Review: “Comic Book Babylon”
Comic book writer, editor, and raconteur Clifford Meth took to Kickstarter to fund the publication of Comic Book Babylon, a collection of essays, stories, and interviews drawn from the almost ten years worth of columns he had written for various comic book news sites across the Internet, including ComicMix itself. Promising an introduction by Stan Lee and illustrations by noted comic artist/political crackpot Michael Netzer, Comic Book Babylon almost quintupled its original funding goal with $11,219 in pledges. Last week, Meth delivered with the release of Comic Book Babylon, published in print by Meth’s own Aardwolf Publishing or digitally through the Amazon Kindle store.
Unfortunately, the book itself isn’t quite as lofty as its funding might make it out to be: Where Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story aimed for academic detachment and scholarly consideration for both sides of every story, Meth wears his personal attachment to the subject matter like a badge of honor. In the course of his career, Meth became close friends with several comics greats greats – foremost among them Harlan Ellison, who he name-drops to an annoying extent in almost every single column collected here.
But Meth trades objectivity for passion. The best reason to read Comic Book Babylon is the saga he wisely opens with: His collection of columns, with the odd bit of additional recollection, on his and Neal Adams’ joint battle to publicly shame Marvel Comics into paying for the care of legendary Marvel artist Dave Cockrum during his struggle with pancreatic cancer.
Meth doesn’t mince words and nor should he: His passion for making sure that the designer of Colossus, Storm, and especially Nightcrawler gets his due comes through and casts him as the good guy, even when he’s being kind of a jerk. Similarly, his recollection of Will Eisner’s memorial service and the trilogy of eulogies for Joe Kubert, Don Heck, and Gene Colan that close the main portion of the book are dripping with extremely macho, extremely touching displays of barely-constrained respect and admiration.
“Gene was clear-thinking and real-world oriented. He just wanted to go home. And he believed that wanting was enough,” Meth writes on Colan’s last days.
The problem is that the machismo isn’t nearly always as touching or endearing. Comic Book Babylon is chock full of anecdotes where he’s rude or just downright unpleasant to interview subjects, Marvel executives (including a lot of passive aggression at Gary Groth, for reasons never discussed), and in one especially grating column, his mother-in-law. And unfortunately, in the throes of his more epic rants, he feels the need to either implicitly or explicitly tear down the work of more modern creators in order to emphasize the contribution of his friends’ to the canon and history of comic books. When he mentions in passing Claremont’s return to the X-Men universe in an apparently unpublished column circa 2004 (presumably referring to the 2005 New Excalibur series), he trumpets the news as wonderful for fans of the franchise “after a decade of having their intelligence insulted.”
In another column, he seems to draw some strange causal link between Shi creator Billy Tucci’s apparently more conservative politics and his success as an independent writer and artist. (As a brief aside, as a college student I once had a lovely dinner with Billy Tucci. His politics never came up and I never asked.) On too many occasions to name, he makes casually racist or sexist observations, opening his interview with Walt Simonson by asking “Do you think that Latino women with blonde hair look like hookers?”
Another interview with an independent artist is conducted in a gentleman’s club, which would be far less bothersome if his transcript of the interview weren’t constantly interrupted by his or his subject’s constant comments about the women. Similarly, an interrupted interview conducted at a bullfight of all places concludes with him asking the subject who he thinks the most attractive female editor in comics is, in a bit that’s obviously played for laughs, but is hard to see being anything but groan-worthy.
In fairness, when Meth gets out of his own way, his interviews are at the very least interesting: That interview with Simonson, broken up into multiple parts, is a standout for getting him to talk about his influences, and a chat with Joe Kubert about how much he hated teaching at the comics art school that bears his name. A talk with Frank Miller goes into depth about his process and his love of Hollywood. My favorite, though, was a refreshingly nonconforontational interview with a then-pre-League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Alan Moore, where the trash-talk we’ve now come to expect is put aside for a frank discussion of where he found his own Watchmen to fall short. Perhaps because of all the time he spends with comics artists, Meth has a way of getting them to open up about their work in ways not often seen. It’s just jarring to be taken out of these interesting conversations by Meth’s often maddening editorializing.
Look, I get it: All of the creator versus publisher conflicts chronicles that Howe’s book covered clinically and with an academic’s eye are real life for Meth and the men he calls friends, and it shows. But it’s obvious that he wears his callousness, rudeness and general contentiousness as a badge of honor, confusing sarcasm and snideness for wit and insight. All in all, his insistence on name-dropping and his repeated insistences that things used to be better and that he’s the only sane one in the industry add up to a portrait of a man struggling to convince himself and the world of his own relevancy. The interviews are nice, though.