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The Indisputable Matt Maxwell Presents:




This is the part where I’m supposed to talk about the year that was 2008 in comics. Now this is something I’m likely not qualified to do, because my reading of current stuff is down from last year, for a variety of reasons. As I’d indicated in other places earlier, I tend to agree with Steven Grant’s assessment of The Way Things Are, the one that ruffled a lot of feathers (as Mr. Grant is wont to do.) See, he dared to air the opinion that there wasn’t a lot of outstanding work out there.

And like I said, I have to agree. That’s okay, I’ll leave my Comics Crit Cred card right over there. Oh. You want me to shred it and then burn the pieces in a public display before I take my place in the stocks? Sure, I got a free twenty minutes.

Okay, we done? Great. Can I get back to work now?

Okay, thanks.

The fact of the matter is that a lot of work I’ve been directed towards as “fulfilling and good” has been no more or less substantial and interesting than your average good mainstream comic. Granted, that may be a rarer beast than it used to be (or maybe I’m just not looking hard enough.) There’s a lot of comics that I was recommended that may have been more interesting from a formal standpoint than say PLANET HULK was, but when it came to delivering a story, they fell short.

See, from where I’m standing, there’s many axes of quality upon which a comic can be measured. I value story a lot more than most. Hand-wringing and distracted observations don’t really constitute story. Formal pyrotechnics, while interesting, aren’t story. Explodo, while momentarily satisfying (if done well), doesn’t hold you for any period of time once the book is set down. Well, maybe you, but not me.

I’d rather read ALL-STAR SUPERMAN #10 twenty times than read EXIT WOUNDS again. This may make me a bad commentator. It certainly removes me from the critical mainstream. Then again, I’m finding that FINAL CRISIS is half of a pretty good comic but not yet delivering on a meaningful level. There’s signs and portents that point towards something interesting, but not really satisfying.

Then again, I’d rather read SCALPED or CRIMINAL than just about any other book that came out this year. Do I get my credibility back? Ask me if I care. Am I bad person because I can’t get behind HELLBOY like I once did? I might be a bad comics fan, that I can live with. Been there for some time. I’m, as Lea Hernandez points out, hurting comics. Pardon me if I can’t get jumping up and down excited about the current stuff. Talk to me next year when GRANDVILLE starts to hit, or maybe if we get BATTLING BOY or the next SEAGUY series. And I’ve still got all those LONE WOLF AND CUB and Tezuka books to catch up on.

I guess I’m saying that a lot of the current stuff doesn’t excite me as much as Tezuka does. Is that damning by faint praise? Everything can’t be as good as TORPEDO or early-run FANTASTIC FOUR. And really, if I’m not actively moved by a book, I don’t have the time/energy/focus to sit down with it. Nobody’s paying me to do this and there’s other work that needs to be done. Those pages don’t write themselves, you know. But when it comes to comics, I want to sit down and read and enjoy them and not really think about them all that much. That’s down time.

Yes, this is a funny thing for a comics “commentator” to say. But then I only call myself that when I’m looking for a job. Shh. Don’t tell anyone the awful truth. I don’t want to capsize this gig.

So let’s talk about the good stuff this year.

I mentioned ALL-STAR SUPERMAN above and in the CWR roundtable, so let’s talk about that. On one hand, it’s Superman, an impervious and unchanging character (okay, so he’s still married), invulnerable and uninteresting. Or is he? When you put him more squarely into a science-fantasy setting that’s self-contained and he can face threats than actually be resolved with finality, and where his humanity can be showcased, well then, you’re on to something.

Let’s talk about SCALPED, which is a compelling crime drama in a unique setting that I pick up in trades the week that they come out. Jason Aaron writes like I wish I could, believably and with a visceral punch that doesn’t fade when you put the book down. Is there a dazzling array of formalist trickery? No. There doesn’t need to be. The book does what it needs to do.

I’d say it was a great year for comics in film, but only IRON MAN really delivered on that front. THE DARK KNIGHT, while interesting (and utterly dominated by Heath Ledger’s presence) was too much in not enough time. It certainly made a splash in the mainstream, and probably set the stage for WATCHMEN to be taken seriously as “grownup” entertainment. But THE INCREDIBLES was a much better movie, to compare pineapples to papayas. The trailer from WATCHMEN drove up demand for the book (to make Everest into a molehill) and that’s great for the publisher and whoever’s collecting royalties on it. Is it getting more people to buy INFINITE CRISIS? What do you steer people to once they’ve finished WATCHMEN? KINGDOM COME or JIMMY CORRIGAN?

How about “Well, you’ve just read a singular work by an author who didn’t really do anything like that before or since” and “Could I interest you in maybe FROM HELL, but it’s not really the same thing in any way shape or form?” Kind of a mouthful: I don’t recommend it. Just point them to SANDMAN and pray? Which superhero work do you point them towards? Honestly. NEW FRONTIER? Mmmmaybe. But it’s a totally different thing only dovetailing wherein the characters are being phased out by the government and happen to wear capes. Do you point potential readers towards INFINITE SECRET INVASION CRISIS? If so, why would you set people like up that?

This is not a slam on these series, but it’s kinda crazy to even put them in the same sentence by way of comparison. One is a self-contained story with depth and the others are sprawling events that may be entertaining (I’m not there yet) but not enough there to be a really lasting reading experience. Apologies to the many, many artists working on these event books, but you’re not WATCHMEN, sorry. But then is even WATCHMEN “WATCHMEN” these days? Do you catch my drift?

Perhaps I’m being difficult. Perhaps my standards are too high. Can I reasonably expect that I can only read WATCHMEN quality when I’m surrounded by MILLENNIUM and post-Veitch SWAMP THING? I know that comics can’t all be good, but really, can you expect me to spend time and energy on the stuff that isn’t?

And money. Hey folks, I’ll be happy to review comp copies. I never said they’d be good reviews, necessarily, but they’ll be reviews. I might even spell your name right.

As it turns out, most of my non-comics reading was research. A couple of books in particular stand out. McMAFIA is a great look at organized crime in the era of globalization as well as a shocking example of the banality of evil, how hairy and fat Bulgarian gangsters are loathsome and pitiable at the same time. BLACKWATER takes a hard look at mercenary armies, and the titled one in particular, in the era of global terror and how they intertwine with politics and modern war. THE BLACK HAND makes the inhuman human, casting an un-glamorous light on life as a hitman in the Mexican Mafia. It ain’t SCARFACE, kids. Fiction? Hell, I work in fiction. I’ve re-read Chandler and Hammett, read a decent noir-ish action thriller in the form of DRIVE, but precious little else.

Watched a lot of movies, which has kind of tapered off due to some changes in personal circumstances. Among the best I saw this year was EASTERN PROMISES, which fits in quite nicely with some of the reading offered above. It also features a stellar cast and manages to deliver a “happy” ending without getting sickly sentimental and without pulling any punches. There’s a lot of other stuff I watched, DONNIE DARKO, EQUILIBRIUM, BRICK, ACE IN THE HOLE, THUNDER ROAD, THE YAKUZA, PULSE, R-POINT, THE HOST, all of which stick to me in one degree or another, but didn’t flatten me. One that did was BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALBERTO GARCIA by Sam Peckinpah, but then again, we’re talking Peckinpah here. Perhaps it’s a lesser film than THE WILD BUNCH, but again, that’s a high bar.

Other exciting developments this year that sound good in January might not be quite so overwhelming in December. Lit comics being picked up by the big publishers? Great. Now, do any of these publishers know how to promote these books? Do retailers know how to shelve these books? Can the audience be introduced to them sufficiently? Lemme tell ya, going to the local Borders and looking over the graphic novel section, I see some okay stuff. But if I was wanting to be exposed to The Wonder of Comics, I’d come away cold. Maybe colder now in the chill of December and my being reminded that money is indeed an imaginary concept.

A grim year? Perhaps. Sure, I got a book out there after how many years of struggling to do so. Hell, I even started publication on the second one, but that’s not a sure thing. Again, it’s hard to remind yourself that you’re there to drain the swamp when the alligators are chewing on your Dr. Martens. I should probably be happier with things than I am, the universe not liking a sourpuss and all, but I’ll be satisfied with things when I’m satisfied and not a moment before.

In the meantime, work beckons. I’ve been writing this from the floor of the Sac-Con show (held four times a year in the Scottish Rite Center not far from Howe Ave. in Sacramento) and not selling books like I should have been. Been productive anyways. Got a chance to talk to Alex Nino, who was sitting across the aisle from me. Took a look at his artwork for the third issue of DEAD AHEAD, which is all a single, mind-blowing mural. All twenty-four pages blend together into a seamless piece of art. On a goddamn zombie book. I can’t wait for that to hit and people to freak right out.

Anyways, Solstice felicitations to all of you, hoping that 2009 finds some common ground for us all to stand and get our feet on. 2008 was a year of (sometimes quiet) turmoil, more so than we’re willing to let on. That’s okay, we’ll digest these things in time. 

Matt Maxwell

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