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Nexus Graphica
by Mark London Williams

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Other Nexus Graphica Columns
For more information, you can try the following:
Peggy Hailey
Dark Forces Double Team
Echo
Terry Moore
Comics Should Be Good
Top 100 Comic Book Runs
Alan Moore
Kevin O'Neill
League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
Annotations to the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
Bob Layton
David Michelinie
Iron Man
From Hell
Willis H. O'Brien
Ray Harryhaussen
Harvey Pekar
American Splendor
Danger Boy
Doug Potter
Mojo Press
Ancient Fire
The Damned
Kings in Disguise
Megillat Esther
Recent Books of Interest

American Splendor: Season Two #1 by Harvey Pekar (Vertigo)
American Splendor: Season Two #1 Either Pekar continued the Gonzo-style of first-person reportage made famous by Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe in the 60s, or was anticipating the era of personal blog posts. Either way, the epic chronicling of his own life (epic in its scope, even when tracking the often mundane moments he writes about -- like a fall down the stairs) continues with the first issue in this new four-issue installment of the Splendor project, now under the auspices of Vertigo. As with Pekar's other chronicles of the insightful and the "quotidian" in his life, this is new entry is both alternately brilliant -- showing us what comics can indeed be "for" -- and mystifying (as you wonder why a certain small moment rose to the import of being chronicled). Pekar is joined by a succession of artists, and the contributions of David Lapham, Zachary Baldus, and Ed Piksor had a special flare to the proceedings. Though I'd be remiss not to offer a shout-out to Austin's own John Lucas, who nimbly illustrates the virtues of grunting for Pekar, since I first met Lucas through the good offices of Mr. Klaw, at one of those long-ago San Diego Cons!

The Damned by Cullen Bunn and Brian Hurtt (Oni)
We have double damnation to talk about here, inasmuch as the first issue of the new run is imminently due out from Oni, and it's that first installment of Volume Two that makes the collected works of Volume One worth picking up. On its own, part one -- with both Bunn and Hurtt sharing story, as the former scripts and the latter draws -- is interesting enough: A pastiche of hard-boiled gangster doings cross-pollinated with demons and curses, since it is mostly netherworld creatures making like Damon Runyon characters -- though with a penchant for much nastier violence -- that makes this story so intriguing. Moving between the factions and attempting to stay on top of each vendetta is one hapless former homicide victim named Eddie, who is "cursed" with never staying dead. Not in the zombie sense, but in the George Sanders-can-never-get-out-of-this-life sense. So he is "wielded" by various demon factions who know that, in this instance, you can't keep a good man, or a not-so-good man, down. But the main reason to read the first volume, as it now turns out, is because Volume Two raises the bar so profoundly, and the book(s) become much more interesting, as Eddie's family and childhood (what leads a man to become a demon's familiar, anyhow?) are revealed, and old hurts -- not the supernatural kind -- are reckoned with. With the back story from part one, you can jump right in to a family drama that Lovecraft might have approved of -- if he'd only been Mickey Spillane.

Kings in Disguise by James Vance and Dan Burr (Norton)
One of the things Rick and I wanted to do was draw attention to old favorites as well, and playwright/journalist Vance's story of hard luck and tender -- and tentative -- bonds during Great Depression #1 (the 1930s one) still resonates. Burr's art evokes the era well, as we fellow young Freddie Bloch over a landscape of bums, bottles, begging, and (railroad) bulls. The moments of surcease are few, but deeply felt (and rendered). The specter of loss -- also deeply felt, and usually with permanent consequences -- is never far away, and were these more comfortable times, the book would remind us not to take any of our blessings for granted. In the far less comfortable -- or secure -- times we now inhabit, the story is clarion call to proceed with eyes open, and with as large a heart as you can "spare."

Megillat Esther by JT Waldman (Jewish Publication Society)
Megillat Esther Sure, as we head towards Passover, I should find a graphically rendered Exodus tale to talk about, since after all, Purim was a month ago, right? But spring is still the season of renewal and rebirth, and surviving the "close call" of winter. Hence, the Jewish version of "carnival," called Purim, wherein the "Book of Esther" is read, with its tale of Esther's beauty winning her the eye of the Persian king, thus enabling her to eventually remand an order to wipe out all the Jews, as she reveals she, too, is one of the tribe. The ecumenically minded among you will note the similarity of Esther's name to other spring-connected "goddess" figures, like Eostar (for whom a certain Other Holiday is named), or the Ur-fertility goddess herself, Astarte. I wouldn't have known about this adaptation of Esther's tale, had my cousin not sent it to me, and it's a fascinating document, with Waldman's heavily inked lines bringing the story out of Jungian consciousness and straight to the page, replete with sexual undertones (the King attempts to make his first wife, Vashti, dance nude for his court. Early feminist that she is, she refuses). While nominally in English, the Hebrew text of the story is interwoven throughout -- and half the book is even bound "backwards," from right to left, in the manner of Hebrew printing itself. But whether this densely constructed story will make sense to anyone not already conversant with Esther's tale is an open question -- still, the idea of rendering holy or sacred tales into graphic novel format is a good one: The more familiar everyone is with everyone else's traditions -- for those so inclined to have a tradition -- the better off the world will be.

Other Origins

And so we have that comic book phenomenon, the second, or parallel -- or simply retooled -- "origin issue."

Which is to say, after my colleague and compadre Rick Klaw so ably launched this column last time out, true believers, it's my turn to get started on the Nexus Graphica front. Fist time out, it's a radioactive spider bite, the second time, a spider bite with recombinant DNA, but the central idea remains the same.

So, yes, as Rick noted we are here not simply to review comics -- for indeed, that is being handled well and ably all over the internet -- why, Austin's own book maven Peggy Hailey has a "team up" column on the Dark Forces Book blog -- with, of course, the peripatetic Rick -- talking about Terry Moore's new series, Echo, which went up just this past week, to use but one small example. Over at the Comics Should Be Good web site is a reader-fueled discussion of favorite "runs" of comics. Both Rick and I are a little puzzled at how low Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's splendid and dense League of Extraordinary Gentlemen ranks in the reader's poll.

Are the books really "less worthy" than, say, the Iron Man run noted in the same discussion -- the run starting at issue #114 by Bob Layton and David Michelinie? Of course, that's where Tony Stark's alcoholism was "revealed," or grafted in to the character (another retelling of "origins" in a sense, yes? "Who is this person really?"), a facet of his existence, for I.M. fans, that seems inseparable from the rest of his legend.

And while Rick and I will certainly be "reviewing" in the traditional sense -- see the sidebar right here, if ya don't believe me! -- that's not the sole "mission," if you will, of this column. In part, we will be grappling with the idea of what comics are for. Are they just for fun? If so, would a run of comics where a fictional, nearly invincible military contractor is revealed to also be an alcoholic matter so much to readers? One might expect that few of them are nearly invincible military contractors themselves (never mind the parasitic aspects of the military industrial warplex), but many have some truck -- in their families or their lives -- with the perils of the bottle.

Or are comics -- when at their best -- simultaneously about individual lives (even spandex-encased ones) and everyone's lives, our lives, all at once? Social commentary, if we dare say (and what I meant when applying the sobriquet "dense" to Moore and O'Neill's work -- and I haven't even touched on From Hell yet!)

Originally, perhaps, what made comics compelling was that they could do things movies -- or television -- couldn't do convincingly: Make people fly or stretch, zoom through space or other dimensions. It wasn't about "monsters" so much -- film could make those reasonably convincing from early on: just ask Willis H. O'Brien or Ray Harryhausen. It was specifically about people -- "super" people, doing amazing things. Now that digital technology has at last allowed film to be as "fluid" as a comic book panel, it should be no surprise that comics are being mined as voraciously as a the surviving crude in a Canadian shale field, for ideas, "franchises," etc. The twain has met.

Ancient Fire 1
Ancient Fire 2

So what role then do, or can, comics play in the collective imagination -- the "bardic" task, if you will -- if other media (film, games) can provide visuals equally startling?

As Harvey Pekar fulminates in the new, Vertigo-published version of his American Splendor (proverbial sidebar reference, redux), "comics are words and pictures, you can do anything with words and pictures."

Yes. And I was faced with this particular, though most welcome "task" in adapting some of my own work for the empaneled page. In NG's Ur-column, two weeks back, Rick mentioned by near, or quasi, "break in" to comics, as a writer, though journalism and good old fashioned book writin' proved more lucrative and welcoming, over these past years.

And he was kind enough to mention my time travel series, Danger Boy, which, when people ask me what the books are "about," I say are "about the process of growing up and realizing all adults are deranged." Traveling through history will do this.

And now, coming to the end of the five-book arc of the prose version of the series -- 2009's capstone, Fortune's Fool, involves certain Elizabethan playwrights, and, as coincidence would have it, the Elizabethan state's fondness for torture as a means of persuasion -- I've been pursuing graphic novel versions of stories set in the Danger Boy universe.

These started with a series of conversations hatched with, yes, Rick, and also Austin's invaluable Doug Potter, who'd done work with Mojo Press, and other publishers, and has an amazing eye for historical detail.

The last was important, because of the time travel aspect: I wanted to do adaptations, yes -- a planned retelling of the first book in the series, Ancient Fire, set, in part in the late great library at Alexandria -- but I also wanted to tease out other aspects of the stories perhaps better suited to Pekar's "words and pictures."

There is, in other words, one way to describe things for the reader, and an entirely different way to describe things for the artist, leaving it to him or her to create the image that you would struggle to replicate in words alone, especially if you were after a moment of pauses, silences, heartbreak-read-on-faces, or the scope of calamity as an entire city, and 4,000 years worth of knowledge, burn to the bone.

Or, if you want to show monsters.

Barnstormers 1
Barnstormers 2

One of the "subplots" in the Danger Boy stories is the video game my eponymously code-named time traveler, Eli, plays in his "home year," circa 2020. Called Barnstormers, it involves unemployed movie monsters in the Depression (note: the previous Depression, not the current one) forming "barnstorming" ball teams and traveling the country. Where they tend to get what might charitably be called "mixed receptions."

This particular stew -- old school minor league uniforms, dusty ballparks in central California, iconic B&W beasties, etc. -- was, is, fun to write about. I knew though, that the idea would really live in visual form: After all, it's a sports-based videogame, so movement, image, is what it's all about.

I wrote some sample scripts which Doug illustrated beautifully (if I do say so myself). The question now is whether we'll find a comics publisher to pick up the DB mantle. What I enjoyed about the adaptation process, in the case of Ancient Fire, is that I could "pull back" from my own prose; I could defer to the art, and "pare down" on the verb 'n' noun side.

In the case of Barnstormers, the opposite: I could finally see that which I'd only been able to allude to. I wrote the script, setting the scene, but getting the pages back from Doug was exciting for a different reason -- not the "dream journal" aspect of adaptation (I've already "thought" this, what does it "mean?" -- the art, in this case, providing extra insight), but more like, well, a firework: the few descriptions of "Barnstormers" in the books served to bring in more baseball history, and to reference zombies (it is important to reference zombies whenever possible), and to establish my 12/13/14 year old protagonist (depending which book you start with) was, well, a boy. In spite of the near future gas and food riots, and climate breakdowns, referenced in the stories.

In this case, the art was an illumination, the screaming of the Piccolo Pete after I merely provided the match. I love the writers in the medium -- Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Harvey Pekar, Stan Lee et al. -- but finally, the work lives, or dies, with the image. That's a tough thing, for a writer. It's an accommodation more akin to my pre-comics and prose life as a playwright.

But we have tarried too long already, for a secret origins reboot.

More in a month. Thanks for stopping by.

Copyright © 2008 Mark London Williams

Mark London Williams found he was forced to deploy his middle name in all his bylines, owing the number of other Mark Williamses around -- including the name of the villain in Creature From the Black Lagoon! He writes not only the Danger Boy time travel series from Candlewick Press, but has worked as a journalist covering both entertainment and politics, and currently the intersection of both as a columnist for the trade paper Below the Line. He's also written videogame and comic scripts, including the tale "Bigfoot vs. Donkey Kong" in The Big Bigfoot Book, from the late, lamented Mojo Press.


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