June 2004

Karin L. Kross


The Latest from Vertigo

I'll be honest: I really, really wanted to like It's a Bird and Lovecraft. While I've been mostly underwhelmed by Vertigo's high-profile, high-gloss graphic novels (The Mystery Play and Orbiter being happy exceptions to the general dubiousness), these two seemed to have promise. I liked Steven Seagle's work on Sandman Mystery Theatre and Teddy Kristiansen's art for House of Secrets, and H.P. Lovecraft is one of my favorite authors. Lovecraft even had an introduction by John Carpenter, director of the most Lovecraftian of all horror movies (The Thing, of course, which even though it wasn't based on a Lovecraft story, nailed the sense of isolation and otherworldly terror better than any supposed "adaptation" has ever done).

What could possibly go wrong?

Quite a bit, apparently.

Perhaps I shouldn't have read It's a Bird so soon after seeing Kill Bill Vol. 2, in which David Carradine holds forth for several amusing minutes on the nature of Superman and Clark Kent; it had the unfortunate side effect of making the Superman digressions in It's a Bird seem like so many more Tarantino monologues. It's a bit unfair to the book, which is not so much about Superman as it is about a comics writer named Steve, his reluctance to write the Superman comics, and his struggle with his family history of Huntingdon's Syndrome (formerly called Huntingdon's Chorea). Seagle himself wrote Superman for some years, and he coyly acknowledges some similarities between himself and "Steve," but only some."

Of late, however, I've been getting a bit tired of the superhero deconstruction game. The canonical works in that vein, Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, have often been imitated, but never really surpassed, and one wonders what else can be said to dissect the genre. Seagle attempts to link Superman, his superhuman powers, and his essential alien-ness to Steve's struggles with human weakness and frailty, and he does have some interesting ideas there. It's unfortunate, then, that Steve is not a particularly interesting character. His self-deprecating asides, often delivered as dialogue straight through the fourth wall to the reader, do little to deflate Steve's self-indulgence and sense of intellectual superiority. The protagonists in autobiographical or semi-autobiographical comics are rarely completely appealing or sympathetic (most authors being aware that one must, as David Sedaris has observed, be sure to make oneself the asshole), but Steve never adequately punctures his own attitudes enough to make him as interesting as he might have been.

In addition to entering the Superhero Deconstruction Sweepstakes, It's a Bird is also a new entry into the Writer Struggling With Ideas genre. This is a tricky game indeed, and often resonates the most with those who make attempts at creativity themselves. (I confess that I winced a little when Steve observed that "one thing writers have in common is the need to procrastinate... it's not avoiding work, it is work.") Lovecraft, adapted by Keith Giffen from a screenplay by Hans Rodionoff, takes the struggle with ideas to a literal level: it posits a world in which Howard Phillips Lovecraft was the inheritor to an actual ongoing battle with the monsters and dark gods that he realized so effectively in his fiction.

One thing about this book is undeniable: the artwork by Enrique Breccia is stunning. The "real world" scenes are beautifully drawn, and the fantastic elements are rendered in the sickly, brilliant colors that longtime Lovecraft fans have only tried to imagine. I only wish that the story was of comparable caliber. As imaginative as this portrait of H.P. Lovecraft and his inner world is, it seems based on only a cursory understanding of his life and beliefs, much as many Lovecraft imitators try to reduce his mythology to simpler us vs. them dualisms. The book's eleventh-hour "plot twist" only served to put the capstone on my discomfort with the book.

I've written before about the Vertigo imprint and its role in the comics world, and I stand by what I said there; nevertheless, I can't help but be disappointed by books like It's a Bird and Lovecraft. So much production quality and marketing effort put into something that seems so thin compared to many of the other books out there. Does the line need more quality control? Tighter editing? More adventurous talent? It's hard to say exactly what, if anything, is behind this phenomenon of the slightly disappointing, yet very pretty hardcover graphic novel. But it is certainly encouragement to continue ranging farther afield in search of that which is worth reading.

It's a Bird by Steven T. Seagle and Teddy Kristiansen
DC Comics
ISBN: 1401201091
134 pages

Lovecraft by Hans Rodionoff, Keith Giffen, and Enrique Breccia
DC Comics
ISBN: 1401201105
144 pages

Notes and Errata: Nat Gertler of About Comics writes to inform me of two errors in my account of 24 Hour Comics Day. I erroneously attributed Free Comic Book Day to About Comics, when in fact, "The guy behind FCBD is Joe Fields, of Flying Colors, a comic shop in Concord, CA. As it happens, Joe hosted a 24HCD event as well." Also, the 10-year-old author of "Godzilla is My Worst Enemy is from Portland, Maine, not Portland, Oregon. "And he was apparently so happy with 'Godzilla is my Worst Enemy' that he went and did another 24 page comic during the day." Thanks to Nat for setting me straight.

I've also learned from Brad Bankston of Austin Books that one of our own local writer/artists was selected for inclusion in the forthcoming 24 Hour Comics Day anthology. Patrick Joseph's story "NOW" will be one of 24 others in the anthology, to be published in July. Congratulations, Patrick!