Stray Thoughts — Comics 1/13

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It’s been a long few days (personal stuff; everyone’s okay) and I’m sitting here next to a pile of comics realizing I haven’t really run down my pull list and recent graphic novel reads in a little while, and also thinking that the idea I had for a Ten Favorite One-And-Done Single-Issue Comics post is probably less interesting to the folks who are kind enough to read these posts.

Before I do get into the pile I ought to say that I keep thinking about how to do a sort of Comics Canon. It’s an intriguingly difficult project. The Comics Journal tried this at the end of the last century and the list was so gleefully willful I can’t understand how it was of any use to anyone at all — it contained entire bodies of work, like “Al Hirschfield’s caricatures” alongside an entry for a single Harvey Kurtzman cartoon. I mean, it was a *good* Harvey Kurtzman cartoon but still. If you make your list of single volumes you end up leaving off stuff like The Sandman and The Fantastic Four or picking a single representative volume, which doesn’t work because the experience of superhero comics is largely cumulative (I did this for The Guardian a few years ago. The list is still pretty good, I think, and Endless Nights really is a good Sandman book, but I have no Kirby on there and no Love and Rockets) and it’s snobby and ahistorical to ignore them. But make your criteria too broad and you end up doing what TCJ did. It’s vexing.

A much easier list: Stuff I’m reading or have recently read.

  • Mudbite by Dave Cooper. My god, I love Dave Cooper. Comics in a sexual confessional mode, especially by men, have fallen out of fashion, due in part to the loathsome trend in art criticism toward reading comics as though you were planning on calling the work as witness for the artist’s prosecution, and to be honest there were probably too many comics with the precis “Hello, my name is John and this is my penis” in the world anyway. But Cooper’s work can stay, as far as I’m concerned. Like his contemporary Al Columbia, who is just as brilliant and indefensible although for reasons of violence rather than sex, Cooper’s work recalls Max Fleischer’s terrifying rotoscoped dream-logic cartoons (here, wanna have nightmares?) and he’s a fabulously accomplished oil painter on top of being an amazing cartoonist. He and the very funny Johnny Ryan did kids’ cartoons for Nickelodeon until recently and it’s good to see him back. I put “Mudbite” on my “most anticipated” list last week and I regret nothing.
    Cooper is obsessed with fleshy women; his gorgeous graphic novel “Ripple” is in part an explicit exploration of this obsession. In Mudbite, which is in a sort of wide-screen format and in color, he simply has his character go on Fellinoid, dreamlike adventures in enchanted forests and magic curio stores with beautiful, shiny, rubbery women jiggling with cellulite.
    Look, it’s really good, I don’t know what to tell you.
  • Under Mudbite there are several books I’ve already written about or aren’t new: A bizarre and wonderful miniseries based on the Hanna-Barbera cartoon Dastardly and Muttley, written by Garth Ennis and drawn by Belgian cartoonist Mauricet, which I recommend very highly, an old issue of Steve Bissette’s marriage-ending extreme horror anthology Taboo, which I need to put with its siblings, the latest paperback of Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen’s watercolor space opera Descender, which I’m enjoying — hot take: it’s like “Saga,” but without the feeling that the book’s entire moral system was derived from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s twitter feed — under that are two issues of Noah Van Sciver’s minicomic Blammo, and at the bottom of the stack are the last couple issues of tiny but fierce publisher Avatar’s terrific black-and-white SF/horror serial anthology Cinema Purgatorio, which it funded through a kickstarter and which has I believe five issues left in its run. It has an Alan Moore serial, a Garth Ennis serial, and a very fun one by Christos Gage and one of my very favorite young artists, Gabriel Andrade, about kaiju monsters.
  • There are now enough occasional “Hellboy” stories to form a full book, I believe. The latest, Krampusnacht, is terrific, a Christmas special with art by Adam Hughes and a  fun story by Hellboy creator Mike Mignola, who, though he has sworn off doing any more interiors, did do a lovely cover for this one-shot. I love “Hellboy” a lot and I hope Mignola keeps making these stories, with help or without, until one of us dies. The Duncan Fegredo issues of the main “Hellboy” sequence are just as beautiful as Mignola’s own incredible work.
  • Kurt Busiek and John Paul Leon’s Batman: Creature of the Night is unimpeachable so far; it’s one a few books I’ll decline to comment on in too much detail until it’s finished but I have high hopes. Others in that category: Garth Ennis and Russ Braun’s very silly Jimmy’s Bastards, which somebody unpleasant might describe as “un-PC,” and Ennis’s Punisher miniseries The Platoon. There’s also a very weird Valiant book called Eternity out that I’m enjoying along these lines. The artist is Trevor Hairsine, who had a brief moment at Marvel a few years ago, and the writer is Matt Kindt, whose ultradense spy books “Super Spy” and “Mind MGMT” really are the eighth wonder of the world. Anyway this one is pretty fun and I don’t honestly understand what’s going on in it well enough to spoil it but I’m having a good time.
  • I am also reading Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s Doomsday Clock, DC Comics’ official sequel to “Watchmen,” mostly because I want to know what on earth the point of it is rather than in expectation of something cool or fun. I’m uncomfortable about this; I don’t like rewarding DC for its fabulous assholery around “Watchmen,” which Johns is at least personally abetting here, but I’d like to be able to talk and think cogently about the comic. I don’t know. I decided to buy it from our rinky-dink little comic shop out here in Bay Ridge in the hopes that the money would at least do some good and felt even guiltier when the very nice guy who runs the place happily presented me with a little mini-poster on cardstock of a Superman-as-Dr.-Manhattan drawing and a countdown-to-superman button with the “Watchmen” clock logo futzed with to have Superman at midnight.
    My take on this book is that it’s very stupid so far. It has some nice character moments and Frank is a capable artist but it’s doing cut-rate versions of every clever structural thing Moore invented in “Watchmen” from the corny parallelism in the narrative captions to the evenly-divided nine-panel grid throughout. I mean I suppose that stuff is fine but that was the language of the book, not its statement. The reason “Watchmen” is good — very good, I’d say — is that it’s actually about something; Its characters are forced by circumstance to make large moral decisions and suffer or escape suffering as a consequence, not always fairly or expectedly. The panel of Dan and Laurie kneeling by Adrian’s swimming pool, embracing because, through no fault of their own, they lived through the book’s many disasters and are allowed by an ultimately entropic universe to keep on loving each other, remains profoundly moving to me. This “Doomsday Clock” thing feels like it’s about, I dunno, fucking superheroes so far. If the book is something beyond an especially clever gloss on “Watchmen” that revitalizes some foundering IP for Time Warner I’ll be the first to praise it, rotten heart or no, but it doesn’t seem like it will be. It seems like it will be about how Superheroes Are Very Cool, You Should Buy Some Licensed Beach Towels, But in a Badass, Ironic Way. Johns is a good writer but he’s a nerd. Moore is an irascible maniac but he’s not a nerd, he’s a brilliant high modernist whose medium just happens to be comics.
  • I’m reading some mainstream Marvel books: Mark Waid has two at the moment, both pairing him with absolutely killer artists, the first a guy named Mike del Mundo who does crazy neon digital painting on Avengers, the second a very traditionalist penciller-inker named Chris Samnee with a wonderful sense of pacing and layout who did an amazing run with Waid on Daredevil and is now even better on Captain America. The pair had a not-totally-successful “Black Widow” two-book series together with Samnee writing and Waid merely providing dialogue; Waid’s dialogue is good but his plotting is so tight you can bounce a quarter off it, and he’s the best Cap writer of the last forty years as far as I’m concerned, so I’m into both of them. The third is Moon Knight, by a writer I’m not familiar with named Max Bemis, who does horror very well so far, with art by Jacen Burrows, whose work I decided I liked as he rounded out 12 eye-popping issues of Alan Moore’s “Providence.” He’s one of those artists who blossoms after a fruitful collaboration with a good writer — the Burrows who’s drawing “Moon Knight” is ten times the artist who did “Crossed” a few years ago.
  • DC books: Deadman, which, god help them, his editors have agreed to let Neal Adams write as well as draw, and as a consequence it makes less than no sense but it sure is pretty; Warren Ellis and Jon Davis-Hunt’s The Wild Storm, which I’ve crowed about until everyone is sick of listening to me about it; and the absolutely ridiculous Dark Knights: Metal, a silly-ass Batman book that makes almost as little sense as “Deadman” but has such beautiful art by Greg Capullo and so much wonky continuity stuff tossed in for fun that I’m enjoying it against my better judgment. Good work, team.
  • There aren’t many bad issues of Love & Rockets but the most recent one was particularly good; the Beto stuff was memorably weird and the Jaime stuff was so touching; it’s a flashback to the “Wigwam Bam” era of the book but Jaime is much tighter in his focus on the characters who need attention and Maggie’s love for Hopey shines like a lighthouse. My favorite thing I’ve read in a good long time.
  • Okay so it’s finally time to talk about Tom King, I think. King is such an interesting author and so clearly having A Moment that I’ve resisted writing about him because the stuff he’s been lauded for, especially The Vision, didn’t feel fully realized to me and I didn’t want to trash him for failing in a way that still put him head and shoulders above a lot of his competitors. He’s really good at tone and tension but his work doesn’t always pay off; it merely works up a good head of foreboding and then falters at the finish line. And I’m not one of those people who complains about the ending of “The Stand” but if you’re going to go on for a long time and not pay off, give your reader a lot of little character moments along the way, otherwise when she gets to the end that reader is going to feel like you owe her something you’re not delivering and she won’t forgive you for dropping hint after hint without planning far enough ahead.
    I read what fans tell me is King’s best Batman arc so far, The War of Jokes and Riddles, and I liked it though not nearly as much as I did I Am Gotham, the first arc. Some of that is down to the artwork — David Finch is terrific —but a lot of it is that King is trying to figure out how to make repetition and uniformity say something interesting on the page and what they often say is, “The artist used a photostat of the previous panel with new dialogue because this is a lazy way to think about a comics page.” He has some very good tricks he learned from Neil Gaiman (the panel of the Joker’s hostages, who he doesn’t remember killing, feels straight out of “The Sandman”), which is kind of refreshing because Alan Moore’s peculiar grammar is so incredibly oppressive in superhero comics especially at DC, though the story did turn out to be About Superheroes in a way I object to.
    Anyway King appears to have worked out a lot of his kinks in the latest issue of his most recent book, with the genuinely great young artist Mitch Gerads, Mister Miracle #6. There are a few photostats in this series but Gerads is so inventive in the way he deploys them that it’s totally okay, and the new issue does some stuff with layout that I’ve rarely seen, and sustains it over the course of a full issue of comics. It’s an actually beautiful mainstream superhero comic, with clever writing and two characters who have both full and developed personalities and an interesting relationship with one another, and best of all, it’s very funny.
    I’m on board for it.

Author: samthielman

Sam Thielman is a reporter and critic based in Brooklyn, New York. His blog is, his twitter handle is @samthielman, and if you can't find him you should check The Strand.

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