Douglas Wolk’s “Reading Comics”

Just picked up Douglas Wolk’s Reading Comics, his informally didactic how-to book about criticizing comic books. It’s like being chastised by your older brother, but in a good way: “No, dude, Eric Carr was actually Kiss’ third drummer.” You blush with shame publicly, but are secretly grateful for the knowledge. I’m about halfway through, and I’ve already learned the distinction I drew between Marvel/D.C. and Image yesterday was a spurious one: Image was actually founded in 1992 by a group of disgruntled Marvel illustrators. So even though Phonogram looks like something more indie than X-Men because the superheroes inside haven’t been around since 1963, according to Wolk, it’s still a “mainstream comic book” not an “art comic book.”

My bad.

Anyway, so far, Reading Comics is a great book. Wolk’s definition of what it means to be “counter-culture” or “bohemian,” for instance, is a model of clarity; it reminded me of the scene where Ethan Hawke defines “irony” in Reality Bites. And this is right after Wolk casually references Kant. He’s so good it seems like he’s being smug, but he can’t help it if he knows everything, can he? I’ve actually kinda been waiting for a book like this: I’ve read The Great Comic Book Superheroes, Jules Feiffer’s funny 1965 essay on the so-called “Golden Age” of comic books, but to discover a guy like Wolk (and by discovering a guy like Wolk, you also automatically discover a legion of guys that are going ‘What, this doof didn’t know about Douglas Wolk?” Look, fuckers, The Believer is expensive, okay? It’s like the price of two comic books), alright, what was I talking about? Oh yeah…it’s like discovering that there are other people out there who put their Chris Ware right next to their Chris Claremont. Other people that saw American Splendor and wanted to know where to sign up, but then remembered what it was like to get a wedgie in the bathroom if you are seen with those guys.

So…I know I took 20 years off from reading comics, guys, but where have you been? I’ve been blogging about this shit all summer long. Was it just cause I was hanging out with the jocks all those years? C’mon. Let’s hang out.

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Oasis vs. Blur vs. Marvel

I’ve been on a horrible comic book bender lately. It’s displaced music as the obsession that becalms and brings order to my agitated male reptilian brain. I wait for the Wednesday release of the new Silver Surfer comic in the same way I used to wait for the Tuesday release of the new Queens of the Stone Age album. My tastes are actually pretty equivalent: I like superhero comics in the same way I always favored bands fronted by bona fide rock stars. I would rather buy a Captain America over an indie McSweeney’s-style comic in the same way I used to seek out the new Strokes record over anything from a Canadian baroque-rock band.

So last week at my local comics store, when I came across Phonogram: Rue Britannia a black-and-white comic by Kieron Gillen/Jamie McElvie from Image, an indie publishing company, I picked it up and…put it down. And then picked it up again. At first glance, it really looks like an indie–characters that I’ve never heard of before that probably don’t have any superpowers–but on the cover, there was a pale, wan skinny chick lying unconscious on the Union Jack with a bloody trident sticking between her shoulder blades. Looked like the cover to a Pulp album. And the font on the cover reminded me somehow of a British music magazine or…there was just something Oasis-y about the whole thing.

So I bought it.

And yeah, it definitely has that indie-nerd thing going on. The anti-hero is a square-jawed British warlock named David Cole that seduces rocker chicks with his magic powers. His magic powers are pretty annoying though–he can meaningfully talk about the bands the chicks he’s hitting on listen to. He has “ohmigod, you totally get me” magic powers. (And I’ve actually witnessed these powers in real life; they are just as annoying in that realm, but sort of impressive in a “I can’t believe she’s buying this shit” sorta way. Not as impressive as say, the ability to run a mile in under a minute, or hit three A.I.M. terrorists with your vibranium shield and have it ricochet back to you, but…whatever.) And McElvie’s pencils are kind of indie too, but that’s mostly because of subject matter–club kids on the streets of Bristol. Because actually, the comic is drawn in a very clean, cartoony style–like a more realistic Yellow Submarine cartoon style–so it definitely strikes an interesting balance between hipster and superhero. So it’s pretty enough and David Cole is a charming-enough bastard that you stick with it through the first few pages.

It’s difficult to explain the metaphysical convolutions of the plot, but trust me, by the time Phonogram gets up to speed, and you’re reading along as Cole begins to use his powers for the sake of good instead of well, not the sake of evil, but maybe the sake of immorality (or wherever seducing rocker chicks falls on the sake of good-evil continuum, I guess) the whole thing begins to delve into what music actually means to people. In this case, specifically, what BritPop means to people, specifically because BritPop, as Cole is keenly aware of, never really meant anything to anyone. I mean, I was an Oasis fan (still am, but they haven’t put anything out in a grip), and I never listened to Oasis as part of any cause. Listening to Oasis was kind of an anti-cause–simply taking pleasure in the gigantic jerk off that is anthemic rock and roll. Yeah, maybe an insensitive reptilian male brain jerk off, but Phonogram explains the power in said insensitive reptilian male brain jerk off. (And it has the greatest Kula Shaker put down in the history of comic books.)

So yeah, if you know what Blur vs. Oasis was, or even if you were a Radiohead fan and never really got the appeal of Oasis, or even if you’re just a scenester or a former scenester, or even if you just find a lot of meaning in music, or meaning in any cultural obsession really, Phonogram is worth checking out.

Don’t be an asshole…

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…buy this.

And once you fully comprehend how great the world’s worst superhero is, then get your grassroots on.

Save the Ant-Man

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Ran across a fantastic article breaking down the anemia afflicting today’s important novels (imagine that “My dear, I’m a Vanderbilt” kind of tone of voice). Basically, it’s an essay where this British dude, Julian Gough, a novelist and critic who used to play in the “very literary” Irish rock band Toasted Heretic, argues that the reason that all the award-winning novels are so boring these days is because tragedy is respected more than comedy. Especially by the…wankers (can I get away with saying wankers?) who vote for the Booker prize and write the prestige reviews. Julie argues that this is due to the lopsided nature of our classical inheritance–the tragedians (Sophocles, Aristotle) survived while only one comedian (Aristophanes) really made it through the Dark Ages. He also says, “In an age of kings, time is a filter that works against comedy. Plays that say, ‘Boy, it’s a tough job, leading a nation’ tend to survive; plays that say, ‘Our leaders are dumb arseholes, just like us’ tend not to.”

But most importantly, it made me think, “Julie must not read The Irredeemable Ant-Man.” It’s the best comic out there right now–written by Robert Kirkman, it follows Eric O’Grady, a small (literally and figuratively–get it?) red-headed-stepchild of a man. O’Grady gets his greedy little hands on the Ant-Man armor, which has the power to shrink him to ant size while he retains full-size strength, and proceeds to use the suit to oogle chicks, snatch purses, and occasionally commit an actual heroic act. It’s exactly what would happen if my little brother had access to an Ant-Man suit. It’s very much in the vein of Aristophanes, but with pictures and bustier chicks. I love it.

Unfortunately, it’s soon going to be, “I loved it.” Marvel just announced they’re canceling the title in September. So it’s always going to be a comic, and never a “graphic novel.” It’s not like it would’ve ever won the Pulitzer over here, but you’d think a good funny book would be appreciated on the anti-intellectual side of the pond. Sadly, not the case. Anyway, start picking it up and maybe the suits will change their minds. Here’s Kirkman talking about Ant-Man’s demise on Newsarama.

Iron Man is a Dry-Drunk Fascist

Whose side are you on?

Yeah, as they say in The Wire, I’m back on that stuff.

I should have recognized it when I went to the library to return some “books” a month ago. The things I checked out were late, and when I was handing everything over, I asked the librarian how much I owed.

“Oh, not that much, Mr. Marsh. Most of these items are from the teen section.”

Ouch.

I had checked out a couple Marvel comics compilations. Two volumes: one a collection of old Spider Mans and a collection of The New Avengers.

It was a junkie’s first spike after a two decade layoff.

I haven’t been into comic books since the mid-’80s. I was into Spider Man, and Captain America, and Iron Man. When my dad gave me a ride to get my allergy shots, he would soothe me with post-anaphylactic trips to Shinder’s Maplewood outlet. My geek peak was probably in ’84-’85, when I was ten-years-old, and Marvel’s Secret Wars mini-series–where a team of heroes fought a team of super villians on an alien planet–was as important to me as Star Wars, GI Joe, and the Transformers. But as I got older, I realized that that stuff was for nerds, so I somewhat desperately channeled all my male energy into sports. I renounced Peter Parker for Larry Bird. It still didn’t help with the ladies, but I felt better about myself, and was better able to look my father in the eye.

I never really gave it up though. I read “graphic novels.” I talked about “Chris Ware’s genius.” I overpaid for an out-of-print copy of McSweeney’s 13. And I snuck the occasional peek at Frank Miller and Alan Moore’s superhero stuff in the name of cultural awareness. But when my girlfriend admitted a crush on Wolverine, I used it as an excuse to dabble once again in the dork arts. I bought her a Chris Claremont collection at Dreamhaven for Christmas and read the whole thing before wrapping it.

After that Dreamhaven trip, I started to get the sweats. Unfortunately, I couldn’t have picked a worse time to become a loser again–because Marvel is fan-fucking-tastic. These comic books are clearly aimed right at pasty 30-somethings, with sexual innuendo and political allegory (and ads for “Classic WWF” figurines–I mean, what kid remembers Ravishing Rick Rude?). These cartoons are making me doubt the relevance of rock and roll or contemporary fiction. I honestly believe the only popular art forms that even attempt to reflect what’s going on on the streets of our post-9/11 world are hip hop and comic books. This new Civil War storyline is incredible, amazing, spectacular…pick your favorite superhero hyperbole. The super-villian Nitro blows up 700 kids in Stamford, Connecticut on a reality-TV show and Congress passes “The Registration Act” compelling every superhero to register his or her secret identity with the government or become a fugitive from the law. Iron Man and his “cape hunters” are on the security side and Captain America and his “secret Avengers” are on the personal freedom side. The mini-series has a kind of pro-Iron Man bent, but there’s a companion series, Frontline, that’s very conspiracy-theory-rich. And the Civil War’s aftermath is just as intriguing. They assassinated Captain America! A brainwashed blonde did it (figures, right?). I’m sure you heard about it on CNN, but did you get a call from Dreamhaven informing you that your reserved copy of Captain America #25 (which is already going for more than $20 on the internet) is being held safely behind the counter for you?

Yeah, I know I’m losing it. I have what my dorky new buddies down at Nostalgia Zone refer to as “the fever.” I’m a super hero guy again. Fine. I’m not ashamed. And don’t worry too much about me. Sure, I’m a 1950’s menace–I read comic books and smoke dope–but I’ve buttressed my intellectual defensiveness with close readings of both Fagles’ new translation of The Aeneid, and that New York Times Magazine cover story about our Darwinian compulsion to believe in God…I guess what I’m saying is when I want to get lost in a Keanu-esque “WHOA!” mind-fuck, I do it right.