February 20, 2015
MULTIVERSITY: MASTERMEN #1
Written by Grant Morrison; penciled by Jim Lee; inked by Scott Williams, Sandra Hope, Mark Irwin, and Jonathan Glapion; colored by Alex Sinclair and Jeromy Cox; published by DC Comics.
So I read Mastermen #1 and my first response was “ehhhh.” This was a bit of a problem, in that it turned me into the villain of Multiversity‘s metafictional story, where the Gentry — those Things From Beyond who live to corrupt and pervert — are expressions of the jaded Great Big “MEH” of the comic readers who ruin it for the rest of us.
Let’s flip the pages back to Multiversity #1, whenever that was. We met the Gentry on the ruins of Earth-7. Tangent within a tangent: Earth-7 is the Earth roughly representing Marvel’s Ultimate line of titles, originally designed to be a universe in which their biggest superhero properties could start afresh contemporaneously with the era of their release. In the ensuing years, attempts to keep the Ultimate world “relevant” and “exciting” resulted in things like New York City being destroyed by a tsunami, various characters being murdered, and an increasing sense of desperation as creators attempted to differentiate the Ultimate universe from a mainstream Marvel line which had strip-mined and absorbed all of the original ideas that set the Ultimate stuff apart to begin with… which usually meant more death and destruction, in an attempt to shock complacent fans. This year, the Ultimate line is being put out of its misery, by all appearances — but it looks like Morrison saw the writing on the wall first, by making his faux-Ultimate Earth the first to fall at the hands of the Gentry, which was the original tangent we’re getting back to now.
Meet the Gentry: Dame Merciless, a withered but scantily clad crone, probably representing the Bad Grrrls of comics, the silicone-enhanced and spinally-arced sexual fantasies that end up empty and unfulfilling, just like her unpleasantly molding body-husk (even her name recalls generic Bad Grrrl names like “Lady Death”). Hellmachine, of gaping maw and many tentacles, whose visage and name seem to imply grabby, gluttonous greed — the city growing on its spine seems to imply industry, making him the predatory living comics corporation, perhaps. (Hellmachine also appears in the Multiversity Guidebook, much larger, biting into the heroes’ ship like an apple: indeed, a living evil comics corporation would be best for transporting fanboy anti-life ideals. See also Brand Hex, the evil living corporation in Marvel Boy.) Lord Broken, described in Mastermen #1 as “a broken house, impossible to repair,” full of eyeballs and resembling in passing a skewed take on the Monitors’ Orrery of Worlds, i.e. the Multiverse itself — which makes Lord Broken the dignitary on behalf of continuity cops, those fans who will never be happy unless they make every superhero story fit together, which they never will. Demogorgunn next, a mass of writhing bodies (not dissimilar to the villain Bill Willingham drew back in Justice League Annual #1), perhaps representing the basest and crassest needs of popular consumer media (the figures comprising him are nude, and Reis/Prado hid a tiny squiggle of a penis in the panel introducing him), the lowest common denominator whose masses demand pandering. Lastly, Intellectron, a rotund watching eye held aloft on leathery wings, a blobby eternal glare who likely stands in for the anonymous animosity and reactionary tribes-keeping of the Internet, the people who’re so jaded that nothing will ever result in a genuinely pleased forum-post or tweet, dialogued in eroded txt-speak: “WE WANT YU 2 GIVE UP YR DREAMS. WE WANT U 2 ABANDON ALL HOPE. WE WANT 2 MAKE YU LIKE US.”
Grant Morrison vs. the fans is over, this is Grant Morrison vs. the whole fucking industry.
Tangent over, back to Mastermen. As I said, I read it the once, and I responded: “Eh.” It wasn’t terrible, I guess. It wasn’t even notably bad. But it also wasn’t great or exciting right from the word go, and I slotted it away as the worst of the Multiversity one-shots, because its spark wasn’t as bright, merely “good” in an array of gems. Then I thought: no, easy dismissal and glib “eh” is the enemy of this series, and I was walking right into that enemy’s arms. So I had to sit down and read Mastermen again slowly, carefully, to make sure that I wasn’t blindly Gentrifying myself.
I started by reminding myself that Multiversity isn’t a series of one-shots, not really. They end on cliffhangers and to-be-continueds by design, because they’re all first issues of comics from universes not our own! Somewhere on another frequency, Multiversity: The Just #2 has come out, continuing the gauzy-pastel adventures of Sasha Norman and various pool parties. Mastermen #1 is probably the most direct representative of this technique, not just in its closing caption (“That day was only the beginning.”) but also in how none of the doors it opens are properly explored.
The narrator of Mastermen is Jürgen — the Jimmy Olsen of Earth-10, the Nazi Earth — who tells the story in the form of a memoir written later, whose text implicates him in later “helping to destroy” Overman. Overman is the Nazi Superman, who landed in occupied land in 1938 and won Germany the war. Now, Earth is a National Socialist utopia, bereft of crime or danger for those of the right skin color and creed.
Overman is a Nazi, but he still conforms to the general template of ideals that Superman is held to. Over the years, I’ve had many conversations with people who consider Superman “boring,” an uptight do-gooder or a Cosmic Dad, who knows the solution to every problem, because the solution is always “Be Superman.” (This is broadly true of badly-written Superman comics, whose problem is not that they star Superman but that they’re badly written.)
I subscribe to a different view of Superman, and I suspect that it’s similar to Grant Morrison’s. Superman is the man with the strength of his convictions to always do what he thinks is the most morally right, most ethically fair option, without temptation to compromise. He’s not infallible, and he can’t see the future. He can make bad choices, or choices that unwittingly lead to misfortune… but the choices he makes will always be what’s most morally upright off of the given evidence.
So: Overman is the most morally upright Nazi there is. On Earth-10, the Holocaust happened, but only because Overman was not there to stop it. Overman is ninety-five years old and unhappily married to a thoroughly unpleasant woman named Lena (possibly a distant descendant of director Fritz?). Lena is devoid of any Supermanic ideals, or even Lois-Lanian ones. She’s fixated on appearances, both public (her response to Overman’s nightmares is to tell him he needs to “be strong” for the masses) and personal (she frets over a youthening serum from Krypton, of which she only has a finite amount, and rejects the keystone of Super-courtship: “I don’t want to be carried anymore… it ruins my hair”). On the passing of Supergirl stand-in Overgirl, she comments to Overman, “Your devotion to Kara was and is unnatural — unhealthy,” putting herself in competition with a young-forever (til death, anyway) Maid of Might.
Lena’s self-absorption and Overman’s fundamental Supermanness play out against each other perfectly in two panels:
Consider Overman above, literally boxed in, in both panels unable to escape his wife’s grasp.
So here we have Overman, the Superman who lives in a world without love, the Superman whose World of Tomorrow is built on the single worst atrocity humankind has ever engineered and implemented. This is the grimmest and grittiest of all possible Super-fates: a Superman who protects his world, but looks down on it as a failure. In an ideal world, Superman exists as an example for us mere mortal to live up to, a hope more potent than bombs. In this one, Superman’s ideals have been cast aside by people content with lives built outside of them. (It’s tempting to make a comparison between real-life people who “meh” at how “boring” Superman’s moral rectitude is and the Earth-10 people who don’t have a problem with the Holocaust, but that’d be crass. So I’m not making that comparison. I’m just saying it’s tempting.)
Back to the plot: Mastermen #1 heavily implicates Overman in the activities of the Freedom Fighters, Uncle Sam’s ragtag group of heroes drawn from demographics decimated by Nazi purges. What it doesn’t make clear is if Overman is actually aiding them… or just doing his job badly so that they can succeed. It’s not even clear that it’s him betraying them, since a detail pointed out by the cosmic force behind the Deep Space Transmissions site on Twitter points heavily to Leatherwing, something I totally missed but am now editing in here. Still, there’s no doubt that Overman is disgusted by Leatherwing’s practices, which mostly consist of trussing the Bomb up and beating him senseless with a baseball bat. (Calling to mind the homoerotic torture of Apollo in the Morrison-ghostwritten Authority #28…) The Human Bomb detonates in captivity, bringing down a giant space station directly onto Metropolis. See above about Superman having the conviction to do what’s morally correct, but not being able to perfectly anticipate the consequences: so it is with Overman. The issue ends with Overman kneeling, trembling, in the ashes of Metropolis.
Mastermen #1 is drawn by Jim Lee and a battery of inkers — and multiple colorists! There’s not much to say other than that he was a pretty bad choice for the book. Lee can’t really convey subtlety, nor does he excel at any kind of “acting” in his characters. In a comic that’s more or less about morality itself, we have an artist who can’t even make Nazi soldiers machine-gunning a baby look even half as horrifying as the poster to Man Bites Dog. (It begs the question: how did Jim Lee get this job? He’s one of the executives of DC Comics. Did he ask for it? Did someone just think it’d be a hilarious prank to have him draw “the Nazi issue?” Is it meta-commentary? Was Lee just hoping to get a cool $25k off of a collector for his splash page of Hitler screaming on the toilet like Jeff Daniels in Dumb and Dumber?) The coloring emphasizes all of his weaknesses: he can’t operate outside of a big, bold, dynamic, action-oriented mode, and the absence of primary colors reinforces that. The coloring isn’t big or bold at all, it’s drab and bleak, appropriate for a drab and bleak world but doing nothing to bolster the actual lines on the pages.
Maybe that’s why I was so “eh” at this thing on first read: because as a total package, it’s terribly let down by its own self. If Overman is definitively a traitor to his team of sadists, Darwinists, and literal quislings in the New Reichsmen, then the comic that contains him is appropriate, because it’s been compromised from within.
Furthering that quasi-tragic line, Mastermen is one of the key pieces connecting Multiversity to Morrison’s previous Final Crisis, which might get overlooked on first “eh.” Overman debuted in the pages of Superman Beyond 3D, described in a caption as “guilt-ridden,” and Overgirl died at the start of Final Crisis itself, crashing through dimensional barriers to warn us that “Hell is here.” Mastermen is a direct sequel to those bits, showing the aftermath of Overgirl’s death and exactly what kind of world would make a Superman ashamed of it. If Superman is the ultimate being, then contaminated Overman is only fit to carry the ultimate sin, and there is no human sin that can compare to the Holocaust, the darkest possible option.
When the Earth-10 Nazis seize America, they burn comic books in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Uncle Sam, yet to find his Freedom Fighters, hides away from the soldiers, and in his coat he stashes a comic book. Taking that on surface level is a waste of time that’ll spin in fanboy circles, a classic Gentry trap if there ever was one. When he saves a comic book, Uncle Sam is saving an idea. What idea should be saved from the Nazis, should be held onto in the face of unspeakable evil?
Superman, of course.
January 23, 2015
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.
CONAN / 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…
January 9, 2015
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.
TERMINAL 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.
“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.
January 2, 2015
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.
ALL 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.
“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.
December 12, 2014
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
November 28, 2014
Somehow I only just now noticed that over at Deep Space Transmissions there’s a complete set of scans of Grant Morrison’s old Drivel column from Speakeasy magazine. I’d heard of these before, mentioned more as footnotes than anything else (until the point where they came into play during the recent revival of Morrison/Alan Moore hostilities). The whispers I’d heard were just that this was back before Grant Morrison was G-R-A-N-T-M-O-R-R-I-S-O-N — back when he was just another Young British Comics Writer who’d chanced into big pre-sales with Arkham Asylum, and had no agenda but self-promotion.
That’s more or less borne out by the text, so no interesting reinterpretations of history here, sorry. Most of the early columns are Grant moaning about having to go to comic book conventions in a professional capacity, which is fair enough. I find cons pretty fun, usually, but I’m not glued to a table the whole time, worrying about whether I’m breaking even. Or worse, dealing with guys like… one time I was in line to request a sketch from Ivan Reis, the DC artist, and the guy in front of me, this big broad guy who talked like Glenn Frey, was telling me about how he’d worked out a deal with Joe Prado for some big intricate expensive commission (he was bragging, he was very much bragging) and it was going to be of Mera and it was going to be a “really fucking HOT picture of Mera, too, I want a HOT Mera.” So, yes, I can empathize with the Golden Age Grant on that one.
He also shamelessly name-drops what records he’s listening to at the time of writing, which is a good idea: Powell’s DJ-set tape from the Diagonal Records Reel Torque Volume 7 set of live cassettes.
The first half of the Drivel run is that sort of stuff: “awh, I went to a convention, it was bollocks, there’s a new Television Personalities record out, and I went to a Charles Burns book signing party and it was a sad affair, but then, I never leave the house, being a comics weirdo type myself.” That’s me paraphrasing, and you can tell because it’s playing in your head in Ewan McGregor’s voice and not Grant Morrison’s.
The second half is post-Arkham Asylum, which means that it’s after Morrison became an overnight sensation and — let’s not forget — very fucking rich. He becomes bolder, more assured, more G-R-A-N-T than “aw shucks well.” He insists that it was a satirical, Morrissey-esque put-on of a persona, but where there’s smoke… Money changes everything, including liberating one to follow one’s passions, which in this case include publicly calling out anyone who looks at you funny. When Fantagraphics declined to print The New Adventures of Hitler despite having already published material like Howard Chaykin’s Black Kiss, we get Grant-on-Groth:
This is followed by a thorough reaming of Frank Thorne, more or less just for existing and being a dirty old coot.
And then, a couple issues later, he asks us all to erase the whole ugly incident from memory. And then, a paragraph later, attacks the Fantagraphics Eros line for two straight pages! I can’t even think of a blogger who’d do that now. Or, if they did, a blogger who anyone would care about should they do so. In #119, the final issue of Speakeasy, Morrison signs off: “Grant the Cunt.”
Written by Matt Fraction; illustrated by Christian Ward; published by Image Comics.
There’s trying hard at what you’re doing, which is good and what everyone should do. Then there’s conspicuously trying hard and making sure everyone sees that you’re trying hard, which is far less noble and often more annoying. And then there’s the opening gatefold poster section of ODY-C #1, which on the one side is a panoramic poster of a first panel, and on the other side is an ungodly screed of invented history, like an infographic having an aneurysm. The fact that this is the first thing in the comic all but guarantees I’m probably never going to read it. If it had been at the end, or even in the middle, I probably would have at least started, because by then the story would be in motion and I would have had a chance to get into the characters a bit and want to learn more about their world, their history, blah blah blah. Having all of that… stuff being one of the first things a reader sees leaves an impression, though, and in my case not a great one.
It’s a neat idea — a cosmic, gender-switched space-opera Odyssey — and the art by Christian Ward is delirious and fantastic. But Fraction’s end of the process lags and spurts. The faux-epic-poem narration is already grating on me and who knows how many more issues are planned for this thing. I went to a high school where courses in Latin were mandatory; this isn’t a novelty or an innovation to me, just a guy who really seems to want us to know how hard he’s trying. And I get that, and I commend it: they certainly tried hard on this comic. And Fraction’s succeeded in informing me of that. But anything past that, who the fuck knows. Jury’s out.
Written by Alejandro Jodorowsky; illustrated by Milo Manara; translated by Katie LaBarbera; published by Dark Horse Comics.
Have you ever seen the Alex Cox film, Walker? It’s about the American filibuster who conquered Nicaragua for a year back in the 19th century. It starts off normal enough, for a movie about Ed Harris conquering Nicaragua, and then ends in complete hysteria, totally departed from history, with cannibalism, Black Hawk helicopters dropping in, the stagecraft of movie mutilation intentionally exposed… and so it is with this Borgias book, to an extent. I expected something a bit Game of Thrones-y, minus the magic ravens and all that. Power, politics, incest and gory death… well, to be fair to myself, that’s all in there, but I got the quantities wrong in the equation.
The jacket of the book announces that the Borgias were the first Mafia family, but I’m hard-pressed to think of any Mafia story that goes as far into lunacy as this one does. We begin with Pope Innocent VIII, turned into a toothless, hollow-eyed shell by cancer, receiving the blood of two young boys until they die, sucking milk from a new mother’s breasts, and having said mother’s baby thrown to the dogs. This is a minor set of sins compared to what comes along after, when Rodrigo Borgia buys his way into becoming Pope Alexander VI.
Some of the stuff in The Borgias has root in, if not historical fact, at least historical rumor. It’s whispered that Innocent VIII did in fact receive the first known blood transfusion, but the point of that anecdote seems more that it’s an anti-Semitic slight to his Jewish doctor. It’s rumored that Cesare Borgia had his younger brother Giovanni murdered, which Jodorowsky and Manara turn into a definite, as one of Cesare’s men stabs Giovanni while he’s cruising for sexy young men at the banks of the Tiber. All of history is made seedy and bizarre: King Charles VIII of France is rendered as a deformed hunchback, who dies from being lured into an active volcano (whereas in real life, he died from — wait for it — accidentally bumping his head too hard). Everyone is a crass, homophobic, misogynistic pervert, and none moreso than the vain, cruel Borgias, for whom every social affair is occasion for orgy.
In the final chapter, history is discarded entirely. Lucrezia Borgia — in our world, mother to at least eight children — dies in the birth of her first child, a two-headed monstrosity with one face that looks like her brother, and one like her father. Leonardo da Vinci is summoned by Cesare Borgia, who holds his homosexual brother in the most vile contempt and yet sways da Vinci to create war machines for him by offering his body quite willingly. This is history in the tradition of films like Walker, or Caligula, or Salon Kitty: excitement over facts, and none more exciting than sin and cum and piss.
The point of it all, though… that’s a bit harder to grasp. Milo Manara, one of the greatest living illustrators, makes The Borgias look more grand and resplendent than any Hollywood production could ever afford. The pages are soaked in luxury and eroticism — even the Borgias’ trumpet-blowers have visible bulges in their colorful, finely detailed leggings. In his introduction to the tome, Jodorowsky lays bare his mindset: “Today, the Borgias have been replaced by oil mafias, pharmaceutical industry multinationals, drug cartels, and greedy bankers.” Is it then meant to be an inspirational tract? ‘In time, these too shall pass, dead of their own hubris…’ But that feels like an assumption, or a leap of faith, because all that I have in front of me is The Borgias: a gorgeously rendered catalogue of horror, any moral seemingly lost under waves of thrilling, wicked sensation.
November 21, 2014
So I looked at Twitter this morning because I was trying to come up with a Hot Take on something or other to do with comics, and it took a good long while of scrolling to reach a tweet that had anything to do with comics — and even then, it was just Peter Milligan saying “UKIP, eh? Bloody hell.” This morning cast into stark relief just how divorced I am from the comic book news cycle.
Back when I first got Twitter, I decided I would cap the number of people I followed at 300. After a while, that got annoying, the signal-to-noise ratio was out of whack. So I cut out 100 of them. Then, later, it was still out of whack, so I cut another 100. The people who were first to go were the people (comic creators, musicians, etc.) who used Twitter as hype tools. (I love Mike Allred, but I don’t need to see a retweet of every nice thing anyone has ever said about his work.) Now I find Twitter much more useful and readable, but it also means that I don’t have a lot of comic book news-and-views cropping up.
I look at Bleeding Cool maybe once every few days. I read Jog’s the-week-in-new-releases column at TCJ, Abhay Khosla’s Tumblr, and Paul O’Brien’s X-Axis reviews. I listen to Comic Books Are Burning in Hell. I’m trying to think of what other dedicated news sources I keep on my radar for regular checking, and that’s really it. (Not conveyed in this format is how I stopped writing for like fifteen minutes just to sit and think about this.) Now, with my job, I should probably be a lot more plugged-in, but the reward for doing so seems minimal. “ANOTHER MARVEL TEASER THAT SAYS LITERALLY NOTHING — WHAT COULD IT MEAN?” Who gives a fuck?
The only “comic book world issues” this past week that come to mind (with zero research) are the fact that Pax Americana finally came out, which is covered below, and the Spider-Woman #1 Milo Manara Giant Red Ass Variant. People were paying $150 on eBay in pre-sales for those things. In two years, they’ll be worth thirty bucks. The return of speculators to comics just gets more and more astonishing every week: literally going from “coincidental panel that people can willfully misinterpret as an X-23 cameo” to “big red ass cover.” At least the first one almost required half a thought.
“In Which We Burn” Written by Grant Morrison; illustrated by Frank Quitely; colored by Nathan Fairbarn; published by DC Comics.
The discourse is flying on this one, thick and furious, and while I might be a dum-dum I’m at least smart enough to know when I can’t compete — I’ll cede this stage to the old Barbelith posters. Suffice it to say, I’ve been waiting two years for this, ever since I saw the pages of Peacemaker assassinating the President — in reverse! — at MorrisonCon, which was a thing that really happened and that I really blew a whole tax return on attending.
But let me just get this one shot in. Grant Morrison has spent years now trying to make the point that the post-Watchmen “deconstruction” approach to superhero comics is an emotionally-gelded dead end. Here, in half a page, with the invaluable help of Quitely and a strong boost from Fairbarn, he finally nails it. Just beautiful.
“Earth One” Written by Jeff Lemire; penciled by Terry Dodson; inked by Rachel Dodson and Cam Smith; colored by Brad Anderson; published by DC Comics.
Some things seem too good to be true, and when things seem like that, they usually are. Case in point: a hundred-plus pages of new interior art by the Dodsons. Teen Titans: Earth One is the latest cargo drop by DC’s original-graphic-novel initiative, wherein each title takes place in a universe free of any other corporate brand’s influence. (Common question: “So do Superman: Earth One and Batman: Earth One take place on the same Earth…?” The answer is “no, they just picked a bad gimmick name for these products.”)
Since the original Teen Titans were literally just a gathering of assorted sidekicks, the focus here are the Wolfman/Perez New Teen Titans characters, like Cyborg, Raven, Terra… characters who don’t need a relationship with an existing hero to make sense. These characters are drawn together by a mysterious bond which reads like the precise mixture of old Gen13 comics (not a compliment) and a bland young adult novel franchise cravenly begging for a film adaptation (also not a compliment). These characters have “personalities” only in the vaguest sense, and the emotional beats of the story are so transparent that the characters’ word balloons might as well just contain commands to the reader: “This is where you’re supposed to sympathize with our plight. Or empathize, or whatever.”
The Dodsons’ usual style — sleek and gleaming, with exaggerated body shapes and no small dose of cheesecake posing — is gone here, replaced by a looser, more “cartoony” vibe. The only other artist I’ve seen do such a radical shift in their superhero work on zero notice was the time Ian “A Million Tiny Lines” Churchill did a Hulk storyline as Fake Darwyn Cooke. Here, the Dodsons look like they’ve been drinking in the work of Cameron Stewart, but the styles don’t mesh well: Terra, for example, has a round little toon-y head but her features are still “very Dodson,” and she just ends up looking like a baby, or a chipmunk, or both. The facial acting is all over the place, too, but part of why that rings hollow is because the dialogue frankly sucks, and that’s not the Dodsons’ fault.
No matter what Pax Americana was going to be, I would have bought it, because it’s Morrison and Quitely. I bought Teen Titans: Earth One just because Terry and Rachel Dodson were working on it, without looking at any previews or interior pages. Just goes to show you, sometimes you can’t just go in blind.
November 14, 2014
It’s been a busy couple weeks for me here at Villa Nowhere / No Formats, and to be pefectly honest, none of the comics I’ve squeezed into what reading time I have are ones that I really have much to say about. You know what I’ve been reading lately? Old New Warriors comics. I don’t have anything in-depth to say about them. I don’t think anyone on planet Earth does, unless they have a severe drug problem or general derangement. (I’m going chronologically according to some continuity fanatic’s reading list. I’m somewhere in “Kings of Pain,” which means I just passed the story where the Warriors save the day by threatening to kill the villain’s cat. These kids were fucking psychos.)
So instead of reviews or just hot-air ranting I decided to review my own pull list, as far as the monthly pamphlet-type comics go. Here’s my soul laid bare for all of you to mock. Presenting my buy list and my thoughts on same is pure internet masochism:
ALL NEW ULTIMATES: I think I’m like four issues behind on this — I haven’t read the issues by the Old City Blues artist whose name I don’t remember off the top of my head. (This post is being done with zero research.) I think what Michel Fiffe is writing in All New Ultimates is actually what got me on this New Warriors kick lately, because he’s going for a pure early-90s thing. It’s more craft than nostalgia, which is why I dig it (contrast with the time Kirkman did that “1991” issue of Marvel Team-Up and I wondered if he was battling a brain lesion while writing that script). RIP this book.
ANNIHILATOR: Grant Morrison and Frazier Irving, set loose in a symbiotic state of full-tilt sci-fi madness, and that’s really all it takes for me to buy a comic book sometimes. It helps that I’m loving the hell out of it, too, but that’s just gravy here.
BATGIRL: I enjoyed Scott Pilgrim, and I enjoy this. I know people like to write gazillions of words about this book and what it’s doing that’s new and fresh and blah blah, but what they all mean to say is that “It’s a Batgirl comic done in the style of Scott Pilgrim,” and that’s enough for me so far. I’m really into Barbara Gordon Batgirl stuff, the loopy old Silver and Bronze Age stories, so it’s nice to have a contemporary Batgirl book that isn’t bland garbage for once.
BUCKY BARNES: THE WINTER SOLDIER: Ales Kot Appearance #1. I’m still not really sure if I enjoy this title. The concept is… well, it’s there, neither positive nor negative. Marco Rudy’s art is what blocks my understanding. He’s more into decoration than storytelling, and interesting decoration can’t beat interesting storytelling as far as maintaining my interest.
CAPTAIN VICTORY AND THE GALACTIC RANGERS: Joe Casey has great taste in artists, and if this comic had been called “Joe Casey Has Great Taste In Artists,” I’d still be buying it because the draw for me is seeing who he’s collaborating with and what they get out of each other, as opposed to the old Jack Kirby characters or whatever.
COPRA: The best!
THE FADE-OUT: When I read real books it’s usually non-fiction, and some of my favorite stuff to read is the history of pop media — documents of the weird shit that falls into the margins and footnotes of reality. The Fade-Out is like all that John Gilmore stuff about how the wicked live in Los Angeles, and I love it for that. The tone is so meticulously un-fantastic that if you told me this was all a true story so far, I wouldn’t discount it out of hand.
GOD HATES ASTRONAUTS: I dunno. This book is just a ten-car pile-up of weird shit, and the more weird shit they pile on top of the other weird shit, the more I like it. I want to see this comic sink further and further into a hermetically sealed bubble of lunacy; once the jokes start being about Taylor Swift and ebola I’m probably out.
GOTHAM ACADEMY: Great Karl Kerschl art, for one thing. I think that this kind of comic, that plays in the periphery of an established brand-synergy universe, is a lot more fun than the main event.
LETTER 44: I’m so far behind on this comic that I think I’d have to start from the beginning again just to catch up. I like the “new President is inaugurated and promptly discovers America is fucking with alien shit” story concept, like some kind of from-the-top-down take on the X-Files. I just hope it doesn’t turn out like Satellite Sam, where I bought it for a year despite having only read the first issue, then sat down and read all of it and realized that Satellite Sam is awful.
MS. MARVEL: Of all the Big-Two-Stuff on this shopping list, I think this title is my favorite. (It’s also the one I think is least likely to get cancelled anytime soon, though I really doubt they’d cancel Batgirl, as opposed to just replacing the creative team with another wet fart from Tony Bedard.) It’s well-crafted and it’s just weird enough, and reading it feels like getting to know the characters and their world as opposed to being served up more slices of grey meat. I know it can’t stay this good forever, but let me have my moments with it.
MULTIVERSITY: I feel like Grant Morrison is coming out of a lost weekend with this project, which might be a miscalculation because apparently he’s been working on it for five years now or something like that. Still: it’s nice to see a new Grant Morrison story that doesn’t make my balls go up into my body a bit at the thought of “Oh, no, how’s THIS one going to be.” It reminds me a lot of that one Aphex Twin album, Drukqs, where I listened to it the first time (back in high school, dear lord) and was like “wow, did he just empty out a hard-drive of semi-finished songs onto two CDs and call it an album?” Nowadays I listen to Drukqs and I enjoy it quite a bit more, but still: this is like Morrison emptying out a hard-drive of semi-finished ideas by the barrelful. The twist is that so many of them are tiny gems. A thousand points of light, etc.
THE NAMES: I like Peter Milligan a lot, but you couldn’t pay me to look at his superhero stuff these days. Projects like this are more up my alley, a weird conspiracy thriller about high finance and secret societies and a personal trainer whose stepson is almost as old as her and gets an awkward erection when they hug, and Leandro Fernandez exaggerates everyone’s everything, beauty and ugliness alike…
ROCKET GIRL: It feels like forever since this last came out. I put this in the same category as Ms. Marvel, kind of, not just the “young teen heroine figuring out what the fuck they’re doing having woken up into a whole new world of possibilities and hazards” box, though they both fit in that one, but more in the way that I feel like I’m watching the universe expand around each page of this book, and not in the kook Neal Adams sense.
SAGA: It’s such a “dad comic” — i.e., “this is the comic I’m writing now that I’m a dad” — but Fiona Staples’s art is so good, and the cliffhangers are so intense, that I keep coming back and demanding more.
SECRET AVENGERS: Ales Kot Appearance #2. This one provokes more rumination than me than a comic with “Avengers” in the title probably has any right to. I think I’ve gone off on this before, I honestly don’t remember, but part of the game in Kot’s Marvel stuff is given away because I recognize the unsubtle references he packs in. “Artaud Derrida” — that’s a name in this comic! At first it was really off-putting, like, yeah, buddy, OK, you know who Merzbow is, I have a subscription to The Wire too, move it along, but the more I dug in, the more I softened that stance. I remembered being a teenager and reading Grant Morrison and Richard Case’s Doom Patrol, with the same unsubtle “something I learned about” references, and using it as a guide map to seek out things that were new to me, and maybe people younger or less cuuuultured than I will do that with this one too… I really hope that’s what Kot is trying for, anchored by Michael Walsh’s not-too-cartoonish art to keep things steady, because it’s a noble pursuit in the world of big-brand comics, where so many of these comic series don’t have any points of reference outside of other big-brand comic book series. Comics that are just about other comics, those are really the fucking lowest of the low. Green Lantern continuity can suck my cock.
SEX: Another book I’m massively behind on, but Joe Casey and Piotr Kowalski are doing a superhero comic about what happens when people stop being superheroes, and then don’t start being superheroes again, and it’s the simplest possible flip on Dark Knight Returns to the point that I’m shocked no one else has had the balls to try it yet. But I’m also not shocked that Joe Casey was the first.
SHUTTER: This is sort of like a mutant cousin of Saga. It’s got the same mix of melodrama and absurd whimsy, but fewer visible erections and more Internet, which is a negative correlation I didn’t even realize was possible. Reading it mostly for Leila del Luca’s drawings, but it’s a fine product overall. Actually, after writing that, I stepped away for a second, and you know what? This is still a mutant cousin of Saga, but I think its most direct possible parentage is that panel in Warren Ellis and Stuart Immonen’s Nextwave where the crazy mom hung the teddy bear in a noose. “Special Bear is dead.” Shutter is like reading a whole ongoing comic that flows directly out of that one panel.
STORM: I really like Victor Ibañez’s art, and Storm is my favorite member of the X-Men. That’s all, that’s it.
SUPERIOR FOES OF SPIDER-MAN: RIP this book, too. See my earlier notes on Gotham Academy, about how the fringes are more fun than the main event. See also my earlier notes about All New Ultimates, in how most of these characters are totally nostalgic for a recovering Spider-Man trading card collector like me, but there’s craft in the storytelling that justifies its existence. This was a really fun one, about Spider-Man’s less respected enemies being cretins and cheats. Sad to see it go.
TERMINAL HERO: More Milligan, more Kowalski. This is the sort of stuff that I think both of them excel at: dark, bizarre science fiction with inscrutably weird characters and the fantastic elements erupting from mundanity’s flesh like a bleeding sore. One of the rare comics where we’re invited to relate to the protagonist at our own peril, because anyone who’s totally on the same page as this guy is a dangerous individual. Two for two as far as Milligan stories involving the threat of incest, though. Curious.
TOMB RAIDER: I enjoyed the recent video game, and this is tiding me over till the next one, but wowee: for such a visually striking game, the Tomb Raider comic really did find the most inoffensive artist possible. And that’s it, he’s not offensive, but he’s also not all that fun to look at, either.
ÜBER: Another book I’m dreadfully far behind on. I think eight issues, maybe. Jesus. And it’s not like this thing comes out every two weeks, it just means that for eight months I’ve been looking at it and going “eh, soon.” I can half justify it to myself in my mind, with Über, because it does read better in big chunks than month-to-month, where the trivia of war fades from my memory between issues… I know it’s en vogue for Millennials and back-end-of-Gen-Xers to cite Manic Street Preachers’ The Holy Bible as a revelatory document (partially as in, Revelations, the end of all that is), and it got namechecked in one of the backmatter texts as inspiring this series… but I feel like just by dint of its subject matter, it hits closer to the mark than a lot of people who just cite The Holy Bible as an excuse to be unpleasant or to appear that they’re deep thinkers, because the most affecting part of that record is that its lyrics ask the question: “If we as a species are capable of organizing, not just committing but organizing and preparing an atrocity on the scale of the Holocaust, do we deserve to exist?” And then it doesn’t answer, because the implication is blatantly “no.” And I’m not saying Über is, like, a fucking Imre Kertész The-Adventures-Of-Captain-Fateless comic book or something, but it always feels ready to travel into those dark places and come back empty-handed because there’s not actually anything to bring back from shit like that, just misery and emptiness. Not bad for a comic that I think started as Avatar wanting to print a bunch of drawings of war crimes.
VELVET: Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting 20th-century-pop spy comics, I’ll take ten.
THE WICKED + THE DIVINE: Illogical Volume over at the Mindless Ones had a post about this comic that was just Principal Skinner going “Am I so out of touch? No. No, it’s the children who are wrong.” and I sympathize with that to a large degree. It’s an interesting and fun comic book but I feel so fucking old when I read it. It’s not half as much of a pain in the neck in that sense as Young Avengers was, but there are few comics that so nimbly remind me that I’m not nineteen anymore (and that I probably was a piece of shit when I was nineteen anyway, because most nineteen-year-olds are). There’s some stuff like when the Lucifer character says shit like “I like to do cocaine. This is interfering with me doing some cocaine. It sucks that I’m not doing cocaine! Let’s do some cocaine.” in the space of what feels like 1.5 pages, where the sheer repetition of an already thin joke makes me go “yeah, that sounds like a joke a teenager would beat into the ground,” and I don’t know, teens aren’t very fucking funny, just look at Vine.
ZERO: Ales Kot Appearance #3. Refer to the Secret Avengers commentary above. If Secret Avengers is a playful roadmap to cool ideas that might happen to have a point here and there like a cherry on top, though, this is the Serious Business Comic where the people making it are Actually Saying Something. I enjoy it but occasionally it’s so determined to impress upon me that it’s Actually Saying Something that it knocks me out of actually connecting with the story at hand. Still — I’m still buying it, aren’t I?
I buy too many fucking comic books…
November 7, 2014
I don’t have a crazed rant in me this week (or a review of anything, for that matter), but I have something much, much worse: thoughts about the New Warriors.
A guy I work with — who’s been in the thick of fandom and at the fringes of the industry for way longer than I’ve been alive — once said to me that back in the 1960s, comic book fans were nerds… but fans of the Legion of Super-Heroes were nerds. Spider-Man fans didn’t come up with official charters for their clubhouses. I got what he meant.
When I was a kid, New Warriors fans seemed like the same kind of people to me. You have to remember, I was six years old in 1991. I was a dedicated follower of Uncanny X-Men and X-Force, largely because those were the only two Marvel comics my local convenience store reliably carried. The New Warriors were only known to me through trading cards, guest appearances, and the occasional random issue I found in some exotic location like the nearby pharmacy’s spinner rack. But I had friends who were big New Warriors followers, and as much of a dork as I was for liking Cannonball, these guys could be insufferable, acting like a comic featuring a skateboarding guy named “Night Thrasher” was way more mature and adult than any other Marvel book running.
I guess, to single-digit-age humans, the baffling 1990s-ness of New Warriors — see also, anything Rich Rider ever wore, and anything Speedball ever said — was perceived as an accurate, hip portrayal of young adult life to cretinous children (LIKE MYSELF) who didn’t know any better. I didn’t quite buy it, but I don’t know if I thought X-Force was more realistic to the concerns and travails of adult life, or what. Dialogue like Warpath in that one issue, “Sorry, I always totally zone out when I listen to Porno for Pyros on my Discman…”
I’m revisiting the early New Warriors stuff now, for no adequately explained reason. I found a bunch of it in a discount bin at work and read through it all, and found the first New Warriors Classic trade to flip through. In the back, they have Fabian Nicieza’s original proposal for the book, with editor Danny Fingeroth’s hand-written notes.
From Nicieza’s proposal: “And Speedball? How about if he always shows up late! Eventually, to get to NYC faster, he will jump in front of an Amtrak Express Train to gain the necessary kinetic backlash…”
Fingeroth’s hand-written note next to that, circled: “NO!”
Someone else’s handwriting, next to that note: “Maybe.”