Doonesbury on the air and Miracleman under the radar – My 2 weeks in comics 11/7–11/20

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This week: Garry Trudeau and Doonesbury on the radio, Miracleman as superhero fiction and as historical document, and two weeks of lots of reading.


GARRY TRUDEAU INTERVIEWED BY ON THE MEDIA

I RECENTLY brought up the 40th anniversary of Doonesbury while discussing longterm accumulation in serialized fiction such as Jaime Hernandez’s “Locas” characters, but of course I am far from the only person to have noticed the milestone. There are two new books celebrating the anniversary (which jointly top my Christmas list—hi, Mom!); slate.com, which hosts the strip online, has devoted a section to Doonesbury at 40; and interviews with Doonesbury’s author, Garry Trudeau, who normally avoids such things, have been popping up everywhere.

Most recently, I came across the first audio interview with Trudeau I’ve ever heard (though, to be fair, I’ve never looked for one before), which was a segment on the November 12th edition of On the Media. It’s less than 20 minutes long, but gets into a variety of interesting areas, from Trudeau’s humbling at the hands of an art teacher in college to what he was up to during his mid-’80s sabbatical, the origins of several of his presidential icons and why President Obama doesn’t have one, Hunter Thompson parody Uncle Duke’s motion-capture-animated run for president in 2000 (remember that?), the unexpected direction of character B.D.’s recovery from his physical and mental wounds sustained in Iraq, and why the younger characters are becoming the focus of the strip. I don’t know that there’s a lot that’s new to hardcore fans—I read and love the strip and own several book collections, but have never really read much about it prior to this anniversary—but I found it enlightening, and I recommend giving it a listen.

(Incidentally, I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned On the Media here before—they don’t mention comics a lot, so probably not. Produced by WNYC, it’s an insightful weekly look at the stories in the news and how they’re being covered, as well as a variety of topics affecting our increasingly information-centric lives, such as copyright law, social media and internet technology, the plight of newspapers, the dangers journalists face around the world, and tons of other media-related topics. In many ways its brand of skeptical media criticism reminds me of a wider-ranging, soberer (though still fairly sarcastic) version of The Daily Show’s approach to covering media, in that there is some overlap in focus, but OTM is more rigorous, with a greater emphasis on the whys of media failures and on finding the actual truths obscured by them. It’s available to listen to through iTunes and it is one of my essential podcasts. If you like the Doonesbury interview, give the whole show a chance.)

MIRACLEMAN: NOT BAD

  • Miracleman #1–22 by Alan Moore, Garry Leach, Alan Davis, Chuck Beckum, Rich Veitch, John Totleben, Neil Gaiman & Mark Buckingham

IN ONE OF ITS DOZENS of great moments exhibiting how war distorts the human soul, Apocalypse Now features the wonderful scene of Robert Duvall and his company surfing off a Vietnamese beach as the jungle behind them is destroyed. The famous line goes, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning. It smells like victory,” but more telling is when Duvall gazes wistfully out over the water and says, sadly, “Some day this war is gonna end.” In some ways, that’s how I feel about the Miracleman lawsuits, having finally read the bulk of the series this week.

Miracleman is a strange animal. It’s a fine superhero story, and an influential one, but one that hasn’t been available to the public for a long time. That’s a shame, less because of the quality of the work itself, which is not the best of anyone involved, but because it is a genuine link in comics history, the absence of which makes its influence more difficult to judge, and the unavailability of which warps the historical perception of Miracleman itself. After reading all of the Moore material and some of the Gaiman material, it’s clear that had this series remained in print all this time, its recognition as an important work would be assured, but its legendary status would be greatly diminished.

Hopefully the lawsuit will eventually be resolved and the creators’ shares of the copyrights are honored (though after all this time, I wouldn’t be particularly sad to see the work fall into the public domain, as all work of historical import (or unimportant work, for that matter) eventually does, but that’s another argument for another time). If, like me, a reader goes into Miracleman as much to fill in a gap in their comics knowledge as to enjoy the story, the fact that a rights dispute prevents anyone from reprinting the series legally does harm to comics as a field.

As for the work itself, it is solid, if dated, with artwork of variable quality and florid prose characteristic of early- to mid-’80s Alan Moore. The story is a variation on the tropes of superheroes in the real world, though what sets it apart from Watchmen and other “realistic” superhero stories is that it lacks any kind of traditional superhero plot, up until the end. The superhuman main characters were all created to be weapons in wars that were never fought, and so there are no superplots to be had. The action revolves around Miracleman’s self-discovery and the imperative of protecting his own family and learning his history. The only superbattle comes in the final arc, where Miracleman stops a rampage that is less plot to take over the world than simply depraved slaughter.

The series begins in way familiar from Moore’s other superhero revamps—everything you know about Miracleman is wrong. He didn’t get his powers the way that the “classic” character did, he didn’t fight aliens and supervillains. The second arc, in its exposure of how the superhumans were created and why, mirrors the ways that artists imbue their creations with their own desires and fetishes and gets into the significance of presenting a narrative to explain why we are who we are and what our role in the world is. In the third, Moore recasts his heroes as gods of classical mythology, a precursor to Grant Morrison’s JLA and All-Star Superman. The creation of Miracleman’s pantheon and subsequent reshaping of the world into a fascist utopia is treated as a logical, if unsettling, conclusion to the superhero story. That the story then continues under the pen of Neil Gaiman is a little strange, and the “Golden Age” storyline that follows seems to accomplish little more than making explicit what is already hinted at in Moore’s finale. I didn’t read any of the unfinished “Silver Age,” so it’s possible that it does a better job of defying expectations.

The artwork changes a lot over the course of the series, beginning in naturalistic fashion with work by Garry Leach, whose detailed and realistic people fit well with the human drama of the story, and make the reveal of malevolent superpower at the end of issue #1 seem appropriately unfamiliar, even alien. Leach is there for the first two issues, after which Alan Davis provides art for three issues, with a more graceful, etherial feel that’s a little closer to a traditional superhero style, but softer. After a competent but stiff fill-in from Chuck Beckum, Rick Veitch and later John Totleben take over, bringing a look familiar to fans of Swamp Thing, tightly rendered faces with organic panel borders that slide across the page rather than sitting side by side. It’s an effective look for so melodramatic a work that is also rooted in the mundane more so than even something like Watchmen. For the Gaiman-written issues I read, the art is provided by Mark Buckingham, and his contribution was my favorite part of those chapters, as he affects a different style for each, and for the first time makes the series look like an alternative comic. While DC’s Bizarro Comics and more recently Marvel’s Strange Stories have brought indie creators to superhero comics, Buckingham’s work here is a more serious attempt at melding the two sensibilities and creates some wonderful effects throughout.

I gather from what little I’ve read about Miracleman that the level of sex and violence in a superhero comic are among the ways it has been influential. The violence doesn’t seem very extreme compared to today’s dismemberment fests, though the specific details are still unsettling (skins on laundry lines or a rain of feet). The sex isn’t particularly shocking and often seems more organic to the plot than in most superhero comics. Miracleman and Miraclewoman’s naked flight and sex over London makes sense in their new assumption of godhood, and their superhuman bodies are a more appropriate uniform of that status than any costume, though to paraphrase Bob Dylan, the applause is kind of bullshit. The thing that it’s difficult to imagine making it into a modern superhero comic is Rick Veitch’s vivid portrait of childbirth, a commonplace and inoffensive event which nonetheless would feel out of place in the majority of superhero comics, as unlike extreme violence or explicit sex, it is genuinely grown-up.

Reading the series did make me feel like I had a better grasp on Alan Moore and co.’s early careers, and on the transformative superhero comics of the 1980s. I didn’t love the work, and I do suspect its reputation would be much more modest if it were easier to come by, but for the interesting ideas, at times wonderful artwork, and its importance to comics history, when indeed this lawsuit does end, I’ll certainly be happy to buy a collected edition.

READ THIS WEEK 11/7–11/13:

  • Batman Beyond #4 by Adam Beechen, Ryan Benjamin & John Stanisci
    Intriguing cliffhanger, which finally raise the stakes somewhat, but this still feels a little too insular to function as a successful reintroduction of the concept.
  • Batman: Return of Bruce Wayne #6 by Grant Morrison, Lee Garbett, Pere Pérez & Alejandro Sicat
    And somehow everything actually comes together. I’m going to need to reread the whole miniseries before I’m confident that I really have everything straight, but this answered the majority of my questions. Fascinating also to see some of Morrison’s fragmented storytelling techniques translated through more mainstream artists than usual, mostly successfully.
  • Batman: Streets of Gotham #16 by Paul Dini, Dustin Nguyen & Derek Fridolfs
    My favorite current Batman comic not written by Grant Morrison, simply because it is so trashy. Previous storylines have featured child prostitution, child cage matches, an evil Santa, Jeph Loeb creation Hush impersonating the “dead” Bruce Wayne and attempting to give away the Wayne fortune, and Zatanna. It’s ugly and silly stuff that would be mildly embarrassing if it weren’t for Dustin Nguyen’s wonderful artwork and Paul Dini’s utter shamelessness in throwing in whatever weird ideas he comes up with and stirring vigorously. The current story is a sequel to Dini and Nguyen’s Detective Comics arc “Heart of Hush” (winner of the Wright Opinion Trashiest Batman Story of 2008 award), and centers on Hush, still impersonating Bruce Wayne, being escorted around by a series of Batman allies, with most of the dramatic tension coming from everyone finding ways to let him know how much they hate him without breaking character (since maintaining the fiction that Wayne is alive is in their interest—poor Alfred has been splitting his time between putting up with a Bruce Wayne impostor in this series and a Thomas Wayne impostor in Batman and Robin), while a recently released mobster plots against Wayne for vague reasons having to do with not liking his mom very much. Zatanna returns, and Dini reminds us that she is in love with Batman, something that I think he himself established in Detective Comics, though this might be the first time she’s been revealed to have felt that way since they were children. The highlight of the issue is the “I’m so going to kill you” expression Nguyen gives her when Hush alludes to their relationship while the two are being interviewed on television. Really, I don’t know how this is a Batman comic, but I love it. There’s also a backup starring Two-Face, but I haven’t gotten around to any of them yet.
  • Booster Gold #36 by Keith Giffen, J.M. Dematteis & Pat Olliffe
    This really is a rare thing, recapturing the feel of a past “glory” without feeling tired. I’m finding myself blissfully laughing at this return to the “Bwahaha”-era Justice League, even if the interruptions to tie it into Generation Lost are fairly uninteresting.
  • Hellboy/Beasts of Burden by Evan Dorkin, Jill Thompson & Mike Mignola
  • Invincible Iron Man vol. 5: Stark Resilient Book 1 by Matt Fraction & Salvador Larroca (library)
    Somehow this series just feels drained of momentum. I remember being excited by a lot of the ideas early in the series, like the real danger of an “Iron Man 2.0” not being that Tony Stark doesn’t control it, but that it’s made cheap. By contrast, this volume trots out the tired motif of rival businesses manufacturing their own armor variations, juxtaposed with a new Stark venture that’s familiar from Joe Casey and Dustin Nguyen’s WildC.A.T.s 3.0. Problems with Salvador Larroca’s art are also becoming more apparent—while all the tech looks nice, the people are fairly bland and similar-looking—which may be because I’ve seen more of it, or simply that the story doesn’t distract from it as much as it used to. I’m still puzzling over how Stark was having a hallucination throughout the previous volume, despite his entire brain being erased.
  • The Outfit by Darwyn Cooke
    Cooke’s second Parker adaptation is pure aesthetic pleasure from start to finish, and I was surprised how different it felt from The Hunter in terms of pacing and style. I was particularly enthralled by the “The way it works is this” explanations of the various scores Parker’s friends carry out in the middle of the book, each accompanied by a different, iconic art style suited to the diagrammatic presentation. My retailer also gave me a copy of the 16-page art book that goes with The Outfit, and while it’s short on background material, the Cooke sketches and drawings are naturally lovely.
  • The Smurfs and the Magic Flute by Yvan Delporte & Peyo
    More Smurf fun. I was ready for this to only feature the Smurfs a little, since the back cover warns that Medieval peasants Johan and Peewit are actually the main characters, but the the little, blue guys are major presences once they appear about halfway through. On the basis of this story, though, I’d happily pick up more adventures of Johan and Peewit, who are very funny characters with engaging personalities of their own.
  • Tiny Titans #32 by Art Baltazar & Franco
    Tiny Titans/Little Archie #2 by Art Baltazar & Franco.

    Double dose of Tiny Titans! The issue of the regular series is several months old, but the Archie crossover is new, and it remains incredibly fun. It turns out to be a perfect match, and I was smiling all the way through. Can’t wait for the last one.
  • Usagi Yojimbo #132 by Stan Sakai
  • Zatanna #4–#5 by Paul Dini, Chad Hardin & Wayne Faucher
    And by contrast with the truly loopy Streets of Gotham, this works better than warm milk when I can’t sleep. Let’s have the Zatanna from SoG in this one, maybe looking angry at people impersonating her lifelong crushes. On second thought, let’s not, because then I’d have to switch back to Ambien, and this is cheaper.

READ THIS WEEK 11/14–11/20:

  • Batman: The Return by Grant Morrison, David Finch, Batt & Ryan Winn
    Batman Incorporated #1 by Grant Morrison, Yanick Paquette & Michael Lacombe

    The Return is really Incorporated #0, with Batman, Inc. picking up where it leaves off. So far, it’s a great start to the latest change of pace in Morrison’s run on Batman, though overall not the near-perfect debut that Batman and Robin #1 was. Yanick Paquette captures all of the fun of Morrison’s script and has a great time depicting Catwoman flirting with Batman all the way through their mission (for all the loving rendering Howard Chaykin gave the leather of Catoman’s costume in his recent one-shot, he nonetheless kept it zipped all the way up), though David Finch in The Return seems as usual to be trying too hard, and he creates a lot of over-rendered, unclear moments, as well as bats that look like werewolves. Other than the presence of the vaguely defined Leviathan, there’s not much hint of a bigger picture yet, but such was the case with the debuts of the last two segments of Morrison’s Batman. I’m looking forward to seeing where this goes.
  • Batman Confidential #49 by James Patrick, Steve Scott & Bob Petrecca
    This is a great little done-in-one that a friend found in the breakroom at work and lent to me after he got a kick out of it. The spotlight is on Batman as detective, as he goes about investigating a murder while making idle observations about his surroundings and events earlier in the day that solve tiny, everyday mysteries. It’s very much a Sherlock Holmes take, up until the end, when a scene requires that he temporarily stop doing the sensible thing and be Batman, nicely getting at the mix of the rational an irrational that his calling requires. The art gets across all the forensic detail nicely and then transitions well into action. The art and writing are both tightly done in service to the crime-solving and character business. I’ve never heard of the writer or artist before, but this is strong stuff on both fronts.
  • Empowered vol. 6 by Adam Warren
  • From the Ashes by Bob Fingerman
    I like superheroes, and I like lit and art comics, but I’m at heart a middlebrow guy, and the high-low split of the comics market and discourse often leaves me hurting for something like a good, funny social satire. Well, Bob Fingerman’s vision of being forced into reproductive sex with his wife by a mutated Bill O’Reilley after an unnamed apocalypse fits the bill. Fingerman’s premise of “what if the world ended but all the worst people survived it” and the clever idea of framing the whole thing as a memoir about Fingerman and his wife Michele wandering that landscape create a lot of funny situations and a smart look at how the powerful turn everything to their advantage, even as the worst things that happen to the rest of us are often their fault. The art is half the fun, with a host of mutants, zombies, cannibals and other freaks rendered in a cartoony, almost cute style, while Bob and Michele have appealing designs that keep readers’ empathy. From the Ashes came to my attention when Fingerman was a guest on WTF, a podcast hosted by one of my favorite standup comedians, Marc Maron (Maron also supplies the foreword to this volume), and the episode featuring Fingerman is worth a listen for any comics fan.
  • X’ed Out by Charles Burns (library)
    This is a gorgeous book, and Charles Burns has made the transition from black and white to color beautifully. The art and writing both make the story sickly disquieting, while Doug is just relatable enough to sympathize with, while just enough of a cypher to make room for Burns’s disturbing world to share equal focus. I can already tell, though, that I’m going to have trouble with the wait between installments. I felt like I was just starting to pick up some of the themes and the connections between Doug’s real life and the strange, Tintin-inspired world of his dreams when the book was over, with I don’t know how long before the next chapter.

Images of Doonesbury © Garry Trudeau. Images of Miracleman © hell, who knows? Images of The Smurfs and the Magic Flute © Peyo. From the Ashes © Bill Fingerman.

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3 Responses to “Doonesbury on the air and Miracleman under the radar – My 2 weeks in comics 11/7–11/20”

  1. maka Says:

    “Images of Miracleman © hell, who knows?” heh. Good one. Peace, maka

    • Brendan Wright Says:

      Thanks, Maka.

      It’s a shame the way that none of the people who created the 1980s Miracleman series have been able to benefit from it financially, but I wonder if at a certain point you just have to say no one owns it anymore, because the financial stakes are eventually overwhelmed by the damage to comics history that is done by the series being out of print. From what I’ve read (and I confess it’s not enough to make a really educated comment), it seems like many of the rights were questionable even at the beginning, so that no one really has a very good claim today.

  2. maka Says:

    I’ve read less about the Miracleman drama than you. What I remember was wondering why it took so long for issue 16 to come out. Only later did I learn that John Tobleben was legal blind at the time. Amazing backstory there.

    Peace, maka

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