I’ve been thinking about disreputable art more than usual lately, between the film adaptation of 50 Shades of Grey coming out and Jonathan Franzen franzenating about women mucking up the whole respectable novel business. I can’t help but think of the history of the novel in Europe and North America. A tawdry form that was consumed by women, often written pseudonynmously by women and wholly damaging to one’s character, virtue and imagination. Art that makes us unsafe and disreputable has been around for a long time. Plato had concerns about the Mixolydian Mode’s effect on impressionable youths. And it’s made me think about my own reading that might be considered disreputable in the comics’ world. Sometimes it’s good to get back to our roots here at the Gutter.
I’ve been trying to get a hold of David F. Walker and Bilquis Evely’s Shaft #1 since it came out last November*. I was excited by the idea, the art, the prospect of an African American creator writing the iconic John Shaft and a woman drawing him. Plus, the comic had the blessings of Shaft creator Ernest Tidyman’s estate. I found issue #2 at my local comic shop and just started there. Starting in media res worked fine because John Shaft is already in trouble, already in love and the two are, as always, connected. Evely’s art and Daniela Miwa’s colors capture the glories and terrors of Seventies fashion. And there were little extras, like a QR code that leads to Walker’s novel Shaft’s Revenge and a playlist for every issue. I hadn’t noticed that Dynamite Entertainment published Shaft until I had the comic in my hands. The same day I picked up Shaft #2, Comixology had a sale on Jeff Parker and Evan “Doc” Shaner’s Flash Gordon and I bought all seven delightful issues and a Flash Gordon annual. (I left the Holiday Special aside because, well, there are very few holiday specials I enjoy. In fact, in the spirit of the Gutter, I should probably consider Holiday Specials sometime). And this would not be significant if not for the fact that with Shaft, Flash Gordon is the fourth Dynamite comic I’m reading. I read Gail Simone and Walter Geovani’s Red Sonja every month and when I saw that Nancy A. Collins was writing Vampirella (with art by Patrick Berkenkotter), well, I started reading that, too. The clerks at my local comic book store say nothing as they ring up my comics because they are examples of what one of the clerks called, “weird comics.” So here I am writing weird essays about weird comics.
I think in the case of the clerk, there is a tacit assumption that non-weird, respectable or “good” comics pretty much comprise mass market, mainstream superhero comics and/or small independent publishers’ more artistic or literary comics. Star Wars aside, licensed comics tied to television or film franchises and comics relying on public domain characters published by tiny publishers are kind of embarrassing, even while publishers like Dark Horse and IDW Publishing have used licensed properties to sustain other independent comics. If you don’t have Batman or Wolverine, you have to start somewhere. So my love of Boom! Studio’s Planet of the Apes line—let alone my interest in Moonstone’s Kolchak comics—makes my purchases, if not my taste, suspect. Because like anyone else—maybe moreso sometimes—fans just want to get their good art away from the contamination of art that everyone agrees is bad. Art that is rightfully castigated. It’s just more convenient if there is a whole category we can all agree is bad like the weird, off-brand candies in dollar stores. But here at the Cultural Gutter, we are all about weird, off-brand dollar store candy.
Founded in 2005, Dynamite Entertainment specializes in comics featuring characters from tv and film franchises and the public domain. They have many sexy ladies, like Vampirella and Red Sonja, as well as the sexy time ladies they inherited from the now defunct Chaos! Comics, including Lady Demon, Purgatori and Chastity. (Though not Chaos’ perhaps most memorable character, Lady Death). But while Dynamite might not be entirely respectable, it has, like Archie and Image Comics, been offering new opportunities for creators and taking advantage of the troubles at DC and Marvel. I wouldn’t have expected Dynamite to be the publisher that decides to reach out to female creators, but there they are, reaching out. According to Tim Hanley’s “Gendercrunching,” in November, 2014, 14.6% of Dynamite’s creators were female (via Complex). Not only is that better than Marvel and DC—and way, way better than Archie Comics—it represents a quadrupling the number since the last time he ran his statistics. While I haven’t seen statistics, I suspect Dynamite’s making a similar effort with creators of color. (Incidentally, Shaft has been nominated for a Dwayne McDuffie Diversity Award).
And Dynamite’s kinda letting Gail Simone take over the joint, which, I have to say is fine with me. She came in to do Red Sonja with artist Walter Geovani. Red Sonja comes with variant covers by female artists and through that I discovered one of my new favorite artists overall, Jenny Frison. Simone put together Legends Of Red Sonja, an anthology comic featuring all female writers—including Devin Grayson (Gotham Knights; Nightwing). Then Nancy A. Collins started writing Vampirella and I became curious. Collins wrote an incredibly underrated run on Swamp Thing as well as her swell dark urban fantasy/noir horror series about the vampire Sonja Blue. Collins launched, Vampirella: Feary Tales, a horror anthology in the spirit of Warren Publishing’s anthology horror comics, Creepy and Eerie. On the very day she inherits a Transylvanian castle, Vampirella is sucked into a cursed book of fairy tales—combining two horror tropes in one! I’ve only read the first issue so far, but it was entertainingly smart-alecky and I enjoyed Nancy A. Collins’ Ghoulish Ghostess, The Storyteller. The series includes stories by Simone, Steve Niles, Joe R. Lansdale and Stephen R. Bissette. I’m looking forward to Collins’ Vampirella: Altered States, in which Vampirella travels to the planet Drakulon.
And then I saw colorist Jordie Bellaire (Pretty Deadly; Moon Knight; The Thrilling Adventure Hour) promoting her Flash Gordon comic with Jeff Parker and Evan “Doc” Shaner. I like their work and now I love Dynamite’s Flash Gordon miniseries even though it starts with Flash bungee-jumping off a bridge. Anything that introduces a character using bungee-jumping as a shorthand for character, well, unless it’s Vin Diesel, I don’t hold with it. It’s not as bad as the Eighties convention of establishing character by giving a dude a hat. Then again, maybe it is. But Flash Gordon is delightful space opera with a comically drunk Zarkov and Dale as a science reporter who starts dressing like Han Solo. It has adorable rockets and nice references to the Alex Raymond comic and to the 1980 film. Plus, it resolves at least some of Flash Gordon’s tenacious yellow peril problem by making the Arborians blue. Now Simone’s set up a crossover event, Swords of Sorrow, featuring diverse writers and artists as well as an all-female line-up of pulp heroes including Red Sonja, Vampirella and Martian princess Dejah Thoris from Robert E. Howard’s John Carter of Mars books. And given that there will be an issue dedicated to Chastity, Purgatori and Lady Demon, I will be thinking more about about disreputable comics as I stand at the cash in the comic book store.
For the longest time I have bought marginal comics and I still feel a twinge when I know that what I’m buying will be judged. Although the clerk who called my comics “weird” did tell me that I made him consider looking at something outside of DC and marvel. I like barbarians and liked Gail Simone’s barbarian Wonder Woman enough that I started reading Red Sonja as soon as it came out. But Vampirella has always been more fraught for me. I like horror, vampires and vampire planets but until recently not enough to get past the art. Art is often the deal-breaker for me, even when artist and feminist comics historian Trina Robbins designed the costume. With Vampirella, I think some of the twinge is the new overlay in the Venn diagram describing me and the very particular sexytime Chaos! comics ladies that can be traced right back to Vampirella. And I admire those ladies for being straightforward when Marvel and DC can be mendacious as hell about their art. I respect their honesty. They’ve never patronized anyone by explaining the necessity of the outfits or suggested that anyone look past them to the story. They’re just not my thing, but if Gail Simone, Nancy A. Collins, G. Willow Wilson and Mikki Kendall are writing them, maybe they will be.
Here I am, again, on the margins, looking for new things, looking for fun things, looking over the edge of comics. It’s not the respectable things I’m looking for. I’m looking for the unexpected things, the ridiculous things that somehow become sublime. Things that have not been established and ossified in the canon of cool or “realistic.” The very things that only comics can do. It’s neat to see new creators move into the mainstream—or more mainstream comics. It’s cool to see tiny publishers give more established creators space to try crazy and fun things. It’s one of the reasons I think gutter culture has more in common with fine art and experimental art than it has with respectable art. There is always possibility in the disreputable.
*I got a copy at Comixology. Dynamite is giving away free digital copies of Shaft as part of #BlackComicsMonth. Use the code: CANYOUDIGIT at checkout through the end of February.
Carol Borden’s stompy black boots remain as scuffed as ever.
This post was originally published by the Cultural Gutter on Feb. 26, 2015