Writer/Artist: Mike Dawson
Publisher: Secret Acres $20 USD
This is a graphic novel about a bunch of kids at a summer camp sponsored by the Boy Scouts of America. It could be straight-up comedy, it could be an earnest coming of age story, and it could be a critique of the BSA philosophies. And it turns out it’s all of these things. I’ve enjoyed Dawson’s work since his co-authored indie series, Gabagool, which also dealt with adolescent angst, humiliation and competitiveness. It’s more accurate to say that’s the only other work of Dawson’s I’ve read, though I really like it and want to catch up on what I missed. That said, yes, there are some problems with this overall enjoyable book.
First, though, let’s be clear that Dawson has a really appealing line. There are over half a dozen important characters in the book, and he’s able to make them distinctive without resorting to caricature. The settings are drawn fairly realistically and he gets all the details right, but everything’s reduced to its essentials. Eyes are dots, eyebrows are thin, singular lines, hair is usually an outline with a few lines rather than a lot of lines. The camp setting serves him well because he can use black for nighttime backgrounds, and simply rendered bushes and trees for daytime. Which isn’t to say he’s cheating; he’s just an efficient storyteller. When he needs to draw a rainstorm, it looks like a rainstorm. Woodgrain looks like woodgrain. The details are there, but used sparingly.
There are a number of minor stories here, or let’s call them incidents. Dawson’s funny. There are some good setups and payoffs here involving typical camp stuff, drug stuff, horny teen stuff. Better yet, he really remembers and understands adolescence. At any given moment, you might be called upon to compete with someone, maybe a footrace, feat of strength, or putdown contest. You can want to kill your best friend for not having your back when another kid makes you feel like shit. Your parents are always an embarrassment, and if they’re not, you have deeper problems. All the kids in this story are trying to navigate their week at camp to make it the best as possible, with strategies to either do their best, stay under the radar, or look for distractions in drugs, porn, pranks or the few females present.
Into this mix, Dawson also explores some adult characters, mainly a hardass veteran camp counselor who’s very by-the-book, and the nebbishy, liberal new counselor who’s mainly there to bond with his sons, and is hypersensitive to unfairness or faulty logic. You feel like he’s experiencing camp, or at least his adolescence, all over again by being here, which just makes him even more awkward as a short-term leader of men.
Most of this is played for laughs, but the anger and betrayal is real, too. Whether it’s at camp, a couple’s vacation, or work retreat, who hasn’t had that early screw-up that is all the worse because you’re stuck with these people who are pissed off at or freaked out by you for several more days, and you have to try to redeem yourself?
Dawson doesn’t have one main narrative, nor do the stories build to one big climax. It’s messy and inconclusive, like life, and I appreciate that, though of course some people look for their fiction to be tidier. There might be a character or two too many. And there are some difficulties discerning Dawson’s point of view, particularly during a last night campfire speech from the head of the troop about the creeping menace of homosexuality. That is, it’s pretty clear that Dawson thinks this is an outdated, negative view the Boy Scouts of America hold, but there’s no further discussion of it, no repercussions. There’s a lot of homophobic, and homoerotic, words and incidents in the book, because it’s set in an indeterminate era (it could be the ’90s, it could be today), and for some youths, calling other kids “queer” and “fags” and making gay jokes or performing some homoerotic hazing is all part of adolescence and figuring out one’s sexuality and how one wants to treat people.
But whereas that aspect of the book was disappointing, Dawson brings some real depth to his characters. The “good” kids are guilty of some heinous shit, while our liberal adult stand-in dad character totally loses it and crosses the disciplinary line, while the hardass dad has more going on than that. He’s just trying to relate to his son and the other kids in his own way, and he fails in a different way than the liberal guy fails, but they both fail and both succeed to some extent, because at least they’re there with their kids, experiencing something with them. It’s hard to come up with good jokes while at the same time exploring various shades of humanity, exploring pain and fear and shame in a meaningful way, but Dawson does a pretty terrific job here.
It’s not really that important that Spider-Man is 50 years old this year, but it’s nice he’s still around. He was probably the first superhero I ever drew as a kid, and it’s really no wonder he’s the favorite character of so many comics readers, because he’s the first nerd hero. He made it okay to stick your head in books and learn about Science or anything else that wasn’t cool because hey, something might just happen and the shoe would be on the other foot. Even though that power and responsibility mantra was hammered into our heads over the years, who hasn’t fantasized about getting powers without that fantasy leading to thoughts of payback?
Before I was about thirteen, I never had many comics, but what I had were pretty choice, like Origins of Marvel Comics and those little pocket-size collections of the early issues of Amazing Spider-Man, as well as a Fireside Books collection of a handful of Lee/Romita ASMs under a painted Joe Jusko (I think) cover.
I could enjoy the after-school reruns of the primitive ‘67 Spider-Man cartoon, with its jazzy score and reused sequences, but shunned the Spidey Super Stories comic as being for babies, featuring a tame Spider-Man in line with his portrayal on kids show, The Electric Co. I did like doing an impression of that Spidey, though, when he would look puzzled and a “?” thought balloon would appear over his head, with the sound effect, “Err-REOW?”
The first actual Spider-Man comic books I had were a couple of consecutive issues of ASM featuring Nova as a guest star—on one cover they were chained to an anchor and about to plunge to watery graves in what was probably the Hudson. The only places to get comics then were 7-11s or White Hen Pantry, another convenience store chain. 7-11s had what I think were called Valu-Packs, which were three comics sealed in plastic, two in a row of a popular title, with a lesser title in the middle where you couldn’t see it. This is how I got issues of Thor and Conan the Barbarian, both of which I hated at the time. I wasn’t interested in DC, either. It was Spider-Man first, followed by maybe Fantastic Four, Iron Man and Incredible Hulk, and that was about it. Strangely, I never saw an issue of Avengers until I turned 13.
Years before that, I had memories of taking some Amazing Spider-Mans and what was probably Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #1 and cutting the figures out, so I could then paste them onto this G.I. Joe footlocker I had. I put little toys and other junk in there, never G.I. Joe. I don’t think I ever even had a G.I. Joe, so who the fuck gave me this footlocker? Anyway, I know it was Peter Parker, because I remember cutouts of The Tarantula on the footlocker. He appealed to me because his costume was this evil variation of Spider-Man’s, with the spiky (poisoned?) boots and the way the mask was cinched tight in back with ribbons. Iron Fist’s mask is basically another ribboned variation of Spider-Man, too. I would regret cutting up those comics, of course.
I remember reading the issue where Spidey had his own Spider-Mobile (I think this was a Gerry Conway idea?), and thinking it was cool. Why wouldn’t a costumed hero who can swing carefree through the city, and who lives in an apartment building with no garage, want an outlandish dune buggy to navigate Manhattan traffic? I didn’t question it at all, probably because I was used to Batman cartoons and Mego vehicles and play sets. The big superheroes put their symbol on everything, and have lots of gadgets and vehicles. Of course.
What I lacked in actual comics was made up briefly by the 1979 Spider-Man TV show, which generally had about three minutes of action per episode. Much better than this was just playing superheroes with friends, especially one really good friend I had when I was eight or nine named Brian. Brian was as gay as a parasol, looking back, but hey, if you want to play superheroes, I can put up with a little singing along to your portable record player’s Andy Gibb and Shaun Cassidy singles, or your putting on a variety show with Donny & Marie Osmond figures. And while I preferred to be Spider-Man but would switch to Thing or Hulk or Iron Man or even Green Lantern, just for variety, if you want to only and always be your own creation, Wonder Lad (Wonder Woman’s nephew), then that’s fine by me. The important thing is that we’re running around the yard, pretending to fly and beating up bad guys with “Kssh!” sound effects.
I had the original webshooters. They were blue plastic and strapped to your wrists and you would press a button and they would shoot out a suction-cup-tipped dart with a string on the other end, and you could pull stuff to you, or if you shot a window or smooth surface, act like you were swinging on your web to get to there. I remember playing like this, alone, when I spotted this girl I knew, Larissa Schmidt. Larissa lived in my apartment complex, had a dad who was a cop, and didn’t like me at all. This was entirely justified, because I had tried to look under her dress in first grade, earning me a kick in what would eventually be my nut sack. I had a red mark there for a couple years afterward, so in retrospect, I probably should have mentioned it to my parents, but then how to explain my sexual assault? It was silly to think a dad, even a policeman dad, would want to beat up a seven year old kid for liking his daughter, anyway.
So when I saw Larissa, I hid my webshooters under some dead grass and went to show her this Corgi James Bond Aston-Martin I had, which had a working ejector seat. I guess I knew the webshooters wouldn’t impress her, but this car had a good chance. It didn’t do anything for her, and I returned to my hiding spot to find the webshooters gone as well, teaching me an important lesson about with great toys comes great responsibility, or that women are a huge pain in the ass.
What else is there to say about Rick Geary’s Treasury of 19th/XXth Century Murder series, published by NBM? The series has been going on forever, every volume is a delightful and offbeat look at a genuine historical murder mystery, and Geary is probably one of the three or four most talented and accomplished North American cartoonists alive today. If sales were based on quality alone, each new volume in this series would be selling millions of copies. For surely millions of readers would enjoy this literate and visually stunning series, the overarching subject matter of which has informed untold successful movies, TV series and novels – murder.
From Cain and Abel in the Bible, to Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell to Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’s Criminal in comics, from Agatha Christie to Donald Westlake in prose, murder has long been probably the second-most consumed form of entertainment after pornography, and sometimes the lines are blurry between the two. Certainly both can deliver titillation and spectacular climaxes, although stories about murder can contain subtlety and nuance few works of pornography would ever aspire to. At its best, stories about murder, both fiction and non-fiction, can tell us something about ourselves and our world.
And of course, there are nearly as many ways of telling a story about a murder as there are murders themselves. But few artists have created such a powerful and engaging niche for themselves with this genre of storytelling as Rick Geary has. For as standard as many of his storytelling devices seem to come with every project he tackles, the strangeness of the stories and the sheer, unadulterated joy he takes in telling them make the Treasury of Murder series indispensible for lovers of true crime, and for aficionados of top-notch comic book storytelling. None of these volumes has ever disappointed me in any way. Whether as seemingly well-known a tale as that of Lizzie Borden or the assassination of Abraham Lincoln to the virtually unknown-to-me stories about The Bloody Benders, or this one, about the Lovers’ Lane murders of a man of the cloth and his mistress, Geary always delivers an astonishing amount of information. Because murder is messy and real life isn’t fiction, we don’t always find out who exactly dunnit, but I think it’s safe to say no reader has ever closed one of Geary’s murder books feeling that facts were left out, or that the whole story wasn’t told.
In this new volume, Geary introduces a bizarre murder scene and then establishes the various suspects and motivations. Given the nature of the killings, there’s little doubt that it was personal, and primarily spurred by the relationship between the two lovers. But many questions can be asked about the killer or killers, and precisely what it was about the illicit affair that made murder inevitable. As always I am most fascinated by how Geary ties in the moral standards of the day and the reaction to the world at large to both the murders and the secret events that led up to them. And, as always, I am blown away by the meticulous beauty of Geary’s artwork; though he employs many, many lines in creating the worlds in which he immerses us, never does a line feel unnecessary, extraneous or flamboyant. Somehow, every line Geary lays down, every silhouette he chooses to use, is perfectly placed to tell just precisely the story he wants to tell us, in just the manner he wants to tell it in. Few writer/artists in the history of comics have show such sustained control over their instrument, while at the same time offering up exquisitely produced comics again, and again, and again.
Some of the books in this series leave little doubt who the perpetrator or perpetrators was or were. Some of the facts in some of the cases introduce so much doubt that Geary can only present them and ask the reader to render judgment, or not. But the delight in these books is not in the solving of a mystery, or the closing of a case. The delight in Geary’s ongoing investigations into some of the weirdest murders in history is seeing how he gathers his facts, and how he lays them out for us, and the little touches he injects along the way that add gravity, legitimacy and often whimsy to his reflections on the darkest of all human impulses.
— Alan David Doane
The idea behind Kickstarter seems very 21st century, does it not? As we become one global village, constantly connected by iPhones and Twitter and that new one where you pin stuff to your computer (which seems to me like it would damage the screen, but what do I know?), more and more we’ve seen people use technology to reach out and hit somebody up for a buck or two. In the internet age of comics, we’ve seen publishers successfully use the World Wide Web to ask for a hand up when times were tough, by posting special sales and spreading the word on websites, blogs and social networking sites. Hell, I’ve held a few fire sales on my websites myself, turning to my readers when times were tight and asking them to consider buying stuff from me to help me keep the sites going, or keep my kids fed, and if you have a website that operates at or near a loss, you know at the end of the day the lines blur and it all comes under the heading of cash needed to continue operating as usual.
People looking to publish their comics with financial help gained through Kickstarter aren’t, as a rule, looking to maintain their operations, though. They have some new idea or new iteration of an old idea, and they work up a presentation with various levels of participation, and then they make their pitch for all the world to see. In this changed financial environment we now inhabit (and have since at least 2008), it’s not just newcomers to the industry who are looking to crowdfund their project, but even names you know have raised their flag to see who salutes it. The idea seems to have created a division in comics, from those who see it as the ideal expression of the intersection of creativity and technology, to those who frown upon it with great disdain. I guess I’m in a third camp, in that, like the majority of people living on the planet, I don’t much care about Kickstarter comics projects one way or the other. I figure, no matter how you fund your comics project, if it’s good enough, if it will appeal to me, eventually I will hear about it.
The truth is, and this is the dirty little secret of many comics critics, I don’t care about 95 percent of the “projects” that I see. The majority of the review copies I get from would-be “indy” comics creators demonstrate an overabundance of funding and a staggeringly underwhelming amount of talent. In this era of capital contraction, many wannabe publishers are relying on PDF files instead of sending out hard copies of their comics, and that’s beneficial in a number of ways. First, it costs them less. Second, it takes critics much less time to evaluate whether the project is worth reading in full. And third, it’s better for the environment, go hug a tree and congratulate it for still being alive, yay the environment.
As long as I have been writing about comics, and that goes back to the latter days of the Clinton administration, there have been too many people dying to get into comics, and too few with anything to actually say within the medium. And I think that’s where things often break down for these untested, unseasoned hopefuls. They grow up on a steady diet of professional comics, and they are absolutely dying to get into the industry and make a career out of it, but they have little life experience to inform their comics and even less talent with which to express whatever minor thoughts or ideas have shot across their brains in their fervor to “be a part of comics.” The very worst, most discouraging review copies I see are from people who have huge ambitions to be comics creators, apparently hundreds or thousands of dollars to spend sparking their little dreams, and little to no talent with which to pry their way into an industry that is already chock-full of mediocre hacks. See, for example, the recent documentary Comic Con Episode Four: A Fan’s Hope to see the sort of energy people with no real hope of ever making a splash in comics devote to, well, trying to make a splash in comics. And when one ponders what a miniscule portion of the overall entertainment dollar that comics manages to seize every year, it’s a wonder that the obituary columns in newspapers across the country aren’t filled to bursting with tales of would-be creators who decided to end it all rather than continue not living the dream.
I don’t understand it, I really don’t, this impulse to swim upstream against the surging tide of disregard and rejection that sweeps thousands into the vast ocean of never-gonna-happen every year. I think deep down I suspect that if you truly do have the talent to write or draw comics that are better than mediocre, that eventually you will find your way in somehow due to nothing more than the quality of your work. It seems to me, and this is advice I have given more than one wanna-be comics creator, that if you truly get down to it and practice your craft, if you keep making your comics and focus on making them as good as they can be and as powerful an expression of your inner voice as you can, that eventually you will have samples that are so superior to those of your competitors in the slush pile that publishers will be knocking down your door to let you have a seat at the table.
In the old days, the big publishers had anthology titles in which starting creators could hone their craft and experiment with styles and approaches until their true gifts became apparent. There’s a reason no one publishes anthologies like that anymore, and that’s because they sold poorly, and that’s because they pretty much sucked. I’m thinking of the old issue of Weird War Tales that I spent months tracking down and scores of dollars to buy because Frank Miller had one of his first handful of professional jobs in it. Yeah, it really blew. And these days it probably goes for a buck or two.
I don’t begrudge anyone trying to raise funds for their project on Kickstarter, or anywhere else. Presumably most people doing so are sincere in their efforts, and nobody is holding a gun to the heads of the people lining up to donate their fifty cents, or fifty dollars, or whatever the going rate is. I assume the system will eventually find out who the fraudsters are on there and treat them accordingly. But for those who really, really want to get into comics? If you have something to say within the comics medium, then say it. That doesn’t mean you have to immediately get it published, or even just posted to the internet, but if you must do the latter, I guess, go ahead. But be aware that almost no one’s earliest work is worth looking at, and that the more you practice, the better you’ll get, and eventually, if you’re good enough, say, five or ten years down the line, you might be good enough to get published. If that’s not good enough for you, if you want more and you want it now, then good luck to you, but you’re probably not going to make it, and your eagerness probably outpaces your talent by a ratio of 100 to 1. But go for it, because the recycle bin for my email account is emptied every day, so there’s plenty of room for your must-see project.
— Alan David Doane
I would point you to more knowledgeable comics historians like Mark Evanier and Tom Spurgeon for their thoughts on the passing of this comics giant, but I do think it’s important to note this passing. As a Marvel Comics aficionado, I didn’t grow up reading much of Kubert’s work, as much of his career was spent at DC, so I don’t have any particular nostalgia for Sgt. Rock or Hawkman or Viking Prince. Still, some time in the early ’90s I did make efforts to correct the gaping chasm in my comics knowledge, buying some of the Greatest Stories volumes in which Kubert was featured, and then later the Tor Archives and Showcase Presents volumes, and even Fax from Sarajevo, part of Kubert’s late-career move into more adult(?) work. Adult might not be the right word. I don’t know if it was inspired by Will Eisner’s graphic novels, many of them about Jewish life, or if it’s just a natural outgrowth of being a senior citizen in a medium that’s thought of as pandering to juveniles, but Kubert should be lauded for stretching a bit in those later years, even if it should also be noted that his decades of Sgt. Rock stories are, of course, fairly serious studies of heroism and the impact of war. Whether teaching, drawing some younger writer’s script, inking his son, or doing it all himself, Kubert never stopped working, and his art, while lacking the heavy blacks of his ’50s through ’70s material, was always strong even in its economy, and always distinctively his. With one of the longest careers while still maintaining a high level of craft, Kubert was a giant, and there are very few of them left. If an artist has had an impact on your life, if they’ve made art that’s thrilled or touched or inspired you, take the time to tell them.
Sean T. Collins does yeoman work here with a tough remit. From the Intro, he admits some of the books on the list are deeply flawed, and some, like Batman: Court of Owls Vol. 1 and Batman: Earth One are too new to be considered “essential,” and I daresay neither will be considered essential, ever. But I can understand their inclusion. I would nitpick that as much as I like them, three Grant Morrison books is one too many for a list of 15 and a character who’s been around 83 years (and if you have to have three, isn’t The Black Glove better than R.I.P.?). More importantly, why no representation of O’Neil/Adams’s run, (collected in Batman Illustrated: Neal Adams or Batman: Tales of the Demon), which among other things debuted Ra’s al Ghul, upon which much of the Nolan film trilogy is based, and they also did the first really murderous, darkly humorous Joker. And what about the Englehart/Rogers run (collected in the now OOP Strange Apparitions but not hard to find), which had a Batman able to pursue a romantic relationship with his best match, Silver St. Cloud, while not losing sight of his mission, not to mention presenting a Joker as fiendishly clever as any seen before or since? Either or both of these would have been better choices than the throwaway floppy Untold Legend or Earth One, which is just the latest reboot of Batman’s origin, with a mediocre creative team and changes for their own sake that will have no impact, as the Earth One books are rather self-contained and not related to the DCU continuity. And are the Batman Chronicles really as essential as Dick Sprang or Jerry Robinson stuff that came a few years later and has more of the elements and characters most people associate with Batman, just because the very first Batman stories are more historically important? But hey, around a dozen of the most notable collected Batman stories out of a possible fifteen is solid work. At least he didn’t pick The Dark Knight Strikes Back.
Marvel dropped three books this week that are all examples of their constant, never-ending and yet often contradictory mandate to keep coming up with fresh takes on characters at least 40 years old, while keeping these fresh takes from alienating the existing, aging readership.
First X-Men #1 (of 6)
Writers: Neal Adams & Christos Gage
Artist: Neal Adams
For those George Lucas types out there who think that there’s nothing cooler than filling in backstory on favorite characters, even if that backstory undoes a lot of what made them interesting in the first place, here’s…this.
So we have beloved comics legend, crusader and kook Adams apparently being shepherded by young, solid, within-the-lines writer Gage on one more retcon fiesta that noone was really asking for, and that has a subtitle, “Children of the Atom,” that at least one other retcon fiesta already bore. Here, we have Wolverine/Logan, as yet not part of Project X but still running with his bro, Sabretooth, kind of like in that Wolverine movie and Origin, but he’s not conflicted because he doesn’t seem to be an assassin. He has a friend and agrees to help find the friend’s kid, who is a mutant like himself. He enlists Sabretooth, who here is just a slightly rougher big brother and not really evil, and then the rest of the issue continues the putting-together-the-team formula. As one might expect, there are some new players, just like in that Wolverine movie, because of course they’re going to die and be forgotten and not have to be tied into modern continuity. We’ve got Holo, a teenage girl who makes people see what they want to see, and the fourth would-be member is young Charles Xavier, though he sees the murder in Logan and Victor’s hearts and won’t join them. At the end, we see the future Magneto, Erik Lensherr.
It’s all familiar, unnecessary and at best, just competent. Gage working with someone else means a professional but less personal job, and to be honest, I would have preferred Adams given more rope to hang himself than doing a mini nobody needed. Adams can still draw, with some great depth and forced perspective and his typical fetish for overly rendered hair, as well as the more recent fetish for drawing bodies torn apart by weapons, but his trademark for triangular, jagged panels has become a little stilted.
Peter Parker, Spider-Man #156.1
Writer: Roger Stern
Artist: Roberto De La Torre
As he admits in the Afterword, Marvel asks Stern to write a Spider-Man story once or twice a decade now. Stern had a very solid run in the early ’80s with John Romita, Jr., including a terrific issue with the Juggernaut that illustrates the never say die quality of Spider-Man to a T, and a whole bunch of issues about the corrupt Brand Corporation. That provides the connective tissue to this, a .1 issue for a series that no longer exists, which finds Daily Bugle reporter Norah Winters enlisting Peter Parker to take some photos while she investigates what’s going on at the abandoned Acme Warehouse. Brand is going down the tubes with litigation and wants to get the tech that’s locked up in their labs at the warehouse. Norah doesn’t know this is the same place where the killer of Peter’s Uncle Ben was found, which has him bummed out most of the issue.
Stern has a great collaborator in De La Torre, who has a kind of Alex Maleev-like photoreference thing going on but draws faces and figures seemingly mostly from his imagination. A lot of Matt Hollingsworth filters keep things from looking too grainy and grey. The art, and Stern’s way of writing Peter Parker capably, focusing on his core of responsibility and guilt rather than nonstop wisecracks, make this one work despite not adding up to a whole lot other than beating up some average thugs and calling back to not a classic villain but a vaguely defined corporation that was notable thirty years ago. Not to mention that Parker hasn’t been a photographer for some time now, and, past favor aside, could still be nice guy Peter and tell Norah politely that he’s got a great job he should be working at and to go find some other guy to dig around a dusty warehouse full of bad memories. It’s a nice enough book, I’m glad Stern got a gig, and you can take it or leave it. Unfortunately, by making these issues adjuncts to defunct rather than existing Spider-Man titles (there’s a two-part Sensational Spider-Man story next), Marvel’s underlying message is to leave it.
Writer: Matt Fraction
Artist: David Aja
The thing about being a critic is that sometimes you can enjoy something the first time you experience it, and then the second time the flaws reveal themselves. To be sure, Fraction is one of Marvel’s bright lights, and any chance to see him work with his Immortal Iron Fist collaborator again is a good thing, and a smartass like Hawkeye is more in line with his strengths than Thor. This is pretty much a guarantee to be at least a decent superhero comic, and so it is, well-drawn and with some good bits in the first-person narration that paint Hawkeye as a likable, almost blue collar kind of superhero.
Unfortunately, while the choice to set uncostumed Hawkeye in an urban environment, just a regular guy who goes to work, pays his rent, and enjoys barbecues on the roof with his neighbors is a sound one, the execution is off on nearly every story beat.
After falling several stories onto a car, regular guy Hawkeye breaks a bunch of bones like you or I would (if we didn’t die), but do we see him suffer? Do we see him go through physical therapy? No. We see him leave when he feels like it, all better, and dumping his wheelchair in an intersection to be destroyed and cause traffic delays, with a spoiled celebrity’s solution of, “Bill me for it.” And then we see him handle his Russian landlord’s raising of the rent to exorbitant levels (though legal) with a spoiled superhero’s solution of intimidation and then, failing that, a spoiled rich guy’s solution of taking out his checkbook and overpaying for the building by 50%. With Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark, that kind of thing can be very funny, but if you’re trying to establish that this is a blue collar type of superhero, a guy who came from nothing, has no powers, but somehow has the character and tenacity to stand as an equal with gods, mutants and living legends, then you need to come up with a better way than just throwing money at a problem. Maybe Fraction is going to explore this in future issues, like maybe now that the tenants know he’s rich and their new landlord, it will change their relationship with him, and what he thought he had in this low-key setup is gone. We’ll see, but for now, it kind of leaves a bad taste.
Sometime this year, and I am not exactly sure when, I passed a milestone of having read comics for forty years. The first time I remember being given a stack of comic books was at the age of six, recovering from having my tonsils out. Ice cream and comic books in the recovery room — yes, America, our health care system has really deteriorated since 1972.
Over these four decades, some comics have blurred into obscurity to me. I am pretty sure that that first stack included Spider-Man and Archie titles, but I can’t pinpoint which particular issues they might have been. I suspect the Spider-Man was an Amazing Spider-Man in the 120s, but that’s as close as I can get it.
Other comics stand out in my memory like they came out yesterday. Some because they were so good, others because they were somehow significant in some way to my development as a comics reader. Here are the most memorable of those comics.
* Daredevil #181 - In the 9th grade, my best friend Donny and I shared a love of comics, and there was no comic we looked forward to more every month than Frank Miller and Klaus Janson’s Daredevil. Miller had begun drawing the book with issue #158, really started to cook art-wise around #164, and when he took over as writer with #168 (first appearance of Elektra, true believer) Miller began a long ramp up to the explosive, apocalyptic #181. I remember the cover blurb word for word — “Bullseye vs. Elektra…One Winss. One Dies.” And for once, it wasn’t just hype.
Bullseye had bedeviled Matt Murdock since, I think, #159 (back when Roger McKenzie was still writing the book), and the climax of this issue sees the assassin murder Daredevil’s first love Elektra in as brutal and final a manner as had probably ever been depicted in a Marvel comic up to that point. Elektra’s death, brief as it was (she was resurrected in Miller and Janson’s last issue together, #191), felt much more realistic and portentous than the usual superhero comics death, and although she’s died and come back a number of times since, no one could ever hope match the visceral gut-punch Miller and Janson delivered with this issue.
Additionally, with a few decades reflection, I’ve come to believe that this issue marks Miller’s absolute peak as an artist (his peak as a writer was either Batman: Year One or Daredevil: Born Again). After this, every comic book Miller drew seemed to be an exercise in experimentalism, or just seeing how far he could get his head up his own ass (culminating in the graphically bankrupt Dark Knight Strikes Again). These days I can’t find any interest at all in anything Frank Miller is involved with, which is amazing to me when I look back to Daredevil #181 and remember how very much it seemed like a new high for comics, and certainly a signal moment for Frank Miller as a writer/artist.
* New Teen Titans #1 - To say I was a huge fan of George Perez in the late 1970s and early 1980s would be a colossal understatement. The only two comic books I ever subscribed to through the mail were Avengers and Fantastic Four, both at the time being regularly drawn by Perez. So when he moved to Marvel and overhauled Teen Titans with writer Marv Wolfman, I was all over that book from the moment the preview story appeared (in DC Comics Presents, I think?), and my interest really sustained itself for a good long while — certainly through The Judas Contract, which had the somewhat shocking revelation (for a DC comic of that era) that the 50ish Deathstroke was sleeping with the 15ish Terra.
If you were the right age and reading comics, it was almost impossible not to fall in love with Claremont and Paul Smith’s Kitty Pryde, or Wolfman and Perez’s Tara Markov. The difference was, of course, that Terra was designed from the get-go to turn on the Titans, and Wolfman’s long-term planning of Terra’s story arc struck me at the time (I was in my mid-to-late teens) as extraordinarily sophisticated for a superhero comic book. When New Teen Titans split into two titles, one in the regular format and one in the Baxter Paper format, I think my interest began to wane, and by the time Perez left as artist, I was gone too.
But for quite a few years, New Teen Titans was THE monthly superhero book, stealing a lot of thunder from Marvel in the fan press and in the minds of readers. These days the books seem hopelessly overwritten and the melodrama is all a bit much, but the truth is, those comics were written for 12 year olds, and as such, they provided an exciting, seemingly more mature look at what was possible within the superhero sub-genre.
* Reid Fleming, The World’s Toughest Milkman #1 - “78 cents or I piss on your flowers.” If that means nothing to you, you weren’t there, and I can’t help you. Literally the funniest thing ever published in a comic book, and that line sticks with me, all these years later. David Boswell was an outsider artist creating a comic unlike any other before or since, and Reid Fleming’s world needs to be experienced by everybody, everywhere.
* Uncanny X-Men #137 - My first issue of Uncanny X-Men had been the one where Mesmero brainwashed the team and turned them into carnival acts, with Magneto showing up at the end in probably the most impressive full-page panel I had yet encountered — I mean, dude looked scary. I had very little clue who most of the characters were, but I was instantly engaged by Claremont’s writing (slightly better than Wolfman’s, but certainly as wordy if not moreso) and more urgently by the artwork of John Byrne and Terry Austin.
Although the team was around a few months after #137, this double-sized issue really was the climax of the Claremont/Cockrum/Byrne/Austin era, with stunning superhero battles, heartbreaking drama (I was hugely invested in Scott and Jean’s relationship, for some pathetic adolescent reason) and a sense at the end that a genuine drama had played out and a price had been paid. I was fascinated a few years later when Marvel released the original version of the story in a Baxter Paper edition (also included in Marvel Masterworks: Uncanny X-Men Vol. 5) including a roundtable discussion among the creators and then-editor-in-chief Jim Shooter, who had demanded that Jean Grey be punished for her misdeeds as Dark Phoenix. I never get tired of re-reading such Claremont/Byrne/Austin classics as The Dark Phoenix Saga and Days of Future Past, and apparently neither does Joss Whedon, who pretty much borrowed those storylines whole for his TV shows Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Dollhouse, respectively.
* Thor #337 - In my early years reading comic books, it was a fascinating process to learn to discern different art styles. Gil Kane and Vince Coletta were two I learned to spot almost immediately, one because he was so dynamic and skilled, the other because he turned almost everything he touched to shit. I’ll let you guess which is which, although it should be said Coletta Thor appropriately rustic natural blah blah blah BULLSHIT oh my, God, Colletta was a horrible fucking inker.
But anyway. Walter Simonson and Howard Chaykin I noticed both about the same time, from their work on DC books, and in Simonson’s case, especially on Manhunter with writer Archie Goodwin, which, just, there’s almost no words for how good their Manhunter was. Almost the perfect comic book story, regard in its time as a classic and it has only improved with age, a claim few other series from the 1970s can claim. So by the time I heard Simonson was taking over Thor, I was ready for some gorgeous comics. What I wasn’t ready for, had no idea I’d be getting, actually, was the wit and invention Simonson brought to the writing end of his writer/artist tenure on the book.
There was buzz on #337 from the moment it hit the stands, and I can remember having to search high and low to find a copy, I think, in a drugstore somewhere in Saratoga Springs. The book sold out fast, and for the first year or so, Thor became something it had never been, the toast of superhero comics readers everywhere. Simonson is a talent that has continued to grow in his decades in comics, never soured like Frank Miller or gotten too baroque for the audience like Chaykin has sometimes managed to do. Thor #337 was a big, dividing moment in 1980s comics. There was everything before, and there was everything after.
* Nexus #1 - This one came seemingly out of nowhere. I had never heard of the publisher, the writer, or the artist. Even the format — oversized, like a magazine, for the first few issues, and black and white to boot — sent a message that Nexus was not your average superhero funnybook. But for all its more mature concerns — betrayal, obligation, fascism — Nexus felt very purely like comics, in the same way Lee and Romita’s Spider-Man did, or Englehart and Rogers’s Batman. If I could go back and whisper in Baron and Rude’s ears, I would say things like “Never use a fill-in artist,” and “Never renumber the book.” If, retroactively, I could make those things happen, I probably would always have kept up with the adventures of Horatio Hellpop and his wild gang of friends and enemies and frenemies. But no, somewhere what made this book got lost, and I lost track of it, and we’re probably both the poorer for it, Nexus and I.
* Cerebus #1 (Counterfeit) - This was probably the single most significant single issue of my formative comics-reading years. In one weird moment, my interest in artcomix, my fascination with the Direct Market and my love of comics in general all came together. Cerebus had been gaining in popularity for a while — I think around this time it was in the mid-20s to mid-30s numbering-wise, and everyone was reading it. There had never been anything like it. I can’t remember if the Swords of Cerebus collections had begun yet, but the early issues were going for serious cash on the back issue market. A plot was hatched by unknown conspirators who went from one northeastern U.S. comic shop to the next, telling the same story to each shop about how they had stumbled across a stash of Cerebus #1s. (I know Roger Green will correct me if I get any of the details wrong here.)
It wasn’t long before the shops realized they’d been had, that the books were fake, and they were stuck with God only knows how many copies of Cerebus #1, The Counterfeit Edition. In a move that could never, ever happen today, my local comic shop, I believe with the consent of Dave Sim, offered up the fake #1s (with signage making it clear they were fake) for, if I recall correctly, ten bucks each. Later there would be guidelines that became known so buyers could determine if a copy was real or a phony, and these days I don’t have either, but I kind of wish I had held on to my counterfeit Cerebus #1, because in all my four decades of reading comics, I think that was the strangest and most surreal incident I can recall. And also the one that really clued me in that comic shops were businesses, and businesses obviously vulnerable to fraud and wrongdoing, at that. Previously I had just thought of them as a little slice of Heaven, right here on Earth.
— Alan David Doane
And another series drops off my list as Brian Wood’s The Massive #2 shows that Wood, at times, forgets how to write anything someone would want to read. Dystopic adventure on the high seas, motherfucker! You have to work to make that boring, but Wood succeeds, with still-empty characters and almost nothing happening. Exotic names like Kamchatka and some statistics aren’t what readers want. Give us something happening, and happening to people we care about. I really wanted to like this series, and I say this without any rancor, because I know Wood can write good work sometimes, but it’s terrible.
I’ve been doing more of my own fiction-writing these days, as well as a lot of reviews of movies and other things at my other blog, so it really seems like a modest but achievable goal is to do maybe one or two comics posts here every month. Thus, since I’m going on vacation this weekend and not likely to write anything else for a week or so, my Comics July.
It’s just under a year for DC’s New 52, and despite trying at least the first issue of about 49 of them, the only ones I am still reading are Animal Man, Swamp Thing, Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E., The Shade, Action Comics, Batman, and Batman Incorporated (this last one having only relaunched in the last month). What you can infer from these is that I still have some affection for Grant Morrison’s writing and will see his exit from superhero comics (Batman Inc. is fun, Action more miss-than-hit, and the upcoming Multiversity stuff sounds interesting). I also somewhat enjoy Scott Snyder’s writing, though I’m not that interested in tying in old business like Arcane to the somewhat fresher Red/Green/Rot stuff. I guess it’s fair to say that’s just an expansion of stuff Alan Moore came up with many years ago when he wrote the series, but at least it’s a little new and not something that has been explored much before. I am pretty tired of the whole Court of Owls stuff on Batman, but you know, I like Batman and it’s not a bad book, though not a good one.
Jeff Lemire has done all right on Animal Man and Frankenstein, though the art on the former, while distinctive and great at the weird, disturbing scenes, is also distancing for what seems to be a comic that wants to be about familial strength and those bonds being stronger and more important to the lead character than doing superhero stuff. Frankenstein started with some interesting ideas but seems to be treading water, or maybe it’s more accurate to say it has digressed into the Rot stuff when it should be working more on making its characters distinctive. I still don’t really get Frankenstein, much less the rest of his groovy ghoulies. Overall, even with just two writers on these three series, I think tying them all together with the same menace has made each book less special.
I still read a lot of Marvel, though not much has stood out. Daredevil has regained some of its footing with Chris Samnee on art, a good choice, and Dan Slott’s Amazing Spider-Man, though unfortunately uneven artistically, has been consistently entertaining and presented a recognizable but more mature Spider-Man. Avengers vs. X-Men has improved of late, with nice Olivier Coipel art and a few chunks of issues that made sense, though a lot of the plotting is stupid and/or redundant. Why would godlike X-Men fear Scarlet Witch so much, and why is essentially dressing up some Avengers to look like her a good idea when the X-Men have telepaths who should be able to figure out who’s who?
I’m reading more Image books than I have in maybe ever, mostly creator-owned stuff. I can’t confess to loving any of it, but Saga has been imaginative and amusing if not immensely engaging yet, and I’ve also enjoyed the sort of arty take on superheroes and apocalyptic sci-fi in Glory, Prophet, while The Manhattan Projects feels so far like Jonathan Hickman going back to the well and getting S.H.I.E.L.D. right. I was into Hickman’s Secret at first, but the second issue was kind of insulting, with a cliched gangster scene and an obvious reveal stretched out to the end of the issue with four panel pages of not much going on.
I suppose, given how much his work has meant to me, that I should write more about the latest Alan Moore League of Extraordinary Gentleman book, Century: 2009, but it was just okay. Some lovely ideas, typically good Kevin O’Neill artwork and of course, it feels like good value because you read it slowly, trying to pick up on all the pop culture references. But while I appreciate that pretty much all of Moore’s work has some terrific layers to it (I’ve not doubt there’s a great story behind even garbage like Deathblow: Byblows), here, the meta-story about Moore’s disillusionment with the comics industry and the rest of popular culture is more interesting than the plot. Making fun of Harry Potter should have been more fun, right?
Having boycotted Darwyn Cooke’s latest Parker adaptation, The Score, and with no really memorable Hellboy or B.P.R.D. books this month, the only book to really excite me was IDW’s Artist Edition of David Mazzucchelli’s Daredevil: Born Again. I’m not like ADD—I don’t read even my favorite comics over and over again, so it had been probably 20 years since I read this story. It still holds up very well, with an absolutely bulletproof first issue, although I think once it gets to the Nuke/Captain America issue, Daredevil is kind of a guest star in his own book. But while you can see some signs of writer Frank Miller’s eventual shock and awe style, he keeps things relatively restrained here, relying on Mazzucchelli to convey Captain America’s disgust and shame and the mental breakdown of Nuke. The main story of Daredevil/Matt Murdock’s ruination by the Kingpin and subsequent rebirth is not perfect, either. Matt’s flirtation with paranoia and despair is a little too brief, and how does he survive for so long on the streets? Was he homeless? And sure, seeing old girlfriend Karen Page now a junkie whore may have seemed like a progressive move for superhero comics then, but now feels a little cheap and mean. Of course it’s the woman who wrecks things for the hero. Since there was nothing to really be done with Karen once she came back to Matt, better to maybe have left her out entirely and make Matt’s downfall come from his own hubris. I don’t know, maybe I’m just blaming a lot of lesser grim and gritty comics on this early example, which doesn’t get nearly the blame as Miller’s Dark Knight Returns or Moore’s Watchmen and The Killing Joke. Despite its flaws, it’s still one of the better superhero stories ever written, and Miller and Mazzucchelli work so well together they can pretty much pull off anything they try here. The presentation of this book is exquisite, with oversized, heavy-weight black and white pages and a few vellum overlays to show the reader some of the more complex effects Mazzucchelli used on covers and some interior pages. Seeing what amounts to faithful photographs of the original boards makes this not only the most exciting way to experience the story but also the most intimate. Without distracting from what is a real page-turner, one still takes away the immense effort, the will to do something memorable, on the part of the artist. I can’t really imagine reading this again in the small, color format.