Sunday, February 17, 2008

In Review Of: Blue Pills by Frederik Peeters

I’ve just put down that book and I’m letting the images swirl around in my head. It’s like that, after you watch a good movie or read a good book, that you let the favorite bits swim round your mind, the way that you spin a nice glass of red wine. You don’t gulp it, you savor it: the taste of story mixed artfully with visuals. The very essence of why we pick up the book to begin with.

Frederik Peeter, a swiss comic artist, has taken a couple of months of his life to document the beginning of his relationship with an HIV positive woman and her equally HIV positive son. It’s a fairly brave undertaking, part exposition, part therapy, part – almost- propaganda for his feelings of how HIV people should be treated, although I doubt that he would admit to it. The story documents his past meetings with Cati; chance occurances that are part of any 20-somethings life as we move through the early days of adulthood. The party here, the cafĂ© there, friends of friends getting together at other places. It is a time in many lives of the looseness, of being rather dispossessed of money and moorings, the only certain thing that we feel we have in that decade is time.

Time, however, is what some of us don’t have. And as he meets Cati and begins his relationship with her, we find that there has already been a need to treat her 3 year old son with retrovirals, and so her relationship with him already has a sense of mortality that no mother ever wants to have. Peeters is a gifted artist, and not only does he document the growing closeness of their relationship emotionally, but also sexually, and all the tribulations and trials that come with that. Cati has more than enough guilt and anxiety for them both and Peeters admits it: he has the easy part in the relationship. But she comes across as fully realized as a person as brush on paper will admit: she’s sexual, she’s a caring mother with moods and worries and happiness, she’s a partner in a relationship with all the ups and downs that that brings, she has an ex-husband and a past because of her son that will never exactly allow her to sever the bonds with her past. She doesn’t allow her guilt over passing the virus to her son to destroy her life, although Peeters is secure enough to show her at least once bent over and almost crippled by the burden that she carries.

The artwork deserves a mention. I think that I’ve finally found someone with the same brush technique as Bill Watterson. Peeters uses the same looseness of brush work that can only come from someone who has worked so damn hard to make it look so easy. The storytelling is solid, with two entire chapters barely changing perspective so that the pictures never detract from the rhythm of the dialog. And as we would expect from a cartoonist, when he thinks lines such as, “as thought we were in straightjackets… in our heads… finding our way” he draws himself and Cati naked, floating, in straightjackets. And it works.

Peeters work in the final pages perhaps suffers a bit from having to be translated from the French. A final hallucinatory chapter with a discussion between the cartoon peters and a wooly mammoth that can quote Wilde is not as poetic or concise as it might have appeared in the original language. It’s a minor quibble, and the rest of the book is translated so well that I can hardly fault the work for that small number of pages. Blue Pills is, for all the speed with which is was done, a wonderful mature work, one that I will most likely pass along to a number of people.

The final epilogue of the work, by the way, is written not in the book, but on the jacket: Peeters currently lives with his girlfriend, her son and their daughter in Geneva. How’s that for a positive love story?

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Steve Gerber: In Memoriam

I never met Steve Gerber in the flesh, but there is a strong feeling that I have met a good deal of his psyche along the way the many titles that he wrote for Marvel in the 1970's. They were some of the most ideosyncratic and unusual titles that Marvel ever published, and just like the 1970's cinema, were part of an explosion of writing and art that we naively thought would continue on and on.

Steve passed away 48 hours ago, and I have yet again lost one of those people that I swore I would search out to thank for some of the more general moments of weirdness from my childhood. Over at Steve's blog, Mark Evanier is playing host and, thankfully, still making jokes about the elf with the gun. Here is my personal bit, one fan's take on Steve.

I have no need to list Steve's accomplishments in the crazy world of comics, that is readily available elsewhere, but instead want to talk about a couple of those works. Steve's run on the Defenders, for instance, was as bizarre and off beat as anything in modern comics until, perhaps, the Vertigo line of superhero revamps. Morrison's Animal Man is, on the flow chart of comtemporary comics, a straight line from Gerber's Defenders. Steve, for all that weirdness, had the knack for finding the memorable human moment in all of the chaos, and I still find
it amazing that mainstream Marvel would let Scorpio commit suicide pretty much almost on camera in the book. Even with the classic word balloon screw up where the Nick Fury LMD hands Scorpio the gun, it doesn't diminish the fact that this was a powerful adult moment in what had been kids entertainment.

But I don't think that Steve ever saw it just as kids entertainment. In the Gary Groth interview posted over at, Steve warns about the perils of too much escapist entertainment in society, and sees his work on Howard as anything but pure escapism. Allegory yes, but escapist no. Steve was clearly a very sharp and interesting man, acerbic clearly, but very sharp, which is why it was interesting to see him do Void Indigo with Val Mayerik. At the time, it looked like a complete brain fritz on their part, content-wise, as it was such a departure from what was out. Ten years later, it would have looked tame next to Vigil's Faust, thus proving that Steve was ahead of the curve when it came to adult allegory. For the record, I'm still not convinced that it was the greatest long lost series, but it would have been a rather interesting trip.

While everyone across the internet is talking about Steve Gerber, inventor of Howard the Duck and Omega the Unknown, I will cross the picket lines and put in my two cents: I didn't like Omega and don't that that is the great long lost series either. Howard is brilliant, no question about that, and I love those duck comics with a great deal of passion. For my money, the Man-Thing contains some of his best and most innovative work. After all, how easy is it to make a series about a swamp creature with no personality or brains? This should have been the shortest damn series in the world, but instead we got an astonishing collection of stories, not entirely always successful it is true, that ranged from satire to adventure to twilight zone style endings. You literally never knew what the book would do next. Fear #19 and Man-Thing #1 were a fairly standard multi-dimensional adventure story, complete with steve ditko backgrounds, but they included a barbarian clearly a parody of Conan and/or Kull, and a talking duck. Man-Thing #4 and 5 gave us the death of a clown cast as such high tragedy as to be worthy of Tennessee Williams or Samuel Beckett.

This should have been a book about nothing, and instead it became the perfect venue for Steve to experiment with how obliquely he could actually involve his mucky protagonist. Man-Thing #15 is a perfect example. An old girlfriend of Ted Sallis buys a candle in the shape of the Man-Thing, which a jealous boyfriend has mixed with heat activated drugs. In the set up of the story, the jealous former boyfriend accuses her of only liking "broken things": her current boyfriend is blind, she has a 3-legged dog from the pound. Not your typical comic story, but it is the touches that bring it to life in my memory. The blind boyfriend comes in and comments that she's wearing clothes from across the room. When she asks him how he knows that, he says, "you move differently when you're naked." which is just such a great little observation that it makes the story work that much more. Can you imagine that line coming out in the middle of the Secret Wars?

Giant Size Man-Thing #4 may be one of the most laughed about comic book titles of all-time, but it should stand as an example of a great '70's comic. The Brunner cover is a beautiful piece of rule breaking (Brunner's comment on the cover from Comic Art Fans: "Marvel hated the cover because it was just mood, not 5 people punching each other."), the lead story is a powerful bit of writing: the revenge of the picked on, the bullied, from beyond the grave with the Man-Thing as the instrument of vengence. Considering that comics in the 1970's were not the things of the popular kids, but the outcasts, the ones picked last for kickball the story had a great deal of resonance. Gerber's experiment with text passages from the diary of the deceased in typeset form, as well as full page montages to work with the text makes for a dense, powerful story.

And when all that is done, we have the introduction of Garko the Man-Frog.

Gerber pushed boundaries in more ways than just content, but form as well, and he muses about that in the Groth interview. I haven't read Gerber's interview about leaving Marvel since that issue was published in 1980, but what stands out is how he understood the potential of the form, and where comics could be going. That it took 20 years to get there isn't his fault. I'm very pleased to see that he achieved success as a writer in television after his comics career was over.

I think that i'll go home and savor the Kidney Lady tonight and have a good laugh now that I know that she was real. I'm sure that she might have still been roaming around when I was working in Times Square. I'm sorry that I never got to buy you that drink that I owed you Steve. Rest in Peace.