Bob Dylan, who even after almost fifty years in the public eye sporadically still manages to say (and even record) interesting things, recently said on his radio show:
“People keep trying to revive rockabilly, and the bands that are doing it spend most of their time listening to old rockabilly. The truth of the matter is, the guys who made the original rockabilly records were listening to a whole bunch of other stuff. You can’t play rockabilly without understanding the rhythms of the big bands.
“Rockabilly is the poor man’s big band. It was too expensive, taking them big bands on the road. Small combos like the Louis Jordan Band emphasized the beat, and used electric guitars to get the same effect with a smaller, more manageable number of musicians. Rockabilly added a little bit of country influence, and whole lot of energy, and a new genre was born. Whatever music you love, it didn’t come from nowhere. It’s always good to know what went down before you because if you know the past you can control the future. But be careful of the flip side of the coin: those who do not understand the past are doomed to repeat it.”
Which applies equally well to comics. New artists (and writers, but successfully emulating other writers is a trickier business and takes a whole different skill set altogether) try to enter the field every day, many of them drawn in by – and emulating – a specific artist whose work grabbed them. You can do traces easily enough if you know where to look; the original Image group is a case in point. Through a blockbuster combo of ability and business chutzpah, the key Image artist – Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane, Marc Silvestri, Erik Larsen, Rob Liefeld – not only influenced but were actively copied by a whole subsequent generation of comics artists, a few of whom rose through the ranks, most of whom vanished without much of a trace. Because, really, as good as Jim Lee is, nobody needs a second Jim Lee, except maybe DC. The survivors of the “post-Image” movement were those who brought something else to the table. Otherwise it’s really just a degeneration of comics art: part of the appeal of comics art for budding artists is that not only is formal training not required, the absence of formal training is often held up as a badge of honor. Stories of aspiring comics artists teaching themselves by mimicking the work of their favorite artists are legion, and the easiest aspects of art to imitate are the surface elements. But, as in Dylan’s rockabilly-big band example, you don’t get to be Jim Lee by paying attention only to Jim Lee’s work. Jim Lee, all the Image guys, were looking at all kinds of things. To understand their work, you have to understand their influences as well. Art Adams was a huge influence on, say, Rob Liefeld’s work. But Michael Golden was a huge influence on Art Adams. Neal Adams, Gil Kane and others were huge influences on Michael Golden. Jack Kirby and Burne Hogarth were huge influences on Gil Kane.
You can do this kind of trace with pretty much any comics artist. And emulating a favorite artist is fine, for awhile. But you’re never going to be that artist and you’re never going to be as good as that artist unless you’re either exceptionally gifted or can get deeper into the artist’s head than the surface of their work. Want to live up to, say, John Cassaday’s work? Don’t imitate John Cassaday, find out who John’s inspirations were, whose work he learned from, and imitate them. Because even if you can imitate John’s work, or Jim’s, or Frank’s, etc., the best you can achieve through imitation is a mimicry of style, and to be known as an imitator. Style, good or bad, is really the only thing that’s going to separate you from the pack, and it’s not something you can add into your work. Not really. Style is where your personality surfaces in your work, and true style is accidental.
Because what you see on a page probably doesn’t match the original intent, it’s only the practical representation of that intent, and if you look into the artist’s (or, again, the writer’s) secret heart you’d most likely find that whatever was accomplished, no matter how good, it didn’t match up to the ideal version in the artist’s (or writer’s) head. Style is where the ideal in your head interfaces with the real world. You need it, and it has to say you, but it’s never going to be much more than a shadow. Sometimes a shadow is all you get.
And the past is the shadow we all live in; you don’t find its edges by ignoring it. If you want to know what you can do, what the medium can do, it never hurts to know as much as possible of what has already been done, and how. There are doors everywhere, and the only way to get anywhere is to pass through them, even if all they lead to is another door. But that’s never all they lead to.
Back to graphic novel reviews:
From Del Rey Manga:
BASILISK Vol 3 by Futaro Yamada & Masaki Segawa ($13.95)
Who says the Japanese don’t do superhero comics? It surprises me how many manga, like X and SILENT MOBIUS, are thinly disguised superhero comics, and so is BASILISK, which glories in the simple plot of two Shogunate-era ninja clans whose chief members are all blessed with bizarre and idiosyncratic “techniques” (read: “superpowers) fight each other to the death for not much more reason than they’re told to. Toss in heavy doses of sex/nudity, violence and weepy soul-searching, and voila! The best X-MEN story ever. And that’s not a complaint; with its uncomplicated storytelling and extreme character explorations, it’s growing on me.
XXXHOLIC Vol 8 by Clamp ($10.95)
Still the best Clamp series, a gentle, genial fantasy about a gifted but insecure high school student who falls into the employ of a sexy witch and begins having encounters with the spirit world. Underneath the odd, unsettling goings-on is a sort of KARATE KID deal where he unknowingly learns important lessons while completing apparently unrelated and often dangerous tasks assigned to him. This volume continues the saga of his lost eye, and increases his interdependence with another teen he considers his rival, but with this volume Clamp also quietly put up big road signs to where the series is going, then makes you look in the other direction. Very nicely written and very attractive; one of the better manga.
SUZUKA Vol 2 by Keiji Seo ($13.95)
Teenage boy in love. Lives in a girls’ boarding house. Innocently caught over and over in compromising situations. Unachievable object of desire. Etc. It’s adequately done, and unlike most of these things the young hero does at least try to express himself to the titular girl of his dreams, but it’s still virtually indistinguishable from the seeming millions of other manga just like this. MAISON IKKUKU is essentially the same story, and a lot funnier.
ES: ETERNAL SABBATH Vol 3 by Fuyumi Soryo ($10.95)
Another thinly disguised superhero comic. Two artificial humans with psychic powers, born in a lab, stalk Tokyo, as the one who isn’t psychotic – probably – slowly gets drawn into war with the other for the sake of the humans he is coming to appreciate. Though nicely drawn, it’s a little dry, and its attempts as psychological observations too often disintegrate into mere melodrama, but the characters are interesting and it at least poses a different set of questions, and shows what can be done within the superhero concept when you walk away from the trappings. Worth a look.
From Gigantic Graphic Novels:
HELLCITY by Macon Blair & Joe Flood ($13.95)
In case you didn’t know, Hell is a lot like the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1977, where people sent there suffer petty torments day in and day out, and a demoness hires a lovelorn homicidal detective to investigate the Devil. Blair’s farcical story mixes a lot of very familiar bits (especially if you’ve ever read pretty much any Vertigo comedies) but through breezy writing and good characters, he manages to give it a fresh veneer. Flood’s art is surprisingly accomplished, a real treat that’s worth the price of admission, and I’m betting we see a lot more from him. I just wish if people are publishing “graphic novels” they’d publish graphic novels, and not serialize the damn things.
ROTTING IN DIRTVILLE by James Callahan ($13.95)
Rule of thumb: any story that starts out “That was the day the giant robot zombies came” had better be damn good. ROTTING IN DIRTVILLE doesn’t quite get there, but it comes close, as a distant extraterrestrial invasion witnessed mainly via TV is only the backdrop for the dead end lives of small town kids bored to violence – and then it takes a strange turn into zombie thriller that’s much more Junji Ito than George Romero, with pretty good “Rick Geary does Ted McKeever” art. Another surprising outing from Gigantic, by a talent with a lot of promise. Check it out.
From Marvel Entertainment:
WHAT IF? CLASSICS by various ($24.99)
An amazing collection of one of the best series Marvel ever published, showing how things might have gone for various superheroes had they made different choices in different situations. Everything here is brilliant, especially one extremely insightful and dazzlingly entertaining issue that featured stories about three different minor Marvel characters that sheds new light on how they might have been developed into major characters… Seriously, I don’t know how Marvel can justify reprinting this crap, and I say that being responsible for some of it; the past always does come back to haunt you. Mediocrity at its finest…
From Chatterbox Comix:
CRAZY PAPERS by Jim Dougan & Danielle Corsetto ($6.50)
“Based on actual events,” though these days it’s hard to tell whether that’s meant accurately or sarcastically. A female Hollywood visiting back home in Washington DC meets a supposed dot-com millionaire and triggers a whirlwind romance, a bar fight and an explosion of secrets. It’s a pleasant little slice of life story amusingly told and decently drawn. Nice.
From Citizen Press:
JOHNNY REPEAT: THE END OF THE WAY THAT WAS by Jason James & various ($12.95)
A Vertigo-wannabe comic somewhat damaged by a parade of artists alternating chapters, and while most are pretty good artists, the clash of styles and staccato pacing make for erratic reading. But it’s erratic reading anyway, since everything in the story, from assassin guilds to lone hitmen in trenchcoats and dark glasses to a kid who can see an impending apocalypse and concocts a mad plan to undermine it is nothing but window dressing. James isn’t an inept writer, but he’s more interested in showing how edgy he is than in developing a story and ultimately tries to dodge his entire premise with an eleventh hour sleight of plot that just renders the whole thing an empty exercise. Cute, but no cigar.
That was the last of this year’s graphic novels and trade paperbacks. Next week we wipe out the last of the comics in the stacks. In the meantime everyone have a safe and lovely holiday, whichever version you celebrate.
Congratulations to Robert Holt, who correctly identified last week’s Comics Cover Challenge theme as “military ranks.” (The covers featured a police sergeant, Captain Atom, Martin Kane Private Eye, (General) Eisenhower, Colonel Hogan (or Klink), Major Bludd and the Lieutenant Marvels. Robert would like to direct your attention to Comic Snob, an up and coming review column, so don’t let him down.
Scattered throughout the column are the covers for this week’s Comics Cover Challenge. Seven comics, one secret theme connecting them. Be the first one to tell me what it is in an email, and you can promote any website of your choice here. (We reserve right of approval, but that hasn’t been an issue so far.) Every week there’s a clue to the secret theme hidden somewhere in the column, but be warned: most weeks approximations pass muster, but this week I need a correct response – though if you crash you can always come back again. Good luck.
Five days left! Monday ends the Xmas sale at Paper Movies on my three pdf books – TOTALLY OBVIOUS, collecting all my legendary MASTER OF THE OBVIOUS columns; IMPOLITIC, collecting my political commentary on the Age Of Terror; and HEAD CASES, a collection of comics scripts. A package deal on all three for a low, low price. Don’t miss it.
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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