Spandexless Reads | 04-26-2012 / by Alec Berry

photo2.jpg

It's been a long week for the comics internet. The Before Watchmen debate continues to rage its angry rage, and I can't seem to escape. Everyone's a martyr these days, taking public stands, spouting morals and beliefs. But, dare I ask, will we ever know the answer to the debate? No. Too many factors. Too little facts. All writing on the subject comes from memory. I'm sick of it. Buy other comics. It's that simple. Stray from the grand editorials and public speeches as well as moral superiority and just vote with your wallet. The comics internet should realize action speaks louder than 2000 word expressions. And, yes, I mean the David Brother's Op/Ed. I respect the dude, and I'm against Before Watchmen like many others, but that piece did nothing for me but make me sulk as the links from countless sites began to fly. To me, nothing new was said there, and while it's great to call out DC Comics, it's means more to place the heat on a specific individual.

If anything, I think the debate over Moore's rights kind of falls mute due to the lack of specifics and grey. It's a nice debate to have, but really, it provides no absolute. If anything, look at Before Watchmen as a blatant cash grab and damn it for that. It's a clear cut answer which works just as well as condemning sales. And if anything, those books will be more of an example of mainstream comics selling product over story than anything, as well as taking a finished piece of work and unnecessarily extending it. It's the sign that mainstream comics have met the heavy, heavy hand of editorial and have lost the wrestling match. That's the clearest answer, anyway, which makes the most sense to me.

So, yeah, hell with it. To feed you hungry readers, we're strictly on a comic book discussion diet this week. Plenty of content follows. An essay from me on Ed Brubaker and Eric Shanower's Prez: Smells Like Teen President. Alex Jarvis provides some thoughts on The Manhattan Projects while Patrick Smith and Anthony Rosen update us on what they're digging. Plus, I bring in special guest Shawn Starr this week to educate us on Alan Moore's Lost Girls as well as Milo Manara's Gullivera.

Comics talk, man. How it should be.

- - Grunge, man. Grunge.

Alec Berry / perpetrator

Prez: Smells Like Teen President | Ed Brubaker, Eric Shanower | Vertigo | 1995

While the sludge of semester woes and college antics have slowed my reading, I've still managed to make a little time to retread, as well as "first tread," some of Ed Brubaker's work. Things like Sleeper, Point Blank, Criminal, Incognito and Scene of the Crime  have all shot across my radar, but I'd say, without a doubt, this odd "Vertigo Visions" one-shot takes the cake as, well, most peculiar.

Set in the mids 90s, amidst the cultural "movement" known as grunge, Brubaker and artist Eric Shanower pick up on an old Joe Simon concept known as Prez: First Teen President and expand the matter by introducing a slacker, generation x type, who's believed to be his son, to foil Simon's activist with a Kurt Cobain-type, complete with traits of self-hatred and existential question. Yet, while two sides, both characters are of the same coin and come together to form this grander picture of adolescence, delivering themes I'd say we could have all related to at some point.

Plus, the comic contains a nice little back matter bit from Brubaker in which he states:

"Once again, the mainstream media has stolen youth rebellion and sold us back a blander version at a higher price. By portraying today's youth as 'slackers,' they've given us permission to be lazy and stupid. Knowing obscure facts about the Brady Bunch, or Charles Manson, or the names of every indie-rock band on K Records does not constitute intelligence. Where's the real victory in winning a game of Trivial Pursuit? We all spend too much time worrying about being cool, and not nearly enough on just being human."

If you ever wanted Brubaker's opinion on hipsters, well, there you have it.

Aside from the clear time stamp and relatability, though, Prez: Smells Like Teen President sticks out for its unashamed honesty, even while in the face of preachy speech giving. Before "Marvel Architects" and a David Slade partnership, Brubaker was just another dude doing comics, and not just freelance mainstream work. Dude was producing the kind of work The Comics Journal salivates to, auto-bio sulk fests complete with meaning and all sorts of good, wholesome stuff. He wasn't Ed Brubaker, the writer; he was Ed Brubaker, the cartoonist (check out Lowlife, if you haven't), and he was clearly apart of a different area of the grander comics culture. Of course, he moved on eventually, losing the cool points in some eyes, but I'd like to say the guy grew up and took his craft to another area.

But Prez: Smells Like Teen President sort of sits in between those two crafts as it sort of represents the last few days of cartoonist Brubaker, even though he doesn't draw the damn thing. The voice clearly exemplifies a younger, broader creator, though. Broader than what eventually becomes a more tuned perspective, tuned to mainstream comic book storytelling - a transition you clearly see in 1999s Scene of the Crime. Prez's like someone writing an auto-bio story through the lens of a pre-established concept. PJ acts as an easy stand in for Brubaker or anyone else via his commonality, and the heavy use of setting and time period only strengthen the notion that this story belongs to an actual someone versus a fictional being, even though it does. Not to say Brubaker is PJ or shares his experience, but I think much of the detail, subtext and even back matter create this honesty which make the narrative more personal than some preachy genre comic.  There's simply a sense that this tale came from somewhere real, and the tone and voice only bring the idea home.

From a pure storytelling level though, Prez succeeds. As I've noted, it can become a bit preachy at times, especially toward the end, but aside from that this comic works as a well oiled machine plot wise. Shanower draws in Vertigo's classic 90s house style, but there's enough of him there to give the book a unique look. His work completely lives to tell the story, straying from all sense of splash until the very last few pages. From another visual standpoint, I also really love PJ's appearance - blonde, blue eyed American kid wearing a smeared t-shirt, in need of a hair cut, bathing in public restrooms. Works as a nice little visual metaphor.

There's also a cool change in perspective which provides some sense of unique storytelling. Rather than introduce his audience to PJ via a weird 3rd/1st person combo, Brubaker uses the POVs of the character's two road trip companions to shape this somewhat outsider opinion on the guy. The choice attributes to Brubaker's point of "looking cool" while also building the character up as someone who's maybe trapped in his own head a bit, or more like, empty, unable to actually tell us about himself. Which makes sense because most of this comic book centers on the conflict of PJ not knowing who he is, a reason why he's so adamant about finding his mystery father, Prez: First Teen President.

For the most part, this chunk of story comes across as pretty clean cut, but I like what's going on here. At the end of the day, this book sticks out as something specific to its time, and more importantly, reminds readers of where this writer's been. It can definitely be categorized as one of this odd ball early works, and as a matter of subtext, Prez says something pretty true. You've gotta get yourself together before you can save others.

- - - capsules

Alex Jarvis / Spandexless Editor-in-Chief

The Manhattan Projects | Jonathan Hickman, Nick Pitarra, Cris Peter | Image

I was in the comic shop and noticed the awesome cover of issue two (a trademark of Hickman's work) . I opened it, and the fourth panel featured Richard Feynman. I immediately purchased both issues and found myself in a would-have-been hell of a past. This series is young, but it features the scientific pantheon of yesteryear - Oppenheimer, Von Braun, Einstein, Feynman, and more - in a dark science story that appears to be wearing the clothes of a horror comic. I highly recommend it.

Patrick Smith / Spandexless writer

The Shadow | Garth Ennis, Aaron Campbell | Dynamite

There's a great bit in the acknowledgements page of Brian Clevinger's novel Nuklear Age: "I'd like to thank all the brilliant pulp and comics writers of the previous century. You guys were just a bunch of charlatans and hucksters trying to make a few bucks, but somewhere along the line you screwed up and left us with a legacy of wonderful and absurd stories that will be forever lodged in our subconscious. We are richer for it."

The pulps of the thirties and forties can basically be seen as the Rosetta Stone of modern day super hero comics, minus the built in crap that goes along with modern day superhero comics. They were big, bold, crazy stories that routinely featured talking gorillas, mad scientists and heroes that routinely shot people in the face. So quite obviously old pulp stories have always kind of fascinated me.

I decided to pick up the recent first issue of The Shadow by Garth Ennis and Aaron Campbell. The Shadow as a character has always kind of fascinated me, mostly because his whole deal was ripped off to create Batman. So I wanted to see if this book was just going to read as Dynamite saying "Hey, how can we get some of that Dark Knight Rises money? Oh, I know, lets just make some Shadow comics. People won't be able to tell the difference. They both brood and wear black, where's our big stinky check?". Luckily though, you can usually count on Garth Ennis, and what he does here is just pure, pulpy fun.

I know Ennis has a rightfully acquired reputation of being crass and "in your face" (whatever that means), but something that a lot of people forget about Ennis is that the man is one of the finest craftsman the comics medium has ever produced with a solid background in history, particularly in the thirties and forties, which is used to great effect here. Effectively beginning the story with the rape of Nanking, Ennis introduces the character as less of a crime fighter than an agent of fate whose actions are part of a bigger game. Ennis understands what made the pulps work. They were bigger than life and filled with more personality than any other creative medium of the time. And although they were eventually surpassed by the comic book medium in those regards, they could still stand to learn a few lessons from their forbears, and this issue is as good an issue as any to start that reeducation

Anthony Rosen / Spandexless writer

Vattu | Evan Dahm

I was a huge fan of Evan Dahm's last two comics, Order of Tales and Rice Boy, so it's really no surprise that I'm gaga for his new work: Vattu. The man is adept at creating fantasy worlds that, improbably, seem both believable and impossible between incredibly dramatic moments of wonder and hopelessness. His art style is evocative, whimsical and lovably unique. But most importantly, the man is a wizard at world building.

Vattu is another excellent entry into his canon. Another story taking place in the same world as his last two comics, this tale builds his extensive mythology in a new direction at the far end of his world's past. It's a meditation on nomadic life and the power of language and symbols, a subject Dahm is particularly fond of.

I've spent the last few weeks at work sneaking pages between various mundane tasks. I've only caught up to the end of part 1 (part 2 is well underway), and I can't help but feel like my paycheck is going to suffer for the amount of time I'm investing in this incredibly rewarding world. But you know, I'm alright with that. Evan Dahm is the type of artist that can create a universe all his own without leaving the reader feeling lost and confused. All of his work is available for free online at http://rice-boy.com/, and I'd urge anyone and everyone willing to lose hours of their time to check out any one of his stories.

- - - - Sorry for my Synapses: Thoughts on Lost Girls and Gullivera

Shawn Starr / some dude with a blog (future Spandexless contributor)

The Boston Comic Con was this weekend, a convention just mainstream enough that it can support that one vendor with twenty long boxes full of crap no one outside of The Comics Journal has ever heard of, and yet, not run him out of town for having a box labeled "Vintage Playboys ½ off". Its a happy medium that I don't see lasting much longer. I'm not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, though, so I grabbed a stack of Taboo's along with a collection of Bilal short stories, and a Manara book I've never heard of called Gullivera.

I've only had time to read Taboo #5 and Gullivera, so that's what I'll talk about. What's shocking about these two works is how they share an almost identical story approach, yet, come at them from wildly different perspectives. Taboo #5 contains the first serialized chapter of Alan Moore's and Melinda Gebbie's Lost Girls, a (as Alan Moore describes it) pornographic re-imagining of Peter Pan, The Wizard of Oz, and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, all set during the lead up to the first World War. Likewise, Manara updated Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, injecting a skimpily dressed teenage girl traveling the high seas in Gulliver's stead.

The first thing that jumps out when looking at both works is their use of children's books as a framing devices, something reminiscent of comics first foray into pornography, the Tijuana Bible, little eight page pamphlets featuring prominent comic strip characters in overtly sexual situations. This connection had to be on Moore's mind, since in addition to aping the style, Lost Girls was serialized in eight page chunks, a direct riff on the format. Moore's use of children's characters, instead of comic characters (the modern equivalent of comic strip characters), is also interesting, it may simply be that these characters were in the public domain (as opposed to superhero’s  who are held in perpetual copyright), but its more likely that Moore used these characters to directly connect himself with "literature" and not "comics".

When read alongside one another, each author's approach to pornography is made abundantly clear. Moore's Lost Girls may be paraded around as pornography, it does indeed depict explicit sexual encounters more so than Manara's Gullivera, but it has the air of an essay throughout. Moore's writing style and knowledge of censorship laws caused him to write Lost Girls as an academic critique, putting its literary nature at the forefront, at the expense of its attempted-eroticism. In the introduction to Lost Girls, Stephen Bissette tells the reader the history of censorship in the United States. American Literature, in stark contrast to that of the Orient and Europe (with the exception of the UK), had been puritanical in its approach to obscenity/eroticism. Lacking any significant work in the genre until the late 19th century, those few books that saw publication were those deemed to be art by the courts. Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer in the 1930's and William S. Burroughs Naked Lunch in the 1960's each faced heavy censorship until they were deemed to have "artistic value" to the community. Lost Girls was created in this vacuum and it shows.

The first installment of Lost Girls is tame compared to what's to come. Instead, it focuses on reinforcing the idea of story, Alice is depicted (off panel) telling the fairy tale of Humpty Dumpty to a prostitute, after the young girl pleaded with her to tell her a story in the previous panels. This becomes a recurring theme throughout the book, as each character must tell the story of their sexual awakening. This technique was first, to my knowledge, used in Marquis de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom, who shares a striking resemblance to Monsieur Rougeur, the hotel's owner, who framed his chapters around each story's theme. Moore, unlike Sade, who uses sex as a force to degrade his characters, uses sexuality to show the pinnacle of humanity, contrasting it with the horrors of war: "I suppose that's what war destroys. All the art and architecture, the fields of flowers and young people's dreams...all the imagination". In these opening pages, we see Moore's use of literary reference and structure to circumvent any charges of obscenity, a tactic Sade used to similar effect.

Alternatively Manara, who resides in Italy, never needed to justify his work as a form of literature, (although many critics have made the argument) because comics had already been established as a medium. Gullivera, in contrast to Lost Girls, is a work of pornography, not academia. There is no unified-critique to be found in this work; its goal is simply to inject a barely clothed female into Swift's narrative and see how often Manara can depict her with even less clothing.

That’s not to say there's nothing else to his work. Manara makes it a point to keep the adventure yarn going and inject humor when appropriate. It’s a retelling of Gulliver's Travels which is an adventure story, not a veiled porn parody, a fact not lost on Manara. The first two adventures, which make up the bulk of this book, involve Gullivera visiting an island of miniaturized people and giants. These opening scenes are decidedly the rauchiest, but Manara is able to render a cityscape like no other, along with a kinetic sword fight between Gullivera and a rat, allowing the reader to linger elsewhere if needed. On her third adventure Gullivera visits the County of Houyhnhnms, a land inhabited by talking horses, Manara uses this adventure to lighten the mood (in anticipation for the next story), having Gullivera immediately run to her ship following the "advances" of the locals. Gullivera's last adventure, to the floating city of Laputa, is unique in the book, in that it functions as a critique on over-philosophizing at the expense of living: "Of course, There are [Men]! But at night, they're too busy gazing at the stars and during the day they're dead to the world...or discussing philosophy. Come on up!" Its hard not to read that line and not think of Moore's Lost Girls.

Gullivera and Lost Girls show how two masters of the medium can approach erotica in completely different ways, due to their respective cultures view on sex and art. Moore takes a literary approach to skirt around the charges of obscenity he's likely to face (and still does in the UK), as he attempts to bring pornography to the forefront of genre comics. "Certainly it seemed to us [Moore and Gebbie] that sex, as a genre, was woefully under-represented in literature," says Moore. "Every other field of human experience—even rarefied ones like detective, spaceman or cowboy—have got whole genres dedicated to them. Whereas the only genre in which sex can be discussed is a disreputable, seamy, under-the-counter genre with absolutely no standards: [the pornography industry]—which is a kind of Bollywood for hip, sleazy ugliness. " Manara though, living in a country where sex, as a genre, is respected, allows himself to playfully adapt his source material, without the fear of persecution.

- - - the exit

We're done. Come back next week. For now, I leave you with links.

interview | review | thoughts