Poplife: Issue #17

Thu, May 30th, 2002 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Matt Fraction, Columnist

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POPLIFE is a collection of excerpts from my work journal. There is no specific form or function the column serves other than to allow the reader to see what my experience in my first year as a comics-writer is like. Some weeks I get work done, so I talk about work. Some weeks I don't get any work done, so I ramble incoherently. POPLIFE's purpose is to provide a glimpse behind the curtain of my specific process.

So I've been thinking about serials; trying to think about and sell myself on storytelling in cheap, disposable little chunks. And while I'm not necessarily ready to embrace the idea part and parcel, I've been looking at what intrigues me about them and what I respond to in that format that I can try to focus on and bring out. Part of this newfound fascination comes from dealing with a serial for the first time with my bit of Avatar Press' forthcoming NIGHT RADIO series; the other part is borne of a more logistical and fiscal sort of thinking where most publishers are still working on a 'serial pamphlets lead to a collection' type of publishing paradigm. Which, right or wrong is The Way Things Are at this point in the game. As a new writer I doubt very much that I'd have much luck in convincing people-- outside of Larry Young, who in fact convinced me waybackwhen he wrote his TRUE FACTS piece about it-- that original graphic novels are the way to go.

I've made no bones about my preference of writing for an OGN format instead of a serialized collection. Pamphlets serve as loss leaders for inevitable collections anyway, so instead of constraining your thinking to 22-32 page chapters with breaks, why not just put out the whole thing at once? The format is preferable to me as a reader-consumer: having a big fat slab of comics right there in your hand as opposed to getting it piecemeal over a span of months makes more sense, and makes for a more satisfying jolt. One collection is cheaper to produce than five or six issues, too. And, to be honest, as a writer I'd much rather lose myself in the story without worrying about artificial page breaks and chapter stops-- it seems to offer a freedom from padding, especially as American comics seem so largely predicated on Cliffhanger Endings, even when they're completely absurd and out of place with the story.

[Editorissimo-For-Life Jamie S. Rich at last year's APE.]
Editorissimo-For-Life Jamie S. Rich at last year's APE.
Oni Editorissimo-In-Chief-For-Life Jamie S. Rich makes the argument, in spite of the fact that I am God's Most Specialest Angel and I Am Made of Light and therefore the rules don't apply to me, that singles sort of impress structure upon writers who need it. That the form ends up aiding and abetting the function for those that would lack it otherwise.

Apparently, he did not get the memo about me being God's Most Specialest Angel and I Am Made of Light. I have to concede his point at least, even if I don't like it.

Anyway. What follows is the result of me trolling around my Completely Magnificent Apartment looking at old singles that flipped my switch, and some of the reasons why. The idea being that maybe by reverse-engineering what it was about these books that attracted me to them as a reader that I can have a better grasp on how to build the better mousetrap.

[Paul Pope's THB from Horse Press.]
Paul Pope's THB from Horse Press.
THB
Paul Pope


Horse Press

I picked this up to read at lunch back when I worked retail. I'd never heard of it, or of Pope, and the fact that there was a 100-some-page comic for about sixteen cents. Looking at the cover, there's that little checkerboard up top that reminds me of those old DC silver age books. So I sat down and read the damn thing and had my brain bashed wide open.

On top of Pope's many virtues as a cartoonist (which I could go on and on about, but won't), what struck me about THB were two things: the essays inside, and the sheer girth of the book itself.

The essays, which seem to enrage, bore, or just plain turn a lot of people off, struck me as only half-serious (on top of being genuinely informative about Pope and his work to date) in their monomaniacal tone and scope. Part of the gag, right? Rock Star Comics are all well and good, but lest we buy our own hype… that seemed, to me anyway, to be the undercurrent to the essay bits. Their presence added a dimension of Other that pushed THB and Pope away from most books and creators at the time. Not quite a letter column sort of thing, and not quite like where Peter Bagge had been taking HATE in its last few years (with supplemental strips and various columns in the back), the essay section in THB somehow felt just as essential as the comics within the book itself.

Maybe my attraction came from the volume and density of the work, from a comic that felt just as at home with the work of Jack Kirby as it did Hugo Pratt. Whatever it was, the fact that I poured over those eight or ten pages, however many there were, before reading a single word of the strip says quite a lot. And Pope's editorial presence in his work remains one of my favorite things about his stuff, even if most folks didn't get the joke. Based on some of his media appearances lately, if I had to guess I'd say that when 100% and new THB roll out later this year, he'll be playing that game again.

More than all that stuff was the sheer goddamn volume of stuff under that one cover. It was cheap and massive, page for page the best value out there. Instead of shoehorning his rather broad, rather rambly story into slim little bursts, Pope's THB free-associates all over the place, flexing his world-building muscles and letting his story alternately run forward at light-speed and meander about at leisure. The nearest simile on the stands today that I can think of is Carla Speed-McNeil's FINDER (even though FINDER is normally a single-issue type affair -- the mind reels at what Speed would do without page limits).

When Pope resurrected THB last year in the funny-if-you-get it THB #6 (which ran, in fact, across four issues called 6A, 6B, and so on), he spent literally hundreds of pages deconstructing one single action scene. Considering the relative low price of these books compared with their sizable page count (96 pages or so per book), THB is never anything less than a substantial read.

Ironically enough, I doubt that massive page counts are something that I could convince people to go for, even IF it was serialized.

[The exquisite BLACK HOLE by Charles Burns.]
The exquisite BLACK HOLE by Charles Burns.
BLACK HOLE
Charles Burns


Fantagraphics Press

BLACK HOLE is hands down, bar none, the sexiest comic book ever made ever. I reviewed it along such lines at Artbomb not too terribly long ago, and I don't mind the review until its inevitable decay into profanity there at the end. Although it really should surprise no one, I guess.

There's something about the physicality of BLACK HOLE that I adore. Part of my attraction to comics is to the actual, physical objects themselves as much as the stories contained therein. They're portable, they're disposable, and when handled correctly, comic books act like art objects to me. Part of the medium that attracts me so is the marriage of form and function comics offer, and this is best exemplified by BLACK HOLE.

The covers are all pop art masterpieces. The colors pop against impenetrable blacks, and Burns' masterful line work is completely hypnotic. The cover stock itself feels to be some sort of metal rather than paper. It's a heavy, thick thing to feel, coated with a layer of varnish that makes the whole package gleam. With the right angle and flick of the wrist, I think I could pop someone's eyeball out with the smallest corner of a BLACK HOLE cover.

The inner pages seem to be some sort of alien paper hybrid that exists solely to best display Burns' artwork. Slick and bright, but seemingly thicker than most slick comics pages, the guts of BLACK HOLE feel almost reflective. It's an addictively tactile comic to read, yet doesn't do anything to deviate spectacularly from the expected comics form. On their most simple of levels, there are no differences between BLACK HOLE and, FILTHY SANCHEZ MONTHLY. Same page count, same sort of difference between the cover and the interiors… and yet BLACK HOLE and HOT KARL'S SUPERCOMICS couldn't be further apart.

For my money, BLACK HOLE is the absolute perfection of the physical serial format.

[BERLIN is better than you.]
BERLIN is better than you.
BERLIN
Jason Lutes


Drawn and Quarterly

It's hard for me to not write about the content of these books. BERLIN is one of the great-unknown masterworks of comics. I say 'unknown' because I'll bet more people have spilled the guts of their Grande Burrito Supreme across the pages of last month's issue of DONKEY-PUNCH than have even seen BERLIN on the shelf.

BERLIN is absolutely essential reading for anyone interested in comics that go above and beyond the superhero norm. I reviewed the collection for ARTBOMB, but I want to talk about the single issues here that were originally published by Black Eye Press before hopping over to the D&Q side of the street.

They were quirky, small books. Undersized. A typical cover, which should be reproduced somewhere around here, looked more like a design book rather than a comic. Elegant, and reflective of the design work and sensibilities that prevailed during the time the book occurs in.

There's something about that odd size that always appealed to me. Almost a square, but not quite, and when taken in combination with the interiors on a bleached newsprint, BERLIN had the oddest ability to look and feel like a relic, an antiquity, an anachronism.

The best thing about the covers aside from the Spartan sense of design is the stock itself. I have no idea what it's actually called, but we nicknamed it 'inner thigh'. It was a book that actually felt good to touch. Un-naturally smooth, that stock. It was, if I recall correctly, the hallmark of the entire Black Eye Press line of books.

I suppose you could say the effect was one of immense satisfaction. BERLIN felt like something substantial and worthwhile, even though it was as slim and considerably smaller than any other book it might fall next to on the shelf. There was an elegance and control to the entire package, almost antithetical to the pulpy pop-art roots of the medium. BERLIN looked and felt like it had outclassed everything else around it. This art object feel would've been enough to get me reading if I hadn't been following Lutes' work already from his earlier work Jar of Fools.

I'm vaguely amused that I've only thought about physical attributes of comics, and not the content at all. Hm. So what have we learned, Charlie Brown? I have no idea, beyond that comics can be so much more as physical objects than what the majority of them are. A superficial complaint, to be sure, but if you want to play the part…

…well, first you gotta look it.

And 98% of the books out there don't.

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