Sunday, September 5, 2010

Not Buying Comics

This is a panel from Secret Wars II number three. The day I brought it home I also had copies of The Badger, Megaton Man, and Flaming Carrot. I think there may even have been an Ambush Bug in there. I had no idea the funniest comic book ever was gonna be a mainstream Marvel release by Jim Shooter and Al Milgrom.

While there are some clear intentional jokes like the one above, the thing about the series is that it has an oddly perverse innocence to it, as though done by someone who's only heard about grownups third-hand. I have no idea whether Shooter was a genius or some kind of terrifyingly huge toddler. If I ever run across a cheap copy of The Essential Starbrand, I might get a chance to find out.

And while I try to avoid snark, superhero comics are a very weird area of graphics having little to do with conventional draftsmanship, a self-referential world only recently breached by the larger world of art and design. Those who worked in previous eras were certain to have comic books as their main or sole creative influence, and the results bore strange fruit.

In that small and decrepit hothouse, its windows peppered with mold, Milgrom's work stands out by virtue of a singularly uncompromising ugliness of which the above is but a paltry sample. Reading a full comic of Milgrom's work is like eating Shredded Wheat -- the sheer burden of discomfort leaves one feeling virtuous.

(Honestly, some days it's all I can do not to just throw everything up and go Dorothy Parker and make a career out of being mean.)

I haven't mentioned this, because when the traumatic decision was made I had other things on my mind. I've recently broken what is nearly a life-long habit, beginning with issue two of Jack Kirby's Omac, One Man Army Corps. (I've got a theory that cyberpunk should have emerged at the same time as regular old punk rock, supported mainly by Omac and K.W. Jeter's Dr. Adder.)

I am a stone comic book geek, and while I am not above pulling out Lynd Ward and Une Semaine de Bonte and the pictographic origins of the written word and all that happy horseshit, I've got a whole mess of shelf space devoted to the hijinks of chesty melodramatic retards in leotards. My life has revolved around the day the new comics go on the shelves since I began buying regularly as a teenager.

That came about as a side-effect of D&D. I'd been bitching to the people I played with about the people in my high school who were deep in the dungeon and had never cracked a fantasy book. This was back when the only sign of the shape of things to come was Terry Brooks (I was given a copy of the galleys for The Sword of Shannara as a child, and the initial thrill followed by the slow, almost diagrammatically visible rape of The Lord of the Rings in perfectly dreadful prose was a key point in my ongoing loss of innocence), and those horrible fucking Xanth novels, which I hope hurt as much to write as they do to read, back when fantasy was rare, eccentric, and not infrequently literary.

So when we started playing Champions, a superhero role-playing game, they gave me shit for not reading superhero comics.

I wasn't unfamiliar -- a kid I babysat for had a bunch of Marvel and DC stuff, including reprints of classic Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four that blew the top of my head off. The image of The Fantastic Four confronting Galactus, and he's so freaking cosmic that he doesn't even notice them... The Negative Zone and my man Annihilus (God, I love that ugly bastard.) I'd seen Batman. Read a hardback compilation of Superman stories.

I loved the form of comics, but my introduction came from underground comics -- I've got an autographed copy of what may be the very first underground comic, Lenny of Laredo. The artist, Joel Beck, was a close friend of the family, and through my childhood regularly delivered doses of R. Crumb and S. Clay Wilson. And when my grandmother, a children's librarian, rejected copies of Asterix the Gaul, she passed them on to me, and they left a serious art mark on me.

Newspaper comics were also important to me, especially Peanuts and Doonesbury, but I read everything our library stocked. (The cute chubby naked nymphs in old New Yorker cartoons proved particularly interesting. As usual, the classics provide ample excuse for a little luxury-grade T&A.)

But at that time, the only comic book I read, he said with some small measure of pride, was Cerebus. Cerebus was, when I started buying it, a funny fantasy comic starting to show some real wit and some real draftsmanship. It later turned out to be honest-to-golly-gosh big-A art. Whose creator turned out to be a fairly classic schizo who went celibate upon realizing that females drain men of their creative energy. Whee! I'd mentally put superhero comics on the short bus.

So I had no idea what I was getting into when I stepped into the middle of Cockrum's second run on the X-Men. I will confess that the sheer abominable horror of Chris Claremont's dialog inspired me to pass my Claremont-era X-Men on to my nieces, but back in the day his blend of science fiction and soap opera was exactly perfect.

So then I was reading Cerebus and X-Men. And some of those other comics looked interesting. And I became obsessed. I was there to watch everything change -- my first Alan Moore was his second Swamp Thing, and that set me hunting down old copies of Warrior. Weirdo and American Spirit were pointing the way to something more interesting, and then pow. Maus.

What with all the manga and graphic novels in all the bookstores, with the art-book reprints of classic newspaper strips, with the fucking San Diego Comic Con routinely getting mainstream coverage, it's easy to forget just how far off the beaten path comics used to be in America. When the New Yorker reviewed Maus, the miserable pinheaded baboon who wrote the piece more-or-less said, "This ain't comics. Because it is good. And comics are never any good at all. By definition." (Jackoff.)

Anyway, I'm getting detoured. What I'm saying here is that comics are very important to me. And for years, my main vice has been the weekly purchase of a stack of illustrated pamphlets. And that's how my money goes -- I spend my recreational funds on intoxicants and information. Books, music... and especially comics. I've said it before and I'll say it again, I learned to write and draw because I wanted to be a cartoonist, preferably a comic book cartoonist. I am an artist because of comic books.

It wasn't just the comics in themselves, though. It was the way their purchase and consumption punctuated the week. "Did you have a good comic day?" is a question the missus would ask me every time. It's good to know that you will have a small pleasure. These kinds of small treats are extremely useful tools for getting a fundamentally miserable bastard like me through the irritating business of life.

But times are fucking hard, you know? And right before I left to attend the Taos Toolbox writer's workshop, I had to make a choice. Show up literally penniless -- or stop buying comics for a while in order to save the money for the trip. It was one of those perfectly obvious choices that aren't choices at all, and it didn't hurt as much as I'd anticipated. Cutting off Warren Ellis's Supergod was the worst. But I've got a full run of Hellblazer -- not anymore!

What's hard is the lack of treat. I've stopped drinking by myself for the most part, so there goes one of my little rewards. Now comic books are gone. I'm pretty much down to yard sales. Which is good. A struggling artist needs to live lean, and skinning back my expenses gives me more time before the terror sets in.

But it gives a thin feeling to the daily grind. A faint, pervasive sense of denial. I chose to stop doing something I loved, that I've done routinely for longer than my entire adult life, and I did it specifically because I needed my novel to be a better work. That was the reason, and that was the choice, and there is a certain stoic pleasure in reflecting on it.

The pleasure of deferred gratification. I'm trying to develop a taste for it. The book is a study of maturation, and in a certain sense its creation is a long ritual intended to bring me into adulthood. And these are the kinds of mechanisms by which this magic will be worked.

When I have a real income, I will go back to buying comics. Until then, acting like a grown-up will have to be its own satisfaction.


Martin's graffiti comics on the wall said...

I know it's hard having to cut back on comics (i'm basically in the same boat)

hang in there and remember you can all ways come back (and even pick up back issues or tpbs of the stuff you missed)

oh and my vote on Shooter is genius, but he did start in comics rather young so maybe part of his genius is rooted in the fact that he was lucky and got a job where got to keep tapping into his child-self.

Sean Craven said...

Yeah, I know I'll be back. And I actually scored a whole mess of old Eclipse comics at a yard sale for a dime a pop.

Shooter is such a mixed bag. I'm always a little unsure how to react to someone who's got such a strong and mixed reputation...