So this week we’re right in the middle of doing the dorkiest thing possible: making a list of funnybooks we like! The idea (taken from a social media challenge thing) is to make a list of ten comics that had an influence on me, and that I still enjoy reading today. I covered the first half of that last week, with comics from my childhood and adolescence. And we’re wrapping it up this week with stuff from high school and beyond…
BOOK SIX: SWAMP THING
Alan Moore took over Swamp Thing in late 1983, not long after I turned 15. It was not my first exposure to the character (I’d been reading the on-going series from the beginning), but it WAS my first exposure to Alan Moore, and honestly… Nothing’s really been the same for me since.
Granted, that first issue is a little rocky, with some ill-advised attempts at phonetic American accents and an elegiac tone that he really hadn’t earned yet, dealing with themes of disappearing secret spaces and corporate overreach that don’t get followed up on later. It’s probably just Moore trying to wrap up the work of the previous writer (Martin Pasko), but what it reads like is Moore trying America on for size, and finding that it doesn’t quite fit. The original trade collection of the Moore run didn’t reprint this issue, and I can kind of see why. When it came out, I really wasn’t sure about this new writer I’d never heard of.
But Moore rebounded quickly off that iffy start. The run got successively better with each new issue, and pretty soon I was hooked. In the space of four issues, he rebuilt his title character’s origin from the ground-up, in the process taking a sort-of-silly old plant-based super villain named Jason Woodrue (aka The Floronic Man) and turning him into a terrifying inhuman monster, sort of a worst-case scenario of what might happen if Swamp Thing went bad. The final showdown between them happens in issue 24…
…in which a reconstituted Swamp Thing trounces Woodrue, and the villain’s fragile mind is crushed beneath the completeness of his loss. That Justice League appearance touted on the cover turns out to be just a cameo, in which they show up after the fighting’s done, and find this pathetic scene:
After that, I was hooked.
It’s hard to express how exciting it was to be reading Moore’s Swamp Thing as it came out. There was just something special about it, something …more… than anything I’d read before. It kept me reading comics at an age when I might have otherwise outgrown them, and made me see potential in the medium that I hadn’t before. But more importantly, it crystallized something that had been growing in my mind for much of my childhood: I liked books that pushed me, challenged me, surprised me, and made me grow as a reader. That realization drove me into the study of literature, which, though it turned out not to be a career for me, has enriched my life immeasurably in the years since.
More pertinent to the purposes of our current funnybook list, though, Moore’s Swamp Thing convinced me that he was our greatest living funnybook writer. I still think so now, almost 35 years later, and ever since, I’ve sought out comics that gave me some hint, some taste, of the thrill I got from discovering him.
BOOK SEVEN: CEREBUS THE AARDVARK
It was heady times back in 1986, when I started college and finally got access to a comic shop. I read everything I could get my hands on, some of it good, some of it bad. But one of the books that stuck was Dave Sim’s magnum opus, the hysterical, enlightening, maddening, infuriating 300-issue epic Cerebus. Beginning life as a Conan parody crossed with Howard the Duck, the series stars a cartoon aardvark in a world of human beings. The early issues are crude, but Sim had a compelling satirical voice. With time, he expands his focus to wider comics parody and, eventually, some rather sophisticated political, religious, literary, and gender-based satire (the last of those leading him into controversial territory in the back half of the run).
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I came in somewhere in the middle of the massive 60-issues-long Church & State storyline, in which Cerebus becomes Pope and quickly proves the old adage about absolute power corrupting absolutely. I had no idea what was going on, but thought the Secret Wars parody was hysterical. All those weird-ass comics of my youth had prepared me to be utterly fascinated by the sheer comedic amorality of it all. Good times.
That said… I dropped Cerebus less than a year after starting it, after a run of issues in which nothing much happened (a radical change from the chaos of the Secret Sacred Wars issues I had come in on). But something about it lodged in my mind, and a couple of years later, I picked it up again. And this time, it stuck. I went on a massive back-issue hunt, and wound up reading much of the series piecemeal: one issue here, a couple there, three or four in a row from another different part of the run… Somehow, I pieced it all together, but it colored my opinion of later events. So when I saw the Judge make his prophesy about Cerebus’ eventual fate, for instance…
…I hadn’t yet seen the Rape of Astoria, a scene in which Pope Cerebus responds to taunts from Astoria (his former political ally, and now his prisoner) by raping her in her cell. So I didn’t really understand how very much the little bastard deserved it.
You know… All things considered, I should probably discuss that rape scene a bit. It was controversial when published, and feels even moreso now (especially considering some of Sim’s later opinions on gender politics). But at the time, Sim’s intent was to make his readers uncomfortable in hopes of making them think. Prior to this, the book had been compellingly complicated, with a clear interest in history, politics, and philosophy. But it still had a light tone, by and large. Twenty issues earlier, for instance, Pope Cerebus had thrown a baby off the steps of his home, just to make a point, and the scene was played for laughs.
But the rape is something else entirely. As part of his on-going societal critique, Sim was making a point about the historical abuse of women by men of power, and he used his “hero” to do it. While the scene isn’t graphic, it is brutal, and it moves Cerebus from comedically despicable to… genuinely vile. Sim doesn’t forget about it, either. The event sends ripples out that affect both characters for years to come. And it does take years to see where it all leads. It’s a complicated book, and Sim is nothing is not a long-range planner.
I really need to go back and re-read the whole run, honestly. Sim’s beliefs changed drastically over time, and I’d like to re-examine where it all went in the end, with that in mind. Some parts of the back half of the series are tough reading, as Sim pretty much plays out his own breakdown, change of philosophy, and religious conversion on the page. He ends up in a few different places along the way, though, as his understanding of his own beliefs comes together, and I’m pretty sure it would be fascinating to go back and see it all again with hindsight. But, like I said… parts of the second half are tough. Infuriating, even. So I haven’t taken the plunge. Maybe this winter…
But ignoring (for now) what Cerebus became later, it maintains a place on this list in part because it’s the culmination of all those weird books that shaped me as a kid. I’ve already mentioned Howard the Duck, but Sim is also an heir to Eisner in some ways, sticking as he did to moody black and white art and some of the best lettering funnybooks have ever seen. But it’s also here because it increased my expectations for every comic I read after it. This is the point when standard monthly super-heroics stopped being satisfying to me, and my reading habits shifted drastically. That’s something I’m quite grateful for, and it lead me to…
BOOK EIGHT: 80s INDIE TRIPLE THREAT
That’s right. I’m cheating. I know what numbers nine and ten have to be, so I was trying to decide between three different indie books that changed the way I thought about comics publishing once I discovered them:
Mike Baron and Steve Rude’s Nexus is next-gen super heroes…
…a complex and witty sci-fi adventure strip with a conflicted hero driven to assassinate mass murderers by the mysterious alien who gave him his powers. At turns funny and dramatic, and always with a philosophical perspective all its own, I count it among the best super hero comics ever written, with some of the best super hero art to match.
Matt Wagner’s Grendel is next-gen super villains…
…an epic about the nature of morality. Starting out as a stylish crime drama, it moves forward through time, covering centuries and changing tone and genre with each new storyline. By the end, good and evil have switched places, with great evil being done in the name of God, and great good attempted in the name of the Devil. But the Devil is tricky, so things don’t quite go as planned.
And finally, we have Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg!…
…a sci-fi adventure romp with a healthy dose of cynicism wed to a heroic revolutionary spirit. It’s a heady mix of sex, violence, and politics that sets the tone for everything Chaykin’s done since. I’ve come to see it as a way-station of sorts, an ideal balancing point between the roguish pulp hero stuff he did before it, and the bastard-who-does-good-in-spite-of-himself stuff he’s done since. It’s great work, at any rate, especially the first 12 issues, which is the real heart of the story. It’s also amazing from a technical standpoint, because it allows you to watch Chaykin invent whatever modern comics storytelling devices hadn’t already been invented by Kirby and Eisner. But I’ve gone on at length about this book’s influential effect before, so I suppose I should wrap this entry up.
All three of these books were exactly what I was looking for as I grew to adulthood and wanted some slightly more challenging genre entertainment. All three came from indie publishers, too, and the degree to which these books were better than the vast majority of the stuff coming out from the Big Two at the time taught me a lesson that I’ve lived by ever since:
PUBLISHER LOYALTY IS BULLSHIT.
It doesn’t freaking matter who publishes something, as long as it’s good.
And I don’t understand any mentality that says different.
(Honorable mention in this entry should probably go to Bill Willingham’s Elementals, a straight-up super hero comic that, at the time, felt like the natural heir to Claremont and Byrne’s X-Men. I don’t include it officially, however, because I’m not sure if it’s still something I would enjoy reading. I haven’t felt compelled to return to it in the last 25 years like I have the other three, anyway. But at the time, I was a big fan.)
BOOK NINE: ANIMAL MAN
This was the first Grant Morrison comic I ever read. Literally, the issue pictured here. Issue five, “The Coyote Gospel.” A story about a cartoon coyote who died for our sins.
It’s a stunning piece of work, simultaneously funny and sad, and it made me an instant Grant Morrison fan. It’s also a blueprint for the rest of Morrison’s run on the book. Buddy Baker (aka Animal Man) is very much the super hero version of Crafty Coyote: a simple character with a simple life who gets unwittingly caught up in the machinations of his writer/god.
My admiration for Morrison’s work has only grown since, and I’ve long considered him and (his magical arch-enemy) Alan Moore the two greatest writers in funnybooks. Moore is, I must admit, the better of the two, but Morrison has always been a bigger influence on me. While I’m interested in many of the things Moore writes about, there’s always some distance there. His approach is not my approach, and some of my fascination with him is undoubtedly due to that. Viva la difference, and all that.
But Morrison’s work appeals to me on a deeper level. We share a lot of the same obsessions, and (though I’ve never been abducted by aliens during a drug experience in Kathmandu) I tend to look at the world in much the same way he does. Not as a holographic construct that can be shaped by those who know how (again, no alien abduction, no drugs, no Kathmandu). But I do tend to view the world as a deeply flawed, but still magical place. A place where there’s as much right as there is wrong, and where I try to shun the bad and increase the good whenever I can. Granted, a lot of that comes from a lifetime of reading heroic funnybooks, and taking their lessons to heart. But Morrison’s work crystallized that for me, made it a philosophy instead of just a thing that happens in the back of my head.
And all because of this one funnybook.
BOOK TEN: JACK KIRBY’S FOURTH WORLD
And so we return, and we begin again.
I may have mentioned a few times before that Jack Kirby is my favorite comics artist of all time. But it hasn’t always been that way. When I was a kid, I HATED Kirby. Or, as I knew him, “that guy who draws all blocky.” But I should explain.
I started developing artistic preferences in the back half of the 70s, so my art heroes were guys like Byrne, Perez, and Starlin. Michael Golden and Marshall Rogers. Artists with clean, smooth, detailed styles whose stuff looked “cool” (whatever that meant in my head back then). And Kirby was decidedly not one of those guys. His stuff just looked weird to me. And even after I’d gone back and realized how much I loved his Fantastic Four, I still didn’t GET Kirby. Not really.
But one day, as an adult (I don’t remember the year), I finally sat down and read New Gods. And it was like my brain exploded.
From there, I moved on to Jimmy Olsen, Mister Miracle and Forever People. And my brain exploded again. Then I moved on to The Demon and OMAC (which aren’t Fourth World books, but bear with me), and then to Eternals and 2001 and his 70s Captain America run and…
I had well and truly discovered Kirby, and I loved it. Not just his art, which I came to appreciate for the crazy genius thing it was, but also (even more) his concepts. His ideas about what it means to be a god, and the ineffable mystery of existence, and his crazy pugnacious take on heroism, and his bizarre sense of humor, and… Everything. All of it. Even the stuff that doesn’t work (and there’s plenty that doesn’t work), the sheer damn WTF that comes with reading just about any Kirby comic produced after 1970. It’s all part of the complete experience, reading the genuine idiosyncratic work of a true original who cared less about telling a story the “right” way than he did about telling it HIS way.
So, yeah. I like Jack Kirby and stuff.
And the Fourth World is pretty much why.
And that just about does it.
Ten comics that shaped me, that I still enjoy reading today. This has been a fun trip down memory lane for me, and I hope an enjoyable reading experience for you. I also hope I’ve intrigued some of you to check out some books you’ve never read before. Especially those 80s Indies – those are seriously some of the best mainstream-style comics I’ve ever read. My taste has always tended a little toward the bizarre, but I feel pretty safe recommending any of those three books to anyone who likes genre fiction, and all of them are still available, digitally if not in print.
But now I’m rambling, so I’ll bid you adieu.