Monday, March 15, 2010

I finally got around to getting a copy of Picturebox's collection of Mat Brinkman's Multiforce strips. This comic is awesome, a masterpiece of a very particular type. I'm amazed by its ability to read like what it is: An early twentieth-century newspaper sunday strip, drawn and printed in the twenty-first century, after decades of creative movement. You read it like you read Krazy Kat or Little Nemo, page-by-page, taking in the design. But, since the heyday of those strips, a newspaper comics page no longer has just one cartoonist represented on it. Rather, there's a variety of different comics, printed smaller. This sort of thing was addressed in Daniel Clowes' Ice Haven, and more recent Chris Ware strips, but here it's more organic: A huge cast, existing at a variety of scales, moves throughout the book. Sometimes the focus is on them, sometimes it isn't.

While Paper Rodeo was the first publication since the rise of the comic book to use the newspaper format, Mat Brinkman was, I think, the only cartoonist in it to present an ongoing serial in every issue of it. (Seth Cooper's Zissy and Rita might be the other.) This collection ends with the strip in issue 19- an issue seemingly no one knew, at the time of its publication, was going to be the last. I don't think anyone reading it would've known that was to be the last Multiforce, either, but what's funny is that it is a satisfying conclusion, with all sorts of narrative threads wrapping up, but in a way you don't really notice. This reflects the narratives at work within Multiforce itself, or real life: There is always so much going on that climaxes and anti-climaxes can get confused.

When the last issue of DC's Wednesday Comics came out, a few months ago, everyone knew it was over, and complained about how, in general, the endings were week. This expectation comes from the years since the golden age of newspaper comics. Comic books seemed better, more mature, when they started to have arcs with conclusions, after years of ongoing tedium. This is part of literary expectations, or cinema expectations, but that's not what comics are.

Think about the glory of a huge sunday strip, then contrast it to the idea of a "graphic novel," printed smaller. For instance, people who work at Fantagraphics have said the idea behind the new Love and Rockets formatting is because, in the eyes of the public, since Maus, comics seem more serious if they're smaller than comic book size, closer to the size of a novel. Despite the fact that art tends to look better larger. In the same drive towards diminishing the art, think about how, post-undergrounds, during the alternative comics era, printing things in black and white- a decision done for economic reasons- came to be a standard for "alternative" comics, and the "seriousness" of artistic intent that comes with being "alternative." Paper Rodeo was printed in black and white for the same economic reasons, but Multi-Force was a reaction, in a lot of ways, against a whole school of thinking about "literary comics." It's obvious in that it's a comic about monsters fighting, but that it's ending was not even noticed as such is another argument for this. Even though the comic is super-narrative, there are noticeable chunks that go by without any "plot." Again: Like life. So somehow this thing, which maybe wasn't always impressive in its original newspaper context, is revealed as a masterpiece, one of the best comics of the past decade, comparable to Brian Chippendale's Ninja despite being a hell of a lot shorter. A sneak attack of the highest order.

It's a clear evolution of Brinkman's earlier work, collected by Highwater Books as a volume called Teratoid Heights. That had the same eye, for following around little well-designed characters as they navigated spaces, maybe with something of a spooky vibe prevailing despite also being kind of funny. Here, as in Ninja, the camera is pulled out a little, and while once we might've seen monsters going through tunnels now there's sets of dudes on trains, or in battles getting smashed. The way that perspective changes, from panel to panel, to show what needs to be seen, is really impressive, specifically because it doesn't seem like it messes up: It's always clear, which sometimes seems imsane. It makes more sense when you know how the thing was assembled, as pages drawn in pencil, turned darker over the course of xerox shrinking and collaged into huge pages- but that's another artistic decision that couldn't be foreseen.

This comic is epic in scope. If you've read any of the interviews with David Simon, where he talks about The Wire as analogous to old Greek tragedies, distinct from Shakespeare, where the fates don't befall the characters because of flaws within themselves, but because they defy the gods, larger than themselves, which in The Wire are bureaucratic organizations, you sort of get a glimpse of Multi-Force's vision of a collapsing society. But here there really are giants, with maces, on rampages, and everyone going about their business is sort of liable to get crushed unknowingly, as part of this apocalyptic vision. I like the fact that, in the second strip, in little gags outside the comics main thrust, there's a dude saying "dude chill out we're all part of Multiforce." Then, at the top of the third strip, there's another back and forth between two other characters: "Can I join Multiforce?" "What is it?" All that the title refers to is a grand society of monsters and demons, but it's phrased in the form of a team. In between those two dialogues I just mentioned, there's a bit where a character stops "upholding the law," with hands raised, and exhales an anarchy symbol. There's a slew of implications there that then get borne out as the comic goes on and large-scale destruction ensues. Multiforce ends up striking a balance between a couple of types of art I was super-excited by a few years ago and found irreconcilable: The fantastic visions of Paper Rad and associated artists, which recontextualized cultural detritus into spiritual quests, and the super-realistic human crime stories found in less underground venues. What's funny, then, is how much it predates, and inherently understands, despite never once wearing it's intelligence on its sleeve in terms of the way that dialogue reveals ideas in a lot of other work. That all its accomplishments go down in twenty-two pages is mindblowing. (Of, if you prefer, mindflaying.) Listing all the comics this is better than would be unfair and exhausting. Multiforce rules.


bryan elfboy said...

ooh i want this. i think i have a few bits and pieces of it already.

Brian said...

Picturebox has it for sale at their website as part of an "oversize adventure pack" with this Lauren Weinstein comic, Goddess Of War, that costs the same as Multiforce by itself, which is what I ordered, but then I didn't like Goddess Of War at all.