Opus 86:

Opus 86: Marvel Hype, Movies & Reviews (April 24). Marvel has emerged, during the last year or so, from the valley of the shadow of bankruptcy, accompanied by a rising crescendo of self-administered pats on the back. Yup, the old hype-meister is back in the Bullpen, telling everyone who'll listen (and many who would rather not) how great Marvel is. Recent reportage on the 'Net assures us that Marvel ranked first in comic book sales in March. No surprise: the company's books almost always dominate the Top 100 listing in Diamond's monthly Previews. Diamond reported at the end of last year that Marvel was the only publisher to experience growth in the direct sales market. And a recent issue of Comics & Games Retailer asserts that readers and retailers "voted" Marvel "Number One in February and March."

            There's little question that Marvel's comic books have undergone a revitalization over the last year under the influence of helmsman Bill Jemas and editor-in-chief Joe Quesada. The product is better, it seems to me: no longer just a gaggle of Marvel Universe legions in longjohns, going mechanically through the motions of re-enacting past triumphs, the characters in new and revamped titles are at last poised to compete with DC's more varied offerings. While there is sufficient cause, then, for rejoicing and while the company's financial picture has clearly improved, much of the self-congratulatory hype of recent weeks ignores the balance sheet (Marvel had $181.8 million in debt at the end of 2001 and only $22.8 million in cash) and hefty quarterly dividend payments that regularly transform profit into loss. None of this bodes ill, by the way: many companies operate successfully under similar circumstances. (Marvel's scarcely Enron just yet, but Enron lasted a long time.) Still, Marvel isn't out of the woods just yet. But it's pounding the drum pretty loudly anyhow, and I say, Glad to have 'em back.

            Meanwhile, a Spidey movie sequel is already in the works (before, even, the May 3 premiere of the first in this line), and other Marvel characters are being lined up for motion picture treatment: Hulk, Daredevil, Doctor Strange, X-Men (again), Man-Thing, Sub-mariner, Werewolf by Night, Elektra (a sequel to the DD flick, starring tv's "Alias" heroine, Jennifer Garner, doing a reprise of the character), Iron Fist, Ghost Rider, and the Fantastic Four. Hollywood is notorious for optioning material and then never delivering anything, but the buzz about comic book characters is gratifying to hear nonetheless. After the box office successes of the Superman and Batman and X-Men movies, these long dormant ideas for movies based upon comic book creations are at last on the cusp of becoming realities.

Elsewhere: Zippy, in Bill Griffith's surreal strip of that name, spent the week of April 8 at San Simeon, William Randolph Hearst's "castle" on a mountaintop overlooking the Pacific. While there, he talked with ol' "WR" himself and met Mutt and Jeff. ... And Marc Hempel's Naked Brain is about to emerge from the 'Net as a comic book. Debuting in July, the series will run to three issues, all featuring the extremely satisfying one-page cartoon antics that Hempel has been offering regularly on Insight Studios' website, www.SunnyFundays.com, for the past year or so. These design-intense and highly hilarious comics have long deserved an in-print version; time to rejoice.

REVIEWS. Terry Moore's Strangers in Paradise has received, over the years, a healthy ration of praise. And I don't know where I was during all that time because I very much regret, today, having missed all those issues between No. 1 and No. 48, the one I'm looking at now. Well, no: I didn't miss them all: I did dip into one here and there along the way. I liked Moore's drawings, but, because I was just passing through, I missed the nuances of his story. I'm certain I've missed a lot in No. 48, too, but there's a lot there for any innocent passerby such as I. First, the wit-the snap and sparkle of Moore's dialogue. Nifty. Then his wholly competent (which is to say, even, "commanding") mastery of the visuals, the portraits of his characters from panel to panel, the composition of the panels themselves. In short, the pictures are confidently rendered. We know we're in the hands of a person who loves to draw and does it very well.

            Finally, there's the way Moore deploys the resources of his medium. He uses the narrative breakdown of comics to build suspense and to pace the action and the dialogue for maximum dramatic impact. He also resorts to flashbacks. And silence. Pictures in which facial expression tells the story.

            In this issue, it would appear that Katchoo and Francine are off, at last, to a happy life together. And Tambi seems on the cusp of resolving her desire to have an heir without blowing David's head off. And then there's the two text pages in which FBI Special Agent Sara Bryan gets closer to the Parker Girls (whoever they may be).

            As for me, I'm off to find out if there are any collections of this book around, and if there are, I'll buy the whole lot.

            But I don't want to leave Moore without pausing, briefly, to say what a hoot it is to browse his Paradise Too, which is up to No. 6 now. In this little magazine, we get Moore's sketchbook doodles-editorial cartoons, embryonic story idea sketches, puns, social commentary, and, as he says, "blatant Freudian explorations, answers to all contemporary ethics and physics questions," and the like. In short, a few pages of a cartoonist having a good time exercising his pencil (the sketches are all in pencil) and his funny bone. Here's a drawing of a Texan in a ten-gallon-hat at the wheel of his pickup, spitting tobacco out the window, labeled: Texan Signaling a Left Turn.


            We also get a sprinkling of comic strips starring Kixie, a mischievous fairy who haunts the drawingboard of a cartoonist named Michael who has a girlfriend named Sheila. And some strips about "Li'l Kixie," who is, I gather, Kixie when somewhat more diminutive. (Hard to imagine a fairy being smaller than tiny, but there you have it.) And in No. 6, a few strips called Wonderland with Plato "the lovesick polar bear" (drifting by on a small ice floe, Plato watches a couple seals dressed up in rabbit costumes then turns to us and says, "Easter seals").

            Good fun if you love cartooning. If all you want is a story, then stick to SIP (which is how the cognoscente refer to Strangers In Paradise); but if you want to see inside a cartoonist's so-called mind just a little, try P'Too (which is how the cognoscente refer to Paradise Too). (And, as I've said before, you gotta love a comic with a nickname that sounds like a smirking expectoration.)

            The first issue of Deadline from Marvel is out, and it's promising. The protagonist is a woman newspaper reporter named Kat Farrell, and the book represents another of Marvel's occasional forays into the arena where everyday realism meets the superheroic fantasy of its longjohn universe. Here, Farrell is assigned to cover stories involving "the capes" (costumed superheroes), an assignment she resents because she'd rather be writing meaty features. Written by Bill Rosemann, the story does what a good story should do (but often, in comics, doesn't): it gets us turning pages right away to find out what happens.

            Okay, every comic does this. But that's too often a matter of simple mechanics: it's a printed artifact, and it is intended that we turn the pages of it in order to see what's inside. And that, indeed, is frequently all that makes us turn the pages. But Rosemann does it right: we turn the pages in Deadline because he has thrust before us, on the second page, a "mystery"-a puzzle, whose solution we are now in search of. Did the Human Torch, while trying to frustrate evil doers, accidentally set fire to a park because he was hung over from partying all night the night before?

            This provocative proposition is not adequately dealt with right away, despite Johnny Storm's petulant wiseacre response. And while holding that "mystery" in the backs of our minds, Rosemann presents us with Kat's dilemma (her professional aspirations vs. her present assignment to "capes") and then brings us up against the next puzzle-mysterious murders and a missing politician who may have become an avenging presence in the city. Finding the solution may take several issues of the comic. But that's as it should be. And while that's going on, if Rosemann continues as he's started out, nearly every page will present us with additional cause for suspense, for turning the page-even when some previous puzzle has been solved on the same page.

            Rosemann's dialogue crackles with authentic sounds and phrases. And Guy Davis's artwork is purely ordinary. That's a compliment, kimo sabe. Davis does not infect the storytelling function of his visuals with stylistic ruffles and flourishes designed to impress us with his command of tiny tiny details or kinky would-be manga art. Instead, he draws pictures of characters in ways that present us with recognizable faces from page to page, acting against realist-looking locales. No fancy footwork. Just pure competence. Good storytelling. Good comics. Bravo.

            My Friend Dahmer is by alternative cartoonist John Backderf, or "Derf" as he signs himself. Derf apparently knew Jeffrey Dahmer, "the most notorious serial killer in history," when both attended high school in that oddly rural/suburban community of Dahmer's youth, and in this book, Derf describes Dahmer's peculiarly alienated personality with a series of vignettes that, he vows, are absolutely true. Derf says he was compelled to tell this story, mostly because, as a cartoonist, he is a storyteller; and his acquaintance with Dahmer gave him material for a story. He has waited long enough, though, he says, to avoid the charge that he is trying to "cash in" on Dahmer's infamy. And I agree.

            Dahmer, like many adolescents, was tormented by stronger more physically appealing youths who found him frail and nerdish; unlike most such victims, Derf says, Dahmer reacted by adopting a comedic persona, that of a family acquaintance, an interior decorator with cerebral palsy. Dahmer took to walking and mumbling spastically, earning guffaws of appreciation from his cohorts, Derf among them. He began every school day, Derf reports, by downing a six-pack of beer; then he lurched through the day in a drunken stupor. He also collected road kill.

            Derf's drawing style might be charitably described as deliberately ugly, scarred with patches of frayed black solids passing for wrinkles in clothing or atmospheric shadows. It seems somehow fitting for his subject here. Derf thinks Dahmer could have been saved had he somehow managed to attract the attention of some responsible caring adult. Alas, he didn't. And in fact, Dahmer's experience as a teenager taught him that he could become invisible if he just kept quiet except when called upon to do his "act." It may be, as Derf says, that Dahmer in his subsequent life believed he would never be caught because he believed in his utter invisibility, a lesson he learned as a consequence of his miserable adolescence.

            The story has its hauntingly horrific moments, too-not the least of which is Derf's calculation that, at the time of his last encounter with Dahmer, Dahmer's first victim was already dead in the trunk of the car parked right there in the family home's driveway. Makes you squirm.

            Kyle Baker's King David from DC's Vertigo is quite another matter albeit haunting in its own completely different way. In 160 slick-paper 8.5x11" pages in paperback ($19.95), Baker tells the Old Testament story of David-his encounter, while a youth, with the giant warrior Goliath, his defeat of same, his rise to favor with King Saul (and Saul's disheartening machinations to rid himself of an underling more popular than he), his triumph as warrior king of Israel, his seduction of Bathsheba, his disposing of her husband by sending him out on the battlefield to certain death. And so on. It is, in other words, a pretty faithful re-telling of the traditional story, enhanced by Baker's artwork and narrative treatment.

            The book employs the same narrative mechanism that Baker used with You Are Here: where there is text or dialogue, it appears typeset below the pictures-no speech balloons. The pictures in glorious full-color march in even cadence across the pages in neatly rectangular panels for the most part, but Baker also deploys occasional full-page imagery and some isolated figure drawings (pictures of people with no background or borders). Baker's drawings are absolutely delicious-comedic in a bigfoot manner, quirky with texture and varying linear qualities. But, alas, his drawings are overwhelmed by the color, which drenches them with high intensity hues, so brilliant that they outshine the drawings they're meant to color. Sometimes it's nearly impossible to see the drawings so deep are the colors with which they are bathed.

            And that's too bad because Baker's drawings give the tale a distinctive humorous patina (as you might expect with a bigfoot treatment of any story), and Baker adds to this aura the hilarity of a New York brand of dialogue, which often sounds like something out of the old Goldberg radio show, the comedy of a version of English that is imposed upon a Yiddish syntax with Jewish cultural overtones.

            A couple of Saul's guards bring little David into the royal presence, discussing, as they go, the kid's ability as a harpist compared to that of his predecessor, a Kenite, whom Saul executed.

            "The Kenite was a lousy harp player!" says one guard. "I almost killed him myself! I'm telling you, this kid's great! He played my cousin Rose's wedding."

            "What are you, his agent?" says the other guard.

            The book looks as if it might have started as storyboards for a full-length animated feature film. If so, it's too bad the film hasn't been made: Baker's tale is funny on nearly every page while being faithful to his source, a genuine cartooning achievement, especially considering that his source was occasionally a pretty grim bit of history.

PITHY PRONOUNCEMENTS. Perdida, Part I, by Jessica Abel, came out last summer, if we are to judge from the indicia. But I got my copy only recently through the usual source, so who knows? Here we find a young woman named Carla going to Mexico to discover, we may say, her "authentic self." She's half Mexican. Once there, she takes up again with her erstwhile lover, Harry, who avoids contact with the indigenous population with the same dedication that Carla seeks it out. Harry is apparently bent on become a writer of the sort that William Burroughs was and seems to be imitating Burroughs' self-destructive lifestyle. Part II is already out but I haven't seen it. Part I ends with a provocative sequence of visuals that do not bode well for our heroine. Abel's artwork is often a little heavy-handed with the brush, giving visual emphasis to inconsequential background detail equal to that of foreground figures. Sometimes her faces slip into indistinct images; often, however, she displays a delicate touch that is pleasing.

            Abel started doing comics in 1988, xeroxing issues of an on-going series, Artbabe, which gives us tales of love and angst among neophyte artists in Chicago. In 1999, Abel collaborated on a comic book for National Public Radio's "This American Life"-Radio: An Illustrated Guide, used as a premium for NPR's Winter 2000 fund drives. All of these items are available through Fantagraphics (www.fantagraphics.com).

            And here's the first issue of AC Comics latest title, America's Greatest Comics, another in AC's seemingly endless and wholly welcome series of titles reprinting some nearly forgotten treasures of the Golden Age. In this issue, we find Matt Baker's celebrated Phantom Lady, Bob Powell's Thun'da, Bill Ward's Torchy, and Steve Ditko's Mysterious Traveler. There's also a war story by Doug Wildey and a horror story by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon from the pages of Black Magic, and a stunning horror tale from Joe Kubert. Finally, a historical rarity, a very early Doll Man story by Lou Fine (the pages are in four-tier format with tiny panels, signaling early vintage). Throughout, Bill Black and his minions have added gray tints to black-and-white reconstructed art, yielding a visually attractive package. And crammed with history, too-the stories, of course, with the bonus of an occasional text page by Black. A nifty title, but I wish Black would give the dates or issue numbers of the comic books in which his reprinted stories first appeared. Then AC reprints would be treasures indeed.

            For more history of comic books, try my book, The Art of the Comic Book, which you can get a glimpse of by clicking here.

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