Posts Tagged ‘Steve Rude’

The bridge is over.


Saturday, August 1, 2009

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Preface: I wrote this in my notebook after discovering last week that the conclusion to the major re-launch of the 1980s series Nexus had hit the stands. Steve Rude, one of the biggest “indie” comics creators of the last 25 years, made a comeback — to the sound of crickets. No one cared. To me, that meant the Direct Market was really finally and absolutely dead. Everyone said it was dead last summer when Love and Rockets abandoned its pamphlet comic book format and went to an annual trade paperback format. Like Love and Rockets, the fate of Nexus was bound up in the history of the Direct Market. But unlike Love and Rockets, Nexus was suited for the “alternative mainstream” fan. It was a particular kind of adult superhero book that appealed to a seemingly more sophisticated audience than the regular superhero comics. The DM supported titles like Nexus and allowed them to thrive. Not any more. Maybe everyone’s just had their fill of Nexus but the news of this indie’s end got me thinking about the bigger picture. The end of Nexus represents, to me, a window of time that has closed. The new regime is upon us at last, and I wrote this to simply mark the time. Also, the below is really an exploration, for me, into ideas that my friend and mentor Bill Boichel of Copacetic Comics has expressed to me for years—in his store, over the phone, in emails, in class lectures. The “bridge” and “tree” metaphors are pure Boichel. Thanks Bill, for letting borrow your melody line and riff on it here.

The bridge is over. From 1975 to 2005, the Direct Market was the bridge from the old world “Comics-as-ephemera”, returnable periodicals model to the new world “Comics-as-Literature” bookstore model. The bridge changed comics, saved it from sure death on the newsstand and put comics in a place of permanence. Everyone in Comics has noted the consolidation of the DM and the rise of the chain bookstores & the internet as venues for new work. Now, this year, more than ever, I seem to be repeatedly noting to myself the real split between the mainstream and the alternative sides of comics.

During the heyday of the Direct Market in the late ’80s and early ’90s mainstream and alternative comics were together in one marketplace because there was no other option essentially, no bookstore support, no internet. What that meant was the two traditions were folded together. Gilbert Hernandez and Steve Ditko were on the same rack literally and figuratively. The old mainstream guys influenced the young alt guys, there was a clear traceable legacy. One could see Bernie Krigstein’s influence on Dan Clowes, Jack Kirby’s influence on Chester Brown, Ditko’s influence on Hernandez. It was a singular perspective essentially. One big sandbox. One tradition.

The market can now support multiple perspectives. It is not a monolithic community. There is no official definition of Comics now. It’s too big. Finally “comics” doesn’t just mean American mainstream super-hero action adventure stories. (Well, comics never meant just that genre, but y’know what I’m saying: Marvel and DC have lorded over the form for almost 50 years.) In 2009 you can walk into a comics store like Copacetic Comics in Pittsburgh and see no superhero comics on display at all. There are enough “alternative” or “literary” comics/graphic novels out in the world to fill a whole (small) store. And there are “alternative” publishers who don’t use (or are shut out from) the Direct Market and who use book trade distributors to get the work out to stores.

So we got what you might call a bifurcated market. The two traditions, once folded together in the same market, have split. There are two sandboxes now. What that means is that if you grew up reading comics from, say, 1999 to now you didn’t necessarily have to read superhero comics to get your comics fix or even go to a store that sold both. This is a good thing. It’s a new audience, and a broader one than maybe any of us old school dinosaurs could have anticipated. I’ve spent far too much time ranting about “the kids not knowing their comics history.” Well, I’m over it. I don’t really feel the need to explain who Marshall Rogers is anymore, or convince anyone that late ’70s Kirby is actually really good. Figure it out for yourself.

This new audience, I think, is alienated by superhero comics and associates the genre with corporate America. They don’t like it. And who can blame them? They wonder why folks like me keep extolling the abilities of some guy who drew Spider-Man. They could care less. I had a student tell me, “Yah, it’s beautiful art but it’s Spider-Man.” This too, this palpable attitude, is a good thing. After all, aren’t Batman and Spider-Man just corporate logos these days?

Comics history is like one big tree where McCay and Herriman are the roots, Kirby and Caniff are the trunk, Crumb and Spiegelman are big branches, and the rest of us schlubs are up there somewhere. It’s all connected. Each generation has its precursors. I would assert, however, that for the first time in comics history it’s possible to graft new identities upon the tree without being schooled in the singular tradition, without growing out of the singular tradition. One can choose precursors from other traditions, not just from comics.

I see Persepolis as an example of this grafting. It is at once outside the tradition of comics and within the boundaries of the form. I feel that it was only possible to come into existence because of the split that happened some time in the last 10 years. I’m sure that’s no big revelation for most of you, but it’s something to consider as we move forward into the next decade. It’s now possible to bypass a very particular, esoteric education in “mainstream” comics, and go right to its “alternative” and also to the avant-garde. It opens the door for “vertical invaders,” for artists from different traditions to make work and to find an audience. The marketplace will support a book like Persepolis, I think, precisely because it is divorced from the old world model. Satrapi’s free from the “Tree of Influence” that’s existed in comics; she’s free to draw in a straight-forward generic style that is appealing to a vast audience. (Think of it this way: As “straight-forward” or “realistic” Clowes’ style in Ghost World is to a schooled comics reader, it looks baroque and affected to a non-comics reader.)

One could say comics like L’nR and Optic Nerve may have been the first to appeal to this emerging audience. But I feel that those books didn’t/don’t cross over so much as Acme Novelty Library or Persepolis because the styles of the Hernandez Brothers and also of Tomine are essentially derived from the mainstream comics and illustration tradition. I feel that it was Ware’s choice to reach beyond the mainstream tradition back to the newspaper strip golden age that has allowed him to have such a diverse audience. It seems this new emerging audience still connects particular styles back to mainstream comics. I’m curious to see how Mazzucchelli’s new book does now that he has “unlearned” all his mainstream tricks. ( I also think Seth’s eventual collection of Clyde Fans will “cross over” to an audience beyond comics. He has a style that has little to do with mainstream comics. Interestingly enough, Seth said recently: “I am converting Palookaville into a hardcover format this year. I love the old comic format but Chris Oliveros convinced me that the work would do better if we moved on to this new direction. It’s kind of sad, passing of an era and all that.”)

So, here we are: Summer 2009. Whatever system we have now, it’s working. Pamphlets still get published even if they only serve as advertisements for the collection, GN’s sell better and better, downloads are happening, comics are on Kindle: whatever works. However, in the process it feels like a real division has been formed between the “mainstream” and the “alternative” factions. A division that was always there underneath, forming. But now it’s ruptured and split the marketplace.

Which brings me to Comic-Con. San Diego Comic-Con will always be some sort of Oscars for our community. But whose community is it anymore? Increasingly it’s the motion picture industry’s community. It’s not about “the work” anymore. It’s definitely not about the creators or even the comic book dealers. It may be cool for most mainstream creators or fans but what’s in it for us in the “alternative” community? Not much. So I gotta wonder why “we” still go. I can certainly understand why Fantagraphics and D&Q go (it’s the biggest show of the year, duh) and that Comic-Con is still profitable for them. But for me and my comrades over here on the fringe of the fringe we feel like we’re getting priced out of our own neighborhood. The split seems this year to be more pronounced than ever and it looks like those in the “mainstream” have no choice really but to hold on for dear life as they become co-opted even further into corporate America. They really have no choice. They sold themselves out years ago.

But the alternative comics community does have a choice. So give me TCAF, SPX, MoCCA, SPACE, Stumptown, and the “alternative” circuit and tell Comic-Con and the Direct Market, “Thanks for the memories.” The bridge is over.

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junk drawer


Thursday, August 7, 2008

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I bought this off of the cartoonist, er sorry, the painter Steve Rude last year at San Diego. I wish he would do a whole comic in this thumbnail style. The page is just 8.5 x 11—look at the confidence in those lines!

(This one’s for Kevin)


Some Recent Reading


Thursday, March 20, 2008

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I’ve been a little bad about writing (as usual), but there’s a lot going on in PictureBox land and man oh man it’s hard to think. Anyhow, I’ve recently gotten into the fun habit of stopping off at my local comics shop, Rocketship, and buying some comics on my way home from the office. Oh man it’s enjoyable to do that. Lately, co-proprietor Alex Cox has been egging me on to buy various pamphlets and, since I can’t resist, here’s what I’ve been reading lately:

Punisher War Journal: Matt Fraction writes it and Howard Chaykin draws it. I have to say, I really like this title. Fraction is firmly in the Morrison/Milligan self aware tradition, but he has a sarcastic, easy style — somehow more casual than the the Brits. I like his work here, which so far concerns washed up super villains going about their daily lives. Basically these are noir slice of life stories, like a riff on Eisner’s Spirit, where The Punisher only appears at the end to, well, make it a Punisher comic. Chaykin’s art is awfully fun. He’s never been the most subtle of artists, but he’s using photoshop is some very curious/possibly retarded ways and I like it. In any case, can you believe Howard Chaykin is drawing the Punisher? Remember American Flagg? Or Cody Starbuck?

99 and 100: Well, whenever I read Nexus I think of Frank’s smiling face, so how can I resist. This is totally fun space-opera stuff. Rude is in good form and he looks more like Russ Manning than ever. This is just delightful stuff written and drawn with utter conviction. It’s nice to see a comic book that’s not snarky or “meta”, and yet still contemporary enough to hold my attention.

Powr Mastrs 2: I read the first fifty pages last week. They’re being scanned now. Let’s just say that CF might’ve learned a thing or two from Russ Manning as well. It’s his best, most exciting work to date.

The Last Defenders #1: This comic was more or less incomprehensible to me.

Omega the Unknown #6: Another great issue, as the plot deepens and some very odd formal tropes come into play. I love this series and I think the more intricate it gets (now there’s a “Watcher” stand-in) the better.

Rasl #1: This is Jeff Smith’s new comic. I was never much of a Bone fan, but I like this. Did anyone else notice the similarities between it and Sammy Harkham’s Crickets? Or Frank’s Incanto? Lone man wandering in a hostile landscape? Well, not the most unique idea, I know, but funny to see it pop up three times in recent months. Jeff Smith’s rendering can irk me a bit sometimes — it feels overdone, too knotty and muscled. But this story, which sets us in the midst of a somewhat ambiguous scenario, moves swiftly and is perfectly paced for the pamphlet format. It’s a complete story but leaves enough questions to make me want to get the next one. That’s good serialization.

By the way, I re-read Miracleman 1-6. Oh boy, it’s awesome — it’s funny to read it now and realize it’s still so much better than the million imitators still going.

That’s all for now. Back to work.

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The Streets of San Francisco


Tuesday, January 15, 2008

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Tastes change. Styles change. Everyone knows the story about Hitchcock’s Psycho, right? After filming lots of big-budget color movies in the mid to late ’50s, Hitch decided to take a different approach with Psycho. Convinced that he could do it better with his smaller TV crew (from Alfred Hitchcock Presents), he shot Psycho in black-and-white and structured it very much like the short-form pieces he was doing for TV. I think Hitch also understood that tastes were changing and that people liked the small-screen, simple and clear, episodic format that hearkened back to radio (and to Hitch’s own films from the ’30s). Also, many of the people who worked in TV in the ’50s and ’60s were former filmmakers from the pre-Technicolor, pre-Cinemascope era.

Contemporary filmmakers can attempt to evoke older films (Todd Haynes’ Sirk-themed Far From Heaven, for example) as much as they like — but in my opinion they will never be able to truly match or copy exactly what the old timers did BECAUSE THEY WERE NOT FORMED IN THE SAME CAULDRON. (Of course Haynes didn’t want to copy Sirk exactly. Haynes was investigating Sirk’s LANGUAGE.) The dominant style of staged movement, proscenium stage “blocking”, nuts-and-bolts “shot/reaction shot” that one can easily see running through all films of the ’40s and ’50s began to give way eventually. Interestingly enough, it was the French New Wave that had a lot to do with this because they themselves were looking back, like Hitchcock, to the older, formative films of Hollywood, to noir, and to westerns. This back to basics approach was picked up on by the ’60s and ’70s auteurs, but by then they could inject new flavors in to the form (more skin and sex) and the whole paradigm shifted.

Comics have a similar trajectory. All the talk that comics artists today can draw BETTER than their forebears is meaningless. The point is that this common language I’m describing IS NO LONGER IN USAGE. It’s all but dead because the people who were formed by it, who passed it on, are gone. Toth was an innovator; he was more forward-thinking than Caniff, yet he was still a “Caniffer.” Darwyn Cooke can attempt to evoke Toth in some of his Batman stories, but he will never be Toth because he was not formed in the same 1950s cauldron. So subtly, step by step, each generation puts its own spin on the dominant style. Any attempt to resurrect these “house styles” is seen as retro and somewhat conservative. The bland illustration style that ruled ’50s and early ’60s comics was part Caniff, part advertising, part hackwork. The practitioners of this style, though, knew how to construct a page that read clearly, much like directors of the ’50s films knew how to stage action.

Steve Rude is a great example of an artist who, like Toth, builds on the existing nuts-and-bolts style of comic storytelling without resorting to drawing in a more stylized approach like Frank Cho or Dave Stevens. One hundred issues of Nexus continuity prove Rude’s determination to remain a “classicist” and document his development. He’s committed to telling a story and frames the movement across the page in order to extract the maximum dramatic impact. Rude’s choices work for me as a reader because the clarity of it all, the simplicity of the drawing, allow the narrative to retain its momentum. Cho’s flourishes of technical wizardry, I think, actually prevent the narrative from assuming center stage. His transitions from panel to panel are generally awkward and ham-fisted. Compare the clarity of the Rude page (below left) to the clumsiness of Cho’s page (below right) in sequences that have a similar “action.”

Does Miami Vice look like Dragnet? Does a Dave Stevens page read like a Caniff page? Would I rather watch The Streets of San Francisco or Law & Order? Would I rather read Don Heck or Frank Cho? For me, the last is a litmus test. If you think Cho is a better draftsman, fine. But if you think Cho is a better comics artist than Don Heck, then I’m sorry, but I do not agree. In fact, I think it’s pointless to compare the two. For the reasons I’ve explained above, I think Cho is an ILLUSTRATOR first and a comics artist second. Don Heck, long reviled as one of the worst hacks in the Marvel Bullpen, was a solid storyteller. He had a great sense of comics “naturalism” and is a perfect example of the kind of “nuts-and-bolts” non-photo-referenced approach that prevailed before 1970 or so. In my opinion, artists like Cho and Stevens have contributed very little to the development of the form. Except maybe to impress upon a generation of young comics artists that technical virtuosity is more important than basic storytelling.

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Mike Baron


Friday, December 14, 2007

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I take it all back. Steve Rude rules. But I’m saying it for Mike Baron, too. I want to see Nexus be as popular and relevant as it used to be — for Rude, sure, but for Baron more. He’s a great comics writer and I miss his new wave ’80s brand of sci-fi. It feels perfect for today. Kind of P.K. Dick, kind of retro, but still fresh — Baron’s Nexus this time around might just be what comics needs right now.

Baron sounds optimistic in the afterword for Nexus: The Origin: “[Rude] and I expect to spend the next 15 years finishing up our long running, but briefly interrupted saga. And in the end we will hopefully have found ourselves having said it all.”

Baron also explains what happened to issue 100 of Nexus, which has been delayed for months: “Glitches attacked. Nexus 100, already ambitious to start with, grew exponentially as [Rude] painted and expanded the … story.”

Nexus: The Origin is a great deal and a great chance to plug in to the Nexus channel; it’s a reprint of a 1993 Eisner-winning book that retells the Nexus origin story in stunning fashion. Forty-eight pages in full color for four bucks. Rude is awesome. Who cares if he blows his deadlines? Maybe they did this all on purpose to get Nexus fans like me cagey enough to want to abandon all hope only to go bananas for a reprint! It’s almost sad how excited I am about this comic. It’s just so refreshing to see Nexus on the new comics rack. It’s a pretty amazing comic book. Baron and Rude are in a class by themselves.

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Speak of the Devil


Saturday, November 10, 2007

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Speak of the Devil #1-2
Gilbert Hernandez
Dark Horse, 2007

Maybe the real heir to Jack Kirby is Gilbert Hernandez. It can’t be Steve Rude; I was wrong. Kirby drew everything from romances to crime stories to classical Greek epics — and I’d say only Gilbert Hernandez shows comparable depth. He might not have the same chops as Kirby or even of his own brother Jaime — but Beto can keep up with ANYONE. And he delivers on time. Sorry, Steve.

I heard Beto himself say “I can’t draw” at the San Diego Comic-Con this year. “I can’t draw streetlights, door jambs, houses — you can see that in twenty-five years those parts of my drawing have basically stayed the same.” What has improved is his range. Beto’s able to craft a perfect comic book story. Shit, he could do that in 1981, but other than 1996’s Girl Crazy and 2002’s Grip, he hasn’t had much of a chance to stretch out, narratively speaking, in a non-Love & Rockets comic book series. (New Love from ’96 was short strips, natch.) His newest effort, Speak of the Devil, may just be his finest offering in this vein.

Freed of the Love & Rockets/Palomar continuity, he first unleashed (twenty-five years worth of) his pent up “weltschmerz” (world-pain) with Sloth and Chance in Hell — two genre-defying graphic novels that disintegrated this reader’s mind with the force of a cosmic black hole. Next up, Speak of the Devil, a six-issue comic-book mini-series. Bound now by twenty-page episodic chapters and a PG-13 style for the “mainstream” comics market, Speak of the Devil reins in Beto’s multi-faceted approach and broad abilities. The chaotic white hot rage of Chance in Hell is now a focused low simmer. Like Sloth, one can feel the pressure under the surface, veiled. And also like Sloth, the suburban tract house setting creates a fitting counterpoint to the tension. Where it differs from Sloth is in its pace; here Beto swiftly builds a deliberate narrative of nearly silent action without voice-over or introduction. The “hook” of the action sets the stage for intrigue that begins immediately and there are honestly passages that made my heart pound in expectation. Like a Steve Ditko Amazing Adult Fantasy story, the comic is imbued with a mystical air that is difficult to describe because so much of it relies on his masterful and subtle stage direction. Beto’s compositional and storytelling skills are so strong now — he’s at the height of his abilities, like Kirby was in the early ’70s. In fact, because of the pace with which it unfolds, Speak of the Devil reads like an issue of Kamandi or Mister Miracle. Beto has his own set of signs now — he crafts solid pages and imbues his drawings with joy — and like Kirby did, he uses those signs to unleash fantasies that are just so much fucking fun to read. It’s incredible. And again because he’s freed from his Love & Rockets continuity, he’s able to accentuate moments and details that I would think are more difficult to focus on in, say, a Palomar story with its large cast of characters and divergent storylines.

The plot of Speak of the Devil is similar to that of a black-and-white B-movie that one might come across on TV late at night. Val is a hot, athletic teenager with a hot bosomy stepmom. There’s a peeping tom in the neighborhood, and Val’s stepmom sort of gets off on the fact that the peeping tom is around. If it sounds simple, or clichéd, then good: Beto has you right where he wants you. Against such suburban ennui, the story is allowed to flutter and move like the curtains of the bedroom window behind which Val’s mom lies half-naked, waiting. It’s as though Beto has corralled all his obsessions and created a vehicle that permits him the freedom to put it all into one story. The beauty of it is that it doesn’t feel forced; it’s right on target. The tone, the mood, the drawing, the narrative flow — it all falls like dominoes.

And it’s a whole helluva lotta fun to read. Comics, for me, aren’t often much fun any more, because so many titles are either striving to be considered serious literature, or to be adult versions of adolescent king-of-the-hill games. Both of these approaches neglect the form’s raw power. Think Ditko sci-fi or Kirby monster stories — where is that sort of precision these days? Better yet, where are the creators that can do quality short genre pieces AND long-form continuity? And interestingly enough, Beto figures prominently into WHY comics are now being viewed by some as serious literature in the first place. What’s remarkable is that an artist with the ability to do something on the scale of Palomar is also capable of switching gears and doing something so direct and clear, and that still channels the form’s raw visual power.

It’s not a surprise, of course — Beto’s been doing short pieces for twenty-five years — but it’s still remarkable. Like a distillation of all of his influences, Speak of the Devil showcases the talents of a master well versed in comics language, all deployed in the service of a crazy Twilight Zone-esque genre story. That’s Kirby, that’s Ditko; that’s Ogden Whitney and Harry Lucey. And that’s Beto, one of the only contemporary cartoonists out there who can do it all. High, Low, and everything in between.

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Dude, seriously…


Sunday, October 21, 2007

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I’ve been a huge fan of the Nexus series since the late 1980s, but even though many of you may have never heard of the book before, I’m going to skip the collaged, fast-motion history of the character and creative team. Look it up online. Suffice it to say that Nexus was the most exciting independent action/adventure comic of the 1980s, something like a new wave Space Ghost. The writing was razor sharp and the art was better than anything else out at the time.

So what happened since then? Why haven’t we seen this comic in ten years, or on a regular schedule for almost twenty? Well, for one thing, the comics market basically collapsed in the mid 1990s (“The ’90s were a train wreck,” said Gary Groth at an SPX panel in 2006), but beyond that I think the real reason Nexus went away is because Steve Rude is a perfectionist. He can’t maintain a regular schedule. He may be the heir apparent to Jack Kirby (who else is there?), but unlike his hero, Rude has serious deadline problems.

When I heard that Nexus was returning, and on Rude’s own label no less, I was thrilled. I’d followed the sporadic Nexus mini-series that were published through most of the ’90s, and really did mourn its absence over the last decade. The new book was announced and then word came that, no, in fact there were creative differences between Baron and Rude and that it was off. Then it was back on. But by then I didn’t believe it. So when I found out that it was actually coming out I was relieved and excited. Finally a good regular monthly comic to follow besides All Star Superman. (I like Frank Quitely’s art. Geez. What? You don’t?)

As a true Nexus fan, I read issue #99 carefully and slowly, and savored every second. It’s a remarkable return to form for Baron & Rude, masterfully and beautifully done. That said, it also feels like they tried to cram in too much “set-up” for the next few issues. There’s an amazing action sequence in the middle that puts Paul Gulacy (Rude’s other hero) to shame, but then the book stumbles through the next few pages with more set-up, and ends with an ostensibly big moment — the birth of Nexus’s son — that feels flat and uninspired. A few pages earlier, momentum was building well, and despite all the set-up, it seemed like there would be a fitting coda to the first Nexus comic in ten years. Instead we’re left to wait until “next month” (or so we’re told) for the implied showdown between good and evil.

That’s a problem. Nexus #99 debuted a couple weeks before the San Diego Comic-Con in July. I’m writing this in late October and still no new Nexus. Whatever momentum that it received from the comics press is dying down, and it seems, like the story itself I’m afraid, that the return to form is exactly more of the same from these guys: sporadic issues here and there of a great comic for an ever dwindling fan base. I’d rather wait ten years for a complete story than be promised something the creators and publisher (read: Steve Rude) can’t deliver on a regular schedule. What possessed Rude, after waiting ten years to get back in the saddle again with Nexus, only to release the first issue of a four-issue mini-series before finishing even the second?! Common sense dictates that after such a long hiatus, the entire series should be finished before the first issue goes to press, thereby insuring the uninterrupted flow of the dynamically paced series, where the loss of momentum is the kiss of death to both enjoyment and sales.

It’s still probably the best action/adventure comic I’ve read all year. A solid piece of genre comics that expands the form’s conventions while remaining firmly rooted in tradition. I’m simply worried that it will be completely over new readers’ heads. Tastes have changed since Nexus was cutting edge. And if I’d never read Nexus before, I think I’d probably wonder what’s really happening on planet Ylum (where the story takes place). Is Nexus president there? What is all the unrest about? As an old reader, I can figure it out, and piece together my recollection of past adventures. But I worry that if Nexus the comic wants to recapture its glory days, then Baron and Rude are going to have to work a lot harder and faster this go round.

One final note: While writing this, I discovered that the Nexus: Origin one-shot is slated to be reprinted in November. Anyone inspired by this review to give Nexus a shot and would like a quick (and cheap) way to get up to speed is advised to grab a copy upon its release.

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The Nostalgist


Sunday, February 4, 2007

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I recently picked up Darwyn Cooke‘s Spirit and Batman/The Spirit. Cooke specializes in nostalgia-inflected revivals of superheroes. His mini series New Frontier was an epic re-imagining of the DC Comics heroes. It was good fun–a light, affectionate version of Watchmen. I’m not sure it adds up to much more than beautifully drawn fan-fiction, which, minus the “beautifully drawn” is more or less what a lot of superhero comic books are these days. In Cooke’s case, the drawings really make the work. His style is the best version of the contemporary strain of comic book drawing that began with Bruce Timm‘s Batman animated series. Influenced by the design atmospherics of Alex Toth and, in a later generation, the smooth renderings of Steve Rude, it’s a cartoon language that embraces the dynamism inherent in superheroes while glossing over the violence and darkness that has been so prevalent in comics in the last 20 years or so. I like it for its elegance and it’s always-1920s look (even if that clean nostalgia feels extremely easy), but am slightly put off by how sexless and toothless it is. Toth had bite, especially in his pre-1970s work, with grit piled on top of his impeccable formalist sense, while Cooke smooths out all the rough edges, replacing all tension with a soft-focus nostalgia for an imagined past. But really, I buy most of Cooke releases, just to peek at the elegance of the drawing. With these two comics, though, I realized that problem is that appeal is, in fact, just the drawings.

The two Spirit comic books, both with Batman and without, are fun exercises, but feel soulless, like a storyboard more than a story. The Batman/Spirit emphasizes the humor in both characters, but does little with either, and The Spirit comic just demonstrates that the fun of that character was not super heroics, but rather the incidental, O’Henry-esque stories creator Will Eisner used the Spirit as an excuse to tell. But more interestingly, while the drawings are, as usual, slick and fun to look at, it turns out that Cooke isn’t a great comic book storyteller. Comic book storytelling requires pictures that flow into one another, and a sense of the page as a whole. Cooke, however, thinks more like the animator he once was, creating single isolated moments in sequence, as opposed to groups of pictures that work together. His panels are often crowded with information, weighing them down in a way that works against his smooth surfaces and slick drawing. It’s a curious problem–a good cartoonist who can’t quite frame a story. The similarly talented Steve Rude suffers from it too. I wonder if that level of polish simply works against the flow of comics. It’s over-determined, in a sense, preventing the motion of the story and keeping readers at a remove. Toth worked in a cartoon shorthand, always emphasizing both elegance and minimalism and allowing readers to enter the story with him. Cooke, in his eagerness to describe every bit of his nostalgic world, over-renders, weighing it down and leaving the rest of us to watch with disinterested curiosity.

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