Tuesday, April 23, 2002

Listen to jazz fans and you'll hear how much bigger jazz could be if it only got more airplay. (And if they say it's "America's classical music," slap them.) Poetry buffs will go on about how great things would be if only poetry could be put in front of more people--schools maybe, NPR perhaps or even sides of buses if that's what it takes. Folks interested in movies not in English will tell you "If only more Americans could see these, they'd really like them." Everybody in a subculture (perhaps not strictly the correct word but you can make allowances) has some scheme to get their favored object(s) to the masses. Sure most schemes might work to some degree but you know except for blips here and there jazz has never been popular and we're just not in a poetic era.

People concerned about the reach of comic books have the same kind of ideas. Usually it's stuff like making comics more realistic or less, fresher characters or more familiar, shorter stories or longer, on and on. Perhaps the only thing they all agree about is that there just aren't enough genres. (Probably much more serious is that comic distribution is a virutal monopoly and the comic store culture designed to reject outsiders--I've seen some more friendly than others but not yet a decently marketed one.) Basically in the US you've got superheroes and a bit of related matter. That's pretty much it. Fans rave about Japan where comics can be about almost anything, not just the usual science fiction/fantasy/samurai stuff but romances, political dramas, whacky comedy, transgressive avant-garde, high-school soap opera. And of course it wasn't long ago that on US stands you could find war, romance, horror, funny animals, straight comedy. Heck, a comic book about Jerry Lewis ran for almost ten years. Today I rarely even see the Powerpuff Girls books in comics stores.

This is a roundabout way to get to Greg Rucka & Steve Rolston's Queen and Country: Operation: Broken Ground and Frank Miller's Sin City. (And here's one problem with blogs: If I was getting paid for this I'd spend more effort getting that intro boiled down to the interesting essentials.) Not superheroes but still of possible appeal to such fans.

Sin City--the original 1992 book--is basically a parody of hard-boiled crime fiction. The sub-Spillane narration is full of "dames" and other keywords while the story involves all the usual lowlife characters and crummy dives. The further you go into the book, though, the less it looks like a parody but just something that Miller thought cool--mistakenly as it turns out. The protagonist, for instance, is not only the usual racist homophobe that so many hard-boiled writers thinks indicate reality but he's also a full-fledged psychopath. Miller shows his roots by making this guy more or less a version of Batman: he climbs up the sides of buildings, leaps across the roofs, takes phenomenal amounts of physical abuse and can disarm professional soldiers with only his hands (or a hatchet). Not stuff you would have seen Robert Mitchum do. So much for reality. There are obvious possiblities to such an anti-hero but he's stuck in a story of ridiculous twists that seems like Miller started without knowing where it was going. The ending in particular is intended to tie together the various story threads but is instead completely tossed off and psychologically implausible, mainly because Miller spends so little effort making it anything else. The main response will be "Is he kidding?" so maybe it's a parody after all. Miller uses a stark high-contrast style for the art which works fairly well once you get used to it; the major flaw comes when he shifts black to white which creates the impression that lights have been turned on. Consistency is what's called for.

Much better is Rucka and Rolston's Queen and Country: Operation: Broken Ground (Oni Press). This tpb collects the first four issues of the on-going comic (a complete story) plus a short from an anthology. This is a no-frills, realistic spy story focusing on a woman operative in a special ops department of British intelligence. By "realistic" I mean believable and plausible more than anything: I have no idea whether anything like this happens in reality but not only could the basic premise occur, it's easy to imagine (or read in some history years down the line) that this is actually how it happened. There are only a couple of action sequences; the rest of the story is about the repercussions within the department where loyalties, job descriptions, authority and objectives all conflict. Change a few details and anybody who's ever worked in a corporation or large office would recognize the dynamics. Rolston's clean, direct art works well with this story; I'm glad they didn't decide to go with something gritty and dark. It wasn't until reading the sketches at the end and the introduction--I always read introductions to fiction last--that I was aware of complaints that the art is too "cartoony." But it's really that sense of familiarity and the everyday that makes Queen and Country work so well. Especially impressive are the faces. I've been reading comics off and on for 30 years but it wasn't until now that I realized how much most comic art relies on costumes and clothing as the main identification. Many of the characters in Queen and Country tend to be dressed the same but the faces are so distinctive that they're easily distinguished (and just as important the faces are consistent: checking other comics it's easy to see that faces are rarely a real concern of most artists).