Hello again. No autobiographical excursions through nearby cities here, just a few comics – older comics, forged on the smithy of someone’s soul, and crying for discussion. Here we go.
Wimbledon Green (Drawn And Quarterly, 2005) by Seth
My knowledge of Seth is fairly small, having only read George Sprott (1894 – 1975), which I recall enjoying: a character study of the flawed-white-man variety common to the literary midlist, familiar but well executed – a big book about a small man who wanted to be big. So I picked up this earlier work, the hosannas delivered in various Best-Of-2005 lists in The Comics Journal echoing in my mind. And it was cheap – four bucks.
The similarities between the two are strong, the later book seemingly a strenuous workout of the muscles first flexed here; “seemingly”, I say, due to my ignorance of the rest of Seth’s corpus – it could be a thing. The template for both is a character study done in a talking head semi-documentary format, with associates, enemies, renowned authorities and the like all connecting dots and adding textures to the blank canvas of the eponymous character – the Citizen Kane mold in essence, but with both central figures enmeshed in marginal realms which probably loom quite large in Seth’s own personal mythology – comic book collecting in Wimbledon Green, the lost world of local television in the later book – and are fading quickly in the glare of whatever portable screen you’re probably reading this on.
But a quick glance at surface elements gives away the contrasts: George Sprott’s unwieldy size pretty much telling you the entire story before you crack it open, with a cover more fitting for a concrete mausoleum door, and the po-faced black, gray, and blue tones wearing down the reader well before you can actually study the content. And there’s Wimbledon Green – a wee book of all earth hues, with the title character standing proudly on the title cover, rays of glorious bombast emitting from him so as to frame his name for the sake of the title.
It’s a fun jaunt, involving many self-serious men who collect comics, a chase through the countryside, the idolization of the itinerant lifestyle, and buttered toast. Not much to say myself – that Seth sure knows his way around pages gridded to the extent that you can do your geometry homework on them, should the need arise.
(I wrote this some weeks back, but I’d feel remiss if I neglected to point your way to Matt Seneca’s far better review of the same work, posted a week or so ago. He doesn’t glibly dally with the surface elements, as I do here, but takes a full on dive, all the while seemingly working on a rough draft for a manifesto. It’s swell.)
The Protectors Vol. 1, #1 (New York Comics, 1986) by Brett Axel, Spencer Bernard, and Fred Thornton Jr.
What resonates especially in Wimbledon Green, at least from my own limited years-in-the-trenches viewpoint, is the social context it creates around an almost exclusively solitary pursuit – bin-diving. In there, it escapes subculture in the marketing demographic sense and is depicted as a genuine subculture, emphasis on culture, with attendant cliques, clubs, meetings, rogues, greedy bullies, gallant heroes, and the designated alpha males. (And only males, obviously, because you can only take whimsy so far.) Everyone has their big score, prizes that slipped, eel-like, out of their grasp at that last moment, glimpses of glory that proved to be mirages, lengths traversed, scars they’ve earned over the years brandished like medals, etc.
It’s a helluva hook, at least for those of us intimate with the impulse to scour, i.e. the damned. Saturday afternoons spent digging digging digging, on or (if you’re wise) under tables, among a few dozen off-white long boxes, your pulse gaining a few beats whenever you encounter, from your god’s eye POV, paper in a certain tight spectrum of yellow-to-brown – surely, it can’t be a coincidence it shares the same hues as gold?
Sure, nostalgia is the catalyst for it, but that’s a given with plenty of passions. Keep it up and you can get a taste for recapturing moments, not just those you can tag as officially “yours” – any book can be a time machine, all the more effective its ragged paper and rusty staples. Hell, even inertia can be a virtue – an object which aspires to the barest standard of quality and falls short can communicate itself with a far greater clarity than most, its plastic qualities none too pliable.
Which goes a little way toward explaining why I grabbed this when I saw it:
It served its purpose well. Benjamin Marra – steal this cover layout.
It was released in 1986. The traditional heroic narrative of the English-language comics scene at that time, or at least the one trotted out whenever anyone asks, is of the medium reaching something like maturity, the resurrection of the underground dovetailing with the rise of soiled superheroics: Maus, Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, Love & Rockets, you know the list. It’s a saga that comes with a convenient flipside: the simultaneous B&W boom, premised not on any notions of progress or Pulitzers but on the joyous celebration of capitalism – “Gold in them thar hills!”, etc. – Eastman & Laird’s success story with the Ninja Turtles provoking a few thousand journeymen, amateurs, and opportunists into trying their hand at this comics game, the dollar signs in their eyes too often obstructing their view of the comics they were crafting, judging by the frequently frail results. The Protectors is an easy snapshot of those days of being wild.
Appropriate for a first issue, it’s the Protectors’ origin, who they are and how they came to be, “they” being some dude, his wife, his psychic detective sister or something, and some girl wearing a shirt as skin-tight as you can imagine bearing the phrase “SOME LIKE IT HOT!” – so tight that I suspect she’s really not wearing a shirt at all, just that phrase tattooed across her chest along with a circular collar design around her neck. Either way, I think the audience may infer that A) she’s a man in drag OR B) she’s a Buster Pointdexter fan; they may not be mutually exclusive. Anyway, they all get entangled in some supervillain henchmen type guys – with matching outfits and masks and lasers and stuff – kidnapping girls for an underdeveloped enslavement program, making it a lot like The Slavers storyline in Punisher MAX, except with dudes from the undersea kingdom of Englas or something instead of Eastern European badass ex-paramilitary types as the ultimate villains. And in the epilogue, they’re all hanging on someone’s couch, like you do after you just got back from The Limelight and you’re at someone’s place hoping to dear god your ride home isn’t too drunk, and someone says hey, let’s become a superhero team, which is another common Friday night-3AM scenario except this character doesn’t pass out soon thereafter. And that’s their Avengers-style beginnings – drink responsibly, folks.
That’s not all, though. As the book was drawn (pencils by Spencer Bernard, inks by Fred Thornton Jr.) on nonstandard 11” x 17” paper, with room to spare when placed within the proper floppy format, you get bonus behind-the-scenes commentary at the bottom of each story page, making it a lot like Casanova, except with no mention of Bowie lyrics or alcoholism. And, if Fraction was at the helm, you can bet it would be a New York Dolls reference on that girl’s chest. Axel displays some wary enthusiasm in those margins, seemingly aware of the unprepossessing object in our hands (Bernard being his wife’s teenage cousin), but full of promise for future issues of the series – four completed scripts and fifty fully formed plots just waiting to be realized – which Axel claims will bring with them both new artists and possible controversy, his work potent enough to place him in the crosshairs of both the CIA and lynch mobs; that’s the kind of bombast to do Stan proud, but you suspect Axel isn’t joking.
Beyond The Protectors, Axel reels off an assortment of other concepts in the works from New York Comics (Axel), among them parodies of both Watchmen (down to the house ad – gotta respect that) and (you betcha) the Ninja Turtles. (“The Unborn Nuclear Wasted Punk Rock Fetuses” – Axel also expresses concern over the political fervor this may rile up; I suspect it’s a Takashi Nemoto joint by now.) Breathe in these pages and the quarter-decade between then and now just falls away…
As a thirty-two page consumer object, yeah, it’s pretty miserable. Experienced in one hole-in-the-Old-Milwaukee-can dose, it’s a black hole of a thing, each page fading from memory mid-read, the prose bits below perhaps more articulate as a long series of sighs, abounding with undercurrents of disappointment, anxiety, and paranoia.
In controlled intermittent doses, pecking at it every now and again, certain charms do arise. There’s no avoiding that art, all its shabby desperate energy, with nearly every action stark against a vacuum – backgrounds almost moot, because any pretense to reality would be a pointless distraction. Whatever ineptitude one wishes to ascribe to it, there’s no lack of immediacy, every frame a decisive exclamation point, the scenario it’s illustrating lagging far far behind in urgency.
Of course, you’d be stretching (tremendously) to consider it as a visceral primitivist bit of ingenuity or heta-uma posturing to provoke the prevailing sense of propriety. No, it’s all adolescent energy, raw power in lieu of talent, a boy wielding a meager pencil to kick your ass, and who can’t respect that? It’s disheartening to see it constrained by Axel’s limp and hazy kinda-sorta superhero framework – what this fucker really needs is an imagination to match, one both impoverished and frenzied, maybe with a livewire background of loose leaf blue lines as a the back ground. Bernard, appropriately, abandoned The Protectors after this premiere issue, following his own muse of with a book called Dragon World – however passionately wrought that comic was, I don’t think it ever saw print. But hey, as the opening chapters of Brian Chippendale’s Ninja can attest to, wondrous eldritch fruit can be borne from such adolescent exuberance. Are you reading this, Picture Box?
New York Comics (and, ergo, Axel) went on to produce two more comics: The Protectors #2 (art by Steve Bloomenthal, according to Axel in that commentary; I can’t verify it) and Washmen (with Alan White). And that was that. Maybe, the world did come down on Axel, that second issue’s provocative subject matter (per Axel: “…another possible story to the Libian [sic] crisis, one which shows Ron Reagan in a most unattractive light…”) deemed too subversive to let pass. Or, far more likely, New York Comics ended up another company whose ambitions were trounced by a lack of funding, talent, and/or market demand. Either way, we were left with a few more artifacts from the distant and strange land of the past.
“The Last Of The Summer Wine” from Doing The Islands With Bacchus (Eddie Campbell Comics) by Eddie Campbell
(For Joe “The Tank” McCulloch)
But comics that aren’t about comics. Those exist, right?
Another item I recently picked up was Immortality Isn’t Forever, the first Bacchus collection. Bacchus (or Deadface, as the series was originally titled, the better presumably to make no waves in that milieu) was also an attempt to ride that B&W boom, though this I purchased in good faith, with no anthropological jollies to be satisfied. You can sense a wee bit of that in the first few issues, at least if you’re addicted to connecting works to their original context, the stories sparer and more rough and tumble, with a minimum quotient of thrillpower inserted in the hopes of sustaining a regular money maker. Campbell seemed to settle into a nice groove as the issues kept coming, his already present sensibility becoming more pronounced. In the next trade, The Gods Of Business, there’s a story which stands out as a personal favorite, the Stygian Leech episode, which uses the willfully silly motif of fourth-wall-breaking inanimate objects to build up to a rollicking action climax, etc.; it’s the joy of seeing a creator so confident in his storytelling and set up that he can move forward in the most ridiculous manner possible – I’d discuss it further, but that collection is in storage at the moment, far from my longing eyes. Bacchus would prove quite mutable thereon, the iffy approach to genre of the early books giving way to twee Jack Kirby (see: Hermes Vs. The Eyeball Kid; I’ve filched that indelible phrase from Craig Fischer, sorta) and the raucous pastiche of King Bacchus (Vol. 9; like those comic parodies which persistently pop up in Cerebus, but actually funny), among others.
Tonal shifts notwithstanding, Campbell remained Campbell, with a casual and distanced take on the fantastic, melodrama continually deflected into wry understatement – no prefab models of escapism to be found here. Humor, as ever, was rarely far off and sometimes even poignancy as well; a sense of play-acting seemed to permeate the stories, rarely going so far as direct metafiction (though Campbell occasionally tosses off a direct address to the readers, ala the Stygian Leech among others), but more like role-playing, a willingness for most of the characters to embrace their two-dimensionality, wallow in it. It’s a narrative style which reached something like an apex in one of Campbell’s more recent works, The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard.
Both the story at hand and the volume it comes from – Doing The Islands With Bacchus – stand apart especially. Having only read about half of the catalog, Doing The Islands is probably the quietest of the bunch, standing apart from the more-or-less plot-oriented volumes which surround it, no Mr. Dry or Eyeball Kid to butt up against. The book is a self-sufficient cycle of stories with only the most perfunctory acknowledgement of a plot – just Bacchus, his pal and devotee Simpson, and, on occasion, Hermes, sailing around the Mediterranean for some vague overall purpose. Within it, you’ll find inquiries into the history of fashion, the art of distilling wine, various forays into actual Greek mythology intermingled with some quite clever fictions on Campbell’s part, an orgy, theological musings, et cetera. At moments it seems very nearly an Alec book, albeit an Alec book displaced onto a bemused, weary, and wandering god. My pre-owned (natch) copy came soiled in some kind of liquid: coffee or piss or, hell, maybe even some alcohol, as if the previous owner felt such a gesture would prove a fitting bit of extratextual commentary, his or her own singular ex libris, one appropriate for the God of Carousing. Unlike the flop sweat The Protectors comes drenched in, this book wears its stains proudly.
And, among its contents, “The Last Of The Summer Wine” is the story with the most surface resemblance to Campbell’s other vast narrative body, every page holding tight to the nine panel grid with the captions above the images as the engine of the story, the panel-to-panel relationship defined less by action and more by association. To reiterate, nothing much happens – Bacchus and Hermes shoot the shit while Simpson glances at his own personal history and muses on the Greece of yore, its mythos and its men of knowledge, among sundry other topics. It’s not too hard to filter its scenario through Alec, particularly the chronologically earlier work, with Bacchus in lieu of Danny Grey, an older and less wild Danny but, as ever, pretty good for a story, and Simpson in the role of Campbell’s Alec on the sidelines, his thoughts elsewhere.
If most of the volume is driven by Campbell’s entertaining didactic impulse – a topic introduced and then elaborated upon via anecdote and/or direct example – “The Last Of The Summer Wine”, no less informative, foregoes that, opting for a more wide ranging discourse, leaping from idea to idea, reeling off lists and letting the images interplay with the prose. Simpson is our controlling consciousness here, the images his direct unfiltered thought and the prose his plain description. The arguable centerpiece is Simpson’s guided tour of the Greek pantheon, the main gods appearing on one page as a series of framed portraits – Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, et al. – the spotlight of posterity reinforced by the page’s punchline, the museum goers and a security guard revealed at the page’s bottom as the god’s current audience; this line of thought continues on to the next page: the lesser known gods stuck in the storage room, unseen heaps of haphazard canvases, supporting characters and footnotes for specialists. It’s a remarkable set piece in the matter-of-fact Campbell style, a promenade through the curios of the past which takes a sideways move into naturalism. And there are others catalogues of this sort, each with their own specific internal logic, if not quite as elaborate in their formal gamesmanship – the numerological weight of the number twelve, the Greek men of knowledge and renown, etc. There’s a flood of notions in these twenty-four pages, all those connections, sometimes obvious and sometimes curious, insidiously working their way into the reader’s mind and maybe lingering about for a bit. (Why is Anaxagoras represented by a gallon of milk?, etc.)
Of course, Simpson’s self-serious internal monologue gets a nice counterpoint courtesy of Bacchus at the story’s margins – his cheerful anecdotes of real-life moments when tragedy decided to don its comedy mask and his own appreciation of graven images of the gods unhindered by any rarefied atmosphere, via a tourist souvenir of himself ejaculating ouzo out of its erect penis.
The story is essayistic, but more expansive than the immediate definition which leaps to mind – the essay, when labeled as such, codified as a focused bit of pondering on a single topic. Here, the “I” and its attendant personality are very much at the forefront, making it more akin to (among others) W. G. Sebald, Chris Marker, or Montaigne, with both the rambling and digressive instincts thoroughly intact, so that a piece entitled “On Love” will encompass mostly love, but with horses, the Iliad, the fate of Mercutio in Romeo And Juliet, and whatever other topics crossed Montaigne’s mind as his pen dipped from inkstand to paper, up for discussion – don’t hold me to those specifics.
By the end it all accumulates into a song of mourning – just look at the title. The season of Greece has passed and what little of it remains will soon be wiped clean, with Bacchus nearing the end of his days (Immortality Isn’t Forever, natch) and Simpson, the self-appointed guardian of its memory, approaching death as well. But, for the moment, there’s still a bit of its taste to savor, as the final page attests to: our gang’s ship suddenly festooned with Bacchus’ vine leaves as it sails toward Naxos on a wine dark sea.