When Words Collide

Wed, April 15th, 2009 at 2:28pm PDT | Updated: April 15th, 2009 at 3:07pm

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

BERNIE MIREAULT: THE FORGOTTEN HERALD OF THE MODERN

"Mackenzie Queen," Collected by Caliber

When did the Modern Age in American comics truly begin? Was it with Alan Moore's and Steve Bissette's "Swamp Thing," which took a quintessentially Bronze Age character, destroyed him, and then rebuilt him as a mechanism for telling poetically humanistic stories about love and death, superheroes and monsters? Was it Moore and Dave Gibbons' "Watchmen," with its structural virtuosity and cynical attitude toward costumes and capes? Was it Frank Miller's "Dark Knight Returns," with its shattered idealism and militant violence? Maybe it happened before all of that, in the pages of the British "Warrior" magazine, with Moore and Gary Leach's "Marvelman."

Certainly Alan Moore was involved with the shift to Modernity no matter what you identify as the dividing line between the Classic and the Modern, between the continuum of Golden-to-Silver-to-Bronze and the deep-rooted Modern irony that punctured the sincerity of the past.

And surely EC Comics, specifically Harvey Kurtzman's "Mad" is part of this story, and the Underground Comics hovered around this superhero-centric thread, blossoming into the alternative comics and critically-acclaimed graphic novels of the past three decades.

But if we look around the axis of American superhero comics, at the groundbreaking Modern work produced in the mid-1980s, it's the same four or five names that keep popping up in our conversations: Alan Moore, Frank Miller, Rick Veitch, Howard Chaykin, maybe Matt Wagner. These were the creators who changed the landscape of American superhero comics, for better or worse. They heralded the Modern.

Yet there's one creator who doesn't get mentioned nearly as often. A writer/artist who was combining the high Romanticism of the fantastic with the mundane life on the street as well as any of the others. A comic book creator whose visual style has rarely been duplicated, but whose sensibilities seem to predict the coming of cartoonists as diverse as Mike Mignola and Dash Shaw.

I'm talking, of course, about Bernie Mireault.

Mireault (rhymes with "Zero") has been working continuously in the comic book industry for the past 24 years, but he gets almost none of the acclaim given to his peers. Other than a Neil Gaiman-written Riddler story that he drew for "Secret Origins," you may never have seen his work, even though he's written and drawn dozens of comics over the past few decades. His style has changed a bit over the years, and a webcomic he did for the "Tripping the Rift" website seems to have been abandoned after fourteen installments, but in the mid-to-late 1980s and early 1990s, Mireault produced or helped produce three essential texts of the Modern era, and it's time those three books were given their due.

MACKENZIE QUEEN: SAVIOR OF THE UNIVERSE

Volks in Space, from "Mackenzie Queen"

Published as a five-issue series by Matrix Graphics from 1985-1986, Mireault's "Mackenzie Queen" reads like the missing link between the Kirby/Ditko cosmic of the Silver Age and the Kicksplode action of the Ellis/Immonen "Nextwave" or the Fraction/Kuhn "Rex Mantooth." The title character of "Mackenzie Queen" is an unaccomplished, practically-accidental sorcerer who sports a turtleneck sweater and friendly muttonchops. With the help of the giant, devilish-looking Ududu, who crawled up from beneath Earth's crust to aid Queen in his attempt to stop the Ice Men from outer space, Queen uses the power of song to repel the invaders and bring peace and harmony to the planet.

Yup, twenty three years before the finale of "Final Crisis," Mireault's Mackenzie Queen sang his way to cosmic victory.

In a 2008 interview Mireault…um…conducted with himself, the writer/artist talks about his days as a nascent comic book creator: "It was at the age of 17 that I began to travel to Montreal for school and it was commuting back and forth from the city that caused me to discover superhero comics, having only them to pass the time on the bus," says Mireault. "That's what did it. I read them and enjoyed the form but not most of the half-assed content, at least as it was being dished out by the North American mainstream publishers of the 1970s and '80s. For some reason I was sure that I could do it better." Mireault adds, "I resolved to become a comic artist and to try to make better use of the medium. That's when I began to draw a lot. That's really my art training, drawing as much as I can and even just spending time thinking about it."

Mireault took art classes, but he describes the derision he faced from academia: "comic art was universally rejected by my professors as a worthy endeavor and money was tight, so school soon fell by the wayside as I went through different jobs to pay the rent, doing comic art at night when I could. It was during those days that I made my first graphic novel, 'Mackenzie Queen.'"

Though Mireault considers "Mackenzie Queen" a graphic novel, and it is, by any current standard of narrative cohesion, it originally appeared as five single black-and-white issues from Canadian publisher Matrix Graphic Series, a company perhaps most famous for "Northguard," by Mark Shainblum and Gabriel Morrissette. Mireault met Shainblum and Morrissette at an Ottowa convention in 1984 and the pair agreed to publish "Mackenzie Queen" shortly after.

"The Devil Inside" Collected

"Mackenzie Queen" is notable not just for its affinity for the mixture of high-powered cosmic melodrama and the mundane burden of the everyday, but it's also a permanent visual record of Mireault's growth as an artist. The early pages in the first chapter indicate the work of a raw Kirby aficionado, similar to early drawings of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, but by chapter two -- and throughout the rest of the volume -- Mireault's playful compositions and often graceful linework showed that the young artist had been internalizing the lessons he had learned from the likes of Harvey Kurtzman. "Mackenzie Queen" feels somewhat like the work of an unformed artist all the way though, but it’s a witty, fully-realized fictional world, and it's the perfect sweet-natured complement to other notable works of early Modern comics.

And though it was basically Steve Ditko's "Dr. Strange" filtered through Mireault's idiosyncratic sensibilities, "Mackenzie Queen" shares a precursor with Alan Moore's most famous early superhero comics as well. When I referenced Harvey Kurtzman in relation to Mireault, I wasn't just forming an analogy. Mireault, like Moore, was inspired toward the Modern by one specific Kurtzman work in particular: "We only had kiddie comics at home when I was young, but my parents would buy 'Mad' magazine every now and then," says Mireault in his self-interview from last year. "While the magazine itself didn't really thrill me all that much, occasionally they would include a reprinted version of one of the original comic-sized Kurtzman issues. It was there that I first took in Wally Wood and Harvey Kurtzman's 'Superduperman'" I was pretty young and it never occurred to me to seek out those other original issues, but I sure enjoyed it when one would find its way into my hands."

"Superduperman," with its deconstruction of the Clark Kent/Superman dynamic, was an important milestone for Alan Moore as well, as it later served as a, perhaps indirect, inspiration for his take on "Marvelman," which may or may not have kicked off this whole Modern era to begin with. "Mackenzie Queen," with its absurd sci-fi villains and its mage-with-a-guitar flying into orbit in a Volkswagen Beetle, may look or sound nothing like either "Superduperman" or "Marvelman," but it shares something with them, deep within its genetic core: the normal smashed against the fantastic, and a sense that it's all a grand cosmic joke. Though, in the case of "Mackenzie Queen," a fearless optimism reigns supreme in the end.

GRENDEL AND THE JAM: THE DEVIL AND GORDON KIRBY

Layers from "The Devil Inside"

Soon after "Mackenzie Queen," Mireault landed a job drawing one of the most critically acclaimed series of the early-Modern age. His three-issue run on Matt Wagner's "Grendel" took the gloss off what had been an extremely glossy art deco comic book serial. Following the Pander Brothers' twelve-issue exploration of the fall of Christine Spar, Mireault illustrated three densely-packed issues of the corruption of Brian Li Sung. A masterful collaboration between writer/colorist Matt Wagner (with color assistance from Joe Matt), artist Mireault, and letterer Bob Pinaha, the pages of "The Devil Inside" story arc look like the frantic nightmares of a deranged near future in which chunky high-tech designs meet an ancient evil.

The pages of "Grendel: The Devil Inside" are layered with so much information that it almost becomes overwhelming, as bits of notebook paper overlap panel borders, sound effects burst forth from the page, and scrawled phrases and strange doodles litter the gutters. It's one of the most hideously beautiful comics of the Modern era.

In a 1994 interview with Thomas Bauer, Mireault describes how he ended up working with Matt Wagner: "I sent him a fan letter," says Mireault, "along with samples of my work. I got lucky and he let me do 'Grendel.' Not long after, he fell in love with a Montreal girl and moved up here for about two years. We shared a studio, and it was there that I developed a real admiration for his artistic ability." Mireault worked on a variety of "Grendel"-related projects in the years since "The Devil Inside," but mostly as a colorist, and none of his later work with Wagner captured the claustrophobic mania of their first collaboration.

"Grendel: The Devil Inside" has much to recommend it, and like many great Modernist works, its unraveling center is what makes it so haunting. Brian Li Sung's life -- so mundane as a stage manager -- becomes increasingly fragmented as the Grendel spirit overtakes him. But is it the force of an ancient evil or the mania of a lonely man which drives him to don a poorly-stitched mask and, armed with a bow and arrow, climb the barren trees? Throughout the arc, Mireault deftly contrasts the future tech (flying cars, cybernetic impants) with the detritus of real life (stains on the bathroom wall, beer bottles on the steps of a building), and that contrast not only adds texture to the decay of Brian Li Sung's life, but it captures that kind of gritty and inevitable despair that other Modern comic book creators received so much credit for. And the final two pages, the inglorious death of Brian Li Sung, are the perfect visual representation of the era, drawn in striking shapes that would make Kurtzman proud.

The Tundra Reprint Series in Full Color

Mireault's third notable work of the Modern age, his longest-running, most personal work, is the saga of low-rent superhero Gordon Kirby in "The Jam." Published by at least five different publishers that I know of (Matrix Graphics, Slave Labor, Tundra, Dark Horse, and Caliber, in that order), "The Jam" did twenty years ago what Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr. have tried to do with "Kick-Ass." It's a "superhero in the real world" concept, but done with Mireault's signature wit. Like his other works, it's a mash-up of Romantic fantasies and the minor details of everyday life, and though it may lack the cosmic scope of "Mackenzie Queen" or the sinister entropy of "Grendel: The Devil Inside," it more than makes up for it with an all-encompassing humanism. "The Jam" is sad, funny, thrilling, and mundane, depending on the scene, but it always has plenty of heart.

"The Jam" is, essentially, the story of an average guy with a homemade costume (well, Gordon Kirby's sister made it in her home, using a jogging suit as the foundation) and the two other loves of his life: his girlfriend Janet, and his dog Harvey. (It's not difficult to see Mireault's influences written on his sleeve here, as his protagonist and his dog are named after the two comic book artists who influenced him the most: Jack Kirby and Harvey Kurtzman.)

The costume, the girlfriend, and the dog are so important to Gordon Kirby that the Devil decides that the only way he can get to Kirby is by taking those three things away from him. Kirby is too happy, thinks the Devil, and must be tormented because of it.

But it's Kirby's optimism, his failure to give in to despair, that allows him to defeat the ultimate evil and reunite with everything he holds dear. Even Satan cannot corrupt the irrepressible Gordon Kirby, no matter how devious the machinations.

(Between Mackenzie Queen saving the world with a song and Gordon Kirby refusing to give in to the Devil, one might think that Grant Morrison was taking notes on these forgotten-but-classic Mireault comics when he came up with the conclusions to his last two major series.)

"The Jam" is perhaps the most effective exploration of the everyday superhero -- he has to scrape together money for beer and pizza, he patrols the rooftops awkwardly, he fights crazed jihadists mostly by avoiding them -- and its emphasis on characterization over spectacle predicts the path many superhero comics would follow in the years since. It's also worth noting that the interracial relationship between the white Gordon Kirby and the black Janet is never once brought up in the series. That's the kind of creator Mireault is: generous, all-embracing, inclusive.

Innovative Page Layout from "The Jam" #1

"The Jam" gained some measure of prominence when Mireault's characters teamed up with Mike Allred's creations in 1998's "Madman/The Jam" two-issue series, but that was the last we saw of Gordon Kirby and company. "The Jam" never found an audience willing to sustain it, no matter how many publishers gave it a try, and that's too bad, because in its various incarnations it was one of the best comics of the Modern era.

In his self-interview from 2008, Mireault lays out his aesthetic philosophy and his attitude toward life, and I'll can't think of a better way to conclude than by quoting those words: "As an artist," says Mireault, "I've always been dedicated to creating entertainment. I think comic art is the most potent form of low-tech communication there is and I seek to more successfully actualize that inherent power and use it to broadcast a persuasive, positive message. To try envisioning a peaceful society that respects the social contract; where we all agree not to harass each other so that we can all stop worrying about simple survival and get on with the business of building our civilization together, perhaps even surviving long enough as a species to eventually travel to other planets and meet other inhabitants of the universe, as advertised in our science fiction. To try and create interesting role models and better systems and hope that life will imitate art."

NEXT WEEK: My brand-new interview with Bernie Mireault featuring his comments on his early work and news about his next project!

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 "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.

Follow Tim on Twitter: @gbfiremelon

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TAGS:  when words collide, bernie mireault, the jam, grendel

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