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Give Our Regards to the Atomsmashers! : Writers on Comics

Date: Wednesday, March 16, 2005
By: Darren Schroeder

Edited by Sean Howe
Publisher: Pantheon Books

$24 95 US

"What kind of moronic pinhead wants comic books to have meaning?"
- Mr Mxyzptlk, in an interview with Tom Piazza.

Um, er.. well some of us like to live in hope. Our beloved creative medium is for the most part overlooked or actively belittled by mainstream media and high-minded cultural critics alike, leaving us to operate in a obscure sub-culture where we all agree that Alan Moore is a creative genius (quiet in the back!) and argue about whether small press beats superheroes (Take that you big boy scout!). What we all wish for is the day when sensible people say sensible things about comics and the stories that we love in public. This book goes along way to granting us our wish, with a collection of well written essays on a variety of comic related topics, mixing the outsiders view of comics with that of long time enthusiasts.

The thing that strikes one most about this book is just how well-written all of the essays here are. We all know from the comics we decide aren't worth reading that getting paid to do be a writer and actually doing it well are two entirely different things. The contributors here provide the reader with a range of material, from childhood memories of comic reading (Lethem) to discussion of the political and creative implications of American Flagg (Erikson), all written in a breezy informal tone where opinions and speculation are writ large and facts are occasionally introduced. Did American Flag really kick-start the independent comics movement as Erikson claims? I'm not sure - it's an interesting suggestion but someone out there is bound to disagree.

In amongst the vaguely serious essays there are a couple of more playful offerings. Jonathan Lethem survey of Jack Kirby's return to Marvel is interspersed with amusing examples of concrete poetry. It's nice to see an author acknowledge the problem of writing about a visual medium in such an clever way. Damn, I wish I'd thought of that. The editor obviously thought about this issue as well, opting to mark the start of each essay with an illustration from the relevant comic. Tom Piazza is playful in the extreme with his hilarious ‘interview' with Bizarro, where he muses on the characters appeal and gets into an argument with Mr Mxyzptlk. It's a sharply written piece that slips in some wry observations on the comics industry amongst its outlandish comedy.

The essays cover an interesting and varied range of comics, from 60s Marvel, Little Nemo, Classic Illustrated, Comic Collecting, Steve Dikto, Jim Woodring, Tintin, Yummy Fur, Renée French, Chris Ware, but after reading the book I was left with the impression of a collection tainted with an overwhelming sense of nostalgia. Most of the writers are approaching comics as the medium they loved as a child, recounting disagreements about who was the better artist with school chums and how comics got left behind somewhere in early adulthood. Fans of DC comics will find much to rankle here, as the general consensus of the writers is that DC comics 'back then' were a bit dull, while under the creative genius / rampant self-promotion (opinion is roughly divided on this issue within these pages) of Stan Lee, Marvel had the comics worth reading. The writers back up their claims with some stirring descriptions of the comics and creators of the time, and the affect the culture surrounding comics had on them.

The over-arching emphasis on a sense of nostalgia becomes slightly grating after a while, but perhaps that is just the knee-jerk defensive reaction of a comic reader and fan. When a writer of Steve Erikson's talent suggests that he doubts he'll ever find another comic that energised him as much as American Flagg it makes you wonder if it is time to cancel all your comic subscriptions. But it pays to keep in mind that nostalgia is the draw card for many writers to such an anthology. Ask 10 people to write about cars and most would babble on about the real leather smell of their dad's station-wagon, or the old heap that they bought when they started college. It doesn't mean that cars are worthless these days, just that childhood memories serve writers well when they are looking for inspiration.

Of the essays on recent comics only Greil Marcus approaches a work from the big two publishers, with a rather brief look at U.S. Uncle Sam, with the others looking at alternative titles such as Yummy Fur, and the work of Renée French. Is that were the dynamic energy of comics lies? (Yes.) Even the current writer of Green Arrow Brad Meltzer takes the opportunity given here to look backwards instead of at the here and now, offering a piece detailing his crush on Terra from the Team Titan: Judas Contract story arch.

While this book is bound to appeal to any comic reader who has an interest in the cultural history of the medium, the style with which the writers present their work makes it a pleasurable read for any bookworm. It might just make them want to track down a few trade paperbacks to see what all the fuss is about, and could get the comic fans reading a few more books without a picture on every page. Who said books are just for people with no sense of adventure?