Trouble with Comics

Supermag (2013)

By Jim Rugg, with Brian Maruca

Publisher: AdHouse Books. $9.99 USD.

If you don’t know, Jim Rugg is a fantastic artist who happened to make one of the best graphic novels of the past decade, Street Angel. The thing is, that was in 2005, and quite frankly, he hasn’t done a lot since as far as comics. I doubt it was for lack of effort. He did a book called The Plain Janes targeted at a tween audience that had no way of hearing about it, shortly before the economy collapsed and DC canceled the imprint. Afrodisiac was a lot of fun, but a blaxploitation parody seemed to be treading water a little creatively.

Now, there’s Supermag. Like his Notebook Drawings, it’s a showcase for Rugg’s immense illustrative talent, along with a number of short comics strips and stories. Rugg shows how much he’s learned from adventure comics of the ’30s and ’40s, the EC horror and crime comics of the ’50s, funny animal strips and cartoons of the ’60s and ’70s, as well as the influence of cartoonists like Daniel Clowes and Jaime Hernandez. Rugg has a dazzling command of his craft and is skilled at all manner of styles.

He’s a good writer, too. There’s a voice here, only partially obscured by the spoofs and genre mimicry, and it’s one of dread and fear and helplessness about the dark forces that churn the world. It’s a noir voice, a horror voice, but here we only get brief glimpses of either genre. 

On rare occasions, critics can be a buoy to a creator, give them that lift when they need it to keep going. A lot of times, though, we can be perceived as terrible people for our demands. I mean, I recognize that the market is not the same as what it was when Rugg started. The days when a Dan Clowes or Chester Brown could work through things in a serial comic book are largely over. One is expected to come out with fully-formed graphic novels nowadays. Adrian Tomine continuing with Optic Nerve is a cute gesture, and we look at it with varying degrees of admiration and condescension, like a band issuing a single only in vinyl. This is an astonishingly impressive calling card for Jim Rugg, Jack of All Genres, but it’s also a stopgap measure. An unreflective survey. His superhero ape strips are fun, but you wouldn’t want a whole book of it. His short horror and suspense pieces are great, but it’s not terribly difficult to create nameless dread in one page. They’re exercises, a dipping of toes into genre waters, but there’s a lack of commitment here. As a critic, one has to set aside the likely realities that this is a not-very-well-known illustrator presenting a collection of bits of some of his best material from the past few years and ask whether it’s a great collection of comics. As great an artist as he is, the answer is no, it’s not. It’s impressive, but it’s more tantalizing than satisfying, small plates and spoonfuls of what could turn out to be a number of good to great meals. I recommend it on that score, as a sampling of a very talented guy giving indications of doing a lot of things really well, but one is still left wanting at least one really good story.

—Christopher Allen

Hawkeye Vol. 1 (2013)

Writer: Matt Fraction

Artists: David Aja, Javier Pulido, Alan Davis

Marvel Comics $16.99 USD

I’ll be honest; as much as comics have meant to me in my 43 years on Earth, I don’t read that many new ones these days. The landscape is such a minefield. Too many crossovers and stretched-out arcs. Good creative teams either move on from a title too fast, or the writer gets so inundated with work that the quality of the work suffers. Way too much editorial interference without actual constructed, educated editing. But I try to keep my eyes and ears open for the good stuff.

Matt Fraction is an interesting case. The world of genre comics (superhero, crime, horror, fantasy—basically anything but art comics) is filled with bland voices and poor craft, and so anyone with a hint of freshness can be “called up to the majors” before they’re ready. Somehow the initially overpraised Fraction, despite smug tweets and the unironic wearing of a cowboy hat, has developed into a champion writer under the dubious auspices of Marvel Comics, navigating the event-driven, continuity-resetting, crossover-driven waters quite admirably. He reminds me a little of Mark Waid in that he’s able to find a take on a character that’s a little different than anything that’s been done before, while not being so drastic that it’s a new character. And like Waid, usually humor is a key ingredient, which is why Fraction’s Iron Man run reads as more deeply felt, deeply thought-out, and just plain more fun than his run on Thor.

Hawkeye, like Tony Stark, is historically kind of a wiseass, and that’s one of the characteristics that Fraction can work with here, but he goes a lot deeper. We meet a Clint Barton who’s the world-saving Avenger Hawkeye in his day job, but is more comfortable living in a New York apartment with regular folks. He’s got no quit in him, to an obnoxious extent at times, but basically, he’s just a guy who’s really good with a prehistoric weapon. In the first, three issue arc, Fraction and Aja scale things down so it’s a hero book, not a superhero book, with Hawkeye mixing it up with Russian mobsters when one of them, the landlord, wants to sell the building and evict Clint and his neighbors. Action is slowed down, with inserts of types of arrows to get the reader into the nuts and bolts of what he does, humorously. Matt Hollingsworth’s use of violets and earth tones gives the book a unique look, which I appreciate and think is important, especially for a solo title. Most of his offbeat ideas—giving the villains matching Mini Coopers, giving Clint a Dodge muscle car, having Clint try to buy rather than beat his way out of a problem, making his lack of labels for his arrows a running gag—work quite well, and some choices are terrific, like Clint’s no-quit attitude reflected in his saving of a massively injured stray dog. Yes, the dog-saving superhero may be a shameless bid for sympathy, but it works. I also really liked the dynamic he develops between Clint and Kate, the young woman who became Hawkeye during a questionable period where Hawkeye was (secretly at first) a sword-slinging hero named Ronin. It goes beyond typical meet-cute, sarcastic-banter-covering-growing-attraction stuff. Clint has made a lot of mistakes with women and is mature enough at this point to realize it, plus Kate is much younger and he’s her mentor. So he’s set up mental barriers for himself that for the most part he’s honoring, even if it means he’s unwittingly hurting Kate’s feelings in the process of keeping this distance.

The fourth and fifth issues of the series find Pulido as the artist in an arc with more of an international flavor, with Clint attempting to buy back a videotape of him apparently assassinating someone on S.H.I.E.L.D.’s orders. It’s mainly got a lighthearted tone, appropriate for a caper story, and there are some fun lines and moments of derring-do, but there’s also a sobering question running through it: is Hawkeye a murderer? Fraction balances the tones very well, while also continuing to develop the Clint/Kate relationship. We get even more of this in a flashback story drawn by Alan Davis from Young Avengers Presents #6 (which I didn’t even know was a thing), where we see the genesis of their relationship is with Clint being a protector and mentor, someone who wants Kate to learn from his mistakes, as she will eventually take his place. It also establishes that Kate is a pretty impulsive, romantic girl, so Clint would be wise to tread carefully in regards to her feelings.

A very enjoyable collection that, unlike most comics today, is good enough that I’ve read it a few times now, out of pleasure. I don’t want to go on a rant here, but one of the big reasons comics don’t sell the way they used to is that comics of this level are harder and harder to find. Comics with tight story arcs, fresh storytelling strategies, wit, layered characterization, emotional engagement, and high quality draftsmanship. When you find it, support it.

—Christopher Allen