Monday, March 22, 2010

Comics Review: Deitch's Pictorama, Kim Deitch, Simon Deitch, and Seth Callan Deitch

This is a revised version of a review first published in The Comics Journal #296. It first appeared online on Pol Culture.

Kim Deitch and his brothers team up in an ostensible effort to combine comics and prose fiction into a new form. But apart from an elegant autobiographical piece by Kim, the book never really comes together.

The five stories in this collection of work by Kim Deitch and his brothers Seth Deitch and Simon Kallan Deitch aren’t really comics; they are prose pieces that occasionally try to combine the two media. In his introduction, Kim writes that his ambition for the book was “to contribute toward a hybrid medium for graphic novels, better merging the written fiction and comics mediums [sic].” Kim’s “The Cop on the Beat,” which deftly mixes prose exposition with cartooned scenes and asides, is the only piece that succeeds in this regard. “The Sunshine Girl,” adapted by Kim from interviews with story protagonist Eleanor Whaley, handles the blending of media far more awkwardly. And “Unlikely Hours,” a prose story by Seth that Kim attempts to shoehorn into the format, would have been better served if it had been left alone. The interplay between prose and pictures often seems gimmicky. Worse, it frequently disrupts the flow of the story. “The Golem,” written by Seth with art by Simon, is an illustrated story in the traditional sense. Seth’s “Children of Aruf” is all but exclusively prose; the only illustration is Kim’s frontispiece.

The story quality is mixed. “The Cop on the Beat” is the best of them. It’s an autobiographical piece about an unrequited romance of Kim’s that shifts into a discussion of the musicians Kim loves from the 1920s and ‘30s. It ends with an amusing epiphany that ties the two parts of the story together. “Children of Aruf,” which imagines a world in which dogs can talk, is the most enjoyable of Seth’s contributions. “The Sunshine Girl” and “Unlikely Hours” are ostensibly autobiographical pieces (“as told to” with the former) that veer into wild fantasy, and they both have the same problem: the stories don’t effectively prepare the reader for the outlandish climaxes. This makes them seem absurd. “The Golem” recounts the Hebrew legend (in a Holy Land setting instead of Prague); its only distinction is in using shifting points of view to tell the familiar story.

The lettering in the book is a distracting flaw. Kim’s stories are both hand-lettered, and given the sloppiness, typesetting would have been preferable. There are numerous problems with baseline adherence, word spacing, and size consistency. The lettering also occasionally butts up against the pictures. These may seem like minor matters, but they make the book a needlessly bumpy ride.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Comics Review: Tales of the Green Lantern Corps: "Tygers," Alan Moore & Kevin O'Neill

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

This short journeyman piece from twenty-odd years ago is the inspiration for its publisher's most recent crossover-event project, but it still ranks among Alan Moore's ephemera.

While reading a recent interview with Alan Moore (click here), I was especially struck by these remarks:

It’s the paucity of imagination. I was noticing that DC seems to have based one of its latest crossovers [Blackest Night] in Green Lantern based on a couple of eight-page stories that I did 25 or 30 years ago. I would have thought that would seem kind of desperate and humiliating. When I have said in interviews that it doesn’t look like the American comic book industry has had an idea of its own in the past 20 or 30 years, I was just being mean. I didn’t expect the companies concerned to more or less say, “Yeah, he’s right. Let’s see if we can find another one of his stories from 30 years ago to turn into some spectacular saga.” It’s tragic. The comics that I read as a kid that inspired me were full of ideas. They didn’t need some upstart from England to come over there and tell them how to do comics. They’d got plenty of ideas of their own. But these days, I increasingly get a sense of the comics industry going through my trashcan like raccoons in the dead of the night.

The story Moore is referring to is "Tygers," a 12-page story that first appeared in Green Lantern Corps Annual #2 (1986). It also featured in the collection DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore. He produced it in collaboration with cartoonist Kevin O'Neill, who went on to be his artistic partner on The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. After reading "Tygers," my immediate reaction was that Moore owed the creative personnel on Blackest Night an apology. Beyond that, his involvement in this story is hardly anything to brag about.

I'm not saying this as a reader, much less a fan, of Blackest Night. I have little interest in what DC (or Marvel, for that matter) publishes these days, and I've always been completely put off by these crossover-event storylines. The initial ones in the 1980s, Marvel's Secret Wars and DC's Crisis on Infinite Earths, were what prompted my teenage self to largely give up on either company’s new output. My experience of Blackest Night is based entirely on the synopsis from its Wikipedia page. It's clear from the article that, at most, scriptwriter Geoff Johns and cartoonist Ivan Reis used some ideas in Moore and O'Neill's piece as a springboard for their own story. Moore has one hell of a nerve complaining about this. "Tygers" uses the 1959 Green Lantern origin story in much the same way. Johns and Reis aren't stealing from Moore any more than he was stealing from Green Lantern creators Julius Schwartz, John Broome, and Gil Kane.

For those unfamiliar with the Green Lantern character, his real name is Hal Jordan, and he is a military pilot who becomes a member of an intergalactic police force called the Green Lantern Corps. Members of the Corps are armed with a near-omnipotent power ring with a green lantern insignia. In Schwartz, Broome, and Kane’s origin story, Jordan becomes a Green Lantern after encountering a dying member of the corps--an alien--who has crash-landed on Earth.

In “Tygers,” Moore and O’Neill use the alien predecessor’s moments before the crash as a framing device. The predecessor, whose name is Abin Sur, knows he is about to die, and he thinks back on a prophecy foretelling his death. A spaceship had crashed on a planet used to imprison a race of demons who once terrorized the universe. Abin Sur was searching for the ship and possible survivors. He encountered several of the demons, who promise all sorts of things if he would only ask. He takes up the offer of one who will give answers to whatever three questions he might have. His requests are for the location of the crashed ship, the circumstances of his death, and the worst catastrophe the Green Lantern Corps will face.

Rather surprisingly, Moore doesn’t do much with this set-up. The rescue of the crash survivor goes off without a hitch, and the predicted catastrophe is all spectacle and no drama. (The catastrophe material is apparently the basis for Blackest Night.) The prophecy of Abin Sur’s death is the only one crucial to the story. Moore uses it to construct the irony on which the story ends--Abin Sur realizes that his efforts to escape his foretold future are what have caused it to occur. It’s a tried-and-true story twist at least as old as Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, but in Moore’s hands it falls flat. He doesn’t build the suspense needed to make it effective.

Kevin O’Neill’s artwork is the story’s main point of interest. It’s considerably more grotesque than his work on The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Grotesque is, if anything, the artwork’s defining attribute. O’Neill devotes a great deal of attention to the horrible deformities of the demons’ bodies--hideously contractured muscles, distended bones, and teethed orifices of various sizes appearing anywhere and everywhere. The intensely hachured rendering recalls Basil Wolverton, and the artwork often looks like something Wolverton would have turned out in the grip of a nightmare inspired by H. P. Lovecraft's stories. It garnered O’Neill a fair amount of notoriety after he turned it in. The Comics Code Authority, a content watchdog group set up in the 1950s by the newsstand children’s-comics publishers, took one look at the piece and declared O’Neill’s drawing style completely inappropriate for children. He was the first, and as far as I know, only comic-book cartoonist to be condemned by the Authority in these terms. Their response to his work was a major nail in the coffin of their power. It didn’t discredit them, but the piece’s almost immediate publication thereafter showed how toothless their judgments had become.

Overall, “Tygers” is an example of a historically significant work that, at best, is more important to know about than to read. The success of Blackest Night has ensured its place in DC’s story canon, and it marked a fairly noteworthy moment in the comics field’s history of self-imposed censorship. But on its own terms, it is a dull little potboiler by a creator whose career is generally made up of much better days. Moore once said that his interest in these journeyman efforts was in coming up with fun things for the artist to draw. O’Neill responded with gusto, but for most readers that probably isn’t enough.