Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Monthly Dose: April 2014

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

100 Bullets #18: "Hang Up on the Hang Low" concludes, with Loop just barely surviving the avenging of Curtis' death. That's pretty much is the bulk of the issue, with a tiny splash of Agent Graves at the beginning and end to round things out. Loop's plan goes off swimmingly at first, as he mows down a bunch of minions and quickly finds himself face-to-face with Mr. Rego, the crime boss responsible for killing his father. But Rego has one last bodyguard, Tommi, the young woman perpetually playing pool in his house, whom Loop assumes is only there to look good, which costs him dearly. Tommi kicks the crap out of Loop while Rego scolds and blames him, until Loop is lucky enough to get the drop on Tommi in just the right way to live through the experience. He then shoots Rego, his arm held steady by Holly, the woman whose bar was burned down as part of Curtis' murder. It's a hollow victory, which Loop admits to Graves after the fact, but it's hard to imagine things ending any other way. Once Curtis got killed, either Loop or Rego also had to die, and Rego was the preferable pick. Eduardo Risso really makes the fight with Loop and Tommi count, if it can even be called a fight. It's a pure ass-kicking right up until the very end, and every blow is recorded in detail for the audience's flinching pleasure. It's important to understand all the pain Loop goes through in the name of revenge, because it helps us feel the same dissatisfaction with it as he does in the end. Brian Azzarello has Rego emotionally assault Loop with the same skill and ferocity as Tommi and at the same time, putting Loop through one hell of a ringer before he makes it to his goal. That seems to have been the point of this entire arc, to introduce Loop, make us immediately warm to him, and then make him go through as much shit as possible in the shortest time. It's an effective strategy, and, not to be all spoilery about this 13-year-old comicbook, but it's not quite over yet.

Nick Fury vs. S.H.I.E.L.D. #6: This series concludes, and it's a rather predictable landing. I suppose I didn't expect the Creator to suddenly become self-deprecating when he "touched" Fury's mind and saw how much better human feelings are than robot feelings. That was a surprise, but it's the only one in here. He was always going to betray his people; he'd hinted heavily at that a few issues back. And Quartermain was pretty clearly on a route to self-destruction and/or turning on his makers, so when he blew the power core it was not a shock. The core also had to come back, and I'm not sure how easy it was to anticipate that it would be the death of all the bad guys, but we pretty much new none of the Deltites were going to survive. The whole story was about them trying to live forever, which marks you for death by default. Bob Harras goes through the numbers here, padding out pages with a whole lot of the Creator explaining his history and his goals, much of which was easy to suss out and none of which was particularly interesting. I did like it when all the captives rose up and broke free, because at least it was exciting, but even that felt like it had to happen. A final confrontation between the two sides is pretty basic stuff. It's not that Harras did a bad job with the story, it's more a matter of the story being stretched too thin in these six oversized issues, so that the final chapter is just a slow and steady arrival at a destination that's been visible for a while. Fury wins, Delta is destroyed, but S.H.I.E.L.D. has to be shut down because the whole thing has been a lie for so long. The writing has been on the wall since halfway through the book. There were also a lot of small distractions in the wording, like consecutive sentences that used the same words or phrases, and too many actual lettering mistakes that made things hard to understand on a first read. I was hoping for something a little more lively and/or inventive, but this was still a cool idea and a series worth reading. I think it's better to do all at once than month-by-month though, because this final month felt like a bit of a waste. I have no idea what to pick for next month...

X-Force (vol. 1) #18: "X-Cutioner's Song" concludes, and even though I've only read 3 non-sequential chapters of the 12 total during this monthly reading of X-Force, I found it enjoyable and satisfying. Greg Capullo is made for this stuff, because he has a way of making immensely bulky characters move naturally. He understands how to position them so that they look, if not realistic, at least believable. Of course this applies to the knock-down drag-out portions of the Cable vs. Stryfe fight that is the centerpiece of the issue, but I'm really thinking more of Apocalypse slowly bleeding out and dragging himself across the floor on his belly like a wounded animal. While no less massive or imposing or wicked than ever, Apocalypse also looks pathetic. I don't know if I feel bad for him, necessarily, but I definitely feel his pain. He's not just a cartoon villain being wiped off the board, but a living thing suffering in its final moments. It works, and adds a lot to the somewhat clichéd scene of Archangel choosing not to kill Apocalypse in a testament to his persevering humanity. Fabian Niceiza's script is full of familiar moments like this: the heroic sacrifice, the "We've been one step behind for too long" scene, the self-destruct countdown. But this is a crossover event, so I don't know how much of those were Nicieza's call, and either way he handles them well. Not too wordy, but using the words that are there to lean into the melodrama at just the right angle. It hums along, and it's focused and clear enough that the reader has neither time nor need to ask questions about what led up to this. Again, though, I think most of the credit for that pacing really belong to Capullo's art, which is expressive and explosive in equal turn, so you're always caught up in the drama, action, or both. Capullo continues to flourish in this book, and Nicieza seems the right partner for him, so with a crossover contribution now officially under their belt, things are looking bright.

Sunday, April 20, 2014


It's been a little while since I have done one of these posts, so I'll start with my PopMatters piece from two weeks ago, about how following so many comicbook series means some of the story details fall through the mental cracks. Then this week I published the first of four planned columns looking at non-100 Bullets work by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso, starting with their first collaboration, Johnny Double. I quite like that series, but am mostly excited about getting into some of the upcoming topics for that collection of posts. Finally, my big news this week, which I already talked about in passing the other day, is that my "1987 And All That" column officially made its transition over to Comics Should Be Good. This time out, I wrote about Comet Man, a surprisingly dark six-issue series from Marvel that sort of turned the typical superhero tale on its head. CSBG is one of the sites that got me into this whole comicbook criticism thing to begin with, and I'm a big-time fan of several of the writers over there, so to actually be one of them is pretty damn amazing. I feel crazy honored to have the chance, and so far I seem to have not screwed it up completely, which is just aces.

Something I Failed to Mention
I didn't want to recap every single detail of Comet Man in my review, because I needed to have room to talk about the themes and impressions of the story as a whole, too. As such, I ended up completely ignoring one of the main members of the cast, a major player from the first issue to the last who is both hero and villain at different points in the narrative. It's a pretty huge oversight, and even though he's not real and he's dead at the end of the book, I feel like I owe it to the guy to at least mention his contributions to the comic here. His name is David Hilbert, and he is a damn fool. Originally part of a team with Stephen Beckley (Comet Man) and his wife Ann, Hilbert soon becomes their enemy. He has a romantic past with Ann and desperately wants her back, so much so than when he discovers Beckley did not die in his deep-space accident, Hilbert hides that fact from Ann so he can have more time to woo her. He is then in charge of kidnapping her, which leads directly to her death, which Hilbert witnesses and despairs over. It is his turning point, basically, where he starts to doubt if working for the Bridge and the Superior is really what he wants to do, but it doesn't stop him yet. He just buries Ann in an unmarked grave, cries, and moves on with his life. Eventually, though, he does openly defy the Superior, after helping Beckley get his son Benny to safety. It's a small bit of redemption for Hilbert, but then the Superior quickly and ruthlessly snaps his neck, turning Hilbert's head a full 180 degrees, and that's all we get from the man. He's an infuriating and depressing figure, adding a particularly tragic spice to an already incredibly negative tale.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Positivity Instead of True Detective and Batman

I was all geared up to write a negative post tonight, venting my frustrations with the New 52 Batman's first two arcs, and discussing how these frustrations were similar to those I had with True Detective. In a nutshell, what bothers me about both is that the heroes in them lose and fuck up repeatedly, but in the end both the protagonists and, in my opinion, the series themselves believe that the good guys have won. What they actually accomplish is barely surviving, but they call it victory and I'm supposed to buy it and I don't.
     That could have been paragraphs but I'm just not in the mood to be that negative in that much detail for that long. Plenty has been said in favor and against both subjects, and I'm in a good mood. I debuted on Comics Should Be Good today, which is a literal dream come true. CSBG was one of the first blogs I discovered when I went searching for criticism on comics, which I'm sure is true for a lot of people. I respect the hell out of everyone who writes for that site, and now I get to be part of it, and that's real nice. It makes the piss-poor endings of True Detective and "Night of the Owls" seem pretty unimportant, even though both involved the good guys defeating personal villains but not the larger forces of evil behind those villains. Batman, at least, says he'll keep looking in-story, but in real life the effect is the same. Half-hearted, small-time, ultra-violent win and then boom, story over, on to the next one.
     I also went to the comicbook store today, because it's Wednesday, and was pleasantly surprised by several of the titles in my box. I didn't realize the new Ultimate Universe comics were coming out already. I stopped paying attention in the middle of Cataclysm but I'm so into all of the All-New Ultimates cast (lame title but it's what they're doing) and the creative team and cast of Ultimate FF are all so interesting that I went ahead and signed up for all the new Ultimate titles anyway. I have faith the universe can come out the other end of a crappy crossover and be good, because if the rumors are true, that's happened before. I was hoping that would be the case when "Night of the Owls" wrapped up, but it swiftly moved into an even bigger and worse crossover, "Death of the Family," which is a story about how Batman and Joker are both just playing for funsies, not for realsies, guys, c'mon!
     To top things off, the comics I bought today were from the last two weeks because I failed to go to the shop last week. And then to go right ahead and overflow the cup, I still have comics from the previous two weeks I haven't read because I keep doing or reading other things instead. So there's a meaty pile of new stuff to dig into over the next few days, and looking ahead, my schedule seems just free enough for me to do it. So that's exciting, and the icing on what was already a delicious cake of comicbook happenings today. I don't want to dampen that mood by going on and on about how True Detective is a brilliantly-performed character study of the two least likable or original characters I've seen in a while, dressed up as an equally uninspired mystery story that never even gets solved.
     I think that negativity in criticism is a good and necessary thing, but I know I tend to skew positive in my own, and that's because I generally have more energy and patience to explore the things I like. If I plan to review something, read it, and hate it, I'm more than happy to say so, and sometimes I do use the blog just to rail against whatever's on my nerves. That's what it's for, in part. But I have to really be in the right place to put that kind of effort into negativity, whereas when I'm picking apart my reasons for liking something, that in itself is energizing. I imagine for some the opposite is true, and for others neither apply and they operate on a whole different spectrum, and that's also a good and necessary thing. But despite plans to the contrary, I find myself unable or unwilling to devote this space to tearing anything apart right now. I'm too pleased with comics at the moment.
     Even though, sadly, none of the comics I follow have Batman in them anymore.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Still on a D&D Kick; Still Talking About It

A few weeks back, I wrote about how D&D had been distracting me a lot lately and that I'd therefore been neglecting comics, my other hobby. Since then, I've been slowly dialing back on the one and getting into the other in a serious way again, but D&D is still very much on my mind these days. A few really good sessions in the game I play live via Skype with friends from Austin, plus finally nailing down a group of players new and experienced for a whole new campaign up here in Massachusetts, AND me finally getting all the way caught up on the backlog of episodes of an excellent D&D podcast called Dungeons and Randomness all happened right on top of each other, so the game has been occupying my time and brainpower a fair amount. Rather than let it continue to keep me from posting on the blog, though, and instead of merely throwing up another piece reiterating what I just finished reiterating and calling it a day, I wanted to delve a little more into why, exactly, I so love D&D, and what that love has in common with my love for comics.
     The main connection between D&D and comicbooks is episodic, longform storytelling. In both, it's actually quite common to have stories that advance and evolve in perpetuity, where every ending is also another beginning and the characters and their worlds continue from one adventure to the next. Sometimes there are deaths or departures or arrivals to shake up the cast, but it's all the same sprawling story. The rewards one can get from following that sort of narrative, whether as a spectator or participant, is satisfying in a way more contained tales often fail to deliver. For me, anyway, the payoff of a well-done slow burn, watching characters grow slowly but steadily into newer, better versions of themselves as the numerous story threads break or split or thicken around's the tastiest flavor of entertainment around.
     There is also a commonality between D&D and superhero comics specifically—which are, despite their many flaws, still what got me into the medium and make up most of what I read—and that's the incredible powers and abilities everybody gets to have. It's not inherently better than something more human, but there's a lot of fun to be had when superpowers or magic enter the equation. Especially when it comes to villains. I love a nice unfathomable threat, an evil so immense and capable that the solution seems impossible to find. This doesn't always lead to the greatest narratives (see Avengers vs. X-Men) but when handled right, it raises the stakes, drama, and urgency fantastically, and heightens impact of the heroes' ultimate victory or failure. When I run a D&D game, building the primary villain is always the best part, and the part that takes the longest and to which I give the most care. Finding all the right moves, motivations, and equipment for a big bad is half the reason to be a dungeon master. And in the same respect, great supervillains make for the best superhero stories. Hell, great villains make for the best stories, period, it's just that with superheroes or D&D, they get to wield crazy amounts of power. That's just gravy.
     D&D is collaborative, and so are comics, though my personal experiences with them aren't the same in that regard. With comics, I'm the reader, and though, yes, I bring my interpretation of the story, the raw bits and pieces of it have already been worked out by the creators, which is where the truest, purest collaborations take place. Still, the benefit from my end is getting to enjoy the various aspects of every issue I read individually and as a whole. The words can impress on their own, and so can the images, but they should always be most effective together. D&D is similar in that I can enjoy parts of the game alone: character creation, rule research, the aforementioned podcast, etc. But the most significant experiences all come from actually playing the game, and that requires other people, and those other people are the whole point. Everyone represents an unknown element to the narrative for everyone else, because we all get to make our own choices throughout the game, but their consequences can affect everybody. Nobody, not even the DM who is theoretically in charge, ever has total control, because each player controls a character, and every character is a fully realized individual with agency to do whatever he or she wants to do. Or try, anyway, and then, just like life, circumstances—and dice, which is less like life—dictate whether they succeed or fail. It's not up to anyone in particular what happens, because it's up to everyone all the time, and that's what makes it so damn fun when things come together and a cohesive, significant story gets told. Both comics and D&D are at their best and have the most to offer when everyone involved is working together and producing a shared vision.
     D&D and comics are both things I got into a long time ago, when I was still a kid and figuring out what kind of person I was and wanted to be. They were reliable pastimes, there for me in regular intervals, telling awesome stories of incredible people living insane lives. That's never stopped, except when I've stopped it for one reason or another, and anytime I wanted to pick either activity back up, they were ready and waiting. They also both have strong communities around them, not flawless or void of jerks (because what community is?) but full of a lot of love, intelligence, creativity, energy, and fun jargon. They have long histories with mythological figures, the Gary Gygaxes and Siegel & Shuster's of the world. Anyone who's ever been a member of either community always has an in, because as much as things change, there is a consistency there, too. Superman will always be Superman; a fighter will always be a fighter.
     There's probably other, deeper, subconscious stuff that draws me to comics and D&D both. And there are things they don't share that I like about them each, too. D&D is limited only by the imaginations of the people playing, it's the classic roleplaying game and an influence on SO MANY popular video games today, and there are a bunch of different editions of it that are fun to compare and contrast and play with until you find the rule set that works best for you. None of that has anything to do with comics, and I could come up with the opposite list of comics appeal that has no relation to D&D. All the same, there is a lot of overlap in my affection for them both, and they really are the only two hobbies I've ever stuck with for any length of time in my life, so the commonalities must be a big part of that. If you're a fan of one, I suggest giving the other a try. And if you're unfamiliar with either, I can't imagine why you'd still be reading this.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

With Only Five Plums is Simple, Sad, and Satisfying

There's no shortage of narratives about the Holocaust out there, both fictional and non-, because it's a subject of such significance and complexity that there'll never be an end to the discussion. Nor should there be, because if we don't remember it we're doomed to repeat it, which some would argue we're doing anyway, but that's a question for another time and place (and person). With the abundance of material on the topic, one might question what a book like With Only Five Plums has to offer that other such pieces do not. Now, I can't necessarily speak to that, because I haven't read literally everything ever written about the Holocaust, but I can say with total confidence that With Only Five Plums gets its strength and its heart not from the details of its content, but from the gorgeously simple way in which it presents that content to its readers. Examining an enormous tragedy from a very personal perspective, and laying out the unthinkably horrifying realities of its narrative with a straightforward, almost matter-of-fact approach, the book is deceptively powerful. Page-by-page, it looks and reads like something basic, but the work as a whole feels like something spectacular.
     With Only Five Plums is based on a series of interviews that writer Terry Eisele conducted with Holocaust survivor Anna Nesporova, who is also the book's main character. It's split into three volumes, each of which represents a particular period of time: before Anna is taken by the Nazis, during her time in the camp, and then after she returns home. Each of them is a complete piece, but none of them pack as big a punch individually as they do as a group, which is, I suppose, the mark of a well-structured series. Book 1 is titled, "The Time Before" and it introduces Anna and the members of her family before the Nazis split them all up, never to see one another again. In discussing her family and hometown in those pre-Holocaust days, Anna's voice at first seems a little cold. It's not void of affection, but she speaks a little stiffly, presenting the facts of the case with very little commentary or color. This feels odd at first, but the deeper into the story we get, the more apparent it becomes that Anna's muted emotional tone is a defense mechanism. Were she to give into her sadness and pain, letting them out in her words, they would drown out the details of the story, and it is those details that both Anna and Eisele want to give to the world. In order to make it through her story at all, Anna must necessarily steel her heart against the agony of remembering it, or else there would be no energy left to tell it. It is a string of tragedies so immense that the only way anyone could ever discuss them at any length would be take the same approach Anna does, getting through the beats as directly and succinctly as possible, never giving herself time to dwell too long on anything. Even then, there are moments where she quite understandably breaks, asking Eisele for a brief pause before continuing or, at the end of each volume, requesting that they stop for the day. No matter how objective about it she tries to be, Anna cannot escape the despair and loss of her past; it catches up to her throughout the books many times.
     Even later, in discussing her experiences in the concentration camp and, after that, coming home to a town the Nazis had literally wiped off the planet, Anna never opens herself up entirely. There is always that reserved element to her narration, moving through each memory as efficiently as she can without embellishments or time for much mourning. Presumably, part of the reason for this is the language barrier. As a citizen of the Czech Republic, English is not Anna's first language, so some of the limits of her speech are no doubt a result of that. Additionally, Eisele clearly did an immense amount of historical research outside of talking with Anna, so some of the things which, in the book, are attributed to Anna the character, may in fact be details provided by Eisele the researcher, and are therefore presented more dryly or directly than they might be if someone was relating them from personal experience. These factors, combined with Anna holding back a little to keep herself intact, might make With Only Five Plums too stiff and detached as a whole, were it not for Eisele intelligently and deliberately mixing in moments of Anna letting her defenses down. As I mentioned, there are several times where she needs a break, short or long, and there are also moments where, right in the middle of trying to get from point A to point B, Anna does let her emotions take the reigns. She is overcome by regret, loss, and even nostalgia at many points in the book, despite her concentrated efforts not to let these feelings dominate her story. Understandably so, as her tale involves years of incessant struggle and tremendous losses in just about every part of her life.
     Without getting into it too completely—since this is a rich, thorough book and also I don't want to spoil everything—the arc of Anna's narrative is as follows: growing up in the small Czech town of Lidice, Anna was a young woman, newly married and pregnant, by the time the Nazis came for her and her family. They weren't Jewish, mind you, just Czech, a reminder that while the Nazis obviously had a special hate for the chosen people, they weren't all that particular at the end of the day. Anna's pregnancy spared her at first, which was actually far more curse than blessing, since nobody else in her family got to stay behind. Her parents, husband, and extended relatives were carted off, and Anna was left alone for a time. By the time she gave birth, though, she'd also been placed in custody, and her daughter was only a few months old when the Nazis took her away, too. Anna was then transported to the concentration camp of Ravensbrück, where she lived for three years in the unthinkable, subhuman conditions for which such places are now infamous. The most horrific thing she went through, however, came after she was freed from Ravensbrück and returned to Lidice, only to discover that the Nazis had leveled it and left nothing behind, so that what was once a town full of people had, in only three years, been transformed into an empty field. Just when she thought she was past all the evil and nothing more could be taken from her, she lost her home, the only connection to her previous life that she imagined was left.
     Eisele structures the story so that Book 1 and Book 2 essentially tell the full story of Anna's personal trials, beginning with the Nazis taking her family and ending with her discovery that Lidice had been destroyed. Book 1 and Book 3 work together to tell the complete story of Lidice as a town, from life before the war (Book 1) to a detailed description of the steps taken to murder everyone who lived there and destroy everything left standing (Book 3). It's a nice way to build things, beginning with a story both personal and communal, then focusing on the personal side, and then returning to the communal for the ending. It also helps each volume stand alone, since the first one is essentially the complete story of Anna before Ravensbrück changed her life and self forever, the second a full account of how the camp did so, and the third is not so much Anna's own story as that of Lidice after she was removed from it. There is a clear beginning and end to each of these, a natural rise and fall in every narrative that makes them all work as their own things. Yet in Anna exists an unbreakable throughline that ties them together as well.
     I've given a lot of credit to Eisele, and he deserves it, because he clearly put a great deal of work into writing this, taking care to make Anna a very real character, someone with whom it is easy to connect and empathize. And Eisele's devotion to studying the history surrounding Anna's life adds a lot of useful and enriching information, and makes With Only Five Plums an interesting, valuable historical text on top of everything else. However, had Eisele decided to go prose with this story, I doubt if it would be nearly as effective as it is in its current graphic novel form. Artist Jonathon Riddle's clean, realistic, black-and-white drawings add so much heart and humanity here, to Anna as a character and to the story as a while.
     Riddle is the perfect choice for this book, because his style is somewhat minimalist, often using generous amounts of white space on the page, but always with purpose. There aren't a lot of traditional, bordered panels, because Riddle prefers to separate his images with emptiness, so that they sort of float together on the page, laid out logically but not constrained or constructed in the usual rigid ways. This goes well with the story being told, as it mostly comes from Anna's distant, guarded, painful memories, and therefore flows differently than one might expect. The black-and-white coloring and Riddle's thick, confident linework match the starkness of the narrative, which is itself void of much warmth or color. When things are at their bleakest, Riddle goes more gray than black, and when life is hard on Anna, so are the lines that make up her world. Eisele's straightforward writing and Anna's sometimes clipped voice are given incredible depth by the simple choices Riddle makes on every page. He is the source of this book's most memorable parts: Anna's baby being forced from her arms, her arrival at the barren landscape that was once her hometown, the bodies of Lidice's men splayed out across the ground like litter after the Nazis murdered them en masse. These are evocative images, more so than any description of these events could ever be in the same space.
     The most important thing Riddle brings to the table is his depiction of modern-day Anna, older and softer but no weaker for it. The hardships behind her are evident in every line on her face, as is her resolve to relate her story despite how difficult it is for her to talk about. To actually see that struggle, to witness Anna push through it in the name of the truth, demands the reader's attention. She is a gripping figure, and it makes the terrors she went through that much harder to ignore. By infusing so much heartbreak and determination into Anna in the present, Riddle makes the story of her past even more compelling.
     Riddle's sometimes sparse artwork fits with Eisele's simple approach to the script, and makes With Only Five Plums feel lighter than it truly is. There is so much that happens in this book, to Anna directly and to the many other people in her world, yet the heaviness of it all doesn't weigh too greatly while reading. I don't want to imply that it's not an impactful work, because it is, with each new tragedy Anna lives through hitting harder than the last. But Eisele and Riddle are sure to show those tragedies to us in a way that, while underlining their seriousness, doesn't overdo it or play up the trauma in too ham-fisted a manner, either. They keep things grounded, quiet, and sad in the understated way all old wounds feel, not as intense as they were when they actually occurred, but still unavoidably and powerfully painful.