Friday, March 21, 2008

The games Winick and Meltzer played (plus advice on where to get advice on women)

According to the paragraph-long bio on the back flap of The Games We Played: A Celebration of Childhood and Imagination (Simon & Schuster; 2001), editor Steven A. Cohen worked for President Bill Clinton as a press aide starting in 1993 and later for then-First Lady Hilary Clinton as her deputy director of communications. That no doubt explains how he got both Clintons to submit short essays about the games they used to play growing up to run as part of his short compilation of such memories.

While the Clintons are probably the biggest “gets” he got—interestingly, Mrs. says she spent a lot time playing with the boys and claims to have been very good at all of the games she played in a way that seems boastful, while Mr. engaged in the roguish behavior of throwing acorns at passing cars’ hubcaps—there are a lot of famous folks in the table of contents. You’ve got Esther Williams, Al Roker, Gwen Ifill, George Stephanopoulos, Rob Reiner, David Baldacci, and many others whose childhood play I’ve never been the least bit interested in.

So why I am I talking about this book at all, let alone here, on a site devoted to the discussion of comics? Well, the book happened to pass through my hands while at my local library, and two of the names on the back jumped out at me—Judd Winick and Brad Meltzer, two of my least favorite comics writers!

Suddenly I was curious.

I flipped right to the table of contents to look for Winick’s entry, and saw it was entitled “The Cape.” Aw, he’s always been into superheroes! That’s darling.

I was pleasantly surprised to turn to page 71 and be faced with a few panels of Judd Winick’s art. Of late it’s been particularly easy to just think of Winick as a human bad comics script factory, but it was a nice reminder that no matter what stupid shit he’s writing in Green Arrow/Black Canary (Like, "You are going to have to push back that ocean of rage—that monsoon of emotion that kicks around in your body like a rabid bear on steroids," for example, or perhaps, “butt monkeys,” both from the last issue), he actually is (or at least was at one time) a pretty good cartoonist who can actually draw quite well.

I’m not horribly fond of the particulars of his style, as his big-headed human figures with their warts-and-all bodies give off a sort of college newspaper cartoonist/caricaturist vibe that’s not exactly to my own personal aesthetic tastes, but his drawings are full of life and energy and, while it’s been forever since I’ve read anything he’s drawn, I recall him being a pretty solid storyteller when it came to the mechanics of comics.

Like all of the contributions to this book, Winick’s is only a couple pages long, and seems shorter, since four pages of comics can’t fit in quite as much as four pages of prose. His piece is about the Superman cape he used to play with every day, including when he and his family would go on winter vacations to their grandparents’ condo in Miami. There were plenty of things for him to do, including swimming, playing on the beach and drawing, but his favorite activity was to play with the cape.

Here are two of the cape-specific pages, which I realize accounts for almost half the story. Feel free to not read the words or just skip ahead if you intend to check out the book and don’t want to spoil it:

I like the kid’s-eye-view of Winick’s story here, with his dad just being a torso and set of arms, and the chaotic energy of his cape-play on the second page, with little bathing-suit-wearing Winick literally running off in six different directions.

But what really got me was the fact that not only did his father have to regulate the amount of time his son spent wearing a cape, but that he chose 2:45 p.m. as the start time. Not two o’ clock or three o’clock or 2:30, but 2:45. It seems so specific a time and so unnatural a time, that, I don’t know, I find it hilarious. Particularly the thought of the little Winick asking his dad if it was time yet.

(I don’t know when exactly I began to be able to tell time on my own, but I remember the period where I knew about the hours but didn’t understand what “quarter till” or “quarter after” meant, and the adults in my extended family always used the term; I knew a quarter was twenty-five cents and the cost of a videogame or half a candy bar, but I didn’t understand that it was also 15 minutes. In my mind, I knew it meant “almost,” but I didn’t know how to mark it out on a clock. Until I did, anyway).

This is just a short little story, telling a tiny slice of Winick’s childhood, but it’s a good one, and an interesting one, and I was reading the one-sentence bio about him at the end—“ Judd Winick is the author of the graphic novel Pedro and Me, creator of the comic The Adventures of Barry Ween, Boy Genius and the writer of DC Comics’ Green Lantern”—it struck me how odd it is that Winick is still churning out awful DC scripts.

Perhaps there’s just a lot more money in selling thirty-some thousand issues of Green Arrow every month, and certainly hammering out scripts like those I’ve read of his Green Arrow or Outsiders is a few thousand times easier than drawing a story (seriously, if he spends more than an hour on any issue of Green Arrow, he’s working way too hard to come up with so little), but I can’t understand why he’s still plugging away at DC, ruining franchises like the Marvel Family and now the Wolfman/Perez era Titans instead of working on his next Pedro and Me.

The comics medium and publishing industry in general has been in a full-on autobio/memoir graphic novel boom of lat e(no surprise in retrospect, given that both memoirs and graphic novels are, on their own, popular categories in the publishing industry), and Winick was out in front of the wave. Why isn’t he now surfing on it, instead of fiddling around with capes and masks? Maybe he’s still just playing with that superhero cape, and his DC scripting is what he wants to do most because it’s the most fun but, man, I kinda wish someone was there to enforce a schedule on him; to say he could only write so much Titans and Green Arrow, and then he had to sit down and work on drawing his memoirs or Barry Ween for a while.

Back to the table of contents, I saw that Meltzer’s chapter was entitled “The Craziest Kid in the World.” Now, I’ve never read any of Meltzer’s fiction, but I understand he’s pretty damn popular (they sell his paperbacks in grocery stores, so he’s reached that level of popularity), and I’ve heard he’s pretty good, but only in a second-hand way; I don’t think I’ve ever read a critic discussing his work. For all I know, he could be a great novelist.

He’s a goddam terrible graphic novelist though. He can hide how bad he is pretty well when he has a strong editor and he’s working with a great artist (You have to read The Archer’s Quest a lot to find its problems, beyond the obvious ones of the continuity glitch or four in each scene, and Morales helped Identity Crisis from completely falling apart until the nonsensical end which, since it was a murder mystery, retroactively ruined the rest of it).

But when he’s working with a terrible comics artist like Ed Benes, his weaknesses are glaring (Although, to be fair to Benes, what strengths he does have as an artist are quite ill-suited to the story Meltzer wanted to tell in JLoA—and I’m being generous by using the word “story”—and the pairing of them at all was just bad judgment on the part of the editors. So, terrible writing, terrible art, terrible editing—JLoA just wasn’t much of a comic).

I’ve probably spent as much verbiage as anyone else with an Internet connection pointing to problems in Meltzer’s writing, so I don’t think there’s a great need to go into too much detail here. But in addition to not knowing/understanding/caring about DCU continuity (which becomes important when telling stories specifically grounded in that continuity), Meltzer over-writes every scene, with his narration—often from most of the characters in the books—repeating verbally information that is already easily discernible in the visuals and/or dialogue (Kinda like super-comics from the ‘40s through ‘60s or so, actually), applying real-world logic selectively (gritty violence and other adult subject matter, but no logic applied to, say, the criminal justice system or the behavior of his characters) and, most pertinent to today’s post, never really finishing a story.

He regards the serial nature of the medium as a sort of a combination between a relay race and a dare, cooking up some crazyass scenarios to hand off to others to resolve and make some sort of sense out of after he’s gone (DC spent about a year untangling the nonsense of Identity Crisis, for example, and Dwanye McDuffie, Geoff Johns and others are still working on explaining the changes Meltzer made to the cast of JLoA during his short, 13-issue stint).

I’ve only read his prose once, in Give Our Regards to the Atomsmahsers!: Writers on Comics (Pantheon; 2004), a pretty interesting collection of essays that I know I’ve mentioned at least once before on this blog (I believe in reference to Jonathan Lethem’s Omega the Unknown project, as the book contains an essay in which Lethem mentions Gerber and company’s original).

The piece by Meltzer in that was actually similar to the piece by Meltzer’s in this, in that it was him writing about an element of his youth. In Atomsmashers!, it was about his reading of Wolfman and Perez’s Titans run, particularly the Terra storyline. In The Games We Played, it was about the game he and his friends played in grade school, called “Craziest Kid in the World.”

His piece is just six pages long, and it opens with an exciting scene. Ten-year-old John Chiarmonte is about to attempt to execute an impossible sounding jump. He’s going to jump down the entire flight of basement stairs to land on the mattress laid out at the bottom for him, despite not being able to get a running start and in spite of the low ceiling preventing him from jumping too high.

Apparently, Meltzer and his friends had each dared higher and higher jumps from the stairs, leading to this moment.

From there, he lays out the vague rules of the game—basically, one of them would do something, and they’d keep upping the ante until someone took it to an extreme no one else would surpass, thus earning the title, and segues into an incident at school involving a huge puddle and, ultimately, an open sewer.

Meltzer’s prose writing style isn’t anywhere nearly as purple as his superhero writing style can be. His sentences are short but well constructed, making his few pages propulsive and easy to read, flowing well into one another. As much as I may loathe his comics writing, he can write. I still haven’t worked up enough interest to try a whole novel of his, but, once again, I’m impressed by his abilities from this brief exposure.

However, I was quite chagrined by the ending. See, remember how I said he opens with the scene of his one friend about to jump down the stairs? There’s actually quite a bit of build-up to that scene; it’s honestly dramatic, a bit suspenseful even. Pains are taken to tell us how dangerous it is. How unlikely it is that he’ll land on that mattress. How likely it is that he’ll get hurt.

Well, the scene shifts to the puddle/sewer incident, the tale just ends abruptly. Did John make the jump? Did he chicken out? Did he land halfway down the stairs on his ankle funny, necessitating a trip to the emergency room?

I don’t know. Meltzer doesn’t say. He never returns to the scene. He brings us up to the point where young John is about to jump, and then moves on.

I even read the bio, which, like the end of some movies, tells us where the kids end up. John is a DJ at a strip club, so at least we can gather he didn’t die in the fall. But that’s all we can do, gather from the bio, since, like at least two-thirds of his comics work, Meltzer doesn’t give us an ending or resolution, but merely stops writing.

Perhaps Geoff Johns or Dwayne McDuffie is meant to tell us about Meltzer’s childhood friends dramatic basement stairs jump in a future volume of this book?

Related: On the subject of comics creators appearing in mostly-prose anthologies, I’d highly recommend Things I’ve Learned From Women Who’ve Dumped Me (Grand Central Publishing; 2008). It’s a slim, 200-page volume edited by Ben Karlin, who’s worked for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The Colbert Report and The Onion.

The book is divided into 46 “lessons” the writers have learned from being dumped by women. Karlin writes one himself, and his mother writes the foreword (her son, she says, is a catch).

The are more comics (meaning people who work in comedy) in here than comics (meaning the stuff we normally talk about on EDILW) included. The contributors list includes several Onion writers, one politician (Bob Kerrey), two rockstars (OK Go’s Damian Kulash Jr. and Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger) and one sex columnist/author/altweekly editor (Dan Savage), plus Stephen Colbert, Andy Richter, Bob Odenkirk, Will Forte, Larry Wilmore, Stella/The State alum David Wain, Brian Michael Bendis hype man Patton Oswalt and some other rather humorous writers you’re less likely to have heard of.

Representing the other kind of comics is David Rees of Get Your War On fame, illustrator Marcellus Hall (who provides a nicely drawn but not particularly amusing two-page comics sequence) and New Yorker cartoonist Alex Gregory (who provides two not all-that-funny-at-all one-panel gag cartoons).

Rees provides a prose piece entitled “Get Dumped Before It Matters,” and I think anyone who’s read very many of his GYWO strips is quite aware that Rees’ gifts as a cartoonist has more to do with his verbal humor than his drawing ability. For further proof of how funny Rees can be even when clip art of office workers or karate guys isn’t involved, I’d encourage you to check out his new-ish political blog at It began as a kind of sarcastic blog making fun of blogging, but is now focused on attacking politics, politicians and the people who talk about them with the same vitriol as GYWO, only on a much more frequent basis.


mordicai said...

fair warning, i haven't read the whole piece, just the winnick part, but as a former hater i have to say...i've come around. i don't know why he is so loathed; i actually really like him. i mean, he's not hardly brilliant or without flaw, but he's good. good will get you a long way with me. i'd rank him with johns.

Anonymous said...

That story about Terra and Meltzer came out around the time Identity Crisis was starting, and boy, it made the comic even creepier than it was.

I've read Meltzer's The Book of Fate, it's definitely readable airplane fare. He has a real editor who is doing their damn job on the novels. However, some misogyny creeps in. I think Meltzer is thoroughly convinced that sharing things with a woman inevitably leads to disaster. He has massive, MASSIVE trust issues.

Anonymous said...

I read Meltzer's The 10th Justice (bought for $1 at a yard sale), and I don't really feel that I got my money's worth.

Been a few years, and I don't recall all the details, so I can't give any detailed critiques these days, but I wouldn't recommend it.

Anonymous said...

Man, Barry Ween was great - not every story was a winner, especially the last mopey volume, but when it was good, it was AWESOME. I wish DC would let him draw stuff - maybe a Plastic Man series?

I've read two of Meltzers novels and hated them. A lot of the themes of his superhero work can be seen in the plots of his novels - incompetent and unsuspecting protagonists who are manipulated, coerced, and often abused into serving the ends of very evil people, only to get lucky and triumph or get rescued in the last chapter. It's well-written in that it flows well, and the dialogue's pretty sharp, but given what happens to his characters, it's anything but fun to read.

LurkerWithout said...

I tried out one of Meltzer's novels once. It was about some kind of super-complicated embezzlement plot or something. All I know is I got bored with it after about 4 or 5 chapters and tossed it into my Take to Used Bookstore box...

And oh how I agree in wishing that Winnick would stop writing bad super-hero books and go back to indy stuff like Barry Ween. I was flipping thru several years worth of Winick GA & Outsiders books as I culled my longboxes. I swear his writing just kept getting worse. I think they're slipping something in his drinks at DC to make him dumber...

Anonymous said...

I read Meltzer's novel 'Zero Game'. It was chugging along just fine, a little political thriller, a little mystery, and then (OH NO SPOILER) one the main character's best friend turns out to be working for the bad guys because HE'S CRAZY!!! Literally the exact same thing he did with Jean Loring in IC: a character who has acted completely rationally through out, with no foreshadowing of note, turns out to be homicidally insane because it provides a lazy motive for the 'twist' that they're the villain.