How this month’s column was written (pictured above)
I had a plan for this month’s column. I am scrapping it.
As I write this, it has been two weeks since I had a surgery. Recovery has been smooth, I’ve been getting out every day and I’ve actually had more time for reading and writing than I usually manage. But folks, I’m tired. Fatigued. Got bruises in the most random places. I’ve got limits. All the shiny people on the apps keep telling me to do self-care. I think that means resting or spending money, and I’m all out of spending money, so this month’s Comics Gridlock is gonna be all about relaxation and taking it easy. We are gonna look at some trashy comic books that I snapped up from the cheap piles at comic shops and used bookstores. And I do mean look at. Today, we aren’t reading! We’re just gonna skim. Glance at the pictures. Let’s talk about those lines on paper!
First, let’s have a looksee at The New Mutants issue 73, published by Marvel in 1989, written by Louise Simonson, penciled by Bret Blevins, inked by Al Williamson and Mike Manley, lettered by Joe Rosen and colored by Glynis Oliver. I have written about the New Mutants before as part of a fun early pandemic challenge where I tried to review each issue out of a stack of random back issues, which eventually turned into a meditation on burnout because I burnt myself out really hard trying to do that! Try doing something like this yourself some time, you will find out why novelty video essayists who make 8-hour “I watched every episode of [X]” content look so dead inside, because if you try to do something like that you WILL feel that little death and you are going to feel it quickly. Anyway, this issue is part of the Inferno crossover, the culmination of a big plotline that was developed for years across the X-books involving goblins stealing babies and opening a portal. It might be Marvel’s best crossover. Daredevil fought a demonic vacuum cleaner. I wonder if I should review every issue of that crossover sometime…?
This issue is a big event moment for the New Mutants – the blonde girl turns into a metal girl and makes a big explosion happen and then she turns into a baby. This comic features a lot of big dynamic panels of dudes flying around, punching shit, crying, screaming, posing. Lots of buildings crumbling, mist, rain, fire, many goblins too! Blevins rolls out a few really great vertical panel structures to allow the impact of a splash page while sustaining a frantic momentum. Just look at this page (above right) where a bunch of demons get incinerated! This rules!
The real star here is Williamson and Manley’s inking. Even if you don’t have boxes crammed full of 80s Marvel comics stacked in a derelict corner of your bedroom, I’m sure we all read everything Tegan O’Neil writes, so we are all very familiar with how Williamson’s inking draws out incredible finished art from any collaborating penciler. I am less familiar with Manley’s talents, but clearly looking at this book the man can keep up with the best. Brett Blevins is obviously not the first penciler one thinks of when one thinks of Al Williamson as an inker, but the thing about Blevins is he’s kind of a Rorschach test for Marvel inkers at the time. His art can look incredibly expressive with one inker and can resemble poorly traced ElfQuest fanart inked by another. His penciling craft is just especially permeable to an inker’s vibes. And god is the inking here a vibe. Every thick brushy texture just feels so dramatic, muscles look heavy, everyone’s expressions are alive. Slashing rain and billows of smoke tear across the page while loose, razor-thin outlines of ruined skyscrapers sway in the distance. The poses are so good. Every background flourish oozes drama. Inking that leaps off the page, style that sells the importance of this event better than the best Claremontian caption. It scratches an itch to look at, you know?
Now I’ve got Deathwatch 2000 issue 2, published by Continuity Comics in 1993, plotted by Neal Adams, written by Peter Stone, penciled by Vincente Alcazar, inked by Andre Klasic, and colored by Tom Roberts and Cory… just Cory. This comic is part of a vanity line of bad superhero comics with Neal Adams’ name plastered all over it and it is just trash. Muscle man stuff. It looks like a fake comic put together by the prop department for a movie, it just looks really muscly and actiony and a handsome man punching weird stuff and future tech and whatever. I want to love some part of it, but the art is such a blandly slick imitation of Adams, the compositions and layouts are incomprehensible and not in a fun way, and the colors, while extremely vivid, are a clashy hot mess of purples greens and yellows that do absolutely nothing for me and generally resemble a bag of Welch’s. However, there is a sexy bug woman so this may be worth a half dollar if you ever come across it. Next!
Okay… Legion of Superheroes issue 12, published by DC Comics in 1990, written by Keith Giffen, Tom and Mary Bierbaum, and Al Gordon, with pencils by Giffen, inks by Gordon, lettering by Todd Klein and colors by Tom McCraw. This is Keith Giffen approaching his peak as a cartoonist, later attaining perfection with the absolute chaos of Trencher but here placing his idiosyncratic artistic voice, now fully his own, under tight restrictions, really encouraging the reader to look at every detail included as deliberate. He blatantly copies the nine-panel grid from Watchmen and includes many close-ups of people’s eyes for drama, a cheap tactic that always works. This comic is cluttered with little bits of debris, there are little touches throughout that just manage to catch your attention and linger as your eye passes across and down the rigid layout, like scanning the aisles of a second-hand thrift store in a town you’ve never been to in your life. I think it’s about superheroes?
[content warning: mentions of sexual violence in the next paragraph]
Finally, we have Marshal Law: Secret Tribunal issue 2 by Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill, published by Dark Horse in 1994, and this is a comic that you will be glad not to be attending to language for because it is written by Pat Mills. I love Marshal Law, but my god it is not fun to read Marshal Law for the story after you are old enough to legally drink. It’s a very clever deconstruction of superheroes, depicting the genre as populated by fascist perverts in leather obsessed with rape, fame, and murder. Only the ur-masochist Marshal Law, a leather-clad fascist with a gun, sees through their bullshit and is exactly the same as them except he kills them and has a gun. Mills had plenty of great satire of fascism to make in his 2000AD days but immediately ran out of things to say after that and has since resorted to very funny jokes about men with small penises raping women with big boobs. But lucky you, I’m not going to say anything else about that because I am sooooo sleepy!
If you don’t read any speech balloons or captions, Marshal Law: Secret Tribunal issue 2 is a masterwork in comics art. Kevin O’Neill never turned in a bad page in his life, and Marshal Law represents his finest period, so angular and vivid, verging on cubist but still pulsing with Cronenbergian fleshiness. Every line is there for a reason, but there’s no fear of excess. Every illustration is painted in lurid colors with a super flat brightness that never shies away from betraying the texture of its media. Sequences are crowded with little jokes, sight gags, and design flourishes – it’s the kind of cartooning that you could look at for days!
Take this nice panel illustrating a teen superhero being flayed alive by an alien. The way that the hero’s crumpled skin looks like melted vinyl. Those tight sinews. That Ken-dollish look of terror on his skinless face. The subtle linework which gives little visceral hints of the eldritch musculature beneath the alien’s own gimplike hide, subtly highlighted with light green textures. The blood shooting out of its eyes! That’s what Marshal Law is about! That’s where the satire works! Comics!
All this writing has my fingertips pooped. I think I’ll go take a nap for a month or two. Until next time, be like me and sort of read comics for hours to your heart’s content.