Genre and Reinvention

*I was walking to the comics shop the other day, and it was snowing pretty hard. People were already beginning to avoid driving through the city, I could tell, as the streets had become lonely. About halfway through I passed by a stocky man wearing a ski mask with an open umbrella thrown capriciously over his shoulder, like a Victorian noblewoman out for a Spring’s stroll through the gardens. He said hello as I passed by, and I sort of waved to him. It’s crazy people you see walking the streets in this weather. Like comics fans.

*My retailer hadn’t quite finished putting the new comics out today when I arrived, so I started rattling books off the top of my head. I still forgot a bunch, but that’s ok.

I asked for “Adam Strange”.

Yeah, here you go. We don’t really order this much. Nobody wants it. But the three or four people who buy it all love it.”

I got a few more, and he pulled out some new trades that had just come in, which he hadn’t put on the shelves yet, books that he thought I’d like. I’d forgotten that Marc Bell has a new book out from Drawn and Quarterly, “The Stacks”. Looks more like an art book than a comic though. I picked it up, and I reminded myself to track down his Fantagraphics book, “Worn Tuff Elbow”.

I like a lot of these D and Q guys,” said the retailer, “But nobody buys ‘em either.”

He packed up my comics and I left. I later noticed that he had slipped a copy of the infamous Free Comic Book Day giveaway item “Christa Shermot’s 100% GUARANTEED How-To Manual For Getting ANYONE to Read Comic Books!!!”. You know. The one where pages and pages were nothing but endless word balloons and featured that rocking comparison chart (“If you like - Dinotopia... Ask your retailer for - Ka-Zar”). Maybe he’s trying to mess with my mind.

*I was accosted by some jittery fellow on the walk back.

Yougotaquarterhowaboutadollaryougotafewdollersforaguy?” he asked.

Judging from the gradually increasing request for a donation, I though for a moment that I was about to be the victim of the most inept mugging the city had ever seen, considering that we were right by the snowy street and people were milling around the bus stop. I handed him a bit of change.

Youyouyougotanythingelse?” he asked.

No,” I said firmly, “That’s all.”

OkmanmerryChristmas!” he replied as he walked away.

Quit City #1 (of 1)

The latest release in Warren Ellis’ Apparat line of one-shots, each of them covering a different area of classic pulp tradition. The imprint’s first release, “Frank Ironwine”, explored the Detective Drama, and the next two, “Simon Spector” and “Angel Stomp Future” will respectively hit the Weird Vigilante and Science Fiction generes, if my guesses are correct. I originally had no idea what “Quit City” would be. As it turns out, we have a Daredevil Aviator story, except we really don’t.

Emma Pierson has returned to her hometown in California after abandoning her position with Aeropiratika, an elite group of pilots who defend the free world from terrorism and perform dangerous rescues. She wanders around town and meets up with old friends, all of whom can’t believe that she’d leave her media superstar life of action to return to this dead-end town. But there are dark secrets in regards to her ex-boyfriend behind both her return and her initial reasons for joining Aeropiratika. Somewhat familiar dark secrets, and melodramatic. Rather soap operatic really. But dark secrets nonetheless.

This is basically a story about bad relationships, and the things that motivate people to change their life. The key forces behind these themes are purely reality-grounded. The only way in which the daredevil aero-antics factor in is as background dressing and as a nebulous symbol for an enriching life outside of the environs in which you grew. The story is slightly reminiscent of an “Astro City” character short, in which superpowers would barely factor in with a story about Real People, save for as convenient plot impetus. The meat of the plot here could appear in pretty much any genre, with the requisite elements plugged into the appropriate slots. Or you could just strip out any fantastic material and the comic would still function as a ‘real mainstream’ type of comic, I suppose. And it’s not that I’m opposed to stories told in realistic settings with fantastical elements thrown in as a minor symbol or attraction, but this sort of thing usually appears somewhere in the middle of a series of stories. Why execute a one-shot in this way?

Ellis’ ever-helpful essay in the back provides the answers: essentially, Ellis sees the aviator hero genre as archaic. The Apparat line of books is an attempt to imagine classic pulp genres as they’d appear today, with the benefit of half a century of (imagined) development behind them in the comics form. To Ellis, the only way to suitably do such a thing with the aviator hero genre is to “driv[e] it all the distance into contemporary fiction, not even acknowledging the action scene that the postmodern action story drops in to serve the form.” In this way, Ellis hopes to put the form under “a kind of interrogation.” But what information is gathered from this interrogation? Nothing much that hasn’t been seen in any dozen other tales that relegate genre elements to background dressing in the interests of telling ‘human’ stories. Perhaps this is the point of Ellis’ experiment: that the modern expression of the archaic genre is its subsumption into ‘contemporary fiction’, which in this case appears to mean ‘relationship dramas about the human urge to escape’. I personally believe that ‘genre’ work is an aspect of contemporary fiction as it is; so long as it is used in contemporary times and happens to be fictional, at least. In this way genre elements, even older genre elements, can serve as an aspect of the stories of the current times. But Ellis appears to be saying that the dominance of the ‘genre’ element must be extinguished before the story can transition to... well what? In effect, another genre; the fragments of the old are collected by the new, but one is swapped for the other in whole.

Ellis claims that “the romance has gone away” in regards to the genre (he even takes a shot at Howard Chaykin’s 1987 “Blackhawk” revival, calling it “beautifully illustrated but fairly incoherent”) and thus the machinery of adventure fiction must be thrown into reverse, but I don’t quite agree. Ellis’ own throwaway background details in the story suggest an airborne anti-terrorist squad, perhaps using their prowess to defuse sensitive situations. The novelty of flight itself may be dimmed, yes, but the appeal of skilled flight is not so limited as to be negligible, at least as I see it. “Quit City” simply declares the genre ineffective (perhaps it Quits on it) and tells a different story, or at least that’s what appears to be happening given the one-shot nature of the project and Ellis’ own stated intent. Before I looked at the essay I’d simply thought that Ellis was telling a ‘downtime’ story, the sort of character piece that often shows up as a part of many ongoing runs of different comics, across genres. Really, instead of a rejection or a revision of the aviator hero genre, the comic itself can be viewed as one of several legitimate (and well-worn) paths through the genre itself, rather than the necessary replacement that Ellis seems to think is warranted.

It certainly doesn’t help for the story that we’re given to be so bland. “Frank Ironwine” also had a pretty familiar plot, but the genuinely subversive spirit that Ellis channeled into the proceedings managed to offset the effect. Here we have the heroine chatting with her friends for pages, (with everyone occasionally lapsing into British terminology despite their Californian upbringing, unless folks out on the west coast refer to a snipped out newspaper article as a ‘cutting’ and use phrases like ‘set light’ for igniting fires?), and finally confronting the ghosts of her past. And I mean she literally sees the pertinent figure from her past as a ghost and has an argument with it and even sets fire (or perhaps 'sets light') to stuff, thus symbolizing her triumph over The Past. Genre or contemporary fiction or whatever you call it, it’s thuddingly blunt and cliched.

Also in the essay, Ellis praises artist Laurenn McCubbin as only one of two artists working in comics who do ‘realism’ right (the other is Eddie Campbell). I personally found her character art to be highly reminiscent of Tony Harris, currently of “Ex Machina”, and sharing in Harris’ flaws, mainly stiffness in pose and a tendency to over-exaggerate facial expressions to the point of distraction. Background art has an appealingly simple flair, though, and McCubbin pulls off an interesting design technique, which I only noticed upon my second review: a map of the city appears as a dominant image on the first page, and then becomes a presence in the panel gutters of most of the rest of the book, until the lead character’s big triumph, after which the map image vanishes, representing the breaking of the past’s grip. A subtle, compelling technique. The plot itself could have used more subtlety, and maybe have become more compelling through it.