Sunday, November 11, 2012

direct message 003.5: kingdom come/marvels

by Alec Berry and Chad Nevett

Heads up: Chad and I started writing this back in August, and we never completed it. It was to mark the next installment of our conversation series Direct Message, but due to delays, a hiatus and a dislike for what was written (mainly, on my part), we decided to never finish it. We're planning to get back to DM soon, though, so we've chosen to just release what we did complete of our Kingdom Come/Marvels discussion. Be warned, I'm not exactly thrilled with what's written here. Chad's well-spoken, but I relied too much on anger and less on logic to make my argument of Alex Ross's incompetence. I mean what I wrote here, but it's bad criticism.

Anyway, read it for whatever value there may be and stay tuned. Chad and I will soon write about The Manhattan Projects by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra right here on this blog.

Alec Berry: At this point, Alex Ross cannot be considered anything more than another guy with an obsession to chase, and even though most art rides high on the energies of obsession, Ross’s own seem to rather contradict the subjects he chooses to illustrate. Through his particular style and attitude, Ross feeds on the thought of legitimization more than any other comics creator I can name, and it’s his quest to somehow excuse and justify his profession to that multitude of outside, teeming masses that puts him over the top, way above any example of an autobiographical graphic novel you can present. Because even then, those OGNs still tend to stray from the lockjaw poses.  

We all know his particular visual style: the wrinkles in the spandex, the paint, the rendered figures, and yes, the statue-esque, wannabee-iconic stances he forces upon any human-like figure he lays a pencil to. Those images, without really any of our consent, still drift about our recollections, reminding us of those years when we all tried just a tad too hard to stand up and shout, “hey, comic books aren’t for kids anymore!”, even when Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns apparently already placed the medium in the running, swaying popular opinion just somewhat. Ross still wanted to walk those few extra steps, though, just to make sure he completely clean cut the head off that corpse of a horse. Little did we know he’d also penetrate a certain hole. A corpse-y, dead, horse hole.  

No two books exemplify this more than Marvels by Kurt Busiek and Ross and Kingdom Come by Mark Waid and Ross. Whether or not he’d like the works compared, slammed together like siamese twins, you can’t entirely separate them. Sure, you can try. To a degree, each work stands independent due to its own designed narrative, but to see the greater picture - Ross’s ultimate debate - the books must share the same room, because thematically, Marvels and Kingdom Come work together to deliver Ross’s thesis: that the past, or traditional practices, trump all modern concerns. At least, that is, with super heroes, yet where else could a debate of regression versus progression fit so right at home?

It’s this thesis, paired with Ross’s photo realism obsession, that ultimately creates this overall contradiction. How can you celebrate tradition when your presentation is so much about dissing it? But goddamn it, he tries. He fucking tries, creating this grand Ross-ian attitude that I can only sum up as: a self-absorbed, pretentious for no reason, fan. And through his trial to prove his profession worthy of those moms and grandpas out there who are so “interested” in what he has to do, Ross undermines what makes a comic book function, just so those panels might hang on a wall somewhere.    

I’m not exactly sure whether I’m getting it across to you or not, but I really do not like Alex Ross, yet apparently that might be the minority opinion? I can’t exactly speak for the accepted understanding present at the moment, but it’s always been made clear that initially, even up until such books as Justice or the Justice Society of America arc, Thy Kingdom Come, Alex Ross was a commodity and public favorite. I never really got it.

Well, I mean, I get it, but …

The first time I ever read Kingdom Come it was handed to me by a high school creative writing teacher. My teacher. Between the fits and spots of random discourse, he made a point to sum up his enjoyment of the book in one statement, “Ross placed so much weight on the stuff I already loved.” A fine statement. Most likely a heartfelt one, but it’s a statement that seems to speak for the general fan reaction.

Ross “legitimized” everybody’s childhood by presenting it in an “artful” fashion - or what is most easily perceived to be art by the ill-informed: paint. Paint, canvas … those represent art for most people just because of its long standing connection to the principle as well as the fact most great artists, or the famous ones, worked within that particular medium. Ross, no matter his skill, picked up on that and managed to easily establish his importance.  

Past the aesthetic lies a suffering set of gears, though. The components become expendable rather than essential, and this becomes ironic as you realize the Image-style Ross was so desperate to escape really just defined the work he did. He’s the other half of the Rob Liefeld coin: same issue with mechanics, yet different in terms of spirit . Where Liefeld embodies self-awareness, Ross lives and breaths the self-pride, selling his art for big money and proclaiming his touch on the super hero to be everlasting.

Too bad Marvels isn’t anything more than Galactus taken seriously - seriously, seriously, not “these Kirby comics offer more than the monthly adventure.” - and Kingdom Come wasn’t the next Watchmen he wanted it to be.

I just love that Magog is Ross’s “fuck you” to Liefeld because he doesn’t even earn it whatsoever and just comes off like a complete fucking dick.

But, beside personal attacks, we could criticize the actual books, and Chad, that’s where I think you should pick up. As you can see, I’m caught up somewhere else.

Chad Nevett: Jesus, dude... I was not expecting that. What do you need me for again?

I guess I’ll just launch into my history with Alex Ross, particularly these two comics. I think I came across Ross first in Wizard with that issue where where he did two three-page covers. One of the Silver Age heroes of the Marvel Universe, one of the villains. Or maybe it was in Marvel Age where that little Human Torch Marvels prequel first ran? I don’t know. I liked what I saw, because painted superhero comics were cool, I guess. His art looked good, especially outside of the constraints of serialised sequential storytelling. He made heroes and villains alike look both ‘real’ and more than human. Say what you will, but that’s a tough trick to pull off.

I read Kingdom Come when it was coming out, because my dad bought it (and later gave me the trade paperback for my birthday one year). That appealed to me in a different way that probably intended. I love alternate realities/futures stories. Seeing the heroes I know in some weird future where they’re older and wear different costumes, and there are all these new kids? Awesome. You know, in that superficial spectacle sort of way. I can just flip through that book still and linger over the way those characters look, how their costumes are different. I love that stuff.

And I liked Kingdom Come. Even then, I didn’t agree with it entirely. After all, I am a child of the time period that Waid and Ross are tearing down. There’s an irony in tearing down the age that tore down the heroes, I guess, but it didn’t sit well with me entirely. I focused more on the ‘alternate future’ angle and tried to ignore the message.

I didn’t read Marvels until later, taking it out from the library, and was somewhat unimpressed. It’s a fun book in that ‘spot the reference’ sort of way and a trip through the Marvel Universe from the perspective of a regular guy is interesting. I was flipping through it in preparation for this conversation (I’m still undecided if I’ll reread both works since I’ve read them many, many times already) and kept drifting towards the moments where you see how ugly the Marvel Universe is. I love the way that the third issue ends, Phil just tearing into people because they can’t appreciate the fact that the world was just saved.

The idea of ‘legitimising’ comics never actually occurred to me with regards to Ross. It’s not something I ever think about, honestly. It’s the one obsession that the comics industry has that I don’t share. I’ve always said that that’s probably because comics were always ‘there’ for me. They weren’t any different than TV or movies or books. They were in the house, same as the rest. I did school projects about them and it was never suggested that that was wrong somehow. I never thought about it... But, I think you’re onto something there and it’s something I never considered about Ross.

In flipping through both books, what’s hard to miss is how bitter they seem. How they seem to be about how great comics were and how great these heroes are... all while showing us again and again how terrible an effect they all have on the world merely by existing. If anything, Marvels and Kingdom Come seem like comics that hate superheroes and want to show us again and again how terrible they are. That doesn’t sound like Busiek and Waid, though. Yet, those threads are there...

My favourite Alex Ross story: I was once banned from Millarworld for a day or two by saying that he ‘sucks Silver Age cock.’ Somewhat embarrassing now that I’m ten years older, but not a sentiment that’s wrong in any way that I can see.

AB: Yeah. Shawn Starr based an entire post on what he claims is your “eternal question.” I still laugh about that, because while crude, you’re not wrong.

While my claim comes from some of what I see in terms of fan reaction, Marvels and Kingdom Come do provide more concrete evidence, supporting my theory that Ross worked to make super hero comics more acceptable on a greater cultural stage.  

And I should clarify because while Busiek and Waid certainly have their own attachments to the projects, Ross dominates these works. For one, it’s a visual medium, and a style like his submits these stories into a strangle hold of epic proportions, and beyond that, Ross was involved in the production much more than your typical comics artist. Kingdom Come especially, with its forty page treatment written by Ross and the fact that Mark Waid was brought in to flesh out the story. It’s a Ross project. Marvels features more of a collaboration, but Busiek even notes the story featured the events it did all because Ross wanted to draw them.

And you can’t undermine the thematic link both works share as well as the fact the only way to establish said link is by a common creative influence, Ross.  

Plus, both Marvels and Kingdom Come share in the same conversation. You mention these comics present a hateful attitude toward the genre, but I wouldn’t say it’s the whole genre Ross dislikes. I think it’s just the silliness, or at least, the Image-era super hero. Both books were published in the Image aftermath, and especially when you consider the younger characters in Kingdom Come who fight to fight, it’s hard to ignore. Ross wanted his heroes to mean something more than flashy bombast.

Which, I must say, is a noble goal, and while I enjoy bombast to a large degree, I can respect the guy’s concern  for or desire to read a story with a little more going on. I just find it odd Ross had to regress the super hero in order to push the type forward, you know what I mean? His visual style as well as the goals of both Marvels and Kingdom Come scream for this progression toward seeing super hero comics more like literature than pulp magazines, yet his characterizations and his classic portrayals are nostalgic, through and through, and they argue for the original concepts by keeping things neat rather than taking the messy leap like Miller does with The Dark Knight Strikes Again.  I feel he completely subverts, unintentionally, everything he works toward by, as you say, “sucking Silver Age cock,” and it would be why I left both of these works cold.

To discuss them a little more specifically, Marvels would be the worst of the two. Where Kingdom Come offers more room to interpret, Marvels completely puts it down your throat that what you may have grown up reading as a kid wasn’t entirely trash. And while Busiek and Ross are correct, it wasn’t - those early Marvel comic books are significant for more than historical points - the book sets its argument up in a fashion of connecting great social issues to Marvel continuity. And, again, while it’s not wrong or off, I just find the approach, overall, to be a little too self-righteous. Phil Sheldon becomes that hardcore Marvel fan who all along poked you with an “I told you so,” and by the end he’s so sucked into it all he can’t even offer a comment without being biased.

As you said up top, there is a sense of wonder to Marvels because at first it is certainly interesting to look at and see these iconic super hero moments rendered in such fine detail, but past the catch I’m not sure what it all offers. I do enjoy the concept of super heroes from man’s perspective because it can be interesting, and I even think Busiek wins me over for moments - like the ending of issue three mentioned by you or even the series overall ending with Danny Ketch showing up. The idea just loses its merit when its made into an actual story and there’s a plot surrounding it. Also, Marvels stunts itself by finding ways to leap from Marvel event to Marvel event. The book becomes a slave to continuity in order to complete its mission and many of the plot mechanics fall transparent because that mission is made so clear even before you begin reading.

CN: The idea that Ross is fighting against ‘silliness’ makes me want to know how you define ‘silliness’ since so many of the comics that Ross seems to celebrate are pretty fucking silly. And that’s not a bad thing as far as I’m concerned, just that it’s a pretty wide open term. After all, when people think of the Silver Age these days, ‘silly’ is a word that pops up fairly quickly.

I get what Ross is railing against, but I’m not always sure what he’s fighting for. You say it’s that the comics he grew up on aren’t just some disposable trash for kids and that sounds right. I just don’t see that. Partly because the vision of those characters and stories that Ross presents is so unlike what they were. If that is the vision of those comics that he has and that vision is disconnected from what they were, then what is he actually championing?

In that respect, I agree, Marvels is the worst of the two. It presents a vision of the Marvel Universe that doesn’t actually seem like the Marvel Universe. It’s an alternate reality of that old Marvel Saga comic that tried to connect everything up filtered through his painted, earnest style and that sucks out the fun and pop energy of those comics, boils them down to straight high tension live or death situations. Ross’s comics aren’t fun. They aren’t silly, as you put it... and those comics were, to a degree. I look at issue three and the arrival of Galactus and it plays out like a superhero Cloverfield where, by grounding these events in ‘real’ humans, something is lost. There isn’t wonder, there’s just terror. Living in the Marvel Universe New York would be so goddamn frightening that, in Marvels, it’s hard to believe that anyone would continue living there. It’s just disaster after disaster after disaster for the entire run of that series.

I remember an issue of Wizard where they tried to answer a variety of comics questions and had quotes from creators. One was something like “Was Gwen Stacey killed by a broken neck or by the fall?” and I remember Ross being quoted about the ‘snap’ being pretty definitive that it was a broken neck that killed Gwen (I believe they showed his recreation of that moment from Marvels). Even then, my instant reaction was “What, dead people can’t have their necks broken? She could have been dead already! A sound effect proves nothing!” And if that doesn’t illustrate the difference between he and I, I don’t know what will...

AB: “Silly” or “silliness” just stand as my cheap ways of saying bombastic, exuberant or animated. Ross’s style and voice go against those adjectives: Adjectives that certainly belong to super hero comics. In much a way, his work is a disagreeing response to those qualities, even when he’s also riffing so much on those books to make the comics he does. But that’s kind of my point: Alex Ross is a walking contradiction, and it’s all visually summarized by all the stern figures wearing colorful outfits he paints. It’s not even clear whether or not he’s really celebrating super hero books of that period. He appears more interested in rewriting those early comics instead of honoring them. If anything, he’s championing himself. That’s the tone of Ross’s work: a strong helping of self-righteous flattery.

CN: So? I don’t know how, but you just flipped a switch and, suddenly, I’m defending Ross. So what if it’s self-righteous flattery? Is that so bad? Hell, many of my favourite writers seem unable to escape that concept in one way or another. There’s something I like about the idea of someone taking what is and reworking it to fit their worldview. Now, that I find Ross’s work off-putting much of the time negates that idea when it comes to him to some degree, but my point still stands. If we were talking about Morrison or Ellis or *insert your favourite writer here* doing the same thing, would the tone be one of praise or condemnation?

Of course, part of the problem with Ross is that that’s not what he says he’s doing. He claims to be ‘honouring’ the comics and creators that came before him and that’s clearly not how either of us view his work. Maybe that’s the problem. I tend not to get too swept up in the intention of the author, because it doesn’t matter one bit to my experience. Or, it shouldn’t, but usually winds up having some effect. With Ross, it’s hard to separate the intent from the work and not notice the large disconnect between the two. After all, do you read Marvels and Kingdom Come and feel like something is being honoured? I sure don’t...

You be the judge.

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