Thus far in these Notes from the Small Press posts (links to the previous instalments can be found at the end of this one), the comics I've spotlighted have largely been personal and autobiographical works (as in, personal to the creators, not personal to me, although some have been that too). But even though those are generally the kinds of comics that small press and mini-comix cartoonists tend to produce and naturally gravitate towards – self-publishing being such an innately and intensely personal endeavour – you'll often find those very same creators harbour a secret (and not-so-secret) fondness for what are widely regarded as the antithesis of the small press ideal: superhero comics.
Truth is, whatever the kinds of comics we read and create today, most of us grew up immersed in the superhero comics published by either DC Comics or Marvel Comics. So it's perfectly understandable that, though they may have largely sloughed off their influence, some small press creators can't help but pay homage to/take the piss out of superheroes. In the States, one of the best known examples is the 1997 Coober Skeeber Marvel Benefit Issue, which Marvel responded to with a Cease and Desist notice, but since then alternative comics creators have been practically welcomed with open arms by the major comics publishers: witness DC's Bizarro Comics, Marvel's Strange Tales, and Bongo's Kramers Ergot issue of Treehouse of Horror.
In my collection I've got a fair few examples of small press comics creators having a crack at some of the better known superheroes, but in this post I want to concentrate on two artists – one British, one American – and how they each took on an archetypal hero – one DC-owned, one Marvel-owned – and in the process managed to come up with two idiosyncratic comics, separated by a period of fifteen years, both of which effortlessly transcend each character's much more pedestrian official fare.
Ed Pinsent's Illegal Batman appeared in 1989, an A4, 22 single-sheet-page photocopied comic charmingly stapled on the side instead of at the spine (my copy, as you can see from the cover up top there, got covered in coffee at some point). I've touched on Pinsent before in these posts, notably in the first Notes on Fast Fiction, but I've never really discussed his comics, which are mysterious and poetic, tapping into a personal mythology where storytelling, religious symbolism and folk memory magically intertwine. (There are previews of some of his books – including his best known creations, Windy Wilberforce and Primitif – on his website.)
Despite featuring Ed's version – vision, even – of perhaps the most famous and iconic superhero ever, Illegal Batman is as much a Pinsent comic as anything else he's done. There's an elusive, elliptical feel to the thing, as Illegal Batman – or rather an illegal Batman – goes about his business of trying to solve crimes – very, very slowly. The mystery of why he's 'illegal' is never addressed, and indeed is unimportant: he is an illegal Batman, and that is all you need to know. Equally, the fact that he can send himself through the air via a remarkable projection device remains unexplained: it simply is.
As the comic progresses, it takes an increasingly spiritual turn. This illegal Batman is seemingly ineffectual, but at least he's empathetic; he appears incapable of actually finding a mother's missing children, but he can offer her words of woolly wisdom that salve her somehow, because he knows that mother and children will eventually be reunited, one way or another, whether on this plane or another. By the close of the comic, he has evolved, like the Star Child in 2001: A Space Odyssey, watching over the world. It's a deeply strange but oddly moving ending to a deeply strange but oddly moving comic. In other words, pure Ed Pinsent.
Jeffrey Brown's 2004 A5 22-page mini-comic Wolverine: Dying Time is, on the face of it, a more prosaic tribute. Brown is best known for his highly personal autobiographical graphic novels, such as Clumsy (2002) and Unlikely (2003). I got Dying Time from Brown himself at the 2004 San Diego Comic Con. He had a stash of them under his table, which he was furtively handing out to the occasional customer. Dedicated to X-Men artists Art Adams, it's a short, sharp tale of a zombie attack that has horrible consequences.
To an extent, Dying Time relies on the reader being familiar with the world of the X-Men, and with Wolverine and Kitty Pryde in particular. Its emotional impact – and for such a slight affair it does pack quite a punch – will depend on how au fait you are with those characters. But even without that familiarity, the comic works because there's a depth to it. The feelings of loss and helplessness it evokes are very real, and all the more surprising for having been prompted by a superhero comic – and a superhero comic featuring zombies at that. I can think of few superhero comics that have had a comparable effect on me, that have presented a character like Wolverine with such a stark, inescapable choice, and that have ultimately left such a bitter taste in the mouth.
Wolverine: Dying Time and Illegal Batman are quite different comics in many ways, but they do share a certain off-kilter sensibility, along with an instinctively emotional approach to their respective archetypal subjects. Marvel and DC may have begun to accept indie comics creators, but they effectively ghettoise them, lumping them together in anthologies neatly labelled as suitably 'alternative'. Truly edgy or new approaches to the companies' sacred cows are thus neutered. Roll on the day when the Big Two publish comics like Illegal Batman and Wolverine: Dying Time as a matter of course; on that day, I'll get a lot more interested in superhero comics again.
Notes from the Small Press 1: Fast Fiction Presents the Elephant of Surprise
Notes from the Small Press 2: Monitor's Human Reward by Chris Reynolds
Notes from the Small Press 3: Small Pets
Notes from the Small Press 4: Anais in Paris by Mardou
Notes from the Small Press 5: The Curiously Parochial Comics of John Bagnall
Notes from the Small Press 7: The Comix Reader #1
Notes from the Small Press 8: A Help! Shark Comics Gallery
Notes from the Small Press 9: Some Gristavision Comics by Merv Grist
Notes from the Small Press 10: Some Sav Sadness Comics by Bob Lynch