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A charming curio from a time often better forgotten in both music and comics: The early 1990s.

I’m listening to Entombed’s “Wolverine Blues”, released in 1993 with an exclusive mini-comic starring everybody’s favorite Canucklehead.

Though sometimes noted by serious metal fans as less of a “true” death metal record than their previous records (remember, we’re talking about a genre with a disproportionately high percentage of “classic” first records), “Wolverine Blues” is nonetheless a standout and is frequently cited as one of the better and most enduring death metal albums of the 1990s.

That the album was not written or titled with comics’ most popular characters in mind was not  a concern of Earache records, which seized upon the coincidence as an opportunity to make some quick scratch. When the album was released in North America with an alternate (one might even say “variant”) cover, Earache and Marvel’s cross-promotional venture managed to cash-in yet again. Given comics fans’ willingness to buy seemingly ANYTHING in the early 90s, and record’s eventual stature as one of the all-time greats in the history of Swedish death metal, nobody on either side of the deal seems to mind that Earache and Marvel basically succeeded in turning Entombed into a late 20th century version of the Banana Splits.

The borderline “berserker” aspect of Logan’s character has been a tension explored ad-nauseum ever since Chris Claremont renewed focus on the character in the late 70s and early 80s, and it’s not like the anthropomorphizing of a notoriously dangerous Midwestern quadruped isn’t the most subtle of metaphors to begin with. But that level of juvenility has always been what made both Logan and death metal itself so appealing to early-teenaged boys, as well as a natural commercial pairing.

On the title track, LG Petrov growls out the lyrics like he’s the best he is at what he does, and what he does is pretty stupid: “Vicious mammal/the blood is my call/pound for pound/I am the most vicious of all!”

Meanwhile, in the accompanying comic entitled “Just Don’t Look in its Eyes” (written by Ann Nocenti, art by John Bolton, originally printed as a back-up story in September 1988’s Classic X-Men #25), Logan continues his illustrious history of straight-murdering a grizzly bear out in the snow, spending between three and five panels feeling bad about it, and then proceeding to straight-murder the jerk who made him kill an innocent beast. Good times.

And even if it’s not, strictly speaking, the most over-the-top brutal offering Scandinavia might have offered, the death n’ roll on “Wolverine Blues” still makes for an appropriately nauseating soundtrack to enjoying comics’ most popular (and often silliest) psychopath.

BONUS! Despite the band not wanting the album to have anything to actually do with the Marvel character, Earache still managed to get them to do an entire music video with Wolverine all over it. Warning: it’s pretty terrible (so much so, it was featured on an episode of “Beavis and Butt-head” and largely ignored by the duo).

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The passing of Harvey Pekar requires acknowledgment, not just because we’re a comics blog and this is news from our geeky world, but because Pekar was a legitimately important writer who deserves the recognition and appreciation of all of us, whether you’re a nerd or not. With comics’ longevity in our culture comes the sad fact that there are precious few true innovators of the medium left with us. We lost another titan today, as Harvey Pekar passed away of causes yet-undetermined. He was 70 years old.

His creation, American Splendor, was a pioneering effort in independent comics, an autobiographical book depicting the real-life “drama” of the human condition told by an anonymous file clerk in Cleveland, Ohio, far away from Gotham and the center of the comic book universe. His book was populated by Pekar’s own friends, his co-workers, and anybody he interacted with in the day to day, and the stories told within its pages all came from incidents in his own life. The book was illustrated by dozens of artists since its first issue in 1976 (including, famously, Pekar’s legendary buddy R. Crumb) and over the course of its run became recognized as one of the best and most influential creator-owned properties ever.

Harvey’s writing in American Splendor was favorably compared to greats like Anton Chekhov in its narrative focus on the ephemeral emotionalism of moments between moments rather than any definitive set of linear events as they might relate to a traditional style of storytelling. But unlike Chekhov, who wrote initially for money on the side before formally committing himself to the craft of writing, Pekar was never any kind of literary genius. Rather, he was akin to those other DIY-ers that dotted the artistic landscape of latter half of the 20th century, driven by something innate and maybe a little profound, to stay up all night to write down the things that he wanted other people to see in his world, even if it meant being extra-tired during his double shift at the VA the next day.

Following the underground success of American Splendor, Pekar would be “discovered” any number of times in the ensuing years by any number of outsiders who found novelty in glimpsing the mundane existence of this glum little weirdo from the distant Mid-West. In his willingness to indulge potential readers, he even became a bit of a side-show attraction at times, as when he appeared eight times on Late Night with David Letterman, culminating with an acrimonious airing of grievance that once again relegated him to national obscurity, save for those few viewers who might have actually gone on to pick up a copy of his most recent issue.

But Harvey’s insistence that he never be “co-opted” was equal parts a commitment to his art and to himself, knowing that he could not make his comic if he ever believed himself to be another phony. Even as neurotic, cantankerous and put-upon as the man could be, he was also never nearly as self-serious as his public persona might have lead one to believe. How could he be? American Splendor was downright severe in its sincerity, and showed not one iota of inauthenticity in the four decades that it was published. His body of works are paradoxically the least self-aware metatextual texts ever created. It simply couldn’t have worked otherwise.

Harvey Pekar was a Great in the world of comics, if never more than a regular guy in the real one. And he will be missed.

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The 2010 Eisner Award nominations have been released, and if you’re like me, you probably had a mixed reaction, something along the lines of: “Hooray, comics I like! Boo, comics I didn’t read!”

…which is why you and I shouldn’t be chosen to hand out the industry’s most prestigious and coveted award: we’re amateurs! We’ve got way too many things going on in our lives that prevent us from reading all the comics we wish we could. I mean, right now I’m finishing a masters thesis, sculpting the minds of impressionable college students, and preparing a move across a state that’s bigger than most European countries, and you’re… making some sort of contribution to society that doesn’t require an orange jumpsuit on the side of a road, I’m sure. The point is that comics readers like you and me possess neither the breadth of familiarity with the vast quantity of books that are printed every year, nor the time to read them. Any picks we’d make for the “best” comics of the year would be a woefully incomplete selection from the pool of whatever titles we’ve both read and liked in the last twelve months.

Luckily there’s a group of dedicated professionals behind the most important honors in the industry, right? Well, yes and no. The truth is that while the Eisners are a fine and meaningful flagship institution dedicated to a criminally under-publicized art form, they’re far from perfect. It’s no crime. Every awards system has to revamp every once in a while, and when they do and Sandra Bullock can still end up winning an Oscar for the fucking Blind Side, perhaps they can revamp again. It’s just the way of things. So here now is my three point plan to help make the Eisner Awards the prize they deserve to be.

Point #1: Enlarge the Nominations Committee

The Eisner nominees are currently selected by some of the finest experts available from all types of comics people, be they from the industry, academia, retail or general readership. Their pedigrees are unimpeachable, and they should be, since these are the folks who have to read every submission for potential nomination and then whittle the entries down to just five nominees. Unfortunately, there are only five judges selected every year to comprise the pool of judges.

This is just comically small, and can’t possibly represent the full spectrum of styles and sensibilities spoken to by the massively diverse number of potential nominees every year. I understand that these folks are the crème de la crème, but can’t we keep an acceptably excellent standard in a pool of, say, 25 judges? Not every judge can have 25 years of experience running a store, but there are plenty of folks who have ten years and the time to read the submissions. Widening the pool would also increase diversity, meaning that maybe we could see more than one woman, or hell, anybody that isn’t white.

Finally, this diversity would also translate to a broader spectrum of experience in readership, thus hopefully limited the effects of conventional wisdom that sometimes plagues the Eisner nominations. Too often the judging committee keeps the old guard of previously-nominated books in play for slightly too long, taking away valuable spots from other deserving potential selections. A bigger pool of judges would keep long-running, previously honored books honest, and give every opportunity to elevate younger titles a fighting chance.

Point #2: Reduce the Voters Pool

Here we have a problem that’s the opposite of the nominations process. Simply put, too damned many people get to vote for the Eisners. Of the literally thousands of people will cast their votes for the dozens of nominees, how many do you think were made having read each of the other nominees in a given category?

The current system is susceptible to the same problems as the Academy Awards: with so many voters, it’s inevitable that most folks make selections that are woefully under-informed. Worse still, the system is hopelessly biased toward the major publishers. The companies that have the money to advertise titles and move the most books are more likely to have been read by the voters, crowding out smaller comics in the pages of the trades and capturing the attention of comics people at large. It’s impossible for the little guy to compete. Cutting the pool down to, say, a few hundred voters would likely yield results that better reflect the quality of the nominees than simply what’s been popular lately. The system would benefit from being slightly more selective in whom it allows to vote for the Eisner’s winners.

Point #3: Split the Categories More Fairly

The big versus small dynamic also presents another major problem: No matter if you limit the pool to some respectable degree, the major publishers have an unfair advantage in sheer number of books sold. If more of those books have been read than any other, it stands to reason that inevitably that will translate to those books being voted for more than the others. It’s just unavoidable. So what can we do?

Easy: Split the categories by sales. Books that cross the threshold of X copies shipped/sold (a number that I’m sure can be fairly chosen based on some metrics of sales figures from both the major and independent publishers) qualify for one of two designations: “Major” (X or more sold) and “Select” (X or fewer sold.) A title/writer/artist/publisher should not be punished for the fact that not enough people bought an issue, and this adjustment allows for the books that fall through the cracks to earn the same honor as the best of the big boys.

If this idea proves favorable, you can create as many tiers as are fitting. The true “blockbusters” can duke it out amongst themselves in one category, while self-published books vie for the win in their own. Parity in awards can be restored for quality instead of quantity, and winning an Eisner can truly be called the birthright of the best of the best.

The best comics start with a great premise. Brian Azzarello’s 100 Bullets starts with two. The initial hook is all about revenge: Agent Graves can offer you an attaché case containing a gun with one hundred untraceable rounds of ammunition, indisputable proof implicating the person responsible for ruining your life, and the guarantee that you’ll get away with murder should you choose to do something about it. The moral implications are already riveting enough, what would you do, how far would you go for a grudge? And could you ever really find peace of mind in violence? But the pulp stories eventually give way to a broader tale, and the epic scope of the 100 Bullets’ narrative (told across the span of- you guessed it- one hundred issues) is a crime saga larger and more complicated than any ever committed to page or screen.

Most of the credit goes to 100 Bullets’ creators, writer Brian Azzarello and artist Eduardo Risso develop a fully-realized world of people who occupy a world that’s highly-stylized, yet unmistakably authentic to our sense of both the highest heights and the farthest margins of society. Azzarello is, without a doubt, the best writer of dialogue in all of comics (and no, it’s not even close). No other scribe in the decade ever attempted to work across such a fearlessly broad spectrum of humanity, nor did any succeed so consummately in capturing the depth and variety of dialects plumbed from all walks of American life. Risso’s art is equal parts glitz and grit, the perfect complement to the “realness” of Azzarello’s writing for figures who emerge from- and retreat back into- shadows both figurative and literal, all blood sparkling on gold jewelry and sharpened teeth.

While 100 Bullets’ early arcs are fodder for some meaty noir tales of dirty deeds and payback, it’s only a matter of time before members of the huge cast of seemingly unrelated characters realize the underlying truth behind Graves’ labyrinthine “game”: Everybody is connected, and if you’re not playing an angle, somebody else is probably playing you as part of theirs. Along the way we uncover the sprawling, mysterious world of the Minutemen, the Trust, and the Greatest Crime in the History of Man. Knowing the long and torturous path ahead for so many of these characters it makes me really wonder- if you knew what was coming at the end of it all, would you have ever opened up that briefcase?

-Brendan

If you’re not reading Graphic Content, Vertigo’s official blog, you probably should. That’s because along with news and previews from the favorite publisher of, like, all of my favorite books ever, Pamela Mullin and company thrown In some pretty sweet prizes every once in a while. Recently, GC had a contest to give away 20 copies of the Fables Deluxe Vol. 1 autographed by none other than series creator and writer Bill Willingham. The contest was X-Mas themed and everybody who entered went into a drawing for this fancy-schmancy hardcover, perfectly suited for prominent bookshelf displaying to make all of your nerd friends go super-crazy jealous on you. Awesome.

Now, Fables was the first book I picked up in mid 2009 after years of not reading comics, and it pretty much sucked me back into the world of all the great stuff that had been going on during my hiatus. It’s also the first title that I ever used to get my girlfriend into comics, so Fables even has a place in my heart now for bringing me closer to the woman I love, on top of just being generally awesome and already a personal favorite. (Oh, and it’s also featured fairly prominently on HF!C’s forthcoming “20 (Or So) Best Comics of the Decade” list. Stay tuned!)

Well, last month the drawing came and went, and…

Fables Hardcover
Autograph

What would ya know?

Dreams really do come true, kids.

A new decade has begun, and with it, High Five! Comics will soon be unveiling our special “20 (Or So) Best Comics of the Decade” event (take that, Siege). But before we reveal the big list, we’ll start with a series of supplementary entries from HF!C’s contributing writers about those comics we each individually loved, but that didn’t quite have the mojo to make the final ranks.

Today, Brendan talks about some of his personal favorite books from the last decade.

Daredevil – Brian Michael Bendis; Ed Brubaker (Brendan’s #4)

Don’t let our list fool you- this decade belonged to Brian Michael Bendis. Before DC handed the keys to their mainstream continuity to a handful of writers in the mid 2000s, Bendis was setting the trend with his monolithic presence at the publisher across the street. But before he was running every annual blockbuster (New Avengers, House of M, Secret Invasion) he built his cred by raising street-level characters like Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist to new prominence in the Marvel U. Bendis’ four-year run with primary Alex Maleev on Daredevil was his most critically-acclaimed, and best, superhero writing in the 2000s. That Ed Brubaker took the reigns to continue a pitch-perfect showcase for the Man without Fear cemented its place in my top five for the decade.

The Goon – Eric Powell (Brendan’s #12)

Eric Powell’s “The Goon” initially appeared to be merely another attempted successor to Hellboy’s brand of smash-em-up paranormal adventure, but quickly managed to separate itself as an entirely different animal. Sure, The Goon would be plenty of zombie-thrashing fun even if Powell only played up the title for action and yuks, but after 40-some issues and assorted specials, the most memorable impression that it makes is for a deep-seated pathos underneath its surface elements. To experience the darker-than-noir world of The Goon is to immerse yourself in a place for gown-ups that’s scary in the way things were scary to you when you were a kid, when everything was big and spooky and unknown.

Daredevil: YellowJeph Loeb (Brendan’s #13)

Jeph Loeb didn’t exactly have a quiet decade, per se. He certainly wrote a lot of stuff. But the things he wrote didn’t seem to resonate with audiences the way his best work has in the past (Soulfire, anyone? Anyone?) If you need evidence, look to his flash-then-fizzle 5 issue arc following Mark Millar on The Ultimates, a borderline disaster that might have single-handedly derailed any plans for a fourth installment any time soon. But Loeb did capture the old magic once or twice by doing what he arguably does best: roots-revisionism of classic character continuity. Cherry-picking the biggest moments from a hero with such a singularly piquant history, Loeb and artist/soul mate Tim Sale connect a modern storytelling sensibility with retro crime comic style that manages to never feel gimmicky or cheap. Instead it does the character a faithful service, adding to the richness of that lush backstory and to the depth of the man behind the horns.

The Ultimates – Mark Millar (Brendan’s #14)

Ultimate Spider-Man kicked off the Marvel’s “Ultimate” universe, and Ultimate X-Men broadened its horizons, but The Ultimates is the series that kicked its popularity into the stratosphere. Three years before Earth’s Mightiest Heroes were Disassembled and eventually made “New”, Mark Millar’s two-series run on The Ultimates was a reimagining of those classic characters in a form so dramatic and astounding that we couldn’t help but sit up and take notice- and be in awe- of them again. Those epic 26 issues gave us more than one indelible moment, but is perhaps most notable for giving Cap his most famous line of dialogue since he called the Avengers to assemble: “Surrender? You think this letter on my head stands for FRANCE!?!” Feel it.

The Authority – Warren Ellis; Mark Millar; Robbie Morrison; Grant Morrison; Garth Ennis (Brendan’s #15)

Yes, the action is as insanely over the top as it is awesome. Yes, the characters evoke comics’ archetypal icons only to openly subvert them. And yes, a lot of the critical ground it stakes was covered by, like, everybody since Watchmen. But people too often confuse and conflate abstractions like deconstruction and irony. Just as Robert Kirkman’s Invincible did for the true believers and classicists (main list spoiler!), DC/Wildstorm’s The Authority spent the better part of the decade being the modernist’s favorite study of the superhero. And the fact that it’s also just totally fun to see them fuck some shit up is just a bonus.

Hellblazer – Brian Azzarello; Mike Carey (Brendan’s #16)

Anyone who reads comics can tell you that John Constantine is one of the mediums absolute best characters. But despite his more than 20 years of continuous continuity in his own title, not many people can agree on what has been our favorite run with the occult detective/part-time sorcerer in Hellblazer. During his ridiculous hot streak early this decade, Brian Azzarello took a stab at John that brought him stateside and into new depths of deviousness, before Brit writer Mike Carey brough him back to England and shifted Hellblazer more definitively back to its horror roots. All told, the 2000s gave us 6 years of John Constantine at his best, setting a bar that every writer since has gloriously strived to surpass. Fans of Hellblazer couldn’t be happier.

Powers – Brian Michael Bendis (Brendan’s #19)

Independently, both superhero sagas and police dramas often deal in similar themes: justice, social order, honor, and the nature of public service, to name a few. In this creator-owned series Bendis marries the two genres to create an atmospheric, engrossing slow-burner of a book, something much closer in tone to his earlier crime thrillers than his Marvel megahits. Compared to all the flash and spectacle of a title like New Avengers, Powers is downright austere, but it’s also frequently tense, exciting, and (despite its general dourness) wryly funny. Most of the credit for its success is due to the series’ main characters- the laconic Christian Walker and live wire Deena Pilgrim are the heart of the book, and watching mysteries from their personal backgrounds unfold as they struggle to relate to one another through the Job is just as compelling as the cases they work to solve. Walker and Pilgrim made Powers a book to keep coming back to, even almost 70 issues in, just to see more of the decade’s most dynamic duo in comics.

Looking back, it’s almost hard to believe that it took such long-lived American industries so long to get together. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the motion picture world devoted significant attention to comics, but after a few notable successes in translating iconic pop figures like Superman and Batman to the silver screen, Hollywood discovered that mining the major publishers produced a winning formula: (Moviestars + superpowers) x explosions = $$ (+/- a remainder of quality storytelling, character development, direction, etc…)

The trend continued to snowball through the 80s and 90s, until it came to be that the 2000s were so thoroughly dominated by adapted works as to be the first true “Comic Book Movie Decade.” Dozens of films were produced. Some of the managed to range from good to even great: Christopher Nolan’s rebooted Batman, Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man”, and two-thirds of the Spiderman franchise spring to mind. Others fell somewhere between bad and just god-awful: “Daredevil”/“Elektra”, “Catwoman”, not one but two stabs each at both the Punisher and the Incredible Hulk- I could go on for entirely too long to bother.

Still, the overwhelming majority of comic book movies this decade fell into a third category, amounting to nothing more than forgettable also-rans, straightforward re-treads of the same old Hollywood templates dressed up in capes for varying degrees of mindless viewing “enjoyment”: four installments of Hugh Jackman with sideburns, Keanu as “Constantine”, a pair of not-so-Fantastic 4s, three (THREE!) iterations of “Blade”, a “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” and- (shudder) even the defiled corpse of Watchmen…

So with the glut of comics-inspired fare producing far more output ranging from poor to mediocre, you couldn’t really blame a serious movie fan for thinking comics don’t have so much going for them. Hell, if the only non-superhero comic book movie I’d seen was “Wanted” I’d think it was a bankrupt form too. But the truth is, there’s a plethora of excellent films out there that your average cinephile will love, and source material that’s just as top-notch (and thus the perfect gateway drug…)

sincitySin City- There has been perhaps no more literal a translation of any comic’s complete aesthetic than Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s “Sin City”, based on Miller’s eponymous series. In most cases, that’s a good thing, since usually the most damning trap that comic book movies fall victim to is to equate “comics” with “cartoonish”- over-the-top violence, outlandish character designs, and slap-dash CGI are enough to pass muster for most studios (and, sadly, audiences.)

But Miller’s Sin City already had an extremely cinematic style all its own, combining more action and noir touchstones than you’d find in Raymond Chandler’s closet to make a moody, stylish, hard-boiled world that’s as fun as Hell to watch- every second of which shows up on screen for the filmic adaptation. Add in some terrific performances from the exquisitely-cast rundown of Academy-favorites like Benicio Del Toro, Clive Owen, and especially Mickey Rourke (three years before The Wrestler heralded his return to mainstream respectability) and you’ve got the perfect popcorn companion, in movie or comic form.

ghostworldGhost World- You think comics are only good at producing popcorn flicks? Alright. How about a dourly comic stroll through suburban ennui depicted in the failing friendship of two teenaged girls? Can you believe Michael Bay passed on this one? Maybe the most low-profile comic book film ever, fans of the film (which stars independent film favorites Steve Buscemi, Thora Birch, and pre-starlet Scarlett Johansson) rarely seem to know that Daniel Clowes comic exists. But the indie spirit of film and comics are kindred, for sure, and the graphic novel as a medium shares celluloid’s capacity for conveying the ephemeral qualities of the human condition. Terry Zwigoff’s 2001 take on the comic is the perfect match for people who “get” films about people not really doing anything.

violenceA History of Violence- If Ghost World shows the literary commonalities between film and comics, A History of Violence exemplifies how the addition of a new creative point of view can offer something different in the jump from page to screen. Yes, the movie changes some of the specifics of John Wagner’s most famous post-Judge Dredd funnybook, but it’s impossible not to appreciate director David Cronenberg’s thoughtful, slow-burning take on the film’s central tenets.

It’s also got outstanding performances by Viggo Mortensen, Ed Harris and John Hurt, all of whom bring a compelling and thoughtful depth to their characters. As such, “A History of Violence” arguably does a better job than its namesake of deconstructing comics and cinema’s shared convention of violence, and examining the emotional and intellectual implications that brutal acts really should have on real, living, breathing people.

oldboyOldboy- The film won the Grand Prix at Cannes (and was Quentin Tarantino’s choice for the Palme d’Or), but even as a filmic property it remains unknown to most save for the truly hardened cinephile. But those who HAVE seen Park Chan Wook’s take on the disturbing (but really just plain bizarre) manga regard it as a film of the highest order. If the popular themes of revenge, love, and borderline-nauseating ultra-violence don’t reel in your movie fan pal, just tell them that it’s all in Korean. They’ll probably dig the subtitles.

splendorAmerican Splendor- Art imitating life imitating art. Chances are that any cinephile who sees Paul Giamatti starring as real-life comic book curmudgeon Harvey Pekar will immediately be drawn to the outsider-ish comic that inspired this Academy Award-nominated screenplay. Every bit as emotionally resonant and affecting as the film that bears its name, American Splendor’s slice-of-life stories themselves then another gateway drug, this time to the works of the litany of famous independent illustrators who have collaborated with Pekar over the years (including legendary underground weirdo R. Crumb and the Hernandez brothers, of Love and Rockets fame.)


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