I hate the idea of fandom.

Fans, genre fans in particular, are notoriously difficult and hard to please. It's not even a good kind of hard to please, either- rather than looking for quality, they look for fan service. They want stories that seem familiar, they like narratives that make them feel like they're coming home. As a result, comics are notoriously stagnant- they rarely move forward and when they do the move generally doesn't last very long, a victim of that all-important but ever elusive king of comics: sales.

I'm not particularly fond of being called a fan, either; I'm a comics reader, consumer and scholar, for sure, but I don't like the possibility that I might be blinded by my fandom, the possibility that I might reject good stories simply because they take characters in a new direction, one that makes me uncomfortable. In fact, what I want is just the opposite- I want writers to take me places that are new, that are uncomfortable, places where I haven't been before: that's part of the reason I read comics, because I would like to imagine that the world is better than advertised.

With all that said, I have a confession to make: when I figured out Nightcrawler was going to die in Second Coming, I stopped buying the crossover. In fact, I even stopped buying Uncanny X-Men, which is a comic I've bought consistently since I began reading comics in middle school. That moment, when I started buying comics, came in the middle of what I now think of as a pretty awful period in Uncanny's history, when the book was being written by former artist and minor league baseball player Chuck Austen. Say what you will about his writing now (and, believe me, I've said plenty of those things) there was a period of time when I thought Austen could do no wrong- I loved those stories, and I loved the characters they were about. I still love those characters- I read the book through worse writers than Austen, so something must have made me stick around- and for better or for worse that made me a fan. It was only the death of my favorite character (well, that and the prospect of spending four times as much on X-Men comics per month as I was used to) that drove me away.

All accounts seem to indicate that, for a sprawling mini-epic crossover event, Second Coming was pretty good- and I didn't want to hear it. I was done with the X-Men- DONE... until I saw this book hanging out in my LCS today during my lunch break.

I had room in my budget, and I just couldn't resist, so I picked it up- and I'm glad I did, because it was actually pretty good, despite the presence of three different pencillers. Luckily, the fact that each artist was telling a distinct story maximized readability and it helped that I like Steven Sander's slightly off-model interpretation of Beast (can we get this guy on a real X book please? One of the great tragedies of S.W.O.R.D.'s cancellation was that I don't get to see his work on a monthly basis anymore). The Sanders drawn Beast tale is, I think, the best of the bunch- unlike the other two stories (one about Cyclops, the other about Hope), it doesn't serve mostly to move the X-Men forward out of Second Coming and into The Heroic Age, and Matt Fraction is at his lovable best there. There's a pretty poignant, if slightly opaque, reference to Nightcrawler's death, a reference that easily could have come off all wrong, that Fraction writes to perfection.

The other two stories are pretty good at their best moments and serviceable at their worst: Whilce Portacio's art on the Cyclops story is surprisingly fluid and it's hard for me to resist loving anything with Steve Rogers in it and even the Hope story, the weakest by a pretty wide margin, has its moments, despite being generally flat.

I hate to say it, but Uncanny X-Men: The Heroic Age made me feel like I was coming home again. I may as well just admit it- I'm an X-Fan. And there's nothing wrong with that.

Gangsters, Surgery, and... Peter Lorre?

First, an apology for being the constantly absent member of the blog writing team. Those of you who know me personally know that I am usually swamped at work. The past month has been a blur of six-day weeks at the comic shop, which is wonderful but it doesn't leave a lot of time for my own writing. However, this week something came out that was so good that I have to review it: Darwyn Cooke's adaptation of The Man with the Getaway Face.

Please excuse that thing that you just tripped over on the floor. It was my jaw. In all seriousness, I was not expecting this as I dutifully unpacked the Diamond boxes this past Wednesday (and yes, that is my fault for not paying attention to the internet. But shhh!). I was absolutely thrilled to see the next installation in Cooke's adaptation of the Parker novels.

Now, I'll confess, I haven't read any of Richard Stark's books. I tend to like my noir in movie form but then last summer The Hunter hit the stands. Ah, yes, back last summer when I was buying a ton of stuff (as opposed now, where I only buy half a ton of stuff). There I was, standing in the store with a pile of comics. Innocent. Not planing on buying a new hardcover that week. Then my boss came along and forced it into my hand. My boss is very good at what he does: selling comics. He also knows that although I'll kick and scream, I'll end up buying the books he says are good. So I begrudgingly payed for The Hunter and took it home.

And I was blown away. From the first page (a splash of New York City, my beloved home) I was hooked. I blew through it, marveling at the expressive art, getting lost in the plot, and theorizing that Cooke is secretly a god. Since then, I have recommended The Hunter to many friends (some of you have been those friends) and sold several copies at the comic shop I work at. Meanwhile, I mourned that I would have to wait until Summer 2010 to get to read the next graphic novel.

Well, turns out I still have to wait until October to get to read The Outfit, but at least the clamoring masses were not forgotten. Getaway Face, as Cooke calls it in his intro, is actually a full novel in the Parker series, however Cooke felt it was not necessary for the overarching story. However, there are elements of Getaway Face that directly link to later plot lines. The solution? Why, put out an oversized comic book for $2 conveying said necessary elements of course!

Brilliant. Who could say no to a $2 book, when the average comic book is $3.99 these days? Who could say no to paying $2 for Darwyn Cooke comics? Let's be honest here, I'm far from the only person who believes that Cooke is secretly a god. Kudos to IDW for the brilliant sell. But lets talk about the actual book.

I swear, someone needs to give Cooke a medal for his title page art, which I fell in love with when he was writing The Spirit. The first page is a five panel sequence of surgical bandages being snipped away, slowly revealing the words The Man with the Getaway Face, and the quality of the work stays as high the whole way through the book.

The story that follows this beautiful opening is one about Parker's first crime after fleeing New York at the end of The Hunter, after completely altering his face. His associates on this heist are Skim, who's kind of a schmuck, Skim's girlfriend Alma, and an old colleague named Handy. What results is a tale of double-crossing, and double-crossing the doubler crosser, but I'm not saying more than that. One thing I will say is that Skim is a dead ringer for the actor Peter Lorre, who played some of my favorite schmucks in the 1940's. He was Dr. Einstein in Arsenic and Old Lace, Ugarte in Casablanca, and he was Joel Cairo in my favorite noir film-- The Maltese Falcon. Lorre was well known for his roles in noir films (as well as horror), and I can't help but think that Cooke's portrayal of Skim is a nod to Lorre. If anything, it added an extra dimension to the storytelling for me personally. I totally heard Lorre's voice in my head.

I will admit that Getaway Face is not as neatly tied together as The Hunter was. However, this is clearly because it is a 200 page book boiled down to twenty-four pages of sequential art, so I can forgive that. The fast-pacing is balanced out by Cooke's art and the simple enjoyment of reading a good crime story. Cooke even writes Getaway Face so you don't have to have read The Hunter to enjoy this comic. So, do yourself a favor: take $2 out of your piggybank and go pick up a copy of The Man with the Getaway Face. You'll thank me.

"We're Going To See Him When He's New to This Whole War Thing"

Today's announcement of pre-continuity Captain America series written by Brian Clevinger and drawn by the Japanese art team (one might even go so far as to call them a dynamic duo)* Gurihiru, entitled Captain America: Fighting Avenger has some potential. The idea of an ongoing series set during the War is a fantastic one and, if it means that we get to see some Captain America war comics on a consistent basis, it's something I'm sure to pick up come January.

Oh, sure, it could be terrible- light reboots like this sometimes are- but looking at the killer costume redesign Gurihiru came up with and reading what Clevinger has to say about the project gives me heart:
"We're approaching Captain America from an angle you never really see. It's that window between getting hepped up on supersoldier serum and becoming, y'know, the mythic Captain America that immediately comes to mind when you talk about him."
This suggests a sort of Captain America: Year One style project (sort of like last week's solid Thor: The Mighty Avenger #1), but without all the grimngritty that's usually found tagging along with a project like that and, in fact, what he goes on to say about his writing style for the work is a further reason to see this project as a potential bright light:
"To put it into die-hard Marvel reader terms: it's not funny like Deadpool, but maybe it's funny like Iron Fist"
Funny like Iron Fist? Surely, Brian Clevinger, you mean funny like The Immortal Iron Fist, my favorite comic book series ever? Sweet.

So we've got a good concept with a writer who has promised that his writing's going to be serious with a little bit of a goofy streak- but, wait. There's more, you say?
"What's great about Steve is that he just wants to do what's right. Actually, it kind of goes beyond that, doesn't it? It doesn't occur to him there's an option. Even more than Spider-Man, I've felt that Steve is the embodiment of, 'With great power comes great responsibility.' Only, in Steve's case, I think he considers 'citizenship' to be the great power in question. Whereas the power/responsibility mantra is more of a lesson or a reminder to Peter Parker, for Steve it's a fundamental part of reality that's as inevitable as gravity."
I didn't think there was another writer out there who gets Captain America like Ed Brubaker does but maybe, just maybe, we've found that guy. This is a project that has the chance to be absolutely fantastic- perhaps my expectations are a little bit too high, but I simply can't wait.

The ball is in your court, Brian Clevinger. Please don't disappoint.

*Alright, fine- I'd never heard of Gurihiru until reading the announcement today- but, seriously, is that costume just killer or what? The helmet is a stroke of genius.

Honest Harvey

To me Harvey Pekar wasn't just an underground comics creator. He was the underground comics creator.

He died this morning at about 1 A.M. 70 years young.
[via @Newsarama & @NBMPUB & @DarkHorseComics & The Cleveland Plain Dealer]

I grew up reading superhero comic-books (and I still do), but actually, the truth is I grew up reading Marvel Spider-Man comic-books. Only in high school did I begin to branch out from Spidey and only in college, when a friend named Abbie lent me a collection of stories from "American Splendor" (the title that became Harvey's most used vehicle for telling the story of his life), did I begin to really 'get' underground comics. In fact, I know the exact moment I understood why this girl was raving about this man's work and I first appreciated the beauty of both underground comics and autobiographical comics: The moment I read a full story titled "Kaparra" drawn by Gerry Shamray originally from "American Splendor" #5. A single page of panels depicting the reminiscence of an old man's narrow escape from the possibility of a Nazi death squad because of some triviality. One page. Whole story. There was no drama, no tension in the story. There didn't need to be. It was a true story. At least as told to Harvey Pekar.

Harvey met R. Crumb in the 60s and as Crumb slowly began throwing off the shackles of the American Greeting Card Company and started making self-published comics he spurred a wave of similar projects from the people around him. Pekar sat Crumb down and asked him to illustrate some very simple stories of Pekar's life. In 1976 Harvey self-published the first issue of "American Splendor" with art by Crumb. The series was such a cult hit there were multiple trade-paperbacks published reprinting stories from the comic-book long before such a thing became the norm. In 1994, a graphic novel co-written with his wife Joyce Brabner titled "Our Cancer Year" followed. "American Splendor" continued on in various forms, finally under the DC Comics' imprint Vertigo.

Harvey Pekar was the kind of man who would get married and then write a comics story titled "Harvey's Latest Crapshoot: His Third Marriage to a Sweetie from Delaware and How His Substandard Dishwashing Strains Their Relationship" in the tenth issue of his comic-book. A remarkable, curmudgeonly, honest kind of man. Harvey's willingness to be entirely transparent with the details of his life has been an inspiration to my prose, to my comics, to my reporting, and to my personal style. I recognize that things were probably changed here and there to make things move, to simplify them. But Harvey never skimped on the details. The awesome little things that made his stories human and true.

If you've happened to read my comics, especially the comics I've been making over the past few years? Single pages that tell stories with details I observe, striving to find things both human and true.

A lot of underground comic creators get so busy trying to be ironic they forget they were telling a story. Some of the guys (and ladies) doing autobiographical comics (even people doing GREAT autobiographical comics) inject a little too much... drama, a little too much 'woe is me'. Give me honest Harvey's work any day.

Crime novelist Elmore Leonard has 10 rules for successful writing put down first in an article in The New York Times, then later in a short book. Rule #10 is "Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip" which I always translated as 'Take out the boring parts'. It's damn good advice. Advice I don't follow nearly enough in my own writing. But that was the truly remarkable thing about Harvey Pekar. I suspect he didn't think of parts of a story as boring or exciting.

He told it like it was.

R.I.P. Harvey

~ @JonGorga