Anatomy of Influence or The Western Canon (in Comics)

Laerte’s Piratas do Tietê: “Sometimes, I do things for aesthetic pleasure”

Recently, I have read Anatomy of Influence, by the prolific American literary critic Harold Bloom. In this book he revisits one of his main topics, the issue of influence in literature. Actually, it doesn’t matter for my point in this article. What got my attention was the fact that he had read something like the Odyssey, or James Joyce, or whatever, in his early teens. I can’t remember the exact quotes. But throughout the text he keeps mentioning things like “when I was eleven, I read ‘Paradise Lost’ for the first time.” For my part, I was: oh, wow, that is impressive. Yes, I do study literature, and, yes, I am an academic myself. I write about Jorge Luis Borges. I write about Machado de Assis. Latin American masters, classics. That is to say, I sure am interested in literature(s) and in strong authors myself. That is one of Bloom’s definitions, by the way, strong versus weak writers. I know, it sounds extremely elitist! Nevertheless, when I was entering my teens, I wasn’t exactly cutting my teeth on Milton or anything like that. I was reading Frank Miller’s Dark Knight; Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez’s Love and Rockets; Alan Moore’s Watchmen; Laerte’s Piratas do Tietê; etc.

So I decided to put my expertise in the literary field to good use and write about comics. Well, I am sure no Harold Bloom, and I sure don’t intend to be the equivalent in the comic arena. But I can assure you that I will try my best to be highly personal. I will follow Dr. Johnson’s suggestion (one of Bloom’s heroes) to be “not dogmatically but deliberately.” That is to say: I will follow nothing but my own guts. That is one of the things that we all can admire in Bloom: his lonesomeness. I mean, the man is writing for forty plus years and he hasn’t changed his mind, in spite of all the negative reception of his work. Well, I noticed he started addressing writers as “she” and “he.” But that is not to say that he is entering the field of feminist studies or giving up his own (male, white, occidental) convictions. I digress. The point is: I also intend to reserve myself the right to be alone. Even in my stupidity, if that is the case.

In this first article, thus, I am proposing my own personal comic canon, much like Harold Bloom did in other books (The Western Canon, for example; and I don’t think it gets clearer that that!). A fair warning, though! Don’t expect me to include the latest hot thing you’ve heard from a more connected source in my provisional list. This list is based on my own experience as a reader of comics. Hopefully, it will give you an idea of my personal parameters, my background, and likes and dislikes. Not that it matters. You can read my upcoming articles not knowing who I am or where I come from. It is just to say, if you’re not comfortable with my critiques, you are free to refer to this article. You can then try to understand why I am being such an asshole with this or that author, this or that comic. Yes, I am talking about my own influences. So, here it goes. I hope you like it (or don’t, but I definitely hope you comment on it!).

Gilbert Hernadez’s “Scarlet by Starlight”

First, I have to admit I am a Hernandez Broz aficionado. For me, they are the best American comic writers alive and producing today. I know it took a long time for them to find their voices. But if you can bear with them for the first hundred pages of “Locas” and “Palomar,” you will be rewarded with the most amazing artwork and storytelling in comics from the 1980s onwards. I think they use the medium to its full capabilities as just a few do. Love and Rockets New Stories (Fantagraphics Books) is an amazing ongoing series. It provides long time readers with heartfelt closures and new excitement. Jaime made some beautiful pages in it, especially in #3 and #4. If you know characters such as Maggie and Ray, you will love to see what had happened in their lives. It sure reads and feels like actual lives to me. See “Browntown,” see “The Love Bunglers.” Gilbert has become my favorite comic writer of all times, particularly with Fritz’s and Killer’s B-movies. I can’t get tired of reading and re-reading “Scarlet by Starlight” (in L&RNS #3); Chance in Hell; The Troublemakers; or Love from The Shadows (all published by Fantagraphics books). Gilbert’s take on B-movies speaks volumes to my sensibility.

Frank Miller’s Dark Knight

I was first drawn back to comics in the 1980s, especially with the publication of Portuguese translations of Frank Miller’s works. Yes: I said drawn back. As many of us born in Brazil during the 1970s, I was brought up with Mauricio de Sousa’s Turma da Mônica. Actually, I learned my first letters with it, and the help of my mother. Anyway, what got my early teen’s attention back to comics were the darker take on famous characters, such as Batman, Daredevil, and Elektra. Not to mention originals, such as Ronin, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and others (what else? I can’t remember). Not that I could fully understand them at the time. I only sensed that there were more to that these characters than to dress in funny costumes and save the world. Of course, I read most of this 1980s things again later in my life, and some of then pass the test of time. For instance, I love Batman: Year One (DC Comics), and also Miller’s arch on Daredevil (Marvel). In any case, it is Frank Miller’s Dark Knight (DC Comics) that remains a milestone for mainstream comics. If now it seems a bit dated, it is still a constant remind of how far can a commercial comic go. Not to mention that, in some sense, it was the model for Christopher Nolan’s film versions of Batman, with just a delay of a couple of decades. I also have to thank Miller for pointing me to Love and Rockets and to Lone Wolf and Cub, among other things. I read some interviews where he mentioned those. Unfortunately, I will have to end this bit on a bitter note. Miller’s Holy Terror (Legendary Comics), is amazingly awful! And I am not talking about Miller’s politics. Agree with it or not, Holy Terror has poor storytelling and plane characters. Overall, is exceedingly hollow. It is just unnecessary for any reader in any place of the world.

Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen

Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen (DC Comics) is also a highlight in my personal cannon. Here you have a superhero type of comic that did not lose a thing with time. It is perfect. I don’t think it has yet found any contender in the same field up until now. It is definitely a superhero comic. But it is complex and multilayered. It is, at the same time, respectful and revisionist in relation to genre’s history and traditions of the genre. I had come across two more recent comics that, in some sense, remind me of Watchmen. The first one is Grant Morrison’s and Frank Quitely’s Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle Mystery (Titan Publish Company). The second one is Dylan Horrocks’ Hicksville (Drawn & Quarterly). I think Flex Mentallo proposes an ironic twist to the genre. It plays with the connections between reality and comics, world and book, reader and characters. In contrast to Watchmen, Flex Mentallo plays with the reader’s expectations vis-à-vis the superhero genre. It also plays with the different eras and approaches to the genre. But it puts the reader himself inside the storyline, giving new depths to this type of revisionist superhero comic. Hicksville, in turn, is a more personal story about the comic industry and the love for comics. It resembles Watchmen in the sense that it is also multilayered and complex. Much like Watchmen, it is also nostalgic. At the same time, it is a modern and revisionist comment on the superhero genre.

Finally, I will refer to another tradition, a Brazilian tradition in comics. Remember, this is just an introduction to my upcoming comic reviews. I will come back to the subject from time to time. That is to say, I am deliberately leaving things out of this partial canon. In particular, I am leaving out contemporary stuff. I don’t want to be exhaustive, at least not for now. But I still have to talk about Brazilian comics! That is for sure. I bought the first issue of Laerte’s Piratas do Tietê with my own lunch money when I was in primary school. I was something between ten and thirteen. Up to this day, I have the words that came out of the Capitão’s mouth at the cover of this issue in my mind. It comes back to me every time I think about it. “Comi muito a senhora sua mãe” [I use to fuck your dear old mother a lot]. Beautiful words, I might add. Not for a kid, I know. And that is part of the excitement of getting this first issue of Piratas do Tietê. Before that, I use to read my old brother’s Chiclete com Banana, and a spare Fanzine here and there. But Piratas do Tietê was mine! Up to this day I love Laerte’s work, in special his larger stories (“Vila Madalena”, “Anjos e Bruxas”, etc.). I have always wanted him to get more things done in this format. Anyway, I think that what he is currently doing within the comic strip constraints is a new thing. He recently came out as a crossdresser. For that, he came back to the public discussion. It is cool to see how part of his work interplays with his new public persona. Laerte is a Brazilian author worth looking up.

Spider-Man by Hannah Blumenreich (Spidey Zine)

Ok, enough. I will just leave other names and references here. My favorite character of all times is Spider-Man. Hands down. As for European comics, I have to thank the late Brazilian magazine Animal for introducing a lot of them to me. I remember buying an issue of Animal with “Squeak the Mouse” in the cover. When I opened it my early teenage catholic shame made me return it. I was around eleven: take that Bloom! But later I went back to it, and became a huge fan of characters such as Peter Punk, Tank Girl, Squeak, Ranxerox, and writers such as Saudelli, Jaime Martín, Magnus, etc., etc. I have also given my first steps in learning to read in Spanish with an issue of the Spanish version of Metal Hurlan! Take that, Bloom! Finally, I have also to mention Adão’s Big Bang Bang. Adão is still kicking ass in his website. Who else? Oh, man… That is it. For now.