Justice comes by night
BONUS POST: Thanks to Larry Lade and his June pledge at the Doctor Xaos Patreon! When I talk about “stepping out of the river,” I’m talking about Marvel superheroes and titles very similar to them. It doesn’t mean no comics at all, and that holds especially for 1992 or so, when I phased out of superheroes but continued buying tons of titles, and became a dedicated comics pusher upon my entire social life for about the next 15 years. I continued to read a few semi-superhero comics mostly written by John Ostrander like Suicide Squad and The Spectre, but my real interests lay in what the proprietors of the store Page 45 rightly call mainstream: history, fantasy, sex, autobiography, romance, science fiction, and humor.
My titles included Cerebus the Aardvark, Poison Elves, Hate, Omaha the Cat Dancer, XXXenophile, Castle Waiting, Usagi Yojimbo, Alec, Thieves & Kings, Through the Habitrails, Beg the Question, Hepcats, Eyebeams, SCUD: Robot Assassin, Colin Upton’s Big Thing, Buddha on the Road (also by Upton), Dykes to Watch Out For … a bunch of others too which I’ll say “oh wait and” about just after this post goes live …
… and Box Office Poison, by Alex Robinson, which I picked up almost at its beginning on a whim in a Boston comics shop, and bought issue by issue all the way through. Now, a lot of talk about this story focuses on how it begins with more time spent on a particular major character but ends by spending more time on another, but I don’t really care about that; it seems important to me only if one thinks the typical 90-minute action film is the primary model for story structure. Each character’s problems and fate makes the most sense relative to the other one’s, so I will leave this issue behind.
In full, it tops 600 pages with absolutely no wasted space. It’s an immense, multi-character, thoughtful drama with many, many nuances to discuss, laden with who’s-your-favorite-character debate bait (Stephen obviously!), nearly uniquely combining slice-of-life with a steady driving plot, truly a novel that quite a few distinguished Big-Thinky Comics Scribes have failed to match. I’ll focus on only one of its core plots, as one of the finest commentaries on comics culture and ownership available.
Mr. Flavor is a horrid old man who stomps on the toes of every comics fans’ artistic ideals nearly every time he appears, and his biography, when it becomes part of the plot, is a study in undignified and insensitive weaknesses. He’s pathetically isolated and lonely, sure, but frankly, you can see why. You have to pay attention to his art direction and some subtle other points to see that he is truly a master of the form, even as he derides comics-for-their-own-sake and defends the company against upstart creators. When Ed gets going to regain some recognition for him as the creator of the Nightstalker – now of course the center of a huge and repulsive franchise – he has to be dragged kicking and screaming, and he’s so disconnected from the current nature of fandom and superhero fashions that Ed has to run constant interference for him.
You can see what this is drawing on, so I won’t belabor it. My only lead-in is that it’s not a depiction of exact historical people but rather pulls together details into a fictional version of the issue, with its own properties. For example, Jules LeBlanc, the publisher of Zoom, is given executive powers that Lee never had at Marvel, and Mr. Flavor is more like Bob Kane or Jerry Siegel than Jack Kirby, but more wretched and forgotten than any of them. It addresses the idealization of the creator-ownership issue, on both sides, and digs a lot deeper.
I can’t summarize the complex byplay that ensues between the radical “edgy” journal and the slick corporate machine, the various media outlets with their different reasons for picking up the story, or the publisher of Zoom Comics who’s also both humanized-and-horrible much like Mr. Flavor is. Suffice to say that Ed’s campaign changes from a minor agitation to a major issue, culminating in an all-too-realistic set of events at an all-too-realistic comics convention.
I only want to focus on Mr. Flavor’s phases of action:
- At the outset, he’s practically dead on his feet, forgotten, working off-staff for scraps
- As Ed’s mentor, he initially seems like a complete asshole, and the job as his assistant seems at least as bad as Sherman’s never-ending hell at the bookstore
- When he first enters public scrutiny, he’s reluctant and grumpy about it, and even urges Ed to take the deal Zoom offers him, even though it’s an obvious ploy to get Ed to lay off the publicity campaign
- He cuts a secret deal with Zoom, unseen by the reader too
- He invents two new heroes, with some necessary modernizing from Ed
- Once in the modern limelight, he’s puzzled and out of touch
- Once back in the game with Zoom and his new characters, he and Ed have a falling-out
- Finally, unseen, he revises his will in a crucial detail, which doesn’t become known until the end
His most important decisions are not shown at all, only their profound effects, which is a big contrast to Sherman, whose moments of decision often run into pages of interior monologue but somehow never have any effect. Arguably, Ed’s life changes when his best friend subtly shifts from the vacillating and ultimately hopeless Sherman to the impossible but ultimately consequential Mr. Flavor.
It’s one of those fun moments when you give the story to someone and wait for the point when, completely unforeseen and despite themselves in almost every way, they suddenly realize they like the ol’ bastard. He’s one of the great unsentimental ol’ bastards in literature and his emergent friendship with Ed is truly charming even when you want to dropkick him (as Ed even does in a dream sequence).
Only one moment shows his interior tension: the semi-laughable bit at the big convention which I’ve used for the lead-in image, when he runs into a promotional actor or possibly cosplayer in the men’s room and for a weird moment, communes with his own creation … and asks if he’s done the right thing. It’s a callback to an earlier scene when Ed quotes his own Nightstalker dialogue to him to convince him to begin his public campaign, when he called it the “corniest load of horse shit I ever heard.” But here, for a split second, it becomes very real to him, and when the full scope of his decisions are made clear in the very last pages of the entire saga, it’s not laughable at all.
One high-point feature of the whole work lies in reversing two things: black, outright grim comedy and aching, dewy-eyed, entirely authentic idealism. Some characters stay firmly in one or the other, but most of the characters who themselves identify with one of them tend to become, in the long run, examples of the other. Mr. Flavor definitely illustrates the former which turns out to be the latter.
Asking “Who’s the hero” regarding Sherman and Ed misses the point, because the answer is the utterly exasperating and occasionally despicable Mr. Irving Flavor, who does make one completely moral decision, and then when it doesn’t work out as he planned, sticks with it anyway, and beautifully. I leave it up to you to decide who wins his and Ed’s argument in the long run, but to do that, you’ll have to answer these questions:
- Without Dorothy’s slick, higher-profile article, could Zoom Comics have been shamed into cutting a deal?
- Without Zoom Comics and Mr. Flavor’s apparent sell-out, could Ed have become the indie creator he did?
- What does Ed think of star artist Robbie Gar after meeting him at the convention? And related, how does he view the continuity-obsessed fan?
- Do you think Ed’s major work after most of the events of the story uses the material he’s showing everyone during the first half of the series?
- Could Ed produce successful work according to his ideals of comics and cartooning for their own sake if he’d taken the job at Zoom?
Box Office Poison is a position piece, certainly, but it’s not a mere disguised Kirby vs. Marvel story – rather, it’s a drama with characters of its own and an ending of its own, which also happens to draw upon and comment upon those real-life issues, or rather on the fan culture narrative of them. I think it’s a gauntlet thrown down to those who casually and smugly picked up one or the other side of the controversy as it existed at the time. And given how thoroughly that controversy became the bedrock of fandom identity politics ever since, it remains relevant and available. This is the required text for comics-fan people. If you haven’t the courage and intellect to pick up that gauntlet and really find out where you stand, then your fandom means nothing but consumerism.
Links: Alex Robinson’s Tumblr
Next: Did it have to suck so
Posted on June 9, 2015, in Commerce, The 90s me and tagged Alex Robinson, Bob Kane, Box Office Poison, fanwank, Jack Kirby, Jerry SIegel, mainstream, Mr. Flavor, Nightstalker, Oodles of titles, Page 45, Stan Lee. Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.