If everyone in comics thinks professional wrestling is for idiots – and every time I mention pro wrestling in the column, somebody writes in to mention that – why does everyone try so hard to be Vince McMahon?
Certainly everyone seems to be spoiling now for a fight. A few weeks ago it was Marvel’s suggestive HEROES FOR HIRE cover, which was worth taking them to task for, since it was representative of widespread and growing trends in the general American comics market. (I weighed in on the matter for Publisher’s Weekly, in the context of the trend.)
But Zombie Mary Jane?
Okay, citing a comic allegedly starring “strong women” for a cover that portrays them as held in bondage and apparently sexually exhausted while a swarm of evil eyes watches lasciviously – even if Marvel’s staff is totally ignorant of the clichés of hentai (a cartoon subset of Japanese porn obsessed with the domination and sexual torture until the female victims are overcome with sexual pleasure and eagerly submit to their master’s advances, albeit with modest initial resistance) it’s hard not to see it as highly suggestive unless you’re doing it willingly – but citing a zombie cover for not being tasteful?!
What planet are you people living on?
Now repeat after me: zombies are an inherently tasteless concept. At least since George Romero sunk his fangs into them in 1968 with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, where they became not just occasional bodies resurrected by voodoo (what one publisher told me was “old school” zombies) but shambling, implacable flesh-eating machines that all the dead become until the world itself is overwhelmed by the hungry, mindless dead, zombies are the total antithesis of tasteful. I’m not a fan of zombies and can’t imagine writing a zombie book, because from my perspective they’re boring; despite the multitude of zombie books on the stands today, there isn’t one that has taken the concept any further than Romero has or done anything new with it, and even the decently done ones, like Warren Ellis’ BLACKGAS at Avatar or Robert Kirkman’s THE WALKING DEAD at Image, are mainly interesting when they’re not focusing on zombies, and even they didn’t manage to go anywhere Romero didn’t. Creatively, it’s a – sorry – dead genre, and probably has been since John Skipp and Craig Spector produced their BOOK OF THE DEAD prose anthologies in the late ’80s.
Commercially, though, there’s no doubt it’s thriving, and it’s obvious Marvel’s entries into the sweepstakes – essentially dark comedy zombie versions of their famous superheroes, which about the depth of creativity to which the genre’s likely to aspire so give them some props for hitting the zenith of a pretty shallow field – are doing well commercially. They’re cashing in while the cashing’s good. What would you expect them to do?
I’ve read a lot of complaints about the Mary Jane Watson-Parker zombie cover, how it exploits women, links death and sexuality, savages a character for a throwaway gag that Marvel’s been marketing to children via various series, etc., and while the HEROES FOR HIRE cover definitely embodied issues that Marvel and other companies would be wise to pay attention to, the hysteria around this approaches Parents Television Council-level nuttiness. A couple points:
1) The “linking death and sexuality” thing. Grow up. Death and sexuality have always ridden tandem in western culture, and you don’t have to take my word for it: Georges Bataille has written whole books on the subject (including, as it happens, one called DEATH AND SENSUALITY, which sits on my bookshelf). The whole modern zombie phenomenon ties in psychologically to a fear of both sex and death, and if the Mary Jane cover taps into that, it’s the fault of the genre, not the image.
2) The cover isn’t sexy. The Mary Jane figure on the cover isn’t sexy. She’s cute, except for missing a nose and part of her face, and having a gaping hole where half her bowels ought to be… but that’s hardly the same thing. As opposed to say, the much condemned Mary Jane statue on sale a few weeks ago, there’s nothing in her stance that suggests “sexy pose.” No hint of cheesecake or nudity. In fact, except being dead she’s presented as exactly the same bubbly personality she has always been, but aside from being a woman there’s nothing particularly sexual about her. There’s no need to break out the burkas over it.
3) It’s Mary Jane Parker – but so what? “The girl next door” as zombie is a staple of the zombie genre, and it carries no moral significance but this: regardless of one’s pronounced take on morality, once one becomes a zombie one behaves like a zombie. Sure, she’s the sole figure on the cover, but Marvel has done the same with virtually all its top characters by now. No one can claim the company’s singling her out for special treatment.
4) Boom! Studios did effectively the same thing on the cover of their first ZOMBIE TALES, with an even more iconic figure, Paris Hilton. The book was pretty popular. No outcry. Of course, Marvel gets much more exposure than Boom!, but, again, while there’s something to be said for Marvel thinking about the types of images of women it puts on its covers, given that it is pretty much marketing it all as a “one size fits all” publisher, that’s not an argument for no images of women on Marvel covers, and, as with most comics covers, a cover with no jeopardy or twist isn’t likely to attract anyone’s attention – and the whole point of publishing comics is to attract attention.
Like it or not, a comic featuring Mary Jane Watson-Parker as a zombie is likely to have a picture of Mary Jane Watson-Parker as zombie on the cover. The difference between that and the HEROES FOR HIRE cover is this: if Marvel were publishing HEROES FOR HIRE as a hentai book, their cover would be appropriate. They weren’t. Marvel is publishing the Mary Jane story as a zombie book, no question. Is it appropriate to feature Mary Jane as zombie? Sorry, that’s a matter of personal taste; if you don’t like zombie stories, you don’t have to read them. If you like zombie stories, you know what you’re getting.
As near as I can tell, this issue cropped up because somebody figured Marvel was on the ropes so we should keep at them, but, c’mon guys. Learn to choose your shots. This is one thing pro wrestling has never quite learned: if you treat everything as being equally serious, your audience will stop taking any of it seriously. If you want Marvel to take complaints seriously, you can’t start complaining about even innocuous things. And if you can’t tell the difference between serious and innocuous issues, if you’re not willing to critique things in their context, the problem is yours, not Marvel’s. Why shouldn’t Marvel produce zombie comics? The zombie seems to be the dominant metaphor for our current culture, equally representative of mass market culture and a pervading fear of an apocalyptic future that’s been a consistently growing, if cancerous, part of the national psyche since at least the Nixon years. It’s just the zeitgeist, baby, and zombies, even a Mary Jane zombie, are just a symptom.
In pro wrestling, there’s also something called “the swerve.” Almost all wrestling terminology comes out of carny days, when wrestling shows traveled as part of carnivals that roamed the country, in the days before TV. Carnys were, and still are to the extent they still exist, curious little separate communities, virtually roaming civilizations unto themselves, and they separated humanity into two groups: carnys and everyone else, known as “marks.”
Marks (AKA “rubes”) were the buffoons who bought into the show. The role of the carny was to separate the marks from as much of their money as possible, and to laugh while rolling from town to town at the naïve stupidity of the marks. For a long time, pro wrestling followed these principles; the object of pro wrestling was to “work the marks” and give them the idea that the ferocious battles, rivalries and enmities in and out of the ring were genuine and real instead of being scripted shows, and even now it’s not terribly uncommon for old school wrestlers to mock the fans for being “marks.” There’s no doubt that some people used to buy into it all, and likely some still do – hell, there are still people who believe they’ve struck it rich when they get a Nigerian money letter or some version thereof – but more likely the vast majority of the audience was then, as now, well aware that it was just a show. But there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a show. The idea that wrestling has to be “real” is mainly a conceit promoters and wrestlers told themselves. It only has to be real enough to give the viewer a reason to suspend disbelief while the show is on, and that’s something even Vince McMahon, who recently “died” when his limo exploded on camera, has forgotten. Since at least the early ’90s it’s been openly acknowledged that wrestling is “fake” – an announcement at least as shocking to its audience as abruptly finding out the sky is blue or it’s your parents and not the tooth fairy who leaves a quarter under your pillow when you lose a tooth – but this has simply pushed many bookers (the ones who control storylines in wrestling) to get more and more elaborate and extreme, often abandoning the basics altogether in obsessive desperation to trick and startle the audience. (It’s no coincidence, I think, that mixed martial arts promotions like UFC have stolen a lot of the WWE’s thunder with real matches and “storylines.”) By the mid-’90s, in an effort to trick the “smart marks,” or “smarks,” bookers starting trying to “work the boys” as well. This isn’t all that new – promotion owners have a long history of lying to and cheating their wrestlers, while it’s not exactly unheard of for a popular wrestler to “hold up” a promoter, i.e. refuse at the last moment to go on stage unless his appearance fee got jacked up – but it reached new heights of bookers hiding storylines from the wrestlers themselves, in order to present the wider impression that what was going on was “real,” or, in wrestling terms, a “shoot.” (Which has a few different meanings in wrestling now, but is generally either something that is made to look completely real or is completely real.) The most famous incident was WCW wrestler Brian Pillman working a lengthy “shoot” with booker Kevin Sullivan, who also wrestled, in order to make everyone, including other wrestlers backstage, think the two really hated each other and the feud climaxed with Sullivan, an old-school wrestler who relished working the marks, firing Pillman, who spiced things up by calling Sullivan “bookerman,” a terrible breach of old school wrestler etiquette and more evidence the whole thing was a complete shoot. And it was, sort of. Firing/retirement angles almost always lead to the wrestler returning to the company in triumph (Pillman had already one been forced out in a “loser leaves town” match but quickly and briefly returned under a mask as The Yellow Dog) but this time it was Pillman working Sullivan. Sullivan worked the angle as far as officially firing Pillman and giving him his walking papers, but instead of coming back Pillman jumped to the WWE for more money.
And that, in wrestling lingo, is called a swerve.
A swerve is when you’ve been set up to believe one thing is coming, when in fact something else has been planned all along. At least that’s how it started. In the rough and tumble wrestling environment of the late ’90s, when WWE and WCW were going head to head for ratings, the swerve became an end in itself, stripped of any sort of story logic, mainly for the purpose of startling the audience and getting them to pay attention. Illogical swerves now tend to be the main stuff of pro wrestling – a face (heroic wrestler) turns heel (villainous wrestler) with no setup, two wrestlers build for a major feud but abruptly and inexplicably team up instead, a wrestler heavily promoted for a main event will walk out without explanation, wrestlers announced for shows when the promoter already knows they’re not going to be there, etc. – and that may also have something to do with the current floundering fortunes of pro wrestling. The swerve is, at heart, just an updated version of the carny lie, the notion that your audience is a collection of “marks,” and behind every pronounced sentiment that “this’ll be really cool, they won’t see this coming at all!” is a snickering, if sublimated, glee at being able to put one over on them.
It’s not like comics have been strangers to the swerve, but traditionally swerves have come back to bite them in the ass, particularly in direct market days when shipping comics with contents other than advertised – the very epitome of a swerve – eventually forced publishers to start taking returns, a practice the direct market had previously allowed them to give up completely. Whole lines of books have since been brought down by being made returnable. In most cases, swerves in comics aren’t planned but are just on the spot incidents of convenience that someone just didn’t think through very well.
And then there’s THE FLASH.
DC announced at a convention this weekend that the current FLASH run, with a grown up Impulse taking over the role, would end this summer, with the previous FLASH book returning in the fall and picking up its former numbering. To maintain the illusion the current FLASH book was continuing until the announcement could be made, they solicited two phantom issues.
AKA a swerve.
Unlike other columnists, I wouldn’t ascribe any unsavory motivations to DC in this. I mean, come on, it’s THE FLASH, they have to do something to sell it. And for the last twenty years, comics companies across the board have been smothered in this weird obsession with secrecy, trying desperately to protect every plot twist and payoff, to the point of self-damage, where they’ve jealously tried to hold onto “secrets” that, when they escaped into the wild (usually enraging the companies, at least initially), jacked up the sales of the book in question. We also currently exist in an environment where announcing cancellations is a sure fire way to see sales on post-announcement issues plunge into the abyss. So to some extent the way DC played this makes sense, if they wanted to give the Marc Guggenheim issues a full shot. I’m not sure I buy the story that this has been the plan since before Guggenheim took over THE FLASH. What would they have done had Guggenheim’s version become a monster hit? But the whole thing does sound like acknowledgement within the company that the Bart Allen experiment had failed and something had to be done. It’s not really true that the swerve left no harm done – retailers budgeting for those two final issues of the current FLASH run, if they’re not being published (it was unclear), could have budgeted that money toward some other comic, so someone got bit by it – but whether a swerve was the right way to give the new run a push only sales of the new run will tell.
What’s mainly troubling about the swerve is its potential for future use by comics companies. Not that we haven’t seen swerves before, but it’s funny how it’s almost never appreciated by the audience. However you want to look at it, a swerve is a lie, deliberate misinformation telling your audience to expect one thing when you’re planning to give them another. (The synonym for “swerve” in retail circles is “bait and switch.”) The fact is that if the payoff is good enough, the audience will almost always forgive the swerve. But the payoffs are rarely good enough. A swerve may sound clever when you’re sitting around a table swapping marketing ideas, but what it comes down to is an intentional breach of faith with the audience, and when those accumulate sufficiently you end up with no audience. Intending to deliver something but ultimately not finding yourself up to the task, that’s one thing. It’s not a desirable outcome but it’s just the way things play out sometimes. But promising to deliver something while never planning to deliver it, that’s just a con game, playing the audience as marks. If this were the only instance of it or DC the only company to engage in such things, it would hardly be worth noticing. But it isn’t and it’s not.
So, some rules of thumb for publishers (and, let’s face it, talent). 1) History tells us that whatever secrets you’re hiding, they’re most likely not as awesome and striking as you think they are, and you’re likelier to get more attention and sell more copies if you let really huge plot twists be known ahead of time, though you can refrain from giving out details. Even if everyone knows Superman is going to die, they’ll still want to see how. 2) If you don’t want the audience to know what you’re going to do, don’t tell anyone. If you have to lie to them to get their attention, it’s a pretty good signal you’re doing something wrong, and even if it doesn’t bite you in the moment, you can’t afford to think you’re invulnerable enough that it won’t someday catch up with you. 3) If you’re going to emulate pro wrestling, try not to emulate the stupid parts.
Paris Hilton and Scooter Libby: good examples of news manipulation at work.
We’re all now sickeningly familiar with Paris Hilton’s latest escapade, but it’s illustrative. Way back when, Paris Hilton was pulled over on a DUI. She had a great excuse, of course, all day with no food at a charity event and a quick one for the road and she got a little tipsy, honest. Despite all her charitable work, the court suspended her driver’s license and gave her a basic probation. Poor Paris. Only not so poor, because a month later she’s stopped again, only this time she’s driving without a license. Again, a great excuse: her “handlers” never explained to her that having a suspended license meant you couldn’t drive. Because, gosh, no 28 year old woman could possibly be expected to have gleaned that little nugget all on her own, or checked a dictionary to find out what “suspended” meant. The kindly police officer accepts the argument and lets her off with a warning.
And a month later, she’s picked up for driving again. This time there’s no excuse and it’s back to court for breaking probation. But Paris and her mother show up twenty minutes late (eventually, they “reveal” that they got lost dodging paparazzi, but don’t bother to mention this to the judge at the time and only “reveal” it several weeks later, to sympathetic reporters) and come in laughing, waving and singing autographs for fans, like they’re walking down the runway at the Oscars. Any idiot knows that antagonizing the judge at your hearing is a tactical error, but apparently Paris and her mom aren’t just any idiot. Mom laughs and giggles at everything the judge says, as if he couldn’t possibly be serious, and she waves at reporters in the courtroom. Because, you know, it’s the Hiltons (Paris once referred to herself as “America’s princess, really”) who are holding court.
Until the judge decides Paris is going to do jail time. Then Paris is suddenly the poor little rich girl who’s being made an example of by a vicious and vindictive judicial system. Which means we’re supposed to feel sympathy for her.
The judge’s order specifies a 45 day sentence that’s cut down to 23. 45 days for breaking probation (twice) on a DUI is then presented in the press as unreasonable, because, obviously, any 28 year old black woman from Reseda picked up on the same charges would get off with a handslap, y’know. (That’s sarcasm, for those who missed it.) The order specifies that she not be remanded to house arrest. Why? Could the judge actually be aware of the dirty little longtime secret that the L.A. County sheriff’s dept. loves celebrities, and most celebrities accused of crimes would rather surrender themselves to L.A. County than L.A. proper? Could he have realized that Paris’ “house” is a freaking mansion with every modern convenience that most people would consider a vacation hotspot? What happens next is that when Paris surrenders herself into custody, she’s released to house arrest a couple days later because it seems no one ever mentioned she was on medication and being in jail kept her from taking it, so the sheriff decides release the house arrest is the only possible thing to do. Nonetheless, two days later the judge orders Paris back to jail, and entertainment news shows around the dial start howling about how Paris is being made into “an example.”
The whole thing with the sheriff’s office smells like an orchestrated set-up. Paris Hilton has a virtual army of lawyers and handlers. Not one of them thinks it’s worth mentioning to the sheriff’s office that she’s on medication, which has only been prescribed to her since the hearing? (We already know from the second traffic stop that Paris can’t be depended on to form a coherent thought, so no one in her camp would expect her to.) When she “freaks out” due to lack of medication, it’s her own doctors who are brought in to determine the proper course of treatment is to get her out of jail. Uh-huh. I find it interesting that when this scenario is being loosed on the press, not one reporter seems to have asked why her medication wasn’t just brought in once it was discovered she needed it. At a press conference, the sheriff holds up a sheet of paper he says is the medical report, but tells the press they don’t get copies. But the sheriff doesn’t even send the judge a copy, though the judge is waiting for it. The sheriff says that sending Paris home because she was sick was exactly what he would have done for any inmate, but I wonder how many 28 year old black female DUI probation violators from Reseda could secure an early release – or even a medical examination – by complaining being in jail was freaking them out. So now, after all the shenanigans, Paris is once again in county lockup – though, reportedly, with an endless stream of visitors 24 hours a day, which also doesn’t seem likely to be common county policy.
And all the “medical escape from jail” logically adds up to is an orchestrated collusion between the L.A. County sheriff’s office and the Hilton family to keep Paris Hilton from going to jail. And all it would have taken from reporters is half a dozen pointed questions about the stupidities and anomalies of the situation to back up that conclusion. Instead, we get a stream of reports about how Paris is being victimized by the legal system, with constant reaffirmation of the shaky point that nobody else is treated that way. Which is true, but not quite the way they mean.
Then there’s Scooter Libby.
White House insider/Dick Cheney chief of staff Scooter Libby has been sentenced to a couple dozen plus months in prison for lying to a grand jury, which has caused all kinds of ruckus in neo-con camps, with the oft-repeated accusation that the conviction and sentence are a “travesty.” The short version: Libby helped spill to reporters the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame. He then lied and tried to mislead a grand jury about it. Many have now leapt to his “defense” with a whole slew of arguments. Libby wasn’t the first to out Plame, so he can’t be held responsible. (True, sort of, except for the responsible part; Richard Armitage had already revealed Plame to reporter Bob Novak, but the story hadn’t yet come out when Libby was shopping the information around, so the best you can say is that Plame’s outing was a parallel, if not conjoined, effort.) Plame’s CIA status didn’t fit the definition of a protected operative, so revealing her identity wasn’t illegal. (That argument would work except that her status – she was covertly running intelligence operations in the Middle East, trying to get a solid intelligence picture of pre-war Iraq – was clearly in the protected range.) There were never criminal charges brought against anyone in the Plame affair, so Libby shouldn’t be held responsible if there was no crime. (But Libby wasn’t on trial for outing Plame. He was on trial for willingly and knowingly interfering with an investigation. The object of an investigation is to determine within reasonable doubt whether a crime occurred, and interference with such an investigation is a crime all on its own and has nothing to do with whether the crime being investigated ever happened. It only has to do with the investigation into the crime.) The list goes on, but those are the major talking points, and they’re all obfuscation.
Since Libby’s conviction, the popular pastime in Washington has been to a) claim it’s all an unfounded Democrat vendetta; b) write letters to the judge asking for clemency, on all kinds of fascinating grounds like Scooter does charity work (Paris also used this one as a reason why she shouldn’t go to jail) and his kids will miss him if he’s sent up; c) write op-eds denouncing the system for victimizing an innocent man; d) harangue the Ghost about giving Scooter a presidential pardon. Still, the fact remains that a jury found Libby guilty of willful interference with a grand jury investigation, and virtually all the people defending Libby are just as happy to blithely accept jury findings that convict all kinds of people they don’t know and don’t play racketball with anyone in their circles, and when that happens they call it justice. Again, you have to wonder whether they would be willing to apply the same standards – that his kids would miss him, that he only committed a “little” crime so why is he being persecuted? – to some black man convicted of breaking and entering in Texas without much proof besides the prosecutor’s insistence that he did it? (Or, to make things less hypothetical, whether they’re actively trying to sway the judge to leniency in the Alabama case where a prosecutor in a still segregated town is trying to get several black teenagers put away for life on attempted murder charges because they beat up a white kid?) Whether they truly believe that Libby deserves to be above the law (they were briefly, as a mark of his virtue, citing Libby as an important player in the build toward the Iraq War, but for some reason they leave that out these days) or whether they’re afraid Libby, like Paris, will freak out after two days in even a minimum security prison and will start spilling everything he has on all kinds of other people in the administration. (Given that his former boss Dick Cheney has been vehemently trying for years to keep everything his office does, from making back door deals with energy concerns under the guise of federal energy policy to orchestrating various breaches of civil liberties, totally secret and out of the public eye, that could conceivably be an interesting development.) What it comes down to, though, whether your name is Hilton or Libby, there is now considered to be a class of people in this country – the rich, powerful and connected – for whom the application of the law in the same way it is applied to all the rest of us is considered to be a gross miscarriage of justice. Not that there hasn’t always been, but there haven’t ever before been quite so many voices with access to the media howling to make it an acknowledged standard.
Let’s do this review thing systematically, okay? First up: comics-related books that aren’t comics, for as long as there’s left in today.
From Destiny Books:
AN UNLIKELY PROPHET: a metaphysical memoir by the legendary writer of Superman and Batman, Alvin Schwartz ($16.95)
Despite the title, this isn’t so much a memoir of the Golden Age of comics as a Carlos Castenada-like quasi-novel with Schwartz, a longtime anchor writer on the top DC books, using the aid of a possibly real Tibetan guru to pursue various oddball spiritual ideas, like the notion that Superman has now literally taken on a life of his own. (It helps if you’ve ever heard of a Tulpa.) The book’s punctuated by Schwartz’s experiences during his life with various figures like Jackson Pollack. Don’t expect a lot of information about Scwartz’s life as a comics writer – don’t expect much of any, actually – but as new age novels go it’s not half bad.
From Ballantine Books:
FROM THE NOTEBOOKS OF DR. BRAIN by Minister Faust ($13.95)
I’m probably the worst person in the world to send superhero novels to, especially ones written by people who’ve never written (or, apparently, read) superhero comics. Why? Because I haven’t a lot of tolerance for authors who pile on cliché after cliché like they’re coming up with the greatest variations on a theme the world has ever seen – and they don’t seem to know any better! That’s the mark of someone who doesn’t read comics, really: they think they know and they don’t. In this one, there’s – don’t wet yourself – a team of dysfunctional superheroes who don’t get along and can’t understand why all their powers don’t bring them happiness? That one was new in, what, 1963? While “Faust” strings words together well enough – it’s not a difficult read – it’s basically got all the depth of an episode of SEX AND THE CITY… and clever character names like Omnipotent Man. Oh, and X-Man, that one’s pretty original too. Strangely, Faust’s book takes off when he abandons the plot; the epilogue is loaded with funny psychobabble, as well as the prognosis of “six million Americans with proto-villain tendencies.” Too bad he didn’t write a book about that.
MANGA: THE COMPLETE GUIDE by Jason Thompson ($24.95)
Wow, complete is right. An encyclopedic assessment of thousands of manga, with thumbnail background, publication data and commentary. Sample for COWBOY BEBOP – SHOOTING STAR: “Slightly more interesting that the other Cowboy Bebop manga, this adaptation was produced before the TV series, allowing the artist more freedom. The resulting stories are still weak compared to the anime, but completists may find them interesting…” With lots of special sections discussing trend and cultural influences, this is a great starting point for anyone wishing to understand or explore manga, and even though the sheer volume of material precludes much real depth, Thompson manages to get in a healthy heaping of critical thought. If only American comics had reference works this good. (And if you want to judge it’s integrity, check what it says about some of the manga Del Rey publishes…)
GRANT MORRISON The Early Years by Timothy Callahan ($22.99)
How is it people keep writing good books about Grant Morrison? Callahan does a great job deconstructing Morrison’s initial 2000 AD and DC work like “Zenith” and DOOM PATROL to uncover his influences and illuminate recurring themes, though he spends a bit too much space reiterating plots. An interview with Morrison discussing Callahan’s conclusions tops things off. While my own view is that Morrison’s work now is much more interesting (if less borne on the shock of the new) now than it was then, there are many people out there who feel otherwise, and this book will only encourage them. Worth a read.
From Fantagraphics Books:
HARRY, THE RAT WITH WOMEN by Jules Feiffer ($12.95)
There was a time when cartoonist Jules Feiffer was among the most savage cultural critics in America, and it spilled over his longrunning VILLAGE VOICE strip into his plays, screenplays and novels. His stylistic forte is the unexpected juxtaposition for effect (“Eugenie was moved by Harry as she had never been moved by any man: slightly.”), and his topic was prescient of generations to come, about a young man given everything as a child who grows up to be a womanizing monster incapable of human relations because he thinks that’s what he already has. I remember Feiffer the novelist being a breezy, funny read, and it turns out I’m right. Very entertaining.
From TwoMorrows Publishing:
MODERN MASTERS VOL. 10: KEVIN MAGUIRE by George Khoury & Eric Nolen-Weathington; MODERN MASTERS VOL. 11: CHARLES VESS by Christopher Irving & Eric Nolen Weathington ($14.95@)
BLUE BEETLE COMPANION by Christopher Irving ($16.95)
COMICS GONE APE: The Missing Link To Primates In Comics by Michael Eury ($16.95)
BRUSH STROKES WITH GREATNESS: The Life & Art Of Joe Sinnott by Tim Lasiuta ($17.95)
WORKING METHODS: COMICS CREATORS DETAIL THEIR STORYTELLING AND ARTISTIC PROCESS by John Lowe ($21.95)
THE NEW JACK KIRBY COLLECTOR #98 ed. John Morrow ($9.95)
ALTER EGO #66-68 ed. Roy Thomas; WRITE NOW! #15 ed. Danny Fingeroth; BACK ISSUE #22 ed. Michael Eury; DRAW! #13 ed. Michael Manley; ROUGH STUFF #3, ed. Bob McLeod ($6.95@)
I think it can be said, looking at this collection, that TwoMorrows publishes books and magazines for obsessives. A lengthy volume dedicated to The Blue Beetle? He was around a good thirty years before Steve Ditko made him anything like memorable, and it took killing him off and inventing a new Blue Beetle to do it, but somehow THE BLUE BEETLE companion, while not convincing you of any importance to the development of comics, somehow makes the concept’s ability to survive over time fascinating. That’s what TwoMorrows books are good for. None of them are written all that pithily or incisively, but they convey great enthusiasm for whatever oddball subject they focus on. The “Modern Masters” series are basically lengthy but fairly ordinary interviews surrounded by gobs and gobs of artwork, but you still come away from them more interested in the artists in question. Sometimes the projects, like COMICS GONE APE, are just silly, but it’s obvious they’re meant to be, and Eury’s sense of humor, also visible in his magazine BACK ISSUE (which, like COMICS GONE APE, is also basically an excuse to print a wide range of art, but includes enough good text features, like APE‘s interviews with Joe Kubert and Carmine Infantino, to give it some weight) is infectious. Even books meant to be taken seriously, like the Joe Sinnott biography – a combination biography, interview and homage to the key inker of the Lee-Kirby Marvel era – are less critique than paean, which starts getting annoying when you read the books en masse (like I did) but in individual cases renders the material friendly and appealing. TwoMorrows’ magazines are really kind of one magazine, spread out, each covering a different aspect of the comics world. Those most interested in deep comics history should head for ALTER EGO and THE KIRBY COLLECTOR, those obsessed with art to ROUGH STUFF, DRAW! and BACK ISSUE, those focused on process to DRAW! and WRITE NOW!. If there’s any flaw to TwoMorrows’ books and magazines, it’s that none of them are quite focused enough to produce great material – interviewers rarely follow up answers with more intensive questioning on any particular subject, for instance, and while it creates a friendly breezy atmosphere, it’s hell on substance – but they don’t publish bad material either. Something for everyone, check ’em out.
Notes from under the floorboards:
Nothing much this week. It’s summer. Surprisingly and against the verdict of most reviews, HBO’s JOHN FROM CINCINNATI (9P Sundays) has turned out to be surprisingly entertaining. The saga of an estranged down on their luck surfing family in Imperial Beach California, it turns out to have the same idiosyncratic pacing and rhythms as DEADWOOD (producer David Milch is behind both), and its weird sense of development, but it’s the style of third season DEADWOOD instead of first season, with waves and sun standing in for DEADWOOD‘s continual gloom. (Plus the dialogue is as stylized as DEADWOOD‘s, though not in the same way, but it’s still a pleasure to soak up.) It also dips heavily into magic realism, a style not particularly well-received in America, with mysterious resurrections, haunted motel rooms, an idiot savant spouting prophecy in between repeating other character’s lines with different emphasis, and the idiot savant repeatedly finding in his pockets whatever another character is asking for despite emptying his pockets with each find. In its casual weirdness, it’s like a latter day TWIN PEAKS. You’ve got time; give it a shot.
In the middle of writing the new Pat Novak story, got the Odysseus The Rebel webstrip and a screenplay to write, and that pretty much takes up the rest of my month creatively. TWO GUNS #3 should be out from Boom! Studios right about now, so pick it up, harass your retailer for it or order it from Boom!, and I wrote a piece on the Altman film THE LONG GOODBYE for Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips’ CRIMINAL over at Marvel but I’m not sure what issue that shows up in so just start buying CRIMINAL with whatever issue’s out now and work your way up to the one with my piece, okay? It’s just that damn good. (It’s just not quite as good as TWO GUNS, nyuk nyuk.) (That’s just to irritate Ed. Go buy CRIMINAL. And TWO GUNS. Got it?)
A bunch of extremely creative “solutions” to last week’s Comics Cover Challenge (oh, boy, another chance to irritate Ed, ’cause he can never figure them out; my cup runneth over!) but only one right one: arch-enemies. The first of very few to figure it out was David Rapp, who wants to point you toward the website Both Favorites, a blog of very funny things. We could all use a good laugh, couldn’t we?
For those who came in late: you may notice several comics covers posted in the column. This is what I call the Comics Cover Challenge. The covers are connected by a single secret theme – it could be a concept, a creator, a character, a historical element, pretty much anything – and the first reader who emails me the correct solution may choose a website of their choice (keep it clean!) for promotion in next’s week’s column. If you need any clues beyond what’s here, you can search for them at the online source of our covers, The Grand Comic Book Database, and I usually include a hidden clue somewhere in the column. Per usual, there’s a devious clue to the mystery hidden somewhere in the column, and, while this one’s a little tricky, if you stick to it you should get it. Good luck!
As usual, you can find ebooks and other books by me and recommended by me available at The Paper Movies Store. Go buy something; I need the money. Then again, who doesn’t?
Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it’s not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They’re no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don’t really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read.
IMPORTANT PUBLIC NOTICE OF COLUMN POLICY: any email received in response to a piece run in this column is considered a letter of comment available for printing in the column unless the author specifically indicates it is not intended for public consumption. Unless I check with you or the contents of your e-mail make your identity unavoidably obvious, all letters are run anonymously.
Please don’t ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.
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I’m reviewing comics sent to me – I may not like them but certainly I’ll mention them – at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send ’em if you want ’em mentioned, since I can’t review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can’t do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.
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