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.