21 August, 2009

On Comics

Friends and colleagues seem to be amazed at how quickly I write. A screenplay only takes a couple of weeks, blogs a couple of hours. “How do you do it?!” Well, all they’re seeing is me sitting in front of the computer typing. What they don’t see is the actual WRITING, which I do in my head for months, YEARS beforehand. I’m not one of those that can sit in front of a blank page for very long. It taunts more than teases; drives me nuts. I’d much rather be thinking about a story for some time – and usually multiple stories at once – before something clicks and I feel like I can sit down and type it. And then, yes, it is pretty quick. Because by then all the hard work is done, and I’m just spilling it out onto that blank page before I forget it all. (Broken Tape, Mr. Barth?)

What’s the point of this, you ask? Well, the blogs – any of my writing – aren’t different from a story. I think about them looooong before I sit down to type them. Perhaps not in as much detail as fiction, but, after finding something I want to write about, there’s still the inevitable “How do I want to approach it?” For a while now, I’ve been thinking about doing something on my love for comic books, but for almost all that while had no idea what it would be. A love letter to them, sure, but what else? My being a fan, the medium, as an artform, their history, cultural impact, all that good stuff. And then I started this blog (for I’d been thinking of writing something on comics before that) and I wrote two pieces that helped things click (always love when something helps things click). The first was The Chain where I talk about Mr. Whedon sharing his love for comics by dedicating one to a friend (I particularly like his line, “unless you care about [them] as much as I do”) and It’s On! (Alas) where I talk about the evolution of watching TV. And suddenly – click! – I thought, “There’s my in.”

As Whedon has often and openly voiced his passion for the medium, I thought I’d also share how magical I think they are – and they are – but also why it’s an important medium, especially today. (And while I perhaps talk more about movies and TV, books and comic books are equally weighty in not just my fandom but my life.) And then I wrote about our TV viewing evolving (multi-platform access, TiVO, ever-evolving “seasons,” and therefore the diminishing event-ness of that viewing) and I thought, “You know, comics aren’t too different from TV. As much hard work goes into them, they’re episodic, they allow for character development, long-arcing stories and stand-alone adventures, BUT, unlike how the airing of TV is evolving, we still (wonderfully) have to wait for each issue, that ACTUAL episodic nature still intact.” (Though, no, I’m not missing that Trade Paperbacks mirror DVD boxsets, but to continue mirroring the two is indeed topic for another entry. And I digress.) And so I thought, “There’s my in.” Or, rather, “There’s at least a nice-enough segue for those of you, dear readers, who stop by here.” (And thank you for that.)

With my son Jack about to be born (just two months away now!) I can’t help but think more and more-often about my dad, who unfortunately passed away almost three years ago. And speaking of being a comic-book fan, he was a big one. Not so much in today’s titles, but certainly in the Silver Age of his youth, picking up (at various conventions and the like) single pages of his favorites (at often $200, $250 a piece) such as The Lone Ranger and Prince Valiant and Flash Gordon. Like movies and TV, it was his imparting his passion for comics onto me that left such an indelible mark; like his being supportive of my writing, he was as-supportive of my enjoying the worlds of comics and TV and movies; and, as significantly, teaching me the importance of their affect on us. (I particularly remember him buying me an original G.I. Joe Annual #1 that I desperately wanted – for $30, an ungodly amount to a ten year old – but, I think to him, money well spent to support that continued passion in me.)

In fact, that’s a good-enough segue as any to talk about the first series I fell in love with, Larry Hama’s great G.I. Joe. I remember the first issue I saw, #43, with its (haunting, frankly, especially to a ten year old) hooded-skeleton firing a machine gun. “What is THIS?!” I thought.  And a friend lent it to me.  And I was hooked. I went to my local shop (Continental Comics, still there at Balboa and Devonshire in Granada Hills) where I scrounged my measly allowance to pickup the next issue. Then as many back-issues as I could. Then each month, when a new issue came out (when I had the money) there I’d be, purchasing the next paper and ink treasure. I remember quite vividly being enthralled by that next year, as it was the best of series, those roughly fifteen issues, with the rise of Serpentor, Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow’s history, and Cobra Commander’s “fall.” To this day, G.I. Joe still holds a special place for me; every time I see an issue, or flip through one of mine (of the 155-issue series, I’ve off and on continued to accumulate nearly 100 of them) I still find myself awed.

***** RARE SPOILERS PARAGRAPH ***** I had always been a fan of the biggies -- Superman and Batman and Wonder Woman -- but mostly through movies and TV, so it wasn’t until G.I. Joe that I “discovered” them in comics, and became a BIG Batman fan, collecting regularly through the Bane storyline. At the same time, I became a big Spider-Man fan, another series I collected regularly, beginning with one of the to-this-day great crossovers, Kraven’s Last Hunt, in which Spider-Man is buried alive, and Kraven kills himself! A hooded skull firing a machine gun? The Joker beating Robin to death with a crowbar? Spider-Man climbing his way out of a coffin as the villain blows his own head off with a shotgun? I thought comics were supposed to be for kids! Right, Archie? Wow, my eyes – and imagination – were opened. (In one of the forewords to either Year One or Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller – who I had the honor to meet when I worked on The Spirit – talks about one of the Batman comics he picked up as a kid SCARING him. “Well you know what?” he said, “It’s Batman. It SHOULD scare me.” And I have to agree.) ***** SPOILERS OVER *****

In High School and College I discovered "lesser known" greats (outside of the fandom) like Sin City and Cerebus and The Sandman, three series that carried me through those years, one of which springboarding my own “work.” While Cerebus was the first comic I ever tried to adapt into a screenplay – and if you haven’t read that seminal work -- it truly is one of the great sagas of any medium, especially the “Church And State” collection – Sandman WAS the first screenplay I officially finished, first (my personal favorite) The High Cost Of Living (I have an ankh tattoo on my left Achilles heel because of Didi) and then Season Of Mists; both of which, even if I have nothing to do with them, would LOVE to see produced. (It was after the adaptation of Mists that I wrote my first original, Ireilas.) It was also during this time that my friends Steve Demarest and Jeremy Warner and I made two attempts at our own comic, respectively a Batman tale and an original (Watchmen-esque thing set in World War II).  I wonder what ever became of those ...

After college, I started work at Modern Videofilm where I met my friend Andy Gattuso, a big comics fan; not just a fan, but quite an archivist for them as well. Andy and I have since been friends for fifteen years, and to this day enjoy perusing a shop together, certainly talking about comics. While I was certainly a fan, Andy was a FAN, introducing me to all sorts of things, with as much care as a bartender coming up with a special drink. He didn’t just introduce me to The X-Men but certain Chris Claremont storylines he thought I’d like. He didn’t just introduce me to Daredevil but the Frank Miller origin story. The same with Conan (I’m sure I’ve said this before but Kurt Busiek’s great retelling needs to be a movie) and Superman For All Seasons and Hellboy and Barry Ween. Not “Pick an issue up, I think you’ll like it,” but (handing me issues) “Read this story, I think you’ll like it.” Like the great bartenders that save us with that special drink or untiring ear, it WAS always something I’d like. But, then, that’s Andy for you.

And to this day, I still continue reading them. Not collecting per se, at least not regularly, and I do miss that. [Speaking of missing, I was excited when Jay & Silent Bob’s (comic shop) moved into Lazer Blazer (DVD shop) and two of my favorite places were under one roof, walking distance from my apartment. And I was as-equally disappointed when Jay & Silent Bob’s closed in L.A. for good. Alas, Mr. Smith.] There’s the practically incomparable Kingdom Come, and the fun as hell Danger Girl. And I was a Witchblade and Fathom and Ultimate Avengers fan. (I know at one point New Line was prepping a Danger Girl film, which, if whomever does it just takes the first series to set and starts shooting, will be GOOOOOLD.) While Batman Year One is the character’s best story, the great Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale hit it out of the park with The Long Halloween and Dark Victory (not to mention Daredevil Yellow). And, of course, there are Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men and Buffy Season 8. Gattuso and I still get together, when we can, and geek out; but, like getting together to watch TV way back when (he was always there for Tuesdays At 8:00), it’s mostly reminisced treasures, scrambled-at and longed-for. (Alas indeed.)

But what continues, what I don’t think is even remotely slowing down (and thank The Powers That Be for it), is the very tradition of comics. Their ongoing production, their ongoing popularity. And I’m not just talking about their birthing hit movies. Or the annual San Diego Comicon (which, of late, is more and more about birthing hit movies). I’m talking about the pen and ink on paper medium itself. The talent involved in them, and the well deserved RESPECT comic writers, artists, letterers and editors are getting now. The notion that kids – of all ages – are still excited about a thirty-page episodic story coming out once a month, that they can’t wait to see how it continues, arriving at their local shop that Wednesday, putting down their hard earned money for each next installment.

Not to mention it’s a thirty-PAGE episodic story coming out once a month. Because in the days of The Internet and Playstation and iEverything, the notion that there’s an audience out there for the written word, for anything on a piece of paper you still physically hold, impresses me. Call me old fashioned, but it does. Getting kids – anyone – to be interested in READING anything is a blessed thing, not just because there’s so little of it these days. Sure, books still bound (no pun intended) but in the days of books on tape, books as an iPhone app, Kindles, et cetera, it’s nice to see, especially for kids, the PHYSICALITY of the medium, their sitting and reading, still doing so well. And it’s without a doubt a credit to the team behind each issue, the level of talent that’s there, month-in and month-out.

Because remember, like TV, they’re doing this on a (fairly) consistent basis. As I wrote in the My Favorite Brunette review, “I’ve often defended TV – good TV – to near fisticuffs because of how difficult it is to put out such good work week after week. I love movies, but nowadays as much as two or three years can be spent on telling one two-hour story (and often for good reason) but a TV show is there, in the trenches, giving it to us again and again, each episode often as good as most movies. They’re two different mediums, sure, but good TV? Being that good, engaging us that often? Bringing us back for more on such a steady basis? Let’s not get to fisticuffs, but I do applaud them.” And I feel the same way about comics. Sure, the talent may ebb and flow. (I don’t like to say the quality ebbs and flows, because it’s still quality work, even if, for whatever reason, it may not click that month.) But putting that much hard work into something entertaining again and again IS impressive. And think of it, they’re doing it without sound and score. (And if you think sound and score are overrated, watch Jaws without them.)

Think of it, how important the LAYOUT of a comic is. I don’t just mean what pictures (and remember they’re single, specific images) are shown to convey the story; a close-up of her eyes, a single empty shoe laying on the ground, a fist hitting a jaw, a fluttering of cape leaving a phonebooth. All key, to be sure. But I also mean how those images are laid out THROUGHOUT the issue. The big images as expansive “wide shots,” the small images as “close ups.” The big splash pages creating a faster pace so you speed through them, and the multi-paneled pages that slow you down to pause and read. And this is my favorite, how well thought out they are: the surprise revealed as you turn a page. All of these things are thought out well in advance, so, like cinematic editing, the storyteller can lead the audience through the story. You may not think of it as you read – frankly, you’re not supposed to – but they’re there, very much part of the process, part of the hard work put into the entertainment. Words and pictures. No sound, no score, practically all of the crutches we’ve grown to rely on in entertainment today gone, boiled down to those two crucial elements, year-in and sometimes decades-out. And when it’s done well, when it makes you laugh out loud or tear up? (Swear to God, it happens!) In a word, breathtaking.

I recently started a gig at Encore in Hollywood, Post Supervising for TV, and the office is just a few blocks from Golden Apple on Melrose, perhaps THE comic shop in Los Angeles (I once had the honor of meeting Bob Kane at their old location down the street). A week or so ago, my friend Cliff Dugan and I went to lunch and, he a big comic book fan as well, couldn’t help but stop off on our way back. Just walking in there – I feel the same way about walking into a book store, especially a used book store – I love being wrapped in the stories, the possibility of all the stories there. Just a page-turn away, you can be in the desert, on the high seas, in an underground cave or an orbiting space station, in the 1940s or the far distant future. The possibilities are, indeed, endless. I walked around, looking at this and that, and (because the movie has just come out) there was an end-cap of G.I. Joe issues. I looked at a couple and thought, “Yeah, I could go back and read a few.” (I went home, started at #25, and have been enjoying an issue a night since.)  I was standing there, reminiscing about that ten year old that was first entranced by those stories when Cliff (he a well-connected Vice President, mind you) walked up to me with an issue, pure glee in his eyes, and said, “Have you seen this one? It’s great!”

And twenty-five years after I picked up my first issue, I thought, “Yes sir, it absolutely is.”

While I was writing this – sorry, typing this, in these couple-of-hours it takes me to put the months-of-thinking-about-it down on the page – this popped up in the news. A man, outraged by a recent storyline in a nearly 70-year saga, sold his copy of the character’s first issue. For nearly $40,000. It seemed so relevant, I had to share. After all … just for kids, huh?


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