Friday, August 23, 2013

Unpacking The Beach Bag: Comic Books

Ah, vacation. My impulse to throw books into the beach bag is as strong as this guy's, but I'm old enough and experienced enough to curb it before I get to 24. And while I'll agree that the mass-market paperback is still the ideal medium for the journey, I'm finding that after my second glass of wine the eyes take longer to focus on the print. Better, then, to add a few comic books to the mix.

It's been a DC summer for me — I guess most summers are (that shouldn't surprise me, but it does).

I started with Ed Brubaker and Cameron Stewart's Catwoman: No Easy Way Down. As a storyteller, Brubaker is a patient craftsman who revels in the slow-reveal of subtle emotional surprises. He is well-served by Stewart's art, which riffs off Darwyn Cooke's aesthetic of bold lines and pastel colours.

Midway through the book, however, the storyboard is given over to Javier Pulido, who really strips it down, even pulling in some formalist experimentation that reminded me of David Mazzucchelli or Art Spiegelman. In these two pages he illustrates a character's inner struggle with her addictions:

Pulido's technique doesn't just elevate Brubaker's building-block approach to narrative, it also turns up the heat on the title character's sexual tension — and confusion — with the characters around her (including, of course, the Batman). It is a fabulous few pages, but sadly short-lived. The storyboard is handed back to Stewart, and the experiments come to an abrupt halt. It's a shame, but it's still well-above-average for the industry. To quote Abe Lincoln, if you dig this stuff, you'll really dig this stuff.

And Brubaker gets a lot of love from the comic book store set — even the reliable grump Frank Miller sings his praises.* Hey, Brubaker deserves it — the dude's not just prolific (and how!), he's engaging. But the possibility that he might just be the industry's brightest light, however, is an unsettling thought.

Chalk it down to writer's envy. If you even dabble in story-telling, your brain knows it's all smoke-and-mirrors, or sleight-of-hand. When you read someone else's work, and that someone is trumpeted as God's Gift To The Genre, you want to be hit with a Houdini (or, if you prefer meta, Penn & Teller). When you get to the end of the story, you want to say, “Wait: what just happened there? How'd he do that?” Well, with Brubaker you pretty much know. He's got fluid hands, but the ace of spades always turns up behind your ear, or under your tongue. It won't be found inside that iced trout you just brought home from the market.

Miller's tip-of-the-hat is generous, deserved, and spot-on. Brubaker's writing is every bit as accomplished as Miller's was in Year One, and when coupled with a talent like Pulido's, it dazzles (akin, say, to the riskier Miller/Mazzucchelli Daredevil: Born Again). But it's still safe. Snotty old sod that I am, I keep hoping for something to knock me over.**,***

Speaking of “safe,” DC has gone and followed up last year's punky Batman:The Court Of Owls with The Night Of Owls (A) and City Of Owls (A): two very safe — and entirely disappointing — volumes in the DC canon. Scott Snyder is still in charge of the story, and he's proficient enough to hold reader interest until the Big Reveal at conclusion.**** But the deeper delight of Court was Greg Capullo's playful art. Capullo is still on board for much of the two books, but he seems reined in. Worse, because both these books rely heavily on character-title cross-over, other artists show up with the standard DC template, producing fare which ranges from the merely acceptable to the completely risible.

In the latter category is the industry's rendering of female characters. Look, I am not opposed to pin-up art. If you guys really need to express your horny little ids, that's what those Betty & Veronica back pages are for (ditto, Tumblr). Or, if you fancy yourselves the next Howard Chaykin or Wally Wood, throw something up on Kickstarter. Your overlords openly rely on horny 45-year-old SWMs eager to part with chump change — go on, and beat them at their own game for once.

But this business of forcing your heroines to mince about the rooftops, 

or daintily break ribs and teeth, 

while holding Calendar Girl poses leeches emotional oomph from your sequential art. Seriously: DC's writers do a better-than-average job of presenting kick-ass women characters, and you fan-boy artists have to dress it up like a Victoria's Secret pillow-fight?

You haven't the faintest clue just how sad that makes you look. And lest you miss my point, let me spell it out for you: this isn't a “I guess we'll just cave in to the femi-nazis” issue — it's a “How porni-fried and stoopid do your brains have to be for you to commit that shit to paper?” issue. Take your hands off your weenies and get a grip on your art.

Anyway, the Owls storyline is finished, and it's forgettable. Feel free to read it and leave it on the beach.

Next: some pulp, including Stephen King.

*“Brubaker's got the chops. This is one damn fine comic book.”

**“Bowl me over” — the way Elektra: Assassin did, back in the day (FWIW, Brubaker's Vertigo title Fatale is playing out quite promisingly. But as with television, I'm not giving it my endorsement until that show is over).

***I feel the same way about Neal Gaiman's stuff. Whenever I finish something by him I tend to think, “Nicely done. But, uh, isn't there a faster way to get the same results?” There probably isn't, which is why a little additional flash delivers such incomparable value. In Gaiman's case, the spectacular movie Coraline outshines the book. In Brubaker's case, Pulido's art is just the thing to fan the spark of this viewer's interest.

****Which I thought was rather ho-hum, finally. I haven't followed Batman's New 52 story arc all that closely, but from what I gather in the 'Owls' books alone, he's already been subjected to some tectonic relationship-jolters. The one at the end of 'Owls' oughtn't to generate more than a shrug and a “So?”

1 comment:

paul bowman said...

One thing to be said for Mignola's stories/characters: his women generally don't fit the porn-pose portrayal well. Not that they aren't fundamentally comic book girls and relatively the weaker figures, or that they don't ever get something of the Victoria's Secret treatment, as passed from artist to artist; but as written, and as Mignola and favored artists (especially Guy Davis, Ben Stenbeck) seem to have preferred to draw them, they're a shift away from the main trend toward something recognizably human. Deserves more attention.