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To Be Young, Superpowered & Black

At Lorestone Comics in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, an African American boy all of eight is shuffling through a stack of plastic-­wrapped comics, his expression drained to rapt blankness. The money in his pocket needs to be spent like, fast, and whole worlds are appearing and disappearing un­der his gaze in quick succession, dollar­-twenty-five universes glanced at and then banished on the merits of glossy foil covers.

Once upon a time, little man’s options ran a narrow gamut of types: Superman, Batman, Captain America, Thor — white-­bread superheroes for white-bread children. The X-Men were as funky as his purchases got, those freaky mutants being the closest mainstream comics come to reflecting the lives of potentially marginal kids. Lately, though, his range of purchases and images has gotten considerably wider and darker. Away from this black-owned storefront, in the corporate offices where decisions about comic books are made, the heroic black figure in tights is the latest rage: DC Comics starts its own black-run imprint, Milestone; Marvel Comics brings back ’70s icon Luke Cage, Hero for Hire; independents publish four-color Afrocentric books (including a caped Spike Lee joint, written by Spike’s brother, Cinque), while small presses like Posro Komics do their own quirky thing in black and white. Even Hollywood has got­ten in the act: Robert Townsend was The Meteor Man, Wesley Snipes wants to be the Black Panther, Carl Lumbly’s TV movie Mantis will return to Fox as a series next fall, and Damon Wayans is set to star as Blankman.

But back to little man at Lorestone. He tells me that he’s not supposed to give his name out to strangers. OK, but what do you read?

X-Men and Spiderman,” he says, shrug­ging. His older brother, 13 and no longer a comic-book fan (“That’s kid stuff”), nudges him and tells him that he reads X-Force too.

“Yeah. X-Force.” How come? He shrugs again. “I like the covers.” Do you watch the X-Men cartoon show? He visibly brightens, no doubt thinking of sugared cereals. “Yeah, every week.” Do you read any black comic books? He looks at me for a second. “Storm’s black,” he suggests finally, a cau­tious reference to the X-Men’s token negress.

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The two of them have been browsing with a girl of about 13, who pipes up that she reads Milestone’s Icon. “It’s got good art, and it’s about this girl who’s a team­mate with a black alien and she has this special belt that gives her powers.”

Storm’s a girl,” the eight-year-old whis­pers. After that, the two teenagers are too busy laughing at him to answer any more questions.

Across town at Manhattan’s Forbidden Planet, there are more black kids stocking up on books: They move around the store just like everyone else, the visual tag of race their only distinguishing characteristic. A mother comes in, holding the purse strings to a nine-year-old who wants to buy her out of house and home. He wants everything, none of it black-themed. “He likes the ones with superheroes,” she explains while he builds a stack as thick as her forearm.

I spy a boy, 14, come in and buy whole rows of Marvels including Cage, and Mile­stone’s Blood Syndicate. “I like the Mile­stone one,” he tells me, “ ’cause they’ve got good art and it’s all about this gang that gets contaminated… Cage has a lot of fights with other superheroes like the Hulk. He’s a good guy, but he still gets into fights.” Do you like the comics with the black characters better? “Yeah, I guess so.”

How come? He looks at me for about a minute, suddenly afraid of saying something wrong. “ ’Cause they’re black?”

Sitting out in Milestone Media’s reception area, I decide that I can tell immediately who does what here from their clothes — ­that the guy in the suit must work in fi­nance, that the long loping figure in the jeans has to be a pencil jock. It turns out I’m only half right.

Launched last year, Milestone is top dog in the black comic biz, with six titles and more than 5 million books sold. Founded by a core group composed of Derek Dingle, Michael Davis, Denys Cowan, and Dwayne McDuffie — Dingle and Davis the money end, Cowan and McDuffie pictures and words — Milestone sits comfortably under the shade of a DC Comics distribution deal. They make the comics and DC distributes them, while DC’s parent conglomerate, Time Warner, watches from the penthouse. Everybody’s making money so far.

Cowan and McDuffie met at Marvel Com­ics while working on Deathlok, Cowan drawing, McDuffie writing. McDuffie, the suit I misidentified earlier, would cut a tall, solidly upwardly mobile figure behind his PowerBook if it weren’t for the trace of nerdy teenage energy that still hovers around his eyes. He’s outlining to me how he pretty much fell into comics by accident, but it’s the kid he used to be who’s really speaking, explaining how relieved he is to have lucked into such a cool job.

“I was at NYU for film school and ran out of money, so I took a job copy-editing tables: tables of numbers, many many tables of numbers. I was bitching about my job a whole bunch to a guy who was working at Marvel, and he said there’s an editing job opening here, you should apply for it. I got it and took a major pay cut, but it was definite­ly a lot better than the tables of numbers. I started writing comics to supplement my in­come and found I liked writing much better than editing. I was writing lots of kid stuff like Power Pack and Spiderman education­al books. I always wanted to do Spiderman, but the closest I got was Spiderman “You Can Be an Engineer” books, or “Spiderman Teaches Bicycle Safety,” things like that. Then I ended up doing Deathlok.”

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For 25 issues that ran between 1991 and 1993, McDuffie spun the tale of a brother named Michael Collins, an idealistic com­puter expert who stumbles across the secret Deathlok cyber-warrior project and has his personality downloaded and imprinted on the killing machine cyborg. Deathlok had a short run in the late ’70s as a white guy, but McDuffie brought him back black, rewriting the character as one long castration-anxiety mindfuck.

McDuffie capped off his time at Marvel with a special series in which Deathlok teamed up with Marvel’s old-school super­hero, the Black Panther, to save the African nation of Wakanda from an African Ameri­can supervillain who wanted to move black people back to the Motherland. “I don’t think most of the editorial staff at Marvel really understood what I was doing with the character, but it gets back to your question of how I got into comics. When I was a kid I only had a mild interest in comics. I liked the goofy Supermans where people would turn into giant turtles and stuff. I saw Spi­derman and I liked that because he was this nerdy science student who was secretly cool and that sure sounded like me to me. I really identified. But it was still a sort of casual interest.

“Then I saw ‘Panther’s Rage’ [Don McGregor’s well-regarded mid-’70s Black Panther storyline] when I was 11 or 12, and it absolutely riveted me. I really didn’t know why at the time. Looking back on it, it’s easy to see that there was something really spe­cial, really validating, about seeing yourself reflected in the media with dignity, with intelligence. Black Panther was all the things that black characters in comics never were. I never went to the store specifically for books until ‘Panther’s Rage,’ but once I saw it, I was in, I couldn’t get away from it.”

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The Panther transmuted into four initial titles at Milestone: Icon, Hardware, Blood Syndicate, and Static. Until things settled down at the new company, McDuffie held sole writing credit on Icon and Hardware, plus assists on the rest, as well as the over-­arching title of editor in chief. It’s virtually unprecedented for any comic-book writer, black or white, to oversee the production of an entire world — something akin to the role the legendary Stan Lee had in shaping Marvel.

“What we tried to take from Marvel — ­from the early Marvel, that is — what we just ripped was the sense that, OK, we’re doing superheroes, but they’re going to live in a world that looks more like our world,” McDuffie says. The key to making Mile­stone’s world look more like McDuffie’s is the city of Dakota, where most of the Mile­stone books are set. The “realness” of this urban setting (a midsize, down-on-its-luck, multiracial community) is what guarantees the realness of the characters. As proof of the work they’ve put into their universe, McDuffie shows me the Milestone Bible, a phone-book-sized compilation of people, places, and things that are found in Dakota. McDuffie and Cowan figure that if they get their nabes right, making their characters residents instead of visitors, then their sto­ries won’t go stale or silly. That was the early Marvel philosophy, which in the ’60s meant having Peter Parker go to Empire State University, while Doctor Strange hung out in the Village.

Nineteen nineties black people, needless to say, occupy very different urban spaces. Blood Syndicate, which tells the adventures of a posse who develop superpowers thanks to a government antigang program gone awry, is set in Paris Island, Dakota’s seamy underbelly. Taking out crack houses and rival crews, the Syndicate struggles to sur­vive and uncover the conspiracy that creat­ed them. Static, the story of Virgil Hawkins, superpowered high schooler with an over­active wit and a prickly crush on a white girl, is set in Sadler, a brownstone-lined community distinctly reminiscent of Fort Greene. So far, Virgil has tangled with drug dealers and the mob, defeated superpow­ered schoolyard bullies, and headed off a Crown Heights–like race riot — this between working in a fast-food joint and keeping his grades up.

Icon is Milestone’s flagship title. Dako­ta’s Superman, Icon is an alien who crash­landed as a baby in the Deep South of 1839. Taking the Milestone ethos about site specificity to an extreme, Icon experiences blackness as just an arbitrary state of mind, his African Americanness locked in by the accident of his initial discovery by a slave. Had he been found by Ma and Pa Kent, he’d look and think like them. For now, his distinguishing characteristic is a tendency toward moral and ethical pronouncements that would be unremarkable coming from Supes’s mouth, but uttered by a brother take on a decidedly neocon slant.

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The other McDuffie book is Hardware, the Deathlok-like story of an engineering wiz named Curtis Metcalf and his amazing suit of armor. Sticking close to Dakota’s upscale and predominantly white high-tech enclaves, Hardware wreaks murder and mayhem on the forces of corporate evil in what can only be a riff on McDuffie and Co.’s own experiences in the comics biz. Curtis’s big problem so far has been that he enjoys the vengeful superhero trip a bit too much — and can’t decide if his battles have any relevance to black people who don’t work in office penthouses.

In the past few months, Milestone has started branching out, adding some more shades to the company’s already multicol­ored palette. First, there was the Shadow War, a crossover saga that involved almost all the Milestone heroes and introduced two new titles: Xombi, an Asian American su­perhero (“No, he’s not a martial artist,” says a Milestone staffer) and The Shadow Cabinet, a racially mixed superteam. This month the company is taking up the separatist versus integrationist dilemma that un­derlies its own corporate existence in another crossover miniseries, Worlds Collide. When an interdimensional rift threatens Dakota and Metropolis, Icon and the rest of Milestone’s heroes come face-to-face with Superman and some other (white) folks from DC’s regular stable.

As if juggling all of those stories and spaces wasn’t enough, Milestone’s also set itself the task of doing so without creating any new positive role models. Which is to say, Dwayne McDuffie, the kid who was first turned on to comics by the greatest black comic-book role model of all time, Black Panther, would rather not write any of his own, thank you. “Role models are a trap,” he says, suddenly gone deadly seri­ous. “Role models are another stereotype, Sidney Poitier in early-’60s movies. We are a people, not an image, and it doesn’t really solve anything to replace a negative stereo­type with a positive stereotype. No human being is going to live up to that. I just want books that break the monolithic idea of what black people are. Being a positive role model is too much weight for anybody.”

Blacker-than-thou arguments give my light-skinned self the hives, but you just can’t avoid them whenever you venture onto the subject of black comic books.

When corporate-minded Milestone broke out as the instant black comic heavyweight, the only other group publishing more than one black-oriented title was ANIA, a small consortium of independents based in Oak­land. Neither party wants to say exactly who started the feud (although the word in the black comic scene points toward ANIA) but it wasn’t long before the companies’ respective PR people were faxing broad­sides to the press about whose books were the more culturally aware. Trying to posi­tion itself to capture the newly discovered black market, each company boasted that it knew the best way to render black people heroically in the comics.

ANIA president Eric Griffin said in the press that Milestone wasn’t “black enough,” that its deal with DC Comics con­stituted a sellout. Milestone’s McDuffie countered with “We didn’t want to sell our books out of the back of a truck: It takes away time from the creative work.” It seems like Milestone won the corporate battle of wills: Without a heavyweight distributor and backer like DC Comics, ANIA recently suspended publication.

Nonetheless, Griffin’s dig seemed to sting the fellas at Milestone in a way that re­hearsed references to growing market share couldn’t soothe; they recognized the irony of doing black superheroes in a medium that has traditionally cast black images as less than heroic. The funny thing is that there have always been heroic black bodies in comic-book formats, from a gun-toting yet petite Harriet Tubman to the original X-Man Malcolm to that early hypothetical superteam, The Talented Tenth. At Fulton Mall just a few blocks up from the Lorestone comics shop, one can spy all of these people rendered in and re­duced to four-color comic tones, sold by street vendors along with illustrated Great Black Kings of Africa calendars sponsored by beer companies and black-owned funeral homes.

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Things get a little hairy, though, when you get to ink-and-paper super-Negroes like Black Panther or Luke Cage or the X-Men’s perennial team player, Storm (see sidebars below). These were black superheroes created by mainstream companies for black and white consumption, and in hindsight they seem the very definition of problematic. The Panther’s nobility (African prince named T’Challa turned crime fighter), Cage’s rap sheet (ex-con-cum-professional super­hero), and Storm’s exotica (jungle rain god­dess) are in many ways racist stereotypes, but that hasn’t stopped black comic writers and fans from invoking them over and over. After all, there’s been room for little else in the market, and then there’s always the off chance that in this month’s issue the char­acter might just up and transcend it all, redeeming the tainted history of black representation in the comics.

The new school of black comic makers wants that redemption now. Taking advan­tage of their own years as fans and assis­tants, as well as of a cultural moment when “black-controlled” is a sure sales pitch, the creative types at these companies want to rewrite all those early characters. To do that, though, they’ll have to come up with a new language, create a new set of origins. This could be a problem, considering that everyone involved has spent the last 20 years dreaming that he was either Luke Cage setting things straight Uptown or Prince T’Challa of Wakanda waiting for the right moment to spring from the humid shadows of giant African palms.

Roger Barnes, writer and penciller for Heru: Son of Ausar, is sounding a bit confessional over the phone. “What did I read?” he asks, echoing my question, trying to decide whether to answer it. “Well, I read PowerMan — Luke Cage: Hero for Hire.”

That Dwayne McDuffie cites the regal Panther while Roger Barnes claims free­-wheeling funketeer Cage says something about the difference between Milestone and its independent challengers. Even though McDuffie wants to move away from creat­ing Panther-esque good guys, his Milestone is definitely the “official” black comic com­pany of the moment, he and Denys Cowan as close as black people get to being comic­-book royalty. In comparison, stillborn ANIA (a Swahili word for “protect” or “de­fend”) wasn’t even a single company when it went under. The idea was to strike at the DC Comics juggernaut through a small, agile distribution combine composed of mem­bers with diverse styles and interests. Ini­tially four signed up: Africa Rising (home of Ebony Warrior), Afrocentric Comic Books (Heru), U.P. Comics (Purge) and Dark Zulu Lies, (Zwanna, Son of Zulu.) Cage seems the appropriate patron saint for this would-be outsider crew.

When we spoke, ANIA was still in busi­ness and Barnes full of infectious enthusi­asm. He and Afrocentric Comic Books got their start in 1991 with a comic book called Horus: Son of Osiris. “Prior to 1990, no one was doing black comics,” he explains. “Now everybody and their mother is doing it. At the time the only thing out there was a book called Brotherman, then all of a sudden we had a flood of black comics, pretty much all black-and-white. The novel­ty ran out though, and soon things weren’t selling as well.

“I had known Eric and Nabile [Eric Grif­fin of Ebony Warrior and Nabile Hage of Zwanna] and ANIA pretty much started off with me and Eric talking on the phone. We wanted to come out with full-color black books, and Ebony Warrior and Heru were the first we did.” As the anti-Milestone, ANIA planned to focus on an Afrocentric perspective, “something along the lines of what Professor Jeffries teaches, the stuff you learn when you a get a degree in Afri­can Studies. Whether you agree or disagree with Afrocentrism, it is an alternate per­spective, something people need to be ex­posed to.” Then comes the only Milestone jab of the conversation, directed at Blood Syndicate: “We think doing those kinds of things is more worthwhile then having characters take out crack houses.”

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If that’s the case, then what about Luke Cage? Busting crack houses is precisely the kind of thing you might find a Hero for Hire doing. “Well, he got a lot of criticism, but I still liked him. Spidey was more popular, but Cage was a black character. There weren’t very many, so I only read Luke Cage. Since he appeared in a lot of other comics, that meant collecting everything. If he was in The Fantastic Four, I bought that issue of The Fantastic Four; if he appeared somewhere else, I bought that. I still have every issue from the original series as well as all the other stuff. I even wrote them a letter, which was printed, about keeping him when Marvel was planning to get rid of the book. It was kind of a pep talk: Let’s get serious here, we can do this or that to keep the book going.” Since Marvel didn’t listen to him, Barnes doesn’t follow the new Cage series. “They should have kept him un­-brought back.”

Luke Cage lives though, and not just in his new book at Marvel. In Heru, Barnes applies the habit of meticulousness he learned as a Cage researcher to a new ob­ject: Egyptian mythology. Backed up by Barnes’s advanced degree in African history (the comic even received a favorable notice in Smithsonian magazine), Heru tells of the miraculous appearance of Heru in Kemet (that’s ancient Egypt to you and me, the black upper kingdom from which all Egyptian power and philosophy flowed down the Nile) during the reign of Pharaoh Akhenaton. The story finds a kindly Akhenaton sitting on his great throne as light-skinned Arab and Mediterranean barbarians from the north move into the lower kingdom in droves, warping and misunderstanding the values of his people. Heru arrives with amazing-magical powers just in the nick of time, at once affirming and confounding the beliefs of the Egyptians.

It’s hard not to take it as a comment on comic books in general when the royal advi­sor Hosef tells Akhenaton: “Our metaphor­ic mysteries are taken literally by these ig­norant outsiders. The uncivilized have not the brains to grasp our symbolism.” After all, comic fandom is a pretty arcane commu­nity — one whose obsessive attention to de­tail and continuity often makes it unintelli­gible to those who aren’t heavily into the books. Barnes’s pursuit of Cage across titles and years is the deep science of the comic-­book universe, a tendency toward alchemi­cal recombinations of story lines that links comic fans to JFK assassination buffs and UFO enthusiasts. This is why Barnes’s book can be so Afrocentric and deliriously pulp at the same time, its saturated browns, rusts, and golds borrowing from the funk of black-velvet painting as surely as its story relies on the voluminous research of Molefi Asante’s Kemet, Afrocentricity & Knowledge.

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Lacking a unifying theme, except for a marketing strategy and their appeal to a certain demographic, ANIA’s other books take place in Southern-seeming milieus, communities divided only by crime and racism into heroes, self-hating thugs, and plain folks. Eric Griffin’s Ebony Warrior tells the story of Komal Jackson, a black tech-wiz who, unlike Hardware, turns down the For­tune 500 companies to move back to his Southern hometown. By day Jackson teach­es, but by night he dons a high-tech suit of armor and takes out Yorktown’s pushers. Purge, written by Roosevelt Pitt and featur­ing art by Bill Hobbs that easily ranks with any of the majors’ books, reads like an Ebony Warrior that’s been boiled down to its purest essence. To date, its hero has no life or identity outside of beating dealers down. A black ronin, he just keeps doing his violent thing, zeroing in on his elusive quarry: the big-time (i.e., white) importers of drugs.

“The most important thing for us is that the company be black-controlled,” said Barnes before the day to day of running a business did ANIA in. “That’s what we are most concerned about.” Besides the nuts and bolts of putting out books, though, ANIA also had an image problem of its own to contend with. Zwanna, one of the origi­nal titles in the group, came under fire for racist depictions of whites. Barnes didn’t write or edit Zwanna, and the book was the first to drop out of ANIA’s fold, but he makes an able defense against the racism charge: “Zwanna: Son of Zulu was drawn by a white artist. A lot of people looking at that book might not think it. But if Zwanna has a white artist, how could we discrimi­nate against that segment of the population?”

Barnes is too nice a guy to undercut a friend, but the truth is that racism against whites is the least of Zwanna’s problems. Zwanna is a descendant of the great Chaka Zulu, living in the U.S. and enrolled at Black American State University. Whenever racism threatens, he “Zhaabs Out,” becom­ing a loin-clothed super-African. Lost on his way to an In Living Color sketch, Zwanna skewers racist skinheads on his spear be­tween one-liners. A mocking riff on the Panther, Zwanna regales his girlfriend with sweet nothings like “I got that jungle love for you, baby!”

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Then there’s the scene in which the lead­ers of the worldwide racist conspiracy have Zwanna chained spread-eagled while they croon, “Give us some bootie, cutie.” Por­trayed in the book as a lisping quartet of white male transvestites, they plan to break Africa’s will by raping Zwanna. Zwanna breaks free and dispatches them in turn, impaling them on his spear “missionary style.”

The book is rife with such patently offen­sive moments, moments a mainstream pub­lisher couldn’t get away with but that the book’s writer, Nabile Hage, boasts is proof of his independent comix credentials. Zwanna doesn’t reserve its hostility for skinheads and drag queens, though — it spits venom at black people too: foolish sellout Toms or the dippy African American women who want to bed Zwanna down in paroxysms of Mandingo stud fever. For a long stretch last summer and fall, Zwanna was the face of ANIA (in the press at least), and the ugliness of that image might have had something to do with the title’s mutually agreed upon departure from ANIA. Take it as an object lesson in marketing, then, that “black owned” and “black controlled” was enough of a pitch to give a loincloth-­wearing, spear-carrying Zulu named Zwanna his 15 minutes of authentic-black-superhero fame.

I ask Posro Komics’s head writer and artist (Roland Laird and Elihu Bey II) what their book would be if it were a record. It’s the only thing you can ask, really. Posro’s book, MC2, isn’t a superhero comic, it’s a hip-hop comic, the story of Earl Terrel, a regular-joe Harlem barber with a phat jeep and dreams of programming black-themed computer games. It doesn’t come with a soundtrack, but the suggestion of beats is everywhere in MC2, from the clubs that Earl frequents to the tapes he plays in his car.

“I used to think that if MC2 was a record it’d be Tribe Called Quest’s People’s In­stinctive Travels,” Laird says after a mo­ment’s thought as Bey nods. “That and the first De La Soul.”

“Yeah, definitely,” says Bey.

“There could be a little bit of PE in there too, but I keep coming back to Tribe and De La Soul ’cause they were just so differ­ent when they came out. Musically anyway.”

This makes a certain amount of sense. To ask the question, I’ve had to take a Tren­ton-bound train past Joi-zee highways, tree­-covered hills, burned-out factories, smoking refineries, and the back porches of rundown houses to Edison, the clean and suburban town where Laird lives and works. It’s the kind of ride you can make on the LIRR to De La Soul’s Long Island.

Laird used to live in Brooklyn, but he had to go to New Jersey to write his comic, had to “step outside to the quiet to get the work done,” as he tells me. After the heat and noise of the Milestone/ANIA wars, quiet seems like a fine place to be, and Laird and his comic have the turf well staked out. Milestone is part of the comics mainstream and ANIA, in its own Afrocentric way, wants to be, but Posro is a different kind of outsider company, doing comics in black and white, dreaming and working toward the big time but still finding satisfaction in the pleasures of smallness.

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Laird, of course, prefers the term specific to small. “It was important to do something that was relevant to hip-hop,” he says, “and portrayed hip-hop’s versatility as a medium, so MC2 isn’t a superhero comic. Comics fall under stereotypes just like black people do. You tell somebody you’re doing a comic book, and they’re expecting capes, cos­tumes, the whole nine. We wanted to do something that was totally different, in that MC2’s Earl is regular, it’s about a regular person.

“I’m down for positive images, but I like. showing a balanced view. MC2 isn’t a char­acter for people to hero worship, he’s more a character that you can kind of get behind. That’s his thing, his day in the sun, so to speak.”

And Earl’s day it is, all of it. In the first few issues, he cuts hair, kids around with his little sister, does some programming, goes to a club, hangs with his homeboy, and so on, the only “excitement” coming when somebody tries to steal his ride. The slow unfolding of time and scenes in the comic is unlike anything in “mainstream” black books, except perhaps Milestone’s Static, and even that book succumbs to the big company’s sharklike need to keep swim­ming in action-packed waters. Bey and Laird say they could do “mad action” if they wanted, but for now have other, more subtle fish to fry.

“When I was working on MC2 I was try­ing to show the beauty in things that are not that beautiful.” This is Bey speaking up, answering a question about what he wanted out of the comic. “I used to look at certain videos, like Pete Rock and CL Smooth videos, and it’d be set in an urban environment where in reality it was gray stone and cold, but in the video there would be all these earth tones in the surroundings, even in the buildings and everybody would be moving in slow motion. You actually saw the hidden beauty there, and I wanted to capture that in the book. I said to myself: I’m gonna make sure that I capture that.

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“Because when you live in the ghetto, when you live in a poor environment, every day is not bad. Every day is not bad. Some­times you wake up and it’s just like…” Bey searches for the words and then settles on a shrug.

The next few issues are going to touch on misogyny in hip-hop, Negro League base­ball, and a death in Earl’s family. The mix’ll be the thing in those books, as Earl drives his 4×4 down different streets and into new situations, which brings up the question of how Bey and Laird got to this point on their particular ride.

“I can’t remember when I wasn’t draw­ing,” says Bey, hands in his hair, shoulders shrugging. “Basically, I was caught up in Marvel like everybody else. Subconsciously, I wanted to see black images, so I would color Thor and different characters brown, draw them over, maybe give them a different costume, even though they’d still have long blond hair.”

Laird gives me the half shrug, too. “I’ve always been running around doing different things. I read comics but I’m not an artist. I’m really more of a cartoon person. I can probably name every cartoon, every episode. My favorite cartoon is the Flintstones. Believe it or not. I like Mighty Mouse too… and Heckle and Jeckle. I like their… vibrancy.”

All three of us laugh when he mentions Heckle and Jeckle. We all remember watch­ing those jet-black crows with a minor, un­explainable measure of guilt, laughing at them while unsure of just who the joke was on. Usually I’d think twice before admitting I had liked something like Heckle and Jeckle, but not today. Laird and Bey seem just too mellow to judge me for the detours I’ve taken on my way to hanging with them, here in the “quiet-outside” of Edison.

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Lorestone Comics’s Liz Black and David Santana are holding court in their Fort Greene shop, talking the history of black comics. Liz and David are business people but they’re also devoted fans. You have to listen very carefully to keep up with them. They speak in arrhythmic cadences, have little interest in backtracking, and they nev­er, ever, apologize for knowing more about comics than just about anyone they will ever meet in life. It’s not their fault you’re stupid.

Liz: “In the mid ’60s there was Black Panther appearing in The Avengers. Later in the ’60s you started getting a lot of other black characters like—”

“Luke Cage.” David calls out.

“Right.” says Liz. David’s off by a couple of years, but she lets it slide. “That was Marvel. And in DC you had—”

“Black Lightning.”

“Black Lightning. They were heavy into the word black.”

“Black Goliath?” David offers.

“Yeah. Black Goliath, Black Lightning, black this, black that…” From there, the two can and will go on for hours, assem­bling whole genealogies of the marginal one-issue guest stars and also-rans that comprise the bulk of the black superhero world — the Falcon, Moses Magnum, Broth­er Voodoo, the Teen Titans’ Cyborg — on and on through the still counting books and years.

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Lorestone is Liz and David’s home in many ways, a physical space whose door­ways open up onto thousands of fantasy rooms an issue at a time. And Liz and David are the surrogate parents of this home, leading their charges through the racks of books like they were some kind of wilderness. The kids know this, so as they grab at books, tossing them to and fro across the storefront, there inevitably comes a moment when the title gets held up to Liz and David for inspection and advice. “How’s this?” someone usually young and male will ask, and then David will smile or frown before ticking off the names of books he’s liked better. The attention makes the store a magnet for neighborhood kids who’ll roll through after school to browse and buy.

Liz and David like most of the new black comic books fine. A sure way for a comic to get on their bad side, though, is to duplicate or rip off characters and types they’ve seen before. That’s David’s problem with Mile­stone’s Blood Syndicate. “New Jack City with powers,” he calls it.

Liz has a more sociological gripe, saying she worries about the values that the books might be teaching to impressionable kids. “It’s not enough to just say you’re posi­tive,” she figures, noting that many “posi­tive” comics are often more hype than sub­stance. She also has mixed emotions about the kind of black pride that some of the by­-for-and-about companies like ANIA are selling. “Being black, understanding black, being proud of black, doesn’t mean ‘I’m black and I’m proud and everybody else is lower,’ ” she says. “It means I understand who I am, what I am, and I am happy about it. Some people at ANIA don’t seem to understand that, they think black pride means hating white. So David and I decid­ed we wouldn’t sell that book, that Zwanna: Son of Zulu. Especially not to kids. We preferred to eat the price on it than sell it to kids.”

But its not the “kids” who buy the black books in the first place. As an afternoon spent at Lorestone will reveal, the store does most of its business in black books with young men in their twenties, each one of them with very articulate and political reasons for why they buy what they buy. The audience still young enough to be af­fected by black comics, as opposed to mere­ly gratified by them, buys endless streams of X-Men and Batman comics, with bang­zoom Milestone entries like Blood Syndi­cate thrown in here and there.

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It takes a while for Liz to admit how she and David get around the notoriously poor taste of their younger customers. When she does tell me, it’s in tones shaded conspira­torial: “You know,” she says, her voice gone a little low, “sometimes we just give the books away, just give ’em away. Really.”

Even though Liz is talking about a few samples here and there, David, who’s spent his whole adult life working around comics, wants to make sure I understand what she means. At various times he’s made quick, vague remarks about Lorestone “restructuring,” about how hard this business is, about the possibility that he might have to go back to just doing tabletop sales at trade shows, or find a location with lower rent. And in fact, a few weeks later, the shop will close down, the crates of heroes black and white disappearing into David’s apartment until they can find a permanent place to live. Whether or not David knows all this is in store for Lorestone now, he isn’t saying. What he does want to say, in slow, measured words, is why he and Liz might choose to give some of the stock away for free.

“We give them away,” he says, “just to put the book in someone’s hand. If we read a book and we like it and think it has something to offer, we say: here, take a look at this. Not because we couldn’t sell them or because we wanted to get rid of them, but because we want people to read them.”

“Reading is what they’re there for,” adds Liz.

David then tells me that at first they gave a lot of their black comic books away: Then they started selling just about all of them, to customers like the 15-year-old who’s just walked in to buy a Hardware comic. Neither very young nor very old as far as comic fans go, he doesn’t look around, chat, or browse. He just gets his book and his mon­ey together, and heads to the register. When I ask him why he bought that particular title, he seems annoyed by the question.

“Because he’s black,” he says, looking at me like I’m stupid. ■

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Roots, Part 1: The Black Panther

Initially introduced in the ’60s-era Fantastic Four as a hip reference to African liberation movements, Black Panther (ne T’Challa) was the noble prince of the fictional postcolonial nation Wakanda. After a few guest spots, the Panther found steady work with another superteam, the Avengers, where he fought smugglers, poachers, exploitative multinationals and the like — in between lending a brotherly hand to Afro-Americans. By the early ’70s, he had relocated to America, and gotten his own book. Helmed by a white writer, Don McGregor, Black Panther set the standard for a much emulated black comic type: the role-model superhero. A dream date for the big nation-building prom, T’Challa was noble, tortured by injustice, good-looking, selfless to a fault, in good health, community-minded, rich, unquestion­ably het, and not just African but royal. He was what you’d call a real positive brother — no wonder Wesley Snipes wants to play him.

Since fighting the minions of con­glomerates is what noble princes of Wakanda were thought to do as naturally as breathing, Black Panther’s cre­ators felt no need to gift him with any special powers. An expert in African fighting and mystical arts, he was who he was, a black panther — stealthy, fast, powerful and, uh, black. As far as spe­cial powers were concerned, why would the Panther need them? It wasn’t like he was fighting the planet-eating Galac­tus on a regular basis.

Roots, Part 2: Storm (Ororo)

Ororo lives in the shadow of both her Africanness and her status as a mem­ber of the X-Men. A shorthand psycho­logical type who rounds out the affir­mative-action figures at the world’s bestselling comic, Ororo puts in triple duty as the team’s plain talker, nurtur­er, and exotic. Drawn with t&a fore­most in mind, she’s forever flying off into the rain to clear her head or dress­ing one of the male X-Men down for not paying enough attention to someone’s — sniff — feelings.

Ororo’s own feelings are opaque by design, making her downright moody, liable to shift in the blink of an eye from wind-riding nature girl to diffi­cult-to-approach-ice-queen-with-a­-mysterious-past. A tragic mulatto from the heart of Africa, Ororo was the team’s nominal leader for a spell, but even in a leadership capacity she was melancholy and withdrawn as if by def­inition, immensely popular but never quite center stage. Until she gets her own book, her real glory seems des­tined to be the outside context of fandom, where among other things she lives on the Internet as a staple of X-Men/lesbian-themed porn.

Roots, Part 3: Luke Cage

A creature of the ’70s, Marvel’s Luke Cage isn’t the oldest of the major black heroes, but he had the longest run in his own title (though, in an effort to boost sagging sales, the title kept changing — from Luke Cage, Hero for Hire to PowerMan to PowerMan and Iron Fist). Given superhuman strength and steel-like skin by a jail­-house experiment, Cage was a walking cliché of black macho. When Marvel teamed him with mystic martial artist Iron Fist, a blaxploitation dream team was born. Heroes for hire, the pair mostly faced colorful hustler types, supergangsters, and drug dealers, as well as the occasional Roxxon or A.I.M. scientist seeking to reproduce the PowerMan Process.

Low on subtlety and heavy on ac­tion, the book’s mean-streets setting and mack-daddy bad guys hit high notes of unmitigated ’70s funk before getting canceled in 1986. Two years ago Marvel decided to revive the char­acter — in a book called, simply, Cage. So far, the new series is an ongoing oedipal drama, bringing Cage back to the site of his super origin. Writer Mar­cus McLaurin wants to dialogue with ’70s black macho — the historical space of Cage’s origin — hoping to critique the type while still relying on it to make the comic fun. It’s a neat enough trick when it works, but when it doesn’t, today’s Cage is a skipping record, hitting the same blustery note over and over.

Roots, Part 4: Brotherman

Produced by people who obviously grew up on Mad magazine, Brotherman, Dictator of Discipline was one of the first comics by, for, and about black folks. Done by three brothers (literally: Guy Sims writes, David Sims ­draws, and Jason Sims handles the business end) from Irving, Texas, Brotherman’s eponymous hero is hardly new take on the genre. Antonio Valor is just your average black district attorney who can’ts takes it no mo’ and turns crime fighter — blah, blah, blah. The real action in the book happens off to the side, where David Sims mixes looks borrowed from graffiti art and the smoothed-gray surfaces of Mort Drucker’s Mad movie parodies.

Similarly, writer Guy Sims’s fondness for crowd scenes in which each meticulously drawn bit player has a perfectly timed one-liner to offer sug­gests an infatuation with the work of early Mad creator Harvey Kurtzman. His auteur turn, though, has to be Brotherman’s elaboration of the love interest as comic book device. Not only does Antonio have a coworker and se­cret admirer named Melody, but entire issues are devoted to her pining for him — a narrative that’s all the more poignant for the fake Whitney-esque songs floating dirgelike through the di­alogue boxes above.

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Jazz Jams With Harvey Pekar

For most of his adult life, Harvey Pekar held a day job filing medical records at Cleveland Veterans Administration Hospital. Perhaps the attention to detail in that endeavor helped him with his more famous vocation, as the creator and writer of American Splendor comic books. When he was sixteen, Pekar began collecting jazz records, saying, “I loved jazz and listened to it closely and analytically.” When he started writing his comics, he had such graphic masters as Robert Crumb, Spain Rodriguez, and Alison Bechdel illustrate his workaday tales of life in Cleveland. In 1995, he teamed with Joe Sacco, an artist known for his comics journalism (Palestine, Safe Area Gorazde), to collaborate on an illustrated reminiscence with the jazz guitarist Bill DeArango, who, like Pekar, was a Cleveland native.

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Spinning Wire and Spanning Worlds: Building the Brooklyn Bridge

Sometimes great achievements arise from petty annoyances. Writer Peter J. Tomasi and artist Sara DuVall begin their fast-paced and deeply moving graphic novel, The Bridge (Abrams ComicArts), in 1852, on a ferryboat in the partially frozen East River. One of the passengers, John A. Roebling, is irritated because the vessel hasn’t moved in exactly “three hours, twenty-eight minutes, and sixteen seconds,” as he puts it in a note to the vessel’s captain, who has been using the immobility to catch a very long nap. When Roebling, a civil engineer, receives the captain’s reply — “Stick a piece of river ice in your ear and cool off” — he and his young son, Washington, cobble together some scrap metal in the ferry’s hold to fashion a crude icebreaker. As the passengers cheer, Washington comments that all of the other ferries are still stranded. His father, a German immigrant and a ramrod of rectitude, gazes into the chill distance and says, “It will no longer suit the spirit of the present age to pronounce an undertaking impracticable, Washington. Remember that.”

They had been stranded on the ferry because there was as yet no other way to get across the East River — the vast reach seeming, more than a century and a half ago, literally unbridgeable. Author Tomasi grew up in Washington Heights, near enough to the George Washington Bridge that its revolving beacon cast “a soothing nightlight that put me to sleep each and every evening.” This proximity fostered a fascination with the bridges that connected Manhattan with the rest of the world; as a teenager, Tomasi walked across them all, and researched “who, what, where, when, and why these beautiful works came into being.” He and DuVall convey the “how” as well, employing lively dialogue and dynamic illustrations to engagingly explain the basics of industrial processes, including spinning wire from iron plates (use a very hot furnace), the proper way to sink a massive caisson — a hollow box made of wood and iron — into the riverbed (build granite towers atop it), and even how the sewage created by workers pulling long shifts in a caisson is removed (use compressed air to shoot it up a pipe and into the river).

Washington Roebling learns his trade.

The “who” in this true story of the conception, design, and construction of the Brooklyn Bridge includes the senior Roebling, an expert in manufacturing wire rope that he used to build early, relatively short suspension bridges; young Washington and his wife, Emily; and a supporting cast of historical figures — Civil War generals, mayors of Brooklyn and New York, governors, presidents, and, ultimately, the Italian stonecutters, Irish sandhogs, and other workers killed during the fourteen-year project, too many of whose names have been lost to history.

The story follows the teenage Washington, known to the family as Wash, as he is one night unceremoniously rousted from sleep by his father, who loads him into a carriage. As the horses clip-clop away from their comfortable family home in Trenton, New Jersey, the elder Roebling explains to his puzzled son, “Unfortunately, none of us can foresee what will bring us to our knees. Your contentment must be shattered if you are to flourish in good times and bad, boy.” He drops Wash off at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in upstate New York, where the bewildered youth spends the next four years studying geometry, mineralogy, civil mechanics, structural engineering, and other grueling courses.

Washington Roebling keeps an eye on his dream.

When he returns home, Wash takes his place as an assistant manager at the family firm, the John A. Roebling’s Sons Company. But he soon tires of his father’s humorless diligence and bolts, joining the Union forces in the Civil War. After serving with distinction and bravery — he spotted Rebels advancing on Gettysburg from an observation balloon, and later built rope bridges under heavy fire — Washington returns to civilian life, goes back to working at the mill, and marries the charming and steadfast Emily, sister of one of his fellow officers. During this time the elder Roebling makes a proposal to the cities of Brooklyn and New York to design and build an East River Bridge, while Wash is more than a little dissatisfied that his father has not promoted him to full manager. DuVall’s artwork is as precise and forceful as the characters she portrays: The young veteran’s barely contained anger is conveyed by two spare lines at the brow and a couple of squiggles to indicate a throbbing vein at the temple.

In 1869, Roebling senior dies after a freak accident (ironically, when a Brooklyn ferry hit the dock he was standing on and crushed his foot; he died several weeks later of tetanus). Prepared by his father’s stern protocols as well as by his own service in the war, Washington takes on the unprecedented engineering project. The bridge’s financial trustees are wary of hiring someone in his early thirties to oversee a gargantuan enterprise that includes two 90,000-ton towers and 14,000 miles of steel wire in the suspension system, but Washington persuades them by pointing to the plans that he and his father had drawn up, stating, “The only person who knows this bridge better than I do is dead.” He gets the job, but the next fourteen years take a heavy toll on him, his wife, his crew of assistants, and the small army of workers who toil in otherworldly conditions far beneath the surface of the East River.

Red lead and granite: Building the towers.

In a recurring gag, Tomasi captures the fatalistic humor of men in dangerous jobs (with a nod to the movie Airplane). As they climb into one of the sunken, pressurized caissons, an assistant named Farrington remarks, “Guess this is a bad time to let you know I’m claustrophobic.” On the next page, as the lights go temporarily dim, Farrington adds, “Guess this is a bad time to let you know I’m afraid of the dark.” Then, as they hear the water rushing past on the other side of the caisson walls, he informs the assembled crew, “Guess this is a bad time to let you know I can’t swim.” Some eighty pages later, when he is selected to be the first to traverse the bridge’s preliminary wire span, he stays true to character: “Guess this is a bad time to let you know I’m afraid of heights.”

But Farrington and the other men involved in the construction show Roebling the loyalty soldiers give to respected officers, calling him “Colonel” in reference to his Civil War rank. Roebling in turn offers good wages and — when men start suffering from nose bleeds, vomiting, fever, and fainting — orders that a doctor be present on site every day. The sickness turns out to be a form of the bends brought on by the high atmospheric pressures inside the sunken caissons. The doctor, struggling to make the caisson crews understand the grave importance of depressurizing in an airlock when they finish their shifts, tires of flip remarks from the skeptical laborers and shakes a soda bottle hard, saying, “The seltzer in this bottle is your blood. If you do not stay in the airlock a few minutes after leaving the caisson, then — ” He lets the fizzy seltzer spray over the audience. “Class dismissed.”

A new age dawns: Surprised by a woman in the workplace.

In one scene, the caisson crew discovers the bones of Redcoats while digging toward bedrock. “The British are coming! The British are coming!” one jokes. Another answers, “Not anymore, they ain’t,” while a third grumbles, “Feed their stinky Limey bones to the dogs, who cares?” The workers’ reactions make real the idea that the history of the Revolutionary War was still raw, as of course are their memories of the just-ended Civil War. A couple of the workers who served on different sides nearly come to blows.

When a caisson that is not yet fully weighted lifts with the tide, the pressurized air holding the water at bay, DuVall depicts the startled workers pointing at fish on the other side as if they had suddenly found themselves at an aquarium. After the wooden box slams back down, some of the workers decide that their nerves can no longer handle the hazardous labor. As they leave, Washington assures them, “Keep your heads up. There’s no shame here.”

Emily Roebling, hands-on manager.

But eventually Washington himself begins to show the effects of working literally under high pressure. When he is no longer able to tolerate loud noises or perform extended physical labor, he resorts to surveying the project’s progress through a telescope from his Brooklyn Heights residence, relaying instructions to the work crews in notes delivered by Emily. Although not formally trained as an engineer, she is nearly as steeped in the family business as her husband, and becomes the de-facto on-site manager.

As the years pass, the towers rise and the caissons sink, and Washington’s company bids on the next phase of the project, stringing the massive steel cables. But they are undercut by another wire manufacturer, one with financial ties to a bridge trustee. Corners are purposely cut to skim more profit, and when the subpar materials are discovered it’s too late to remove the faulty steel from the suspension system. The bridge, however, was designed to be six times stronger than its maximum load, and the inferior materials (which remain part of the structure to this day) still left a safety factor of five. When Washington exposes the crooked trustee, the man huffs out of the meeting, sneering, “You will be hearing from my attorney.” The experienced engineer replies, “I doubt it.”

In scene after scene, Tomasi and DuVall limn human intimacies, giving the familiar history of their tale a lively and surprisingly touching resonance that goes beyond the sweeping visual appeal of the neo-gothic support towers and elegant webwork of the cables. The Brooklyn Bridge was completed in 1883, after fourteen years of construction and at a cost of $15 million (approximately $350 million today). Both figures were roughly twice their original estimates, and between twenty and thirty men died working on the bridge. (By contrast, the new Kosciuszko Bridge, between Brooklyn and Queens, which is a bit longer, cost $555 million and no workers died during construction.) In 1884, some people still doubted whether the one-mile-long Brooklyn Bridge — which includes a main suspension span of 1,595 feet, the world-record holder for twenty years — could truly be safe. Ever on the lookout for a galvanizing publicity stunt, P.T. Barnum marched twenty-one elephants from Manhattan to circus grounds in Brooklyn, thus putting New Yorkers at ease.

Such is the Brooklyn Bridge’s romantic gravitational pull that when future East Village counterculture icon Tuli Kupferberg attempted suicide from the Manhattan Bridge, in 1945, he found himself reimagined ten years later in Allen Ginsberg’s Howl as the man “who jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge this actually happened and walked away unknown and forgotten into the ghostly daze of Chinatown soup alleyways & fire trucks, not even one free beer.…”

The 1883 celebration for the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge. So many fireworks were used that the glow could be seen as far away as inland New Jersey.

Author Tomasi ends the book’s preface with a quote from Montgomery Schuyler, an essayist and architecture critic, who showed astonishing prescience in a May 1883 issue of Harper’s Weekly when he wrote, “It so happens that the work which is likely to be our most durable monument, and to convey some knowledge of us to the most remote posterity, is a work of bare utility; not a shrine, not a fortress, not a palace, but a bridge.”

It seems, 135 years later, that Schuyler was on the money — after all, nothing’s been sold more times than the Brooklyn Bridge. But it’s still here, free as the breeze.

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Spiderman [sic] in Forest Hills

In April of 1965, writer Sally Kempton delved into the Spider-Man phenomenon through a local lens, pointing out, “There are approximately 15 superheroes in the Marvel Group, and nearly all of them live in the New York area. Midtown Manhattan is full of their landmarks.” She initially comes down hard on the burgeoning comic fandom movement: “Reading old comic books is hard work; it is possible to enjoy Batman only if you continually remind yourself that you liked him when you were 12.” But she is impressed with Marvel’s then-new brand of comics, because they are “the first comic books in history in which a post-adolescent escapist can get personally involved. For Marvel Comics are the first comic books to evoke, even metaphorically, the real world.”

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One reason, Kempton notes, is because Marvel superheroes are often New Yorkers themselves and have “discernible personalities and relatively complex emotions.” She goes on to add that a “New York cop, exercising his stop-and-frisk prerogative, never knows when he may accidentally rip the dark glasses from the powerful eyes of Cyclops, a benign super-mutant whose refractive lenses hide an X-ray vision which will burn through the sidewalk if exposed.”

If journalism is the first draft of history, Kempton’s reporting, along with ads for art world “Happenings” and an “Emergency Meeting on Vietnam,” opens a window on the early days of one of pop culture’s hugest success stories. (And finally, it should be noted that the Voice copy desk in 1965 was having no truck with hyphens in a comic-book character’s name.)

 

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Steve Ditko: Beyond Spider-Man

1962 was a good year for pop culture. The Beatles released “Love Me Do”; Andy Warhol discovered Campbell’s soup; John Glenn went into orbit; Bob Dylan played Carnegie Hall; and Steve Ditko, a 34-year-old journeyman comics artist, co-created Spider-Man. Ditko died in his West 51st Street apartment on June 29, at age 90, prompting a surge of wistful recollections from commentators and fans recalling their youthful identification with the teenage superhero who, co-creator Stan Lee once said, “gets sinus attacks, he gets acne and allergy attacks while he’s fighting.” The gangly Spider-Man launched one of the most successful movie franchises in history, but Ditko had already pushed well beyond the “cinematic” — an adjective often applied to his page layouts — to formal, narrative, and aesthetic frontiers unique to the comics medium. This would become most apparent in the mid 1960s, when Ditko and a stable of topflight freelancers were taking turns dazzling readers on the pages of Jim Warren’s concisely titled black-and-white horror magazines Creepy and Eerie.

Ditko began his career after serving in the Army in postwar Europe, moving to New York to study comic-book illustration at the Cartoonists and Illustrators School (later, the School of Visual Arts) under Jerry Robinson, an artist who worked on Batman comics and created the Joker character.

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In 1954, Ditko began illustrating (and sometimes writing) horror and suspense stories for Charlton Comics, a publisher that paid low rates but allowed artists wide creative latitude. The limbs of Ditko’s figures were often stretched to extremes, hands thrusting toward readers, fingers writhing; close-ups of eyes would fill panels, adding tension between characters seen at varying distances. Such visual strategies were enhanced by abstract webs — sometimes colorful, often pure white — which might represent fog or smoke or just mysterious ectoplasm, all the better to conjure run-ins with criminals, encounters with ghosts, and journeys into ultra-dimensional time and space warps. Ditko, like all great comic artists, understood that unlike in a movie, where even the most powerful images must follow one after the other, he was presenting readers (who are also viewers) with a full page, which would not only tell a story but also work as a collage of light and shadow, shape and perspective, volume and line.

Comics were cheaply produced — Charlton’s magazines in particular were notable for pages by turns flooded with ink or barely legible from worn-out printing blankets. So comics artists employed heavy outlines, because detailed draftsmanship was often muddied by slapdash color registration. Ditko’s bold compositions withstood these degradations better than most. In addition to Spider-Man, Ditko created the Doctor Strange character for Marvel, and his swirling compositions were a perfect fit for the master of mystic arts’ astral journeys into psychedelic realms. (In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe describes LSD advocate Ken Kesey sitting “for hours on end reading comic books, absorbed in the plunging purple Steve Ditko shadows of Dr. Strange.”)

The sheer artistry of Ditko’s dynamic mix of abstract composition and elastic figuration received showcase treatment in Warren’s black-and-white horror publications. A typical Warren mag from the mid to late 1960s was a highlight reel of some of the best draftsmen this country ever produced — in each issue’s half-dozen or so stories, readers might get Reed Crandall’s woodcut-like drawings adapting Edgar Allan Poe’s “Hop-Frog,” Angelo Torres’s mix of film stills and noir lighting in a twist on The Phantom of the Opera, moody graveyard scenes in misty grays by Gene Colan, or the hyper-real figures and passionate layouts of a Neal Adams vampire tale.

Between 1966 and ’68, Ditko drew sixteen stories for Warren, all but one of them scripted by the incredibly versatile Archie Goodwin. Two examples, done in polar-opposite styles, show Ditko at the top of his game. In “Collector’s Edition!,” from Creepy #10 (1966), Ditko used concise crosshatching to achieve expressive tonalities emphasizing the tension that arises when a slovenly dealer of occult books taunts a fanatical collector with the possibility of obtaining a rare masterpiece detailing the darkest of the diabolical arts. The close-ups of eyes Ditko deployed for compositional variety a decade earlier are here arrayed in a narrative sequence that punctuates the antagonism between buyer and seller, which shortly escalates to murder. Goodwin — as sharp a yarn-spinner as ever came down America’s pop-cult pike — was no doubt having fun with the collecting manias that were driving the burgeoning comic-fandom phenomenon. The blasphemous tome featured in the story, Dark Visions, written by “the Marquis Lemode,” contains both stygian realms of evil and predictions of the future, giving the collector a preview of his own onrushing demise. Ditko’s precise line work propels Goodwin’s entwined narrative to its sardonically surprising conclusion.

But it’s in Creepy #13’s “Second Chance!” (1967) that Ditko displays ink-wash chops that, in their verve and subtlety, were unlike anything he achieved in mainstream comics, the delicate gradations of gray overlaid with white filigrees impossible to reproduce in color comics. Ditko’s crepuscular ambience enhances Goodwin’s plot, which begins and ends amid graveyard dirt and in between takes a trippy plunge into a hell filled with undulating demons, flailing victims, and diaphanous mists. The broad range of shadows and patinas of light give Ditko’s figures a supple grace he rarely equaled in his superhero comics.

Notoriously reclusive, Ditko spent his last decades more and more consumed by a rigid — not to say black-and-white — view of the world, inspired in no small part by the stark divisions between good and evil as espoused by writer-philosopher Ayn Rand. Although he did create more characters in those passing years (most notably Mr. A., a humorless vigilante who wore metal gloves, all the better for pummeling moral trespassers), Ditko never surpassed the sheer graphic elation of his Warren work. All the gray areas were gone.

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Jules Feiffer in Context

Jules Feiffer was born in the Bronx in 1929, and recently told the Voice he had hated it. Rather than accept that he was a nebbishy kid from the outer boroughs, he preferred to believe he “had been kidnapped by these Jewish people who claimed I was one of them, when I knew that I was like Freddie Bartholomew [a London-born child actor who became famous for his role as Little Lord Fauntleroy in a 1936 movie]. I wanted to return to my real home in Sussex or Surrey, some country house outside of London.”

It’s a tale Feiffer has told many times, but it is also the sort of ur-story that helps explain the monologues he wrote for all the neurotic, self-absorbed, self-indulgent characters who populate his eight decades of comic strips, plays, and movies — people who are just not happy with their lot in life and don’t mind telling you so.

I sat down with the octogenarian artist and writer to discuss, among many other things, his screenplay for the new movie Bernard and Huey, directed by Dan Mirvish. Feiffer has been writing dialogue since the mid 1940s, cutting his storytelling teeth by ghosting scripts for the legendary comics creator Will Eisner (1917–2005). Fresh out of James Monroe High School, Feiffer looked Eisner up in the phone book and traveled from the Bronx to 37 Wall Street, in Lower Manhattan, where Eisner cranked out his seminal weekly newspaper-comics insert, featuring an ironfisted, lighthearted crime fighter called “the Spirit.” Although riding the subway filled him with “fear and anxiety” when he was a kid, Feiffer steeled himself for the trip downtown. “I walked in and there was an outer office, which was kind of dark, and an inner office, and the only person sitting in the outer office was Will Eisner, sitting at the drawing table in the corner, working on The Spirit. I walked in with my samples, and he welcomed me, and he couldn’t have been more pleasant, until he looked at my work and then he told me that the work was shit,” Feiffer told me, laughing.

Undaunted, the youngster switched tactics and told Eisner how much The Spirit and Eisner’s earlier strips, such as Muss ’Em Up Donovan, meant to him. As Feiffer put it, the comics maestro had no choice but to “hire me — if only as a groupie.”

Feiffer inaugural Village Voice strip, October 24, 1956

According to Feiffer, the other artists in the stable, who toiled in the inner office, were all “very competent draftsmen [but] none of them had Eisner’s genius or verve.” These were craftsmen working for hire, and they had little to say to their boss. But things were different between the teen comics aficionado and his idol. “With me he had a conversation, and from the time I walked into that office he and I talked comics, we talked everything, because he knew I was somebody who loved the form the way he did, and that I wanted to do something different with the form, the way he had done.”

Eisner gave Feiffer various jobs, including erasing pencil lines, filling in black ink areas, ruling panel borders, and even coloring the strip, and the teenager eventually got comfortable enough to tell his elder, sometime in the late Forties, that while the artwork on The Spirit was getting better and better, the scripts were in a rut. Instead of bawling him out, Feiffer told me, Eisner replied, “If you think you can do better, why don’t you write one?”

Feiffer did, submitting a taut tale about Freddy, a neighborhood nobody who finally snaps as he’s playing pinball in the corner candy store. The seven-page story, “Ten Minutes,” is formally inventive, featuring a ticking watch on each page counting off, basically in real time, the last ten minutes of Freddy’s life, as his impulse to leave the city for a new start ends with the murder of the store’s proprietor. Eisner’s dynamic layouts — the legs of pursuers are seen under swinging doors when the killer ducks into a crowded saloon — enhance Feiffer’s punchy dialogue, which concludes with the Spirit musing to Police Commissioner Dolan, as they trudge up the subway steps after Freddy’s demise on the tracks, “I wonder just when it was that Freddy started on his crime career. ”

Feiffer continued writing Spirit stories until he was drafted into the Army, in 1951, where he spent time in the Signal Corps in New Jersey. He returned to civilian life as the Eisenhower years were gaining steam, a time when stifling conformity was the price much of the middle class paid for postwar prosperity. Feiffer looked around again for artists who were breaking various molds, such as the crew at the United Productions of America animation studio. “I loved their stuff. I loved their politics,” Feiffer said of the funky UPA studio, which was staffed largely with artisans who had left Disney during the 1941 animators’ strike. Eschewing Uncle Walt’s realism for broadly buoyant characters arrayed against bold, jazzily modernistic backgrounds, the studio made shorts for President Franklin Roosevelt’s re-election campaign, in 1944, and a 1946 cartoon for the United Auto Workers, entitled Brotherhood of Man. UPA introduced one of its most popular characters, the nearsighted bumbler Mr. Magoo, in 1949, and won an Academy Award for Gerald McBoing Boing in 1951. UPA’s go-for-broke style would soon influence Feiffer’s breakthrough work.

By 1956, Feiffer was peddling his ideas for a regular comic strip all over Manhattan, and while publishers reacted favorably to his offbeat characters, they were unsure how readers would react to Feiffer’s motley collection of beatniks, uptight businessmen, insecure introverts, and other urban denizens. Feiffer said he was told again and again, “We don’t know how to publish this. If your name was [Saul] Steinberg or [James] Thurber we’d publish it.” “They were telling me that I had to get famous before I could get published,” he said. “But on all their desks was this newspaper, the Village Voice, which I had only seen a couple times — it had been around for not even a year by that time. So I picked up the Voice and started looking at it, with the idea that if I could get in this paper they’ll think I’m famous — because they all read it.”

60 years on—dialogue in print then, onscreen now.

The gambit paid off — at least in terms of recognition. Voice founders Dan Wolf and Ed Fancher, as well as theater editor Jerry Tallmer, all liked Feiffer’s portfolio, so much so that, Feiffer said, “They were so enthusiastic that I began to get suspicious. ‘What do they want from me? What are they after? What’s going on here?’ My own insecurity was coming to the fore, the more they praised me. They said, ‘You can do anything you want.’ [But] I — who didn’t want guidelines — was asking them for guidelines because they were so enthusiastic. I didn’t know how to behave.”

Feiffer’s inaugural Sick, Sick, Sick strip appeared in the Voice’s first anniversary issue, on October 24, 1956. While the heavy, UPA-influenced ink contours would gradually become more fluid (Feiffer’s signature dancers would soon be leaping from panel to panel), the humor — voiced by characters who mixed confessional angst with self-defeating self-absorption — was already established. Any New Yorker who’d spent time in a crowded café and overheard snippets of first-date awkwardness, infatuated spooning, lovers’ quarrels, or armchair analysis at the next table could relate to Feiffer’s nervous blind daters, hopeful dreamers, blasé cads, and neurotic intellectuals.

That Feiffer offered to work for free may have had something to do with the Voice pooh-bahs’ enthusiasm for his strip, but by 1958 the cartoonist was packaging Sick, Sick, Sick and other strips into multiple collections — including The Explainers, Passionella, and Nixon: The Cartoon Presidency — that have sold well over the decades. (Although there are conflicting timelines, Feiffer told me he was not paid for his first twenty years at the Voice: “And everybody else was getting paid. I went in to Dan [Wolf, the editor], and he said, ‘What do you mean you want to get paid? You’re a mandarin.’ ” He laughed. “That’s a direct quote. And I loved Dan, but I said, ‘Dan, mandarins have to eat.’ ”)

Some of Feiffer’s characters in the Voice, such as the womanizing lout Huey and his milquetoast friend Bernard, would branch out into other publications, including Playboy. This was also a time when theatrical producers began showing interest in transforming Feiffer’s comics into plays. Although the cartoonist was impressed with how the characters came to life, he wasn’t convinced they were better than on paper. But soon, major social and political traumas compelled Feiffer to try his hand at outright playwriting: “I wrote Little Murders after the JFK assassination,” he told me. Feiffer, like many Americans, had been shocked by the murder of the president, and then further jolted by the subsequent killing of his alleged assassin by a mobbed-up nightclub owner. “The America I’d grown up in no longer existed,” Feiffer said. “Had been snuffed out within a week. I needed to write something, which had to be more than six or eight panels, and I thought, couldn’t be a comic strip, and there were no such things as graphic novels then.… So my life as a playwright really came out of the JFK assassination.”

20 years after that first cartoon, Feiffer was finally getting paid

As it was chockablock with muggings, random shootings, garbage strikes, and electrical blackouts, it is perhaps no surprise that Little Murders, Feiffer’s first play, flopped on Broadway, in 1967. But it did have a successful run in London, and a 1969 Off-Broadway production won an Obie award.

In 1969, Feiffer wrote a play that director Mike Nichols advised would work better as a movie. Carnal Knowledge was released in 1971 and follows the sexual adventures of a callous lothario, played by Jack Nicholson, and his more sensitive college roommate, portrayed by Art Garfunkel. In the early Eighties, Feiffer revisited this theme in a script for the Showtime channel, which featured the Bernard and Huey characters from his earlier Village Voice and Playboy comics. The screenplay got lost amid corporate shuffles, but has found new life in Mirvish’s film.

Bernard and Huey takes place in the now but flashes back to the college roommates twenty-five years earlier, asking questions about what becomes of both a satyr and a nebbish gone to seed. Feiffer said that Mirvish captured “the arc of my career…and the sense of the reality of my obsession with men and women and how they do or don’t get along over the years, and what they do with and to each other, over the years. You know, I always objected to the Thurber phrase ‘battle of the sexes,’ because I didn’t think it was about a battle, it was always a struggle to find yourself in someone else. And mostly failing.”

Indeed, in the present, when heavyset, inebriated Huey (played by David Koechner) shows up at the West Village apartment of wiry Bernard (Jim Rash), it seems pretty clear that the onetime heartthrob has been outdistanced by the pensive, divorced book editor with a smart and lovely steady, Roz. Yet, as in Feiffer’s comics, human relations can be a French farce of fast opening and slamming doors, some of which expose Bernard bedding Huey’s graphic-novelist daughter, Zelda (Mae Whitman), others concealing, for a time, Huey’s conquest of Roz, Bernard’s main squeeze. Koechner’s Huey leads with his gut, and with his porkpie hat at a raffish angle he imparts the nihilistic elan of the Popeye Doyle character in William Friedkin’s The French Connection. When I mentioned that Friedkin had been influenced by Eisner’s comics, Feiffer laughed and told me the director had once approached Eisner about doing a Spirit movie. Eisner in turn had asked Feiffer to write a treatment for a possible film. But, Feiffer said, “I met with Friedkin, who I didn’t like at all, and who didn’t like anything I had done for the scenario. And then this awful Spirit movie [written and directed by Frank Miller, in 2008] came out. Just a disgrace.”

Ahhhh. Dashed hopes. All the better for Feiffer’s characters to wallow in.

From newsprint to the silver screen

Bernard and Huey features dialogue at times lifted from comics that appeared in the pages of the Voice sixty years ago. In flashbacks, young actors capture the fresh-faced lust of college days. In one scene we get Columbia student Huey spending the morning wearily shooing beautiful young Mona out of his messy bedroom, where, she peevishly laments, “entirely too much time was spent on fucking.”

“OK,” he tells her. “Put on your shoes. I’ll walk you to the subway.”

“Don’t bother. I’ve never met anyone so crude in my life.”

“Yeah, crude. Now put on your shoes. I’ll walk you to the subway.”

“You want everything your own way. OK? You’re spoiled.”

“Yeah. Spoiled. Now put on your shoes. I’ll walk you to the subway.”

“I mean, I have needs too, you know.”

“Yeah. You need to put on your shoes. I’ll walk you to the subway.”

A little later, she says, “We practically just met, OK? Women hate to be used. I hate to be used.”

When he replies, “I’m hip. Put on your shoes,” hip does double duty, capturing the sardonic affectation of the late Eighties even as it repeats the 1958 newsprint exchange. Eternally bored and getting worn down by this morning-after call-and-response, Huey switches tactics, cajoling the unhappy girl into buying him breakfast. When she asks him what kind of bagels he wants, he coos, eyes drooping, “Baby. I trust you.”

Times change, rogues remain the same. And what goes around comes around in Feiffer’s Manhattan. In the film, Mona — now a quarter-century older, like Bernard and Huey — works at the same publishing house as Bernard. She is appalled by a portfolio of comics that Bernard has brought in for her to review. “This is shit,” she says. “Why are you pushing this girl?” Mona (played by Nancy Travis) turns to a page on which a man is castrated by closing subway doors. “Your girlfriend’s got a problem with men,” she observes. But she is even more appalled when she discovers that the comics are by Zelda, the daughter of the man with whom she’d had that physically enthralling and emotionally antagonistic fling in college.

A twentieth anniversary tribute to Feiffer.

Mona is not so appalled, however, that she doesn’t end up in Huey’s bed again, where she relives their raw romance on her own older and wiser terms. High heels in hand, she bumps into Bernard, returning early one morning from an assignation with Zelda to the apartment he now shares with Huey, who entertains a revolving troupe of noisy lovers. The women here give as good as they get, and Bernard finds himself devastated when 25-year-old Zelda cuts him loose for a more age-appropriate if equally self-absorbed media entrepreneur. In a later scene, after yet another bout of profligate overindulgence with Mona, Huey is stretched out on the sofa when Bernard confronts him about the decibel level from the night before. Huey, flat as a heavyweight down for the count, implores, “Bernie, keep it down, man. I’m a bit fragile.”

Like those other outer-borough natives Woody Allen and Neil Simon, Feiffer has never tired of the endless drama that is New York. Beginning with his comics of the 1950s and right up to his movies of today, Feiffer has illustrated the truth that, just as you can’t choose your family, there are some friends — usually met in the crucible of youth — who prove every bit as sticky as parents or siblings. Add the close quarters of Manhattan living, where strangers’ intimacies crowd in on you on packed subways and in overbooked restaurants and, for some New Yorkers, the witty Bernard and Huey may prove a bit of a busman’s holiday.

At the close of our interview, I asked Feiffer if any one thing stood out from his successful decades-long career. “Yes,” replied the 89-year-old, apparently never as fragile as any of his characters: “What I’m doing next.”

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Mr. Fish’s Blowtorch Polemics Burn Trump, God, and Everything in Between

It can be dicey to read Dwayne Booth’s new book, And Then The World Blew Up (Fantagraphics, $29.99), over a cup of coffee. Chances are you’ll spit out your brew laughing at a particularly hilarious cartoon or choke on a “Did he really just say that?” bit of prose—or your beverage will go cold as he deftly skewers your most comfortably held beliefs.

Booth (born 1966) is a graphics chameleon who writes and draws under both his own name and the pseudonym Mr. Fish. (He told an interviewer that he adopted his sometime pen name early in his career to avoid being confused with the well-known New Yorker cartoonist George Booth.) One of the first images in this new collection of cartoons (which have appeared in Harper’s, The Atlantic, The Village Voice, and numerous other publications) is a grisaille drawing of Donald Trump, all squinty eyes and carapace of hair, puckered lips blowing on a dandelion that disintegrates into teensy skulls and crossbones. Later, in a completely different style, Booth cribs the galumphing body language of Gary Larson’s “Far Side” newspaper comics for his cartoon of a youth traipsing across water accompanied by the caption “Jesus as a kid annoying his mother all afternoon with his cheesy pool antics.” Elsewhere, Booth brings a slick Hollywood treatment to another scene of Christ walking on water, this time carrying a boy wearing a rainbow flag shirt as the Pope’s peaked miter—bristling with teeth—rises up from the depths like the shark in the iconic Jaws poster.

Booth’s best images set fireworks to bursting in your brain faster than it takes to read the previous sentence. But then comes the parsing of his visions: Is Jesus actually a champion of the LGBT community, and is it only the machinations of institutional religion that have substituted power for compassion in his name? In one double-page spread, Booth mashes up Emanuel Leutze’s grand painting Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851) with Théodore Géricault’s massive canvas The Raft of the Medusa (1819). The French painter’s Romantic behemoth illustrated official malfeasance under Louis XVIII in the form of a shipwreck that, as one recent author observed, led the survivors “to the frontiers of human experience. Crazed, parched and starved, they slaughtered mutineers, ate their dead companions and killed the weakest.” Hmmm … so is Booth comparing a pivotal military maneuver in the American Revolution to a criminal orgy of cannibalism, murder, and mayhem? Perhaps he had the colonists’ practices of chattel slavery and genocide in mind.

If you find yourself slowly nodding your head, check out the panel in which Booth has appropriated a photo of John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jackie, smiling from the backseat of an open limousine. Booth, however, portrays the 35th president wearing a hooded jacket; the caption reads, “Jack Kennedy moments before making Lee Harvey Oswald feel threatened.” You’ll probably LOL at first, but laughter will wither as your brain leaps to Trayvon Martin’s murder by a thug whose defenders blamed the killing partially on the victim’s hoodie.

The second panel on that same page illustrates how at times Booth’s anger outpaces his wit. A junked car filled with Klansmen is captioned,“How is this fucking piece of shit gaining on us in the 21st century?” An apt question in our era of white supremacists being described as “fine people,” so maybe the joke is in the derelict clunker, which symbolizes the bleak ideology of racism, an insight Philip Guston nailed in visions of pathetic hoods driving jalopies in his balefully beautiful cartoon paintings.

Mr. Fish references another seminal American painter more directly when he replaces the face in Norman Rockwell’s famous self-portrait with a Klan hood. Because he celebrated the cracker-barrel folksiness of a swath of America too often proud of its clannish insularity, Rockwell was accused of whitewashing racism. And yet, in a later spread, Booth appropriates the prolific illustrator’s powerful painting of a young black girl surrounded by federal marshals as she enters an all-white elementary school, changing the focus of hate to a little Islamic girl caught up in America’s current anti-immigrant hysteria. Is it cricket to portray America’s most beloved cover artist as an enabler of intolerance on one page and give him props on another for pointing out The Problem We All Live With, as Rockwell’s original antisegregation picture was titled?

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Of course it is. As Emerson once warned us, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.” And indeed, Mr. Fish has long struggled with the idea of the soul and the wildly inconsistent god who oversees it. Threaded throughout Booth’s copious texts are tales of human beings vaporized by forces beyond their control, whether it’s his great-uncle disintegrated by a Nazi mortar, leaving only one still-standing boot, or a doctor the nine-year-old Booth read about in Fate magazine who left behind nothing but a foot in a charred slipper, which the magazine designated as a case of spontaneous combustion. The youthful Booth puzzled over this ambiguous bolt from the blue: “It seemed cruel to insist that we all be made to endure such a high stakes game of Russian roulette, with each tick of the clock being just another torturous click made from one more empty chamber. The whole scenario seemed irksomely Biblical….”

A born contrarian, Booth decided at that tender age to tempt God’s capricious wrath by “imagining Jesus Christ crawling on all fours through my backyard and eating the dog shit that I was tasked with picking up every day after school. Again, nothing happened. It was as if I were throwing rocks at the moon.”

Here we have the budding conscience of the heedless satirist—unafraid to call bullshit on who- or whatever the powers may be. Booth writes in the book that throughout his childhood, his mother instilled in him and his siblings “a disdain for genteel acquiescence to the dominant culture.” He also notes that when he was eleven, he had his political consciousness raised upon seeing a picture of the actress Susan Dey, topless: “My politics aligned in an instant with those espoused by the character [Laurie of The Partridge Family] that Dey portrayed on TV.” In the four decades since, a more mature Booth has moved beyond Laurie Partridge’s “corny pacifism and unconvincing feminism and cheerful dedication to social justice” to become a polemicist in the tradition of such troublemakers as John Heartfield, a Berliner who anglicized his name from Helmut Herzfeld in 1916 to protest German nationalism and the stoking of war fervor against Britain. Heartfield (1891–1968) went hammer and tongs after Hitler and his rising Nazi party in the 1930s, crafting photomontages that ridiculed the movement, including one of Hitler as a puppet controlled by industrialists. Heartfield’s mockery infuriated the Nazis, and earned him the number-five spot on the Gestapo’s Most Wanted list. In 1933, when the National Socialists took power, Stormtroopers burst into Heartfield’s Berlin apartment; he survived by hiding in a garbage bin before fleeing to Czechoslovakia and, eventually, Britain.

In our own country, Booth’s unrestrained graphics follow a path blazed in the late 1950s by The Realist magazine, which included cartoons that were “considered in bad taste or too controversial for mainstream media,” as the magazine’s founding editor, Paul Krassner, recently wrote. One example, by a cartoonist known as Ludwig—published in 1962, when sit-in protests were national news—featured three African-Americans crowding into a “Whites’ Only” men’s room and declaring, “I’m afraid that we’ll have to refuse to leave; we’re staging a shit-in.”

Such cartoons of yore and Booth’s today may indeed rile those in power, but, unlike Heartfield, American cartoonists are not (as yet, anyway) taking their lives into their hands. “I was well aware that I probably couldn’t publish The Realist in any other country,” Krassner wrote in an essay about the early days of his magazine. “This was the paradox of America.”

Times have changed, of course, and the Internet has engendered an onslaught of crass and vulgar mockery in which invective trumps wit. However, like the wake-up pill in The Matrix, Mr. Fish’s graphic broadsides can jolt viewers out of complacency. For instance, do you think Barack Obama was a pretty good president? Do you excuse his paucity of accomplishments after the Affordable Care Act because he was hamstrung for six years by a Congress whose subservience to the 1 percent has only become more overweening since November 9, 2016? You might rethink your admiration for our 44th president once you’ve spent some time immersed in the Mr. Fish-bowl. One two-panel strip features realistic portraits of Obama speechifying: “Ask not what your country can do for you / Thank you and goodnight!,” which begs the questions many fans of the former president—a cautious politician respectful of his office even as it was being savaged by the opposition—might now ask. My own query, once I got on Mr. Fish’s wavelength, was, “WHY THE FUCK DIDN’T OBAMA DO A RECESS APPOINTMENT OF MERRICK GARLAND?” If nothing else, that would have gummed up the works as Republicans maneuvered to remove the new justice from the Supreme Court, thereby delaying their unrelenting attacks on the poor and middle class through attempts to repeal Obamacare and ram through a mendacious tax giveaway to the rich.

Booth lives in Philadelphia, and with a wife and twin daughters he has skin in the middle-class game. Like all revolutionaries who live beyond their formative battles, he can at times grow weary of the physical struggle. During the Occupy May Day protests in New York City some years back, he observed a protestor in a grubby Santa Claus suit who was irritating others in the crowd by poking a dirty cardboard sign reading “not me” in their faces—“his glee as bullying as a Bull Connor fire hose,” as Booth describes it. After that reference to the brutal police tactics used against peaceful civil-rights marchers in Alabama in the 1960s—which also included the use of vicious attack dogs—Mr. Fish then cops to his own annoyance with the filthy Santa: “Without a doubt, I would be the first to look away and rock back and forth on my heels if any of the riot police crowded around Union Square decided to draw their batons and make a running tackle.”

But if Fish is at times contradictory—and if such prose as “driving with two friends in the direction of the D.C. Metro through a January drizzle as tinny and panicked as joyous baby spiders” proves a bit gnarly—his quest to artfully break through the average citizen’s civic torpor shines through. One sterling example is his cartoon of President Trump goose-stepping along a row of flags at half-mast, sawing them off halfway so that the deaths of citizens and their democracy can be hidden in plain sight. Too often when looking at Booth’s imagery you bump up against the old cliché of not knowing whether to laugh or cry, as in his portrait of Martin Luther King Jr., labeled Unarmed Black Man. Everywhere on these pages, Mr. Fish’s elastic formal chops are on display, showcased in an eight-part cartoon version of da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man Spirographing into a black dot, a meditation on individuality being swallowed by “competing visions of truth and morality.”

Booth’s take on two icons

The book concludes with Booth continuing to ruminate on God smiting us from above in divine drone strikes. He notes that when he was nine, “it remained my habit with every pair of sneakers that I wore for the next 3 years to write the words ‘by Dwayne Booth’ on the bottom of the right sole just in case I ever did get blown to smithereens in my bathroom and some future 9-year-old reading about the incident in a magazine might recognize in the inscription written across the bottom of my remaining foot that I was the author of my own fate, rather than crediting a grossly esoteric God who is always way too eager to take credit for a reality into which he refuses to assimilate gracefully.”

With his take-no-prisoners polemics, Booth refuses to assimilate—gracefully or otherwise. If he ever does end up a smoldering, one-footed lump, it may be simply because the ruling class finally tired of his blowtorch satire, which reveals their (and our) mediocrity, complicity, and duplicity. Perhaps the Koch brothers will push the button on that secret “spontaneous combustion” satellite we just know they keep in reserve for special cases, once they get a load of a particularly mordant Booth cartoon: A dark-skinned youngster has just been guillotined and a mad king is using the head for a macabre bout of masturbatory fellatio as one nondescript citizen in a shirt and tie says to another, “I don’t agree with all his policies, but he’s great on immigration, second amendment rights, and school prayer.”

Happy New Year!

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Beautiful Art in an Ugly Year

The vibe throughout 2017 — white supremacists are “fine” people, the top 5 percent need tax cuts financed by the bottom 95 percent, Vladimir Putin is a great guy — has been pretty ugly.

Pretty. Ugly. Those last two words sum up my personal highlight list for a brash and belligerent year. Let’s start with Fantagraphics’ collection of the “Trashman” strips and other graphic provocations by the underground-comics pioneer Manuel “Spain” Rodriguez. Spain (1940–2012) was an art school dropout, a member of the Road Vultures Motorcycle Club, and a factory worker in his hometown of Buffalo, New York. His job as a janitor (one who read the Trotskyite newspaper The Militant) imbued Rodriguez with a strong class consciousness that found its way into the “Trashman” comics he began drawing for the East Village Other counterculture paper in 1968. Street Fighting Men: Spain Vol. 1 ($29.99) recounts how Spain and fellow cartoonist Kim Deitch lived in an Avenue C tenement where muggers roamed the hallways and “glue heads” clawed their way through the walls to rob tenants. But Spain, having brought his biker mores with him from upstate, was no easy mark. “I saw him beat my brother Simon up once or twice,” Deitch relates in the book. “He had it coming. Spain has sort of like short jabs. He didn’t do it sadistically. If he thought you were out of line, you could get beaten up by Spain but he didn’t lovingly linger over it.”

Trashman hustling across the pages of “Subvert Comics” #1, 1970

In the late 1960s, Spain was making the princely sum of $40 a week to draw comics, and the exhilarations of his hardscrabble lifestyle can be seen in the abilities of Trashman — a/k/a Agent of the Sixth International — to best the lackeys serving nefarious capitalists with his fists, boots, and small arms. A sort of proletarian James Bond, Trashman “received messages from cracks in the sidewalk and could transform into a copy of last week’s East Village Other when he was in a tight spot, and blow unseen down the street to escape,” as the book’s author, Patrick Rosenkranz, puts it. Spain’s socialist leanings perhaps explain why his female characters were as adept as men at urban combat, and why the women expected as many orgasms as the macho bikers they hooked up with in numerous X-rated scenes.

Trashman goes after the Man; “Subvert Comics” #2, 1972

Coming of age in the 1950s, Spain read the popular EC family of comic books, which included such titles as Tales from the Crypt and Two-Fisted Tales, taking in the voluptuous line-work of a master like Wally Wood and the athletic body language conveyed by the brilliant illustrator Jack Davis. Expanding on these youthful inspirations, Spain developed a signature blend of heavy black contours, drastic perspective, abstract expressionist ink splatters, and helter-skelter panel layouts to propel his breakneck tales of class war and free love.

While not as graphically outré as underground comics, Kirk Hayes’s paintings deliver high-octane aesthetics and unexpected formal jolts. On wandering into his show at Horton Gallery earlier this year, I was struck by the florid characters and disembodied limbs galumphing through existentially bleak landscapes. Arms rise out of ash pits in scorched earth, in one case flashing a middle finger, in another groping for perhaps the last flower left after some garden-variety apocalypse. Hayes’s figures at first look to be constructed from scraps of painted card stock or particleboard, crisscrossed with masking tape, everything glued to wood-panel grounds. But close study of the black shoe with rough-cut edges in Old Artist Pissing at the Moon (2016) reveals that the images are not collages but instead trompe l’oeil painting. What look like snippets of yellow yarn poking through the board above the cartoon artist’s foot are in fact dollops of oil paint. (Hayes, it should be noted, isn’t that old for a painter — he was born in 1958, in Fort Worth, Texas, where he still lives and works.)

Hayes’ “Death Mask Sitting with Cigar,” 2016

In 1929, René Magritte titled his famous painting of a pipe The Treachery of Images. Accompanied by a caption in French spelling out “This is not a pipe,” the Belgian surrealist emphasized the point (among others) that an image is emphatically not the object it represents. But where Magritte gave us an illustration, Hayes deceives the eye by employing painstaking illusion. He first constructs a bumptious collage of homely materials on a wood panel and casts a strong light across the surface. Then, on a new wood panel of the same size, he exactingly copies in oil paint every rough edge, soft shadow, scraped surface, overlapped tape layer, burn mark, pencil scrawl, and wood-grain pattern of the 3-D construction. When his trompe l’oeil doppelganger is finished, he destroys the original.

Hayes’ “Hair Brush,” 2016

Collage is a tricky business, in which existing forms are melded into new entities, as when Picasso combined handlebars and a bicycle seat to create a bull’s head. Hayes ups the conceptual ante by employing wire to signal “arm hair” or “brush bristles” and then painting dead-on portraits of such ridiculous assemblages. Like Frankenstein’s monster, Hayes’s abject figures are cobbled together from disparate parts that take on an uncanny life of their own.

Another painter with a bent for oddball characters, Rosalyn Drexler populates her canvases with dapper gangsters, tragic celebs, troubled lovers, and other tabloid denizens. Born in the Bronx in 1926, Drexler received little recognition for her prescient pop paintings, done in the early 1960s, and filled the gaps between exhibitions by writing award-winning plays, television scripts, newspaper articles, and numerous novels. In 2016, a retrospective of her artwork toured the country, but the closest her visions of mob hits, prize fights, cinematic lovemaking, and other larger-than-life happenings came to Gotham was Buffalo’s Albright Knox Art Gallery, which made it all the more pleasurable to see a survey of Drexler’s work at Garth Greenan Gallery this past September.

Drexler’s “Priapus Accepts,” 1963

In a career spanning the American Century, Drexler has used enlargements of newspaper and magazine photos as templates for her audacious compositions, whether Chubby Checker doing the Twist in 1964, a dual portrait of Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat in 1988, or — still the indelible image of America in the new millennium — a ghostly, arms-spread figure with flapping suit coat in 2012’s Man Falling.

Drexler’s study for “How Long Have You Had These Fantasies,” 1988

Drexler’s sparkling blend of absurdity and pathos has not waned over the decades. In 1966’s It Isn’t Me, we see a woman depicted on a flat red background (Drexler’s settings are invariably stark and boldly colored, isolating her figures) holding up her hand to hide her face, a stylish black handbag complementing her white dress. Is she fending off a jilted lover, the law, or paparazzi? Fast-forward to 2012’s Nobody’s Fault, in which a man in a sleeveless T-shirt hunches forward — whether he’s crying or suffering a hacking cough is unclear. The wavy black and ocher background may be a distant mountain range, or perhaps a lover’s contours seen in the figure’s imagination. Created almost half a century apart, these two images encapsulate Drexler’s enduring magic. We may not completely fathom her narratives, but her vivid shapes, wholehearted colors, and always-evocative titles convince us we’ve experienced them.

Some of the earliest glimmers of American pop culture arose from the late-19th-century newspaper wars between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. In 1896, looking to boost circulation by cajoling readers away from his rival’s publications, Hearst ran a promotional ad in his New York Journal trumpeting a new, full-color comics section: “Eight pages of iridescent polychromous effulgence that makes the rainbow look like a lead pipe. That’s the sort of a Colored Comic Weekly people want — and — THEY SHALL HAVE IT!” In George Herriman, A Life in Black and White (HarperCollins, $35.00 hardcover, $4.99 e-book), which won the 2017 Eisner Award for best comics-related book, author Michael Tisserand recounts how, fully three decades after the Civil War ended, “colored” comics were a plus for a newspaper, but “colored” skin was still a negative for U.S. citizens.

Left: Self-aware Krazy, 1941; right: Ignatz in his glory, 1934

Although his birth certificate listed him as “Colored,” George Herriman (1880–1944) passed as white, and was known as “the Greek” among his colleagues at the turn of the 20th century. In those days, cartoonists were a big circulation draw. Pulitzer’s New York World featured Richard F. Outcault’s “Hogan’s Alley” comic strip, which followed the rough ’n’ tumble adventures throughout the city’s tenement slums of a jug-eared, bald-headed tyke in a yellow smock. The series became immensely popular, so Hearst hired Outcault away from Pulitzer to start a new strip that would still feature the “Yellow Kid,” as the character had become known. But Pulitzer owned the rights to the original urchin in Hogan’s Alley, and kept the strip running with a different artist.

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The competing kids in their yellow attire, both prominently featured in papers known for sensational headlines and stories that ebulliently skirted the truth, gave rise to the term “yellow journalism.” This was the atmosphere in which Herriman came of age, and as a journeyman cartoonist he did his share of propagandistic political cartoons, hoping to win a permanent staff job at a Hearst newspaper, since the boss had a reputation as a huge comics fan. No one can know, however, how Herriman contended in his heart with such headlines in Hearst papers as “Talented Co-Ed in Chicago Proves to Be Negress,” for an article about a popular student who briefly passed as white in a failed quest to join an exclusive sorority. “We all liked her very much until we found out the facts,” one of the white students who blackballed her said.

An American visionary’s self-portrait with friends.

After many short-lived strips, Herriman launched Krazy Kat, in 1913, and the art form has never been the same. In a phantasmagorical version of Arizona’s Coconino County — a polychromatic desert where night and day might switch from one panel to the next — the indeterminately gendered Krazy pines after Ignatz Mouse (who returns the Kat’s affections by hurling bricks at his/her head), while “Offissa Pupp,” a dog in love with the cat, in turn hounds the mouse. After a fashion, it all made sense: If a black visionary could pass as a white cartoonist in America, why couldn’t his characters live in a world of fluid genders and backdrops—and even long for species miscegenation?

Krazy Kat was meta in a hurry—in a 1926 episode, Krazy questions the very existence of all the inhabitants of the strip, asking in the third panel, “Why, where was we before we came into that first picture up there?” This conundrum of fictional beings wrestling with their place in the universe and the nature of their “creator” will resonate with anyone who has laughed and winced at the travails of a pair of Shakespeare’s minor characters elevated to the confused leads in Tom Stoppard’s 1966 play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

Krazy has an existential moment, 1933

Tisserand’s painstakingly researched biography reveals how Herriman deflected the racial animus that constantly surrounded him (and which was barely held at bay by his light skin and the hat he always wore to cover what his colleagues termed “George the Greek’s kinky locks”) into fodder for his funhouse-mirror vision of America. In 1961, James Baldwin wrote, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” Tisserand gives us some idea of how, decades earlier, Herriman, rather than go mad, went surreal, creating a community in ink where creatures of every stripe went along to get along. Even if they might at times antagonize one another, they would never stoop to hate—in Herriman-land, throwing a brick was an unintended expression of love.

Few artists can predict if they are going to be immortal, but Herriman must have had a glimpse that the sui generis beauty of his graphically dynamic layouts, endearing characters, and pungent patois would live into the ages. (The strip ran until Herriman’s death.) Although Krazy Kat was never wildly popular, its fans, including Hearst himself, were intensely loyal, and successful cartoonists as varied as Charles Schulz (Peanuts), Will Eisner (The Spirit), and Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes) cite it as a major influence. (As did the painter Philip Guston, and singer Michael Stipe of R.E.M. has Krazy and Ignatz tattoos.)

Meta in a hurry: Ignatz with a painting of himself in jail, 1927

Ultimately, Herriman was keenly aware that he lived in the penumbra of white America’s shadow, a realm that could always grow suddenly much darker. Tisserand quotes a famous passage that is often shorn of context—in a 1917 strip Krazy finds a Ouija board and asks the spirits who her enemies are. When the planchette spells out “I-G-N-A-T-Z,” Krazy stomps the board while exclaiming “T’aint so!! T’aint so!! Ignatz is my friend.” In the following panels Ignatz finds his ruined Ouija board and vengefully pastes Krazy with a brick, thereby convincing the Kat that the mouse does, in fact, love her.

Such feints and misunderstandings were mainstays of the strip, and might, in retrospect, shed light on Herriman’s negotiations between prejudice and the pursuit of happiness in these United States, which lends the oft-quoted lines in the last panel of that Sunday’s strip an even deeper poignance:

You have written truth, you friends
of the “shadows,” yet be not
harsh with “Krazy”
He is but a shadow himself,
caught in the web of
this mortal skein.
We call him “Cat,”
We call him “Crazy”
Yet is he neither.
At some time will he ride away
to you, People of the Twilight.
His password will be the echoes of
a vesper bell, his coach, a
zephyr from the West
Forgive him, for you will
understand him no better than we
who linger on this side of
the pale.

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From the Archives: Delving Into the Voice’s Early Comics Coverage

As the New York Comic Con takes over the Javits Center this weekend, we look back at the way the Voice covered some of the most compelling comic characters of the modern era.

Although Howard the Duck was, well, a walking, talking duck, he was also a down-to-earth everyman struggling with life’s vicissitudes. Some worries were basic — what are he and his red-headed girlfriend, the comely Beverly Switzer, going to eat when they’re down on their luck? — and some were cosmic — fighting “Pro-Rata, Chief Accountant of the Universe,” who dwells in a castle constructed of stolen credit cards. In their “Scenes” column from April 19, 1976, Howard Smith and Brian Van der Horst note that comic experts considered Howard “a new departure in the world of comic books” and describe the speculative collectors’ market that sprang up around the first issue.

Then, toward the end of that Bicentennial year, author Ernie Eban’s feature “The Last Angry Duck Stands Up for America” explains how Howard’s creator, Steve Gerber, working in a Brooklyn apartment, came up with his decidedly un-superhero: “I can’t tell you exactly why it was a duck. All I know was that I needed a gag to top the barbarian jumping out of the jar of peanut butter, and the whole creation of the character came in a second and a half.”

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Also in 1976, R. Crumb begins an exclusive series of Mr. Natural strips for the Voice. And in that same issue, James Wolcott attends a Star Trek convention and concludes, “Beneath the optimism of the Star Trek craze lies a vulgarized Nietzscheanism — the will to power banalized in the stud-adventurer, Captain Kirk.”

A decade earlier, we find reporter Sally Kempton coming down hard on comic fandom in her article “Super-Anti-Hero in Forest Hills.” She writes, “Reading old comic books is hard work; it is possible to enjoy Batman only if you continually remind yourself that you liked him when you were 12.” But she is impressed with Marvel’s then-new brand of comics, because they are “the first comic books in history in which a post-adolescent escapist can get personally involved. For Marvel Comics are the first comic books to evoke, even metaphorically, the real world.”

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Will Eisner’s Universal New York Stories

“I have problems with villains,” the comic-book virtuoso Will Eisner once said in an interview. “I’ve never been able to see a villain as absolute! Always in the back of my mind I say, ‘I bet he’s good to his mother.’ ”

Humanity leavened with contradiction, pathos, and humor describes the cast of characters Eisner (1917–2005) created in his trailblazing career, most notably in the adventures of a heavy-fisted, lighthearted crime-buster, the Spirit.

The Spirit has been called the Citizen Kane of comics, and it would be accurate to say that Eisner and Orson Welles — the actor/writer/director who brought Charles Foster Kane to life in that 1941 masterpiece — sprouted from the same loam of pulp magazines and cliff-hanging radio serials. Welles apprenticed in classical theater, while Eisner studied narratives almost as psychologically complex (and more innately American): reams of newspaper strips and Sunday funnies. Both auteurs expanded their mediums in ways we still reckon with today.

The Society of Illustrators’ two-floor retrospective of Eisner’s work reveals that as early as the March 1940 issue of Smash Comics, he was employing noir shadows and dramatically angled viewpoints in tales of global intrigue. Even before the United States entered World War II, Eisner was drawing skulking figures with swastika armbands. The long shadow cast by a dissenter on the street echoes the foreboding of Edward Hopper’s famous Night Shadows etching (which the Brooklyn-born, Bronx-raised Eisner might have seen at the Metropolitan Museum as a teenager, when he sketched the old masters there). In the next panel, this figure has been gunned down; a frightened reporter witnesses the crime, her torso gridded by windowpanes.

The eldest child of immigrant parents (his mother was born on a boat sailing to New York from Romania), Eisner had a true appreciation for the downtrodden. Few artists have had as deep a love affair with New York City’s vast stage-set of elevated trains, sewer grates, streetlights, fire escapes, and clotheslines strung between tenement buildings. Eisner was a poor athlete, but he impressed neighborhood toughs by drawing national hero Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis airplane in chalk on the sidewalk. Eisner was not the first artist to focus his love of physical action in his wrist and fingers, and decades later, in a discussion with the consummate draftsman Milton Caniff (the virtuoso behind the Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon newspaper strips), Eisner described contests with other budding cartoonists as they developed inking skills: “[L]ike two local bullies hand wrestling, one of us would draw a long line and the idea was for the other to go over it without appreciably thickening it, until one or the other would waver his line. I usually lost and bought the beers but it was a great learning process.”

From Will Eisner’s Spirit Casebook of True Haunted Houses and Ghosts, 1976
From Will Eisner’s Spirit Casebook of True Haunted Houses and Ghosts, 1976

Like many aspiring illustrators, Eisner initially tried to break into the world of high-end advertising, but he bumped up against anti-Semitism in that WASP-dominated business. In those Depression-straitened circumstances, he was willing to do almost any kind of illustration, but he balked at an offer to crank out pornographic comics for a Mobbed-up printer. Eventually he partnered with Jerry Iger, a flamboyant businessman who was trying to get traction in the nascent comic-book field, which had begun by reprinting newspaper strips before branching out into new material modeled on the adventure tales, set in urban alleyways or steaming jungles, found in the pulp magazines of the 1920s. In 1938, Eisner made one of the few bad business decisions of his career when he and Iger turned down a new character mailed to them by two twentysomethings from Cleveland. Later that year Superman took America by storm, heralding the stratospherically popular superhero genre that continues to this day on multiplex screens across the country. But as biographer Michael Schumacher put it, Superman seemed like “kid stuff” to the serious-minded Eisner, requiring “a suspension of belief that dipped into the realm of bad science fiction or fantasy, as well as a format that demanded more action, less story.”

Instead, Eisner wanted street-level drama. In 1940, the 23-year-old sold his half of their comics packaging business to Iger and struck out on his own. He soon hit gold with the Spirit, whose underground hideout in a cemetery contained comfy living quarters and a crime laboratory. Influenced by such pulp magazine heroes as the brawny Doc Savage and the mysterious Shadow, along with Caniff’s adventure strips and the surreal landscapes found in George Herriman’s Krazy Kat panels, the Spirit was a righteous outlaw reliant only on his wits and his fists to defeat corrupt politicians, oily crime bosses, small-change ward heelers, foreign spies — anyone betraying the public trust. Often, the backgrounds of manholes, fire hydrants, and barred windows were drenched in rain, but the characters rose above cliché. Yes, Police Commissioner Dolan could be a bumbler, but he had a professional pride that could get bruised when the Spirit bagged crooks through extrajudicial methods. The boss’s daughter, lovely blonde Ellen Dolan, was predictably in love with the Spirit — but was also independent enough to get elected mayor of Central City, the Gotham stand-in where the stories took place. And Eisner gave his star an African-American sidekick, Ebony White, who, despite the blubber lips and Amos ‘n’ Andy–esque inflections common to many fictional black characters of the time, was presented as a smart and brave assistant who got his boss out of more than one near-fatal scrape.

Packaged in a Sunday newspaper supplement, the self-contained seven-to-eight-page Spirit stories proved a hit with readers, and by 1941 the young artist/writer/entrepreneur had a busy studio employing a staff of ten. As with Rubens before him and Warhol later, Eisner’s name was signed to artwork he never touched; many soon-to-be giants of the medium, including Batman creator Bob Kane and future Village Voice cartoonist Jules Feiffer, did apprenticeships in the Eisner studio. In a mark of his business savvy, Eisner insisted on owning the rights to his characters, and he even had the prescience, as war with Japan threatened, to buy a wholesale quantity of finely crafted Japanese ink brushes — which he preferred over domestic brands — fearing that imports might soon come to an end. Decades later he would joke that he was still using brushes from that stockpile.

An early Spirit board from 1941, displayed in the show, features flailing crooks and bent floor diagonals, hinting at the graphic dynamism to come. Eisner was divining a potential in the medium well beyond what most of his peers could fathom, and a newspaper article at the time noted Eisner’s belief that comic strips had the potential to become “an illustrated novel” offering “material for limitless intelligent development.”

But first came World War II. Eisner enlisted, turning most of the Spirit duties over to his studio. He convinced his superiors in the Army that comics could be an entertaining way to instruct soldiers in the proper care of equipment, and his instinct that the medium would mature with its audience was borne out — at the height of the war, 30 percent of all mail sent to servicemen overseas was comics. To educate the troops, Eisner created Joe Dope, a bumbling private who constantly mishandled equipment. In one watercolor in the show, an angry aviator manhandles Joe for overheating a .50 caliber machine gun and warping the barrel. The brass deemed the pamphlets effective, and Eisner’s company cranked out preventive-maintenance comics into the early 1970s.

But it was after Eisner returned to civilian life, in 1945, that he did his best Spirit work, represented in the show by a story about attempted murder among syndicated cartoonists, a parody of the wildly popular Li’l Abner, Dick Tracy, and Little Orphan Annie sagas. The four panels of the opening “splash” page (an industry term denoting a dynamic graphic treatment) progress like a boom shot from Citizen Kane, rising from the overflowing street gutter up to and through a skylight where a victim is sprawled across his drawing board. The word SPIRIT blows along the curb like an abandoned newspaper. Eisner was a master of physical typography, crafting the Spirit logo out of everything from apartment buildings to a chair for one of his bombshell anti-heroines to lounge upon. The newspaper syndicates complained, believing the design changes would confuse readers, but Eisner argued that having a bold splash page would grab those readers as they flipped through the four-color cacophony of a Sunday edition. Eisner’s “logotecture,” as it came to be known, influenced the design of many later comic-book covers, and one wonders how many of those plunging 3-D titles for Fifties sci-fi films took cues from this postwar master. Academy Award–winning director William Friedkin acknowledged that an Eisner cover featuring the Spirit racing along elevated train tracks was a major influence on the hair-raising chase sequence in The French Connection. Eisner’s graphic pyrotechnics — along with vertiginous perspectives, evocative body language, and dead-on details of furniture and moldings — smoothed over the occasional plot hole that sometimes arose through the series’ relentless weekly production schedule.

Title page to “Teacher’s Pet,” The Spirit, September 10, 1950
Title page to “Teacher’s Pet,” The Spirit, September 10, 1950

Comics fell into a bad odor in the 1950s, accused in U.S. Senate hearings of contributing to juvenile delinquency. The Spirit ended its run in 1952 and Eisner spent the following two decades concentrating on his educational comics for the Army and industry. In 1966, however, he revived the Spirit for a five-page story in the New York Herald Tribune about the previous year’s mayoral race. The catalog notes that the word balloons had been attached to acetate overlays that have since been lost, perhaps appropriate for a contest where the always tart conservative Bill Buckley, when asked what he would do if he won, famously replied, “Demand a recount.”

In the early Seventies, Eisner was pleasantly surprised when comics aficionados who remembered The Spirit from their youth approached him about publishing reprint editions. Fans who had only heard of the legendary character were thrilled, and while there were a few angry exchanges in letters columns over whether Ebony was a racist caricature or a fully realized character whom Eisner had endowed with true dignity, the times were definitely a-changin’. It was in this period that Eisner began realizing the “illustrated novel” concept he’d first envisioned over three decades earlier. The result was A Contract With God (1978), represented in the exhibition through boards depicting the grumpy super of a tenement building who sums up his attitude toward tenants with one phlegmy gesture: “Ptooy!!” The story’s opening page features a graphic spaghetti of basement pipes and steps, setting the mood for interwoven tales of poverty and perseverance. Boards from the serialized story Life on Another Planet include imaginative panel layouts that segue between vast reaches of space and a man in an office chair; scattered stars on one page are echoed on the next by torn shreds of paper containing a message from aliens. Eisner had long mastered the inspired leaps across time and space that can be implied between comic panels on the same page (one of the medium’s big advantages over the linear flow of movie scenes), and the existential narratives of his graphic novels explore wide-ranging subjects, from the death of a child to the anti-Semitic calumnies of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. In the early 1980s Eisner described his struggle to convey these melancholy themes: “I had to feel it. I sat there at the board and acted it out in my head,” he told the brilliant caricaturist Jack Davis during a shoptalk discussion, adding, “We are actors who haven’t got the courage to get up on the stage and do it.”

But Eisner had been brave enough to drive a young art form toward its full potential, even after he’d been dismayed to discover at the start of his career that, as he later put it, “Everybody who edited comics decided that comic-book readers were ten-year-old cretins in Kansas City.” Starting with The Spirit and through a half-century of innovation, Eisner never wrote down to his audience but instead embodied his 1941 prophecy of “limitless intelligent development.” And while he did not create the first “graphic novel” — there were many antecedents, including Lynd Ward’s wordless woodcut narratives from the 1930s — Eisner set a standard for such later masterpieces as Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen. The reigning genius of the field, Moore once summed up the biggest achievement of the kid from Brooklyn: “Eisner is the single person most responsible for giving comics its brains.”

Will Eisner: The Centennial Celebration 1917–2017
The Society of Illustrators
128 East 63rd Street, 212-838-2560
societyillustrators.org
March 1–June 3 (opening reception March 10)