Monday, December 23, 2013

I Borrowed Some Comics From Will

I went to college in Boston, moved to Austin for four years after graduation, and then moved back up to the Boston area about six months ago. Most of my college friends have dispersed by now, but lucky for me, my good pal and birthday twin Will is still around, so he and I have hung out a few times since I got back up here. One of those times, because Will's such a bookworm and I'm such a comicbook nerd, I scanned his bookshelves to see what he owned that I hadn't read. There were several things, but I didn't want to clean him out, so I grabbed the three that interested me most: the first trade paperback collection of Gotham Central, the X-men graphic novel God Loves, Man Kills, and House of M, an event I know all about by now but didn't actually follow when it was coming out. I have since read them all, and while none of them sparked a particularly passionate response from me worth devoting a full post to, it seemed silly to do all that reading without saying something about it. So what follows are my general thoughts on the three comics I happened to borrow from Will.

Gotham Central Book One: In the Line of Duty
Like too many Americans, I love cop procedurals, so this series is right up my alley. Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker do a good job of making the concept of life as a cop in Gotham more than a one-trick pony. The most obvious route to go, and the heart of the first story arc, is that the GCPD have a difficult relationship with Batman because, while they often need his help, they don't want to need it. They'd much rather handle crime in Gotham themselves, as any police force would. This struggle gets addressed right away, and then advanced and complicated intelligently by Rucka and Brubaker in the stories that follow. By focusing on individual members the large, rich cast, making the stories personal dramas instead of formulaic crime mysteries, the writers keep things from growing stale. They build a lot of great characters quickly, each with his or her own attitude about or take on "the Bat," and that's the book's biggest strength. It would work without Batman ever showing up because the characters are so strong, but having him around, always in the background even when he's not directly involved, adds a nice twist to the familiar setting of a squad room.

I also appreciated how this first trade had ten issues. That's a lot, and there's a pretty clear dividing line between the first five and the second five, so it would've been easy to split them into two volumes. Thank goodness DC decided to be generous, though, because ten issues is a much more satisfying portion than five. Had this volume ended after issue #5, I'd be interested in reading more but not necessarily hooked. Now that I'm ten issues in, though, I'm itching to read the rest of this series, and will probably end up spending too much money too quickly on making that happen.

What I noticed most while reading Gotham Central, the thought that crossed my mind more often than any other, was that I wish Michael Lark's art still looked like this. I'm a fan of what he's been doing on Lazarus, emotive artwork with a dark and dreary mood, but his work here is considerably cleaner and more expressive, and I prefer it enormously over his more recent work. Maybe it's a matter of having different inkers and colorists on one series than the other, maybe he just developed a weird smudginess in his style between then and now, and most likely it's a combination of the two. But Gotham Central has all the visual energy and realism and impact Lazarus has, plus a clarity and crispness that makes it look much nicer overall. It's too bad, because Gotham Central made me a bigger fan of Lark's than I was before while contradictorily making me like him less right now.

I kind of can't wait to get my hands on the next volume of this book, and however many follow after that. And I'll probably have to get my own copy of this volume, too, because it has clear reread value, and I'm going to have to return this one to Will.

X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills
I had a vague awareness of this as a popular book, and it certainly has all the makings of a classic X-Men story. It's written by Chris Claremont, it's all about humans hating mutants irrationally, Magneto is temporarily a good guy—all the biggest hits. Of course, this is a story from 1982, so it gets to hit all these familiar notes since, at the time, they were less familiar. Not brand new, but newer than they are now by a lot. In other words, the lasting influence of this book is clear, not least of all because it introduces William Stryker. He's not exactly A-list, but he's shown up since this and been reinvented in the movies and stuff. He's around, is what I'm saying, and it makes sense when you read this why he'd be used again. Claremont writes a good fanatic, a man so wholly convinced by his own insane delusions that it's not even a surprise when he kills his most loyal supporter after she's revealed as a mutant. He leaves quite an impression, even though his hate-mongering is of the most simple-minded and least convincing kind. The dude killed his own son with like no hesitation and then called it a message from god. If you can get behind that, it's best we don't talk.

Anyway, by giving Stryker power and popularity, Claremont is able to take the story to some extreme places, with children being murdered (not just Stryker's baby, either) and ears bleeding and Professor Xavier being drugged and tortured to the point that he makes a half-earnest attempt to kill Cyclops and Storm. I say half-earnest because, of course, in the end it turns out that he resisted the villains just enough to not kill his loved ones even though he basically wanted to. It's a bit of a backpedal, but it's also as far as Claremont could ever have taken things, since killing off two such major X-Men as Storm and Cyclops in some random graphic novel would probably not have been possible.

So it's an intense story, taking the established anti-mutant sentiments of the X-Men's world to an extreme place and letting the ball roll from there. I liked that heightened atmosphere, though sometimes the urgency of the narrative meant that things were glossed over. Not that it was hard to understand, but the X-Men got some information with dubious methods that were questioned but never fully addressed, and there wasn't necessarily a lot for everyone on the team to do. Cyclops and Storm are kidnapped most of the time, but once they're freed he is more important to the story than she. He's basically the voice of reason and hope in this story, funny considering what he's like now. Kitty is pretty much the star, Magneto and Wolverine are their usual forces of personality, and Professor Xavier is the villain's primary target. But Colossus, Nightcrawler, and Illyana (not yet Magik here) get considerably less stage time. They're active and essential to what goes down, insofar as they use their superpowers to help win fights and save people. But they're support players, the story too fast and hot-tempered to give them any more room.

Brent Anderson provides the art, not someone I'm overly familiar with, though I've seen some of his Astro City stuff. This is a bit rougher than that, but you can see Anderson heading in that direction, able to ground superheroes aesthetically without taking any of the dazzle away. Nightcrawler's teleportation is an especially nice example of what I mean, simple clouds of thick smoke with a nice big BAMF! down the middle. It's contained and realistic, but still fantastical and uniquely comicbooky. The black-on-purple coloring of the BAMF!s by Steve Oliff is very nice, too, while I'm talking about them.

Anderson paces things very well, and is able to do a lot in a cramped space if needed, fitting many tiny but always clear panels on a single page to get more done. And his figures are just as distinct and well-proportioned when seen from a distance as they are up close, so Anderson can do wide action shots when called for, always a useful skill on a team book. He also captures a lot of emotion in his characters' faces without needing overly heavy detail. Simple changes in facial expression, just the positioning of the person's mouth or the tilt of their head, say an awful lot when Anderson draws them.

I liked this as much as I expected considering its reputation. It was a very solid X-Men story, a nice introduction, actually, to the whole idea of mutants and the X-Men, if I was ever in need of one to offer somebody. Nothing really blew my mind, because of how worn-in all the elements of this story are now, but it was a quick, good-looking, engaging read with an excellent bad guy.

House of M
Easily the worst of the three, which I guess I more or less anticipated. This has got to be the worst case of Brian Michael Bendis needlessly, frustratingly decompressing his story. I think what makes it so irksome, compared to his other writing, is that there's less of the usual Bendis back-and-forth banter. It's there, but it's not the main reason the narrative feels so stretched. Most of that is filling space with action that doesn't really go anywhere, big dumb splash pages, and a lot of very, very quiet scenes that could be shaved down or completely cut so easily it's baffling why they ended up like this. Colossus farming in Russia for a whole page, why? Because you owe us an explanation as to why he isn't going to be in this story? No, you don't. Lots of characters aren't in this story, and anyone who isn't, there's a pretty obvious explanation: the entire world is different so they're doing something else. Giving me the example of Colossus in Russia doesn't add my understanding of that, because there are plenty of other examples of characters in brand new situations that are legitimate parts of the story, and I'm not an idiot.

That's just the most annoying instance I can think of off the top of my head, but there's a lot of wasted space in this series. The two-page splash of what S.H.I.E.L.D. looks like in this new House-of-Magnus-run reality that is the terrible ending of issue #2 comes to mind, as do the three pages worth of newspaper articles explaining through multiple articles the same already-obvious fact that things are different in this world. I'm not going to dig through all eight issues again to find every time space was misused, but it seemed like a lot. The first issue barely even gets to the point where things change, meaning the advertised premise of the series doesn't kick off for real until its second issue. And from there, it takes another three or four issues until anything starts to get done about it. It's all Wolverine running around and learning what has changed before explaining to a bunch of other heroes how things have changed. Only then does anyone take action that actually progresses the narrative. And it all leads, of course, to Scarlet Witch uttering the now-famous line, "No more mutants," which, credit where it's due, I actually enjoyed the reasoning behind. Being Magneto's daughter meant spending her entire life in the shadow of the mutant cause, and that made her pretty crazy and ruined her repeatedly, so she lashes out against it. A nice moment that comes too late and is surrounded by too much padding.

Oliver Coipel is the artist, and while all-in-all he did an ok job, his style is not for me—everyone seems too rounded and, like, tightly packed in their clothes and bodies—and there were a few moments at the very end where some significant shit was going down and I had no idea what I was looking at. What does Magneto do to Quicksilver? At one point it looks like Pietro's head's been bashed in or maybe cut off, but I am not clear on exactly when or how that happens. The art, like the story, does have some strong beats (I really liked the design of the anti-human sentinels of the new reality), but House of M was a pretty weak series on the whole. Not that much really happens for how long it is, and some of what does happen is hard to make sense of, visually.

The end. Thanks, Will!

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