5/29/2009

Batman In Barcelona: Dragon's Knight

In short, the comic is Bruce Wayne checks out some awesome Gaudi architecture and sorta tries to bang some Spanish chick and by night, as Batman tries to stop the Killer Croc’s serial killing of women—Croc’s attempt to reflect the dragon St. George slew for doing the same thing hundreds of years ago.

Like most Batman plots, it stumbles trying to wrap itself up, but this is a sort of inherent problem in detective stories and even seems like a prerequisite, because ultimately, it’s the journey to the “solution” that matters. And here, it really is something of a journey, not only because Batman travels to Barcelona, Spain, but because Waid actually uses the city and some aspects of its history in the comic.

The Gaudi architecture—a notable presence in Grant Morrisons’ Doom Patrol, which writer Mark Waid edited—is in there because it’s the sort o thing Wayne the aesthete would be into, but also because it connects to the dragon/St. George stuff (Gaudi’s work is windy and scaly, like a dragon or Killer Croc) and because it parallels the Modern Gothic style that’s always defined Gotham City--Gaudi’s work is a less “savage”, slightly smoother variation on Gothic architecture.

None of this though, despite the attention I’ve afforded it, bleeds into the comic unnecessarily, we only hear of Gaudi when Wayne’s on a tour and it’s sort of tossed-in there, and left up the reader to figure out or go and research. The subtle parallels between Barcelona and Gotham though are also fun because most of the comic’s taken up with the always fascinating issue of how differently Batman is treated in another city. For example, in a fight with Killer Croc, the police fire on him with the same degree of force as Killer Croc—both are weirdos are far as the Barcelona police departmen’s concerned.

This is a smarter way of highlighting Batman’s absurdity—out of his element, he’s seen as only an insane vigilante—that doesn’t go to Alan Moore (or now, Chris Nolan) extremes (has it struck anybody else as absurd that Alan Moore, who dresses like a medieval peasant and wears retarded-ass rings on all his fingers loves to make fun of “grown men in costumes”? Just saying…). Not that Waid’s use of “Batman out of his element” is brilliant or innovative, but it’s really well-done and cleverly spun.

That’s the thing about a character like Batman, reinventing him isn’t exactly hard, working with the well-worn clich├ęs of the character and demeanor and flipping them is way harder.

Rather than finding one more new way to show how emotionally confused the Batman character makes Bruce Wayne, Waid returns to the conflicts that arise out of lying to his current beau, in this case an especially bright and awesomely aggressive women named Cristina Llanero.

Llanero alternately accuses Wayne of being a liar, a playboy, and a rich fuck-around and Wayne’s just kinda gotta take it because he is lying and from any conventional perspective, the assumption wouldn’t be “Well maybe he’s stalking around the city at night fighting crime and that’s why he sometimes forget to call.” That Llanero’s drained of any of the whiny girlfriend stuff that even smart Batman stories stumble into, makes this seen-it-before sub-drama work and a line like “What will the history books say about Bruce Wayne” actually stings instead of being uh, sorta cunty.

And visually, artist Diego Olmos similarly balances traditionalist approaches to the character with occasional, pitch-perfect changes. The art reminds me of the animation art for Batman: Gotham Knight (which along with the “Batgirl” story arc in Batman Confidential is the only good Batman thing in a long time)--lots of thick lines, minimal detail but a core, hard-to-explain kinetic energy, even in the down-time.

Especially notable is Olmos’ use of action panels with no dialogue or sound effects. It gives you time to take-in the panel or page-spread, but it also just sort if hits you viscerally, like you’re in the action sequence, because you don’t get pulled out of it by in-fight quips or extraneous sound effects.

Surely, partial credit for this should go to Waid, but it’s Olmos that pulls it off, because he doesn’t employ some basic comic book grammar but doesn’t let his page look bare or incomplete. This terse rejection of comic art expectations, this comfort with not always following the formula, results in some really invigorating art.

There’s a panel where everyone’s running from Killer Croc and Olmos draws a screaming woman’s face a little too big and kinda distorted and it adds some inexplicable horror to the scene.

An image of Batman standing alone, oddly posed in a fighter’s stance, in full costume but missing his gloves (his hands wrapped in boxer’s tape), right before he’s about to fight Killer Croc—a strange moment of nervous calm before the fight begins.

It’s not ten steps removed from say, Tony Daniel’s work, but it’s got an alternative, lived-in, lumpy feeling that’s preferable to perfection or “grittiness” pretty much every time.

Contrary to popular belief, it's been a real bad year for the "Batman" franchise. Monetarily sure, The Dark Knight broke box office records but it's pop nihilism is well, the kind that breaks box office records and nothing more.

And the mess that is/was "R.I.P" and "Battle for the Cowl" too, undermines the core of the character without doing much else. As of late, Batman's been thoroughly deconstructed, a whole bunch of bets-hedging "This ain't your granddaddy's Batman!" type junk to really no end, and so, Batman in Barcelona, a back to basics, feels-like-a-classic-Legends of the Dark Knight story, from Mark Waid is refreshing in its traditionalism.

5/25/2009

Dylan Dog and the American Way


Never having traveled internationally before, I was excited to visit Italy and experience what they had to offer, the museums, architecture, food and of course, comics. As soon as we arrived in Rome, comic books were everywhere, each and every newsstand had more than just new issues of The Avengers. On any corner, you could find the last year's worth of back issues for more popular titles, specially priced three-packs and even trade paperbacks and hardcover collections. The way a newsstand here would dedicate a portion of it's main display to gossip magazines and tabloids, in Italy it was comics, lead by their king, Dylan Dog.

There seemed to be thousands of issues of Dylan Dog, one used book store we went into had DD books lining the walls and floors. If you haven't heard of Dylan Dog don't feel too bad about it, it seems like in America not many have. Despite Dark Horse having published seven volumes, each with new covers drawn by Mike Mignola to attract interest, the most popular comic in Italy just didn't catch on.

That being said, American comics were pretty scarce, Marvel comics had a few issues on each stand, Hulk and Daredevil combined into one over sized comic, Secret Invasion still going strong over there, as well as the Old Man Logan series, all of which are a few months behind our current continuity. DC was nowhere to be found, not even a single Batman issue. My cocky American self expected our little funny books to be slightly more popular over there, super hero stories being almost nonexistent on shelves.

Dylan Dog is a "Nightmare Investigator" which translates to "Fucked Up Super Natural Stuff Detective". The Mike Mignola covers may turn many people away from the series, easily relating it to the "Hellboy-verse" or other horror comics, but DD plays out much more like old Conan comics, or more appropriately, The X-Files television show. Each issue is a complete story within itself, you could pick up any one of the books and become engaged with the character and his world.

There are also small plot points that build a bigger picture in each volume, things about his family and past and larger villains he has yet to face, but they aren't as overpowering as in, let's say, X-Men where you feel the new event book starting and are already bored of it.

Dylan Dog isn't exactly a "scary" comic, but it is a horror genre book, which unfortunately in America means huge tits, bondage gear, and lots of blood with no actual plot. Dylan Dog approaches the horror genre from a new-old perspective: Each monster's story plays out in front of you, Dylan Dog just feels fucked up after killing another misunderstood beast.

The first Dylan Dog movie Cemetary Man is worth watching and really smart and entertaining, but isn't really a Dylan Dog movie--it's based on a novel by creator Sclavi--and is in Italian, so it certainly wasn't going to help DD catch on. Thanks to the second Dog movie, Dead of Night, Dark Horse has rereleased the seven volumes in one large hardcover edition, called Dylan Dog: Case Files.

With comics being as popular as they are now with "graphic novels" being acceptable for adults, ironic nerd levels at an all-time high, and Manga being the most popular comic format in America, there must be a reason that current European comics aren't catching on. It most likely is just a strange prejudice against foreign comics, many older readers refusing Manga and Anime without having read any but using their sixth nerd sense of "knowing they wouldn't like it".

The popularity of a book like Dylan Dog relies on how it's advertised, and unfortunately the Mignola covers don't attract enough people. If the book were to have been published by Fantagraphics, with a graphic design conscious cover, it would have sold better, and Dylan Dog would be popular, and therefore we could get more stories translated.

5/22/2009

The Maxx Rap: Willie Isz

" Basically I always was a big fan of The Maxx, which was a comic and a cartoon on MTV Oddities way back in the day. On that show there's two sides [to the world], you've got Pangea and the dark side that The Maxx comes from. And these little creatures on there were The Iszs. There were the good Iszs and the bad Iszs. If you know Khujo's music, always back to "Call Of The Wild" when he did that with OutKast back in '94, he always been growling. He always had that "Yeaah!" That monstrous approach. So it's kind of like the Black Iszs. [We're] mixing that fantasy world with reality. That's what Georgiavania is."

Not sure why I didn't make the Maxx connection when Jneiro Jarel, one half of rap group Willie Isz (the other half is Khujo Goodie of the legendary Goodie Mob) posted a Shoegaze mix over on the on his MySpace and it featured all this Sam Keith art but yeah, one more interesting way that hip-hop and comics mix that doesn't involve Eminem and the Punisher. Art for the Willie Isz album Georgiavania (which comes out on June 16th) is by James Jarvis and as for the songs, well I provided two samples, the title cut (featuring growls and vampire accents) and "In the Red" which is a big, trippy, piece of Southern utopian rap that sounds like the future and enough like classic Goodie Mob/Outkast. Turn your Vampire Weekend or Linkin Park off (depends on what kind of comics nerds you are) and listen!


"Georgiavania"






"In the Red"





5/21/2009

Elephantmen #19

What’s cool about Elephantmen is that it’s for nobody and everybody: Too “smart” for the average comics fan, too “dumb” in style for the guy constantly citing Sacco or Spiegelman. So when Starkings handed over the art to Mariah Churchland for three issues, it would appear to be an attempt to “sophisticate” the comic or at least, make it a little less bro-heavy, but it’s really just the ideal collaboration for these female-focused one-shots.

This latest issue stretches Churchland’s work further outside of the readers’ relative comfort zone. There was something even a rock-headed reader could grasp when issue #18, with Churchland’s significantly softer art told the tale of a confused twenty-something but when the new issue outline Sahara’s unfortunate upbringing in Africa, in Churchland’s style--well, we’re back to this whole unexpected tension thing.

In these Churchland issues, there’s been a spiral from the minor problems one has living in a privileged society--mom’s mean, depression, unwanted pregnancy—to the immediate, inescapables Sahara experienced in Africa (separation, rape, genital mutilation). Less a line being drawn between two disparate experiences than an artist and writer taking both on bravely with the same passion, empathy, and artistic aplomb.

There’s just nothing seedy or condescending about an issue that step-by-step outlines every sexual and mental violation Sahara’s experienced and it has a lot to do with Churchland’s sensitive pen (Starkings’ writerly sensitivity is by now, a given). In the past, the hook was it would look like a typical comic and reach into these heavy emotions, here, it’s just reaching into them, free of the series’ usual in-quotes, hoodwinking of readers.

Starkings takes the cross-cutting hinted at in the previous issue further, with the basic structure of the issue jumping between particularly horrific moments in Sahara’s childhood and her, current day, rushing through the hospital—back to issue #15—to find lover Obediah.

Visually, Churchland doesn’t force the cross-cutting, so there’s not a bunch of clever connectors between past and present—no parallel imagery or anything--but it still feels seamless or at least, intentionally jarring, never sloppy. There’s no narrative or visual logic for leaping from a close-up of a lion biting into an antelope to a Kubrick-like image of Sahara rushing down a hallway but it just works. The connection’s implicit, like two sense memories jammed together: The fear of uncertainty she had as a child, the same uncertainty she has now.

When the issue does end on a clever visual connector, young Sahara, arms out running into a van to escape her father to present-day Sahara, arms out-stretched ready to hug Obediah, the connection’s earned.

Following the visual connection, the issue’s last page is an image of Sahara hugging the hulking Obediah and there’s a subtle parallel drawn between this final image of the issue and the first image of the issue (a beautiful, bizarre close-up of a lion)—as if, she’s escaped the slinking fear that moved through the issue from page one—but again, it’s clever second, and emotional first. And there’s something additionally heart-warming about Churchland’s version of Obediah. I think it comes from the fact that Churchland’s default style of art isn’t “uglify and bad-assify everything” (though she doesn’t cute-ify everything either) and so Obediah appears something closer to how Sahara sees him: Warm, sensitive, and kind.

That he’s naked only underscores the vulnerability (we’re used to seeing him in a suit) and the look on his face is like an affectionate puppy reunited with its master. It’s a scene of pure affection and really, not something previous Elephantmen artists could’ve fully achieved. This palpable affection is important because it helps in working-out the inter-species attraction Starkings has been developing since early in the series.

The inter-species issues started out as a challenge to readers: Are you, like the characters, creeped out by a women marrying a giant Rhino? It moved to a symbol and thematic concept: This is no different than earlier uproars about miscegenation or homosexuality. But now, it just makes sense…The series is about the evil that men do and though, all the while, the evil that Elephantmen do hovers in the background, that too’s the result of man’s hubris and nihilism, and so, given Sahara’s rough treatment by fellow humans, it isn’t a surprise she’d find something beautiful in another species.

5/19/2009

Umbrella Academy: Dallas #6


The frustration many comics readers feel having to wait month-to-month and sometimes much longer (as Jesse pointed out) for something even resembling a narrative to develop in their comics makes a lot of sense, but it also rejects a certain kind of wonder that only happens through serialization.

As the "Dallas" storyline wraps-up, Gerard Way reminds readers that it's the adventure itself, the panel to panel, scene to scene, issue to issue, temporal fun of comics that matter as much as it making sense or conventionally keeping your interest. This was something easy to forget because "Dallas" wasn't as delightfully comic-book as "Apocalypse Suite". "Dallas" leaped from events and time periods and groups of characters and back again, slowly rumbling towards some kind of big ending, then hanging out in Vietnam for most of the last issue, and still wrapping it up with a really moving, cinematic finale.

In short, there's a lot of dicking-around in "Dallas", just like every other comic book out there, but here, that's the point, not a way to keep you buying the monthly until the comic's no longer profitable and they end at abruptly at issue #87 or whatever. When at the end of their journey, The Seance says, "Everything looks the same...it's like nothing changed at all" and Spaceboy responds with a grumble "I wish you were right Klaus, but it all looks pretty different to me" and wanders away, Way's illustrating the subjectivity of "events" and "action" for the characters, but also for the reader.

A lot of people were enamored by Secret Invasion or proudly pass out copies of Y: The Last Man to friends or are inexplicably moved by boring-ass Watchmen but they all put me to sleep. They all lack the tiny details that make a great comic and not "tiny details" as in, little clues and symbols that build-up to the greater narrative that you maybe won't catch on first read, but like tiny details that make a page jump-out, the whims and weirdo impulses of the writer and artists--those weird asides. The latter rewards issue reading, the former chin-scratching trade paperback readers.

When Carmichael (fishbowl head guy) tells the group "the point is to maintain the status quo", it's a comment on "event comics" which send you on a game-changing whirlwind of events, deaths, re-characterizations only to land like three inches from where they took off. The difference though, is all the bullshit that "changed nothing" in "Dallas" stands on its own as pretty awesome while all the crap in Final Crisis is supposed to build to something and then just doesn't really. Of course, everything's changed--if it was all the same, why are they so bummed at the end?--but that's all obvious, right?

Take special note to Gabriel Ba's wordless, nine-panel page that comes right before Seance's comment that "Everything looks the same". The page is a big deal, its the half-spread the illustrates the results of the comics' actions but the joke is, it illustrates nothing more than regular ol' life moving on. It's the page that's supposed to show a dead villain, a writhing hero, a big explosion but it just doesn't. The lack of a conventional reward makes sense because going back through "Dallas", which began with Giant Booth shooting Giant Lincoln and featured Nam' Vampires and a huge fucking Mummy in the last issue doesn't need a big, giant "Woah" ending, it's given you all that in every issue. It never held back or jerked you around with bullshit events pretending to be important ("Where were you when Martian Manhunter died?") it just kept moving, confused and muddled yes, but bravely moving forward nonetheless.

Last issue review, I expressed concern that the ending would be a "boner kill" and it basically is, only it's like, such a boner-kill, such a non-event that it works. Pushing to the side some epic culmination, it rolls along with moments of comic book fun, but mainly riding a melancholy throb of confusion (Seance, Kraken, Rumor), anger (Number Five), and depression (Spaceboy) up to and through Way/Ba's bravura movie montage (complete with lyrics and all) ending.

5/16/2009

Issues With Reissuing


Due to the echo chamber in the comments section of my last post on reissuing and a post over at Hooded Utilitarian, I decided to touch on what I guess I'll call "ethical issues" or reissuing in hopes to clarify my meaning.

The biggest headscratcher by Hooded's Bill Randall is his frustration with my description of the weird, awkward issues that come up when something is reissued or released for the first time in a new country, time period, etc. We'll ignore Randall's douchey decision to not fix my misspelling of "excitement" because it's the kind of petty aside that this blog has no time for (we overtly insult people we don't agree with), but I'm baffled by his gross misreading of what I said, which was: "the act of reissuing is a mix of hubris, fan boy excitement gone wrong in the best and worst way, and opportunism." That this was taking as some kind of outrageous and malicious statement is weird, that he goes a step further to suggest that this is all a big dumb cover-up for me not liking the design is...well, it's about as insincere as highlighting a typo.

The point of my description of reissuing is that there's a lot of issues, good, bad, and in the middle that come up when someone chooses to reissues another artist's work. On the positive side, reissuing something, at least as a small, undoubtedly sincere company like Drawn & Quarterly goes, stems from an excitement or love of the work and desire to get it out there so more people can read the thing.

However, that doesn't mean problems don't arise and often these problems stem from the same fan-ish glee that moved them towards falling in love with the work and wanting to reissue it in the first place. I'm sure you guys are aware but you know, sometimes when people really like something, they sorta act like they own it or they internalize it and take it over to some extent. And simply put, no matter how great and back-breaking it might be to put out some work of the past--or from another country--that you love, if you got a brain, you feel a little bit icky about the endeavor because you're getting paid or getting publicity or something of someone else's work. This is okay, this is necessary, but it is still true.

To break this down, I'd like to recount the emotions and concerns that raced around in my head when me and fellow writer here, Jesse, went to work on developing a mixtape for a Baltimore hip-hop group called Mania Music Group. This is also good because it moves these issues out of the world of comics...

Enthusiasm

My interest in developing a mixtape for free download of Mania mainly came from the fact that I felt they were incredibly slept-on in Baltimore and depressingly unknown outside of the city. It was not only their talent that grabbed me but the sense that their style intersected with a lot of what was going on in hip-hop right now and that if exposed to the right people, they would become huge.

I got the chance to meet them at a show they performed and ended up eating burgers with them and even going to a party with the group. The next day, a friend of mine--who organized the show they did--interviewed them on his college radio show. The result was an hour of hilarity and insight that gave listeners a great introduction to the group--the hour even ended with a ridiculous 10-minute plus freestyle. I immediately thought of how, it would be hard to get non-fans to listen to an hour with a group they've never heard, but that snippets of this interview, along with their music would provide an excellent introduction, sampler, primer of the group.

Filling A Void

The additional reason for wanting to provide a sampler of the group is that over at their website ManiaMusicGroup.Com, they provide free downloads to all of their albums and EPs. This is both brilliant and a little overwhelming for an uninitiated listener. To be honest, the site is also a bit busy and hard to navigate and I can imagine it at least turns off a few interested internet-ers with poor connections. I decided to take songs from all of their releases and consult a few others to do the same and develop about an hour of their music.

*First Problem: I'm picking and choosing the songs that will define this band to a new audience. My attempt to curtail complete subjectivity was through asking others' input but this is still not the group. I should add, I asked permission from the group about this project and they thanked me and said "Go ahead" but this did not make me less nervous or unsure of my role in regards to defining the group.

How I Profit

No money was made or exchanged in this project but there were a few ways that I was or could be seen as "using" Mania Music Group. The mixtape was going to be a free download on a new Baltimore music website I was developing and so, if the mixtape was passed around at all, it would indeed not only advertise the group but also the website that created the mixtape.

In another way, they could be seen as the first group that I looked to to celebrate over at this website--something of a small honor. At the same time, the mixtape was also posted on my fairly popular hip-hop blog and so, I was handing Mania's music over to my nearly 10K a month readers. Additionally, to a certain group, my name is more well-known than Mania's and so, in one small way, I'm attaching my name to the project. In my eyes, the uncomfortable ways I was using their music to advertise my new website venture was fair and at the heart of it was a sincere love of the group's music.

*Second Problem: Aligning my name and website with the group. Presenting them through my critical lens in a way that's beyond a review or article but suggesting that I'm connected to the group and can restructure and recontextualize their music.

Presentation

And so, it came to designing a cover for the mixtape. For those unaware, a "mixtape" in the hip-hop world is basically a CD or even .zip file mixed by a DJ or group of DJs and released for semi-official consumption. Many of the biggest rappers of this past decade have made their names through mixtapes, some of which were totally created by fans and outsiders with no connection to the artist. One of the staples of a mixtape is a relatively outrageous, crazy Photoshopped cover, often a parody of a movie or other aspect of popular culture and sometimes just plain nutty. Go here for some examples.

It's important to note that this, like all aspects of hip-hop is very self-aware and ironic, and so these are not the acts of a bunch of morons with a computer but a developed and accepted aesthetic...the same way rappers know why it's really hilarious (and really awesome) to wear big-ass chains, do they know why its awesome and hilarious to parody Hulk Hogan on their mixtape covers as Gucci Mane does below:

Below is the cover for Gucci's Murder Was the Case album (different than a mixtape, obviously) and you can see the differences in design and color and overall attitude. Still, there's a common, and delightful disinterest in conventional aesthetics going on here too. That's to say, it's not exactly perfect-looking or "clean" in design.


In terms of designing a cover for the mixtape I made, this was important because Jesse would be designing the cover and while he knows a thing or two about Photoshop, dude's Photoshop game isn't super-great or anything. This was good because it would mean some of the sloppier or imperfect aspects of whatever cover we designed would not only be easily excused, but work right in-line with the general aesthetic of the mixtape. At the same time though, Mania Music have sought to stick out from the crowd, to not follow any rules or expectations and so...

Third Problem: Would it be totally right to make a typical mixtape for a group like Mania? If they were doing their own mixtape would it ever look anything like Guccimania? Probably not. Why am I aligning their music with an aesthetic that though they're a part of, they also reject?

Below is the cover of Midas from Mania Music Group's EP Live from the Arcade. Now, this is not a mixtape, so the outrageous design of mixtapes doesn't apply, but there's something playful and wonderfully absurd about Midas' EP cover which shows the group's willing to have fun with their design.



Audience

The decision Jesse and I came to was that because we were trying to break Mania in some small way to a rap audience nationwide, it would be important that the mixtape signify their creativity but also in some way or another "play the game", which meant: Give this mixtape a typically mixtape cover, but don't make it too outrageous or silly that it might discredit the group. The result is below:


Named after Midas' description of Mania's music (soul food and sushi as seeming opposites, one hearty and comfortable, one clean and precise), Jesse thought of the hilarious idea to present a Baltimore skyline raining down with sushi rolls and fried chicken and ham hocks and stuff. It fit with the absurd expectations of a mixtape but was even more bizarre and batty, fitting Mania's sense of humor. At the same time, we tried to make it look professional and sleek, like the website of some high-power company: Purples and blacks, both Baltimore Ravens colors and undeniably regal.

Fourth Problem: The cover might even be seen as more than a little offensive, as a group of rappers are shown rapping behind a sea of fried chicken etc. Honestly, this wasn't even a debate because we knew it wasn't offensive, that it wasn't intended to be, and that the soul food images are quiet enough to not invoke racial stereotypes. Still, it would not surprise me if others have seen the design as offensive and maybe even members of Mania, who would think it improper to complain to a group of guys making them a mixtape out of sheer fandom. My guess is they're cool with it but honestly, I'd never know unless they complained and since the whole thing was a rap-nerd labor of love, maybe they'd not complain even if it did bum them out because they'd feel like dicks.

Conclusion

I hope I've outlined some of the issues that Jesse and I encountered just in the decision to make a free, downloadable mixtape and you'll see the problems or concerns we worked-out as well as the ones we ignored or justified in one way or another. I'd imagine all of you will have a different impression of whether we succeeded or failed and that's my point in all this: Reissuing or re-releasing something is a precarious balance of a lot of things...when you throw money into it, it only gets weirder.

For anybody interested, you can download Soul Food & Sushi: A Mania Music Group Mixtape here.

***

A Few More Things In Regards to Design

Album Covers
While I understand the want or need to get beyond the original covers for literature (pre-copyright books can be published by many so they need to distinguish, some books are thousands of years old), I do not understand why comics have taken the similar approach and hasn't instead followed the "print the original" route that music reissues follow. Pop, rock, and jazz albums are closer in age to comics than literature and it just seems to make sense. Below's an example of one of the few re-issued albums I can think of in which the cover was changed, Shuggie Otis' Inspiration Information:




Notice how the reissue is sort of frustratingly retro, something that's not only absurd but pointless because you can't get more retro than the actual cover that adorned the album in 1974. This reissue was by David Byrne's Luaka Bop label, mostly known for World Music releases and so, in some attempt at label continuity, Luaka Bop's placed "World Psychedelic Classics 2: California Soul" in the corner even though there's really nothing "psychedelic" about Otis' album and that California Soul, besides not really being a sub-genre, wouldn't properly describe this release anyway. Also odd, this reissue added four tracks from an earlier Shuggie album Freedom Flight and makes them sound like bonus tracks or album omissions. Only after you purchased the album and read the liner notes would you realize that Otis had two previous albums and that these four tracks come from his second album. Huh? Why?

Literature
My attack on "hipster design" stems from this sort of being the default approach to new design in the 2000s. And you don't really need more of a reduction of absurdity of this than these recent-ish covers for Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther, originally published in 1774. The first cover, I recall, came out right around the time of The OC which was arguably one of the biggest pushers of "indie culture" into the mainstream. Read this Pitchforkmedia review for a good thinkpiece on the whole topic. I don't think it's too possessive to suggest that the image of a dude--and I use dude advisedly--placing his mouth on a girl's stomach, along with the candy-stripes is pretty silly for turning the novel into what looks like a Young Adult novel for girls or that a teary Calvin Klein model has little to do with Werther's suicidal love.



5/12/2009

The Negative Zone: The Problem With Fancy-Pants Reprints

So, I laid-off this "column" for awhile because basically comics people are super-soft babies that gets all scared and upset about any kind of negative criticism unless it's about how Marvel sucks or it's agreeable feminist/racial criticism about Storm (disagreeable feminist/racial criticism, we're all about though), but David picked up an old-ass copy of Hugo Pratt's Corto Maltese last week (and I, some ripped to shreds copies of Kamandi) and was talking about how awfully made the thing was and it got me thinking about the low standards of so many of the 70s and 80s reprints--a radically pragmatic attempt to get this brilliant work out, quality and context be damned.

My first thought was a general frustration with the way comics were archived or reproduced in the past and then, my second thought, was a kind of nightmare flash through my brain of brand new "reissues" of Pratt's work from Fantagraphics or Drawn & Quarterly in big, hardback style with nice graphic design and I thought, "give me this ass copy from 1981 any day..." and not because of some curmudgeonly want for the work to remain obscure or inaccessible but because so much of the time, the work's context is not only changed--context of art will always change--but dramatically shifted not by critical voices reevaluating the work, but by publisher and editor concerns about how to brand and sell the shit. Specifically, it was the Drawn & Quarterly reissues of Tatsumi's work that fit this frustration well.

The act of reissuing is a mix of hubris, fan boy excitement gone wrong in the best and worst way, and opportunism. On one hand, it's really cool to know that Tatsumi's work is now sitting at the shelves of Barnes & Noble for any and everybody to pick up and it boils down to a rather small and independent company putting it out because they really liked it and the popularity of Manga might sell some copies, but on the other hand, there's an uncomfortable sense of imperialistic takeover there too.

The reissue of the work's nice, but why must it get forced through a kind of twee, minimalist style of design as if its the same as the "comix" they release? What could Adrian Tomine, who makes Clowes-derivative comics (minus the all important irony) and draws sad bastard indie fucks contribute to Good-Bye & Other Stories than his name? Whether it's intended or not, there's a line being drawn, then connected between say Tatsumi's "Just a Man", which details a man's ineffable contempt for his wife and child and Tomine's "my girlfriend's mean to me but I'm a dick, oh it's so complicated this world" storytelling. Look at the Catalan Communications version from the early 80s and the recent reissue of Good-Bye:



The biggest contrast is the complete lack of subtlety in the new version, a sexually aggressive image clouded by some "hip" graphic design versus the original which simply illustrates a Geisha, back partially turned in front of a black background. It's not that the latter is somehow any less of a manipulation or closer or even more "pure" to Tatsumi's vision--if anything, it's the opposIte as Tatsumi's had something to do with the D & Q reissues--but there's something less intrusive, less subjectivized about the Catalan edition.


Vertical's reissues of the work of Osamu Tezuka are even more interesting because the design isn't terrible or as obvious, and the act of reissuing stuff like Apollo's Song, MW,or Dororo, hasn't recontextualized the work for the The New York Times crowd only (if you looked hard enough, Tatsumi's work was available), but made the creator of Astro Boy's weirder, more "mature" work really easily available for the first time. But there's still something nagging in the cover design, from the Urban Outfitter all-over print hoodie garbage of Dororo to the Manga-Chris Ware sense for the others. It doesn't fit the comics at all and it's sort of hoodwinking more conventional Manga fans who'll expect something a different than inside, and as I said, aligning the work with American "comix" which for the most part, are lighter than these guys uh, grappling with their country being bombed to shits and then rebuilt by the same dudes and all that--a sub-rant could be made about how saying these works are the "grandfather" to modern alternative comix negates their politicism, particularly a politicism that's rooted in the United States committing acts of horror and continues a trend of wiping American hands clean of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but this shit's long already...

So look, I get it. The goal here's to make these works as appealing as possible and therefore, sell more copies which helps the company (and the creator) so that more weird, cool old comics can be put out. I'm just not sure this kind of design really works because a book made in Wes Anderson hues that'll appeal to people who listen to stuff like The Shins will probably be a little disappointed by Tatsumi or Tezuka's work.

And in a lot of ways, if they aren't disappointed, it's in part coming from the fact that Vertical's design recontextualized it and so, they see it in the cartoon cutesy darkness of Wes Anderson or Neutral Milk Hotel or something when what Tezuka (or Tatsumi) are dealing with is simply, heavier and way darker. Less a retreat into retro that paradoxically, pulls out some immediate emotions or just something about living in America in modern times, but narratives that are wrestling around with Japan's odd history--post-WWII Japan under the eye of America specifically--and of course, the dropping of the Atomic bomb. As I said before, to try to even suggest some connection between the work of more recent "alternative comix" and the work of these guys is not only offensive because it's dead wrong, but because it's lessening the depth and breadth of the work by suggesting its an earlier version for what's going on now.

Tomine can cite the influence of Tatsumi on his work but if it influenced it, he grossly misread one of his comic art heroes. And that his way of paying homage is by kinda sorta recontextualizing dude's work is depressing. Perhaps, an easy example for us all to get behind is the Chip Kidd Bat-Manga controversy in which Kidd slapped together a bunch of incomplete Japanese Batman comics from the 60s, didn't put the artist's name on the front, and released the thing.

That all my examples are Japanese artists being pilfered by Americans wasn't intentional nor do I think it's a form of racism--more like mannered xenophobia, once Moebius comics get reissued in America wholesale, the same thing'll happen--but the main issue here's the obsessive desire, even by those you'd assume to be more "respectable" than bigger, dumber companies, to force others' work into their own expectations and comfort zone.

5/08/2009

Wrassling with RASL #4

Jeff Smith's RASL is one the most exciting serial in comics right now, balancing plot and character with in-depth explorations of its themes, the whole thing feels remarkably fresh every issue. The latest issue's taken a distinct turn towards horror, with sailors' heads embedded in iron bulkheads and a creepy, zombie-like child. The series hasn't abandoned its previous tone, but it's added a deeper and even darker layer to the already tense atmosphere.

The first issue, like any good narrative, throws you into the middle of things with little explanation...just a plethora of wordless panels and images, locking into Rasl's quiet and brooding mood from page one. But like the atmosphere of those wordless panels suggesting something more, Rasl's beyond a simple brooding anti-hero, he's genuinely considering his life and its consequences. Rasl's internal monologue from the beginning of issue #2: "We're all going to die anyway. We flit in and out of existence like sparks from a fire. One minute we're here, the next we're gone...All the hassle, all the pain...is it worth it? Must be." It's the inclusion of Rasl's thoughts that move the comic towards something meaningful and relate-able and not just a weird, Science-Fiction comic--emphasis on the Science, with all the Physics and theory in this one...


The series is becoming increasingly plot-heavy but it manages to connect all that to Rasl's emotions to plot and constantly moves the story into a direction where new questions keep getting asked. In issue #4, the new question's are asked through revealing the inner-workings and history of Rasl's dimension-hopping. And it does this "scientifically" while not removing the excitement or flooding the reader with exposition. Jumping's ramifications are still unclear, but they're becoming increasingly dire especially with the emergence of the mysterious zombie child. It’s beyond simply affecting Rasl negatively at this point, it's starting to mess with the people in that dimension.
As more and more parallel universes are stacked on, it seems as if Rasl's travels are becoming a metaphor for how memory is affected by the normal passage of time. Issue #1 sets this metaphor up by jumping panels back and forth between different times in Rasl's life. It's similar to the maze idea that Annie presents in issue #2--each jump for Rasl confuses him more and more. Each jump is a benchmark in time and the things from his past become increasingly hazy the more he jumps. When he's shown meditating, he's so focused on the moment that he loses sight of simple things like who Bob Dylan is.

Events, actions, and emotions, even the most devastating become distant due to jumping. After Annie's "murder" Rasl goes into a different dimesion and encounters another Annie; She's just like the other Annie but is slighty different...somehow. It has the same effect as when the reader meets Annie for the first time, unsure of the relationship between the characters, and because Rasl was gone so long, things are slightly different. It's a great way that sci-fi can help illustrate what is going on between characters and relationships in real life, by moving it into this crazy conceit and then threading it all through real-life emotions.

The biggest problem with RASL is its slow production schedule. A general problem with serialized comics, especially when a creator has a larger picture in mind, is focusing obsessively on what is the equivalent to a single chapter in a book. RASL suffers intensely from this reading experience. Since each issue has several months in between it forces you to go back and re-read the entire series with each new issue. In a way, this works conceptually, as time between issues changes your feelings or focus, much the same way Rasl's jumping changes his life. While it works conceptually, it's occasionally frustrating in terms of enjoyment because RASL’s pacing is so quick that it gets away with it for now, but as issues and continuity and everything else builds-up, the series might grow increasingly rewarding as a straight-through read and frustrating issue to issue.

5/05/2009

White Box Hero: UFO Flying Saucers #4

Everybody here at "Are You A Serious Comic Book Reader?" is the type of comics nerd to spend two hours flipping through a quarter box of comics with the hope that there will be at least something sorta cool in there. Every once in a while, the nerdity pays off and you end up with something greater than you could've ever expected...a white box hero!

Something that high-school history classes and like, NBC mini-series' don't really explain about "the Sixties" is how all the social upheaval, distrust of the government, counter-culture etc. stuff was a spark in these pockets of hipsterism or bohemia (Haight-Ashbury, Greenwich Village) and then it sort of slowly fizzled into smaller, less-"hip" areas. And so, "the Sixties" was more something that eventually wormed its way into every smaller city and every pocket of crap popular culture than this nationwide shift in sensibility. Not that this is some big revelation, it's just important to think about in terms of how "the Sixties" would affect something like this Whitman published, hack anthology comic UFO Flying Saucers from 1974 and how all the junk swirling around would turn it into this kinda subversive, conspiracy comic book.

Now of course, based on the premise, it's going to be on some "government cover-up" type shit, but there's a couple things in UFO Flying Saucers--which has a title that grows more retarded every time I type it--that move it out of the typical "government distrust" stuff that floats through popular media in part, to further cover-up actual government distrust...like, it's healthy for people in power to allow a certain degree of dissent. But whatever you get what I'm saying...this comic feels actually subversive the way the X-Files could be or how the comic-book-y secret society stuff expected in a comic book like Hellboy felt incendiary because it was in this Hollywood blockbuster.

Above's the ending panel from the second story in the book, "Marsh Gas In Michigan" which is your typical dudes see some trippy shit in the sky and a government official steps-in and "explains" what they saw type story. There's something extra nefarious though, about the Gov't Official here, he's kind of skeletal, and he's especially curt with his response. That the narrator steps in with a series of leading questions ("Can marsh gas be picked up by radar? Can it be photographed? Can over 100 witnesses all be wrong?) kinda moves out of semi-objective Robert Stack Unsolved Mysteries, "you decide" and more into like, Kramer from Seinfeld totally trying to sell you on a conspiracy. But that's great! Because it's this comic book and so it doesn't need to feign any sense of objectivity or like subtlety and comic books often gain power from this big, dumb blunt-ness.

And not only because it's a comic book, but basically this hack-job comic, with like perfunctory art and no "Story" or "Pencils" credits that it can go really far and get caught-up in something kind of silly or weird and come out winning in the end. The first story, "The Mississippi Mystery" is just your typical "fishermen get abducted" story but for some reason, the aliens are these hulking, armored goat guys or something and they never speak or attempt communication or anything, they just sort of tug the fisherman around and stick them in front of weird medical equipment and then usher them back to the pond. The lack of explanation, the lack of detail, which is probably more the result of reducing the comic to bare elements than an artistic choice, still conveys the feeling of confusion and disjointed chaos that the fisherman felt being abducted.

But then, there's other stories that go way beyond your typical "rumor" type UFO stories and sort of dive into the weird mythology and stuff. There's a focus on Ezekiel's Wheel which is one of the oft-discussed "UFO accounts" in the Bible and that this comic appeared just a few years after the publication of Chariots of the Gods which tried to connect ancient history to UFO phenomenon is really interesting and also poses the question: Who's this comic book for?

We have a tendency on this blog to celebrate "difficult" works and those odd stragglers or even "smuggler" comics--as I like to call them--that basically look like they're for one audience and are for another or often, don't seem to have a tangible audience and this weird UFO Flying Saucers comic's one for sure...whether it intended to or not. The seeds of Bible conspiracy shit or even the strains of Nation of Islam theology, particularly Elijah Muhammad's "Mother Plane" (Ezekiel's Wheel) are at least hinted at in this dime-store comic!

A similarly subversive story is the one that ends the issue: "Incident In Vietnam". Now by 1974, Vietnam was starting to enter popular culture through artistic representation, and not just through images and discussion of those images, and to some extent, even in 2009, the mention of an ongoing or just-ended war is kind of strange and challenging. It reminds people of what went on and people dying and all that stuff and this is problematic for certain "powers that be" for obvious reasons.

What's so crazy (though maybe a little offensive) about "Incident at Vietnam" is how, by placing a UFO sighting in Vietnam and using American soldiers as witnesses, it's moving beyond the typical bystander viewing the event and into a group of people that (rightfully) receive the utmost respect. And even in 1974, when some of that unfortunate "baby killer" bullshit was going on for returning soldiers, this sense of the irresponsible soldier (the potsmokers of Apocalypse Now for example) wasn't really around yet and so, the comic both uses the controversy of the current war and the tradition of our Armed Forces to drum-up some credibility for the existence of aliens.

There's one last aspect of this issue that's worth touching on and it's the story about "The Hoaxmaster". Basically, the Hoaxmaster is this totally absurd character, a sort of used car dealer in a top-hat that shows-up and "expos[es] tricks and uncover[s] lies". When I read the comic, I felt the pages to my left growing and the ones to the right dwindling and I assumed this was the last story (though that's the Vietnam one don't forget) and it would be the point where this pretty crazy comic maintains the status-quo: The Hoaxmaster would explain how all the stuff I just read was false or a manipulation or this or that. But no, all the Hoaxmaster does is give you some quick examples where some goofballs tricked some other goofballs into into thinking they saw UFOs! It's like this subtle way of reinforcing the conspiracy stuff, by acknowledging skepticism and telling readers "Sometimes, it's not true, so be discerning", which is a fairly mature and like governed point of view for such an off-the-wall comic to take.

***

Bonus Space Shit That Don't Make No Sense (but makes a lot of sense) from Jay Electronica because I feel like it:

-Last verse from "The Pledge"


-"Extra Extra"

5/01/2009

X-Men Origins: Wolverine


Big-budget cluster-fuck X-Men Origins: Wolverine comes out today, May 1st. I, like millions of others, watched the leaked prescreener, anxious to see how the movie compared to last year's Iron Man and of course, The Dark Knight. Those two films forever changed comic book movies, Iron Man with it's under the radar political commentary and Downey Jr.'s drunken Tony Stark, The Dark Knight with it's visual effects and the over rated, but still great, Heath Ledger Joker performance.

Comic book movies seem relatively simple to put together, the characters are already established, there are, in cases like these, thousands of story lines you could base your screenplay after, and hundreds of supporting characters you may chose to meet your film's needs. No one expects the movies to follow the same continuity as the comics, but we like hints the director knows what's going on-- little nerd "cameos" that get us excited. Continuity in film is where it starts to get a little tricky, and where Wolverine even has casual viewers asking nerdy continuity questions and sighing loudly.

It's no secret that Marvel has big plans for their "movie-verse" (which it's rumored will get it's own earth number, as in 616, 219, etc.) slowly connecting the films with things like Captain America's shield in Tony Stark's workshop and Nick Fury slowly making contact with the different heroes, for their big Avengers movie, scheduled for 2012. X-Men Origins: Wolverine takes place before the three "X" movies, so when Wolverine meets young mutant Cyclops, it brings up questions about why they didn't know each other as adults? Small things like these seem insignificant, but also are telling of how disorganized the film feels.

The main issue with the movie isn't that it doesn't follow any kind of comic book or movie continuity, it's that Wolverine may be the most popular character Marvel has, and the movie isn't as good as the weekly Wolverine one-shots. The acting is almost on a Star Wars level of poor, it only has slightly better writing going for it, none of the performances stand out as the best because they are all sub-par. Any shocking cameo that would have been exciting have been taken away from us not by the leak, but by the promotional material itself.

The movie wasn't all bad, scenes of Creed (later Sabretooth) and Wolverine battling in the American Civil War and storming the beaches of Normandy during WW2 were visually impressive as well as told a narrative of their friendship before Creed goes "feral". The brotherhood they share (which in the film is literal, the two coming from the same parents) is finally shown, deepening the relationship between the two similarly powered mutants.

"Merc with a Mouth" Deadpool is the second most notable character to Wolverine, the Liefeldian trigger happy Weapon-X survivor is played by Ryan Reynolds, but instead of a terminal cancer patient, he's just a plain old mercenary. Once he actually becomes "Deadpool" he's referred to as "Weapon-XI", and instead of a healing factor, he's given the powers of all mutants, much more like the Dark Reign X-Man Mimic. The only reason this is something of note is the huge push that Deadpool has been getting the past few months, multiple comics, one-shots, and crossovers. Old fans will be disappointed and new fans won't understand the differences between the characters.

There are few scenes in the movie that have you revisiting the ideas behind them, and there is no motivation to see the movie twice. Even as a huge Wolverine fan I had a hard time getting through it, and felt only disappointment afterwards. The only the question that X-Men Origins: Wolverine presents is "How do you fuck up a Wolverine movie?"