What I Like — Comics!

I do like good comic books, and there have been several very good ones lately. ose aren’t your typical comics, no real super heroes among them, but they are worth your time if you like unusual storytelling.

First a little background for non-comic book readers. Three of these books are pu
blished by Vertigo, the adult, darker line from DC Comics, publishers of Superman, Batman, etc. Vertigo has been around for over 15 years and has been responsible for some of the best supernatural horror-fantasy comics ever published, including Neil Gaiman’s amazing Sandman series. Vertigo established a new level of creative risk-taking early on in its life and that tradition continues strong today.

Decades ago, DC published a war comic called GI Combat, featuring an unlikely series called The Haunted Tank. It was pretty standard war comic fare — the guys in a Stuart tank fight Nazis in Europe and North Africa. The series’ unique gimmick was that the tank was haunted by the ghost of Confederate general Jeb Stuart, who appeared as a sort of inspirational mascot , providing little lessons of valor and wisdom that helped the crew survive in battle. Vertigo has just concluded a new 5-issue mini-series, written by Frank Marraffino and drawn by Henry Flint, bringing the Haunted Tank into the modern world. Set in Iraq in the early days of the ongoing unpleasantness, the comic tells the story of a modern tank crew, including an African American crewman who is outraged at the presence of a ghostly, blatantly racist Confederate general. Brutally funny, surprising, even occasionally shocking, the series manages to be a commentary on war, war comics, race relations, courage, and the rough politics of America in the new millennium. Not everyone would like this series, but it earns bonus points for courage and inventiveness, and I loved it!

Like rock music in the 60s, comics had a “British invasion”in the late 80s and 90s. An influx of insanely talented writers energized and revived American comics and ushered in an age of artistic imagination that is still evolving. Perhaps the most prolific of the Brits is Grant Morrison, who recently seems to be writing half the output of DC’s super hero line. Seaguy, also from Vertigo and drawn by Cameron Stewart, is a sort of surreal parody of super hero comics. The current three-issue mini-series is part two of an eventual trilogy. The titular character is a hero in a world without heroics, a brightly colored universe lorded over by Mickey Eye, an enormous, beloved-by-the-masses eyeball, who rules all media and may be god or the devil, or both. Both hilarious and disturbing, Seaguy is, according to its creator, a metaphor for life, the first trilogy being childhood, the second adolescence, and the forthcoming third maturity. Again, not a comic for all tastes, but profoundly entertaining stuff for those who appreciate twisted creativity.

Alan Moore is perhaps the best known of the invading Englishmen. A wildly entertaining writer, Moore is most famous as the author of The Watchmen, but he is also highly regarded for other works, including The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (LXG). LXG comprises a series of stories illustrated by Kevin O’Neill about a band of evil-fighters that has existed for centuries and that features famous characters from literature and popular fiction. The first issue of the current LXG trilogy, long-awaited and foreshadowed by a one-shot volume last year called The Black Dossier, has just been published. Entitled 1910, the comic showcases Moore’s usual inventiveness and his astonishing erudition and knowledge of popular culture from past decades. The story interweaves occultism and obscure (to modern readers at least) characters with the world of Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera (which, again, will miss most of its audience or at least send them off to Netflix to rent the superb 1931 film based on the musical play). Relentlessly layered with literary and historical references, smartly written in every word, 1910 may be the best LXG volume so far. The two subsequent issues will be set in 1968 and 2008 and should be equally fine. 1910 is published by Top Shelf, the same company that produced Moore’s wonderful Lost Girls erotica set in 2006.

Lucifer, another Vertigo series, written by Mike Carey and drawn by Peter Gross, was a sort of spin-off of Sandman that ran for 75 issues, telling the story of the lord of hell after his abdication from his traditional job. Now Carey and Gross have returned with a great new title The Unwritten, that shows promise of being the new star in Vertigo’s firmament. DC seems determined to market the book as some sort of Da Vinci Code clone, which may doom it, but the comic is something else entirely. The protagonist is the putative son of a vanished popular writer of a series of children’s fantasy books. In the course of the first issue, our hero, who was the real-life model for his father’s Harry Potterish creation, learns that his past is far more mysterious than anyone would have ever guessed. Wonderfully smart and entertainingly written, The Unwritten may well be the best of the four books I’m reviewing here, and I would recommend it without reservation to anyone who is interested in graphic fantasy.

Dark Angels III: Flannery O’Connor

Dark angels are rare among the women of American letters. There will be others in our pantheon, but few as dark as Flannery O’Connor, perhaps the first person ever to write a darkly humorous and deeply religious story about the murder of a family by a homicidal killer. That story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find ,” probably woke you up if you ever had to read it in an English class.

 Like William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams, O’Connor saw the American south as a place of almost medieval travail, populated by mad modern prophets, cold blooded highway fiends, and innocent souls trying to make their way through a world where God is present but damned hard to know. And through all the drama, there is an undercurrent of the sharpest wit, far darker and more subtle than Ambrose Bierce and vicious as Mark Twain.

Unmarried and stricken with lupus at 26, when she wasn’t writing, O’Connor spent her life in Catholic devotions, tending barnyard fowl, and carrying on a voluminous correspondence with her best friend, a lesbian. She lived a short, ordinary life except for the glorious, black vision of her talent.

The mordantly brilliant O’Connor only produced 32 short stories and two novels. One of the novels, Wise Blood, was made into a fine movie by Director John Huston, but her work is not popularly read, being relegated to the literature shelves. It’s a shame, because the bleakness of her vision and the lively horrors of her stories, her preoccupation with themes of madness and crime, place her on that interesting border where literature meets pulp.

Dark angel, chronicler of the blackest nights of the soul, Flannery O’Connor.