Last Christmas my brother gave me a booster pack of random, non-sequential issues from a variety of popular comic book titles that syndicated in the late eighties to mid nineties. The nineties was a time of groundbreaking work in the comic community that gave birth to the age of modern comics. Sometimes, not so much. These are snapshots of the industry at its best and worst. This is Brian’s Comic Book Grab Bag.
Gen13 Annual 2000 #1
Writer – Ben Raab
Penciler – Kaare Andrews
Inker – Luke Rizzo
Letterer – Ryan Cline
The ramifications of taking ink and paper and being told that there is an intrinsic magic in their specialized combinations leads me to believe that comics allow a unique perspective into the desires that we all share. This explains why there is such a dichotomy between art comics and “regular” comics, even though modern pulp comic fiction is derivative from many of the technical advancements of early art comics. Mass marketed pulp fiction is produced on an assembly line. But we find that art comics perpetuate innovation and stylized interpretations that go outside common tested conventions. Today things are different. Stuff that was “edgy” and “provocative” in the 60s is mainstream and exhausted. Likewise, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was meant to be a parody, and now it’s a mainstay property responsible for dozens of conceptual spinoffs. That there is a difference between superhero comics and art comics today, considering the proliferation of the internet and niche content communities, is remarkable. The creation of the superhero comic, introduced through Superman #1, laid the groundwork for what comics would become. French art comics, then, were likely a branch that used the characteristic expression to delve into deeper artistic expressions. I almost imagine art comics personified as a Freudian professor holding a notepad, and superhero comics the patient lying back, hands folded over a large barrel chest with an insignia emblazoned in neoprene.
“Tell me about your mother…”
Comic books, through the artistry and stories, uncover aspects of our personality. Superhero comics (Marvel, DC, etc) are the projections of what humans desire to be. Villains constitute obstacles. The sidekicks, likewise, invoke collaboration and camaraderie. The Justice League is a community of like minded people seeking common enterprise. Despite our unique upbringings, all experience universal challenges and accomplish goals despite them. Comics act as an extension of these psychological yearnings for achievement and victory. This explains perhaps why men dominate the industry. Men yearn to accomplish tasks, to be independent resources. (At the risk of sounding sexist, I don’t mean to exclude women here at all. Because I am not a woman, I do not feel qualified to address what a woman desires, or how their desires are emulated through the comic medium.) Most superheros are male because of this, and if there are women metahumans, they are generally depicted as hyper idealized caricatures of a man’s perception of a woman. They have enormous breasts. They are sexual predators. They are submissive and seductive. Being married for almost two years I can attest that women generally don’t possess these qualities naturally. Art comics, on the other hand, deconstruct the expectations of life and “prosperity.” This is likely the reason why characters are more introspective, or the arcs are articulated with thematic elements (Ghost World/Covenant With God).
Gen13 is one of those comics that seems hopelessly mired in the comic book aesthetic, boasting a super group of teenagers with repeat side-boob offenses that made me wonder what penciler Kaare Andrews was trying to get across. Furthermore, I became morbidly curious about whether or not there was a panel description in the script that said, “Here Caitlin Fairchild releases a demon, which causes us to totally see up her skirt and spy a pink thong.” I am reminded however of the depiction of sexuality in comics stemming from prolonged fantasy. Grant Morrison in Flex Mentallo through the memories of the main, unnamed protagonist speaks, I believe, as a creator on the power of sexuality in comics:
Imagine a jail cell, yeah? A fallout shelter, where the walls are covered with so many drawings you can’t tell it’s a prison anymore. It’s so bright and colorful; sexy girls, handsome musclemen, adventure. You start to forget it’s not real. You don’t realize the world’s ended for you. Hot days and nights in jail drawing Thunder Girl with her tits hanging out of her top or Supernova masturbating with the light-up end of her solar-scepter. Who needs girls when you’ve got comics? I wish I could be sick. I wish I could sick it all out.” (Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle Mystery #3)
The issue here is the escapism that comic books promote. The problem with comics is that, because one turns the pages, what should be fantastic and unreal, becomes tangible and palpable. Contours of skin and sexual organs gain definition and focus. I find myself reading Gen13 and coming to the conclusion that the success of the series, the heyday that it enjoyed, was primarily due to the hyper sexual narrative and depiction of women in compromising situations. Sure, there is a story there, which is frustrating because it is actually very interesting. Instead we merely get a tethered sequence of prepubescent eye-candy. As a result our story unfolds: Caitlin, through her Ouija meddling, is transported to a universe where she, along with Freefall and Sarah, are provided clothing that by pure will power manages to stay on, in exchange for a dimension rending demon named Ghoulgoth. The separate annuals for Wildcats and The Authority are genuinely interesting, and coalesce into the Wildstorm annual finale. Yet, despite this, the reader is given over to sexuality. This is not bad, necessarily. Alan Moore’s Lost Girls demonstrated aptly the power of sexuality to deconstruct standing mythologies and explore the loss of innocence. Gen13, however, comes off as shallow and cliché.
The sole redeeming value of the comic resides in the team dynamic that plays out through the pages. Grunge is an aspiring leader, but is inexperienced and self conscious (a teenager). Caitlin is a well meaning team captain; Burnout, a by-the-numbers popular kid; and Sarah, a lesbian (just cause…). Each character has a voice and a distinct attitude. Kaare’s manga styled rendering of Jim Lee’s team underscores the playful nature of their relationships, sometimes coming off as endearing, but is hardly realistic. Jezebelle, a battle mage of Salem Massachusetts, is conjured by three random nerds in the styling of John Hughes’s Weird Science, yet, unlike Kelly LeBrock, the reader is never granted full, unobstructed view of her entire body in the frame. She’s just there, just because. Everything in the comic is purely aesthetic. The most down to earth conversation doesn’t occur until the end of the comic when Grunge laments his blundering stupidity and Sarah encourages him with a quality pep talk. I want to believe that writer Ben Raab is being purposely meta, using Grunge to deconstruct the awkward beats and nonsensical plotting that plagues the entire issue. Sarah’s words speak for the comic, “Don’t be so hard on yourself. Be Patient. You’ll get it someday.”
Comics of the 90s capitalized on the hip, modern depictions of characters brought on by the image revolution. This was a time when longstanding house rules art could be broken and newer styles could be implemented. Before this, artists were caged. Seeing what post production product looked like after editors got a hold of Jack Kirby’s Superman from his time at DC in the 70s is more than enough proof for this. In light of this sudden shift in storytelling, comics grew substantially darker, meaner, more sexual. Wildstorm, in theory, was a testing grounds of sorts, taking DC’s characteristic iconography and intermixing it with these fresh and bold elements. Planned Batman crossovers with Gen13 never took place because of the radical shift in priorities and encounters. So where does one draw the line between shock value and artistic intention? What seems to be going on here is a warring of priorities. Sure, plenty of 13 year old boys want to see half naked women, but what about the integrity of storytelling. Lost Girls was equated to child pornography by several pundits; nevertheless, the comic still dealt with compelling themes. Gen13 is just a great example of a compelling concept, dumbed down for the lowest common denominator. It is an ideal representation of presentation over preservation.
4 Side-Boobs (of 10)