2018 Revival: OMAC Essay

This only went up on the Shelfdust site a week or so back, despite my having written it in… October? November? I can’t even remember at this point. Internet deadlines can be weird, here’s an essay I wrote to accompany the Shelfdust Top 100 Comic Issues list. It’s kind of a mess — I was in a very strange frame of mind as I wrote it — but I like it anyway.

The very first page of 1974’s OMAC #1 tells the reader exactly what to expect; the opening narrative capture explains the set-up for the entire series as Jack Kirby starts the book in media res: “OMAC One Man Army Corps is the story of a young man in The World That’s Coming!!” it starts. “In that strange place, the common objects of today… may become the terrors that we never bargained for… like the one below!”

Kirby gets a lot of shit for his writing tics, all the weird emphasis and “random” “quote” “marks” where it doesn’t really seem to make sense from today’s point of view, not to mention the irrepressible momentum of it all; it’s a million miles away from the stylized, self-conscious thing that passed for naturalism in today’s mainstream comics, and for that reason alone it’s often criticized or targeted as a guilty pleasure. But it’s genuinely amazing stuff, as immediate as the best pop music and featuring turns of phrase or ideas that are wonderfully memorable and memetic decades before anyone knew what that word meant. OMAC is filled with so many examples of this kind of thing, from “The World That’s Coming!!” to Lila the Build-A-Friend, who pleads “Put me together… I will be your friend…” prompting OMAC to respond, “Where does humanity stop and technology begin? We no longer know, Lila…”

The techno-suspicion of the first issue is wonderful, and wonderfully prescient; Buddy Blank’s discovery that the one person in the world who was kind to him was just an artificial intelligence — although, again, this was decades before that term would enter popular usage — feels like a predication of the relationships formed through social media and the ways in which they can turn out to be not as real as some hoped for, or believed. But Buddy, the nebbish alter ego of the One Man Army Corps who essentially disappears from the series midway through this first issue, is what makes it feel like Kirby knew what The World That’s Coming!! was like more than most.

There’s a scene in the issue, where Buddy is wandering aimlessly through the halls of “Pseudo-People, Inc.,” the dehumanizing corporation he works for, having been bullied. What initially seems like a Marvel-esque origin story — is he the loser that no-one understands? — gets turned on its head by a subtlety and ambivalence that Stan Lee would’ve jumped away from in fear. “Maybe Fox is right,” Buddy thinks to himself. “I’m angry enough to flip out!” A page later, he says to himself, “I’m not angry at anybody… I just feel depressed, that’s all…”

OMAC #1 has all the hallmarks of a Kirby comic that people would expect from reading his Marvel work, and arguably even the majority of his Fourth World material — it’s visually bombastic, it’s fast-paced and dynamic and filled with astounding concepts that are at once ridiculous and utterly perfect. But at the heart of it is a character who feels honest and true and recognizable to so many people today: A character who is somehow more real than the milquetoast nerd stereotype of a million other comics by that point, who feels alienated and abandoned by a world around him that’s hypnotized by the toys and the technology at its fingertips, and who — most importantly, perhaps — doesn’t get a last-minute vengeance or score-evening moment of redemption.

Instead, Buddy is swallowed up by that same technology, against his will. He isn’t changed into OMAC by choice, or even an accident; he’s chosen by an authority he isn’t even aware or, and once “Omactivated,” is essentially a different person altogether: He’s more violent, more confident; a version of the cliched alpha male. Buddy is murdered by the state so that OMAC can live, if you like.

OMAC as a series is great; it’s got everything you could want from 1970s Jack Kirby, who is undoubtedly my favorite Jack Kirby. But OMAC #1, taken on its own, is something far greater than what followed; it’s a sneaky, but perfect, horror story about the world that we live in today, and the ways in which the everyman — “Buddy Blank” is a poetically perfect name for someone who could be all of us — is powerless to resist against its lure of techno-distraction and authoritarian control. 44 years after it was published, it just continues to feel more and more timely with each new reading.

2018 Revival: The Sounds Of The Streets

Because I am permanently behind the curve, I only really started using Spotify last year, and used it entirely sporadically this year — which would be why the albums I bought and listened to incessantly, like this year’s Gorillaz and The Good The Bad and The Queen aren’t reflected on the below list at all, nor is my obsessive David Holmes re-binging — but here are apparently the 10 songs I listened to most on Spotify in the past twelve months. 

Goodbye, 2018. You had some amazing high points and some horrific low points. But, all told, I’m glad you’re behind me as of tomorrow.

2018 Revival: THR Newsletter Logos

Something unusual — I do the header logos for the THR Heat Vision newsletter every week. I fell into it by accident, because I started by tweaking the logos someone else had done, and then somehow I was just doing the logos every week. It’s a surprisingly fun part of my week, even if I know my logos are far below the standards of people who, you know, do this for a living. Here are some of my favorites from the first few weeks.

2018 Revival: My Personal Top 10 Comics Issues List

This one wasn’t written for publication or performance; it was the notes I made to accompany my submission to Shelfdust’s Top 100 Comics Listwhen I submitted my Top 10. (To clarify: It was specifically top 10 comics single issues, not storylines/collections/graphic novels, and it was by any definition I wanted — I went for something between what they meant for me personally and how good I thought they were.) I didn’t know that it wasn’t for publication at time of writing, because I didn’t know whether we were supposed to write note to share or not, but that just made sure that I wrote more, which is always good. 

#10: The New Guardians #1 (1988, DC Comics)

— I loved Millennium, the crossover this came from, so much that I subscribed to this (for an exceptionally large amount of money; I was in the UK, after all) before it launched. The series was a disaster, with Steve Englehart leaving midway through the second issue, but even today, there’s something special about the launch issue: A vision of socially inclusive and diverse comics that I was looking for but hadn’t found yet.

#9: The Invisibles #12 (1995, DC/Vertigo)

— The Invisibles was a (the?) seminal series for me, and this is arguably the most important issue in it; the one that introduces the true hero of the whole thing, and also explains how bad guys become bad guys. It’s very much in the whole pulp tradition, but also something that asks and expects a little kindness from those reading.

#8: Uncanny X-Men #185 (1984, Marvel Comics)

— The comic where I decided that I was going to collect comics. What was it about this? Claremont arguably in his prime, Romita Jr. and Dan Green at the 1980s best, but also the sense of it being this expansive fictional universe that went far beyond the superhero comics I’d read as a kid. This felt “other,” it was amazingly exciting.

#7: Or Else #2 (2004, Drawn & Quarterly)

— Kevin Huizenga has the honesty of an Eddie Campbell, but the formal curiosity of a Chris Ware and the heart of a Jaime Hernandez. This was the first thing I read from him, back when it was a mini comic called Supermonster #14. The reprint (that was, I think, also redrawn and/or expanded?) just cemented how wonderful he, it, and comics in general, are.

#6: Deadline #5 (1989, Deadline)

— The first issue of Deadline I bought, and the place where I discovered comics that weren’t superheroes or 2000AD. My first taste of Philip Bond, Jamie Hewlett, Nick Abadzis and Shaky Kane. This was unspeakably important to me at the time; it really felt like the world was opening up and comics were a place to explore all these things in a language I’d understand.

#5: Mister Miracle #10 (2018, DC Comics)

— No comic has ever felt like a more perfect expression of a relationship than this one, to me.

#4: Flex Mentallo #4 (1996, DC/Vertigo)

— “Being clever’s a fine thing, but sometimes a boy needs to get out of the house and meet some girls.”

#3: OMAC #1 (1974, DC Comics)

— One of the most perfect first issues ever made in comics, and also one of the most prescient pieces of 20th Century science fiction. Oddly, also released in the same month I was born, apparently.

#2: Dork #7 (1999, Slave Labor Graphics)

— Evan Dorkin writing about his nervous breakdown was (and, in many ways, still is) a shock considering this had previously been his humor anthology, but he does it with such honesty, anger and wit that it’s undoubtedly one of the best comics I’ve ever read.

#1: Grafitti Kitchen #1 (1993, Tundra)

— Simply one of the best one-shot issues ever, one of the best autobiographical comics ever — sure, he’s pretending to be Alec McGarry, but still — and one of the most honest pieces of writing about how complicated and dumb and hopeful we get when it comes to relationships.

2018 Revival: Who Is The Best Supervillain?

Another thing written for an unexpected outlet this year, and an unexpected revival — this was for io9, which asked me for a brief submission about the best supervillain. It was my first piece there for… eight years or so…? I also went to a get-together of io9 writers past and present at NYCC this year, so perhaps I’m over my weird grudge finally.

There’s a tradition in superhero comics for truly powerful beings to be beyond human morality — so, you get characters like Marvel’s Galactus, who eats planets but is somehow not evil because, hey, who are we to judge? Similarly, Marvel also has characters like the Beyonder or Michael Korvac, both of whom are omnipotent and definitely antagonists, but could they really be considered supervillains…? There’s an argument to be made against, seeing as neither are really trying to do much more than survive and learn, even if that process threatens the free will of everyone around them. Surely intent figures into deciding whether or not someone is a villain, super or otherwise…?

I really want to say it’s Darkseid, because Darkseid is obviously the best supervillain. He wants to eradicate free will, and he’s got no problem doing whatever it takes to achieve that aim, even though he’s bound by his own weird sense of honor. He’s complex, contradictory and fascinating, and he’s also been able to kill Batman and beat up Superman and screw with the entire Justice League, so he’s clearly pretty powerful. But, really, he’s not the most powerful supervillain. We’ve seen far stronger. (Nekron, for example; he could bring all the dead guys back to life as evil zombies!)

Instead, I’ll nominate the Anti-Monitor, the awkwardly-named villain of 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths. While his motivation and, really, personality, were somewhat unclear in that series, it couldn’t be denied that he was powerful: He was literally destroying entire universes to further his agenda of destroying all positive matter — he’s the Anti-Monitor, after all —succeeding, he killed countless versions of DC’s biggest name characters and, thanks to the cosmic laws of DC mythology, his being from the Anti-Matter universe automatically means that he’s evil. Most powerful supervillain? Almost certainly. That costume alone should earn him a place on the list, let’s be real.

2018 Revival: Con Survivor

Finishing out a year in which a lot has happened, but there’s been almost nothing happening on this site — mostly because a lot has happened. But I’m using this place as digital storage by including some writing for unusual places from the last few months. First up, this is a piece written for the launch party of Oni’s The Long Con at Portland’s very own Books with Pictures, which ended up being read aloud by the wonderful Ben Coleman.

Based on the questions I’ve been asked over the years, there are a few preconceptions about being a journalist at Comic-Con that I feel the need to try to clear up. Firstly, no; it doesn’t mean that you automatically get into all the popular panels and hang out with movie stars and eat free food, although I did once accidentally leave Hall H in San Diego through the wrong door and ended up in the celebrity waiting room, which had a spread like you wouldn’t believe, and was filled with the cast of some big blockbuster I can’t even remember, all staring at me while clearly thinking “You don’t belong here.” I was quickly escorted out by security.

And, no, being press doesn’t mean that you automatically know where all the good parties are, and it definitely doesn’t mean that you get invites and can sneak everyone in. I mean, yes, there was that time I got into a party where the band was Josie and the Pussycats from Riverdale and they were actually performing live, and everyone lost their minds, but that happens, like, once or twice a convention, tops.

Most of all, despite what I’ve just said, it isn’t glamorous. It’s glamor-adjacent, and that’s fun and strange and great, sure, but it’s also weird and uncomfortable and occasionally just very… awkward. Here’s the best example of what I’m talking about. It’s about eight or nine years ago, and through some unlikely happenstance, I’m working for a well-known weekly news magazine that I won’t mention the name of. I mean, technically, I’m working for the website of a well-known weekly news magazine, but the distinction is meaningless to anyone I tell about the job. Honestly, it was pretty meaningless for me, too; I was firmly under the impression that I had arrived in the big leagues, and that everything was going to be great from then on.

This was before I arrived in San Diego to discover that I would be sharing a room with five strangers for the next four nights. And that the room had two single beds, and we could maybe get an extra cot if we were lucky. On the one hand, everyone seemed very nice and there was only a couple of people whose work I recognized and felt embarrassed to be sharing a bed with because, really, they deserved better. On the other, I can’t emphasize this enough: We were all working for a well-known weekly news magazine — like, one of the ones that’s actually a name — and they definitely could’ve afforded at least another room or two. This was just cheap.

It also made it difficult to do work. It isn’t unusual to end up working late into the night to meet deadlines at Con, and when you’re sharing a room with five people trying to sleep, it’s not so easy to stay up, typing away, without making people mad at you. All of which explains why I ended up sitting in the foyer of the hotel, trying to write a couple of stories at ten o’clock at night one night.

So, I’m sitting there with my laptop and headphones on, listening and listening and listening to this interview, trying to transcribe it and write whatever I was writing, and I kind of half-noticed that it was getting pretty busy. I didn’t really think that much about it, because it’s Comic-Con and everywhere is busy at Comic-Con, especially hotels. And it keeps getting busier, and busier, and at one point I look up and realize, wait, everyone looks really fancy. This is odd.

It took me about another hour or so, and by this point it’s maybe 2am and there’s really loud music and the foyer is just packed, to realize that there was actually a party going on all around me and I hadn’t realized. And it’s a big party; there’s a DJ, there’s people dancing and drinking and making out and all kinds all around me and I somehow just hadn’t noticed for hours. I didn’t know what to do, because I couldn’t go back to the room, everyone was asleep and I hadn’t finished work, so I just…stayed there. And pretended none of it was going on while I sat on a couch, with various things happening literally right beside me that were very distracting. Eyes fixed on the screen. Writing. Just writing.

And then, at one point, with no warning, the music just stopped suddenly. The crowd groaned en masse, but stopped when it became clear what was going on: Everyone shuffled aside to let an ambulance crew pull a stretcher towards the elevators, and then they disappeared. No-one said a word, everyone just staring at the elevators for minutes until the ambulance crew re-appeared, with someone strapped into the stretcher.

This sounds like a downer, I know, and you could tell at the time that the ambulance crew was clearly thinking the same thing. They didn’t look anyone in the eye as they moved towards the door of the hotel, and then they paused, before one of them said in this wonderfully embarrassed voice, “He’s going to be fine!” As in on cue, the music immediately started back up, and everyone got back to partying, like the whole thing had been planned.

That is what Comic-Con is like as a journalist. Being exhausted, under deadline, surrounded by people having more fun than you, probably, and unsure whether or not you just saw something actually tragic, or if it was some weird performance art piece in the middle of a party. And, you know, also getting to see Josie and the Pussycats perform live on a hotel rooftop standing next to the cast of Arrow as they lose they minds.

What can I say? It’s really large. It contains a lot of multitudes.

The Other Two Were With Me

I’ve been obsessed with R.E.M. again lately; I read Perfect Circle, a biography of the band, over the holidays and that has led me back to the albums I was addicted to when I first discovered them, back in the early nineties. For me, Out of Time was the entry point — I think it was “Losing My Religion” that probably piqued my interest, as it did everyone else, but I’ve always had such a fondness for “Radio Song” that I may be misremembering — but I quickly backtracked through their back catalog, becoming endlessly obsessed with Green and Life’s Rich Pageant in particular.

Of all their albums now, I’ve found that Automatic for the People and New Adventures in Hi-Fi are by far my favorites, although I have a deep love for Monster for all kinds of incidental reasons. (It was the only time I saw them live, that tour; I can’t remember who supported, but I do remember dancing in the stands when “Revolution” played, a song I’d never heard before but somehow knew.)

This middle period of theirs was my period — neither the impressive creative outburst that saw each album build on what they’d leaned last time, nor the slow decline and creative stall that followed 1999’s Up. I’m all about their biggest hits, the albums that worked as the soundtrack of my life from the end of high school through the end of college. For all my contrarian urges, I can’t deny it: when it comes to my fascination with R.E.M., I am unashamedly, proudly mainstream. When they were good, they were great.

Here We Are In Our Summer Years

It’s been awhile, I know; June turned out to be curiously busy for a number of reasons, mostly work-related. There was a trip to LA that left me oddly… exhausted isn’t the right word, but definitely out of sorts for some time afterwards, more than I’d expected. It was a good trip, though, and something that was exhilarating during the trip itself despite the transcription and work it left in its wake. Still. June was mobbed and then it was over, somehow early, and now it’s July and Comic-Con is just two weeks away as I write and oh God where does the time go, how am I always behind, this is horrible.

**

I remembered, across the weekend, that when I was a kid, summer was a different time. Not just because of the time off from school, although that was its own reward — the laziness of those first couple of weeks, when it felt as if nothing mattered and everything was strangely unreal because time stretched out, endlessly, ahead of you — but because my dad would play hooky increasingly from work for the two weeks of Wimbledon, and that was always weirdly funny and wonderful.

My dad, you see, was a massive tennis fan. If you asked me at any other time of the year whether or not my fannish tendencies — such as they are — came from my parents, I would likely say no, but at summer, I always feel like I could draw a line from my comic book adoration to my dad’s love of tennis, which was really a love of Wimbledon. He played tennis himself, although that dropped off somewhere along the line of my childhood; I have memories of him in his shorts and his white shirt, racket in hand off to the local tennis club with an air of excitement, but I couldn’t really date them. Definitely, by the time I was finishing high school, he barely played any more, but I don’t really know why or when. Similarly, while he was an avid fan of Wimbledon, I don’t really remember him having the same interest in other tennis tournaments, and I couldn’t tell you why. Was it simply that they weren’t as available on television at the time, or something else…?

Nonetheless, Wimbledon would roll around every year and my dad would be on board. Evenings would be spent watching the matches on BBC2, which would come with lots of verbal appreciation (and advice) from my dad, and mornings would include commentary about what lay ahead that day in terms of tennis. Best of all, my dad would do that thing he never did for the rest of the year, unless there were special circumstances: he would leave his office for lunch, and come back for a lengthy period of watching whoever was playing at the time. If it ended up being a particularly engrossing game, well, that just meant a long lunch.

As a kid, I didn’t have much appreciation for tennis — I still don’t, to be honest — but there was something about my dad’s appreciation of Wimbledon that made me want to join in. Part of it was that the players became characters in this epic narrative that I watched him watch, if that makes sense: I couldn’t tell which players were talented and who deserved to win, but nonetheless I felt like each one was a particular character with defining features, and that was something that I could, and did, latch onto eagerly.

(Occasionally, I frame wrestling in this light, so that I can understand the appeal. The actual thing, all the matches and the stories and the complicated mythology, that doesn’t actually interest me at all, but when I think of it as “Oh, it’s the thing I kind of invented for Wimbledon when I was a kid, but for everyone else!” it all makes sense.)

I’m not saying that Wimbledon was some amazing bonding experience between me and my dad, because I don’t think either of us really thought it was, any more than his love of playing with my Star Wars toys when he thought I wasn’t paying attention was, or his encouragement of my love of comics (and reading in general) was, or any of a number of other things. But when summer comes, and I read online that Wimbledon has started over in the U.K., I often think about those days when he’d come back for lunch, make himself, and often me, a bacon sandwich or a roll with sliced sausage, and we’d sit down and watch Wimbledon together, happy silence punctuated by his ooooooh come ons or yes yes yes look at that LOOK AT THATs.

**

Now I really, really wish I had some Robinson’s Orange Barley to drink. Does that still exist in the UK? (One quick Google later: yes.)