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Smashing Barriers

  Give Our Regards to the Atomsmashers!: Writers on Comics
Sean Howe (editor)
Pantheon, 2004
Rating: 3.6
 

Posted: November 26, 2004

By 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, like 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 Gertrude Stein).

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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