25 Knuckles

The Five Fists of Science

This thing either just came out a couple hours ago, or it’s going to come out in a couple hours, depending on where you live or when you’re reading this (unless you’re reading this in 2007 while going through my archives or something - hi, by the way). It’s an original color graphic novel from Image, written by Matt Fraction with art by Steven Sanders and letters by Sean Konot, 112 pages for $12.99. It’s fun, very fast, very light, and probably worth seeking out for those who dig the idea of turn-of-the-century historical personalities thrust into a comedic action/sci-fi plot, with a cup of Lovecraft poured on top, drizzled with anime kitsch.

The book was originally supposed to be published by AiT/Planet-Lar in 2005, and it still bears the sort of catchy plot summary that comics from said company tend to bear - in 1899,noted writer and personality Mark Twain returns to the US (having taken an extended vacation in Europe pursuant to unhappy financial circumstances) at the behest of inventor Nikola Tesla, a man who loathes simple things like hair and must run complex calculations through his head before biting into food, yet prances around NYC armed with an electric gun, battling crime (“Shall you and science be assaulting more of the Irish?” asks Tesla’s boy assistant Tim, following a close encounter). But now he’s working on something even bigger - much, much bigger - that might bring to fruition a closely-held ambition of his dear friend Twain’s: peace through compulsion! Selling impossibly powerful weapons to a quartet of major nations, leaving them in a state of constant worry over everyone’s ability to annihilate everyone else - the ultimate stalemate! Also: lots of money for the sellers.

Obviously, we in the 21st century can see all sorts of evident problems with such an approach, but writer Fraction happily plays along with Twain for most of the ride, only slipping in a proven kink when the plot requires it. And it’s quite a plot - aside from Twain’s and Tesla’s exploits, noted capitalist J.P. Morgan has teamed up with the likes of Thomas Edison, Guglielmo Marconi, and Andrew Carnegie (Fraction points out in the book’s witty ‘Our Characters’ section that Carnegie “seems to have been quite the nice guy” and gleefully terms his portrayal here as “rancid character assassination”) to construct the shiny new Innsmouth Tower right in the city. You can imagine what sort of trouble lies ahead, even apart from Edison’s keeping of a Yeti in the dungeon. On top of that, there’s Baroness Bertha von Suttner, in the city on a mission of peace, and apparently attracted to the hopelessly eccentric Tesla. All of this adds up to plenty of odd comedy, man-made monsters towering over skyscrapers, slimy beasts and roots made of meat, science, betrayals and escapes, mutations, more science, blood, “A single drop of black semen extracted from the devil god Tanotah,” and people shouting “Science!” at the top of their lungs.

It’s fast. Very fast. At times it seems almost too quick on its feet, careening from point to point at a breathless pace, so eager to get onto the next level of excitement that it sometimes comes off as choppy, particularly near the end where the reader is hardly given room to breathe as things keep happening. But this is the sort of story that benefits from constant movement, rewards leaning back and simply soaking it all in, without much mind paid to what it all might mean. For all its (often amusing) plays on history and period, this is really a simply fantasy about driven characters existing in a tall tale, albeit one informed by a wide variety of 20th century genre particulars - maybe that's the real joke, that all of these important personalities, when dropped into a loopy entertainment comic, become innovators on the cutting edge of pop distraction, ahead of their time in an all-new way.

Notice must be given to Sanders' art, which reminds me a bit of Kan Takahama's approach to certain stories - gently-rendered lines made even softer through digital tweaking, though here it's Sanders' airy, sometimes faded colors that do the trick, nicely giving the whole thing a whiff of age, even when beams of light are blasting through the sky at evil forces. That's fortunate - anything that helps in holding all the stuff together is necessary in a diverse concoction of this sort. But there's no denying that it's fun while it lasts - one Samuel Clemens' cries in support of showmanship ring particularly true here, the words of man who knows what sort of world he's living in for the moment.


Much media!

*The holidays held everything up, like this site’s features.


X-Statix Presents: Dead Girl #5 (of 5), The Last Christmas #1 (of 6)

Following Cerebus #8 (always interesting)

Kings in Disguise (the 1990 James Vance and Dan Burr graphic novel, back in print)


*Tube Dept: Oh, this brings me back. Forgive me while I lapse, but while poking around YouTube recently I found a bunch of footage from the 1984 anime feature film Super Dimensional Fortress Macross the Movie: Do You Remember Love? - it was an original theatrical remake of the beloved 1982-83 television series Super Dimensional Fortress Macross, brought over to the US in 1985 under the title Robotech, and then continued for 49 additional episodes by monkeying with the plots of two unrelated shows (1984’s Super Dimensional Calvary Southern Cross and 1983-84’s Genesis Climber Mospeada) to tie them all into a US-only cosmology.

The movie has never been available on R1 dvd; some feel it never will be. I still have my 1995 dubbed VHS tape from Best Film and Video (titled simply Macross), which I treasure, even though it slices out the triumphant cheesy concert scene from the closing credit scroll. That’s an important bit, as the overarching theme of Macross requires the presence of cheesy ‘80s Japanese pop music - you see, there’s these various groups of aliens that humanity’s having a war in space with, and the heroes are all housed in a city/fortress that doubles as a gigantic transforming robot, and there’s a ton of smaller outer space fighter jets housed in it that can also turn into robots, and anyway they’re separated from the earth and they have this pop singer on board, and somehow they find out that hearing magical, shimmering J-pop has a curious effect on the aliens, soothing their desires for war and violence (I’m simplifying vastly).

So anyway, the climactic battle sees the pop singer finally (after many a reel of love triangle shenanigans and robot space combat) agreeing to do her part, so they launch a final robot jet assault on the villains whilst the pop singer dresses up in a pretty pink & white dress and bounces around on a space platform singing the title ballad as important things explode. It’s very possibly the most profoundly retarded idea one can conjure for the ending of a space warfare epic, and it’s absolutely brilliant. This is uncut anime camp of the highest order, and I can watch it forever. Just the beginning, with the hands almost connecting as the music strikes up, the explosions and gunfire used as laser light backdrops chintzy dance gestures, sweet poppy tones accompanying people’s heads being sliced off in a gush of blood... is war finally entertainment? Are they one and the same?

Actually, I guess the theme here is that culture, even ephemeral, ‘trashy’ culture, can join people together, bringing them to peace and understanding. Although there’s also the bit when the pop star opens her hand and then the hero bursts into the main villains lair and blows his head apart. So I guess J-pop will either bring nations to peace or shoot them in the head with space gunfire. But man - how about that missile animation? And the robots? And the villain’s ship fading to white, then exploding, just like such headquarters would later do in Castlevania and Mega Man and things.

Here’s that closing concert footage too, in which the pop star becomes really famous, and is apparently transfigured and assumed into heaven, body and soul.

Hi yaaaaaahhi yaaaaaaaa….

*And in the interests of live-action cinema culture, here’s all the surviving bits of Quentin Tarantino’s abortive 1987 non-debut My Best Friend’s Birthday, 34 minutes worth of stuff. It got pieced together on weekends, the last reel literally went down in flames in a lab accident, and it never got shown to more than a few people; parts of the script got recycled in later projects, like True Romance.

*Comics are held back in the US until Thursday! Reporting for new comics this Wednesday is a felony for domestic citizens, and you’ll be sentenced to hard labor!


Five Fists of Science: The much-anticipated Matt Fraction/Steven Sanders graphic novel from Image. Review tomorrow.

The Punisher MAX: The Tyger: Another one-shot from writer Garth Ennis, this one set way back in the day, when Frank Castle was but a lad of 10, confronting suicide and dark secrets, and wicked forces. This one's especially notable for featuring the art of Golden Age legend John Severin, a veteran of various EC titles, a long run with Cracked, and many other books. This is actually his second MAX book, after the infamous 2003 Rawhide Kid: Slap Leather. Those were the days.

Garth Ennis' Chronicles of Wormwood Preview: And if that's not enough Ennis for you, Avatar has this 99 cent sneak peak at the writer's upcoming miniseries with artist Jacen Burrows, concerning the exploits of the antichrist. This is the team that brought you Garth Ennis' 303, a successful melding of assorted zones of the Ennis approach into a ferocious little thing - let's hope this one turns out as well.

Samurai Executioner Vol. 10 (of 10): In which another Kazuo Koike/Goseki Kojima ‘70s sword-swinging saga draws to a close. But don’t fret, fans! Koike and Kojima will be back in June with the first installment of their 1978-84 ninja epic, Path of the Assassin, concerning the legendary Hattori Hanzo and his minding of a young man who’ll grow up to be a great shogun. Fifteen more volumes from the indefatigable team, brought to you by the Koike specialists at Dark Horse.

Uptight #1: Debut issue of the new quarterly series by Jordan Crane, featuring the first installment of his Keeping Two serial as presented in Fantagraphics' Funny Book #2, as well as two short stories. All in 20 pages, all for only $2.50. Crane is quite a talented visual stylist, so keep an eye on this.

Skyscrapers of the Midwest #3: And here's a new 56-page issue of an established alternative series, Josh Cotter's popular solo stage from AdHouse. Have a preview.

Local #5 (of 12): In which we leave the United States, and settle down in Halifax, Nova Scotia, witnessing the events that mark the decline of an arthouse movie theater.

My Inner Bimbo #1 (of 5): Pulling it back around to debuts, here's a new miniseries from Oni, written by Sam Kieth of The Maxx and Oni's Ojo, the latter of which is set in the same world as this book. The art duties are shared between Kieth and Joshua Hagler, and the story concerns a relationship between two people of widely divergent ages, a theme present in other Kieth works (like the Zero Girl books) and reflective of his own personal life. The expected surrealist touches arrive in the form of the titular bimbo, a mysterious young lady out to force a bit of self-analysis on the part of a young man in a relationship with an older woman - the bimbo, you see, might actually be a projection of the young man's own hidden personality. Kieth books generally have a way of starting out fascinating then falling to bits, but that doesn't mean they lose their strange power to compel.

Gødland #11: It was recently announced that this reliable title will be going on a three-month hiatus following issue #12, during which the second trade collection will be released. It's interesting in that it really does feel kind of like news that this book won't be out each month, so regular it's been in output.

ABC A-Z #4 (of 6): Top Ten and Teams: Because something needs to come out while waiting for that last League of Extraordinary Gentlemen book to arrive, after which I expect the windows will be boarded up. Still, it’s new art from Gene Ha, Zander Cannon, and Rick Veitch, which is surely worth something - I expect the lattermost is on hand for the America’s Best segments, probably in period style. Written by Peter Hogan and Steve Moore. Apparently the next volume of this (which is not out this week, according to Diamond) will feature Kyle Baker doing The First American!

Iron Man: The Inevitable #6 (of 6): Wrapping up this good miniseries from Joe Casey and Frazer Irving.

Alan Moore's Hypothetical Lizard #4 (of 4): Wrapping up this good (and late) adaptation of the Alan Moore prose work from writer Antony Johnston and artist Sebastian Fiumara. From Avatar, who're not quite done with the Fiumara family...

Warren Ellis' Blackgas #3 (of 3): ...as brother Max provides the art for this conclusion to the Ellis-scripted Euro-style zombie affair. Whose unmentionables will be forcibly repositioned this time?

Superman/Batman #26: The special 40-page Sam Loeb tribute jam issue, featuring a wide variety of talents - full list here - as well as a special short by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale.

52 #4 (of 52): This series has not fallen off schedule yet.

Seven Soldiers of Victory Vol. 3 (of 4): But this… aw skip it. It’s another low-priced ($14.95 for 176 pages) trade collection of the noted Grant Morrison-powered project. This one wraps up Zatanna and Klarion, and takes us up to the halfway points of Mister Miracle and Bulleteer, with Frankenstein #1 tossed in too. After this the waiting game truly begins, though the June 21st date for Seven Soldiers #1 is still holding for now.


Memory, More Memory

Kings in Disguise

Memories are supposed to be the meaning of this day, here in the US. The memory of those passed, fallen in military service, to be specific, though such regulation has a way of burning off once a person is in the midst of thought, on that stroll through the cemetery. Just as one contemplation often leads to another, and a remembrance of those gone in one setting spreads to others having left in other circumstances, memories hide memories within one another, a door opened to another door, and to another.

This is a new release of the graphic novel by writer James Vance and artist Dan Burr, which first appeared in comics form as a miniseries from the now-gone Kitchen Sink press in 1988 - it was first collected as a single unit in 1990. Kings in Disguise still retains some markings of genuine uniqueness, even on the occasion of this 2006 reissue from W.W. Norton & Company as an oversized 208-page soft cover for $16.95. For one, it’s a comic expanded from a work originating the stage - at the moment, I can only think of Starstruck and Rich Johnston’s Holed Up as additional members of such company. It’s also historical fiction, wholly devoid of fantasy elements or a military focus - there are no war tales here, weird or otherwise, but characters wandering through true events in a true place, and being molded by them.

Thus, memories lead to memories, even memories that don’t belong to us. This book is set during the Great Depression of the early 1930’s, days my great aunt always assured me were the worst that she’d ever known. More close to home, the book sprang from the late 1980’s, a time of some excitement surrounding the possibilities that the comics form might hold and a certain amount of ’big’ media attention - but there hadn’t quite been the building of an extensive library of books necessary to sustain such excitement on a wide plane of attention. Such things would have to wait until years later, and the arrival of many more completed works.

Still, thriving in that earlier environment, one can easily understand the delight that rose from the book’s very existence. Writer Vance was at the time an award-winning playwright, and someone who hadn’t paid much attention to comics since he was a child; according to his Preface to this edition, he entered a comics store doing research for a project, and became impressed enough by the current independent comics selections that he decided to do something with the medium himself, eventually signing with Kitchen Sink and teaming with artist Burr (a veteran of underground/alternative publications like Death Rattle and Grateful Dead Comix) through an audition process. Quite a testament to the possibilities of the comics medium! And the book itself came out in pamphlet-format segments at a good clip, all things considered, and several industry awards followed (two Eisners and one Harvey, all in 1989), and a collected edition arrived soon after. Kitchen Sink eventually expired, though, and much of their catalog sank beneath the waves.

Of course, these days big book publishers are interested enough to put out new editions of old works, the place for fantasy-free comics works in book form more assured than ever. So what does Kings in Disguise now look like? No less than Alan Moore dubs it, in his newly-written Introduction, “…one of the most moving and compelling human stories to emerge out of the graphic story medium thus far.” But I am more inclined to side with the wording of Neil Gaiman’s back cover pull quote, carefully placing the work in its historical content along with Maus and Watchmen and Love and Rockets, calling it “a remarkable story” and expressing delight over its new availability.

Because in many ways, Kings in Disguise is does not entirely fit in with the current graphic novel scene, or at least with what many have come to expect from its works. The book is wordy, and prone to explaining things via caption too much. The plot is often melodramatic, and events sometimes feel contrived. There’s sentimentality, speechifying, clumsy dream sequences, and occasional deployments of blunt symbolism (a momma bird feeding her young! a broken toy, mended!). It's far from a perfect book, and I would be hesitant to call it a masterpiece of any type. But it is a worthy book, almost in spite of itself, a success of heartfelt characterization and a deft utilization of authentic historical drive. If there's anything Vance and Burr get completely right, it's how the tides of history rock mere humans back and forth, wearing them down like stones under the waves, as their personal secrets seethe underneath.

A lot of this victory must be credited to burr, whose visuals are often excellent - his is a detailed 'cartoon realist' style, his characters being largely representative of realistic human forms, yet open to mild exaggeration in facial expressions, especially the eyes. His backgrounds are heavy and detailed, and never seem less than scrupulously researched. His character 'acting' is greatly expressive, bodily gestures smartly attuned to his general visual thrust - things can go a bit over-the-top, and they do, but they seem to belong anyway. This even fits right in with Vance's plotting, making the two quite a perfectly-matched team, and at least loaning the book a sense of aesthetic consistency during the story's richer segments.

That story, by the way, concerns young Freddie Bloch, a movie-loving lad who's only vaguely aware of the economic catastrophe circling around his immediate family. It's 1932, and the boy is pawning off his alcoholic father's used liquor bottles for money to hit the theater, but the old man isn't working for that booze. It's up to older brother Al to support the whole family (Mom having passed away a while ago), but he can't quite do it with the economy having gone so bad. Soon the old man has split the house to look for work in Detroit, and Al has turned to crime - not the bullet-screaming glamour Freddie sees on the silver screen, but nervous muggings, which aren't the sort of thing a starved man can keep up for long, and eventually Freddie flees the empty family home upon Al's capture by police.

Freddie eventually falls in with a group of hobos, which also isn't quite what anyone expected - naïve Freddie isn't aware that some hobos pimp young boys out, while others merely form a secure 'jocker' relationship with a young 'preshun.' Freddie winds up in a non-sexual relationship with Sam, a hobo calling himself the King of Spain, traveling the country in disguise - this bit of whimsical fibbery forms the basis of the work's title, and indicates two key themes, that of personal honor and fortitude, and that of fantasy, and how much of our 'real' lives are constructs, prone to being knocked down by forces bigger then us, only to be built up new and different. Sam gives himself a knowingly absurd 'life' to tell people about - later we meet a man claiming to be no less than Jesse James, and we'll almost get to believing it to be true - but is it any less real than the true life he had before, something that serves no purpose anymore, and has no bearing on where he goes? Freddie has a mild drive to get to Detroit and find his father, but eventually he finds himself living in a new world, with a new, almost involuntary identity.

Oh, and I know what you're all thinking right now - "Say Jog, don't you think Freddie might at some point discover that the true father he's been looking for has been, in fact, right at his side the whole time?!" Yes, that's quite right. Also, yes there's parallels between the actions of Sam and the action of Freddie's natural father, and yes there's a recurring motif of the bonds between parents and children breaking and causing pain, and yes it all ends on a note of forgiveness - not a 'happy' ending, really, but one that acknowledges that grace is still possible between humans in even the worst of circumstances, even if said circumstances have rendered the notion of 'home' as fictional as anything in the movies. That's all there.

And through it all there's history. Detroit's labor riots. Hoovervilles. Communist sentiment among the new poor. Young Freddie becomes especially drawn to the idealistic solidarity of the reds he sometimes meets, though violence follows them around, and not all of them are terribly peaceable. But Freddie and Sam are now beings of the lowest class, and must do what they can. The story ambles around, often stopping to rest on temporary characters: a priest losing his religion, a mirror duo of Freddie and Sam engaging in a more gritty (yet no less close) relationship, a madman hobo prone to visions of a beautiful, welcoming home. These characters recur, sometimes to contrived effect - it seems nobody in this book's world can simply pass on through, all of them caught up in stories that need finishing, last-minute dangers and rescues adding soppy emphasis. Every anecdote needs a conclusion here, often with a good deal of tears and dramatic punch, enough so that it gets tiring.

But Vance has a way of nailing little moments, like a striking worker sitting on the ground mumbling "Oh my god... all that time in France and never got hit... and then I get hit lookin' for a job..." or the often pained reactions of local police to the wrongdoing of obviously good-hearted, desperate people. And it's fortunate that Freddie is kept as a child through it all, though an increasingly worldly child - he still makes big, possibly fatal mistakes, his best intentions not always enough. It's this odd mix of dirt-level pragmatism and blade-swinging, teary-eyed mellerdrammer that powers the train through its final station, the engine roaring sometimes to the point of distraction.

Yet there's a lot of genuine drive to this thing, and you never doubt that it comes from a place of deep feeling. Dream sequences of being chased by wolves will say what they will, and loudly, but the overriding emotion of the book feels earned. You can pick it apart, scowl at its contortions, yet you can't deny that it's whipped up a certain true melancholy by its final pages, a memorial for those who tasted the total failure of security, and had to build a new realism from the mud of what they'd previously thought impossible.

It's apparently not over. The stage's Kings in Disguise was actually a prequel to an earlier Vance-written play titled On the Ropes, which the author describes as "a bizarre pastiche of Depression-era leftist melodrama... crammed with characters drawn from the icons of that period: WPA artists and performers, labor agitators, messianic Communists, sociopathic strikebreakers, and the inevitable tough-but-tender-hearted female journalist." Vance is currently working on scripting an original hardcover graphic novel adaptation of that work, to be released by Norton in 2007. I notice that Vance's words seem to fit Kings in Disguise too, though not on so grand a scale. I have to presume that this new work will thus be similar in tone to the extant book, though hopefully it will hang together a little bit better. That new work will not be hooked as much to memory, and will not carry with it the echoes of an industry's past hopes. Its memorial will be more direct, and one hopes even clearer.


I’ve heard rumors that other countries have holidays too.

*God, I’m wasting away in this savory bake of a weekend. Don’t know why.

*Oh hey, there was some film festival over in Cannes, and they handed out prizes. Pretty much all of the press coverage I read had either Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver or Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel locked in for the Palme d’Or, but the big prize actually went to Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley. Almodóvar did win Best Screenplay, and Iñárritu Best Director. Both of the acting awards were curiously given to ensembles rather than individuals, with the cast of Volver collectively given Best Actress, and the cast of Rachid Bouchareb’s Indigènes receiving Best Actor. The Grand Prix went to Bruno Dumont’s Flandres (I’ve been meaning to see his Twentynine Palms forever), and the Jury Prize went to Andrea Arnold’s Red Road.

Out of everything I’ve read, Babel certainly seems like the most interesting of the ’acclaimed’ entries - I was lukewarm to Iñárritu’s prior feature, 21 Grams, which I considered to be a noble failure, filled with nice performances and a few standout scenes (I still recall that wonderfully nervous attempted murder), but weighed down by an overly mannered, jumbly timeframe that served no discernible purpose other than to obscure the soapy melodrama at the heart of the plot, and a general lack of potency to the work’s stated themes. Babel looks to be another ensemble epic of colliding lives and actions, only on a grander scale than ever, spanning several nations, four languages, and six families - there’s apparently politics, violence, emotional scars, and communication issues all around (I mean, just look at the title). Sounds promising to me.

Other anticipated films were coolly received, among them Southland Tales by Richard Kelly of the decent-if-somewhat-overrated Donnie Darko (then again, I've only seen the apparently inferior Director's Cut), and Marie-Antoinette by Sofia Coppola of the decent-if-somewhat-overrated Lost in Translation. Southland Tales did manage to pique the interest of Manohla Dargis and J. Hoberman, so there might still be something there. Meanwhile, the out-of-competition Clerks II from Kevin Smith was greeted by quite the huge ovation at its past-midnight screening, the applause lasting roughly eight minutes in length following the close of the film according to reports. I've never seen the original Clerks.

*But nothing quite enhances one’s vacation experience like partaking of the classic cinema, artifacts from that golden age when men and women journeyed forth with little more than basic filming equipment and big dreams, and wrestled out of well-lived locations and the vaporous plains of dream indelible images of cultural potency and grand additions to the subsequent national unconscious.

Thus, 1974’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Yes, ‘chainsaw’ was two words at the beginning.

What really jumps out at me is how restrained the whole thing is, compared to its horror contemporaries - it was apparently shooting for a PG rating, though keep in mind such things were much different back in '74. Placed up against many of today’s shockers, it’s practically an art film. Following the famous John Larroquette opening narration, then the short bits with a corpse being hauled out of the grave and made into a public sculpture, then those gorgeous red-tinted images set behind the credits, it’s a good thirty or so minutes of kind-hearted (albeit somewhat dopey) kids driving around and shooting the breeze and encountering eccentric, sometimes threatening locals. It’s quite an excellent portrait of folks wandering around a rural, somewhat depressed landscape, with plenty of attention paid to curious noises and ruined indulgences like wallpaper and swings.

I can easily see how this picture might have inspired later filmmakers - often, it certainly looks like something that the viewer could conceivably create for themselves (though not easily - the shoot itself by many accounts was often grueling), what with its jumpy edits and ragged sound and not entirely polished acting, yet its effectiveness is rarely impaired by technical matters, seemingly every ‘filmmaking’ weakness ultimately turned to the film’s ambling, ominous, off-the-cuff advantage. It really is an often beautiful film, effortless evoking a feeling of wandering around old, sun-bleached places, then ramping up the natural oddness of the environment to incorporate murderous activity - it’s notable that Leatherface’s first killing takes place almost entirely in longshot, with no musical backing, because he and his family are just part of the surroundings, their flesh and bone sculptures logical extensions of what we’ve already seen, things we’re probably familiar with in our own lives, their latent creepiness suddenly broken out and predominant.

It’s not perfect, no - writers Tobe Hooper (who also directed) and Kim Henkel unfortunately opt to tie everything we’ve seen together in the end, while I think leaving parts of the film more obscure would have left it more effective, Leatherface and his ilk a natural, forbidden element of their environment yet their actions fundamentally random. They’re still not really explained in the finished film, but they’re made to be more of an all-pervading force in the film’s action that it all starts to smack of contrivance, particularly damaging for an otherwise disarmingly naturalistic horror piece. But damn, those last five minutes really are great - not just the iconic final image of Leatherface standing in jacket and tie in the Texas sunrise, flailing his weapon around, but the crazed chase around (and at one point through) oncoming vehicles in that early-morning traffic, the madness crashing headlong into delicate normalcy. Truly of all modern horror franchise ‘monster’ originals - and I’m an absolute sucker for A Nightmare on Elm Street - this was the most aesthetically pleasing, and perhaps tellingly the most temporally detached from its now inevitable-seeming sequels.

*Anyway, tomorrow we have Kings in Disguise, and maybe other stuff.


It's a nice holiday weekend.

*Isn't it?

*Er, provided you're in the US.


Start your weekend off right - with a short post devoted entirely to people losing their limbs.

*Oh hell. This could turn out really badly, but I’ll probably wind up buying the first issue anyway out of sheer curiosity. That's how you reel in the sales!

52 #3 (of 52)

I’ve been reading over a bunch of comics from the last pair of decades, filling in the gaps of what I've seen. Teri S. Wood's Wandering Star, the early Jim Shooter-supervised Valiant crossover Unity, David Quinn and Tim Vigil's Faust (why yes, I do let my dreams guide me sometimes). That last one proved to be oddly appropriate - in his afterward to the second Faust trade, writer Quinn asks "doesn't Marvel Comics 2002 look more like the original Faust than Marvel Comics 1989?"

52 isn't a Marvel comic, and it's not 2002 anymore, but those words kept ringing through my head as Black Adam seized Terra-Man at the end of this issue and ripped the old boy in half, his soft midsection giving way like a Slim Jim being tugged at both ends by a pair of greedy kids (I can just imagine the 'pop,' though the comic itself assures me it's more of a 'shrrapp'), blood spraying across those blue DCU skies and little nuggets of belly plopping down upon crack reporter Lois Lane and the rest of the assembled media. This stuff ain't even worth a 'Mature Readers' anymore, and you can't get much more 'mainstream' in your contemporary superhero comics than 52.

And that's not even getting to the head squishing - nice little tuft of hair flying in from off-panel, along with the expected eyeball and gobs of brain matter! It takes me back to the first time I saw real red blood in a comic (as opposed to the trickles of black tar that'd sometimes drift out in many superhero books around 1990 - it was in the comics feature in the popular video game magazine GamePro, actually, in which the titular superhero-like hero entered the world of Blaster Master and got his arm torn up good by one of the bosses. Man, if only he'd held down the pause button when he threw his grenade! Honestly, I imagine my nine-year-old self would really have enjoyed Black Adam's antics this issue, and I wasn't much of a mature reader, let me tell you.

As for the rest of this issue, it's decent as ever. Booster's amusing haplessness is starting to wear a bit thin, but it looks like it's all going somewhere pretty soon. The bits with Steel are still kind of dull, and Douglas Wolk has already gotten into some of the apparent continuity gaffes and logical stretches - honestly, the whole thing with Luthor is such a glaring blunder that I can't help but kind of wonder if it's intentionally misleading, though this might just be wishful thinking that ambitious DC's coordination has to be better than it seems, at least when joining vital plot beats from back-to-back major series. But I agree with Douglas that the character interactions are pretty well done, and I think the ongoing mystery is still interesting enough.

I maintain that DC is doing a pretty nice job of keeping less devout readers up to speed on what's necessary to know - Luthor's little speech in the hospital not only succinctly establishes his character for his first appearance in the story, but it neatly deploys some backstory as to what went on with Infinite Crisis. I get the feeling that's also the real point behind that back-up feature, though it's not successful at all in doing anything but vomiting out explanations as Donna Troy stands around in her cosmic disco leotard and looks surprised. Like I said last time, it'll likely be helpful when it's done, and you can read it all at once.

But my inner child is already roaring get back to the disembowelings! It doesn't need this weekly stimulus...


Writing on comics, and drawing on them too.

*I took a peek at that b&w coloring book variant of issue #5 of Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E. yesterday, and if nothing else it's cute - what with the crayon-conductive paper quality and the coloring contest sponsored by Comic Book Resources (man, I haven't run into a good old-fashioned coloring contest since I stopped writing for that local newspaper!), there's certainly more of a sense of fun about it than the usual alternate covers and the like.

And now Chris Tamarri is really getting into it by turning his copy of the book into an online mass-participation project! Just click over to this post and present Chris with a word or phrase or whatever in the comments section. Any word or words you want. Chris will then, in about a week or two, select the best 22 entries and use them as the inspiration behind his beautifying of the Nextwave coloring book, one entry per page. Go think up some fine words and give them to Chris!

Following Cerebus #8

I’m like a broken record with this, but if Following Cerebus isn’t going to manage the decency to stop being an interesting magazine, one that I’m routinely flipping though as I start my car in the comics shop parking lot, then I’m just going to have to keep writing about it. It’s currently nominated for the Eisner for Best Comics-Related Periodical, the only one of the nominees devoted not to a generalized comics ’topic’ but a specific work of a specific creator, though a flip through the pages of just about any issue will reveal that the scope of Cerebus and the interests of its creator allow for all manner of interesting and varied material. I’m tempted to say that the 40-page pamphlet-format publication is in fact a natural evolution of Cerebus itself - with those 20 pages of comics per month no longer a concern, it’s as if the varied supplementary bits of whatever given issue have ballooned to the point of taking over the whole comic. Certainly there’s no lack of creator/writer/co-artist Dave Sim; the magazine might be officially edited by Craig Miller and John Thorne, but Sim’s unique tastes and point of view suffuse everything, setting aside the fact that he contributes generously to various features.

The latest issue was released yesterday, and it’s a ‘Mind Games’ special. Veteran Cerebus readers will instantly know what that refers to: a series of thematically linked issues interspersed throughout the series in which the titular aardvark was confronted with all manner of metaphysical quandary and visual abstraction. There’s a nice analytical essay discussing these issues, and it does a really nice job of covering recurring themes and concerns, setting out how Sim used such issues to skillfully impart necessary exposition in a unique manner, explaining how such issues became unnecessary as Sim’s concept of what the series should be about changed over time, and researching visual influences behind Sim’s often creative page constructions (more than one of these issues could have pages pulled out and reassembled into a ’secret’ poster, a technique apparently inspired by Neal Adams’ Deadman work in Strange Adventures).

But even folks who haven’t plowed through all 300 issues of Cerebus will find a lot to enjoy from this issue. There’s the general sense of genial fun that goes into the publication’s very paper-to-staple construction: in keeping with the ‘Mind Games’ theme, the issue’s cover is intentionally stapled on upside-down and the opening editorial (by Sim, who is not an editor of the magazine) starts in the middle of a sentence and ends in the middle of another (the two halves of sentences don’t join up Finnegans Wake style, though). There’s comics too, the most interesting being a new five-page story by Roberta Gregory concerning her reactions to Sim’s storied reputation (amusingly, Gregory’s Bitchy Bitch character pops up to join in Sim's dislike for feminists, albeit for totally different reasons), and a two-page jam featuring Sim, Chester Brown, Seth, and Joe Matt, accompanied by commentaries from all four participants. Matt's contribution in particular is fascinating, a lengthy rumination on what a 'good' jam strip should be, leading into a biting critique of the strip presented.

Brown returns later for another telling feature, a presentation of an e-mail exchange between him and Sim on the topic of what Sim calls The List: a group of media-approved comics talents that tend to get big stories and big features in big media crafted around them over and over, folks like Chris Ware, Art Spiegelman, Dan Clowes, Adrian Tomine, etc. It's a personal, revealing discussion; Sim is never afraid to sound sour or withering, and Brown often challenges his statements. For example, upon Sim's suggestion that cartoonists of that league stay away from him due to his ideas, Brown counters that "[m]ost Listers look at your drawings and experience a gut level 'yuck' reaction" which leads into material on how different visual approaches have become more or less valued as their proponents have grown in media/industry stature.

And still there's more! If anyone's been wondering what Dave Sim thinks of the recent Danish cartoons controvesy, there's an interview on the very topic. Sim reviews an 800-page, 8-volume graphic novel by Lee Thacker, One for Sorrow. There's transcrips of recent speeches, and baby pictures sent in by readers, and yet more talk about Buffy the Vampire Slayer (or at least promotional stills from such). It's overstuffed with interesting material, though I'll readily admit that those who find Sim's famous stances on various sensitive issues mortifying to the point of their being unale to read anything of his might not want to jump in, since there's no holding back with that either. Just like with an actual issue of Cerebus, you can't escape seeing all of Sim. But also just like an actual issue of Cerebus, there's nothing quite like this publication on the stands today. Next issue it will bulk up to a 60+ page square-bound format to focus squarely on Neal Adams. Who knows what it might be next? It'll be very much Sim, at least.


Those knee-slapping funnybooks.

X-Statix Presents: Dead Girl #5 (of 5)


Aw heck. You back away from the preferred six-issue miniseries format, keep things burbling along nicely, and what do you get for the fifth and final chapter? An ending that feels like the creators just ran out of room. Although I’m not even sure if another issue wouldn’t have overextended the whole thing - it’s like the individual sequences of this issue were just badly weighted, too much emphasis put on the sillier of the miniseries’ jokes when there ought to have been more work done on pulling together themes and plot strands. A trick of microcosmic configuration, perhaps?

It’s frustrating, because Peter Milligan's story had really been quite cohesive up until the end; Dr. Strange (the real star of the book) was feeling adrift, as if life and death no longer mattered in the Marvel Universe, and he then got dragged into a curious plot by a bunch of still-dead supervillains to try and artificially force a ‘revival’ into the land of the living, something that could generally only be facilitated via the collective will of the still-living (in other words, readers). But all of that stuff - and interesting stuff it was, material I’d long been tossing around in my own head - gets tossed to the side in this issue in favor of hemorrhoids jokes, go-nowhere character play (the whole bit with Ant-Man and the Piano Player had a decent punchline - the collective taste of Marvel superhero readers is somewhat suspect - but there was no reason for it to burn up three pages), and a lingering air of pointlessness to the whole affair. The Pitiful One is cast further down into Hell, though he can probably find his way back up. Dr. Strange destroys a teensy jar of the temporary life ooze Eau du Profundis, though there’s a whole river of it left, and its location doesn’t seem to be much of a mystery. The ennui of understanding the truth of life’s and death’s ephemerally in the Marvel U is slightly relieved, though I’m not even sure how - Dr. Strange kicks the Ancient One’s ass, Dead Girl kicks the Pitiful One’s ass, and then everyone feels better. The end!

Which makes some measure of sense, yes, as this is a superhero comic, but I suppose I was hoping for a bit more meat than the revelation that the Ancient One was behind Strange’s posterior problems because he was jealous. That seems like a bit of a cheat, a shortcut taken to the story’s conclusion in lieu of a more direct tackling of the story’s possibilities, something that the series seemed primed to go for in prior issues. Not that there’s a total absence of theme in this final chapter. If you look very closely at the disparate pieces of this issue, you can grasp some sort of message - certain denizens of a shared superhero universe tend to drift past their usefulness, and some dead characters are probably better off dead, as their revival could only remind us of how badly they’ve aged. With nothing of interest to do, the Ancient One tumbled down a slippery slope into pettiness and cruelty, just as how the dead Ant-Man went mad from lack of interesting things to do - their revival couldn’t possibly result in anything fortuitous, so sour have their personas become over time. Strange declines to violate the laws of life and death any further to be with Dead Girl, maybe demonstrating what certain readers ought to do - treasure their memories of passed characters from back when they were interesting, as new exploits might well wreck the charm of it all. It’s like Guy’s comment upon seeing who the Pitiful One really is: “When I was a kid, he was really something…” But that alone is no reason for the villain to return, no way.

I just wish these nebulous thoughts were better defined in the book itself. It’s a choppy, indelicate conclusion, though still capable of some nice character moments - the whole routine with Dead Girl’s true name was cute, even sweet (and of course, Dr. Strange knows that true names hold their own magic!). Nick Dragotta’s and Mike Allred’s art is as good as ever, drizzling as much love onto the rich wrinkles of the Ancient One’s face and the shimmer of Edie’s eyes as any punching sequence; Dragotta and Allred employ an interesting technique in this issue, rendering minor details of character faces and costumes in what appears to be untouched pencils, simply washed over with color. It’s something I hadn’t noticed much of in earlier installments, but I think it adds a nice richness to climactic close-ups. And on a pure design level, I simply loved Strange’s styling turtleneck on those final pages. Yeah, some of these pieces are quite good. I just wish they fit together more smoothly.

Is that asking too much from the segments of lives and deaths and lives again?

The Last Christmas #1 (of 6)

Other comedies this don’t venture quite so far into the deep questions, which in part means that they don't suffer for pulling back from the depths. For example, there’s this new miniseries released by Image, from writers Gerry Duggan & Brian Posehn (the latter easily recognizable from assorted writing, acting, and stand-up comedy projects, such as Mr. Show and The Comedians of Comedy) and artists Rick Remender (pencils) & Hilary Barta (inks), seeing jolly old Santa and all of the gang caught up in a grim ’n gritty world-shattering action spectacular. Everything I’ve read online suggests it’s six issues long, though the book itself indicates only five - I’m kind of wondering if the jokes can hold out for even the lesser of those two issue counts, though I’ve seen stranger things come out of wacky high concepts.

It’s a pretty funny book, structured loosely like a merry old holiday special, complete with a talking snowman ‘host’ (voiced by Burl Ives, I guess, though I always preferred Jimmy Durante in Frosty the Snowman, even if he didn’t actually play a snowman) and chipper songs, standing in stark contrast to the details of the plot, involving the nuclear annihilation and subsequent mutation of much of humanity - Santa cares not, as good boys and girls still deserve their presents.

At least, until something goes wrong!

If you ask me, the funniest thing about this issue is how much the litany of horror that befalls Santa resembles the oft over-the-top shocks that tend to kick off a superhero comics Event miniseries. Think about it - we've got a good-hearted hero sitting in a tender, dangerous world. Suddenly, a mysterious evil appears, a worse threat than ever before, wreaking havoc with the hero's world. It knocks off some minor supporting cast members (not Dasher!) to pump up the import of the situation, though such killings pale in comparison to the big twist - the doom of A Major Character! One that sends the hero and the remaining cast spinning into the blackest depths of despair! And seeing all of this doom and gloom acted out by familiar North Pole characters acts as a nice little critique of how blood-spattered superhero sagas might look with one's head turned slightly to the side - although I'm not even sure any of this was intended by Duggan & Posehn, who seem mainly tickled by the basic premise of Santa fighting back against an ugly, fallen world.

That's pretty funny too, although this issue doesn't quite get there; we're still in the 'blackest depths of despair' part, so we get to enjoy Santa wandering around muttering like Ralph Dibny, and occasionally attempting suicide via cords of colorful lights and high-altitude leaps from the sleigh. Remender’s and Barta’s art really sells the naturally warm joviality of the characters, which makes the surrounding ugliness all the more amusing. It's kind of striking how strong Barta's inks are - I'm a fan of his work on Tomorrow Stories, and this material very much bears his stamp though he's working over the lines of Remender (whom I mostly know as a writer, his titles including Image's Sea of Red and Fear Agent). And I can't forget Michelle Madsen's hearth-warmed colors, or Geof Darrow's expectedly lovely cover.

Who knows how long this thing can hold up, though? One can't escape the feeling that this concept could get really monotonous really quickly without a deft touch, though there's nothing here that screams out the absence of such a hand behind the scenes. Good stuff so far, and let's hope for enough variation to keep it running all the way to the ready-for-December collected edition that I'm sure Image is gunning for.


Short lil' bits.

*Lots of driving today, lots of shuffling things around. I did manage to purchase Robot 2, the new installment of editor Range Murata's attempt to single-handedly send the collective moe quotient of the manga world shooting up to previously impossible, dizzying heights (DMP presents the English version). If you liked the first volume of this lavish, full-color art showcase, heavily stocked with folks from anime and game design, you'll probably enjoy this one, though there's even less effort made at telling satisfying stories then last time (Yasuto Miura does give it his best shot though, with another haunting, washed-out slice of surrealism, and I'm quite a sucker for Yoshitoshi ABe, even when he's providing a simplistic, gore-soaked dungeon crawl of a serial). But hey - a fancy fold-out and lots of tasty colors! Also: enough glossy, glassy-eyes waifs and pouty, busty ladies in assorted stages of undress to warrant that EXPLICIT CONTENT sticker, though it might as well have been a Boys Only Clubhouse! sign.

Granted, the cover art does depict a shy, pretty young thing reclining on a sofa and smiling passively as a fellow snaps a picture of her, and the advertisement in the back for Vol. 3 is nothing but a full-page close-up of a smiling, topless woman, as if to say 'more of the same, coming up!' so you can't accuse Murata of obscuring his intent for the project. That's about all I have to say.

*Yesterday’s Horrors Dept: The ever-alert Dan Coyle pointed me to this Friday the 13th forum via his comments to yesterday’s post, in regards to what’s been holding up Avatar’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre comics - little did I expect to discover some fresh comics news! According to posts made by Avatar stalwart Mike Wolfer, in reference to a horror convention this past weekend (Cherry Hill, NJ’s Monster-Mania), the increasingly horror-happy publisher has obtained the official comics license for Night of the Living Dead, and will be producing a ‘prequel’ miniseries from a story by original NOTLD co-writer John Russo (whose unproduced screenplay for Escape of the Living Dead also fueled another recent Avatar zombie book) and a sequential adaptation by the prolific Wolfer, with the full cooperation of George Romero. Apparently, Sebastian Fiumara is already set to provide art; he and Wolfer will also be teaming for the upcoming Friday the 13th Fearbook one-shot.

It’s worth clicking backward through that whole thread by the way, as Wolfer provides a lot of interesting tidbits as to the sometimes frustrating process of creating licensed comic books, even with properties that allow certain brands of excessive content to fly - that won’t protect you from the whims of the license holder, it seems.


Here's a suggestion for an upcoming purchase!

*Promotional Messages Dept: This Wednesday, issue #276 of The Comics Journal hits the stands - it contains the first installment of the brand-new Cape Fear, a column I am writing on the topic of superhero comics. I hope you’ll all find it interesting. The feature interview this issue is Terry Moore of the soon-to-conclude Strangers in Paradise, and there’s sure to be other good things too.

*That said,


Haunt of Horror: Edgar Allen Poe #1 (of 3), All Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder #4

Batman: Year 100 #4 (of 4)

The Hollow Grounds (a long examination, with detours into other corners of artist François Schuiten's work)

And a film review of Metropolis, Fritz Lang's silent classic, which I finally got to see on a big screen. Everything is magnified.


*Hey! Jeff Smith is blogging!

*There are comical books being released


Scott Pilgrim Vol. 3 (of 6): Scott Pilgrim & the Infinite Sadness: Long-awaited, much anticipated. I don’t need to say much about Scott Pilgrim, right? Writer/artist Bryan Lee O’Malley is sure to provide the laffs and fizz and sparkly clashes. At Demonhead, no less.

Carl Barks’ Greatest DuckTales Stories Vol. 1 (of 2): Nothing like a little nostalgia tie-in to move those reprints, eh? This is a short, inexpensive ($10.95) series of books from Gemstone, dedicated to presenting all of the Carl Barks duck epics later adapted into episodes of the popular 1987-90 animated television series DuckTales. Seasoned Barks scholars will probably have no use for this, as all this stuff as been reprinted a bunch of times already, but Gemstone isn’t targeting them; this one’s for folks who fondly recall the show, but might not be all that familiar with Carl Barks. Or curious folks just looking to snap up a clump of Barks cheap and easy.

Walt Kelly’s Our Gang Vol. 1: Also classic reprints of media license comics by a beloved Disney animation veteran turned comics superstar, though these will prove less familiar to most readers. Prior to the genesis of the seminal Pogo newspaper strip, creator Walt Kelly worked for Dell on 59 issues of Our Gang (based on the big screen short comedies featuring Hal Roach’s Little Rascals, produced from 1922-44) starting in 1943, the same year Pogo himself debuted in Dell’s Animal Comics. This Fantagraphics series will strive to reprint all of Kelly’s material in 96-page softcover bites.

Concrete Vol. 5: Think Like a Mountain: This is the one where Concrete becomes mixed up with environmentalist extremists. It might suffer the most of all these works from losing the lush color of the original trade collection, though it still looks pretty decent. I’m getting the feeling that I’m actually going to wind up buying the next volume, Strange Armor (the revised origin, based on creator Paul Chadwick’s never-produced Concrete film screenplay), since I’ve never managed to get a hold of a copy of the prior edition - it’s been out of print for a while now.

Cromartie High School Vol. 6: More in English of the recently-concluded humor series from Eiji Nonaka; the total number of volumes should end up around 17 or so. This latest release comes hot on the heels of the series’ Eisner nomination and anticipation of the live action film adaptation’s July 11 R1 dvd arrival, so maybe there’ll be a bit more heat than usual behind it.

Scrublands: I’d have had no idea what this was, were it not for Free Comic Book Day. It’s the first-ever collection of work from South African cartoonist Joe Daly, who demonstrated a nice grasp of dry surrealism in Fantagraphics’ Funny Book #2; now Fanta offers 128 pages of his stuff, in b&w and color. Just thought I’d make that little FCBD connection there.

52 #3 (of 52): This series has not fallen off schedule yet.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Grind #1 (of 3): This one, however... well, that A Nightmare on Elm Street: Paranoid thing is still going on too, so this third New Line horror license series from Avatar isn’t too grossly behind, I guess. You’re not getting any Jacen Burrows, though (he’s busy working on the upcoming Garth Ennis’ Wormwood miniseries) - Brazilian artist Daniel HDR takes over the visual side of things this issue, though Brian Pulido is still writing. Pulido, however, is scaling back his writing duties to only the Freddy stuff in the upcoming third wave of releases, a set of ‘Fearbook’ one-shots - Mike Wolfer will handle the Friday the 13th script for artist Sebastian Fiumara (Wolfer is also currently writing and drawing the Friday the 13th: Jason vs. Jason X miniseries) while Antony Johnston heads down to Texas for more with Daniel HDR. There’ll also be an Escape of the Living Dead ‘Fearbook’ one-shot, written and drawn by Wolfer. I just deleted my high school calculus knowledge to make room for all that, by the way.

X-Statix Presents: Dead Girl #5 (of 5): This is a fine story, firmly in the upper tier of X-Statix adventures, and I look forward to this final issue.

Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E. #5: In which things will no doubt happen, in a series of panels, colorfully.

Hawkgirl #52: I hope you all enjoyed the big ‘it was all a dream!’ resolution of the opening cliffhanger last issue - it gave my heart a wee jump. But I still like this series; something about its clumsy, old-fashioned superhero chiller charm appeals to me, as if it’s a book unstuck in time.

A series of words on François Schuiten, and other things.

*Dan Nadel’s new book Art Out of Time: Unknown Comics Visionaries, 1900-1969 is probably going to be great - a 320-page hardcover beast dedicated to discussing almost 30 long-forgotten, idiosyncratic comics talents, scads of art included. From my perspective Rory Hayes appears to be the most immediately popular of the lot, which is saying something. The book is due out on June 1st, and can be pre-ordered online for around $25 without much searching. Tom Spurgeon has a preview of some of the showcased visuals up today, with new comments by Nadel. I sure do like that Fletcher Hanks (though Nadel is right to note the importance of his nameless colorist), whose art also graced the paperback cover of Gerard Jones’ Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book, albeit filtered through the Chip Kidd gaze. Go and anticipate.

The Hollow Grounds

For quite a while now I’ve been fascinated with François Schuiten, a Belgian-born bande dessinée star who’s had more works translated to English then you’d think - the trick is, almost all of them are completely out of print, and often command high prices on the used books circuit. This includes tomes released but four years ago - clearly there’s enough demand for the man’s work that supply never quite fills it, though he’s hardly on the tip of every tongue in the English-language comics community. Thus, the obscurity of the artist's output remains all the more tantalizing, perched neatly and infuriatingly between wide availability and easy procural after the fact.

But I already fear I’m being misleading. It’s not just Schuiten that commands such attention, but the French-born Benoît Peeters, Schuiten’s lifelong friend, who serves as writer on the duo’s mutual magnum opus, Les Cités Obscures, concerning the oft allegorical and always fantastical affairs of dazzling fantasy municipalities. An intimidating sprawl of interconnected-yet-standalone multimedia projects, begun in 1982 and continuing to this day, Les Cités is very much the type of thing a reader can get entirely lost in. And many do - Schuiten and Peeters love to claim that the Obscure Cities are real, and that they personally visited them in the early ‘80s and are only producing documents of their time spent there, and they openly invite readers to tell of their own journeys into that architecturally wondrous parallel Earth. The creators’ favorite reader-sent anecdotes sometimes find their way into the canonical works (an iffy legal ground many creators are unwilling to tread upon), as do certain readers themselves. The projects are often executed in traditional comics album format, but others have appeared as a children’s book, an audio CD, a travel guide, an annotated (in the manner of Pale Fire) academic treatise, and a series of posters, sometimes in very low print-runs, the objects themselves occasionally referenced in other bits of the sprawl.

Unfortunately, only a handful of the comics albums have appeared in English (under the banner title Cities of the Fantastic, from NBM), and only the newest is readily available at cover price, The Invisible Frontier Vol. 2 (of 2) (the creators are currently working on an integrated, single-volume edition of The Invisible Frontier, so we may yet see that in English). It’s possibly easier to search out some of the earlier volumes as serialized in various English-language publications, if you can get them cheap: the first book (The Walls of Samaris) was serialized in Heavy Metal (Vol. 8 #8-12, although according to this thorough fan page the translation is pretty dire, a page is missing, Peeters’ name is omitted from some installments, and the creators revised the story anyway in a later edition of the album), and the next two in the Dark Horse/NBM anthology Cheval Noir (Fever in Urbicand in issues #1-6, The Tower in issues #9-14). But for the most part, these works are off-limits to most English-only readers. I’ve personally only read The Tower, though it’s quite good, mixing often incredible architectural renderings reminiscent of Winsor McCay (Schuiten and Peeters recently produced Les Portes du Possible, a collection of newspaper features created in the style of early 20th century futurist pieces for urban papers of the type McCay sometimes worked on) with sensitive philosophic musings, good-natured adventure, and imaginative formal play, color sparingly used in a b&w world to denote the luminescent power of outside art.

But Les Cités is not all there is to Schuiten.

The themes touched by that swaggering work drift though the comics the artist has created apart from Peeters, books not at all directly tethered to Les Cités, works that are both harder and easier for English-reading parties to access. On one hand, Schuiten has provided art for a number of books with writer Claude Renard, none of which to my knowledge have ever appeared in English. And then there is The Hollow Grounds (Les Terres Creuses), an on-again off-again endeavor Schuiten has produced with his brother Luc, the latter providing the scripts. The progress of the work, begun in 1977 when the artist was 21 and concluded in 1990, spans a good portion of Schuiten’s career and shares several themes and conceptual approaches with Les Cités, while retaining its own identity. It’s also the only unified section of Schuiten’s bibliography available in its entirety in English, each of its three books having been published in separate hardcover albums by Humanoids from 2000 to 2001, with the whole works then combined and squashed down into a single trade paperback in 2004 during the ill-fated Humanoids partnership with DC.

That’s both a good and bad thing. Despite the Humanoids/DC crash ‘n burn, the trade edition is still quite easy to find, perhaps available under its $19.95 cover price (in contrast, the Humanoids hardcovers ran $14.95 a pop). And there’s no denying that the Schuitens have worked hard to join the three books into a semi-coherent single experience, despite their having been produced at very different times; the material reads quite initiatively as one tome. However, each and every page of the trade edition all but screams to the reader that Schuiten (and for simplicity’s sake, note that the simple use of the name ‘Schuiten’ from here on out refers to François) did not create his art with US trade paperback dimensions in mind, even the slightly expanded dimensions (10.2 x 7.4 rather than 6.6) that this package affords it - this stuff was meant to be seen big.

But maybe you won’t necessarily want all three books anyway. Maybe you’ll be willing to sacrifice quantity for quality. I mentioned earlier that these works have their own identity, but it’s not always a pleasing identity. It’s certainly possible that the weaker books in this collection suffer from having been created relatively early in Schuiten’s career - things do get better as time soldiers on. Or maybe Peeters is simply a better writer than Luc Schuiten. To better discuss each component part, let me separate the three books that make up the saga.


Originally released in 1980, this is actually a collection of the Schuitens’ short comics stories, as produced up to that point. Many of them appeared in English in early issues of Heavy Metal, where their brevity, varied flavors of surreal beauty, and general preoccupation with sexuality fit right in with the general milieu. Today, they are largely valuable as simple early works, the products of young artists soaked in skill and eager to get some fresh, individual material out.

And their beauty is formidable, if dimmed by the trade edition’s presentation. There’s five tales included, along with a gap-filling series of art-laden ‘educational’ notes, and Schuiten’s visual chops are evident right from the beginning. In Shells we follow a pair of humans, one male and one female, clad in full body armor that makes them resemble robots, as they romp through a metallic b&w ink wash junkyard. But soon their desire to feel the true touch of one another becomes overwhelming, and they remove their armor - their flesh is rendered in warm, painterly color. Their blood too - before long, metal insects swarm onto them and devour their soft bodies, their world unable to contemplate the possibility of real human connection. But the next story, Stampede, appears to decide that human interaction has its downside too, as a man bicycles through a forest of lush color into a city standing atop a giant pane of glass, with another environment below. The man grows nervous and frisky meeting a woman, who eventually rejects him, and his body literally begins splitting and cracking into geometric patterns, until he’s reduced to tiny cubes of despair floating out into the wild. Even more blunt is Sample, a simple 4-page sequence of a medieval horseman fleeing through a cave, only to plunge down a hole into a primeval jungle and become ensnared in a mysterious civilization’s airship tractor beam.

Most of these stories (I’m not too sure about the tractor beam bit) have to do with the pleasure and danger of desire - mostly the danger, actually. Sex and the pursuit of such drives humans to destruction in these worlds, and they are clearly marked off as ‘worlds’ - the recurring educational segments chart the flight of humanoid winged creatures known as Flitters, who are capable of traversing frequencies and crossing universes, passing unseen over everything yet perhaps observing. Obviously they see a lot of sorry events; the book’s longest story, The Fog Cutter, follows a few days in the life of a voyeuristic fellow living in a solar-powered city prone to fits of solidifying fog, who’s entrusted with the job of using his handy laser claw glove to expertly slice away the atmosphere when necessary. He’s more interested in spying on a teasing, haughty local woman, who’s the unwitting model for a massive fog sculpture the cutter is erecting. Needless to say, the man’s mad lust ultimately leaves everyone who depends on him trapped save for his target, and even she is cast aside for the beauty of fetishistic art, unmoving construct utterly preferable to a real, breathing, emotionally complex woman.

The art in that story is different, a lovely traditional pen and ink style with muted, dull color - such an approach will quickly become the predominant Schuiten ‘look,’ and it’s rather amazing how fully formed it is given the early date. Schuiten’s character art is solid and realistic, prone to caricature only in creative facial hair and the cleft of his aging men’s chins - these people are always cleanly presented, but nonetheless prone to becoming invisible to the reader while standing before the artist’s sweeping buildings and technological creations, which will only become more lavish and complex as Schuiten matures, and begins to settle on a single approach for his comics work.

All the art changes in the world can’t defy the repetition of this book’s message, though - each new ‘world’ offers the same old vices and the same roads to hell.

Unless we look at it in a slightly different way.

The remaining story, Crevice, presents an utterly daft spicy sci-fi magazine saga. A bunch of people are having lunch in a sunny meadow to celebrate a young couple’s wedding, but soon the ground itself opens and the bride is yanked down the crevice; it turns out that the environment is an artificial, computer-controlled one, and the computer’s brain apparently yearns to experience the sensation of human skin (of course!). So the groom journeys down the crevice to confront the brain, only to find its tendrils ravishing his bride, hentai tentacle style. And the woman rather enjoys it (“I’ll always remember this wedding day!”), though the computer respects the (cuckolded?) husband’s feelings, and spins them a mighty wedding night bed as a gift. But as the couple lays down to consummate their union, tendrils rise again from the artificial covers, this time enveloping the both of them.

Another tale of desire gone wrong? Here, nature no longer wants to destroy sex but experience it, explicitly because it’s human-made ‘nature.’ Can our deep needs spread to even the blades of grass we build? Perhaps, though a close examination of the crucial final panel reveals that the young couple seem oddly at peace with their situation; perhaps what the story is saying is that casting off all inhibitions with our creations is the way to go. One creator, the titular fog cutter, preferred creating sexual art to actual human contact - here, a certain peace is achieved by letting the creation in on the private work of humans.

Certainly Schuiten is not one to sentimentalize the natural state - he has devoted much of his own art to whipping up gorgeous buildings and such, after all. Indeed, he and Luc seem to be indicating in this early book that nature is inherently chaotic and destructive, and only the most aching simultaneous embrace of human interrelation and human creation can bring genuine happiness - otherwise, we are but automatons cracking open into blocks, or lonely sculptors letting the world get lost in a fog. These are short, simple stories, the enthusiastic work of young creators. They are not essential, nor are they masterworks, though they are alluring on a visual level. Perhaps their devout preoccupation with matters of the lower regions betrays the tender age of the creative team, or perhaps not - either way, it’s little surprise to discover in the end that much of the interdimensional travel of the Flitters is due to their losing control of their abilities whilst copulating mid-flight, a revelation punctuated by a final image of a pair humping their way right through the page at the reader’s face. Fitting.


This second book was completed half a decade later, in 1985. It’s a single color story with a 12-page b&w prologue, which feels like it used to be a standalone short. It’s also an ambling, formless mess, stocked up with neat ideas and good visual concepts, and virtually nothing to do with them save for indulging in odd world-building asides, scattershot satire, gratuitous naughtiness, and roundabout adventure. Quite amazingly it’s actually less coherent than the last book, which was a strung-together compilation of disparate short stories.

Things do start out well with that prologue, though. Rendered entirely in a lavish woodcut style, the flavor of myth duly endowed, the story follows a young girl named Olive who can’t stop wondering why her tribe of wanderers spend all their time moving along a set path circumnavigating their home region, never staying in one place for too long, always horrified of falling behind. Olive decides to defy tribe rule by staying behind in one place, free to enjoy the fun of settling down somewhere. She soon grows to regret her decision, though, at it seems the world is literally rotating under her in a slow circle while she stays still. Soon, against all logic, she’s stuck in a tree poking sideways out of what was once the ground and now appears to be more of a wall, then hanging from the very roof of the world. Her pluck does not go unpunished, though, as she soon plunges into the watery center of the globe, which gives way to a massive system of girders, like those of an unfinished skyscraper. She’s then picked up by Flitters (from the prior book), and whisked away to adventure.

The book then turns to color as we enter Oz, and by ‘Oz’ I mean an all-female society called the Gammas living in the center of the hollow planet (ah, get it? Hollow Grounds?) who are very earthy and sensual and inseminate themselves by sitting naked on a spout from which green ichor emitted by a giant sentient slug pours forth - I guess they only give birth to girls. Also, the hollow center of the planet doesn’t rotate, though the outer shell does. Olive’s people were living on the inside crust of the planet’s surface, where gravity pulls toward the center; in the world of the Gamms everything is vertical, and apparently gravity drags everything downward. Somehow. It's certainly an interesting idea, illustrating that already classic (Les Cités having started a few years prior) Schuiten theme of worlds giving way to new worlds, though far less is done with it by Luc Schuiten than Peeters apparently has managed.

We’re soon introduced to our ‘heroine,’ Nelle, an adventurous young Gamma who’s shacked up with a pale artistic type who broadcasts her dreams via a handy psychic helmet for everyone’s amusement. The arrival of Olive, however, greatly preoccupies the Gammas, who are very much fascinated by her descriptions of her portion of the world, particularly the creatures called ‘men’ with ‘vines’ growing from the bodies. “It must be wonderful to be vined by one of those,” murmurs a Gamma in true men's magazine style, though later in the book we find out that men have appeared in the Gammas’ world before, though there's no indication on the part of the script that they're keeping things from Olive early on. It all kind of shifts to fit the needs of the plot. Or maybe the translation’s not very good - hard to tell with these things.

Meanwhile, many light years away, a colony of pointy-mustached men dressed like Flash Gordon villains discover the hollow planet and immediately plot to teleport over to invade, eager to feel the human-to-human rush of forced sex and killing with hand-held weapons, something lost to their small (as in five or six person) society. This necessarily small-scale invasion coincides with an expedition to the bottom of the hollow world and hopefully the inside crust beyond by Olive, Nelle, and Nelle’s partner, who's not really important. The story then breaks down into a jumble of lax action scenes and bizarre events, like the Gammas uncovering an illuminating power source that makes them take off their clothes and frolic. Also, it’s revealed that the Gamma society is as arguably amoral as they are uninhibited (perhaps they simply have a different concept of what is moral), modeling themselves off of the society and survival instincts of insects (recall the prior book), including the sucking dry of prey for a valuable source of energy - hey, has Dave Sim read this?! Anyhow, a bunch of things happen, and then the story doesn't as much end as stop.

It’s difficult to see what sort of point this work has, outside of the broadest strokes, though it is rather refreshing to come across a pair of creators with an honest to god ‘nature = bad things that will hurt you’ theme, rather than the expected idealizations. The human spirit of adventure, personified by Olive, is granted reward, though one spiked with extra dangers. I suppose there’s also some sort of gender role satire at work, though a rather misanthropic one, given that each side of the divide is prone to devouring the other to fulfill their most primitive needs. Although again, that prior book comes back into focus - base human desire belies all of our grand technological accomplishment. See what I mean by these books working as a whole?

It is possible to see bits and pieces of other works floating around, however. I did pick up a lot of interest on Schuiten’s part in regards to portraying downward and upward movement, a spatial fascination that would extend to his work on The Tower a few years later. The visuals are more than capable, of course, the vast city of the Gammas lovingly detailed and always somehow kept believable, despite all seeming lack of logic. One can sense traces of deeper questions brewing beneath the surface, though they're kept largely in the service of Luc Schuiten's wandering plot; you can hear those straws being grasped at as the work staggers forward.


This, however, is a small masterpiece.

It was first released in 1990, another half-decade gone by. It's very much a direct sequel to Zara, again utilizing Nelle as the main character, with Olive in a supporting role. But here, everything attempted in the prior book suddenly snaps into place, character meeting action meeting deep questions meeting a new high in Schuiten's use of both visual aplomb and the comics form itself.

Given the double caps on the title, it's not hard to see that it's a palindrome. Given the constraints of the trade edition, however, it might be difficult to initially notice that the story itself is symmetrical - all of the page layouts of the work's first half are mirrored in the second half. Watchmen did an issue like that, you might recall. Plus, all of the perspectives as presented in those first half panels are reversed in the second half panels. The settings and characters are mirrored. Sometimes, dialogue in the second half even responds to what's gone on in the first, though not always. Perfect symmetry is not necessary, as the story itself reveals.

Oh yes, this is no simple formalist exercise - the plot concerns Nelle traveling through the planet of NogegoN, searching for Olive, whom Nelle has plainly fallen in love with, though she split the scene after the events of Zara. It seems that Olive had at one point changed her name to OlivilO, and fell madly in love with a sculptor. But then the relationship grew violent and abusive, and Olive apparently killed herself. Nelle strives to get to the bottom of the mystery, ready to use violence to get the answers she needs, including the destruction of the sculptor's work.

But then, just about past the halfway point of her journey, she finds herself falling in love with the sculptor, and he with her. And then Nelle (who changes her name to NelleN) discovers the curious power of planet Nogegon: it forces its inhabitants to live their lives in some form of symmetry. Birth eventually becomes death - so it goes for all of us. But on this planet, specific hate becomes specific love. One particular affair relates to a corresponding one. Everywhere you travel, you return to later in reverse order. This extends out of the story, and onto the very pages you stare at, though it's probably more neatly conveyed as a single hardcover. Faced with these inexplicable realities, Nelle(N) ponders the very nature of free will, when one can read the path of their life entirely as based on what's gone before. And even as she does it, she finds herself repeating things she did before. And meanwhile, it turns out that any sudden asymmetrical deaths will put the powerful policing forces of NogegoN on high alert, as complimentary events are valued above all else.

Yet, through it all, despite the work being structured like a parlor trick, Luc Schuiten manages his very best characterizations, Nelle and Olive (the latter through her diaries) made far more complex in emotion, and guided by a longing for adventure and/or one another. The helplessness that Nelle feels when confronted with the ways of NogegoN is genuine, and touching, largely because the form of the story itself responds to the very forces effecting its main character. And the storytelling, despite all of this brooding, is often really fun, with little jokes set up early on that only pay off at the corresponding tail end of the work, and a good deal of amusement had with the somewhat flexible definition of 'symmetry' employed (does it mean the same thing reversed? the same thing backwards? the same thing the same way but to different ends? - at different times it means all of these things). Every page of this story is milked for potential, its cleverness boundless - yes, it's even possible that the general tone of the work by its end compliments that of its beginning. Hell, if we want to go really far, even the presence of the sculptor matches up pretty neatly with the short story in the first book regarding the fog cutter. "No, it's completely different." - so snaps the sculptor when confronted with the similarity of his work to that of a fog sculptor, though both men work to freeze moments, perhaps in defiance of the passage of time. Symmetry can't be beat, though.

And Schuiten is in perfect form, the spires and clouds of NogegoN curving and twisting toward the sky, every moment reflected later on in creative ways, the whole concept a nice excuse for the artist to show off every angle of his designs. Even the color schemes compliment one another as the work moves on, the aptitude of Schuiten's design prowess finally let so loose on the page that it can't help but interact with the story itself, art and text fully synched. In a way, this compliments the early stories of Carapaces, as emotion and creation are finally mixed - and just as the young Schuitens said, lasting joy comes of it.

It's a short but invigorating work, utterly worth reading and fully recommended to anyone. It's entirely possible you might just want to seek out the single oversized hardcover edition, for maximum visual impact, if you don't want to put up with lesser works. But material this good tends to make one want to seek out more, and with Schuiten, more is often hard to come by for English speakers. At least the tastes we have right now are capable of such sweetness, that we'll keep on searching for those obscure doorways to those cities, those places beyond hollow ground. Once we know such things are beneath the surface, it's a challenge to keep from digging deeper and deeper.


Short film post for Sunday funday.

*Current Cinema Dept: I don’t like many trailers. Not in that they drive me away from movies - the real problem is that nothing is really accomplished at all. There’s very little imagination to so many previews, and there’s so much repetition of the same old cliches and vanilla visual gimmicks - often, the very rhythm of the things turn me off, so ingrained into my skull are those worn editing beats. Really, they’ve formed their own awful genre of short film, as thick and heavy with trope and tactic as any feature genre, and that’s a grand failure. Trailers are meant to be advertisements for products, and most of them are failures to me in that I can’t even accept them as embodying the qualities of a film anymore; I only see them as their own creative units, which may or may not correspond to the feature they’re attempting to hype. Transparency is needed in these things, but it’s usually lacking for me.

But then, there are trailers that sink below even the withered average. Trailers that leave one’s mouth agape at their sheer miscalculation. It’s almost enticing, in that these previews brew in my belly a instant revulsion directed toward the film being advertised, a direct preview-to-film connection that’s frankly absent in much of the middle ground. Here is the most recent sampling of the awful class which I describe. Remember David Mamet’s criticism of Schindler’s List as “emotional pornography”? All I take from this trailer is that World Trade Center is sure to be the Behind the Green Door of the 2006 prestige picture season, and that’s a wicked little victory in a wicked little way.

*Prior Cinema Dept: But then, the internet can also bring us little films that are plain old awesome. Like this 1977 educational short, Powers of Ten, directed by Charles & Ray Eames with lovely music by Elmer Bernstein. Not all that much to it: the camera begins fixed on a happy couple having a picnic, pulls all the way up out of the park, out of the state, off the planet, back through the solar system, all the way back until the entire galaxy is but a blip in the distance, then plunges down like a cosmic flume ride through the light years, back down to Earth, back down to the picnic, then down through the skin of one of the picnickers, until a single carbon nucleus is reached. Highly impressive on a visual level, with the amiable voice of theoretical physics whiz and Manhattan Project group leader-turned-nuclear nonproliferation personality Philip Morrison providing a running commentary on what's going on in front of us; Morrison would later co-author a book of the same title, with a similar concept. Go watch it.


Metamorphosis again.

*Catastrophic Gains Dept: It seems several members of the USS Catastrophe crew are now blogging up a collective storm. Kevin Huizenga, Ted May, Dan Zettwoch - they’ve either been on my sidebar for a while, or have just recently been added, but let me just link to them up here too. Sketches, new drawings, upcoming works, reading suggestions, consideration as to the direction independent comics are taking - it’s all to be found at these three links.

Batman: Year 100 #4 (of 4)


In which writer/artist Paul Pope’s tantalizing, somewhat teasing futuristic Bat-miniseries draws to a nominal close, though there’s plenty of room left open for sequels and the like - that’s fitting for both the never-ending Bat-saga as a whole, as well as a miniseries that draws a certain amount of its power from that very aspect of said mythos. Batman keeps on going, seemingly against the current of time and society and politics, and he can fit into almost any cultural situation - this series openly acknowledges such properties, and mixes them into its potboiling brew of government shenanigans and doomsday viruses, with a mystery Batman plunked into the world, simply because every world can sustain a Batman, even one that seems less inclined toward tolerating superheroes than usual.

Mercifully, there’s no fist-clenched ‘this cold, cynical world needs heroes!!’ pontificating here - Batman does more talking in this issue than he’s done in the rest of the series, though that’s in compliance with detective fiction trope (the great sleuth must explain the mystery’s solution to us normal folk, after all!), rather than out of any desire to make a grand statement about the world at large (or the world of comics). There’s plenty of politics in this book, yes, but they’re all neatly hooked up to smoothly-moving sci-fi/superhero genre action; memories of Pope’s wooden, preachy early work are distant now, his writing having increased in skill even as his already-skillful art reached new, culturally mutant forms. You’ll see little of the airy, easygoing weekly manga serial influence of THB in this thing; Pope is tempering his work to the expectations of a superhero audience, the action still popping but restrained to flurries of tight panels and interspersed in between gobs of dialogue. There’s still plenty of those moody Pope exteriors, and those weathered Pope characters, and those chunky Pope sound effects, still aided marvelously by colorist Jose Villarrubia (and still somewhat sidetracked by some stolid DC house fonts for the lettering).

Those drained, almost sickly hues fill in a world that doubtlessly gives the book’s writer/artist the shakes - a United States so drained of privacy that the most superhuman thing a costumed hero can do is obscure their true identity. Each issue of this series has arrived with a text piece on the inside covers, and this one’s is devoted almost entirely to detailing how exactly Batman’s big fight scene last issue failed to leave any means by which he could be identified - pretty much all of these little prose pieces, a collection of reports, dialogues, and personal impressions, have existed to shore up the legendary, untraceable, unbelievable status Batman carries among people who’ve almost forgotten him. Thus, much in the way Pope pains himself not to directly state the book’s themes via preaching, the text supplements don’t directly fill us in on the series’ world in the way that the bonus features in 100% did - here, the author wants us to stay slightly ahead of the book’s supporting cast in what’s happening, but only slightly.

Thus, we never find out who Batman is. We never discover how he met up with his aides, why they decided to fight crime, how Robin got so skilled with motorcycles, or anything like that - we do learn at the very end that this Batman too is named ‘Bruce,’ a tease that ably points to where Pope is coming from in his concept. This is a new Batman, but also an old Batman, and not only don’t the details behind Batman matter much, they can’t matter much in the context of the new crime he must fight - a prior issue saw a number of men sitting around and searching through information on Batman throughout the last 100 years, a mutable figure glimpsed cheekily through several of his most popular forms (the Adam West version, Frank Miller’s Dark Knight, etc.), and a question floats around as to how these varied forms could act and sound like the same person. There’s no answer forthcoming out of Pope, but in terms of metafiction it’s quite simple: Batman exists again because the concept of ‘Batman’ can apply to multiple states of existence, and Batman will forever be young, and vital, and fighting crime, because that’s what the icon must stand for at its core. The men of government are confused as to how Batman can exist, but they can never grasp that they’re but characters in a Batman comic, and such things cannot exist without Batman, in the same way that our contemporary understanding of ‘Batman’ adapts to fit the core concept of the character as the reading society shifts.

Pope postulates a future with no privacy. One with malignant terrorists, like Ahmbra (whom we fittingly never once glimpse in any form but name, remaining a nebulous, impossible to fully grasp threat), and ambitious government forces, the Department of Homeland Security having molded its power into the form of surveillance-happy enforcers who tromp over local authority and formulate arrogant, power-hungry plans. It’s revealed here that the two have joined forces in a way, with some particularly noxious federal specimens fully ready to cooperate with terrorism to further their own motives. In this world, Batman is local, not global. Batman has a few trusted associates, but refuses the use of any but the most simple products, preferring to develop his wonderful toys himself. Batman respects certain authority (he’s no anarchist), but is more than willing to fight official corruption, the federal-powered Gotham Wolves decked out in giggling red, white, and blue. Such banners won’t stop Batman’s fist. And Batman will never reveal who he is, not even to us trusted readers, not fully.

Of course, the real joy of this series is watching Pope build up this world for his new old Batman to romp in - one would imagine it’d be simple to craft a politically-colored world in which to plunk down a hero meant to embody certain politics, but Pope goes a bit further, happily delineating technologies and government structures, and designing colorful, memorable characters, while keeping things somewhat believable. Frankly, the individual pieces of that design aren’t always great - lead villain Pravdzka might as well be howling ‘musssst... increasssse... federalll authoooority OH GOD THE MASKS ARE CHASING ME’ whilst thrashing around in this issue’s final sequences, though Pope was careful to set up his mania back in issue #1. The ‘mystery’ kind of wound up solving itself back in issue #3, and the little twists contained here do little to assuage the sense of wheels gently spinning - this also renders Batman's big 'detective explains it all' speech sort of hollow. Batman’s final action is extremely reminiscent of the conclusion to Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination, only with the anarchistic edges smoothed over - Batman likes likes liberty and free information, but he's not nearly extreme enough to actually hand the people the power for their own ultimate destruction - hell, he's not blowing up Parliment either, and he's not ready to bring down the state. He just wants to strike back against aggressions toward the bodies of others, and maybe agressions toward the liberty of others, if that happens to get in the way.

And, you know, there's motorcycles and fighting and stuff too. Good action. Some nice bits of wit - I utterly loved how tough-talking, bullying, golden-toothed Agent Tibble finally gets into an actual combat situation this issue, and goes down like a punk in one punch. I'm not sure how much the book as a whole will stand up to re-reading - it's very much about enjoying the scenery, and savoring details, and going somewhere, even if the destination isn't all that mind-blowing from a plotting standpoint. But there'll still be entertainment, entertaining ideas - Batman staring directly at Pravdzka, directly at us, and saying "You'll never know" when asked who he is. We know enough for this series, as its always somehow familiar title hero stalks off into the night.