The Bricktosser

A place for me to rant, ramble and rave about all things comics related.

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Location: Chicago, Illinois, United States

Monday, January 23, 2006

League of Ordinary Gentlemen #1

After a few posts about the super-hero world, I've been thinking it's time to switch gears. I hereby innaugurate a series dedicated to the antithesis of the super-hero: the Ordinary Guy. In other words, Members of the League of Ordinary Gentlemen

Subject #1: Alec MacGarry


Alec is the star of a series of graphic novels which depect his regular, ordinary life. At least at first. As depicted in The King Canute Crowd by Eddie Campbell, Alec is a twenty-something working class Joe with a tilt toward the philosophical, the usual girl troubles, and colorful companions. Take note, we've got the basic template for League membership right there.

What makes Canute worth reading is the storytelling. Campbell's hero is thoughtful, witty, introspective, and funny, and this comes out in the narration and the drawing. For instance, this sequence:




That's poetry in pictures.

[I scanned the above sequence over 10 years ago, when I had a website about comics in late '93!]

When I first read The King Canute Crowd it was entitled The Complete Alec (I guess Campbell didn't figure he'd write so much more about Alec) and I thought it was fiction. As it turns out, Alec is a stand-in for Campbell himself, and much (if not all) of Alec is autobiographical. This makes for some amusingly surreal moments later as Alec starts hanging out with Alan Moore, as seen here.

Note the thought Moore has, feeling like he's in a comic book.

At this point, the comic is somewhat less about an Ordinary Guy, however. Alec has quit the League of Ordinary Gentlemen, and the comic is no longer stories about the guy you know who goes out drinking with his buddies, but more about the guy who collaborates with Alan Moore on a massive graphic novel about Jack the Ripper, who is about as far from an Ordinary Gentleman as you can get. Perhaps that's why, although I like a lot of later Alec stories, The King Canute Crowd and Graffiti Kitchen remain my favorite (as well as some of my favorite comics, period). It is amusingly surreal to read comics about one of Alec's friends reacting to seeing himself in comic form in an earlier volume, but at that point it's a different game.

Which leads to a segue about the appeal of the League of Ordinary Gentlemen. It's the Ordinariness. Over at Pretty, Fizzy Paradise, Kalinara has written an interesting article about the nature of hero comics. Her belief is that superheroes exist to represent the best of us, what we can aspire to. I agree with that. Ordinary Guy comics are the antithesis of that. I believe they would not exist of not for the super-hero comics which they are a response to. Comic after comic filled with characters who are described as being "olympic level" athletes at a minimum and who have super powers and/or vast fortunes on top of that-- after I while, that's pretty alienating. So, I believe, the Ordinary Guy comic was born as a result, where the very point of the comic is just how much of a regular, average person the hero is. More about this next time, when we look at the founding member of the League-- Harvey Pekar.

[A note on gender: I realize I am using "Guy" and "Gentlemen" to describe a phenomenon, and that rules out 50% of the population right away. I will probably talk about the male/female factor in a later post, but right now, it seems like a very male thing.]

Always remember...




Never let it be said I wasn't one for hopping on a bandwagon...

Friday, January 20, 2006

Infinite Crisis isn't that great!

Hold tight for a little criticism. Note that I am enjoying Infinite Crisis a lot!

I recently read the opinion that Infinite Crisis was one of the best comics written. I disagree. I don't even think it's one of the best mainstream super-hero books ever written... and there are better comics than that, once you broaden your horizons.


A quick list of things wrong with Infinite Crisis that I can think of without actually looking at an issue
  • The pseudoscience is bad by even comic book standards. It might as well be magic. Vibrational frequencies embedded in genetic codes? Wha?
  • Superman-2 (the original) is horribly out of character. There might be an explanation, but as written, it's a jarring discontinuity from the guy who appeared in 1938, or even the guy who appeared in All-Star Comics and guest appearances in the 70's and 80's.
  • Alex Luthor's motivation isn't clear. Not necessarily a problem, but it will be if it's never made out to be more than "I'm a Luthor, I'm bad." which IC4 hints at.
  • There are some big continuity glitches. The biggest one I've seen is Air Wave getting dispersed in IC and then being fine in over in Firestorm.
  • The dramatic structure is for crap. The fan-pleasing bits keep it going, but there's not much a of a story in IC itself so far.
  • Superboy-Prime's dialogue is painful.
  • The deaths seem extra-gratuitous, especially as they are, with few exceptions, total Z-lister characters.
  • The OMACs make no sense. How could Batman build a superhuman army, or even an intelligence that (even with Luthor's help) could? If anything remotely like that technology exists in the DCU, why don't we see it elsewhere?
  • Again, with the OMACs. If one OMAC can take on several mid-power-level heroes, how in the world can they stop thousands, if not hundreds of thousands or millions of them?
  • Why use the villains to do all the dirty work if the OMACs are so powerful?
  • Batman is whiny. That's annoying.


And that's just off the top of my head, without the comic in front of me.

I don't think IC is going to stand the test of time as anything but a cool event. I reread Crisis on Infinite Earths a few years ago, and it didn't stand up very well either-- and that had a lot of dramatic structure and was truer to the characters than this is.

Infintie Crisis is cool. It isn't one of the best written super-hero comics ever.* It is one of the best coordinated comics ever, with all the crossovers and stuff.

I don't think Geoff Johns is a great writer. I love his comics, but I think the appeal is that he knows exactly what fanboy buttons to press. Even JSA, which is his best stuff, doesn't stand up all that well to rereading a couple of years after release. It's too event-driven and its foundation is the surprise. There are some serious exceptions, like most of the stuff with Atom Smasher or the issue where Degaton haunts the team with hints at their future. That stuff really shines. But a lot of Johns' output is transient fun at best. Great fun, but transient, and not very solid writing.

* Discussion for another day. I don't know if I could decide, really.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Seven Soldiers Appreciation [Big Pile o' Comics Part II]

Okay, so more superhero stuff today...

I just caught most of the way up with the Seven Soldiers of Victory series(es) that Grant Morrison has been writing. My Seven Soldiers experience highlights a problem I have with comics: I put off reading them, and I fall behind.

This is particularly a problem with good comics. Good comics usually require attention. They can be dense, challenging, oblique, subtle. A lot of comics I enjoy (such as Quasar, or Superman) do not require attention. They are fluff. They are, at best, the action movies of the comics world. I won't say they aren't good, but they are not the same animal as V for Vendetta.


So when I sit down with my week's worth of comics, there are comics I set aside to read later. I don't want to concentrate, I don't want to have to pay attention, my attentions are elsewhere. Add to this that there are some types of comics that I really need to warm up to, particularly fantasy comics. Something about a comic with a guy holding a sword always feels like more work that a straight-up cape-and-tights drama. Maybe it's all those "thees" "thous" and "forsooths." I never cared for Thor comics much, either, come to think of it.

That brings us to Seven Soldiers of Victory. Grant Morrison has set about telling a story made up of seven substories, each one a standalone story that can be read on its own, but that ties into a much larger saga. And you can read them all issue by issue at the same time and see them start to tie together and indirectly reference each other. They have allusions to a lot of comics history and lots of in-jokes which are subtle enough to not be annoying if you don't get them, but neato if you do. And each sub-story is a different style, and a different genre. All have some heroic elements, but they range from post-modern mainstream super-hero (Zatanna) to fringe super-hero satire (Bulleteer) to ...fantasy. And that's when my "this is too much work" voice kicked in, and I set aside Shining Knight #1 (one of the first chapters). And then I misplaced it. And once I was behind with such a complex story, I was sunk.

This happens to me a lot. I keep buying comics I do not read. I still have not read all of Alan Moore's Promethea, because the text was way too dense-- and when I went back, I couldn't find them all. It happens with other books, too, like Love and Rockets, which is neither fantasy-based nor dense, but certainly subtle and doesn't stop to catch you up with handy synopses the super-hero comics usually do. Eventually, I gather them up or buy a trade paperback verion (of comics I already own) and read them in one lump, and vow not to fall behind again.

So... Seven Soldiers. Second comic in the series-of-series is filled with Fake Welsh and plenty of brooding and dramatic dialoge and starts in medias res with an unfamiliar fantasty setting. Don't let that stop you, Seven Soldiers is good. Really Good. Reading it in a stack allows certain things to really pop, too, like the slowly-growing picture of what the menace behind the scenes is, and how elaborate and far-reaching the details of the backstory are. And for people like me, they just released a collected volume of the first part of it so you can read it when you're good and ready to pay attention.

If I haven't enticed you already, here are seven reasons to love Seven Soldiers:


  • Klarion, the little poor Goth Boy who makes good
  • Zatanna referring to herself as a Spellaholic
  • Some really amazing fantasy artwork in Shining Knight
  • Mister Miracle: Any comic starring an escape artist has got to be worth reading
  • A tough-guy hero who shouts out newspaper cliches
  • The bittersweet origin of the Bulleteer
  • ...and I can't say anyting about the Frankenstein chapter yet, because I put off reading it.

    I think this is where we came in.
  • Friday, January 13, 2006

    Quick recommendation: Scott Pilgrim

    My latest new-found delight in comics is Scott Pilgrim.

    It's the story of a twenty-something slacker, but this is no slice-of-life autobiography. It's far funnier and far more surreal than that. I'd try to sum it up, but it speaks best for itself.





    Here's a sample page that nails the character pretty squarely. Click to enlarge.

    I'm a little late in discovering this myself-- there are already two volumes out, and a third one is due soon.


    Check out a preview at http://www.scottpilgrim.com/

    Thursday, January 12, 2006

    The Big Pile o' Comics

    Over the holidays I did something I really love-- I read a whole mess of comics.

    Not just any random comics, but a whole series-- Quasar-- in a couple of days.

    Now, most regular comic readers read their comics an issue at a time. Not all, but I would wager most do. However, that's not usually the way I expose people to comics, and it's not normally how I discover a comic. I either buy a book, or... I borrow a big pile of comics from somebody.

    There's something to be said for reading comics monthly, hanging on the cliffhangers, watching things unfold slowly. Back in the Eighties, I read Watchmen an issue at a time, furiously rereading them in the intervening months looking for clues or nuances to the story. But there's also a great delight in diving into a huge stack, or a collection, and just consuming a huge mass of story all at once. It takes me anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes to read a comic, depending on density, length, and my level of distraction. That's not very long, and I usually read many in a sitting. But when those many are part of one big series-- that's cool. That's special.

    It's a little like time-lapse photography. Reading something it took somebody years to write and draw over the course of hours. Watching subplots sprout, bloom, and die. Seeing artists evolve their styles. Watching writers define characters.

    Some comics are really meant to be read this way. I read From Hell over the course of the years that it was serialized, but it wasn't until it concluded (and I was hit with the full force of it in a rereading) that it became one of my favorite comics. I read Cerebus in fits and starts, as I could find chunks of it reprinted or get ahold of my friend Arnie's stacks-- but I gave it to my wife in a mass of the later-published Phone-Book sized volumes, and she devoured it. I think that's the way to read Cerebus.

    When I sat down, I was going to write a series review of Quasar. Quasar wasn't meant to be read this way. It has some big arcs of subplot, but it's clearly an Ongoing Saga and not One Big Story. It evolves in purpose, from being an homage to the superheroes of sixites (particularly Green Lantern and Flash) to an exploration of Marvel's Cosmology, to well, a mess.


    Quasar kind of lost its point after a while, the potential downfall of any open-ended story format. I think the series jumped the shark when Quasar dies for the second time and is miraculously restored by yet another cosmic force. It was cool the first time, but the series eventually started repeating itself. In the final half-dozen issues, the writer seems to realize this, as he retires Quasar's Flash-analogue sidekick off to the cosmos, exiles the love interest to a forbidden planet, and starts working on a new direction. But the magic had gone. And it was too late, the series was cancelled.


    The cool thing about reading these stories all at once is that I got the thrills and fun, but missed the wading through the mediocre parts hoping it would get better, month after month looking to see if the old magic was back. I've been down that road before.

    My final thought-- I think the trend is more toward this type of reading. More and more comics are published in trade paperbacks, and more people probably read comics this way than ever before. Perhaps someday, the blog postings will be about nostalgia for the days when people did read comics serially. But for now, for me, the Big Pile o' Comics is still the exception. And what a treat it is.

    PS: Quasar teaches you about science!

    Tuesday, January 03, 2006

    Please comment!

    I want my fledgeling blog to grow. I have no idea who's reading this or your reactions. Please comment!

    Reflections on V for Vendetta


    In anticipation of the upcoming movie, I recently re-read V for Vendetta. For those of you who haven't read it, I strongly recommend it. I also recommend you stop reading this if you don't like spoilers, because there are a few mild spoilers hence.

    If you haven't read V and your still reading this, a little background. V fof Vendetta was one of the earlier works of Alan Moore, writer of Watchmen, Miracleman, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and From Hell. The story takes place in a post-WWIII Britain which has suffered indirectly from the nuking of Eastern Europe and Africa. It was written and drawn in the early-to-mid 80's, when you couldn't throw a rock without hitting a post-apocalypic sci-fi story. V was different, though. What set V apart from the Max Maxes and Judge Dredds was the political angle. Britain isn't a wasteland physically-- but in the wake of famine and financial collapse, it's been taken over by Fascism. That's Facism witht a capital F. V for Vendetta is the story of a mysterious agent (referred to only as V) who is bent on taking down the fascist regime.

    And that's what I want to talk about. A story about fascism seems very timely right now, particularly for an American audience. The line repeated in the movie trailer-- "A People should not be afraid of their government-- governments should be afraid of their people" is something that got my attention all over again, but it a far different context when I first read it nearly twenty years ago. But despite the appropriateness to today's climate, upon rereading I was struck with how simplistic the politics of V for Vendetta really were. What was V's solution for Fascism? Anarchy. But that's what set the stage for Fascism to take over in V's world in the first place! Either Moore means this as a sort of ironic philosophical point (which I doubt, given the loving words V speaks about anarchy), or Moore simply doesn't know what to do once the bad guys have gotten torn down.

    There's been a lot of criticism of the film in advance of its release, and a lot of that has centered on how they've apparently changed the politics of the film. I've been avoiding reading too much, but I am encouraged by this. Either V's finale hasn't aged well, I'm merely reacting differently at 39 than I did at 20, or both. In either case, V for Vendetta's triumph of Anarchy over The Man strikes me as juvenile now, and some changes are warranted and welcome.

    If you haven't read the book-- do. It's great. Don't let my poo-pooing of some of the philosophy of the book stop you. If you read it long ago, read it again. It's got great characters, an intriguing story, and will make you think. If the movie captures even a part of what made this book so compelling, it will be awesome. I think it takes some serious stones to make a movie post 9/11 that features a terrorist as the protagonist. And I'm not too concerned that they may have changed some things for the movie, as long as the heart of it remains. Anarchy is not the heart of it. Revolution is.