In the course of prepping the story, I read a lot of '50s comics, mainly romance and crime comics, many of which played at a far greater level of sophistication in both writing and art than comics would for decades after the Code's inception. Some romance comics of the time make marked breaks from expected clichés, with almost brutally frank depictions of teen sexuality, in the context of '50s culture. (See editor John Benson's collection of St. John Comics romance stories, ROMANCE WITHOUT TEARS to see what I mean.) The '50s was also the last great flourish of a multitude of genres in American comics history: war, romance, western, adventure, crime, funny animal, religious, science fiction, horror, humor, historical, virtually anything. I also read a lot of '50s stories on the excellent Tothfans website. I've mentioned them before; among the features are a page a day of stories from the '40s to the '80s drawn by Alex Toth, easily one of the greatest artists and designers ever to hit the medium, and no one else ever came close to perfecting the reduction of comics art to an intersection of shadow and light; while his art evolves and incorporates Noel Sickles/Milton Caniff influences in the '40s, the new slickness of the early '50s, the pop art of the '60s, etc., it always remains quintessentially, identifiably Toth. (I hate to shill Fantagraphics incessantly today, but some of Toth's greatest work of the '50s, the "Cinemascope" stories he did for Charles Biro's CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, are reprinted in THE COMICS JOURNAL #262, along with a Toth romance story and a new Toth interview, and it's all an education.) There's a treasure trove of old stories there, and, reading enough of it, along with all the other '50s stories, something suddenly snapped into focus I never got before.
At some point we decided to kid ourselves that modern, 22 page stories, are better than the 8 page stories standard for comics in the '40s and '50s.
But many of those 8 pagers – and there were some very good ones done well into the '70s, resurrected during Joe Orlando's editorial reign over DC's "weird" comics, which also heralded the arrival of talents like Berni Wrightson, Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, Mike Kaluta and many others – actually had far more story and far more character in them than many comics published today. Most comics today have no more than five panels per page, and many have fewer than four; a lot of current artists don't want to work at a smaller size than that, and the Big Fight Scenes that most comics revolve around now demand bigger and bigger chunks of real estate; it's probably only cost that has kept many superhero comics from running entire stories composed of four page fold-outs depicting a single scene. By contrast, many '50s stories had no fewer than six and often up to ten panels per page (the Toth "Cinemascope" stories were a rare exception, anticipating the four-horizontal-panels-per-page "widescreen" style by forty years). The stories often demanded staccato storytelling that constantly pushed stories to the next scene, unlike many modern stories that milk a single scene for eight or nine pages. Extended fight scenes were rare, often resulting in scarier characters who gave the impression they could do real damage; that was action with consequences.
And the storytelling techniques! I'm not cataloguing them here because I'm stealing some of them for the ESCAPIST story, but the narrative techniques – some of which were quite visual – were clearly designed for packing as much story (and I don't just mean plot) into the allotted space as possible. Comics have always been about the restriction of available real estate, and, despite the rise of the graphic novel, that continues to be the case. One of my great frustrations with comics has always been the need to get in more story than the space allowed; the narrative experiments in WHISPER were predicated on it. A couple times in the recent past I've been forced to drastically compress stories in order to get them done: for X-MEN UNLIMITED, a Sunfire story I'd pitched as a four issue mini-series was reduced to 12 pages, with iffy results (Marvel also thought the climax, with the hero incinerating a willfully recidivistic drug addict in order to fulfill a promise, sent the wrong message, but I wasn't interested in sending a message, only in playing through the logic of the characters), and a forthcoming METAL HURLANT story was likewise pitched as a three volume graphic album set and accepted as a 12 page standalone, with arguably better results. (We'll see when it comes out.) But '50s stories operated on that level of compression constantly.
By expanding page counts and increasing panel size, we've gained a sense of liberation and an illusion of scope. What we haven't gained is more story, and usually it has been less.
Do the math: 8 pages with 8 panels per page = 64 panels, each one pumping the story along. At three panels per page in a 22 page comic, we're talking 66 panels. 4=88 panels. 5=110 panels. Not surprisingly, the greater the number of panels per page the larger the number of plot points in a single issue, in general, but plot points aren't in themselves a story. Calculating purely in terms of real estate is deceptive. '50s stories – and we're talking the best '50s stories here, because there was an awful lot of crap back then too – developed reams of techniques for sharp, quick character definition, for mise-en-scene, for pretty much every aspect of storytelling we mostly approach with bloated flatulence these days. Even fifty years later, many are still more immediately captivating and compelling than modern counterparts.
Not that I want to see a wholesale return to '50s comics. That's not what I'm talking about. I'm not surprised where comics went. When you're raised in drought conditions and wake one morning to find yourself surrounded by an ocean, you don't think about continuing harsh conservation techniques, you drink as much water as you want (it's a fresh water ocean, okay?) and you go swimming. I'm suggesting, instead, sheer barbarism: it's time to pillage and plunder '50s comics like the Goths pillaging Rome. And it's time for a little of the inventiveness and creativity dark ages often mask, looting those storytelling techniques for elements that can be reapplying and adapted for modern comics. This goes back to the need for a new density of storytelling I was talking about a few columns back, because we've taken the current style as far as it can go. There's no need to reinvent the wheel if the wheel's already there for us to use; what we need now are better applications for it. '50s comics aren't the only signposts we can follow, of course, but all roads have something to offer.
It's a funny thing about dark ages and golden ages, though; almost no one ever realizes they're living through one.
No "October surprises" this year, though it's mildly amusing to see all the politicians and pundits insist that the amazingly tepid bin Laden tape failed to impact the election process while Kerry simultaneously leaps in the polls to abruptly run neck and neck with the President. If the Hand Puppet does lose, it might have to be chalked up to fanning the flames of terrorism paranoia in the American public when there hasn't been a terrorist incident in America in three years (at least that we know of), an issue that was his to own but may have been turned against him with the vivid reminder that Public Enemy #1 is still out there. (Check out Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair's article at Counterpunch on how the Hand Puppet was basically handed bin Laden's head on a platter at the beginning of his term and as late as five months after 9/11, and did nothing. So much for anti-terrorism.) (Speaking of checking out things, those who claimed I was simply propagating conspiracy theory when commenting on the radio on the Hand Puppet's back during the first debate should check out Mother Jones for photos and a photo imaging analysis by a veteran NASA scientist; very illuminating.)
Whoever wins today – this column will be to bed long before the polls close – there will probably be much chortling and gloating by the winner's supporters. Understandable, but premature. Elections themselves don't change things, they only offer the hope for change, and, as the Hand Puppet (who shall henceforth only be called HP in this column, partly for brevity and partly because it evokes visions of slimy, sleeping Great Old Ones hungry for human souls) proved in this term, it's not victory at the polls that matters but what you manage to accomplish during your term in office. We know what HP (who recently ordered the IRS to investigate the NAACP over their tax exempt status because they were making "political statements" by backing Kerry, though he almost certainly will not be asking the same investigations of church groups backing the current administration) can accomplish – gutted social programs, incoherent morass wars, repression and undermining of the Constitution, welfare for the rich at everyone else's expense – but there are no assurances yet that Kerry, if elected, will really be any better. Every four years we're pressured into taking sides between Democrats and Republicans, which both parade around as if there are huge differences between them. And there are, but in practical terms those differences often don't show up.
Cross fingers and head for home...
By the way, if you're interested in seeing your art appear in TWO HEADS TALK, follow these simple rules and notoriety beyond your wildest dreams will one day be yours:
- All panels should be 3" wide x 6" tall jpgs, 150 dpi.
- All panels should be head and shoulder shots of original characters. No trademarked characters of any sort please. (But don't worry: copyright will be assigned to you.)
- Head and shoulder shots should fill only the bottom 3" of the panel. Leave the top half blank, please. (You can put color there, just not figure work.)
- One head per panel, thanks. Color or black and white, your choice.
- Don't put any borders on the panels.
- Email it to me, with "Head" in the subject line so I know don't think it's a virus, because I'll trash an unknown attachment in a heartbeat.
- Include a website or some other contact information so that your new legion of fans will be able to find you.
And that's it. All heads will be used eventually. Can fame and fortune be far behind?
THE NEW SMITHSONIAN BOOK OF COMIC BOOK STORIES, edited by Bob Callahan, 400 pgs, b&w hardcover (Smithsonian Books;$39.95)
"From Crumb to Clowes" is the subtitle, which gives you an idea of the market they're aiming at, but THE NEW SMITHSONIAN BOOK's range (I don't remember an old one, but hey) is much more expansive, if necessarily shallow, and it serves as a decent introduction to trends in comics from 1965 on, including '60s underground comix, '80s art comix, modern alt-comix, and a smattering of the more influential examples of what the direct market modestly likes to call the mainstream. Among the reprints are Gilbert Shelton's FABULOUS FURRY FREAK BROTHERS, arguably the best Lee-Ditko AMAZING SPIDER-MAN issue, chapters from WATCHMEN and SANDMAN, excerpts from DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, JIMMY CORRIGAN and MAUS, and strips from Justin Green, Jaime Hernandez, Joe Sacco, Rick Geary, Jim Woodring and a host of others. There are also some odd choices, particularly a mediocre, badly inked Lee-Kirby FF story and the baffling but welcome inclusion of a Kubert ENEMY ACE. Unlike most of the "alt" material, the "mainstream" work is largely reprinted from printed color pages, and looks blurry and substandard by comparison, though the Spider-Man story remains a knockout. Even at 400 pages, the volume is necessarily non-inclusive, and while it would've been nice to see a more creative selection of material – Callahan sticks pretty much with the standard lists, though I suppose that's to be expected given the nature of Smithsonian projects – but as an overview of a growing phenonomenon, it works fine. This is due out Dec. 1.
BULLET & JUSTINE: L'INIZIO E LA FINE, by Mauro Padovani, b&w trade paperback (Blood Circle;9.00€)
Who says comics aren't the universal language? I can't read a word of Italian, but Padovani carries his vampire crime story along via clear, interesting storytelling, as a detective stumbles into the wrong gunfight and is saved from death by an undead sexpot who then teams up with him to unravel a conspiracy going back centuries. (There may be nuances I'm missing.) The art could be sharper, but it's solid and consistent, with plenty of mood and character. The very mildly erotic nature of the material would easily fit with any number of publishers, so how about someone pick this up for American translation, so I can read what I'm reading? Good, as far as I can tell.
DOPE FIENDS OF THE ZOMBIE CAFÉ!, by Rafer Roberts & Sean Frost (Hula Cat Comics;$3)
Another interesting idea undermined by crappy artwork. (What's with all the squat artwork in small press comics these days, anyway? Doesn't anyone take art lessons anymore? These guys all have enough talent to get this far, but it's like listening to guys who think they sound good singing in the shower but have never had any serious vocal training.) Frost's story is an amusing mix of '50s commienoia sf films and the drug hysteria "public service" films of the '30s, though it descends a little too often into pointless lightweight profanity that substitutes for actual dialogue. It doesn't quite pay off – no actual point, not even parody, is ever made – but nice try.
FADE FROM BLACK #2, by Gabriel Benson & Jeff Amano, 32 pg. color comic (Beckett Comics;$1.99)
A man who discovered (last issue) he can pass through solid objects or become immovably solid starts a superhero career under the name Fade. So far so good, as Benson focuses less on heroic action and more on the mental processes of the hero and his wife. The issue doesn't quite gel, though; the dialogue occasionally gets incoherently sketchy; there are odd little presumptions (why would a newscaster in a world with no superheroes believe our hero needs a costume?); and Amano's usually excellent art is a little bumpy, something sacrificing storytelling to oddly shifting style. Great Beckett Comics production, though. The book's not bad, just ephemeral, with most of the oomph coming not from the action but from dollops of foreboding in the narration. Which is enough to make me wonder where it's going, but not quite enough to make me anticipate getting there.
RUULE VOL 2: KISS & TELL #4, by Jeff Amano & Craig Rousseau, 32 pg. color comic (Beckett Comics;$1.99)
Amano's "Samson meets The Godfather" story continues and gets better, with strongman hero Sam Swede on the run from an entire crooked city while plotting his revenge. It's pretty good; my main quibble with all the Beckett comics is that they take so much room to not accomplish all that much story, and so this mostly feels like setup for the conclusion. Lovely Alex Maleev cover, and Rousseau's art takes a slight shift into Tim Sale territory. It's at the stage of the story where it's hard to judge much without seeing how it ends, but the major flaw with the story is that while the writing's good and the dialogue sounds natural, the hero is the least interesting character in the book.
THE BALLAD OF SLEEPING BEAUTY #3 & 4, by Gabriel Benson & Mike Hawthorne, 32 pg. color comics (Beckett Comics;$1.99@)
This horror western makeover of the old fairy tale (though, as it progresses, the connection is getting harder and harder to make) is Beckett's best book. Nice dialogue, nice background, nice complications, good art by Hawthorne that suitably carries the sense of doom and supernatural dread. Individual issues still seem a bit thin, so it pays to read them two at a time. In any case, good pacing and some nice, unusual action; worth reading.
THE COMICS INTERPRETER Vol 2 #2, edited by Robert Young, b&w magazine (The Comics Interpreter;$5.95)
Good non-doctrinaire critzine covering all kinds of comics with intelligence and humor, with an emphasis on alt and the unusual. Beyond a bevy of elaborate reviews, there are interviews with a French comics collective in Cambodia (!);DAREDEVIL's Alex Maleev; my pal, George Pratt; AiT/PlanetLarpublisher Larry Young; and Jordan Raphael on Stan Lee. While not necessarily piercing, the interviews are far more professional than most found in the fan press. There's a vague amateurishness about the layout and printing that, paradoxically, adds to the fannish joy of it all; it's very reminiscent of the glory days of fandom. Worth checking out, if you have any intellectual interest in comics at all. Terrifically well illustrated, too.
VIDEO #1 &2, by Stephen R. Buell, 32 pg. b&w comic (lost in the dark Press;$2.95@)
Jesus comes back, and civilization watches it on TV. And that's about the only thing in the story that makes sense so far. Everyone sees him differently, and people act screwed up and homicidal, with amazingly rapid mood shifts. People wear mouth and nose masks. The story assumes a lot not in evidence, like the second coming of Christ will result in widespread panic and chaos, and motivations are entirely sketchy. The art's okay but distended. We'll see...
THE GHOULY BOYS #1-2, by Christopher , 32 pg. b&w comic (Slave Labor Graphics;$2.95@)
Cute little horror-humor comic. The zombie boy hero's origin story is narrated in poetry that, like a lot of pop poetry, often tortures the meter to death, but once that hurdle gets leaped, the story takes on an Edward Goreyesque tone as Zombie Boy, orphaned, adopts a bat (amusing and brief parody of the Batman origin), gets adopted, meets monsters and gets a puppy with a strange curse. It's not really funny, but as whimsy it's good enough.
DARK GATE: A REVOLVING HAMMER ANTHOLOGY, edited by Brett Ewins, 64 pg. b&w trade prestige format comic (Cyberosia Publishing;$9.95)
Art by Brett Ewins, stories by Peter Milligan (as Jesus Rich?), Alan Grant, Alan McKenzie, Cici Roman, Michael White and... Brett Ewins. Milligan's is a fairly standard, if coarsely humored, EC-esque sci fi reversal, White's a wordless alien invasion/conspiracy fable, Roman a baffling conspiracy story about blacks taking over, McKenzie's a retelling of Chinese legend with a slight twist ending, Grant's a political superhero story with anarchistic intent (he did create Anarky for DC, after all) and Ewins a little messianic psychodrama. Ewins cites the book as his experiments in comics forms, and that's basically the case, with a different style in play for each story, and the art gets more interesting as it grows less representative and less stylized. DARK GATE is worth a look, but the downside is that much of it feels like fleeting intersections with series, as though there are invisible appendages grown out each side of every story. Not necessarily a bad thing, but it does up the frustration level.
THE MYTHICAL DETECTIVE LOKI: RAGNAROK VOL 1 by Sakura Kinoshita, 184 pg. b&w trade paperback (ADV Manga;$9.99)
Kinoschita reincarnates Norse gods as Japanese schoolkids, with god of evil Loki as the main hero, regaining his magical power as the gods brace for the coming Ragnarok. It's just a little too cute, characters are often inadequately introduced, and for being the mythical detective Loki doesn't seem to do much detecting, but it's pleasant enough, the characters and art have a certain charm, and, bottom line, it beat's the hell out of Marvel's THOR.
PANEL: Space, by the Panel Group, b&w special format comic (Ferret Press;$3)
Another entertaining theme anthology from Ferret, though it's not clear what the six stories all have to do with space; several seem to be just slice of life stuff only related to the theme by the wildest stretch of imagination. Best, though, are Craig Bogart's pseudo-Kirby space monster story with the most unexpected ending of all, and Dara Naraghi and Tom Williams' mostly wordless meditation on the opposing functions of humanity. Not bad.
BRODIE'S LAW #1 & 2 by Alan Grant, David Bircham & Daley Osiyemi, 32 pg. b&w comic (Pulp Theatre Entertainment;$2.95@)
Stylistically, BRODIE'S LAW is torn from the pages of 2000 AD and amped up a notch, involving an amoral, haunted career criminal named Jack Brodie, who has a dangerous reputation. Grant, no stranger to crime fiction, is basically a hired hand here, working off a plot by Bircham and Osiyemi, but his dialogue's as sharp as ever and his expertise at making the bleak compelling shines through. I'm not familiar with David Bircham, but his art is terribly effective. A very strong effort.
PLASTIC FARM #1-7 by Rafer Roberts & divers hands, 32 pg. b&w comic (Plastic Farm;$2.95@)
I've been a baaaad reviewer. I've been trying for weeks to read PLASTIC FARM and I can't do it. The main obstacle's Rafer Roberts' art; it just doesn't work, and I can't get past it long enough to figure out if there's actually a story there. Jeff Coleman & Stephen Greenwood-Hyde's PROGRESSIONS backup in #2 is good, but by and large this is pretty unmemorable stuff.
THE WALLFLOWER VOL 1 by Tomoko Hayakawa, 216 pg. b&w trade paperback (Del Rey Manga;$10.95)
Not one of Del Rey's stronger offerings, putting a goth chick, who has cut herself off from the world after a boy tells her she's ugly and now gets nosebleeds (traditionally manga shorthand for sexual arousal) in the presence of "creatures of the light," in the custody of four handsome schoolboys charged with transforming her into a social butterfly in exchange for rent. Hilarity is meant to ensue, but motivations are specious and reactions are way overblown even for manga. Oddly, three-quarters through the book after the set-up is well out of the way, it does, with heroine Sunako undergoing various startling, if temporary, transformations, mostly to unleash her tensions by uncharacteristically kicking ass. Whether Hayakawa realizes it, the story is about becoming a different person by changing your look, and by the end of the first volume the concept has sort of redeemed itself. Still seems a bit thin for a continued series, though.
Half a dozen things to go, but it's late and I'm... well, today, bushed is probably the wrong word for it. We'll wrap it all up next week.
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.