I want to recommend Grant Morrison’s Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human as if it was just a straight up recounting of superhero comics and how they developed. It’s a prose book, not comics itself. Very readable history. Yep. That’s it. Go read it.
Okay, I can’t do it. Even though I want to completely obscure the idiosyncratic bizarre excellence that the book contains, I won’t paper over the fact that an unsuspecting reader of comic-book history blithely following along with the tales of Bob Kane and Stan Lee and Kirby and Miller could be blindsided by this turn into Grant Morrison’s time in Kathmandhu when he met higher dimensional beings who explained to him how the universe works and how that affected his superhero comics (like the amazing All-Star Superman).
It’s a crazy great book about one writer’s relationship with superheroes and because he’s a bit of a mad egotist (in a very charming way) it feels like it’s more than just a story about a drug trip, at least more than one man’s psychedelic voyage but about a chunk of society’s weird shamanic voyaging.
If that sounds like a totally wankery waste of time to you, I won’t feel bad if you skip this one. I loved it though.
Frank Miller’s All Star Batman and Robin is a good enough reworking of the traditional “How Batman found a sidekick” story. It unhinges Batman a bit, really playing into the weirdo nature that would make someone dress up as a bat to fight crime. There’s no rationalization of why this makes sense beyond that the goddamn Batman gets off on it. Bringing in the whole kidnapping of a young boy whose parents have just been murdered aspect works well, as does the Justice League’s being aghast at the bullshit Batman is pulling in Gotham (in this continuity Batman is not part of the JL, which has Superman, Green Lantern, Plastic Man, and a very angry Wonder Woman). So yes, it’s not great in the way All Star Superman is great, but it’s a good book for seeing Batman embrace the insanity of his character.
Last week I found three volumes (Dead Mothers, The Gravel in your Guts, & High Lonesome) of Jason Aaron’s Scalped on the library shelf and delved into them for a few hours. They’re the middle of the story so you’d want to start with Indian Country to make any sense of what’s going on.
The rest of this is less about these books and about how conflicted I am in liking them. So Scalped is a contemporary crime story set on a South Dakota First Nations Reserve. It’s brutal and violent and I’m a little wary of really loving it because there’s a lot of potential for it being totally racist. Or if not racist, at least unhelpful.
A few months ago at a local writers festival we had a first nations poet talk about her work and one of the things she talked about was that first nations people should tell first nations stories. That’s not something for white people to do. In the larger cultural milieu, Spike Lee took Quentin Tarantino to task for Django Unchained, because slavery wasn’t Tarantino’s history to talk about (Jesse Williams has a great essay about the problems with Django, which you should totally read).
At our writers festival people in the audience were disgruntled that this woman would be telling us that there are some stories we cannot tell. I completely get that disgruntlement. I have long held the idea that freedom of expression means that I can write about whatever the hell I want and deal with the consequences, and fuck anyone who tells me what is and isn’t appropriate for me to do. But I’ve been coming around to see how privileged a point of view that is, and how voices from the dominant culture telling those stories crowds out the voices telling it from the inside. You really don’t want people to be learning their American history from Django Unchained.
The thing is that I really like Scalped. I love the small-scale politics and the way people with scraps of power interact with the immovable force of the US government, and how Dashiell Bad Horse is tearing himself apart to do this job between two worlds. It’s a great story. Just one that makes me feel guilty for liking it, because I haven’t sought out neo-noir stories written by first nations people themselves. Scalped is easy because it’s published by DC Comics, and I haven’t gone beyond that easy corporate mass-media approach.
Anyway, if you like crime stories, and all of my hand-wringing hasn’t put you off, Scalped is definitely worth your time.
Dial H: Into You is the first trade paperback I own from DC’s New 52 initiative (though not the first I read). The New 52 was DC’s superhero universe reboot that happened in 2011 in an effort to get new readers. I’m not a huge fan of being reminded how crassly commercial the literature I consume can be, so I haven’t been reading a lot of mainstream superhero stuff recently.
Dial H is not a normal superhero book.
I mean, sure there are cosmic problems which are solved by punching, but China Miéville is writing this book so those problems get weird. Plus the superhero at the centre of it is a Colorado schlub named Nelson Jent who, when he dials H-E-R-O on a payphone, taps into some other universe to become a random superhero for a while. Random superheroes like Boy Chimney (powers of smoke-control and telepathy through pollution), the Iron Snail (heavily armed and power-armoured snail shell and tracks dragged by a ‘roided-out soldier-type), and the Cock-a-Hoop (a giant metal hula-hoop with the head of a rooster).
I like how the book makes a ridiculous concept into a kind of exploration of the universes of weirdness and how they’d intersect with DC’s own universe of “normal weirdness” (with its aliens, magic, unnatural disasters and high-technology). The main story is about learning how to deal with the powers of the dial (which does get disconnected from the payphone) and coming to terms with weirdness. I also really like that his superheroing partner is in actuality a woman in her 60s.
I bought this one because it’s China Miéville doing superheroes. While it’s not as good as a Miéville novel, there’s enough good stuff in here to let me forget that it’s part of a stupid comics event. At least while I’m reading it.
I think The Hunt is the first trade paperback that came out of DC’s New 52 initiative that I’ve read. Animal Man is a superhero who can take on the powers of different animals through the lifeweb, but he’s also done some acting and at the beginning of this book he’s trying to kind of stay out of the whole “dress up in a costume and fight crime” scene. For his family.
Then he starts bleeding out his eyes and his daughter is reanimating animal corpses and she’s being hunted by agents of the Rot and everything goes pear-shaped.
It’s perfectly fine commercial superhero storytelling (which is kind of odd, seeing as it’s coming from Jeff Lemire, whose non-superhero stuff I love), but didn’t feel like a really personal story. Which makes sense. It’s work-for-hire, not The Underwater Welder.
At the end of the book Animal Man is off to find Swamp Thing, which is a pairing that certainly makes sense, but not something I’d ever really thought of before. Not that I think that hard about DC mythology on my best days.
Really. I don’t.
In The Plain Janes, Jane has moved from Metro City to the suburbs after a terrorist attack. Her parents think life there will be safer. Jane misses the life of the city and now she has to start up at a new school. The book is about her trying to start up a guerrilla art group with a bunch of other girls named Jane, despite the advances of the popular girl to get her to stop being a loser. There’s also a subplot about a boy in a coma back in the city whose name she doesn’t even know.
I really liked this book, even though the hysterically overprotective mother was probably a bit over the top (or maybe that’s just my aversion to such people showing through). The idea of art being important, especially in the boring places where people end up living is a great story.
This was another book from the Minx imprint from DC Comics that folded. It had a lot of good YA female friendly stuff, but it didn’t really sell so I think they just got folded back into Vertigo. Kind of sad, really.
I had always thought I’d read all of Garth Ennis’ Preacher, but it turns out I only had the first four volumes before I went off travelling and got interrupted. I don’t know why I never came back to finish it, except that I thought I had. Anyway. I’ve finished it now and Preacher remains a great comic.
The basic story is that Jesse Custer is a hard-drinking ass-kicking southern preacher who has been given the power of the Word of God and he’s off to track God down for abandoning its creation. He has an Irish vampire buddy named Cassidy and the girl he used to steal cars with, Tulip to help him. There’s an organization called the Grail that is trying to stop him to usher in Armageddon on their terms. It’s a pretty big story.
There’s a lot of backtracking in the story to go back and give us more background on characters, which, by the end turns this huge epic into a couple of guys duking it out on a street in San Antonio. It’s blackly funny and very situated in the 1990s, which is kind of fun to read now (because I am apparently becoming nostalgic in my old age).