Worth a Closer Look
Travis Hedge Coke
Peter Milligan’s Red Lanterns
Why not just “Red Lanterns”? If Peter Milligan weren’t writing it, I would not have even given it a second look. I missed most of Geoff Johns’ Green Lantern run, and so, too, most of the Red Lanterns appearances in comics up until they got an ongoing, because every time I tried to dip in, I was barely rewarded, or felt not rewarded at all. Lots of other people loved those comics, though, and I’m glad for them and for the talent on the books. It just was not for me.
The characters weren’t selling me, even the mad superpowered cat. The penciler to launch the comic was Ed Benes, an exceptionally talented artist who for some reason chooses to milk the erotic content of nearly any scene, from a night in watching a movie to a traumatizing near-death experience. But, Peter Milligan was on. Milligan going absurdly soap and indulgently biological with this alien club of expert haters was right up my alley.
Red Lanterns revels in its absurdity. While wrestling passionately with questions of fait, faith, duty to self above others, duty to others above self, the limits of conviction, and the risk of hope, the characters consistently vomit blood that’s like fire and acid, cut each other, push each other into lakes of fire-blood, insult each other, assault each other, and rage! So much, the raging.
“Sometimes I think Ed is a genius,” Milligan has said, “Sometimes I wonder if he needs help!”
Benes’ tendencies become nearly sublime, as he illustrates a preening, mutilated rape victim filled with the so much rage and indelible loathing by accentuating any ass-shot he can get out of a panel. Not since Grub Girl have I felt so tinged with similar creepiness. Once the arch artificiality of the situation is established, any element that should feel incongruous just strengthens the discordant absurdity, the difficulty of existence. Each Lantern has conviction in their rage, but they’d each have little sympathy for the history of their compatriots, the traumas of other Red Lanterns. We, as readers, may not sympathize as deeply with some of the Lanterns as others, but we are not being asked to sympathize with them all, just to delight in their angst, their anger, their self-flagellation and self-mutilation iiiiiiiiiiin ssssppppaaaaaaaaace!
9 Chickweed Lane
Brooke McEldowney can pull me into a comic so fast, and turn me right the hell off, just as quick and just as easily. 9 Chickweed Lane gets written off, a lot, after a quick glance. It’s often incredulously pretentious. The romantic dynamics almost always fall to hot woman loves out of shape schlubby guy. No fair argument or rational argument can ever be expected. Sometimes the jokes are too highbrow to really make you laugh, other jokes are so simple and silly, you might laugh before they get there, but by the time they’re on panel, the funny is over.
9 Chickweed Lane has more intriguing layouts and paneling decisions than anything else in newspaper comics of the last twenty years. It has that one thing going for it, and it is really going for it. Read it for the layouts. For the pacing decisions. For how he arranges panels and why he puts in them exactly what he puts in them.
Sure, the women are good-looking, too. If McEldowney decided to just draw a comic called Fit Women Saying Smart Things In Motion, it’d be more palatable, sure. Dance strips or strips involving just hands, hands hold hands, arms moving, legs moving, are gorgeous and dynamic. Aside from a prevalence of worried-eyes, his women tend to be sensible, and interact well. But, what we get is Fit Women In Motion And Their Awkwardly Built Judgmentally Pretentious Paramours and Neighbors (With Bad Hair).
Don’t read the dialogue, if the dialogue starts to pain you. Don’t buy into the relationships or social dynamics if they don’t make sense for you. But read the panels. Read the visuals. They’re amazing.
Len Kaminski and James Fry’s Slapstick was the coolest character to come out of Marvel in 1992. I don’t care who else was first introduced in 92. Slapstick was insane and that mini is still hugely funny.
But, in the early Nineties, pratfalls and satire were not what the average Marvel reader was looking for. This was the era of unintentional absurdity like Maximum Carnage (Hey, I like it, too! But it’s ridiculous and none of the talent seem to realize just how silly it is). Slapstick was released while the bulk of potential readers were desperately pretending to how adult they were, even the twelve year olds and the fifty year olds. Naturally, you can’t be very adult if you’re reading about a guy who can be smooshed under an anvil and then pop back up by blowing on his thumb and inflating.
Steve Harmon, the protagonist and nominal superhero, is a real bastard. He’s inherently meanspirited, petty, selfish, and if his scope were broader, he’d be a supervillain. It’s that he’s a shortsighted high school student that keeps him from being Dr Doom. Well, that and general incompetence. Steve gets turned into Slapstick simply because he can’t even plot revenge against another high school student dating the girl Steve wanted, without botching it and getting kidnapped by extradimensional aliens.
Slapstick or Steve, in either identity he’s not pursuing justice, he’s not heroic, he’s just trying to get something. As he pursues his ignoble goals, he does beat some supervillains, but he also annoys everybody. He’s a screw up. A snarky, deluded screw up, who can’t even get turned into a superhero without also losing his genitalia. Thankfully, his friends are used to it, inured to it, and really good at making fun of him, even Wayne and Garth (who make a cameo appearance). Slapstick’s not as much of a joke in the comic as guest-starring Ghost Rider or Spider-Man, or the supervillains, the sex interest or her boyfriends. Slapstick is the bigger joke than them all.
Rachel Pollack’s Doom Patrol
Rachel Pollack was the writer who brought Doom Patrol to Vertigo, but she was also the writer to follow up Grant Morrison’s explosive take on the title and its team, and for better or worse, most takes that follow Morrison’s on any book, look worse for it. Pollack was always going to be fighting an uphill battle in replacing Morrison. He’d built up a cult following on the book, most of who had no idea who Pollack was, outside of seeing her on the letters page of DP. You still see otherwise sensible people refer to her as a “fan who made good” or as an “amateur.” Comics have definitely been a sideline for Pollack, who tends to work in prose, both as a fiction and nonfiction writer, but she wasn’t anywhere near “amateur” when she took on Doom Patrol.
Pollack, also, tends to write in the vein of post-60s transgressive or “literary” fiction, she’s closer to what Kathy Acker or her friend (and a friend to us all) Peter Lamborn Wilson do, than to the kind of rough and tumble “genre” writing of Joe R Lansdale or Garth Ennis, or the stageplay-esque work that Morrison, Peter Milligan, and Neil Gaiman were deep in at the time. Comics literati were more or less primed for stageplays in panels in the early 90s. They knew how to digest it, and it felt mature. What prose was treating as literary, at that time, fragmented, symbolist, episodic and often ironic escapades were a different kind of meal and many “smart” fans didn’t know how to digest it.
Morrison’s DP run, while it threw out a lot of allusions and references, stayed pretty straightforward in tone. You never questioned what was very serious, deeply romantic, or silly. With Pollack at the helm, it became multiple choice every time. You had to decide if Dorothy, a girl with a face like a chimp and a mind that can bring into reality her imaginations and fears, buying tampons and considering beauty products is terrifying, sad, goofy, or tedious. Are the explosions of supernatural behavior or supervillain attacks a driving force of excitement or interruptions from daily life more akin to an ambulance passing outside or when someone brings in a box of donuts to the office?
When Cliff, our orange, moody Robot Man starts falling for Coagula, the comic never dictates the range of their sexuality, the label for their burgeoning relationship. Is it a heterosexual liaison? Robot Man calls himself “Robot Man,” after all. He was a man, and now that he’s a full-body prosthesis, a digital consciousness in a metal frame, is he still a man? Coagula was born with masculine bodyparts, but is post-op and understood by Cliff and others as a woman. She identifies as a woman, just as Cliff identifies as a man, and her body normatively fits more than his, to societal sex qualifications.
The remaindered spirits in the house the team moves into just float around vaguely enjoying company and casually hosting the Doom Patrol, but what are they? Why are they? This is addressed by way of resemblance (they look a bit like Negative Man or Rebus, wrapped up, mummified), by terminology (such as “sexually remaindered spirits”), and by implication (hauntings, traumas, place memory), but what they are and do is more prominent than why they are or how they do. The whys and hows, explanations and labels are so rarely forthcoming that, along with increasingly abstract art, and highly symbolized caricatures, Doom Patrol became “challenging,” I think, in ways that the writer did not entirely intend.
But, clearly, large chunks of comics readers felt “challenged,” even if they weren’t genuinely being challenged. It felt “weird for weird’s sake” to them, I suppose, and “difficultly ambiguous,” while I tended to feel the ambiguity was incredibly helpful. And, now, in the Twenty-First Century, years having gone by, it’s often remembered as horribly drawn and terribly written by people who barely read it then, or actually never had, they’re only parroting what they read on a messageboard five years ago about a comic that was over a decade old then.
Don’t take tertiary critiques for firsthand experience. The issues can all be bought cheaply at this point. Take the risk. Put down the cash and pick up the comics. Like the ghosts in the Overlook, the sexually remaindered, the early adopters, scared youths, scarred adutls and other ghosts only want you to stay awhile, have a drink, dance a little, hang out, and get in the swing of things.