Drink tea, chat, talk about the project
I was so young then…
In 2005 or 2006 I met comic book writer Grant Morrison at a music festival in Los Angeles. It was an odd event in Echo Park, with many experimental bands playing at various stages, and at the same they had a workshop on the occult. Sadly, most people weren’t concerned about the workshop part.
I was ecstatic to hear that Grant Morrison would be there. He gave a fascinating interview. Seriously, you must youtube some videos of him immediately. Low-key event that it was, we got to chat personally for a few and he was nice enough to take a picture with me. I met his wife too.
I met him at Comic Con the following year as well, at events far more crowded, and he was still very nice. I won’t inundate with more pictures, however, I’m not that much of a fanboy.
For more here’s an particularly awesome video from 2000’s DisinfoCon introducing the tenants of chaos magic and how to do a masturbation sigil:
Note he’s Scottish.
And now my blog begins. Presenting the master of the Postmodern Superhero. The punk rock star of comics. My personal all-time favorite.
First things first, comparisons with Alan Moore are inevitable. They are both absolutely brilliant. They are both magicians. They both deconstruct the nature of the superhero like no other.
Yet, one is a mess of hair and the other is bald. One seems to be a misanthropic old man, and the other apparently has lot of fun as a writer. One hates all things mainstream, and the other is just fine with utilizing corporate characters as tools to tell the important stories.
Unfortunately, if you’re a Grant Morrison fan then you must be an Alan Moore fan as well but the reverse isn’t necessarily true. There’s a lot of overlap in themes, yet if you want to be an anti-mainstream purist you can skip Morrison. I think you would be missing out if you did that.
Anyhows, I am a great fan of both so what’s wrong with that?
As for me, I personally first came across Grant Morrison in my teens (though the story gets more interesting in my twenties), because of the huge phenomena that was JLA in the 90s. I was marginally interested, being that I followed everything important that was DC at the time, and the first volume was okay. Superman with a mullet notwithstanding. When I got to the Rock of Ages graphic novel, I was astounded. Then the following arc about the 5th dimensional beings left me well and truly mindfucked.
To me, the peak was the One Million crossover about time travel to 853rd Century. Great high-concept science fiction.
Grant Morrison has since further written Superman in such titles as All-Star Superman, Action Comics, which you can see my opinion thereof by following that link .
One of the random things I was into seeking back in the day was Flex Mentallo, a strange Vertigo piece about a corny superhero. I found issue 3 at discount, and spent years hunting down the full story.
It had everything: deconstructionism, metafiction, with groundbreaking art by frequent Morrison collaborator Frank Quitely.
I contend that Flex Mentallo is superior to Watchmen. It takes a dissection of the superhero genre even further. And it’s funnier, wittier, with treatises on childhood trauma and cosmic abduction, and contains the classic line “Fredric Wertham was fucking right!”
It was so hard to get all four issues. The problem was that Flex Mentallo was a satire of the ‘hero of the beach’ and with republication risked getting sued by those old strongman ads. DC wouldn’t reprint a graphic novel for years. Back then, I bit the bullet and paid high prices on ebay and it was well worth it. Now, of course, there’s a trade.
Let’s go a bit more backwards, with Animal Man. The saga of Buddy Baker was one of Grant Morrison’s first forays into DC during the 80s British Invasion. This obscure hero was given a modern reboot, that quickly went from an essay on animal rights to some weird routes onto the nature of fiction. Combining Wile E. Coyote with Native American mythology, by the end it went full on metafiction. Most haunting of all was when Animal Man broke the fourth wall and looked directly at the audience, shouting “I can see you!”
Concurrently, Doom Patrol was a very interesting take on outcast heroics. The patrol were always a bit odd, a tad off, and Grant Morrison knew how to play to the strengths of that. Robotman as eunich, transgendered street characters, and most of all were the villains based off art history. Brotherhood of Dada anyone?
Not to mention Flex Mentallo first appeared in Doom Patrol.
These were all well and very, very good. However, Grant Morrison’s true opus came in the 90s with the Invisibles. By the time I got caught on, well after it was completed, I was generally getting into more esoteric subject matter. I was reading P.K. Dick and Robert Anton Wilson. I was collecting Disinfo books. I was coming across these strange interviews with one Grant Morrison comic writer, on the subjects of chaos magic and higher consciousness. It was time to read more.
I ordered the entire set, and read on. Then I read them again, and a few more times at differing stages of my life. I’m about ready for a reread again.
The Invisibles is an epic take on Gnosticism and conspiracy theories, through the lens of an action comic, published by Vertigo. About a team of anarchists fighting the good fight against the forces of control in this world. It incorporated all kinds of references to psychedelic mythologies. All came to a head in that Singularity futuristic year of 2012.
It felt somewhat cathartic that my burgeoning spiritual path was overlapping with my love of comics and superheroes. I was doing it right all along. Much can truly be learned about human growth via the metaphor of the Superman. Thanks, Grant Morrison.
And, I may share that reading interviews on how Grant Morrison took LSD and other various chemicals for the sake spiritual experiences, that had an impact. Helped to encourage me with my own experiments utilizing psilocybin and dimethyltryptamine, legal or otherwise, rewiring some synapses within my nervous system in some arguably positive ways.
As always, reading books (and comics) can be such a bad influence!
The sad day has come, I have no good Chinglishes to share.
See ya next week~
There he is.
When it comes to literary comic icons, no man comes before Alan. So much has been written about the unofficial leader of the 80s British Invasion, who heralded the coming of Vertigo and then disavowed DC and all mainstream publishing. The mortal enemy to Hollywood who has had at least half-a-dozen films adapted against his wishes, unlike Neil Gaiman who always seems to rather enjoy his celebrity. Mr. Moore, the proverbial purist artist always refusing to compromise. The mad occultist who refuses to shave. The genius we all aspire to be and will always fail to live up to.
Documentary: The Mindscape of Alan Moore
I shall start with Watchmen, as most people have started with that famed tome. Though, please note I think Moore’s legacy is far bigger than that one superhero deconstruction — perfect work of controlled storytelling it may be — and I think he has since surpassed his early work time and time agian. More on that below.
I was about 14 when I read the full Watchmen in graphic novel form, having missed the original issues in 1986 as a small child. A reputation had long preceded it at this point and I was getting into comics on a deeper level at the time, so I was looking forward to reading and seeing what all the fuss was about. I had a whole Saturday afternoon to kill at detention, they made you sit around for 4 hours; I was not a good student at the time. I read the entire work in one sitting. I was, of course, blown away. And I did a book report.
Watchmen came about when DC Comics purchased the Charlton library characters, Blue Beetle and Captain Atom and The Question, and Moore put together a proposal called Who Killed the Peacemaker? DC realized the status quo would be torn asunder, and they were going to incorporate them post-Crisis on Infinite Earths anyhow, so he was told to keep the plot but make up new characters.
Illustrated with precision by Dave Gibbons, it grew bigger than the usual story. Blue Beetle became the cheesy Batman-esque Nite Owl, Captain Atom as the one Superman of this world became the omnipotent Dr. Manhattan. They were archetypes as well as individuals.
Not only did Watchmen win the coveted science fiction Hugo Award, after that they changed the rules so comics could no longer win.
What struck me most of all were the extras between each chapter. Newspaper clippings, magazine interviews, notes, all the the world-building to show the authenticity of a hyper-realistic setting.
Also, the usual Alan Moore themes of rape and the illusion of time.
Watchmen has since become passé. Gritty realistic superheroes have been done to death, and Moore has specifically said in interviews he regrets causing that trend.
Personally I never watched the movie all the way through, and I don’t intend to. Mr. Moore is famously against all Hollywood adaptations, and some people find him a cranky old man. I moreover stand with him on that.
With that, let’s go some earlier Moore.
His mainstream days were relatively sparse, but every single one had an impact. There was Captain Britain, with Alan Davis. There was a bit of Superman, such as the classic birthday tale For the Man Who Has Everything, also illustrated by Dave Gibbons. And that final imaginary tale (aren’t they all?) previously mentioned, Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?
Speaking of Superman: Supreme. In the 90s, Moore was invited to work for Liefeld’s creator-owned imprint over at Image. Supreme was a very obvious riff on you-know-who. It quickly became a brilliant satire/homage/deconstruction on Silver Age superheroics. The ‘Man of Majesty’ was both corny and endearing, engaging within a complex plot involving multiple realities and retroactive timelines.
I should say that Moore’s American work really started with Swamp Thing, of which I’ve only read the first two volume. I know, I know, very late in the game on this. If I’m supposed to be completist the I better get to it. The Green, The Green…
Going back a bit further, there’s Miracleman. Now, the backstory of that character is Baroquean inof itself. The British knockoff of Captain Marvel was originally Marvelman, given a reboot in the 80s and published on the American side by Eclipse comics. However, in fear of being sued by Marvel Comics they changeed the name to Miracleman. And then it was abruptly canceled, with the legal ownership thereof in legal limbo for decades.
This made the series very hard to read before the digital age. I did order the first arc on ebay and it was a great read. Finally, I read the entire series online. Don’t ask questions about the legality of that, please.
Neil Gaiman’s brief run was interesting as well. A funny thing, now Miracleman of all things is owned by Marvel and they say they’re finally going to reprint the classic issues as well as let Gaiman complete his unfinished story! Guess I’ll believe that when I see it.
Meanwhile, Alan Moore in the 80s. There was the dystopian V for Vendetta, currently in print under the Vertigo banner, one of the first of his major comics that defied classification.
On the subject of V for Vendetta, this is very much the reason that I agree with Alan Moore on all things Hollywood. The film was an atrocity. It completely misses the point of the original, pretending to be a deep critique of American post-9/11 politics — taking place in the U.K. for no reason and badly done at that. It was supposed to be about Thatcherism. Moore was absolutely treated wrongly by the pretentiously stupid Wachowski Brothers. He was 100% right to disavow the film and have his name taken off.
In the end, the legacy lives on with those Guy Fawkes masks.
Another mediocre movie based off brilliant source material, From Hell is a literary masterpiece like no other. This riff on Jack the Ripper conspiracy theories doesn’t really aim to solve it, there are deeper takes on the nature of reality at play.
I remember when I read much of these graphic novels, I was living in L.A. during my starving artist period. How did I afford to read, you ask? I went to the library in hipster Silverlake and they had an extensive archive.
Back in the 2000s, Moore had started his own America’s Best Comics (ABC) with a host of deconstructionist characters. Tom Strong, among many others.
This is it, the very core of DC’s Vertigo Comics…
Sandman. By Neil Gaiman.
I remember when I first got into Sandman. Freshman year of high school in the mid-90s, too young to truly get it but old enough to start reading such grownup material by the great Neil Gaiman.
I came across some defunct Wizard magazine issue, at the height of my superhero obsession, it was about villains and cosmic beings and mentioned the mysterious Endless. Then I got the proto-Vertigo issue of “Who’s Who” that focused on the mature reader’s Vertigo comics, teaching me the basics of that mythology.
I was intrigued. A reputation was forming. But instead of getting the latest Sandmans on Wednesday at the comic shop, it seemed this one was no mere monthly periodical. Seemed it needed to be read like proper books.
I did get the first graphic novel collection, Preludes and Nocturnes, which made for a slow start. Then I ultimately ordered the rest from a book publisher outlet, out of order. Reading about the fall and rise of Lucifer and the key to hell, stories at the World’s End Inn, and I tried to make sense of it storyline by storyline. It taught me much about Greek mythology, Shakespeare, and Edwardian occult groups.
One chapter won the World Fantasy short story award, I believe the only comic to do so.
Seventy-five odd issues with various special editions. Eventually, I caught up to it all, and had to reread and reflect several times over in my life.
Vertigo’s greatest success. A uniquely popular DC comics for women as well (my sister read too). And goth kids.
What exactly was this comic, Sandman, so highly regarded? Why was it even called the Sandman? Hard to explain. Where to start…
Like many of the world’s greatest comics, the name was a jumping off point based off corny comics from the 40s and/or 60s. There was Golden Age Sandman, some detective with a sleep gun. There was the Kirby Sandman, a superhero battling in the land of dreams. All those characters were incorporated into Gaiman’s epic, though not the core.
Sandman was originally even in the DC Universe proper, with early issues including a few superheroes. That soon grew too small a setting and Gaiman wasn’t limited by continuity, though he toyed with DC history on occasion.
The main protagonist, if you will, was Dream of the Endless. Also known as Morpheus, ruler of the land of dreams. Dream was not a god because gods need to be worshiped to exist. He was a member of the Endless, which have higher origins. There was Destiny the oldest — who was a host from 70s horror comics, sister Dream, Destruction, Desire, Despair, and Delirium. Sense a pattern?
But you can’t write a monthly comic based off near-omnipotent beings. Oftentimes, this mythology was the starting point for short stories about other mortals interacting in this grand fantasy world. And the immortals, the demons, the witches, and the lovers. The historical figures. It’s tricky to claim one protagonist.
Let me speak a moment about Death.
One of the most interesting creations was Gaiman’s interpretation of Death. Not a dark reaper, but a cutesy goth girl who gives great advice. You end up just adoring her.
We all like our quality television these days, don’t we? It’s a given that the new era of literature is television, started by HBO’s crime dramas and continuing on other networks. As we all agree. We all take it for granted that storytelling is evolving, and the once maligned medium of TV now produces the highest quality there is. Welcome to the Golden Age.
However, at least a decade before HBO rewrote the rules of television there was another maligned medium breaking all the rules. Comics never quite got the respect they deserved, but the proto-HBO of comics would still be Vertigo.
In the mid-to-late 1980s, DC Comics started publishing some very mature comics. It was very much the house that Alan Moore built. Starting with Swamp Thing and continuing with Watchmen and beyond, DC won award after award and their horror comics imprint began to get very literary indeed.
Mr. Moore has since disavowed DC Comics, and refuses to work with any mainstream publisher. He’s more of the INDIE camp these days… Yet, they owe him a great deal.
Alan Moore deserves a post all his own, coming soon.
Meanwhile, the most popular comics coming out of DC’s horror imprint in 1989 turned out to be Sandman by Neil Gaiman. It started out as a reference to an obscure superhero, incorporating various old 70s horror characters, and then it turned into one of the greatest fantasy epics of all time.
Issue 1 of Sandman simply said “Suggested for Mature Readers.” There was cursing, nudity, the whole bit. Like rated R movies. Was it risky for DC, the same mainstream publisher as Superman, to publish?
By 1993, there was a new label. It said Vertigo up there in the corner. Thus, Vertigo – a subset of DC – was born.
Neil Gaiman and Sandman will get a post all their own very soon as well!
And, you’ll notice both Moore and Gaiman are British writers. That’s another theme of quality comics – they tend to be part of the comic’s 80s British Invasion. Guess the founders of the English language tend to be better scribes.
Winning scores of Eisner Awards every year and popularizing the economic model of selling trade paperback reprints (i.e., “graphic novel” volumes) at bookstores, Vertigo changed the game forever and fully realized the medium’s potential. Finally, comics grew up.
Below are a few of my favorite Vertigo titles. Not meant to cover everything, just a few. As said, early Alan Moore and Gaiman’s most popular works – especially Sandman – will be covered later. Don’t you worry. I’ll also get into Invisibles by Grant Morrison and Transmetropolitan by Warren Ellis. All in due time.
Firstly, Preacher by Irish scribe Garth Ennis was the most badass comic to read when I was in high school. Ennis, by the way, known for writing the Demon and John Constantine (an Alan Moore creation) in the Swamp Thing spinoff Hellblazer. A lot of up-and-coming writers would write Constantine over the years, it was Vertigo’s longest running series, but I didn’t usually follow.
Preacher wasn’t part of the greater “Vertigo Universe”, it was its own self-contained, creator-owned thing. Which is best.
I was determined to read it all, and snuck away at the bookstore to catch up on the graphic novels. I don’t think it was finished yet when I started back in the mid-90s, but by the time the last volume came out I read it to the end.
It was an American Western written with the perspective of the outsider, fully capturing and bottling that Americana essence. About Jesse, a preacher who fucks and drinks. And also on the lookout from a corrupt God. And had the superpower Word based off being possessed or something by the offspring of angel and demon. There were vampires and rednecks and the Saint of Killers and grungey-suicidal Arseface and Vatican conspiracies and an inbred descendant of Jesus Christ.
It was oh so blasphemous, so good.
I heard a TV show is finally in the works.
Let me add that I believe the Da Vinci Code ripped off Preacher. The Da Vinci Code was a terrible book as everybody knows, but most are unaware that the first work of fiction to successfully use those Holy Grail bloodline conspiracy theories was in fact Preacher. So, kudos to Garth Ennis and a hearty fuck you to Dan Brown.
In more recent history, I didn’t like Ennis’s superhero lampoon The Boys (it’s funny but enough already, we get it you hate superheroes). I am told I should be currently reading his series Crossed from Avatar Press.
Books of Magic was one of my heartfelt discoveries, not particularly popular but I enjoyed it. Originally a one-off graphic volume by Gaiman, it was about a bespectacled young wizard but moreso a vehicle to tour the mystical sections of the DC/Vertigo Universe.
Then, the long-running series by John Ney Rieber and then Peter Gross continued the story of Timothy Hunter. His boyhood, his girlfriend Molly, Faerie connections, dealings with demons.
You may notice that it’s suspiciously similar to Harry Potter, the young Brit sorcerer in glasses with an epic destiny. Books of Magic was created several years earlier. And Tim was much cooler than lame Harry Potter. Gaiman actually could have sued J.K. Rowling, like many others did, but gentleman that he is he declined.
In my early 20s I hunted down every used graphic novel and back issue until I read the whole story, and when Rieber’s run concluded I picked up the issues written and illustrated by Gross. It was lovely. I didn’t read those newer ones about him grownup, Wartime or somesuch, I’ll always remember Tim Hunter as a boy.
One of my absolute favorite things ever was Moonshadow, beautifully written by J.M. DeMatteis (remember I was a fan of his 80s-era Justice League) and elegantly painted by Jon Muth. By favorite things ever, I don’t mean one of my favorite comics, or even books/fiction, I totally mean one of favorite things ever.
Actually, was previously published by Epic – Marvel’s less successful imprint –but reprinted by Vertigo years later. I’m glad they did.
The very first painted comic, even predating Marvels. The watercolors by Muth have an altogether different feeling from Alex Ross’s oils. Surreal, dreamlike space saga about a boy exploring a ridiculous universe, spaceships and social satire and coming-of-age and sex, until enlightenment is attained.
I remember reading the whole book in one sitting on a quiet Ohio weekend as a kid, a thick book covering twelve issues and an epilogue.
A most perfect work of art, cannot be overstated. My heart aches in remembrance.
Thanks to martalivesinchina.wordpress.com for this weekend’s Chinglish donations. Go and follow her blog, it’s Spain meets China!
Toilet facilitates and fair wairning…
Obviously, comics needn’t always be about superheros. Not even ninjas or pirates or robots. Comics are simply a medium and can contain as many diverse genres as prose novels or film. The simple juxtaposition of words and pictures can create works of high literary value, and has for decades.
I don’t have to explain that to you sophisticated readers, right? The whole ‘comics are for grownups’ conversation has been cliché for ages already.
Point being, I do read comics of a higher caliber. I enjoy comics written by authors of literary merit. Not only that, but sometimes I try to support comics that are not published by the big media comics (DC being owned by Warner Bro. and now Marvel owned by Disney), such as publishers Fantagraphics, Kitchen Sink Press, and Drawn & Quarterly. It’ good to support storytellers who have a more independent streak, as well as those fun boy’s adventure stories.
I like an auteur who both writes and draws, in cheap black & white, getting to the core essentials of humanity.
In no particular order, here are my favorite indie comics.
Will Eisner is a legend. Credited with popularizing the concept of graphic novels in the first place, one of his seminal works is the very deep A Contract With God.
Dealing with issues of Judaism and American identity and the (non) existence of God, this sort of book has nothing whatsoever to do with capes.
I also recently read Fagin the Jew, among others. There’s a consistent theme. Also, Eisner going back to his early 1940s days with the Spirit was very good at playing around with the panels of the page. A serious writer and artist all at once.
Nowadays, Dan Clowes is my kinda guy. One of the great alternative cartoonists of all time. His anthology series Eightball was weird and brilliant. The surreal Velvet Glove Cast in Iron. His latest book Wilson about a misanthrope’s misadventures.
Yet the best of the best is undoubtedly Ghost World, about two young women complaining and trying to figure themselves out. It was making fun of hipsters long before it was cool to make fun of hipsters. The film is a fine film as well, but if you’ve ever seen it please treat yourself to the original.
One running them of indie comics is that they are often autobiographical. Time and time again the format of the memoir has led to some great writing throughout the history of literature. In comics, this goes all the way back to the pseudo-pornographic comix of R. Crumb in the 60s.
Contemporarily, Blankets by Craig Thompson is a wondrous thing of beauty. About young love, a Christian boy losing his innocence in naive middle America, with powerful art. It hit me so hard the first time I read it in my early twenties, and I’ve gone back to it from time to time when in the mood for that soft melancholy feeling…
Craig Thomspson’s more recent middle-eastern epic Habibi is also quite worth the read.
Speaking of autobiography, Maus by the great Art Spiegelman. I don’t have to sell this one; he won the friggin’ Pulitzer Prize for this famed story utilizing the metaphor of Jews as mice and cats as Nazis. Yet, as much as it is a very important work about the Holocaust, I think it is almost overhyped on that aspect. At it’s core. Spiegelman speaks about his relationship with his father more than about war atrocities. Still, intense on all levels.
If i may be more irreverat for a moment, fuckin’ Sin City by badass writer-artist Frank Miller. I’ve already spoken of him in my 80s Marvel post for Daredevil, and my Batman post for The Dark Knight Returns. He may be insane now, but he used to be among the greats.
Sin City was published by Dark Horse Comics, which is a little mainstream in that they also had the rights for Star Wars comics and various other franchises, but Sin City was creator-owned from the beginning and Dark Horse is a solid company on respecting artist’s rights.
I loved these graphic novels in my teens, illicitly reading them in the bookstore and peeking at the nude parts. Like a rated X noir movie, it was unrelenting. Marv, Dwight, Hartigan, Nancy. A Dame to Kill For, the Big Fat Kill, the Hard Goodbye. Damn.
Guess what. I know they’re popular and sure he even codirected, but I don’t like movies at all. Sin City is best as a hardcore comic, nothin else.