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You Can Lead a Messiah to Water, But You Can't Make Him Walk
posted January 1, 2001
 

I have it on good authority that the world is going to end during the half-time show at Super Bowl XXXIV in New Orleans, Louisiana. He may be just a dog to you, but Cody has been my faithful canine companion for more than seven years now. So when he began to float around the apartment and speak the wisdom of the ages in a soft, treacly, singsong voice, I decided to listen.

"Why after the New Year and not before?"

"It's funnier after," Cody said, negotiating around the halogen lamp with vigorous wags of his tail. "And, as of right now, God's still alive in the football pool."

******

There are no signs in the lobby at St. John's hospital, so I need to stick my head into the gift shop to find my way to the physical rehabilitation unit. As instructed, I follow the mirrored walls, avoiding my own reflection like a child refusing broccoli, tilting my head down and away.

I find my father's room before the question is out of my mouth at the nurse's station. He's strapped into a wheelchair, out of hospital clothes and in slacks and shirt. The clothes, scooped into a pillowcase by a family friend as the ambulance prepared to take Dad away, were horrifically matched - the shirt frayed and worn, the checked pants incredibly stylish. Most impressive were the brown loafers, old enough to pucker at the seams into several mouth-like holes. Their dead weight dominates the room, as if the privilege of wearing shoes were a victory in and of itself.

A memory flash: myself at two years old riding on one of my father's feet like it was a horse. I am extremely pleased with myself for going directly to such an over-the-top, maudlin image. I predict twelve hours until I use the visit to elicit sympathy from someone I don't know very well.

******

During my dad's in-home evaluation, I buy two comic books at Bob's Comic Castle. Bob's wasn't my hometown comic store, but it was the store that bought that store's back stock when owner Bruce Bright was buried by the black-and-white bust of 33 comics industry busts ago. The checkout clerk is the same person from whom I first purchased books on a home visit in 1991; perhaps he owns the place by now. His ponytail is tighter, and for the first time I notice he has some gray hair. He tries to talk to me about my purchases as I look past him at the Pokemon display and nod politely.

I read both comics on a half-soaked bench in nearby Westside Park, 300 yards away from where a friend of mine was murdered 14 years earlier. They reek of Armageddon. In The Authority, members of the featured superteam are shown making witty conversation during their downtime as an unstoppable alien armada infiltrates the planet and - appropriately for a comic whose funniest conceit is its willingness to destroy real-world cities and monuments - starts to break the moon into rubble. In JLA, the end of the world is to come at the hand of an approaching super-deity named Mageddon and the resulting worldwide madness, horrors communicated off-panel through monitored television broadcasts (as if there were budget constraints) while the important super-battles take place in the four-color foreground.

Both books pay homage to Alan Moore. Warren Ellis' indestructible villains are pure 1985, given stature and heft through pungent dialogue speaking to their impressiveness and by making their appearance a foregone conclusion, fulfillment of some overlooked prophecy. Grant Morrison channels the Moore of the mid-'90s by way of Mark Waid. His comic is a string of impressive movie cutaways and anticipatory threats - wrestling interviews as written by James Ellroy. I lack submersion in the particulars of superhero art styles circa 1999 to know if the art in either is any good, but everything in both books seems shiny and rubbery, a fetishist's delight.

The comics posit horror-show worlds of falling rubble and weekly threats of complete annihilation, where the feelings of dread and fear of dying they seek to tease out of teenage readers would be brutally irrelevant. They offer inflated heroes fighting inflated threats, taking themselves away from even the child's lesson of a safe and comfortable world. They function as fascistic Kabuki, pleasure derived from how well each engages dubious, specific, pre-figured thrills.

I finish my Big Mac and push myself away from the soaked, soft wood of the park bench. I stop briefly by what I believe is the exact site of my friend's murder. I can't be sure, having refused to visit the place until 10 years after the fact and only by myself. His favorite comic was The Flaming Carrot, and all superhero comics he dismissed as being "too much like themselves." I think I understand what he meant.

*****

That night I dream I'm a production assistant on a movie where Ben Stiller plays a cop who thinks he's Toulouse-Lautrec. I follow him into the police station being used as a set, and walk past a room full of cartoonists sitting around a set of tables in the shape of a capital "C." They're making drawings in notepads from information in manila folders. Some, like Jeff Smith, draw more expressively than others.

"This room is for cartoonists only," says the puffy cop just inside, ruddy-faced and swinging a stick. He looks as if any moment the Little Rascals will burst through on a go-kart and knock him off of his feet.

"I do a cartoon," I tell him.

"You're a cartoonist? Which one?"

"Bobo."

The man puts his nightstick down and pushes forward to shake my hand. "I'm a big fan, sir. We've been waiting for you."

I'm feeling pleased. He leads me around the table, all business. He claps me on the shoulder and shoves a folder into my hands.

At the top, it says, "Berberian."

Mortified, I move into the chair next to a beckoning Brian Michael Bendis. I pick up the pencil provided and flip open the manila folder.

The instructions are in French.

*****

I read comics because of my mom and dad. They taught me to read comics not through direct example but by leaving me alone, seeking to correct only those bad habits that involved alcohol, and giving me an allowance much bigger than those enjoyed by my friends. Later, the combination of the middle class notion that all art was beneficial and their general post-divorce exhaustion kept them from encouraging another art form over my first choice.

For my father comics are one of the comforting cultural realities that signifies better times, when he lived with his mom and dad in the big house on Alden Road and his older sister followed Terry and the Pirates the way kids today watch shows on the WB. An obsessive packrat, he used to have stuffed away in an old trunk newspapers that carried Crockett Johnson's Barnaby. The Saul Steinberg books on the coffee table were a sign of New Yorker-influenced Midwestern taste, while the Peanuts books he purchased for us on rainy summer days were good because they inspired reading and kept us quiet.

When I was in graduate school, most of my stuff was stored at his house on Lake Wawasee, and I used to visit on weekends. He grew enamored of the Hernandez Brothers, and I would often find him in bathrobe and slippers reading individual issues of Love and Rockets. "The drawing is remarkable," he told me once as he scanned the pages, lightly reading. "Although some of it is a little strong." He held up a picture of she-males in Gilbert's Poison River serial. "I don't think I really understand that."

When I worked at the Journal, my father would read an occasional issue cover to cover and send me a note inevitably detailing some bizarre connection between something in comics and friends, acquaintances or familiar towns in East Central Indiana. I would sometimes pass these along to Gary Groth. One day, Gary laughed about a note concerning some relative of V.T. Hamlin and a town called Nappanee, before wistfully looking out towards 11th Avenue. "I wish my dad sent me notes about the magazine."

******

I spend two hours at the Muncie Mall, where I'm confused by the early-morning Senior Walk signs, at first thinking them some sort of bizarre, enforced-march shopping circuit. Amazingly, I see several families I know, fragmented into different but still recognizable parts, listlessly picking up presents. Outside of a particularly seedy-looking Chess King, a friend of my mother's asks me if working on a comic strip is like the show Caroline in the City.

I try to say, "Not really, except that both Lea Thompson and I were much cuter 10 years ago." But the studio audience is distracted by Eric Lutes' shameless off-camera mugging and drowns me out with their laughter.

******

I have an amazing Thanksgiving with people I barely know and for whom I therefore feel no obligation to edit my jokes. I have an even more amazing weekend ten days later attending a wedding near Iowa City with people I know very well and for whom I feel every obligation to edit my jokes. The only difference, really, is use of the word "cunt."

I drop my friends off at Midway airport. Midway is like the greatest airport in America... in 1953. Unlike airports in developed countries, where only the exact time is a well-kept secret, at Midway such things as basic flight information are obscured. Updates are either hand-changed or, more likely, passed along from passenger to passenger in the manner of that campfire game "Telephone."

Leaving the gate, I check my messages to hear the latest on Dad and instead learn that a former best friend was sentenced to 123 years in jail for attempted murder charges. Near the rental car desk, my backpack falls open while still on my back and various papers, tapes, and comics scatter across the dull, dirty floor. Two strangers stop to help me, and despite the kindness of their voices I avoid looking at them, knowing that if I do I'm likely to bawl.

******

In 1990, I was arrested for drunk driving and grand theft auto. I told the officer in charge I was borrowing the stolen car to meet my friends, "Maggie and Hopey." The first place I drove a car was Bright's Book Exchange on Highway 332, where I bought the premier issue of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The day my friend was murdered I spent buying comics at Comics Carnival, including that issue of Cerebus where he throws the baby.

I used to keep comics bagged and the best ones taped mosaic-style to the wall above my bed; it never occurred to me this was dopey until the fifth grade. Learning about how to design a room to fit your personality, a little girl named Holly with big, brown eyes that dominated her head like a muppet's turned to me and said, "I bet your room is full of antiques." This was devastating, although as I got older I would become much more accustomed to disappointing women.

The first comic I remember reading had the Flintstones in it. I read it on a bench in Union Station in Chicago. The first collectible comic I ever saw was a copy of X-Men #94 on sale at B&B loan company for $13. The first issue of The Comics Journal I owned had a Dan Spiegle cover. The first girl I ever kissed was at summer camp. I knew my father when he was my age.

******

I was walking around San Diego in 1998 with David Lasky, berating him for doing tons of comic work no one would ever see, when we stopped to say "Hi" to Scott McCloud. McCloud asked me about my burnout-induced shutdown of TCJ On-line. I laughed and talked about choosing to wade through the review column in addition to my regular Journal work. "It seemed like a good idea at the time."

McCloud said, "That's the funniest line ever, you know. 'It seemed like a good idea...' It's always funny."

Flying back to Seattle two weeks ago, I think about McCloud's notion that comics are made comics by the connection readers make between distinct experiences separated by intervals of nothingness. It occurs to me that my life could be a comic if I could just find some way to make a few connections. Then I call myself an idiot and go back to watching Runaway Bride. I hate it: multi-millionaires acting out a dozen happy endings in which no one gets hurt. It's like they're making fun of us.

This essay was originally published at TCJ.com.