torsdag 27 juni 2013

Chester Brown: Paying for It. A Comic-Strip Memoir About Being a John

Chester Brown caused a bit of a (positive) stir with his rather anarchistic Ed the Happy Clown, which was, well, weird and disorganized and seemed to me a lot like Brown was letting out a lot of steam and pent-up emotions and frustrations. Whether that is correct or not, I of course don't know. Anyway, it certainly made him a household name in the alternative comics biz.

Paying for It is Brown's account of how his girlfriend drifted away from him, and he drifted into getting sex from prostitutes instead. The storytelling is not flashy, it's an eight-panels-per-page grid, separated in chapters where he tells the readers about his encounters with a particular prostitute, his musings about her and the whole prostitution thing, and his conversations with his friends about it. He does make the impression of being almost obsessively upfront about the whole thing, not just to his readers but to his friends as well.

And that makes it an interesting read, actually. Brown's initial fears about being robbed, his masturbation before encounters in order not to ejaculate too quickly, his debates with his friends on whether he's exploiting these women, his musings about the women he's with and his conversations with them... It sort of drags you in, partly because it concerns a subject that's a bit forbidden, secret and shameful to most of us – no, not sex; prostitution – partly because it's also sort of a dissection of Brown's own thinking and rationalizations. (Those rationalizations aren't always high-quality, I have to say.) He also finishes the book with an afterword with a more formal discussion of his pro-prostitution thoughts, which have a pretty strong libertarian slant.

Brown doesn't want to make unreasonable demands on the girls, and always tips.

Myself, I have a somewhat conflicted view of prostitution; we as a society have pretty much established that a woman's sexuality is her own, to do with as she pleases... except if she chooses to rent it out to a man for money. That is a bit of a double standard, in my opinion. On the other hand, I have no doubt that there's also a whole lot of exploitation going on in that business – like in a whole lot of other businesses, that's true, but somehow a business involving people's sexuality seems to get a lot closer to our cores as human beings, which makes it more problematic that just your employer screwing you out of your overtime money, as unacceptable as that is. And then comes that whole "forced into sex" angle, which includes selling your body not just because somebody's threatening and/or manipulating you, but also if you're doing it for the money you (and/or, perhaps, your family) need to get by, and trafficking, and… So I'm still not going to join Chester Brown in his defense of prostitution and the right to rent a person's body. Mind you, Brown's own account doesn't always help his case – like when he keeps on having sex with a girl even though she does seem to be in pain... Still, it's an interesting sneak peek into the mindset of a not entirely unlikable – but not exactly likable, either – john, and strangely compelling.

Rationalizations. Turns out the girl doesn't even speak English.

It's worth reading. It's also worth thinking about, and I would be interested in reading some non-slanted-either-way actual research on the issue – but not interested enough to actually go out of my way to look for that research, unfortunately, as my slate is currently pretty much sufficiently full as it is without adding that to it, thank you very much.

Anyway, recommended, for its honesty about Brown's own behavior and thoughts – but perhaps not for his own conclusions.

onsdag 19 juni 2013

François Schuiten & Benoît Peeters: Cities of the Fantastic: The Invisible Frontier, Vol 1 & 2

If you like gorgeous art, François Schuiten is your man. His soft colors and skillful rendering, especially of architecture and interiors, make Cities of the Fantastic: The Invisible Frontier (original title: Les Cités obscures: La Frontière invisible)very pleasing to the eye. I'm less impressed with the story, however... but we'll get to that momentarily.


Schuiten and script collaborator Benoît Peeters have published eleven albums in the Obscure Cities series, and these are albums 8 and 9. They tell the story of the young, freshly-minted cartographer Roland de Cremer arriving at the great cartography center of Sodrovno-Voldachie. At first, he's somewhat lost, not just having difficulties finding and entering the center, but also in finding his place there. He does learn the ropes of his job pretty soon, though, but exactly what that job is remains somewhat unclear to the reader. The end product of the center's work, however, seems to be to produce a pretty large-scale model of the country.

… But at the same time, new technology is making its entrance into the world of cartography. Another new arrival, Ismail Djunov, works with computers, the future of cartography, to hear him tell it. Roland's boss, "Mister Paul", is suspicious of the new technology and prefers the old, more craft-like, ways – and reminisces about the days when the cartography center was bustling with people and activity.

Ismail takes Roland to "the club", a place where cartographers can relax after a hard day's work, being waited upon by semi-clad young women who apparently also are supposed to have sex with any cartographer who so desires. Roland is smitten by one of the girls, Shkodra, and starts a relationship of sorts with her. It turns out that Shkodra has some sort of map-like markings on her lower back and buttocks, but they can't be clearly made out… Yet.

Then comes a visit from the leader of the country, Marshal Radisic, where he takes an interest in the cartography institute's work – because he needs the map to show that he is entitled to do what he's planning to do, attack and assimilate a neighboring country. Turns out the map that disproves his claims  is exactly like the markings on Shkodra's bottom; and Roland realizes he has to do something to protect her...

I won't reveal more about the plot; it seems inspired by the tragedy of former Yugoslavia, and the story's clear distaste for expansionism and ruthless disregard for history and people in order to further one's political ambitions is something I think is shared by all decent people. I have a few problems with the story that prevents me from recommending the albums, though.

First of all, for me to enjoy science fiction, it generally needs to get the credibility right. The cartography center seems to be set right out in the desert, with no apparent means of getting food and other necessities to its occupants. Now, the setting is probably intended to reinforce the reader's experience of Roland's feelings of isolation and abandonment, but it detracts from the credibility of the story for me, undermining instead of enhancing it.

Second, I get somewhat annoyed with having those women like Shkodra put there to service the researchers sexually – it can be a valid part of the plot, intended to anger the reader at such exploitation, but that point is weakened by the way the women are depicted, beautiful and frequently in various stages of undress/nudity. IMO, Schuiten and Peeters are exploiting those women's bodies no less than their fictional characters do. (And notably, the beautiful Shkoda doesn't seem to have very much say in her own destiny no matter what; it's not like Roland, when he decides something needs to be done to protect her, doesn't pretty much decide what she should do for her.)

I also find the albums' depicted conflict between modern methods and Mister Paul's more craftmanship-oriented approach to be a false dichotomy. Of course really old maps are cool, but there's no need to romanticize them – modern maps, done digitally, are far more accurate and informative. This goes beyond cartography, of course – which in this case is to a large extent a metaphor, anyway, if I understand the albums correctly.

Finally, while Schuiten is a great artist for depicting environments and the human body (both dressed and undressed, his faces are usually not very expressive – though as it adds to the perceived slowness of the storytelling, perhaps it is intentional.

So, a couple of beautiful books, but in the end not for me. I'll probably read the rest of the albums in the series when I get across them, but I won't be actively seeking them out.

tisdag 18 juni 2013

Tom DeFalco: Comics Creators On Fantastic Four & Comics Creators On Spider-Man

In the late eighties-early nineties, I was getting more and more disillusioned with Marvel Comics. The stories were sort of losing heart, and an increased output of books was accompanied with what seemed to be laxer standards for writing as well as art.

Well, perhaps "laxer standards" isn't the right word for it – there seemed to be tighter editorial reins than in the seventies, which were sort of a golden age for the company in my opinion. I wasn't old enough to get and read the books until the late last couple of years of the decade, when I started ordering back issues from a couple of Swedish collectors and traders and got lots of old comic books delivered home via mail (to my delight and my mother's consternation), but digging into those piles of comics by the likes of Gene Colan, Roger Stern, Frank Miller, Jim Shooter (who wrote some great Avengers stories IMO – I still have fond memories of one where there are so many flightless Avengers that they have to commandeer a bus to take them to the final confrontation with a cosmic enemy hiding out in the suburbs), Steve Englehart and Steve Gerber. Let me just repeat the (to me) most important name of those: Steve Gerber.

Steve Gerber was one of those writers who could be used to define the term "offbeat". He wrote stories not quite like anybody else's, stories about outsidership that emphasized the characters, not the action. They were brilliant – and usually flawed, but still brilliant. Think a seventies Grant Morrison. Or, for that matter, a seventies J. M. DeMatteis, a writer who exploded on the scene in the eighties. (Well, OK, he didn't really explode on the scene, I don't think he had a sufficiently huge mainstream impact for that, but he did for me. I loved his stories, with their flawed protagonists and the forgiving, even loving, perspective he had on those flawed people.)

Anyway, Gerber not only created Howard the Duck and wrote some absolutely terrific stories about this duck trapped on a world not his own (not that his own world was ever really his own, either, but I digress), he also wrote stories that told the reader that you could never be entirely certain about anything, in the Marvel universe or, by extension, in your own universe.

And that characterized the seventies Marvel universe for me. Gerber was just the creator who was most explicit about it.

We talk about the "revisionist" comics creators revitalizing the DC universe in the eighties-onwards – the "British invasion", Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, to a certain extent Alan Grant, Grant Morrison, etc. But we tend to forget that "revisionism", or rather, "chucking everything out the window and starting anew" was not uncommon in the seventies Marvel universe. "Hey, all those memories you have about your youth and origin? They're false, implanted under hypnosis by the Red Skull" wasn't quite the order of the day, but it wasn't uncommon for new writers to drastically remake characters and storylines (and introducing some pretty outrageous stuff like having President Nixon being the head of a plot to enslave America and killing himself when defeated by Cap). This made for a somewhat unstable but very interesting universe. With greater editorial control came a better ability to make deadlines and a more coherent Marvel universe, but also a somewhat less interesting one.

And then came the real downturn. Titles were turned over to people who knew how to tell stories that sold, but who didn't know how to tell stories with real heart in them (and in some cases didn't even seem to know how to write). The art went similarly downhill; competent artists cranking out so many pages that they simply didn't have time to do a proper job, or doing breakdowns turned into final art by inkers who weren't able to provide the magic that full, beautiful pencils can create, new artist being brought in that weren't up to scratch – not everybody can be a John Buscema, or a Gene Colan, or a Mike Zeck, but when you've been spoiled by reading their stuff, you won't be happy with art that just isn't up to snuff.

I'll refrain from naming any names here, as it wouldn't serve any real purpose; suffice to say, I wasn't happy with the art on quite a few of my former favorite titles. I'll give you an example, though: Captain America. After a brief but beautiful run on the title by Roger Stern, John Byrne and Joe Rubinstein – top-notch creators all – the book was taken over by J. M. DeMatteis and Mike Zeck (I don't quite remember the inker, but it may have been Bob McLeod). Now, this was a move from an excellent creative team to another excellent creative team. DeMatteis crafted stories of subtlety, love, drama and melodrama, and the art was beautiful and action-packed. In fact, my favorite Cap moment occurred during this run – a monster has kidnapped Cap's girlfriend Bernie, and Cap comes to rescue her. The monster promptly beats him to a pulp. As the monster prepares to kill Cap, Bernie (who has made quite an impression on the monster) tries to stop him. This makes the monster stop, and think, and he decides that maybe Cap isn't his enemy at all. The monster takes off in order to sit on a mountaintop to think things through properly as Bernie cradles the unconscious Cap's head in her lap. Cap slowly wakes up, and wearily looks up to see Bernie's face, saying:

"Bernie… Are you okay…?"

That scene, more than any other, defines Captain America – and Steve Rogers – for me.

DeMatteis then proceeded to, among other things, tell a multiple-issue story about Cap's gay childhood friend, who protected him from bullies, contacting him again after all these years. (This was way before gay was considered OK in mainstream comics, movies and television.) And then he was replaced by a writer who was more interested in telling stories about terrorists and cleaning up Marvel continuity by having some dark menace kill off marginal Marvel crooks, and who completely lacked DeMatteis' subtle and deeply humanistic sensitivities, as well as his dramatic flair as a writer. The art chores were handled by an artist who similarly lacked subtleness and elegance. The book just died to me.

The same happened to many other Marvel books during what I think may have been called the "Marvel explosion". Writers were brought in who wrote stories superficially dramatic, but lacking all subtlety, and coordinating a lot of titles became more important than actually producing interesting stories with depth. By the early nineties, Marvel was pretty much a mess. DC wasn't a whole lot better, either; Frank Miller had ruined Batman with his brilliant Dark Knight Returns and Year One – his violent, driven Batman was so exceedingly well done and popular that it infected all the Batman stories produced by DC… and those other writers generall weren't good enough to do Miller's Batman without turning him into merely another monomaniacal and brutal action hero. (In fact, even Miller himself wasn't, as shown by his follow-up, The Dark Knight Strikes Again.)

Anyway, that was a pretty long-winded run-up to Tom DeFalco's excellent interview books Comics Creators On Fantastic Four and Comics Creators On Spider-Man, but the reason for it is that I hold DeFalco and several of his interviewees to be among those responsible for Marvel's downhill slide, both as writers and editors. But nevertheless, it's very interesting to read their takes on the characters who have very much defined the Marvel universe, the Fantastic Four and Peter Parker/Spider-Man. Also, DeFalco turns out to be a very good interviewer, asking about the creators' backgrounds, how they got into comics and how they view the characters and the creative process. You also get some interesting snapshots of how Marvel worked in the early days, as well as later on.

All in all, this is very interesting reading but hard to summarize as the creators involved (not just writers but also artists) have such diverse views. Many want to go back to the characters' roots, but they don't always agree on what those roots are. For instance, going back the Lee-Kirby roots of the FF doesn't necessarily mean using their old villains, because they were all about creating new ones, and thus "going back to the roots" could also mean doing just that, expanding the vistas explored as well as the villains roster. (Mark Waid, one of the better writers in the business, makes that point rather explicitly. I found that slightly ironic as I remembered reading his and Carlos Pacheco's Resurrection of Galactus story, and halfway through it realizing why I thought it was merely a decent story but not a great one even though it was so well told: I'd read basically the same story by Lee & Kirby, if not quite so expertly crafted. Just to be on the safe side, I searched that book out in my collection – fortunately, as it turns out, because Waid had nothing to do with it. Never trust your memory.)

Everybody also seems to agree that Fantastic Four is about family, with the exploration theme also being mentioned by several creators.

For Spider-Man, I thought Paul Jenkins had the most interesting take on the character – Peter is a hero because he cares enough to keep fighting, unlike the villains who've chosen to take the easier, lesser path instead. (And if you doubt that that is true, go buy Kraven's Last Hunt by DeMatteis-Zeck-McLeod, arguably the best Spider-Man tale ever told.)

Finally, a partial roster of the creators interviewed: Stan Lee, Brian Michael Bendis, J. M. DeMatteis, Todd McFarlane, John Romita, Gerry Conway, Roger Stern, Marv Wolfman, Len Wein, John Byrne, Howard Mackie, Ralph Macchio, Walter Simonson, Doug Moench, Joe Sinnot and Jim Lee. Some really big names in there.

Highly recommended.

(Note to Swedish readers: I borrowed these books from the Serieteket library in Stockholm, a great resource for comics lovers.)