Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Monthly Dose: July 2013

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

100 Bullets #9: Cole Burns may be my favorite character in all of 100 Bullets, so whenever I revisit the series I look forward to this storyline introducing him. Sadly, this first issue in the arc is sort of a dud. Brian Azzarello's script plods along, working its way through all the necessary narrative beats without doing much to liven them up. We get a glimpse of Cole's day-to-day life, and then Agent Graves arrives on the scene pretty immediately to hand Cole the usual attaché case of untraceable bullets and evidence. This time, it's proof that Cole's current criminal boss, Goldy, was responsible for the nursing home fire that killed Cole's grandmother. That's a fairly strong motive, but not an all-together original story, especially when Goldy says he burned the place down because he owned it, and wanted to clear the property so he could build condos. That's just not a very exciting story, and neither is Cole's current business of selling stolen cigarettes. I'm not saying that arson is dull or shouldn't be taken seriously, but in terms of crime fiction, ill-gained condos and illicit tobacco is low-level stuff. And Cole, though he seems a decent and intelligent dude, doesn't make for a particularly compelling protagonist as of yet. He's a bit too passive, and even though he's on literally every page, we don't gain much insight into how his mind works. Of course, then at the very end, when he hears the word "Croatoa," something goes off in Cole's brain that we don't yet understand, but looks fascinating. It is certainly the strongest panel from Eduardo Risso in this entire issue. Not that his art isn't good throughout, but it's definitely less stunning than it has been in the past. Like the script, the visuals seem satisfied to be straightforward, and Risso skips the kind of background details that usually make his work so rich. Most of the pages have just what they need to have in order to understand the story, and while that is more than many artists provide, it's far less than I've come to expect from this book by now. In general, this issue seems fluffier than usual, but it's just the first part of a new storyline, and it ends on a strong enough cliffhanger (three guns in Cole's face) that I'm still eager to see the next chapter, even if this one didn't grab me.

The Intimates #9: So issue #8 was Giuseppe Camuncoli's last, and this issue is drawn instead by Scott Iwahashi. He's not a bad artist, but he's a much worse choice for this particular book. Iwahashi's style is more exaggerated than Camuncoli's, and it translates to the characters feeling like broader, sketchier versions of themselves. Because they're teenagers, removing some of their visual subtlety and complexity makes them far more obnoxious, Punchy in particular. I do think Joe Casey is partly to blame, because it felt like Punchy's dialogue was watered down to a degree as well, but the artwork really made him seem like a clown. So many panels had Punchy with his mouth agape, whether he was dumbfounded or yelling at Destra or whatever, and it made him look sort of stupid. Not that he's ever been a genius, but he used to have a sort of wry wisdom behind his immature swagger that is entirely absent here. But it's not as if Iwahashi did a terrible job, there just wasn't that same delicious blend of the big and small, the teenaged and the superhero, as Camuncoli always brought to the page. Honestly, though, the story of this issue was lacking, too. Destra and Punchy try to find out what, exactly, is wrong with the Devonshire food products served to them by the Seminary, so they go to Arthur, a friend of Destra's father who is obsessed with self-modification, to the point that he's as much machine as man now. He tries a bit of the food, and his stomach produces a printout of its chemical makeup, but the math is too complicated to be understood by anyone there. Meaning that, essentially, the entire mission is a bust, and Punchy and Destra decide their next move is to go straight to Devonshire for answers. So this becomes a filler issue, biding its time with a pointless adventure that gets no results and makes no real progress. Meanwhile, we check in on Vee and Duke for a few pages each, and they continue to do the same things we saw them do last issue with their summer breaks. Vee's story advances slightly when she sets her sights on a bigger rockstar than her current opening-act boyfriend, but that's only a marginal step forward. Oh, and there's a brief scene of Sykes being studied by scientists, which looks cool but provides very little information. The best part of this issue, narratively, is the story of Kefong's summer break in Las Vegas as told through the info scrolls. He accidentally has sex with a ghost, for crying out loud. It's funny and weird and perfect for the character. And I think it was a good call to tell it in the info scrolls, because it probably would have felt out-of-place if it actually happened in-panel. It's too bad that was my favorite part, though, because I would've preferred to enjoy the contents of the main story more than I did.

X-Force (vol. 1) #9: A fairly anti-climactic resolution to the threat introduced a few issues back. X-Force defeat the members of the Brotherhood and Morlocks who invaded their headquarters, and they do it with straight-up fighting, which has grown dull by now. We've seen these characters in combat with each other already, so to have the final beat of this arc just be more of the same isn't all that thrilling. There are no new layers added, nobody pulls out any new moves or anything. The only difference here is that the heroes win, and win too easily for my taste. Other than Cannonball being dead, none of the good guys are ever even at risk. There's no sense of stakes because X-Force always have the upper hand. The villains get in a few good hits, but they lose each battle and, therefore, the war. There's also a lack of logic in terms of how the events play out. Domino and Boom Boom handily defeat Thornn early in the issue, but then at the end she shows back up and rips up Cable's face. Ok, yeah, it allows Rob Liefeld to draw a pretty cool two-page splash revealing that half of Cable's face is robotic, but...how did Thornn get away, and what the hell were Domino and Boom Boom doing instead of, say, securing her? Similarly, we see Cable fighting Sauron, and then check in on other characters for a few pages, and when Sauron is seen again he is instead battling Feral. Where did she come from? That particular gap is easier to fill in, and I don't necessarily need to see everything that every character does, but it's still a little jarring as presented in this issue. The biggest dramatic flop, though, is Cannonball's return to life. Fabian Nicieza has Cable give a long speech to Cannonball's corpse about how, since he is supposed to be a High-Lord, his death shouldn't be permanent. Apparently High-Lords always die and then come back, or, as Cable puts it, "your life doesn't begin until it ends!" Fair enough, and not a bad concept, but to have Cable so plainly explain it at the top of the issue makes Sam coming back to life at the end fall flat. It's not a surprise, because it is exactly what Cable said should happen. It may shock the rest of X-Force, but for the reader, it could not be a more expected turn of events. This issue wasn't horrible, just lackluster, a dry and uninspired warp-up to what was clearly supposed to be a major conflict.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Digging the Goals but Disliking the Results of Loveless

I bought all three trade paperbacks of Loveless at the same time one day a few years back, a pure impulse buy based on almost nothing. I had read most of Brian Azzarello's 100 Bullets by then and quite liked it, so his name is likely what drew me to this series, but it wouldn't have been enough for me to get the whole thing. The way I remember it, I had some extra money for one reason or another, there weren't a lot of new comics in the shop I wanted that particular week, and so I thought to myself, "Hey, if I can get this entire series in only three volumes, what the hell?" It was just a 24-issue commitment for the cost of about $45, it was a western by a writer I dug, and paging through it, it seemed to have some interesting artwork. So the full run came home with me.
     I've read it a couple times since then, top to bottom, and what I've noticed about Loveless is this: while a lot of specific scenes and concepts are strong and stick with me, on the whole it's a pretty bad and forgettable book. I think it wants to have more to say than it actually does, about race, war, America, and many other topics of similar scope. But instead, it ends up being about a handful of characters so despicable and one-dimensional that I can't really connect with anyone, so whatever grander messages their stories are supposed to deliver get stifled. At the end of its life, Loveless made some interesting narrative moves, choices I would almost deem brave. Sadly, because the title was canceled, these final few issues end up as more of a tease of what could've been, rather than successfully improving the series overall. There's too much muck to wade through before those final chapters, and the overarching narrative that connects the first 21 issues is too dark and takes itself too seriously for its own good.
     The two protagonists of those issues are Wes and Ruth Cutter, a former Confederate soldier and his wife, both of whom have less-than-stellar reputations in their home town of Blackwater, MO. Wes is hated by pretty much everyone because he's an abrasive ass who could not care less what others think of him, and indeed seems to get some perverse pleasure out of pissing people off. He returns to Blackwater after some time in prison, aiming to reclaim his land from the Union. Failing to do that, Wes demolishes his former home with dynamite, but not until after he's made sheriff of the town in a futile attempt by the local government to smooth things over. Instead, having Wes in charge just gets everyone else's ire up, and gives him cause to be as unapologetic a bastard as he wishes. He gives Blackwater and its citizens no end of grief, and does almost nothing in the way of actually enforcing the law, so in the end the townspeople hire an assassin to kill him. So Wes dies, which leaves the door wide open for Ruth to get the revenge she's always wanted.
     While Wes was fighting for the South and then imprisoned by the North, Ruth got involved in a gun running operation with his brother Jonny. When the Union found out what she was up to, the biggest prick in Loveless, Captain Lord, had every one of his men rape her before dragging her out into the street, pissing on her, and publicly shaming her for the whole town to see. After that, Ruth disappeared, and as far as the rest of Blackwater is concerned, she never came back. In truth, she returns at the same time Wes does, but stays hidden, living in the woods and biding her time while Wes fucks with everyone more openly. Once they have him killed, though, there is nothing in Ruth's life to keep her grounded, no joy to keep her from melting down and attacking Blackwater with everything she's got. So she shoots a bride-to-be, steals her dress in order to infiltrate the wedding, and then blows the whole thing up, killing dozens of people who had nothing to do with her past abuse or her husband's death.
     The Cutters are unquestionably the focus of Loveless, and arguably the book's heroes, though that word doesn't really fit them. If the reader roots for them, it's only based on the merits that they are marginally less unlikable than most of the rest of the cast. That and, because of how brutally she was abused, and because no one from Blackwater did anything to save her, it's easy to understand Ruth's desire for vengeance and, by extension, Wes' anger at what happened to his wife. Even keeping that in mind, though, these two aren't exactly sympathetic characters. They're selfish to the point of narcissism, or like a weird kind of dual narcissism where neither of them cares about anyone but themselves and each other. Wes' sole purpose in life seems to be stirring up the shit, and Ruth's only goal is to help Wes do so. Then, after he dies, all she wants to avenge his death and her own damaged past in the most violent way possible. She specifically targets the one good event Blackwater has seen in ages, and one where she knows there will be an abundance of innocents, wanting to deliver as devastating a blow as she can. Wes and Ruth are vindictive, insanely so, and their unwillingness to let a single bygone be what it is gets one of them killed and makes the other into a mass murderer. They may not be the worst characters in this story, but they're still terrible people, not so much tragically flawed as stubbornly tragic.
     I can see that, like so many members of this series' cast, Ruth and Wes represent the horrific consequences of war, and particularly the American Civil War, which turned members of the same country and community against each other. That conflict is practically its own character in this book; it touched the lives of every character and, for many of them, the fighting continues even though the war is technically over. Boyd Johnson and his crew hide in the woods and murder black people in a futile, immature effort to send the message that the South hasn't given up the fight. In response, Atticus Mann—which has got to be the most uninspired, stereotypical, practically offensive name given to an African-American character in a good long while—hunts Boyd and company for the bounties placed on their heads. When Captain Lord is brought back to Blackwater to try and maintain the peace, he treats every member of the town like an enemy, torturing and killing them with enthusiastic sadism. Loveless seems to be of the opinion that wars cannot end, or at least that in the United States, the nation's problems and inherent evils are too great to be overcome simply because the government says the fighting's over. And that's a fine point to make, one I maybe even agree with, but Azzarello makes it very powerfully very early on, and then keeps making it over and over again incessantly. Things don't even get worse, they just stay as hopeless and despicable as they are when the book begins. There is rampant racism, violence, cruelty, dishonesty, and greed. It never lets up, it never changes, it just goes and goes and goes until everyone and everything in the series becomes intolerable.
     Not to say that this is an unrealistic depiction of the era in question. I'm not historically educated enough to know whether it is or isn't. But from a narrative standpoint, once you've made your points, repeating them ad nauseam serves little purpose. Azzarello buries the reader in one tragedy after another, but he doesn't go anywhere specific with it. Everything builds up to Ruth's massive attack on Blackwater, which is no more shocking or unthinkable an evil than much of what precedes it. Instead of having different things to say about the various topics touched upon, Loveless says the same thing about all of them: they're awful. It is unfiltered negativity, a stagnant cesspool of humanity's worst attributes and America's biggest flaws. I have no problem with a work criticizing this country or examining the human potential for evil, but there's got to be more to it than merely displaying how bad things can be. Unfortunately, Loveless doesn't seem concerned with anything other than piling on the darkness.
     This is true of the artwork, too. Originally drawn by co-creator Marcelo Frusin, the title established itself right away as gloomy and gory. Not that the blood and guts were exaggerated or overdone, but they weren't shied away from, either. And most of Frusin's art on this book is heavy on shadow, so dark and grim as to someimes be unclear. This remained the case when Werther Dell'Edera was on pencils later on, and was even truer of Daniel Zezelj's issues. Zezelj has a style that's sketchier than either of the other two artists, and even darker and more obscured because of it. His first three issues (#6-8) are used to fill in some of the background details of Atticus, Ruth, and Wes respectively, and a lot of the information covered is already established or, at least, could have been guessed at by an observant reader. These are the issues where Loveless begins to wear on me, to feel like it is spinning its wheels in the puddles of its own filth, and Zezelj's extra dark pencils are definitely a factor in that feeling. To his credit, though, he also draws the final three issues (#22-24) and those are the most interesting, original, and standout stories that Loveless ever tells.
     All three of the final issues are standalone tales, and each of them connects in some way to the events of initial saga of the Cutters and their personal war against Blackwater. There is the story of two escaped convicts who hate one another but are chained together, and stumble upon the shallow grave in which Ruth buried Wes in a hidden cave behind a waterfall. The fleeing prisoners kill each other in the same spot, so that the cave holds three corpses rather than one by the issue's close. Following that, we see what became of relatively minor character Jasper, the only citizen of Blackwater for whom Wes felt anything other than disgust. Jasper's tale is no cheerier than anyone else's, but he does at least get to spend a few years as a successful jockey before he dies. Finally, there is an issue centered on Foley, an Irishman who was one of the Union soldiers in charge of Blackwater, and who developed a vicious rivalry with Atticus Mann. In his solo story, Foley is released from prison after serving thirty years for murder, and then explains to a prostitute that the man he was convicted of killing is not only still alive, but wildly successful and rich. So Foley aims to finally commit the murder for which he's already served so much time, a compelling hook and an unexpected development for a character I didn't care about one way or the other beforehand. Loveless' last issue feels more like the first issue of an entirely different series, since none of Foley's time in Blackwater really matters in order to appreciate it. I would have rather liked to see who it is Foley's after, and to learn the circumstances of how he could be convicted if his victim is still alive. It's the most sympathetic any of the asshole characters in this book ever gets to be, and the most interesting story hook. Too bad it came so late in the series' history, and never got to be expanded upon at all.
     Too worried about being as ugly as possible, Loveless fails to contribute much of real value to the discussion(s) in which it wants to participate. After rapidly demonstrating the hideousness of post-Civil War America, the title stalls out, continuing to show the same things and make the same points for far too long. It opens with a lot of promise, and closes with the same, because in its last three issues it finally breaks free from itself and looks at some fresh material. In between, though, it drags dramatically, so that on the whole it's a lot more bad than good. If there was anyone to relate to, or if the book's point of view ever changed, I think it'd be a much stronger series overall. Instead, it's a relentless assault of depression and pain with too little purpose or reason behind it.


This week, the only straight review I wrote was a fairly glowing one of Young Avengers #8 for read/RANT. After initially seeming only so-so, that series grows on me more and more.

Over at PopMatters, I published a piece on Francesco Francavilla's Black Beetle, looking at what works so well about the balance he strikes between complex, groundbreaking artwork and more familiar, straightforward scripting.

Finally, I put out a new "1987 And All That" on that year's issues of Avengers.

Something I Failed to Mention
In my Avengers column, I focused on the traits that all of the heroes shared, the things that made them worthy of being called "Avengers." In order to keep that discussion focused and a bit simpler, I talked only about the actual superhero characters, and only in terms of the primary creative team of Roger Stern, John Buscema, and Tom Palmer. However, Avengers #280 was done by a different set of creators entirely, and the whole issue was told through the memories of Jarvis, the Avengers' longtime butler, as he recovers from serious wounds given to him by the Masters of Evil. Written by Bob Harras with art by Bob Hall and Kyle Baker, the story acts as both an abbreviated history of the team and an examination of why a normal, somewhat softer man like Jarvis would choose to work for them in spite of the dangers of the job. It's not exceptionally exciting, but it definitely fits in with the rest of the issues of that time, insofar as it displays that Jarvis possesses the same attributes that I point to in my column as being necessary to be an Avenger. Well...maybe Jarvis doesn't have the same strategic smarts in combat, but he does have to make tactical decisions about how to interact with the team. As their employee, and as a butler specifically, there are some things that are arguably not his place to say or get involved in. But at other times, Jarvis' council is needed and appreciated, and knowing when to intervene is a key part of his role within the group. As for the bravery and trust I pointed out in the rest of the team, Jarvis has got them in spades, which is why he chooses to stay on as their butler even in light of the savage beating the Masters put him through. So even if Avengers #280 isn't the most bombastic of issues, it's a solid and enjoyable story reminding readers why this average man deserves a place, however minor, in the series and on the team.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

To Read or Not to Read: Bedlam, East of West, and Mighty Avengers

You know what series I should be gobbling up? Bedlam. For starters, it's drawn by my current favorite comicbook artist, Riley Rossmo. His off-kilter, kinetic style has proven to be adaptable to many different tones and genres, and never disappointing or dull in the least. He created my favorite comic of last year, and was the artist of the very first title I wrote a full column about on this blog. His work fascinates me, as does his career, which has very rarely involved Big Two work yet seems to be about as consistent as any artist working in comics today. To have him on an ongoing series, a relatively high profile one at that, should almost automatically mean a commitment from me.
     But I'm not ready to go back to Nick Spencer. I spent a lot of time and money on several of his titles, and with a few small exceptions, they all aggravated me with their pacing, lack of payoff, and focus on big, sprawling, cool ideas and events rather than, say, a relatable or even understandable story. He writes great dialogue, and builds strong characters through it over time when he chooses, but sometimes he doesn't even do that. I haven't read some of the work that made his name, primarily Existence 2.0 and Existence 3.0, but I read most of what he did in the year or two after that, and overall it was unsatisfying enough for me to swear off the guy for a while. The concept of Bedlam interests me, because I'm basically a sucker for stories that center on the villains (except DC's Villain Month, which can go fuck itself...but that's for another time), but most of the elevator pitches of Spencer's stories sound like they're up my alley. That's why I started reading his stuff in the past, and kept reading even after it started to wear on me. I kept hoping the books would step up and realize their potential, but Spencer never made it happen.
     Bedlam gets good reviews, by-and-large. At least as far as I've noticed. Maybe someday I'll check out the first trade paperback, like if a friend of mine has it or I find it on sale. And I believe in some pile somewhere I actually have the first issue, part of a massive treasure trove from this year's Free Comic Book Day. So if I ever dig it up and get to reading it, and it totally melts my face with awesome, then I'll likely track down the rest of the series. But for now, Spencer is too big a snag, even collaborating with Rossmo.
     East of West isn't on my reading list for basically the same reason, except that I don't dislike Jonathan Hickman nearly as much as Nick Spencer. It's more that Hickman has fairly regularly proven to read better in collections than monthly installments. It was true of his Fantastic Four/FF run, and I definitely got more out of S.H.I.E.L.D. when I read it all at once than one issue at a time. Same goes for Secret Warriors, which lost me partway through when it was coming out, but upon a reread I was able to appreciate what it was doing far more. Hickman's narratives tend to have a lot of big concepts and small details both, and to keep track of them all, it's helpful to read everything as close together as possible. So, if anything, I'm trade-waiting East of West, but even then, I doubt if I'll buy the collected volumes as soon as they're available.
     For one thing, I'm not eager for another dystopian future setting. I'm not sick of them, exactly, it's just that they've never particularly appealed to me to begin with, and recently they've become so ubiquitous that I feel like I need a really good, specific reason to invest in a piece of dystopian fiction.
     Nick Dragotta is just shy of being that reason for now, though he's a seriously talented artist, so I imagine East of West will be something I pick up someday. He's not as high up on my personal list as Riley Rossmo, but that's purely due to my own tastes, not an objective comparison of their technical or storytelling skills. Dragotta is every inch the artist as Rossmo, and with Hickman having a slight edge over Spencer, East of West is more likely to get a look from me than Bedlam, probably.
     Those two titles have writers I'm not wild about with artists I adore; Mighty Avengers has the opposite problem. Well, Al Ewing isn't a writer I adore, necessarily, but that's only because I'm not especially familiar with his work. I've read a bit of his Judge Dredd stuff, and it's all been fantastic. What really makes me want to read this series is its cast. Luke Cage? Jennifer Walters? Monica motherfucking Rambeu?!?! Yes, please! Honestly, White Tiger, a new Ronin, and a new Power Man all entice me as well. I could live without Spider-Ock, but I'm not riled up about that enough to be turned off completely, since he'll be just one of many voices in this series, instead of the star character. But Falcon is a definite plus, and so is Blue Marvel, whose debut series I read and enjoyed, so on the whole it's great-looking lineup.
     But uggggggh...Greg Land SUCKS. He's the anti-Rossmo, with his stiff, robotic figures and complete lack of vision or originality. Sitting here now, I can't think of a single creator (not just artist) whose name on a project would make me less likely to buy it. I want so much to support Mighty Avengers, for so many reasons. It's mainstream work for Ewing, it's a cast full of characters I love, it stars several female and non-white characters, and it's a team worthy of the name "Avengers," for a change. Yet to spend any more money than I already have on comics drawn by Greg Land...can I afford to do that, really? Not just in my wallet, but in my spirit, I'm just not sure I can.

Sunday, July 21, 2013


This week, I put up two reviews on read/RANT: X-Factor #259 and Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #25. I didn't mention this before, but because I'm writing reviews of new issues for read/RANT, I'm probably not going to do so on Comics Matter anymore. At least for the foreseeable future. If I was trying to do them on both sites, it would mean spending too much time and energy on weekly reviews, and there might not be enough left over for the columns I want to continue to write here and elsewhere.

Speaking of, my first Iconographies was published on PopMatters this past Friday. It's about Mark Waid's current run on Daredevil, and his ability to tell short-term stories while simultaneously building larger, longer ones.

Something I Failed to Mention
One extremely short story from Daredevil that I didn't find room to discuss in the PopMatters piece is issue #26's back-up feature, titled "Punching Cancer." It is GREAT. Foggy goes to the children's cancer ward of the hospital where he is battling his own illness, because the kids are big superhero fans and they know that Foggy has some history in that world. Iron Man is scheduled to pay a visit later in the day, but Foggy is sent in ahead of time as a sort of warm-up act. He's nervous and humble about it, afraid he won't have any stories the kids will like or that he won't be able to help them at all. But over the course of the story, the kids instead help Foggy. They write and draw a comicbook that features the Avengers defeating a monster made out of cancer, and at first Foggy gets worried that they actually believe Iron Man will be able to cure them when he arrives. When Foggy tries to explain to the children that curing cancer is beyond even the Avengers' abilities, they look at him like he's a fool for believing in their amateur comicbook story. They know full well that they're writing fiction, and the point is that it gives them hope. It gets them excited and makes them all the more eager to battle their own diseases if they can, even for a few brief moments, revel in the idea that their favorite heroes could do the same. This point of view inspires Foggy and humbles him even further. It's awesome work from Waid, who really captures kids' voices and viewpoints. And Chris Samnee's style shift when drawing the comicbook that the children create is perfect as well, as is his design for the cancer monster. It's a superb standalone tale, a reminder of why superheroes are such important and long-lasting characters.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Some Very Brief, Off-the-Cuff Reactions to the End of Harbinger Wars

Even though technically there are some epilogue-style issues of Harbinger and Bloodshot still to come, for all intents and purposes the new Valiant's first crossover event came to an end this Wednesday with the publication of Harbinger Wars #4. I didn't read all of the Bloodshot issues that tied in, but I follow Harbinger anyway so I read those, as well as all four chapters of the main event title. It was a wild ride, a full-throttle action story with more than its fair share of explosive moments, both literally and figuratively. But as entertaining as the whole affair was, now that it's over, I gotta say...I'm not sure how I feel about it. It ends up seeming like an event for the sake of it, stretched out over multiple issues of three titles not because it needed the space to tell its story, but just because that's how crossovers work. At the same time, it bucked some typical superhero comicbook trends in impressive ways, and had some fantastic-looking action along the way.

I wasn't bothered by the different series showing the same scenes from various points of view. That strategy I actually liked. It allowed the individual titles to stand on their own so readers weren't required to get them all in order to understand what was happening. This is one way in which Harbinger Wars did something unusual and unexpected. The much more noticeable thing it did, and the aspect of the book I liked the most, was a small but significant shake-up of the typical "heroes fight because of a misunderstanding, but then realize the mistake and team up" story. Instead, the good guys fought one another over a misunderstanding per usual, but never figured out that they were battling against potential allies. Then, in the end, it is a group of villains who teams up with one of the good guy teams, when Harada convinces Generation Zero to join his foundation. I love that conclusion; it's such a simple shift in such a tired trope of the superhero genre, yet the implications for the future of the characters (and their respective series) are enormous.

Unfortunately, this ending is also what makes Harbinger Wars lightweight as a narrative—the events leading up to it are largely sound and fury signifying very, very little. Once Harada talks the kids into siding with him, much of what that has come before is rendered immaterial. Because the violence that fills these pages isn't really connected to what Harada does. There's no natural progression, just a string of fights that don't really relate to one another, except inasmuch as they're all over the fates of the Generation Zero kids. But Harada gets taken off the board by Bloodshot early on, then there's a bunch of intense combat in the middle that accomplishes pretty much nada, and then very rapidly in Wednesday's issue, Harada returns fully healed, wipes out the competition, and wins the whole conflict with an only semi-convincing speech.

I'm writing this like an hour after finishing Harbinger Wars #4, so maybe I'm being unfair. Maybe there are bonds between things I'm not remembering right now, but will be more apparent on a reread. And it's not that I didn't like Harbinger Wars, because I really did. Perhaps the violence wasn't all necessary, but it sure looked great, harsh and with a touch of realism, yet firmly founded in a superpowered reality. The story had some strong surprises and character beats, and TONS of interesting things were seeded for the future. As the final page of the final issue says, wars never really end, so even if the event proper has come to a close, its ramifications will last for a long while. So there's plenty in the story's favor, it's just that the destination made a lot of the journey feel like wheel spinning. This is my initial, gut response to the event's ending, and though I might revise or even retract it once I've gone back over the material, first impressions always count for something.

Sunday, July 14, 2013


In addition to the work I do here on Comics Matter, I occasionally write for other sites as well. Up to now, this has primarily just meant my bi-weekly feature over at The Chemical Box on comicbooks from 1987, the year I was born. But recently, I've also been fortunate enough to be added to the review team at read/RANT, and offered a weekly Iconographies piece at PopMatters. So I figure once a week or so, I'll throw up a post on here with links to the work I've done elsewhere.

My first PopMatters column won't be published until next week, so in the meantime, here are my first 3 read/RANT reviews, two from a couple weeks ago on the debuts of Larfleeze and Lazarus, as well as one from this week on Six-Gun Gorilla #2. On top of that, I've got my two most recent Chemical Box columns, on Matt Champion (also published two weeks back) and Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters from this past Friday.

Something I Failed to Mention
I'm also going to do my best to include a small bit of original comicbook criticism in these posts, because a) In an ideal world everything I put on Comics Matter would include fresh material, and b) As hard as I try to write comprehensively, there's almost always going to be one idea or detail or character or creator or something from any given comic that I don't find room to include in whatever I write about it. Something that doesn't line up with the points I'm trying to make, or that I simply forget to mention, or even sometimes a bit that doesn't occur to me until the column in question is complete.

This time out, I wanted to take a second to point out that, in The Longbow Hunters, Mike Grell wrote Oliver Queen with an amazingly strong and impressive love for Dinah Lance. He respects her and admires her enough to let her do her own thing, cares about her enough to drop everything and risk his life when he realizes she's in danger, and generally treats her as an equal and tries his best to give her what she wants, to make her happy. And Dinah's love for Oliver matches his for her. This kind of legitimate, two-way, mature romance is depressingly rare in any fiction, let alone superhero comicbooks, where men often get to be outright assholes and still have the women they're with remain loyal to them. See Reed Richards, Tony Stark, and Superman in current continuity if you need examples. Even though Dinah gets brutally tortured in Grell's mini-series (see the original column for more on that), the relationship he establishes between her and Oliver is admirable, and it lays the groundwork for his excellent treatment of both characters in the Green Arrow ongoing that followed.

That's it for now. More links to outside writings to follow soon.

Friday, July 12, 2013

3 Short Essays on Night Fisher

A Place for Everything, and Everything Displaced
I'm not sure if there's a single scene in R. Kikuo Johnson's graphic novella Night Fisher that isn't related to idea of people or things being out of place. It's incredible how many different ways, subtle and overt, RKJ finds to explore that theme in such a small space. The story focuses on high school senior Loren Foster, who moved with his father from Massachusetts to Hawaii six years ago, but still doesn't quite fit in anywhere. Even his last name is indicative of that feeling, and try as he might, Loren never really feels comfortable or confident where he is. He only has one person he considers a friend, Shane, but to the outside observer it is obvious that whatever their connection is, it is not a true friendship. They like each other, sure, but they're on such unequal footing. Loren looks up to Shane and desperately wants his approval; Shane couldn't care less what Loren thinks or does, he just likes having someone around who's less put together than he is.
     This imbalance leads Loren to join Shane and others as they do crystal meth, beat each other up, steal things, and generally spend their time with petty lawbreaking and time wasting. Loren doesn't really want to do any of it at first, but he doesn't not want to, either, necessarily. It doesn't seem like Loren knows what he wants. He doesn't know, yet, who he even is, so he lets Shane make that decision for him. That's what I mean when I talk about him being out of place. In a state that has never felt like home, going to a private school he hates, and totally disconnected from his father, the closest Loren comes to belonging is when he and Shane are high and getting into trouble. But even in that, Loren is the outsider, the ignorant and innocent new kid who Shane's other friends never respect or give a shit about. And ultimately, they all get arrested in Loren's dad's car with a stolen power generator, after which Shane outright abandons his "friend," saying they shouldn't talk anymore. This is how Night Fisher ends, with Shane bailing on Loren who, shocked and wounded, is left lying in the grass as alone as he feels.
     Loren's poor choice in best buddy and the underlying reasons for it are just one aspect of the broader unifying concept of things being where they don't belong. By setting the story in Hawaii, RKJ is able to explore this idea in larger, less personal ways, too. Hawaii has a long history of colonial forces introducing new animal and plant species, sometimes with devastating effects on the ecosystem. RKJ gives a brief overview of this in the voice of one of Loren's teachers, and then reminds the reader of it again when Loren visits an outdoor market and sees for himself how many non-native options are available. There is a brief scene where Loren and Shane discuss Las Vegas, which Loren refers to as "the ninth Hawaiian island" because tens of thousands Hawaiians have moved there in recent years. However, Loren and Shane's drug dealer, Jon, is an example of movement in the opposite direction. He was raised in Vegas and then came to Hawaii when he learned his family owned land there.
     There are other examples. Loren is incredibly ill-at-ease with Lacey, the girl he likes because she gave him his one and only sexual experience more than a year before. And Lacey, for her part, is sick of Hawaii, eager to go to college just about anywhere else. Loren's dad can't handle their yard, it is too large and the plant life too lush for him to keep under control. He bought their house when they first moved to the island, but his dental practice isn't doing well enough for him to maintain the property. Nobody in this book is where they want to be or who they want to be. It is a cast full of lost, lonely people living together on an island that's saturated with outside influences.

Drugs Are
There's no denying that drugs play a central role in Night Fisher. Without Shane introducing Loren to crystal meth, there wouldn't really be a story here, or...the story that would exist would be unrecognizable, far tamer and with considerably lower stakes. And RKJ certainly doesn't paint drug use in the most positive light. It leads to legal troubles and the loss of a friend for Loren, as well as furthering the emotional divide between him and his dad. Jon the drug dealer is thirty-something with an illegitimate child he does nothing to support, has no apparent prospects or ambitions, and hangs out with high schoolers. Shane's drug use appears to comes from a self-destructive place, and he's reckless and selfish and generally just an unlikable, abrasive teen. These traits are amplified when he's high, and often it seems that his next high is the only thing he's interested in, a budding addict or perhaps even a full-fledged one. The dangers and damage of drug use are on full display here, but RKJ still manages to avoid demonizing it, because he also makes the appeal clear.
     When Loren first tries meth, RKJ draws it as bees tickling his ears and then his brain, demonstrating the flurry of mental activity and the loss of awareness and the unexpected joy and so many other things that getting high can offer. Also, the biggest smile to grace Loren's face in the entire book comes in this moment. And though by the end of the story there have been some serious consequences, in the days following this initial experience, Loren finds himself more confident and productive than ever before. It is the closest he comes to feeling genuine comfort, it is the most fun we ever see him have, and it marks a high point in his friendship with Shane. On meth, they can enjoy each other's company, relate to one another in a way that never quite happens while they're sober. Plus they have fun.
     Because drugs are fun. They're interesting, they make the world look and feel different, they turn people into new, sometimes preferable versions of themselves. Communities crop up around drugs, bonds are formed, lessons learned, revelations had. There is a reason drugs are so popular, a reason meth reached epidemic levels in Hawaii (and elsewhere). Escapism, peer pressure, the joys of a chemically-expanded mind—all these and more are at play in this narrative, just as big a part of things as the downsides and aftereffects. RKJ strikes a delicate balance, letting the drugs be what they are, good and bad, rather than using them to deliver a particular moral, message, or warning.

The Perfect Venue
R. Kikuo Johnson uses his medium of choice to great effect. He understands what kinds of things comicbooks can do that other methods of storytelling can't, and takes advantage of them wherever possible. He plays with the size and shape of his letters to help express tone. Or Loren's head physically blocks lettering when he is distracted in class. In those moments when Loren feels most out of his element, his glasses tend to overshadow his face, so he becomes a strange dark figure with huge white eyes, almost alien in appearance. Which obviously fits with the narrative goals of those scenes. This ability to subtly misshape and reshape the protagonist's face from scene to scene or panel to panel is something you can only get in comics, and Loren's glasses stand out as a particularly memorable part of his character to me because of how RKJ utilizes them. They are the wall between Loren and the rest of the world, literally hiding his eyes from the reader, keeping him distant even from the audience, despite his frequent narration.
     When Loren's dad is tying a complicated knot, when Jon changes a tire, and in several other smaller instances of characters using their hands, RKJ demonstrates what they're doing through well-placed arrows, diagrams, and the like. They are visual treats, used sparingly enough not to feel invasive, yet often enough that it creates a consistent reality. Similarly, there are several panels of the drawings in Loren's textbooks. Maps and animals and plants, mostly, all done in similarly clinical styles—heavy detail, lots of white space, labels like "fig. 1," etc. These small touches help Night Fisher feel immediately full, like its world is lived in, like it has logic and history. And the story references that history many times, or rather it references many histories: Hawaii's, Loren and Shane's, Jon's, the school's, the town's, etc.
     As much thought as RKJ put into his script, finding so many types of displacement to explore, he was equally devoted to fleshing out the artwork. The result is that Night Fisher is singularly suited to be a comicbook, as reliant on its visual flourishes as its narrative layers.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Dearly Departed: Dark Avengers

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

I have't read that much Thunderbolts material. I love the concept of a series about vilains acting as heroes, so it's all on my list, and has been for a while. But I didn't actually start following the series until Jeff Parker had already been writing it for a while. So when the name of the book changed to Dark Avengers with issue #175 last year, I wasn't as bothered by it as some others seemed to be. I mean, I saw it for the weird, cheap attempt at boosting sales that it was, and I questioned the logic of bringing in a new team when the current roster was so awesome in Parker's hands, but I didn't have too much connection to the title itself. It is annoying that Marvel reused it for a brand new book with a totally unrelated team and concept just a few months later, especially since Dark Avengers only ran for about a year (sixteen issues, published slightly more frequently than once a month). But Parker made a lot of smart decisions when the time came to make the transition, so that the weird volume of Dark Avengers that now exists only as issues #175-190 is accessible to newcomers while still acting as a well-told finale to the larger Thunderbolts epic he was in the middle of telling when the title changed.
     For one thing, he largely ignores that time travel tale in his first Dark Avengers issue in favor of focusing on Luke Cage as he's forced to lead the members of the new titular team. Then in the second installment, Parker switches back to the Thunderbolts who are lost in time, which might arguably be confusing for someone who only jumped on one issue prior and was expecting the next beat in the storyline set up there, but for those readers, there is issue #177. In that third chapter, Parker jumps back and forth between the two teams and time periods, demonstrating what his strategy will be moving forward from that point: even as he develops the plot and characters of the Dark Avengers, he will simultaneously continue to tell his Thunderbolts narrative until, ultimately and somewhat brilliantly, those two stories collide and become one and the same. I suppose three issues could be called too long to finalize a mission statement for a new series, but "new" is a relative term, and in this case, it doesn't really apply. Parker had the unenviable task of establishing the book as something fresh while at the same time maintaining some semblance of what it used to be for the readers who were already fans. So if he took a bit of time to pull that off, I think that's more than forgivable and, in fact, even a bit impressive.
     There's also a tremendous amount of built-in history when it comes to Luke Cage and the Dark Avengers anyway, the details of which I don't really know. Parker glosses over it so he can get to the meat and potatoes of the new story, but the long and short is that they've worked together before, and don't care for one another. It establishes a powerful mistrust between Cage and the team he is meant to be leading, and gives him a reason to bring in Skaar, son of Hulk, another character with an antagonistic relationship with the Dark Avengers since he used to be one but then betrayed them, leading to their incarceration. All of this past hatred is laid out in the opening issue, so that Parker can move on to the mission at hand without dwelling in the convoluted history of the Marvel Universe. And it gives him space to spend the next issue with the Thunderbolts, and subsequent issues with both groups, delivering a fast-paced and high-octane adventure to save the world that reaches across time and allows villains to be heroes.
     The overarching storyline that ties together the first nine of these sixteen issues centers around the Dark Avengers being sent by the same government agency that was in charge of the Thunderbolts program (F.A.C.T.) to the newly-created nation of Sharzhad. Cage and Skaar are told that the mission is to retrieve a kidnapped operative named Wender, but in actuality Wender hasn't been captured, he escaped. He is a tool of the government, he and his twin brother, and the real goal is to use their energy-transference powers to sap Sharzhad and its wicked leader, Sultan Magus, of all power. Not a rescue operation, then, but an invasion/infiltration gig, and only the Dark Avengers know the truth of what their goals are. As with so many illicit government activities, things go awry, and so we see the Thunderbolts, stuck in a dystopian future, learn that the Dark Avengers will create a global catastrophe with their actions. This is how Parker bonds his disconnected threads.
     It's also an excuse to make the Thunderbolts the bona fide heroes of this story, not a role they have necessarily played up to now. As criminals and career supervillains, they're more morally ambiguous in most of what they do, but for this particular arc, their agenda is unquestionably heroic. They are going to go back in time and prevent the Sharzhad cataclysm, putting their own lives very much at risk for the sake of the world at large.
     And they do it, too. Showing up with mere minutes to spare, the Thunderbolts shut down the Sharzhad situation, though they accomplish that by stabbing Wender through the chest with Skaar's giant sword so, even as heroes, they're not the friendliest or noblest bunch. It's a delicious finale, bombastic and sometimes ridiculous, full of Parker's signature humor, and a fitting send-off for the Thunderbolts team. They return to their own time, get to literally prevent an apocalypse, and then disperse. After all, they're still technically criminals, as ridiculous as that seems in light of what they've done. So rather than stick around to take credit for the world-saving, they run off into uncertain but exciting futures. Not dissimilar from the final beat that the Dark Avengers also get, but that comes later on, and I will get to it in a minute.
     Obviously the above is a brief and over-simplified summary of Dark Avengers' opening arc. There is an amazing amount of other shit that goes down: the Thunderbolts battle Dr. Doom in prehistoric and then modern times; Sultan Magus turns Skaar back into his human form and nearly kills him; Songbird and Mach V (the only Thunderbolts who aren't lost in time) spy on F.A.C.T. and discover what they're up to; Hank Pym makes contact with the Thunderbolts trapped in the future through some classic comicbook super-science; there's a whole fucked up world in that future run by clones of superheroes who battle against gangs of hideous, downtrodden mutants; and probably innumerable other bits and pieces I'm forgetting. Point being, Parker crams it all in without the narrative feeling overcrowded, and still finds a way to bring it all together and make it one cohesive whole. The level of effort and creativity he devotes to the book helps sell the reader on the Dark Avengers characters without giving them the full spotlight right away, and provides the outgoing Thunderbolts with an appropriately epic final escapade. It's exactly what Parker needed to do to make the switch from Thunderbolts to Dark Avengers, welcoming newcomers while respecting the established readership, and just generally writing some damn fine and funny comics to boot.
     Once he has properly laid the old title and its cast to rest, Parker writes his only full-fledged Dark Avengers story arc with the remaining seven issues. Sadly, it is less wonderful, though still a good deal of fun. But because the book and cast are still pretty fresh, and this story takes place in an alternate reality, there is a lack of stakes that prevent this narrative from reaching greatness. To Parker's credit, he writes the story like it doesn't matter (but not like he doesn't care, which is an important distinction), keeping it light and action-packed. He revels in the freedom and some of the cliches of having an elseworlds setting, and I happen to be a bit of a sucker for that type of story, so in the end I still think of the latter half of Dark Avengers as successful and good. That it doesn't stack up against the storyline that preceded it is more praise for those issues than condemnation for these.
     As part of the resolution to the Sharzhad incident, the Dark Avengers get teleported away by Man-Thing (a Thunderbolt) when the Quinjet that is supposed to take them back to prison swerves off course and is about to crash. Moonstone (also a Thunderbolt) gets caught in the teleportation when she tries to intercept the vessel in mid-air. The Quinjet crashes in a twisted version of modern Marvel New York, where the city has been sectioned off into districts controlled by warped and overpowered version of popular superheroes. A very dark and power-hungry Dr. Strange, the largest and angriest Thing ever seen, Spider-Man with permanent webs and monster teeth, and hyper-fascist Iron Man, who is literally just Tony Stark’s brain in a floating orb inside a suit of robot armor. These are the rulers of this world, long at war with one another but currently in the middle of a yearlong ceasefire that began when Hulk and Thor killed each other. It’s bleak, y’all.
     The Dark Avengers get scattered a bit, and end up fighting for different sides of the ongoing war, though in truth all any of them want is to return to their reality. Which, of course, they do, after uncovering that the world they're in is really just an A.I.M. experiment, a "sliver reality" created for the purpose of stealing whatever technology or superpowers or what have you were developed as a result of the endless conflict. A.I.M.'s access point also becomes the Dark Avengers' escape route, and the sliver is folded back into the "real"world as if it never existed at all. And therein lies one of the largest problems with this story: its ending is utterly predictable. That the alternate reality will not last for very long is a given from the beginning. Parker fills the issues with some thrilling action, zany super-science, and solid humor, but none of that does much to distract from the fact that the story is destined to largely undo itself in the end.
     Parker is smart and considerate enough to have some of what happens in the sliver universe effect his real-world characters permanently. And when the series finally ends with issue #190, the Dark Avengers are still together, still on the loose, and have a wide open future ahead of them. So despite the somewhat obvious resolution to the alternate reality story specifically, Parker swerves expectations to a degree by leaving the book very open-ended as a whole. Between that, his exaggerated and terrifying versions of well-known characters, and the consistency of Parker's signature humor and fun-loving narrative tone, the final seven chapter of this series manage to be highly entertaining. They're not as enthralling or sprawling as the arc they follow, but taken on their own, they're still better than most current cape comics.
     Before I close, I'd be remiss as all get out if I didn't actually discuss the Dark Avengers as separate characters. Though they work toward common goals together consistently in this book, and are therefore easy to discuss as a group (as I've done thus far), the specific roles they play in the stories vary, so they're worth examining as individuals. They are Trickshot, Ragnarok, Toxie Doxie, and Al Apaic, villainous knock-off versions of Hawkeye, Thor, Scarlet Witch, and Spider-Man respectively. Also joining them in this book is U.S. Agent, the man who once filled in for Captain America. Though all of these characters were established well before they joined this book, I personally had no experience with them ahead of time (except a few issues of West Coast Avengers that had U.S. Agent in them), so my impressions are based entirely on Parker's interpretations and developments.
     Trickshot's easily the least interesting member of the team, because he ends up being a bit one-note. His whole life seems to revolve around trying to outdo his brother, the real Hawkeye, but he's not nearly as cool or as talented. So he comes across as this very lame, weak, pathetic dude, trapping himself in the shadow of a sibling who isn't at all concerned about him. He does have some good laugh lines, though, since he refuses to take anything seriously, but his few humorous moments don't make up for an obnoxious personality.
     On the opposite end of the spectrum is Toxie Doxie, who Parker wisely chooses to refer to by her real name, June Covington, most of the time. June is intelligent, meticulous, and always thinking ahead, and it makes her more complex and compelling than anyone else on the team. Also, her powers seem to be limitless. Because she gets her abilities through genetic modification, and is herself a brilliant geneticist, she is able to upgrade her powerset more than once over the course of this series. And as the smartest and most powerful Dark Avenger, she becomes the de facto leader, helped considerably by her mind control powers. I would very much like to see what the team turns into under her guidance, which is essentially where Parker leaves them at the end of his run. Technically U.S. Agent is in charge, but the implication is that June has control of his brain, so she's really the one steering. That's a tense and possibly volatile dynamic, and it's a shame Parker didn't get to anything with it beyond the initial set-up.
     U.S. Agent himself is not that impressive in this series, a fairly standard, Boy Scouty do-gooder. He's arguably the moral center of the group, but since nobody really listens to him, that's not really true. Ragnarok is in a similar place, doing little of merit and leaving only the faintest impression. He even expresses feeling a lack of personal identity toward the end of the book, something Parker tries to remedy by giving him the hammer of the deceased Thor from the sliver world. Ragnarok is a cyborg clone of the real Thor, so he has some legitimate Asgardian physiology that the alternate Mjolnir recognizes, changing his appearance and boosting his powers exponentially. The long-term effects of this are never seen, though, since the shift comes only one issue before the book closes. So Parker does a lot for Ragnarok's potential, but doesn't get to actually see it fulfilled.
     Finally, there's Al Apaic (whose name gets spelled in a lot of different ways depending on who's talking in which issue, so...I'm just going with the one from the recaps on the title pages). He claims to be a god, and it's probably true, but like I said, I don't really know the details of any of these people's histories, and Parker doesn't waste time relating them all to me. Whatever the case, Apaic is quite powerful, able to kill Dr. Strange with a poisonous bite. He's also almost as smart and fast-thinking as June, making him the second most interesting Dark Avenger. Sadly, he's kind of repetitive in his dialogue, much like Trickshot, incessantly reminding everyone he is a deity and demanding respect that he'll never get. Not as sad as Trickshot wanting to one-up his estranged brother, but still a futile and annoying personal goal.
     They're an eclectic bunch, and they bring a lot of different combat strategies to the table, which keeps the action in Dark Avengers dynamic and visually pleasing and surprising. And they are all basically assholes, except for U.S. Agent, who's a good guy but so damn dead serious all of the time that he sort of comes across as an ass anyway. But the point is, having a team of selfish, immature villains be the star of your book is not the easiest thing to do without being grating, but Parker finds inventive ways to swing it. Sticking them in a world that's not their own, where the people who should be heroes are instead far more evil than any of the Dark Avengers themselves, allows the reader to root for them even if we don't care for them that much. A fine line to walk, but Parker never stumbles. And though the series is far superior when the Thunderbolts are still in it, it keeps up its breakneck pacing and comedic sensibilities throughout, so it's always a decent read even when it's not firing on all cylinders.
     Do I miss it now that it's gone? Not tremendously, but I certainly would've stuck with it if it hadn't been canceled. And should the Dark Avengers ever get another shot at a series of their own, I'm bound to give it a try no matter who the creators are, because Parker---and some really great artists like Declan Shalvey, Kev Walker, and Neil Edwards whom I've criminally neglected in this post---made them strange and fascinating enough for me to want more. I'd like to know if June maintains her sway over U.S. Agent, and what she does with that influence. Does Moonstone stay with this team, or does she go off on her own like the rest of the Thunderbolts got to do? And who does Ragnarok decide he is, now that he has a real magic hammer and not some kind of bizarre rip-off? They're not the world's strongest characters or the best team I've ever seen, but they have a special something, a unique blend of charm and abrasiveness that draws me to them anyway. So I hope they do get a chance to star in something again, but either way, I'm glad for the brief run they had with Jeff Parker at the helm.