Friday, May 31, 2013

Finally Reading Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye

Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye has been on my radar since it launched. There was some definite buzz about it at the beginning, and I feel like every so often I still see a new review somewhere praising the book, so in the back of my mind I've been wanting to give it a try for a while. But I'm not much of a Transformers fan, historically, and there are so many other things to read, this particular title remained just outside of my reading list for more than a year. Yesterday, arriving a day late to pick up my new comics at my local shop, I noticed they were having a sale on all of their trade paperbacks. And, having read two different glowing reviews of issue #17 earlier in the day, I figured it was as good a time as any to grab the first volume of the series and see what I'd been missing.
     I admit, looking at the info for Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye volume 1, I was a bit skeptical. Containing only the prologue one-shot The Death of Optimus Prime plus the first three issues of the actual series, the slender trade paperback seemed like too little material to give me a proper introduction to the book. I was worried that I would get only the first inklings of what the series had to offer, but not enough of the deep and developed bits to stay invested. Those fears could not have been more unfounded, because by the time I'd finished The Death I was fully hooked on some Transformers goodness.
     Because this shit is incredibly dense. It only took one issue to grab me because that one issue had more plot and character work than some whole first arcs. Writers James Roberts and John Barber build a very full, lived-in world for their giant robots, and introduce some extremely interesting and difficult moral, political, and ethical problems into the mix. Now that the Autobots and Decepticons are done with their war, Cybertron is being repopulated by Transformers who have been living scattered throughout the cosmos. But this rebuilding of life on their home world is no simple or easy task, because the war has done a lot of damage and left behind a lot of anger. Also, there are still a bunch of Decepticons roaming around being wicked, and the Autobots aren't seen as heroes in the eyes of their fellow Transformers, either, because they're given equal blame for the war. Obviously, it's a tinderbox, and Roberts and Barber do a remarkably thorough job of exploring the many sticky wickets it creates in The Death of Optimus Prime. By the end of that issue, the Autobots are split into two camps. Some will stay behind in an effort to assist in the rebuilding of life on Cybertron, while another group, lead by the over-confident Rodimus, are going to venture into the depths of space on a quest to find the Knights of Cybertron. The Knights are mythological figures in Transformers lore, supposedly original Cybertronians who left ten million years ago to spread enlightenment throughout the universe. Rodimus' hope is that finding the Knights will help solve the problems on Cybertron, that they will have the wisdom and power to save the day.
     It is this semi-religious space journey that we follow in More Than Meets the Eye while its sister title (Robots in Disguise, of course) stays on Cybertron. Roberts and Barber also separate, with Barber writing RiD and Roberts getting to helm the space adventure of MTMtE. And as much as I'm fascinated by the doubtlessly tense and slow-going efforts on Cybertron, I'm glad I choose to follow Rodimus' crew as my introduction to this world. Roberts writes a damn fine space soap opera, and juggles his expansive cast with such skill I can hardly believe how many characters I've already met. Rodimus as the cocky and pigheaded leader is just the tip of the iceberg. Far more interesting are characters like Tailgate and Skids, whose backgrounds are still a tad mysterious but have strong and likable personalities already. Roberts finds brilliant and consistent comic relief in Swerve, an intriguing and patient mastermind villain in Cyclonus, and presents solid and well-worn friendships between characters like Rewind, Chromedome, and Ratchet. There's an incredible depth of humanity in these robots, each of them with their own distinct reasons for being on this journey, their own set of skills, and everybody's got some some subtle, personalized character flaws, as well. They are a varied crew with a lot of different dynamics at play between them, and it leads to some truly gripping drama.
     It's a talky series, but the dialogue never feels long-winded or unnatural or slow. The conversations carry the plots forward and/or advance the characters, so even though each issue has far more chatting than action, they still feel lively and exciting. A lot of that is Roberts, yes, but artists Nick Roche and Alex Milne are a major factor as well. The humanity expressed in the dialogue would be nothing if the art couldn't match its emotional level, but luckily, it always does. Despite being, you know, made of metal, the Transformers of this title are expressive in very subtle, detailed ways. Tiny facial cues and really carefully-drawn body language breathe life and personality into everyone. Even those characters who don't have proper faces. Also, of course, there is the sheer number of characters these artists are responsible for, each with a unique look and, more importantly, a unique way of carrying themselves. Rewind is light on his feet, Rodimus is chest out and head high, Ultra Magnus is intimidating and rock solid, Cyclonus slinks around. Again, they feel alive, more alive than any number of human characters in any number of other comicbooks.
     I already have the second trade paperback of More Than Meets the Eye, and I fully expect to whizz through it tonight and then be forced to go out and do more catching up this weekend. Chances are I'll even read Robots in Disguise before too long, because I'm itching to know how that side of the coin is developing. Also because, someday, I'd like to believe the two books will collide and all of the Transformers will be reunited again. Well, all those who make it out alive.
      I know so very little about Transformers continuity. The details of the Autobots' war with the Decepticons are beyond me, but it matters not at all. What's important is that there was a war, whatever the reasons for it, and now that it is over, the soldiers need something else to believe in and fight for. In this series, that means an epic adventure across space to find a mythological group of ancient robots. You can see the potential for things to get silly, but Roberts goes in the opposite direction, writing science fiction drama at its smartest and most dramatic. And it works, because he cares about his cast and so do his collaborators, which means that instead of just being robots that turn into things and kill each other, they're people we care about with complex motivations and goals. It is a refreshingly full, intelligent, and enjoyable comicbook, and one I'm extremely glad to have finally started reading, even if I am late to the game.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Monthly Dose: May 2013

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

100 Bullets #7: Basically this is just the latter half of one man's very rapid spiral toward rock bottom, and since last issue didn't grab me, this conclusion to the same story doesn't, either. Chucky and Pony kill each other at the end, which sounds about right to me. Not that they deserved to die, just that it's no great shocker that they take one another out in the end, the inevitable conclusion for two men who have been playing at friendship while truly being arch-rivals since childhood. And that inevitability is why this story doesn't do much for me. Both of these characters are such absolute scumbags that I don't give a shit if they live or die, and I'm not the least bit surprised when the answer is, "they both die." I will give Brian Azzarello credit insofar as I think it was his intention to have both Chucky and Pony be wholly unlikable asses, and he pulls it off with pages to spare. It's just that, personally, I was bothered by these characters to the point of being entirely disinterested in their story, which is a shame. Anyway, I won't harp on this any longer, because it is essentially the same as what I said last month, but more. Eduardo Risso and colorist Grant Goleash are still steadily killing it, but all told this issue did the least in terms of visual showmanship. It told the story well, building tension and helping to underline how completely lost Chucky has become by the end. There just aren't a lot of specific panels or pages I'd point to here as examples of how incredibly talented Risso and Goleash truly are. The job gets done, and it's better than average by a lot, but compared to the previous issues, it's the least artistically enchanting. Definitely my least favorite 100 Bullets read so far, but still not a failure, just not for me.

The Intimates #7: So I did what I said I'd do this month and read the entire issue first, then when back to the beginning and read through all the info scrolls. And I must say, it's better that way. I thought reading the scrolls one after the other would become tedious, but it actually moves more quickly when you're not inserting them into the middle of a largely-unrelated story. The real bonus was that the reading of the issue itself wasn't interrupted, so the narrative flow never broke, which was especially nice this month when the story was told out of order, jumping in time from page to page or even panel to panel. Also, the info scrolls became self-referential and even a bit self-deprecating a few times toward the end, which I appreciated more when I was reading them all at once than I think I would have if I'd taken them in one at a time. Anyway, there's the result of that experiment. The issue itself was not astoundingly good or bad, basically a straightforward end-of-the-school-year story, pushing all the pieces forward a half-step so they're ready for their next big moves. The best part was Vee hanging out with cool hunter Della, particularly the ending when Della tries to get Vee to try out and/or support Vibe cola only to discover that it's already considered disgusting and undrinkable by pretty much everyone. Just a nice, simple, new way of saying something The Intimates has been saying all along: adults don't get teenagers (and vice versa). I'm also a big fan of Duke being hired by the government for secret work over the summer, because it's the perfect kind of inescapable responsibility for his character. Duke is the one kid who wouldn't push back against an offer like that, and it's likely why he was selected as the ideal candidate. Finally, we see Destra acting more like Punchy than ever before, determined to uncover The Seminary's secrets even if it means alienating everyone else. The Punchy-Destra dynamic, where they basically want the same things out of life but she won't give him the time of day, has always been key to this book, and gets a boost here when he sees her trying to recruit Duke (by all accounts his best friend) for a mission Punchy himself would die to be part of. Joe Casey has done such a solid job of establishing and developing these kids, he can take an issue like this to just expand on who they each are and set them up for a summer vacation without it ever feeling boring or slow. Not a lot actually happens this month, but it's still a funny and entertaining issue front to back. Giuseppe Camuncoli (whose name I can finally spell without looking it up!) continues to deliver solid art, just as comfortable in this world as Casey is by now. It's a strong, right-down-the-middle issue overall, and certainly leaves me excited to see what a summer away from The Seminary will look like for this cast.

X-Force (vol. 1) #7: Despite the ending being spoiled by the cover, this was possibly the best issue to date. Having X-Force actually fight against villains instead of each other allowed the action to open up a bit, which in turn gave Rob Liefeld license to draw the kinds of things his style's actually suited for. Shatterstar battling Sauron in the sky, Cable unloading two guns at Phantazia, Feral and Thornn trying to tear each other to shreds, Shatterstar reappearing covered in armor and big ass weapons, half the team posing intimidatingly when they discover intruders....Liefeld really brings his A game to all of these moments and more, and instead of the issue feeling like it's too full of shoulder pads and muscle to fit any story, the story this month is the shoulder pads and muscle. That means Fabian Nicieza has a bit less to do here, but he handles it well, writing pretty decent battle banter for everyone. Feral and Thornn's conversation isn't always the most natural-sounding, but it works more often than not. Shatterstar, Siryn, and Warpath I thought worked well together and each sounded distinct. The best character in terms of the writing, though (and maybe the weakest visually) was Toad. I've always been a Toad fan; I like how he has all the making of a dismissible, low-level villain but has managed to stick around and do some high-level wickedness anyway. Here, he addresses that very thing, showing up Siryn with some new tricks and his same old ruthlessness. As a leader, he is sinister and smart, but not hyper-intelligent or evil on too wide a scale. It's a nice balance for the character, and Nicieza displays it well in his dialogue. But the strongest aspect of X-Force #7, when you get right down to it, is the scenes of fighting in the dark. Not only is Liefeld better than usual in those moments, but colorist Steve Buccellato brings a great deal to the table, too, blacking out the characters' skin so their other features can be highlighted. It's a very stylized approach, and heightens the drama and excitement of the action in those scenes tremendously. In the end, the only thing that really bothered me this issue was that Warpath says Blob tumbled down a ravine, but we never get to see it. Damn Marvel Method means Nicieza can think of something as obvious yet hilarious as that and be forced to lose the idea to a throwaway line. Not a huge detraction, though, just a wee bummer.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Superb Heroes: Butcher Baker, the Righteous Maker

Superb Heroes is a semi-regular column celebrating comics that are exemplary and/or exceptional in their treatment of superoheroism. 

There is a subgenre in the world of superhero fiction that focuses on pointing out the flaws of superheroes, the dangers and hypocrisies they represent. And some really excellent stuff has come from this, because there's no shortage of material. Superheroes, even the best and most classic characters, get a lot wrong and often cause as much or more harm as they do good. And there is something fundamentally flawed with the very notion that the best use of superhuman powers is to fight crime using a codename and costume. It's really very short-term, shallow, unambitious thinking.
     But I fucking love superheroes, despite seeing the cracks in the wall and sometimes even because of it. They may not be the most level-headed bunch, but they are thoroughly entertaining, and they stand for the best and worst parts of human potential in equal turn. Butcher Baker, the Righteous Maker takes all of the worst accusations leveled at superheroes, within their worlds and from ours, and finds a way to condemn and applaud them at once. Its protagonist is a narcissistic superhero sadist with an engine for a heart, but self-aware and experienced enough to know exactly what his sins are. A warped lens through which to view the genre, but a powerful one, pointed at all the right places.
     As a character, Butcher Baker is a non-stop force of manic egotism and machismo. He loves the violence inherent in his job, and gets grim but very deep satisfaction in putting his enemies down. There is no concern for collateral damage, nor any indication that Baker is at all motivated by some desire to protect the public. What drives him forward is the mere promise of more action, more bloodshed, more opportunities to prove to himself and the world what an indestructible badass he is. It makes him hubristically reckless as a hero, throwing himself blindly into situations and then improvising his way through them. This overgrown sense of self-worth and the carelessness it causes in Baker's career are the foundations of the series' simultaneous celebration and denouncement of common superhero shortcomings.
     Take, for example, his failed attempt at destroying the Bertrand Institute, the prison that houses all the supervillains of this world. Baker is hired to kill everyone inside, but because he is so over-confident, he merely blows the building up with excessive explosives and then leaves, assuming the job is done. These are freaking supervillains, so of course some of them can survive a single explosion, no matter the size, and ultimately Baker frees a handful of his enemies rather than slaying them. This is a more direct, literal version of something superheroes are blamed for all the time: the existence of their villains. If there were no superheroes, goes the classic argument, there'd be no supervillains to fight them. They need each other, and they necessitate one another, an unbreakable cycle of evil rising up to match the good in the world and vice versa. Maybe you agree with that argument and maybe you don't, but within the pages of Butcher Baker, it's fairly clear that the good guy is responsible for what the bad guys are up to this time. Because not only is he the one who sets them loose anew, but the destructive actions they take afterward are all targeted at him directly, revenge for his attempt on their lives.
     But Baker is still a superhero, and that means two things: 1. He openly admits, to the reader, anyway, that he botched the job and is responsible for the consequences, and 2. Even in the aftermath of his flub, he's still the only guy who can get the job done. When three of the baddies, Angerhead, The Abominable Snowman, and El Sushi, start a brawl with Baker in Times Square, the military is sent in to contain all four of them. Predictably, the evil superhumans tear through the hapless soldiers like tissue paper, and only Baker has the quick thinking and sheer might to stop their rampage. He may have blown it on his first try, but he was still the right choice to take out this collection of maniacs, and by the time the series reaches its conclusion, Baker has made certain there are no leftover Bertrand survivors.
     This is what I mean when I say the book both holds up and looks down on the darker side of superheroes. Writer Joe Casey places Baker squarely in the role of hero-responsible-for-his-villains, but then reminds us why the first word of that hyphenated string is "hero." Because when enormous, superpowered evil turns up, it takes someone of equal power to defeat it. And someone with the courage and wits to see it through. Yet even as day-saver, Baker is brutal, fatal, and irresponsible, raising the question of whether super-people should be operating at all. I can't claim to know for certain that any of this was Casey's intention, but there's no shortage of examples to pull from.
     For a long time, Baker's relationship with policeman Arnie B. Willard is exemplary of the typical complaint that superheroes place themselves above the law and/or threaten to replace the current law enforcement system. The two make fast enemies, with Baker always very condescending toward Willard's red-faced demands for respect. This lasts until the story's conclusion, when the two men find themselves suddenly on the same side of a fight. They connect, reach a bizarre understanding of one another, and save each other's lives. And once that conflict ends, Baker is able to find a tiny bit of redemption in the way he resolves his issues with Willard.
     Superhero comics get a bad rap for being aggressively violent, and Butcher Baker is unarguably, unabashedly that. Baker himself finds his few faint pleasures in excessive punching (and sex), and for the bulk of the eight issues, the series seems to agree with his viewpoint. Again, though, things change in the closing. The final battles in Baker's journey end up being won mostly through mental maneuvers. There's still some bloodshed, but it is his brain that ultimately saves him.
     The list goes on. The book is dramatically hypersexualized, another common anti-superhero argument, yet there is an emptiness to Baker's sex life, apparent in the degree of its hedonism and flash. Baker is about as ridiculously macho as a person can be, right down to his big rig being his weapon, but it's played as much for comedy as anything, a good laugh at the typical level of testosterone in a cape comic. Et cetera, you know? Casey packs it to the gills with the funniest, most enjoyable versions of the worst that superheroes have to offer. Not so much a defense of the genre as it is an argument along the lines of, "Yes, superheroes can be depraved, bloodthirsty, insane, and destructive, but that doesn't mean they can't still be amazing and admirable characters."
     And then there's Mike Huddleston's artwork, which says something else entirely. I like that the art chooses to go off in its own direction, not worried about borrowing elements from classic superhero series like the narrative does. Instead, its focus is on relaying the tonal and emotional thrust of the story.
     Huddleston brings an almost schizophrenic style to this series. The visual texture often changes between panels, sometimes through a shift in medium, sometimes coloring, and occasionally because Huddleston just brings a new technique to the page. It doesn't look like any typical superhero book, nor does it resemble other work I've seen from Huddleston. But it captures the spirit of this story and, above all, its protagonist perfectly. Kinetic and laid out somewhat claustrophobically, the art carries the story at a rapid-fire pace.
     Huddleston also has a real knack for character design, striking a careful balance between goofy and serious elements. Or even whole characters. El Sushi is just a visual gag. Jihad Jones is not, though he's still a verbal one. The Absolutely is neither. It helps both the zanier and the more intense moments of Casey's scripts land, and makes the cast—most of whom need to be introduced quickly before they die—that much easier to connect with and differentiate.
     I mean, most of them are egotistical lunatics, Baker included, but they all have their own spin on it, which Huddleston helps establish or at least underline. And maybe that's the real point of this series, that good or bad, superpowered or not, people are fucking crazy. Maybe it's not about what I am claiming at all. Whatever its aims, though, this book functions as an extensive and highly entertaining look at the arguments against superheroes and, even while admitting their validity, turns them into arguments for superheroes. It's a cool trick to pull off during such a wild ride, and it's what I find most fascinating about this twisted, trippy series.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Some Links to Other Things I Wrote

There's a part of me that hates to do this, but if you can't shamelessly self-promote on your own blog, where the hell can you? I've had a few things published on sites other than Comics Matter this month, so I'm just taking a minute now to link to and discuss them briefly. I want to continue to support the sites that allow me to contribute work, and of course I want as many people as possible to read anything I put out. So here they are:

My latest "1987 And All That" piece for The Chemical Box went up yesterday, this time tackling the six issues of Louise Simonson's Power Pack published that year (they came out bimonthly). I've been thoroughly enjoying my work on that series of columns; it's fun to dig into these older, more established/settled titles and see what makes them work. Or, in the case of The 'Nam, which I wrote about in the preceding column, why they ultimately fail. As often as possible, I try to read every issue with a publication date from 1987, so I can get a real sense of what each series was like for the entirety of the year. I don't always discuss every issue with equal weight, but I do at least read them and let them influence, however subtly, whatever I write. Analyzing year-long runs like that is a rewarding and sometimes challenging experience. By the time I've put the final touches on a column, I can feel intellectually drained, but it's worth it because I'm proud of "1987 And All That" as a project, and continue to be enthusiastic about its future.

I also tapped out a short recommendation of Steve Gerber & Kevin Nowlan's Infernal Man-Thing over at SquarePop. I loved that series when it was coming out, even though Marvel didn't publish it in the most intelligent way possible, especially when it came to reprinting the original story to which the new book was a prequel. Gerber's crazy, almost stream-of-consciousness script and Nowlan's lush painted pages came together in beautiful harmony and produced something very much their own. You can read more of what I love about it on SP.

Ok, that's all the plugging of things I have for now. Keep your eyes on both The Chemical Box and SquarePop for more stuff from me, and everything they publish. Talented-ass people run both sites, and there's a lot of good material to be found on either.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Everything Rules Even Though Everything Sucks

My heart and my brain are arguing. Part of me feels reenergized by comics lately, but at the same time the world around their creation remains frustrating as ever. A lot of excellent stuff has been coming out recently, stories with new things to say and exciting, gorgeous artwork. On the whole, I'd say I am more excited by the books I'm following right now than I have been in a while. There aren't a lot of "I'm hanging in there and hoping this gets better" titles anymore, because there's less and less room for them on a list that gets increasingly more reliable in its quality. Part of that is the constant gradual growth in my own ability to discern what appeals to me before it comes out, but I also have a strong sense that right now is a time where an exceptionally large number of strange, singular, and beautiful books exist. If you look across all the innumerable publishers out there, you can find a surprisingly large number of gems, unique and dazzling and worth the hunt.
     But wow, there's still a lot to be bummed out about when it comes to the industry side of things. I guess it's just that the very fact that Marvel and DC are such corporate, factory publishers only gets more depressing and aggravating with time. It never goes away or gets better in noticeable ways. For every apparent step forward, there's at least one back. And for all the excellent series out there, there are countless examples of dreck. I've only got three DC titles left that I'm reading, one of which just got canceled and the other lost its writer, so...we'll see. Marvel seems to be of higher quality overall, but based on what I've read, that's partially because I've given up entirely on events, so I'm not touching anything related to Age of Ultron. It's just an underwhelming, infuriating time to look at the comicbook world at large, because it is dominated by this pair of monstrous companies that do more to baffle, deceive, and piss of their readership than to deliver stories with heart or merit.
     I am, obviously, speaking in vague terms here, avoiding examples or lengthy rants. Those are everywhere. Search for articles on gender in superhero comics or comics in general, the recent creative turnover at DC, reviews of Marvel's last several events, or comments on the industry as a whole. They're out there, written by people more in the thick of things than I. And I read them, and they get my blood boiling sometimes, and I even take action when possible, donating or otherwise backing something when it seems worthwhile. I do not engage in the comments section arguments because I don't have the energy, but I read them sometimes, too, and it never does anything but make my mood worse.
     Then Wednesday rolls around, and I go to my local shop's new location, which is huge and impressive and I'm very happy for them to have had the opportunity to grow in this market. And they give me my folder full of new issues, which I get a great discount on, and I take them home and stack them from least to most anticipated. And more often than not, I have an excellent time, reading a short, sweet stack of books that starts out fine and finishes off great.
     I wish there were more great series, read by more people. I wish The Big Two would get their heads in the game, think long-term, focus on stories and creators instead of sales bumps and stunts, respect women, abandon continuity and comics that "matter," give new ideas more support and room to grow, etc., etc., etc. There is no end of change to hope for, and work toward, by supporting the good titles and spreading the word. But I think maybe it's time to make my peace with a certain underlying level of frustration in exchange for the buzz I get when reading a truly great comicbook. It's possible to live in a world of mostly awesome comics, even if you've got to live in this world, too.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Pull List Review: Half Past Danger #1

I am not qualified to get into the finer points of what separates homage from rip-off. But I can say that while the characters of Half Past Danger #1 seem to be aiming for the former, they end up very much the latter, which is the biggest weakness in a generally enjoyable debut. Protagonist Tommy Flynn is, you guessed it, Irish. Not only Irish, but the drinkingest, fightingest, most offensively stereotypical Irishman I've seen in a long while. The same goes for intelligence agent Elizabeth Huntington-Moss who, in spite of her sort of interesting last name, is ever the droll, eye-rolling Brit. John Noble is the square-jawed American with a John Wayne complex, and to top it off there is a nameless Asian gentleman who, surprise surprise, is great at martial arts. None of these characters ever evolve beyond their most one-dimensional versions, and those have all been done something like a million times before.
     What bring these stock characters together? A goddamn island full of dinosaurs with a secret Nazi camp. Now that is a fun, fresh, inviting concept. Soldiers fighting dinosaurs isn't at all new territory, but having it be spies infiltrating a Nazi facility adds a layer of political intrigue that is... damn intriguing. Seems safe to assume that the Nazis already know about the dinosaurs, because why else would they have a secret base already in operation? When the bad guys have the edge, and the edge is, say, control of fucking dinosaurs, then you can probably count me in.
     Sadly, this aspect is left largely unexplored for now in favor of, sigh, character introduction. The issue is split into two halves, set two months apart in 1943. The first section focuses on Flynn, a sergeant in the army, leading his men on a recon mission on the aforementioned island, which they assume is nothing special. Just another Japanese-controlled island in the South Pacific. The troops, who have names but are largely indistinguishable in both appearance and voice, get pretty quickly eaten by dinosaurs, and only Flynn makes it out alive. Then we jump to New York City for the second half of the story, where Huntington-Moss and Noble try to recruit Flynn for...something. Presumably it's connected to the Nazi dinosaurs. We don't find out the details because they get in a bar brawl with each other and some nameless background dudes instead. It's a weak closing to the issue, because the opening was guns vs. dinosaurs, but it does make the whole thing quite action-packed, which is clearly the goal.
     Half Past Danger is written and drawn by Stephen Mooney, and on the whole I prefer his art to his writing so far. It's not amazing, but he does draw a nasty-looking dinosaur. There is some really fine detail in the giant lizards, and they inspire the appropriate awe and fear in cast and reader alike. Mooney's not as strong with his humans, who each have only a small number of facial expressions available to them. But they look distinct from one another, at least, save for Flynn's troops who suffer from wearing the same uniform. The rest of the cast is physically varied, different body types and clothing based on their personalities, however watered down those may be. And even if their faces don't change much, they are emotive and realistic, at least.
     What Mooney does very well, though, is action. Which, again, seems like it's kind of the whole point here. Dinosaurs being gunned down, Flynn thrown through a window, and the spreading chaos of the bar fight all have a strong sense of motion and liveliness to them. If this title does in fact intend to put more weight on its action sequences than anything else, then it's certainly playing to its creator's strengths.
     This is not a deep comic, nor is it particularly original as of yet. But there is the seed of an awesome core concept in this debut, and a lot of great-looking fight scenes. So if you're looking for a fun, violent popcorn comic about dinosaurs and 1940s spies, look no further friends. I'm still sticking around, in spite of the flimsy cast and thin plotting here, because I still had a pretty good time.

Pull List Review: Young Avengers #5

It hasn't always been true of this series, but in Young Avengers #5, Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie absolutely nail the team book. In the script and art both, the creators are extremely careful to give every member of their cast something to do that is tailored to their individual personalities and/or motivations. That is a depressingly rare achievement for superhero comics these days, and what's best about it here is that all six of these kids are likable and relatable characters. Some are funny, some deeply flawed, and many of them remain somewhat mysterious, but they're all strong and fully fleshed out. And, as of the end of this issue, they are completely, officially (I guess) a team, which is an exciting if late-arriving development.
     I'm still not wild about the threat of Mother and her mind-controlled parent hordes. As central a bad guy, Mother is a little bland, and though some good character bits have come from these kids battling their parents, on the whole I'm just not crazy about mind-control and/or memory-wiping stories, of which this is both. But it speaks volumes about the strength of the other aspects of this book that my lack of interest in the primary villain does not at all take away from my enjoyment of the issue.
     McKelvie's art, with the usual assists by Mike Norton, has been praised all over the Internet for a long time, on this series and others, so I'll try not to beat a dead horse here. Seriously, though, they produce gorgeous artwork with crystal clarity. What McKelvie does best in this issue, though, as I mentioned above, is to give the entire team their fair share of screen time. The opening panel displays Noh-Varr, Hulking, Hawkeye, and Miss America Chavez all in the thick of battle, and they each get to show off not only their specific power sets, but their individual approaches to combat. It happens again later, with Wiccan and Loki included, in the issue's breathtaking double-page spread. It is the first moment where these six characters have truly operated as a unified whole, and McKelvie delivers one of the best-looking pair of pages this title has seen yet. It's hard to describe, but essentially he splits the pages into pie pieces, one for each character, and then within each those slices he manages to include several smaller panels. It may sound cramped, and it is, but done with enough skill and care that there is no great loss of energy or clarity. It's a knockout scene in an issue full of beautiful imagery.
     It took a while, but I think Gillen's writing has finally risen to match the quality of McKelvie's art in this issue. Not that previous issues had bad writing, but this time out, I felt like both creators were firmly, confidently sure of themselves and their cast. Where before Gillen was still doing a bit of character exploration alongside the reader, he now knows exactly who these kids are through and through, and gets to cut loose a little and let them all sparkle as they do their thing. Hawkeye is hilarious and calm even during the chaos. Noh-Varr is detached and matter-of-fact in everything he does (I have no idea if this is an accurate portrayal of this character, but I like Gillen's take, even if it's not true to older versions). Miss America Chavez is the self-assured badass with an unexpectedly level head and observant wisdom. And Hulkling is the noble do-gooder, very much a prototypical superhero, urged on by his love for Wiccan.
     Then, of course, there's Loki. Or Kid Loki, I guess. This is the character that launched Gillen to a new level of comicbook celebrity in the pages of Journey Into Mystery, but I appreciate that the writer doesn't just assume we all know the story from that series. So he includes a recap here and while, yes, it is a page-long infodump, it's also cleverly written and, most importantly, it helps progress Loki's story at the same time that it reiterates his past. Not a lot of exposition pulls that off.
     The best character, though, has got to be Wiccan, the reluctant, angst-filled superhero. Where his boyfriend doesn't seem to question their continuing adventure, Wiccan is clearly more torn, hoping against hope that there is a way to defeat Mother that doesn't involve forming a super-team. As the one responsible for Mother's existence on our world, Wiccan naturally feels obligated to help out, but it pains him to admit that he and his friends must return to their superpowered, villain-fighting lifestyle. There was a genuine hope that he could leave that all behind him, and there's visible pain in his eyes when he finally agrees to be a superhero again. Wiccan's struggle is the most interesting and well-put-together element of this issue and, indeed, this entire series.
     I wasn't sold on Young Avengers as quickly as many others seemed to be, but with the conclusion of its first arc, the book has won me over completely. With the team now fully assembled, Gillen and McKelvie should now be able to raise the stakes and deepen their characters and just generally start to pile on the madness and fun. I'm expecting great things from this creative team and the superhero team they've built.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

This Exists!: Captain Awareness: Assault on Campus

This Exists! is a semi-regular column about particularly strange, ridiculous, and/or obscure comicbooks I happen to have stumbled across.

I can't remember exactly where it was that I found Captain Awareness: Assault on Campus, but I know from the sticker on the cover of my copy that it only cost me 25 cents. It must have been years ago, since I'm sure I read it back when I first picked it up---otherwise it wouldn't be stored in a longbox but instead sitting in one of many growing  piles of unread comics---but I have zero recollection of that initial reading experience. My assumption is that I bought the issue simply because it was cheap and looked sort of goofy, whizzed through it without much thought back in the day, and then stashed it away and forgot about it until it caught my attention recently while I was mining my collection for something new to write about.
Rereading Captain Awareness for this column, I was unexpectedly impressed with a lot of the material, which was thoughtful and honest in its dealings with the incredibly sensitive subjects of rape and sexual assault on college campuses. That it chooses to discuss these problems in the context of a superhero comic is arguably a bad call, not because superheroes can't deal with such serious things (they can and have), but because writer/artist D. DeAngelo's superhero work isn't nearly as deep or detailed as his handling of rape. Captain Awareness is an interesting concept, and a nice if obvious metaphor, but ultimately as a character it's a ham-fisted stock superhero persona, which is always hard to take entirely seriously. Therefore, the potential exists for the title character of this story to actually detract from its message by making it seem sillier than it is. But I do think DeAngelo avoids making that mistake as much as possible here, so in the end this is a successful effort.
Make no mistake, it's an after school special. I can't pretend that DeAngelo's dialogue is anything less than forced and unnatural, with characters shooting sexual assault statistics at one another and everyone, even the villains, openly discussing their feelings and points of view in no uncertain terms. The main bad guy, Rick, is as bad as they come, a bully and serial rapist with a pseudo-mullet who feels no remorse and flaunts his conquests to everyone. There are no real layers to his or any character, because everyone has a single role to play to the max: the horny asshole, the respectful good guy, the damaged victim, the concerned friend, and Captain Awareness as the do-gooder who's just as pure as Rick is wicked. DeAngelo isn't going for subtlety or even realism, because this comic is trying first and foremost to be comprehensive, then accurate, and only at the bottom of the priority list is being a great piece of fiction. If it has to sacrifice nuanced storytelling so all of its points can be made clearly, it does so, and where I might usually take issue with that tactic, in this case I think it works.
     In the space of only 36 pages, if your aim is to examine the innumerable causes and consequences of rape on America's campuses, you're going to have to trim the fat and get right down to it. That's what DeAngelo does, by having his characters speak plainly and directly about the topics at hand. It allows the reader to see things from many different angles, and get a fuller picture of all the ways rape can affect someone's life. It's not just Diane, Rick's most recent victim and the comic's narrator, whose life is dramatically and forever changed. Her roommate, Denise, is also deeply affected by the events, as are Denise's boyfriend Mike, new student Maria, and Rick's ex-girlfriend and previous victim Helen. That's a decent number of brand new characters to move through, and even if they aren't entirely three-dimensional, they at least have distinct attitudes about and reactions to the incidents of the story. Between them, they cover a lot of ground, so DeAngelo can discuss not only the mindset of rapist and victim, but those of the people around them, too, good, bad, and ugly.
I can also understand the impulse to lay everything out overtly in a story like this, if for no other reason than to avoid any chance of misinterpretation. Not that DeAngelo was worried his comic would come across as pro rape, but if what Captain Awareness wants most is to give a voice to the victims, and that certainly seems to be its primary goal, then it's absolutely essential to have that voice be loud and clear. Which is what we get in Diane, a straightforward and emotionally raw expression of the shame, fear, anger, disgust, self-doubt, and other miseries being sexually violated can (and does) bring about. Her narration is bold and brutally forthcoming, and certainly the aspect of the writing which DeAngelo gives the most attention. Running throughout the issue, Diane's description of what was done to her and how it made her feel, and continues to make her feel, is the true heart of this book. She is very much the star of this story, and its biggest creative strength as well.
Really quickly, I should probably talk about Captain Awareness itself (not himself or herself, see below), because it's the title of the damn book and also a genuinely interesting idea. The concept behind Captain Awareness is that, rather than being a single individual, it is a set of powers---strength, invulnerability, flight, and "cosmic awareness"---that can be granted to literally anyone when they need it. In this issue alone, Mike, Denise, and two different unnamed character all get a turn in the costume, each contributing to the fight against Rick's widespread damage in their own way. That's a neat idea, and not one I can remember seeing before, although it's the kind of thing I have to assume someone else has done somewhere else at least one other time. Regardless, DeAngelo introduces the mechanics of Captain Awareness on the first page, and from there lets the character speak for itself. And there is a definite, unique voice for Captain Awareness, no matter who specifically is playing the part at any given moment, which, again, is something I rather like. Captain Awareness is a single entity with infinite possible bodies and minds, the opposite of a secret identity, basically. Everyone knows about it and what it stands for, and they all seem to be in on the fact that anyone can become Captain Awareness at any time. That's a bizarre and original relationship for the public to have with a superhero, and though it is not at all the point of this comicbook, it's an idea worth applauding.
     The artwork is also noteworthy, though not necessarily for DeAngelo's pencils, which are serviceable but never amazing. What is pretty amazing is the line-up of inkers: George Perez, Gordon Purcell, Norm Breyfogle, Dick Giordano, and Jimmy Palmiotti, among others. Each of these recognizable and respctable industry professionals handles only a few pages worth of inking duties, but they all help to solidify DeAngelo's work and message. There are also some pin-ups in the back of the issue by the likes of Colleen Doran, Dan Jurgens, Trina Robbins, and Mike Wieringo, as well as Purcell and Breyfogle again, plus a cover by Phil Jimenez. And they're all nice additions to the Captain Awareness tapestry. Except, I guess, the first pin-up, by Alex Ross and Brent Anderson, which for some wholly inexplicable reason is of Winged Victory from Astro City. I mean, cool character to throw in there, and thematically related inasmuch as Winged Victory's whole deal is female empowerment, but still a weird choice.
Colleen Doran delivers my favorite pin-up
Captain Awareness: Assault on Campus is hokey and often awkwardly scripted, but done with such earnestness and care that it still manages to be a success. It tackles its subject matter with very little reservation, opting for wholehearted honesty rather than emotional subtlety and subtext, using a spotlight instead of a flashlight. This doesn't make for an exceptional superhero comicbook, but it's a damn fine attempt at discussing a serious and widespread problem, as relevant today as it was in 1998 when this was first published. If you can't take my word for, "Comics With Problems" has the whole issue available online for free (really starts on page 4). They seem to be poking fun at it, which I think is in poor taste, and I'm not entirely certain that reprinting it digitally like that is even legal, but it's there nonetheless. And if you're interested, there also exists the official Captain Awareness website, which appears to be way out of date, but has some interesting background bits and pieces as well as a discussion of plans to change the character's name to Major Impact. Not sure if that ever really happened, but the idea made me smile.
     Did DeAngelo ever do anything concrete with Captain Awareness beyond this one issue? I don't know, and it doesn't really matter. The issue itself is a complete narrative, and an ambitious stab at dealing with taboo but important content. Not the greatest of creative triumphs, and not even the most effective, I don't think, strategy to employ in the fight against college sexual assault. Yet still a worthwhile and in many ways impressive effort from all involved, DeAngelo especially, since it is his pet project. He clearly put a lot of himself and those close to him into this book, and his bottomless concern and care comes through on every page.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Dungeons & Dragons & Digital Comics or Why Order of the Stick Sticks With Me

I don't read a lot of digital comicbook material yet. I'm not such a luddite that I can't admit that someday, it'll probably be a regular part of my collecting habits. But I do so love the act of bagging and organizing my comics. I like having a physical item to revisit, one that wears with use and eventually, in some cases, falls apart and has to be replaced. All of that is part of the appeal for me.
     There is also a financial aspect, meaning I don't have a lot of extra money to spend on the kinds of books I'm interested in digitally, even at their sometimes lower price points. So what I do tend to read digitally are free webcomics, and I've been following a number of them for years, none of which are more rewarding or enjoyable than the Order of the Stick.
     It is one of the nerdiest and most niche series I read. Not only is it set in a Dungeons-&-Dragons-specific world, there are constant references to actual rules and mechanics from the game's third edition. Indeed, when the series began, that's all it was: insider gags about rules that were silly or illogical. But over time, it has become a sprawling epic that remains grounded in its incredibly well-developed core cast. Creator/writer/artist Rich Burlew has become a master of the long game, but never loses sight of the importance of telling smaller stories along the way. In fact, the main team's central goal and primary villain haven't changed in nearly 900 strips, but they've accomplished many smaller tasks and made plenty of less significant enemies along the way. Burlew will split them up, disable certain members for weeks or months on end, and even killed team leader Roy once and had him spend a remarkably long time off the board, hanging out in the afterlife. Whenever these longer plots resolve, there is an immense satisfaction, but Burlew is quick to introduce new threats and dramatic complications, so nothing ever fully settles down. It's the very definition of epic, with all the war, romance, and tragedy to back up that claim.
     In no way is Order of the Stick a perfectly crafted comicstrip. Burlew's writing can be excessively long-winded, something he himself points to many times in his scripts. But even when the words crowd the panels, there is important and carefully thought-out information contained there. Sometimes it's emotional windbagging, sure, when characters arrive at the peaks of their various arcs. But more often than not, Burlew puts a lot of time into every dialogue balloon, and though a bit of brevity would be nice, its absence is not a crippling defect.
     And Burlew can also do a lot with silence, even in his crude, stick figure style. Sometimes whole strips will be wordless, but every beat pushes the story forward for somebody. Though characters are set aside for long stretches so that others can be focused on more closely, no one is ever forgotten, and there is a tremendous effort on Burlew's part to maintain continuity. This also means a lot of self-referential material and call-back humor which, again, is part of what makes Burlew such a great longform writer. There are various levels of payoff from a variety of storytelling techniques every step of the way, and that's a nice kind of reliability for a series to have.
     Order of the Stick is not for everyone, but I honestly believe it could be enjoyed by people who've never played D&D, provided they forced their way through the first dozen strips or so. Once the characters start to blossom and the story begins to unfold before them, there is enough dramatic tension and humor based on story context that you could get a lot out of it without understanding the gamer in-jokes. But if you're a D&D fan, I can't recommend anything more strongly. Years into its incredible run, it has a larger cast and more complex story than ever, but everything progresses so steadily that it's easy to follow the myriad threads. And Burlew keeps amping up the stakes and increasing the emotional impact, most notably through a recent unexpected character death that properly brought me to tears. Not sobbing uncontrollably, but wipe-awayable tears. When you can do that with stick figure characters who all began as tired D&D cliches, you've obviously built something great.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Pull List Review: Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #23

I have talked many times before, online and in person, about how much I love David Marquez on this book. Don't get me wrong, Sara Pichelli is amazing, too, but Marquez has a certain ineffable something that just clicks with me. That tradition continues here, where he ages up the characters convincingly (maybe they look two years older instead of one, but that's a tough argument to make) and draws a strong, emotionally-wrought issue with his usual care and attention. There is so much life to his characters, warmth in their expressions, even when they are at their saddest. And there's a heaping plate of sadness in this issue, for Miles and those around him, but Marquez makes a smart choice in not going too dark or brooding with the visuals. He lets the strength of his characters' expressions work on their own without needing to cast everything in shadow and gloom. This is a more grounded sadness, a more human depression, and the art represents that.
     There's not a lot of action in the issue, but Marquez does those few moments of it well. I especially liked Miles in his hoodie and backpack climbing a building in a huff. And of course the last page, which I guess I won't spoil but has already been spoiled if you've seen the cover for issue #24. Whatever, the point is it looks awesome and has characters I am really stoked to see Marquez handle next time. He doesn't stray too far from their normal Marvel U look, but that is a smart call for this particular pair, I think. They have a distinct and recognizable look, so why mess with that?
     Brian Michael Bendis has a lot of strong dialogue in this issue, but that's really all there is to it. In classic Bendis fashion, this is an issue largely devoid of plot. There is story, things happens that matter, and seeds are even planted for plots that I'm sure will crop up down the line. But nothing really changes here, and the new threat, such as it is, isn't introduced until the final few pages. From the beginning of the comic until then, this could be summarized as, "Miles talks to various people about his past as Spider-Man but refuses to face it entirely or return to the costume."
     And that's perfectly fine. If you're going to start with a "One Year Later" banner, it makes sense to take a breather issue and catch the reader up. And it's important to know that, for the last year, anyway, Miles has kept his promise to himself not to be Spider-Man anymore. I always like his conversations with Ganke and his Dad, and Bendis writes a strong Spider-Woman, too, who chooses her words carefully to make her case. She clearly cares a lot about Miles and understands his reasons to stay out of the game, but she also sees it as his responsibility to use his powers for good, as she and her ilk do. A simple and predictable point of view, but also an important conversation for Miles to have, a significant person for him to turn down. It's one thing to say no to Ganke, and another entirely to say it to Spider-Woman.
     So this is Bendis as the top of his idle chatter game, but at the end of the day, it's still idle chatter. And for every line of actual importance, there is at least one of purely filler conversation, too, which slows things down and makes the issue as a whole feel light.
     Basically, this is exactly what you'd expect a Bendis-Marquez hiatus issue to look and feel like. A good and gorgeous read, but thin.

Pull List Review: Dream Thief #1

I knew going into Dream Thief #1 that there was already a fair amount of buzz and hype surrounding it, so I tried to keep my expectations tempered. But this book is absolutely as good (better, even) as any and all the hype says it is. I was stunned by this debut, which was an amazing comicbook by any measure, and a truly perfect opening chapter for an exciting new series.
     At the beginning of the story, I felt very overwhelmed by what was going on. The opening page is of main character John Lincoln waking up in a strange place without knowing how he got there, and since I knew nothing about him yet, my own confusion was exponentially larger than his. That confusion felt like it lasted for a while, until there was a moment where I distinctly remember thinking, "Ok, Now I've settled in." Looking back, I can see now that this moment came on page six, which means in the first third of the issue alone, Jai Nitz and Greg Smallwood took me from dizzied and lost to comfortable and clear. They had also, by then, fully introduced the series' three central characters, four if you count Claire (hard to say if she'll matter much in the future since she dies this issue), and five if you include John's father, who is so far just a voice in a letter, but we'll see. That's a shitload of work to do in six pages, but Nitz and Smallwood make it seem easy.
     Nitz is a talented writer, able to show us his cast through their varied and realistic voices. Even when it serves as exposition, the dialogue sounds real, the characters talk to each other like people. That helps Nitz explain a lot about their relationships without needing to say anything at all---by seeing how they talk about the various problems in their lives, we also learn how they interact with one another. The strength of Reggie and John's friendship is apparent from their first phone conversation, and only gets bolstered by the scenes that follow. And John's general assheadedness comes through in his dealing with Claire and Jen, women who seem to want to love him but are running out of reasons. He has a strong supporting cast and interesting relationships with all of them, which helps him work as a successful protagonist. John's a thoroughly unlikable guy, but the story and people that surround him are fascinating, and so is his constant calm when faced with enormous, deadly, inexplicable things.
     But it's Nitz's incredible pacing that truly brings this issue home, ultimately even more impressive than his character work. We meet the core cast, are introduced to the series' high concept, and have three separate inciting incidents: John steals the mask, John kills Claire, John kills all those other guys. In a standard 22-page story, Nitz has already written what could be, like, half of a mini-series in another writer's hands. And the high concept is a complicated thing, a mask that somehow transfers the memories of dead people into its wearer's mind so said wearer can avenge their deaths. By sticking us right into John's head after the mask takes control, though, Nitz gets this new and large idea across to the reader efficiently, and in a way that also always propels the narrative forward. John never sits still to consider the implications of what's happening to him, because he's too busy covering it up from the rest of the world.
     For all the awesome writing from Nitz, though, Greg Smallwood earns most of the credit for Dream Thief #1, if only on the basis that all of the visuals---art, colors, and letters---are his work. And he impresses in all three areas. His stuff is moody and stylized but still down-to-earth, with figures and backgrounds that are equally realistic and detailed. His cast is expressive and consistent, everyone distinct and recognizable from their first appearances. Really, in terms of the characters, Smallwood delivers rock solid but not astounding artwork. But his layouts are inventive, and used for maximum effect, most notably in the scene when John first wakes up with the mask on. We get a page where the panels form a question mark followed by one where they're an exclamation point, but the images escape the borders of these shapes, too, heightening the drama and making the panels themselves a background. Then, immediately, there is a tremendous two-page spread done in all black and red and with curved, warped panels borders. These pages represent dreams or memories, so they reflect that visually, and the result is as surprising as it is beautiful as it is haunting.
     Smallwood does a lot of good color stuff, too, sometimes reminiscent of Tonci Zonjic in Who is Jake Ellis? where whole pages are done in a wash of yellow or blue. At other times, though, the colors are more true-to-life, and they're always carefully chosen and emotive. Even in the lettering, Smallwood does good stuff, with John's narration done in white text on top of stark black captions, and his father's letter popping up in chunks of lined yellow paper and handwriting. The best bit of lettering, though, is when John attacks his drug dealer. I don't know how to describe it, exactly, but basically the bubble letters of the battle sound effects have small but detailed visual flourishes in them that are just delightful.
     I can't say enough good stuff about this debut, and could not be more excited for the four chapters to follow. I haven't been so fully blown away by a single issue in a good long while.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Dirty Dozen: Saga

Dirty Dozen is a semi-regular feature with twelve disconnected thoughts on the first twelve issues of a current ongoing series.

1. Fiona Staples brings so much to this series, and is the most essential part of its creative success and quality. There's no shortage of things to praise about her work, but I think for me what stands out the most is the character designs. Obviously there is some big, flashy stuff like The Stalk or the welcome girls on Sextillion who are just giant heads on legs, but there's a lot of more careful work done, too. The most consistent example is the different types of wings and horns on the various characters, major and minor, from Landfall and Wreath. They are all different sizes and shapes and colors, some based on real animals, some on fantasy creatures, and a few that seem to be Staples originals. They are used to not just distinguish the characters but define them, showing us immediately what kind of people they are through a small but important physical attribute. It's indicative of the level of care Staples takes with all of her work on this title, and it handles a lot of the important world-building stuff in a subtle, silent way.

2. At first I thought I really liked The Will, but now I think it's just that I love Lying Cat on her own and as his partner, and The Will himself is just sort of a dull, blank, boring non-villain. I can't pin him down, and it makes it hard for me to feel strongly about him one way or the other. I see the difference between killing and enslaving children, sure, but his total emotional detachment when it comes to murder still doesn't jive with how hung up he gets on saving Slave Girl—which is a terrible name for a character, by the way...she needs to be fully humanized quickly, but that's another point entirely—or even The Stalk. I need to know more about his history or how his brain works or something, because right now I just don't really see what drives him, why he has the job he has or really does anything he does. He makes no sense to me, and isn't funny or rich enough of a personality to keep me interested without a better understanding.

3. I appreciate the approach to violence in Saga. It's not glorified, nor is it made overly brutal or horrific. Instead, it's treated as an ever-present evil, difficult if not impossible to avoid, and always with serious consequences. In other words, violence is in this world what it is in ours. Some people revel in it, others actively resist it, and everyone is worse off for its presence in their lives.

4. Brian K. Vaughan does endings well. Not just the endings of whole issues, but individual scenes, too. He has a knack for landing on just the right spot, showing the reader only exactly as much as needed and then switching focus to the next important beat. There's not a tremendous deal of empty filler in this series or many long moments of inactivity, which is how Vaughan manages to make so much happen each issue while still taking his sweet time with the pacing of the larger narrative. There are a lot of characters to keep up with, so the story advances gradually on the whole, but Vaughan tightly structures his scenes and cuts them short enough to give everyone the room they need in each chapter. From one issue to the next, we may not see a great deal of time pass, but within each issue plenty of shit goes down nonetheless.

5. While, again, it's all gorgeous work, the other single aspect of Staples' art that continually impresses me is the coloring. It's not just that she has an expansive palette of nuanced hues, but also the different textures her color work brings. The incalculable depths of space, the fickle movement of fire, all kinds of magical spells and futuristic weapons, all rendered in very specific ways so they not only look but feel different from one another.

6. Vaughan's dialogue can sometimes be the most natural thing in the world, and then you turn the page and get something so forcedly cutesy, crass, or both that it pulls you right out of the story. It shows off, calling attention to itself more than assisting in the telling of a story. Not that there's pointless conversation. By and large, everything is said for a reason, though even that isn't always true. But there's still a tendency to play with the words overmuch, and it can be distracting to a fault. "I came like a dump truck," is the starkest example I can recall. "Gwendolyn may have been tall, but her hips were boyish, not womanly like yours," is one on the other end of crass-cute the spectrum. Even something as simple as Slave Girl asking The Will what he is if not her new master, and him responding, "The lord of shit vacations." It's a non-answer, a bit of blackhearted edginess for the freelance assassin to spit out depressingly so we can all see how good he is at brooding. I'd much rather have him say something that provides insight into a new facet of his character, or actually attempts to explain to Slave Girl why he's so hell-bent on saving her. Often, Vaughan's characters are capable of that kind of openness, but they're just as likely to pull out some overly clever wordplay instead.

7. I'm a big fan of Izabel. I don't know that she always talks completely like a teenager from our world or time, but she a very consistent voice, and it is young enough for me to buy it as the speech patterns of a typical teen from Cleave. Because, who the hell knows what kinds of differences might develop? Plus she has a fun, weird look, and she carries it well, owning her revealed innards with the same confidence as her oversized hat. And honestly, she just makes me feel safer. An extra set of eyes, a level head, another person who cares about Hazel's best interests. It's important for Marko and Alana to have allies, and Izabel was their first.

8. I love that the back covers are all just a single, solid color. Classy.

9. Here's a tiny, nitpicky thing. In the first issue, Agent Gale says that Marko and Alana disappeared twelve hours after he was transferred to her facility. Now, admittedly, when we see them interact in flashback, there aren't like timestamps, so I suppose it's possible that they go from her jacking his jaw up with the butt of her rifle to devoted runaway lovers who've read and deeply discussed an entire novel together in half a day, but...that does not seem to be the indication. Alana talks about "Secret Book Club" being the "highlight of [her] career", which to me implies that it's been an ongoing secret between them, not a one-time thing that they are in the middle of when she says that. Also, she lends her copy of the book in question to a co-worker, and that girl still has it when Price Robot arrives, so...did Alana get another? I mean, that's fully believable, but not explained, and definitely not fitting into a twelve-hour timeline as far as her and Marko fleeing is concerned. I am bothered by this kind of sloppiness. Perhaps I'm reading it wrong and Vaughan knows exactly how long it all took and it really was twelve hours, but...I find that hard to swallow, and if it is a mistake, then, I don't know. I just don't like having something so specifically laid out in the very first issue and then abandoned.

10. A final round of applause for Staples: while not every single-page splash is an absolute stunner (often they are used just for a moment of high emotion or the arrival of a new character) any time there's a double-page spread you can be sure it was selected deliberately and will knock your socks off. The reveal of the rocketship tree in issue #6 is probably my favorite, although the planet hatching in #10 gives it a run for its money. There are a handful of others along the way, each of them enormous and important and jaw-droppingly beautiful.

11. Prince Robot IV and D. Oswald Heist's long, tense interaction in Saga #12 is excellent. Heist is a character I can't wait to see more of, and I hope we can have some flashback scenes of him in his youth, maybe even with his son before he died. His writing is central to Alana and Marko's romance, and he's a very intelligent, well-spoken, and brave man in his own right. Funny, too, and warm. Meanwhile, Prince Robot IV has been the best, smartest, scariest villain in this series from the debut, and continues to prove himself a capable and ruthless hunter, as well as a skilled interrogator. And now he is closer than ever to finding our heroes, the revelation of which made his conversation with Heist feel even weightier than it already did. I think this most recent issue may be my favorite, and certainly that scene (which makes up the bulk of the issue, anyway) is one of the very best the book has had.

12. I'm wholeheartedly into Marko and Alana's love, but them as individuals I'm not wild about. They're just a little too locked into the roles they want for themselves sometimes for me to believe, Alana always the spirited, courageous force of will and Marko ever the noble family man. Not that those kinds of people don't exist, I'm just not sure that's who Marko and Alana truly are underneath it all. I think they both used to be people they didn't like in lives they weren't suited for, so now they've selected idealized new versions of themselves who they stubbornly insist on being. But this new approach is no healthier than the old one, because neither are designed to just let them be themselves. And their true selves poke through more often than they'd like. Alana, secretly, is pretty much terrified of life's necessary unknowns, but level-headed enough to deal with them when they arise. And Marko is actually a deeply pissed off dude, sitting on anger at a lot of people and things that he's had from a very young age and never dealt with appropriately. Revealing these truer, more vulnerable identities to each other is what their love is doing for them, and it's for that reason I love their love and stay invested in their story. But if I met this couple in real life, they'd drive me crazy with their incessant facades and rotating series of increasingly brave but equally false faces. And sometimes it gets under my skin even in this fictional context. Hopefully the truth will becomes more and more common as their journey advances. It would sort of have to, or else this love I'm such a fan of isn't what I thought.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Pull List Review: Twelve Reasons to Die #1

There is some definite ambition here, and that always counts for something. And the art is very good, and surprisingly cohesive considering the number of different artists. Breno Tamura and Gus Storms draw the two main stories, with Kyle Strahm and Joe Infurnari each handling a few shorter scenes, and they all have their own unique styles, but there's a clear common ground between them, too. The art is consistently a little gritty and a little loose.
     The opening story, presumably titled "The Lead Years" (the titles of each section are only named on the inside cover credits page, so I have to assume they go in the order they're listed, more or less), is Tamura's, and is the sketchiest, artistically, though not in a bad way. His lines are jagged and jittery, which matches the fluidity of the storytelling. The narrative is told is a pretty rushed manner in this section, all caption boxes summarizing things past. That's a weakness, but the art makes it a bit stronger, with its sense of constant motion pushing the story forward.
     The story itself is tired old material about a new crime family's rise to power. There's not a new idea to be found here, just the same old "We did crime better than the criminals we replaced," bullshit as always. Until the end when, surprise surprise, an even younger and newer criminal makes a move against them. Though the move he makes is brutal and inventive in its violence, and drawn with what felt like just the right amount of excess gore by Tamura, it's still expected. And because it is the ending of the story (which is only eleven pages long) it doesn't lead us anywhere yet. So not a lot of reason to come back to this particular story, really, since everything that happens here is formulaic and dull.
     There is then a four-page horror scene that I have to assume is the "Flashback 1" credited to Kyle Strahm. It's the best part of the issue, a standalone short that's effectively disturbing. I have no idea what the hell a guy getting killed by wolves (or maybe they're monsters?) in the middle of a flock of sheep has to do with the larger story of this series, but I enjoyed this interlude thoroughly all the same. Strahm does fear really well, and creepy animals even better, and that's essentially all there is to this piece. A terrified, jumpy dude confronts a bunch of creepy animals and gets devoured for it. Straightforward but haunting material.
     Finally, there is the last story, "The Dead Years," drawn mostly by Gus Storms with, I believe, the final few pages counting as "Flashback 2" by Joe Infurnari. Again, this is speculation based on the clues given on the credits page, so if I am fucking up who did what, apologies all around.
     This story is certainly fresher than the opener, but ultimately it still doesn't hook me. A young man buys a rare record for an older, wealthy gentleman whose face we aren't allowed to see all of for some frustrating reason. The older man then reveals the record is one of several he intends to collect, all of which were somehow connected to the deaths of their owners. That's an alright concept with definite potential, but the idea is so barely and briefly introduced here. There are too many pages of the younger guy getting and delivering the record, by the time we find out what makes it valuable, whammo, the issue is over. Who the old man is, why he wants the records, how he knows how many there are, and what they even exactly have to do with people's deaths is all still unknown. If one of those questions had been answered, even, this might have been a more satisfying first taste, but as is it feels like a teaser trailer for a story that might be good in its entirety, but might well not.
     On the art side, Storms has the smoothest lines and calmest art overall, though there is still a certain sketchiness to it in places. Not everyone always looks the same from one panel to the next,  and there are places where the background details are left a bit undefined, although that's not always the case. Storms' work is right for his part of the issue, to be sure, as it is the most subdued portion of the narrative as well.
     The final scene is of the old man discovering the first record in his bizarre collection, which played while his friend was killed by a swarm of bees or hornets or some kind of stinging insect. Infurnari's pencils are the angriest, heavy and thick chaotic. Perfect for drawing an attacking insect swarm, but the rest of the imagery feels a tad over-aggressive. Also, it's not laid out ideally, with some important panels being given too little space so that the events of the insect attack aren't immediately obvious. Nothing terrible or impossible to make out, but the weakest and ugliest pencils of the bunch.
     The whole issue is written by Matthew Rosenberg and Patrick Kindlon, though the project was created by Ghostface Killah and Adrian Younge, and is a companion piece to their new album, I guess. The story is credited to Younge, Rosenberg, and Ce Garcia, so obviously a lot of different creative minds are involved. Even so, there's a lack of originality and detail in these stories that underwhelms. Flashes of cool concepts and the beginnings of somewhat intriguing narratives are here, but nothing meaty enough to make me need to come back for more.
     Yet Twelve Reasons to Die is trying to be different, just not always succeeding, and it's trying to be daring, too, which goes a long way with me. Plus it looks good all the way through, even those pages I liked less than others. There's nothing to bemoan here, but nothing to celebrate, either. A debut that didn't grab me, nor did it send me running.

Pull List Review: Thor: God of Thunder #8

This book continues to be fantastic. Jason Aaron seems to feel the same way about Thor as I do: go big or go home. His top priority, far as I can tell, is making this story as epic and grandiose as possible, and it is definitely working for him. A bomb made of destroyed moons, planets, and stars that can kill every god in existence isn't even the most insane bit of badassery in this issue. No, that would be young Thor smacking current Thor in the face with a space shark. Right there, that's worth the cost of admission alone.
     Aaron is having fun with the character, even in the midst of a dark tale about a merciless butcher of immortals. The interplay between the three different Thors continues to be smooth and contain a lot of heart and humor, and each of them has a distinct voice and attitude. I also liked how the narration called them "Thor Odinson of the Viking Age," "Thor the Avenger," and "King Thor." It's nice wording, with the youngest Thor defined by his age, the middle one his job, and the last his status. The third-person narrator had a lot of smart, well-chosen wording, even if one or two places might've gone a shade too purple with the prose. In general, the narrative captions only deepened the sense of how important and, again, downright epic this story is.
     This issue's main goal, plot-wise, was to bring young Thor together with his future selves. But it did so by having him first do something characteristically brave, dangerous, and heroic. He attacks the godbomb, expecting to sacrifice himself in the process, and in order to pull that off he first summons a powerful storm on Gorr's world, something which previously seemed impossible. Even without his hammer or the experience of age, Thor is portrayed as one of the boldest and mightiest of gods. Yet all he's doing is lashing back against an enemy who's already defeated and captured him. Gorr remains as imposing and impressive a villain as ever, even though he doesn't actually do or even appear much this issue. His brainwashed child, the crucifixion of innumerable gods, and the plan of the godbomb itself all represent the scope of his evil and madness, so he doesn't need to appear on the page for his presence to permeate the issue.
     Esad Ribic is still the perfect choice for this title, because of the very epicness I keep referring to. He does grand scale action better than most, and his Thors are properly looming and muscular and regal in their manner. He adds a lot of nice, almost hidden detail to the many other gods he draws this issue, too. And there are a lot of memorable panels, but the single best has got to be the half-page of Thor wiping out Gorr's minions with a literal rain of lighting. You can almost feel it, and it's an image that captures the essence of Thor as a character as well as everything I am loving about this run.
     I have said this before, but there are times when Ribic's faces bother me. The eyes and mouths have a tendency to take on a fishlike quality in moments of great excitement, shock, or anger. And that's true here, more than once, but I am trying to learn to look past it as much as possible. It is only a tiny quibble, and it's not as if it makes the pictures significantly worse or inaccurate, even, necessarily. Just not my style, and I notice it every time.
     But otherwise, I have no major complaints about Ribic's artwork. He's been a reliably fitting artist for this title since its launch, and colorist Ive Svorcina has done a damn good job coloring his work since issue #2. This issue, the colors are particularly well-done in the scene of the gods meeting around a fire. The way Svorcina does the wash of orange light over everything is obvious and simple, but deceptively nuanced, too, for the sake of realism. The atmospheric mood is key to that scene's success, and Svorcina is the one who delivers it.
     Very fine work from everyone involved, which has been the norm for Thor: God of Thunder. Probably time for me to stop reviewing it until I have something to say other than, "This rocks!" But it fucking rocks, y'all.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Dearly Departed: The Infinite Vacation

Dearly Departed is a semi-regular column where I look back on recently completed or canceled series.

Despite never fully liking the main character, I quite enjoyed The Infinite Vacation. The protagonist, Mark, doesn't particularly care for himself, either, so at least we agreed on that, and everything else that goes down in this story is so energetic, interesting, and goddamn gorgeous that it's easy to overlook a lame leading man. Also, it's not as if Mark has no redeeming qualities. He's just...more pathetic than sympathetic, a passive force for four issues before finally growing the brains and balls to take action in the fifth. Then again, Mark's passivity ties directly into one of the major themes of the book, namely how technology gives us so many choices that none can ever satisfy. It's hard for Mark to know for sure what he wants because he's never had to settle for any one reality in his life. This is a story about discovering the one thing that makes all other choices seem immaterial, and it is in that discovery that Mark becomes a man I can root for rather than merely put up with.
     Let me see how succinctly I can summarize this: The Infinite Vacation is a phone app that allows people to see all of the possible lives they could have led in all possible realities, and then bid on those lives against other version of themselves. If you win the bid, you are transported to the new reality, and get to live the life of a different you for as long as you please. Mark is a bit of a serial vacationer, never happy with the life he's chosen and constantly looking for a new, better Mark to become. The problem is that, no matter where he starts out, he finds himself ending up in the same places over and over again: dead-end jobs, stale romances, disillusionment, boredom, depression. This cycle persists until he meets Claire, the woman who's destiny is to push Mark toward his destiny.
     Claire is the strongest character in the series. She's everything Mark isn't, in more ways than one. Decisive, confident, comfortable in her own skin, and, most importantly, she's a Deadender, meaning she does not use The Infinite Vacation at all. One reality suits Claire just fine, which at first confuses and even frustrates Mark. But when they find themselves thrust together and fighting to preserve their very existence, Mark is able to find in Claire an understanding of and personal reason for the desire to lead a single, unique life instead of exploring the endless options of multiple realities.
     There is a definite heavy-handedness in the presentation of this lesson. Nick Spencer's script, like Mark as a character, can sometimes be a little much, becoming obnoxious with its repetition of the same ideas and the overt, bang-you-over-the-head delivery of its moral(s). There are a lot complex bits and pieces involved in the high concept of this series, and Spencer takes the time to explain and then reexplain them all, exploring the myriad ethical, technological, and philosophical questions something as powerful and popular as The Infinite Vacation would necessarily bring up. The side effect of that thoroughness is that things get revisited and reiterated several times by different characters with different viewpoints, and the ultimate resolution of Mark's journey is telegraphed many times before the man himself arrives there.
     In the opening issue, as a matter of fact, Mark is told in no uncertain terms by a surfer-dude version of himself that he should find one thing in this life that makes him happy and give that one this his all, rather than lily-padding from world to world without knowing what he's even looking for. So there's no great subtlety in Spencer's story, nor ambiguity as to where the book stands. And Mark's decision to choose Claire as his one thing is not at all a surprise, nor is it meant to be. She is set up to fill that role for him from her very first appearance, and never once slips from that position. Mark and Claire's path isn't entirely clear, but their destination always is. How they make it there is where things get more bizarre and unexpected.
     I mentioned that Spencer does a thorough job of discussing various problems or points of contention that The Infinite Vacation would raise if it really existed. And he does, with things like "boxing" (i.e. erasing from existence) hostile realities that pose a threat to others, having everyone go to copies of themselves for therapy and customer service, what "identity theft" means in a world where you can steal information from a different you, and so on, covering topics large and small at varying levels of detail. But the biggest and most important of these ideas is the Deadenders, who call themselves Singularists, and the Vacation-threatening philosophy they represent. For the bulk of Singularists, it isn't just a matter of not wanting to participate in The Infinite Vacation. There is a pseudo-religious aspect to their thinking, positing the idea that if, indeed, it is possible to visit any conceivable universe, then there must be a universe out there in which there is only one universe. I know that sounds a bit circular, but it also makes a weird kind of sense. If literally anything is possible, then it must be possible to go somewhere where nothing is possible, right?
     The Singularists take this one step further, though, and say that, because this universe-of-a-single-universe must exist, then there must, in fact, only be one true universe. It is here that things become a bit more faith-based, but it's not a totally illogical viewpoint, either. This theoretical one-universe reality would, if you were there, necessarily be the one true reality, so from that point it's easy to say that it is, therefore, the one true reality for all realities. Agree with that or not (and I don't know enough about the theoretical science you'd need to know about to back up and/or refute this argument) within The Infinite Vacation, it turns out the Singularists have it right. There is one true universe, and not only does it exist, but it's going to cause the collapse of every other reality in existence.
     This collapse is not a part of the Singularist movement's rhetoric, but instead comes to light when the corporation behind the The Infinite Vacation hires a team to research (and, they hope, disprove) the Singularists' claims. The researchers come back and explain that, in fact, the Singularists are correct, and that the appearance of multiple realities is merely just the one real reality waiting to be "observed." I'll admit, they lose me a bit during this part, but the long and short of it is this: the collapse of all realities into a unified one is not only inevitable, but already taking place, and Mark is the cause. Some action Mark will take or thought he'll have will set off the collapse and make it apparent to all, according to the findings. Why Mark? Well, that's the same question that The Infinite Vacation guys ask, and the best response they get is, "Why not?"
     The idea seems to be that it could be anyone, it could be anything, so it might as well be Mark. If the collapse is inevitable and, in truth, an already ongoing event, then there's got to be a trigger somewhere, and Mark's as good as any. He gets to be special and unique and dangerous arbitrarily, which, while a bit frustrating on a conceptual level, is humorous and strangely appropriate reasoning on a narrative one. Especially when The Infinite Vacation's own attempt to kill Mark before he can set off the collapse ends up being exactly what causes it.
     I won't spoil the ending entirely here, but suffice to say Mark does exactly what we're told he'll do, bringing The Infinite Vacation crashing down around itself and coming out the other end with only one reality left. It is a satisfying ending where our hero realizes his potential and everyone gets what they deserve. The villainous fat cats lose their wicked, dangerous business and Mark gets the girl. Or, perhaps a better way to look at it: Claire finally gets a Mark worthy of her love. He shifts from being a coward and Vacation addict who can't even work up the nerve to introduce himself into a daring action hero who's powered by his love for this incredible woman. As indecisive and unsure of himself as he is in the beginning, by the end he becomes equally confident that, regardless of what else his life throws at him, as long as Claire is a part of it he'll be ok. That's a lovely if simple sentiment, and one the series hammers hard into the reader's brain. No matter how many options modern life provides, none of them will ever be good enough if we don't first find some constants in our lives that make us happy. It may sound like common sense, but it is nevertheless a point that becomes more relevant every day as technology continues to offer us new products and experiences at ever faster and cheaper rates.
     Nick Spencer isn't a writer who I usually associate with tight pacing or structure, but The Infinite Vacation is an exception. The debut alone is a shining example, introducing Mark, Claire (and, through her, Deadenders as a group), the concept of The Infinite Vacation, and several funny and/or important details about how it works all in the space of a single issue. From there, Spencer uses each issue to expand in some way everything we've seen so far, whether it's meeting the amoral head of The Infinite Vacation Mr. Vernon, discovering Claire's heartbreaking reason for being a Deadender, learning about "boxing" of threatening realities, or any number of other bits and bobs, all of which come into play in the closing chapter. That final issue, which is something like triple-sized, brings together every character and concept introduced up to that point, closing the story by revisiting and reusing all of its established ideas. That's not easy to do in this kind of sprawling, head-scratching, sci-fi tale, but Spencer pulls it off without it even seeming like a struggle. He is as sure of himself in the end as Mark, and that confidence is key to the series' success.
     However, as well-planned and un-Spencerish as the scripts may be, without Christian Ward's artwork, The Infinite Vacation could've been an absolute dud. After all, even if the pacing is on point, Spencer's script does suffer sometimes from wearing its heart too much on its sleeve and/or over-explaining its bigger ideas. That's a lot easier to look past, though, when you're wrapped up in beautiful and inventive visuals, and Ward provides those on literally every page.
     Firstly, the comicbook medium is ideal for this story if only because the art can help to explain or demonstrate some of the larger concepts more interestingly and in less time than it would take for Spencer to write them all out. Indeed, the several-page stretch in the third issue that is largely prose, where Spencer explains the inevitability of the collapse and reasons for it, is the driest, dullest, most confusing part of the series. Any other time we're being introduced to a new element, Ward's artwork is there to lend a hand, showing the reader an example or multiple examples of whatever is being explained so it's easier to digest/comprehend. But more than assisting in our understanding, Ward's art brings a very specific energy to this book, a kinetic and psychedelic look that is at once perfectly tailored to and strangely ill-fitting for the story. In a series about technology and reality-hopping, the expectation might be to go futuristic with the style, something a little more mainstream sci-fi. Ward moves in an entirely different, arguably opposite direction, with tie-dye colors, loose figures, generous and intelligent use of blank space, and pages that are practically standalone pieces of abstract art. These looser, jazzier, more emotive stylistic choices speak to the book's ultimate message of love and being happy with the world you're in more than they relate to the high-tech parts of the narrative, which is a smart call. Mostly, though, what works so well about Ward's art is that it would be compelling, beautiful work even if taken out of context, so when it also serves as one half of a fresh and fun comicbook story, its value is heightened exponentially.
     Where Spencer's repetitious, overly-explanatory writing can at times be detrimental, Ward uses repeated imagery to great effect, which in turn softens the blow when Spencer repeats himself needlessly. There are images we see over and over again throughout the entire series, some that are used only within a single issue, and even moments where an individual page or panel has multiple copies of something that will never again return. When Mark learns in the first issue that a lot of other Marks have been dying recently, Ward draws an enormous, spiraling image of a bunch of feet with toe tags on them, like you'd find in the morgue. It's not an image that gets revisited, but it sticks nonetheless, because it is so funny and peculiar and so succinctly yet precisely sums up what Mark is feeling in that moment. Meanwhile, the visuals that do carry over from issue to issue help create some consistency in a story that's all about change.
     Ward likes to pack his pages more often than not, so the art is very dense, which, again, goes along with the narrative nicely. Yet the strongest artistic moments, for me, at least, are when Ward instead pulls back and gives us a single, clean shot of something significant. Claire's first appearance springs to mind, where she gets an entire page with a blank background devoted to her. I think my favorite, though, comes in issue #4, where there's a two-page spread of Mark is lying in the snow with a young boy standing next to him saying, "You're not my dad." When it happens, it is intentionally confusing, yet even without knowing exactly what's going on there is an incredible sense of importance on those pages, which are, in fact, the beginning of a deeply moving and significant scene. These quieter, more focused moments, on top of being visually stunning, also serve to remind us of the series' ultimate message. While the world offers innumerable avenues of over-stimulation and distraction, it will always be more satisfying to zero our focus on the smaller things in life that bring us joy and let them drown out the rest of the noise. That's what Ward forces us to do on these pages, and it's what The Infinite Vacation wants us to do in the world beyond said pages.
     There is a final visual technique that I'm actually not certain should be attributed to Ward, but since he is credited with all of the artwork I have to assume he's responsible for this, too. I'm talking about the photographed pages. There is at least one scene in every issue where all of the panels are actual pictures of real live humans (except the finale, where we get photos on top of hand-drawn panels). Mostly these are used for Infinite Vacation promotional material, though the video laying out the Singularists' viewpoint is also done with this method. Though it's not immediately obvious why the change is made, over time it comes to light that these ads, done in the photographs, are basically lies, while the truth of the story is hand-drawn. It's a simple but effective reversal, using real people for scenes of deceit, and they're all brief and humorous enough not to detract from the series as a whole. It's also an opportunity for Spencer to discuss or even introduce some of his ideas from the point of view of characters other than Mark, without having to fully hand over the narration duties to someone else. And some of the title's strongest humor comes from these photos, which tend to be emotionally exaggerated and feature characters talking out their asses, trying to convince the world that The Infinite Vacation does more good than harm. Never overbearing and always well-timed, these photo scenes are one more visual flourish that sets this book apart.
     The Infinite Vacation is a remarkably simple love story folded into a more complex piece of science fiction societal commentary. Both of those facets are right there on the surface, though, which is, if nothing else, a change of pace for this type of story (and for Spencer as a writer). Though there are plenty of questions, there's not a great deal of mystery, because the series opts instead for transparency, laying out the rules and realities of its world honestly and eagerly. It tells us outright what Mark needs and what he's going to do, and then we watch him do it and, in the process, get just what he needs. Yet it manages to surprise along the way, divulging new details and heightening the stakes gradually until an infinite number of entire universes are destroyed. And Christian Ward attempts new feats of artistic acrobatics all the time, toying with color, layout, medium, non-linear storytelling, repeated imagery, and various other tricks and treats, all the while maintaining narrative clarity and a lightweight liveliness in the visual tone and texture. It's a romp, basically, a sweet and funny day-glo romance bearing warnings from a hypothetical not-too-distant future.