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Friday, Jun 5, 2009
Could Charles M. Schulz have guessed at his own cultural relevance, 50 years down the line?

Who could have guessed that 50 years down the line in 2007, there actually would be a comedy show called The Office? And that deadpan, cornball humor, exactly of the kind to be found in this 1957 cartoon strip would be its trademark? Certainly not Charlie Brown. Nor his prodigious creator, Charles Schulz.


Approaching the second decade of the second millennium, it is hard to miss the cultural impact of Schulz’s Peanuts. Three generations now have grown up in a world where Snoopy, Lucy, Linus, and Good Ol’ Charlie Brown have been part of their world for much longer than they themselves. More than a literary staple, Peanuts has become a permanent fixture of popular culture. In time, as with all enduring cultural objects, Charlie Brown and the Gang have become the fuel for these generations having dreams and writing popular culture of their own.


Fifty years down the line, it becomes very easy to celebrate Schulz’s achievement by saying, ‘Without Peanuts there would be no…’. This cry can be completed in any number of ways. No Rugrats, no Dilbert, no Calvin & Hobbes, no Boondocks. No TV show called The Office. But making this claim while living in a world where Peanuts culturally predominates, also means losing something of the vitality and vibrancy of Schulz’s original work.


Just beginning to write in the mid-‘50s, Schulz could not have guessed at the overwhelming success that awaited him, nor at the popular and critical reception still to come for his work. Schulz’s Charlie Brown was not the Charlie Brown of our era. Peanuts was slow, and deliberate, just as Charlie Brown was the kid who always got out of bed late at night to feed Snoopy, no matter his own fear of the dark or neuroses around social failure. And like his fictional analog, Charles Schulz was the guy who drew a comics strip, everyday for fifty years.


It is this enduring spirit that would propel Peanuts well beyond the newspaper funny pages and into the popular imagination. Writing in the Introduction to second volume of The Complete Peanuts Jonathan Franzen reminds us, ‘Schulz wasn’t an artist because he suffered. He suffered because he was an artist. To keep choosing art over the comforts of a normal life—to grind out a strip everyday for 50 years; to pay the very steep psychic price for this—is the opposite of damaged. It’s the sort of choice that only a tower of strength and sanity can make. The reason that Schulz’s early sorrows look like “sources” of his later brilliance is that he had the talent and resilience to find humor in them’.


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Thursday, Jun 4, 2009
A seemingly innocuous panel from "The Wake", the concluding storyarc of Neil Gaiman's groundbreaking series, The Sandman. This panel both epitomizes and offers a savage critique of "mature reader" comics.

Morpheus, the eponymous Sandman, has died. The anthropomorphic manifestation of hopes, fears, dreams, and storytelling has passed from perception. As they sleep, dreamers have gathered in wake, mourning this passing. In this panel, Dream’s familiar, the raven Matthew, responds to an offer of some wine. Off-panel chief librarian for the Dreaming, Lucien confirms Matthew’s sobriety with an enigmatic quotation.


In more than one sense, this panel marks a moment of realization for readers. After this panel, there is no going back. Morpheus will not be returning. The last moments of his story really have played out on the final pages of issue #69. For regular readers, in a very real sense, the Dream has died.


But in a wholly other sense, The Sandman marks a point of no return in comics publication. Writer Neil Gaiman brought a literary quality to the series that along with such works as Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen and Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer winning Maus brought critical acclaim to the comics medium. At the height of this critical and commercial success however, Gaiman petitioned publisher DC to terminate the series. Agreeing to this, DC prioritized artistic creativity over commercial concerns. This decision would have lasting ramifications for both mainstream publisher-owned and independent self-published comics series. Almost from this moment, comics stories could end, something that had never happened before. There would be no going back.


But this panel also offers a secret betrayal of the “mature readers” project. The quote offered by Lucien comes from writer Alan Moore’s run on another DC publication, Saga of the Swamp Thing. More than a decade before “The Wake”, Moore kills off a Swamp Thing supporting character in a drunk driving incident. Consumed by fear and frustration, Matt Cable steadily turns to drink. When he finally decides to face his frustrations, he grabs the car keys and braves the night. As the car swerves, hitting a tree, Moore offers the sobering thought, “The night can make a man more brave, but not more sober”. In finally revealing the dependable raven Matthew to be none other than Matt Cable, Gaiman offers Moore’s character a redemption. But with redeeming the ghost of Matt Cable, Gaiman also gestures at DC’s mainstream superhero continuity. In the era of creator-owned, terminable series that Gaiman helped usher in, such gestures become increasingly impossible.


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Wednesday, Jun 3, 2009
Set against the backdrop of a society where conformism and uniformity of outer form are prized, Domu traces the survival and ultimate triumph of the human spirit through a resurgence of personal objects. The splash page (a single panel on a single page, near the book's opening) sets the tone perfectly. The emptiness of the panel evokes both isolation from others, and the alienation of children from their inherent creativity.

The opening page of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Domu presents a tabula rasa. But rather than the blank slate as opportunity, this tabula rasa is a prison for human creativity and an indictment against the society that produced it.


A group of children huddle together, not so much to investigate a boyhood curiosity, but more to push out an unpitying emptiness. In the background another boy walks by almost anonymously. His personalized backpack and wing-decaled baseball cap light up in a brief, but invariably inconsequential spark of creativity. Forced into a birds-eye view, the reader’s emotional distance from the scene is exacerbated. Unable to connect the visual fragments of the panel in a cohesive narrative, readers are simply onlookers.


Otomo taps primordial feelings of isolation and alienation in this powerful panel. Moreover, he incorporates the reader themselves in this drama. What Otomo presents the reader, is a comics that undermines the usual processes by which narratives are constructed from various visual and textual fragments. Just as the environment itself defeats the characters depicted, so too are readers defeated. The visual elements are too diffuse, and the textual elements are completely absent. The level of detail in the linework of the boys, the cross-hatching on their clothes and the ben-day dots coloring their shadows, serve to further isolate the boys through use of the masking effect (where greater detail equates to increased realism and therefore reduced emotional investment).


Domu tells the story of a battle between powerful two psychics, both residents of super-massive apartment complex in Tokyo. Cynical and jaded, Old Man Uchida uses his psychic powers for his own twisted entertainment. For him the thousands of residents in the complex become mere puppets, performing acts of vandalism and self-injury until they are psychically forced into suicide when Uchida grows bored with them. However, when young Etsuko and her mother move into the complex, a psychic battle ensues. Etsuko takes it as her duty to stem the loss of life and ultimately bring Uchida to justice.


Beyond the extrasensory battle that provides the centerpiece to the graphic novel, psychic repression of the human spirit remains the central conflict of the story. With Domu, Otomo delivers a powerful comment on how environments shape human psychology. Rather than simply demonize the monstrous Uchida, Otomo illustrates how even the villain’s murderous psychopathology is influenced by the stifling, soul-destroying environment he finds himself in.


With panels like this one, and many similarly-themed, Otomo illustrates an environment equal in monstrosity to Old Man Uchida himself. In 1983, Otomo was awarded Science Fiction Grand Prix (Japan) for Domu. This marks the first time a comicbook has won an award usually reserved for general fiction.


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Tuesday, Jun 2, 2009
Three frameless panels that dominate the white space of the page and involve the reader in a drama of dimensions. This is classic Will Eisner territory.

In the titular story from Will Eisner’s anthology Last Day In Vietnam, an unnamed Major in the USMC and civilian news-reporter plan an impromptu escape from a Marine Firebase.


This is the Major’s last day on the current rotation. By tomorrow he is scheduled to ship out for Hawaii, where he will meet his newborn child for the first time. An enemy mortar attack however, has grounded all flights. The Major will not make it back to Bearcat in time for his flight out. But the day might yet be saved as the reporter spots one last chopper taking off. The two make a dash for it. This page shows the Major’s hurried scramble to board the chopper as it lifts off.


The beauty of this sequence lies in Eisner’s superb skill at telling a story across dimensions. It appears as if the Major literally crawls out from two dimensions into three, as he clambers aboard the Huey helicopter. Viewed from inside the Huey, the Major running towards the chopper is ordinary fare for comics. It is the world at a distance, the theatrical fourth wall remains undisturbed. But over the course of the two panels that follow, the fourth wall is breached and the violence and horror of a base camp under enemy fire recedes into the distance.


Last Day In Vietnam comes directly from Eisner’s own experiences as civilian contractor during the Vietnam war. It was during this period that he published PS Magazine for circulation among US troops. In this story, the civilian reporter (clearly an analog for Eisner himself) remains unseen, forcing the reader into this character’s point of view. More than simply a narrative continuum, the stories told in this book offer readers a sincere and open wrestling with Eisner’s own life experiences. It is this use of comics to navigate life experience that gives “Last Day” its full title; Last Day In Vietnam: A Memory.


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Monday, Jun 1, 2009
Daredevil launches himself into danger once more.
Writer Ed Brubaker and artist Michael Lark expose the simultaneous and contradictory feelings of fearlessness and self-reproach in Daredevil.

Writer Ed Brubaker and artist Michael Lark expose the simultaneous and contradictory feelings of fearlessness and self-reproach in Daredevil.


This is classic “DD” territory. Even before adopting the Daredevil identity, Matt Murdock displayed an unremitting fearlessness. It was this fearlessness, some might say recklessness, that led him to be blinded in an act of boyhood heroism. Since that accident, confronting and overcoming fear has been how Matt Murdock enters the world.


As Daredevil, Matt Murdock has always had an almost primal connection with the city streets. The so called Hero of Hell’s Kitchen, DD has seen it both as his right and honor to protect the streets he grew up on. Leaping from rooftop to rooftop, up streetlamps, down fire escapes to reach street level again and across vast urban chasms, DD has become definitive of how superheroes move through the cityscape. Superheroes move using parkour; efficient, dynamic movements to navigate urban obstacles.


Protector of the weak and tormentor of criminals, DD has always relished in his rash “devil may care” attitude. What makes writer Ed Brubaker’s panel so singularly engaging, is his exposition of the “daredevil” confidence as a finely-crafted facade with which Matt Murdock meets the world. Far from being a crazed risk-taker, Matt Murdock finds his true heroism by confronting his fears head on.


Moreover, Brubaker shows the supererogation of Murdock himself. Murdock holds himself responsible to the point of being guilty. These are his streets to protect, and after being arrested and tracing down a conspiracy in Europe, he has lost control of the streets.


Brubaker makes excellent work of writing himself free of the cliffhanger ending the Bendis/Maleev run which saw Matt Murdock arrested and formally disbarred as officer of the Court. For the year preceding issue 95 (the opening chapter of “To the Devil, His Due”), Brubaker wrote Murdock free from prison, then free in Europe chasing down players in the conspiracy to have him imprisoned and his legal partner assassinated. But “To the Devil, His Due”, Brubaker puts DD back on US soil, back on the streets.


But more importantly, this opening page, where DD makes his first appearance on the streets of Hell’s Kitchen in more than a year, marks the conflict at the core of both Daredevil and Matt Murdock. Murdock is someone who risks great danger not to masquerade, but to confront great fear.


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