When Words Collide: Wally Wood and "Barack Hussein Obama"

Mon, October 29th, 2012 at 12:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

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A DOUBLE-SHOT OF FANTA: WEISSMAN AND WOOD

Barack Hussein Obama

With the U.S. Presidential election only a week away, and voters in battleground states surely bombarded by television ads and aggressive phone calls from both parties, there's comic book that will give you all the information you need to make an informed decision about the future of our country. I'm talking, of course, about "Barack Hussein Obama," by Steven Weissman, the lucid expose of the secret life of the sitting President of the United States.

Inside its sturdy hardcover, um, cover, "Barack Hussein Obama" will shed light on the true facts of our 44th President, such as his projection-screen eyebeams, his coordination of White House Halloween events, and his transformation into a ferocious parakeet. The usual presidential stuff.

Okay, "Barack Hussein Obama" isn't going to help anyone make any decisions on Election Day, and it's not even a satire of the Obama White House or even a satire of the media presentation of the Obama presidency so much as it is an absurdist romp that intersects with reality in only the thinnest of tangents.

My recollection of the origins of this project was that it was a kind of daily diary strip drawn by Steven Weissman in his sketchbook, following a regular four-panel-grid format found in classic comic strips like "Peanuts" or the journals like you'd see in the likes of "Amercian Elf," by James Kolchalka. Fantagraphics has taken those sketchbook pages and presented them relatively raw. You can still see the taped-up panel borders or the bleed of the colored ink in the frequently black-and-white reproduction. (I was going to say "primarily black-and-white" in that sentence, until I flipped back through the book and saw just how much color Weismann splashes around. In my memory it was used sparingly, but in reality the book is quite vivid with pen lines and brush strokes in reds and greens and blues and yellows.)

For me, "Barack Hussein Obama" has as much to say about the kind of book it is as it does about the kind of comics presented on its pages. It's notable that the book is reproduced as "authentic" sketchbook pages, complete with doodles on the endpapers, because it calls attention to itself as an artifact rather than as something that might congeal into a "graphic novel." It's both a warning sign to readers: "Hey, this thing is a work of art, so don't get all upset if it doesn't really have a beginning, middle, and end like you might expect from some other graphic novel you picked up at Barnes and Noble," and an acknowledgement that a comic book is a work of assemblage -- that it's not only words and images put together, but there's a process behind those things separately and together, and the physicality of the creation is an important aspect of what emerges in the end.

Weissman's work here -- as presented by Fantagraphics -- seems part of a larger movement (from IDW's Artist's Editions to years of "Kramers Ergot") to signify the artwork as the end result rather than as a means of producing an end result. That has not been the common practice in comics as a matter of course, and if you ever compare (even imperfect) photocopies of Jack Kirby's penciled pages to the way they were reproduced in the Silver Age and then simplified even further in earlier Archive reprints or Masterworks volumes (where the Kirby lines, inked by, say, Joe Sinnott, were then traced over again by anonymous production personnel to distance the published art even farther from its source), you'll see that "original art" was just a means to a quite distant end. Here, with "Barack Hussein Obama," it is the art that's the thing.

And it's the rawness of the art -- and the unpolished lack of rhythm to the "story" that emerges -- that gives this book its meaning. Weissman has recurring characters, and the story centers around a version of the President of the United States who has a passing resemblance to the man in the Oval Office on our world. Our guy likes basketball and has a couple of daughters. So does this guy. But other than a disconcerting fantasia about American foreign policy in Libya, there's a distinctive lack of politics in this absurdist book about some sort of president. Instead, the book focuses on small anxieties blown up large with symbolism. Characters morph into other things. Shadows loom large and strike violently. Feet take root, deep in the ground. If I were a completely ridiculous person, I might confidently say that "Barack Hussein Obama" is the American Dream as an anxious hallucination. But that's not quite right. It's too categorical. And Weissman's work demands ingestion and interpretation rather than declaration.

Oh, it's good, too, if that has any meaning after all that abstraction.

Came the Dawn

Another book that's good -- if you'll grant me the transition -- though for completely different reasons is "Came the Dawn," featuring some newly-reprinted E.C. Comics work from Wally Wood. This book is part of Fantagraphics' initial lineup of E.C. reprints, where they strip out the color and recontextualize a bunch of 1950s genre stories as the works of singular artists rather than as pieces of American comics publishing history. Nowhere on the front cover of "Came the Dawn" does it mention E.C. Comics or any of the famous titles like "Tales from the Crypt" or "Vault of Horror" or even "ShockSuspense Stories." Instead, Fantagraphics gives is bold Wally Wood images, the words "Came the Dawn" and a credit to this "and other stories illustrated by Wallace Wood."

Instead of the oversized dimensions of the Gladstone E.C. reprints -- and certainly far smaller than the stunning IDW Wally Wood Artist's Edition -- "Came the Dawn" is presented at a size similar to a contemporary comic book, though substantially thicker at 194 pages, and with austere hardcovers suitable for what's labeled, in teeny print on the spine, as "The EC Library."

This is a serious-looking, important comic, for serious-minded, important people. This isn't some lascivious spectacle. Heck, there's only one female on the cover, and she's facing away from us. No one is carrying around any chopped-off heads or limbs. There's no blood anywhere. No shrieking to be seen.

No spacemen either, because this is a collection of Wally Wood horror and crime and suspense comics. An interesting choice for an artist most strongly associated with sci-fi at EC (and comedy, but "Mad" still belongs to DC Comics, so we won't see "Superduperman" as part of the Fantagraphics lineup anytime soon).

Before I get into the guts of this book, I'd like to point out one more thing about the Fantagraphics effort at recontextualization. Though the table of contents lists the stories by name, and attribute writers and co-artists when known, there's no indication of when and where these stories were originally published. The book provides an introduction and a few text pieces in the back, but these individual E.C. Comics stories are not labeled by their original appearances, which is a shocking break from tradition with reprint projects of this sort. The implication isn't quite "let the stories speak for themselves," because of the text pages that provide the history lessons, but this volume certainly doesn't go out of its way to let you know which of the stories came from which famous E.C. Comics series. It doesn't matter where the stories came from, I suppose. It makes no difference at all. But it's customary to list such information, and Fantagraphics doesn't seem interested in that custom for this series of books.

As far as the overall "good"ness of "Came the Dawn," my pleasure in its contents is heavily weighted toward the stories in the back -- what I assume are the later Wood stories, though they are presented without corresponding dates attached -- as the artist moved farther away from his Will Eisner influence and more toward the thick, illustrative panels he does better than anyone. The final half of the book comprises jagged-knife crime thrillers capped by hilariously tragic ironies and social justice sermons drenched in obvious moral symbolism, but Wood makes them look amazing and Al Feldstein's scripts fluctuate into delightfully deranged glee when they aren't making clumsy comments on the treachery of women or condemning racism with a battering ram. I suppose all of those things can be delightfully deranged and gleeful as well, but the brutal crime stuff induces less groans than the moralizing.

Some of the stories are difficult to read because of the stilted dialogue and the unnecessary narrative captions, but Wood makes them all interesting to look at, even when his panels are cramped by the looming word balloons. But this book certainly does help to make the case that it's not the total of the E.C. Comics output that's deserving of canonization, but rather some of the individual stories, and the work of some of the distinctive creators. My CBR colleague, Chris Mautner, over at Robot 6, put it perfectly: "We need a scalpel when selecting EC's best, where up until now we've been content to use a steam shovel."

I'd like to have more of the Fantagraphics volumes arrayed in front of me -- because I do like the black-and-white production more than the recolored reprints from other publishers in recent years -- before I start cutting away with a scalpel, but out of the two-dozen stories in "Came the Dawn" there are only a few that would likely withstand close scrutiny, even with concessions given to genre conventions. But the volume, as a whole, has merit as a handsome collection featuring one of the best comic book artists who ever lived. And even if it's not his most magnificent work -- and even if he wasn't given enough room to work given wordiness of the scripts -- it's a pleasure to look upon Wood's inky lines and thick shadows and see how he depicts the darkness beneath the Americana. It's the American Dream as fevered nightmare, I'll declare. Probably with an exclamation point this time.

Samples from the interiors of both books

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 regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

TAGS:  when words collide, barack husssein obama, wally wood, steven weissman, came the dawn, ec comics

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