men of tomorrow: geeks, gangsters, and the birth of the comic book, gerard jones (basic books 2004). the dreamer, will eisner (dc comics, 1986). men of tomorrow is an extraordinary history of comics, particularly dc in the golden age. i'm interested in comic and their history, and this focuses on the birth and theft of superman. but along the way it manages to give you an extraordinarily vivid sense of america in the 20s and 30s. jones manages to give us the beginnning of "mass culture," of media as the engine of individual identity at an axial moment with the arrival of film, magazines, radio, and the "synergy" between them. when he has frank costello's bootleg whiskey, maragaret sanger's birth control literature, harry donenfeld's softcore porn, all going out on the same trucks, you suddenly see the whole era in a different light. i think it's a good idea to read the book in conjunction with eisner's dreamer, an autobiographical graphic novella. it's not eisner's best work: a little perfunctory. but the drawing has his characteristic verve, and it actually recounts a number of the same anecdotes that are in jones's book. the eisner can tell you how it all looked: both the world and the art, while the jones can help you identify all the characters etc.
Howard the Duck, Steve Gerber (scripts), Frank Brunner, Gene Colan (pencils) (Marvel)
Maybe Marvel was feeling some heat from underground comics in the seventies. Or maybe they just lost their minds for a moment.
But they created an alien from a planet of ducks sucked through a time/space vortex to a miserable Cleveland. In the
immmortal words that have for some reason haunted me since 1976 or whatever it was, Howard was "trapped in a world he never made."
He was half Groucho Marx half James Dean, and all Duck. He lived in a trashy apartment with an incredibly hot
human girlfriend and parodied all the genres of comics, debuting in "Man-Thing" and rolling through combat, romance, super-hero, etc.
The material is uneven, but at its best some of the sharpest social satire in mainstream comics before, say, "Watchmen."
Kwaidan, Jung and Jee-Yun (script), Jung (art) (Dark Horse)
Some of the best graphic novels are literature or memoir, no doubt, and those of course receive most
of the "serious" critical treatment, as in the NYT Mag cover story of 7.04. But these do not in any very
obvious way explore the viusal capacities of the form. "Kwaidan" is a supernatural morality tale, with faceless girls and
swirling ghosts. Not exactly...plausible. But visually rich and stunning beyond the telling of it. It reminds
you that you can draw anything, create or elaborate worlds. Also it is a standalone book, albeit substantial:
the story resolves. And a note to graphic arts pubs: how did Dark Horse print this
in full color on heavy stock and sell it for $14.95?
Escapo, Paul Pope (Horse)
Pope is a wildly creative artist (see "One-Trick Rip-Off," below). And one of the most interesting
things is that though the art is radical, the spirit has transcended post-modern irony and conceptual play
back into the central human concerns of basic values, death, love. The idea of Escapo, a rad contemporary
Houdini escaping mad technological constructions, is cool. His sudden fear and intense love are cool too. This book
is a bit thin, and could have used more continuity. But it is ingenious and moving.
X-Force, New Beginnings, Mike Allred (script) Peter Milligan (art) (Marvel)
initially a forgotten artifact of the X craze of the eighties, X-Force is revived here in a truly bent and interesting way. Mutants are
celebrities, and our insane celebrity culture is parodied and explored. Superheroes have huge egos and substance abuse problems. It's not clear whether they're into saving the world or
just being famous and getting the endorsements, starting their own clothing lines. They wake up from a long night with two call girls and
have to go sign autographs or battle villains. Allred kills his own characters with delicious indiscrimination. The art is a tribute to
the stiff figures of Silver Age Marvel, of which this in a way is the logical deconstruction. Of course there is a bit of redemption at the end, as
Mister Sensitive tries to do right, and Edie sort of sobers up.
Vagabond, Takehiko Inoue (Viz)
In the classic "Book of Five Rings," the brutal saint Miyamoto Musashi writes as follows (Cleary's trans):
"I was thirteen years old when I had my first duel. On that occasion I won over my opponent, a martial artist named Arima
Kihei of the New School of Accuracy. At sixteen I beat a powerful martial artist called Akiyama of Tajima province. When I was twenty-one, I went to the capital city and met martial artists from all over
the country. Although I engaged in numerous duels, never did I fail to attain victory. After that, I traveled from province to province,
meeting martial artists of the various schools. Although I dueled more than sixty times, never once did I lose." Vagabond
is a brilliantly-drawn and plotted visual interpretation of Musashi's life. In this first volume (all I've read so far), Musashi
is seventeen, and is portrayed with realism as hero, confused adolescent, and feral killer. The book is full of moral ambiguity
and visual vitality: it is brutal and absorbing. I loved the character of Granny, the hyper-violent kick-ass, tiny octagenerian.
That this book has moments of comedy is in a way astounding.
Note: now having read 2 and 3, I can report that thing rocks on. There is in particular a wonderful, creative, and funny portrayal of the great
Zen master Takuan Soho in volume 2. The art is extremely strong throughout.
The One Trick Rip-off, Paul Pope
This thing is great. I guess we might call the style punk noir, and it revolves around LA street gangs, the moral
question of whether it's wrong to steal from thieves, and love. The drawing style is out of control, and could be a
bit more refined. Still, it has extreme energy. But what's remarkable is the plotting and characterization, which
pulled me in completely. I especially loved Vim, a girl edging toward psychosis.
Soulwind, Scott Morse
There's a great concept in this thick book: different drawing styles for different eras and places. Settings include
40s America, feudal Japan, other planets, 1997. I especially liked the Zen ink style of the Japanese sequences,
which sometimes rose to the profound. But I got to say the story was incredibly trite fantasy nonsense, focusing on the question
of whether the Chosen One wil get the magic sword. When has the Chosen One ever not gotten the magic sword?
Mister Blank: Exhaustive Collection, Christopher Hicks
Cool wild book about Joe Average caught in a sudden deluge of clones, time travel, mimes,
legendary beings, mad scientists, evil corporations, and so on. All of it is drawn with
incredible panache: a kind of art deco cool that is funny and beautiful all at once. The art
is a kind of shorthand that is is Hicks's own little innovation, great for expressing motion and wild action.
I dig the hero, Sam Smith, the most. Not to speak of the references to "The Shadow" and other classics.
Jar of Fools, Jason Lutes (Drawn and Quarterly)
A sweet, sad and literary gn, about a depressive cast of homeless castoffs: magicians,
escape artists, and grifters, their elusive central pains and their small heroisms.
The art is modest, but perfect for the mood. I kind of think in a way it's too self-conscious in its sympathy with the underdog.
But I did read it all, fast, fascinated, and moved.
Channel Zero, Brian Wood
This is an interesting book. It's about a future/present in which America has become an entirely closed, officially Christian
nation. Oddly, it was written before 9.11, and was actually based on Giuliani's policies for "cleaning up" New York. Since the patriot Act etc
it's eerily close to home, though also very exaggerated. The dystopia, while not implausible, is a little too ideological. Anyway, it the story of
a revolutionary named "Jenny 2.5" who goes from culture jammer to prisoner to pop star, a pretty interesting metamorphosis, again with a pointed point
about what happens to revolutionaries who are media stars. The art is very cool: punkish, jagged, with a collage feel and high drama and intelligence.
If you ask me, though, this style would be extremely appropriate for depicting action, whereas especialy the second half of the book is almost entirely exposition.
It's a bit odd too, because Jenny is glamorized in the book just as she would be on television: the book itself appears to be an example
of the co-optation it condemns. This might make the message very complex. At any rate, I intend to get more of this guy's stuff: and this is almost extremely good and important work.
Crying Freeman: "Portrait of a Killer," "A Taste of Revenge,"
script: Kazuo Koike, art: Ryoichi Ikegami
I was very much disappointed by these books; certainly I expected more from the guy who wrote Lone Wolf and Cub. Here the assassin
is not a samurai, but a modern-day gangster. But the themes of invincibility and action by strict code remain. Crying Freeman himself is
an assassin who cries uncontrollably every time he kills. A great idea, but it's never realy explored. The art is pretty commonplace, and all the
characters are so beautiful and perfect as to be incredibly boring. I mean it has its moments. But mostly it's just crazily
implausible and completely unaffecting. There is a lot of fairly wild sex though.
Lone Wolf and Cub, 1-infinity, script: Kazuo Koike; art: Goseki Kojima
Often called the greatest manga, for extremely good reasons. It's a mistake always to compare comics to novels or movies. Comics
are their own medium. Nevertheless,it makes sense to say that Lone Wolf and Cub has the quality of literature. There is serious research behind it into Edo samurai culture,
and explorations of various aspects of the culture, both visual and verbal, or always both. But it's the stories that are powerful: full of irony,
ambiguity, surprise: often beautiful constructions. It is of course about an assassin who tours Japan with his three-year-old (who is himself as Zen master and a warrior of sorts).
The premise itself is weird, beguilng, problematic. The art seems pretty simplistic at the beginning, gets better as the series continues, and also
grows on you. It's often called "cinematic' and is a deep source not only of a thousand Asian martial arts movies, but of Kill Bill and the Tarantino sensibility.
But whereas Tarantino is of course soaked in self-awareness and pop-culture referentiality, Lone Wolf and Cub takes its
culture and its values very seriously. On the other hand, it also manages to throw those values into question: I think of a story in the second volume
about a great warrior who chooses to beg on the streets rather than kill, and confronts Lone Wolf with his own murderous decisions. The translations in the current complete series are excellent, the little books pleasant to hold, wonderful to read.
The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist, Michael Chabon, Eric Wright, Jim Starlin, Howard Chaykin, et al
Michael Chabon's novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which was, among other things, about the beginnings
of the comic book industry, stands as one of the great novels of the past couple of decades, in my view. The two main characters created a superhero called the Escapist,
half Superman and half Houdini. Now we begin to get the history of the character and his comrades in a variety of styles from the forties through the seventies.
There is some great writing here by Chabon, and some great art in a variety of graphic styles: it constitutes a comic book history of the comic
book. I particularly love the "cosmic," wordless style of the Luna Moth bit, the character based on the incomparable Rosa Luxembourg Sachs: she of the perfect ass.
However, I've got to say that the thing does not really work as a comic book: it's too arch, too self-aware, too stray. Ah well.
Astro City: (1) Life in the Big City, (2) Confessions, (3) Family Album (4) Tarnished Angel
by Kurt Busiek (script), Brent Anderson (art), Alex Ross (covers) (Homage Comics)
We have certainly reached the neo-classical or neo-golden phase of the superhero book.
The first phase consisted of beings so superhuman that they were non-human: Superman and Wonder Woman, e.g.
Then, starting in the sixties, there was the long humanization of the superbeing: Spiderman and the X-Men, for example.
This phase culminated in books such as Watchmen, in which superheroes were fully humanzed in their
moral and psychological mediocrity. Astro City hits back, and is dedicated to recapturing the
superiority of the super. Busiek invents a whole pantheon of heroes, many of them very interesting (I especially dig the Hanged Man),
though many are based closely on golden era figures (Samaritan = Superman). The twist is that he tells the story from a wide variety of
points of view: the books are a series of first-person narratives, in which the narrators, often average folks, are the most
interesting characters. The art, too, and the scripts, are full of references to the golden age, and they carry the mystique of
overcoming impotence, the yearning for power and self-transcendence, that led to the invention of the superhero in the
Kabuki, Volume 1: Circle of Blood , by David Mack (Image)
This black and white book as is more visually stunning than any other I've seen: both incredibly
creative and incredibly intelligent. Forms are delineated in amazing variety of styles, and they
metamorphose into and out of one another in a way that is both hallucinatory and somehow
realistic, as if you're seeing the forms of consciousness and dream. The story concerns a future
Japan, in which a television network called "Noh" is charged with maintaining a balance betwen
the state and organized crime. In very familiar comic-book style, it consists of an old man
commanding an incredibly sexy set of masked female warriors, which gives Mack the chance to
parade a kind of s&m soft porn which is juvenile, even if . . . stimulating. The writing could have
used an edit, and actually the printing quality is not of the best: a lot of the white-on-black
lettering of my copy was screwed up, and page edges mis-aligned. The story gets better, though,
as it concerns comfort women and the oppression of the native peoples of the Japanese, the Ainu,
as well as Ainu spirituality. In fact, the main character, Kabuki, foreswears samurai weapons for
Ainu farm sickles. The story is at least an adequate armature for the genius of the imager,
however. I found myself obsessing over some of the images, and continually returning.