The raw and real deal
This is more 1990s comics talk, specifically during the mix of wild-rad and utter grind that was my Ph.D. process. It was a lot more fun than the Master’s. Academically, I was publishing scientific papers, traveling three-four times a year to give talks, teaching my own classes my own way, consulting for textbooks, doing statistics on the side for money, and generally being treated like a faculty member instead of a grad student. Personally, I had a new circle of friends, went to the clubs to enjoy great rock ‘n roll all the time, was training in martial arts like a beast, got the romance thing back on track in a variety of ways (isn’t that a nice way to put it?), did role-playing games like mad, had a nice two-person apartment all to myself, and generally woke up liking life. So this is about exactly twenty years ago, as finishing the damned dissertation and job-hunting were actually turning out not so bad.
I’ve listed my fave comics of the period a couple of times, and each time I forget stuff and never actually come up with the definitive list. Probably the same this time. Off the top of my head, in no particular order, Cerebus, Bone, Poison Elves, Strangers in Paradise, Hate, Box Office Poison, Omaha the Cat Dancer (sort of on hiatus), Castle Waiting, XXXenophile, Hepcats, Mister Blank, Ghost, Buddha on the Road, Blade of the Immortal, Finder, Queen & Country, Goblin Lords, Jar of Fools, Codeflesh, Through the Habitrails, Colin Upton’s Big Thing, Alec, Usagi Yojimbo, Thieves & Kings, Eyebeams, SCUD: Robot Assassin … a veritable Who’s Who of “authentic comix man” crossed with geek hipster cachet. It will surprise no one that my primary mode of discovering a title to follow was for it to be mentioned in the text or showcased in the Preview section of Cerebus.
By ten years later I’d changed up in which ones I liked the most in retrospect, not due to how a given title ended up but from its beginning. Strangers in Paradise, Bone, and Queen & Country not so much any more; Hate way more than while reading it … and above all, surprise at how much I value Poison Elves. This comic had everything good and bad about it, and what I’m saying is that now, looking it over, I experience it as “wow the bad was actually really good too.”
Two caveats. I fail on the comics hipster scale, because I first encountered it as a comic, and started buying it, after the initial 20-issue Mulehide run, with the new #1 published by Sirius. Also, the title gains some social gravitas because Drew Hayes died in 2007 so the comic is now regarded as an artifact, capital-A, rather than something to read because it’s a pictures-and-words thing.
Damn I’m taking a long time to get to the point. This is like reading one of Hayes’ Starting Notes. Probably because I’ve been re-reading them in collected form, seeing most for the first time since I read them monthly/sort-of monthly in the comics, in the recently-published collection Deathreats. I don’t know how much fun that would be for someone who didn’t read them that way first, but I’m enjoying the hell out of it.
Hayes. One of the few originals from a decade of largely completely-banal confusion. Produced an actual comic book using a lead pencil, cheap notepads, ballpoint pens, and Sharpies. And his mom helped. So indie he did what he wanted instead of what Dave Sim would do, yes literally. Speaking of Dave Sim, everyone in the 1990s learned their comics chops from him. Saying “started as a Sim clone” in at least half your comics style is pretty much synonymous with “did comics at all.” Hayes did that and managed to hoist his comic into the aesthetic status of full partner in some unholy Venn diagram explaining Poison Elves, Cerebus, Those Annoying Post Bros, Grimjack, and Elfquest. If you think he was a minor leaguer compared to the creators of those books, well, I guess – but the work was really getting that good.
And it’s funny I should say that too. I wouldn’t have thought it at the time. By the final couple of years, beautiful as the art had become, the story fell apart, and the brief mastery he was showing of mixing prose and comics/word-balloons unraveled. But looking at the whole thing, reading it all, stark visual punch of it all came together, the more so because you could see the skill to do it develop literally panel by panel. There is also no doubt that this was not just a gut-wrenching cry from a variety of developmental missteps, but an actual communication … a thought-provoking, moving connection from another human specifically to other humans, not merely shouted out. Somehow expressed through gore porn and tits, starring a nasty fantasy character literally powergamed from role-playing with a completely absurd name, with every obnoxious “better than” written right into him (smarter, faster, meaner, cooler, better tattoo …), and generally less likeable than the worst moments of the aardvark himself. All misspelled six ways from Sunday.
How? Because through it all Hayes never built himself into Comics Creator, Man of Mystery – it all zeroed in on stripping away the thuggish, sodden, semi-legal, and sullen hulk that started the book and letting you see a real guy who was a better person than you. Everything about (wince) Lusiphur was what Hayes romanticized but ultimately didn’t like very much, and reading the little bugger’s misadventures actually showed why. It plays as punk, Goth, death-metal, hip, street, and mean-cool, and yet isn’t. Hayes was a good person, and in the audience-creator interfaces of my experience, I think I can count maybe four of those. [editing this in – I wrote that before reading the Afterword in Deathreats; makes it a bit extra moving – RE]
Huh – I was going to talk about some stuff in the comic itself and got into this whole thing about the creator. It’s because in looking at the comic again that’s what jumps out first. I guess I’ll write about “Goochie goochie goo!” and “Nyar!” and what a “Struthers” is later on.
Next: Red goggles at midnight