Brubaker and Phillips, Steve Canyon, and an obligatory Chaykin reference

faked by Monday, July 19th, 2010

Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. Criminal vol 5: The Sinners. A common way observers illustrate the superhero genre’s dominance in the direct market is to note that Brubaker and Phillips’s Incognito, a super-villain-themed crime book, outsells the duo’s Criminal, a straight crime book. I have little doubt that the mechanics of the marketplace account for that discrepancy. Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely could team up to do Bat Lash and it would sell a tiny fraction of what their Batman sells—and heck, for that matter, it would sell a tiny fraction of what their Booster Gold would sell.

But there’s also this: Maybe Incognito is a better, more interesting book? I realize that my liking it more doesn’t necessarily make it better, but bear with me here. I ask this after having read The Sinners and come away from it thinking that it was highly competent and a little dull. There just aren’t many surprises either in plot or presentation: outlaw protagonist Tracy Lawless is in too deep, the crime boss pulling his strings doesn’t trust him, he’s sleeping with the wrong member of his boss’s family, et cetera. Sean Phillips’s art is atmospheric and moody but not especially innovative or engaging in its storytelling. (I love his covers, though—Criminal is always a beautiful book on the stands.) It’s all very nicely executed, but it left me a little cold—here were genre elements I’d seen before, shuffled around and put together in a new way, but not especially compelling.

All those genre elements are present in Incognito as well. Plot- and character-wise, there’s no reason for it to involve superpowers at all. There’s the mob boss still running the show from behind bars, the snitch hiding out in witness protection and growing more frustrated by the day, asking for spaghetti marinara and getting egg noodles with ketchup, the duplicitous sex bomb nursing a secret tenderness, etc. And yet infusing this crime story with elements from the superhero genre livens up those old tropes, mainly by cranking up the intensity. For instance, a guy who has always carried a torch for his dead brother’s girlfriend—a girlfriend who was aware of his affection and used it to mess with his mind—is a reliably sturdy device. Now! Make that girlfriend eternally sixteen years old, and make the brothers empathic twins who share each other’s sensory experiences, and—well, now you’ve cranked the skeeve factor way, way up. This intensification trend holds true in the art as well: While Phillips’s pages in Criminal effectively evoke a bleak, blinking-neon underworld, they can also grow monotonous over the course of a whole volume. In Incognito, the bursts of color often associated with a piece of the superhero world’s appearance in the book enliven those pages and dramatically communicate that these characters have suddenly found themselves plunged into a more dangerous and violent world.

Some of this is all down to personal taste, of course. Plenty of people would rather see crime conceits played straight than read any sort of story about a character with laser-beam eyes. What I like about Incognito, though, is that it puts the superhero genre in the service of the crime genre, revitalizing and intensifying the the crime genre elements and throwing new light on old tropes.

Steve Canyon Magazine #6 (Sept 12, 1948 to February 9, 1949). I’ve been reading these Kitchen Sink reprints of Milton Caniff’s second great long-running comic strip for the past year or so. I’ve been wanting to educate myself on the great adventure strips of the last century, and I was intrigued by Howard Chaykin’s characterization of his American Century as a “left-wing Steve Canyon.”

Plus, I figured that by starting here instead of with Terry and the Pirates, I’d have the benefit of jumping right in with a Caniff at the height of his artistic powers and that I’d only have to put up with about 40% of the casual racism.

The Kitchen Sink editions live up to the publisher’s name, with a nice selection of historical essays, outtakes from Caniff’s other work of the period, letters to the editor, and so forth. Plus, I like reading the strip on cheap newsprint. I’ve got a Checker edition of the next chunk of the series, but I’m not sure how much long I’ll stick with the series. Caniff famously didn’t write down a single note about his new strip when he was preparing to leave Terry in order to avoid any possible future wrangling over intellectual property, and the early months of Steve Canyon are experiments in tone and focus. I find I prefer the earlier version of the series to what it seems to be becoming. The first year or so of the strip focuses on Canyon running a shoestring charter airline with a gaggle of former military pals, many of whom haven’t quite adjusted to domestic life back home; Canyon has a stack of unpaid bills, an intermittently resistible appeal to women, a way with a one-liner, and the ability to get punched a lot without suffering any sort of traumatic internal injury. (I”m pretty sure that’s Indiana Jones’s leather jacket he’s wearing, too.) There’s a rough-and-tumble men’s-adventure feel to the early stories that I like a lot. By 1949, though, the strip seems to be moving in a somewhat lighter direction: Canyon’s supporting cast has lost his flight crew and acquired the comic sidekick Happy Easter and the earnest teenage naif Reed Kimberly, Jr. It’s easy to see how these additions would broaden Steve Canyon’s appeal (and play to Caniff’s well developed storytelling strengths), but I can’t help but feel there was a lot of squandered potential in the strip’s earlier set-up.

On the other hand, of course, I’m not really reading Steve Canyon for the story, am I? More for drawings of people getting slugged in the jaw under the dappled shade of a colonial jungle and planes and boats moving through a space that somehow seems much larger than the tiny dimensions of a newspaper strip panel and beautiful women in impeccably drawn vintage fashion and improbably detailed radios? And to remind myself that the newspaper comic strip page used to be a source of something other than numb half-interest?

Plus, this is the cliffhanger for the volume I have here. I can’t stop now, can I?

No one draws a young boy sobbing on an airplane wheel quite like Milton Caniff.

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