THE SPIRIT? WEIRD SCIENCE? CAPTAIN MARVEL ADVENTURES? CRIME DOES NOT PAY? AMAZING SPIDER-MAN? FANTASTIC 4? (It did used to say “The World’s Greatest Comics Magazine” right there on the cover.) ZAP COMIX? AMERICAN FLAGG!? THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS? LOVE AND ROCKETS? WATCHMEN? SWAMP THING under Alan Moore? MAUS? AMERICAN SPLENDOR? SANDMAN? THE INVISIBLES? PLANETARY?
Or maybe it’s Scott McCloud’s metacomic UNDERSTANDING COMICS. (“Metacomic” being a ten dollar word for a comic that’s only about comics. Like most comics being done these days.)
Someone asked me recently for my opinion on the matter. But I can do better than that; this doesn’t require an opinion. I can tell you with absolute certainty – cold, hard fact – what the greatest comic book of all time is (and not just because it covers all time):
(You thought I was going to say WHISPER or BADLANDS, didn’t you?)
Larry Gonick, if you’re not familiar with his work, is something of a throwback to underground comics. (In fact, I first heard of him collaborating on a little underground out of Cambridge in the early ’70s, TIE TAC, with Mike Baron.) Certainly his art style harks back to the idiosyncratic cartooniness of those works, a deceptive and straightforward simplicity that stands in marked contrast to the anal detail and “exaggerated realism” so tediously prevalent in comics today. Gonick’s art drives home the truth (also found in such standbys as Alex Toth, whose work can be found at his site) that simpler is more expressive, though what’s simpler to our eye may be far more difficult to the cartoonist. But that’s what Gonick is, a cartoonist, and his art perfectly suits his story, which is truly the greatest story ever told, because it’s our story.
Gonick started THE CARTOON HISTORY OF THE UNIVERSE back in 1972, and was first published as a running comic book by underground publisher Rip-Off Press, filling the void left in the company when the Supreme Court basically killed off the undergrounds via a ruling on obscenity standards in America. The first issue started with the Big Bang and concluded with the arrival of humanity on Earth, and, considering he was dealing for the most part with cosmic dust, volcanoes and dinosaurs, it was a stitch. By the end of the first seven issues, collected in 1990 by Doubleday as THE CARTOON HISTORY OF THE UNIVERSE VOL 1-7 (THE CARTOON HISTORY OF THE UNIVERSE II VOL. 8-13 followed in 1994), Gonick had gotten past the legends and prehistory and into the rise of the earliest civilizations, concluding with Alexander The Great. That was where the real fun began: we tend to think of Alexander as a big deal – Hollywood now has two Alexander bio-epics in production – but UNIVERSE II started with his invasion of India, which lasted just long enough for him to decide to go home (so much for “no worlds left to conquer”), with the comment that “In all the vast literature of this vast subcontinent, Alexander the Great is never mentioned. Zero times he appears! In fact, Indian mathematicians may have invented the number zero just to describe situations like these…” And with that, Gonick’s off on a multi-part excursion through ancient Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Roman and Hebrew cultures down to the fall of Rome.
I’ve read a lot of histories, and Gonick’s sheer breadth of knowledge – and, probably, research – astounds me. Many histories are basically dry recitations of facts, but Gonick continually focuses on people and personalities, slowly drawing a picture of history as a result of personal dreams and petty foibles, thrones being won and battles being lost (and vice versa) on the strength or weakness of hubris and preconceptions, and, more than any history I’ve ever read, he shows how things could’ve gone in different directions at any given time. Moreover, we tend to have a picture of ancient civilizations as being essentially separated from each other, that what went on in Rome meant nothing in China, etc., but Gonick weaves it all together.
Particularly in CARTOON HISTORY OF THE UNIVERSE III, which was issued last year by WW Norton & Co. (500 Fifth Ave, NY NY 10110; $21.95) mostly covering what’s commonly known as “The Dark Ages,” where, most of us tend to believe (largely enforced by what we’re taught in school) that nothing much really happened then. Which is pretty much true for the disgusting hovel known as post-Roman Europe, but, in the rest of the Eastern Hemisphere (Gonick has yet to deal with the Western Hemisphere, at least in the UNIVERSE series), there was quite a bit going on, and Gonick clearly demonstrates how it all feeds into what made us what we are today. Among other things, it discusses the mechanisms that carried the Black Plague from its origins in India through China and into Europe, and that has entirely to do with people too (the panic involved being a creepy parallel to the current SARS thing); how the great black civilizations of sub-Saharan Africa (one had mansions with hot and cold indoor plumbing at a time when most of Europe was living in dirt-floored straw huts) underwrote the Italian Renaissance courtesy of Muhammed. And it’s all fascinating.
The thing about Gonick is this: his art is great, he has a knack for making extremely complex topics brisk and quickly comprehendible, and for making them fun; I don’t think there’s anything he can’t find humor in. He really puts the story back in history (or herstory, if you’re of a particularly hardcore feminist bent), and his storytelling is fabulous. There’s a subtle subversion in Gonick’s work, too; he’s trying to undermine commonly held notions of “them” and “us” by puncturing stereotypes and demonstrating that we really are all one people, and, in some ways, all one vast culture, a many-headed hydra called humanity, with one vast interwoven history. (He also includes bibliographies in every volume, so you can track down his source material yourself if you’re of a mind to. Moreover, he obviously just loves this stuff: he loves history, he loves comics. And this is what he means to comics: like I said, I’ve read a lot of histories, including several general histories of the world, and THE CARTOON HISTORY OF THE UNIVERSE is far and away the best. It doesn’t have every little detail by a long shot, but as an overview of history it’s phenomenal. Every general history course in the country should be buying up these things for classroom textbooks. And if comics can effectively – and entertainingly! – deliver a topic as usually dry and often tedious as history, they can deliver pretty much anything. THE CARTOON HISTORY OF THE UNIVERSE is the most effective argument we have for the value of comics as a medium. In ways that, oh, the 50,000 film based on a Marvel character can’t.
Gonick hasn’t stopped there either. The rest of his books make the same argument: his exceptional CARTOON HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES (where he does discuss the Western Hemisphere; I keep wondering if he’ll just incorporate it whole into a future UNIVERSE volume), and his CARTOON GUIDES TO Genetics; The Computer; Physics; Statistics; Sex; The Environment; and (Non)Communication. (He also has the odd fiction piece here and there; check his website.
The short version: Larry Gonick is the best ambassador our medium has, and THE CARTOON HISTORY OF THE UNIVERSE is, by any objective standard, the greatest comic book ever done. So why aren’t we feting him at every possible opportunity?
Or is this, as has been suggested, a Marvel ploy to coerce Sony into buying the company and getting it off the current owners’ hands? Maybe – even in the face of an improved stock situation, rumors persist that Marvel owners are looking for a buyer – but, considering the company’s slowly improving financial situation and their deal with Universal on THE HULK, as well as all the movie/TV deals Marvel’s been setting up lately, maybe they figure independence is the more profitable way to go. In any case, Marvel’s ultimate objective with the suit seems to be the negotiation of better licensing terms (probably more along the lines of what they’re getting from Universal). Which, if you look at Marvel’s history, with Hollywood, is something of a first for the company. (Joe Simon – he and Marvel are countersuing each other over the rights to CAPTAIN AMERICA, for those keeping track of all the lawsuits Marvel’s got going these days – tells the story of how longtime Marvel publisher Martin Goodman, Stan Lee’s uncle, simply gave Republic Films rights to make a CAPTAIN AMERICA serial in the ’40s, figuring the publicity would be good for the company, and that pretty much sums up Marvel’s general level of media sophistication until fairly recently.)
Speaking of CAPTAIN AMERICA, self-appointed moral watchdog Michael Medved (a film critic who made his rep founding The Golden Turkey Awards to celebrate bad films, before briefly joining Jeffrey Lyons – who I once sat behind at a film screening in NYC; he didn’t bother actually watching the film, but instead chatted up Rex Reed and Liz Smith all through it – in a short-lived knockoff of SISKEL AND EBERT) apparently read John Ney Reiber’s recent run on the character and THE TRUTH, Marvel’s revisionist “black Captain America” saga, and was horrified – absolutely horrified, I tell you – to see that Captain America, the living symbol of all that’s good and proper about this great land we live in, was actually considering the possibility that America might have some responsibility for its actions. Horrified enough to write an article about it for renowned conservative rag THE NATIONAL REVIEW.
Okay, Medved doesn’t like it. Big deal. There are all kinds of ways to approach Captain America, and his status as a symbol as well as (and too often as opposed to) a character leads to occasionally philosophical ponderings on what America’s all about. Depending on how well your political POV gibes with the particular writer’s you either dig it or you don’t. It happens. There’s Mark Millar’s vision of Captain America as a grizzled old soldier in THE ULTIMATES, and I remember Roger Stern, back when he was writing the character, viewing him as a Roosevelt-era New Deal Democrat, which still makes the most sense to me. If nothing else, he’s a character who illustrates the pitfalls of too closely tying an origin to a specific historical event (as news of the forthcoming PUNISHER movie has spread, I’ve seen fans getting irate that the Punisher’s origin will no longer be tied to Vietnam, but how could it be now, really?). Batman can stay young forever if necessary, but Captain America steadily collapses under the ever-increasing weight of World War II.
But here’s the kicker to Medved’s article: “We might expect such blame-America logic from Hollywood activists, academic apologists, or the angry protesters who regularly fill the streets of European capitals (and many major American cities). When such sentiments turn up, however, hidden within star-spangled, nostalgic packaging of comic books aimed at kids, we need to confront the deep cultural malaise afflicting the nation on the eve of war.” Ignoring the characterization of introspection as “malaise,” how on earth could he read Marvel’s recent CAPTAIN AMERICA material and see it as “nostalgic packaging of comics aimed at kids.” The implication, of course, is if it’s comics, it must be aimed at kids. Of course, it’s also this sort of sentiment, expressed outside the comics press, that periodically sends the apologists in the business into fits of wanting to ensure that comics are only fit for “kids,” in order not to bring the wrath of the outside world down on our heads for not living up to their misrepresentations.
Not that it’s really misrepresentation when the face the world is seeing will be WHO WANTS TO BE A SUPERHERO?, a “slightly tongue-in-cheek reality show” being developed by Stan Lee and producer friends for the WB’s fall season. You a “regular person”? (I assume some sort of bowel movement monitoring will be going on for verification.) Got a brilliant superhero idea? Then all you have to do is dress up as your superhero and engage in goofy challenges and you might get your character turned into a comic book! Wow! Since Stan will apparently be hosting the show, this already starts to look like comics’ answer to THE $1.98 BEAUTY SHOW (which you can catch on the Game Show Network if you’re a glutton for punishment. Yeah, I know, there are a number of you reading this right now and itching to send me an e-mail telling me I should at least watch the show before I condemn it, and you’re probably right. But there’s an old saying in my family: you don’t have to cut your finger off to know you’re going to bleed.
I’m sure there must be something else going on in America these days, but I can’t find any reference to it anywhere. I can’t even remember watching any TV or seeing any movies in the past week.
I’m not sure if Viz’s GUNDAM WING: BLIND TARGET ($9.95) and THE ALL-NEW TENCHI MUYO: ALIEN NATION ($8.95) are reprints or new to America, but they’re also in the new format. GUNDAM WING: BLIND TARGET, by Akemi Omode and Sakura Asagi, is a prequel to the GUNDAM WING: ENDLESS WALTZ movie. It’s decent and carries off the characterizations well, but it’s so steeped in the Gundam history that it’s not likely to turn any newcomers into fans, though longtime Gundam fans will find it mandatory. I’d like to say Hitoshi Okuda’s THE ALL-NEW TENCHI MUYO picks up where the various Tenchi movies and TV shows leave off, but even the movies and TV shows never pick up where they leave off; all of them vary slightly from predecessors, and this book’s no different. I’m not all that fond of the art – it’s a bit too reminiscent of the lackluster TENCHI IN TOKYO cartooning, but the stories are funny and the characters stay pretty much in character, with a focus on the more fun aspects of the animes rather than the heavier dramatic elements. It’s good, even if it does bring back (and amplify) the worst idea in the original TENCHI MUYO series.
Dick Troutman and Brian Maruca have created an interesting “midi-comic” called STREET ANGEL #1 (Aweful Books, Box 4517, Pittsburgh PA 15205; $3), about a ghetto-living vigilante 9th grade skateboarder in the “Angel City” of a slightly future America. She’s enlisted by the mayor to thwart a mad geologist who intends to return the continents to their original antediluvian positions as one huge landmass. I may be imagining it, but there seems a lot of Mike Allred influence in both the writing and the art, but that’s a good thing, and STREET ANGEL is lively, funny and off-the-wall.
For some strange reason, A-1 Oregon Publishing (Box 1324, Lake Oswego OR 97035) continues to publish the bland KAMEELMAN, about a superhero who’s a clone with human and chameleon genes. The whole idea here is apparently to do uplifting superhero comics; the first issue was pretty much an after-school special about bullies, and #2 ($2.99) is 15 pages of skydiving and pop philosophy trying to pass itself off as characterization – they actually use the phrase “Circle Of Life,” something you’d think Disney had successfully put out of its misery – followed by a couple pages of neurotic girl talk and a pool party. Do people really say things like “If I knew how Todd really felt that would validate my feelings”? Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that KAMEELMAN is a bad book – certainly Ron Randall and James Taylor’s art is pleasant enough – but there’s nothing at all compelling about it either. Unlike a lot of comics it doesn’t seem largely composed of comic book and action movie clichés, but I’m not convinced being largely composed of Lifetime Channel clichés is an improvement.
Recently Matt Starnes of DIGITAL WEBBING PRESENTS fame sent me a lovely gift of two FBI HOMELAND DEFENSE Action Play sets from Dollar Tree Distribution of Chesapeake VA. One set comes with a toy revolver, a shoulder holster, a fake walkie-talkie, a badge, and a miniature nightstick, the other with toy revolver, badge, nightstick, fake walkie-talkie, whistle and handcuffs. Now all the kids in the neighborhood can save America from Arab terrorists. Three amusing words on each set, though: Made In China.
A couple weeks back I pondered the economics of spam. A number of people responded, but a couple people threw me at the following articles: here and here. The economics are kind of frightening, really, considering the spammers aren’t really selling anything and not getting any results, but that doesn’t seem to be what it’s all about.
For those who care about such things, a compilation of oddball music is available free online through the 15th.
I want to remind everyone again that Vertigo’s VERTIGO POP: BANGKOK, by Jonathan Vankin, Guiseppe Camuncoli & Shawn Martinbrough, arrives at the beginning of May. Start bugging your dealer for it. (It’d be nice, too, if Vertigo actually, oh, mentioned it on their homepage instead of making people go digging through the website for it. That’s fine for those of us who know what it is, but them what never heard of it aren’t likely to do that.)
Also want to remind everyone that the first half of the Elseworlds novel AGE OF WONDER, Adi Tantimedh & Galen Showman’s steampunk reimagining of the Golden Age DC Universe, is reputedly out from DC next Wednesday. It’s very entertaining. Hopefully, my “Lockheed the Dragon” story, drawn by Paul Smith, will be out in Marvel’s X-MEN UNLIMITED #43 at the same time, if it’s not out today. (I swear, I’m completely lost on this now.)
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. You can also leave messages for me and have discussions on other topics at my Delphi forum, GRAPHIC VIOLENCE. 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.
My old personal webpage – the one with all the information – has finally vanished, and it’s about time, since I left that server almost a year ago. The new one isn’t up yet, but keep watching this space for details.
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