Monday, September 05, 2005

This Book Is Good - Men and Cartoons, by Jonathan Lethem

The writer Jonathan Lethem is soon going to be writing an Omega the Unknown project for Marvel Comics, with art by Farel Dalrymple (who is really good), so I thought it would be fun to take a look at his collection of short stories from last year, Men and Cartoons.

Lethem's interest in comics informs his writing, like his notable novel, Fortress of Solitude, and the short stories of Men and Cartoons are no different (for an extra insight into Lethem's thoughts about comics, check out this top five depressed superhero list that Lethem made up, it is good stuff). I enjoyed this short story collection as a whole, but for the sake of this writing, I am going to specifically address the two comic-book related stories (as this is a comic book blog, after all).

"Super Goat Man" is a strong story about a Super Hero from the 60s who was forced to retire due to his politics. The narrator knew him, as Super Goat Man lived in the same commune as the narrator did. Everett (the narrator) encountered Super Goat Man at three different distinct points in time, as a young teen, as a college student and as a college professor himself.

The message Lethem appears to be developing in the story is that of a sort of failure of 60s radicals. The hippies of the 60s soon became the Steven and Elyse Keatons of the world, as their hopes of making relevant change fell by the wayside.

So, too, goes Super Goat Man. His politics took him out of the superhero game (not that he was a great hero to begin with, especially considering his comic book was not even made by a major company!), and this removal permanently set himself apart from the rest of the world, as a curious oddity pointed to as a reminder of times when change seemed ever possible, as possible as a man with goat powers, that is.

Everett's first meeting with Super Goat Man establishes Super Goat Man's presence as a cultural oddity, but it is second meeting, in college, where Super Goat Man's past really haunts him, as he cannot even manage to save a stupid frat kid from a terrible fall. However, it is the last meeting that is, in my mind, the most tragic, as in the present, Super Goat Man has suffered to effects of his super physiology to age much more rapidly than normal (I am reminded of the theory, proposed in She-Hulk, that age is related to ones appearances in comic books, and when you are not being published, you age much faster), and at a time when he looks to Everett for some kindness, Everett treats Super Goat Man with the same level of derision that is handed down upon former hippies, as Everett reminds the decrepit old man old of his failure to save the frat boy.

Rough stuff. Thanks to commenter Iron Lungfish, here is a link where you can read Super Goat Man for free!

"The Vision," though, is just as rough without being as over the top, in a truly impressive exhibit of characterization and character interaction.

We open in the past, as a local boy is fascinated by an older boy who comes to school AS the Vision. He wears a costume, he has red dye on his face, and he reacts to people AS the Vision!! This is quite similar to the plot of the recent comic, Grounded, from Image.

The story proceeds to the present, as the narrator encounters the Vision and his girlfriend, and gets invited to a party. The juicy secret weighes upon the narrator's mind, and it is remarkable the way that Lethem allows us to like the narrator while still realizing that, while it may be natural to desire to embarrass someone with stories of the past, it is still casually cruel.

There is some good writing about role-playing games, and how discussing ones REAL life is often even more adventurous than any role-playing game. It is here, in a game of "I Never" (Say "I Never...something" and whoever CAN'T say that they never did that has to take a swig of alcohol) that the narrator's casual cruelty is up-ended, and he is made to feel the fool, in a revelation involving the Scarlet Witch that appears to show the reality of "actual" superpowers - for the "Scarlet Witch" appears quite at ease in reversing the odds just like the comic book character, while "The Vision" appears able to control his density, and allow the situation to wash right over him, just like the android Avenger.

It is wonderfully handled.

I think that Marvel is going to have a real winner on their hands with Omega the Unknown (Dalrymple art does not hurt either...hehe).

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6 Comments:

Anonymous Iron Lungfish said...

Lethem writes good stuff. You can read "Super Goat Man" online at the New Yorker's site here.

9/05/2005 08:03:00 AM  
Blogger Brian Cronin said...

Thanks for the heads up!

I'll edit the piece to mention that!

9/05/2005 05:16:00 PM  
Blogger Nik said...

I'm a big fan of Lethem's work. His "Fortress of Solitude" is just amazing, and pretty much the whole thing has a comics sub-theme going. Best comic-related novel since "Kavalier and Clay."

9/05/2005 06:47:00 PM  
Anonymous RAB said...

This anonymous reader isn't as impressed by Lethem as most...and I'm REALLY not impressed by the idea of him writing an Omega series against the express wishes of the creators of Omega. Steve Gerber and Mary Skrenes never signed away the rights to that character, but Marvel assumes it can do anything it likes because, essentially, "that's how things always worked back then" and it was just "understood" that characters were owned by the company. Lethem wouldn't tolerate it for a moment if his publisher decided to give away his characters to another author without even asking his permission...but because this is comics, he accepts that without blinking. If he loves Seventies comics so much, why does he not realize that what he treasures is the work of OTHER WRITERS, and want to do right by them?

And yes, you can say Marvel has some legal precedent on its side. But can't we ask what the MORAL question is?

9/05/2005 07:06:00 PM  
Blogger Tadhg said...

The only Lethem I've ever read was Gun, with Occasional Music. This was years ago, but I remember liking it a great deal. I'll have to check his other stuff out

9/05/2005 10:53:00 PM  
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