Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Back Matter #6 - Cry Yourself to Sleep & Detectives Inc.

With the “Back Matter” series of posts, I am reprinting my initial writings on comics from roughly 2006.  A more detailed explanation can be found here


GOOD HUMORISTS WILL MAKE you laugh, will bring a smile to your face.  The better humorists do this while also forcing their audience to think.  Jeremy Tinder, the creator of Cry Yourself to Sleep from TopShelf comics, happily falls into this latter category.  Not only does he present readers with a humorous tale, he also deals with very real issues in his narrative.  With Jim (a minimum wage rabbit), Andy (an aspiring novelist), and Robot (a metallic philosopher), Tinder manages to tell a poignant, touching story that is both sad and funny at the same time.  Capturing the uncertainty and awkwardness everyone encounters during that transition from being a teenager to becoming an adult, he pulls readers in with unfamiliar characters treading completely familiar territory.  This little book is a wonderful read and one that will tug at the heart as you find yourself laughing out loud.

Our protagonists, three friends whose separate tales spread out over the black and white pages before weaving back together in the climax, are all experiencing heartache and rejection of one kind or another.  Jim, a yellow rabbit working at Tubby Subs as the story opens, soon finds himself unemployed when the assistant manager receives another complaint of fur in a sandwich.  Jim protests, arguing he can’t use the sanitary gloves provided because they have finger holes and he only has paws, but the boy in charge will hear none of it.  If Jim can’t follow rules, smile, or even party with the other employees after hours, then it is the assistant manager’s duty to fire him.  Jim walks home under a cloud of financial stress and “specie”-al prejudice, and his mood promptly worsens the following day when his roommate Andy mentions off-handedly that he will need Jim’s half of the rent by Thursday. 

Meanwhile, Andy is dealing with the rejection of his first novel.  Fully expecting Big Deal Publishing to accept it, he is at a loss when the rejection letter arrives.  Talking it over with a couple of friends at the local diner, they come to the conclusion that maybe Andy is a little too close to the subject matter as the concept sounds like a thinly veiled autobiography.  Andy disagrees with this assessment and finds himself starting to wonder if he should just give up this notion of being an author.  Returning to his apartment he finds Jim sitting there and is happy at the prospect of discussing his awful writing with his roommate.  Walking into the kitchen, Andy expounds on the possibility of becoming manager at the video store where he currently works.  Afraid to stop talking he does not allow Jim to give any response and is surprised and let down when he returns to the living room to find his roommate has left without warning. 

Walking to his parents’ house Jim passes Robot who shares a quick greeting but has no time to stop and chat.  He is following his new friend, a bird whose style Robot professed to like when the tiny bird shit on his metallic shoulder.  Robot is a philosopher who is intent upon learning how to become a better person.  These two new friends make their way into the country where the small bird finds a tree in which to sleep for the night.  Taking a cue from his new acquaintance Robot sits down against the tree’s trunk and shuts down for the night. 

In the morning Robot awakes first.  After calling for his friend to “wake up, wake up, wake up,” thirteen times, he finally tosses a pebble that startles the little bird from its slumber and exclaims, “Hey, you’re awake!” in animated surprise.  Asking what the bird might teach him today, Robot assists in retrieving twigs for a nest.  Wondering what might be gleaned from this activity, Robot views the repetitive twig delivery as a form of meditation used to achieve a greater understanding of one’s place in the world.  Likening this repetition and limited range of motion to video games of the late 70s and early 80s, Robot’s final thought on the whole exercise is that he could have achieved the same insights from the comfort of his own living room, but “with only slightly worse graphics.” 

Each of our characters ultimately finds some direction in their life, or at least some resolution to their immediate problems, and although Jim ends the story lying in a hospital bed with broken bones and possible spinal damage, he at least has a better outlook on life than he did when the tale opened.  Andy, who briefly flirted with giving up writing, finds himself reinvigorated by a chance encounter at the video store.  And Robot is in a better place mentally after having saved his friend Jim’s life and assisted in the building of a nest.  Like life, these three friends don’t have all the answers yet, but at least they have found themselves beginning the climb out of the dark valley into which they had fallen.

If readers are unable to connect with the characters in Cry Yourself to Sleep then I don’t know of any fiction with which they could connect.  That job you hated when you were just out of high school?  That’s here.  Overprotective Mom?  Got it.  Overbearing Dad?  Check.  The boss that made you feel small and insignificant while he sloughed off in the back room?  He’s here too.  And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  The kid that tried to rent porn with a fake moustache?  He makes an appearance as well.  All the pain and all the humor and all the uncomfortable situations everybody finds themselves stuck with, that is what Jeremy Tinder is speaking to with his comic.  And it all works magnificently well.  His art style is reminiscent of another TopShelf alumnus, Jeffrey Brown.  A raw energetic style with an animator’s sensibility that only adds to the funny bits, because come on, who wouldn’t laugh at a short yellow rabbit cursing “fuck” at the thought of having to go to his parents for help in making the rent.  This is a great book that you should definitely check out.  It may be about a rabbit, a robot, and a frustrated novelist, but when you open the cover and start reading you’ll find yourself in there too.   

BACK IN THE VAULT this time we have the initial foray for Detectives Inc. from creator/writer Don McGregor and artist Marshall Rogers.  Originally published in 1980 by Eclipse as an original black and white graphic novel, it was also reprinted a few years later in color as a two-issue micro-series.  Best known for his work on Marvel’s Black Panther and Killraven, this was a story that had been stewing in the back of McGregor’s mind for over a decade.  As an author, he had high aspirations for the types of stories he would tell and believed the possibilities for the comic medium had barely been scratched.  With Detectives Inc., McGregor did his best to look ahead at what those possibilities could be and eschewed all “conventional wisdom” with regard to how a comic should look and what stories could be told.  Knowingly taking a big risk, McGregor dove head first off the deep end and made it work.  And it can be argued that with this book he helped to redefine the way comics were viewed.

Ted Denning is black.  Bob Rainier is white.  They are best friends, and they are also the private eyes known as Detectives Inc.  The story opens on a cool October night in the South Bronx.  Denning and Rainier have been hired by a man to bring his son home.  The father fears that his boy Randy may be involved with a recent spate of tenement torchings and he couldn’t stand to lose him to this harsh city that took his wife away from him and his son.  The two detectives are to meet Randy on a deserted rooftop in this seedy borough of New York.  But when they arrive he is not alone.  Straton Clark, a tough punk known to Rainier and Denning, is with the boy and handles the discussion, leaning on Randy the whole time.  When Randy states his allegiance to Clark, the other gang members come out of the long shadows and things quickly get out of control.  The sheer numbers distract the two private dicks long enough for Straton and Randy to take off across the rooftops.  Rainier is soon in pursuit, but it is unwise to be chasing blindly through the shadowy summits of New York City.  From behind a dark corner, the butt of a gun slams into the back of Rainier’s head, driving him into the ground and sending his own gun sprawling across the roof.  As young Randy looks on, Clark stands above the prone detective, leveling his pistol at the back of this man’s head.  Denning is immediately on the scene, the weight of his own gun heavy in his hands as he points it at the man threatening to end his partner’s life.  Clark sees the gun aimed in his direction but doesn’t believe Denning will use it because why would another black man gun down on him “for [a] white muthafucka”?  Plain and simple, Denning and Rainier are friends and Clark is a blight on the face of humanity.  Denning asks the punk to let his partner go, sick at the thought of having to use his pistol, but in the end there is nothing to be done.  And Ted Denning will have to live with that for a very long time.

Some days later Denning is still coming to grips with what happened as he and his girlfriend Vera Lawrence walk through Riverside Park on a colorful autumn afternoon.  Denning cannot shake the guilt weighing on him, but Vera is there for him, there in a way all men need but few can admit.  Meanwhile, Bob Rainier is dealing with his own personal issues as he and his very recently divorced ex-wife have dinner at a Japanese steakhouse.  Though only five months removed from the divorce, Rita has moved on completely while Bob has trouble keeping visions of them together from his mind.  Refusing to admit his unease Rainier babbles on, unwilling to accept that all those years together meant nothing to her.  But Rita has asked him here in a professional capacity.  A friend of hers, a mid-wife, is obsessing over the death of a colleague and Rita would like to know if Bob and his “colored friend” might look into it.  From there things get worse and the meal ends badly, as all meals of this nature do.  Despite that, Bob still agrees to look into it.

The two investigators go to speak with Ruth Hamilton, the mid-wife Bob’s ex mentioned.  It is her belief that the death of her friend Linda Clarke was no accident and she immediately provides them with two viable suspects.  The two men are grateful for the leads, but they need to know more about Linda’s life before they can move forward with the investigation.  Ruth tells them of her relationship with Linda, that they were lovers.  Linda touched her with “love and lust” and she took away any guilt Ruth had about loving her back.  She was important, more important than the hit-and-run statistic the police have made of her.  Ruth Hamilton needs them to find out what happened to Linda and give her some closure.  

Of course, things would be far too easy if Miss Hamilton were completely forthcoming.  Ted Denning discovers that one of Ruth and Linda’s colleagues from the clinic was also involved with Linda, Dr. Curtis Blakesley.  This opens up the possibility of not one, but two new suspects– Dr. Blakesley and Ruth herself – in what is looking more like a murder all the time.  Each suspect tells the detectives that Linda was promised to them, and the fact that Linda was indeed bisexual and enjoyed exploring her sexuality sheds no more light on who actually perpetrated the murder.  It all comes down to who is telling the truth, and whether Detectives Inc. can figure that out before somebody else gets killed.

I admit opening to the first page of this comic with a bit of hesitation.  This is the first book I have read by Don McGregor and I worried it would suffer from the stilting dialogue and poor use of exposition prevalent in a lot of work from the early 80s, especially from creators that worked for Marvel at this time.  I was pleasantly surprised to find this was not the case.  Certainly, there are spots where the dialogue sometimes gets preachy, but in most of these instances it falls in step with the characterization.  The story was very compelling and refused to fall into melodrama.  With this book, McGregor brought a gritty realism that I can only assume was sorely lacking within the comics medium at the time this first saw print a quarter century ago. 

In my opinion, this is an incredibly important comic.  It came at a time, shortly after publication of Will Eisner’s A Contract with God, when creators closer to the mainstream began pushing at its boundaries.  In Detectives Inc., McGregor ran headlong through any taboo you can name, dealing with lesbianism, divorce, racism, abortion, sex, nudity, and murder in a taut, literate, and intelligent manner.  This would have been nearly impossible to pull off if his protagonists, Ted Denning and Bob Rainier, were not such well realized characters.  These two men are familiar because they deal with all the fears and insecurities everyone faces on a daily basis.  The use of violence is not something they revel in, and in fact only leads to trouble down the line when Denning is again put in a situation where he must use his gun.   Unable to discard the phantom of the boy he found it necessary to kill, Denning hesitates for just a second.  This is all the murderer needs as he runs Denning down with his car, leaving him on the edge of consciousness.  Meanwhile, Rainier is still dealing with his recent divorce throughout the entire series, often unable to focus as his mind wanders to thoughts of sexual fantasy with any woman that may be near, including his stated feelings on this subject to his ex-wife.  And if the expectation is that things will be tied up as neatly as on Law & Order or NYPD Blue then readers are in for a surprise. 

Those not turned away by the subject matter – No capes?  No cyclotrons?  No anti-matter devices? – are not only in for a treat regarding the story, but will also find McGregor and Rogers playing with the way a comic can look as well.  McGregor set the story up as a graphic novel, with the emphasis on novel, and broke the story into chapters along with a prologue and epilogue.  Each chapter is titled and opens with a few paragraphs of prose before starting into the traditional comic panels, which are beautifully drawn by Marshall Rogers.  With this being a dense work, there are a lot of panels.  And yet, Rogers manages to convey what is happening within those panels masterfully.  Nothing seems cluttered, nothing is missing, and his storytelling is as clear as any artist.  And despite utilizing many different panel arrangements – including one early two-page spread that includes 21 panels – one never has trouble following the story.  It is obvious that Rogers felt as passionately about this story as McGregor did, and it shows through in the final product. 

This was a big risk for both writer and artist.  The direct market was in its infancy, as was Eclipse Enterprises, and then, as now, superheroes were king.  The thought of trying to do anything outside of the strict boundaries of the spandex set was not at all a healthy gamble to take.  For that aspect alone, as well as for the fact that McGregor and Rogers wished to attack the taboos that had plagued mainstream comics for decades, this is an extremely important book and one worth seeking out.  McGregor realized the untapped potential of comics and challenged himself to live up to that potential.  In doing this, he also challenged readers to expect more from their comics.

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