When Words Collide

Mon, April 5th, 2010 at 2:28pm PDT

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer
2

Brendan McCarthy's "Spider-Man: Fever" #1 hits stores this Wednesday

This Wednesday represents a pretty strong week for comics with a new "Batman and Robin" issue, new Joe Casey on old Avengers, more from Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan's "Demo," Eric Canete on Luke Cage, the further adventures of Deathlok in Jason Aaron's "Weapon X," a new issue of "Sweet Tooth" and Dustin Weaver's impressive debut on Jonathan Hickman's new "S.H.I.E.L.D." series.

But, for me, the most anticipated book of the week is easily "Spider-Man: Fever" #1, written and drawn by Brendan McCarthy. My CBR colleague James Hunt will provide a full review of that issue later this week, so I'm not going to properly review it here. I'll talk about it - and I have, indeed, read the issue already - and I'll describe what I love about it. But this isn't an objective review of the comic. That's not what I'm here for. What I'm here for, this week, is to celebrate the work of Brendan McCarthy. To inhale its giddily deranged fumes. To saunter through its strange corridors. To examine, not dispassionately, what it is that McCarthy does. Because what he does is rare in the comic book medium: he creates a world unlike any we've seen before. Not just a single world. A world that implies a multiplicity of worlds. A dream-like fantasia of possible realities, all of which exist only on the comic book page.

In "Spider-Man: Fever" - a series built upon the idea that McCarthy wanted to do a Dr. Strange story for Marvel, and Marvel said, "hey, if you put Spider-Man in there, you know, to have a character who actually sells, then we can make that happen - McCarthy shows an unabashed Steve Ditko influence. In a story about both Spider-Man and Dr. Strange, a Ditko influence makes sense. It's practically required. But McCarthy's version of Ditko's New York emphasizes the bits that worked best about Ditko's creations. It's not just a matter of keeping Spider-Man in his lithe, early-Silver Age form and giving Dr. Strange ample opportunity to cast magic spells with his index finger and pinky curved upwards, though McCarthy does all those things in the first issue. No, it's about harnessing the awkwardness of Peter Parker as a super-arachnid, and it's about the otherworldly dimensions that bear no geometrical resemblance to our own. Ditko's mystical realms seemed inspired by psychedelic drugs - though they weren't - and that's the same game McCarthy has been playing for years. His day-glo landscapes, twisted into Dali-esque shapes with black-light poster images, have presented a psychedelia-on-the-comic-book page effect since he honed his craft back in the early days of "2000 A.D."

McCarthy channeling Ditko seems like a perfect fit.

But there's also a strong distinction between the style in which McCarthy draws Spider-Man and the style in which he draws Dr. Strange. His Spider-Man is never firmly planted, never fully upright, never posed heroically. The first time we see him in the story, he's sitting casually from a windowsill, his feet dangling awkwardly as he reads the newspaper. It establishes the McCarthy-by-way-of-Ditko Spider-Man as weird superhero, perhaps too self-consciously playing the role of the average Joe, certainly not the kind of muscle-bound icon who would seem at home with the Avengers. After than brief moment of tranquility, Spider-Man is on the defensive for the rest of the issue. Assaulted by the Vulture - in classic, crazy-old-dude mode - berated by a civilian who's home he's crashed into, sprayed by insecticide, his soul later sliced from his body.

Things look bad for Spidey. As they should.

McCarthy's Dr. Strange, though, is all square-jawed confidence, even if he's basically a book-nerd with some fancy spells at his disposal. Like Spider-Man, the first time we see Dr. Strange is when he sits casually - he's on the edge of the extradimensional "Driddil's Doorway," lost in thought. But when he needs to act, whether it's casting a spell or tearing the envelope off a tome of magic, recently delivered via courier service, he stands with his legs apart, he stands tall, confident, heroic. Dr. Strange appears on fewer pages than Spider-Man, though I expect future issues will provide, pound for pound, more Strange than not, but when Dr. Strange does appear, he's what he need to be: a magically-powered surgeon. His spell blasts like scalpels. His mind, just as sharp.

McCarthy takes the story into a psychedelic dimension of voodoo spiders and dogs with Viking helmets and running shoes, and that's where McCarthy seems at his most McCarthy-ish. But his take on the Marvel New York City was just as interesting. It was just as eerily unfamiliar, because McCarthy's details are unlike anyone else's, even when he is surfing on Ditko-inspired waves.

Brendan McCarthy has been out of the mainstream comic book spotlight for a while. Actually, he's never really been in the mainstream comic book spotlight at all. Long-time comic book readers with good taste know who he is, and comic book creators with any sense at all must have at least a passing knowledge of his work, but other than 2006's "Solo" #12, he hasn't done much of anything in the land of American mainstream comics in the past decade. And even before that, he was best known as the cover artist for the Peter Milligan/Chris Bachalo "Shade the Changing Man" series in the 1990s. His masterpiece, "Rogan Gosh," reprinted by DC in the mid-1990s was originally serialized in "Revolver" 20 years ago.

I suspect many CBR readers have never heard of Brendan McCarthy, and even if they have, they may not have read any of his actual comics.

I could easily devote an entire column to any one of his previous works - and maybe I will (no, I definitely will, by this summer, if not before) - but I'll provide a bit of a primer as I close out this column today. A too-brief roadmap to get you started, or to remind you of what you may have missed.

Obviously, you have "Spider-Man: Fever" #1 to look forward to, and the best place to go after that is the previously-mentioned "Solo" #12. McCarthy's short tales in "Solo" show his absurdist sensibilities, but they also show the untapped imaginative power that could be harnessed in service of some of the DC icons. His take on "The Flash," for example, pays homage to the DC multiverse while providing a look and feel that we've never seen in a DC comic before. His Johnny Sorrow, a kind of mod John Constantine, whose tagline is "A soul's an inconvenient thing," has a wild energy and a neon-Moebius-and-bright-white style. His Batman's "Big Hand Jive" story makes Grant Morrison's Zur-En-Arrh fantasia seems quaint and under-ambitious. "Solo" #12 is part sketchbook full of brilliant ideas and part short story collection. It may be McCarthy's only major comic book work of this decade, but it's a great sampler for his artistry.

The Vertigo "Rogan Gosh" collection can be difficult to find - though, even if it is, it's still worth tracking down. "Rogan Gosh" deserves an entire column, and I won't even begin to delve its mysteries now, but let me describe it in a useless sentence: it's a post-colonial Michael Moorcock transcendence trip, with the gods of Hinduism, and it's gorgeous.

You also can't ignore "Paradax," which you can find in two single issues from Vortex or as originally serialized in Eclipse's "Strange Days." The first Vortex issues reprints the "Strange Days" story (with different coloring, possibly, though I may be mistaken about that), but if I had to choose, I'd go with "Strange Days," because you get some Peter Milligan/Brendan McCarthy "Freakwave" along with the "Paradax" and a small serving of the Milligan/Bret Ewins "Johnny Nemo" for flavor. "Paradax" is a major work in its superhero deconstruction /de-mythologization. It's also the first example of the spandex-beneath-the-cool-jacket look that became so popular in the superhero comics of the late 1980s through the 1990s. Not surprisingly, Brendan McCarthy worked with Grant Morrison on the designs for "Zenith," which clearly inspired Morrison's later work on "Animal Man," and McCarthy designed the new-look Doom Patrol members as well.

Beyond that, you can sample McCarthy's work on the interiors of "Shade the Changing Man" #22 and in various reprints of "2000 A.D." stories. There's also his work on "Skin" and his impossible-to-find art book "Swimini Purpose." If you can find that, send it my way, because I've never been able to track it down.

With more "Spider-Man: Fever" issues on the way, plus his collaboration later this month with Matt Fraction on a story in the "Who Won't Wield the Shield" one-shot, this is a McCarthy renaissance. Enjoy it while it lasts, because the last time we had one of these, we had to wait nearly 20 years for the next one.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" (which explores "Zenith" in great detail) 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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