Sunday, July 02, 2006

Epic Illustrated #4

Epic Illustrated #4, Winter 1980, Marvel Comics Group
writers/artists: various
editor: Stan Lee
editorial director: Archie Goodwin

As much as I wanted a Superman comic as my inaugural A Comic A Day foray, I hoped for an obscure piece of comics literature for my succeeding effort, if only to embody the diversity this project should entail. Indeed, my antiquing expedition yesterday provided the graphic sustenance I needed, in the form of Epic Illustrated #4. The antique shop had several issues of Epic for me to choose from, so, like many blind comics purchases, I opted for the issue with the most appealing cover, in this case by Michael Kaluta. Who can say no to an axe-wielding barbarian staring a damsel-clutching dragon in the eye?

Initially, I wondered if Epic would violate the rules of the ACAD challenge, as it's less comic book, more magazine compilation of comics, but as a graphic forum for some of the most influential graphic artists of the day, and a direct publication of Marvel Comics, I say it's in. In his introductory overview and subsequent editorial (examined below), co-editor Archie Goodwin drops more names than Kathy Griffin; I was surprised how many of these names I recognized, how many of my favorite artists today have been critical to the industry since (at least) Winter, 1980. Works by P. Craig Russell, Neil Adams, Rick Veitch, Richard Corben, and Dean Motter are all fairly recent additions to my vast personal comics collection; I wonder if these guys have simply been consistently influential to the medium, or if I'm just really behind the times.

Unfortunately, Goodwin mentions these artists, but little if any of their work graces the pages of this issue. As an "adult fantasy & science fiction" magazine, Epic strikes me as cannon fodder for the many sci-fi cynics that dub the genre as "homoerotic escapist fantasy for frustrated male adolescents" (my quote). The true gems like Marc Hempel's "Elephant Grass" and Paul Kirchner's "Survivors" are a meager three to four pages in length, suffocated by derivative, multipart "epics" like "Metamorphosis Odyssey," "The Dreaming City," and "Almuric." Yes, each of these tales had redeemable moments, but generally, their fantastical vernacular could only reward faithful fanatics of those specific yarns. These are the tales of the bare-chested, loincloth-wearing warriors of the cosmos, battling tyrannical alien goliaths, wielding weapons rich with superfluous intergalactic mythology.

Further, some of this issue's pulse-pounding sci-fi explores less of the universe at large and more of the war at home, through thin allegory best understood considering the material's post-Vietnam, pre-Cold War era. Four of the nine tales tackle man's inability to steady his itchy trigger finger, if not toward his fellow man, than toward the nature of the cosmos itself. Poignant, but preachy, and in a magazine that offers escape from reality, unnecessary.

Another other interesting element: I mentioned Goodwin's editorial, tackling the "controversy" of the graphic novel. Back in the late '70s/early '80s, the graphic novel still needed defining. Little did Goodwin know, just a decade later (if memory serves), most prominent bookstores throughout the country would offer a graphic novel section. Still, despite his dated analysis (which at the time was interesting editorial, and now is riveting comics history), we're still strapped for a comprehensive definition for what he dubs "the great graphic dream." Is a graphic novel a mere compilation of previously published material, making it more accessible to a wider audience (the modern day newsstand edition), or is it also an original work of greater length than your average monthly single? They didn't know then, and as an avid fan and follower of the medium, I don't know now. Of course, to define the graphic novel is to confine it to those terms, so we may be best served with its inherent ambiguity, yes?

Overall, Epic was an educational experience. I foresaw the challenge of its length and began reading it last night (after midnight, to comply with ACAD regulations), and I'm glad I did. Reading the 98 page magazine (which includes a letter column, an artist's spotlight, and a decent amount of ads) in one sitting would have been an epic in itself. And that much fantasy is an acquired taste. I did enjoy the variety of artistic techniques sampled throughout the book, and I now realize that these vibrant colors would have been applied by hand, without the convenience of modern computerized coloring techniques. Without an Epic Illustrated wanna-be sweeping sales nowadays, is it safe to conclude that the advances hyped in science fiction are what may eventually lay the genre to rest?

No comments: