META/REVIEW: Immediate Pleasure (a review of Superfreaks # 19-21)

Tom Russell milos_parker at
Tue Jan 9 23:11:50 PST 2007

Some Thoughts on Superfreaks # 19-21

Spoilers below.


I love Archie comics.

They provide immediate surface pleasure and there's absolutely nothing
wrong with that.  The stories are well-paced, the jokes are well-timed,
and, for the most part, the craftsmanship is impeccable.  But here's
the thing: with rare exceptions, there's not much more to them than

And, really, there doesn't need to be.  Archie Comics are a joy to read
precisely because there isn't much more to them.  They're completely
unpretentious and completely fun to read.

Re-reading, on the other hand...

Well, there-in lies the problem.  Once you've heard a joke, it probably
isn't funny anymore (here I'm segregating jokes from shaggy dog
stories).  Once you've read an Archie story, it no longer holds any
surprises for you.

And, now bereft of its surprises, it is also bereft of its pleasure.

And, again, this is in no way to denigrate the fine stories Archie
publishes.  They fill a niche and they fill it well.  There's
absolutely nothing wrong with providing a moment's distraction, with
immediate earnest pleasure.

(And, actually, it's a very canny way to do business: the only way to
get pleasure from Archie stories after you've read them is to buy more
Archie stories you haven't read yet.)

And this brings us to Martin.

In some of my earlier reviews/essays (particularly "The Phippsian
Reader"), I have praised and defended Martin's work as funny par
excellence.  In his LNH stories particularly, he provides immediate
earnest surface pleasure, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with
that because he does it so very, very well.  He is, and I gotta stress
this, one of the funniest guys writing for the LNH.

And sometimes, he provides deeper pleasure, often with a metatextual
bent (his specialty).  These deeper pleasures (pleasures of theme and
characterization and melancholy and memory) hold up on a second
reading, even if the jokes surrounding it don't.  And sometimes one has
to wonder, is this for the best?

Martin's great gift as a giver of immediate pleasure, and his greatest
flaw as a writer of deeper pleasure, is, of course, one and the same
thing: his need for immediate pleasure.  He needs to have it and needs
to provide it.

He doesn't spend pages describing furniture; he doesn't waste time
trying to set a scene or recap what has gone before; his characters
don't engage in chit-chat that isn't relevant to his story.

Because all of those things do not give immediate pleasure.  They don't
pay off right now, this very moment.

They slow down the story, they might bore the reader, and, in the hands
of a bad writer, it's just padding anyway.  A sentence about the smell
of cigar smoke is a sentence that interrupts the pleasure given by its
ancestor and its descendent.  It's a hurdle; it's unwelcome.  The same
goes for a scene that doesn't have a "point", an immediate reason for

Now, these very things are also the reason why I, as a writer, fail to
give immediate pleasure.  The pleasure my stories give me (and, I
assume, those others who enjoy them) is culminative.  It's thematic,
it's textural, it's not something you can immediately put your finger

And I'm not saying that either way is better, or deeper, or truer.  The
writer who provides immediate pleasure has one huge advantage over
highfaluting "culminative pleasure writers" like myself, in that his
stories are more likely to be read and understood and enjoyed by more

Writing for culminative pleasure requires a commitment from the reader,
and if the reader is only going to give that writer a few paragraphs,
he might just decide not to read the story at all.  A more immediate
writer like Martin doesn't want his readers to have to commit to a
story they might not enjoy.  He wants them to enjoy it, and does
everything in his power to make sure that they do.



Because I think with Martin, it's more than a concern for his reader.
I think, moreso than many writers, amateur or otherwise, Martin really,
really, really loves the act of writing itself.  He enjoys it so
obviously and immensely and earnestly and, yes, immediately.  He loves
writing a story, and he loves posting it for our perusal.

All of us RACCers presumably do this because we enjoy it, but I don't
think Martin would be able to write a single word if he didn't enjoy
every single world he was writing.  I don't think he's capable of
writing a story he doesn't want to write, and I think that's one of his
greatest strengths.  His enthusiasm shines through, bright and clear
and lovely.  You can hear him rubbing his hands gleefully when he
devises interesting ways to kill people in Superfreaks (and interesting
ways to solve the crimes).  I can picture him at his computer, and in
my mind's image, he doesn't stoically and sleepily type away as I am
now, but rather bobs and weaves as he excitedly hammers at the keys.

And that's infectious.  You can feel the author there with you, and his
stories often have the delightful simplicity and casualness of oral
storytelling.  If LNH stories ever get recorded on audio (an excellent
idea to help persons like myself, who are slowly, slowly, slowly going
blind), I would definitely ask Martin to record my stories, even though
I've never heard his voice.  I think he'd be fun to listen to.

It's a great thing, this enthusiasm, this desire for immediate
pleasure.  But it also poses a problem in that Martin probably doesn't
spend a whole lot of time editing his stories.

And, as the great 8FOLD/SUPERFREAKS debacle made public, when he's done
writing a story, he wants to post it and so he does.  And, I think,
once he's posted it, the story is done.  It's dead to him.

I'm not saying he doesn't make corrections and changes in the TEB
editions.  He does.  But since the posting of the last issue of an arc
and the posting of the TEB are often separated only by a couple days or
hours, there isn't really much time spent rethinking, rewriting,
re-editing, and retooling.

Is this a bad thing?  No.  Am I saying Martin should wait a few days
before he posts his stories, and takes some time to edit them?  Well,
it might help a bit, but, no, I'm not saying that.

Because like I said above, Martin's greatest strength and greatest
weakness are one and the same.  A Martin Phipps who obsessed over
plotting and character and rewrote and rewrote and rewrote simply
wouldn't be Martin Phipps.  The story would not have the same
enthusiasm, and would not provide that same immediate pleasure it gives
to both the reader and the writer.

I wish I could write like Martin.  I wish I could have an idea, write
it, and post it, in exactly that order, with little interruption.  But
I wouldn't be satisfied with such a story, and I wouldn't enjoy it the
second or third time around.

But, y'know, it's like Archie.  When I'm done reading a Martin Phipps
story (and, presumably, when he's done writing one), it's been
exhausted.  The only way to satisfy our desire for pleasure is for
Martin to write another one.

And if he spent more time plotting, rewriting, editing, et cetera,
well, then there wouldn't be a new Martin Phipps story in time to give
us that pleasure.  Like I said: the things that make him great are the
same exact things that form his hamartia, his tragic flaw.

Which, if you look at classical tragedy, is how it should be.  Oedipus
is great because he is so god-damn smart; Oedipus falls because he
tries to outsmart the gods.

Not that I'm saying Martin is a tragic hero. :-)


Another drawback to Martin's desire for immediate pleasure is that he's
so caught up with the enthusiasm for an idea that he either, (a)
doesn't stop to think whether or not the idea is good, and, (b) he
doesn't stop to think whether or not his execution of the idea is, um,

Let's look at Superfreaks # 19-20.

You forgot this was a review of Superfreaks, didn't you?  See, if I was
providing immediate pleasure, I would have _started_ here.  But I'm
looking for a culminative effect. :-)

These two issues of Superfreaks roughly take the form of parodies of
the "I Know What You Did Last Summer" and "Final Destination" slasher
film franchises.

Now, I don't particularly think that parodying "I Know What You Did
Last Summer" in Superfreaks, with the added twist of a telepath, is a
particularly good idea.  Especially in the way that Martin does it.

First of all, the parody is extremely obvious, only in this case it's
called "I Know What You Did Last Winter".  The names of the characters
are extremely obvious pastiches of current teen/twenty-something pop

And, here's the thing, the really odd thing that makes Superfreaks so
interesting and wonderful and yet maddening: it's not _really_ a
parody.  A parody, in and of itself, is funny.  It has jokes, it points
out flaws in the original-- it makes fun of-- or, um, y'know,
PARODIES-- the original: hence, a parody.

Does anyone remember DRACULA: DEAD AND LOVING IT?  It was a Mel Brooks
film that was very faithful to the original Bram Stoker novel.  Very,
very faithful.  So faithful, perhaps, that it is one of the most
faithful retellings of the original story.

There are jokes, sure.  But it's not really as much of a parody as it
is a retelling.

Now, Martin doesn't _exactly_ retell the story of IKWYDLS in
Superfreaks.  In the original, if I recall correctly, a group of stupid
insipid selfish kids kill a man and throw the body off a cliff.  The
man isn't really dead and sets about cleansing them from the gene pool.

In Martin's version, it's one of the stupid insipid selfish kids who is
the killer.  It turns out that she is the daughter of the man they
killed.  The thing about this twist is that I didn't believe it.  It
felt like Martin was putting it there merely to say, hey, I wasn't
following the plot exactly!  It's a pastiche, it's synthesis.

But the motivation is so out of left-field that it's not really
satisfying to this reader.  A more interesting motivation might be that
she really wasn't that insipid-- maybe she's motivated by the guilt of
what they had done, maybe she couldn't take it and externalized it to
the others to absolve herself of guilt, and now she has to kill them
all because it's all their fault anyway, they made her do it...

And maybe Martin would have thought of that, or maybe that's more a
Tom Russell type of twist, I dunno.  But I think that he was so
enjoying writing the story that the first twist that popped into his
head, he decided to use, without weighing his options or wondering if
that was the best way to do it.

I'm not saying he doesn't think his stories through; I'm just saying he
doesn't take the time to rethink.

In the same story, he uses the supernormal in the person of a
detective's telepathic daughter.  And he has a couple of good scenes
with that character, and uses her well enough as a plot function.

But he hints at some truly delicious aspects of
mind-reading-as-an-act-of-unintentional-violation without really
exploring or exploiting them.  The climactic scene, even with the
you-killed-my-father-so-I-had-to-kill-you ending, could have really
worked, could have really paid off, if the violation-of-privacy and
civil rights thing had been better executed.

And, I know, Katherine didn't really read Britney Hilton's mind-- which
made the whole scene kind of lame in retrospect.  It felt like another
twist that Martin maybe shoulda rethought a bit.

I enjoyed # 20 a lot more.  It takes a supernatural premise-- death
itself, through Rube Goldberg machine style deaths, kills off those who
are living on borrowed time-- and it makes it a Dr. Strange story.
And, you know what?

That was a really good twist, and it was executed well.  Now, there
were other things in the story that weren't executed well.  Like,
y'know, the actual death scenes.

Like the original Omen, the thrill of those terrible Final Destination
movies is watching how fate conspires to kill our insipid heroes.  One
little thing affects another until the desired result is met.  That is,
really, the whole point of the movie.

And since Martin is so good at coming up with unusual deaths (like the
force of super-sperm ejaculation ripping a girl apart from the inside),
I was hoping he'd give us some of the same.

But all we get is a quick recap.  Because for Martin, the point of the
story isn't the deaths or the details.  The point of the story is Dr.

And it's a nice point, but once you've read it, what keeps you coming
back for a second time?

You see, since the super-sperm death was the point of part of the
original Superfreaks arc, it existed.  But since these deaths, these
details, weren't the point of this one, we don't get those details.
They're not the things that are exciting Martin, they're not the
reasons he wants to write the story.

And so I think in those cases, those deaths fail to give immediate
pleasure.  Or any pleasure at all, for that matter.

Martin doesn't waste time with things he doesn't enjoy.  Like I've said
a gazillion times in this piece: his greatest strength and pitfall all
at once.

For example, I don't think Martin enjoys coming up with names.  Which
is why we get characters like Britney Hilton and Justin Federline and
Christian Lohan.  This is also why Extreme's real name is My-Kel and
the Dr. Strange analogue is named Professor Stomper.

For those of you not in the know, those last two are the names of LNH
characters.  Which brings us to Superfreaks # 21.

Here, again, we have an unusual idea-- a man is murdered, but can come
back to life.  Can you charge someone with that murder when there's no
corpse?  It's an interesting idea, and Martin doesn't do a bad job
executing it...

... but he doesn't do a great job, either.  I think for Martin it's
enough just to have the idea in and of itself.  And I certainly give
him credit for that and marvel at his ingenuity.  Ingenuity born of
enthusiasm and untempered and unrefined.

In this story, many of the suspects have the names of LNH characters,
or names very similar.  The one I noticed right away was Bryce Banner.

And, frankly, that's because I created Bryce Banner.  I don't remember
giving Martin permission to use him, but that's because I don't
remember Martin asking to use him.  And the character isn't exactly in
the public domain.

Now, I would have certainly given permission to Martin had he asked,

Oh, wait, what's that, you say?  It's not the same Bryce Banner?  Just
another character with the same name?  Kind of like the Omega
characters in Flame Wars IV who weren't really Omega characters?

I'm sorry, Martin, but that doesn't quite cut it. :-)

Now, I'm not mad about it, not even miffed.  HE didn't kill him off and
 write him out of character. :-)

It's just another thing that I notice about Superfreaks: it is very
much a work of synthesis, like the films of Quentin Tarantino.  And, as
a wiser man than me once said, synthesis is a perfectly valid form of

But here's the thing.  Synthesis is taking disparate elements and
giving them new form and life, smoothing out the edges, bringing them
together in a coherent, satisfying whole.  It's taking the work of
others and perfecting it, putting your own spin on it.

It is, in actuality, a form of editing.  Of rewriting.  Of rethinking.

All things that are antithetical to the immediate pleasures of writing
and making it up purely as you go along.

Which is probably why I am ambivalent about the series.  Sometimes, I'm
madly in love with it and the audacity of his ideas; sometimes, I wish
the execution was better because those ideas are so good; sometimes,
I'm not so fond of the ideas.

I thought his work with clones was very interesting, psychologically.
He had such a good idea and he developed in so many different, exciting
ways that I can't really complain.  But then there's stories were
there's just one or two ideas in them, ideas he's groping towards
because he hasn't really thought it out beforehand.  And then there's
stories were the character names are painful to look at, so painful
that I can't take them seriously-- even though I can't laugh, because
the jokes are few and far between.

You know what I'd really like to do, and I'm serious, here-- I'd like
everyone to contribute nine or ten regular civilian character names for
Martin.  No Tuckerizations or famous names, nothing that will stick
out.  Just everyday names that he can use for victims, killers,
suspects, and witnesses.  Because if I have to look at another Britney
Hilton or Bryce Banner...


And since I'd like to end this review on a high note, with some
encouragement, let me just say that I'm really digging the character
work that Martin is doing with Edward.

Edward typifies certain male character traits so well and so accurately
that it's uncanny.  Notice I say male character traits and not
masculine.  He's not exactly masculine or a man.  He's more of a boy.

He has a boy's enthusiasm for sex but lacks a man's understanding of
it.  He gets extremely agitated at the mere mention of sex by some kids
in a classroom, which indicates that he's got his share of hang-ups
about it.

He often answers things with a joke, and avoids them.  He doesn't seem
to be as deep a thinker as Mary is.

He wants to have the pleasures of a man (sex, a "wife") without the
responsibilities it may entail (children).  Sexually, he is aggressive
when there are breasts in his sight line, but he prefers to be told
what to do-- like a little boy, a child.  The breast fixation (okay, so
it was in just one scene, but I still say it was there) might not mean
anything more to him than it does in any other man-- but, at the same
time, it could be Martin's subtle hint that Edward is looking for a
mother as much as he's looking for a wife.

And here's the thing: Martin is _comparatively_ subtle when it comes to
characterizing Edward.  All the information he lets us in on might not
click on the first reading.  It's only after a few issues that it gels.

It is, then, a culminative pleasure.  I'm not sure if it was planned.
It doesn't feel planned.  But it doesn't feel willy-nilly, either.

It feels organic.  Edward feels organic, he feels real, he feels like
flesh.  It's damn good characterization and it all comes together:

And Martin is fully capable of that, and of clever plotting, and great
ideas.  And I think that's why I chide him so much, because I'd like to
see more of it.

The immediate pleasure has its place, and I like to read his breezy,
funny LNH material.

But I'm not sure if the immediate pleasure is such a great fit for this
particular series.  He's trying to do so much more with Superfreaks
that when he succeeds, it seems to be more in spite of his need to
give/experience immediate pleasure than because of it.

I'd really like to see him improve his execution to match his ambition.


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