Yep, and you know what that title means: no scans! Sorry, here's some random digressions instead...
-THIS WEEK I read some Den comics by Richard Corben and some Captain Americas by Jim Steranko. Though Corben's career didn't really start blasting until Steranko was more or less out of the game, they're still chronologically close, which is interesting. (Steranko is probably the most influential artist to leave comics before his influence was visible at all. When he quit Marvel there was no Jim Starlin, no Marshall Rogers, no Paul Gulacy -- nothing to show that he'd even made a ripple in the pond. All that stuff sprung up post-mortem, which seems pretty unique, especially in a time before comics reprints allowed artists to pick up influences like pennies from the street. But I digress...) Anyway, I was struck by how similar Steranko and Corben's work is, how both artists catch the same zeitgeist despite having done the work itself in totally different milieus. Artistically innovative stuff, simultaneously pushing the boundaries of "realism" and "surrealism" in comics with overly-muscled, slightly sleazy heroic fantasies that conform to some genre norms and subvert others: you could use that sentence on a Corben or Steranko book and it would work out fine. Have the mainstream and the underground ever dovetailed so closely as they did in the very late '60s and early '70s?
It's worth noting that both Corben and Steranko parlayed big influences from the Twin Towers of '60s cartooning (Crumb and Kirby, respectively) into such similar work. I'd imagine the common threads were the psychedelic art both luminaries dabbled in but never fully committed to, the overall sleaze-funk look of the era's ad art, and (definitely) EC Comics. But how strange that such different original contexts -- the superhero world and the underground -- seem almost one and the same these days. I don't know, I'd imagine that there wasn't much perceived overlap with Jim Steranko comics when Corben was putting out stuff like Den, but now it's all a part of those pre-Heavy Metal, underground influenced adventure books to me -- right there alongside stuff like Cheech Wizard, Gil Kane's Blackmark, Gulacy's Shang-Chi, Starlin's Warlock, Windsor-Smith's Conan, Vampirella. That's a vein of comics that's seen woefully little study in past years, when most scholars skipped from the Galactus Saga and Zap Comix to Raw and Moore's Swamp Thing like the '70s never happened.
Luckily it's a vein that's being mined more and more extensively by creators these days (Benjamin Marra, where you at!), and as such being reclaimed by those with the back-issue bin bravery to go where comics scholarship largely hasn't yet. Those weird subversive-adventure comics seeded the medium with so much, exploring some of the same distribution routes the first "indy" publishers utilized as well as doing the real narrative and formal trailblazing that gave so much of what was good in the '80s and beyond -- Chaykin's American Flagg, Miller's Daredevil, Moebius' later work, Kelley Jones' Batman, Marra's comics, Orc Stain -- a body of work to draw from, a library of fascinating failed experiments. The threads connecting all this stuff are still loose and tangled, but hopefully we'll get some good historical digging on the period at some point. And jeez... if you're just a reader, most of these comics are still priced at like three bucks.
-SPEAKING OF comics history that's yet to be written, I'd imagine I'm not alone in thinking that Kramers Ergot will be seen by future generations as one of the most important comics to come out of the current time period -- maybe the most important. Which means scholarly examination. But dude, of all the books to study, that one is going to be hard for historians to get their good looks in at. The first two issues are minicomics, so scarce and underground you can't find copies to save your life. So do you start at #3, the first one that's actually procurable? Or #4, the first one to feature color, abstract art, non-narrative comics, and many of the creators who made it a must-read book? Shouldn't academic studies be comprehensive, or at least have the option? And then there's the fact that only the most recent two issue remain in print at all, and even then on a pretty spotty basis. I do hope that some kind and enterprising publisher steps up to keep such a vital part of our history perenially in print now that Buenaventura Press has passed on.
-I DON'T know how widely this view is going to be accepted, but I've gotta say -- people who denigrate superhero comics as "wish fulfillment" are indulging in bitter crankery of a fairly low degree. I can't imagine that most superheroes speak anything but super-indirectly to the fantasy life of any sane person -- it's way more about escapism, pure and simple, relief from the grind. The reason a lot of kids get drawn into devoted hero fandom at a slightly pre-adolescent age has nothing to do with the Freudian hooey of "power fantasies"; it's because when you first start finding out that this isn't a perfect world, that in fact it's a seriously warped place to live, you naturally turn to something warmer and kinder and "righter" to replace the illusion of perfection that's been taken away. You turn to Superman, or Flash, or Batman or whoever: men with the power to make everything good and right. We all need dreams from better places: superhero comics provide some people with theirs. Let the critic focus on the work and its quality, leaving medium-wide judgments behind. We really don't need them anymore.
-THE PRACTICE that still persists at Marvel (and to some extent at DC too) of putting out comics whose covers are totally non-representative of the content and just feature pin-ups of the title characters? Near as I can figure, the only guy who's ever been able to do it well is the same guy who started it all: Frank Quitely. His covers for New X-Men, which was Marvel's flagship book from 2001-03 or so, were so striking and different that an entire company followed in their footsteps. It looks so awful now when you just get a cover with like Thor standing against a color filter, but it was really something else back in the day to see a 2-shot image of Cyclops just standing there mugging against a bright, flat background. The cover to NXM #114, Quitely's first issue on the title, is the key: the X-Men stride out toward the reader in an arrogant, self-conscious strut that real humans only do on runways. Quitely positioned his characters as fashion models for those covers, not superheroes: they were attractive, they had "look at me" attitude as opposed to the "badass" variety, and they weren't wearing costumes but the day's high fashion. That meta-conceit of mimicking another, more recognizable and widely-seen art form -- Quitely was drawing the Marvel version of Vogue ads -- has been lost on a generation of cover artists, resulting in the racks' current hideous appearance.
Edit: Sean T. Collins kindly reminds me of the Ultimate line covers, which employed pin-ups slightly previous to Quitely, and still do today. I forgot to use the line I had cooked up to address that, which went something like: "The contemporaneous Ultimate line began using pin-up covers around the same time, but they were so hideously ugly that I can't imagine anyone working in comics is moving forward with that particular inspiration."
-COMICS HAS got to be the medium that utilizes present-tense narration the most.
-THOUGH THERE have always been artists who pushed the farthest boundaries of comics further and further into total rough, handmade craftlessness, these days the form seems to be reaching some kind of critical mass. Rory Hayes took the torch from the undergrounds (with their logic-defying psychedelic imagery) and Herriman (with his rawbone pen line) and made some of the most abstracted comics art that had been seen up to that point. (He's been reclaimed by the Golden Age of Reprints, I'd guess in no small part because of his aesthetic similarity with the modern art brut garde.) To my eyes the biggest follower of Hayes' stylistic precepts is Gary Panter, who made the line even rattier, dada-ed his stories to dangerous degrees, and occasionally produced completely abstract comics pages. After Panter a whole movement starts, with Fort Thunder-ers from Brian Chippendale to Mat Brinkman creating pages of uber-scrawl and arrhythmic color that sometimes form cohesive stories only because we're told they do so. And that's pretty much where we are now.
But pretty soon someone's going to come along producing high-quality work that really takes it to the next level, which I think is total abstraction: comics without characters or linear stories, comics where the degraded quality of the drawing is the sum total of the subject matter. There's some stuff along those lines in the Abstract Comics anthology, and I've seen more around here and there -- but no one has really stepped up to own that kind of comic yet, to make it their "thing". I wouldn't mind if it was Taylor McKimens, whose less narrative pages stick fairly close to the Fort Thunder aesthetic as well as storyless, purely visual motion. But regardless of who does it, I think a whole new seam of comics-making is set to open up in front of our eyes in the next decade. All it'll take is one person with enough talent and dedication.
-ALAN MOORE and Frank Miller: the more they make enemies of today's mainstream, the more tomorrow's alternative scene will claim them as their own. It's already happening: there's a whole school of "indy" books over at Image where Ronin is a big stylistic precursor, and even Shaky Kane seems to be channeling Lanky Frank at times. Did you notice the appearance of Moore's The Courtyard in Dash Shaw's Bodyworld? Small steps toward a topsy-turvy future.
What this says about the mainstream, however, is hardly encouraging. Moore and Miller ripoffs were responsible for so much of the superhero dreck pumped out over the past quarter-century that it's probably good for the genre to get those two guys out of their system for a while -- but if they become verboten as influences, if "doing a Moore" becomes the equivalent of what "doing a Weisinger" is now? You realize that means Brian-Michael Bendis ripoffs, right? Grant Morrison's influence can't sustain an entire field on its own, especially when people are so piss-poor at imitating him. If it's to survive, the hero market is going to have to start looking at the alternatives for inspiration, just as the alternatives seem to be enjoying a love affair with old mainstream comics right now. I can think of a lot worse things than the next Spider-Man writer embarking on an extended Fritz the Cat riff.
-WHAT DO YOU THINK?