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).
• Murphy Anderson’s inks on Curt Swan’s pencil art in ’60s and ’70s Superman comics; their feathery details softened the stiff edges of Swan’s drawing and brought out its genial power
• Eddie Campbell’s sweet-and-bitter After the Snooter, in which Campbell’s long-running, quasi-autobiographical Alec series becomes fully autobiographical (he stops changing his name on the page, basically).
• The ’60s-era “Atomic Knights” stories in Strange Adventures, a post-apocalyptic scenario in which a team wearing ancient plate-mail, which turns out to be radiation-proof, sets about rebuilding the world after a 1984 atomic war.
• “Glx sptzl glaah” — the transliterated baby talk spoken by the pre-verbal kids in Sheldon Mayer’s charming Sugar & Spike series.
• The tour-de-force opening scene of the first issue of William Messner-Loebs’s Journey: a 19th-century backwoodsman being chased by a bear through the Michigan wilderness for 14 riveting pages.
• Scott McCloud’s DESTROY!!, an oversize 1985 one-shot in which he tried to get all the old-school superhero violence out of his system in the course of one story — about two long-underwear types smashing Manhattan in the course of a fight. Final line, spoken by the kindly police commissioner amid the rubble of the World Trade Center (!!): “Well, at least no one was hurt!”
• Marc Hempel’s first Gregory book, a set of short stories about a hopelessly insane, nonverbal, institutionalized little boy whose only friend in his padded cell is a rat who keeps getting killed; it is played for laughs and is actually kind of adorable.
• Larry Marder’s Tales of the Beanworld, a sui generis series about talking beans inspired by Native American mythology and Marcel Duchamp’s Large Glass.
• The cubist-inspired cartooning technique Mary Fleener used for her autobiographical comics in Slutburger.
• “Hypertime,” the actually-it’s-all-true plot device along the lines of Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Garden of Forking Paths,” invented to explain all inconsistencies within DC Comics (variously attributed to Grant Morrison and Mark Wall).