Archive for August 31, 2009

“I’d rather die than give you control.” (or Adolf Hitler, Quentin Tarantino, Eli Roth, and Trent Reznor walk into a blog)

August 31, 2009

You may recall that a while back I took a break from reviewing comics thrice weekly. I’d done it for a year and a quarter or something like that and felt I’d accomplished what I set out to accomplish. I was also getting a little sick of feeling obligated to read and review comics–the second something becomes homework I want nothing to do with it–and was looking forward to reading some prose for a change. Because I am a strange and in some ways fundamentally unpleasant person, the prose book I chose to read during my break from comics was Ian Kershaw’s 1,072-page Hitler: A Biography. I learned a lot from that book. One of the things I learned was that after the war took a turn for the worse, for Germany that is, Hitler pretty much stopped making any kind of public appearances, even radio addresses. During the darkest years of the war, his public addresses literally numbered in the single digits. Try to imagine the President disappearing from public view 362 days out of the year, as enemy forces bomb the hell out of you while your sons and husbands freeze to death in Russia, and you can imagine what this would do to morale in America, let alone a country that had been trained to worship Adolf Hitler as the personification of the nation. But no amount of cajoling, even from his fanatically loyal propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, could persuade Hitler to re-enter the spotlight while his “plans”–sneer quotes richly deserved, since they basically amounted to “if we want to win really, really bad, we’ll win”–were busy being shown to be the ridiculous delusions of grandeur that they were. He didn’t want to lose face, but perhaps even more revealingly, he simply didn’t give a shit about the suffering of the German people. After all, if they were losing, it stood to reason that they didn’t want to win badly enough, and therefore didn’t deserve his recognition and consolation anyway.

This leads to the second major thing I learned reading that book, about appeasement. During the years I spent vociferously supporting the war efforts of an administration whose vice-president is now voluntarily appearing on television to publicly proclaim how very, very proud he is of an interrogation system that involved holding power drills to people’s heads, threatening to rape their mothers, and of course killing them, appeasement was the ugliest word around. One of my proudest moments, and by proudest I mean most retrospectively nauseating, in a literally physical sense, involved thinking of post-3/11 Spain as a nation of Neville Chamberlains. (I don’t remember if I actually wrote this–Jim Henley might, but I don’t–and I don’t have the stomach to dig through the archives to find out; I ask you to take my word for it.) But what I learned is that the actions of Chamberlain and the other European governments prior to the war had nothing to do with being giant pussies who didn’t have the balls to go kill them some Nazis and defend human freedom against Cobra, a ruthless terrorist organization determined to rule the world. What it had to do with was remembering how around 20 years earlier, the nations of Europe had collectively fed themselves into a nightmarish meat grinder, and could we please try to avoid slaughtering tens of millions of our children in the near future. After reading Kershaw’s book, I don’t get the sense that Chamberlain’s appeasement at Munich had anything to do with a moral defect on the part of Chamberlain or anyone else, anyone else but Hitler that is. They might have done better to heed the warning signs, but they felt they were acting out of an abundance of caution, caution about plunging Europe into yet another ruinous Great War. Their great miscalculation was believing Hitler felt the same way. Unfortunately, as Kershaw documents at great length, Hitler literally couldn’t have cared less about human suffering. The potential death of millions of people of any race, even Germans, was vanishingly low on his list of concerns. Chamberlain’s screw-up was playing chicken with a sociopath, just as Germany’s screw-up (among many!) was casting its lot with one–through ignorance, through chauvinism, through bloodthirstiness, through complacency, through conformity, through fear, through compulsion, through a little of it all. The same inhuman lack of empathy that led him to attack Poland and France and the U.S.S.R. was the same inhuman lack of empathy that caused him to abandon the people on whose nominal behalf he ordered those invasions.

The third thing I learned from that book was that he had nine lives like a cat. Hitler survived something like eight assassination attempts. Not plots–attempts, as in bombs with fuses lit. But schedules were changed, explosives failed to detonate, table legs blocked blasts, and history’s greatest monster lived to sit in his compounds and bore his captive audiences with rants about Wagner and American cinema and the character of International Jewry and the prowess of Stalin another day.

The fourth thing I learned from that book was that Hitler loved the movies.

Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino’s, I dunno, sixth or seventh film, posits a world in which movie violence fights against real-world violence, specifically the violence of Hitler’s Nazi regime. The film’s first act of violence involves the machine-gun slaughter of a Jewish family; the second involves a guy from The Office scalping German soldiers, a crazy anti-Nazi German serial killer reaching his hand down an SS officer’s throat, and the director of Hostel beating a Nazis to death with a baseball bat onscreen. The first outburst is led up to with nearly unbearable tension, in one of the lengthy, dialogue- and closeup-driven short-films-within-a-film that have become Tarantino’s trademark. We have a feeling we know where it’s going, as do the characters involved, and it makes us sick and revolted. The second outburst, naturally, is therefore greeted with cheers and laughter. This isn’t despite it being much more graphically violent than the initial massacre–it’s because it’s much more graphically violent.

This second outburst of violence is movie violence, the violence of Tarantino’s much-ballyhooed “movie movie” world, operating at a layer of unreality above a normal movie. This movie violence is pitted against the backdrop of unspeakable and very real barbarism unleashed by Hitler’s regime, and we root for it to prevail. And it’s not like Tarantino’s being subtle about this, either. He cast the biggest movie star he’s worked with yet in the lead. He cast a fellow director in a key supporting role. He cast (spoiler alert!) Mike “Austin Powers” Myers as a veddy veddy British intelligence officer, and formerly glorious specimen of manhood Rod “The Birds” Taylor as Winston Churchill, and the instantly recognizable voices of Tarantino repertory company members Samuel L. Jackson and Harvey Keitel in notable voiceover parts. Within the story itself, one of the main characters is a German movie star turned spy, and another is a German soldier turned movie star, and yet another is the German propaganda minister turned director and studio head. There’s a key conversation about King Kong, famously one of Hitler’s favorite films. The whole movie centers on a plot called “Operation Kino” that climaxes in a movie theater during the premiere of an ultraviolent German propaganda film based on “real” events. Actual film is used as a weapon for god’s sake. But it didn’t take me any longer to suss out this theme than Brad Pitt’s utterance of the line, “Quite frankly, watching Donnie beat Nazis to death is the closest we get to going to the movies.” Even the characters realize they’re perpetrating movie violence. And as those who have seen the whole movie can no doubt attest, to say that this is the “movie movie”est movie in Tarantino’s oeuvre is to understate the case considerably. Considerably. I mean, the very idea of the movie calls attention to its own movieness. You know how a movie about a plot to kill Hitler has to end, right?

In that sense Inglourious Basterds may be the punkest movie I’ve seen in I can’t even think how long. Maybe ever. It’s about nothing less than the power of art to destroy evil. It’s about how important it is to love film more than the likes of Hitler hate life. It’s about how movie violence, art violence, art designed as a FUCK YOU, can help you deal with the violence that so terrified Chamberlain’s cohorts and to which Hitler and his cohorts were so indifferent. It’s Woody Guthrie’s “THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS” guitar slogan made literal. It’s a lingering closeup on the bloodlust-saturated eyes of Eli Roth, the beautiful Jewish torture-porn poster boy and enemy of good taste, as he empties a machine gun into the bodies of members of the Third Reich. And it’s a total fucking fantasy. Yet that’s what makes it so vital. I mean, I’m pretty sure Johnny Rotten wasn’t actually the Anti-Christ, but in the end, did it matter? Well, I suppose it did. Punk toppled nothing. But it gave people the power to topple themselves. It gave them a psychic survival mechanism. I guess you could see that as the ultimate con-job of art. I think it’s noble. Glourious, even.

Last Wednesday I attended Nine Inch Nails’ supposedly final New York City performance ever at Terminal 5. This took place 15 years and three months after my first Nine Inch Nails concert–my first concert by anyone–at Roseland in May of 1994. I attended both with my best friend and major domo Kennyb. I’m not a big concertgoer anymore, I tend to prefer spending $12 or whatever on an album and listening to it in the comfort of my headphones than plunking down $30 or $75 dollars and standing around in some sweaty venue in NYC, then taking the long Long Island Rail Road ride home and getting like six hours of sleep, but no way was I missing NIN’s final New York concert. They were my favorite band, identified as such for more than half a decade, and I still love Trent Reznor.

This turned out to be an excellent decision, one of the best I’ve made in a long time. The evening proved to be enormously cathartic. I screamed along to every word, pouring a year’s worth of awfulness out of my mouth and into the sweat that passed for air. “Broken, bruised, forgotten, sore, too fucked up to care anymore.” “Still stings these shattered nerves–pigs, we get what pigs deserve.” “Hey God, I think you owe me a great big apology.” “I’m gonna burn this whole world down.” But also: “I want so much to believe.” “I am trying to see, I am trying to believe.” “What if this whole crusade’s a charade?” And ultimately: “I’d rather die than give you control.” What was I singing about? The disease that is probably going to kill my poor cat? The addictions and mental illnesses that leveled my family? Whatever-it-was that killed two babies in my wife’s womb? The vote I cast for George W. fucking Bush? The town hall screamers? A non-existent God? My ex-love interests? The popular kids I hated for years? My wife? Myself? Human nature? Life? My solipsistic self-regard for thinking any of this matters to anyone else? All these things. As Ryan Dombal said in his review of the band’s show at Webster Hall a couple days earlier:

Reznor turned the tiny crowd’s unrequited dread into bliss yet again. Just like he did back in high school, or junior high, or even during a irrationally black college-and-beyond bender. Nine Inch Nails may be going dark, but confusion, anger, and despondency will abide.

When I was in high school, Nine Inch Nails was the king cool band among my circle. This is pretty far from the case at this point. But I’m still confused and angry and despondent a lot of the time–a lot more deeply so than I was in high school, in all probability. Screaming these lyrics back at Trent Reznor, which honestly is what they were tailor-made to do, I realized all that, and realized how wonderful it felt to vomit all that back out into the world again. As Trent sang “Bow down before the one you serve, you’re going to get what you deserve,” I raised my hands in the air, palms open and facing the stage, and suddenly noticed that half the audience had spontaneously done the exact same thing. We were somehow screaming out our fury at conformity, and acknowledging how all of us owed this band the exact same debt for enabling us to do so. I could feel myself getting better, somehow. It was magical.

A while back, I noticed during one of my rare schleps through my rudimentary referrer logs that a blogger who I think used to enjoy my writing called me a twat. (I’m not gonna say who it was or link to the diss. I don’t want this to become some kind of lame pissing match. I only bring it up because I’m a big crybaby, not to kick off some kind of blog battle. Those days are long gone. Besides, I’ve been a giant asshole to people on this blog many times, so it seems churlish to reprimand someone else for turning the tables.) He wouldn’t say why he felt that way, but as evidence for my twatitude, he cited this mix I made of my favorite Nine Inch Nails songs, which he characterized as slow-songs-only desperate plea for validation. Leave aside for a moment the fact that this mix included “Wish” and “Gave Up” and “Burn” and “The Becoming” and “Happiness in Slavery” and “Just Like You Imagined” and “10 Miles High,” some of the metalest fucking songs in the entire NIN catalog. Leave aside the fact that at the end of the post I promised a completely different mix of songs that I posted a week later, featuring nothing but NIN’s booty-shakin’ dancefloor bangers. You can even leave aside the fact that it’s tough to think of an artist whose work could get you less validation from the critical populace than freaking Nine Inch Nails. The music itself, the emotions it calls to mind, that’s all the validation I need. It really doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks, or what effect it does or doesn’t have on anyone else, or whether it ever gets me anywhere better than where I am now except for the moment. The art is enough because it’s saying something that’s in me. It’s giving me control for as long as it takes me to sing that chorus. No matter what happened in the real world, there’s value to Eli Roth shooting up a room full of Nazis.

Comics Time: Flash: Rebirth #4

August 31, 2009

Flash: Rebirth #4

Geoff Johns, writer

Ethan Van Sciver, artist

DC Comics, August 2009

32 pages


If you know Geoff Johns, and particularly if you know his work on this project’s thematic predecessor, Green Lantern: Rebirth, you knew this was coming. This is the issue where Johns redefines, organizes, and expands the Flash mythos, tying together various elements and explaining how revived hero Barry Allen is an indispensable part of them all. The following thoughts about this aren’t quite Flash Facts–maybe they’re Allen Opinions?

This was nowhere near as elegantly done as the reveal of the “emotional spectrum” concept in Green Lantern, or even the “Parallax was a separate entity” reveal from GL: Rebirth. I think that’s because the core concepts being utilized here aren’t as easy to instantly grasp. With Green Lantern, if you were gonna bring back mass murderer Hal Jordan you had to come up with a reason why it’s okay for us to like him again, and “he was possessed by a demonic yellow fear elemental at the time he killed all those people” is a pretty easy one to get behind. And once you’ve established that arch-enemy Sinestro’s power ring is fueled by fear in much the same way that GL’s ring is fueled by willpower, it’s a logical leap to other colored rings being fueled by other states of mind.

By contrast, the big revelations here…well, I’ve never quite understood what the heck the Speed Force is supposed to be anyway. For years I labored under the misapprehension that it was some pseudomystical thing, like what J. Michael Straczynski did with that horrible “Spider-Totem” idea in Amazing Spider-Man–so that instead of that accident with the lightning striking Barry Allen while he was holding some chemicals giving him his powers, that just opened up some portal to the Speed Force or something, just like how in JMS’s justly ignored origin revamp the spider was magical and the radioactivity was just a coinicence. I’ve since learned that I was wrong and the Speed Force was just something out there that people who got super-speed through whatever means became able to commune with or tap into or whatever the proper term might be. Either way, this is a much wonkier concept than “rainbow of space armies,” and so rejiggering things so that now Barry Allen’s accident created the Speed Force doesn’t have the same oomph as “the reason Green Lanterns were vulnerable to yellow is because of the giant yellow Fear Monster inside the Power Battery.”

Same with the revelation that there’s a Negative Speed Force embodied or utilized or whatever by Professor Zoom, the Reverse Flash. To convey this idea, Johns and Van Sciver tie it to the fact that the Flash’s speed lightning is yellow while Zoom’s is red. Frankly, I’d never noticed this before–it’s certainly not a famous concept like Green Lantern’s green ring vs. Sinestro’s yellow one, or even just “the Flash wears red while the Reverse Flash wears yellow.” Without that easy-to-envision visual hook, it’s a much tougher sell; all Van Sciver’s little design flourishes and neato ways of showing superspeed Van Sciver can’t quite make up for it.

However, there were quite a few things I liked in this issue. For starters, I appreciate the way Johns has shifted the generative spark for the Flash’s powers back to that lightning/chemicals accident instead of positing some preexisting speedster ether floating around out there. Now it’s all a result of Barry’s accident, ripples from which apparently spread throughout all of time and space–which moreover is as good an answer as any to the question “Why is this Flash different from all other Flashes?” Plus, I feel like we’re closer than ever to a speedster team book called Speed Force, which is far past due, and since I don’t have a dog in the Jay vs. Barry vs. Wally vs. Bart vs. Max Mercury vs. whoever the hell else race (no pun intended), it could star any of these guys and I’d be fine with it. The prospect of the Flash Family being its own little squad centered on one of DC’s coolest superhero concepts, like the Green Lantern Corps or Batman and his Robins or the Super-people, is pretty appealing.

But I suppose the main reason I’m not letting my problems with Johns’s solution to the Flash equation is that I’m not convinced we’ve seen the end of it. For example, I have to assume an explanation is in the offing that ties the new, time-jumping Zoom in with Professor Zoom’s negative Speed Force. Maybe Johns will explain (by which I mean invent, of course) why non-Speed-Force-using Superman is able to keep pace with the Flashes. Maybe that turtle villain who slows things down will be revealed as some sort of Slow Force avatar. Maybe there’s some sort of Superhero String Theory in the offing that connects the Speed Forces to the Emotional Spectrum to Anti-Life to the Purple Healing Ray to New Order’s “Blue Monday,” I dunno. I appreciate the effort of imagination needed to put it all together and await its continued rollout.

We Are the Robots

August 30, 2009

This week I’m guestblogging at Robot 6, filling in for the illustrious JK Parkin. So head over there Monday through Friay for comics coverage with that unique Collins stamp, and stick around here for all the movie and horror and other junk I talk about coverage, and some reviews, probably.

Carnival of souls

August 29, 2009

* Anders Nilsen posts some of the art available in his 46 Million fundraiser auction supporting public-option health care reform. This whole thing is pretty impressive–it went from “hey, wouldn’t it be neat if…” to a done deal in a couple of weeks, apparently.

* Potentially Cool Thing I Haven’t Looked At Yet #1: the trailer for The Descent: Part 2.

* Potentially Cool Thing I Haven’t Looked At Yet #2: PopMatters presents a series of essays honoring Hellboy’s 16th birthday. (Via Kevin Melrose.)

* Curt Purcell turns his Blackest Night/Great Darkness Saga series toward examining the changing definition of “universe-wide” superhero stories. Where once the all-encompassing import of a big storyline–the Dark Phoenix Saga, say–was conveyed simply by having a handful of guest-star panels showing characters from other franchises reacting to the goings-on or some other within-one-series tie-in, nowadays these things spill across entire publishing lines and necessitate multiple new miniseries. I’ve gotta think that there’s a business reason for this, in that the creation of the Direct Market enabled companies to spread a story across dozens of issues and titles while counting on its audience to be able to find them, whereas the less dedicated newsstand market couldn’t guarantee that kind of regular, predictable access.

* I love the idea behind Mark Todd’s cover version of the cover of Amazing Spider-Man #53. What other villains could you convey this way, I wonder?

* Courtesy of Bryan Alexander: Everything you need to know about the Phillip Garrido, the California man who kidnapped a girl he then kept prisoner for 18 years, fathering two children with her. Sounds like God told him to do it.

* Every once in a while I’ll run across a story of paranormal phenomena/forteana that freaks me the hell out. For example: Meet the Grinning Man. Indrid Cold, I presume?

* Finally, Happy 92nd Birthday to Jack Kirby, the King of Comics. Tom Spurgeon’s celebratory image gallery is a thing of wild wonder. Jack Kirby is the revelation, the tiger-force at the core of all things. When you cry out in your dreams, it is Kirby that you see!

Comics Time: Big Questions #12: A Young Crow’s Guide to Hunting

August 28, 2009

Big Questions #12: A Young Crow’s Guide to Hunting

Anders Nilsen, writer/artist

Drawn & Quarterly, 2009

24 pages

I don’t remember what I paid for it–$6.95, maybe?

I’m sure you’ll be able to buy it from Drawn & Quarterly eventually

Of the three action comics I reviewed this week, the most thrilling, best choreographed, most suspenseful, most pulse-pounding was not the Frank Miller/Jim Lee team-up or the Geoff Johns event comic but a little black and white story about birds. In this antepenultimate installment of Anders Nilsen’s long-running magnum opus, things come to a head between our “hero” birds and the big black crows who’ve been harassing them throughout this bleak story about how difficult it is to process tragedy. Because it has been so bleak, the tension here is almost unbearable. As the crows make a mockery of the birds’ noble but feeble attempts to defend themselves, just one big question filled my brain: Just how far will Nilsen take this?

As the action picks up the panel borders disappear, leaving Nilsen’s already feather-delicate images feeling more vulnerable and exposed than ever. Each image is a marvel of composition and clarity as the black and white birds clash, calling to mind everything from yin and yang to that incongruous cover image on the original hardcover versions of Stephen King’s The Stand. Each visual beat is so strong, and complemented so chillingly with the crows’ callous dialogue, that even as I raced to find out what happens, I couldn’t help but linger on every panel, trying to squeeze out every last bit of detail. I refuse to spoil the ending, whether devastating or joyous–frankly, everyone should experience it for themselves–but I will say that it made me more confident than ever that Big Questions is a masterpiece in the making.

Carnival of souls

August 27, 2009

* Well how about this: My World of Warcraft-playing friend Ceri B. has started a great new WoW blog expressly dedicated, in part, to answering my questions about the game. I win! One of her most interesting points so far is a bit about the intended audience for that goofy Cataclysm trailer the other day–it’s geared toward a die-hard convention-going crowd, rather than something intended to serve as a bonafide movie-trailer-style commercial for the world at large.

* Good art for a good cause: Anders Nilsen has assembled the 46 Million Art Auction and Benefit, raising money for TV ads supporting the public option for health care reform by auctioning off art by John Porcellino, Chris Ware, Ivan Brunetti, Dan Clowes, Jeffrey Brown, Paul Hornschemeier, Kevin Huizenga, David Heatley, Lynda Barry, Lilli Carre, Sammy Harkham, Nilsen himself, and many many more. Yowza. Bid early, bid often!

* Remember around the time Cloverfield came out and Diary of the Dead was announced and there looked like there’d be a wave of Blair Witch-inspired first-person mockumentary horror? That kind of fizzled out–Cloverfield and [REC] did pretty well, Quarantine was just a carbon copy of [REC], Diary of the Dead was atrocious, and I’m not sure The Poughkeepsie Tapes ever even came it out–although mockumentary-style filmmaking is now widely grokked enough for District 9 to be able to bounce back and forth from it at will and not lose audiences. Anyway, one of the big stars of that early pre-wave, in terms of advance word of mouth, was Paranormal Activity, a supposedly shit-scary “surveillance cameras in a haunted house” movie. Looks like it’s finally headed for a limited theatrical release. Sign me up–as it turns out, supernatural horror (as opposed to monsters or murderers) seems to be the only kind that can get me terrified just thinking about, say, The Exorcist while standing around doing my dishes in the kitchen late at night. (Via Jason Adams.)

* Speaking of the shockumentary genre, is this a viral video for Cloverfield 2? Even if it isn’t, it is, I suppose. (Via Topless Robot.)

* Holy moley, Brian Chippendale is blogging about Marvel comics. How often are you gonna see an Uncanny X-Men/Dark Avengers crossover juxtaposed with a Ron Rege Jr. page? Also, fun fact: Chippendale is working on owning the complete 500-issue run of Daredevil. (Via Heidi MacDonald.)

* Every once in a while a critic latches hold of an unlikely candidate for praise and jams his body in the doorway to hold it open for other critics to come through and have a look. Tom Spurgeon on the Luna Brothers is one of those cases.

* Ryan Kelly has passed the audition for my David Bowie sketchbook. Why didn’t you just say so, Ryan?

* Is it just me, or is this Todd McFarlane Batman-as-troll drawing…lovely? Kind of a Rankin-Bass vibe?

* Guestblogging for Whitney Matheson over at USA Today’s Pop Candy blog, my Twisted ToyFare Theater collaborator Justin Aclin runs down great forgotten ’80s action-figure lines. Sectaurs really were something special, weren’t they?

Comics Time: All Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder

August 26, 2009


All Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder Vol. 1

Frank Miller, writer

Jim Lee, artist

DC, 2009

240 pages


Buy it from

Now that this first volume of Frank Miller and Jim Lee’s, uh, controversial Bat-book is out in a nice fat trade paperback, I finally sat and read its nine issues’ worth of comics from start to finish for the first time. Then I sat around and tried to figure out what to say about it. One phrase kept leaping to mind no matter how much I tried to come up with an alternate approach, so fuck it: That phrase is “mentally ill.”

But I mean it in the best way!

I understand that Miller’s staccato and repetitive dialogue and narration is enough to give some people aneurysms. Ditto, and more so depending on whether you’re talking about some of my former coworkers at Wizard, his new take on Batman as a cackling, grinning, foul-mouthed, stubble-sporting, child-abusing psychopath. For pete’s sake, former editor Bob Schreck’s introduction to the volume is nothing more or less than an apologetic for what follows. But I know self-parody when I see it–and honestly, even if Miller really isn’t capable of writing in any other way anymore, that doesn’t make it any less of a self-parody–and I have no attachment to some platonic ideal of Batman. In point of fact I actually have long felt Batman would have more fun pounding the bloody bejesus out of criminals than we’ve been led to believe. In the immortal words of J.R. “Bob” Dobbs, fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke.

And you know, the thing really is (to quote Grant Morrison’s Mad Hatter) very much cleverer than its rep as a goddamn-Batman meme generator would indicate. Miller is constantly getting Lee to play around with panel layouts in memorable fashion, from the Bendis-like talking-head array during Batman and Dick Grayson’s conversation in the Batmobile to the gigantic splash-page extreme-closeups of the Robin and Superman logos (the impact of which is muted somewhat by similar treatment of other images to fill up space in the collection, but still) to the outrageously over-the-top barroom banter juxtaposed with an image of a burning fuse during the Black Canary’s introduction. There are even a couple moments that recalled the genuine madcap wit of mid-period Miller (roughly from The Dark Knight Returns through Hard Boiled)–a great jumpcut reveal of Dick’s kidnapping ruse during the Dynamic Duo’s confrontation with poor befuddled Green Lantern, and that massive multi-page fold-out of the Batcave that just keeps unfolding. By the time I got to the fourth fold, I was laughing out loud. Though Jim Lee has aged into his “nicest guy and biggest artist in comics” role very gracefully, he’ll never be the formal innovator (or popularizer of others’ innovations) that Miller has been, but even still, all these moments shine quite aside from his primary selling point of drawing DC’s characters as heroic and awesome and eye-poppingly big-bigBIG as possible. Put it all together and it’s a pleasure to flip through this book.

That’s not to say that the “this goes to 11” tone works all the time. There’s just no way to carry off any kind of emotional nuance if everyone sounds like a manic cross between Raymond Chandler and Matthew Perry’s Chandler. At one point, you’re supposed to infer from Vicki Vale’s speech pattern that she’s in shock, but she just sounds like everyone else (I imagine that was intentional, but it’s still a bit flummoxing). Meanwhile, the selling point of Miller’s Joker, back since DKR, is that he’s unsmiling and quiet, but his internal monologue is as chatty as all the other characters’. It doesn’t help that the Joker has always been one of Lee’s weakest interpretations of DC’s characters, the nose too pointy, the face too demonic. And honestly, Lee’s polished work is the reason that this book, at its best, will always just be really entertaining, whereas I truly think that the raw power Miller’s own The Dark Knight Strikes Again (or his crazy gorgeous alternate covers for ASB&R, reprinted here) is like a message from an alternate future for superhero comics.

But having the first nine issues of the book collected in one place does a lot to clarify what’s going on. For example, no longer does the Batmobile ride seem to go on for weeks (though Miller inserted a joke about that)–it just seems like one more feverish element in a story paced like a series of exclamation points. And tackling those initial, hostile conversations between Batman and Robin just a few minutes before you come to this arc’s comparatively quiet graveside denouement helps you realize that hey, this book just might be about Robin’s buoyant presence dragging Batman back from the brink of lunacy as we were promised after all! It certainly makes a convincing case that running around dressed as a bat and hospitalizing people all night for a year or so would drive you, well, batshit. Maybe that’s the quality, the tone, that Miller’s trying to capture more than anything else. I mean, there’s an issue where Batman and Robin lure Green Lantern into a room painted from floor to ceiling in bright yellow–so are they, though unfortunately we don’t see how that came to be–and Robin steals his power ring and crushes his windpipe so they have to perform an emergency tracheotomy on him. Mentally ill, meant as a compliment.

Carnival of souls

August 25, 2009

* It’s a red-letter day over at the Fantagraphics store: 15% off all their Ignatz nominees (and there are quite a few!), while brand-new books West Coast Blues, Prison Pit Vol. 1, Giraffes in My Hair, The Red Monkey Double Happiness Book, Love & Rockets: New Stories Vol. 2, Rock Candy, and The Squirrel Machine are all now in available for purchase.

* This week’s League of Tana Tea Drinkers “best of the horror bloggers” link roundup features posts on Thirst, Delphine, True Blood, His Name Was Jason, District 9 (by yours truly), and a guest post by…Andrew W.K.?

* Curt Purcell continues his series comparing Blackest Night to The Great Darkness Saga with another pair of posts. First, he tackles the changing nature of superhero violence. One thing I think’s a little odd about Curt’s superhero blogging so far is that he primarily cites The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen in terms of their use of bloody/realistic violence and its influence on later comics. But neither of those comics is particularly gruesome in that regard (indeed one of the big complaints about Zack Snyder’s Watchmen was that it was bloody all the way up to the end, at which point it became bloodless, as opposed to the comic which more or less worked the other way around). I actually think the increased use of graphic violence in superhero comics is the least direct of their legacies. I also think he’s slightly misreading Dirk Deppey’s “superhero decadence” concept by using it synonymously with “stuff that would get these comics an R-rating,” when I think the more crucial element is the debauched nature of contemporary superhero comics as art primarily concerned with itself, its own continuity and conventions–an increasingly artificial edifice built on shaky foundations and displayed for an audience with no interest in ever looking at anything else. But Curt does brush up against that aspect in his second post on the topic, this one focusing on superhero comics going meta. Of course most meta-superhero comics contain some kind of critique of the genre, while the true decadents in the Dirk Deppey formulation are perfectly content just to create ever more baroque variations on Captain Marvel.

* Go, er, squint: Nick Bertozzi tries to condense a 5,000-word prose article to a two-page comics spread. Have I mentioned I’m excited that Nick is blogging so much lately?

* Allow me to be the 40,000th person to recommend Dash Shaw’s interview of Hope Larson on the topic of comics creators working with editors. The problem with working with editors is that some editors are idiots. The problem with not working with editors is that sometimes you’re an idiot.

* TJ Dietsch applauds Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s 28 Weeks Later as superior to Danny Boyle’s original 28 Days Later, a judgment with which I concur.

* Jeet Heer on the Eiffel Tower’s recurring role in genre movies as something that gets blown up or knocked down, with a tantalizing look at a story in which the Tower itself becomes a city-destroying monster.

* More lowlights from the CIA Inspector General’s report on the Bush Administration’s torture program: Digby focuses on the use of forced enemas, diapers, and forcing detainees to wallow in their own filth, while in a lengthy post running down the worst of the abuses, Glenn Greenwald summarizes the situation thusly:

(1) The fact that we are not really bothered any more by taking helpless detainees in our custody and (a) threatening to blow their brains out, torture them with drills, rape their mothers, and murder their children; (b) choking them until they pass out; (c) pouring water down their throats to drown them; (d) hanging them by their arms until their shoulders are dislocated; (e) blowing smoke in their face until they vomit; (f) putting them in diapers, dousing them with cold water, and leaving them on a concrete floor to induce hypothermia; and (g) beating them with the butt of a rifle — all things that we have always condemend as “torture” and which our laws explicitly criminalize as felonies (“torture means. . . the threat of imminent death; or the threat that another person will imminently be subjected to death, severe physical pain or suffering . . .”) — reveals better than all the words in the world could how degraded, barbaric and depraved a society becomes when it lifts the taboo on torturing captives.

(2) As I wrote rather clearly, numerous detainees died in U.S. custody, often as a direct result of our “interrogation methods.”  Those who doubt that can read the details here and here.  Those claiming there was no physical harm are simply lying — death qualifies as “physical harm” — and those who oppose prosecutions are advocating that the people responsible literally be allowed to get away with murder.

Also, my congressman, Rep. Peter King, is a fucking monster.

Carnival of souls

August 24, 2009

* The latest Strange Tales spotlight, and one of my favorites so far: Michael Kupperman. Jeely Kly did his Namor strip crack me the hell up. I was literally doubled over from laughing.

* Here’s a nice pick-me-up for all the comics fans out there: Check out the preliminary Best Comics of the 2000s list Tom Spurgeon is asking people to help him put together at The number of very high quality comics published over the past ten years is simply astonishing. This is the kind of thing I keep in mind every time I read someone saying comics, in whatever configuration, is dead.

* The 2009 Ignatz Award Nominees have been announced, and there are quite a few ADDTF faves in their number: Tim Hensley, Josh Simmons, Ron Rege Jr., Gabriella Giandelli, Jordan Crane, Acme Novelty Library #19, Kramers Ergot 7, loads more. The winners will be chosen by ballots from SPX’s attendees and awarded on Saturday, September 26th. It sounds like I’ll be presenting one of the awards, which is an honor. (Via Peggy Burns.)

* Torture Links of the Day: It sounds like Attorney General Holder will be appointing a prosecutor to go after only the actual, physical torturers, i.e. the grunts, rather than the architects of our torture policy. Moreover, from what I’ve read any prosecutions will likely only target those who went beyond even the fatuous guidelines provided by those policymakers, essentially serving as a retroactive ratification of those torture policies. Meanwhile, a new report reveals CIA torturers threatened to kill at least one detainee by holding a gun and a power drill to his head. A fucking power drill. Spencer Ackerman has more lowlights from the report.

* Nick Bertozzi’s SVA students have completed their collection of Iraq War comics, adapted from the true stories of the soldiers and civilians involved. It sounds like it will only be available as a webcomic, so get clicking.

* The great Frank Santoro interviews the great Ben Katchor, back in 199friggin6. When I think about what I was interested in in the ’90s when people were still trying to carve out lives in altcomix, my mind reels. Frank Santoro and Ben Katchor were making their bones when I was picking up cheerleaders.\

* In a quartet of posts found here, here, here, and here, Curt Purcell compares Geoff Johns’s Blackest Night to Paul Levitz and Keith Giffen’s Great Darkness Saga in terms of villain reveals, technical advances in coloring, the purpose of clunky old-school dialogue, the concept of spoilers, and more.

* Ben Morse picks his definitive Hulk comics. I think this passage on Peter David’s decade-plus run on the character was interesting:

…the whole thing has so many twists, turns and game-changers that it’s like reading several runs bridged together by a shared author and tone, but almost as if it were a long-running TV series that switched things up as cast members aged or departed and now you’re getting the box set.

By the time I graduated high school I’d pared down my reading to essentially four titles, and David’s Incredible Hulk was one of them, though only Sin City and The Maxx survived the move to college. (The fourth title was the animated-style Batman Adventures.) David has some tics that I have a hard time with, like dragging supporting characters through every book he writes, and I haven’t really read him in years. But it seems to me that of all the writers working in the ’80s and ’90s he probably had the surface storytelling sophistication that became the norm in the more writer-centric ’00s–I certainly remember it standing out at the time. I’d place his Incredible Hulk run just behind Erik Larsen’s Savage Dragon on a short list of long-running superhero titles headed for critical reappraisal among people for whom superheroes aren’t the be-all and end-all in the next couple years.

* Two posts on comics and format that give you something to chew on when read in tandem: Geoff Grogan on Kramers Ergot 7, Wednesday Comics, and the respective values of inaccessibility and ubiquity, and Tom Spurgeon on Spy vs. Spy, MAD Magazine, and what happens when format trumps content.

* Johnny Ryan illustrates his critics. (Via Mike Baehr.)

* This Jeffrey Brown Hulk vs. Wolverine comic strip is pretty terrific.

* I was pleased with my contribution to Tom Spurgeon’s latest Five for Friday reader-participation feature, asking participants to name five songs you’d like to see adapted as comics and who you’d like to do the adapting.

* There’s a new World of Warcraft…expansion, is it? called Cataclysm coming out, and here’s a trailer for it. Rob Bricken is right about how cheesy it is–wayyyyyy too much po-faced narration for my, or surely anyone’s, taste. I remember when the trailer for Wrath of the Lich King came out–I’ve never played WoW for a second and yet I watched that thing over and over and over again, it was so perfect at expressing its ersatz Tolkienisms. This, on the other hand…Well, I sure wish Shift-T were a going concern so I could be told what to think about it.

Comics Time: Blackest Night #0-2

August 24, 2009

Blackest Night #0-2

Geoff Johns, writer

Ivan Reis, artist

32 pages each

#0: Free

#1-2: #3.99 each

Despite months of “Prelude” issues (whole story arcs, actually), a zero issue, and a “Prologue,” in Green Lantern #43, it’s the official first issue of Geoff Johns’s years-in-the-planning event comic Blackest Night that counts. And to be honest, my first read-through left me cold, largely by way of contrast.

That first Sinestro Corps Special a few years back was a first-round knockout–nutso heavy-metal character designs and all-out ring-on-ring action by Ethan Van Sciver, a Humpty Dumpty Green Lantern getting shot in the head, and a final “holy crap, this is going to blow you away if you’re a giant fucking nerd” secret bad-guy reveal splash page that, since I am a giant fucking nerd, blew me away. By comparison, BN #1 doesn’t have a whole lot going on. The “hey wouldn’t it be neat if…” idea of different-colored Lantern Corps isn’t new anymore. Both the comic’s general premise of dead heroes being brought back to life as killer zombies and the identities of many of the specific heroes to be revived were already common knowledge for most semi-savvy superhero fans. Van Sciver’s career-best art, and Doug Mahnke’s star turn on the tie-in issues of the main Green Lantern title–both of them weirder and harder-edged than mainstream comics need to be, with Mahnke in particular edging upward toward the top mainstream tier of Quitely, Romita Jr., Cassaday, and Frank–are replaced by the stalwart but pretty traditionally superheroey art of Ivan Reis, looking like Jim Lee scaled back toward Neal Adams a bit but somehow muddier and murkier than he’s been on GL in the past. There’s no last-page reveal at all. And the violence is extreme even by dismemberment enthusiast Johns’s standards.

But I think that this was ultimately a case of me expecting something different than what Johns was attempting to deliver. He doesn’t need to launch several years’ worth of future stories here–instead, he needs to tie several years’ worth of past stories by writers across the DC line together. He doesn’t need to kick off a thrilling saga of space-faring combat–he needs to start telling a horror story about dead superheroes coming back to life and murdering their friends. He doesn’t need to redefine and reinvigorate a character and his mythos–he needs to serve up a series of snapshots of multiple characters and the mythos of the entire DC Universe.

So rather than writing a review of BN #1 the second I bought it, I sat on it, keeping it in my backpack and pulling it out every now and then for another flip-through, another read. Now that I knew what to expect, I started to enjoy it, and the following issue, a lot more. I could admire how Reis made the Black Lantern versions of kindly old superheroes like Martian Manhunter and Aquaman into hulking, uruk-hai-style physical and existential menaces. I could get a kick out of his little flourishes, like the impressive Green Lantern hologram display of all the DCU’s dead heroes, or his riff on Rags Morales’s hyperthyroidal Hawkman (now the standard portrayal of the character, much to my amusement and delight). I could chuckle at the “jump scare” of turning a page on a quite rooftop conversation between Commissioner Gordon and his daughter Barbara to suddenly find Hal Jordan’s plummeting body smashing the Batsignal into pieces.

For as long as I’ve been reading it, Johns’s superhero writing has consisted almost solely of finding ways to express through action and dialogue exactly what each of DC’s superheroes means. As they fight, heroes will explain what it is that makes them tick and what iconic qualities they represent in DC’s pantheon, while villains will berate them for failing to live up to those demands. If this sounds boring or precious, most of the time it’s neither, because Johns just happens to be really good at identifying those core components of each character and basing fun action adventures around them. With the exception of the Justice Society of America–there’s just no way to remove the smell of mothballs and Ben-Gay from a team full of septuagenarians, guys in gimp masks, and (oddly) perky teens–his major recent works, lengthy runs on Action Comics and Green Lantern, have been like a carefully curated retrospective of Superman and Green Lantern’s careers, enemies, and milieux. At this point, if my comics-curious best friend from high school asked me to loan him comics that would inform him as to why Supes or GL are awesome, they’re what I’d hand him.

I guess that the idea behind Blackest Night is for Johns to take aim not so much at any particular character or even set of characters but at a basic fact of life for the DC Universe itself, the simultaneous omnipresence and impermanence of death. Everyone’s always getting killed (editorially speaking, Dan DiDio’s tenure at the top has been like a Robespierrian reign of terror for the men and women in tights) yet everyone’s always getting brought back to life (at the same time he’s been reviving more dead people that Jesus and George A. Romero combined). The power of the Black Lanterns reanimates dead heroes as extremely violent and extremely douchey killing machines, who taunt and mock the heroes they target for death, who are then brought back to life in the same fashion to continue the cycle. Depending on how much credit you’re willing to extend Johns, you could argue that this concept makes literal the way the constant death/rebirth cycle makes a metaphorical mockery of whatever import these characters’ adventures are supposed to have with us. If it’s all a wash eventually, what the heck difference does all the blood sweat and tears, all the rage and avarice and fear and will and hope and compassion and love that drive the multicolored Lanterns, even make?

Chances are a lot of you are simply saying “Jimmy crack corn and I don’t care.” Unless you have some basic investment in the idea that these characters can still be used to tell involving stories, this probably won’t mean much to you. Moreover, unlike Grant Morrison, Johns’s evangelical belief in the power of superheroes isn’t accompanied by the experimentalist brio that’ll hook the hipsters. He’s simply trying to make a really good superhero comic book. But here’s the thing: A little faith is all you need. As other people have gone into in great detail, Johns strove to make this thing as new-reader friendly as a comic that culminates in the Elongated Man and his rape-murdered wife rising from the dead and slaughtering the umpteenth incarnation of Hawkman and Hawkgirl can be. Obviously I like superhero comics and have read quite a few, but without having read them as a child, I lack the masters degree in minutiae that many fans, particularly self-identifying DC fans, seem to view as a necessity. Therefore, while I think I’d heard the names of, say, Aquaman’s little posse of Garth and Mera and Tula and Dolphin before, I had no idea who the hell they were when they all showed up to fight over Aquaman’s grave. But because Johns’s writing is always primarily concerned with explaining and exploring each character’s role in the pantheon, I didn’t need to know who they were–it was explained to me between, and during, punches. So then it becomes a scene not about trivia questions, but about characters’ past mistakes and biggest failures literally coming back to destroy them. It’s quite effectively done. It’s not knocking me on my ass the way Final Crisis did, but who says it needs to? It’s a fun, violent superhero comic that has a sense of weight, a sense that within its confines, what’s happening to the characters, despite all the dying and rebirthing, matters to them. Clearly it matters to Johns, and I think his ability to translate that into writing that’s creative and entertaining rather than insular and pathetic is his personal power ring.

Anyone want to see the stupidest things ever said about comics said live on stage?

August 22, 2009

Let’s make this happen, people!

Comics Time: West Coast Blues

August 21, 2009


West Coast Blues

Jacques Tardi, writer/artist

adapted from the novel by Jean-Patrick Manchette

Fantagraphics, 2009

pages, hardcover


Buy it from Fantagraphics

Buy it from

In a book like this, where a cartoonist is adapting a novel you haven’t read, it’s difficult to say who deserves credit for what. All I know is, someone deserves a lot of credit. As slim, smooth, and hard as its attractive, Adam Grano-designed album-style hardcover format, West Coast Blues is as strong a crime comic as you’re likely to see this year (or until whenever the next Gipi Wish You Were Here Ignatz book comes out). So maybe it’s weird for me to start by talking about the problems I had with it, but let’s get them out of the way: Certain basic character components are things you’ve seen many times before. There are hitmen who banter innocuously between dispassionate murder attempts, a torturer who loves his dog, and a protagonist who doesn’t seem attached to anyone but his own hide. Which is weird, since the protagonist, George, is just an average joe. Maybe there are people out there who, when suddenly targeted by murderers, would be able to ditch their families and entire lives without feeling much of anything about it, but I don’t think I know any, and I’m certainly not one of them. All I do is feel. Sometimes I think crime fiction would be a lot more effective if, as is often the case in real life, the crime really visibly fucked the victims up. (Though to be fair, there are other characters we come across for whom it’s done exactly that.)

What the book does right makes for a much longer list than what it does wrong. For starters, there’s Tardi’s art, a master class in spotted blacks and lines like garrote wire. Tardi juxtaposes cartoony figures against frequently photorealistic backgrounds and objects like a manga-ka, but his characters of a rubbery Rick Geary look that’s at once lighthearted and ugly. This makes them perfect vessels for the story’s sudden bursts of apocalyptic violence, which appear out of nowhere, rain mayhem all over a couple of pages, and then vanish like a summer storm, returning us to our taciturn hero and his quotidian environments. I think everyone will talk about the beach attack, for instance–how well Tardi conveys a Jaws-like seashore scene so sunny and crowded with swimmers that a man could be assaulted and drowned without even those closest to him realizing that anything was going on but horseplay. It was a stroke of genius for this to be the first big setpiece, sending the message that bad shit could go down anytime, anyplace. Just as impressive, and just as well-choreographed from an action perspective, is the book’s central one-two-three punch: a chaotic shootout, an assault by a ghoulish hobo, and the tumble from a train through a seemingly Mirkwood-like forest that’s seen on the book’s cover. After a prolonged period of Godot-like waiting for something to happen, it all seems to happen at once, leaving both George and the viewer dazed and confused amid Tardi’s riot of a woods. George emerges from the other side of this sequence as another person, in a literal sense, and it’s such bravura storytelling we can innately understand why.

The end of the book (and the beginning) seem to want to raise bigger questions than the basic plot–essentially, “no good deed goes unpunished”–would appear to offer. I suppose it’s to Tardi and Manchette’s credit that they try to address my complaint about George’s weird stoicism more or less head on, though I’m not sure I buy their explanation. But it left me thinking, I’ll give them that, and a book that can leave me thinking after keeping me turning the pages as fast as I can is a book that got it done if you ask me. I even liked how people’s howls of pain were simply portrayed as giant letter A’s. This sucker’s good.

Carnival of souls

August 20, 2009

* Hot damn: full transcript and YouTube video of the Grant Morrison/Clive Barker panel at Meltdown Comics a few weeks back! You want some quotes? It’s fascinating to watch their respective, different preoccupations emerge during a conversation about the same topics. VV good stuff. (Via Heidi MacDonald.)

* In other Barker news, his next comic project will be a 3-D effort called Seduth.

* Tom Spurgeon reviews Jacques Tardi’s excellent thriller West Coast Blues, about which more later.

* In addition to crossing the 1,000,000 Twitter-follower threshold this week, my friend Ryan “Agent M” Penagos interviewed Michael Ian Black of The State and Michael & Michael Have Issues, which has been very funny so far.

* Geoff Johns is taking a crack at the Shazam! screenplay. Start holding your breath!

* Looks like that Pinhead/Freddy/Jason/Michael poker game art I linked to the other day was by Ray Frenden, not Charles Burns.

Matt Wiegle’s 1984

August 19, 2009

My friend and collaborator Matt Wiegle has illustrated a video summary of Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell for And holy smokes, are those illustrations ever gorgeous. Here’s your exclusive first look at a few.




Carnival of souls

August 19, 2009

* Okay, so Clive Barker’s Hotel is being set up as a series on ABC involving Barker, the guys who wrote Saw IV-VI, and McG. I don’t know, you tell me if this sounds interesting or not. I will say that ABC has been the best network in terms of taking risks on dramas for quite some time, so if it had to end up at a network as opposed to AMC or HBO, I guess that bodes well. (Via Dread Central.)

* Because I am a webcomics moron I haven’t read Vito Delsante and Rachel Freire’s FCHS, but I’ve gotta say this 17-page preview of the high-school drama’s forthcoming AdHouse Books collection makes it look pretty appealing. I mean, it’s difficult to tell from the opening pages how well-rounded everyone ends up being–as the recent postmortem lionization of John Hughes goes to show, people love high-school stereotypes–but Delsante’s pacing and dialogue and Freire’s line and character designs are all refreshingly calm and no-bullshit. It doesn’t hit you over the head with OMG ADOLESCENT EMOTIONS RUNNING ON HIGH in every panel like a lot of teen books do. (Via Kevin Melrose.)

* Fantagraphics’ long-awaited VHS box-art art book Portable Grindhouse is finally headed to the printers! I and virtually every magazine I write for are very, very excited about this.

* This year’s judges for San Francisco comics retailer the Isotope’s annual minicomics award include Brett Warnock and Tom Spurgeon.

* Speaking of minicomics, farewell to Size Matters, Shawn Hoke’s minicomics review blog, which is calling it a day.

* Comics Comics goes Mome: Incoming contributor Frank Santoro salutes the work of Tom Kaczynski, while veteran Momer Dash Shaw praises Tim Hensley’s Wally Gropius strips.

* Related: I’m not sure Frank should be allowed to go on the way he does about how the vast majority of contemporary alternative comics are unreadable garbage without citing a lot of examples. From where I’m standing this is a pretty contrarian POV about the state of comics in 2009 and I want to see where he’s coming from.

* Lord only knows what Noel Troll is up to here, but I like it.


* Stacie Ponder’s list of made-up titles for horror films she’d like to see is very very funny. Children Are the Corn, ladies and gentlemen. Rod Roddy Has Risen from the Grave.

Comic book movies that sell comics

August 19, 2009

Apparently there’s an article out there about how comic book movies never sell comics, which is so obviously wrong as to make me too lazy to find the link again. Some comic book movies sell comics. Here’s my formula for figuring out which ones will do so:

1) It must be a property civilians were not already aware of in its comic book form prior to the release of the film

2) The number of books available to be sold must be limited in number–one movie/one book is best, but a number in the single digits will do

3) The movie and the book must have a clear relationship in terms of tone and content that’s easy for civilians to detect

4) The book must be well-regarded enough in comics circles for civilians’ comics-savvy friends and comics-interested journalists to be likely to recommend it

Hence the movie-spurred sales of Ghost World, Watchmen, Hellboy, Sin City, 300. I expect the rebranded American Splendor collection and Persepolis got a healthy bounce too.

Of course this is pretty much a roundabout way of saying “Big Two shared-universe superhero movies don’t sell comics.” There are too many books to choose from, the companies very rarely get behind one or two as the book to get if you liked the movie (Marvel always churns out some miniseries featuring the villain, but that doesn’t count), and most people have long made up their minds as to whether or not they’re interested in buying (say) Spider-Man or Superman or Hulk comics.

The big exception is Batman. That’s because it fulfills 2 1/2 to 3 of my criteria: It flops on point 1, but 2) there actually are a relatively small number of Batman books that DC seems to push when those movies come out (and which moreover have a track record as perennial sellers in comic shops and bookstores), and 3) they actually do jibe the content of the films, and 4) comics people really like them–The Killing Joke, The Dark Knight Returns, Year One, and now Joker.

Comics Time: Comics Are for Idiots!: Blecky Yuckerella Vol. 3 and Prison Pit Vol. 1

August 19, 2009


Comics Are for Idiots!: Blecky Yuckerella Vol. 3

Johnny Ryan, writer/artist

Fantagraphics, 2008

104 pages


Buy it from Fantagraphics

Buy it from

Prison Pit Vol. 1

Johnny Ryan, writer/artist

120 pages


Buy it from Fantagraphics

Buy it from

One of these comics features a giant monster made of semen, a guy who shoots acidic puss out of his body acne, and a slug who sucks cock. The other is a Johnny Ryan gag-strip collection.

Yes, both of these books are like kryptonite to good taste. But there are a couple of big differences between what Johnny Ryan is doing in Comics Are for Idiots!, his latest Blecky Yuckerella strip collection, and what he’s doing in Prison Pit, his ultraviolent action-comic debut. The most obvious is he switched from brush in the former to pen in the latter, stripping himself of his secret weapon: one of the lushest lines in comics. Turns out it was a smart move. With Blecky, the buoyancy of his slick black swooshes and swoops is reflected in his figurework: everyone’s googly-eyed, grinning and chortling like, well, idiots, and if they’re not doing that then they’re gasping or being knocked out of the panel, feet flying in the air, their shock or disgust just as joyous as their glee. That’s how gags about curing brain tumors by exposing them to dogshit or throwing babies in the trash (and to be fair, this is nowhere near as bad as things have been getting in Angry Youth Comix lately) still manage to get you to laugh along with them–they’re just so exuberant! Prison Pit, on the other hand, is all business. Yes, tongue’s in cheek to a certain extent–in addition to the gross-out bits I mentioned above, all the characters look like rejected He-Man concepts, there’s gratuitous swearing and swastikas, the portentous opening chapter heading reads “FUCKED” while the second chapter is called “MEGA-FUCKED,” and Ryan has said he’s swiping liberally from ridonkulous action manga like Berserk. And yet the tone feels as serious as a heart attack, thanks in no small part to a line that’s gone wiry and vicious, able to evoke the doom-laden skies of Gilbert Hernandez’s Chance in Hell, the nightmarish stone wastelands of Mat Brinkman’s Teratoid Heights, the seedy body-horror of Josh Simmons, the painstaking monumentalism of Tom Gauld. At times when the visuals are at their most abstract, you’d be hard pressed to recognize Ryan in them at all.

The second big difference is one of pacing. The four-panel Blecky strips often feel like a breakneck race to the punchline through some kind of bizarre obstacle course requiring the basic premise of the gag to get more ridiculous with each panel. It’s not enough for Blecky to get a pair of x-ray spex–she has to use them to spy on Wedgie’s kidney, and the kidney has to be anthropomorphized, and it has to be going through the personals column, and it has to be circling ads for both men and women, so that the ultimate joke is that Wedgie has a bicurious vital organ. Maybe the best distillation of this kind of set-up features Blecky’s Aunt Jiggles getting her ass caught in a jelly jar, her boobs caught in a coffin lid, and her head caught in a bird’s vagina one panel at a time, for a payoff panel of Blecky saying “You’re the coolest person I’ve ever met.” Rapid-fire ridiculousness is the height of virtue here. Compare that to Prison Pit, which opens with an abstracted, dialogue-free spaceship landing that lasts for four pages. Similar space is given to the protagonist getting wrapped up in someone’s prehensile intestines, or cutting someone’s head off, or falling through the sky, or tumbling down a mountain, or simply losing consciousness. This meticulous rolling-out of physical business is occasionally contrasted with dramatic splash pages–from an x-ray view of the hero’s circulatory system to a disembodied portrait of his penis–but for the most part, this giant fight scene feels disconcertingly quiet, lonely, and loveless, right down to its skin-crawling coda. Ryan’s rep as altcomix’s premier overgrown juvenile delinquent is well deserved–and don’t get me wrong, you can absolutely enjoy Prison Pit on that level–but the poetic savagery he depicts here is the work of a grown-ass man.

Carnival of souls

August 18, 2009

* I thought this might have happened last week, and honestly I’m not sure it’s happenign this week either, but supposedly The Comics Journal #299, featuring my interview with Skyscrapers of the Midwest cartoonist Josh Cotter, comes out tomorrow.

* Meanwhile, the latest Strange Tales Spotlight interview I did is with John Leavitt.

* Here’s something an industry friend of mine said to me about the San Diego Comic-Con yesterday that I thought was really smart: While the complaint that “it’s not about comics” is a hardy perennial, the increased degree to which comics folks seem to have “discovered” this fact this year is probably attributable to the Hollywood component of this year’s show’s lack of big comics-centric movies to promote. I think his exact quote was “Last year, everyone was talking about Dark Knight and Watchmen, so it felt like comics were a bigger deal.” That sounds about right.

* You might recall me repeatedly defending Final Crisis‘s sales performance last year even as I criticized others for talking about it at all. This is because I’m an asshole, of course. (Okay, that’s not quite how it went down, but still.) But one of the specific arguments I remember both hearing and making in terms of Final Crisis #1’s second-place finish behind Secret Invasion #2 the month both came out was that that’s about the best you can expect out of a DC event versus a Marvel event at this point in time given the two companies’ positions in the marketplace. Well lookee here, Blackest Night #1 came in second to Captain America: Reborn #1. Unlike last time, where I loved Final Crisis and didn’t care for Secret Invasion, I don’t have a dog in this race: I’m not 100% sold on either Blackest Night or Cap Reborn but I like them well enough so far, and have greatly enjoyed their writers’ lengthy runs with these characters, and fully expect to enjoy both when all is said and done. Plus it’s not quite an apples-to-apples comparison: Reborn‘s a first issue that got a herculean PR push from Marvel. But while several pundits blamed Final Crisis‘s supposedly weak performance on its failure to give fanboys what they want, that’s clearly not an argument that’s being made about Blackest Night even by its detractors–quite the opposite, if anything. Meanwhile, reaction from those fanboys seems to be pretty positive. So all told, I think this bears out my theory that when pitted head to head, Marvel events will beat DC events irrespective of their actual content or quality, because right now Marvel is beating DC.

* Now that I’ve weighed in myself, I’m catching up on District 9 reviews. In the pop-culture sphere, Jason Adams offers a qualified rave, if there is such a thing, while The House Next Door’s Matt Maul offers a qualified pan. On the “nerds who have popular political blogs” end of things, Matthew Yglesias sees the film as a breath of Aliens-style smart-blockbuster air after a slew of astonishingly dopey sci-fi-action popcorn flicks this summer, while Spencer Ackerman casts a critical eye on the movie’s portrayal of various African nationalities (leading to a pretty interesting debate in the comments until, right on cue, someone shows up claiming that the orcs in The Lord of the Rings represent the dark-skinned Other).

* At PopMatters, Marco Lanzagorta takes a stab at identifying all the big horror-movie waves since the dawn of cinema: the German Expressionist films of the ’20s, the Universal monster movies of the ’30s and ’40s, Hammer horror in the ’50s and ’60s, gory American indie horror in the late ’60s and ’70s, Italian horror in the late ’70s and early ’90s, American slashers in the ’80s, Asian horror in the ’90s and early ’00s, American remakes in the mid-to-late ’00s, and brutal French horror throughout the ’00s. He obviously misses a few, from American sci-fi in the ’50s to the torture-porn cycle here in the States recently, but it’s a fun flow-chart-in-article-form, and moreover it’s skeptical about the whole “show me a horror-movie movement and I’ll show you a country in the grip of sociopolitical turmoil” school of thought, which I tend to appreciate. (Via CRwM.)

* Hans Rickheit posts the original 14-page story called “The Squirrel Machine,” though he says its resemblance to the forthcoming graphic novel of the same name is superficial: “In this premature version, I clearly shot my wad too soon. Sorry about the mess.”

* Nick Bertozzi’s been posting at his LiveJournal quite a bit lately, so go check it out. Meanwhile, here’s a Stuffed! preview and here’s an interview with Nick and his Stuffed! collaborator Glenn Eichler.

* Wowsers, lotta heavy hitters in Mome Vol. 16: Renee French, Archer Prewitt, and the cast and crew of Cold Heat just for starters.

* Got a pdf preview of Jacques Tardi’s You Are There if you want it…

* The Beguiling is now selling original art by alt-pop cartoonists Fabio Moon, Gabriel Ba, and Bryan Lee O’Malley. Quite a trio, and worth remembering every time you hear that no one’s doing personal genre comics anymore.

* Apparently The Omega Men was some freaky shit.

* Okay, yeah, this BBC news piece on scientists at a pair of Canadian universities who conducted a mathematical study of a theoretical zombie outbreak is pretty neat, but the funniest part has nothing to do with professors being paid to develop mathematical zombie-outbreak models and everything to do with one of the professors having a name like a member of the Slightly Silly Party:

Professor Robert Smith? (the question mark is part of his surname and not a typographical mistake) and colleagues wrote: “We model a zombie attack using biological assumptions based on popular zombie movies.”

What does Kevin Phillips-Bongggggggggg think of this? (Via Robot 6.)

* Dunno why I’ve never linked to this sort of thing before, but here’s a round-up of recent highlights from the illustrious group of horror bloggers known as the League of Tana Tea Drinkers, including posts from the Vault of Horror, Cinema Suicide, Classic-Horror, the Groovy Age of Horror, and yours truly.

* Go, look: Tom Neely draws Nancy and Yoda, and if you are familiar with all three then you’ve already clicked the link.

* A Station to Station reissue featuring a double-disc live performance from Nassua Coliseum in 1976? Yes please!

* Charles Burns drawing Pinhead, Freddy, Jason, and Michael. In the parlance of our times: This is relevant to my interests. (Poor Leatherface, always getting the shaft.)


* Your quote of the day comes from Tom Spurgeon re: Ross Campbell’s Wet Moon Vol. 5:

We’re between 11 to 23 months before the inevitable Ross Campbell reconsideration, so if you want to be cool this time Christmas 2010 start getting these volumes now.

Early adopter!


August 18, 2009

I have at least a couple of District 9 reviews bookmarked but unread; I want to write this while they remain so. I don’t want to have my molehills made into mountains for me. I think there are elements of the film that skeptics (and I’m surprised I haven’t heard of more of them; I think a couple days ago its Rotten Tomatoes rating was 99%) will seize on, and I’m not sure I blame them–particularly after the long final action-movie act, which was long enough and action-movie enough to give lie to similar complaints against Children of Men. When there’s more than one instance of a bad guy receiving a kill order and taking his sweet time with actually pulling the damn trigger the better to savor the moment, when there are seemingly more saved-at-the-last-minutes than there are actual last minutes, when a giant robot uses a pig as a weapon, it can be pretty easy to write off the preceding hour and a half as summer-movie cliche. And there are certainly summer-movie cliches are present in the film; my biggest gripe was the wife’s non-character, and most of the bad guys from whatever faction are solidly one-dimensional. But these cliches are really, really, really not the sum total of the film. At all.

Though I had not been closely following the pre-release hype for District 9, I’m obviously at least semi-plugged in to most horror movies and genre movies generally, and have an affinity for whatever Peter Jackson gets up to as well. So as far as I knew, this was an interesting little genre movie from abroad, given Peter Jackson’s seal of approval the same way Guillermo Del Toro’s name on The Orphange got that movie a little more traction here in the States. I expected something on the scale of The Host, in other words. Lo and behold, today I hear it was the number-one film in the country this past weekend. I can only imagine what the Transformers 2 audiences made of this fucking thing. From the initial mockumentary set-up (complete with audience-alienating shakicam) to the South African accents to the almost confrontational unpleasantness of the aliens, we’re a long way from G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra, even before you get to the lengthy, relentlessly and creatively gory, catalog-like depiction of inhumanity and brutality that gives District 9 its power. And at that point–shit, even I had a hard time watching.

District 9‘s best trick (aside from realizing that you can get contemporary audiences to swallow a five-minute opening infodump provided you use the now-familiar mockumentary format) is perhaps an accident of its creation. Its South African setting gives its central sci-fi metaphor, squalid alien refugee camps, a historical background everyone can instantly understand, but simultaneously places it at a remove from the analogous situations that dominate the news today. Yes, there’s a tinge of Blackwater here, torture cover-up there. But mostly, instead of seeing, I dunno, occupied Palestine, or occupied Baghdad, or Minutemen vs. Mexicans, you just see beings, oppressors and oppressed, and how oppression rots away the social and moral fabric of both. It’s bad enough when you think you’re just going to watch Pythonesque bureaucrat Wikus van der Merwe and a bunch of xenophobic assholes with guns in their hands and a corporation at their backs roll into a slum and start treating sentient beings like less than dogshit–the butterflies in my stomach never left during that whole long first act. But when you see just how bad things get, in a sequence that’s like some nightmare cross between Hostel, Brazil, Starship Troopers, and (at least to me–it’s something in Wikus’s voice) the baseball bat scene in Casino…the audience on 34th St. gasped in horror, the couple in front of me clung to each other, and I literally fought back tears. Even though you’ve still got most of the movie to go before you reach the final shootouts, I think that sequence is where my patience with the explosions and derring-do at the end was earned. You watch it and you believe that yes, this is what we’re capable of, and you think that if you saw it really happening and had the chance to help those you once hated by hurting people who hate them even more than you did, you’d probably take it just like our formerly Gervaisian hero Wikus does. These are uncomfortable and complex thoughts to be provoked by your late-summer action thrill ride.

The Oral History of Marvel Comics, online

August 17, 2009

You can read the Oral History of Marvel I put together for Maxim on their website. You lose the snazzy layout and mint JRJR illo, though, so I still recommend plunking down the cash for the print version if this is something you think you’d really be interested in.