Sunday, September 28, 2014

Elsewhere

A new routine has emerged in the past month or so for the posts I write for sites outside of Comics Matter. Every other Thursday now sees the publication of both a new "1987 And All That" column on Comics Should Be Good and a new Iconographies post at PopMatters. Which is kind of cool, having a regularly scheduled day where all of a sudden my writing shows up on sites with sizable audiences. It's my big bimonthly moment. Huzzah for me. This past Thursday, I wrote about Infinity Inc. #34-44 and She-Hulk #8. I felt pretty so-so overall on Infinity Inc., and with She-Hulk I was specifically impressed with its use of the shared Marvel universe, pulling ideas from it without actually crossing over with or requiring the reader to bring any outside knowledge from other series.

Something I Failed to Mention
I didn't so much forget to talk about the below page from the end of Infinity Inc. #34 as I did decide not to spend time in the actual column on it, since I had a lot of other ground to cover there and I knew I could give this its own space on my blog. Take a peek and then meet me below:
This weird anti-smoking DC house ad has a lot about it that amuses and also somewhat irks me at the same time. It's ridiculous on the face of it to use Mr. Bones as the spokesperson for not smoking. One of the foundational elements of his character is that he loves smoking, and pretty much does it constantly, except in places where he's forbidden to do so. Even then, he complains and tries to find ways around the rules as often as possible, because he just loves smoking so damn much. And though he's kind of a villain, he's also very sympathetic, funny, and sweet-looking, so just because he does something doesn't necessarily make that thing seem bad. It does make it seem badass, because Mr. Bones has invisible cyanide skin, causing his skeletal appearance and making his powers super-fatal. What I'm saying is, Mr. Bones runs the risk of making smoking seem cool all the time, so drawing specific attention to smoking through him feels like a misguided choice. Also, the actual image of the anti-smoking ad—I believe it's drawn by Todd McFarlane and Tony DeZuniga because they also drew the rest of the issue, the signature says "M/D," and McFarlane co-created Bones, but I'm not 100% sure—makes it looks like Bones is leaning in and offering the cigarette to the reader. His line of dialogue—almost certainly scripted by Roy and/or Dann Thomas, Bones' other creators and the writers of the issue—could also be interpreted that way. I think the intended sentiment is No matter how young and invincible you feel, cigarettes can still harm/kill you but another legitimate reading of it would be It's never too soon to start smoking! If it weren't for the huge "DON'T SMOKE" at the bottom of the page, I'd be way more inclined to see this as pro-smoking propaganda than anti-. Everything about it makes smoking look powerful, seductive, and awesome, except the red block letters forcefully and somewhat awkwardly included at the end. It's a hilariously self-defeating but also annoyingly poorly-planned effort.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Superb Heroes: Batman: Going Sane

Superb Heroes is a semi-regular column celebrating comics that are exemplary and/or exceptional in their treatment of superoheroism.
 
The notion that superheroes and supervillains need one another is exceedingly familiar in the comicbook world, even trite. In fact, the idea that good and evil are mutually inclusive is much older than comics as a medium. How can you have light without its corresponding darkness? Would we even know what goodness looked like if there was no evil to which we could compare it? You know what I mean. You've been stoned in college.
     In the Batman mythology, the theme of the Joker and Batman needing each other has been perhaps over-explored. More specifically, there is the well-worn concept that the existence of a Batman creates the necessity of a Joker, that the hero causes the villain. Both live-action Batman films to include the Joker used this causal relationship as key pieces of their stories, though in admittedly very different ways, and numerous Batman comics of varying popularity and influence have done the same. What makes Going Sane stand out for me is that it offers the characters an actual escape from their unending battle. Rather than simply discussing or displaying how Batman and the Joker feed into one another, Going Sane gives us a look at a world where one of them believes they've reached a definitive end to their conflict, and shows us what life could be like for the Joker if Batman was permanently out of the picture. Of course, it ends up being only a temporary condition, and there's some question as to whether or not the identity that the Joker creates for his new bat-free lifestyle is even ever "real," but the fragility and short-lived nature of the situation is all part of the appeal. We as readers know the new state of affairs can never last, even though both Batman and the Joker would be happier if it did, and therein lies the tragedy for everyone in-story and out.
     Going Sane is split into four chapters (having originally been published as issues #65-68 of Legends of the Dark Knight; I own the collected TPB) and the first part reads pretty much like any other Joker story. It is, in fact, nearly boring in its simplicity and lack of originality, which ends up being the point. It needs to be a run-of-the-mill experience right up until the end, so that the end can catch the Joker and the reader off-guard. After pulling some fairly lame tricks—a public explosion and then a violent kidnapping, neither of which are exactly minor offenses but they're no great feats for Batman's greatest villain—the Joker sets up a predictably booby-trapped cabin for his inevitable confrontation with the Dark Knight. Only, unlike ever before, this time the Joker's plan works. Batman finds himself distracted by his own furious distaste for the Joker's antics. He is so fed up with this bad guy, and so angry about Joker's persistence, that he ends up slightly off his game, just enough that when the cabin explodes, he's still inside, instead of making it out in the nick of time like he usually does. The Joker doesn't expect or especially want this outcome, and even with the thoroughly defeated and seemingly deceased Batman at his feet, Joker assumes his old foe is playing possum at first. When he realizes he's finally won the battle he thought would go on forever, he's delighted but also a little scared, panicked, and even madder than before. His already screwed-up psyche breaks in a whole new way, unable to cope with the idea of Batman dying, and he develops a new personality: Joseph Kerr, a quiet, unassuming, shy accountant.
     That's where we find Joker in chapter two, living his life as Joseph, having nightmares about a clown and a bat that he can't understand but we realize are the distorted memories of his real past, as opposed to the imagined past that came with this new identity. Joseph hates his dreams, but seems fairly content otherwise, and is a quite likable sad sack. His story is one of new love; he meets and falls for Rebecca, and she for him, pretty much instantaneously. We see their relationship develop from both points of view, with Joseph and Rebecca each narrating different parts of the story. Their affection is so genuine and pure, it's almost overly saccharine, but J.M. DeMatteis does a good job selling it by making both Rebecca and Joseph such delicate, decent, relatable people. They're looking for someone to connect with and trust in, and they find that in each other, so their love is believable and satisfying if perhaps too sweet at times.
     DeMatteis also wastes no time in breaking Joseph down and revealing the villain hiding underneath. Because the reader meets Joseph largely through Rebecca's eyes, we come to know and root for him rather quickly, so when his dark side starts to push through and he struggles to reign it in, we're already on his side, already sad for what we know the end of his story will have to be. He loses his temper with Rebecca to the point of nearly striking her, figures out that his name is an weak pun, and gradually deteriorates as time goes on, his true self too big and forceful an entity to contain. Then in chapter three, Batman returns, and when Joseph discover this in chapter four, he loses all control and effectively dies as the Joker reemerges.
     Batman's recovery is the focus of chapter three, and it's the weakest part of the narrative. Though there is a pseudo-romantic dynamic between him and Lynn Eagles, the doctor who rescues him, it's way more restrained, uneventful, and uninteresting than Joseph and Rebecca's, so it doesn't do well in comparison. It is important, though, because it represents a "normal" life that is tempting to Bruce Wayne the man if not Batman the hero. Though Bruce never seriously thinks he could give up being Batman, his time spent healing is also time spent relaxing, maybe the first relaxation he's had since his parents' death, so he toys with the idea of staying there for good. In the end, though, he heads back to Gotham almost as soon as he's able, eager for vengeance against the man who nearly took his life. That's all seen via flashback, while in the present Batman starts to search for wherever the Joker has been hiding, and does eventually find Joseph Kerr and peg him as a suspect. Invading Kerr's apartment, Batman sees a picture showing the obvious love between Joseph and Rebecca, and learns from the building's super that they are on their honeymoon. Knowing the Joker would never be capable of anything even resembling love, Batman decides to rule Kerr out. It's another mistake, but this one caused by Batman staying level-headed and Joker acting as uncharacteristically as possible, whereas the first time Batman was unfocused and Joker was super-extra like himself.
     That turnaround also marks the start of a turning point, since chapter four is pretty much entirely devoted to reestablishing the regular status quo. Joseph learns that Batman is back, snaps, and disappears into a stormy night, believed drowned by the authorities but never by Rebecca, not completely. She holds out the depressing hope that Joseph will come back to her somehow if she just continues to love him, and as far as she's concerned, she has no choice. He was a once-in-a-lifetime find in her mind, and her faith in his eventual return may well be all she has to keep her going. As for Batman and Joker, the conclusion of their shared story is as typical as the beginning was: Joker re-kidnaps his previous victim, Batman determinedly hunts Joker down and bests him, Joker ends up in custody. There is a moment where Batman has to show that he's better than the baddies by saving the Joker's life rather than letting him drown, but...the reader understands that Batman essentially killed Joseph, so he ends up as much a villain as the Joker. He might be the worse of the two. After all, Joker is just doing his Joker thing from top to bottom. Batman's stubbornness, his unwillingness to do exactly what the Joker did and transition into a new, peaceful life based on love rather than hate, it kills and innocent man and breaks the heart of an innocent woman. And yes, ok, the innocent man was just a false persona the Joker's brain manufactured to protect him from the shock of killing Batman, and the Joker identity would probably have bubbled back to the surface at some point even if Batman stayed away, indeed was starting to do before Batman returned, but still. Batman ends up being the cause of the Joker's victory over Joseph's will to keep existing, and that makes me kind of hate Batman. Joseph deserved a better ending, and Rebecca damn sure did.
     Of course, the tragic endings for all the characters are also part of what make Going Sane so good, because we see them all coming from the start, yet they still hurt when they finally arrive. DeMatteis builds the story intelligently, giving himself a lot of space to make the Rebecca-Joseph romance click as fast and fully as it needs to for the rest of the story to succeed. Artists Joe Staton and Steve Mitchell (pencils and inks, respectively) also do really strong work with Joseph's design and whole physicality. He is a little hunched and withdrawn, with sunken yet soft facial features. It's all built on what is recognizably the Joker's frame, but in such a way as to set the two characters apart as well. That's important, because we need to believe that Joseph is the Joker, but also feel for him the opposite of what we feel for the Joker, seeing them as separate people while knowing they share a body. The art is more responsible for that than the script by far.
     It all comes together to make for a brief but beautiful look at the whole Joker-Batman thing, the mutual dependance and two-way corruption that are the core of their relationship. Going Sane doesn't just suggest that Batman might be responsible for the Joker, it places that responsibility square on his shoulders by making his reappearance the final straw for Joseph. Yet Batman knows nothing about it, and thus has no reason to even consider that he might give the Joker a reason to be. And the good that Batman does is underlined, too; Lynn tells a story about Batman saving her once from what would most likely have been her murder, not just by pummeling her attacker but through providing her comfort after the fact. She calls him a healer, and it's a valid point, but I'm not sure it makes up for the demolition of Rebecca's whole world or the destruction of Joseph Kerr as a person. That's the main attraction of this story, and the reason I picked it for a Superb Heroes column: the hero and villain each get to play hero and villain at different times along the way, and they're both equally compelling and effective in both roles. This comic erases the average superhero genre good-evil dichotomy and presents a reality in which the scales can slide dramatically with any shift in circumstances. That's a nicely nuanced, entertaining, frustrating-in-a-good-way approach to superhero storytelling, and it goes especially well with the classic Batman-Joker rivalry.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Terminal Hero #2 Review

Last month, I somewhat randomly reviewed the debut issue of Terminal Hero, and even though it's a little late in coming, I thought I'd review the second issue as well. This decision was motivated by a few things: 1. I wanted to write something tonight but didn't have a ton of ideas or fresh material, 2. I continue to be a little unsure of how I feel about this book so I want to keep hashing it out here, and 3. I'm kind of into the notion of doing full reviews of every issue, now that I've been inspired to do the first two. And we're off.
     As with Terminal Hero #1, this issue felt like it covered enough ground to have been a full arc. Milligan is compressing the hell out of this story, and on principal I like that. It does make me wonder where it's going in the long term, because how many times can a protagonist have his life completely overturned before it gets old? This time out, Rory gets drafted by British Intelligence to be an assassin in exchange for them covering up the fact that he murdered his best friend. He then commits several assassinations while developing a sexually charged and combative dynamic with his government handler, Agent Davenport. Meanwhile, he continues his arguably healthy relationship with fellow doctor Emma, but continues to worry how safe it is for her to be with him, then decides to call it off with her and at the same time reveal his powers to her. He also meets Dr. Quigley, the man who developed the experimental Treatment Q that gave Rory those powers, and at Quigley's request Rory kills him, rather than using him for information like Davenport wants. Finally, Rory loses control of himself on a mission and blows up an entire building full of innocent victims, and decides that in order to be free he needs to convince the governemtn he's dead. So he switches places with one of the victims, using his powers to give a corpse his fingerprints, face, etc. and changing his own appearance as well.
     Like I said, there's a lot going on, more than enough to have been stretched over several installments. The debut issue included several huge shake-ups: Rory's tumor, the discovery of Treatment Q, the subsequent powers, and the ultimate murder of Raz. Issue #2 does it again, with the government hiring Rory, his first sanctioned murder, his break-up with Emma, the encounter with Quigley, and the identity swap at the end all constituting sharp turns in his path. This is a narrative that moves with vigor from idea to idea, relentlessly assaulting the main character with enormous decisions and earth-shattering events. On the one hand, it makes Terminal Hero feel dense and active, but it also lessens the impact of each of these large moments. Quigley's death in particular happens so suddenly, and after we get only the most cursory glance at who he is as a person. If the pattern holds, every issue will include a one-page opener about Qigley's past, so we may learn more as time goes on, but having him on stage here for the sole purpose of eliminating him seems like a wasted opportunity. And with his demise sandwiched between several other significant beats, it doesn't carry much if any emotional weight. Rory barely acknowledges that it happens, and though Davenport reacts strongly at first, she lets it go almost immediately.
     Even Rory's reason for agreeing to the government wetwork is weak and rushed; he's so worried about what Raz's sweet old mother will think of him if the world believes he's Raz's killer, and so afraid of maybe someday running into her and having to face her pain and anger, he decides it's worth giving up any agency in his life and becoming a living weapon. That's a hard motive to buy into when we know so little about Raz and Rory's friendship, and what we have seen included a pretty major abuse of trust from Raz that led to his death. Rory's captions insist they were best friends, and Emma has a line about how Raz "really loved" Rory, but being told something isn't the same as being convinced of its truth or narrative legitimacy. The thing about Raz's mom comes across as Milligan's hand-waving attempt to get on with the British Intelligence plotline quickly enough to wrap it up in a single chapter.
     On top of all this, Rory's not someone I particularly care about. I'm interested in his story, because the concept of someone with so much power being such a misguided and self-interested schmuck is exciting and scary, but his dickishness also makes me not give a shit whether he wins or loses, lives or dies. Truth be told, what I'd like is to see him eventually get taken out somehow and then a new person be exposed to Treatment Q in some way, to watch how this insane amount of mental ability would affect different kinds of people. Rory is a fine enough subject for now, but I don't know how long I'm going to want to follow the fucked up adventures of such a terrible guy.
     Piotr Kowalski and Kelly Fitzpatrick both continue to do great stuff on the art side of things. The scenes between Rory and Emma worked especially well for me. There was a nice naturalness to their interactions, whether sex, postcoital cuddling, or the borderline violent break-up conversation, and that went a long way toward making up for how little page space their relationship is given. I'm hopeful that there will be more of Emma down the line, in any capacity, because she seems like one of the few people who might be able to help Rory rather than try to take advantage of him.
     Dr. Quigley as a pathetic, comically obese sad sack and the weird, underground, sci-fi containment unit holding him was another excellent image, just horrifically disgusting enough to be fascinating but never off-putting. I'd like to wish for more of him, too, and indeed when he first showed up I assumed it meant he'd be at least a recurring part of the cast, but he's dead now so I'm guessing this issue was all we're going to get of the sweaty, scared, overstuffed man-child. He could always come back to life or show up in flashback scenes—in the flashbacks we've seen so far, he's not yet imprisoned and therefore not so monstrous in his appearance—but as of now it seems like dead means dead in Terminal Hero, so I won't be holding my breath. It's another downside of the book's pacing: some of the best characters and visuals don't get the stage time they probably deserve.
     I hate to harp on the speed so much, because over-decompression is such a lame trend in comics, and Terminal Hero is nothing if not entertaining, in no small part because of the rate at which it powers forward all the time. The art is still the best aspect of the series, but the thickness of the story, the non-stop rhythm of the mounting madness in Rory's life, is a big part of the appeal, too. Aggravatingly, it is also still the biggest thing preventing Terminal Hero from fully digging into any of its concepts, which in turn makes it hard to know what's worth investing in as a reader. When a new status quo can come and go in half an issue or less, it's a little difficult to get too enthusiastic about anything that seems cool when introduced, because I don't want to get my hopes up if it's just another quick pit stop in the race that is this story.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Elsewhere

My new "1987 And All That" went up on Comics Should Be Good this past Thursday, covering the first seven issues of Strange Tales. I looked at how Cloak in the Cloak and Dagger parts and Dr. Strange in the Dr. Strange parts went through opposite versions of the same internal conflict, one fighting to resist darkness and the other learning to accept it. Meanwhile, on Friday at PopMatters, I published a piece about Riley Rossmo. I've written about his comics before on that site and this one, and called him my favorite current artist on more than one occasion, so I wanted to do something to officially examine why I love him so much now that his body of work has become so big and varied.

Something I Failed to Mention
I sort of wanted to talk about how Green Wake and Rebel Blood were probably the two most similar of Rossmo's series, with their horrific gore, muted colors, frenzied linework, and brooding main characters. Even then, though, he does things to make them immediately distinguishable. The coloring is faded in both titles, but the palettes he uses are different; Green Wake is full of frogs and frog-like humans while Rebel Blood is full of zombiefied people and animals, so they have their own creatures populating their casts; Rebel Blood is heavy on action and intensity, whereas Green Wake has a lot of quiet, unsettling calm, so they're paced differently, and the art naturally reflects this.

That's about all there is to say on that topic, though, and I also feel like I ignored SO MUCH about Strange Tales. I didn't do any real plot discussion except for issue #7, I only briefly touched on one of the artists' contributions, I ignored my favorite character Rintrah completely, etc. The ground I did cover was fairly specific, so tons get left out. On the other hand...the single thing that stood out the most to me after reading those issues, and the thing that tied them all together, the defining aspect of the series in my mind, is the thing I wrote my column about, so I'm not sure what else I ought to bring up here, exactly. I have too many options, and none of them stand out as more important to bring up than any others. I just felt like I should at least acknowledge how narrow my point of view was in the CSBG review.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Moon Knight #7, Dream Thief: Escape #3, and the Loss of a Signature Artist

Like pretty much everyone else, I enjoyed the hell out of Warren Ellis & Declan Shalvey's recent six-issue run on Moon Knight. They did a lot of cool things in those comics, and one of my favorite aspects was how Ellis' scripts were designed to shine a spotlight on Shalvey's art. One issue's entire story was built around getting Moon Knight to dress up in a new costume made of objects that would make him better at fighting the spirits of the dead. He looked like a skeletal crow-man mummy, and it was an awesome and terrifying image. Issue #5 was basically one long fight scene, a non-stop action sequence that Shalvey made sing. And my definite favorite was the most disgustingly enchanting dream sequence I've ever seen, transmitted to Moon Knight's mind through the spores of the brain fungus of a dead man. Ellis' stories weren't at all lightweight, but they were tailored to make Shalvey the series' real star, the main attraction, the point of reading it at all. When I learned that both creators would be exiting the title after issue #6, I was sadder to lose Shalvey than Ellis, because while Ellis gave Moon Knight a new drive and attitude, Shalvey gave him a new world in which to exercise that attitude and satisfy that drive. Without him on board, the book was likely to develop a whole new feel, to perhaps even take place in an unrecognizable version of the same city or with another new approach to the main character that wouldn't mesh with what came before. Would Moon Knight be able to hold my interest without the signature look and atmosphere that had so completely won me over in the beginning?
     Then I took a peek at the creative team for Moon Knight #7 and, while still upset to say goodbye to Shalvey, I was instantly far less nervous about the comic's future. Because listed as the artist was one Greg Smallwood, who melted my face off with his work on last year's Dream Thief and was in the middle of a repeat performance in that book's current sequel, Dream Thief: Escape. I was thrilled to see an artist I so admired getting higher-profile work, and though I wouldn't describe Shalvey and Smallwood's styles as similar, I could see Smallwood having fun with the visuals in a way that would carry on the spirit, if not the actual aesthetic, of what Shalvey had established. Plus the world's best colorist, Jordie Bellaiere, who had colored all of Shalvey's issues, was going to stay on when Smallwod joined, so there'd be at least one layer of consistency in the art that might make the transition easier. Even as I hated the thought of Shalvey departing, the Smallwood-Bellaire combo was something to look forward to, and it was nice to have that on the horizon. Plus, it would mean getting two doses of Smallwood art each month for at least a couple months, since I presumed he'd be finishing up Dream Thief: Escape at the same time as starting his work on Moon Knight.
     Nope. Turns out that in order to do Moon Knight (or at least I'm assuming that's the reason) Smallwood had to leave Dream Thief: Escape as of issue #3. I can't imagine I was the only one surprised by this, considering he's still listed as the artist online. If there was any current series where the art was the biggest draw even more than Moon Knight, it was damn sure Dream Thief: Escape. Smallwood did everything from the pencils to the letters on that comic, with Jai Nitz on scripts, and while the reality and cast Nitz has assembled is certainly interesting, Smallwood was what made the series great. He played with color, panel borders, and layout freely, but kept the characters more solid so the book had a lot of flavor and dynamism but stayed firmly centered on Nitz's strong, careful character work. In a way, the original Dream Thief and the two Smallwood-drawn issues of Escape have the opposite relationship between art and script as the Ellis-Shalvey Moon Knight run. Shalvey's art was put on display intentionally because Ellis' plots gave it space, offered it the spotlight. Smallwood made himself the star by simply outperforming and elevating what was already a smart, weird, tightly-written story from Nitz.
     Tadd Galusha is the new Dream Thief: Escape artist, and a new artist for me entirely. He's very talented, and a good fit for the series in his own right with clear similarities to Smallwood, but it's definitely not the same. It's sort of a reversal, really: the panels and pages tend to be constructed in more standard, rigid ways, but the characters are a little looser in shape. I don't mind that, because the whole premise of the Dream Thief world is about people becoming other people, so for the art to be a little more flexible in its depictions of the characters has a nice logic to it. And everyone is recognizable and expressive, so there's no loss of storytelling ability. Then again, Galusha doesn't do much to demand the reader's attention; nothing pops or delights or surprises quite like it did with Smallwood.
     As for Moon Knight, Brian Wood replaced Ellis as writer, and he brings very different approach. It's true to the ideas and even the personality Ellis set up, but way wordier and less willing to leave things open-ended. Wood seems to fear ambiguity and/or silence, while Ellis was comfortable with both. So right there, it was already going to feel different even if Smallwood had totally killed it. Which for the most part, I thought he did. Nothing quite as interesting as his Dream Thief work yet, but it's only been one issue so far, and overall he got the presence and swagger of Shalvey's Moon Knight spot on. However, the one glaring distinction is the way Smallwood does Moon Knight's mask, which is essentially just his face, and therefore a pretty major factor in how he looks/feels/comes across as a character. Perhaps to match Wood's more expository tone, Smallwood's mask is more expressive and human than Shalvey's, which hid some of Moon Knight's emotions and amplified others with its dark, chaotic wrinkles. Those wrinkles have been mostly smoothed out in Smallwood's version, so there's slightly more face-shape to the whole thing, expressing all his feelings more evenly. It's not bad, and like I said it goes well with the change in the writing. Again, though, it's just not the same.
     I don't want to be one of those comicbooks fans who automatically recoils in the face of change. Generally speaking, I don't think I am. Sometimes people make a move with a beloved character that I don't like, but we all know a shake-up can be awesome. Kid Loki comes to mind as a recent example, and Spider-Ock, and even something as simple as the current more upbeat take on Daredevil. I mean...Nightwing, anyone? I know that's before my time, but it feels like the most inarguable example of change having the potential to be a good thing. Come to think of it, from what I've seen online Dick Grayson's latest incarnation as a spy (I think...something spy-like) is a role that suits him and has been well-received, so if it sticks he'll be two examples in one. I'm getting a little off-track now, but what I want to emphasize is that my negativity about these artists changing isn't directed at the mere fact that it's something new, but that it's something new about my single favorite aspect of both series. Once the best part goes away, no matter what comes next, it's hard not to miss what used to be.
     Which means, of course, that neither Galusha nor Smallwood ever had a chance on their new gigs when it came to satisfying me. I went in with bias, especially in Galusha's case, where I didn't even spot that he was on the cover or the inside credits but simply looked at the first story page and muttered out loud to myself on the T, "What the hell...? Is this Smallwood?" before checking the cover, cursing the unfamiliar name, and reading on. At least with Smallwood on Moon Knight I knew it was coming a couple months in advance, and he was an artist I already loved, so I could be excited and anxious at the same time. Galusha caught me off guard, and that bugged me before I even properly got started with the issue, so that's just plain unfair of me. I know I should reread it with more open eyes, and I will once the series wraps next month.
     Right there is the other way in which Smallwood has a leg up on Galusha: Moon Knight is an ongoing series, but Dream Thief: Escape has only one issue left. The longer Smallwood lasts on Moon Knight, the more likely I am to warm to him, unless, I guess, he or Wood turn me off all of a sudden with some tremendously horrible issue or something. Galusha's only got 20 more pages or so, which makes it an even bigger bummer that Smallwood didn't just stick around to finish things off. Galusha could have drawn the entire third volume of Dream Thief—which I'm just assuming is coming because I still really want to read that, with any artist, since at this point I'm fairly well hooked—and I wouldn't have minded at all, but for Smallwood to do the top half and Galusha the bottom of this four-issue affair is a drag. It splits the series in this weird way, because the narrative's not really divided that way, rhythmically. The story seems built to span all four of its chapters with a fairly even pace and tone, so it would've been preferable if they'd looked the same, too.
     I'm not walking from either title, and I wouldn't be even if Dream Thief: Escape were going to continue after its next issue. One month's worth of a new artist is hardly enough to make a real assessment of how good they are on the comic in question. I'm not even entirely convinced that I think Galusha is any worse than Smallwood or Smallwood any worse than Shalvey on their respective projects. I just...these comics are new things again, when not long ago they were familiar and reliable, and that naturally disrupts. So I am disrupted, I guess, as a follower of these titles, and I haven't settled back in yet, and until I do I won't know where I stand. For now, I'm in a kind of fan limbo, and that's alright as far as it goes, but not nearly as much fun as reading something I just plain love.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

A Year Without the New 52 (and the Book that's Bringing me Tentatively Back)

Last September, after months of dwindling interest and dropped titles, I gave up on reading any of DC's New 52 series. It's been nearly a full year since then, and I have yet to return to that line of comics. I've continued to follow some Vertigo series, and I read all six issues of Batman Black and White, so it's not as if DC hasn't been getting any of my money. But as far as the in-continuity, mainline, shared universe superhero/superhero adjacent titles, I've stayed insistently away all this time.
     Have I missed the DC characters at all? I suppose so, but not any more than I missed them already. What I mean is, not very many DC books felt to me like they captured what I liked about their main characters in the first place. They were altered, watered down, and/or completely new takes on old characters, and most of them never clicked for me. Batman was stubbornly incompetent, the Earth 2 characters were being rebuilt from scratch, Wonder Woman was a passive non-entity, Green Arrow was...I don't know what the fuck was going on with Green Arrow. So even though it was a drag not to have any of these characters in my life for the past year, it was a drag when they were in my life, too, since they were lame, uninteresting versions of themselves.
     As an obsessive follower of comicbook news, I have of course stayed loosely tapped into the goings-on of the New 52, through the articles and reviews and interviews and such that over-populate this lovely Internet of ours. I'm vaguely aware of Future's End and its destined-to-be-undone future setting. There's a new Batman in it, right, who's really Shazam or someone like that? I don't have the details, but if there's one thing I do know...it's that the Grayson one-shot tie-in issue has been generally well-received, perhaps the best so far of all the 3D cover tie-ins being released this month. Oh, and that reminds me, I know that Dick Grayson gave up his Nightwing persona to become a spy of some kind. I know that Wonder Woman and Superman are a couple now, and that he generally overshadows her in their shared book. I know that Infinity Man and the Forever People is for some inexplicable reason an ongoing title being published by DC right now. I'm sure there are things I've missed or forgotten, and certainly my refusal to actually read any New 52 material keeps me out of many loops, but I do have one ear to the ground, still, waiting for a reason to come back. Finally, after an entire year, I think DC may have given me one: Gotham Academy.
     I am far from the only person excited about this title. I'm probably one of the late-comers to the anticipation bandwagon. The first couple times I saw the name Gotham Academy mentioned anywhere, I glanced over it without really letting it sink in or paying attention to the creators involved. It was just another Bat-family book in my mind, a needless addition to what was already the biggest part of the New 52 line. Little by little, though, the buzz started to seep through: Becky Cloonan's name caught my eye, then I was interested by the fact that the cast is comprised of new characters, and finally I got my head out of my ass long enough to really take in the splendor of Karl Kerschl's art for the series, and I was fully sold at last. It looks promising, exciting, and fresh, and it doesn't seem like it'll be too deeply wrapped up in all the events and nonsense of the rest of the New 52niverse, so it's got just enough appeal for me to break my fast and sample one of DC's latest dishes.
     This isn't the start of a big, sweeping return to DC for me, or at least I don't think it is. Even if Gotham Academy shoots straight to the top of my list of favorite series, that's no reason to read anything else DC is putting out. I am cautiously hopeful, though, that this title will live up to its hype and potential, and if it does...who knows? Grayson is written by Tim Seeley, who I tend to like. Arkham Manor, which is the other new Bat-book coming out soon, sounds alright. And after a whole year away, there are plenty of new creative teams working on books I ditched way back when: Swamp Thing, Green Arrow, Earth 2Red Lanterns (which, like...what? Why has that survived?). Maybe it's time to give it another go.
     On the other hand, a year isn't really that long. I stopped reading the New 52 on the heels of their last anniversary 3D cover gimmick, and here we are again. Futures End sounds like a big mess, and a boring one at that. So basically it seems like it's just as bad as most recent DC crossovers, no matter how big or small. These comics are still doing the same things as a group, so the New 52—which I'm led to believe no longer consists of 52 titles no matter how you slice it—is just as unattractive to me on the whole as it was when I bailed. Gotham Academy isn't necessarily the deciding factor as to my future relationship with the New 52, but if it rocks my world, I'd admittedly be more likely to give something else a taste.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Punisher Meets Archie is a Thousand Times Better than it Should Be

I don't even especially care for the Punisher or Archie as characters on their own, but I got a big kick out of The Punisher Meets Archie (a.k.a Archie Meets the Punisher, if you're reading the Archie Comics version, which is the same except for the covers). Given to me as part of a recent wedding gift (thanks, Mike!) I can confidently say this is something I'd never have gotten for myself, even as a joke. How fortunate it ended up in my possession, then, because it's actually a pretty interesting, funny, and good-looking comic.
     A drug dealer and con man on the run from his past and the Punisher decides to flee to Riverdale to set up a new operation. Trouble is, this particular villain—he has several names but mostly people call him "Red" (including the quotation marks for some reason)—looks almost exactly like Archie Andrews. A whole bunch of mistaken identity chaos and violence ensues, involving not only the Punisher and Archie but also rival criminals who want to take "Red" out themselves.
     It doesn't help that "Red" goes to the school dance with Veronica, which seems weird because he's supposed to be an adult, I think, and the fact that he resembles a teenager doesn't feel like enough for Hiram Lodge to be down with his daughter and "Red" coupling up, even for one event. Nor should Hiram have been down with it, since "Red" gets super creepy and aggressive and handsy almost immediately, and then eventually takes Veronica hostage at gunpoint in order to get away from the Punisher. He's a truly despicable bad guy, which makes you glad the Punisher is after him, but because he's only ever in scheming, perving, or running away mode, "Red" manages to fit into the world of Archie, too. He has a gun but never pulls the trigger, and we know about past evil acts, but only ever actually see him failing to do bad things. I guess he successfully kidnaps Veronica, but...it doesn't last long, as she manages to slip in a clue about their location on the ransom message "Red" sends her father. She says he's "not full of hot air" because he took her to the warehouse where all the balloons for the Fourth of July parade are being stored—hilarious.
     By the time "Red" has Veronica, Archie and the Punisher have gone from enemies to friends. Or, not enemies, exactly...Punisher mistakes Archie for "Red" because a couple of other bad guys make the same mistake first, and Punisher spots them capturing Archie from a distance. As soon as they get close to each other, Punisher realizes he was wrong, and goes after the real crooks instead, giving Archie a chance to get away. Of course, Archie still thinks Punisher is after him, but when he goes to the cops they assume he's making it up and escort him to, you guessed it, the school dance where "Red" is with Veronica. Learning he has a lookalike helps Archie figure out what's really going on, but not soon enough to stop a bunch of local bad guys and the Punisher from descending upon the school and getting into a sprawling shooting match. Right before the fight breaks out is when "Red" nabs Veronica, and when the battle ends is when Archie and Punisher officially team up to rescue her and stop "Red" for good. Which they ultimately do by just not saving him when he gets tangled up in the ropes of a hot air balloon as it drifts into the sky through the open roof window of the warehouse. Again, hilarious.
     There's plenty of hilarity to go around in this comic. For example, a throwaway Dr. Strange joke at the dance, mixed in with a bunch of other throwaway lines coming from the crowd of high schoolers, where someone says, "...so I asked the doctor if the hosts of Hoggoth where really hoary..." Then there's this panel, which was simple but still made me laugh:
Best of all, there's the one page where Archie writes in was war journal, entry 00001, mimicking the style and language of the Punisher's own war journal entries from the rest of the issue, but filtered through Archie's immaturity and innocence. At the end he goes, "It's payback time. The war never ends. One on one. It's clobberin' time." I mean, come on...HILARIOUS!
     Batton Lash wrote this script, and did a wonderful job of making it appropriately funny but still something in which the Punisher naturally fits. He does have a few sappy moments, especially at the end, that feel perhaps a bit out of character, but I've certainly read Punisher stories before where he was capable of showing kindness to people who showed him genuine goodness and trustworthiness first, so it works well enough. This is meant to be a bit of a gag comic, of course, opening with letters from the editors (Archie Comics' Victor Gorelick and Marvel's Tom DeFalco) admitting that the whole thing began as a joke and always seemed like a joke to them. But as they point out in those same letters, Lash made it work with his story, finding the sweet spot between Archie antics and Punisher action.
     What pushes The Punisher Meets Archie over the edge into awesomeness, though, is the art, with John Buscema credited as "Punisher artist" and Stan Goldberg as "Archie artist." From what I can tell reading it, and backed up by what I can find online, this means Buscema and Goldberg often share art duties in a given panel, whenever Punsiher characters and Archie characters intermingle. They definitely split some pages, if not panels, but it looks like there are examples of both. Bringing it all together are inker Tom Palmer and colorist Barry Grossman, who finish all the artwork and thus add consistency to the overall look of the book. Palmer and Grossman both respect the difference in the two pencilers' styles while finding enough common ground to let the two interact comfortably. It's not just the Punisher and his sidekick Micro Chip that Buscema handles, either. He does all of the bad guys, except for "Red" who I'm pretty sure is Goldberg's responsibility, since he's supposed to look (and does in fact look) so much like Archie. So there are major and minor characters done in both styles throughout the book, meaning it's a blend from start to finish and all the mixed pages and panels fit right in.
     I don't know if diehard Punisher fans would care for this comic, in which Frank Castle works for the government, agrees not to kill his target, and kisses an old woman on the forehead when she gives him a sweater. Nor am I sure it would necessarily appeal to Archie purists, since it involves a violent psychopath being praised as a hero in Riverdale. Instead, I feel like the ideal reader is anyone who hears the name The Punisher Meets Archie and thinks to themselves, "Huh...that sounds goofy and weird and fun....assuming they didn't phone it in." Because unlike so many purely gimmick ideas, this one is packaged in solid storytelling, unusual art, and a deep appreciation for the singular strangeness of its concept.

Postscript: I finished this column a couple days ago but wanted to give myself time to edit it today before posting. In the meantime, CSBG did their own synopsis of this same comic, here. So go check that out for more details and scans.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Elsewhere

This week, I wrote up a review of Sam Alden's It Never Happened Again for PopMatters. The book was touching, beautiful, and had clear universal appeal. It was also a quick but powerful read, so I definitely recommend it to anyone and everyone. If you'd like a taste, you can read one of the two stories from It Never Happened Again, "Hawaii 1997," in its entirety on Alden's tumblr page here. I also had a new "1987 And All That" go up at CSBG, this time on the first eight issues of Suicide Squad. Spoiler alert: that title rules and 100% earns its reputation, even nearly three decades later.

Something I Failed to Mention
I gave most members of the Suicide Squad creative team individual credit in that post, but never mentioned letterer Todd Klein by name, even though he was there for all eight issues along with John Ostrander, Luke McDonnell, and Carl Gafford. And though the letters didn't do a whole lot beyond the usual dialogue and sound effects, they also never crowded out the art, nor were they confusingly laid out at any point or otherwise unclear. That's already better than plenty of letterers manage to do, so Klein deserves credit for his reliably good work, and there is one area in which his lettering actually stands out: the credits pages. While some issues listed the creators in a standard caption box, several of them did something a little more creative. The first issue acted more like the opening sequence of a movie, with the name of each creator getting its own caption on the second page, introducing them one panel at a time even as the first scene unfolded. Another issue opens with the Squad standing behind a line of trees, and the creators names are almost hidden in the trees themselves, as if they were carved sideways into the bark. And so on. Klein clearly had fun with the credits when he found a way to do so without drawing attention, another mark of strong lettering, and a contribution I wanted to be sure and point out somewhere.