Down with Comics Activism!

The lights are out at O’Malleys and the greatest y’allternative bluegrass band in the world, The Woodbox Gang, are twanging up my stereo with devil songs. The ol’ wallet is considerably lighter thanks to beer and funnybooks — must be another New Comics Day.

Sad Story: shortly after completing last week’s reviews, I got in an argument with the stairs in my girlfriend’s apartment. I’ll spare you the details, but, suffice to say, my ankle made a sound not unlike that produced by wrapping a champagne glass in a handkerchief and then stomping on it. Crunch.

I spent the majority of the weekend pleasantly medicated, lying around watching old sitcoms and surfing the internet. During the course of my hard-hitting journalistic investigation (read “Percocet-induced time killing”), I stumbled on a little tiff between some industry folks on a Delphi forum (imagine that). It seems that CBR’s self-proclaimed “Comics Pimp” James Sime has somehow managed to stir a modicum of controversy with his new column focusing on comics activism.

Let me start by saying that “comics activism” is a bit like “Kobe Bryant promotion.” Sure, a select few people are going to be down with what you’re saying, but most people are going to think you’re an asshole. Don’t believe me? Stand in front of a bar, any bar where reasonable-seeming people hang out, and try to hand everyone who walks in a copy of Amazing Spider-Man. Dollars to doughnuts somebody punches you in the mouth before you can pawn off your last copy. Let’s all be clear — it’s just fucking lame to go around throwing comics at people like they were strip club coupons.

I should also mention that I used to write for the now defunct Savant, a site dedicated mostly to comics activism. I rarely wrote “activist” articles, but activism was the hallmark of the site. In the interest of full disclosure, I can’t claim purity on the issue.

But the more I think about it, the dumber comics activism seems to me. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy comics, and the idea that someone is willing to dedicate their time to getting other people to appreciate the medium holds a certain interest. In the Comics Activist Fantasy, people who would normally never associate with a picture book realize that Joe Matt and Ed Brubaker and Damon Hurd and Derf are fantastically talented and that their work is smart and fun. Hell, I’d be fine if a couple hundred thousand kids started reading Ultimate Spider-Man and Detective rather than playing Innocent Bystander Basher on Playstation XXVII. I’d also like it if the ghost of Johnny Cash sang me to sleep every night while Katie Holmes gave me a backrub, but it ain’t fucking happening.

Sime’s new column, if you haven’t checked it out during the downtime between Augie DeBlieck essays, is all comics activism. Sime and his weird little street team appear on subways and in barber shops to toss around copies of Creature Tech like Johnny Fucking Comicseed.

I don’t know Sime. I’ve spoken to him via the Internet once or twice I think and he seems like a nice guy with good intentions, probably a great retailer (he runs Isotope Comics in California). But his efforts seem a little misguided.

You want to improve the general state of comics, either out of some altruistic bent or even just to con more people into spending cash at your store? I’ve got the big secret, the down-low on what you, a wildly insignificant nobody, can personally do ensure the commercial viability of the medium. On a small scale: buy good comics and don’t buy bad ones. Throw cash at cool people so they can keep being cool — and stop funding the bastards. On a large scale: write another Watchmen or Fortune and Glory or Golem’s Mighty Swing. Ever notice how comics seem to get more attention when people write / draw really, really good comics? Do that.

That’s it. That’s what you can do. Maybe to some incredibly small degree running a website about comics will help, but I doubt it. What you’re reading right here is pure choir preaching. I get my share of e-mails from supporters and detractors, but not once has someone dropped me a line to say, “Wow, I was looking around on the internet for discount stereos and background information on Stephen Jay Gould books and I stumbled upon your site. Thanks to your commentary on comics as an industry and an artform, coupled with your brilliant dick jokes and expert use of profanity, I’m going to start dropping massive amounts of cash on comics!”

Comics activism is, at best, screaming into the void, or perhaps telling Arnold Schwarzenegger to stop fondling random women. In fact, I’d say it hurts a hell of a lot more than it helps.

What’s more uncool than someone who tells you how cool they are? Think back to the cool people in high school. Did they say they were cool? Of course not. Nobody had to say it because everybody knew it. Now think back to yourself in high school (I know, I know, it hurts). Did anyone say you were cool? Yes, of course, your mother said you were cool. As if you weren’t pathetic enough, someone was saying you were cool, someone without Official Cool Certification, which only made you way, way more lame.

Here’s a solid rule to follow in life. If someone tells you they are something, they aren’t. When a used car salesman calls himself Honest Pete, he’s a liar. When someone frequently says in casual conversation, “Honestly” and “Trust me” that means this person is in fact not honest and that you should by no means trust them. In fact, you should probably stab them in the eye with a dessert fork and quickly walk away.

The quickest way to appear uncool is to say you’re cool. If you want to turn off the general public to your product, run out in the street and shout that your product is indeed the best product ever. Why do you think blue jeans commercials never talk about blue jeans? Ever laugh at a Japanese commercial that goes something like “Mr. Good Time Lemonade is best yellow drink of all time and makes you happy with citrus goodness and causes women with no skirts to say your name over and over”? Of course, because we’ve collectively past the point in cool where you can ever acknowledge your own coolness without appearing totally uncool. My girlfriend wants to sleep with aloof guitar players, über-boastful hipsters with ADD. Shit, so do I.

So imagine the public perception of a guy amped up on 17 Red Bulls tossing grocery sacks of old Peter Bagge comics at them and you’ll know why everyone thinks we’re a bunch of fools.

Well, that and the smell.

Hey, look over there! Some reviews!

Ultimate Spider-Man #49

The latest issue of Ultimate Spider-Man turns out to be a nice little J. Jonah Jameson story complete with some decent jokes and a fight scene thrown in. Bendis packs in pretty much everything you could want from a 22-page superhero book and again strikes a nice balance between cheeky fun and mildly affecting melodrama.

This Kingpin arc was blessedly brief. Too often the book feels dragged out across five or six issues, but this time Bendis sticks to a slightly shorter story, or rather keeps his regular story a reasonable length.

As J. Jonah Jameson walks into the Daily Bugle parking garage to head home, he’s cornered by the Enforcers. They threaten to make his life hell is he doesn’t retract his negative statements about anti-Spider-Man mayoral candidate Sam Bullit. Before Jameson can react, Spider-Man intervenes. Fight scene. [This review written in Marvel Style—the Editors.]

The end of the story comes about more from idealism than from punching and webbing, however, which gives Jameson a moment to shine. Bendis tweaks the story of JJJ’s son nicely to give the curmudgeonly newspaper editor a bit of characterization and motivation that isn’t cheap or overplayed.

Just when the book starts to get a little too serious, Spider-Man pops by to see The Kingpin in a hilarious epilogue with peppy dialogue that gives the arc a nice, punchy conclusion.

Detective Comics #786

This is not, you’ll note, the latest issue of Detective but rather Ed Brubaker’s final issue on the series. I just retrieved my bloated pull bag last week and now find myself with an abundance of month or two old comics. Is it timely? No. But the Fourth Rail is timely, so what kind of premium can you really place on timeliness?

Brubaker’s “Made of Wood” three-parter wraps up with an enjoyable but slightly off-kilter turn. The first two issues of the arc in which seemingly random victims are found on the streets of Gotham with the words “made of wood” carved into their chests felt downright gritty, almost more like an issue of Gotham Central than a standard Batman book. The inclusion of the Golden Age Green Lantern tipped the story on its head as it turned out that the murders harkened back to a similar series of killings years before, deaths that were meant to invoke his one (extremely lame) weakness: wood. It was a nifty little story that actually managed to work around the idea that you could kick this guy’s ass by imprisoning him in Abe Lincoln’s old house and throwing desk chairs at him.

Brubaker’s final chapter reads fine, and Patrick Zircher’s art is sharp enough, but something about Bruce Wayne wearing a fake goatee and tooling around Gotham in a sleek car with Green Lantern riding shotgun doesn’t quite jive with the atmosphere established in the first two issues. Add to that the fact that the murder weapon is a “special baseball bat” from decades ago and you start to feel like the guys who wrote the old Adam West Batman show are doing a riff on The Natural.

It’s a fun story, though, with some nice superhero moments so long as you can ignore the abrupt tonal shift. Brubaker is one of the greats when it comes to blending silly super-heroics with dark noir atmospheres, and his work on Batman will be missed.

Born #3 and #4

The Punisher rarely works as a protagonist. He’s an interesting supporting character for Spider-Man and Daredevil (and, in the ’80s, pretty much everybody short of Dazzler) and can even pull off a mini-series or two on occasion. The character certainly didn’t lend itself well to enough interesting stories to fill three books back in the spectators days, and I’m not too sure he could consistently fill twelve issues a year to any real positive effect.

Garth Ennis is the only writer to ever come close to making the Punisher interesting for more than six issues. His first Punisher limited series was dark, bloody hoot. Once the series went monthly, Ennis began the hit-or-miss pattern that has continued for thirty five or so issues. Thanks to the movie, I doubt we’ll see Marvel having the good sense to switch the book to a series of miniseries any time soon.

Born actually makes suffering through those shitty early ’90s Punisher comics worthwhile. Ennis takes the often-neglected Vietnam portion of the Punisher’s life and turns the character on his head. This isn’t just a prequel to the ensuing mayhem of the anti-heroes life, however, but a fairly radical redefinition of the hero altogether.

The Punisher has long since operated under the same motivational guidelines as the majority of old school Jean Claude Van Damme and Steven Segal characters: you mess with my family, now I kill you! Only the Punisher uses fewer training montages. Ennis proposes that Frank Castle wasn’t so much driven insane by the bloody murders of his wife and children as he was… well, just plain crazy. The final two issues of this series, rendered in remarkable, hideous detail by the supremely talented Darick Robertson, hint at a dark deal he makes during his last blood-soaked moments in the war.

Ennis’ story works well as a war story in and of itself. One with no real knowledge of the Punisher could pick up the book and enjoy the hell out of it, although the sting of the final scene would be lost. Nobody writes war comics like Garth Ennis, and even though Born isn’t up to par with the supremely excellent Enemy Ace: War In Heaven, it’s damn good. Robertson, who seems to thrive on images of grime and gore and decay, goes nuts on the dirty details here.

Born is as dark a book as Ennis has ever written and as gorgeous a book as Robertson has ever drawn. What more reason do you need to read it?

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