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Thursday, Nov 12, 2009

The twin themes of identity and individuality have been persistent, domineering forces in storytelling, and, indeed, everyday life since the days of cave paintings in the cradle of civilization. For good or for ill, these twin aspects define humanity and don’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon.


The slave trade? Segregation? What ended up happening to the persons involved was entirely dependent on their skin color.


The Crusades? The Inquisition?  One’s personal religion either vilified or redeemed them.


McCarthyism? Rigged elections? Dependent on one’s perceived political proclivities.


One needs to do no more than research the Indian caste system, South African apartheid, American marriage laws and health care concerns and the various attempted genocides in the Middle East and Africa to know that identity-based persecution isn’t going to go the way of the dinosaurs anytime soon.


Though it takes place in 1994 and is loosely based on H.G. Wells’s 1897 classic The Invisible Man, Jeff Lemire’s insightful and touching new graphic novel The Nobody is both timely and timeless, its artwork and narrative lending a haunting air to a world on a slightly different vibrational frequency from our own. In this version of the tale, ostensibly occurring pre-9/11 but obviously created many years after the attacks that changed the world forever, a small town’s concern over a man garbed head-to-toe in bandages is palpable, but only serves as a potent reminder of the secrets that every resident of every small town on this planet has. This version of the transparent strange, here called “John Griffen” as opposed to “Doctor Griffin” (no doubt as an homage to “Jack Griffin”, as in the 1933 James Whale film of The Invisible Man) is feared not necessarily because he could have a terrible communicable disease, an upsetting, scarred visage or even a record of dire criminal activities; he is feared because his very physical essence is a reminder of humanity’s own deep, dark hearts and minds, and the secrets carried beneath every individual’s “bandages”.


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Friday, Oct 30, 2009

In the 1998 hardback collection of Batman: The Long Halloween original series artwork is replaced by a spectacular two-page spread. This is the closing issue of the 13-part series, the second Halloween issue in the year-long mystery that consumed Batman in his early days. Readers are treated to a framing of Batman they have not seen for the entire run of the series. Here is a Batman that is standing tall, a Batman that dominates the page. A Batman that is completely in control. Yet, in keeping with the themes of The Long Halloween this is also a Batman that is dwarfed by the cityscape that stands as background. Here is a Batman that is both dominant, and daunted. The weight of an entire city seems to reach out and crush him in artist Tim Sale’s magnificent rendering.


Annotations to the 1998 hardback’s second appendix suggest that, given the prestige of the edition, editors Bob Kahan and Rick Taylor believed the story’s ending should refocus the roles the three lead characters (Bruce Wayne’s Batman, soon to be Police Commissioner Jim Gordon, and disgraced DA Harvey Dent). Writer Jeph Loeb’s original ending, wherein two monstrous serial killers (Holiday and the Calendar Man) have a battle of wills from inside glass cages at Arkham Asylum, was eventually redacted. It would be replaced with a concise retelling, in captions, of Batman’s origin story, supported by Sale’s spectacular urban vista.


Sale’s artwork elegantly summarizes the themes of The Long Halloween in a compact visual statement. This book plumbs the same depths as Frank Miller’s definitive classic Batman: Year One. More than telling the origin of Batman, the Loeb/Sale work fleshes out the reason Gotham needed a Batman. Batman was a response to pandemic gangsterism and rampant civil corruption. Ironically, these social ills were quickly quelled by the presence of the Batman. But in attempting to defeat the Batman, the Falcone crime family hired and gave free reign to the super-criminals that would eventually come to be Batman’s Rogues’ Gallery. This second scourge would be one that not even Batman could quell. Their ghosts would haunt his beloved Gotham still. In a twisted sense, the Long Halloween, the era that birthed the super-criminals, would never end.


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Sunday, Oct 11, 2009

Merriam-Webster defines the word “planetary” as “of, relating to, or belonging to the earth” or “having or consisting of an epicyclic train of gear wheels”.


Warren Ellis and John Cassaday’s recently-concluded epic series, Planetary, is a cultural hodgepodge, the mythology of the last 150 years of adventure stories shoved into a distinctly Ellis-owned blender, building to an emotional catharsis that can, in fact, only be described as epicyclic.


It was stated recently that, when it comes to his views on humanity and respect for the rest of the species, Warren Ellis is a lot like a perpetually hung-over Joss Whedon. It would probably be more accurate to call him the UK’s Kurt Vonnegut; here is a man whose work always finds a way to betray or subvert the angry, bile-filled venom inherent in his characters by the end of a given tale. While it’s clear that Ellis, like Vonnegut did, has a cynical view of the group “humanity” as a whole, he is always open to, and actually encourages, being surprised by the individual. Is that, after all, not the purpose of Spider Jerusalem, Miranda Zero, Doktor Sleepless and, indeed,  Planetary’s own Elijah Snow?


Ellis has always portrayed Elijah Snow as a man with a very simple, very human mission, perfectly replicating the human condition by depicting that mission’s constant evolution and taking it to its only logical closure point. One realizes, upon finishing their first read of the series, that Elijah Snow doesn’t just want to keep the world safe and strange—he wants to save the life of the Individual, here typified by the missing Ambrose Chase.


Because Elijah Snow, despite his frosty behavior towards some and the cold shoulder he gives to others, is just like the rest of us; beneath his white suit and pale skin is a warm, beating heart.


While cloaked as a cultural history of the last 150 or so years, Planetary is really the Joseph Campbell-inspired tale of a hero’s second chance at life and attempt at the hero’s journey and, indeed, how one man can make the world a better place, no matter how strange it really is—even if it means keeping it that way.


This coming week, The Iconographies explores both the series as a whole and the years-in-the-making final issue of Planetary.


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Monday, Aug 31, 2009
What does Disney's Acquisition of Marvel Comics Mean For True Believers Everywhere?

What does Disney’s acquisition of Marvel Comics mean for the storied superhero publishing house?


Something, certainly, but it’s hard to say what at this point. The fanboy screeds showing up this morning warning of a world in which Donald Duck battles evil alongside Captain America are ill considered and baseless, as fanboy screeds of course tend to be. The people who run Disney aren’t stupid, and there’s no reason to think they’ll muck around with something that’s been working as well as Marvel has over the last few years as fat checks have continued to roll in courtesy of blockbuster movies.


And since Marvels deals for those movies—like Spider-Man, which will stay at Sony, and Iron Man, which Paramount holds onto for the foreseeable future—remain intact, essentially putting Disney in business with it’s own competitors for the coming years, it’s a fair bet that Disney is in this deal for the long haul. And for anyone worried about their favorite spandex clad titans being Disney-fied by the merger, that’s a good sign that Disney understands what it’s bought and isn’t eager to jump in ad start gumming up the works.


And as for the argument that Marvel will ‘pull a Vertigo’ and start publishing edgy, grown up books that can garner critical acclaim without raking in huge sales figures… we’ll see. Marvel has always been pretty much a superhero imprint, and even it’s more adult themed lines—like Marvel Knights and MAX—have been home to what amounts to superhero books that amp up the blood and swearing.


The only real surprise here - that Marvel, a company that seemed to many to be on it’s way to becoming a media giant in it’s own right, would let itself be bought out. Also kind of surprising? The price of the acquisition. Considering that the acquisition apparently gives Disney the licensing rights for properties like Spiderman and Wolverine, $4 billion seems like kind of a low price tag. The House of Mouse will make $4 billion back in a couple of years from paper plates and birthday party hats alone, so why did Marvel, which seemed like it was a company with nowhere to go but up, sell itself so seemingly short?


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Saturday, Aug 29, 2009
Jules Feiffer's groundbreaking Village Voice comics delivered a satirical take on current events and paved the way for contemporary strips like Tom Tomorrow’s “This Modern World” and David Rees’ “Get Your War On”. This week's Iconographies focuses on The Explainers the recent collection of Feiffer's Village Voice comics.

If you were a Martian trying to figure out America in the second half of the 20th century, you could do worse than to start by reading Jules Feiffer’s Village Voice cartoons.  His strips for the Voice basically invented the genre of the adult comic, and that’s adult in the “content which would interest a mature person who thinks about the world around them” sense rather than in the XXX Pussycat Theatre sense. He created a model for strips like Tom Tomorrow’s “This Modern World” and David Rees’ “Get Your War On” which use the medium of comics to deliver a satirical take on current events and the world around us.


Feiffer took on the big public issues of the day. He was the first cartoonist to speak out against the war in Vietnam, he skewered Dwight Eisenhower for failing to support the Civil Rights movement, and pointed out the absurdities of the Cold War and the growing military-industrial complex. He tirelessly highlighted the misuse of language and the abuse of power, drawing on first-hand experience of the latter thanks to a stint in the U.S. Army.


If Feiffer had a recurring theme, it was the refusal of those in power to confront reality, describe it clearly, and take action. Not content to bask in America’s postwar prosperity, he always prodded his country to be better. But Feiffer was not always abrasive: when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, he ran a strip in which a child reads a fairy tale about a handsome prince who woke up a sleeping country—but when the prince was assassinated they went right back to sleep.


Feiffer developed a distinctive style incorporating a flexible number of “frames” which were usually just images separated by white space. They often featured a single individual speaking directly to the reader, like an actor delivering a monologue on stage. That may have been a metaphor for the isolation of modern man but also accommodated Feiffer’s somewhat undeveloped artistic style: his strength was characterization and dialogue, not elaborate backgrounds or action sequences. Concentrating on dialogue let him display his knack for capturing how different types of people presented themselves in speech while subtly undermining their statements with his art.
 
A memorable strip in 1963 featured a spokesman for the peace movement who’s just discovered the reason for the movement’s failure: they haven’t marketed peace as a product. But they’re going Madison Avenue now and as with any advertising campaign, it’s important to find the right tone: “If we’re going to make peace catch on as a product, we’ve got to make it as masculine as war!” How to accomplish this? By borrowing the language of the Pentagon, so peace councils become “Peace Commands” (Peace Comms for short) and peace workers become “Trouble Shooters” who run programs with themes like “Peace Escalation.” He concludes: “Gentlemen, once we make the image of peace more warlike, our fund raising problems will be over! I’m sure congress will be happy to give us all we want.”


Fantagraphics is issuing Feiffer’s Village Voice strips in bound volumes: the first to appear is Explainers: The Complete Village Voice Strips 1956-1966 which came out in May. Some of the material treated in these comics is past history: we no longer have to deal with Joe McCarthy or worry about the Soviet Union blowing us all to smithereens. But it’s amazing and somewhat disheartening how contemporary many of them seem.


In 1961 Feiffer drew a strip of a well-dressed man explaining the news business to the unwashed: publish diverting trivia and press releases and leave real reporting alone. “Free press? We’re a nation of trade journals!” The only reason that’s not totally current today is because we barely have any newspapers left worth paying attention to. Even the Village Voice, once a leader in investigative journalism, has today become just another free weekly from New Times Media. So criticizing newspapers may soon be a nostalgic pursuit tantamount to complaining about the scratchy sound from your record player or that the keys on your typewriter are sticking.


Feiffer’s greatest contribution may be his enduring portraits of notable types among his fellow private citizens. He views them through a rather jaundiced eye and of course they’re studied in their neuroses (cultural note: neurosis is a basic emotion for New Yorkers) and totally full of themselves, but so vulnerable and human at the same time. He ceased cartooning for the Voice in 1997 but his characters live on in popular culture.


There were Bernard and Huey, two masculine archetypes who would later turn up as Sandy (Art Garfunkel) and Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) in Mike Nichol’s 1971 film Carnal Knowledge. Bernard was timid, reflective, and sensitive and never got the girl, while Huey was confident, oblivious and had to fight them off with a stick. And of course Bernard could never figure out what he was doing wrong, while the women who went home with Huey saw no contradiction in declaring that they like sensitive guys only to ditch him every time for the brute.

Then there was the leotard-clad modern dancer perpetually offering a “dance to Spring” or a “dance to the loss of innocence” which always began optimistically and frequently ended with her twisted up like a pretzel or cowering in the corner. She’s still with us, most recently as the subject of a production at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in 2009.


Pointless (and often self-imagined) personal competitions were a regular theme, and often music was the battleground. In those days it was jazz rather than indie rock but the spirit was exactly the same. A Feiffer beatnik confidently proclaims that jazz was invented by Steve Allen in 1955 and is taught at the New School.  “If you don’t like it, you’d better learn. It’s the coming thing.”


In another strip, a middle-class gentleman is determined to puncture the pretensions of those who claim to be cool. It’s become difficult since everyone has learned the “right” books to buy and the “right” records to listen to: yes there were recipes for hip non-conformity in the 1950’s just as there are today. But not to fear, he’s found the solution to unmasking the pseudo-hip: he sneaks over and turns on their radios! If they’ve left it on WQXR, they’re busted! The take-home message:  take care to change the setting on all your radio dials to an approve station before throwing a party, lest an undercover hipness detective be on the guest list.


Here’s a final image which should prove that the more things seem to change, the more they really don’t. Two small boys inspect a crater. One explains that programs for public housing and school construction were proposed to boost employment, but were politically unacceptable as government interference with the free market. Then a bomb fell out of the sky, leaving a huge crater, and workers had to be hired to fill it in. So the solution to unemployment was found by accident: the government started a bomb-dropping program and put people to work filling in the craters. As the boy concludes, this leaves everyone happy because “Nobody complains about national defense.”


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