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Weekend in the Grindhouse

I understand that “Comics Should Be Good” is the mission statement around here. I even agree with it…

…most of the time.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I absolutely believe that comics can be art and should aspire to higher things. I do. Swear to God.

However, if I’m to be really honest about this, I have to come clean. Damn it… sometimes… There are times when you just want your comics to be… well, not bad. Nobody wants bad comics. But boy, I wish so many of them weren’t trying so damn hard to be Important and Artistic.

This occurred to me when Grindhouse premiered. I was shooting the breeze with some friends of mine about it; we were agreed that, though we approved of the spirit of the endeavor, the execution was a little lacking, and what we really would RATHER have had was a wave of new DVD re-issues of what we remember as being The Good Stuff.

God help me, I saw this IN the THEATER. At FULL PRICE. Opening weekend, even.

Or the good Bad Stuff, rather.

I am lost in helpless adoration of this movie.

And because we’re all pretty bookish and nerdy, this segued from grindhouse films to grindhouse books.

There's really no defending this stuff.

We killed a fair hunk of time going back and forth with this fond reminiscence of our various favorite examples of crappy pulp fiction and even crappier paperback-original series fiction.

Come on, how can any of you doubt this is the greatest book EVER?This is a heaping helping of awesome too...

And it was a pretty easy leap, talking amongst fans, to start kicking around the idea of grindhouse comics. But here we ran into a little bit of a snag. Because, really, to be fair, from their beginnings on up through the early 70’s, they’re ALL “grindhouse” comics. That’s just the way it was.

Or, as Jules Feiffer summed it up in his wonderful book The Great Comic Book Heroes:

Comic books, first of all, are junk. To accuse them of being what they are is to make no accusation at all…Junk is there to entertain on the basest, most compromised of levels. It finds the lowest fantasmal common denominator and proceeds from there. If it’s not junk to its publishers, certainly it is to its readers, who, when challenged, will say defiantly: “I know it’s junk, but I like it.” Which is the whole point.

Feiffer wrote his book in 1965, when the comics landscape — though much tamer in its approach to the subject matter — was more or less the same collection of pulp-knockoff and superhero genre books as the Golden Age years he was talking about. This started to change, though, when Stan Lee got bored with doing the same old genre knockoff comics for Martin Goodman and, just for the hell of it, persuaded the Marvel guys to shoot a little higher — something that Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko’d been hoping to hear for years. And when the first wave of fans like Roy Thomas and Marv Wolfman and Denny O’Neil started turning pro, a couple of years later, the genie was definitely out of the bottle. Ever since then there’s been this weird tension in comics between people trying to do Art and people desperately trying to hang on to that old-time pulp-adventure vibe. Sometimes you even see that tug-of-war playing out in the work of a single creator (Exhibit A: Frank Miller. Exhibit B: Warren Ellis. And so on.)

But for a long time, most comics never aspired to Art at all. Merit was accidental, something creators occasionally sneaked in when the boss wasn’t paying attention. There were pages to fill and deadlines were relentless, pay was low, and comics were a job. Especially when publishers were trying to keep costs down and doing things like constantly revamping titles rather than starting new ones and paying the attendant postal charges.

(Yeah, I know. But trust me, those of you reading this who are still in your twenties — there was a time when comics publishers really tried NOT to have a new #1 issue of something coming out every month, because it was too expensive to set up. I swear I’m not making it up.)

But I’m getting sidetracked. What I meant to say was that since the entire comic-book industry, for most of its existence, was essentially set up as one big grindhouse, I should explain what I mean when I start talking about the idea of “grindhouse comics.”

The short version — for the sake of boiling it down to something that I can use here, I’d narrow the definition of ‘grindhouse comics’ to the comics I thought of in my youth as the B list. Comics that were, y’know, just okay. These were the books that I knew I could walk in on any time, that I knew would achieve a base level of entertainment that I would enjoy.

These were fun, though -- as befits a grindhouse-style book -- pretty disposable.

But I would not ever worry about missing an issue of one of these titles. They’d be there waiting for me when I got around to them again and nothing would change: they’d still be fun, continuity-free, amusing ways to kill half an hour. They have that Roger Corman vibe, that cheerful sense of, yeah, this is just something dumb and completely without social merit. We know it. So let’s all stop thinking about Art and just have a good time. Floor it.

This was what I read when I wanted kung fu and there weren't any Deadly Hands or Richard Dragons to be had.

Truthfully they were what I read in between issues of the books I REALLY liked. Used to be, when your favorite book was hung up because the writer was taking too long to craft his brilliant epic or the artist was late AGAIN, we just bought something else and read that instead. I did, anyway. You get a hanker on for a comic book, you want a comic book, damn it. (Nowadays I think the alternative impulse buy’s gotten to be too expensive a proposition for most of us; we end up just taking to the internet and bitching about late books instead.)

First among equals in my B-list purchases was always one of the superhero team-up books. Brave and Bold, more often than not. I’m a Bat guy at heart, really, and though I was often completely boggled at the amphetamine-crazed plotting strangeness that was Bob Haney’s stock in trade, I was nevertheless willing to go along, especially since it was all depicted by that amazing Jim Aparo art.

This is actually one of my favorite comic books ever.

But Haney’s Batman would have driven a modern continuity-minded comics reader right out of his OCD mind. Even I was a little weirded out sometimes. He did stories where Batman was fired as Gotham’s superhero, where Batman died and then was revived as a zombie, where Batman was dating a socialite and entering stock-car races AS BATMAN, in costume… it was all sort of deranged.

This one was just plain NUTS.

But I knew he’d always have it wrapped up neatly by the end.

Haney’s other place to just completely mess with continuity geeks was World’s Finest. That was another one I never bothered to follow but occasionally found to be an entertaining filler read whenever I picked it up. I didn’t go to this one as an alternative as often as I did B&B, though.

Haney actually did a lot of these fuck-you-dad stories. Sometimes I think he had issues.

I think the continuity thing bothered me here more than in Brave and Bold because Haney kept going back to the Super-Sons characters for stories.

The Super-Sons? What the hell?

I mean, as an old DC hand, I knew from years of reading 80-page Giants reprinting Mort Weisinger and Gardner Fox epics that “Imaginary Stories” were to be clearly labeled as such, and if they weren’t Imaginary, damn it, then they should be clearly assigned to a specific parallel Earth where Superman and Batman had sons. But Haney never bothered to explain any of it. He just did more stories where Superman Jr. and Batman Jr. kept trying to carry on the family business — and screwing it up. (I suspect he delighted in not explaining any of it; there was a certain screw-you-fanboy vibe to the letters page replies, too.) Just as an aside, looking over my collection as I prepared to write this I noticed I own an awful lot of Bob Haney comics starring pissed-off teenagers. I think both of us may have parental issues.

Marvel’s team-up books made for pretty good filler reads, too, but I didn’t go there as often. For one thing, sometimes they tried to do contnuity-heavy multi-part epics, like the Pegasus Project story in Marvel Two-In-One. You couldn’t depend on them to be filler and so suddenly you had another monthly commitment. (Yes, even in the Olden Tymes, Marvel had learned how to milk the crossover.)

I remember buying this one because Defenders was late.

Marvel Team-Up was a better bet as being a done-in-one, no-impact fluff book, but fans complained — most Marvel fans felt we weren’t getting full value back then unless stories were huge sprawling epics; I blame Steve Englehart for creating that mentality– and so Bill Mantlo had to start doing multi-part epics there too. The art was usually by Sal Buscema, who I really liked on Hulk and The Defenders, but on Marvel Team-Up he was often saddled with Mike Esposito on inks and Esposito apparently approached inking Sal Buscema’s pages like he was doing it on the bus on the way to his real job. (Later, Chris Claremont and John Byrne had a run on the book that was really quite nice, but it had stopped being a B-lister by then, I think. Your mileage may vary.)

But for that true grindhouse hell-for-leather spirit you really needed to get away from the superhero stuff, especially in the 60’s and 70’s when we were all starting to obsess over the idea of proving how serious superhero comics were, it’s NOT all like Adam West’s Batman, honest!

On the whole, if there was anybody I would name as being the best architect of that Corman-esque, B-movie, exploitation spirit in comics it would be Robert Kanigher. This was a guy that seemed to take a demented pride in taking ANY premise, ANY story springboard, and making a salable comic out of it. There’s the famous story about the letterer that accidentally turned an editor’s notation to the art department into an actual story title…

I love the story of how this happened. THAT'S grindhouse, baby.

…and Kanigher had to come up with a story to fit the title “Drop An Inch” before the book went to press. He did it with the ease of Willie Mays going back for a routine fly ball.

This isn’t to say that Kanigher was some kind of uncaring hack. He was always in there pitching; reading the stuff, you can see he was committed to doing his best. But his output does have that sense of commercialism, of being done to order. “X is popular right now, I should do a story about that.”

Ripped from the headlines!

It’s not exploitative so much as just plain desperate, the need to meet your commitment to constantly have pages for artists to draw by first thing in the morning so you can make your deadline by press time. No wonder Kanigher grabbed at anything and everything as a possibility to hang a story on.

Sgt. Rock and Enemy Ace, of course, were Kanigher’s masterpieces, the books he genuinely poured himself into. But oddly, the books Kanigher did that I enjoyed most tended to be the lighter, gimmick ones. I confess that appreciating Enemy Ace and Sgt. Rock was something I came to much later, as an adult. When I was a kid I was more interested in stuff like the Haunted Tank or, hell, whatever craziness was going on in Star-Spangled. THAT book was just messed up.

Messed. UP.
The funny thing is, I’m getting the sense DC likes the nutty stuff better too. No Rock or von Hammer yet, but we’ve already had Showcases featuring the Haunted Tank, the Unknown Soldier, and the War that Time Forgot.

Seriously. War AND dinosaurs AND robots? How can you NOT love this??

Incidentally, for those of you that want to see Robert Kanigher in all his demented grindhouse deadline-meeting glory, you need go no further than The War That Time Forgot. It’s got tanks, dinosaurs, trapeze artists, robots, and the original Suicide Squad, all on one South Pacific island during World War II. I don’t know if I’d call it good but it sure is FUN, and weirdly fascinating, too. Star-Spangled always seemed like it was trying to be the war comic that was aimed at the people who weren’t really into war comics — it may have been why I liked it.

These were pretty tough and cool stories... considering they starred, y'know... a GIRL.

I missed the glory days of the dinosaur war and Mademoiselle Marie, though later in reprints I discovered those were fun stories.

These were okay too.

But I liked checking in with the Unknown Soldier every so often, those stories were always cool, and really a wide variety of top talent worked on them. That was mostly Joe Kubert’s baby, but there was some great work from Archie Goodwin, David Michelinie, and other folks, too. Even Bob Haney seemed to bring his “A” game to that one.

When you are talking exploitation B-movie type comics, though, I think you have to acknowledge the master. Jim Warren built his entire empire on them.

I stumble across stuff like this on eBay and I'm usually good for it, these days.

He started publishing magazines about monster movies and spun that into a line of, essentially, magazine comics ripping off those movies. For me these books were very hit-and-miss. I know there was a lot of good stuff there and a lot of big names started doing work for Warren, but I came in late, after Archie Goodwin had gone, and though I picked up the occasional issue of Eerie it never did much for me.

He was a Wold Newton family member, too.... sort of.

I was mildly interested in the Wold Newton-esque adventures of the Rook: Restin Dane, the time-traveling cowboy grandson of H.G. Wells’ original Time Traveler. Dane fought crime all up and down the time stream aided by his Alamo-veteran ancestor and a couple of robots. This was a strip that probably would read better as a trade collection if anyone ever gets the rights sorted out. But as an occasional strip in Eerie it was hard to keep up, and his own magazine seemed to stutter a bit schedule-wise too. Apart from Creepy, Eerie, and Vampirella it was hard to tell just what the hell WAS coming out from Warren in any given month.

And it didn’t help that my mother was convinced the Warren stuff was all disgusting and quite possibly pornography.

Warren books have aged well, actually. I like them a lot better now than I did then.

I had to fight for Eerie and Rook, and of course Vampirella and 1994 were off the table completely. It seems ridiculous today, but it was a big deal, believe me. In retrospect I have to say the stuff was pretty tame compared to what you see from Greg Horn or Adam Hughes these days. But it was enough extra resistance fighting the folks, added to the B-list status the comics themselves already had with me, that I didn’t bother to keep reading them. These are books that I’ve recently rediscovered as being better than I remember, though, and certainly are worth a quick scrounge through the stacks at a convention or on eBay. God knows when they’ll ever get the reprint rights straightened out.

That’s a sampling of my personal B-list. I daresay if you’ve been around comics a while you have a similar list of your own. Most of us have a taste for junk food whether we admit it or not.

But I think you have to be over a certain age to really be a connoisseur; the form’s mostly died out. I don’t think there really is such a thing as B-movie comics or the equivalent any more, and though it’s probably a good thing for the artform in general, I confess it makes me a little wistful. There’s occasionally someone doing a tribute book or a pastiche or something, but you know, it’s just not the same. Nobody’s mother yells at them for reading Nextwave or Agents of ATLAS or stuff like that, no matter how much of the crazed B-movie sensibility they are straining to evoke. Today, series like that get hardcover collections. The subversive part’s gone.

And I have to admit, that’s probably for the best. Comics are way past due to leave their adolescence behind.

But… doggone it…

Sometimes you just WANT fast food, no matter how bad it is for you.

See you next week.

23 Comments

“… and Tony Award Winner Cleavon Little as Super Soul” might be the 9 greatest words ever put together in the English language.

Why’d you post Star-Spangled War Stories #164 twice? Did you think we wouldn’t notice?!?!?!?

Chris Sims just did two posts about Kanigher’s story of Superman and Batman going back in time to the Revolution and teaming up (sort of) with “Mad” Anthony Wayne. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by Kanigher, but he sounds completely insane (in a good way).

Nice post. You’ve got to love those drain-pipes Batman’s son is wearing. Nothing says teenage rebellion like tightly fitting trousers.

Why’d you post Star-Spangled War Stories #164 twice? Did you think we wouldn’t notice?!?!?!?

Because I’m stupid. Staring at the text so hard trying to proof it ONE LAST TIME that I was looking right through the pictures. Fixed now.

I totlaly agree that the best comics look so light hearted and fun. I read a lot of classics, and have a web site on “serious” comic topics, and I see it all the time. Poeple think that a good story has to be heavy and subtle. No! A good story needs direction and conflict, and characters we can believe in, and should be easy to follow. Stan Lee knew that. Shakespeare knew that. The top selling writers in any genre know that. But so many writers forget the basics of good story telling.

Great post. Crap certainly has its place in the pop culture pantheon.

I disagree that “art” and “kitsch” have to be mutually exclusive, however. They can exist simultaneously. This, for whatever reason, seems to be especially true in the medium of comics, where creators have a penchant for turning lurid and often stupid chunks of pop culture detritus into something creative, thought-provoking, and even artistically valid.

You mentioned Frank Miller and Warren Ellis as examples of comics creators whose work exhibits this strange “push-pull” effect where they don’t seem to be sure where art stops and garbage begins. Good example… I completely agree. Any given SIN CITY story makes me question whether what I’m reading should be burned or framed. And check out Ellis’ APPARAT. It’s pulp paperback shit in the purest sense of the word, but it really fucks with your headspace the way good art often does.

This dichotomy is all over the place. From an aesthetic point of view, even WATCHMEN is campy as shit, and WATCHMEN is the deepest superhero comic ever produced.

I think we’ll continue to see this into the future, because the younger generation that’s now coming into comics has been raised on cynicsm and irony and EVERYTHING has to be a parody or make a statement about something else. Yet at the same time, they’re embracing the very things they’re poking fun at. The perfect example: Matt Fraction. Read THE FIVE FISTS OF SCIENCE, or MANTOOTH. Better yet, read CASANOVA, which is the most explosive synthesis of pulp nonsense ever constructed. He seems to have a genuine affinity for the absurd, yet he’s smart enough to realize it’s all bullshit. Another great example: Joe Casey, whose GODLAND seems to be a parody of the most Kirby-esque qualities of vintage Kirby, but at the same time, revels in the lunacy of it all.

Also, check out FEAR AGENT by Rick Remender or AGENTS OF ATLAS by Jeff Parker. These comics are one part college-educated art student, and one part Ed Wood. And they’re really fucking awesome.

As for these modern comics not being “outlaw” enough, I think it’s the best of both worlds. Ironic chic makes it cool to laugh at and revel in the same thing, so reading something you KNOW is stupid isn’t quite as shameful (or even as stupid) as it used to be.

Y’know, I think even Stan figured he was writing trash. Elevated trash, certainly, but still trash. You could especially tell in books like the early Avengers or X-Men, where he’d do just any damn thing. “Okay, this month, I think I’ll have the Avengers fight… Samson. Yeah, and D’Artagnan! And the X-Men will have their final fight with Magneto, where he gets taken away at the end by a giant alien!” Pure what-the-fuck gold.

It’s funny–I’m reading ‘War That Time Forgot’ right now (well, not literally this second), and what struck me was how non-fun it really seemed. Kanigher really doesn’t seem to be interested in the dinosaurs at all–for all their importance to the story, they could be Japanese soldiers. He’s really focusing more on the human soldiers, which seems (to me) to miss the point. You don’t need an elaborate backstory involving a guy who was a former tobogganer and another guy whose brother was killed by the first guy in a sledding accident during the Winter Olympics when you have FREAKING DINOSAURS!!!!!!! Real, live, breathing, pissed-off dinos, and he’s focusing on the fact that this trio of brothers were all former circus acrobats before the war started.

I mean, I wouldn’t have believed it to be possible that you could write a story about a soldier and his robot buddy fighting a giant Japanese enemy robot on an island of dinosaurs during World War II, and still have it be boring…but I’ve read the evidence. :)

I was reading through this just wondering if you’d mention the Warren stuff: pure grindhouse! I never had an appreciation for that mentality at the time, and the one time I read 1994 (maybe it was still 1984), it freaked me out big time, what with babies being spiked on hooks in a meat packing factory.

I should mention, in order to not sound so negative, that ‘Metamorpho’ and ‘Teen Titans’ read, in retrospect, exactly like the sort of thing you’re talking about. And they were both fun. Occasionally inadvertent fun, but fun. :)

Greg… It’s like you’re reading my mind.

Rohan Williams

May 21, 2007 at 12:40 am

That is so, so true. The way I figure it, a comic of dubious ‘quality’ that entertains me is a lot better than a mediocre ‘art’ comic, although of course, a really great comic beats anything. Kinda depends what mood you’re in, I guess?

That “Drop an Inch!” story is one of my all-time favorite stories *about* comics. It so perfectly captures the kind of insane creativity required when the need to *crank the stories out* was paramount. It’s probably better for all concerned that those days are long behind us, but there’s something lost there, too.

The War Time Forgot is what made me the fanboy I am today. I actually had a subscription when I was four years old. The comics were mailed to me FOLDED IN HALF!!!

Bob Haney, SSWS, G.I. Combat, Jim Aparo, Robert Kanigher, Brave and Bold, Marvel Team Up, Rook and Vanishing Point all in one post? Awesome. Truly Awesome.

I do have a serious question, though. I can’t read the signature on that Yang cover, but boy does that art look like the work of Joe Kubert. What’s up with that?

The Mutt: The signature on the YANG cover looks like “Warren Saer” to me (even on GCD’s enlargable thumbnail, and they credit it to “Warren Sattler” without acknowledging the fact that it’s signed), but, yeah, the art reeks of Kubert’s style.

Concerning Haney’s “Super–Sons” stories, two points: A story in SUPERMAN FAMILY eventually established—in passing—that these accounts were fabricated by a computer in Supes’ Fortress for his edification, hence the wives/mothers were shadowy and unidentified figures. However, Haney can’t even be accurately credited with creating the concept, as somebody (GCD says Jack Schiff wrote the first story—WFC #154—and Edmond Hamilton the second—#157) did it back in the mid–60s, expressly labelled “Imaginary Story”, with the wives/mothers Lois Lane and Kathy “Batwoman” Kane. Maybe the label puts these on a different level, but its still the same concept, especially the second with the boys as rebellious teens.

It was indeed “Warren Sattler.” Here’s a little more info on him.

I think it’s a bit of a disservice to dismiss him as just a Kubert knockoff. He has a fair body of work in both comic books and comic strips, and he was one of the few guys back then to do fully-painted covers, too.

Sure, I guess if you LIKE not thinking.

I loved the Rook. Crazy swinging time traveling cowboy-retro stuff. I especially loved the kitch of the one story where he meets his own daughter in the future and there’s some implication of incest and that she might be her own mother or something like that. I also loved the one cover where they had what looked like a Stormtrooper flying an X-Wing. Anything to cash in on the Star Wars craze!
The revival that Harris comics tried was horrible. They made him all goth and magical. They even gave him a Rook bird to sit on his shoulder. I’m glad it failed.

It seems like comics, more than most other artistic mediums, tends towards a monoculture – mostly super-heroes, or mostly campy, or mostly dark and serious, or mostly {insert current trend here}.

This isn’t really totally true (lots of non-mainstream comics buck the trends) but it does seem to imply that there won’t be very many campy fun story-in-one-issue comics until all comics are campy fun story-in-one-issue.

I would think the “Fell format” would be a great way to try and get some of these short, b-comics out into the world again. At roughly 16 pgs of story an issue, that’s 2 eight-page tales, or a 12-pager and a four-page comedy backup, or just one nutty 16-pager a month.

get the right writer/artist team on board, and that could be VERY fun.

The days of “Drop an Inch” aren’t gone. They’re still here.

Have you heard yet about the story revolving around the upcoming publication of Battlin’ Jack Murdock?

JoeyDaQ to intern: I’d really like to read that last issue of “Daredevil: Father” again.
Intern: I’ll get right on that, sir.
Intern walks down to editorial.
Intern: Mister Quesada wants a book about Daredvil’s Father!

Meant to say something about Warren’s ROOK. When it was moved from EERIE to its own title, the former ended with a cliffhanger that included his robot butler being blown to bits, but the latter never resolved the story, or acknowledged the ‘bot’s status. Nothing was done about either even when the feature moved back to EERIE. Not that Warren lasted long after that.

IGN -> Dimension Comics, new company!! (Grindhouse)
http://comics.ign.com/articles/767/767764p1.html
The Weinstein Company’s Dimension Films is well known for its genre movies like Sin City, the Scream series and the Kill Bill franchise. But now the house that Harvey and Bob built is looking to branch out into the world of comics with a new brand called Dimension Comics.

Robert Satori

May 28, 2007 at 5:52 am

I was cheering along the whole way except when you put your cajones back in your purse long enough to say “Truthfully they were what I read in between issues of the books I REALLY liked.”

Cop out! ;P

There are all these articles in the trade blaming competition from television and video games for the loss of that younger market in comics. But THIS is the reason. Not only has the news stand and supermarket rack been done away with (making it a special trip to even consider buying a funnybook– a far cry from impulse buying), but the product has come to cater more and more to continuity fanboys. There’s nothing out there now that a kid with a pocketfull of lawn-mowing money can safely pick up and expect not to be caught up in a commitment to spend another $30 finishing the story. And the only comic anthology mag to be found on the racks is the ‘adults only’ Heavy Metal.

It’s not the kids’ fault that publishers have bought into a marketing scheme that excludes them.

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