Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Positivity Instead of True Detective and Batman

I was all geared up to write a negative post tonight, venting my frustrations with the New 52 Batman's first two arcs, and discussing how these frustrations were similar to those I had with True Detective. In a nutshell, what bothers me about both is that the heroes in them lose and fuck up repeatedly, but in the end both the protagonists and, in my opinion, the series themselves believe that the good guys have won. What they actually accomplish is barely surviving, but they call it victory and I'm supposed to buy it and I don't.
     That could have been paragraphs but I'm just not in the mood to be that negative in that much detail for that long. Plenty has been said in favor and against both subjects, and I'm in a good mood. I debuted on Comics Should Be Good today, which is a literal dream come true. CSBG was one of the first blogs I discovered when I went searching for criticism on comics, which I'm sure is true for a lot of people. I respect the hell out of everyone who writes for that site, and now I get to be part of it, and that's real nice. It makes the piss-poor endings of True Detective and "Night of the Owls" seem pretty unimportant, even though both involved the good guys defeating personal villains but not the larger forces of evil behind those villains. Batman, at least, says he'll keep looking in-story, but in real life the effect is the same. Half-hearted, small-time, ultra-violent win and then boom, story over, on to the next one.
     I also went to the comicbook store today, because it's Wednesday, and was pleasantly surprised by several of the titles in my box. I didn't realize the new Ultimate Universe comics were coming out already. I stopped paying attention in the middle of Cataclysm but I'm so into all of the All-New Ultimates cast (lame title but it's what they're doing) and the creative team and cast of Ultimate FF are all so interesting that I went ahead and signed up for all the new Ultimate titles anyway. I have faith the universe can come out the other end of a crappy crossover and be good, because if the rumors are true, that's happened before. I was hoping that would be the case when "Night of the Owls" wrapped up, but it swiftly moved into an even bigger and worse crossover, "Death of the Family," which is a story about how Batman and Joker are both just playing for funsies, not for realsies, guys, c'mon!
     To top things off, the comics I bought today were from the last two weeks because I failed to go to the shop last week. And then to go right ahead and overflow the cup, I still have comics from the previous two weeks I haven't read because I keep doing or reading other things instead. So there's a meaty pile of new stuff to dig into over the next few days, and looking ahead, my schedule seems just free enough for me to do it. So that's exciting, and the icing on what was already a delicious cake of comicbook happenings today. I don't want to dampen that mood by going on and on about how True Detective is a brilliantly-performed character study of the two least likable or original characters I've seen in a while, dressed up as an equally uninspired mystery story that never even gets solved.
     I think that negativity in criticism is a good and necessary thing, but I know I tend to skew positive in my own, and that's because I generally have more energy and patience to explore the things I like. If I plan to review something, read it, and hate it, I'm more than happy to say so, and sometimes I do use the blog just to rail against whatever's on my nerves. That's what it's for, in part. But I have to really be in the right place to put that kind of effort into negativity, whereas when I'm picking apart my reasons for liking something, that in itself is energizing. I imagine for some the opposite is true, and for others neither apply and they operate on a whole different spectrum, and that's also a good and necessary thing. But despite plans to the contrary, I find myself unable or unwilling to devote this space to tearing anything apart right now. I'm too pleased with comics at the moment.
     Even though, sadly, none of the comics I follow have Batman in them anymore.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Still on a D&D Kick; Still Talking About It

A few weeks back, I wrote about how D&D had been distracting me a lot lately and that I'd therefore been neglecting comics, my other hobby. Since then, I've been slowly dialing back on the one and getting into the other in a serious way again, but D&D is still very much on my mind these days. A few really good sessions in the game I play live via Skype with friends from Austin, plus finally nailing down a group of players new and experienced for a whole new campaign up here in Massachusetts, AND me finally getting all the way caught up on the backlog of episodes of an excellent D&D podcast called Dungeons and Randomness all happened right on top of each other, so the game has been occupying my time and brainpower a fair amount. Rather than let it continue to keep me from posting on the blog, though, and instead of merely throwing up another piece reiterating what I just finished reiterating and calling it a day, I wanted to delve a little more into why, exactly, I so love D&D, and what that love has in common with my love for comics.
     The main connection between D&D and comicbooks is episodic, longform storytelling. In both, it's actually quite common to have stories that advance and evolve in perpetuity, where every ending is also another beginning and the characters and their worlds continue from one adventure to the next. Sometimes there are deaths or departures or arrivals to shake up the cast, but it's all the same sprawling story. The rewards one can get from following that sort of narrative, whether as a spectator or participant, is satisfying in a way more contained tales often fail to deliver. For me, anyway, the payoff of a well-done slow burn, watching characters grow slowly but steadily into newer, better versions of themselves as the numerous story threads break or split or thicken around them...it's the tastiest flavor of entertainment around.
     There is also a commonality between D&D and superhero comics specifically—which are, despite their many flaws, still what got me into the medium and make up most of what I read—and that's the incredible powers and abilities everybody gets to have. It's not inherently better than something more human, but there's a lot of fun to be had when superpowers or magic enter the equation. Especially when it comes to villains. I love a nice unfathomable threat, an evil so immense and capable that the solution seems impossible to find. This doesn't always lead to the greatest narratives (see Avengers vs. X-Men) but when handled right, it raises the stakes, drama, and urgency fantastically, and heightens impact of the heroes' ultimate victory or failure. When I run a D&D game, building the primary villain is always the best part, and the part that takes the longest and to which I give the most care. Finding all the right moves, motivations, and equipment for a big bad is half the reason to be a dungeon master. And in the same respect, great supervillains make for the best superhero stories. Hell, great villains make for the best stories, period, it's just that with superheroes or D&D, they get to wield crazy amounts of power. That's just gravy.
     D&D is collaborative, and so are comics, though my personal experiences with them aren't the same in that regard. With comics, I'm the reader, and though, yes, I bring my interpretation of the story, the raw bits and pieces of it have already been worked out by the creators, which is where the truest, purest collaborations take place. Still, the benefit from my end is getting to enjoy the various aspects of every issue I read individually and as a whole. The words can impress on their own, and so can the images, but they should always be most effective together. D&D is similar in that I can enjoy parts of the game alone: character creation, rule research, the aforementioned podcast, etc. But the most significant experiences all come from actually playing the game, and that requires other people, and those other people are the whole point. Everyone represents an unknown element to the narrative for everyone else, because we all get to make our own choices throughout the game, but their consequences can affect everybody. Nobody, not even the DM who is theoretically in charge, ever has total control, because each player controls a character, and every character is a fully realized individual with agency to do whatever he or she wants to do. Or try, anyway, and then, just like life, circumstances—and dice, which is less like life—dictate whether they succeed or fail. It's not up to anyone in particular what happens, because it's up to everyone all the time, and that's what makes it so damn fun when things come together and a cohesive, significant story gets told. Both comics and D&D are at their best and have the most to offer when everyone involved is working together and producing a shared vision.
     D&D and comics are both things I got into a long time ago, when I was still a kid and figuring out what kind of person I was and wanted to be. They were reliable pastimes, there for me in regular intervals, telling awesome stories of incredible people living insane lives. That's never stopped, except when I've stopped it for one reason or another, and anytime I wanted to pick either activity back up, they were ready and waiting. They also both have strong communities around them, not flawless or void of jerks (because what community is?) but full of a lot of love, intelligence, creativity, energy, and fun jargon. They have long histories with mythological figures, the Gary Gygaxes and Siegel & Shuster's of the world. Anyone who's ever been a member of either community always has an in, because as much as things change, there is a consistency there, too. Superman will always be Superman; a fighter will always be a fighter.
     There's probably other, deeper, subconscious stuff that draws me to comics and D&D both. And there are things they don't share that I like about them each, too. D&D is limited only by the imaginations of the people playing, it's the classic roleplaying game and an influence on SO MANY popular video games today, and there are a bunch of different editions of it that are fun to compare and contrast and play with until you find the rule set that works best for you. None of that has anything to do with comics, and I could come up with the opposite list of comics appeal that has no relation to D&D. All the same, there is a lot of overlap in my affection for them both, and they really are the only two hobbies I've ever stuck with for any length of time in my life, so the commonalities must be a big part of that. If you're a fan of one, I suggest giving the other a try. And if you're unfamiliar with either, I can't imagine why you'd still be reading this.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

With Only Five Plums is Simple, Sad, and Satisfying

There's no shortage of narratives about the Holocaust out there, both fictional and non-, because it's a subject of such significance and complexity that there'll never be an end to the discussion. Nor should there be, because if we don't remember it we're doomed to repeat it, which some would argue we're doing anyway, but that's a question for another time and place (and person). With the abundance of material on the topic, one might question what a book like With Only Five Plums has to offer that other such pieces do not. Now, I can't necessarily speak to that, because I haven't read literally everything ever written about the Holocaust, but I can say with total confidence that With Only Five Plums gets its strength and its heart not from the details of its content, but from the gorgeously simple way in which it presents that content to its readers. Examining an enormous tragedy from a very personal perspective, and laying out the unthinkably horrifying realities of its narrative with a straightforward, almost matter-of-fact approach, the book is deceptively powerful. Page-by-page, it looks and reads like something basic, but the work as a whole feels like something spectacular.
     With Only Five Plums is based on a series of interviews that writer Terry Eisele conducted with Holocaust survivor Anna Nesporova, who is also the book's main character. It's split into three volumes, each of which represents a particular period of time: before Anna is taken by the Nazis, during her time in the camp, and then after she returns home. Each of them is a complete piece, but none of them pack as big a punch individually as they do as a group, which is, I suppose, the mark of a well-structured series. Book 1 is titled, "The Time Before" and it introduces Anna and the members of her family before the Nazis split them all up, never to see one another again. In discussing her family and hometown in those pre-Holocaust days, Anna's voice at first seems a little cold. It's not void of affection, but she speaks a little stiffly, presenting the facts of the case with very little commentary or color. This feels odd at first, but the deeper into the story we get, the more apparent it becomes that Anna's muted emotional tone is a defense mechanism. Were she to give into her sadness and pain, letting them out in her words, they would drown out the details of the story, and it is those details that both Anna and Eisele want to give to the world. In order to make it through her story at all, Anna must necessarily steel her heart against the agony of remembering it, or else there would be no energy left to tell it. It is a string of tragedies so immense that the only way anyone could ever discuss them at any length would be take the same approach Anna does, getting through the beats as directly and succinctly as possible, never giving herself time to dwell too long on anything. Even then, there are moments where she quite understandably breaks, asking Eisele for a brief pause before continuing or, at the end of each volume, requesting that they stop for the day. No matter how objective about it she tries to be, Anna cannot escape the despair and loss of her past; it catches up to her throughout the books many times.
     Even later, in discussing her experiences in the concentration camp and, after that, coming home to a town the Nazis had literally wiped off the planet, Anna never opens herself up entirely. There is always that reserved element to her narration, moving through each memory as efficiently as she can without embellishments or time for much mourning. Presumably, part of the reason for this is the language barrier. As a citizen of the Czech Republic, English is not Anna's first language, so some of the limits of her speech are no doubt a result of that. Additionally, Eisele clearly did an immense amount of historical research outside of talking with Anna, so some of the things which, in the book, are attributed to Anna the character, may in fact be details provided by Eisele the researcher, and are therefore presented more dryly or directly than they might be if someone was relating them from personal experience. These factors, combined with Anna holding back a little to keep herself intact, might make With Only Five Plums too stiff and detached as a whole, were it not for Eisele intelligently and deliberately mixing in moments of Anna letting her defenses down. As I mentioned, there are several times where she needs a break, short or long, and there are also moments where, right in the middle of trying to get from point A to point B, Anna does let her emotions take the reigns. She is overcome by regret, loss, and even nostalgia at many points in the book, despite her concentrated efforts not to let these feelings dominate her story. Understandably so, as her tale involves years of incessant struggle and tremendous losses in just about every part of her life.
     Without getting into it too completely—since this is a rich, thorough book and also I don't want to spoil everything—the arc of Anna's narrative is as follows: growing up in the small Czech town of Lidice, Anna was a young woman, newly married and pregnant, by the time the Nazis came for her and her family. They weren't Jewish, mind you, just Czech, a reminder that while the Nazis obviously had a special hate for the chosen people, they weren't all that particular at the end of the day. Anna's pregnancy spared her at first, which was actually far more curse than blessing, since nobody else in her family got to stay behind. Her parents, husband, and extended relatives were carted off, and Anna was left alone for a time. By the time she gave birth, though, she'd also been placed in custody, and her daughter was only a few months old when the Nazis took her away, too. Anna was then transported to the concentration camp of Ravensbrück, where she lived for three years in the unthinkable, subhuman conditions for which such places are now infamous. The most horrific thing she went through, however, came after she was freed from Ravensbrück and returned to Lidice, only to discover that the Nazis had leveled it and left nothing behind, so that what was once a town full of people had, in only three years, been transformed into an empty field. Just when she thought she was past all the evil and nothing more could be taken from her, she lost her home, the only connection to her previous life that she imagined was left.
     Eisele structures the story so that Book 1 and Book 2 essentially tell the full story of Anna's personal trials, beginning with the Nazis taking her family and ending with her discovery that Lidice had been destroyed. Book 1 and Book 3 work together to tell the complete story of Lidice as a town, from life before the war (Book 1) to a detailed description of the steps taken to murder everyone who lived there and destroy everything left standing (Book 3). It's a nice way to build things, beginning with a story both personal and communal, then focusing on the personal side, and then returning to the communal for the ending. It also helps each volume stand alone, since the first one is essentially the complete story of Anna before Ravensbrück changed her life and self forever, the second a full account of how the camp did so, and the third is not so much Anna's own story as that of Lidice after she was removed from it. There is a clear beginning and end to each of these, a natural rise and fall in every narrative that makes them all work as their own things. Yet in Anna exists an unbreakable throughline that ties them together as well.
     I've given a lot of credit to Eisele, and he deserves it, because he clearly put a great deal of work into writing this, taking care to make Anna a very real character, someone with whom it is easy to connect and empathize. And Eisele's devotion to studying the history surrounding Anna's life adds a lot of useful and enriching information, and makes With Only Five Plums an interesting, valuable historical text on top of everything else. However, had Eisele decided to go prose with this story, I doubt if it would be nearly as effective as it is in its current graphic novel form. Artist Jonathon Riddle's clean, realistic, black-and-white drawings add so much heart and humanity here, to Anna as a character and to the story as a while.
     Riddle is the perfect choice for this book, because his style is somewhat minimalist, often using generous amounts of white space on the page, but always with purpose. There aren't a lot of traditional, bordered panels, because Riddle prefers to separate his images with emptiness, so that they sort of float together on the page, laid out logically but not constrained or constructed in the usual rigid ways. This goes well with the story being told, as it mostly comes from Anna's distant, guarded, painful memories, and therefore flows differently than one might expect. The black-and-white coloring and Riddle's thick, confident linework match the starkness of the narrative, which is itself void of much warmth or color. When things are at their bleakest, Riddle goes more gray than black, and when life is hard on Anna, so are the lines that make up her world. Eisele's straightforward writing and Anna's sometimes clipped voice are given incredible depth by the simple choices Riddle makes on every page. He is the source of this book's most memorable parts: Anna's baby being forced from her arms, her arrival at the barren landscape that was once her hometown, the bodies of Lidice's men splayed out across the ground like litter after the Nazis murdered them en masse. These are evocative images, more so than any description of these events could ever be in the same space.
     The most important thing Riddle brings to the table is his depiction of modern-day Anna, older and softer but no weaker for it. The hardships behind her are evident in every line on her face, as is her resolve to relate her story despite how difficult it is for her to talk about. To actually see that struggle, to witness Anna push through it in the name of the truth, demands the reader's attention. She is a gripping figure, and it makes the terrors she went through that much harder to ignore. By infusing so much heartbreak and determination into Anna in the present, Riddle makes the story of her past even more compelling.
     Riddle's sometimes sparse artwork fits with Eisele's simple approach to the script, and makes With Only Five Plums feel lighter than it truly is. There is so much that happens in this book, to Anna directly and to the many other people in her world, yet the heaviness of it all doesn't weigh too greatly while reading. I don't want to imply that it's not an impactful work, because it is, with each new tragedy Anna lives through hitting harder than the last. But Eisele and Riddle are sure to show those tragedies to us in a way that, while underlining their seriousness, doesn't overdo it or play up the trauma in too ham-fisted a manner, either. They keep things grounded, quiet, and sad in the understated way all old wounds feel, not as intense as they were when they actually occurred, but still unavoidably and powerfully painful.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Monthly Dose: March 2014

Monthly Dose is a semi-regular column where I reread one issue each month of long-completed series.

100 Bullets #17: It says a lot about this story arc that in only three issues, Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso were able to introduce Curtis and Loop to the reader, then to each other, then build their relationship to the point where I really cared about them, and then kill Curtis off in a brutal and heart-wrenching fashion with Loop there to see it. That's a lot to do in a short time, but it doesn't feel like so much the way Azzarello and Risso do it. They cut through the crap and get to the good stuff on every page. For example, we don't see the beating Curtis gets here; not one punch punch is thrown in-panel. It cuts straight from him being cornered to him lying in a bloody, ugly mess on the floor, because there's no need to show the violence once you've made it clear that it's inevitable. Every scene is smartly paced and structured in that way, each of them starting with the first essential line and ending with the last one, with no real filler thrown in. It all matters, starting with every word (and a whole bunch of unspoken words expressed through Risso's brilliant body language and facial expression) exchanged between Curtis and Graves in the first scene. Though their exact history isn't spelled out in detail, the gist of their existing dynamic is covered quickly so that they can get right to complicating it further by talking about and involving Loop. It's a strong opening, and it propels the rest of the issue steadily forward, a slow-burn of constant tension ending in a literal and emotional explosion. I don't really know what else to say about this issue, because there aren't necessarily a lot of specific standout moments. The whole thing stands out as a remarkably tight, moody, effective piece of comicbook fiction, a deliberate and intelligent progression of what was already a great arc. Loop has gone from not knowing his dad to being best friends with him to losing him in violence and fire. That's an awful lot for an already angry, confused, somewhat immature character to go through, and I have no doubt that his reaction next month will be intense and intriguing. 100 Bullets has just gotten deadly serious and immensely tragic, so I'm excited to see just how destructively it all ends.


Nick Fury vs. S.H.I.E.L.D. #5: The oversized nature of these issues has never been more obvious than when reading this one. At one point I thought I was nearing the end, just based on narrative flow, but it turned out I still had 14 pages to go. The main reason for this is that, even as he progresses the story, Bob Harras just can't stop himself from explaining and re-explaining and over-explaining every single thing that happens or has happened. The number of times that the bad guys talked about how close Fury was to being in their hands was straight up ridiculous. I understand that it was the last step in their villainous plan, but even keeping that in mind, they talked about it way too often. It's already been said so many times in the previous four issues, that one or maybe two reminders could've easily been enough here. Instead it gets brought up every few pages from start to finish. Ick. The rapid aging and constant regeneration of the members of Project Delta, and their internal torment over that whole deal, was another long-established theme that got over-explored in this issue. There was just a lot of that all over, old ideas or plot points being rehashed in the dialogue without adding any new information. In between, things did steadily roll forward, but at a snail's pace because room had to be made for all the old hat. That being said, I'm still enjoying this narrative, despite the repetitiveness of the script and its poor pace. Things were sort of kicked up a notch this issue when Fury finally, fully uncovered who he was fighting and what they wanted. He's being brought face-to-face with the big bad now, which I suppose was pretty much a necessary place to leave him at the end of the penultimate chapter. Now the head villain's real plans can be revealed, and Fury can figure out some ballsy way to thwart them. I'm excited to get to that, so it that sense, at least, this issue did its job. It left me wanting more in the end, even though along the way I could've done with a little less. There were, luckily, a whole bunch of really nice visual moments from Paul Neary and Kim DeMulder to carry me through. The cream of the crop was Fury and his crew climbing snow-covered cliffs while wearing enormous, flowy capes. It reminded me of something out of a D&D session, which I'm always for. The Deltites beings tractor-beamed into the orbs also looked great, especially the last time it happened, where one half of the page was people resisting, while the other was a group fully committed to the Delta cause, serenely allowing themselves to be transported. That was a cool contrast. And I dug colorist Bernie Jaye's decision to do the Val-Kate scenes with all-red lighting. It added a surreality and somberness to their already rather dreary conversation. Because it had a decent amount of boring, pointless dialogue, this issue definitely didn't astound me, but I'm deep enough into the story of the series now that I'm invested and eager to get to the end, so I appreciated the good bits and got over the bad ones pretty quickly.


X-Force (vol. 1) #17: After skipping another three chapters, I got to dive into part 8 of "X-Cutioner's Song," which starts with a full-page splash of Stryfe and Apocalypse facing each other down "Inside the temple of Bani Maza, behind the walls of yesterday..." according to the caption box, whatever that even means. It is a badass opening image, though I have no idea how we got there or what the exact significance of the moment really is. Two huge, scary-looking, heavily-armored supervillains squaring off against one another in a chaotic close-quarters setting is cool enough to do it for me even without context. And the brawl these two engage in for the next few pages, which is less of a proper fight than it is Stryfe beating on a fleeing Apocalypse, looks fantastic. Greg Capullo is in his element drawing these two powerhouses, one pounding on the other. They are just the kind of bulky, menacing figures that make his work shine. Sadly, once Apocalypse gets away, things cool off and slow down considerably, and the rest of this issue is more of a status update on all the heroes of this story than it is an actual step forward in the larger narrative. There's a good cliffhanger ending, and it ties into the awesome beginning quite nicely, but in between there's an awful lot of recap talk and info-dumping and standing around. On the one hand, because I'm only reading the X-Force issues of this crossover, getting to see where everyone is and what they're up to was kind of nice. On the other, because I didn't read the chapter that preceded this one and won't be reading the on that follows it, either, getting this kind of breath-catching beat was sort of a bummer. I'd much rather be buried in confusing action like I was last month that have everything clearly explained but nothing interesting going on. I don't blame Fabian Nicieza for this, of course, because he had to write the part of the story he was given. And it's not necessarily his job to give people like me, who refuse to read the rest of the crossover, something exciting or action-packed in every issue of X-Force. It's actually a very good script, able to move between locations and characters efficiently so that all the exposition bases are covered and there's still room for Stryke to whomp on Apocalypse up front and for a wounded, beaten Apocalypse to arrive at the X-Mansion in the end. So all-in-all a very well-done issue, but sort of a snoozer as far as story goes, due to where this specific chapter lies in the structure of the overarching event story.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Elsewhere

This week, I wrote about Zero by Ales Kot and a whole slew of incredible artists over at PopMatters. That's been a gratifying book to follow so far, always doing new things and old things with equal skill and care. I also had my last ever Chemical Box"1987 and All That" column go up, on the final issue of Dakota North. The Chemical Box guys have decided to stop with written content on the site, but fear not, because I'm not going to stop writing the "1987" pieces, since they are maybe my favorite thing to work on. They'll have a new home next month, but more on that when it happens.

Something I Failed to Mention
I know that, at some point in preparing the Dakota North post, I made myself a note to talk about the cover. I have a vivid memory of typing that note. But apparently I didn't save it or didn't see it or something, because I made no mention of the cover at all when I actually wrote the thing, and it warrants mentioning. Real quick, check it out below:
What the fuck is happening with her arm? Is it just that the oversized sleeve makes it look misshapen, or is her elbow actually twisting backwards like that? I've stared at this a lot and I go back and forth on that one. There's also the fact that this whole pose is a bit on the brokeback side, inasmuch as Dakota's body is essentially in an S-shape so that her butt can be part of the foreground. But it's that arm that really bugs and distract and confounds me. Especially when I ask myself why, if she was whipping around with a gun out, presumably believing there's danger behind her, she would even have her other hand on her hip to begin with. Or her thigh or wherever it actually is. Like it should be out to the side, right? Helping carry her body through the spin? A very awkward bit of positioning, which is actually a fitting lead-in to the issue that follows.

Monday, March 24, 2014

A Late-to-the-Table Review of Moon Knight #1

I know Warren Ellis and Declan Shalvey's new Moon Knight series debuted almost three weeks ago, but I just read the first issue yesterday and it stuck with me and so now I'm going to talk about it briefly. The rest of the Internet has certainly already said a lot about this issue, and I have no clue what the consensus is because I've been avoiding reading those reviews until I could read the actual comic. So what follows may be old hat, but it's my hat, and that's all I've got.

Moon Knight #1 was not the best new comic I read last night, nor was it the best-looking or most surprising or strangest or, really, the most anything. But it managed to strike some unique chords in me, some of my favorites and the ones least often struck by my superhero entertainment. Right off the bat, Moon Knight shows up at a crime scene and starts profiling the murderer, shooting out a bunch of hyper-confident conclusions based on his quick yet thorough observations of the evidence. In other words, he was Sherlock Holmes, a character who's having a bit of a renaissance lately, of which I am a fan. Both Sherlock and Elementary are top-notch shows, and Holmes has always been a character whose gimmick I enjoyed. The same is true of Moon Knight, the superhero who's insane, and Warren Ellis' script leans into that, too, but I don't want to go there yet, because I have one more Sherlock Holmes-related point to make. Something I often hear or read about Moon Knight, and it is pretty hard to deny, is that he's basically just Marvel's Batman. Rich guy, throws little boomerang things in special shapes, wears a cape, operates at night, no real superpowers. Dark Knight, Moon Knight...you can see the parallels. That being said, there's an almost-just-as-obvious case to be made that Batman is DC's Sherlock Holmes. Super detective, obsessive to the point of putting himself at risk often, a strange but ultimately beneficial relationship with the local cops. There are echoes of Watson in Alfred and Robin. What I'm saying is, I like the idea of taking a character like Moon Knight who often gets accused of ripping off Batman and, instead, having him steal a page from one of Batman's own influences.

Ellis also plays up Moon Knight's craziness, as I mentioned, and in ways that I like because they are such opposites in tone. From the very start of the issue—which is pretty much just a blogger giving expository background info on Moon Knight to a disembodied voice on the other end of her phone—the topic of Moon Knight's mental state is more of a joke than a legitimate concern. Moon Knight himself is very vocal about the fact the he's nuts, but since he gets results everyone seems to live with it. Some disapprove, and some even question it aloud, but nobody gets in his way because he's brazen enough to get away with ignoring the skepticism. That's a fun way to handle the long-established insanity of the character, by just announcing up top that everybody knows about it and they're letting him do his thing anyway. But Ellis then twists that idea two times before the issue's end. First, in a scene where Marc Spector, the man who is Moon Knight behind the mask, goes to his therapist. She very politely and matter-of-factly (almost callously) explains to him that he does not, as he always believed, have Dissociative Identity Disorder. What he has, his doctor tells him, are the four aspects of the Egyptian god Khonshu living inside of him, forcing him to fight against "those who would would harm travellers by night." His brain tries to give these aspects their own identities because it cannot comprehend their true nature, but he's not truly crazy as the world believes and he claims publicly. He's just a vessel for a god's vengeance, plain and simple. This news does not seem to sit well with Marc, and after he hears it the issue concludes in the second twist, with two near-silent pages of him returning home, sullen and alone. His house is empty, large, and dusty, covered in cobwebs. Marc sits in a chair and sees sitting across from him a figure dressed in a suit with a giant bird skull for a head and it says to him "You are my son" in crazy white-on-black letters. I assume this is Khonshu himself showing up to bring things to a terrifying and incredibly dismal close, an unexpectedly heavy door slamming shut at the end of what had been a pretty fun and equally surprising superhero Sherlock story.

The impact of that conclusion, because it is almost wordless and the only four words spoken are in a very stylized font, is credited entirely to artist Declan Shalvey, colorist Jordie Bellaire, and letterer Chris Eliopoulos. The ease with which they transition at the end into black-and-gray horror after all the bright-white-and-red action of the previous pages deserves much praise, as does everything else they do on this book. Shalvey and Bellaire come together to make Moon Knight's all-white outfit not just pop but dazzle against the grim nighttime city backgrounds. He is so shockingly, abrasively noticeable that you believe it as a tactic against his enemies, a first-round stun affect based solely on style and confidence. Shalvey also makes the bad guy of this debut appropriately memorable but laughable, so we know he's not sticking around but he earned his place in the #1 issue. The best pages were definitely those devoted to the therapist scene, though, starting the gorgeous mountain setting, sliding quickly into the therapist's cruel enjoyment in delivering the bad news, and culminating in a gorgeously unsettling splash page that I would diminish if I tried to describe but, trust me, it's a highlight of the year so far. Bellaire is right there with Shalvey all along the way. She lights the villain is deeps reds, a nice contrast to Moon Knight's stark whites, and then mutes the colors for the therapy scene and beyond, bringing the mood down to something more somber and unnerving. Beyond Khonshu's dialogue, Eliopoulos doesn't have a lot of chances to show off, though he certainly letters every panel as expertly as is usual for him. And he does stellar work on the third-page title sequence, a very tidy and fun way to introduce the book's semi-humorous-with-a-lurking-dread tone.

I said this wasn't the best thing I read last night and that's true, but a lot of that is just because it's too new a book to bring out the same kind of emotions in me as the series in which I'm already heavily invested. Moon Knight was definitely my favorite debut in a couple of months, and is probably the title from the current wave of new Marvel stuff that has me most excited. I was always champing at the bit to see Shalvey and Bellaire on this particular character, and they did not disappoint for a second. They did, however, surprise me quite a bit in their handling of him, from his design to his supporting cast to his fighting style, so that's all great. I also didn't really know how to feel about the prospect of Ellis writing Moon Knight, and I damn sure didn't expect him to write a violent Sherlock Holmes with a death wish whose every move was dictated by the will of a god. That's a concept I'm attracted to for a number of reasons, and now that it has been so delightfully introduced, I'm eager to see the next step, the evolution of all these themes and threads.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

My Other Car is a Base Land Speed of 30 Feet

I've been pretty absent from Comics Matter over the past couple of weeks, which is totally counter to my goals, but what can I say? Comicbooks, while still my #1 pastime, are not my only hobby. I'm a well-rounded motherfucker! Maybe not, but I do have at least two nerdy, obsessive, time-consuming interests, the other one being Dungeons & Dragons. I've mentioned this before in passing, but D&D is seriously the best thing ever, and I've been playing it off-and-on for more than half my life. People move, things change, games end, and sometimes there's no D&D in my world at all. But when I get back into it, I often get seriously into it, to the point where I put off real-life responsibilities. It's not good, but that's the relationship I have with the game, and right now I am deep in a D&D pit that has kept me from catching up on my comicbook reading or writing for about a week. It's been an abnormally busy week anyway, and the short bursts of free time I've had were almost all usurped by D&D planning, research, etc. As a game limited only by my own imagination, the potential it has to entertain me once I settle in is truly infinite, and losing track of time is easy when I'm in that state.

All of this is to say that I realize I've been an irresponsible blogger. I'm not making any promises to climb out of the D&D hole I've fallen into anytime soon, because I can never tell how long any round of me getting super enthusiastic about the game all over again will last. This is meant as more of an open acknowledgement that I want to re-balance my free time schedule and bring comics back to the forefront of my mind. Admitting there's a problem is the first step, yes? So, step one down, I guess. Hopefully I'll stop unhealthily focusing on D&D and get back to unhealthily focusing on comicbooks ASAP.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Elsewhere

This week, my usual Iconographies column was published over at PopMatters, this time talking about FBP: Federal Bureau of Physics and how nothing ever quite stabilizes or settles down in it. That's been a fun and peculiar series, and Robbi Rodriguez's art is phenomenal. My latest "1987 And All That" post always went up at The Chemical Box, discussing Mephisto Vs., a four-issue mini-series about Mephisto fighting, one after the other, the Fantastic Four, X-Factor, the X-Men, and the Avengers. It's a hyper-formulaic gimmick comic, but John Buscema drew it and Mephisto had an entertaining personality, basically a spoiled child but with near-endless magical power, so overall I had a good time reading it. I'll probably never repeat the experience, but I don't regret it, which is more than I can say than some things I've read.

Something I Failed to Mention
My focus during the FBP piece was the book's unpredictability, so I didn't get around to talking about the other thing I love about it (aside from Rodriguez's work, as I mentioned above). In a very understated, subtly-played way, FBP is a crime procedural, and crime procedurals are my bread and butter. Because the problems the FBP handles are all cases of freak physics, the series looks on the surface like more of a string of sci-fi disaster stories. But all of the incidents so far have also involved some amount of criminal human interference or manipulation, making them crimes to be solved as well as scientific mysteries. Of course, the methods that the FBP uses to deal with these human problems, which are technically outside of their jurisdiction, are unusual and ethically/morally questionable. That's part of why it takes a while to see FBP as a crime procedural at all, and it's also what sets it apart from the many, many other such series that already exist in comics, books, TV, and probably other places of which I'm not even aware. Nevertheless, I count it among them, a unique example, and a story that has a lot to offer outside the crime-fighting elements, but that appeals to me through those elements as well.