Sifting the trash heap

Things I love about the gold and the garbage in comics
By DOUGLAS WOLK  |  June 28, 2007

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SUMMER BOOKS

Ice and fire: Ice Cream’s cold contemporary art, Burning Man’s hot stuff. By Greg Cook.
Heat waves: Summer reads to cool off with. By John Freeman.
The man who knew too much: Philip K. Dick enters the Library of America. By Peter Keough.

There’s an image in an old Warlock comic book by Jim Starlin that sums up a lot of the peculiar, shared pleasure of reading comics: an enormous tower of rubble and trash — which constantly falls over because someone keeps sneaking diamonds into it. The history of comics is huge, trashy, and totally unstable because it’s studded everywhere with gems — to love comics is to love groping around to find those little glories, sharing them with friends, and sloughing off the grime with a laugh.

A few years ago, a challenge went around the comics blogosphere: “100 Things I Love About Comics.” The examples some people listed were acknowledged classics, famous cartoonists, well-remembered moments. But what’s closest to my own heart are those dirty gems and forgotten wonders — flashes of inspiration that arose from mainstream cartoonists’ desperate drive to make something really entertaining, or art comics’ giddy make-it-new impulses. Here are a few of them, in no particular order:

• The sound effects in Howard Chaykin’s early-’80s science-fiction satire American Flagg! — crowding the borders of every panel in a convincing evocation of sensory overload, not to mention that some of them were pretty hilarious on their own, like the guns that went “PAPAPAPAPAPA-OOOOOO-MOW! MOW! MOW!”

• The short period in the Norse mythology/superhero series Thor when Stan Lee was convinced it would be more dramatic to end every word balloon without punctuation — and was correct.

• “Son of the Sun,” the first Uncle Scrooge story by Don Rosa, drawn on spec as an audition and an homage to the decades-earlier Scrooge stories by Carl Barks — Rosa, who ended up as a full-time Scrooge artist, spends the length of the story trying so hard to be funny and impressive and true to the Barks tradition that his panel borders practically shake — but it totally works.

• Dishman, John MacLeod’s minicomics superhero, whose entirely useless power is to clean and put away dirty dishes by waving his hand at them (he got it from radioactive Fiestaware) and who feels compelled to try fighting crime with it anyway.

• Stephen Grant’s desperate heroine Whisper, perpetually endangered by people who think she’s a ninja, pleading “I don’t even know what a ninja is!”

• Tarquin, a sleazy little scholar in Andrew and Roger Langridge’s Art D’Ecco, attempting to get the perplexed woman he’s interviewing to admit that her work is really about “Mysticism and the Sublime in Aotearoa.”

The Journal of M.O.D.O.K. Studies, a mock-academic journal of which some fan has published at least three issues, all about a ludicrous old Captain America villain (the initials stand for Mental Organism Designed Only for Killing).

• Richard McGuire’s indelible short comic Here, a nearly abstract story about the passage of time (its few characters are almost totally off-panel).

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    There’s an image in an old Warlock comic book by Jim Starlin that sums up a lot of the peculiar, shared pleasure of reading comics.

 See all articles by: DOUGLAS WOLK