Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The Comics Journal Library 6 - The Writers

While hewing my way through a bunch of comics stuff (including Locas, which I should post on soon), I wound up reading a few of the interviews from the Comics Journal Library vol. 6 – The Writers. I was just trying to skim it at first, but I got caught up reading it, and now I’m reading a few pages before bed each night (It’s on the nightstand with perennial favorite Ice Haven, and the quirkily interesting, but hard to finish Nil – the R. Crumb handbooks on the back of the toilet for some reason). All three interviews I’ve finished have been pretty good, and interesting in their own ways.

The Alan Moore interview that closes the book is one of the books shortest, but still manages to be riveting. The main thing about it is that I’ve read so many Moore interviews, following his progression through to today, that going back to 1984 is a refreshing glimpse of the artist as a young man – pre DC hatred, Pre magik, pre superhero rejection. The self-deprecating humor is here full tilt (used today mostly when discussing his artistic collaborators), but is often used express I’m-not-worthy humbleness about dealing with DC properties. There is really nothing new in this interview for the Moore indoctrinated, but the differences in his attitude and point of view are the big draw here.

The big interview in the book is that of Harlan Ellison. I have the benefit, I think, of not having read a lot of Ellison dialogues over time (though I have heard many of the legendary stories) making his amusing but laser-like tirades seem fresher. He comes off here as a bit of a bitter, self righteous (and self serving) bully, but the sheer causticity of his attacks serve to strip away the defenses of the institutions, media, people, works, etc. that he is attacking. It always seems, though, that his favorite targets have all either rejected him at some point (TV being the biggest example), didn’t give him what he felt was due, or are small easy targets. That said, TV of the time (early 70’s – some of these interviews are quite old, in service to the 70’s and early 80’s saving comics theme of the book) was pretty bad, and it’s worth reading this simply to hear an entirely remorseless account of Ellison running across a boardroom table and breaking a TV executives pelvis for insulting writers (in general).

I also read the Steve Gerber interview. A good read, with some attention-grabbing tidbits, but I was mainly struck by how much this sounds like current dialogues with Joe Casey. I guess I never noted a connection between the two before, but they both have a similar rebel-in-the-woodwork approach. I respect his honesty of perspective, also, as he freely cops to stuff he’s done that just didn’t work. A lot of talk about markets and formats, too, and this was in the 70’s. Gerber was apparently more of a visionary than I thought.

I’m Currently reading the Wolfman stuff, but so far this is notable mostly for the interviewer accusing he of being a shitty writer half the time, and Wolfman essentially saying ‘I agree, but when you have to get an issue of each book you do out every month, if something doesn’t work it might take a while to get around to fixing it.’ Good book, strongly recommended so far.


Whew, where to start. I finally got around to starting Locas, the Jame Hernandez magnum opus and the companion huge-but-not-all-encompassing tome to brother Gilberto’s Palomar. I read about half on a flight to and from Hawaii (to the end of “the death of Speedy Ortiz”), and have now dug my way through about a third of the rest.

It is difficult not to compare this to my experiences with Palomar. Palomar also sat imposingly on the shelf for a while before I got around to reading it, and both were somewhat mixed experiences. I felt similarly, I think, to Abhay (he of the fondly remembered AK’s Title Bout) in that I enjoyed Paolmar, but didn’t feel that this was because it made such a statement or was a finely honed piece of art, but because the sprawling, messy, weird, and sometimes insane/borderline incoherent tapestry of human events formed a critical mass that was greater than the sum of its parts. The peak of the work (“Human Dystrophism” in the book, athough I think the TPB covering this goes by a different name) is the only time (for me) in the book's 600+ pages where this broke through to a truly transcendent level. The political aspects of the book were kinda’ banal, and I don’t think I felt as much empathy for the main characters as Beto wanted me to, but there was so much going on, from introductions (multiple times) of major numbers of new characters at once, to the deft magical realist epiphanies, to big heaping gobs of deformities and everyday perversions. I’m sure several dissertations could be written analyzing the symbolism of breast size alone.

It is tempting to say the same things about Locas, but I find myself more ambivalent for 2 reasons: 1. Gilberto is a better writer and 2. Jaime is a muuuch better artist. I mean, I think he may be my favorite draftsman period. He can draw absolutely anything perfectly, has incredible consistency and differentiation of faces and forms, and is incredibly expressive. Let me make sure this is understood – I think Gilberto is a good at putting ink on the page, but Jaime is the best. I found myself touching the pages with my palms, at times, the line was so perfect (certainly it must be raised on the page!).

But Locas, although the narrative approach is somewhat similar to Palomar (lots of characters, spectrum of attitudes from adolescent to mature, tracking of long periods of time, most things occurring in and around one place forming a microcosm, and that dense human tapestry again), does not, in my opinion, achieve a critical mass in the same way. There are specific parts of the milieu that could be singled out as being in Palomar’s favor, such as the replacement of Gilberto’s underdeveloped-but-understandable-from-a-character-standpoint politics (which is kind of sweet) with Jaime’s concern with street cred/being punk enough (which just seems kind of tired) as the major positional stance, the replacement of love of the small town where you grew up with the love of two women who act poorly (to each other and everyone else) as a central unifying story element, and a replacement of the mangled perversions showing us the distorted underbelly of normal people with hairstyles and sexual dilettantism. Now, this is not a fair statement, but it expresses how Locas just seems a little less mature, a little less realized, and a little less real than Palomar. The story that is supposed to be the high point (by critical consensus), the aforementioned “Death of Speedy,” was not bad, but had an ending that aimed for subtle and ambiguous, but instead hit erratic and confusing.

So, Locas suffers by this comparison, but is still well worth reading. The artwork alone is… I thought about cutting out some of the pages of this and framing them. And, although I’m not a huge fan of the Maggie/Hopey love, some of the other characters, and the stories focused on them, are much more galvanizing (probably my favorite is the Terry Downe story, which operates on an experimental comics level, and asks a lot of the reader, but pays off. I know this is hopelessly lowbrow of me, but I really wanted to spend more time with the band as a performing act… the one story focused on the band performing is my other favorite, and really captures something about the excitement of a part of life that the book as a whole spends a lot of time pursuing. Still have a few hundred pages to go, though, and I’ll be sure to update my thoughts later if they change. Don’t tell me how it ends.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Death Note and Dragon Head

After reading much of the Comics Journal Shoujo issue (yeah, I’m behind in my reading) and getting the hard sell from Jog and my first rate retailer, Ralph (at alternate reality comics here in Vegas), I read two new (to me) manga in the past couple of days. Both are linked in having the kind of ultra high concept hook usually reserved in the US for quick 90 minute moives like “Speed” and “Phone Booth.” I only read the first volume of each, but I get the impression one of them will rise above its initial hook, while the other won’t.

The first of these is Dragon Head, by Minetaro Mochizuki, which is just out from Tokyopop, but was (apparently) previously put out in 10 volumes from Pika. The concept here is locked chamber Lord of the flies – students coming back from a field trip are trapped in a train tunnel collapse, which kills most, and seals off the survivors in the collapsed tunnel, with no idea of what’s going on outside. We follow Aoki as he wakes, and finds (so far) two other survivors, one a female schoolgirl (natch, as they say) and another possibly insane male student. Was the collapse caused by a massive earthquake that destroyed Tokyo? Maybe nuclear war? I’m guessing this will settle into a by the numbers exploration of dealing with the dark, hunger, the smell, psychosis, and human nature one has come to expect from every third rate zombie apocalypse movie. Just as long as there is “Grease 2” (or if you prefer 24 season 2) inspired “let’s do it for our country” uncomfortable mating scene, I guess this is mostly harmless, but I am not expecting too much. This seems to lack the visceral ruthlessness (had by something like, say, Battle Royale) necessary compel interest.

The more interesting of the two (if you can get past that silly looking monster who is in 90% of the panels) is Death Note. Three volumes of this are out, but I’ve only read the first. The hook here is that a student finds a notebook which kills anyone whose name is written in it. By following a series of rules (and man there are many, many rules), the manner and specifics of the death can be manipulated. The simple twist is that the kid, Light, who finds the book is not some wussy who writes a name in and must deal with the consequences of the death and his conscious, blah, blah, but is a hard core successful high school student (a gunner, in other words) who immediately sets out to make the world better by killing as many people as he can. This has the effect of flipping the genre… the situation casts him as a protagonist or “victim” in the work, but he uses this situation to become, in essence, an incredibly successful serial killer. Instead of the normal “into the mind of a serial killer” journey where we are made to approach and understand the killer from the outside, we empathize with the killer before he becomes so, which implicates the reader (I think the closest I’ve seen this approach before was in “Badlands,” but even Martin Sheen played the killer as a kind of distant figure, and we empathized more with the accomplice). The figure of L is introduced as a interpol sanctioned “sleuth” out to get our killer by any means (including setting others up for death), setting up a cat-and-mouse which is interestingly exploited, as Light begins to send messages to the mysterious figure hunting him by manipulating the events relating to his victims deaths. The shinigami death god who looks like a rejected design for the Kiss: Psycho Circus comic (I don’t even see the narrative need for this character), and a few overdone bits of silliness aside, this is a pretty good start.