Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!

Before Watchmen

Posted in comics by Andrew Hickey on June 6, 2012

Of course I didn’t buy it. What do you think I am?
I torrented it, of course. And if DC want to complain about me taking their copyrighted work, the work that talented artists put time and effort into, and using it without their permission, well…
they started it.

Alan Moore stabs a knife into a Watchmen smiley-face cake. Dave Gibbons looks on.

In an ill-tempered conference call on 3 April between some of these advisers and a group of Liberal Democrat bloggers, the advisers could not comprehend why the party was up in arms about internet snooping. They sought solace in the excuse that grassroots anger could be attributed to a problem with ‘messaging’.

How have we got into a situation where the party’s policy advisers seem to have no liberal instincts? Why are we being ‘advised’ by people who think politics is all about ‘messaging’? Why has Nick Clegg surrounded himself with people who have little or no grasp of liberal values or grassroots campaigning?

Simon Titley, “Meet The Linos”, Liberator no. 353, June 2012

Ever since Before Watchmen was announced, its defenders have had only one mantra. “while you may question the decision you can’t question the quality of the product and the quality of the people behind the product.” That’s a quote from Dan Didio, one of the three co-publishers at DC Comics Entertainment. It’s one that rather spectacularly evades the point, of course.

It’s also an incredibly arrogant statement. I think it would be perfectly reasonable, for example, for anyone to ‘question the quality’ of J Michael Straczynski, a man who has two notable achievements as a comics writer — writing a story where Spider-Man’s dead girlfriend secretly had sex with the Green Goblin, and starting a Superman story where Superman acts callously and immorally and refuses to use his super-powers, before giving up that story in a sulk half-way through and leaving it to a better writer to finish off.

(That better writer has since left DC “Entertainment”, because he believes the way they are behaving over Before Watchmen is morally despicable.)

What would be horrendous, and DC could legally do it, would be to have Rorschach crossing over with Batman or something like that, but I’ve got enough faith in them that I don’t think that they’d do that. I think because of the unique team they couldn’t get anybody else to take it over to do Watchmen II or anything else like that, and we’ve certainly got no plans to do Watchmen II.

Dave Gibbons, 1987, The Comics Journal

But DiDio’s argument is, and always has been, that we should judge these prequels as a piece of art.

Which is odd, because the rationale for their existence is precisely the argument that art doesn’t matter. Make no mistake, there is a reason that this series has stirred up more argument than any of the various other creators’ rights issues that plague the cesspool that is the modern comics industry. The treatment of Jack Kirby, or of Siegel and Shuster, or of any number of other comics creators, is unconscionable, as everyone with the slightest shred of decency knows. There is no real way I can morally justify my continuing purchasing of DC comics (Marvel don’t put out enough titles that I want to really register here). I continue doing so simply because you can’t fight *every* battle, and if I only engaged economically with companies that I approved of morally I’d be homeless, jobless, naked and dead of starvation.

But Kirby, S&S and the rest created their works as ongoing serial characters, with an expectation that they would be worked on by other hands. As awful as their treatment has been, one can imagine a purely moral Superman comic existing that is written and drawn by people other than Siegel and Shuster. Watchmen, though, was conceived as a self-contained piece of work. Everything about it screams that it has a finite, symmetrical structure, and everything about it exists because it is an expression of the world views of two people — Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.

Diversion – Dave Gibbons

Incidentally, one of the justifications for why DC screwing over Alan Moore is ‘okay’ that some people have used is that Gibbons is OK with these comics, and that he has as much of a right to a say as Moore does.

This is of course correct. But one can’t help but think that their situations may inform their opinions, somewhat — Moore has created many, many masterpieces. He may not be a wealthy man, but he can make as much money as he chooses. He is artistically and financially as secure as he wants to be.

Gibbons, on the other hand, has never before or since done anything to match Watchmen. That’s not a criticism of Gibbons, any more than it’s a criticism of Tony Asher to say that Pet Sounds is the only album he’s written great lyrics for. Some people only have one masterpiece in them, and it’s still one more than the vast majority of humanity will ever achieve.

But it means that Gibbons’ financial future and artistic legacy is entirely wrapped up in the decisions that DC makes about Watchmen, in a way that Moore’s isn’t. And one might well believe that when everything about your creative and financial life is in the hands of a company that is acting like a psychopath, the choice you make is to do whatever it takes to keep them happy.

Just as Moore’s anger does not invalidate Gibbons’ acquiescence, Gibbons’ approval does not lessen the injustice that is being done to Moore.

Diversion ends

What Didio is trying to do is have his smiley-faced cake and eat it, too. He wants us to judge these new comics as art, but the only reason they exist is because… well…

“if we mined it properly we could stay close to the core material”
“might be something people are willing to buy into”
“we had a group of four core writers who were able to handle all the products”
“in a logical sense that’s true to the original product.”
“that’s what makes the Before Watchmen product exciting”
“I’m more concerned about the reaction to the actual physical product when it gets created.”
“If we went out there and announced this property”
“we are doing the best we physically can with the property right now.”
(all quotes from this single interview)

Dan Didio there, making quite clear just what his priorities are.

But still, let’s take this entirely on the terms they’re setting out. They’re saying to us “Ignore the morality of taking a self-contained work that revolution1ised the industry we work in, and for which we managed to con the rights out of its creators, and creating inferior knock-offs that cheapen the original work while deeply upsetting the man to whom we owe our livelihood and our industry’s continued existence. IS IT A GOOD FUNNYBOOK OR NOT?”

And, well, it’s possible that a good sequel to Watchmen could be created. We know it’s possible, because one was.

Part of a draing by Kevin Maguire of the Justice League

Keith Giffen and J. M. DeMatteis are both people who understand comics storytelling in a way that Didio can only dream of. And they realised, reading Watchmen, what any quarter-literate person would. They realised that no-one *actually* wanted a new story about Rorshach. (The fact that plenty of people now *do* want new stories about Rorshach tells us more about comics fans than we would really like to know). The characters in Watchmen were not, of themselves, interesting — they were Superpowerfulman, Gritty Vigilante, Hero With Gadgets, Sexy Lady and so on.

DeMatteis and Giffen (and the artists they worked with, notably Kevin Maguire) took the pre-existing characters that those characters had loosely been based on — Captain Atom, Batman, Blue Beetle, Black Canary — and did their own comic with them. One that was very clearly inspired by Watchmen, especially in its use of the nine-panel grid to give the comic a rhythm, but which is its own thing. It has as much of Giffen and DeMatteis’ voices as Watchmen does Moore and Gibbons’. It’s totally different in feel — it’s a sitcom rather than an apocalyptic conspiracy thriller — but it’s worth reading.

And it’s worth reading precisely because Giffen and DeMatteis did their own thing (within the limits of working on corporate-owned comics characters). It doesn’t call itself “Watchmen II: Bwa-ha-hatchmen”.

So it can be done.

So let’s have a look at Darwyn Cooke’s Before Watchmen: Minutemen 1 shall we?

There’s a possibly-apocryphal story (aren’t they all?) that several years ago Alan Moore asked DC Comics (as they then were) to stop sending him comp packages — the packages of free comics they send all their writers — because he didn’t like the company and didn’t want to read their comics. The person he spoke to said “I know you don’t like them, but I’m going to keep sending you just one. You’ll see why.”
The comic that was sent was Darwyn Cooke’s The New Frontier.
Moore said “Okay, you can keep sending me that one”.

Cooke is, as an artist, the utter opposite of Moore in every way, but he’s the only person involved in this who has anything like the talent that Moore does. DC are putting their best foot forward with this.

Oh, and one more thing — about seven years ago, DC decided that they didn’t like the Justice League comic that Giffen and DeMatteis had done, and killed, raped, or raped then killed, almost every character that had featured in it. This trend reached its peak in a comic called Countdown To Infinite Crisis, co-written by Geoff Johns, commissioned by Dan Didio, and with cover art by Jim Lee, in which the Blue Beetle, a whacky lovable superhero who got into humorous scrapes with his friends, was shot in the head by one of those friends, with lots of lovingly-rendered blood coming out of Beetle’s head.

Johns, Didio and Lee are the new co-publishers of DC Entertainment, and doing a Watchmen prequel was one of their first decisions.

But let’s look at the comic. Is it good enough to erase the moral problems?

Cooke does Morrison and Quitely

No.

The whole thing seems determined to say “DC has other great comics that aren’t Watchmen“, in the hope that by making Watchmen seem less special it will seem less disgusting when they make tenth-rate knock-offs. Unfortunately, DC *doesn’t* have all that many other great comics — at least not ones that will appeal to the conservative Cooke while also being of undoubted artistic merit while having sold enough copies that the audience could reasonably be expected to catch a reference to them, and which aren’t written by Alan Moore. In fact, it has two.

So we start with the page above — a reference to the opening of All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, but horribly overwritten.

(And Morrison is the other ghost at this ‘feast’, his absence felt as keenly as Moore’s. I could write a blog post as long as this one on what Morrison *not* writing this series means…)

Where Morrison uses eight words to set up a situation we’re all familiar with, Cooke uses 120. Where Morrison’s are clear and simple, Cooke’s are newage gibberish.

But Cooke moves on from Superman… to Batman.

page from Before Watchmen where Cooke homages Miller and Mazzuchelli

Most of the comic is a ‘homage’ to Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One, in look and feel, which sort of makes sense since this is more-or-less Nite Owl: Year One.

The problem is that this means that this comic is now inviting comparisons with three acknowledged classics of the medium and genre, when it can’t even stand up to comparison with any one of them.

Where Watchmen, All-Star Superman and Batman: Year One have first issues packed with incident, this is a typical first issue of a typical superhero team-up comic these days, which means we have little unconnected vignettes introducing all the characters — Dollar Bill, Silhouette, Silk Spectre, Nite Owl, Hooded Justice, Captain Metropolis, The Comedian and Mothman.

These little bits show us aspects of the characters that were already there in Watchmen, but with a hammering lack of subtlety that reads as if Cooke had never heard the phrase “show, don’t tell”. Worse, they do nothing else — we’re expected just to be happy to see these characters again. Which would be OK if the characters weren’t obvious ciphers. Wanting to read more stories about Hooded Justice is the same sort of error of thought as wanting to read more stories about Mr Worldly Wiseman and Giant Despair. They’re not built to be characters, and if you want to tell a story about them you have to turn them into characters.

Which Cooke here fails to do. It’s POSSIBLE to do it — you *CAN* write a story about Hollis Mason and the rest of the Minutemen, but you’d have to take the attitude of Tom Stoppard in Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead. You have to put characters in where none previously existed — you have to remake them totally into something that can hold the weight of a story.

But this is too ‘reverent’ a comic to do anything like that. It’s ‘paying homage’ to Watchmen, and of course in comics one pays homage to works of unbridled creativity and imagination by having absolutely no original ideas of one’s own. As Jack Kirby was meant to have said when someone told him John Byrne was doing Fantastic Four ‘in the style of Jack Kirby’ “If he was doing it in the style of Jack Kirby he’d have invented his own characters.”

And of course ‘paying homage’ has absolutely nothing to do with respect, or even basic politeness. One request Moore has made over and over about Watchmen and his other work-for-hire is that his name be removed from it. He doesn’t want to be associated with this product in any way.

Credit from Before Watchmen, with a created by credit for Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

Even if you’re the kind of sociopath who dominates the discourse in modern comics fandom, who thinks that the people who write and draw the comics you read are of no importance compared to the trademarks and the multinational companies that own them, who thinks (and I’ve seriously seen this opinion stated by people who intended it to be taken seriously) that Geoff Johns is a better writer than Moore because he allows action figures to be made of his characters, you’ll still find nothing worthwhile in here. Cooke’s art is always good, but without any kind of a workable story to tell, there’s nothing much for his characters to do, and it degenerates into lifeless poses, with nothing to say about anything.

If you read Watchmen and it fired up your brain and made you start thinking “I want more of that!”, then the best thing you can do is buy a copy of Andrew Rilstone’s phenomenal short book about the comic, Who Sent The Sentinels?. Rilstone’s book — like Moore and Gibbons’ comic — is a structural masterpiece, but one whose surface cleverness conceals a wonderfully touching emotional core.

But as for this?

Cooke sums up his own comic

On Sentient Universes, The Problem Of Evil, Grant Morrison, Doctor Who and other such stuff

Posted in books, comics, Doctor Who by Andrew Hickey on February 24, 2012

Blame Philip Sandifer for this. I meant to write another short story today (I still might).

I thought I’d said everything I had to say about Grant Morrison, and more, between my book on Seven Soldiers and Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!. But then Sandifer (who, if you don’t know, is the writer of the alternately wonderful and infuriating TARDIS Eruditorum blog goes and says something as an aside which starts me pacing around the house like a maniac and saying “Is this just a blog post or is it another sodding book?”

It’s just a blog post, but not because I don’t have enough to say on this subject, but because I can’t justify writing a *third* book that’s mostly about Morrison’s ideas.

Now let’s have a look at the latest post on TARDIS Eruditorum – the one about Lance Parkin‘s book Cold Fusion. In this post, Sandifer says (talking about his own ideas about Doctor Who):

The root idea is, for once, borrowed from Grant Morrison instead of Alan Moore. Morrison has several times suggested that the DC Universe line of superheroes is sentient and has an animating consciousness. My disagreement with Morrison is not on this point, but rather on the implications of it – Morrison seems rather to like this fact, whereas I think that the DC Universe is, while sentient, a dangerous sociopath (albeit one capable of moments of staggering beauty). But the underlying idea, obviously, appeals.

I think Sandifer may be reading Morrison a little too simplistically here (odd, because his reading of Final Crisis as narrative collapse is absolutely correct). And it will surprise no-one who’s read… well, anything I’ve ever written… that I’m going to use Seven Soldiers as a counter-example.

Before I start talking about this though, I just want to say that the idea of a fictional universe being sentient is, while far-fetched, not one that should be entirely dismissed out of hand. Certainly, if one is to make the assumption that neural networks embody intelligence (an assumption made by many, with little or no reason that I can see — the argument appears to be ‘the neurons are the bit of the brain where we can tell some of what they’re doing, so therefore they must be the important bit, not all those glial cells and such’. I exaggerate slightly.) then the collaboration network of Marvel Universe characters has some very interesting features. This is not to say I agree with Morrison or Sandifer — I don’t — but that their contentions are not utterly dismissible, and are at least an interesting way to look at things. The DC Universe, and Doctor Who, are not sentient themselves, but treating them as sentient entities can provide interesting readings.

So — *does* Morrison seem to think that the sentient DC Universe is an ultimately benevolent one?

Certainly, that would be the implication of Morrison’s early work. In The Coyote Gospel we get this:

Borrowing some of the structure from Michael Maltese’s script for Duck Amuck (and incidentally, does anyone else get as annoyed at the attribution of authorship of classic cartoons to their director as I do? Chuck Jones was great, but Maltese scripted and storyboarded those great cartoons), Morrison (and Truog, Hazlewood, etc, but here and from here on I’m talking specifically about the writing) creates a strictly hierarchical set of fictional universes. The Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies universe is lower than the DC Universe is lower than ours, and in each of these, there is a creator who delights in causing pain to the more innocent people in the universe below.

However, this hierarchy of universes has never really fit with Morrison’s thinking, and so later we get to a view more like the one Paul Magrs and Jeremy Hoad use in The Blue Angel (which I’ve quoted earlier):

‘Oh?’ asked the dog, sounding rather withering. ‘Listen, Fitz. Learn to think of all these things as stories. And stories can’t contradict each other because, in the end, they’re all made up. Nothing can take precedence then. All right?’
‘I’m not sure I know what you’re on about.’
‘Well, you reckon the world you live in takes precedence over the world you’re reading about. So you’ve established a hierarchy, yeah?’
‘Of course! I’d be out of my tree not to!’
The dog was looking sceptical again. He gave a kind of shrug and started nibbling the herbs once more. ‘Maybe. But think how happy you might be if you didn’t have to make those choices about what you should invest belief in. Here in the Obverse you can think of it all as a kind of fugue.’
‘Fugue?’
‘Hmm,’ said the dog, chewing. ‘No contradictions anymore. Every story holding equal sway. It means there are always alternatives. And it means no natural ending.’
Fitz took his last drag on his cigarette and ground it out on the window sill.
‘I don’t believe it.’
‘No?’ asked the dog.
‘No. One reality has to be more valid than the other. It has to be realer.’
The little dog laughed and said, ‘Well… what if you found out that the one you’re in was the less real one? What if you found out that you yourself are less than real?’
Fitz laughed and looked at the moon.
‘You’re one hell of a dog. Do you know that?’
‘Oh, yes,’ said Canine primly.

(Incidentally, this view of Doctor Who, as a set of mutually-contradictory, equally-valid stories rather than a single continuous narrative, was one that was only possible when Doctor Who stopped being ‘a TV show’ made by a single creative team at a time and became instead a set of TV shows, books, comics, audio dramas and so on created by different people with different agendas, one which was almost impossible for a single human being to experience in full, just like DC Comics’ universe with its multiple publication per month for 70 years. It may be significant in this light that Ian Levine, the man who in Doctor Who fandom most represents the antithesis of this view, and who holds that ‘if it wasn’t on TV it didn’t happen’, is also the only person in the world to own a copy of *every* DC Universe comic. His admirable work in tracking down so many lost episodes of Doctor Who probably comes from the same basic instinct – of wanting a closed, complete story rather than an open-ended one.)

In fact, Morrison’s later take on the relative positions of the various universes seems closer to Lawrence Miles’ use of bottle universes in his Doctor Who fiction. In Miles’ New Adventure Christmas On A Rational Planet the Seventh Doctor sees the Eighth Doctor living in a bottled universe, but in his BBC Book Interference he has the Eighth Doctor looking into a bottle universe containing the New Adventures version of the Seventh Doctor. (And in Dead Romance a universe very like our own is revealed to be inside another bottle).

Anyone who’s read anything I’ve ever written knows I’m going to get into Seven Soldiers now – or at least the prequel to it in JLA: Classified

In various of Morrison’s stories, he has our universe personified as the infant universe of Qwewq. And in All-Star Superman #10, possibly the finest single comic issue Morrison has ever written, he has this happen (the giant black cube is Qwewq – our universe):

This is a far more nuanced idea of creator and creation than the one in Animal Man. At first sight, the hierarchies have been reversed – Siegel and Shuster’s universe, here, is the one inside the DC Universe. Except that this is absolutely the moment of creation of the DC Universe – the first ever drawing of Superman. And that creation is inspired by the influence of Superman from outside. This is more like a resonance between two universes than a straightforward hierarchy.

But it still seems to confirm Sandifer’s reading – Superman is, in All-Star Superman, pretty much goodness and decency personified, while we are fallen, helpless creatures who need raising up.

But why did we fall? For that we must look to JLA: Classified.

That’s the infant universe all grown up, as Ne-Bul-Oh The Huntsman. The seed of evil he’s talking about there is an infiltration into our universe from the DC Universe by a supervillain. I’ve argued at ludicrous length (40,000 words of it!) that when Ne-Bul-Oh refers to ‘fruit’ here, there’s a deliberate reference to the tree in the Garden of Eden. The DC Universe, in other words, is responsible for original sin.

And time and again in Morrison’s recent work, we see this – the two universes influencing each other, both for good and evil. Ne-Bul-Oh is evil, but only because of the DC Universe – but the people of the DC Universe enter our universe in order to prevent this. When the people of our universe look for inspiration, for heroes, we turn to Superman and Batman (Morrison has admitted that when he was writing JLA in the 1990s, at a time his life was collapsing around him, he was doing it at least partly as a magical working – crying out to Superman and Batman to save him). But when Zatanna is suffering, what happens?

She reaches out to us, the readers. Reaches out even though this story is the one where our universe is inside theirs, and is responsible for the attacks she’s fighting.

I think a close reading of Morrison’s DC Universe work, then, shows that he thinks the DC Universe could have either a good or a pernicious influence on this one – could be great or could be sociopathic – just as this universe could have a similar influence on the DC Universe. The two can either help pull each other up or drag each other down, and it’s up to us, the readers and writers and artists – the individuals – to decide which it’s going to be.

I agree with Sandifer that if we were to look at the output of DC Comics at the moment, or really at any time since about 2003, it would appear sociopathic. Where I disagree is that I think Morrison knows that, and that he’s working consciously to change that.

(I expand on these themes a *LOT* more in two books – Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! (about Doctor Who, Grant Morrison, Alan Moore and the stupidity of ‘canon’, and An Incomprehensible Condition, a book on the themes in Seven Soldiers specifically. If you enjoyed this post, why not buy them from one of the links in the top right hand side of this page?)

Part One: JLA: Classified

Posted in comics by Andrew Hickey on April 13, 2011

This essay appears in a revised form in my book An Incomprehensible Condition: An Unauthorised Guide To Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers. Paperback, Hardback, Kindle (US), Kindle (UK), other ebook formats

JLA Classified 1: panel 1

JLA Classified 1: panel 1

Where to start when reviewing a modular work, one that has no clear place to jump on or off?

Several months before the beginning, of course.

Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers Of Victory is, to my mind, the great superhero comic of the last decade. While Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All Star Superman might beat it for emotional power and sheer joy, Seven Soldiers offers more room for analysis, more ways of interpreting it, just more, than any superhero comic since Watchmen.

Announced as seven four-issue miniseries plus two bookends, Morrison intended, when this was announced, to make it a completely modular story, which could be read in any order and still work. Of course, this was impossible, but Morrison seemed to take Richard Herring’s attitude (“I don’t know the meaning of the word hubris! Which is a shame, because I’mn entering a define-the-meaning-of-the-word-hubris competition. It’s OK though, I’m definitely going to win…”). What Morrison did manage was, in a very short period of time, to release a 33-part story that could be read in a number of different orders, and in many, many different ways.

33 parts?

Yes, because before the official ‘Seven Soldiers’ started, there was a three-part story in JLA:Classified, not included in the Seven Soldiers trades, but which features many of the same themes and the same villain.

But the JLA: Classified story is very much a false start, a dead end in Morrison’s thinking. Where Seven Soldiers is revolutionary, JLA:Classified 1-3 is probably the most conservative thing, thematically, that Morrison ever did. And what’s odd is that it actually functions as an argument – albeit not a very good one – against Seven Soldiers itself.

In JLA:C (as I’ll call it from now on to avoid getting RSA from what will be an already overly-verbose piece), everything is set up to emphasise that there can be only one real Justice League, and that any inferior imitations cannot possibly live up to their standard. First we have the Ultramarine Corps, a set of generic cultural stereotype superheroes from Morrison’s earlier JLA run, brought back as an analogue of the Ultimates who are…

OK, let’s back up.

This is the problem with so-called ‘mainstream’ superhero comics. They’re written for a fanbase so small, so insular, that everything’s now a meta-commentary on a meta-narrative on a meta-commentary. So let me explain, as succinctly as I can, the sheer depth of up-its-own-arseness that is encapsulated in the characters of The Ultramarine Corps, for those of you who don’t have advanced degrees in comics ‘culture’.

The Justice League are a team of, ostensibly, the most powerful superheroes in the DC Comics ‘universe’. I say ostensibly, because their membership usually consists of some combination of the most popular characters (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern) and some less popular characters that DC want to give exposure to. They are generally regarded as a fairly clean-cut team, due to most of the characters having their origins in a time when comics were mostly read by very young children. They usually, but by no means always, have around seven members.

The Avengers (not to be confused with the TV show of the same name) are a superhero team in the rival Marvel Comics ‘universe’. They consist of ‘Earth’s mightiest heroes’ and, in their ‘classic’ form (I’m simplifying things here, please don’t write angry notes) have exactly seven members – again consisting of a mixture of very popular characters like Captain America and Iron Man, along with less popular characters who can’t consistently sustain comics of their own, like Ant-Man and The Wasp. Because Marvel’s characters started a little later than DC’s, there is a slightly more ‘realistic’ tone to their stories, which is to say they have soap-operatic subplots. While the Justice League might go out and stop Starro The Conqueror from taking over the world again, The Avengers would go and stop Kang The Conqueror from taking over the Earth, but *also* worry about Ant-Man’s alcoholism. Whereas the Justice League were originally aimed at ten-year-olds, The Avengers were originally intended for boys in early adolescence.

By the late 1990s, however, the audience for superhero comics had dropped to a few tens of thousands of people – mostly men between the ages of twenty-five and forty-five – and there was no longer such a thing, for the most part, as a straightforward superhero story. Instead, due to periods of ‘deconstruction’, ‘reconstruction’, ‘post reconstruction’ and the like, every superhero comic consisted, at least in part, of a comment on other comics. Rather than being defined by the stories and characters, they were gesturing at positions in an argument-space. Superhero comics had gone the way of other formerly populist, mass-market artforms like jazz and rock and roll, with the difference that a viciously conservative, anti-intellectual streak in the fanbase (and among some of the creators) refused to acknowledge that a debate was taking place, even as they were among its most vociferous participants.

This was the climate in which writer Warren Ellis and artist Bryan Hitch created The Authority. Published by DC Comics under their Wildstorm imprint, so not part of the DC ‘universe’, The Authority was a team of seven superheroes who were explicitly modelled on the Justice League, but who were all in some way more ‘adult’. Ellis, while he has done most of his work in the superhero genre, has always been contemptuous of it, and his choices (having two male characters be lovers, having another be a heroin addict), while not intended to shock per se (Ellis is not someone who finds the ideas of homosexuality or drug use especially taboo), certainly appeared so to the conservative superhero comics audience. Ellis and Hitch made The Authority have the feel of an action movie – far more violent and action-heavy than the rest of the superhero comics on the shelf.

Ellis and Hitch were followed on The Authority by Mark Millar (a much less subtle writer than Ellis) and Frank Quitely (a much more subtle artist than Hitch), who made the fascism that was implicit in Ellis’ portrayal of the characters explicit, and amped up what was already a violent comic to absurd proportions.

Millar and Hitch then moved over to Marvel Comics. Marvel had started the ‘ultimate universe’, which contained new versions of their characters, and Millar and Hitch created The Ultimates, a new version of The Avengers, which featured a Captain America who was a jingoistic psychopath, a probably-insane Thor and so forth. This new team was *very* heavily inspired by The Authority.

And finally Grant Morrison, a former friend of Mark Millar who had recently fallen out with him, stopped working for Marvel Comics and started working for DC again, where he wrote this Justice League story in which the Ultramarines (a superhero team he’d created many years earlier) are re-characterised as being very similar to the Ultimates (with some elements of other Marvel characters thrown in), before being comprehensively shown to be gullible, violent, simplistic thugs who very nearly allow the whole human race to be destroyed and have to be rescued by the Justice League.

The whole thing might just as well have been called “Mark Millar Smells Of Poo And Marvel Smell Of Wee”.

However, a second superteam also gets destroyed in this story – Batman’s robot duplicates of the Justice League, which he keeps in his ‘sci-fi closet’ in case of emergencies. Batman does actually have something for every eventuality, including a Dalek

Batman's sci-fi closet, including a Dalek

You thought I was exaggerating, didn't you?

(We can presume this comes from the never-seen except in my head crossover The Dalek Invasion Of Gotham, which is possibly the most exciting story of all time, and certainly better than Aquaman Versus The Sea Devils, though possibly not as good as J’Onn J’Onnzz, Ice Warrior. I’ll shut up now).

But these robots do get beaten, and rather quickly. Which of course means that we’ve had two separate derivatives of the JLA beaten, only to see the real thing triumph at the end (SPOILER: the goodies win). So we get the most conservative of all comics messages “This is the real thing, accept no substitutes, and this is why the original superheroes are better than these modern upstarts”. It’s doubly troubling, in this context, that the Ultramarines are an international organisation while the JLA are the Justice League of AMERICA.

(Of course the JLA include two members of foreign royalty – Wonder Woman and Aquaman – plus two aliens, but they’re all, very definitely, still American).

This is odd only because the whole of the rest of Seven Soldiers can be seen as an argument *against* this form of comics-conservatism and *for* the ‘Prismatic’ view so ably outlined in, for example, this piece by Botswana Beast. I can only suspect that Morrison was so glad to be
finished with Marvel that he imposed this on the story, his first superhero work since leaving Marvel.

But enough of this ‘plot’ thing… what about that first panel?

The first part of the first panel, shown at the top of this essay, shows one of the Ultramarines quoting the Newtonian law of gravity, F=(gamma m1 m2)/r^2 . This crops up time and again over Seven Soldiers, but is quoted here with no real context, no reason for being. Or is it?

I’ve talked before, in my book Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!, about some of the resonances that the universal law of gravitation has in this story. I’ll make reference to some of that again, when we get to Mister Miracle and we get back into the Pop Science stuff. But it’s not just the law of gravitation – it’s specifically NEWTON’s law of gravity.

Now that’s very interesting when we talk about sevens…

We all know the colours of the rainbow, don’t we? Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. ROY G BIV. Seven colours of the rainbow. Everyone knows that.

But how many of us can actually distinguish between indigo and violet?

By any rational (and hold on to that word for now) reckoning, there are six colours to the rainbow. There are seven because Newton regarded the number seven as having magical properties, and it was Newton who first described how light refracted through a prism gives us the colours of a rainbow (and how the same prismatic colours, refracted through a prism of opposite rotation, give us pure white light again). Newton regarded the number seven as being a number of God, and God created the rainbow, therefore God must have given the rainbow seven colours. So indigo and violet must be two different colours.

(Six, on the other hand, would be the number of the devil. The devil certainly couldn’t have made something so perfect).

A ray of light going through a prism and becoming seven rays, seven rays going through a prism and becoming one. That’s something else to hold on to. We’ve got a lot of pieces of the puzzle already, if we just look closely enough.

the seed of evil, from JLA Classified 3

Fruity

The seed of evil Black Death planted bore fruit in me! I am Neh-Buh-Loh, the adult universe of Qwewq!

Now, let’s keep hold of that name, Neh-Buh-Loh, for one moment. Put it aside. Certainly we don’t want to think about how similar that name is to the name Jah-Buh-Lon, which is *DEFINITELY NOT* the name of a secret God worshipped by Freemasons. There’s nothing that could possibly be connected to that here, and Freemasons almost certainly don’t have any special thoughts about the number seven, after all. So put all that out of your mind. There is no verifiable record of Newton being a Freemason.

Look instead at those other words. A first seed of evil, planted in the universe, that grew fruit. Sounds like the Adam and Eve story, and the Garden Of Eden, doesn’t it?

But that’s just a myth. After all, we’re all good evolutionists here…

OK, so Grodd isn't, but who trusts him anyway?

OK, so Grodd isn’t, but who trusts him, anyway?

Of course, the fruit that Adam and Eve ate wasn’t the fruit of evil – it was the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. But for some reason that became associated over the years with the apple – quite what the humble sky potato did to deserve such a thing, I’m not sure, but the apple became associated with both evil and with knowledge.

after dinner, the weather being warm, we went into the garden, & drank thea under the shade of some appletrees, only he, & myself. amidst other discourse, he told me, he was just in the same situation, as when formerly, the notion of gravitation came into his mind. “why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground,” thought he to him self: occasion’d by the fall of an apple, as he sat in a comtemplative mood: “why should it not go sideways, or upwards? but constantly to the earths centre? assuredly, the reason is, that the earth draws it. there must be a drawing power in matter. & the sum of the drawing power in the matter of the earth must be in the earths center, not in any side of the earth. therefore dos this apple fall perpendicularly, or toward the center. if matter thus draws matter; it must be in proportion of its quantity. therefore the apple draws the earth, as well as the earth draws the apple.”

Of course, it’s thought that Newton was playing with his friend, here – the apple being such a symbol of knowledge. Much of 17th century thought is opaque to us unless we realise that Biblical allusions were the common currency of speech.

The apple as symbol of sexual seduction has sometimes been used to imply sexuality between men, possibly in an ironic vein.

I’m absolutely certain he meant no such thing!

On a completely different note, Alan Turing, when he killed himself, did so with a poisoned apple. He’d apparently been mildly obsessed, some years earlier, with Disney’s film of Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs.

Hyperboloids of wondrous Light
Rolling for aye through Space and Time
Harbour those Waves which somehow Might
Play out God’s holy pantomime

But all of this obviously has no relevance at all to anything that’s going on in these comics, does it? They’re just a silly superhero story about Batman and robots and flying saucers and talking gorillas.

So let’s have a look at that story, at the basic plot…

A serial killer called Black Death has entered the Infant Universe Of Qwewq, a baby universe the JLA have been given to take care of. They keep it on Pluto for safe-keeping. The JLA, minus Batman (who grumbles about them having “got lost saving someone else’s universe”) go into Qwewq to track him down. Qwewq turns out to be a universe very like our own, one in which there are no superheroes at all. In fact we’re meant to infer that Qwewq *is* our universe (and this is made explicit in Morrison’s All-Star Superman).

Not so much breaking the fourth wall, as opening a window

Not so much breaking the fourth wall, as opening a window…

However, Black Death has only entered Qwewq as a distraction. While six of the seven Justice Leaguers are in this miniature universe, Gorilla Grodd has launched an attack intended to wipe out the whole human race, with the assistance of Neh-Buh-Loh the huntsman (formerly just known as The Nebula Man, a foe of the original Seven Soldiers). Using ‘Sheeda spine-riders’ (tiny little fairy parasites… and between the ‘fairy’ and the ”fruit’ we’re seeing quite a bit of gay subtext here, aren’t we? Although the LGBT rainbow flag only has six colours…) they manage to take control of the Ultramarines, except for The Squire, the ‘British Robin’ ( who looks more than a little like British kids’ comic character Beryl The Peril, and shares a name with her).

The Squire contacts Batman, who takes her to Pluto, where she manages to contact the JLA in Qwewq while Batman activates his robot JLA doubles (referring to himself as ‘knight’ and the rest of them as ‘pawns’ in code. Whether this is how he views the real JLA is left open). The robots keep Grodd and Neh-Buh-Loh occupied long enough for the rest of the JLA to get back from Qwewq and (SPOILERS!) save the day. But The Black Death has planted a seed of evil in Qwewq… a seed that will grow until the end of time, the ‘vampire time’ at which point it will come back as Neh-Buh-Loh, to try to kill ‘the seven’.

So the JLA have been fighting *our universe* all along…

Because the idea of a universe with no superheroes is, of course, intolerable – and to redeem themselves for their violent, unthinking behaviour having led to Grodd and Neh-Buh-Loh having killed huge numbers of people – the Ultramarines go into Qwewq in order to try to save it. The fact that they’ve already seen its future doesn’t matter – they’ve become heroes, and heroes fight whether or not they can ever win.

And that’s basically that.

So, before I wrap this up (at around four thousand words, rather than the five thousand I’d planned – there’s just not as much to say about these three comics as there is about some of the others) – let’s have a little bit of a talk about Seven Soldiers proper. Because Seven Soldiers started out as a JLA project too…

In fact, it started out as Morrison trying to do a DC equivalent of The Avengers, to be called JL-8:

Dan Raspler asked me what I’d do with the JLA if I came back and I had no idea at all, which kind of nagged at the back of my mind until it came out as drawings and notes. My original intention was to do a team comic called JL8 which would be a Justice League book with no big icon characters at all. I figured, however, that if the Authority could work instantly with a bunch of new characters, wouldn’t it be possible to take a bunch of old characters, polish them up,‘re-imagine’ their origins, powers, look and motivations and pass them off as if they were new guys too. Additionally, as a way of giving the JL8 roster a hidden backbone of familiarity, I based the whole thing on the classic membership of the Avengers and went looking for obscure DC character analogues to loosely fit the bill

(source)

In this original idea, we would have had the following characters:

The Guardian – included as a parallel for Captain America, both characters created by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, both be-helmeted and shield-wielding.
Mister Miracle – a Jack Kirby creation, Mister Miracle comes from the New Gods, who came along ‘when the old gods died’ according to Kirby – those old gods including, in Kirby’s mind, the version of the Norse God Thor that Kirby had co-created and which appears in the Avengers.
The Spider – a villain who pretends to be a hero, who is good with a bow, The Spider is an obvious analogue for Marvel’s Hawkeye – a hero who pretends to be a villain, who is good with a bow.
Etrigan The Demon – another Kirby creation, this man who at times of stress swaps places with a demon is a good analogue for Bruce Banner/The Hulk.
Enchantress – a parallel for The Scarlet Witch
Manhunter – a dark reimagining of J’onn J’onnzz, the Martian Manhunter. Presumably as an analogue to Quicksilver, though I can’t see any obvious link (except that Quicksilver is another name for Mercury, and Mercury and Mars are both planets. Too distant though…)
And The Atom – a scientist who can shrink and grow in size, to replace Ant-Man, a scientist who can shrink and grow in size.

These plans changed, but it’s interesting that even that early on, Morrison was thinking about analogues of analogues and connections between the JLA and the Avengers.

The Facts

Comic issuesJLA: Classified 1-3

Artists Ed McGuinness (pencils), Dexter Vine (inks), Dave McCaig (colours)

Other credits Phil Balsam (letters), Michael Siglain (asst editor), Mike Carlin (editor)

Connected Morrison works
Morrison wrote the JLA comic through much of the 1990s, and a version of the Ultramarines appeared in that, notably in the stories DC: One Million and Justice For All. Morrison plays with alternate versions of the JLA in the JLA: Earth Two graphic novel, drawn by Frank Quitely. Morrison deals with The Authority coming to our earth (in much the same way the Ultramarines do here) in The Authority: The Lost Year (a story that Morrison started and Keith Giffen finished to Morrison’s plot).
Qwewq first appears in JLA: Rock Of Ages, which of all Morrison’s JLA work is most relevant here.
Both Qwewq The Infant Universe and Superman appear in All-Star Superman by Morrison and Quitely.

Look Out For
Teams of Seven.
Gravity
Hands… touching hands… reaching out… touching me… touching you…

Still to come in Seven Soldiers
Why writers should never insert themselves into the story
The life trap!
Pirates! In Manhattan!
And a cameo from Booster Gold!

Eschatology & Escapology 2: Desperate Scientists, Last Hope

Posted in comics by Andrew Hickey on January 2, 2011

A revised and improved version of this essay is in my book Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! – hardback, paperback, PDF Kindle (US), Kindle (UK), all other ebook formats

“Doomed planet
Desperate scientists
Last hope
Kindly couple”
All-Star Superman #1 by Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely and Jamie Grant

One of my favourite comics of all time is Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow? by Alan Moore and Curt Swan. Its opening is still one of the most powerful bits of writing Moore has done, in a career with thousands of them, and it as much as anything else inspired this series of essays:

This is an IMAGINARY STORY

(which may never happen, but then again may)
about a perfect man who came from the sky and did only good.
It tells of his twilight, when the great battles were over and the
great miracles long since performed;
of how his enemies conspired against him and of that final war in
the snowblind wastes beneath the Northern Lights;
of the women he loved and of the choice he made between them;
of how he broke his most sacred oath, and how finally all the things
he had were taken from him save one.
It ends with a wink.
It begins in a quiet midwestern town, one
summer afternoon in the quiet midwestern future.
Away from the big city, people still sometimes glance up hopefully from
the sidewalks, glimpsing a distant speck in the sky… but no: it’s only a
bird, only a plane — Superman died ten years ago.

This is an IMAGINARY STORY…
Aren’t they all?

But strangely, despite this attempt to turn the Superman story into a universal myth, the story then turns into one that is very, very specifically based in then-current DC continuity. This made perfect sense at the time – it was a ‘goodbye’ to thirty-plus years of stories, characters and situations. But it meant that it was rooted in the specific, rather than the universal.

This had benefits, for example this sequence:

You Grew Up Beautiful, Kara

From Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow?

The first time I read that, I don’t mind admitting I broke down in tears. It’s an astonishingly beautiful piece of writing, and its force is made more powerful by being drawn by Curt Swan (inked by the great George Perez) – this still looks exactly like the simplistic stories of the 1960s, even though there is a lot more going on. These simple children’s characters are being asked to carry a weight they were never designed to carry, and are only doing so precisely because they remain the characters of our collective childhoods.

But it’s only powerful if you have background knowledge. Depending on your familiarity with the Superman ‘mythos’ of the time, this could be anything from near-incomprehensible (though I think Moore gives enough information to give you some context, because he’s a wonderful craftsman) through to heart-stoppingly beautiful. But ‘heart-stoppingly beautiful’ only comes if you know that, for Superman, this had already happened:

Cover of Crisis On Infinite Earths 7, by George Perez

Cover of Crisis On Infinite Earths 7, by George Perez

Supergirl had, in the comics, recently sacrificed herself to help save the universe (and this story was so powerful she stayed dead for twenty years – almost unheard of in superhero comics). But this had only happened in the comics – it had obviously not happened in any of the films, TV series, cartoons or other interpretations of the Superman story.

So while Moore is obviously trying for the mythic and universal, in a myriad ways (I think I’m the only one to have noticed, for example, that he has Superman die ten years to the day after Elvis, so when Superman turns out at the end not to be dead, but just living a normal life without his powers, he ties it to the ‘Elvis working in a Burger King in Des Moines’ tabloid stories of the time, as well as to one of the most potent of what can only be called the 20th century’s ‘real-life myths’), to make this the capstone of ‘the Superman story’, what we have is, by necessity, only the end of a Superman story. There’d be another one along in a minute.

[FOOTNOTE the one that came along in a minute was John Byrne's Man Of Steel reboot. This originally looked more exciting and 'modern', but has badly dated - and Byrne's changes can sometimes look pretty unpleasant in retrospect. The original Siegel and Shuster had Superman sent to Earth as a baby. Byrne had a 'birthing matrix' sent, landing on Earth before Superman was born, thus ensuring that someone who had previously represented the Jewish immigrant experience to the US was now born in the USA - a reflection of Reaganite anti-immigration ideas that is very odd coming from a writer/artist who was himself doubly an immigrant (born in the UK, Byrne moved first to Canada before becoming a US citizen).]

Moore’s story is rooted in specifics of place and time – it takes place in a flashback to 16 August 1987, with a framing sequence on 16 August 1997. Even its future is now fourteen years in the past. That doesn’t remove its power for now – I first read the Crisis issue where Supergirl died when I was eleven, so Moore & Swan’s work still has the power to affect me. But Crisis is ephemera – at best it will last in the same way Sexton Blake or Billy Bunter stories from the turn of the last century have. If it’s read in a hundred years at all, it will be as a footnote to Man Of Tomorrow [FOOTNOTE - or maybe Animal Man], and Man Of Tomorrow will only be read by scholars of Alan Moore’s work.

By contrast, I think Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely and Jamie Grant’s All Star Superman will (possibly along with the first two Christopher Reeve films, and maybe Siegel & Shuster’s original origin story ) be the Superman story that lasts as long as the human race are interested in stories of superheroes.

Partly, this is because it’s simply a better work. I don’t think Morrison’s quite the writer that Moore is (though I don’t want to get into a Moore-vs-Morrison argument, quite possibly the most tedious discussion it’s possible to have about comics. Both men are superlative writers, and I would rather read even a minor work by either above almost anything by almost anyone else in the medium), but Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow? doesn’t play to Moore’s strengths. Moore is Apollonian – he’s a formalist by nature, whose greatest strengths come from rigorous plotting, structural innovation and intellectual bravado. The best example of Moore as writer of a single-issue comic book is probably Promethea #12, which (with the help of J.H. Williams III, Mick Gray, Todd Klein, Jose Villarubia and Jeromy Cox) uses the comic page the way Bach used the keys of the harpsichord, to create stunning contrapuntal effects that no-one else could ever create. Having Moore write a two-issue Superman story to be drawn by Curt Swan and edited by Julie Schwartz is a bit like asking Bach to write a twelve-bar blues. You’d probably get something pretty great, but it would still be a waste of his talents.

By contrast Morrison, while he’s also interested in formal experimentation, is more Dionysiac (for all that All-Star Superman is an Apollonian myth). He works in a more improvisatory way, leaving far more to his collaborators, and seems to be far more interested in emotional effect than in process. If Moore is Bach then Morrison is John Coltrane or Eric Dolphy, improvising wild ideas around the core of a pop song and playing off his collaborators’ work.

And luckily, in All-Star Superman Morrison had the pefect collaborator in penciller Frank Quitely. While I would never hear a word said against Curt Swan’s work, his greatest strength was (as Calamity Jon Morris described later Superman artist Dan Jurgens) “The things he drew sure do look like the things they’re meant to look like”. That’s not quite the damning with faint praise it sounds like – in the comics industry that bespeaks a level of professionalism and craftsmanship that would probably put an artist in the top five percent, sadly. But it’s not a quality that is necessarily suited to making lasting art.

Frank Quitely, on the other hand, is one of the most intelligent, sensitive artists working in ‘mainstream’ comics. While he’s not as innovative as some would have it (many of his innovations come from European or indie comics that many of his readers haven’t read), he is able to use the comics page in a way that few others would be able to. Just consider this panel, for example:

Panel from All-Star Superman #1, pencils by Frank Quitely, digital inks and colours by Jamie Grant

Panel from All-Star Superman #1, pencils by Frank Quitely, digital inks and colours by Jamie Grant

(That image can be clicked through to if it isn’t displayed at full size on your screen)

The interesting thing about this is not just the multiple-images-in-one-frame thing to indicate motion – this had been done before, and was probably invented by Carmine Infantino in Flash stories in the 1950s, though it’s rarely been done so skillfully and gracefully, but the thought that’s been put into it. It’s a cliche to say ‘there’s not a line out of place’ but in Quitely’s case it’s simply true. Quitely uses fewer lines per page than most comic artists will use in a small panel, and as a result philistines accuse him of ‘laziness’ and ‘not drawing backgrounds’. But every line in every Quitely panel is placed to illustrate one of plot, character or environment. And there’s far more detail there than appears at first glance. Take this, for example:

Detail from above panel

Detail from above panel

That’s Cat Grant’s shoe, poking out under her desk. And precisely the kind of shoe the character would wear. Most readers will never notice that, but tiny details like that add to the impression that this is a real, living world, where things happen ‘offstage’ and characters have lives away from the protagonist. In fact a huge amount of this story only takes place by implication, in the gutters and what is left unsaid.

And this is the reason why All-Star Superman will be read long after Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow? is forgotten. Because whereas the latter depends for its (incredible) power on being part of a specific continuity, All-Star Superman only depends on you knowing the outline of the Superman myth – “Doomed planet, desperate scientists, last hope, kindly couple” and we’re into the story. It doesn’t matter what shape the rocket he landed in was, or whether there was an Eradicator in it, or whether Super-Horses live on Krypton, or whether he was born Kal-El or Kal-L. All that matters is that he’s Superman.

And it takes aspects from every version of the Superman story to have been published – ranging from an updated version of Jack Kirby’s version of Jimmy Olsen, to Steve Lombard from the 70s stories, to Cat Grant from the 90s soap-operatic comics, to Qwewq The Infant Universe and Solaris The Tyrant Sun from Morrison’s own JLA stories. The Kent/Superman distinction is pure Christopher Reeve – you can hear Reeve saying the Clark Kent lines – but he’s drawn in pure Wayne Boring style. These are incorporated to precisely the extent that they serve the larger story being told, and no more, but all are given their own remarkable stories (Steve Lombard goes from being a blustering bully early in the story to an almost heroic figure by the end).

The story itself is possibly the most audacious ever told in a superhero comic, and probably only escaped right-wing outrage by being so ludicrously good – Morrison doesn’t just turn Superman into a Jesus-figure, like the awful Superman Returns, but actually makes him the personal God that created humanity on the Earth on which we live, pretty much in passing as part of an even larger story.

And in the end, almost everyone is redeemed. Even Lex Luthor, the only person presented as actually evil, has a moment of enlightenment:

Luthor Einstein failed to unify the gravitational force with the other three but he… he had no experience of this…it’s so obvious. I can actually see and hear and feel and taste it and… the fundamental forces are yoked by a single thought.
Nasthalthia Lexie? How do I get this hat to work?
Luthor It’s thought-controlled! Hmm? Sorry… sorry, these new senses…I can actually see the machinery and wire connecting and separating everything since it all began… this is how he sees all the time, every day. Like it’s all just us, in here, together. And we’re all we’ve got.
Nasthalthia Uncle Lex! You’re literally embarrassing me beyond all therapy with this behavior!
Luthor Nasthalthia!
Superman No, he’s just trying to articulate how gravity warps time and how I forced his metabolism to accelerate to compensate.

How gravity warps time? I think I might just have something to say about that, and so might Grant Morrison…

Panel from All-Star Superman 12, written by Grant Morrison, pencils Frank Quitely, digital inks and colours Jamie Grant

Panel from All-Star Superman 12, written by Grant Morrison, pencils Frank Quitely, digital inks and colours Jamie Grant

A Beginner’s Guide To Comics

Posted in comics by Andrew Hickey on August 15, 2009

A colleague at work was asking me the other day about comics – he was interested in the form, but hadn’t really read anything except Watchmen (with which he’d not been vastly impressed, which makes sense for someone who’d not read anything else in the form), and wanted to know what would be good to read, preferably not involving superheroes.

I thought this might be a useful thing to post, then – I’m going to suggest five ‘first graphic novels’, along with suggestions of what to read if you enjoy them. I’m going to try to keep to stuff that could be read by a beginner and be enjoyed without any explanation (I remember when the people at Comics Should Be Good asked for suggestions along those lines a few years ago, it was filled up with people suggesting that X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills should be placed on a university curriculum, and not realising how ridiculous they seemed). Much of what I read in comics is, in fact, pap – disposable superhero stuff that’s briefly entertaining but not worth bothering with – this is meant to be a list of quality stuff only. There will be *one* superhero title, because covering comics without any superheroes at all seems a ludicrous proposition, but that’s it.

Each of these five would appeal to a very different audience, though they’re all ones I enjoy myself.

Jaka’s Story by Dave Sim & Gerhard
This is volume five of Sim’s 6000-page epic story Cerebus, but this one, more than any of the other volumes, can be read on its own. Sim’s work is now very controversial, because of his… unusual views (read “he appears to be suffering from a long-term, severe, untreated mental illness”), and many, many people refuse to read his work purely because of his views. But at the time this was published, Sim was widely regarded as one of the very best comic creators around (when Todd McFarlane wanted some guest writers for his new comic at that time, the four he chose were Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Frank Miller and Sim, and that was the company Sim was placed in before his illness started affecting his public persona.)
Jaka’s Story is quite simply the most emotionally affecting story I’ve ever read in any format – with a very small cast and only a few ‘sets’ (it would make a great play) it shows a love triangle and the breakup of a marriage, and is about the difference between people’s inner lives and the perception of them by others. I wrote a very long essay on this a couple of years ago on my old blog, and could write a book on just this story, but here’s a brief excerpt of that post:

Much like the works of Shaw or Ibsen, each of these characters more or less stands for an idea. Unlike Shaw, at least, the characters still work as characters. Jaka’s Story is a true tragedy in a way that very few people have managed in the last century. There are no truly ‘good’ characters in the story, but nor are there any truly bad ones – they’re all motivated by mostly selfish motives, but try their best to be decent within their own moral framework. Pud, the character who is motivated by thoughts that are at best disturbing and at worst comes very close to committing rape, is also the only character who doesn’t end up causing huge amounts of damage to everyone else’s life. Conversely, Mrs Thatcher is (or appears to be) motivated by a firm moral and ethical code, but this allows her to commit acts that no-one but a fanatic could possibly condone (it is no surprise that Sim now finds her the most sympathetic character in the text). Cerebus is motivated solely by his own drives, but even he finds it impossible to cause any harm to Rick, and it is his desire to help that leads him to be away during the denouement, and thus unable to save them.

None of these characters are ‘sympathetic’ in the classic sense of only doing good or decent things, but I can identify with all of them, from Mrs Thatcher letting her morals destroy others’ lives, to Pud Withers trying his best to behave like a decent person but with no outlet for a sex drive that leads him into ever-more-dangerous fantasy territory. All the characters are, objectively, horrible people when judged on the basis of their actions, but they are no more so than I am, or most of my friends.

If you liked this, try the rest of Cerebus, obviously, to start with. In his early years Sim was hugely influenced by Barry Windsor-Smith’s work on Conan and Steve Gerber’s Howard The Duck, but at this point his peers were people like Rick Veitch (whose dream comics he references in several other Cerebus collections). Sim also influenced Canadian comics creators like Chester Brown (Ed The Happy Clown, Louis Riel) and indie people like Eddie Campbell (who I’ll talk about later) and Jeff Smith (whose Bone is hugely rated). His work was also an influence on Eastman and Laird in their early Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles stories.

From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell is a docudrama black & white comic about the Jack The Ripper murders. Exhaustively researched (pretty much every panel is annotated in the appendix) but at the same time makes no pretence of being ‘the truth’, and in fact goes a long way out of its way to demolish the very idea of one single truth. The historical facts, and the plot Moore spins round them, are merely a hook on which to hang Moore’s ideas about reality, the ‘psychogeography’ of Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd, the work of WIlliam Blake, Freemasonry, the psychopathology of serial killers, the nature of time, and whatever else. Fascinating, disturbing, provocative material.

If you liked this, try Moore and Campbell have one more collaborative work – A Disease Of Language, which is very much like this would have been if the plot had been stripped out, and is one of my very favourite comics of all time. Moore pretty much redefined comics writing single-handedly, and a list of his works could easily do double duty as a first draft of the comics ‘canon’, but the ones that are closest to this (in very different ways) are probably V For Vendetta, League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Promethea. Campbell, meanwhile, is best known for his (excellent) autobiographical ‘Alec’ stories (about to be reprinted in one gigantic hardcover) and his take on the Greek myths, Bacchus, which will be getting the same treatment next year.

If, on the other hand, you want more black-and-white comics about true life Victorian events, there’s Chester Brown’s Louis Riel and Dave Sim and Gerhard’s Melmoth (the follow-up to Jaka’s Story, the sixth Cerebus trade is the story of Oscar Wilde’s death, as told through his friends’ letters).

The Doll’s House by Neil Gaiman and various artists. Gaiman’s series Sandman was the most acclaimed comic of the late eighties and early nineties. There’s recently been a backlash against it, but at its best it was *almost* as good as its reputation, and the backlash is more against its fans (who tend to be rather heavily-made-up young women who like Buffy, and who are therefore regarded as The Enemy by many of the nerdy men who make up comics fandom) than against any real shortcomings in the series itself. A dark fantasy epic, but influenced far more by Lord Dunsany, C.S. Lewis and Lewis Carrol than by Tolkein or his imitators, Sandman is one of those landmarks of the medium that everyone needs some passing familiarity with in order to talk intelligently about any comic since it came out. The Doll’s House is the second volume of Sandman, and the first one where Gaiman has really found his feet and knows what he’s doing.

If you liked this, then try after reading the rest of Sandman, your first port of call should be the classic run on Swamp Thing by Alan Moore, Steve Bissette, John Totelben and Rick Veitch. The early issues of Sandman are influenced by this to an utterly absurd degree – Gaiman’s comics career has essentially been built on redoing one or two things Alan Moore did first, but doing them very well. Sandman was also influenced by, and an influence on, the early issues of Swamp Thing spin-off Hellblazer (John Constantine, a character from both these series, occasionally appears in Sandman). You could also try Gaiman’s Books Of Magic, a series set in the magical corner of the DC universe and featuring Constantine among others. After that, you might want to venture into the other long-running series in DC’s Vertigo imprint, like Preacher, Transmetropolitan and Fables, all of which are very different to this but appeal to the same kind of audience.

All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely and Jamie Grant
In which the best writer working in mainstream comics today, and either the best or second-best artist, show everyone exactly why Superman was important and matters. This is an ‘out-of-continuity’ story, that can be read by anyone who knows who Superman, Lex Luthor and Lois Lane are from any popular media, without any more information, and is essentially a retelling of ‘the myth of Superman’ in the way we retell the myths of Robin Hood or King Arthur. If the human race survives the next hundred years, this will be the version of Superman that survives and is remembered.

If you liked this, try Morrison and Quitely’s other collaborations are all good, especially We3 (an animal rights story which is part Incredible Journey part Terminator). If you want more Morrison superheroics, his Seven Soldiers Of Victory and 52 (in collaboration with several other writers) are logical places to go after this, as is his run on JLA. On the other hand if you want more of the ideas expressed in here, the best place to look is Morrison’s non-superhero (or borderline-superhero) work – Animal Man and The Invisiblesespecially, but also Seaguy.

Morrison’s version of Superman owes most to the late 1950s/early 1960s stories that can be found in the Showcase Presents: Superman series – these are stories explicitly aimed at children, and very simplistic, but they have a charm and imagination missing from many modern comics. Once you’ve read those (but *not* before) try Alan Moore’s Superman stories (all of which are in a collection called something like The DC Universe Stories Of Alan Moore – it’s been printed under a couple of different names) but especially Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow?, which is also available on its own. And once you’ve read those, try Moore’s work (with Rick Veitch and others) on Supreme, Moore’s own take on those 50s stories.

And Alice In Sunderland by Bryan Talbot is a stunning tour de force, a discursory essay, much more structured than it appears, on subjects as diverse as the city of Sunderland, the Alice books, George Formby and the history of British kids’ comics. A deeply personal work, part history lesson, part collage, part love letter to his adopted home, this is one of my very favourite comics and shows what can still be done in the medium.

If you liked this, try Talbot’s other work is also good – his Adventures Of Luther Arkwright and The Tale Of One Bad Rat are both worth reading, as (to a lesser extent) is his work as purely an artist in series like Sandman and Nemesis The Warlock.

If you want more discursive non-fiction essay comics with a very similar flavour to this, Eddie Campbell’s The Fate Of The Artist could almost be this book’s twin, and is equally essential. Dave Sim’s current series, Glamourpuss, has a lot of the flavour of this as well, and Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics was an obvious influence on parts of this. And you will almost certainly like Rick Veitch’s dream comics series Rare Bit Fiends, the first volume of which, Rabid Eye, very nearly made this list.

And five other comics that nearly made the list but didn’t, for one reason or another:
When The Wind Blows by Raymond Briggs – a touching tale about the aftermath of nuclear war, as seen through the eyes of two rather dim but well-intentioned elderly people.
A Contract With God by Will Eisner. The first comic ever to be called a ‘graphic novel’, Eisner’s writing is dated a bit (though bits such as “Shall not God also be so obliged?” still pack a powerful punch) but he invented almost every bit of modern western comics visual vocabulary that wasn’t invented by Jack Kirby, and was one of the first to see that you could do more than just kids’ entertainment with the comic format.
The Fourth World stories by Jack Kirby – an acquired taste, these are like the free jazz of four-colour superhero epics. Read this after Seven Soldiers if you liked that.
Any collection of any 2000AD stories from 1977 to 1993 – all of these have dated hugely, but this British weekly science fiction comic is where modern mainstream comics were invented – wildly inventive, exciting and over-the-top, pick up any of these (Zenith, Halo Jones, Skizz, Nemesis The Warlock, Slaine, ABC Warriors, Judge Dredd, Big Dave, etc ad infinitum) and you’ll find the prototypes for stuff that was hailed as groundbreaking when the same people started doing it in US comics a few years later.
The Great Outdoor Fight by Chris Onstad, which shows what webcomics are capable of – his Achewood is the most exciting, interesting thing in webcomics today.

And of course more suggestions are welcome in the comments…

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