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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:
Comic Relief
Publishers Weekly blog on Rory
Jeff Smith blog on Rory
Other Change of Hobbit
Mick Gray
J. H. Williams III
"Snowbirds Don't Fly" Green Lantern / Green Arrow 2-parter
Jonathan Ames
Zombie Broadway
The Apocalypstix
The Alcoholic
Scalped
Jim Page's really good Anna Mae Aquash song
Recent Books of Interest

Dave Stewart's Zombie Broadway, by David Harris and Christine Schenley (script) and Devaki Neogi (art) (Virgin Comics) and The Apocalypstix, by Ray Fawkes (script) and Cameron Stewart (art) (Oni)
Dave Stewart's Zombie Broadway
The Apocalypstix

I'm combining these two new releases because they both take such a cheerful view of the apocalypse. In the Zombie opus, co-created by, yes, that Dave Stewart, of "Eurythmics" fame, the undead, it turns out, respond to music, and suddenly, instead of leveling an overrun New York with a nuke, the White House gives the Mayor a certain window of opportunity of come up with a singing, dancing show -- a last gasp Broadway hit -- to pacify the flesh-eaters. In the latter, a "Josie and the Pussycats"-like girl group, replete with lotsa ethnic hues and nice curves, survives the actual nuking of New York, but without missing a beat -- literally -- they find themselves in a Road Warrior-like vehicle, setting off across a barren, presumably radioactive desert, and stumbling upon a post-Armageddon Woodstock -- or do I mean Coachella? -- where they get to play for gas supplies. What struck me about both books was that no main character was especially shocked -- or even grieving -- that the end of the world had come. Perhaps we're at a juncture we've been expecting it for too long, now that the incipient tendrils of civilization's end are making themselves known, and so, writings about apocalypse contain little element of surprise, or, oddly, regret. I suppose I'm old fashioned enough to like some angst with my world-endings, but perhaps, one way or another, people will still be whistling a happy tune -- of some sort -- when the final reckoning comes.

The Alcoholic by Jonathan Ames (script) and Dean Haspiel (art) (Vertigo) The Alcoholic
This was one of the arcs -- advanced reading copies -- I picked up at the recent Book Expo of America here in L.A. I'd planned to write about BEA in this column, until I heard news of Rory's passing, but will get to it later this season. Meanwhile, slated for fall, is this memoir-as-graphic novel by renowned word-slinger Ames, making his first foray into inked panel territory. Ames' world is filled with the staples of East Coast literary sensibility: somewhat louche -- or at least crisis-ridden -- writers, struggling with the eponymous bottle, various shades of sexuality, life on the Atlantic seaboard, death, occasional -- but only occasional -- shots at redemption, etc. Or to put it another away, imagine the graphic novel having existed at the time of Cheever and Updike's -- or perhaps Roth's -- zenith. That said, it's pretty compelling, in its good-humored frankness, and lack of pulled (autobiographical?) punches, certainly shows that what constitutes a "comic" is changing and expanding all the time.

Scalped by Jason Aaron (artist) and R. M. Guera (Vertigo) Scalped
I also picked up a copy of this at the DC booth at BEA, and it's decidedly not an arc, this first volume of this Dakota reservation-set crime saga having been collected last year. But I had somehow missed it, and was surprised to see an ongoing series -- while set in an ostensible, casino-on-the-reservation present -- reference so explicitly political events from the 70s, specifically those involving AIM (the American Indian Movement), the murder of FBI Agents on the Lakota reservation (for which activist Leonard Peltier was subsequently charged), the assassination of Indian activist Anna Mae Aquash, etc. Most of these events -- though fictionalized in the movie Thunderheart -- remain obscure to most Americans, and Aaron has clearly done his research. That research, however, is the backdrop for a hyperbolic story that has some critics wondering if he's thinking in ethnic stereotypes: the Indians are either enraged warrior types working for a drug lord, or on drugs themselves (mostly), or if they're women, almost flawlessly sexy. But that over-the-top archetyping is part of the appeal of crime thriller/noir writing. I was reminded of James Ellroy's sensibilities, so this isn't a "polite" or "low key" book. But boy, it grabs you, and I was left wanting to read more.

The Suddenness of Things

Rory Root Regular readers of comics news and reviews -- might we dub such writing "the sequential press?" -- already know that Rory Root, the affable, pioneering proprietor of Berkeley, California-based Comic Relief passed away suddenly last month.

Most of the details will be familiar to many of the readers here by the time this column appears in mid-June -- the scope and breadth of what "Comic Relief" carried, how Rory was an advocate/supporter of lesser-known, or just-starting-out-of-the-gate work, and how well liked he was in the comics community by creators and retailers.

He'd been, the reports have it, in not very good health, of late, and lapsed into a coma during surgery for a ruptured hernia, from which he never recovered.

More specific details on Rory, and his passing, can be found at the links in the sidebar here. For me, though, the store he created and the scene it was part of, are inextricably linked to, well, the fact I'm even writing this column now, or that I've written comics in the past, or that "funnybooks" are as much a part of my literary quiver, in terms of storytelling influences, as are prose or plays.

I grew up in Berkeley, where Comic Relief is based. The Bay Area was always one of the "ground zeros" where comics made the transition from marginalized "kid stuff" to collectible (perhaps, given the "alternate cover" craze and other excesses, sometimes too collectible?) iconography, and bona fide parts of the American -- and later world -- pop culture canon.

Sure, most mainstream comics were being made in New York, but Berkeley, in the 60s and 70s -- where and when I grew up -- was part of the "underground comix" scene (R. Crumb was hard at work just on the yonder side of the Bay Bridge, as I grew into young manhood -- and started to sneak glances at Zap Comix, etc.), and because of the confluence of the underground scene, and the university scene, comics -- along with other pop art streams and riffs -- were being "recontextualized," as they might've said at my old alma mater, U.C. Berkeley.

In other words, the idea was suddenly in the air that it might be worth discussing what comics were about. Not in the sense of "well, this is about Green Lantern defeating Sinestro," but rather, "this is about whether 'super heroes' are too square to get what's going on in the streets now," the latter being a generalization of another Green Lantern comic, specifically, the storied team-up with Green Arrow written in 1971 by Dennis O'Neill and Neal Adams, wherein G. Arrow's sidekick, Speedy, is a heroin addict.

It forced a reworking of the comics code, and its social themes helped blaze the way for topics from people's actual lives (which Marvel had been working toward, of course, with its harried, broke, romantically-luckless superheroes), and eventually, people's actual politics (in the broadest sense of that term).

I mention that issue, specifically, because I saw it -- and bought it -- at the first ever comic convention I attended, held in the ballroom of the student union building on the aforementioned Berkeley campus (some years before I would attend it myself -- I was a mere 7th grade stripling then).

Thus some of the sensibilities of the "underground" and "mainstream" comics scenes started their tentative merger (which would culminate, finally, in today's "alternative" or "independent" comics), and in Berkeley, the first comics store opened: Comics & Comix, on Telegraph Avenue.

I started "collecting" at that store -- buying, say, Iron Man #1 for the sum of 50 cents (true story, though I sold it one summer when the about-to-be-wife and I were broke -- though now that she's an ex-wife, I'm not sure, really, she ever appreciated the gesture... but that's a different column entirely!).

Comics & Comix was my main store for the four-colored panel stuff (and the occasional B&W undergrounder, like Fat Freddy's Cat, etc.), and then there were the years I drifted away, since I was in college myself, in the very late 70s, and mainstream comics, anyway, were not yet necessarily as interesting as they would shortly become in the mid-80s.

And then came Comic Relief, Rory's store, opening up near the top of University Avenue. It was crammed with mainstream, underground, foreign and "adult" releases, and was one of the first retailing spaces to get behind those collected, bound "graphic novel" thingies that are so au courant right now.

The irony was, I had already moved down the I-5 here to the Pueblo of Angels (where, NorCal ex-pat that I am, I remain while my sons do their own growing -- though I'm not convinced the water will hold out, down here, but again, another column entirely). But I return to the Bay Area's auld sod often, and I'd pop in to Comic Relief whenever I could.

Rory was kind enough, in the early days of my Danger Boy books, to sponsor a signing for me at the San Diego Comic-Con, since the original Tricycle Press editions of the first two books featured covers by the Promethea art team of J.H. Williams III, Mick Gray, and Jeromy Cox.

I can't say we were overwhelmed by long lines of fans, in those earliest days of the book's release, but I always appreciated Rory's willingness to help another Berkeley brother out, even if he was writing prose with no interior pictures.

Rory was also in the habit of doling out discount cards to various creators, ostensibly so they could actually afford to buy stuff, and I proudly had one for years -- often waiting for a return trip to Berkeley to buy said stuff, rather than pay more, for less selection, here in L.A. (to be sure, Angel City has some fine comics stores, but you know, you have to drive to get there, and gas will be $7.00 a gallon by the time you read this).

Then the store moved around the corner to spacious digs on Shattuck Avenue, taking a block that had once been home to a Kress discount store, and helping finish its transformation to the city's best literary block, as Comic Relief was flanked by a Half Price Books on one side, and The Other Change Of Hobbit (another store I'd grown up with, where I met various local SF authors, and which had had a couple of moves in its own past).

I'd quite happily roam Shattuck, popping in to the friendly folk at "Hobbit," signing whatever shelf stock they had (of my own books, I mean!), and then heading next door to Comic Relief.

I'd done this last month, when I was up in early May. In fact, I was there for the very Saturday of "Free Comic Book Day," and there was Rory, whom I probably hadn't seen since he was down in San Diego for the last Con, sitting behind the counter, giving cheerful recommendations of what might be good 'mongst the freebies.

And indeed, since it was his store, and I'd been thusly advised by the staff to get his okay, he signed off on replacing my long-vanished Comic Relief discount card!

We also talked about this very column (well, not this column, if you get my drift, but the enterprise in general), and wanted to put some lesser known/up-and-coming work on my radar screen for possible review.

I was all for such a knowledgeable extra set of eyes and ears helping out. A couple weeks went by, and I thought I'd better email Rory, with a link to the previous columns.

I never heard back, of course. A couple days later he went in the hospital, and that was that.

I don't know who will preside over the sprawling Comic Relief set-up at San Diego now. And I know, alas, my future segments here will be somewhat impoverished without his suggestions and input.

But I suspect, wherever he is now, the big grin is undiminished.

See you in a month with some observations about summer book biz gatherings. Meanwhile, the inimitable Klaw is next up.

Copyright © 2008 Mark London Williams

Mark London Williams writes the Danger Boy time travel series from Candlewick Press, and works as a journalist covering both entertainment and politics, for Hollywood trade paper Below the Line. He's also written videogame and comic scripts, and currently, is in a losing battle to will more water and mass transit into existence in Los Angeles.


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