Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Monthly Dose: October 2013

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

100 Bullets #12: This issue is a tough one for me to summarize, as far as my feelings about it. I like a lot of what's there, but it also feels like there's too much padding in between all the good and important bits. Dizzy comes back, and that's awesome, because she's an incredible character whose initial arc was too short. But her entrance is drawn out, despite it being spoiled by Dave Johnson's great cover, and not really being nearly as dramatic as it's played. There are some other slow moments, long silences that get the job done in their first panels and then keep going anyway. And there's a lot of French dialogue, which is ok because the gist of what's being said always comes through clearly in Eduardo Risso's art, but I don't speak French so I lose the words. I do think it's cool of Brian Azzarello to use actual French instead of English bookended by < >, but it takes up a big enough percentage of this issue's dialogue to be kind of obnoxious for someone who can't understand it. And none of the French dialogue is connected to the good parts of the story anyway. The real purpose of this issue is to introduce Mr. Branch, the first character to ask out loud who the hell Agent Graves is and how he can do what he does. That's been the looming question, and it was high time the book addressed it directly. When Branch says it, there's a shift in the narrative wind. It's a clear beat of, "Now we're getting somewhere!" So I quite like that, in concept and execution both, but I'm less fond of the fluff the surrounds it. To end on a high note: Dizzy is about to walk out on Branch before he tells her that he didn't kill anyone with his attaché full of untraceable bullets, which stops her in her tracks. Earlier in the issue, we see her upset over the memory of her own killings. All of that is nice, subtle development of this book's best character, from Risso and Azzarello both. Risso makes her shame clear, and the fear that lies beneath it. Azzarello uses her conflicted feelings about everything to put a smart ending on a mediocre issue. He also makes Branch smart enough to pick up on her turmoil and use it to keep her from leaving, so he's a likable new character that I'm glad we get to see more of immediately.

The Intimates #12: It's over! After starting this Monthly Dose thing last November, I've finally reached the end of a series, as The Intimates #12 is the last issue ever. And it knows it, and it talks about it openly. There's some honest and amusing discussion of it in Joe Casey's info scrolls, of course. He talks briefly about how the idea was born, how he wanted a mini-series but they gave him an ongoing anyway, and the struggles a book like this naturally faces in a market most interested in long-established superhero characters doing big action stuff. The Intimates is a bunch of brand new superheroes-in-training participating in typical teenage shenanigans, and therefore wasn't an easy sell, understandably enough. So Casey touches on all of that with his usual snark, but he also has Punchy discover that his favorite spy comicbook is being canceled and react with passionate vehemence throughout the issue. That's a much funnier, more fitting, more visceral, and more relatable way to discuss the cancellation of The Intimates itself. Because where the info scrolls provide an insider's take on things, Punchy's rage and disappointment are the reader's own, assuming said reader is a fan of this comicbook. He's losing something he loves, and so are we the audience, but it's a bit easier to have him go through it with us. The rest of this issue is, sadly, a mess. The art is split between Alé Garza and Carlos D'anda, who seem to trade off on random pages, and whose styles are just shy of working together. They're both pretty loose with their lines, but their designs for the characters aren't quite the same. Destra's glasses change shape, as do Punchy's hair and Kefong's face. It's frustrating to watch, but I could see the argument that the book is losing its firmness as it races toward its ultimate end. In other words, the artistic inconsistencies add to the intentional urgency of the story, and that's fine, but not as good as if the artists had found a way to do the same thing with a more cohesive look. And the story is jumpy, or maybe twitchy. A character from a different Wildstorm book that Casey used to write shows up all of a sudden and becomes a major player here in the final chapter. And the whole Devonshire food mystery is left only half-solved, as the kids decide that rather than keep trying to deal with it, they'll just teleport themselves out of the school and...I don't know what. The ending is as open-ended as it gets, and on purpose, which is actually an aspect of the issue that works for me. Because the series was cut short, Casey decided to do something dramatic and final with his cast so The Intimates could stay forever its own thing, untouched by outside hands. So the characters activate the teleportation device, and either get away or incinerate themselves, but in either case we don't get any confirmation. We just see them disappear, and then the final page is straight out of one of Punchy's now-also-canceled Boss Tempo comics. That's a cool way to wrap things up, so as a farewell to the title I've always immensely enjoyed The Intimates #12, but taken as a single issue, it is admittedly sloppy.

X-Force (vol.1) #12: Mark Pacella is back on art, stilling doing a bit of a Liefeld mime, but this issue, everyone's even bigger than usual. Their proportions are the same as always, but Pacella uses an abnormal number of one-to-three-panel pages here so that he can draw everybody even larger. It makes the pacing very weird. For example, Grizzly is introduced in two full-page splashes, one that shows the rest of the Weapon Prime team talking to him in a weirdly-laid-out group shot, and then the official reveal of his identity is just an enormous image of his face, packed so tightly within the frame of the page that you can hardly see any of his hair. Grizzly's whole thing is that he's a HUGE muscular dude, so if you want to devote an entire page to him, you damn well ought to show his body, at least from the waist up. The preceding page even mentions how big he is, only to be disappointingly followed his face alone. This is not the only instance of these large panels being mismanged by Pacella. Leapfrogging from one "big" moment to another makes them all feel less effective, and makes the whole issue seem like a lot of bluster that leads nowhere. Because once again, all we really see here are forces amassing against Cable but not yet attacking him. Meanwhile, Cable and his team chatter amongst themselves about how to deal with Domino's recent betrayal before he makes an executive decision about leaving their current HQ without consulting or even warning anybody. Two things about this: 1. When did everyone find out Domino was a traitor? I think we skipped a beat between the audience learning it and the cast doing the same. 2. Cable does this kind of sudden, bossy, aggressive decision-making a lot, and almost never wants to hear anyone complain about or question it. Which, like...doesn't that make him a shitty leader? I'm not on his side, and all the people who hate him are jerks, too, so basically I'm left rooting for the rest of X-Force to break out from Cable's control. That'd be kind of a cool idea if it was the intention, but Cable seems to be presented in this book as an awesome badass meant to inspire awe with his gruff confidence. Instead he's a stubborn, thick, annoying, overbearing punk who doesn't seem at all the right guy to be telling a bunch of impressionable young superhumans how to live.

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Other Side is Gorgeously Ugly

There's no shortage of material on the pointlessness of the Vietnam War, showing kids fighting for and dying over causes they neither believed in nor understood. The fact that Jason Aaron and Cameron Stewart's The Other Side offers both an American and Vietnamese point of view is applaudable but not unprecedented, just like its overall attitude that the whole affair was hell on Earth no matter who you were fighting for. Despite this familiarity, it is somehow a standout piece, which I think has most to do with its creators managing to cooperatively go in opposite directions. Aaron's script is sheer hideousness, Stewart's art all beauty.
     The two lead characters are soldiers on opposite sides of the conflict, Bill Everette and Vo Binh Dai, both of whom narrate their own sections of the story. Everette is pissed off about being drafted from the beginning, an anger that comes from his perfectly reasonable and all-encompassing fear that he'll die if he goes to war. Dai, meanwhile, is excited to be a soldier, volunteering not just willingly but eagerly. To die in combat would be a worthy way to go, he thinks, as there's no nobler cause than fighting for his family and their homeland. Within the first five pages of the first issue, this fundamental difference between the two protagonists is established in no uncertain terms, and from there Aaron steadily brings them closer together emotionally as they grow nearer geographically. Buried in an ever-growing pile of filth, death, hopelessness, and lies, the two young men struggle just to keep their heads up, until finally they find themselves involved in the same battle and Everette ends Dai's life.
     Aaron puts both of his stars through the ringer and then some, neither one of them seeing even the tiniest shred of hope or happiness for the entire length of their time in the war. Yet the details of what they go through differ greatly, with Dai's experience being more of a slow slog downward and Everette's being a non-stop hurricane of shit. Before he's even in-country, Everette begins hallucinating and hearing voices. His gun speaks to him quite profanely, and he has visions of the mangled, skinless, jawless body of the dead soldier he was drafted to replaced. Everette goes to his superiors with the news of his mental instability, but they basically tell him to get over himself because it's too late now; crazy or not, he's going to go fight and maybe die for his country. Things certainly don't get any better for Everette once he's in the thick of things, surrounded by death and disease, forced to actually use his chatty weapon against the enemy, and cut off from any of the joys of civilization he's used to. But they only get marginally worse from there—he begins in a state of total panic and insanity, and he ends there, too, only with less of a chance of ever recovering than he had in the beginning. Now a reluctant killer, he comes home in a near-constant state of silent, wide-eyed shock. He may have lived through Vietnam, but he didn't necessarily survive.
     Dai, of course, doesn't survive in any sense, and is the first human being we see Everette kill. But the fight that takes Dai's life is not even close to the worst thing he experiences. On the contrary, it's the moment he's been waiting for, the prize he gets for making it that far. Dai marches for months through the jungle, not even seeing action most of that time, but nevertheless watching his comrades die all around him from weakness and disease. His unit loses their leadership, gets lost in the wilderness, deals with animal attacks and other threats of nature, and can't even always pause long enough to bury their deceased. As their numbers dwindle, the futility of what they're doing is brought into a rather harsh light, yet Dai never completely faces it, never gives thought to giving up or trying to return home. He wants to be a glorious, honorable soldier like his father and grandfather. He wants a chance to prove himself. And tragically, when at long last he gets that opportunity, he is almost immediately shot through the heart by Everette. Dai falls in the heat of battle as he'd hoped (and assumed) he would do all along, while his killer has to go home and deal with the impossible aftermath of what he's been through.
     The implicit question at the end of The Other Side, then, is whether or not those who fought and lived had it better than those who fought and died. Everette gets to see his home and family again, this is true, and certainly he has this over Dai. But Dai's family remembers him fondly and with great reverence, while Everette's doesn't quite know how to react to the man who returns to them. And neither Dai nor Everette matter, not in any greater historical sense. They were both nobodys before the war, and they're equally unimportant now, despite the fact that one's alive and the other dead. Dai got the horrendous ending he always expected; Everette never knew what to expect, and then in the end everything was a thousand times worse than he could have imagined.
     Aaron obviously isn't looking for the bright side of war, or life, or anything. He pours the awful on thick for both lead characters, and if you read The Other Side as a prose piece, it might be a struggle, not because it'd be bad but because its content would be too heavy to move through. Cameron Stewart's art isn't necessarily...uplifting, but it's so goddamn good-looking that it makes the ugliness in the story not just bearable but enjoyable. Stewart packs a lot of realism into the worst bits, the muck and gore and unforgiving wildlife. When flesh is shot or melted or torn, you really feel it, you see how painful it would be and, more importantly, why. The violence and the setting are both as grim as the narrative, but the people are a bit less dark. They have stretched, pseudo-cartoonish features, which makes the rare instances of happiness seem bigger and gives all of their anger an edge of comedy. Their terror, too, though that's not so much amusing as it is fascinating—their deep, large, fear-stricken eyes are hard to move past.
     Stewart also does some great things with layout, but only sparsely, when it counts. There's an amazing scene in issue #4 where Everette spots a butterfly drifting through the middle of a firefight, and Stewart nails the madness of that moment and its contrasting imagery in one 16-panel page. A perfect grid, the panels splice close-up shots of intense violence with the butterfly's listless journey and a few out-of-context images of other things Everette has seen during his time in the Marines. It's chaotic and brilliant, inasmuch as almost every panel is a memorable snapshot on its own, and the page as a whole is truly unforgettable. A similar thing happens when Dai is killed, though with slightly less rigid a structure. A full-page image of his pained face in his final conscious seconds makes up the background, overlapped by some two dozen smaller panels of various size showing clips from his real past, his present-tense death, and his imagined future, had he survived. These sorts of breakout, standalone pieces of art appear throughout the series, and even when depicting the most depressing or unthinkable events, they're wonderful to look at, to study as visual achievements and examples of the power of the medium.
     It must be said at this point that colorist Dave McCaig plays a pretty major role in this book's greatness as well. Stewart brings the lovely, but McCaig makes it shine. The colors are thick but muted, somewhere in between Aaron's gut-wrenching writing and Stewart's eye-popping artwork. They add firmness to everything in their weight, and lightness in their tone. Also, between Stewart and McCaig, The Other Side has some of the best, hottest comicbook fire (and napalm) I've ever seen. It's a weird thing to compliment, maybe, but in a war series, it's of no small importance to have every gunshot and explosion be visually effective.
     Even without the words, this would be a great tragedy, and without the art I believe it'd still be an interesting piece of fiction. In combination, though, these elements make The Other Side the perfect middle ground between a difficult read and a book that's hard to put down. It's unapologetically brutal and unwaveringly gorgeous, at the same time matching and pushing back against the godawful realities of war.

Sunday, October 27, 2013


This week, I've got two columns at other sites: a piece for PopMatters on the struggle between loving specific characters and loving specific creators, and one at The Chemical Box about the 1987 issues of Vigilante. Both of them were kind of short, which is sot of a bummer, but what can ya do?

Something I Failed to Mention
A number of different artists contributed to the twelve issues of Vigilante that I discussed, but the two most regular were penciler Tod Smith and inker Rick Burchett. I'd call them the primary artistic team on the book, as when geust artists did step in, the seemed to stay more or less in line with what Smith and Burchett were doing. Unlike the maniacal main character, the art of Vigilante is very connected to reality. There's a lot of violence, and therefore a decent volume of blood spilled, sometimes in rather graphic fashion. Smith and Burchett never make it garish, but they always make it count, so that the pain and consequences of all the fighting are felt by the reader in full. The costumed characters always fit when standing next to the regularly-dressed humans, so that Vigilante's brand of masked guns-and-fists street justice is always at home, no matter how outlandishly he and/or his foes are acting. Smith and Burchett do a good job of adding some realism to the world that surrounds Vigilante, making his delusions all the more striking by comparison.

Monday, October 21, 2013


I felt like I should put something up on the blog tonight because I've got pieces to write for other sites this week that are not yet started, plus day job stuff, plus preparing to move into a new house stuff. Now seemed like the best time, despite a lack of topic. So I'm just tossing some whatevers out there.

I do not envy the retailers who have to make the same kinds of "what looks good?" decisions I do but for a whole bunch of customers, real and hypothetical, every single week. Read this for more on that from a retailer's perspective.

I've been so lazy about my reading lately. Even lazier about my writing. It's fall now, which means amazing weather, and that means I'm not eager to hole up in my own head and do the comicbook thing. 

They're calling it All-New X-Factor instead of Uncanny X-Factor, which I hate. The team won't always be new, but it could always be weird.

I haven't seen a superhero movie since Iron Man 2. Not because I'm taking a stand or some such self-important bullcrap, I just don't see movies very much anymore. I hear there have been some good ones, so someday I reckon I'll watch those.

My parents visited me last weekend (not the weekend that just happened, the one before) and per usual I got comics from my dad that he's never going to read again, plus I lent him some stuff of mine he was interested in. He brought me the first few issues of three or four of Marvel's current X-Men books, ditto the Avengers titles, a bunch of the current-running Iron Man, and what is now my second copy of the recent Silver Surfer issue of Daredevil. I'm excited to read everything not because I think it's going to be good, but because it was all free and will educate me in more detail about the current state of the Marvel U.

I don't pay attention to convention news as it's coming out. I wait for people to sort through it for me and publish overviews of what to look forward to. Also there will be months of promos and interviews and previews and whatnot for any new series, so I always hear about anything that might interest me in time.

I hope Loose Ends never publishes its fourth and final issue, so that the series itself is forever a loose end. Surely someone else has thought of this?

House to Astonish is back, and I am literally giddy.

Someday I'm going to take the time to go through my entire collection and maximize my bag space. No more four-issue series in six-issue bags, or arcs cut in half by bags too small to hold them, or any of that irksome mess. I do swear it!

Occasionally I find all the new comics in a given week exceptionally blah, and then I worry it's just a mood I'm in. Like maybe I just read something spectacular but was too grumpy to let it all in. I reassure myself that I'll reread it all eventually, but that's probably not true in every case, and I'd hate to go on forever thinking the wrong thing about a comic because of external circumstances.

Superman and The Punisher are both characters that have never quite connected with me, no matter what stories/series I've seen them in. I understand, I think, what others see in them, but I'm just not all that interested in the kinds of themes they're built to explore. No ill will, though. They're important figures and I don't begrudge them their audiences.

Oh god how do I tag this post? Do I just let it sit in the ether unlabeled? Perish the thought! And yet...

Order of the Stick just celebrated its tenth anniversary last month. CONGRATS! That's a series that means a lot to me, and though I wasn't there at the beginning, I've been following it for more than half its life, and have read the whole thing several times. It's been a reliable companion.

I have a much harder time with animal death in comics than I do in life. I can't make sense of that, but there it is. Not like moral outrage, just emotional spasm.

The hype around Afterlife with Archie is working on me.

Movie and video game ads in comics from the '80s are the shit. I have learned so much about so many failed entertainment projects from the era through Wikipediaing what I see in the ads. Also, lots of odd comicbook series I'd never heard of before. So there, finally, value in the ad pages. It only takes like 25-30 years for them to shift from obnoxious to interesting.

Sometimes I like to imagine a day when somehow, magically, all of the ongoing series I'm following wrap up their major storylines at the same time, and all the the mini-series I'm reading end then, too. There I'd be with a newfound sense of comicbook closure, awash in the glow of certainty and finality. Would I dare read another issue ever again, knowing it would pierce the bubble?

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Ninth Gland, Goddammit!

I have a frustrating relationship with Renée French's The Ninth Gland, beginning with the circumstances surrounding my purchase of it. As some of you may know, I write a column on The Chemical Box called "1987 And All That" focusing on comicbooks with a publication date from 1987 (the year I was born). I came up with the idea when I noticed that I already owned a fairly large number of issues from that year, but my supply is not infinite, so I sometimes do a bit of back issue digging and/or online shopping for more. Now, The Ninth Gland is from 1997, a full ten years later than I was looking for, but whatever website I found it on—I'm pretty sure I know which one it was but it doesn't seem worth it to call them out—had it listed as being published in 1987. I was eager for early Dark Horse stuff (they were founded in '86) and since this was a one-shot it seemed like the perfect way to get my feet wet without a major financial commitment. Ten seconds of further Internet research could've told me I was ordering something that came out a decade too late, but I trusted the online store, so I added it to my cart, and like a week later it arrived. The first thing I did was double check the date on the inside cover, and boy was I deflated when I learned of my mistake. My budget's not flexible enough to be screwing up like this, plus I had one fewer possible topic for future Chemical Box columns. Bummer.
     But fine, it was just one issue, and now that I had it, I figured I might as well read it. No point in buying something and then letting it go to waste just because I thought it came out earlier than it did. I've read it two, maybe three times since then, and I'm afraid it's time to admit that I absolutely do not get it. It's not that I think the book is bad, but I definitely don't like it, either. I'm not sure how I feel about it, because I'm not really sure what the hell it is. I don't what it's doing, saying, or going for. I know it makes me squirm, and sometimes a little sad, but I'm not sure what the point is, if indeed there's any point at all. I like to think of myself as an intelligent enough reader to at least get a vague sense of what any book is about, not just narratively but thematically as well. In the case of The Ninth Gland, neither are entirely clear; I don't understand what happens and I don't know what it means.
     I mean...I do know what happens, in terms of a beat-by-beat plot breakdown, but I'm not sure why any of it happens, even within the context of the story. Two young sisters (possibly twins) named Helen and Pearl find a bizarre animal outside their house, which appears to be ill and/or in pain, and definitely has a big gross bump/growth on its leg. The girls bring the creature to Mr. Kittentank, the janitor of the local hospital, and he cuts open the leg bump and finds nine little blobs (or glands, I guess, based on the title) inside. He removes them one by one, and the last one reveals itself to be a tiny living being, not necessarily a baby version of the original animal, but not necessarily not that, either. Pearl takes the little guy, whom she names Gus, outside so she can keep him as a pet, but he pees on her, and it makes her trip balls. She faints, her sister and Mr. Kittentank bring her back indoors, and when she wakes up the big animal is dead and Gus is missing. Kittentank won't tell Pearl where he put Gus no matter how many times she asks, so she assumes Gus has died, too. Pearl gets really mad at Kittentank, but nothing comes of that, and then she and Helen leave. They go home and perform surgeries on their stuffed animals, mimicking what Kittentank did to the real animal earlier, while we see that he has Gus strapped down to a table with some sort of IV or feeding tube stuck in its mouth and another coming out of its genitals. Essentially, Kittentank is collecting Gus' hallucination-inducing urine for himself. The end.
     Oh, also there's an itty bitty subplot about a doctor and nurse who are having sex in the hospital upstairs and drop one of their patient's dental bridges down the grate that leads to Kittentank's basement apartment. At the end of the issue, the nurse goes downstairs to retrieve the bridge. Kittentank is super evasive about it, but then he lets her in anyway, which is how we see Gus tied down with the tubes coming out either end.
     So those are the basic facts of what happens, but why any of it happens is hazy, and what I'm supposed to make of it is fully obscured. The sisters seem to be pretty normal little girls, both of them curious about the world, but with Pearl more easily disgusted by its horrors. She faints during the surgery as well as her Gus pee hallucinations, while Helen is fascinated and even delighted by these things. That's a simple enough dynamic for sister characters, but there's not much to them beyond that. They don't have the space to do anything other than fiddle with the critters they find, and neither one of them has very much emotion or personality in their dialogue. Kittentank is even harder to decipher. He's kind enough to the girls, and helps them with the problem they bring him, but then he also steals Gus so he can harvest its pee...what's that about? Is he keeping it for personal use? Planning to sell it as a new recreational drug? Did he know what he was getting into when the girls showed up with a bleating animal that had a bump on its leg? Who is this guy, and what is he after?
     And why did Helen and Pearl go to Kittentank anyway? We know their mother was inside when they found the animal, because we hear her tell them to be home by nine. Why not bring the beast to her? We don't know what their relationship is to this bizarre hospital janitor. Not that girls shouldn't be hanging out with grown men who live in basements, but...should they? It does seem like the creepiest possible setting, and maybe that's the point. Perhaps all The Ninth Gland wants to be, top to bottom, is something to make its readers uncomfortable and grossed out and on edge. Certainly the nurse-doctor sex scene supports that theory: they kiss by just pressing their tongues together, he puts his finger in her mouth awkwardly at one point, and they neglect their professional duties to keep fooling around, which doesn't make me feel great about ever going to a hospital again.
     The art is also extremely eerie. Everybody's eyes are too big for their heads, and Gus is one of the weirdest little monsters I've ever seen, with his stubby hooves and widely-spaced teeth. It's a black-and-white comic, and the backgrounds of many of the panels are all black, so every page is exceedingly dark. They also all have six panels, more often than not in a perfect two-by-three grid, so that there's a claustrophobic atmosphere to everything. Lots of the panels are extreme close-ups, which adds to cramped feeling. And there are a lot of shots of the animal's innards after Kittentank cuts it open, all rendered with intense detail and realism so that they are truly hard to look at.
     So if all The Ninth Gland wants to be is an exercise in discomfort, I'd say it's a huge success, but wildly overdone. I'm super disturbed by the first few pages, and nothing ever gets worse or better. I stay just as creeped out all the way through, and almost fifty pages of that is too much for such unpleasant feelings, at least for my taste. And I suppose ultimately my taste is what it's all about. I'm clearly not the audience for this book, and that's ok. Sometimes a work of art just doesn't connect with somebody, and that's me and The Ninth Gland all the way. I can't get past its surface ugliness and lack of plot; I don't have an inherent problem with non-traditional narratives or comics that make my skin crawl, but the specific balance of those things in this book misses the mark for me.
     I wouldn't tell people not to read this comic, nor would I recommend it. If asked, I'd tell them that it's unique and disgusting and a little unfilling. Given the choice, though, I'd rather be challenged and affected by something like this than bored by another piece or regular old mass appeal junk. The Ninth Gland may not be my cup of tea, but it's still tea instead of just water. That's as commendable as the comic is inscrutable.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Cheese Stands Alone: Uncanny X-Men #230

The Cheese Stands Alone is a semi-regular column featuring examinations of single issues that can be understood and appreciated on their own, without reading any of the preceding or following issues of the series. 

Uncanny X-Men #230 is one of the cheesiest X-Men stories I've read. But it's also one of my favorites, because it does everything right. It re-introduces the team, their powers, and their personalities. It explains their current status quo even while adding to it. Most importantly, it exemplifies a kind of heroism that is too rare in superhero books—simple acts of decency, done under the radar and without violence, without any desire for recognition on the part of the good guys. There are no villains to battle in this story, but there's still evil to undo, and the X-Men handle it with grace, intelligence, and honor. Plus it's the best use of Longshot's best power that I've ever seen.
     Written by Chris Claremont when he was already deep into his lengthy run on the title, Uncanny X-Men #230 takes place only shortly after the team decided to let the world think they were dead. I've read the issues leading up to that decision, but only kinda/sorta remember the details of what happens. For the purposes of this issue, though, the how isn't what matters so much as the why. In order to operate as superheroes without being the big, obvious target for supervillains that they've been in the past, the X-Men hide out and allow everyone else, including their friends, believe they died in a big, highly-publicized fight. Their hope is that this will allow them to attack the baddies with the element of surprise on their side, and then disappear into "death" so that other evildoers don't come looking for them. Not a bad plan, but also not one they've thought all the way through yet. How will they pick their targets? What exactly do they hope to accomplish that they couldn't have done when the world knew they were alive? These kinds of questions have no firm answers at this point, because their fake deaths are still relatively new, and they are therefore still figuring out the best way to take advantage of that situation.
     In the meantime, they're training, and adjusting to life in their new base of operations, which is the former base of operations of their enemies the Reavers. It's a huge space with several structures and a super high-tech system of monitors and scanners keeping track of everything that goes on. But it's also filthy, because the Reavers were slobs. So we get to see the X-Men use their powers toward the atypical goal of cleaning their new home—Storm floods the buildings so all the garbage ends up in a tidy pile that Havok can then destroy with his plasma blasts. This happens early in the issue, but only after we see the full team engage in a combat training exercise, so that the versatility of their various skills is on display right away. It's an important thing to establish, because the main narrative of the issue centers on Longshot using one of his talents to accomplish something that normally wouldn't fall under the X-Men's purview.
     Though Longshot is best known for his exceptional luck and blade-throwing, my favorite of his powers, and the one which is front and center here, is his ability to get psychic readings off of inanimate objects. When he touches an item, he can see its history, former owners and locations and experiences it's been through. Normally, this is just kind of a neat trick, or a means of getting information on a foe, but in Uncanny #230, it's used for something far nobler. The Reavers had an enormous underground cavern where they kept their massive horde of stolen treasure, accumulated over many years of international thievery and other crimes. These stolen goods call out to Longshot through his powers, even from a distance, because there are so many of them and they all want the same thing: to be returned to their rightful owners. Overwhelmed by the treasure's psychic cries, Longshot collapses when he finds the treasure room, and when he comes to days later, he's determined to give the stolen loot back to the people from whom it was originally taken.
     It's an ambitious task, no doubt, and not one that everybody's on board with right away. Wolverine points out that with the Reavers already defeated, the X-Men have done their duty as far as avenging the villains' victims. But the question becomes, is that really enough? Is being a hero just about stopping future evil, or should it not be about repairing past evil as well? Guess what answer the team lands on.
     With the help of teleporter Gateway, who the X-Men have only just met and who used to work with the Reavers (though not necessarily by choice), the heroes travel all over the world secretly dropping off the stolen items back where they belong. Claremont lays it on a little thick by having this take place on Christmas Eve, but hey, if you're going to do a heavy-handed narrative about the true meaning of being a good person, might as well go all the way with it. We're only shown a handful of the X-Men's doubtlessly innumerable trips, but each one is an opportunity to show one member of the team being affected by their own potential to positively influence the world even as background players. It's touching if a shade saccharine, particularly the scene where the New Mutants are shown mourning the X-Men's "deaths," as well as the all-to-real death of their own teammate, before Storm lifts their spirits by simply lessening the intensity of a the falling snow. Then at the end of the issue, the X-Men do some good for one another, with Wolverine giving Dazzler a motorcycle, Rogue and Gateway definitively forming some kind of friendship, and the whole team getting to enjoy a holiday celebration together in spite of their isolated new home.
     They find a quieter, less dangerous, less violent means of being heroic, and it lifts their collective spirit about the strangeness and loneliness of their current circumstances. They become closer as a team, and more importantly, they operate as one, completing a common goal by concentrating their efforts and using their individual powers together so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Longshot gets his readings off the treasure, and Psylocke broadcasts those images to the rest of the team, who then get sent all over the globe by Gateway, each of them going somewhere suited to his or her own talents. If this was your first issue of Uncanny X-Men, you'd walk away with everything you needed to know about their capabilities, personalities, dynamics, and lives.
     Marc Silvestri pencils the issue, with inks by Joe Rubinstein and colors from Glynis Oliver. The art never exactly drops my jaw, but it does manage to fit a lot of story into a fairly tight package. The entire training sequence, involving all eight of the X-Men who aren't Longshot, only takes four pages, the first of which is a splash of just Storm flying. Five scenes in five different geographical locations are seen during the team's Christmas Eve travels, and that all takes only three pages. This efficiency of space is how the issue has time to give the reader a full taste of the entire cast, while also introducing a new mission for them to carry out and having them do so in full before the final page. Silvestri was new enough at this time to not quite be displaying the overfull, kinetic style he'd ultimately develop. These pencils are far simpler and cleaner, with everyone having a smooth complexion and the backgrounds being generally sparse. Yet the characters are still plenty emotive, particularly Longshot, who has a kind of childishness about him that serves him well in his central role in this story. He is the bleeding heart who's so powerfully touched by the pain the Reavers caused that he pushes the rest of the team to reverse it. It's important that his investment be believable and earnest, that he be convincingly saddened by what he sees, and in that Silvestri and Rubinstein succeed. They also do a great job with the big moment of Longshot discovering the treasure, making the impact it has on him and the size of the space equally evident.
     Oliver's colors, like the linework from the other artists, is mostly straightforward, but where she does her best work when Longshot sees the various thefts and the lives led by the stolen things before the Reavers took them. She does these flashbacks in blue and white, except for the items themselves, which are seen in full color. This coloring helps distinguish these scenes from the present, and the paleness of the blue adds to the sense that they are old memories. Yet having the stolen good be colored as they are in the present keeps the focus on them, and places them firmly as the narrators and stars of their own stories.
     These visual touches are just the cherry on top, though. The heart of this issue is in its narrative, and the way it both reinforces and progresses what the X-Men are all about. No longer in the public eye, and with no bad guys as an immediate threat, they find a new way to do good, and a new source of pride and satisfaction in their work. Claremont isn't subtle about it, but in this instance I think that's a beneficial decision, because it cuts to the chase and gets the whole story told in a single issue. Is it a bit too on-the-nose with its message, and is that message overly optimistic and corny? I'd say yes on both counts, but I still enjoy the hell out of Uncanny X-Men #230 every time I revisit it. It's doing a lot, and doing it well, setting up the book's central heroes as people worth rooting for, and who give me a lot of faith as a team.

Sunday, October 13, 2013


Yikes, another whole week of nothing new on Comics Matter. How terribly irresponsible of me. Not only have I been slacking off here at my home base, I've had a fairly light week other places as well. Only one new review over at read/RANT on Eternal Warrior #2, plus a fairly lengthy piece about Catalyst Comix for PopMatters. In my defense, my parents were visiting me this weekend, which was a great time but definitely kept me from my comicbook reading and writing. I did talk comics with my dad a great deal, and he brought me a whole box of new stuff to read, so here's hoping I can become hyperproductive here in the second half of the month.

Something I Failed to Mention
Back when I wrote a tiny review of Eternal Warrior #1, one of the things I pointed to as a major turn off for me was main character Gilad killing his dog. I'm an enthusiastic, almost obsessive dog owner myself, and giving the book's protagonist a pet just so he could kill it (in self-defense, yes, but still) seemed like a needlessly nasty thing to do. However, in issue #2, which I wasn't wild about overall as you can read in the review I linked to above, there was at least a tender moment of Gilad burying his pet with great reverence and care. It made me like him more as a character, and it softened the blow of the dog dying in the previous issue. It would have been easy for Greg Pak to ignore the dog now that it's deceased, and narratively it would've made little difference if he'd gone that way, so I appreciated him taking the time to give the poor animal his due. If you're going to have a pet brutally murdered by its owner, then the only decent thing to do is give said owner a chance to say goodbye properly.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Reality Check #1 vs. Reality Check #2

The first issue of Reality Check wasn't an amazing comicbook, but I liked it enough to look forward to the second. The debut had a few really good jokes, a pathetic yet sympathetic lead character, and an art style that meshed well with the writing to create an entertaining whole. So when I read Reality Check #2 and hated it from start to finish, I began to wonder if maybe I was misremembering issue #1 or if I had given it too much credit or something. So I waited a couple days and then reread both issues back-to-back, and my opinions of each remain. The first one is a fun read with definite potential, and the second is an obnoxious waste of time.
     I actually wrote a short review of the debut last month, but I'll recap it here nonetheless for the sake of comparing it to what followed. The narrator is Willard Penn, a lonely, broke, socially awkward comicbook creator. The great defining moment of his life is his brother Timmy's death during college, which is what pushed Willard to devote himself entirely to his comics. He has no friends, and is extremely juvenile when it comes to his attitudes toward and interactions with women. He views them sexually, but not in an actively degrading way, more with an I'm-not-worthy awe at their beauty. Even so, it's inappropriate and immature, but the first issue isn't trying to present it as anything better. He's innocent enough to be a character I like, but Willard is upfront about his many insecurities, neuroses, problems, and failures. He's not trying to better himself in these areas, because he only cares about one thing, and that's making comics. I can get behind that, and the little bit of Willard's newest project, Dark Hour, that we're shown within the first issue of Reality Check is good enough for me to be happy when he sells it to a publisher. The best jokes are all in Dark Hour or Willard's descriptions of it. He may not be the greatest guy in the world, but at least he's got some talent as an artist and writer.
     And Willard is honest enough with himself to have some of his own lack of romantic ability spill over into his hero. Dark Hour the character gets dumped in both his superhero and secret identity personas in the same night, because splitting his time as both men has left him too busy to pay attention to either woman. Demonica, basically Catwoman to Dark Hour's Batman (or Black Cat to his Spider-Man, based on her costume), is the best character in either Willard or Dark Hour's world, and the fact that she isn't in issue #2 at all is the first tiny thing I'll point too as far as what makes the first issue better. Anyway, Dark Hour the comicbook is basically classic-superhero-meets-classic-romantic-comedy, not the first time that mash-up has been done, but an example of it being done right, at least for the few pages we see. Again, nothing set up here is boiling my eyeballs with awesomeness, but there's promise coming from everyone, and the final page has Dark Hour the man show up in Willard's apartment, somehow having escaped his creator's mind into the real world. That's certainly a hook, and I was excited to see how these two communicated with one another.
     Then Reality Check #2 arrived, and it showed me that Dark Hour and Willard can't communicate, because Dark Hour has such an arrogant, forceful, grating personality that it's impossible for Willard to say or do anything counter to his new friend's wants. The whole issue is Dark Hour railroading Willard into helping him pick up women. The reason Dark Hour escaped Willard's brain at all is that he was so mad about losing both of his girlfriends in the same night that he decided to take it up with his creator. How he accomplished that isn't explained yet, but that's his motivation for escaping the comic-within-the-comic and entering Willard's reality. And he's so bullheaded about it, way more aggressive and baselessly cocky than Willard, who basically tried to stay hidden from the women he was attracted to. Dark Hour inserts himself into a high speed police chase because the criminal is good-looking, and tries to set up a date with her as she's being loaded into a squad car. It's an uncomfortable scene, because Dark Hour uses dangerously excessive force to catch her, and she seems to be mutually attracted to him anyway, none of which makes sense. Also he gets away with it because Willard gives the police a really flimsy lie about the whole thing being for a movie (not the crime itself, just Dark Hour's involvement) which he explains hand-wavingly after the fact, and is a difficult detail to swallow.
     Dark Hour also says annoying shit like, "babage" (as in "babe-age", but spelled in a weird way that makes me want to mispronounce it) and, "You need to show a little respect to the man that holds the key to the honey tree," a line Willard even points out as stiff and awful. Dark Hour is just a loudmouth jerk who has no concern for how he's uprooting, invading, and generally ruining Willard's life and career just so he can get laid without having to wait until Dark Hour #5 (which is when Willard says he would have most likely introduced a new romantic interest for his protagonist). He's got all of Willard's immaturity and none of his self-awareness, making him a far less welcome presence in this story.
     There are other things about Reality Check #2 that bug me. John Skinner, a nemesis for Willard, is introduced (and, I suspect, will eventually be revealed as the person responsible for Timmy's death) but the flashback scene that is supposed to establish why Willard hates him so much is weak. John makes a typical frat boy joke about genital size, and Willard completely overreacts, so in that particular moment I'm not really on his side. Later in the issue, we see John in the present, now a successful dubstep musician and dating Willard's college girlfriend Alison. John and Alison have a conversation where neither one quite sounds like a human being, and that's all we get of him, so I feel no animosity toward the dude so far. He's boring as sin, but not evil in any way I've been shown.
     The art isn't as strong in issue #2 as it was in #1 either. Artist Viktor Bogdanovic has a doughy style. Everyone looks sort of pudgy and has rounded features, which works for the comic tone the narrative wants. And stylistically, I guess there's not much difference between the two issues. But the second has a couple panels of Dark Hour carrying Willard through the sky where it's not clear how he's holding on and swinging at the same time. And when Willard falls, Dark Hour catches him in ways that seem impossible, too. In the John Skinner flashback, the panels get smaller and smaller for all three pages, but there's no clear purpose behind that. The events get more significant, but their stage shrinks. On their own, these would be relatively small problems, but coupled with the dip in story quality, the artistic mistakes only add to the disappointment.
     Pretty much every scene in Reality Check #2 had something I didn't like. Most of it was based on Dark Hour acting a fool in spite of Willard trying damn hard to help him out and explain why he needs to return from whence he came. But writer Glen Brunswick seemed to lose some of his humor and sense of fun with everybody, making the whole issue more about people sniping and griping than anything else. It ends on a villain arriving where Reality Check #1 ended with a hero arriving, and I think that says a lot about the differences between them. The first issue wanted everyone to enjoy themselves, readers and characters all. The second issue seemed to have the opposite goal, and definitely had the opposite effect on me.

Sunday, October 6, 2013


I've been silent all week on Comics Matter, huh? Tomorrow I'll have to remedy that. For now, all I've got is what I've published in other places. Thursday I did a not-so-positive review of Lazarus #4 on read/RANT. I still feel like it could turn around for me, though, pretty easily. It's early on, and it's an alright comic, just not quite what I was looking for. I also wrote about how much fun Archer & Armstrong is for PopMatters. That series has been in a groove for a while now. Friday, I wrote another read/RANT review on the debut of Vertigo's Hinterkind. Much like Lazarus, I'm not super into it yet, but it was a first issue that made me want to see a second, so that's something. And finally, Friday was also when my new "1987 And All That" went up on The Chemical Box, looking at Fantastic Four #301. I read several issues of that series, not sure what my focus would be, but that one got to me because I'm a sucker for well-done kid stories. I've worked with kids in the past, and accurately expressing their understanding of the world is not an easy thing to do, so I like it when I see it.

Something I Failed to Mention
It's a small detail, but one I found amusing and a little odd. In Fantastic Four #301, the primary villain is The Wizard, who had just teamed up with Mad Thinker and Puppet Master in the previous issue to try and screw up Human Torch's wedding. Puppet Master betrays the other two because Torch is marrying his stepdaughter and so he has a sudden change of heart. Part of the villains-vs.-villains section of that story includes a reveal that Thinker is not himself but a robot body that the real guy is sending his consciousness into through his great mental abilities. The actual Mad Thinker is incarcerated, which is where we see him at the start of issue #301. He then sends his mind into another fake body, so that he and The Wizard can meet and regroup. Except here's the thing: as soon as they get together, Wizard suggests using Franklin Richards against his family, and Thinker flips out because he won't hurt a child. He then self-destructs his new non-self and never shows up again in the story. From that point on, it's The Wizard's shows. It seems like a very weird thing to spend a whole scene taking a character off the board who already had a perfectly good reason to be off the board—he's in prison. After already destroying his stand-in, couldn't he have just not been shown sending his mind into another one? If Wizard had decided in issue #301 to cook up another scheme against the FF all by himself, would anyone really have been, like, "Um...why isn't he working with Mad Thinker anymore? Shouldn't he be secretly meeting with another robot body?" I'm just not sure what the point of the argument/self-destruction conversation was, and it seems like a funny thing to wedge into a story for no reason. Bad guys disagreeing about how bad to be, just to have one of them bail.