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What I’m reading – The Catastrophist, Marvel Masterworks: Warlock

What is your faux-erudite blogger reading this week?

I’m about 60 pages into Ronan Bennett’s The Catastrophist, and it’s decent enough so far. It’s a story set in the Belgian Congo in 1959, into which comes a cynical novelist who gets caught up in the Congolese independence movement through his idealistic lover. This means that Patrice Lumumba shows up, of course. My wife and I watched a documentary about Lumumba years ago, and as we knew what happened to him, whenever something occurred that took him closer to his fate, we said to each other, “No good can come of this.” Since then, whenever we watch something on television, we call something that we know will lead to disaster a “Lumumba moment.” We use it quite often. I’m not sure you care, but there’s your peak behind the curtain of the Burgas marriage. You always need small things that only you share!

As for comics, well, I dove into Jim Starlin’s Adam Warlock stories, which are, to say the least, batshit insane. I’m not sure yet if it’s more batshit insane than Starlin’s other 1970s space epic featuring Captain Marvel, but it’s getting there. I just read Strange Tales #181, which features, I kid you not, Stan Lee, John Romita (Sr., I assume), and Roy Thomas as clowns and Len Wein and Marv Wolfman as alien brainwashers. Oh, that wacky Starlin! It also features a villain with a white Afro, because why the hell not? Starlin’s critique of Catholicism is way over the top, much like it was a few years later in Dreadstar, but that’s cool. I do like how Warlock #9, which followed the story from Strange Tales, claims on the cover that it’s Warlock in his own mag at last and is a “premiere issue.” Okay, it had been two years since Warlock #8 had come out, but why would Marvel continue the numbering, especially because there had been Adam Warlock stories in a completely different title? It’s very odd. But they’re good comics, and they’re now in a handy Masterworks format!

What’s flying off your bookshelf today?


Magazine time! They always flock in at once. So I’ve been reading the new issues of Paste (love love love this mag; I feel as if it’s written entirely for me, even I don’t know a damned thing about any of this new music), Popular Science (this “underwater plane” is going in my Blackhawk file), Library Journal, and School Library Journal (these are the boringest looking mags ever. But they’re free! And hey, review of Kirby’s Losers hardcover. How un-timely!).

I’m making my way through a massive stack of Ellis trades. I finished off his StormWatch run with volume 5, Final Orbit (which seems to be out of print now, probably do to licensing issues with the Aliens, erm, aliens). Then, I powered through the MEK/Reload flipbook. And, now, I’m in the midst of Ultimate Fantastic Four, vol. 3: N-Zone.

Next in the queue is Ocean, I do believe.

Just finished reading Essential Avengers vol 6, featuring the bulk of the Mantis saga. I’ve read those issues before in the Celestial Madonna TPB, but this is the first time I’ve read Steve Englehart’s run in its entirety. Actually, via the Essentials, I’ve been reading Avengers from #1 forward. What a bumpy ride.

Anyway, while not as out-and-out crazy as Jim Starlin’s Captain Marvel and Warlock stuff, Englehart is pretty out there in places. The whole Celestial Madonna storyline ends with Mantis’ wedding to a telepathic alien tree who takes the form of her deceased ex-boyfriend. Um, yeah, when you actually write it out, wow, that is weird. All this, and Englehart’s run crosses over with Starlin’s Captain Marvel in a couple of places. So there you go, that ties in quite nicely :)

Working on Stan and Jack’s run in the FF Omnibus #1. With Anna Mercury, Mister X Archives, and Goon V8 warming up in the bullpen.

Greg, I just finished reading Doom Patrol! Yes, the Grant Morrison one, the “greatest comic book run of all time” one! I enjoyed most of it very much, great beginning, blah middle (aliens and thing under the Pentagon), fantastic ending. I have a few questions, and since it’s your favorite, I was hoping you could answer them.

1) What was the deal with the telephone avatar and the whole Watson thing, especially the story about Watson’s stuffed cat, which just seemed out of the blue? And why telephones?

2) Was there a reference that I didn’t get with Shadowy Mr. Evans (his whole demeanor and physical apperance) and his words of summoning “kneecap,” “lottery,” and two others that escape me right now?

3) Also, in the Shadowy Mr. Evans story there’s a dream involving a personified Death chasing a gymnast down railroad tracks. The captions describe it, euphemistically of course, as basically a wet dream. I don’t really have a question, just “I don’t get it” or if we require a question mark, then “Can you explain this?”

Yes, I’m a total troglodyte for asking these questions – in fact, I’m a Keysmith – but I must know!

Right now I’m reading Nova Express by William S. Burroughs. So I see your Warlock batshit insane and raise you a metric ton of batshit. Its very enjoyable, but it seems almost misleading to call it a novel. Its almost like a prose poem – I am enjoying it best when I just forget about trying to impute any semblance of narrative onto it and enjoy the rhythms Burroughs employs. Even though some of the passages don’t really make the type of traditional sense you would get from other novels, each section read as a whole definitely imparts a strong impression of what Burroughs is getting at. This is an impressive feat, especially when considering Burroughs use of the “cut-up” or “fold-in” method, where passages from outside sources are cut-up and reinterpolated in a different order.

By coincidence, I’m also re-reading my hardcover copy of Final Crisis, and there are elements of it that I find not dissimilar to Burroughs free association, cut-up writings. I may have some further thoughts on that subject once I’ve done with both.

William S. Borroughs wins. Really wins.

That said, after more than half my life I still really appreciate Starlin’s first Warlock story arc. While I have enjoyed a lot of Jim’s comics over the years, I don’t think anything else has really matched up, over the long term, with his Captain Marvel vs. Thanos story and Warlock vs. The Universal Church. And in terms of insanity I think Warlock clearly bests CM. I think Starlin just poured an experimental, manic energy into those stories which never really returned.

Reading currently: let’s see, I’m reading “Hunting Eichmann” which is excellent. I just finished a spooky novel titled “The Ghost Writer” by John Harwood which was great. I have a bunch of comics for my birthday; just polished off the collected Necronomicon (not bad, although the final issue didn’t quite pull it off IMO) and Sleeper Season Two Volume 1. Every time I read Sleeper it stuns me how awesome that is. One of those rare cases where everyone was going on about “oh it’s so great all of you need to read this blah blah” and eventually it ends and the hype goes away and a few years later I check it out and, WHAM, yes it really was that good. :)

Jeez, Cass, those are tough questions. If anyone else wants to take a crack at them, that would be cool. I always figured the telephone thing was that it was a new way to communicate verbally, and therefore susceptible to summoning across great distances, and that’s what happened. I don’t what’s going on with the stuffed cat, though.

As for Mr. Evans – in that story, it feels like Morrison and Case were just chucking stuff out that made no sense. The summoning words seem meaningless, but perhaps it’s just the banality of it that makes them summoning words. As for his appearance … I think of Hugh Hefner, while he has that periscope that allows him to peep on everyone’s secret desires. I could be wrong, but that’s what I though of. As for the dream … beats me!

That’s the best I can do. If anyone else has answers, feel free to chime in.

There’s a lot of prose that’s batshit insane, so I’m not surprised Burroughs is (I’ve never read him). It’s tough to find comics from the Big Two that outdo Starlin in the 1970s, though. Although that Englehart stuff on Avengers sounds like it could come close …


July 13, 2009 at 7:43 pm

Yesterday I started Jimmy Corrigan.

It took a bit, but it’s started to get alright – just finished the flashback to his father as a child and the losing his tooth bit.

Fun to know that on whatever train I’m on, I’m reading the most interesting looking book, by far.

I’m on chapter 6 of 1984, by Orwell.

Thank you for trying to help me, Greg. I suppose I’ll accept that Shadowy Mr. Evans and his call words were just a bunch of weird ideas thrown together, because when he vanishes, I noticed the smoke left in his wake spells the words “Weird Menace,” suggesting maybe he was just odd for the sake oddity. The dream may fall under the same heading, weird for the sake of weirdness, but I’m still open to explanation if any one feels he’s got a better one.

“1) What was the deal with the telephone avatar and the whole Watson thing, especially the story about Watson’s stuffed cat, which just seemed out of the blue? And why telephones?”

Morrison practices what you’d call “postmodern magic”, i.e. where modern items are equally potent with magic and capable of being part of a spell as traditional magical items such crystal balls, knives an pentagrams. You probably noticed that Willoughby Kipling’s magic also works like this. Being the primary medium of communication in the modern era, in Morrison’s view the telephone is probably loaded with magic, and the “summoning” of Watson is what initiated it all. Also, the connection between the Pentagon and telephones is in military intelligence (a big part of which is phone tapping), of wanting to know everything, all the secrets the world holds. As the final issue of Morrison’s DP show, he sees this ultimate will to knowledge, this urge to dissect everything into tiny pieces of controllable information, as destructive. For him, some things are better to remain mysteries, unknowable, unanalyzable.

“2) Was there a reference that I didn’t get with Shadowy Mr. Evans (his whole demeanor and physical apperance) and his words of summoning “kneecap,” “lottery,” and two others that escape me right now?”

I think in his introduction that appears in the first DP book Morrison explains that when writing the series, he used the “cut-up” technique borrowed from William Burroughs. This technique involves cutting what you’ve written into pieces, throwing the pieces into air, and rearranging them into random order. I think a lot of the more random wordplay in DP comes from this technique, or from some other similarly random techinques such as “automatic writing”. So there’s no deeper meaning to those words. On the other hand, in the sort chaos magic Morrison practices I think nothing is completely random, so he might think even those randomly scattered words are significant in the larger whole of his work.

“3) Also, in the Shadowy Mr. Evans story there’s a dream involving a personified Death chasing a gymnast down railroad tracks. The captions describe it, euphemistically of course, as basically a wet dream. I don’t really have a question, just “I don’t get it” or if we require a question mark, then “Can you explain this?””

Freud considered “Eros”, the life/sex urge, and “Thanatos”, the death urge, to be the two fundamental psychological forces in a human being; the French call the orgasm “a little death”; and so on… There’s a long history of connecting sex and death, and I think the dream merely served as an illustration of that.

Thanks a ton, Tuomas! I had figured that for some of the more bizarre caption jargon, Morrison had employed a variation of the Tristan Tzara Dada poem method, that “cut-up” technique you described being implemented directly by Crazy Jane in one of the early issues. It didn’t register with me that Morrison might be doing a similar sort of thing with Mr. Evans’ story.

Also, I completely buy your theory about Freud and the Death sex dream, so thanks very much for clearing that up. The only mystery that remains is Watson’s cat… the world may never know.

By the way, Ben, in the introduction to this Masterworks, an interview Starlin gave is quoted in which he mentions that Gerry Conway came in as EIC and started messing around with both him and Englehart, which caused them both to quit. Maybe Conway just didn’t like batshit insane comics!


July 14, 2009 at 5:01 pm

Next in the queue is Ocean, I do believe.

Don’t get too excited.
Great set up, but a waste of potential.


July 15, 2009 at 4:20 pm

I started reading Seth’s ‘George Sprott’ last night, in all it’s giant sized goodness.

Really good stuff.

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