VARIATIONS ON A THEME
One of the ugliest and frankly worst things to happen to comics in the last few years has been DC Comics’ most recent once-a-decade intra-company continuity jerk-around, currently called The New 52. The problem seems to sit mostly with upper management at the publisher, which has enforced fabulous top-down ideas like editing stories after the art is finished and changing Superman’s costume. The results have been unattractive and stupid and have driven away loyal readers by the ton as Marvel continues to sprint in the opposite direction, abandoning its house style and isolating individual books from crossovers so that a large minority of their fans don’t get pissed off and leave.
It’s taken me years to realize that I’m in that minority; I was in the comic book shop the other day chatting with one of the guys about what was new and good and I mentioned that I was annoyed all my favorite books were on hiatus during Marvel’s own big crossover, Secret Wars. “They’re not on haitus,” he said. “Iron Man and Spider-Man are both back.”
“Oh yeah,” I said, “I guess I was just waiting for Howard the Duck and the Silver Surfer.”
“Yeah, I don’t really like Howard the Duck,” he said, and then explained why: not because he thought the book was badly written or drawn, but because it didn’t add anything to the larger story of the Marvel Universe. It was extraneous, like Deadpool.
“Deadpool is dumb,” I agreed.
“He’s good in X-Force,” said the guy. “He doesn’t act retarded there.”
Let me first say that this guy, also, does not act retarded. He obviously understands that comic books are written and drawn by sentient adults with free will and their own ideas. But those things, from his perspective, are handicaps – this very nice man who also reads Optic Nerve and Kramers Ergot and so on likes Marvel Comics because the publisher is dedicated to acting as though the characters in its books have individual lives and desires of their very own that transcend the printed page.
That is sort of a nice idea, come to think of it, and it’s the reason that one of the very, very, very few books worth spending any time with from DC in the last few years is MULTIVERSITY, the big, wonky, parallel-universe-filled crossover series by Grant Morrison.
Morrison has tried often to make something new and cool out of the crossover series; in so doing, he’s probably pissed off the guy from Midtown Comics and all of his friends, because his gigantic, sweeping stories almost never have any direct effect on the rest of the DC Universe. It’s not that he doesn’t try to – Final Crisis gave it a solid shot – it’s that Morrison is A) a really individual, unusual writer with an anarchist streak a mile wide and B) a guy who takes forever to write and throws his creative weight around not to gain control over the widest possible swath of editorial decisionmaking, but (but all accounts) to avoid notes.
The result of this unusual behavior is that Morrison writes huge, personal stories that span universes and frustrate anybody who wants to tag in after he’s done; the best example of this prior to Multiversity was his Seven Soldiers of Victory, in which he took an extremely obscure set of Silver Age characters and made them even more obscure, with the help of several stunningly gifted young artists. The artists (Cameron Stewart, Simone Bianchi and Frazer Irving among them) went on to great things but the characters returned to the shelves.
Morrison has had, as per usual, a really great idea for a crossover format with Multiversity, and one designed for maximum usability by anyone who wants to come after him and try to play in his sandbox(es): Every issue of Multiversity is set in a different universe with a different set of DC-owned characters newly redesigned by a different artist, including the company’s publisher, Jim Lee, who draws a horrifying Nazi fantasia for Superman. The others – a pulp world for a team called the Society of Superheroes, starring Dr. Fate and the Blackhawks, a lengthy ultrapolitical Alan Moore-style take on the Charlton Comics characters (for whom Watchmen was originally pitched), a universe of teen heroes not much dissimilar from the company’s CW shows – all work beautifully, and differently. And this will of course be anathema to DC, which now hates everything new and different, so it, too, will fail in corporate terms.
The big collected edition of Multiversity costs an arm and two legs and looks like Victor Frankenstein’s annual report to shareholders. It’s also a participant in one of my favorite contemporary comic book trends, which is to say that it’s oversized and nicely bound and the art is even prettier than in its solo issues. The ersatz Watchmen chapter, illustrated by Frank Quitely, is probably its visual apex, but it’s a close contest.
The moral of the story seems to be that ‘eighties and ‘nineties-style grimdark superhero books are stupid-seeming bullshit and that there’s a plethora of options out there for people who still want to play in the genre without all that faux-psychological baggage. In aggregate, the standalone stories come together a lot like Alan Moore’s America’s Best Comics series, which took largely the same tack. In fact it’s so close to those stories that Chris Sprouse, the artist who illustrated Moore’s own slick modernization of turn-of-the-century pulp (Tom Strong), also illustrates the Society of Superheroes chapter. It feels intentional, frankly, like a series of potshots at Moore himself, who exerts a weird kind of gravity on Morrison and seems to invade his stories pretty regularly, to the extent that, in a certain light, he was literally the villain of Morrison’s last continuity wonk, Final Crisis.
The other thing I read this week was Sammy Harkham’s EVERYTHING TOGETHER, a book of marvelously observed short stories so close to perfect it’s hard to describe without giving away things you really ought to read and experience on your own. Harkham, an offensively young power player in indie comics, is probably better known for publishing the gigantic, eccentric, expensive anthology series Kramers Ergot, which comes out every few years and changes formats each time. It’s a little harder to find, but worth tracking down for pretty much every story. Harkham has gifts for composition and color surpassing most of the field and his self-published periodical Crickets is serializing what I suspect will be the next great graphic novel, a closely observed portrait of a guy in a troubled marriage and a crummy job working on Hammer-style horror films in the 1970′s
The best two stories in Everything Together are Somersaulting, a truly beautiful, quotidian look at a teenage girl’s summer in Australia that I’ve read half a dozen times to half a dozen different effects, and Poor Sailor, a wordless adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s short story At Sea.
And, like the story itself, I have no words for it.