When Words Collide

Mon, May 17th, 2010 at 2:28pm PDT | Updated: May 17th, 2010 at 5:42pm

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer
3

A SMALL CORNER OF GØDLAND

Last week, Joe Casey stopped by to talk about his problematic work on "Superman/Batman" and discuss his upcoming creator-owned work at Image. One of the things we briefly mentioned was the second volume of the "GØDLAND Celestial Edition," due this summer. Casey invited me to contribute an extensive essay on the series for inclusion in the volume: "The longer the better," he said. "There's enough brevity in the world."

6,200 words later, I sent him my "Twelve Digressions on GØDLAND."

As ever-faithful "When Words Collide" readers, you might want to see some of it. So, thanks to the magic of CBR, I now present an exclusive look at the first three "digressions" on "GØDLAND," self-contained, complete in their own digressive ways. These are my attempt to explain the series, or at least explore what it means, in its own unique way. If you're daring enough, you might want to check out all twelve digressions in the oversized hardcover this summer. Or just read the book to enjoy the delirious delight that is "GØDLAND." It's a pretty darn good comic, if you didn't already know.

MIMETIC GENRE

"GØDLAND" is an obvious case of Kirby-as-genre, but let's think a little bit about what that implies. It implies that the work of Jack Kirby is worth mimicking, not just superficially, but at the core level of storytelling. Not just Kirby characters, and Kirby cosmic, and Kirby krackle, but the essence of the Kirby approach to the medium. A dive into the expansive Kirby swimming pool within the larger grounds of the luxury resort known as Chez Superhero.

Kirby-as-genre has been done before, of course. Casey and Scioli are hardly pioneers in that regard. After all, the American superhero comic book marketplace has given us Mark Evanier and Paris Cullins doing their own revamp on Kirby's seminal New Gods, after the very same Cullins worked with J. M. DeMatteis on a revised Forever People mini. We've seen early Keith Giffen wear the Kirby look, and we've seen Ron Frenz make a career out of it. Kirby-as-genre is as easy to find as any Marvel comic book. It's all Kirby-as-genre in the House of Ideas, except for the two little rooms that Steve Ditko claimed for himself.

But if we take for granted that Kirby is worth imitating -- and he surely is, as he's the American Chronos from which most of our superhero mythology sprung -- and if we can clearly see the multitude of Kirby spawn sprinkled around the comic book landscape, no matter how many generations removed, then the best we can do when it comes to "GØDLAND" is to ask, "How does it compare?" and "What makes it different?"

It's not nostalgic, and that counts. "GØDLAND" isn't interested in evoking specific recollections to past characters and past stories. Casey and Scioli take a different tack. Instead of retelling old Fantastic Four stories in superficial imitation of Kirby, as we saw in the failed homage of 2001's "Fantastic Four: World's Greatest Comics Magazine," Casey and Scioli adopt the manner of Kirby to create new stories. Stories that explore the kind of transcendent ideas that exploded from Kirby's creations, particularly the ones he was responsible for writing as well as drawing.

"GØDLAND" doesn't linger over Silver Age Kirby, but over late-Bronze Age Kirby. It drinks from the well of what I might call "the pure Kirby," the Kirby of the Pacific Comics era, when he was carving his themes with a hammer. By 1983, Kirby had distilled his storytelling down to its essentials: bold graphic compositions, high tragedy, simple visual humor, direct assertions one minute, elliptical dialogue the next. It was mark-making directly from the subconscious, and Kirby's "Silver Star" was its apotheosis.

"Silver Star," with its cosmic spaceman, its fudgesicle-eating supervillain, its Goliath of the Ghetto, and its Angel of Death, well, it's the proto-"GØDLAND." It's the kind of Kirby that's worth playing with. The kind of Kirby that could act as the basis for a kind of comic book that could paradoxically break free from its own origins. The kind of comic that "GØDLAND" began as.

Though if you've read issues #13-24, and I'm sure you have, then you know that whatever hatched with "GØDLAND" #1 has grown into something all its own. The Kirby adolescence of the earlier issues, seen even as late as issue #18, grew into something more confident in its own skin. The Kirby-inspired characters began to stand more upright, and their faces became less dappled with brushstrokes.

Kirby-as-genre implies more than just characters who look like Orion and Darkseid, but Casey and Scioli are among the chosen few who understand the implications.

THE AGES OF (SUPER)MAN

One of the games literary critics -- all critics, I suppose -- love to play is the game where they qualify the characteristics of an era. If you're talking 19th century American fiction, for example, you can tie the westward expansion of the country with the rise in Romanticism. The wilderness (and the movement beyond the stark political reality of revolution) inspired the novels of James Fenimore Cooper or the poetry of William Cullen Bryant. "The Last of the Mohicans" and "Thanatopsis," lumped together by the tethers of a distinct era, might be cross-examined. Similarities in theme and style can be accentuated.

The era of early 21st century comic books doesn't yet have a name, the "Dark Age" or the "Modern Age" that began with the ascent of Alan Moore in the 1980s surely transformed into something else by the mid-to-late 1990s, and as the Stormwatches and Authorities of Warren Ellis gave way to the Ultimates of Mark Millar and the boardrooms of Brian Michael Bendis's New Avengers, the decade from which "GØDLAND" emerged was one of superhero spectacle bound in leather. Dimension-hopping spaceships, alien invasions, and grim reminders of the fascist overtones of the superhero collided to produce a kind of Dark Romantic Pseudo-Realism that dominated the mainstream comic books of the first decade of the 2000s.

"GØDLAND" is not of its time.

Casey and Scioli's work could be lumped with other similar-minded creators, like the aforementioned Ellis and Millar, under the category of Sons of Morrison, the intellectual offspring of Grant Morrison, promoter of the absurdist deconstruction superhero genre, and unabashed celebrator of the widescreen splendor of the superhuman. But that's a radical oversimplification, as anyone who plays this characteristics-of-an-era game knows all too well.

Because what "GØDLAND" does -- what Casey and Scioli do within its pages -- is neither timeless not timely. The comic specifically addresses the political reality of its day, but it does so with barely an anchor. Donald Rumsfeld will get a mention, for example, in the presumed context of the outrage in which the post-9/11 military plans turned into a travesty, but yet the comic itself shows a world that looks nothing like our own. It's a reality that's unique onto itself. It's divorced from our reality, just as it's divorced from the concerns of its era. It doesn't participate in the Dark Romantic Pseudo-Realist discussion, not primarily. Instead, it uses the Bronze Age Kirby platform to jump off in its own direction. And if it explores the hubris of the American military, it does so in symbolist mode. And it's a passing fancy, at best.

Interestingly, when Grant Morrison himself used the Bronze Age Kirby platform to bring the decade to a close with his "Final Crisis," he stuck with Dark Romantic Pseudo-Realist techniques for most of the story, giving the cosmic space god Darkseid a decaying human form for the bulk of the series. Only in its finale does it veer off in "GØDLAND"-like directions, with celebrations of the strange, with an embrace of cosmic transcendence and self-sacrificing heroism. The post-"Final Crisis" DC Universe looks the same as the pre-"Final Crisis" one, though. The status quo, for all the transformation and transcendence, never changed. Dark Romantic Pseudo-Realism marched on.

In "GØDLAND," the status quo IS transformation and transcendence.

HIGH AND LOW, GOOD AND BAD

One of the sins of bad writing, the kind of thing that makes you stand up in your seat in a theater and shout at the screen, or throw down a book in disgust, is the use of inelegant tonal shifts. It's worse than the ever-dreaded "plot hole," because most plot holes rely on the assumption that narrative ellipsis is the enemy. That everything has to be explained on the page or the screen or else it didn't happen. But you don't have to see Superman change into his costume to know that, if he shows up in costume, he did, in fact, change into his costume at some point. Skipping over inessential plot information is what stories do. Most supposed plot holes are contrived by over-obsessive audience members, by readers who want everything explained.

"GØDLAND" doesn't explain much of anything, but, even better yet, it directly confronts that major sin of bad writing I mentioned above. It shifts the tone, even within the same panel. It challenges the reader to accept the high and the low. The sacred and the profane. The questions of profound metaphysical significance and jokes about post-VHS porn.

But the tonal shifts deflate the pretentious nature of the series. If we assume the division of labor for "GØDLAND" results in Tom Scioli drawing the art and Joe Casey providing the captions and word balloons -- and surely we can agree on that, though the plotting of the stories could be a collaborative as their "created by" byline suggests -- then we get a constant collision between the high cosmic of Scioli and the base depravations of Casey. A quick flip through any one of the stories contained in this volume would give you the impression that "GØDLAND" is a bombastic comic book serial in which characters declare their heroic intent and in which villains declare their evil impulses. The Kirbyesque, even post-Kirbyesqe, imagery implies high Kirby diction and syntax.

We know what kinds of words to expect when we see pictures that look like the ones drawn by Tom Scioli. Even if we've never seen these precise images before.

Casey subverts those expectations. He gives us powerful moments of revelation with captions like "Insight and Understanding!" followed by Adam Archer's all-too-humanly-self-conscious, "Oh, hell…you're not going to try to kiss me, are you…?" Even within a single caption sequence -- in the case of issue #15's omniscient narration -- Casey collides the tonal levels: "To react to her surroundings is to confirm her own existence…and she is far beyond any reaction," reads the narrative caption. Then, in the same panel, the same narrator says, "Neela Archer can't even manage a simple, one-word thought balloon…"

"GØDLAND" explicitly questions the nature of being, the nature of existence, and then pulls back to make a joke about comic book grammar. Casey gives us abrupt tonal shifts, and they might seem inelegant until you get used to the rhythm of the series, but they are constantly used to deflate. To mock the high-seriousness of the themes of this comic, while never fully rejecting them. The tonal shifts don't provide a wink at the reader -- not exactly. Instead, Casey uses them to balance the narrative. He controls the high and the low so as not to desensitize us to any of it.

Constant jokes and pokes to our ribs would be annoying, and would disengage us from the story. But so would page after page of pompous rhetoric about saving the universe and excursions into a higher reality.

It's one of the things that makes late-Bronze Age Kirby so hard to actually read, even if the images and ideas are magnificent. So Casey stole a page out of the Stan Lee playbook, or the William Shakespeare one. The mixture of high and low has always been potent, when used dexterously.

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: TimCallahan

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