So last week was a great week for funnybooks. New stuff from David Lapham, Shaky Kane, Gillen & McKelvie, AND a new book from Bryan Lee O’Malley! I had a blast reading that shit over lunch on Wednesday. Good comics and a spicy chicken bowl! A little slice of funnybook heaven.
But that’s not what I’m gonna write about today. I tried, believe me. But my heart just wasn’t in it. Why? Well, because my funnybook brain is currently wrapped up in THE PURGE. Because I’ve hit that point in my comics-collecting career. That critical mass tipping point when I look at the short boxes piling up and think, “Great weeping Jesus, why do I have so much crap?!”
So it’s time. Time to pull the boxes out, open them up, and make some hard decisions. If I don’t think I’ll ever read a book again…
Or if I’ve got a trade collection of it…
Or if it’s gotten old enough that it’s gonna set off the unfortunate allergy I’ve developed to decaying newsprint…
…it’s gone. I’m selling. Cheap.
I’ve cleaned out the collection before, of course. I sold most anything I had of any great value back in the 90s, when everything was going for inflated prices. And I sold off a bunch of stuff to my Local Funnybook Emporium (Nostalgia Newsstand represent!) just a few years ago. But that was more of a weeding. Getting rid of the easy stuff. The stuff I’d outgrown. The stuff without any sentimental value. The utter crap I’d forgotten I had. But, now… Now I’ve just hit the point where I want the shit gone.
I’m shocking myself a bit with what I’m getting rid of. John Byrne’s Fantastic Four was thrown to the wolves without a second thought, and it’s probably the second-best run ever of my favorite spandex funnybook of all time (Lee and Kirby rule, of course, but Byrne’s a close second, especially in his first year). I kept Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg!, but didn’t pause a minute in dumping Black Kiss. And I kind of gave Warren Ellis’ Stormwatch a pass at first, then yanked it once I stopped and asked myself why.
It’s that question I want to talk about today: Why? Why am I keeping some books and getting rid of others? Let’s start, since we’re already talking about it, with Stormwatch.
I automatically kept it on first pass because… Well, because it’s Warren Ellis, a writer whose work I think well of, and because it’s a fondly-remembered bit of spandex storytelling that looms large in the genre’s history. Or at least, it looms large in my personal vision of that history. I mean, everyone credits Ellis’ The Authority with reshaping super hero storytelling in the 21st Century, and that’s certainly true. The “widescreen action” and “decompressed storytelling” (both terms Ellis himself coined) were lifted wholesale for Mark Millar’s The Ultimates, and that book changed corporate spandex philosophies for a decade (and counting). But that’s the flash. The surface. Under the hood is a story of messy interpersonal relationships, political subtext in a quasi-military setting, and the idea of people as weapons. That’s the important stuff, the stuff that makes the first Ultimates series better than 99% of its imitators, and THAT is lifted less from Authority than it is from Stormwatch.
Ellis did a better job with the high concept stuff than Millar did, of course. The dehumanizing aspect of People of Mass Destruction is explored far better with the Stormwatch introduction of Apollo and the Midnighter than it is with any of the various Super Soldier projects seen in Ultimates, and Ellis also manages a better sense of wonder with stuff like Sliding Albion, the Bleed, and the trip through comics history that is the 100-year life story of Jenny Sparks.
That last bit is also pretty important, I think. I don’t remember if it was in Stormwatch or Alan Moore & Rick Veitch’s Supreme that I first ran across the idea of making flashback stories look like old comic book pages from the appropriate era, but it’s a technique I like, and that I’ve seen put to good use elsewhere. Jim Rugg used it to great effect, for instance, in both Street Angel and Afrodesiac, and anything that went into making those two books as good as they are is something I’m behind 100%.
So, yeah. Stormwatch. Enjoyable, cutting-edge super heroes from (gasp) nearly 20 years ago. The template from which modern spandex funnybooks has (to varying degrees of success) been copied. Good comics, any way you slice it. So why am I getting rid of it?
Sigh. Fondly as I remember those books (and hard as I worked to find the earliest issues when I discovered it about a year into the run)… I just can’t see myself ever reading it again. I might enjoy it if I did, of course, but I don’t think it’s gonna happen. There’s too many other books, and it’s not a work of such literary brilliance or sheer insane fun that I’m apt to revisit it. So it goes.
So does Matt Fraction’s Iron Man.
That was a book of considerable subtlety, I always thought (well… subtlety for a super hero comic, anyway. Let’s not get crazy here). Fraction wrote a complicated Tony Stark, a man of great ego, driven by uncontrollable urges and crushing guilt to do right by the world. If the threats weren’t always the most thrilling, that was okay, because the corporate espionage and drive for technological betterment was what the book was really about. But like a good many on-going series at the time, it sort of crashed on the rocks of the Fear Itself event, a story of horrible sacrifice and startling tragedy that reversed itself before it even ended. I know corporate spandex properties are all about creating the illusion of change rather than actual change, but my god… That book manifested its illusion and then rolled out the mirrors that created it before anyone even had a chance to applaud. The words “damp squib” come to mind. So do the words “wet blanket,” which is the affect it had on my enjoyment of Iron Man. There’s no way in hell I’m plowing through all that again, just to be disillusioned before it’s done. So I’m dumping it. Cheap.
It’s not all important books and interesting-but-ultimately-disappointing series I’m getting rid of, though. There’s also little gems in the mix, like all those Garth Ennis war comics I’ve got (entertaining to read once), Joe Casey and Nathan Fox’s gonzo spandex crime comic Zodiac (ditto), and a book I had completely forgotten about til I pulled it out of the box: Jason Aaron and Cam Stewart’s The Other Side.
This was a little six-issue thing written early in Aaron’s career, looking at the Vietnam war from the perspective of two grunts, one American, the other a part of the Viet Cong. It’s searing stuff, the disillusionment of one soldier mirroring in reverse the increasing fanaticism of the other as they head toward inevitable confrontation. Aaron deftly captures both the ugliness of war, and the reasons men fight it, dealing simultaneously with the messy politics of that particular conflict. Cam Stewart’s also firing on all cylinders on this thing, turning in work that puts me a little in mind of ‘Nam-era Michael Golden. It might be my favorite Stewart art job, and I’ve liked pretty much everything the guy’s ever done.
So, yeah. It’s good stuff. But the re-read I did when I stumbled across it is probably the last one I’ll ever do. And if I change my mind, I think it’s still available in trade.
So’s the last comic I wanted to discuss today, but this one… man. This one’s tough. REAL tough. The true Heart of Darkness in this Funnybook Purge: Hellblazer.
I’ve written about this series before, but the basics bear repeating. In its 25 years of publication, this book was never actively bad. Some runs were certainly better than others, of course, but I never picked up an issue that I didn’t think was at least pretty good.
Think about that. Twenty-five years of continuous monthly publication? With annuals, specials, and mini-series along the way? And NONE of it was bad? That’s an amazing track record. I can’t think of another book that can match it, in fact, except maybe Cerebus. But that was written and drawn by the same incredibly talented, incredibly driven, incredibly maddening guy for its entire history. Hellblazer, as a corporate property, didn’t have that luxury. What it did have, evidently, was a persistence of editorial vision sufficient to hire good people and let them run wild.
Or at least, run wild within the established Modern Horror boundaries that were the series’ stock in trade. Demons, angels, monsters, ghosts, serial killers, investment bankers, the British royal family… You name a horrifying menace, and this book stared it down the gullet. It’s a milestone in comics history, one of the first and best examples of genre comics written for an adult audience (and that’s truly an adult audience, not just an adolescent one that likes blood and boobs). As a fan of good genre, the graphic novel, horror, and of comics history in general, I should own the shit out of this series.
And as of right now, I still do. I’ve got the first 80-some-odd issues (the runs by Jamie Delano, Garth Ennis, and Eddie Campbell), with stops along the way for the better stuff that came after, and any anniversary issues that came along, too. I’ve never bought it for my bookshelf, because there’s just so much of it. But I love these books, and even if I might only ever read them again once or twice ever… I can’t imagine letting them go. Except…
In my enthusiasm for the funnybook classic that is Hellblazer, I decided to re-read the first issue. And I was diggin’ it, man. I felt the dark atmosphere of Thatcher’s London slowly creeping back up on me, thrilling and evil and bad, and then… My eyes started to water. I coughed. I sneezed. Shit! The damn book was printed on cheap-ass paper, and a quarter-century in a plastic bag had rendered it un-fucking-readable. So off for sale it goes.
Looks like I might be investing in a few trades, after all…
Aaaaand… I think that’s it for now. Next time: books I’m actually keeping! And why!
Hope to see you then.
A Post-Script: As I was perusing back issues of Garth Ennis & Jim McCrea’s transgressive-mainstream crime comic Hitman (which I’m also dumping, by the way, even though it kinda breaks my heart not to own the series that gave the world Bueno Excellente)…
…I ran across something that struck me funny (well, okay, funnier…). There’s been much celebrating in fan circles about Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy. You know, the Jack-Kirby-created tree man who only says one thing:
Which, yeah, sure, good joke. I laughed the first time I heard that about him. But the gag always sounded just a tiny bit familiar to me, and now I know why:
Garth Ennis got to it first. Meet Groot’s comedy ancestor, the Demon King / Bartender (and Hitman supporting cast member) …BAYTOR!
I’m not sayin’ they ripped Ennis off here (you call it an homage if you’re smart)… But I am saying that Baytor’s way weirder, cooler, funnier, and more disgusting than Groot. Plus, he has all that lovely dental work…