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. 14 Comments.
Thanks for the push. I’ve been meaning to read this for about 10 years, maybe longer, and never got around to it. Alec is in the same boat.
I hate how the medium has this inverted “mainstream” thing going on. Much as I love me some spandex geekery, it’s such a beautiful art form that the people working outside that nerd WFH ghetto need to be celebrated, remunerated, and widely adored.
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I actually have Box Office Poison (brought and read at the time) but I don’t remember it well after so many years, I will have to refresh my memory later.
(I can recall easily practically anything I did read in the 80s but not in the 90s and later…)
Your list is very interesting both in what it contain (Hepcats? I though that nobody apart me still remembered it…) and what’s missing… Love and Rockets, Dirty Plotte, Yummy Fur, Naughty Bits, Joe Sacco’s works, are among the “oh wait and” titles?
Some yes, some no. I wasn’t an avid follower of Fantagraphics, and Love & Rockets was hard to get into at the time. I’ve really enjoyed it in collected form. I would have liked Joe Sacco but didn’t discover him until later. I’ll keep mentioning titles on and off as I continue to post. Let’s see … more stuff from Sirius for sure, including various work by Joel Michael Linsner, and that Crash Test Dummy series – some of which was really good – and Goblin Lords. I generally preferred the more energetic and amateurish scene, especially if it reminded me of Bode or Starlin.
[editing on the 12th: Finder, of course, one of my favorites; also Hero Alliance, Astro City, Sin City as I believe I mentioned in another post … probably more to come to mind later]
I will have to read Finder sooner or later, you are not the first one to laud it.
I finally read Box Office Poison (in the Big Top Shelf Book, over 700 pages, whew…). I wrote “read” and not “re-read” because I discovered why I didn’t remember reading it: it probably slipped in the cracks (I was buying really a lot of books at the time) and ended up in the “already read” section of the shelves too early. It was familiar so probably I had read some parts, but not most of the book.
It was a difficult read at times, both for the number of characters (and Robinson’s problems in differentiating them in the art) and for the…how can I put it… disgust (maybe too strong a word) I felt for both the initial principal characters, Ed and Sherman. I found them way worse than Dorothy and Flavors. Sherman’s bosses at works (unlikable as they are) are right about Sherman, and he remain for the entire novel a totally self-centered asshole. Ed’s faults are not so big, but he was a sort of compendium of everything’s wrong with comic book fans, so I wanted him to suffer.
The combination of the art at the beginning and those character could explain why I didn’t continue to read it at the time (maybe. I really don’t remember)
The art and the characters (not Sherman) get much better in the course of the story, but that’s the part I didn’t read.
So, thanks for making me open again that book. I am not sure I share your enthusiasm (I have to let my thoughts about it set for a few days), but it was worth reading, and I had missed it.
It won’t surprise you then that my other planned Box Office Poison post concerns Dorothy, and you might want to check out her opening line in the introductory page (which was written for the collection). Sherman is the story’s tragic villain-victim, consistently all the way through. It makes perfect sense that the only person he connects with in the entire story is the abused and similarly self-victimizing runaway who is later murdered.
This isn’t a cool story about hipsters we’re supposed to identify with, or want to be.
Oh, I noticed that isn’t a story filled with characters to identify with… (as you wrote: “Stephen obviously!”. Apart from some minor characters like Mary there is not a single likeable character in the book apart him and, with a little forgiveness, Jane, ). Among that ensemble, Dorothy is still one of the less-unlikeable ones.
But let’s leave Dorothy to her own discussion at a later time: seeing that this post is about the comic-book-world part of the book, what did it says to me? Talking as someone who lives in a place where comics are treated (and lived) differently… the totally repulsive way comic book fans, conventions and authors are shown seems to me totally negative. This is a world that shouldn’t exist. These publishers should not be allowed to profit by turning readers into these insufferable morons. Everything in the convention shows is sordid, Ed is someone who has been really hurt not only in his emotional development but even in his intelligence by comics. If that’s a realistic depiction of the effects comic books have, they should be forbidden. Burned in the city square. People who do and profit from them should be put in prison, they are worse than drug sellers.
It’s satire, obviously (at least, I hope), comics are not enough to turn everybody into a moron. And the the people who enter into the bookstore where Sherman works are a ample demonstration that people don’t need comic books to act in stupid ways.
But even if it’s satire… I still would like to grab the author, and scream in his ears “comics are not like these outside of your little tiny publishing niche in this country! Stop showing these things as “the way comics are”, the “way comics conventions are”, etc…
Probably Ed is meant to be a sort of parody of the typical comic book reader in the USA, and be familiar to the reader. The reader is intended to find in him something of himself, or in some other people he knows who read comics, even if exaggerated. Probably it’s meant to encourage a little identification, at least.
But for me, Ed is a monster. It’s like a member of a zombie horde, trampling everything an art form can offer of value in his mad fixation for action figures. He not only don’t read anything but comics (already a big flag of weirdness), but he only read mainstream super-hero comics. Someone like that IT’S NOT A COMIC BOOK FAN! Not for me, not here! He’s the retarded nuisance that you want the convention security to throw outside, someone you hope you never, ever meet.
Probably in the USA it’s similar as the D&D situation: someone who only know and play D&D can call himself a “rpg fan” and it’s normal, it’s accepted, it’s more common that the other options combined. But in a place where the mainstream is really a mainstream, where the best-selling titles are, in order, a western, a horror title, a sf title, a Disney title, another western and a crime comic, and to be able to find a super-hero title you have to go into the lowest-selling titles, no more than 2% of the sales of the best-selling one? It’s like seeing someone say that they are a very big rpg fan, that he lives for rpgs, that he wants to write rpgs, and discover that they only know FATAL and they have not played anything else, ever.
I am not saying all this to say “oh, how superior is my comic books environment is” (apart from the fact that it’s not true, the level of translations is abysmal for example), but to explain the level of visceral loathing that I had for everyone in the “comic book part” of the book: Ed, the comic book publishers, fans, convention attendees, the authors, Flavor… I sympathized with nobody, and cared very little about what could happen to them.
True, in that environment, surrounded by so many disgusting characters, Flavor did seems more “real”, more sympathetic. Even if it was clear at that point that he had reached a secret accord with his old publisher and that he would have betrayed Ed, I didn’t care a lot about that: Ed had confirmed his own hopelessness a few pages before with his pathetic “new character design” and had reaffirmed my loathing for him after all.
But then, it’s shown that what Flavor wanted from the deal was to write and draw again these things. With Ed’s “improved” design. Other crap to add to the crap.
It doesn’t matter that I love a lot of super-hero comics myself, and that I could probably hear Ed talking about comics and understand what he says. The closemindness he show, his focus on what I despise in super-hero publishing, severed my empathy with his character. He did remain only a caricature. His change at the end… I could not “buy” it. It did seems as something coming from nowhere. I could not “believe”, even reading it, that the caricature of a character I was reading could land THAT girl or even have something of value to write. That part rang false to me.
Strange as it may seems… even if I loathed Sherman more, he did seem more “real” to me. I have know some Sherman, I have been Sherman sometime, I try to not be Sherman again as much as I can. I hated Sherman reading the book. But he did not seem a mindless zombie from a totally absurd alternate reality.
Tough crowd around here! I like a lot of the characters, some of whom surprise me for that very reason, like James.
I reretfully report that as far as superhero fandom goes, I can’t say he had to reach far in his depictions of the 1990s American scene. I’ve written already that I sadly let go forever of my commitment to the genre in its native medium right about that time, and what Box Office Poison depicts is a big part of the reason why. The particularly noxious fellow who loses his shit over continuity to a baffled Mr. Flavor and an amused Ed is true to life. If it’s the 90s, and if you’re in a comic book store, do not talk to the guy browsing the shelf next to you. It’s him.
I don’t think it’s fair to grab the imaginary author and shout at him about non-U.S. comics, though – there’s no textual claim that he’s depicting anything but the American scene at this particular time. I also know a fair number of European and otherwise non-U.S. comics fans besides yourself, and frankly, they don’t seem all enlightened about a wide variety of genres – plenty of Zoombies among them.
I wonder if the characters are a Rorschach test of some kind. Your post acknowledges that Sherman presents a multitude of real-person, resonant problems, but man are you mean to Ed. I see him as a strong positive figure by at least the halfway point, particularly toward Sherman to whom he gives good advice, and I don’t see any decisions he makes that are morally wrong or misguided about the people involved. I also see Mr. Flavor as really, really wanting Ed to succeed, and doing it in the way that he can – at first, via getting him a genuine “in” at Zoom (as opposed to the fake graphic-novel offer which would probably have been a dead end), and then doing his best to include him in financial success in the future. I don’t see any betrayal of Ed at all. He also provides Ed with the single honest positive criticism he needs, at the right moment.
I know, right? Ed doesn’t do anything evil, he has good intentions, the author clearly wants to present him as a nice guy… why I am so mean to him?
Because he’s the reason the world of that comics convention is so fucked up, obviously.
Sherman cause harm on a personal level. The author does present him as a parson, a credible character.
I don’t think he did the same with Ed. Ed is too “perfect”, in a way. I didn’t want to say that there are no obtuse readers or avid “collectors” here, far from it. I have seen some of Ed’s behaviour in real people. I have probably been Ed sometimes when I did fell for some marketing stunt.
But Sherman is not the sum of the evil men can do, the way Ed is the sum of everything wrong with comic book fans. I have never known anyone who totalled even half of the list of Ed’s sins. Sherman is like a person I could meet, he’s “normal” in his faults. Ed is a compilation, he’s a perfect exemplar of everything’s wrong. In this sense he’s a “monster”. I can’t see him as a real character, it becomes symbolic.
And then we see the convention. Presented in the book as something so sordid, so moronic, as something that should not exist in this world. And Ed is the personification, the perfect example, of the people who created that cesspool.
What about the other side of the characters, sex? (or, more exactly, the lack of it)
Ed is someone who always, always, moans about non having ever found a girl. (I don’t know if this is common these days in that kind of environment. When I was young nobody would ever admit of being virgin, talking all the time about it would have been unthinkable. I took that as an artistic license to let the readers know about how much it bothered Ed, but it became really tiresome after a while, his constant whining)/
But what does he really wants?
If he is so embarrassed or worried by his lack of sexual experiences, well, he could solve the problem very easily with a fraction of the money he spend on action figures.
He would be too embarrassed to “solve” it that way? I could believe it if he was not talking about it all the time, and if he was not shown trying to pick-up a girl in a bar. He is not embarrassed, he’s embarrasSING because he only talks about comics and action figures.
But isn’t this the same as saying “he only talks about himself”?
So we have a guy who pine, moan, cry because he doesn’t get “lucky”, but he is not interested, really, in fucking.
What’s he interested into? Maybe, even if he always talks about sex… he’s really interested in love? In finding a partner? A girlfriend? Somebody?
This would be the romantic view. But what’s happens when his friends tricks him into believing that he did finally “get lucky” with a girl he did talk with a entire evening?
He is not interested in seeing her again. He doesn’t even ponder it. He did talks and dance with her an entire evening, only to score, but now? He’s satisfied. He can discard her, she’s nothing. He got what he wanted.
But.. what he wanted? He doesn’t even remember doing it, for fuck’s sake! What’s did he got in the deal that satisfied him so much that he practically forget that women exists from that moment (until he meets Hildy?
He got the only thing he was really interested into: the social validation of having “scored” in front of his friends. Now that he’s got it, he’s not interested anymore, he can return to being interested only in action figures (notice how they are all he’s really interested into: does he ever talks about STORIES in the novel? I don’t recall it)
And this is the “nice” guy…
Yes, I have meet people like that. I despised them, even when we were going to the club together because they were friend with another guy in the group or somebody’s brother or cousin. This too add to my visceral reaction to Ed.
At the end, it’s about being human. Sherman, I can hate him but he’s human. Ed is too “perfect”, a perfect depiction of everything that went wrong in comics, a complete compilation of all the worst fanboy’s faults… and, added to that, his behaviour about women…. You are right about Ed being a sort of Rorschach test: probably he would be sympathetic and funny to people who are not still angry for what people like him did to comics, and for all the times I had to endure the company of people like him… my loathing for him is totally personal.
But it’s not the hate the problem, it’s the credibility of the character and my empathy as a reader. That compilation of comic books fans sins is excessive, it make him a symbol, or a caricature. This not only case me to stop caring about him very quickly, but makes his changes at the end “not credible”. I stopped believing in the narrative.
People like Ed, they never really change. Not like that.
I think I understood you the first time. Is there a reason you’re hammering it so hard?
My concern isn’t why the character irritates you, which I understand pretty well and agree with most of, but how the character works in the story. That’s where we experience the work differently, but I also don’t see the need to argue. I’m not trying to convince you of anything.
Sorry, I suppose I have an argumentative style in my writings, but it was an explanation about “why” I hated Ed so (I did read some bafflement in your reply about the amount of that hate), and I wanted to add the bit about his quest for “his first time with a woman’s body parts” that I had forgotten to cite in my previous post.
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