Out of the Odd Box: “The Worst Day of My Life”

It’s been over a week since my last post, and I’m still poring through Alec: The Years Have Pants. I still have about a hundred pages left. (Read along if you want. You can buy all 700 pages for $9.99 at the link above.)

I also read this proto-interview with Dave Eggers the other day. It’s all about selling out and why and how people write reviews, and Eggers sort of argues that negative reviews are worthless, and reviews in general are dishonest unless written by someone who’s worked in the same medium as the work being reviewed. Here’s a quote about considering the Flaming Lips as sellouts:

“That rule is clearly stated in the obligatory engrained computer-chip sellout manual that we were all given when we hit adolescence.

But this sellout manual serves only the lazy and small. Those who bestow sellouthood upon their former heroes are driven to do so by, first and foremost, the unshakable need to reduce. The average one of us – a taker-in of various and constant media, is absolutely overwhelmed – as he or she should be – with the sheer volume of artistic output in every conceivable medium given to the world every day – it is simply too much to begin to process or comprehend – and so we are forced to try to sort, to reduce. We designate, we label, we diminish, we create hierarchies and categories.

It’s sort of a long article, but it’s worth reading, and it’s related, in a sideways way, to why I’m solely keeping track of the comics I like. Believe me, there are tons of of books out there that I dislike, but I’ve never convinced someone to dislike a book they already enjoy, and even if I honestly believed that book was worthless, it would make my heart hurt to have someone agree with me and lose the magic of enjoying a story.

On the other hand, I have turned people on to books they didn’t know about or convinced them to give something a second look, and this has always been a good feeling.

That’s all prelude. Or tangent. Since I’m still digging through Alec, I thought I’d offer a look at a shorter work from my Odd Box.

That’s the Odd Box. It’s an old fruit shipping box that I keep my minicomics and giant comics and everything in between in. Here’s “The Worst Day of My Life” (click to enlarge, sorry I photographed this instead of scanning it, etc.).

“The Worst Day” came to me through a teacher in Texas who got it from a student. I’ve blocked out the author’s name at the teacher’s request. Here are the teacher’s words:

“I don’t really remember much about the context of the lesson. It was a writing class. I think they had to write something that told the same story but in a different format (traditional narrative writing). I didn’t teach the students anything about comic conventions which is why I was so surprised by [the] comic.

He was probably 13 or 14. I don’t remember anything about him personally except that he was a really quiet kid in school. I hardly ever heard him speak and when I did it was in Spanish. He wasn’t a special education student so I didn’t get to know him as well as the kids on my caseload.

I was impressed by his decision to not show the face of the character. I might have interpreted that in terms of his shyness but I don’t remember.”

I don’t know that I have much more to add. The lack of Kevin’s face is shy and distancing, but I think it also invites the reader to put him- or herself into Kevin’s place. I think most people have had days like this. The strip does a good job of mixing generality (back of the head, bland couch) with specificity (the construction of that big TV… or maybe I’m just too old to accept that big flatscreens are the most common televisions).

I also like the balance between the narration and pictured actions. I’ve talked a little bit about cartoonists making choices about what exact moments to show and from what angle, and I think the choices in this strip really enhance the despondency. The artist could have shown Kevin’s mom yelling, or he could have shown some sense of comfort in being in his room, but no, it’s just that hallway closing in at the end.

Agents of Atlas

Writer: Jeff Parker
Penciller: Leonard Kirk
Genre: pulp superhero
Context: originally printed as six issues by Marvel Comics; collected edition contains a bunch of ’50s stories as well

Here’s the first real superhero book I’ve read for this mission, and it sets the bar high. Agents is tightly plotted with plenty of room for characterization, and while it leaves the door open for future stories, it’s also almost entirely self-contained.

I’m never sure how I feel about plot versus realism. The path towards pure realism can be boring and self-indulgent, or it can be Ulysses. Plot exercised flawlessly can be predictable or lack characterization, or it can be, I don’t know, whatever your favorite detective story is. Plot and realism always feel opposed to me, since the more realistic something is (i.e. as things like bathroom breaks and long, meaningless silences are narrated), the harder it gets to stick to the rising and falling of a plot. It takes a talented writer to craft a plot that mirrors life while staying engaging.

Given that Agents of Atlas is about six heroes from the 1950s (“the secret agent, the goddess, the robot, the gorilla, the mermaid, the spaceman” — a great tagline) getting the band back together to go after their old nemesis across six issues, there’s not a whole lot of room for realism. Parker puts the team through a great adventure, though, where mysteries appear and are solved and characters change and grow, and then ending is surprising and avoids cliche without coming out of left field.

Leonard Kirk helps with the twists and turns immensely. At one point, there’s a traitor to the team, and the villain literally sees through the traitor’s eyes. If you go back through the book, you’ll see that Kirk often gives an establishing shot of the whole team and follows it with a “spying” panel of the villain watching his spy screen. The scene on the screen is exactly what the traitor would be seeing given his/her/its position, which is a great detail once you know who’s doing the spying.

Maybe saying that the series is plot-driven is wrong, though, because the book has a lot of character. Even though the members are ultra-powerful (they regularly toss tanks, control the minds of armies, and do just about anything with high-tech Uranian flying saucer technology), Parker & Kirk take time to develop each member of the team (and the antagonists), giving them all secrets, regrets, fears, and desires. The characters show the chumminess of old friends even in the midst of giving requisite expository dialogue. Parker’s words aren’t wasted, always serving at least two purposes, and Kirk’s expressive lines are similar; everyone has their own posture and expressions, whether they’re fighting killer plants or chatting in a diner. They even manage to redeem “The Yellow Claw,” a Yellow Threat villain from the ’50s.

I also just want to say that the collected edition, as a physical object, is really great. It reprints the six beautiful Tomm Coker covers. After the main story, there’s a section of sketchbook pages, interviews, and an excerpt of prose from an AR game that Parker ran when the issues were coming out. This is followed by reprints of each individual first appearance from the 1950s and the totally weird What If? comic that teamed them up in the ’70s which was maybe meant to be imaginary but maybe not and had a guy named 3D-Man.

Age of Bronze

By: Eric Shanower
Genre: historical fiction (Trojan War), mythology
Context: published in 2001 & 2004 by Image Comics; planned to run for 7 volumes

More Eric Shanower so soon after Adventures in Oz, but this work is a little under 10 years after the Oz books, and it definitely shows. Shanower, already an accomplished artist in Oz, has become a top storyteller by the time he starts Age of Bronze, his telling of the events surrounding the Trojan War. Where the panels in Adventures were often irregularly sized or laid out in somewhat odd ways, Age of Bronze establishes itself with pages that are mostly three tiers of panels.

This regular grid makes it much more effective when Shanower breaks the pattern, smattering borderless flashback or dream images that seem to exist outside of the hard, defined borders of his here-and-now traditional panels. Techniques like dropping away the borders (or seemingly burning them away as a priest suffers from a vision, the man inside the dissolving borders resolving into higher and higher contrast as though under a bright light) and using full page compositions to explain a character’s backstory (as when two sons of Herakles meet, their reminiscences defined by a white void shaped like their father rising through the middle of the pages) are perfectly executed.

A couple other techniques don’t work as well for me. When Priam, king of Troy, is telling the story of how Herakles kidnapped his sister, the art shifts to a style that is reminiscent of a Saturday morning cartoon, and I’m not quite sure why. When Agamemnon is struggling with whether or not to sacrifice his daughter, he is shown as a man being literally pulled apart, as though he’s made of paper. It’s a neat effect and, like the cartoon Herakles, shows how great an illustrator Shanower is. However, the formal message is unclear. (I also think it would just be cooler if Agamemnon looked as as though he were inscribed on a tablet that was breaking, especially considering a message he tried to send to his wife regarding his daughter was earlier broken in two.)

I think these are my only gripes, though. These are dense, dense books, and Shanower works hard to establish the huge cast as actual humans with rich histories. The amount of research he’s done is obvious, as he remains visually faithful to the Bronze Age and morally faithful to the harsh and sometimes alien views of the Achaeans and Trojans.

I always think of being taught the Iliad as undergrad, where my professor lectured that the cultures in the book were not concerned with personal, internal guilt at all. Instead, he called them “shame” cultures; what mattered was what people saw and reported and gossiped about. Shanower plays this well. Rarely (if ever) are a character’s feelings internal. There are no thought bubbles or narrative captions in the book. All the characters act out their feelings with others, stalking and spitting and screaming or seizing and lusting and kissing, and it’s all layered with what the characters want at the moment along with what they want others to think.

So, yeah, dense books. They took me much longer to read than anything else so far. I could probably go on and on about the well-rounded females in the book, the neat ways of incorporating mythology while staying realistic, and the fact that Shanower is actually telling the history of most of classical Greece, with appearances by or references to Oedipus, Medea, Jason, Herakles, and so many more while still constantly moving the plot of the impending war forward. Dense books. I hope Shanower finishes the entire thing.