Sunday, August 03, 2008
Ian Gordon on Reading Comics
This is Ian Gordon’s contribution to our Reading Comics event. Ian is a colleague of mine at the National University of Singapore - he’s in the history department. He is the author of Comic Strips and Consumer Culture (2002) and, more recently, editor of Film and Comic Books (2007). He’s working on a book about Superman, I think. - the former editor (John Holbo)
I just returned home from attending the Comic Con in San Diego. One of the many dilemmas at the Con was deciding whether to attend a session with Douglas Wolk or a session with Jim Starlin since they were on at the same time. I opted for the latter based not on my long ago remembrance of Starlin’s work, but rather on Wolk’s praise of that work in Reading Comics.
Reading Reading Comics while on the road in Australia and the USA the chapter on Starlin and his handling of Warlock jumped out at me together with the chapter on Tomb of Dracula. To be sure these two chapters took me back to the 1970s when I was in the habit of reading comic books on a very regular basis for amusement and diversion, but it was not so much a sense of nostalgia that gripped me but a sense of rediscovery and that these comics had spoken to me in ways that at the time I could not articulate.
Discussing Starlin’s work on Warlock Wolk gives a potted history of the character and a brief summary of the plot and then moves to a description of the technique: “visual devices … repetition, symmetry, and inward motion,” and then shifts to analysis. For Wolk “those tricks underscore the story’s themes: change that isn’t progress, dichotomous oppositions, looking into the mind instead of out into perceived reality.” Gosh was that the way I was reading it or was I just in thrall to the art, which was like something I had never seen before, and heh I am a story not an art guy so that is saying something. My first response was to re-read the comics, but I am not sure if I even have them in my remaining stash of comics, which are carefully secured in the bottom draw of a filing cabinet in my office in Singapore. I started to get the fan boy sweats - I have just got to have these comics to re-read. And then I arrived at Comic Con.
At his session Starlin spoke of his early years in comics as a time when he was not in the best place, parlance for much of the social and personal confusion of the early seventies. Raised a Catholic in Detroit he shipped out to Vietnam under, as he tells it, somewhat under a cloud and with no other choice. On his return he enrolled in junior college, took a course on psychology from which he derived the genesis of his character Thanos. Starlin’s characters by his own telling were not cast in moral lights of black and white, but rather complex flawed beings. If I understood him correctly Warlock and Starlin’s other 1970s stories, particularly on the Captain Marvel title, were a mediation on religion, American might, and the futility and horror of superheroic powers. All of this conducted within a struggle against Marvel Comics’ corporate style, the indentured servant like status of work for hire artists in the 1970s, and the corroding of American life. Pretty heady stuff. It seems that Wolk got Starlin down pat. All that is left to do is re-read the comics and see if they resonate that way to my older self.
Tomorrow when I go to work I will look for the Tomb of Dracula comic books I know are there. I have not looked at these for some twenty years, but I am pretty sure I have a decent run and I have a desire to read those again too. Wolk points to three great things about these books. First the on-the-fly nature of the whole enterprise, which he sees as finally settling on an overarching mode: “total panic.” Second the randomness of the violence Dracula commits: the first serial killer of literature given visual form in a comic, it was not something to read late at night at the end of a dark country road. Third the way the comic was a “lustily and faithfully executed vampire story.” Forget Marv Wolfman’s purple prose (there’s a name to die for) or rather linger just a moment to realise that the whole point is to be somewhat over wrought; it’s a comic book! As Wolk says in the title chapter this is the “cheap, strong stuff.” The strength of the book as Wolk notes comes from the art of Gene Colan and Tom Palmer. Wolk reproduces a page from Tomb of Dracula #42 in which Colan and Palmer use the old technique of motion lines in abundance and to new effect to create a misty ethereal Dracula only just present in corporeal form. I think Wolk captures the essence of the book. It reveled in being a comic book, it pushed boundaries, including the space opened by a change in the comic code and eventually moved on to a black and white magazine free of the comic code.
Maybe there was something in the water in the 1970s, but Colan, Palmer, Starlin, and others like Paul Gulacy, Howard Chaykin, Bernie Wrightson, and Mike Kaluta all broke from prevailing styles. Comic Con had a session on the 1970s to which Gulacy and Chaykin were no shows but Starlin and Wrightson attended. Overseen by Mark Evanier it was a fun romp through the years, but I wish Wolk had been on the panel to tease out some more reflections on just why things went the way they did in these times. I wish he had written more about 1970s comics. That said Wolk has got me going back to read those comic books and given how rare I do that for a paid up comic book scholar that’s a good thing.
I was also a fan of Starlin’s, and his work on Warlock, Captain Marvel, and Dreadstar seemed always more serious and bleak than Claremont’s X-Men, which was the title I most regularly read back in those days. I didn’t get to read all the stories in the lead-up to Dreadstar’s struggle against the Instrumentality, but there was one story that Starlin did for Epic Magazine that has always stayed with me - it was set on a planet of apelike creatures for whom the only food was each other. Of course, there is one creature who discovers another way to survive (some form of vegetarianism, I think), and finds a mate whom he teaches to take the same nourishment. The story works toward a cruel resolution, one which is really delivers a true punch in the gut, i.e. in a truly untypical superhero fashion, and at the end, we find the hero weeping bitterly, against the backdrop of cold and indifferent stars, a cosmic Job who laments and gnashes his teeth at having been born in the first place. Then he is found by an alien visitor, who enlists him in a grand scheme that will change the universe forever…
Even more than the deaths of Captain Marvel or Warlock, I find myself haunted by this brief tale.