Other Nexus Graphica Columns
For more information, you can try the following:
Mark's play "Grizzled Bear," in NY
"Swamp Thing" in the Alan Moore era
Dan Goldman's website -- with free 20 pg. download of "08"
Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail
Comic Book History
Forbidden Planet NY
Recent Books of Interest
08 A Graphic Diary of the Campaign Trail by Michael Crowley (script) and Dan Goldman (art) Three Rivers Press
There's a trend in publishing, from non-comics publishers, to release non-fiction
books -- the equivalent of documentary movies on the printed page -- as graphic novels,
perhaps to cash in on the perception that GN's are hot -- fiddle players with good
licks, while the rest of publishing burns. Many of these don't flow well, stop and
start, and you're left wondering if a comics format is really best suited to recount
the tale you're reading. Such is not the case here. One of the liveliest books on a
Presidential campaign I've read since Hunter S. Thompson's '72-set Fear
and Loathing on the Campaign Trail (still the definitive work in this
genre), 08, by New Republic editor Crowley and Shooting War
artist Goldman, has an immediacy and insight into the rise of the Junior senator from
Illinois to the Presidency, as the U.S. teeters on a 21st century abyss. Less like a
documentary that Haskell Wexler's "fiction" film Medium Cool, set against
the backdrop of the '68 Democratic convention (two made up reporter characters
comment on some of the proceedings) -- the only question here remains how they
got the book done so fast -- they must've been working on it during the campaign,
and yet Obama's rise is "foreshadowed" throughout. The first half is the most
fascinating -- especially the inside baseball stuff about the Republicans falling
out, and over themselves -- since those are the tales known mostly to political
junkies and campaign volunteers, before the general campaign really grabbed all
the headlines. Recommended.
Swamp Thing by Alan Moore (script) and Stephen Bissette, John Totleben (art) (Vertigo)
Moore's legendary early 80s run on Swamp Thing, which introduced the
madcap, multi-talented Brit to DC's stable, and Yanks in general, in his pre-magus,
pre-rings-on-all-fingers, and of course, pre-Watchmen, days, is here
collected for the first time in hardcover, precisely to coincide with the release
of the film version of Happy Rorschach & Co.'s adventures. I actually hadn't read
all of these in sequence before -- issues 20 through 27 here -- and it's pretty
terrific stuff, especially the now infamous "switch" of which species "kingdom"
our titular hero belongs to, which sets up the book as a quite interesting
meditation on human behavior, and human destruction -- even before serious
discussions of pillaging the earth were popular in, well, popular media. The
rehabilitation of lesser-known DC villain The Floronic Man into a vengeful forest
defender, denouncing humanity as a mass of "screaming meat," would be worth the
price of admission for its own study in contradictions and prognostication, but as a
bonus, you have still have Swampy with his "Bodhisattva monster" riffs. Good stuff. Enjoy.
Kids Draw Big Book of Everything Manga by Christopher Hart (Watson-Guptill).
Hart's made a name for himself with his numerous tomes on how to draw cartoons, and
all things comical and panel-related. This large compendium is a very amiable,
accessible volume on drawing manga -- just as advertised. Though not
quite "everything" -- the emphasis here is mostly on faux Pokemon-like
characters, but given the way Hart guides budding artists to quick results, with
his schemata of circles and lines and grids, it is also very encouraging. And
anyway, that future creator in your house won't get to the next Ghost
in the Shell unless they start somewhere...
The Bronx is Up, and The Battery's Down
So here I am in New York, brought east by a production of a play of mine,
running in an off-off Broadway venue.
Copyright © 2009 Mark London Williams
While here, I'm taking long walks around Manhattan, signing the odd Danger Boy
book I find on a store shelf, and stopping in at the legendary Forbidden Planet comics
store near Union Square, to, well, look at a bunch of comics all at once (when you
review 'em, they sort of come in at an erratic pace, and you don't see that "array" in front of you).
Among those was the latest Batman -- number 686, for those of you keeping
count -- by Neil Gaiman and Andy Kubert. Fairly terrific stuff where a number of rogues and
survivors of the d. knight's life are gathered at a wake -- his -- and telling different
stories, Rashomon-like, of how Bruce Wayne's inner self finally met his demise. There
seems to be a twist to said demise -- isn't there always? -- coming up in the concluding
chapter in Detective Comics, so stay tuned.
The story, as expected, was set among the shadows and alleys of "Gotham City," the
real version of which I find myself in now. A few doors over, at Shakespeare & Co., I
browsed through a behind-the-scenes coffee table book (well, demistasse size, perhaps)
about the making of the Watchmen film, which is also set resolutely in
New York. Even if it's an alternate universe NY.
I've been musing, since I've been here, about the effect of the Big Apple on the
development of the comic book itself. A distinctly American artifact, the comic book,
as we know it, was born here (the "here" I'm in now), even if its antecedents -- the
comic strip -- can be traced originally to early 19th century Europe.
Once while reading up on the intersection of religious beliefs and environmental
calamity -- it's easier to destroy what isn't considered sacred -- I came across a
theory cited in an article that may have belonged originally to an anthropologist like
Claude Levi-Strauss -- or was it Paul Shepard? In any case, the notion went, the
reason that monotheisms were more easily hatched in the desert is that the space
you see around you, the vast, austere horizons, "uncluttered" by much in the way of
flora or fauna, give rise to the idea of "creation" -- everything around you -- being
a single, tied-together entity.
In forested areas, it was easier to conceive of entire pantheons of gods, since the
landscape around you was dense, multi-tiered -- full of rivers, trees of different
sizes, animal life that didn't have to burrow for protection during daylight hours,
etc. A multiplicity. So your cosmology begins to take this into account.
It's not a perfect theory -- there were forests once in Lebanon, after all, and
some tribal peoples, like the Native Americans, were able to conceive of both -- an
underlying "Great Spirit," tying everything together, and a local pantheon of
demigods and tricksters -- but it's an interesting way to conceive of how physical
space affects the way you invent stories about how things came to be.
How this ties in to comics, is this: I have a notion that the sheer verticalness
of New York -- where the DC and Marvel "pantheons" were born -- affected the way
the superhero comic was conceived, and even rendered on the page. Traditionally,
initially, panels, as you know, were like, well, windows in skyscrapers -- running
up and down the page.
This could be because that was the world surrounding the creators, the renderers of
those pages, who were also using NY as the wellspring for their superhero adventures.
This is part of the semiotic impact of Watchmen, as creators Alan
Moore and Dave Gibbons use a fairly strict vertical "skyscraper window" scheme
for rendering most of the story: it feels like "older" (Golden Age) comics,
the way it appears on the page.
Of the first two Ur-heros, Superman and Batman each represent a different aspect
of New York-ness. "Gotham" would seem to be a mid-century reaction to lower
Manhattan -- its alleys, jammed-together citizens, various ethnic tensions, and
its Depression-era street crime. (Which begs the question of where Wayne Manor
"really" is -- out on Long Island?)
Superman was always more uptown -- he's in "Metropolis" after all, working for
the "Daily Planet," and his early stories generally reflect those uptown assumptions
New York has always had about itself being, well, the center of the universe. Even
aliens choose to reside here! (After "leaving the farm," as so many Big Apple
arrivees -- set on fame n' fortune -- have done...)
Superman's woes tended to reflect more planet-wide, if not galactic,
troubles -- especially in the post-Depression (uh, post the last one, anyway)
post-war era, when "Metropolis" really was the financial center of the American
empire: it's coal engine, as it were, fueling the consumer spending, the economy
that could allow for such an extended military, etc. The problems were commensurate
with the upper West (or East) side view of the world (never mind that Superman's
original creators, stripped of their financial participation in the project by DC,
for so many decades, could never afford to live there).
Superman was a New York man of the world. Batman is the New York of The Godfather
movies, and the crime photographs of Weegee, where it's the corner up ahead that's
trouble, never mind the next dimension over.
Those sensibilities changed and morphed as the world did, as New York did, as comics
did. The 60s saw Peter Parker trying to hold a job here, but then again, wasn't the
Baxter Building -- and the more galactically-scaled problems visited upon the
Fantastic Four -- reflective of its Madison Avenue corner locale?
What if the first comics, and the first superheros, came out of a different place -- a
different "space?" What if they'd been written and drawn -- conceived -- in places
like Seattle or New Orleans or Billings, Mt., first? How would masked avengers relate
to place, to the spaces around them, then?
If nothing else, perhaps it's a good idea for an "Elseworld."
Mark London Williams writes the Danger Boy time travel series,
and is currently mulling a comic book extension of same. He also works as a journalist covering both
entertainment and politics, for the Hollywood trade paper Below the Line. His
short play Grizzled Bear is running in New York as we speak. Some of its themes may meet with the Floronic Man's approval.