There are things that we just can’t untangle from our own biases, our own tastes and likes and dislikes, to see underneath and work out whether they’re actually any good or not. It happens in both directions; I have such an inexplicable attachment to Doctor Who that it dulls my critical faculties and yet leaves it open to the most random, meaningless dismissals, for example (“It’s not humanistic enough!” isn’t a reason to get grumpy at a science-fiction show, I feel, and yet). Similarly, my dislike of Frank Miller’s machismo deadens the appeal of almost all of his work. That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about.
All of which is a long-winded way of getting around to admit that I have no idea whether or not Ody-C #1 is any good or not.
It is, after all, a perfect storm of things that I have problems with; Matt Fraction is very much writing in his lyrical “mythic” mode — something that he’s used in his Thor, sure, but also elsewhere; I feel like Casanova goes there, occasionally, as well — and using broken narration that
different caption boxes with
little rhyme or
reason, neither in the breaks in the text nor the layout on the page; it’s something that other writers do as well, and it always floors me in my reading. I find myself too conscious that I am reading, all of a sudden, whatever spell I might have been in broken. Two strikes so far, and that’s before I’ve reached Christian Ward’s art, which — and this is the most arbitrary of tastes, of inner rules, I know — feels like it’s too scratchy and rough for me to read properly as the psychedelia that I feel it wants to evoke. The hand of the artist is too present, for want of a better way to put it; the slickness I associate with the colors and shapes detourned by the quality of the line and unfinished nature of the visuals.
(The art is fascinating to me, I admit; Ward is, if nothing else, a wonderful colorist and an ambitious penciler, but there are moments here where it just doesn’t come together and the result feels more disappointing as a result of his ambition than it would from other artists; the wide shot on the 11th page, for instance, features faceless characters whose positioning is stiff and unnatural. Elsewhere on that same page, indistinct lifework is given form by the colors, which feel as if they’re overpowering the lines instead of supporting them. Throughout the entire book, it’s simultaneously ugly and beautiful, and I can’t quite figure out what to make of it. It reminds me of a bad trip version of Fiona Staples’ work at times, and I’m not even sure if that’s a compliment or an insult.)
(I have suddenly realized that the writing, in many ways, reminds me of the Heavy Metal-ness of Prophet that I have such trouble connecting to. But calling this book “It’s like Prophet and Saga but not really” almost feels like I’m misrepresenting it dramatically. Nonetheless, it’s not unlike those two books mixed together.)
My point being: Ody-C is a book that, based on this first issue, is very much not my bag. But what interests me about it is that it’s so not my bag that I have trouble working out what I actually thought of it. On some base level, I “know” that I didn’t like it; it’s filled with all these things that I don’t like, after all, so how could it be otherwise? I found myself reading it as if my mind was stuttering, stopping-and-starting and getting distracted, unable to stay in the moment. It wasn’t something that I could honestly say that I enjoyed. But.
But there’s something about it. There are things, small things, perhaps, but things that I found myself loving for as little reason as those things I disliked. The numbered narrative in the captions! The understated line, “Fuck the war,” so dismissive and casually intent in dismissing traditional narratives for kindness. The feeling that things are strange and uncomfortable and unfamiliar — this feels very much like Casanova does at its best, that Fraction is stumbling towards some emotional reality that’s beyond his consciousness, and I appreciate that very, very much. And those colors! Those shapes! For all my problems with Christan Ward’s linework, there really is something very beautiful happening here.
What I’m left with, I feel, is that there’s a lot to embrace in Ody-C. It’s definitely not a perfect book, but I suspect that it’s an interesting one, and that my inability to truly appreciate that is very much my own failing, and my own fault. In that way, it reminds me of what I said about The Wrenchies on the last episode of the podcast — it’s not something that I can honestly say I enjoyed, but it’s something that I find myself hoping that other people read and find a connection there that I didn’t. Ody-C, I think, deserves the attempt if nothing else.
Previously: Jeff decided to start writing on Fumi Yoshinaga, the brilliant mangaka behind Flower of Love, Antique Bakery, What Did You Eat Yesterday? among many, many others, and her one volume work Not Love But Delicious Foods Make Me So Happy! But, first, he figured it was worth exploring a line he’d written a week earlier and how it tied into his own feelings about American superhero comics, along with a spectacularly dour view of his brief time entering—or more accurately, not entering—the comic book industry after trying to break in. The column ended with Fumi Yoshinaga, still on the horizon, undiscussed, and her connection to all of Jeff’s other verbiage unclear.
Around a decade or so ago, I pulled a page from the Jor-El playbook and packed up my love of comics and shot it to Planet Manga, in the hopes that, free from the shackles of corporate-owned comics (while still allowing me to read something on a semi-regular basis), it would grow strong. I’m overplaying it to stick the Superman analogy because I still continued to read many, many superhero comics, both old and new, but…if nothing else, I was at least commuting to Planet Manga, and had staked a lot of my hopes there.
And for a while it was pretty much successful, at least until I realized somewhat early on that, hmm, wait a minute, I can only read so many stories about a plucky young hero driven to be the best at [some sport/serial killing/girlfriend having] and finally overcoming tremendous obstacles to become the best [sportsman/serial killer/girlfriend haver] by virtue of his [indomitable spirit/mysterious link to ancestors/good heart and/or penis]. It’s not a bad formula at all, but sort of in the same way manga lovers who’ve transitioned to superhero comics can get a little antsy after a while, running a finger under their collar and nervously asking, “uh, there is more to it than just this, right?”, I found myself getting a bit skittish, not in love enough with the tropes to appreciate the nuances with which they were handled. Wasn’t there something for everyone in manga? Where was all the, I dunno, delight?
Enter Shaenon K. Garrity’s Overlooked Manga Festival, a collection of LiveJournal entries that were was absolutely everything I needed to keep me interested in the field, with entries covering all corners of the manga map—shonen, shōjo, bishonen and other terms I always have to look up to make sure I really do mean what I’m writing.
In fact, looking over the list now, I’m a little appalled about how many of my very favorite manga are on that list. I didn’t just go down that list entry by entry and immediately assumed every find I liked was my own personal discovery, did I? I hope not—but there are a couple of books I know with positive and absolute assurance I wouldn’t have tried without Shaenon writing about it: JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure is definitely one. And Flower of Life by Fumi Yoshinaga is another.
Me attempting to describe Yoshinaga’s work is going to be like watching a monkey drive a stick shift but… Fumi Yoshinaga is a shōjo mangaka, which means her work is for a largely female audience. If I’m understanding Wikipedia’s super-brief entry on her correctly, I’m guessing that Yoshinaga was at the right age to be a reader during the dawning age of shōnen-ai, also known as the “boys love” manga of the ’70s and ’80s. Shōnen-ai, if I’m following it right, started off as stories of platonic love between young boys which then, thanks to the fanfic of the dōjinshi markets, got steamed up and became more explicitly gay (though the definition of the word “explicitly” here can be misleading since I’m not necessarily talking about depiction of sexual acts—maybe I should use the term “openly”?)
(Had to search on “monkey driving a car,” instead.)
Frequently set in distant times and in different cultures (like Europe), shōnen-ai is Otherness with a generous side-helping of Other, the kind of stuff I imagine being read by whipsmart outsider girls of the time: character-driven, educational, but also kinda hot—like regency romances, I guess? But with gay protagonists, so as to allow more sexual concepts into the mix without resulting objectification anxiety?
From a critical perspective, what’s (probably) interesting about Yoshinaga is how her work, having emerged from this framework, moves freely to embrace all its aspects: Flower of Life is definitely a platonic love story between teenage boys in a manga club (which provides for more than a few fond anecdotes about making dōjinshi); Ōoku: The Inner Chambers is an alternate history in which a man-killing disease turns medieval Japan into a matriarchal society; and Antique Bakery is a character study of three hot awesome dudes who run a hot awesome bakery.
But from this fan’s perspective, what’s great about Yoshinaga is how effortlessly exquisite her characterization is, how leisurely her storytelling is, and how deftly she can upend my expectations. It’s always hard for me to properly calibrate my comparisons of creators when their work does not feature explosions and brainpunching, but Yoshinaga’s work reminds me of Bill Forsyth’s Gregory’s Girl and Local Hero, two films long on charm, leisure, and wry affection for their characters.
Jonesing for exactly this kind of fix—and finding myself for whatever reason too daunted to dig into Ōoku, despite really digging the first volume—I eagerly picked up the first two volumes of What Did You Eat Yesterday?, Volume 1 (2007?), Yoshinaga’s multi-volume chronicle of a middle-aged gay couple and the meals they prepare and eat together. Perfect, I remember thinking. I love food manga! I love Yoshinaga’s characterizations! I love how slowly and subtly Yoshinaga insinuates her themes into her narrative. I can’t wait!
Oh, man. I could kill for some good ramen right now…
Two volumes later, I found myself a bit cross, not quite willing to admit I’d been bored by what I read but unable to rally any excitement for it, either. By and large, the stories in the first two volumes take the concept of “slice of life” storytelling to a brand new level of diceyness: handsome and fastidious, Shoji is an indifferent lawyer by day and a spectacular cook by night, who spends most of his time trying to figure out how to prepare the most delicious meals for the least amount of money. Kenji, his partner, is a happy-go-lucky hairdresser who is absurdly grateful for all the great meals and props up the meals with his stories and charm.
I can’t fault Yoshinaga for the series doing what it says on the tin: it shows you the foods Shoji prepares and how he prepares them, and it shows the couple enjoying the meal together. And it’s a handy comic: most of the drama comes from how Shoji prepares his meals based on what’s available, fresh, and cheap, and also how he takes his ingredients and plays them out over several meals. It’s not hard to imagine other less lazy people than myself getting inspired to think about how to be prudent about what they eat, how to get the most out of the foods they buy. And, even more impressive, is how this ties into the emotional theme of the books (at least as I could discern it), where two middle-aged people who aren’t perfect for one another are nevertheless right for each other. What Did You Eat Yesterday is a very middle-aged book, since its ongoing topic is how to do more with less. Around the fringes of What Did You Eat Yesterday hovers a secret sense of dissatisfaction…but beyond that dissatisfaction is acceptance, and with that acceptance is love (of a very middle-aged conception of it). Like I said, I couldn’t fault it but for whatever reason I didn’t much enjoy it, either.
Yeah, right. “For whatever reason.” I guess the reason is pretty obvious: I’m 48, and I’m uncomfortable with how much acceptance I should be feeling, how much dissatisfaction I should be copping to in my life. As mentioned in my previous entry, I genuinely consider myself blessed to be married to the woman I’m married to, I have friends, I have my health (or what the non-physically-fit 48 version of it looks like, probably), I have a job that allow me at least a little financial comfort and the time to enjoy that comfort.
But is it what was expected from the kid who looked at the top-of-the-pagecredit box of Marvel Comics and imagined his name there? No, it’s probably not.
Like everyone else, I’ve got days where I open my email and there’s correspondence from friends and family, from people I communicate with on a regular basis thanks to the podcast and the website, and people I’m just getting to know. And there are those days where all I get is junk, mailing lists I no longer follow, ten thousand bloodcurdling calls to action from activist groups, up-to-the-minute reminders to buy stuff based on stuff I’ve bought, and endless, endless sales. (I should just acknowledge the fact I’m never going to buy anything from Think Geek and unsubscribe.) Depending on how lonely your childhood was, I think it’s easy to imagine adulthood as this amazing place where you’re paid attention to all the time. You just command it, it’s yours by right of being an adult. And while I have to say—one hand on my heart, I’m being absolutely sincere—I’m genuinely grateful that is not the case, I also have to say: this, right here? Not what I was expecting. What Did You Eat Yesterday? is one of those works where I didn’t connect because I couldn’t bear to connect. I think adulthood in some ways is like landing a jet: sometimes you have to touch the truth and bounce away a few times before you finally get all your wheels on the ground. There wasn’t anything terrible about What Did You Eat Yesterday?, there wasn’t anything I hadn’t really considered before, but I also had no desire to face it, story after story, chapter after chapter, chopped scallion after chopped scallion.
But I still wanted to read Fumi Yoshinaga in a contemporary setting. Well-observed characters! Slow and subtle themes! Food, if possible!
So I did a little bit of desperate late-night shopping and ordered Not Love But Delicious Foods(Make Me So Happy),(2005?), a single volume of stories by Yoshinaga that are ostensibly reviews of some of Yoshinaga’s favorite places to eat in Tokyo, but are also something like whimsical autobio comics. The book itself came out in 2010 and existed in that “oh sure there are copies because not a lot of people bought them (this ain’t Naruto, after all), but you’re gonna have to wait a couple of weeks to get it into your grubby little paws instead of two days (this ain’t Naruto, after all)” state I’m growing mercifully less and less aware of in my dotage. (Cue footage of Amazon drones shooting down American eagles with laser beams.) With optimism and trepidation, I dug in. (Food pun…intended?)
(Oboy, this image.)
As mentioned, it’s a one-off volume, and in some ways it’s a dry-run for What Did You Eat Yesterday?, since it’s part food manga, part slow-burn relationship comedy. It’s much more immediate and funny, however, because Yoshinaga continually presents herself in an unflattering light: even the image above, where Yoshinaga is all dolled up and I think presenting some sort of come-hither look, has her scarfing down a hilariously unsexy piece of food and wearing a charm necklace that all but flashes “WARNING: CRAZY WOMAN!” And when she’s back in her studio complaining about work, or not having a boyfriend, or not having any good food to eat, she’s drawn even less flatteringly (and more winningly):
(Check out that caption!)
For those of us hoping for more of a story, NLBDFMMSH teases a bit more romance. The relationship between “Y-Naga” and her school-chum-turned-assistant, “S-Hara,” looks as if it might be bloom into romance (the two had promised to marry if they were still single when they were thirty four; the story where this is revealed ends with them pushing the date back to forty), and at several points the narrative feints like it’s going to be a coming-of-age story of a late-bloomer (S-Hara) finally coming into his own in the manga business, or a romance between S-Hara and the other assistant of Y-Naga he’s been crushing on, or several other narrative strategies that never come to pass. Unlike What Did You Eat Yesterday, I found the gambit far funnier here: sandwiched in between all the pages showing you the delicious food making Y-Naga happy, these teases are clearly just jokes that help the book live up to its title.
I also finished the book feeling a little bit distraught. As you may notice in the caption above, Y-Naga is hilariously harsh in her descriptions of herself, and her relationships with those closest to her involve at least one person being frustrated by her selfishness or abrasiveness or… And she herself only seems intermittently satisfied with her life, happiest when at a restaurant but even there, on a date, she’s willing to say that she calls herself “an illustrator” rather than admit to being a mangaka, moving beyond the standard Japanese convention of modesty to something closer to genuine shame . At every point, Yoshinaga, her friends, her dates fail to connect when they should, greeting confessions with embarrassment or indifference. It’s funny in a Seinfeld kind of way, but it’s also sad.
And that’s my big stopping point? “It’s funny in a Seinfeld kind of way, but also sad?”
Yeah, I guess it is. It was sad in a way that gave me pause, but also maybe courage: it made me think about dissatisfaction, and if conveying dissatisfaction will help move someone to the next level (acceptance, love). And it made me think about community: sometimes you still have community but that community never quite coheres in the way you think it does because we’re people, not refrigerator magnets. (By the way, if it turns out we are indeed refrigerator magnet? Please DO NOT tell me.) Maybe if it’s Not Love, But Delicious Comic Books that make me so happy, it seems to follow I cannot be happy all the time, or even a chunk of the time?
The meal is consumed, the comic book is read (and stored, or lost, or forgotten, or remembered). I’m 48 and soon I will be dead—I mean it’s a very relative term “soon,” I’m not offing myself and I don’t plan on getting into any gunfights anytime soon, but if by “soon,” I mean “less than 48 years,” then yeah, probably soon—and what is left?
I don’t know the answer—I don’t think I should know the answer— but in the fringes of these books, I found clues that led me to suspect I should finally be asking the question.
If you haven’t already checked out the new episode of the podcast, scroll down to the next post, for it is there and it is good. Or, you know, at least okay. For everyone else, click through for some random thoughts I had while re-reading John Byrne’s West Coast Avengers/Avengers West Coast run this weekend. Continue reading →
Hey, hey, we’re the Wrenchies…people say we’ll wrench you around…
Hello, everyone! My computer is acting a wee bit erratically today—I’m thinking it’s the mistake of trying to upload 547 files to Dropbox all at a go, but who knows for sure—so I’m gonna get right to the show notes, if you don’t mind. Remember: if you just want the link to the podcast for your own downloading/making-a-secret-weapon purposes, just go to the VERY FIRST COMMENT.
(Note to self: DO NOT FORGET TO PUT LINK TO THE SHOW IN THE VERY FIRST COMMENT.)
And with that, we’re off!
00:00-2:52: Greetings! Oh, the weather outside is frightful (in Portland) but having an Internet kill switch makes Graeme delightful, so…uh, I don’t know the rest of the song? I think it’s something about having no particular place to go? Man, “Let It Snow” is a harsh, harsh song: men and women on the edge of homelessness trapped in a snow storm with their own choices being starvation or cannibalism! No wonder everyone likes that “conceal, don’t feel” song so much. Snow-related songs are grim. 2:52-12:02: Jeff’s been to the comic store for the first time in a few weeks and here’s a thing: we have trouble remembering all the stuff we meant to buy until we get home. Mentioned and discussed (and forgotten in a few cases): Gotham Academy #2, Outcast by Kirkman and Azaceta; “Kirkmanitis,” and more. One of the things I realize now we should’ve talked about is when we decide to just hold off on getting the forgotten book until next time, and when we buy the book digitally. (As I did with that third Multiversity issue and I think Graeme’s also done? Like I said, we shoulda talked about it.)
Sort of a nice transition panel choice here, I think….
12:02-59:11: Here comes a stealth transition to talking about The Wrenchies, the truly noteworthy graphic novel from Farel Dalrymple published by First Second. One of us loved it, one of us did not, and yet both of us are telling you to read it: how does that work, exactly? Find out here as Graeme and Jeff dig in deep to this remarkable book. Discussed: Jonathan Lethem; Philip K. Dick; The Divine Invasion and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch; self-destructive narratives; Flex Mentallo; The Filth; Grant Morrison; Too Many Cooks (and yes, I just spent another 11:11 watching it again to get that link); our relationship to despair; late ‘80s X-Men; the inherent ambiguity of “comic book-y” material; The Rise of Aurora West; First Second Books; having things you say on the Internet taken the wrong way; and much, much more. Is this possibly our longest talk on a single book ever? It might be! 59:11-1:08:41: And then we go on to talk about Superior Iron Man #1 by Tom Taylor and Yildiray Cinar; Bucky Barnes The Winter Soldier #1 by Ales Kot and Marco Rudy; Captain America and the Mighty Avengers #1 by Al Ewing and Luke Ross, but none of them for nearly as long as The Wrenchies. 1:08:41-1:25:02: And, as long as we’re talking Marvel, we also decide to talk about Captain Marvel: success or social media success? We talk Captain Marvel, Ms. Marvel, Spider-Girl, The Death of Wolverine, Inhumanity (and, more particularly, Inhumanity on Marvel Unlimited); and the nearly criminal lack of Marvel Two-In-One on Marvel Unlimited. (Seriously, it’s heart-breaking.) 1:25:02-1:52:12: “Okay, let’s talk about Avengers, then.” And with that, we continue our re-read of the first 300 issues of Avengers, this time covering Avengers #251-277 by (largely) Roger Stern, John Buscema, Tom Palmer and editor Mark Gruenwald. An amazing run…but why did Jeff find himself wishing he was reading Chris Claremont comics instead? Discussued: A Skrull saga in space (again), The Masters of Evil (again), In The Case of Change v. Illusion of Change; X-Men Forever (all on Marvel Unlimited!); a slam against the Justice League; and much more. 1:52:12-2:03:25: Jeff has just started reading The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore; a fascinating, intensely readable and yet also glib overview of the life of Charles Moulton Marston; and Graeme talks a bit about an upcoming article he’s writing about the Five Most Powerful Comic Book Writers in Hollywood, and about corresponding with Robert Kirkman, Brian Bendis, Mark Millar, Geoff Johns, and Chris Claremont. But also: Lemire! Jodorowsky! And as a bonus, a good review from Graeme about a very good Earth One title coming out from DC, and more. 2:03:25-end: Closing comments! Light applause! What’s on our website! What’s coming to our website! And, as always, our thanks and appreciation to everyone who’s contributed to us on Patreon (where, as of this count, 83 patrons make this whole thing possible.) It’s The Great Tote Bags, Charlie Brown!Places to look for us at—Stitcher!iTunes!Twitter and Tumblr!
Thanks for checking in and we’ll see you in (probably) another two weeks!
Last week in my piece about cinema, I wrote this line, which at the time I liked very much:
Superhero comics are a dream of community, a dream created and supported by very lonely people.
It’s not like I tend to sit around for hours after I write something, dreamily rereading my prose. Typically, I forget the bulk of what I’ve written once it gets out there in the world. My brain is a crowded bus, so there’s rarely more than just a momentary feeling of relief at some space opening up (and then the next batch of obsessions climb on, re-jostling everything). But this line kinda nagged at the corner of my thoughts: a discharged passenger running behind, waving and yelling, because only after they got off did they realize they’d left something important behind.
Are superhero comics a dream of community, a dream created and supported by very lonely people?
To give the idea an aphorism’s towel-snap I pared down any equivocation or context. Most of the people I know now in comics are not lonely people…I think? Being in your twenties and thirties, it can feel like everyone’s got their shit together but you, and one of the great solaces of middle age is realizing just how much energy everyone was expending trying to look like they had their shit together (yourself included). And now, in your forties, with less time left on the clock and less brain power and less patience with your own bullshit, you either can’t keep up the facade anymore or it’s just not fooling anyone now (if indeed it ever did).
And yet, no matter how much people in their forties show you about their lives in the course of a leisurely mid-Sunday brunch, it’s still difficult to gauge how lonely they might be. Your web browser knows. Google and Twitter and Facebook know. But I’ll never know how truly lonely you are.
And—despite me typing this—you’ll never know how lonely I am, in no small part because I myself have no idea. I am nine and a half years into my marriage and still absurdly grateful for every minute I get to spend with my wife. I have enough friends that I could hop from meal to meal with each and not end up repeating partners after a week. And I get to spend close to three hours every other week talking about my favorite subjects with one of my favorite people in the world.
How lonely can I really be?
(And when the hell am I going to start writing about Fumi Yoshinaga?)
I find it easier to look back on my past and talk about it with clarity (if not necessarily accuracy). I was absolutely a lonely kid back then, and superhero comics were absolutely an imaginary community for me, one in which my power fantasies could intermingle with a feeling of community in whatever way I wanted: I feel like the common example here is to The Legion of Superheroes or The X-Men, but I think Graeme has done a great job pointing out how much Marvel Two-In-One was about The Thing helping out his pals, and Marvel Team-Up, at its best, really captures the way certain childhood friendships are formed—you meet, you fight, and then comes respect and friendship (by teaming up to throw rocks at that kid you really hate).
In fact, the genius of Marvel Comics back in my day (ugh, old) was how there was another fantasy of community layered on top of the superhero fantasy of same: the Bullpen Bulletins, where everyone got an alliterative nickname and was affectionately razzed, and the letters pages, where editors bantered with readers. By having the courage to step forward and make yourself known, you could become part of this community, join it, be accepted by it. (Which community? Did it matter?)
And I gotta say—and this is just me—but many, many years later (and not so many years ago), when I was exchanging emails with Mark Waid about the stories he’d bought from me, or chatting up Axel Alonso at Wondercon, or being introduced to Mike Richardson…it didn’t feel like that at all.
Part of that is the crucial difference between the fantasy and the reality—sure, okay, step forward and make yourself known, fine. But what can you do? What do you have to say? What can you contribute?
And once you’ve realized that and learned what those things are, then comes the constant clamor of having to prove it to the gatekeepers, the ones who leave every con with bags bulging with new material to look over (and that’s just the stuff that cleared the bar of “Has this been published? Is this not about our characters? Do you seem sane enough not to sue us when we publish a story with a character whose name starts with ‘H’ just because you gave us a story with a character whose name starts with ‘H’?).
It’s interesting. I was probably still a long ways off from breaking in…but maybe not that far off? There were far worse names to drop at Marvel at that point than Mark Waid (who I should point out was 100% gracious in allowing me to do so, and supportive and kind in every very brief communication I had with him) and my follow-up with Axel Alonso, although brisk, caught him just as he was making the big move up to EIC at Marvel. He was not unreceptive—didn’t go out of his way, mind you, but he did say “oh yeah, email so&so at the X-books and tell them I told you to pass your stuff along.” That’s a tangible step, you know? I could now go into my next random encounter equipped with Name To Drop +2.
And yet it was, for whatever reason, terrible. Part of that was just probably the feeling of, man, if I wanted to prove myself over and over again to distracted harried people who are barely pretending to pay attention to me, I’d just talk to my parents. You know? And part of it I’m sure is my own hey, fucker, I’m a precious unique snowflake, god damn you! But also, a surprising amount of it was just I am too fucking old to help you prop up your sagging status quo for this little money.
By engaging in a psyche-up ritual so desperate and unhinged I resembled an enemy boxer in a Rocky movie (slapping myself in the face and balls, injecting myself with steroids made from mongoose blood, asphyxiating a hospital orderly) (I’m realizing I haven’t watched a Rocky movie since Rocky III, and have since confused a lot of it with Cobra), I could come up with a decent story about Wolverine… because at that time you could still tell stories about Wolverine without having to worry too much about the current state of the Marvel Universe. But what if I had to pretend to care about Gambit? Or had the opportunity to pitch a six page Storm/Black Panther for an Avengers/X-Men crossover title in which I had to pretend I didn’t hate what they had done to both characters?
And but so: foisting myself upon the indifferent; injecting myself with mongoose blood; working my ass off so I might get the chance to later pretend I can prop up a status quo I ceased to care about at least a decade ago? It all seemed a bit too poisonous, too much living up to the letter of a childhood dream while betraying the spirit.
(In fact, I wonder. I admit I’m not paying a lot of attention, but it seems like Marvel and DC are both spending a lot of time on stories where the superheroes are expending tremendous amounts of energy trying to keep their earth from being destroyed/overrun by another earth, another dimension: all these heroes having to put all their energy into this impossible task, preserving their reality, keeping an invasion of otherness from subsuming them, the man on the wall, etc., etc. I’m sure that’s just, you know, what Americans tell stories about these days, about zombies and antimatter and some big-ass explosion taking out some sacrosanct object held to be inviolate, and hard decisions having to be made because. you know, 9/11 or at the very least, hey, where did that middle class go again? But, again, I just imagine all these Marvel and DC creators hustling, hustling, hustling, giving interviews where the phrases “can’t” and “couldn’t” always seem disquietingly prominent—”I couldn’t be happier with the art by [artist]” and “I couldn’t be more pleased” and “I couldn’t be more excited”—as if unable to avoid subconscious confessing that, you know, there is only so much happiness or excitement or pleasure really possible in their particular situation. And then what comes out of these summits is stuff like: “what if the Marvel heroes suddenly got infected by the Red Skull’s hate rays and all they cared about were selling their pilots to cable networks?” and “So Darkseid destroys the Earth 2 entire universe just by showing up, you know, just like video games did!” and “what if some old turd just could not stop fixating on Wolverine to the point where Wolverine got so god-damned tired of it he died, he just died?”)
“He just died.”
Anyway. I have to start in on the podcast editing so…here is where I leave us for now, in this very special happy place. Tune in next week where I maybe go on to do more of what I did last week but better! Don’t worry, I think it’ll probably get a perkier. (I sure hope so, anyway.)
NEXT: Planet Manga; the mysteries of shōnen-ai; Fumi Yoshinaga (finally); and more! (Unless there’s actually less.)
So, I caved; after the discussion about Hank Pym’s character arc in the Roger Stern issues of Avengers — and, specifically, the fact that Stern actually manages to give Hank some closure and, potentially, bring the character himself to an end — I went back to the library to pick up the Steve Englehart West Coast Avengers collections and see just where things went wrong afterwards. Spoilers: It’s at the very tail end of the second collection, and it comes out of nowhere.
(I know; Steve Englehart, Avengers and Hank Pym? It’s the Wait, What?-iest Wait, What? post yet. I’d apologize, but I feel surprisingly little shame.)
Arguably, Englehart’s entire use of Hank is problematic in the first place. Stern leaves the character not only accepting that he’s not a superhero, but essentially writing himself out of that world altogether; it’s implied — but only implied, because you can’t just state this in a 1980s Marvel comic — that the melodrama and hyper-reality of superheroing is what drove him to his breakdown in the first place, because it’s an unrealistic state for… well, normal people to exist in in the first place. By having Hank acknowledges that and not only leave the Avengers but leave the comic book continuity in its entirety, the character accepts responsibility for his actions in a way that’s satisfying for the reader (and Hank himself, to an extent).
So for Hank to show up in the first scene of the first issue of the regular West Coast Avengers title, ostensibly to investigate what’s happening with the villainous Goliath — well, that’s something that feels a little off. Englehart doesn’t ignore what Stern’s done with the character, however; that’s not his style. Instead, we get Hawkeye telling Mockingbird “He’s basically a scientist, and always has been!” as well as pointing out, “I think he really is set on civilian-ness this time!”
That’s certainly the way Englehart plays Hank for a long time. “I meant it when I called playing superhero the biggest mistake of my life!” he tells the Wasp in the first issue. By the third issue, he makes his case for staying on with the team as, as he puts it, “the Higgins to your Magnum, P.I.” by telling Iron Man, “I’m not an Avenger now! I am indeed a scientist, and I spend most of my time playing with equipment anyway… It’s a way for me to contribute, without being something I don’t want to be — since that’s what messed me up before.” If we can ignore the fact that he’s inserted himself back into the world he voluntarily left, this still seems pretty consistent with what Stern laid out.
There’s definitely a reading in here — and I don’t think it’s something that Englehart did consciously, as much as I want to credit him otherwise — where Hank is addicted to superherodom, and is pushing himself right up to the edge of relapsing without realizing it. It’s an idea that arguably fits with the character as we know him, even today, especially given what Englehart does next.
For more than a year, this new status quo for Hank holds up. He gets dragged into adventures because Englehart, and he goes investigating on his own, but throughout the first fifteen issues of the series, he’s still fairly explicit in his disinterest in actually trying to be a hero anymore, and also pretty upbeat about making that decision. There’s even a scene in #13 (my first issue as a reader when the book was coming out, fact fans) where he inner-monologues “He’s lying — and that’s plenty of lead for the Avengers to pick up on! The rough part’s not my job any more!”
It’s all the more surprising, then, when #16 comes along and just flips everything on its head. With no foreshadowing whatsoever, Hank is suddenly self-pitying about his lack of superheroing. “Tiger Shark! One of the goons Egghead used to end my crime fighting career — and I can’t do anything but hang on!” he thinks to himself in one scene; by the end of the issue, he’s staring at the Golden Gate Bridge and thinking about suicide. “Yes… you’d really have to be certain there was nothing left to live for…,” he says, above a garish blurb along the bottom of the page that screams “WHATEVER YOU DO, DO NOT MISS NEXT ISSUE!”
Sure enough, the next issue features a suicidal Hank, thinking things like “I have made a mess of my life! It’s time I stopped hanging onto a world I’ve written myself out of. It’s time I killed myself…” and loading a gun silently before pointing it at his own head. (“He can smell the bullet…” the narration tells us).
Where did this come from? It’s never revealed; instead, his suicide attempt is halted by La Espirita (AKA Firebird, for those writers who don’t want to go near either the Mexican or Christian elements of the character) and spun out into Hank’s becoming a superhero again. We’ll get there in a second, but reading these issues in quick succession, especially after having read Stern’s Avengers issues, there’s more than a slight sense of whiplash going on here.
For those who want to put everything into a “how does this work in-universe” context, you can plug in the idea that Hank has bipolar disorder, and is swinging between a manic episode in the first 15 issues and a depressive one in #16-18, but that’s never made explicit (or, arguably, even implicit) in the comic. Instead, my first thought was that someone — Jim Shooter, perhaps, given my recent re-read of Marvel Comics: The Untold Story and the impression it leaves that Shooter was behind everything bad in Marvel from this particular period — simply stepped in and told Englehart that only superheroes were allowed to be in Avengers comics and so Hank needed to go back on his pledge if he was going to remain in the title.
Sure, Englehart tries his Englehartiest to make it work — there’s something almost Millennium-esque about dialogue like “I was always able to do it! I just didn’t try, because it didn’t seem to have anything to do with super-heroing! But now that I’ve given up the “super” idea, I see many things, differently!” — but the result is ultimately unconvincing. Watching Pym call himself “the scientific adventurer” feels more like Englehart try (and fail) to convince himself and everyone else that Hank’s not lost the development his character has gone through over the last few years, and the way in which his return to herodom is met by the other characters — “I knew you wouldn’t let us down, Avenger!” — lays bare the relief such a devolution would’ve been met by many creators and fans: Phew! Now we don’t have to think that maybe being a superhero isn’t for everyone!
As anyone who’s listened to the podcast for any length of time knows, I’m a massive fan of both Englehart in general and his West Coast Avengers in particular. Re-reading these stories with a focus specifically on Hank Pym, however, lessens that a bit; one of the things I think about with Englehart’s superhero work is the way in which he tries to push the characters forward, even if his idea of forward is problematic and/or misguided (See: Hal and Arisa in Green Lantern Corps). What he does to Hank flies in the face of that, entirely; it’s retrogressive and demolishes what Stern had done building off of the earlier Shooter-devised story. Hank no longer learns anything from the experience, which may perhaps be the reason that the character has become identified by that plot for the last three decades.
Instead of being a turning point, Hank’s abuse (emotional and physical) of his wife and his mental breakdown are pushed back to unresolved issues, and leaving them free to be used again and again. Increasingly, I find myself wishing that Hank had disappeared for good in his final Stern appearance and become a footnote and cautionary tale in Marvel history.
Thank you so much for your recent comment on our podcast—as I mentioned in my reply, I read it while traveling (just got my ass back home and had to hop immediately back into the day job) and enjoyed it enough that I wanted to reply. Of course, whenever anyone says they’ve started to worry about us, I also immediately begin to worry about us. You mentioned you discovered our podcast the other day so you may not be familiar with “WorryGate,” where our worrying about the mental state of a certain comic book writer caused our listeners to in turn worry about us, which then worried us. Unfortunately, all the time we then spent clarifying and elaborating only worried everyone more, to the point it seemed like we were now obsessed with said writer, and our repeated worrying about him seemed less like talking and more like stalking, to which we wrung our hands and tried to clarify some more.
It’s not our proudest moment. In fact, it may even be our least-proud moment which is amazing, really, because we have quite a collection of not-proud moments, so much so that trying to pick out just one is very difficult.
All of which is to say: I worry when others worry.
Additionally, there were some excellent points in your comments, so I also found myself worrying about them too. I decided I’d tackle them here as a way to clarify my own points for myself (as well as have an excuse to put in some fine, fine superhero movie eye candy).
[More behind the jump because good lord, does this go on and on and on….]
I can tell you exactly when I went from enjoying Wear Iron — the third in the series of Judge Dredd: Year One eBooks from 2000AD sister company Abaddon Books — to loving it. It’s the start of the third chapter, when the narrator decides to give a brief history of Inferno, the sport of the future that died a sudden death.
For those who don’t know their 2000AD history, it’s a fun little interlude that merely sets up the story to follow. For those who do, it’s an even-more-fun trip down memory lane, referencing not only the Inferno strip that ran early on in 2000AD’s run, but also its predecessor Harlem Heroes, while also setting up the latter Judge Dredd story “The Fatties.” It’s Al Ewing playing around in the larger mythology of the Dreddverse, and making it seem effortless.
“Fun” may not be the best descriptor for the books in this series (City Fathers and The Cold Light of Day were the first two, by Matt Smith and Michael Carroll, respectively) — City Fathers, at least, is a harder-edged crime tale, while Cold Light of Day feels very, very much like a Dredd strip from anywhere between Prog 200 through 400 or so, when Wagner and Grant were building their universe and populating it with extravagant social satires — but that’s okay; I’ll happily swap in “smart” or “addictive,” instead.
Historically, Dredd has been a strip that’s relied as much on visuals as writing; something that comes with having artists like Brian Bolland, Mike McMahon, Carlos Ezquerra and Henry Flint drawing things, no doubt. Translating the strip into prose should be problematic, as a result (“You mean we have to imagine the guy with the helmet and the big green boots kicking ass and frowning at people?”), but it goes surprisingly smoothly — the result is, perhaps, comedic in a different way than the comic strip version, but still very much recognizable as the same character and the same universe.
Part of that is down to the authors responsible — Carroll and Ewing are both regular Dredd writers in 2000AD, and Smith is, in addition to writing IDW Dredd titles, also the current Tharg the Mighty, so they’re all intimately familiar with the material — and the choice of setting for the series. As the overall title suggests, all of the stories take place in Dredd’s first year out of the academy, which has been left relatively untouched by the comic book canon and is ripe for exploration.
It’s also a period that allows Dredd’s clone brother, Rico, to be part of proceedings before he gets arrested and sent to Titan (Spoilers, for those who don’t know their Dredd history). To varying degrees, Rico’s a presence in all three of the stories, a corrupt clone who’s both a perfect foil for the stoic, humorless Dredd and also a time bomb waiting to go off. He’s a great character, and his appearance here will make you want to see more of him; thankfully, Carroll’s already launched a prose series about his time on Titan with this year’s The Third Law. (It also sent me back to re-read Rico’s comic book debut, Prog 30’s “The Return of Rico,” which is actually available online right here. That punchline! Early 2000AD stuff is so wonderful and so weird, looking back.)
The books, then, manage to stand alone from the comics enough to make them perfect introductory material for newcomers, while also offering enough background to make them perfect material for longtime fans who haven’t had the chance to read stories set during this time before. Add to that the nice price point — they’re about $3.50 each, making them essentially the price of a single U.S. comic book — and the people responsible and what you have is the rare comic-to-prose crossover that isn’t just entertaining for people who’re already fans of the property, but highly recommended reading for anyone who’s ever been curious about Judge Dredd in general.
(If you’re not into eBooks, a print anthology of all three titles has just been released, titled Judge Dredd: Year One Omnibus. Don’t say I don’t help the luddites amongst you — although, if you’re reading this, you’re not that luddite-y…)
First things first! Those of you who just want the direct link to the podcast for copying and then pasting for downloading however you choose, PLEASE SEE THE FIRST COMMENT . (So, technically, it’s…last things first?)
Now, then about this show notes thing:
00:00-34:09: Greetings! Graeme takes “cold open” to a new level in this opening, and then makes up for it by singing the praises of Serial, the long-form documentary from the creators of This American Life. And along the way, we here at Wait, What? tackle one of our show’s great mysteries: just how many hours of podcasting does Graeme listen to a week? And which ones? Only Wait, What? is bold enough to ask the hard questions, and then almost screw up recording the hard answers. Graeme mentions a lot of swell-sounding stuff here, but germane to part of our discussion is the discussion with Tom Brevoort at Let’s Talk Comics as is, in its way, this image:
Frank Robbins Cap Watches His Own Flashbacks
Also mentioned: The Frankenstein Comic Swap in Portland Oregon, a brief discussion/mild disagreement about Superman comics in the ‘70s (in which Graeme is largely right and Jeff is largely wrong); issues of The Brave And The Bold including a guest appearance by Kamandi; the first four issue of Justice League Detroit recently looked at by Graeme here on our website; Gerry Conway as the Warren Ellis of his generation; bitter, old Aquaman; J.M. DeMatteis as “the inappropriate backrub guy”; the absolutely stunning death of Vibe;
What. The. HELL.
and more. 34:09-48:04: Somewhat arbitrary split in the time code here, but at least this’ll help you figure out what we talk about in our first half-hour. Here is where Jeff brings up reading the first half-dozen issues (minus one) of Marvel Comics Transformers, as reprinted by IDW and purchased in a Humble Bundle a little while back. Much more talk about robot cats than you ever thought you would hear in this lifetime. 48:04-51:14: From high to low: Jeff also talks about the amazing Harvey Kurtzman and his work collected in “Corpse on the Imjin” and Other Stories, currently available from Fantagraphics:
(The Image So Nice I Used It Twice.)
51:14-1:12:00: And to really double down on “modern comics, what are modern comics?”, Graeme has been reading the Star Trek comics from Marvel and DC, courtesy of the Star Trek: The Complete Comic Book CollectionDVD from GIT Corp. Also discussed: licensed comics, Indiana Jones, Peter David, the latest Terminator movie; and more. 1:12:00-1:51:49: In the mood for something a little more contemporary? Jeff wanted to talk about the Marvel film slate as well as two films he finally got around to seeing. Oh, but first: the Avengers: Age of Ultron trailer; then Amazing Spider-Man 2; and Captain America Winter Soldier; Jeet Heer’s Twitter essay on same; the follow-up to Winter Soldier on Agents of SHIELD; the problem with the third act in superhero films; and then finally, around 1:34:00 or so, the Marvel film slate. How announced what when, who announced what to steal whose thunder, and where with the what when and the whizzle-why, all of which are discussed. Also: The Flash TV Show, and a lot about Gotham (starting at about 1:45:53). Oh, and here’s a helpful chart of the Apocalypse, courtesy of Comics Alliance:
1:51:49-2:03:24: Even though we are under the gun to finish early, we say the phrase either nobody wanted to hear or everybody wanted to hear: “Oh! Okay, Secret Wars: let’s talk!” (After a brief period of Jeff exhorting Graeme to read The Wrenchies, which, with any luck, we will discuss next episode.) Discussed: toys, forts, hook-ups, the TV show Survivor, people’s boners, Graeme’s post about Secret Wars, the New Universe and it’s Phase II: Newer and Universe-ier, and a lot more (a little bit more, anyway). 2:03:24-2:17:17: Hey, here’s a special section of the show that’s been a long time coming—and no, we’re not talking about the bit where Jeff refers to Graeme as “the worst.” No, we are talking about thanking our awesome Patreon supporters who’ve given for several months and reach our bonus reward level: being thanked on air! Super big thanks to:
(Of course, we’re grateful to everyone who’s contributed to us on Patreon where, as of this count, 83 patrons make this whole thing possible.) Some people have been upping their level of donation which we are *super* grateful for, and here we officially disclose the plans for what we’ll be discussing should we hit our goal of $500 a month /what we’ll be reading next once our Avengers round-up settles down at issue #300. 2:17:17-end: Closing comments! Birthday wishes! Remember The Tote Bags! Places to look for us at—Stitcher!iTunes!Twitter! Tumblr!
Okay, now if you’ll excuse me, I have to start packing my bags for a road trip tomorrow. Look for Graeme’s weekly piece here soon and mine not long after that!
Time for my apology of the week: not only was it my birthday on Halloween, and not only do I live in a city where my team took the World Series, but we had this crazy apartment re-flooring thing that unexpectedly went from dormant to very active in the course of about twenty-four hours and that ate up a good four days of my life.
So yeah, this is late and some of it may be frankly a bit redundant by the time the podcast goes live as I talked to Graeme about some of it. It’s a bit of a bag of loose Halloween candy, although there may be a few more Lemonheads and small rolls of Necco Wafers than either you or I might like. Let’s see!
AVENGERS ANNUAL #14 and FANTASTIC FOUR ANNUAL #14: As you know if you’re listening to us read through The Avengers on the podcast, Graeme and I have skipped reading the annuals. (Actually, it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if Graeme is reading them but not mentioning it because he doesn’t want me to feel bad.) But I’ve been enjoying Roger Stern’s run on the book so much that when the Nebula storyline continued over into an Annual, I figured it was worth hunting it down on Marvel Unlimited and giving it a read.
And then, of course, that issue tied into Fantastic Four Annual #14, so I read that too—and that featured Raksor, the Skrull from Fantastic Four Annual #13 and Uncanny X-Men #137 (you remember that guy, he’s the one on the Blue Area of the Moon to observe the fight of the X-Men and the Imperial Guard and ends up mixing it up with Wolverine and the Kree observer).
And Dudes Shall Call Him….Raksor!
Informative screenshot aside, I did not fall down a continuity hole and read FFA #13 and UXM #137…but I have to admit I was tempted. Say what you will about the triumphs and failures of the current state of superhero comics, but there’s still something attractive to me about a minor character popping up in three annuals and The Death of The Phoenix and me finding out thanks to a tiny editor’s note in a book I read on a whim. (In fact, if I were you, I’d put even odds on me taking a break from writing this to read FF Annual #13.)
So there’s a couple of interesting things about Avengers and FF Annuals #14: one is that although John Byrne draws both issues and the two issues tie in so closely together that the last six pages are identical for each, they’re very different beasts.
The other interesting—and shocking—thing is that FF Annual #14, written and drawn by Byrne, is by far the worse of the two. I’ve had a tough time reconciling John Byrne, the artist I loved so much as a kid, with John Byrne, the comics auteur who spent decades refining absolutely every interesting thing out of his product, and these annuals are serious food for thought. Considering the guy was drawing two full annuals (cheat of the identical ending pages aside) on top of his monthly book, I would’ve thought Byrne would’ve saved his energy for the book he’d made into a monster hit but…nope.
Byrne’s story is practically Bendis-esque in its long opening sequence of an alien crashlanding into the Hudson Bay, making his way into Manhattan, and being discovered—and discussed at length—by cops before the FF get called in. From there, you have prototypical Byrne from the period: a deep cut from early FF continuity (The Enfant Terrible!), a second act twist to make Mr. Fantastic seem smart and/or the reader to feel dumb (no, you idiot, of course we’re not bringing back The Enfant Terrible!), a perfunctory action sequence (The FF vs. Fat Lady Skrull and her crew of non-fat, non-lady skrulls!), and then the tie-in to the Avengers Annual where the Fantastic Four and The Avengers encounter each other on a skrull warship and of course assume the other group is a bunch of shape-changing skrulls taking on the forms of their friends to trick them. After working it out in the most rational way possible, the teams join up to defeat the menace of a mad Skrull terrorist.
Overall, John Byrne the artist seems pretty uninspired by what John Byrne the writer has cranked out for him and so it’s all about as exciting as reading a Bullpen Bulletins page (if that page was actually forty pages). By contrast, Avengers Annual #14 opens with Rakzor and his team of Skrulls breaking into Skrull prison to free Prince Dezan, the Skrull In The Iron Mask, then catching us up to date with The Avengers (having gone into space to rescue Captain Marvel, they are now hot on the trail of Nebula after she has told Starfox that she is the granddaughter of Thanos) and then making sure by page eight the team is attacked in the void of space by World War I biplanes.
Even if some of of it is as mothworn as the material Byrne is parading around in FFA #14 , the Avengers Annual keeps hopping, with John Byrne the artist being as energized by Roger Stern the writer as he was let down in FF. (It also helps that after spending three issues of The Avengers dealing with the Skrulls, the path to the encounter between the two teams feels far more organic here than in the FF Annual.)
And this is the third interesting/shocking thing for me about the Annuals: although FFA is inked by Joe Sinnott—one of the best inkers in comics history—Avengers Annual has breakdowns by Byrne and finishes by Kyle Baker…and it looks beautiful. Having seen Baker’s work at Marvel from back in the day, I knew he was good more or less out of the gate, but his work in this is fantastic. (Thanks to it being in the Avengers Annual, there’s no pun involved there.) If you told me I would’ve preferred an inking job of his to the same work by Joe Sinnott, I would’ve laughed in your crazily hypothetical face, Mr. Straw Man! But check out some of these lovely Baker finished panels:
The Skrull in the Iron Mask
Don’t Bogart That Photo Reference!
In fact, I can even show you a quick example based on the shared pages between the two annuals. Here’s the big “moment of truth” where the crazed Skrull bad guy sets off his ultimate weapon, first by Byrne/Sinnott and then by Stern/Byrne/Baker:
Prettier…and Less Generic
Look how, even as the colorist blows the dynamism of the skrull bomb (it looks like a hubcap), the Avengers Annual page has more heft, based on little more than Baker’s shading choices and adjustment of expressions.
And, finally, the fourth interesting/shocking thing: although Byrne’s FF Annual is wayyyy more dull, it does everything it sets out to do. Whereas Avengers Annual #14, driven by Starfox’s need to catch Nebula and find out if she is indeed a granddaughter of Thanos (and thus Starfox’s own grand-niece), not only does not resolve that storyline, Starfox himself disappears completely from the final pages, presumably so you don’t notice the whole story ends up being an unnecessary digression.
The whole crossover is simultaneously pretty clever and not as clever as everyone behind it seems to think: instead of the loose, devil-may-care continuity of crossover events past (and future), this was so tightly plotted and coordinated it seems only the colorists were left out. The covers even show the same scene from two different angles. But it’s worth noting both covers are, technically, kind of terrible, with the title characters being shown from behind on their own books and from weird, undynamic angles so that they look their best on the other book’s cover.
And although SternByrne show two teams grown up enough to reason out their true identities instead of just pounding on one another for a few pages, that solution is, let’s face it, much more dull than what we would’ve seen under Marvel 1.0 or 2.0. Even as Eighties Marvel was refining the ideas of continuity in ways Stan Lee and the other creators of the Marvel Universe could never have anticipated, it was also highlighting the possible flaws in the concept itself.