Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Miracle Pictographs
    Graphic Novel Reviews by Spencer Ellsworth
November 2007

Another Sidekick Ruined By Puberty

Sin City: Hell And Back, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen vol. 1 & 2

True believers, skeptics, and outright detractors,

I know, I promised the bone-breaking, face-melting conclusion to World War Hulk last month. But occasionally even comic fans have to face reality. World War Hulk #5 is late. Right now the bigwigs at Marvel are sitting around a darkened table, smoking cigars and cackling, "Now that we've got them hooked, we'll just string them along for a while. Heh. Heh heh heh." (I have this on good authority.)

You know what, though? I'm glad they did this. I don't know if it's my graduate English program, or a weighing sense of my own mortality, or the cupcakes I had for breakfast, but I have the urge to write something important. A Column That Matters, dare I say. And in order to do that, I have to examine the things that Really Matter, which World War Hulk cannot offer. You know what they are.

Graphic sex and violence.

Last month we partially discussed the effects of Frank Miller, creator of 300 and Alan Moore, creator of V for Vendetta, on the comics industry. Those two are responsible for more change in the way comics are produced, and the way people look at them, than any other creators. Recap for those who missed it: Miller and Moore, in the 1980s, portrayed superhero comics for the first time as adult fare, full of costumed maniacs who gleefully crossed the line between heroism and terrorism. Right now Marvel and DC are following suit by making their big commodities more fluid. Spider-Man's secret identity is blown. Superman lost his powers for a full year, Iron Man is a Cheney-style political tycoon, etc., etc.

But there have been other effects of Miller and Moore that were not so much fun. Remember when you thought there would be more than three Nirvana albums? It was also the Dark Age of comics, and Miller and Moore are partially to blame. In 1991-1994, at the same time that the comics market was dealing with its emergence as a hot investing commodity, creators attempted to ape the work of Miller and Moore by making everything "dangerous." That usually meant that, among flashy art and foil-embossed covers, creators slapped a ponytail, stubble and a bad attitude on their heroes, and tore the clothes off the heroines. (Okay, the last is a tried-and-true comics formula, but the 90s went further than ever.) We'd all like to forget the results. Superman even grew a ponytail. Superman grew a ponytail.

(For that matter, "ponytail" sounds about as dangerous as "bunny nose" when you really look at it, but that's another column.)

It doesn't help that Moore and Miller's stuff is determinedly lowbrow. These guys tend to create High Art in an accidental way, by loading their comics with the aforementioned sex & violence that somehow ends up as social commentary in a weird reversal.

As a matter of fact, it's hard to say what is so life-changing about Miller and Moore, while it's rather easy to see how many creators got their legacy wrong. They don't have the social complexity of Art Spiegelman's Maus or the real-life heartache of Marjane Sartrapi's Persepolis. They lack the mythic force of Neil Gaiman's Sandman. They write superheroes as nasty violent people with the finesse of snowplows. How did they affect the industry so?

We shall see.

Sin City: Riding on his fame from the mid-80s Dark Knight Returns and Daredevil: Born Again stories, Frank Miller fed an audience hungry for style over substance with his mid-90s noir comics for Dark Horse. If you've seen the movie, you've seen a nearly word-for-word adaptation of the first stories in the series. If you haven't, the first few pages of Hell and Back, reproducing a panel from the comic, will tell you all you need to know. It's a close-up of our hero's face as he tells one of many questionable damsels in distress, "I'm going to kill somebody. Put your clothes on."

Miller doesn't fool around with his formula. Guy meets girl. Sex, murder and promises ensue, ending in blood and explosions. In this case the guy is Wallace, a former Navy SEAL and Medal of Honor winner (for what we're not told) and the girl is Esther, a lonely actress who throws herself off a cliff. After Wallace rescues her and the two fall in something like love, she is kidnapped by looming figures for mysterious experiments. Wallace wades through an army of corrupt cops, a series of bizarre drug trips, and a blue-lipped nymphomaniac trying to distract him from Esther before he tracks down the flesh ring keeping her captive. And then things get messy.

Miller's art, like the movie's visual style, pinwheels through a world painted in shards and shadows. There's the explosion of little triangular fish as Esther plummets into the ocean, and the black backflips of a truck as its payload explodes. There's the long visual trips down the curves of Delia, the more questionable of the story's girls. If you've seen the movie, you've seen a decent adaptation of the art style, but there is no excuse to miss the original. Miller's drawings move with power and grace, slipping along slinky roads and slinky females between hulking shadows and overexposed white spaces.

Hell & Back is notable for the only extended full-color sequence in the Sin City mythos -- a watercolor acid trip as our hero, doped to the gills, continues to pursue the kidnapped Esther, fighting police who appear as dinosaurs and aided by a friend who appears as alternately a Roman centurion, Hellboy and Hagar the Horrible. When he manages to get himself "fixed" by a drug master Medusa, two full pages of black and white gunshots reassure us that everything is back to dark, violent normal. The full-color real world has no place in Sin City. This is a world where black and white means something. Girls are in trouble and guys have to bust some heads to save them. Don't look for anything more -- yet it's one of the most Important Comics of Recent Years.

On to Alan Moore, who, besides writing the seminal superhero series Watchmen, is a shaggy English warlock rumored to sacrifice chickens. (I'm serious.)

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is Alan Moore's second paean to the Victorians he first monkeyed with in From Hell. As anyone who has seen the really, really bad film adaptation knows, it's about a turn-of-the-century superhero team, featuring Allan Quatermain of King Solomon's Mines, Mina Harker/Murray of Dracula, Captain Nemo of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and the conveniently self-titled Invisible Man and Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde.

In the first volume, our heroes battle against a government conspiracy masterminded by Dr. Moriarty, involving anti-gravity, a secret underground Chinese mafia city, and airship battles. In the second, not to be outdone, they battle the Martian spores of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds with a little help from Dr. Moreau.

No doubt an actual Victorian would be surprised at Moore's mishmash of their literature, which includes such "respectable" scenes as Mr. Hyde literally chewing his way through a crowd of machete-wielding Chinese hit men, the Invisible Man's attempt at immaculate conception, or Allan Quatermain and Mina Murray's erm dalliance in the woods. The best part is the tongue-in-cheek narration after one racy scene: "Gaze, children, on the unhappy fornicators in their sorry bed of sin, and resolve to learn from their shameful example. Should this dismal moral lesson fail to persuade you to lifelong abstinence, fear not, for there shall be another such fierce instruction in our next socially-responsible number."

The art by Kevin O'Neill is wonderfully versatile. It switches from the dry upstanding expressions of the League, as straight-faced as a pack of cards, to epic shots of spidery Martian war machines blasting men, horses and trees to fiery green shreds, to the cartoony creatures of Dr. Moreau, including a familiar toad driving a familiar automobile. Kevin O'Neill can apparently draw anything with both wit and danger.

The comic itself is, like Sin City, a lot of deranged fun. Between running around through 19th-century Morocco, or rampaging under London, or battles on Edgar Rice Burroughs' Mars, the reader might not realize that there's little of the weighty themes from Moore's earlier work. But that's good -- I mean, I couldn't read From Hell or Watchmen every day.

In fact, about the only deep aspect of League is its backhanded commentary on Victoriana. It's a terrible simplification to say that the Victorians were as uptight as they've been painted in our popular culture, but they were obsessed with morality. In contrast to that and perhaps because of it, this is a comic where morality is a liability. It's no surprise that by the end of the second volume the amoral Mr. Hyde has established himself as the preeminent figure of power in the series. When the Invisible Man betrays the group to the Martians, it is Hyde who hunts him down and makes him pay in ways that Robert Louis Stevenson never imagined. When the Martians must be delayed, Hyde leaps into the fray, tearing down the war machine and eating the slimy inhabitant. Hyde's speech shortly after his murder of the Invisible Man suggests that, rather than the symbiotic relationship he has affected with Dr. Jekyll, he is just a creature who needed to be set free. "Without me, Jekyll has no drives, and without him I have no restraints." Moore seems to be making Hyde the soul of the 20th century to come, the Great War loosed from the Victorian imagination.

The most eyebrow-raising aspect of this is the modern-day take on the ending of War of the Worlds. A mysterious object has been procured from Dr. Moreau and shot at the Martians. "Isn't it one of Moreau's hybrids?" Quatermain asks as the missile is fired. "Oh yes," the government liaison answers. "It's a hybrid all right. Anthrax and streptococcus, if I remember correctly." When pressed for details, he answers, "Officially the Martians died of the common cold. Any humans died of the Martians."

Germ warfare in 1898? That's the beauty of League. It's twisted and debased and bloody and it would be a terribly depressing comic in modern times -- but it's Victorian! How funny they were.

Ultimately, that's about all there is to gain from League and Sin City. They're fun. They're twisted. They're not the kind of thing you want to read with your mother around.

And there's the hidden beauty of Moore and Miller: they are doing exactly the things your mother warned you about comics, and they're doing them perfectly. League and Sin City are love ballads to the colorful panel page, to the ridiculous hyperreal possibilities of comics. They take tropes of film and literature and blow them up into freewheeling, brain-popping narration that can't work anywhere else unless, like in the Sin City film, they make a point of visually worshipping the comics medium. They're sick, sick men, and that's why we love them. 'Nuff said.

Next month: We visit the town of Tackleford and the cute twenty-something hipsters therein, who struggle with love lives, day jobs, and the end of the world. Scary Go Round, in thirty.

Read more by Spencer Ellsworth

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