Month: May 2004



(Soundtrack: Public Enemy– Fear of A Black Planet, in honour of Stan Lee, Steve Ditko and Mike Sterling)

Chris Hunter recently posted this Warren Ellis piece on his website–did everyone see it?

“Brief, Disconnected Notes On An American Mythology

I’m not a superhero fan. I had to learn the subgenre when I began writing for the States. I’ve had to learn to read them. Now, I can appreciate some of them. Not many, it has to be said… but some. The one I always wanted to like was Superman.

Superman is a uniquely American icon, and the first true myth of the electronic age. One special facet to it is that it began as a myth told to children by children. Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster were youths when they created Superman, a far cry from today’s handful of twentysomethings and carloads of middle-aged men who give today’s children their superheroes.

(Perhaps this is why, to me, a strong adult atory told with Superman would seem curiously inappropriate — and, conversely, the 20th Century social nightmare given inky form that is The Batman seems to me strangely inappropriate as figure of children’s tales.)

Superman, then, is the agent of modern fable — the most compelling fable the 20th Century gave us. Soap opera is unworthy of him, and, as has been proved many times, is not big enough to contain him and the central concepts of his story. At the heart of myth and legend is Romance. That is not the same as the weak, whiny demands of soap opera that begin with “characterisation” and crap on with demands for ever more levels of “conflict”, “jeopardy”, “ensemble writing”, “tight continuity” and all the rest of that bollocks. These things are unimportant. Many of them just completely get in the way of the job at hand. SUPERMAN requires only the sweep and invention and vision that myth demands, and the artistry and directness and clean hands that Romance requires.

SUPERMAN is about someone trying their best to save the world, one day at a time; and it’s about that person’s love for that one whose intellect and emotion and sheer bloody humanity completes him. It’s about Superman, and it’s about Lois and Clark. And that’s all there is. That’s the spine. That must be protected to the death, not lost in a cannonade succession of continuing stories.

That’s what, in the continuing rush to top the last plotline, I see getting lost.

I understand, accept and even to an extent agree with what’s going on; The SUPERMAN creators are trying to keep the books vital, keep them moving, keep those sales spikes coming. But they seem to me to be getting away from the sheer wonder of the Superman myth.

(The single title that does seem to be hewing to the line I’ve just scratched in the sand is Mark Millar’s charming and energetic SUPERMAN ADVENTURES.)

What SUPERMAN must avoid is genericism. It must live up to its billing. The comics must crackle with invention and mythic power. They must always resolutely be of Now, be utterly modern — if not utterly of Tomorrow. They must thrill and frighten and inspire and give us furiously to think.

Crucially, they must not simply offer us a parade of costumes and odd single name/titles. There must be stories where something important is at stake. Something worth saving, be it the life of a human, the soul of a city, the fate of a world, or the future of a child.

Mike Carlin always characterises the ongoing thrust of the Superman titles as the “Never-Ending Battle”. Those battles must have stakes beyond those of smacking about this month’s new costume with an odd name.

(Superman tackles natural disaster and human crime. It’s his belief that nothing else falls within his purview. War and the politics of famine, he feels, are part of human government, and so not his place. He will not interfere in the growth of the human race, as much as it sometimes breaks his heart.

He merely, obliviously, shows the human race, by example, how to be great.)

Now, it may not surprise you to learn that, well, I think this is a crock of shit!!! Time to overstate my case!!!

The only mythical figure any superhero bears any resemblance to is Sisyphus–a dude who didn’t really come into his own until the existentialists got a hold of him around the same time that Superman was created.

What’s all this drama-queen ranting about “Romance” and battles with huge stakes? Come on! Either you die, or you wake up tomorrow and add a day’s worth of experiences to the treasure chest of your life. And superheroes aren’t any different from you. If modernity has taught
us anything, it’s that no icon stays in place without the aid of a discursive power play (no wonder Geoff Klock is so fond of discussing Ellis in the same breath as Harold Bloom!). And here we have our confirmation–right John, Dave, and J.W.?–Warren Ellis is a reactionary!

Our “Heroes” are always in motion–there’s no way to get a glimpse of them in their essence by pulling away the rug of “melodramatic incident”–“Superman” is everything that ever happened to the character (or will happen to him)–nothing more, nothing less.

Superheroes were made for soap opera–in fact, I would suggest that it’s the only appropriate way to make use of these figures!! Soap Opera is twentieth century romance! Hawthorne (Blithedale), Melville (The Confidence Man), and (especially!) Dickens transmuted the Romance from a teleological form into a cyclical one. Pulp (or “pulpish”) modernists like Hammett, Chandler, West, Hemingway, Dawn Powell, S.V. Benet, etc. pushed this insight further–and the superhero genre is the apogee of “epic episodicity”. At their best, these are the greatest “hymns to process” ever created! Sure, the Golden Age heroes were tinged by questy Knights of the Round Table-style Romance, but Marvel blasted that clean off of the genre in the sixties, and DC quickly followed suit. This is where Morrison (and Gruenwald before him) differs most strongly from the other great (superhero) writers of our time (Moore, Miller, Ellis, I guess, etc.)–Morrison’s narrative thrust is always centrifugal, while the rest of the “superheroes for adults” masterpieces have operated centripetally.

Good Afternoon Friends!


Come Graze With Me

(Soundtrack: The Beastie Boys– Ill Communication)

John Holbo makes a strong case for pop culture as the site of a new rusticity and a perfect campground for ironists–extraordinary stuff there, although I don’t believe that the Lee/Ditko/Gruenwald/Morrison tradition fits into this particular discussion (link via Dave Intermittent)

Alan David Doane is back at the helm of a new version of Comic Book Galaxy! This is very good news (and not merely because he’s posted great review of The Filth)–Larry Young is fond of saying that a strong Marvel is essential to the comics industry, and I think that a strong–and, hopefully, as controversial as ever!–ADD is equally important to the on-line comics community. (link via Johanna Draper Carlson)

Johnny Bacardi has been doing some very productive thinking lately about comics old, (newer) and new.

H at The Comic Treadmill has gone absolutely berserk, in the best possible way, with Batman Family #1-8–here and here.

Happy belated blogoversary to Sean Collins, indisputably a “cornerstone of the sphere”!

And, on a non-comics note, the YMDB is back up and running, and I urge all of you cineastes out there to sign up and take part in the fun–I did!

Exhausted now–I should have some actual content for ya tomorrow!

Good Night Friends!


Starring…The Stan and Jack Players!

(Soundtrack: Smashing Pumpkins — Pisces Iscariot)

Here’s something I’ve been thinking about that I don’t have time to beat to death right now:

Corporate superhero comics and studio age films relate to one another in very similar ways. What am I talking about? Well, take the Warner Brothers career of James Cagney for instance. Cagney was a “star”, not an actor. People usually make this distinction in order to establish the superiority of the latter. But let’s forget about value judgements for a second (or, preferably, forever!). Cagney’s “persona” isn’t so different from a costume and powers. It’s a constant in the films, from The Public Enemy to Yankee Doodle Dandy. Sure, they “retconned” gangster-Cagney into a more lawful version of himself in G Men, once the Legion of Decency turned on the heat in 1934, but he’s always the same guy, even when he’s playing a tapdancer. Various directors and screenwriters have their fun with this persona, but they’re all riffing on the “origin story” that William Wellman and Cagney himself gave us in 1931.

Different aspects of the protean character are emphasized in order to serve the story, and our full appreciation of these variations is dependent upon our knowledge of what has come before. I can’t imagine anyone loving The Strawberry Blonde as much as I do, for instance, unless they grasp the full significance of the fact that, in this film, Cagney’s romanticism, which is always there, although usually in the background, is so much in the ascendant that it actually causes him to lose every fistfight and get taken in by confidence schemes left and right. He still thinks he’s “Cagney”–a guy who always gets the better of his opponents, no matter how much of a physical or social advantage they possess over him–and so do we, but here that cockiness is misplaced, because all of his energy is channelled into this hopeless lifelong obsession with Rita Hayworth. And that makes every reverse he suffers all the more poignant!

And it’s not just the stars of course. Just about every Cagney film has a role for Alan Hale, Frank McHugh, George Tobias, Allen Jenkins, Bogart as arch-enemy etc… They’re just like the supporting cast in a Spider-Man comic… They can be bent to different uses, by different storytellers, and you can perform a similar historiographical reading of the variations in their roles.

Anyway, I must go now!

Have a good weekend friends!


Coffee Break

Jeff Chatlos seeks an explanation for this phenomenon:

Finally, I can speak for myself. I love comics, and will try just about any comic someone recommends, but I won’t touch anything other than comics (and even those are few) with fairies or elves in them (okay, I did like LotR, but that’s an exception). To me, books, TV shows and movies with “fantasy” settings (and I use fantasy to encompass everything from Xena to Legend) are somehow “too geeky” even for me. The same goes for most syndicated or cable sci-fi shows, though I’m generally willing to give big screen sci-fi and non-Star Trek network sci-fi, like The X-Files, a chance. I can’t even say why I think these things are geekier than I’m willing to go, because 1) I don’t really care what people think of me, as long as they don’t think I’m mean and 2) I have enough geek-like hobbies and interests, what difference would a few more make? I think that many people think about comics, as an art form or medium, the same way that I think about elves, fairies and anime (another thing I won’t touch, despite enjoying some manga).

Earlier on, he wondered why it might be that his wife has more tolerance for superhero movies than the comics (and also why she likes Alex Ross).

Here’s what I think (it got too long for the comments thread):

Of course this is just my opinion–but you know I believe it!!–superhero comics are just too complex for most people (and I don’t mean that as in “most people aren’t intelligent enough to understand them”, I mean: “most people don’t want to invest the kind of time into them that you must in order to derive the full benefit from them”–and who can blame them, really?)

Whenever I see a superhero movie, I’m always disappointed! Why? Because they didn’t “stick to continuity”? No way! You know I don’t care about that stuff! The problem with the movies is that they’re invariably simplified into action movies–and I pretty much hate action movies… I don’t appreciate novels, films, or anything else that deals with “larger than life heroes”, and part of my ongoing point is that I don’t think superhero comics have anything in common with Die Hard

The play of the words against the pictures–and of the present issue against its predecessors–neutralizes awe and chastens every display of power. These aren’t paeans to the will, they’re about clinging for dear life to the merry-go-round of the “eternal recurrence”–once you’ve read enough superhero comics, you know that none of the “victories” are “for keeps” and that there aren’t any real “triumphs” in a cyclical world. (except in an Alex Ross comic–which is like an action movie…those chins crush every hint of complexity that gets in their path!) There’s so much narrative wonderment going on in long-running serial comics that just does not translate into any other medium… That’s the glory of the form, and probably its death-knell too–because who has the time to get up to speed with Marvel and DC history, other than a kid? And the kids are otherwise engaged at present. Oh well–so be it!

Good Day Friends!


Meme Too!

(Soundtrack: Fleetwood Mac — Tusk)

Jeff Chatlos and Dave Intermittent have got me thinking about “definitive runs” on comic book series, and now I can’t stop. Of course, I’m still more interested in the whole spectrum of interpretations than in any one of them in isolation, but where’s the harm in posting a list?

Submitted then, for your perusal, the first creative team (and one “definitive moment”) that came to my mind in connection with a whole cavalcade of titles:

Amazing Spider-Man: Gerry Conway/ Ross Andru, circa 1973-75 (a confused and angry Spider-Man swinging through Manhattan scanning the streets for a second glimpse of an impossibility–the Gwen Stacy clone)

Captain America: Mark Gruenwald/Kieron Dwyer, circa 1987-89 (as the Viper sinks her teeth into the Serpent Society–Diamondback calls Cap for help…)

Dr. Strange: Roy Thomas/Gene Colan, circa 1968-69 (Doc and Clea talk psychedelia with Tom Wolfe in Times Square on New Year’s Eve–right before a pteranodon smashes into the Allied Chemical Tower)

Avengers: Steve Englehart/Dave Cockrum, circa 1973 (“time becomes visible to the naked eye” in Giant-Size Avengers #2)

X-Men: Roy Thomas/Werner Roth, circa 1965-67 (at the Cafe-A-Go-Go, Bernard the Poet declares: “life is a yo-yo, and mankind keeps tying knots in the string”)

Daredevil: Stan Lee/Gene Colan, circa 1966-67
(Mike Murdock cuts loose!)

Flash: Cary Bates/Carmine Infantino, circa 1980-1985 (Cecile Horton emerges from the sensory deprivation tank)

SHIELD: Steranko natch! circa 1967-69 (the NYC blackout)

Fantastic Four: Doug Moench/Bill Sienkiewicz. circa 1981 (brain parasites man!)

Incredible Hulk: Peter David/Dale Keown, circa 1989-90 (Rick Jones vs. the Skrulls)

Thor: Walt Simonson, circa 1983-86 (death by french fry!)

Silver Surfer: Stan Lee/John Buscema, circa 1968 (vs. the Flying Dutchman)

Teen Titans: Bob Haney/Nick Cardy, circa 1966-69 (The TT’s Swingin’ Christmas Carol)

The Spectre: Michael Fleischer/Jim Aparo, circa 1973 (Jimbo takes a buzzsaw to a wooden thug)

The Shadow: Gerard Jones/Eduardo Barretto, circa 1989-91 (Harry Vincent investigates Margo Lane’s past)

Superman: Alan Moore/Curt Swan, 1985 (Krypto!)

The Legion: Paul Levitz/Keith Giffen, circa 1981-83 (Superboy taken to task by the Science Police for refusing to use “ordinary portals”)

JSA: Roy Thomas/Jerry Ordway, circa 1981-83 (“Green Lantern wins the war…”)

Green Lantern: John Broome/Gardner Fox/Gil Kane, sixties (the Lamplighter!)

Justice League: Steve Englehart/Dick Dillin, circa 1976 (vs. the Manhunters)

the Atom: Roger Stern/Graham Nowlan, circa 1989 (Humbug!)

Animal Man, Doom Patrol–Morrison, of course…

X-Factor: Peter David/Terry Shoemaker fill-in, 1990–(“Desperately Seeking Vera”) Mignola cover

Batman, Iron Man, Wonder Woman, Aquaman: none, really…

Good Day Friends!


Let’s Get Metaphysical

(Soundtrack: Bikini Kill– The First Two Records)

The protagonist of Wood and Cloonan’s Demo is subjectivity itself–which is the only “power” any of us actually possess. Each issue features a new character struggling to shed the halo of egoism–to stage-dive out of that spotlight into the crowd of otherness. And the price of failing to believe in the reality of those people out there is a broken face.

The quirks of personal biography are legion, but subjectivity is always the same–a source of infinite power that casts a shadow upon everything we see. That’s modern life: there’s no place prepared for us–or if there is, as in issue #4–it feels like a sham. Nobody “fits in” anywhere because there’s nothing to fit into. We sculpt “structures” out of the cell-blocks of our own alienation. Every kid in suburbia thinks everyone else is a faded cypher. But there’s really no one to fight with. We have more power to affect the world than most of us really want–most notably, we have the power to recognize, unilaterally, the legitimacy of all those other mutants out there. By fashioning the web of intersubjectivity into a cape, we become, to update Dickens, the heroes of each others’ own lives.

So far, we haven’t seen any of that in Demo–we’ve seen waves of solipsism rise and fall upon the sea of self-consciousness. In issue #5, we met a character marked by a morbidly enlightening awareness of the way others perceive her, but even this nascent “double consciousness” drowns in the wishing-well of obsession. Is there land in sight? We’ll see!

Good Night Friends!


Mean Egotism

That old anti-romantic, Aaron Haspel, registers his objections to the “egotistical sublime” in Wordsworth. Best line: “The one distinct feature [in the landscape near Tintern Abbey] is Wordsworth himself, who is everywhere, like Ali in the ring.” Bravo Aaron!

For my part, I’ve been thinking a great deal about romantic narcissism, as you’ll see if you care to check out my essay on Canadian “nature poet” Archibald Lampman here. Tonight, at long last, Demo #1-6.

Good Day Friends!


Even Mickey Eye’s Giving Me The Blues (Hang On to Your Ego!)

(Soundtrack: Frank Black)

Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances, — master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance. I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty. In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature.

As John Commonplacebook has noted, I’m constitutionally incapable of discussing Grant Morrison without dragging Emerson into the equation, so please take this with a grain of salt–but…people… Mickey Eye! He’s nothing right? And he sure seems to “see All”, doesn’t he? This is Emerson’s Frankenstein Metaphor come to life. The dream of a perfect affinity with the universe transformed into a mocking, egg-stomping nightmare! Our need for a glimpse of the infinite drives us to create a diseased meta-subject that has no substance of its own. Emerson went out into the forest–the new pantheist sits on the couch, stewing in chicken farts, channeling signals from space. It’s the same thing really. But the “colored and distorting” lens of consciousness prevents us from identifying with this thing, and we settle for being seen by it.

You may recall a similar ogling horror lurking behind Greg’s television screen in The Filth. Again, I don’t have a clue where this series is going, but for now I’m interpreting this as a call for a new “love-node particularism”. A rejection of all dialectical thinking. The “indictment” here is not so much of “surveillance culture”, it’s of our desire to partake of omniscience by participating in a paranoid surveillance-fantasy. “Mickey” can’t “see” how much you care for the humans and animals in your life. That’s all the ontology you need. “Reality” is a malleable thing–and every one of us gets a vote.

Gotta go to work!

Good Day Friends!


“Continuity” Revisited

(Soundtrack: Black Rebel Motorcycle Club — Take Them On, On Your Own)

Update!: Please be sure to check out Steven Wintle’s discussion of the “chaotic believability” of the early Marvel creative melting pot. This is the kind of believability I can accept–“the marvel universe” as cubist narrative; “the world” as an intersection crossed over by a host of divergent subjectivities!

Okay, so, it occurred to me, this morning, as I read Paul O’Brien’s Ninth Art piece, that the word I was searching for, whilst writing my own mini-essay on continuity last month, was “historiography”. Do people know that term? Personally, I had no idea what it meant until I began my undergraduate studies. I thought a historian’s job was to reconstruct the past. Not so, I discovered. Turns out I had been mired in Rankean naivete. The professionals treated what I had once thought of as “history”–names, dates, quotations, etc.–as mere scaffolding. Here I was trying to escape into the past, into a story, and these damned scholars insisted upon throwing up an interpretative smokescreen. It was hard to get into, at first. But I’ll tell ya–after reading 3 books a week on the “causes of the Civil War” for the entire summer of 1997, I was sold!

Once I became familiar with all of the key events–the virtual end of slavery in the colonial north, the wrangling over the “three-fifths clause” at the Constitutional Convention, the growth of sectionalism–epitomized by things like the Hartford Convention and the Missouri Compromise, Nat Turner’s rebellion, Garrison burning the constitution, the House “gag rule”, the Mexican War, the formation of the Free Soil party, the Compromise of 1850 (Daniel Webster’s Seventh of March Speech), the collapse of the Whig Party, the rise of Nativism, the “caning of Sumner”, John Brown and “bleeding Kansas”, the rise of the Republican party as a pure Northern party, “fire-eaters” in the South, election of Lincoln, South Carolina secedes, etc. etc.–I became sensitive to the subtly different use each scholar made of them. I swear to God, I read about fifty books that described the same events over and over again, and it never got boring! I remember thinking–this is like reading a huge run of Dr. Strange

The same events (or events so similar that they might as well be the same), conflicts with the same characters, the same dilemmas, endlessly retold–and all of the fun emerging out of the different spins Lee, Ditko, Severin, Adkins, Thomas, Colan/Palmer, Fox, Smith, Brunner, Englehart, Colan again, Wolfman, Starlin, Stern, Claremont, Rogers, Golden, Paul Smith, etc. etc. (+ all of the folks in the lettercols!) put on them. You might have a favourite interpretation of a character or historical phenomenon (I like the Thomas/Colan Doc best, I like Gruenwald’s Cap best, I like Aileen Kraditor’s take on Abolitionism best, I like Perry Miller’s understanding of Puritanism best, etc.), but the real thrill emerges out of the juxtaposition of many disparate views, even the ones you actually hate in themselves!

This is why I diasagee with Paul O’Brien when he writes:

The advantages of shared universes are straightforward. They provide a common pool of concepts, characters and settings. Between them, the various Marvel and DC titles ought to be able to define a fantasy version of the world that is richer and deeper than any individual title would manage. Done properly, it should result in a world that’s more believable and, in many ways, more fun.

Fun, yes. More “believable” world? No way! What’s easier to accept on its own terms: a work that is unmistakeably the product of one mind (like Peanuts, say) or a work that participates in what Walt Simonson calls the “team sport” of superhero narrative building? (Morrison calls it a “relay race”, and that’s an even better image) There’s no contest is there? Any Marvel or DC comic compels us to ponder its own textuality (and when a good writer and artist–such as Stan & Jack on the FF–work together, you get a kind of mini-historiographical dialectic between the pictures and the captions/dialogue in every issue!)

Soon: Demo #1-6, and some thoughts on Mickey Eye–I think I’ll call it “Transparent Eye Brawl”!

Also–check out Ringwood Ragefuck, where there’s an angst n’ lego fueled open-Mic competition going on! (I contributed a little something near the end of the comments thread)

Good Night Friends!


To Be Continued

Forgot it was a holiday today! (not for me, but for Christine, so this was no ordinary weekday morning)

I just wanted to draw your attention to Paul O’Brien’s piece on continuity at Ninth Art, which I believe I’ll respond to tonight, with some thoughts about the “historiographical” approach to dealing with the Marvel and DC universes

Happy Victoria Day (the evil old “Empress of India” herself) friends!