This one was frustrating and somewhat daunting, but I feel like maybe, just maybe, I came out OK. My clock reads 3:24 am as I type this brief intro, and still I feel, as I've felt all week, somewhat of a pressure. Summer's upon me, yes, but now I find myself faced with all of those hypothetical plans I'd made many months ago. My time is free. School's out of the way. I now have no excuse but to do what I'd said I'd do. Or, clearly put, walk the walk and quit the talk. It's exciting. It's freeing. But, also, it's the moment of truth. Can I perform? Can I accomplish? Or ... or, am I just a sad sack failure like the rest of them?
This summer might tell me that as I attempt to write more than I've ever written, read stacks upon stacks of print, work a full time job and organize and produce a live radio show coming my way this fall. Three months. That's what I have, and God, it's going to go fast.
If anything, I should remember this: ambition's what counts. No matter the amount accomplished, anything accomplished is something. I'll take that as my starting point and potential healing excuse later on.
But yeah. New column. This week, I have an essay on Peter Milligan and Ted McKeever's The Extremist as well as three capsule reviews, and Shawn Starr stops by to chat about Benjamin Marra. Read on, readers. Do your thing.
---- being bad ain't so bad, girl
Alec Berry / perpetrator
The Extremist | Peter Milligan, Ted McKeever | Vertigo | 1993
Apparently Brendan McCarthy created this one but didn’t want anything to do with it after the fact, so he tossed it to Milligan and McKeever. Wiki says so.
Originally published in 1993, Vertigo brought this one back in 2010 as part of their Vertigo Resurrected campaign, and for some reason I bought it, tossed it on a stack and haven’t looked at it until this week. Peter Milligan’s never been a dude to wow me, but then again, I haven’t really read much of his acclaimed work. Other than Enigma, which I did enjoy quite a bit. For the most part though, he’s been on my radar close to a guy like James Robinson. A guy who did his one big book, and since he’s only produced mid-level material for DC Comics. The internet insists he’s a somebody, though, yet I just don’t see it.
That is, until I read a comic like The Extremist, where a voice and attitude reside in a much clearer guise. I wouldn’t call the book excellent, mind you, but I would say it may represent the Milligan I’ve heard about all these years. Like Brubaker with Prez, The Extremist may just signify a Milligan who cared a little more, or, just a Milligan who’s a bit more vibrant.
What you need to know is The Extremist details the actions of an assassin, the organization he works for and the woman he calls a wife, and eventually it depicts his death and the succession of his alter ego, a costumed figure who’s name is shared with this funny book’s title. Four issues, and Milligan and McKeever paint a bleak portrait of a relationship consumed by secrets, sex and questions of identity while intermingling this weird fetish aesthetic and a constant draw on the characters to go to dark places. The whole thing begs this question of “how far is too far?”, and as the reader you sit and watch the people in play be consumed while feeling helpless.
Much of this emotion comes from Milligan’s structure of the plot; he starts the story with what is basically the ending and then proceeds to fill in the blanks. Up front, we understand the wife, Judy, succumbs to the draw of what is known as The Extremist, her husband Jack’s second identity. She takes up the leather bound role after his death, and Milligan makes it pretty clear she likes a life without limits and the benefits an organization known as The Order can offer her. From there, issue two on, it’s all about watching Judy’s downfall – seeing her lose Jack, become The Extremist and ditch her conservative, innocent ways. Told in a more consecutive fashion, this story wouldn’t exactly sting in the same way. Knowing the outcome only strengthens the pain because everything’s determined; you can’t really help Judy or Jack, especially since Jack’s dead. Their lives just get torn apart, and if that’s not bad enough, Milligan throws in a bystander to help flesh out the torment.
But the bystander has to be there because Tony, the bystander, well ... is us. He stumbles upon this odd couple and uncovers their secrets through curiosity. He’s sucked into the dilemma, and all the whilst contemplates what his role in their story could be. Does he save Judy? Does he dawn The Extremist mantle? The questions are up in the air. But that’s the point. His indecision represents the audience’s helplessness, and in the end Tony’s destroyed, delivering the final notes of this downer comic book.
But McKeever applies the visual stimulants to drag you even further inside. His design and illustration of The Extremist outfit takes on its own life and ultimately visualizes the conflict planted in this four issue tale. The costume resembles some classic perception of fetish gear: leather, zippers, the appropriate amount of binding straps. From this, the struggle of both Judy and Jack’s characters gain a physical form. For Jack, life as the Extremist is over. He wants the quiet life with Judy. To leave the country and get away from it all. But he can’t. He’s caught. Bound to his duty. The skin tight outfit brings that to life and gives the situation something of a claustrophobic sensation. Judy, on the other hand, spirals more and more into Jack’s seedy underbelly lifestyle after his death. She’s intrigued by his secrets, and as she tries to learn more and more about her husband, she dawns the suit and treats it almost as a symbiote. She even mentions that “it rapes.”
And eventually ... yeah, it completely takes her.
More than anything though, I love McKeever’s lines and the ink which covers them. They’re thick and heavy yet lush enough to contribute a sexual quality, rounding out the tone of this work and fully forming the cast within it. Something about his work reminds me of stained glass, the colors that is. The palette offers a nice array of contrasting hues, and the figures and shapes they fill each feel as if they could be pulled out of a panel and stand alone. The look strikes you and signals something somber, and even moments of bitter violence come off as beautiful.
Where The Extremist stands in Peter Milligan’s career, I don’t know. Maybe this thing’s bottom of the barrel – although, I would figure Red Lanterns probably owns that special title. For me, it shows this guy may actually be worth some investigation. Enigma probably should have been enough, but for some reason, I treated that as a lucky move. The Extremist says otherwise. It says this Milligan guy once had it in him, and maybe, he still does.
So I guess I should read Shade, the Changing Man and shut up.
Alec Berry / perpetrator
Mind The Gap #1 | Jim McCann, Rodin Esquejo, Sonia Oback | Image
This one’s about a girl in a coma who now inhabits some sort of spirit ether, and surrounding her vegetable, bedridden body stand numerous family members and friends who may or may not be the reason she’s in said coma. Despite the implied conspiracy or hook, I left this one mostly uninterested as well as nodding my head in slight agreement that Image Comics may, in fact, publish failed movie pitches. The problem resides in the comic’s utter dependence on its concept and assuming too quickly that the audience will find the concept worth the time or attention. McCann just lets this comic waft through its plot in a lazy fashion. Scenes sort of bleed into one another roughly, and while reading, you just wonder how long this comic can run on with the little direction placed upon it. The cast impresses even less. Very few characters possess more than their drawn forms, and they all fall into the stereotypical gutter – the boyfriend, the bitchy mother, the rich dad. Its sort of like an episode of Twin Peaks but without all of the subtle hints to larger, private lives. Forty-six pages, man, and no real reason to care.
The colors are the worst part, though, because Sonia Oback clearly went to the Frank D’ Armata school of comic book coloring. Where Esquejo does an alright job telling the story and providing this series a visual ID, Oback comes in and just smears the work in a muck of bland palettes, taking this thing as close to Invincible Iron Man as it can get. And while the comic walks about coated in flat hues, the real damage comes in with the faces and facial expressions; Oback’s colors just seem to throw these things off, putting shadows where they don’t need to be.
I’m sure someone out there may feel I’m picking on this book or I’m pretentious, but out of all the new Image releases of late, Mind The Gap marks the greatest disappointment. Yep.
Alec Berry / perpetrator
The Bulletproof Coffin: Disinterred #4 | David Hine, Shaky Kane | Image
For the ongoing plot of Bulletproof Coffin, I have little idea what this issue may mean, but as a singular comic book, trying something different, I can see where interpretations lie, and, well, I had a damn good time interpreting. Hine and Kane riff on William S. Burroughs’ cut-up narrative here as they try to tie it back into Disinterred’s secret-spilling spirit, and they succeed ... because cut-up narratives lend themselves nicely to uncovering hidden truths. Past that, I’m not sure I can critique this one as I’m not one hundred percent clear on what this issue accomplishes or offers. The basic approach applied by Hine and Kane could be the entire point rather than the actual text of the comic book, but I feel there’s something else below the surface here. Kane and Hine deploy a series of visual motifs through a vocab of UFOs, cavemen and children, and the title “84,” along with a consistent faith to four page grids, seems to suggest an alert focus to panels and individual images. If I were to guess, I’d say the duo are interested in the affect lone images can have on the subconscious and why some seem to stick with you and later scream at you to be dug up. I feel the craft and guiding hand are confident here, though, and Hine and Kane still supply the same amount of aesthetic charm and weird attitude which is linked to Bulletproof Coffin. The comic’s interesting and pulls you in, so, I guess, mission accomplished. An uncertain meaning was kind of the point, anyway.
Alec Berry / perpetrator
The Blobby Boys | Alex Schubert | Zine Police Books
I’ll avoid all deeper readings and subtext to just say, “The Blobby Boys is very funny.” Because, really, that’s all you should be concerned about. Schubert delivers more of his Dudes style humor but amps things up a little bit by writing around a gang of colorful idiots, and overall crafts a tad more dynamic comic rather than a strictly observational one like The Dudes. This thing kind of has a Hate vibe, ragging on subculture and people’s concerns the way it does. Probably why I like it so. Schubert’s cartooning sort of resembles Michael DeForge’s style wise, but his inking gives his lines a jagged appearance, suggesting some possible backtracking or a very free flow inking technique. Not a long comic book, but certainly one you’ll keep close at hand and reread. Go buy it.
---- Hey, I'm a child of divorce, gimme a break!
Shawn Starr / some dude with a blog (future Spandexless contributor)
"There is a moment of sheer panic when I realize that Paul's apartment overlooks the park... and is obviously more expensive than mine."
Ben Marra, with the possible exception of Michael Deforge, is the best artist in alt-comics at the moment. Marra's work operates both as a crude 22-page exercise in depicting violence / obscenities and as an examination of humanity. He's kind of like an early Williams S. Burroughs, only with less heroin and more spine breaking. Recently, Floating World Comics reprinted his adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho as an over sized newspaper for a mere five dollars. So lets talk about that.
Marra avoids doing a straight adaptation of American Psycho, instead selecting iconic images from the story and illustrating them with little to no dialogue. Removing the connective tissue of the narrative, Marra relies on the readers familiarity with the work, so that he can use his artwork and the format to explore the psyche of Bateman, without getting bogged down in the details of the narrative.
Marra renders each image with a razor straight line, creating a sense of homogeneity and motionlessness in each scene. It's uncharacteristic for him - windows are squared, bookcases are straight, characters are stiff, and the explosions are contained. This creates a uncomfortable stillness to the book, representative of Bateman's psychosis. Marra, though, subverts Bateman's characteristic narcissism, not through his art (which acts as a representation of Bateman), but by reproducing the comic on newsprint. The cheap and flimsy nature of newsprint can immediately be scene as an attack on the character's aesthetic values, and Marra uses it to distort Bateman's character by exploiting the paper stock's shortcomings.
The thinness of newsprint allows images to be superimposed. Visuals on the back of a page become visible on the front of a page, and vice versa. This layering effect adds background detail to the image being viewed, pocking wholes in the illustrations' perceived perfection as lines mesh, figures distort and characters begin to move. This technique is best used on the cover page where Bateman stands smirking at the reader, wearing a fitted suite with perfectly kept hair, while holding a bloody knife in front of an apartment complex. The cleanness that Bateman exudes is shattered as the image on the back of the page begins to bleed onto the cover, adding splashes of blood across Bateman's face and the apartment complex he's exiting, creating the image of a messy and disoriented killer. Adding these details directly to the primary image would disrupt the "cleanness" of the page and remove Bateman's perceived control over the book, but by using the paper's thinness to creates ghost images, Marra's able to create a layered effect that gives the reader a glimpse into Bateman's psyche and his loss of control.
The flimsiness of the paper also causes it to become damaged. Every crease and bend creates an added level of distortion to the image; creating cracks in Bateman's perfect comic; warping his vision into reality, not fantasy. The more times one reads American Psycho, the more the book becomes distorted and the greater a light will be shinned on Bateman's insanity. When the book is falling apart and torn to shreds, we may finally understand the full extent of Bateman's insanity.
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