Cultured Pop

Shorter, darker days. There’s actually time for reading, and the cat settles in for a lap snooze as I actually watch entire movies on DVD. I get my  exercise on trips to the Library, and I’m combing through the PBS listings.

I read Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, which is as thought provoking as you’d expect, and another book, also on ways of thinking called The Black Swan by Nicolas Taleb. I bought and started Bleeding Edge, by Pynchon, which like all Pynchon requires time and space for total immersion, so it’s awaiting the first snowy weekend. There’s any number of old movies, interesting documentaries and strange sitcoms on TV, too.

Oh yeah, I’ve also rediscovered the comic store. So now seems a good time for one of my periodic Pop Culture digressions: the State of the Comics.

I haven’t made regular trips to a comic store in years. Not because I don’t like comics anymore, but because most of the artists I follow, alternative auteurs who emerged in the 80’s from the punk/underground movement that encompassed music, fashion, urban culture and art during the Reagan years, had been discovered by mainstream, upscale publishers such as The New Yorker, and have made the switch from the traditional comic book magazine format to the European-style hardbound album format. They’re now available at good indy bookstores such as Tattered Cover and on Amazon. There was no need to enter the somewhat ratty and obsessive environment of the comic shop anymore. But I got curious as to what was still there and popped in on Free Comic Book Day in May. The answer: not much. To be sure, to someone like me, there’s always something worth a browse. I have a life long obsession with comics and graphics, which may have led me into printmaking. I grew up with the infantilized, post-Wertham-censorship-crusade, spandex-clad sci fi of the 60’s DC books. I then was galvanized by the Marvel “Pop Art” era, with its tormented urban superheroes and fantastical universes in bright dot-screen colors. When Marvel degenerated into pure bombast ( where it mostly remains now), I started picking up undergrounds. That led me to Raw Magazine and its cadre of punk/intellectual/autobiographical euro-style auteurs, typified by Gary Panter and Los Bros. Hernandez. Here’s an earlier discussion of Los Bros., and the LA barrio/punk world they turned into one of the more unique graphic literary efforts ever seen.

The comic store I chose for my survey field trip was Mile High Comics a huge, warehouse/mega store that had never demonstrated much interest in the alternative comics scene, preferring to stick with the over-muscled and overdrawn spandex-clad,  pneumatically endowed bimbos and himbos of DC and Marvel’s many, densely overwrought multi-verses. Not much has changed there, though there’s been a bit of reduction in exaggerated cleavage and other visual tics of comics’ “Mannerist” age. Progress! The two giants have embarked on reboots, cleaning up their tangled back-stories while concentrating on their strongest heroes/brands in a rapidly shrinking market place. Marvel and DC villains became so addicted to bombastic evil doers delivering long monologues that Pixar made a gag of it in The Incredibles. Pages were subdivided into minute panels and choked with dialogue. They lost sight of the visual power they’d had with such artists as Kirby and Steranko as hack writers took over.

That began to change with Allen Moore and Frank Miller. But however innovative their plots ( Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns ), Moore and Miller brought a dystopian gloom and now a different sort of visual poverty afflicts comics. The Marvel/DC Universes, possibly reflecting their apocalyptic sales figures, have become very dark places. I refer not just to the panel after panel of ultra violence and carnage, but literally. The covers and interior art are steeped in stygian tonalities of blacks, dusky browns and violets, with a sanguinary red, naturally, being the brightest the palette ever gets. Zombies, the muddy, gray-green warhorses of cheap horror, are everywhere. This possibly reflects cinematic fads, as both companies are now owned by larger media conglomerates and have become feeders of Hollywood’s need for more action/horror movies. But white space, that heavenly refuge for the eye in any graphic endeavor, that airy infinity that allows an artist’s “hand” to breathe free, is so rare, that in browsing the endless racks of Bat– books and X-mags, one is almost compelled to pick it up the rare times it appears. And freshly limned pencils and inks drowned in computer color screens and apocalyptic chiaroscuro are not the only thing suffocating comics. Unreflective violence and faux-libertarian/anarchist paranoia pervades every corner. Even Wonder Woman, last I saw a fashion designer in go-go boots in swinging London, has now been returned to her Greek mythological roots and felt compelled in a recent issue to run her mentor War (the Greek God) through with a spear in order to dispose of the psychotically evil “super villain” First Born.

There is a full line of “undead” Archie comics, too. I’ll pass.

In short, it’s even harder to find a light-hearted (and still reasonably thoughtful) tale in the comic shop than it is in the multi plex. For an antidote, I recommend Tintin or John Stanley-era Little Lulu comics ( I’m serious. They’ll brighten your day, and make you laugh out loud, because they’re… “comic”). And I will return to the alternative artists, such as Los Bros., Chris Ware, Dash Shaw and Gabrielle Bell in a future post.

My budget and schedule make an exhaustive survey impossible. But here’s a brief summary of what I’ve found, the good, the potentially good and the icky:

Recommended, After Several Issues:

The Massive (Dark Horse Comics): A thus far unspecified environmental collapse has taken place. This story follows the small crew of a Greenpeace-type activists’ vessel which is searching for its much larger partner ship (the mysterious Massive) and trying to determine what their mission has become and where it might be safe to land for fuel. It’s episodic, with short story arcs concerning a school of sharks driven mad by surface noise penetrating the depths; and a rogue anarchist who has hijacked a nuclear sub. The art is open, evocative, filled with misty, oceanic light; and the characters seethe with complex motives.

FF (Marvel Comics): This spin-off of one of Marvel’s superhero mags, Fantastic Four, revives characters and the style of the title from when it was created by Jack Kirby, a comic book legend from Marvel’s seminal “Pop Art” era. Its present creator, Mike Allred, is one of the few of the 80’s alternative comics auteurs (Madman Comics) to move into big corporate comics. In this title, a replacement group of superheroes takes over for the regular group, lost in a time warp. This includes care taking a group of precocious, super-powered children being mentored by the original FF. Allred injects humor and pathos in all his titles, and while the book is still finding its stride with a rather large cast, its straightforward, attractive art and candy colors make it fun to read. One child has recently come out as transgendered, an example of the book’s edgy, yet inclusive wit. This title is often laugh-out-loud funny while still tapping into the pure fantasy of 60’s Marvel.

Growing On Me, after one or more issues:

Wonder Woman (DC Comics): WW doesn’t hurt to look at, natch. But she is realistically proportioned, at least in her own intriguing title, illustrated by the graphically savvy Cliff Chiang. She does appear in other titles in significantly more hooter-licious form (She’s also started a relationship with Superman, which brings up the question whether Supes’ fans just wanted a little, you know …more;  but I’d better not go there). What’s also intriguing about this title is the decision to return her to her original, faux-Olympian roots, minus the overtones of lesbian bondage and dominance & submission so beloved of her 1940‘s creator, the exceedingly fascinating psychologist William Moulton Marston. Again, the art is straightforward in that the artist’s “hand” is allowed to show through- avoiding the mannerist, photo-shopped sameness of other titles. The coloring by Matt Wilson is also sophisticated, airy and light when called for, returning to the crepuscular only when WW hoists her petard. “You will make an interesting God of War”, the book’s Hades-figure notes when WW, uncharacteristically in the comics universe, calls a halt to the carnage. He could be right.

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (ABC TV): This spin-off of the Avengers movie “franchise” dates to another title of Marvel’s “Pop’ era, now long gone. I couldn’t resist because I miss that comic, a real ground-breaker by legendary Jim Steranko, whose innovative, collaged, candy-colored sci-fi panels were inspired by Kirby.  I was hoping for a bit of that childhood magic. What I GOT was a fast talking, fast-paced cinematic small screen action drama by Josh Whedon’s crew, not a bad thing. A larger context needs to emerge, but it’s far more fun and exciting to watch than the usual cop show dreck on TV (I don’t have cable). And it beats the pants off DC’s offering, Arrow, which looks primitive, dour, under-budgeted and routine by comparison.

Marvel's "Pop Art" era featured garish colors, bombastic villains and Sci-Fi  gimmickry, and escaped Nazis instead of Zombies. Strange Tales #157
Marvel’s “Pop Art” era featured garish colors, bombastic villains and Sci-Fi gimmickry, and escaped Nazis instead of Zombies. Brilliant! Strange Tales #157. 

Hawkeye (Marvel): Marvel’s version of above-mentioned Green Arrow is a second-tier character, a sometime Avenger. Here, he gets a second-tier life ( like us!) and a graphically simple and appealing illustration, reminiscent of alternative artist Adrian Tomine. Ick, One’s Enough:

 Poison Ivy (DC) The Batman titles pretty much invented the “dark hero” genre back in the 70’s and started the rush to Hollywood with Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. They remain interesting, albeit gloomy. Not so this “Villains Month” spin-off, which takes the botanically-obsessed redhead and tries to explain her psychopathy ( with domestic abuse and muddy, Earth-First style ideology) while still retaining her boobalicious adolescent appeal.
Miss Fury (Dynamite Comics): Like Wonder Woman, a veteran of comics’ quirky and unrestrained Golden Age. Unlike WW, poorly drawn and awash in murky air-brushed  tones. Like Poison Ivy, this is a morally confused hero, who steals museum-quality jewels for thrills, but is then hurled into an alternative future where America is still fighting off the Nazi invasion of New York. It could have been interesting with better writing and art. She does have great tits, though.

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