriously–not the first, but two of the first (he wrote, trying to stave off a lot of angry comments by comic book nerds). These books came out in the 1980s, which is an important decade for comic books for two reasons: one is that the model for comics distribution changed so that publishers could ship books directly to comic book stores. This affected comics because it connected the fan base more securely to publishers, who were no longer jockeying for position on the same racks that carried People magazine and Newsweek. But the other thing that happened in the 1980s, the thing I believe is more profound than and may have contributed greatly to the creation of a direct distribution model, is that baby boomers entered the middle class en masse, and started to pine for their younger days when they’d read Silver Age comic books, safely nestled in their nuclear fallout bunkers and dreaming of Russian space dogs. Or something like that. My father, one of the aforementioned baby boomers, had tomes upon tomes collecting various comic books and comic strips from his childhood, and throughout my time growing up would regularly bring home newer editions. It didn’t occur to me, at the time, that I was seeing something relatively new and unique to my parents’ generation, who had grown up squirreling comics in the bottom of their clothes closet, only to have them thrown away by mom during freshman year away at college. For my part, this reference material gave me the opportunity to learn about Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend and EC’s The Vault of Horror. I was able to read an entire year’s worth of Popeye comic strips, then put that aside to look at the origin issue of Plastic Man.

As mentioned before, I don’t buy “floppy” comic books, I prefer the collected trade editions and standalone graphic novels when it comes to my panel stories. I think this is partially owed to the fact that there were so many comic book books around my house when I was a kid, it never occurred to me that it might be weird to own and pursue such things. My dad is very literate, always reading two and often three beefy books at a time, but that doesn’t stop him from poring lovingly over old issues of Donald Duck or the collected Barney Google strips. I think that this is a somewhat modern mindset: many of my peers do the same as I do, ignoring floppy comics and waiting patiently for them to appear as inevitable trade editions. So you might see me reading The Epic of New York City on the subway, or you might see me reading Vertigo’s Preacher comic series. Arguing whether or not comic books are actual art or should be taken seriously is dead, you either think comics are worthwhile or you don’t. Now the discussion turns to: what are the greatest examples in the medium of notch-bound graphic novels and collected trade editions?

The answer, apparently, is Maus and Watchmen. I’ve recommended these books many times, the former for people who have never read a comic book or any sequential art beyond the Peanuts comic strip, and the latter for people who have fodt memories of reading funnybooks as a kid, but haven’t so much as cracked the four-color cover of a comic in decades. Each seems to serve its purpose, both books routinely impress their readers. In fact, the persistence of these titles as viable books is a testament to their validity. You can go back and read the first issues of Spider-Man and learn of his origins, his awkward teenage gawkiness and struggle to use his powers wisely. But you could never appreciate these comics without the context of their production. Watchmen and Maus, both works fixed in specific times and real places, endure long after we stopped giving a shit about The New Teen Titans and their decidedly yuppie angst. Which is the better title? That’s impossible to say, for while they can be compared on basis of genre, they can’t be compared on many other levels. For the purposes of this essay, I’ll say Watchmen is the better book, because it is printed in color. Take that, Spiegelman.

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.

Good Lord! *Choke*: Supernatural Superheroes

12 Aug

I mentioned already that one thing I like a lot about crappy horror comics from the 1960s and 70s is that they consist of encapsulated, one-off stories that don’t involve superheroes and their stupid fucking personal dilemmas. However, I was lying when I wrote that. Horror comics (and their nearly identical cousins, war comics) would routinely showcase heroes and serial stories in an effort to get people to buy the stupid things on a regular basis. In the post-Golden Age era, I think the first hero team created solely to deal with supernatural and monster-sized threats was Jack Kirby’s Challengers of the Unknown, who debuted in a decidedly non-horror comic, Showcase number six. Consisting of four daredevils with no super powers, the Challengers would take on any job too dangerous or weird for usual government task forces and agencies, which implies that until they came on the scene we were totally vulnerable to countless attacks by inter-dimensional squid and gigantic beasts made entirely from atomic energy.

There were often regular serial features included in these horror comics, almost always to bad effect (and quite often, only in the DC titles). Dr. 13: The Ghost-Breaker was featured as the last story in issues of Ghosts from 1980-1981, questionably chronicling a character who debunked hauntings in a comic titled If You Don’t Believe in GHOSTS We Challenge You to Read True Tales of the Weird and Supernatural. Johnny Peril, an “adventurer of the weird,” was featured in issues of The Unexpected. And most of these DC horror comics were hosted by some forgettable Vampira reject (no dis to Cain and Abel), a throwback to EC Comics’ trio of witches that hosted their horror titles. But there is one group of superheroes who, though they arguably did not debut in the pages of any horror comic, are the best defenders of humanity against supernatural forces bar none. And that group of heroes is known as the Doom Patrol.

I first became familiar with the Doom Patrol when I was in my first year of junior high and Grant Morrison had taken over writing duties for a resurrected version of this weird team’s title. I was unaware of their legacy at the time, though it didn’t impede my enjoyment of the series under Morrison’s authorship one bit. I read it for a little while, until my dad quit working for DC Comics (for the second time) and I stopped thinking about the Doom Patrol. I forgot about the series completely, in fact, until the late 1990s when I began creeping my way back into comics by way of trade collections and saw it in a burgeoning section of Vertigo titles at Cosmic Comics on West 23rd Street (now Manhattan Comics under seemingly new ownership). I remembered having enjoyed the series as a pubescent pre-teen and vowed to pick it up again sometime, after I’d waded through The Preacher and collections of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing. Having already tested the comic years earlier, I felt sure that I would like it, unlike my hit-or-miss attempts at reading DMZ or Ex Machina.

And then, I forgot about it for another eight years.

Eventually, I read through Morrison’s run on Doom Patrol and loved every weird, surreal minute of it. It was, and remains, the best self-aware comic–yes, even better than Morrison’s Animal Man and John Byrne’s She-Hulk–and this title is truly the only one of its type. There are plenty of superhero teams with weird abilities that secretly keep the space-time continuum in check, but how many of them also have issues dedicated to complete parody and satire of other genres? I read through the entire six paperback run of Doom Patrol in about a week, then re-read it, then did something I could never have done when I read the first issue in 1987: I went on the internet and did a search for “Doom Patrol.” And there, I made a startling discovery: Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol wasn’t the first one, in fact it wasn’t even the second or the third. The first Doom Patrol series began publication in 1963, a few months before John Kennedy’s brains splattered his wife’s dress in the back of a convertible in Dallas. At that point, being who I am, I determined to read the original series and learn more about this strange group of freaks that saved the world so many times from unseen and incomprehensible disasters.

Then, I forgot about it for three more years.

About a month ago, I was poking around that venerable New York institution The Strand, and I discovered volumes 1-4 of the DC Classics Archives edition of Doom Patrol at a very affordable price, and I quickly snapped them up. I am no stranger to the Silver Age of comic books, having learned long ago to read these titles with my tongue planted firmly in cheek when regarding the patently obvious pandering and ridiculous pseudo-science that is their hallmark. I began reading these hardback editions, and you know…I started to like them. Really like them, not just in a detached, ironic way. The Doom Patrol were freaks, yes, and their stories formulaic and largely predictable (though I could never have predicted a villain as stupid and weird as Animal-Vegetable-Mineral Man), and yet there was something more real about these odd characters, more real to me than billionaire Bruce Wayne or zit-faced Peter Parker. The action is telegraphed: wheelchair-bound leader Niles Caulder gets a distress signal and sends the team out to deal with some incorrigible disaster. But in between the action, there are quips, quarrels, self-reflective statements that make these fictional mutants seem much more human. There’s even a marriage and an adoption within the series, a rare Silver Age moment where there’s a change to the plot that isn’t wiped away by the next issue. I think the best example of this kind of chicanery was when the Doom Patrol set out to find a group of atomic mutants bent on destroying the world with their eerie mutant powers (which consisted of them shooting rays out of their eyes and/or limbs). The team splits up to cover more ground, and in doing so two ancillary members of the group, Mento and his adopted son Beast Boy (later Changeling, then Beast Boy again) discover the Abominable Snowman. The creature starts to attack, but Beast Boy thwarts the Snowman by showing him a picture of Alfred E. Newman of MAD magazine fame. It’s a little aside that has nothing to do with the immediate story but which sets the tone for the series nicely.

I liked the first four volumes so much, I went and found the final, fifth volume, where the Doom Patrol actually sacrifices their lives in order to save a remote fishing village in Maine (under stupidly complicated circumstances, take my word for it). How many comic book series end with the protagonists dying? However, no comic book series ever “ends,” as evidenced by the subsequent versions of the Doom Patrol that continue to the date of this writing. Having read only two authors’ work on it, I am far from an expert, but in my opinion the Doom Patrol are the best bunch of supernatural superheroes, or perhaps superheroes of the supernatural, in comic books. If only they’d been building superintendents, they’d be supernatural superhero supers.

I can’t end this without addressing a bit of controversy: the contention that Marvel Comics bit the idea for the X-Men from DC Comics’ Doom Patrol, and the lesser controversy that the idea for the Doom Patrol came from Marvel’s Fantastic Four. Those uncanny Marvel muties debuted three months after Doom Patrol, suggesting that a direct cribbing is unlikely, yet a salacious rumor persists that shadowy double agents of Marvel overheard Arnold Drake pitching the idea for Doom Patrol and scurried back to Stan Lee to divulge this million-dollar notion. Except it didn’t actually make DC a million dollars, so clearly the concept was wielded more effectively by Kirby and Lee. Whatever the case and its thin premises, I don’t think it matters who came up with the idea first. Sympathetic uglies have been saviors of luscious damsels throughout literary history, and if these guys hadn’t thought up the idea, some other loser eventually would have. In conclusion, comic books are for nerds and if you’ve read this to the end then you definitely are one.

Make Mine Brand Echh

13 May

At one time, my father worked for DC Comics. He isn’t anyone famous, he wasn’t a high-profile employee, but one of the “perks” of this job was that he’d bring home each comic from both Marvel and DC every month, a gigantic pile of comics which soon littered my bedroom floor and cascaded down the staircase to the living room, an uncontainable flood of pulp paper. This was during the mid 1980s, when direct sales of comics through a burgeoning comic book store network revitalized the flagging industry. As a result, there were lots of experiments in comics at the time, some good like The Dark Knight Returns and Walt Simonson’s run on Thor, while others were sort of retarded, like Amethyst and the Fraggle Rock comic. I mean, here’s a comic about a television show that features puppets. It’s the comic book equivalent of broadcasting a ventriloquist on the radio.

It’s true what they say: too much of a good thing can be not so good. Or something like that. What you need to understand is that every title from both DC and Marvel (and Marvel’s adult [read: boobs with nipples] imprint, Epic) totaled a couple hundred comic books per month. Because it wasn’t just Detective Comics Presents Batman and The Amazing Spider-Man, but Batman & Robin and The Spectacular Spider-Man as well. Every big name hero gets at least four titles, one per week, with many branching off into other titles like The Avengers and World’s Finest where they pal around with other, lesser superheroes. Then there’s the titles for those assholes, and then you’ve got berserk shit like the Heathcliff comic and Ambush Bug specials just to apply more pressure to my old man’s aching back. He’d complain about bringing them home, but bring them home he would, to some degree because, as part of his job, he was expected to read every fucking comic from both comic book publishers in order to maintain overall continuity. So basically, you’re asking a grown man to read Power Pack. I don’t think he read all or even most of them and I don’t blame him a bit.

I, on the other hand, read each and every comic, each and every month. When they cost money, I didn’t give a shit about comic books, but since they were free I was happy to paw through every retarded page in every issue I could lay my hands on, before my brother could hermetically seal them in acid-free comic book bags with coated cardboard backing. I actually read more Marvel comics this way, because the copies from that publisher that my dad brought home had COMPLIMENTARY COPY stamped across the front in purple ink, thereby rendering them valueless. I didn’t care about collecting comics, I just wanted to read them. It was part of my voracious desire to read continuously and about a variety of subjects. Periodically, my mom would come into my room and nearly faint dead away at the sight of the foot-high pile of comics that comprised my bedroom floor. We’d shovel them into big black garbage bags and leave them at the curb for garbage trucks. This was before the planet was dying and people had to recycle.

Despite the fact that I was able to read Marvel comics with greater freedom, I preferred DC’s fare much more. I can’t really explain why. It certainly has nothing to do with loyalty to my dad, who never felt or expressed any loyalty to DC in the first place. Had I enjoyed The Incredible Hulk over Legends of the Dark Knight, I don’t think he would have noticed or cared. But I didn’t, I always thought Hulk’s plots were stupid and drawn out, while Batman comics contained neat story arcs that didn’t require my purchasing every back issue in existence to figure out what the hell was going on. It’s funny to me that Marvel is considered by many to contain the better human stories, because I couldn’t disagree more. I do understand that when Marvel first hit the scene in 1960, their in-depth explorations of many superheroes’ alter egos was revolutionary. However, by the time I was checking comics out, DC had long since caught up and their characters were likewise having crises of conscience on every other page.

It’s probable that the time I got into comics, when DC was first printing “FOR MATURE READERS ONLY” on the covers of some of their more salacious titles, has a lot to do with my preference. The first comic book I remember really enjoying was Swamp Thing, and I began reading it precisely when Alan Moore first started writing the series, beginning with the brilliant story The Anatomy Lesson. Here was a comic book with big words, literary pacing, and a science-fiction twist which turned Swamp Thing from a big strong guy covered in moss to one of the most powerful and ethereal characters in the DC universe. Watchmen by Alan Moore also came out around this time, and I’ve already written about its impact on me. Keith Giffen was writing for The Legion of Super Heroes which made a ridiculous idea of a super-powered, futuristic police force somewhat compelling. And then, of course, there was Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, which is probably the singular cause for my ongoing Batman obsession.

My dad wasn’t thrilled about me reading these “mature” comics, but by the time I was ten I had already read The Catcher in the Rye and Go Ask Alice, so the adult themes presented in these comics books–largely copious amounts of cleavage and light sexual innuendo–seemed pretty tame in comparison. I mean, I saw Revenge of the Nerds in the theater when I was nine, for crying out loud, and that had full frontal nudity. I think that the reason I preferred DC over Marvel is because I am a fan of reading more than I am a fan of looking at pictures, and while the drawing for many Marvel comics was far superior to DC’s at the time (no dis to George PĂ©rez), I found the stories inane and stupid. A good comparison would be between Marvel’s Secret Wars and DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths. Both are company-wide crossover events involving every character in their respective continuities, but Secret Wars was a kind of gimmick that had few repercussions on the Marvel universe after it was done. Crisis on Infinite Earths was a complete revision of DC’s continuity, killing off many characters and rebooting the origins of others. It’s like the former took an easy way out while the latter really worked to make a cohesive plot. Which is not to say that Crisis on Infinite Earths was perfect, by any means. I could deride that particularly overburdened Dear John letter to Julie Schwartz all day.

Pop eventually quit working at DC, and the deluge of comic books ceased instantly. I got over it. Comics were a nice diversion, but nothing I really wanted to spend money on. Except for Batman, which I followed in various forms throughout my twenties, I pretty much abandoned comics until I got nostalgic for my wasted youth and started buying up trade collections of titles I remembered, and reading ones lent to me by friends. And you know what? I still prefer DC by far. I’ve amassed a good collection of Superman and Justice League books, a lot of titles under their Vertigo imprint, a bunch of Green Lantern paperbacks, and the bulk of collections that survived the nearly thirty years since my dad worked at DC are from that publisher. In fact, I don’t have any more comics with the purple COMPLIMENTARY COPY stamp on the front at all. I wish I had held on to the complete run of Atari Force that my brother bagged, though.

You Done Fucked Up if You Haven’t Read Watchmen

22 Feb

One doesn’t need to search for very long in the world of comic bookery to find an Alan Moore fan. The reason for this is quite simple: Alan Moore rocks. While plenty of people can argue about aspects of his personal politics or other proclivities, there are few who can successfully argue that he isn’t a great writer. Moore’s portfolio is tremendous and impressive, and it’s likely I’ll write about more of his work down the line. Today I’d like to write about his most popular work, Watchmen, about which much has been written and even more has yet to be written.

My father bought issues of this comic book miniseries as they came out in 1985 and 1986, but I was too young to understand them at the time. I can recall thumbing through them and feeling creeped out by the artwork, which struck me as far too realistic for a superhero comic book. I wanted to be able to discern one character from another, but not necessarily to know what they’re feeling or how old they are. Dave Gibbons has the capacity to instill all of that and more with his well-placed, coarse lines. Gibbons’ art doesn’t convey a lot of movement, but it does take on a kind of realistic quality, yet at the same time the action in each panel is conveyed very clearly. This is a fine line that few comic book artists can walk successfully (a good example of someone unsuccessful at it in my mind is Tony Harris, who represents such faithfully realistic versions of his comic book characters, often you can barely tell what’s happening in a given panel.)

I picked it up again as a trade edition around 1989 or 1990, and was duly blown away. By that time, I understood a lot of the intricacies that were woven into the storyline. Attempting to delve into the plot in a short essay would do both the story and my legion of faithful readers a serious injustice. Maybe I will dissect it at a later date. The important thing to note now is that Watchmen is a rare work of art in that it exists all ready in its perfect medium. Watchmen is a kind of anthropological and historical study of comic books, contains a comic book within the comic book which is part of the total narrative, and also has a strong political stance, to boot. That stance was a lot more poignant during the final gasps of the Cold War, but it is still relevant today.

Watchmen was the first attempt (not counting Marvelman, for which Alan Moore did much the same thing but was widely read only after he became famous) for a superhero story to be framed in reality, sort of an American Splendor meets The Avengers. It’s old hat now, when superheroes have crises of conscience as part of their due diligence before becoming a corporate icon. However, until Alan Moore tackled Watchmen, superheroes didn’t deal with impotence or post-traumatic stress disorder, they didn’t retire and write tell-all books–which is precisely what they would do if they existed in the third dimension (and we didn’t lock them away from polite society for being insane, but that’s another discussion entirely). There’s a famous scene in Watchmen where a mentally disturbed superhero breaks into a fellow superhero’s home and eats beans right out of the can without heating them up. The entire scene is kind of unsettling and it stays with many who have read it, but what always struck me is that we’re in the well-appointed brownstone of a wealthy, retired superhero in that scene, and what he has on hand to eat is pork and beans. Not nutrition capsules, not some lettuce-and-mush looking squiggle on a plate which has come to represent food in many pen and ink drawings, not even a nondescript tin can of unknown contents, but pork and beans. It’s likely that almost everyone has a can of beans in their home, whether they are big fans of eating them or not.

As I mentioned, there’s a lot of opinion pieces on Watchmen, and this is one of them. If you like non-superhero graphic novels like Y: The Last Man and Preacher, then you should probably check this out since it’s more about the people involved than their awesome super powers (of which they have none, except for one superhero who has all of them). If you already like superhero comic books and you haven’t read this, hop to it. If reading graphic novels gives you a headache, then you are obviously suffering from some kind of ocular deficiency. The only solution is to stick forks directly into the center of your eyeballs and keep pressing inwards until you hear a “pop.”

Who the Fuck Decided Ryan Reynolds Would Be a Good Hal Jordan in the Green Lantern Movie?!

17 Feb

I know what you’re thinking. “Who the hell are Ryan Reynolds, Hal Jordan, and Green Lantern?” If you’re part of the one percent of the world that cares about comic book superheroes and their characterization in other media, then you might be thinking, “Here we go again, another vitriolic blog about how untalented Ryan Reynolds is and how unfit he is to wear the emerald ring of the Green Lantern.” If that’s you, I’m picturing you wearing a plastic viking helmet and a tight Camel cigarettes t-shirt from 1992 while sipping a 64 oz. Slurpee from 7-11. Just so you know.

This is not another essay about how Ryan Reynolds is a talentless hack who isn’t fit to wear Green Lantern’s domino mask. I mean, Ryan Reynolds is a talentless hack, but that isn’t why he’s poorly suited for the role. It’s not like I expected Harrison Ford to get it, there’s no point in using a good actor for a role that consists mainly of feigning astonishment at the cgi objects your magic ring will create in post-production. No, my problem isn’t with Ryan Reynolds being Green Lantern at all, it’s with his being Hal Jordan. Because anyone that knows anything about Green Lantern would say that Ryan Reynolds would make a better Guy Gardner.

It’s not exactly common knowledge that there’s more than one Green Lantern. There are dozens, in fact, each belonging to the Green Lantern Corps, an interstellar police force that keeps people from parking spaceships in the wrong dimension or something. Space is divided into sectors, and each sector has one Green Lantern to patrol it, except (of course) whatever sector contains Earth. For some reason, our sector requires several Green Lanterns to patrol it, Hal Jordan being only the first (well, second really…but I’m not going to get into that bullshit again). There’s also John Stewart, a rare Black superhero that doesn’t have the word “Black” in his name, and there’s a relatively new Green Lantern named Kyle Rayner, who is a cartoonist or something. There was even a chick Green Lantern named Jade and a leprechaun Green Lantern who served for a special issue called Ganthet’s Tale.

You really have to wonder why unemployment is so high when the Green Lantern Corps is hiring left and right. Who isn’t a member of this goddamned space clique? Anyway, yet another Earthling member is named Guy Gardner. He’s kind of the hard ass of the Green Lantern Gang, he’s got red hair (and is therefore a fiery, temperamental Irish lad) and wears a leather jacket and generally clashes with authority. He’s kind of a wry prankster with a violent streak, which is exactly the kind of role Ryan Reynolds was born to play! He’d be like Van Wilder meets George Lutz from The Amityville Horror. His brand of quipping douchebag would fit the role nicely.

Why there are so many fucking Green Lanterns patrolling Earth is really beyond me. The Justice League cartoon switched over to John Stewart as their primary Green Lantern because the producers knew that his being Black is the only thing that makes the character remotely interesting. With this summer’s movie we’ve got a mediocre actor portraying a fairly boring white dude. I hope there’s a lot of space boob in this movie.

Whoa! Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne is Pretty Ill!

12 Feb

Buying individual comic books is out for me. I’m a shut-in comics nerd in his mid-thirties, the last thing I need is another periodical or six to clutter up my cramped apartment. So like many of my peers, I wait for trade collections of comic books, usually (and very gratifyingly) grouped by story arc and available within a few months of the last comic in the storyline’s publication. Such is the case with Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne, collecting the six-issue mini-series of the same name that came out last year.

I’ve been following Grant Morrison’s work on Batman as well as Final Crisis through their trade editions, and for the most part I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve liked Grant Morrison ever since Batman: Gothic, which is where I first heard of him. I feel Morrison is a great talent, and should certainly be mentioned among other great comic book authors, particularly those who can weave epic, complex stories over many issues (and sometimes, through many titles) like Neil Gaiman. However, there’s always something a little off in his stories.

I noticed it in Batman: Gothic as well. That story, which is a trade collection from the Legends of the Dark Knight series that ran after the success of Batman: Year One, is about a four-hundred year old Satantic sorcerer who sold his soul in order to survive the Black Death, and now intends to release the plague on Gotham City and barter the city’s souls against his own. We learn that, while waiting around four centuries for this prime opportunity, the Satanist has been a total prick, killing children at his whim and generally being a lecherous creep. Turns out he actually had a stint as headmaster at Bruce Wayne’s boarding school, and it was an argument with this weirdo that caused Thomas Wayne to pull his son from the school and bring him home to Wayne Manor, an event celebrated with a night out to the movies… [SPOILER ALERT: THAT’S WHEN BRUCE’S PARENTS GET KILLED IN FRONT OF HIM, INSPIRING HIM TO BECOME BATMAN.]

Which is a swell story by itself, doesn’t need a lot more to color it in. But there’s this extension of the plot where it shows that the long-lived villain was once a devout monk living in a monastery in Austria. He was corrupted, convinced his brothers that Satan was cool, then they raped a nun…then I think the monastery was drowned…something about Batman had to bring back the Satantic monk’s heart? It was just a bit overboard, like a lovely cake that was ruined when it was served with lug nuts as a topping. The result is one of mild confusion, yet it did not keep me from enjoying the story as a whole.

I fear that Grant Morrison’s gone over the deep end now, folks. I saw it in New X-Men, we all saw it in Final Crisis, a story so dense it needs several publications and websites to annotate, deconstruct, and effectively understand it. And it’s happened here in Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne, though it has done nothing to dampen the Batman geek in me–in fact the story, by and large, has tickled me to the core of my Batman geek penis.

So the setting of this story is that Batman was shot by this evil god Darkseid’s laser gun, which everyone thought killed him but it actually sent him back in time. This six-issue series deals with Bruce Wayne finding his way back to present-day Gotham City (turns out every solar eclipse makes him jump forward in time), each issue concentrating on a different time period. My inner Batman fanboy salivated and clapped with glee over this nod to the 1950s era Batman, a campy, tamed version who was at times a chivalrous knight, a cowboy, or a viking. Morrison has skillfully resuscitated this much-maligned period of Batman over the course of his writing, lending gravity to once silly notions like Batmen of All Nations and the Batman of Zur-En-Arrh.

However it’s not as simple as Bruce Wayne merely fast-forwarding a few times, no there’s chicanery afoot. Darkseid, in his infinite wisdom, counted on Wayne having the tenacity to, you know, travel through time, so he somehow made it so that Bruce would gather Omega Energy each time he zapped forward, until he had enough to destroy the present day. It’s unclear what Omega Energy is, but suffice to say it is bad and you should not let it build up too much. To hasten Wayne’s advance through time, Darkseid also tossed out this killing, time-traveling monster to chase him through the fourth dimension. Oh, and also Superman and a few pals are cruising through time, trying to catch up to Batman before he kablooeys the present day. Who isn’t traveling through time in this fucking comic? It seems like the time stream is getting more traffic than the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.

In the sixth issue, the story runs off the rails a little with that overblown redundancy I was talking about earlier. Yes, it does add information and color to the story somewhat, but I found it confusing and a little disappointing as a conclusion. I’m not going to spoil the whole ending, but the main part I will spoil: turns out Batman was instrumental in his own creation. The particulars of this and the way the story is told, however, are crucial and worth your scrutiny. It’s just this whole scene at the end, there are these weird robots cataloging time…I’d worry that I was giving important plot points away if I fully understood what was happening. Much of the sixth issue of this series is Batman talking to robots, a real decline in what had been an action-packed and compelling comic book.

Still, even with that extra stuff, the general story is great and satisfying on many levels to the avid Batman fan. If you’re a fan, you’ve already been reading the shit and you’re just reading this to see if my opinion aligns with yours. If you’re not a Batman fan, I can’t say this is a good place to get into Batman, but then if you’ve gone this far along not reading Batman then you can probably just keep on rolling and skip it. Me, I love the shit, Grant Morrison rules. Even if I might not be smart enough to understand what the hell he’s writing about.

The Flash is a Shitty Superhero Part 2: Silver Age Skid Marks

8 Feb

In my last essay, I showed how the first incarnation of the Flash, from World War II, sucks. However, that Flash is kind of quaint and evokes a simpler time, when men were men and our enemies were distinctly evil and mostly white. Far shittier is the Silver Age Flash, who sucks so phenomenally that as you read this, scientists are still discovering vast pockets of sucktitude in the Flash on a sub-atomic level.

I already described the Golden Age and Silver Age of comics in the last essay, but I think it’s important to view the two periods in historical context in order to understand the comic book works that came out of them. The Golden Age was a time just preceding and during America’s involvement in World War II. Having crawled out of a devastating economic depression into a war of unprecedented scope, Americans were feeling battered and beaten, but they were also tenacious and brimming with hope. The superheroes of the time reflected this, many of them nothing more than wrestlers and acrobats who decided to put on a cape and domino mask in order to beat up Chinese wizards with legal impunity. Heroes with super powers usually attributed their gifts to “magic,” that catch-all reason which is undefinable. How does Dr. Fate shoot fire from his hands? Magic. What’s magic? Fuck if I know.

The Silver Age, in contrast, was during a more peaceful and prosperous time for America. Having won World War II, and convinced ourselves that we won the Korean War, most Americans were glad to settle down into a quiet life of family, work, and not seeing your best friend get his face blown off by a grenade. It was also a time of tremendous scientific progress, the Space Age. It seemed like every day, some new technology would come down the pike to make our lives easier and more streamlined. Gone were the billowing blouse superheroes of the 1940s, in came the buff dudes in tights.

From this mindset came the new Flash, a character with the same basic abilities as Jay Garrick from the Golden Age, but with an entirely different and way stupider origin. It seems that forensic detective Barry Allen was working late at the police station one rainy evening, when a freak bolt of lightning came through the window and struck an open bookshelf haphazardly stacked with chemicals. Look, I know I am reading a comic book here, and I am willing to suspend disbelief. I am willing to believe all kinds of freakish experiments gone wrong or radioactive materials turning people into octopi, that’s part of the game. But to combine all of these tremendously improbable things amounts to providing no origin story at all. Why this police station kept its dangerous chemicals on a bookshelf in front of an open window is just a piece of this ridiculous mystery. You’d have been better off saying Barry Allen got his power from magic.

But being bathed in an electrified mix of noxious chemicals is how Barry Allen became the Scarlet Speedster, and almost instantly it went all wrong. See, Allen lives on this planet Earth in a universe where the Jay Garrick Flash is…you know what, I’m not even going to get into all that nonsense. What’s important is that Barry immediately takes up the mantle of the Flash and decides to fight crime. He creates a suit (which is red, hence the horrible moniker Scarlet Speedster) but struggles with how he can conceal this secret identity when he is at his day job. He can’t just wear his wetsuit under his street clothes like almost every other superhero, no the Flash has to define how shitty he is by being different. So he decides to create a spring-loaded ring which holds an inflatable version of the suit that expands on contact with air.

It’s a matter of busting your balls the wrong way around. For one thing, the Flash is the fastest man on earth. He can run over water, he can run through solid objects by vibrating his molecules at super speed, he can even keep himself aloft by waving one arm around very quickly. Why can’t he leave his red pajamas in the closet and dash home whenever he needs them? Or, since he can travel faster than the human eye can follow, why bother with a superhero suit at all? Seems he could get the job done in his Air Max 90s and save himself some blisters, to boot. But okay, he wants a superhero costume, it is his right. Whose moronic and ill-formed idea was it to have it stored in a ring, and then illogically expand to the size of a full-grown man on contact with air? If such technology exists, let me tell you, there are a lot better applications for it than something to cover Flash’s shame.

I suspect the author read an article about inflatable life rafts, and tried to apply that science to the Flash’s red suit. Why do I think this? Because every fucking time the Flash launched the costume from his ring, a caption would tell us, “Just like an inflatable life raft expands on contact with air, so too does the Flash’s unitard.” As if that somehow clarifies things. Last I checked, an inflatable raft doesn’t compress into the size of a golf ball, so it doesn’t stand to reason that a costume would fit into a goddamned ring. Even if I could believe that, which I can’t, it still seems like an overly complex way to get the job done. Why even bother with a ring? Just stuff it in a gelcap and pretend its an antibiotic.

Besides the vastly more homoerotic costume, the Silver Age Flash came with some new powers over his Golden Age predecessor. They shared the same essential power: running really fast. But Barry Allen applied it differently, discovering he could use it to go forwards and backwards in time, and travel between dimensions. So these abilities become part of his arsenal that he can think about when he returns to fucking work as a forensic detective. Did dreams die or something? Who the hell would ever go back to their day jobs if they found they could slip between dimensions one morning? “I don’t think I’ll stay in this dimension today,” I’d think, “rather I will abscond to the Dimension Where Everything is Tits.” If time travel and spanning dimensions are part of my repertoire, I think it’s safe to say that it’s a wrap for fighting crime.

The final reason I think the Silver Age Flash is a complete and utter turd is because the people writing it, by and large, had the creativity of a four year-old with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. One of Flash’s earliest nemeses was Turtle Man, a guy who did everything super slowly. Okay, I get that. It’s the whole balance thing, yin and yang and all that. But then he had another villain, a guy who could freeze shit with an ice gun. His name? Captain Cold. And he wasn’t the only Captain in the Flash Army of Supervillains, no there was also a boomerang-throwing Aussie who wore a flight attendant’s cap that was named–care to take a guess?–Captain Boomerang. Over and over, we see this kind of redundant, lazy shit. At one point, Barry Allen takes on a sidekick named Wally West, a precocious young kid in the same vein as other kid sidekicks throughout comic book history. West also runs at super speed, having acquired his power in the exact same unbelievable and retarded way Barry Allen became the Flash! It was unbelievable the first time, now you’re just being fucking insulting.

Nothing will illustrate how lazy the Flash’s writers were, and how much the character sucks as a whole, more than to describe the character which became the Flash’s main nemesis, the Reverse-Flash. Yes, that’s right, the Flash’s main nemesis was the Reverse-Flash. I’ll let that sink in for a moment. Imagine if Superman’s arch-enemy wasn’t Lex Luthor, but “Un-Superman?” Or if the Hulk was locked in eternal struggle with “Semi-Hulk?” Now, you might be thinking there’s a good reason that Reverse-Flash is called Reverse-Flash. Perhaps he does everything really slowly, like Turtle Man, or maybe he goes at super speed but only backwards. That would make sense, right? It might make sense, and it would certainly be more interesting than Reverse-Flash’s actual super power, which is to have the same exact motherfucking super power as the Flash. No, he is called Reverse-Flash for the dumbest, most ludicrous reason in the world: because his costume is reversed, red where the Flash’s is yellow and yellow where the Flash’s is red. Fuck you, Flash, you fucking piece of shit.

The Flash is a Shitty Superhero

7 Feb

Normal people who don’t give a shit about comic books might not know that there are actually two Flashes: one from the Golden Age, during World War II, and one from the Silver Age, which started around 1960. Actually, there are about a dozen Flashes, but to clarify this point would needlessly strengthen my contention that the Flash is a shitty superhero. So for the purposes of this writing, we will concentrate on these two Flashes.

The reason these two Flashes exist is because the character was created in 1940, and then retired after World War II in the wake of the Senator Kefauver hearings which resulted partially from Professor Fredric Wertham’s anti-superhero book Seduction of the Innocent. The character was revived in 1956 with a more modern look, essentially a red wetsuit with lightning bolts on it. Whatever Flash you’re talking about, the Golden Age Flash or the Silver Age Flash, they are both shitty. This essay will concentrate on the Golden Age Flash.

The Golden Age Flash sucks primarily because his origin is stupid. A college student named Jay Garrick is working in the chemistry lab late one night, when he pauses for a cigarette and inadvertently knocks over a bunch of glass vials and beakers which are part of an experiment to test the effects of heavy water. Here’s where the author’s lack of scientific knowledge comes into play: probably having read some article about runners who drink heavy water in order to boost their electrolyte and mineral content, the author decided that if your body was somehow infused with heavy water, why, you’d be the fastest man on earth! And with that erroneous bit of scientific mockery in place, Jay Garrick faints before the destroyed chemistry experiment and inhales heavy water fumes–yes, fumes from water–all night. This causes him to run at super speed.

Which, I should be clear, is a pretty kick-ass super power. I mean, running at close to the speed of light, that’s the stuff dreams are made of. It has all kinds of astrophysical implications, most of which will be dealt with and derided in my essay on the Silver Age Flash. I just want to make it clear that I don’t think having super speed is, itself, shitty.

So what does Jay Garrick decide to do with his new found power? Well, for one thing, he decides to cheat at football and win the affection of some co-ed he likes. However, Jay Garrick isn’t all selfish, he also chooses to use his super speed to fight crime, particularly crime which directly affects his girlfriend. To this end, he dons a superhero suit, a loose-fitting affair which was the style at the time. To disguise himself, he fucking puts on a civil defense helmet with wings. That’s all. His entire face is unobstructed and he fights crime in the same city in which he lives, yet we are expected to believe his identity is secret because he’s got a hubcap on his head. Never mind that upon discovering his ability, he ran around at super speed in front of everyone and their grandmothers. They must be amazed that there are two people with super speed in their city, and how remarkable it is that they look so much alike!

In a nutshell, that’s why the Golden Age Flash is shitty. He goes on to be one of the founders of the Justice Society of America, and fights several dozen colorful and villainous characters, but the Flash is still a shitty superhero. Not half as shitty, however, as the Flash who would take up the mantle a decade later.

%d bloggers like this: