Emanata: Brendan McCarthy’s Fever Dreams

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There are certain comics that are really just meant to be looked at, and Brendan McCarthy’s Spider-Man: Fever is one of them. McCarthy makes images that lunge for whatever part of the brain feels the tremor of the uncanny. His most spectacular pages elicit a giggle, then a slow stare, and then (if you’re really lucky) nightmares. The color schemes he favors are garish, blister-bubbling and hypersaturated, so bright and heavy they seem to bend space around them. And his work has a weird, very prominent sense of humor about it; his favorite joke is making things look surreally not-quite-right.

That makes McCarthy’s art great for gazing at–he had a memorable run as the cover artist of Shade the Changing Man in the early ’90s–and sometimes less than optimal for a reader who’s trying to follow a story. Following a small flurry of comics projects in the mid-’80s (notably a few Judge Dredd stories and his short-lived Paradax project with Peter Milligan), he’s largely been keeping busy elsewhere. Before this month, the only complete comic book he’d released in the the past 18 years or so was 2006’s final issue of Solo, a backwards cartwheel through the look of DC’s go-go-checks era.

So it’s a pleasant surprise that he’s resurfaced; in the last three weeks, two new comic books have featured his work, with at least three more to follow by July. If the premise of Spider-Man: Fever–a Spider-Man/Dr. Strange team-up–doesn’t immediately suggest what McCarthy is up to, then the first page’s resemblance to the non-Euclidean landscapes of certain panels from old Dr. Strange stories makes it clear: this project is a straight-up tribute to Steve Ditko’s ’60s-era artwork on both characters’ comics.

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For an artist as in-your-face as McCarthy can be, though, he’s surprisingly subtle about it: this is a homage, not a pastiche, and it looks much more like McCarthy subsuming some of Ditko’s tricks into his own unmistakable repertoire than like McCarthy doing Ditko. His story makes basically no sense at all so far–it moves like a hallucination, abruptly shifting tone and eliding over stuff that can’t be made to look cool–but it’s hard to stop staring at his drawings of gigantic mystical spider-demons and glowing magical radiation and grotesque doglike creatures. (We previewed a few pages from #2 last month.) That’s fine; honestly, it’s also probably more fun to read Ditko and Stan Lee’s original “Dr. Strange” stories by staring at the pictures, enjoying Lee’s portentous language, and not trying to grapple with plot or characters.

The backup story by Denny O’Neil and Bill Sienkiewicz in this week’s The Spirit #1 falls into the same category: one master stylist transforming a few visual ideas from a very different one. Sienkiewicz is one of the wildest, most impressionistic cartoonists ever to hold down an extended run on a mainstream superhero comic book; his tenures on Moon Knight and The New Mutants in the early ’80s weren’t just ahead of their time, they were ahead of ours. O’Neil’s story here is a trifle of a thing, but it’s basically a welcome excuse for Sienkiewicz to take a few of Will Eisner’s signature gestures–on-panel objects spelling out the Spirit logo, torrential rain, the bell-pepper contours of Commissioner Dolan’s face–and render them with his own frantic, fine-lined, cobwebby scribble. (It’s also the first of what will apparently be a regular black-and-white backup feature in The Spirit, along the lines of the old Batman: Black and White stories.)

Surprisingly, the McCarthy-drawn story that came out this week isn’t just eye candy, it’s a pretty entertaining piece of writing–although it helps that linear narrative is nowhere near its point. Matt Fraction and McCarthy’s six-page “Doctor America,” in Marvel’s deliberate-self-parody one-shot Captain America: Who Won’t Wield the Shield?, is a dense mash of the language and images of Dr. Strange, Captain America, and the places in American culture where they they once manifested outside comics. It’s also got the kind of vibrant loopiness Fraction hasn’t returned to much since his second Casanova series ended.

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One way of thinking of “Dr. Strange + Captain America” is as “occultism + politics,” which is how Fraction and McCarthy spin it. The “super-freaky hero” of the story carries a shield that’s some kind of occult diagram; his Bucky is “Baal Lebutte the Goat Boy”; his Red Skull is “Richard Milhous Manson,” whose dialogue consists of Nixon quotes. Fraction drops one reference after another to the late-’60s moment Marvel shared with America: James Brown’s “Brother Rapp,” Altamont, the “Elektrik Kirby Acid Kettle,” and the Red Skull stand-in “Richard Milhous Manson,” whose dialogue consists of Nixon quotes. The story eventually turns into a kind of summoning ritual, and climaxes with a chant of the sacred name “Ditkirbanko”–a portmanteau of Ditko, Jack Kirby and Jim Steranko. (What it turns out to be summoning is “Kithotep, the kitten who watches us from the hole in the moon”; ’60s utopianism always did lack follow-through.) I’m more impressed that McCarthy has summoned himself back to superhero comics art, which could use some more of his pungent, destabilizing force right about now.

Want more Emanata? See all of Douglas’ columns here.

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