Archive for June 21, 2012

Finally! I guess the third time’s the charm, because Before Watchmen : Comedian #1 finally shows that DC is capable of delivering on the “promise” — limited as it is from the outset — that I thought this whole Watchmen prequel project might have going for it (and I use that term with caution, since the idea that these to-my-mind completely unnecessary books have anything much “going for them” at all is highly debatable, to say the least) : namely, that while they probably in any just universe not ruled by the forces of predatory capitalism wouldn’t even exist in the first place, but since we live in this rather soulless and benighted one, the best we can hope for is some decent storytelling that has something interesting to say about some admittedly quite compelling characters.

To be sure, writer Brian Azzzarello and artist J.G. Jones aren’t adding anything extra to the figure of Eddie Blake, aka The Comedian, that we absolutely need to know, but it seems like they are, at least, interested in providing a fresh take on him that seeks to do a little bit more than just recount some story from his past that’s either complete retread material (a la Darwyn Cooke’s Minutemen) or simply the exact kind situation we could easily envision these one of these characters in ourselves, no problem (Cooke and Amanda Conner’s Silk Spectre).There’s no doubt that at his core, the Comedian as scripted by Azzarello and drawn by Jones (brief aside — my biggest gripe with this issue is, in fact, Jones’ artwork — it’s not actively bad, by any means, but it’s just standard, garden-variety superhero-type stuff that’s frankly the very essence of the term “nothing special”) is in no way fundamentally different than the character we were introduced by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons in the original Watchmen mini-series, but this story does, dare I say it, almost show something of a softer side to the guy. He’s still a rat bastard at heart, as shown by how he rather casually murders a famous woman he was only just sleeping with (I won’t say who, but if I tell you that the story is set in the early ’60s, you can probably guess), but he’s also shown here to be very nearly developing something of, dare I say it, an idealistic streak. He actually seems to believe in something — or, more specifically, in someone (again, I won’t say who, but again, given the time period in which this story takes place, you can pretty easily guess). He is, in fact, supposed to be on his way to meet that someone when he’s detained by an obviously hastily-arranged little time-waster of a “mission,” and while he’s tending to that pesky n’ pointless matter, that certain less-than-mysterious someone whose name I’ve studiously avoided mentioning is killed (and let’s face it — if you still haven’t figured out who I’m talking about by this point, there’s absolutely no hope for you).

And that’s probably where things are going to get dicey for a lot of Watchmen purists (what are you doing even reading this book in the first place?), because it directly contradicts something that was hinted at in the original series and that was explicitly shown in Zack Snyder’s film. However, it’s quite apparent that solving this “whodunnit?,” as well as its attendant question of “why was The Comedian kept away from it?” is going to be the driving force behind the plot of this six-issue series, which should be heavy on the political intrigue and conspiratorial overtones.

All that being said, it’s pretty obvious, it seems to me at any rate, where this whole thing is going to end up. The Comedian is going to find the perpetrators of the crime within our own government, be coerced or explicitly forced into helping them shape their decidedly right-wing agenda for America’s future, and what little idealism (there’s that word again) he was almost threatening to develop is going to be buried under the crushing wave of cynicism, if not outright nihilism, that solving this case engenders in him. He’ll go to Sally Jupiter/Juspeczyk for comfort at the point where he’s at his lowest, sire her daughter, and when she makes it clear she won’t allow him to play any part in his baby girl’s life, that decision, coupled with the loss of faith in pretty much anything and everything that will result from his investigations over the next five issues will result in Blake becoming the hard-assed, completely unlikable scumbag we’ve always known him to be.

Still, it’s a convincingly-written, thoroughly readable book (Azzarello seems to have something of a flair for solid, realistic dialogue), and it at least has some ambitions beyond DC’s apparent remit of “just don’t screw anything up.” I won’t be buying it in its three different variant covers (as reproduced above and drawn by Jones, Eduardo Risso, and Jim Lee, respectively), but I didn’t feel too bad about shelling out four bucks for the one copy I did get. Even though the ending might as well be telegraphed in more or less from the outset, I’m sufficiently intrigued at this point to see just how it is that we’ll arrive there.

Wow. It’s hard to believe that 2011 marked the 25th anniversary of former Raw editor Art Spiegelman’s classic comix narrative Maus. It’s enough to make a guy start feeling kind of old! But if any so-called “graphic novel” (and in the case of Maus that’s a term that actually applies) deserved a big to-do to celebrate the quarter-century mark, this one does.

For those of you with short attention spans, or who either weren’t there or were too young at the time to remember now, Maus  was one of the works, along with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, that the mainstream media chose to focus on in the mid-80s as proof that the comics medium had finally “grown up.” But whereas Dark Knight and Watchmen were both revisionist takes on the superhero genre that comics are, for better or worse, still pretty much synonymous with, Maus represented a broadening of the medium’s focus to include stories and issues from the “real world” as well, and whereas Miller, Moore, and Gibbons all emerged from the “mainstream” comics industry, writer-artist Spiegelman emerged from the so-called “underground” milieu of the 1960s and 70s, and so brought to  his work an entirely different sensibility than the creators he was being “bundled up” (so to speak) with. In practical terms, for those of you who might be unfamiliar with the differences between so-called “mainstream” and so-called “alternative” comics/comix, is that he never cared much for guys in tights and capes fighting crime, and while he was far from the first, or only, cartoonist to eschew the costumed adventurer as the primary focus of his sequential narratives (Robert Crumb, Harvey Pekar, Greg Irons, Jay Lynch, Kim Deitch, Spain, S. Clay Wilson, Gilbert Shelton, and frankly too many others to list were both forebears and contemporaries of Spiegelman), his was the first non-mainstream work that the wider world really paid any attention to , coming as it did at at ime when, again, the mainstream was thought (falsely, as it turns out, since the only lesson the “Big Two” publishers seems to have taken from the critical acclaim and commercial success of Dark Knight and Watchmen was that audiences wanted their heroes “grittier,” “darker,” and “more realistic”) to be finally maturing.

Sure, Maus still employs another tried-and-true trapping of comics tradition — namely the “funny animal” genre (not that there’s anything funny about these animals)  — as its central narrative conceit, but this is definitely a harrowing portrayal of unfabricated and unvarnished all-too-human complexity, focusing as it does on the grim realities of the Holocaust (with mice standing in for the Jews and cats for the Germans) and the effects of that dark period on those who survived the ordeal. Based on the recorded conversations Spiegelman had with his own Holocaust-survivor father before his passing, it’s a harrowing, deeply personal, emotionally resonant work that will engross you from its first page to its last and haunt you long afterwards. Critics of far more established pedigree than I have called it “the most affecting portrayal of the Holocaust ever rendered in any medium” and “a masterwork,” and you know what? They’re absolutely right.As far as the art goes, it’s simply stunning. Elegant in its simplicity, it’s brooding, atmospheric, and yes, heavy, but it needs to be in order to accurately represent this subject matter with candor and sincerity. Spiegelman’s drawings have a raw (if you’ll forgive the pun) and unsophisticated look to them that belies the almost-agonizing complexity to their construction that sometimes can’t be appreciated on first glance. In short, these are images that need to be studied to be fully appreciated, but if you do take the time to do that you’ll be richly rewarded for your efforts, as the pictures on display here are every bit as emotionally affecting as the words that accompany them.

Now back to the whole anniversary thing. Pantheon books, in late 2011, finally released a collected hardback edition of the complete Maus (it had been released in two separate, smaller editions — both in hardcover and paperback — previously), complete with a new cover, and also published an absolutely exhaustive (again hardcover) companion volume, titled MetaMaus, that runs nearly 300 pages and collects nearly what one would imagine to be almost every scrap of detail relating to Maus’ creation and also features extensive interviews with Spiegleman, his wife, and his children, elaborating on not only how and why Maus came to be, but how it has affected their lives, as well. It’s a compelling and genuinely illuminating volume showcasing the efforts that went into the creation of a work that, let’s face it, deserved a lot more than a new introduction and/or afterword to mark its silver anniversary. Also included with companion volume  is a DVD that features a digitized reference copy of Maus in its entirety linked to various and sundry complementary archival material such as pages from Spiegelman’s sketchbooks and private notebooks, historical documents, and even excepts of the audio interviews with his late father that provided the genesis for the entire project in the first place. The two books retail (full price) at $35.00 apiece and are more than worth every penny.In closing I’d just like to wish Art Spiegelman and Maus a very happy happy 25th anniversary. As relevant, thought-provoking, significant and, yes, poignant today as it ever was, this remains an unequaled work in the field of graphic historical (and personal) narrative. Pick it up for yourself and find out why it’s required reading in so many college courses , not just on comics but on history, these days.