Though I rag on mainstream comics, there is much to be said for spectacle done proper. Serialized superheros are the last vestige of the pulp press, and at their best, offer a genuinely unique low-to-middle-brow pleasure of installments on the payment plan. Soon, I fear, this shall be no more; the move across the various tiers of the comics industry is towards trades– only manga will give any sense of what it’s like to receive stories of questionable quality in small, regulated doses, like a King building an arsenic immunity.
This idea has been playing in my head for a while, and as a result, I’ve been reading the recent back catalogues of some of the more overtly pulp influenced titles. The two authorial runs that most stuck out were Brian Michael Bendis on Daredevil and Garth Ennis on The Punisher.
I’ve made fun of Bendis’s work for years, and deservedly so; when the man phones it in, he really phones it in. Worse yet, when he believes that he’s writing something serious and important, every single page lets you know that you’re reading something Serious and Important. (Also, he’s unfunny. Sorry. It’s true.) That said, Bendis’s four year run on Daredevil was pitch-perfect and the best anyone’s ever done with the character. Engaging development married to reasonably plausible storylines that were heavy without being Profoundly Consequential For Marvel. And he managed, as I’m sure all have commented, to do what had been impossible since 1986: not taste like Miller Lite.
Ennis’s writing on The Punisher has spanned eight years, two regular titles, several miniseries, multiple one-shots and god knows what else. By the time of Punisher: MAX and Born, Ennis had thrown aside the many, many crutches that have plagued his body of work (emphasis on scatology + corny attempts at humor) and began delivering what constitutes the best work on a mainstream comic in the last five years. The easiest way to describe his achievement is thus: in all 55 (so far) issues of the MAX series, there hasn’t been a bad installment. Not one.
Ennis’s initial handling of the character– a 12 issue miniseries that reintroduced the Punisher after the ugly years of the late Nineties– was pretty god damned dumb. A regular series (Volume 4) followed, of which Ennis wrote the majority. Again, much of it is really dumb. But it gets better with time, and it’s fascinating to watch the process of Ennis moving ever closer towards a more serious idea of what he wants to achieve with the character.
I’d argue that this vision (the one that continues in MAX) had been present all along. It was right there in the first (and best) issue of the original miniseries, something that is seemingly acknowledged at the end of Volume 4 by a direct & exacting quotation:
(From The Punisher, vol 3, #1. April 2000.)
(From The Punisher, vol 4, #37, February 2003.)
Incidentally, this demonstrates how the serial form can be employed in a way that’s rarely, if ever, seen in the mainstream. Superhero continuity is about Massive Happenstances– like, remember when the Green Goblin killed Gwen Stacey?– that are referenced endlessly. By contrast, these two scenes (ignoring the homicides) are about one quiet moment reminding a person of another– and having the most apocalyptic event in recent American history intrude on both. In theory, this is what long form, multi-part narratives should be about: changing with the tides and sways, and providing a quick, visceral response. Bully capital.
The open eruption of history’s wounds in the on-going-but-dying-out Obama/Reverend Wright controversy has contributed to the most fascinating, depressing and sobering period of American public debate for as long as I’ve been politically aware. For some time, my contention has been that, as individuals, Americans have grown consistently less racist while, institutionally, the country has become systematically more biased against, in particular, African-Americans.
In my opinion, the root of this is the perpetual conflation of being black with being poor. Every society has an underclass, but there is something uniquely perverse about the ability of Americans to associate the state of poverty with one racial phenotype. Though this is a legacy of slavery, the calcification began during the years and decades following the Civil War, in which a systematic abuse of African-Americans became the de facto policy of this country. Given an honest assessment in this Year of Our Lord 2008– a few days ago, I read that 50% of African-American female teenagers have some form of STD– it’s difficult to see how the political and social mechanisms have much improved, at least on an economic basis. And social mobility and justice is entirely economic.
Nothing about Wright’s sermons surprised me; anyone possessing even a passing familiarity with African-American religion knows that it has always been, in part, a mirror held to the failings of The Dream. When a theology is born amongst an enslaved people, please do not be surprised that this theology is less than enchanted with the status quo. There was nothing surprising about Obama’s membership in this church– nor the fact that as a middle class black man, he would not be frothing at the mouth in horror.
The truth has always been there: that dude’s a part of the black community. What I think genuinely did blindside Obama, whose entire life has been spent as liminal figure straddling multiple identities, is the extent to which African-American culture– and I mean the culture of real people, not just the folk on TV and radio– is completely ignored by the rest of the country.
At first I tried to dismiss the outrage as more Right Wing inanity, but the consistency of the response, even after The Speech, has me convinced that this is a real concern for a lot of White People. And make no mistake: such real concerns are, and always have been, motivated by racism. Not merely an institutional racism, but a personal, individual discomfort and fear. The idiotic reactions to Wright’s goofy statements have me wondering if I haven’t been wrong. Perhaps as a result of Reagan and post-Reagan (by which I mean Clinton more than Dubya) policies and demographic migrations, African-American have become more invisible, thereby lessening the opportunities for white racism by individuals.
Amidst the furore, I have been bombarded endlessly with this Stuff That White People Like blog– probably the most insubstantial, and worse yet, least funny of all Internet fads. Surely someone has commented on the timing of this site’s hitting critical mass. That the author clinched a book deal in the same week in which Obama gave The Speech can not be irrelevant; it’s almost as if the attempt at substantiative discussion forced America to expel from its bowels a meaningless and thin diversion. The site is not merely unfunny, it’s also a smoke-screen.
I’ve never found Bloggingheads to be anything but annoying, but I think that this discussion between John McWhorter and Glenn Loury is one of the best things that I’ve ever seen on the Internet. Both men are relatively controversial African-Americans scholars, and they discuss Obama, Wright and The Speech. It’s the finest encapsulation and discussion of the consequences of this affair. You won’t find anything better.
A Late Nite Sojourn to The Old Stone Mill/Viking Tower of Newport, Rhode Island.
From the recent archives of the black magic wielder.
(Some say a witch.)
A film that would have appealed to me at the age of 19– but so did John Woo’s Face/Off.
Front image of The Berkeley Barb, Volume 3, Number 21, Issue 119, 1966. Taken from Free Press: Underground and Alternative Publications, 1965-1975, edited by Jean-Francois Bizot.
Note the date. Possibly the last time that any underground freak would draw Gandalf without the SF Family Dog/Fillmore poster influence. A real relic.
Drudge in Hollywood
On Steve Ditko
From Sunset Blvd
Welcome to Kurdistan