Weekend in the Grindhouse

I understand that "Comics Should Be Good" is the mission statement around here. I even agree with it...

...most of the time.

Now, don't get me wrong. I absolutely believe that comics can be art and should aspire to higher things. I do. Swear to God.

However, if I'm to be really honest about this, I have to come clean. Damn it... sometimes... There are times when you just want your comics to be... well, not bad. Nobody wants bad comics. But boy, I wish so many of them weren't trying so damn hard to be Important and Artistic.

This occurred to me when Grindhouse premiered. I was shooting the breeze with some friends of mine about it; we were agreed that, though we approved of the spirit of the endeavor, the execution was a little lacking, and what we really would RATHER have had was a wave of new DVD re-issues of what we remember as being The Good Stuff.

Or the good Bad Stuff, rather.

And because we're all pretty bookish and nerdy, this segued from grindhouse films to grindhouse books.

We killed a fair hunk of time going back and forth with this fond reminiscence of our various favorite examples of crappy pulp fiction and even crappier paperback-original series fiction.

And it was a pretty easy leap, talking amongst fans, to start kicking around the idea of grindhouse comics. But here we ran into a little bit of a snag. Because, really, to be fair, from their beginnings on up through the early 70's, they're ALL "grindhouse" comics. That's just the way it was.

Or, as Jules Feiffer summed it up in his wonderful book The Great Comic Book Heroes:

Comic books, first of all, are junk. To accuse them of being what they are is to make no accusation at all...Junk is there to entertain on the basest, most compromised of levels. It finds the lowest fantasmal common denominator and proceeds from there. If it's not junk to its publishers, certainly it is to its readers, who, when challenged, will say defiantly: "I know it's junk, but I like it." Which is the whole point.

Feiffer wrote his book in 1965, when the comics landscape -- though much tamer in its approach to the subject matter -- was more or less the same collection of pulp-knockoff and superhero genre books as the Golden Age years he was talking about. This started to change, though, when Stan Lee got bored with doing the same old genre knockoff comics for Martin Goodman and, just for the hell of it, persuaded the Marvel guys to shoot a little higher -- something that Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko'd been hoping to hear for years. And when the first wave of fans like Roy Thomas and Marv Wolfman and Denny O'Neil started turning pro, a couple of years later, the genie was definitely out of the bottle. Ever since then there's been this weird tension in comics between people trying to do Art and people desperately trying to hang on to that old-time pulp-adventure vibe. Sometimes you even see that tug-of-war playing out in the work of a single creator (Exhibit A: Frank Miller. Exhibit B: Warren Ellis. And so on.)

But for a long time, most comics never aspired to Art at all. Merit was accidental, something creators occasionally sneaked in when the boss wasn't paying attention. There were pages to fill and deadlines were relentless, pay was low, and comics were a job. Especially when publishers were trying to keep costs down and doing things like constantly revamping titles rather than starting new ones and paying the attendant postal charges.

(Yeah, I know. But trust me, those of you reading this who are still in your twenties -- there was a time when comics publishers really tried NOT to have a new #1 issue of something coming out every month, because it was too expensive to set up. I swear I'm not making it up.)

But I'm getting sidetracked. What I meant to say was that since the entire comic-book industry, for most of its existence, was essentially set up as one big grindhouse, I should explain what I mean when I start talking about the idea of "grindhouse comics."

The short version -- for the sake of boiling it down to something that I can use here, I'd narrow the definition of 'grindhouse comics' to the comics I thought of in my youth as the B list. Comics that were, y'know, just okay. These were the books that I knew I could walk in on any time, that I knew would achieve a base level of entertainment that I would enjoy.

But I would not ever worry about missing an issue of one of these titles. They'd be there waiting for me when I got around to them again and nothing would change: they'd still be fun, continuity-free, amusing ways to kill half an hour. They have that Roger Corman vibe, that cheerful sense of, yeah, this is just something dumb and completely without social merit. We know it. So let's all stop thinking about Art and just have a good time. Floor it.

Truthfully they were what I read in between issues of the books I REALLY liked. Used to be, when your favorite book was hung up because the writer was taking too long to craft his brilliant epic or the artist was late AGAIN, we just bought something else and read that instead. I did, anyway. You get a hanker on for a comic book, you want a comic book, damn it. (Nowadays I think the alternative impulse buy's gotten to be too expensive a proposition for most of us; we end up just taking to the internet and bitching about late books instead.)

First among equals in my B-list purchases was always one of the superhero team-up books. Brave and Bold, more often than not. I'm a Bat guy at heart, really, and though I was often completely boggled at the amphetamine-crazed plotting strangeness that was Bob Haney's stock in trade, I was nevertheless willing to go along, especially since it was all depicted by that amazing Jim Aparo art.

But Haney's Batman would have driven a modern continuity-minded comics reader right out of his OCD mind. Even I was a little weirded out sometimes. He did stories where Batman was fired as Gotham's superhero, where Batman died and then was revived as a zombie, where Batman was dating a socialite and entering stock-car races AS BATMAN, in costume... it was all sort of deranged.

But I knew he'd always have it wrapped up neatly by the end.

Haney's other place to just completely mess with continuity geeks was World's Finest. That was another one I never bothered to follow but occasionally found to be an entertaining filler read whenever I picked it up. I didn't go to this one as an alternative as often as I did B&B, though.

I think the continuity thing bothered me here more than in Brave and Bold because Haney kept going back to the Super-Sons characters for stories.

I mean, as an old DC hand, I knew from years of reading 80-page Giants reprinting Mort Weisinger and Gardner Fox epics that "Imaginary Stories" were to be clearly labeled as such, and if they weren't Imaginary, damn it, then they should be clearly assigned to a specific parallel Earth where Superman and Batman had sons. But Haney never bothered to explain any of it. He just did more stories where Superman Jr. and Batman Jr. kept trying to carry on the family business -- and screwing it up. (I suspect he delighted in not explaining any of it; there was a certain screw-you-fanboy vibe to the letters page replies, too.) Just as an aside, looking over my collection as I prepared to write this I noticed I own an awful lot of Bob Haney comics starring pissed-off teenagers. I think both of us may have parental issues.

Marvel's team-up books made for pretty good filler reads, too, but I didn't go there as often. For one thing, sometimes they tried to do contnuity-heavy multi-part epics, like the Pegasus Project story in Marvel Two-In-One. You couldn't depend on them to be filler and so suddenly you had another monthly commitment. (Yes, even in the Olden Tymes, Marvel had learned how to milk the crossover.)

Marvel Team-Up was a better bet as being a done-in-one, no-impact fluff book, but fans complained -- most Marvel fans felt we weren't getting full value back then unless stories were huge sprawling epics; I blame Steve Englehart for creating that mentality-- and so Bill Mantlo had to start doing multi-part epics there too. The art was usually by Sal Buscema, who I really liked on Hulk and The Defenders, but on Marvel Team-Up he was often saddled with Mike Esposito on inks and Esposito apparently approached inking Sal Buscema's pages like he was doing it on the bus on the way to his real job. (Later, Chris Claremont and John Byrne had a run on the book that was really quite nice, but it had stopped being a B-lister by then, I think. Your mileage may vary.)

But for that true grindhouse hell-for-leather spirit you really needed to get away from the superhero stuff, especially in the 60's and 70's when we were all starting to obsess over the idea of proving how serious superhero comics were, it's NOT all like Adam West's Batman, honest!

On the whole, if there was anybody I would name as being the best architect of that Corman-esque, B-movie, exploitation spirit in comics it would be Robert Kanigher. This was a guy that seemed to take a demented pride in taking ANY premise, ANY story springboard, and making a salable comic out of it. There's the famous story about the letterer that accidentally turned an editor's notation to the art department into an actual story title...

...and Kanigher had to come up with a story to fit the title "Drop An Inch" before the book went to press. He did it with the ease of Willie Mays going back for a routine fly ball.

This isn't to say that Kanigher was some kind of uncaring hack. He was always in there pitching; reading the stuff, you can see he was committed to doing his best. But his output does have that sense of commercialism, of being done to order. "X is popular right now, I should do a story about that."

It's not exploitative so much as just plain desperate, the need to meet your commitment to constantly have pages for artists to draw by first thing in the morning so you can make your deadline by press time. No wonder Kanigher grabbed at anything and everything as a possibility to hang a story on.

Sgt. Rock and Enemy Ace, of course, were Kanigher's masterpieces, the books he genuinely poured himself into. But oddly, the books Kanigher did that I enjoyed most tended to be the lighter, gimmick ones. I confess that appreciating Enemy Ace and Sgt. Rock was something I came to much later, as an adult. When I was a kid I was more interested in stuff like the Haunted Tank or, hell, whatever craziness was going on in Star-Spangled. THAT book was just messed up.

The funny thing is, I'm getting the sense DC likes the nutty stuff better too. No Rock or von Hammer yet, but we've already had Showcases featuring the Haunted Tank, the Unknown Soldier, and the War that Time Forgot.

Incidentally, for those of you that want to see Robert Kanigher in all his demented grindhouse deadline-meeting glory, you need go no further than The War That Time Forgot. It's got tanks, dinosaurs, trapeze artists, robots, and the original Suicide Squad, all on one South Pacific island during World War II. I don't know if I'd call it good but it sure is FUN, and weirdly fascinating, too. Star-Spangled always seemed like it was trying to be the war comic that was aimed at the people who weren't really into war comics -- it may have been why I liked it.

I missed the glory days of the dinosaur war and Mademoiselle Marie, though later in reprints I discovered those were fun stories.

But I liked checking in with the Unknown Soldier every so often, those stories were always cool, and really a wide variety of top talent worked on them. That was mostly Joe Kubert's baby, but there was some great work from Archie Goodwin, David Michelinie, and other folks, too. Even Bob Haney seemed to bring his "A" game to that one.

When you are talking exploitation B-movie type comics, though, I think you have to acknowledge the master. Jim Warren built his entire empire on them.

He started publishing magazines about monster movies and spun that into a line of, essentially, magazine comics ripping off those movies. For me these books were very hit-and-miss. I know there was a lot of good stuff there and a lot of big names started doing work for Warren, but I came in late, after Archie Goodwin had gone, and though I picked up the occasional issue of Eerie it never did much for me.

I was mildly interested in the Wold Newton-esque adventures of the Rook: Restin Dane, the time-traveling cowboy grandson of H.G. Wells' original Time Traveler. Dane fought crime all up and down the time stream aided by his Alamo-veteran ancestor and a couple of robots. This was a strip that probably would read better as a trade collection if anyone ever gets the rights sorted out. But as an occasional strip in Eerie it was hard to keep up, and his own magazine seemed to stutter a bit schedule-wise too. Apart from Creepy, Eerie, and Vampirella it was hard to tell just what the hell WAS coming out from Warren in any given month.

And it didn't help that my mother was convinced the Warren stuff was all disgusting and quite possibly pornography.

I had to fight for Eerie and Rook, and of course Vampirella and 1994 were off the table completely. It seems ridiculous today, but it was a big deal, believe me. In retrospect I have to say the stuff was pretty tame compared to what you see from Greg Horn or Adam Hughes these days. But it was enough extra resistance fighting the folks, added to the B-list status the comics themselves already had with me, that I didn't bother to keep reading them. These are books that I've recently rediscovered as being better than I remember, though, and certainly are worth a quick scrounge through the stacks at a convention or on eBay. God knows when they'll ever get the reprint rights straightened out.

That's a sampling of my personal B-list. I daresay if you've been around comics a while you have a similar list of your own. Most of us have a taste for junk food whether we admit it or not.

But I think you have to be over a certain age to really be a connoisseur; the form's mostly died out. I don't think there really is such a thing as B-movie comics or the equivalent any more, and though it's probably a good thing for the artform in general, I confess it makes me a little wistful. There's occasionally someone doing a tribute book or a pastiche or something, but you know, it's just not the same. Nobody's mother yells at them for reading Nextwave or Agents of ATLAS or stuff like that, no matter how much of the crazed B-movie sensibility they are straining to evoke. Today, series like that get hardcover collections. The subversive part's gone.

And I have to admit, that's probably for the best. Comics are way past due to leave their adolescence behind.

But... doggone it...

Sometimes you just WANT fast food, no matter how bad it is for you.

See you next week.

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