November 9th, 2013
One of the strange blessings of the internet is its ability to serve as an external memory system. Thoughts that would once have been lost to time if they were even lucky enough to have made it out of your head are now preserved for an indefinite eternity in places over which you have little to no control.
For example, if I want to know how I felt about Brendan McCarthy’s Doctor Strange/Spider-Man comic Fever after the first issue came out in 2010, a quick google search will turn up this flouncing defense of the book, written in response to a review by Sean Collins:
Say it Vibrational Match style: Where you see “inert physicality”, I see a Spider-Man who’s all harsh angles and elbows being squashed, flattened out, and a Doc Strange who’s at home with the harsh geometrics McCarthy conjures up.
Where you read flat pastiche, I read Spider-Man as a jerk who gets shut the hell up by the story (his words like jutting elbows –> drooping limbs), and Doc Strange as a badass who can turn exposition into information with the right gestures (verbal, physical).
Also: the mystic spider dialogue is genuinely fucking creepy, for reals, when combined with the images, yes?
In lesser hands this would be mere set-up, but this issue had a whole lot of “?something else?” working for it — that creepy wee arachnid bastard, crawling up the Vulture’s back, fr’instance! Like something from Seven Soldiers, only (yes!) far more unsettling.
I saw the biggest, most bulbous-assed spider of the year last night, sitting on my windowsill. I’m a bit of a wuss when it comes to these wee beasties, but last night, after having read Fever? I tell you, I wanted to kiss the wee fucker!
The “hey, I’m a black guy!” dialogue was a bit cringey though, pastiche or no.
Looking at the book this week, I find myself agreeing with every point but the last one.
It’s not that I don’t find the dialogue McCarthy gave to the African-American comedy character cringe-inducing anymore – I do! – but that Brendan McCarthy’s recent Facebook comments on race make me feel ashamed the structure supporting that final sentence.
Sure, I agreed with Sean Collins’ assessment of the embarrassing nature of McCarthy’s throwback characterisation, but I did so in a tossed off, casual way, after five paragraphs of flame flecked enthusiasm. The implicit message being that everyone should just chill out about this racist after taste and enjoy the “septic salsa” of the comic itself.
In 2010, the story of McCarthy was that he was that of the hero freshly returned from the wasteland, ready to save the kingdom from itself. His new work confirmed his status as a trinity of psych-pop ghosts, the faces of Brit comics past, present and future combined. What interest could a couple of dodgy panels hold against all that? Solo #12 remains McCarthy’s late period masterpiece, but even in lesser books like Fever there are moments of astonishing beauty. The scene in the second issue where Spider-Man steps through a portal and into a crunchy insect killing field still burns bright in the light of its own toxic logic:
McCarthy’s comics tend to overpower the reader with indescribable shapes and unfathomable textures – Sarah Horrocks is dead right when she says that McCarthy draws with colour, rather than merely colouring his drawings.
When faced with the work of an artist who is giving so much, it’s easy to find yourself overlooking genuine faults, even when they’re staring you right in the face. Don’t get me wrong, the appeal of this fiction is still strong, but no amount of comic book magic can make this go away:
That’s Brendan McCarthy there, showing an inability to see what’s in front of him that makes my efforts in 2010 look downright half-hearted. Who reads an article about a nineteen-year-old black girl (Renisha McBride) being shot in the head while looking for help and sees nothing but another example of the tyranny of “the hipster left/PC brownshirts”? An arsehole, obviously. Someone so convinced that the people calling out racism are the REAL racists that they’re blind to the details of the article in question, oblivious to the structures of racial fear and discrimination this story implies, and impervious to the reality of a world in which black people can be killed freely and with legal impunity.
With tragic predictability, McCarthy has identified this exact ailment in his accusers, seemingly convinced that his inability to draw “a southern black watermelon-munching dimwit” without being called a dick is an issue on par with the deadly consequences of the sort of far reaching racism he imagines to have been replaced by the tyranny of the left.
Call it Karns’ Malady, call it a case of the South Parks, call it whatever you want. Like my thoughts on Spider-Man: Fever, Brendan McCarthy’s edgy uncle routine is now part of the memory of the internet. It leaves a rancid stain on his particular part of the landscape, one that’s strong enough to clash with even McCarthy’s glorious artistic excesses, strong enough to make you go back and look at his work again with fresh eyes:
Note to self: some faults deserve more than one throwaway sentence.