Today, X-O Manowar #1 came out–it’s at the end of this post–thus relaunching the Valiant Universe. (VH-3?) My store guy, which is to say, the guy ringing me up at the store I go to, let me know that a new customer came in, opened up a store subscription folder, and put himself down for two copies of every cover released by the new Valiant. Welcome back to 1992, y’all, just without a Wizard to tell us our Master Darque debuts are worth $100+.
Don’t worry, though, I’m sure a CGC’d X-O Manowar Pullbox Variant will pay off beyond your wildest dreams.
Personally, I’m more annoyed by the economic realities of Record Store Day. Nothing general or even principled, mind. I’m just upset that none of the local chains seem to have ordered any copies of the Record Store Day exclusive reissue of Here Comes Everybody by the Wake, and I keep seeing it on eBay for, like, a hundred dollars. Speaking as someone who wants the record but doesn’t want to pay $100 for it, that is objectively complete bullshit. At least all my comics came in, I guess, even if none of this week’s comics are probably as good as “Talk About the Past.”
Besides, I need that hundred dollars to afford to get into MorrisonCon.
DC Comics. Written by Grant Morrison. Illustrated by Gene Ha. Colored by Art Lyon. Backup story written by Scholly Fisch, illustrated by Cully Hamner, and colored by Dave McCaig.
I don’t know if they’re just more prevalent lately, or if I’m simply of a mind to notice them more, but it seems like every single week I pick up a DC book and there’s some flubbed editorial moment that makes me go “ugh, guys, don’t operate page proofs unless you’re all the way awake.” Case in point: page 2 of Action Comics #9, which is a perfectly fine page except for a pair of bizarrely placed word balloons. In the second panel of the page, Gene Ha left a lot of room above the character’s head, obviously to put in a word balloon–but that space is left totally ignored, filled in with dull dark green, creating an empty space that throws off the rhythm of the scene. It’s not like this is X-Men #1–where Tom Brevoort’s tumblr took pains to point out how Stan Lee clearly wrote more copy than panels could reasonably fit, causing entire figures to hide behind word balloons. There are two lines on this page, two images, and some credits. Fumbling it just makes it looks like amateur hour, and worse, diminishes what you’re trying to do.
That’s the page, on whatever side of the column I happen to stick it to when I go in later and add images. “IT’S EVERYTHING ELSE ABOUT YOU I HATE!” Luthor howls, in giant letters that match the unhinged barking rage that Ha’s drawn across his face. Then, down below, in much smaller text, “Don’t ever forget that!” The sequential placement–the eye travels down and toward the left a bit, toward the infoblock of the credits–reduces the immediacy of the follow-up statement, and the drastic change in size reduces the apoplectic fury by the time we get to that little second balloon, as if Luthor’s mania had lasted exactly one sentence. The stillness of the empty background–green, which despite being the symbol of lethal kryptonite, is a psychologically soothing color–provides the effect of giving us a micro-second of a breather between RAGE SENTENCE and Slightly Less Rage Sentence, enough to disrupt the rhythm of Luthor’s hatred.
If it seems like I’m harping on this one little moment too much–yes, I am, and I’ll cop to that. Art Lyon isn’t a bad colorist by any stretch–he gave the previous Action Comics Krypton sequences he did with Ha an eerie, otherworldly quality that separated it squarely away from the Morales/Anderson “normal world’s normal past” scenes. If anyone should be offered a blindfold and a cigarette on this, it’s likely the assistant editor, Wil Moss–I don’t know for a fact that he places the word balloons on the page proofs, but it’s either him or Matt Idelson. Whoever’s to blame, it’s a brief spoiling moment in an otherwise pretty great comic. A year ago, I’d probably have just rolled by eyes at a little flub like this, but I guess I’m just crankier now that I’m officially elderly, i.e. late twenties.
The idea of Action Comics #9–which takes place on Earth-23, home of Calvin Ellis, President Superman from Final Crisis–is that in yet another alternate dimension, three friends named Clark, Lois, and Jimmy invented a machine that manifested thoughts and ideas, and a grand corporate mechanism conquered their innovation and used it to create Superman: a nihilistic, all-consuming fascist force of media saturation that holds modern society in its palm and keeps its consumers docile and subservient. “DIAL 911 IF YOU WITNESS ANYTHING SUSPICIOUS,” a billboard above the swastika-esque Superman logo reads, “WIN VALUABLE PRIZES!” Immediately after the scene in which this dystopia is introduced, we are greeted with a two-page splash advertising Before Watchmen.
Grant Morrison’s Supergods was a fascinating book in its haphazard, indulgent documentation of Morrison’s own thought processes, but his analysis of Siegel and Shuster’s Great Comic Book Rip-Off erred a bit toward the position of “yeah, well, that’s life.” His defenses of DC and the comic industry in general have sparked criticism by those who think he’s lost touch with his radical roots and gotten complacent–at worst, there have been accusations of outright stoogedom. Here, the creators of a superhero who threatens to destroy them is exiled to another world where another (fictional) superhero welcomes them with open arms. On the one hand, it’s a biting swipe at the corporate yolk that’s keeping Morrison fed. On the other, that sort of ending–everything will turn out OK when it looks like a job for Superman–puts his loyalty firmly with ideas, rather than people. It was a corporation’s idea to make the evil Superman in this story a force for consumerism and obedience–Calvin Ellis’s Superman offers the point that provided no forces corrupt or exploit an idea, and it’s supported by those who are themselves good, it will blossom into something righteous. Tellingly, Calvin Ellis is President of the United States, a position where the public can only be overwhelmingly satisfied by fictional representations, freed from the too-real concerns of economic and political tightropes. “We’re talking about a man with the highest approval rating since President Rickard back in the ’70s–and he earned it,” as Scholly Fisch elaborates in his inoffensive but hardly essential backup story. As ever, Grant Morrison wraps his–and our–troubles in dreams.
Marvel Comics. Written by Dan Slott. Penciled by Humberto Ramos. Inked by Victor Olazaba. Colored by Edgar Delgado.
“It’s my war,” Spider-Man says at one point in this comic book–”my command, and we do things my way.” As I’ve noted every other week for a while now, Ends of the Earth–the current Spider-Man storyline, about Spider-Man engaging in a season of 24 against Doctor Octopus–feels hollow at its core, like it’s missing the human dimensions that separate proper Spider-Man stories from the rest of comics (and from bad Spider-Man stories). As the entire world declares Spider-Man and his allies (movie star Black Widow and consistently-cancelled Silver Sable), the storyline makes a hard left into being essentially the same thing as Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.
Late in the issue, we get a forceful, sharp shove in the ribs–oh, you know, Spider-Man’s out to save the world because he cares so much about Mary Jane, which justifies complicity in Silver Sable torturing Sandman with acid–but it’s too little, too late. The stakes have already been too clearly defined as existing outside of Spider-Man’s own personal sphere… and Doctor Octopus’s, too, for that matter. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol got away with this sort of thing through sheer visual spectacle and a general affability mixed in with its grim nuclear-holocaust proclamations. Tom Cruise may never express a human emotion in that movie–it would take away from his ability to concentrate on his pneumatic robo-Jenner running around–but that also meant things stayed light, and never dour. Here, we have the scowling, scalp-tugging palette of modern comic storytelling wedded to a maximalist, bigger-is-bigger plotline, and it’s like reading about some other Spider-Man, one that’s about stopping the bad guys first and distantly remembering his own personal issues later, right down to the fact that he can’t even spend Ends of the Earth in his own clothes.
Marvel Comics. Written by Christos Gage. Penciled by Tom Grummett. Inked by Cory Hamscher. Colored by Chris Sotomayor.
It doesn’t take a naked Hercules on the first page of Avengers Academy #29 to cement its current role as that of Marvel’s fan-service comic–but it helps. As a result of Avengers vs. X-Men, the X-Men’s various teenagers–along with characters who they don’t plan to make use of within the main series, such as Madison Jeffries–come to Avengers Academy to wait out the war. What this means, in practice, is that we get an issue of small moments designed to wink at longtime readers, because with this many characters, there’s not a lot of room for much else. (Gage still manages to fit in a villain plot, paying off Generation Hope‘s bar tab, but’s just a sapling here.)
There’s a sub-section of X-Men fans–typically the sort of people who loudly interject that they don’t read comics anymore because comics just aren’t good and haven’t been since the last time their particular tastes were pandered to–who are still bitter at stuff like Chris Yost and Craig Kyle killing off “truly” “excellent” characters like Wallflower and Tag, solely to reduce the cast of New X-Men to a manageable number. These are the fans who place substantial importance on the idea that characters continue to live in the margins of a shared universe even beyond the cancellation of their titles. As a result, some of these fans–not all, but certainly more than zero–use the cast of a comic book as a measure of quality. An example would be, say, Jubilee, who disappeared from comics for a couple years because no one had anything for her to do. When she suddenly reappeared as a major player in Victor Gischler’s X-Men, it didn’t matter that Gischler was changing the character’s status quo or not really writing great stories. It mattered that he was using Jubilee, and thus validating all the Jubilee-hopes and Jubilee-dreams of the fans who had been waiting for another peephole glimpse into the character’s theoretically-infinite life. This arc of Avengers Academy is all but a clearly labeled shout-out to this kind of fan, as various cancelled and forgotten and dormant characters pop up largely because they can: Hercules, Surge, Loa, the Stepford Cuckoos, the Generation Hope cast…
There is, of course, a simple pleasure for fans of a shared universe to see that universe being shared. (Any substantial research into this phenomenon would necessarily take into account the work, both creative and editorial, of Mark Gruenwald.) That makes up the bulk of this issue of Avengers Academy. We see Wolverine and X-23 have a long-delayed conversation. We also see X-23 and former New X-Men castmate Dust catch up. Hercules mentions his little buddy Amadeus Cho, and attempts to teach the Academy kids Greco-Roman wrestling. Mettle and Loa, both Hawaiian-surfer characters, have a bonding moment. Surge sasses Tigra, because Surge is sassy and Surge fans, all four of them, want to see her sass. Meanwhile, White Tiger, a principal member of the Avengers Academy cast, doesn’t have a single line, let alone anything to do.
“Downtime” issues are a tradition of superhero comic books dating back to Claremont and Cockrum’s Uncanny X-Men, when characters would play a game of baseball or go camping in the woods to further define their personalities and relationships. Historically, this is at the very least a technically useful tool for X-Men comics, where huge casts tend to require crowded social activities to efficiently sketch out the webs of interaction between the team members and hangers-on. Avengers Academy just did a “look, this is how the Avengers Academy cast would interact with a bunch of fan-pleasing guest stars” story–the previous two issues devoted a great deal of space to banter between the kids and the Runaways. Avengers Academy, which started with such a sharp focus, has drifted away from that, and while Gage is a competent scripter who can keep it entertaining (and Grummett is the ideal choice to provide healthy, friendly renditions of the bright clean teens that fans want to see), the fangs of the book feel gone–Avengers Academy needs claws to match its cleverness.
Marvel Comics. Plotted by Jason Aaron, Brian Michael Bendis, Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction, and Jonathan Hickman. Scripted by Ed Brubaker. Penciled by John Romita Jr. Inked by Scott Hanna. Colored by Laura Martin.
I used to complain that Marvel tried to cram too much into their seven-issue event mini-series. Some of them felt borderline staccato in their pacing–racing from Big Moment to Big Moment to fit as much sensation into the book as possible. Civil War was especially guilty of this: once the stakes were set up, the book fragmented into a billion micro-confrontations, and without the intentional desynchronization of Final Crisis‘s armageddon scenario. “If only it had been twelve issues!” I said at the time, apparently requiring more than a single panel devoted to Captain Marvel’s return. (It later got its own five-issue series, which was nothing special aside from some tremendous Lee Weeks art, so I don’t know why I was so antsy about it.) Now that we have a twelve-issues-and-change crossover event series from Marvel, I find myself going “wow, they really could have gotten through this a bit more briskly.”
Ed Brubaker, he of the gifted long-game, is the scripter for issue three of Avengers vs. X-Men, and sets about his task like a professional. He’s built us a cupboard–sturdy, spacious, useful around the house, but ultimately more focused on function than on style or deep personal meaning. What we needed out of this issue was for the Avengers and the X-Men to separate long enough to launch separate searches for Little Phoenix Lost Hope Summers, and for Wolverine’s loyalty to be put to the test when his personal biases (“anti-Phoenix”) put the mission in jeopardy. So, all that stuff happens.
It goes down smoothly, for the most part, although like a lot of the series, it shrugs off moments of past continuity that would have, through mere invocation (rather than rambling explanation), given moments a context and weight that’s otherwise lacking.
Because the title is Avengers vs. X-Men and a fight needs to happen, Captain America and Wolverine throw down. On the page, it’s because of what I just mentioned–Logan’s Phoenix-rage makes him a loose cannon. What’s missing is the history between Cap and Logan that makes this confrontation and its harshness make sense. Longtime readers will have to logically parse for themselves the fact that Captain America has respected, but never particularly trusted Logan, and finds his willingness to abandon absolute morality as a mission requires to be, if not sickening, then at least unsettling. This rivalry and personality clash is nothing new–as I recall, Bendis has brought it up at least once during his Avengers tenure, when Wolverine was given membership pretty much solely based on his willingness to kill foes Cap or Iron Man wouldn’t–and, hell, Mike Zeck’s cover to Captain America Annual #8 is one of the most famous Marvel images of the 80s. This lack of history renders the extremity of the Cap/Logan fight–and its solution, which is the hinge that joins Garth Ennis’s Punisher and the ending of Scott Lobdell’s Uncanny X-Men run–almost meaningless, except as a way of shuffling the game pieces around on the board.
Likewise, Cyclops’s mole on Wolverine’s side of the X-Schism is revealed to be Rachel Grey (nee Summers, as in Scott Summers, as in Cyclops). This makes sense for a number of reasons, foremost among which are two thematically important notes, relevant to the current plot. Like Hope, Cyclops’s adopted granddaughter, Rachel is his descendant from a shattered alternate future, who came back in time and had to be molded from something raw and angry into a functional human being. The other, probably more important idea is that Rachel Grey–more than any other living character on either side of the conflict–understands the Phoenix Force, since she was its earthly host for the entire 1990s, in Excalibur (and later, Brubaker’s own Fall and Rise of the Shi’ar Empire in Uncanny X-Men). None of this is mentioned, of course! Cyclops’s mole might as well have been Husk, for all the dialogue mattered.
Avengers vs. X-Men is the opposite of what I was crying about above in Avengers Academy, although not as far gone as Amazing Spider-Man. The character beats have a consistency and sensibility that’s there, it’s just the onus of the reader to be able to find them, like Easter eggs. (Spider-Man, meanwhile, just seemed to go “Oh shit! Nearly forgot!”) Any bits of characterization not essential to the reorganization of the story, post-initial-brawl, got left on the cutting room floor. Where Avengers Academy had a surplus of long-time-reader pay-out moments, Avengers vs. X-Men–which even in its title exults the idea of a shared universe of characters–has none. There is a balance to be found, but Marvel is striking out left and right this week, trying to find their level.
Marvel Comics. Written by Mark Waid. Illustrated by Chris Samnee. Colored by Javier Rodriguez.
In the Avengers vs. X-Men ramble above, I pointed out the history of “downtime” issues amongst X-Men comics, where twice a year the world nearly ended because of whatever, and thus it was necessary to pick up the pieces here and there. This issue of Daredevil functions in much the same way: after The Omega Effect, the not-wholly-successful crossover that Daredevil played a major role in, this is an issue to re-orient us and further some of the less action-oriented subplots.
Matt Murdock and the new Assistant D.A., Kirsten McDuffie, go on a date at an amusement park, where Kirsten blindfolds herself to let Matt clue her in as to what it’s like living with blindness. This idea, cute as it is, is only referenced a couple times, while the bulk of the issue is given over to a flashback–Matt in law school, helping his best friend and legal-eagle life-mate Foggy Nelson get even with a tenured professor who’s giving him shit.
Back at this years Boston Comic Book Con, I overheard Daredevil co-artist Paolo Rivera talking about how Mark Waid apparently sent an apology to new co-artist Chris Samnee, because his first issue on the book would be all out-of-costume civilian-type stuff. According to Rivera, Samnee brushed the apology aside, because that “folks not wearing tight pants” stuff is what he loves to draw the most. It shows. Most of Samnee’s work that I’ve seen has leaned heavily on the noir side of things, and I’ve always respected his use of black space and shadow forms–as much as I do the undisputed master of such, Eduardo Risso. He seems to be working with a much more loose hand here, and it benefits the story greatly, bringing to mind both the sharp lines of the Phil Hester/Ande Parks team and the deft visual characterization of Sean Phillips. One page in particular, set in a New York City park as Matt and Foggy walk through it, bristled with activity like Simon Gane’s work in Paris.
So, yes, it’s a “downtime” issue, strengthening the running themes of the book if not the unsubtle end of its narrative, but it’s funny and it’s charming and it’s beautifully, beautifully drawn and colored, and if you can’t live with that, go cry in Frank Miller’s lap.
DC Comics. Written by Ann Nocenti. Illustrated by Harvey Tolibao. Colored by Mike Atiyeh and Richard & Tanya Horie.
Sometimes it takes me a bit of thought to figure out where it is Harvey Tolibao wants my eye to go in his panel compositions. He’s fond of action so dynamic that it swerves around the page recklessly, always teetering at the brink of incomprehensibility (and sometimes going over). The fight scenes in Green Arrow #9 seem totally disconnected from most known laws of physics–or at least, they refuse to acknowledge the physical space that said bodies are presumably moving within. Panel borders simply lose their authority in places.
The effect is not so much Crank 2 meth-binge montage, as something like Michael Snow’s La Region Centrale, or a less gravitationally sound take on the flying scenes in Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void. In Tolibao’s vision of the Green Arrow world, our view is fragmented and constantly shifting–we’re above the action, but also in the midst of it, but also at its feet, but also hovering behind its shoulder… These changes happen with the aggressive lateral shifts of a tilt-a-whirl.
In that respect, Tolibao’s art is a good match for Nocenti’s writing, which approaches Green Arrow like a saxophonist playing free jazz. She’s constantly throwing notes into the air, and if they don’t stick together into a coherent theme, it hardly matters. Green Arrow’s struggle against Leer, and the perverse family dynamic of Leer and his Skylarks, are the running motifs of Nocenti’s piece, and other things–a band of hunters, an old-west-style cowboy saloon, Arrow’s own monologues–are like brief, fiery bursts of air that dissipate as soon as they come, leaving no trace but for a general ringing in one’s ears. Appreciation for this kind of technique is an acquired taste.
Valiant Entertainment. Written by Robert Venditti. Penciled by Cary Nord. Inked by Stefano Gaudiano. Colored by Moose Baumann.
Restoring one of the handful of original ideas that Jim Shooter, Barry Windsor-Smith, et al. had in the early-90s heyday of Valiant, X-O Manowar tells the story of Aric, a Visigoth warrior–you know, from history!–who gains control of an alien battlesuit. In the classic X-O series, he used this armor to fill a role similar to Wolverine: that is, righteous dude who nonetheless ignores all known systems of rules and laws in favor of selfishly punching other dudes in the face. (In classic-Valiant’s crossover, Unity, his refusal to put the greater good above his own is a key plot point.)
Whether we’ll get something quite so sharp-edged here–well, who can tell, honestly? Despite being an extra-sized issue (I think; I’m not about to count), this #1 isn’t even the whole origin story. Aric fights some Romans, fights some aliens, gets taken captive, and observes the X-O armor. Next issue, according to the next-issue blurb, he will actually come face to face with it. The Aric-on-Earth scenes hit all the key genre marks, but unexceptionally so, like something you’d expect to see in one of Dynamite’s Red Sonja comics (albeit with Nord and Gaudiano’s art, which is excellent). More effective by half: the scenes of the aliens interacting with hoo-man society, which are creepy and sufficiently xenophobia-inducing–baby-tampering is a capital crime in the eyes of most readers, I’d imagine.
It’s all right, but I’m not sure exactly what I’m getting here that I couldn’t get elsewhere. Hopefully the Valiant Free Comic Book Day book can elaborate on that further, but right now, my Shooter back issues remain more attractive, if only because they’re more instantly distinctive.
April 18, 2012
This morning as the sun was rising I finished reading Palomar: The Heartbreak Soup Stories, the big hardcover of all of Gilbert Hernandez’s old Palomar stuff from the first series of Love and Rockets. It’s an intense read, but honestly, if you’re the sort of person who reads comic book blogs, I would hope you already know that. I don’t really know how to summarize what happens in the book, other than: “Somewhere south of the Mexican border, generations of people live and die, in glorious español unless otherwise noted.” Of the Hernandezes, I still think Jaime is the better artist–his strongest gift is his ability to effect nuanced, emotive facial expressions with so few lines that it looks effortless–but Palomar, if nothing else, cements Gilbert as the better storyteller. People always make big deals about the magical-realist elements of the series, but I barely noticed them. Compared to the patient lyricism of Beto’s characters, the truly fantastic stuff is small–the spice rather than the meat.
Palomar hits its peaks-among-peaks with the stories that delve into single characters’ perspectives on things: Holidays in the Sun with hardening jailbird Jesus Angel, Bullnecks and Bracelets with glamorously suffering Israel, For the Love of Carmen with awkwardly intellectual, sad-eyed Heraclio… The landscape of Palomar isn’t defined by the simple, almost blandly featureless homes, but by the intersections of the residents’ perceptions of one another. I won’t be so stupid as to describe the characters in Palomar as “real people”–of course not, they’re drawings and words–but the judicious selection of moments, thoughts, and dispositions is effective trompe l’oeil.
In the more spread-out stories like Human Diastrophism, Beto reveals himself as a master of true comic-art montage. We ride his scenes like waves until they break–shattering into quick flashes, managing to weave together multiple climaxes into something that leaves you disoriented, but never confused. It’s been a long time since I’ve torn through a comic this ravenously, and longer still since I could immediately consider it a masterpiece, elbowing its way into my personal canon.
What I’m getting at: if I say everything sucks this week, it’s because I spoiled myself rotten beforehand.
Marvel Comics. Written by Dan Slott. Penciled by Humberto Ramos. Inked by Victor Olazaba. Colored by Edgar Delgado.
Speaking from my position in the untouchable caste–that is, long-time fans of Spider-Man–I’m not sure how I feel about the current blockbuster mega-arc, Ends of the Earth. In the last installment, Doctor Octopus and the Sinister Six took the entire world hostage, defeated the heavy hitters of the Avengers in a matter of pages, and effortlessly sabotaged Spider-Man’s new, supposedly everything-proof Spider-Armor. In this issue, the two non-captured Avengers–Spider-Man and Black Widow–hook up with semi-obscure European mercenary Silver Sable, and fight the Sandman in the course of trying to block Ock’s plans to something something something.
The last Doctor Octopus vs. the World situation I can remember was around the release of Spider-Man 2, which featured Ock. To tie in, Paul Jenkins and Humberto Ramos did an arc of Spectacular Spider-Man. The arc–Countdown–continued the ongoing trend of Jenkins’ Spider-Man tenure, which was taking classic villains and humanizing them to an understandable, if not always sympathetic, degree. It was there–and in Zeb Wells and Kaare Andrews’ excllent Spider-Man/Doctor Octopus: Year One–that we learned about Doctor Octopus’s troubled childhood, which pushed him away from humanity and sanity and into the eight arms of science. The stakes of Countdown were potentially global, as Doc Ock kidnapped a Palestinian politician who was spearheading a peace accord, and directly personal: the price for the politician’s freedom was the unmasking of Spider-Man, his most hated and insurmountable foe. (By this point, Ock had already conquered death, after being offered up as cannon fodder to Clone Saga villain Kaine–a.k.a. the current Scarlet Spider. Spider-Man continuity isn’t usually as convoluted as the X-Men’s, but sometimes…)
The reason I bring up Countdown is that it puts into a sharper relief what’s missing from Ends of the Earth. Both stories exploit the Global Stakes/Personal Stakes dialogue–disrupting the Middle East peace process vs. frying the ozone layer, frustration with an enemy vs. facing the inevitability of death–but in execution, they’re inverses of one another. While Countdown‘s Ock Caper was certainly dangerous and in need of stopping, the real focus was on his emotional state and his adversarial relationship with Spider-Man. Here, people’s emotional motivations are a matter of course, treated like necessary set dressings in order to get to the real business of the story, which is all the high-tech one-upsmanship. Thus far, it’s a story of Spider-Man and Doctor Octopus going to increasingly absurd lengths to outsmart one another, with everything else a middling concern at best. It’s like if Sleuth forgot about the wife.
The saving grace is Humberto Ramos, for whom a character like the Sandman is an early Christmas gift. His antic, infinitely pliable bodies and his penchant for pop-eyed over-emoting are perfect for Spider-Man–note that he was on Countdown, too, nearly ten years ago. Outside of the Sandman scenes, though, I can’t really think of what to say. I wouldn’t want to read Ramos on a 24 comic, illustrating the tense, sweaty phone calls between Jack Bauer and the chick who hucked the baby on Mr. Show–and it’s not much of a step up for him to be drawing people talking into headsets and commlinks, and having the big triumphant moment come from thrusting iPhones at the villain until he confuses himself into a coma. If the story had the sort of emotional oomph that he could mine frantic body language from–like Spider-Island last year–it’d be different. But it’s not. Instead, we have a comic where Spider-Man is so wrapped up in some science-nerd rivalry that he doesn’t even think twice about effectively ripping someone’s living brain out of their body. I’m not sitting here, steaming like some hydra-headed editorial staff has perpetrated some horrific crime against imaginary real person Peter Parker, but I am left sitting here wondering where they missed the trick.
Marvel Comics. Plotted by Jason Aaron, Brian Michael Bendis, Ed Brubaker, Jonathan Hickman, and Matt Fraction. Scripted by Jason Aaron. Penciled by John Romita Jr. Inked by Scott Hanna. Colored by Laura Martin.
It comes back to this idea of comic books being written by committee, and whether or not that’s a good thing–or even a viable thing. It’s important to consider that previous comittee-driven comics that worked–as opposed to ones that didn’t work, such as Fear Itself–did so under specific storytelling circumstances. A quick list of things I thought “worked” (maybe not spectacularly in all cases, but they worked): Defiant and Broadway Comics, Brand New Day-era Amazing Spider-Man, the mini-series that rolled out in preparation for DC’s Infinite Crisis series…
In those three examples, what’s important is that the gathered heads put themselves together and came up with a big picture that could then be rolled out in separate but consistent pieces across an entire product line. Jim Shooter, JayJay Jackson, and others maintained a tight hold on Defiant/Broadway continuity by planning out the arcs and interrelationships of their various titles and then group-writing issues of each book–to that end, each part of the committee could both function as a peer-checker of the other members’ work, and a memory that might keep in mind certain interests or emphases that the others could forget. The significant trip-reset and architectural work necessary for Infinite Crisis was no doubt decided by committee and then parceled out to individual series. Each series could then be assigned to creators that fit the specific intent of each series, and they could do their own thing while achieving a piece of necessary Infinite Crisis set-up. Amazing Spider-Man, in its Brand New Day phase (#544-#647 or so), had writers’ conventions that would map out a year or so of storytelling, and then break it down further into arcs that played on each writer’s strengths, while chaining them all to the same necessary minimum of forward momentum regarding various subplots.
When it doesn’t work, it’s like eating a soup that has chunks of whatever people thought tasted good floating in it, with no regard for whether or not they taste good together. The modern crossover model, pioneered by Marvel–a core “essential” mini-series, that fans out into innumerable tie-ins that, in theory, support and expand upon it–malfunctions in a different way, where you get a taster’s plate by one chef, and then a shove in the direction of the buffet line and its cacophony of hot plate lids. So even if you liked the way one of those initial morsels tasted, the full-size portion of it is being prepared by someone else entirely, and it could just totally turn you off. A successful committee exercise is more like your choice of three courses, all consistently prepared by the same chef, even if the exact menu was decided above his head. You don’t want a pastry chef tasked with finding a way to incorporate hot chili and stir fry.
Alternately, a bad committee exercise is something like the song “We Will Rob You,” on Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II. Raekwon and GZA do the first and second verses, narrating tightly-focused crime-story narratives, and then Masta Killa arrives for the third and final verse and just burps out a list of all his Wu-Tang bros and some Nation of Islam stuff. Slick Rick is featured, but only sing-songs the chorus and a couple ad-libs besides, which is as cruel a bait and switch as anyone ever pulled. (Less cruel, but still blatant: Game’s “Martians vs. Goblins,” which credits Lil Wayne as a feature but just has Wayne wheezing “Bitch I’m a marsh” in what sounds like a sample from voice-mail message.)
And so we return to comics, and Avengers vs. X-Men. Well, on page one I hurled the comic away in a rage when Storm said “God help us” instead of “Goddess” like she always does. After I took a while to cool off, I stapled together the burnt remnants of the issue and read the rest of it.
As it turns out, I liked this a lot more than both #0 and #1. JRJR draws the fuck out of it–that will never be in dispute. Dig Cyclops’ dented visor after Cap clocks him with the shield. It’s a perfect little touch. Storywise, I don’t even think it’s entirely down to the change of scripters between #1 and #2–Aaron’s dialogue certainly wastes less space, but there’s less space in this one to waste, period. Hell breaks loose on page two, and continues throughout. The immediate comparison that jumps to mind is something like G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero #50, by Larry Hama and Rod Whigam. That book took time to pay off old subplots and introduce new ones in between the all-out (but curiously gore-free) carnage of the G.I. Joe team invading Springfield, an entire town that functioned as a front for the terrorist organization Cobra. Replace “the G.I. Joe team” with “the Avengers,” “terrorist organization Cobra” with “X-Men,” and “subplots” with “for more on Namor vs. Ben Grimm, see AvX: Vs. #1″ (although the comic actually offers no such indicator)–you get the idea.
Is this a success or a failure of the committee-written model, though? At this point, it could really go either way–the batting average is low, but it’s not .000 yet. What it really represents to me is a blown opportunity, because a huge event like this could have been one giant multiple orgasm. Set up the plots, build them, and then resolve, resolve, resolve until the crowd’s screamed itself hoarse. Make it WrestleMania, or at the very least Starrcade. I’m sure that things will get resolved here, but so much of it feels vague and inelegant. The Cyclops/Wolverine schism, sure. The Hope Problem, definitely. Beyond that, uh…
Well, you know, the Thing and Namor have fought a whole bunch of times over Susie, right?
It’s a collection of little details and tiny moments, but what does “This is exactly why we have a marriage counselor!” or “microscopic telepathic tasers” offer other than that? If AvX Vs. is, as they say, “comic book porn,” then so far, this is Zalman King scoring a cinematographer above his pay grade.
Marvel Comics. Same creators as above.
I don’t even know what to say here. Full disclosure: I’ve worked in publishing. Specifically, I’ve worked in textbook publishing, where the name of the game is to constantly provide new and essential forms of value for your consumers–value that requires a constant stream of income from new customers/students, because otherwise if all you do is sell them some fucking book they’re just going to buy it used on-campus and suddenly you’re not seeing a dime off that content anymore. What this entails is usually web interactivity of some kind: study help, test prep, essay feedback from trained monkeys with Master’s degrees, and ebooks. The ebooks in particular can get particularly sophisticated, incorporating built-in media supplements to expand upon the points of the text, and direct students to offsite material provided by the publisher.
By contrast, Marvel AR is kind of a joke.
The sum total of Marvel AR content in Avengers vs. X-Men #2–a flagship Marvel title that was supposed to help usher in Marvel AR–is a motion-comic recap on the cover (narrated by what sounds like a 15-year-old sarcastically pretending to do a dramatic reading), a trading-card biography of Quicksilver on one page, and pencils-to-inks-to-color animated process videos on two panels. That’s all. The point this gets across to the consumers: “we either don’t know what we’re doing or we don’t have the time to give a shit, or to hire someone who does.” The blown opportunities are endless.
I mentioned this last issue, but christ, look at that recap page. It’s something like 40 headshots of characters with no explanation. “Loa?” I’m Joe Somebody who hasn’t read Academy X or New X-Men or Namor: The First Mutant, so who the fuck is Loa?
What if Marvel AR could tell my tablet/iPhone/cyborg-parts to offer me a link to a specially-built web page full of capsule biographies? What if, when Storm and Black Panther have their marital spat, I could use Marvel AR to see a brief explanation of their status quo? Likewise Tony Stark and Emma Frost. “Hi, I haven’t read X-Men in a couple years, why does Wolverine hate Cyclops (moreso) now?” Shit like “See the now-classic X-Men: Schism miniseries! -Splittin’-Hairs Stan” is way out of vogue, but if nothing else, the Marvel AR app is a new way of doing footnotes.
I’m not even looking at this entirely from a “make the medicine go down easier for new fish” perspective, either–if a customer has the money for an iPhone or a Galaxy Tab or a whatever-the-fuck, they probably have the money for a TPB of Generation Hope or whatever you want to refer the kids toward. Will some people cry foul and go “Marvel, stop trying to sell me things”–? Of course, but you know what, right now, right here, fuck them, because the alternative is something like this half-assed crap–this issue doesn’t even include an awkward voicemail message from Bendis.
I’m not even getting into how the images still display like pixelated dog shit on my tablet. Get the big stuff right first, Marvel, for fuck’s sake. I don’t even know why I’m getting worked up. By the time anyone even tangentially connected to Marvel reads this it’ll be 2025 and we’ll all have Comixology implants in our taints or whatever anyway.
Marvel Comics. Plotted by James Asmus and Ed Brubaker. Scripted by James Asmus. Illustrated by Francesco Francavilla.
These didn’t come out this week, but my store was having a sale. By now, I’m pretty sure Captain America and Bucky has totally transmogrified into Captain America and… where you can finish the title with whatever hero is hanging around that month. That’s the final evolution of the confused existence of this book, which started off as Ed Brubaker and Marc Andreyko doing a four-issue retelling of Bucky’s origin with Chris Samnee, followed by a single-issue story that, once and for all, gave us the Untold Secret Origin of Black Widow and Winter Soldier’s affair. Afterward, we got this: a four-issue arc that brought in James Asmus as co-plotter and scripter, Francesco Francavilla as artist, and ditched the flashback idea for a story firmly set in modern times. It also features “Bucky” in the sense of Fred Davis, the second guy to play the role–at the behest of the U.S. government, because the original Bucky supposedly died in a plane explosion.
The actual content of these things appears to be repurposed surplus parts from old issues of JSA. Davis-Bucky narrates with fawning lines like: “Bill Naslund and I were just two regular joes. That is, until we were given the greatest honor I could ever imagine–we got to fight alongside the most amazing men of a new era–and carry on the legacy of our nation’s greatest heroes.” Francavilla’s art likewise seems to harken back to a different set of comics, but they go further back than Asmus’s script. Looking at his art, the posed figures and moody but unfussy linework call to mind the artists of the 40s–Bill Everett, Bernard Baily–filtered through the sensibilities of a modern digital illustrator like Larenn McCubbin. Unfortunately, he doesn’t exactly hinder the JSA-style nostalgia drone. His coloring is heavy on orangey-red and yellow light, making the characters look like they’re in a world where the sun is forever setting but never actually going down.
The whole premise–”you don’t know who William Naslund is, let alone Adam-II, but here, let us assure you over and over that they’re a big deal while a modern menace repurposes their concepts in a way more palatable to modern adult superhero readers”–is the opposite of how Brubaker operated on his own salvaged villains in Captain America. We didn’t need some steady patter of monologue narration to remind us that Sin is a fucked-up crazy menace. Sin just went around being a fucked-up crazy menace, and we could infer the rest from her sadomasochistic interactions with Crossbones. It’s OK for a story to hold my hand sometimes, but I object to it gingerly placing my fingers around the base of its cock. It’s the last great frontier of adult-comic-reader dissatisfaction: forced nostalgia. “You care because of all this stuff you don’t even know about, so let’s hit you with a double-barrel of between-the-scenes flashbacks and melodramatic hero-worship captions, all with the subtlety of shooting a gun into the air.” It ruins too many good stories, straight up.
DC Comics/Vertigo. Written by Peter Milligan. Layouts by Giuseppe Camuncoli. Finished illustrations by Sal Cipriano. Colored by Brian Buccellato.
It’s not enough for Hellblazer to be the best book DC publishes, hands-down. It also has to have on lockdown the two best artists for drawing people looking fucking crazy–Simon Bisley when he’s got the time, and Giuseppe Camuncoli and Sal Cipriano for the rest. Since Cammo drifted off to work as a penciler for Amazing Spider-Man, he’s only contributed layouts–which has been Cipriani’s cue to make everyone look even crazier. The lines have gotten harsher, the thick shadows of the cheekbones have gotten sharper, and the overall looseness of it–as much as work this grounded in real things like trenchcoats and bookshelves can be “loose”–gives it a Kubrick-stare vibe, like you could see a coked-up Jack Nicholson playing any/all of the characters in the film adaptation. It’s all in the whites of the eyes and the teeth and it hints at the kind of inner depravity and ferocity that Hellblazer doesn’t let spill out onto the page these days, except in hints and rumors. It can’t be coincidence that Constantine’s eyes are scratched out on the cover. They’re the window to the book’s existential terror.
The current Hellblazer storyline–Another Season in Hell–is all about the shambles that is John Constantine’s family. Constantine himself has only just escaped from Hell, where he was seeking to liberate the damned soul of his sister. Meanwhile, his wife Epiphany has brokered a deal with Lucifer, lord of Hell, to restore her father to life after she inadvertently killed him–because he’d beaten the shit out of Constantine’s fucked-up niece Gemma, who had been sleeping with Piffy’s father to anger Constantine. Do you follow?
For years, the trick of John Constantine has been his self-prided bastardry, mixed with his equally deep self-loathing–he’s too much of a fucking shit to make connections with people, and he rationalizes it by saying that they’re better off without his bad juju anyway. Granted: they are, but is it a self-fulfilling prophecy? Hell, is it just a case of the damage being done? Is it too late to fix your ability to hold someone close after a life of neglectfully and mean-spiritedly pushing everyone away? That’s the sort of thing Peter Milligan is on with his Hellblazer run, and it’s a valid, even sometimes poignant emotional impulse felt by everyone except for sociopaths and teenagers in KMFDM shirts (there’s overlap). Everything turns to shit as you get old. Is it because you’re getting old, or is it karmic payback for once being young?
Meanwhile, in Justice League Dark, they throw rocks at vampires or something. That’s Milligan for you.
Rebellion/2000 AD. Written by Alan Grant and John Wagner. Illustrated by Arthur Ranson, Ian Gibson, Romero, David Roach, Siku, Kevin Walker, Mark Wilkinson, Steve Sampson, Tony Luke, Charles Gillespie, and Xusasus.
Douglas Wolk ran this one down pretty damn well over at his ongoing Dreddblog project, Dredd Reckoning. So I’ll just do something quick for you guys to return to when you get back here after you lose a couple hours over there. (You should, too.)
The first Anderson Psi-Files book was, it must be said, not exactly what legends are made of. Judge Cassandra Anderson–gifted psychic in the employ of Mega-City One, the fascist cyberpunk remnants of the post-apocalyptic eastern seaboard–was meant to be a counterpoint to uber-thug and 2000 AD torchbearer Joe Dredd. Where Dredd was dour and tightassed, Anderson was wry and tight-assed, a glam blonde Debbie-Meets-Dirty Harry who could make with wisecracks and actually, on occasion, feel feelings. That’s all well and good, but because Anderson was so defined by her opposition–that is, her characteristics came through mostly as a list of things Dredd wasn’t. The first volume stuck Not-Dredd into a bunch of Mega-City crime adventures, and the harsh truth stood revealed: the things that made Anderson different from Dredd made her the same as all those generic action heroes who Dredd was meant to be different from in the first place.
Volume 02–which flubs chronology a bit mostly to put the color-printed stories together–is where Anderson became her own character. In 1988, John Wagner and Alan Grant–longtime writing partners and architects of Dredd’s world–split over creative differences. In the divorce, Wagner took Dredd for the most part, and Grant took Anderson. As the story goes, at the end of the Dredd epic “Oz,” Grant wanted to have Dredd kill the character Chopper, and Wagner wanted to keep him around in case they wanted to use him later. This is noteworthy because in the wake of the split, Wagner’s Dredd became even more blatantly brutal and fascistic, and Grant’s Anderson became a kind of psychic cosmic punk travelogue.
The peak of the book comes early–Shamballa, with Arthur Ranson, whose work as an illustrator of celebrities for TV and music mags made him perhaps the most adept and creative lightboxer in all of comics. After that, there are hills and valleys, but throughout, there’s a determination to explore new territory that just couldn’t fit in with the adventures of a Judge chasing crooks in the Big Meg. No other Dreddverse stories were ever quite so… well, cosmically aware.
Image Comics. Written by Brandon Graham and Farel Dalrymple. Illustrated by Farel Dalrymple. Colored by Joseph Bergin III.
By now, it’s not too much of a drag to realize that Prophet uses a list of equipment and weapons in place of a coherent personality for its hero. He himself is of a piece with his gear–he’s a walking weapon, a tool in the most literal sense, being used by higher purposes. That’s pretty much exactly what happens in this issue. A Prophet–for there are many John Prophets, of the Earth Empire, dateline unknown–awakens and is guided through the halls of a degenerating, mind-destroying starship until he reaches his mysterious goal. Farel Dalrymple gives us a different world for a different Prophet; the last arc featured Simon Roy’s soft ridges and brown light, and this world is thinner, stiffer, and colder.
That’s the thrill of Prophet. With a lead whose characterization can be summarized in grunts and stab wounds, our focus has to spread outward, and it becomes a comic that’s about the thrill of exploration, as much as anything else. Prophet is a blank slate we can project ourselves into, a kind of quietly masculine alter-ego: instead of being garish and blatant like, say, Wolverine in his blue and yellow, this take on Prophet is competent and unyielding, keying into the simple human desire to be strong enough to never quit in despair. Prophet pushes through unfamiliar worlds on sheer force of will, and we bounce after him, enjoying the fruits of his thankless labor, getting to marvel like cultural tourists getting off to his bleeding wounds and vomit.
Before, I likened Prophet to a video game–Fallout, specifically–but now I’m not sure that’s accurate. Video games are built around the principle of you do this task, then that task, then a third task, and eventually after you’ve jumped through enough hoops, you’re at an ending, or at least a set-up for a sequel. I get the feeling Prophet could keep exploring forever, mining the infinite vein of humanity’s ability to mobilize into the places that don’t even fucking want it.
Marvel Comics. Written by Jeff Parker. Illustrated by Declan Shalvey. Colored by Frank Martin Jr.
It’s been 15 years and original T-Bolts artist Mark Bagley–present here on cover duty–hasn’t forgotten what we like out of our villains-pretending-to-be-heroes. Check Zemo on that cover, wry Eurodickhead grin patently obvious behind his mask, palm firmly planted on Meteorite’s metal-coated ass while her future self, Moonstone, grinds that same rear against Zemo’s thigh. He’s even thrusting his pistol into the air, like the exact reverse of that notorious Steranko Nick Fury panel. The stiff barrel pointing straight up–putting it in a holster would have confused the imagery.
Does this have anything to do with the story inside? Well, not really. The old Thunderbolts meet the new Thunderbolts and party together, because scum game still recognize scum game. Declan Shalvey draws one of his best issues yet–things feel off-the-cuff but self-confident, like he’s learned to trust the intuition of his lines. His acting and emoting seems to get better with every issue I see.
The twist at the end, too, man–this comic is like old Ostrander Suicide Squad in the best possible way, where it’ll let you get used to having characters around, warm you up to them, maybe let you fool around a bit, and then it’ll lean in close and grin and you can sort of make out blood caked up in the gums and smell meat on their teeth and that warm voice is right up in your ear saying “by the way baby we’re crazy and we don’t give a fuuuck” and you can’t help but feel your thighs twitch because it’s hitting something innate that maybe you don’t want to admit you’re into, and you catch yourself laying awake at night, wondering when’s the next time Parker’s gonna write a scene where Songbird gets her toes sucked.
DC Comics. Written by Brian Azzarello. Illustrated by Cliff Chiang. Colored by Matthew Wilson.
Bullets and bracelets and you could almost swear she’s winking at you–Cliff Chiang’s Wonder Woman gives even less of a fuck than the Thunderbolts, but in a more noble, selfless style. She marches into Hell in thigh-baring armor as if daring the lost souls to try and let their dead eyes roll up toward her bikini zone. “Go on, try some shit,” she says, even when she’s smiling with a jaw that’s slender but’ll still break knuckles. “Hades?” she says, for real this time. “You stole someone I love.” The key to that bluntness is the last word–she’s a warrior who’s not afraid of her emotions, which–as Josh Bayer taught us–are the ultimate battlefield.
But you know what? I’ve sat around all day reading comics about villages in Central America, spacemen with cancer stabbing each other, two superhero varsity teams bashing each other’s brains in, bargains with Satan, time travel, flying off into space to feed your head like the fucking end of Repo Man…
…and the end of Wonder Woman #8 was still the last bit that made me go “damn, that’s fucked up.” I love it.
This Weekend: I’ll be at the Boston Comic Con, so if you see a guy with platinum blonde hair and a red mustache that straddles the line between “Castro District men’s room” and “obvious pedophile,” say hey or something.