Mais le chat, elle ne reviendra jamais…

I don’t particularly like superhero comics.

I treasure my copies of Batman: The Killing Joke, Watchmen, Top Ten, Promethea (notice something?), Arkham Asylum, Superman: Red Son.

And now the complete Joss Whedon run of Astonishing X-Men.

Contradiction? No. What I like is that those books and those writers do something interesting, memorable, sometimes subversive and often just plain cool with the superhero template.

While I’ll always consider Watchmen one of the masterpieces of comics (and, if pressed on the matter, literature altogether), I’ve got a special soft spot for Whedon’s X-Men. Moore is a fantastic writer but he’s mainly an ideas man. Almost no one beats my man Whedon (check out this male white nerd and his command of embarrassing language!) at characters. Firefly and Buffy wouldn’t be a tenth as good if you didn’t want to spend time with the characters. Whedon is adept at making you fall in love with the characters…

… and then breaking your heart.

I’m over what he did to Wash. No, really, I am. I know why he did it and I appreciate it. I want fictional characters to generate feelings in me, and I’m the kind of morbid git who takes the death of a character as final proof of these feelings. Thing is, unless I can believe that a character may die, I will not develop any deep feelings towards that character because, well, they’re not real. In a way, what makes characters real for me (apart from good writing and acting, of course) is that they have a life, and that life may end. If I know that a character can’t and won’t die (because the writers, producers or fans won’t allow it), then they’re no more real to me than my avatar in a computer game, with an unlimited supply of credits.

The flipside of that is, of course, that it allows writers like Joss Whedon, again and again, to break my heart. And, morbid Whedon-bitch that I am, I like the way it hurts.

But if I ever meet him in real life, I’ll have to kick the man’s shin until it drops off.

P.S.: I don’t care whether you’re into superhero comics or not. If you’ve liked any of Joss Whedon’s writing, if you enjoyed Firefly (in spite of not being a sci-fi fan), if you got into Buffy (in spite of the bad make up and silly special effects and, worse, the whole high school vibe) – read Astonishing X-Men. For some silly reason, I started with vol. 2, definitely the weakest of the run, yet I was still hooked on his character writing.

P.P.S.: Another thing that Whedon does very well is sexual attraction. And there’s some of that in Astonishing X-Men, in the last place where you might expect it. Hee.

P.P.P.S.: Yes, today’s blog entry has a title à clef. I’m allowed to be pretentious every now and then.

League of Extraordinary Literary Self-Indulgence, part III

Alan Moore’s latest, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier (formerly Dark Dossier) has been in the making for a while. It was delayed a number of times, but there was enough information to get any self-respecting Alan Moore fan salivating. Here’s what the Hairy One himself said about the project: it’s

not my best comic ever, not the best comic ever, but the best thing ever. Better than the Roman civilisation, penicillin, […] the human nervous system. Better than creation. Better than the big bang. It’s quite good.

(Gotta love the understatement in that quote…)

Black Dossier

Now, as I wrote before, what I liked most about the previous League books was that beyond the cleverness and the erudition, Moore told a good tale and he gave us fascinating, ambivalent characters. Those qualities are much less prominent in Black Dossier, which is perhaps less a new League adventure than a companion piece to the other books. (This is probably also the reason why the book isn’t Volume 3 – that one is coming out this or next year, in three installments.) Much of the book is rather an exercise in literary pastiche: there are a number of texts telling of earlier incarnations of the League: for instance the first two scenes of Faerie’s Fortunes Founded, purporting to be a lost history play by Shakespeare  and a prequel to The Tempest, describing the creation of the very first League; the quite hilarious “What Ho, Gods of the Abyss!”, a memoir conflating the Wooster & Jeeves stories by P.G. Wodehouse and the Cthulhu mythos (with the League saving the day); or The Crazy Wild Forever by Sal Paradyse, in the style of Kerouac’s On the Road. There’s also a cutaway drawing of the Nautilus, an illustrated erotic history of a previous League written by none other than Fanny Hill, and Sexjane, a “Tijuana Bible” insert published by Pornsec, the pornography division of Big Brother’s government.

All of this is very witty and very well executed, but without a strong story to connect the pieces, it feels unsatisfying, at least to me. Moore is good at pastiche, but he’s shown this before; and frankly, sometimes reading Black Dossier felt more like hard work. Faerie’s Fortunes Founded especially isn’t one of Shakespeare’s more gripping pieces, and I managed perhaps three or four lines of the Kerouac parody before giving up. Again, if I’d given a damn about the story connecting these pieces (or if I had known not to expect much story at all), I might have enjoyed these pieces more – but it felt at times like Moore added the story without caring that much about it.

Faerie’s Fortunes Founded

What grated more than that, though, was Moore’s tendency to preach towards the end. In many ways, the last section of Black Dossier (a magnificently executed 3D sequence – tinted glasses are included in the book) is a retread of the last volume of Promethea. Moore’s credo seems to have become something like this: Language equals magic or godhood, because via language we create, out of thin air, things, beings and whole worlds that didn’t exist before. Fiction and imagination, via signs (such as language and images – hence the comic genre being Moore’s chosen form of expression in the League and Promethea), signify freedom from narrow material reality and from those who purport to define what is real. Via language and fiction we ourselves become Creators, challenging those who define reality for us as a means of exercising power.

All of this is nice and good, and I agree with it to some extent. (I think Moore himself is aware of the limitations of this sort of ‘magic’,  where the magic we wield with words can still be vanquished, at least in the present, by the ‘magic’ of those in power, such as force, laws and norms.) What I don’t like is being preached to – especially if I basically agree in many ways with the one doing the preaching. Moore’s writing and his works may be technical tours de force, but increasingly my reaction goes along the following lines: “Yes, I know. And yes, you’re very clever. Can we get on with it now?”

Perhaps it’s also that I think storytelling is a more convincingly, more successfully form of “magic” if it doesn’t preach. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is a case in point: in the second and third book of the trilogy, the story takes a backseat to Pullman’s soapbox proselytising for atheism. I agree with so much of his criticism of organised religion, and he shows time and again that he is a good writer – but even the best writers are brought down by polemics, above all if they’re the writers’ own polemics.

Volume III

For the third volume of the League’s adventures, I do hope that Moore lays off the heavy-handed preaching for a while. I don’t want to read a third version of Promethea‘s apocalyptic finale. I don’t need to be more convinced of Moore’s beliefs and ideologies. I want him to show that he can still tell a good, clever story with fascinating characters and depth that needn’t be signaled in big flashing letters.

Or otherwise I’ll send Mister Hyde to break his writing pen. (Ouch!)

P.S.: I’ll be travelling for work during the next two weeks, so I can’t guarantee regular updates. I’ll see what I can do, though.

P.P.S.: Miami Vice has now garnered me more than twice as many hits as the next highest search term. What is it with all those people Googling  “miami vice”? Pastel has a lot to answer for…

League of Extraordinary Literary Self-Indulgence, part II

While I think that From Hell and Watchmen (and, to a lesser extent, V for Vendetta – it’s rougher around the edges in terms of tone and style, and its inconsistencies can be a bit jarring) are amazing, rich and exciting works, I have a lot of fondness for some of the comics that are sometimes considered ‘minor Moore’. In many ways, the Moore titles that I’ve enjoyed most are Top 10 and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

On paper, Top 10 especially didn’t sound like my cup of tea. I’m not that much into superheroes, so the idea of a whole city of superheroes didn’t exactly appeal to me. Except, of course, if everyone has superpowers, they’re no longer variations on the Nietzschean übermensch. There’s something very humane to the shlubs of Neopolis, where every Joe Shmoe wears a cape and blue-collar shapeshifters rub shoulders with telepaths heading for a boring day at the office.

Top 10

It’s the characters of Top 10, together with its Where’s Waldo? appeal (there’s riches of funny little allusions and throwaway gags on every single page, the little iMac-bot building a snowman being one of my favourites), that make the series come to life. And while much of it is ‘just good fun’ (as if that were in some way less important than deep, large volumes about serial killers and our fascination with evil), there are vignettes in there that are surprisingly touching, such as the aftermath of a teleporter accident in volume 2.

I also enjoyed Promethea, although less so. In it, Moore started to go off on his post-structuralist New Age tangent. And he started to become too infatuated with his cleverness and wealth of erudition, I sometimes feel. The effect is, at least to me, that some of Promethea reads less like a good story with fascinating themes and hidden depths (which it starts out as) and more like an educational comic on magic, tarot, religion and myth with a lot of input from Peter “Prospero’s Books” Greenaway.

Promethea

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was more in the vein of Top 10, and accordingly I enjoyed it more than Promethea. Again, the characters made it into more than it seemed to be at first (which was a witty, exciting pastiche of Victorian ‘superheroes’ and monsters, deconstructing the cultural politics of the era) – especially the Invisible Man and Mr Hyde turned out to be quite disturbing and brilliantly ambivalent in their depiction.

More than that, though, Moore told a rollicking tale in his League books, perfectly complemented by Kevin O’Neill’s art: the mock-Victorian counterpart to the ’50s sci-fi world of Top 10. It’s ironic that the god-awful League of Extraordinary Gentlemen film is so much less cinematic and exciting than the book… In the first two volumes of the League’s adventures, Moore managed an almost perfect balance between cleverness and erudition on the one side and fun on the other.

Next: League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier.

’s all true!

League of Extraordinary Literary Self-Indulgence, part I

I came to comics fairly late. Of course I read the odd Asterix, Tintin and Disney comicbook when I was a kid, but I never really read those adolescent fantasies with guys in tights and big-breasted caped beauties fighting dastardly villains when not moping about their lovelives.

When I was 26, I went to Glasgow for a few months. Being a literature nerd, one of my favourite pastimes was to go to Waterstone’s (or, on my most nerdy days, Forbidden Planet), grab a book or five, sit down on one of the couches and read. That’s when I came across Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. I’d heard of it before, and I’d read Gaiman’s Smoke & Mirrors and Good Omens, the novel he’d written with Terry Pratchett. I’d always wanted to check out Sandman, but since I wasn’t into comics… I didn’t. Until Glasgow.

Smoke & Mirrors

And there, within the space of one or two days, I got hooked on Gaiman’s mythopoetic world. (Yes, I’ve always wanted to use the word “mythopoetic”. Now I have. Life suddenly feels empty.) And I started to think, “Hmm. Maybe there’s something about them there comics after all.”

Shortly after I started looking for other comic book authors of similar renown as Gaiman. Names like Mike Mignola came up, or Daniel Clowes, or (of course) Will Eisner. But the name that came up most insistently was Alan Moore. And the titles that were mentioned were Swamp Thing, From Hell, V for Vendetta and Watchmen. So I got started on From Hell, not knowing what to expect – and got hooked. Yup, the book grabbed me pretty much like a sharp hook to my belly, pulling my insides out. But metaphorically. And in a good way.

Ahem. Anyway, after reading V for Vendetta and then Watchmen (rather unsettling, as I read it just after 9/11), I knew that Moore was my kind of writer.

From Hell

 Next: Top 10, Promethea… and the League.

P.S.: Here’s a little bonus, at no additional charge, for the Neil Gaiman fans among you: