Review: The Anatomy of Zur-en-Arrh by Cody Walker (Sequart 2014)

Rarely do I get to say that something is insightful while also in bad need of an editor and much of which is superfluous. Cody Walker is probably one of the best close readers of Grant Morrison’s comics and what he has done here is a 250+ apologia and analysis of Morrison’s run on Batman. Furthermore, Morrison’s run was long, dense, meta-textual, controversial, and–while I doubt Walker would see it this way–uneven, so this would be an interesting undertaking. Walker is a teacher, and it shows in both the virtues and flaws of The Anatomy of Zur-en-Arrh.┬áThe explorations and explications of theme are, while not exactly scholarly or critical in an academic sense, insightful and show evidence of deep (and scholarly) engagement with material of Morrison and of treating popular culture as literature.

So here’s the problem: this book suffers from this teacherly trait in a way that undermines a lot of its readability. There are far, far too many summaries of every issue and arc Grant Morrison ever touched on Batman, and little discussion of how this really related to other Batman writers and other works by Grant Morrison. While Walker’s exegesis is strong, the pages upon pages of summaries are unnecessary for those who would be interested enough to read a defense of Morrison, but give too much away for those unfamiliar with the work. This kind of explication with intensive summary is often a teaching tool in a literature class–where one cannot assume everyone has read the work–but an editor should have cut at least fifty pages of this out. Walker’s style is reading and personable, but the summaries slow this way, way down.

Furthermore, comparing the differences in say Morrison’s work on Animal Man–which has the same deconstructive tendencies with Morrison would later take issue with his bete noir, fellow chaos magician Alan Moore–and his later Batman work would be really illuminating. It would also be interesting to compare Frank Miller’s or Jeph Loeb’s Batman to Morrison’s reconstructive work explicitly. Normally, I think it is unfair to critique an author for writing a different book than what one wants, but in this case, it really would help. Walker’s brief discussions the contrast between Moore and Morrison is insightful and so I know Walker could do this.

Lastly, while this is an excellent apologia for later Morrison’s deconstruction of capitalism around comics and his attempt to re-introduce archetype, camp, and de-humanizing artifice into comics from a philosophical point of view, Walker isn’t critical of where this doesn’t work unless the fault isn’t with Morrison. Walker’s discussion about how the conflicts between marketing, the New 52, and Batman, Inc, really undercut some of Morrison’s better writing at the end of his last run on Batman is actually one of the best part of the books, but one often feels like Walker is reading Morrison a bit too “occultly” to justify seeming incoherence and searching for hints to make things fit better than they do. Even good apologias need to be critical of their subject matter sometimes.

Ultimately, this makes for an very uneven read itself (perhaps this is ironic given Morrison’s Batman run). Devotees of either Batman or Morrison will skim a lot of this book because the summaries aren’t necessary to them, and the neophyte will be utterly lost. This is a shame because, like I have said, Walker is a strong reader with a penetrating mind and a good eye for detail as well as a pleasant and enjoyable writer. I suggest this book only with those caveats strongly in mind.

Review: League of Regrettable Superheroes by Jon Morris (Quirk Press, 2015)

Morris’s “League of Regrettable Superheroes” is exploration of the flukes of the superhero genre, and this breaks things down into the nice explorations of vices and would-bes of the various comic book ages. Since the book focuses primarily on the super-heros with brief shelf-lives, you don’t need to dig down into massive mythologies or character inconsistencies or revisions of character history or alternate universes. Or, not as much as in more standard and long-running superhero fair.

Each character has, at least, a two page spread. A cover or panel is given as well as brief bio. Morris is not laugh at loud funny, but he is humorous without being snarky or pedantic. In the spirit of early comic books, there are few cute puns. The current break down is the Golden Age with 44 heroes; The Silver Age with 26 heroes; and The Modern Age with 30 heroes. The Golden Age has similar themes from comics publishers run amok, and the discussion actually gives you a insight into the early history of comics. The collapse of the “Bronze Age” and the “1980s-early 2000s” is probably a thematic mistake: the “Edgy” “adult” (teen vision of adult prurience and violence) and the bronze age attempt at more psychologically realistic and socially conscious heroes are actually quite different in their vices.

One of the interesting things discussed in subtext of Morris’ book is that not only are some of the more interesting superheroes more or less flops, but that superhero comics often go out of favor. For example, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Morris mentions that superheroes were often in serial movies in theaters, but that superhero comics declined in popularity very quickly thereafter. Conversely, the early 1990s were an unusual prolix and profitable time for comics, but it collapsed out from under the industry and basically only related properties keep the current industry afloat. Indeed, we live in an age where superhero comic properties dominate the movies and popular culture, but superhero comic books are on the wane. This is something Morris does not discuss directly but hints at in his erudition about the medium.

The book is beautiful and well-laid out, the heroes range from hilarious to the vices of their age, and Morris shows his power as a subtle writer of pop culture and an academic of comics. In age of Geek and nerd dominance, this a refreshing reminder of its silliness.