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There aren’t many artists I’d spend that kind of money on a sketch from, but Arthur Adams is definitely one of them. I don’t have a rolling huge blob of text to attach to this one, because really, you’re not looking at the text in this post anyway — just to say that this is Adams drawing Jonni Future, a character he and Steve Moore thought up for the America’s Best Comics line around the turn of the millennium. Jonni Future was some of Adams’s best work, especially in that it honored many of his disparate influences without explicitly referencing them like a lot of his gigs tend to do.

Adams was the first guy that made me realize that different people created comics, that they weren’t just spat out from a factory — his 1991 Marvel Universe trading cards are ones locked into my memory banks as a pivotal moment in both fandom and understanding basic things about art. I’m still not even sure this drawing is real, that’s how much an Art Adams sketch means to me.

-LTZ

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So I drove down to East Coast Comicon. Last year it was Asbury Park Comicon, but now it’s not. It’s bigger than Asbury was, from what I heard, but it’s still not really big — it had a few choice names but you could walk the floor and survey every booth in ten minutes even if you stopped somewhere in the middle for a cigarette. I table-sat for five minutes for J, the creator of Farlaine the Goblin, so maybe give his comic a look. Anyway.

While the feeling of a con going through puberty and growing pains was charmingly awkward (to an extent), my main disappointment with East Coast Comicon was the selection of merchandise. Now that the speculators are back, comics dealers — being, at the best of times, fucking carnies — are trying to fleece as much off of them as possible before collecting comics isn’t “hot” anymore. So every table had $50 Spider-Gwen variants, but I was hard-pressed to find many assorted-garbage bargain bins for cheaper than $2. It’s all variants, key issues, CGC, and CGC’ed variants of key issues…

I spent $20 total on comic books at East Coast Comicon. Here’s how it broke down.

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AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #205, 226, 227 ($1 each): Some early Black Cat issues, in chewed-over condition but suitable for reading and then chucking in the recycling. I’ve always liked the Black Cat as a member of Spider-Man’s supporting cast, dating back to when I was a total Spider-freak in my misguided youth (during the height of the Clone Saga, no less). I know she’s a big deal now ever since Terry Dodson started drawing her with truly enormous breast implants, but my loyalty lies with the still-Code-Approved version of the character, especially that weird little run in Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man (by Mantlo and Milgrom, I think) where she got bad-luck powers to be Spider-Man’s sidekick, and just ended up jinxing him constantly. I thought that stuff was great. #205 was at one point very mildly controversial because it’s the second part of a story that was started by Marv Wolfman and then finished by David Michelinie, who pretty much invented the “stalker of Spider-Man” angle on his own, but compared to shit like people doing Howard the Duck comics in 2015, it’s small stuff. Total spent: $3.00

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GEN13 3-D #1, GEN13 & GENERATION X 3-D #1 ($1 each): I found a vein of Art Adams Gen13 material in one dollar bin, and my only regret about that is that they only had the J. Scott Campbell covers for these two, which is like getting a cheeseburger on a bun made of human shit. Gen13 3-D #1 has a story written and drawn by Art Adams, where the Gen13 kids go to the mall and fight dinosaurs, because that’s what Adams wanted to draw, I guess. The Generation X one is written by Brandon Choi, so the only meaningful review I can give of its story is “at least it’s pretty.” The 3-D on these is sort of inconsistent — some panels have random lines that they seemingly forgot to 3-D-ize, which sometimes fucks up the depth perception of a panel, and on top of that, looking at mid-90s Wildstorm computer colors through 3-D glasses is a great way to give yourself permanent damage. Total spent: $5.00

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GEN13 & MONKEYMAN & O’BRIEN #1, 2 ($1 each): From the same vein of Adams Gen13 mentioned above, this was a two-issue series where Gen13 met Adams’s creator-owned characters, and then all of them met their mirror-universe evil twins. It’s a feather-light lark, but Adams was drawing what he wanted and put his own sense of humor — wry, articulate, just a little corny and just a little juvenile — into the script. There were like six different covers of #1 in the bin I found them in, so I picked the chromium-effect one, because if you can get the chromium cover for the same price, then why not? Total spent: $7.00

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BATMAN ANNUAL #14 ($1), SUICIDE SQUAD #22 ($2), SPIDER-WOMAN #16 ($3): Three comics I bought for their brutality. Batman Annual #14 and Suicide Squad #22 are ones that warped me as a kid. I think I first read them both around age nine. Batman Annual was the post-Crisis origin of Two-Face, retold by Andy Helfer and Chris Sprouse as a tale of psychological damage, parental abuse, nude serial killers, hypocrisy giving birth to savagery… I first read it juxtaposed with a bunch of goofy Silver Age stories in a “Best of Two-Face and the Riddler” trade paperback that came out to tie in with Batman Forever. I was unprepared for how upsetting it was, and that’s why I still love it today. Suicide Squad #22, I found in a dime bin way back when — it’s the issue where Deadshot returns to duty after his son has been murdered by a pedophile, has a breakdown mid-mission, assassinates a U.S. Senator and then tries to commit suicide by cop. Short of the actual Deadshot mini-series, it might be the darkest point in John Ostrander and Luke McDonnell’s Suicide Squad, and it just might be the best. Spider-Woman, I discovered later — this past year, in fact. #16 is the issue where Mark Gruenwald culminates a plotline of Nekra running a cult by having her and Spider-Woman beat each other half to death in a way that’s startlingly physical for a 1979 Marvel comic — and dig that Sienkiewicz cover, one of the highlights of his Neal Adams phase. Total spent: $13.00

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TYPHOID #1, 2, 3, 4 autographed by Ann Nocenti ($1 per autograph): One of the first comics I remember buying is an Ann Nocenti / John Romita Jr. Daredevil, which was full of stuff that soared clear over my head then but still felt cool. The Typhoid mini-series, starring her Daredevil villain/paramour Typhoid Mary and her multiple personalites, was that in extremis: I was probably 10 when it came out, and a Tarantino-spoofing series about police corruption, sex workers, mental disorders, the patriarchy, and all the rest was a little past me then. As an adult? I’m honestly pretty amazed Marvel published this mini at all. I brought my own copies to the show to have signed. While we were talking about the comic, I mentioned I’d just recently re-read it, and Nocenti asked me, in her watery New York voice: “So am I crazy?” I told her that hey, if she is, that’s her business, and she laughed and then charged me for the autographs. Total spent: $17.00

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SUPERMAN FAMILY #166 ($3): I just picked this one up on a whim, really. The main cover is some prime Super-Dickery (“Lois told me to meet her here! Why can’t she ever be on time?” while he ignores Lois getting chucked off a building by a robot). Maybe the story will live up to that cover image, but who knows. I’m also intrigued by the “Superbaby Captures Pumpkin Gang!” story, because what an arbitrary-seeming title to affix to that generic gun-melting image. Last question: when has Lois Lane ever worn an outfit as vampy as the one in her Superman Family sidebar shot? Total spent: $20.00

-LTZ

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One of the weirder parts of running a comic book shop is when someone sells you a collection and you find their secret stash of porno. I once picked up 20 longboxes from a guy who was moving house and had to unload, and mixed in through all the boxes were copies of Alice in Sexland and Extreme Bondage Fairies and all the other late-90s hentai manga that was dutifully flipped for raincoat-wearing American consumers. Another collection had a complete run of the “adults only” versions of Barry Blair’s Leather and Lace, where Blair asked and answered the question “where’s all the porn full of supposedly 18-year-old boys who look 11?”

In a box of Conan stuff I just picked up, I found Eros Comix’s The Erotic Worlds of Frank Thorne #1. This isn’t exactly a concealed timebomb of perversion, and it at least was of a piece with all the painted covers of busty slave girls looking on in shock as Conan wrestles a monster… Still, there’s that little awkward moment between me and the comic box. “So, this guy as into Erotic Worlds, huh.”

The first issue of The Erotic Worlds of Frank Thorne was a new (1990) story featuring Ghita, who’s basically Red Sonja, the character Thorne became famous for drawing. Except instead of being a red-haired she-devil with a sword, Ghita is a blonde “whore-goddess,” whatever that means. The premise is the same: fantasy land, the Antediluvian World, full of swords and bikinis passing for armor. I like Thorne’s Red Sonja, so I paid myself a dollar and decided to give Ghita a whirl.

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The story in Erotic Worlds #1 is called “The Deathman’s Head,” and I’m still not sure what’s going on in it. Ghita and her cronies (“Thenef, the sham wizard; and Dahib, the former dung-carrier of Zephyran”) get a message from another city that an old flame of Ghita’s is about to be executed, so they go to that city, save the guy from being beheaded, Ghita has sex with the executioner, and then kills him, the end. So far, so filler-issue-of-Heavy-Metal.

What kept me interested is that Thorne is a weird, weird guy. It might be expected of someone as devoted as he is to cosplay — before “cosplay” was even a thing, he was dressing up as (to quote Grant Morrison) a “dirty old wizard,” with comely lasses dressed in chainmail posing as Sonja, or Ghita, or whoever. The dialogue in this comic has the same tin ear for any lifelike human quality that Kirby had, just drowned in D&D fantasyspeak and porno bluntness (“Ho! A fine trick, mage! I thought you were inept at magic. Now conjure up a boner and let’s try again!” — and at one point Ghita curses, “Dunnnng!”). It makes reading “The Deathman’s Head” as a story frustrating, but vaguely compelling in a b-movie kind of way — where I’m not sure if I’m supposed to laugh at Ghita and the executioner’s sex causing a pile of skulls to scatter everywhere, or take it without a drop of irony.

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Then there’s the people in this comic. Only Ghita is a stunning beauty — everyone else is tall and gangly, or short and squat, or missing a leg, or moon-faced in extremis, or lard-assed, or… But at the end of the story, having chopped off a man’s head during a militia siege slash public sex show, Ghita retires to bed with a collection (more like a dogpile) of odd monsters, hung dwarves, and boil-marked Peter Lorre types. I don’t think there’s any real lesson to be learned from that, but it’s just so against convention — the warrior-woman usually rides off into the sunset, still ironclad in chastity or feeling the loneliness of a love who’s been murdered — that it sticks in the mind. For a day or two, anyway.

-LTZ

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Was going through some old folders during a spring cleaning binge and I found some notes dated 2011 (I wonder why I dated them) that I think were for an article I wanted to do on Batman, for another website elsewhere in the cosmos.

I don’t think any of it ever made it past these notes, but since nothing is ever a coincidence, I found these in the same week in which Multiversity: Ultra Comics #1 came out — I am in touch with Intellectron, here.

Caps are in the original, italics are 2015 highlighting; this was written in sharpie on a rumpled piece of looseleaf:

A GOOD MODERN BATMAN STORY IS ONE IN WHICH THE NARRATION – SIGNATURE ELEMENT OF THE MODERN POST-MILLER BAT – INVITES US TO FEEL AS BATMAN FEELS, BY ENGAGING OUR OWN EMOTIONAL CENTERS THROUGH THE TIGHTY CONTROLLED RHYTHMS AND WAVES OF BATMAN’S HARD-AS-NAILS RUNNING DOCUMENT OF HIS NEVER-COOLING SYNAPSES. BATMAN’S THOUGHT PROCESS IS FRACTURED INTO CRYSTAL PIECES OUR OWN THOUGHTS + EXPERIENCES CAN SLINK AROUND, INFECTING BATMAN WITH OUR OWN THOUGHTS MORE THAN VICE VERSA. A BAD BATMAN STORY IS ONE IN WHICH HE IS SO RESOLUTE AND SEPARATE FROM US THAT WE ARE OBSERVERS – WATCHING SOMEONE ELSE, DOUBLING THE PASSIVITY OF A SEDENTARY ACTIVITY. 

COMICS SUCCEED BY REMINDING US THAT WE ARE ALIVE

I suppose it’s your move, Ales Kot.

-LTZ

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4398291-01MULTIVERSITY: 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:

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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.

-LTZ

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Snowed in today with no work and no physical access to civilization. So let’s clear out some of the comics that are sitting on my desk, waiting to be sullied by the touch of hoo-man hands. First takes, live, no overdubs, except for replacing Bernie Leadon’s vocals. (Soundtrack: Aphex Twin, Selected Ambient Works 85-92.)

bp1BITCH PLANET #1-2

Written by Kelly Sue DeConnick; illustrated by Valentine de Landro; colored by Cris Peter; published by Image Comics.

Now this, this is interesting. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect out of Bitch Planet — the ratio of gimmick to substance is obfuscated by those covers, great as they are. When last I checked in with Kelly Sue DeConnick, it was in the pages of her new Barbarella translation, so I half expected a comic that would play out as a camp tongue-in-cheek mockery of the Caged Heat kind of stuff, the movies where a tough but glamorous white girl gets chucked behind bars and has to deal with the crude advances of the Teutonic lesbian warden, where during the riots the women know to stick to body blows lest anyone’s face get unprettied, et cetera. Basically, my assumption was that this thing was going to be leaden with irony.

Instead, it’s played pretty straight. Valentine de Landro doesn’t draw it like a Chaos! Comics backs-arched-girls-now-chests-out clothes-off-pose-off, he draws it like a murky, indistinct place of shadow and trouble. The titular (no pun intended, officer) “Bitch Planet” is an offworld prison for “non-compliant” women, ranging from crooks and killers to inconvenient spouses. Earth is under total patriarchal control, and violent league sports are a tool of population control, not just to keep them docile but also to keep them virile. (Reading this the day after Super Bowl Sunday is especially interesting; this comic is having its cake and eating it too, in that the people who say “sportsball” like it’s an original joke that they came up with themselves to show their disdain for sports can enjoy the portrayal of sports as an agent of control, while the comic still gets to tell an actual sports narrative of the team coming together and — I’d assume, anyway — making it to the big game.)

Kamao Kogo, the lead character, has a scar running through her lip and towards her cheek, like a string that she can yank to generate a sneer. Slit mouths is the kind of badass scar you don’t see associated with women often, if at all: you see it on guys like the Joker, or Joaquin Phoenix, or the Scottish guy on Sons of Anarchy, or my father under his beard. (Sledding accident.) Bitch Planet is full of little tricks like that, reversing the traditional “beautiful female protagonist” checklist by giving Kam a facial disfigurement, an unruly afro, a dark skin color. It’s obvious stuff, but right after saying “that’s so obvious” you realize no one’s actually doing it on a big stage, just in screencaps of their self-designed Dragon Age characters.

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COPRA #19

By Michel Fiffe; published by Copra Press.

It’s back! When last we left the intrepid souls of the Copra force, they did a run of solo spotlight issues, filling in some of the blanks of the group’s histories and personalities — all the better to differentiate them as more than Hong Kong knockoffs of the Suicide Squad. Then came a gap, and now #19 is back to business, where Copra go up against Asesinos (i.e., the Marauders, the ultimate-badass X-Men villains of the 1980s, whose claim to fame was going into a sewer and slaughtering wholesale the homeless mutants who lived there).

It’s early going yet in this leg of the story, but the fallout from the first twelve issues is still settling: Changó (AKA Not Bronze Tiger) and Zoë (AKA Not Typhoid Mary) are the new conscripts for the Copra team, alongside mainstays like Wir, Gracie, and Castillo. This is already a promising start, and shows how far Michel Fiffe has come in just 18 issues: there is a world here, built up and continuously expanding, and I’m eager to see the map getting bigger and bigger. It reminds me of the better parts of Savage Dragon: Erik Larsen’s freedom to build up whatever plotline he wanted, from any direction he chose, meant that each weird little background character (like Changó and Zoë previously were) was important and worth noticing, because you never knew who’d end up getting promoted to featured-player status. And like the betters parts of Savage Dragon, it looks like Copra is heading for some serious violence.

dnd1THE DYING & THE DEAD #1

Written by Jonathan Hickman; illustrated by Ryan Bodenheim; colored by Michael Garland; published by Image Comics.

(Soundtrack changes to Psychic TV’s Temporary Temple.)

The Dying & the Dead #1 has, no fooling, 59 pages of content. I originally typed “59 pages of story,” but then thought better of it, because after 59 pages I still don’t really have much of a fucking clue what about this story took 59 pages to tell.

So let’s recap: a guy who looks like Martin Scorsese’s older brother marries a woman in 1969. On their wedding night, the woman’s twin sister and a bunch of Diabolik-masked assassins bust in and kill the guy, so that they can use his special ring to unlock a secret room full of samurai words, ancient scrolls, and Nazi memorabilia (albeit with the swastika reversed, and this is the sort of obnoxious comic where I can’t tell what’s a clue to the story and what’s just an art error). They take a box containing some kind of artifact, and the twin sister kills the woman who just got married, for whatever reason. Then we meet “the Colonel” (this is on page sixteen or so and I don’t think he’s actually addressed by a human name until at least page forty), an older man who’s keeping vigil over his deathly ill wife. He’s visited by an albino  in a white trenchcoat and hat, who is possibly only able to be seen by the Colonel. (Either that, or he’s a master of hiding from others by simply standing in a corner.) The albino promises to take the Colonel to meet “the Bishop,” who might be able to help with the whole dying-wife thing. Then we’re at Martin Scorsese’s funeral, and his brother, who I’m pretty sure is meant to be Michael Caine in the movie Pulp, uses his own special ring to unlock the secret room and discover the artifact, whatever it is, missing. The assassins return to Germany with the artifact and it turns out they’re all clones or something, and they present the artifact, the Bah al’Sharur, to their leader. (Because the “Bah al’Sharur” is not explained — as much as anything is explained here — until something like page fifty-eight, for a while I thought it was supposed to be the leader’s name.) The Colonel is driven out into the desert by the albino guy, who natters on and on in vague terms about choices, and life, and death. Then he’s met by the Second, advisor to the Bishop, who’s also an albino, but a young sort-of-goth woman. They get ferried to a magic-mushroom underground city where the laws of physics seem to half-apply, and which the Colonel insists he previously visited, when it was “burning,” which the Second says never happened. We are given no further explanation of the underground city. Then the Colonel meets the Bishop, who spends pages and pages telling him not to take the deal he’s offering, which is to get back the Bah al’Sharur in exchage for curing his wife of cancer. On the last page, the Colonel decides he’s taking the deal.

Boiled down to the massive paragraph above, it all seems pretty straightforward, but this semi-straightforward plot is wrapped up in layer upon layer of what i can really only describe as blather. Everyone in The Dying & the Dead just goes on and on and on, in the exact same vague tone, such that it’s possible to actually miss important plot details because they’re buried in a three-page conversation that only hits the important part in one panel. The old line in show business is that to perform, you tell the audience what you are about to do, you do it, and then you tell them it has been done. This is a comic where steps one and three are skipped. Hickman comics in general appeal to a certain set, the same way high-priced Swiss watches appeal to a certain set — tell me all you want about the intricately precise gears moving in exact formation, buddy, but it’s still just watch guts to my eyes.

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SUPERMAN #32-37

“The Men of Tomorrow, Chapters One through Six” Written by Geoff Johns; penciled by John Romita Jr.; inked by Klaus Janson; colored by Laura Martin; published by DC Comics.

(Took a break from all this hard work reading comics to go shovel some snow. Now that I’m back, soundtrack jumps to Hype Williams’s One Nation.)

I don’t have a lot of in-depth commentary about this one, but it’s well-done. John Romita Jr. is the modern-day Jack Kirby in terms of his ability to convey power, motion, and awe-inspiring scope. Klaus Janson is a weird choice of inker, because he brings a lot of grit to a character and setting who don’t especially need it, but if the other choice is like, Danny Miki or whoever the fuck, then bring on Janson any day. Romita is clearly loving this gig, and so is Geoff Johns, who approaches the Superman cast of characters with the same reverence and love that Paul Jenkins used to show in a lot of his Peter Parker: Spider-Man stuff. The Last Son of Krypton takes on the Last Son of Earth here, and the storyline is nothing truly revolutionary, but it’s solid as a rock and gets in some good left-turns. If you need a New 52 Superman fix, it’s the best product a doctor can prescribe.

tnc1TOOTH & CLAW #1; THE AUTUMNLANDS: TOOTH & CLAW #2

Written by Kurt Busiek; illustrated by Benjamin Dewey; colored by Jordie Bellaire; published by Image Comics.

And to think: for years, it seemed like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was the most respectable plateau funny-animal comics could reach. But here we are, with scribe of note Kurt Busiek and interesting new artist Benjamin Dewey launching the talking dogs and owls’ gambit for a place on the shelf next to A Game of Thrones. I’m not the high-fantasy type, myself, but Busiek has laid out a world that’s easy to understand, and Dewey and Jordie Bellaire have made that easily-understood world also interesting to look at, so they already have a leg up on all the fantasy creators whose heads are crammed firmly up their own asses.

-LTZ

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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

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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

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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.

swn

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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