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This past week I was sick in bed — “wearing two sets of clothes under three quilts in a heated room and still chattering my teeth from how cold I was” kind of sick — and decided to do something productive with the time off from work that my grotesque illness had gifted me. Failing that, I settled for trying to read Erik Larsen’s Savage Dragon from the beginning, in as close to one sitting as I possibly could, give or take a couple spells where I passed out mid-story.

In around two days, I made it through a hundred issues — the halfway mark, or right around there, since Larsen just published Savage Dragon #201. It was around #100 that I had to tap out and abandon my scheme.

I used to read Savage Dragon for a while, back in college, when I took the money from my part time job and pretty much blew it all on comic books. I had the time and the desire, so I was adventurous to a fault — some of the stuff I bought, there’s no excuse for, it was just awful. I started Savage Dragon more or less on a whim, at #124, which was around when Erik Larsen started not just writing, penciling, and inking the comic, but also coloring and lettering it. #124 was also broken into a lot of little gag strips and grid-play, and to a kid in college who’d never read a copy of The Comics Journal, that kind of formalist experimentation inside a bizarro superhero book was exciting.

I ended up jumping off the Savage Dragon train, but I don’t even remember when. I think I just got tired of waiting three to six months between issues. Or maybe it was when I moved away and just never bothered to start up again after I relocated.

My point is, I was no Savage Dragon virgin when I started this little sickbed project. I’d become acquainted with its raison d’etre, which was in no uncertain terms: whatever Erik Larsen wanted to do that month. In the second issue I ever read of Savage Dragon, Larsen spent 20 pages doing a gag strip on the death of a villain who’d transformed into a fly — the same drawing of Dragon lying in a hospital bed, asleep, repeated for pages and pages as all that changed was a little dot and the word balloons. On top of that, there was also a Sin City parody and it ended with a weird little supervillain guy who was friends with Dragon’s stepdaughter unambiguously taking over the world.

That’s the best thing Savage Dragon has going for it, and the same quality I used to really enjoy in the early years of Robert Kirkman & Co.’s Invincible: the way that, unbeholden to the needs of brand synergy, the entire world of the comic can change unexpectedly, on a dime.

In the early years of Savage Dragon, Larsen mostly used this to try and subvert expectations of then-contemporary early-1990s superhero soap opera. In #7, Dragon gets butchered by the crime boss Overlord, and thrown off a skyscraper, landing on the spike of a smaller skyscraper. This is before we as readers know the extent of his healing powers, so for all intents and purposes, seven issues in, Larsen just casually murdered his own hero. Around a year later, Dragon is possessed by a villain, and his rampage is borderline apocalyptic. The inspiration is clearly rooted in one of Marvel’s favorite Hulk stories, where all the other heroes have to join forces to stand in the Green Goliath’s way, but in Savage Dragon, not only is it not enough, it virtually destroys a whole city and kills god knows how many people in the process.

Sometimes the effort to subvert superhero norms was just silly: #17 shipped with two versions of the contents, one of which had a softcore shower sex scene, for people who really wanted to see a green, fin-headed muscleman implicitly fingering his girlfriend. It also felt like a pregnancy storyline happened every year — no doubt justified as an attempt to bring “realism” into the micro-universe of Savage Dragon, by having one generation get old and spawn another (Dragon’s son and stepdaughter are the main characters of the title now, in 2015), but after a while it started to feel like Larsen was trying to finish off a preggo bingo card. (There’s also a character named “Rita Medermade,” which is unforgivable.)

Larsen’s fucking-around with the rules and conventions of 1990s superhero comics had charisma, though. There was a definite charm to his absurdly high-testosterone little world, where no man ever has hips more than half the width of their shoulders, and no woman is missing silicone implants. Larsen created or co-created a lot of the characters when he was a kid, and the book felt like that, in a good way — this was a child’s universe left unattended, to grow outward and upward like vines climbing up a wall.

Around #75, Larsen had the world blow up, and sent Dragon to a shameless rip of Jack Kirby’s Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth landscape. He eventually resolved it, but I don’t really remember how. It’s tempting to say that this was because the cold medicine and the illness itself were clogging my brain with snot, but really, once Savage Dragon drifted away from exploding the expected rules of superhero comics and into nostalgic homage territory, my interest seriously began to flag. Don’t get me wrong, I love Kamandi — so why would I want to read bootleg Kamandi, starring the Savage Dragon? I kept at it for another twenty-five issues, as the Kamandi stuff resolved and Dragon settled into a new status quo with his blonde bombshell super-wife, but Larsen became so restless and antic in developing the series as something more than just a super-hero book that it became exhausting to try and keep up with him — or maybe the comics themselves just seemed exhausted. Characters appeared and I had no idea who they were supposed to be or what they were supposed to be doing, and then they’d go away again, like toys being thrown aside. An issue was given over to Dragon and his new wife’s honeymoon, done as twenty-odd pages of three-panel gag strips. Another issue had Dragon dealing with a comic book company to lob unveiled jabs at other companies’ then-current marketing, and that’s around when I decided I couldn’t go on.

I love that Erik Larsen does whatever he wants, however he wants to do it, but cramming over ten years of it into two days was an overdose, even if it did show me the curve of his interests disappearing into and back out of his own navel.

crsCONAN / RED SONJA #1

“Part 1 of 4: The Age of Innocence” Written by Gail Simone and Jim Zub; illustrated by Dan Panosian; colored by Dave Stewart; published by Dark Horse Comics.

I love old Conan and Red Sonja comics, but if you ever asked me to recite to you a storyline from any of them, I’d probably just stand there struggling well past the point of embarrassment. Half the time, when I look at those old stories, I don’t even read the words: I just take in the art, great old John Buscema or Frank Thorne bits where every line felt like a proper piece of the same strange world being created inside the panel borders.

That’s the same kind of vibe I get from Conan / Red Sonja, where the story in the first issue is something about the young Conan meeting the young Sonja for the first time, and they fight but part as whatever. My eyes kept drifting away from the captions, and that’s not because Simone and Zub did a bad job, but just because who in the modern world can distract the eye from Dan Panosian artwork? This doesn’t even look like his A-game — backgrounds conspicuously disappear from a good number of the book’s later pages — but even then, it’s so far beyond what you’d expect from a 2015 swords-and-loincloths comic that I can’t get past just gawking at it. Panosian’s artwork in the current century has an off-kilter charm, like a handsome but lazy smile, that combines seemingly off-the-cuff expressiveness with the consistency of rigorous draftsmanship. I still need to get his French faux-James-Bond stuff — at this point I’m about ready to go to Amazon.fr. After all, I guess it won’t really matter if I don’t know what the words mean…

-LTZ

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I bought a gigantic collection of New Warriors comics around the end of 2014. It wasn’t just New Warriors #1-75, it was all of the solo spin-off series, the mini-series, the key appearances… whoever put this together was clearly a completist, and I got the fruit of their labor for a song.

I’m reading through them in more or less chronological order, with the assistance of some fan site’s continuity-tracking annotations. I’m now deep in 1993, when New Warriors split off two solo books: Nova and Night Thrasher. All of these were written by Fabian Nicieza, late of New 52 DC stuff, and he was all geared up to tackle topical issues: there’s a two-part New Warriors story where they more or less invade a fictional version of Kuwait to try to end a civil war (and then go on a fictional version of MTV afterwards to talk about it), and the second issue of Nova is indirectly about the U.S. Navy Tailhook rape scandal.

In one sitting, I think I encountered five stories in a row where a group of people were about to riot or fight each other over some grounds or another — racial, religious, that merry Marvel mainstay anti-mutant, whatever. In each of those stories, the hero stands in the center of the crowd or flies above them, screaming at them that fighting is not the answer to whatever their problems are. These scenes all come from the same writer, so by and large they all have the same sanctimonious voice, and they generally come after a display of flashy violence from the heroes, who deliver their sermons with exasperated, vein-throbbing rage.

My favorite example of this is Night Thrasher #6, a story whose full title is “WHITE FACE / BLACK FACE / RED FACE: FACE VALUE: STOP THE HATE.”

I don’t really know how to describe this comic book other than saying “it’s like if Benjamin Marra traveled back in time but left his sense of irony and artistic appropriation in the present day.” The plot of the comic is fairly simple: in New York City, racial attacks (strictly involving whites and blacks) are locked in a cycle of retaliation. Night Thrasher, a black man born wealthy and accustomed to penthouse living, and his teammate Rage, a lower-class teenager in the body of a roided-out adult, watch the events unfold on TV and eventually go out to try to quell a riot in Alphabet City.

One of the rioters shoots a cop, and then it all goes haywire. There’s some fighting. Finally, Night Thrasher and Rage grab a black rioter and a white rioter, separate them from the group, and tell them to fight mano a mano. The two individuals they grabbed are confused and irritated by this, and decline to fight, because they don’t know each other and have nothing to fight about. Night Thrasher says something like “YEAH, EXACTLY.”

Dispirited by this, all of the rioters go home.

The story ends with a group of black youths attacking a Hasidic Jew, and with Night Thrasher and Rage lunge back out into the night, like the end of Batman Forever or something.

“WHITE FACE / BLACK FACE / RED FACE: FACE VALUE: STOP THE HATE” is a genuinely baffling story in a lot of ways. You can kind of intuit the meaning, but it seems determined on “telling it like it is” and “not giving things an easy answer,” which is a bum note to go out on after it went to such preposterous lengths to show the readers the futility of a race riot. It’s also drawn horribly by Karl Bollers, who was literally still in college when this got published. That doesn’t help.

All the same, it was a very different reading experience for me compared to the current crop of superhero comics, because while it didn’t really say anything of use, it was determined to engage with an issue of the day, and not even in an allegorical way. I can’t think of the last big-two superhero comic I read that tried to do that, badly or otherwise. I think I honestly prefer the old way, because even if Night Thrasher #6 was a clumsy fuckup of a comic, it might accidentally say something to me about my life outside the comic book store.


4314441-terminalhero05-cov-lee-77328TERMINAL HERO #5

Written by Peter Milligan; illustrated by Piotr Kowalski; colored by Kelly Fitzpatrick; published by Dynamite Entertainment.

“Rory! I’ve been jerking off over porn for the last ten hours. You’ll probably need to call the maid to clean up.” So spoken by a tumor-man standing in for all of the bad impulses of a human being, cock in hand as the TV shows footage of gory death. And you say this Terminal Hero is only six issues?

This is Peter Milligan’s most fucked-up work since The Eaters, and I mean that as nothing but a compliment. Our hero has been given a staggering power over just about everything, and now has to grapple with all of his impure instincts — becoming stronger than God has revealed what a weak man he truly is. By #5, he’s faked his own death to avoid conscription by British Intelligence, which didn’t work. They’ve sent him after two young people with powers like his, to terminate them with extreme prejudice (loose cannons, you see). Like Grant Morrison and Cameron Stewarts’s Seaguy, when you break down the plot of Terminal Hero, it all seems staggeringly normal when you spell it out plainly. The meat of it comes in the horrific stuff this basic plot has been dressed up in. Incest, drugs, prostitution, pedophilia, self-harm, identity theft, terrorism, thong underwear, morbid obesity… this one’s got it all, true believers!

Piotr Kowalski is like this generation’s Steve Dillon: he roots everything in believable character acting, and his people aren’t especially pretty or handsome usually — in fact, Kowalski’s worlds are sometimes downright plain. That works in his favor on a series like Terminal Hero, though, where there’s a sense of something very vile and wrong invading the real world. Simon Bisley drawing this book would turn it into silly overkill, but with Kowalski, a tumor-man pounding off to Faces of Death doesn’t look like part of the work, it looks like something else that entered the page when we weren’t looking, an idea that isn’t supposed to be there.

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X-MEN #23

“The Burning World, Part One” Written by G. Willow Wilson; penciled by Roland Boschi; inked by Jay Leisten; colored by Lee Loughridge; published by Marvel Comics.

This is a competently created X-Men comic steered by people who appear to have genuine affection for the characters, the setting, the personalities, and so on. The Earth itself seems to be rebelling against the X-Men, and against weather-manipulator Storm in particular. That’s all well and good, and it’s a first chapter, so it’s all set-up, stacking the dominos so that they can be gently tapped later.

No, what warrants this issue’s inclusion in Advice to Young Girls is the early scene of Gambit, at Burning Man or whatever, trying to mack on bikini babes by offering them a “chakra massage.” That’s what he does when he’s not doing X-Men stuff, now, I guess! I approve of this character development and I look forward to many, many more “Gambit trying to hit on girls in bikinis at summer festivals” antics in the decades to come.

-LTZ

powri

It’s 2015 now and my New Year’s Resolution is to not buy any comics that I already know are going to suck. It’s a terrible thing, my job: all these comics are virtually wholesale price so I don’t think anything of buying some piece of garbage because, hey, it’s so much cheaper than if I was buying it somewhere else! So that’s how I end up with, say, a complete set of Furious, a comic so thoroughly lame and blah that I could not even pawn off on eBay for 99 cents (for the set).

The comics actually reviewed this week are both components in that decision, although only one of them provoked actual “Ooh, is this going to be worth the money, I bet not” dread in me. The other was just a gamble. The fact is, I’ve been buying too many comics that I think will be junk. Sometimes it turns out okay: I read the last seven issues of Justice League last night, and while it’s not a High Art Novel or anything remotely close, it had some good art from Ivan Reis and Doug Mahnke and a couple okay one-liners. (I liked Niles Caulder as an abusive asshole right from the start, declaring himself the Doom Patrol’s “Life Counselor,” and the mirror dynamic of Power Ring, where the ring has its own will and feeds off of making the wearer afraid, is a fun idea even if I don’t think it has a ton of mileage.)

On the other hand, I also picked up the first three issues of Tony Daniel’s Deathstroke. I have a weird thing with Tony Daniel. As a kid, I loved his art on X-Force (X-Force was one of the maybe… three comics I had reliable newsstand access to). And he’s a really nice guy in person, for whatever that’s worth. I always find myself trying the first issue or two of his projects, even if I don’t think I’m going to get much out of it. And this Deathstroke thing, man…

I was talking to someone else about it, who insisted that the comic was “mostly good, with some rough spots.” I replied something like: “Yeah. This might have been a good comic if I had any goddamn idea what was going on or who any of the characters were or why any of them were in this. So it just has those minor hurdles of clarity to overcome.” That’s my official Advice to Young Girls review of Deathstroke, right there. More importantly: I spent money on those comics! Why?

In Brian Nicholson’s Comics Journal review of Copra, he describes a certain kind of comics reader “whose ideal comics reading experience is paying fifty cents apiece for old Norm Breyfogle comics, and who feel as if the stories and scripting mostly just get in the way.” I fear I’m becoming one of those people. Some of the most exciting comics purchases for me lately have been slapping together a complete run of John Ostrander’s Firestorm for peanuts, or Mike W. Barr’s Mantra, or Ann Nocenti’s Typhoid stuff from Marvel Comics Presents that I haven’t read in, gosh, at least two years.

Here’s the thing with those Mantra comics: I bet most of them suck! Maybe even all of them. I also bought a complete run of Doug Moench’s Spectre series because I thought, for some insane reason, that I was buying a complete run of Ostrander’s. I’m almost certain that these Spectre comics will be total trash, and probably not even in a fun way. (Tom Artis drawing the Spectre, who the fuck engineered that match-up?) When they only cost something like a dime apiece, though, it’s a lot easier to just read them and then recycle them, either via eBay or via bin. I’m excited about disposable comics, ones where there’s no set of expectations rooted in the auteur theory, ones where I don’t have to think at all about whether I’m actually getting my money’s worth in terms of the overall package being published, ones where I don’t feel like I have to read them to keep up with what the smart and pretend-smart people are into (I still haven’t read that Gold Pollen and Other Stories book, despite it being I think literally two feet from my left hand right now).

2015: Let’s Get Excited About Things We Can Throw In The Trash.

anmmaALL NEW MIRACLEMAN ANNUAL #1

“The Priest & the Dragon: The October Incident: 1966″ Written by Grant Morrison; illustrated by Joe Quesada; colored by Richard Isanove; published by Marvel Comics.

When was this written, 1984? Something like that, right? The big deal about the Miracleman Annual is that it’s got a short story scripted by Grant Morrison, slated for Warrior but never actually published, and apparently a figure in the Alan Moore/Grant Morrison beef that’s just too tiresome for me to even store in my memory. So here, thirty years later, it’s published!

It’s painfully undergraduate work, this. There is no point to this story. There’s no question asked or answered beyond a young fan saying “Oooh, wouldn’t it be wicked if…?” In a world where the Original Sin crossover revealed that at some point, off-camera, every single Marvel superhero has committed a rape, a priest being nuked by lightning is so non-scandalous that it’s laughable. In 1984, it probably would have triggered boycotts. There’s nothing in-depth to say about this, because there’s nothing there.

Plus, the story is drawn by Joe Quesada, so everyone looks like the ugly puppets from that one fucking Genesis video.

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S.H.I.E.L.D. #1

“Perfect Bullets” Written by Mark Waid; penciled by Carlos Pacheco; inked by Mariano Taibo and Jason Paz; colored by Dono Almara; published by Marvel Comics.

This is an attempt to fold the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show cast into the Marvel Universe proper, by having Mark Waid team them with different heroes (and different artists) every issue. In the first, Carlos Pacheco draws a story that’s not so much a “team-up” (virtually every major Marvel appears in at least a background cameo) but more in the way of laying out to us non-TV-show people exactly why Phil Coulson is a character worth caring about. Waid’s usually pretty good at that, but here… I don’t know. And I’m shifting into the “I” here, rather than some sort of absolute declaration, because I think where this book misses for me is a personal thing.

First, though: let’s ask what the hell happened to Carlos Pacheco. Ten years ago, this guy was amazing. That JLA/JSA: Virtue and Vice graphic novel he did? That was amazing stuff. He just seems to be falling further and further away from the mark. His characters all have these impossible, Alan-Davis-y bodies now (and Alan Davis does it well, but Pacheco not so much, at least not lately), and their faces all make them look like they have mental birth defects. I don’t get it. This guy is good, or at least can be good, so what happened? On things like Ultimate Comics Avengers, I thought it was just his inker, but I don’t know anymore, I really don’t.

Anyway, the story is about Coulson being able to save the day because he’s spent his entire life memorizing the most ridiculously small superhero trivia. The story shows him throughout his life, making his own catalogue of strange little superhero facts and connections, and then in the present-day of the story he has this fucking ridiculous line about how he’s badass because he’s the guy ‘who knows exactly how to mix and match people’s powers’ or something and that was the point where I stopped reading too closely because what the fuck is that? In the real world, Phil Coulson would be making gifs on his dum-dum Tumblr and reposting other people’s essays whose thesis statements read like “it’s not wasting your life watching TV if you’re ANALYZING it, MOM.” It sort of makes me sad because I probably would have thought Coulson in this comic was a badass, a nerd badass, when I was 11 but now I’m almost 30 and I just read it and wonder why we need another navel-gazing “you know how cool the Marvel Universe is? So cool that a cool guy like Phil Cool-son is totally enamored with it, and it makes him a SHIELD super-guy, and that’s pretty cool” character who’s fanboying or fangirling over stuff. I think we reached critical mass on that with the back half of Geoff Johns’s JSA run where the young characters were getting into slap-fights over who got to kiss Jay Garrick right on his geriatric mouth.

Is there anything worse than comics about other comics? Yes, and stuff like this is probably it, where the closest thing to a moral (since the ending was just a bunch of superheroes ganging up on a bad guy) is that you should read more superhero comics.

-LTZ

richast93

“La Tristesse Durera (Scream to a Sigh)” takes the first part of its title from Vincent Van Gogh’s suicide note, which is a bit of a warning sign right from the start. The thing is, this is the opposite of a suicide song. It’s about misery, that’s for sure, but it’s about a misery that continues and endures, as does the person bearing it on their shoulders. This is a straightfoward portrait of a war veteran dealing with the indignities of old age and of being forgotten — after all he sacrificed to defend his country, he pawns his medal to pay a bill, and not even one important enough to be specified.

This might be the most compassionate the Richey-era Manics ever got. There’s actual empathy and solidarity with this forgotten old relic of a man, instead of faceless cries for unseen masses to connect over something or other. It’s rare in an early Manics song for the band to connect with another human being, especially in the Gold Against the Soul and Holy Bible eras when most dealings with humanity are reduced to a laundry list of its failings and corruption.

There’s a political dimension to the track, too, that shouldn’t be ignored. “La Tristesse Durera” might be a character portrait of an old soldier, but the framework surrounding him is very much political commentary (from an album accused more than once of trying to cram all of its political subject matter into the clunky last track). The song is an indictment of the societal machines that trumpet the idea of going to war and defending your country, and reward it by forgetting the soldiers as they grow old. A monument here and there, a public ceremony, a parade… none of those help the veteran in “La Tristesse Durera” pay his bills. We don’t know how much the war machine has taken from this man, but clearly it’s taken enough.

The video makes it even plainer, a melodramatic clip that’s best described as bargain-bin Pearl Jam (directed by a Seattle pro, complete with James holding himself like a wounded little grunge bird…).

The ironic twist of “La Tristesse Durera” comes when you flip the single over to its b-side: “Patrick Bateman,” probably the nastiest song the Manics ever made. Originally slated for a single release, it was relegated to a b-side by the record company, which is probably par for the course when discussing a seven-minute song ostensibly about a serial killer from a novel protested by the National Organization of Women, which concludes with the scalding line “I fucked God up the ass.”

“Patrick Bateman” skews off the pop-metal axis of the A-side and clear into Slayer territory — albeit the slower, gloomier Slayer, not the thrash stuff. The lyrics are a case where they’re so dense and verbose that Bradfield has to do the equivalent of breaking their knees to fit them in a car trunk… and it’s better for it, the mania and alienation of the lyrics matched perfectly by the disjointed, crooked rhythm they’re spewed to. The instrumental, Slayer-esque though it is, is nothing special, but as an apocalyptic backdrop to the snarling rant — “I pretty my face with all this cream and stuff, ugliness inside much harder to cover up, I lack the thought to care about politics, just do what I like ain’t I democratic” — it gives the song a churning power like an engine rotating a ring of Hell.

On two sides of the single, we have the two sides of the band: earnest young lefties who want to critique the social construct while selling a bunch of records, and hope-deprived misanthropes who want to fuck God up the ass. One of those was the course forward for the band, and it’s unfortunate but accurate to say that the outward-looking empathy of “La Tristesse Durera” became a one-off for this period of their lives.

-LTZ

nickypins

Gold Against the Soul was the Manics desperate to sell out. Having been put up in a swank recording-studio retreat and given access to all the musical toys imaginable, the band set out to give their label what they wanted: a big record full of radio-ready hits. Instrumentally, the band delivered. Like on the first single — “From Despair to Where” — James Dean Bradfield and Sean Moore made the most of their hibernation to cram their arrangements full of keyboards, overdubs, string sections, handclaps, a billiard ball rattling around a pan… whatever worked, even if it wasn’t needed. More was more.

The catch, because there’s always a catch: as rock-radio was the music was, the lyrics had taken a sick turn. Richey Edwards and Nicky Wire, the band’s lyrical tag-team, were both in bad ways. Nicky’s lyrics on Gold Against the Soul, such as the title track, were venomous and cold but often clunky and weirdly phrased — look at the chorus of “Nostalgic Pushead,” where the words seem awkwardly crammed to the rhythm like neither would compromise with the other. Richey, meanwhile, had become an alcoholic with worsening, more pervasive depression, and his lyrics became solipsistic and opaque. Surely the record label loved hearing their new hit single with a chorus like “My idea of love comes from a childhood glimpse of pornography…”

The problem with this tension is that it only makes for a great record 50% of the time. Gold Against the Soul isn’t a sophomore slump, but it’s definitively a Difficult Second Album. Songs like “Yourself” and “Drug Drug Druggy” are hummable enough but leave no impression otherwise, flitting by in their attempt to make it onto the radio. The problem is that hummable enough isn’t enough, and their bland lyrical themes – vanity is contemptible, people drug themselves with more than just literal drugs and that’s pretty contemptible too — are a poor substitute for the hairdresser-in-a-firing-squad revolutionary ethos of Generation Terrorists. “Another Invented Disease” didn’t make any sense in the slightest, but it still beat the unfocused ranting of “Nostalgic Pushead,” which has a hot line or two — but as Jay-Z said, there’s a difference between a hot line and a hot song.

If all of Gold Against the Soul was bad, it’d be less troubling. The fact that the bad songs and filler were put against some of the best ones in the band’s catalogue — the ones where the aggressive pop-metal flared in time with the lyrical outcries for some raging, fist-pumping existential horrors. Four of the five songs I’d term “excellent” were put out as singles — “From Despair to Where,” “La Tristesse Durere,” “Roses in the Hospital” and “Life Becoming a Landslide” — while the remaining one, “Sleepflower,” was used to open the album.

“Sleepflower” ushered in the sound of Gold Against the Soul‘s runtime: big, bold, with crushing live drums from Sean Moore and guitars like tanks rolling over bodies. Gold Against the Soul was a far less aggressive lyrical set than Generation Terrorists, but the instrumentals are much more jacked-up and ready to fight on the sophomore album, giving an air of menace and danger to Bradfield’s howls, where hair metal had often left them a bit camp. “Sleepflower” is a wrecking-ball of a song with a breakdown that only slows it down so that it can hit harder when it speeds back up… and it’s about insomnia, reviewing your regrets while you lie awake at night hoping for the solace of unconsciousness.

The Manics themselves have all but disavowed Gold Against the Soul, probably due to the misery of making it. Both Generation Terrorists and The Holy Bible received deluxe 20th-anniversary revisits, but not so this one. That’s a shame, sort of it. It doesn’t exactly come out begging for a super-luxe record-label’s-wet-dream $300 mega-edition with an autographed stick of deodorant or whatever, but the singles on Gold Against the Soul deserve better than the dustbin of history, and the album tracks deserve attention just to put into stark relief what kind of scene those great singles came from.

Sit down and bargain
All you like, grizzled old foxes.
We’ll wall you up in a splendid palace
With food, wine, good beds and a good fire
Provided that you discuss, negotiate
For our and your children’s lives.
May all the wisdom of the universe
Converge to bless your minds
And guide you in the maze.
But outside in the cold we will be waiting for you,
The army of those who died in vain,
We of the Marne, of Montecassino,
Treblinka, Dresden and Hiroshima.
And with us will be
The leprous and the people with trachoma,
The Disappeared Ones of Buenos Aires,
Dead Cambodians and dying Ethiopians,
The Prague negotiators,
The bled-dry of Calcutta
The innocents slaughtered in Bologna.
Heaven help you if you come out disagreeing:
You’ll be clutched tight in our embrace.
We are invincible because we are the conquered,
Invulnerable because already dead;
We laugh at your missiles.
Sit down and bargain
Until your tongues are dry.
If the havoc and the shame continue
We’ll drown you in our putrefaction.

-Primo Levi, “Song of Those Who Died in Vain”

-LTZ

despair

With the success of Generation Terrorists and their names firmly sewed into the mouths of the respectable rock rags, the Manics could afford to get away from it all and go off to the country to write their next album. James Dean Bradfield and Sean Moore busied themselves overstuffing their tunes with all sorts of cool new toys — the drum machine to the nth degree — while Richey Edwards mostly sat in bed and beat every level of Sonic the Hedgehog. And drank.

Nicky Wire and Richey shared the duties of lyricists for the band, but “From Despair to Where” is a “Richey song” through and through. This first single after a year away marked the change in the band’s position, one that shot through Gold Against the Soul: that the subculture-vs.-mass-culture wars weren’t being fought in the street, but that they were already over, and subculture lost. “From Despair to Where” is a song about having lost — either by being made to submit, or just by giving up. The bitterness is still there (“outside open-mouthed crowds pass each other like they’re drugged”) but flattened by the failure of ambition (“words are never enough, just cheap tarnished glitter”).

Most of the provocations on Generation Terrorists were just that: provocations, attempts to get people wound up and fired up and ready for revolution of some ill-defined variety. The rage projected outward on those tracks has here turned inward, chastising and castrating oneself and lamenting the loss of whatever happens to be worth losing — “The adult world took it all away.” This is powerlessness rendered in a kneeling drunkard’s plea.

The chorus and title are a question, though: “From Despair to Where.” Per Richey:

“In the Western world, living conditions really aren’t that bad. Most people have somewhere to live and enough to eat – and yet most people are unhappy. I don’t think many people ever come home at night thinking ‘What a great day that was!’ And that’s why totalitarianism will always be tempting – because a fascist leader can say ‘I’ll make all your decisions for you. You don’t need to have any responsibilities. I’ll take care of your life.'”

In the cloud of depression rolling over Richey’s songs on Gold Against the Soul, the political dimension of the Manics’ work has not been forgotten. It’s just moved from revolutionary fervor to a kind of x-ray vision pointed at the machines of society, seeing how they work and the flawed choices that will keep the wrong powers hovering over all. A bunch of kids in mascara and leopard coats aren’t going to stop that, no matter WHAT they stencil on their blouses. But if revolution isn’t an option, where to go? The song leaves no resolution, no rejection of the totalitarian instinct Richey describes. If he’s grappling with it in the set of lyrics, he comes to no conclusion, which is a fair bit scarier than one of the other. (But things would get scarier still, of course…)

Simon Price described the music on “From Despair to Where” as “existentialist Thin Lizzy,” and it’s either ironic or aggressively subversive (or both) that the Manics’ new bleak lyrical turn would be accompanied by their catchiest instrumental yet. James Dean Bradfield had abandoned the one-man-show guitar-god approach (and Sean Moore had abandoned the drum machine), and though the track is undoubtedly bloated with things — a keyboardist, a string section, overdubbed guitars — it’s all working in concert in a way that many of the Generation Terrorists tracks weren’t able to accomplish. Manic Street Preachers launched the summer of ’93 as a real rock juggernaut, hurtling ahead with no light to guide their way.

-LTZ

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I was out driving once with a friend and “Little Baby Nothing” came up on my iPod. We listened in silence for a bit and then she turned and looked at me and said “So this song is about being a slut?” Uh, well, no, I said, it’s a song about exploitation of women and the lyrics are from the P.O.V. of the exploitee and it’s all very self-aware and feminist, and that satisfied her. In the lonely world of obsessing about a band, there’s always that moment where something you’ve built up and convinced yourself is the greatest, the best, a perfect showing, is heard by someone else who regards it as faintly ridiculous. So it was with “Little Baby Nothing.”

Make no mistake: “Little Baby Nothing” is the best set of lyrics on Generation Terrorists. They combine the band’s flair for insta-cook catch phrases — “assassinated beauty!” — with an actual narrative shape. Many of the other songs on Generation Terrorists had a tendency, lyrically at least, to explode in every direction at once. This one explodes very specifically. “Culture, Alienation, Boredom and Despair”: the line so good it was almost their album title.

The structure of “Little Baby Nothing” is a power-ballad boy-girl duet – you know, like Ozzy and Lita — that’s totally straightforward. This era of the band had a tendency to create songs where the ambitions of the instrumentals never quite jibed with the sloganeering of the lyrics, to the point that it seemed like the band was being ironic or just flat-out contrarian: “This kind of music isn’t popular anymore so this is the music we’re gonna play.” Imagine if the world had just been getting over an infatuation with polka…

The conventionality of the piano-power-ballad backing track for “Little Baby Nothing” shows, like preceding singles “Motorcycle Emptiness” and “Theme From M*A*S*H,” that the glam-rock thing was only a phase. The Manics were moving away from any specific genre of metal and into a more centrist position: hard-edged pop-rock, sometimes more one than the other but always at least elements of both. This is the sort of turf they would explore more fully on Gold Against the Soul, but the thinness of the terrain would make that exploration a short process. No one ever accused “Little Baby Nothing” of being a remarkable composition in any sense except lyrically.

With the instruments serviceable, the greatness of “Little Baby Nothing” comes from its lyrics and from the vocal performance, by James Dean Bradfield and guest star Traci Lords. Lords is nothing if not enthusiastic, and punches above her weight class on this (perhaps because, as a former underage porn star, she related to the song’s protest of media/society/everyone’s consumption of women as doe-eyed fodder). There are parts of the song where both Bradfield and Lords triangulate their singing between whistling, yodeling, and an orgasm — and it’s totally great and memorable. This one might have done better if it had been released earlier in the promotional cycle, and not as the seventh(!!) single surrounding Generation Terrorists. As it is, it’s a great tune that drew the curtain on that part of their lives and their music. According to the music video’s director, Steven Wells, when he worked with them the Manics were “over-educated punky Welsh working-class homoerotic situationists with a death wish and a mega-yen recording contract.” Now they would go away, and come back haunted.

“They don’t think they’re too tought or desperate. They know that the law always wins. They’ve been shot at before–but they do not ignore that death is the wages of sin.”

-Bonnie Parker

-LTZ

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Where “Motorcycle Emptiness” led the way into the mainstream, “Theme From M*A*S*H (Suicide Is Painless)” advanced the cause by leaps and bounds. Recorded as part of a charity compilation for the NME, the Manics were able to join multiple opposites: a proudly anti-capitalist band doing a track for a shameless cash-in job; a cover of a pop favorite that’s also almost unbearably morbid; a “Motorcycle Emptiness”-esque beginning crashing into a “Stay Beautiful” rock-hard ending; and the junction of fame and infamy, where the b-side of the 12″ single was extracts of the NME‘s editors discussing the moral and ethical concerns of publishing photographs of Richey Edwards with “4 REAL” cut into his arm with a razor…

According to Simon Price’s biography of the band, it was Nicky Wire who chose the song to cover. (Richey wanted a Bay City Rollers track — not the one about school shootings, mind.) Still, twenty-five years deep into the Cult of Richey, it feels like a “very Richey” move. Now that the other Manics have grown old and gotten at least somewhat sensible haircuts, Richey remains the poster-boy for all of the band’s nihilism and attempts to terrorize the pop charts. To be fair: a lot of it WAS him. But Nicky was the one who went on stage in 1992 and told the crowd that Princess Diana should kill herself. Richey could spout fire, but Nicky could spit poison. Still, Richey’s the one trapped in amber with “4 REAL” carved into his arm.

The “4 REAL” thing happened in 1991, when Steve Lamacq went to a Manics gig to report for the NME, and got into a semi-contentious conversation with the band, interrogating them about their image and their message (spray paint, glitter, and shock slogans, all huffed in equal measure). After the interview, Richey pulled Lamacq aside and assured him that the band was not just image, that they were “for real,” and without breaking eye contact or showing any outward signs of pain or even skipping a beat in the conversation, mutilated his own arm.

That’s half the metatextual element that keeps “Theme From M*A*S*H” from being seen as a corny game of dress-up, like when Marilyn Manson covered the song (for a film soundtrack). The other half is Richey’s later disappearance and apparent suicide. This was near the close of the first major “era” of the band, when they began to get everything they could have ever possibly wanted. Still to come: the misery of success… Richey’s shadow looms so long over “Theme From M*A*S*H” it’s remarkable, considering he didn’t write the lyrics, he definitely didn’t play on the song, he didn’t even choose it as the song to be covered… but there he is, his face sanded into the texture of the song…

For the band as a whole, “Theme From M*A*S*H” was an augur of things to come. The song was recorded in a single day in a cheap studio, played over and over until they got it right. (This makes it the first major Manics single to feature actual live drumming.) The themes of morbidity and decay are more pronounced than on the overwritten molotov-cocktails of Generation Terrorists, foreshadowing the sickness running through Gold Against the Soul. The ending, a monstrous metal meltdown with Bradfield’s guitar and Moore’s drums, pointed the way to the future: heavy everything.

-LTZ

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Nicky Wire speaks in 1996:

“The record company never even released it in America – they didn’t want it on the album ‘cos they said it was too AOR.”

Look around now and the consensus is just about universal: “Motorcycle Emptiness” is the Manic Street Preachers’ signature song. The stars all aligned on this one: the string arrangement and ABBA-derived guitar line giving grace and glamour while the Generation Terrorists drum machine rubs in the grit, making it feel like something beautiful that had been thrown away, found in the trash by you, the intrepid listener. This was the song that broke the Manics through into the mainstream, with a video that put them on the run from Japanese police (no filming permits) and a spot on the playlist of Radio Two.

“Motorcycle Emptiness” is a timeless song, or at least a song out of joint with time. If it had been released later, in the band’s more adult and contemplative years, it’d still be a hit but maybe just a hit among the fans. Coming as it did on their first album, the six-minute anchor holding down the remaining hour of slippery-cocked hair metal and agitated sloganeering, it revealed prowess and feeling that “Stay Beautiful” never could. Any twenty-something can mush together Hanoi Rocks riffs and lyrics about how television makes you stupid.

“Motorcycle Emptiness” was able to reach out to all stripes, from the disaffected crying boys to the feather-boa pop fan girls. Before this track’s June 1992 release as a single, the Manics were a cult thing, and how could they not be? “Well, four Welsh boys with stuff about AIDS spray-painted on their jackets with tight cheetah-print trousers, who sample Public Enemy songs and sing about ‘Fuck Queen and Country’ and did you hear about the one song that was supposed to be titled ‘Ceremonial Rape Machine…?'” “Motorcycle Emptiness” was the pitch unto itself, not compromising the band’s lyrical aesthetic of alienation, but subversively pushing it through a majestic sprawl of a pop hit.

One of the key pieces of “Motorcycle Emptiness” being such an enduring classic is its generality. “Under neon loneliness, motorcycle emptiness” goes the chorus, and if this has any meaning at all, it’s not at all obvious. “All we want are the kicks you’ve given us…” The beauty of the lyrics is that virtually anyone with a bone to pick about anything could read into them and find their own situation. Other Manics songs of the era, including previous singles, laid out an “us vs. them” dynamic which, often enough, specified who the “us” and who the “them” were. “Motorcycle Emptiness” keeps the conflict vague, and lets it drape over the song like a quilt, gorgeous to look at but impossible to see through. “Your joys are counterfeit, this happiness corrupt political shi-i-it…” would sound like Baby’s First Punk Song shouted at a pogo-pogo tempo, but sung languidly by James Dean Bradfield they’re injected with sadness and resignation that transcends the fact that they’re outright babble.

The obvious comparison with “Motorcycle Emptiness” is one of the sad-slow-songs from Guns N Roses’ Use Your Illusion“November Rain,” that kind of stuff. (No drum machines there, just the same drum fill played over and over like a robot, by a human…) Considering what the Manics themselves dug, that’s fair. “Motorcycle Emptiness” reminds me more of another hit song from 1992, though: “Unfinished Sympathy” by Massive Attack. The slow-roll grandeur and the quietly propulsive rhythm track… like “Unfinished Sympathy,” “Motorcycle Emptiness” is music for moving, and it’s also music for standing still. So it’s music for life.

“The more sensitive you are, the more certain you are to be brutalized, develop scabs, never evolve. Never allow yourself to feel anything, because you always feel too much”

-Marlon Brando

-LTZ

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I spent a while this week reading Mark Gruenwald’s 12-issue engagement on Marvel’s Spider-Woman comic, #9 through #20. I’m a Gruenwald fan since way back; his Captain America run from the 1980s and the early 1990s was something I doggedly tried (and utterly failed) to collect all of when I was a child, especially the stretch where Steve Rogers quit being Captain America and the Reagan administration hired a replacement who turned out to be a crazy steroid freak. Gruenwald was the editorial voice who, pre-wikis, assembled the Official Handbook to the Marvel Universe. He clearly lived for shared-universe superhero comics, until he died, which was in 1996. His ashes were mixed into a printing of Squadron Supreme, his 1980s fable of “what if superheroes acted like real people would and took over the world?” which indirectly inspired stuff like The Authority and directly inspired stuff like everything Geoff Johns has ever fucking written.

I don’t think Spider-Woman was Gruenwald’s first comics writing assignment, but it might have been his first stint as an ongoing writer (not far into Spider-Woman, he also took over the better-remembered Marvel Two-in-One, where he wrote the now-famous-if-you’re-into-that-sort-of-thing “Project Pegasus” storyline). He was joined by Carmine Infantino on pencils. Infantino was a decades-deep veteran of the biz, who drew the first Silver Age Flash story — AKA the first Silver Age story, period. By this point, in the late 1970s, Infantino had already been the editorial director of Marvel’s Distinguished Competition, and went back to freelancing after he was replaced by Jenette Kahn. He was only at Marvel for a few years, but spent his time on this and some comic no one’s ever heard of called Star Wars.

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Infantino had been drawing Spider-Woman since #1, and a lot of the modern depictions of the character are rooted in his work. What that means is: any time you see a panel of Spider-Woman gliding through the air in an awkward, rigid, faintly Ditko-esque position, her hair slicking behind her like a wet whip, with all invisible arrows pointing directly at her bright red ass, that comes from Infantino. (He was also fond of highlighting the dramatic slopes of her breasts, which at times looked sharp enough to break rocks on. Modern portrayals prefer a more supernaturally round rendition; Frank Cho takes home the no-prize for drawing a scene of Spider-Woman being operated on in New Avengers, where a pair of silicone bags sat on one of the doctors’ trays.)

The dramatic curves of Infantino’s Spider-Woman were offset by a multitude of jagged points: her eyepieces, her web-wings, her hair, her jutting chin, her feet and knees and elbows… the whole package sits together uneasily, obviously intended to be sexy, but in a stilted, bizarre way as opposed to conventional stiff-nipped back-arching. In her civilian guise, Jessica Drew, Spider-Woman is prone to sitting at home watching TV with her robe open to her waist, but she keeps her hair done up in a style that, from panel to panel, resembles Princess Leia, Kitty from That 70’s Show, and/or someone playing a governess in made-for-television adaptation of some 19th-century novel or other.

Depending on the inker, Infantino’s weird-sexy tendencies were either left as-is to shout at the reader in big fat bold lines (Al Gordon), or tamped down into a thin-lined style that made the art look like something chintzy from a low-budgeted Charlton comic (Mike Esposito).

(On the art front: unrelated to any of the above points, Bill Sienkiewicz and Joe Rubenstein have a great cover on #16.)

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Spider-Woman’s original origin story was that she was a literal spider who was “evolved” into human form, but this was deemed too preposterous and unrealistic for a superhero universe full of shit like the Hulk. Instead, she was a victim of uranium poisoning who was put into stasis for decades, and revived in the modern day by terrorist organization HYDRA, who monkeyed around with her and infused her with “spider blood,” which is less preposterous. Gruenwald played with this in his stories as a gradually unfolding revelation that part of Spider-Woman’s power set is “spider pheromones,” that attract men and repel women (broadly speaking, and without nuance for gender identity/sexuality, because this is still Comics Code Approved, come on).

Until this is revealed, we’re treated to scene after scene of Jessica Drew botching even the most basic social situations. She walks into a party, and everyone immediately picks up on her creepy vibe. Women barely even look away from her to talk trash. This is the source of considerable internalized angst, in the form of superheroic thought-balloon monologues, but just like the art, there’s something “off” about the traditional form here. Until the pheromone explanation, there’s no explanation at all. Even Spider-Man had the easy out for why people wouldn’t like him: because Peter Parker was a nerd. Spider-Woman is a sexy young woman with no obvious weirdness in any of her interests or social pursuits — so the world’s cruelty to her is both unsparing and bizarre.

Strangeness is woven into Gruenwald and Infantino’s Spider-Woman comics. This isn’t Michael DeForge level abject weirdness. For all of its unconventional choices, it’s still a very traditionally formatted late-1970s superhero comic book, where the hero’s problems almost always boil down to a villain who needs to be punched. It’s in the smaller details within that broad pattern that Spider-Woman’s differences show out. In #16, the issue with the Sienkiewicz cover, Spider-Woman faces off against Nekra, an albino mutant villainess in a vampire bikini who can convert her own emotional hatred into physical strength (and she is very strong). Nekra is behind an L.A. pop-psychology wellness center where Jessica Drew is attending group classes to try to fix her debilitating social awkwardness, and that’s point one: this is a super-hero who attends group classes at an L.A. pop-psychology wellness center, like some kind of Paul Mazursky character! Point two is Gruenwald’s “well, how would that really work” tendency coming out again, when it’s revealed that Nekra was kept contained by the authorities by drugging her into an emotionally vacant stupor.

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Point three is their actual fight, where the two woman battle in a ferocious fight that
resembles, in passing, the trailer fight between Uma Thurman and Daryl Hannah in Kill Bill — and in this 1970s Comics Code Approved Marvel superhero comic book, the gorgeous female lead walks away with a busted lip and an eye swollen shut, only able to save the day by sitting on Nekra’s back and ramming her head into the floor again and again, screaming “DAMN YOU!”

None of this is very salacious at all in 2014, but to see it all wrapped in the four-color package of a 1970s Marvel book is — well, weird. The issue described above ends with Spider-Woman breaking up with her boyfriend, a SHIELD agent who openly struggles with feeling emasculated by his superhero girlfriend rescuing him from trouble, rather than vice versa. There’s no dramatic blow-out, just two people not really in love anymore who go their separate ways, almost like real humans might.

In the last issue of Gruenwald’s run, #20 (Infantino left after #19), Spider-Woman is fired from her job and — in a fit of pique — uses her powers to break into the company’s safe and steal back wages she feels she’s owed. Spider-Man, visiting from New York on a work trip, spots her breaking back into the safe to put it back in her shame, and of course misreads the situation. They fight, as they must. At one point Spider-Woman is flying, and Spider-Man is hanging from her boot by a web-line — and her boot slips off her foot.

I mentioned earlier that this was probably Gruenwald’s first ongoing gig as a writer, and a lot of the small, weird details of his work read like an adult superhero fan’s laundry list of “How come THIS never happens…?” Things like the boot coming off (less than ten years before Dollar Bill’s cape does him in), a man who struggles with his girlfriend being the stronger and more capable one of the two, and stealing the money: Gruenwald was the sort of writer who thought, “well, if a real person faced this situation, what sort of temptations would they have, if they had the power to act on their fantasies…?”

Gruenwald and Infantino’s Spider-Woman is by no means a lost classic. But it’s interesting, and being interesting is more than anyone can say about most of these things.

Shutter_07-1_300_462SHUTTER #7

Written by Joe Keatinge; illustrated by Leila del Duca; colored by Owen Gieni; published by Image Comics.

In my mind, I always want to classify Shutter as “Baby Saga,” or at the very least “Saga‘s Country Cousin.” I talked a bit about it in my big round-up of my pull-list a month or so ago, and now that Shutter‘s returned from its hiatus, my feelings on its Saga-ness remain unchanged. This isn’t to say that Shutter has none of its own individual charm. If the broad strokes are very Saga — funny animals, retro-futurism, “quirky” dialogue, etc. — the fine details are their own. Saga honestly doesn’t have room for any beats that aren’t immediately and exclusively character-advancing in a more traditional structure (even if they’re minor characters like that pile of mossy garbage who deals drugs or whatever), while Shutter seems more willing to just go off on weird tangents to achieve those same goals, like the issue that started with the cute animal assassin killing himself, or the history of the skeleton butler.

Put next to the Spider-Woman stuff I rambled about above, Shutter fits in: it’s two young creative people taking an established structure (and by now, “quirky-humor progressive-values action-adventure book probably from Image” feels like it has its own established structure to work from) and filling it with the stuff that they wondered about or wanted to see. The structure isn’t as ossified and traditional as the superhero comics Spider-Woman writhed around within, so the shift isn’t as immediately apparent. Still, Keatinge and del Duca hit all of the expected “cute animal runs around with a chainsaw screaming MOTHERFUCKERS while a child tells them not to swear” panels that will probably make Tumblr cream, but also work in issues like an eight-year-old boy being pressed by circumstances to commit murder and watch as people (well, robots) are murdered right next to him, all because he was basically kidnapped by his older half-sister who is acting increasingly, desperately flat-out nutso as the series progresses. This is a wacky comic with talking lady foxes and gun-dragons but it carries around a significant amount of pain and trauma and (implied and explicit) abuse, something that comes through in the way del Duca’s art — even at its most whimsical — always seems agitated and on edge.

-LTZ

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