comics


First off: if you haven’t read Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, go get the first two volumes.  Read my mini-review if you like.

Moore’s basic approach is to mine the sf, fantasy, and thriller literature of a period and create a world where it’s all true. Then he takes the top fictional talent of the age– preferable those with a louche edge– and makes them into a superhero team. In The Black Dossier he applies the technique to a wider time range, and in Century he applies it to the years 1910, 1969, 2009. On the whole Dossier is more weird than satisfying, while Century eases up on the weirdness enough to tell a story.

loxg-century

Dossier is about itself: Mina and Allan, now gifted with eternal youth after finding Ayesha’s pool from King Solomon’s Ring, swipe the Black Dossier from MI5 which sketchily chronicles three hundred years of the League’s history, from Queen Gloriana (an exalted version of the first Elizabeth) to 1958. They’re pursued by the aggrieved agents of the crown, including James Bond and Emma Peel, but mostly it’s an excuse for Moore to throw out various pastiches and to knit together dozens of fictional worlds, from Shakespeare to Jules Verne to Fanny Hill to George Orwell.

It’s clever and ambitious, but for me it doesn’t really work, as Moore for once has neglected to provide a story. There’s a chase scene and some fighting, but there’s no attempt at any danger or change. The book ends with a headache-inducing section in 3-D, which attempts to rehabilitate an old racist British children’s book character, the Golliwog– he’s a black matter alien, you see, and “zijn geslacht is kolossal”. Not the most sensitive rehabilitation of a racist caricature ever.

Anyway, the book ends in the “Blazing World”, a version of the Immateria from Promethea. Moore’s idea is that the world of the imagination is more real than the real world. This is hard to tell a story about; to me, Promethea succeeds and Dossier fails.

With Century, Moore remembers to tell a story. An occultist, Oliver Haddo (from an obscure Maugham novel), wants to raise the Antichrist. Moore often likes to rehabilitate villains (and criminalize heroes), so I should add: this is a bad thing, and Mina and the gang take the whole century to stop it. So something is at stake, though Moore is cagey about what exactly that is. However, he’s willing to punish his characters far more, and that’s the real story of the book. Mina and Allan both go through hell in this volume.

Now, if you haven’t read much Moore, well, go and do that. Watchmen and From Hell are the classics; V for Vendetta gives a heavy dose of his anarchism; Promethea is a fascinating exploration of imagination and magic; Top Ten and the first two volumes of League are fun romps. Century… does not live up to these works. Moore likes to craft exquisite works combining reams of allusion, graphic experiment, and elaborate craftwork. At his best this is all married to passion and humanism. Here it’s more like watching a clever clockwork run. It’s amazing but cold.

(As an example, all three parts of Century feature musical interludes. The first one, based on Kurt Weill, has a certain grandeur, but in general I’d say they show that adding one more layer of experimentation and allusion to the series wasn’t as good a move as it might have seemed. Plus, both books are so crammed with stuff Moore wants to tell you that the characters are constantly expositing to each other. These large volumes read like the summary of an imaginary epic ten times their length.)

Twice in Century the narrative makes use of sexual assault, and this isn’t a new theme for Moore– it was central to From Hell and Watchmen, and in League vol. 2 he mixed things up with a brutal homosexual rape. He’s always carefully progressive and emphasizes the emotional consequences, but his treatment, and the frequency with which he reaches for this particular narrative tool, seem like they’re about a generation behind. Compare how he motivates Nemo (in vol. 1) and his daughter Janni here. Or how many times McNeill draws each naked. (Hint: Nemo, never.) There are other ways to get female characters going.

There’s also a certain mean-spiritedness mixed in with Moore’s playful exploration of literature. Granted, he has to have real villains; and as he likes to elevate the villainous (Mr. Hyde, Dr. Moreau), he also likes to sink the heroic (James Bond, Emma Peel, Billy Bunter). Bond, the quintessential Tory, is fair game for such a kicking, but Century features an extended attack on Harry Potter that’s a bit baffling.

If you do like your allusions, of course, the later books will be paradise. It’s entertaining to see how Moore weaves everything together, and the panels are filled with additional caricatures. To make this sort of thing work, though, I think Warren Ellis’s Planetary does better. It keeps the appropriations to about one per issue and restrains the camp factor.

I love the character of Catwoman, and by that I mostly mean the one in Arkham City.  She kicks just as much ass as Batman while being way cooler.

Since playing it I’ve been reading Catwoman TPBs when the library has them in, and in general I’ve been unimpressed.  The low point, I think, was giving her a baby, and then having Wacky Superhero Things happen around the two of them.  The attempted mixture of realism and wackiness just didn’t work.

I read some of the latest Catwoman, and it’s not bad, but I think they made her a little too kee-razy.

But I think I’ve finally found a good Catwoman book: Trail of the Catwoman, which actually has three interrelated stories from 2002-3.  The first story is by Darwyn Cooke, and he has an appealing, very brushy line:

catwoman-cooke

He write a heist story, which is precisely (I think) what you should do with Catwoman.  It’s what she does, what she’s good at, and it’s fun to see her at her most cool and competent.  And I think Cooke does a good job recognizing her sexiness while letting her rise above it.  It’s a tool she uses (though at the same time she can actually care for people, something that doesn’t come naturally to Bats).

The heist itself is ill-advised (stealing from the Mob) and has quite a few holes in it.  (Hint to plotters in movies and comics: you and your scheme are only as secure as the guy you’ve left alone.)  Still, stories only happen when things go wrong, and it’s told well.

The other two stories are more noir, which also fits Catwoman.  Noir started as an attempt to restore realism to detective fiction, but it’s mainly stayed in the ’30s and ’40s at heart, thus becoming a form of fantasy itself.  The stories deal with Mafiosi and rotten cops, and I think they have precisely zero to say about criminality and policing, but that’s OK– the Mafiosi and cops behave as they’re supposed to in noir, and again, an actual police procedural or Mob expose doesn’t really have a place for a femme fatale cat burglar, but noir does.

Robert Steibel has a great post inaugurating a blog which will apparently be all about Jack Kirby.  There’s a little too much for my taste about the man himself, but he really gets rolling when he analyzes a page of The Mighty Thor #147.

kirby-pencil

What we’re looking at here: this is a rare look at Kirby’s actual pencils… and his writing.  He and Stan Lee would discuss the book, then Kirby would plot, draw, and essentially write it– the marginal notes on the left are his hints to Lee on what’s happening in the panel.  Lee then wrote the florid text to fit what Kirby had already done.

Then Vince Colletta (in this case at least) inked the page.  This is what fans actually saw:

kirby-inked

The inking is faithful, but loses a certain appealing sketchy quality to the pencils.  (We also, as Steibel points out, lose the little dude to the right of Sif.)  The coloring is pretty awful… what is going on with Balder’s cape?

Steibel gives Stan Lee a pretty hard time, but it’s unfair to compare Kirby’s informal notes with Lee’s finished prose.  Still, the method probably inevitably resulted in overdoing the prose… Stan was not someone to let the art speak for itself.

Kirby maybe gets a little too much adulation… he doesn’t approach the inventiveness of the European masters (Moebius, Bilal, Bourgeon,
Schuiten….).  But he’s kind of the Saints Row of comics: his stuff is big dumb fun– huge muscled heroes and villains, outrageous situations, over-the-top theatricality, absurd and inscrutable machinery, but always fun and accessible.

Part of it is that he was a fantastic draughtsman… Loki’s pose above is convincing as well as convoluted.  (Though that particular pose does raise the question, wearing those tight shorts, where does Loki hide his junk?)

It takes an assured artist to just throw in a horse in the background because he felt like it, to say nothing of the architectural elements… they don’t make any sense really, but they don’t need to– they’re supposed to be an otherworldly realm anyway.

See the post for the rest of the page…

Years ago I picked up a copy of Rius’s Los Supermachos, which started back in 1965. I finally got around to finishing the book.

Los SupermachosIt’s a satire on Mexican life, at the small town level.  It’s only available in Spanish, I’m afraid, which is a pity, since it’s a useful counterpoint to the idealized, feminized world of Beto Hernandez’s Palomar.  Rius’s San Garabato de las Tunas is highly patriarchal, with strong and open class and race divisions.

The comic is apparently hilarious, though I can’t exactly see it.  It’s my fault, though: when I read it to my wife, she laughs at every page.  I don’t have any trouble seeing the humor in (say) Fontanarrosa’s Inodoro Pereyra, so I have to conclude that Rius has a way with words that doesn’t always translate well.

At the time he was creating Los Supermachos, Rius was a communist; this is chiefly noticeable here in a retelling of the story of Adam and Eve as a parable of the Cuban Revolution.  It’s actually one of the weaker chapters, as the satire is much more pointed– and universal– when he focuses on the inhabitants of San Garabato: the pompous and stupid landowners, the avowedly fascist cop, the socialist shopkeeper, the religious old ladies, the local bum, the agreeable everyindian Calzónzin.

One thing that comes across very well is the paradox of the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional)– Rius calls it the RIP– the party that had a near-absolute domination of Mexico fro,m 1928 to 2000.  The party began in a revolution and retained the rhetoric of democracy and social justice, and yet was soon taken over by landowners and bureaucrats.  Thus the mayor of San Garabato, Don Perpetuo, is in general a racist rich exploiter, but in his election speeches he’s all about the Revolution and the People.  It’s a rich environment for a satirist.  In one of the chapters, just to drive the point home, Rius introduces an (anachronistic) Villista– an actual revolutionary– who comes down from the mountains to inquire after the revolution, and is disgusted by its current guardians.

He’s more generally amusing when he’s not so didactic, however.  One of the best chapters starts with one of the characters discovering that some canny operator made a ton of pesos by faking an appearance of the Virgin.  This leads to not one but two groups who try to do the same in San Garabato.  Their candidates to impersonate the Virgin are both male and ugly, but nighttime and a coat of paint are expected to take care of that.

Though Rius wrote at least one book on feminism, one weakness of the comic is that he does not have a very evolved view of women.  His female characters basically fall into the categories of naive and silly, old and superstitious, or dominating viragos.

(Another bit that rubbed me the wrong way: one chapter borrows, without credit, some situations and jokes from Jonny Hart’s B.C.  Not cool, comrade.)

One of the fascinations of the book is its attempt to reproduce colloquial mexicano.  Lots of interesting slang terms and sound changes…  (Plus, one of Rius’s gags is how his not-very-educated characters tend to mangle learned words.  Even the mayor is illiterate.)

Fascinating article over at Cartoon Brew, showcasing Walt Kelly’s attempt– after a collaboration with Chuck Jones he felt had debased his characters– at animating Pogo by himself.

pogofilm

To get this far– to do a 13-minute film when he was in failing health– Kelly had to skimp on the framerate. But he obviously hadn’t forgotten how to animate, and this is one of the very few instances of a comic strip artist animating his own work. Naturally he has no trouble staying on model. And his hand coloring looks suprisingly good.

The pacing is, well, pre-Internet slow. It’s an adaptation of a 10-page comic, which works much better on the printed page. (On the other hand, it’s enhanced by Kelly’s own voice work– he makes a perfect P.T. Bridgeport.)

If you haven’t heard of Pogo, that’s a shame. It’s a contender for Best Comic Strip Evah, and I’ve loved it since I was a kid– I haven’t covered it over in Bob’s Reviews only because I haven’t been sure I could do it justice.  I’ll have to tackle it, but not today.

And as a Pogo freak, I’ve been poring over screencaps of Jones’s version of Miz Mam’selle Hepzibah, trying to figure out why it looks wrong, despite it not being terribly different.

pogo-comparison

Graphically, the changes are in the eyes, nose, and mouth– all in the direction of making her more human. The problem, I think, is that Miz Mam’selle was already as cute, for an anthropomorphized skunk, as she needed to be. Jones has taken the character into some dimension between cutesy and disturbing.

I sat down to read the first chapter or two of Alison Bechdel’s new book Are You My Mother?, and ended up reading the whole thing.  It’s great stuff.

If you read her book about her father, Fun Home, the basic method is the same.  It’s more of a profusely illustrated text than a normal graphic novel– it has a running narration, which occasionally goes off in a different direction than the pictures.  And it weaves in ruminations on a set of heavy books– Virginia Woolf, Freud, Alice Miller, Adrienne Rich, and above all Donald Winnicott, who happens to have written a lot about the mother-infant bond, and particularly the type Alison feels she had.

But it works way better than Fun Home, for several reasons.  The storytelling is better– more assured, more playful.  The books aren’t examined so drily, but actually shed light on the relationships.  She was highly confessional in the first book, but even when talking about her own problems or neuroses her tone was professorial.  But this book seems alive and human.

In a sense the personal pain comes through more sharply precisely because her relationship with her mother is less dramatic, more normal.  Plus her mother is still there, is reading the book over our shoulders so to speak, and though this causes Alison a little extra angst, it makes the book more of a duet.  The ultimate problem with Fun Home, I think, was that it only had one real character, Alison herself.  Her father was oberved intently but entirely from the outside.

Are You My Mother? is mostly about the mother-daughter relationship.  Winnicott talks about “good enough” mothers, and without explicitly saying so Alison makes it pretty clear hers wasn’t.  There was something lacking there, and it takes years of therapy, and multiple readings of those psychoanalytic books, to figure out what.  In fact the book is about the therapy process as much as it is about mothers.  And she’s quite honest about the fact that writing this very book is another form of therapy; she is literally constructing a narrative to explain her own life to herself, to get a handle on it.

Does that sound self-indulgent?  Her mother suggests as much; she thinks the best art has no ‘I’ in it.  Alison counters that you can use the specific to get at general truths, and her book is the proof.  Some of our most intimate feelings (and neuroses) are tied up in our relationships with our parents, and we can learn a lot by seeing how someone else works them out.

After writing all this, I checked some reviews, and I’m surprised to find that many people had the opposite reaction– they liked Fun Home better.  Mostly this seems to be because her father was a strange gargoyle of a man, and we always like to read about families that are weirder than ours.

There are complaints that there’s too much psychoanalysis talk here.  It’s true that the quotations from Winnicott and others don’t affect us as they obviously affected Alison.  But as I said, they provide her with a narrative, a model, and that narrative-building process is a big part of healing emotional trauma.  Again, I think it all works better than (say) the discussions of Proust did in the first book.

 

 

This is a great little comic, by Boulet– nom de BD of Gilles Roussel.  (If you know French, read the original instead, as Boulet’s translation is wonky in places.)  I think it’ll speak to any guy who’s had a friend who has inexplicable success with women.

It starts out a little slow, but soon picks up, and I love the way he adds just a bit of surrealism that reinforces the story.  Don’t miss the glass of whisky that turns into Count Chocula.

What’s most impressive is that it’s a 24 hour comic.

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