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Give Our Regards to the Atomsmashers!: Writers on Comics
Sean Howe (editor)
November 26, 2004
Kevin Forest Moreau
It's heartening for longtime fans of the comic book medium to be able to
pick up a book like this one, in which a variety of highbrow, middlebrow and
relatively unknown writers reflect on comics that have resonated with them.
The breadth of material covered in this anthology stretches far beyond the
superhero milieu (although the capes-and-tights contingent is healthily
represented), which only serves to underline the notion, so beloved by
comics fans, that the art form has matured and expanded and is capable of
being enjoyed by people with a broad array of tastes and intellects.
To many, of course, the terms "comic book" and "superhero" will forever be
interchangeable. The good news is that some of the essays collected here,
Jonathan Lethem's "The Return of the King, or, Identifying with Your
Parents," explore different aspects of the ubiquitous superhero concept with
a breadth of detail and insight (thus offering a form of legitimacy).
Lethem's somewhat rambling meditation on the visionary creator Jack Kirby,
the "autistic primitive genius" of his 1970s work for DC and Marvel and how
the clique-ish subdivisions of comics fans affected Lethem's sense of
identity as a young boy is an engrossing read, and if Lethem eventually
loses his grip on his thematic threads, he raises enough interesting ideas
to make up for it: delineating the "distant and rather depressed storylines"
of Kirby's galactic sagas and antiheroes like the Silver Surfer, for one;
"Kirby represented our parents' values... in Kirby resided the higher
morality of the Original Creator. That which I'd sworn to uphold, against
the shallow killing-the-father imperatives of youth" for another.
Of course, not every well-known writer's rumination on superhero comics
proves as intellectually stimulating. Brad Meltzer doesn't offer much
insight in his account of his experience with "The Judas Contract," a
pivotal betrayal-from-within storyline from The New Teen Titans in
that book's lauded '80s run. If anything, he writes a bit like Garfield
Logan, the Titans' wisecracking shape-changer Beast Boy, with a somewhat
breathless, adolescent style that verges on the cutesy.
Meltzer's essay isn't badly written, by any means, but its great revelation
is that the story in question did exactly what it was supposed to do: it
affected a teen Meltzer on an emotional level. If this is supposed to make a
kind of "Wow, who knew comics like this could do that?" kind of point, it's
a bit disingenuous coming from an established writer of superhero comics.
(Still, that point is at least clearer than "Kltpzyxm!," Tom Piazza's
tongue-in-cheek depiction of Bizarro as a kind of Vegas-y pop-culture icon.)
Outside the superhero realm, Atomsmashers is equally vast in its
approach. "The Clear Line," Luc Sante's introduction to the popular Belgian
man-child adventurer Tintin, was intriguing enough to prompt this writer,
who inhaled and then promptly forgot Tintin's strips as a child, to make a
point of revisiting that character. Steve Erickson's "American Flagg"
(especially timely, with the current release of that title in collected
format); John Wray's analysis of the moving and disturbing work of Jim
Woodring; and Gary Giddins' daunting research into the old Classics
Illustrated line are also thought-provoking and rewarding works.
Still, one wishes that Sean Howe, the book's editor, had attempted to
structure the book around a certain theme, or at least themes. Glen David
Gold contributes an absorbing look at the addictive nature of collecting,
but it feels out of place, sharing space with Aimee Bender's somewhat
self-congratulatory "Flat and Glad" (which purports to be about the
advantages the medium affords to writers willing to play with notions of
time and subtext, but trips over its references to the likes of Chekov and
Likewise, Lydia Millet's intelligent look at Windsor McCay's Little Nemo
in Slumberland raises some interesting points ("What are
characters to the writer who makes them up, anyway?"), but what does it have
in common with Greil Marcus' typically inflated look at U.S., Alex
Ross' heavy-handed, diffuse political opinion column disguised as a
re-imagining of DC's vintage Uncle Sam character? (On a side note, Marcus is
maybe the only writer alive today willing to paint John Grisham as a kind of
visionary addressing "the question of the nation as ideal and fact.")
So there's little linking these essays together, whether in terms of theme,
subject, genre of comics or even quality of ideas. This inconsistency of
purpose and tone distracts a bit from Atomsmashers (and, uh, what's
up with that title?)-but it's not a fatal distraction. Sure, its different
views are sometimes fascinating, sometimes frustrating, which is par for the
course-one can't expect to agree with everyone, especially in a book that
exalts the over-praised Chris Ware one minute and gushes over a decent but
hardly revolutionary plot twist in a popular superhero comic the next.
Howe goes so far as to admit, in his introduction, that this multi-hued
diversity is part of the point: Ultimately, Atomsmashers aims to do
nothing more than celebrate the comics medium's depth and range of story,
milieu and talent. As he says, "In my dreams, it's not unusual to see
businessmen reading comics on subways, librarians recommending Joe Sacco and
Brian Michael Bendis, and Tom Strong knocking Tom Clancy off the
bestseller lists." In its best moments, this collection of intelligent
voices, eager to treat this oft-maligned medium with a scholarly respect,
Atomsmashers makes that dream world a temporary reality.
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