Riding Shotgun: Funnybooks Part Two

These aren’t your parents’ comic books.

(Note from the eds: This is a continuation of Steve’s earlier essay, Funnybooks in the Lexicon of American Culture)

Comics, or as my parents liked to call them, “that shit will rot your brain,” have been a staple of American life for the past century, and show no inclination to disappear any time soon.

Is there a child out there who did not enjoy flipping through that creaky, rotating rack at the local newsstand to see what kind of trouble that Superman or Spiderman or Batman would get into this week? Is there anyone who didn’t have at least one or two thumb-smudged issues of their favorite superhero’s adventures lying around their room as convenient distractions from homework and family tension? If so, than I pity that child who missed one of the great freedoms of childhood — the freedom to read that “brain rotting-garbage” without our intelligence or maturity coming into question.

Of course, there comes a time, or so I was told, that a child must put away childish things and become an adult. In other words, if you did read comics, and you bothered to hang onto them, then at some point, while cleaning out your room when you were at camp, college or work, your parents took it upon themselves to throw everything out.

That’s right — they tossed them. Without asking you, they threw a bright, shining part of your childhood into the dumpster. It’s a common complaint, and there are support groups.

But maybe you took it as a hint and haven’t thought of them since. And now you can’t imagine getting back into the same simple stories that engrossed you as a child. You’ve matured after all (maybe), and the same things that entertained you when you were ten don’t hold the same appeal (not necessarily if you’ve seen the mid-season line-up of Fox).

Don’t fear. There’s a whole new world of comics out there. Some are horribly violent and sexually explicit. Some contain words like “fuck,” “bitch,” or “shit demon.” Some are so complexly erudite that they put Ayn Rand to shame. And some are a vivid blend of graphic art and engrossing story that will be worth your while to check out.

DC’s sub-company, Vertigo, has turned out any number of excellent titles over the past 15 years. It’s been a format in which mainstream writers and artists can walk on the dark side, telling stories that would never have been considered for more popular titles, all the while protected by mature content advisories.

Vertigo has two dozen titles with its moniker, and it was all made possible by a man named Neil Gaiman and a comic called Sandman. Sandman ran through the early and mid-Nineties, topping out at 75 issues. It dealt with Morpheus, an eternal being who presides over the realm of dreams.

Sandman gave the comic industry a serious push into the world of adult readership with storylines filled to the brim with history and mythology, woven together with super-intelligent, intricate dialogue. It was a book that was written solely for its storylines and accessible only to the well-read.

While Gaiman ended the series several years ago, it still represents the high-water mark for intelligent comics. Gaiman has since gone on to write full-length books, and the entire Sandman series is available in graphic novel form.

Vertigo’s Hellblazer is the tale of John Constantine, an English con artist and twentieth-century magician who walks so deep in the shadows that his world is pitch black. He’s torn the wings off an angel, tricked the devil into drinking holy water, and used the magic of an earth elemental to make the world’s largest joint. He knows he’s the baddest mothafuckah on the block.

Voted Best Anti-Hero by Wizard magazine, he lives up to the title as the darkest, dirtiest character in comics. While he’s usually knee-deep in intrigue and demonic ne’er do wells, the real story lies in his continuous feeling of guilt over the friends he’s left dead by the wayside in his struggle to stay alive and on top of the game.

The Authority, created by sometime Hellblazer scribe Warren Ellis, is the next evolution of the classic superhero team concept. It reads like the Avengers on smack — literally, since “The Doctor,” one of The Authority’s team members is a not-quite-so-reformed heroin addict. In one issue he ends up drooling and unconscious after an overdose.

The rest of the characters are equally edgy. The book features the first gay couple in a super-team — Apollo and Midnighter. One is a solar-powered superman and the other is a hand-to-hand combat master wearing all black (remind you of any classic team-up, DC?).

While most team books deal with being on the defensive against madmen and outer-space overlords, The Authority takes on the sort of shit that you’d want to if you had the power to, like systematically overthrowing every vicious dictator in Southeast Asia.

Their motto, which they can broadcast on every frequency on the planet is “We are the Authority. We are watching. Now behave.” How can you be the good guys when everyone’s scared to death of you? In this book, you might actually end up rooting for Big Brother.

Ellis also made a hit a few years ago with the premier of his tale of a 21st-century journalist in Transmetropolitan. It stars one of the most unique characters in all of comics, Spider Jerusalem, loosely based on gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson.

Transmetropolian escorts its readers through The City, where everything is possible: a new religion is born every thirty seconds and politicians will resort to anything to get the public under their control. Guerilla journalist Jerusalem is the voice for some of the darkest humor to ever emerge from the genre. Currently, he’s battling a deteriorating brain condition which will leave him mindless, then dead, and he plans to take the current president down with him as the series gears up for its issue #60 finale next year.

Powers, which premiered a year ago, deals with the underside of the fictional world that superheroes live in. It follows the caselogs of Detectives Walker and Pilgrim, who are assigned to a special police unit that deals with crimes committed by and against super-powered citizens.

In a world where heroes have agents and special abilities have to be registered with the government, it’s a unique view of the superhero lifestyle.

Some of the longest-running titles in the industry have gotten revamped in the last year with Marvel’s Ultimate line. The concept takes some time-tested characters into the 21st century with updated origins and new storylines. If you want to disregard continuity and start fresh, check out Ultimate Spider-Man, Ultimate X-Men, and the soon-to-come Ultimate Avengers, but to tell the truth, these books are being pushed to the young teen crowd.

For a classic book with a little more kick, you might try New X-Men, masterminded by scribe Grant Morrison. Morrison is best known for his pop culture uber-conspiracy comic, The Invisibles, and his successful reboot of the Justice League of America. With New X-Men, he can combine his ability to script a good superteam with the need for iconoclastic mayhem he showed in The Invisibles.

This book takes the much-loved team into a new millennium where the dream of Professor Xavier, in which humans and mutants can coexist peacefully, is burning to ash. In issue #118, Xavier pumps five bullets into a villain, but only after she’s killed 17 million mutants. Your parents’ X-Men, this is not.

Some of the best stories are told outside of a continuing series, in stand-alone mini-series’ where the writers are free to do what they want outside of a linear continuity. The 1986-87 Watchmen mini-series, which constructs a story about the men behind the masks that has its roots in the superhero archetypes of the 1940′s, is still considered the precedent for which to judge all other modern comic books.

Frank Miller, whose face should appear under the word “grit” in the dictionary, took the comic world to its knees with his four-issue Batman: Dark Knight Returns series of a decade ago. It presented an aged and grizzled future Batman who’s forced out of retirement to defend a Gotham City that’s overgrown by anarchy and crime. The story culminates with the most memorable fight sequence in modern comics — a gray-haired, iron-clad Bruce Wayne in hand-to-hand, to-the-death combat with a government-controlled Superman.

This year, Miller is taking on his role as the dark avenger’s puppeteer once more with The Dark Knight Strikes Again, and judging by his previous forays, this will be a comic to grab a hold of.

There’s more, of course. And if nothing here tickles your fancy, don’t take it as a hint. Get off your pale, pimpled ass and head to the local comic shop. Don’t feel embarrassed — no pop quiz on comic trivia necessary to get through the door. Comic books are a classic of Americana; a perfect mix of mediums that can be as entertaining and relevant as anything on the New York Times Bestseller List.

Even if you feel like you’re not missing out on a lot, chances are you’re missing out on something.

Article © 2002 by Steve Spotswood