Saturday, December 12, 2015

Getting Graphic

Overall, recreational reading continues its long decline in the US (and not only the US), but there are categories of the traditional paper-and-ink publication business that remain healthy, notably YA literature (discussed in a previous blog: Not So Young Adult), comics, and graphic novels (book-length comic books). Sales this year of comic books and graphic novels should be around 85 million units. That’s lower than the 1950s peak or the 1990s rebound, but the number doesn’t include digital sales; print and digital combined are at record levels. (There are nearly 150,000,000 more people in the US now than in the 1950s, of course.)

In pop culture comics are cool, which they were not even in the ‘50s. Comics once were guilty pleasures, but today no one (well, hardly anyone) is ashamed to flaunt them on coffee tables or to be seen in public in a Comic-Con costume. While many pop phenomena are not explicable in terms of artistic merit, in this case there actually is some to be found. In the past couple of decades there has been some outstanding work from the likes of Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Sydney Padua, and others. As a reader I’m no expert swimmer in this literary pool, but I do dip a toe in the waters now and then. Two recent graphic novels by authors I respect found their way into my Amazon shopping cart last week, and I don’t regret the expense.

Canadian graphic novelist Bryan Lee O’Malley is best known for the critically acclaimed Scott Pilgrim, a comic book series published between 2004 and 2010 about a young slacker and rocker in Toronto. The surreal videogame-influenced series was adapted for the screen in 2010 as Scott Pilgrim vs the World starring Michael Cera. Despite positive reviews, the movie did poorly at the box office. The reason is something of a mystery to me and no doubt to Universal Pictures. Millennials were the prime target audience but they stayed away in droves. The ones with whom I’ve viewed it liked it without exception, but it is odd that I (a Boomer) introduced it to them and not they to me.

Last year O’Malley published the equally remarkable graphic novel Seconds, a copy of which arrived at my door last week. Premise: Katie is the chef (though not owner) at the successful restaurant Seconds. She has plans for her own restaurant but faces serious obstacles. Besides her professional problems, she is not over a break-up with her ex-boyfriend Max. The restaurant Seconds, she discovers, is inhabited by a house spirit named Lis. Katie is given the chance to undo her past mistakes by writing the mistake down, ingesting a special mushroom, and going to sleep. When she awakens her reality is changed: the mistake didn’t happen. Katie can’t resist using the technique over and over to try to make her life perfect, but it turns out (mild *Spoiler Alert*) that she can’t change one aspect of reality without changing all of it: the universe is much too interconnected for it to be otherwise. A “mistake” may be undone but the new branch of reality in toto is not necessarily an improvement. Katie’s memories remain unchanged, so she becomes increasingly alienated as the history of each new reality is ever more distant from the original she remembers.

Seconds is a contemplative and wistful graphic novel. As far as I know a screen version isn’t in the works. Given the disappointing ticket sales of Scott Pilgrim vs the World (which at least was action-packed) getting a green-light from a studio might be a challenge. Nonetheless, the book is hard to put down once opened. We’ve all made mistakes we wish we could undo, but we seldom consider that we would be different people today if we had made another choice then. It’s not possible to undo the past, of course. We sometimes do get second chances in life, but we never thereby erase the first one. All our do-overs come with a history, and all we can do is make the best of it.

Scottish graphic novelist Mark Millar and American illustrator John Romita, Jr., both veterans of Marvel, made a splash during 2008-2010 with their controversial comic book series Kick-Ass. The premise: high school nobody Dave Lizewski has no special powers at all, but he is a comic book fan who dreams of being a costumed crime-fighting superhero. So, he buys a costume and becomes one (minus the “super”). He soon discovers that there are others who have done the same thing, and that, unlike himself, these other costumed vigilantes are truly lethal.

Mainstream comics in the West, though often violent, tend to pull punches when depicting brutality. The very graphic Kick-Ass doesn’t. The result is impressive, disturbing, and most definitely not-for-kids. The series is also quite funny, though the humor is very much of the graveyard sort. Millar and Romita followed up the series with the sequels Kick-Ass 2 and Hit-Girl. (Millar also had unrelated success with The Secret Service, which was adapted for the screen as Kingsman.) In 2015 Millar and Romita released the graphic novel Kick-Ass 3. This arrived at my door in the same package with Seconds. In Kick-Ass 3 the imprisoned Hit-Girl seeks the help of Kick-Ass and other costumed not-so-superheroes to get out. She still has in her sights the mob and a corrupt police department.

Millar and Romita haven’t lost their touch. If you have Kick-Ass, Kick-Ass 2, and Hit-Girl, it is definitely worth rounding out the set with Kick-Ass 3, which marks the end of the series. A prequel might be in the offing however. The movie Kick-Ass (starring Aaron Johnson, Nicolas Cage, and ChloĆ« Grace Moretz) was more successful at the box office than Scott Pilgrim. It wasn’t a huge hit, but it was well regarded critically (with exceptions: Roger Ebert hated it) and was big enough to spawn the sequel Kick-Ass 2. Those who have seen the movies but not read the comic books might be surprised to learn that the movies are substantially tamer – really. They also differ somewhat from the comics in backstory and subplots, such as (in the first entry) the relationship of Dave and Katie. Apparently a Kick-Ass 3 movie is in the works, but it is at a very preliminary stage.

Both Seconds and Kick-Ass 3 are recommended for that coffee table, perhaps next to SPQR that I recommended in the last book review. I suspect the first two will inspire more conversation with guests.

A do-over with a history:
Do It Again by the Beach Boys


  1. I had to look up Sydney Padua, I wasn't familiar with her. Ran into a video she did, I'll have to watch that later:

    I used to be heavier into comics before they got so expensive, but I still pick up one from time to time. I've considered something like Comicology, when and if I ever get an iPad or similar reading device. It's still an interesting off-shoot of literature that sometimes still gets no respect, but certainly maintains a healthy audience.

    I read the first Kick-Ass and saw the film, but haven't seen or read subsequent installments. O'Malley seems to have carved out his own voice too. I like these independent titles though as they don't require any back cannon or mythos to get involved like Marvel or DC (not that that's a huge stumbling block). Oddly I also noticed a small trend in graphic novels, a few have covers that depict just a novel and no one knows that you're reading a graphic novel unless they just happen to get a glimpse inside. That sort of appeals to me.

    1. Comic books were at their lowest cost in real terms in the 1950s at 10 cents each (82 cents in 2015 dollars according to the government's cpi calculator), which probably accounts for their sky high sales in that decade – that and the bumper crop of baby boomer kids who wanted them. Yet even in the 70s when I was in college they were 25 cents ($1.42 by that same calculator). $3.99 is pretty standard nowadays, so yeah they are expensive relative to other products. Full length hardcover graphic novels are the same price as other novels: typically $15 to $25, though some are more. No wonder the industry is so profitable.

      The movie “Kick-Ass 2” isn’t very good. The Kick-Ass 2” comic deliberately shocks: to put it mildly it violates social proprieties with a vengeance. That works on the page, but the producers were unwilling to put all that on a screen: “No, that’s just TOO much.” I fully understand why they made that decision – they even might have worried about inspiring copycat criminals – but the decision also took a lot of the breath out of the sequel. According to scuttlebutt, the director and team from the much better first film is being reassembled for the third, which is promising.