Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Reading comics the hard way...

...and, no, I don't mean whilst standing on one leg. During my comic-reading years I've very rarely managed to "get in on the ground floor" of my favourite mags, often picking up on a character or comic after it's long established and then going back and trying to fill in the blanks. And occasionally my first exposure to a new comic has been completely the wrong point to start. Take Howard The Duck no.10 for instance:
You probably don't need me to tell you, Dear Reader, but the late Steve Gerber's HTD was one of the most intelligent and iconoclastic comics of its day, a satiric sideswipe at American culture, tackling comic books, the Kung Fu craze, religious cults, Presidential elections, mental health and many more of the hot topics of the 1970s, all with Gerber's acidic, surreal viewpoint. And all this with a talking duck from another dimension. By the time I tracked down an issue the comic had been running for over a year and was already notorious so I was keen to see what it was all about. What I didn't expect was an issue-long dream sequence in which Howard is mentally tortured by his own subconscious for supposedly being a coward and a loser.
"Swan-Song Of The Living Dead Duck" hits the reader with surreal image after surreal image  -  Howard hatches on page one, only to narrowly avoid being crushed by a giant hand ( Gerber's? ); he is almost "cancelled" by a giant ape called Kong Lomerate; he seeks advice from dream versions of Doctor Strange (  here called "Doctor Piano" ) and a Spider-Man who pours out of a tap; his human girlfriend, Bev, appears and opens her face like a porcelain mask to reveal a water-squirting, plastic flower inside; past enemies queue up to insult him and, finally, he "dies" and finds himself chained in Hell. The issue ends like this:

"I was brave. I was heroic. I acted in the best tradition of unthinking pugnacity an' I died... for honor. An' my eternal reward? To be laughed at for all time-- by the bums who put me there. I just hope I'm still dreamin'-- 'cause if this is for real, I'm gonna get very depressed."

Heavy stuff, man. As well as artist Gene Colan's disturbing images, Gerber's discussions of heroism, morality, guilt and conformism were not what I was used to in the average comic book. ( I was only 10 at the time... ) Sure, writers like Don McGregor had covered similar topics in strips such as War Of The Worlds and The Black Panther, but always with a reassuringly traditional super heroic slant. This was like taking a trip through the mind of a very disturbed individual with no return to normality at the end of the comic  -  the "coming next" blurbs reveals the title of issue no. 11 as "The Quack-Up!!" Somehow, after all that, I still went back for more...
Another strange trip came a few years later in Cerebus no. 20. Cerebus The Aardvark was probably the coolest  -  and definitely the most unusual  -   character in comics as the beige-toned '70s gave way to the grey-hued '80s. Following in Howard's webbed footsteps, the Earth Pig's strip had started off as a parody of the Thomas / Smith Conan The Barbarian before heading down its own idiosyncratic path. I may have expected satiric barbarian fantasy from my first encounter with the short grey one... but that's not what I got. ( Do you see a pattern forming here, Dear Reader? )
Cerebus has been drugged by the Cirinists ( an all-female cult whose apparent purpose is "to wipe out fun in our lifetime" ) and finds himself, or his consciousness, floating in the mystical realm of the Seventh Sphere, also the hangout of Illusionist guru and 182-year old hippie Suenteus Po. The aardvark plays the two cults off against each other in attempt to return to reality  -  although by the end of the issue he doesn't seem to have succeeded. This was all a fine introduction to Dave Sim's cantankerous, controversial character for me, and to Sim's mastery of witty dialogue and expressive cartooning. But ( there's always a "but", isn't there? ) the experimental storytelling caught me by surprise. The Seventh Sphere ( which is the background for every scene ) is depicted as a black void with areas of "shimmering grey" and the only character visible throughout the story is Cerebus, manipulating the unseen cultists as he wanders through the darkness. The grey areas are actually a portrait of Cerebus, chopped up and spread throughout the 20 pages of story, with the smaller images of the aardvark pasted on top. And here's the full picture:
Yeah. As the Cirinists would say: "we are like unto one negotiating the sale of farm animals without the benefit of daylight..."
My last example is Doom Patrol no. 54. All I really need to say here is... Grant Morrison...
I obviously came late to the Doom Patrol party ( Morrison had started scripting this comic with its 19th issue ) but I thought I'd give it a go. Doom Patrol had a reputation for Morrison-brand wierdness but I was sure I could handle it.Unfortunately the issue I chose was the most impenetrable of the entire run. It's ( apparently ) a meditation on alchemy, with the DP's hermaphroditic, mummified, three-in-one character Rebis travelling to the Moon and somehow giving birth. There's all manner of surrealism here: prostitutes wrapped in bandages, Siamese twins fighting and screaming at each other / themselves, incest in a submerged bomber, many references to sex, death and rebirth, a Moon buggy transformed into a cocoon...

It's all weapons-grade oddness but, luckily, I gave the comic another chance, bought some more issues, and found it to be one of the best mags of its time  -  hilarious, scary, thought-provoking and heart-breaking. This issue's weirdness did, however, yield some beautifully bizarre prose amongst all the obscure references:

"Rainforest green light in the submarine twilight. Stifling heat in the belly of the beast. Drowned leviathan bomber. These archangel bombers prowl the torn fringes of creation. Their gigantic engines throb in our dreams. The war in heaven never ends."

Who says comics need to make sense...?

Soundtrack: It'll End In Tears by This Mortal Coil   ( Hey! Post number 775! )

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