When Words Collide

Wed, December 31st, 2008 at 2:28pm PST | Updated: January 1st, 2009 at 6:08am

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

CONFRONTING KRAMERS

Kramers Ergot is Massively Massive

The biggest release of last week, and by far the biggest (dimensionally-speaking) release of the entire year, was Buenaventura Press's "Kramers Ergot" #7. This massive tome with its much-debated price point of $125 arrived too late to make my "Best of 2008" list, but there's no doubt that this is an important book, and what it says about the current status of the medium is perhaps as interesting as what it says about the world in which we live.

"Kramers Ergot" #7 is 16 x 21 inches of hardcover goodness -- which, if you haven't seen it, makes it about two and a half times the width of a normal comic, and two and a quarter times as tall. It's far larger than any Marvel Treasury Edition you might have owned years ago, and it even dwarfs something like Brian Chippendale's "Ninja" or last year's "Absolute Watchmen."

The book features 60 stories from some of the most interesting creators working in comics today. Unlike volume #6, which was primarily the work of the artists from the post-Fort Thunder scene (or at least it felt that way, with a kind of raw, edgy, confrontational style to most of its contents), volume #7 brings some of the more traditional-looking stylists into the mix. It's a bit silly to call Chris Ware, Dan Clowes, and Adrian Tomine "traditional-looking," but their almost architecturally-precise compositions are quite distinct from the frantic scribbling of many of the returning "Kramers" contributors.

And that discordance is part of the beauty of this book, as some of the single-page stories contrast boldly with the opposite page, providing a kind of visual dialogue about the possibilities of comics. A dialogue that the reader can interpret as he or she wishes -- this volume doesn't seem to advocate one style over any other, though some stories benefit more from this larger format than others do.

But, some of you may be wondering (and by "some of you," I mean "me"), how does this fancy, expensive hardcover relate to something more familiar on a comic shop shelf, like, say, "Rann-Thanagar Holy War" #8 or "Hulk" #9?

That is, of course, a completely ridiculous question, and yet I think it's one that's also completely relevant to how I want to approach "Kramers Ergot."

Listen, I bought "Rann-Thanagar Holy War" #8, "Hulk" #9, and "Kramers Ergot" #7 last week. For me, they are all part of the same conversation about comics arriving in the final weeks of 2008. For me, they are all part of the same world, as silly as it might seem on the surface.

Take That, Baseball Cap

And I think it's worth exploring "Kramers Ergot" through the lens of the typical comic book reader -- the one who reads a pile of superhero comics each month -- to look at how a generic DC book and a generic Marvel book may or may not intersect with the admittedly ambitious scope of the Buenaventura Press project. I did pick the "Rann-Thanagar" and "Hulk" comics randomly, by the way, just off the top of last week's pile-o-stuff-I-read. If we want to take a snapshot of the state of the medium, as of the end of 2008, they are as representative as anything else I might have chosen from the stack.

Just to be clear, I realize how fundamentally absurd it seems to compare three-dollar commercial entertainment floppies to a one-hundred-and-twenty-five-dollar art object, and I know I haven't brought any other independent comics into the comparison, but that's the point. I want to look at both extremes of this thing we call comics and see what it has to tell us, right here, right now.

So, with all of that in mind, I've developed a kind of concordance. A true concordance, as you might find in a musty old library, is a book (often multi-volume) in which word frequencies are listed for a specific context. For example, you can look in a Bible concordance to find out how many times the word "smite" appears in the various translations. A Shakespeare concordance will tell you how often the word "blood" appears in "Macbeth" or which play contains the most frequent use of the word "love." Back before the computer age, this kind of thing was all done by hand, so only the really, really famous books ended up with their own concordances, though now you can just run a search on any electronic text and find whatever word frequencies you need. Literature geeks with a fondness for statistics love this kind of thing, and I'm sure you do too.

In the vague mold of such literary precursors, I created a concordance for the super-text of "Kramers"/"Rann-Thanagar"/"Hulk." And, really, what if I just cut up all the pages of those comics William Burroughs-style and pasted them together into one super-book? That would be an interesting reading experience indeed! And a waste of approximately $131.50, plus expenses. So I'll keep them separate on my shelf, if not in my mind.

Unlike a true concordance, mine is based on whether or not a situation (or trope) appears in a given story. I don't count each time the thing appears, only that it does appear at some point in the story. Thus "Kramers Ergot" #7, with its 60 stories, gets 60 chances for something to appear, while the other two comics only get one chance each (and while the "Hulk" issue contains, ostensibly, two 12-page stories, they are both written by Jeph Loeb, and for the sake of this completely unscientific research, I'm counting them as a single story).

One Cosmic Space Battle, Zero Beheadings

Take, for example, take the classic trope of vomiting. A staple of teen comedies and Monty Python sketches, vomiting has also been an important part of comic book history as well, from the age of the Underground Comix to the recent "Rage of the Red Lanterns." Well, according to my handy-dandy concordance, vomiting appears zero times in "Kramers Ergot" #7, zero times in "Rann-Thanagar Holy War" #8, and once in "Hulk" #9. Not that this single appearance tells us a whole heck of a lot about the deeper themes of any of the comic book works, but it's just an example of how the concordance works.

Now, on to the deeper meanings and surprising occurrences!

Let's start with beheadings. You might think that a comic about intergalactic warfare or one about a giant rampaging monster-man might be likely to feature some kind of decapitation, but neither the "Rann-Thanagar" comic nor the "Hulk" issue featured any beheadings, while "Kramers" featured no less than five of them.

Surprisingly, the $125 "art object" contained at least 18 stories in which acts of violence occurred. It's certainly not filled with stories in which people mope around and talk about VHS tapes (although there is one story like that, giving "Kramers" an edge over the Marvel and DC books in terms of allusions to obsolete technology). "Kramers" is a surprisingly action-packed book, considering the normal prejudice against art comics. Of course, we all know that prejudice is based on ignorance, and with these totally unscientific concordance facts and figures at the ready, you'll never need to prejudge again.

But let's get back to the notion of violence in comics, and the subtopic of beheadings. "Rann-Thanagar" and "Hulk" are utterly driven by violence. If you haven't read either of those comics, here's a quick summary: In "Rann-Thanagar Holy War" #8, a rag-tag group of DC space heroes fights against the evil Synnar the Demiurge and Lady Styx. In "Hulk" #9, the green Hulk and some superhero pals fight a horde of savage Wendigos, while the red Hulk fights back against an attack of female super-hotties. For the record, the "Hulk" comic is far superior to the "Rann-Thanagar" one in almost every way, but they are both absolutely driven by a series of fight scenes. Jim Starlin tries to imbue "Rann-Thanagar" with something verging on themes of transformation and sacrifice, but he fails to do anything interesting with them. Jeph Loeb doesn't even bother to try for anything thematically substantial. The "Hulk" comic is all spectacle, perhaps rightly so.

Assault Rifle Angels of Kramers

And isn't "Kramers Ergot" #7 all about spectacle, too? The stories are primarily three pages each, or shorter. Many of the big-name contributors, like Clowes or Gilbert Hernandez, only provide a single page. How much thematic resonance can be achieved in a single page?

Well, more than in either "Rann-Thanagar" or "Hulk," but still not a whole heck of a lot. No, "Kramers" is based on spectacle as much as any Marvel or DC product is. "Kramers Ergot" #7 seems to have been conceived as spectacle first, and content second, with the contributors being asked to fill up a prescribed page dimension, rather than letting the publication match the needs of their story. That's not a bad thing, but it does put the primacy of the visuals -- and the primacy of visual experimentation -- before storytelling.

It is different from the Marvel and DC books in the sense that experimentation comes first, but it's no less an arbitrary structure than the 22-page serialized installment.

And to achieve impact within that prescribed format, at least 18 creators injected violence into their "Kramers Ergot" stories. And out of those 18 stories, five showed some sort of decapitation. That's a pretty specific type of violence, and I'm sure it wasn't mandated by editor Sammy Harkham. It wasn't a Jason Todd Lives/Mephisto Ruins Marriages kind of decision. And I think it's the accumulation of acts of violence, and the repetition of the beheadings, that gives "Kramers Ergot" its thematic understructure.

Hence, the need for my pseudo-concordance.

"Kramers Ergot" is, above all, the product of dozens of cartoonists, working independently, to create a unified whole. It may not look unified, but the recurring patterns in the book point to the kind of holistic reading it takes to understand what this book has to say. And it's filled with anxiety and rage, perhaps representing the age in which we live, or perhaps representing the state of the medium right now. It's certainly a much more angry book than any volume of "Raw" I remember reading in the 1980s. And, unlike "Raw," which had its best contents reprinted elsewhere later, it's hard to imagine that much of "Kramers Ergot" #7 will be reproduced anywhere else. If it does get reprinted in other forms, the layouts will have to change, since I can't imagine anyone other than Chris Ware releasing a collected edition of this size. Dan Clowes has refigured page layouts for reprint projects in the past (see "Ice Haven," which completely changes the original page design of the story for its hardcover volume), and I suspect we'll see his excellent "Sawdust" story from "Kramers" reprinted in a collection at some point in the future, but it will be chopped-up, smaller, scattered over many pages.

Violence of the Red Hulk Variety

So I guess what I'm saying is that "Kramers Ergot" #7 is a unique book, and it's got a chip on its shoulder, if its acts of violence and beheadings are to be believed. (And, of course, they are, in all of their full-color, gigantic glory.)

What else does the concordance tell us about "Kramers" and its relation to the DC and Marvel comics? Well, you'll probably never guess what trope appears most frequently in "Kramers Ergot" #7. It's not masturbation (which only appears twice), and it's not sex (which only appears four times -- far less than violence, you'll note). It's not music, which only appears three times. Nor is it water floatation, although with eight appearances, floating is a notable trope, and it seems to coincide with the dream-like nature of many of the "Kramers" narratives. (And, by the way, none of the tropes in this paragraph appear at all in "Rann-Thanagar" or "Hulk," not surprisingly, I suppose.)

No, the most common trope in "Kramers Ergot" #7 is headgear. That's pretty strange, right? In 22 stories, hats prominently appear. Headgear does appear in the DC and Marvel comics, but only in the form of helmets (in "Rann-Thanagar Holy War") and cowls/headbands (in "Hulk"). In both cases, the superhero headgear relates to a uniform of some kind -- a superhero branding of which the headgear is part of the costume. In "Kramers Ergot" #7, people just tend to wear a lot of hats. And it's not primarily baseball caps, either, even though the baseball cap is the chapeau de jour of our contemporary society.

So what does it mean that the cartoonists of "Kramers" so overwhelmingly adorn their characters with hats of various shapes and sizes. I think it represents something important about the distinction between the largely militaristic and iconic superhero characters versus the much more human and idiosyncratic characters found in "Kramers Ergot." Violence may permeate the book, but there's a human scope to the violence. Even Anders Nilsen's supernaturally-infused story of angels and AK-47s has a potent humanism, probably because the absurd scenario is undercut by the way the reader is forced to linger on the effects of the violence. And while there aren't any hats in the Nilsen story (and, thus, is probably a terrible example, but this book is a physical challenge to flip through, so give me a break), the Ivan Brunetti tale on the opposite page features enough hat-focused panels to make up for it.

Or maybe this is just one of those examples of editorial interference. Every picture of Sammy Harkham that you google will probably show him wearing a hat. Is his hat-tyrrany responsible for the predominance of the trope? One wonders.

A Beverage, a Hat, and Repressed Rage

But there's more to the humanism of this book than just a bevy of hats. Unlike either "Rann-Thanagar Holy War" #8 or "Hulk" #9, "Kramers Ergot" #7 features an abundant amount of eating and drinking. At least 13 stories show some kind of food and/or beverage being consumed, while neither Jim Starlin nor Jeph Loeb interrupt their bombastic battles long enough to give their characters a bite to eat. Of course, the food and drink is rarely satisfying in "Kramers." It's simply a social situation in which to inject conflict, and since so much of our social lives revolves around the consumption of something edible (or, uh, drinkable), it's a logical thing to include. But it once again demonstrates the deep and meaningful difference between the kind of story that "Kramers Ergot" tells about humanity and the ones you might find in a DC or Marvel comic in any given month. Food is an essential part of our lives, while fighting in a cosmic space battle isn't. "Rann-Thanagar Holy War" and "Hulk" might epitomize the pure Romanticism that superhero narratives favor, but it’s a Romanticism distantly removed from the foundation of reality. And it's not like "Kramers Ergot" #7 is more inherently realistic. We can find stories of robots, time travel, flaying, and singing corpses in this book, and yet the small moments of humanity, through something as simple as hat styles or as mundane as a sit-down meal, give the often-dreamlike stories in "Kramers" a human grounding which makes even the most exotic stories seem solid and fully-formed.

"Kramers Ergot" #7 is such a big book -- in ambition, in size, in substance -- that I couldn't quite find a way to approach it directly. So that's why I came up with the elaborately indirect/absurd notion of the concordance. And it's not the kind of book that lends itself to easy summary, even if the table of contents was easily navigated (it's not). But there's something about "Kramers" that overlaps with even the most seemingly disposable comics of the "Rann-Thanagar" or "Hulk" sort. It's part of the same larger universe of comics, even if the aesthetic approach is of an opposite polarity.

But "Kramers Ergot" is something special, of course. Something that can't be conveyed through simple description. You have to hold it in your hands and feel its size and weight to fully appreciate what it all means. And, hey, you get way more hats and eating than you do in the average serialized comic, with the bonus of about 15% more beheadings, all for only one-hundred-and-twenty-five American dollars.

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

Want to talk about this week's column with other readers? Post your thoughts over on the CBR message boards.

TAGS:  when words collide, kramers ergot, hulk, rann thanagar war

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