*Well ok. Can I look at some other new books first? Like real quick? And can I stagger out my Warren Ellis discussion like those Apparat books are doing with their release schedule? Keen.

Garth Ennis’ 303 #2 (of 6)


Quite a lot of action this issue, with a nice little bookend display of pure might from the third party involved in this little international conflict. Our Russian hero is still leading his crew deep into Afghanistan to locate the remains of a downed aircraft, which has something very special on board. He plays some cat-and-mouse games with a cocky British unit, which has the same objective, and there is much focus on tactics and bluffing, as his thought captions helpfully guide us through. It’s still a cross between Ennis’ longtime fascination with military tactics and the hyper-pumped gore of “The Punisher MAX”, complete with a tough-as-nails aging haunted hero. It’s executed quite well, although artist Jacen Burrows’ character images continue to blend into one another; two of the British soldiers in particular look almost exactly the same, save for hair color, and then they suddenly have the same hair color (perhaps colorist Greg Waller got as mixed up as me?), unless there’s a third identical soldier with brown hair that I’m confusing these possible blonde twins with. As you can tell, it gets confusing, especially when two of the similar soldiers are communicating via radio from different locations. Burrows’ gore also lack a certain definition; in one panel he depicts an exploding soldier as little more than a huge bleeding mass of freshly ground beef flying through the air, with little immediately identifying characteristics. Waller also has a tendency to simply drench everything in deep red, even when characters’ stomachs are falling out, which overwhelms the level of definition. Oh, you haven’t eaten or anything, right?

Given the emphasis on tactics for most of this issue, the opening and closing sequences stand out as something of a counterpoint, as the US rides in with a fleet of heavily armed Apache helicopters and simply bomb and shoot everything in sight. They succeed rather quickly in this regard, blasting the hell out of countless civilians in a nearby village (not a book for those seeking the subtle; at one point a young mother is splattered in the face with her wailing child’s entrails) and simply shooting the British forces to bits, despite Our Hero’s respect and admiration for their tactics. But perhaps his time of carefully planned assault is drawing to a close, another victory of careless brute force. Obviously this issue can be read as a critique of the Most Recent War that the US is fighting (seriously, how can it not?) but maybe it all relates back to the protagonist of this story, maybe the last representative of a certain killer breed.

Tom Strong #30


Alan Moore again receives a special credit for ‘inspiration and oversight’ in this final part of Ed Brubaker and Duncan Fegredo’s arc on this ABC title, titled “The Terrible True Life of Tom Strong”, but it might as well be called “Tom vs. the Terror of the Retcon!”. It’s fitting, as the story seems to be acting as a sort of commentary on Moore’s own career path through comics; it’s a thoughtful approach, though the precise mechanics of it aren’t terribly original, and the result is plainly the best storyline this book has seen since Moore’s own departure from the writer’s position.

Tom Strong is trapped in a ‘realistic’ version of Millennium City, believing that his name is Tom Samson and that he has a dead-end factory job and an icy wife, and that he’s well past fifty years of age and having dreams of adventure as Tom Strong. At first, the story strings us along for a bit as Tom rediscovers his powers, becomes suspicious of the world that he’s experiencing, and sets out to recover the truth. All very simple and perfectly predictable. But then Brubaker reveals something of a box inside the box, as the ‘truth’ Tom discovers isn’t quite what he’d expected.

What we find is a very “Miracleman” type of Dark origin story for Tom, purporting to be the true facts behind the silly fantasies of every other issue of the title. Tom’s memories are even activated by accidently invoking a prominent word from the past (‘Attabar Teru’ rather than ‘Kimota’). He wasn’t raised on a sort of fantasy island, he was part of a top secret military experiment! His fantasy life was implanted, inspired by a bunch of stupid old pulp magazines! Solomon was the name of the ape that was brutally experimented to death before him! The Stronghold is really the site of the obscene project! Dhaula and Tesla, inspired by the wife and kid of the base’s Negro cleaning man, were implanted in his mind as a way of controlling his young adult emotional and sexual urges! Yes! It’s all so very realistic and gritty and quite over-the-top! It’s also very much in the vein of oh so many Dark superhero projects that arrived hot on the heels of Moore’s own work on so many prominent books in the 80's (and later... maybe there were a few mindwipes thrown in). But Tom does not explode into rage or embark on a deconstruction of the genre or (more typically) just glower and fight hastily updated villains bloodily. He begins to reason. And he reaches the conclusion that these new revelations must also be fake, just as fake as the depressing life he’d led just a few pages prior, because plugging delightful superhero elements into a Dark setting and endeavoring to (over)explain everything away as a construct to cover titanically monstrous experimentation isn’t Dark or Gritty or Realistic at all. It’s just really fucking stupid, completely absurd, and exactly as inherently silly as many ‘classic’ superhero tropes, just plunged into denial. “The skies were always gray, the politicians were all liars, the people lived in loneliness and fear. There was no sense of adventure... no place like that could actually exist... outside the mind of a madman that is,” muses Tom, and with that the Gritty world ceases to exist and Tom is returned to the presumably more honest superhero universe that he usually inhabits. A foul villain had planned this little retcon as a means of shattering Tom’s spirit (or something... it’s never really stated why exactly he’s gone through all the trouble); he gets a sock in the kisser. The parallels to Moore’s own evolving approach to superhero work are plainly apparent (to be completely fair, I’ve also heard that some of this ground is covered in Grant Morrison’s “Flex Mentallo”, though in a much more detailed fashion, and wouldn’t it be great to see Morrison do an issue of “Tom Strong” but fat chance of that).

This storyline has a strange effect; upon the first read, it’s genuinely involving, tapping a surprising amount of emotional power from the many prior issues of this title that depict Tom as a generally unstoppable hyper-capable individual (he weeps quite a lot throughout this arc). You’ve got to sort of admire Brubaker’s knack for twisting typical “Tom Strong” elements into Gritty alternatives. And yet, when the book is done, the story suddenly seems genuinely funny. Not in an unintentional style either; you notice how carefully absurd the retcon as applied here can be; it’s just atrocity after atrocity, with no optimistic element left uncovered, and it comes off as sly, deadpan parody, but only upon a second reading. Duncan Fegredo’s art continues to impress, with much of the book rendered in a light, wrinkly lines, a style highly reminiscent of Guy Davis; the later action scenes are full-bodied and bold. Again, there’s some great use of Tom’s larger-then-average word balloons, another element of the book attentively exploited. I know the book hasn’t quite been up its past level since Moore left, but these two issues have been quite good, and I think it’s worth coming back if only to pick them up. It’s a canny tribute to (and even a loving critique of) the book’s venerable co-creator, and if any of the post-Moore stories deserve attention it’s this one.

Iron Man #2

SECOND VERSE, SAME AS THE FIRST!!! Yes dear readers, it’s time for more pulse pounding character discussion about Iron Man’s motives, as Tony Stark tries to lead his corporation away from military application of his technologies, which is perhaps impossible in our modern times. Then he visits an aging hippie friend who expounds upon the connections between psychedelic drugs and the human body as a computer’s operating system, with added chat about the capricious nature of successful technology and scientific discovery in the Marvel Universe, with an overriding focus upon the inevitable future and possible present of the United States as a ‘post-political corporate conglomerate’ and the necessity of moral-technical innovators as the heralds of the necessary path through oncoming days. I wonder what the old-school “Iron Man” fans think of this? Everything is helpfully intercut with a surprisingly gory rampage of the arc’s semi-super-soldier villain through a Houston FBI office, his fist going through people’s skulls, flame explicitly devouring bystanders’ flesh, and the results of a gun being thrown at somebody at a very high speed. RATED ‘PSR’ FOR PAINFULLY SAVAGE RAMPAGE!!!

Avi Granov does much better work with the violence than with the conversation, where his characters still look molded from soft rubber. But his streams and wires of blood splash in artfully swooping lines, and he does nice work with the bouncing of bullets off of impregnable skin. But Ellis seems far more interested in the ideas behind Iron Man than with Iron Man actually flying off to do immediate battle. I do like this book; it’s the best of Ellis’ current Marvel work, and a genuinely ambitious attempt to engage with the themes that have followed behind the title character, often kept hidden from sight. One third of the way into the initial arc, much of that engagement has involved watching characters sitting around and talking about themselves and each other, but there is promise held for the future.

*I also finally got around to reading Richard Corben’s issue of “Solo” (that’s #2) and there’s not too much to say. The artist shows off his different styles, including some neat molded work, and Corben’s way with dialogue is sort of charming (lots and lots of direct statements of intent, very utilitarian) although the plots are largely ultra-predictable twist stories, with the notible exception of the John Arcudi scripted Spectre short, which nicely captures a creepy, classical vibe, with almost a Golden Age type of direct exploration of the title character’s powers and mission. It’s a lot of nice art, but maybe the $5 cover price is a little too much for what’s mainly light-as-air storytelling.