6/29/2009

The Wolverton Bible

Basil Wolverton’s work first became physical for me, that is to say, it wasn’t just a bunch of crazy stuff in those awesome, thick-as-a-brick Fantagraphics catalogs from the 90s when I found a copy of the Dark Horse reprint Gateway to Horror in a quarter sale about two and a half years ago. I’d remembered the name from some old R. Crumb interviews and sitting there with pages of super-line-y grotesquerie, it made sense he was a Crumb influence and even kinda made Crumb’s work well, way less interesting.

That The Wolverton Bible has been out for a few months and Crumb’s version of “Genesis” rolls into stores in the fall is oddly perfect. Though the sincerity of Crumb’s opus won’t be questioned, it’s safe to say he simply isn’t the believer that Wolverton so clearly was. Many have commented about the odd fit between Wolverton’s wacky and weird drawings and his employment by the Worldwide Church of God, but it’s really a perfect fit.

What’s shifted since Wolverton sat down and slowly built a religious art masterpiece nearly by accident (like all the best masterpieces) isn't religion, but the perception of religion, especially Christianity. You know, up until about thirty or so years ago, a huge chunk of art history (like hundreds and hundreds of years) was devoted to religious expression, celebration, confusion, and angst. Just because an unfortunate version of secular Liberalism’s taken over Western entertainment, doesn’t make Wolverton’s work out-of-step with Christian values, it makes readers out of step with the plurality of religious faith and expression--when you don’t reduce it to Pat Robertson and George W. Bush.

Paging through The Wolverton Bible, I kept thinking of Victorian art critic John Ruskin’s term to describe Gothic architecture: “savageness”. Ruskin’s argument, and I’m paraphrasing, is that the smoothed-out, idealized images--the beauty of Renaissance art--was really a kind anathema to Christian values. That Christianity was all about things ending and decay and the comfort we should feel with those things when faced with the endless glory of God. Symbolically, Ruskin celebrated gothic tombs and coffins adorned with skulls and bones, over Renaissance tombs decked-out in idealized human forms.

Wolverton’s at his most “Gothic” and most “savage” towards the end of the book, which shows his version of the apocalypse. A kind of EC Comics horror meets in-the-gut actual horror, that’s particularly disturbing. But the genius of Wolverton’s work is that his sense of the grotesque is there on every page. Mouths agape with fear when waters breaks from the ground starting Noah’s flood, return when “hailstones of about a hundred pounds each” fall in the book’s final, ‘Book of Revelations’ section. That the actual geyser of water looks a lot like the nuclear explosion that begins ‘Part 7: The Apocalypse and Beyond’ is kind of added bonus of image-linking that all sequential art, when it’s real good, does.

I mention these because they are formal, “teachable” highlights of Wolverton’s work here, but there’s deeper, harder-to-grasp aspect of his art in the book too. That every image is dark or ugly or at least plain odd, no matter what it’s portraying touches on an innate sense of menace and fear central to the Old Testament. Diseased faces, boil-filled, blood pouring out, are only a tiny bit different from the ragged close-up of Moses’ faces a hundred or so pages earlier, and not even that different from the Platonic entity rising from the ground kicking-off the story of Creation. Don’t think of Wolverton’s book as an exception or a bizarre footnote in religious art but one and maybe the 20th century continuation.

What you see in Wolverton’s work, be it horrifying crab people of Gateway to Horror or Delilah’s tilted, provocative eyes (herself a horror character as far as Wolverton’s concerned) is a tension between conventional illustration and do-whatever-he-wants weirdness. Hidden inside of Wolverton’s illustrations is something “pure”—he just took the next bunch of hours to break apart that ideal cartoon face via jagged lines and dashes of ink—beaten up by a very Ruskinian sense of “savageness”. By the end of the book, pages after pages of doom and destruction, you realize that Wolverton is maybe the only person to illustrate the The Old Testament and the Book of Revelation--the most “savage” books of the bible.

6/26/2009

Lockjaw and the Pet Avengers


Out of continuity and out of step, Lockjaw and the Pet Avengers is half Marvel Comics nerd jerk-off and half one of the best kid’s comics ever. More like a premise created by five awesome 8 year olds with their favorite animal toys or a story in Marvel’s upcoming Strange Tales MAX series than a real comic, Reed Richards visits Black Bolt to discuss collecting all of the Infinity Gems, while a drooling Lockjaw overhears and decides to gather the best of the best from the animal kingdom (and one regular, cross dressing dog), entrusting each gem to a different heroic beast.
Until I walked into my local comic shop and saw Lockjaw on the “Kid’s” side of the store, I didn’t even think of the comic was made for children. The Marvel Adventures header of most “all age” comics published by the comics giant is absent here, giving it a chance to actually be an all-ages book. Without the spandex clad muscle dudes and super-titties busting out of oh-so-small costumes, Lockjaw also has the opportunity to truly be for everyone of all ages, breaking down the gender biases inherent in stuff for kids too.

The teleporting dog, kinetic cat, alien dragon, proud falcon, confused puppy and lightning god powered frog are unlikely teammates, the group is diverse not only in species but in Marvel history. Featuring animal/non-human villains, the bad guys are also from the far reaches of the MU, including Giganto (the underwater one, not Mole Man’s pet), and recent fan favorite Devil Dinosaur, complete with classic Kirby finger count variations.
I’m a pretty easy sell on whacky Marvel shit, “cameo” comics and things like Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E.-- silliness mixed with characters only for us in the know. While Lockjaw and the Pet Avengers is one of those books in it’s own way, it’s also just a fun comic that if were sitting stapled together at your local indie “graphic novel” store, fresh from Kinko’s, you’d buy it. Animals with super powers fighting monsters, isn’t this what comics are all about?

6/24/2009

Naoki Urasawa's 20th Century Boys Volume 3



There is a moment in volume 3 of Naoki Urasawa’s 20th Century Boys in which Kenji, the book’s unlikely hero, goes to confront the mysterious leader of the dangerous “Friends” cult at a concert attended by thousands of the charismatic figure’s followers. The scene is masterfully played and epitomizes the surprising concision of Urasawa’s recent work.

In the 30-odd pages taken up by this episode, the series quickly emerges from the slow burn of the previous two volumes and into the action that will define the rest of the book. Kenji enters the concert confident that once he exposes the cult leader’s crimes, his followers will recognize that they’ve been duped and put an immediate halt to his murderous plans. Of course this confidence is based on the flawed assumption that aside from various cosmetic differences, all people are basically the same and hold essentially the same values. When he finally emerges from the venue after a confrontation with the masked “friend,” Kenji has been stripped of this and several other illusions and given a new awareness of the awesome challenge that he faces.

Naoki Urasawa is kind of a big deal right now. This is unsurprising considering the simultaneous issuing of Pluto, his 21st century update of Tezuka's Astro Boy tale "The Greatest Robot on Earth," and 20th Century Boys, which was originally published in Japan around the turn of the century but withheld in this country at Urasawa’s request until the completion of his mid-nineties series Monster. It helps also that for these new series, Viz has eschewed the wildly inappropriate shock-horror design scheme of Monster for deluxe, signature editions that are more fitting to the books and their ostensible readership.

For a host of reasons, so obvious they hardly seem worth adumbrating here, Pluto is grabbing the lion's share of the attention in this country. Ultimately this is fine; Pluto is a great book--unquestionably one of the two or three great series being published right now. Be that as it may, 20th Century Boys is shaping up to be an incredibly fine, self-assured book and the simultaneous publication of these two series on the heels of Monster gives readers an opportunity to chart the development of one Japan’s true comics masters at the apex of his powers.

Volume 3 feels transitional. The first two volumes of the series were largely concerned with laying out the basic story and character details and it is only as this third volume comes to a close that the plot has begun its first upward development. Urasawa, it seems, has eschewed the typical multi-volume series format in which each volume contains a more or less complete narrative that fits into the larger whole in favor of one story that is structured across the whole of the series. This is an incredibly ambitious strategy that risks putting off readers who have come to expect a certain quota of narrative action in a series from the first volume.

The payoff, of course, is that in the hands of a master capable of pulling it off, a narrative of this scope provides a lot of space in which to tease out all the little details that make reading complex stories rewarding. It’s the same principal that makes Fassbinder’s adaptation of Berlin Alexanderplatz or even a season of The Wire so much more satisfying than the typical television mini-series or crime show. The question of course is whether Urasawa can pull it off. Monster is structured more traditionally, with each volume drawing a complete narrative arc. 20th Century Boys and Pluto, on the other hand, both seem to be developing more unitary structures.

One way in which Urasawa deals with the threat of reader alienation is by introducing new characters in a volume’s final pages. He did this most famously in the first two volumes of Pluto, introducing Atom and Uran, respectively, in those volumes closing pages. Volume 3 of 20th Century Boys ends with the introduction of the mysterious Shogun.

Aside from being one of those great, generally benevolent but sorta dark characters that populate Urasawa’s books, Shogun epitomizes the incredibly effective subtlety of Urasawa’s art. Like a lot of successful manga artists, Urasawa has developed a drawing style that conveys a lot of energy and subtle detail within its surface simplicity. Consider the episode in volume 1 of Pluto in which Geshicht is charged with informing the robot wife of a police robot of her husband’s destruction. By some artful combination of panel layout and general manga voodoo, Urasawa is able to chart the descent into sadness and despair on an unchanging, obviously robotic face.


Urasawa’s greatest strength, however, is the human face. With a scant few scratchy lines, Urasawa presents characters that are usually either plainly sympathetic or threatening. Occasionally, however, he throws readers a curve, giving us a character whose face is more inscrutable, belying conflicting elements. Grimmer, from Monster, is one such character—the smiling openness of his face betrays hints of the darkness that lies in his past. Shogun is another such example—the delicacy of his features and his kindness toward the Bangkok prostitutes that he counts as his friends are complicated by the aura of brooding violence that surrounds him.


In his recent memoir Too Fat to Fish, Artie Lange asserts that the only unforgivable crimes are those committed against children because childhood is the only opportunity we have for unsullied happiness in our lives. Lange's point here shines light on what might be the major concern of Urasawa’s comics, which is that the events of childhood can have unexpected and devastating consequences. Children play a major role in Urasawa’s books and he uses them to effectively highlight the tragedy of modern life and the threats that we face.

Urasawa complicates this theme in a number of interesting ways in 20th Century Boys. As we learn in volume 3, the leader of the Friends cult is the father of Kenji’s niece Kanna. Thus the tension between this opposed pair becomes personified in this toddling child. Even more interesting is the fact that the struggle at the center of the book comes down to how different people can take the same childhood events, in this case the innocent fantasy play of children, and take them in wildly different directions. Kenji’s childhood imaginings of a band of boys who will save the world from an evil genius’s nefarious plans become the basis for the friendless Sadakiyo’s plot for global destruction.

Indeed, Kenji’s own struggle centers on his failure to live up to the dreams of his childhood, symbolized by the ¥26,000 guitar that is consumed in the King Mart that, for its part, consumed his dreams of rock stardom. The persistence of questions by his former classmates and teachers about his music career confirm this as a central focus of the book.

As Kenji sits dumbfounded at the Friends concert, the lead singer of the performing rock band chanting, “I Rock You!,” one cannot help but think of the opening lyrics to the T Rex song from which the book takes its title: “Friends say it's fine, friends say it's good, everybody says it’s just like rock & roll.” Kenji’s objections to the contrary, there is a disturbing similarity between charismatic religious figures and rock stars. As Kenji allows life to get in the way of his realizing his dreams, the Friend rises to his own perverted version of stardom and threatens the world in the process. It’s hard to say what’s more difficult, saving the world or living up to one’s dreams, but Urusawa’s figured out a way to equate one with the other and it promises to be a satisfying read.


6/18/2009

Alcuni Fumetti Ho Comprato in Italia

or "Some Comics I Got in Italy"



So I just spent the past three and a half months studying abroad in Siena, Italy. Before I left, I knew that comics were a pretty big deal over there. There's only one comic store is Siena itself, and it's almost exclusively a manga store (called "Nuvole di China" or "Clouds of China," the China part is kind of weird to me) aside from a couple current Marvel titles. I did travel to a bunch of other cities in my time over there, but I was too busy nutting over shit like Titian and Brunelleschi to plan ventures to comic stores on my own. I did get a chance to snag a couple of bargain comics from the basement of a Barnes and Noble type Italian chain in Rome, and me and Sammy found this pretty cool comic/movie store in Venice. Like pretty much every store anywhere in Venice, that place had a rack of postcards, but oh man, were these actually worth paying a euro each for:





They had a whole series of these space Venice postcards by Moebius. One is dated '84, and I would have to assume they were all made at around the same time.

And then there's this dude:



I looked all over the place to try and find a Ranxerox book in Italian, but this was the only presence of him I could find. I can't offer any insight to who made this or anything, but dang, that's a sweet outfit.

On to some of the real comics I got:



This is five short stories Toriyama did for Shonen Jump from '86 to '89. They're all pretty standard stuff from him-- wacky dudes are actually crucial tough guys, some animal people show up, dudes go crazy for some hotties, that kind of stuff.



Sort of cool/sort of useless fact: Comics are called "fumetti," from fumare (to smoke) because the word balloons are like clouds of smoke coming out of the character's mouth.



For some reason What's Micheal is only called Micheal in Italian (I guess they already figured out what he is, even though the title is translated with the "what" in every other language I can find). One of the stories in here actually works better because it's not written in English. The man brings home Micheal because another man in his office has to go back to America and asks him to take care of it, but UH OH! Micheal doesn't speak Italian, he only understands English!









They try to call him in Italian to no avail. Even when they try in English, all he does is turn to look at them. The husband suggests that maybe they just aren't pronouncing it in a way he's used to, so they phonetically pronounce each word to try to sound more American. "Micheal, come on!" becomes "Mai-col, cam-on!" They both get real excited he understands them, and the wife takes him to see his new litter box. She tries to explain to him what it is, though he obviously doesn't understand/care. Moral of the story: "Whenever possible, it's best not to accept custody of animals belonging to foreigners."

It's pretty great how much reading comics helps in learning a new language. It's easier than just reading a plain text story because the images help give hints as to what's being said, and because of the humor or childishness of some of them aimed towards younger audiences, they help teach slangs or figures of speech as well. For example, "cazzo" means "fuck" (or actually it literally means "dick," but it's used as an general expletive), but since you're not going to find that in a kids comics, they use the word "cavolo," meaning "cabbage." It's like the equivalent of a cartoon character saying "oh, fudge" or something like that.

Sammy already kind of went into how he feels about Italian comics, but he brought back a pretty sweet haul as well. Stay tuned for that shit!

6/16/2009

The Anti-Confessional: Disappearance Diary

On the first page of Disappearance Diary, Hideo Azuma's Manga-memoir detailing the author/artist's off-and-on homelessness and steady alcoholism, the pudgy bug-eyed cartoon version of Azuma tells/warns readers: "This manga has a positive outlook on life and so it has been made with as much realism removed as possible." When the book sorta wraps-up about two hundred pages later, Azuma's a bit more wizened (but only a bit) and still in rehab but seemingly on the right path.

That's to say, Azuma's book is very much written while still in transition, not when he's climbed out of the void, fully shaken of his demons. He's half-way out, on the precipice between sobriety and well, the ugly stuff Azuma kinda sorta glosses over for the entire book--the first flashback is Azuma's failed suicide...played for laughs. Another way to put that however, would be: Though played for laughs, the book's first flashback is still to his attempted suicide. It's this weird tension between what Azuma's book could and should be and what it is that makes it such a frustrating and fascinating read.

I happened to pick this book up at Chapel Hill Comics a few days before Noah Berlatsky's TCJ review, reprinted on The Hooded Utilitarian, went up. In a sense, it's reprinting was ideal. Here was one of the few comics writers whose byline I take notice of or search for (if I finish a book, I might Google dude's name in combination with the book I just completed in hopes of finding a review), who isn't afraid to call bullshit or rigorously defend something with the same fervor, writing about a book I enjoyed and devoured but left feeling really weird about.

A week after reading the Manga and Berlatsky's review, I pretty much disagree with Berlatsky on every point but without Berlatsky's merciless review, I don't think I could've argued with myself into declaring Azuma's anti-confessional memoir a masterpiece. This ladies and gentlemen, is what good criticism does: It clarifies, complicates, and gives you confidence in your own views of a book.

Back to that contentious page-one declaration that "this manga has a positive outlook on life and so it has been made with as much realism removed as possible." Berlatsky's right when points out Azuma grossly misunderstands what "realism" means, but the constant turn away not from ugly, raw details, but the really dark stuff--he'll tell you how he found cigarettes and a lighter in his out of the trash noodles, he won't tell you how upset his disappearance made his wife--is a provocation, one Azuma introduces from the the first page of Disappearance Diary.

It's a provocation because Azuma occasionally reminds you of his wife and simply by doing that, reminds the reader of how he amputates her from his downward spiral narrative, mentioning her in passing (including the tiny little fact that she works on his Manga with him!). At other points, he steps into the narrative and rushes through a part of his life that would be really interesting by telling you that he's gonna move on because this part "isn't funny". That part might also allow Azuma to confess to being a fuck-up, which paradoxically, would make the book more indulgent.

By the end of the book, Azuma's not vomiting, homeless, and entirely a mess, but he's still got work to do. It's why he remains in rehab when Disappearance Diary ends and it's why so much of the pain he caused is sliced right out the book. Azuma wasn't drawing the book in rehab, it's simply the position he's taken, and so the book holds onto some of the worst aspects of his addictive behavior (denial, refusal to take it seriously, a disinterest in even actualizing the people he's hurt), but with an odd knowingness about it too, as if he's writing in those absences (they're not unconscious omissions) to develop some extra contempt for the Azuma character and recreate the anger and mouth agape frustration his wife and employers and kids most certainly felt.

And when it isn't stirring up these feelings, it's wrapping itself in of-the-moment minutiae: The day to day patterns employed to pick up some food and procure drink while homeless, the technical details of being a gas pipe layer, and the insane business practices of the Manga industry. The focus on these little details further encourages the feeling of frustration with Azuma, while it also captures the temporal, of-the-moment-ness of his life during this chaotic, fuck-it-all time. Monique compared the book's narrative, especially the early part of the book where he describes the normal day being homeless, to a video game and that's apt--the same mix of of-the-moment whimsy and mind-numbing repetition.

Even the third-act shift to a rehab center keeps-up this kind of denial by diving into the details that, if you don't find Azuma's insights into the personalities and weird tics of those around him--a kind of annoyed empathy that is really kind of specific to this book--can get mad tedious. This tedium speaks to Berlatsky's point that Azuma misunderstands what defines "realism" but again, it also gives the book a really strange power that creeps up on you after you've finished reading it. The book's essentially a mess of tiny details equal parts funny and horrifying that slow-up to an ending when Azuma sorta gets his shit together in rehab.

There's no resolution to Disappearance Diary, no restorative wrap-up, no "Man, I really messed-up by I'm trying" stuff that tempers even the darkest of addiction, depression memoirs. That's to say, the book through Azuma's choice (whether it's a blind-spot Azuma also has in life doesn't matter, once he turns it into art, it becomes a choice) to omit crucial details, to gingerly dance around the stuff that's really makes him look bad (which makes him look really bad to readers), captures something rarely touched-upon in "How I was a fuck-up"-style memoirs: Not quite recovered, not quite a blithering, full-blown, mess either--the awkward in-betweens of rehabilitation,

6/15/2009

White Box Hero: Gundam: The Origin


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!

From my initial exposure in high school, the Gundam Universe and I got off on the wrong foot. Most of the kids were pretty into Dragon Ball Z because, you know, it was on after school. Some of the nerdier ones got hooked on Gundam Wing too. I had seen a couple episodes and it seemed to fall into the same needless plot exposition trappings as most other anime.
Years later: enter the internet and Mobile Suit Gundam. It excited me right from the start with the intro’s first image: The light from an explosion encircling Earth like a dawn. After you get past the (great?) J-Pop theme song, each episode starts with a history lesson on the Gundam Universe. Normally, this is a cheap way to acclimate the viewer to the world presented, but in Gundam it presents the world in the context of its people. Lines like, “Here hundreds of millions of space emigrants lived, raised children…and died.” develop the story and its themes instead of just providing information. Even though the concept is mind blowing for us (living in a continent floating in space), the intro doesn’t place emphasis on that aspect, it focuses on the people who inhabit it, and though they're in space, their human experience is essentially the same.
The show initially reminded me a lot of "The Macross Sage" from Robotech, another anime with mecha pilots set in space dealing with issues of war. The war becomes the characters’ job and how they deal with its stresses parallel how one deals with the stresses in a workplace. The notable difference between Gundam and Macross is, Macross focuses on the interpersonal friendships and romances between the characters, whereas Gundam focuses internally--on the main character Amuro.

Gundam: The Origin by Yoshikazu Yasuhiko mirrors the series in many ways. Although the characters and most of the scenes are the same, the comic adds onto the themes of the show through new dialogue and fascinating panel layout. From the start, Amuro is shown as a character that doesn’t have his life together. Frau, Amuro’s neighbor and maybe partial caretaker, comes to check on him because the civilians are being evacuated due to a scouting mission turned battle. She finds the 15 year old living in squalor; He's essentially one of the nerds in high school that would watch Gundam Wing. The attack instantly propels him into adulthood having to face the death of people around him...no longer can he wallow in teenage angst.
This is where the art of the comic takes over and makes his transition tangible to the reader. In one scene Amuro is near one of the giant enemy mobile suits and as it is firing, he is dodging the giant bullet shells. In a only-in-comics moment, the background is gone and the shells break the panel barriers. These techniques make the panels a metaphor for Amuro's mind--a breaking of form and expectation.

At the end of issue #1, Amuro has already toughened his mind to the prospect of death. He decides to fight back, but even as he fights and kills his opponents, he feels each death. The reader sees the pilot in each enemy mobile suit he destroys. One suit tries and escapes, calling out for his commanding officer. By showing the enemy in such detail, it moves the reader towards a war experience close to Amuro's--one where the death and violence of war is internalized.
All this builds upon Amuro until he starts manifesting it physically. At the end of issue #3, Frau comes into Amaro's room again but this time finds him having some sort of nervous breakdown. It's a strange page that's almost surreal. The backgrounds have the same effect of taking you into to Amuro's head and making this strange scene even more intense.

Manga is a particularly good vehicle for a psychological space action comic. Lots of brooding silent panel set up shots and expressive close ups give a real feeling of being in Amuro's head--all the push and pull of emotions.The trick is for it not to get too cerebral or go to far in any one direction. Gundam: The Origin does a really good job of balancing this with exciting action scenes and a bunch of sub-plots to keep the story moving and interesting.

6/10/2009

Jan's Atomic Heart

Jan's Atomic Heart certainly wasn't written as a fusion of typical "indie" stuff and intricate, unironic space shit, it seems more like artist/writer Simon Roy sought to retain the stirring wonder of sci-fi and inject a very important, down-to-earth sense of reality in there, but something like Adrian Tomine grows a pair or Dan Clowes loses the contempt for the world and one or both write a story that Bilal will draw, to be published in two consecutive issues of Heavy Metal circa 1979, is a good pitch.

This sense of our-world realism meets space comic craziness comes through in the first interaction between Anders and his friend Jan, currently occupying a robot body while his real body recovers after being struck (along with his car) by a train. Anders' first response to seeing his friend Jan as a robot is, "Holy shit, man". Jan then proceeds to complain about dressing his dumpy robot buddy: "This morning was like forcing a t-shirt on an oil drum...that's why I'm wearing these fucking sweats--they're all I could get on." This isn't a particularly hard trick, to write characters in a sci-fi story like regular dudes, but it's a really daring move and in direct contrast to the way-too stringent genre rules that even the best authors feel the need to obsessively follow--cursing and sweatpants jokes go a long way.

When the story gets more heated and immediate--not a dude in a jogging suit and robot chatting over coffee--they speak in the same confused, bursts of surprise and frustration (lots of curse words and exclamation points); personalities don't change, but the stakes of the world around them are raised a great deal. While it doesn't go this far--Jan's Atomic Heart is very much a sci-fi fable/parable--it's a partial answer to thoughts I've had about the nature of sci-fi: What if say, Woman Under the Influence took place in space? Would it have the same emotional resonance?

Still not sure of the answer to that but indeed, injecting a little of that raw reality into this comic really works. Because the sci-fi genre is often allegory and generally just kind of grand, characters are as much symbols as they are fully-formed and as a result, there's not always that much emotional resonance. Roy's punchy bro-talk works wonders for the dynamic between Anders and Jan and when the comic builds to a betrayal, you don't only feel it, but you're sort of upset it happened and maybe start the book over unsure that Roy just sent the narrative in that direction.

There's the right kind of whimsy to Roy's art too, shaky but confident lines--turn to the first page of the comic, a desolate urban landscape, in the left corner Anders runs, notice the disinterest in a straight-edge on the building's porches--and dashed-off inkwash, lend to the casual, informal tone of the comic. It's the art equivalent to the sand-scraped and battle-damaged ships and armor in Star Wars or the Nam' speak injected into Haldeman's Forever War.

Roy also avoids the strict formalism of science-fiction, as you never see the gears turning in the narrative and there's no obnoxious sense of parallelism or anything that really kills a lot of sci-fi. The story, despite building to something very global and political, and even employing a sci-fi "twist", feels like a chunk of something larger, be it both characters' lives, the world in Roy's "far-ish future", or the impending sense of terrorism. It ends before it really needs to, abruptly but not ambiguously--hitting it's logical conclusion and forgetting the extraneous sense of closure genre stories obsess over.

Science-fiction could learn to chill-out a little, to get in touch with reality in direct rather than indirect, metaphor-laden ways, and Jan's Atomic Heart does just that, returning to some of the trippy-smart, fine-art/comics blurring that defined early Heavy Metal and merging it with the naturalism and emotional availability of "comix" minus the coffee and cigarettes sad-sack self-seriousness. One of the best of 2009.

6/08/2009

"Entitlement issues..."

When a lot of the stuff you like is comics or sci-fi novels, it's easy to forget it's still "art" or "literature" and that the creators/"artists" are allowed to work on their own timelines. We expect a monthly comic to be out on time, each and every month, upholding the quality and never disappointing us and we get real mad when a series of books or a mini-series or whatever falls behind or disappears for quite some time. But the real sin of deadlines is when you break that deadline, maybe even destroy that deadline--and the work's just not that good.

Mark Millar's constant delays are infuriating because there is rarely a payoff, the characters and overall plot seem to change direction every issue, like he can't decide on where it's going--the story falls apart and the long gaps cause many to lose interest. In contrast, David Petersen's Mouse Guard, is worth the wait. Each and every issue of the original series and the new "Winter 1152" has been continuity-driven enough for long time readers, but also inviting to newcomers. We are rewarded by the wait on Mouse Guard because being allowed to take his time, Petersen can work on the lore of the Guard as a whole, while making each issue engaging on it's own.

Recently on Neil Gaiman's blog, he responded to a question from a fan regarding what level of commitment a writer of a series has to their fans. The series in question is written by George R.R. Martin, the fan feeling "increasingly frustrated with Martin's lack of communication on the next novel's publication date." Gaiman's initial, pithy response is "George R.R. Martin is not your bitch." This is completely legit, because he is, in fact, not the bitch of Gareth or any other fanboy who expects things from writers. This isn't Marvel Comics or DC we're talking about, it's a single man writing a series with characters who he owns, and can do with what he pleases.

If you take the time to head over to Georgie-boy's blog (or rather, not a blog, a Livejournal), you quickly learn that it's more of an insight into the man himself, and not his work. He posts pictures of his role playing game figures, thoughts on movies and his excitement over the series in question being filmed for the big screen. Martin makes a point to not talk about his book's progress or the contents of the new stories, which could be because he wants to keep everything a surprise or because he's not working on anything. No matter the case, it's his right as not only an artist, but a goddamned human, to write about what he choses on his personal website...and it is certainly not his responsibility to keep anyone but his publisher updated on the status of his books.

When did fans become so demanding? If each and every writer took the advice of all their fans and tried to make everyone happy, their books would never come out or be released with a different story than the author wanted. Authors should be able to take the same time with their writing that painters take with their paintings. It is a process to create and that takes time and energy, two things that aren't always available. Who knows how many times George R.R. Martin has started but could not finish the next installment, or how many times he's gone back to completely change the entire book because he himself has learned something new about one of the characters, or was inspired by a new place or person he met. Who knows if Martin even wants to continue writing the series?

Recently Marvel started rereleasing Ultimate Hulk Vs. Wolverine, the first two issues had been released in December of 2005 and January 2006, but the full series was set-back by constant delays. Although I wanted the entire series, the two issues in existence were, in a way, perfect, and the cliff hanger ending of issue #2 left you wanting more, but satisfied with the series. The artist Leinil Yu's popularity grew after drawing Secret Invasion and so they brought back the series, but it sucked. I wish I had never read the third through sixth issues because the beauty of the first two had been tainted by the downright awful four new issues. It felt like the series was over for both the writer and artist, and so they just finished the book not really caring about where it went, but that it closed a chapter in the Ultimate Universe.

If they had had the time in the beginning, if the interest of the fans was there, the series may have been one of the best "Vs." books of all time. Even the two single issues that were written for the six issue series were better than most full, completed story arcs. The two creators lost interest in the series, but because of "Ultimatum", an event in the Ultimate Marvel Universe where all the heroes and villains die, is taking place right now, Marvel just wanted to tie up some loose ends. The series should've been left alone, but because the creators had their hands forced, it ended poorly, and now when I think of the series, I'm just bummed about the half-assed completion, and I'm not at all excited about the great first two issues.

Most sci-fi and comics readers (see: nerds) are obsessive in a way they don't realize, knowing every DC super hero's secret identity, all of the names and back stories of everyone in Jabba's Palace or all the Pokemon and their evolutionary lines. They have a love for the work and have devoted a part of themselves to it.

The kinds of fans who want more stories do one of two things: bitch and moan on the internet, expecting things from people they don't know, or take things into their own hands, making fanfics or creating their own new stories. They want something more from the characters, not the writers, and because the characters are so alive to them, they don't understand that someone has to give them life, and if you're one of the former and don't have the imagination, you are left waiting. You write on message boards theorizing about what's next and are angry that George R.R. Martin is just so damn lazy.

If Martin forced himself to write books he wasn't ready to write, as Gaiman notes, his fans would scold him for ruining the series they loved. It's better to enjoy what someone has given you than to expect the writer to push themselves too hard and give you one book that ruins the other four. Just be happy that you liked the first part enough to read a sequel, even if you never get it.

6/04/2009

Powerful Panels: Northlanders #17 by Vasilis Lolos

Save for a few sound effects and angry yells ("Fucker!") from Snorri the Black or Egil the Sledge-Hammer, the latest issue of Northlanders, "The Viking Art of Single Combat", an issue-long fight scene, is entirely buttressed by Vasilis Lolos' radiant art and a constant, pitch-perfect narration from Wood.

Lolos' work captures the whirl and confusion of a lengthy battle while remaining clear and comics-grammatical enough to make sense and the issue could really stand alone without Wood's narration, though it wouldn't have the emotional resonance. Wood's concern is with the tiny details, ritual, thoughts, worries, back-history, and everything else of viking lore, casually translated into a language closer to our own. It's like an issue of Tor with a college degree.

Much the way Kubert wrote Tor, a caveman comic, in something resembling the hard-boiled detective style, Wood adopts current slang and modern-day analogues to his viking tale, but not to simplify the story or dumb-it-down but to tap into some of the emotions at-stake: "For the common man, it's all too easy to find yourself in the middle of a levy, conscripted into service by your fucking landlord. Surely the taxes you pay means the lord and his bodyguards have an obligation to see you don't eat an axe?".
Part hip history lesson, part formal exercise in comics writing and art, and all raw, oddly affecting emotion, "The Viking Art of Single Combat", is like a comics version of Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait--an intense dive into brawny athleticism and ritual, with no tiny detail spared. And that's the brilliance of Lolos' work here, a perfect balance of visual narrative that occasionally freezes or shifts to hone-in on the tiniest detail. Something, in a previous Powerful Panels post, I showed Lolos to do expertly.

Above is a perfect example of Lolos and Wood working together. Wood's line ("the central concept of "Striking where he isn't") exemplified in the main image of Snorri striking Egil, a strip of pale orange whirling around the characters to indicate the motion of the blow that indeed, strikes Snorri where he isn't. At the same time, Lolos complements the main image here with two smaller panels of intense detail. The panel in the upper left is a close-up of Egil's armor with a slash of motion across it--or that's what I think it is. It's an odd but awesome choice, Lolos zooming-in something that's not visibile in the main image (this is from the opposite angle, presumably showing Egil's front, left side) but oddly, illustrating the motion or action line as well. Of course, if Lolos didn't illustrate the line of motion, he'd have to draw some kind of damage or something because the panel without that visual suggestion of Snorri's striking would lack the kineticism necessary.


But it's the other small panel, in the lower right side of the image that's especially fascinating: An image of the sky with small pieces of metal and debris flying through the air. Standing on its own (below or at the top of this entry), it's completely abstract, and even within the narrative of the story, it's pretty jarring and initially confusing. Confusing because, Lolos' drawing captures something that couldn't be captured in any other artform. In movies for example, this kind of close-up of debris (or blood or whatever) flying off of someone/something would be a quick cut-away or a slow-motion, kinda stupid Matrix-like image that slows the scene down for a second and calls attention to the detail. It's similar to the Panels post I did on Mike Mignola's illustration of the 1/8th of a second when a match is struck and it lights up the room. A similarly strange and impossible-to-present image in any artform other than comics.

6/02/2009

Jodorowsky and Manara's Borgia: Flames from Hell"


Though an historical narrative, Jodorowsky and Manara's "Borgia: Flames from Hell," which was published in the July 2009 issue of Heavy Metal, has more in common with the writer's science-fiction epics of the Incal universe than his other, non-science-fiction comics. The story opens with a masked orgy on Easter 1494 and concerns events in the lives of Rodrigo de Borgia, Pope Alexander VI, and two of his children, Lucrezia and the legendary schemer Cesare.

Cinematic Grotesquerie
The orgy at the story's opening connects the work visually to the artist whose output "Flames from Hell" outwardly most resembles, Stanley Kubrick. Both artists center their work in the mode of the grotesque in order to highlight the depravity and human folly which forms the basis of their respective subjects.

This similarity is more or less superficial, however, because unlike the late filmmaker, whose more or less deterministic films emphasize the utter powerlessness of humans to effect the doomed circumstances in which they find themselves, Jodorowsky, who at the same time has a sympathy and love for his human subjects that is notably absent from Kubrick's films, clearly believes that insofar as humans find themselves in dire straits, it is result of their own actions. Moreover, Jodorowsky has faith in the ability of humans to better their circumstances--witness John DiFool and his fellows in the Incal stories.

"Flames from Hell," like the stories in the Incal cycle, is concerned with what happens when people are not forced to expend much of their time and energy toward the business of survival. In his science-fiction stories, these circumstances come about as a result of technological advancement and in this latter story, they are a function of one family's accumulation of enormous wealth and power.

Jodorowsky's billionaires are most certainly not renaissance versions of Bill and Melinda Gates. Rather than committing their wealth to legitimate civic or philanthropic ventures, the Borgias concern themselves solely with the consolidation of power. Rodrigo de Borgia expended enormous sums to secure his election to the papacy and his reign is noted for its decadence.

The story of Alexander VI's papacy is summed up brilliantly in the sequence that opens with the masked orgy. The pope is presented masked in a king's costume and is engaged in the business of searching for his ideal queen. When a beautiful woman approaches, masked and in queen's garb, the "king" wastes no time in dragging her across the hall to an altar, which he summarily clears with a sweep of his royal arm, setting her upon it and mounting her as the object of his carnal worship.

This sequence highlights the subtle splendor of Manara's illustrations. The king's mask is represented more or less consistently--open faced, with lips parted. However, as the action changes from panel to panel, subtle shifts in Manara's illustrations reflect Rodrigo's state: determination as he drags his queen across the hall, bemused wonder as he lovingly removes his queen's stockings and finally culminating in the couple's post-coital embrace. Manara's rendering of the king's mask in this panel brilliantly expresses that look of confused disbelief--the "what the fuck have i just done" face--that many have felt in the moments just after sexual release. That Rodrigo discovers in the following panels that the woman he has just bedded is his own daughter Lucretia is almost anticlimactic in the wake of this brilliant rendering.


God Is Sorta Great?
From films such as Holy Mountain to his science-fiction epics and this tale of renaissance royalty, Jodorowsky has shown himself to be a major student and critic of the world's many religious and mystical traditions. In his comics, religion is frequently presented as something that is used as a tool of social control. In "Flames from Hell," this is obviously reflected in the banking family's recognition that the ultimate arbiter of power in their age was the Catholic church and the best way to guarantee the family's power is to pepper its upper echelons, from the College of Cardinals to the papacy itself.

Unlike many contemporary skeptics, however, Jodorowsky recognizes the beauty in religion and even the potential good of spiritual traditions. In stories such as Megalex, mankind's way out of the mind-deadening drudgery of a wholly artificial world is depicted in part through pagan spirituality and in "Flames from Hell," the greatest potential challenge to the tyranny of the Borgias is represented by religious reformers such as Savonarola. Jodorowsky never entirely relinquishes his stance as an ironist, however, and even these reformers are shown in all their folly. In one sequence in "Flames from Hell," the monk Savonarola is portrayed leading a purifying demonstration outside the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. One of the gathered penitents is the great renaissance painter Botticelli, who throws his painting "Three Nymphs Trying to Awaken Eros from his Sleep" into the raging fire, vowing never to "let perverted genitals guide my brushes again!"

The Negative Zone: Sanitizing Manara for American Readers
When Brandon first noticed the July issue of Heavy Metal on the shelves of a comics shop in Chapel Hill, NC, he pointed out that the usually shrink-wrapped magazine was displayed in flagrante, as it were. As I was reading the story after picking up a copy of the magazine at the book store at which I am employed, I noticed that in a panel ostensibly depicting a woman peeing into a sauce pan, the woman was inexplicably drawn wearing lavender panties. This obvious and admittedly very bad editing job led me to investigate some of the story's panels more closely.


I discovered, unsurprisingly, that any panel which might have depicted penetration or even mere genitalia had been somewhat sloppily edited to censor out this apparently offensive material. Some of the examples are as ridiculous as that mentioned above, including a rotund woman who is wearing what contemporaries might refer to as "granny panties" even while she is obviously being fucked by her oldster husband.

I am going to fess up and say this is the first "new" issue of Heavy Metal I have purchased since becoming a comics reader about 18 months ago. Be that as it may, I do know that the magazine is typically sold with protective shrink-wrap and that in the older issues in my collection, the editors did not seem to have balked at sexually explicit material in the same way. I don't know if this is indicative of a permanent shift in the magazine's presentation, but it seems that for a magazine whose only draw anymore seems to be that the comics published in its pages tend to be sexually explicit, this is a legendarily stupid marketing decision. It also perpetuates a sort of characterization of American comics readers as prudish bumpkins who cannot be trusted with intellectually or sexually sophisticated material.

Whatever the significance of this nanny-ish censorship, it is a genuinely good thing to see that at 80 years old, Alejandro Jodorowsky can still write great comics and that somebody in this country can drum up the enthusiasm to publish them. With the newly minted publishing arrangement between Devil's Due Press and Les Humano├»des Associ├ęs, American readers can hopefully look forward to more of Jodorowsky's books appearing on our shores. The translations may be shoddy and the images censored, but this is an artist whose work deserves to be read in whatever form we can get it.