Death of Comics Reboot

Take aways from the publicity surrounding the “reboot” of DC’s line of comics:

— Starting over as issue #1 means not being bound by previous story line.  So maybe Lois and Clark aren’t married. Now what? “Part of the nature of culture is that we retell stories that are meaningful to us, again and again, in different ways,” says Henry Jenkins, the provost’s professor of communication, journalism and cinematic arts at the University of Southern California, “pointing to Homer’s “Iliad,” Virgil’s “Aeneid” and Dante’s “Inferno” as ‘continual reboots of Greek mythology.’” Yeah, what would happen if Odysseus never made it home? Would Homer have increased sales? Myth making — even superhero myth — builds on shared narrative and collective understanding. This is one of the great attractions we felt towards Superman when we first started reading him centuries ago. We knew the story of his leaving Krypton and being found by Ma and Pa Kent, we knew the back story to his dog Krypto and the arrival of Supergirl,we carried a torch for Lana Lang (that red hair) and on and on. We lost interest as the stories pulled away from established myth and were long gone by the time Superman’s origins were rewritten in 1986. It’s more than continuity. It’s legend.

–“The success of superhero movies like “Thor” and “Captain America: The First Avenger” did not entirely rub off on the comics that inspired them, with individual titles struggling to sell more than 100,000 copies at $2.99 or $3.99 a copy.”  Comics are not spin-offs, like action figures, but stand-alones.

–“Recent reports by ICv2, a research company that tracks pop-cultural products, said that in July dollar sales of periodical comics were down 4.27 percent from the same month last year, down 4.6 percent in June and down 6.3 percent for the second quarter over all. Sales of graphic novels at traditional bookstores were up…” That says something encouraging. The kids, whatever their ages, are alright.

–Envy. In Rolling Stone, Grant Morrison, who’s doing the reboot of Action, says “I can appreciate someone like Chris Ware for his artistry, which I think is beautiful, but I think his attitude stinks, it just seems to be the attitude of somebody really privileged, and honestly, try living here, try living on an Indian reservation and shut up, and really seeing all that nihilistic stuff, it really makes me angry, it’s unhelpful to all of us, and it’s coming from people who have money and success to talk  like that and bring those aspects of the way we live in favor of all the  others, and it’s indefensible.” On the other hand, he says he stayed away from comics groupies.

–Morrison also says kids are abandoning comics  and turning  to movies. If that’s true, it’s a blow to our collective imagination.

–While this discussion in The New York Times‘ “Arts Beat” blog of the first reboot — Justice League #1 — does little to advance the craft of comics criticism, the comments that follow do.  Comment #2 quotes Jules Feiffer in The Great Comic Book Heroes saying Batman’s fans have “healthier egos” because Batman was a model of hard work and self-betterment. After all, unlike Superman, he was only human. That has changed, as has Batman, in these steroid sculpted times (no, I’m not accusing Bruce Wayne of following Barry Bonds). This commenter notes that heroes have both become more psychologically real and less human appearing.

Ironically enough, as the heroes have become (a trend one applauds) more human in complex psychology and in the details of their lives (marriages, social relationships, emotional depth), they have become way more cartoonish in the art, turning almost into abstract images, which lack of realism creates a real disconnect (for me anyway) between physical and emotional being.

I believe that those who favored Superman were imagining themselves inside of Jung’s theory of exceptionalism: children believing they were princes or possessing  super powers of  other forms of difference and not part of their own lives and families. Alien, like Superman.

–“Arts Beat” blog reviewer George Gene Gustines, without using the words “youth” or “demographic” feels the same way I felt when reading Justice League #1. Responding to reviewer Adam W. Kepler’s remark that, ” There’s nothing in this first issue that’s innovative, in either the story or the art,” Gustines says:

That feeling just confirms for me that I – as a long time reader of comic books – am not the target audience for this. This initiative is part of the quest for the fabled “new reader,” which, for the sake of the industry, I hope is found.

With 11 pages of ads for future issues of “The New 52!” as the reboot is called (and a Batman themed Converse shoe ad), not counting inside front and back covers, well, I doubted that the Caped Crusaders teaming with Green Lantern, coming so conveniently close to GL’s movie release, my readership was the point. The commenters discuss serialization and speculate who the audience for superheroe comics is, the suspicion being that DC is shooting for a “new,” “younger” demographic. Doing so may risk their current readership who, as commenter #1 speculates is in their mid-20s -to-mid-30s and which probably (my speculation) doesn’t end there. Sure enough, as I was reading the Times I column, here comes CNN with a “most requested” news item coverage showing buyers lining up for the Justice League release. No one there looked to be under 30…maybe the parents were keeping the kids at home.–Cabbage Rabbit


Playlist: 8/28

The Time of the Sun, Tom Harrell; HighNote, 2011. Trumpeter Harrell’s fourth album with saxophonist Wayne Escoffery, keyboardist Danny Grissett, bassist Ugonna Okegwo and drummer Jonathan Blake is a sweet, smooth exercise in unique rhythmic accessibility and lyricism. The disc opens with sounds produced by the magnetic field of the sun, the final burst of harmony, according to the notes, using oscillation data from the Solar & Heliospheric Observatory, a satellite with ears. The brief prelude serves as symbol of what follows: warm, varied and bright. Harrell’s nine tune oscillate between uptempo and contemplative while his playing remains thoughtful, revealing and resolute. These aren’t Harrell’s most involved compositions. The themes are engaging enough to draw cynical listeners in to Harrell’s lyric mysticism. Fine, occasionally electric keyboard comps from Grissett, equally electric soloing from Escoffery’s tenor, and rhythmic footing anchored deeply in the concrete-poured foundation from  Okegwo and Blake give Harrell all he needs to make us believe what he has to say. We thought of some of Freddie Hubbard’s ballads and mid-tempo pieces from his CTI days. But going back to them we found Harrell more rhythmically ambitious. I’ve listened frequently, trying to figure out why I like this recording so much. I figured it out. How could I not?

Straight Life, Freddie Hubbard; CTI, recorded 1970. We thought (see above) we heard something of Hubbard’s great work for Creed Taylor in Tom Harrell’s new album. We were wrong. Hubbard was into the times. He’d help create them. He brings a full platter of Freddie-isms to the bugaloo of “Mr. Clean” and the title tune. Ron Carter pegs it, Jack DeJohnette has no peer mixing it up inside shuffle rhythms; Herbie Hancock, on Fender Rhodes, is off beat  and funky.  Joe Henderson, likewise displaying his personal arsenal, explodes on tenor. Still, the highlight is Hubbard’s flugel on “Here’s That Rainy Day.” The man knew how to get warm and cozy with a ballad. Do we still like this recording as much as I did when it first came out? And more.

Blood From the Stars, Joe Henry; Anti-, 2009. There was a hurricane, spinning out of somewhere, heading somewhere else. We needed to hear “Death To the Storm.”  We love songwriter-singer Henry’s mix of weird and wonderful, of poetry and song, of pop and jazz instrumentation, of tradition and innovation. And , like him, we believe in “thunder, stairways, bottle caps, damp alleys, Fats Waller…and the sanctity of  beauty salons.” There’s comfort in discomfort. Joe’s found it.

Beethoven: The Early String Quartets, Op. 18, NoO. 3, No. 4, No. 6, Tokyo String Quart, Pinchas Zukerman viola; RCA Victor Red Seal, recorded  1991. The middle disc of this three disc set prepares me for all the emotion I’ll face during the day. With coffee.

Conversations: Archie Shepp Meets Kahil El’Zabar’s Ritual Trio with Ari Brown and Malachi Favors; Delmark 1999. Blues in a spiritual direction. The spare backing keeps tenor soloists Shepp and Brown clean, like a white shirt on Sunday. A few times during August, this tribute to Fred Hopkins gave us the strength to finish the day. Hallelujah.




All the Lonely People

When did cartoonist Chris Ware lose his sense of humor and  turn all Eleanor Rigby on us? Ware has always veered towards the lonely, pathetic, side of life. The Acme Novelty Library, Number 20: Lint follows in the footsteps of Rusty Brown, Jimmy Corrigan and the half-legged woman from Acme Novelty Library, Number 18. But unlike earlier editions of Acme (excluding the all-serious, all the time 18) there’s no comedic breaks, no comic parody, no political levity to break the narrative. The mood in Lint ranges from somber to dismal

Jordan Lint is a plainly pathetic character, deviant in his normalcy with a psyche littered with the usual psychic traumas of childhood (think potty training). He comes from that most normal of dull places, Nebraska (Full disclosure: Ware himself is from Nebraska. Me, too). Ware doesn’t give the story too many fantastic touches to make his point. God makes an appearance but, like many a father, disappears when Jordan grows up.

Fathers play the role of heavies in Ware’s books, especially Jimmy Corrigan, and the latest takes the father-son role further as the son become father and an offspring claims fatherly harm in a much more dramatic, public way. This betrayal seems to revisit Lint’s own exaggeration of his father’s faults.

Ware has a way of capsulizing our lives into its most common, most poignant moments (see the illustration at the front of the diary that shows stages of Lint’s daughter). There are hints of Piaget and Erickson as Jordan develops from clueless infant to concept-grasping toddler to self-absorbed adolescent. The story starts on the molecular level with read and black pixels gathering into recognizable geometric features. We follow the young Lint as fuzzy perception becomes focus and his intellect develops.

Early on, Jordan mirrors his father’s outbursts and his mother’s tenderness and this opposition becomes part of Ware’s design. His mother’s funeral and his father remarrying are depicted on opposite pages. The young boy’s conception of both events are mirrored in dark colors, tears, scab-picking and thumb-sucking. As he struggles for identity and sexual understanding, he changes his name. Alienation of the kind many teens feel sets in. He grasps at that most mighty of teen cliches: he wants to be a rock’n’ roll star.

Ware follows Lint’s adult life through marriages, financial success and child-rearing. He seems to be unaware of his own feelings and desires, following them blindly where they lead. Guilt, arriving late, plays a leading role and deliverance never lives up to promise. His past visits at unseemly moments. He is happiest at his most indulgent, a characteristic represented by his drunken enthusiasm over football (a source of happiness that as all Nebraska football fans know can dissolve in a single play).

Ware’s drawing, the art and craft of it, continues to be visually searing. That’s not to mean it’s psychedelic in it spontaneity and hallucinatory images (although their starkness and geometry can be hallucinatory at times). But his tireless style burns into our brains. Each page is a mosaic of variously-sized and sequenced panels that speed and slow the story at its creator’s whim. The illustration sporting the least technique is by Lint himself, a sheet of  lined-notebook paper with a crude Frankenstein portrait drawn by the kid “so sick of everything.”  Reoccurring images haunt the pages. The story ends as it begins, the drawings deconstructing into colored molecules, Lint’s life-long preoccupations bubbling to the surface of his dissipating consciousness until only a word is left: “am.”

Lint is normal in that he does much to generate his own guilt. There’s a moral to this story but it’s distorted. Like many of us, Lint — a product of his past as well as his own self-indulgence — is not a perfect man. There are excuses and there are no excuses. Ultimately, his unhappiness seems anchored in his inability to face the realities of his life. What can we learn?

Marvel Boycott

A number of comics websites are calling for a boycott of Marvel Comics, specifically any Marvel product (and that includes a lot more than actual comics) that have anything to do with characters or stories created by the late, great Jack Kirby after a federal judge in New York declared that Kirby’s heirs had no claim for a judgement against Marvel and its parent The Walt Disney Company. The judge ruled that Kirby’s creations, the Incredible Hulk, X-Men and the Fantastic Four among them (all in collaboration with Stan Lee), were “work for hire” and that the family had no argument for copyright. It’s the biggest row over a comic creation since Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster went after Time Warner over the creation of Superman.

Well-known illustrator/cartoonist Seth took to his website to support the boycott and defend  Kirby’s legacy while attacking Marvel, Disney and Marvel mavern Lee:

The corporate lie about Kirby’s role in the creation of all those characters is abhorrent. It’s a bold faced lie. Everyone knows it’s a lie. No one is fooled. Everyone lying for the company should be ashamed. Stan Lee should be ashamed. What the Marvel corporation is doing might be legal but it certainly isn’t right.

Count me in, not that I spend any money on Marvel products, especially movies.  The issue –who owns an artist’s creative work  — is one that applies to much more than comics.  I haven’t liked Marvel since it was purchased by the Mouse. And I haven’t like the Mouse since it tried to throw me out of Disneyland for having a smeared entry stamp (and long hair, no doubt) all those years ago.–Cabbage Rabbit

Philip Levine – Poet Laureate

Welcome news today that Philip Levine has been appointed Poet Laureate of the United States. I enjoyed Levine’s 2010 collection News of the World with its recycled memories and working class tales as well as its plain-spoken language , something often required of American poets; see Ted Kooser but, not so much, Levine’s predecessor W.S. Merwin. I’m hoping this will result in an updated collection of the 83-year-old poets work, so we may chart his aesthetic course even as his poetry springs more and more of memory.