Your pals at Jog - The Blog present: A Sunday Night Read

*I'll have a stack of reviews up at the other site in a little bit, but here's a link to conclude your weekend - a revised online edition of Barry Windsor-Smith's Time Rise, now titled This is Not Reality.

For those who're unfamiliar, Time Rise was an autobiographical essay Windsor-Smith presented in his Opus series of art books from Fantagraphics (two out of a projected four volumes published), chronicling some of his personal experiences with precognitive and transcendental phenomena -- to put it very simply -- with a special focus on the intensive events of 1973, a "psychic summer." At 50 pages, its a long read (hey, it filled two books), but very compelling, and Windsor-Smith says that the long-delayed continuation of the work will soon appear online...



*Ok, finally time for posts...

Batman #669


This is going to get a little embarrassing, because I can very clearly recall reading a post somewhere on the internet that predicted not only the core resolution to this storyline's mystery, but also where writer Grant Morrison was going with his themes, and now I can't find it. I should never have listened to the doctors! Recording everything I hear and read is a sign of a keen mind! And could never write my column if I was still taking the pills...

Er, so anyway, those mystery thoughts have affected my thinking on this mystery. It's a decent enough wrap-up to the plot, in that the individual resolution beats seem to make sense as a 'solution' (yes, the water clue Batman mentions actually is visible in issue #667, albeit in such a subtle way it could simply be mistaken for a downplaying of extraneous visual detail, which is maybe the trick), although there's a little compression tension at work, as if the big action climax doesn't have quite enough pages to play through, resulting in a few unintuitive cluttered layouts on J.H. Williams III's part. Ironically, this raises memories of the ultracompressed Seven Soldiers #1, which despite being even denser, didn't quite fall into visual difficulty.

But the end of the mystery also recalls some of the motifs and themes of Seven Soldiers -- cruel parents and negative vs. 'enlightened' adulthood -- while also playing around with the dual theme of Morrison's Batman and All Star Superman runs, that of the legendary superhero icon encountering myriad alternate versions of himself (anxiety of influence, if you will!), as a way of establishing and tweaking the core identity of the long-lived title hero. Batman's adventures of this sort have always been darker and more painful (since he's the 'dark' side of the two), so there's plenty of brutal murder and bloody mayhem throughout the story, as a whole gang of shittier Batmen (even one that preceded the real deal) get knocked off, prove themselves bankrupt, or regain some of the ol' superhero spirit.

Being a thematic movement in a continuing story, I found parts of the prior issues to be a little dull, if only in that Morrison didn't have his Batmen saying much that hadn't been said (through Morrison!) before. And, I'm not sure if he really does it here either, but there's some pleasure to be had in seeing these characters reach their conclusions. A lazy-seeming crimefighter who's relaxing on publishing money proves himself ready to battle evil in the clinch. An embarrassing relic of the past proves mighty indeed. Meanwhile, the Watchmen-style badass who clucked his tongue at the notion of kid sidekicks seemingly gets toasted in homage to... a pirate character (oh how droll). The traitor is the one who most thoroughly made himself rough and 'modern,' as a means of compensating for a lack of fame he blames on Batman.

But I don't think Morrison is so much saying "Comics Have Abandoned Their Charming Past, and the Present is Therefore Fucked" (not that Abhay was saying he is here), as much as advocating and propagating graceful evolution into a brighter future. Morrison's stance is messianic, and his aim evolutionary; there is no Therefore Fucked to this work. "Only a little kid would ever think we were heroes," remarks one of the lesser Batmen, yet soon he's undoing an old-timey deathtrap, as a Good Adult.

Oh right. Who set up the death trap? Mayhew, of course! Wearing a supervillian mask of fake flesh at the top, and running around in old-school supervillain costume at the end; thankfully, Morrison and Williams are thoughtful enough to establish here that devotion to old tropes does not make you instantly Good. Mayhew is actually yet another Batman version, and the worst of them all for this storyline - he's an alternate Bruce Wayne, and one that never got down to fighting the good fight himself. Granted, Morrison doesn't put him in quite as bad a place as Future Damian from issue #666, a faker Batman who's literally become the real Batman and may just ruin the whole world for it; Mayhew's viewpoint is more limited. Still, if issue #666 was this comic's Here Comes Tomorrow, I suspect Morrison has plans to resolve it in a New X-Men way, ruining the evil future with small, crucial changes to the present that eventually spread to everything.

In this way, it's totally fitting that the Black Glove isn't actually the person physically killing people, and indeed isn't any one person to begin with. It's unseen watchers, hoping for gore, and eager to see if Good or Evil, as betting concepts, will win. In one way, you might see this as yet another of Morrison's Evil Creators, the ultimate superhero comic Evil Parent, setting up troubles for good concepts to be ruined in. I was struck by the elegance and depth of Williams' glove-shaped panels - it's not only an awesome way to convey the paranoiac presence of a killer, but it shapes the very comic itself against Batman and the Club of Heroes, evidencing an
untouchably god-like presence.

But then, there's another way of looking at it. The Black Glove as a group seems to be based on one of Mayhew's films; it's not a stretch to presume that he might have had a hand in setting it up. And the Black Glove isn't all that affirmative an evil presence either; really, it's Mayhew that's the 'creator' of the Club of Heroes, and the one setting up this nasty bit of business. He's under pressure to perform from the Black Glove, and gets his long-lived ass thrown out when his evil story ends in good. So, who's the Black Glove, if not the Evil Creator?

Gah! Could it be... Bad Readers?! Folks demanding more and more decadent thrills from their heroes, and delighting to the ruin of good characters while evil ones choke the world with cynicism?

Yet, superhero adventures thrive on conflict, on life-or-death struggles. The Black Glove might have a naked corpse hanging in their lodge room, but they're not forcing anyone to bet on Evil either. Remember, Mayhew didn't die because he failed to create what the Black Glove wanted, he died because he personally bet on Evil. And the stakes are high, as established on page one of part one:

"Our esteemed clientele see no virtue in thinking small, nor do we."

From the man who'll bring us Final Crisis! We know where Morrison's money is... now whose side are you on?



*Or, at least I felt like that yesterday, having so much shit to do that I couldn't even look online, let alone post. Life, you're getting in the way of mah postz!! But multiple bat-themed posts on multiple websites are due tonite...


What Tuesday?

*Finally, through hell and high water, came trudging the new column. It's a magic look at the Elaine Lee & Michael Wm. Kaluta opus Starstruck, and what it might teach us about the connections between creation and works. From the gang at The Savage Critic(s): Your Home for Long Posts.



Sleepytime Posting



The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite #1 (of 6)

Exit Wounds (a Rutu Modan graphic novel from a few months ago, well worth looking for)

And don't forget my encore presentation of an essay on superhero updates circa 2006... a Comics Journal classique.


Short Reviews #1 (starring Gutsville #2 and Streets of Glory #1)

Short Reviews #2 (featuring the talents of 30 Days of Night: Beyond Barrow #1 and Batman/Lobo: Deadly Serious #2)

Short? Reviews #3 (with the recent film Eastern Promises, The Programme #3, and of course, Lassie)

Hosanna to The Savage Critics!

*Just to quickly move our focus onto the big sleep - Gene Ha says that his and Grant Morrison's run on The Authority is dead dead dead. In case you needed it spelled out. Ha leaves open the chance that some other artist might illustrate future Morrison scripts, should they exist, but I wouldn't hold my breath.

*Alright, back to work. Zzzzzzzzzz...


Alan Moore's Yuggoth Cultures: You might recall that back in the foggy age of 2003, Avatar put out a three-issue miniseries compiling some odd Alan Moore material, ranging from the first chapter of an abandoned Warrior serial with Bryan Talbot (Nightjar), to several contributions to anthologies like It's Dark in London (I Keep Coming Back, an autobiographical From Hell coda drawn by Oscar Zarate), and even some essays and notes. There were also few new sequential adaptations of prose and song, with various Avatar house artists like Jacen Burrows (currently drawing Moore's top-secret new horror miniseries), Juan Jose Ryp and Mike Wolfer, and much of the raw material culled from a lost novel of Moore's, also titled Yuggoth Cultures. After that, the publisher put out a second three-issue miniseries titled Yuggoth Creatures, an all-new Lovecraft-flavored multi-segment thingy written by Antony Johnston with art by the whole Avatar stable. Now it's 2007, and here's a $29.99 trade collecting both miniseries, with an extra 50+ pages stuffed in (total: 312 pages), some of them containing a Moore interview conducted by Alan David Doane. Some interesting stuff in there.

Elfworld Vol. 1: This was released by publisher Family Style a while back, but now it's distributed by Top Shelf, so your store is more likely to have it. It's a 128-page fantasy anthology compiled by Jeffrey Brown and edited by François Vigneault, with contributions from the likes of Ron Regé, Jr. & Souther Salazar, K. Thor Jensen, Kazimir Strzepek, Martin Cendera, Matt Wiegle & Sean T. Collins, and more.

Speak of the Devil #2 (of 6): I have a feeling this Gilbert Hernandez series, another movie within the Love and Rockets universe, is going to pick up here. Call it a hunch. And if I'm wrong, at least Beto's wide style will be on display.

Madman Vol. 1: Just in case you didn't want to shell out for that gigantic hardcover omnibus, here's a 300-page softcover collecting the whole of Madman: The Oddity Odyssey and Madman Adventures, along with some other stuff, for $24.99. Thrill to the days when eyeball-eating was in, and future defiler-of-classrooms Dan Clowes would stop by to guest ink a panel. Just for the hell of it.

The Punisher MAX Annual #1: Soooo... I totally cursed this series when I praised its frequency of release last issue, didn't I? To tide us over until the regular book starts up again in two weeks (as of now), here's a special issue written by one Mike Benson of television's Entourage; if Rich Johnston is to be believed (and it's a yellow light entry), Garth Ennis may be preparing to conclude his run on the main series, and Benson is one of the names on the short list of successors. He's already set to take over Moon Knight from Charlie Huston after a stint as co-writer. Here, he'll be joined by artist Laurence Campbell, and this is what it'll look like. Meanwhile, The Punisher Presents: Barracuda MAX gets a trade; fans of Ennis' sillier covert ops side will be happy.

Remembrance of Things Past, Part One: Combray: Moving onto Ennis' next project... oh wait, no, I got confused. This is a new edition of the first album in Stéphane Heuet's extended comics adaptation of Proust, in the ligne claire, no less! From NBM, which will be putting out a new volume of this in a little while.

The Immortal Iron Fist #9 & The Immortal Iron Fist Annual #1: Two doses of flaming strikes this week. The former sees the Mortal Kombat/Shōnen Jump tourney o' champs begin, while the latter delves further into the secret history of the Iron Fists, with guest artists Howard Chaykin & Dan Brereton (see it here). If you want more of co-writer Ed Brubaker, this week also has Criminal #9. For the Matt Fraction folk, there's The Order #3. All bases are covered.

Batman #669: The grand finale of the Morrison/J.H. Williams III mystery storyline, featuring -- oh yes god yes -- the return of Williams' patented panel border superhero icons. I love it. Full preview here, along with some pages from another Bat-epic waiting for your warm arms...

All Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder #7: So, if what penciller Jim Lee has been saying is true, the present creative team is planning to stick around until issue #22 or so? Man, that's gonna be pushing the limits of outrage to thrilling levels. Oh, and just to get back to Wildstorm for a moment, Lee also expresses hope at the same link that he and Grant Morrison can still get together for at least six total issues of Wildcats, and maybe as many as twelve. I would like to see that happen. That's all I can say.



Defensive Maneuvers

Exit Wounds

I've had this book, a color Drawn & Quarterly hardcover priced at $19.95, since around the time it was released. Which was over four months ago, if I recall correctly. Unfortunately, enough review-worthy comics are released these days at a fast enough clip that certain books tend to slip through my grasp, even when I like them. I just don't have enough time to adequately cover as many works as I wish I could, especially on an 'as they arrive' basis.

Still, sometimes I can catch up a little. Bookshelf-ready hardcovers are supposed to have a long life, after all, and coverage can rise again as clusters of readers discover works months after they debut in a particular market. Just in the last few weeks, Brian Michael Bendis deemed this particular book his favorite summer read and "a shoo-in for graphic novel of the year," while Jeff Lester posted a laudatory review at some website. So let me add to the revived conversation, as it is.

Initially released in 2006 by Coconino Press under the title Unknown/Sconosciuto (Unknown/Disowned), Exit Wounds is the first book-length comics project from writer/artist Rutu Modan, co-founder of the famed Actus Tragicus comics collective and a much-acclaimed figure of Israel's comics and illustration scene (more detail here). As you can see from this sample, her visual approach to the book owes a lot to the 'clear line' of Hergé, although her subject matter quickly indicates that she's appropriating the style for ironic and political effect in the tradition of artists ranging from Joost Swarte to Yves Chaland to Rian Hughes.

Note how Modan pops her foreground characters and items by setting their bold and varied colors against one or more monochrome background hues or patterns - apart from adding distinction to the primary action of each panel, this technique conveys the book's theme in purely visual terms. The democracy of lines employed by the clear line style, foreground and background equally assertive in thickness (if not blackness), insures that Modan's lightly cartooned characters inhabit the same world as her detailed environments, but the colors act as a separating force, detaching the characters (and whatever is in their immediate grasp) from their broad surroundings. And indeed, these people are broken away from the many things that make up their home.

The plot of Exit Wounds concerns Koby, a taxi driver in Tel Aviv, who is persuaded by a wealthy young woman named Numi to embark on an investigation as to the whereabouts of his absentee father. It seems that Numi, despite being a young woman fresh out of compulsory military service, had been enjoying a love affair with the old man, and now fears that he's been killed in a recent market bombing. Koby can't stand his father, and expects the irresponsible coot has pulled one of his famous disappearing acts, yet gradually finds himself more and more involved in cutting through the thatch of aloof resentment that's surrounded his life:

"I thought I would never want to see him again as long as I lived. But now I realized that I was always sure we would meet again, sometime in the distant future. We'd finish the fight we'd been having our whole lives and then he would finally apologize."

Needless to say, it's what Koby and Numi realize about themselves that forms the heart of the book. There's some obvious notions of class at play; wealthy Numi's family tries to raise her 'American,' holding the tall and eccentric girl to a supermodel's standard of beauty, leading to her falling in with a less-privileged, much older man whom she believes will treasure her.

Violence (or the threat thereof) also exists as part of that flat background; characters often confuse larger bombings with smaller ones, there's so damn many of them, and the requirement of military service stands as much as a coming-of-age marker as a Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Koby's family situation manages to frustrate his pride in both of them, which is part of Modan's point - the background noise that is daily violence externally represents the smashed bonds of family in Koby's and Numi's lives, so prevalent that they're easy to just accept, nonetheless causing the young folk to emotionally separate from their surroundings. The 'Exit Wounds' of the English title.

The beauty of Modan's work comes from how many variations on these themes she concocts among minor characters and small interactions. Koby's father gets around, and has left more than one lie in his wake. There's suspense in waiting to find out what's really going on, but Modan's true focus is on the curt, back-to-business manner of a cafeteria owner who lost her husband in a bombing, or a man who uses the same explosion as leverage in support of a local petition, or the quiet commonalities between diverse Koby and Numi, owing to their experiences with that elusive father of one and lover of another.

It's these personal observations that carry the book through its more formulaic moments (I don't think you need to ask if romantic tension develops between our protagonists), and imbue it with a delicate, introspective tone that calmly disarms any potential for suspense thriller resolution. Modan realizes that the structures of mystery can't afford an easy solution to her real story, though they can suggest a means of betterment. As such, the work's ambiguous finale seems fairly won, and eloquent even in its obvious symbolism and pat romantic flourish. Who can say when things might vanish, and where their absence might take us?


Just think of it as later than ever!

*Yeah, no column until Wednesday, sorry. I have some more reviews of yesterday's comics for ya, though.


For thorough coverage's sake, I phoned my teen sister and asked her opinion of Gerard Way. “I like him,” she replied. Journalism: accomplished.

The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite #1 (of 6)

There's one really nice sequence in this comic, a new miniseries from creator/writer Gerard Way (his first extended comics work) and artist Gabriel Bá (of Casanova).

It's three pages long, and sees a bizarre superhero apparently living his childhood dream by standing proudly on the moon, where he has set up a home base. But he gets a call from Earth, and while we can't hear what's said, his reactions indicate troubling news.

Inside the base, the superhero insists into the telephone (yes, the telephone) that he can't leave his post, but his reactions reveal that the message is grave. Our viewpoint darts around his office while he takes the call, and we see old posters and framed newspaper scraps, telling the story (in titles and headlines) of how his childhood dreams got all dark, what with his awful adoptive father grafting his head onto a gorilla's body, and his superhero team/family breaking up. He sets the phone down, and a robot pal asks him if he needs his laser pistol. The superhero says yes, and admonishes the robot for calling him "Number One," the name his adoptive father gave him.

He then climbs into a glowing, faintly Wally Woodish spaceship interior, grasps levers with his gorilla feet, and blasts off as the robot waves and says "Godspeed, Spaceboy, sir." Off in the distance we see the ruins of the Eiffel Tower, which we know is actually a secret alien rocket, and escaped from Earth during an adventure the superhero had with his siblings/team back when they were kids. The implication is that his life on the Moon is filled with anxiety, even though he's done what he's wanted to do with himself. And he still works overtime to fit his surrounding life into what he'd like his mood to be.

Very simple show-don't-tell storytelling, but it conveys an awful lot of character motivation and emotion in 14 panels, while neatly playing off the prior 15 pages of flashbacks, which make up most of this debut issue. Bá's art, crisply colored by the reliable Dave Stewart, easily balances muscular superhero exaggeration, jutting eccentricity, and shining science items, while saving some insecurity for when it's needed. It's the best part of this issue, which means the whole doesn't rise to a very high level, but it makes you want to believe that such sequences will eventually become elegant segues and passages, rather than the highlights.

The rest of the issue is ok enough. As I mentioned, it tells the story of the literal birth of a child superhero team, seven infants plucked by the sinister Sir Reginald Hargreeves out of a larger group of mystery babies, all of which were born out of the blue at the very same moment (accompanied by a half-arch, half-awkward opening narration on history and coincidence reminiscent to me of the film Magnolia). Most of them developed amazing powers, and their collective tenth birthday saw their first save-the-world superhero mission, although one of them had already vanished, and another hadn't developed anything beyond an above-average talent for the violin, much to the disgust of Hargreeves. We later discover that stranger things have happened since they grew up, with the 'untalented' one having written a tell-all book that's maybe gotten her the team-up attention of Evil.

If you're like me, you've probably already picked up whiffs of Planetary, Doom Patrol, The Incredibles, and probably other visible superhero efforts. To his credit, Way shows some aptitude for blending these influences into a modestly compelling whole, and he mostly avoids the common novice comics writer's trap of replicating images through words - this isn't an overwhelmingly visual book, but Way demonstrates an instinct for when to hold back a little and let the artist do some 'writing.' His sense of whimsy comes off as a little strained -- I could go for never seeing another zombie gag in a comic again -- and some of his more stylized text remains as stilted as it was in the various previews (here's two).

But none of Way's problems are atypical to writers new to the medium; while this issue certainly feels like a beginning in more ways than one, it shows good qualities and promise. The only really profound error comes after the story, where we're shown a bonus page from the Encyclopedia Umbrellica, which serves no purpose other than to spell out jokes and references -- even character motivations! -- as featured in the comic itself. It's wholly unnecessary, and frankly a little condescending, although I get the feeling that Way only intended for it to make his universe seem richer, and erred in replicating stuff that spoke nicely enough for itself in comics form. At least the comic remained free of such troubles.


Insurgent Activity in the Kingdom of Rust: Writers Updating Superheroes in 2006

(this essay was first published in The Comics Journal #276, as part of the Cape Fear superhero column; I've bolded the titles and italicized the quotes, and omitted all footnotes, since they were useless and unfunny and I can't get Blogger to display them)

I. The Fate of the Writer

Having plastered one’s attentions all over the current DC/Marvel superhero landscape, it can get awfully easy to believe that writers don’t really matter all that much anymore. Hardly a day passes without some fresh nugget of hype unearthed online as to the planet-cracking implications of the latest event crossover, its tendrils either extending around a ‘family’ of titles (such as the recent Spider-Man group event, The Other) or a wide swathe of the publisher’s shared universe output (DC’s current Infinite Crisis, and Marvel’s upcoming Civil War). Many writers contribute to the myriad tie-ins and side-stories endemic to the form, but the all-important wide-reaching grip of these crossovers demands tight editorial control, and top-down focus on which implications will be mixing into which books. The revelations and revocations and reimaginings need to be set out carefully, and it’s no mighty leap of imagination to presume that a certain measure of writerly autonomy must be snuffed to serve the demands of the line.

But this is not the whole truth - even in the midst of all these star-screaming dimensional purges, there are pockets of individuality, largely self-contained superhero stories demonstrating a variety of approaches to writing properties new and old. And let’s not kid ourselves; these are properties we’re talking about, characters that are expected to live beyond their experiences with a single writer, and translate well to other stories, and probably other media as well. If you’re like me, you probably don’t subscribe to the comprehensive shared-universe appreciation of Marvel and/or DC, or any particular affinity for a certain character, yet you still enjoy a good capes ’n tights rumpus amidst the rest of your reading list. Thus, you follow the works of favored creators; and even if you don’t buy into the magic of the shared universe, you can appreciate the differing flavors of scripting as they must incarnate in such an atmosphere.

And perhaps, like me, you’ve detected a certain restorative bent to these methods of writing superhero characters - it’s no surprise, as the refurbishing of properties is necessary to a side of the comics industry largely interested in keeping their holdings in good fighting shape for whatever they need them for. But the realities surrounding corporate superhero work need not preclude the possibility of creating pleasurable writings in different styles. Let’s examine a few, as non-comprehensive, both in terms of breadth of writers and even breadth of approaches within the body of work of a single writer, as it’s bound it get.

II. Morrison’s Rapture

When writing about crossover events and self-contained miniseries and cordoned-off corners of a shared superhero universe, nothing is more likely to elicit confusion as to structure quite like Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers, a collection of seven miniseries, each one four issues in length, the group of seven buttressed at both ends by single-issue specials, Seven Soldiers #0 and Seven Soldiers #1. That’s thirty issues in sum, but it’s the interaction (or lack thereof) between the chapters that creates havoc. Simply put, the two one-shots and seven miniseries are simultaneously meant to offer their own stories and forward the concerns of the thirty-chapter megaplot - thus, Seven Soldiers can both be taken as a large single story, constantly bouncing from character to character, or a confederation of interlocking yet independent units. Regardless, interaction with events outside the walls of the project is minimal, granting the whole affair a standalone feel.

And yet, all of the characters presented as headlining heroes in this project are either currently active DC properties or based on older heroes. Shining Knight, the Manhattan Guardian, Zatanna, Klarion the Witch Boy, Mister Miracle, Bulleteer, and lovable old public domain Frankenstein - all of them have some type of earlier usage in DC-published comics. They are all clearly part of the larger shared universe, yet writer Morrison keeps them related largely to one another - all the better for him to study them, take them apart, and ultimately make them better. This is the key to understanding Morrison’s current writing for superheroes - he’s not just out to spin new tales, he’s downright messianic in leading these wayward paper souls down the true path to glory. And he’s perfectly fine with making the process behind his miracles as transparent as possible.

Seven Soldiers, you see, is very much about revamping shared-universe superhero characters; Morrison even goes so far as to cast a septet of identical characters, all of them resembling himself, as a cadre of extra-cosmic ‘tailors,’ secretly designing new costumes and lives for chosen characters. This could fairly easily have gotten insufferable, if not for the sheer comprehensiveness with which the writer throws himself into his chosen task. Over and over again, a certain formula recurs, effecting every single one of the selected properties. In issue #1, the hero is seen in a weathered, confused, or otherwise backward state. In issue #2, the hero finds themselves at a crossroads, left with a choice for change hanging within their grasps. In issue #3, they trudge through a great challenge, a midnight of the soul. And in issue #4, they are left in a new state, almost always a stronger state. They are transformed, just in time for the final confrontation of their collective first issue, Seven Soldiers #1, which of course is also the last issue.

In this way, Morrison plays the same tune seven times, though always in a different style. This is fortunate, and not only because it prevents the work as a whole from getting repetitious; with such a variety of subgenres covered, it might seem that the writer’s call for redemption is covering every corner of the shared universe, as if no area is fit to remain as it is in the status quo. It’s as if he screams for redemption all the way up to the number of god, it’ll eventually come to pass. All walks of fictional life need be born again, and along the way the writer fires out gobs of industry comment to bolster his mission. An evil tailor fits Golden Age kid heroes with the garments of grim ’n gritty faux-adulthood. A young super-powered woman winds up exploited in ‘adult’ films consisting of endless images of impervious girls being shot with bullets and splashed with acid, all of the onanistic pleasure of the viewer/reader. Young characters are beaten down by dashed expectations while wild and free monsters are confronted with a cynical, ‘sophisticated’ world. For a man so delighted with a certain fictional universe, Morrison presents a deeply unpleasant vision of superhero comics as they stand right now.

But the writer is an idealist, always believing that the best stuff can always be unlocked with a little tinkering. This enthusiasm bleeds right onto the page, and I’d not be shocked to learn (through the divine revelations that I know are forthcoming to me at any instant now) that the fun with which Morrison puts these characters through their paces constitutes a good deal of his appeal; he’s constantly trying to push seemingly static things into different forms, but he does it with such palpable love that one almost can’t help but admire the effort. He’s also unafraid to drop in additionally relevant motifs, recurrences of broken familial bonds and concerns over aging - but it’s transformation that shines through the brightest in Morrison’s current superhero work, which maybe shouldn’t be a surprise as transformation is maybe the recurring Grant Morrison theme throughout his body of work.

And this isn’t at all restricted to the B and C lists - witness Morrison’s work on DC’s All Star Superman, which plants that most iconic of moneymaking properties into an unencumbered universe, friendlier to new readers than the increasingly jumbled storytelling status of the actual headlining books. Even Superman needs to change under Morrison’s watch; the overarching plot of the two issues released thus far involves Our Hero discovering that the dastardly Lex Luthor has tricked him into being blasted full of so much solar radiation that he will surely die. As a result, Superman immediately set out to revise his life, swiftly revealing his secret identity to Lois Lane and trying his hardest to use his super-brain to put them on more equal communicative ground.

This new Superman draws from a variety of influences to offer up a perfected vision of a character that many have simply given up on as utterly dry of contemporary interest. As usual with Morrison, the past is raided, bits and pieces patched together to provide new visions, a heavy key (half a million tons, don’t ya know?) unlocking the front door to the Fortress of Solitude, where inside a paranoid drama reminiscent of Bluebeard plays out. Never mind that a few of these bits and pieces hail conspicuously from Morrison’s past, references to his DC One Million crossover patent - if nothing else, this writer is as confident in his mission as any character he writes, and there’s little room for modesty when there’s worlds, real or fictional, that need saving! The skill, the depth of ability on display, however, is undoubtedly considerable. Perhaps only a talent as simultaneously devout and clear-eyed as Morrison can craft sequences forged of such pure capes ’n tights kitsch as Superman standing in full costume before a Mirror of Truth, asking about Lois, “How can I spoil her birthday with the news that I’m dying?” and still make it seem like the saddest damned thing in the world.

III. Casey Tunes ‘Em Up

Of course, simple common sense dictates that very few writers are ever afforded the chances Morrison gets to indulge in wholesale transformations of such a wide variety of properties. Other writers, whether through necessity or personal interest, adopt a less revelatory posture, though their own delving into the past to afford current superheroes new life can certainly provide good results. For example, we have the current works of Joe Casey, a writer who’s adopted several different postures throughout his recent career. Books like Automatic Kafka and The Intimates (both published by the DC-controlled Wildstorm) took a decidedly skewed look at superhero tropes and clichés, rearranging the accoutrements of the genre to form (respectively) studies of post-stardom metafictional ennui and the larger-than-life puffery of teenage relationships. But Casey’s newest work takes a more straightforward approach to engaging with superheroes, commandeering certain elements of the past to buff and shine the characters as they stand today. It’s not nearly as top-down an approach as Morrison takes; instead, favored bits of miscellany and history are examined, put together in entertaining ways primarily to tell entertaining stories.

While neither part of a shared universe nor based on any pre-existing property, Casey’s currently ongoing Image-published series Gødland (created and owned by Casey and artist Tom Scioli) offers a neat summary of this approach to superhero writing, albeit on a rather grand scale. The story concerns Adam Archer, a bold astronaut who became infused with cosmic power while stranded on Mars; he returns to Earth a classic reluctant superhero, aided by his three siblings and holed up in a towering sci-fi skyscraper. I trust you’re already feeling the presence of the Fantastic Four (more on them later, by the way) without my disclosing that the Archer family lines up neatly with all those familiar Lee/Kirby archetypes, though here only the Ben Grimm role is performed with metahuman abilities. Things don’t slow down there, as with seemingly every issue a new character is introduced, some fresh threat or font of information; by the current issue the subplots and characters have really begun to pile up, though there’s remarkably little convolution in the telling of the story, even as it stretches backward to reveal the Secret Origin of the universe itself.

But the real charm of Gødland is that you always initially see it as its own book, with its own subplots and antagonists and the like, instead of as the conglomeration of Jack Kirby tics and notions that it resembles upon closer inspection. Indeed, the book has managed to strike out a genuinely unique feel from its cosmic gods and armored villains and grinning costumed adventurers; it’s energetic, sometimes jarringly violent, occasionally satiric, yet overwhelmingly up front about its desire to deliver spandex thrills. Unlike with much of Morrison’s superhero work, where virtually everything seems to represent something else at one point or another on the road to change, Casey ropes in his own influences largely to provide streamlined, fluid amusements.

This extends to his corporate superhero work too. In the currently running Iron Man: The Inevitable miniseries, Casey assembles such questionable figures from the title character’s past as the Living Laser, the Spymaster, and the Ghost - all of them are reimagined with a minimum of fuss, the objective perhaps to make them viable for future stories as well as the present one. Some of these revisions are funny - the Ghost emerges as a lackadaisical corporate terrorist, totally unconcerned with traditional supervillain treats such as finding out the hero’s secret identity (“Stark is Iron Man? Sorry, I don’t follow celebrity gossip. Makes sense, I guess.”). Some of them are quite dramatic - the Living Laser is found in a nebulous state, and his consciousness can be entered via the proper equipment, leading to a new way of seeing things: the supervillain as a doorway of perception. All of them leave one with the idea that these characters are suddenly active and viable again, which I’m sure is pleasing to both longtime fans and Marvel. What sets this apart from lesser stories is Casey’s ability to seamlessly blend these revisions into a coherent direction for the title, as if Iron Man really had needed a new form of life to open up in his headquarters - throughout the series references are made to persons walking outside of reality’s rules, passing through walls and seeing psychedelic sights. These villains in their fine new roles inhabit the world organically, just as the bits and pieces of Kirby lore in Gødland snap together into something uniquely individual. And Casey’s aptitude with funny dialogue doesn’t hurt.

It’s a little early to tell if this style will hold true on Casey’s other current Marvel series, the just-begun miniseries Fantastic Four: First Family (told you). Only one issue is out at the time of this writing, but the opening installment’s focus on the creepiness of the title characters’ powers, with stretchy Reed Richards seen sitting in a heap of his own arms, unfurled and covering the floor of his room like great ropes of flesh. He drifts somnolently into his own mind, witnessing the contours of his own awareness, a psychic visitor informing him that cosmic radiation is a living metaphor for the individual experience, the singular evolution. The evolutions of characters in Casey’s recent books are what make them tick, though that old radiation remains a visitor from 1961, or 1966, or 1971, or whenever.

IV. Ellis-Powered

If Morrison binds the universe together with comprehensive redemption in mind, and if Casey selects attractive attributes of the past to fashion into a viable new form, Warren Ellis continues to imbue seemingly everything he touches with his own identity. Surely no act of Ellis-targeted criticism is more familiar at this point than to cite the similar attributes often shared by his protagonists, or the familiar cadence of their speech and mannerisms. But I expect that such a measure of familiarity acts as a boon to Ellis’ fanbase - while Morrison and Casey do also maintain a grip on certain recurring themes while utilizing differing narrative ‘voices,’ most everything Ellis touches has his fingerprints all but burnt into it. It’d be silly to argue that, say, Elijah Snow of Planetary, Michael Jones of Desolation Jones, and Richard Fell of Fell (just to cite a trio of currently ongoing Ellis books) are all precisely the same character, but they are all variations on the archetypical tortured yet immensely gifted Ellis protagonist, the bloody heart of idealism and justice beating underneath their weathered exteriors, willing to mete out brutal justice for the common good whilst dropping a few wittily vulgar comments in their journey through a corrupted, poisonous environment, elements of misused technology and misplaced spirituality pertinent. The works themselves vary in quality, but a type of ‘branding’ is present on them all - the mark of Ellis.

As one might expect, this extends to Ellis’ current work on superhero properties, though just as how his characters and premises are similar-yet-varied, these works bear their writer’s mark in individual ways. For example, Ellis also has an Iron Man book currently out, the ‘proper’ ongoing series, relaunched with a new issue #1 in November of 2004 and looking to hopefully complete its initial six-issue storyline in March of 2006. A formal relaunch does suggest that some type of new direction (or at least a fresh mandate) for the title character, and Ellis delivers in a manner close to his established interests. His Tony Stark is especially conflicted by his genius inventions being turned toward destruction; he thus funnels money into developing better things, devices that will benefit humanity rather than kill it, with the familiar Iron Man armor reserved for defense against those who’d use high technology for vengeance and destruction. Such a situation swiftly arises when a domestic terrorist pumps himself up with a technological ooze called Extremis to transform himself into “a biological combat machine” conveniently embodying all sort of far-right nastiness (racism, isolationist fervor, backward values, etc.), with only the two-fisted liberalism of Iron Man prepped to stop him.

It’s perhaps to be expected given the concept how easily the writer’s favored themes slip into the concept; with his ‘enlightened persons must save the world for enlightenment’ viewpoint, pulling together his resources to save this fallen world from an evil force that has wrongfully seized technology for its own power-crazed interest, Tony Stark becomes a type of established superhero doppelganger for Planetary’s Elijah Snow, embarking on essentially the same mission: spreading Good technologies to do Good things while smashing awful people along the way. Ellis even revisits the classic Iron Man origin (augmented with extra grit, of course) to fit that into his plan as well. And there’s many opportunities for salivating over fresh technologies, supercompressed armor cells hidden in the hollows of bones, instant satellite feeds delivered straight to the eye, omniscient control of everyone’s cell phone - Ellis’ Iron Man eventually takes it all inside him, becoming a living avatar of gracious futurist positivity. And if all of this rhetoric eventually comes off more than a little hollow when it seems that the blinding way of the future boils down to more efficient ways of punching bad things courtesy of a fortunately benevolent demigod, well, you’ve got me there. The genre does have its demands.

But a more interesting iteration of Ellis’ branding arrives courtesy of the recently-begun Marvel series Nextwave, its third issue released this past March. It’s a team book involving a group of third-string Marvel superpersons, and it’s primarily a comedy. In fact, it’s overwhelmingly a comedy, complete with zany narration, odd visual jokes, outright slapstick - not a thought in its head beyond silly entertainment. And yet, the shift to overt humor hasn’t made it any less a Warren Ellis book; on the contrary, this title is propelled mainly through the sheer force of its writer’s personality, enough so that I can’t even imagine the experience of somebody picking it up having never heard of Ellis before.

The writing is awash in self-parody, tough-talking badass characterizations amped up to ludicrous extremes, the politics absurd and over-the-top, the very use of superhero tropes simultaneously joyous and sneering. More than any other popular superhero writer, Ellis always makes it a point to demonstrate for us how uncomfortable he is writing superheroes, which certainly lends this book a strange feel at times - with its nasty cackles at Fin Fang Foom’s purple pants and its sniggering at any trace of spandex goofiness, the book becomes a uniquely self-loathing display of vigorous high spirits, though at least here Ellis happily concedes his own culpability in the whole mess. For the life of me I can’t even tell if the fact that virtually all of the main characters’ dialogue reads precisely the same is a joke or not; maybe in exploding his oversight out past the point of seriousness, Ellis has created a perfect atmosphere for his vision, where such things don’t really matter anymore.

V. Antioxidants

But there is sadness to our study as well. Morrison has his vainglorious stride toward heaven, Casey has his studied augmentations, and Ellis has his force of will. But will anything survive past the inevitable departure of these writers from those characters that must sally forth beyond the grip of any one mortal’s words? Some characters will simply get sucked back into the event crossover machine, around and around on the editorially-fueled thrill-ride carousel. Or they’ll just be taken up by less attentive writers, and the rust will set in again. Maybe not for a while, but rust often seems inevitable in these things.

Ah, but if we ponder these things, we’ll realize the only true answer: shared superhero universes like Marvel’s and DC’s (in fact, only Marvel’s and DC’s) derive much of their appeal from having been around for so damn long. Longer than me, and longer than you I’ll hazard a guess. People throw titles around like ‘modern myths,’ and that reinforces the supercreative status of the books that afford us windows into these universes - bad writers will lead to bad books, but books like these can’t, by their very nature, stay with only good writers - the probabilities on that will win you enough cash to buy the bloody universes for yourself.

We’re left in a kingdom of rust, but all is not wrong. Those isolated stories, those broken-off runs, those pockets of fresh air - they’re around. They’ve been around. Those who follow these books can find them, and study them if they please.


Let Me Eat Cake

*More productive this week, that's for sure.


Sloth (a golden oldie from the pages of The Comics Journal, covering the 2006 Gilbert Hernandez graphic novel from Vertigo)

Sergio Aragonés' Groo: 25th Anniversary Special

Maggots (the new old Brian Chippendale book, out next month)


Column #9 (covering two Vertigo looks at a broad subject matter, Kill Your Boyfriend and Girl)

Miriam #1 (new Rich Tommaso series starting up)

At The Savage Critics!

*Special note to my readers in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia - Wegmans' Ultimate Carrot Cake lives up to the hype. That is all.

*And in random news that actually deals with comics - Doom Patrol Vol. 6: Planet Love. January 2008. Judging from the solicitation, Doom Force is a yes, and Flex Mentallo is a no. Still, at least they're finishing the core run. It seems like it's been a while since Vol. 5, and it'll have been a longer while by January.

*But to take a glimpse at a closer future -


The Comics Journal #285: Cover artist and feature interview for this one is Darwyn Cooke; a big ol' excerpt of his chat with Markisan Naso can be found here. Also important: talks with Ernie Colón and Keith Knight, a trio of John Buscema pre-Code horror/crime shorts, and the always-worthwhile Bill Randall on the manga of Kazu Yuzuki. Less important: me babbling about anthologies and Ignatz books.


With the Light: Raising an Autistic Child Vol. 1: Now here's just the sort of ongoing manga serial we rarely see in the English language - a drama aimed at married women, about everyday life with an autistic son. It picked up one of the runner-up Excellence Prizes at the 2004 Japan Media Arts Festival (the Grand Prize that year went to Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms), and the work's official festival page has some nice English-language information on writer/artist Keiko Tobe. From Yen Press, priced at a very nice $14.99 for 528 pages.

Phoenix Vol. 11 (of 12): Sun Part 2 (of 2): And so, after many years, Osamu Tezuka's unfinished lifelong work draws to a close of sorts. This storyline ends (it ran from 1986-88), just as all the Phoenix stories have an ending, but the grand weave of time remains forever elusive from the master's comprehensive ambition, just as the Phoenix itself had a way of slipping past its many pursuers. Tezuka died in '89 (at only 60!), so this is also one of his final works period. The faithful will want to plunk down their $16.99 for these last 408 pages, but it will be a bittersweet plunk indeed. Note that there's still another volume due out in March 2008 - it's more-or-less an appendix to the main saga, featuring Tezuka's early attempt to redo one of the stories as a shōjo manga. Also be on the lookout for next month's R1 dvd debut of the 2004 Phoenix anime television series, which adapted several of the manga's stories over the course of 13 episodes.

Andromeda Stories Vol. 1 (of 3): And completing this week's trilogy of noteworthy manga releases, here's Vertical's new Keiko Takemiya project, now that To Terra... has wrapped. It's a 1980-82 tale which "examines themes of man versus machine, and the inescapable grip of destiny," as the promotional copy goes. Cosmic preview here, if you scroll down. Fans of the
Magnificent 49ers... will probably be thankful that anything's getting released. It's $11.95 for 216 pages.

The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite #1 (of 6): Your big pamphlet debut of the week, from Dark Horse. Beginning the story of a weird child superteam that reunites as even weirder adults to confront a nasty threat. All eyes will no doubt be on creator/writer Gerard Way (also of musical outfit My Chemical Romance), whose short comics thus far have given me the impression of an enthusiastic novice who's got a good grasp on what makes his obvious influences tick (Grant Morrison looms large), but needs to smooth out his own style into something less affected and more inviting. He'll have time over this series, and artist Gabriel Bá will keep things looking pretty.

Streets of Glory #1 (of 6): I've found writer Garth Ennis' various Avatar projects to be especially willing to play with the freedom the publisher affords 'name' writers to be idiosyncratic, so I'll take a look at this Mike Wolfer-illustrated Western, apparently Ennis' first shot at the genre without any supernatural backing. There will be blood. Also from Ennis this week is the new JLA/Hitman #1 (of 2), with John McCrea. I think there's even a Bloodlines tie-in?

Madman Atomic Comics #4: Continuing Mike Allred's Promethea. Yeah, just from glancing around online I can tell that this series is testing the patience of even the hardest Allred junkies -- even the real Promethea made sure to front-load itself with 12 issues of mostly straightforward superheroish action before getting in deep -- but I still thought that last issue was a really striking marriage of words and pictures, burning through mysteries of the self on-page and in-character while Allred used every panel to catalog his endless artistic influences... a real homage-powered purification ritual. Judging from this preview, things look to be getting a little calmer this time around.

Gutsville #2 (of 6): Good, I was wondering where this went. More Image-published belly-of-the-beast intrigue from writer Simon Spurrier and artist Frazer Irving, who looks to be in good form. I like that page 4 a lot. For more Irving, Marvel's got the Silent War trade out this week too. Speaking of which...

World War Hulk #4 (of 5): My lone Marvel purchase of the week. Don't let me down, Hulk!

Batman/Lobo: Deadly Serious #2 (of 2): Probably some laughs in here.

Army@Love #7: Here too, but different laughs.

The Programme #3 (of 12): Not likely to be many laughs in this one, but you never know.

Dr. Thirteen: Architecture and Mortality: Oh, here's that one Brian Azzarello/Cliff Chiang back-up story from Tales of the Unexpected a bunch of people went crazy over a while back; I think it's supposed to be a caustic commentary on superhero revamps by 'name' writers, or something? I have to admit I didn't want to pay the extra cover price to sit through the series' other feature, a David Lapham/Eric Battle Spectre saga that seemingly everybody on the planet agreed was awful, so I can't comment with authority. Now it's on its own in a $14.95 trade paperback.

Apocalypse Nerd #5 (of 6): Holy shit. New from Peter Bagge. And the finale is only two months away. Holy shit.



So Much a Long Time Coming


Yep, this is the big Brian Chippendale release from PictureBox Inc. It follows last year's Ninja, although it was supposed to come out years ago from Highwater Books, which closed down before the project could be realized. Copies were out at TCAF 2007, and a small remaining handful were then sold online. The official release should be next month. Unlike Ninja, which was a big, thin hardcover, this one's a 4” x 6,” 344-page softcover. It's $21.95.

The differences between Maggots and Ninja don't end there. While Ninja collected work that extended up into 2005, this book confines itself to 1996-97, at which time Chippendale was in his mid-20s, and living in the famous Fort Thunder, an abandoned Providence textile mill which had only been established as a living/creative/performance space in 1995. Ninja, while a vivid and lively work, was often heavy with concerns of razing and loss; Fort Thunder had been torn down for local redevelopment in 2001, its squatting denizens left to find new homes. Maggots, in contrast, is packed with of-the-minute visions straight out of humming colony of fringe living.

Also, Ninja told a fairly straightforward story, albeit one prone to countless digressions and rendered in kaleidoscopic points-of-view. Maggots... well, let's begin by saying that this is surely one comic that's apt to discourage plot synopsizing and text-focused analysis at the expense of other elements of the comics form. Tom Spurgeon once ranked this material as the second-worst possible work to suggest as someone's 'gateway' to funnybook appreciation, and there's a good reason for that - Maggots, while not totally without ongoing narrative, is absolutely diabolical in its desire to wring comics into something befitting a mood of boundless energy and throbbing movement.

Even then, I'm not going far enough. It's vital to explore the very construction of the work so as to best appreciate its unique positioning between 'pure' comics and other visual arts.

Maggots, at its base, is actually a random Japanese book catalog that Chippendale came into possession of. He then proceeded to turn the book upside-down, so that the pages would proceed in order from left-to-right, and drew on top of every page. All of the art in Maggots is actually on top of something else. In nearly all of the white space -- and there's not much -- on every page of the book, you can make out the tightly-arranged type that once dominated the book. Chippendale's art works around or coexists with the book's original state, usually pounding it into submission with endless scratches of black, but somtimes working little bits of it into his new work.

And 'new' is the point. Maggots is perhaps the perfect embodiment of a major aspect of the Fort Thunder aesthetic (if you will): using the consumer society's debris as elements of creativity, transforming one lifestyle's garbage into another's art via accumulation or defacement. The very nature of Fort Thunder itself plays this out: a Civil War-era factory inhabited by young artists and covered from top to bottom with color and collage and decoration and artwork. They held concerts there. Costumed wrestling events. They lived there. It was a big, dead heap of trash before, and in the end it was seen as still trash enough to stand in the way of a supermarket, so down it went. But the defacement the structure underwent at the hands of the Fort Thunder artists transfigured it. A wonder maze and a new society of neon and crayon creation.

Maggots, then, embodies this quality. Chippendale's scratches atop the dreary set of sales symbols represent the beauty covering the rotten manufacturing husk of the Fort. His act may be viewed as political - seizing an instrument of capital and making it radiate with personal, spiritual vision by beating the shit out of it with drawings. PictureBox's edition of the work is a facsimile of the original item (Chippendale released a bunch of minicomics also titled Maggots, which were excerpted from the larger project), offering that old catalog an eerie afterlife, dropped back into the consumer stream to swim as a comic, that mass-produced art.

Ok. So, what's inside the transformed book?

Lots of movement, actually. You will not find very much dialogue in Maggots. Of what few word balloons there are, some of them are completely illegible, and others are primarily used as part of the page's visual flow, rather than as a means of dolloping information. You will, however, encounter upwards of 50 panels per small page, many of them resembling, in sequence, frames of key animation, with backgrounds included in the active animation.

Furthermore, Chippendale's unique demands of the reader -- you read one row of panels left-to-right, then you go down one from the rightmost panel and read right-to-left, snaking your way down each left page, crossing pages at the bottom row of panels, then going up each right page in the same way -- prevents the reader's eye from breaking with the page, allowing for faster appreciation of characters dancing or fucking or just sitting down and reading a book. And you will eventually learn to read this stuff fast. Some have likened the experience to hearing Chippendale's drumming, each 'beat' in comics time an audible strike - comics-as-music wags and Lightning Bolt fans take note.

However, this doesn't always work. Chippendale is the first to admit it, as the book's dustjacket warns you that the left-to-right, right-to-left reading style sometimes gets "tricky," forcing you to read left-to-right twice in a row. Without knowing ahead of time in most cases. "huh, funny. stay alert!" warns Chippendale. This leaves the reader in the odd position of never entirely knowing when the comic's design might betray their zipping read, and feeling oddly uncertain about what's even happening. Likewise, Chippendale's inky approach (you can get a close-up on PictureBox's product page) leaves some sequences very unclear, which has a way of dropping the whole book into chaos since there's not a lot of words to hang on to.

But maybe it's fitting that Maggots gains and loses clarity as it goes. Reading through it gave me the strong impression of a work perpetually in progress. Some passages seem typically autobiographical - a young fellow named Hot Potato can't stand to be without his girlfriend Rabbit, for instance, and doesn't want to get a job. Soon after, the book lunges into fantasy battles with danger, or veers away into a trip to Japan, or follows other characters. A handy bookmark is included to save your place, if you want to stop; when you pick it up again, it might all seem like you're starting anew. Minicomic selections of pages fit this stuff well.

Like I mentioned above, though, there is some total effect to Maggots' story. Its enigmatic images of Hot Potato being zapped between physical forms, and its many furious sequences of dancing and flailing, fighting and journeying, all convey the ecstatic truth of life in Fort Thunder, which is where the book's characters also seem to live, though in a dazzling form that would make sense to someone drawing things there, at the time. The book ends almost precognitively, with images of demolition, and a character left standing near a hole in the ground, the last page ominous with uncertain future.

What a frustrating and powerful experience reading this book is! Maggots doesn't behave like any other comic in the world. But as its state of being speaks of a higher purpose for simple blocks of symbols, its experimental, oft-revised innards reveal fresh ways of looking at the comics form, one so tight with writing-as-art that separating the elements is impossible, leaving formed the noise of a past as it was lived.


Say, what's that?

*New column, you say? Later than ever? Today we look at two Vertigo titles from the mid-'90s, the Grant Morrison-written Kill Your Boyfriend and the Peter Milligan-written Girl, and how they interact. Kill your free time by clicking!



Groo Puts Doctors and the Church to the Sword

*But first, a preview of an upcoming cartoon. Pedro Bouça posted this in a comments section from a few days back, but it'll get more attention up front:

Time Jam : Valérian & Laureline

Yes, it's Valérian: Spatio-Temporal Agent, the seminal French sci-fi comic by Pierre Christin & Jean-Claude Mézières... anime style. I wrote about the comics a bunch a few weeks ago.

To be exact, it's a French-Japanese television co-production, set to run for 40 episodes. The 2D animation comes courtesy of anime studio Satelight (best known as home base for Shoji Kawamori of Super Dimensional Fortress Macross), which co-produced the series with Luc Besson's EuropaCorp. You'll recall that Mézières worked on Besson's The Fifth Element, which adapted some designs straight out of Valérian. I believe the series' 3D work was done in France.

Hope you're not too attached to Mézières' designs, since they've been steamrolled into a fairly generic anime character aesthetic. The preview emphasizes fast action, which is natural enough, but if Christin's inclinations toward social comment have also been rubbed away, I daresay they've missed the point of the series entirely - Valérian isn't the type of thing that draws its power from the broad plot, and its action has always fueled by Mézières' elegance. But... it's only a preview, and it does have to appeal to the wider anime audience. Could turn out well. The animation quality looks decent by television anime standards.

Despite that English-language voice work, by the way, I haven't seen any English release scheduled.

Sergio Aragonés' Groo: 25th Anniversary Special

Ah, it was nice to go back with this.

Like I wrote the other day, I read a few issues of the old Epic incarnation of Groo the Wanderer back when I was little; the earliest issue I can recall getting my hands on was #22 from December of 1986, when I was five and a half years old. I had to look up the number and date just now, sure, but the cover art was still clear as anything in my head. Groo the pit fighter. Well, it sort of looks like a pit. The memory's not perfect.

I don't know exactly why my mother or great aunt (the two key funnybooks sources of those days; I think Diamond bought them out along with Bud Plant) opted to get me Groo, but I can make a safe guess: Aragonés' art simply exudes grace and charm, with plenty of childish doodle appeal out in front of his keen in-panel compositions and graceful panel-to-panel comedic timing. I internalized the beat of Groo so thoroughly back then, that when I got to reading this new Dark Horse issue it was like I'd developed a precognition for when the main story would splinter off into a line of panels so Groo could have a little skit with a periphery character.

But if I recognized the narrative beats, I'd just as much forgotten the element of moral lampoon the series often engages in. Groo may be a dumbshit swordsman with a smart dog who wanders around encountering things to break, but he's often surrounded with enough slippery contemporary concern that the little MORAL box at the end of each story seems as justified as it is flippant. I'd really not remembered that at all.

So I was kind of taken aback with this special issue's 24-page feature story, The Plague!, which sees Our Hero and his pal the Sage looking for a way to help a village out of the sneeze plague that's descended upon it. The plague is spread only by kisses, so the Sage invents a personal gag for safe kissing, only to find that most of the populace doesn't care, and the local fonts of spirit are strict proponents of kissing abstinence. It then turns out that the bug was first spread to humans by a monkey involved in medical experiments to uncover the cure to constipation ("Somehow... somehow, I will find a cure for constipation! I shall not sit until I do!"), which somehow leads to Groo happily aiding in deforestation efforts that threaten the discovery of a natural cure. And even after an elixir is developed, the local medicine merchants want it suppressed, and the priests... well! We don't want to encourage kissing!

It's not subtle, and always smells a little of cheese dip (it wouldn't be Groo otherwise), but it is very neatly folded into Aragonés' bouncy storytelling and Mark Evanier's sleekly exclamatory dialogue; when Groo practices his brand of sex education, swinging his sword at a necking couple, the background of the next panel has "Is that your husband?" displayed. "No, he is taller!" Maybe I wouldn't notice this aspect so much if I'd kept up more on Groo, but even then I'd still be sort of taken with the softly downbeat nature of the final message - the individual's good impulses have a way of getting infected in a society of fools like Groo.

Lots of other things in here. A two-page comics-format introduction (online here), a text piece debunking Groo's urban myths, an eight-page backup comic about the adventures of our Groo as a boy, and a fourteen-page character guide in verse. And that's hardly the end - next month sees the new Groo: Hell on Earth miniseries start (still love that title), and Aragonés & Evanier are set to take over the writing (plots & scripts, respectively) on DC's The Spirit once it's Cookeless. Some have seen that last gig as a little odd. If there's anything this book made me remember, it's not pigeonhole either in the memory.


Sauntering Through the Lands of Wonderful, Awful Dreams


(this review was first published in The Comics Journal #279; I've added boldface to titles of works to match the formatting of this site)

Comics art can be disarmingly pliable thing, especially so under the pen of a talent as adept as Gilbert Hernandez. Few contemporarily working artists can balance their visual approach quite so gingerly between high comedy and broiling melodrama, or divine the ominous undercurrent of pretty girls weeping chunky, iconic tears or handsome young men in long coats floating through the air. In art such as this, the stuff of popping romance and teenage fantasy is tinged with the genuine dread that realistically accompanies youth, without any of the stolid trundling of a heavily realist visual schema. Hernandez’s faces and reactions, his library of eminently familiar expressions and vivid squints and grimaces and yowls -- he imbues all of this familiar iconography with the punch that potent symbols can wield, an authenticity of emotion that facilitates their straightforward use in many contexts. You’ll look at his characters and feel as you’ve seen their every positioning, every curve of the line one hundred times before, and certainly multiple times in the same book, yet you’ll get so much that’s unexpected out of it on each onrushing flipped page.

It’s context, of course. The context of the page, and the context of the pages. The microcosmic page design and the flow of the storytelling sequence. In case you need my assurance, Hernandez is in keen control of each element.

There are several contexts, several environments for Hernandez’s index of postures and features to extract multiple tones from in Sloth. His pacing ambles steadily along, the entire affair occasionally feeling like a brisk series of one-sided conversations with his characters, few sequences more than a few pages long. Many of them seem connected, though Hernandez perches the total work (in the sense of plot) teetering on the line between explanation and obscurity, inviting both criticisms of telling us too much and merely throwing loosely related events around, hoping readers will concoct their own connections. I do see connections, and goodly depth, though the author’s storytelling doubtlessly allows for several different views of the story through which his characters walk (not run). Allow me to detail my own view of things, since individual viewpoints are so important to the comic itself.

Sloth is Hernandez’s new book, an original graphic novel from Vertigo, attractively packaged as a compact hardcover. Hernandez is eager to put its 128 pages to the sort of work that is undoubtedly best experienced outside the boundaries of serialization; I imagine that some of this book’s build would be confusing, perhaps a few of its narrative techniques rendered inchoate, had all of its pages not existed in permanent and close proximity to one another for maximum flipping and simple association. Images recur, and panels sometimes mirror one another; it’s best for everything to remain fresh in the memory for maximum zip. And besides, this isn’t the sort of book that’s particularly prone to reward a single, start-to-finish reading on even a surface level, though you can certainly get some enjoyment that way; Hernandez encourages wandering back and forth through pages, slowly circling around his curious tale and its manner of doubling back on itself, to fathom how one side of it informs the other and how his images and characters shift so smoothly from role to role while retaining an at-heart consistency.

If reality is easily altered, in other words, Hernandez’s art is the perfect means by which to view the shifts.

The story of Sloth follows the lives of three characters, Miguel, Lita, and Romeo, who live in a small town and inevitably chafe against its lack of stimulating activity. It will surprise nobody who’s encountered non-urban life as depicted in any form of art ever before that such a place is seething with dangerous feelings and simmering malaise, “boredom and existential low self-esteem” among the youth, in Miguel’s words. Hernandez bombards us on but the third page with images of kids and teens seeking violent escape through murder and suicide. Miguel apparently had a simpler plan: one day he went to sleep, and didn’t wake up for a year, leaving girlfriend Lita and goofball pal Romeo behind. Notably, we don’t see the world before he took his nap -- we must take his word for it that it was what it was.

And even after Miguel rises from his bed, he finds himself flummoxed by a strange mental incapacity that will not allow his physically fine body to move with any speed, his literal movements ironically even slower than the infuriatingly slow pace that small-town life provides. His narration guides us through his return to the waking world, a dried-out place of grandparents filling in for jailed and missing (perhaps murdered) biologicals, dull romantic angst amongst he and his aforementioned friends, and a strange lemon grove that’s home to all sorts of legends, like that of a goatman that can will others to take his place in haunting the area, should they ever encounter him.

Hernandez indulges in some outrageous, seemingly ham-fisted foreshadowing early in the book (oh, how could our young heroes not run into legendary trouble in the orchard?), but his technique is ultimately far more complex than he lets on. An early mention of a legend regarding a woman who rises from the water at the edge of town, damned for having killed her children to please a suitor, initially seems like obvious commentary on Miguel’s absent mother, who haunts his lemon-adorned dreams. Yet Hernandez later uses the image of a figure rising from water as a symbol of no less than emergence from one way of thinking to another -- following many an encounter with strange people and understandable betrayal, Miguel dreams of falling into white space, splashing into water, and rising up, his eye fixated on:

Lita, who has just woken up from a year-long coma, presumably in another world.

And thusly, a bit over halfway through the book, the story restarts itself with Lita as the main character, the narrator, a girl who cannot move fast. She even has the same grandparents as Miguel did. Except, her world is different; Miguel’s universe of creeping angst is seemingly displaced by a candied teen comedy world of secret crushes and zany friends and rock ’n roll hi-jinx. Where Miguel and Lita were once a couple, Lita now pines after Miguel, the cutest and most popular catch at school. Where the pair and Romeo used to have a band, the two are now fans of Romeo, who’s a popular music star, and very serious where the old one was goofy. Lita’s zany friends are the same dangerous bullies who creeped Miguel out just pages before, and every other character in the book has similarly switched up their role. Lita even now has missing parents, though she doesn’t dream of her mom. She dreams of Miguel, whom she feels as having watched over her during the long year dreaming.

The implications of this quickly become evident to the reader, though the details are kept dutifully obscured. If Miguel is dreaming of Lita, her world beginning as she woke, was someone dreaming of Miguel, his own existence commencing as he woke into some third party’s dream? Could it have been his absent mother’s? Was she really still alive, and simply plugged into a different role, just as Miguel shuffled the personage deck in Lita’s world? Hernandez presents us with clues: as mentioned before, an extended sleep is visually connected to diving into water, which gives that old legend new punch. And what was that about the monster in the orchard switching places with people? There’s also recurring motif of threes: teens, pieces of a body. You can toss it all around as much as you want, but I suspect the details aren’t all that important to Hernandez, as they never emerge as anything quite so interesting as the book’s larger picture.

Countless commentators have cited filmmaker David Lynch as an evident influence on this book, though my readings brought more readily to mind Ursula K. Le Guin and The Lathe of Heaven, that saga of dreams changing reality. But Hernandez’s ambling, stumbling, slothful teenagers aren’t granted the relative self-awareness of a George Orr -- just as they are forced to walk out of pace with the rest of the world, one they barely understand already, so are they forbidden from grasping the multitudes of worlds they might inhabit, the different roles they might fill, even in their own fantasies. The best they can do is dream away the current world, and subconsciously observe new dreamers emerging into an altered realm of conscious youth life. It’s never any better.

If Miguel is truly dreaming of Lita’s second reality (and as I mentioned before, that’s frankly up for grabs), he’s cooked up a nice little world for himself and his friends. Where he once was a figure of uncertainty and dejection, he’s now the object of desire and a laughing prince. He didn’t much like Lita’s father in his world, so he recasts him as a cruel letch in the new one. The people who tormented him are now silly, harmless sidekicks. A threat to his romantic hold on Lita is now a homosexual, surely someone who’d no longer be interested -- but wait! Did Miguel even know of that threat? And why are his new parents the night watchmen of the lemon orchard? Why is Romeo now a rock star? Is Miguel just feeling generous?

Or is the new world responding as much to his subconscious as his known wishes, free-associating elements of one world and swapping them around in the land of dreams, much in the way you or I might recall a nighttime reverie that’s utterly connected to errant thoughts throughout our day? Even in dreams, especially in dreams, Miguel still can’t be in control. He’s not alone, though. Reflect for a moment upon Lita, the supposed protagonist of this latter storyline; really, she’s little more than prey to the male gaze writ large, with Miguel looking down upon her through dimensions, and Romeo -- well, he ultimately has his own special role to play as well, one that very nearly throws the book off its proverbial rails near the conclusion, as Hernandez veers sharply toward a semi-logical explanation, then pulls back at the last moment. What does emerge as clear, however, is the author’s thematic masterstroke: in the grand scheme of the universe(s), these teens still don’t know what’s what. They were lost before, without control; in the end, they are again lost, and it’s additionally evident to us that the very cosmos have assured such a state.

Who wouldn’t move a bit out of pace?

Meanwhile, the real world is bullshit.” So declares the first Miguel, the woken Miguel in one of the book’s standout sequences, as he wanders the lemon grove alone and literally flies through the air, just as he could when he was dreaming prior to the book’s start. It’s more beautiful in dreams, somewhere else, and Miguel reflects upon the cruelties of the waking world as he soars, fast and free. “Love is our only consolation, but that can be pretty elusive. And love can cause as much pain as anything else.” That is his conclusion as he drops back to earth, and indeed that same notion arises at the conclusion of Hernandez’s book, where the pain and beauty of foolish young love changes the system of reality in just the tiniest way, to make a few people just a little happier. That kind of sacrifice is the only thing that can truly change the world as Hernandez sees it here, and as blunt and bathetic as it might seem upon analysis, it works like a charm in the context of these pages.

And like the book’s looping narrative, we’re back where we started, with Hernandez’s art. No matter how much the batting order is scattered, we can look at these characters and glimpse a constancy in them. Lita’s smile might seem funny on one page, and desperate on another, but it’s always hers, and Hernandez has concocted a grand context in which such things truly matter. It’s important that, visually, these teens remain a bit tied down to broad, familiar mannerisms, because in terms of story they never can quite escape themselves. They can imagine themselves as new people, but they are them. And not just them -- everyone circles through the possibilities that different viewpoints might cook up for them, yet everyone seems uniquely themselves. There’s a great sequence early on in which Hernandez deftly handles the touchy interactions between Miguel and an old bully, one who’s tentatively interested in maybe making amends. The dialogue is fine, but the real kick comes later in the book, in Lita’s waking world, where the same character is recast as an overtly comedic character, and you can see how the comedy flows from the menace, and the menace remains in the comedy.

It’s not a pleasant world in Sloth. It’s really sometimes an awful nightmare. But if we humans are destined to be tossed around by the waves of fate, recast in fresh roles yet still at-heart devoid of self-actualization, Hernandez at least allows that through our very helpless consistency, a temporary sweetness is always possible. From man or goatman, or whatever. And there’s always the welcome respite of sleep…


A full week of work ahead.

*That's -


Oh christ, I did more reviews on one site than the other last week...

Infinity Inc. #1


Column #8 (covering Batman: The Cult)

two short reviews (of Wolverine #57 & Lobster Johnson: The Iron Prometheus #1)

*It's -


The Arrival: This one has a lot of good chatter behind it. It's the four-year labor of illustrator and children's book author Shaun Tan, a 2006 wordless graphic novel concerning the travels of an archetypical immigrant through alien and symbolist places. It's already won a pair of awards in Australia (the New South Wales Premier's Literary Awards - Book of the Year; Children's Book Council of Australia - Picture Book of the Year). Scholastic is behind this new North American hardcover edition, $19.99 for 128 pages. Take a gander at the impressive visuals, then read Eddie Campbell's full review. You'll be hearing more of this, I'm sure.

Tekkon Kinkreet: Black & White: If I'm not mistaken, this is the fourth time VIZ has printed some or all of Taiyo Matsumoto's two-fisted soul-of-the-city fantasia of 1994 (after the Pulp serialization, the partial pamphlet-format serialization culled from Pulp, and the three-volume series of collected editions, all released under the title of simply Black & White), but that hasn't stopped many online commentators from getting excited all over again. The upcoming (9/25) R1 dvd release of the Studio 4°C theatrical anime adaptation is the obvious
prompt, but any excuse is probably a good one to scoop up the whole series into a 624-page, $29.95 brick, with the color bits included! There'll probably be no better way to enjoy this stuff until VIZ figures out a way to plug it right into our brains (dammit, why are these teenagers just sitting there hogging all the plugs at the plug store?!)...

Welcome to the N.H.K. Vol. 4: Meanwhile, in new-to-English manga, Tokyopop has a fresh helping of this compelling trip down the Japanese cultural sewer, with added helpings of romance. Although, I guess those three volumes of Naruto (16-18) VIZ is putting out as part of its Naruto Owns Your Face initiative are also an option.

The Groo 25th Anniversary Special: Sergio Aragonés' creation is nearly as old as me, at least going by publication history like Dark Horse is; I can recall reading some of the old Epic issues when I was very young, before he even hooked up with that dog. Groo got a dog before I did. So, here's a 56-page, $5.95 special to commemorate the occasion, with Mark Evanier and Stan Sakai and Tom Luth along as always, featuring a new story, an illustrated history, a character guide, and more. Introduction and preview here. Next month begins the newest Groo miniseries, the delightfully-titled Groo: Hell on Earth, which is a million times better than Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, as far as I'm concerned.

Casanova #9: So, when'd he go? Begin the quest for answers, courtesy of new father Matt Fraction. Papa also has Punisher War Journal #11 out this week.

John Woo's 7 Brothers Series 2 #1: Yeah, I had no idea Virgin was doing another one of these. Former writer Garth Ennis is working on Dan Dare for Virgin right now (and a lot of other things for other publishers, obviously), so this one's written by Ben Raab & Deric Hughes of Living in Infamy, with art by Edison George of Virgin's Devi.

Booster Gold #2: And here's the only DC title that catches my eye this week.

B.P.R.D.: Killing Ground #2 (of 5): According to the Hellboy Universe News Headquarters & Letters Page in the back of last week's Lobster Johnson issue, there will actually be a new creative team for the miniseries after this one, a special 'flashback' storyline titled B.P.R.D.: 1946. I kind of reeled at the prospect - the last dozen or so issues have seen the main creative team really start to cook on this series, although I'm sure this is just a way to get everyone stocked up on material without the title vanishing for months. It's more like an ongoing all the time! Anyway, I expect good from this issue. Also be on the lookout for Hellboy Vol. 7: The Troll Witch and Others, collecting Mike Mignola's four The Dark Horse Book of... shorts (one of which is online in full), plus his two-issue Hellboy: Makoma, or, A Tale Told by a Mummy in the New York City Explorers' Club on August 16, 1993 collaboration with Richard Corben, and a previously unpublished outing with P. Craig Russell.



Weekend Post Once More

*I have some reviews over in the Savage Land.

*Favorite links of the week? Chris Butcher's photo-laden reports from glorious Nippon, of course! He had the fortune to land right smack in the middle of the latest iteration of Eva Mania, so that last link is full of delightful merchandise. Eva iced coffee! Eva neckties! Official juice in the style of LCL fluid! That's pretty damned creepy! Pizza Hut's Japan branch also a tie-in going! A human-sized Spear of Longinus replica just went for the equivalent of $121,100 at auction! All of this is due to the new Eva movie that opened last weekend, netting about $2.4 million US in its first two days of release, which is supposed to be very good.

*What else? Oh, I also got around to reading Max Cabanes' much-loved 1989 youth reminisce Colin-Maillard , under the US title Heartthrobs; I have the Catalan edition from 1991, later reprinted by NBM. Sadly, nobody has translated the work's 1997 sequel, Maxou contre l’athlète. Actually, I think Heartthrobs might be Cabanes' only US-released book at all. Kind of puts a damper on searching out the guy's other works.

It's a nice book. All about the author's history with sex, focusing mainly on his preteen and early teenage years. I was impressed with how Cabanes invests his figures and scenes with such dewy gloss (the top image here is a good example of the style) that the whole thing comes off as seeming far more visceral than you'd expect from its rather modest particulars. I was struck by the amount of space spent on voyeurism - in that way, though, the work postures itself before the reader as just the same intense-yet-teasing experience as the young male protagonist often has put in front of him. Really takes the 'male gaze' of erotic art right to the source. Plenty of keen detail as to Catholic rearing too. I think it probably hit me on a personal level, to be honest...


Every failed launch brings a new excuse.

Infinity Inc. #1

Fairly interesting little spinoff we've got here. I suspect I'm not alone in ranking the Infinity Inc. storyline in 52 at the bottom of the heap; despite a cute underlying premise of Lex Luthor plotting to devalue society's idea of the 'superhero' by flooding the public with shitty spandex stars, the material rarely rose above simplistic culture-of-fame noodling and dull soap opera. But there was certainly some promise in hiring Peter Milligan to script the ongoing - surely that veteran of Paradax and X-Statix might find something interesting to do with the material. Or at least make it more entertaining.

As it turns out, Milligan takes a somewhat unexpected approach. Maybe especially unexpected from a marketing standpoint. The cover of this debut issue screams "Everyone can get the powers. ONLY SOME DARE TO USE THEM!" This has almost nothing to do with what the comic's actually about; really, Milligan goes in the very opposite direction, presenting a group of ex-superheroes who've long ago 'got' the powers, and then lost them, and dearly wish they could dare use them again. Think of it as a sequel-in-theme to X-Statix, if that earlier series had ended with the team simply fading from popularity, and everyone's powers fading with their renown.

In the actual Infinity Inc. setup, Luthor simply turned off everyone's superpowers. But their powers aren't totally gone, it seems. Gerome McKenna, the former Nuklon, has literally split into two identical people, one often begging the other to pose nude, and staring at him for hours. Meanwhile, Erik Storn, the ex-Fury, sits around his mother's house stuttering, while Natasha Irons has ominous dreams of flight and umbrellas, and John Henry Irons, the superhero Steel, walks around handing out affirmations to the depressed. Also, a ludicrous mesh top & black fingernails emo named Dale cries about the black pit inside him to an existential psychologist:

"I like you, Mr. Existentialist. I'm starting to feel that creepy ol' transference that patients are supposed to get for their doctors."

"W-well, strictly speaking that's a psychoanalytical concept, whereas..."

"Whereas we adopt a more phenomenological perspective."

At which point the boy grabs the doctor's head and sucks the life right out of him in a blast of white light. This is the overriding tone of the issue.

If Milligan's recent Batman Annual #26 came equipped with subtextual doubts about its own utility as a backstory gap-filler comic, this book provides a more direct confrontation of superhero unease - it's all about the inner state of the failed superhero concept, the ruins of people gone from a successful run to something infinitely less thrilling. Insert DC Comics sales analysis here. Milligan packs the book full of manifest dream content, pathological narcissism, therapy-as-religion, sucking others dry to feed the lonely self... but nothing seems apt to provide a cure. Even turning to good ol' established superheroes like Robin is no use - Milligan characterizes him as kind of an asshole (which might get amusing later, if Milligan keeps it up for the Robin segments he's writing for the upcoming Ra's al Ghul crossover).

This defeatist atmosphere is conveyed fairly well by artist Max Fiumara, whose inclination toward enveloping shadows is put to good use, along with his sometimes awkward postures - all of the characters are already feeling a little awkward anyhow. I'm not thrilled with Dom Regan's colors; sequences often look brighter than is complimentary to Fiumara's approach, and there's way too many flares of light speckling some pages. Maybe this candied look will function later on as a superheroic counterpoint to the brooding otherwise of subject matter and visual approach - it's hard to tell where the story might be going, as Milligan is quite good at demonstrating the dead ends these cancelled properties are up against.