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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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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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Sunday, Aug 16, 2009
In writer Mark Millar's visionary recasting of Superman as a Soviet dictator, questions of personal and social identity become the staging point for a central drama around global justice.

Is Superman, in many ways the paragon of American virtue, a product of being socialized in American values, or is there something innate in his character which seeks out these uplifting and humanizing values?


In this Wednesday’s Iconographies, PopMatters Comics writer C. E. McAuley explores the global role of the United States as sole remaining superpower with a close reading of Superman: Red Son.


Using the nature-vs-nurture debate as its starting point, Red Son explores the possible ramifications of expansionist policies by a global superpower.


What lengths would superpower go to, if it knew it was doing the right thing? And what lengths could be justified.


Red Son is not only a careful unpacking of the core characters of the Superman mythology, but a dissertation in the persuasiveness of ideology.


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Sunday, Aug 9, 2009

It wouldn’t take long at all, just four short issues for Mike Weiringo’s characteristic art style to emerge. Those early issues of ‘Ringo’s run on Flash, issues 80 through 82, are still among the most exciting to read visually. But they’re not yet the style fans would come to love and cherish. They’re Ringo, but not classic Ringo. Not just yet.


But by #83, the artwork on Flash just pops. Wally West, the titular Flash, is lantern-jawed, square-shouldered, cartoonishly exaggerated with just the right amount of intensity carved into his mask. Each panel is orchestrated with just the right amount of chaos. Ringo’s visualization would prove definitive of Flash in the 90’s, just as his style of hyperreal cartooning would prove definitive of the 90’s themselves.


Moreover, Ringo’s artwork provided the best possible vehicle for the post-#79 reboot of Flash. With Waid finally excising the ghost of Barry Allen in #79’s ‘The Once And Future Flash’, Wally finally became a hero in his own right, stepping out from under his mentor’s shadow. Following on from this, Waid was beginning to re-craft Wally’s story as a superhero romance in the courtly tradition of knights, quests, maidens and monsters. Ringo’s artwork would eloquently define the optimism and the danger of this new project.


This coming Wednesday, PopMatters commemorates the passing of Mike Weiringo on August 8 2007, by celebrating his work on Flash. The victim of a sudden and unexpected heart-failure, Weiringo’s legacy stands as the power of his art to imbue readers with a sense of wonder while his characters face adversity.


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Saturday, Aug 1, 2009
They lived on opposite sides of the planet, at roughly the same time, and never met. In their lifetimes (one is now dead) each became an acknowledged and influential master in his chosen form of storytelling, and even though their media, social contexts and biographies were worlds apart, the early work of each artist bears striking similarities: they shared a melancholy, darkly humorous, and peculiarly bleak vision of character, story, and life.

They lived on opposite sides of the planet, at roughly the same time, and never met. In their lifetimes (one is now dead) each became an acknowledged and influential master in his chosen form of storytelling, and even though their media, social contexts and biographies were worlds apart, the early work of each artist bears striking similarities: they shared a melancholy, darkly humorous, and peculiarly bleak vision of character, story, and life.


After a lifetime in manga—from being a precocious, published artist before he was 15, to becoming known as the “godfather” of an entire style of storytelling—Yohihiro Tatsumi finally gained a significant profile in the West with the publication of four books over the past few years.


Starting in 2005, Canada’s Drawn and Quarterly published three collections of Tatsumi’s short stories, representing work from 1969 to 1972, and a massive memoir that covers his life and work in manga up to 1960.


Represent a fraction of his output, the four books shed light on a fascinating genre of manga, and reveal an avenue of storytelling with connections to the greatest modern short fiction.


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