No More Comics

Two shaggy haired, semi-bearded men of nearly thirty-one sit across from each other.  The interviewer is dressed in a corduroy jacket, twill pants and an Oxford shirt unbuttoned at the neck.  He sits cross-legged upon a floating vibranium chair, while the writer sit at the opposite end of a polished onyx rectangle in a flannel shirt and blue jeans.  Spread before them are an array of bagels, pickled, salted, and smoked fish, heirloom tomatoes, and cream cheese.  In the distance the Earth drifts across the slick black cosmos like a drop of water suspended in motor oil.  Here at the citadel of Uatu, in the blue area of the moon, our talk begins.

Interviewer: So first and foremost thank you for bringing this spread.  I don’t typically eat during these things for fear that I will get something in my teeth, but obviously that’s not going to matter today is it?

Scott Buros (Looking at the large evergreen chive that blots out the interviewer’s front tooth):  No not really, because the original idea for this was to have someone cartoon our exchange, but that became impractical.

Interviewer (taking off his coat and draping it over the chair behind him before rifling through the box of bagels like a pre-computer secretary going through a file cabinet)  Let’s start there.  Why not draw it yourself?  Not that I’m complaining.  It’s nice not to be hungry during this exchange it’s just. (waving his hand towards the distant earth)  It’s quite a setting.

Scott Buros:  Well, fewer people want to see my art than want to read my text.  This year in comics has actually made me a better artist, at least when it comes to drawing with my two-year-old, however, I’m not much better than her.  I agree this is quite a setting though, and given that the Watcher was recently killed I figured, why let it sit empty?

Interviewer (holding a pickled herring high above his head with his thumb and forefinger and then lowering it into his mouth)  Well said.  ( He consumes another herring in the same manner)  So what were your goals when you set out to write this blog?

Scott Buros:  The adoration of millions, treasure unimaginable, a cameo as an Asguardian in a Thor: God of Thunder comic that then becomes a part of the next Avengers movie, and a squadron of cosplay Emma Frosts, Elizabeth Braddocks, and Jean Greys vying for my attention.

Interviewer:  (Unbuckling his belt and then preparing another bagel.  Sesame seeds from the last one have pooled into a dimple in his dress shirt.  A liberal blotch of cream cheese edges the corners of his mouth.)  Did any of that happen?

Scott Buros:  No.  And in truth I didn’t really expect any of those things to happen.  I did get what I really wanted out of the experience however, which was several ideas for the next writing project I want to do, a whole lot better understanding of how to tell a story, and a treasure trove of Marvel comic book knowledge that makes me slightly more annoying to discuss the current film landscape with, and slightly more helpful at trivia contests.

Interviewer (swallowing the remnants of the last bagel and perusing the table, ultimately settling on a package of smoked salmon that he opens, removes the contents of, and folds around three tomato slices, eating the entire thing in two bites.)  I’d like to ask you about each of those three things, because I want to know how they actually benefit you and what you’re going to do with this new found information.  Let’s start with everything you learned about comics and Marvel comics themselves.  Did your vision of the Marvel Universe change over the course of your reading?

Scott Buros:  Oh it absolutely changed.  I knew very little of what went on in the Marvelverse prior to this project, except for the handful of things I’d picked up when I was 11 and most of that was from the old X-Men cartoon.  Now I can talk intelligently about the status of mutants in the current Marvelverse, and about what exactly the Illuminati does, and I know the rough geography of both the local and cosmic marvel worlds, but that’s not really the best part of what I learned about reading comics during this last year.

Interviewer:  (rolling several sardine fillets inside a piece of smoked salmon and then swallowing the whole pink cigar)  Well by all means tell us what that was.

Scott Buros:  Well what I learned was a whole lot more about what kind of comics I like to read and what sort of characters I really don’t have much interest in.  Before this I liked the mutant world, and I still enjoy spending time with those folks.  In fact, I still have a hard time not reading just mutant stories because I like the familial aspect of those books so much.  Mutants are the outcast community that I most identify with in the Marvelverse, but just as I realized when I was in college that everyone I went to high school with, from the most popular student to the biggest pariah was a person and that it was possible that they were a person who could be my friend, I had to open up my mind to the idea that every character in the Marvelverse might be my favorite character as I quickly found myself adoring the likes of Thor, Ghost Rider, Silver Surfer, and even Man Thing who I still just want to know more about.

Interviewer (taking the lid off of a tub of cream cheese and then plunging a bagel into it)  A couple of times this year you’ve spoken about the role of humor in storytelling.  Is this one of the lessons you learned during this last year?  And as a follow up, what else did you learn about the craft of writing?

Scott Buros:  Well, I ‘d already had a very good writing teacher in college who ‘d convinced me that you can’t have a story without the charisma and introspection humor brings.  However, comics were a nice reminder to actually try and edit the humor down to the jokes you think work or matter.  That was part of a larger lesson I really learned though about cutting text in the editing process.  I still write too many words on many of these posts.  This post for example is on pace to go well beyond the goal I set for myself of 1500 words or less per post, but I finally found the place I need to go to when I want to do more than trim fat from a written work and actually cut out whole sections of excess so that the important parts can shine through.

I also finally understood something that I’ve heard a lot of writers say in the past, which is that you really have to sit in all the chairs and try to figure out what each character wants out of a scene.  It’s still very hard for me to do this, but I’m excited to try again on my next writing project.  In comics this is just so much easier to see, because you have these characters who have such long and storied histories, and often times they have to reference that history so that you understand why they are making the choice they are, because that’s part of the contract comic book writers have agreed to with comic book readers, that if a character makes a choice, they are going to take their entire experience into consideration when they make that choice.  So when Cyclops decides to forgo the teachings of Charles Xavier after spending his entire life following them, he doesn’t make that decision just because Brian Bendis or Jason Aaron thinks that would be a fun choice for him to make, he makes that decision because his life experience has led him to that decision and he references the key points in his biography, the fallout of M day, his absorbing the Phoenix force, his losing his wife and child and countless team members, guide him towards that choice.

The last thing, and I think the most important thing I learned from comics is also tied to this idea that you need to place yourself in all the character’s spandex, which is that my characters need to be asking far more questions, because if I’m really seeing things through their laser blasting eyes, then I wouldn’t know what is mapped out for them ten minutes down the road let alone ten day or ten weeks.  The fact that my characters don’t ask a lot of questions in my stories means I’m not asking a lot of questions when I’m writing a story, and if I’m not asking a lot of questions that means that I’m not giving my story an opportunity to take on a life of its own.

Interviewer (with a fork he cleans and stacks the meat from two smoked carp, which he then squeezes an entire tub of cream cheese onto before eating the whole mound of food in golf ball sized wads that he rolls between his thumb and fingers.  The buttons on his shirt have begun to tense around his midsection and as he inhales and exhales the bits and bobs that have fallen onto his lap through the meal begin to fall either onto the floor or into the small opening in his shirt front caused by the tensing buttons.)    So you might ask then why am I eating like such a hog today?

Scott Buros:  Exactly.  Although my initial thought was that it was because no one can see us since I’m not drawing this, and I thought I might need some sort of gimmick to liven up what some might consider a dry interview, and what I might consider an embarrassing writing piece.

Interviewer:  (Surveying the table which is a landscape of bones, foil covers, and crumbs.  He plucks one of the foil covers off of the table and licks the cream cheese off of it.) Well see that’s why you need to ask.  I’m eating because I have low self-esteem and I’m terribly sad that I can’t eat like this all the time and still look like a presentable member of society.  (as if punctuating his sentence one of the interviewer’s shirt buttons pops loose and bounces off the window.  He shrugs and shakes his head)  Is there anything that makes you sad about this being the end of your journey?

Scott Buros:  Well just like your relationship to food its complicated.  I can’t say I’m not excited to write about something new, someone other than myself, since ultimately this blog was as much about me and my family as it was about comics.  At the same time it isn’t like I have to give up on comics completely just because I’m no longer writing a comic book blog.  I’m going to keep reading comics, Marvel as well as several non-Marvel titles I’ve set aside over the last year.  Hopefully I also get to still write about comics once in a while too.  I’ve put some feelers out to write comic book reviews over the last month, so we will see how that goes.

Interviewer: (taking a second piece of foil and licking it clean before placing it atop the previously cleansed one)  We’re almost done here, that is, unless you have another spread on order, but you haven’t mentioned that so I assume you don’t.  However, before we go, while I digest a little, can you talk briefly about what you plan on writing next?

Scott Buros:  Well whatever I write it will be a work of fiction, and it’s going to be very fictional.  What I mean by that last part is that I’m not quite ready to delve into serious realism, which is a bit surprising because I’ve spent so much time in the world of fantasy that you’d think I’d be over-served on space adventures and time travel and gods and monsters, but perhaps I’m at the time in my life when reality is a shade too real, too stark and pale compared to the world I see my daughters starting to discover.  Instead I’d like to write a book for my girls I think.  Heck, maybe a series of books.  I’m thinking it’s going to deal with a number of fictional worlds, because one of the things I enjoyed the most about all the realms of the Marvelverse is the world-building that went into them.  To construct landscapes like these seems like the correct adventure to take now that I’m armed with these new found writing tools.

Interviewer:  (taking a napkin and from the table he attempts to tidy himself, first by brushing the crumbs off of his shirtfront and then by wiping his face clean.  He runs his tongue across his teeth three times to make sure they are free of debris and then he takes a second napkin, spreads it wide like a picnic blanket, and drapes it over the opening in his shirt where he’s lost his button.)    One last question.  What was the best thing about this writing project?

Scott Buros:  Well like I said, I learned a lot about comics and writing and about myself and where I plan to go, but the best thing about this writing project was all the thank you’s I got to write.  Sometimes these were pretty straight forward fan letters like what I put together for Jason Aaron and Alex Pappademas, and sometimes they were more subtle love letters to my wife and kids and family and friends.  The two pieces I’m probably most proud of are the Howard the Duck piece and the Annihilation Lunch piece, both of which were the sort of homage’s to those members of my extended circle who I really adore.  I suppose that I can say the best thing about this writing project was that I got to have moments like that, which were only partially earned by me sitting at my laptop every day despite whatever madness was going on in my life, and were partially earned by my family who put up with me sitting at my laptop every day when they would much rather I were contributing to the household in some way.  I really can’t thank them enough for that.

Interviewer: (Subconsciously pinching crumbs off the table and putting them into his mouth he looks at his reflection in the window that shows against the black of space)  That seems like a good place to end.  Thank you for your time and for the food.  And if I can give you just one piece of advice.  When you do find yourself placed before a great spread like this one, gorge yourself, because you don’t know when you’ll ever have such an opportunity again.

Stan Lee: True Believer

There are few people in the world as synonymous with their industry as Stan Lee is with comics.  He is to text balloons and three color storytelling what George Stienbrenner was to the Yankees and Hugh Heffner is to nude coeds (coincidentally Stan “The Man” had a cameo as an alternate universe Hef in 2008’s Iron Man).  Open an issue of Marvel comics and there is some connection between what you see on that page, and Stan Lee.  However, mentioning Stan Lee’s contribution to the comics medium always comes with a handful of qualifiers.  Even casual comic book readers have been trained to call into question how much actual influence Stan had on the creation of Marvel’s stable of high end properties and whether or not he deserves a spot on the Mount Rushmore of comic book creators is equally debatable, unless you’re Stan Lee, because Stan Lee believes his face is the only likeness a comic book fan should dynamite into the side of a mountain.

Stan Lee’s legendary sense of self-worth has played out over countless Marvel properties.  One particularly totem of his tenure that I’ll never forget, is the Marvel trading card depicting a head sketch of Lee that displays the features of more than a dozen comic book characters drawn atop it.  Like one of my daughter’s magnetic dress up dolls wearing six tops, Lee has the hair of Thor, a Daredevil horn, a Spider-Man mask, an Iron Man ear, a finger representing each member of the Fantastic Four, a tiny cowboy hat that I don’t recognize, and a half dozen other characteristics whose owner I can’t decipher amongst the mélange of other superparts.  For some reason the card has always reminded me of a bad tattoo.

Although this is the lasting image of Lee I have in my mind, the better assessment of what Lee believes he means to Marvel, and what he actually seems to mean to their staff, came in 2006 when the publisher released a six comic book series featuring short stories involving Stan Lee meeting various Marvelverese personalities.  The first of these books is called Stan Lee Meets Doctor Strange, and I read it in the Newark airport within sight of the Empire State Building.  On my flight here, I’d romanticized about looking across the river towards the New York skyline and allowing myself to fantasize about Spider-Man swinging amongst the buildings, or the Fantastic Four dropping Franklin Richards off at a morning soccer game in their flying car, or the Inhuman city of Attilan hovering above Manhattan, but I’m having a hard time getting past the generic coffee they sell in the terminal, and the very angry New Yorker berating the ticket clerk behind me, and there is certainly that clichéd sense that I am in Jersey, and not NYC proper.

The comic I read isn’t much better than my moment in the airport as much of Stan’s story revolves around Lee making his way to Strange’s Bleecker Street Townhouse after spotting a pretty robust Doctor Strange sales display in a comic shop window.  However, the house is not the Sanctum Sanctorum of Lee’s memory, but instead a kitschy sort of tourist attraction where Strange sells t-Shirts and his autograph in order to pay his bills, which include exorbitant rent (I would have thought he owned), private security details, and a special brain fitness program that helps him remember his spells the way elderly NPR listeners remember Prairie Home Companion  bits.

Lee seems sort of disgusted with what Strange has become, suggesting he maybe should have let Strange’s great rival Dormammu defeat the sorcerer supreme, which is a pretty somber way to end a story meant to celebrate yourself, particularly if Strange is a placeholder for Lee, who used to have a special gift for conjuring up magical stories, but now has been reduced to selling his own signature at comic book conventions the world over.  Thankfully, I don’t think Stan Lee is that introspective.

Leaving New Jersey  I reach Rochester, New York, and my family that arrived two days before I did.  We’re here for a family reunion and to celebrate my wife’s grandparents 60th wedding anniversary.  We picnic at the Lake Ontario beach, a narrow strip of rocky sand alongside a frigid and often highly polluted lake lined with deciduous trees recently redecorated with fresh green leaves like a million tiny globos.  We toss a football and build sandcastles and ride around in minivans with our in-laws and my niece.   It’s the sort of day that makes us question why we live in a community where two working adults can hardly afford enough square footage to eat meals sitting down.  Upstate New York seems like a paradise of wide lawns and frozen custard.  Then the mosquitoes come out, and people start talking about all the snow they shoveled.  Like these Stan Lee comics it seems as though it’s a place where the rug gets pulled out from under its resident’s feet all the time, which is exactly what happens again during Stan Lee Meets the Thing a comic that exists as an unapologetic piece of Stan Lee superhero comic book writing.  It hits all the notes we’d expect it to with cornball references to the Marvel brand, coupled with a little crime fighting, finished off with a sprinkling of a good natured punch line where Ben Grimm turns out to love being the Thing because he gets to fight crime and date hordes of women who discover a previously buried love of geology.  The thing I actually find interesting about this comic is the way Lee Weeks, draws the whole story like a caricature of Stan starting with the opening panel of the book showing Lee in a Spider-man cycling shirt and John Stockton’s shorts, trundling down the middle of a traffic choked New York City thoroughfare on a bike with heart shaped reflectors and a clowns horn, and tassels that would make Strawberry Shortcake say the ride was too cutesy.  I hope all of this was in response to a Marvel method script where Lee wrote, “Page one: I ride a bike in New York City.”

                On the second day of our trip we make our way towards the big anniversary celebration that takes place in the town of North Chili, (pronounced like Jai alai) at one of the areas seemingly endless supply of well stocked parks, which includes an enormous playground, a small creek, which everyone pronounces like the thing you get in your neck from sleeping on an overnight flight, a concept I find endearing since my own father says it that way, and a basketball court that looks like it may have been rolled out earlier that spring.  Granted the fields are a jungle of dandelions, their seeds long ago scattered by footfall and wind, but there is something warm and inviting and American about the park, like it hosts nothing but 60th wedding anniversaries and graduation BBQ’s and horseshoe tournaments.  It seems like the sort of place World War II veterans would argue we were fighting to protect, and when the men in the family play a game of full court basketball, and even the family’s 80 year old patriarch makes it onto the floor to hoist up and make a few shots you can’t help but appreciate how much some people are asked to sacrifice to protect such a place.  And even though it doesn’t look like Stan Lee had to do much more than sit behind a drafting board, it is worth mentioning that he contributed to our countries efforts, and a playful version of this bit of biography is shown in Roy Thomas’s Stan Lee tribute So You Wanna Play, Eh?

Of course the same sort of protecting of a way of life goes on in Latveria, which I’m reminded of when I read Stan Lee Meets Doctor Doom the next day during our flight back to California, a fourteen hour door to door journey that involves a brief stop in the Chicago’s O’Hare Airport that puts me into a state of irrational nostalgia and grief over the fact that I am not able to introduce my children to the city that bore me on this trip.  My wife does her best to accommodate my mood, suffering through what is really a very sub-par deep dish pizza at the airport food court, and letting me run our two-year-old up and down the United Airlines concourse so that we can look at the string of neon lights that runs above the moving walkway.  Less burdensome is the Chicago blend of cheese and caramel popcorn from Garretts that leaves a dusting of cheese and sugar around Charlie’s mouth, and our lingering look at the brachiosaurus skeleton housed beside the popcorn stand.  More troublesome is the fact that my wife suddenly finds herself traveling with three children, her normal two, and a much larger, more troublesome one who becomes pouty and abstinent because he doesn’t want to leave the mid-western sunshine drifting through the airplane windows at takeoff that reminds him of his youth.

Eventually we make it home, and after picking at each other all day over the best way to do everything from loading the luggage to putting the kids into bed, we are in that awful marital space where we both crave time together where we are not troubleshooting, while at the same time hungering for independence.  We opt for independence, and I retreat to our office, feeling the same sort of poor me, punching bag sympathies Doctor Doom expresses for Latveria before I crack open Stan Lee Meets the Silver SurferThis comic doesn’t do much to improve my mood since it’s all about how one of Lee’s creation even bores the hell out of Lee, with his deep seeded consideration of the cosmos, which is a surprising turn for a self-authored tribute to take, but you’re also probably not supposed to come back from a vacation feeling morose.

Thankfully I keep reading and take in Paul Jenkins’ “The Magician” at the end of this same issue.  Flipping through the little strip, there is something very honest about the tale that has to do with a young Paul Jenkins, sitting in an English garden, drawing really “Poo-by” comics.  Stan shows up like some sort of guardian angel and convinces the little bloke to keep trying to create, to persevere.  It’s advice I need as I think about how the final chapter of this blog is on the horizon and what life will look like in the near future, and as I attempt to envision how on earth my wife and I will keep our marriage together for sixty years the way her grandparents did, considering travelling across the country for a day has ground us into the dirt.  I guess I can be thankful that we don’t live in the era of the Oregon trail.

I suppose that’s why something like a sixtieth wedding anniversary or 65 years in comics gets celebrated, because it isn’t easy.  It is as Lee says, “fifty percent inspiration and ninety percent perspiration”.  But reading these books and spending this weekend alongside my wife’s grandparents I realize its not all about chemistry and hard work.   Perhaps you need a silly catch phrase, too.  Something  like Stan Lee’s “excelsior!” that mean different things on different days.  “I’m sorry,” comes to mind as something we all need to say and mean more in our lives, but in a marriage maybe “I love you” is just the right catchphrase.


The Law of Tooth and Fang And Keyboard

            In the wake of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death a few months ago it seemed like every critic in the world referenced the speech he gave in his role as Lester Bangs from 2000’s “Almost Famous”, because it’s not just a great movie speech; it also makes writers seem cool because it professes they aren’t cool, that they merely are who they are, which is the ultimate cool guy ethos.  Last week on, pop culture critic and Marvel Comics aficionado Alex Pappademas wrote this piece about the X-Man Cyclops that makes similar points to those made by Hoffman as Bangs, explaining that he relates to Scott Summers more than Wolverine because he’s not the best at what he does, which makes sense, except Alex Pappademas is my personal Wolverine.

            Saying Pappademas is my personal Wolverine is a complicated statement.  After all, what does that even mean?  I know it doesn’t mean that I view him as a vertically challenged killing machine who swills Molson for mouthwash, because he speaks enough about his personal life in his writing and on the podcast he shares with Wesley Morris that I’ve cobbled together a few facts about his life.  I know coincidentally his wife and daughter share the same names as my wife and daughter, but that he only has one child instead of two.  I know he passed out Halloween candy dressed as the Cat in the Hat , and we live in the same state, and he likes to hit golf balls to clear his head.  I know where he watches NFL football, and that he only recently got a drivers license, and he’s written for Esquire and Spin.  That I know all this is not because I am compiling a S.H.I.E.L.D. dossier on this man, but because these are the sort of details Pappademas needs to share if he’s going to ask the sort of questions his work asks about survival and family and achievement.

            In a way I know my statement about Pappademas being Wolverine has something to do with the fact that I owe a lot to Pappademas.  At a time when I wasn’t really sure how I was going to continue practicing my writing, his series “I Suck At Football”, coupled with some free comics I read on the Marvel App, convinced me to spend a year writing about something I really didn’t know that much about, and to try and do it with as much introspection and style as I could muster.  Even the way I provide anyone but my family members with the names of James Beard Award winners as pseudonyms on my blog is an homage, or a straight up shark bite (What is the difference?) of Pappademas’s physicist pseudonym strategy.

            Saying Pappademas is my personal Wolverine could also mean he is a placeholder for what it means to be a writer for me in the way Wolverine is an analog for the sort of hard-ass chutzpa adolescent boys think represents manhood and cool.  That’s part of it for sure; not because my romanticized version of a writer is someone who lives in Silver Lake and seeks out the Kidz Bop version of “Bubble Butt”, but because I know Pappademas is more disciplined than I am about carrying a notebook, and he writes more hours a day than I do, and anyone who can get paid to write the opening line, “Heaven just got a little more unsettlingly penis shaped,” seems worth looking up to.

            That’s still not the whole picture though, because every day I tell myself I’m trying to be a writer.  The problem with this self-affirmation is that it triggers a competitive impulse that makes me measure myself against other writers, including Pappademas, which is in part why he is really more Wolverine to me than Cyclops, because nobody strives to be better than Cyclops. Its well established that despite his leadership role Cyclops is a mediocre mutant.  Instead we want to struggle against the best, and although I am probably more on the level of a Hellfire Club janitor, I feel the need to tell myself that I am Pappademas’s Sabertooth, and that I have merely been biding my time, working on the outskirts of his career, and that I am coming to prove I’m more skilled and important than Pappademas is or ever will be.

            Writing that last sentence, I know I sound delusional; not only because I am comparing two real life people to two fictional Canadian mutants, but because Pappademas is a professional author and I’m a high school English teacher with a word processor and a GoDaddy account.  Avid comic book fans would note that for this very reason I can’t consider myself the Victor Creed to Pappademas’s James Howlett.  After all, in the comics we are led to believe a showdown between Sabertooth and Wolverine is an almost fair fight that pushes Wolverine to his breaking point, but in the comics Sabertooth never actually defeats Wolverine.  Regardless of the iteration of Creed, be it in the 616 universe or the Age of Apocalypse Earth, there is no doubt that by the end of whatever dust up the two have, Wolverine is going to get the lion’s share of what he wants out of the exchange, it’s just that after these confrontations, Sabertooth somehow finds it in himself to believe he was just a body hair away from besting Logan.  For some reason I feel the need to take the same stance, which is why Pappademas is my Wolverine, because I need to see him as someone whose skill level I’m trying to surpass with every blog post, or short story, or magazine blurb I compose.  Like Sabertooth, I have to choose to be delusional.  I have to see the world through the eyes of someone who knows he’s better than his contemporaries even when all past experience suggests that he is not, because otherwise why would I ever consent to combat with them?

            The rational answer to that last question is that this sort of combat is unnecessary and probably misdirected.  Just as defeating Wolverine in single combat wouldn’t prove Sabertooth is the Marvelverse’s mightiest being, writing something better than Pappademas wouldn’t make me the world’s greatest writer.  Enough room exists in the universe for Pappademas and myself, and a billion other authors to ask questions and try to answer them with or without the aid of fictional cartoon characters.  Yet like Sabertooth, a fear exists within me that all these other authors can come to grips with this fact and recognize that they are not struggling against one another, but against themselves. I fear they have the capacity to recognize Wolverine and Sabertooth are just two sides of the same coin, and the only way a person gets better at storytelling is if they strive to master the art of flipping that coin so that it comes up X-Man more often than Maurader, and that I’ll never quite be able to take that leap.  That somehow I’ll forever be the sort of feral being I am now, using my keyboard to lash out at questions that don’t have real answers.  Questions like, Why is Alex Pappademas my personal Wolverine?  Or why does it matter that he is?

Fueling a Fire With Jack Kirby Comic Books and Dinosaur Blood

           It is free comic book day, and my daughter and I wait outside our local comic shop at 9:58 Am, in a line of a dozen or so comic fans.  Hoping to get a glimpse of the staff, we squint through a web of fencing, peeking between cardboard cutouts of Captain America standing arms akimbo and Black Panther swinging his legs like he’s on an invisible pommel horse.

            My two-year-old understands none of this.  She is here because I promised donuts and a free comic featuring Donald Duck published by Fantagraphics.  I’ve made this bargain because I’ve never attended a Free Comic Book Day and I’m looking for inspiration for a blog post that I desperately need, because I’m in that sort of quagmire all writers experience when their writing feels stale, formulaic, or just plain awful.

            My hope is this experience will be like a Star Wars or Harry Potter movie premiere, with scores of adoring fans lining up in varying stages of fanatical dress ranging from full Man-Thing costumes to more practical t-shirts like the trusty Thor one I have on, and that the palpable fandom that surrounds us will be the gas I need to push through another week in the Marvelverse.  In truth, there are only a few people wearing comic gear.  The African American man who gets into line behind Charlie and I wears a stock grey, threadbare t-shirt with the words “Diamond Comic Distributors” scrawled across the front in black cursive letters making him the fourth most spirited person here.

            Hoping to learn this is somehow his lucky Free Comic Book Day shirt I think to strike up a conversation with him because I recognize that we have a shared interest.  In fact, another of my expectations for FCBD is that the line into the shop will be a noisy salon bursting with discussion about the happenings in the various fictional universes readers follow, but the only person I’ve heard speak is the middle aged woman at the front of the line, dressed in khaki slacks and a matching jacket unbuttoned to reveal a plain white T who tells curious passerby’s whether they ask about it or not, that the line has formed because there are free comics and it starts behind her.  Other than this, the people in line either squint through that same window that we peaked through a moment ago, hoping the owner will flip their placard from Closed to Open, or stare uncomfortably at our stroller, considering how they will avoid it when we get into the store and the line becomes less of an expectation.

            Disappointed but not discouraged, I tell my daughter who senses the crowd’s general impatience that “We’ll get her duck book soon,” and as I do so a store employ dressed in a gingham shirt and wetsuit tight black jeans opens the door, grimaces at the crowd and wordlessly retreats.  I grind my teeth with apprehension.  I dared to think the store employees would be the most enthusiastic people at this event, even more decked out than their patrons, wide smiles on their faces, like Wolverine exiting the Danger Room after a hard training session only to discover someone left a fishing cooler full of Molson outside his bedroom door.

            Instead, the same employee emerges with a similarly dressed coworker, who assures us with the same tone I use when I tell my daughter she doesn’t need two desserts that, “There are plenty of comics for everyone.”

            “Sounds good,” I respond while the rest of the line silently nods. I’m unsure if they believe the employee.  There is a sense that they have an insatiable desire to possess comic books, but it does not seem like the sort of good natured, electric fandom I had hoped for, but more the obsessive sort of hunger you see on the faces of Black Friday shoppers willing to curb-stomp someone for the chance to shuttle a Blu-ray player out of Wal-Mart.

            Inside the woman in khaki leads my fellow comic fans past several wire racks and shelves containing various action figures to a small folding table upon which the free promotional books have been placed.  Here a female store employee who is roughly thirty, with a cloud of raspberry colored hair, wears a skin tight black leather costume that sort of looks like the ensemble Scarlett Johansson wears when she plays Black WidowThere we go I think, hopeful that a fully rendered Hellboy will emerge from the longboxes to her left.  However, this sense that finally someone gets how fun this day could be is ruined, after the very nice superhero lady tells us that we may only take two free comics per person, and my guy in the Diamond shirt rushes to the opposite side of the line and begins taking one copy of all twenty or so comics on the table and throws a small fit when he is asked to put them back.

            This problem is compounded when the people behind us in line begin to get impatient and try to hustle us along past the books while we are trying to select which two titles we want.  The first thing we grab is Charlie’s “duck book” which makes her smile, and I also want to get the two Marvel books that are supposed to be on display, Guardians of the Galaxy and Rocket Raccoon, but the Rocket Raccoon book isn’t on the table, so I end up getting a copy of Paul Popes The Invincible Haggard West, before I can ask about the 2000 AD or Hip Hop Family Tree comics I really wanted.

            Already disappointed with what I’ve taken, I end up wandering over  to a stack of non-Marvel trades, picking up the first volume of Richard Starking’s Elephant Men to read once my Marvel blog ends, and as I pay at the register I can’t help  but think wow, this is it. before leaving the store to fulfill the fried dough portion of my contract.

            Walking home, I feel more than a little silly that I am depressed by how uninspiring our Free Comic Book Day was.  The sun shines, my healthy two-year-old merrily flips through a comic book and tells me what she sees as we meander home with sticky buns and coffee cake, and I have a Marvel book to peruse when we return to my beautiful wife and seven-month-old, but I can’t shake the feeling that the spark I’m looking for to write another comic book blog isn’t out there, and then I find just that, not in the pages of the Marvel comics Guardian’s of the Galaxy sampler, but on my Marvel U app, when I stumble across Jack Kirby’s short lived 1978 series, Devil Dinosaur.

            For those unfamiliar with Devil Dinosaur, it is a comic book about a friendship forged between Devil, a ferocious, hot sauced colored tyrannosaurus rex, and Moon-Boy, an early human with more body hair than Robin Williams.   Their friendship blossoms after Moon-Boy nurses Devil back to health in the wake of a horrendous volcano accident.  It’s a love affair similar to that of Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo except Devil isn’t so much interested in being a big city gigolo as he is in ruling the valley he and Moon-Boy are from, and Moon-Boy seems to know enough about controlling a territory that he and Devil are able to achieve their goals.

            Neither this pair’s companionship or their quest to rule the valley is what is so inspiring about this comic.  What is so dynamizing about this book is the unbridled creativity that Jack Kirby displays in the nine issue run that includes enough dinosaur fights, alien invasions, bible parodies, enormous insects, time traveling, and ape witches to make George Lucas and Steven Spielberg blush.

            Furthermore, Kirby’s artwork, his true calling card in the history of comics, is equally electric.  Every muscle and hair on every living being in these books twitches and moves and rustles as if constantly being jolted with a creative voltage that somehow communicates the feeling of being inspired.  He captures that sense of reaching artistic Nirvana that you know is impossible to hold onto, a sort of intellectual experience equivalent to riding atop 1800 pounds of spastic, sweating Texas beef, or flying like one of those pilots from “The Right Stuff” who soared towards the black of space until they lost consciousness and nose dove back to earth, or being a four-foot-tall ape man covered in oil black hair named Moon-Boy sitting astride the shoulders of a ten ton, rosacea plagued tyrannosaurus rex named Devil.  But in this book, Kirby somehow makes it seem possible to never fall off the rocket that he rides.  Not to mix my monster metaphors, but every line Kirby draws makes me picture him, his overgrown pickle jar head resting atop his thick neck, a cigar dangling from his lips as he sketches a giant space dragon devouring the moon while simultaneously hollering, “King Kong ain’t got shit on me!”

   Page after page I shuffle through recharges my spirit, not because I have any sense that I am as creative as Jack Kirby, but because there is a chance that if someone can articulate so well what it feels like to be inspired with a dinosaur and an ape man, and a bunch of bonkers other stuff from his imagination, I can at least arrange myself in front of my laptop and try to find my own entrance into this sort of magic Kirby seemed to have an endless supply of.  

Not Another Rob Liefeld Hit Piece

If you do a Google search of Rob Liefeld, an image of him will appear along your screen’s right margin depicting the author/artist sitting in a living room with white walls and an antique side table behind him.  It’s the sort of table where you would expect to maybe throw your keys, or drop your mail, or display a framed family photo, but Liefeld has festooned it with statuary of his more iconic creations and a dozen or so comic book trades.  The author himself smiles for the camera.  If I’m being objective, it’s possible to say he’s just smiling, like someone asked what the best year of his Laker fandom was, and he’s excited to answer it, and so he shows his straight white teeth, which look particularly white against his bronzed skin.  However, as a comic book fan I’ve been trained to not be objective about Rob Liefeld.  I look at that picture, his hair the color of a newly minted penny, nipped short with clippers save a dozen or so strands that pour down towards his left eye, causing me to wonder if the barber made a mistake or if Liefeld asked for a “saggy Alfalfa” ,and I can’t help but think he is leaning towards the camera, sticking his chin out and saying “Punch me in the face!  I dare you!”  It’s an unreasonable response to a picture of a man whose work I hardly know, and whose made important contributions to my comic book fandom.  Yet it’s the only way I can describe that picture.  Rob Liefield is just that easy to hate.

The left side of the screen for that same Google search spends an inordinate amount of time and data laying out the cases people have for hating Liefeld.  Much of this vitriol centers around the careless way in which he draws comics despite having amassed a small fortune as a comic book artist.  Write ups like “The Great Rob Liefeld Mystery” and the more vulgar but more detailed “The 40 worst Rob Liefeld Drawings” take great pains to demonstrate that Liefeld probably can’t draw feet and has an unnatural obsession with pouches and ignores even basic principles of continuity or anatomy so that the end result is a Captain America with such ample breasts that we are left wondering if he attempted to counteract his super soldier serum with enough estrogen to eradicate menopause forever.

Reading further down the list, I learn that in 2009 one comic fan despised Liefeld so much that he attempted to publicly shame him at a comic convention, first by asking for an apology for some of Liefeld’s Marvel work, and then by providing him with a copy of Stan Lee and John Buscema’s How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way, an act which proved that comic fans are not just tactless and unreasonable on the internet.   I watch video of this exchange, and then read a firsthand account of the incident on the perpetrators blog.

Digging deeper into the slime that surrounds Liefeld’s career, I read stories about social media “feuds” with other creators which seem more bizarre than damning.  Liefeld argues like a high school debater, trying to spew a barrage of claims at his adversary who will either stop talking to him or give confused retorts.

The sewer of hate that a Google search of Liefeld drags up is so immense and so one sided that I find myself in the special sort of hell that only the internet can provide. A quagmire of vitriol that leaves a person shaking their head at the lack of empathy people have either as a result of their internet anonymity, or because they are strictly subhuman in their capacity to recognize alternative perspectives.  This feeling that I need a shower is only added to by the fact that I spend most of my morning actually surrounded by mucus laden vomit from our two-year-old, who after an evening of gleeful dancing around the kitchen with her grandmother, wakes in the night with what turns out to be the early stages of pneumonia, and now only wants to watch Disney movies and cry out for her father to watch them with her.

Thankfully I no longer am expected to follow along with the films, which are excellent, but familiar enough that I spend much of my day subconsciously singing show tunes from them.  Instead of paying attention to whether or not Mowgli goes back to the Man Village, I’m able to read some of Liefeld’s comic book canon while I push fluids on my daughter and track the medicine she is supposed to take.  I only make it through the first appearance of Cable in New Mutants #87 and the first appearance of Deadpool in New Mutants #98 before I make a decision that Walt Disney and the Sherman Brothers might be more worthy of my attention even if I’ve seen Baloo and Bagheera’s assault on King Louie’s temple a thousand times before.

Some of this disappointment with these Rob Liefeld texts isn’t his fault so much as it is the fault of Marvel for posting these books without any of the background story on their Marvel U app, so that what I am seeing is merely a single chapter dislodged from the larger narrative.  But I figure that my love for both Cable and Deadpool, whose comics I adore, will allow me to enjoy their introduction to comic book readers.  This isn’t the case, and much of it is because they are nothing more than Liefled’s usual collage of pouches and weapons.  The pair merely shows up, guns blazing, like heavily armed cardboard cutouts for a soldier and an assassin, and knowing what they become, it’s hard to give Liefled much credit for actually creating these characters, because they are only superficially related to the fully fleshed out figures they morph into.

Yet, Liefeld did create them, and continued to contribute to their stories throughout the next two decades.  Sure he hasn’t been considered the seminal writer or artist for either of these characters.  That honor goes to Joe Kelly and Ed Mcguinness for Deadpool and really doesn’t belong to anyone for Cable, although I would argue Swierczynski and Olivetti deserve the belt.  But is that initial idea and character design for these two superbeings enough for comic book fans to ignore Liefeld’s other shortcomings, or do Liefeld’s shortcomings somehow taint these books?

Part of what complicates this issue for me is that other artistic endeavors rarely encourage writers and artists to take another person’s work and treat it like a discarded toy found in the attic of a recently purchased home.  This isn’t to say this doesn’t happen elsewhere, musicians cover songs, and film makers do remakes, and authors will reuse characters from other texts, but the difference with comic books published by Marvel is that it is the job of their current writers to take existing properties and add to their overall legacy, further fleshing them out and exploring their past, present and future.  This means that no matter what, any character created by Liefeld or anyone else in comics is never going to be less interesting than when they first show up on the page, so perhaps Liefeld should be praised for his genius considering the two blank canvases he gave us became such interesting and nuanced characters, which also function as cornerstones for the trajectory of the Marvel brand.  Maybe he belongs on the Marvel Mount Rushmore of comic book creators alongside Lee and Kirby and Claremont, because of what other people did with the raw materials he gave him.

When it comes to this argument I’d like to think we don’t have to be Rob Liefeld characters.  That we don’t have to lionize Liefeld as a comic book icon or demonize him as a hack.  That we can choose to appreciate his contributions, while at the same time criticizing his shortcomings, but based on both the coverage of Liefeld I read, and the comics of his I consume, I’m not certain readers are any more nuanced than his first iterations of Deadpool and Cable, our cheekbones strained, our teeth clenched, blindly firing whatever intellectual ammunition we have in a rapid burst of hate or praise into the world until we cut a hole in the ground we stand on, and the floor gives way, and we have to figure out how to get out of the pit we’ve placed ourselves in.

Kitty Pryde: Forever Young

I sit beside my wife at the bar of a pizza parlor near the house where I spent my high school years in Scottsdale, Arizona.  Gazing through the steam rising from our pie, we observe the restaurant’s busy outdoor patio.  Tan, mostly female servers, dressed in sleeveless black t-shirts branded with pizza themed puns, set food before locals and visitors alike, who drink too much soda and too much beer in the thirst inducing desert.   We chat about our work and kids and the visit so far.  Between sentences and bites of squared off slices of sausage and pepperoni pizza, I find myself scouring the crowded restaurant expecting to spot someone I know, a classmate or coworker from my past, and the startling thing is, I never see anyone that I actually recognize.

It’s because I’m looking at the wrong people, the servers and the fit young couples also out on dates seem like our peers, but they probably aren’t.  In fact, it’s more likely they are a decade younger than my wife and I.  But when I turn my attention to anyone else at this restaurant who is clearly not 20, they look far older than us, and then it hits me, even though I look at one in the mirror each morning and go to bed beside one each night, I have no idea what a thirty-year-old person looks like.

This recognition that I am somehow adrift at the center of an ocean of corporeal time, where everyone or anyone could be my age except for the extremely old and the extremely young, is unsettling and impossible to forget.  Later in the week, when visiting a decadent shopping mall so our daughter can splash across a water themed playground in her swimsuit shouting with ecstasy while shivering despite mid-nineties temperatures, determining the age of other attendees becomes even more overwhelming because of the way money, which everyone else at this mall seemed to have in abundance, allows people to look younger through plastic surgery and personal fitness trainers and nutritional decision making, and allows younger people to look older through expensive makeup and expensive clothes and dermatological treatments and tanning booths.  It was a mall full of women who were all simultaneously pert and elegant and slightly overdone, and men who looked both vibrant and polished and carried a virile sort of heft.  The only place besides that mall where people’s ages are tougher to guess is in the pages of comics.

The issue with comics and aging isn’t something I’ve failed to recognize, and I understand why it exists; nobody wants to see Emma Frost become a sagging, wrinkled duffle bag in a white tube top any more than they want to see Gambit go bald, get fat, and have the skin on the back of his neck turn into something akin to a beef patty left under a Burger King heating lamp for three weeks.  Marvel, above all else, is selling a fantasy to its readers, a world where everyone knows how to solve their problems, and look good doing it, but the issue of annuating super-beings becomes unignorable for me during the Excalibur arc “The Cross Time Caper.”

I recognize saying the lack of aging in this comic is the most striking thing that happens in the book is like saying the real problem with Stalin was his haircut.  There are plenty of ways in which Excalibur portrays and attempts to explains an utterly bonkers view of time and space.   Over twelve issues the team visit a magical, modern medieval version of Earth, an Earth where super-beings battle one another like fourth graders playing war at recess, a space opera themed Earth where intergalactic witches seduce sapphire swashbucklers like Kurt Wagner in order to make them accomplices in their sacrificial rituals to a slime green, energy consuming space squid, an Earth were rally racing is the only sport that matters and where Jamie Braddock rules the road and the realm with a sort of super-puppeteering power, a Harrison Bergeron style dystopia where Brian Braddock is the supreme leader, and the omniversal hub, the bureaucratic complex for all that exists, which basically means the DMV for every imaginable version of every fictional character and every rubber stamp wielding troll in creative history.  However, throughout all this grin inducing wackiness that I can’t get enough of, one thought keeps crossing my mind, “How old is Kitty Pryde supposed to be?”

The reason for this is because of all the heroes in the Marvelverse Kitty Pryde has in many ways always seemed the most real to me.  Part of this is because she is a Jewish girl from Deerfield, Illinois and growing up I caddied at a Jewish country club in Deerfield, Illinois, and although I met very few Jewish teenage girls while working there, I can transpose the dozens of Jewish teenage girls I met at my predominately Jewish Scottsdale High School into that community and get some sort of a facsimile of what it would be like to grow up with a non-mutant Kitty Pryde.

Yet, this feeling goes beyond geography and biography.  Kitty Pryde is one of the most normal looking characters in Marvel comics.  This does not mean she is unattractive.  In some ways I find her more attractive than many comic vixens because she isn’t drawn with the dimensions of a typical nude portrait scratched into the door of a men’s room stall with a nickel.  She is slight but strong and artists do a great job creating different effects with her hair.  Also, she spends more time in street clothes than a lot of super-heroines, which is a good thing, because the Shadowcat costume she wears as a member of Excalibur makes her look like she purchased a Zorro costume from the little boys section of a Spirit Halloween store.

This also doesn’t mean she won’t put on a show stopping ensemble that flaunts her sexuality.  For a handful of issues she wears a bikini and cape combo straight out of She-ra’s closet, and although she acts uncomfortable with it, she has no reason to feel that way.  In fact, I’m the one who should feel uncomfortable about it, because according to issue 24 of Excalibur Kitty Pryde is only 14 when she first dons this costume in issue 16.

Part of the reason discovering this is so uncomfortable for me is because I find the entire conversation about sexuality and superheroes uncomfortable and embarrassing.  I understand these are fictional characters and the chance to interact with them in the physical world is not real, but admitting one of them is attractive somehow makes me feel like I am obligated to defend this comprehension, the way under-informed thirteen-year-olds of my generation felt obligated to over-explain why they said a man was attractive.

More so, this discovery upsets me because I feel somehow cheated by Marvel, since Kitty Pryde should by all rights be in her early twenties, not only because she was 13 when she first appeared in Uncanny  X-Men in 1980, nine years before her 15th birthday celebration in Excalibur 24, but also since she is written like an early twenty-something who is in many ways less sure of her identity than a 15-year-old would be.  Over the course of these comics, readers watch her doubt she will ever be as attractive as her peers and swoon over older men, even though I suppose Doctor Alistair Stuart might only be 16 given the climate of annuation in Marvel books.  She struggles to decide what direction her life should take, wondering if she should rejoin the workforce or go back to school.  Even her power, the ability to deplete her mass so that she is a walking ghost, becomes a symbol for early twenty’s angst when she loses control of it, rendering her nearly invincible and simultaneously incapable of effecting real change in her world much of the time, a feeling every twenty something has had, but because Marvel is unwilling to let Kitty Pryde grow up in real time the whole thing feels cheapened.

Thankfully Kitty has been allowed to mature in recent years transitioning into her early thirties which brings with it all the questions about what it means to be a fully formed adult after the age at which you can no longer sanely consider yourself a child.  She worries about being alone and gray hairs, and leaving her mark on the planet before she goes.   In her current incarnation as the headmistress of the Jean Grey School, her age is less a problem, and despite the fact that we get to see a future version of her when we read The Battle of the Atom it’s pretty clear that Kitty Pryde has done all the aging she’s going to be permitted to do in main stream comics, and surprisingly I’m ok with that because its as realistic a creative choice as if they had let her turn eighteen five years after she was introduced, like the rest of us, even Marvel heroes don’t view themselves as getting older with each passing year.  Despite all logic and evidence to the contrary, we stare into the mirror and think we’re exactly as we were a decade ago.  Why should Kitty Pryde be any different?

Excalibur: A Feat no Less Impressive Than Pulling the Sword from the Stone

Characters in the Marvelverse have all sorts of powers.  Super strength, invulnerability, the ability to control all manner of elements, teleportation, telepathy, telekinesis, shape-shifting, the power to conjure all manner of psychic weapons and store energy and rearrange molecules and fly and electrify blood and wrangle giant intestinal maggots and transform into lobsters and belch insects are just a smattering of super-stuff Marvel heroes can do.  But of all the superpowers that exist, no character seems capable of predicting a creative properties popularity.

This might be the most realistic thing that happens in all Marvel comics, because its abundantly clear that no one ever knows what’s going to grab the imagination of earthlings.  Just walk down the hallway of any high school and observe what students are wearing, or check out the ratings for a television show like Game of Thrones, or read an issue of Chris Claremont’s original Excalibur series.

Just imagining the pitch session where Chris Claremont explained to Marvel editors that he wanted to take two popular, but off-brand X-Men and transport them to England to live in a lighthouse that is also some sort of multidimensional portal, and team them up with a brooding and brutish drunk going by the moniker Captain Britain, a naive empathetic mutant meta-morph, a pint-sized dragon, and a member of the Summers family from another dimension where the 80’s punk look never went out of style, is enough to make my brain boil like I am Widget, the garbage eating, disembodied robot head that sends the team across the sidereal string every time Rachel Summers gives him a shot of the Phoenix force.

I  suppose Claremont must have described the series as Doctor Who meets 2000 A.D. meets the X-Men but with more Nazi doppelgangers.  Oh yeah, did I mention the Nazi doppelgangers.  This comic has Nazi doppelgangers; half of whom show up by accident aboard a train powered by an enormous slave dragon, and the other half of which show up via a magic spell so that the ghost of holocaust victim Kitty Pryde can try to kill Earth-616’s Excalibur squad and so that Nazi Nightcrawler can go around bamfing into women’s rooms in Kanye West sunglasses and attempt to rape them.  It’s that kind of bonkers.

The Nazi doppelgangers don’t show up until the very end of the 11 issue run I read that takes me up to the start of the “Cross Time Caper”, the insanely inventive story arc that I’ll talk more about next week, because in all honesty there is not enough time this week to go into the sort of detail that these first 11 issues require to explain.  They have stuff like movie parodies that results in Captain Britain acting like Rambo and Freddy Kruger as he attempts to kill Kitty Pryde, they have inter-dimensional bounty hunters led by morbidly obese clown ladies, they have skin stealing hawk headed warwolves from the Mojoverse, and murderous cream pies and palate cleansing issues that involve Captain Britain accidentally exposing himself and Superman and Louis lane commenting on the how droll it is to run across another hulked up flying demigod and Meggan winning a cash basketball game at Rucker Park like a female Uncle Drew.

These comics are an endless conveyor belt of fun-house gags that string together A, B, C, and D plots like carnival candy on a butcher twine necklace.  I read this specific series because I’d heard so many comic fans wax nostalgic about how fun it was for them the first time they read the Excalibur run and how much they wish more comics were like what may be Claremont’s seminal work despite all the attention he deserves for his extended tours across Marvel’s mutant brand.

The praise is completely earned, but I’m baffled by the almost universal love these comics seem to inspire because the story is so off the wall it seems like they were written specifically for someone like me, by which I mean a comic book fan with an Anglophilic streak and a penchant for oddball stories that lean a little bit on folklore and a bit of science fiction.  In the beginning I tell myself these comics are so popular because they tap into the same fallow feeling I get when I look at a Ralph Lauren ad or leaf through an issue of Conde Naste Traveler.  Just as those texts make me want to pheasant hunt with an antique shotgun and a team of purebred Labradors or sip espresso in the sunshine of a small Sicilian village, Excalibur makes me ache for the chance to sit beside a crackling fire in a stone hearth, sipping ale from a brass chalice and munching on crusty bread while I glance out a window so thick and rain-spotted that it distorts my view of the surf crashing against the coastline like god’s personal metronome.  It’s a sort of yearning nostalgia for something I’ve never actual experienced that I feel in my loins, which is very real, but also so personal that it seems impossible that such a thing could be the main connection between this book and the swarm of readers that adore it.

Another reason I consider why this oddball comic might be so easy for readers to love is because it is about the formation of a dysfunctional family as opposed to say Uncanny X-Men, which is really about the upkeep of a dysfunctional family that is constantly taking in new members via marriage or adoption or birth.  Excalibur does provide readers with that sort of warm familial feeling that I typically associate with television sitcoms where the members of the team struggle with personal insecurities and emotional turf wars that can only be hashed out by characters who seem to have an unconditional love for each other.  I think this is part of the special brew that leads to Excalibur‘s popularity, but if a sense of family is all it takes to create a successful comic book, then a Brady Bunch comic would have sold like gangbusters at some point in the genres history.

Then it hits me, somewhere between the point when Excalibur is turned into the Crazy Gang by Arcade and the ten minute period when I stare, mouth agape at Hauptmann Englande’s costume complete with swastika headband, that the reason this comic book is so popular is because it treats creativity not as a surgical tool that opens our minds to a new possibility through inventiveness, but as a civil war canon stuffed to the gills with loose nails and chain and the spikes from Rachel Summer’s costume that tries to eviscerate our ideas about what a superhero comic can and should be about.  As a writer, this attitude towards creativity is as inspiring as reading John Cheever’s “The Swimmer” or  listening to J.K. Rowling talk about how many times her Harry Potter series was rejected.  It makes me feel that wonderful sense of magic that writing inspires in its least difficult moments, a feeling that anything can happen when you stare at a blank page, and that what should happen is whatever you want to happen because the things you care to write about might just be the exact thing other people want to read about even though you never would have thought anyone had a shared interest in such a stupid, strange, and utterly personal thing.

When Comics Are Too Cool

     Snark is omnipresent, snark is easy to find.  It is trendy, it is boastful, it is often mumbled but remains loud.  It dishonor others, it is self-seeking, it is rooted in anger,  it keeps copious records of wrongs.  Snark does not traffic in outright lies, but rejoices in unpleasant truths.  It can protect, it rarely trusts, it never hopes, and always persists.

                Snark never fails.  But never quite succeeds to say it’s piece; with tongues, that won’t be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will be thought of as play.

                The above bastardization of Corinthians 13:4-8 is what I imagine Janeane Garofalo read at the wedding ceremony she performed  in the staff breakroom at the Chateau Marmont where Morrissey and Sofia Coppala witnessed the union of Warren Ellis and the genetically engineered hater Marvel constructed from the DNA of every comic shop and record store employee who ever rolled their eyes at someone for purchasing an Eagles album or the latest Brian Bendis comic.  After the ceremony there was no music as no one could agree upon what to play, and there was no cake, instead they served individual banoffee pie milkshakes sipped through black curly-q straws while they gazed at their shoes and didn’t speak.  Later that night the couple consummated their marriage in a hammock knit by the worlds second greatest knitter, as both parties agreed the world’s greatest knitter Hazel Tindall was overrated.  The results of their copulation was the twelve issue miniseries Nextwave: Agents of HATE a snarky, satirical superhero team-up written by Ellis and drawn by Stewart Immonen.

The reason I chose to read Nextwave:Agents of HATE is because of Warren Ellis’s reputation as an author with diverse work in graphic text and prose who’d discussed the writing process in relatively open fashion for someone who seems to take his style cues from the pro wrestler The Undertaker and whose work is so notorious for its cynicism that even a newbie like myself was aware of its biting commentary before I began this blog.  As someone whose trying to be a writer myself, I thought it would be a good opportunity to learn about the craft of writing while reading about superheroes, and if I’m being one hundred percent honest I read this text because Ellis’s more famous series Transmetropolitan and Red were written for other comic book publishers besides Marvel.

From the above lede you might imagine that I hate this comic, but that is not the case.  This comic, which centers around a mismatched group of C list heroes led by forgettable one time Captain Marvel, Monica Rambeau, and including former X-Forcer Boom-Boom, monster hunter Elsa Bloodstone, robot Machine Man, and someone called Captain ☠☠☠☠ who has a striking amount in common with the movie superhero Hancock, is full of graphic novel gold.  It has at least one terrific villain, Nick Fury parody Dirk Anger, who survives on a diet of liquefied baby chicks and self-loathing for most of the book, until he is turns into a zombie and develops a palate that leans more towards grey matter, and it has some terrific sight gags, including a penultimate series of video game style fights straight from Double Dragon, which include among other things, flying M.O.D.O.K.’s that look like Elvis.

But the question I keep asking while I’m reading this book is, can something so rooted in hater culture be truly loved?

Nextwave: Agents of HATE is absolutely rooted in hater culture.  It’s right there in the title, even if that is a sort of joke itself.  It hates on a slew of comic book characters and tropes, like Nick Fury through the use of Dirk Anger, a misogynist and a masochist who spends a good deal of time yelling at female subordinates and trying to commit suicide.  It hates on Captain America and Cable through the lens of Monica Rambaue and Boom Boom, who the aforementioned team leaders treated the way high school students treat janitors.  It hates on villains, populating the book with a mix of silly sub-threats like Fin Fang Foom, who is depicted as a horny, Hulk foil complete with purple cargo shorts, a dirty cop turned samurai cyborg, a baby M.O.D.O.K., an army of robots that are actually vegetables, and a series of super-villain teams that poke fun at tolerance and acceptance simultaneously.

Nextwave: Agents of HATE hates on comic book culture as well with its snide recap pages that function as a fictional Q and A between the writers and readers and its sarcastic title cards which promote the series like a sort of sports drink while at the same time berating readers, writers, and characters alike.  It hates on Marvel’s biggest crossover event in decades, Civil War.

It hates on the actual team members themselves, showing Captain ☠☠☠☠ as being as capable and complex as the last person Blockbuster Video hired, and Machine Man as little more than an android version of KITT from Knight Rider, which is to say he is smart mouthed and baffled by humanity, but more than anything else the male heroes in this comic seem like a non-enitity, a sort of throw-in compared to the ladies who both receive the most hate in this book while at the same time being the most likable characters in the text.

The all out snark attack leveled against the women of Nextwave: Agents of HATE is clear from the moment we see the super-squads female members.  For starters Immonen, who draws plenty of shapely and sexy women in his current All New X-Men book takes Elsa Bloodstone and Boom-Boom and makes them look like castoffs from the East German swim team.  They are hulking, broad shouldered and small breasted with faces that seem to be flattened out with a spatula.  Without her signature hairdo Elsa Bloodstone would have been completely unrecognizable to me, and Boom-Boom is unrecognizable to me even after she uses her signature power.

Monica Rambeau’s looks are roasted on in a different fashion, as Immonen’s inspiration for her seems to be an angry, black, Liz Lemon in a trench coat.  She is a character who seems totally devoid of caring about her appearance because she has invested everything, her sense of humor, her diet, her femininity, and her hygiene, into her work, and it’s hard to tell if the payoff is really worth it.

The effect of all this hating is it’s hard to take anything in this book seriously because everything is a joke of some sort, and the aggregate effect of such a narrative is that we get an ongoing game of the dozens where the individual beats of the competition are based on some nugget of truth, but it becomes impossible to decipher what is actual satire, and what is just hate for the sake of a cheap laugh.  To call it a missed opportunity isn’t quite enough, because there is no doubt in reading this that Ellis and Immonen were given more creative freedom than your average Captain America author, but there is a sense that something is missing, a genuine love.

This does not mean there is no love for comic book culture here.  It is clear from the beginning that Ellis and Immonen respect the medium of comics for the opportunity to tell story and provide greater truths it offers, because that is what they seem to be trying to do, but reading this book there is a palpable dismissiveness for superhero comics that makes me as a reader think the creative team is amusing themselves with all this hate, but not actually saying anything.  And it starts to make me not like their work.

Rereading the 12th issue of Nextwave: Agents of HATE I decide to try and recognize what exactly it is they are attempting to say about superhero comics.  I guess it might be something about how they are a waste of time both to write and to read because they deal in absurd absolutes, but if that’s the case, how is a comic book that is completely dismissive of superheroes dealing in any less of an absurd absolute.  Perhaps that’s the point, that we should care about things that fully hate and unwittingly love because they are extremely unrealistic, and because it’s clear that they are unrealistic, we get to determine where on the spectrum between love and hate our nuanced reality lies.

Taking this premise a step further I am forced to reflect on how much value I place upon true red, yellow, and blue superhero comics after investing the better part of a year in reading them, and because I find myself coming to the aid of superhero comics, wanting to rescue them like some cape donning spandex wearer from the barrage of snark Ellis thrusts upon them in Nextwave Agents of HATE, my home on the spectrum between outright loathing and devoted love must be closer to the later, and I have a feeling Ellis and Immonen reside in the same place, even if they are having more fun mocking our home turf.

What a Cussing Great Idea I Just had: Why Wes Anderson Needs to Make an Alpha Flight Movie

The rise of the superhero movie has been discussed at length by pop culture pundits and film industry insiders for the last decade.  It is a simple fact that any Marvel movie that comes out is destine to make a hundred million dollars, and most other comic book properties can expect similar returns.  In many ways the producers of these films have figured out the formula for these things.  It looks something like this:  You release a teaser for your next big comic book film at the end of your current comic book film, because you can guarantee millions of viewers, and you get the chance to suggest that the narrative they just paid to see will be picked back up in six months if they would like to stay with it.  You then cast several incredibly talented actors alongside at least one genuine movie star so that we are all willing to believe them when they say a line like “The All-Father hereby banishes you to Midgard!” or whatever other non-sense four time academy award nominee and best actor winner Anthony Hopkins said in Thor.  You follow that up with some TV spots and the next thing you know you’re packing four theaters a multiplex with an abridged version of a classic comic book story.

Last weekend that story was Ed Brubaker’s Captain AmericaWinter Soldier story arc.  Of course it was a financial success making $92.6 million in its first weekend in theaters.  It included a teaser involving Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch.  However, playing at the exact same time was another formula film that made money and drew interest from the culture commentary crowd, Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel.  Like Anderson’s other films, Grand Budapest Hotel contains a slew of decorated actors, including Bill Murray.  It has a memorable score, and the art direction is so quirky and polished that you would think the brilliant cast was somehow shrunken down so that they could shoot in a doll house that belonged to a Russian czarina.  Moreover the people who saw this film got to feel good about watching a movie  with the feel of an art object that was not compromised by test screenings and hacky executives.

That these two films could exist within the same medium is both shocking and a testament to how diverse a storytelling lens the movies are, and I find myself wondering, could Wes Anderson direct a Marvel blockbuster?  I think so, and I think I’ve come up with the perfect project for him.  Alpha Flight the movie.

Two weeks ago I couldn’t make this recommendation, because I had never read an Alpha Flight comic.  I assumed that because the team was Canadian, they were not to be taken seriously, since media rarely takes Canada seriously.  I figured if Marvel published a story about a Canadian superhero team they must spend half the issues chasing maple syrup poachers and the other half rescuing the Stanley Cup from jealous CFL team owners.  I was wrong.  Alpha Flight is serious comic book business that seems to have changed the landscape of comics like an Alberta fracking operation churning up prairie.

For those who are unfamiliar with this superhero squad, John Byrne first introduced Alpha Flight in a pair of X-Men titles before Marvel convinced him to spin it off into its own series in 1983 when he gathered up the team of former government agents turned freelancers that includes ex-petrochemical engineer Guardian (who briefly went by the moniker Vindicator), former Green Bay Packer turned Cryptozoology Weekly cover-boy Sasquatch, a Shakespeare reading, acrobatic dwarf code-named Puck, a shape shifting demi-god named Snowbird, a former surgeon turned Shaman named Doctor Twoyoungmen, a sea creature/alien breeding program castoff named Marrina, and a set of wacky mutant Quebecois twins, one of which is a world renowned skier named Northstar, the other of which is Aurora, a part time schoolmarm, part time sex kitten because she possess split personalities in a move ripped right from “Days of Our Lives”.  Just read that list and tell me you can’t picture Cate Blanchett playing both twins, Bill Murray donning the fur to play Sasquatch, and Gary Oldman getting down on his knees straight Tiptoes style to play the role of Puck.

Anderson’s costume sensibility would be equally necessary in this book because unlike most superhero teams, your X-Men and your Fantastic Four, the original iteration of Alpha Flight doesn’t wear matching costumes.  You do however have Snowbird wearing a more adult version of the church pageant costume donned by Suzy in Moonrise Kingdom, and Owen Wilson’s character from The Royal Tenenbaums would certainly be jealous of Shaman’s look, but the thing that first made me think of Anderson for this fictitious production was imagining how he would dress Northstar and Aurora, who look a lot a pairs figure skating team.

The dialogue in this book also seems like a perfect match for Anderson and his theater troupe as Byrne’s writing style is often as frank and wooden and funny as the dialogue Wes Anderson crafts.  A discussion between Guardian and Sasquatch about how Sasquatch spent a night of passion with Aurora seems as though it were lifted straight from  the Rushmore director’s notebook, and the way all the characters describe an altercation between Puck and Marrina by saying Puck was “nearly disemboweled” seems like the sort of repetitive language gag Anderson likes to employ.

Of course Wes Anderson movies and comic books aren’t just about casting and costumes and chatter, they also need a story as intricate and quirky at the characters that populate it.  Many of the actual narratives told in the first 8 issues of Alpha Flight would never do for this because drug operations run out of hospitals and super-powered extortionists don’t require an entire team of superheroes to take them down, but  the origin of Alpha Flight which culminates in a battle with the arctic spirit Tundra would be perfect for a Wes Anderson styled retelling.

This origin story plays out over the last few pages of the eight issues available on Marvel U and some issues which are not available digitally as a sort of back matter prelude, that suggests Byrne traveled to the future, learned what contemporary storytelling was going to look like, particularly on successful television shows like Lost and Breaking Bad, and then went back to his own time to write a comic book modeled on that same plotting.    It is like nothing else I have seen from Marvel at that time, opening in the first issue at the origin story’s absolute climax, a startlingly drawn battle pitting a kaiju sized snow monster risen from the icy continent that Anderson could render as both beautiful and nightmare inducing using his expert stop motion techniques, against the fully rendered team and then jumping around in short vignettes from the past that expose how the team came together as a result of a May/December romance between Guardian and a seventeen-year-old secretary, a spirit quest undertaken in the wake of tragedy, a one night stand between a god and a scientist, and a handful of other stories centered around themes Wes Anderson is more than comfortable examining.

So listen up Hollywood, Marvel, and Wes Anderson.  I know you didn’t get to where you are today by listening to eleventh grade English teachers with comic book blogs, but this is a good idea.  You can have it.  I don’t even need any points on the back end.  Just give John Byrne the credit he deserves for writing such a perfect comic, and send over Luke Wilson to babysit my kids while my wife and I go to the premier since he isn’t doing any acting, and give Wes Anderson the freedom to make this movie the fully realized adventure film and comic fans deserve.

Forecasting the Disaster in Oz

The Wizard of Oz has never been my thing.  I don’t particularly care for the movie or the book or the contemporary retellings and reimagining of the story.  Oz has always seemed like the sort of loud, overwrought playplace that is both welcoming and exclusionary in its own way.  A Katy Perry concert where all types of people are welcome to come so they can dress and act in exactly the same outlandish way.

The narrative is also maddening because it is plotted like a four-year-old tells the story, which isn’t really a story, so much as a series of deus ex machina strung together by a canary colored roadway, but when I read Marvel’s eight issue version of this book, scripted by Eric Shanower and drawn by Skottie Young a strange thing happened to me.  I found myself yearning for something new to take place.  I became obsessed with the idea that if one more act of god arrived it might make the book belong to Marvel and a wholly new and important piece of art.  Page after page I wished for another tornado to pick the whole damn story up and drop it on the old version, killing it once and for all, and starting a new era in the merry old land of Oz that might not be so merry.

It’s not the first time I’ve found myself in this position, as a sort of fictional storm chaser rooting for the dice to turn up snake-eyes just to see how bad things can get, although the first time this desire to turn my world upsidedown happened I was in a place that looks a whole lot like Skottie Young’s rendering of Kansas, mile after mile of haunting, scrubby continent all the way to a pale, gilded horizon, interrupted by the occasional hillock or gulch or cow, standing like baroque punctuation on a blank page, and this time there was a real tornado.

I’d driven across Oklahoma for the better part of the afternoon having left Phoenix at 5 o’clock in the morning headed towards Chicago to spend the summer at the golf course that had been my home, and my father’s place of employment for my entire life to that point.  It was the first time I’d driven the 1,700 mile from Phoenix to Chicago alone, but there was a part of me that considered the route I took as home turf.  I’d followed Highway 17 to 40 to 44 to 56 to 94 once a year since birth, and done the whole thing in reverse just as many times.  This drive felt like a rite of passage, a transition from boyhood to manhood specific to my small clan of four who avoided chilly Chicago winters and scalding Phoenix summers as a matter of routine.

At the beginning of the day I was as full of enthusiasm as a young Massai on his first hunt, but by eight o’clock I’d begun to feel groggy and over-caffeinated at the same time, having drank what I would now consider a year’s supply of Coca-Cola in those days before I drank coffee.  In an attempted to stay alert I’d started oscillating the radio dial back and forth between a Texas Rangers’ baseball game and conservative political banter in hopes that an angry lather would keep me away.  For two hours I’d been hollering at Sean Hannity and cursing myself for trading away Mark Texeira in a fantasy baseball league and drinking those plastic bottles of Coke until my bladder swelled to the size of a yoga ball.  With no towns in site I pulled to the side of the road to deflate this swollen organ.  Stepping from my car, I was struck by a heavy wind, but not anything that seemed unusual in a treeless realm beside a major freeway, and given my business, all I really cared about was this wind coming from the back.  Wanting to not waste much time and hoping to avoid the sandburs that populate most Oklahoma roadsides I kept my eyes trained on the ground.  Unzipping my fly I heard thunder far in the distance, but I didn’t think much of it.  My only goal was to relieve myself and move on, but as the parched Oklahoma roadside drank up my urine, blue and red police lights flashed behind me.  The officers did not run their siren, they simply honked their horn,  a concussive “Wonk!” which made me jump and wonder what my life would be like now that I was going to have a public urination citation on my permanent record.  “Get the hell back in your car kid!” the officer yelled.  “There’s a God Damn tornado!”

Zipping up and turning around I thanked them with a wave and a confused nod as I ran to my purple Chrysler Sebring, and looked across the freeway and across a few miles of field to where a band of clouds met a band of yellow sky that met the grey earth like a Mark Rothko print in a dental office.  Pouring down from the heavenly black swath was a funnel cloud looking like a stain that slowly spread across the yellow part of the sky.

All the exhaustion blew away, sandblasted clear from my head and eyes by the adrenaline that comes with thinking you are going to be arrested and then realizing that something far more grizzly could happen.  I wasn’t in any real danger of course.  The cyclone would never get any closer to me than it did in that moment, but things had changed, and for the next few hours I didn’t bounce between radio stations.  I stuck to the game, but hardly heard the talk of balls and strikes and ads for beer and erection medicine.  Mile after mile all I could think was; what if instead of racing away from the storm, I’d turned my sedan towards the natural disaster?

The short answer is I would have gotten stuck in a ditch on the side of the road, and that’s probably what would have happened with Marvels “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” if Dorthy had suddenly  become her own kind of wicked witch, or created an Oz-centric Cosa Nostra with the Cowardly Lion, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Woodsman as her crime family Capos, but for all eight issues I’m desperate for something like this to take place.

I keep waiting for this to happen.  I keep thinking that Marvel would not simply retell this allegory about the gold and silver standard, but instead would want to put their own stamp on the narrative. Skottie Young’s art seems to suggest this is going to happen as well.  Perhaps it is the disproportionate way in which he draws the bodies of his characters, like Dorthy whose candy apple head I find endearing as are all these beings’ postures, which are not the uniform stuff of a typical marvel book, but are more reminiscent of coastal trees bent one way or another by decades of prevailing winds.  Or perhaps it is how stark his panels feel, even when they are full of life like when the book’s heroes reach the emerald city, Young’s art gives the sense that something important might have been erased from the page moments before printing.  Whatever it is, the entire time I’m reading I find myself staring at the artwork like I am the prey of the angler fish, hypnotized by the glowing barbel protruding from my pursuer’s skull, waiting for something to happen.

Its a comic book reading experience unlike any I’ve had before.  Days after I finish the series I find myself going back to some of my favorite images from the text, and a visceral yearning washes over me that I can feel in my loins.  Even after I know nothing is going to change about the story I wonder just what might of been, and this wondering is both frightening and tantalizing, and somehow the best possible outcome for a story that never really spoke to me.