Beast Week: Realism & Expressionism

First thing I noticed when I picked up Beast was the back cover: A close-up of an oil painting, so close as to only fit the sweeping brush strokes, capturing the 3D effect of thickly-applied paint on more paint. The kind of thing it's rare of a 2D image to recreate. The brush strokes there are so real you expect to be able to feel them and at the same time, they represent nothing; they're totally abstract. After reading Beast, this makes perfect sense; the back cover encapsulates the story’s tension between realism and expressionism.

On the one hand, Churchland gives you panels of just hands, messy crossword puzzles, or dirt around the toilet, and on the other, you get Beast and all the otherworldly stuff he brings with him. It’s the driving force at the center of the comic, highlighting Colette's problems, and more simply, it makes the book interesting to read. Because the story focuses so much on emotions, the headbutting of real and unreal that goes on is perfect. Yeah, emotions are these weird swirly Beast eyes, but they’re also this intensely real things--frustration with dad, an obsession with passivity, a complex break-up--that have the same complexities that Churchland puts in the physical world around Colette.

She’s got to figure things out--just like any of us would--on the fly, in the moment, when it's right in front her face. The characters have this Cassavetes-like realism to them, where their emotions are understated and hardly spoken, but it's clear what they are and that a cavalcade of fears and anxieties are just bubbling underneath the surface. The dialogue has the same sort of realism, with the characters speaking more like actual people rather than characters using comic-book-speak.

Beast is always the one bringing these emotions to the surface, acting as a foil for Colette. When you first read meet him it’s not clear whether Beast is even real. Certainly the first night she’s there Colette wonders the same thing. The first time she meets him, he tells her a story that makes her cry. This is instantly a powerful moment since Churchland has already established--through the story's inherent realism--Colette's rather unsure, inactive character. You know the weight of what's happening even though it's near the beginning, and you can tell she's not a person to cry over everything. Beast is this intangible force that makes Colette leave her comfort zone to explore this unknown world/person that is the future, herself, emotions, creativity, etc.

Even though Beast is central to the story, Churchland talks about reining in the fairy tale elements in her afterword to the book. She says that when she was a kid she always thought that the part when the Beast turned into a handsome Prince was disappointing and fake. There's a natural attraction to fairy tales but any thinking, contemporary reader can't help but yearn for something a little more to them. Something that doesn't play-out quite so perfectly and harmoniously. So, Churchland keeps her Beast lurking on the fringes never gaining control of what is Colette's story.

It’s a clever flip on the classic fairy tale but it still keeps the central theme of transformation. And that’s what makes Beast great because no matter what is going on, each moment always remains rooted in the brain of Colette--be it real or unreal. It’s Colette’s transformation and it's The Beast that allows it to happen. And when Colette finally comes to terms with things, we’re never quite sure what she comes to terms with. Through her work and each encounter with Beast, she gets more comfortable. She starts to listen to him and realizes he’s not something that just comes in through windows and sends chills up your spine but some kind of hard to figure out inspirational force. The Beast is never defined even though he is a tangible character. He’s purposefully kept ambiguous and represent lots of things and one thing. But what's that one thing? Only Colette knows. The ending is the final culmination of it all. Plowing through crayon shadows to get to a photograph. It's art breaking through to our reality, not the other way around.


Beast Week: King City #3 Cover

This week, the third issue of Brandon Graham's King City came out and it's got a cover by Marian Churchland. Like her guest work on Elephantmen this summer, Churchland's cover here has the strange effect of very much keeping in the tradition of the comic she's guest drawing and usurping many of its long-established traditions.

The tension of Elephantmen was always the very smart writing rubbing up against the very typical IMAGE style art--the art's really good, but it's full of muscles, guns, and boobs, so you know what I mean--and Churchland relieved that tension by providing art that was as sensitive and realistic as the writing. The series couldn't sustain itself if this tension were permanently resolved, but for a few issues, it was a delight.

"I grew to particularly like the Miki character, despite my initial grumblings about how drawing wasp-waisted big-tittied ladies is not my thing, and I wanted to do something with her beyond simply illustrating the issue."

That's a quote from Churchland's livejournal and it's an interesting way to enter the like, side-goals of her work. Namely, it seems to me at least, a polite, wise corrective to how most females look--and with Beast act--in most comics. Neither Elephantmen or King City are "sexist" or anything or even negative in their portrayal--I think there's an irony to the way the use absurd proportions for the women--but well, Churchland brings the female characters down to earth in really unprecedented ways.
Above is a terrible photo--sorry no scanner--of the character from King City that Churchland put on the cover. This is of course, Brandon Graham's version. Especially here, you're witnessing the ironic use of the "typical" female in comics art, as the entire point of the character here is to idealize her. To make her unreal, too attractive. She's like a rap video girl and that's awesome. It's also of course, it's own version of "feminism" in the sense that girls shaped like this are just as under-represented in popular media as "average"-shaped girls, but that's neither here nor there right now. The point is to just look at the way Churchland's retained the character and her characteristics, while also slanting the details towards her own interests.
Notice the spindly fingers and the boney arms here. All of these smaller features are aimed at contrasting with the awesomely giant ass the character has--something Churchland retains and maybe even enlarges--but they're also the reality of a particularly thin or oddly-proportioned person. And there are wrinkles in her clothes? Around the sleeve of the hand holding the cigarette. These kinds of details poke through and add a lot to the image. There's also the weird way that part of her arm--around the armpit--sticks out of the dress; it's sliding off provocatively, but also because maybe the dress doesn't fit her right.

For a grasp on rarefied form of "feminism" going on in Churchland's work--a feminism that is basically more like, coming at it from a point of view us dudes are unaware of or not sensitive enough to and nothing more--it's important to notice how indeed, the absurd proportions are keep intact. And also how, the clothes (a tight dress, thigh highs) are given some kind of earthy reality to them, making the outfit both a little more absurd and that much more attractive.

That napkin or handkerchief hanging halfway off the barstool, a nearly empty packet of cigarettes on top of it, is just a small touch of regularity to the image. The same way Churchland peppers Beast with grime on the toilet or numbers scratched on a wall, does she place these slabs of how-stuff-really-is into the image. These are the things glossed over or purposefully forgotten by a lot of artists--especially comics artists--because they de-idealize the image because well, that's the tradition of comics.

And now, the best part of the cover and indeed, the most actively "real": The reinforced toes on the stockings and the rubber soles of the shoes. This is most certainly the kind of thing a lot of people just don't think about, especially if you're a guy. I don't wish to paint Churchland into the corner of "female comics artist" but in a way, she's the proper kind of fact-checker, corrective to a male-dominated comics world. Most guys are not going to think about the toes of a pair of stockings or how even shoes you'd go out to a bar or club in, indeed have dopey rubber soles. When it comes to women's clothing, especially "sexy" women's clothing, all the seams and pieces are ignored for the greater whole. Part of this has to do with a general forgetting of the details, but it also has to do with a tendency to objectify and simplify chicks and chick stuff. Churchland's like "funk that!".

And the effect on the art is not only this subtly political stuff about gender and all that, but a wordless message to sensitive viewers/readers that the person behind the pen here really cares and really thinks about comics stuff and the real world. Churchland's work stands-out because of its careful attention to detail and its thoughtfulness. She doesn't lose track of the importance of things looking good--and in the case of this cover, looking attractive--but it's done on her own terms; wrapped up in the details so often overlooked, but a notable part of everyday living for any female.

The 24-7 coverage of celebrities and celebrity culture has brought about probably one hundred times the number of images we see of famous people. That's to say, the "on-the-fly" or live, untouched photos of someone now far outweigh the fancy, glossy, photo-shopped pictures in magazines. This recent photo of Rihanna, out somewhere or another reminded me of Graham's King City character and particularly, Churchland's variation: That mix of untouchable beauty/sexuality and palpable reality. Most comics art's the spread in Vogue, Churchland's art is the in-the-moment, dress a little wrinkled, candid shot.


Beast Week: Carrara Marble

It’s a rare experience to find a comic that obviously holds great personal importance to the artist, and at the same time, is equally meaningful to the reader. Not to mention a book which is exciting, beautiful and has awesome references to Renaissance art. Marian Churchland’s Beast combines all these things for a wonderfully mastered debut graphic novel.

Most of what I love about this book comes out of my own subjective interpretations of events and details, but I think that’s what makes this book so special. Any artist, writer, or anyone who’s ever created anything can undoubtedly see themselves in Colette, the main character. Her relationship with the dark, amorphous character of Beast accurately captures the confusing, scary, and amazing feeling that comes with the pursuit of artistic motivation. You can feel its presence in a room, maybe you can even put your hand on it, but there will always be times where you question whether or not it’s even real. Anyway, she says it all better than I can.

The art alone speaks on the creative process. Churchland’s visible pencil lines and light, tonal washes seem delicate and deliberate. It’s like looking at an x-ray of a comic, where you can see each individual line and sense all the care that went into making the piece complete. The only issue I have with the art, which Churchland acknowledges in her afterword, is her treatment of Colette’s face. Her expression tends to be repetitive and difficult to read emotion on. From looking at other examples of Churchland’s work, like her issues of Elephantmen and even the work from her personal livejournal and deviantart, she definitely knows what’s up with faces. Perhaps it’s just a problem with the character of Colette in particular, but I feel like Churchland’s art flourishes when she goes for the less literal, more cartoonish expression. I stand by Scott McCloud’s assertion that the less detail in a face, the more room a viewer has to project themselves onto a character (See Understanding Comics, pg. 36). With the meaningful story in Beast, I feel like the answer to the issue of Colette’s face may be closer to what Churchland does in her awesome idea for heated pajamas.

The bean-shaped smile, the sideways apostrophe eyes are goofy, sure, but those objects, when abstracted like that, are read more as symbols than the actual objects they are supposed to be. We already know the meaning they convey. It sounds obtuse, but this technique has the possibility to read deeply into a character's emotions.

As a senior art history major in the process of trying to further my education, and taking steps to make a career out of what I love, the themes in Beast have particular resonance to me. The inclusion of Carrara marble in the book is a factually accurate detail which firmly places Beast's past in Renaissance Florence, but for me it has this dopey, really personal connection which melds the book to my experience. I haven't really been to Carrara, but I took a train through it, and in my hazy, half asleep and madly homesick brain, I have a distinct image of how the mountains looked like they were covered in snow, when what I was seeing was actually marble. I know it's like beyond cheesey, it's like a huge chunk of the stinkiest Limburger from old cartoons, but actually seeing (from really far away, granted) the place where the marble for greats like Michelangelo's David came from and getting this kind of intangible sense of vastness and simplicity of nature and art is, you know, really fucking heavy.

The afterword, where Churchland explains the creation of the book, clearly exhibits the devotion and love she has for her work. Both she and her gentleman caller, Brandon Graham, both have this way of writing about working on comics that gives you so much hope about sustained effort and labors of love that you just want to punch all negativity in the face, grab a pen, a brush—whatever, and do the damn thang.


Beast Week: Stuff Around Your Toilet Bowl

There's a scene somewhere in Part Two of Beast where the main character Colette, takes a break from sculpting to take a bath. The simple fact that Colette's taking a bath in this grimy, kinda creepy rundown house shows how far her characters' comfort--and confidence--has grown since the beginning of the book (Churchland is really good at this kind of squashing of emotions into a single image or scene) but as the scene moves on, more and more piece of Colette's personality rolls out. Details that stretch beyond her character's "emotional arc" and junk poke through.

Sitting in the tub, she recalls her ex-boyfriend's much nicer bathroom and this sends her thinking of/fantasizing him climbing into the bathtub with her. It doesn't go any further than that, but there's something really wise and again, economic, about how sex creeps into Beast here and then slips away. Despite it's meta-fairy tale conceit and it's magic realism, Beast is a book wrapped in tiny pieces of real-ness: dirt on the toilet seat, the "make your dick bigger" e-mails everybody gets, etc. This is not all the comic is, but it's a big part of it and it's all sticking out of the larger, more moving narrative and indeed, makes that narrative a lot more moving.

Because it feels real. It doesn't shout out "gritty" or anything, indeed the narrative is rather mannered, all stuff bubbling under the surface, but suddenly all of it's right there: Something that grounds the story in big, dumb real life. Something that slyly tells the reader "the person writing this lives a life and thinks about shit, the kind of shit a lot of us don't think about". And a big part of life is the dirty around the toilet bowl, or bigger stuff like fretting about one's passivity in the world, and weird stuff like thinking about doing it with an ex even though you basically think the person's a total douche now.

A page or so after the understated sex-fantasy scene, Colette climbs out of the tub and Churchland purposefully shows her naked body. The panel doesn't cut off at her boobs or nothing and there's no like, bathtub fog covering her up somehow, it's just right there. It's understated and it's really in-your-face. At the risk of getting creepy, it's worth nothing that Churchland gives Colette a regular, uh, "bush" or pubic hair. This isn't abnormal in the real world but in comics, it's rare to get nudity this mindfully not erotic. Paradoxically, the reality of it, the accuracy, actually makes it very attractive. I talked about that here though.

This kind of thing, these special touches of detail--sensitive, harsh, sometimes hilarious, often embarrassing--seem like a good place to begin thinking about Beast precisely because it's the kind of thing a lot of people will gloss over for the bigger picture. The genius of Beast--well, part of its genius--is how the bigger picture gains deeper, weirder, more awesome caves of meaning because of its unwavering sensitivity to the small stuff.


Beast Week!

So, this week we're gonna focus on Marian Churchland's book Beast, put out by IMAGE and for sale at any comics store worth anything. Besides just being an excellent "graphic novel"--and it really is, since it's coming out in one big chunk and it very much reads like a real book--it just plain looks really nice, like each and every aspect of the book was thought about and conceptualized, which is nice in a world of comics that either look like crap by accident or are all hip and cool, so they're supposed to look like crap.

It's also exactly the kind of stuff we try to celebrate around here: A smart, complex, literary comic book that still retains a level of wonder and appreciation for comic books as an artform. So yeah, if you haven't read Beast yet, go get it so you can be part of our little Beast book club over here. For right now, I'd love to get some readers' comments about the book, good or bad...


Star Trek vs. Transformers 2

So, J.J Abrams' Star Trek came out on DVD yesterday, so I thought it'd be a good time to revisit it, so you get this lazy re-up of a post from only a few months ago but I think it's worth revisiting to see how/why Star Trek is so good and also, how it really isn't a big blockbuster that Best Buy has all kinds of in-store ads for and stuff. Or rather, it's the good, rarefied kind of blockbuster, you know?...

Even before the absurd racism rushing through the movie (A jive-ass robot...with a gold tooth...really?), Transformers 2 was problematic. We can start with the simple snobby point that it's directed by Michael Bay, he of jingoistic characterization and imagery, or that it was based on a childhood cartoon that itself was pretty racist (something people keep forgetting) just now stretched to marketing-synergy extremes.

Still, simply by being so awesomely explosive and transparently, the party-dude of popular cinema, running down a checklist of audience-pleasing turns and self-justifying thematics, Bay is often sorta celebrated. Armond White's review summed up a near healthy contrarian take on Bay--his review begins "Why waste spleen on Michael Bay?".

As cool as it is when a notable part of the media jumps on some actually racist shit, it's as much because Bay's an easy target as it is actual social/cultural indignation. That Transformers 2 was vilified for its racial hard-headedness and Star Trek not celebrated for its pop-racial sophistication on this front, sorta negates any "searing" critiques of Bay's directorial choices. Had Abrams' Star Trek--written by Roberto Corci and Alex Kurtman (the same two guys behind Transformers 2) and the big, dumb, franchise blockbuster before Transformers 2 stomped onto the scene--not arrived just two months ago, White'd be right. But he's not.

The differences between the movies are clear and fun to list: Meghan Fox's bland beauty vs. Zoe Saldana's rarefied allure, Bay's leadfooted action cutting vs. Abrams' embrace of hand-held chaos and roving single takes, the tension of saying "I love you" between Spock and Uhura vs. Mikaela's cunty frustration with Sam for not uttering those words, the dopey slapstick of Transformers vs. the from the original series dead-pan weirdness. All of these show Star Trek to be both more artistically and socially sensitive than Transformers 2.

In part, this begins with the original show's conceit and the decision to comment or not comment on it. In fact, both directors are essentially "faithful" to the original properties. Bay decided to continue the selfish excess of the 80s (it makes sense as little kids, we loved Transformers, we were 5 yr. old selfish pricks) and Abrams kept-in all the goofball sincere multi-culti 60s stuff of the original Star Trek. When it's 2009 though, and you're doing this, recontextualizing an old time-capsule piece of popular culture, it becomes political. It just does.

There's a scene in Star Trek in which Kirk (at this point a stowaway on the ship, and a total jerk) and Sulu, along with a particularly gung-ho crew member, sky-dive (or something) onto the Romulan's ship. Waiting to leap down, this gung-ho third member is bouncing up and down, full of adrenaline and hubris--in short, he's a character from a Michael Bay movie--as Kirk and Sulu look at him strangely, maybe even sadly. Once they leap, he continues shouting extreme-sports platitudes, and eventually, misses the intended target and gets burned up in the Romulan ship's jets. This scene illustrates what would happen if a Michael Bay character got dropped into Abrams' more studied and realistic (for an action movie) world.

Abrams' perspective in this scene is of course, made more complicated by the character of Kirk, ostensibly the movie's main character and one defined by his daring and arrogance. That's to say, a lot of the time Kirk acts like a Michael Bay character himself and so, having a scene in which a complete arrogant goon vs. a kinda arrogant goon is destroyed by his arrogance is brilliant. It's all about the tiny little details.

Early in the film, we see a very Bay-like flashback to young Kirk stealing his step-dad's car and speeding across a golden, Mid-West vista (it's essentially awful, like, right out of a Bay movie) and it's followed up by a later scene in which a drunk Kirk hits-on Uhura and gets in a fight. What would happen in most movies is that this early awkward assholism would be rectified or shifted to something resembling sensitivity and Uhura, despite her initial disgust for Kirk, would grow to love him...or at least sleep with him.

Not so much in Star Trek, as Kirk never gets "the girl". A scene in which he's shown making-out with a girl at Starfleet Academy is presented as fairly loathsome, sad, even robotic. Even more crazy is that it's Spock who "gets the girl". This shift is not only a "clever" re-up of an old series, but a mindful shift in sensibilities. Abrams' Star Trek rejects Kirk the jerk in favor of Spock's hyper-sincerity. When the movie ends with the famous "Space...the final frontier" and it's spoken by the aged voice of Leonard Nimoy--we're not working with clever revisionism but an ethical improvement on the past.

To base the movie around poetry-reading, In Search Of...-hosting Nimoy vs. the chintzy, hair-pieced, ego-tripping Shatner (the movie's Kirk, when he's at his worst, most selfish, acts Shatner-like) is fascinating. Cynics might chalk this up to some kind of "wussification" of American culture or something, but they'd be missing the nuanced evolution of Kirk's character--both a core decency he clearly gleaned from his father (who we meet before we meet Kirk) mixed with a fuck-it-all sense of confusion a very specific kind of American radical individual feels.

Even at his worst, Kirk's never the gung-ho asshole incinerated by a Romulan ship, but it's through experiences on the Enterprise and the interaction with the ethnically diverse crew that he (and all of them) come together. This is where Star Trek's wizened and realistic understanding of patriotism usurps Michael Bay's U.S of A. belligerence.

Where characters and images in Bay's movie act as short-hands to re-instill played-out, long-internalized values, Star Trek seeks to remind Americans of the importance of plurality and understanding--the rejection of black and white for grey. The Enterprise begins as a sort of "Team of Rivals" and they slowly come to realize their similarities. The merger of Spock and Kirk is, when it finally becomes civil, simply pragmatic, but from that pragmatism it spins into something lasting, true, and worthwhile. Differences are more than accepted, more than celebrated, they're seen as vital.

In this sense, Star Trek indeed, functions like a product of filmmaking or television from the progressive 60s or 70s--what Pragmatic philosopher Richard Rorty called, "platoon movies" (100). Platoon movies, Rorty explained, were a byproduct of the pre-60s (pre-P.C) left and "showed Americans of various ethnic backgrounds fighting and dying side by side" (100). About the only other successful "platoon movies", that's to say, not movies simply playing on this trope of an ethnically diverse crew working it all out, but really internalizing it, that I can think of in recent years would be Wes Anderson's movies--especially The Life Aquatic.

The movie itself is pragmatic, both giving viewers what's necessary (a ton of action, Saldana in her underwear, bad jokes, old-show reference irony, ethnic jokes) and flipping the script in weird ways, as to never topple over from the unfortunate stupidity necessary for a big-budget movie. Notice the way it glosses over the alien races or nearly pushes all characters not Spock or Kirk to the side, all the while maintaining their humanity...not in a quest to maximize whiteness on the screen, but to treat diversity as a foregone conclusion of life. Abrams is not interested in "other"-ness, even the villains though darkened and evil-ized, get a decent enough reason for their actions beyond simple "evil"--precisely the kind of primitive value system that is literally Bay's meal ticket.

Just as Michael Bay's Transformers 2 begins its second week of hyper-visibility, JJ Abrams' Star Trek makes its way to your city's "dollar" theatre. The decision to see Star Trek maybe again, maybe a third time, over Transformers 2, is not only financially savvy and aesthetically wise, it's ethically prudent too.

-Rorty, Richard. "Achieving Our Country". First Harvard University Press, 1999.


Independents and Strange Tales

Featuring interviews with creators like Kevin Eastman (TMNT, Heavy Metal) and Scott McCloud (Understanding Comics), Chris Brandt’s documentary Independents moves slowly away from being about independent comics makers to a film featuring cartoonists conveying one message: “What we are doing is more important than what the other guy is doing.”

“Indie” comics aren’t always necessarily independent, as is often discussed here on this blog. Many comic makers published by Top Shelf and Drawn and Quarterly are considered independent by people who are industry insiders and outsiders. However authors of "regular" books who simply write and aren’t contracted to one publisher wouldn’t be considered “independent” authors. Indie comics makers are really Alternative comics makers, because that’s what these people are really proud of being, the alternative to what is popular. Does independent just mean not Marvel or DC only when we’re talking about comics?

Plenty of people making monthly comics for one of The Big Two aren’t obligated exclusively to one company, and often writers and artists are going back and forth between the comics giants. I’m not talking about an artist who draws one Wolverine one-shot here, I’m talking about people who work on a book month to month.

While I realize being independent is much more often about being capital-"I" Independent--doing things on your own and owning your own work--it becomes more than that. It’s not a matter of just having “not made it”, it’s about not “selling out” to one of the big guys.

This extremely punk rock attitude holds people back, narrowing their already linear thoughts towards art and creativity. It’s like when one of your friends’ crappy bands gets onto MTV and all of your other friends’ crappier bands never change to “stay true”, or become this “experimental project”. This isn’t because everyone should be working for Marvel or DC, but because by trying so hard to not to do what they’re doing, you only box yourself in.

With Strange Tales, Marvel let these work for hire, self-publishing, mostly Indie writers and artists take on their greatest characters. Some of the contributors, like Paul Pope, Dash Shaw, Matt Kindt and Jim Rugg, took the characters and placed their own style of story telling and artistic vision onto the previously existing work to create something attractive to both Marvel readers and fans of their “indie” work who may not regularly pick up a Marvel comic book.

Dash Shaw, known for Body World and Bottomless Belly Button, put his spin on Dr. Strange (specifically Steve Ditko’s Dr. Strange run). His story’s perfection comes from Shaw’s ability to place himself, his art, into the world of Dr. Strange, instead of forcing The Sorcerer Supreme into a Shaw-ian place. There's a perfect balance between Shaw the artist and Dr. Strange the character.

While the story ends on a silly note (Strange fighting off a yawn) the rest of the story parodies, but does not talk down to, the original work. Other stories, like Jacob Chabot’s Fantastic Four four page short, Lookin’ Good, Mr. Grimm, are completely silly. The Thing growing a mustache using Chia Pet solution is ridiculous and may never happen in the real comic, but the relationships between the Four Family are on-point, making the ridiculous situation actually funny, and not, you know, ironic.

The other side of Strange Tales is creators who forced the characters into their own styles. Self proclaimed inventor of diary comics James Kochalka’s Hulk Squad Smash reads like the rest of his work. It’s nothing special or new, it’s just a badly drawn, unfunny section in the middle of what is otherwise a perfect comic. Kochalka couldn’t--either he's unable or unwilling--move away from his cutesy style to allow his story to grow. The “Cute over Craft” artist boxed himself in, and sorta put a rut in the issue. It’s the only story that upon a reread I skip, it just steps away from what the rest of the stories are, it stands out only for what it isn’t and not what it is.

Not all of Independents is about what they are not, much of it is about what they are, which is artists. Much of the documentary is about how to succeed in a hard business, regardless if succeeding is selling 100 copies of your mini comic or 100,000 copies of your book.

However, angling themselves against The Big Two, and taking an actual stand against what they do is unfortunate and hurtful only to themselves. Many of these creators and publishers started when comics were very different, but they firmly hold onto their opinions, no matter how irrelevant they are to today’s comics. And they are irrelevant because rarely any comics readers' taste don't include a few super hero books.

Gary Groth of Fantagraphics fame said, referring to super hero comics: “They’ve never been interested in doing work that reflects contemporary life, serious existential issues, independent work, small intimate stories or autobiographical work.” Both Marvel and DC have been taking on race, sex and gender issues since their inception, with a pronounced focus in the 80s--not a shock that it lines-up with "the Black and White boom". Look at something like X-Men: God Loves Man Kills a testament to the real life issues that big dumb ass X-Men deal with. Using a super natural angle to talk about real issues just makes us look at the subject at hand differently, hopefully opening up a few eyes.

Not to be this quote guy, but Linda Medley (Castle Waiting) may have never read a super hero comic in her life but probably stared at the covers: “They’re not risk takers, they’re not trying to communicate, they’re trying to make money and they’re not trying to expand the consciousness of anyone”. Reading Strange Tales may open up lots of super hero readers to independent comics, and I just hope that sometime soon there is a book that ingratiates snobby comix readers to super hero comics, that can make people want to open up a super hero comic for more than big tits and tights.


A Webcomics Bump on the Horizon

What are the first comics that come to mind when you think "webcomics"? Probably the comics aimed at the internet generation, like Penny Arcade, Dinosaur Comics, Questionable Content, 8-bit Theatre. Pick your favorite but chances are you're thinking of one of those and really, they're comic strips, not comics. That may sound like semantics but really it isn't, especially when you consider some more expansive "webcomics" that act more like "webcomicbooks". Though it may require some looking-out pretty far into the comics business horizon, some recent releases suggest the webcomics landscape may have a slow-growing bump on its horizon.

Since the launch of FreakAngels early last year, the comic has slowly been building up steam and just released its third trade. Unlike its webcomics cousins, FreakAngels has the viable option to sustain itself through trades and not just through advertising and merchandise. This is partially because Warren Ellis' name is attached but also because it's a comic book. Simple as that. Serious, narrative, visual art building to something bigger and not just a bunch of one-shot strips.

In an industry where serialized comics continue to be pushed to the fringes through higher prices and declining readership, trades are becoming an increasingly relevant form for comics publishing. Providing free serial readership on the web and collecting them into trades looks like it could be a successful business model for the future. Ellis’ FreakAngels is paving the way for lesser-known comics by showing how comic books can be feasible on the web but also, and maybe more importantly, by adding a great deal of awareness to comic books on the internet.

Take a look at Sam Hiti’s new Death-Day. It's a previously published author taking his newest creation onto the internet and offering it for free in the hopes of generating interest. Evan Dahm has been working this model with Rice Boy since 2006. It finished up in 2008 and he promptly began releasing Order of the Tales. It just makes more sense for writers and illustrators not at the top of the comics foodchain to take their creations to the web instead of trying to break into the comics publishing world. Their published comics would most likely only be seen by a handful of people in select comic stores in bigger cities. That's you know, if there's a publisher out there ready to put it out and that publisher can easily get it into comics stores, which basically means it's gotta be something resembling a big company. At least big enough for Diamond to accept distributing it. Not entirely bleak, but certainly limiting. Putting it on the web bypasses all that and keeps the work within the spirit of comics, while still reaching a potentially notable audience, and attempt sustainability--maybe through ads or something and ideally, eventually that trade.
Marvel and DC have recognized the future of comics and the Internet with Marvel’s subscription service and DC’s Zuda.com. Both have taken the high-tech route with a ridiculously complicated viewer involving zooming and lots of arrows. The technology in these cases, ends up distracting from the content. Reading comics on the internet should not require anymore effort than it does in real-life. It just shouldn't. You turn a page with your hand in real-life, you click a mouse to turn "the page" on the internet. That's that. The complex viewers Marvel and DC employ reek of business types and I.T dudes spitting out data about "interactivity" and "web apps" and "Web 2.0".

And there's even Marvel's "motion comics" which rest awkwardly between a comic and a movie and are too close for comfort to those cheap animated cartoons that zoom into a single still with dialogue over top. They don’t even approximate what it’s like reading a comic. No visual narrative, nothing. Altogether the big two have missed the lessons of the successful webcomics: simplicity.

Death-Day and Order of the Tales are perfect examples of successful webcomic layout. Although Death-Day was just released, you can already see the organization is simple and appealing. To read the comic you scroll down, and to go forward or back you click the corresponding button. Tales is similar, one page is displayed at a time and is organized by chapter. One of the most enjoyable things about discovering a new webcomic is powering through it in a similar way to reading a physical comic book. The simplicity of design allows this to happen.

Simplicity helps and complexity hurts, but without good, solid content, none of it matters. Obviously, whether a webcomic is successful ultimately depends on the quality of the comic itself. The reason FreakAngels, Death-Day, and Order of the Tales are so exciting on the web is because they are good. You can easily envision them in a store on the shelves too.

FreakAngels is carried by its art. The premise is psychically powered twenty-somethings living in post-apocalyptic London. Ellis’ writing has always been a bit too shocking for the sake of shock to me, but here he stays out of the way and develops interesting world and characters. Paul Duffield’s art compliments the writing and fills in the narrative bones Ellis has laid down. It all has a weird steampunk feel to it. Duffield’s London is absorbing--giving weight to the actions of the sometimes bratty FreakAngels. The flat digital colors and fairly straight-forward art lull you into a steady reading pace and then, an ornate building or structure appears and pulls you out of it.
Hiti’s Death-Day is almost too early to tell about the plot. A future army, ruled by a robotic linking of thousands of heads, is trapped on a planet with strange monsters and orbs. His art is atmospheric with detailed attention to the bizarre alien scenery and to the bizarre war technologies. This gives the world an eerie effect like seeing an old picture of yourself doing something you don’t remember. It's scratchy and has a decidedly handrawn vibe to it but loses nothing in the transition to the web. The characters and faces are almost cartoony, highlighting the themes running through of the expendable faceless soldiers and groupthink. It’s not exactly clear where Death-Day is going but it really leaves you wanting more.

Order of the Tales is Dahm’s second online work set in Overside. It’s a fantasy work in the vein of Bone or Lord of the Rings but with Dahm putting his own very unique twist on things. There are strange electronic robots walking around and various animal and monstrous races all interacting. An unappreciated aspect to comic is it's imagination of Order of the Tales has it in spades. Absolutely everything is imaginative from the houses to the horses. Like all good fantasy/sci-fi, it hooks you in with action and a quick-paced story while parsing out bits of information about that world at large that adds to the characters. His art looks more evolved since his work on Rice Boy showing intricate landscapes and even the eyes of his characters. The main character Koark's eyelids are much darker than anyone else and act as a way to tell him apart from other characters. In Fantasy, which isn't really subtle in the first place, using a sledge hammer technique like black eye lids is effective because it's used sparingly and gives heavy expressiveness to the character than needs it most.

Dahm, though only around for three years or so, is a seasoned vet as far as these type of webcomics go. To have operated for this long, he obviously has a following and a certain amount of popularity. Webcomics gauge popularity and sales essentially in the same way as the current comic issues market. They act as a niche market and determine what is popular which will eventually turn into trades or maybe even movies and other actually money-generating things. It's also an issue of respectability for these new "webcomicbooks". People are stuck treating webcomics as second-class because they're caught in the notion of webcomics as strips not stories or where a comic unworthy of print ends up. This needs to stop, just as comic books themselves had to become more than adolescent fantasy. Webcomics like FreakAngels, Death-Day, and Order of the Tales can do just that.


Peter Milligan's Hellblazer: Scab

Before spotting the new trade at the bookstore where I'm employed, I had never read a single Hellblazer story. I still don't even really know what John Constantine's deal is, aside from the fact that he's this sorta hard-boiled Londoner with an early-aughties bro-chic hairdo and some sort of connection to the supernatural. All the same, the three-issue title story bops nicely along and it turns out that it's useful to look at it through the lens of the Milligan theory Brandon expounded in the context of the writer's recent run on Batman Confidential, if only to see how "Scab" succeeds, while "The Bat and the Beast" occasionally misses the mark.

Insofar as "Scab" is about something, it is the apparent collapse of capitalism brought about by the implosion of the financial markets of the last 18 months. But Milligan doesn't approach the topic in any of the obvious ways and instead looks back to the origins of the atmosphere of financial prodigality in the mid-nineties and the implications it had for Britain's working classes and especially leftist politics. So think unions and old, Marx-y Labour versus Tony Blair, spiraling housing costs and prodigious credit. But while Milligan clearly tends toward the lefty side of things, the narrative is generally served by the circumstances, rather than the other way round, and thus never feels tendentious.

Milligan's tale of a supernaturally malignant scab begins with a scab of another sort, to wit, "Red" Mal Brady, a dyed-in-the-wool socialist dockers' union negotiator who betrays his proletarian brothers for the proverbial thirty pieces of silver. This betrayal, which resulted in the dissolution of the union and signaled the end of old Labour, was caused not by Red Mal's greed, but rather by a spell cast upon him by a younger, more corrupt John Constantine. The problem is, as our stories continually remind us, our pasts are wont to come back to haunt us, generally in the form of unresolved guilt. Milligan simply personifies this guilt by turning it into the catalyst for the festering skin lesions that attack Mal, Constantine and his doctor/girlfriend Phoebe.

If the preceding doesn't really strike you as particularly dynamic, that's because it isn't. The story works more for the sort of playfulness of Milligan's approach than as a result of its plot or any of the 'larger' questions it grapples with. For example, when a bit of Constantine's scab self animates and attaches itself to Phoebe's coat, eventually finding its way into her ear, it manages to latch onto some lingering guilt over the fetus she aborted a decade earlier. Thus, when Phoebe is jolted awake, she finds an anthropomorphized scab-mass calling her 'mum' and asking for chocky biscuits. But rather than ruminate on the morbidity of these circumstances, Milligan has Constantine take the little guilt-beast back to his apartment and attempts to reason with it.

The exchange that plays out between the two is brilliantly glib, and emblematic of Milligan's ability to have fun with such nominally serious issues. When Constantine tries to convince the scab-fetus that it's nothing but a "bunch of agitated scabs," the thing replies that it may not be normal, but that it is still a person . . . "with rights." That last bit, tossed on almost as an afterthought, pokes ruthless fun at the Rawls-ian Theory of Justice sort of thinking that underlies so many social movements, no matter how absurd or counter-productive.

There are other moments like this--Phoebe's medically jocular approach to the beasts in her closet, Constantine's flashbacks to his extraordinarily abusive treatment of his uncle, or the look of particularly vicious schadenfreude he wears as he accepts the job of conjuring up Red Mal's betrayal--in what is ultimately an extremely well executed three-issue mini-series. "Scab" works where "The Bat and the Beast" doesn't because of the lightness with which it wears its topicality and the relative concision of its narrative. I wouldn't say that the book has turned me into a Hellblazer reader, per se, but it does confirm for me Milligan's continued reign as the king of smart-dumb comics.