Ballantine Books, 2006, $24.95, 352pp
|This review first appeared on Emerald City|
|Ever wondered what the world of
superhero comics might have been like if instead of adjectivised guys
like ‘Smilin’’ Stan Lee, ‘Giant’ Jack
Kirby and ‘Stupendous’ Steve Ditko, they had been produced
by, say, ‘Calamitous’ Kyle Baker, ‘Prodigious’
Paul Grist or ‘Geronimo’ James Kochalka?
And instead of battling super-duper mega perils and saving the world every third Tuesday, what if superheroes were a bit more normal, or at least a bit less untouchably ‘super’? Well, then we might be in the bizarre world of, er Bizarro World*, a comics anthology in which the pantheon of the DC Universe (that’s the likes of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash – and not forgetting the Red Bee!) are gingerly handed over to ‘the greatest alternative cartoonists of our time’ for a bit of that crazy-ass ‘indie’ treatment.
“Indie treatment?” you say, “indie treatment?! What’s indie?” Well, it’s folks who don’t work for Marvel or DC, the two big noises in the English-speaking comics world, and probably don’t write superhero comics, because - certainly in the English-speaking world - most of the people who make a living writing comics write superhero comics, but this isn’t true in the rest of the world, where the outrageous conspiracy of geeks, nerds and smelly comic shop guys to shoehorn comics into a single, slightly silly, genre, was defeated by an alliance of science fiction writers, horror writers, romance writers, nurse writers and, hell, every-other-genre writers. There remains still a heroic underground of non-superhero comic writers in the English-speaking world, but it is a small and mostly badly-paid one (if it’s paid at all).
The flame of indie comics is mostly kept alive by the likes of Maus, Palestine and Persepolis – all fine works, and recognised as ‘worthy’ even by those who think the name for a book with pictures in is an ‘atlas’ – and they’re only the ones who the serious press have decided to recognise. Lots of perfectly sane and really quite talented grown-ups write comic books about anything you care to mention (anything except superheroes), exactly the same as writers do in the mundane world, where books don’t have pictures in unless they’re kept in the glove compartment of your car.
In some kind of messed up exception-that-proves-the-rule scenario, however, Bizarro World sees all of these fine and decent folks throw their indie principles out the window and go to work for The Man at DC Comics (except Kyle Baker – who ‘sold out’ already and wrote a whole DC book, the gloriously Looney Tunes-like Plastic Man, since cancelled for making everyone else look bad).
‘So it’s just a 21st century update of Gissing’s New Grub Street,’ I hear you wail, ‘they all surrender in the end!’ But, you know, whilst a certain residual amount of knowledge about the DC pantheon is presupposed, this is mostly a good-natured subversion of those same ‘sacred’ characters by some people who do subversion and humour particularly well.
My own favourites amongst the 35 very fine strips offered here include Eric Drysdale and Tim Lane’s ‘The Break’, a so-ironic-it’s-almost-beyond-irony look at a day off in the life of the Justice League of America, in which Green Lantern concludes, ‘You know, we should all just ‘hang out’ more’. There’s Dupuy Berberian’s very French ‘Monsieur Batman’, who puts so-called ‘millionaire socialite Bruce Wayne’ to utterly proper shame. There’s some classic Kyle Baker (with Elizabeth Glass) in ‘Personal Shopper’, in which Batman’s faithful old retainer, Alfred, tries to order a new Batmobile in secret. ‘Super-Dumped’ by Johnny Ryan and Dave Cooper I liked mostly because Dave’s versions of Wonder Woman and Supergirl are just sooo cute – you can’t help but love the whole story.
Let’s just stop there because, to be honest, I could pretty much pick out every story in this anthology for one reason or another. This is such a quirky, fun-loving and utterly unpredictable book; one that as well as hilariously satirising so many aspects of conventional superhero comics also gives a fleeting glimpse into the great swarm of talented storytellers clinging by their bloody ink-stained fingernails to the under-exploited underbelly of the modern comics scene, a scene whose super-powered mainstays are becoming increasingly moribund and insular despite all the efforts of the industry giants.
Congratulations should go to DC for producing this book and for giving all these writers and artists a chance to be seen; shame on you if you consider yourself a comics fan and you don’t buy this, because that will be yet another tiny triumph for the outrageous conspiracy of geeks, nerds and smelly comic shop guys over the forces of creativity and talent, and another affirmation for the ‘serious literature’ beard-strokers that comics are not worthy of anyone’s consideration.
* Bizarro was a copy of Superman made by Lex Luthor using a duplicator ray (obviously!). However, he turned out to be somewhat ‘damaged’, to say the least, and ended up just hanging around the DC Universe like some kind of super-powered ‘60s acid casualty, eventually going to live on a cube-shaped duplicate of Earth (called Htrae) with a lot of other bizarro duplicates of Superman’s friends. Bizarro does pop up in this anthology, but for the most part the title simply refers to the fact that the world of indie comics is an imperfect one, much like our own.
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