Thursday, October 30, 2008

Non-Fiction Review/Comics Review: Bill Schelly, Man of Rock: A Biography of Joe Kubert

Bill Schelly's Man of Rock: A Biography of Joe Kubert is a fine portrait of the pioneering comic-book cartoonist, and an entertaining non-fiction companion to Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. In Chabon's Pulitzer Prize-winning historical novel, he presented the world of the early comic-book industry through the eyes of two dreamers. One was a geeky, meagerly talented fan-turned-pro who saw this world as a way to status, and the other was a talented and idealistic artist who came to view it as the means for fulfilling his muse. Schelly gives us a real-life dreamer who charted another course.

Joe Kubert didn't see the industry as a short cut to status, and his primary motive wasn't to follow and satisfy artistic impulses. A better-adjusted personality than either of Chabon's protagonists (and probably most of his peers), he treated the field as an opportunity for professional and, ultimately, entrepreneurial achievement. By keeping his feet on the ground, he succeeded remarkably well. Now in his eighties, he is considered one of the finest craftsmen in comics history, and his great success as an entrepreneur, the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art, is the best kind of business venture: one that meets a need and contributes to the profession it was designed to serve. He has all the status he could want, and the artistic fulfillment came as well. Kubert's cartooning chops are as strong as they ever were, and over the last two decades he has turned out a number of graphic novels that include historical adventure pieces, journalistic non-fiction, and fictional explorations of the New York immigrant community he grew up in. In many ways, he is an exemplar of the American dream.

The best section of the book is the opening chapters. Joe Kubert was born in the Jewish shtetl of Ozeryany, Poland in 1926, and his family emigrated to the U.S. soon after. Schelly provides a vivid account of the Kubert family's life in the East New York section of Brooklyn during the '20s and '30s, and he catches one up in the enthusiasm of the young Joe for the popular culture of the time: classic radio shows, the seminal monster and gangster movies, and, of course, the newspaper comic strips. Kubert's favorites were the great adventure strips of the day: Harold Foster's Tarzan, Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon, and Milton Caniff's Terry and the Pirates. They sparked his interest in drawing, and when comic books exploded with the first appearance of Superman in 1938, they compelled him to seek out the comics publishers and production shops in Manhattan. Packagers such as Harry Chesler took a liking to the precocious eleven-year-old, and the cartoonists took time out from their work to give him drawing tips. Kubert received his first professional commission when he was just shy of thirteen. Kubert's relationship with editor Sheldon Mayer is of particular note; he describes Mayer as "my first real mentor," and the editor's interest in the young cartoonist paid off. By the time Kubert was twenty, he had become one of the top illustrators in the field. Schelly conveys the joy and sense of accomplishment of the young Kubert in seeing his dream come true almost as he was dreaming it.

However, Schelly takes care to keep the reader aware of the burgeoning horror and chaos in Europe. Hitler's miltary adventurism was of personal concern to the Kuberts, as their relatives lived in the regions that were of most interest to the Germans. Passages dealing with the experiences of Kubert's relatives in Poland are juxtaposed with the accounts of Joe's rise in the comic-book field. The upheaval of Ozeryany after the invasion of Poland, Jews being shot in the city streets, and others being slaughtered in the Belzec concentration camp--all are given attention. He concludes these sections with a restraint that is both admirable and deeply disturbing, "What is known for sure is that none [of Kubert's relatives in Poland] survived the war." According to Schelly, the horror of what happened to his extended family haunted Kubert, and it informed the development of the somber, moody style of adventure cartooning he became famous for.

The middle sections of the book go by quickly and enjoyably. Schelly devotes time to a wide variety of subjects: Kubert's family life, his briefly successful entrepreneurial efforts with 3-D comics, and his experiences working on the Sgt. Rock, Enemy Ace, and Silver Age Hawkman comic-book features. The chapters dealing with his work on the Tales of the Green Beret newspaper strip and his time editing the war-story and Edgar Rice Burroughs lines at DC Comics are particularly fascinating, largely because both projects became caught up in stressful editorial conflicts. These periods were clearly not enjoyable times for Kubert, but Schelly's treatment emphasizes his view of Kubert as "the consummate professional": Kubert's personality compelled him to see a project through both good times and bad.

In many ways, the book treats the founding of the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art as the culmination of Kubert's career. The respect for the mentor-student relationship Kubert had with Sheldon Mayer, the respect for the illustrator and cartoonist's craft, the ability to see a project through to the end--all contributed to the impetus to establish the school. The descriptions of the work involved in setting things up are enjoyable in the way stories of most entrepreneurial efforts are: the principals are obviously figuring out how to do things as they go along, and that keeps the narrative lively. One also appreciates the unheralded contribution of Kubert's wife Muriel, who was, judging by Schelly's account, absolutely indispensible.

The final section of the book is largely a celebratory discussion of Kubert's late-period graphic novels, including Abraham Stone, Fax from Sarajevo, and Jew Gangster. Schelly makes it seem like the icing on the cake of a life well-spent, and one leaves the book with happy admiration for the prolific cartoonist, influential educator, and successful businessman. Kubert describes himself as "the luckiest man in the world," and one wishes him well. The book is intended as a biographical tribute to Kubert, and in this it is successful.

It has flaws as a history, though. Schelly occasionally presents things that run counter to accepted versions of comics history, but he doesn't bother to acknowledge or reconcile it when he goes against the grain. For example, he includes a quote from Leonard Maurer that describes MAD creator Harvey Kurtzman's resignation from the magazine differently than any of the numerous accounts out there. According to Maurer, Kurtzman quit the magazine in disgust over publisher William Gaines' conduct during a lawsuit against Kubert, Maurer, and Maurer's brother Norman. Every other account claims that Kurtzman quit after unsuccessfully demanding a controlling interest in the magazine. I'm not claiming Maurer is wrong, but Kurtzman's resignation from MAD was a fairly significant event in comics history, and if Schelly sees fit to include this contrary view, he has a responsibility to discuss it relative to the common version of what happened. This is minor, but it and other examples raise questions as to what else Schelly is neglecting.

Shelly's failure to acknowledge the standard views of subjects extends to his critical discussions of Kubert's work. He devotes the most space to Fax from Sarajevo, Kubert's 1996 graphic novel about the real-life experiences of a family friend during the Bosnian Civil War. The book's approach is likened to that of such "non-fiction novels" as Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, which is an interesting comparison, but Fax from Sarajevo's most obvious antecedent is Art Spiegelman's Maus: A Survivor's Tale, a graphic novel that was also constructed around dramatizations of firsthand wartime accounts. Schelly doesn't mention Maus other than to note that its commercial success opened the door to publishing graphic novels that weren't aimed at children or traditional comics fans. Given the stature of Maus--it is perhaps the most prominent and respected graphic novel yet published--the failure to discuss the similarity of Fax from Sarajevo's approach to Spiegelman's seems almost obtuse. The book also generated some controversy among critics and cartoonists who felt Kubert's romantic-melodramatic cartooning style was inappropriate, but apart from a brief quote from Gordon Flagg's review in Booklist, Schelly doesn't discuss that either.

Most of the problems with the book are attributable to the fact that Schelly is not a trained historian, and he doesn't strive for the objectivity that a professional scholar would consider imperative. (Although one wishes he and the editors had gone through the book with The Chicago Manual of Style handy. The copyediting is substandard, and the numerous errors are distracting.) Man of Rock is a general-audience biography, and its intent is to celebrate its subject. Schelly provides a detailed view of the various periods in Joe Kubert's life, and he offers an enthusiastic appreciation of Kubert's most notable work through the decades, all presented in a breezy, brisk style. For those interested in one of the greats of adventure cartooning, or in the history of comics in general, Man of Rock is a delight.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Comics Review: Neil Gaiman & Mark Buckingham, Miracleman: The Golden Age

Miracleman was Alan Moore's first major work, and it features the basic approach to story material that defines his style. As I wrote in my review of his work on the strip (click here to read), he identifies the central discourses that inform a concept, and he then reconstructs the concept in ways that critique the old discourses and develop new resonances. In Miracleman, he recognized that an aspect of a superhero's appeal is that such a character speaks to a desire for divine intervention; one some level, people hope for a god to resolve the conflicts and injustices of the world. Moore crafted the story's conclusion to play off of this: he had Miracleman abandon all connection to his earthbound life and assume the role of a god. The character took over the world's reins of power, reordered human society, and brought about a utopia with no material or psychological wants. Moore had reimagined the concept of a superhero as divine agent probably about as far as it could be done, and he seemed to leave his successor on the strip, Neil Gaiman, with absolutely nowhere to go.

Gaiman's response to the challenge he'd been left was probably the only reasonable one. He didn't try to build on Moore's ideas, and he certainly didn't rehash them. Miracleman: The Golden Age, illustrated by Mark Buckingham, takes an approach to Moore's material that is best described as tangential. It borrows the milieu Moore created, but the characters and story material are all but entirely Gaiman's. The book is a collection of sketches and short stories dealing with the lives of everyday people in Miracleman's utopian world, and, unfortunately, most of it isn't very good.

There are some highlights, though. The best strip in the collection, "Spy Story," is told from the point of view of an erstwhile British spy whose mind is so caught up in the paranoia and suspicion of intrigue that it's driven her mad. It's a sharp, dynamic piece that builds tension by counterpointing the reader's recognition of the character's irrationality with concern that her terror is justified. Gaiman develops the suspense to a fever pitch, and he then resolves the story with a clever anticlimax. "Trends" is enjoyable as well, although it isn't so much a story as an entertaining scene of oneupmanship and flirtation among a group of teens. The strip isn't quite as charming as the early Jaime Hernandez stories it pays homage to, but it's pleasant enough. However, the rest of the material is quite dreary--one pointless study in alienation or self-absorption after another.

The major problem with most of the strips is that Gaiman seems to think that once he's struck a tone his job is done. It's not enough for a story to be somber; unless there's some dynamic at work in the narrative and the characterizations, it isn't going to carry much resonance or interest. Gaiman often tries to end the stories on an epiphanic note, but his work here is a far cry from James Joyce's in Dubliners--he lurches into the concluding insights about the characters and situations, and they just aren't that interesting. In fact, they're often quite banal, such as a woman whose family is falling apart finding solace in a children's-book fantasy, or an emotionally and intellectually vapid artist coming to the realization that a remarkably disagreeable acquaintance can't stand his company.

Gaiman tries his hand at confessional narrative in the poorly-titled "Screaming," but he can't make it work the way people like Robert Crumb, Harvey Pekar, or Joe Matt do, largely because his protagonist isn't idiosyncratic enough to be engaging. The only narrative tension comes from the context: the main character relates parts of his life story to the girl he's just lost his virginity to, but he's so oblivious to her that I kept waiting for her to get fed up with his self-absorption and leave. (I was disappointed.) Gaiman doesn't even make his relatively eccentric protagonists work in narrative terms. The main character of "Skin Deep" is a recluse whose obsession with physical beauty blocks his ability to relate to women emotionally, and one waits for him to set his attitude aside and learn to love--it's an obvious conclusion. But all he ends up doing is reconciling himself to a dull, loveless relationship with a physically plain woman. One doesn't know why one should care about this fellow, and I don't think Gaiman knows either. He doesn't bother to suitably craft his ideas.

The weaker examples of Gaiman's work here aren't entirely devoid of interest. He has a good ear for dialogue, and he knows how to pace a comics story effectively through the juxtapositions of text and image. He also has a good partner in illustrator Mark Buckingham, who often particularizes the styles for the stories. The Jaime Hernandez look of "Trends" is perfect for the piece, and the Xerox-abstracted photorealism of "Spy Story" heightens that strip's noirish, nightmarish tone. (I wouldn't be surprised to discover that the art in this story was a major influence on the work of Alex Maleev; the stylistic similarity is striking.) Buckingham's most compelling work is featured in "Notes from the Underground," where he makes dynamic use of a variety of artistic styles, including the look of German Expressionist woodcuts and, most spectacularly, the appropriation-repetition approach of Andy Warhol. He's a strong illustrator, and his versatility shines throughout.

The book's better aspects aside, though, I can't help but feel indifferent to this material being kept out of print for legal reasons. It's infuriating for Moore's Miracleman work to be forcibly consigned to the pit of the collector's market--it's an influential and landmark work in a major genre of popular narrative. Gaiman's efforts on this material, however, are poorly developed for the most part, and even the stronger pieces are so irrelevant to the strip's core concepts that they feel like they've been shoehorned in. The legal mess involving Miracleman's ownership has kept a lot of interested readers from seeing this book, but at least they can take some consolation in that they're not missing much.