guttergeek the discontinuous review of graphic narrative

September 2009

Strange Tales
#1 (Marvel Comics, 2009). $4.99, monthly for three months

By David B. Olsen

A Secret Origin Revealed!…

For me and other untold millions of Americans, there was no such thing as comic books as a kid. According to the implicit bylines of our household, comics were anathema to the proper trajectory of a mentally, emotionally, and physically mature young man. Comics, in other words, were junk, but this is not to say that our family was especially literary. There was no force-feeding of the classics or anything like that; our dinner table was always only plates, not Plato. So, for example, while many of the future Guttergeeks were having their world torn apart during Crisis, I was endlessly airballing free throws in my driveway, as though trying to trick my body into being athletic through sheer obstinacy. When Jason Todd got his ass handed to him by popular demand in A Death in the Family, I was probably watching Steve Urkel squeak and stumble his way through another excruciating half-hour of Family Matters. And Secret Wars? Apparently, everyone I knew had kept that secret.

And so when I began reading comics, it was at a surprisingly advanced age. (Let’s just say that I could pick up my books and a fifth of Wild Turkey on the same run.) My initial tastes were strictly indie, however, and whenever I copped to reading comics in conversation, it was always with the qualifier: “Yeah, but the literary stuff… not superheroes.” Looking back, I realize that I was desperately and precariously “cool,” and I didn’t want to risk this newfound luxury with anything that might betray the stigma of spandex.

But Then!…

For reasons that are probably totally obvious to you and will thus go without saying, I eventually started reading superhero comics. My path from perennials (like The Dark Knight Returns) to monthlies (like the shamefully underrated Secret Six) was shorter than The Atom.

And Now!…

So when I picked up Strange Tales #1 last week–Marvel’s “indie project” of much recent public allusion–I felt a surge of uncanny comfort. Here were the ambassadors and emissaries of my initial comics consumption, now dallying with the superheroes I had since come to respect. The book is more or less like a celebrity roast of Marvel Comics, in that the publisher has assembled some of the finest and weirdest artistic minds in alternative comics in order to playfully skewer the superheroes that they are actually the alternative to. Although the stories themselves may be irreverent and preposterous, there is a fundamental sense of respect that impels these pages. For example: when Spider-Man and MJ move to somewhere called Spider Town in Junko Mizuno’s hilarious riff on Spidey’s tropological awkwardness, there is everything that we don’t expect and nothing that we can’t accept. Like an old friend whose piercing jokes end up being flattering because they trust you enough not to get mad, most of the stories collected here are rightfully aimed at the intrinsic excess of all superheroes. One can imagine that with the wrong manager and an unchecked sense of self-importance, Dr. Strange could very well have made the 1985 rap album that kicks off Johnny Ryan’s list of “Marvel’s Most Embarrassing Moments.” (Ryan also contributes a wonderful Punisher story that is bright and bouncy.) Michael Kupperman’s two-page Sub-Mariner story is beautifully illustrated, even if the punch line is unpredictably weak.

Some of the best stories come from precisely whom you would expect. Paul Pope–who also contributes the rowdy, florid cover – turns in an Inhumans story about Lockjaw that is hard to explain without bleeding it of its magic. As ever, Pope’s characters are equally attractive and fleshy, and his pages are constructed with an almost scholarly awareness of symmetry and design. Nicholas Gurewitch of the Perry Bible Fellowship lends two pages to the project; although his Hulk strip is somewhat tame (for him, anyway), all is redeemed by a moody and violently funny Wolverine strip. Peter Bagge begins “The Incorrigible Hulk” here–the only story to be continued in the next two installments–and is able to somehow establish a sense of serial tension not typically associated with comedy.

The best story, however, is Jason’s understated and untitled Spider-Man, in which Peter uses his arachnidan identity to satisfy his own fantasy of being in a bar fight–which is funny enough, until Doc Ock’s neurotic reaction to the ordeal supplants almost everything else in the whole issue. Jason’s attention to movement and action is refreshing and uncharacteristic, but the real joy of this story is the way in which his story approximates the purpose of the issue as a whole. Strange Tales is all about fantasy; or, more precisely, fantasy within fantasy, since obviously there is no universe in comics that is ever entirely explicable on our own powerless terms. All of the characters here will always still be who they were, so why not let them out into the yard to run around and get messy and have fun? Wouldn’t this be their fantasy, if we allowed them to put away their capes and masks for one glorious, irresponsible afternoon? In the end, this book is a perfect experiment because there is nothing to lose.

With all of the death and rebirth and retribution in recent comics, it’s nice to know that we can occasionally pick up a book that doesn’t matter and love it precisely for that reason. Sure, not all of the stories here are great (James Kochalka seems content to have done as little work as humanly possible on his Hulk story), but the overall effect is that of heroes who can be frivolous and creators who are not obligated to past and future.

And today, as I defy the embargo of my childhood and hungrily scour the annals of continuity in my quest to catch up, I’m happy to have something strange to look to when I catch myself taking everything too seriously.

The End?!…