All The Fun of Self-Sabotage, Plus All of the Risks

With last week’s Olympic figure skating tryouts and news of Justin Bieber’s arrest and arraignment, naturally my thoughts turned to comics. Specifically, how there are much fewer sports or bio comics nowadays. Occasionally, we get the odd vanity project–what else would you call basketball star LeBron James hiring T&A artist Greg Horn to paint an online comic about how LeBron James is secretly an international super-spy (working for Powerade, based on the logo on his bodysuit)?–and Bluewater Productions aimed to corner the long-empty market on celeb comics (before it came out they weren’t paying writers and artists. They’ve been relatively quiet, since), but both genres are largely absent from the market, along with many others relegated to indie works if they haven’t abandoned “comic books” for the cooler, hipper world of “graphic novels” (and the wider reach of a Barnes & Noble).

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This was the thought going through my mind when, ho-humming the lack of non-superhero/sci-fi/fantasy comics at the shop, I drifted through the back issues, finding a copy of He Said/She Said Comics Presents. Specifically, the fourth issue, detailing figure skater Tonya Harding’s involvement in an attack on rival skater Nancy Kerrigan.

A serial tracking the gossip, cable, and tabloid exploits of (in)famous couples, He Said/She Said purported to tell their sides of the story via flip-book format (a gimmick popular in the industry during the 90s). In reality, with its jokey lists, poor-taste features (this issue’s “The Lorena Bobbitt/John Wayne Bobbitt Page”), and pinup centerfolds by painter Mike Apice, the short-lived series was more a quasi-Mad Magazine parody, made by equally short-lived First Amendment Publishing. Cover artist Allan M. certainly evokes Mad‘s Alfred E. Neuman in his caricatured depiction of Harding and her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (who helped orchestrate the attack). The scripting of the POV stories is divided: Stan Jonathan writes Gillooly’s side, offering glib commentary and recitations of facts in equal measure, while David Hoyda narrates Harding’s story (her insistence she knew nothing of the attack) at face-value.

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Ultimately, the comic is driven by the broad, shaky “satire” of Stan Jonathan. Most of the issue’s content is insults directed at the people involved in the crime (and several incidental players, too), from Harding to talk show host Montel Williams (the lone bit of sympathy lies with Oksana Baiul, the Ukrainian skater who won the gold medal while all Western eyes were on Harding and Kerrigan, the latter of whom derided Baiul for breaking down into tears after her performance). This leaves He Said/She Said in a limbo of sorts: trying to build an identity around salacious reporting and hatred of the subjects and pundits which drive salacious reporting, as if First Amendment were aware how short-term these stories were (a “10 years from now…” chart). Amusingly, they didn’t last any longer than the national spotlight for Harding/Kerrigan (issue 5 would be the last, the comics industry crash in the mid-90s sealing their fate). Most of the witticisms on-hand aren’t all that memorable, either: co-conspirator Shawn Eckardt is frequently mocked as “a blowhard” and nicknamed “Blimp,” while the First Amendment crew offer their own scoring system ranking skaters on “Face” and “Body,” in line with the angry, offensive posture of late 80s/early 90s small publishers–all of whom looking to make it as the next Robert Crumb. It’s likely none thought they’d need their own “10 years” chart.

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While Jonathan and (presumably) the First Amendment editors snicker to themselves, it’s the understated Hoyda who provides the most compelling script. There’s something sad about the way he lists off the events of Harding’s life (her mother married multiple times and berated her as fat; her own marriage to Gillooly is summed easily in one five-panel page), while artist Mike Scorzelli gives both child Harding and adult Harding the same goofy smile when they’re on the ice. That latter image, depicting Harding in the National Championship after the Kerrigan attack, is Scorzelli’s best–the cleanest line drawing in a comic otherwise littered with rough sketches, in a definitive statement of giving zero shits (under the circumstances, I wouldn’t fault the artist).

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Also notable is how in both images, we’re told Harding is winning, since there’s little attempt to convey the sport’s movement. Scorzelli’s twin, still-frame grins lend Hoyda’s portrait of Harding a Herzogian quality: a troubled individual pursuing a quest without concern for the actual results. Harding’s Olympics performance is disappointing, landing in eighth, yet says she did what she set out to do simply by getting there. Garth Ennis would take a similar approach to the Punisher, a man driven to single-minded action in the wake of personal tragedy, when writing the character for Marvel’s MAX imprint. Both the real-life figure of Harding and the fictional Punisher show signs of traumatic stress giving way to obsessive-compulsiveness. The flat affect of Hoyda’s writing allows this to surface through the gaps in Harding’s timeline: the Gillooly half has more details about the assault itself, but the insistent deny-deny-deny of the figure skater, as she attempts to ignore the scrutiny of the outside world, offers more depth.

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In many ways, a comic like He Said/She Said Comics Presents is a far better time capsule for the 90s than anything from the contemporary Image milieu: where Liefeld, Lee, and the others were the center of only the (admittedly large) superhero portion of the industry, First Amendment represented a wider market. A market which offered more in the post-80s boom of small press and self-publishing, yet began to scrape the barrel with gimmicks like flip-books, chrome covers, and speculation (First Amendment’s tally of how many copies of an issue they had left). The industry had more and wanted more than that. It was its own Tonya Harding: even without a Nancy Kerrigan, it sabotaged itself.

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