Dispatches from a comic book binge

There are 6 days of class left in the school year, and it is pretty safe to say that I have checked out at this point. I guess that this had to come at some point. The sad fact is that I have been so busy taking this semester week by week that I never realized how close to the end I was. Now that I realize this, I can’t think about anything else. On another (possibly related) note, I have been spending ungodly amounts of time in the Comic Book Reading Room (MILL). I have recently finished three titanic titles, giants in their field. I figured that I would write this in the style of a New Yorker film review, in light of Anthony Lane’s thinly veiled contempt for the form.



Curiously, I first encountered Neil Gaiman not through the comics for which he is rightly famous, but through his recent novel, American Gods. I didn’t think much of the book at the time, but now that I have read his masterpiece, The Sandman, I still don’t think that the book worked but I understand his perspective, and now just wish that it had been a graphic novel instead of a conventional one.
The Sandman is a story of Morpheus, or Dream, one of the eight endless beings that are an unchanging part of the universe of living beings. The first issue shows his capture and imprisonment by an English occult society. He stays trapped for 60 years. During this time, the Dreaming (the dream kingdom that all dreams are both a part and a reflection of) begins to crumble without its king, the source of its power. The full 75 issue run is a chronicle of Dream’s reconstruction of his kingdom and later, the consequences of the changes that result from his absence.
One of the most striking things about this massive work is its density. Every panel contains little details; every plot contains information that could become the genesis of its own story. Especially in the later story arcs, you find that the first indication of what is to come is found in the little throwaway details found in earlier stories.
This a corollary of the huge scope of the work. Incorporated at various points into the story are: Christian theology, Viking legend, Egyptian religious beliefs, horror tropes, Arabian Nights-esque fantasy, French revolutionary history and faux-African folktale. Rather than being a superficial pastiche of all these traditions and archetypes, they all seem to work together into a vision that seems to be real truth masquerading as fantasy. The many art styles of the 10 different artist that worked on this title also serve to further this idea. Rather than undermining the cohesion of the whole, these different artistic perspectives coupled with the narrative continuity provided by Neil Gaiman further the impression that these stories are timeless, not bound by culture, language, or time.
Perhaps this is the nerdiest of all statements (and the greatest compliment to the work), but in the heavy void of silence that came when I finished the final page of issue #75, I sat thinking that perhaps, in a way, it is true. There may not be a kingdom made of Dream, nor Destiny, Death, Desire, Delirium, Despair, and Destruction, but these things are all a perpetual part of our lives as humans. There may not be supernatural planes with the leftover deities of collapsed civilizations, but ideas and fears are given power by the fact that we attach meaning to them. When belief fails, thats when those symbols lose their power.
The Sandman can be ordered at Amazon.com, any reputable independent bookstore, or at most bullshit chain bookstores like Barnes and Noble or Borders.
Omnidroid from The Incredibles
Omnidroid from The Incredibles

In The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Oscar’s love of the movie Akira is both a symbol of his social isolation from other college students and his desperate desire for great escape. Which, now that I’ve read the manga upon which the movie was based, makes a lot of sense.
Katsuhiro Otomo’s masterpiece Akira is best described by the themes it contains than by a simplistic summary of the complex, often enigmatic plot. It is a sci-fi epic. It is a meditation on the consequences of nuclear war and unimaginable destruction. It is a reflection on the power of youth. It is a musing on the consequences of technology. It is a ________ (noun) on ________ (common thing found in sci-fi, cyberpunk or the Matrix movies).
While this may be the most philosophically profound, or at least serious, of the three titles here, it is also the most narratively simple. The story is fast paced and there are several extended action sequences (a little too extended for my tastes). In this also, the graphic style serves the story perfectly. Athough originally published in black and white as a manga in Japan, the edition that I read was a compilation of the colorized (with Otomo’s oversight) edition serialized in the United States a few years after first publication. It retains the gritty, rough texture of the original that does a lot to give the world within the comic life.
Shockwave from The Matrix III
Shockwave from The Matrix III

Other than recommending it wholeheartedly, I don’t feel comfortable talking about the greater meaning of this work. In many ways, it is mystifying to me; much of that stems from its enigmatic, 2001-esque ending (there’s actually a starchild fetus, I shit you not). I’ve actually been meaning to make a trip up to the Japanese culture theme dorm, I am sure there is somebody there who has read it like a billion times and can help me out.
*I’m putting this here because WordPress formatting is stupid and not helping me out at all, but I also need to note that I am flabbergasted that Otomo wrote and drew the entire thing himself. It is so large and of such caliber, it blows my mind.
Opening bomb blast from Akira
Opening bomb blast from Akira

What I can say, however, is that I now understand a little better the way that Akira has made a profound impression on an entire generation of filmmakers and professional nerds in the years since its publication. Through reading these comics, I am gaining an appreciation of the way that another canon of visual and character ideas exists in the comic and sci-fi worlds. I noticed two small examples in the pages of Akira. First is the Omnidroid robot from The Incredibles. It is an almost exact copy of the guardian robots constructed by the military of Neo-Tokyo to fight in the face of nuclear annihilation. Brad Bird (the director of The Incredibles) was a student at CalArts in the early 90’s, the time of the first US release of the Akira movie. It stands to reason that a young animation student would notice this groundbreaking epic from Japan. Second is the parallel between the rain shockwave produced by Neo and Agent Smith’s fight in The Matrix: Revolutions and the nuclear blast found on the cover of the first issue of Akira. Again, there is no way that such dedicated nerds as the Wachowski Brothers did not watch Akira over and over again.
Just as you can trace the lineage of the great classical authors and literary giants through what they read and studied in their youth, there is emerging a new canon that has germinated in the closed world of sci-fi and “genre,” but is in the process of breaking into the mainstream of our culture.
Spider Jerusalem
Spider Jerusalem

Transmetropolitan follows Spider Jersusalem, a Hunter S Thompson style gonzo journalist, a pathologically destructive, malicious, cruel and patriotic American hero as he takes down a corrupt president in the undefined future. He is a creature of The City, a crazy, sleazy, technologically saturated metropolis that resembles the filty, promiscous twin of the New York City of Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element. He is our hero, but he is foul, disease ridden, often naked, cruel, petty, and all around unlikable. But he is also idealistic and fixated on the truth to an unhealthy level. I think it is not a coincidence that this title was written between the years 1997-2002, a time when the outgoing president seemed to be dishonest and sleazy and the incoming president incompetent and cruel. There must have been an element of catharsis in the creation of Jerusalem.
It is a great work. It has blazingly fast pacing interspersed with whimsical meanderings on the perils of a future society. It is also filled with uncanny paralells to current US politics. The central conflict of the comic is the tension between Jerusalem, an investigative reporter with the truth as his highest ideal and a news establishment that is only too ready to complacenty repeat the press statements of a corrupt establishment. One needs only to look at the breaking news of torture memos, or of Jane Harman using administration influence to spike a story at the New York Times to see that this is not possible only in a comic book.
The other thing it made me think of is the way in which Red America and Blue America both have a claim on patriotism. In simplified terms, it is the Vietnam protestor/soldier dichotomy. There are those who believed that First Amendment protected protests at government policy, or indeed dissent itself, is the highest form of American patriotism. There are those who believe military service and doing whatever it takes to protect America or her interests is the highest form. The situation described in Transmetropolitan does not really paralell the abuses of power by President Bush. It is undeniable that there was, and is, a national security threat from radicalized religious terrorists. But even in the age of Obama, there is much work to be done to heal that divide when both sides believe that the other has committed profoundly un-American activities.
I don’t have much expectation that you will read all three of these works, but I do have much hope.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *