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

 

Strip Mine

Jeanette Winterson‘s review in the New York Times of Joan Schenkar’s biography, The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith draws a connection between not only Highsmith’s plot sequencing and the six-panel comic but Highsmith’s–and her characters’–personalities as well. Highsmith, who died in 1995, wrote Strangers On a Train The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Cry of the Owl (yes, all became movies) and other tales in which apprehension becomes a palpable force (in his posthumous introduction to The Selected Stories of Patricia Highsmith published in 2001, Graham Greene calls her “the poet of apprehension…” ).  She famously consumed alcohol, cigarettes and love affairs with equal abandon.  After her graduation from Barnard College in 1942,  Highsmith wrote for a handful of comic publishers and Winterson suggests the staging of her novels, as well as the lives of  her subjects, is true to that visual form:

“…the comic strip formula of threat/pursuit/fantasy life/alter ego/secret identity was the formula she used in all her work. The four-color, six-panel comic strip shaped Patricia Highsmith the crime writer like nothing else–however much she cared cite Dostoyevsky and Henry James.”

Winterson, who loves the biography but has doubts about its subject, implies an important point about comics when comparing them to Highsmith’s story-telling ability. The pace of the action from panel to panel, and what (and how much)  to illustrate inside each of them is a crucial part of the craft. Emphasis on the scene–what’s pictured and it’s relationship to everything else pictured (composition)–and the angle from which it’s viewed is part of the narrative path.  As Highsmith demonstrated, the same goes for fiction writing, with description and symbol standing in for illustration. Highsmith not only knew how to create tension and suspense with her pacing, she knew that alter-egos are common to all of us (think The Talented Mr. Ripley). She apparently didn’t like to concede her background in comics. She “only vaguely acknowledged,  when pressed by the more ferrety kind of interviewer, having conjured up a few story lines for Superman and Batman,” write Winterson. But she seemed to recognize a comic-truth that  the Rabbit has always believed: Peel away the conservative suit of a mild-mannered reporter, or anyone for that matter, and you’ll find an unlikely leotard–with cape!–if not a different being all together. In other words, someone with something to hide.–Cabbage Rabbit

You’re an Insect, Charlie Brown

There’s a comic quality and grounds for parody in even the most classic literature. In Masterpiece Comics, R. Sikoryak proves himself  adept at discovering and exploiting these  cartoonish characteristics. But while the laughs in his collection are literate, what he parodies are the comics, everything from  Peanuts to Superman.

Masterpiece Comics would be a one-joke wonder if it weren’t so clever. Sikoryak has taken works from Shakespeare, Emily Bronte, Oscar Wilde, Franz Kafka and a host of others and fitted them with familiar comic characters (or in the case of Bronte, familiar comic formats). Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne becomes Little Lulu’s mother. Batman becomes Crime and Punishment‘s  Raskolnikov.  Ziggy is Candide. This, of course, is something different than the Classics Illustrated comics we all suffered when young.

Sikoryak’s method isn’t so much about presenting literary classics in comic form. Instead, he takes comic characters and inserts them into classic literature. So instead of illustrating the Genesis creation as a cartoon (as has Robert Crumb), he’s plopped Dagwood and Blondie into Eden as Mr. Dithers takes on the role of God. There’s no (or little) attempt at quoting or being absolutely true to the original. Dialogue and character traits are drawn with the emphasis on comic content rather than any literary consistency. Past and present high school students who’ve used the Illustrated Classics series as an easy way to bone up on MacBeth or Wuthering Heights would flunk the pop quiz after reading the condensations here.

The casting of  comic characters as literary characters (Mary Worth as Lady MacBeth?) is a big part of Masterpiece‘s genius. Little Nemo is a brilliant Dorian Gray and who better to visit Dante’s hell than Bazooka Joe? Sikoryak mixes up his approach, using the Bazooka Bubble Gum, three panel comic for “Inferno Joe,” complete with special offer (“Ice scraper…ideal for when hell freezes over…”) and fortune (“A winged beast will take you for a ride.”) Garfield stands in for Mephistopheles with Jon as Faustus in three-panel comic strip construction. A series of “Action Camus” covers portray Superman in various stages of Camus’ The Stranger (“So much for the harmony of the day!”).The Bronte chapter is told, cover and all, in the style of Tales From the Crypt. Throughout, Sikoryak is true to style and format of the original comics, whether it be Bob Kane’s early Batman orJerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s Superman circa 1942. He adds familiar comic book touches like letters pages and parodies of special offers …”Lit” as “Grit.” Reading these parodies is as much an education in comic history as it is in literature. And the final installment featuring Beavis and Butthead as Estragon and Vladimir from Beckett’s  Waiting For Godot, well, we just had to laugh…heh.–Cabbage Rabbit

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Kidd Stuff

The Rabbit thought he’d caught a superhero–book jacket designer and author Chip Kidd— in a contradiction. In a recent interview for the New York Times‘ “The Moment” blog, Kidd discusses how the cover he designed for The Dark Knight Returns can be seen in any comic book store “instantly at 200 paces.” That coupled with interviewer George Gene Gustine’s intro lines that the old adage not to judge a book by its cover goes out the door in comic books stores spurred us to recall that Kidd once said, “I’m very much against the idea that the cover will sell the book.”  But apparently he doesn’t hold that belief when it comes to comics. I know for a fact that I often buy comics on the strength of their covers with no clue to where the story inside might lead.

Comics may be books but they are marketed in a completely different fashion due to serialization, their graphics, format and their audience. I’ve no doubt–and no way of knowing for sure–that Kidd’s belief that covers are less important than content holds true for comics. He’s  been known to make statements against the publishers’ notion that covers really do sell books. And it’s really no contradiction to be proud of a cover that will grab attention at 200 paces, especially if what’s inside deserves the attention the cover draws. The covers Kidd designed for his own novels–The Learners is now out in paperback– are at once clever and attractive.  And I’ve appreciated the design of his inter-connected stories as well as their literary content.

As is often the case, what’s most interesting about the Times blog-interview are the comments. A couple commentors complain about all the attention Kidd gets. One, who signs the post “de Kooning”– criticizes the Times for its failure to cover “break-out” art. This is a common complaint about big media of all kinds: it seldom knows what’s new and exciting in the wide and active world of culture. They rely on small media–alternatives, blogs and low-culture riff-raff publications–to discover and champion it for them. At a time when there’s much groundbreaking comic work out there, say David Mazzucchelli Asterios Polyp (its cover certainly wouldn’t grab you at 200 paces), it seems the Times, as usual has chosen to tell us something we already know (the Kidd interview is tied into an appearance at a local appearance, another time-honored motivator for newspaper coverage) . Sure, those-in-your-face comic covers sporting exaggerated superhero physiques (wouldn’t Wonder Woman’s pendulous bosoms make it hard to throw a punch?) play to the kind of fantasies that we’ve always loved about comics (an excpetion: the boyish Robin  with his exagerrated skininess, on the cover of Batman and Robin No. 10). But we want what’s truly different and innovative to be recognized as well.–Cabbage Rabbit

Omega Redux

The Rabbit loved superheroes as a kid but seldom identified with them. It took growing up to do that. I was well into my 20s before I realized that every mild-mannered male had a secret identity, if not a colorful leotard with or without the requisite “S.”

I was somewhere in between youth and manhood, at least psychologically, when Marvel introduced Omega: The Unknown in 1976. There was plenty to identify with if I’d only been paying attention. Not that I could have imagined myself as the grim, buff-and-caped hero of the series or the adolescent, curly-haired James Michael, whose parents looked like Clark Kent and Lana Lang even if they were robots. But the identity confusion James Michael felt and his alienation; that would have been immediately recognizable and no more unusual than it was for a skinny, middle-class Midwestern kid to identify with a New York prep school brat named Holden.

Writers Jonathan Lethem, Karl Rusnak and illustrator Farel Dalrymple’s new Omega is less pumped and super. Their James Michael, here named Titus Alexander, is a skinnier, less curly-haired and handsome kid. But the shared story—battling battalions of alien robots while figuring out their own identities—is, if you can believe it, more believable in Lethem and Dalrymple’s hands. Alexander’s parents are tired and worn, even if they are robots. The women who become his guardian angels are fatigued and hardly bodacious. Super villains don’t just fall out of the sky as they do in the Marvel series which ran through ten issues of Omega The Unknown and two issues of Defenders before vanishing (still available in the Marvel collection Omega: The Unknown Classic). The main antagonist, other than alien robots, is a scene-stealing, self-promoter in a fuchsia body suit who monopolizes the local superhero franchise with an army of surrogates and a panel truck. His fearsome name: Mink.

Yes, Lethem plays for laughs as well as parody. He’s a genius at injecting elements of fantasy even though there’s not as much contrasting reality as there was in Fortress of Solitude. He’s extracted the best facets of the original Omega and done away with some that drowned its fantasy in commercialism. It’s an improvement on the original and, at the same time, something entirely different.

In his notes at the end of the remake, Lethem calls Steve Gerber and Mark Skrenes’ original Omega “simply the greatest single comic book I’d ever read.” But after its promising first issue, Omega reverted to serial Marvel form, dropping in appearances from Electro and, yes, The Incredible Hulk as well as a cameo from Spider Man. Lethem sticks with Mink and the robots while keeping all of the original’s clever devices: James-Michael/Alexander’s sympathetic pain for the shadowy Omega, their shared, palm-sized super power, Omega’s struggles to deal with life on Earth, and Alexander’s own struggle to survive in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen.

One of the standout sections in both the original and the remake concerns Alex’s bullied fellow student. The statement here is that street life can be as terrifying as an invasion of alien robots. Dalrymple’s drawings, as stereotyped as the originals were exaggerated, spare us the visual consequences of intimidation that the original does not. Despite the stereotypes, the illustrations lend a further element of believability to the story, even at its most surreal turns. The dully lit, often dark backdrops from colorist Paul Hornschemeier, and the grayness in the deteriorating Omega’s face, make for a sort of visual foreshadowing. There’s a standout panel early into the tale of our young hero and his roommate in front of the New York Public Library that suggests a little knowledge is like entering a shadow. Dalrymple’s most manic scene is the full-page that opens section VI. There’s a palpable madness in the single eye, seen through a desk magnifier, of a robotics student as he works on an alien appendage. Section VII, drawn by the acclaimed Gary Panter, is a child’s nightmare of the devolving situation, primitively horrific in black, beige and blood red.

The original Omega is known for its overly ambitious caption narration, words that dealt with the metaphorical elements of the story in grandiose language (sample: “THE ENERGY—THE CREATIVE FORCE—COULD BE DISCIPLINED ONLY SO STRICTLY, HELD SEETHING IN CHECK ONLY SO LONG, BEFORE IT BURST FORTH—“). In staying true to this form, Lethem brings the story a new sense of literacy (“NIHILISM MAY BE THE SOLE BRAND OF SELF-ASSERTION THAT CAN’T BE PACKAGED AND SOLD BACK TO ITS ORIGINAL OWNER”) as well as finding an excuse to have some fun (“KILL OR BE KILLED, EAT OR BE EATEN, ENGULF AND DEVOUR… DON’T PLAY WITH YOUR FOOD”).

There are details galore to put together as one tries to make sense of the plot, not all of them welcomed by this long-eared reader. Robotic insects, tap-dancing street people and a giant, severed hand keep things complicated. A fictional fast food conglomerate plays an important role and Omega is taken in by a kindly old man who serves hot dogs and Italian ice from a street wagon. A pensive, over-sized bust in a park watches over all. Some of the comic turns here threaten to derail the story. Others are just part of some symbolic shtick. At one point, the starving Omega climbs a tree and grabs a bald eagle for his dinner.

Still we expect comics to be comic, even if they are about revenge and interplanetary destruction. Lethem and Rusnak have succeeded in taking the myth of a boy come to Earth to save a second planet (shades of Superman and Terminator!) from out-of-control robotics (Blade Runner!) and making it smart, intriguing and worthy of illustration. The last several brilliant pages share something important with the original: no chance of a sequel. Then again, in comics…..—Cabbage Rabbit

Look! Up In the Sky!

Had your fill of superheroes? Not, we’ll guess, the kind that crowd that pages of this high flying collection. These superheroes are conflicted, confused and, like the rest of us, limited in what they can do. These unlikely tales written by 22 mostly young and twisted authors, give us super gifted anti-heroes who drink too much, womanize and don’t exactly know what to do with their often dubious powers, if indeed they have powers at all. In a crowded field, some leave Metropolis to populate suburbs and small towns. Chris Burnham’s illustrations set between the stories give the book it’s only comics touch other than Eric Fuentecilla’s cover, with its balding, weenie-built caped character and soiled 10 cent price tag, which gives the perfect clue to what’s inside. Standouts in the collection include Noria Jablonski’s odd-sibling out in a family of human sea monkeys, Sean Doolittle’s “Mr. Big Deal” whose powers surface only when he’s facing a similarly endowed villain (leaving him vulnerable to plain old folks) and Kelly Braffet’s Bad Karma Girl who knows too well the price of consequence. While the comedy of being gifted results in some redundancy, the stories see personality as if with x-ray vision. The serious stuff–Scott Snyder’s revenge fable “Thirteenth Egg” and Owen King’s sexually challenged “The Meekrat”—leaves us wondering if having a secret identity is worth it. As one hero says, “Crime doesn’t pay but neither does saving the world.” Cabbage Rabbit