Diamonds in the Rough

This Week: Alternative Comics


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Far from diamonds in the rough, superhero comics are impossible to avoid. When "Watchmen" debuts next week, it will mark the climax of the most visible movie marketing campaign in recent memory, to which public transit riders and free promotional condom receivers can attest. Heath Ledger won a posthumous Oscar just last weekend for his portrayal of one of comic lore's most enduring and debated characters. Closer to home, WonderCon begins its three-day run at San Francisco's Moscone Center this weekend. With all this in mind, we find it curious that many of the medium's alternative standouts still toil in cape-less oblivion.

Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez might not have created the first alternative comic, but their "Love & Rockets" serials were the first to garner critical commercial success in the mid-'80s. Los Bros. Hernandez (as they are affectionately known) focus on a surreal Latin American village as it intertwines with the lives of Chicano punks in California. "Love & Rockets" switches off between these narratives, closing the gap with comically exaggerated visuals. The Hernandezes also have a penchant for writing strong female characters while at the same time drawing them with robust and curvy physiques. These comics have created a new take on femininity full of Mohawks, Doc Martens and an attitude rarely seen elsewhere in literature.

Oakland artist Daniel Clowes cites "Love & Rockets" as a catalyst for his own annual publication, "Eightball." His comics are marked by a darker cynicism that touches on the hilarious confessions of a misanthrope. "Eightball" collects stories like "Sensual Santa," "Dan Pussey" and "Needle Dick," which play on social and sexual anxieties. Clowes also presents essays in comic form, such as the sardonic "On Sports," which examines the latent homosexuality of football, baseball and basketball. That's Clowes' specialty, stripping away the layers of societal bullshit for hilarious results. But for every one of Clowes' insecure digs at pop culture, he offers a longer story that retains a bit of hope in the face of cynicism. "Ghost World" and its subsequent film adaptation may be the most recognizable, but it is "David Boring" that ultimately stands out. Clowes crafts a modern noir in "Boring" but one for the bored, disaffected and perverted.

Berkeley grad Adrian Tomine's "Optic Nerve" is less depraved than Clowes' work. His comic, frequently set in Berkeley and Oakland, can be polarizing. The clean line drawing isn't breaking any style barriers, and critics complain of his relationship-heavy writing. But Tomine's works aren't necessarily about action as much as the unspoken tension of adolescence. Berkeley comes to life as both familiar and alienating in "Optic Nerve."

But if you're looking for some old-fashioned drugs, theft and murder in your comics, David Lapham is your man. His series "Stray Bullets" and "Young Liars" are the modern realizations of the alternative comic: dark shadows, strong-willed women, corrupt characters and a general dissatisfaction with life's station.

Though less obvious in their portrayals of good and bad, these comics provide a more realistic and artistic (though twisted) exploration of life than anything in the Marvel universe. They have challenged the superhero in ways arch-villains never could and in doing so have brought comic books out of Mom's basement and into serious literature.

Dress up for WonderCon with Nick and Derek at [email protected]

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