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Me and Neil will be hanging out with the Dream King

March 5, 2009

If you need me, me and Neil’ll be hanging out with the Dream king,
Neil says ‘hi’ by the way…
~Tori Amos, Tear in Your Hand, from the album Little Earthquakes

Some music fades out, some music stays with you forever, and some music needs to rest until it can flower again in the soil of your mental landscape. Things you listened to as a teenager, or young lover, or older laborer, or whatever; sometimes they need the space. Sometimes you need the space.

Tori Amos and I needed some space apart. At least, me and Tori’s music did.

What I loved the most, and what made me, in my twenties, pick up her sophomore release (most think it’s her first release, but there was a deplorable prior first album) Little Earthquakes was a recommendation from Neil Gaiman. Neil was still ours back then. By ‘ours’, I mean the nerds, the misfits, the folk who watched science fiction and horror films, read comic books, wrote bad poetry, and listened to weird bands. He was ours, and we loved him for being ours.

The early 90’s, when Little Earthquakes was released, was a great time to be working at Yonge and Bloor. You had access to almost an unlimited amount of used book stores, record stores, and comic book shops.

It was a wonderful time to be alive if your mind was a comic book tattoo (thanks, Tori, for that wonderfully beautiful metaphor).

Neil was almost half-way through what, at least to me, remains his single greatest work, The Sandman, a 75-issue series that followed Morpheus, the personification of dream and dreaming, through a series of interlocking stories and novellas. Neil started the series when he was young and inexperienced. By the time issue 75 was released, he was a master of the medium, and you will be haunted by how he chooses to end the story.

The Sandman is one of the great works of graphic imaginative literature in the late twentieth century, standing side-by-side with Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, and V for Vendetta.

If you’re familiar at all with comic books, you’ll notice that the books I’ve mentioned have a few things in common…they were all written by only three authors: Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, and Frank Miller.

So, yes, my opinion is just an opinion, and it’s very biased. Opinions will vary, along with mileage. But, this is my blog, so I can be as biased as I like.

I think the turning point for me, the point where I began to realize that no matter how much spandex there was, no matter how big the explosions, no matter how much machismo, no matter how absurd the superhero genre became, that there was magic when it was done right, was the Wolverine limited series. It could be serious. It could tackle anything regular literature could tackle. It could be a home for imagination.

It could be my home.

Wolverine was written by Chris Claremont and illustrated by Frank Miller. It was their homage to films like The Seven Samurai and Japanese novels\manga like The 47 Ronin and Lone Wolf and Cub. Claremont’s stripped-down, first-person style combined with Miller’s sparse, violent and gritty art was perfect, beautiful, complete. You couldn’t add or subtract anything to it.

Before Wolverine, there was the John Byrne\Chris Claremont collaboration on The Uncanny X-Men, a book that constantly challenged not just racism and bigotry but explored what it meant to grow up an outsider, a powerful combination. At the time, reading comics past age 12 branded you a complete outsider.

While Wolverine was on the stands, there was Miller’s run on Daredevil, probably the most original hero Marvel ever created. Miller was lead writer on the series twice, each time upping his game. The second run, titled Daredevil: Born Again, deeply effected me while I was a teenager. A single line, a riff on Daredevil’s tagline, is still one of my favorite lines in any comic book: “And I have shown him that a man without hope, is a man without fear”.

And then the black-and-white explosion happened. This is generally the name given to the period in the mid-80’s when independent creators and companies challenged the supremacy of DC and Marvel on the newsstands. Titles like Grendel, Mage, Zot, Scout, Cerebus, and the most important title of all (from a financial standpoint), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, glutted the market and carved out a ‘direct market’, a market which helped to cement the comic shop industry and provide a space for future publishers like Dark Horse, Image, and Fantagraphics.

Around this time, I was reading the original B&W TMNT, Scout, Cerebus and Zot. I was going downtown to Dragon Lady (still on Queen West at the time), The Silver Snail, and The Grey Region. For a brief, shining moment in my young teenage life, a comic shop opened around the corner, on the same block where I lived.

I had a BMX, access to 7-11 and slurpees, and comics right around the corner.

Best. Summer. Ever.

In the middle of the b&w explosion, Alan Moore made his North American debut.

With Watchmen.

Nothing was the same, ever again.

I never really liked the story when I was a teenager. Too cerebral…I was still more interested in things getting blown up. But Watchmen grew on me. And it introduced me to the rest of Moore’s writing at the time, which included V for Vendetta, Miracleman, and his legendary run on Swamp Thing. This was his triumph. He was given 5-10 issues to turn the series around and avoid it’s cancellation. Moore made it one of the best-selling series in DC’s direct market offerings. It is still one of my favorite series. The things he tried, the things he got away with, the sheer creativity of the series under his helm…I loved it and still do.

Swamp Thing and The Sandman, along with Hellblazer and a few other series, became the nucleus around which DC created Vertigo, ostensibly a horror imprint for mature readers, but really, (as far as I’m concerned), a place where you could let your imagination run wild.

After The Sandman ended, new publishers and small-press series attracted me: The Authority. Planetary. Hicksville. Usagi Yojimbo. Sin City. Neotopia. Strangers in Paradise. Megatokyo. Skeleton Key. Akiko. Finder. Teenagers From Mars. Channel Zero. Kingdom Come. Kabuki. Manya.

I kinda left the mainstream of comics behind. Some of the above is really popular, but there’s a lot of obscure stuff in there, too. Manga interests me, but I will never be an otaku (literally, ‘fan boy’ in Japanese, but the term also indicates seriously obsessive behaviour concerning the otaku’s choice of interest). Horror is sometimes ok, but it’s really a side-interest for me. And I can’t afford to buy every DC and Marvel comic every time they have one of their ‘events’ that run through every book they publish.

I’m not really trying to be an old fogey here, either. There’s a lot of good stuff on the market right now. But I can’t go through the entirety of the last 40 years of comics in one posting. And I’m certainly not admitting that, deep down, I secretly think Rocket Raccoon was a pretty good mini-series. I will never admit to that.

So, now, we have the fourth adaptation of an Alan Moore comic (in order: From Hell, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, V for Vendetta, and Watchmen). And three adaptations of Neil Gaiman’s stories (Neverwhere, Stardust, and Coraline).

Watchmen is probably the most anticipated comics adaptation in history. And I have very mixed feelings about it.

On the plus side, it seems they’ve made a lot of effort to remain true to the comic, the cast seems to have embraced the story, and the soundtrack includes Leonard Cohen (Hallelujah, hot on the heels of it’s hat trick domination of the BBC charts) and Bob Dylan (All Along the Watchtower was quoted in the original comic).

On the con side, they’ve changed the ending, one of the most spectacular, creative, and brilliant endings in the history of comics. We don’t yet know how it’s changed, only that it has changed. Also, the costumes are a little too flashy…the whole point of Moore writing the comic was DC having inherited a bunch of disposable superheroes after buying out another company, and Moore took the ‘zeroes’ and created a real story around their banal origins and third-rate costume designs.

I’ve made up my mind to reserve judgement on this one. I haven’t yet seen the ‘ultimate’ superhero movie, or a Moore adaptation that equalled the source material. It may really be that the source material is so close to me, and an essential part of more than my childhood, that I can’t really take these movies very seriously.

I hope it’s a good movie. If it bombs, it could destroy faith in the original market these movies come from, and that would be the greater disaster.

The comics medium is bursting with energy right now. It is full of stories. It is full of beauty.

Just remember…that comics is a form for telling stories, as versatile and full of promise as any other.
Try another.
~Frank Miller, from the afterword to the original Wolverine trade paperback.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 29, 2009 3:37 am

    Um, wow! So did we share a brain at some point? Tori Amos and all my favorite comic book writers and talk of slurpies and a BMX? Just, wow is all I got. Very cool 😉

  2. Kim Corriveau permalink
    August 24, 2009 4:01 pm

    Hello Jeff

    I am your cousin from Wiarton, (remember camping at the park ?) your dad was my uncle … I think your work is brilliant. I do the same thing. Keep up the fantastic work.
    Please write, I would love to hear from you.

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