Home > Uncategorized > A Chat About Comics

A Chat About Comics

As may be obvious by now, I read comic books from time to time. I’m not really the guy that will go get every issue of a Marvel uber-crossover that’s mainly engineered to sell books, nor do I buy a book out of a decade-long habit of buying the same title over and over again, long after I stopped reading them. I may have OCD tendencies, but paying between $2-$4 a shot for books I’ll never read out of the sake of completeness is not something I do. (And believe me, non-comics folks, there are comic book people that do this.)

I don’t want to sound all elitist and snobby here, but I buy comic books for their art and their storytelling. While comics have slowly been coming into the mainstream over the past decade or so, much of it is because of the blockbuster films of Batman, Iron Man, and Watchmen, almost none of which create a huge surge of interest in comic books. Yes, sales for various Batman classics spiked around The Dark Knight being released, and Watchmen found itself on the bestseller list again as soon as the film was announced, but by and large, these results weren’t terribly long-lasting. Interest in individual titles peaked and waned, and few people fell in love with the medium, because, well, I don’t know. Probably the whole Spandex-and-tits culture of superhero books.

And that’s the thing about comics, is that behind the vast face and long shadow of mainstream superhero books, there’s a vast wealth of independent creators and publishers, and small-release niche books, and mini-comics, and a full array of real good literature and art. I’m not trying to disparage mainstream comics creators or the like, but it’s my opinion that there’s a lot more to be read than just Superman thwarting whatever Lex Luthor’s big plan is this month, or whatever universe-shattering event is taking place this year.

For that reason, I tend to be very selective in my comics purchases. Again for the non-comics people, the primary ordering method for comics is a catalog called Previews, which runs solicitations for comics about two months ahead of their actual publishing date, so publishers know how much to order, retailers know how much stock they’ll be receiving, readers/consumers will know what’s coming up in the market and the like. (Previews also enjoys a near-monopoly on comics distribution through it’s parent company, Diamond Comics. That is the subject of a whole different article, and something I won’t be getting into here.) Some people simply subscribe to their regular monthly titles, and ride those out. This is all well and good, but I’m constantly on the lookout for new stories, and so every month I sit down and dig through the entire catalog, and chose whatever books seem interesting. Sometimes I get clunkers, but most of the time I have a pretty good bullshit detector with my comics.

Certain creators are people that will instantly pique my interest, like Warren Ellis—who I’ve mentioned here before—or Jonathan Hickman, or Ben Templesmith, or others. Most of the reason for this is because, even when they’re talking about superheros (as can be the case for Ellis or Hickman), they tell (or illustrate) good stories.

For that reason, I’d like to mention a couple of the books that I’ve been reading lately.

Frankenstein’s Womb by Warren Ellis

This short story, or “graphic novella” as Ellis calls them, tells of a possibly-fictional/possibly-factual event in the life of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, most famous for her gothic novel Frankenstein and her turbulent marriage to poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. During a trip to Lake Geneva in 1816 to visit Lord Byron, Mary and her husband supposedly stopped at Castle Frankenstein in Germany. This book is Ellis’ take on what may have happened there, when Frankenstein’s monster appears and narrates Shelley’s past, present, and future to her.

Structurally, the book feels much like Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, in that a supernatural guide escorts the main character through the phases of her life, narrating both the world around her, and the results various events have had and will have on her life, whether she is conscious of their influence or not. It addresses the historical origins of the tale of Frankenstein, and contains some terrific dialogue.

Thematically, the Frankenstein’s Womb is similar to Alan Moore’s fantastic From Hell—which Warren Ellis has repeatedly called a masterpiece of the medium. The main similarity is in its idea of “giving birth to the future.” Other works, of course, talk about the need for invention and the constant push to bring about the future: Ellis’ own Doktor Sleepless, as well as the Illuminatus! trilogy, speaks of “immanentizing the eschaton,” or bringing about the end of the world. Also, Womb feels specifically like Chapter Four of From Hell, in which the main antagonist, Sir William Gull, is explaining to his carriage-driver and accomplice the divine history of London’s architecture. That is, much of the book reads like a single, long monologue that narrates a history few people have ever heard.

In this way, it is also similar to other Ellis books, Crecy and Aetheric Mechanics. One could say that Ellis has the future on his mind. (Considering his love for many things technological, one would probably be correct.)

There are two primary things keeping Frankenstein’s Womb from being a laborious textbook read, though. The first is Ellis’s fantastic dialogue, not only in the monster’s monologues, but the dialogue among the other characters. Few writers capture dialogue and its many intricacies as well as Ellis. The second is artist Marek Oleksicki’s stunning black-and-white art. Rendered in beautiful brushwork, the confines of the castle, the emotive faces, and the the detail of the monster and whatever environment the characters find themselves conveys Ellis’s them and story superbly. I definitely look forward to any book that Oleksicki may have in the future.

All in all, the story is fantastic, the art is amazing, and Frankenstein’s Womb makes a fantastic deal with a cover price of $6.99 for 48 pages of Romantic-era horror and futurism. I highly recommend this book. It would be a great additional text for any serious study of Shelley’s work or life, and is great creepy fun for Halloween.

…even though Halloween 2009 is over.

Marvel 1985 and Kick-Ass

Both of these books are written by Mark Millar, and are both published by Marvel, and are both about superheroes. So why am I writing about them? Story, of course!

These two books are like two sides of the same coin. In 1985, Millar asks, What if the Marvel Universe was real? And they started to spill over into the real world? In Kick-Ass, he asks, What would happen if a real kid decided to become a superhero?

Both books focus on a down-on-his luck kid, who just happens to love comic books. A lot.

In 1985 that boy is Toby. His parents are divorcing, and his mother thinks his comics habit is going to stunt him socially, and turn him into a lazy nobody… just like his father. Toby begins seeing comic book characters in his real life activities, and turns to his father for help. In the end, an all-star cast of Marvel superheroes (and supervillians) do battle in Toby’s real life, and Toby goes into the Marvel Universe to get help. It’s a fantastic book of… fantasy. The downside is that some of its reverence toward comic book geekery is pretty heavy-handed. On occasion it comes off like an advertisement for Marvel Comics, and seems like some scenes are delivered with a wink and a nudge.

Kick-Ass features Dave, who has typical problems. He’s got a single dad, he has trouble with girls in school. He, like Toby, withdraws into the world of comics. Eventually, Dave has the genius idea of becoming a superhero, despite having no superpowers whatsoever… sort of like Batman. In it, he discovers a small subculture of people with the same ideas of vigilante justice as him (and these people actually do exist… look around MySpace enough and you’ll find them.) In the end, he becomes a real crimefigher who gets in way over his head, with only his wit and steel skull plates as weapons. The book, which is being made into a $65 million movie as we speak, is a clever play on action comics, motivation, and self-image.

Both of these books, however, do something interesting, in that they are aware of the universes they exist in. Like a play-within-a-play, these comics-within-comics focus on boys whose only refuge is comic books, and then whose main problem becomes them: Toby’s world is overrun by comic book characters, Dave’s becomes a living nightmare because he attempts to become a comic book character. Both act almost like comics versions of the Daffy Duck cartoon “Duck Amuck,” in which Daffy is fully aware of his place as a cartoon character, and is put through the paces by his omnipotent creator. Both 1985 and Kick-Ass have the feel that, at any moment, a character will look to the reader, and say something along the lines of “CAN YOU BELIEVE THIS SHIT RIGHT HERE?!” But, of course, they don’t.

Both books are multi-part miniseries, and can be picked up in collected forms as well as individual issues.


So anyway, after all that talk about disliking superhero books, I ended up talking about them anyway. Why? Because the story would have worked in any other medium… something like 1985 could be told similar to Stephen King’s Dark Tower books, or like the Sam Neill film In the Mouth of Madness. But in comics, those stories are told in a way unique to the medium, through timing, and art, that a prose book or film could never capture exactly.

Really, in the end, this is less a review of three comics. This is more an advocation for you to go out and read some darn good comics (and maybe a little rambling), so that maybe you’ll find yourself interested in something other than the paper version of the Batman origin story. If you’re well and truly interested, and I hope you are by this point, go check out Scott McCloud’s excellent book Understanding Comics. It is a full, scholarly deconstruction of the entire medium of comics, from art to writing, to timing, to how the reader interacts psychologically with comics… all told in the format of a comic book. It’s a fascinating read, and I still refer to it constantly. Whatever you do, head down to your Local Comics Shop and ask for some good stories.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. November 13, 2009 at 11:14 pm

    About 2 or 3 years ago I was buying every X-Title there was, they were great, fast paced, enjoyable story (this is long after morrison had left…i think i’m the only person out there that hates his work), but i couldn’t keep paying…and the x-overs were pissing me off. I had to sit down and say to myself, “What books are actually worth it” I pretty much dropped every book i was reading outside of X-Factor, Cable/Deadpool, Bear, Daredevil, and a few others. Since my recent loss of employment i had to cut out all my books but the Deadpool books, Secret Six (the only DC book that kept me interested) X-Factor, and whatever Ellis books I can find. With the exception of the main Deadpool book, all are great reads that fulfill different niches in my own psyche, different aspects of my Jungian Shadow Selves. Then there is Way’s Deadpool which is one of the worst comics I have read and yet I keep purchasing them. I feel like a smoker who already has signs of COPD picking up that cigarette. Comic books are like crack. I actually miss that point in my life when i was free of them (I call this time, High School).
    But there are books in there like you say that have such incredible plots. Doktor Sleepless for example. When ever i read an issue of this story I have to have an encyclopedia near me (sadly I use wikipedia) and I can feel myself broadening not only my horizons but intellect. Sorry that I am rambling on your blog but i just wanted to share that.

  2. Rick
    November 13, 2009 at 11:28 pm

    Not a problem, I was rambling too!

    I love creators that don’t treat their readers like idiots or drones. Ellis is particularly big on this, the way he recasts characters and uses research to push the medium further is the biggest reason I read him.

    I also like the fact that comic books have been moving away from the Golden/Silver Age mechanisms like narrating the images that are plainly visible, as if the readers couldn’t infer things from the images. Smilin’ Stan Lee had some great stories, but they weren’t written toward the literary types. I’m glad comics are growing up, I guess is my point. And not just in the gritty, Frank Miller sense. I just wish other people would realize it.

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