In Love With The Impossible
So what have you been reading recently? Well it being summer and all, me Iíve been reading more picture books. I started off a couple of months ago, stockpiling comic books in preparation for the holidays.

I started off with The Amazing Adventures of The Escapist, which is a thrilling post-modern fabrication of comics history. Taking its lead from the main comics character in Michael Chabonís awesome Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay novel, this slim paperback collects a series of Escapist stories spanning the charactersí alleged forty year lifetime. Itís a perfect vehicle for getting in a range of great contemporary comics writers and artists for a bit of fun. The whole notion of playing with history and time must have lent the artists and writers a great deal of amusement, given them the chance to make some kind of alignment between their work and the historical context of the golden and silver ages of comics from which many of these Escapist stories are meant to stem. So that, among many others, you have Eric Wright and Michelle Madsen drawing and colouring Chabonís own ĎThe Passing Of The Keyí story, purportedly from the 1940ís, and you have Kevin McCarthy and Kyle Baker teaming up for the supposedly Ď50s ĎSequesteredí. Not that the individual comics try and mirror the art of the era they are intended to come from ≠ itís almost as though the artists have drawn the comics and then the wonderful mock-history essays that punctuate the book have been written to tie with them. And whichever way around it worked, it make no odds, because itís simply a great collection. McCarthy (Spider Man Team-Up, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider) does a lot of the writing in the collection, and he strings together some fine short narratives that work well individually and within the overall context of the collection. Of course as is the nature of such things, there will be as many opinions on favourites are there are strips, but me Iím going with the great Luna Moth story by McCarthy and Dan Brereton. The Luna Moth character could have been made for Breretonís Pulp influenced painting style; all impossible breasts and luxurious thighs in fishnets. Itís captivating!

Oh, and the cover for the book is by the inestimable (some might say, almost ubiquitous) Chris Ware, which of course is yet another reason for picking up a copy post haste.
Speaking of Dan Brereton, Iíve been picking over some of his collected Nocturnals stories recently, in the Black Planet and The Dark Forever collections. Written and painted by Brereton, I love these comics for their style and their wit. I mean, in the Black Planet there are a couple of detectives called Willeford and Goodis! These kinds of details are important. Itís all wonderfully typical Brereton painting: more of the full bosomed female figures and improbably muscled men so beloved of those Ď50s and Ď60s Pulp illustrations that Brereton draws on for inspiration. The stories are pretty good too, but itís really as an illustrator that Brereton stands out for me. I got a couple of the Buffy comics that heís had a hand in writing and Iím afraid I couldnít bear to read more than a few pages. But for anything heís wielded a paintbrush on, you can count me well and truly in.

Now I first came across Dan Brereton in a Batman book, and itís probably no surprise that Iíve been using the summer as a means of catching up with some collections of the caped crusaderís adventures. I should point out at this point that Iím no Batman aficionado. In fact I donít consider myself an aficionado of anything at all, more a dabbling dilettante in many things, but whatever. What I mean is that I have no real interest in all of the ins and outs, the whys and wherefores of the entire Batman canon. I just like to read a good story, see some good art, whatever. And this is partly why I love Batman, and comics like this in general: there is no traditional structure to time and narrative. Of course there is linear narrative within the individual stories, and often across connected tales, but as often as not the individual comics collections will choose to move back and forth across a notional timeline, creating new Ďrealitiesí as they go. It means that you can pick up a Batman book and enjoy it regardless of knowing what went Ďbeforeí or what might come Ďafterí. So for example, I started off reading Bruce Wayne: Fugitive Vols 1 and 2, but because I had to order Vol 3 from the USA (and its still not here) I ended up finishing those and then moving onto the preceding Bruce Wayne: Murderer? collection. Did it make a difference doing it all kind of in reverse? Not at all. I mean itís not like you ever think Wayne / Batman really WAS a murderer, is it? Of course it isnít. And you KNOW that in the end heís going to be cleared and that there is going to be, if not a happy ending (this IS Batman, after all), at least a conclusion that leaves the Bat open for further continuation of his destiny. Because thatís what itís all about in the end, isnít it? The continuation of the destiny, the perpetuation of the legendÖ Of course Batman is also all about notions of isolation, loneliness and of making connections with people who love you and whom you love in turn, and the difficulties inherent in that. So in the end itís kind of all about relationships, only with a lot of shooting and kicking and punching to make it all a bit more interesting. Relationships with the various Robinís, Jim Gordon, the various Batgirls, Selina KyleÖ the list goes on.
Then this week I also devoured the Dark Victory Batman book in a lovely hardback edition. I was glad I picked up this collection of stories from 1999 and 2000 because itís got a cracking storyline courtesy of Jeph Loeb and some lovely art from Tim Sale. Loeb uses the story to create his own Batman history, and thatís another part of the appeal right there: the potential that lies within the legend to recreate it in subtly different ways ≠ to give a different slant on a character or a relationship. In the case of Dark Victory, Loeb uses the situation to reintroduce us to the beginning of the relationship between Batman and the original Robin, Dick Grayson. Itís a terrific collision between the dark brooding mature mass of Batman and the impish, restless child of Robin, and it works wonderfully.

Finally on the Batman tip thereís the Officer Down collection, which does a good job of expanding the cast of characters to include more in depth use of officers from the GCPD. Itís a good tangent in this collection, but itís even better in the Gotham Central ≠ In The Line Of Fire book, which focuses almost wholesale on the police dept and their cases, with Batman scarcely making an appearance (although his presence is felt throughout). Lawrence Block writes the introduction to the book, drawing out the obvious connection between Gotham City and the NYC about which he himself has written so magnificently over the years. And really In The Line Of Fire is a grand slice of detective Noir that youíd be mad to miss.

Now, although I loved the Gotham Central sideline to Batman, Iíve never really been all that interested in exploring any of the other characterís own storylines much. I mean, I have next to no interest in reading about Nightwingís exploits with the JLA for example, and until now my interest in the likes of Catwoman has been slight at best, and picking up the Crooked Little Town title didnít encourage me to explore any further. Of more interest though is Batgirl. I picked up a Year One collection that dwelt on Barbara Gordonís incarnation as the Batgirl, and whilst it was fun, she lacked the broody mystery of the current Batgirl with her sinister full face mask (that rough stitching is a terrific touch) and lack of vocabulary. I read the Death Wish collection recently and must admit to being more or less hooked. And of course this Batgirl features heavily in the Wayne: Murderer and Fugitive series, so maybe thatís another reason those stories are so good.
Iíve said in the past that, Batman aside, Iím just not really that interested in the whole realm of the Superhero, and I still largely stand by that stance. Maybe itís perversely why I enjoyed David Yurkovichís Less than Heroes (Top Shelf) so much. Itís effectively a spoof of the entire Superhero genre, and itís as hilarious as it is well written and drawn. Itís clear that whilst Yurkovich is poking gentle fun at the Superhero, it is done so out of a great love for the genre. His excellent essay on ĎWhy Heroes Donít Ageí that is included at the tail of the book makes this evident: here is someone clearly in love with the whole idea of comics in general, and superheroes in particular, and itís probably why the whole book works so well. Itís far too easy to make a mess of pastiche: only by implicitly understanding the structures and stylistic elements of something can you do it successfully. And Less Than Heroes is certainly successful.

Elsewhere from Top Shelf, Iíve been enjoying the excellent Hey Mister! collections by Pete Sickman-Garner, and the Happy series by Josh Simmons. For ten dollars you can pick up a four comic ĎHappy packí, and itís well worth the cash. Perhaps not particularly recommended if you are too hung up on being PC, but what the hellÖ who really is these days anyway? Both Simmons and Sickman-Garner are clearly having a lot of fun writing these comics, and if sometimes you just think Ďewwwww, thatís grossí, well, thatís all part of their delight too. Kind of.

And finally, what kind of comics review would this be without some city crushing monsters, right? Right. Cue the awesome All Flee! by Gavin Burrows and Simon Gane. This short comic has two great stories: ĎA Finishing School for Monstersí and ĎCruisiní with The Dorksí. The former is about exactly what the title suggests: a hilarious tale of Monsters learning how to do things properlyÖ like how to crush buildings and how to eat busses full of terrified humans. In fact though the story is really about generation gaps and the difficulties inherent in passing on Ďwisdomí and knowledge from the older to the younger. It just goes about it in a really fresh and engaging way. As for The Dorks, well, this is a strip that originally appeared in Arnie Comix and is a gentle poke at some British cultural movements of the Ď80s and Ď90s like Riot Grrl and perhaps even the cuties and shamblers of the whole C86 scene. Itís all rather quaint and very British, and very funny.

So there, thatís the first part of the stockpile cleared. In the second pile there are more Top Shelf titles and of course some more Batmanís. Maybe Iíll let you know about those in a few weeks timeÖ

© 2004 Alistair Fitchett