Monday, March 31, 2008

It Doesn't Matter: Why I Hate The Killing Joke

So DC has decided to rerelease The Killing joke graphic novel by Moore and Bolland with Bolland recoloring the entire job. You know what? It doesn't matter to me. I've had no problem defending Moore as the greatest writer to ever work in the field, but this isn't the book to make that case. It is, in fact, one of his weakest efforts outside of DR and Quinch.

Its not the Led Zeppelin of its day, its the Blind Faith. The supergroup that never coagulated. Its not that good.

Lets take a look at it, because even back in the day it was a much heralded project, two creators who had, no question, done amazing work on other books. Swamp Thing and Camelot 3000 just to mention two of them. Part of the problem I have with the work is the approach, and part in the very conception of the book.

Moore made his name on the revisionist history aspect of his writing initially, reworking Swamp Thing into something totally different from the Len Wein incarnation, before jumping off into new territory with the Demon (who he also revamped somewhat) and Arcane. Bolland made his fortune with detailed, hyperrealistic artwork, which also took a hyperlong time for him to realize. How he made his deadlines with the Judge Dredd work is beyond me. The last issue of Camelot 3000 took, what, a year to come out? So how much revision on the Joker did they do? Almost nothing is the answer.

Moore, instead, took the opposite path, playing within established continuity to continue the infamous "Red Hood" story, and simply trying to make more sense of a golden age story that should never have been written to begin with. Bolland took a character whose very strength has been, with many artists, his iconic visual status, and gives us a man in tights with a mask that gets loose at the drop of a hat. Itts not a great fit at all. We've taken characters who are, by virtue of their very existence, better as icons rather than realistic figures, and Moore has to piss blood to develop the back story of the Red Hood to try to make the motivation work.

And sadly it doesn't. My problem with the very conception is the Red Hood story, which has been propped up with The Killing Joke book, as opposed to retconning it out of existence. The Joker, at his best, is a primordial force of nature, the evil that exists in all men and can come from anywhere at anytime. It defies logic and sense and therefore is far more that a simple "person with a gun" scary. I don't want to know where he comes from. Ever. Just as the Kent Allard story was put into doubt later in the Shadow's existence, just as not knowing why the Doctor isn't exactly like other Time Lords, I want to always have that mystery about the character. There area hundred ways that the Red Hood story could be gotten rid of, starting with ignoring it, and no one bothered to do it. Except that they should have.

Moore's strength here would have been, should have been, to recloud the Joker's past, to give us a past that the Painted Doll ended up with for much of the Promethia run: it doesn't make sense, and that's all the better. I've always thought that the Painted Doll was what DC wouldn't have let Moore do with the Joker back in '88.

Bolland's color work here is excellent, although these two contrasting pages that I have here show two pages that both work. I'm quite happy to see what Bolland originally intended, but unlike many cases of poor comics coloring, the original job is quite good, and still works on its own terms.

The Killing Joke has ended up being a neutered approach to The Joker, something that Miller didn't do whatsoever in The Dark Knight, and we're better for it. Killing Joke has ended up being significant for what seems like a throwaway idea of Moore's: the rape and paralysis of Barbara Gordon. The casual rape, the fetish Polaroids, and the Batman's lack of emotion to someone who was an ally getting brutalized has made the book a flash point for feminists of all stripes. It bothered the hell out of me at the time, and still is the only truly disturbing point in the book.

Some people might point to this being the true origin story behind a character that had already gone through a number of different incarnations, but did we really need Barbara Gordon to go through this to become the strong character Oracle? Especially since its a throwaway plot point to the main story.

For all the money that has gone into my Ultimate Sandman editions, and yes, I intend to buy all four volumes because they're that good (and yes, if DC did that with Saga of the Swamp Thing #20 - 31 inclluding the annual I would be the first in line to buy it), I don't have the need to pick this up. Its not the "night that changed Batman's life forever", as the tagline says.

It is the night that changed Barbara Gordon's however.

I was just turned on to this quote:

The Killing Joke is, "clumsy, misjudged and [devoid of] real human importance."

A quote from the book, "The Extraordinary Works of Alan Moore." I rest my case.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Ashes of Comic Shops Past

Valerie's write up on the Last Exit to Brooklyn comic shop should touch a nerve with just about any comics fan. I doubt that I was ever far enough out in Brooklyn to have touched upon the shop that she describes, but there was no shortage of bizarre comic shops in the boroughs. In fact, the very worst comic shop that I ever walked into was actually in Manhattan.

About 3 blocks from the Valiant offices in the Chelsea district, it sat on the same block as the infamous Chelsea Hotel, famous if you were a Sex Pistols fan. I cannot for the life of me remember exactly what the name was, but it sat on west 23rd st, between 7th and 8th Avenue, much of hte time its dingy signage covered by the work awnings as they renovated the Hotel next door.

While on a pretty central street, 23st ceased in the 1990s to be particularly well trafficked past 7th Ave. While the multiplex sat on the corner of 8th ave, the Krispy Creme had yet to open across the street, and the dilapidated Hotel Chelsea seemed like an embarassment: a reminder of another time when New York was broke and subways waited for yet another Bernie Goetz. People would walk by and simply not turn their heads. 8th Ave? Are you crazy? I only go there for B&H to try an talk the Hasidiam into yet another deal.

So this grimy little shop had the greatest accumulation of ill advised promotional items that I recall running accross in all my years. It would be harder to imagine more poorly placed posters for Image books that never shipped or never sold, for Marvel titles that would never be collectible, for Valiant and Acclaim comics that would never lay claim to having the "Shooter" magic touch. The carpet was a non-descript color not chosen because it would hide the accumulated dirt of a thousand unwashed fanboys, but because it had seen that sort of traffic. That is, when the carpet was covering the old floor tiles.

Long and narrow, the shop was filled with all the prerequisites: poorly organized comics in the front, a mixture of spinner racks and wooden displays against the wall, a smattering of the growing threat graphic novels (collections of other superhero crap from the 1980s, some Fantagraphics, or the latest Europorn from Milo Manara), and then rows and rows of cardboard boxes housing essentially all the issues that you didn't need to complete your collection. i never once found a single thing that I was looking for in all those damn long boxes.

Sounds like a lot of other shops doesn't it? It is just that this one did it all, and did it worst. Especially in comparison to the other shops in Manhattan, such a Cosmic Comics, that did well with half the square footage. But Cosmic didn't have the overly large and completely disinterested store owner, asshole staff, and regular crowd of hip hop bloods, street junkies or ratty neighborhood boys that would inhabit the place. While Hanleys was getting the money to go upscale over on 34th Street, this place was a time machine.

Why did I go there, you ask, if it was that bad? I have to say that I had a perverse hatred of it, and would simply go by after leaving the Valiant offices three blocks away, just so that I could dogear a few books and slum it, before I walked cross town to one of the better shops, any of the better shops, to give them my money. Just as record producers would use the legendary car test (taking the song that they had just finished in the studio and play it on the small shitty car speakers to see how the average radio listener would hear it), I wanted to see how the new comics that we were putting out, the latest issue of my Turok or the Grackle, how they would look on the stands.

That place was my lowest common denominator of comic shops. And I never once saw a female in there. Ever.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Siegel's Heirs Regain Action Comics #1 Copyright

This is, of course, huge. Truly, truly huge.

Time and time again the story of Siegel and Shuster has been the absolute cornerstone of all that is right at the beginning of the American Comic Book Myth to the casual American public, and all that is wrong, for those in the know, with American Comic Books. The Siegel and Shuster story makes them the ultimate"fuck you" martyrs to all artists.

And now that's changed. A little, but miles better than it ever was. It doesn't take away the lifetime of virtual poverty that existed until 1977 however.

After seventy years, Jerome Siegel’s heirs regain what he granted so long ago – the copyright in the Superman material that was published in Action Comics Vol. 1. What remains is an apportionment of profits, guided in some measure by the rulings contained in this Order, and a trial on whether to include the profits generated by DC Comics’ corporate sibling’s exploitation of the Superman copyright.

The NY Times has a write-up, as does Uncivil Society, where I took the above paragraph. Required reading for everyone.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

In Review Of - Kirby: King of Comics by Mark Evanier

I'm so happy to see Jack Kirby finally being enshrined as the true pop culture icon that he deserves to be, that I feel rather ungrateful to be critical of Mark Evanier's book, Kirby: King of Comics.

After all, first things first, this is a beautiful, clean volume that gives us excellent reproduction, nay, gorgeous reproduction from original art that we are likely never to see in person (the original full page of Thor from the first issue of Journey into Mystery is simply magnificent, and the head shot of Galactus that is, I believe, from an issue of Thor, is so well produced that we can actually see the variation in india ink on Galactus' face). With clean layouts, and high quality paper, we get the moire pattern from the four color dots with a clarity that we've never had before. The power with which Jack composed his panels shines through with unmatched clarity.

The part that bothers me is the writing. There is simply too little of it. This is a coffee table book sits directly in the middle of the two things that it needs to be: it should either be a Little Nemo size to reproduce the twice-up art properly (and I can imagine a 120 page book, simply of full size reproductions of Kirby originals, selling rather well), or it needs to be similar to Milt Caniff phone book and say hell with the artwork, lets really tell the man's story. And it is neither.

There are countless stories about Jack out there, and he was around so long, that he deserves a book written with the level of detail and critical assessment that Meanwhile... as written with. After all, Caniff's heyday was honestly no more than about 10 or 12 years long, and Jack hadn't even hit his best period that far into his career. For as much as Evanier complained that the Tales to Astonish biography released two years ago was riddled with inaccuracies, that book even contains stories that didn't make it into this one.

Simply put, Jack deserves a real biography, and likely Evanier is the one person that could actually write it. The question is whether he will ever get around to it. In my opinion, the very best parts of this book are where Mark veers off of the beaten path, reciting the same facts surrounding the myriad problems with Marvel's returning his artwork, and moving on to the more interesting behind the scenes of actually working with Jack at his house, or working at the ill-fated Marvelmania offices. I'm sure that Mark wanted to get this one volume out there, to supplant the production challenged Art of Jack Kirby that Kevin Eastman put money behind a decade ago, or the aforementioned Tales to Astonish as the go-to volume for those just their feet wet on one of the most inventive brains of 20th Century Pop Culture, but now we need the real book.

We need the one with all the meat behind it, the one that compiles all the detective work from the Jack Kirby Collector comparing Jack's liner notes to the ones that Stan actually dialogued, the one that hunts down those damn interns who actually went to the warehouse in '68 to see what artwork still survived after the flood, the one that marries Captain America and Adolph Hitler and the the Iger studios and Mort Meskin into one beautifully comprehensive package.

I worked my way through the Caniff volume more because I loved hearing about the working conditions of the artists of that time, loved reading about the business and the models and the chalk talks more so than Milt Caniff. I was never that big a Terry fan honestly.

And I still worked my way through a 1000 pages of Caniff biography.

Perhaps we will get the same for Jacob from the lower east side. He deserves it, and it is a fascinating story from just about every angle. And in the meantime, go buy Mark's book. It may not be the all-encompassing volume that I had hoped for, but that is more my fault that it is his, and this is still a beautiful book. And if we want more of this, more books that cater to us, then we need to support them. So yes, go buy the thing from a local bookseller!

Sorry to have been away!

My apologies for disappearing for a month. Real life got in the way of the electronic. Doing sketches for a local fair, revisiting Pistoleras, discovered Anders loves Maria, a great Swedish web comic, read my copy of Girls with Slingshots a couple times and found very little time for writing about the comics that i've been picking up.


Monday, March 17, 2008

In Review Of: Fantastic Four #555 by Millar and Hitch

I'm really wanting to like this series, as I was very happy with Millar's reinterpretation of the Avengers in Ultimates, but I'm not too sure that its working. The question is: why?

On the face of it, the elements are there: the evil, or well meaning scientists, the outlandish concepts, the multiple sub-plots. All of these are great descriptions of the Lee/Kirby high point on the book: issues #45-65. Hitch is clearly putting in some long hours at the drawing board and it shows. There is very little shorthand on the pages. Jack would smile at the work ethic I'm sure.

Part of the problem is that we don't get to start with a cohesive FF at the beginning. One of the problems here is that the FF used to function as a kind of home base in the Marvel Universe: they were the first family, and a lot revolved around them. This current version of the FF reminds me more of the splintered FF circa 1973, a time of an unpopular war and a great deal of social unrest and a time when the nature of family was being challenged by the new generation. Yes, the Gerry Conway version of the FF is back, the unpopular war has shifted from Vietnam to Iraq and the social unrest brought on by Wategate and Nixon has been transferred to Bush, Cheney and Halliburton in the form of Civil War and the realignment of the Marvel Universe's loyalties.

So, sadly, we have a rather splintered FF that Millar inherited, as opposed to a cohesive group that he could introduce difficulties into. It gives us little chance to enjoy the group before everything hits the fan. Why this matters has as much to do with story arc construction as it does my personal taste of why I think that the FF works, and when it works, why they matter in the Marvel Universe.

In reality, the FF haven't functioned as the touchpoint of the Marvel Universe for some time, essentially since the Byrne era. The X-Men, and their various spinoffs functioned as that for a good decade, and then, in the Bendis era, the Avengers and their permutations. If we want to see the FF back in the position of prominence, then the group has to be written as such. There was a time when every damn piece of machinery had a "Richards" or "Stark" logo on it. The rest said "Pym" or they were imported from Latveria.

I'm interested to see where the book goes, even though I know that I'm not going to get the FF functioning as the group that faced down Galactus for a while yet. And the fact that instead of this group of scientists creating "Him", they've created yet another stupid giant robot that we will have to subdue, but what the hell. "The Thing versus a Giant Kirby Robot" isn't such a bad plot devise for the twenty odd pages.

Last complaint: Hitch, while he can draw absolutely lights out, doesn't get Ben's unique anatomy, and its driving me crazy. The Thing has a distinct anatomical build and Brian just isn't drawing it that way.