An Alternative: Something That’s Actually An Artform, Like Housepainting

What a fantastic week this has been! Well, for me at least. This week's column might feel a little different than usual... but that's because I'm at the movies, and Abhay was called in to perform emergency surgery! Thankfully, long-time Comics Journal contributor Tim O'Neil kindly provided an installment of his thoughts, and everybody around these parts is crossing their fingers that this won't be a one-time thing. But don't fret! I'm here as well, in fact, I'll let you in on a little secret: the example provided in that Crossed: Badlands review? Well, that's me, friend! Let's call it my Channel Orange kind of moment. And shucks, friend: with that and the above soon-to-be-classic from Nate Bulmer and his Eat More Bikes, maybe this column isn't that different, after all!

Winter Soldier #8
By Ed Brubaker, Brian Thies, Stefano Gaudiano, Bettie Breitweiser, Mitch Breitweiser, Michael Lark
Published by Marvel

It’s always worthwhile to have some kind of plot-manufacturing engine to stick into a narrative, and like Harry Potter’s let’s-go-find-another-"horcrux” or every single Justice League story that required two teammates to partner up and leave the protective cape of Papa Superman, Winter Soldier looks to be getting its mileage out of "Secret Agents in Cryotubes", this being the second story arc (out of two so far) to rely upon the concept. Replacing Butch Guice and his twisted mix of drawing, sketching, and photo-heisting (the Frankensteinian result essentially created more by Marvel’s double-shipping policy than any specific human hand) is Michael Lark, an artist who may be a little too precious to allow for the “fuck it” weirdness that punctuated Guice’s issues; in other words, he doesn’t have the guts to go ugly. Still, colorist Bettie Breitweiser seems not to care about the change, as her gleefully ridiculous color choices--seesawing from a mix of aquamarine and nauseating pink--make the whole thing look like a pregnant couple’s undecided color scheme for a baby’s room in Atlantis. Although the arrival of Fury Max has pushed Winter Soldier out of Best Marvel Comic contention, it’s still a diligent water-carrier.

Crossed: Badlands #10
By David Lapham, Jacen Burrows, Digikore
Published by Avatar

Eww, I knew a guy in college who got called Mr. Yellow because of the time he drank so much he pissed himself! He was just a regular guy with regular problems, and he wanted to bang it out with a girl named L****y or a guy named M**e, whichever one said yes first, and when neither ever did, his only friend became the sauce. That’s the sort of character you'll get to know in the Crossed comic, actually: regular folks, just like you and me. Pants-pissers, crybabies, nerds, alcoholics, the random Jew, guys with goatees, people who play football... it’s a kaleidoscope of culture, these Crossed comics. What’s that? You said that you're a fan of sluts? Say no more, kemosabe: this is a comic packed to the brim with ‘em, it's as if no other breed of woman ever walked the Earth. Why, you can’t swing a bloody torso more than 90 degrees and not hit a sex-hungry woman right square in her devilbox. That’s the way the cookie gets baked over at Castle Lapham!

B.P.R.D. Hell On Earth: Exorcism #2
By Mike Mignola, Cameron Stewart, Dave Stewart
Published by Dark Horse

This was pretty good, although there’s a two-page advertisement in here that’s so intensely disgusting that it inadvertently makes the hellspawn demon character--initially depicted in this issue as a bipedal talking owl with a hellacious six-pack--a miles-behind third place (there’s also the fan-favorite goat to think about) for Creepiest Thing. Coming so closely upon the heels of the miserably inert Devil’s Engine mini, it’s tempting to overpraise Exorcism, to hold it up in an afterbirth-coated palm as the Golden Babe of Story that shalt be striven for: in reality, it was just a solid tw- parter that could’ve used a more interesting protagonist. When the bad guy is a walking owl with great abs, you need something more than the second-string Tough Chick with Something to Prove in the reader identification corner. We’re too fickle a mistress.

Fuck Shits
By Box Brown
Published by Retrofit

Not just one but two teenage angst stories in one comic: suck on that, Ted May. How you like them apples, Chuck Forsman? Hey, Sean Ford: why don’t you just EAT A DICK. Hey, don't shoot the messenger, but that's essentially what Box Brown is saying with this, his most entertaining/only thing he’s done that I’ve felt like reading. The drugs in here are ‘shrooms, while the pissing is down a playground slide--if none of that interests you, that’s cool, but before you leave, ask yourself if you might instead be into a three-way in the park with creepy art girls? That's what we call flipmode style. Also, the comic “is designed to decompose if buried underground,” which is nice. That’s nice, right? What, you so angry at ole comics you're gonna hate on the natural energy flow of the ecosystem? That's your shit. You need to own that.

Uncanny X-Force #27-8
By Rick Remender, Phil Noto, Julian Totino Tedesco, Dean White
Published by Marvel

The word on the street was that this comic had gotten decent again following its brush with crapitude, that rumor: turned out to be halfway true, as the 27th issue was the never disappointing “dude sacrifices his life to save the girl” story, and if that doesn’t get your motor running, then you must be the sort of person who doesn’t give a fuck about comics like Uncanny X-Force comics in the first place: otherwise, your ears just perked up like mommy blew a dog whistle: why not have three colons in this sentence: maybe even four. However, the 28th issue decides to follow classic melodrama with classic cliche, sending our heroes off to a random ass future nobody cares about, only somewhat recovering the plot at the very end, when the girl (the girl from the aforementioned “dude sacrifices his life to save” phrase) decides to use a katana sword for one of the coolest things those swords can do, the first being killing somebody who isn’t you, the second being that somebody who is. Neither of these comics are drawn very well, but they’re drawn well enough that you can tell everybody apart. Anything else would be absurd.

Judge Dredd: Complete Case Files, Volume 18
By John Wagner, Alan Grant, Garth Ennis, Mark MIllar, Greg Staples Peter Doherty, Carlos Ezquerra, Colin MacNeil, John Burns, John McCrea, John Higgins, John Hicklenton
Published by Rebellion, Consists of material from the 90's

As with any Dredd stuff (or the majority of it that’s in print, at least), Douglas Wolk is your best bet: he’ll guide you through this book like a tumescent mistress of the night, a wet, pudgy finger beckoning you down the alley of the interest that is old J.D. For this column’s sake, we will point you twice thusly: towards a weird story made up of horrible facial close-ups, with Dredd’s visage painted overly large as if some lunatic Bergman were at the wheel, and then on to the Robo-Judge serial, wherein Judge Dredd is revealed to be the only man who remembers that first boardroom scene in Robocop. As that blisteringly violent action saga closes the book out complete with a groan-y Short Circuit callback, it’s an all-smiles Thursday here in sunny go-fuck-yourself.

Justice League #11
By Geoff Johns, Jim Lee, Gary Frank, Scott Williams
Published by DC Comics

In this issue, the reader gets to go deeper into Geoff Johns than ever thought possible, meaning he (or in that 1 case out of every 100, "she") gets to go deeper into Geoff’s belief that the only good crimefighter is the crimefighter with a dead parent. ROLL CALL, according to this comic, not counting Batman, who is Patient Zero in terms of dead parents.
Superman: saw his father die of a heart attack. (When he was a baby? Or maybe it got recorded on those crystal things that people seem to have a hard on for?)
Hal Jordan: his dad dying was the first step towards putting Hal in that goofy aviator jacket.
Aquaman: regular old meat and potatoes dead dad.
Wonder Woman: mom is currently made of stone.
Cyborg: dad is alive, is a total piece of shit, technically, that's emotional death.
Flash: parents are dead as shit.
That's a lot of dead parents, a clean sweep if you're checking numbers. All that parents dead shit sets the stage in this issue for the heroes to follow some big group crying sesh with a inter-team throwdown between Wonder Woman and the rest of the Justice League, which is then televised to humiliate the Justice League, a plot device that Johns has used before to no avail, as any reader of DC Comics has long stopped caring what the “average folk” in the DC universe thinks or feels about anything. They don’t even give those people names, there’s certainly no reason to worry about their feelings. Then the Justice League goes and yells at the ghosts of their dead parents. For the second time in the same comic. This comic. After beating themselves up. Oh, and the picture above is of the villain, who travels around with the ghosts of his dead family, who died of radiation poisoning they got because of a previous Justice League story arc. This is a weird ass comic.

Daredevil #15
By Mark Waid, Chris Samnee, Javier Rodriguez
Published by Marvel Comics

In this issue, Daredevil is tortured and experimented on, and he still manages to escape and call for help, which, while being totally realistic and a perfectly fine way for a superhero comic to end, is not at all how Jack Bauer would have handled the situation. Jack Bauer, Batman, those types of dudes--they would just kill their way home. That’s what makes Daredevil different from other super-heroes: he’s a big fucking baby, and when he can find an opportunity to ringle-dingle somebody on the little two-way radio to come and rescue him with hugs, that’s the road he travels. He's the guy who calls his mom so he can come home early from the sleepover because Clive Barker's Nightbreed is just a little too much for his weenie-peenie.

Untold Tales of the Punisher Max #2
By Jason Latour, Connor Willumsen, James Campbell
Published by Marvel Comics

An extremely good-looking comic that brings to light the other main problem in today’s comic books, which is that they can look fantastic and still be hilariously boring, which this one unfortunately is. Willumsen is a talented cartoonist, and while it doesn’t appear that the jump to Marvel has changed him one bit, there isn’t a whole lot of magic he can work with a generic “I got the main character trussed up out back, let’s kill him post-talking” kind of story that’s been around as long as humans have had the concept of narrative. It was fun when it was Optimus Prime’s head in a warehouse, it was clever when they went for the balls in Goldfinger, but in a 20-page Punisher comic it ends up just being a bunch of funny accents and some cool drawings.

And now, on to the TIM O'NEIL portion of these events!

So the big story in comics this week was a story that has almost nothing to do with actual comics, which is par for the course around these parts. I'm willing to bet there's a good chance that even if you don't give two rancid shits what is happening in "Big Two" mainstream superhero comics you have at least some morbid interest in the latest Batman-flavored big money entertainment spectacle. Because, you know, that guy is in it who does interesting things sometime, what's-his-name, oh yeah, Thomas Lennon.

But seriously, folks. Isn't it weird how we as a culture are expected to drop everything and genuflect on the significance and cultural centrality of superhero narratives every few months when some new superhero movie drops? Go back in time fifteen years ago to the immediate aftermath of Batman & Robin and Steel and try to convince me — or anyone — that superhero movies would not only dominate the box office but the national consciousness for the next decade-and-counting? Back in those hazy halcyon days of yore, Bush Jr. was a fresh-faced new president and Harvey Pekar was still an undernourished crank, and superhero movies were still considered a fad, an economic bubble that was going to pop and leave a demolished comics industry in its wake. Now it's 2012, we've got a (terribly ineffectual) black president, Harvey Pekar died universally lauded and financially secure, and everyone else is ironically poor, but we still line up around the block to see superheroes get their fascist on. Or, in the case of The Amazing Spider-Man, to see New York  City crane operators strike a courageous blow for justice while that whining ass from The Social Network acts like a little punk.

And the best part is that comics fans - nerds, really - have the temerity to think that these stories are about them, and that these characters and their merchandising still in some way relates back to the comics that birthed them. And I'm not going to lie, I ain't even trying to front, I enjoy them too - I go to the occasional midnight showing, because it's fun and I'm not one of those people who sits at home and sniffs all haughty because these newfangled superhero diversions don't have the good sense to hire Dirk Bogarde and ZaSu Pitts to play the Bat-Man and his lady companion the Felonious Feline. But the great Tom Spurgeon is right to insist on an absolute firewall between general nerd pop culture and the comics themselves, even if the rest of the world doesn't always seem to be on the same wavelength. And like clockwork, everything good and entertaining in these movies inevitably reflects the talent of the actors and filmmakers and craftspersons involved, while everything hokey, stupid, pandering, and trashy in these films is a sign of the comic-book roots showing through the Hollywood paint job. And you know, it makes perfect sense because superhero comics have always been and will always remain hokey, stupid, pandering, and trashy - that's why the fools who still show up in the dozens to pick up the latest issue of Avengers vs. X-Men in Space love them, and why the rest of the world is perfectly content to wait multiple years at a time in order to get their fill of superhero stories in neat 2- to 2 1/2-hour increments. We deserve every ounce of derision that gets poured on the medium by the outside world, and that's just honest country home truth.

But wait, what? There is no derision, you say, because the rest of the world has become sufficiently dumbed-down that the most moronic longstanding elements of superhero comics are simply accepted at face value? Whereas fans of "good" comics - you know, uppity, intellectually insecure nerds, as opposed to the garden-variety nerds - always rocked themselves to sleep with the knowledge that, if the rest of the world thought they were stupid for thinking Love & Rockets was qualitatively better than Batman, at least people would always think Batman was, and I quote every precocious fifteen-year-old ever, "hella retarded," the facts on the ground have changed to reflect the fact that the rest of the world thinks comics are now just fine. Sixteen-year-old girls are sitting in their rooms right as we speak writing astoundingly intricate fan fiction involving homosexual relations between Captain America, Hulk, and Iron Man (that one goes by the tag "Stark-Spangled Banner" if you're following along on Tumblr). A generation of kids raised on Death Note and Naruto really doesn't seem to care that their dad's generation of nerds had to fight hard to hide their nerdy preferences or risk being on the receiving end of some seriously scarring playground abuse. Dammit all to hell, being a nerd used to mean something. Now your grandmother has a copy of Fun Home on her shelf.

But - to return to the task at hand - some idiot shot up a movie theater that just happened to be showing The Dark Knight Rises and the first reaction of everyone in the nerd world was to suddenly assume that this story was somehow about Batman. Which, really, it isn't - and we can't possibly place sufficient emphasis on that point - but that fact seems to have escaped the notice of hack-ass editorial cartoonists across the land who have turned the "crying Batman" image into this seasons "crying Statue of Liberty." All of which speaks to the blindingly obvious fact that Batman is an important cultural icon whose comings and goings (at least in the world of film and TV) are supposed to carry some kind of weight and significance. So while it's all well and good to bewail the fact that tying these murders so closely to Batman is of course a bog-stupid and downright offensive bit of reductionist commentary that reduces the heavy toll of lives lost and ruined into a footnote attached to the success or failure of a massively merchandised revenue-generating machine, the fact is that a lot of people think that drawing Batman is somehow an appropriate response to inexplicable tragedy. If a dozen people had died in a shooting at a McDonald's restaurant, editorial cartoonists would probably not think it appropriate to produce dozens of variations of Ronald McDonald and Mayor McCheese weeping copiously over freshly planted graves in the McDonaldland town cemetery.

Even before the shooting, pundits across the nation were already cracking their fingers at the prospect of producing reams and reams of copy on the subject of the movie's political, social, and economic subtext. After the shooting there seemed to be maybe a whole day's moratorium on culture critic bloviating, but arrive it did. I even did some of it myself, I can't tell a lie. (If you really have to read a dogged takedown of the film's extremely wrongheaded political subtext, this is probably your best bet.) It's low-hanging fruit, because these movies are so popular, and so damn full of themselves, it is simply impossible to resist the temptation to try to wring some kind of meaning out of them. When something is so massively popular it has to mean something, right? It can't just be popular because people like po-faced action movies with (admittedly) nice action set pieces and big explosions and attractive actors. My only conclusion after thinking a fair amount about this movie is that the film is basically unintelligible on any level above the most superficial exigencies of the plot - and even that really doesn't make a lot of sense if you look at it too closely. Christopher Nolan makes well-designed films that fall apart under the slightest scrutiny: people seem to be operating under the assumption that just because a great deal of thought has been put into how the movie looks, a similar amount of effort has been put into how the movie thinks. But if Hollywood has taught us anything, it's that these movies don't really "think" at all other than the calculations required to deduce what will look the most cool. And sure enough, credit where it is due, lots of cool things happen in this movie - but if you want to deduce any political message, the only one that makes any real sense is that it's a massive capitalist spectacle designed to separate as many people as possible from their hard-earned dollars.

Everything else - the violence, the illusion of depth, the feints in the direction of profound political insight - they're all just window dressing. And if you want to bring it back to comics, that's the problem: a bad comic book has the luxury of being as inflammatory and irresponsible as it wants to be, because no one is paying attention and the upshot of the occasional gem shining through the crowd of exploitative trash is occasionally quite gratifying. (And, not for nothing, even your average schlocky Batman comic book is probably more thematically consistent and thoughtful than Nolan's films.) But movies? Lots and lots of people see even unsuccessful movies, and these Batman films have been everything but unsuccessful. How nice to retreat back into the welcoming arms of the comics industry, where - despite the fact that many people in all walks of life have embraced comic books of all stripes as a legitimate medium for both entertainment and art - the stakes are still small enough that most people really aren't paying attention. It takes a slow news day to get the national media to remark on Archie Andrews' latest adventures in felching or whatever sexual shenanigans those perverted scamps from Riverdale are up to now. And I promise you that even if the crowds show up for the occasional stunt-casting news like Obama appearing in an issue of Spider-Man or whatever, no one is ever going to bother shooting up a comic book store. Because they're usually empty.