Sunday, September 18, 2005

I Keith Giffen

This is going to be impressionistic, 'cus my memory is shot to hell. The timeline may be a bit off.

My admiration for the American comic book writer/artist Keith Giffen goes right back to when I was a kid lying on my neighbour's floor reading reprints of THE DEFENDERS in Marvel UK's influential HULK WEEKLY (it was basically Dez Skinn's prototype for his later magazine WARRIOR, which launched Alan Moore to greatness). Later on, I'll seriously fall in love with his work on the DOCTOR FATE reprints I buy from my cousin, and the tale-end of his first run as artist and co-plotter on LEGION OF SUPERHEROES. During the heady days of the mid-to-late eighties at Dick Giordano's DC Comics, Giffen is the go-to guy for re-thinks, re-jigs, and re-boots. At one point, he's got his finger in every pie, co-writing the Justice League, L.E.G.I.O.N, and the Legion Of Superheroes. Which meant he was pretty much in charge of the present and future of the DC universe on a planetary and cosmic scale at the time. Plus, he's also DC's official satirist, with his series AMBUSH BUG. No wonder there'd be such a backlash against the guy later. It's a great time for DC. After Alan Moore and Frank Miller's recent work, there's an excitement about. John Byrne's doing SUPERMAN. George Perez's WONDER WOMAN. Mike Grell is on GREEN ARROW. Howard Chaykin and then Bill Sienkiewicz drawing THE SHADOW. DC are reaping the benefits of the indie boom of the last few years. Creators and editors from Warrior, Eclipse, First Comics and others are returning to the mainstream, and the cream are working for Giordano. The medium has become cool, legit, overground. MAUS wins a Pullitzer. Comics are growing up, and so am I.

It's a year or two later. For a while, I pretty much quit buying American comics. In the UK, there's 2000AD, CRISIS, ESCAPE, REVOLVER and DEADLINE going on. There's a feeling in the air that superhero comics are dead. Killed by the fact that THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and WATCHMEN were just so damned definitive. The only American comics I look out for are invariably created by Brits (SWAMP THING, BLACK ORCHID, HELLBLAZER, MARSHAL LAW, SHADE THE CHANGING MAN, THE INVISIBLES etc). I'm seventeen, eighteen. Drinking booze and chasing chicks starts to take precedence. I get out of the habit of hanging around Dark Horizons and The Talisman with my cousin Bellboy. Instead I'm hanging around the Northland Arms with Jeff, Mogie, and Glenn.

I go to university. Apparently, superhero comics didn't die. They boom. Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane and a few others parlay their success on various Marvel work-for-hire standards into vast riches forming Image Comics. I'm totally oblivious. I'm reading the canon of modern literature and drinking like a young F Scott Fitzgerald. This boom is supported by speculators drawn to comics by reports of quick profit on the collector's market. Back issue prices are soaring, driven by multiple covers, foil enhancements, gimmicks, assorted technological leaps and bounds. However, someone realizes these comics are pretty much all unreadable shit. The bottom falls out of the boom. The speculators get out quick. Boom inevitably becomes bust. Crash goes the comic market. I don't hear the noise from the Student Union bar.

Then one day I'm in Belfast sheltering from the rain in Dillon's bookstore. Oh look, they sell comics here now (that'll be a short lived thing, that'll soon disappear with the crash). Oooh, there's some Legion Of Superheroes by Keith Giffen and some other dudes. I used to love that when I was younger. I really liked that guy. Says it's a sequel to that whole Darkseid thing that used to run through the book back when him and Paul Levitz did it. I buy it, get it home to the squalid shithole I'm living in, read it, and can't understand it. This Legion is nothing like the one I remember. It used to be easy to understand 'cus they all wore costumes and had codenames which described what they could do. Now they refer to each other by their first names and all wear the same jacket. But something in the density of the storytelling, in the weight and thickness of the backstory, in its tapestry, in its self-referencing mythology, made me want to go back and investigate. To immerse myself in the detail. Here was an ongoing American mainstream comic that hadn't ran away from the challenge of WATCHMEN, but had met it head on. It was serious, political, adult, it was THE BIG CHILL of comics. It was a superhero comic about growing up, about losing yourself in order to find yourself. Reading it resonated totally with me at the time: I was living away from home for the first time, losing my youthful idealism, finding my feet as as an adult.

However, unknown to me at the time, there had been an obvious reaction in the market against the complicated storytelling of a few years previously. Comics had regressed to pin-up splash pages, all sound and fury, signifying nothing. Giffen's later-day Legion was an anomaly, seemingly despised in the marketplace. But it had done its work. I was reading comics again. In the immortal words of Michael Corleone, "Everytime I think I'm out, they pull me back in". I end up hunting down about two years of back issues. Giffen leaves the book a year later. It goes down the crapper without him. Turns out his collaborators were well intentioned, but not natural storytellers. But those three years were sheer comic book gold, simply the most under-rated achievement in modern American superhero comics. Plus in his last issue (#38), Giffen blew up the Earth. How's that for the most spectacular example of throwing the dummy out of the pram the industry may have ever seen.

(Fifth in an irregularly occuring series, after I Jack Kirby, I Steve Ditko, I Kev Walker and I Frank Thorne)