DC’s rosy view of the past and R. Crumb’s Genesis – My Week in Comics July 4–10

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This week: Crime goes up in the DC Universe while it goes down in ours . . . A report on the R. Crumb Genesis Exhibit . . . What I read, with notes on some . . . The best digital comics format gets pushed to Next Week.


DC COMICS’ CULTURE OF FEAR

STILL READING STARMAN. This week was volume four of the current Omnibus reprints, and it got me thinking about superhero comics’ approach to the past: essentially that the decades associated with the beginning of the genre—the ’30s through the ’50s—were a better and simpler time. Sure, everyone remembers the time that they came up in through rose-tinted glasses, but superhero comics cling especially fervently to a “kinder, gentler” fantasy. The ways in which Starman both upholds and subverts this trope got me thinking about the broader implications of looking at the past this way.

To begin with, building identity around the past is endemic to superhero comics, which still takes its cues from a time when teenagers and people barely past their teens auto-didactically created the superhero genre, generally working with more raw, primitivist enthusiasm than genuine writing or drawing skills. Even genre progenitors Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster don’t seem to have been entirely sure what they’d created in Superman or how they’d done it, if their subsequent creation Funnyman is any indication (which is not to diminish the fact that they did create Superman and deserved much better treatment for it than they got). In retrospect, many of the writers and artists of this era are important for creating things that later writers and artists built on, but the time is remembered as the Golden Age.

These stories were also created in a time of much greater censorship, the era of the Motion Picture Production Code, which forbade such perversities as suggestive dancing, lustful kissing, childbirth and miscegenation. Before the Code, American films were actually fairly bawdy, more so than they would be again until the MPAA rating system replaced the code in the late ’60s. It took until the EC Comics of the ’50 for comics to become risqué enough for a similar code to be enacted.

So superhero stories of the day would revolve around bank robberies and bloodless efforts to conquer the world, realistic depictions of crime a rarity. Today’s more lenient restrictions allow comics supervillains to engage in all kinds of explicit violence, but the demands of continuity have made it a given that it was not always so. Occasionally heroes will lament that homicidal maniacs have replaced the purse-snatchers of yesteryear. In reality no such increase in violence has occurred, but DC’s approach to crime mirrors the popular perception that crime is up. As Barry Glassner noted in The Culture of Fear, the reportage of crime and fear of crime have increased as crime itself has gone down. (There are a lot of reasons for this, and this isn’t the place to go into it, but one thing that sticks with me is an article in the Willamette Week from five years ago in which the news director of Portland’s Fox affiliate defends his stations all crime-news local broadcast by saying, “I’m competing against CSI and other prime-time shows.”)

That’s right, in addition to creating boring “Old Man Comics,” the integration of older stories into modern continuity also contributes to the false notion that crime is up, when statistically the opposite is the truth. Organized crime and corruption were just as bad in the first half of the twentieth century as they are now, and when’s the last time a mob hit was described as a massacre? Seriously, holding up the days of WWII as a more innocent time has always struck me as weird (while later wars have been more complicated in terms of our involvement, few have been as horrific. We seem to gauge our innocence only in terms of our own feelings, not the overall effects of history.)

A more recent approach has been to inject darkness into the old stories, but this still has a tired feel to my mind. Starman works better for me by creating new stories set in an earlier era to work greater crime and intrigue into, rather than pulling contortions like heroes mind-wiping violent offenders to make them into non-violent offenders (really, how does that make sense? If you can change their personalities like that, how about just making them, I don’t know, not criminals?). Grant Morrison’s Batman run (will I ever go a week without mentioning it? I don’t know) takes an interesting, experimental approach by incorporating every previous Batman story, but couches it in the stages of life of a single man and investigating how the events of the stories change him, and surrounding him with bizarre pathologies like the Joker, who is in a constant state of transformation. But it’s still not uncommon to stumble on a DC comic, even those written by Morrison or other continuity archeologists like Geof Johns, in which a character says something along the lines of, “I miss the crazy costumes and loony schemes to rob Fort Knox.”

(Oddly enough, this is less an issue in Marvel comics, which make less use of legacy heroes and have a more explicit sliding scale timeline policy—it’s been a long time since WWII was a part of Reed Richards and Ben Grimm’s history. Marvel notes they’ve never had a Crisis, and the result is that they are much happier to simply chuck out their history rather than integrate it. I still sometimes get a “past was better” vibe from some of their stories, though.)

When the tedious argument as to whether superhero comics are liberal or conservative comes up from time to time, the focus is generally on whether the actions of the heroes is fascist or not, but I think the obsession with a mythical past is just as telling, and it’s unfortunate that DC has chosen to contribute to this ahistorical fantasy of a more innocent time.

R. CRUMB’S GENESIS AT THE PORTLAND ART MUSEUM

SPENT THE FIRST WEEK OF JULY on vacation in glamorous Portland, OR, seeing the sights and enjoying the culture. Technically, I spend the vast majority of my time in Portland, since I live and work here, but the annual Waterfront Blues Festival seemed the perfect event to build a vacation around, and while I was taking the time off I decided to treat the time like I was from out of town, seeing sights like the Grotto (they have one of only twelve bronze copies of Michelangelo’s Pietà) and eating at different restaurants and breweries than normal.

One thing I’d have taped a “Kick Me” sign to my own back if I visited Portland and didn’t see was the exhibit of R. Crumb’s original artwork from his recent adaptation of the Book of Genesis, which is showing through September at the Portland Art Museum. As it happens, I went the same day as I visited the Grotto, making July 6 the most religion-infused day I’ve had since, well, maybe ever.

The first thing that struck me was how much smaller the pages were than I expected, not a lot bigger than they were reproduced in the book. I would have assumed they were drawn two up considering how detailed they are, but Crumb actually just drew this book that tightly. In fact, it seemed that he’d drawn too tight in some places, as I found that some panels lose detail in the book, particularly in the case of the most intricate crosshatching, which has closed up somewhat. That’s somewhat surprising from such a seasoned cartoonist, but it could be the reproduction itself that’s to blame for all I know.

I also found myself surprised by how much whiteout there is, as I thought I’d heard someone say there was very little. Since comics come to us with all of their mistakes hidden by reproduction and digital manipulation, I’m always fascinated by the errors and corrections revealed in a viewing of original artwork. Here props and characters were sometimes completely reconstructed after being whited out, corrections were made to the lettering, which is inked directly on the art (early on, God’s creation of the universe is accompanied by corrections to each of the numbers of the days—“On the Third Day,” etc.—did Crumb write in the wrong numbers or decide after the fact to give First, Second, Third, etc. a different font from the surrounding words?), and in at least one case, Crumb has done the painstaking work or reinstating small white dots in a small section of a crosshatched background that had closed up. Talk about attention to detail!

I’m a novice when it comes to Crumb’s work outside of his collaborations with the late Harvey Pekar, and the Underground period in general is one of the biggest gaps in my comics reading, so while I have seen Crumb’s artwork and could easily pick it from a selection of styles, this was the first time I’d ever spent a lot of time looking at it in detail. The nervous texture that I expected is there, as are the thick-legged women, but I had no idea what a master of composition and depth Crumb is. Most panels are layered, with foreground, middleground and background, and characters have a three-dimensionality and weight to them. The storytelling rarely draws attention to itself, as Crumb sticks with functional page layouts simple rectangles for panels, but there are occasional tricks added in to heighten the effect of a scene. The result of Crumb’s labor is not only beautiful, but also a much more engrossing version of the stories contained in Genesis than I have ever encountered.

The exhibit arranges all of the pages from the entire in book in order, sometimes left to right and sometimes right to left, depending on the needs of the maze-like exhibit gallery. I was conscious the entire time of how difficult it can be to soak in the art from consecutive comics pages without getting wrapped up in the text. We are so used to experiencing comics as mechanical reproductions and bound together in sequence that it can be difficult to know exactly how to interact with framed, isolated original in a museum setting. The Genesis art is extraordinary, and I wanted to study it without being too distracted by the narrative, outside of general context. To that end I found it useful to go through some sections of pages backwards so that I always knew what I was looking at, but was always focused on the art first.

Perhaps I did too good a job of drinking in each page, as after what felt like about half an hour, I was informed that I had been there nearly two hours and the museum was about to close. I was a little more than halfway through the pages, and had to rush through the second half, including two small cases of research and sketches, the only context provided outside of the art itself.

I do wish more contextual material had been included, since there must have been so many notes and sketches and more that could have enriched the experience. An exhibit like this one is a step in the right direction for the public study and appreciation of comics, but most other exhibits I’ve visited provide more than just art. I learned a lot from studying the pages, but for the most part I’ve developed a sense of what to look for in comics. For museum patrons with a more casual interest in comics, I can’t imagine just the pages themselves saying as much as they said to me.

Still, an amazing experience. I hope to make it for the museum’s free day at the end of the month to soak up the second half of the exhibit. I may even have actually read the book, which I’ve had for months, by then. And I look forward to seeing more exhibits like this make it to traditional art museums. Seeing original comics art is large quantities is still a rare privilege, and I hope that museums take a greater interest in it in the future, rather than so much of it being locked up in private collections.

READ THIS WEEK:

  • Batman and Robin #13 by Grant Morrison & Frazier Irving
  • Casanova (Icon version) #1 by Matt Fraction & Gabriel Bá
    I was planning to buy this reprint series just to help ensure it survives long enough to get to the new material, but having seen the new colors and lettering, I’m happy to experience this alternate-universe version of the Casanova I remember—appropriate since alternate universes are such a big part of the series. Also made it to the release party for this and got to chat with Fraction and tell him how much I enjoy the series.

  • Doom Patrol #12 by Keith Giffen, Matthew Clark, Ron Randall & John Livesay
  • King City #10 by Brandon Graham
  • Mr. A by Steve Ditko
    The day after I read this I saw a movie that is the anti-it, Please Give, which is entirely about the grey areas Mr. A abhors. It’s all about what it means to be a good person and what it feels like to think you’re falling short. Its also very funny, and I recommend it to anyone in a city where it’s playing. As for Mr. A, it actually surprised me in acknowledging that most people do both good and bad all the time. However, Mr. A is pretty strict about demanding people ultimately pick one and stick with it, and they pretty much have to do it at a time of his choosing rather than any standard timeframe. Gotta admit, he sounds perfectly reasonable when Ditko gets to write the bad guys expressing his talking points for him. Great art and storytelling, though.

  • New Avengers (2010) #1 by Brian Michael Bendis, Stuart Immonen, Wade Von Grawbadger & Laura Martin
  • Punisher Max (oversized HCs) vols. 3 & 4 by Garth Ennis, Leandro Fernandez, Goran Parlov & Lan Medina
  • Sea Bear & Grizzly Shark by Ryan Ottley & Jason Howard
    They got mixed up.

  • Starman Omnibus vol. 4 by James Robinson, Tony Harris, Mike Mignola, et al.
    I was amused that producer Don Murphy concludes his introduction by stating how proud he is of the universally panned League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie and exhorting fans of Starman to seek it out.

  • Sweet Tooth #11 by Jeff Lemire
  • The Trials of Roderick Spode “The Human Ant” by David Mamet
    In which the acclaimed filmmaker and Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist brings the silly fun.

  • Werewolves of Montpellier by Jason

Images of Superman © DC Comics. Images of R. Crumb’s Genesis © R. Crumb. Images of The Trials of Roderick Spode © David Mament

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2 Responses to “DC’s rosy view of the past and R. Crumb’s Genesis – My Week in Comics July 4–10”

  1. Maka Says:

    Hello Brendan,

    I’m enjoying you Read This Week section of your blog. And I really liked your Crumb art exhibit experience. Keep on blogging! Peace, maka

  2. Christopher Says:

    The other thing is that, even before EC, a lot of comics were pretty violent. It wasn’t surprising to see Captain America or Namor gunning down Nazis while smiling and cracking jokes.

    The way American superhero comics are written (And who they are written for) deforms them in pretty odd ways. These days, the whole enterprise is a way to recapture the way the authors felt while they were reading them as kids, while somehow simultaneously appealing to people who aren’t actually kids anymore.

    That tension has become more and more the central concern of both superhero comics and readers. I wonder if it can go on forever, or if there’s something else coming along?

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