Friday, March 20, 2009

Comic Snobbery in the Penny Press!

Well, despite its grotesque cover (that's Robert Pattison, star of the hit movie Twilight, and for the occasion of his photo-shoot, he decided to show up a) unshaven, b) unwashed (hair helmet-hard with filth and, I'm guessing, live vermin), and c) very visibly high as a kite), I of course perused the latest GQ. How can I not, when I so often find gems of quality in each issue? This time around is no exception, although the cover interview itself is a standard chunk of bald-faced lying in virtually its every word. There are two things a celebrity interviewer must do in order to stay in the job, apparently: first, you have to create the impression in your piece that you've become part of your subject's world, that you've bonded somehow (the most common way to do this is the old 'there I was writing my piece two days later when the phone rang - it was Famous Person X, just calling to see how I was doing' ... pay attention to the next few full-length celebrity interviews you read: you'll see it everywhere, including in the Ben Affleck interview in this month's Esquire), and second, you have to hide your subject's dirty laundry from view, even if it means airing fake dirty laundry in its place (take this interview, for instance: before the meal the two share, during the meal, in between bites of food during the meal, instantly after the meal, and for every moment until they parted, Pattison was continuously smoking cigarettes - but our writer, Alex Pappademas, never mentions it, because although some smoking might be spinnable as cool ... there's one photo to that effect, accompanying the article ... constant smoking might suggest the star is addicted or something, and that might hurt tween box office - but instead of simply remaining silent on the whole subject - because who knows what twitching, amputated stump of journalistic integrity Pappademas might still retain? - he transmorgrifies the smoking into coffee-drinking and has that be the compulsive thing, and the only compulsive thing, Pattison does the whole time they're together)(although it's not all bad: when Pattison ass-shits on and on about not being able to lie, about not understanding, just plain not understanding where all these rumors about his incessant late-night partying come from, Pappademas' writing makes it clear he, at least, wasn't fooled by the enormously transparent liar sitting across from him) (needless to say, this lying applies extra-strong to your subject's sexual secrets ... if, for instance, you're interviewing, say, one of the macho young stars of Baywatch back in the '90s and he begins groping and then French-kissing your male waiter, you'd better make with some snappy patter about unnamed Brazilian actresses and the like).

Fortunately, I wasn't totally reliant on chain-smoking pygmy vampires to carry the issue! There's a really good piece on the "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh, and of course any profile of the comic genius that is Amy Poehler is welcome. And then there's the article that most caught my eye: it's Alex Pappademas yet again, but he's not redeeming himself in my eyes one little bit (except with honest-to-gosh work ethic! For that, he gets two thumbs up and an invite to write for Open Letters!), because his second article, "The 20 Graphic Novels You Should Read (after 'Watchmen')," is so choked with lame pretension and latent contempt for the comics genre that only sheer, seething rage kept me reading. Pappademas co-wrote this piece with Kevin Sintumaung, but somewhere our very own Kevin the Comic Snob is smiling, because the 20-graphic novel list here is absolutely fraught with the kind of plotless, narcissistic, "indie," too-cool-for-school sequential garbage that can be relied upon to get Kevin's Flexographic press running.

When Kevin indulges in his weird love of this crap, I cut him some slack (I know it's not exactly noticeable when I do this; it's more of an interior thing), because he himself is a talented comic artist. When Pappademas and his co-conspirator the great Steve Ditko Doctor Strange supervillain the Merciless Maung do it, I declare Open Season on pretentious Android's Dungeon nersteins everywhere.

If you know anything about the comics world (aaaaaaand Beepy just began drifting away toward a different bed of seaweed ...), you'll be able to guess most of the titles on the Dastardly Duo's list. Just keep the criteria in mind: no action, preferably done in black and white, copious sexual dysfunction, endless fetishizing of one's own childhood, and absolutely, positively no superpowers. If you need more specifics, just go to your nearest comic book specialty shop, try your best to shrug off the projected contempt of the sales staff (trust me: The Simpsons understates the matter entirely), pick up the latest issue of Croatian Lesbian Cancer Victim (it's a year late, but if you even so much as notice that, you're an intolerant lesbo-hating Communist), turn to the in-house ads (in this issue, as in every issue, they'll be the last 15 pages of a 25-page comic that's, as we've already noted, one year late), and there you'll find most of the titles Pappademas and the Merciless Maung want to take to the prom.

There's Charles Burns' craptastic Black Hole, of course, and that bane of my existence, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. There's Concrete and Pyongyang (because the purpose of comics should always be to remind us how much life sucks). Saturday Night Live comedian Bill Hader recommends Jason Aaron's Scalped, even though if he actually grew up liking comics, those comics certainly bore no resemblance whatsoever to Scalped. The wan and pointless Bottomless Belly Button (I mentioned dysfunctional families already, didn't I?) of course makes the list, as does It's a Good Life, If You Don't Weaken, about which the Dastardly Duo actually write "Ignore the title - this is not the indie mope-fest you'd expect" - even though that's precisely what it is, for page after interminable page. Y the Last Man wanders into the article even though it was mostly good, and there's one single super-hero: the Grant Morrison/Frank Quitely All-Star Superman, and don't kid yourself that this is on the list despite the fact that it not-very subtly mocks the very superhero conventions it's appearing to honor - it's on the list because of that fact (the book itself is worthless, from Morrison's cavalierly continuity-screwing 'I swallowed a baby universe and it allowed me to recover memories that show that not only am I a fallen angel rather than a Kryptonian but that I actually killed Jesus Christ' insano-plots to Quitely's endless parade of eensy-weensy heads stuck on top of fat bodies).

So I thought I'd append here a list of my own, a morning-after remedy if you would. The following graphic novels are brought to you all in color for a dime!

First, three about the greatest superhero of 'em all:

Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? by Alan Moore, Curt Swan, George Perez, and Kurt Schaffenberger - Way back in the mid-'80s, when DC Comics decided to revamp the entire Superman concept, they published this two-part 'what if' story about the way you might write a finale to the career of the old, traditional Superman (prompting some critics to point out that if the character had been done this well all along, no revamp would have been necessary). The result is a tender, thrilling comic about the costs of heroism.

Superman: Birthright by Mark Waid and Leinil Francis Yu - Cynical souls might see this 2004 production as DC Comics' response to the ratings of the successful TV series Smallville, since here we have a Ma and Pa Kent who look a lot like their TV counterparts, here we have the same premise of a farmboy/football star named Clark Kent who's secretly possessed of unearthly powers, and here we have a brilliant, outcast Lex Luthor who's initially Clark's friend. But many such elements handily pre-date both the TV series and the aforementioned character revamp, and Waid and Yu breathe new life into them. This is the ultimate retelling of the mythologically familiar Superman origin story - and it's got a lump-in-the-throat ending for good measure.

Superman: Secret Identity by Kurt Busiek and Stuard Immonen - what would happen if you lived in the everyday real world and your name was Clark Kent? And what if, after years of suffering all the lame jokes by friends, classmates, and co-workers, you actually developed Superman-style superpowers? Busiek and Immonen (his best artwork to date) take the one-issue throwaway pre-Crisis concept of the so-called 'Earth-X' Superboy and flesh it out in glorious detail, as the story of what might happen if somebody actually developed the powers of Superman in the real world.

Now let's go from one character to a big ensemble:

Marvels by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross - the ultimate Marvel Comics graphic novel, this book tells the story of the rise of Marvel superheroes, from the likes of Captain America and the Sub-Mariner during the days of World War II to the mutant X-Men to the company's flagship character, Spider-Man. Busiek's writing and Ross' painted artwork combine to form a perfect extended tribute to all the creators who made the Marvel mythos - and the book also tells a touching story, of one man's grappling with the phenomenon of super-heroes.

Kingdom Come by Mark Waid and Alex Ross - I've praised this book before (just follow the labels at the bottom, people! they'll lead you to a treasure-house of wit and wisdom!), and it certainly belongs on any list like this one, no matter what the Dastardly Duo might say. Set in a near future in which the line between hero and villain has become irretrievably blurred, Busiek's sharp writing and Ross' stunning visuals dramatize the return of classic heroes like Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman to a world they may no longer understand. No matter how many times I read it, the powerful climax still gets to me.

The New Frontier by Darwyn Cooke and Dave Stewart - Another killer premise: what if the story of DC Comics superheroes unfolded in real time, running from the 1940s to the present, complete with the Cold War and the Space Race and Vietnam? Cooke and Stewart re-imagine the icons of DC continuity (virtually everybody makes an appearance in the two parts of this book) set firmly in the real world, and the result is incredibly entertaining - with one panel at the very end that's worth the price of admission alone.

And how about some single-character focus for a change:

Blood & Judgment by Howard Chaykin - Comics great Chaykin does a four-chapter update on the classic pulp character of the Shadow, with stunningly entertaining (not to mention violent and just a bit sexist) results. DC Comics hasn't seen fit to re-issue this classic for a long, long time (nor have they collected the first ten issues of the monthly comic it spawned, despite the fact that those issues are drawn with flair and enigmatic style by Bill Sienkiewicz), but if you attend Boston's Comic Con in the first week of April, I'm certain you'll be able to find a copy, and it's well worth the effort (and the disdain you'll endure from people like the Dastardly Duo).

Born Again by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli - Miller of course achieved comics fame by creating one of the greatest graphic novels of all time, Dark Knight Returns, but this story-arc featuring Marvel's blind superhero Daredevil is every bit as good and considerably less hammy. It's a superb character-study of Matt Murdock, who fights crime as Daredevil and who, in this book, watches his life entirely fall apart. As the title implies, this is fundamentally a story of redemption, and it's one you'll find yourself re-reading.

The Frost Giant's Daughter and Other Stories by Kurt Busiek (him again! and yet, the Dastardly Duo has apparently never heard of him) and Cary Nord - Here are some classic Robert E. Howard short stories of Conan the Barbarian, brought fantastically to life by Busiek's extremely restrained scripting on top of Nord's gorgeous artwork. The Conan character has never been handled better than this, and that's a tough thing for me to say, considering how fond I am of the long run Marvel did on the character in the '70s.

And as a sop to all the Jimmy Corrigan loseroids out there - and to Kevin the Comic Snob, who never met a non-superpowered character he didn't love - I suppose I should include two more-or-less "indie" choices that, unlike those of the Dastardly Duo, are actually good:

Bone by Jeff Smith - in page after page of stunning black-and-white artwork, Smith tells the story of Fone Bone, Phoney Bone, and Smiley Bone, three cousins who find themselves in a fantasy kingdom full of complex characters and even more complex politics. Some of Bone is pure slapstick, some of Bone is pure high fantasy, and lots of Bone is socio-political commentary ala Cerebus the Aardvark, only here brought to life by somebody who isn't a raging A-hole. Bone has it all: an appealing heroine, some props given to Moby-Dick, and two of the flat-out funniest villains in all of comicdom. The big fat one-volume collection is the best money you'll spend all month.

Hard Times, once again by Howard Chaykin - in this case, his seminal science fiction creation, American Flagg! Chaykin paints an enjoyably bleak and fragmented near-future of gangs and high-tech crime, and he adds his usual standards: sexy gun molls, one tough-but-fair central character, lots of fast, brutal action, and a talking cat. The other American Flagg! story-arcs are just as good as this one, but this is the place to start.

And so, too, is this short list a good place to start! It at least gives you an alternative to page after poorly-drawn page of hapless losers standing out in the rain, the victim of the consequences of their own inexplicable life-choices. Virtually every graphic novel chosen by the Dastardly Duo brims not only with pointless anomie but with the unspoken assumption that comics - sequential art, sorry - can only be good if they entirely forget where they came from ... in other words, that no good can ever come from superhero stories. Needless to say, as a big fan of both fantasy and mythology, I completely disagree with such snobbery, and this partial list is offered as an antidote. Like it or not, the comics genre is and always will be - and should be - about heroes and villains, about right versus wrong ... and those things can be complexly and richly done even without grotesquely late and overrated Croatian lesbian cancer victims.


Kevin said...

Narrow-minded cape zombie or not, I have to say your list is better than that of the GQ comics-snob-wannabe's - and it's only half as long! Daredevil: Born again by itself if better than anything on the GQ list.

I'm more skeptical of Alex Ross than you are, clearly. In small doses, his tributes to the pure essence of heroic, mythic Super-Tales is quite good, but once you realize he's more close-minded about these things than YOU are, it starts to chafe a bit. And don't get me started about his conspicuous campaign to give no credit to Braithwaite for his pencils on 'Justice'. Makes me puke.

It really bums me out, in the parlance of our times, that you have no love for the Morrison/Quitely Superman. A: it's a loving tribute to the light-hearted and strange beauty of old Seigel/Hamilton/Plastino/Swan/Anderson Superman classics, and B: it's practically written for you, specifically! Have a couple glasses of wine, loosen the $#@& up, snuggle up with a warm puppy or two, and re-read the mother.

DC: The New Frontier was bloody brilliant. And yet, the heavily faithful cartoon was forgettable. Between this, and the Watchmen movie, we have significant proof that comics are superior to movies.

Stuart Immomen is a shining golden god. And I'm not just saying that because he drew some V4 Legion.

Black hole is really quite good, tho. You should maybe have someone give you a good openhanded slap across the face to loosen you up, then try re-reading it. Jimmy Corrigan is no-holds-barred -TERRIFIC (however lugubrious) - not that I expect you to ever accept that.

I have to admit, tho, that your list, not unlike the GQ pap (HEAVY LIQUID? I love Paul Pope much much more than the next guy, but HL doesn't hold a candle to THB, or 100%, or even his Batman book!), seems a bit tweaked for pretentious reader consumption - I know for a fact that you love Lee/Kirby/Colleta Thor more than half of the stuff you mention. I was reading old Kirby "New Gods" issues the other day, and found myself, surprisingly, missing Colleta's inks when Royer takes over halfway through... Go Figure!

Somebody wake Beepy and Sebastian, I'm done.

F-Stop said...

Oh, I'm here, Kevin. (I'm Beepy when I'm not full of Fury)

It would surprise Steve, I think, to know that I read and loved The New Frontier. I also read Watchmen back in the day (probably at the same time HE was reading it) and had a thing for Cerebus. Superman, not so much. I'm clearly a Batman girl.

Kevin, you'll be happy to know that I finally read Blankets and I did enjoy it. I'm now reading Y: The Last Man. I might even end up purchasing them.

Two people at work have recommended Transmetropolitan. What do you think?

Kevin said...

I've really come to enjoy Warren Ellis in the last couple years, but I've only read the first volume of Transmet - didn't have that strong an opinion of it, one way or the other...

Y the Last Man was pretty good - I followed it all the way through - though it seemed like Brian K Vaughn lost interest near the end. I love Pia Guerra's art.

steve said...

Oh, 'an openhanded slap across the face' is your answer to EVERYTHING!

steve said...

And you're entirely right - I intentionally skewed my list for a more general audience than, um, just myself! It's true, I dearly, dearly love the Lee/Kirby/Colletta run on Thor (and Tales of Asgard), think it's the greatest, grandest stuff ever done in four-color comics (with the possible exception of the stunning first four story-arcs of the Authority) ... ditto the first 30 issues of the Invaders, the whole of Gene Colan's second run on Doctor Strange, and the first 20 or so issues of the great Ross Andru doing Spider-Man.

But I was trying to open the list up a little to people who don't necessarily eat, sleep, and breathe comics.

Sam said...

All this is fascinating, but it prompts me to ask: has a woman ever written or illustrated a comic book or graphic novel?

Kevin said...

Is that a rhetorical question, Sam? While there are no female creators on our beloved misogynist Steve's list (barring colorists - Christie Scheele on Daredevil, for one), there are two on the GQ list - Pia Guerra, artist on Y: The Last Man, and Jessica Abel, writer-artist for La Perdida.

Female comics-creators really are a tiny minority - as are African American comics creators, as my friend and fellow ink-stud Larry Stroman will quickly point out. This is true in many creative fields, of course.

Want to check out the work of other female creators? How 'bout Eisner winner Rutu Modan? Colleen Doran? Jill Thompson?

steve said...


Their function in the comics world is mostly to a) turn invisible, b) wear power-providing jewelry, or c) scream really, really loud. And that's just on the printed page ...

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