Thursday, June 18, 2009

Summertime and I loves me some comics!

(By the way: 1--I'm sorry this is so late today, and 2--looks like I'm not the only one who thinks of comics when I think of summer. This looks like graphic novels week!)

Summer means lots of things to different folks, but for me it’s all about a fat stack of books and comics with all the time in the world to read them. Especially comics. Summertime made my father anxious, something about idle hands do the devil’s handiwork, so I always had to get a job. But no job, no camp, nothing eats up the kind of time school and school work do. So it just mean I had disposable income and time to hunt for comics.

Yeah, nowadays, American comics are kind of byzantine and dumb, and yeah, Manga provides more bang for the buck. Oh, and you don’t have to search to find an entire storyline because they have the collections readily available, both in comics shops and in bookstores. But let me give you a taste of some comics new, cool, and fresh enough you might have to do some hoofing (or at least burn a little time on your search engine) to find all the issues.

Hang on—you might say when you hear me call American comics “Byzantine and dumb” or “Manga has more bang for the buck”—What’s your beef with the good ol’ red white and blue superhero? Nothing, I say, except that today’s writers aren’t writing good stories. They’re writing fan fiction for thirty year olds. Really. I mean, I read most every Avenger story for the last twenty-five years, kept up with Green Lantern, Flash, X-Men—but I lost track of things for a year or two recently, and suddenly I have no idea what’s going on. Not just because they require arcane knowledge of story points from thirty year old comics, but also because my eyes glaze over trying to read them. They’re boring!

I remember reading comics, not knowing who the hell anybody was, and yet I was electrified by how exciting, fun, and engrossing they were. I not only couldn’t wait for the next issue, I wanted to know what had happened in the past as well. And that’s when the hunt was on.

Recently, I’ve come across several comics that are fun, though. Comics that capture the gonzo, go for broke, sheer awesomeness of simply being what they are—stories about superheroes out to save the world, two fists at a time (or whatever their superpower may be). They don’t have to solve world problems, they don’t attempt to be “serious” or “mature,” and they sure as hell avoid nostalgia. What are these titles?

Well, last month I was giving the heads up on some Greek classics, and I tossed in the Incredible Hercules as a comic worth reading. This is what I said:

“Marvel Comics’ The Incredible Hercules is awesome. It’s awesome in the way that every comic I loved as a teenager was awesome, and it’s awesome in the way I now get geeky over references to Greek mythology. Just a pure pleasure of a superhero comic, something I’m finding harder and harder to find nowadays-but that’s a topic for another post.

Suffice it to say, if you like good-old four-color two-fisted comics, this one is hard to beat. Hercules punches his way through any problem, and there’s lots of rollicking good fun in there, as he faces off against his half-brother Ares, his stepmother Hera, still holding a grudge 3000 years later, Amazons, alien pantheons of gods… Just great, great stuff.”

There’s this moment in an early issue of Incredible Hercules when Herc turns to someone quibbling with him over some story he’s telling them about his past. I’m paraphrasing, but he essentially says “Ignore continuity—this is myth, and these stories are too big to fit together nicely.” I wish every comic had that as its mantra.

Another great comic is the current run on Ghost Rider. Now, here’s a character I never cared for, but I’d heard so many good things about the current run I had to go out and see it for myself. It’s like coming home—like somebody who spent lots of time getting a fancy college degree did the whole thing so they could return home to Alabama, or Georgia, or Kentucky, or wherever their Southern roots raised them, just to shake their fists at grits and James Joyce both. It’s as if they’re writing the apocalypse while listening to Robert Earl Keene (don’t know the name? Watch the video for his "Merry Christmas from the Family" on YouTube) or Alan Moore was raised in Clinton, Mississippi.

Okay, you get the idea. But here’s the thing: Ghost Rider is fun and interesting because it’s awesomely exactly what you’d think it’d be—a dude kicking ass with a burning skull and an enormous motorcycle. Sure, there’s the occasional invocation of worldly things like a Brahmin Spirit of Vengeance atop a flaming skulled Ganesh-evoking sacred elephant, but for the most part he fights demonic truck drivers and sweaty, corrupt evil—real devil-went-down-Georgia kind of stuff. Again, awesome.

Okay, if neither over-the-top ancient mythology meets modern superheroes nor southern gothic supernatural hero horror grabs you, imagine Dracula not as the creature of the night loner cartoon he’s been made out to be, but a beguiling, uncanny, devious dictator of his own vampire army—his own vampire nation, even. Now they’re looking for a home, and have set their sights on the British Isles. Captain Britain and MI 13 (that's the pic at the top of the post) is fascinating because it does some of the exact things I complained about above—reach back into the way past for story ideas, depend on continuity for semi and even totally obscure characters—only it does them effortlessly, in ways that are captivating, mesmerizing even, and never gets bogged down in “what you need to know.”

So there you have it, three ongoing comics* that are worth buying before they are collected in books (although I think they’ve already done that with the Herc material). They’re even worth hunting down recent back-issues for. There’s some other comics that are similarly fun—the first 15-20 issues of Iron Fist, for example. I hear Agents of Atlas and Thor are also great fun. But why these and not the main titles from the big two American Comics publishers? My theory is that these comics are kind of obscure, they’re a bit of a throwaway, below-the-radar thing for the big-time editors. So the creators involved, from the writers and artists to the editors, are more free to do what they will, and they care more about telling engaging, fun stories than stories that depend on lots of “big/important” moving parts.

Anyways, take one of my suggestions, plop down with an issue or two, and take a few moments, not an hour—this isn’t rocket science and it’s no fun if you treat it as such—take a few moments to delve into some all-out fun reads.

*Here's a weird thing: I noticed that all my suggestions are Marvel Comics. I don't know why. For years I thought Marvel was doing everything stupid and DC comics were the best. Now, it's pretty much the opposite. Hopefully it'll turn around soon.

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