Finally saw “2 Guns” on Monday night, at the premiere in NYC. (Walking the red carpet was another oddly surreal tick off my list.) There’s no other way to put it: I love the film. I think it’s just great. Events get rearranged from the graphic novel a bit, but the why of it all makes sense to me, but the film gets all the important aspects of the original work, my sensibilities, rhythms & characters, exactly right. In some cases (cf. Bill Paxton & James Marsden) they do me better. The movie is so tight you could bounce quarters off it.
Denzel Washington & Mark Wahlberg bring incredible chemistry to their interaction — hell, pretty much everybody does — & Baltasar Kormakur, producer Adam Siegel & screenwriter Blake Masters, do an amazing job of capturing the modern noir western comedy art house drive-in theater ethic of the book. They got it. Everyone involved got it. Seriously, it’s everything I wanted it to be. It’s their movie, no question about it, but I can spot my fingerprints all over it.
If you haven’t seen it, it opened pretty much everywhere last night.
My first pro comics gig — I’d done a couple ground level things prior (missed the undergrounds by that much, was standing in Denis Kitchen’s offices at Kitchen Sink the day the Supreme Court handed down its 1973 “community standards” ruling on “offensive material” that basically put underground comix publishers out of business by exposing them to the potential costs of defending a million different lawsuits in a million different locations by refusing to protect free speech by setting a single national standard for what’s actionable on moral grounds & what isn’t, & that was the end of that story) but nothing most people would have noticed — was “Marvel Two-in-One” #52. Roger Stern, who alongside Bob Layton (you remember him; Iron Man… Hercules… something called Valiant Comics, & lots of other things) produced a fanzine called “CPL” in the mid-’70s until professional callings scooped them up, was one of those people who noticed, but whether he liked any of it or not I don’t recall him saying. But “CPL” became one of my earliest writing gigs & Roger one of my closest friends of the day. Both of us were certainly agreed on one thing: I should never write for Marvel Comics. My sensibilities were all wrong.
Nonetheless, Roger wound up on staff at Marvel & I often wound up on his sofa when I visited NYC. In early ’78, Roger was promoted to editor & inherited a scheduling mess on his books. I visited NYC in April ’78 & the “any port in a storm” principle kicked in.
Since at the time that issue of “Marvel Two-in-One” was the only Marvel comic I figured I’d ever write I plotted (back then, you handed an artist a plot, the artist converted it into pictures & pages, then the pencilled work came back to you so you could type out of script & mark up the balloon, caption & sound effects placements on tissue paper overlays. If you ever want to learn how to place balloons properly, look up Roger. He should write a textbook.) the story was basically a throwaway joke. It co-starred Moon Knight, whose secret identity (among others) is Steven Grant, a quirk traceable to a fairly common name shared by one of Moon Knight creator Doug Moench’s college roommate. The story was expected to be forgettable (if your comics shop is light in the quarter boxes, you can find it in Marvel’s “Essential Marvel Two-in One” collection, Vol 2, & see for yourself) & by all rights is.
Except for that quirk.
Boom! publisher Ross Richie is currently running a short column series over at The Hollywood Reporter on the making of “2 Guns.” Oddly enough, he starts at the beginning. His beginning. With that issue of “Marvel Two-in-One,” which twisted his precocious 9 year old head up into all kinds of knots.
Apparently by signing my own name to a script involving a character bearing that name, I inadvertently broke — screw the fourth wall, this was a wall no one had ever heard of before — & introduced meta into comics. It wasn’t meta to me. It was just a joke. (This isn’t the only time this has happened to me. Around 2000, when Grant Morrison, Mark Waid, Tom Peyer & Karl Kesel were trying to introduce the concept of Hypertime (cf. “Kingdom Come”), a fictive construct that somehow tied all contradictory storylines in DC history into a unified continuity theory that none of them was ever quite able to explain nor seemed to have a jointly-accepted definition for, I was waiting with bated breath for Karl to make good on his threat to reveal where the first Hypertime story had been published. All he hinted for months was that everyone would be very surprised. Finally, in a “Superboy” letter column, he spilled: “Challengers of the Unknown” #7-9. The 1996 version. Which I created. And wrote. Don’t know about everyone, but Karl was right about me. I was surprised. I had no idea.)
Nonetheless, that “Marvel Two-in-One” was shot through with my own sensibilities. Maybe not in plot style or even dialogue — those were intentionally brought into line with what Marvel was publishing in the day — but the villain, a throwaway named Crossfire (who has somehow managed to live on despite me, including an appearance in the second-to-latest “Avengers” cartoon show) named for my pre-college roommate Bill Cross to extend the joke in a way nobody but the two of us would get — & an again inadvertent tip of the hat to Doug Moench’s naming strategy for Moon Knight’s multiple identities) was a disgruntled CIA agent who viewed himself as the hero of the story. This habit of throwing political inflections into my stories became more pronounced as time went on, until I finally had to break from Marvel to create “Whisper,” first at Capital & then at First, a series ultimately so political it was drowning in it. My approach tended to land me in a lot of trouble. I was, for instance, called on the carpet for a Spider-Man/Black Panther story not for its glaring flaws (I really had no idea what I was doing at the time) but for an ending revealing two people who hadn’t appeared in the story but turned out to be behind the events, discussing how regardless of the outcome of the battle it all turned out to their benefit because of media perceptions. Screw ’em. I still see nothing wrong with ending a story like that. That’s one of the huge downsides of writing for a living: there are all kinds of people out there with completely arbitrary ideas on how to write, & very few of them are writers. There’s only one way to write: don’t screw it up, unless there’s a contextual reason for screwing it up.
At any rate, that & many other things made it clear that Roger & I had been right all along & my sensibilities didn’t really line up with Marvel’s. It almost never stopped being a problem, not that my personality helped things much. (Never understimate how much personality affects business.)
But one thing led to another. I managed to spend a few decades in a few different cities ekeing out a living as a freelance writer. Freelance writing is a bitch of a way to make a living, superior only to working in an office or punch a timeclock. (Early on at Marvel, an editor scornfully told me that freelancing is for people who don’t have the focus to work in an office. I eyed him quizzically then said, “Really? I’d always heard working in an office was for people who didn’t have the balls to be freelance.” He was not pleased. That personality thing I was talking about.) Now here we are. It was 35 years ago the middle of this month that I moved to Manhattan to make my mark. Turned out to be more of a smudge, for the most part, pocked with false starts, dead ends, blunders, stillbirths & the occasional breakthrough but what are you going to do? I’d like to say I did it my way. The cold truth is I did it any way I could, & maybe I should finally accept that was my way & whether it ultimately amounts to anything or not, at least I didn’t bomb Cambodia.
I imagine the next 35 years will proceed somewhat along the same lines.
Ross makes a couple wrong assumptions in his article I’d like to clear up.
He draws a line to my political viewpoint through the Kennedy Assassination & the Nixon resignation. It’s true the former had a great effect on me. I was in 5th grade when it happened, a drizzling steel gray Wisconsin day I can still see. We’d just gotten back from lunch when the principal entered our classroom to whisper in grave tones to our teacher, who became equally grave & told us to collect whatever we needed, & busses were on their way to take us home. No explanation at all. Very puzzling. Clouds had turned the sky close to black, the sort of daylight darkness you only see in the Midwest in the winter, by the time I got home at roughly 1:40 PM. The house was dark. Neither my mother nor sister were home. In the moment I found that unnerving. It was one of those moments when paranoia digs its claws deep into you, when you know something has gone very wrong but you have no idea of what. (Why I didn’t turn on the TV I don’t know, but I didn’t.) Around 2:30 my mother, who’d gone to a friend’s house a few blocks away, called to tell me JFK had been killed. She said she’d be home soon. That was it. I closed the curtains in the living room. I had no real sense of geography then. It was my first truly irrational fear that I can remember, a sudden conviction that the people — a single gunman never entered my mind — who had killed the president were coming to kill all of us one by one. But that’s what paranoia’s all about. Three days later, with schools still closed & my mother watched the funeral on TV, I dress glasses & a mustache on a photo of LBJ being sworn in as president with Lady Bird Johnson at his side that appeared in the Wisconsin State Journal. She also got the glasses’n’mustache treatment. My mother was outraged. Needless to say, by then I’d forgotten all about my paranoia & was just happy not to have to go to school.
Nixon, though, he was another matter. By then I was in college, having entered a few years later because I needed enrollment to get a job at the Wisconsin Union Theater, the performing arts center at the University of Wisconson-Madison where I worked throughout college primarily as a backstage doorman & a film projectionist, & because I found the state would pay me to go to college. Good times. By then I’d lived through the murders of Martin Luther King & Bobby Kennedy, the attempted murder of George Lincoln Rockwell, three highly divisive presidential campaigns, numerous anti-war protests, the draft lottery, the Watergate investigation & oh yeah, a little thing called The Vietnam War. (Not that I was ever there, but I knew people who did.) It was very easy to become very political growing up in Madison. It was a hotbed of political activity. By 1974, when Nixon gave up the ghost, I’d read tons about politics & political history; my main interest, then as now, was subterranean politics, the dark underbelly of American politics that the surface frou-frou has largely existed to divert attention from. (This became the basis of “Whisper,” “Badlands,” “Enemy” & many more of my creations, including “2 Guns.”) I had no respect for Nixon, still don’t. He was an ugly joke. But I was working backstage the night he resigned when my boss, Jim Kentzler, a 40-something FDR Democrat, staggered shell-shocked past my desk. Seeing I wasn’t behaving as if anything had gone terribly wrong, he asked if I understood how serious it was that a sitting president, even one he politically disagreed with, was being chased out of office. I had long since abandoned the notion that the office, the institution, of the presidency was any more worthy of respect that the person bearing the title. I said, “Jim, that’s the difference between your generation & mine. You say, ‘Oh, how awful,’ but we say ‘But of course.’ That an American president and/or his agents would, as Ross put it, “lie, cheat, steal & be exposed as corrupt” wasn’t shocking at all. (In fact, it should happen more often.) When I got off work I got a can of Coors my sister had shipped up from Texas out of the fridge, sat on my front porch in front of a jewelry store on State Street sipping it, & watched hundreds party and dance around bonfires lit in the middle of the street in celebration. Looking back, it was a bittersweet moment. Not because of Nixon – screw him & the horse he rode in on – but because it was the last hurrah of The Left in America. Vietnam was as good as over, Nixon in exile, & the loss of those twin demonic targets of what was then modestly called “The Revolution” sucked the energy right out of everything. No one saw the sheer self-destructive stupidity of the ’70s hovering just over the horizon, nor the extent to which sheer self-destructive stupidity would become the default mode of US politics from then on. On that night, everyone was happy.
Ross & I have a serious disagreement on “2 Guns.” I say it’s a comedy. He says it isn’t.
One thing I learned from the comedy mainstay of my high school years, Firesign Theatre, (though I didn’t realize it until Penn Jillette mentioned it many years later, & I thank Penn for the phrase), is that comedy doesn’t need to be funny. Also got it, looking back, from Romanian absurdist playwright Eugene Ionesco. Almost no one even remembers him now, but he was a huge, huge favorite of mine, with two lines working their way into my recurring commentary to baffle everyone who heard them: “One must keep up with the times, mustn’t one?” (from “Rhinoceros,” where two men at an outdoor cafe spend the time watching, & mocking, as people all around them one by one abruptly transform into rhinoceroses, until the main character’s friend abruptly turns into a rhinoceros & dismisses his former contempt for the change with that line) & “the future is in eggs,” the title of a much lesser-known Ionesco play subtitled “It Takes All Kinds To Make A World.” It was a personal code almost no one else could break, but who cares who can break it? That’s not the point of personal codes.
Ionesco was what was known as an absurdist. Really, dig up his plays & read them. They’re hilarious. And deadpan. What’s the point of a joke if everyone knows you’re making one? There’s a certain thrill, & certainly there are plenty of those thrills throughout Firesign Theatre’s frenetic stream-of-unconsciousness performances, to both getting & giving one of those “what did he say?” moments, &, sure, going for gotchas is juvenile but we can’t all be adult all the time.
The idea of absurd deadpan comedy has always stuck with me. My work tends to be filled with jokes no one even realizes are jokes. (For example, Whisper’s not so secret identity lived at the Lovell Terrace Apartments. But odds are pretty good that even now that I’ve mentioned it you still don’t get the joke. C’est la vie.) The jokes in a lot of the work-for-hire work are there usually to keep me interested; the jokes in my creator-owned work function as cultural place markers.
But jokes don’t need to be funny either. Matter of fact, most of the time they’re serious as hell.
Of course, I have a very Ancient Greek view of comedy. The extant Greek plays – the dozen or so that survived over time – break down into comedies & tragedies. The dividing line’s pretty simple. In tragedies the hero dies, usually after falling prey to his own pride & stupidity. In comedies, the hero lives, usually after falling prey to his own pride & stupidity. My crime comics in particular are mostly based on a simple tenet: everyone thinks they know what everyone else is thinking, & none of them actually know what anyone else is thinking. The situations — “2 Guns” is a prime example — all evolve out of that schism between expectation & reality. They may all involve bad deeds & violence, but at heart they’re about the same as screwball comedies.
For me, “2 Guns” is the ultimately comedic situation. Ross even describes it himself in his column:
Think about it: the cold, hard cynicism of government agencies so bad at their jobs that two undercover agents end up chasing each other. And they get manipulated into stealing cash from the CIA — so the government agents are busy tearing each other apart while the bad guys are getting away with it…
Ross sums it up with:
That’s why “2 Guns” isn’t a comedy. Unless you’re Steven Grant.
Ross still doesn’t realize he has defeated his own argument. Read that description again.
How isn’t that a comedy?
You may have noticed the various comics covers scattered throughout the column. Because it was a fixture of the old Permanent Damage column, and because Tom Spurgeon brought it up recently, it’s the last ever official Permanent Damage-certified Comics Cover Challenge. These seven covers are connected by a single theme. Figure out what it is. While some of them got pretty obscure, this one should be easy. Consider the fact that this column will never appear again to reveal the answer an extra clue in itself. (Frankly, if you can’t get this one, it’s probably a game you should never attempt to play.) If you want to guess, or ask, I can be reached at email@example.com or on the Temporary Madness Message Board. (Both can be used for other comments & questions too.)
Or you can ask me personally at Wizard World Chicago. I’ll be there from late afternoon Thursday August 8 – mid-afternoon Sunday August 11, mostly at table I21. Or you can find me at the PITFALLS OF WRITING panel (Sat 12P, Rm 34) alongside Nate Powell, Chloe Neill & Scott Snyder, and at the COMICS CONSPIRACY: 50 YEARS OF THE JFK ASSASSINATION IN COMICS (Sat 2P, Rm 34) with Larry Tye, Craig Frank & Danny Fingeroth. See you there.
You can also find me at the finest comics shops these days, courtesy of Boom!. “3 Guns” #1, the start of the sequel to “2 Guns” should be available now, as well as the hardcover collection of the adaptation of Frank Miller’s original screenplay for “RoboCop 2,” from which the film of the same name devolved or mutated, depending on your point of view. Next week will be the first issue of “RoboCop: Last Stand,” beginning the adaptation of Frank’s original screenplay for the “RoboCop 3.” Honestly, I removed nothing, & added nothing but sound effects. If you want to see what Frank’s vision for those films was, here’s your chance.
Finally, I believe next week should see the rerelease of “Damned,” the crime graphic novel where Mike Zeck & I reunited after our groundbreaking version of The Punisher. You probably never heard of it the first time around, but we believe in second chances. Take it. Thanks.
And that’s that. Thanks very much to Jonah Weiland & the crew at Comic Book Resources for letting me sleep on their sofa for a few weeks, & thanks very much to all the readers who told me & continue to tell me how much they miss my columns, and I hope you enjoyed this last little foray into public self-immolation. But there’s fiction to be written now, so Temporary Madness must live up to its name, at least for now. If enough people see “2 Guns” that “3 Guns” (now at a comics shop near you) also gets made into a Major Motion Picture, there’s a slim chance this might happen again. History does repeat itself & madness knows no bounds. In the immortal words of Bill Paxton, have I sufficiently incentivized you? See you in the funny papers.