Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Nick Spencer & the Poorly-Paced Mystery (Part 1 of 2)

I want to like Nick Spencer more than I actually like him. The pitches for his series tend to hook me, but more often than not I find myself disappointed by the actual thing. Now, Spencer hasn't been around all that long, and I haven't read everything he's ever written, so maybe it's too early for me to generalize like that (or to generalize in the ways I'm about to). But I have read all of his work on of Morning Glories, T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, and Ultimate Comics X-Men, and those are the titles I want to talk about here. On the surface they seem pretty distinct and disparate. The first is a creator-owned series from Image, the second a reboot of a classic DC superhero/spy series, and the third a major title from Marvel's Ultimate Universe. But I found all three to be equally frustrating letdowns, and when I examine them together, the reason becomes clear: Nick Spencer has terrible pacing. Not just because he dramatically decompresses his narratives, which he does, but so do many other writers to varying degrees of success. Spencer's problem is that even while slow-cooking his stories, he can't stop himself from constantly adding new ingredients, and the result is a dish with so many combating and confounding flavors that you can't tell what it was supposed to be in the first place. In their own ways and for their own reasons, all three of the above-mentioned comicbooks suffer from this problem, but the clearest and most aggravating example is Morning Glories, Spencer's own creation.
     In its very first issue, Morning Glories doesn't seem like it's going to be the infuriatingly slow, muddled story it has since become. We actually get a whole lot in that initial installment: we meet our six protagonists and get clear, succinct introductions to their personalities; we learn that Morning Glory Academy is full of evil and lies and has an unseen Headmaster behind the wheel; we see that weird giant spinning thing for the first time; and we discover that the school is looking for a particular kind of child (also born on a certain day) and that anyone who doesn't fit the bill---"The boy's not one of them," says Gribbs---is expendable. We also end up with a vast list of questions, like, what does "For A Better Future" mean? What was happening on the first page? What, exactly, does the school want from these kids? Who's that ghost-looking guy and why'd he kill somebody? What is the giant spinning thing? Are Casey's parents really dead? And why? And how could the school get away with that? In fact, how does it get away with ANY of this while simultaneously being so reputable?
    The problem is, not only have none of these questions been answered, but virtually every issue that's followed has served only to pile on the confusion and mystery. So now we're seventeen issues deep, and still have little to no understanding of the school's purpose or goals. Meanwhile, the six main characters who seemed so familiar at first have each been given their own twists and revelations, shrouding them now in uncertainty. Hunter has a problem telling time when it matters, but the significance of him always seeing 8:13 is unknown. Zoe's a murderer, but we can't tell if she's aware of it. Casey went back in time somehow and is going to do something to save everyone, maybe. Jun is actually his own twin and the school doesn't know about it. Jade can talk to herself from the future, apparently. Ike killed but also didn't kill his dad who is also Abraham. And yes, all of that is pretty cool...but what does any of it mean? Why do I care? Couldn't these seemingly disconnected facts about the characters be greatly enhanced by telling us why they matter? At all?
     It's an awful lot of story space to use up without shedding any light on what's really going on, and it makes it extremely difficult to keep track of the innumerable tiny but supposedly significant hints Spencer drops along the way. Like the nine random images flashed before Casey and the reader's eyes in issue #13. Or the shit Hunter mutters before the explosion in #15. Or literally anything that happens in the whole of issue #6 (by far the most aggravating and unanswered chapter to date). If I were to try and list ALL of the small details provided and the big questions raised by the series so far, my fingers or my keyboard would probably break. Every plot beat is another mystery, but nothing ever gets solved.
     I understand that all of this is by design. Rather than give us a few questions, then some knowledge, then some questions, then some knowledge, Spencer chooses to bombard us with the questions first. Then, in theory, somewhere down the line there'll be a turn and suddenly we'll be showered with answers. And it is clear that Spencer does have something planned, because even though we don't know what the fuck is going on, things are confusing in a consistent way. Lots of cryptic phrases are repeated and we see characters like Abraham showing up in the lives of all our main characters, so it's evident that a destination exists. But the longer we go without so much as a snippet of what that destination might look like, all the while dealing with a steady stream of new but not helpful information, the less I care to stay on for the ride. No matter how fully-formed and fun to watch the cast may be, when the stakes of the game they are playing remain so obscure, my emotional investment and interest naturally tapers off.
     Spencer has said on more than one occasion that he imagines Morning Glories running for something like 100 issues, which means we're not even though the first twenty per cent of the overall narrative yet, so perhaps I am being impatient. And of course part of the main thrust of the story is the very fact that the kids don't know what's going on at Morning Glory Academy and are trying to figure it out before the school...does whatever it's trying to do to them. So a certain amount of the answers, I am certain, must remain secret for now out of necessity. But Spencer spends pretty much all of issue #17 in a conversation between Ike and Jade that is almost entirely recap. Then there's #12, where all we really get is the briefest of introductions to Miss Hodge---she's popular and helpful but her history and motives are just as unknown as the rest of the staff's---who then acts as a vehicle to check in for a page or two with each of our six kids, offering no new insights into any of them, just sort of reminding us who they are. And as I've said, the worst of the bunch is #6, which takes place entirely in what seems to be the future, uses almost all new characters who we haven't seen since, and devotes its entire last page to a splash image that is an obvious, meaningless dud of a reveal. Even if you have 2,200 pages to work with, that is a waste of space.
     So Morning Glories trudges along, inch by baffling inch.

Next time: The more enjoyable but just-as-annoyingly-paced T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents and Ultimate Comics X-Men

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