Or: hey, remember when I used to write actual reviews of actual comics on this site? That was cool.
Ulysses volume 1, by Georges Pichard, Jacques Lob, and um, Homer. Heavy Metal Classics.
Whether you like it or not, the superheroes are here to stay. The shadow cast over the American comics medium by guys in capes and gals in leotards is so all-encompassing that a vast majority of today's talent comes in carrying the genre's influence in some way or another. So all-encompassing, in fact, that that last statement doesn't even sound strange to us; but can you imagine if every single new writer came in with a nouveau roman influence, or all the young moviemakers had watched only Hammer horror movies in their lifetimes? The preponderance of that one kind of story in our country's version of the art form has produced a lot of greatness, a lot of mediocrity, and a lot of outright terrible work, but most importantly it's led to a severely weird public profile for American comics -- one in which the medium can't "normalize" or "mainstreamize" itself very successfully because most of its best and brightest lights have spent at least some time with Batman or Rom Spaceknight, whether in jest or for the paycheck or driven to it by real passion.
But, but, but! Cross the border, take a plane ride, go to the beach and dig a hole to Japan, and it's a whole different ballgame. In pretty much every other significant comics tradition in the world, the superhero, if he exists at all, is recognized for what he really represents: a fairly minor if incredibly charming genre. Though manga has produced a fair amount of classic material that moves and talks like hero comics even if it doesn't quite work the same, the other major comics tradition (over in France and Belgium) has only dabbled in the genre, and without producing much of interest. That's not to say they don't have heroic fantasy over there, far from it. But where American comics bit into the longjohned men like a weaning toddler into a mother's teat and refused to let go, the Francophone comics world traffics in other hackneyed cliches for its genre material: barbarians, space, utopian sci-fi, westerns. And perhaps it's just cause I'm a filthy American fanboy who thinks any comic can be improved by slapping a domino mask onto it, but for me France's general denial of the US form's combination cash cow/genius repository makes it even more interesting when one of that country's great artists decides to take the genre, its tropes, and its silly little contradictions head on.
Which, man that took me a while, which brings me to Ulysses.
There's this very rarefied strand of Silver Age-era Eurocomics that always strikes me as dialoguing pretty closely with contemporary American comics. Guido Crepax on early Valentina laid out a blueprint that Jim Steranko swiped more or less wholesale for his SHIELD, while Moebius stretched from Caniff on Blueberry to Crumb and Corben on his early fantasy shorts and Hugo Pratt took up the midcentury "adventuring globetrotter" template from the Yankee papers, stoking it to a fever pitch with Corto Maltese. But... Crumb, Steranko, sure... but you know who else was drawing comics back in those days, and reaching the peak of his individuality when Pichard set croquille to paper on Ulysses? KIRBY.
Jack Kirby, to my eyes, hasn't been absorbed by the Continental tradition as thoroughly as a lot of other American cartoonists who are much less influential back here have. Judging from my totally superficial reading of what Euro stuff I can scrounge up, as well as the grand total of like seven European comics shops I've been inside, the big heroes over there are either the classic strip illustrators (Foster, Raymond, Caniff), the EC guys (Wood, Kurtzman, Frazetta), and the undergrounders (Crumb, Irons, Shelton, more Crumb). Kirby -- the keystone, the spine of American genre comics -- doesn't seem to come into it that much. But I don't know; I mean, the French were looking at superhero comics in '74, at least I go to think Moebius and probably Phillipe Druillet were, and there had to be some Kirbys in there somewhere. Because Pichard, whose usual mode is more like this (warning, may offend), to indulge in such intense Kirbyisms as those above and the one below, seems way more than just a coincidence.
But though I could pick apart the chain of influence all day, the real clue to Ulysses' genesis in American heroism lies in its subject matter. This comic is like a tres-French rehash of Kirby's Thor, mixing a fairly linear adapation of the Homeric title myth with as much technofied super-god intervention as possible. Scripter Lob puts Stan Lee-awesome hero detritus (V-16 jet engines, flying saucers, robotic cyclopes) to every facet of the original story he possibly can, with impressive results: he does quite well at whipping the Odyssey into a nicely considered, if slightly cracked, version of the superhero formula. The Greek pantheon watches Ulysses struggle through the Mediterranean from a steel-coated, dangerously reflective Olympus, peering down at Earth with their massive, cutting-edge home theater setup, looking for all the world like one of those issues where the Avengers review tapes of their previous adventures. Hermes has got a Jay Garrick Flash costume going, Poseidon looks like a clankier Black Manta, and and Hephaestus seems to have purloined the Mk. I Iron Man armor (though all the goddesses' scanty costumes are something else again). This stuff could quite easily read as uproariously funny, but it's all played totally straight, putting on a kids-comics naivete with Pichard's American stylisms. Just like our superheroes, it's serious because there's no other way for it to be and still matter.
So yeah, this is superhero comics. It's got metafiction (Homer himself climbs aboard Ulysses' ship to share the journey home and work on his manuscript) and sex (Pichard is completely unable to contain himself once Circe starts turning men into pigs), but by and large the core of this book is stripped-down Kirbyist adventure, bigger monsters to fight and crazier pictures to draw at every turn. As such Pichard is what powers this comic, the script only as important as the images it bring out of his pen. In that respect it's quite impressive, taking a fairly significant step back from the artist's usual fleshy, stippled torture-porn and into something that owes equal amounts to Kirby and ancient Greek pottery art, turned out with squeegee brushing and a thin, elegant, delightfully scratchy pen line. This is superhero comics as fine art, the heroic poses doubling as expressive contour drawings, '60s underground hatching into the refinement of Dore woodblock prints.
Hazing over it all is a truly phenomenal color job: Pichard uses his watercolor palette with a savage, minimalist touch, evoking a more sophisticated version of vintage hero comics' CMYK tones by coloring not for realism or saturation but pure effect. Submerged entirely in harsh, blinding yellows or nauseous turquoise murks, it pops the flat figure drawings out of their gloomy, futuristic backgrounds and into amplified life with tremendous force. There's a real delicacy to it as well, though: Pichard knocks dimensionality into particularly stiff poses with deftly placed modeling tones, and little details like the streak of green added to a Cyclops' burning yellow eye beam, or the Winsor McCay stained-glass technicolor of Aeolus' aerial palace have way more to them than most full-process digital jobs. Indeed, the best thing that can be said about Pichard the colorist is that he doesn't overdo it for a minute: every page is a striking trio of whites, blacks, and chroma, a sum truly more than its parts.
Yup, much as this book owes to the kind of hero comics you can get 25 for 15 in the Essentials volumes, it remains its own thing throughout. There's one fight at the beginning, and it lasts all of four pages before we're back to the open seas, the gloriously variable layouts, the superhero gods who would rather sit around watching TV in their retrofuturistic lounge than provide us with action. This is a comic about superheroes, but it's about the blazing glory of superhero colors, the delight of having a status quo to return to after each adventure, the sexy urges underlying everything, and just how good those costumes look, not the boring American action-intrigue. The best sequence comes on the witch Circe's island, where steadfast Ulysses falls victim not to slithering monsters or technological traps but the dark, pulsing allure of a willing Pichard woman. It's pure seduction in comics form, incorporating Crepax sensuality and Steranko trippiness in a rock poster-style assault that forces you to give up, hang on, and be completely overpowered as the pages turn themselves ever forward.
In the end, what we've got here is a pretty good case of something from nothing. This comic is wildly derivative in a lot of ways -- besides the Kirby it's got plenty of French-specific genre gesturing, and shades of all kindsa vintage, kitschy, "transgressive" comics from both sides of the Atlantic. But it's got a powerful beauty to it as well, and it's one of those rare books that chooses and incorporates its influences well enough to get beyond them and become something all its own. A better-drawn Barbarella set in the distant past instead of the far future? If that doesn't sound at all appealing to you then you probably aren't a part of the doubtless small, tangential audience for this comic; but if it does, if you are, this is page after page of sunken rubies, pulled direct from the Aegean sea of yesteryear. '74 or 1200 BC, it doesn't really make much difference.
Last post til Monday....