Category Archives: Comics Research

What Would Wolverine Do? An Interview with Hellberta’s Mike Comeau

I’m on tour at the moment and am moving like molasses, but I’ve finally gathered myself up from drawing my own comic that takes place in Alberta, to talk about my *favourite* comic that takes place in Alberta. Michael Comeau’s ‘Hellberta’ has been described elsewhere on the internet as “one of the most meaningful and interesting” variations of a Wolverine comic, and I must agree. It explores the Canadian home of one of comic fandom’s most celebrated characters, against a background that is at once both more realistic and more surreal than your garden-variety Marvel title.

My conversation with Michael is below. For a better run-down on the plot and cultural significance of ‘Hellberta’, I recommend reading the Barbed Comics review linked above. To pick up a copy for yourself, you can do so here.

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N: What was your relationship to comics growing up? To X-men and Wolverine in particular?

    M: I collected the “Uncanny X-men” from the Mutant Massacre story arc to when Jim Lee branch off to the merely “X-men” title approximately 1986 to 1991.  Wolverine emerged as an intriguing character for me and many others.  The Chris Claremont, Frank Miller mini series is the quintessential statement on the character.  I bought an old  “Inferno” issue of Uncanny X-men in Drumheller Alberta and began drawing Wolverine.  I didn’t pay attention to super hero comics for around a decade and was mildly annoyed to find out they filled out Wolverine’s back story to be that his name was no longer Logan but James Howlet and he was originally British.  I can usually recognize when a writer can’t grasp the Canadian hoser Logan archetype so it poses the question what would I do with the character.  The reclamation of Wolverine opened up notions of Canadian identity like collaging the archetypes of Neil Young and Logan.

I often find myself fantasizing about the ability of the supernatural (and by extension, superheroes) solving the world’s social and political problems, beyond what I would see in your standard comic book. So I’ve found that Hellberta has been really satisfying for me and other activist folks I’ve shown it to. Would you describe Hellberta as a kind of political revenge porn, like Inglorious Bestards is to nazism or Django Unchained to slavery and racism?hellberta-page-shot

    I am a straight/cis/white man from Ontario who learned about Albertan activist culture among the oil sands boom while living and traveling with queer and trans people from Calgary.  I was unsure how to depict the queer flight from Calgary or the environmental impact of the tar sands so I took a popular myth from the area and supplanted it onto the situation.  What would Wolverine do?  Superheroes are extensions and exaggerations of our hopes and fears I don’t really see them as rising above anything.  I’d rather see them struggle with our same mundane problems in spite them being so exceptional.

I would hate it if someone compared anything I’d done to a Tarantino film, so in your own words – what were you going for with Hellberta? What would you say were your influences or sources of inspiration?

  A: Initially it was a cahier de voyage with rough drawings that were somewhat related to our adventures on the road.  Then I included the Wolverine vs. the tar sands as a way to learn how to make a comic. It had direct X-men references like how Wolverine would “hunt” deer by creeping up and touching them or the Phoenix as an arbitrary global catastrophe and an Osamu Tezuka style time lapse of total destruction to gradual renewal.  The photo comic section was based on the relationships Logan has with young women.   He is a good archetype for intergenerational friendships with women.  The “Sackville Slapper” section is more about trajectories across provinces.  It is inspired by Donald Shebib’s “Going Down The Road” movie and the SCTV spoof of it.  Both of my parents are from New Brunswick and i wanted to reference the east coast.  The idea was Logan as Popeye and Puck as Wimpy in an east coast Tijuana Bibles style book which is a paradigm shift away from the photo comic.

There’s a lot of Christian iconography in this book that can’t go unnoticed. Harper and his harlots fly around on a cross, but it is Wolverine who is martyred and rises again. How did you decide to incorporate this imagery?

Christianity is a conquering ideology used in colonization.  It severs a localized spiritual connection to the land.  I often think of what therapists call the “reversal of desire”  regarding someone feeling repressed and ostracized by images of Christ and finding comfort in Satan etc.  Like a metalhead teenager.  In processing my own catholic repression I enjoyed drawing from medieval christian imagery.  Wolverine is a classic christ figure.  Sacrificing himself to be resurrected through his homo-superiority ie. healing factor.  He regularly gets crucified onto X’s in comics.  The Right Wing wields notions of God as a weapon and I wanted to counter that with what is essentially the same human impulse to create heroes/gods but from a far more transparent place as pop culture.

One question for the printing nerds: take us through the printing process of this book, because the dual tone is enough to make your brain want to explode. It kind of feels like a throw-back to those cheap 3D graphics with the red & blue ink that you could dig out of the bottom of a cereal box. How did you decide on this technique?

I’ve created and printed many 2 colour screen printed posters.  The first issue was printed on Jesjit Gill of Colour Code Printing’s very first risograph machine which only printed one colour at a time so the registration had to be very loose.  I was doing the dot tone with a photocopier.   Copying over top the lines or turning the breakdown into a negative, copying over a negative dot tone and reversing back to positive and then copy over top the line work.  I am fascinated by the timbre of an image and use of tone.  It is constantly evolving through out my work.

Do you see yourself making anything in this vein again?

There is an Alpha Flight story in my head that has haunted me for years.  I have done my own riff on Son of Satan but now for the most part I am working on original stories with only some sketchbook strips that might be bootleg.  Lately when I don’t know what to draw I do without reference Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman.  No matter how crud the drawing is you still project the characters onto them.  So naturally I have thought of dumb, petty dialogue for them to exchange.   

Since this comic was created, pipeline projects (and their messes) continue to dot the North American landscape.We’re also entering a “Trump era”, which shares a fair bit of common ground with the Harper Government. Do  you think Wolverine is an important hero to have in an age like this?

Heroes are as important as we make them.  Each situation is gazed at through the lens of the hero prism.  Be it Wolverine, Jesus, Tupac or Joni Mitchell.   Logan is post-human, a homo-superior, so he points to the future but is from the far past.

 

Exhibit of Chester Brown’s Louis Riel at Art Gallery of Ontario

Photo courtesy of the AGO Art Matters blog - http://artmatters.ca
Photo courtesy of the AGO Art Matters blog – http://artmatters.ca

By Sam Noir
December 18, 2013
Toronto

Something significant and radical has occurred in the Georgia Ridley Salon at the Art Gallery of Ontario.  Original comics artwork has steadily gained acceptance within the hallowed institutions of mainstream galleries and museums, but never in as bold a curatorial manner as this.

A stark black and white, inked, portrait of Louis Riel sticks out like a sore thumb. Surrounded by stacks of period specific, painted, (colour) artwork, in a setting that recreates the viewing context of a period spanning Canadian Confederation and the First World War.

A portrait of Riel would never have found its way into any English Canada salon of that time.  A crusader for Métis rights, and charismatic leader of the 1869-1870 “Red River Rebellion”, Riel was branded a “traitor” by the federal government, and viewed as such in the province of Ontario, and particularly the city Toronto.  How fitting then, that he should end up here of all places, today.

This decidedly contemporary juxtaposition provokes conversation, and challenges our traditional narrative as Canadians.  The portrait incidentally, is the original cover art for the tenth anniversary edition of Chester Brown’s graphic novel Louis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography.

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Riel remains controversial figure, and difficult to place within Canadian history.  He’s a powerful symbol of Native and French Canadian rebellion against centralized English-speaking government powers.  However, we now live in a society where Multiculturalism is espoused, and Bilingualism is national policy.  Chester Brown’s graphic biography is a reflection of this current cultural paradigm, particularly since Riel is now viewed as a “Father of Manitoba”, in spite of his defeats.  It is notable that the Canada Council, a government run funding agency for the arts, provided support to Brown in the creation of this work.

Tucked away in a small alcove in a corner of the salon, original artwork from Chester Brown’s Louis Riel graphic novel is displayed, revealing Brown’s process.  Each frame showcases what are essentially small individual panels of the same dimensions, on separate small pieces of paper, a half dozen of each which were eventually grouped together to form a “page” of artwork.  Imagine each of these panels to be a frame of film.  In film editing terms, this allowed Brown the ability to “non linear edit” as he crafts the story… adding or deleting panels and moments from any point in the chosen narrative as he goes along creating the work as a whole.

We also need to note that Brown calls his biography a comic strip.  Drawing from a more traditionally populist format, and defining itself away from the more literary pretentious term, graphic novel or even the more common place name of comic book.   Both terms which come with a degree of cultural baggage in the current landscape.

During the process of creating this work, Brown adapted a large stylistic influence from cartoonist Harold Gray, the creator of the comic strip Little Orphan Annie.  In fact, there are examples out there showing how Brown redrew panels he created earlier in the process to keep this aesthetic choice consistent.  The choice of Gray is interesting in that Gray is largely considered a political artist himself during a tumultuous period of American history.   Recall that the original Little Orphan Annie cartoon strip was a politically charged reaction to the changing times of the depression-era nineteen thirties – a fact largely forgotten in the shadow of the Broadway musical and cinematic adaptation that has taken popular root in its cultural stead.

Gray could originally be defined as a Republican during the pre-Depression years at the start of Little Orphan Annie (most historians cite the name of his character “Daddy” Warbucks as a suggestion about where the character’s initial fortunes came from), but many argue that the views expressed by his characters in later years were libertarian in nature.  Brown became politicized during the creation of Louis Riel, and has run as a candidate for the Libertarian Party of Canada in the riding of Trinity-Spadina since the 2008 federal election.

The spine of Brown’s Louis Riel rests on the side of democratic process, with the elected leadership of the largely mixed francophone/aboriginal Red River Settlement majority (Métis), battling against the tyranny of an oppressive English Canada asserting its agenda and the machinations of The Hudson’s Bay Company, hoping to profit from this transfer of power and land rights.  Though Riel’s methods and actions may not always be viewed sympathetically, you can understand his motivations of fairness.  Particularly as the elected leader of the provisional government, negotiating its place in the developing country of Canada – and as an member of Canadian Parliament, elected multiple times, but never having sat in the House of Commons for fear of arrest.

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Canada’s first Prime Minister John A. Macdonald is not painted in a flattering light, and his decisions shown here have far reaching implications.  A political creature, choosing the expediency of arms over the complications of keeping his promises to Riel and the provisional government of Manitoba; a far cry from the Father of Canadian Confederation we learned about in our history books.  More devious still were his manipulations around the negotiations with the Métis in Saskatchewan to incite rebellion, and justify the mounting expenses in construction of the Canadian Pacific railroad across Canada, by sending in troops.

Whereas his sympathies undoubtedly lie with Riel and the Métis, in the story he’s chosen to tell, Brown has selected moments that highlight a certain degree of ironic, even dark, humour to Riel’s story. Reminding us that this book is designed to entertain as much as it is to inform. Far from being a comprehensive volume on the life of Riel, Brown’s selection of vignettes within the allotted pages is equally fascinating.

Brown’s exploration of Riel’s years following Red River, institutionalized and gripped by “Divine Madness” is not surprising to those familiar with his earlier autobiographical work.  Where his mother’s schizophrenia was not overtly stated, but often a strong subtext in the depiction Brown’s developing years.  These visions and religious fervour haunt Riel, and follow him through the Métis uprising in Saskatchewan, leading up to his surrender to the Canadian authorities, and to the end of his life.  The closing chapter, leading us to the final moments of Riel’s execution, depicts the courtroom where the question of his sanity is laid before those who knew and encountered him.

In some parts of the chronology, the narrative jumps years at a time, quickly through different characters and settings between panels on the same page.  However, when Brown chooses to slow down the pace, utilizing what has commonly become known as “decompressed storytelling”, the quiet results are compelling and moving.  Individual “moments” paced out in panels of the same size, six to a page stretching across multiple pages.  Similar to Watchmen, which functioned similarly using a nine panel per page grid structure.  With no variation in size and placement of panels, the panels become a singular viewing portal… a “window” into the world of Louis Riel.

The final sequence in Part One of the story, depicting Louis Riel alone in Fort Garry, and then leaving the Red River Settlement, stretches across a luxurious four pages.  Dwelling on mundane, yet affecting moments of Riel rising from bed and eating a solitary meal, before being warned of the English troops descending upon him.  Unlike the end of a traditional American cowboy movie, in this Canadian “Western”, Riel does not head triumphantly into the horizon and the sunset, but towards the reader, who is looking down above him as he walks in the rain.

You can view these particular pages of original art for yourself, showcased in the salon’s alcove at the Art Gallery of Ontario until September 2014.

Honours bestowed on Louis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography include 2 Harvey Awards, and its placement as a semifinalist in CBC’s prestigious Canada Reads program.  It was the first Canadian Graphic Novel to become a best-seller, and on its heels has spawned a renaissance in the genre of graphic novel/comic book biography and similar non fiction illustrated work.

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During an earlier regeneration, the author of this article found himself living as an academic. He held three degrees from Queen’s University in Fine Art, Art History and Film Studies in a death-like vice grip, describing himself at the time as an Installation Artist, Pop Culture Junkie and Film Maker. 

Sam Noir is currently a rabble rouser, and maker of comix and toys.  He claims Toronto, Canada–the most culturally diverse city on the whole damn planet–as his home.

The Struggle Continues: Kamala Khan and the Fight for Diversification in Comics

KamalaKhanThis week the comics industry juggernaut Marvel announced a new superhero stepping into their circulation.

Kamala Khan is a young Muslim woman of Pakistani heritage, growing up in New Jersey. In an article this week in the New York Times about the new character, author G. Willow Wilson explains that she wanted the comic to be about a few things: “…about the universal experience of all American teenagers, feeling kind of isolated and finding what they are.” Wilson explains that this comes through the lens of Kamala being a young Muslim in America who struggles with her faith.

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The prospect of a new comic about this kind of character feels really promising. Even the art displays something new and comforting about it. I feel like Kamala could actually be a real person that I know. But aside from pointing out how Kamala will be different than previous Marvel superheroes, very little is discussed of her.

About a quarter of the article is taken up with examples of Marvel’s shoddy history of attempting to introduce minority characters. Thus if we are not already familiar, readers begin to introduce themselves to the battle against sexism and racism in the comic book world. Navigating the gauntlet of narrow editorial mindsets and penny-pinching fans… is seeing the underlying reality that most positions in the comic business are still inhabited by white men, and that this environment has often embarrassing and ugly consequences.

There are so many incredible examples of how working mostly with white men to create a comic universe comprised mostly of white men and male-idealized women can take its tole on your ability to even imagine diversification.

Mark_DanSome fun examples of this are instances such as DC Comics’ Dan DiDio in his outburst, now famous in the comic book world, at the San Diego Comic Con in 2011. When a member of the audience suggested that DC hire more women, DiDio emphatically responds, “WHO? Who should we hire? Tell me right now!” Let’s keep in mind that the suggestion came as a result of DiDio literally asking the audience what DC Comics should be doing to boost readership and reader confidence. As has been noted by many, if you actually listen to the exchange (an MP3 is conveniently available), you’ll note that DiDio’s response sounds less like a question and more like a challenge. DiDio continues to embarrass himself as an editor at America’s #2 comic publisher with actions like forbidding Batwoman authors from allowing the character, who is currently portrayed as a lesbian, to marry her partner. Superheroes are about self-sacrifice; they “shouldn’t have happy personal lives,” he explained to fans at the Baltimore Comic Con.

In August, 2013, comics creator Mark Millar was in the spotlight, particularly for his comments about the subject of rape in comics. “The ultimate [act] that would be the taboo, to show how bad some villain is, was to have somebody being raped, you know?” he said. “I don’t really think it matters. It’s the same as, like, a decapitation. It’s just a horrible act to show that somebody’s a bad guy.” Millar went on to boast that he “always likes to push it and see something [he’s] never seen before.” Monika Bartyzel’s response in The Week:

But Millar is wrong. We have seen rape in comics before, and we’ve seen it a lot. In fact, rape shows up repeatedly in Millar’s work (Wanted, The Authority, Kick-Ass 2), which echoes a longer tradition of rape suffered by superheroines like Black Cat, Ms. Marvel, and Rogue. Rape is no more an unspeakable taboo in comics culture, where the industry is overrun with continual sexual harassment and rape threats, than it is in real life.

Are we seeing a pattern yet?

Honestly, so much has been said about sexism in comics in recent years, comic creators have gone from ignoring it to denying it, to then claim it’s not their responsibility to change it.

Despite it being less of a publicly heated debate (perhaps because it’s more embarrassing?) we see this trend not only around gender, but around race. Brandon M. Easton, an African American animation writer, layed out the numbers in a Bleeding Cool article last year:

Clearly, breaking into Marvel or DC is insanely difficult and few people of any background manage to get close; but the fact that there are less than 3.0% of Blacks credited on all Marvel and DC titles as of June 2012 illustrates a serious problem that requires greater exploration.

Without necessarily trying to, Easton sums up a large part of the attitude problem facing society and the microcosm of the comic book industry. It is about racism specifically, but we can extract important lessons about all forms of systemic oppression:

In the U.S., it becomes a situation where some White people feel personally indicted as a racist and the burden rests on Black people to 1) prove racism still exists and impacts all of us, 2) explain the difference between a White person living their daily lives vs. the institutionalized system of racism, and 3) defend yourself against claims of “reverse” racism as the very mention of the issue means that you hate White people. Almost every online discussion of race boils down to these three arguments before it’s all said and done. And ultimately, nothing changes because some folks refuse to separate the system from their personal identity.

…So what does this all have to do with the fresh young Kamala Khan? Well, it could tell us that the mainstream comic book industry, despite some very old habits and mindsets, is trying to move forward.

Miles_MsMarvel…And yet.

Khan appears to be her own superhero, when she is, in fact, going to become the new Ms. Marvel…Oh dear. Marvel and D.C. both have an embarrassing record of stuffing minorities–African Americans, women, and LGBT folk–into superhero characters that are already molded and defined as the characters of white men. Why is this a problem? To me, it boils race and gender down to pigment and body parts, and ignores the basic understandings of systemic oppression: that of a categorically different life experience. The idea that a Black Spiderman or a Ms. Marvel would carry on with the same missions and objectives as their white male counterparts, in essence, tells us what the comic creation establishment means when they huff and haw at accusations of racism and sexism: beyond pigment and body parts, we’re all the same. So why go out of our way to hire/include/portray minorities in comics?

Relatively speaking, I don’t think we are all the same. Perhaps a Pakistani Muslim superheroine like Kamala Khan would be concerned with American military drone strikes killing hundreds of civilians back home… Perhaps superheroes of colour would be more in tune with criminal behavior that has negatively impacted their communities or countries of origin, as opposed to some generic gangsters or bad men in suits?  And I can’t speak for all women, especially women superheroes, but perhaps a feminist perspective would *completely* change a superhero’s take on the world–its problems and its solutions.

What’s also enlightening, in the end, is the attitude of introducing diversity. “Fans respond with their dollars,” said Axel Alonso, the editor in chief of Marvel Entertainment, In the sense of margins and numbers, there is the logical fear that minority issues won’t connect with the majority and their wallets. As some of the most POWERFUL comics creators in the world said, “The comics follow society. They don’t lead.”

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Some leaders who apparently “don’t lead.”

I find that to be an interestingly defeated attitude for an industry’s top dogs. Any industry–but especially one with creativity at its core. And especially one so capable that it can put out a press release about the Muslim superheroine Kamala Khan on Monday, and have it picked up by two dozen major newspapers by Wednesday.

It seems to me that the biggest news the comic world can make these days is news of change.

Ultimately, the comic industry giants have yet to be able to overcome the major hurdles of sexism and racism, because they genuinely do not know how. Don’t worry guys, you’re not alone on that one. But until there is a comprehensive examination of racism and sexism, not as topics of sensitivity training, but as pervading systems of oppression in our society (with histories. with context) then we have little hope for the new characters being born, no matter how diverse they appear to be.

Introduction to Grant Morrison’s SUPERGODS

I’ve just begun reading Grant Morrison’s Supergods and wanted to share the introduction with any non-readers or non-believers. From what seem to be almost arbitrary and even laughable (often laughable) beginnings, the rise of superheroes in comics speaks deeply of the politics and belief systems of our times. Since it’s already available online elsewhere, I thought I’d share with you the book’s introduction–which makes for a great article in and of itself.

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Title: SUPERGODS: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human
Author: Grant Morrison
Published: 2011 by Spiegel and Grau, New York

 

 

Introduction
FOUR MILES ACROSS – a placid stretch of water from where I live in Scotland is RNAD Coulport, home of the UK’s Trident-missile-armed nuclear submarine force. Here, I’ve been told, enough firepower is stored in underground bunkers to annihilate the human population of our planet fifty times over.  One day, when Earth is ambushed in Hyperspace by fifty Evil Duplicate Earths, this mega destructive capability may, ironically, save us all—but until then, it seems extravagant, somehow emblematic of the accelerated, digital hyper-simulation we’ve all come to inhabit.

ctte of 100At night, the inverted reflection of the submarine dockyards looks like a red, mailed fist, rippling on a flag made of waves.  A couple of miles of winding road from here is where my dad was arrested during the anti-nuclear protest marches of the sixties. He was a working-class World War II veteran who’d swapped his bayonet for a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament badge and became a pacifist “Spy for Peace” in the Committee of 100.  Already the world of my childhood was one of proliferating Cold War acronyms and code names.  And the Bomb, always the Bomb, a grim and looming, rain-coated lodger, liable to go off at any minute, killing everybody and everything.

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His bastard minstrels were gloomy existentialist folkies whining horn-rimmed dirges about the “Hard Rain” and the “All on That Day” while I trembled in the corner, awaiting bony-fingered judgment and the extinction of all terrestrial life.  Accompanying imagery was provided by the radical antiwar samizdat zines my dad brought home from political book-stores on High Street. Typically, the passionate pacifist manifestos within were illustrated with gruesome hand-drawn images of how the world might look after a spirited thermonuclear missile exchange. The creators of these enthusiastically rendered carrion landscapes never overlooked any opportunity to depict shattered, obliterated skeletons contorted against blazing horizons of nuked and blackened urban devastation. If the artist could find space in his composition for a macabre, eight-hundred-foot-tall Grim Reaper astride a flayed horror horse, sowing missiles like grain across the snaggle-toothed, half-melted skyline, all the better.

Like visions of Heaven and Hell on a medieval triptych, the post-atomic wastelands of my dad’s mags sat side by side with the exotic, triple-sunned vistas that graced the covers of my mum’s beloved science fiction paper-backs. Digest-sized windows onto shiny futurity, they offered android amazons in chrome monokinis chasing marooned spacemen beneath the pearlescent skies of impossible alien worlds. Robots burdened with souls lurched through Day-Glo jungles or strode the moving steel walkways of cities designed by Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, and LSD. The titles evoked Surrealist poetry: The Day It Rained Forever, The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Silver Locusts, Flowers for Algernon, “A Rose for Ecclesiastes,” Barefoot in the Head.

On television, images of pioneering astronauts vied with bleak scenes from Hiroshima and Vietnam: It was an all-or-nothing choice between the A-Bomb and the Spaceship. I had already picked sides, but the Cold War tension between Apocalypse and Utopia was becoming almost unbearable.  And then the superheroes rained down across the Atlantic, in a dazzling prism-light of heraldic jumpsuits, bringing new ways to see and hear and think about everything. Te first comic shop in the UK—The Yankee Book Store—opened in Paisley, home of the pattern, just outside Glasgow in the years after the war. With a keen sense of ironic symmetry, the comics arrived as ballast alongside the US service personnel whose missiles threatened my very  existence. As early R&B and rock ’n’ roll records sailed into Liverpool to inspire the Mersey generation of musicians, so American comics hit in the west of Scotland, courtesy of the military-industrial complex, to inflame the imaginations and change the lives of kids like me. The superheroes laughed at the Atom Bomb. Superman could walk on the surface of the sun and barely register a tan. The Hulk’s adventures were only just beginning in those fragile hours after a Gamma Bomb test went wrong in the face of his alter ego, Bruce Banner. In the shadow of cosmic destroyers like Anti-Matter Man or Galactus, the all-powerful Bomb seemed provincial in scale. I’d found my way into a separate universe tucked inside our own, a place where dramas spanning decades and galaxies were played out across the second dimension of newsprint pages. Here men, women, and noble monsters dressed in flags and struck from shadows to make the world a better place. My own world felt better already. I was beginning to understand something that gave me power over my fears. Before it was a Bomb, the Bomb was an Idea. Superman, however, was a Faster, Stronger, Better Idea.

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It’s not that I needed Superman to be “real,” I just needed him to be more real than the Idea of the Bomb that ravaged my dreams. I needn’t have worried; Superman is so indefatigable a product of the human imagination, such a perfectly designed emblem of our highest, kindest, wisest, toughest selves, that my Idea of the Bomb had no defense against him. In Superman and his fellow superheroes, modern human beings had brought into being ideas that were invulnerable to all harm, immune to deconstruction, built to outsmart diabolical masterminds, made to confront pure Evil and, somehow, against the odds, to always win.

I entered the US comics field as a professional writer in the mid-eighties at a time of radical innovation and technical advance, when the acknowledged landmarks of superhero fiction like The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen were being published and the possibilities seemed limitless,along with the opportunities for creative freedom. I joined a generation of writers and artists, mostly from a UK working-class background, who saw in the moribund hero universes the potential to create expressive, adult, challenging work that could recharge the dry husk of the superhero concept with a new relevance and vitality.  As a result, stories got smarter,artwork became more sophisticated, and the superhero began a new lease on life in books that were philosophical, post-modern, and wildly ambitious. Te last twenty years have seen startling, innovative work from dozens of distinctive and flamboyant talents in the field. The low production costs (pen and ink can conjure scenes that would cost millions of dollars of computer time to re-create onscreen) and rapid publication frequency mean that in comic books, almost anything goes. No idea is too bizarre, no twist too fanciful, no storytelling technique too experimental. I’ve been aware of comic books’ range, and of the big ideas and emotions they can communicate, for a long time now, so it’s with amazement and a little pride that I’ve watched the ongoing, bloodless surrender of mainstream culture to relentless colonization from the geek hinter-lands. Names that once were arcane outsider shibboleths now front global marketing campaigns.

Batman, Spider-Man, X-Men, Green Lantern, Iron Man. Why have superheroes become so popular? Why now? On one level, it’s simple: Someone, somewhere figured out that, like chimpanzees, superheroes make everything more entertaining. Boring tea party? Add a few chimps and it’s unforgettable comedy mayhem. Conventional murder mystery? Add superheroes and a startling and provocative new genre springs to life. Urban crime thriller? Seen it all before . . . until Batman gets involved. Superheroes can spice up any dish.

But there’s even more going on beneath the surface of our appetite for the antics of outlandishly dressed characters who will never let us down. Look away from the page or the screen and you’d be forgiven for thinking they’ve arrived into mass consciousness, as they tend to arrive everywhere else, in response to a desperate SOS from a world in crisis. We’ve come to accept that most of our politicians will be exposed, in the end, as sex-mad liars or imbeciles, just as we’ve come to expect gorgeous supermodels to be bulimic, neurotic wretches.

We’ve seen through the illusions that once sustained our fantasies and know from bitter experience that beloved comedians will stand unmasked, sooner or later, as alcoholic perverts or suicidal depressives. We tell our children they’re trapped like rats on a doomed, bankrupt, gangster-haunted planet with dwindling resources, with nothing to look forward to but rising sea levels and imminent mass extinctions, then raise a disapproving eyebrow when, in response, they dress in black, cut themselves with razors, starve themselves, gorge themselves, or kill one another.

Traumatized by war footage and disaster clips, spied upon by ubiquitous surveillance cams, threatened by exotic villains who plot from their caverns and subterranean lairs, preyed upon by dark and monumental Gods of Fear, we are being sucked inexorably into Comic Book Reality, with only moments to save the world, as usual. Towering, cadaverous Death-Angels, like the ones on the covers of Dad’s anti-nuke rags, seem to overshadow the gleaming spires of our collective imagination. Could it be that a culture starved of optimistic images of its own future has turned to the primary source in search of utopian role models? Could the superhero in his cape and skin tight suit be the best current representation of something we all might become, if we allow ourselves to feel worthy of a tomorrow where our best qualities are strong enough to overcome the destructive impulses that seek to undo the human project?

We live in the stories we tell ourselves. In a secular, scientific rational culture lacking in any convincing spiritual leadership, superhero stories speak loudly and boldly to our greatest fears, deepest longings, and highest aspirations. They’re not afraid to be hopeful, not embarrassed to be optimistic, and utterly fearless in the dark. They’re about as far from social realism as you can get, but the best superhero stories deal directly with mythic elements of human experience that we can all relate to, in ways that are imaginative, profound, funny, and provocative. They exist to solve problems of all kinds and can always be counted on to and a way to save the day.  At their best, they help us to confront and resolve even the deepest existential crises. We should listen to what they have to tell us.

Uncovering and Re-mastering “100 Year Rip Off: The Real History of British Columbia”

edited_cover_smallerSome time ago now, I was more deeply submerged in socialist literature than comic books. Luckily, when I received an old, shoddy copy of this tabloid-sized piece, I kept it.

Originally released in 1971 for the Centennial commemoration of B.C. joining Canada, a group called Young Socialist released this tabloid-sized comic history as a reading supplement. Despite a few out-of-date depictions (a short section on Chinese migration building the B.C. railways is crudely stereotyped), the work is stylistic and well-researched, in addition to lending insight into labour tensions (particularly the BC Fed vs. rank and file workers) in the province at that time.

I am now at the point where, as much as I want to review every new political comic release that is coming out, I too want to dig for those historic gems that were far more ahead of the times than they ever could have imagined. Who would have thought that in the last decade alone, the category of “educational comics” ranging from history and economics to science and the arts would be in a scramble for an exploding market? “Graphic histories” have popped up like weeds on every subject and personality; they are now the bread and butter of a middle school classroom.

My copy of 100 Year Rip Off is in good condition, but is the copy of a copy that wasn’t. I haven’t been able to find another copy online, and can only assume that other remaining copies in the country are most likely in personal collections. I have scanned it onto my computer and plan to spend the next few weeks re-mastering the images, to have it available as a downloadable .PDF file. It’s a wonderful piece of Canadian radical history, and I look forward to seeing it the way it was when it first came out.

#SuperMOOC Week 1: “Gender Through Comics” Intros with Strangers in Paradise

Of all the topics that could be discussed endlessly with regard to socio-political relevance in comics, Gender is probably the first that comes to mind. Discussions are literally endless.

It is also the topic I’ve personally grappled with most as well, as, to me, there really aren’t a lot of clear, pointed answers. Writing a concise blog post about the subject is downright impossible. So when the opportunity came along to take the online “Gender Trough Comics” MOOC, presented by educator and comics afficionado Christy Blanch, I thought it was worth a try.

What’s a MOOC, you ask? It’s new to me too. It stands for Massive Open Online Course – generally offered for free, and completed without the reward of academic credit. It’s a great realm that’s just beginning to blossom for people who are interested in education for the sake of education.

Our first week is generally about getting acquainted: with the material, the social networking platforms, and with 7000 other “classmates” with whom we share discussion boards and hashtags. (By the way, if you’re interested in enrolling, there’s still time: just check out the Canvas.net page. Comixology offers a lot of discounted material for the course as well, so it’s not too hard on the bank account either.)

Strangers_in_Paradise_by_HappilyDayzedOur first set of reading material for the week is a collection of work by comics creator Terry Moore: Strangers in Paradise, Vols I and II; and Rachel Rising.

Needless to say, this is the beginning of the series, so characters are going to develop in complexity and change, but it is interesting to see where everyone’s starting point it. My thoughts on Strangers in Paradise, having just finished Volume 1, are as follows:

Moore is making a story that is composed of several gender stereotypes. You have Katchoo, the Man-Hating Lesbian: fearless, trouble-maker, liberated, smoker, cat-owner (all stereotypically associated with lesbians). You’ve got Francine, the Hetero Female: timid,lacking confidence/certainty, reactive (instead of pro-active), and seemingly unsure of what she wants in life. These are all stereotypes of a heterosexual/”man’s” woman, and it all boils down to the theory that women lack agency- this is something I’d love to explore more of later on.)
And we have Freddie. Familiar Freddie! The Hetero Male stereotype. My first thought was that he must be some hormone-raging college kid, maybe 19 or 20. Then he is revealed as a wealthy business man, probably late 20s, early 30s (owns a fancy car, etc.) He appears to be wealthy and successful, and yet he also seems bent on guilt-tripping Francine–implying some forthcoming insecurity/control issues.

I see two over-arching themes here that are the most impressive to me.

#1: Moore is transforming stereotypes into archetypes. That is, she is taking qualities that we normally perceive to be highly superficial about a person based on their gender or sexual orientation, and using them to compel the story forward. I’m finding this theory interesting, and am anxious to see if I still feel that this is true after reading the longer Volume 2….

#2: It’s clear that this comic is trying to convey that no one has a “normal” sex life. The next door neighbour in the story is a creepy Peeping Tom, Freddie accidentally brings home a prostitute to get over Francine, who is then removed from the scene by a 6ft, 250lb bull dyke*, who crashes through the apartment wall to reveal Freddie’s apartment neighbour celebrating his anniversary to his blow-up doll with a lil’ Champagne.

In future posts over the next month and a half, I’ll be adding my notes on various pieces of material from the syllabus. Feel free to send me your feedback, or ask me about the course.

-N

* – my apologies for using a potentially offensive term: however, “bull dyke” is the stereotype presented, and is differentiated from the stereotypes of  “lesbian” or even “man-hating lesbian”.

Two Fisted Tales, Harvey Kurtzmann and the Birth of the Anti-war Comic

When Two Fisted Tales first hit the presses in the 1950s, comics were the medium of choice for kids all across North America. They came after radio, but before television was a common household item, and so held the attention of young people as something new and exciting, all for 10 cents a copy. Although the art was often very good, the writing was largely composed of short, campy stories with horrible dialogue. The artistic layout as well (including the interplay between the images and their captions) had yet to really mature.

Issue # 25 is used on Wikipedia and in other sources to exemplify TFT’s ‘anti-war’ leanings. The soldier on the left comes running, yelling, “Guys! I just got word they’re arranging an armistice!” His comrade answers back, “Yeah! Yeah! Tell Jonesy here about your armistice! He’ll be glad!” The third soldier, to the right, lies face-down in mud, recently killed. Just to put this into perspective—Hollywood had yet to barely begun showing dead bodies in war movies. Putting one on the front cover, of a kid’s comic, during war-time, in a way that questioned the price of war, was largely unique.

At this time, the ‘war comic’ was at its peak in popularity. Comic historian and lecturer Roger Sabin writes:

“During the war years patriotic superheroes were sent off to fight for their country, and the conflict was polarized into one between supermen and supervillains: Tojo, Hitler and Mussolini stood no chance. These comics were unashamed morale-boosters, and retailed in unprecedented numbers: by 1943 it is estimated that they were selling nearly 15 million copies a month, thereby totally dominating the industry.”

Enter a young up-and-coming Harvey Kurtzman:

“When the Korean War broke out [in 1951], I naturally turned to the war for material. But when I thought of doing a war book, the business of what to say about war was very important to me and was uppermost in my mind, because I did then feel very strongly about not wanting to say anything glamorous about war, and everything that went before Two Fisted Tales had glamorized war. Nobody had done anything on the depressing aspects of war, and this, to me, was a terrible disservice to the children. In the business of children’s literature you have a responsibility, and these guys feeding this crap to the children that soldiers spend their time merrily killing little buck-toothed yellow men with the butt of a rifle is terrible.”

It’s really difficult to sum up Harvey Kurtzman’s life, and how it influenced such a leap forward for comic books, but it’s impossible to talk about TFT without him. Although his career began earlier, he is largely credited with the success of Two Fisted Tales and its companion comic, Frontline Combat, as the editor of the pair. In this time, he also went on to be the founding editor of MAD Magazine, among other projects. The contribution MAD has made in comedy cannot be overstated. Some have even suspected that it’s impossible to think of anything within American satire today that hasn’t somehow been influenced by MAD, and therefore, by Harvey Kurtzman.

That being said… what made Two Fisted Tales a good political comic? And Harvey a good writer?

Two Fisted Tales did two incredible things for comics, concerning both form and content. Stylistically, Harvey pushed the envelope in creating amazingly detailed layouts, stronger dialogue, and a text-and-image interplay that seemed much more seamless than work before it (I dare call it ‘cinematic’, even though cinema hardly had this down yet). Qualitatively, he told war stories that were researched and historically accurate, with realistic characters engaged in purposeful dialogue. More importantly, the stories would show blood, grit, death, destruction, civilian casualties, people losing parts of their bodies along with their minds. He showed the things that weren’t supposed to happen in war, but always do. In essence, amidst piles of war-time comics being published, TFT and FC were the first to properly convey that “War is all Hell.”

“I think the best way to look at the war stories, both historical and contemporary, in these comics is to think of them as attempting a previously unseen level of realism and historical accuracy,”  says Peter Birkemoe of The Beguiling comic shop—and a big fan of Harvey’s work. “Since Kurtzman and most of the artists were veterans of the Second World War, it is easy to see any attempt at realism ending up showing the actual horrors of war.”

Kurtzman was drafted in 1943, but he never did go overseas. I mention this, because if he had in fact seen combat, I would have more easily attributed his qualitative difference with what he may have seen/experienced in war himself.

Since this isn’t the case, then we might conclude that even more influential than his time in service was his liberal/radical upbringing (his step-father was a staunch trade-unionist, his mailbox the receiver of the People’s Daily World of the Communist Party.) Kurtzman never considered himself a socialist or communist, but he had made his opinions clear on several occasions about war, racism, and religious intolerance.

Still, accuracy does not indicate political leanings–just honesty. Saving Private Ryan wasn’t an ‘anti-war film’, even though it was arguably the most accurate depiction of war in film when it was released. …So is Two Fisted Tales “anti-war”?

Relatively speaking, yes, according to Peter. “Other war comics that rushed to the market when the Korean War started were decidedly jingoistic and make Kurtzman’s work seem politically ‘anti-war’ in contrast.”

When compared to comics and even film of the time, it was definitely an opposing view politically. TFT was so much more multi-dimensional than anything else out there, in terms of both style and content. Specifically, the constrictions within the Hollywood film industry—thoroughly in bed with the U.S. government and military in the 40s and 50s—were so confining graphically and stylistically that films had to fit into the confines of 6 predetermined topics, according to the Office of War Information (OWI): The Armed Forces, The Enemy, The Allies, The Production Front, The Home Front, and The Issues (whatever that means–I don’t seem to remember any poignant films about fascism, Antisemitism, or imperialist rivalry). Obviously, showing civilian casualties, the ‘enemy’s’ perspective, or even blood was out of the question…

I agree with Peter in that these were not “anti-war” comics per se in their agenda—but they were anti-war as a result of their accuracy. This again goes back to the type of person Harvey was.

“I think Kurtzman’s message on war is not entirely different than his message on culture that comes through in his issues of MAD,” says Peter. “[That is,] ‘If you step back and look at this clearly, it is really quite absurd’.”

I will also add that it falls into Harvey’s habit of not being categorized easily. As a political comics enthusiast, I have yet to find a good ‘political’ comic that placed a political agenda before the telling of the story, and I think Harvey understood that well, having worked with comic artists who published everywhere from Marvel to the communist party newspaper. To begin, you create uncompromisingly, and in doing so, you largely defy (or re-define) categorization in your work.

… And yet, perhaps it was even a little bit more than that. I quoted Harvey earlier speaking to a certain “responsibility” in children’s literature. It is possible that Harvey felt a responsibility to show young people an opposing view of war as well as history (including Custer’s Last Stand and The Alamo—not how you learned them in school, kids!). That’s not just a strive for accuracy; that’s pro-actively seeking out an improperly remembered event or ‘hero’ of American history, and trying to set the story straight. In my opinion, that makes Two Fisted Tales not just an anti-war comic relatively speaking, but anti-war and political at its core.

[LEFT: Two Fisted Tales Issue #23 “KILL!” includes some interesting examples of TFT’s superior story-telling skills, as well as the recurring theme that these are war stories being told from someone who abhors war.]

Whether you see it as a bittersweet rite of passage or as a cannon fodder-drive for the imperialist war machine, there is no denying that war is a horrible thing. And sometimes telling it like it is will be enough to set you aside from everyone else. It was a bit of star-crossed fortune that Harvey made TFT at the time that he did… everyone had their gaze fixed so tightly on Hollywood films as the next big medium that comics fell under the radar as an unsophisticated business of “kids’ books”. As such, comic book writers had more freedom—intellectually and politically—to spread their wings. If Two Fisted Tales had been a TV or film series, you can bet Harvey Kurtzman would have been thrown into some Red Scare kangaroo trial. And the world would have been shorted a creative genius.