Monday, 11 April 2016

30 Blogs of Night: The Tenth Muse

Day 11

Comics. I love 'em, have done since I was a kid and I've never grown out of them. From reading the
Dandy and Beano when I was very small, and my parents actually bought me comics, and reading Marvel's Transformers books, up to the present where I actively seek out new titles, new voices whenever I can, comics have formed a huge part of my life.

They're a weird art form, one that in the anglophone world have been rather lumbered with the idea that they're nothing more than a children's entertainment, just as animation has. Both forms have sent a rather rude awakening across the bows of adults everywhere, partly through the expansion of what's available to buy to include books and films from elsewhere in the world, including Japan which is still the king of such things. But when you consider that Turkey sells comic versions of War and Peace, and in France the medium is known as the Tenth Muse, it rather illustrates how willing Britain and America have been to straitjacket comics. Part of that was down to the Comics Code in the States, which laid down a load of things the art form could not do, from having guns on display to showing criminals planning their crimes. In addition Fredric Wertham's infamous report Seduction of the Innocent drew parallels between Batman and Robin, Superman, and Wonder Woman with various practices that for the time were verboten. This was in direct contrast with the 1940s where the characters had been an integral part of the war effort. The accusations laid at their feet may have been partially true of Wonder Woman, her creator William Moulton Marston is alleged to have created her to prepare men and boys for a female led future and lived in a polyamorous fetish based relationship. To suggest that Superman was in any way based on the Nazi idea of the Ubermensch is just downright insulting given the fact that his creators were Jewish and he spent most of the War spanking Hitler into submission, or telling American kids that they could 'slap a jap'.

In Britain the influx of horror comics (in itself an indication that form was never truly intended for
children alone) led to outraged calls from Christians and eventually to the publication of The Eagle which aimed to promote positive figures like Dan Dare. This restriction would lift earlier in the UK than across the Pond, at least in the overground press.  By the Seventies titles like 2000AD were shaking a Punk fist at the figures in authority, using Science Fiction as a base to criticise and talk about things that you couldn't if you stuck to the present day and time (just like always, really), By the Eighties we saw things like V for Vendetta, which were openly political. V is one of my favourite stories, probably the best thing Alan Moore has ever written, Moore would go on to be the spearhead of the 'British Invasion' that brought British creators to American comics, moving them on from the status quo of villains repeatedly escaping jail and trying bizarre heists. They had become more socially relevant in the Seventies, tackling issues like bereavement and drug addiction. They were still heroes though, albeit ones with feet of clay. The age of antiheroes was yet to arrive.

It's arguable that from the mid Eighties there wasn't really a market aimed at children in American comics. Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns saw to that, spawning a thousand imitators as creators sought to capture Moore and Miller's magic. In Britain the Thatcher years had spawned a series of political astute commentaries in comic form, something covered by the British Library's Comics Unmasked a couple of years ago in wonderful detail. Darkness was in vogue and in truth it's never really left, though the market feels more diverse than ever with the growth of a strong indie press and more and more women getting involved. In many ways it feels as if the industry has transformed itself over the last few years and the sacred cows are in danger of dying off.

So what do I like about this medium, I hear you ask (with shades of 'get on with it')?

I find that the books I like do have a political edge, a real edge though they don't have to. I do have a soft spot for superheroes, though they're getting rather blah at the moment with all the reboots, events, and other shenanigans. I miss the days of the long form stories, with strong character growth. What I do like is the way the form works, how turning a page can move you to somewhere else entirely, through space or time. No other medium does that, just as no other art form engages both sides of the brain at the same time. The growth of creators who are willing to play around with things is also something I love, and I'd hold up Planetary with its homage to much of the established superhero universes and the meta step of having the characters realise they're two dimensional beings in a three dimensional stack... they never quite say comic book but its certainly implied. This sort of cleverness, combined with good storytelling is very appealing and a core of good creators who are adept at this have grown up since the '80s.

The other thing is that you get to know the characters, in many ways comics are nerd soap operas. The readers follow characters' lives through love. work and, in the case of the superhero genre which
still dominates the American market (though that seems to be changing) battles with other pervert suited types. This is appealing for the same reason as The Archers or Eastenders are, you get real slice of life stuff mixed in with the weird stuff, a solid baseline that while it can be annoying at times provides a connection. Comics creators know this too, Stan Lee famously said that the prospect of New York being destroyed was more terrifying than the same happening to a fictional city. It can be frustrating to look at the super geniuses and wonder why they don't fix world hunger or the hole in the ozone layer, but it's important to acknowledge that the books need to stay true to our Earth in some respects.

These days I don't really read superhero books, but love indies and am grateful for the changes in what's available. I've put a list of six recommendations below, which I really rate. I could have added more but I think I've rambled enough.


Sandman: One of my four favourite series, Sandman is a gothic love letter to mythology, to horror
and to comics in general. Focusing on Dream, who along with his siblings are anthropomorphic personifications of the basic aspects of the universe, the series recounts his return to power and what he does then, as change comes knocking and he has to face up to his past, and make decisions about his future. The world he lives in is wonderfully odd, brilliantly inclusive and underscored with strong philosophical ties. I know that's not everybody's cup of tea but trust me, it's wonderful.

Transmetropolitan: Bright shiny, screwed up cyberpunk, Trasnsmet follows the adventures of
Spider Jerusalem, gonzo journalist and all round bastard as he is forced out of retirement and takes shot at the monsters, and politicians of his age. Riotously funny, steaming with black humour and at times hissing uncomfortable truths through its teeth, Transmet is one of those series that manages to be true as well as being science fiction. The Guardian newspaper recently referenced the series in relation to the 2016 elections in America, identifying Donald Trump as the Beast (I think he's more Heller myself but there you go).

Invisibles: Ave discordia! Anarchism, magic and conspiracy theories collide with a loud crash in this series, which charts a young man's psychic awakening and recruitment into a war between two opposing sides (which may, in fact, be the same side) as he discovers that there is far more to the world than what the eye can see. With funny dialogue, mind boggling concepts and strong character growth, Invisibles charts a weird world that is close enough to our own to be terrifying. There are many concepts within it that I have not seen elsewhere and the series reads as freshly now as it did in the Nineties.

Lucifer: A spin off series from Sandman, Lucifer took up the adventures of the now stateless Prince
of Hell, as he finds that old enemies and friends won't leave him alone. It's a fascinating tale, one that explores the nature of belief and godhood, as only an atheist and a fallen angel can (the atheist being the series writer, Mike Carey.. as far as I know he isn't a fallen angel). Punctuated with tender and funny moments, and again with solid character growth, the series is a delight to read.

Journey Into Mystery: The only superhero title here, the Journey into Mystery I refer to here is the Gillen run, following Kid Loki as he tries to escape his past and forge a new future for himself after the death of the older Loki in Marvel's Siege event (I know, blah blah blah). This is touchingly written and is probably the closest to Sandman and Lucifer Marvel have ever got in terms of style and content. Gillen presents a wonderfully skewed look at the Marvel universe, and establishes a series of new threats that I daresay won't be touched on for ages, if ever again.

Rat Queens: An Image book, Rat Queens has recently stolen its way into my heart with its wit and
vivacity. Following a group of adventurers, of the DnD variety, the book focuses on their adventures, casting them as rabble rousing, sex mad types who are gleefully rebellious and who largely save the day because they have to rather than out of any sense of public duty. Its a funny book, and one I would recommend if you want a light, if dirty, read.

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