Fight to grow old
Fight to be humble
Fight to stay bold
And then one day, fighting doesn’t make sense
Spending time together’s just another expense
I just want to love, but I ain’t been right
How can I do us and can’t keep on the lights?
This is my plight
I don’t have a plan
Tomorrow is far, I’m talking distant lands
But that’s not true, I do what I can
I work so hard that my face stays tan
Beg you to meet me, work ’till you know me
Sleep with the world, and still feel lonely
I just want to love, and be loved back
You just love to dance, I can’t touch that
-Allure (Must Have Been Love), T.Shirt X Darvin Silva, Tan-Face Children EP.
I love debut works by new comics creators in the same way that I love first albums, or a director’s first film. It’s thrilling to watch an artist discover their voice and articulate ideas that have been percolating for a lifetime. I’m often so caught up in the creator’s exploration of the form that I tend to forgive flaws far more than I would for an established creator. It’s hard not to suspend judgment for these kind of books – every page feels like it’s bursting with enthusiasm and creativity. The final product tends to be something fearless, unburdened by convention. Sometimes there’s nothing better than consuming art without any preconceived expectations. No track record, no established characters, no legacy to live up to. Just the creator and the page.
Second Thoughts (Niklas Asker), Top Shelf
This is the debut from Niklas Asker, a Swedish artist and designer and offers an emotionally honest look both at the challenges that couples face and the compromises that we all make as we get older.
The narrative is deceptively straightforward – Asker tells the alternating stories of two individuals, one a novelist suffering from writers’ block, the other a photographer, who are in romantic relationships that have reached a crisis point. The two narratives are explicitly linked by an encounter at the airport, but the subtler links are even more intriguing. Although both narratives are told from the protagonists’ perspective, Asker exclusively uses dialogue in the first story to create a sense of distance, while using text captions for the other to create an exagerrated sense of intimacy. At first, it seems like Asker is engaging in the kind of formal experimentation common to first-time creators, but he’s using one story to comment on the other – the remote story helps us understand the intimate one, and vice versa. Asker’s visuals complement these shifts in perspective, especially in the sequences where we see the world through one character’s eyes without hearing their thoughts, or are shown depictions of photographs to illustrate a story narrated by the other. These contrasts help to add depth to what could have been a pretty banal story.
I’d like to go further, but I’m reluctant to spoil anything. So I’ll say this – I first read this book on the train, distracted by ambient noise, The Ghost of Christopher Wallace and Tan Face Children. I loved Asker’s visual style, which seemed authentic without striving for photorealism, and his impressive use of shadow and light. I thought the book effectively captured the moments when love is born and vanishes in a pretty cool way. I couldn’t figure out what to write for this week, so I decided to take a stab at reviewing this book. So, I read it a second time. After my second read, this book is on my short list for ‘Best Books that Jamaal’s Read in 2010’. You need to read this – it’s only ten dollars and runs about eighty pages. The dialogue’s pretty spare, so it’ll be a quick read. Put it down for about an hour. Pick it up and read it again. Slowly. Pay attention to the details. Awesome, isn’t it?
I’ll just say this – this book is a fascinating portrayal of an artist using the creative process as a tool to investigate the contents of their consciousness. Through fiction, the artist can explore paths not taken, and engage in explorative play that clarifies the dilemmas that they may face. In that context, the ending becomes as bittersweet as it is inevitable. Go buy this book. Asker helpfully offers a preview of the first ten pages on his website. New York Magazine’s Vulture blog has a pretty cool slideshow here.
Mesmo Delivery, Rafael Grampa, Dark Horse
Mesmo Delivery is another book that delights in confounding expectations. The story is simple. An ex-boxer who resembles a dimwitted Brock Samson teams with a seedy Elvis impersonator to transport mysterious cargo across the desert. They stop in a small town for a brief pit stop. Chaos ensues and we find out that none of the characters are what they seem. Grampa’s art and visual storytelling skills are amazing. His layouts are impressive, particularly in the fight scenes. Even though this is a brief, self-contained story, it feels epic. A review for Comic Book Resources described this art as a “mad love child of Basil Wolverton, Simon Bisley, and I don’t know, Frank Quitely”, but Grampa’s attention to detail and unique perspective bring to mind Paul Pope and Japanese woodblock prints. This is beautiful work. Go buy it.
Chris Sims of Comics Alliance explores the racial politics of the trend towards reactionary storytelling in DC Comics, with a follow-up on his blog. Sims argues that an unintended consequence of the nostalgic revival that has taken hold of the publisher over the last decade is a ‘whitewashing’ of many of its notable franchises, as the white Silver Age/Bronze Age versions of characters like Green Lantern, Firestorm or the Atom replace Latino, African American or East Asian incarnations of the characters. It’s a well written piece, but I have two quibbles. As Sean Collins points out, the problem of character diversity in the DC Universe has its roots in the overuse of ‘legacies’ – when an older character is replaced by a younger hero with the same name and a similar powerset. When DC creators initiated this practice in the 1950’s, it was a fresh way of linking the new universe they were building with classic forgotten characters from the Second World War and longstanding properties like Batman and Superman. Unfortunately, over the last three decades, it’s become a crutch, a cheap short-cut used by DC writers to evoke an emotional response from readers. Legacy properties handcuff DC to the past – after all, how forward looking can its fictional universe be if ‘there always has to be a Hawkman or even a Flash’? So, on some level, Sims is pointing out that there is a particularly regressive trend in DC’s otherwise reactionary storytelling. This is still a meaningful insight, but we should all acknowledge that the problem can’t be solved by ‘moving forward’ and reinstating Jason Rusch (Firestorm) or continuing to tell stories featuring Jaime Reyes (Blue Beetle). We also need to realize that having the ‘African American Firestorm’ or the ‘Mexican American Blue Beetle’ is just as essentialist as characters with powers that relate to their race or country.
The second issue I have with the piece may seem a little bit more didactic, but bear with me. Sims notes that “Geoff Johns … is personally responsible for regressing Green Lantern, Flash, the Legion of Super-Heroes, Hawkman, Aquaman and others”, but otherwise diffuses responsibility for this trend among creators, “DC”, and the “majority of readers”. If you’ve been following the interviews, leaks and rumors about DC for the last number of years, not to mention some of the message boards, it’s obvious that many DC editors and fans want a Silver/Bronze Age revival, but it’s less clear whether this has inspired the recent bout of resurrections. I think that it’s unhelpful to view these groups as some kind of monolith interest group that wants Ronnie Raymond to be Firestorm or Barry Allen to be the Flash. Some of these creators and fans want a return to simpler storytelling – sometimes with less moral ambiguity, sometimes with less violence or fewer ‘mature’ themes. Some want to ensure that legacies continue – a through line that runs from the 1940’s to the present day. My theory has always been that comics readers (myself included) are like voters – we have inchoate preferences and interests, but lack the patience, time, and expertise to really master any details. In the context of voting, this means that we elect the guy who seems like he has a worldview similar to ours, and then we support the individual policy positions he takes, regardless of whether we really have opinions about the specific subject. For comics fans, this means that we buy books written by the person who effectively taps into our broad preferences, and mostly disregard his or her particular quirks. Geoff Johns (like Mark Waid before him) is an expert at tapping that nostalgia vein, which is what people really want.
This is important – because the problem of a single creator who is the current creative force behind DC has a very specific set of preferences (DC must look like it did in 1978!) is far less intractable than the problem of excessive nostalgia among DC fans, or a retrograde culture in DC editorial. We all joke (okay, we’re not joking) about the incompetence of DC’s editorial staff, but there’s only one guy who wanted to bring Barry Allen and Ronnie Raymond back.
“Sensuality, grace, heat. Lushness.Romanticism. Pulp. Exoticism. Barsoom, Cimmeria, Opar. The delirious, fecund world of men’s adventure fiction after Rider Haggard, Burroughs, and Howard, balmy and self-absorbed in the hot afternoon of late colonialism.”