When the door shuts, just know it


Retrofit Comics sent a few of their latest. Here are thoughts on one of them.

– – –

Josh Bayer

I’d originally thought the protagonist of Theth was an abnormally large Yeti, crossing some landscape to escape whatever is over its shoulder, but in actuality it’s the small guy wearing the space suit dreaming below, at the bottom of the cover. His name is Seth. Theth, pronounced with a lisp. He’d like to be a Yeti.

The misunderstood ape fits Seth, an adolescent trapped in his own cage of excommunication. They’re both outcasts, kept on the outside by themselves and their dispositions to what surrounds them. Though they survive, they only survive through withdrawal, pulling into primitive means, or in Seth’s case, fictitious delusions sponsored by comic books. And there’s the difference between them. The mountains in that Yeti’s grasp are at least physical — an external force to conquer. Which is why Seth fantasizes this crypto-counterpart. He, too, would enjoy pushing past the terrain inhibiting him, and though this day dream is of something Seth finds alluring, it’s also telling that his go-to allusion is of someone ultimately lonely and forsaken. The cover, if read as so, summarizes the two-sided perspective Josh Bayer brings to Theth. Where what’s shown is understandable as it is horrific.

In the book, Bayer shows us someone incapable of dealing with reality, yet is still affected by it. The main effect is Seth’s spiral into comic book fiction as a means of coping with parents, bullying and wondering whether or not a girl will ever fuck him. A few comics have dealt with this idea before (Farel Dalrymple’s The Wrenchies is a recent one), but Bayer’s take doesn’t seek sympathy as others tend to, especially in terms of the lead character. Because while Seth is pathetic enough at times to feel for, he’s also a member of a world not entirely terrible or just (much like ours), where John Lennon can be murdered though still mourned. In comparison to our actions, Seth’s appear extreme. His step-mother, though unlikable and rough, is still shown as human rather than a cartoon villain responsible for a teenager’s demise. She wants some sense of a connection to her step-son, and her open remorse for Lennon’s death points to someone alive inside the plump, white case her shitty suburban hairdo hides. The very nature of their relationship explains Seth’s distance from her, yet Bayer’s willingness to stop and place more than a-typical exclamations in the step-mother’s mouth, layering little extra pieces of character, shades their interactions differently. It says Seth is not a helpless victim but a coward who’s unable to confront the imperfection coming for him.  Where Bayer could have oped for the empathetic, though unrealistic, nerd in need of our tears, he crafted someone tough to digest.

Other examples within Theth shine a similar light on Seth, but you can read the book for those. If anything, I find Bayer’s complicated take to be a mature one, and one that I’m not sure many other cartoonists would do. Because Seth’s distance is arguably comparable to that of a cartoonist or someone like myself who’s way too obsessed with this shit. There is an element of Theth that celebrates comics. A drawing published in the back of the book, a splash of famous comic characters like Nancy, Dick Tracy and Garfield charging the reader, holding a banner that reads “Make Comics Forever”, certainly implies victory. Though that victory rings differently knowing the ending Theth has is only on the other side of the page. So the conclusion, overall, is confused. It’s great to love comics — to implant them within your life — but at what cost? Or is there a cost? Comics are more the outcome of all the other shit we’ve seen. Their salvation is both wonderful, yet annoying. Because imagine if we didn’t need them. I think Bayer is giving that some thought.

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John Romita Jr. and Superman


Lately, I’ve found myself geared and ready to spend the money on Marvel and DC super hero comic books. I wouldn’t say this interest is spurred by any deep sense of “giving it all another go.” It’s more like an understanding of what’s available, and yet being interested enough to engage with a system of predictable odds, just to watch men and women of talent rise or fall.

There’s something joyful of when those little, callous hands between the gears slip through and gesture something pure. Even if they get caught in the machinery and bleed, the color red is a sign of life. The job of comics is probably, ultimately, a heartbreaking one, but it must be rewarding when brief moments of success come to and resurrect something cold and dead inside the 9 to 5er. That’s always meant more to me than the lone cartoonist taking all the time in the world to say something calculated; it’s more lifelike to stumble through something. It’s not as if we’re provided forever to sit around and get it together. You have to leave the house by 8 if you’re to make it to work on time, and mainstream grind comics reflect that by they very virtue of what they are. So when something good happens in the scope of all the shit inherently fused to that system, it’s sort of miraculous.

It doesn’t seem that anyone cares about the John Romita Jr.-drawn Superman, despite the fact that John Romita Jr. is drawing it. But I get it. Until last week, I really didn’t either. It’s hard to fucking care about a DC comic book when aware of the company’s mostly awful content and treatment of people. It’s also tough to care about any sort of super hero project, currently, when the genre suffocates all others as well as the men and women working in creative industries. Let alone our larger cultural identity, a subject many have thought and written about. But I like the super hero stuff, just as someone may like crime dramas, pornography or Aphex Twin records. It’s a thing. It’s just a thing that’s wildly popular, marketable and obnoxious in this moment, but surely that will pass, taking us to the next obsession. And when that transition happens, I’ll still like the super hero stuff.

Superman from John Romita Jr., Klaus Janson, Laura Martin and Geoff Johns isn’t something I’ll always remember, but it is good meat and potatoes comics, easing some of the natural, early-20s pain I’ve experienced of late by entertaining me for minutes. It’s also an example of four talented people – talented enough to have found financial and professional success in a system made to exclude nearly everyone – making something unexceptional, though still good. I could sit here and try to decorate some grand reason for this, but in all actuality, it’s a matter of the script these visual artists were given. Johns’ story only calls for so much. A month-in, month-out Superman romp. A fun one, sure, but still a romp. And maybe I shouldn’t even blame Johns. Superman is a DC comic produced for an audience of a particular caliber, sold by a company maintained by consistent product. In fact, there probably isn’t one entity or individual to blame for its regularness. This is most likely a small, left-field detail affected by the world we live in – a world we created in order to always, hopefully, be comfortable.

But if I’m to sit here and type reasons for its faults, I’ll then point to Geoff Johns and say, despite the guy’s ability to write consistent, plot-driven machines (perfect for the market of super hero stories), this one isn’t necessarily very interesting, nor is it uninteresting. Numerous times Superman has met and foiled powerful beings similar to himself. The character of Ullysses marks another addition in that roster.  The only real change in “The Men of Tomorrow” is that Johns drags out the inevitable switch in the character from good guy to bad guy, making you wonder if he’ll keep Superman and Ulysses as allies in order to explore other thoughts. With the end of the latest issue, #35, that doesn’t seem likely, so we’ll go back to the usual program.

The program distinguishes things. Mostly, what goes against or isn’t the program. Romita Jr.’s style and storytelling feels that way to me, especially in this context. At Marvel, despite the objective difference in his work, his contributions come across as something rooted in the company’s history, naturally arrived at through time and evolution. His work is the boiled down effort of Kirby, Miller and his father, Marvel Architects, encapsulated in the plastic figurine of a boy nurtured from day one. But at DC, the antithesis, his work isn’t foreseeable progression but, instead, his own. You can really see it in the way he draws their characters. His Superman, besides the controversial costume adjustment, is still different as this lean and energized version believable in a bar fight as well as outer space. Romita Jr. gives the character a range that’s unfamiliar, that’s against the certain stature of broad shoulders and photo taking Superman usually portrays. Yet the artist never forgets the power essential to this icon. The splash piece above (which in it’s proper form, is actually part of a great layout of panels) conveys exactly the alien force beneath the red and blue carnival clothes, and by covering the pupils of the eyes with solid red, it’s not a moment of lifting a boat to trap a villain, but an instance to release what’s really inside.

You can call this run of Superman a few issues of Romita Jr. doing Romita Jr., and historically, yeah, that’s how we’ll look at this. But that’s essentially why they’re interesting and enjoyable. Because we’re watching an artist simply do his thing, and do it to a highly profitable and recognizable piece of corporate intellectual property. Not everyone in comics gets to this level, and even when the work may feel ordinary for the circumstances, there’s still something amazing about it when you step back and actually look.

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Hawkeye #1 | Fraction, Aja, Hollingsworth

You cannot help but feel just a tad cynical when you read this one; you know that in an estimated six issues, Marvel will drop the ball, and “Hawkeye” will just turn into another crossover whore, pushed to double ship each and every month.

You know all of that, and in some sense it dampens the experience, but if anything, we’ll all be able to look back at this one example and know we read a good Hawkeye comic book once, and that in fact, Matt Fraction may not have lost it all, after all.

All we can hope for, right?

“Hawkeye #1” came out better than I expected. Aja was sure to show up in my mind, but to have Fraction hustle as well and write a tight enough script managed to sway opinion and place the thought in my head that “maybe Marvel can still produce something worthwhile.” It’s a script clearly in work with its artist, showing characteristics similar to a “Marvel-style” production effort. And why not? When you have David Aja drawing the book, that seems to be the only smart move. Leave the pacing to the draftsman; leave the tone to the color wheel. And although the palette resides closely to something of a Mazzucchelli Daredevil book, it does lift the environment from basic background filler to more of an organic character.

And Fraction writes to that, connecting Barton’s characterization to the territory he frequents. It’s his way of saying “Hawkeye a.k.a. Clint Barton. Avenger. Human being. No super powers” without going the route of a cheap caption or bad narration. Instead, he seems to lift a little bit from Miller’s Daredevil, blending setting and character together, and arriving at this conclusion that Hawkeye is down to Earth because of where he lives.

The first scene does the most, though, as Fraction puts Barton in the hospital and has him exit in an annoyed rage. That scene boils down who Barton is, introducing the mythical new reader who picked up this first issue, without slowing everything down for the rest of us already aware. It also presents Fraction’s take and the angle that he and Aja are coming from in terms of their run.

He’s put into the hospital because he can be – he’s a somewhat normal guy – but get under his skin, and you should watch out. There’s a fire in that character, or a frustration, and kicking the wheelchair gets that idea across in this nice, sort-of poetic way.

Separate the sequence from the rest of the book ,and you could even consider it a nice little vignette.

“Hawkeye #1” represents more of what I want to see from Fraction as he does his little stint at Marvel: Tight pop comics. I know this won’t last, and “Hawkeye” will just end up the “Daredevil” of this year once Aja departs, but for now I’ll just call this a nice super hero comic book and enjoy it. Maybe part of its appeal is that its just an above-average exception to the super hero rule set these days, but if so, at least it’s some sort of step up.

I’ll silence my cynicism for now.

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Casanova: Avaritia

Casanova / God-Fucking-Dammit / COMICS / How Bout That Last Issue?

This isn’t a piece of criticism or an essay. These are thoughts working toward a conclusion.

– Where Do I start with this? I’m not even sure how I feel.

– Avaritia’s just this giant guilt trip, spiraling down, way past the gluttony and filth of Gula into this whole new pool of dirt, puss and dank tears.

– Where do I fucking start?

– Fraction wants Casanova to be something other than what we perceive it as. He’s driven toward said goal, and in essence Avaritia exists to wipe away everything in order to establish the book as something else.

– That something else just seems to be something I’m a little unsure of.

– Hollywood.

– Fuck, do I now resent him for that last page? Do I join the mob and sharpen the pitchfork? Do I lose all faith in Matt Fraction?

– Questions.

– Why go to Hollywood? That seems like a place to start, to kick off this little mental exercise.

– Somewhere in the back matter of those Icon reprints, Fraction made it clear he’s not uncomfortable with the idea of “selling out” and making the pig fat. He admits it.

– Avaritia begins with a Casanova who hates his job, but by book end, may possibly like it once again.

– An arc.

– The last time Fraction wrote Casanova, Marvel just began for him. Avaritia, as he notes, took many false starts to finally find its footing. I’m guessing the dude had a rough start at the company and finally reached a point of comfort. Avaritia starts then.

– “It had to be lived.” – Fraction, letter page, Avaritia #4

– The book burns away old Fraction and introduces us to a new man. A man with responsibilities to up hold, who can no longer fuck around.

– Or does it?

– All we know is that last page. But is Cass happy on it? Home in Hollywood? Does he want to be there?  Or, objectively, is that just where he is?

– Avaritia’s all about escaping those past volumes and crashing the expectations of a Casanova comic. The ending seems to suggest more of a change and signal a new era than it does suggest “selling out.”

– Though, that location is no coincidence.

– But, again, objectivity. That’s where Fraction is: The big time. Yet he’s still making comics – he’s just making them at a different point in life.

– If anything, this book’s the work of an older man who’s killing his younger self in order to leap forward. Can’t say I dislike that.

– As actual comics, they very much vary from the previous volumes. References no longer make up the DNA. There’s more space within the plot. Wider color scheme. More brutal. More of its own thing. Some of the quirk, charm and spirit has been lost, though. Been traded in for the upgrade Fraction’s after.

– A transitional volume.

– The Charles Dickens bit made me laugh.

– The last pages, the destruction – those pages buuuuurrrrrrnnnn.

– I still love this book.

– At the end of the day, it’s all just about life, being a good person and owning up to your shit. All through comics and genre thrills. And while this volume might suggest running away from your problems as an answer, well, the story isn’t over. This isn’t the period.

– As for references, glad to see Fraction get a bit away from them. Yes, still there to a degree, but they don’t define the book as they used to. Now we’re at a point where Casanova can stand on its own, without piggy backing as much on other works.

– There’s a line in the letter pages of issue four about guilt:

Guilt for what?

Previous Casanova? Going “Hollywood”? Changing the book up?

Or was he guilty about going as far with this volume as he did, but then got over it, citing the bit “and that was what I needed to wrap Avaritia #4.”?

That’s going to stick with me. That last minute change of mind. That he had to be talked out of it.

– I hate that I’m doing the whole “personal reading of the author” thing right now, but I cannot help but not take the author out of this one. Casanova’s about that dude. At least, to a degree. Or, at least, it’s about creating the book.

– Casanova is about itself.

– Casanova is about life.

– I still love this comic.

– This is probably my Invisibles.

– How would I rank?

Gula, Avaritia, Luxuria

– If anything, it’s bold.

More on the next Chemical Box podcast.

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Prophet | Graham, Roy, Dalrymple, Milogiannis

Like everybody else, I too am reading Prophet and find it to be quite an exceptional example of what mainstream comics can do and be. Unlike the mass of creator-owned or faux-indie books that jump out and scream their separation from Marvel and DC, Graham and company wish to join up with the mass culture and beat it at its own game. A noble effort, and while the “play the system from the inside” routine usually grows old and results in little outcome, the Prophet crew seem be to A-OK as of now, playing the cards they have and letting the bait be taken. And it’s being taken. By you and me and the the mix of general readers and Comics Journal crowd who nod their heads and note this Prophet comic as a decent, pleasant item to receive each month.

In some sense, Prophet feels more like a gift, digging up some of that initial excitement we all felt at the start of our great comic book binge, rather than adding to the same old sludge of new releases we, for some sad, pathetic reason, feel the need to study. The creators have brought back that enthusiasm we all once put toward genre comics, and they’re making the month long wait mean something again. That’s so important for comic books. Especially now when it seems all genuine love, lust, fun or concern, theory and debate happens off the page and in some movie theater somewhere  or through some industry Op/Ed. Comics has reached a point where the comic books almost don’t even matter, and I for one find that a little scary. But Prophet’s battling back against that, leaving all the magic and thought among those panels to make its speech mean a little something more. That speech … it says, “look, yo, remember these trashy things? yeah, we don’t have to give up on them.”

And to be clear, I don’t mean to say Prophet is alone in this effort or that Graham is really the first guy to consider this mission, but rather Prophet stands out. Through its various, almost now trademark tools of storytelling, this book has shown in a matter of seven issues that more can be done. And by more, that would mean the mainstream genre comic, where it seems now little substance, energy or thought resides: the creators have split; the bloggers and pundits have spit their contempt; and I, who for  months watched the rest of the Comics Internet burn its bridge and squash any hope of good mainstream books, have finally brushed off my own excuses and now see at least the corporate side of comics as the cold, fake void it really is.

Maybe it’s a good thing. Maybe now we’ll all be able to move on and challenge ourselves with something a little greater and complex as well as expand our own horizons on what exactly comics can be. Maybe the only thing stopping us all along was our allegiance to childish fantasies and their lowbrow construction. Maybe we needed to ditch this shit all along in order to push our medium forward.


But there is this push from certain creators to keep the thrill and octane alive: guys who say fuck legitimization for favor of poop jokes and violence. Though it’s also these guys, like a Marra, Ryan or DeForge, who while diving into the trash bring forth a careful and considered sense of craft, and it seems Graham wants to join the effort with Prophet and mix and match the adventure and cliffhangers of mainstream pop comics with the sense of craft, function and theme better comics are capable of.

So far, the approach seems to be working.

The most distinct quality of Prophet is its sense of atmosphere and place and how subtlety, versus blunt interaction, can build such a grand thing. This comic lives and breath “show don’t tell,” and while Graham’s stoic narration does play a large part of the series’ development  and tone, he really seems to embody his spirit as an artist here more than a writer, even though he doesn’t draw much of the comic, at all.  As the writer though, Graham lets his artists and the pictures they produce tell the story because he understands when to let his prose interject. Like a good comics writer, his bursts of narration come at the opportune time when a scene could use an extra push, and if he does describe or detail it’s always to compliment the visuals or catch something they cannot. But besides just knowing how to contribute to the book, the approach makes a lot of sense for what Prophet is: a visually intricate science fiction series. Why tell when Simon Roy can simply show you?

Prophet becomes a highly collaborative work that way, again, offering up some courteous advice to the rest of the comics mainstream. Graham works with his artists, and they in turn output something far more exciting, turning the book into more of a whole than a writer simply having a hired hand draw his words. A confidence exudes from this, as well, and rather than you, the reader, questioning the value of the book, you just kind of know this is good and roll with it. The confidence, though, does just really come from the subtlety of the work as Graham and Company trust the story gets across what it needs to without having to feed it to you via spoon.

We’re at a point with the book where visual styles are becoming characters themselves. Graham breaks his sub-plots up by artist assignment: Roy draws the initial John Prophet clone, Milogiannis presents Old Man Prophet, or the original, Dalrymple to John Prophet with a tail and Graham does the robots we see in issue twenty-six. All of these characters are established in Prophet’s initial story arc – or what makes up the first trade paperback – and it seems safe to assume these characters will be the major players of the plot Graham intends to spin. In one fashion, this works to separate a group of clones in order to make them decipherable to the reader, but the choice also suggests a pure attention to the visual presentation and what each individual artist can bring to the work.

That’s something a majority of mainstream comics have forgotten how to do as most of the industry still rides the wave of writer-driven series. The Prophet crew are transitioning away from that, creating this new set of cues for a reader to read by when they visit the book each and every month. Depending on the artist, a reader can take a guess at what plot point any specific issue may center around, and if it’s a new artist on the issue, well, you’re in for a surprise.

The whole thing brings the visual component of comic books back into the fold – especially for the genre driven side of the industry. That’s refreshing but also intelligent because it takes the reading experience of a comic book up from common slum activity to more of an area where your brain is involved with the process. You have to think about those visuals, for once, and ponder how they connect and contribute. Granted, it’s not exceptionally brilliant or worthy of intellectual study, necessary, but that much of a push in mainstream genre comics means a great deal. Take a look at most of them now; many are astoundingly dumb and easy to read. There’s no challenge or even involvement whatsoever. Prophet’s going back against that.

And while visually involved, Prophet does present some thematic elements of interest, whether its the boundaries of human potential or imperial conquest, this science fiction comic does seem to have a core group of ideas its commenting upon. And the level of imagination is off the charts. This thing didn’t stop at “what if humans were the enemy and not the zombies?”.

Where Prophet stands in ten years, who knows. It may not even rank at the end of this decade, but for now it feels significant, and if anything, it’s pushing mainstream comics into a more respectable territory. I’m in favor of that, because while I can get down with art comics, I do want a sense of bombast and fun in this stuff. That’s an essential aspect of the medium, I feel, and if we forget that we will lose something. Creators just need to work to hold this stuff up to a higher standard. Just because it’s adventure, doesn’t mean it’s stupid.

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Amazing Fantasy #15: man before hero

I found myself scribbling notes, prepping for this week’s Chemical Box recording, when I finally thought “why not just post this? I should post something.” Granted, this is more an exercise than a finished product, and while I’m sure some proper critic may shake his or her head, I figure this is the blog of a twenty year old asshole. I can post whatever. So what follows are words – poorly written words – concerning Amazing Fantasy #15 and the Spider-Man origin story.

– I mean, this is the stuff. The fucking blocks that build it all. How can these comics not be held up as something worthwhile? They birth the character but also the language, voice, grammar and gears. They birth the standard. Boom, like a thunderous thud on the table right when the baby pops out. The nurse unaware of what just happened.

– And the world comes together before you can flip the page, and all subsequent issues establish new notes within the greater measure: the villains, the cast, the usual Parker conflicts. The cliches of the character, though …

… they weren’t yet cliches.

– This was new. That’s what you have to imagine. You have to dawn the position of the reader in 1962/63 and only know Spider-Man, or Steve Ditko for that matter, from what was given to you in those first few issues of Amazing. Everything feels simpler in that mindset. The mess of later years had yet arrived. It was just Lee and Ditko and a kid in an awkward suit.

– Amazing Fantasy #15 – the origin story – still remains the character’s greatest. Nothing could have come after, and the story would mean just as much. All because of that final panel. Parker doesn’t do a damn heroic thing even when it’s sold as this new super hero yarn. There’s nothing fantastic. No impressive feat occurs. There’s only a dude, and he’s simply getting by, looking at himself, judging, like any other would do on a day-to-day basis. Parker’s just this dude, and when he puts on the suit, he’s still just that dude. Maybe just a little more awkward because he doesn’t transform or strike a stone pose. The tights don’t life him up like a Clark Kent removal of the glasses. They just wrap him and embody the human shape underneath.

– If anything, Ditko picks up on this and draws those awkward stances and quirky expressions of body language to further characterize.  Ditko embraces that “otherness” inherent in the character, going somewhere lesser artists seem to fear or miss. That’s a point Todd McFarlane would later continue, only maybe go a little too far with his uncomfortable, almost macabre, drawings. But, hey, it beats the soap opera, pretty boy Romita liked to draw.

– While Ditko establishes the pacing and language of the story, Lee still matters here. No matter his place in history or the wrongs he may be guilty of, Lee adds a significant element to this individual tale past the line about responsibility. His prose possesses a presence. It’s a narrator who clearly knows the outcome long before you do, yet neither is he/she over powering. Instead, the narrator keeps a pace away but certainly oversees this great escapade from somewhere beyond.

– The narration, and the tone of it, benefits this tale in a major way because it helps nail that responsibility point. The reader trusts the ethos of the narrator; therefore, he reigns triumphant, making his point.

– And while quaint, with narration decorated in the comics speak of the comics past, it still hits and performs like no other super hero yarn. Every ounce of quaint builds up the storybook tone, but while a storybook or childhood parable, is dark, mean and honest. Spider-Man’s origin is about being a man: leaving teenage-dom behind for the truth of adulthood. Ditko and Lee show the consequences, in a pretty bold fashion, of when you do not grasp the concept of responsibility  and ignore adulthood to instead act like a child. Uncle Ben dies to make that point. Over the top, but it worked. What matters.

– They bleed all of this through the super hero origin. From AF 15 up until Ditko’s final issue, they keep to the mission statement while slowly adding other elements to provide further example: job, girls, enemies/struggle. All of which leads to a high school graduation and the age of eighteen as well as a battle with Norman Osborn – the arch nemesis and the “adult” lost to selfish desires.

– AF 15 still stands as my favorite super hero origin story, even while it doesn’t birth a hero. It’s a story about a kid, but that kid has to overcome and become someone he’s not, yet, can be. When Parker walks away into the darkness in that final panel, he’s learned a lesson, and the reader knows he must live with it. The walk into the gloomy horizon commences the journey. The hero’s journey. That’s the point. That’s why it’s my favorite. The man before the hero … a vital aspect.

–  Too bad fifty years have occurred, and Parker’s still working toward the heroic finish. He hasn’t left the origin he’s so famous for but has rather occupied countless variations of it. The trap of the core. Or at least, the trap of a regressive publisher. But, sleep tight, Dan Slott still has a job.

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Noir: a Collection of Crime Comics | Dark Horse

Originally published over at Spandexless.com

I’m not exactly sure what book kicked off last decade’s crime comicbook revival (Powers, probably), but 2009 was most definitely the peak of said “movement,” the year when crime went commercial and quickly lost its inseparable edge.

I remember this because that was the year I went diehard for the shit. Everything and anything that had to do with crime (minus the real thing) I immediately sucked up and deemed priority. I went from watching few movies ever to hand writing a must watch list containing anything from Out of the Past to Heat, and if I ever caught sight of a trench coat or dark alley on a comic book cover, said comic was bought. Ross MacDonald and Dashiell Hammet were also read, to a degree, and I even went as far as to brag to my friends that I was an expert on the genre in question when in reality, I was then, and still am, far, far from it. But I doubt they were very impressed to begin with.

But no matter my involvement, and as true as my enthusiasm may have been, this was sort of all spurred on by the growing popularity of the genre in my medium of choice: comicbooks.  Books like 100 Bullets, Powers and Criminal spent the 2000’s redefining the genre for comics, and while an entire essay or more could be written on such a topic, I’ll just skip ahead and say this redefinition culminated in 2009. It’s the year the trend caught on and died, but not before the industry gave us such things as Vertigo’s line of crime graphic novels, Marvel Noir (the nail in the coffin), Darwyn Cooke’s adaptation of Richard Stark’s Parker: The Hunter (which is really more than a cheap gimmick, but just go with it for the fact it’s another big crime project released in the year 2009) and this: Noir: a Collection of Crime Comics published by Dark Horse.

My memory of this has mostly been of it being a disappointment, and after a revisit just this week I still find Noir to be as bad as my recollection deems it. It’s underwhelming when you consider the list of talented creators involved. I placed a lot of hope on this project at the time of its release – hoping it would somehow be the next great anthology – but really all I read was another mediocre one, which makes Noir a comfortable member of today’s usual anthology output.

Most of the authors in this collection try to place a spin on the crime story or the concept of what a crime is, but really none of them land anything but a failed attempt. It’s really the guys who stick to the classic components, like Lapham, Brubaker and Azzarello, who produce anything memorable. I don’t find this to be a point scored for the argument of classicism or anything, just that the people being ambitious didn’t have the skill to pull it through. There’s no greater theme there. Some people just blew it, is all.

But they blew it enough. Because after reading this, my unstoppable interest for all things crime noir stopped. I already knew crime did not equal quality, but the blatancy of this project – from the title to the Georges Bataille quote on the inside cover – only reassured the point. Where Marvel Noir was the ultimate gimmick, Dark Horse’s book represented this common interest of the time. It attempted to showcase the best of said interest, but in the end, Noir really only shed light on an unhealthy curiosity. Because everyone wanted to tell a crime story, everyone wanted to script that gravely narration, and everyone wanted the twist ending, but only few people’s voices and styles of storytelling were suited for such things.

Noir spotlights a handful of people dubbing crime fiction characteristics over stories strongly penned in their individual styles, and while it’s nice to see all of them attempt, what really presents itself is this weird sense of “hey, I can do it too!” that’s stated like a true six year old.  It’s really just a collection of stories confused about their identities, as a guy like Jeff Lemire attempts to meld his sullen country boy routine to a cold-blooded plot.

Or when M.K. Perker marries Turkish culture with mass murder.

Or when Paul Grist does Paul Grist but on a detective story (Kane goes farther back than this project, I know, but in here, at least, it doesn’t do much).

And there’s also the desire to land the EC Comics fucked up twist ending, but when Chris Offutt or Gary Phllips go for it, the attempts only come off as cheap and highly derivative.

What happened here was this: Dark Horse editors picked the hot contributors – or the ones they could get – and said, “tell us a crime story. people like those right now,” and the creators did, but what Dark Horse failed to realize was that even though they handpicked the “hot” creators, they did not handpick “hot” creators who were also “hot” crime storytellers. Those editors went name above suitability to the project, so it’s really no surprise we got what we got.

But, for the select few who were suited, well, those stories worked.

Brubaker and Phillips’ Criminal insert carries the same pedigree as the all the mini series. The pacing’s on key, and even when the duo arrives at their own twist ending, things work out because throughout their however many pages, they’ve earned such an ending.

Azzarello works within a gimmick, but when Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon present it, the story loosens its grip on the safety net and trusts itself, as a story, to do the job. Plus, Azzarello’s script doesn’t exactly force the surprise ending or shoehorn the catch. Instead, his pacing and dialogue let the reader arrive at the premise, making it more of an involved short story.

But the best of the collection resides in David Lapham’s “Open the Goddamn Box,” in which a young girl widdles her way out of a terrible situation through a sharp tongue and tensions on the side of her captors. What’s impressive about it, though, beside pure visceral reaction or the skill of Lapham’s line work is the story’s ability to really place you in a world in such a short amount of time. Lapham works within ten pages, but in those ten pages you really get an idea of who the three characters are – from background to now – as well as what the world they inhabit is particularly like. A lot of this comes down to pacing, obviously, so the author adjusts his grids on each page to accommodate such a thing. If you look at it, Lapham uses a majority of eight panels per page, and while design isn’t exactly a main concern, they do fine tune all the needed  beats of the narrative. Old fashioned storytelling for a comic book, but Lapham proves that its functionality still works now more than ever.

For those three stories alone, Noir: a Collection of Crime Comics is kind of worth picking up – especially at a discount. But you do have to sort through a heavy handful of mediocre imitations. Because that’s mostly what Noir is: imitations.

As for the crime comicbook, the genre still pleases many people, and guys like Brubaker and Phillips continue to produce some of the best. The trend subsided, though, thankfully, but science fiction, with books like Prophet and Saga, may be making a comeback. Who knows where that may lead.

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How I Spent a Sunday in My UNairconditioned Apartment

Besides waking up wrapped in my own sweat stained sheets, considering again why I live exactly where I do, I sat my ass on the couch from roughly 2:30 PM to 8 PM and watched, back-to-back-to-back, all three of Sam Raimi’s Spider-man movies. Why? Because I felt an odd loyalty to the franchise  and that I should somehow prepare for the forth coming Marc Webb directed movie as well as this dumb need to fulfill nostalgic desires.

Or, “I do what I want.” (My defensive answer to my own question).

I owe a lot to Sam Raimi’s Spider-man movies. They were not only a large part of my childhood but also the origin point for my interest in comics, and returning to them yesterday, after a few years away, was a  mixture of both fun remembrance and gnashing teeth. Sort of what I expect my ten year high school reunion to be like.

But fuck it. While I didn’t love the return, here are a few quick paragraphs on Spider-man, Spider-man 2 and Spider-man 3. (Great titles by the way.)

Spider-man / 2002

This had a Nickelback song attached to it.

Besides the iconic or memorable moments and its push to somehow become this generation’s Superman: The Movie, Spider-man runs a bit dry, suffering from the stigmas adaptations usually suffer from, to now being remembered best for the upside down kiss and Kirsten Dunst’s wet nipple (which, at ten, was pretty fucking cool). I saw this movie for the first time at a drive-in theater with my grandma and mom, and I can clearly remember them saying to one another, “well, this is kind of a bit much for a kid’s movie.” And a kid’s movie it was, but watching it today, you can clearly see Raimi angling his Spider-story more toward the love connection than the action. Everything ends up revolving around it; Parker’s storybook voice over and the line “this is a story about a girl” solidify Raimi’s entire premise for his trilogy, and it gives him the opening to really meld the core details of the Spider-man story to the Peter Parker/MJ romance.

The approach works to a degree. As the sequels roll on, you see how Raimi balances the various themes of adulthood and proportions them to function with the trials and successes of the relationship – Spider-man 2 being the best example – but the ground work all goes down here, in an action movie where the action isn’t really shot or composed that well. For Dunst’s character, though, she’s nothing more than a prize. A prize with a bit of personality, but a prize nonetheless, and Dunst’s one layer performance doesn’t exactly spur on anything extra.

There’s also the case of Tobey Maguire, who I just can’t stand. Peter Parker embodies the shy child within us all. The lighthearted dork. The outcast. But Maguire’s presence takes these qualities and rams them into overdrive, making Parker more pathetic than an unsung hero. The film has those moments of wit and charm for the character to really show himself, but Maguire, with his 13-year-old boy voice drops them every time, resulting in a creepy expression rather than a showcase of confidence.

The film ultimately suffers for its concern of telling that classic tale most people know by heart and weaving it to fit a new set of performers, visuals and music, yet, ironically, it’s also why it’s memorable. In a sense, I do feel this is my generation’s Superman because, while stunted in areas, specific moments do still conjure that magic, and along with a pretty solid cast overall, this film created some lexicon. Especially for the super hero movie, which after Bryan Singer’s X-Men, only reaffirmed this new era of the super hero in Hollywood. For better or for worse.

I’d be curious to watch the James Cameron version, which apparently involved more penetration as well as curse words, but I still find the ability in myself to enjoy this movie. Spider-man made and has kept a connection.

Plus, the Randy Savage/Bruce Campbell shit still kills.

Spider-man 2 | 2004

It wasn’t until Spider-man 2 that I finally realized comicbooks were still being published and found the care within myself to hunt them down and devour them whole. I was twelve, and my friend’s babysitter drove us to the mall so we could watch this. She was in high school; I had a crush.

Also, this Dashboard Confessional song still ends up trapped in my brain at times.

This movie’s concern with being complete makes it work. Hands down, Spider-man 2 is the best of the three, and I think it’s where Raimi says the most with the character as well as makes Peter Parker most relatable or simply interesting. Movie one shapes him into a figure of shared experience, but it also keeps him in a constant state of being a caricature. Parker’s the nerd who gets power, but movie two humanizes the whole concept a tad more by really showing the gears of his life, the “Parker Luck” as well as the continuing whatever that is the Peter/MJ relationship. Where movie one is all about responsibility, movie two centers on the idea of choice, and as a theme close to super hero fiction, Raimi bases the theme on the relationship to force Parker into a position of uncertainty. But as  typed … this one’s concerned with being a movie rather than a storyboard. In some sense, you could criticize Spider-man 2 for possibly taking itself a bit too seriously, but I feel the movie consistently does a fine job of balancing the relationship stuff with Doc Ock (who is fucking awesome in this movie ). Really, at times, Spider-man 2 is more about the romance while the comic book, action stuff acts as a side project, but I’m not annoyed by that because Raimi’s entire story is about the romance, not really the action.  Although, this is probably some of best action in the entire series. Presentation wise. There’s more composition to the combat here, and it’s simply more entertaining to look at. Much of this comes from the nature of Spider-man’s antagonist. The Octopus arms give the camera a point of focus.

Of course, in a movie where the relationship between two characters reigns king, it would be important to have two actors who can carry such a thing, but Maguire and Dunst just fall. Along with my previous criticisms, I just don’t feel any chemistry between these two. Both are awkward together, and Parker still exemplifies this odd boyhood.  A line like “punch me, I bleed” should soar. He swallows it, leaving the audience to digest a bad inflection. Raimi only gets so far with his more dramatic sequel, and while it works in many spots, his two leads disable the film.

Alfred Molina picks up the duo’s spilled crackers, though. He’s a dude with real chops, and he comes in and nails the idea of the villain being more compelling than the hero. Doc Ock certainly is a grey villain, and while I tend to prefer my bad dudes to be real pieces of shit, I do find Ock and Spider-man’s dichotomy entertaining. He works toward the film’s theme of choice, and while some scenes show him ham-handedly talking to his mechanical arms, or reviewing his stretched, ill-sensed motivations, scenes like the hospital escape or train fight make up for the mishandles of the script.

I would label Spider-man 2 as good. Obviously better than its predecessor, it still performs well in the year 2012. Overall, a solid, complete story packed with an array of special moments. And, I won’t lie, the Aunt May hero speech kind of chokes me up. Rosemary Harris, ladies and gentlemen.

Spider-man 3 | 2007

The movie where I was finally an established comicbook guy. I was so excited for this piece of shit. SO EXCITED. Aged 15. In high school. And Venom – a character who I think is pretty fucking awesome, yet always ends up at the ass end of every joke. That Rick Remender comic included.

I walked out of the theater trying to convince myself I enjoyed this, and even months after the fact, until the DVD, I thought I did. Lies I’ve told myself.

Three people wrote this script, and from what I understand Avi Arad really pushed for Eddie Brock in this movie while Sam Raimi hated every ounce of the idea. And you can tell, because that’s the character who makes the least amount of sense in this entire movie. Even up against Proto-Goblin or whatever the fuck they named Harry Osborn’s snowboarder persona, Venom has real no reason to be in this picture. He’s just shoehorned, and Topher Grace just plays a dick the whole time. Ah, fuck it.The problem with this movie is both the ambition as well as the lack of point. Spider-man 3 redoes Spider-man 2‘s choice theme, but infuses it with more of a good vs. bad through line rather than a general “who do you want to be.” And then you get one of those Geoff Johns’ overhauls of past events as they try to work the Sandman into Uncle Ben’s death. Like Michael Papajohn needed help. And then the relationship goes up in smoke again for some really immature, unrealistic reasons while the butler apparently knew everything.

Fuck this movie.

It’s almost a parody of itself. The way it opens … with the music and the voice over. It all just suggests, “yep, and the story continues … ” And it does. To the point of a second Green Goblin and a purely fan beckoned appearance by a villain whom the director hated. Bryce Dallas Howard sort of saves it, but even then, her Gwen Stacy just makes you question the entire love story Raimi’s been spinning. Why not her the whole time rather than this entirely grouchy, uncharismatic women we’ve been following for three movies?

I could rip on the dancing and emo hair cut, but honestly, it’s not as bad I remember. In a way, those elements provide some of the only moments of seeming enjoyment through the whole movie. They’re really stupid, yes, but funny stupid.

Other than a cool Sandman creation sequence and the few moments of fan satisfaction brought on by the sight of Venom, I have no real reason to watch this. The Harry/Peter team-up in the end sort of tugs, but past that, nothing, man.

The Amazing Spider-man | 2012

Ten years from the original. I’m in college. A better sense of taste. Still love comics and the character.

This looks better than all Raimi’s work. From the action, to the story, to the cast, this movie appears more complete and more driven than the blueprint it’s working from. I will be in a theater come Friday, and I’m confident I’ll enjoy myself.

Brief thoughts, but how could it be more when I haven’t even seen it yet.

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The Nightly News | Jonathan Hickman

“If everyone is thinking alike, then no one is thinking.”

–          Benjamin Franklin

Funny that comes from him, though: a guy who had no trouble suggesting lifestyles to people as well as hinting at how they should treat the money they earn. But, hey, hypocrisy’s everything, and no matter the source, the point of the quote does fit the point of the comicbook, as Jonathan Hickman’s masterpiece certainly chases individuality in spades. It lives and breathes the quest. And while Hickman denounces all theories of cathartic involvement, it’s hard to read this work without seeing a guy chasing something.

Because past the rage you may or may not feel necessary to explore, the controversial subject matter, and the facetious subtitle “A Lie Told in Six Parts,” The Nightly News is still very much a part of its creator; a book which clearly suggests an artist cutting his own path and not giving a fuck what anyone thinks.

It spells out everything that Hickman is – from the design to the choice in storytelling. And at a time in mainstream comics when the writer spit unquestionable dominance while the artist became sort of a cast off, this book came to and broke many of the standards set. All the way from the blunt impact of a quick glance, to the actual reading process – tearing the traditional comicbook page apart and rebuilding it, The Nightly News wants nothing to do with the majority.

It is, in essence, the true individual, and I think in a day an age when we’re so quick to label the new thing “brilliant” or a “game changer,” this comicbook might actually live up to the labels. Yet, no matter its place in the grand ol’ scheme, Hickman clearly crafted a comicbook without any peers and did so without holding himself to any predisposed expectation. As Hickman notes in the trade paper back’s afterword …

“ … I’m telling a story.

And it’s one I expected more of you would hate.”

Yet he told it anyway.

As the afterword continues, he then goes on to list the book’s unmistakable qualities as reason for a potential backlash, and ends his authorial footnote by summing up his completed work.

“Concerning The Nightly News, for me it’s about believing in something so much you have to do it regardless of the cost.”

That “something” would be storytelling – his way; the “cost” is an unreceptive audience.

This may be a very “in-head” reading too closely associated with the author, but as for my personal stance on the work, the author cannot be removed from the picture. Know that.

Plus, Hickman says …

“Enjoy The Nightly News for what it is to you. That’s how it should be – it’s yours now.”

By those words, I’m OK with where I stand.

Jonathan Hickman claims to have been reborn in March of 2006. As he words it on his website

“After a certain amount of time you get tired of wasting talent. Of being part of a fraudulent profession — or actually being a fraud. And, most importantly, not living the life you are capable of having.”

Now, while it’s debatable he ever really escaped the “fraudulent profession” (Kirby supporters, unite!), the quote simply suggests Hickman didn’t enjoy his career previous to breaking into comics. And when you take the entirety of the bio on his website into consideration,  it’s clear that by being “reborn” a comics writer, his life now is more suitable and in line with his actual desires.

He also states in the afterword of The Nightly News’ trade paper back that, “All I’ve ever wanted to do is tell stories – it’s what I was meant to do (emphasis his). I know this because I spent ten years trying to convince myself I’d be happy doing other things.”

While the biography on his site comes off as romanticized and somewhat story-like, it works well enough to paint the usual picture of someone discovering themselves. The claim of “rebirth” may be a tad dramatic, but the adoption of a creative lifestyle that truly fits you after years of a soul-sucking job, I guess, would probably incite such a feeling of anew purpose. Because you’re going in an entirely different direction than you once previously were, and with the critical response that The Nightly News garnered,  you would have to suddenly feel at home. As if the community you’d been searching for all along just opened its arms to you and drew you in.

The same year as his apparent rebirth, The Nightly News saw publication. The book marked Hickman’s first major work in the medium, and it detailed a plot centered around a mistreated individual who seeks revenge on journalists and the media because he cites them as the source of his misfortune. It’s a very sardonic work, riffing on things such as Network and the story of Richard Jewell, the Olympic bomber.

If you’ve ever been on the comics internet, you know all of this already.

You probably even know The Nightly News as a unique piece of fiction – something that changed the idea of comics – and know it for its unorthodox visual style. But in this age of hyperbolic comicbook “journalism,” well, do you really know all the arguments behind these praises? Or that they even exist? Because the comics internet’s not wrong, but neither has it really broken down this work. And it should be broken down because The Nightly News isn’t just another Image comic that excited some diehard DC reader because he finally read something “indie.” No. It’s an actual machine complete with all the necessary gears, yet gears in need of a new inspection.

In this world of multimedia and visual mandates, it makes sense for Hickman to display this comicbook the way he does. If anything, he’s riffing on the state of things and bleeding into the info-graphic culture we inhabit. You could even say he’s using the weapon usually aimed for us and turning it back on its handler, subverting the norm as well as casting his own brand of spicy propaganda. This mindset works to the book’s cynical attitude as it furthers its point about the hypocritical cult, that no matter what side you choose, conformity’s on your mind and the same tactics are in use, all leading you no further from your enemy.

The entire visual layout is a representative piece, and while it livens up the overall style and contributes to the subtext, it also roots itself in the very foundation of the actual pages and transforms the reading experience. Because by doing what Hickman does he must rearrange the typical components. From word balloons, to gutters to the overall layout, things have to shift, but Hickman’s smart enough to not let these fundamental comicbook elements suffer because of a desire for a standout look. Not a sacrifice is made, and everything comes together for sort of a new reading experience.

As Hickman describes it

“One of the things I’m able to do is make a cohesive page instead of a panel a page with the whole spread working together. Now even though the pages are presented as two-page spreads, there’s enough stuff going on in the pages and there’s even panels in certain pages that makes it work like separate pages.”

Or as I would describe it …

“His pages ignore the typical grid expected of a comicbook page, and instead, a viewer’s eyes just flow to the appropriate moments or where the dialogue rests. Rather than the typical left-to-right, top-to-bottom, it’s more a top-to-bottom reading order, and your eyes just leap from scenario to scenario. All the while, extra tidbits work their way into the picture, offering these optional side thoughts within the narrative.  The Nightly News’ pages work more like advertisements than comics, giving it that extra splash of media ties.”

There’s a functionality here, but you can also see these pages as complete images, as if Hickman’s work carries Steranko’s love of a stylish and bold appearance but ignores the obsession of the image and doesn’t loose sight of the story. It’s really more J.H. Williams III that way, or even Sienkiewicz, when you consider the sense of atmosphere. I’m not so sure Hickman’s an excellent draftsman, though. While his layout and pure design appears top notch, I feel once you would take away the dressing, his line work wouldn’t impress. The artwork is so dependent on what decorates the surface. Although, it could be Hickman laid down a weak base intentionally, knowing for this particular project things would work out.

I guess you’d have to ask him.

It’s a very impression effort, overall, but that’s one large reason I’m upset with Hickman because he never continued this train of thought past Pax Romana. It’s something that, with proper time and energy given to it, could have really progressed into something. I hate to jump up and be the guy crying “why’d you ‘sell out’,” but man, “why’d you ‘sell out’?” Or even past “selling out,” why not illustrate another project? You’re burning the creator-owned torch once again.

I assume the guy may have, like Brian Michael Bendis, fallen into a train of thought in which he’s convinced himself he’s more comfortable as a writer, but I say fuck comfort. Go back to this. You were on to something.

. . . . .

So let’s consider Hickman, the writer. How’s he fare here? I’d say well.

From start to finish, The Nightly News already exemplifies the traits that now rest synonymous with Jonathan Hickman. Between the fascination of men in power, down to characters as embodiments of concepts, you’ll read this comicbook and distinctly know who penned it, but opposite works like The Red Wing, The Nightly News doesn’t find itself caught up in a weak cast or ill-used environment. In fact, things work very differently, and Hickman’s ticks as an author come together and perform here. And I think it’s all because of the actual passion in the work as well as the cultural zeitgeist anchored to it.

But let’s break down some stuff.

First, we have John Guyton (who oddly resembles Hickman, as well as shares a first name – interpret at will), our neither good guy nor bad guy who instead acts more as a puppet, up until the climax. Then there’s Alexander Jones, another puppet, but one who doesn’t escape. Both men are Hands of The Voice, an invisible messiah who encourages the rebellion, but they are entirely different people. Because both John and Alex are us – the reader – but they represent separate choices. Our potentials. John and Alex serve the The Voice, but only Alex falls completely into the cult while John realizes the hypocrisy of it and, in the end, breaks away by choosing for himself (although, you could debate this) in a final fiery gun fight.

No matter the fictional details, John and Alex break down to a core. John’s the individual who breaks away while Alex represents the man who went with the crowd. From the get go, Hickman zip ties these two together and weaves his larger narrative around them. It’s a smart way to construct the story because the structure allows a reader to peak into and read both sides of the argument evenly. We spend time here and there and see just how John and Alex differ while relate. Hickman even throws the audience into the boardroom and places you with the men in suits, and while you’ll quickly denounce them, he does represent their side and let you sneer into their thought process.

But while the back-and-forth covers all grounds of the plot, I would suggest it’s really about putting you into a place of making a decision. Especially with John and Alex. Do you act as Hand to The Voice and lead the revolution? Does it seem the thing to do? Or can you spot the hole in the cause?

The whole work begs you to ask questions, as all good journalism should.

But even though concepts, those characters are actually characterized by Hickman from a simple showcase of actions and decisions. Even consider the use of dialogue. Each character has their own tone, but John sort of fluctuates throughout the piece. In service of The Voice, his speech reads a little more stern and programmed because he mostly speaks from a position of being the PR man, but once he’s out of the trap, thinking for himself, a more personable tone resides with the character. These details from Hickman just go to show the concept of humanity, and that when you live by someone else’s rule, you sort of lose it.

You also have to consider Hickman’s use of the setting and how he builds it. The Nightly News resides in New York City, the media capital of the world, and while that’s obviously coherent with the subject matter, Hickman really uses setting to suggest a tone and fuel his characters’ motivations. By just implementing a caption that reads “News Capitol of the world” at the start of each issue, Hickman automatically creates the pulse of the world. You’re not reading from some safe distance; you’re at the fucking heart of it, and that should tell you how wired this cast will be. Because as characters they’re living there, fully exposed to what occurs in the “Capitol.”

From there, Hickman earns a little of the leeway to work in the info-graphics and graphs that he does, because with New York City as the setting, let allow a “News Capitol” New York City, you’re expecting it. The factoids and flashy signs complete the picture as well as flesh out the overall identity and none of it feels inappropriate. And the use of orange, a searing orange, ties it all off and shouts every ounce of frustration exerted by the grinding gears and minds existing in that space.

It’s an angry, busy body city, and in Hickman’s portrayal, the environment’s inescapable just like the media.

Which, we can’t forget, is a subject of this piece.

“The mass media serve as a system for communicating messages and symbols to the general populace. It is their function to amuse, entertain, and inform, and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behavior that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society. In a world of concentrated wealth and major conflicts of class interest, to fulfill this role requires systematic propaganda.”

–          Noam Chomsky & Edward S. Herman

Could I sit here and express my own personal opinions on the matter? Sure I could, but in the end, it wouldn’t add much to this essay about a comicbook, even if the subject of the book is journalism – my chosen field of study while in college.

No, what I think is more important to understand is why this book focuses on such a topic. Or why any story of this type – be it Network, Serpico or anything else – tackles some large subject of corruption. It’s about the questions asked, not the next step offered. Because our society’s so bent on taking anything that’s fed to it. We’ve unlearned critical thinking and instead look toward the multiple choice test for an answer. Narratives like these, though, wake us back up and put doubt in our minds, and that’s why they’re valuable. No matter their place as fiction, they still cause doubt.

And doubt is good.

Because like the Franklin quote up top suggests, a society of like minds is a mindless one at that.

Along with his subject, Hickman takes The Nightly News and uses the experience of creating it as his own chance to break away from the crowd and think for himself. It’s a tale of individualism fully realized  both by fictional character and author, who just happen to both share a first name.

As a comicbook, through craft and voice, it stands as a new favorite of mine, and while I left most of my own personal connection to the book aside – out of this essay – I can say it’s anger and bold personality do find a home in my own, lanky frame.

I was a little riled after setting it down, and to me, that’s the sign of a great comicbook.

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Prez: Smells Like Teen President | Ed Brubaker, Eric Shanower

Originally published at Spandexless.com

While the sludge of semester woes and college antics have slowed my reading, I’ve still managed to make a little time to retread, as well as “first tread,” some of Ed Brubaker’s work. Things like Sleeper, Point Blank, Criminal, Incognito and Scene of the Crime  have all shot across my radar, but I’d say, without a doubt, this odd “Vertigo Visions” one-shot takes the cake as, well, most peculiar.

Set in the mids 90s, amidst the cultural “movement” known as grunge, Brubaker and artist Eric Shanower pick up on an old Joe Simon concept known as Prez: First Teen President and expand the matter by introducing a slacker, generation x type, who’s believed to be his son, to foil Simon’s activist with a Kurt Cobain-type, complete with traits of self-hatred and existential question. Yet, while two sides, both characters are of the same coin and come together to form this grander picture of adolescence, delivering themes I’d say we could have all related to at some point.

Plus, the comic contains a nice little back matter bit from Brubaker in which he states:

“Once again, the mainstream media has stolen youth rebellion and sold us back a blander version at a higher price. By portraying today’s youth as ‘slackers,’ they’ve given us permission to be lazy and stupid. Knowing obscure facts about the Brady Bunch, or Charles Manson, or the names of every indie-rock band on K Records does not constitute intelligence. Where’s the real victory in winning a game of Trivial Pursuit? We all spend too much time worrying about being cool, and not nearly enough on just being human.”

If you ever wanted Brubaker’s opinion on hipsters, well, there you have it.

Aside from the clear time stamp and relatability, though, Prez: Smells Like Teen President sticks out for its unashamed honesty, even while in the face of preachy speech giving. Before “Marvel Architects” and a David Slade partnership, Brubaker was just another dude doing comics, and not just freelance mainstream work. Dude was producing the kind of work The Comics Journal salivates to, auto-bio sulk fests complete with meaning and all sorts of good, wholesome stuff. He wasn’t Ed Brubaker, the writer; he was Ed Brubaker, the cartoonist (check out Lowlife, if you haven’t), and he was clearly apart of a different area of the grander comics culture. Of course, he moved on eventually, losing the cool points in some eyes, but I’d like to say the guy grew up and took his craft to another area.

But Prez: Smells Like Teen President sort of sits in between those two crafts as it sort of represents the last few days of cartoonist Brubaker, even though he doesn’t draw the damn thing. The voice clearly exemplifies a younger, broader creator, though. Broader than what eventually becomes a more tuned perspective, tuned to mainstream comic book storytelling – a transition you clearly see in 1999s Scene of the Crime. Prez’s like someone writing an auto-bio story through the lens of a pre-established concept. PJ acts as an easy stand in for Brubaker or anyone else via his commonality, and the heavy use of setting and time period only strengthen the notion that this story belongs to an actual someone versus a fictional being, even though it does. Not to say Brubaker is PJ or shares his experience, but I think much of the detail, subtext and even back matter create this honesty which make the narrative more personal than some preachy genre comic.  There’s simply a sense that this tale came from somewhere real, and the tone and voice only bring the idea home.

From a pure storytelling level though, Prez succeeds. As I’ve noted, it can become a bit preachy at times, especially toward the end, but aside from that this comic works as a well oiled machine plot wise. Shanower draws in Vertigo’s classic 90s house style, but there’s enough of him there to give the book a unique look. His work completely lives to tell the story, straying from all sense of splash until the very last few pages. From another visual standpoint, I also really love PJ’s appearance – blonde, blue eyed American kid wearing a smeared t-shirt, in need of a hair cut, bathing in public restrooms. Works as a nice little visual metaphor.

There’s also a cool change in perspective which provides some sense of unique storytelling. Rather than introduce his audience to PJ via a weird 3rd/1st person combo, Brubaker uses the POVs of the character’s two road trip companions to shape this somewhat outsider opinion on the guy. The choice attributes to Brubaker’s point of “looking cool” while also building the character up as someone who’s maybe trapped in his own head a bit, or more like, empty, unable to actually tell us about himself. Which makes sense because most of this comic book centers on the conflict of PJ not knowing who he is, a reason why he’s so adamant about finding his mystery father, Prez: First Teen President.

For the most part, this chunk of story comes across as pretty clean cut, but I like what’s going on here. At the end of the day, this book sticks out as something specific to its time, and more importantly, reminds readers of where this writer’s been. It can definitely be categorized as one of this odd ball early works, and as a matter of subtext, Prez says something pretty true. You’ve gotta get yourself together before you can save others.

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