Interesting week. Signed up to do a Sabretooth story for an indeterminate issue of X-MEN UNLIMITED, and on Saturday was asked by William Christensen of Avatar Press to create a crime/horror comic for him. There was just one catch: I had to create it by Monday. Those who know me know I can't resist the chance to write a crime comic, so look for MORTAL SOULS to join the likes of Warren Ellis' SCARS and STRANGE KILLINGS and Garth Ennis' BIGGER DICKS at Avatar next spring.
Some years back, Howard Chaykin recommended I read Stephen Hunter's novel DIRTY WHITE BOYS, and I've been following Hunter's thrillers ever since. He's not the best writer in the world. He's not even the best thriller writer. His characters tend not to be terribly complex. He's not particularly a stylist, though his constructions are idiosyncratic. His stories revolve around action and are driven by it. In other words, he writes, for lack of a better term, comic book novels. He's a pulp writer.
And there's a lot comics writers, especially budding comics writers, can learn from him.
In inadvertent imitation of comics, Hunter's eleven novels form his own little universe, with characters from this novel popping up unexpectedly in that one, and at the heart of his universe are the Swaggers, a small clan of Arkansas hillbillies/Marine heroes who have mastered the gun. (Throughout Hunter's novels, pornographic attention gets paid to the specifics of firearms, ammunition and their effects when used.) The contemporary stories, starting with POINT OF IMPACT, and running, sometime elliptically, through DIRTY WHITE BOYS, BLACK LIGHT and A TIME TO HUNT, star Marine sniper and Vietnam War hero, the reclusive Bob Lee Swagger. By the end of A TIME TO HUNT, Hunter pretty much played ol' Bob Lee out and a sameness had seeped into the novels, so, with HOT SPRINGS, he shifted his attention to the 40s and 50s and Bob Lee's haunted, alcoholic, semi-suicidal WWII Marine hero/Arkansas state patrolman dad, Earl Swagger.
HOT SPRINGS disastrously pitted Earl and a team of special agents against a host of mobsters (including Bugsy Siegel!) in the corrupt vacation resort of Hot Springs, Arkansas. The new novel, just released, PALE HORSE COMING (Simon & Schuster, $25) picks up five years later with Earl going up against a corrupt prison with national security ties in backwoods Mississippi, first as an inmate and then as an avenging angel raining down death and destruction with a small army of handpicked gunmen. The move to past times was a good one for Hunter, whose feel for America's sordid past now rivals James Ellroy's.
As BLACK LIGHT pretty much spelled out Earl's fate, Hunter faces the same problem many comics writers face: how do you maintain suspense when there's no doubt the hero's going to survive? Hunter's heroes are comic book heroes. They may be conflicted but the Swaggers have a core nobility that never dies, never really flags, is their true and everlasting strength. We peek into their self-doubts and the vagaries of their mental processes that those around them are never privy to, but that's all window dressing. The draw here is the violence the Swaggers are capable of (and, like us, both love and loathe) and what's going to drive them to it.
So the question isn't whether Earl's going to survive but how the hell he's going to pull it off. He's skilled enough at maintaining the illusion that characters are driving the story when they clearly aren't, and Hunter's a master at stacking the deck against his heroes and putting us through the sheer joy of watching them methodically collapse the deck like a house of cards: the joy of the puzzle. His storylines bob and weave like an experienced boxer, and his special trick is to hold reader interest is to overlap the storyline, ending one chapter with an unexpected event then spending the next chapter showing how it came to be. Comics have long had a loathing for little questions – dangling something inexplicable to leave the reader hungry for an answer – but things like that keep people reading. Hunter also has a genius for "discarded elements," plot points brought up and let drop so naturally that you don't see them coming screaming back into the story until they get there. You think they've played their part, but there they are, pivotal when you least expect it.
Despite his fetish for munitions and heroism, Hunter's books have an underlying liberalism. Machismo may be his heroes' main attribute, but it's just the way they're made, never a source of pride and often a source of embarrassment to them, and at their core they're driven mainly by basic human decency. The novels tend to revolve around liberal concerns; the springboard for PALE HORSE COMING is Mississippi's treatment of its African-American community, and it's no coincidence Hunter decides to focus on the worst members of that community rather than the best. When the Swaggers finally draw their guns, they do it without pleasure and for the best causes.
Pretty good thriller. Read it.
Dan Mishkin's a friend of mine, and I generally like Grant Morrison's work, so I find it interesting to see Dan take on Morrison in this week's Hot Seat. I basically side with Morrison on this, but I also think his proclamation to the London Times about the post-9/11 role of superheroes was just so much blowing smoke for P.R. reasons. Let's see how much of it actually gets into the comics.
Don't know if anyone noticed, but DC bought an ad for THE DARK KNIGHT STRIKES AGAIN in this week's ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY. (I presume; even though DC and EW are part of the same corporation, these things aren't usually gratis.) Between that and the recent announcement that DC has decided to do a SMALLVILLE comic after all, does this suggest the company has actually decided to once again acknowledge the real world might present marketing possibilities?
Rats keep surfacing in comics. First there was Steve Gerber and Gene Colan's graphic novel STEWART THE RAT, published by Eclipse and sadly out of print. Then Marc deMatteis created the awful man-rat Vermin, who would miraculously resurface in whatever Marvel book DeMatteis happened to take over. Then Mike Carlin wrote and drew the adventures of RATMAN and published it through Slave Labor Graphics while running DC editorial. Oh, and don't forget the greatest rat story of them all, Bryan Talbot's A TALE OF ONE BAD RAT (is it still available from Dark Horse? Bryan's story, inspired by Beatrix Potter, is one of the finest examples of comic art in the last ten years). Now Landwaster Books (201 E 4th St, Frederick MD 21701) publishes the graphic novel RAT ($7.95), a love story by Rich Watson. Watson's minimalist art reminds me of Dave Sim's earliest CEREBUS work (and shows a marked improvement and increased confidence as the book progresses) but his story is unusual and involving: a street rat is "adopted" by a human folksinger who finds him easy to talk with as her life falls apart around her. Their growing relationship generates jealousy from the domesticated rats she keeps as pets. Then something really strange occurs, and... half-fairy tale, half-romance comic, very original. Good job.
From Eight Ball Graphics (174 Madison St, Cortland NY 13045) and Jim Coon comes the amusing mini-comic DEAD END (75¢), another superhero parody starring The Suicide Club, a band of misfit heroes including Mr. Axe, Pink Pussycat, Willy The Clown and their leader Davey, who live in an abandoned gas station. Unlike most superhero parodies, there's no heroics involved. They live like frat boys, eating takeout and junkfood and quarreling over the TV. I think if Kevin Smith wrote the Avengers it would probably read like this. It's all one big shaggy Batman joke, but good fun. (But I still have to wonder why so many comics humorists do superhero stories. Enough already.)
Viz Communications (Box 77010, San Francisco CA 94107) continues its crusade to bring sophisticated manga to American audiences with Junji Ito's nightmarish horror comic UZUMAKI 1 ($15.95), the latest in its Pulp Graphic Novel line. A truly creepy masterpiece, with terrific art and writing, this is one of those things that so bizarre it's almost impossible to talk about it without giving the game away. The short version: a small Japanese town is beset by an unnamed horror that expresses itself in a variety of spirals. (Why spirals? I guess we have to wait for further installments to find out.) There are a number of familiar manga motifs here, like dueling schoolgirls, but this is the sort of thing that makes most American attempts at horror comics laughable. Highly recommended: if you only buy one comic book this month, this is the one. Get it. And if anyone knows where to get a copy of the UZUMAKI movie, let me know.
A couple sick moments from "the war against terrorism":
Last week in a interview with the BBC, the head of the Taliban, Mullah Mohammed Omar, said "the plan is going ahead" for "the destruction of America."
Maybe it's just hubris on my part, but when someone says something like that it just makes me laugh. Regular readers have probably figured out I'm not exactly a raving kneejerk flagwaver, but I get the feeling Omar (who claims God's going to deliver the killing blow himself, but students of history – unless they're also among those who take the Bible literally – are aware in most conflicts God doesn't usually take an on-screen role, and, besides, from what I hear from Billy Graham's kid, he's on our side anyway) doesn't quite get how the USA works. First, the place is big. Real big. Even if, in an absolute worst case scenario, Bin Laden's people managed somehow to nuke New York City and Washington DC off the map, the government is outcropped enough across the rest of the country that no collapse would follow. All it would do is really, really piss us off. Theoretically, a country like Russia or China could conceivably nuke us from the face of the earth – a scenario we've lived with for fifty years now – but it's a sad but important fact of life that we'd most likely take most of the planet with us. Pissing off the USA is one thing, and it's not like we don't sometimes deserve it, but you have to think nobody in their right mind would try to violently piss off the United States. 'Cause the fact is, sure, we like our creature comforts in America, but that's not the same thing as being soft. And, sure, you may have your specially trained cadres and units, like the SAS, but, pound for pound, we do violence better than anybody. (I mean, how long has Hollywood been pumping movies to the worldwide market? Why doesn't anybody know this?) (Of course, these days we get our choreographers from Hong Kong...)
Among those who do violence really badly (which is to say stupidly) are Afghanistan's Northern Alliance, who wasted no time following up their victories by reminding everyone how the Taliban managed to rouse the populace to drive them from power in the first place with a little parade of butchery and atrocity.
And, at home, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft took time out from the crusade against terrorism to raid state-supported medical marijuana facilities in California before a federal judge put a stop to it. Nice to know his priorities remain intact. Amusingly, Ashcroft has hired a law professor from here in my current hometown of Las Vegas to advise him on "Constitutional issues." Given that it's part of the job of the attorney general to advise the president on "Constitutional issues," perhaps, before giving Ashcroft his job, perhaps Congress should have asked him if he's ever read the Constitution. Given the last few weeks, and the recent hiring, one suspects not...
But perhaps the weirdest turn of events in the "war on terrorism" is the call by President Bush to invest a billion dollars in feeding, building shelters and educating the underprivileged in America, on the basis that happy Americans are Americans who won't be willing to help foreign terrorists in their devious schemes. Or something like that. I didn't quite get the logic, but as long as it's being done, who cares? Maybe Dubya's taking his cues from Lex Luthor after all...
Before I forget, Happy Thanksgiving, whether you're an American or not. (Thanksgiving: it's not just for Americans anymore.) Unless you're Canadian, in which case happy belated Thanksgiving.
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