Rick Veitch's The Maximortal
In his typically dismissive, if no less hilarious review of the Watchmen movie, New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane says of comics fans, "[they] are masonically loyal, prickling with a defensiveness and an ardor that not even Wagnerians can match." Lane's particular genius is that it is usually in those moments when he is being most petty and cruel that he is also most accurate, as a perusal of comics bloggers' responses to the negative criticism of the film that has surfaced in recent days will attest. The typical response to a bad review of the movie essentially mirrors the typical response to a negative opinion of the comic, which is to say that fans will claim that detractors just don't get it, as though it were somehow impossible to both get and dislike Moore's opus. The secret is that Watchmen is like Proust only in the sense that it isn't actually that hard to get, it just takes a fair amount of effort to get from the first page to the last.
For the record, I get it. Watchmen is a grittily realistic deconstruction of the superhero comic as a genre and the superhero as an idea as it relates to notions of American exceptionalism and bourgeois culture. I don't like the book and presumably will not like the movie because in my estimation it fails as a comic, fails as entertainment and fails as an intellectual exercise. The best way to demonstrate this is by holding Watchmen up to a deconstructive superhero comic that succeeds: Rick Veitch's The Maximortal.
It is interesting to have this review of The Maximortal follow Brandon's write-up of Milligan & Fegredo's Enigma in that Veitch's approach to the phenomenon of the superhero is problematic in many of the same ways as Milligan's. As Veitch's afterword in the King Hell Press trade paperback edition points out, his whole approach to the history of the American superhero in the 20th century is based upon a fundamental misreading of Nietzsche and his impact on world culture.
Popular notions of Nietzsche's philosophy to the contrary, the philosopher's greatest legacy was not the ill-defined notion of the uber-mensch, but was rather his demonstration of the fallacy of the idea of objective truth. Moreover, Veitch's attribution of the rise of the phenomenon of the superhero to the influence of Nietzsche's uber-mensch ignores the entire history of mythology and his equation of superheros with Nazi eugenic theories is just plain intellectual irresponsibility.
I take pains to point out these problematic aspects of Veitch's book in order to demonstrate, as Brandon did in the context of Enigma, that a writer can base his reading of the superhero phenomenon on a set of questionable assumptions and still turn these into a successful book. The Maximortal works, in my view, because Veitch's approach to the subject provides a broad formal framework in which to explore the issues in question. Veitch has written a broad revisionist narrative of the phenomenon of superheros in all its aspects: as displaced extra-terrestrial being raised by a kindly American couple; as comic-book-character-cum-multimedia-marketing-and-cultural juggernaut; as government weapon and propaganda tool; and finally as symbol for the tarnished values of a civilization. What this shows is that while Veitch can have some fundamental suspicions regarding the implications of superhero veneration, he stills loves his subject and respects the creators who have contributed to its history.
Veitch further demonstrates his respect for his subject in the subtle ways in which he uses and alters his art style throughout the book. The Maximortal is clearly rooted in the comics of the golden age and his representations and particularly his painstaking inking reflects this heritage. Moreover, Veitch employs a variety of inking styles in order to reflect shifts in tone and narrative, from the fine, clearly delineated lines of Sidney Wallace's studio and offices, to the impressionistic brushwork of the book's occasional fiery infernos. Like all great artists, Veitch borrows tropes and techniques from his predecessors and recombines them in order to create new meaning.
Perhaps the book's most valuable tribute to the history of the superhero in America comes in the form of Veitch's revisionist retelling of the story of Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, a story that was little known outside of comics insider circles in 1992. Veitch of course took liberties in his portraits of Jerry Spiegal and Joe Schumacher, but as he says in the afterword, "it is all exaggerated fiction, but yes, it's all true too." What these characters demonstrate is that whatever your view of the impact of superheros on our culture, behind these beloved characters are creators willing to work for very little in order to share their vision with the world. Moreover, in an era before artists were more clearly protected by copyright law, there were just as often unscrupulous business persons who enriched themselves at the expense of those creators.
All of these aspects of Veitch's book are instrumental in making the successful deconstruction that it is, but the fundamental reason for the success of The Maximortal is that it is one hell of a read. Veitch's sensibility, both in terms of narrative as well as his illustrations, is exceptionally bizarre. From the peyote-eating, neo-Golem creating alchemist of shit, El Guano, to the bizarre and wildly anachronistic Doctor Blasphemy, Veitch's book is filled with some of the strangest, most unsettling characters and set pieces in modern comics. Moreover, Veitch's skill as an artist coupled with his remarkable sense of visual narrative allow the images to be the centerpiece of the book, with text playing a supporting role. The Maximortal is by turns laugh-aloud funny, profoundly disturbing and intellectually engaging to a degree that few comics are. Comics are fundamentally an entertainment medium and creators who are cognizant of this and keep their readers foremost in their minds will always be those who write the best comics.