Lowlife (II)

(With a nod to Matt Maxwell)

I loved comics – I loved everything about them, and I was proud of the work I was doing, but I was ashamed to be doing it. You couldn’t admit to anyone that you were a comic-book artist. You had to say you were an “artist.” When people heard “comic books,” that meant you couldn’t be an artist.

-          Pete Morisi, quoted in The Ten Cent Plague by David Hajdu

And one day you look at the opening panel of a comic from 1954 and see this:

morisibarpeople

The action in the background is a gimme, but the folks in the foreground are clearly the main event, far more vivid than the canned violence illustrating the caption, although that probably wasn’t the intent. The only reason these two appear on panel is to serve as an easy embodiment of seediness and low morals – key elements (along with the fisticuffs) of the genre this strip inhabits (crime) – and because the artist, wishing to establish a dive bar setting, found himself bored with the idea of drawing a counter in the background and instead opted for some impractical portraiture. Though they appear as a pair, I doubt they’re a couple, even in the desperate-closing-time-volley sense the setting would suggest. From the next panel on, the story keeps its visuals on a tighter leash, everything carefully aligned with the first person narration; action and effects taking a firm hold and leaving no room for anything like this man and woman.

As is, they already say so much there’s really no need. He says “I am an average piece of lowlife scum, getting my kicks from watching the show. Once it’s over and I’ve finished my drink, I’m headed off to commit some petty burglary and kill Ben Parker.” The woman, though it may not look like it, has plenty to say as well: “I’m numb to what’s happening in front of me and that’s exactly what I want to be.” “I have led a sad life, the details of which are depressing and familiar.” “I am a very effective PSA against drug addiction.” “If I lean back a little further, I will fall out of frame and land in a Charles Burns comic.” Add one more image of these two, another hint of their presence, and they’d be rendered mute.

As you’ve guessed, the epigrammed Pete Morisi is the culprit behind the above image, which is taken from a “Johnny Dynamite” strip he wrote and drew called “Kidnap”. Like most cartoonists of the time, he flitted from genre to genre – superheroes, crime, romance, with a special emphasis on western and horror comics – drawing and writing most, eventually amassing upwards of 300 strips by the time he lay his pencil to rest in the early eighties, a body of work which becomes a bit more impressive when you consider a) the consistent high quality of the work and b) his day job as a member of the NYPD for much of that time.

There’s not much evidence of any of that in the medium as is. “Johnny Dynamite” was resurrected by noir revivalist Max Allan Collins for an appearance in Ms. Tree and, in the nineties, a miniseries for Dark Horse but Morisi lingers around primarily thanks to Peter Cannon… Thunderbolt, a superhero he created in 1965 for Charlton. He’s a
character who may hit close to home for most readers, not because due to his tendency to be revived about every other decade – most recently by Dynamite (no relation) last year – but because he was the direct inspiration for noted charity gymnast and perfume peddler Ozymandias in Watchmen, a fact which ensures Morisi some continued presence, if only as a footnote dangling waaay below the text and commentary of everyone’s favorite white whale.* As for the real substance of Morisi, the work itself, it – outside of two stories collected in the Dan Nadel-edited Art In Time (where I first discovered him), some dedicated comics reprint blogs, and maybe an evanescent anthology or two – is properly preserved in the great polyvinyl purgatory or yellowing its way to Valhalla, somewhere out there.

“Johnny Dynamite”, which Morisi co-created with Ken Fitch scripting but quickly settled into sole authorship, was a series of crime comics starring the titular hardbitten one-eyed private eye, with a scale of values weighed far more toward “violence” than “sex”. It’s not an especially large part of his catalogue – it had a brief span on the racks, from ‘53 to ‘56 – but it’s prominent among what little we can see, the comics both formally and informally collected, and that’s not simply a quirk of the zeitgeist, the market for Mickey Spillane knock-offs not being what it once was.

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From “Vengeance”

And that is most certainly what they are, gleefully derivative caption-heavy first-person narratives, odd and incredible. The strips I’ve read shift to a high register after a single frame of build up and, five or six pages in, subside with a frame or two consisting of a forgettable resolution. Between those two points, you’ll find our eye-patched antihero, bunch of bullying thugs in fedoras, and some women virtuous or venal. The narrative complexity consists of “mix, serve, repeat.”

It’s an early fifties detective comic which happens to read like the concept of an early fifties detective comic, a pastiche of itself. By contrast, Harry Lucey’s “Sam Hill” (Philip Marlowe if you swapped out the wounded romanticism for cocky self-satisfaction), also featured in Art In Time, feels like another detective comic among many, never mind that it’s an extraordinary one and probably more satisfying overall than “Johnny Dynamite” – exquisite work tinged (as Dan Nadel points out) with a nice bit of Eisner, layouts which hum, a precise sense of space, and, as a cherry on top, character work good enough to harken forward to the glory of Jaime Hernandez. “Johnny Dynamite”, less than half a decade later, doesn’t truck much with such classical virtues – “story” here isn’t a goal but, seemingly, a pretext for Morisi to craft as many visual exclamation marks within the six, seven, eight pages allotted, perfect and airless bite-sized images. What levels out the anomalous duo who first caught my eye – a strong visual, simply presented – and the Fury (no Sound or SFX for that matter, simply, one imagines, because these images have no need for them) of most of the other images is a sense of isolation; the intro panel – that concentrated dose which opened most silver and golden age comics, intended to hook the passer-by into reading on – is, here, superfluous, nigh indistinguishable from the rest. Most given panels carry the discrete weight of a page in a Lynd Ward book, the only image worth paying attention to the moment you see it.

That you’d find this pictorial compression not carefully apportioned out in ye olde tradition of quality but in a work committed to all the crime for your dime, six frighteningly busy panel butting up against each other on a page, makes it one of the more curious comics you’ll find: hermetic, so damned assured of itself that it scarcely seems to need the presence of a reader. A straightforward reading leaves you feeling like you’ve just watched a movie with someone desperate to fast forward through all the boring bits. The canard against comics as fomenters of illiteracy seems appropriate , albeit here as a blurb.

The mention of “watching” isn’t arbitrary, insofar as the strip seems to owe a special debt to television, or at least attempts to come to terms with the televisual experience, its style easily read as a potent surface level response to the medium just then taking its wobbly legs out of the nursery. Most of the images hew to an exacting visual scheme – a user-friendly 3×2 page layout with the panels all coming with rounded borders (both appropriate to the first person past tense narration and unavoidably reminiscent of a TV screen) surrounding a medium shot or close up (always seen from an unwavering mid-level angle) with a depth of roughly three inches portraying some of the more inhospitably crowded compositions you’ll find. With its focus on the moment, too-clearly delineated planes of action, and panels almost uniform in size and shape, Morisi seems have created one of the few comics more suitable for a child’s Viewfinder than a page.

Implicit in this wonky and severe system, one which assures us the most hospitable view of the any given thrillpowered instant is, well, the viewer, a heightened awareness of the hypothetical space we occupy as lookers – to return to the earlier simile, you can practically feel Morisi jostling your shoulder with every panel as he pauses the screen to ask, “Did you see that?” It’s a self-consciousness which explains the distance, the instinct to gaze rather than read when encountering these strips. Action may supposedly beget action in “Johnny Dynamite”, but what’s more often felt isn’t consequence snowballing its way toward a climax but phenomena – perfectly executed gestures enacted within an iconographic template.

“Vengeance”

 

Image making supplants every other concern, leaving in its wake a string of moments bound together tenuously. The characters don’t inhabit environments but ideas, visual motifs: cracked walls, broken mirrors and windows, stray bits of expressionism doing time as matter of fact settings, each seemingly forty feet away from the foregrounded action, so space is mostly ad hoc, situational – wherever we see the characters is where they’re at, as the strip is basically illustrative (perhaps not too uncommon in the funnybooks of yore, the Golden Age of comics also being the Golden Age of Prince Valiant). Morisi, in “Johnny Dynamite,” has no interest in the naturalistic domain of “Sam Hill” (and 98% of every comic ever) and it shows when the action becomes intricate. A page-length scene in “Kidnap”, one depicting our hero finding a cache of diamonds  on the docks and dealing out doom to a thug who stands in his way under a pier, aims to bound across the page, pulling us along like a more conventional comic would – you can tell something is up from the way Morisi has traded in the basic six panel layout for a neat build-up/climax/resolution internal structure; instead it’s kind of goofy, drifting from panel to panel with nothing to anchor the reader to the page, like a 1950s Greg Land.

Thankfully, that grasp at nuance is an exception. It’s not always a memorable strip, but you’ll often happen upon things that stick like those folks at the bar. Something like, say, this:

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From “The Big Racket”

Louder than words certainly, but I’ll give it a go. An individual comics page typically needs a price tag before it can transition from something story-based to an object, but this one announces itself as one the instant we see it. I want it. It may fulfill its expected function, telling its story like a proper unit of narrative, but mainly it simply is. My desire to engage with it in that way, to scan it for points of interest, is shortcircuited by its presence, the way it registers in one clean stroke, not as a series of images but as an image itself, something whole, never really pointing at anything outside of itself. Yet it’s not absolute; you could probably rearrange the sequence of panels at random and the effect would remain the same (this being one page among many, you could extrapolate that to “Johnny Dynamite” as a whole). It can’t quite be touched – it’s indeterminate, an idea, a phantom, hazy enough, I suspect, to stand in for both a comics page and an idea, maybe the idea of comics; a glimpse of something seemingly summoned up from the culture itself, with the caption and word balloons perfectly poised design elements speaking for themselves before they say anything (the fourth panel taking this notion to a gloriously self-conscious extreme), something they share with the Edward Hopper hallucination I first mentioned – no doubt, like a vast chunk of this essay, a reaction to mirages caused by the distance of time. And because it can’t be grasped, slipping as it does between the cracks of context, competing meanings, it stands, readier than most, to be anything – a postcard, a poster, this jpeg waiting to be clicked, blown up big for the sake of a gallery, whatever – and will remain always itself, its effect undiluted by its surroundings.

“Johnny Dynamite” feels most often like a sideways step away from the expected form good or great work often falls in, away from the unified aesthetics of Eisner or Kirby or Cole or insert your own favorite, where craft and technique build up over time into a coherent chapter in a textbook. It’s exciting and boring and oddly sublime, all those qualities at once, but what’s especially notable is that damn destabilization that can’t help but pop up, something which we might consider as much a part of Morisi’s legacy as the vagina monster which destroyed half of New York. This self-consciousness, the frame of recontextualization which sometimes falls upon these images (which, for Morisi, was probably a trapdoor, unintentional) prefigures a lot of what would come in the decade that followed, all the “Pop” or just plain pop which approached its subject like a mathametician breaking his brain on an equation called “charm”. Things of this sort – soulless and terribly seductive, neat exercises in aesthetics which engage the viewer like the most stylish and self-aware wallpaper imaginable, which, come to think of it, is a good description of Pop Art. And speaking of wallpaper designers, I’d be remiss if I neglected Lichtenstein, the White Elephant in the room. Looking at Morisi, you get a good idea of the initial thrill of Lichtenstein, the excitement of seeing contexts violated, a quick sensation of boundaries become porous; but if Morisi remains porous, antsy, continually unstable (which Warhol occasionally manages as well, especially in his film work), Lichtenstein, beyond the obvious gimmick of carting an image across a presumed high/low boundary, carries a harsh aftertaste, his cheeky razzing of the hierarchy, in the end, affirming the standards of that hierarchy, with the barriers emerging all the more resilient. We may more profitably consider Morisi as a precursor to Steranko – working with a zip-a-tone none too bloated to produce the most wondrous surface effects, with genre as both his content and his canvas.

*We can connect even more dots if we glance at Thunderbolt’s pedigree as well; originally, Morisi intended to revive the golden age superhero Daredevil (not to be confused with the Marvel character), the same Daredevil launched into popularity by Jack Cole in “Daredevil Battles The Claw!”, a boomerang-wielding vigilante-type who wore a cool blue-and-red symmetrically patterned bodysuit and a charmingly superfluous spiked belt. When rights issues stalled, Morisi kept the costume design, simply uncovered the head, dropped the spikes, left the bodysuit barelegged, and added a whole mess of Eastern mysticism – ergo Thunderbolt.

It goes without saying that this Daredevil has also been relaunched by Dynamite recently.

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Lowlife (I)

I.

Let’s start with superheroes.

The idea had been kicking around for a few decades – in science fiction, the pulps, embedded, perhaps, in the already popular supervillain, who did boffo business in a Europe undergoing the birth pangs of the new century, with Fantomas, Dr. Mabuse, Les Vampires, et al., arch-manipulators all, as scapegoats the primal imagination could, in books and movies, shake something fierce for cathartic effect. Anyway, cultural forces aligned, global catastrophe loomed, and so, in 1938, Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster ushered Superman onto the scene.

Or, more precisely, a scene arose in response to Superman. What came before in the comic book – the format where he premiered and which he remains largely identified with – can be easily summed up (said format being all of four years old) as reprints of syndicated newspaper strips, licensed knock-offs of said strips roughly akin to coloring books in terms of ambition (cruel reminders of where the medium was really thriving, its natural habitat both popularly and artistically; well, it would be cruel if anyone involved cared, which no one really did), along with original material – by artists who were, de facto, not good enough for the syndicates – there to fill out the page count, something which became more prevalent when publishers became eager to cut syndicates out of the equation; there were, no doubt, tiny pockets of quality in the midst of all that, seeds spread on uncultivated ground, quick to be swept away in the wind. Dent in the culture caused by someone faster than a speeding bullet notwithstanding, the comic book stood its ground as the shabbiest and most benighted spot on the artistic landscape (“A couple of steps below digging ditches,” per Jokin’ Joe Kubert), though understandably more lively, “gold in them thar hills!”, etc.

The Greg Sadowski-edited Supermen!: The First Wave Of Superheroes anthology is a nice look at that ground zero, the creators who came in the wake of the Man Who Came From The Sky And Did Only Good to meet the public’s sudden demand for More Of This. It couldn’t remotely be comprehensive, of course, the first obvious limitation being “Whither the icons?” In your dreams and on your lunchbox, copyright DC Entertainment, a subsidiary of Time Warner, all hail Mithras, etc. Anyway, that’s sort of moot, the book’s focus being more anthropological, favoring in its selection the spectrum of quality over the apex – what we would see on the racks before we knew exactly what we were looking at, when the artists themselves may not quite have known what they were aiming for.

Of the specific impressions the book leaves behind, none registers quite as strong as the monstrous assuredness of Jack Cole, one of the few artists included who needs no qualifications and is worthy of all hyperbole. Beside the odd sketch-like quality much of the book assumes from our point of view, Cole’s work not only shows whatever promise the superhero genre may have held but fulfills it. It doesn’t define the form but it adds definition to what was already present; while it’s hard to shake the scrim of the present when looking at the earliest Superman and Batman stories, whatever their virtues (a blunt and straightforward charm and an amphetamine driven primitivism, respectively) – the process of iconography so clearly at play, what works getting set in place and what doesn’t being quickly tossed – you could possibly unpack the entire genre from Cole’s “Daredevil Battles The Claw!”, a rollicking rampage of a strip contemporaneous with all that which reads less like a story and more like a crackling bolt of momentum.

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But it could have been any genre with Cole – it’s just happenstance that it was one not done gelling, with physicality as its apparent explicit dramatic engine (it’s very possible that no one in the genre since has used action to bridge one moment to the next better than Cole). What’s unmissable is that we’re watching an artist at the onset of a nascent form – the long-player comic – approach it with techniques fitted to suit, contemporaneous with Eisner and Kirby and Bill Everett but, relative to them, almost fully formed; an understanding of the page as a coherent unit of story rather than a convenient collection of pictures, moving from panel to panel with storytelling so powerful that the comics seem on a race to read themselves faster than the reader can. Jack Cole!

You won’t find much else like that in Supermen!. There’s other good stuff though, a few straight-up oddities (more in a bit), as well as the decent and the boring, along with a few strips that may very well break your brain (let it be known that Gardner Fox on script could inject a bit of pep into a humdrum comic). Nonetheless, it’s all bold in one way or another, crafted as it was during the brief moment before the genre became codified, when the only gestures permitted were bold gestures. It accrues a bit more significance when you take in a wider view, this being arguably the moment when what we recognize as the current American comics scene comes into view; not to equate Superman, whether he’s duking it out with unionbusters or the descendants of Jerry Siegel, as the alpha and omega of the medium, but he and the host of capes quick to follow were the kick in the ass multiple-page comics (now oft-gussified as “graphic novels”), comics not sandwiched in the (then) secure domain between Arts and Leisure and the Obits, needed to be taken as a contender in the market, standing as they do victorious today.

II.

Sadowski posits the arrival of Simon and Kirby’s Captain America in late 1940 as the end of that free-for-all period, a good choice; surely something about the genre solidified when a cover was bold enough to show the hero socking Hitler in the jaw, when the genre felt confident enough to bypass the metaphors for the anxiety which fueled it – aliens, crooks, sorcerers, absurdly racist Fu-Manchu types, et al. – and went straight for the real thing, especially when that comic sells a million copies in the span of a heartbeat. Superheroes would wax and (particularly after the war) wane, while other genres took the lead – crime horror, romance, the once-bustling saloon known as western comics where no one sits a spell anymore, empty of any liveliness but for the tumbleweeds which sometimes blow past…, etc. (with kid’s humor books somewhat sectioned off into a realm of apparent happy market stasis – hey, Archie!) – with booms and similar moments of intense experimentation, but now with a hard-won infrastructure around them to quickly quell any chaos, to set things aright for the sake of maximum profit, a familiar fable of capitalism. I look forward to reading those anthologies.

If Cole gives us an idea of what would be embraced and assimilated (as was Cole himself, grand scheme-wise, going on to write and draw a run on Plastic Man in the forties which remains an easy pinnacle of the superhero genre and, maybe, the medium, as well as, in a crime comic, drawing the single greatest panel ever printed, so deigned by the New York State Legislature), Fletcher Hanks serves as a convenient embodiment of what wouldn’t quite, what might have only seen print in that happy hectic gap; mind you, there’s no real way of verifying hindsight in this case – if Hanks’ career in comics didn’t last primarily from ’39 to ’41, perhaps (let’s say, with extraordinary qualms) he would have exerted more influence. As is, that’s hard to imagine – like Cole, he seems to have come fully formed to the genre, though “fully formed” in his case isn’t so much praise as a statement of fact, what you see being what you get. You’ll find nothing like Cole’s skill (or talent, for that matter) in Hanks – his work is crude, simplistic, and, oh so importantly, awash in all the raw power of a Contra boss battle, a quality he wields in a mighty and monotonous manner. The typical Hanks strip follows like so: bad guys, whether they be aliens, gangsters, or whatever, are up to the worst shit imaginable – the destruction of all life ever, probably – and it’s up to Stardust, a nigh-omnipotent “super wizard” (that the language has yet to settle carries a surprising charge of disorientation) who resembles a ‘roided-up Marvelman, to rain down from the cosmos and smash evil flat. If that sounds like a six year-old’s power fantasies, the hard product themselves read like a six year-old’s power fantasies fine-tuned by an outsider’s hand for the sake of maximum intensity, which is where Hanks’ left field status comes from; the comics feel a step removed from reader identification, nominally “escapist” but really just an equation of power and destruction and apocalypse compulsively worked out, heedless of a general audience, but not dandy aesthetes like myself – we gobble that shit up, as evidenced by the Hanks revival of the past few years (can a corpus be “revived” if no one took notice of it in the first place?). You can get a taste of his work in Supermen! and find it, probably in its entirety, in the recent collections I Shall Destroy All The Civilized Planets! and You Shall Die By Your Own Evil Creation!, the emphatic exclamation marks telling you all you need to know about their content, though you can spot Hanks settling into his own formula by that second collection. At its most potent, it seems both childish and vast, inhuman, dense with off-hand surrealism and ever-escalating fury, stuff far afield from the standard of yesteryear, whether it was Cole or, say, Flash Gordon.

Basil Wolverton, another Supermen! alumnus, easily juts out from whatever random sampling of artist you lump him in with. Relative to anyone mentioned thus far, he might be less in need of being cradled by a curator from the back issue bin to the reader’s attention – whether you read comics or not, chances are there’s a trace signature of his work buried somewhere in your brain. His work begins with a jolly sense of caricature and from there proceeds – or really just leaps head on – into the gleefully grotesque, the ingenuity of his doodling strong enough to leave narrative behind altogether so the images frequently justify themselves. Like Brian Bolland, Wolverton’s pictures come as crisp as can be, seemingly bemused by their own presence and the onlooker’s awareness of their presence, carrying their own frame around with them, so strong they flatten not only content (“How the hell can any story live up to that?”) but context – the images treat genre more as a vessel of conveyance and identify mainly with the quotation marks they hoist high on their mast.  Also like Bolland, the fact that he wasn’t exclusively an illustrational talent remains a continual surprise; he actually was there, doing time as a journeyman, with, relative to whatever hapless work besides him in a ten-center, an emphasis on “journey”. Humor was his natural wheelhouse – Powerhouse Pepper in the late forties and tattooing himself on the century as a key element in early MAD – but he ventured into other genres: sci-fi (“Spacehawk”, included in Supermen! despite not being remotely a superhero comic – one imagines Sadowski simply couldn’t pass it up) and some swell horror; Wolverton’s presence in these stories – nice meat and potatoes stuff, which play it as straight as can be – can’t help but make them seem like implicit commentary, winks at the reader.

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If Wolverton is out of time, the illustrations irreducibly themselves regardless of when you see them, Matt Fox’s work must have seemed like reprints the moments they hit the stands. Fox, like Wolverton, was about a decade older than the typical comics pulper of the time (and both of them a few decades younger than Hanks!), with a similar habit of rendering images as defined as any you’ll find, annihilating the idea that they could appear otherwise the instant you see them; the art isn’t so much drawn as engraved, the average panel doing double time as both narrative cog and near self-sufficient illustration, often tableau-like, with no detail therein subordinate or half-assed. Fox interprets his material – almost always horror damn near resolute in its unremarkability (tending as they do to twist endings visible from the second panel, if not the first) – with the gravity of a child’s nightmare, his imagination apparently inverse to his dead seriousness. The time is night (and probably later than midnight), the monster is a monster, the vampire arises from his coffin to be framed by the full moon, the sinister house down the lane (with the same full moon attached) is where doom awaits… all with nothing remotely like Wolverton’s wink, nothing resembling irony, or suspense for that matter. Golden age horror is rife with this hand-me-down imagery and the end result of Fox’s work may be just as naïve, but it resists quaintness – the determined weight of these images, combined with a storytelling simplicity which, at times, veers close to the Stations Of The Cross, instead makes them seem eldritch, genuinely uncanny.  Often the temptation is to bypass critical evaluation altogether and just see these stories as instant relics, curious artifacts recovered, their original purpose as entertainment overcome by their immutable presence. (We will return to this.)

foxvampire

This list could go on for a while. The point isn’t quality but the sense of something hopelessly askew – after all, there are other cartoonists of note from this era who never strayed: titans like Kirby or Cole, who couldn’t stray insofar as they defined the path, their footprints either guiding the way forward or massive enough for many to comfortably play in (perhaps indefinitely); extraordinarily storytellers, deft in their economy, content to get the job done and get it done as right as it could be (“Good Duck Artist” Carl Barks; Bob Bolling on Little Archie; Jesse Marsh, who seems to have spent nearly two decades doing nothing but producing panel after perfect panel, most of them for Tarzan; etc.); and a variety of other categories, names bandied among aficionados. Whether it was a bit of “What the hell was that?” by Hanks or some sophisticated schtick from Wolverton, this is all eccentric or quirky work in an environment designed to quash quirks, work which arose during a mid-century moment when production, set at an industrial pace, fell into a well-regulated process: an artist – often required to adhere to a house style which ensured both a company-wide consistency and his or her easy replaceability – and a writer (mostly, though not always, separate) working to craft product which did what was expected and filled out whatever generic framework was selling that quarter, with quality less a secondary concern than incidental – presuming the job wasn’t already farmed out to a shop of artists, reliable and faceless, in the first place. However threatened the suburban landscape of the early fifties may have been by innocents who’d heard one too many Tale Too Terrible To Tell (“Wertham’s Whelps”), those stories were meant to sell to a mass audience and meant to sell well.

III.

Superheroes returned to the fore in the early sixties to dissolve the convenient frame of this informal inquiry, the one they’d first built. We can maybe see the presence of Steve Ditko at the center of the medium for a few years – an artist as peculiar and singular as anyone I’ve mentioned, prone to gawky images told with an odd hypnotic grace, environments set either as elegantly sparse geometry or patterns of pure form, some of the most precipitously anxious moments committed to a page, and too many other qualities to go into here – as a sign that this concentrated moment had dispersed. Other markers come quick after that: Steranko exploding genre into a series of effects, the rise of the underground, Eerie and Creepy making the traditionally modest horror story in comics into self-conscious authorial gestures, various et ceteras. Ditko soon enough traded in Strange Tales for strange tales, willfully (or rather Willfully) inhabiting the margins familiar to anyone who’s read this far. You can draw whatever conclusion you like.

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On The Passage Of One Man Through A Brief Moment In Time

“Getting Dead” by David Collier

The only thing of consequence to occur in David Collier’s “Getting Dead” is just that, the death of Richard Collier – David’s grandfather and the subject/protagonist of the strip – and it’s a done deal by the end of the first page, if not quite an on-panel event then stated there as a fact, immutable. With his life established as something limited, complete, the next few pages go on to give the reader a glimpse of the circumstances of Richard’s last years: his suffering, sure, but how he lived as well, his home life with his daughter Muriel and son-in-law Hugh, his habits and daily rituals. Eventually the strip settles into a proper sequence, if not a story then a scenario: Richard heads off to the city to visit his son Trevor and his family, walks around the neighborhood, eats dinner, and a day later rides with Trevor to a farm Trevor is fixing up.

It took me a few readings to realize that this is all that really “happens” in the story’s 34 pages; the strip never puts too fine a point on anything of event, but it doesn’t really need to. It’s all just foundation for the real substance of the strip, Richard’s life, Richard’s memories rushing in, in no particular order, to fill in that rhythmic lull: Richard breaking his leg as a boy, the death of Richard’s wife Maude, Richard enlisting in the Royal Marines during WWI, and so on, all fragments of memory which come loose thanks to happenstance, stray association, and eventually become a ceaseless tumult that, by the strip’s end, adds up to the sum of one man’s life, more or less. Flashbacks occur within flashbacks, memory shifts sideways to entertaining  and irrelevant anecdotes, allusions to other stories pass quick and unexplained – all of which is to say the story is a make-no-mistake ramble, at once urgent (in purpose) and willing to move only at its own pace, stopping and starting as it wants to.

That’s the jolly irony the strip exults in – how, despite the never-too-emphasized action, it just barrels along as a nigh-unbroken flexing of storytelling muscle, a momentum which doesn’t slacken from one panel to the next, guided along by the thread of continuity provided largely by Richard Collier’s gregarious voice. It’s a heck of a ride!

Yonge Street

The present around all that may not be our focus but it is deliberate, a frame rife with finicky detail. Wanna know the route Richard walked between arriving at Trevor’s house and dinner? You’ve lucked out because Collier’s drawn a map. And what was the length of the distance he traversed? About five miles. At one point, Richard finds himself walking through a gay neighborhood and passes two women, one of whom is topless; it may or may not be a moment of interest for the reader, but it’s not for Richard, passing by, nor is it for David, who presents it incidentally, no overtones.

But it is there. That the present tense – this brief and not especially noteworthy segment of time – isn’t simply a springboard for Richard’s reverie but is as textured as can be gets at what’s unusual about “Getting Dead”, if only in relation to the stories surrounding it in Portraits From Life. Those strips all fall within a familiar template: Collier encountering a life, often some figure currently residing in footnotes (the Women’s High Jump gold medalist in the 1928 Olympics, the man who coined the term “psychedelic”) and recounting it mainly in broad strokes – experience and decisive actions, epiphanies, notable events, etc. Like Eddie Campbell (an artist Collier bears no small resemblance to), to depict reality means acknowledging the perspective from which it is seen, a notable degree of authorial presence, so a nice chunk of any given strip is made up of Collier researching, Collier discovering, Collier regaling. Collier gets a lot of formal play with this (e.g. juxtaposing his own story with that of the wrongly convicted David Milgaard in “Surviving Sasketchewan”, a diptych which can be read separately or in tandem, their corresponding page layouts roughly matching up) but the basic structure is very much set: the life seen and the observer, typically David, taking note of it – a strict sense of outside/inside.

“Getting Dead” is a bit more slippery. It begins as another iteration of that formula, if a little more freewheeling, throwing the reader into the deep end of its subject’s story – nonetheless Collier’s there as the reliable scene setter, partially as an on-stage presence but mainly as the dominant narrative voice, his familiar first-person guiding us along for those first few pages. Quickly enough though, he recedes waaay into the margins, subsumed – beyond the occasional digression or cameo – in the torrent of his grandfather’s life, his voice. From thereon, we’re left with Richard Collier, bound tight to the POV of a man who is both the story’s text and its interpreter, navigating each moment as it comes.

Boatwomen 2

It’s not simply that the comfortable distance vanishes, that the narrative onus shifts from the author to the subject – the playing field of the strip has changed as well. What is, like the majority of comics, a story illustrated by time, time manipulated to give shape to an overall plan, also becomes something like an illustration of time. Or just one man’s perception of it, “it” being a moment both arbitrary and thoroughly delineated, sectioned off, something with no more significance than a set of footsteps which begin at one place (a train station) and end somewhere else (a farm) – we know what we’re seeing because we’ve already seen, in those earlier Collier-heavy pages, what it is not.

And what it is is not a story but many stories, enough to take measure of a man. That there’s not much in the way of a climax pressing upon us as we proceed – that things simply are – means that every moment seen holds the same rough value and, bouncing back and forth between the “then” and the “now” of one man’s life, time is not only a sequence but an environment, a field of play, somewhere where the reader can find herself suspended between every panel, every instance felt completely.

The sense of one man’s life has compressed to become, well, one man’s life and however large the past may loom, life is still happening, and it’s happening in the most obvious ways – morning exercises, rides across town, conversations over dinner; for two panels, the story gives way to a lesson on the proper way to hang toilet paper (with hanging strip toward the wall, not away from it).

Maude And Me

But, of course, this is how Collier knew Richard – not as a set of texts excavated from the stacks, microfiche there to be mined, but as a man who had opinions on toilet paper, smoking (anti-), masturbation (pro-), and the best way to get rid of a blister, a very present old man happy to haul his history with him wherever he went. This is a life seen from the inside, a life speaking to itself as it’s being lived, fully inhabited on every front, the bold bulletpoints of the past and daily minutia of the present intertwined, everything of equal consequence as it probably would be to a man in his eighties or nineties, or at least to a man like Richard Collier, who at that age still very much partakes of whatever life will allow.

How could it be otherwise? From the first page, we’ve known how this story (if not the strip) would end – with Richard Collier repeating “Help me, Lord!” on a hospital bed – and everything else, as the title bluntly states, is simply a matter of getting there. From that vantage point, there’s no difference between the moment Richard displays the shrapnel lodged in his arm to one of his granddaughter’s friends at Trevor’s farm and the moment he receives that shrapnel, more than sixty years earlier in the disastrous raid on Zeebrugge in The Great War, the last memory Richard alights upon here, where he witnessed the slaughter of many of the men in his company and heard his commanding officer cry “Mother” as he died. It’s all past, all equal – at some point a voice spoke and someone, David or Richard, heard it and, later, repeated it.

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May, 2004 (One Night Stranded In Another Town)

This is from a longer autobiographical piece, an earlier excerpt of which can be found here.

Austin. Late. Saturday night or Sunday morning.

At one point, sitting at Mojo’s and contemplating the evening’s next stepping stone – a critical one, as courses of action pursued after two a.m. tends to be – a guy (tall, white) came in and sat in a chair a few feet away from me. If this were a novel written before, say, 1920, I’d have introduced him as “a rather curious fellow” and what aroused my curiosity was the small show he made of sitting: slouching as low as he could in the seat before his center of gravity would have forced him to the ground; the chair wasn’t just a place to sit – it was a place with a specific purpose, a place to be. It implied that he was someone living out his own narrative, with maybe his own considerable, possibly day-long, journey of which the chair may either be an endpoint or a way station.

Just as curiously, he gazed about the room and then looked directly at me, taking care to give a big old smirk when he saw he’d caught my attention, as if we had just shared an inside joke. He was lanky and pale, with short-ish blonde hair that split the difference between stylishly messy and just messy, and somewhere in his late twenties or early thirties – maybe just late twenties but he might have earned a few years somewhere along the way. He may have been, if not drunk, then under the influence of a can or two.

Still smiling (perpetually bemused really), he said, “Well, it sure is surprising to see everyone out tonight.”

He said it familiarly and mostly to me, not too loudly but loud enough to suggest he was holding court over this little back patch of the coffeehouse. The girl opposite me reading, just to my left – about twenty or twenty-one, Hispanic, cute, a perfectly normal person you wouldn’t expect to see reading alone in the middle of the night at a coffeehouse so you imagine she was probably waiting for a friend – also couldn’t help but take notice.

I responded. “Well, I don’t think it’s too surprising.” Not quite as surprising as being spoken to in a cozily informal manner by a complete stranger without the faintest trace of an introduction, like this was a 1937 movie and he was William Powell and you were, I dunno, William Powell’s co-star. I played along, trying not to miss a beat because I wanted to see where this would go. “The semester’s just ended, so everyone’s probably blowing off steam. People gotta escape finals.”

“Seems right. But still, it’s about two-something and seemingly everyone’s awake.”

I think I got his point, assuming he had one. Most people up way after midnight are up for some reason and, from the evidence on display, we are not those people – we are neither partying, working, or travelling, but just hanging out, living out a privileged state at an utterly impractical time.

The girl across from me joined in. “It is weird. How long do you think people can go without sleep?”

He paused. “Depends, I guess. The right substances can certainly do the job, but for the sake of just keeping going… probably a few days.”

I spoke. “Yep. I tend to think of it as mind over matter – that your body can follow some directive you set if you will it. For finals, two years back, I came up against a crunch – I looked at my schedule and realized I’d probably have to stay up for about three days in order to best study my ass off and go to work at the same time, everything that needed to be done.”

“Shit,” the guy says, grinning.

“Heh. Yeah, so I prepared myself, coffee [holding up my mug] and everything. I made out a schedule, deciding when and where I could take little naps, two or three times each day maybe, a half-hour here and an hour there; some vague hope of rest, y’know? But when I got to it, I just couldn’t sleep – every time I closed my eyes, nothing came. I couldn’t get there. I was tired, sure, but I wasn’t exhausted or near collapse when I probably should have been. I drooled alot. I just had stores of energy, enough to keep me alert, keep me going. I remember when I finished that last final, on that last day, I had one final thing to do – to pick up my check at the bookstore I worked at. I had the day off so after that I was gonna go home and crash, as anyone would. When I went up to my boss, she was so happy to see me – she told me she was glad that I got the message she left on my phone, that someone had called in and she needed me for the evening. Sure. Six hours later, I walked the two miles from work to home (which I can’t remember at all), went straight to my bed and slept for the next seventeen hours.”

“Seventeen hours,” he says. “That sounds about right.”

It was about then that we introduced ourselves – she’s Melissa, he’s Steve, I’m Richard. When me and Steve told each other our names, Melissa was surprised. “You mean you two don’t know each other? I thought you two were already friends!”

And while I had this willing audience, it’s tempting to wonder what they made of me – I wasn’t wanting for content – but I didn’t speak much about myself. The notion that I didn’t need to – that I wasn’t too hard read, much like I read or misread Steve, with a trail of footsteps discernible beneath me to anyone paying a little attention – was appealing; it’s just half a day, a jolly wearying jaunt, far from transformative, but I probably do bear some evidence of it on me, an invisible tell-tale layer of sweat, a stink I wear with confidence, a stink I can only wear with confidence, stuck as I am with it until I cross two counties, all the while brandishing a wry smirk I wear on a head which is always tilted somewhat askew. It’s the kind of weariness which contains the exhilaration which bred it, the kind you might have after you’ve exerted yourself to your limit simply for the sake of doing so, at no one’s behest, without frustration or pressure. This stillness, this inner certainty, is something I happen upon typically after a nice two or three hours spent dancing – it’s what you’re left with after you’ve reached the furthest edge of today, all it can provide, and, by extension, the furthest edge of yourself in that brief span. And so the world becomes easy, the world such as it is at three or four a.m., when you’re protected by the past eighteen or twenty hours like a suit of armor, a portion of experience which will inform you and any actions you pursue from then on until sleep comes and hits the reset button.

But I could have been more direct – I could have said why I had forsaken sleep on this night rather than a few nights some years past, why I was there, that my presence at Mojo’s at two a.m., two-thirty, wasn’t casual, all the story I’d accumulated in the past twelve hours on my way to being slumped on this couch, of which a whole bunch of walking may not be necessarily interesting but the premise may compel, my sickness and my exhaustion and, should I be disarmed by the caffeine and this instance of human contact, the breakdown I could feel lurking at home, a breakdown which may be either a distinct event awaiting me or a currently ongoing process, which I hoped to avoid or maybe just stall by traveling the path which lead me here, that however lax I may seem smiling on this couch, animated by coffee and coffee-related drinks (a year away from discovering alcohol), this is an earned state, a rest I’m taking from the world in a pleasant pocket of late-night activity in another town, it didn’t have to be Austin but Austin’s convenient, a very cozy Elsewhere, my presence here as luck, better than some IHOP or Denny’s, wondering how I’d maneuver my way through the next seven or eight hours in a bland booth under headache-inducing fluorescence, instead I’m here, on a couch, before you, in a place which didn’t feel so much like shelter from the outside, a discrete space, as a segment of the outside which decided to come in, if that makes any sense, a place where I can feel the wind flowing through the open windows, a zone outside of reality rather than in a booth segregated from casual contact with the wait staff lurking about, always intruding.

I probably wouldn’t have gone into such detail, obviously – to describe it so wouldn’t be fiction but it would be false, as I’d be left waiting a few days before it occurred to me why I did what I did. And it would veer close to a patter – hear my story, ye passers-by – and that would ruin everything; I want nothing from these people, nothing but what I have right now, these moments they’ll spare, time I’m glad to get rid of and they may or may not set a greater value to. We’re all just hanging out, a random set of folks on couches in some place, with only the rhythm of our speech as it bounces off each other setting anything like a standard – probably not a high standard but we managed to keep each other amused.

Back outside the whirlpool of self, in the realm of action, the conversation continued on for a bit. Eventually Steve decided to go outside for a cigarette on the patio. I decided to join him. I imagine I left Melissa with a cheery “See ya in a bit!”

Up front, the world outside seemed much the same as when I left it earlier – lights, cars, people, stuff. The party across the street still hadn’t run out of Rohypnol. Me and Steve smoked and talked, largely about what there was to see around us, more talking in the dark about how strange it was to be talking in the dark. At one point, Steve mentioned that he’d been diagnosed as schizophrenic. He’d been stable for a few months, he said. “Keepin’ in there.”

It’s not a conversation stopper but the next bit did its best to be. Steve gestured at the Fourth Floor Frat Fiesta across the street.

“You see those people? They’re not gonna do much. They just party and go to school and work and not think about much – they’re alright, but they’re doing what they’re expected to. The only thing they know how to do.

“But, man, there’s something about you. The way you talk and the way you look at things. I think you’re an interesting fella – you might be a politician or something. You’ve got an air about you, something that tells me you’re gonna be someone in the world. I think you’re gonna do what he wants to, no matter what.”

Sure! Why not? That’s why you abandon yourself in other cities for a day – to meet people who will call you brilliant, an exemplar of humanity at its finest, after knowing you for twenty minutes. The real point of travel is to reach a spot where you can see the universe give you a nice coy wink. And it only cost me about sixty bucks altogether, Greyhound fare included.

The natural response to all this was to say “Aw shucks,” shrug it off and try to continue the conversation, which is what I did. Soon thereafter, Steve said he’d be heading off. We shook hands. He told me to wish Melissa all the best for him; there was an odd go-get-em undertone there, as if he expected me to make some kind of play for her – another misjudgment on his part. Bye, Steve. Where ever you are now, I hope you’re alright – you’re a good guy.

Inside, Melissa had disappeared, probably for the best – no one’s ideal of late night company includes a dilettante vagabond and a schizophrenic. Bye, Melissa! Good luck on everything I didn’t learn about you. You seemed nice.

Now returned to my comfy solitude, I just settled back on that couch and wondered about what had just happened. I was quick shift into my earlier neutral state, content with the coffee, the night through the windows, the dim lights up above. A half-hour of this and I decide not to wear out my welcome. So goodbye to Mojo’s as well. The September after this trip you closed (And at what time? Midnight? 6 a.m.?) and now you are a hookah bar, one with a list of daily hours on, no doubt, a front door which locks. The Big Black Table 3000 is on an eternal eBay roundelay, from one buyer to the next while the restroom doors were certainly the first thing to be painted over. I miss you terribly.

I like to believe I wandered into the night heedlessly, as secure in my naiveté as when I hopped on the Austin-bound Greyhound earlier – and this may in fact be the case – but I suspect I mentally bookmarked my next destination when I was roaming about earlier in the evening. What I remember is walking three or four blocks south in near complete darkness, a few lights in the distance, and then seeing an all-night diner, local, without the taint of a franchise, and deciding that breakfast seemed a good idea, or whatever you call a meal appropriate to 3:30 a.m.

So: pancakes, bacon, more coffee. The place was busy. I may have been the only table-for-one there as well as at the last one available – surrounding me were groups of people, couples, families (?), all pleasant, all chatting, none of the expected drunks, just everyone winding down from their splendid Saturday night. I made a go at the stack of pancakes on my plate but they beat me – they looked delicious and may have been so, but all I could taste was the saliva in my mouth. I ate maybe half, drooled into the rest, and mainly just stared at them, or rather, the space between my eyes and the pancakes. I didn’t hit a wall but I could touch it – I was tired. Coffee’s only diminishing returns and Mojo’s already felt like a sepia-toned memory. I couldn’t stand outside of myself as I’d been doing all evening – my body became irrefutable, something to be obeyed, its commands at that moment being staring and drooling. It wasn’t simply the lack of sleep – those three days awake may have been noteworthy, but they weren’t an anomaly – but also the miles I’d crossed on foot and the fact that I’d spent most of this day without the safety net of routine or company or, most importantly, an environment I could take for granted. There’s a plan, sure, but “go there; come back” is a plan in much the same way as “I woke up in the morning and went to sleep at night” is a description of a day. There’s a lot of distance between a) and b) and I have to think through every inch of it, an ongoing conversation with myself as to how I would waste these fifteen minutes and the fifteen minutes after that and the fifteen minutes after that and so on… each increment of time a responsibility and each responsibility of a little more import than the last as my energy reserves dwindle and possibilities drop off (no seeing that movie now!) and the night grows less certain and less familiar until, with quite a few fifteen minute increments still ahead of you, each awaiting their turn, your fatigue leads you to staring and drooling on pancakes in some restaurant.

All of which is just an elaborate way of saying I’d grown sick of myself, a state which kicked that cushion of exhilaration out from under me. Mind you, if it were only this malaise, I could probably sit it out, go into neutral and expect a return to stability soon enough. But there’s also this restaurant, a thoroughly decent place which is bright, pleasant, quite bustling. And when you’re sick of your own presence amidst a bright and pleasant bustle, it only throws you into relief as someone who can’t share in it, someone alone, lonely, someone who’d been lonely for a long time. Who the fuck feels compelled to walk around a city to make himself feel something? A lonely person, that’s who, someone who has instantly convinced himself that he had never been as happy, as casually happy, as the people around him. In comparison to them I felt sad and seedy, a sad and seedy person who’d lead a life he retroactively declared as sad and seedy, ready to join the ranks of sad folk you pass on the street, people who’d grown accustomed to a life synonymous with exhaustion, people who became sad and seedy because dignity gets so easily tossed when your life consists of exhaustion, an exhaustion you live with daily and whose only reward is another day alive with exhaustion, for whom sleep was only an interruption of exhaustion and not its resolution, whose maturity meant becoming not acclimated to life but to exhaustion, who railed against exhaustion on Friday night and woke up on Saturday morning more exhausted – people who wore semi-permanent half-smiles and whose skin around their eyes seemed to have sunk into their skull, with the curves of those eyes showing all too well from within. The four, five, six hours I’d yet to experience but knew I’d have to (I sensed) won’t just be a burden to add to all the rest – they’d be a repetition of this moment, with my eyes focusing and unfocusing before these pac-man shaped pancakes (adorned with sliced strawberries and that always-neat ice cream scoop of butter) while the background noise of laughter and shouting rang loud as judgment. My original intent – to waste an hour and a half or so with this meal, the better to carry me comfortably close to when the bus I pegged as the first step back home began its early morning route – was tossed. After forty-five minutes I paid my bill, tipped generously, and left.

Back outside, I navigated streets I’d never walked through and whose names I’ve now forgotten, something I did confidently, with resolve – I think I assumed this guise of competence because my only real desire was to curl into the fetal position in the middle of a convenient patch of pavement, preferably a patch of pavement regularly used by traffic. I managed to escape that funk soon enough – maybe it was this sudden sense of focus or a small burst of adrenaline, probably both. Despite the fact that it’s all ghosts and cars passing at ten-minute intervals, the world seemed real once again: I was just someone like anyone else, someone making my way. I found the bus stop where I needed to be and sat for an hour, maybe an hour and a half.

There I was greeted by nothing and more nothing, continually. Nothing times nothing equals nothing, elementary school math. I imagined some passing tumbleweeds to amuse myself, but the idea of movement fell off the scene frictionlessly. You fall into this mood like a river and you get carried along; story and association were quick to fall away, leaving behind a Man, a Street, a Bus Stop, and the Early Morning in the steady process of becoming Day. The Sun, a perfect thing which can only be itself and can only ever refer to itself, would soon arrive and bring with it distinction and definition. So I watched everything in the world gradually become more and more beautiful. Actually there was no accumulation in beauty – the difference between the way things were at 4:58 and 4:59 or 4:43 and 5:12 wasn’t a matter of degree but a sense of each moment in of itself; as if compensating for the happy vacuum surrounding, the smallest increments of time take on their own texture and character, each one quick to exit the stage for another. You don’t need to go somewhere else for that epiphany, just pay a little attention.

Down the street, where my eyes were always angled for the bus due to arrive in an hour and then x amount of minutes, there’s a series of shops, a storefront, a very pleasant trail of perspective that led to the horizon. I mention it for the same reason I mention every other detail in this story – it was there and I saw it. One day, I’ll go back to that spot before dawn breaks and walk down the sidewalk in front of that storefront; maybe I’ll see myself waiting at the bus stop a few blocks away. And I’ll bring along a reasonably sized ladder and a bottle of Windex as well, to wipe away the drab and murky blue light up in the sky which appeared in the ten or fifteen minute gap between the stars bowing out and the first tinge of yellow. It doesn’t wreck my mood or anything; I just want to see what lies beyond it.

The bus came and that led to another bus stop and then another, a regular routine of waiting and movement as I closed in on the bus station where I began this story. Day became Sunday, the sky became absolutely blue, and on the buses were people heading to church or to work or, like me, just heading somewhere. During one of these rides, a guy in maybe his early twenties, probably Hispanic, popped up a few rows ahead of me, in one of the seats up front which face sideways so I could see him in profile. His wardrobe was stylish but rumpled, a long sleeve yellow dress shirt, blue jeans, and sunglasses; he didn’t move at all, just sat slumped, still, with his mouth open to the extent that he was asleep or maybe stuck in that bedraggled state which is very close to sleep but provides no rest. All the signs pointed to a more conventional version of my night, with alcohol as a prime component in one or more of the expected settings (a club, a bar, a party, a friend’s house, etc.). Whatever couch he departed twenty minutes ago didn’t provide him with anything like the needed rest, and here he was dipping in and out of himself, skipping between nothing and brief glimpses of nothing. Looking at him, I think I saw what others must have seen when they looked at me: an escapee from the previous day, a straggler who was taking his time catching up with everyone else.

I spent maybe two hours like this, Sunday being a lax day for public transportation and Sunday morning doubly so. Eventually I got off… somewhere. It was close to the western edge of the city – one of those hinterland districts inhabited by nothing but office suites for contractors and storehouses for machinery, 2x4s and sheet metal, an environment whose appearance is divided roughly between the desolate and the functionally pleasant/utilitarian. Your concentration just slides off every detail; it’s a good place to find yourself when you’ve crossed over into another day awake and can’t be bothered about where you are – it doesn’t care either. I jaywalked across the wide empty street and walked maybe half a mile in search of a bus stop. When I made contact, it occurred to me that I didn’t know if the route I wanted had Sunday service. I spent the next forty-five minutes in this state of uncertainty, with only the will to stand and stare vacantly at the air in front of me.

Or not. My memory of these events is at best approximate – there’s the distance of time, and nowhere is that distance felt more than right here, as the comfy tattered mattress awaiting me eighty miles away was both very near and very far, the obvious end of this circle. By now the standing and staring are the actions of a stranger, someone named “Richard Baez”. I’m closer than anyone else to him right now, but still a bit further off so everything I’m describing is second-hand. I imagine this feeling of detachment applied just as well to my state at that moment, so “Richard Baez” was there and his uncertainty was a real thing, a real thing much in the same way that the street he had just crossed was real – undeniable – but something to be interacted with or just observed, however he chose. By then I (or he) was just a cog in my own story, following a script automatically, and everything’s a prop, to be used to reach the end of this last act.

The bus did arrive, of course. But then the response to any outcome would be “of course”, every possible reality awaiting me equally inevitable. Marcus Aurelius reflected that 10,000 years of life would add little novelty to that of the average length of existence, that time and experience would repeat with only modest variations, making the distance between these two extremes negligible; there’s not so much a moral (be happy with what you get, quantity vs. quality) as a stoic philosophical precept buried there: that existence is a limited thing, or, at least, the existence we can only confront with our little consciousness, our flickering perception. At this stage, it’s something I understood plainly, without thought, an observation I’m tempted to emend from a lifespan to a single day, when you’ve crossed the threshold of comprehension and the hours have begun to snowball, when whatever will happen will seem equally likely, none of it especially worthy of a reaction.

It’s all happening and it’s all happening at once and even if it’s not really happening, it may as well be. Which is to say that nothing happened. My footsteps laid down roots, with the ground clinging to my blood-stained shoes, shoring up my attempts at progress. Conversely, time kept skipping forward when I blinked, so I’m on a bus, at a depot, on a comfy seat; outside of the window there’s an environment which moves at a dizzying speed. I’ve lost sight of myself – hummingbirds had plucked my eyes from their sockets, removed me from my view, dropped them off somewhere, probably San Marcos – and this is my reward…

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The Whole World Wants To Know

“Our Tune” by The Dolly Mixture

This is my favorite song in the world right now, with an emphasis on “right now”. The stupidly obvious meaning of life is whatever song you’re preoccupied with at any given moment.

As evidenced by the title, it’s a song about another sort of song, “Our Tune”, i.e. the replayable bit of bliss which becomes hopelessly entangled with a relationship at some formative moment and so stands as a neat signifier of that connection and all the possibilities it may engender; more specifically, it’s about that song after the fact, when it becomes a nexus of association too weighty to bear and you can hear the excitement and the disappointment it eventually led to within a single instant, as is the casual power of a pop song.

It’s quick and bare bones, two minutes and twenty-one seconds about being stuck in that groove. That’s the whole of it – an easy and relatively expansive verse, abetted in its momentum by cooing harmonies and a bright ascending guitar, that trails off into a chorus which feels like a rut, everything disappearing except flat inexpressive vocals against a stark rhythm section circling around in an uncertain stalemate. Repeat.

Lyrically, it sticks to that arc of descent, distantly at first, with the path of a relationship – infatuation and heartbreak – safely filtered by a second-person POV. It stands as a depiction of breaking up rather than a straight-up break up song; if you’re looking for a more appropriate weep-into-the-shot-glass song of that sort, with enough in the way of accusations and human messiness to latch onto and direct at whoever last did you wrong, you’re better off with “Now When I Count”, another Dolly Mixture song from around the same period. Heartbreak is, as ever, a helluva muse.

Which isn’t to say that it’s all detachment. At about the 1:15 mark, the song, having passed the checkpoint of the first chorus, swells to a wondrous height, a quick crest before crashing back and returning to it, while the lyrics assume a sudden first person voice – present tense, immediate – to make a very brief statement of pain and helplessness. The rest of the song could be seen as a buffer for this moment, the distance all throughout allowing a safe place where you can give full vent to vulnerability, make explicit what’s implicit.

It’s a very simple gesture in a very simple song and it’s what keeps me coming back.

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Ian Curtis on stage is really something to see.

So says I.

In Joy Division (D: Grant Gee, 2008), you don’t see much (if any) footage of him off stage, without a spotlight attached, and virtually every photo of him presented connects him to the band (press photos, concert stills, stuff captured during rehearsal, etc.), so there’s really no way of saying whether he was something to see in a more mundane context – Ian Curtis is always “Ian Curtis, lead singer of Joy Division” and so inseparable from the story, a character, nearly a myth if you know how his story ends (which, if you’re watching the movie, you probably do). The rest of the band (the future New Order, a band I’m actually far more fond of) being, well, alive, escape this fate; they’re human after all, very real, present before us as either a series of regularly appearing close-ups – there to tell the tale – or in the live performances from the archives, where they do just that: perform, playing their parts both musically and as components contributing to the scene, figures filling out a “live show” template. (Peter Hook, probably the most earthbound figure here, highlights this functionality at one point (and I’m paraphrasing here, all apologies): ”When we were live, my only goal was that we sounded as good as we did in rehearsal.”)

If at those moments they’re fulfilling a role, Curtis, up front and center stage, is doing something else. Objectively he fulfills the requirement of a performance – Curtis vocalizes, attunes himself to the music, lets it guide his rhythm – but that’s the only visible seam in the experience presented, the necessary trace of affect. He never really interacts with anything else on screen though, nor does he seem capable of the awareness that would allow such interaction; his attention seems to extend, at most, three millimeters outside of himself, so the audience before him, the band behind him, and the camera directed his way may as well be lucky bits of circumstance, equivalent to furniture or the weather.

This feels apt – as a figure, “charisma” and “presence” are simultaneously appropriate and too weak to describe Curtis on stage. From the instant we see him in motion, he’s not so much a component of the scene as apiece with it, leaving everything else indistinct, furniture and weather notwithstanding. He’s not in the moment, engaged in the scene, but rather he carries the scene with him; the field of interest established doesn’t wax or wane according to anything that “happens”, but is defined exclusively by Curtis’ body, a body whose actions never refer to anything but itself.

“Nervous energy” is probably a faulty description – that phrase implies impulse, a chaotic swirl which can explode into exuberance as easily as it subsides into listlessness. Curtis’ movements are whole, sustained, both unrehearsed and certain; witnessing them, we suspect they can’t be executed otherwise, as if they were dictated from a trance (a comparison heard often in the movie), the actor picking up on some distant frequency.

“Trance” is pretty on the nose – from there you can no doubt (and “no duh”) extrapolate a connection between Curtis on-screen and off, specifically his battle with epilepsy. At its most elaborate, his body resembles the end point of an equation, a set of clearly delineated values of chaos and control interacting repeatedly in the vain hope of reaching stasis, cancelling out the remainder: his head still (near rigid) as can be above arms and torso in a state of stick figure frenzy, a jittery disconnect between limbs enacting actions which never flow from one to the next so much as shift into three or four different configurations per second (hit pause and every pose is easily measurable via protractor), while his legs twitch a precise unwavering line across the stage. As pure movement, it’s a drama unto itself, endlessly replayable, with release, catharsis, continually suspended for the sake of friction, a tension too tough to shake. This may be the most emblematic instance of Curtis on stage but, funny enough, it doesn’t feel climactic. This frenzy, we suspect, isn’t potential made fully manifest, just another expression of what was already there – as he sways choppily behind the mic or grasps it tight to his lips, intoning the lyrics while his body accommodates the beat as a gentle but definite pulse – the most kinetic end of a spectrum of motion. Whatever we perceive from Curtis, it’s plain at any given instant, however the variables shift, however it presents itself.

A more conventional performer par excellence, the kind keyed toward rapture (James Brown, for example, though feel free to insert your own fave), may serve as a neat contrast, i.e. someone intent upon leading the audience to a state of transcendence, the aforementioned release, giving a communal vent to emotions that have no conventional outlet beyond, say, sex. Curtis does something similar, but what is made manifest isn’t so much passion as interiority – he’s not projecting outward but giving us a view of something concentrated, something of undoubted and unknown significance conveyed through a vocabulary of (let’s call them) private gestures. To reframe this comparison, if the preacher is the working model for most pop performers, the tools of the trade being seduction, acceptance, communion, then Curtis’ stagebound qualities peg him as more akin to a shaman, who doesn’t spread the word so much as embody it.

What I’ll reach for to describe this is terribilita*, a bit rarefied but suitable; it translates into the all-too-loaded “terribleness” and might be generally defined as “awe-inspiring”. More exactly, it implies a brush with an ideal, the uncanny sensation which results from encountering something wholly and completely itself, an absolute. Regardless of your familiarity with the terminology**, you probably have your own points of reference w/r/t this quality: some proper Bressonian moment of ineffable stillness, a thrill-power throttled Jack Kirby double-splash page, whatever. What leaps to my mind is the titular figure (as portrayed by Aleksandr Kaidanovsky) in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, standing at the threshold of the Zone a third of the way through the movie (click here and go to the 59 minute mark; unless you’re versed in Russian, don’t forget the closed captions); he’s a believer standing in a place which, to him, may as well be a footprint showing God’s passing, somewhere which is both Heaven and Hell, a man who’s witnessed more terribilita than he knows what to do with and so can’t help but be infected by it, and never moreso than then, as he – ecstatic and anguished and low-key all at once – tries to communicate this miracle to two doubtful dilettantes. Burdened by knowing the only thing worth knowing, he, at this moment, exists at the very edge of himself, aware that implicit in this state, haranguing these men, is every action he’s taken in his life thus far.

Naturally, moments like that are rare***, even in a Tarkovsky movie (though if there is a shortlist of artists who could possibly offer the absolute a comfortable and accommodating frame, he’s on it). Grant Gee and writer Jon Savage bring a whole mess of essayistic intent to Joy Division – documenting the band’s rise and abrupt fall (due to Curtis’ suicide) the better to view them as a cultural signifier of the threshold through which the past becomes whatever we call “the modern” in the early 21st century and, heaped onto that, of said progress reflected specifically in their hometown of Manchester (this latter bit means footage of lots o’ pretty cityscapes) – and there’s some (very loose) validity there, insofar as much of the music remains good ‘n’ potent; gauging the expiration date on art is probably a shell game, but I doubt the cultural moment for a song like “Ceremony” has passed yet. It’s all nice notions, kinda diffuse – Curtis, his presence, destabilizes everything, enough so that what’s left in his wake is a decent rote rock doc, albeit one that’s very lovely to look at. He justifies himself without a foundation of talking head testimony or the scaffolding of a dramatic arc; better to just stitch together performances and end up with a nice package of undivided moments – the pure stuff.

Or you could just watch this:

*”Transfiguration” is another good term, though a bit too weighty for me to wield at the moment.

**Originally gleaned from Alberto Manguel in Reading Pictures and gleaned by Manguel from Vasari’s Lives Of The Artists, where Vasari uses it as a key descriptor of the work of Michelangelo. So there.

***Though the last five minutes are a good contender as well.

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Corrupted!

This was originally “published” in FA Online back in March 2011 via the good graces of the late great Martin Skidmore.

Comic Book Comics #5 (Evil Twin) by Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey

Pedagogical comics! I approve! Comics can’t all be syringes and scalpels about to be plunged into eyes, you know? I mean, those are my favorite – when, at the moment the number of exclamation marks on the page is at its most vigorous competition with the dollops of red coloring to be seen, our tale of terror gives way to a robed and snaggle-toothed framing device delivering some glorious self-cancelling moral replete with a pun groan-inducing enough to ensure that the occasional giggle punctuates my screams during the ensuing nightmares. But when whatever good graces I possess prevail, I’m bound toward my well-worn and near crumbling set of Rosary beads for a few dozen frenzied rounds of supplication and then the time-tested edu-tainment of a Larry Gonick tome as penance. Yes, Larry Gonick, he of the multi-volume Cartoon History Of The Universe and sundry related books – let’s accompany him as he glides with ease through the dense quagmire of millennia foregone; once a week you’ll hear me exclaim “Oh boy, Sumerians!” with the wide-eyed wonder of a now reclaimed innocence. “Do you not feel better, my child?” the Virgin Mary will say as her index finger, no doubt bearing a perpetual anointment of holy water, guides my eye’s passage from panel to panel. “Yes, Mother of God. Yes, I do.” Until the next cycle…

Alas, my own everyday existence, however mundane it may appear, is just dozens of these complex and overlapping rituals of pleasure, remorse, and redemption, whether they involve ghastly glee writ in four-color glory or certain other lonely rites which entail a locked closet with a towel shoved at the base of the door so that no light may penetrate and even I may presume not to know my own sin. Catholicism and it’s unending round of prostration – that’s a man’s life!

But worlds do collide, after all, and sometimes the easy equations falter. I’m thinking in particular of my first encounter with Comic Book Comics (issue three, specifically) – a tricky proposition. A glance revealed a familiar feel to the terrain – the anecdotal trod through a subsection of history (comics, natch): Julie Schwartz; Jack Kirby; Frank Gorshin and Adam West at an orgy – the classics! Reading a bit further and then it hit. There on the page: the EC Comics saga! William Gaines sabotaging himself before the Senate Subcommittee! Arch-villain Fred Wertham as something other than stern-faced party pooper! The only bit of Un Chien Andelou that anyone remembers ready to be enacted there on the page! My edification – a sacred rite corrupted! The intermingling of illicit pleasure and remorse looping in on itself – a mobius strip from which escape could prove well nigh impossible! I grasped for my rosary beads but they came unloosed from their tether – thrown into entropy like those on Martha Wayne’s necklace on that fateful night in Gotham! Such cognitive dissonance undermined the ramshackle foundation of my self… nay, my soul, dear reader! Like the black t-shirt of a snake coiled around a crucifix that the roadie was wearing at the show! And then to greet those old pals: the fetal position and liquid foods.

I got better, as the superheroes say.

Comic Book Comics is the second act of Van Lente and Dunlavey’s thoroughly entertaining promenade through the humanities, preceded by the very fine Action Philosophers (“Epictetus”, in case you didn’t know, is a synonym for “awesome”) and to be followed by Action Presidents, so you have that inevitable William Henry Harrison punch line to look forward to. The purview of the current series is the American comics industry – the mythos which it has accrued from its evolution from the pulps to its presence in the future, if the glimpse at the cover of the next issue it to be believed. BEHOLD – Simon & Kirby, Siegel & Shuster, Lee & Kirby, my fetishized EC Comics and its inquisitorial end begetting MAD Magazine, the rise of the ‘60s Underground, along with some subjects covered entirely at the whims of its creators (Pop Art gets an entertaining drubbing for some reason and Herge is always a welcome presence) – most things relative to the rise of that once-durable but now-precarious engine of the industry, the 32-page floppy. Tellingly, it is called “Comic Book” Comics, not Comics Comics – that’s taken (albeit, as of this moment, out of commission). So there’s nary a trace of Schulz or Gould or Herriman or McKay or King to be seen; that, I suppose, would entail another series (Comic Strip Comics?). So, in this case, history is a nightmare from which Little Nemo has yet to awake.

(Mind you, I could be talking out of my ass; I’m afraid I was late to this party, with the first and second issues, their specific contents unknown, either awaiting me in some golden-ticket back issue bin some time in my near future or, more likely, the subject of an avid perusal when the trade heads our way sometime in 2012.)

The cover promises an “All-Lawsuit Issue” and as such we are made privy to the various adventures in litigation, with an emphasis on the two most mythic – Kirby v. Marvel and Siegel v. DC, along with further members of this parade of the damned, all creators marching to nail their subpoenas to the doors of the DC or Marvel and getting quashed, for the most part, in the process. There’s also the tale of the underground cartoonist collective the Air Pirates and their not entirely sane attempts at stealing the copyright for Disney’s characters right under the all-seeing eye of the Mouse – calamity ensues, of the comedic kind. It concludes with comic’s own hallowed “Jarndyce v. Jarndyce”, the Everyone v. Everyone of the Marvelman/Miracleman saga, which, fittingly, spans time, space, and two continents, and leaves a wake of carnage akin to Kid Miracleman’s takedown of London. Litigation as entertainment: it’s this age’s sadistic eye injury!

Van Lente delivers these funnybook follies in a breezy manner, working within tightly structured pages which barely break the double digits to get all the pertinent information across. Dunlavey, on the art, is one of the more underrated cartoonists around; his skills as an imitator are formidable – I imagine his John Stuart Mill via Peanuts in Action Philosophers is cemented in the memories of most readers – but his work in CBC foregoes that, understandably considering the various personality-by-personality change-ups the earlier series demanded. He’s stricter here, sticking more for a direct symbolic pastiche as depicted in his own personal cartoony style, a blocky shorthand that nails the message precisely; as busy and worked over as they are, there’s no clutter. Like AP, the panels offer less for straight-up illustration and more for representation/further commentary of Van Lente’s accompanying text, with the ready-at-hand iconography (Mickey Mouse, Milt Glaser’s much missed DC logo, Spider-Man, everyone ever) appropriated for that extra punch of immediacy, ensuring that the copyright page is an easy match for the on-line bibliography in terms of size. Which means that you’ll encounter Mike Hammer shooting Captain Marvel Jr. in the back and Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore at sea, intent upon harpooning a Moby Dick which bears Rorschach’s very trademarked mask and fedora – and there’s no way a book so keen on broad strokes would skip over the “Watchmen as white whale” metaphor – among the cavalcade of images. First and foremost, these are lively comics, with no place for moribund panels.

Except for the final panel – a literally moribund image of Van Lente having hung himself in despair, his frustration at having to comprehend the damn zigs and zags his comics narrative has taken getting the best of him. I can relate. Comics – fuck ‘em. Let them serve neither as sin nor salvation – just let them be.

At least until the next issue – the next cycle.

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