Two shots of one.

*There is nothing quite so weird as waking up really early in the morning, ominous rain pouring down outside your window in a world of inky blackness, finding yourself unable to sleep, and turning on the television only to be greeted with something as profoundly odd as MGM’s “Dogville Comedies“, which play irregularly on Turner Classics during the wee hours, where their damage to the human psyche can be maximized. Made from 1929-1931, these nine early live-action sound shorts were elaborate productions usually parodying popular films of the day, featuring all-dog casts with human voiceovers. Dogs with painful expressions. Dressed entirely in human garb. Walking everywhere on their hind legs. And in the installment I saw, “So Quiet on the Canine Front”, fighting World War One, a bunch of uncomfortable dogs dressed in detailed military uniforms manning machine guns with fake ‘paws’ propping things up from beneath the frame. The next one was called “Trader Hound”, with dogs exploring Africa aided by native dogs with gigantic afro wigs and dubbed in Humorous Negro voices. By the time a prancing giraffe (played by a pair of humans in an oversized suit) popped in and a lion and a gorilla began wrestling, I found myself alternately fascinated by the use of animal and costumed human actors to create a sense of scale and creeped out by all the crap that these dogs must have had to go through and left seriously in doubt of my own sanity. The fact that these little 'comedies' are decisively unfunny only perfects their aura of existence out of joint. Nothing to do with Lars von Trier, although perhaps he still has time to refit the upcoming sequel to his own “Dogville” in a similar fashion, with all of the black plantation dogs luxuriating in the promulgation of their own slavery while live donkeys are killed upon chalk backgrounds or whatever the bleeding fuck he‘s doing with the thing. You can stream the two shorts I’ve mentioned plus an additional three from TCM’s site, although for the full effect you really need to happen upon this stuff by accident in the middle of a dead and silent world.

Warren Ellis’ Simon Spector #1 (of 1)


Ellis keeps referring to these books, the Apparat line of one-shots from Avatar, as a ‘response’ to similar pulp-themed releases, such as Alan Moore’s ABC books. Largely, these are only a philosophical response, rather than the direct rebuttals one might easily expect to find. “Simon Spector”, though, might be seen as the exception. It can certainly be read in direct contrast to Moore’s “Tom Strong”, seeing as how both title characters are wealthy and widely-known orphaned genius adventurers holed up in magnificent skyscrapers who employ chemical means to enhance their abilities as they crusade against evils that usually have a connection to their storied pasts. Artist Jacen Burrows even appears to have modeled his character design for Simon’s doctor companion Sarah to resemble Chris Sprouse’s own design for Tom’s wife Dhalua (she‘s even wearing her hair in a similar fashion). Now this may well simply be a case of shared source material; as Ellis points out in the back, most of these defining characteristics are present in any number of classic pulp heroes, but the comparison is far too tempting to resist.

I’ve always viewed “Tom Strong” as an attempt to appropriate elements of classic pulp heroics and utilize them to break the American superhero genre back down to its component parts, with the goal of eventually building back up a purer and more delightful superhero universe (as an example, look to Moore’s later issues, where the books has built up such an extended internal continuity that it can support some very authentic and very neophyte-unfriendly evocations of comics events like “Crisis on Infinite Earths”). In this way, the essence of the Weird Hero pulp genre is reapplied to the superhero genre as a means of commenting upon preexisting elements of the superhero genre, where Moore‘s focus always ultimately falls. In contrast, Ellis asks us to disregard superhero similarities or influential traces in this book; it’s a straight translation of the mad old days directly to comics form, an attempt to bypass the superhero ‘cutting’ of the genre’s impact via translation to comics, a focus on the pulp as existing in comics rather than the pulp‘s effects on superheroes in comics. And the violent, self-destructive Simon can’t help but remind one of a superhero (as so much is retained from one genre to the next), but there’s a nice lunatic kick to the proceedings, even if the book’s execution can’t quite satisfactorily unfold.

Simon, you see, pops top secret pills that expand his senses and physical reflexes to a magnificent degree, though not without a certain cost. His also packs twin machine guns with the wedding bands of his dead parents worked right into the casings. He built himself up into a veritable one man empire, though not without making one very big error, that he continues to regret to this day. He receives word that his arch-enemy Christos has resurfaced, so he employs his wealth of remembrances about their prior encounters to track him down, where secrets are revealed, but not before many thugs are blown to pieces with guns and chopped to lunchmeat with blades. The main problem I had the book was the big final confrontation, which of course I must now ruin, so even though I already put a spoiler warning up at the top, just skip over the next paragraph if you don’t want things wrecked.

So Simon confronts Christos, who’s confined to a wheelchair and mostly paralyzed. We know that Simon has tried to kill Christos before, and Christos himself knows it. In addition, Simon has just killed a whole binch of guys. And yet, for some reason, Christos seems to be convinced that Simon isn’t going to kill him because he’s paralyzed; he even alludes to no prison being willing to take him, although we’re never told of Simon trying to have him put in jail, we’re only told of Simon trying to kill him. And yet, Christos makes an assumption (and surely we all remember what happens when you assume) that Simon won’t kill him because, er… why? He mentions something about the purity of Simon’s mission, but, well, we all just saw Simon blowing the heads off of a handful of thugs, and we’re given nothing to suggest that this is the first time any of this has happened, and surely Christos has seen this happen before in all of his prior encounters with Simon. Man, some criminal genius you are, Christos. The only alternative here is that Simon regularly kills the shit out of a major villain’s thugs, then slaps the cuffs on the chief baddie, although that seems terribly contradictory to everything else we’ve seen in the book, and it makes Simon come off as a fool, unless he’s letting villains go as a means of secretly furthering his own adventurer lifestyle (maintaining a constant stream of cases to crack) although I’m almost certain that’s not the point Ellis is trying to make. I think the point is what Ellis says in the back, that Simon is “frankly, here to take drugs and kill people” and therefore Simon has to cross a ‘line’ to establish himself as a truly crazy badass (NOT a superhero, he’s crazy as The Shadow!) even if his foe has to act like a total moron to establish said line to cross. And that just sours the book for me to a certain degree.

But it’s pretty fun stuff regardless. Burrows is working in black and white here, so all of the adoring detail he can lavish on the gore is easily admired. His simple designs are attractive and he handles action smoothly, even throwing in a few cute details like John Woo type white birds fluttering around Simon’s study as he preps for his adventure. There’s a lot of white space, with walls and sky and everything the same uniform blank, almost as if Burrows is working for a colorist who’s never going to arrive, but there’s never a lack of clarity (as opposed to, well, just move on to the next review). This is an engaging comic, diverting in purpose, though tripping over its feet a bit in forcing its points. Were this a real ongoing series, I’d write such things off a little bit more, in hopes that future issues would smooth themselves off, but we’re only making believe here, and the book stands as problematic entertainment.

Warren Ellis’ Angel Stomp Future #1 (of 1)

And then there’s this. I was wondering to myself how exactly Ellis was planning to filter that most familiar of genres, science-fiction, though the Apparat focus. The answer: his attentions are placed on a very specific type of pulp sci-fi, the informational story, the think piece, the sort of short that’s so eager to fill you in on the latest speculative theories and future-forging technologies that a plot is just barely drizzled over the top, sometimes as merely a wave toward tradition. This comic is a pretty damn admirable transmutation of the style to a one-shot comic. I’m guessing that if “Angel Stomp Future” was a true ongoing series it’d act as a sort of ‘scenes from the city’ book, with each new issue offering new explorations and new characters, everything self-contained. I base this guess off of the fact that the story we’re given here is very complete, dropping off its theories and notions and departing quickly.

Most of the story involves the lead character, Dr. Antimony, a scantly-clad punk-type young woman, addressing the reader directly as she walks around the city, drops in on her job as an underground physician, and generally provides us with a cook’s tour of the future environment. There’s not much to get in the way of her narrative, save for a brief prologue that encapsulates the themes of the story (a society in possession of ancient human instincts but alternately disgusted by and attached to the very idea of natural functions), and a quick vignette involving some Cronenberg-style flesh-machine sex mutations, with a husband growing horrified with his wife‘s increasingly extreme bodily alterations, although he‘s hardly a beacon of faith to the natural flesh, seeing how much he loves his car. Most characters in this story seem simultaneously revolted and titillated by the transformative power of technology, with guilt and disgust constantly winning out. Along the way, we receive ample evidence of our (possibly unreliable) narrator’s theory that all of mankind’s source traits (lust, vanity, superstition, violence, etc) remain constant throughout all of history, with only the means of exploiting those traits truly evolving. It’s only in the future where technology and information have become so prevalent that perhaps humanity can no longer handle the awful truth about itself, with science holding up the clarifying mirror to our collective face. Or perhaps a more physical entity ought to be propping the mirror up.

Among all of these strands of story and idea, we have another drama playing itself out: the continuing struggle of artist Juan Jose Ryp against his arch-nemesis ‘shading’. I just got finished mentioning how Jacen Burrows seems to be waiting for a colorist; the same could be said for Ryp, except that his pages are so chock-full of detail and business and eye-pops and stuff, that the lack of shadow isn’t even immediately pronounced. But with every last thing on the page (and there are many many many many things on the page) given exactly the same pure white backing, individual panels can become extremely difficult to read. Just look at that splash near the end, with Dr. Antimony standing near the foreground with five or six detailed characters walking past an ornate brass gate topped with impaled bodies, the figure of an entire space center with rockets on the launch pad visible through the bars with every last scrap of grime on the stone walls sketched right out. The page is detailed, yes, but absurdly busy and cluttered and it seriously takes a few seconds to make the slightest sense of all this information since depth perception can only be discerned through overlapping layers of white space against black outlines, about a jillion of them, to use the professional term of art. And yet, it serves the story. I can’t imagine anyone more suited to such information overload save for Geof Darrow (and let’s just say that Mr. Ryp more likely than not has a copy of “Hard Boiled” sitting on his home bookshelf), who’s a lot more skilled with his use of clutter, but even then Ryp’s relative lack of spatial tact probably serves the mood better, creating added confusion, but more than enough crowded grime and gooey fluid to sell the book’s world, once you figure out what’s happening. Plus, the format of the story allows Ryp to focus almost exclusively on crafting overpopulated tableaux, in much the same way he does on all those Alan Moore poetry/songwriting comics adaptations. There’s little of the capacity for confusing action, like in “Frank Miller’s Robocop”, although Ryp also has color there to help him out. This is probably the best utilization of the man’s visual style yet.

And what does all of this atmosphere and theorizing and fourth wall breaking add up to? Well, the realization of the book’s world is quite excellent, and the execution is revolting fun. The plot is really not much different from some other things Ellis has done, but then, all of the Apparat stories aren’t particularly original. And therein lies one of the more interesting bits for me. All of the Apparat main characters fall into the typical Ellis mold: the hard-living over-achieving bitterly charismatic asshole with a heart of gold who usually decides to lend the world a helping hand though it maybe only deserves a lash across the back. And the heroes of these books react in different ways, with the titular "Frank Ironwine" flooding the streets with love and the heroine of “Quit City” doing her very best until the strain catches up with her. The world of “Angel Stomp Future” seems to fully provide the necessary universe for a character of this mold to thrive in, and depending on how you want to look at it, maybe Dr. Antimony is also acting to help mankind, though it’s love by way of euthanasia. Or maybe she’s given up, and acts only out of spite. It’s up to the reader to figure it out, but it’s a fine piece of character work regardless, despite being largely a book of ideas; the character and the ideas and even the world itself seem to be inseparable, and I like that, and I liked this book.

*So yeah, Apparat turned out ok. I think I still like “Frank Ironwine” the best, with “Angel Stomp Future” close behind and “Simon Spector” at least offering fair entertainment. Only “Quit City” really fell flat, on a conceptual and storytelling level, but it’s a decent average for this little project.