Posted by: Abhay Khosla on January 1, 2011
Real quick: I couldn’t figure out how to register to post a thank you note on the Comics Journal site, so a quick thanks to Dirk Deppey. Many is the morning that I started my day, stumbling out of bed and heading straight to read my “news” from off the Journalista blog Mr. Deppey wrote for many years. It was a lot of mornings thinking, “Why can’t you just eat breakfast like a normal boy? Why is this how you choose to spend your first waking moments? Why can’t you ever just be a normal boy? Why?? Just put on some underwear already, at least.”
So… thanks for that (?) and best wishes in the future to him.
This one is primarily about X’ED OUT, JOE THE BARBARIAN, BATMAN, THE INVISIBLES, and… I like to think that everything I’ve ever written about, at the end of the day, is about the healing power of love. So, you know: that, too.
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Two books featured on many of the Best of 2010 lists I’ve seen are essentially the same exact book. How did that happen? Same exact book, at least how I read them. I refer here, of course, to Grant Morrison, Sean Murphy, and Dave Stewart’s death-by-diabetes hijinx-adventure JOE THE BARBARIAN and Charles Burns’s Tintin on the Island of the Bad Hipster Haircuts adventure X’ED OUT.
Both seem to tell the exact same story: a generic character (JOE‘s dull non-descript boy, X’ED OUT‘s equally-if-not-more-dull non-descript hipster) suffers a medical trauma (diabetes and/or unidentified head trauma) that triggers each to mentally flee into a kingdom built out of childhood fantasies (X’ED OUT‘s allusions to Tintin, or JOE‘s allusions to action figures, superheroes, 1980′s cereal-box heroes), wherein a colorful adventure is had at the same time as a story about the dull character’s medical trauma is presented for the reader’s edification. Both notably received more attention for art than story (maybe even more specifically, for inking than for any other facet, though the colors to both may be more praiseworthy). I read both naked. Both feature as a dominant element the main character being motivated by his relationship with his pet from the real world in the fantasy universe. And neither concluded in 2010.
Dude: Same book.
X’ED OUT is basically just JOE THE BARBARIAN but for rich people. X’ED out is for fancy gentlemen, with butlers and prep school accents, who model part-time for the LL Bean Catalog, and can spend $20 for 56 pages of an incomplete comic– repeat: $20 for 56 pages of an incomplete comic. Swimming pools, movie stars; lakes, boats, friends and noodle salad. “Do you like my new comic book? Why, it’s almost European. Do you like my monocle? It helps me get out of jail free for I am the Monopoly Man.”
On the other hand, JOE THE BARBARIAN is plainly for meatheads, morlocks, weirdos. Paper stapled together, bar-code slapped onto the front cover, right on top of the art– wait, wait, is the comic done yet? Fuck it, close enough– get it out the fucking door. They put the price of the book on the cover twice: once at the top of the cover, another time above the advertisement for the company website that they also placed over the art. Videogames and sneakers are advertised on the back covers– the hot teen fad in 2010 was teens using Axe Body Spray to light themselves on fire, but I guess Chiat Day is still working on the ad campaign for that.
X’ED OUT has a quote from “R. Crumb” on the back cover. JOE THE BARBARIAN’s fourth cover comes with a quote from IGN, a videogame website. One gets reviewed by the New York Times (well: aka Douglas), New York Magazine, the Guardian and Book Forum; the other was one of MTV Geek‘s top ten books of the year and was well-reviewed by Ain’t It Cool. Respected, legitimate, likely-soon-to-be-bankrupt publications remark upon X’ED OUT‘s significance, shortly before all discussion of the book disappears from this Earth. The other gets reviewed by video-game websites, underneath flashing web-ads touting the number of polygons in 50 CENT: BLOOD IN THE SAND; then, if other Grant Morrison comics are any indication, gets discussed endlessly, ENDLESSLY by blogs, comment threads, obsessive-compulsives, argued over, flamed, dismissed, over-praised, ridiculously over-praised, sickeningly over-praised, oh god enough already over-praised, annotated, footnoted, cross-referenced, and finally re-reviewed upon release of an ABSOLUTE ULTIMATE JIZZ-BOMB EDITION. Cue: streamers, should old acq-uaint-ances be forgot, vomit, and … scene. WELCOME TO AMERICA!
Red states, blue states, yooks, zooks, fuck it– and yet: setting all of that aside, substantively? Substantively? Dude, same fucking story! Same exact fucking story in both comic books.
What is that exactly? Both books, hitting most of the Top 10 lists as mentioned above. Both books striking a chord. Why’s a story about the fantasy lives of boring characters hitting a chord in both the “mainstream” and the “arthouse”? Why was 2010 this year in Walter Mittys? Or why do you figure two major comic creators, from what has become two different Comics– why do you think they both found themselves on such similar creative terrain?
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… You want to do those questions…? Nah. It’s been done. Yeah: let’s not do those questions.
I mean, we could go that way, but bo-ring. Cue me making some lame jokes about unemployment figures, end with a sappy, melodramatic finish, high-five, and cue youtube video. Eh. It’s just been done. Bad economy, shitty lives, quiet desparation, blah blah blah– that’d be too boring no matter how naked I get (e.g. completely). I’m sure I’ll do that sort of thing again, and soon, because I am a one-trick fucking pony, but … let’s not start a new year that way, at least. Hopefully that sort of talk is just 2010 shit anyways.
So, instead: setting aside the why, how do you figure the right and wrong of the story that’s being told here?
I would argue the fun part of X’ED OUT, the part that certainly sold me on the book when I read the reviews, were the Tintin sequences, not watching Wiley Wiggins’s uneventful journey through some minor strata of the performance art world. Same thing with JOE THE BARBARIAN: the fun parts is watching Sean Murphy draw his fantasy universe, and its pop culture inhabitants– monsters, cameos, pop culture, invention.
The fun of the Story is thus arguably rooting for debilitating diabetes / nebulous-head-trauma. If I have a complaint with X’ED OUT: not enough head trauma. I did not get $20 worth of head trauma from that comic– I think reviews have maybe way oversold how much head trauma is in that comic. The ratio of shitty-hipsters to Tintin way, way favored the former, for my tastes. The Tintin stretches that reviewers have trumpeted are concentrated at the beginning of the comic and at the end of the comic, and there is a long middle of not-Tintin inbetween the two. So, I for one hope the main character’s physical condition deteriorates significantly in future volumes so we can dance the dance what brought me.
I really hope that the main characters spend less time in reality, and if that means watching the little generic brat from JOE THE BARBARIAN die or Cobrasnake’s pool boy from X’ED OUT going into a coma, so be it! Entertain me, disease– anything but more drawings of icky old reality.
* * *
Okay, no: nothing in X’ED OUT explicitly states, “It’s a good thing to go into a fantasy universe rather than face the cruelty of reality.” If anything, X’ED OUT suggests the opposite, suggests the main character deserved the brain trauma.
The Long Middle is about the comic’s main character creating a second fantasy universe for himself, one the reader doesn’t see on the page, but one I’d figure more of the population will grok than the Tintin sequences: the brain trauma seems to be the result of the main character having created an elaborate fantasy in his head concerning his romantic interest, a Quiet Fucked-Up Girl– a fantasy which has nothing to do with the reality of how awful she is.
Okay; sure; I can check that box on my W-2. Good times. The main character’s fantasy version still seems to be trapped in a “I’ll Save Her” fantasy, too, which… Oh, brother.
The only thing we’re told about the Quiet Fucked Up Girl is that she’s a cutter whose hobbies include violent ex-boyfriends and sadomasochism– so, good luck with all of that, Peter Brady’s tennis coach. Maybe placing her next to the personality vacuum that is the main character has a fun-house mirror effect, which makes her seem worse than she is. But the main character’s romantic pining that goes on for her, especially watching him selectively create memories of their relationship using old photographs (noooooo! no, Patrick Fugit’s black swan, no!), for me, that was all like watching a girl with a healthy interest in sex for her age wander into the woods in a FRIDAY THE 13TH movie. It’s the creepiest thing in a comic otherwise full of cycloptic lizardmen, midgets-in-diapers, and maggots.
The comic even suggests the main character’s dad is broken the same way– I liked that part. And that cover– a main character staring at a fantasy egg, with his hand to his heart suggesting a heart-ache that this fantasy image of femininity is causing him– well, it’s a little on the nose, but heck, it works. (Or is his heart on the other side…? Well, heart’s actually in the center, but … Whatever– you get my point).
Maybe “the danger of becoming trapped in fantasies” is a generous reading of the book, though, a generous way of justifying why the lead female character in it is so underwritten. I suppose someone else could see that fact as a failing of the book– here’s another comic about how sex damages women and the travails of innocent boys with bad haircuts coping with that fact…? I don’t think that charge would work with BLACK HOLE but it’d be easier to lay out at X’ED OUT‘s feet, the comic’s contents being so thin to date. (God, I feel like I should be able to make a Belle & Sebastian joke here but– I really don’t pay enough attention to lyrics to make a Belle & Sebastian joke. The only thing I think about when I hear one of their songs is how awesome it’d be to date a girl in the LL Bean Catalog. Am I close? I think I’m probably pretty close).
Who knows? As much as my opinion about X’ED OUT has improved while writing about it, there’s really just not enough comic here to really guess what it’s going to ultimately add up to or say, making it feel a little silly to get especially enthusiastic over it. Unless you focus solely on the storytelling or what comic dudes have taken to call “mark-making” (and which I guess I still call drawing), where I’d rather defer to my betters. And regardless of the thematic contents, I think my original point holds:
If the best part of the book is the fantasy Tintin sequences, isn’t there an inherent message being sent by the form regardless of the content?
* * *
As for JOE THE BARBARIAN… well…This being a blog entry about a Grant Morrison comic, I think I’m obligated by Blogger Code to act the fool by overdoing how much I read into his comics. So: let’s talk about Grant Morrison, and since JOE‘s not done, and since I have attention disorders, BATMAN.
Not being into Morrison’s BATMAN began to rankle. The internet loved them some Morrison BATMAN so I recently sat down finally last month, and read the damn thing (and/or re-read– I’d dipped a toe in now and then, before, to poor results).
The good news: up until FINAL CRISIS, it mostly made sense, and Morrison’s told an extremely straightforward story once the bigger shape of the thing comes into focus. Good? It has moments, good (JH Williams) and bad (when the Magical Negro stereotype shows up to give Batman a clock radio…? I didn’t read your way-too-lengthy annotations, internet, so the significance of that Bagger Vance cameo was lost on me).
The bad news: I think Grant needs our help. There are a million pages of annotations for this comic on the internet, but… Have any of those annotations mentioned how this whole thing is a giant cry for help? Is that why all those annotations are so long?
If you’ll agree with me that X’ED OUT is JOE THE BARBARIAN, BATMAN is basically the same story as THE INVISIBLES — but written by a very different person. I mean, granted– yes, the majority of his major work has been about the relationships between writers and the fictions they create. The Grant Morrison character is the author of ANIMAL MAN, the Chief is the author of the DOOM PATROL; NEW X-MEN climaxes with Jean Grey becoming the author; FINAL CRISIS has its Monitors; the same ideas are present for the FILTH, SEVEN SOLDIERS, maybe the 10th issue of ALL STAR SUPERMAN, etc.
But THE INVISIBLES and BATMAN are both specifically about writers who become trapped within their fictions. Same story. The differences, though, between the two are stark and sad.
THE INVISIBLES is about a writer Ragged Robin who becomes trapped within her story, and the story climaxes with the characters of this fiction uniting to free her, and thus themselves from the fiction they’re all trapped in. That idea is found elsewhere in the work, as well– most effectively at the end of Volume 2, where King Mob walks away finally from the spy persona he’d trapped himself in and blows up a Bruce Wayne figure’s mansion in order to free that character of his fictions.
THE INVISIBLES was a comic about the prisons our fictions can be– the prison of fictions of racial identity, sexual identity, and most of all, the prison of the the fiction of good and evil. Similarly, the crux of Morrison’s BATMAN story also arises from a suspicion of the power of fiction, but … goes a different way with it..
Morrison’s BATMAN is about a writer, Batman, who becomes trapped in a book he’s written, the “Black Casebook.” This book leads to his … well, not his death, but to Batman punching a helicopter at the end of BATMAN RIP, which then in turn leads to his “death” in FINAL CRISIS. Specifically, the Batman is confronted by the god of evil, shoots said god of evil in the head, which in turn somehow (?) helps to cause the god of evil to be hit by his own evil powers which are steered into him by two characters both named the Flash who dress identically, all of which somehow (?) lead to Superman singing the god of evil away, which in turn… something about Superman fighting a space vampire outside of space-time, which relates somehow to the events of a 3-d spin-off mini-series that I still have never read…? I don’t know. Ask the internet; internet fucking loves the space-vampire; I’m probably missing out.
(I should pause for those few of you who don’t pay attention to the current state of mainstream comics; just Mickey Mouse elementary stuff for the rest of you, rest of you can skip this part, but just in case: many if not most of the critically lauded mainstream comics of the moment are indecipherable unless you read usually-terrible “multi-title crossovers”– people may recommend the current runs of CAPTAIN AMERICA, IRON MAN, or BATMAN to you, but unless you’re also willing to read CIVIL WAR, SECRET INVASION, SIEGE or FINAL CRISIS– there’s really no point as major plot points will just appear and disappear at random from those works. Morrison at least has the advantage of having been the author of the multi-title crossover that thoroughly derails his BATMAN run, though this is small comfort, because as set forth above, his series required you to read other series, which in turn required me to take off my clothes. Of course, it’s all some kind of sick, black joke that this has happened AFTER mainstream comics finally began to become collected into convenient collected editions and sold in bookstores to casual audiences, or that the authors of the multi-title crossovers have usually been writers who themselves benefited from not having their major runs interfered with previously, but… unfortunately, not a joke that’s remained funny over the last five to six years and counting that companies and creators have pursued this scorched-earth strategy. But: Short-Term Strategies, For the Long-Term– that’s on the crest).
Anyways, Batman’s “death” then leads to his rebirth in THE RETURN OF BRUCE WAYNE miniseries, which climaxes in Batman being presented with a choice by the warring gods of evil and knowledge between non-existence and existence. In choosing existence, Batman then himself becomes the author of Batman which is signified by Batman hand-writing a critical moment from his origin story. The comic concludes immediately after Batman again becomes an author, for what I think is at that point the fourth time in Morrison’s run. The adventure now continues in BATMAN INC. where Batman drags schlubby Japanese guys away from their girlfriends and into his grubby, violent fictions. (Indeed, Batman is now only a writer but a modern mainstream comics writer, insisting we read spin-offs of lame characters no one really wants to read when they could be reading about Batman instead. Schlubby Japanese Guy is Brother Voodoo to Batman’s Whoever-the-Hell-Thought-the-Audience-Wanted-More-Brother-Voodoo).
On the one hand, we have THE INVISIBLES where evil is an illusion, and our heroes triumph by freeing the author of the harsh fictions that imprison them. I’d suggest this is a valuable story, as the fiction of good and evil continues to be a dominant motivation for war, racism, etc. But instead, on the other hand, we have BATMAN, where evil is a dark omnipresent force of the universe that the author can only defeat by submerging themselves completely into a ridiculous fiction.
And I don’t understand that difference other than to just guess that something sad has happened. The more you skim the extremely-lengthy annotations (no interest in condensing stuff down, guys? Really?), or investigate the comic, the worse the picture that emerges of the Morrison BATMAN– long stretches of dialogue that apparently repeat obscure Silver Age Batman comics, interview excerpts that reference bizarre, pointless plans to “make sense” of a wildly inconsistent publication history, micro-details like red-black motifs that apparently arise out of two or three pages of the long-forgotten DC UNIVERSE #0 one-shot; one annotation– I’m sorry but I don’t remember which– puzzled over whether a character’s name was a micro-reference to the fucking giant penny in Batman’s cave(!).
Even to the extent the themes I’m talking about here are all intentional, this doesn’t really sound healthy, any of this. Granted, *I’m* asking about what’s *healthy behavior* on the *internet*, but…
Still: it don’t.
However much his BATMAN run might have concluded in some bizarre out-of-nowhere affirmation of friendship, it’s such a lonely comic. It’s not difficult to read the BATMAN annotations and imagine Morrison himself as no longer King Mob, but become Ragged Robin– trapped now, trapped by his career, trapped by a DC Universe he’s wished “alive,” trapped in a room with old Silver Age comics, gone sad trying to figure out how he can get them to make sense. THE INVISIBLES was about authors and fictions, but it was also about music, poverty, ex-girlfriends, and poetry. BATMAN is about Batman, wall-to-wall Batman, a black hole of Batman that life can’t escape. Earlier iterations of the Morrison Public Persona talked about drugs, travel, jeet kune do; modern era Morrison Public Persona writes silly, angry screeds about how bad comic fans on the internet are in the back of Mark Waid comics. Get off his lawn, kids! (On the Savage Critic scale, I’d put Morrison’s letter column rants about the internets as OKAY, because I did like the Phantom Zone shout-out at least, which places him slightly ahead of Matt Fraction’s much vaguer letter column rant about the internet, which I’d rank as EH, but both obviously, way, way behind Dan Slott telling that one dude to Fuck Off, which I’d put at VERY GOOD, probably the best thing of Dan Slott’s I’ve ever read. 2011: this site is going to rank the shit out of everything this year!)
So, regardless of how JOE THE BARBARIAN turns out, it kind of doesn’t matter for me because– because I’ve read Morrison comics since goddamn high school, he’s meant just the world to me since then, and something’s just not right here, guys. I mean, I don’t know what all this adds up to, but: instead of annotating every panel of his next comic book, could somebody maybe please instead take the guy dancing?
* * *
Retreating into a fantasy universe– well, we probably all had our reasons to do that sort of thing in 2010 (and/or every year before that, if you’re anything like me). But damnit, it’s a new year, and it can be a new start– New Year’s is my favorite holiday; no other holiday is so hopeful. It’s an entire holiday based upon irrational hopes– I love every second of it. I love it to death. Fuck Halloween, fuck Christmas, fuck Thanksgiving: if you’re a fan of those, that’s fine, good for you, but what I’m saying is– New Year’s. Maybe my favorite comic in 2011 will be that one where the girl goes to Israel. I don’t know– that’s supposed to be a good comic– maybe that happens; who knows what this year has in store for us? Maybe the next volume of X’ED OUT, the main character gets a haicut, and goes to Israel and he becomes best friends with that girl, and learns about seashells or how telescopes were invented, and re-discovers how great reality is. That’d be a great comic– no one would see that plot twist coming.
And maybe that can happen for you or I, too. 2011 can be that year for any one of us. I mean, whatever the right or wrong, we create these fantasies, and sure, they damage us, but what’s the alternative but to go back for more, shit-eating grin, hat in hand, once that new year comes around? All we need is a barber, some plane tickets, and maybe some Judaism. All things well within our reach. This can be the year you grab for those dreams.
2011: The Year We Desperately Grab at Judaism Because None of this Other Shit Is Working Anymore.
2011: The Year We Make a Brand New Very Best Friend.
2011: Clothing optional.
2011: This is What the Fantasy Universe Inside My Head Looks Like, and I Go There Once a Year, No Brain Trauma Necessary.
But it really can happen!