Comics wear you down. Especially when you're doing the thing as I try to do it, staying out on the edge of all the new developments and shocking challenges the medium plays host to, it's all too easy to get tired. Rawdog experimental art-on-the-page, mixed-media reinterpretations of cartooning, xerox-machine noise on printer paper... oh man, I love those things, but oh man, don't show me any of those things. I get like this from time to time. I think when we start we probably all come to comics as a place of rest and relaxation, something that can entertain us and create a little pleasance in our lives for a second. Most readers treat every single one of their interactions with the medium that way. I think that's largely because most readers are reading superhero comics, which (at best) are designed to deliver exactly what I'm talking about, hits of escape and fantasy that leave you feeling good. Such an interaction with comics is exactly what I was looking for last time I picked one out -- something I didn't have to work at, something perhaps with the tinge of nostalgia to it. For me, then, it had to be a superhero comic. It couldn't have been anything else.
When you come up reading these things you never go away entirely or for good. The fishhook of familiarity that shared universes and recognizable character dynamics places in you never comes loose completely. Even when, like me, you haven't read a modern superhero comic in the better part of a calendar year. They'll always be the comfort food, the link back to a time when comics was something new, something you hadn't figured out yet, something you didn't even realize had aspects that could be "figured out". But I think I'm part of the very last generation for whom that warm, friendly, rose-colored attachment to superhero comics exists. It's a feeling that's driven the mainstream-comics market for years, the soft blanket of buying habits, the sense of commitment and welcomeness. These days, it's the only thing keeping the things read at all. There is a blindness that comes with superhero fandom -- I've got, every comics reader I know has it -- it's the one that keeps people from realizing just how bad the stuff on the shelves these days is, that we are being served by a generation of writers that's very probably the worst of all time, and a crop of artists that's the product of the friendly comic book making companies finally getting on this whole "labor outsourcing" thing that killed all the automobile-manufacture jobs in my family.
Basically, superheroes are no longer an industry that's interested in creating new readers. You knew that? Yeah, everybody knows that. But more importantly, they're no longer placing any premium at all on creating that sense of welcome, either, the approachability in both content and method of delivery that used to make the Marvel Universe seem like something appealing for kids to get into. It's just gone. This is no longer a market that even attempts to create new participants. But you know what? They aren't gone from comics. Kids are still wild about comics, people. I'm back on the retail train and I have seen them scream for Amulet and crawl across floors on their hands and knees for Yo Gabba Gabba and Bone. When the ones who stick around go looking for something pleasant and nostalgic in a decade or two, it won't be anything with a Marvel or DC logo, it'll be the new bookstore-ready crop of well-drawn, well-considered, positive-message graphic novels. Can superheroes survive this? My money's on "no".
So yeah... I might be archaic in my clinging to spandexed demigods for warm, unchallenging comics reading, but that's what it is. The comic I chose was the recent hardcover collection of Thor Godstorm. It's an interesting book to pick off the shelves. The Alex Ross-style painted cover image is backed by a blurb exclaiming "A new enemy is empowered to battle Thor, but which old enemy is behind it all? Plus: the ominous Uroc, terror of Trolls! Guest-starring the Avengers and the Warriors Three!" Beneath the blurb is the back-cover image, a painting of Thor fighting Loki. Which old enemy, indeed. Just look at the diction of those sentences though, just think about their utter impenetrability. They speak a secret language. This is supposed to be the book's marketing, the place for it to extol its own virtues, and it boasts of nods to concepts that only those who've read a lot of things like this before will even know, let alone be caught by. It's a language that I understand, but it isn't my language per se. If this book spoke that tongue it wouldn't even have a cover image, just bold capitals spelling out THOR STEVE RUDE MIKE MIGNOLA, because those are the dudes whose artwork is in the book, and that's what sold me.
Mostly it's Steve Rude, who draws the main "Godstorm" story, in which a sentient raincloud battles Thor over three different eras. (This isn't just nostalgia comics because it's superheroes, it's one of the kinds that's actually calculated to remind readers of how sweet and innocent the stuff was back when they were kids in 1965. (My father was three years old.) As written by Kurt Busiek, it's perfect pap, the best dopey hero comic you could wish for. I wish for those a lot.) Rude is an interesting artist, with an interesting career to go with. He quit comics a while ago to focus on painting commissions. Now he's ostensibly "back", though nothing's actually been published with new work by him lately. I'm always excited to see work by Rude, because his artwork is perfectly pitched toward creating the kind of pleasant, uncomplicated and nostalgia-driven reading experience I associate with superhero comics.
Rude's work is rooted deeply in Jack Kirby, whose particular stylisms and affectations are themselves a kind of secret language for superhero comics, the codes with which stories about physical conflicts between costumed musclemen most successfully compose themselves. Pretty much every American hero comic published in the past 40 years has a basis in Kirby, but there's a basis and then there's what Rude does, which is more along the lines of reanimation. Kirby's pacing, his compositions and gestures, the way he blocked out scenes and used facial expressions to imply character -- it's all here, done with an instinctive understanding that goes past copyism. This is just how you make good hero comics, and if it ends up a derivative product that's okay, because believe it or not this is a medium that other artists have worked in before. But for all the applied knowledge brought to bear on its pages, Thor Godstorm doesn't look exactly like a Kirby comic. Rude's understanding of the Kirby style is a rather archaic one to my eyes: he isolates the nuts-and-bolts storytelling, the stylistic consistency, the clean lines and crisp solid blacks -- not the crackling power of pure images that's become the most recognizable aspect of Kirby's legacy in the wake of the new-millenium art-comix that bear his influence.
For Rude, Kirby seems to be the link to a golden past, a time when cartooning was a craft and comics was a job and even the most mercilessly professional hack could grind out a page that read perfectly. All the rough edges of Kirby, the weird bits that have become so fetishized over the past decade or so, are sanded down in Rude, replaced with something slicker and quieter and more homogenous. A distillation of Toth, Infantino, Sekowsky, Anderson, Hal Foster, even Norman Rockwell. A serene, understated figurative realism that makes the Kirby world seem a plausible one, a place where real human beings could really live. It's nostalgia as high art, the psychological image of better times past that Kirby calls up in superhero comics fans combined with a greater approachability and calm, a familiar type of comics crossbred with art that actually looks familiar, that creates pretty human figures and unthreatening environments with a few beautiful, fluid lines.
These things make Rude's work look pretty unique today, but there was a time when he was only a part of something bigger. It was probably a misfortune that Rude had his years as an exciting and hungry young genre cartoonist during the one window in time that such talent didn't end up doing long runs on bestselling superhero comics. In the 1960s and '70s, Marvel and DC were simply the only place to go, the single way to make a career of note drawing action comics. And once the artists who would go on to found Image Comics started tearing things up at the big houses in the late '80s, that became the thing to do once more. But there was a decade or so when publishing your own creator-owned mythological opus or space opera or superspy saga with a smaller house was simply how it worked, the way you were going to get rich and innovate exciting new ways of doing comics in the bargain. (Rude and writer Mike Baron opted for space opera in his gorgeous, unreadable series Nexus.) A whole wave of artists -- call them the "neoclassical" school -- participated in this era, guys who took the influence of Silver Age superhero drawing combined with a historical perspective on Pop art as fertile enough ground to spring whole universes of their own from. Rude, Paul Chadwick, Dave Stevens, Mike Allred -- all of them "did the Kirby" and created their own supernaturally powered characters, their own sublimely transportative story worlds.
All of them, Rude most of all, have been either lost to history or overlooked by it, the books that carry the greatest weight of their energy and innovation either out of print for years (Stevens and Allred, though that's been changing), ignored (Chadwick), or simply unavailable to any but the most diehard fanatics, scarce in the back issue bins and only reprinted in obscenely overpriced hardcover archive editions. Rude did plenty of work for the superhero publishers once the promise of creator ownership turned up an empty one, but there's always something lacking about it. In Thor Godstorm it's the totality of the retreat into Kirbyism, the willingness to subsume the individual Rude style -- busier compositions, subtler action blocking, a greater emphasis on bold graphic design -- into the anonymized general look of "classic Marvel". Corporate is as corporate does, and while one gets the sense that Rude was passionate about doing "Kirby comics", there's also the feeling that this was only a job for a man who managed the herculean feat of bringing out 100 issues of his own independent action comic.
But the real sad thing is that comics like Godstorm are the only Rude books you can actually read. Nexus, for all its great beauty and innovative cartooning, is a belabored mess, the jargon-y gobbledygook of superhero books cut loose from the idea of a youth audience. Rude's Silver Age-inflected "comics for grownups" are simply more complicated, more intricate, more self-referential. As written by Busiek here, they couldn't even exist without decades-old ideas to power them. Those busy compositions that differentiate him from Kirby are less striking, less immediate, more of a labor to get through when they pop up in Godstorm. The familiarity of a concept like dumb ol' Thor is all that makes a comic done in the Rude style comprehensible. The Silver Age ended a long time ago, and if the attempts to revive it, or even to scry something more workable than square fingers and foreshortened limbs from it had been successful then the name Steve Rude would be a lot more than a footnote. But like I said, comics wear you down.