American Vampire

American Vampire is an award-winning series created by Scott Snyder, with an origin story by Stephen King and artwork throughout by Rafael Albuquerque.

The obvious question is: why read another vampire story in a world that already has too many? Of course, any old monster can be interesting again in the right hands, as Stephen King’s early career demonstrates. What makes American Vampire interesting is the concept of class warfare within the vampire world set against periods of American history. The first story arc alternates between Hollywood on the verge of the talking picture and the last days of the wild west, with a new vampire created in each: aspiring actress Pearl Jones and clever criminal Skinner Sweet, respectively.

Skinner Sweet, as the original American vampire, discovers that he has an advantage that the older, European vampires do not: he can walk in the daylight. As the old guard tries to reach a truce with him, they also build wealth in the human world by investing in and influencing projects like the Boulder Dam. Sweet sees them as weak and decadent, like an ambitious gangster that wants to eliminate the old mafiosi. Meanwhile, a few of the humans who understand vampires have created their own elite corps of slayers, and don’t mind working with some vampires in order to eliminate others.

While I’m sure having King’s name on this book didn’t hurt sales, it is Snyder who has developed a compelling series here; and while I don’t always feel that Albuquerque’s artwork is well-served by digital colouring, it does work more often than not. Skinner Sweet is one of those charismatic villains that I perversely root for. If like me you have grown weary of franchises that are past their sell-by date like True Blood, American Vampire is an excellent replacement.

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Fun with Sexualized Punishment in Comics

I have seen a number of articles online lately about the depiction of assorted kinks in comics, especially Golden Age comics. Part of the academic interest lately is I suppose part of the larger mainstreaming of kink culture and its siblings, queer and LGBT theory. That’s all fine with me. I am a little dismayed, however, by a couple of trends:

1) a tendency for writers, when discussing the Golden Age and Silver Age comics, to make a meal out of stuff like Wonder Woman’s lasso (used for bondage, of course) or Superman spanking a (usually female) super-villain. Yes, obviously there is a sexual undercurrent to such depictions, but they are also products of their time. We don’t need to assume that the Silver Age writer or artist had some dark agenda by depicting a spanking; they could have just been depicting a punishment that would have made sense to a 12-year-old kid in the 1950s. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, guys.

2) these days of course, spanking is not a normal punishment outside of the kinky community (and even there it is not necessarily a punishment). I cringe at the ham-fisted attempts on television and in comics to depict a character – usually a villain – that seems to have, for lack of a better word, a “superkink”. The latest example is in the solicitation for Keith Giffen’s Superman #9, in which Big Blue battles “Masochist”, a female supervillain who apparently becomes stronger the more she is struck, like a berserker or Sebastian Shaw from the X-Men. She wears a t-shirt that says – sigh – “Hurt Me.”

As someone pointed out on Twitter this morning, Masochist sounds like a riff on the villain mentioned in Watchmen who got dropped down an elevator shaft because he kept pestering the “heroes” to hurt him. I don’t even want to contemplate what ridiculous psychological hogwash Giffen has prepared as a backstory. These two-dimensional depictions are a sign of trying too hard at best and titillation at worst. There have been some interesting takes on it, by the likes of Alan Moore and Rick Veitch, but more often than not it seems to be a way for unimaginative writers to exploit something they don’t understand.

Being kinky and getting off on receiving or administering pain (or restraint, or whatever) is not unlike being gay; it is a biological and neurological luck of the draw. It is nothing to be scared of or wonder at; it is simply the normal state of affairs for a significant percentage of the population. Perhaps someday we’ll see a truly realistic depiction of such things, in a story where it makes sense to do so.

Essex County by Jeff Lemire

I’m a year or two late to this party, but I’m glad I finally got around to reading the rest of Jeff Lemire’s Essex County (I had read the first section previously). Lemire’s book became a cause celebre last year when it was in the running for the CBC’s annual “Canada Reads” competition; especially when a panelist considered it unworthy for being a comic.

I’d like to find that panelist and smack them in the head with a copy of this book in the hope that it knocks some sense into them. Lemire’s work here is everything we love about Canadian literature: the sense of place, the examination of family, the tension between city life and small town traditions, of dark secrets and coping with both human nature and mother nature. It is as brilliant and touching as anything I have read by Margaret Laurence, Stephen Leacock, or Alice Munro. Indeed, if someone had handed me the volume about the nurse and told me that it was written by Laurence, I would have believed them.

Essex County is not just just great Canadiana or great comics, it’s a great story and I found myself identifying with a lot of it. Lemire’s brush technique has a perfect weight and tension for this material; combined with a lack of gray tones and tiny hand lettering, as well as what I assume is Lemire’s own artwork from childhood, this is a well-executed passion piece for him. I plan to buy a copy for my parents; I only wish that my grandparents were around to read it too.

RASL vol. 1 by Jeff Smith

“Pocket Book One” of Jeff Smith’s “RASL” collects the first 7 issues of his ongoing title about Rob, a scientist turned art thief who perpetrates his crimes by jumping between parallel dimensions using equipment of his own design. He is pursued by a reptilian man with an improved version of the same technology, developed by his former employers. The reptilian man threatens to kill the woman Rob loves in every dimension unless Rob returns some journals that came into his possession that allowed him to complete his invention.

The journals belonged to Nikola Tesla, the original “mad scientist” and innovator of electrical power generation, who inspired Rob and his former partners to develop a planetary energy shield that could be of great benefit to mankind – or possibly destroy it. For all of this high concept, RASL is a very down to earth spin on Les Miserables, about a man who has lost everything and has adapted to survive, hoping to do so long enough to make things right.

RASL is a very different series from Smith’s (more or less) all-ages title Bone, but no less impressive in its execution. Smith is a master of the clean brush line and his design for Rob reminds me of the troubled actor Robert Blake, simmering with repressed anger and prone to violence. I’m looking forward to reading the next volume.

Habibi by Craig Thompson

I’m a bit angry. For months I have been reading a certain comics criticism website and seeing them rail against this book (albeit with a few defenders), for everything from its depiction of Muslim scripture to charges of sexism, racism, and essentially of being “too pretty” for its story. Well, fuck that. It is certainly not a happy journey – like all of Thompson’s other books – but Habibi is an accomplished and thoughtful piece of work. It angers me that a few years ago people were falling all over themselves to praise (rather, overpraise) Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis while Habibi gets a hard time.

Anyway. I’ve calmed enough to, I hope, objectively assess the book. The first thing that you notice is its sheer technical accomplishment, from the book’s design (also by the author) to its linework, impressively reproducing the patterns of Arabic imagery and calligraphy like a monk illustrating an illuminated manuscript. In this respect I am much reminded of the equally impressive adaptation of Paul Auster’s City of Glass by David Mazzuchelli; Thompson developed numerous ways to depict the word made flesh and back again as his heroine Dodola and her partner Zam grow up in a self-created world of stories.

Thompson is not as accomplished, I think, as the writer of the accompanying text. He is didactic and sometimes over-explanatory, and I do not care to speculate as to the reasons for it. But he is also genuine (or an extremely good actor). I was relieved to find that most of the self-doubt and worry about this book and himself that he expressed in his journal comic Carnet De Voyage is largely absent in Habibi.

I am starting to get a vibe from Thompson’s work, especially this and Blankets, which reminds me of the filmmaker PT Anderson, director of acclaimed films like Magnolia and There Will Be Blood. Anderson is a virtuoso with his camera and as an editor, but his scripts consist of him attempting to work out the same daddy issues again and again. Blankets and Habibi seem to me mirrored reflections of each other, examining child sexual abuse and the resultant low self-esteem, followed by aspiration to redemption and healing through scripture from the Christian and Muslim perspectives. It makes me wonder if Thompson will form a trilogy with a volume from the perspective of Judaism. Curiously, the section of the book that I found the most affecting was one that contains almost no brushwork, just a grid of panels that contain text as one of the characters considers an important decision.

After all of this ranting you might be expecting me to give Habibi an unqualified recommendation. I certainly want to. If you are a collector of beautifully drawn comics, you are in luck with any of Thompson’s work. If you want to learn about Islam and its sacred art and some comparison of its stories versus those of Christianity, again you are in luck. I just don’t feel as impressed with this book as I was with Blankets, because it feels like I have already read this story, albeit in a radically different “skin”. Of his four books, I have only kept one in my library: the travel diary Carnet de Voyage, because unlike the others, Thompson is sharing his own story without the veils in between, while still presenting beautiful artwork.

After battle, the prophet said, “we have returned from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad.” When asked, “what is the greater jihad?”, he replied: “It is the struggle against oneself.”

Ten Thoughts on Before Watchmen

So, DC Comics announced today what we have known for a little while: a set of prequel miniseries to Watchmen. The internet has reacted in a range between guarded optimism and anger. My feelings as a fan (and I suppose, scholar) of the book are mixed. So here are the thoughts I have been jotting down today.

  1. Watchmen is a sacred cow in a meat grinder of an industry. But even a sacred cow can be revisited with respect. Bobby London did it with E.C. Segar’s Popeye. Darwyn Cooke has done it in practically every project he is known for, from the Richard Stark’s Parker adaptations to The New Frontier to Will Eisner’s The Spirit (which Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons also once adapted, by the way). Moore reimagined Len Wein’s Swamp Thing, Lee and Kirby for 1963, a host of public domain pulp heroes for The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and comics archetypes for his Wildstorm comics. Moore has profited handsomely from the history of comics, thank you very much.
  2. Re: people calling it a slap in the face to Alan Moore, Watchmen did not come like a lightning bolt from the sky; it was a pearl from the depths of Alan Moore’s brain, formed in a soup of that brilliant man’s knowledge of politics, pop culture, comics history, and so on. He plants some of the influences in the script itself, like the Outer Limits episode “The Architects of Fear”; others are better known to hardcore comics fans, like Steve Ditko’s Mr. A or the novel “Superfolks” by Robert Mayer. It’s not a matter of being derivative; everything we create in the 21st century is derivative (and sometimes an outright copy) of something else. What makes a Watchmen prequel unappealing to me is that no matter how good the attached talent is, it seems like it can only be really good fan fiction at best. Which is fine, I just don’t want to pay that much money and spend that much time reading fan fiction.
  3. Watchmen is a book whose antihero says “no compromise”, created in an industry that is completely compromised. That’s why we like it, for the same reason we like all superhero comics; the fantasy of having the power and wisdom to say no, and damn the consequences. Unfortunately, on one level due to the necessities of trademark renewal, the Watchmen characters are just properties to DC. Len Wein might have liked a shot at revitalizing Swamp Thing, but he didn’t get it. Maybe Kirby would have liked another crack at Sandman. The Watchmen characters are properties just like the Charlton characters they are based on, and just as many of those properties got their own titles after Crisis on Infinite Earths, I wouldn’t be surprised if Before Watchmen is a stepping stone for individual ongoing titles for Rorschach, Nite Owl, Ozymandias etc. after the next earth-shattering, universe-bending, trademark-ownership-buttressing “event”. So it goes.
  4. I have always tried to be the kind of comics fan who keeps things in perspective, who doesn’t develop an unhealthy attachment to a particular character or company or creator. I love comics and I want them to prosper and become as diverse and normalized as an entertainment option in our culture as they are in Japan, France, and other areas of the world. I am not convinced that prequels to Watchmen are going to contribute to that goal so much as contribute to DC’s bottom line and pay some talented creators who could be doing something else. If DC is going to do this kind of looking back, I wish they would do another series of Wednesday Comics.
  5. One of the reasons people are butthurt on Moore’s behalf is the issue of creator ownership, which was a hot topic in the 80s when Watchmen was created. Moore got a deal for himself and Gibbons that must have sounded good at the time: that the ownership of the characters would revert to them once the book was out of print. They wound up being victims of their own success, if you call getting royalties from one of the best selling comics of all time being a victim. Still, Moore felt ripped off, and made sure that he had a better deal when he created his Wildstorm books (which, ironically, got sold to DC). Even creator ownership doesn’t last forever; as hard as Disney and other companies are trying to claw back the time required, works do eventually fall into the public domain. One of my favourite comics of the 80s was Michael T. Gilbert’s Mr. Monster, in which he reimagined a minor Canadian superhero to very comic effect. The problem with owning a bunch of properties is that you have to maintain them. Dust them off, show them to buyers, see if you can get a return on your investment.
  6. When I wrote my MA thesis on comics, I used Watchmen as a case study, breaking it down into a narrative blueprint based on Noam Chomsky’s system for analyzing language which creates formulas out of sentences. But a comic is not just a formula, or a tribute to what is past; its value lies in what it means to the reader. One of my all-time favourite books is the underappreciated 80s DC title Thriller, whose plot bears some resemblance to Watchmen. Thriller missed with most comics fans in the 80s, despite its many virtues, and so it is largely forgotten. Watchmen not only hit with comics fans, it went well beyond to reach the consciousness of the general public and lead the charge for the acceptance of graphic novels in libraries and bookstores and book clubs. Any follow-up (and there already have been follow-ups) is bound to pale in comparison, especially now, when the book is still beloved by many and the recent string of decent comic book movies has brought a whole new generation of readers. Watchmen is the gateway drug of comics for many.
  7. I don’t envy the task of those who want to create a sequel, or prequel, or whatever. George Lucas couldn’t do it with Star Wars. Frank Miller couldn’t do it with The Dark Knight Returns. To do it with Watchmen will be like making a prequel to Citizen Kane: when the original already shows the best distillation of those characters imaginable, why show anything else? And so that is the challenge. Until Neil Gaiman came along, the best distillation we had of The Sandman was Simon and Kirby. Many have tried to match Kirby’s energy with The New Gods but even he could not while he was alive. This is a business where the two companies that publish the most material are obsessed with reintroducing the same characters over and over again; many of which were of marginal interest in the first place (Deadman with his own book in The New 52? Mister Terriffic? Come on.) Their low success rate in this regard is cause for pessimism.
  8. Superhero publishers used to generate new heroes and villains at an astounding rate, with a handful resonating well enough to last for decades and the others consigned to history, resurrected only perhaps by Grant Morrison. It’s why I don’t read that many superhero comics, this feeling that I have seen it all before. Every so often there is a wonderful exception, like Brian K. Vaughn’s Runaways; but for the most part superheroes and villains are interchangeable. A Green Arrow story could just as easily be an Iron Man story. The costumes are different containers for the same dull material. But not Watchmen; those characters are essential to that story, and because of their provenance (forced reimaginations of less powerful Charlton characters), they serve as avatars for comics history itself.
  9. Another potential barrier that the new creative teams will face is the art style. Dave Gibbons’ style and Higgins’ colours combined to create a linework that looks more at home in a French comics anthology alongside Moebius than a US publisher. Comics are drawn and coloured differently now, with a lot more digital tooling (Gibbons himself is a proponent of Manga Studio). The creative lineup, especially Cooke, Wein, and Hughes seem pretty well suited to their assignments. I wish them luck.
  10. What is ultimately disappointing to me is that for all the lip service DC pays to respecting the creator, and however much the new creative teams want to do right by Moore and Gibbons despite fan skepticism, this project takes away from the reader what was given to them in the very last line of the book: “I leave it entirely in your hands.”

[Update! Alan Moore was interviewed here about Before Watchmen and addressed some of the points raised above. Well worth reading.]