Wednesday, August 10, 2016

QUARTER-BIN HEROES : MYTHOS


A miscommunication involving an eBay order put two completely different comics from two distinct eras of comic storytelling in my hands. It also, by doing so, created a pretty much perfect dissection of where the ponderous, navel-gazing, post-Sandman comics of the pre-millennial comics boom betrayed the promise of the Eighties black-and-white cornucopia of independent publishers.

The books in question were "Mythos: The Final Tour" released by DC/Vertigo in 1996 and 1997, and "Mythos," a proposed ten-issue science-fiction series which pooped out after three dense and intriguing issues, ten years earlier.

If I never see 90's-era cover layouts
ever again it'll be too soon ...
Mythos: The Final Tour, obviously, doesn't count as a Quarter-Bin Hero. It was published by Vertigo, enjoying the backing of the second-largest comics publisher in the US (and the world? I think it depends on how you define your criteria, but they're a big player, whatever your specifics), and had all the trappings of a high-end prestige book. It was, in fact, prestige-bound, with glossy interior pages, and an impressive -- if erratic -- team. And also it was boring as fuck-all.

Mythos: The Final Tour is a perfect time capsule of that interminable era of smug, snail-paced, post-Sandman navel-gazing which was so roundly celebrated in comics fandom at the time, and holds onto its legacy now for no knowable reason. For others than I, the scourge of the Nineties was the big guns, spit-filled snarls, tiny feet and tits-in-your-face extremism of the post-Image boom. For me, and all other right-thinking and well-hung people like me, the villain of comics was Sandman and its offspring. It was the flood of ponderous books starring a shirtless, long-haired white guy who was, like, really into obscure jazz and, like, didn't ask to be at the center of a war between ancient gods, you know?

Comics like Sandman were literate, self-aware, generally bereft of the pre-pubescent antics of spandex slugfests (although rife with all sorts of other adolescent self-indulgence), and inclined to name its story arcs after one of the two or three phrases which they remembered from French class or from the songs of Leonard Cohen. This was a period where "maturity" was the imprimatur of worthwhile comics reading, as though "maturity" were the end-all, be-all of storytelling. As though "maturity" was an appeal to anything but the vanity of the reader and the author ...

The thing about the two primary themes of the Nineties is that the Eighties take the blame for one and not the other -- the grim-and-gritty era is supposed to lead like a straight line to books with titles like "BLOODFORCE VS KILLZONERS." Meanwhile, comics like Sandman just, *poof*, appeared out of whole cloth one day, apparently.

But the fact is that black and white comics of the Eighties were a wildly experimental field, a thriving arena funded by the life savings of would-be comic stars. This ended up serving as research-and-development for the big industries who could watch, from a distance, the risks and successes of publishers who counted their heartbeats in individual sales. And the industries, of course, fumbled it. The black and whites were always more exciting, more experimental, and more interesting. To wit ...

MYTHOS: THE FINAL TOUR (Vertigo Comics)
3 really expensive issues for the time (SIX BUCKS A POP!), 1996-1997

In brief: A shaggy-haired shirtless guy in jeans is also a rock star but he, like, just wants to be loved, man. And ancient gods are battling over him because of spiritual warfare. But really he just wants to be, like, left alone, and also for a girl to like him. I may have to revisit this one here.

As opposed to ...

MYTHOS (Wonder Comix)
3 issues, 1987

A labor of love from creator, writer and artist Nils Osmar and Wonder Comix, a Seattle-based publisher which managed to squeak out ten individual issues over seven years. Three of these were for Mythos (although ten were planned).

The series takes the form of a science-fiction anthology which wears its inspirations -- Bradbury and Heinlein -- on its sleeve. Self-contained stories make up small glimpses of a larger universe, with Osmar at the helm for pretty much every aspect of it. Except the lettering, that appears to have been done by Charlton's veteran letterer "A.Machine," or possibly his cousin "This Selectric."

Another thing you'll find that distinguishes Mythos from its later namealike: It passes the Bechdel Test like a motherfucker. Almost all of the main human characters are women...

No one would accuse Osmar's mid-Eighties work as being too professional, but the appeal of Mythos isn't its craft -- it's inspiration. The series embraces a wide scope of fantastical settings across the near-future of human space exploration. The introductory story in the first issue, "Zakaya!" pulls no punches with a splash panel featuring a floating stone cyclopean head with gritted teeth, looming over a mountain plain around which the sinewy forms of snakelike alien birds flutter. I TOLD YOU THIS WAS GOOD.

Osmar's writing is dense -- his characters, like they often would in the science-fiction paperbacks which influenced his writing style, recorded their stories for documents or related them to friends and loved ones, or dragged them from ambiguous alien narrators. But the result is a worthwhile read. Nothing is entered into the narrative frivolously or irrationally, it all either serves the narrative or adds to the emotional resonance of the characters.

It's not without its ponderous, reflective moments -- again, much like the prose which inspired it. But these moments aren't the raison d'etre of the books, they don't serve as the lead character's primary trait. Moments of reflection in Mythos serve to allow both the reader and the character a moment to take in the enormity of the ideas presented to them, and to rationalize the moral and tactical questions which will inevitably soon follow.

And the characters need those breaks. On a multitude of worlds (where characters are frequently stranded, or at least left to their own devices considering the distance between Earth and the other worlds of the civilized universe), there are wild alien races, customs, classes, and environments to be taken in. Osmar does tend towards the "sparse desert with some weird stuff in it" school of fictional terraforming, but it leaves more room to focus on the characters and their conflicts.

The book is steeped in the conflict between human mores and expectations versus the unexplored and the unknown, and it's a shame that it never made it to ten issues. More to the point, though, it's a pretty good explanation of where the wild experimentation of the Eighties gave way to Nineties' intransigent wrongheadedness; In Mythos, the fantastic and the unbelievable are there to be explored, exploited, interacted with, understood, abandoned or embraced. The point of the stories is to put human beings in the center of impossible realms and chart the experiences which arise from it.

My morning affirmations.


By the Nineties, fantastical events were something to be avoided and escaped from. Mythos: The Final Tour is a prime example of the motif -- the book's hero Adam Case (yuk) is doing everything in his power to get the forces of pagan magic to leave him alone. It's not the only Vertigo, DC or even Marvel book wherein magic and wonder were annoyances at best and unwanted burdens in general. Even the line's most bombastic title -- Preacher -- involved Jesse Custer doing everything possible to let God, Heaven, Hell, the Papacy and an assortment of weird, often supernatural dipshits to leave him and Tulip alone so they can ride off into the sunset and fuck.

The strength of Mythos is that it wanted to explore its world, and did so unapologetically. The failing of Mythos: The Final Tour and books like it is that it seemed embarrassed by its world and the fantastic elements therein ... so why even put them in there? Well, possibly, because devoid of supernatural elements, none of the characters in these Nineties navel-gazers were interesting enough to carry a story unless there were ancient-gods-in-suits-and-ponytails (where did that trend start, and how can we end it) hanging around to move what passes for the plot along.

This reminds me, I'm long past due to pick another Sandman story to pillory for my own amusement. I wonder if I can find one that moves at a glacial pace and one of the characters has a quirky hobby. Maybe one where someone's wearing blue jeans and a black t-shirt...

2 comments:

Bram said...

Lithos is just the icing on the cake there, isn't it?

Unknown said...

I love this blog and read every post, but one of the things I love the most is that you share my distaste for Sandman. Just about everything you've said about the series has been spot-on. I have several friends who occasionally say stupid shit like, "Comic books are just mass produced commercial culture but Sandman is a work of art." One individual I love like a brother but much like brothers sometimes I want to dope slap him.

In other words, please do find a Sandman story to skewer because it helps satisfy my desire to feel smugly superior to people who act smug and superior.

Thank you.

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