1. All Hail, Hall. Bob Hall, you may recall, is Armed and
Dangerous. Armed and Dangerous, you may recall, was a series of
comic books that came out a couple years ago in striking black and
white. Written and drawn by Hall, the books told tales about
underworld types like those Hall had known (or had heard about) in
the scruffier neighborhoods of New York City, where he served time as
a youth. Hall was producing fiction in this series but some of the
incidents were based upon actual events (or neighborhood gossip about
actual events). The stories were superbly rendered in a stunning
chiaroscuro manner. And Hall demonstrated a spectacular mastery of
the techniques of comic book storytelling, too--pacing the action and
conjuring up atmospherics expertly on every page. Well, he's back at
it--this time with one of comics' icons. Batman: I, Joker ($4.95) is
an Elseworlds Batman story told by the Cowled Crusader's arch enemy.
But the plot is laid far in the future by which time Batman is a
god-king called "The Bruce."
The Bruce is maintained in power by the faith of the populace, and
the faith of the people is sustained by regularly enacted feats of
violence against a re-appearing cast of villains--the Penguin,
Two-face, the Riddler, Ra's al Ghul, and the Joker. Once every year,
volunteers are invited to capture or kill one of this bunch--and, if
successful, to challenge the Bruce to personal combat to the death.
If victorious, the successful citizen will become the new god-king.
In addition to incorporating elements of the Fisher King myth, Hall
has constructed (as I trust you can tell from the foregoing) a clever
parable that parallels the relationship between the comic book hero,
Batman, and his faithful readers, before whom (like the Bruce),
Batman re-enacts periodically the ritual conquest of a litany of arch
villains. Having set up the resonances of this situation, Hall then
proceeds to explore its implications. And I'll not say more about
that in deference to your undoubted desire to find out what happens
on your own.
Hall's artwork and storytelling abilities are well displayed here.
He renders anatomy in chips and chunks like raw meat, making dramatic
use of solid blacks and deep shadows, and he paces the tale with
breakdowns that create the story's atmospherics in flashes of
consciousness. Nifty stuff, deftly done. Look for your copy in the
back-issue bins at the summer cons.
2. At Long Last. It's taken over fifty years, but the National
Cartoonists Society (NCS) has finally given a long-overdue
recognition to cartooning in the comic book format. Will Eisner,
believe it or not, is the first working in that genre to win the
Well, okay. Mort Drucker (who received a Reuben in 1987) works in
Mad in the multi-page format; but I suspect his Reuben was more for
his surpassing skill as a caricaturist than for his storytelling
skills. And, sure, Sergio Aragones (1997) works in comic books. But
I suspect his pantomime comedy was the basis of his Reuben. Yes,
Groo helped, I'm sure.
Okay, okay. Drucker and Aragones. Both cartooning geniuses, no
question or quibble. And they both worked in comic books. So you
admit I'm wrong, eh?
But Drucker and Aragones are Mad men. Their comic book work is high
comedy. And that's fine. (In their case, it's more than fine: it's
superlative.) But serious storytelling--plumbing the depths, scaling
the heights of the potential of the comic book medium--storytelling
that aims to affect more than our risibilities, that kind of
storytelling in the multi-page format is the kind Eisner has been
doing. And that, you'll have to admit, is a different sort of comic
book work than the work done by Drucker and/or Aragones. (Both of
whom I love. But you knew that, eh?)
The comic book work of Drucker and Aragones emphasizes the comic; the
comic book work of Eisner emphasizes the book. And the difference is
significant. Literature over laughter.
Regrettably, NCS has seldom in its history looked upon comic books
with much favor. Historically, NCS has been the turf of syndicated
newspaper cartooning. Its founders were in fact vaguely suspicious
of cartooning in any of its other forms. Those few who suggested
that the club reach out to include cartoonists in these other forms
were often sniffed at. That has changed somewhat in recent times,
but the club still hasn't quite figured out that some of the best
cartooning being done these days is being done in comic books. It's
as if time has stood still for NCS.
Given the shrinkage of the newspaper strip, it should be obvious to
anyone who understands cartooning that the most potent format for the
practice of the art in print is the comic book. The multi-page
format offers more than mere length (sufficient to the telling of a
complex tale): page layout can be exploited for dramatic emphasis,
panel size and shape can be varied for effect.
There are still great things being done in a few comic strips, but
the most promising potential for the future of cartooning is in the
comic book. Or, to employ the slightly pretentious term, the
It is therefore supremely fitting that Will Eisner, who has been on
the cutting edge in developing the graphic novel in form and subject,
should be honored by his profession in this fashion. Considering the
extent of Eisner's pioneering achievements in cartooning (in
developing the grammar of the traditional comic book in the early
days, in exploring the educational and instructional uses of comics,
and in introducing the graphic novel), the award this year is surely
going to a deserving recipient. More than deserving. Richly
Incidentally, the reason that NCS has always shied away from comic
book cartoonists is that in the early days comic book artists only
drew their features, they didn't also write them like syndicated
strip cartoonists did. So comic book cartoonists weren't considered
full-fledged cartoonists. (The possibility that sometimes strip
cartoonists wrote but didn't draw their features was not, apparently,
Through the 1970s, this bias doubtless continued to infect the voting
ranks of NCS (consisting mostly of syndicated cartoonists who
wouldn't be caught dead reading a comic book). The only person this
bunch was sure wrote as well as drew his comic book was Will Eisner.
So Eisner won the category award for Best Comic Book Cartoonist for
four years, 1967-69 and 1988. The comic book category was split into
two (humor and story), 1970-1987, and Eisner won it under "story" in
1979 and 1987.
Eisner's history with this award is ample testimony to NCS's
dumbfounding myopia (even outright blindness) with respect to comic
books: Eisner wasn't producing a comic book during the sixties when
he won three times; he was doing a maintenance magazine for the Army
and other instructional comics. Comic book format but not fiction,
The list of winners in the comic book category is somewhat spotty: it
skips years with astonishing regularity. The "humor" sub-division
has a winner every year, but the "story" listing skips from 1981 to
1987 as if there were no story-telling comic books during that
period. Frank Miller finally got the nod in 1991, but no one won the
Perhaps now that the ice has broken, the achievement of other
cartoonists who work in the multi-page format will be recognized. We
can hope. But first, NCS needs to figure out how to find out who the
best in the comic book field are.
This year's nominees were Alex Ross (for Uncle Sam), Jeff Smith (for
Bone), and Aaron Warner, for the comic book version of his weekly
newspaper strip, The Adventures of Aaron. Good guys all, but they've
been doing work of the caliber represented here for some time. Why
pick this year to honor them?
Well, better now than never, of course.
But what about Paul Chadwick and Don Rosa? Surely they're in the
same arena as Ross, Smith, and Warner. (Maybe not Ross; but he's
here probably because of his spectacular artwork, not his
storytelling per se. If so, what happened to that bias against
"cartoonists" who drew but didn't write their material?)
NCS has already missed the opportunity to recognize the giants (other
than Eisner): Jack Kirby, Harvey Kurtzman, Jack Cole, Carl Barks,
John Stanley, C. C. Beck, Curt Swan, even Wayne Boring (who put
Superman in the imaginations of the generation of readers before
Don't miss out with Gil Kane.
Neal Addams, Jim Steranko, John Byrne.
Then, to return to the current crop, don't overlook Mike Mignola,
Erik Larsen, Duncan Fegredo--even Todd McFarland (whose purchase of a
multi-million-dollar baseball surely counts for something).
If NCS doesn't get in step with the times pretty quick now, the
outfit will live to regret its provincialism in the fairly near
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