When Words Collide

Wed, August 27th, 2008 at 2:32pm PDT | Updated: August 27th, 2008 at 3:45pm

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

ANTHOLOGY DAZE

Tori Amos' "Comic Book Tattoo"

Everyone knows anthologies don't sell, right? Look at the current incarnation of "Marvel Comics Presents," which is going to end its first year selling about 11,000 copies, or about half of what those unreadable "Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter" comics sold. Or consider DC's late and much-lamented "Solo," which wasn't exactly a classic anthology with its focus on a different artist each issue, but as a series was a non-continuous collection of stories. So, yeah, it was an anthology book. And it was very, very good, but it didn't sell at all.

I'm not sure how Vertigo's new "House of Mystery" series is doing, but to keep the anti-anthology wolves at bay, Matt Sturges is hiding its true nature by turning the classic "House of Mystery" structure on its head. Instead of a short framing story and a bunch of eight-page horror comics, Sturges gives us a framing story that takes up nearly the whole issue and hides a little teeny, tiny horror story in the middle. It's an anthology that pretends its not an anthology, like the first season of "Lost."

But over the past week or two, I've been diving into some wonderful anthologies. Books that have reminded me that anthologies can sell, and anthologies do matter -- and have for a long time -- just maybe not so much in the direct market.

Catering to Wednesday sequential storytelling addicts (and trust me, I count myself as one of those), comic shops need to stock things that will keep you coming back for more. Serialized, long-form storytelling is what drives the direct market and has throughout its existence. It's no coincidence that the rise of four-and-five-issue story arcs coincided with the rise of direct market retailers. When the grocery store and pharmacy were the only place to get comics, it was hard to find five "Amazing Spider-Man" issues in a row. You might get lucky and get both halves of a two-part story, but that was the best you could hope for. The direct market paved the way for longer stories, longer stories sank their hook in readers, and anthologies? They have quietly faded into obscurity, appearing once in a while as curiosities next to shelf after shelf of Batman and Superman comics.

It's okay. Nobody watches "Love, American Style" anymore, either.

Detail from Dean Trippe's contribution to "CBT," "Merman"

But I have to admit, I'm pretty energized about comics this week, and it's not because the latest issue of Jason Aaron's "Ghost Rider" was so good (it was) or because "Final Crisis: Legion of Three Worlds" had so many panels in it (it did). It's because I just finished a marathon session of anthology reading. It started last week, actually, as I warmed up with "Comic Book Tattoo," pacing myself with a little each day. But the marathon ended with a sprint today (and, boy, this running metaphor is strained, isn't it?). Today I read through both "MySpace Dark Horse Presents: Volume 1" and "Mome: Volume 12."

These are all anthologies that each, in their own way, dance around the peripheries of the direct market mainstream. These are anthologies that are filled with stories of wildly varying quality, but they are also filled with moments of grace and brilliance. These are anthologies that matter, right now. And I think they represent the diversity of American comics about as well as anything. All three of them are worth reading.

Let's start with "Comic Book Tattoo," that monster of a book that was the belle of the Comic-Con ball this year. First of all, I'd like to recommend the hardcover edition, because I ended up getting the softcover by accident (I wasn't reading clearly when I placed my order), and without the hard covers to support it, the thing collapses under its own weight. It's physically impossible to read the softcover without placing it on a large table. So, hardcover it should be.

And "Comic Book Tattoo" is not something I thought I'd be interested in at all. I know Tori Amos is tight with Neil Gaiman, and that's all well and good, but I don't understand or enjoy her wailing. It's not for me. And I'm also not one of those people who thinks that songs are like poems set to music. Okay, maybe they are, but they're bad poems set to music, then. "You're just too used to my honey now / you're just to used to my honey," sings Tori Amos, and I know that I'm right.

Taking her songs, though, and givie some remarkable writers and artists complete freedom to reinterpret them as comics? Well, that works quite beautifully.

"MySpace DHP" Volume 1

Not every story in "Comic Book Tattoo" is a masterpiece, but the sheer volume of quality is impressive. If you tore out every worthless page, you'd still have a book heavy enough to crush a family of squirrels. (I recommend neither.)

Some stories in the book transcribe Amos's lyrics and illustrate them, almost literally. Or as literally as the dream-like quality of her lyrics allows. And pay attention to that notion of the comics being dream-like, because if there's anything tying this anthology to "MySpace DHP" or "Mome," besides the level of quality, it's the dream-like train of thought. There's something about comics that caters to the dream-like -- to the absurd and non-linear -- and all three of these anthologies tap into that. Just like Tori Amos's not-quite-poetry lyrics do.

As an art book, "Comic Book Tattoo" is instantly impressive, which is why everyone at Comic-Con International marveled at its pages. But I'm interested in the selections that combine story and art. Y'know, comics. Eric Canete does a wonderful job on "Girl," for example, written by Jonathan Tsuei, but the simplicity of the conclusion undermines Canete's evocative illustrations. But the story immediately after that, "Merman," by Jason Horn and Dean Trippe is one of the best in the book. Horn keeps the words to a minimum, and lets Trippe's images tell most of the story and its all the better for it.

Songs may not exactly be poetry put to music, but the best ones are full of distinctive images, and adapting lyrics to comic book form works best when the drawings carry the weight of the story. But taken too far, you get "Marianne" by Kako, which is a series of powerfully drawn images without any words and without enough of a narrative.

So my favorite contributions to the book tend to rely heavily on the artist for storytelling, but include enough words to provide something more substantial than just a series of pictures. I'm not going to list every quality story in the book, but I'll highlight a few more that I enjoyed and tell you a bit about why:

"Toast," by Jeff Carroll and Mike May features that dream-like quality I spoke about above, and May's artwork evokes a horrific and unfamiliar fairy tale world. Leif Jones writes and draws "Little Amsterdam," a kind of carnival noir oddball thriller. "Winter," by John Ney Rieber and Ryan Kelly opens up the mundane with the possibility of the wondrous.

And I could go on, talking about contributions from creators like Kelly Sue DeConnnick, Jeremy Haun, Omaha Perez, Mark Buckingham, Jonathan Hickman, Hope Larson, Paul Maybury, Ivan Brandon, and more. It's more than a celebration of Tori Amos's music -- because that wouldn't interest me at all -- it's a celebration of comic books, in all of their subconscious, dream-like glory.

"Sugarshock" action

It's a book built not for the direct market, but for the world at large. For music lovers, for art lovers, for lovers of short, evocative stories.

"MySpace Dark Horse Presents: Volume 1," on the other hand, is something completely different, but still imbued with a dreamy haze. As an object, it's kind of a strange thing, since it collects a few months worth of the online version of Dark Horse Presents, as presented for free on MySpace. It's an anthology that anthologizes an anthology. I can see prospective readers passing it up just because of the title. Reading a book with "MySpace" written on the front might remind you of the good old days, when reading a graphic novel in public was embarrassing. But don't let the potential for humiliation get in the way -- those high school punks who tease you about MySpace probably check the site ten times a day. This book has some quality work inside. Work you can get for free online, but if you're like me, reading is a physical experience, and holding a book is an essential part of it.

The best stuff in "MySpace DHP" verges on the dream-like, or the insane. Overall, the book has plenty of weaknesses. I like some of the artwork on the Goon chapters which conclude the volume, but basing a whole story on a penis gag is relentlessly unfunny and annoying. Like Tori Amos's singing, "The Goon" is not for me. And the "Gear School" and "Fear Agent" shorts feel like advertisements for longer, better books. So does the "Umbrella Academy" short, but at least that has the virtue of Gabriel Ba in all of his artistic glory.

The real treats of the "MySpace DHP" anthology -- the real reason to buy the book -- is to get a little bit of Peter Bagge , a little bit of Tony Millionaire, and a little bit of Rick Geary (all excellent) and a whole lot of Joss Whedon and Fabio Moon. Their "Sugarshock" is clearly the main draw here -- as it was on the website -- and I'll get to it in a minute, but I don't want to overlook two other wonderful contributions. Chris Grine's "Chickenhare" is an odd two-page funny animal gag strip that looks like no other funny animal gag strip you've ever seen. Which makes it funnier and kind of brilliant. And even though "Sugarshock" is the star of the book, "A Circuit Closed" by Ezra Clayton Daniels and Richard Lee is my favorite piece. It's weird and beautiful in the way that only comics can be. It's the type of thing that stands out in a book like this with its unconventional yet emotionally affective storytelling. It's the opposite of the self-conscious cool of "Sugarshock" and it makes the anthology oh so much better.

"Mome" Volume 12

"Sugarshock" is good, though, largely because Fabio Moon, as colored by Dave Stewart, is the perfect artist for a battle of the bands in outer space that turns out to be not so much about the bands. And it has robots and flaming energy swords, too. It's straight out of Joss Whedon's super-ego -- his dream-like fantasy version of a comic book universe -- and it reads like it was written without care for structure or logic. It holds together as a story, but its more improvisational, more freewheeling, than anything I've ever read by Whedon. I don't know if that makes it his best work, but it's a lot of fun.

And did I mention Fabio Moon drew the heck out of it? Well, he did.

But with "Comic Book Tattoo" at $30 (even for the softcover) and "MySpace DHP" at $20, the best deal for your anthology pleasure this summer has to be "Mome: Volume 12."

I've been reading "Mome" since it premiered, and although I miss the now-abandoned interview section (each issue, Gary Groth would interview one of the cartoonists and I would always read that part first), this is probably my favorite volume so far. There's no Tim Hensley, either, but the new additions to the "Mome" roster almost make up for it. And Nate Neal's story is one of my favorite stories of the year.

If you haven't been reading "Mome," it's basically a playground for some of the lesser-known Fantagraphics artists. That's how it started, at least, but it's become a place where Killofer shows up alongside Al Columbia, Sofie Crumb, and David B. You probably know at least one of those artists, and if not, then "Mome" is a great place to start, especially with Volume 12. It's mostly self-contained (even though Ray Fenwick's absurdist parable, "The Truth Bear" is, in theory, continued from last issue), and it's a strange gateway into what used to be called "art comics," but is now just "comics."

Nate Neal desconstructs comics in "Mome"

As I said, Nate Neal's story -- or quartet really, as its labeled in the table of contents -- is one of the best things I've read all year. It manages to mock everything about comics and embrace everything about comics. It pokes fun at its own pretensions, but then concludes with a powerful final act. It's what Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze wanted to do to cinema in "Adaptation," except the third act in that movie is self-consciously bad. In "Reality Comics Quartet," Neal concludes with an effective and emotionally meaningful finale, even after he has undermined the notion of "reality" in the previous three sections. It's an astonishing feat, and the entire work is savagely funny.

The rest of "Mome: Volume 12" can't compare to Neal's virtuosity, but it's still an excellent collection, with, once again, a dream-like quality to many of the best stories. Indy darling Dash Shaw's "Train" is nightmarish in its unfolding, and new contributor Olivier Schrauwen presents a meta-biological study of hair that feels like an artifact from an alternate reality past. Paul Hornschemeier illustrates his own prose story that reads like a sincere, contemporary retelling of James Joyce's "Araby," and Jon Vermilyea adds a riotous story about two animated breakfast "crews" in heated battle. Think the Kool-Aid guy multiplied by eight, with an attitude. "Mome: Volume 12" takes great advantage of its structure as an anthology, too, with one page bits from Tom Kaczynski sprinkled throughout the volume. The one-page comics all tell a self-contained story, but they are linked by the notion of sound, and their cumulative impact is deepened by the way they are positioned throughout the book.

I finished these three anthologies with an enthusiasm not just toward comics but toward creating comics. These books are so filled with different styles and approaches to the medium that I wanted to bust out my dusty art supplies and start making mini-comics again.

Art that inspires art. What more could you ask for?

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the writer of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of the upcoming "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" collection. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen every day at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

TAGS:  comic book tattoo, tori amos, myspace, dark horse comics, mome

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