September 2009

Martyn Pedler

comicbookslut

Eddy Current Was Wrong: Looking Back at the Ted McKeever Library

 

There's a reason why comic book fans can be so paranoid about the state of their collections. You know: the mylar sleeves, the acid-free backing boards, the lengthy lectures to any friend who comes over and picks up the latest issue of something and my god do you know how the sweat on your fingers is warping that flimsy cover beyond repair? It's because comics are usually designed for disposability. Cheap paper barely held together with a couple of staples, destined to fall apart after a few weeks' worth of reading, just in time for the next monthly issue to replace it.

If keeping these delicate beasts in one piece required a certain amount of anal-retentive care, well, that's all changing. More and more comic series are now reprinted in collections for your reading convenience. Not just paperbacks; oversized 'collector's editions' with recoloured art and thicker paper between embossed hardcovers. You don't have to be a cynic to suspect these editions are a way to let older, cashed-up fans repurchase their favourites -- and to help justify their habit with handsome, not-for-kids, objets d'art.

The three recently collected editions making up the Ted McKeever Library are exceptions to most of the above. The hardcovers of Transit, Eddy Current, and Metropol have actually lost size and colour --  presented in compact, grimy black-and-white with simple lettering on the spines. This is the way McKeever wanted it, and he's right. Glossy collections for superficial bookshelf prestige? They'd be all wrong for his work. And Transit, originally released back in 1987, immediately shows you why.

What's most surprising is that it's only the first issue that feels embryonic. The story begins with a “self-proclaimed urban rebel” named Spud witnessing a murder down in the subway. His subsequent flight from the authorities has an indie slapstick feel -- more like Ben Edlund's legendary The Tick, who'd be getting his own comic one year later. From the second issue onwards, however, McKeever's visuals show his recognisable style. If we were playing McKeever Bingo, there'd be squares marked: LONG NEEDLE FINGERS, URBAN DECAY, SMOKE HANGING IN THE AIR LIKE BLOODCLOTS, and TEETH. He draws teeth like little tombstones wedged together in mouths, and sometimes they're the only straight lines on the page.

Even this early in his career, there’s a formidable sense of composition underneath his scratchy, abstract style. Issue #3 has a perfect one-page action sequence: cutting between panels of Spud's face and a police barricade until finally revealing the crowd of cops chasing him like in a Buster Keaton movie. You can see new ideas occurring to McKeever between every issue, between every page, and the book quickly shifts to something more oddly philosophical. The plot isn’t really the point. The best thing about reading Transit now is to see McKeever flexing his creative muscles. If anything dates the story, it's the choice of villain -- an evil megachurch preacher seems so very '80s now, doesn't it?

Transit was never completed in its original run. In the last issue (#5), a random gunshot kills the driver of a passing train. Typical of McKeever's violence, it's fast and brutal: a blink-and-you'll-miss-it bullet hole magically appearing in the driver's head. This sets events in motion that quickly transform the city from urban hell to full-blown disaster movie. That's where the story grinds to a halt for twenty years -- until this new edition provided the unlikely artistic opportunity for a final chapter. More on this in a moment. (If McKeever made you wait twenty years, I can make you wait another couple of paragraphs.) First I want to talk about McKeever's heroes, and how they always seem to come from underground: outcasts, misfits, losers. In fact, Transit's enigmatic crime boss -- only missing a fluffy white cat to menacingly stroke -- admits the subway is "the only part of this city I do not own." So, where else would heroes come from?

Eddy Current, first published in '87 and '88, is McKeever's most famous creation and best epitomises the above logic. Here's the pitch: Eddy Current is locked up in an insane asylum. He's finally received something called a 'Dynamic Fusion Suit' that he ordered from the back of an Amazing Broccoli comic book. (This makes him a relative -- a gangly uncle, perhaps? -- of Grant Morrison's mail-order hero, Flex Mentallo.) When Eddy plugs in the suit the asylum is struck by lightning and its security system knocked out overnight. Eddy escapes with just twelve hours to explore the city and ends up uncovering an evil cabal of moral majority mothers who are scheming to transmit a subliminal radio signal that will make the entire city 'behave.’

Twelve hours, twelve issues. Structural gimmicks don't get much better than that and you can see why Hollywood showed early interest in making an Eddy Current movie. McKeever said his inspiration for Eddy came from seeing comic stores clogged with all those capes and costumes. He wanted to see something other than superheroes on the shelves. The first issue of Eddy Current ends with a man named Pinky saying that the city needs “a hero. Not politics. Not sports. I mean someone right out of comic books. Y'know. Blue tights, red shorts, greased back hair. Larger than life." And immediately afterwards, Eddy Current gets a full-blown Sergio Leone-style heroic entrance -- but he’s naked except for a trenchcoat, some Converse All-Stars, and his barely-there Dynamic Fusion Suit.

Is it superhero parody? It's more complicated than that. Yes, Eddy Current is crazy, and McKeever uses him to mock the grim-and-gritty tendencies of so many late-'80s comics. (Eddy narrates: "Me and rain are kind of alike. Y'know, we're both gonna wash away all the filth from the world. Only thing though, is rain doesn't have a... Dynamic Fusion Suit.") But it's telling that when Eddy is rescued by Nun -- a, uh, nun -- who suspects he might be the chosen one, she saves his tattered comic book because she thinks it might be "scripture." McKeever knows there's power in these stories, no matter how he tries to deny it. In the end, it might be a matter of You Don't Have To Be Crazy To Believe In Superheroes… But It Helps!

Eddy's superheroic aspirations also give him dreams that show him as a shining knight. (McKeever would later give Batman the same chivalric makeover in a two-parter for Legends Of The Dark Knight called 'Engines' in 1996.) It's just like the deliberately iconic language that Frank Miller employed with his aging Batman in The Dark Knight Returns, only McKeever doesn't have a decades-old character with which to work. He builds Eddy from the ground up. If superhero comics are all about heroes looking down at the city from lofty satellite bases, Eddy Current reverses it. Eddy and Nun have to painstakingly climb from the street up to the rooftops to fight their enemies, and once there, they get a superhero-worthy action climax, too. In the end, iconography overwhelms parody.

When McKeever returned to Transit after that two-decade lull, the first thing he did was to rebuild the city after the destruction he’d left last time. In Eddy Current, Eddy muses that the city seems “as if it was allowed to decay. There is so much crime and fear, that it’s almost... magical.” Cities are in the foreground in each of his stories -- visually, narratively, thematically, you name it -- so it's predictable that McKeever would one day write something called Metropol. It is twelve-issues of "first-class, grade-A apocalypse." (Yes, that's two Armageddons in two months. It's not just me, I swear. Comic books are rife with end-time scenarios.)

Metropol begins with a man called Jasper Notorchord who's suffering through portentous dreams and Kafka-style police interrogations. Soon, the city is infected with a plague that’s not just killing the population, but mutating them into angry demons. Luckily, there appear a handful of angels, too, resurrected to fight them. One is revealed to be Eddy’s friend, Nun, now calling herself Sarakiel and packing serious heat. Yes, as the book points out more than once, these angels carry guns. McKeever has fun banging his usual philosophical musings with both Ye Olde prophecy-talk and one-liners that’d be at home in Bruce Campbell's mouth. The fleshy bodies of the angels are slowly transformed: "Our outer skin has become a sort of 'cocoon,’” Sarakiel explains, “and within us grows a machine. A machine suited for battle in this desolated arena." To save the city, you have to become something just as industrial.

There’s something in Metropol that I have remembered ever since I read the first issue when came out in 1991. It's a creeping tour through the city's decaying streets. McKeever ensures each panel contains the necessary information to turn them into the slow pull of a stuttering camera. It has the same sense of spatial integrity that separates a good action film from a bad one -- one of the reasons why Kathryn Bigelow’s Hurt Locker has been drowned in praise. The reader of Metropol is sure how every visual piece is mapped relative to the one before and after, and that's rarer than you'd think in sequential art. It’s also where the format of these new collections pays off. The dense ink of the art fills every inch of every page with detail -- and the thick little hardcover feels, appropriately enough, like a kind of Bible.

Metropol was followed by a three-issue coda, Metropol A.D., also included in this collection. It tries to neatly tie too many plot threads together and the new pace short-changes both the Lynchian mood and the spatial effectiveness. Even worse: POW! KABOOM! ETC! sound effects were added to the art by the publisher -- without McKeever's approval. When only one artist is writing, illustrating, and even lettering the book, it's amazing how freaking loud these foreign objects seem. In the end, the heroes finally escape the plague-city that’s been holding them prisoner and I couldn’t help but think of Jasper’s words back in Metropol #1:

“They say ‘the sky’s the limit.’ Sounds confining to me. The thought of open space is frightening. Too many miles. Too many smooth areas. With so much space between us, it gives room for something to fill in the gaps. Maybe that’s what’s coming. Something to fill in the gaps.”

McKeever’s cities might be corrupt and decaying, but it’s impossible to imagine his heroes anywhere else; it only makes sense, then, that this is when the story stalled. (There's a page reprinted in the book’s back matter containing an ad for a 'volume two,' but I wouldn’t wait.)

Inevitably, once Metropol raised the possibility of resurrection, hell, why not bring back Eddy Current, too? Sadly he arrives in the series with diminished returns and without much to do. In fact, I feel bad for poor Eddy. In his own series, he constantly refers to one attribute that all heroes share: they die in the end. He’s sure a hero's story requires a definite endpoint -- and that’s something denied him. What Eddy doesn’t realise is that maybe he’s not just a hero, but a superhero. Ask Batman, ask Superman, ask Spider-Man, ask one of a hundred X-Men. Superhero stories never end -- even if you try to contain them between inch-thick hardcovers.

 

Martyn Pedler is a writer and critic in Melbourne, Australia. He's in the middle of a Ph.D. on superhero stories. (Just because he's writing about alt-indie comics for Bookslut doesn't mean he's forgotten you, Batman.) You can find him at: www.martynpedler.com