Sunday, February 28, 2021

Violent Cases (1987).

Sometimes books can have teeth.  You'd be surprised how many of them can come at you like a slap in the face once you turn to the first page.  For instance, here's Alan Moore's introduction to what has to be the first graphic novel to ever put Dave Mckean and Neil Gaiman on the map.  See if you can catch where the slap comes in.

"For the past forty or fifty years, comic books have muddled through their infancy at a slow and sedentary pace.  So slow, in fact, that it sometimes seemed as if it would last forever.  Though the infant would frequently show signs of early promise, if not indeed genius, its physical progress never seemed to get beyond the crawling stage.  This deceptive sluggishness often tended to mask the slow and occasionally painful process of maturation that the poor tyke was going through.  Those of us in charge of minding the baby were so resigned to its eternal and unchanging state of mewling immaturity that even when the first bumps, swellings, sproutings, and secretions began to make their presence felt, we remained oblivious to what was actually going on.  Then, one day, all of a sudden - Bang!  It's puberty!  Since then, comics have been changing so fast that we scarcely recognize the snub-nosed toddler that we used to call "Freckles."  In its place there's something spotty and gawky and strange looking, that's asking a lot of awkward questions about sex and politics, while striking unfamiliar attitudes and dressing itself in colours nobody over twenty-five would be seen dead in.  Its utterances range from the unbearably crass to the undeniably brilliant, and though its self-consciousness may prove irritating every now and then, it's still possible to catch glimpses of the confident and fascinating and adult persona that it's struggling toward (49)".

Did you catch it?  I think the slap comes right near the end, when Moore talks of the adult persona that comic books are struggling toward.  He then goes on to offer the following summation: Comics are starting to be viewed as a vibrant and viable art form, rich in unexplored possibilities and hidden capacities.  As a result, new talents that might otherwise easily have drifted into films or fine art or literature are starting to find their way to the medium and enriching it considerably by their presence.  As this process gathers momentum, comics find themselves on the verge of a quantum leap in which all the old barriers are shattered and the territory becomes strange and different, entirely without landmark (ibid)".  At least, that's what he said back then.  You've got to admit, at least it sounds nice on paper.

Perhaps the nature of the slap in the face can be elucidated like this.  Not long ago, I came across a bitof a debate about the latest issue of a Wonder Woman comic.  The way it drew the greatest super-heroine of modern times raised quite a bit of uproar from the fans.  My own two cents on the issue is to be pedantic.  Correct me if I'm wrong, however I always thought the character herself was based off the original figure from Greco-Roman mythology.  This can be seen in her very name, Diana, the ruler of the moon, leader of the great hunt, and very much a warrior in her own right.  In short, Wonder Woman is (or at least she was more or less meant to be) something of a goddess.  The way she was drawn on the issue cover I saw probably doesn't do her character any favors.  I've heard it described as the hill DC Comics is ready to die on.  It's the latest in an ongoing series of complaints that have grown in volume recently.  For my part, I think I can remember the moment I mentally checked out.  It was when the company tried to take Moore's Dr. Manhattan and use him as a scapegoat or villain explanation for various creative missteps and bad decisions.  I'm afraid just don't read much comic books anymore.

Meanwhile, here is where Moore's thinking on the medium rests today.  “To my mind, this embracing of what were unambiguously children’s characters at their mid-20th century inception seems to indicate a retreat from the admittedly overwhelming complexities of modern existence...It looks to me very much like a significant section of the public, having given up on attempting to understand the reality they are actually living in, have instead reasoned that they might at least be able to comprehend the sprawling, meaningless, but at-least-still-finite ‘universes’ presented by DC or Marvel Comics. I would also observe that it is, potentially, culturally catastrophic to have the ephemera of a previous century squatting possessively on the cultural stage and refusing to allow this surely unprecedented era to develop a culture of its own, relevant and sufficient to its times (web)".  At the same time, most of the other talents the ex-graphic novelist mentioned above have instead "(drifted) into film or fine art or literature".  The medium that helped put their names on the map, meanwhile, seems to be nearing a state of collapse.  In retrospect, it's interesting to consider a time and place when this might not have been, like a road not taken, or something valuable that wound up misplaced.  That's where the real slap in the face comes in.

Books can also have teeth in a more positive sense, of course.  It all comes down to the quality to be found in the final product.  The old graphic novels I'm thinking about used to be pretty good at it.  This was back around the time when Moore was singing the praises of guys like Gaiman and Mckean.  It was before the industry moved on and began what turned out to be a slow, yet glaring decay.  With this in mind, the best I can do is turn attention to one of the efforts that started the whole last hurrah.  It's a neat, concise, and nasty little piece of work called Violent Cases.  Hank Wagner can give a pretty good overview of how this little old gem came about.  "In 1986, Gaiman and Mckean were working for a magazine called Borderline.  Gaiman was a young journalist; Mckean was still attending art college.  After they met and hit it off, Gaiman suggested they work together on what became Violent Cases, based on a short story he had written as part of the Milford Writer's Workshop.

"We were intoxicated by the potential of the medium, by the then-strange idea that comics weren't exclusively for kids anymore (if they ever had been); that the possibilities were endless," writes Gaiman, in his introduction to the U.S. edition from Tundra Publishing (155)".  It was a start, at least.  They pretty much had nowhere else to go at that point except up.  Another good word for their little joint venture is to call it a very risky gamble.  That's not a word that deserves to be tossed off lightly.  The fact of the matter is they were kind of taking their livelihoods in their hands with this idea.  The very fact that the graphic novel itself still exists to decorate the bookshelves is something of a minor marvel.  They both got pretty damn lucky in that sense.  Perhaps the situation for either of them wasn't quite as precarious as it would be if they tried this stuff today.  If they were still young turks trying to make names for themselves, I'm not sure we'd ever hear of them in today's climate.  

The initial comic brand that offered to publish their work wound up having to turn them down, and they still managed to get it out there by a combination of word-of-mouth and sheer, stubborn willpower.  It's probably a sign of just how different the market was back then.  In the 80s there was still a window of space left open for the maverick to try their hand at leaving their mark on the world.  These days the whole industry just tends to come off as some kind of weird, stacked deck.  Even if that's the case, then there's still a lot to be said in the stand-alone issue's own favor.  Perhaps its time to give this old first effort a dusting off, and then hold it up to the microscope once again, and see how it stands in comparison to all that came later.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Bones of the Moon (1987).

I've spoken more than once on this site about an informal collection of writers and artists.  They made their respective names during a rough span of time that went on, more or less, from the mid 1970s, all the way to the end of the 80s and start of the 90s.  You may be familiar with some of their names.  Guys like Stephen King still don't need much in the way of an introduction.  At least, not yet.  The same applies to fellas like Neil Gaiman, Dave Mckean, or Alan Moore.  They are all a specific brand name-style of artist.  All I've got to do is just say their names, and sooner or later someone's going to turn up with a list of their favorite moments from a book like Watchmen, From Hell, or The Dream Country.  The same phenomena pretty much applies if you bring up names like Carrie, Christine, or Cujo.  It's that vaunted and dubious level of public recognition that goes along with popular awareness.  

It's the type of success that works as its own kind of double-edged sword.  On the one hand, there's a lingering sense of recognition about your name.  The flip side is there's always the danger that it all amounts to just passing familiarity.  Perhaps there's a difference between how many times you get your name in the papers or the news, versus how many folks have actually read anything you've published.  Is Stephen King a writer, or a filmmaker, for instance?  I think it would be interesting to find out just how many in the audience believe that guy is the latter, rather than former.  It might just tell us a lot about how the audience perceives both the artist, as well as the artwork in their midst.  There's the troubling sense that a lot of the common perceptions of authors like King really amounts to just a kind of halfway knowledge.  It's nothing more the than basest of trivial facts.  The full story, meanwhile gets lost in the image generated by the popular perception.  In that sense, perhaps the best definition of pop culture is to describe it as a place for you to put things in so that you can forget about them.  I suppose I wouldn't mind if my own experience has taught me that such actions carry too great a risk to be carried out with no strings attached.  Forgetting the past can sometimes be a good way to get caught out by it.

In the case of the type of artists I'm thinking of, one of the results has been that while everyone thinks they know about guys like Gaiman, King, and Moore, who else besides a small handful knows about a name like Peter Straub?  What about Dean Koontz, for that matter?  How about Robert McCammon, or Dan Simmons?  Do those names ring any bells?  I think the best answer most of us are left with is: perhaps not.  That's kind of a shame, really, because they make up just as much of the story as the creators of Morpheus or Miracleman.  It's something I might have spoken about more than once before.  For some crazy reason it just helps out if I think about all of these writers as part of an unofficial artistic movement.  One of those minor waves that like to happen every now and then in the field of the arts.  It just seems like a natural enough recurring occurrence, a regular part of the gig, if that makes any sense (and let's face it, is it any more of a puzzle than life itself?  Doesn't mean there can't be perks to it, though).  I can even remember discovering there's an actual, pretty good name for all the stuff they got up to way back in the day.  The phrase I've heard used to describe them is New Wave Fabulism.  It can be found in an essay composed by the author of Ghost Story and The Talisman.  

That's the first place I can ever recall hearing either Pete Straub, or his fellow literary contemporaries referred to in such a neat catch-all term.  I've got to admit, if you need to have a title for all of those scribbling names, then it's a pretty good label, so far as it goes.  I think part of the reason it's so fitting, however, is because it might just be possible to pinpoint its origins.  I wonder if the title might derive from an old 1967 Sci-Fi anthology edited by Harlan Ellison.  It was called Dangerous Visions, and it was billed as a flagship collection.  The stories in it were supposed to be offered as samples of all the new directions the speculative genres were headed for the latter half of the 20th century.  It is just possible that Ellison was aware of the direction things were headed in the writer's field.  If so, he was definitely there to see it all happen.  The curious (maybe even somewhat ironic) part is how few of the names found in the book (the one Ellison meant to act as a kind of brave new standard bearer) ever seemed to go on to leave their mark in this movement.  Most of the famous names in Dangerous Visions belong to older writers like Frederick Pohl, Philip K. Dick, or R.A. Lafferty.  The one writer who could be said to have any future influence was that of J.G. Ballard.  The rest of the field seemed to wind up in the hands of King, Straub, and Moore.  It's one of those weird twists of fate, yet I'm not sure there's much to apologize for.

The single, most recognizable, and shared trait among all the New Wave Fabulists mainly comes down to the way they had of giving a new voice to a lot of older fantastic tropes and concepts.  They could stumble across a cob web infested idea such as a vampire looking for victims, and give it fresh blood (so to speak) by taking that archetype, and placing it in a modern suburban setting, complete with phones, fax machines, and Monday Night Football.  The result would often amount to an interesting clash and creative tension between the old and the new.  The idea of ancient figures of myth and dream sharing the same space with a bunch of ordinary working stiffs has proven to be a surprisingly durable and enduring artistic paradigm over the last few years.  The trope and its assorted imaginary figures could even be said to have carried on even to a point in which their original creators are now in their elder statesmen years.  Part of it is down to the way it makes the old seem original again.  It carries the same type of charm as Michelangelo doing a riff on the image of a bunch of dogs playing poker.  The very idea itself in incongruous, and yet its carried off with such skill that you can't help being impressed. 

There is one name in particular, that belongs very much in the New Wave wheelhouse, which I haven't mentioned yet.  I also don't believe I caught him among the list of authors Straub mentions in the course of his article cited above.  I'm not even sure what kind of reputation or name recognition he has nowadays.  His name is Jonathan Carroll, and it's kind of difficult to know where to start with this one.  It could be argued, for instance, that his way telling stories is an almost perfect summation of the kind of fantastical surreality that you can find in many of the other Fabulists.  The danger with that sort of approach is that it makes him sound like an untalented copycat, and I'm not at all certain that's the case.  Part of the difficulty is knowing just how to talk about the writer without spoiling a lot of what's to come.  He can sound like some of the authors mentioned above (Jonathan Lethem is one easy example that comes to mind), and yet it's a mistake to say that he has no style or method of approach that's unique enough to be called his very own.  I guess part of the problem is knowing how to describe that approach in a way that makes sense.  Perhaps the best way to get that done is to just talk about it.  The best way to do that is to bring up the third book to published in his career.  It's called Bones of the Moon, and there's not much else way to describes it except...You know what, let me explain.