The Comic Book Club: Jimmy Olsen and Butcher Baker

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This is what happens when Techland goes to the comic book store: we end up discussing what we picked up. This week, Evan Narcisse, Douglas Wolk, Matt Peckham and Graeme McMillan talk about the Jimmy Olsen one-shot and the first issue of Butcher Baker, the Righteous Maker.

EVAN: The first chapter of the story collected in this week’s Jimmy Olsen special was my first introduction to Nick Spencer, and the flurry and the rush of ideas and dialogue hit me like a jolt of electricity. I immediately remember thinking, “This guy’s gonna go places.” (And he did… straight to a Marvel exclusive.) But the think about Spencer that struck me right away was how well his generational “voice” matched Jimmy Olsen and, almost magically, a chunk of the audience buying superhero comics nowadays.

DOUGLAS: When it appeared in Action Comics a few months back, this was also the first thing I’d read by Spencer, and I still think he’s a very interesting writer. I haven’t found myself absolutely loving a lot of what he’s done yet–although I adored this!–but I like almost all of it, and I have a feeling he’s about 30 scripts away from really hitting his stride. Now, if that Newsarama interview from a couple weeks back is on the mark (“Usually, if I’m writing eight scripts in a month, I feel like I’ve done my job”), that’s, like, less than four months from now. Assuming he doesn’t burn out first. He’s doing T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, Morning Glories, Iron Man 2.0, Secret Avengers, Infinite Vacation, and apparently a bunch of other stuff…

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EVAN: Spencer cruises off of the mighty strength of his reference-fu in these stories, but somehow manages to walk the fine line of not getting lost in them. I read this collection worrying that I might be witnessing the hipster-ing of Superman’s Pal, but Jimmy felt relatable throughout. His ache for ex-girfriend Chloe was something that I could relate to, and who amongst us hasn’t felt adrift in work, peer group or other parts of adulthood?

All too often, stories focusing on Jimmy Olsen make it seem like he’s mostly got it together, and there’s not much internal churn to the character. But a guy so well-adjusted to saving the world from super-villainy can’t be all that great in the other parts of his life, can he? So putting him in a sitcom set in the DC Universe showcases the foibles of a normal dude in a superhero universe. And these are all classic sitcom plot devices: the uninvited guest, the romantic rival, the “was it all a dream?” episode. Tacking on oxygen-binging aliens just makes them better.

DOUGLAS: Definitely–this is a really clever way of updating Jimmy Olsen, keeping him as a guy who gets involved in light-comedy adventures all the time without making him seem like a bowtied throwback. (I laughed out loud at the “co-Superman” business and “you’re trying to conquer the world by screwing over net neutrality?”) The tone really is very modern–I don’t know if I’ve seen “amirite?” in a mainstream comic book before. But it’s also recognizably the DCU setting, and the other characters get to play straight foils to Jimmy (nice Natasha Irons cameo, in particular): no tragedy, no trauma, just characters at cross-purposes.

I really like RB Silva’s artwork here, too: it can’t be easy making a story this densely plotted look as spacious and relaxed as he does, and he makes a lot of sequences go over just on character acting. The Amanda Conner front cover of this one-shot is a nice touch–Silva’s approach to character comedy reminds me a lot of Conner’s in some ways.

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EVAN: Part of the fun in this book is how Spencer pokes fun at the status quo of the Superman books. The “taking a walk” joke, the choose-a-stand-in panel and the fact that–since no one was allowed to write Superman during Stracynski’s tenure–Kal-El never speaks a word when he shows up.

DOUGLAS: Not to mention the broader joke that Jimmy figures out that the way to take all the fun out of a Superman (cough cough) video game, and drive the audience away in droves, is to take Superman out of it. That is some rather barbed commentary right there…

GRAEME: It helps that one of the possibilities to play when Superman has to leave is Mon-El, the character who took over the Superman series when that whole New Krypton thing was going on. Oh, Nick, you’re a sly one.

This really is just a wonderfully fun, ridiculously enjoyable book. It’s very much Scott Pilgrim-as-Jimmy, but in a way that works (and a length that works, as well; if this was an ongoing series, I think it would start to grate very quickly). The format is smart and funny, switching high-concept joke set-ups before they have a chance to get old, and the dialogue just plain makes Jimmy and Chloe relatable and likable. (My favorite caption: “Ladies and gentlemen, we are floating in space. (SO APPROPRIATE!)”) The characters feel modern and real in a way that they’re normally not, and they’re all the better for it.

I’m with Douglas on both RB Silva’s lovely, clear art that makes everything as light on the eyes as the story deserves, and Amanda Conner’s wonderful cover. Overall: Job well done, everyone. Book of the week, easily.

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EVAN: On to Butcher Baker, The Righteous Maker #1. Let me indulge in some somewhat dated hip-hop slang: I ride for Joe Casey. That is to say, I stand by his unique brand of creativity. His Wildstorm work of the mid-’90s–that Wildcats 3.0 run and The Intimates, in particular–is an under-appreciated slice of superhero post-modernism and his creator-owned stuff like Gødland and Automatic Kafka starts in places where other mindf**k-centric comics stories fear to tread. (Plus, he’s one of the few comics pros to show love to Christopher Priest, one of my all-time favorite comics writers. I’m still here, Priest. Waiting on you…)

Anywho, Casey’s especially interesting because his outré stuff lives right alongside his animation work with the Man of Action collective and work-for-hire runs on Avengers and Superman. At his best, he’s able to invigorate the orthodox mainstream and entertain with fringe, subculture ideas. I think it’s mostly because he’s not afraid of meta-conception, and that’s what Butcher Baker‘s all about. It starts with Casey throwing in the sex-drugs-rock & roll hedonism, irresponsible superheroing and shady conspiratorial corporatism.

Butcher Baker feels unhinged in all the right ways. I’m convinced that the big rig stuff in this issue is an homage to U.S. 1. And there’s bits of Marshal Law, Smokey and the Bandit and the late Steve Gerber’s work in there, too. Casey’s very blatantly stirring all of that stuff into a pot and letting it boil over. When Jay Leno and Dick Cheney call on a superhero whose prime motivator is gettin’ some to blow up all his archenemies, then you know Casey’s writing this in response to the torpor of current superhero comics. Some of the best cape-centric work excelled by being transgressive–there’s a reason Butcher quotes The Dark Knight Returns–but nowadays, it’s apparent that the powers-that-be at the Big Two took all the wrong lessons from the Summer of ’86. The edginess they traffic in only works in the twisted context of hyper-continuity, like Mary Marvel becoming a goth-tart. That’s just tone-deaf.

Butcher Baker feels like it’s written by a guy in a band, y’know? There’s seediness, swagger and the odd bit of sentiment. Mostly, I was left thinking, “Why couldn’t superhero comics be this?”

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MATT: The trick with this book seems to be “how do you swing ‘America, **** yeah!’ strut-plus-schizoid without sounding like every other volcanic self-styled postmodernism-left-the-building-decades-ago story spinner?” And while I’m not sure Casey’s pulling it off yet (or fully in the saddle holding the reins–I suspect intentionally), I’m definitely persuaded. It’s a launch issue, and like the sonic spasms of a mic-stand-chucking live band, we’re left with our ears ringing and anything-goes-now speculating.

I love the double-trashing of 1950s flag-wrapped jingoism and twenty-first century neoliberalism, the action-to-action panel dialectic (intermedium, hinted at in the afterword) with sometime visionaries like Guy Ritchie and Baz Luhrmann, and of course Mike Huddleston’s twitchy pencil-inks like some glorious mutant Ralph Bakshi/anime scrawl full of bawdy spin-flipped cars and flaming trace lines. I love the implied tricks and lies and swindle deals folded into a G. Gordon Liddy riff who’s warning off deterioration and Viagra with a CB and big rig, and I’ll take the mordant point about budget-cutting, too (the solution to intractable problems–deploy a Franken-patriot channeling Col. Kurtz, Ted Nugent, and Charles Manson).

I guess my question is, have the shamelessly continuity-obsessed, pandering top-two really learned nothing over the past two decades–the obvious finger-flipping ****-you–or are they just oiling the train wheels? Will Casey/Huddleston take us deeper through the unfiltered gratuity of Butcher Baker’s mind-mud-spree to the source of the madness and pinpoint the real blameworthy? (Hint: Not our easily overthrown corporate overlords.) Or is this another hyperkinetic head-trip empire-deconstruction? I’m all for celebrating and caricaturing Frank Miller and Alan Moore, but if that’s all we’ve learned, is the answer unadulterated mind****ery?

DOUGLAS: Well, yeah. Butcher Baker is an impressive piece of rhetoric–but it also doesn’t feel like much of a story, and whatever else they do, Miller and Moore have almost always offered us straight-up narrative. (I think it’s significant that the main story is only 18 pages long, although we get half that much again in the way of editorial backmatter, in the form of Casey’s essay/rant/manifesto and Huddleston’s prep work and previews of coming attractions.) The kind of political caricatures and ultra-broad tone Casey’s dealing in here seem facile to me: he’s effectively setting himself up as being 1) the star of the show and 2) vastly smarter and nicer and more in-the-know than any of his characters. What we’re getting is the “Lo-Fi Futureshit” (sic) that Casey’s calling for in the backmatter, but presented for its own sake rather than as a means to some kind of narrative end.

What I’m really impressed by is Mike Huddleston’s artwork: the way its stylistic variety helps to navigate the convoluted timeline, its unhinged color work, its endless barrage of computer effects and perspective distortions and hyperzoom. Visually–and in some ways in terms of storytelling–Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz’s Elektra: Assassin seems like a huge touchpoint for this. (Over at Death to the Universe, Matt Seneca and Sean Witzke recently had a fascinating discussion of Elektra: Assassin, in which Witzke calls Casey and Ladrönn’s first Cable story a post-Elektra comic. That’s fair, I think.)

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But what actually gets me down about Butcher Baker is that it’s built on what I think is a dubious argument: that there are no big thrilling comic books any more, not like “all the daring experimentation that occurred there in the early 2000’s” (what a curious choice for a golden age on Casey’s part!), and furthermore that turning one of the tone knobs all the way up and throwing in some tits is going to be the tonic for all that. I mean, it’s easy to nod very seriously and say yes, of course, we’re all weary of What’s Going On in Mainstream Comics These Days It’s Not Like It Used To Be. Or you could actually filter out the noise, as it’s always been necessary to do, and go revel in the fantastically imaginative, high-energy, and also disciplined and focused stuff that J.H. Williams III and Matt Fraction and Frazer Irving and Marcos Martin and hey, see above, Nick Spencer and–I could go on and on–have been doing. A lot of it can even pass for “Lo-Fi Futureshit.”

GRAEME: I’m definitely closer to Douglas than Matt or Evan here – Butcher Baker doesn’t quite work for me yet; it feels very self-conscious, and very… desperate isn’t the right word, but very trying-to-shock-and-make-a-great-statement, if that makes sense. While searching for the right word, I thought “adolescent,” which seems weirdly fitting, given the “And the hero is a PUSSY-HOUND” scenes here, or the doorhandle-as-penis joke. There’s definitely something very puerile going on here, and I’m not sure if it’s intentional commentary on the mainstream comics scene or just Casey channeling Miller and also Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg, which felt like a very strong influence here. It also reminded me, in terms of writing, of the early issues of Matt Fraction’s Casanova… Am I alone in that? There’s something about the tone and the ambition – that curiously retro-ambition to be ambitious in the way that comics “used” to be ambitious – that seemed very Casanova-ish, along with the narration from Baker himself, the “This is my life and I’m pretending to be satisfied with it but I’m really not”-ness of it. I don’t know, I almost want to say it’s an intentional shout-out, but I might just be reading into everything here.

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DOUGLAS: Casanova is an interesting point of comparison. The layering and compression of voices and Big Ideas works out very similarly, and both Huddleston and Moon-and-Bá have a sense of cartooning that deliberately rejects the pumped-up, corners-sanded-off “realism” of the last 40 years’ worth of mainstream comics. The difference, for me, is that Casanova seems like Matt Fraction grappling with stuff: using the whiz-bang to try to make out the contours of something beneath the surface. That’s what brings me back to it. So far, Butcher Baker is basically all surface.

GRAEME: Douglas is right: This is a hodgepodge of ideas and attitude and references, and it’s interesting (and slightly frustrating, to me) as that, but it’s not really a story yet. I’ll pick up the next issue, but that’s more because of Mike Huddleston’s wonderful art, itself throwing out influences and references (there’s a real Paul Pope-ishness to the car chase scenes, the lovely thickness of those lines) but completely dynamic and compelling in the way that the writing isn’t, yet. There’s a focus to the art that the writing doesn’t have, in this first issue, and unless the writing finds that focus, this’ll remain the kind of fascinating-but-unfulfilling comic that Casey has specialized in (remember Automatic Kafka?) for years, the kind of thing that just doesn’t quite cross over from a devoted fan base to a mainstream audience.

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