Feb 28, 2013

A Sense of Wonder: Don Rosa and The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck

Welcome to the a new installment of A Sense of Wonder, a feature of indefinite length in which I detail the wonderful (and I mean that in the purest sense of the word) and imagination-inspiring aspects of the characters in the comic book medium, which would emphasize the superheroes, but would not be limited to them. Click here for the archive.

Over a year ago, Back Issue Ben recommended to me The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck, by Don Rosa (not to be confused by Uncle Scrooge: His Life and Times by Carl Barks). So I tried looking for it, and... well, see for yourself. Luckily, I mentioned it to my buddy Peter, and he had a copy, and we met up one day and we lent each other comics, and I dug into The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck about a week later.

So, long story short, I loved it. Regular Cubers know I've become a huge fan of Carl Barks in the last year and a half, and the only exposure I had to Don Rosa prior to this was his "The Dream of a Lifetime" story that went viral a couple of years ago because people kept saying Inception ripped it off. What I didn't know about "The Dream of a Lifetime," though, as much as I enjoyed it, was that it was an epilogue to Rosa's Life and Times.

The basic concept between Life and Times, which came out in the mid-90s, is to show Scrooge McDuck's life before his first appearance in "Christmas on Bear Mountain," and would tell the story of how Scrooge got his riches. Rosa was meticulous about it, as he took pretty much every flashback, reference, and offhand comment Scrooge ever made about his life prior to Bear Mountain and organized them into a coherent timeline, right down to dates (and some of them exact dates). Rosa also tied that all together with heavy research into the history of the era and geography, such as the Gold Rush in the Yukon or the lives of Teddy Roosevelt.

Long-running serialized comics, of course, can't help but be exercises in continuity, which is fair, because a lot of modern creators, having grown up with these characters, are big fans. However, a lot of the time, the desire to address continuity tends to take over the story, and it becomes a case of the tail wagging the dog. It's not uncommon for hardcore fans to create things like lists, timelines, and spreadsheets detailing every little bit of minutiae about a character. That's how wikis and websites get their traction, obviously. And Rosa does much the same thing here, but he never forgets to put the character first. While he does fill in the blanks of Scrooge's life in 12 chapters, he makes it a point to make each chapter a pivotal moment in that life. When did Scrooge decide to stop trusting people? When did money take over his life in such a way that he couldn't appreciate the finer things anymore? These questions and more are addressed in an excitingly adventurous, emotionally charged way that doesn't dilute the comedy and humor you'd come to expect from a Scrooge McDuck story. Certain "answers," such as where Scrooge got the red shirt he always wears, are used as a short gag. In other words, if there's a story in it, Rosa told the story, and if there's a joke in it, he told the joke. Often, he told both.

As you might expect, throwaway comments made in Barks' long run would eventually lead to continuity inconsistencies, and Rosa threw away a few "Barksian facts" and adjusted others (as he did with some historical facts as well), all depending on what made for a better story. But the level of research, both in terms of reading a lot of Barks and in terms of reading history books, was tremendous, and evident in the book. There are even diagrams illustrating gold prospecting. That's how intensive Rosa's research was, and it's all detailed in his notes at the end of each chapter. But he wasn't beholden to it—if certain things needed moving around for the sake of drama (such as where things actually were geographically situated in the Yukon), he'd change what was needed. For Rosa, the story and the characters came first, and the challenge was to make the timeline fit, not the other way around. The timeline was the challenge, and as a result of his meeting that challenge, his love for the characters comes through.

Then there is the way the story is actually told. Rosa doesn't deviate from Barks' usual pattern of two columns and four tiers (I'm sure it has something to do with how the stories can be cut up and reformatted for differently sized reprints), and so you're not dazzled by fancy layouts and "grand achievements of design." Which is not to say that it's not well-thought-out, because it is. It just means that it's able to immerse you in the story pretty much completely just by telling the story, and without any fancy tricks. In fact, the only "fancy trick" Rosa constantly used is the same one Barks did: the masking effect, the idea of rendering more detail into background elements than in the main characters, when necessary. Rosa worked with pens instead of brushes, and as a result was able to be a bit more detailed, a bit more liberal in his rendering than Barks. Used sparingly and to great effect, it emphasizes drama and scale. The first time we walk into Castle McDuck, we're taken in by the immense amount of detail Rosa put in the columns and the stones. And when Scrooge visits his mother's grave for the first time, the moment is powerful.

Rosa also brings in an influence that wasn't quite so evident with Barks: cinema. While Barks' storytelling was clearly informed by his background in animation, Rosa makes no secret in his notes about "stealing" scenes from various movies (including one scene homaging the opening to Citizen Kane). And indeed there are many scenes where, while reading it, I can almost hear some kind of score in the background, adding to the drama of the moment. When Scrooge first meets an adult Donald at the end of the book, it's—and I hate to say this word because it's so overplayed, but there's no other word for it—epic. I had to just stop reading right there and take the page in.

As I read more and get older, occurrences of that kind of reaction from me happen less often, and when they do happen, I have no choice but to hold those moments in high regard.

The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck is by necessity a bittersweet book because Scrooge McDuck is a miserly hermit when he makes his first appearance, and it's the story of how he got to be that way. But there is so much humor and fancy in it that the contrast to the tragic elements of Scrooge's life are highlighted by the juxtaposition. One minute, Scrooge is catching Flintheart Glomgold (before they first officially met) on the Transvaal, riding herd on a bunch of animals, and the next you realize this is the moment Scrooge stopped trusting people. One minute, he's participating in a Scottish tournament and swimming in a muddy lake to save his (potentially resaleable) golf ball, and a few pages later, he's saying goodbye to his father, for what you realize is the last time.

As he gets older and harder and richer, Scrooge manages to push his family (his sisters Matilda and Hortense, the latter of whom is Donald's mom) away and value money almost exclusively. And yet that is one of the strengths of the Scrooge McDuck character—the front he constantly puts up. It's not about the money, and he knows he's losing his family, but he doesn't know how to fix it, and he constantly convinces himself that he has all he needs in life. When Donald confronts him at the end of the book, saying that his life has garnered him nothing but money, Huey, Dewey, and Louie set him straight, because they realize, as Scrooge realizes, that their reunion is a chance for Scrooge to reclaim that which he pushed away, and more, that the money in Scrooge's Money Bin will never be spent, not because Scrooge is a skinflint (he is), but because that's the money he earned with his own two hands since he left home to support his parents and his sister when he was 13 years old. In other words, the coins' value is not monetary; it's all sentimental—the same kind of mentality that Scrooge constantly denies throughout the book as having.

And yet we can see through him, and love him for it.

When I put down The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck, I instantly checked to see if it was still in print, and it wasn't. But what was in print was The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck Companion, which I promptly asked Sandy from Comic Odyssey to get me.  It came in two weeks, and it was as good as the first volume. In the Companion, Rosa fills in the blanks of his own story, telling stories in between his own chapters, for no other reason than, by his own admission, the desire to do so. These stories aren't as tragic as the ones in the first volume, as these are mostly told in flashbacks and so we see Scrooge as he is now with Donald and the boys in the framing sequences, but the stories are no less entertaining and powerful. There's a time travel jaunt that involves Magica de Spell (I'm surprised at how little I've read of Magica, actually. I thought she was always prominent.) trying to steal Scrooge's #1 dime before Scrooge ever earned it, a third adventure with Teddy Roosevelt, and "The Dream of a Lifetime," which I mentioned early on in this article.

"The Dream of a Lifetime" (which you can read in its entirety here) is the best way to end this journey, because Scrooge goes from one dream to another, and each dream is him reliving one of his adventures (while the Beagle Boys try to invade his dreams and steal the combination to his safe, and Donald invades his dreams and tries to stop them). When at his wit's end with only one card left to play, Donald manages to shift Scrooge's dream over to his days at the Yukon, and when the last Beagle Boy tries pushing that Scrooge around, Donald responds:

And it's such a cool moment. There really is no other way to describe it—I got goosebumps reading it, because having read the entirety of Rosa's epic at that point, I really felt what was coming: a royal Scrooge McDuck butt-whuppin'!

Scrooge in the Yukon means Glittering Goldie O'Gilt, the Star of the North, and Scrooge's "the one that got away." Goldie is an interesting character because she showed up once in Barks' stories, but made a clear impression on a young Don Rosa, because he clearly enjoyed telling the story of how Scrooge and Goldie never made it. And that's really, for me, the highlight of the Companion, and maybe even the whole epic in general. Rosa really fleshes out Goldie, making her far more than, as she's been called, Scrooge's version of Irene Adler (Though this may be a weird statement. None of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's successors ever wrote the definitive version of Sherlock Holmes after him the way Don Rosa did Scrooge's.). She has her own goals, her own fronts, her own lies to both Scrooge and herself, and her own hopes and dreams that get in the way of those aforementioned goals. She's stubborn, out for herself, and headstrong. Truly, the perfect girl for Scrooge, if only he could get her to earn her money square.

Goldie takes center stage in two stories. The first one, "The Prisoner of White Agony Creek," tells of the fateful month Scrooge took Goldie prisoner and forced her to work on his claim. (Barks had previously shown only the start and end of that month.) It is there that we find out what Scrooge's most prized possession is, and when the scene cuts back to the present day and the nephews debating what it is, Scrooge merely looks at the thing in question, looks back at them, and smiles with a knowing "No." Even though Scrooge didn't end up with Goldie, he at least took something with him: his memories of the one girl he came close enough to trusting and loving.

The second Goldie story, "Hearts of the Yukon," details how the two of them tried to meet each other after Scrooge made Goldie leave White Agony Creek, how it just wasn't to be. It shows their feelings for each other that were only available to the reader and no one else, and of the choices they made, all told in this elegant balance of whimsy, humor, drama, suspense, and, ultimately bittersweetness.

With characters that make you feel, interspersed with intensive research done not only on Barks' original stories but also actual history, featuring characters like Wyatt Earp, Buffalo Bill, Geronimo, and Teddy Roosevelt, Rosa's story was a clear challenge for the creator, and he meets that challenge head-on, and his love, more than his technical aptitude (which he has plenty of) or anything else, comes through. As I'm writing this, I'm reminded of Don Rosa's essay on why he quit, which went semiviral on the internet a few days ago, and as incredibly heartbreaking as it is because of the many reasons (chief among them his failing eyesight and the Disney corporate comics system), I felt that one part was really moving and reassuring somehow:

I have written in these volumes innumerable times that I am not a professional. I am a comics fan whom someone allowed to create comics. And ultimately I’ve even realized that’s more true than I even thought! Everything I’ve done, every professional move I’ve made, was because I love stuff that I did not create.

Fans who did know what an unfair system we Disney comics people work in have often said to me “you’ve made a name for yourself now! Why not stop this thankless work and produce comics of some character that you create yourself?” And publishers have often told me they would publish anything I decided to create for them. But my reply has always been “Any character I might create next week… I would not have grown up with that character. I wouldn’t care about him. My thrill is in creating stories about characters I’ve loved all my life.” I’m a fan.

When I finished both books, I went online and did research on the Duck family. What happened to Donald's sister Della? Who did she marry/who was the boys' father? Where was Glittering Goldie now? It made me want to learn everything about the characters, and you know what? It's been a long while since I felt like that. And when looking for a word for "that," the only one I could come up with was "fan." Typically these days, when I put a book down, my reactions are about what this writer is doing with this character, how a story might go given the constraints of corporate entertainment, the technical adeptness of this artist. But with The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck? All I can think of is how good it was. And how cool the characters were. And how full of wonder the stories were, themselves.

And I've just spent over 2,000 words trying to explain it, and I still think I don't do it justice. It's that good. It's that cool. It's that wonderful. And if you find these at affordable prices, pick 'em up. You won't regret it.

And now, for your benefit, the Donald Duck/Scrooge McDuck family tree:

Feb 27, 2013

Pop Medicine: Three Myths

Pop Medicine is a "visiting" column by Travis Hedge Coke for the Comics Cube! Click here for the archive!

Three Myths
Pop Medicine
Travis Hedge Coke

Stallone fucking punched through concrete, grabs the dude with the scars, and dares him to blow up the building while they’re both still in it! Then Spider-Man shows up and… That happened because I wrote it, and you read it. Did it canonically happen? Depends on your canon. It didn’t authorized happen, but it’s in your head and mine now.

Fiction is artificial. (Nonfiction, too; check four journalists covering the same ground for different news organs, or three autobiographies about the same events, and you find discrepancies in actuation, significance, characterization, the whole shebang. But that’s touchy, so let’s stick to what it says on the tin fiction. So let’s start this again, while still really starting up above.)

Fiction is artificial. To make something up is make something. Fictional writing, fictional art, conscious communication is engineered. We forget that too easily We don’t say “Stallone pretended to be this cop and he acts like he’s punching through a solid wall to stop Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa’s character, who’s got this makeup on to look like scars…” we say “Stallone fucking punched through concrete, grabs the dude with the scars, and dares him to blow up the building while they’re both still in it! Then he breaks his neck. It was fucking awesome.” I have never before this said anything like, “John Romita drew the idea of Peter Parker being embarrassed, but even more enthused, by how beautiful, forward-moving women would just buoy him along to dance clubs or the movies. He uses lines to make you think you’re seeing Parker, seeing him more confident and huskier, but you’re just seeing lines, man! Lines! And someone colored them in. It’s fucking amazing.”

We don’t want to think about that. Heck, we don’t want to think of pencilers or colorists as fiction-makers, anyway. Nine times out of ten, when you criticize a commercial visual artist for a call they clearly made, like, say, tits-and-ass-forward martial arts poses, or a rage-filled, screaming superhero portrait in a series where everyone else is stoic and calm or the Hulk, someone will come to their defense as if visual art is reflexive, impossible to craft, dumb to think through. (I’ll put real money down that someone reads this, and when they hit this spot, they start mentally arguing that exact point.) We don’t want to think of commercial anything as having craft to it, having intent or shape other than the commercialism.

Which, brings us to our first myth about crafting comics:

1. Artists Aren’t Writers

This can become “Why is that artist trying to be a writer?” or “That comic was so cool, how come everything that artist does is cool, but the writer’s other stuff is so weak?” It can also turn into “Who’s more important: artists or writers?” And all those are missing the point, which is that comics don’t live or die by the writing or the art, they have to have both and it’s impossible to separate them into two categories simply because one person does the heavy lifting in one area, another in the other respect. Like a good script and a great director can make a subpar actor shine like a genius, an awesome comics script might make a penciler a better symbolist or structuralist, and a cool enough colorist can make a writer and penciler look smarter than they are. Collaborators, at their best, are supporting each other to be greater than the sum of the parts, and all that beautiful optimistic jazz.

People aren’t machines, scripts and blue line art are not programs you run through automation that kick out dialogued, colored, drawn and plotted comics. A penciler may leave color notes, a writer may ask for a particular bodytype or hairstyle, a penciler can control the pace or emphasis of a scene. Most of the stepping on toes in comics happens when collaborators don’t have clear enough bounds for where they should do some work and where and when, in the course of making a comic, the other factor should have final say. I’ve seen artists draw things that derail what the writer had in mind, and I’ve seen writers enforce unworkable designs and pace on artists who by all evidence can handle that part themselves.

You cannot draw a comics page, you can’t even draw a comics panel without telling some kind of story, without narrative and world immediately present. The way someone draws Judge Dredd or Daffy Duck is characterization, every single time. The divisions of labor do not change that. When I say that my favorite bits of Watchmen are mostly Dave Gibbons, I don’t mean because he draws well, I mean that in terms of story and atmospheric elements he contributed stuff I dig. Laura Martin made The Authority for me, and that’s no slight on anyone else who worked on that title, and yes her colors change how I perceive that entire comic, her colors controlled whole scenes and brought something to them that’s not there in the black and white art or the scripts.

Whether the Huntress stands with a straight back or Archie Andrews suddenly pops his collar and has huge eyes does change the way a story is taken. When the uncredited colorist on Gene Colan’s Daredevil used to color background characters with variety instead of generic anglo skintone #1, it added something and it changed the whole comic. The way Jack Kirby drew Black Panther and Wyatt Wingfoot, their design, their body language, the things he had them doing, assisted by Stan Lee’s dialogue, is massive, especially for the era, and just their visuals, stripped of narrative, is a wealth of communication, but I mean their presence as badasses alone is substantial. In the Black Panther’s first appearance, this super-rich, genius, suave, black king beats up the Fantastic Four in their own title, and it’s the Native American dude who’s just chilling the whole time, who saves them. And he does it without a faux-ethnicized “ugg white eyes” speech pattern or a feather in a headband.

2. Diversity for Diversity’s Sake

Nobody does this!

Now, I know, some of you may have justification for why you believe several writers, artists, publishers, and Zionist conspiracies do, but no. It doesn’t fucking happen.

And, not the least because it’s semantically null, as a statement. It’s a statement that means nothing and is designed to shut down any genuine conversation. Repeating it is you being afraid of actually considering what adding diversity to entertainment does.

The people adding it have things they hope it does, everyone single one of them. If they’re even thinking of it as “diversity” and not simply “the people and things I’m working with in this story.” Not everyone has an ethnically diverse cast of men and women (and green-skinned robots) because they are pushing an agenda or simply stumbled into it ignorantly. Maybe they resemble the kind of people that writer/artist is familiar with on a daily basis (yes, even the robot).

When Greg Pak was rocking Hulk then Herc, with Amadeus Cho often front and center, you couldn’t talk about the comics without someone worrying he was going to just fill up his comics with a bunch of Asians. No evidence of it, but the very idea was s appalling it was freaking people out.

The only thing that seems to bug more Archie fans to loud hating than Kevin Keller is Jughead gasp! tolerating women and shit. What’s up, Archie Comics? Lose your balls? Jughead hates women! It’s not false nostalgia for a term that’s increasingly going to be taken straight. You can tell by the fact he used to say it with a goofy look on his face while hanging out with women. Yessir, every single cover he and Betty have ever been on together is unquestionable evidence that Jughead is a massive misogynist and always has been until about three months ago.

Or, someone at Archie just put down a hamburger one day, looked across the table to whoever was sitting there, and said, “You know how Jughead still, in the 21st Century refers to himself as a ‘woman hater?’” And knocked it.

Jughead, hanging out with girls. Archie hooking up with a black singer. What sick future is Archie trying to sell us here? What are they forcing into their comics? What’s next, Archie Comics? Italians?

3. Exaggeration is Bad

I love Punisher vs Archie. The comic doesn’t even have to be good, the concept is that fantastic. But it doesn’t disappoint, either. Satirical Punisher is the only Punisher I can do, really, and even when you play him straight and to the letter, putting him in Riverdale satirizes, reflexively, both the Punisher and the Archie characters. Heck, Garth Ennis did it keeping the Punisher in New York City, just by having him loudly punching polar bears, mowing down every criminal he got near, fighting a massive fanboy, steamrolling a constantly monologuing Wolverine, by playing him straight without excuses, the Punisher becomes satire by his own actions. (The illusion of “his own actions.”)

That sort of thing can get right into the heart of some readers, like a poison knife. They hate when the absurdity becomes apparent. When things are just played loud. Some will self-blind, like people who insist The Dark Knight Returns is totally serious and respectful unless they’re a Superman fan and then they might self-blind to the fact Superman is calm, rational, supporting reasonable law when he goes against Batman and aids in his escape from capture at the end of the comic. But in Dark Knight Strikes Again, the sequel to The Dark Knight, Superman’s drawn all funny sometimes, and that is just too damned much.

Why would the talent draw so much attention to the big or goofy parts like that? Why was Garth Ennis making fun of Wolverine like that in his Punisher story? Doesn’t he know Wolverine has feelings? Why would Warren Ellis write a gay Batman and Superman riff as smart, caring, badass superheroes and not just a gay joke that would make the really real Batman and Superman shine? How can we never get confirmation on whether or not Hobbes is alive? Are we really supposed to read hundreds of individual Calvin and Hobbes strips just wondering? Think of the children, Mr. Watterson! Batman talking like a tough guy and wearing bright colors! Batman’s realistic, Mr. Morrison! Realistic! And, Garfield - Garfield? Quit making Jon Arbuckle look like a sadsack loser!

Naturally, those complaints, all real, if paraphrased, complaints, aren’t from the same person. I hope they don’t reflect a single person even by chance. And, to a degree, we all probably do it, a little reflexively, if it’s a character close to us, close to our heart or something. Superboy punching reality until it broke, in Infinite Crisis, genuinely seems to still freak people out. Superboy sitting at a computer, typing out complaints about how the universe that replaced him sucks. Some people don’t want to see that lifting five hundred tons can’t cure world hunger on its own. They don’t want to know that people who don’t know Peter Parker is Spider-Man probably do think he’s a bit of a weasel for selling all those pictures to an outfit that just hates on Spider-Man 24/7. I know some Invisibles fans who can’t stand that by the end, King Mob’s whole identity of stylish anarchic assassin is taken apart and he’s just an aging guy who can’t face that his girlfriend left him, his cat died, and he’s getting old.

Why? I hate to turn this on you, the reader, and on myself, but we can’t answer for the other people. We can, hopefully, answer for ourselves. Why does highlighting absurdity or irony burn us so bad? I hope that I don’t, anymore, personally. I feign it sometimes, for humor, or to exaggerate a point, as anyone who’s talked with me about Minmei or Shiori, or Hellcat can attest to. I don’t actively freak the hell out, though, and I haven’t thought a character was, then, broken forever since I was a little… never. I never got that broken forever twinge, no matter what happened to any character, books, movies, comics, anywhere. And if the idea is that what Superboy can punch is enough to break him forever, or that a day without his cat to talk to is enough to destroy your faith and the entertainment-value of Jon Arbuckle, how strong was your connection to them, anyway, that it matters so much?

Captain America, dying, weakened, laughed at by the common people of America, dons armor at the end of Mark Gruenwald’s run, and it embarrasses him. Captain America is humiliated to have to wear this stuff, and it’s fitted full, too, every bell, whistle, and airbag you can imagine. He’s buried in that armor, and everyone’s laughing at him. Regardless, he continues forward, he never stops being a superhero, being a great superhero, and a good man, until he dies. And, he only dies, Mark Gruenwald only kills him, because there’s going to be another Captain America adventure a month later. He’s going to be revived. Gruenwald wasn’t breaking Captain America, he was taking everything away from him so we’d get pissed off and want our guy, the real guy, the good one back.

When Batman is dressed in bright colors in RIP and reminds himself Robin dressed that way all the time, that it’s a sign of confidence, that’s not to make fun of Batman and his dark costumes, it’s to highlight what a badass every Robin has to be, that these kids put on bright colors, minimal protection, and throw themselves headfirst at crowds of armed killers.

Drawing the cape on Krypto isn’t making fun of him. It’s not parodying dogs. It’s just what Krypto wears. Yes, it’s a little silly looking sometimes, and dog-Superman seems absurd, but it’s no more or less absurd than Superman. Once you’ve bought in enough that you can handle Superman, you should be able to chill out and appreciate dog-Superman. (Even, if you don’t like dog-Superman.)

Fiction is artificial. To make something up is make something. Structures and patterns will form despite you or with you complicit yet unaware. But fiction, all fiction, is entertainment. It can be other than entertainment, too, but it is, at it’s fore, entertainment. It’s not reality, it’s not remaking reality, it’s making something else. Treating it as reality is an indulgence we all permit ourselves at some points, we immerse ourselves in entertainments and empathize and feel everything as best we can because it is pleasurable and it does give us more meaning for our buck. But to forget that this is an indulgence is dangerous and dumb and probably many other words that start with d. Don’t do it. Stop doing it. Don’t let your friends do it. The moment you get more bent out of shape over fictional occurrences and imaginary people than you do the world that right now is touching you with its air and embracing you with its sounds, the one with actual people and real dogs and genuine events in it, stop.

Feb 25, 2013

Back Issue Ben: Guarding the Galaxy 3: Drax the Destroyer

Back Issue Ben is a column written by Ben Smith for the Comics Cube! See his archives here.

Part Three: The Epic Begins
by Ben Smith

We’ve already learned all we need to know about major players Star-Lord and Thanos. Now it’s time to meet some more of the characters that would make the Marvel cosmic universe so great in the past decade.

Drax the Destroyer was a character created and introduced to be the antithesis to Thanos. Drax was a human named Arthur Douglas, whose family was killed by Thanos. Reborn as Drax The Destroyer by the being Kronos, it is his purpose and destiny to one day kill Thanos.

His mind destroyed following the events of Infinity Watch, we join Drax many years later.

Feb 21, 2013

Alan Moore at Awesome, Day 5: Supreme, the Return

Welcome to Day 5 of The Comics Cube!'s retrospective series on Alan Moore's time at Awesome Comics. You can read about this series here.

Supreme: The Return
Awesome Endings

After The Story of the Year, Chris Sprouse took over Supreme as the regular penciller for five issues, some again with flashback sequences. There would then be a rotating cast of artists for the last five issues. 

Since Sprouse's style wasn't at all exemplary of the 90s zeitgeist, what contrast there is in the art styles is merely a stylistic, not thematic, one. And that's fine, because Moore pretty much got done saying what he had to say about the evolution of comics and comics art in the first book. He wasn't done making little jokes about it, however, and in the first story in the trade paperback The Return, Supreme finds that one copy of the book he draws, Omniman, has become an issue of Supreme! In fact, it was the very issue that contained the story, and this leads to a fight between Supreme and a suddenly physically real Omniman. This issue introduces Carl Chambers, Dazzle Comics' new assistant editor, who's quick to point out that yes, these superheroes have ludicrous anatomies and the people in that world have to deal with it.

Feb 20, 2013

Pop Medicine: The Accumulation of Life

 Pop Medicine is a "visiting" column by Travis Hedge Coke for the Comics Cube! Click here for the archive!

The Accumulation of Life
Pop Medicine
Travis Hedge Coke

Comics fans, by and large, like long-term serial characters. We beat the hell out of any movie, television, or prose series in terms of regular, ongoing, consistently-released serial entertainment. That has its benefits and its drawbacks, but the traditional or common handling of some inevitabilities, I think, become drawbacks when they simply do not have to. The accumulation of characterization and personal trivia, for instance, is often looked at as dead weight that needs to be trimmed for an “iconic” presentation, or as impenetrable complication, rather than functional complexity.

The time you can spend with a fictional character, the more chances there are to learn all kinds of things about them. We know more details of Bruce Wayne’s life and tastes, than we do Buck Mulligan’s, not because any one or five Batman writers is superior at characterization to James Joyce, but because we have had decades of Batman stories, several a month for the most of that time, and while most recycle or reiterate the same points, there’s enough additional every year to keep him broadening and growing. We know a broader scope of relationships for Superman than we do Sam Malone or Rory Gilmore, despite both characters getting a fair amount of television coverage over the years, because there are thousands of stories with Superman in them, as well as guidebooks, trading card trivia, stats sheets, et cetera. Nature of the beast.

Over the years and the many diverse hands that have handled him, we have learned that Reed Richards, leader of the Fantastic Four is super-genius, forgetful, has a silly sense of humor, enjoys Clive Barker short stories, baseball, Bob Dylan, getting into adventures, sexy women who’ll go with him anywhere, watching his friend play football, turning into a dinosaur and giving kids rides around the room, and his favorite movie in the world is Josie and the Pussycats. He’s a show-off, but gets embarrassed easily. He’s had therapy hostage and torture-based PTSD. His dad is both his icon of greatness and a blatant egotistical jerk. He’s a judo expert. He tries too hard. Somehow, he shaves a stretchy beard.

Can we look at any single comic and get that? Can we see an image of Reed Richards, or a scene with him, and understand these things?

New writers and artists, new editors, tie-ins, guest spots, serials and oneshots, ongoings and minis, details co-opted from movies, television, radio, prose, or popular jokes, it agglomerates. And, we can sense this, intuitively. We can become concerned about engaging a long-existing character, because we do not know who they know, who are their friends, their foes, what’s their favorite movie, what foods don’t they like? I can imagine jumping onto Spawn right now, or Mary Worth, as a sort of blind date where you’re not allowed to actually start a conversation with the person on the other side of the table, or ask them anything as you stand next to them for an entire concert, never knowing if they even like the band, much less you, until they reveal it on their own time. Is Mary worth that stress? Is Spawn? Is Batman? There’s movie-Batman, after all; he’s pared down, they introduce everyone each time, and he’s not got any of that outré werewolves or Gorilla City stuff to worry about.

Don’t buy a guidebook. Don’t ask a friend to catch you up on them. Quit trying to date Mary Worth. It’s not even that level of commitment. No one’s going to pin you down, no matter how long or how passionately you read a comic, and strong arm you into promising a lifelong commitment. Remember, before you read, or as you read, that these characters, regardless of how long they have been around or how many stories with them there are, they’re fictions, they are engineered, and so, too, their stories. You’re not going to embarrass the fictional people, or yourself much, if you misunderstand a relationship or an event.

The talent making these comics do have control over how a character is introduced in that comic, that release, how a story begins or when reveals come. The talent may step on each other’s toes, sure, and accidents happen like when paste ups used to sometimes fall off or a placeholder snippet of text would run instead of the actual words that should have been there. (I’m considering editors as talent here, for those keeping tabs; I believe that it is a flaw not to.) One set of talent’s intentions may be overridden by other talents’ retcons or modifications at a later date, or straightaway in a concurrently running comic. But, on the whole, you can trust what you see and read and understand in a comic, in a single release. If it’s a bait and switch or a sting, you’ll find out when the time comes; so you were fooled? So what?

But, I digress. Maybe.

Serial characters have a lot of agglomerated history, yes, they have accumulated revelations of this taste or that preference, they’re relationship to other characters may be a mix of friendly and animosity. Their best friend may have married their sister’s nephew. This does not mean that it’s all gone so labyrinthine and up its ass no newcomer can get in and understand (and enjoy). Look at your own life, and you’ll find many people you’ve met once or twice who may know someone famous, your childhood neighbor may have married your dad after your mom passed. These things happen. People interact, both real and fictional. But, just as you, in your own life, don’t focus on your friend knowing Megan Fox all the time (even every time you think of your friend), Captain America didn’t spend every issue of New Avengers focusing on Spider-Man’s model/actress wife. Reed Richards reads Clive Barker, but not every waking moment of his life and a third of his dreams have to circle around Barker. Spider-Man may find Prince too intense, but he doesn’t dwell on it. Dragon, from Savage Dragon, reads comics, as does one of the Flashes, but we only need to see evidence, in a story, as it is significant to their characterization or the plot.

The talent must show us (for the first time, or the umpteenth) what we should know for a single comic to work, a solitary story or excerpt. This isn’t a job for the characters (who have no will of their own), nor for the readers (who are not studying for a test), and on the whole, the writers and artists, editors and colorists do try to nail this every time. Few people last in commercial comics who just don’t care a whit. So you don’t even need to take that deep breath; you can just pick up a comic and give it a shot. Assume you will know what’s going on and you probably will. Presume you will be behind and must know everything before it is shown you, everything that is not presented for you, and you will feel this is true. It’s self-fulfilling paranoia.

For chronic serial characters, it is paramount that you, the reader, remember they are fictional constructs. They are imaginary. They are an imaginary thing we are sharing, all the audience, all the talent. Contradictions and accumulations do not hinder unless they are allowed to. They do not mask a core or genuine character. There is no genuine Batman, no real Superman, no pure Incredible Hulk. Charlie Brown is everything you remember he ever did or said, every dynamic he ever represented or relationship he had that you recall, same as, when someone does a Charlie Brown comic, he is what they remember of him, how they understand him, at that moment. When a serial character does something “out of character” it is hardly different than when people we know (or tell ourselves we knew) do something unpredictable, perhaps irrational. There’s reasons, and unlike with real people, those reasons can (and probably will) be invented after the actions that necessitate them. Or, the out of character moment, the displeasing action, will be forgotten by us and by those around them (until it is remembered), just as we do with friends, colleagues, neighbors or celebrities in real life.

Serial characters require us (and their talent) to forget, to alter, to remember and to remember wrongly. They may have too many incidents in their life, for the apparent age of the character(s), but that’s not something the characters can do anything about. It is for us to do, the self-check to bear in mind that Batman or Dennis Mitchell don’t have ages. Little Jeffy doesn’t exist in real time; Family Circus isn’t real. When Family Circus characters show up in another strip, as parody or earnest appropriation, they’re not really in connection, there, not objectively. They are subjectively, as long as we remember it, tethered and no further.

Even when, as I mentioned above, there are multiple Flashes, this is not cause for concern or paranoia. There are multiple firemen in New York, multiple dentists in Rome. When we read about a dentist in Rome, we do not concern ourselves with those dentists we do not see, or with the dentists who are friends of our dentist. We attend and enjoy our dentist. Or, we go find some other dentist to read about, or some non-dentist character in some other work. If there is some further dynamic you need to know for a comic, competent talent will provide that information for you, directly or subtly.

Who knew, when we talk about “my Green Lantern” or say, “that’s not how my Dick Tracy acts” how right and true we are being? We share a great deal of perception and information, as it relates to these characters, but the sharing is not essential. It’s not about knowing every detail and tracking it all, or condensing and paring until some primal character or icon is achieved. It’s about perpetuating. The best that Spider-Man stories can do, potentially, is make you want more Spider-Man stories. The energy of serial characters is their potential to last as long as they are of use. The bonds between my Batman and yours is as ephemeral as what tethers ours to Christopher Nolan’s, Chuck Dixon’s, or Sam Hamm’s, but in those ephemeral connections, is the energy to keep generating commercial fiction about Batman, otherwise we’d be left to our versions, our imaginations and memories alone.

When the talent stop communicating clearly the important elements of a character and their current story, to new audience, when they cannot introduce characters functionally or establish a reason we should empathize with them at all, the talent have failed. When an audience does not accept what it presented to them fairly and reasonably, favoring instead a jaded prescience or a reliance on pointing out something that happened some twenty real-time years earlier, in a tangential story, that audience has failed, mostly because they’re not enjoying it doing those things and you can tell. Talent and audience, both, should be capable of handling contradictions and forgetfulness in their serial fiction, if for no other reason than to avoid being hypocritical, but neither should delude themselves into thinking nothing counts that has come before or after “their” time, their instance, their character.

And, if they do? If the failure is so strong the character stops there, the serialization ends? Well, you have the version in your head, you have old copies or reprints, and you have how many other entertainments to take your dollars and time?

Feb 18, 2013

Back Issue Ben: Guarding the Galaxy 2: Thanos

 Back Issue Ben is a column written by Ben Smith for the Comics Cube! See his archives here.

Guarding the Galaxy: Exploring the Marvel Cosmic Universe
Part 2: Thanos
by Ben Smith

As I said in my exploration of Star-Lord, I didn’t have a great fondness for the space-faring comics as a youth. I spent most of my time reading Spider-Man and X-Men comics, so I didn’t know much about characters like Warlock, Captain Marvel, Silver Surfer, or Thanos. Thanos was a character created by writer/artist Jim Starlin, and made his debut all the way back in Iron Man #55. He bounced around from lower tier book to lower tier book, and never really made a big impact until the ‘90s, when he returned in Silver Surfer #34. (I remember that comic being a hot comic at the time, and it, in turn, drove up the price of his first appearance. I remember buying a copy of Iron Man #55 for fairly cheap from my local comic book store, before they realized that it was the first appearance of Thanos. I never even read it, I just liked to have all the “valuable” comics I could.) Those appearances in Silver Surfer were just a prelude to the book that made him a star, the epic Infinity Gauntlet mini-series.

Thanos is a Titan born from Eternals Mentor and Sui-San. Thanos carries a gene that makes him look different from his fellow Titans, and that always set him apart in his mind, despite never being treated as different. Thanos would come to be obsessed with nihilism and death, eventually even falling in love with the physical embodiment of Death herself. Thanos was always seeking more power, either by gaining control of a Cosmic Cube or the Infinity Gems, always in an effort to impress Mistress Death.

In 2006, the cosmic side of the Marvel universe exploding on my radar with the Annihilation event. While I hadn’t read the Thanos series that preceded those comics at the time, it did set up several of the characters that would come to play a part in that event. Especially Thanos, who was much different in appearance and motivation during Annihilation. Changed by recent events, Thanos no longer sought universal conquest, and seemed to be trying to find a new purpose for himself in the process.

(For the purposes of this retrospective, I am going to skip the first six issues of the series. While those are solidly entertaining comics, written and drawn by Starlin, they don’t have as direct an impact on the wave of cosmic books to follow.)

Feb 15, 2013

Reclaiming History: Top 10 Archie Artists

Welcome to a new installment of Reclaiming History, an ongoing series where the Comics Cube! tries to balance out what the history books say and what actually happened! Click here for the archive!

I've been really getting into Archie Comics the last couple of years, even more than I have in the past. I've bought the two Best of Archie volumes, and a couple of the "Best of" artist editions. I've actually ended up studying the different Archie artists so I could distinguish them by their distinct styles, despite the fact that they all conform to the usual Archie house style.

I thought it'd be fun, as an exercise, to try and do a top 10 list of Archie artists, not in terms of quality (which is mostly subjective), but in terms of influence and importance (which is also subjective, but less so).

In putting together this list, I pretty much had to set some criteria so I could be fair and consistent with my reasonings for the rankings, and I boiled it down to three questions:

1) How much did they add to Archie lore? Did they create new characters, or worked on new features that have endured? Did they work on stories that were talked about for future generations? (Norm Breyfogle almost made it in because of this alone, due to Life With Archie, but I figured it was too early to tell for sure, and he jumped off that series within a year.)

2) Did they follow a house style, or did they break a new mold? Obviously for the purposes of this list, we'll favor the latter.

3) How is their art received today? Do they inspire new generations of artists? Do people clamor for their works to be reprinted? Do people say, "Yeah, I like Archie, but I especially like it when that guy is drawing"?

10. Bill Woggon

Bill Woggon makes this list purely because he created Katy Keene, America's Pin-Up Queen, who is an Archie property who doesn't (normally) interact with Archie characters and isn't even drawn in the same house style. But Katy's such a valuable property to the company that Woggon should be here.

Woggon's style is completely different from any "regular" Archie artist, as he employs different proportions, gestures, and anatomical tells such as eyes from his peers, and is instantly distinct.

Although the success of Katy Keene meant that Woggon would rarely draw the regular Archie characters, he did do it sometimes, such as in this Betty and Veronica tale from 1946.

9. Joe Edwards

Like Woggon, Edwards created a valuable property for Archie that is constantly used by Archie, although she really has nothing to do with the main Archie universe. Li'l Jinx's adventures are often reprinted in digests, and most recently, a teenage Jinx has been the protagonist of Archie's new attempt to reach a wider kids/tween/teen audience.

Edwards gets the nod over Woggon because he still drew the main cast after the creation of Li'l Jinx, handling some stories and projects such as the ill-fated (but meant to be cashing in on the animated series) New Archies.

8. George Frese

Of the Archie artists who worked in the Golden Age before DeCarlo came along, George Frese was probably the most distinct hand next to Bob Montana. His style was very expressive, taking what Montana did and adding his own little spins (the most notable, for me, being the buck teeth on Archie). Frese was such a good hand that he was the one who kicked off Archie's Rival, Reggie, a series about Archie's arch-nemesis, and he was also the first artist on Ginger, which could only really be described as a female Archie. Although neither series lasted that long (but Reggie obviously has endured), Frese's distinct style and prolificacy earns him the eighth spot on this list.

7. Bob Bolling

Bob Bolling is one of those guys who clearly is trying to follow the house style, but he sticks out anyway because of a combination of things. You can look at the way he draws eyes (a little rounder and a bit farther apart than DeCarlo's), the bodies (a bit more teen-ish), and the hairstyles (he gives Betty a 60s flourish to her hairdo, for one), and for my part, I notice a lot of the schmaltzy (and I mean that in the best way possible) feel-good stories (often stories where Betty actually wins one over Veronica) are drawn by Bolling.

But Bolling really makes his way this high for another reason: he created Little Archie (if that can be called a separate creation, but that's another debate altogether), and that's pretty important.

6. Dan Parent

The current head Archie artist, Dan Parent's been working in Archie for a couple of decades now, and even when he was doing Archie 3000, he already had a distinct style with looser lines and trademark Parent poses (if you ever want to see if Parent drew something, check out the closed eyes, smiling 3/4 shot — he likes that) and figure drawing (Parent succeeds in making the teenagers look like teenagers. Teens are almost always a problem for artists, and somehow we as readers accept that. But it's not a problem for Dan Parent.). If this were an "important writers" list, Parent would most likely be higher, due to having written important Archie storylines like "Love Showdown," as well as spearheading stories like Archie's first interracial relationship (Archie and Valerie of the Pussycats) and the introduction of Archie's first gay character (Kevin Keller), which he drew himself. ("Love Showdown" was a collaborative effort artistically.)

Parent is a good example of what's hard about putting these lists together. Since this is an artists list, does he get rewarded or penalized for writing the history-making stories that he himself is drawing? After all, no one else on this list had the benefit of working on stories all their own in the day and age of Archie pushing the envelope. None of them have had to deal with the massive amount of backlash that is unique in the Age of the Internet. Furthermore, will Parent's changes be remembered in 20 years as the big, giant deals they were when they happened (although the Kevin Keller introduction was obviously more of a big deal than the Archie/Valerie pairing), or will society have changed so much at that point that the magnitude of the reactions when Kevin Keller was introduced will be forgotten (the Archie/Valerie pairing will be remembered more in 20 years, as one of the stories where Archie chose someone who's not Betty or Veronica, much like.... "Love Showdown.")?

Where will Parent rank on this list when the history books are written? I don't have the answer to that question, nor do I have the answer to all those questions in the previous paragraph. But for now, February 15, 2013, let's all just agree that what Parent has been doing in the last few years is a pretty damn big deal.

5. Stan Goldberg

Stan Goldberg is eighty years old and has been working at Archie for half his life. His place in history is helped greatly by the fact that he was the primary artist from the 90s to around 2005, an era in which artists were properly credited, but even if it weren't, it wouldn't matter. Goldberg's style follows DeCarlo's established house style, and can be said to be more "masculine," in that his figures tend to have thicker eyebrows and more resolved postures and gestures. He's a bit more bombastic in terms of action without going over the top, and he's got a bit of a Jack Kirby influence going on in terms of the impact he puts in the panels, which is probably not surprising considering he worked in the Marvel bullpen during the rise of Marvel in the sixties. As a result, he tends to be the artist for when Archie gets into big adventures chasing criminals and he furls his eyebrows a lot.

Goldberg's been involved in a good number of high-profile Archie stories over the years — including drawing chapters of the birth of Jughead's sister Jellybean and the aforementioned "Love Showdown," and drawing the Archie portion of the unique (and awesome) Archie/Punisher crossover — but none of them were as big as the Archie wedding, a six-issue arc that ran from 2009 to 2010 that took us to two possible futures: one where Archie married Veronica, and one where he married Betty. It was the event that put Archie Comics back on the map, reminding people why they loved Archie all this time. Goldberg was 77 when he drew it, and his art clearly suffered, but he was still deemed to be the right artist to handle it, and that says something.

There are only four Archie artists right now getting "Best of" artist editions. And though not a perfect indicator (our number 2 guy doesn't even have one), it does indicate a place in history. Stan Goldberg has one volume out. And that means something. Stan Goldberg mattered, and when it's all said and done and all fans remember him at his peak through the reprint digest, he always will.

4. Samm Schwartz

Quick! Name your favorite Archie character!

You said Jughead, didn't you? Okay, fine, maybe you didn't, but I bet you're outnumbered. Jughead Jones is Archie's cool friend, the one who doesn't care about anything other than eating and sleeping. Schwartz was the main artist of Jughead for two stretches of time, 1949–1965 and 1969–1987. Wikipedia says his style is distinguished by "loose, rubbery character poses and skinny, simplified designs," which is true, but I'd add the adjective "angular" somewhere in there. Schwartz was also known for characters breaking out of panel borders and putting in background gags that had nothing to do with the main stories in his strips. The way Schwartz would draw backgrounds, you could feel the architecture of Riverdale with each strip, as if by putting Schwartz stories together you could construct a clear picture of that tiny little town. Here's a cool article about how to tell Schwartz apart from everyone else.

But more importantly, Schwartz was the premiere artist for Archie's best friend. The back cover of The Best of Samm Schwartz, says, "Schwartz took Jughead from not much more than a second-stringer and molded him into one of the most beloved and important contributions in the Riverdale milieu." Joe Edwards (#9 on this list) said of Schwartz, "He made Jughead!"

Schwartz's other contributions include Big Ethel Muggs, who's always running after Jughead, and Jughead's cousin Bingo Wilkin, and his mini-universe. He also created Jughead's ultra-cool "Dipsy Doodles" feature, where he does a painting that comes to life somehow.

As previously stated, only four artists have "Best of" editions currently being put out by IDW and Archie. Samm Schwartz has two volumes out.

3. Harry Lucey

The back cover of the Best of Samm Schwartz says that Schwartz should be in the Pantheon of Archie Artists, but that the Pantheon only includes our top 3 choices. So I don't think the top 4, with Schwartz being fourth, was ever in doubt.

Harry Lucey was the primary Archie artist from the late 50s to the mid 70s, and he brought a very distinct style to the Riverdale crew. The word for Lucey was "motion," and if not that, it was "gesture." Lucey could communicate a lot with a few lines, which would explain why he drew so many silent strips. He could also match DeCarlo himself when it came to Good Girl Art, and his girls always seemed flirtier than everyone else's).

You can tell a Harry Lucey story from sight right off the bat. He's the guy who draws a whole mouth on the side of the face in a profile shot, and when a character does something with energy, they put their whole body into it. Jaime Hernandez, of Love and Rockets fame, frequently cites Lucey as an influence, stating in his introduction to The Best of Harry Lucey that "For me, there are very few artists in the history of comics who brought their characters to life with body language, simple gesure, and timing as Lucey did."

As previously stated, only four artists have "Best of" editions currently being put out by IDW and Archie. Like Samm Schwartz, Harry Lucey has two volumes out.

2. Bob Montana

Bob Montana is really the only other person with an argument for the top spot on this list, as he is the co-creator of Archie! Working with writer Vic Bloom, Montana made a mark on Archie twice: the first time, in Pep Comics #22, when he drew the first ever Archie story (introducing Archie, Betty, and Jughead in the process), and the second time when he was tasked to draw the Archie newspaper strip, which ran in over 750 newspapers.

The thing you need to understand is this: both times, Montana seemed like two completely different artists. While his early Archie comic book work seemed crude, with rough lines and an incredibly old-looking Jughead, his comic strip work was more confident, with bolder lines and more reminiscent (can I use that word? Shouldn't it be something like "preminiscent"? I just made up "preminiscent." I'm gonna stick with it.) of the Archie house style that would endure for decades.

Not that you could blame Montana, of course, since he was the first ever artist of the Riverdale crew, and he had to figure it out from there. So he didn't figure it out right off the bat. Big deal; how many people really do? Even Jack Kirby needed a while to perfect Captain America's look. And when Montana did figure it out, it looked great. So he made his mark twice: once upon creation and once upon perfection (until DeCarlo and Lucey came along later to take it a step further), and how many people can say that?

IDW isn't putting out a "Best of Bob Montana" series like it's doing with the other four of our top 5 artists, but it is putting out the complete set of Montana's newspaper strips.

1. Dan DeCarlo

This couldn't really have been anyone else, any way I looked at it. Only Bob Montana, by virtue of being the creator of Archie, had a case for it, but DeCarlo just did more. He took what Montana did and came up with the all-time classic versions and looks of these characters, and while Harry Lucey worked concurrently with DeCarlo and was the primary artist on the actual Archie comic, it's DeCarlo's style that became the house style. His Good Girl Art credentials prior to Archie made him a hit on Betty and Veronica, and, unlike Lucey at times, I don't think his Good Girl Art was ever over the top. By all accounts, after Montana, the two main artists were DeCarlo and Lucey, and DeCarlo's style lived on even when he was done in the styles of Dan Parent and Stan Goldberg and all the other artists, while Lucey's was too unique, too Lucey. Hence the placement of our top 3 artists.

And, when it came to creating, DeCarlo was no slouch. In addition to making the Riverdale gang his own (maybe Lucey drew the more recognizable Archie, and maybe Schwartz drew the more recognizable Jughead, but no one drew a more recognizable gang than DeCarlo), he created Josie and the Pussycats (Josie, Melody, and Valerie Smith, the last of whom is Archie's first most notable black character — and if we're going to credit Dan Parent for pushing the envelope in terms of content, then shouldn't we credit DeCarlo for this too, even though it's almost inconceivable to think now of this being a big deal?), Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and Cheryl Blossom — and unlike Katy Keene and Li'l Jinx, these characters could easily cross over with the regular Riverdale gang.

Of the top 5 guys on this list, DeCarlo's is the hardest to distinguish from other artists, especially other artists prior to the 21st century. And why? Because so many other artists took his lead, tried drawing like him. But he did it better than all of them, with an economy of line and gesture, and his storytelling and expressions were clearer than his less innovative (but nonetheless talented) followers.

And, as previously stated, only four artists have "Best of" editions currently being put out by IDW and Archie. Stan Goldberg currently has one volume out. Samm Schwartz and Harry Lucey have two apiece. Dan DeCarlo? He has four. The only way Dan DeCarlo didn't top this list was if this list was written before Dan DeCarlo worked on Archie.

And I think that seals it.

Thoughts? Did I miss anyone? Do you agree with the rankings? Lemme know in the comments!

Feb 14, 2013

Pop Medicine: Romantic Comics You Need to Read

Pop Medicine is a "visiting" column by Travis Hedge Coke for the Comics Cube! Click here for the archive!

Romantic Comics You Need to Read
Pop Medicine
Travis Hedge Coke

February means Valentine’s Day, and Valentine’s Day means giving and getting chocolate, mad declarations of love and eternity, and comics. Because every holiday means comics. You know in your heart this is true.

Here, listed in a deliberately scrambled order, are fourteen excellently romantic comics you should check out. Buy one for that special someone come the fourteenth. Heck, buy all fourteen for several someones special. Read them before the gifting, borrow them after, or read them together.

The list is highly arbitrary. Note that Urusei Yatsura is not on the list, as overall, it’s an anti-romantic or skewering of romance ideals, but the Valentine’s Day episodes, with a gradeschool girl determinedly pursuing an alien kid and telling him that by accepting her chocolate he has to marry her or the Japanese government will put him to death is the best Valentine’s Day comic possible, and deserves special mention. So why isn’t it on the list by itself? Highly arbitrary.

Now, remember, always, that love means sharing comics.

1. Two-Step (Warren Ellis; Amanda Conner)

Wandering infotainment gal, Rosi Blades, in search of a good feed for her camera, meets a nice, off-beat young gentleman who is busy shooting at people and pursuing stolen property for his boss. Tony’s a zen gangster, and that’s as intriguing and annoying as you can imagine, but what the hell, it’s more interesting that videoing a plastic bag floating in a dust devil like in American Beauty. So off they go, in pursuit of artificial oversized genitals the envy of mob bosses the world over, busily flirting and fighting and flirting and not dying and flirting and flirting and lackadaisically avoiding disaster.

2. Fake (Sanomi Matoh)

Whenever I come back to Fake, via the comic or the excellent short movie, I am reminded I should despise these people. I should, by all reason, wish them not to hook up, and to in fact not hook up with anyone, ever. They’re immature and impetuous, though all in different ways, and everything the main couple or various side characters do is contiguous to assaults, murders, bear attacks, and exploding houses. But, goddammit, they’re lovable! Dee is a completely pushy bastard, an overly violent, cocky, and date-rapey cop, and his partner turned quickly love interest, Randy, is wishy-washy and won’t even humor a scared kid when it comes to ghosts he doesn’t believe in. That, however it sits funny with me, is why they’re loveable. And that it’s a comic that can go smartly from high-octane shoot outs to slow and trembling kisses without being jarring or unnatural… woo!

3. “Calamity on the Campus!” (Jack Kirby; Stan Lee)

This Fantastic Four story is all about the romance (and the giant robot dragons in shortpants). Featuring guest spots by X-Men and Spider-Man, in a couple dozen pages, we see the Thing’s unrequited love of his best friend’s lady, the Human Torch’s desperate pranks against one Peter “secretly Spider-Man” Parker to keep him off the maybe list of his girlfriend du jour, the excellent Dorrie Evans, the aforementioned giant robot dragon’s ability to crush steel and instantly crush on virtually any passing woman, and, bonus of bonuses, a quaint, sappy, awkward and cheesy and overdone so much pause in the action for Reed Richards to stand with his one true love, in front of a tree grown into the shape of a heart, giving a spiel of legacy and fate, in the hopes it assists her in agreeing to marry the goof.

4. Shade, The Changing Man (Peter Milligan; Chris Bachalo; et al)

Peter Milligan has a soft spot for outright romantic comics. He turned Elektra into a romance comic about an interpretive dancer nursing a perpetually broken heart via a friends with benefit arrangement. He only stopped killing people in X-Force long enough to get them to blush and hook up. And, Shade might be his fullest expression in this regard. Every aspect of romance, from the truths to the lies, the needs to the wants, the needy and the wanted, all is turned over and examined and held up like shining jewels under kind but sharp light. Shade and Kathy are it, kids. They are it. It’s LOVE, capital L-O-V-E, and it’s a debilitating crutch. It’s something they need. It feels good, alright? Passes the time. Gets you through. Hurts. And, might, always might have something better at the base of it.

5. Going Rogue (Robert Rodi; Cliff Richards; et al)

It’s the Rogue ongoing, all traded up into one volume! Y’all read this when it came out, right? Right? Okeh, I know. But, you missed out, let me tell you. I’ve never been as anti-Gambit as many, or as repulsed by their relationship, but this comic introduces it, and the characters, as new, and it made me really love their romance by the surest way possible, keeping them apart ‘til we get the point. Meanwhile, Rogue’s got a sexy new guy moving in on her with winking hints about her family and safety, Gambit’s hitching his way to Rogue via cute gals who could resist his charm, if it wasn’t bolstered by psychic radiance that makes him more likeable than is remotely plausible. And, you do — after years of this “they can’t ever touch!” melodrama, that is by now not an issue — now is the time, with this story, that I actually did want them to just get to it. Just waiting for the comic to put them in the same room and just one kiss, at least.

6. Gargoyle (JM DeMatteis; Richard Badger; Bob Sharen)

Once upon a time, an old man looked at the failure of his life and the love he had lost, and swapped bodies with a gargoyle, who thought he might enjoy walking around in some flesh. Then, the gargoyle dressed in a man returned, and offered to swap again, with the added bonus of that lost lover, returned to life and to youth, and the old man in his gargoyle body jumped at the chance like a kid at a candy store. And, like that kid, he didn’t stop to count up his money, or to question the cheapness of the candy, yet untasted. Isaac Christians, old and infirm once more, was left not with the unrequited love of his golden youth, but the dominating user with whom he had spent his miserable middle age, and what’s almost as bad, he may’ve inadvertently encouraged the end of the world as we know it.

7. Savage Dragon (Erik Larsen)

The sex and violence comic, where a villain once sprayed poop all over Dragon and his date? Shut up. Sex and violence are romantic, and let’s not forget “once sprayed poop” leads up to “Dragon and his date.” Yeah, Dragon has to get soaked in blood or lose an arm every couple issues, and half his friends admit to using him for sex at some point or another, but he’s a friendly guy, and from the moment he woke amnesiac in a field on fire, he’s had a difficult time negotiating distinctions between debt, friendship, romance, compassion and protection. But, he keeps trying. He’s tenacious. He’s like a big, green, fin-headed Pepe Le Pew who can take no for an answer. He’s gone to the altar with the same wonderful woman twice, and the only reason he didn’t marry her twice was because someone killed her the first time.

8. “Sanctuary” (Mark Waid; Ron Garney)

Waid and Garney closed out their first run on Captain America with a one-shot story of Sharon Carter, Captain America, a mad teenage dictator, and fields of slaves. By superhero standards, the entire comic is massively understated, except for the intense chase scene involving motorcycles, machineguns, and gigantic aircraft. It’s a story of how Captain America put foreign slaves above himself. A story of how former POW, Carter, affects dispassion to avoid feeling abandoned. How Captain America doesn’t leave you behind. And, ultimately, it’s a story of how loving someone does not mean having to control or keep tabs on them. It’s about respect.

9. A, A’ (Moto Hagio; trans. Matt Thorn)

How do you do a comic about grief, loneliness, breakups, abandonment, callousness, slander, and hope, and make sure the reader smiles nearly every page? Moto Hagio apparently didn’t have a magic wishing ring, so she had to make do with conviction and talent, and woo boy, does she make it sing. Possibly the most subtle masterpiece in comics, in a large way because you don’t see the subtlety for the singlemindedness of the characters’ perspectives and hang-ups. She covers a huge amount of ground, going deep into the social-sexual soil and right out through the upper atmosphere of hope and fantasy, to bring to light what love and care and even what good callousness might bring forth. From a cloned young technician who no longer bears the physical scars of her youth to a transsexual junkie who dies rather than deal, A, A’ deals in heartbreaking dynamics, intense relationships, because all, even the saddest, can drive us towards something beautiful. No tried truism of romance is left unexamined, the most dangerous of them eviscerated, the functional, illuminated, paths are delineated, and possibilities…

10. Maison Ikkoku (Rumiko Takahashi; trans. Gerard Jones)

One of the best Rumiko Takahashi comics of all time, the central romance between a dude who can’t get into college and his recently widowed building manager is enough to put it on this list, because oh hell does this comic sell it, but the smaller, orbiting romances put it over the edge, for their range and understated potency. Understated is a weird word to use with this series, a broad humor comic that embraced slapstick and situational panic on every page, but it’s apt. The balance between lampoon and humanity in Maison Ikkoku is so carefully wrought I didn’t notice there was a balance until I tried to articulate, years back, why I felt so sentimental over it. It makes you laugh big enough the realness can get inside while you’re distracted, and yet, that never undercuts the hilarity.

11. Troubled Souls (Garth Ennis; John McCrea)

Garth Ennis knows how to write romance, and how to write about people completely, every step of the way fucking up their chances at maintaining a romance. But he did it in Troubled Souls first, and I think he may’ve done it best there, as well. It’s the story of a guy who gets roped into terrorist actions during the Troubles, but it’s that’s the surface plot, the real motivation for most of his actions are his desire to impress a certain woman and then, repeatedly, to stop being unworthy of her, frustrating her, making a monster of himself, and in general to stop mucking it up. It’s a good romantic story that makes you sympathize with one and fall in love with the other, but when it gets you to crush on both, as Troubled Souls does for me, that’s something magic.

12. Oh! My Goddess! (Kosuke Fujishima)

Oh! My Goddess! should annoy me. It’s central romance is exasperatingly chaste, with both characters attempting desperately to be these paragons of virtue to the point of absurdity, and the side characters frequently overtake the narrative and are the only reason the comic moves forward at all. It’s a comic about a guy calling a 1-900 number and getting an actual goddess fired off to him over the phone; so, a porno plot-starter that’s generated over twenty years of excessively non-sexualized comics. But, that’s how he’s made it work; every side character and every reader want to push the two together and make’em kiss. If genre isn’t in the actuation of the thing, romance isn’t in the hook up, horror isn’t in the scary part, but is sold by the delays to such actuation, then Oh! My Goddess! is formula perfection.

13. Kiss the Girls (Belle Hiver/Mel)

A wonderful strip, in each take, though the first, more sitcom version remains my favorite: the simple story of a woman, her girlfriend, her family, and aaaaaaaaangst, wavering between diary window realism and ensemble of eccentrics arch comedy. It reads as if the author were embarrassed by the earnest pleasures and had to cover it with glib, and that makes it more endearing, that layer of artifice or disaffectedness that cannot hold, like unemotional plastic wrap over a hot dish that keeps melting it away. Kiss the Girls has been started at least twice, in significantly different style, and to my knowledge no version has been complete. Far as I can tell (since earlier versions appear to have been wiped from the web), the author also used at least two different pen names. I wish it would come back.

14. “In the Afternoon” (Kita Konno)

There is no official English language release for this short comic, but Lililicious have done a translation. It’s beautiful. It’s short, it’s incredibly sweet, it has references to various Audrey Hepburn movies.

Plica, My Faith in Frankie, School Bites, 9 Chickweed Lane, the Stormwatch collection Finer Worlds, Blankets, Jack Kirby’s Mister Miracle, Preacher, Ouran High School, and many Peter Milligan comics did not make it on this list, nor did any Archie comics, because I have a terrible time trying to separate those out and figure which ones are genuinely superior to others, but those are also worth seeking out and reading with someone cute on your shoulder. As are Colleen Coover’s Small Favors and Adam Warren’s Empowered. And… and… and… let’s be glad I didn’t make this a list of fifty comics, yes?