Opus 74:

Opus 74: Back to Print—Reincarnations, Revivals, & Returns (November 21). Rushing to link this picayune prose to current events, unaccustomed though we are at such maneuvers, we are thankful in this week of thanksgiving to observe the conquest of the Harry Potter movie last weekend. Ringing up an estimated $9.3 million in gross sales over the two-day opening, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone surpassed the previous record-holder, The Lost World: Jurasic Park, which grossed a mere $72.1 million long ago in 1997. The Potter performance is perhaps to be expected: the movie opened in 3,672 theaters and 8,200 screens, both all-time high numbers. The more places it opened, the more tickets it could sell. Allowing for the stunning originality that pervades the film industry, we can watch for future strategies along these lines.

But the success of the movie alone is not the reason for my expressions herewith of gratitude. Nope: the cause for jubilation is that the movie is based upon a book, a book which established other records in the book-selling venues of the nation. A book, or, now, a series of books, which prove that books have not gone the way of the dodo and the carrier pigeon and the radio serial adventure. The demise of reading as an activity among the young has been proclaimed for years as video games seemingly took precedence over print media in the amusements of American youth. Harry Potter changed all of that. Suddenly, everywhere, we were treated to the spectacle of a book--the simple, primitive, un-electrified medium--being the cause of rock-concert frenzy from sea to shining sea. It was enough to make me weep for joy.

And now, the movie. But a movie with a difference. A movie that attempted to adhere "to the letter" in its interpretation of J.K. Rowling’s book. Thus, in the success of the movie, we see the book still on its triumphal march. As one youngster said, "I thought it was going to be stupid and not cover the book. It did [cover the book], and it made me like it a lot."

It was the book that fueled the box office success. Readers of the book wanted to see the movie. They were almost desperate to see it. The degree of desperation can be best gauged, I submit, by the case of Jesse Wright, an 8-year-old in Coos Bay, Oregon, who persuaded his mother to take him all the way to Hollywood, California, a distance of nearly 1,000 miles, to see the opening of the movie at Grauman’s Chinese Theater.

Jesse thought the movie was great, even though, at 2.5 hours, it was "way too short," he said.

It all seems, I confess, just a trifle irrational. After all, if you’ve read the book, you know how it comes out. Why do you need to see the movie? Or vice versa. Media moguls have long realized a mysterious connection between the movie version of a book and the book. People see the movie, then buy the book. Magic.

Reports about the Harry Potter movie helped me to understand this seeming enchantment. The book, said one kid, is "more detailed" than the movie. Another said she’d read the book "a billion times" in order to unravel the clues. Movies don’t stand still long enough for much unraveling of clues. But she also liked the movie: it was wonderful, she said, to see the world of Harry Potter in "real life as opposed to in my mind."

The triumph of the book indeed.

Another reason for us to rejoice here, in a column on cartooning and comics, about the success of the Harry Potter flick: special effects. The movie is awash in special effects. And it is only in relatively recent times that movies have been able to achieve such spectacular visual illusions. Since, say, the 1970s. Before that, the only place you could find convincing special effects on display was in comic books. So the Potter movie’s dependency upon and success through special effects is just another affirmation of the unique character of comics. It sez here.

In other news on the comics pages of the nation’s newspapers: the risk of pregnancy for cancer survivors is examined in Funky Winkerbean as Lisa and Lester contemplate parenthood (and cartoonist Tom Batuik reviews Lisa’s unwed motherhood some years back) ... Roger the Hunk proposes to Brandy in Frank Cho’s Liberty Meadows, thus launching the strip on its final headlong lunge at its concluding cliffhanger ... and in Bill Holbrook’s On the Fast Track, an Africa-American woman accepts a proposal of marriage from a man twenty years her junior. Life in the funnies is not the same. If it ever was.

From Heavy Metal comes a graphic novel and a collection of erotically rendered women. The first is Attila (48 9x12" pages, $14.95 in hardcover), a tale of revenge and lust and maybe love, which offers attractive, energetic drawings by Jose Oritz illustrating a story by Antonio Segura that makes little sense if you imagine that the title character has any real function in the tale. She, like most of the women in the book, is naked from the waist up, but that’s about all she does. The action follows a male character named Hombre, and that should be the name of this tome. Despite this shortcoming, the volume has its moments. The opening pages give us an exquisite setup for a wild horse hunt: you can feel the silence, then the thump of the horses hoofbeats as they, and their hunters, arrive.

The eroticism is Manara’s. Yes, another anthology of his drawings, mostly watercolored but some pencil sketches and a few line art pictures. Manara’s work is as exquisite as always, but with this, The Women of Manara (70-plus 9x12" pages; $16.95), I have the sense that he’s exhausted his repertory: we’ve seen almost all of these images before. Sumptuous, yes—a thoroughly erotic display of female sexuality, toothsome ladies clutching themselves in delicate places and sticking their tongues and derrieres out at us—but repetitive. Then again, isn’t that the way with sex?

Speaking of sex, here comes Garth Ennis’ second outing with the Rifle Brigade, Operation Bollock. Ennis has made a specialty of what I might call "turd in the punchbowl" humor: it’s funny because it is so outrageous, so completely over-the-top, so thoroughly revolting. In this case, Captain Darcy and his crew of misfits are sent off to find Adolph Hitler’s left testicle, which, we are informed, has been "missing since birth," an expression that in any world but Ennis’ implies that it never existed at all. But in Ennis’ universe, it still exists, and it has magical properties that insure victory to whichever army possesses "the head Nazi’s knacker," the "actual teutonic testicle." Somehow, this fugitive fragment of the Fuhrer’s anatomy has found its way into the possession of the Sultan of Sidi Boomboom in Semmen, and the Rifle Brigade is dispatched to retrieve it. In the second of the three-issue series, we witness, in rapid succession, two of the more outrageous of Ennis’ tureen turns: first, the sultan’s pet bull elephant sexually assaults the Brigade’s armored vehicle (which, alas, bears almost no resemblance to a female elephant) and then expires immediately upon having ejaculated. The sultan, seeking to commemorate his beloved behemoth, invites the Brigade to dinner that night, where he serves up as a delicacy beyond description a portion of the pachyderm’s anatomy that, we are assured, is not his trunk despite its vague resemblance to it.

The popularity of Ennis’ stuff is nearly impossible to explain. Probably it has something to do with our infatuation with the British accent, which, together with a liberal dose of British slang, infects this work fore and aft. A more vital element in his appeal, however, is, as I said, the punchbowl stuff. We’re not so much amused as shocked, and we laugh in embarrassment, just as we might if the fat lady at our thanksgiving feast arose from the table and farted loudly at precisely that moment. But we also arrive via Ennis’ punchbowl at the core of any comedy: as Freud long ago pointed out, all humor is part ruse and part assault. The humor disguises an assault on authority just enough to make it socially acceptable. That is, if the assault provokes laughter, retaliation in some more physical manner is not likely to be forthcoming. So line up at the punchbowl, tovarich: Ennis is serving up another brew of his usual recipe.

Elsewhere, Publications International has found a great way to celebrate a tenth anniversary: they’ve brought out a brand new edition of Ron Goulart’s modern classic, Over 50 Years of American Comic Books, calling it Great American Comic Books, which makes it the third of Goulart’s books to trumpet "great" in the title. At least the third. This was a great book when it was published in 1991: it measured a giant 9x12" and was laced with full-color illustrations. It still is a great book. It had 320 pages then; it has 344 pages now. It is, in other words, a genuine "new edition" not just a reprinting. The 24 additional pages give it another chapter, the 14th, in which Goulart takes up where he left off last time and rehearses the comic book history that took place in the most recently concluded decade, the 1990s.

This new chapter takes us from the boom that peaked in 1993 to the bust that followed and bottomed out in 1998. Goulart, correctly I think, attributes the collapse of the comic book business to the ordinary bogeymen of the market, supply and demand: in the boom years, every wannabe publisher on the planet tried to cash in by producing comic books and this exuberance flooded the market, creating a supply in excess of demand. Simple. It was complicated by speculators. These vultures gobbled up every comic book with even the remotest chance of becoming collectible in the future, often buying handfuls of the same title. This voraciousness created a soaring albeit artificial demand that crashed as soon as it became apparent that the value of these books was not going to increase. There were simply too many of them. An artifact becomes valuable when it becomes collectible, and it becomes collectible when there are so few of it that it is rare. In the comic book craze of the nineties, as Goulart puts it, there were "more collectibles than there were collectors."

Goulart also covers, among other events of the decade, the death of Superman, the rise of Image and Dark Horse, the coming and going of the Jim Shooter companies (Valiant, Defiant, Broadway), Milestone, Tops, Tekno, and the survival of imprints like Vertigo as well as the advent of Mike Mignola and Frank Miller’s Sin City series and Jeff Smith’s Bone (which suffers a typo, becoming Born briefly, but not disastrously because it is Bone again in the next sentence and on the cover of the comic book illustration that appears in the immediately adjacent column). Goulart also examines the so-called strategy of Marvel Comics in becoming its own distributor in 1995 with bankruptcy as the consequence of its over-weening greed and arrogance. (That last assertion is mine, not Ron’s; and for more of my interpretation of this historical event, you should visit Harv’s Hindsights and the article on the Mock History of Marvel, to which you can be magically transported by clicking here.) Goulart discusses the arrival of the graphic novel and notes the departure in the waning decade of the century of many of the grand masters of the medium--Carl Barks, William Gaines, Harvey Kurtzman, Gil Kane, as well as Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Bob Kane and Jack Kirby, Shelly Mayer and Vincent Sullivan, Jerry Iger and Mort Meskin. Now that I’ve listed all these recently departed, we can see just what a disastrous decade it was.

Goulart’s mastery of the history is unequaled, and it is on full parade here. (For whatever it’s worth, when I encounter a question I can’t answer, I ask Goulart; and he always knows the answer. He almost never asks me anything, but then, he doesn’t need to.) And this new edition is just exactly the sort of thing I like in a new edition: nothing in the first edition is changed. So you don’t need to keep the first book around because it contains some tidbit that is missing in the second. The pagination, the paragraphing, the pictures--all are the same from page 1 to page 312, when the new Chapter Fourteen is inserted. Goulart was, however, able to correct a few of the earlier edition’s errors in captions under the illustrations. Boody Rogers gets his real first name, for instance (Gordon, not Charles). At $29.98, this book is a bargain by any measure.

Goulart concludes this installment of greatness by pondering the possible future for a medium once intended for juvenile readers. "Whether there will be an audience for kid-oriented comic books in another decade is debatable since all sorts of new lively distractions have come along, such as play stations and computer games, to tempt young readers permanently away from comic books. As for the future of comic books meant for an older audience, only the future will tell."

And Goulart will doubtless tell us, ten years hence, what ten years of that future has wrought. This tome has a capacity for at least two more new editions: Greater and Greatest.

In the hopeful meantime, we have the triumph of Harry Potter, holding out hope for all of us who string words together in sequences for a living. Lively new distractions there are aplenty, but the old engagements have not, yet, disappeared entirely. Even the young, it appears, like books if they’re the right sort.

Metaphors be with you.

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