Master Of The Obvious: Issue #33

Wed, March 15th, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

Someone sent me an e-mail last week, stating this column doesn't read as though I love comics.

This is something I've been hearing all my adult life. In my years between high school and college (I took some time off, only finally going to college when I learned they'd pay me to go, thus beginning a lifetime bad habit of only really being interesting in working when there's money attached), with a friend named Bruce Ayres (who later started one of the first comics shops, Madison's Capital City Comics) I published a fanzine called THE VAULT OF MINDLESS FELLOWSHIP. Nothing fancy, it featured a few original pieces and various things cribbed from other sources. It only lasted a couple of issues, and we only distributed it to a few stores in Southern Wisconsin, mainly Madison and Milwaukee. It's not like we were trying to make money off it, and, as with most things along that line, it didn't even pay for itself. But it was, briefly, a focal point for comics fandom in the area, and through it I made a few connections that eventually mutated into opportunities. Looking at it now, it's appallingly reverential, but at the time we considered it mildly tongue-in-cheek. Probably the best thing we did was reprinted a little-seen Vince Davis poster about comics fans that's as brutally funny today as it was then, and as applicable. (Vince, if you're reading this, can we reprint it here someday? You know the one I mean.) Even then, biting the hand that fed you was something to be aspired to, and, hey, it was the love generation.

So I'm in a campus bookstore in Madison a week or so after VAULT #1 comes out, right? (For those who've been wondering, the title, a parody of EC Comics, comes from a sketch by the comedy team The Firesign Theater. Far more than comedy records, many of their savage albums, particularly DON'T CRUSH THAT DWARF HAND ME THE PLIERS and WE'RE ALL BOZOS ON THIS BUS, are still as visionary and post-futuristic as they ever were.) I see some guy talking to the owner, overhear the name of the magazine being mentioned, and the owner points to me. Suddenly I find myself facing the Curmudgeon From Kenosha, Mighty Mouth himself, Tim Onosko! Tim was a semi-legendary figure in Madison in those days, well known in film society circles (from the same circle John Davis and Mark Bergman went on to respectively found and work at the distributor Capital Comics while Mike Wilmington is now film critic for the Chicago Tribune, or last I checked), and he was pissed off.

"I don't like your magazine," he said.

"Oh?" said I. "Why not?

"The title makes it sound like people who read comics are stupid."

I puzzled over this a few seconds, then said, "And…?"

Then Tim did something he had never done before, something that made me semi-legendary in Madison. He went away. Just turned on his heel and left. No one had ever seen him break off a fight before, but there's just something about utter shamelessness that's hard to argue with. He went away mad, but he went away.

(I'm just giving Tim a hard time, which is what we always did to Tim. But he's an accomplished author of computer design manuals and non-fiction books like FUNLAND USA and WASN'T THE FUTURE WONDERFUL?, he's a hell of a designer, and he's also the first editor who ever paid me for writing, on his '70s film society flyer MOVING PICTURE, the local ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY of its day. So I'll always have a soft spot in my head for him.)

[Scorpion]

A couple years later, I wrote a review column for a little fanzine called CPL. (Or Contemporary Pictorial Literature, though CPL was somehow more euphonious.) I'd met the CPL gang - mainly editor Roger Stern and publisher Bob Layton - at a little regional convention in Chicago, and Roger agreed to let me do a review column, o! so wittily titled "Grant's Tomb." (I believe both the column and title were my idea, but if Roger wants to relieve me of the credit, it would just be one more in a long list of things I owe him for and can never repay.) Atlas Comics, helmed by Marvel escapee Sol Brodsky, was just launching a new line of comics, the first serious assault on the hegemony of Marvel and DC in years, and my first column (maybe the only one, the bulk of the CPL gang getting seduced by Charlton Comics shortly after my association with them began) reviewed their first six releases. Four I trashed (a lapse in judgment that almost got me called to testify at the Mike Fleisher vs. The Comics Journal trial a decade later, as Mike had written two of the titles and lawyers for one side or the other considered entering the piece into evidence) and I praised Larry Hama's barbarian book WULF and particularly Howard Chaykin's groundbreaking SCORPION, which already held all the seeds of Chaykin's illustrious but then still unrealized career.

Bruce Ayres and I are in this antique store in Milwaukee. I forget the name, but in addition to selling antiques, it increasingly dealt in old comics and stocked new ones, and carried CPL. As it happened, there were four or so locals standing around the counter, reading the fanzine, and I glanced over to see they were reading my column. The dealer points me out as the person who wrote it, and one of them stares at me, then says, "You don't like comics very much, do you?"

So I'm no stranger to this line of reasoning.

Somewhere in the back of my head, I can hear Merle Haggard singing

If you don't love it, leave it

Let this song that I'm singin' be your warnin'.

'Cause when you're runnin' down my country, boys,

You're walkin' on the fightin' side of me.

Do I love comics?

I used to drive interviewers crazy, because I'd answer every question with "yes and no." Not that I was trying to be difficult, but few things break down into yes or no. That's the binary thinking I was talking about a few weeks back, trying to limit the world to zero or one, yes or no, black or white, pure infantilism: the arrested first step up in infantile development when a child moves from sheer solipsism to subdividing the world into self and not-self. The mindset permeates the comics industry and much of the rest of society. Its sole function is to destroy possibility.

I love the possibilities of comics.

When I was a kid, I was drawn to the possibilities of comics, first in terms of content. There was just something in comics I couldn't get anywhere else. Innocuous and shallow as, in hindsight, they were, they were still an invitation to discovery, an opener to worlds and ideas I'd never even suspected. Much of that had to do with the times, and my own callowness, but it's also inherent in the form: properly done, the combination of words and pictures on the page can express ideas in ways that can't be matched by any other medium, which is why, as I grew up, I came to love the possibilities of the form more than the specific content. Comics dialogue that would sound idiotic spoken aloud on film or television can come across as genuine and heartfelt when properly combined with the right picture. Action taking paragraphs to describe can be summed up in one well-chosen panel in comics, and comics can obliquely manipulate perception of space and time to create effects in ways no other medium can approach. That's it's rarely done is beside the point.

"...properly done, the combination of words and pictures on the page can express ideas in ways that can't be matched by any other medium..."

I still get that thrill of discovery from a well done comic. That thrill remains the tipoff that separates great comics from the pack, it's the radar beyond simply "a good read" that sets your spider senses tingling. I love great comics, even now. I know which books are really good because I'm envious of them. I don't mean of the talent, or the money or the attention, I mean of the work. There's precious little work I'm jealous of, but it's there.

"Love" is a tricky word to define at the best of times. Depends what "comics" you're talking about. The concept of comics? Love it, unconditionally. The content? Love some of it. Hate some of it. Ambivalent about most of it. The work? I love the work most of all. The business?

I like the business.

Just not much.

[American Flagg]

I was talking about Howard Chaykin the other day. Here's a guy - I'm not saying this just because he's a friend of mine - just oozing with talent, ambition and imagination. Wanted to be in comics. Taught himself to draw. Taught himself to write. Taught himself to color, even though he's colorblind. One of the few talents in this business ever to develop a true fingerprint style; you can pick a Chaykin comic out of the crowd without seeing the credits. Known as a brilliant guy who could command an audience. Terrific speaker if you've ever seen him on con panels, just razor sharp, a brutal wit. A sense of humor that saturates everything he does. Great work ethic, one of the few guys I know who had an office and put in regular eight hour days, like he meant it.

Most importantly to the business, a guy whose work sold books.

Want to know what I loved? I loved being able to say I work in the same business as Howard Chaykin.

Howard doesn't work in comics anymore. He vacations here, occasionally, on larks. He works in television, while trying to get movies made. To some extent, it was a natural career progression, but on another level he's there because, despite his talent, despite his sales, this business refused to accommodate him.

Howard hit the wall many of us hit. There's a honeymoon period for anyone entering the business, where just the thrill of working is enough. It's on the job training for virtually everyone, and, for awhile, it's a gas. But everyone who's any good eventually reaches the point where they imagine possibilities the business just doesn't want to envision. I've seen ideas from Howard over the last ten years that are brilliant, visionary, and that never got done. Not because Howard didn't want to but because the comics industry is now almost exclusively dedicated to reinventing the wheel and reinventing it and reinventing it and reinventing it and reinventing it and reinventing it and reinventing it and rein… you get the idea. Problem is, you can get the wheel pretty much anywhere now. So Howard works in television, where, if you must reinvent the wheel, you at least get paid a living wage to do it. He writes movies and tries to get his ideas in there. And when he writes comics now, he dresses up Star Hawkins in the Maltese Falcon's clothes. Because that's what they want.

That I don't love, and the only talent I know who love it are those basket cases who spent their whole lives dreaming of finally getting the chance to work on that one character they loved when they were kids, and who want nothing more than to Xerox the experience. But they're not working for the industry, they're playing with themselves, pure and simple. I wrote a sci-fi comic once in which the main character was asked, "do you love life, or do you just love your life?" The same thing applies. Those people who bray so much about loving comics, who think "negativity" is the devil's work, who feel that, gosh, all we have to do is make everything happy and lighthearted just like it used to be, they don't love comics. They just love feeding their fixation with juvenilia. Ain't the same thing.

It's hard to stay in love with comics. It's hard, particularly when the bills are due and companies are increasingly retreating to a mentality that talent exists to be mauled by editors (continuing the theme, a line from The Beatles' "All You Need Is Love" is today's industry mantra: nothing you can be but you can learn how to play the game) to cling to the notion that other things - other formats, other concepts, things we haven't seen before and, more importantly, things we once again can't get anywhere else - are possible, and desirable, and that there's a future in it.

"It's hard to stay in love with comics."

I may be wrong. None of those things may be true. But I love comics enough to believe they can be made true, and if I didn't I wouldn't still be here because, frankly, it's increasingly turning into a dead end way to make a living. If it doesn't turn around, it'll drive out anyone approaching Chaykin's level of intelligence and ambition (even Frank Miller, once the crown prince of the business, has effectively retreated to his own island and can barely be called part of the comics community anymore) out of the industry and leave it exclusively in the hands of the Silver Agers and the tit boys.

And that's not something I particularly care to see happen.

So put up your dukes, boys, 'cause I ain't leavin'.

Big week. Today debuts the @VENTURE website, the culmination of something I've wanted to do for ten years: a magazine (online now) where comics writers can publish prose fiction. It simmered back up when people convinced me last year to write a WHISPER novel, which is on the agenda now that the site's up. (I had too much work to do putting it together to actually finish a story for the debut, but it shouldn't be too long now.) First up are Mike Baron, James Hudnall, David Quinn, Donna Barr, Kurt Busiek, Dan Brereton, Dan Souder, Sholly Fisch, Michel Lacombe, Todd Fry, Terrance Griep and Adi Tantimedh. Check it out.

Also, LEGENDS OF THE DC UNIVERSE #28 comes out today. This is the Silver Age-based Green Lantern and Atom team-up drawn by Gil Kane and inked by Klaus Janson, and it's a continuation, of sorts, of the Abin Sur story I began with Mike Zeck in LODCU #20-21, and this portion wraps up next month in #29. One more to go. (And for those out there thinking it's two-faced of me to write a Silver Age story after railing so much in MOTO about too much preying on the past in comics… you're right! But there's a difference between visiting Disneyland once in awhile and trying to live your whole life there.)

Over on the Marvel side, X-MAN #63 may be out this week as well. I helped Warren Ellis on this one, but it's really his show: a total revamping of the character. If you've read X-MAN before and hated it, it's a whole new direction and a whole new world. Give it a shot, okay? Ariel Olivetti provides the tasty art. (This one might be out next week. I'm not entirely sure. But if it's not yet, try the other two "Counter-X" titles, GENERATION X and X-FORCE. They're not your geeky older brother's X-books anymore.)

Whatever questions you might have about me can probably be answered with a quick trip to Steven Grant's Alleged Fictions. You can also express your own views at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board, or send me mail. Bear in mind that while I read all my mail, time constrains me from replying in most cases. Thanks.

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