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Pairings #2 (of ??): Jeff on Sugarshock and BTVS: Willow

Jeff Lester

Hello there, fine readers of this blog. I’m running very late today and I’ve decided during this current fickle flirtation I’m having with ‘content,’ that it’s better to be speedy than right. Must I choose? On a day like today, where it’s almost noon and the pajama pants are still on and I promised myself I would absolutely, positively get out of the house by 1:30, the sad answer is yes.

And so, after the jump, Pairings #2: my thoughts of Sugarshock and Buffy The Vampire Slayer Willow, two one-shots by Joss Whedon and colleagues.

SUGARSHOCK: I read the first part of this online–maybe two parts, I can’t quite remember–and it did…very, very little for me. It seemed little more than Joss Whedon goofing off, which at the time I found…annoying? Exasperating? I think maybe in the back of my mind, the teeny puritan “Team Comics” part of my soul was a little bummed that Dark Horse appeared to be making a genuine efort to create an online bridge to print comics, and their best hope for drawing in new fans decided to make farting noises with his hand & armpit for eight pages.

And when the print version of this came around, I read an online review somewhere blasting the collection for being exactly that for its entire length. So why I picked this up….I think a few people I trusted (such as Hibbs) said they enjoyed it, certainly…but as I recall, I picked it up and something clicked. Oh, right, I thought. It’s a comic book.

Let’s just push aside the talk of ‘comix,’ ‘graphic literature,’ and what-have-you for a minute, and and talk about comic books, the publishing equivalent of child prostitutes–not children that are prostitutes, mind you, but rather prostitutes for children. Before anyone ever thought to collect them, comic books were there on the newsstand, robbing boys and girls of nickels and dimes (in an era where a dime got you a loaf of bread and people were motherfucking starving, mind you), disposable romances, seedy encounters. Comic books were being brightly colored, gaudy, deliberately enticing–it didn’t matter what comic books wanted, as long you wanted them. They looked like they’d be the greatest thing ever–a four-color sump of sex and violence and laughs, and the stuff you only got on Sundays now in your sweaty little hands and nobody would ever have to know–and ten minutes later you were done and it wasn’t nearly as good you thought it was going to be, but there was also some sense of relief mingled in there with all the shame. And everyone got what they wanted. Then those johns came along who had to go and ‘fall in love’, and keep their memories alive by buying up their childhood experiences, keeping them preserved by pressing them flat at the bottom of their shirt drawer, or in between their mattresses, trying to make something honest out of comic books.

That’s not a bad thing per se. Not every title turned out on the street by a Donenfeld or a Liebowitz wanted just to make rent, many of them also secretly wanted to be loved (although they’d never admit it, and there’s nothing they found funnier than those johns who professed to love them). And even the ones who somehow end up reputable–reprinted! stocked on library shelves! winning awards!–find themselves uncomfortable and a little at odds, rough around the edges, unable to hide their coarse history.

Comic books are innately agents of chaos, chaos and capitalism–and if you think the latter, when left unchecked, won’t inevitably lead to the former, you haven’t been paying attention lately–driving crazy those who order ’em, shelve ’em, make ’em. Mark Waid’s frustration and bewliderment at the failure of his BRAVE & BOLD? Ordering and stocking AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #583? In the comments for Brian’s shipping post of 12/30, Rudi talks about his comic store switching to pulls only. Not only is this apparently a suicidal business move on the part of the store, it’s depressing and weirdly anti-comic book to me, because the comic book industry was built on poor impulse control. And poor impulse control is just the term squares use for romance.

Yeah it’s squalid, but there is something of the divine to our comic store visits: divine in the way madness is divine, that love at first sight is divine, in the way that romance is a frenzy we nonetheless associate with our higher selves instead of our lowest. Marketing, word-of-mouth, handselling, all of these play their increasingly crucial part, but never count out that first and truest instinct–the moment you pick up a book on a shelf and you look at it and something clicks. Oh, right. It’s a comic book.

In other words: yes, Dark Horse only wants my money; yes, Joss Whedon is only being clever; yes, this book doesn’t even have an issue number (it’s just SUGARSHOCK) and I read at least eight pages of it for free online (and if I read more, they didn’t even stick). But Fabio Moon is being colored by Dave Stewart on paper. There’s a robot with a wallet-chain, and space gladiators, and the sound effects for the opening concert are: LOUD MUSIC, LOUD MUSIC, WEIRD BUZZING. The Lincoln joke doesn’t work, but the caption describing the Saddest Song In The World did, and there’s a weird convoluted backstory for one of the characters that makes no sense. It makes no sense why it’s even in there, much less on its own (there’s a cutaway scene when one of the characters tries to explain their motivation). If I wanted to make a case for Sugarshock, I’d say it’s like Ellis’ and Immonen’s Nextwave, or Morrison and Williams’ Seven Soldiers #1, where a writer tries to recreate the wonder and absurdity of reading a comic book to an audience all but inured to the wonder and absurdity of reading a comic book…and where the success is in no small part attributable to the significant chops of the artist doing the heavy lifting.

But I don’t really want to make a case for Sugarshock–I’m not sure it deserves it, it probably doesn’t want it, and for me it doesn’t need it. I bought Sugarshock, I enjoyed reading it, and I guess it works for me as a costly printed piece of matter in way it didn’t as a free, formless piece of digital information. What can I tell you? There’s many reasons those on the streetcorners gather to mock their johns, and foolishness is certainly one of them. GOOD. Not a GFE, but would repeat.

BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER: WILLOW: This is also an irreverent one-shot by Joss Whedon from Dark Horse, and is also $3.50. It did not work for me. Joss Whedon is addicted to up-ending expectations the way a chainsmoker is addicted to cigarette lighters, and so it makes sense to me that just as Sugarshock is a one-shot where the events tilt on (deliberately pointless) backstory, Willow is a well-known character’s mystical walkabout stripped almost entirely of context–in fact, the point of the issue is that the character must discover her own context in a realm cluttered with everyone else’s.

And yet? Didn’t work. Are Karl Moline and Andy Owens saddled with drawing a character fans have seen a hundred-plus hours of on TV, while Fabio Moon isn’t? Yup. Are they yoked to a script with a propensity for shifting references and scales while Moon gets all his sci-fi crazy kept consistent? Yup. But Moon (with Stewart on colors) has crazy chops Moline and Owens (with Michelle Madsen on colors) currently do not.

Also, I think Willow’s mix of hesitancy and decisiveness, her headstrong skittishness, only works for me when you’ve got Alyson Hannigan saying the lines. I don’t think that’s just years of a TV crush talking: you can hear Hannigan’s Willow second-guess herself as she stammers, or come to a decision as she’s making it. Without that, the Willow I encountered here (and in Buffy: Season Eight, before I bailed) is too much the writer’s friend–you don’t know why she does or doesn’t grok something, other than it’s the point in the script where she’s supposed to.

And also the artists just can’t figure out Willow’s face. They’ve definitely figured out there’s something going on with her nose, but what that is, they’re not quite sure. Sometimes it’s big; sometimes it’s small. If ever a comic book gave the impression its artists had put a post-it note on the drawing table reading: “Remember! Nose!!” Buffy The Vampire Slayer: Willow is that book. That–and a sub-EH rating–are really the kindest things I can say for it.

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