Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Comics I Learn From, Part One

by Tony R. Rose, ©2014

What do you re-read? Not just once, but what do you go back to again and again to study and analyze? What comics compel you to understand how and why they work? What comics do you go back to to just enjoy over and over? What comics possess the ability to awe you again and again?

I made a list. And here it is, in the order that I thought of them. Which says something but it shouldn't be considered a ranking. I elected to limit myself to comic books and leave comic strips for another time.
  • Barks' ducks 
  • Cerebus
  • Tomb of Dracula 
  • From Hell
  • Swamp Thing 
  • Ditko's Dr. Strange 
  • Lee's and Kirby's Fantastic Four 
  • Love & Rockets 
  • Spirit
  • Legion of Super-Heroes 
  • Promethea 
  • Magnus Robot Fighter 
  • American Flagg! 
  • New Gods

So, what's the pull of these comics?

Barks' duck stories are well-drawn, smartly written, and could serve as a textbook for how to tell a story. Wikipedia paraphrases him (without citation) as saying his early favorite comic strips were Little Nemo and Happy Hooligan and I can see the influence of both in his drawing, but where did he learn his story-telling? Not from his animation work for Disney. There's nothing in an animated film that relates to how to compose a comics page as a series of panels, with the story – the action – moving across and down the page at a pace that is a collaboration between the creator and the reader. And his scripting. Read a line of dialog without the images and you can probably tell Donald from Uncle Scrooge from Gladstone. Each of the characters has his own personality. Well, the nephews share one personality, but you know what I mean. Even in those story cycles as distinct as “Donald as master craftsman” as opposed to “Donald as avaricious loser,” you can “hear” that this is the same character. And, unlike a lot of “funny animal” cartoonists, Barks is almost always pretty funny. I should slip in here that I think Rosa is funnier than Barks and that I re-read Rosa a lot, too, but not with the same eye toward analysis.

Cerebus. A scholar could make a career of Dave Sim and Cerebus. The largest body of a single work driven by a single creator's vision in the history of comics. And do you just re-read the comics or do you re-read just the letters pages or both? Unless Sim has perpetrated one of the all-time great literary frauds, he has laid his soul pretty bare in those “Messages from the Publisher” and the letters pages. You cannot fail to be impressed by his growth as an artist in the first 30 issues or so. He goes from doing a standard fanboy riff on Barry Smith to his own hand. Of course, with a good bit of Will Eisner and Neal Adams thrown in but in a way that is uniquely Sim's. And, by the end of the series, I think he might have become the best letterer in the history of comics. No one in comics draws better visual jokes. Yes, he stole from Groucho Marx and Chuck Jones, but he didn't try to hide that; he reveled in it. And drawing a joke is not nearly as easy as telling one. But, of course, Cerebus wasn't always a comedy; Sim was also more than capable of imbuing his characters with great pathos. The romance between Cerebus and Jaka is utterly heartbreaking. And he knows how to do literary research, giving us his versions of the lives of Oscar Wilde, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway. And I do find the thread that runs through Sim the pothead, Sim the misogynist, Sim the born-again Christian, and Sim the Muslim to be fascinating and worthy of study. I note that I've failed to mention Gerhard. I do recognize his contributions and they are invaluable.

Tomb of Dracula. As far as I'm concerned, this was Gene Colan's masterpiece. He penciled it for the full run of seventy issues and, from #4 on, he was inked by Tom Palmer, who was never outdone by anyone when it came to inking Colan. And for way over half of the series, Palmer was the colorist as well. I should also mention that Marv Wolfman becomes the writer with #7 and that is when the series becomes readable, as opposed to just look-at-the-pictures-able. Do not mis-understand me: this is not a wonderfully written comic but it is at least serviceable. This was the series that Colan was born to draw. With his moody, photograph-like shadows and his sometimes suffocating use of blacks, Colan created a universe on the paper that put the emphasis on the “natural” part of supernatural, making Dracula seem an organic part of the depictions of London and Boston wherein the series was most often set. Wolfman's best work here is the story arc leading up to the birth of Dracula's son and the guest appearance by the exceptionally well-used Silver Surfer. I don't read this series as much as the two previous entries, but I look at it a lot.

From Hell. This is probably my favorite comic book of all time. There is no need to debate whether or not Moore presented a reasonable solution to the Ripper crimes. That's not the point. The point is that he told one of the very best historical crime stories ever told in comics. And he presented the “Prince Eddie caused it all” solution in a way that makes it compelling even if there are problems that other professional Ripperologists have pointed out. Not the point. This is a work of fiction. Eddie Campbell's depiction of Victorian London is suffocating, just as the real thing must of have been with its crowded streets, polluted air and maze-like alleys. And the depiction of Dr. Gull's descent (ascent ?) into madness, both in words and pictures is just plain horrifying. And, until Moore's Promethea, discussed later, this was probably his most explicit discussion of the practice of magic, an understanding of which greatly enhances one's understanding of Moore's work.

Swamp Thing. More Moore. But beyond those issues as well, on into Rick Veitch's run as writer. This is one of the examples in this list of a work that is not driven by a single creator. Moore worked with penciler Stephen Bissette in the way be works will all his collaborators (including Eddie Campbell in From Hell): he gives them those (in)famously long and excruciatingly detailed scripts and tells them to do what they think works. Bissette worked almost as a co-plotter and so did Veitch, later on anyway. This was Moore's first American work and he didn't start slowly. There's a horrible screeeeeching noise when he hits the pavement with his wheels already running at 80. Horrifying words, horrifying images. And a beautiful love story. And the best Crisis on Infinite Earths cross-over of them all. Moore's tour of the dark side of the DC universe. And then Veitch's own tour of that universe, complete with time travel. I suppose it's the story that captures me here. The plotting and the Easter eggs and the sometimes white-hot fury with which Moore writes his early issues.

Steve Ditko's Doctor Strange. I think that's the fair, honest descriptor to lead off with. This is not the essay wherein I make my arguments for why calling it Lee's and Ditko's Spider-Man or Lee's and Kirby's Fantastic Four but Ditko's Strange. I trust that folks will either agree or disagree and we can have that fight somewhere else. Strange is Ditko's Hero at the point in his career where I can best enjoy him. He was a bad man who became a very good man and has no doubts about what is right and what is wrong and where he stands in relation to the universe. In fact, his very powers come from his ability to invoke universal powers and bend them to his will. And he's never lost, no matter how bizarre the landscape. And he's never afraid for himself, only for others. He's not still making mistakes, like Peter Parker and he's not become absolutely insufferable like Mr. A. I can work with this guy. We've all gone on and on about Ditko's ability to depict surreal otherworlds but his moments with human faces are when I like his work the most. The bulk of his run, the running battle with Mordru and Dormammu's confrontation with Eternity, makes for an epic hero's journey. Perhaps one that someone could map to that other Campbell's philosophies. Unless those are now passe in anthropology/sociology circles.

Lee and Kirby's Fantastic Four. Best super-hero comic ever? Maybe, but at the very least the only pure super-hero book in this list except for the Legion. And it grows from such humble roots. The first three issues are just Tales to Astonish and Strange Tales science fiction monster stories dressed up a bit with super-heroes. Giant monster. Mysterious being with seemingly wondrous powers that prove to be very mundane. Invasion by shape shifters. Yep. All covered. But then Johnny quits and the Sub-Mariner and Doom and the Sub-Mariner AND Doom and and and. And it doesn't let up until Him and the Beehive and then it coasts on out to the bitter end. And along the way, Kirby re-invents himself as he is given more and more freedom to cut loose and let his mind and hands craft what he could see in his mind's eye. And Lee tells us how a family of extraordinary people live their extraordinary family lives. It may come as a surprise that I think you can compare the FF to Barks' ducks with more comfort than to any of the other works on this list. Family warmth. Astonishing adventures. And great big panels filled with the clearest, most earnest action scenes ever. While Barks may not have used the extreme foreshortening that was Kirby's trademark, Donald and the Thing throw punches with the same exaggerated enthusiasm and the same speed lines!

Love & Rockets. What we used to call “indies” were almost always self-indulgent and quite often awful. That was/is imply not the case with Los Hermanos Hernandez. Writing the equivalent – WHOA! I just realized that this is the only title on the list that is still in serial publication – of doorstop-size prose novels, the Hernandez Brothers have a real claim to that poorly defined and almost always mis-used term “graphic novelists.” Jaime's “Archie style” might be a bit confusing for the uninitiated, contrasting as it does so often with the story matter he presents. I hesitated to use the hackneyed “uninitiated,” but on reconsideration, it's apt. Diving right in the middle of the Locas/Hoppers cycle is probably not the best way to get the most out of it. There's a lot going on. Both Jaime and Beto (in his Luba/Palomar cycles) have engaged in a lot of mythos creation in their long-form works. And they haven't done it in the haphazard way that marks super-hero comics. They've taken their time and used foreshadowing – sometimes years in the making – and the development over time of minor characters into major ones. Characters grow and change as a result of their experiences and we get to see that growth and change in the images as well as read it in their “voices.” And the faces! Most comics book artists have three faces: man, woman, child; but Beto and Jaime each give each figure its own, unique face. But, at the same time, you can family resmeblances between characters that are related by blood. It's amazing that they can do so much with such simple shading. Both brothers work in whites as much as in blacks; every line is placed with precision that is made to look easy. I can go on a great deal about Love & Rockets but I'm trying to keep to my self-determined commentary length. Suffice it to say that Love & Rockets is the most important comic being serialized today and mean in important in the sense of what is says about and to the medium. And it is really, really good.

That's eight of the fourteen. I'll save the rest for the second installment. I hope that ya'll will make you own lists of the comics that you return to for study and analysis and share some of your reasons.

Tony Rose has been a contributing member of the GCD since the late 1990s.  He was a member of the original board of directors and has served there since 2000 and has served as membership coordinator, policy coordinator, new indexer mentor, editor, committee member, and treasurer.

Editor's Note: Don't forget to check out the Grand Comics Database at www.comics.org to learn more about each of the books in Tony's list:  Carl Barks's Checklist, CerebusTomb of Dracula, From Hell, Saga of the Swamp Thing, Swamp Thing, Strange Tales, Dr. Strange, Fantastic Four, Love & Rockets

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