Sunday, November 30, 2008

Comics Review: The Complete Popeye, Volume III: "Let's You and Him Fight", E. C. Segar

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The Complete Popeye, Volume III collects E. C. Segar's daily Thimble Theater strips from June 9, 1932 through December 9, 1933, the Sundays from October 9, 1932 through November 26, 1933, and a 1933 advertising insert featuring the Thimble Theater characters that promotes the 1934 World's Fair in Chicago. This collection doesn't have anything comparable to the absurdist highs of the Volume II strips. The satirical impulse behind the "One-Way Bank" and Nazilia-Tonsylania War storylines isn't as conspicuous. Segar's focus this time out is all but exclusively on slapstick and character comedy. He does it well, particularly with his handling of the Wimpy character, who dominates the Sunday strips featured here. Overall, though, the book doesn't quite escape the damning-with-faint-praise label "of largely historical interest".

However, it should be said that there is a great deal of historical interest present, particularly in "The Eighth Sea" sequence that covers Chapters I-III. The animators Max and Dave Fleischer licensed the Thimble Theater material for adaptation around the time these strips were originally published. "The Eighth Sea" gave them their recurring antagonist for Popeye: the bearded, musclebound sailor/pirate Bluto. It's not hard to see from these strips why the Fleischers and later animators chose to use Bluto as Popeye's perpetual nemesis. He's completely malevolent, he competes with Popeye for the same goals, and he's the only character who can hold his own with Popeye in a fight. The climactic brawl between the two takes up two full weeks of dailies. What's most surprising is that Segar, at least in this volume, never brings Bluto back. (Segar was certainly happy to include the spinach from this point on. Popeye's love for the vegetable--it gives him "strenk an' vitaliky"--first appears in this sequence as well, and it becomes a recurring element of the strip.) A good hero is almost always defined by a good villain. Bluto, who is so greedy that he steals the gold fillings from his henchmen's teeth, comes closer to being Popeye's antithesis than any other character.

Bluto (and spinach) aside, "The Eighth Sea" sequence is the strongest of the daily continuities in this volume. Segar structures it in distinct sections, all of which have their defining piece of slapstick. The story revolves around Popeye's quest to find Dooma, "a lost city of gold in an unknown sea." His journey is hampered by one complication after another. A "black Chinese parrot" is the only way of finding the island, but Popeye finds it quite uncooperative. It tells him to learn to speak English before trying to talk to it in Chinese. Olive Oyl insists on coming along, but Popeye won't hear of it. As they're not married, he feels she needs a "shappyroon" if she's to accompany him. Anyway, it's bad luck to have a woman along on a treasure hunt. His crew feel the same way, and after Olive forces Popeye to take her along (she parachutes onto his boat once it's at sea), he has to quell a mutiny. The battle royale with Bluto is the sequence's centerpiece scene. A good deal of time is also taken up with Merlock Jones, a stowaway detective who confounds the various characters with his mastery of disguise.

The satirical tack that distingushed the dailies in Volume II isn't entirely absent. Popeye returns to Nazilia at the end of "The Eighth Sea" adventure, and King Blozo is now flush with gold for the nation's treasury. Popeye tells him he should share it with the nation's citizens, a course of action that Blozo, despite his initial objections, eventually goes along with. But when every citizen receives the gold, they all choose to retire and live a life of luxury. The country of course grinds to a complete halt, with the citizenry complaining, "How can we spend the gold you gave us? All the stores and shops are closed. There ain't no place open." The Nazilia sequence also features some sharp absurdist bits, such as the time Blozo decides to give a condemned prisoner clemency. The callousness on display is hilarious:

KING BLOZO: Well, if you haven't already cut off his head, why, don't cut it off--I've changed my mind.
EXECUTIONER: I think you're just trying to save my sixty-cent fee--you know my business has been bad--please let me execute him.
KING BLOZO: You say you need that fee to buy shoes for your kid?
KING BLOZO: Oh, all right--go ahead.

It just isn't right to pay people unless they earn their keep.

The continuity that follows the initial sequence on Nazilia is disappointing. Popeye convinces King Blozo to let him have a neighboring island on which he can found his own country of Popilania. The text panel that introduces the story raises hopes that the story will reach the satirical heights of the Nazilia-Tonsylania War storyline. It describes Popilania as a utopia where "trouble will be unknown" and "spinach will be the national crop," but it gets bogged down with Popeye's dealings with a prelapsarian native population. A war with the nation of Cuspidor seems to mine the same vein of humor as the Nazilia-Tonsylania conflict, and the competition between Popeye and King Blozo for Nazilia's citizenry just seems frivolous, if not outright juvenile. Some humor hasn't worn well over the decades. Jokes about attracting single young men with comely brides who don't speak a word of their language now seem fairly gross.

The bright spot of the Popilania sequence is the addition of Wimpy to the daily strip's cast. The storyline highlights what an articulate and well-mannered coward he is. He's refreshingly straightforward in his insights, such as when he describes a diplomat as "a person who gives the worst sort of deal in a nice way." He's also quite honest about himself. Popeye berates him for abandoning Olive Oyl to the natives, and when Wimpy is asked why he replies, quite simply, "Self-preservation." Wimpy's insistence on good manners leads to some delightful moments as well. Popeye brutally insults a soldier in the Popilanian army, and Wimpy will have none of it:

WIMPY: You mustn't talk like that--do you want to hurt our army's feelings? Shame upon you!
POPEYE: Aw, pipe down!
WIMPY: There... there now, Mr. Shultz... don't you cry. Everything will be all right.

There's never any excuse for poor manners.

Wimpy really comes into his own in this volume's Sunday strips. Segar's treatment of him in the volume's dailies highlight other aspects of the character. But considered against the Sundays, they're just the icing on the cake. The Sundays feature him in all his mooching glory. Wimpy is always trying to cadge food out of the proprietor of the local diner. He constantly makes his classic promise, "I would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger to-day." This is often accompanied by the less well-known "I want you to come to my house sometime for a duck dinner--you bring the ducks." His battery of tricks for getting food knows no shame. He steals fish from the city aquarium, and when he takes a job as a waiter, he can't resist temptation long enough to serve the customers' orders. He can't even follow through on a small act of charity. He buys a homeless man a hamburger and then eats the sandwich off the poor fellow's plate. Wimpy is sloth and selfishness incarnate, but the comic force of the character comes from his complete obliviousness to how self-centered he is. There's nothing the least bit self-conscious about him, and his shamelessness makes him oddly endearing.

It's hard to tell from this volume if there's a tension on Segar's part about which approach to stories he feels most comfortable with. Farce and slapstick are the strip's foundation, but he seems to be pulling back from the sharp satirical approach that's distinguished the best of his work so far. It's possible, though, that the volume reflects something a dry run. The final two daily continuities, which feature Popeye's adventures as a reporter and then as an amnesiac trying to take care of the baby Swee'Pea, are rather dull reads. Segar's reputation as a cartoonist is most based on the work in the years that followed this material--strips from 1936 through 1938 in particular seem the basis of his stature--and the work in this volume, though uneven, certainly doesn't dissuade one's anticipation of it.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Comics Review: Love and Rockets: New Stories #1, Gilbert Hernandez, Jaime Hernandez, and Mario Hernandez

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The first issue of Love and Rockets: New Stories, the latest incarnation of the showcase anthology periodical for Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez's work, finds them both at a low ebb.

Gilbert, in particular, appears to be just blowing off steam. Since the previous Love and Rockets series ended last year, he's completed a full-length graphic novel in Speak of the Devil, and it's easy to see the nine pieces he contributes to this issue as fun-to-draw, for-the-hell-of-it efforts meant to recharge his batteries. They include three oddball strips in the daily-newspaper format, a goofy funny-animal story featuring a gambling kangaroo, and a madcap tribute to Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis imitators Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo, done up in the sort of story one might expect in the DC Comics Martin & Lewis series from the 1960s. The experimental piece "?" plays around with aspect-to-aspect panel progressions and Caligari-style surrealistic distortions. "Victory Dance" is apparently a send-off for Juan Julio, a featured character of Gilbert's in the last Love and Rockets series. The most interesting moment in the piece is the ending, which arbitrarily ties into the ending of another story. "Papa" is a meandering effort that looks like it could intersect with the Palomar material but never does. These strips aren't much of a read, but they fly by quickly enough, and Gilbert's cartooning is as energetic and expressive as ever.

"Chiro el Indio," which Gilbert cartooned from his brother Mario's script, is the most entertaining story in the issue. Set in what appears to be a 19th-century Central American village, it's an amusing slapstick piece that pits traditional Latino Indian religion against the governing Roman Catholic faith. The main characters are the forever squabbling Indian couple Chiro el Indio and Preciosa, and much of the story revolves around their arguments over who will bring rain if prayed to: the "Beer Hen" Mary or Quetzaquatl, divine king of the Toltacs. The central joke is that everyone defines his or her life through religion without having anything resembling a spiritual connection to it. The various characters--the impulsive, high-strung Chiro, the cynical-but-gullible Preciosa, Chiro's sexpot "savage" sidekick Moom-Fah, the randy monsignor, and the exasperated town mayor--show comic potential that would seem to go beyond this one short, and one looks forward to Mario and Gilbert doing more with them.

The story that dominates the issue--it takes up half of the hundred pages--is Jaime's "Ti-Girls Adventures No. 34." It's a remarkably vapid strip that reimagines the superhero genre with Jaime's standard-issue fantasy girlfriend characters. Jaime's central flaw as a cartoonist is that he doesn't really write stories; he commits his daydreams to paper. (He may load them up with grit and angst, but they're daydreams nonetheless.) His pieces are rarely worked out in terms of dramatic conflicts or narrative effects; one thing just happens after another, and the reader's interest is largely defined by how much one shares Jaime's infatuation with the girls he depicts. I quit finding the ding-a-ling behavior of late teenage girls charming somewhere in my mid-20s, when my hormones cooled down enough to look at them and not fight the temptation to drool. Jaime's pushing 50, and he still hasn't gotten over them. His delight is palpable in moments like the one when two girls are putting on make-up and happily exclaim, "Oh, look at us. We're so gonna look like whores." And he's obsessed with their bodies; he rarely indulges in drawing overt cheesecake, but one can tell he's thought out every aspect of their figures and poses, and with a big grin on his face the entire time. I have no doubt his favorite visual detail in the story is how one girl's skin-tight top keeps riding up over her belly. "Ti-Girls" seems like a complete waste of time, largely because it doesn't feature much of the well-observed social detail that helps one through the "Locas" material. It also doesn't have any characters like Izzy Reubens or Terry Downe, who have an urgency for Jaime that snaps him out of his daydream mode and compels him to think like a proper storyteller. "Ti-Girls" is just a jokey good-girl superhero piece, and it evaporates while one is reading it. The story's supposed to continue in the next issue, but I doubt anyone will care if Jaime drops it in favor of something else.

It must be said that Jaime's art is phenomenally good, though. I prefer Gilbert's looser, more expressive style, but Jaime's draftsmanship is just astonishing. As impatient as I get with his story material, there's no denying the skill and sophistication of his visual treatment. His sense of black-and-white design is peerless, as is his precision with delineating character expression and gestures. The action is clear and uncluttered, and there's not a lapse anywhere in the drawing of figures or settings. So much ability that so little worthwhile is done with. Jaime is alternative comics' answer to Alex Toth, another masterful cartoon dramatist who wouldn't have known a good story if it hugged him.

A number of reviewers have observed that Love and Rockets: New Stories harkens back to Gilbert and Jaime's earliest efforts at the start of the 1980s--pieces like "BEM" or the Maggie the Mechanic material. There may be something to that; the key difference with Jaime's "Ti-Girls" piece, at least, is that the execution is much more polished. But the Hernandezes' reputation was built on their expanding comics' capacity for handling extended realist narratives. They may have gone as far with that as they can go--it's always possible the realistic material might stop having expressive urgency for them. But one hopes the first issue of the New Stories doesn't signal a new direction for their work. It's hard to feel they're doing anything here besides spinning their wheels, which is guaranteed to get everyone nowhere fast.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Comics Review: Saga of the Swamp Thing [Book 1], Alan Moore, Stephen Bissette, and John Totleben

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

It’s funny how time overtakes perceptions of things. Twenty-odd years ago, when Alan Moore first came to prominence, the Swamp Thing series he wrote between 1983 and 1987 was considered his signature work, with projects like Watchmen treated like tangential undertakings. There was even a concerted effort on the part of Moore’s principal publisher, DC Comics, to distinguish Moore from the renaissance in comics he spearheaded with creators such as Art Spiegelman and Frank Miller. With the help of journalists in the mainstream U.S. press--Rolling Stone's Mikal Gilmore is the name that immediately comes to mind--they tried to create the perception that Moore, like prose author Clive Barker, actually should be considered part of the avant-garde in horror fiction.

Today, Moore isn’t seen as a horror writer at all. He is firmly identified with comics and graphic novels in the publishing community, with Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and From Hell seen as his major efforts. Critics by and large view him as a versatile postmodernist who specializes in deconstructive treatments of the superhero genre. His reputation has all but entirely eclipsed that of figures like Clive Barker, and Swamp Thing’s stature has faded as well.

The ebbing of its reputation is not entirely undeserved. Swamp Thing was undertaken as a journeyman assignment by Moore, and the editorial demands of adventure-comics series demanded that he reconcile his material with the work of the writers and cartoonists who preceded him on the feature. The creative personnel who followed him were also free to modify the concepts he introduced as they saw fit. As such, Swamp Thing has less of a stand-alone quality than any major project he’s worked on. By his own account, it wasn’t even a job he was terribly enthused about at the time. But it still deserves to be considered a major work in the artistically modest superhero genre. (Swamp Thing is not what one would comfortably call horror fiction; it is best described as a superhero series that occasionally employs horror-genre elements.) The episodes are finely crafted suspense pieces, and in terms of its values, it is perhaps the warmest, most humanistic work ever seen in adventure comics.

Moore’s initial goal in taking over the series was to get out from under the conceptual baggage that had dogged it since its first publication in 1972. As created by writer Len Wein and illustrator Bernie Wrightson, Swamp Thing was originally a scientist named Alec Holland. He had been working with his wife Linda in a swamp laboratory on a "bio-restorative" formula that was intended to speed up rates of crop growth. Saboteurs shot Linda and attempted to kill Holland by blowing him up in his lab. Holland was doused with the formula during the explosion, and, on fire, he ran running into the swamp waters. Some time later, he emerged metamorphosed into a humanoid plant monster. The series followed his adventures while he sought the people responsible for his wife's murder. He was also looking for a way of metamorphosing back into Alec Holland's human body. Moore, by his own account, was not impressed by the premise. His opinion of it was best summed up during a 2005 BBC interview (transcript here):

The whole thing that the book hinged upon was there was this tragic individual who is basically like Hamlet covered in snot. He just walks around feeling sorry for himself. That's understandable, I mean I would too, but everybody knows that his quest to regain his lost humanity, that's never going to happen. Because as soon as he does that the book finishes.

Moore's first order of business in taking over the series was to find a way of writing the character's adventures that didn't rely on this pathos.

Saga of the Swamp Thing, the first of six volumes collecting Moore’s run on the series, begins by revising Swamp Thing’s origin. The character’s fixation on finding a way to turn back into his human incarnation is treated as denial of what happened. In Moore’s treatment, Swamp Thing was never physically Alec Holland. The doctor’s consciousness had been absorbed by plant-life mutated by his formula when it consumed his body. The Swamp Thing’s body was simply that consciousness’s effort to reconstitute itself as Holland. The volume’s seven episodes follow the character’s efforts to come to terms with this reality and embrace the happiness to be found in his present circumstances, particularly his friendship with a young woman named Abby Cable.

Moore had to develop this narrative idea in the context of adventure material, so he begins by treating the episodes’ antagonists as counterpoints to the personality-ideal he has devised for the hero. The initial episode, titled “The Anatomy Lesson,” is centered on the characters of General Sunderland and Dr. Jason Woodrue. In the episodes previous to Moore’s run, Sunderland’s interest in the alleged transformative aspects of Holland’s “bio-restorative” formula has led him to try to capture Swamp Thing for study. Just prior to the events of “The Anatomy Lesson,” Sunderland’s men had apparently killed Swamp Thing in a shoot-out, with the body being brought back to Sunderland's headquarters. Woodrue was then hired to determine exactly how Holland’s transformation occurred. Moore immediatey sets Woodrue and Sunderland up for conflict. They are both exceptionally unpleasant and self-absorbed egomaniacs who prefer to deal with other people as little as possible. They naturally can’t stand each other, and Woodrue ultimately decides to kill Sunderland in response to the older man's belittling treatment. Moore expertly orchestrates this narrative strand with that of Woodrue’s gradual discovery of Swamp Thing’s true origin. The tension he builds is extraordinary. When Sunderland’s murder finally comes, it hits with the force of a crescendo. But what’s most horrifying about the climax is not the circumstances of Sunderland’s death. It’s the realization of how vicious a personality Woodrue is. The story is ultimately a portrait of a genuinely evil person.

Moore expands on the negative ideal he creates with Woodrue in the subsequent episodes. Swamp Thing suffers a catatonic breakdown after learning the truth about himself. His metaphysical journey back to sanity runs parallel to the scenes of Woodrue’s descent into psychotic megalomania. Woodrue identifies himself more and more with what he sees as the concerns of the world’s plant life, and when he finally goes insane, he regards himself as “"Wood-rue, green messiah [...] annihilating agent of the thorns." He sees it as his calling to avenge humanity’s despoiling of the environment, and having the ability to control plant life, he goes on a murderous rampage through a local town. (In his climactic moment of madness, he threatens a woman with a chainsaw, telling her, “"Close your eyes and shout 'Timber.'") Woodrue's every action is guided by his need for self-aggrandizement and his willingness to subjugate others through violence. Like all real-life villains, he’s a hero in his own mind, and it’s satisfying to see him brought down when it’s impressed upon him that his actions are entirely selfish and work against the plant kingdom he thinks he's championing. Swamp Thing, in contrast, doesn’t view himself as a hero; he just acts like one. He is always shown as selflessly concerned about the needs of others, and he helps in any way he can. He’s oblivious to achieving glory. Moore highlights the difference between Woodrue and Swamp Thing with a pair of images. When Woodrue insanely believes he’s found his messianic calling, he reaches to the sky in triumph. Swamp Thing does the same after he comes to terms with the truth about himself. It signifies how happy he is with his circumstances now that he's accepted them. It's a potent reversal of meaning--an uplifting moment of fulfillment versus a sick, twisted one--and it makes for a fitting ending to the Woodrue story.

The collection’s final three episodes develop a complement to Swamp Thing's personality with the character of Abby Cable; she enhances the positive traits Moore is setting up for him. An easy rapport between the two is quickly established, and Abby's empathy and altruism spurs his own along. The depiction of Abby and Swamp Thing dramatizes how a friendship brings out the best in both people. One only wishes the thriller story that showcases their relationship was more imaginatively realized. It centers on the autistic children with whom Abby works being threatened by a supernatural force, and it follows the basic reactionary structure of most superhero and horror stories: a threat emerges, and then it is contained. Fantastic elements are ladled on, such as a demon ally against the threat who speaks in rhymes of iambic pentameter, but none of these feel particularly integral. The best part of the plot is its resolution: an autistic boy’s affection for Abby is what defeats the threat to the children. Evil is defeated by transcending oneself and reaching out through one’s regard for others.

Like virtually all of Moore’s work, this volume’s seven episodes are exceptionally well-crafted. He makes deft use of flashbacks, parallel plotting, and elliptical structures, and his pacing is nothing short of remarkable. He often uses narrative captions to move the story forward, but his use of them goes far beyond accompanying the pictures with text. He creates a dynamic interplay between the words and images, and the effect is like listening to a masterfully played duet between two musical instruments. Each makes the other's contribution more effective, and the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. The artwork, by Stephen Bissette and John Totleben (with occasional assistance from Rick Veitch) almost doesn’t need this heightening. The layouts create dynamic contrasts of their own, and the attention to detail in character gestures and facial expressions is exceptional. These strengths are only exceeded by their atmospheric realization of the swamp setting. Gorgeously rendered images of greenery and fauna abound, and they’re integrated seamlessly with the story’s action. Everything seems organic and interdependent, and given Moore’s emphasis on self-realization through embracing one’s circumstances, the art is ideal for the stories they illustrate. Saga of the Swamp Thing is modest in its goals, but it achieves many of them masterfully. And while it doesn't rate consideration as one of Moore's finest achievements, it does provide some of the most enjoyable reading out there for fans of the superhero genre.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Comics Review: Superman: "For the Man Who Has Everything," Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Alan Moore’s 1980s superhero stories are frequently constructed around critiques of the superhero genre. They take an especially cutting view of the escapist and nostalgic impulses that are typical of superhero protagonists. When confronted with a character who seems devoted to a rosy view of the past, often in rejection of one’s present circumstances, Moore’s response is to pull the rug out from under that character’s fantasies. His 1985 Superman story, “For the Man Who Has Everything...,” produced in collaboration with Watchmen artist Dave Gibbons, is perhaps his most overt use of this thematic approach. (The story was originally published in Superman Annual #11 (1985). It has been reprinted in the collection DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore.)

The story’s taking-off point is Superman’s birthday. Batman, Wonder Woman, and a novice replacement Robin named Jason Todd meet outside the Fortress of Solitude, Superman’s Arctic retreat. Once inside, they discover a catatonic Superman with a strange plant wrapped around his chest. It’s gradually revealed that the plant immerses anyone it bonds with in a fantasy of their heart’s desire. It is part of an attack on Superman by an alien villain. The scenes in the Fortress of Solitude are intercut with Superman’s imagining of his life on his home planet of Krypton if it had never exploded.

Like Snoopy in his daydream battles with the Red Baron, Superman finds no satisfaction in his fantasy world. He’s content with his imagined wife and children, but his being the son of Jor-El undermines his happiness. The fantasy Jor-El, once Krypton’s leading scientist, was permanently discredited when his predictions that Krypton would explode turned out wrong. He’s become a reactionary crank and radical-group leader who’s estranged from most of his family, and he castigates his son for being a terrible disappointment to him. Worse, Jor-El’s invention of the Phantom Zone banishment for criminals decades earlier is viewed by many as a means of torture. As a result, a fringe protest group has targeted members of Jor-El’s family for violent attacks. After Superman’s cousin is hospitalized after an assault, he and his family are forced to flee the city where they live. The heart’s desire of Krypton’s survival becomes a nightmare.

Moore constructs the story so that engagement with the circumstances of one’s present life constitutes a triumph. On the one hand, Superman cannot escape the villain’s clutches until he rejects the fantasy of Krypton’s survival. On the other hand, the villain is defeated by the one character who consistently engages with the reality around him, no matter what anxieties or frustrations it holds. Superman isn’t the hero of “For the Man Who Has Everything...” The Jason Todd Robin is. Moore opens the story by showing how intimidated Jason is by everything he encounters. He doesn’t know what to make of Wonder Woman’s brief outfit, he feels embarrassed by his failure to remember one of Superman’s powers, and he’s all but unnerved by Superman’s catatonia and the alien’s attack. But he ultimately overcomes his fears. Through his own initiative, he manages to contain the alien plant, and it is he who defeats the alien villain. He lacks the older heroes’ assurance and skill, but he’s not hobbled by their illusions, either. His courage and determination allow him to take advantage of a serendipitous moment and prevail.

The story’s moral about the desirability of rejecting fantasy outlets is a pleasant one, but it feels a little too pat in execution. In a rather heavy-handed metaphor, Moore has Batman’s birthday present, a specially-bred rose called the Krypton, crushed underfoot during the battle with the alien. When Superman is told, he says, “Perhaps it’s for the best.” And Moore isn’t able to create enough emotional resonance with the scenario to make it feel like much more than a better-than-average superhero story.

On the other hand, I appreciated Moore’s implicit view of Superman as someone who cannot avoid being dissatisfied with what life presents him. This is what led him to fetishize a homeworld he never knew, and it’s what enables to him to escape the alien’s fantasy prison. Moore underscores Superman's inevitable dissatisfaction with his circumstances during the exchange between him and Wonder Woman in the story’s epilogue. She kisses him, and he replies with, “Mmm. Why don’t we do that more often?” She jokes that it would be too predictable, to which he resignedly says, “You’re probably right.” Something in him resists real-life happiness when it presents itself. (One can read this tendency in his traditionally frustrated romance with Lois Lane.) In real life, it’s a psychological block characteristic of adolescents, and it represents something to grow out of. It’s fitting that Moore, whose work with costumed heroes has done the most to transcend the genre's adolescent appeal, should be the one to highlight, however subtly, the presence of that tendency in one of the greatest adolescent fantasy figures of all.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Comics Review: The Complete Popeye, Volume II: "Well, Blow Me Down", E. C. Segar

This review originally appeared on Pol Culture.

The second volume of The Complete Popeye contains E. C. Segar's Thimble Theater dailies from December 22, 1930 to June 8, 1932, and the Sunday strips from March 1, 1931 to October 2, 1932. The first volume in the series was entertaining, but it was largely of historical interest. This second collection is something more. One can see Segar gradually developing the characters for which the feature is famous. Two of the daily continuities are of special interest: Chapter II's "A One-Way Bank," and the Nazilia-Tonsylania War in Chapters III-V. The sequence set in Nazilia (no pun was intended with the country's name) is the better-realized of the two, but both have moments of brilliant absurdist satire, and both are worthy of the considerable stature Segar's work on Thimble Theater enjoys.

At the beginning of the "A One-Way Bank" sequence, Popeye, Olive Oyl, and Castor Oyl have each received a $50,000 reward for breaking up a cattle-rustling ring. Apart from having money for pipe tobacco and a place to sleep, Popeye doesn't need the reward--he'll just blow it on craps games. So he decides to open a "one-way" bank for poor people. He reasons that people with money have banks where they can cash checks, so people with no money should have banks where they can cash checks, too. This is Segar's description of the concept:

Money goes one way only--out! No more hard times--every town should have one! Success is certain because everybody will patronize this bank! A run will be considered good business!

A bank that serves poor people instead of the rich--"no millionaires allowed unless busted"--is an inspired satirical concept. It turns the usurious function of banks inside out, and it highlights the fact that a bank is not a beneficial enterprise. One can see the idea of the "one-way bank" having considerable satirical resonance during the Great Depression, when banking follies wiped out people's savings and left millions destitute. It's also germane today, when banks are accepting hundreds of billions in emergency taxpayer funds to ostensibly thaw out credit markets, but are actually using the money to finance acquisitions, pay shareholder dividends, and bolster cash reserves--credit markets be damned. A bank treats it as better to receive than to give. Segar emphasizes the unjustness of such an ethos by positing the idea of a bank that does the opposite.

Segar uses the "one-way bank" as the springboard for a number of hilariously absurd moments. Popeye wonders if the other banks will resent him because he'll be getting lots of business by giving money away. Castor Oyl angrily responds, "Let 'em get sore! What do we care! Everybody for themselves is my motto." When Popeye goes to a landlord to negotiate rent for the operation, the landlord calls him cheap for wanting to pay less than the asking amount, but Popeye has become so conceited with the idea of his generosity that he responds by paying the landlord double. The bank begins disappointingly: there are no customers because none of the local poor population can believe it's for real. And once things get going, Popeye has to put up a no-kissing sign after a female customer gets overly demonstrative with her gratitude. Remember, he's into giving, not receiving. The "one-way bank" is a rich source of humor for Segar, but one wishes he'd been able to build the ideas in the sequence to a climax. The second half depicts a series of scams that wipe the "one-way bank" out. While it's amusing on a moment-to-moment basis, the satire is nowhere as sharp as it is in the first half. The story starts strongly and peters out.

The shapelessness of the narrative structure in "A One-Way Bank" is probably attributable to the daily-strip format. The strips were meant to be read a day at a time, rather than as a whole in one sitting, and Segar's main concern was undoubtedly to make the daily episodes amusing in themselves. Effectively developing them into a larger story wasn't his main priority. But the strength of the premise leads one to expect a comically explosive resolution to Popeye's folly. It's hard to imagine that the people who read the episodes as they were originally published weren't disappointed with the conclusion, where one discovers the bank's failure when Popeye asks another character for some pocket money. Segar seems to need a story foundation where narrative development and climax are beside the point, one where things only a matter on a moment-to-moment basis.

The extended Nazilia-Tonsylonia War continuity gives him that foundation, and it's by far the most successful section of The Complete Popeye's first two volumes. The outcome of the story is irrelevant. No one knows how the war that provides the setting has started. One also doesn't sense anything will change when it ends. The narrative is free to proceed arbitrarily. The premise simply gives Segar the opportunity to play the conceits and pretentiousness of military and government leaders off Popeye's no-nonsense personality, and to exploit the setting and characters for absurdity. King Blozo is a fretful, excessively ceremonious ruler who, among other things, is embarrassed that the war is making him a laughingstock to other countries--it's been going on for six months, and not a shot has been fired. The soldiers fight for the distinction of being called the biggest coward. The head of the armed forces, General Bunzo, is an egomaniacal Napoleon wannabe with whom Popeye gets into a perpetual battle of wills. At one point, he says to Popeye, "My man, do you know you made a jackass of me?," and Popeye replies, "I didn't make you a jackass--I jus' proved you are one." Bunzo harbors dreams of assassinating Blozo and assuming the throne, but when Blozo tries to abdicate at one point and gives him the crown, he recognizes the mess he's inheriting and hands the crown over to a subordinate. (Nobody wants to be king, and the crown keeps getting handed off until it's being worn by a dog.) Segar scores off the setting and the characters with one comic high note after another. His absurdist treatment of government and military folly ranks with Dr. Strangelove and Duck Soup.

The evolution of the feature toward its classic incarnation is apparent throughout the volume. Of the strip's three original principals--Castor Oyl, Olive Oyl, and Ham Gravy--only Olive Oyl remains as a regular character. Ham Gravy is entirely absent from this collection. Castor Oyl disappears from the Sundays in June of 1931, and from the dailies that August. Castor, who commanded center stage through much of the first volume, disappears so quietly that one wonders if Segar got so caught up with other aspects of the strip that he just forgot about him. (One also wonders if there were significant reader inquiries about him at the time. Castor receives a brief mention in December of 1931 that explains his absence, and then he isn't heard from again for the remainder of this volume.) Popeye is the main character throughout, with Olive Oyl joining him as a love interest and ultimately supplanting Castor as a constant foil. One also sees new characters of prominence emerge, such as King Blozo, General Bunzo, and, most notably, the well-spoken, hamburger-loving moocher Wimpy.

One also sees trends emerging in Segar's treatment of the Sunday and daily material. The differences go beyond the Sunday installments being self-contained narratives. The dailies seem more varied even within their continuities. The Sundays invariably use one of two premises: Popeye's efforts to win Olive's favor by promising to swear off brawling (he never succeeds in keeping his word), and Popeye's boxing matches. The Sundays are also far more dependent than the dailies on the spectacle of slapstick violence. (That's not to say the dailies don't feature a great deal of fighting, but they aren't defined by it to the degree the Sundays are.) There is an aesthetic justification for the disparity: the Sundays allow for greater visual opportunities. There's more space, the art is printed larger, and there's more compositional freedom. The Sunday panels are far less crowded and constricted than the dailies, and Segar takes advantage of it to indulge his genius for action choreography. Segar's fight sequences are second only to those of the great superhero-adventure cartoonist Jack Kirby. They are beautifully realized ballets of movement and energy--comic-strip slapstick at its best.

Despite the effectiveness of the Sunday visuals, as well as the strength of the Nazilia sequence and moments from "A One-Way Bank," one isn't entirely convinced that the stature of Thimble Theater is justified--at least not from the work in this volume and its predecessor. The characters' resonance is comic, not emotional, and the effectiveness of the strip is entirely dependent on Segar's inventiveness. He hasn't quite broken through to the fecund, anything-goes anarchy that one would think marks the epitome of his style of humor. But the work in this collection is considerably stronger than the material in the first, and the occasionally inspired quality raises one's hopes. A part of me has often wondered whether E.C. Segar deserves banishment to Woody Allen's Academy of the Overrated, but the more I see, the more I'm sure he doesn't. I look forward to the subsequent volumes.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Comics Review: Black Hole, Charles Burns

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Charles Burns’ graphic novel Black Hole, completed in 2005, replicates many of the tropes and conventions of North American horror films from between the mid-1970s and mid-1980s. One sees the same emphasis on teenage protagonists, the use of horrific material as a metaphor for adolescent anxieties, and the superficially secure suburban setting of John Carpenter’s Halloween combined with the primeval woodlands setting of the Friday the 13th franchise. David Cronenberg employed physical disease as a metaphor for alienation in his films of the period (all were horror genre pieces), and Burns does as well. However, Burns’ approach is not sensationalistic: the horror elements aren’t there to shock an audience. Instead, he brings the subtexts of those elements to the forefront, and uses them to create a poetic narrative about adolescent alienation.

The story's setting is ostensibly the Seattle suburbs during the mid-1970s. There are a number of characters, but the main focus is the different but occasionally intersecting lives of Chris Rhodes and Keith Pearson. Chris seemingly has everything going for her: she’s a beautiful, popular, straight-A student. Keith, on the other hand, at first appears far more poorly adjusted. He’s shy around girls, and he’s fed up with his friends. All they do on their own time is smoke, drink, and do drugs. But Keith’s heart isn’t in it, and he’s almost desperate to find a new direction for his life. As one of his friends says to him, “You always want to be somewhere else.” As it turns out, Chris behaves as self-destructively as Keith and his friends do: for her, all life has to offer away from school is smoking, getting intoxicated, and casual sex.

Burns takes care to show that the hedonism reflects a need for the kids to make contact with one another. It’s a social activity. He also recognizes the irony of their actions. Intoxication in particular has the effect of making one more psychologically isolated than ever. Burns dramatizes this in small ways and large ones. In one scene, a girl who smokes cigarettes to socialize finds that it cuts her off from her friends. They’re in front of a mirror in a public bathroom talking while, unbeknownst to them, she’s partitioned away smoking in a stall, using the cigarette to lose herself in her thoughts. In another scene, a girl wistfully describes Quaaludes as “the perfect buzz. You just sit there and don’t give a shit about nothin’.” When her troubles catch up with her, and she breaks down crying, she screams at a person who comes up to her to leave her alone. Keith permanently dumps his friends when he walks up to talk to one and finds the fellow so high that he’s completely oblivious. Keith’s description of him:
His face had changed. The skin was all pulled back in a horrible grin and his teeth were showing. Suddenly his body started shaking and he let out an awful barking sound. It took me a while to realize he was laughing.
Burns emphasizes with this and other moments that getting intoxicated ultimately comes at the expense of one’s humanity. One can’t connect with others, and one ultimately loses touch with oneself.

There is a second, smaller community of teenagers outside of the high school students. They live in the woods, and they are all in the advanced stages of a venereal disease. Early on, Burns shows them sitting around a campfire roasting hot dogs, and he renders the fire-cooked frankfurters so that they resemble penises with running sores. The metaphor points up a similarity between the disease and herpes, and like herpes, it doesn’t appear to be a direct threat to the sufferer’s long-term health. Someone who is afflicted just becomes disfigured; the signs of the disease are benign sarcomas, permanent rashes, and molting or permanently withered skin. In the two oddest instances, the disease leads to the development of a small tail and a vestigial second mouth. In narrative terms, the disease is a metaphor for adolescent anxiety about sex: the terror of how having it signifies that one is making the transition from childhood to being an adult. A girl who manifests the disease on her back (where she can keep it hidden) looks at her face in the mirror thinking, “I shouldn’t look like this. I look normal but I’m not. I’m a monster.”

Teenage sex is viewed as ultimately as alienating as the drugs and alcohol; in fact, it’s portrayed as a later symptom of the same anomie. The disease speaks to the terror of having had it, and through Keith’s point of view, Burns creates one unsettling visual metaphor after another for his anxiety over not having it: the chest incision into a biology-class dissecting frog, a cut on a girl’s foot, the tear through which a disease victim has shed a skin layer like a snake—all are deliberately rendered as vaginal imagery. The anxiety is so emotionally disruptive for Keith and the other characters that they employ drugs and alcohol as a catalyst for sex. The only rapport is shared intoxication; there’s little or no emotional connection between lovers.

Burns doesn’t treat sex as inherently unhealthy; he simply recognizes that the self-absorbed milieu perverts it. The impulses of goodwill upon which strong emotional relationships are built are certainly present. Keith, who’s attracted to Chris, helps her tend a wound after she’s badly cut herself in the woods. He has to overcome his considerable squeamishness at the sight of blood, but he succeeds, and the act of helping her is genuinely fulfilling--he even looks at her blood on his hands as a sign of communion. In another scene, a girl who’s found the beginning of a rapport with a boy comforts him even after he reveals he’s upset over being rejected by another girl. “Shhh, of course there’s a girl,” she says to him. “It doesn’t matter.” However, despite his own attraction, the boy rejects her when he fears being with her will make him look uncool to his friends. Chris doesn’t respond to goodwill, either: her relationships with others are also predicated on glamour and looking cool. She’s oblivious to Keith despite his help, and later in the story, after she’s run away from home, she becomes dependent on a boy in the advanced stages of the disease. She rejects him as well, which being the latest in an unbroken string of emotional defeats for him, sets him off on a murderous rampage.

However, Burns doesn’t lapse here into the reactionary tendencies of the horror genre; he’s not creating a sympathetic monster through whom society rediscovers its communal values by destroying. He doesn’t go out of his way to make the murderer sympathetic; the killer is kept on the periphery of scenes throughout most of the book. And the fellow’s not a threat to people in the greater community; his only act of violence there, although over the top, is one of self-defense. His only victims are the other diseased residents of the woods, and his violence is just a later stage of the deterioration that alienation inflicts upon society. The group of disease victims in the woods is the only place where communal values of goodwill have reasserted themselves, and the killing spree destroys it. Those that survive disperse and flee to parts unknown, and Burns makes it clear--explicitly in some cases and implicitly in others--that they have nowhere worth going. At best, they are pursuing fantasies that will leave them lost and alone.

The book is masterfully executed. The dynamics of the story feel more poetic than dramatic. It doesn’t develop by emphasizing narrative conflict; Burns constructs the scenes by using the action to create powerfully resonant metaphors and epiphanies. These combine to create a narrative world of extraordinary emotional complexity. The story structure is remarkable, and so is Burns’ cartooning. His draftsmanship is excellent, and the hyper-controlled rendering of the art seems almost mechanical--it emphasizes the emotional sterility of the milieu. It also abstracts the horrific and violent elements to such a degree that one views them almost clinically; the imagery is fantastic at times, but it’s never shocking. A film version is in the works, and one can’t imagine how a cinematic depiction could treat Burns’ visuals without sensationalizing them; the book works because Burns’ medium is comics, not despite it. Black Hole is easily one of the most accomplished graphic novels to date.