*When I was younger, I read a lot of Marvel and Image comics, a few DC books, but little outside of that. I began to be able to differentiate between individual styles, even within the genuses of ‘IMAGE’ and ‘MARVEL’ house varieties. Around that time, I found a book on comics. I cannot recall its title. Inside, there was a page from “The Spirit”; I’ll try to describe it, and I hope my memory holds up.

Down the left of the page, stopping about 3/4 of the way from the bottom, there were photo negative type images of the results of an explosion, the means of cracking a safe. Down the complimentary right column, there were typical comic book images, characters discussing the robbery. Captions on the left side gave cold, analytical facts about the minutiae of the robbers and the cracking, while dialogue balloons on the right side conveyed a traditional-styled conversation between the characters. But the facts on the left and the natural speech on the right complimented one another, though each could simply be read alone, moving down each column, as the past and present took their turns across the page. And the final panel, a wide one across the whole bottom of the page, showed the present day results of the robbery, debris strewn all over. I hope that I am remembering the image correctly; maybe that bottom panel was on a second page (which would also have had to be reproduced in that book of an unremembered title). Maybe the conversation was carried out in a different fashion. Maybe I have idealized it all. But I clearly recall my thoughts upon seeing those images:

That’s really nice. People should do that more often.”

And thus began my interests in the elegance of page design, divorced from the impact on history, format, and subject matter, all stemming from the author of the page, Mr. Will Eisner, who lived from 1917 to 2005.

And the facts regarding his passing are displayed on many sites today, along with individual remembrance, and they all stand in memoriam of his ongoing influence and inspiration.

Above and Below: Two Stories of the American Frontier

I got delayed in checking out the works of James Sturm, and I blame Marvel Comics. At the time “The Golem’s Mighty Swing” was gathering up a lot of critical momentum, and I decided that I’d get cracking by checking out the most immediate upcoming work of Sturm’s, which sadly turned out to be his script for the bafflingly overrated “Unstable Molecules”. It had some nice art, by the ever-reliable Guy Davis (I think this was actually the first place where I encountered Davis’ art) and R. Sikoryak, that witty visual chamaeleon. The concept was pretty nice, imagining the Fantastic Four’s life, or rather the lives of the alleged inspirations for the Fantastic Four (complete with a half-hearted ‘Is it real?’ marketing gimmick reminiscent of Marvel’s similarly underwhelming “The Sentry”), as they chafe against the societal pressures of the early 60's. The problem was that the story read less like an examination of the social mores that lead to the creation of the Fantastic Four than a shopping list of period cliches, each connected broadly to the surface characteristics of each member of that Marvel superteam. Militaristic government pressure on science? Check! Free-spirited women struggling against suburban social conformity? Check! Youth rebelling by joining the Counterculture and finding themselves? Oh, check! Scene where ‘normal’ society and the Counterculture clash? Double check! Distrust of non-WASPs by broadly-drawn ignorant neighbors? Definite check! And yeah, sure, each of these things does indeed synch up with some traditional characteristic of a member of the Fantastic Four, but the story carries itself with about as much subtlety as that “The 60's” television miniseries from a few years back, and possesses little more impact as drama. Making the connections between events in the story and bits of “Fantastic Four” lore was a cute diversion, but the parade of period familiarities effectively defused any deeper impact for me. And it depleted my interest in looking into Sturm’s other works.

Fortunately, Drawn and Quarterly has given people like myself a second chance to check out Mr. Sturm’s work, this time a pair of short comics from 1996 and 1998 respectively, each focusing on a portion of Americana, now collected into a handsome single volume. I’m happy to say that these works are far stronger than the other work of Sturm’s that I’ve read, with one story being very good and the other being excellent. I’ll discuss them in that order.

Hundreds of Feet Below Daylight”, divided into two chapters of just over 20 pages each, is the brutal story of Solomon’s Gulch, Idaho, a late 19th century mining town that seems long past its prime. The tale opens with a desperate mob slaughtering the town’s Chinese occupants and reclaiming a long-abandoned mine in a last-ditch hope of finding some source of income. Months later, the mine’s feared co-owner passes away, prompting a wave of discontent among the rarely paid workforce; the stormy atmosphere is further agitated by the sudden mania of an elderly worker, and some intriguing revelations about his life. Unbridled greed and a little old time religion lead to a nicely ironic finale. And while the overall plot is hardly the most nuanced, the execution is filled with interesting details, like the setting of explosions within the mine, which flash and rumble through conversation panels in a nice rhythm, or the (already) world-weary matronly attitude of the town innkeeper’s 14-year old daughter, already being sized-up for marriage. Eventually the advances of ‘civilized’ medicine reach the town, wittily displayed through the use of hypnotism. Sturm’s art, at times reminiscent of Chester Brown’s, is perfectly matched up with the subject matter, inky shadows creating a lantern and candle-lit atmosphere, and sharp, black lines and solid dots filling in for the features of his characters’ weathered faces. Even while the events that unfold strike the reader as similar to other tales greed and frontier struggle, one never doubts the authenticity of these characters and their environment, and that lends the story life.

But the real treat of this volume is “The Revival”, a 24-page trip to an 1801 camp meeting in eastern Kentucky, and a carefully sustained immersion into the excitement of the event with a keen eye turned toward the differing belief systems at work. Tens of thousands of believers (or nonbelievers) would flock to these meetings, and Sturm treats them as simultaneously a spiritual affirmation and the ultimate in period live entertainment. Crowds rush from preacher to preacher, writhing and dancing, singing as children breathlessly rush and play. Miracles seem to be performed at all points, and this only adds to the Godly amusement, but Sturm sensitively keeps these notions down to a quiet undercurrent; the characters themselves (at least the adult characters) have genuinely serious spiritual reasons for their attendance, but as we follow our protagonists, a married couple with a very dark secret, we discover how great the gulf between religious interpretations can be, and how our desire for immediate gratification (in religion or entertainment) can influence them. It’s a smart examination of the time, and Sturm’s art, while a little sketchier, evokes the period excellently through a variety of techniques. Tired eyes are consumed by the bags beneath them, drunks transform into sneering devils, bodies explode with the Spirit, and eyes bulge with oratorical vigor. It’s a truly evocative and enlightening piece of comics, and fine historical fiction.

So clearly I need to look out for “The Golem’s Mighty Swing”, now the key piece of work that I’m missing. But if you’re already a fan of that book, or an uncertain Sturm fan in general, I assure you that these early works are fully developed and entertaining comics, more than deserving of your ten dollars, and a good read for those with interest.

*UPDATE 1/5/05 3:30AM: Oh look, Frank Miller is writing the new "All Star Batman" book. Neat. (found at Franklin's)