My 2020 Reading Stacks #11

Kent & Office!

Depending on whether you want to hear echoes of 2020 or simply escape it all…

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:

At the beginning of each year I spend weeks writing year-in-review entries that cover the gamut of my entertainment intake, including capsule reviews for all the books and graphic novels I’ve read. I refrain from devoting entries to full-length book reviews because 999 times out of 1000 I’m finishing a given work decades after the rest of the world is already done and moved on from it.

As time permits and the finished books pile up, I’ll be charting my full list of books, graphic novels, and trade collections I’ve read throughout the year in a staggered, exclusive manner here, for all that’s worth to the outside world. Due to the way I structure my media-consumption time blocks, the list will always feature more graphic novels than works of prose and pure text. Novels and non-pictographic nonfiction will pop up here and there, albeit in a minority capacity for a few different reasons. Triple bonus points to any longtime MCC readers who can tell which items I bought at which comic/entertainment conventions we’ve attended over the past few years.

And now…it’s readin’ time. Again.

41. Derf Backderf, Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio. Another home run from the writer/artist of such original graphic novels as Punk Rock and Trailer Parks, Trashed, and My Friend Dahmer, which was adapted into an indie film starring a former Disney Channel star. Kent State is his most emotionally devastating work yet.

The book recounts the timeline of events leading up to that infamous date of May 4, 1970, when the Ohio National Guard opened fire into a crowd of thousands of college students, killing four and wounding nine more. During the heyday of Vietnam War protests, government officials were nervous about the youngsters and their demonstrations and their occasional riots, fear and paranoia rippling upward from angry state officials all the way to the very White House itself, who would brook no interference in their international warfare plans. Granted, while protests rocked college campuses nationwide, including the occasional bombing courtesy of the Weather Underground (officially designated as domestic terrorists, which Derf reaffirms here), any such representation at Kent State had largely been quashed or expelled by 1969. That didn’t mean everyone enrolled was suddenly cool with Vietnam. And yet, a number of authority figures, military as well as the school’s own, were gripped either with a frightened wariness of potential college-kid violence or an older generation’s swaggering disdain for large-scale backtalk. The situation was a short-fuse powder keg.

As told in the prologue, Derf was ten years old and living in Richfield a mere half-hour from campus and remembers watching the Guard march into town and swarm everywhere at least four days before tragedy struck. Several pages of annotations cover the interviews he conducted with survivors, teachers, at least one soldier, relatives of the victims, and locals who’ll never forget. He cites nearly an entire library’s worth of tomes on the subject, as well as two academic collections devoted to it — one of which is kept at Yale because those same families supported the idea of one existing, but insisted it not be held anywhere near Kent State and not even within Ohio itself. One of those collections includes the autopsy reports, recreated here in all their disturbing detail without flinching.

bayoneting near Kent State, May 3, 1970.

The Guard’s disproportionate response on May 3rd — the evening before the tragedy — included but was not limited to actually bayoneting students.

Unrest had already marred the ordinary Midwest town in the days prior, including a riot that damaged numerous businesses not far from the school. Tensions build as we get to know the victims and The MAN calls in the troops and escalates the situation to perhaps a step or two below full-on martial law. Accounts differ as to which specific commanding officer or politician should receive the most blame. The persons of interest either threw their colleagues under the bus, backpedaled from any responsibility, or simply clammed up. No one with any real power was ever charged. Meanwhile on the other side, the young civilians facing down the fusillade were unarmed and had no reason to expect that American soldiers would open fire on American citizens on their own home soil. Most of the casualties weren’t even protestors, but students whose classes happened to be dismissed at the worst possible moment. One of the dead was in ROTC, a recent target of the protestors’ ire, shot down by some unnamed Guard volunteer who might’ve one day been his own comrade-in-arms.

I leave it to other generations to debate the Top 10 All-Time American Protest Disasters. Kent State easily and makes the horrifying case that 5/4/70 was Top 5. Anyone interested in keeping up with this year’s pop culture flashbacks to yesteryear might consider pairing this with a viewing of Aaron Sorkin’s Netflix film The Trial of the Chicago Seven. Though the film takes place nearly 400 miles away and two years earlier, and I’m 102% certain Derf is the bigger stickler for historical accuracy, their disparate strands are woven into the same tapestry, one that tells a story of an ugly era when young Americans distrusted their government and refused to shut up and accept questionable marching orders. Among other commonalities, the film provides an informative snapshot of the Students for a Democratic Society, whose final days Derf summarizes largely to confirm they were out of the picture by 1970. Derf’s notes also name-check prominent Seven-er Jerry Ruben more than once.

42. Andy Greene, The Office: The Untold Story of the Greatest Sitcom of the 2000s. Officially this was a gift from me to Anne. We’re both huge fans of the show and have watched nearly every episode too many times, but she’s been diving more into post-game supplemental reading online, not to mention delivering reams of oral thinkpieces about it that remain unwritten to this day but provide a value-added viewing experience for the two of us, so this seemed an ideal gift. Upon finishing, she strongly recommended I check it out as well, and here we are.

The book is presented as an oral history, that beloved online news-site format that slaps together long quotes from the various participants in a pleasing, entertaining order that simulates the sensation of gathering everyone around the same round table and letting them chat amicably and without talking over each other. Most of the book comprises all-new interviews with cast, crew, and tangential parties (e.g., a Scranton tourism head, TV critic Alan Sepinwall, one-time director J.J. Abrams). Some quotes were drawn from old interviews and other sources previously published over the years. A few are taken from the DVD commentaries, which I’d already listened to and it felt like cheating to transcribe those.

Critical topics include:

  • The stupidity and astounding failure rate in remaking any given British TV series
  • The casting process and stars who didn’t make the cut
  • The network execs and their varying degrees of commitment and/or unhelpfulness
  • In-depth breakdowns of key episodes (including my favorite, “Dinner Party”)
  • That fun era when the cast would answer fan questions online at their Dunder Mifflin desks while filming
  • The heated internal debates about who should become the next manager after Steve Carell’s departure
  • Candid confessions about the last two seasons, when things weren’t working quite so well
  • The unanimous opinion that Carell is the most generous actor ever

…and in later chapters, the rampant tales of Certain People. No one wants to be a meanie who name names, but Certain People began to exhibit new behaviors after the show took off and salaries were boosted. Certain People became pickier about what their characters would or wouldn’t do. Certain People would arrive on set whenever they felt like it. Everyone still loved Certain People but they sure had gotten big for their britches. No one would say who Certain People were, except to confirm Steve Carell was totally not a Certain Person, but the true and mysterious Certain People were like an invisible enclave moving silently among the now-famous cast that we know and love, anonymous and ghostly yet making life harder on others, whoever they might’ve been in their nebulous shadow dimension of super-spooky secretiveness.

That said: superfans need this book if they don’t know all this already. Browse it during the commercials when you’ve flipped to Comedy Central and can’t stand seeing the same Daily Show promos for the ten thousandth time.

Invisibles Omnibus!

If you’re wondering why I haven’t reported more reading in an activity-free pandemic year, this plus Charlie Kaufman’s Antkind represent 2,200 reasons why.

43. Grant Morrison, Steve Yeowell, Jill Thompson, Phil Jimenez, Sean Phillips, Chris Weston, Philip Bond, et al., The Invisibles Omnibus. Once upon a time in the spring of 2020 I found myself with a lot of free time and Amazon gift cards given to me on two different occasions. It dawned on me that in my 42 years of collecting comics I’d never acquired one of those giant-sized, super-dense volumes that collects an entire series in toto regardless of its staggering length. Then I remembered Grant Morrison’s ambitious yet utterly unhinged DC/Vertigo epic The Invisibles, which began in 1994. I’d made it partway into the second arc before giving up as numerous concepts flew over my head and it felt like a marathon of fragments, non sequiturs, obscurities, and oblique references to the farthest reaches of renegade literature and British TV. I was 22, not having the best years of my life, and not in the mood. In hindsight, the sensation can be comparable to Michael Scott trying to watch The Wire.

This year I was in the mood for an omnibus, preferably reprinting something I didn’t already have sitting in my longboxes. I’m 26 years older now. I figured maybe I’d understand portions of it slightly better this time around, especially when read back-to-back as opposed to allowing thirty days or more to pass between chapters. I clutched my gift cards, I waited till Amazon’s next big sale, and I scored this paper monolith for $18 out-of-pocket after cards, tax included, free shipping because Amazon. It’s 1,482 pages of story across 59 issues and two anthology shorts, plus 52 pages of ancillary extras, ranging from artists’ concept sketches to Morrison’s pitch documents for each de facto “season”, shrewd about marketing factors yet unrestrained in both ambition and planned outrageousness. It’s the longest graphic novel I’ve ever read attached to a single spine, and very nearly my longest book ever. (It’s shorter than my Bible, but has far more colorful pictures. Laying out Morrison’s original script pages end-to-end might come closer in word count.)

Though it was broken into three series (originally collected in seven trades), none were self-contained. Morrison is among the medium’s few masters of extremely longform storytelling, among the select few writers given leeway by any major comics company to design and execute a story with a beginning, middle, and ending over the course of multiple years. Nowadays writers are lucky if they’re entrusted with more than five issues in a row. (That tiny club is basically just him and Jonathan Hickman sharing a posh lounge, swapping chemicals and holding conversations that take decades to get to the point.) Morrison’s Batman run was allowed to accomplish the same feat even in defiance of a company-wide reboot. His current, differently off-the-wall work on The Green Lantern with Liam Sharp may be aiming for the same long-term objective, Warner execs permitting. To an extent, that level of permissible continuity granted to a single writer is refreshing and may never happen again in my lifetime.

list of Invisibles artist credits

The complete list of artist credits, an all-star Who’s Who of DC/Vertigo artists from back in the day.

The core concept: as it happens, our Earth is actually the center of a Venn diagram between two other realities, and our continued existence is deemed a detriment by a conspiracy of conspiracies holding court in the intersectional cracks. They’re plotting one or more ends of the world under the aegis of monsters that may or may not be avatars of Cthulhu who are totally into cyberpunk. The only force that perceives them and can stop them is a twentieth-century consortium of specially equipped humans called the Invisibles, possessing an array of arbitrarily defined talents, quips, keen fashion designs, and individual tolerances for sexual hi-jinks.

if you haven’t personally experienced all six thousand of Morrison’s different sources and influences and personal hallucinations, sustained portions become utter gobbledygook. It’s lively gobbledygook, never boring. Its handling of some minorities may not have aged well and may induce cringing. Some disparate puzzle pieces do come together and reward the reader’s patience, as when a scene in Invisibles Vol. 1 #3 with two utter strangers doing a walk-on that makes zero sense at long last means something once you reach the thirty-fifth issue, which is Vol. 2 #10, and see the walk-on from their perspective. Some dots do connect even for the undereducated straight-edger.

I did roll my eyes at bits when villains more than once, each menacing and leering and preparing to commit acts of lewd bloodletting, were put down by the last-minute intrusion of one of Our Heroes announcing, “AHA! I DID A MAGICK THINGIE” and then said foe shrieked and shriveled and vanished in a puff of baffling artistry. Thankfully not every fight scene ended with a hand-wave and some snobby snark. Portions were beyond my content comfort zone and required faster skimming, but by and large the results bedazzled and awed and may have unlocked linguistic centers within my brain that have lain dormant due to understimulaton quite possibly since the last time I took the SAT. Whether or not that counts as a magic spell woven successfully by Morrison unto itself is yet another debate I leave to readers far more discerning than myself.

In the meantime, someday I’ll have to start going over the exhaustive fan annotations (once I figure out where they’ve gone and where to start) and catch up on the millions of nuances and British callbacks I missed. So in terms of hours spent, I’ll someday have more than gotten my money’s worth.

Invisibles art by Phil Jimenez.

Sample psychedelia on page 969 from Vol. 2 #13. Art by Phil Jimenez, John Stokes, and Danny Vozzo.

More to come!

[See also: Stack #1 | Stack #2: Becoming Superman | Stack #3 | Stack #4 | Stack #5 | Stack #6 | Stack #7 | Stack #8 | Stack #9: Antkind | Stack #10]

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