Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Weepers into the Whimpering

Let's talk about some more odd 90s comics.

Seekers Into the Mystery was a short-lived Celestine Prophecy-esque item from Vertigo Comics, an imprint of DC that remains best known for the literary fantasy comic Sandman. Various other Vertigo comics followed Sandman's clever writer/rotating artists/contemporary fantasy recipe. Grant Morrison's The Invisibles was my favorite, but we're gonna look at Seekers.




I know what you're thinking-"That's the kind of pulse-pounding action I want from my comic books!" To be fair, this low-key literary approach was pretty common in Vertigo titles. The guy on the left is a guru known as The Magician who's presented as being more or less God in human form. I alway though he was modeled on Yanni, but apparently there's a real life guru, Meher Baba, who's the model, although Baba, to his credit, didn't go by The Magician. Writer J. M. DeMatteis probably meant no disrespect to the little person community by his use of the term "midget," and artist Jon J. Muth probably meant to offset any such offense by depicting the character as roughly 5-6 feet tall.

Anyway, the comic centers on a wayward writer's quest for the mystical insights The Magician seems to offer. Things come to a bad pass when he visits an ex-girlfriend who has the temerity to argue with his newfound beliefs:



Nothing says "disrespect" like dropping someone's photo in the wastebasket. Especially if you've snatched the photo out of an admirer's hands, then hoisted it like you're gonna toss it across the room... only to primly deposit it, with your EVIL CLAWS appearing in shadow. And then little devils come popping out of the wastebasket. Artist Jill Thompson (the comic had a rotating team of artists) is really quite good, (see her work on The Invisibles, which we'll talk about in a moment, or her own Scary Godmother series) but here her talents are perhaps strained from misuse. It wouldn't take a lot of revising to make this comic suitable for Jack Chick.


Let the record show that I basically agree with everything she's saying here.



Again, insensitivity aside, I think she's right. The writer presumably thinks her argument has some persuasive force, or he wouldn't have his protagonist swooning like an overwrought damsel (although to be fair I've wept at women's feet a couple of times. Builds character).


But fear not, folks, the Pantied Skeptic is about to get what she deserves. What's that, you ask? A robust rebuttal?

Nope.

More like a KNIFE IN THE FACE.



This comic's low-key naturalism had its limits.

 Dramaturgically speaking, I can understand why Dematteis doesn't want to turn his comic into Oxford-style debate, but anytime your counterargument is "You need a good knifing!"... well, I'm gonna say you lost the argument by default. This comic is a tacit admission that astral projection, recovered memory, and other mystical experiences are probably glitches in our neurological operating system rather than deeper truths. Now, I'm confident that there are strong rebuttals to this philosophically materialist line of thought, but Dematteis can't or won't mount them. He is, perhaps, a philosophical materialist in spite of himself.

Grant Morrison's Vertigo comic The Invisibles, which was in some ways a model for Seekers, also pushed a mystical worldview, but was captious (and postmodern) enough to incorporate counterarguments as threads in a shimmeringly ambiguous dialogic tapestry, rather than mere problems to polish off (with a knife). Invisibles remains in print. I've probably reprinted more of the late run of Seekers in this post than DC ever will (all takedown requests will of course be cheerfully complied with).

Now let's look at an independently published (ergo black and white) comic called Starchild by James A. Owen. I dipped into Issue #12 without reading any prior issues. What's that like? It's like this:



I enjoy this inscrutable, decontextualized worldbuilding, probably for the same reasons I enjoy John Ashbury.

Full size for detail enjoyment.


True aficionados of peculiar 90s comics will detect the influence of Cerebus, which was one of the most remarkable and influential independent comics, right up until auteur Dave Sim decided to use his comic as a bully pulpit for all his deep insights, like that women are terrible. Other cartoonists stopped imitating Cerebus's lush backgrounds, vertiginous panels,  and wide-margined word balloons once they realized Sim wasn't kidding.

I love the atmospheric top panel on this page; the sense of depth and shadow, and hair. I suppose the hairy guy was trying to say "Greetings, Starchild" when he got punched, but I like the idea of a fantasy comic with a hero named Starchi. That punch is the only rough-and-tumble in the comic; mostly it's very quiet and genteel, like this:

Much of the comic consists of bushy male faces pressed close together, whispering cryptically. Like Wind in the Willows, it's a fantasy that pushes the homosocial towards the homoerotic. The only female character appears in a prose-with-illustrations section safely cordoned off from the delicately masculine main narrative. All she does is
  • Not wear any clothing
  • Step out of the wood like a newborn faun
  • Let raindrops trickle through her fingers into a brook.
Starchi & Hairhead Double Digest. Ask for it by name!




 The above page is from Eddie Campbell's autobiographical Alec stories, serialized in Eddie Campbell's Bacchus comics, and it gives  a nice sense of the comics-as-jazz-poetry vibe that is Campbell's signature. I was perplexed by his work in the actual 90s, yet felt compelled to keep buying it, saving his work up for a day when I would be grown enough to understand. Today, it's probably the indy comic of the period that affords me the most pleasure.

Manga became a thing in the US in the 90s. One of the most important publishers of domesticated manga was Tokyopop, which went out of business as suddenly as it appeared. I'm not sure why...



But I'm pretty sure that hiring bored English majors to write plot synopses, and hiring non-graphic designers to do the typeface, didn't help.