Give our Regards to the Atomsmashers!
Writers On Comics
Edited and with an Introduction By Sean Howe

(Release Date: June 29, 2004)


KOMIX


Intelligent People talking Comics?
Told you they were "Literature"

 

 

 

 

J.C. Mašek III... Komik Readin' Critic!
J.C. Mašek III
The World's Greatest Critic!
Comics, I've read a few... but then again... well, far too damned many to mention. Toward the end of my Senior Year in College (I have a BA in English Lit from Louisiana State University), I decided to push the envelope in the Shakespeare and Keats heavy curriculum, and write not one, but two dissertations on what I so daringly called "Graphic Literature". In love with Shakespeare though I may be, I thought I might be able to pull it off... and I did, scoring A's on both papers and managing not to have to postpone my coveted graduation date. (Check those coveted papers out here and here!)

I also managed to convince myself that I was unique in both my collegiate understanding of Comic Books and my ability to write about them as "Literature". Unique, I was not (but they don't write that on the Diploma!), because Criterion Collection editor Sean Howe isn't just writing about this, he's gathering a group of great writers who do the same! And it's all collected here in Give Our Regards to the Atomsmashers! Writers on Comics (a title as long as it is lofty... try saying it three times fast). Opinions are like elbows... everybody's got a couple, and therefore there are a lot of elements herein that the avid fan will and won't agree with (many even contradict each other)! However, what's true on a deeper level is that the way that these essays are written gives a personal appeal to people who are not only not "Avid Fans", but may or may not even give a soaring sock one way or the other about comics. But, hey, when a literate and intelligent writer advocates on behalf of a subject like this... how bad can it be? Keep an open mind, and you might like what you see and read!

Surprisingly, after Sean Howe's superb introduction (which feels like an old buddy telling you a story from atop his barstool), Atomsmashers becomes a relatively Marvel-heavy collection of Essays. It's surprising because Howe practically credits DC Comics with teaching him how to read. Welcome to the Club, cool!

In The Return of the King, or, Identifying with your Parents, Jonathan Lethem chronicles the creator of one of Comicdom's most recognizable and noteworthy creators, one Jack Kirby (known around the "Cons" as the "King"). Lethem makes no major attempt to write Kirby's Biography, but instead focuses on his ties to Stan Lee (the "McCartney" to Kirby's "Lennon"), and much more heavily on Kirby's 1976 return to Marvel from DC (and other worlds). That's right, like a Lennon Solo album, Kirby returned to the center stage without Lee's writing involvement and made a none-too-stellar splash. I liked the comics, so does Lethem, but they aren't quite The White Album, are they? Lethem digs deep to fairly cover Kirby during this era, and brings his own personal touch by explaining things as a fan, and as a writer decades later. And good news, like many great artists' "periods", Kirby's return has gotten more respect as time has progressed. And Lethem's just plain cool right now! His Twisted, Panel-Influenced version of Essay as Diamante doesn't hurt either, for laughs!

Howe doesn't choose only the "Titans" of comics (even your Grandmother has heard of Stan Lee), but also brings in Luc Sante and his article The Clear Line. This essay is about the adventures of Tintin, the Belgian kid with the pup named Milou (or "Snowy" if you're a Yank) and the 1920's and 30's sensitivities to Race. Sante (who grew up in Belgium) again shows us a kid's initial reaction and a man's nostalgic look back, with a warts-and-all process. However, he also manages to capture the Zeitgeist that spawned Tintin, as well as the writers and artists who shaped him. The impact of world affairs (if you've ever heard of WWII) on Belgium certainly didn't leave Tintin alone, but naturally a writer couldn't comment on these things directly in Belgium either. Comic-based or not, The Clear Line is an interesting look at this time in history from a perspective not oft seen.

Give it, this Holoday Season!

My parents had just divorced and my Mother was working at Citizen's Hospital in Columbia Louisiana. It was New Year's Eve, 1982, and I was accompanying my Mom to her night nursing shift. There I met an Orderly whose name I can't remember. He seemed like a "Grown-Up", with all that implies, but I know now he must have been around 20 or so. I'll always remember two things about him, that night he offered me my first taste of Eggnog, which I declined, and my first glimpse into "The Negative Zone", thanks to a great issue of The Fantastic Four, which revisited that untamed and acid-trippy realm! I loved that issue, and read as much as I could, until I finally snagged a copy of Fantastic Four King-Size Special #6 from a book dealer who didn't have any clue what he had. At the time of this writing, that issue is 36 years old, so if you get one, be careful. Geoff Dyer's Comics in a Man's Life details this Psychedelic Negative Zone, as well as some of the more surreal Marvel works with a psychological, yet Psychedelically sympathetic eye. How did Marvel (the home of Captain America) become the home of Pop Art? How did Tales to Astonish become Dark Side of the Moon? Don't ask Freud, ask Dyer. You may understand "The Negative Zone" a little better, but if you're like me, you'll understand it just a little less, because the whole thing's expanded on you in just Ten Pages.

I had always understood Love and Rockets to be a "New Wave" band... that is until I caught an Article with Anthrax Guitarist Scott Ian in which he showed off his favorite comics. As strange as that may be, Aimee Bender was introduced to this comic, not by another Rocker, but by a teacher she met in College. Imagine that! It was a victory for me to write Gothic in Gotham for an Independent Study, and then Graphic World Literature for my (drumroll) World Literature Class, and here Bender's getting introduced to Comics In College! The word "Huzzah" comes to mind! In Bender's Flat and Glad, she acts as a sort of advocate for the Graphic Novel, using Love and Rockets primarily as her example of quality, suggesting that L&R isn't the exception, but an example of a new rule. With a feminine zeal, our author shows us parallels between better Graphic Literature and such authors as Checkov, James and Dostoyevsky not saying "This is just as good", but, rather, "This too is good!" But more than asking for excuses for Comics, Bender explains how the paneled drawings can enhance the words on the page, not replace them. Hey, a picture's worth a thousand words... why does that get forgotten in a Comic Book?

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"What do you mean 'WE', Parasite?" said Dr. Doom to his Scheme-Suggesting DC Counterpart in the second Match Up between Spiderman and Superman. My response? Who the hell is Parasite? Well, we all discover Comics in our own order, if we discover them at all. Now days, if anyone asked that question, I'd scoff! But Stan "The Man" Lee had long labeled "DC" as "Brand Ecch!", and made a generation of Comics Fans repeat the insipid slogan "Make Mine Marvel". I could go on and on and on about how Stan (though admittedly a "great" himself) used his ego and way with words to cause us all to look at them as the Coke to DC's Pepsi. I wanted to, too, until I read Christopher Sorentino's The Ger Shecker. Unfortunately, though Sorentino is accurate historically, the man who writes the article feels like he's forgotten the boy who read the comics in the first place. He's a fun writer (at least for the like minded) because he decries continuity errors (or Gregory Benford Moments as I call them), but he seems to suggest that the whole DC Versus Marvel thing was ridiculous as Dr. Doom's admonishment of Parasite... why? Because neither one of them were any good. Further, DC must be a poison piss parfait because some of the more respected 1970's works (like Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams' Green Lantern/ Green Arrow) aren't as sophisticated as Marvel's more famous Spidey Drug Issues. But then, Sorentino says, those weren't so good either. Sorentino writes well, but after his ambiguous and ambivalent negativity... one wonders why he wrote this at all.

One of the main reasons that so many "outgrew" comics is that they never seemed to "grow" with the reader... at least they didn't until Comics were reinvented (again) in the 1980's with Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore's (with Dave Gibbons) Watchmen. Oh, there were others, all right... and one that many have forgotten is Howard Chaykin's American Flagg! Steve Erickson's contribution (also entitled, simply, American Flagg) shows not just the influence that this work had, but also the influence of the influences! Does every Nirvana fan recognize the influence of The Pixies, or early White Zombie? Does every disciple of Stephen King also pay Homage to Shirley Jackson or H.P. Lovecraft? No. Erickson knows this and shows where a lot of today's political and subversive comics sprouted from. While Erickson is indeed a fan of the Genre, he too is one of those guys who fled comics before being brought back in and seeing just how mature they had become. If you're one of those folks who don't think Comics are for you, Erickson has a story to tell you!

And then, there are those who never outgrew comics because they never read them in the first place... or at least, not really! I mean, are the Classics Illustrated volumes actual comics? Well, I think so, and they might just get you to grow into the actual classics. Gary Giddins was Seduced By Classics Illustrated, as he tells us in his essay. He knows Comics, he knows Comic History, and he is just avidly rabid in his knowledge of this Literary Subset going way back when. Giddins also juxtaposes his understanding of Classics Illustrated with the views of Dr. Fredric Wertham, whose Seduction of the Innocent nearly killed comics, and certainly whitewashed them of their depth in the 1950s. Giddins boldly quotes "Dr. W", then holds a magnifying glass up to CI as if to say "Oh, really?"

John Byrne drew the cover to Fantastic Four Number 281 which featured Sue "The Invisible Woman" Richards in skimpy fetish-wear. To my 11-year-old, near-pubescent eyes, this was the closest thing to Erotic Pictures I'd seen (well, mostly, but that's another story). My friend Neil Kelly didn't understand, but Brad Meltzer would have. In his article How I Spent My Summer Vacation with the Judas Contract, he details a similar longing for a fictional drawing... this time the company was DC, the Title was New Teen Titans, the subject was Tara "Terra" Markov, and the creators were Marv Wolfman and George Perez. And, you know what... he was right... Terra's a hottie, all right! But what this writing is really about isn't teen-lust for hot drawings... not at all. It's actually about the level of emotional impact a well-written (and drawn) comic can have on a reader, just like any good piece of literature. As the title might suggest, The Judas Contract is more than a little bit about betrayal, and yeah, Meltzer felt and feels that betrayal from a girl he's never met, who never existed and who never betrayed him. That's art, man!

Sue as Malice... HOT, no?

Some lust after Comics, some outgrow them, some outgrow them and re-embrace them... some outgrow one aspect and embrace the surreal illegitimate half-brother of Comics... those that come from the underground. Robert Crumb is so well known now he might as well not be considered "Underground" anymore, but Jim Woodring's name is still responded to with a big, resounding "Who, now?" when uttered. John Wray knows Woodring, and may or may not care if you do, but he's here to praise his bizarre style in This World, That World, and the Invisible Hinge: The Words & Pictures of Jim Woodring! Whether or not you get into Woodring as a result, reading Wray's prose is a treat. He's able to skillfully describe what many can't: The deceptively simplistic style of the minimalist. Though Atomsmashers reprints only two frames out of Woodring's catalogue, Wray makes you feel like you've seen more, as he describes the depth and the darkness.

Yeah, that Cigar Chompin' Adventurer, Nick Fury has infected a few readers with his unique blend of professionalism and irreverence, but Geoffery O'Brien's Nick Fury's Dream suggests that the prime mover of the Retired Sergeant's popularity might just have been Jim Steranko's rich art and strange, strange writings. Using Steranko's "Today Earth Died" as an example of the infectious, yet count-by-threes odd nature of '60's era Fury, we see not only the breaking of the traditional mold of comic storytelling, but an almost Twilight Zone twist! Picture an American James Bond doing battle with Space Aliens before a Deus Ex Machina... and to top it off, it was all a dream... right? Well, maybe this isn't so odd in Comics of today, but like Flagg, perhaps Steranko's Fury fueled what was yet to come. Besides, in any good comic, it's all just a dream... right?

Glen David Gold's Oui, Je Regrette Presque Tout, isn't so much an revelation about Comics, as it is a confession of a self aware and frustrated man. Like Richard Mattheson's Mad House, Gold's article perfectly captures frustration in its purest form. Here he desperately attempts to buy some rare comic art from an owner of a closed shop in Orange County (Hey, Glen, I'll bet I can tell you just what strip mall that is, buddy). You won't believe the lengths he goes to as his frustration borders on the fictional. Gold is excellent at his craft, and if this story is true, he shows he hasn't a whole lot to hide. Not that there's too much information here, his speculation fills the gaps and what we know, we eat up. I almost want to look the guy up just to give him a hug. Truth or Fiction, this is a great read, and filled with nervous laughter (and that's just on the reader's part)!

Nemo is a fish, Nemo is a Sea Captain, Nemo is a dreamer. Little Nemo, that is, as in Little Nemo in Slumberland. Lydia Millet writes about this dreamer in the appropriately titled Slumberland, and how he was, well, different from the rest of the Four Color Heroes here-abouts. Nemo's adventures are surreal and observant, stuck in time like Tintin, and outside the norm like Classics Illustrated. They also weren't "Comic Books" (technically, they were books of collected comic strips), and that is why Millet was allowed to read them. Millet is as self reflective as Nemo, and is an observer who wants to share it all. Hey, if you didn't have time to read, you wouldn't have gotten THIS far in the review, so go for her!

Possibly the funniest and most interesting contribution is from Tom Piazza, who doesn't give us an Essay at all, but an "interview"! Superman's most impish and comical foe has been Mr. Mxyzptlk, a creature from the Fifth Dimension, who can only be sent back there if he says his name backward. In Piazza's appropriately titled KLTPZYXM!, the author attends a Comic Convention to interview the oafish, backward Bizarro, Superman's witless, deformed clone. When Bizarro goes to relieve himself in the "Kitchen", Piazza is stuck with the foul-mouthed and obnoxious Mxyzptlk (pronounced Mix-Yes-Pit-Lick, for newbies, and Superfriends fans), who monopolizes the conversation and makes no bones about his anger at living in Bizarro's shadow. Where this article goes, you'll have to read to believe, but what makes this so great is that inside this interview, more is revealed about the subject matter than if Piazza had indeed written an actual essay!

Chris Offutt is the son of a man who was denied comics as a kid, sort of a second generation illustrated shut-out! Therefore, as Chris grew up, dear old Dad embraced comics like most fathers forbade them. Like Giddins, Offutt embraced Classics Illustrated, but he sure as Sol didn't stop there. What really seems to have wrapped Offutt in is T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, and most especially, NoMan, a ghostly form who inhabits android bodies, and can never really die, because he never really lives! Unlike many of the entries in Atomsmashers, Offutt's NoMan was my Man doesn't show how the "normal" among us can too embrace comics, but displays how the disaffected and lonely youth can so well identify with them. Does this play into a stereotype? Ah, maybe, but it makes this tale no less the truth, and no less interesting in the look at the psychological make-up of one type of Graphic Novel fan. It might be a sober let-down from KLTPZYXM!, but it's a great, and honest, entry!

My favorite artist is Alex Ross, and if you should come across any bit of his work, you'll see why! One of the Jewels in his crown, and one of the prime movers in Ross' launch to super-stardom was his graphic novel U.S. - Uncle Sam, with writer Steve Darnall. Greil Marcus' The Man on the Street is primarily a scene-for-scene annotation of U.S. with his own positive critique attached. If you're writing a paper on U.S. - Uncle Sam, then The Man on the Street might help. If not... well, you should probably just read U.S. - Uncle Sam, and consider Marcus' essay in the same way you might consider a DVD Extra. (Warning: If you haven't read U.S. - Uncle Sam and want to, Marcus' Essay contains all the spoilers!)

Like many Comic Readers (including some of those contributing for Atomsmashers), Myla Goldberg started with the mainstream presses, and grew up to graduate into the underground! The title The Exquisite Strangeness and Estrangement of Renee French and Chris Ware would seem to leave little to the gray areas. Indeed this is a comparison and contrast of these two artists work. But like John Wray, Goldberg manages to paint these pictures with her words and show how both of these artists are somewhat the same, though, upon deeper inspection, are very, very different. This isn't a surprise because Goldberg, is, after all, a Novelist, whose words must paint pictures in order to be successful. Truly, though, she's also an art critic who knows what she's talking about. If you're unfamiliar with French's David Lynch-like stories and imagery, or Chris Ware's Unified Chaos on the Panel, this might entice you into reading them. However, fans of theirs might appreciate the recognition, but deem Exquisite Strangeness as superfluous, or, like Wray's or Marcus' commentary, the printed form of a DVD Extra. Nothing wrong with that, mate!

Ever notice that there is no harsher critic of Star Trek than a Star Trek fan? Ever hear an avid Star Wars Junkie bitch and moan about something ridiculous in a George Lucas film? Well, here's why: if you spend long enough looking at anything the flaws and inconsistencies, and sometimes, the ugliness becomes painfully obvious as the site of the Brobdignagians must have been to Gulliver. And this is also the reason that Andrew Hultkrans is so easily able to state that his favorite artist, (Spidey creator) Steve Ditko, contributed "stiff, cartoonish, wildly inconsistent, occasionally downright bad art". Like any fan, though, Hultkrans loves his subject and spends 16 pages defending Ditko, and his work, in the form of Steve Ditko's Hands. And, yes, like those maniacal Trekkers, Hultkrans is Ditko's biggest critic, calling out his devotion to Ayn Rand's Objectivism Philosophy, and his artistic limitations, and even his attitudes. But it's with an eye of the truest of fans, who especially adores Ditko's work on Doctor Strange! Our boy Andrew loves Strange, (particularly, Ditko's Strange) so much, that he lauds praise upon this work in a steady flow, not because of Ditko's quirks, but seemingly in spite of them. Still, he takes the man for all with all, and knows well that Stevarino's self fueled the works on that page that Andrew loves so much, and he praises Ceasar without any nod to burying the poor guy! The entire attitude reeks of the unforgivable "This is good, even though it's a comic!" mindset that so many of us have tried to avoid. However, it's hard to deny that Andrew Hultkrans knows Ditko (as a subject) well, and has a unique perspective on him, from the hands he draws, all the way out. The man is a Disciple, but he's maybe looked too long at one thing, and knows that one thing isn't perfection.

Nobody's perfect, but Give Our Regards to the Atomsmashers does a hell of a job of showing that there are all kinds of Comic Book Readers in the world, many in places you'd never expect. Was it still a victory for me to get A's on "Graphic Literature" papers in College? Of course! Hey, out of the thousands of papers on Milton, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Coleridge, Hughes, Wordsworth and all the others, two is small, but notable. Luckily, though, I'm far from alone in this intellectual fandom. Does this give me a higher score to slap on Atomsmashers? No. Out of Five Stars, this book gets Four Stars! A little less DC-Bashing, and more of a direct focus might have helped, but as it stands, it's still a fantastic collection of documentary opinions! It's a great one, all right, and worth your time, especially if you're still holding that snickering, preconceived notion of what a "Comic Book" is. Hell, you might find yourself picking one up after reading this. I know I am... but it's not the first time!


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Give Our Regards to the Atomsmashers! Writers on Comics by Sean Howe (editor)
reviewed by J.C. Mašek III who is responsible for his own views,
and for his collection of thousands of comics from virtually every publisher.
Pity his wife!
Got something to say? Write it!

Hardcover: 240 pages Publisher: Pantheon (June 29, 2004) ISBN: 0375422560 Product Dimensions: 8.5 x 6.4 x 0.9 inches Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds. (View shipping rates and policies) Average Customer Review: based on 1 review. (Write a review) Amazon.com Sales Rank in Books: #150,232 (Publishers and authors: improve your sales)
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