Monthly Archives: June 2012

I think I’m mostly reading this book for the Shazam backup stories, but there’s also a kind of thrill to be reading the flagship book for a whole comix universe.

Anyhow, this storyline, with superbadass Graves is really weird– because conceptually I think it’s great but on another level, it’s a mess and really panders to readers looking for something kool.

So, the good: the team as currently configured is very new, and the idea that there’d be someone who knows a lot more about them than they know about each other is very compelling. It shakes up the team dynamic in interesting ways, highlighting how right now, the team isn’t really a team but a bunch of strangers. And as this month’s issue shows, it’s also an elegant way to dump a lot on us– I loved the line about how Supes hovers in the air just a little above everyone, and the revelation that Bats and Supes have a side deal is also really fascinating.

In other words, Graves is just the right villain at this moment.

How ugly is that?

But his character design is so fucking ugly, it makes me feel silly. If his threat is knowledge, why does he need to have other people’s pained faces as part of his pumped-up musculature? It just looks silly, and I don’t even know what it means. And Graves’ motivations– which seem to be that superheroes don’t spend enough time fighting cancer or aging– are ridiculous. If he really knew a lot about these heroes, you think he’d know that, well, that’s not something you can really expect them to do.

It’s one half of a great storyline, and one half a total steaming turd. I don’t like to pick on old Wildstorm design tics, because it usually seems over-broad. But in this case, I don’t know– it seems on target.

Will Green Arrow save the day the way Connor did against Prometheus (or was that the Key?)?

This comic was made by James Robinson, Frazier Irving, and a group of others. It was published by DC Comics last month, in 2012. Wikipedia notes that the Shade was created be E.E. Hibbard but in this incarnation– as a kind of self-involved dandy and occasional anti-hero, he is mostly the creation of James Robinson and Tony Harris, from their Starman series.

This new Shade book is kind of a mixed bag: it does interesting work populating the DCNu internationally with a host of heroes and villains, but weighing against that is the sense that no one will ever use these characters again, and that they seem to, at the very least, strain against the constraints established elsewhere, that superheroes have only been around for five years. The stories have been okay, if a little light, a caprice. A lot of the success of the stories has depended, at least to me, on which of the rotating artists draws the arc. This issue, which features Frazier Irving, is particularly good.

Take a look at this panel, where Shade uses his shadow powers, which I guess act as a kind of ectoplasm that allows him to reach and shake up the bad guys:

I think what I like best about this image is the way it is off-balance but also grounded…. It’s tricky, and you can see both from the position in the frame of the characters and the Doric columns in the background that our camera is tilted here. But this disorientation is something we can process because all the weight of the panel leans toward the lower right, which is where our eyes naturally go when we are reading: it gives the panel a bottom, and we can build up from there.

Here’s another panel that does almost the same thing, though less strikingly:

Here. we see, more or less, the same angle of tilt, and again, the mass of Shade’s shadow draws our eye, this time to the center of the page. But really, our eye moves from top left to bottom right: Shade’s dialogue, the threat Shade poses, and then the threatened and his response.

That’s most of what I have to say, except that I’m really impressed by Irving’s work here, which seems improved even from his other memorable work on books like Klarion, the Witch Boy. His panels are dynamic and interesting to look at, but still read clearly. We sense the vertigo characters migt feel, but never feel off-balance ourselves.

The Spirit was created by Will Eisner. The story is written and drawn by Will Eisner, and one imagines, his studio mates. This particular comic was published by Kitchen Sink Press, as part of a b 7 w reprint series that was progressing through the Sunday inserts of Eisner’s Spirit strips.

Will Eisner is an easy comics makes to love, and a hard one to like. It’s harder still, I think, to read a lot of Eisner’s comics back to back. This is in spite of the fact that one of the most prestigious comics awards is named after him. This fact– that of the recognition Eisner deserves and the relative neglect he gets from actual comics reader– can be addressed by considering a number of factors: Eisner wasn’t part of comics fandom; Eisner’s work got out there in kind of strange ways; Eisner’s concerns visibly matured in his work even when his readers didn’t; a million other reasons. But I think the big issue is that Eisner is a cool artist, in the jazz sense, interested in craft and surface flash, when comics moved in a different direction, more on the hot side of things, with great beads of sweat and Kirby crackle.

What does it mean to talk about cool in terms of comics-making? To me, it means a certain kind of critical distance from the material: we are never asked to “be” the Spirit, and even if we should want to do that, Eisner himself undercuts that sense by not “being” the Spirit himself– instead, most of Eisner’s Spirit stories feature one or several frames; in the issue at hand, which collects four stories, two feature an external text (a rhyme, a typed monologue) to frame the action and give it meaning, and another one has a framing speech that functions similar to the other two textual devices only it takes place in real time.

It matters, too, I think, that Eisner’s characters are types– it helps Eisner tremendously that he knows lots of types: the femme fatale and the good girl, the urchin, the bumbling bureaucrat, the hood and the neglectful mother– but types these remain, in the sense of EM Forster’s description, flat characters. They don’t evolve away from their type; we might go deeper into their motivations (though this is rare) but they aren’t complicated. Instead of living, breathing beings we root for, the characters are really as lifelike as the kind of lead miniatures I used to use when I played D & D; Eisner’s genius is not in creating characters, but in the way he poses them on the page.

And really, in this aspect Eisner is a genius. His panel compositions, and even moreso, the transitions between panels, are masterful; his skills in this area are unmatched, I think. Note the ease and panache on display in this page, where The Spirit gets into a fight at a playground, the athleticism and sheer joy of the sequence.

Here, it perfectly scores the tone of the scene: after all, a fight in a playground should be fun, and in this case at least, the stakes are pretty low: we’ve got three hoods out to kill each other, it’s three bad guys who mean each other harm, and the Spirit gives them each some harm, but without killing them. But most importanty, the Spirit is winning, and we root for him to be graceful and victorious.

Eisner will do the same, though, when it doesn’t suit the  moment as well. Note the same kind of acrobatic panache on display here, on skis:

Here, though the Spirit is defeated and the money is lost, on the surface of the art, things are as smooth as ever.

Here, again, we see a wonderfully choreographed sequence, but it is one where things go wrong: for one, someone dies, and the loot is lost. And for another, the Spirit is foiled, at least temporarily. But Eisner plays both scenes the same way, as a place where he can show his amazing chops. This is what I think is at the essence of Eisner’s cool: that he plays the scene the same way– as a flawless virtuoso– whatever happens. The work is not expressive of its grander themes, but rather is a vehicle to show the skills of the creator, and looking elsewhere for narrative means of expression is silly and beside the point.

It’s not like comics had to evolve the way they did; it’s possible to imagine a comics that owes more to Eisner than it currently does, one where character and even narrative is secondary to the artist, but I don’t think we’ve seen those comics. Even a book like, let’s say Ditko’s Spiderman, which on the one hand seems cool (think of the classic sequence from ASM #34 when Spidey is buried under that giant piece of machinery, a set-piece that probably delighted Eisner) instead becomes focused on the singular character overcoming the machine and his personal guilt; think of it as persona in machina, if you’ll permit me to butcher Latin in that way.

persona in machina

Most of comics, though, have evolved along the more purely Marvel way, which I take to be the legacy of Jack “The King” Kirby, who’d been working in mainstream comics as long as Eisner. And Kirby’s work, despite it’s surface eccentricities of character design, is almost purely a “hot” approach, interested above all with the heroic struggle of his characters, whether it is earth shaking or entirely personal. Look, for example, at this panel from Fantastic Four #22, when Reed Richards has to confront a caller who’s dialed the wrong number.

Don’t you hate wrong numbers?

Or else, consider this, a reaction shot from Fantastic Four #21, which tells us how we ought to react to the revelation that the Hate Monger was actually Hitler all along. This core emotionalism of Kirby is meant to induce an emotional response from readers, and this “hot” style has come to characterize comics as they evolved into increasingly operatic struggles.

The Hate Monger was… Hitler!


Of course, no style is so dominant you can’t see anything else. After all, look at these Eisner faces:

Lighten the line a little, and you’ll see where I’m going.

It;s hard to know just what is happening here, but somewhere along the way, Eisner’s usual line weight has let up a little.And the result is that suddenly it’s like we’re seeing one of Dave Sim’s caricatures.

Mick, an unnamed moptop, and Thatcher.


Of course, Sims work in this instance veers a little more toward the grotesque. And maybe my point isn’t even all that interesting– that when he see such attention to surface details– as we do in Spirit and Cerebus, maybe we should read these as “cool” works. I;d be the first to grant that Sim’s editorials and later insertions into the text make his work more “expressive” that Eisner’s, but maybe not in a way that makes it traditionally a “hot” book– after all, we know by issue 100 how it will end.

At any rate, a few clear points: one, Eisner’s skills are at odd with what most comics-makers do, even though he is respected but maybe not loved. Two, we can make sense of those feelings and how they work and don’t work for readers. And, though it’s maybe the road-less-taken, it’s not the road never taken in contemporary comics.

This comic is credited text/ art copyright 1984 Matt Howarth. If nothing else, it suggests this story, unlike the lead feature (part two of what gets called elsewhere “The LOOT Caper) is a solo Howarth production. It’s also at least potentially older than the main feature, though not by much. All characters (Ron Post, Savage Henry, etc) credited to Howarth.

Each of the Post Bros stories have a backup, but this one is the most interesting– what we get, in essence, is a series of images, each with some a title that implies the name of the song tat accompanies it on the new Bulldaggers album. One way to read this, I suppose, is to see the Bulldaggers album as a concept album, which here would be about exploring the ruins of a dead civilization (The Hurzog, maybe?). On the sidebar of each image, you’ve got headshots and credits of members of the Bulldogs, telling us who played what instrument on this track.(There’s also a sort of bonus section, doing mostly the same for the five song single that was recorded along with the album, but released separately. Or so I imagine it– think of it as bonus tracks, if that helps).

How awesome is this– note the two “main” panels, showing the narrative action, and then the evolving headshots at the right hand side, evoking, for me at least, memories of the “roll call” features in JLA, Legion, Avengers, etc.

Honestly, it’s a mindblowingly cool conceit, even if the story itself doesn’t offer a whole lot– there are very cool individual images, showing left behind items of the Hurzog race (toothbrush, vacuum cleaner) and brief, encyclopedic entries about different local species like the Windwhales. The final “track” offers a pithy kiss-off, that breakdancing killed the Hurzog. Not sure what to make of that, except that it must have felt topical at the time.

I’m also unsure what to make of the alien race being called Hurzog. Like Herzog, Werner, the German arthouse director? It’s possible that the alien race and their left behind stuff alludes to Fitzcarroldo, which IMDB tells me was released in ’82, though the name might just be a coincidence.

Really, this whole backup is a mystery to me, but I love it. It implies this whole world– not just the world the Bulldaggers investigate, but also a world of self-created artifacts where Howarth seems to be working on all these different levels– comics and music (he sells tapes in the back of the mag, for Christ’s sake) but also other stories, other music unmade and unheard. It adds, for me now and for the me who read some of this stuff back when it was first produced, to the impression of Howarth as this kind of promethean figure, making more and more art, much more than anyone could actually consume or fully understand. It’s glorious stuff, and maybe someday I’ll have more to say about it than, “Look at that!”

A page-width panel that shows the action.

Those Annoying Post Bros is written and drawn by Matt Howarth and Lou Stathis, though my money is on Howarth doing all the design and drawing and Stathis helping with plotting, based on not-exactly-extensive-but-enough-to-venture-a-guess experience elsewhere with Howarth’s work. The comics were published by Vortex Comics in 1987.

Those Annoying Post Bros tells the adventures of Russ and Ron Post, two scoundrel brothers resident in Bugtown, which is your basic “nexus-of-all-realities” kind of place and the brothers themselves have the ability to travel through dimensions/universes. In other words, the setting and the characters themselves are designed to allow Howarth (and to an extent Stathis) to write and draw anything he likes. The characters, I think, were first background characters in Howarth’s other Bugtown series, Savage Henry, though both books are coming out from Vertigo at about the same time.

Still, where Savage Henry is the straight man, and makes his way into this adventure, and where there are stories about Savage Henry that don’t feature the Post Bros, I’m going to say he’s the core character and these two were  conceived of, at least initially, as supporting players. What’s weird, and this was a surprise to me on reading these issues, having re-read some Savage Henry issues in the last year or so, is how much more entertaining a series this is than SH.

I’m not a huge fan of comedy; I like it, but I’d almost always rather read or experience a drama. Satire is too often cheap or broad, jokes too often repeated or immediately out-of-date, too topical by half. But here, the devious nature of these essentially comic characters gives this book a narrative drive that Savage Henry, who just wants to practice with his band, never seems to feel.

In this four-part story, there’s a Maguffin, and then that Macguffin leads to increasingly frantic adventures. And really, it works quite well—in the first chapter, we learn something so valuable has come to Bugtown that Ron wants to steal it; unfortunately, so do Ron’s of other dimensions, so he must fight it out with them to get at the goods. Meanwhile, his brother Russ finds the item, which it turns out is boobytrapped inside a small creature, and it takes an issue to get it out. Then, of course, the gift turns out to be a disaster, an alien being that sucks age from people, making them younger and younger till it kills them, all the while getting larger and sending Russ and co (including Savage Henry and member of his band) on the run. Finally, in the fourth issue, Ron faces off with the beastie and dispatches him.

Classic Howarth– wonderful textures, almost cartoon-y character design, and a tentacled beastie.

The energy level of this comic lies not-too-far beneath the surface of these drawings, and where in SH sometimes that energy dissipates into beautiful vistas, here the surfaces conceal just how well plotted the narrative is; the general notion of a book like this is that all forward action is merely an occasion for the artist to create bravura set pieces, and there are plenty of those here. But the story also advances, and even resolves, in a satisfying way. It’s really a very solid piece of work.

Killoffer, eat your heart out: in three rows of increasingly crazy panels, Ron kills Ron, over and over again.

How to explain that success, then? I think there’s a real but appealing tension here, between the sometimes feathery linework and the grossness and avarice of Ron, who is a real piece of work: his encounters are both violent and a little shocking. It also helps that the concepts are easy to follow: bad guy lived inside the cute pet; people aging backwards is often funny; killing many versions of yourself is also cool. It’s good work.

It’s not perfect, of course. I think Ron’s bad assitude was probably more grating in 87 than it is now. He is, for example, a transparent attempt to make a new Wolverine-type charater: wise cracking, violent, and unstoppable. By the same token, Russ is aged back to a child so quickly that I never got a handle on his character; I think he’s meant to be as hardened and sneaky as his brother, but you don’t see much of that here. Still, this is really good stuff.

A future blog post will consider one of the back-ups, that which appeared in Post Bros #2, to see what I can do with the formal remit of this blog. Sometimes it takes a little while to figure out what I want to write about, but we’ll get there.

The Defenders 107-124 were written by JM DeMatteis, except for issue written by Steven Grant and drawn by Sal Buscema, and issue 109 which was co-scripted by Mark Gruenwald. All issues except 109 were drawn  by Bill Perlin and a rotating cast of inkers. Perlin also get a co-plotter credit for some of the issues are 110. The team and many of its characters were created by Steve Gerber, who worked on the most influential and recognizable version of the team, and all issues were published by Marvel Comics; the first issue here is cover dated May 1982; the last is dated October 1983.

The Defenders bear the unlikely tag of “the anti-team”—growing someone out of the Avengers, the group is known for squabbling and going off on their own; I think the idea is that the core members—Dr. Strange, The Hulk, Namor, and The Silver Surfer, in the classic formulation, only come together under extraordinary circumstances, but don’t share quarters and a bowling league like the Avengers, the X-Men, or the Fantastic Four. Of course, after one hundred issues of this “anti-team” thing, it’s a little hard to see how that concept plays out, and that’s one of the things I’m interested in understanding here. The other thing worth mentioning is that at the end of the run I’m talking about, Beast, a member of the team who was previously an X-Men and an Avenger, talks about making the Defenders more like an actual team—explicitly voiding the anti-team concept. But that doesn’t really take off until after the issues under review (essentially, Beast reassembles the “X-Men: First Class” line-up, sans Cyclops (still in Uncanny X-Men) and Jean Grey/ Marvel Girl/ Phoenix (still dead). This team will shift slightly to become X-Factor, and will replace Defenders in Marvel’s publishing schedule. But at this point, that’s still a few years away.

I mentioned that I think there’s something to be said for the anti-team concept here, and I maintain that it’s true—though “anti-team” might be a hard term to fully define or defend. What you’ve got, really, are more like two discrete clusters of characters. On the one hand, you’ve got the classic line-up, some of whom have titles of their own (Dr. Strange, the Hulk, maybe Silver Surfer) or else strong ties to another property (Namor, who definitely exists in the orbit of the FF books). These are your hallmark characters, and you can’t do too much with them, so while DeMatteis uses them, they don’t really get storylines; instead, they kind of show up for the fight and then leave (except Dr. Strange, who does, contrary to what I said, at least have solo scenes and introspection—he laments the loss of his longtime lover Clea, he has people over to the house, etc).

Then there’s the other cluster of characters—Beast, Patsy Walker: Hellcat, Daimon Hellstom: Son of Satan, Valkerie, and Gargoyle. These are characters whose particular individual storylines will be worked out in this book—so when I started reading, Daimon Hellstrom has just resolved his issue with his demonic parentage and is wondering what comes next; Patsy Walker goes looking for her own father, and Valkerie searches for ways to reconcile her new status quo (too complicated to relate) with her current actions. Gargoyle really has no storyline, because despite an occasionally cool look, he must be the most poorly conceived “cool” character ever, an elderly man trapped in the body of an orange skinned gargoyle. You can sort of see how this must seemed like a good character idea at one point, but at least under DeMatteis pen, Gargoyle’s private life is an interesting as you imagined your own grandparents’ lives being when you were twelve. Profoundly awkward.

The way the book works, and here’s where I think the anti-team notion gets a workout, is that one of the characters in this second group will set out on a personal mission, and then they will encounter something that requires the whole team’s help. Or else not—Patsy Walker resolves her issues solo, and Valkerie kind of does, but Daimon Hellstrom, at least, needs help pretty much every time he leaves the house, or so it seems. What we have are some pretty emo characters, agonizing in public, and then trying to do something about it. Cue adventure! Maybe, then, it is significant that though Strange does whine, he doesn’t actually take any action, which makes him different than the characters outside his cluster.

So how is it? Eh. It’s okay, I think, though there are some things that are a little awkward to get through.I think that in these 16 issues, the team visit at least five different non-earthly realms, which gets a little tiresome, even when one of them is a world based on Seuss. One storyline that does take place on earth, when Hellstrom tries to visit a monk for counsel, takes place in the wilds of Western Massachusetts. I’m a Mass native, and this place where they visit in the comic is as alien to my experience as any other fantasy realm, so if I were in a less factual mode, I might add that to the list. In short, though, too many of these stories throw the characters someplace strange (without being all that interesting) and leave them to find their way home. After a while, it’s kind of a yawn.

DeMatteis loves these Lovecraftian looking monsters, one of several he’ll include that move the book from SF tropes to a more Gothic feel.

The writing, and here I mean the actual words written on the pages, is at once florid and overflowing. Anyone who has read DeMatteis knows he loves language, but here, he’s not as assured or as interesting as he’ll become. But mostly, the book is just over-written, and issues like those that have running text boxes relating entries from Patsy Walker’s diary kind of make your head hurt when you think about reading them. (In this context, the issue written by Stephen Grant is strikingly free of verbiage, even if it’s not an especially good story). Some of this overwriting, though, is just a product of the time period—I think all those words meant, in 1982, that this was a comic that was serious and for an older crowd. And certainly the issues the characters face, and their repeated failures to solve their problems, mark this as a book for older readers—I think I mean fifteen years old, instead of ten, but that’s a big gap at those ages.   The characters, in fact, are all failures, all acting from motives that are pretty compromised—if the ways they were compromised were presented more cleanly and with a bit more realism, this would be Watchmen or something like it. It’s not that good, but there’s definitely a sense of character that recognizes fallibility, and that’s something.

The ugly: note the right-angled yellow brick wall behind Beast, or the absence of any backgrounds behind the other characters here. Someone’s being lazy.

This isn’t Eisner, but it’s much better– dynamic and crackling, this is what Perlin is capable of.

I found the art to alternate between pedestrian and occasionally promising; I ascribe the differences to who was inking Perlin, but I don’t know if that’s fair. There are issues early on where the panel arrangements are either very boring or actually bad at telling the story. But then, later issues have more open arrangements, are much more dynamic, and the characters even start to look a little stylish. The last issue of this run, with a cover that accurately reflect the contents of the next issue, even has shades of Michael Golden, who I liked a lot in the eighties, and I think for good reason—there’s the potential for a kind of torch-lit heroism to these characters, and in these issues, there are flashes of that to be seen. There’re also a lot of ugly panels on display, too, though.

See the way our eye is drawn to the phone Gargoyle’s been talking on– why is that the focus of this panel?

And this is even worse– the legs and wheel of some sort of non-Kirby tech crowd the foreground, leaving little space for the collapsing heroes in the background.

It’s possible I read the last couple of these when they were originally published—I definitely read the run immediately after this and enjoyed it a good deal when I was twelve or so. It’s interesting to me to think about what I was seeing here, since from this distance, I think this is pretty mediocre stuff. I do think it’s the thematic of failure here, that we all act from these compromised circumstances, that even when the results of your actions might be positive, that doesn’t mean that you acted from benevolent values. It’s not like I was a full-blown nihilist, but I think as far as themes go, that’s one I would’ve found pretty appealing.