26 February 2008

The Glorious Pulps

Best of the Spirit
Will Eisner

This entry will be brief, because at the moment I'm rather busy writing a paper, but since it's been a week I figured I should check in.

This week in class we are reading Best of the Spirit, a collection of particularly remarkable stories from Will Eisner's rather remarkable comic. Reading them through the first time, I found them enjoyable, if not terribly surprising. Reading them through again, I found them interesting and well-written. And of course I have a weakness for this sort of thing.

I will make a confession. I love me some pulp fiction.

Now, my pulp fiction interests mainly run to sci-fi, but I like The Spirit because of my deep and abiding love of crime fiction a la Raymond Chandler and film noir. The Spirit and the police are nearly as cynical as Philip Marlowe, but they seem cheerier about it; that they take it for granted that eighteen-year-olds might take to crime is sad, but they run with it. Nothing they can do about it, hey?

I think I'd like to read some more of the Raymond Chandler novels lying around my house and compare them to the Spirit. It'd be fun. But for now I've got a paper to write.

13 February 2008

Things You Might Enjoy, If You Enjoy This Sort Of Thing--Episode Two

The Last Temptation
Neil Gaiman and Michael Zulli
based on a story by Neil Gaiman and Alice Cooper

I found this a couple of days ago, at the same store where I found, to my sorrow, the Essential Dazzler. And, appropriately enough to the story's content, I didn't find it in the main room of the comic shop. No, I found it in the basement, in a mildly creepy little room filled with boxes of back issues and ancient model kits and a lit glass case full of outdated collectibles. According to Amazon it's still in print, but on the "Other Books by Neil Gaiman" list in the back of my copy, it mentions American Gods as "coming Summer 2001." It cost me ten dollars plus tax, and possibly a little bit of my soul, though I can't really judge that at the moment.

Anyway, I bought it, and then later when my boyfriend and I were driving to GameStop, he said to me, "So, you bought an Alice Cooper comic?" Not really with derision--we both know that Neil Gaiman's a great author regardless, and Alice Cooper is actually pretty cool--but with curiousity. Because of course there's this lovely tradition of rocker vanity projects, like...well, for example, any comic starring the members of Kiss. So I was mildly apprehensive, but not too much.

And it's a great story.

I mean, it's not the best I've read. Certainly not the best work of Neil Gaiman's that I've read; it's a bit too straightforward for that. But it's a really cool comic to have. It's about a boy named Steven, who's scared of lots of things, and who meets a Showman who runs a theatre and looks a lot like Alice Cooper. The Showman gives him a free ticket to the theatre, and shows him some rather terrifying things, and then makes him an enticing offer, one that could change his life.

Join up. Be part of the show. Be young forever. Everyone wants that. Right?

I will not provide details.

It's beautifully written, and I imagine it's a great companion to the album, which I haven't heard, although now I'd really like to. Steven's a likable kid. And besides the writing, it's also beautifully drawn--by Michael Zulli, in fact, one of my favorite comics artists because he makes everything beautiful, even zombies. Everything's lovely, and a few panels in particular were really weirdly compelling. My copy, at least, has this odd brownish tint instead of straight black and white, which is interesting, but I don't know whether it's deliberate or a consequence of aging slowly in a dark basement. And the lettering is by Todd Klein, who did a lot of the lettering on Sandman, so even that's cool.

The Last Temptation is a comic worth finding, particularly if you can find it in some weird place like I did. I'm not saying you should hunt it down with a crazy passion, but if you come across it, pick it up and read at least a few pages. Drop the ten bucks for a copy; it's worth at least that much. It's not a complicated story. It probably won't shock you that much. But it is really good.

What Is The Point Of Dazzler?

The Dark Phoenix Saga
Chris Claremont

Possible spoilers

One thing I enjoyed about reading Dark Phoenix was the chance to see the origins of two of my favorite X-Men characters. These are Kitty Pryde and Emma Frost--Kitty I like because I feel like I can relate to her, just a bit. Emma's cool because...well, she's intelligent, sarcastic, and generally in control of herself, she's a psychic, and she's super hot.

Emma particularly has been a constant in most of the X-Men comics I've read. She's a central character in Joss Whedon's Astonishing X-Men, which is the first X-Men series I ever read. She's similarly important in Grant Morrison's run on New X-Men, which I read after Astonishing even though it came first. And now I get to see her way early on.

Kitty, too--not so much in New X-Men, but she's a member of the main team in Astonishing, and she's smart and interesting and has a really cool power. Whedon even references the events of her introduction in Dark Phoenix. She's neat. There's a point to her.

However, Emma and Kitty aren't the only characters introduced in Dark Phoenix Saga. There's also Dazzler. She's a disco queen.

Why, oh gods, why is there a disco queen?

If you haven't heard of her before, or read Dark Phoenix Saga, you may not know of her. She's an aspiring singer trying to break into the disco scene. She wears a skintight silver jumpsuit and high heels made of disco. Her power is to create lots of bright lights very suddenly. She mainly uses it in her act, but she can also give people seizures or make them go blind.

Seizures. Disco. What the hell, people.

See, it's similar to part of my problem with Jean Grey. I think it would be possible to do interesting things with a power like that, but mainly as she's written she's just irritating. And the other day, when I found a copy of (le sigh) the Essential Dazzler, I was told by my boyfriend that her solo comic mainly just followed her attempts to start up a singing career. But, apparently, she has also done some superheroing, also solo.

Now, my problem with that is, how do you make a power like hers useful in a superhero context without backup? Bright lights can be useful, but they're not exactly subtle; it'd make infiltrating easy, and even with seizures and blindness and everything, it's not a terribly helpful combat power. From what I've seen in Dark Phoenix, she's not very good at hand-to-hand fighting, either.

So what is the point of her? Hearing about someone's futile grabs at a singing career is dull. She's not a good solo fighter. She has awful taste in clothing, so she's not even fun to look at.

Also, she's a disco queen. Some references to current popular culture I expect in any comic set in modern times. But the whole "disco queen" thing just dates it. I know, I know, nothing ages worse than science fiction, but that doesn't prevent my mind from imploding.

Who knows? Someone out there might be a big Dazzler fan, and I won't judge you if you are. But I just can't see the point.

10 February 2008

Jean Grey Syndrome

The Dark Phoenix Saga
Chris Claremont

Spoilers ahead, maybe

I am no fan of Jean Grey.

I mean, it's a character with potential, I suppose. Jean Grey and Phoenix both. A telekine and weak telepath, with vast reserves of power which, when tapped, slowly take her over. There are things you can do with that. Cool things. Megalomania is an entertaining plot device when handled properly.

However, over the years, the writers who have taken on the story of Jean Grey and Phoenix have gone far past proper handling and into the realm of death, shark-jumping and general headachey terror. The original Dark Phoenix Saga is a fantastic story with a lot of impact. It's a story about someone learning self-control, and ultimately also about a superhero committing suicide. And that's intense, and the sort of thing that people sometimes have difficulty dealing with.

But really. I wish she'd stayed dead.

...I know. Comic Book Death. Nobody stays dead except Barry Allen, and even that might be in doubt. But there's a difference between dying and coming back once, and dying and coming back every few years. Like I said, it's a character with potential. It's a compelling idea. But it's overdone. Hey, Grant Morrison did some cool Dark Phoenix stuff in New X-Men, which I love like crazy, and I still found it tiring.

Also, I don't like characters whose primary purpose seems to be rescuing writers who have written themselves into corners. Wolverine's dead? Whoo! Phoenix saves the day! World ending as you ride a meteor into the sun? Phoenix! Sublime is destroying all of civilization in a horrifying alternate future? Phoenix!

Godsdamn, people. Phoenix is not the answer to all your problems. In fact, at this point, she's not really the answer to any of them.

Please stop. For the Professor's sake.

07 February 2008

Gutter Brain

Understanding Comics
Scott McCloud

So I rather enjoyed reading Understand Comics, once I got past the smirking face and the cluttered pages. There were a lot of interesting ideas in it--particularly the idea of action taking place in the gutter between panels. I didn't find the concept terribly surprising, but it was cool to think about, and to see demonstrated.

That makes me curious about something. How far can one go with this implied action? Which is not to say that the gutters should be huge, but how far can you go between moments? I'd like to see a comic that lets minutes pass between panels, preferably without dialogue. I'm sure this has been done before, but I'd like to see it anyway.

I suppose there are other ways to do it too. A story where all the crucial events take place off-panel, maybe. Which would be really interesting, from a story-telling perspective. It'd be a useful exercise in perspective. Maybe the story's being told by that one person who always shows up just too late to see whatever interesting thing just happened. Although I don't think a plot device would be necessary. I'd just like to see a comic that's always aftermath and never event. It'd be different.

Or maybe a comedy thing. Characters that, strictly, only exist within panels, and cease to exist between them, thus creating memory gaps. It'd be fun to construct the story, and terribly confusing for the characters, which I always enjoy. Fucking with my own characters is sort of my hobby. Sort of a way to vent my secret foul temper while maintaining my outwardly sunny peace-and-love demeanor.

...I seem to be wearing this topic a little thin. It's a cool idea, but my brain is shorting out. I'll post more later, probably on another aspect of McCloud.

06 February 2008

What Got Me Into This In The First Place

This week in class one of the things we're discussing is Understanding Comics, by Scott McCloud. And I've got some stuff I want to say about it, but I think that can wait a little bit, or at least until tomorrow. For now, here's something else.

So I've already put up one big long post about why I like comics, but I never really got into how it came up in the first place. I'm sure that if anyone's reading this who's not actually in the class, there are still a few skeptics out there, and I'm sure you're saying to yourselves, "How in the world could this girl--from all appearances reasonably intelligent and possessed of a sharp wit--get interested in something as childish as comic books?"

Well, here's how it goes. This is my comics-reading timeline.

When I was little, I read lots of Calvin & Hobbes, with occasionally wordless flips-through in...um, I think they were Howard the Duck singles, actually. Not really sure. So that got me interested in comics in a general way, because they were fun. Mostly newspaper strips. Then there was Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend, a book belonging to my parents. It's a collection of Winsor McCay strips about people having freaky dreams which they then blame on having eaten too much before bed. It was both interesting and, if you'll excuse the phrasing, fucking terrifying. I was seven! (Or maybe eight.) I was not prepared for that shit! So that sort of put me off non-newspaper-strip comics for a while.

Then for a while there was my whole terrifyingly huge manga obsession, which we will skip over in the interests of everyone's time and sanity. I think Japanese comics are very important, but they're also a whole different ballpark, with their own set of symbols and archetypes and cultural assumptions. Although I do still maintain that Petshop of Horrors may be one of the most awesome series on the planet. When I was big into manga, I didn't like American comics at all. I thought they were childish and had bad art. And they're all really basic superhero-saves-the-day stories, right? What besides Batman is cool about that?

The thing that got me off my manga-only kick and back into reading comics in general was Preludes and Nocturnes, the first volume of Neil Gaiman's comic Sandman. I was a fan of Neil Gaiman, which is why I was interested at all, and had already read Sandman: The Dream Hunters, which is cool, but not a comic--it's an illustrated novella.

I read Preludes and Nocturnes and it was really well-written, and strange, and intense and scary and involving in a way I hadn't encountered before. People who have read it may be able to guess why; "24 Hours" in particular is an extraordinary use of the comics form, and particularly an extraordinary use of the standard 24-page single-issue size. It took what would have been a creepy story anyway and made it into something terrifying and riveting, with a forced pace that made my chest hurt, I was so tense. So, bang, pow, and there it is: Miss Becca loves comics, because her favorite author wrote one that made her head explode, and now she wants to see if other people can do the same thing.

Then, of course, there was Watchmen. My dad got me a copy of Watchmen--actually, the same one I've got here at school with me now to use as one of my textbooks. And that also did things to my brain. But it deserves its own post. Several, actually. Which won't be until the end of the semester.

03 February 2008

Things You Might Enjoy, If You Enjoy This Sort Of Thing--Episode One

Think of this entry as the first in a continuing series. "Things You Might Enjoy, If You Enjoy The Sort Of Thing" is where I take the chance to review comics that aren't on my class syllabus. They may not be new, or obscure, or anything like that--they're just comics that I like, that I think are good, and that I think people should read.

So, without further ado:

Neil Gaiman's Midnight Days
Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman's Midnight Days is a book Vertigo put out a few years ago, a collection of miniseries and one-shots and other things Neil Gaiman wrote for them that hadn't been collected previously. It's called Midnight Days because, according to Neil Gaiman in the introduction, most of the scripts for these stories were written after midnight, "when the world was quiet and there was no-one left to talk to." So you might be able to guess that they're fairly weird.

I promise I won't spoil anything. I won't say anything that isn't in some way already mentioned in the introductions to the stories.

The first three are Swamp Thing stories. The very first one is the second comics script Neil Gaiman ever wrote, illustrated by Steve Bissette and John Totleben specifically for the collection. There's a Swamp Thing Annual, which doesn't really have much Swamp Thing in it at all, but does have Brother Power the Geek, possibly one of the weirdest characters to ever grace a comics page. And then there's "Shaggy God Stories," which is a story about Jason Woodrue, the Floronic Man. That one, besides being written by Neil Gaiman, was illustrated by Mike Mignola, though one wouldn't necessarily guess it. This is pre-chunky-awesome-Hellboy-type art, I guess.

After the Swamp Thing stories, there's one about John Constantine. It's called "Hold Me," and it's illustrated by Dave McKean, and Neil Gaiman says it's one of his favorites of his own short stories. It's beautiful. And it hurts to read, a little bit. It's mostly about loneliness.

Finishing up the book is the unnaturally awesome Sandman Mystery Theatre, which has the distinction of being written by Neil Gaiman, but plotted out by Matt Wagner, the amazing man who does Grendel and Mage. For the most part, Sandman Mystery Theatre stories are about Wesley Dodds, the original DC Sandman, this badass crime fighter in the 1930s and 40s who wore a gas mask and sprinkled sand on the people he caught.

This story, however, is about both Wesley Dodds and Morpheus, the main character in Neil Gaiman's equally awesome Sandman series, which you've probably heard of if you read comics at all. So it's by two writers who are really good, about two characters who are really interesting. Also, the whole story was painted by an artist named Teddy Kristiansen, who does beautiful work. It's like a combination of Dave McKean, art nouveau, and pure sexy detective-story joy.

Given my love of Neil Gaiman, it's no surprise that I like this collection, but don't think that makes it any less good. It's a wonderful group of stories. They're sad and funny and occasionally creepy as hell, and the writing is beautiful, and they're all accompanied by lovely pictures. The collection's also about eighteen bucks new, which isn't exorbitantly expensive, and it's certainly worth it for something this awesome.

So go. Read. Share and enjoy.

Liking Superheroes Is Nothing To Be Ashamed Of

Essex County Volume 1: Tales from the Farm
Jeff Lemire

Possible spoilers

Something I mentioned in my last post that I think warrants further discussion is Lester's comic, the one originally drawn and written by Jeff Lemire at the age of nine. Mainly I think it's worth looking at because it's good evidence of where he started from, comics-wise.

First off, the art. Even here he doesn't use a lot of shading. Not that nine-year-olds often do, but his art now is still very much like this--more competent, more abstract, but primarily just line art, with all shadows in one shade of black. The people aren't that bad either; this child is in need of an anatomy book, but given the shapes of the muscles and the poses in which they stand, at least he's been observing and absorbing the world around him. Can't say much for consistency, but it's no worse than, say, a low-budget cartoon from the Seventies. Inconsistent enough to be noticeable, but not enough to really make someone wince.

The writing is...well, it's a kid-written superhero comic. It's not terribly complex. Villain escapes from jail, superhero fights him, villain is sent back to jail. But I always like to see a kid writing something.

Mainly it just makes me sad that this is the only real example of a superhero comic that comes up in a story about a child obsessed with superheroes. Combined with Lester's abandonment of his mask and cape at the end of the story, it serves to imply that superhero stories are only for children, and that once you grow up you can't really think they're cool anymore. I mean, Jeff Lemire obviously started off liking superheroes, given that he drew that minicomic too, but in his interview this week on the podcast Indie Spinner Rack, he seemed almost ashamed to admit that he still does.

And that's sad. Superheroes are really pretty awesome, and can themselves be vehicles for wonderful, serious stories--witness The Dark Knight Returns, for example, or anything by Alan Moore with superheroes in it (like Supreme: The Story of the Year or the Top 10 books).

Caped crusaders and men of mystery are not just for children. I mean, I may act childish sometimes, but most of the really enjoyable serious literature discussions I've had with people were about comics. Superhero comics. Just as I've had other cool analytical discussions with friends about, say, books I read for the first time when I was eight.

Just because it gets marketed to kids doesn't mean it's for them.

01 February 2008

The Joys of Black and White

Essex County Volume 1: Tales from the Farm
Jeff Lemire

So I didn't necessarily like the story. I'm willing to reconsider, but that's where I stand for now. I did, however, like the art.

I love art that's highly detailed and richly colored, like anything by Michael Zulli--volume ten of Sandman is good for that. I like crazy Dave McKean-style collage-painting-cutup art like in Arkham Asylum, and I like things that are really cartoony. But sometimes I also just like straight black-and-white line art.

What I think is particularly interesting about Jeff Lemire's art is the intense high contrast he's got going. There are no in-between colours, just black and white. Things are shaded, but the shading doesn't vary. The only time we ever see gray is in flashbacks, which basically just substitute gray for black, and it's still always the same kind of gray. And then there's Lester's comic, which Jeff Lemire actually drew when he was nine. It's awkward, but still fairly confident for a nine-year-old. And it's so cute, too.

I also like the way he draws faces. They're very expressive, in a way that's interesting, because for the most part they don't actually move a lot. Jimmy, with his huge brick of a nose, is particularly fun to look at, because given that he used to be a hockey player, we know how it got that spread out. He's probably gotten it broken a lot. Kenny's face is also interesting, mainly because it has more lines than any other face in the comic book. He has super-lines.

Lester isn't actually much to look at without his little mask and cape. He's a fairly ordinary looking kid. Nose is a little pointier than normal, though. Jeff Lemire does a lot with noses.

Mainly I just really like the first three pages--not counting the "Summer" section page. They're very spare; the sky doesn't even have clouds. And I'm always a sucker for flight. It's also the only time when we really get to see all the buildings on the main farm compound, which I just like from a setting standpoint.

I don't know whether I'd necessarily read Essex County Volume 2. But I'd certainly like to see what it looks like.