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

 

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

Sons and Brothers

Craig Thompson of Blankets fame asks a silly question in the introduction to Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba’s Daytripper:  “Does Art Enhance Our Lives Or Distract From It?” Then he makes what might be an unpopular decision between fantasy and reality comics. (And shouldn’t that be, “Our Life”?)

“The Superhero,” he says, ” is escapist. The DREAM. Clearly a distraction. But [reality] is its own abstraction–distilling life to its most mundane, suppressing the dream with CYNICISM.” He goes onto say the Brazilian brothers Moon and Ba (twins!) travel both. Daytripper takes a magical realism approach, its hero is oh-so-human. It follows a “miracle child” and son of a famous writer through parallel universes of the same life, but not the same death.   Added twists: the son, Bras, aspires to be a great writer like his father but is employed scribbling obituaries for the local paper. He stands in shadow. Lovers and a friend, sometimes only their memories, tie the episodes together.

Ba’s artwork is much more round and human in his brother’s story, more sharp-edged and angular in his work for Matt Fraction’s Casanova Luxuria, which appears more commercial. Casanova comes down on the fantasy side, fantasies of several types, the best of which is probably not the legions of sexy, female robots. Sure, the sex in Daytripper is good, too. The best parts of Cassanova (there is a collected Volume 2 out; haven’t read it) are when the characters are at their most human.  Contrast that with Daytripper‘s  magical mystery tour of (multiple) existence, all of it all too human. Fantasy and reality–one can’t seem to exist without the other.–Cabbage Rabbit

Calling Joe Sacco…Progress In Gaza?

A story in today’s New York Times (June 26) gives the impression that conditions are on the rebound in Gaza. It’s been the Rabbit’s impression that over the years the media hasn’t done a good job reporting the abhorrent living conditions in the Palestinian territories, as if it’s something everyone already knows. But it’s anxious to trumpet positive developments. Being someone who’s found the truth in comics , and to a lesser extent, personal accounts from those who’ve been there, we won’t be convinced until we see conditions illustrated. Anyway, the story seems to give a mixed account.

From the Times piece by Ethan Bronner, “‘Things are better than a year ago,’ said Jamal El-Khoudary, chairman of the board of the Islamic University, who has led Gaza’s Popular Committee Against the Siege. ‘The siege on goods is now 60 to 70 percent over.’ Ala al-Rafati, the economy minister for Hamas, the militant group that governs Gaza, said in an interview that nearly 1,000 factories are operating here, and he estimated unemployment at no more than 25 percent after a sharp drop in jobless levels in the first quarter of this year. ‘Yesterday alone, the Gaza municipality launched 12 projects for paving roads, digging wells and making gardens,’ he said. ”

And in the next paragraph: “Thousands of homes that were destroyed in the Israeli antirocket invasion two and a half years ago have not been rebuilt. Hospitals have canceled elective surgery for lack of supplies. Electricity remains maddeningly irregular. The much-publicized opening of the Egyptian border has fizzled, so people remain trapped here. The number of residents living on less than $1.60 a day has tripled in four years. Three-quarters of the population rely on food aid.”

So what’s the real story? I’m going to wait until my favorite cartoonist-journalist Joe Sacco gives us some perspective. Word is that the author of Palestine and Footnotes In Gaza is taking a break from globe-trotting material gathering. Say it ain’t so, Joe. When it comes to conditions in Gaza and the West Bank we don’t know who to believe. But we believe you, Joe.-Cabbage Rabbit

Palmistry

The unnamed protagonist of Stigmata is not the sort of man you’d expect God to visit. Big, unruly, alcoholic and prone to violence, he lives on society’s margins, seemingly in need of divine intervention. Yet he has a humble, saintly side as well. When God appears, in the form of desperate-looking dream child,  It leaves curse — the manifestation of stigmata — not blessing.

Stigmata is a disturbingly beautiful novel, both in story and illustration. Italian novelist, screenwriter and director Claudio Piersanti ‘s dark tale revolves around the price of deliverance, not only its moral costs but the responsibility of its charge. The first cost is employment when patrons notice our cursed man is bleeding on the beer glasses he delivers to their tables. The frustration of reprimand leads to violence and the loss of the only job it seems he might hold.

That violence returns just as his life seems to settle. He’s hired by a carnival sideshow to lay hands on those needing favor, a kind of perverted blessing that sometimes delivers the promised healing. He falls in love with a co-worker and marries, an event that helps him accept his charlatan profession even as it makes him uncomfortable. When the bar owner he mauled stumbles into the carnival, his past sin is visited on the wife. Raped and left with a broken arm,  she sees a sort of Catholic Karma at play. “We did something we shouldn’t have…We’re sinners. He was the devil, he was.”

The downward spiral that leads to the God-child’s promise of deliverance can’t come quickly enough. Strangely, the man finds happiness, his  marks of passion tolerated. “Some of us suffer and hope to be cured…But it’s not a physical ailment that ails us, but a hardness in our heart,” he tells a group of men around a barrel fire. “Do you know why they claim I do good? It’s because people realize that they can enjoy the kind of rebirth I did…that nothing is truly ever lost.”

Lorenzo Mattotti ‘s illustrations are at once beautiful and gruesome. Known for his graceful and color-wise covers for The New Yorker, Mattotti’s black-and-white drawing here carries a shadowed foreboding. Tight tangles of swirling, chaotic lines come together in strangely peaceful images. The darkness of the central figure is contrasted with the whiteness of doctors, his love and God-the child itself. Fat, almost squared heads fill portraits. As perspective pulls back, the same heads seem small atop large, squared torsos. Landscapes,  especially the one showing the newlyweds swirling in celebration on a carnival ride, offer symbol, foreshadows and surreality. As he tells his tale around the fier in the last chapter, his face goes from a confused darkness to a distinct, sympathetic clarity.

Familiar with the feminine lines and graceful motion of Mattotti’s color work, it took me some time to get a feel for the line drawings here. But the more I examined his scribbled vision, the more I felt its clarity. Stigmata left me strangely uplifted, despite the bleeding, the imposed violence and the cold regard of its child-like deity. It’s a popular notion, lately; deliverance from duality by death. What suffering it takes to arrive there.–Cabbage Rabbit

Digging Up A Deadly Past

The Gaza Flotilla Raid in May that left nine dead and dozens wounded has already faded into the background of oil-soaked news. While in Seattle earlier this month, the Rabbit witnessed attempts at keeping the issue alive: dueling protests on the University of Washington campus in which both bullhorned sides invited the other into the space between them for “real” discussion (neither side budged while we watched), and a large, pro-Palestinian march the following day through downtown. Similar actions have been  reported around the country and the world. The opposing UW protests emerged in our mind as an symbol of how little chance there is of worthwhile resolution to the West Bank and Gaza issue. No doubt,  by the time summer is over, the flotilla incident will be just another footnote in a long, cruel and bloody struggle.

The death toll in the flotilla incident is small compared to that alleged in the two incidents illustrated in Joe Sacco’s Footnotes in Gaza. The book is a long account of Sacco’s investigation of two actions in Gaza that occurred back in 1956, one in the town of Khan Younis that left 275 Palestinians dead, another in Rafah that left 111 dead. While the overall effect of Sacco’s narrative is one of shock, disgust and shame it also serves as a reminder of the on-going nature of repression and killing that has marked the Palestinian-Israeli struggle for some 60 years.

Sacco, author-illustrator of Palestine and Safe Area Grorazde is the premier graphic journalist, the creator of detailed, researched, investigative comics that are no laughing matter. He approaches his subject in classic Gonzo style, injecting his search for stories into a larger narrative. This injection strengthens his reporting with its wide-angled, contemporary background to, in this case, events over 50 years old. That he concentrated on personal accounts, often to make up for a lack of official documentation, makes his work extremely engaging. Perspective–no pun intended– is everything in his work.

Sacco traveled to Gaza in 2001 with reporter Chris Hedges for Harper’s magazine and soon returned to collect accounts of the massacres that occurred during the ’56 Suez conflict. As readers of Palestine know, his sympathies are with the Palestinian people and this will disqualify him as a legitimate source for many. Yet anyone reading his book and examining the illustrations cannot help but conclude that the Palestinians suffer overwhelming poverty, repression and the effects of  what amounts to war. His infrequent sympathies for Israelis thrust into terrible situations as well as infrequent but obvious disapproval of some Palestinian actions offer precious little balance to a story that has little of it to offer.

In his introduction, Sacco acknowledges  the “scant” official documentation of the events he investigates as well as the questionable reliability of oral testimony. What documentation he was able to discover by sending researchers into the Israel State Archives and the archives of the Israel Defense Forces is listed (and quoted) in the Appendix. He issues the hope that his work will cause some Israeli veterans to come forward with accounts of their own.

Sacco also cautions readers not to see his illustrations as fact. Despite using historical photos when drawing his landscapes, he says that drawing comes with “a measure of refraction” and should be seen as such. (It’s surprising how little things have changed from his depictions of 1956 to the  current day drawings.)

Sacco makes clear the complications of life in Gaza; the waste, the shortages, the crowds, the filth.  He claims that the half of Gaza’s workforce which once worked in Israel have found themselves replaced by Thai, Romanian and Chinese workers.  Invited by a United Nations Relief Worker Agency employee to visit a home in Khan Younis, Sacco sweats and becomes claustrophobic at the tight conditions in which the 11 people live.  He notes what little work is available to them, hunting scrap or the rare teaching position funded by UNRWA. He finds that the Palestinian Authority hires police whose only duty seems to be to collect salaries. The most well-off man he meets works for an American aid agency as a facilitator of “democratization.”  “Basically, it’s bullshit,” says the man.

These modern-day accounts of Sacco’s investigation and story gathering make the book far more relevant than just an account of the massacres. When those accounts do come, they are filled with horror, grief and inexplicable cruelty. Some of Sacco’s most extreme panel’s are over-sized Hieronymus Bosh-like nightmares depicting killing, detention and states of cruel pandemonium. Cross-hatched scenes of darkness or those with the story-teller super-imposed on his own story are done to chilling effect.

Unlike Palestine, the art work doesn’t evolve but maintains a direct, composed style. The strongest work in Palestine is its portraits. Here, the portraits are all of a kind, similar in mood and expression. Footnotes’ best illustrations comes in the narrative flow. Sacco is a master at finding the right action and composition to move his story forward and even the scatter of spent shell casings on a blank background has an impact on his story.

Comic touches are few. A restaurant menu is rolled open to reveal “Bombings! Assassinations! Incursions!” Sacco makes laughs at his own expense and his is the only overly characterized face: large lips, receding hairline, eyes constantly whited out behind  large, round spectacles. He also makes fun of the press corp and their proclivity to drink and party even as duty calls in sections that recall the indifferent press in the movies The Year of Living Dangerously and Under Fire.

That party scene  serves to illustrate his frustrations — and hopes — beyond the murderous bickering. Among the international crowd of reporters and N.G.O.s are “hepcat Arabs from Ramallah and right-on Jews from Tel Aviv sharing salads and grooving to the same post-bop jazz. Are the dark-haired cuties who jump up when the dance beat kicks in Palestinian or Israeli?…Ahhh, even in the belly of the world’s most intractable conflict there’s a glimmer of hope in which to exalt!”

At end, Sacco feels shame for what he’s lost while gathering his accounts, “for losing something along the way as I collected my evidence, disentangled it, dissected it, indexed it, and logged it onto my chart.” This confession comes as something of a surprise as he has shown nothing but compassion for those who experienced the killings. In a series of almost four wordless pages he runs a final account through his mind, from a perspective inside the punished crowd, as if in attempt to develop an empathy he didn’t have. If he didn’t succeed with himself — and what preceeds it suggests that he did — Sacco certainly succeeds with the reader.–Cabbage Rabbit