When Words Collide: Dead TV Stars, God Equations and the Greatness of Michael DeForge

Mon, July 15th, 2013 at 2:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

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I read a fistful of comics this week! Let's talk about some of them!

"Catalyst Comix" #1, by Joe Casey, Dan McDaid, Paul Maybury, Ulises Farinas, and Brad Simpson

In the first half of the 1999 Kinka Usher joint known as "Mystery Men," there's a scene where the Bob-Burden-inspired heroes visit Kel Mitchell's Invisible Boy in the bedroom of his parent's house, and his walls are plastered with superhero posters and comic books.

But they aren't superheroes or comics 99% of the movie-going public would have recognized. They're all images from Dark Horse's underwhelming "Comics Greatest World," which was an ambitious project from the early 1990s with some lovely covers and some interesting creative talent but not much in the way of substance. I really loved the look of some of those comics, and the glossy printing was quite handsome at the time, but the line didn't last and most of the "Greatness" of that world had worn off by the time 1999 rolled around.

I always thought of that Kel Mitchell "Mystery Men" scene as partly defining an alternate reality in which Ghost and Titan and X and King Tiger were bigger than Superman and Batman and Spider-Man. Where those Dark Horse superhero comics really mattered and inspired a young generation to take up the capes and cowls or pens and pencils to become heroes or creators or both.

"Catalyst Comix" is kind of like that alternate reality where the characters from "Comics Greatest World" used to be a big deal and now they're making a comeback.

Someday, when there are more issues of "Catalyst Comix" to talk about, I'm sure I'll have something deeper and more profound to say. But here's what I like a whole bunch so far: (a) that the series has three rotating features by three different artists, and each month one feature will rotate to the front, longer, slot while the other two play backup, (b) that the artists are Dan McDaid, Paul Maybury, and Ulises Farinas, all of whom are enough to interest me in picking up a superhero comic they might be drawing, so all three of them under one cover is a treat, and (c) that Joe Casey gives all three strips their own tone, so the Frank Wells (aka Titan) feature in issue #1 is trippy Silver Age cosmic with a dose of modern melancholy, while Amazing Grace is a sci-fi exploration, while Agents of Change is a street-level high-tech crime drama.

Joe Casey concludes issue #1 with a text piece about how his three artistic collaborators draw the kinds of superhero comics he wants to see. Like this is part of some new revolution in the way superhero comics should look. I hope that's true. Let's make it true.

"Satellite Sam" #1, by Matt Fraction and Howard Chaykin

Part of the fun of reading this comic is trying to figure out where the Howard Chaykin ends and the Matt Fraction begins, because it feels like such a seamless collaboration and yet it also highlights both of their creative talents.

Fraction has consistently been at his best when he's filtering his pop culture sensibilities through genre mash-ups in the edges of the mainstream. Chaykin has consistently been at his best when he's drawing square-jawed bastards and beautiful femme fatales in critiques of fascist structures that look like celebrations of fascism. "Satellite Sam" is about schlocky on-air drama, the advent of cable television, the death of a has-been and a mystery involving a box of gorgeous women.

The choice of black-and-white artwork seems like a defiant aesthetic decision, particularly in the shadow of Fraction's "Casanova" which was originally released in less-than-full-color through Image and then later recolored at Marvel to potentially reach a wider audience (via comic shops who often flatly refused to carry black-and-white comics). But "Satellite Sam" is distinctively black-and-white, with Chaykin working in what could be termed his "Black Kiss" mode, although with a slightly (but only slightly) more family-friendly demeanor. The comic looks fantastic. It feels more Chaykinesque than much of his recent work at Marvel or DC. It also feels like a project Fraction's steering toward Chaykin's strengths. Or maybe Chaykin conceived of most of it and Fraction's just providing a bit of guidance and some dialogue, I don't know. The partnership, as I said, is seamless. But it does feel like a true collaboration. Something that takes the best of both and swirls it around it into something special.

It's a baby made with Fraction and Chaykin DNA and it's a beautifully vicious one.

"Number Cruncher" #1, by Si Spurrier, P.J. Holden, and Jordie Bellaire

Here's a four-issue series that was originally released in chapters in a bunch of issues of "Judge Dredd Megazine," but I missed it back in 2011 when it was first serialized, and now it's back (with new coloring, I think) from Titan Comics.

It's good. Much different than I expected, based on the cover, but that's probably why I liked it.

"Number Cruncher" looks like a thuggish crime comic at first glance and P.J. Holden's art recalls Steve Parkhouse crossed with Sean Phillips and that sets a certain kind of tone that's fitting for a farce of a criminal nature, and that's what the story may yet become, but it doesn't begin that way.

It begins as a kind of reverse "It's a Wonderful Life," with a guy who gets a second chance and an unorthodox guardian angel watching over him. But the second chance isn't what he expected and the guardian angel is really not an angel and he's not in the mood to guard much of anything. He's more of a knee-cap smasher who works for that great number cruncher in the sky.

Spurrier and Holden and colorist Jordie Bellaire quickly establish the rules for this supernatural comedy-drama but the first issue ends with plenty of narrative possibilities. It's a keenly established world, but it's too soon to tell how it's all going to play out, but that makes the next issue worth checking out.

"The Boy in Question," by Michael DeForge

Shawn Starr was right to >question my accounting with my Top 10 of the Year So Far. He points out that it's particularly unfair to lump all of Michael DeForge's comics into a single entry, when that kind of thing is rarely done outside of minicomic artists or the occasional independent creator. I disagree with that a bit, since I know that list-makers have sometimes lumped, say, "Grant Morrison superhero comics" or "Mark Waid superhero comics" into a single entry, and when "Eightball" or "Acme Novelty Library" were released more frequently, it's not like each issue of those comics warranted separate entries, even if those anthology series were quite different from month to month.

So, talking about Michael DeForge's comics as a singular "thing" seems to have some credibility, since it's mostly only the reality of publishing in the 21st century that keeps him from producing a monthly anthology instead. If "Michael DeForge's Comics and Stories" sold 50,000 copies a month, he might put all his comics under that same umbrella. But he's a 21st century cartoonist working on the outskirts of the publishing industry, so he'll do a short story in a minicomic with some friends, staple his own minicomics, produce some books for Koyama Press, draw something for Space Face Books, and do a webcomic.

It's all "Michael DeForge's Comics and Stories," but it's just not officially called that.

Except…Shawn's right to say that's it's still inappropriate to lump it all together, because of the quality of each project. Because they are, in actuality, released as separate things, and because DeForge changes up his style from project to project and because they are all so good, it's a bit misleading to say that DeForge counts as a single entry in any list, when any two or three or four of his comics from any given year – particularly this year – would be, if written under assumed identities, competing for the Top 10 on their own.

This is all a long-winded way of saying that you shouldn't be surprised if I decide to follow Shawn's advice and end up with half my Top 10 for the year as Michael DeForge comics. And "The Boy in Question" would be among them. I hadn't read it when I did my "Top 10 So Far" column, but I read it this week, and it's a bit like an antithesis to "Lose" #5. It's less dense than other DeForge works this year, and it takes a single idea and pushes it through beyond all reason. But it's yet another powerful piece of art from the best young cartoonist in comics.

If you aren't reading Michael DeForge, I don't know what you're doing with your life.

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.

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