I’ve both mentioned it and mentioned how I’ve mentioned it before, but when 40 year old legendary cult musician/outside artist, Wesley Willis passed away 10 years ago from complications with Leukemia, it was the first, and possibly last, time that I ever actually felt anything from the death of a public figure. I had only met him once, but there was a pit in my stomach for the loss of someone that I felt like I had known well; someone who had been an important part of my life since high school. He was an amazing character and the fact that I was able to personally speak with him and “bump” his head before it was all too late is an experience that I will cherish until my own time eventually comes in 2046 as a casualty of the inevitable robot uprising. Here at Monster Fresh we love Wesley Willis. In fact, I have one of his giant original hand-drawn Chicago cityscapes hung over my infant son’s crib right now, influencing his delicate impressionable subconscious. Yeah, I love Wesley and, while his legacy has continued to grow, to some degree, since his untimely demise–not unlike that of comedian Mitch Hedberg–Willis is still anything but a mainstream figure. That’s why I was so surprised to discover that my high school self and my comic book-collecting junior high self had collided and got its chocolate in the other one’s metaphorical peanut butter. I’m only discovering this now, but back in December, DC Comics unleashed a brand new character that is inarguably based on the late great Willis into the latest Wonder Woman storyline.
For those that don’t know, Wesley Willis was a 6′ 5″ and 300-plus pound schizophrenic who pumped out hundreds upon hundreds of songs containing such regular subject matter as beastiality, going to rock shows, and battling the demons within his head. In other words, not the typical comic book superhero. But this post isn’t intended to be another bio on the performer/artist and, if you want to find out more about him, you can always just check out one of our previous posts like our review of the terrific Wesley Willis’s Joyrides documentary, our review of that documentary’s DVD release, or even the post where we simply embed the video of the whole goddamn documentary within it.
I haven’t followed it for almost 2 decades now, but a lot has changed in the world of comic books, right along with the rest of our society. One of the consistent focuses of publishers has always been trying to sustain relevance throughout shifting trends, but this has become especially vital in current times with our ever increasing reliance on newer and newer forms of technology. One move was to digitize comic books and offer the option to view them on the internet along with their physical releases. Another is to completely scrap everything and start from scratch. Back in September of 2011, DC Comics did just that, cancelling every single one of their existing monthly titles and then relaunching a number of them starting from the beginning with brand new #1 issues. Known as The New 52, a reference to the 52 new and/or relaunched titles being debuted to replace everything that they just pulled the plug on, it was a complete overhaul that was supposed to provide them with an opportunity to update some of the characters and story lines by infusing them with slightly more contemporary elements, in an attempt to make them more attractive for the the young hip kids of today, giving them something that they could really jive to. And who could argue that DC comics doesn’t have their finger on the pulse of what the youth of today is looking for? A decade after the death of an intimidatingly large, mentally ill black man who constructed at least 90% of his material from the same Technics KN series keyboard demo beat; concluded an even higher percentage of tracks by screaming out random corporate slogans at the end; wrote jams like “Suck A Rottweilers Dick,” “The Vultures Ate My Dead Ass Up,” “My Mother Smokes Crack Rocks,” and “I’m Sorry That I Got Fat;” and greeted everyone with a friendly, yet firm, headbutt from his massive noggin, the company has decided to use his image to target and appeal to Wonder Woman fans. Finger on the pulse indeed.
Fellow Chicagoan and writer of the relaunched series, Brian Azzarello first introduced the character of “Milan” in Wonder Woman #15, which hit shelves back on December 19th. Not only does artist Cliff Chiang‘s interpretation of Milan bear a striking resemblance to the late Alternative Tentacles recording artist, but many of his non-physical traits and actions also coincide with that of “The Daddy of Rock n Roll.” For one, Milan also uses a headbutt as a greeting, a pretty unique feature that is beyond coincidental, especially for a character that looks so much like Wesley. Another thing is his vocabulary; Milan uses the phrase “Rock On” more than once, even going as far as using “Say Rah…” in a manner that Willis has personally instructed me to do before. He would often tell people to “Say Rah!” (rock) and then “Say Roh!” (roll) in his trademark almost labored delivery, most notably when bumping their heads. There’s even a nod to Wesley‘s penchant for using corporate slogans at the ends of his tracks, when they have Milan say “Eat Fresh;” Willis has used the “Subway – Eat Fresh” tagline at the end of at least one of his more popular tracks, but I can’t remember exactly which one it was off the top of my head. Then there’s Milan‘s references to “joyrides” and “hellrides,” terms that Willis used to describe great times and the evil hellish moments when the voices of his schizophrenic demons are trying to take over his mind, respectively. During this issue they also strongly elude to the fact that Milan has limited control over what he sees and how to gain control over his own frenzied mind.
There are definitely some major differences that separate Willis from his illustrated counterpart, but one of the more minor ones is that he’s supposed to be located in New York City instead of Chicaco. This basically just means that he experiences his tripped out episodes while riding the subway as opposed to the CTA mass transit #4 Cottage Grove Bus. The most drastic difference, however, is probably that Milan is supposed to be the separated demi-god half-brother of Diana of Themyscira (aka Wonder Woman); according to the new storyline, they are both the spawn of Zeus. The reason that the Milan character is wearing a red bandana over his eyes and blinding himself like a kid who fucked up making a Raphael costume, is related to the all-seeing powers that he possesses. As is further revealed in issue #16, “The Many Eyes of Milan,” without covering his eyes, the character sees way too much for his own mind to regulate/handle–an interesting enough way to weave in those elements of Wesley‘s chronic schizophrenia and an angle that allows his unique differences to be presented as a strength.
But with all of the attempts to present the Milan and, in turn, his inspiration with a positive spin, I have questions about if the representation of Willis through this character is actually more damaging to his image and legacy than it is a positive. From the beginning, Milan is painted as a homeless man, surrounded by a cluster of flies and eating out of a garbage can. Although many people assumed that Willis was homeless, that wasn’t necessarily the case and that interpretation has actually been somewhat disproven. While he may not have always retained a permanent residence, he always had a place to crash and, quite often, would walk around with ridiculous sums of cash in his pockets. Casting him as a disgusting filth-ridden bum that lives in the sewer and eats trash is arguably a defamation of character and it’s also something that I was personally uncomfortable with seeing being presented. If Wesley was anything, he was productive. He was always traveling to the art store, creating his amazing line drawings, printing up materials at Kinkos, and recording new albums. If all that he ever did was lay around eating waste-bin hoagies and talking to flies, he would have never gotten shit accomplished or become the prolific artist that he was.
I get that Azzarello is trying to spin the cluster of flies into an essential aspect of his special power, much like he does with his schizophrenia, but I still feel that this particular move is somewhat misguided. When Milan‘s makeshift blindfold is removed, it reveals two hollow eye-sockets full of maggots and, as he goes into his chaotic state, absorbing all of that swirling visual stimulus while collecting information, it is the eyes of all of the trillions of flies from around the world that he is seeing through. How a simple piece of cloth prevents his hollow eye-sockets from remote viewing is beyond me, but that’s besides the point. At the end of issue #15, Milan has just blown a cluster of flies out of his mouth like a swarm of locusts. At the beginning of the following issue that cloud has engulfed the people around him, leaving him a much thinner sagging structure of himself, suggesting that a large percentage of his mass is actually comprised of these insects, not unlike when Oogie Boogie comes unstitched at the end of The Nightmare Before Christmas. I’m not sure if this is supposed to be a positive, explaining that the flies aren’t just swarming him because he smells like shit, but actually because he’s made out of them. Whatever the case, they turned this Milan character into a really grimy motherfucker. They should probably just print up the physical copies of these issues on old pissed stained newsprint and Thunderbird splattered paper bags.
So, I’m conflicted by this new Wesley Willis character. I know that Wesley would have been over the moon about being in a comic of this magnitude–he wrote multiple songs about characters from both the Marvel and the DC universes–but this is a far cry from when Muhammad Ali beat down Superman. There probably could have been a better tribute than a trash eating fly magnet. The actual Willis used to walk around with head phones all of the time, using music to sooth his angry demons, but being deaf doesn’t seem to translate as well into comics or have as rich a history as the whole blind or dangerous vision angle. It would be nice of them to actually incorporate some artistic or musical element into his character, at some point, especially since they have him saying “rock” all the fucking time. But, whatever they choose to do, I hope that someone is getting paid for the usage of his image, whether that means his surviving family members (questionable folk in their own right), Jello Biafra and his Alternative Tentacles label that believed in Willis so much and continues to promote his work and memory, or even a charity that helps provide services for the mentally ill.
Let’s not forget that DC is owned by Warner Bros, which itself is a subsidiary of the Time Warner corporation. This comic publisher has a nice history of fucking people over and steamrolling them for their creative rights. The heirs of Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster have been in a hard fought, although losing, battle with the company, who is gripping tightly to complete ownership of the Kryptonian cash cow copyrights. Perhaps even more controversial, is DC‘s decision to delve back into the Watchmen universe, hiring on new artists and writers to fuck around with Alan Moore’s classic storyline. All of this is being done, of course, without Moore‘s consent. The writer created Watchmen as a completely self-contained and finished storyline and the publishers have, more or less, admitted that their decision is entirely based on profit and that their allegiance, in no way, is tied to the integrity of the art. It’s a company and, whether or not they make their money from the creation of “fantasy” and mythical lore, companies are really just trying to make money. For that reason alone, I wouldn’t mind seeing these mother fuckers get sued for this shit, if they aren’t already compensating those connected to the Willis estate (is there one?). But whatever does happen, it wouldn’t be too difficult to appease me. At some point, I just want to see Milan get the opportunity to whup Batman‘s ass.
Full scanned issues of both Wonderwoman comics can be found through the following links: