Pick Your Pop Culture

So, I've like written about music for 25 years, and like I've got a lot to say and not enough people to pay me for it, and like I like to write about TV, and books, and movies, and stuff like that.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Hey Kids! Comics!

When I was a kid, I loved comic books more than anything in the world. By the time I outgrew them – and it took me longer than it took most people, since I was 21 when I sold the collection in exchange for enough money to buy a camera and a trip to Columbia, Mo. to have sex with my girlfriend – I had amassed some 5000 of the darn things. Even now, 25 years afterwards, I can perfectly recall details from hundreds of specific issues of the Avengers, Fantastic Four, Doom Patrol, Justice League of America, and many more.

I do remember the growing pains caused by being mad about those comics while all my peers were moving on to teenage concerns. Here’s the crazy confession, though. At the time, I was absolutely convinced that the problem was in the form, not the content. I actually went around telling anybody who would listen that I would prefer to read the same stories in prose, but the only way to get them was in these four-color, skinny little pamphlets.

This was years before the culture came to accept comic books. Between the Batman TV series in the mid-60s and the Superman movie in the late 70s, there was no conventional belief that comic books were anything but trite, if thrilling, trash. That was my era, and I believed that comics were the greatest literature in the history of the world. Who was the best writer, Shakespeare or Steve Englehart? It was no contest for me. And nobody could try to tell me that Rembrandt was a better artist than John Buscema, either.

As I said, eventually I wised up, and realized that while there was some really cool stuff in those books, they weren’t uniformly good enough to keep spending so much time and money on them. Music had taken over so much of my free time after I reached college, anyway, and I was also realizing that this Shakespeare guy actually did have a way with words, and he wasn’t the only literary master who could provide me with better, more consistent reading rewards.

Time kept marching on, and I occasionally dabbled in the passions of my youth, but never very extensively until the mid 1990s, when deluxe books reprinting seemingly everything I’d ever owned or wanted to own as a lad started being published. Now, with an adult’s eye, I could see the value of the form itself, the methods of telling stories, the ways in which time was manipulated through panel breakdowns, the intricate relationship between words and pictures, the method in the approach to pictures not necessarily meant to be seen as realistic. I could see that often, the pressures of cranking out multiple tales each and every month meant that even my favorite writers and artists missed as often as they hit, but I was glad to see that sometimes those commercially produced comic books really did have some nice little artistic touches.

Meanwhile – there’s a word I read about a zillion times - the comic form started being used for a whole lot more concepts than just telling superhero and funny animal stories. (And, the original genres were being reinvented every time you turned around, too.) A whole generation of younger creators – usually writers and artists combined in the same human being, which was not the norm when I was growing up – were tackling everything from the Holocaust to punk rock lifestyles.

It costs a whole lot to keep up with all that stuff, though, so I’ve only encountered it now and again. But, now, on your bookshelves for something around $25, you can buy an excellent single volume compilation of work by many of the most interesting and frequently exciting new comics artists around. It’s the new McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Issue No. 13, edited by Chris Ware. (McSweeney’s is a publishing concept which deserves a whole lot more attention maybe some day down the line; for now, suffice it to say, they publish books as if they were magazines.)

You’ll laugh, of course, because a lot of the artists today are full of yucks, applying a frequently, though not always cynical update to the classic tropes of ancient newspaper comic strips. You’ll cry, because many of these artists are capable of telling the most intimate details of human pain and misery. You’ll sometimes flit back and forth between both emotional extremes. But, mostly, you’ll just find a lot of pleasure.

There are interesting articles (and some old rare sketches and published work) about comics artists of the past, but mostly, you get contemporary work, gathered in no particular order. Honestly, I liked pretty much everything in here, though there were a few pieces which stood out especially. Chris Ware’s story was a major highlight, for example. Ware, whose “Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth” was one of the most successful comic book collections of recent years, tells a particularly touching, riveting tale of a woman who lost a leg as a young girl. She meets a man, falls in love, and lives without him later, and the whole story is pretty much told through scenes set in the bedroom in which she grew up. It’s truly beautiful stuff.

(Here’s an incidental paragraph wondering why Ware has to draw such teeny-tiny panels all the time. He loves small print, that’s for sure. We old folks have to squint quite a bit to read his stuff, and for that matter, the work of several other artists collected here. It does make each individual page look stylish, but I’m still gonna complain anyway.)

Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez, the brothers responsible for “Love and Rockets,” one of the greatest comic book series in history, contribute a few recent stories. Some of these were ones I’d read before, but they still hit me with the poignancy of their ability to pull the largest truth out of the smallest events. Gilbert’s episode of “Julio’s Day,” his series showing events from different periods of his title characters life, in which little Julio goes from the joy of learning on his first day of school to the pain of being bullied afterward is absolutely unforgettably sad.

But, enough about the people I already knew (though, of course, Linda Barry has a wonderful piece, and I had the usual mixed emotions about R. Crumb, he of the major talent and the major issues with women). I discovered artists I’ve never encountered before, too. I loved Marc Beyer, who harkens back to Winsor McKay (the turn of the 20th century artist who drew Little Nemo in Slumberland) with his whimsical approach to each panel of the ultra cynical “Amy and Jordan” strips. Richard McGuire takes a bird’s-eye-view approach to the world, and uses bright, plain colors devoid of shadow to tell a mysteriously amusing story with at least one major surprise on every page.

Debbie Drechsler meshes mundane reality with intriguing dream images in her tale of a woman getting an abortion. Kim Deitch offers a comics-as-journalism tale with “Ready to Die,” an examination of one particular death row inmate, his death, and the people who knew him. Joe Sacco shows the life in Sarajevo after the recent war in excerpts from his long work, “The Fixer.” It’s full of compelling, frightening details.

I’m not ready to return to my old obsession full time, but it’s nice to see that the possibilities of the comics medium are being so thoroughly explored. There’s also an essay by John Updike, who apparently dabbled in cartooning before he turned to prose, that as much as anything I’ve read provides insight into the way comic stories are created. All in color and black and white for a whole lot of dimes!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You might not be expecting a straight-ahead comics nerd question, but... What has Englehart written besides Dr. Strange?

9:20 AM  
Blogger Steve Pick said...

Heck, he wrote Captain America, the Avengers, Batman, and Justice League, to name four of his most memorable contributions back in the 70s. I think his runs on each of those titles were easily the best writing any of them ever had. And, yes, I said on Batman. (Actually, it was Detective Comics he wrote, but you know what I mean.)

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