Saturday, February 02, 2008

Welcome to Tranquility

I read quite a spate of graphic novels lately, having been moved by Blair Butler's Fresh Ink on G4 and the A.V. Club's (The Onion's) Comics of Note to check out a few of them that were considered classic or the best of the year. I find them fascinating because they're so much better than what I read as a kid when I could go to the corner store or the flea market, root around in bunch of plastic buckets, and buy one for ten cents, or three for a quarter. Or the ones that I got in the handy three pack at the supermarket checkout lane, where the center comic, the one you couldn't see although you tried to push the other two out of the way without breaking the plastic, was always the crappy one you didn't want - a copy of Little Lulu or Lotta wedged between two Richie Rich comics, or some sort of strange Wonder Twins moral tale tucked between Superman and the JLA. I know - I'm outing myself as something more of a geek then was probably suspected, but you all had your suspicions.

Jack Kirby's Fourth World Omnibus (I refer to Volume 1, there are four) should kill any geek cred, because I'm going to disparage it, despite Jack Kirby being one of the greats of comic history. It's Kirby's life that you're reading when you tackle Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. And Kirby's life is incredibly interesting as he moved from company to company - Marvel, DC - and comic form to comic form over decades and decades of comic history. And the comics in the omnibus are interesting because they're the basis for the DC universe of villains and heroes that are the bedrock of many of their story lines and new television renditions of comics like the Justice League. But the comics themselves...ouch. Over the decades the DC universe, the stories and the art, have evolved - and Kirby's omnibus shows you exactly how much evolution had to happen to get there. The Fourth World stories originate in horrible Jimmy Olsen (Superman's Pal) and The New Newsboy Legion comics, as well as some vile Mister Miracle and Orion comics, the Orion comics so hokey as to feature an incredibly powerful god-like figure in the form of a black man in a motorcycle helmet on snow skis. It's as stupid looking as it sounds. Much of this early stuff is just so hokey and so poorly written it's almost unbearable, particularly trying to get past characters who take turn reitering their names and trying to talk in hipster as Kirby tries to capture being a youth of the time. But as a context for things to come, the collection is fascinating and explains why I was never as excited about comics as a kid as I was when they started to be more in the vein of graphic novels.

As comics evolved, there came slicker fare like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (vol. 1, vol. 2). The art is just so much better. And the writing is more thought out. But overall, I still wouldn't recommend it, despite someone deciding it was worth a movie. There's an immaturity to the series that just doesn't agree with my tastes. Their cleverness and focus isn't in flushing out the literary characters (Captain Nemo, Allan Quartermain, Mr. Hyde, The Invisible Man, Mina the victim of Dracula) but in making the background details encompass as much turn of the century (19th century) scifi/horror literature as possible. War of the Worlds, Island of Dr. Moreau, and on and on and on. At the end of the second volume is a copious almanac - forget that you're reading a comic book, it's all text at this point - tying the characters in the League to every possible supernatural occurence in the real and literary world, including earlier groups of literary characters forming similar leagues (Orlando, Prospero). It's incredibly dense, breaking supernatural locations down by contintent and referring to thousands of imaginary cities, gods and secret societies. On the other hand, when Mr. Hyde eats the invisible man (who may have deserved his eating) and Nemo realizes that the blood that's starting to appear everywhere on and around Hyde belongs to the dead man, I admit I chuckled.

Which brings me to two graphic novels that were particularly good. Maxwell Strangewell looked like a coloring book when I opened it, no color whatsoever - black and white. And at 379 pages, I was wondering what I'd gotten myself into. Fortunately, it turned out to be a considerable evening of fun. Think Men in Black. Cross it, heavily, with Stranger in a Strange Land. Now add a dozen aliens as major players in the story, not just one or two flushed out with the rest doing cameo. Layer on some irreverant humor and you've got the basics. It's a good story - it's Stranger in a Strange Land - it just happens to be in the format of a graphic novel.

And finally, Welcome to Tranquility. Beautiful art. Great story. Campy humor. I called my local shop, "Mind's Eye Comics" (over by Bonfire) as their website said they a copy in stock and they set it aside. I knew when Blair Butler said it was campy humor about a town of aging super heroes and arch villians confronted with a mysterious murder that it would be my cup of tea, ala The Tick. Gail Simone and Neil Googe take what could have been just a good story, and then intersperse it with the characters' histories from when they were still active in crime or crime prevention, some of it revealed via various snippets and news stories. The characters are flushed out and given motivations for almost every thing they do, creating a network of interaction in the past and present. Then they turn those stories on their head to reveal how much of it is propaganda and lies and how it's all falling apart. It reminded me strongly of Watchmen, but leaning toward the fun side instead of the dark side. And how can you go wrong with a villain named "Emo" whose sole evil power is to wear a visor that displays an emoticon conveying his current mood. All by itself, the detail captures so much of what they're trying to say about the decline of heroes and villains in that comic universe.


PrincessMax said...

I did not have a childhood of comics and I think my mistake when starting in on them in adulthood was beginning with The Watchmen. I have yet to be satisfied as much by anything else. However, I added Maxwell Strangewell and Welcome to Tranquility to my Amazon cart for the next time I need to pad my order to get free shipping. I shared your disappointment in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. I never came to really like any of the characters. It was like he tried to portray them as human and flawed but never in a good way. They were two-dimensional anti-heroes, which kind of negates the usual nuance that comes along with an anti-hero in general. Also, I didn't want to see Quatermain's ass.

John Mayer said...

You found a copy of Little Lulu in the middle of your three-pack? I was never that lucky. Little Lulu was one of the true masterpieces of comicdom, as the Dark Horse reprints demonstrate. Actually, there was far more variety and creativity in the older comics; nowadays it’s nothing but a plague of superheroes, the ruination of what might have been a truly worthy art form (as it is in some other countries). By and large, superhero comics are far more silly and juvenile than Little Lulu or Uncle Scrooge.

Scooter said...

I know a John Mayer. Used to bump into him at conferences when I worked for law school projects. You're not John from CALI, are you?