Opus 56:

Still on the Stands: New Comics (April 11, 2001). One of the great leaps forward in comic book artistry in recent years has not, it seems to me, been much commented upon. And that is the medium’s greater reliance upon the methods of the playwright instead of those of the novelist. To reveal the personalities of his creations, the novelist can assume an omniscient stance and tell us what his characters are thinking and feeling. The playwright can reveal the thoughts and feelings—and the personalities—of his characters only by what they say or do or what others say about them. In short, the playwright is confined pretty much to tools that directly imitate life itself: in real life, we learn about people only through what they say and do and what others say about them. In this sense, then, plays are more realistic than novels. And in recent years, as I say, many comic book creators have adopted the methods of the playwright.

This development results in a distinct improvement in funnybook fabrication. The stories told without resorting to narrative captions for information about the characters’ personalities are bound to be more realistic. And they will also rely more heavily upon the visual nature of the medium: what characters are doing, obviously, can be conveyed only by pictures.

10th Muse, now up to its third issue, is one of this new breed. The third issue is littered with captions, but the captions represent the "voice over" of Emma Sonnet, "the 10th Muse" herself. Of omniscient narration in caption form we have none. So much the better.

Unhappily, the story content in this issue and the manner of its presentation work at cross purposes to thwart the otherwise laudable attempt at realistic storytelling. Marv Wolfman’s content of this issue is Emma’s mental state. And she seems to be either hallucinating or experiencing some sort of out-of-body experience. To convey this sensation, Ken Lashley frequently abandons the orderly procession of panels to create montages of Emma’s nightmare visions. What is sacrificed here is clarity of depiction: we scarcely know what we’re looking at. And Marvin Marino’s colors, deep and dark with gleaming highlights, further obscure the visuals. The pages scream garishly with a riot of color but no clear representation of what is going on. And this fault is compounded by too many tight close-ups that leave us wondering what the larger thing is that we’re looking at a small part of. The wild variation in page layout does little to clarify. Finally, considering that the task of the visuals here is to represent an alien life form that has no familiar recognizable anatomy, we stand a good chance of being completely lost from the very first, and the visual techniques employed here only exacerbate the difficulty. Lashley is attempting the cinematic effects of quick-cutting and close-ups. It’s an admirable attempt, but it is visually confusing.

All of which leads me to propound an axiom. In rendering a story about unfamiliar life forms and strange experiences, one would be well advised to employ very conventional methods—a regularly cadanced series of panels, a conventional layout grid. In short, do not add to the confusion with unconventional techniques. On the other hand, when presenting mundane story material, one can safely resort to wildly unconventional methods—irregular layouts and breakdowns and panel dimensions; such devices add visual interest and can also create dramatic effects in even the most routine of situations. All the visual razzle-dazzle in the Danger Girl books, for instance, was not confusing because the story was a fairly straight-forward adventure of the good-guy vs. bad-guy variety. The visual effects added to the excitement without confusing it. With 10th Muse, though, seems we should go the other way until the mystery of Emma’s mental state (not to mention the source of her powers) is finally established.

We haven’t seen much of Harvey Pekar since his monumental work, Our Cancer Year, in 1994. But he and his American Splendor comic book are back—with some of the familiar ensemble of artists illustrating his slice-of-life stories: Gary Dumm and Frank Stack. This time, Joe Sacco contributes a story, and so do Dean Haspiel and David Collier and Josh Neufeld. For this "25th anniversary" appearance, we have the usual collection of life’s shreds and patches: Haspiel illustrates Pekar’s explanation of how Haspiel came to illustrate the story ("a pitched battle of neuroses"), Collier illustrates Pekar’s rant about Ameritech, and Dumm and Sacco draw Pekar’s essays on jazz musicians and his screed about the Rock ‘n’ Roll Museum in his hometown of Cleveland. The longest tale in the book is "Danielle," in which Stack takes up Pekar’s candid exploration of the pros and cons of parenting. (He and his wife, Joyce Bradner, became foster parents of an eleven-year-old girl.) It’s nice to have Pekar back, but I’m not sure how much the pictures of his illustrators actually contribute to the stories Pekar tells. His prose does virtually all of the narrative work.

Erik Larsen and Chris Eliopoulos take up Scott McCloud’s thrown gauntlet in Image Two-in-One No. 1. McCloud’s challenge is to produce a 24-page comic book in 24 hours. The results, here, are suprisingly complex. Larsen produces a meditation on the relation between the sexes, juxtaposing a discussion between two brothers about the advantages and disadvantages of marriage against a knock-down-drag-out fist-fight between a superheroine and a superhero. Eliopoulos chooses a fable about a magic crayon in the hands of a sadistic kid, creating (perhaps?) an emblem of the artist’s role in comic books. Both 24-page stories are entertaining and funny.

Continuing in this two-for-one mode, we have Image’s Double Image No. 2, a book in which Joe Casey and Charlie Adlard give us "Codeflesh," a rampage of a bail bondsman who likes to track his own "skips" and bring ‘em back alive (nicely gritty), and Larry Young and John Heebink offer "The Bod," the adventures of an invisible woman whose embonpoint is on display only when she is clothed (we see the, er, shape her clothing assumes when she is in it). "Codeflesh" is fairly routine fisticuffery in the dark, but "The Bod" is a hoot. Its conceit is the absolute last laugh on our preoccupation with sex and celebrity: this zaftig dame becomes famous and goes on the "Tonight" show with Jay Leno only because she’s invisible until she gets dressed. She becomes, perforce, an ironic emblem of the sexual frustration inherent in the pin-up industry.

Another comment on our celebrity clogged culture comes from Kurt Busiek in Superstar, illustrated by Stuart Immonen with inks by Wade von Grawbadger. The eponymous hero is Cody Bridges, whose superpower is derived directly from his fans: the more popular he is, the more power he has. Ergo, before he can be a superhero, he must be a star. This tale asks the question: How much do you sell out in order to maintain star status (and, in Cody’s case, the power to do good). It’s a question that lurks beneath the surface in most phases of American life, from the political realm to the industrial. A profoundly disturbing question to which Busiek provides only a temporizing answer. Immonen has recourse to the quick-cutting techniques of cinema during fight sequences, but otherwise, breakdowns and layouts are easily followed, and Von Grawbadger’s inks are crisp and clear.

Allison Dare: Little Miss Adventures is dated September 2000, but I think it didn’t arrive in my local comic book shop until several months later. And that’s okay. J. Torres’ story illustrated by J. Bone introduces us to a pre-teen female Indiana Jones, and Allison, it turns out, has a hyperactive imagination, creating "adventures" for herself that have only passing resemblance to reality. This dichotomy is revealed in the pairing of the first two short stories: in the first, we get Allison’s rendition of her adventure; in the second, the objective reality is revealed. Similarly, throughout this book, we get aspects of an adventure as "seen" from several

points of view. The "story," however, unfolds without the duplication inherent in the first pairing. It’s a nifty idea even if the story itself is pretty thin adventure material. Attractively rendered in black-and-white, though, in the "Batman animation" manner.

Green Arrow No. 2 by Kevin Smith is out and leaves me thoroughly baffled. The aged Arrow we saw at the conclusion of No. 1 is nowhere in evidence. In this issue, we get the stalwart GA on a mission, saving damsels, in his usual fashion. At the end, however, we get a hint that things are not, as they appear, normal when he says, "‘Back in action’? What do they mean? I never left." The plot thickens. Phil Hester and Ande Parks continue to produce stunning pictures with bold linework.

Hunt Emerson, Britain’s brilliantly funny slapstick cartoonist, is back with Citymouth, a square-spined collection of one-, two- and three-page exercises that offer variations upon the central conceit: "Citymouths are big mouths, each with a city inside. They’re infested with classical ruins, a sort of architectural vermin, [and] they suffer from all the ills of modern urban settlements—pollution, traffic gridlock, suburban sprawl, attacks by giant animals—and in addition they have the aggressive competitiveness of medieval city-states." What Emerson can do with this notion is hilarious. In three panels on one page, for instance, he shows "How Suburbs Start": the citymouth sneezes a really juicy sneeze. Infested with Herrimanesque landscapes, these comic strips are a treat.

The Millennium Edition of The Spirit No. 1 (published by Vital in May 1944) from DC provides six vintage stories of Will Eisner’s epocal creation, all reprinted (even in the Vital book) from the newspaper comic book Sunday supplement Eisner did in the 1940s. In my view, he didn’t hit his stride until the post-war period, but this collection is historically significant because it includes two stories that Lou Fine, the superb draftsman of comic book legend and lore, either pencilled or inked. Unhappily, none of the stories are actually dated, so it’s difficult to know how to take Robert Greenberger’s introductory assertion that most of the Spirit stories from 1942 (when Eisner went into the Army) until late 1945 (when he returned to civilian life) were by Manley Wade Wellman or William Woolfolk. Are we to assume, then, that the stories herein (except for the one credited to Eisner) were all by either of those? Or not? I’m tempted to assume Wellman or Woolfolk did them except that Greenberger makes so many mistakes in his text. The last Spirit appeared October 5, 1952, not September 28 as Greenberger says. Jack Cole worked on the daily comic strip Spirit but not on the comic book stories. Greenberger also implies that Eisner invented the comic book art shop, the factory assembly-line system for producing comic books; probably Harry "A" Chesler did. Chesler’s shop began in the summer of 1936, and althought Eisner entered into partnership with Jerry Iger about the same time, they operated the shop themselves without any galley slaves for some months thereafter. Chesler, who couldn’t draw, had a boatload of artists and the like from the start. And Greenberger implies that the newspaper comic book supplement was a genre invented by Eisner when, in fact, it was conceived by syndicate salesmen; Eisner was contracted to produce one of these for the Des Moines Tribune Register Syndicate in the fall of 1939. The promoters came to him because he had a reputation for delivering whatever he contracted to deliver, and with a syndicated weekly comic book, they wanted to be sure the product would be there, week after week, on time. With Eisner at the helm, it was. With this much misinformation let loose in only two pages of type, Greenberger can scarcely be relied upon when he merely implies that Wellman and Woolfolk did the writing. Maybe; maybe not. In any event, since he credits Eisner with only one of the six stories in this book, we must assume the maestro is absent from most of this landmark reprint. Still, it’s part of the Spirit legacy, and as such, it deserves our attention.

For the complete history of Eisner’s comic book career and his invention of the Spirit, you can pick up a copy of my book, The Art of the Comic Book, which contains an entire chapter on the subject. Just click here to be transported to more hype about the book.

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