Public Reading and Out-of-Control Homage – My Week in Comics August 22–28

by

This week: Hanging with the King on Read Comics in Public Day, raining on the Internet’s parade, and What I Read.


I READ COMICS IN PUBLIC ON SATURDAY. LIKE USUAL.

I FORGOT ABOUT Read Comics in Public Day until I was walking home from Powell’s Books with a copy of Matt Kindt’s Revolver under my arm. Deciding whether I felt like stopping to read it in the park across the street from my apartment or inside, I remembered the event commemorating Jack Kirby’s birthday. Since the King was the inspiration for the choice of date, it seemed appropriate that I read something of his, so I stopped inside and brought out two issues of 2001: A Space Odyssey along with Revolver (I also cheated, finishing a George Saunders short story collection in between the two).

During the time I was out and about earlier in the day, I didn’t see anyone else participating, but having forgotten, I wasn’t paying attention, so who knows. There didn’t appear to be anyone else reading comics with me in Jameson Square by my apartment, so I took a space on a bench and jumped into 2001.

To be honest, it didn’t feel all that momentous. I read comics in the park all the time, and don’t feel any judging eyes on me when I pull out an issue of Batman on the bus. The realization that this wasn’t particularly different from any other lazy weekend when I felt like lying in the park made the whole occasion feel somewhat dated and defensive. If the notion is that a day in which a lot of people are spotted outdoors reading comics normalizes the sight, I think that train has already left the station. We’re well into the era where, at least in cities like Portland, no one cares if you’re reading comics, largely because they don’t care about comics at all.

Of course, Portland could be exceptional in that regard. Certainly comics are a major subculture here. Which is why I certainly don’t condemn the holiday, and I did participate afterall, even if it’s just as likely I’d have read Revolver or other comics in Jameson Square whether I was asked to or not. On Journalista, Dirk Deppey ridiculed the event for its lack of perspective, “Team Comics boosterism,” and its encouragement that fans “[act] like sheep.” While he’s completely right that it’s shameless boosterism, Deppey seems to have lost perspective himself slightly if he’s actually that annoyed.

I doubt I could be convinced an event like this is necessary these days, and it does have the usual defensive ring to it, but I have a hard time being bothered by it, as it’s clearly harmless and judging from the many photo galleries online people enjoyed themselves. Seems like that’s enough.

And now a message from the “Brendan hates fun” department . . .

WHEN IMITATION IS NOT FLATTERY

LESS HARMLESS is the unrelenting culture of homage in comics. The prevalence of homage in comics of all kinds is no surprise when nostalgia is such a force in comics generally and the largest companies still depend on decades-old characters for survival, but the reflexive way it is embraced is still unfortunate.

The most recent example is the “Joker and Lex” story in Superman/Batman #75, one of a number of two-page strips filling out the extra-sized anniversary issue. The Internet pretty much peed itself over the story, with several comics sites reprinting the story and writing it up in pieces that said little more than that the story existed and was awesome. So, homage mission accomplished. But putting aside the tiredness of the Calvin and Hobbes parody and the cynical way it hides a weak punchline behind a conceit sure to play on readers’ nostalgia, when reading this I couldn’t help but wonder how Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin and Hobbes, might take the story.

Not well, I suspect. Watterson was an outspoken critic of what he saw as a lack of creativity or ambition in newspaper comics, and it’s hard to imagine him being all that amused by a writer and artist riffing on his characters using a set of even older characters. It’s hard for me to see this much differently from the bootleggers who made Calvin and Hobbes merchandise when Watterson himself chose not to.

All of this is before even mentioning that Lex Luthor and the Joker are characters from the superhero genre, about which Watterson said this in the The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book: “You can make your superhero a psychopath, you can draw gut-splattering violence, and you can call it a ‘graphic novel,’ but comic books are still incredibly stupid.” So would Watterson be impressed by a genre he hated “homaging” his creation to squeeze a little extra nostalgia out comics fans? Not likely.

That’s one of the things that bugs me about the culture of homage in comics culture. It’s so ingrained that it’s basically assumed to always be flattering. Comics creators and fans alike seem to have lost the ability to tell when an homage is appropriate and when it might actually be insulting. I’d like to see a lot more consideration before these sorts of things are published in place of original stories. I expect I’d see a lot fewer homages in general if that happened.

READ THIS WEEK:

  • 2001: A Space Odyssey #5 & #6 by Jack Kirby
    These issues turned out to be especially apt for Read Comics in Public Day, set in a 2040 (making them the first post-2001 issues) in which comics-style escapism is played out in elaborate, paid-for superhero experiences. “Comicsville” provides a costume, an enemy and a princess to save, letting people live out a fantasy of being a hero. The character playing the game at the beginning of the story looks like Captain America if he were a New God, but when the fantasy proves not enough, he joins the space program, where he encounters genuine alien weirdness and the Monolith.

    The “next issue” box says it will reveal more about the Star Children, but in the meantime, Kirby is really taking his time exploring variations on the themes of 2001, so I’m glad to get to read these relatively fast compared to their original, monthly schedule. I’ve begun to think of Kirby as an early practitioner of what we now call decompression in comics storytelling, probably because he wanted to let his cosmic style breathe. Just compare the number of splash pages and double splash pages in his 1970s Marvel work to the work he was doing with Stan Lee in the ’60s.

    It’s also been interesting to read through the letter columns in these issues. So far, a few people are asking where the series is going and why it doesn’t progress, but none seem upset by the relatively relaxed pace of the stories within each issue (still quick by modern standards—these two issue arcs would likely be longer today). If anything, they seem concerned that it’s coming out too fast. A letter in issue #6 complains that 2001 and a few other contemporaneous Marvel series debuted monthly, rather than the tradition of starting out bimonthly and speeding up once sale warrant it. I had no idea this was ever something that bothered people.

  • Batman #702 by Grant Morrison & Tony Daniel
    I’m really enjoying the threads coming together. The three interconnected books (this one flashing back to Bruce Wayne in Final Crisis, Batman and Robin seeing Dick Grayson and Damian Wayne putting the pieces together in the present, and The Return of Bruce Wayne following Bruce on his journey through time) add up to the most ambitious superhero epic since Morrison’s own Seven Soldiers. This doesn’t have the grandeur that had, but it is a wild ride.
  • Fantastic Four #532 by Jonathan Hickman, Neil Edwards, Scott Hanna & Paul Mounts
  • Gantz vols. 5–11 by Hiroya Oku
  • glamourpuss #7 by Dave Sim
  • Justice League: Generation Lost #8 by Judd Winick, Aaron Lopresti & Matt Ryan
    I think I’ll enjoy this more in collected form. From the library.
  • Monster vols. 12–13 by Naoki Urasawa
    Just keeps getting twistier and larger in scope. Love it.
  • Predators Film Adaptation by Paul Tobin & Victor Drujiniu
  • Predators: Preserve the Game by David Lapham & Allan Jefferson
  • Red Hood: The Lost Days #2 by Judd Winick & Pablo Raimondi
  • Revolver by Matt Kindt
    Kindt has to be the best American cartoonist currently making poignant character dramas that look and act like genre stories, not entirely unlike Jason, though going for elaborate design and plots rather than Jason’s deadpan fables.
  • The Smurfs: The Smurfnapper by Y. Delporte & Peyo
    I’ve never read any of this before. It’s funny and really nicely drawn. At a dollar this was a steal, and I’d pick up more. Also, they smurfing use “smurf” in smurf of other words a lot. And surprisingly often in place of words that could really only be expletives. All the smurfing time.
  • Superman/Batman #75 by Paul Levitz, Jerry Ordway, et. al
    Complaints about “Joker and Lex” aside, this was slight but fun. The main story is perfectly of a piece with the Levitz Legion of Super-Heroes series that I’m enjoying, and many of the shorts, like Steven T. Seagle and Teddy Kristiansen’s “It’s a Bat” are very cute. More of Duncan Rouleau’s “Krytpo vs. Ace” right now, please.
  • What a Wonderful World! vols. 1 & 2 by Inio Asano
    I really enjoyed this quiet, slice-of-life manga that’s actually grappling with much bigger things than it lets on, following a bunch of “ronin,” kids who have failed their school entrance exams and return again and again to cram schools to try again, and an assortment of other people living in the same neighborhood. It’s a short story collection, but the stories are loosely connected by the setting, some recurring characters, and themes of growing up, being stuck in a rut, old ties rejoined, and death. Watching over the whole thing are two shinagami, spirits of death, the treatment of which signaled to me just how opposite the tone is from mainstream manga. In Death Note, shinagami urge people to become mass murderers and take pleasure in the outcome; here a shinagami in the form of a young girl weeps at the death of a homeless man. It’s quite moving, and I’ll be looking for more work like this.

Images from 2001: A Space Odyssey © MGM, I guess. Rights issues are why this hasn’t been reprinted, right? Let’s say MGM. Images from “Joker and Lex” © DC Comics. But come on. Really. Images of Subarashii Sekai (What A Wonderful World!) © Inio Asano. Nice and simple.

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3 Responses to “Public Reading and Out-of-Control Homage – My Week in Comics August 22–28”

  1. Jesse Says:

    hey –
    as an avid C+H fan, and as a moderate superhero nerd (I think Im more of a morrison nerd than a superhero nerd), I thought hard about the Lex/Joker thing as well. Interesting to read your reaction. I can’t speak to a larger homage-problem in comics, since Im unaware of it, but here are my thoughts as to this specifically:

    1) who are homages really intended to flatter? The art, or the artist? Watterson saying superheroes are “incredibly stupid” may (or may not, see below) indicate anything. But it was obvious from the incredible attention to detail here that “calvin and hobbes” — the strip, not the creator — was important to the creators, and they paid their respect in a way that I think worked: this was funny, playful, and clearly done with love.

    2) Watterson said that comment well over a decade ago – closer to two decades now. Does he still think it? Probably. But it seems like you’re inferring an awful lot from one comment: I really don’t think Watterson of all people would completely ignore an entire genre of comic art based on his sweeping generalization, which was almost certainly done as a reaction to the mid-90s glorification of bloody vigilantes as role-models. Put it another way: I think tabloid culture is incredibly stupid, but sometimes interesting things happen. Which leads to point three…

    3) Superheroes are incredibly dumb. And thats part of the fun. Thats not to say it shouldn’t be executed well – because it can and should – but that is to say that its an inherently silly concept, and its an excuse to draw a lot of zany things and put people in ridiculous concepts. I think Watterson got that, and despite his harsh words to it, would not have drawn the occasional comic book homages he himself did in the strip as well as he did without, on some level, an appreciation for it. A lot of Calvin’s interests were “incredibly dumb,” but Watterson drew them with just the same love and affection.

    In sum, I have no idea how Watterson would feel about this. But as a Calvin and Hobbes fan, I feel totally okay with having thought it was pretty cool.

    • Jesse Says:

      and one quick follow-up:
      Watterson was no stranger to homages himself; I remember looking at the backgrounds he would draw occasionally, and looking at Krazy Kat comics, and getting where he was coming from. Likewise, Spaceman Spiff had as much to do with Buck Rogers as anything — and lets not even get started on Stupendous Man.

    • Brendan Wright Says:

      Jesse,

      I am thrilled that someone else thought a lot about the “Joker and Lex” story. One of the main things that concerned me was how many websites simply reprinted the strip and had nothing more to say about it than that it was wonderful. It seems cheap and easy to me to put out something like “Joker and Lex,” knowing that you’ll automatically get the reaction of “I love Calvin and Hobbes, therefore I love this.”

      Which is something of a problem in comics, so much of which is built on and about other comics. Even Morrison can be guilty as this, much as I love his work. I’m really enjoying his current work on Batman, but I’m sometimes not entirely sure why, since the stakes feel very low, as it’s more about Batman and Batman comics than it is about any external thing.

      You make a lot of great points about homage, but I just see it done too often and too thoughtlessly in comics. I agree that Watterson’s quote seems to be mostly about the comics of the ’90s, but considering how rare the “graphic novel” designation was back then, it’s been speculated he was referring to Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns. If that was his reaction to those works, it seems unlikely that any superhero comics published since then would change his mind. He showed Calvin interested in those things, but pretty derisively to my eyes, and Superman/Batman is definitely not aimed at six-year-olds. I’d say things like the Krazy Kat backgrounds in Spaceman Spiff strips are certainly an acknowledgment of an influence, but they’re not the entire foundation the strip rests on. Replace them with other backgrounds and the strips are essentially the same; remove the fact that it’s a Calvin and Hobbes reference and there is nothing left of “Joker and Lex.”

      I look at this as if I had publicly stated a disdain for wrestling, even made that disdain clear in my work, then some fan puts on an homage to my work in the form of wrestling. That may not be an insult, but its hard to see the appreciation for my work in it. It feels thoughtless. Which is what I think “Joker and Lex” was.

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