The Bagdad’s Zombie Hordes and the Untimely Death of Hepcats – My Week in Comics December 5–11

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This week: How a beered-up crowd reacts to The Walking Dead, which anthropomorphic comic of the ’90s needs to make a comeback, and What I Read, complete with sentimental essay on the Vision For Space Exploration program.


SO MANY BEARDS AND TRENCH COATS: THE WALKING DEAD FINALE AT THE BAGDAD

Spoiler alert: With the exception of the last sentence, the first five paragraphs below are spoiler-free, a report on the experience of watching The Walking Dead’s season finale in a crowded theater. After that, proceed with caution if you don’t want to know what happens.


IS THIS A PORTLAND THING? I don’t know if they do this in other cities, but Portland is full of cheap, second-run movie theaters that serve food and beer, the revenue from which allows them to show a variety of things other than movies on their screens for free: Trail Blazers games, college football, the Oscars, that sort of thing, as well as TV series that they think will bring in thirsty customers every week, which has previously included Battlestar Galactica.

This year, McMenamins’ Bagdad Theater showed every episode of AMC’s Walking Dead adaptation, and I meant each week to catch an episode and see what the experience of watching a hit TV show with a repeat audience was like, but it never quite worked out. The combination of a 10PM show and the late-night bus schedule would have meant getting home after midnight, which never seemed like a great idea on a Sunday night. Apparently a lot of people disagreed with me, because when I finally made it for the season finale, the hosts asked who had made it every week and a good-sized cheer went up. An even bigger cheer accompanied the announcement that all 13 episodes of the next season would also screen at the theater.

As might be expected of a late-night audience at a pub theater, there were also lots of cheers every time anyone on screen took a drink, which happens a lot in the finale. An ad for the Serenity Lane alcohol and drug treatment center also got a big ovation, though commercials in general received jeers. It’s definitely a very different experience from watching a show at home. The show generally benefited from the big-screen treatment and looked surprisingly clear, though it wasn’t framed quite right, a little of the top and bottom of the image trimmed off. TV shows seem to have become more cinematic in style, perhaps because larger TV setups are more common, but there is still a greater reliance on closeups, which doesn’t play quite as well on a cinema screen.

The theater was packed, with many patrons of the beard and trench coat variety. Since it was the first time I’d gone, I don’t know if the line was comparable to previous shows or if it was filled out with other people like me figuring this is their last chance. One guy ahead of me said that he’d come later on previous weeks and seen less of a line. In any case, by the time the doors opened at 9PM, the line stretched the length of the block and had begun to wrap around the opposite side. I had no trouble finding a seat, having come alone, but by 10 they were pretty scarce.

The biggest cheer of the evening naturally came when the show started, but it quieted down pretty quickly, with the crowd immediately sucked in. Seeing how The Walking Dead plays to an audience, it’s not surprising how successful it’s been. It commanded attention, though the audience, there for a good time, reacted pretty strongly to everything that went on. I’m not sure if it was the most comedic episode to date, or if a laughing audience just made it seem that way. Certainly the writers and actors made the most of how unaccustomed the characters are to the relative luxury of the CDC bunker they find themselves in.

The bulk of the episode was underwhelming, in spite of the nice moments adjusting to the bunker allowed. While the series started very strongly with an atmospheric first two episodes that extracted horror from an achingly slow pace and strong central mission of “find the family,” the remainder of the series has depended on poorly-defined characters that don’t really make sense together and deeply inorganic plotting, with much of what’s happened a transparent setup either for lengthy exposition or artificial peril.

The finale is the most guilty of the season of that latter complaint, comprised of a series of contrivances to further either explanation or unearned tension. While the countdown to the bunker losing power that drives the second half of the episode is a nice dramatic device, it makes no real sense. The notion of a unalterable time at which power will run out contradicts an earlier scene in which Dr. Jenner, the last CDC holdout in the bunker, requests that everyone conserve energy. Similarly, Jenner justifies locking Rick and the rest of the cast in the computer room with him by saying that they’re locked into the building anyway, so it doesn’t matter, meaning of course that there is also no reason for him to do so, except to allow for a few minutes of moral argument that exceeds the episode writer’s grasp, and to shorten the window of escape to a few minutes. That escape is the best thing the episode has going for it, with a cute reversal of the usual zombie visual—instead of the dead banging on windows to get in, the living are banging on windows to get out—but is ultimately undercut by another plot convenience, in which a character forgets she has a hand grenade capable of breaking the windows until it is most dramatic for her to remember.

The season did, however, end on a good note, with the crew piling into cars and driving back into the infested wilds, where they now understand they will spend the rest of their probably short lives. It’s the best mission statement the show has provided so far, and bodes well for a second season less tied down by temporary goals and more invested in its characters resigning themselves to their new lives. I can’t say how long that second season will hold my interest, but the shakeup in the writing staff, widely reported online and addressed by the event hosts at the beginning of the evening, is promising so long as showrunner Frank Darabont takes a firmer hand in enforcing the excellent tone and drive he injected the series premiere with (though my interest in the comics series did eventually flag, so we’ll see). My experience at the Bagdad, with its blissed-out crowd that almost hid the leaden drama of the finale, convinced me that I should try to catch at least a few episodes there, though the half-hour wait for the bus in the below-freezing Oregon December has me equally confident that I won’t be doing it too often.

BRING BACK HEPCATS!

  • Hepcats Reprint Library Volume 1: The Collegiate Hepcats
  • Hepcats Reprint Library Volume 2: Snowblind Part One by Martin Wagner

I’M BOTH new to Hepcats and not. Until recently I hadn’t thought about the series in years and hadn’t read any but the first issue of the comic-book series, but my first exposure was in high school, when I discovered The Collegiate Hepcats at the height of my love for comic strips. At the time, I aspired to be a comic-strip artist when I grew up, and even though I wasn’t familiar with Martin Wagner, the promise of seeing the kind of work a comics artist had done in college was something I couldn’t pass up. My memory is of reading it voraciously and then not really thinking about it again, though it did deepen my desire to draw my comics, and on a recent reread I was surprised by how much I remembered, so the characters must have dug deeper into my brain than I realized at the time.

The strip is a surprisingly comfortable mix of funny-animal aesthetics and Doonesbury/Bloom County-style humor. True, Bloom County is a funny-animal strip, but it features both animal characters and human characters, whereas Hepcats stars characters meant to be human, all of whom have animal heads. Actually, Bloom Country and Hepcats share a genesis at the University of Texas at Austen’s Daily Texan, where Shannon Wheeler and Chris Ware also had work published. (I was familiar with Wheeler and Bloom County’s Berkeley Breathed at the time, though I don’t think I’d yet heard of Ware.) While, by Wagner’s own admission, blatantly derivative of Doonesbury and Bloom County in style, Hepcats has its own cast of relatable characters and is visually accomplished for the age of its author, with a mix of topical UT humor and relationship soap opera, as well as a somewhat inexplicable second cast in rural Texas who never interacted with the main college cast. Though some amusing stories came out of those characters, they didn’t make the transition to the comic-book version. Wagner at times over-relies on metatextual humor to gloss over plot problems, but the strip is generally quite funny and its characters grow on the reader.

(When I eventually went to college, at the University of Southern California, I studied film, but still nursed a fantasy of drawing comic strips and so put together five weeks worth of comics to submit to The Daily Trojan. The editor I spoke with did me what in retrospect turns out to have been an enormous favor: without looking at the material, she told me that the Trojan didn’t run comic strips. She was wrong; when I put out the word online asking whether college comics were a thing of the past, I was informed that the Trojan had run daily comics only a few semesters previous. As it turns out, the staff is elected every semester and therefore has no institutional memory. Before I left, she looked down at the packet in my hand and saw the first strip. “It looks really good,” she said. “Sorry.” Over the following years, my presence in the Trojan was limited to an interview about a charitable program I administered in my dorm building and a letter to the editor during the 2004 election, and given everything that’s happened to newspapers since, I thank that editor.)

Anyway, Hepcats and I didn’t really cross paths for the next dozen years. I was aware of the comic-book continuation, which ran 12 issues and got a good deal of press, including mentions in Wizard magazine in the mid-’90s (which would have been my actual first awareness of it), rare for a self-published series, and knew that there was a collection of the more serious later material, but it wasn’t until Thanksgiving this year, when a comics-loving friend was home from CalArts for the break and wanted to visit some comics stores, that I actually noticed that collection, the Snowblind Part One hardcover.

Snowblind is excellent. Previously confined to the four-panel format, Wagner clearly feels liberated by the room provided by full-page comics. His storytelling isn’t always clear when there’s a lot of movement, though it is improved from the first issue, reprinted in The Collegiate Hepcats, but his detailed crosshatching benefits from having more space, and he makes great use of contrast between heavily detailed pages and others in which the book’s narrator Erica appears against vast white backgrounds. The story is, animal heads aside, straight drama about regular people with no genre elements and not starring misanthropic man-children, making it still a rare specimen in non-autobiographical American comics.

Wagner also proves deft at adapting his previously comedic characters into a dramatic setting while maintaining their personalities. There’s no noticeable change in Joey, Gunther, and Arnie, who are still somewhat goofy, and they react as expected to the considerably less silly events around them, but also display an ability to take things more seriously only hinted at in their comic-strip iterations. Erica is the most changed, but it feels a natural reaction to what goes on in the book, as her past, never addressed in the strip even as we met the others’ families, catches up with her. Wagner writes the four main characters believably, and shows tremendous sensitivity as he slowly unfolds what is happening to Erica without ever quite getting into great detail. That is promised for the next volume.

Except the next volume never happened. This is what I didn’t realize as I stayed only vaguely aware of the continuation of Hepcats: while I occasionally saw mention of Snowblind Part One, I never saw similar evidence of Snowblind Part Two. The first book covers the series only up through issue #10, so there are two more out there for me to find, but the story doesn’t actually conclude—despite relaunching the series at Antarctic Press, Wagner was discouraged by sales and after the initial 12 issues were reprinted never completed the 13th. Wagner has spent much of his time since working in film and hosting the Austen program The Atheist Experience, though he has maintained that Snowblind will be completed as a webcomic, most recently stating in November that there may be “some news to relate soon.” While no one can begrudge him prioritizing paying work in the current economy, I hope that really does come to pass, because I want to see the completion of this story.

True, I haven’t waited for it the way many of Wagner’s fans have, but Hepcats got me while I was young, and my reread of The Collegiate Hepcats before getting into Snowblind proved to me how much it had gotten under my skin. These characters mean something to me, which is the most one can ask from the creator of serial fiction, and I hope Wagner eventually finds the time and financial freedom to bring closure to the story he’s put into his fans’ heads. Furthermore, the serialized comics world needs more of the kind of unadorned human drama (with animal heads) that made Hepcats unique then and now. So, as patiently as I can say it: more Hepcats!

READ THIS WEEK 12/5–12/11:

  • 10 by Keith Giffen & Andy Kuhn
  • Absolute All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely & Jamie Grant
    Probably the best superhero story of the decade. I didn’t buy the standard-sized collections of this material, because an Absolute edition was a foregone conclusion, and now that it’s here I’m so glad I waited. Morrison and Quitely did a superb job of creating single-issue tales that built into a single story, and reading them close together makes them all the richer. The main attraction, though, is of course the size, and Quitely displays a truly rare quality in his work, somehow managing to create an overall aesthetic of spareness while still packing frames with subtle detail. The larger size made so many things clearer—bits of text here, small actions there—while the simple fact that I was reading the material for the third or fourth time made Morrison’s equally intricate work more apparent (for instance, the method of Luthor’s escape from prison in issue #11 is set up in issue #5). Despite playing at that scale, not many superhero comics actually earn the term “majestic,” but All-Star Superman easily makes it over the bar, and the Absolute edition leaves it miles below.
  • Adventure Comics #520 by Paul Levitz, Kevin Sharpe, Mario Alquiza, Jeff Lemire, Mahmoud Asrar & John Dell
  • The Adventures of Tintin: Cigars of the Pharaohs by Hergé
    Wow, these are breathless little stories. The story logic is strained, there’s no variation in pacing, and character motivations are non-existent, but I understand that is balanced out by the breathing room provided to the wonderful artwork. Unfortunately, the recent edition that I read this story in is reprinted very small, so I didn’t get the effect.
  • Batman Beyond #5 by Adam Beechen, Ryan Benjamin & John Stanisci
  • Doom Patrol #17 by Keith Giffen, Matthew Clark, Ron Randall & John Livesay
  • Gantz vol. 14 by Hiroya Oku
  • The Question vol. 6: Peacemaker by Dennis O’Neil, Deny Cowan & Malcolm Jones III
    A really fascinating end to O’Neil and Cowan’s run. I’ve heard this talked about in terms of its reinvention of the Question character, its social relevance, allusions to Eastern philosophy, and recommended reading lists in the letters columns (sadly not reprinted in these volumes), but I don’t recall hearing much about how it documents the deterioration and collapse of a city in more or less real time. This is what they call “gritty urban drama,” and barely fits in the superhero genre, with the title character having two identities, sure, but the gradation between the two is so slight by the end as to be nearly invisible. The Question is also pretty ineffectual by this point, not even a Band-Aid on a city that is fundamentally broken—with a dozen cops and no doctors left, it’s a postapocalyptic scenario without an apocalypse—while his love interest who has been elected mayor takes over as protagonist. I’m hard-pressed to think of another series that ends with the costumed main character admitting defeat and escaping the city while his girlfriend stays to fight the fight. Dated and over-the-top in places, sure, but gripping and unlike any other superhero comic I’ve ever read.
  • Serenity: The Shepherd’s Tale by Joss Whedon, Zack Whedon & Chris Samnee
  • Superboy #1–#2 by Jeff Lemire & Pier Gallo
    Sweet Tooth #16 by Jeff Lemire

    Still enjoying Sweet Tooth every month. Superboy has promise, but Lemire still seems to be finding his feet with hero books, falling back on convention, so the writing isn’t as strong. Poison Ivy has no real motivation for her presence in #2, and when Superboy referrs to Smallville as “her,” it sticks out because it feels like a signpost for a level of emotional connection to the place that has yet to be earned by anything he’s done or how the town has been depicted so far in these two issues—it’s certainly not James Robinson’s Opal City. Superboy’s sidekick combining Lex Luthor with Jimmy Olson is promising, though, and his parasite frogs were cool, and a nice payoff of the “training frogs” bit from #1.
  • Temporary #1–#3 by Damon Hurd & Rick Smith
    Discovered these in a quarter bin. Issues #2 and #3 are okay, hurt by a clichéd portrayal of Multiple Personality Disorder, but issue #1 is a brilliant piece of storytelling, sending the titular temp worker into a mental hospital for a day’s worth of filing, where a series of miscommunications land her in a fake office in which patients are being experimented on. Sent to “work” each day, the patients play out a sadistic version of office work, which in its bizarre demands and capricious inequities resembles nothing so much as a regular workplace. The system is so insane that it cannot recognize a sane person, yet so familiar that the sane cannot recognize it as insane. The artwork looks similar to a lot of other thick-lined, cartoony books, but it’s confident enough work and doesn’t betray the unbalanced nature of any of the characters, while making their instability believable once the story makes it clear. Both writing and art keep the main character a cypher, appropriate to her role as observer, though we learn just enough about her on the last page that the subsequent opening up of her personality in later issues feels natural. It’s the freaky mirror of the real world the first issue reveals that is the real accomplishment, though.
  • Thor: The Mighty Avenger vol. 1 by Roger Langridge, Chris Samnee & Matthew Wilson
    The many people singing this series’ praises are not wrong. Having never read a Thor comic before, this was completely accessible and thoroughly entertaining. That the story should be simple yet engaging is no surprise, as I’m a fan of Langridge’s Muppet Show Comic, and Chris Samnee somehow makes innocence and power sit side-by-side like they were natural complements, working in perfect tandem with colorist Wilson to create images that look more detailed than they actually are, thanks to the skillful application of a line here, a color hold there. Some panels feature characters that are little more than stick figures, but posed just so, so that their gestures are clear, and you even fool yourself into thinking that you know what their facial expressions are. A perfect little comic that makes all-ages superheroing look easy. I understand there will be one more trade, one fewer than originally planned; hopefully they can wrap things up okay in time.

     The two old Journey Into Mystery reprints are the first I’ve ever read of the original Thor comics stories, and they are very, very different, making me curious how a man given the power of Thor by picking up a walking stick has evolved into the modern version, a character who is Thor, cast out of Asgard. Also, he has a “T” on his belt, which is hilarious. It reminds me that the original Galactus had a big “G” on his chest. Did most Marvel characters used to have their initials on their clothes? Is Captain America the only one that never gave it up (and why him? No one really thinks of America when they see the letter “A”—hell, “A” is the only one we leave off the acronym when we say U.S.)?

     Only problem I had was the pricing at $15, $3 more than the combined price of the issues. I get why a marginally profitable comic to begin with isn’t bargain priced, but at least match the price of the issues, yeah?

  • Tiny Titans/Little Archie and His Pals #3 by Art Baltazar and Franco
    Archie runs amuck in the Batcave! And Batman has a phone that allows him to call up the Joker! He wants to get rid of Archie, who is clearly not Robin, despite the “R” on his shirt. Batman explains, “I’m a detective, y’know. I can tell.” Plus, other stuff happens. I love the regular Tiny Titans, but adding the Little Archie cast has shaken things up to an extra degree, making this miniseries even more fun.
  • Twin Spica vol. 4 by Kou Yaginuma
    President George W. Bush and I agree on precious little, but I was excited by his Vision for Space Exploration program, announced in 2004, which proposed establishing the Constellation shuttle and a greater human presence on the moon, as a stepping stone to wider exploration of the solar system. It was by far the most forward-looking program of his presidency, though even at the time it was criticized for taking money from other programs, and President Obama’s next proposed budget, while actually increasing NASA’s budget over the next five years, calls for Constellation to be cut and more space technology to be outsourced to private industry.

     In that context, Twin Spica is not only a delightful read, but a timely one, too. Published in 2003, shortly before President Bush announced the Vision for Space Exploration program, it’s about the pull of space despite the presence of more immediate, earthly concerns. The fourth volume includes the first instance we’ve seen of protest against the resurgent Japanese space program, as picketers declare it both dangerous and a waste of taxpayer money. That gives main character Asumi pause, as she’s never before considered the expense of the program and how else the money might be spent, and the moment hangs over the rest of the volume. But it is ultimately overcome by the intense need that humanity feels for space, and for learning.

     At a glance, the space program doesn’t seem like the best use of money in bad economic times, but the expansion of human knowledge is ennobling, and as we learn more about the universe, we become a better people. Our lives have been changed by countless discoveries from the space program, even if we ourselves will never visit space, and the simple fact of a photo of the Earth from space changed the way we saw ourselves and became an instant symbol for the peace movement. The withdrawal from space has been devastating to America’s self esteem, to the point that it’s hard to imagine any great goal being tackled with the courage and ambition that the race for the moon inspired, and the proposed cutting of the Constellation program feels like just one more admission that this country no longer reaches for greatness, though I take some comfort in NASA’s announcement that it will plan further out in response, and that those plans involve manned missions to Mars.

     Twin Spica is obviously not about the plight of the United States in 2010, but Japan is no stranger to issues of national self esteem, and the balance of dealing with the problems right in front of us and reaching for the stars is universal. Here, it is charmingly embodied by Asumi, one of the students at a high school focusing on space science, who is incredibly small for her age, but who has nurtured dreams of space travel her whole life. The art is beautiful, with round, expressive characters, and a clean depiction of technology, realistic-looking but without a distracting fetishism for detail. The stories are warm and thoughtful, with a leisurely pace and the easy mix of science and magical realism that manga seems to excel at. It is a pleasure to read and, as the previous paragraphs have demonstrated, inspires further thought on its themes well after it’s been put down. I think I said this before, but this series reminds me why I wanted to be an astronaut when I was a kid.

Photo of Bagdad Theater © McMenamins, I guess. It was on their website. Images of Hepcats © Martin Wagner. Images of Temporary © Damon Hurd and Rick Smith

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