Strange Animals / 2021 / #3: Out in the Open

Pulp sex / Apocalyptic Barbalien / Lots of Love(craft)

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I’ve been thinking of something that went missing with the evolution of pulp comics into corporate IP. With the transition and the maturation of the comics medium, we’ve seen quite a few writers explore the relationship of the raw power fantasies that originated these genres with politics, violence and identity, but beyond an acknowledgement of the fetishism involved in dressing up in costumes and beating people up, we haven’t seen many explorations of sexuality via the superhero/pulp form. Particularly not within corporate comics, for obvious reasons (see: the Bat-Dick event), but even outside of that, it seems limited to a fairly vanilla, heteronormative idea of “ooh, sex”.

The reason I find this interesting is that the frenzied pace at which early pulp and early comics were written meant that you got a raw, unvarnished look into the psychosexual concerns of the writer/artist – see Weisinger, Kanigher and Marston. Something like Miracleman or Watchmen made a virtue out of bringing a modern lens and the heft of psychological realism to these stories, but we haven’t seen something like, say Lost Girls for pulp adventure.

Corporate comics are obviously gun-shy about this because their concern is maintaining the IP, so I think the closest we got was Morrison/Paquette’s Wonder Woman via Marston, but let’s face it, a) corporate comics can’t face the sexuality of their characters being pathologised and b) you can’t really have someone write someone else’s take on a character like that without either buying wholeheartedly into the philosophy, or sliding into parody. You’ve gotta either really delve into your own id and put it on display, or follow the implications of this sort of sexual worldbuilding to its natural end (again, Miracleman came close, but it was sort of doing too many things to pay too much attention to this aspect).

Anyway, the reason I’m thinking about this is that a friend and I were batting around how we’d “fix” a particular superhero, when I realised that none of our ideas needed the IP, which meant we could take the concept, add our own character, and run with it.

And when I was trying to come up with a character for this, I figured I could explore the darker aspects of someone wanting to acquire this particular (let’s not be specific) power. And what kind of desires would lead someone to turn themselves into a pulp character.

It’s definitely an uncomfortable story idea, and, having come up with it, I can see why modern comics don’t do this, because, in real life, sex can be as damaging as it can be liberating, and writing this kind of story requires you to take some leaps and go into weird places within yourself without ironic distance. Lust isn’t politically correct, and writing a realistic story that centres fetishistic sex, you’re toeing a risky line.

Honestly, this note might be as far as this idea goes, but we’ll see.

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I just had the one release this week, and it was Barbalien: Red Planet #3, that introduces the delightful Doctor Day. Written by Jeff Lemire & Tate Brombal, with art by Gabriel Hernandez Walta, colours by Jordie Bellaire, edited by Daniel Chabon & Chuck Howitt, from Dark Horse Comics.

Also, big news, my third full-length collaboration with Ram V. and Anand RK was announced this week. It’s a series called Radio Apocalypse, and here’s the synopsis:

The series is set following an apocalyptic event that almost wiped out society, with the last radio station on the planet — Bakerstown’s Radio Apocalypse – threatened by the winds of change ... with one boy’s fate tied inexorably to the survival of the station. The series is the third collaboration between creators Ram V and Anand RK following 2018’s Grafity’s Wall and last year’s critically acclaimed Blue in Green.

This was, in fact, the first full-length series we started work on. We did five pages (of which Anand actually gifted me one) before we got side-tracked by Grafity’s Wall, and then Blue in Green. It’s going to be interested coming back to this years later. I’m definitely junking all of my lettering and redoing it. (Probably not hand-lettering this one, though. Doesn’t feel like it’d fit the tone.)

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This week’s reading:

  • The Fictional Man – Al Ewing: Reads like a delightful mishmash of Jasper Fforde and Paul Auster – a character portrait snuck in as a funny sf novel about how stories and people change over time. Thoroughly enjoyed it, possibly more than everything else I’ve read from Ewing so far.

  • Ordinary Victories Vol. 1 – Manu Larcenet: Really nicely drawn slice-of-life (autobio?) comics. The story hasn’t caught me yet, but the art is keeping me going. I suppose it’s meant to have a cumulative impact anyway.

  • The Book of the Enemy – edited by Simon Bucher-Jones: Companion volume to The Book of the Peace, which I contributed to. Probably the most formally inventive multi-author anthology I’ve read (behind The Book of the War, which, if you haven’t read, takes the form of an in-universe encyclopaedia). Intimidating to start with, but then you ease into it. Quality’s a bit 50-50, but the good stories are excellent, and even the bum ones have good ideas. I think with a bit more cohesion, it could’ve been a fine formalist novel.

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Linkblogging:

  • I loved this essay about craft and writing by Matthew Salesses. He talks about how much “craft” as we understand it is built on the terms of Western literature, and how, even within it, it can be a limiting construct. I’ve been thinking about a lot of things to do with my own fiction for a while. This really solidified many of them. I ran out (figuratively) and bought his book Craft in the Real World immediately.

  • Here’s another essay by Salesses (which led me to the first one) that specifically tackles fiction of resistance and how catharsis affects our relationship with reality. Key quote: “Catharsis is a state of rest, not a state of action.” This is why “satisfying” fiction about change is often not good for you, and why superheroes tend to be fiction of status quo maintenance.

  • I’ve talked about Cal Newport and his books and podcast quite a bit here, and I was inordinately delighted when he featured an audio question from me in his latest podcast. It’s the last question here.

  • Writer Brian K. Vaughan bought the script to an unpublished Gen13 Annual by Alan Moore in an auction to help out artist Bob Wiacek with some health issues, and now he’s offering a scanned copy of it to everyone who donates to Wiacek’s GoFundMe campaign. It’s for a good cause. Details here.

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I’ve recently been listening to Voluminous, a podcast about H. P. Lovecraft’s extensive correspondence with friends, family, fans and collaborators. Each episode, the hosts (who run the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society, which I first discovered when I was looking for some period-appropriate typefaces, of which they have a great collection) read a letter from HPL to one of his correspondents, and then give us historical context of the time in general, of the relationship, and any relevance of the letter to either person’s work.

It’s a very enjoyable listen, especially if you’re interested in the pulp fiction landscape of the time. Obviously, HPL’s racism comes up multiple times, and while the hosts are two white men who are clearly uncomfortable discussing it, they do a reasonable job of expounding the nature of it and how it relates to HPL’s work.

For one thing, I gained renewed appreciation for how Alan Moore (in Providence) handled Lovecraft’s genuinely pleasant, if slightly melancholic, outward demeanour as it related to his casually virulent bigotry.

You can listen to Voluminous here.

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That’s all from me this week. I was writing a little bit about comics, but I couldn’t get it done in time, so it’ll be in the next one.

Have a good week ahead, folks.