New Interview with the Comics Alternative

I mentioned in my post from earlier this week that I’d be talking with Derek Parker Royal, Andy Kunka, and Gene Kannenberg, Jr., on their long-running podcast the Comics Alternative. The show is already online right here.

While you’re visiting their website, take a listen to some of the other shows they’ve done. From artist interviews to reviews and discussions with other writers and scholars, the Comics Alternative offers up an eclectic mix of conversation about all kinds of graphic narratives. In this episode, we talk in more detail about the research, writing, and editing process, and Gene points out the tribute to the Dr. Manhattan chapter of Watchmen that appears at the end of the book (Watchmen? Really?! Yep. It’s there.) This one was just as much fun to record as the talk with Emmet O’Cuana for Deconstructing Comics a couple of weeks ago.

Meanwhile, frequent Comics Alternative contributor Sean Kleefeld writes about Steamboat and his response to the character on his website. He raises some good points about issues of representation in comics of the 1940s and 1950s and urges readers and scholars to study these images and their consequences more fully.

I hope you enjoy the interviews. In discussing the book, I’ve started thinking about how long it took me to write it. I usually say five years, which is about right, from my first outlines for it to the final, proofread version that UP of Mississippi sent to the printer last fall. But on a recent trip to visit my family, I found this Little Golden Book written by Bob Ottum and drawn by Fawcett veteran Kurt Schaffenberger:

When I opened the front cover, I discovered this. That’s my mom’s handwriting:

So does this mean I got started on May 4, 1978 with this 47 cent book from Bradlees?! No wonder it took me so long. I couldn’t even read in 1978!

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“I Belong Here”: In Tribute to Bernie Wrightson, 1948–2017

In a segment from Ken Viola’s 1987 documentary The Masters of Comic Book Art, artist Bernie Wrightson sits in his studio. There’s an easel to his left and a picture window behind him. It must be late autumn. The trees outside the window are bare except for a solitary one in the foreground that still has its leaves. Beneath the white birch trees the earth looks brown and barren. In fact, it looks like a landscape from one of Wrightson’s drawings or paintings, filled with intricate details that announce their presence slowly and only to those who look carefully. At the end of the interview, Wrightson, the much beloved comics artist who passed away this weekend at the age of 68, describes an image of true and complete terror.

By the time of this interview, Wrightson had co-created Swamp Thing with writer Len Wein, collaborated on projects with Stephen King, and illustrated Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In this conversation with Viola, he offered this explanation of his grotesque but always illuminating work:

Horror is different things to different people, I think. To me–in spite of my drawings of monsters and the creeping dead crawling out of their graves and vampires and Frankenstein’s monster and whatnot–horror to me is an image of a well-dressed man standing on a corner waiting for a bus. And everything about him is absolutely perfect except there’s a spot of blood on his shoe.

Here, Wrightson speaks with the same meticulousness you’ll find in his drawings. Every line is just right, filled not simply with horror or dread but also with humor and with the honesty his friend and colleague Bruce Jones describes in the introduction to the first issue of Berni Wrightson: Master of the Macabre, published by Pacific Comics in June 1983 (early on, Wrightson signed his name Berni, without the e at the end): “. . . in the best of Berni’s work, there is something hideously missing in the art of most others: sincerity.”

The first story that appears in the issue is “The Muck Monster,” first published in Eerie #68 in September 1975 and recently reprinted as an Artist’s Edition by IDW Publishing. In the story, a mad doctor tries to create a Frankenstein-like being, but the monster resists. Although he is now awake, the creature, in a caption on the story’s second page, explains, “I resented his presumption upon a higher power. I resisted his attempts on my being!” In fact, he continues, he “did not want life!” Only at the end of the story, after a confrontation with his creator, does Wrightson’s monster embrace what he is. But what is he, anyway? That’s what he’s been trying to figure out since the first page of the story.

At times, the Muck Monster (you’ll have the read the story yourself to find out why Wrightson calls him by that name) distantly echoes the voice of poet John Clare, or of just about any kid, I think, first coming to terms with the world’s cruelty and indifference: “I am!” he insists in the first line of the story. After a journey that takes him from the doctor’s lab to a graveyard and then back to his birthplace, the monster assures the reader, “No. I was not . . . am not mad!” What is he then? The answer he provides isn’t much comfort. For now, like some high school kid hearing Black Sabbath for the first time, all the creature can say is, “I just . . . am . . . !” He has fewer words at his disposal than Clare, a nineteenth-century British poet who, in “Sonnet: ‘I Am,’” defines himself as

. . . a being created in the race

Of men disdaining bounds of place and time–

A spirit that could travel o’er the space

Of earth and heaven like a thought sublime [ . . . ] (Clare 114)

But Clare’s speaker–no doubt Clare himself–concludes his poem certain only of his existence, of his body and its small place in the universe: “But now I only know I am–that’s all.”

Wrightson’s Muck Monster, of course, is the hero of a comic book story, so he gets a second chance. Remove the creature itself from each scene and this final page could be an illustration for one of Emerson’s essays or, for that matter, a book of Clare’s nature poems. In the first panel, a sunrise, then mountains, trees, a river, a rocky ledge. It’s an image of transcendence, of wholeness, as each line works in tandem with the one next to it in order to create a unified image. Unable to find any completeness in himself, or in the arms of his creator, the monster finds peace in nature which, like him, just is. Look carefully, in fact, and you’ll have a difficult time telling the difference between the Muck Monster and the tree to his right in the first panel: “My thoughts are lost in the vastness that surrounds me . . . .” he explains (you can click on the page below to enlarge it):

Three images later, in another rectangular panel that echoes the first one, he understands: “I belong here . . . I am accepted!” Time passes. Leaves fall, then snow. Has one day passed? Two? A decade or more? I lose myself in these last four panels, as day turns to night and stars fill a black sky. In a career filled with terrifying and sublime images, this one, I think, is Wrightson’s most beautiful, as lyrical and strange as that “image” of the “well-dressed” man with the “spot of blood on his shoe.”

I suggested earlier that Wrightson is a master of the grotesque, but the monsters in his world are descendants not just of Poe and of the stories in EC Comics but also of Sherwood Anderson’s characters in his 1919 collection Winesburg, Ohio. You won’t find Anderson’s short stories–which had a tremendous impact on a young Ernest Hemingway–in the reading list for a course on horror fiction. Nonetheless, Anderson opens his collection with a framing device in which an elderly writer offers a definition of the grotesque that might apply to Wrightson’s work. At the dawn of myth and history, the writer suggests, “were the truths and they were all beautiful.” But humanity didn’t quite know what to do with all of that beauty. The old man, after years of carefully observing his friends and neighbors, developed a “notion that the moment one of the people took one of these truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood” (Anderson 23-24). Wrightson’s vision of the world is closer to Anderson’s or to Mary Shelley’s than, say, to Stephen King’s. Only in surrender is it possible to find that original truth and the beauty that defined it. Wrightson understood that a grotesque must always remind us of the wonder of just living in the world, of asking questions, of being. “Does that which is go on forever?” asks the Muck Monster before he surrenders to time and nature. Maybe. Or, as he asserts, “Perhaps!” I’d like to think that it does. And, when I revisit Wrightson’s comics, and read them with the same delight I did the first time, I get a sense that the “celebration” the monster longs for is never too far away.

For more about Bernie Wrightson’s work, and his passing, visit his website at http://berniewrightson.com/

Works Cited

Anderson, Sherwood. Winesburg, Ohio. New York: Penguin Books, 1983. Print.

Clare, John. John Clare: Poems Selected by Paul Farley. London: Faber & Faber, 2007. Print.

Viola, Ken. The Masters of Comic Book Art. Ken Viola Productions, 1987. Video.

Wrightson, Bernie. Berni Wrightson: Master of the Macabre no. 1 (June 1983). San Diego, CA: Pacific Comics. Print.

Captain Marvel and the Art of Nostalgia…on the radio, online, and on (a very small but meaningful cross-country) tour!

If you’ve read Captain Marvel’s adventures from the 1940s, you might remember the many stories in which he visited cities across the country. While I won’t be traveling as much as Billy and his alter ego did 70 years ago, I do have a couple of lectures coming up at the end of March.

And although Captain Marvel never visited Waterbury, Connecticut, he did spend some time in my home state in Captain Marvel Adventures no. 67, published in November 1946. Here’s the first page of “Captain Marvel and the Key of Crime,” which the Grand Comics Database attributes to Otto Binder and to C. C. Beck, though it looks to me like Beck was working with Costanza and a few other assistants on this one. You can read the whole thing for yourself at the Digital Comic Museum, where I found this scan:

I’ve been joking that the week of March 27th will be my book tour–two dates only, so be there! I’ll start on my home campus of Harper College where I’ll be doing a lecture in our Drama Lab (Building L, Room 219), right down the hall from our Picasso sculpture. I’ve told you we have a Picasso on campus, right? If you haven’t seen it, you can visit it after we do a raffle for a copy of my book and for a couple of issues of DC’s Shazam! from the 1970s. Since at least two classes of English 102 students will attend, I’ll focus on my research process and on the writing and editing of the book. This event is free and open to the public, so tell your friends. You can also read this recent article about the book at Harper’s Academy for Teaching Excellence website.

A few days later, I’ll be presenting another lecture called “Comic Books, Captain Marvel, and the Art of Nostalgia” in my hometown of Waterbury, Connecticut at the UConn-Waterbury campus, where I worked in the late ’90s and early 2000s as an Admissions Counselor and Writing Center coordinator/tutor. The campus’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute is sponsoring the event.

I got my start writing for online venues at UConn-Waterbury thanks to my friend Stu Brown, the campus’s Director of Student Services. I was a columnist for his website for five years or so, around the same time I was finishing my dissertation and writing articles for John Lent’s International Journal of Comic Art and The Jack Kirby Collector in the early 2000s. I’m looking forward to going home and talking about my work, which has its starting point in my visits to Jim’s Comic Book Shop on East Main Street in the 1980s. Jim’s is long gone, but the building that housed Eastern Color Printing, where the comic book as we know it got its start in the 1930s, still stands in Waterbury near the corner of West Main and Thomaston Avenue. Here’s a picture of the building from last summer. It’s less than a mile from the UConn campus:

I should mention that technically I grew up in Oakville, CT, but we were pretty close to the border with Waterbury. And I was born at Waterbury Hospital and graduated from Sacred Heart High School. And, since the city appears in Death of a Salesman and in “The Secret Life of Water Mitty,” there’s a better chance you’ve heard of Waterbury and might even know where it is. Email the OLLI office at UConn or contact me directly if you need more information on the lecture.

Meanwhile, I’ve recorded a couple of interviews about the book. I spoke with Larry Corley at WQNA radio early in January. I don’t think his shows are archived, but here’s a link to the station’s Facebook page if you want to take a look. WQNA is based in Springfield, Illinois.

Two weeks ago I spoke with Emmet O’Cuana for the Deconstructing Comics Podcast. As he mentions in the description for the show, just posted this morning, we had a great conversation on everything from Beck and Binder’s aesthetics to Svetlana Boym’s theories of nostalgia and our mutual admiration for W. G. Sebald and his writing. I also admitted my affection for Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and my hope that, one day, he and I will meet so I can give him a copy of the book. And, for the record, I want him to play Black Adam and Captain Marvel!

Tonight I’ll be speaking with Andy Kunka, Derek Royal, and Gene Kannenberg, Jr., for the Comics Alternative podcast. I’m sure we’ll all have plenty to say about Beck and Binder, but I hope Gene and I also get to talk about our time as graduate students at UConn in the 1990s and early 2000s. As I’ve mentioned many times, I don’t know if I would have started writing about comics if I hadn’t met Gene and Charles Hatfield in the second year of my graduate program. Though I’d written letters to the Comics Buyer’s Guide in the 1980s, and turned in a couple of papers on comics in high school and again in college, their friendship and support made Captain Marvel and the Art of Nostalgia possible.

Here we are just a few nights ago at dinner with Trina Robbins, the heroine of my book and another early inspiration of mine when I was searching for comics with my dad at Jim’s on East Main Street. Trina was in town last week to give lectures at the School of the Art Institute and at UIC. Allison and I are to Trina’s right while Gene and Sean Kleefeld are to her left. Dinner conversation ranged from Wonder Woman and Robert Kanigher to Beck and Binder. But, mostly, we talked about Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, the magic of cat yronwode, and our cats:

More updates to come, but for now I’ve got to get back to work on these lectures!