Thursday, January 30, 2014

Monthly Dose: January 2014

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

100 Bullets #15: The audience meets Curtis, the audience meets Loop, and then Curtis and Loop meet each other. It's an all-introduction issue, but one that is tightly written by Brian Azzarello so that it holds your interest and does precisely what it needs to do. Curtis and Loop are characters I'm eager to spend more time with, even if they and their relationship are a little cliché. Because they're also very human, as opposed to being two-dimensional stereotypes. Yes, I've seen characters like them before, but not exactly the same in outlook or style or personality. Curtis is a quieter, more thoughtful, more caring version of the grizzled old criminal archetype. And Loop lacks the apathy of the typical street youth character, replacing it with a calm but focused curiosity. That's what drives him to seek out Curtis after Agent Graves tells him that Curtis is his father, so I suppose you could call Loop's curiosity his most important trait, because it sets him apart and it pushes the narrative forward. There's also the implied danger of pairing someone so nosy with someone who clearly has a lot of secrets, and that tension works well, hanging over Loop and Curtis' already-fraught first meeting. Also adding to that scene is Patricia Mulvihill's excellent blue-black-and-white coloring. It adds a softness to a hard moment, and makes it feel a little surreal, even though it might be the most REAL shit either man has had to face. Eduardo Risso also nails that encounter, particularly when it comes to Loop's nervous uncertainty about how to approach the whole thing. It's a pretty great issue for Risso all over, actually. I love how the first thing we see of Curtis is just one, huge, solid, powerful hand slamming against a bar. Very striking image. And Agent Graves was at his most shadowy and brooding, which is always good to see. There wasn't anything in this issue that grabbed me by the throat, I guess, but I liked everything and wanted more. It's real good, clean, simple comicbook storytelling from cover to cover.

Nick Fury vs. S.H.I.E.L.D. #3: Man, there was a lot of interesting new shit in this issue, by which I mostly mean new important characters. Like John Allen, the head of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s ESP squad, who's a morally upstanding dude I found myself immediately rooting for simply because of his earnestness. Also, I'm into the whole idea of the ESP squad, and in particular the fact that the agents in it are being pushed to their limits and ultimately killed from overuse. It's tragic, but also an interesting way to bring Allen into the fold, first as a Nick Fury hater and then as an ally. Fury gets several new friends in this issue, actually, and I liked all of them. Sleeper agent Alexander Pierce brought some much-needed humor to the book. He's not a clown or a constant source of comic relief, but his relative inexperience and his absolute faith in Fury make them an amusing pair. Pierce tries his hardest to impress, Fury is thoroughly unimpressed, repeat. Bob Harras makes this relationship quite enjoyable, because as upset as Fury gets with Pierce's performance, there's always a certain respect and gratitude, too, since Pierce is the only person fighting on Fury's side. Until the end of the issue, that is, when they team up with Allen and S.H.I.E.L.D.'s liaison from the C.I.A., Al Mackenzie, who realizes something is rotten in the state of S.H.I.E.L.D. and decides to do something about it. So at the start of the issue, Fury was still totally alone, and at the end he's got a three-man team working with him, so things are looking up. We also learn a lot more about what the bad guys are up to, though their endgame is still a complete mystery. But we do discover that something is happening where the villains age rapidly and, apparently, die, only to be somehow remade in their younger forms by the S.H.I.E.L.D. council. I say "remade" rather than "reborn" because there's clearly an artificial life thing going on, as evidenced by a lot of stuff, most notably Eric Koenig firing some kind of white-hot energy beams out of his eyes while his face melts off. It's a safe bet that he's not the real human Koenig anymore, and it's also a fantastic-looking scene and a great way to close out the issue. Paul Neary is on point throughout, but that moment is definitely a highlight, probably of the entire series up to this point. It's gross and surprising and a little bit sad, just as it ought to be. All-in-all, this issue was the shot in the arm that the book desperately needed here at the halfway point after its rather slow, slogging start. Suddenly the cast is bigger and more varied, the plot has been richly thickened, and the stakes have been amplified, because it's not just about clearing Fury's name, it's about protecting maybe the whole world from being turned into freaky ass robots. I guess it was always ostensibly about that, but it feels like it is now, which it never did before. I'm reinvested and ready to roll into the second half of the series.

X-Force (vol. 1) #15: So here I was, all excited to get into Greg Capullo's first issue of X-Force. It's been a long, long time since I read this, or any of his issues, and he's got such a good reputation on this title and such a high profile now that I was anxious to see how the old stuff held up. And at first, I was quite pleased. Capullo is the ideal replacement for Rob Liefeld, because their styles are fairly similar, but Capullo's is a more controlled and better-looking version. He still draws enormous, bulky characters in insane action poses, but nobody looks like they are too big for their skin. There are no teeth bulging out of everyone's faces, either, and most importantly, ever panel is clear and the issue as a whole is well-paced. None of that was ever true when Liefeld was running the show, so Capullo is more than welcome. EXCEPT. All of sudden, ten pages in, there's Domino in the most ridiculously, laughably, offensively, pointlessly tattered clothes imaginable. She may as well have just been in lingerie or, for that sake, straight up nude. Complete nudity would've actually made more sense, because she'd just been freed from months of torture. So that was distracting and infuriating, but I wanted so badly to move past it because, hey, it was just one panel and it was the 90's and I can forgive that, right? But then Boom-Boom's breasts poke past her vest for no reason, and Feral's nipples are visible through her costume somehow, and both Boom-Boom and Domino get perfect holes in their shirts in just the right place so you can see some boob flesh but nothing too scandalous, and Domino is put into every ass- or chest-highlighting position Capullo can come up with. Sometimes, some way, it's both. There's probably stuff I'm not remembering, but I choose not to go back through every page of the issue to find more examples. Anyway, Capullo got flat-out sexist with it, so that turned me off. I'm hoping this won't last? Capullo is coming in and drawing the ends of storylines the Liefeld began, so some of the look of the characters may not be entirely in his hands. I'm not sure how that applies to any of the things I specifically mentioned above, though, so perhaps I'm just trying too hard to find an excuse. Whatever...Capullo is better stylistically than anyone else this title has had as penciler, so I'm not going to let my enthusiasm fade because of how he drew most of the women mot of the time for one issue. Feral had plenty of not-at-all-sexual moments, Siryn was never anything but fully covered and totally badass, and Domino was just freed from months of torture, so I'll give the dude the benefit of the doubt for now. It did spoil parts of this issue for me, though, so that's a shame. On the story side of things, Fabian Nicieza continued to jettison everything Liefeld established with great speed. Crule is thrown out a plane, Gideon closes the book on Cannonball's relationship with the other Externals, Tolliver is blown up, and Cable peaces out. It's amazing to watch, and I especially love how, in response to all these rapid-fire changes, Nicieza has X-Force openly admit, more than once, that they have no clue what to do next. I guess the decision is getting made for them, though, because the final panel of this issue explicitly states that I have to read Uncanny X-Men #294, X-Factor #84, and X-Men #14 before the next issue of this series. But guess what? I ain't gonna, so join me here next month to see how lost I am jumping into part 4 of "X-Cutioner's Song"!

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Superb Heroes: Ex Machina

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

I have been meaning to finish and publish this for the better part of a month, and it keeps eluding me. After that long, I typically admit defeat and delete a work-in-progress for the sake of clearing mental space for new things that might be written more quickly or naturally. And in this case, it made extra sense because just a couple months ago, Jeffrey Gustafson finished his story-by-story review of Ex Machina. And it was great. But I just took so many notes and did such a fast and furious reread of this series in preparation for this post that I can't quite bring myself to dispose of it entirely. So instead, I'm just going to put up what I have so far and call it a day. So if anyone's interested enough in what I have to say about Ex Machina to read 2,800 words on the subject—beginning with the first few paragraphs of a "real" draft, followed by a loose bold-text outline for the rest of the piece, following by a long section of italicized notes I wrote to myself as I was reading the comic and fleshing out this column—now is your chance to do so. It's kind of repetitious, but basically all the points I would've made if I'd written a whole real thing get made somewhere in there, I think. Enjoy!

Every politician claims to be doing what they believe is best for whatever chunk of the world they represent, whether it's a single neighborhood or an entire nation. And while some of them are probably outright, knowingly lying, I give most of them the benefit of the doubt that they're genuinely doing what they think will make the most people most happy. To intentionally piss off the public by making bad, wrong decisions on purpose would just be working against one's own political future, right? Yet with all their supposed good intentions, it's rare that any politician does everything they promise, or even most of it. And even if they do reach some ambitious goals, it typically comes at the cost of something else. Politics is a game of compromise and combat, where people who want opposite outcomes have to either find common ground or viciously go after one another, and neither of those options is seen as ideal by either side. The end result is that, no matter how hard any individual politician tries, they're going to end up making some mistakes, screwing up some choices, and making some enemies during their career.
     The same is true of superheroes. For all their impressive powers and earnest efforts to wipe out the forces of evil, no superhero is ever active for long without some major blunder. Villains get away, innocents die, the hero inadvertently causes one disaster while trying to prevent another, etc. Superheroism a high-risk activity, and nobody avoids the fallout forever. Even the greatest superheroes have had their hands in some tremendous tragedies, and while they might ultimately make up for it with the good they do, it's still an inescapable part of the lifestyle.
     This shared inability between politicians and superheroes to ever quite be as good as they or their public wants them to be is the strongest unifying theme in Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris' Ex Machina. The book's main character is Mitchell Hundred, an engineer-turned-superhero thanks to a freak accident, and subsequently a superhero-turned-mayor-of-New-York because he manages to save the second tower of the World Trade Center during 9/11. I haven't spoiled anything for you, by the way, because all of that information is covered in the debut issue, where we also get the first glimpse of Hundred's struggle to be the kind of hero and the kind of mayor he wants to (and believes he can) be. For the rest of the fifty-issues-plus-four-specials that make up this excellent series, that struggle is Hundred's whole world, as his superpowered past keeps bubbling up to screw with his political present, which is already full of its own complex problems with no obvious solutions. He never quite achieves the kind of greatness he wants in either of the roles he plays, nor does he blossom into the supervillain which the forces who gave him his powers originally intended him to be. Hundred's life is one of always coming up short, and in the end, the question of whether he's done more harm than good overall is not easy to answer.
     Hundred gets his superhuman abilities while investigating a strange, glowing device that was discovered in the water attached to the Brooklyn Bridge. The object explodes when Hundred touches it, and the blast does some serious damage to his face. It also gives him the power to communicate with machines, to "speak" with them and "hear" what they're saying. Exactly what that sounds like or how it works are never entirely explained, but they don't need to be, since we see the practical applications of Hundred's powers many times. By using his special voice, he can control machines, giving them instructions that they are somehow compelled to obey. Everything from dimming the lights in his bedroom to jamming the gun of a would-be assassin to taking control of a hijacked airplane and landing it safely on the streets of New York. It's a remarkable power to have, and the theoretical influence or control it could give him if he chose to abuse it is terrifying, but Hundred is too altruistic to let himself be so corrupted. As a lifelong fan of superhero comics, he decides to model himself after the stars of those books, becoming a masked, jetpack-wearing vigilante called The Great Machine.
     Hundred learns pretty quickly how misguided his plan to become a real-world costumed crimefighter is. For one thing, he's never very good at it.

Talk about all the ways he sucks as a hero: unfit, impulsive, nobody trusts him or wants his help, cops hate him, he creates a villain he can barely handle and then has to kill, etc. Basically, for every step forward, there are one or more steps back. Give examples, of course.

So he decides he can do more good as mayor, but it's not truly any better once he gets there. It's still all about doing as much as he can, and he still upsets somebody no matter what. He lies a lot, or tells half-truths, because he has to in order to stay in the game. He's popular and smart, and he definitely does some good stuff, but it's always got a dark side. The fact that he sometimes has to step out of the mayor suit and into the superhero one is no help, but that's not really the heart of it. Even the all-politics stuff (Lincoln, gay marriage, letting the protest march happen, etc.) often leaves him no good choices.

At this point, conflating the two as much as possible. What would a truly good politician look like? Or a truly SUPER hero? Probably not possible, and a big part of that is the short-term solution problem. Fighting the crooks one at a time doesn't end crime, and working within a fucked up political system isn't changing the way the world works. Also, there is an inherent dishonesty. Superheroes have fake names and costumes. Politicians need to bend truths or lie outright to stay afloat. That lack of transparency taints things necessarily.

However, for all his failure, he succeeds in not bending to the will of his creators. Whoever sent the beacon that made him what he is wanted him to use his powers as the first step in prepping for a full-out invasion. One that still looms. But he has disappointed those forces at every turn, and continues to determinedly do so. A worse villain, then, than good guy, but not great as either.

In the end, he's alone and only the VP. He never gets there all the way, but instead comes up just short always. And maybe that's the condition of all superheroes and all politicians. Certainly Ex Machina seems to think so, or at least strongly suggests the possibility.

In the first issue, we see that he was a hero on 9/11, but ALSO that he sucked as a hero at first and/or in general. He's a win/loser from the beginning.

Lincoln: nobody likes it, and the person who created it has to go villain in order to undo her villainy. Also she totally assaults that dude and it gets brushed off annoyingly.

Snow murders: A very funny and sad conclusion to have the killer be a teenager. But really this story is about Hundred's past and current relationships with Kremlin and Bradbury. And this arc as a whole is about how he is with everyone: Wylie, Journal, Angotti, and his chief of staff whose name I forget now. It's about seeing that he wants to do good, but he doesn't really know how. And maybe no one does, which is what Kremlin and Bradbury talk about in their last convo as Hundred walks away.

It's not that he's a villain, it's that he's not the guy to be a hero. And maybe nobody really is. I think this is kind of a question about the whole genre, because what are the chances that a kid with Superman's powers gets the Kents or that Bruce Wayne reacts that way to his parents' murder or that a genuinely earnest kid with Uncle Ben and Aunt May raising him is the one the spider picks or what have you? Maybe those folks exist, but most of us are not that good, and Hundred is no superhero. He's not even heroic, he's just a flawed, mostly well-meaning but ultimately vain guy who happened to be the one to get these insane powers. He's a fluke.

Also, you can't really be a GOOD politician like you can't really be a SUPERhero. 

Gay marriage/NSA: Right off the bat, I noticed how when Jackson's wife tries to compliment Hundred for saving someone once, he tells her it was actually a person he'd put at risk who hated him now. Also, the whole thing of different people reacting differently to the glyph that made Hundred what he is fits in with this idea of "who would REALLY get powers?" The gay marriage issue is another case of Hundred trying to be a good politician and coming up short (in the long run). His whole thing is short-term solutions, right? That becomes apparent here, not just with the marriage, but his approach to school vouchers as a patch while fixing the system. And that is the problem with superheroism, too: it's not a long-term way to deal with crime/evil. It's violence and might squashing things on a case-by-case basis. So maybe the biggest flaw in Hundred's character is that tactical attitude.

Leto as Automaton/jury duty: Things that never happened, or that were MADE not to count, is the common theme in the end. Easy lied, Leto is erased. Hundred is surrounded by lies and secrets, some he knows about and others not. Again, this is the life of any superhero or any politician. Maybe THAT is the hook of this column that being a politician and being a superhero are the same in so many ways, because you can't really be GOOD in the strictest sense to succeed as either, let alone both.

Mitch's mom: Again, the big point is that lies are necessary, ok, and inevitable. His mom says everyone lies TWICE in one issue, and then at the end of that issue, Hundred tries to bring transparency by letting film students into a water tunnel, but basically lies to those same kids about his dad. 

Pherson: again, bringing up the death penalty is a big example of the impossibility of true goodness as a politician or vigilante. What do you do with the evils as powerful (or more) than your good can ever be? Also, there's a dishonesty aspect in that the host lies or at least misleads Hundred about the topic of the interview. The Pherson story itself is about Hundred being called out as not doing enough or not doing it right. It's an open challenging of his cause and behavior, which does't happen too often, really. People push back against it, but I don't know if it gets questioned in this way.

Protest: Angotti and Hundred lie about how they find the terrorist. Hundred let the protestors march because how could he tell them they can't, but also lots of folks tell him it is a bad idea. Again, lies and the impossibility of doing this politician job right. Doesn't get into his history as much, but that's the point because he thinks (nay, assumes) that the attack is about him personally.

Weed: Hundred avoids the topic of his current weed usage. Meanwhile, being bad about arresting a pot dealer as a superhero sneaks up on him as a politician when the kid's mom kills herself. Then he can't even use that suicide to make a stance, because it'll make him look like he bends to terrorism. So, once again, not able to do a truly got job in either role.

Zeller: Mitch is so fucking stubborn about not wanting to know about his powers. It's frustrating. Everything Zeller says is so interesting, and he is the epitome of honesty, and he is a good guy, as he self-identifies and demonstrates all along. He causes some damage, but he is there to issue a warning and he tries his hardest and all the pain is accidental. Hundred, meanwhile, gets ragey and punches the dude with the butt of his gun. And threatens him and refuses to listen and stuff. It's villain-y for sure. In the end, he gets credit for something he maybe doesn't deserve, as pointed out by Lilith. So here, he's a BAD hero and a BAD politician but he comes across as a hero. And without trying to lie, he has to, which is another reversal. So all the same themes, but looked at a little differently by going heavy in the hero direction of things, as far as the central problem. 

The Pope: Doesn't really fit these themes, but it's also maybe the worst arc. The mind control thing is SO dumb and weird. Weak, archetypal villains so disposable one of them kills the other and it's meaningless. The antichrist thing is sort of foreshadowing what Hundred is supposed to be, I guess, but only barely and not directly. That part can't be pointed out because the Vatican guy doesn't know about it (and neither does Hundred). But yeah I'm not wild about him seeing God and seeing himself as president. It's not that I'm offended, just bored. He DOESN'T become that, and there's no difference to me if he really saw God or didn't, so...wah wah.

Trouble: Similar to the Pope story, I'm not sure how this fits. Certainly it has to do with the struggle to be a good hero, but...this isn't Hundred's fault. This is a crazy woman being crazy, and it's the worst kind of crazy woman character, too: sexed up and love crazed. I hate her look and her personality, so to hell with this.

New Years: Hundred dons his other, previously-foreshadowed superhero duds to go underground, expecting Pherson and instead finding the first thing he ever listens to. Because it looks like Zeller, basically (who's the only real hero in the book I reckon). Point is, he has to be willing to give up being a politician at all, while at the same time his original political sin, the white box, is threatened and then gets out of control. This is his darkest hour as a politician, his lowest and worst. BUT. He also learns that he has failed to make way for an invasion, and in that, we see that as bad as he is a superhero, he failed WAY worse at being the villain he was actually, technically meant to be. That's kind of cool, and in some ways his highest moment as a hero. Not as the Great Machine, but this other, nameless persona that is willing to hear out his enemies, admit his mistakes, and sacrifice things because it's the right thing to do. 

Suzanne: In the midst of trying to deal with the abortion thing and how to handle it, whether or not to screw over Wylie, etc., Hundred has to go full-on hero for a full-on villain. And he defeats Suzanne, but less through superheroics and more through politics. It is his lie about the nullifier that wins the day, ultimately, more than his powers. And it is Bradbury covering his ass that saves his career, which is also totally politics. 

Finale: Here, we see Hundred at the height of his political career, and the absolute furthest he's ever been from being a superhero or even a decent person. He abandons Bradbury for politics, he kills Kremlin to cover up his big huge lie about stealing the election, etc. Everybody else loses, just like he says. And even after all that, he ends up playing second fiddle to Cheney. Not that good a politician, even when he gives up heroism entirely. This is sort of the inverse of the New Years story, which was lowest politics but highest heroism. Here we get highest politics and lowest heroism, but the results are still decidedly middling. No matter which way he swings or how far, being truly great at either is beyond him perpetually.

He ends up alone, having failed as a hero, failed to become president, and failed as the harbinger of an invasion he was intended to be. This is a book about a man's earnest but ultimately unsuccessful attempts to be a good guy in several arenas, and the futility of that kind of idealism in general. Nobody can solve all the problems, and those who try will compromise and lie out of necessity until they become destroyers instead of builders. It ties into what Hundred says in the Suzanne story about how the gas and 9/11 terrorists were engineers. Fine line between builder and destroyer, and he crosses it often.

Sunday, January 19, 2014


Since the last time I wrote on of these posts, I've actually had two columns published at PopMatters. One last week on the expert pacing of Prophet, and then one this week about Loose Ends and the frustrations of reading an unfinished series in general. By the by, the newest issue of Prophet (#42) is a perfect example of the series telling a compressed story while still expanding on and stretching out its over-arching narrative. Also this week, my new "1987 And All That" looking at the major flaws in the cast and concept of Young All-Stars was posted on The Chemical Box. It was not a good series, but they can't all be.

Something I Failed to Mention
I gave both artist Chris Brunner and colorist Rico Renzi due credit for their impeccable contributions to Loose Ends, but there's one specific thing they both do (or, maybe more accurately, that they do together) that I didn't address because I felt like it required visual aides and I didn't want to clog the PopMatters post with too many scans. There are a fair number of flashback scenes sprinkled throughout Loose Ends, showing various points in the lives of different members of the cast (though they all involve Sonny, Rej, or both, I'm pretty sure). The present-tense action of the series is done in vibrant colors, has non-traditional layouts and panel borders, and is peppered with other surreal or fantastical visual elements as well. The flashbacks, on the other hand, are more solid and steady in their look. Renzi washes them in a single dominant color, typically some sort of sepia tone, though even then he manages to switch up the exact feel/atmosphere by giving each era its own hue. Below are the first three panels of three different flashback sequences, not shown in the correct order, but just laid on top of each other for the sake of a color comparison:

Each one is basically all yellow, orange, and black, but they're all still distinct from one another. The top one is a little brighter and more sandy, since it's set in a desert. In the middle is the oldest memory, a childhood memory, so it's the most faded. It's also the saddest of the three. Finally, there's the warm golden glow of the glory days of high school. The limited, similar palettes Renzi uses here mark each of these scenes as being set in the past immediately, yet he still makes sure that they stand out from one another, because not every memory is viewed through the same lens. 

Brunner also tightens up in the flashbacks, all of his panels bordered by straight lines, neatly set next to or on top of one another in nice, even rectangles. Sometimes there's a panel overlapping another, but even then, they are perfect geometric shapes. Everything is more traditionally composed, which places memory and reality in sort of reverse positions in this book. In our world, real life appears consistent while memories morph and warp and become permanently distorted. Loose Ends has the opposite dynamic, where the shape of the present is hard to pin down, but the characters' views of their past never waver. I don't know if this was an intentional flip-flop or something that came organically out of trying to make the flashbacks look distinct from the other scenes, and probably it's somewhere in between. It's a neat and effective artistic tactic no mater what the motivation behind it, and just one of many such impressive tricks Brunner and Renzi pull off.

Friday, January 17, 2014

This is Immature (but so are the Young All-Stars)

My latest "1987 And All That" column went up today over at The Chemical Box, this time looking at the dreadfully disappointing first seven issues of DC's Young All-Stars. In the 1987 posts, I always make an effort to pick a particular angle (ideally the most important or resonant point I want to make) and focus on just that one thing, leaving out any stray thoughts I might've had on the series in question that don't naturally fit into the case I'm arguing. This is for focus, purpose, and clarity, plus it tends to help me write the things more quickly if I have a destination in mind before I start.

Often, if there's something especially interesting or relevant that I forgot to include—or chose not to include for thematic reasons—in the actual column, I will save it for one of my Elsewhere posts here on the blog, because that's the space I've set aside for such things. However, in the case of Young All-Stars, there's nothing that significant that I feel like I left out of the Chemical Box piece, because 2,000+ words on my problems with the book's concept and with each individual member of the titular team is (probably more than) enough to cover all the necessary ground. However, there's a single panel in issue #4 that struck me as vaguely sexually suggestive in a really weird, distracting, amusing, and probably unintentional way, and so I wanted to very quickly call the Internet's attention to it now so I can walk away from this comicbook forever without feeling like anything was left unsaid.

As a quick bit of set-up/context, what we're looking at in this panel are three members of the series' primary villain team, Axis Amerika, as they monitor the Young All-Stars through a giant retro sci-fi screen in their secret headquarters. They've just finished watching the heroes make a big mess of their first public appearance, and now the question the villains have to ask themselves is whether or not it's worthwhile to kill these kids when nobody else is watching. Here's how that conversation goes, but pay more attention to the faces, body language, and positioning of the three baddies seen below:

Since I don't name the creators in the body of the post, Script: Roy & Dann Thomas, Pencils: Howard Simpson, Inks: Malcolm Jones III and/or Dan Bulanadi, Colors: Gene D'angelo, Letters: Jean Simek

From left to right, these three men are (as they conveniently mention in the dialogue): Kamikaze, the newest member of Axis Amerika; Übermensch, their leader; and Sea Wolf, the nastiest and most vicious member of the group. Now, I'm sure this isn't on purpose, and probably has more to do with trying to fit these three guys into a single close-up shot than anything else, but the first thing that popped into my head when I saw this was, "Whoa...are they jacking Übermensch off?"

Because they seem pretty snuggled up in that image, don't they? And both Kamikaze and Sea Wolf have their bodies angled toward Übermensch, who is facing straight ahead. And Kamikaze, at least, seems to have his eyes trained on Übermensch's groin, and is wearing what I would describe as a coy, playful grin. And I'd argue Sea Wolf's eyes are pointed in the same direction, though it's admittedly debatable. And I can't see anybody's hands. What really ties it together is the way Übermensch has his head slightly raised, with a look of pleasant calm on his face. It just feels like an intimate, tender moment between the three of them, and I can't shake the notion that if the panel went a few inches lower, this scene would be downright pornographic.

Make no mistake, I am not the least bit bothered or offended by this idea. If these guys want to quickly service each other, or if this is foreplay for a wild all-night three-way, or even if they're in a committed three-man relationship, that's fine by me. More power to them. But since they're supposed to be, you know, freakin' Nazis, and there's nothing else that's questionably sexual in this comicbook anywhere that I can find, it's probably a safe bet that the romantic atmosphere of this panel is an accident. And seen in that light, it makes me chuckle, because it just looks so much to me like there's a handjob taking place. In costume, no less! That's an awkward, uncomfortable, bizarre way to perform such a simple sex act, but leave it to the supervillains to overcomplicate everything, amiright?

Also, "It cannot come too soon for Sea Wolf!"? Maybe it is on purpose.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

This Exists!: Washouts

This Exists! is a semi-regular column about particularly strange, ridiculous, and/or obscure comicbooks I happen to have stumbled across.
 In the backmatter of Washouts—I guess techincally it's Washouts #1 but since, as far as I can tell, it's the only issue ever published of this tile, I'm not going to use the number—writer/artist Michael Cohen explains how the three short stories contained within the issue came to be. Basically, he wrote them several years before as part of his development of a different comicbook concept, Strange Attractors. That book was Cohen's idea originally, but he had a hard time selling it to any publishers on his own. It was until he collaborated with Mark Sherman to more fully develop and tweak Strange Attractors that it actually got published and, apparently, received some critical acclaim. Now, I haven't read that series, so I can't properly make a comparison between the two, but I will say this: Washouts absolutely reads like a comic that would've benefitted from having someone other than Cohen providing their input. It  meanders, it fails to properly introduce its cast or their world, and two of the three stories barely have a plot, let alone a reason to exist. Nothing gets said by this comic, because it only barely manages to give its characters anything at all to do. If Cohen had even a single collaborator to give the book some purpose or drive, it's not out of the question that it might've become something worthwhile. Instead, we get this.

The concept of the title, as much as we're ever told, is that the Washouts are a team comprised of young women who flunked out of the "Academy." What that Academy trains people for is never explained, and neither is why, exactly, the cast of this book didn't cut the mustard. The Washouts themselves seem to be interstellar explorers/heroes, so maybe that's what the Academy is all about, too? I'm pretty sure it's part of the world of Strange Attractors, which I guess is why Cohen didn't feel the need to provide much information about it here, but whatever the Academy's up to, the Washouts aren't involved anymore. This doesn't stop them from having dangerous, action-packed adventures of their own, though, which makes me wonder if maybe they are operating illegally. Perhaps the Academy is how one gets licensed in this reality for a life of adventuring, and the Washouts are an underground gang of do-gooders who don't have the proper paperwork. But that's all speculation, and much of it is baseless, so instead of wondering about the possible explanations of things that aren't clear, let's look at what's actually present in this comic.
The first and longest of the three stories is "Our Typical Rotten Luck," featuring five of the Washouts (who have at least seven total members, based on who we meet in this issue). The tale opens with two members of the team, Freeda and Squinch, in a small spacecraft together and on the run from an enemy of theirs named Stargate Sally. In trying to evade Sally's far superior vessel, the Washouts end up crash-landing on an unknown planet where, in classic fashion, they are cut off from communication with the outside world. They manage to send a quick warning signal to the other Washouts so a rescue mission is launched, but in the meantime Freeda and Squinch are stranded with no way of knowing for sure whether or not their friends will save them or when. This strangers in a strange land thing is, of course, a pretty standard set-up, especially for science fiction. And Cohen doesn't stray too far from the familiar for the duration of the narrative. Freeda and Squinch meet the native species of the planet, who, predictably enough, are advanced in some ways (language, mostly) but not-as-advanced technologically. Their culture is based on their religion, which itself is based on a sacred text written in giant stone letters that can only be read if viewed from high above. Squinch inadvertently destroys one of these stones while she and Freeda are exploring, and it's a mistake that nearly gets her killed, changing the text so that instead of saying not to sacrifice outsiders, it says to sacrifice them. As such, Freeda and Squinch are locked in a holding cell where they are to be kept until it's time for one or the other of them to be killed as an offering to the gods.

Lucky for the Washouts, Stargate Sally doesn't abandon her pursuit just because her targets disappear on a mysterious world. She follows them without hesitation, able to safely land without taking the same damage the Washouts' spaceship did. At first, this seems like bad new for our heroes, who don't even realize Sally has managed to keep up her end of the chase. But once Sally meets the natives, her aggressive behavior makes her their captive as well, and their top pick for outsider to kill. So in the morning, rather than either Freeda or Squinch being selected as a sacrifice, they are both set free, not even aware that it was their old enemy Sally who their new enemies chose to kill in their place. And if that wasn't enough, the three Washouts who came to save Freeda and Squinch arrive at more or less the same time, and all five members of the group reunite at the site of Sally's spaceship, where it waits unguarded and in perfect condition for a pilot who will never return. So the Washouts use it to take their leave of the strange, harsh place, and everyone goes home happy. Except, you know, for Sally.
It's a pretty dumb story, all in all. The Washouts are depicted as obnoxious idiots, with Squinch the clumsy coward who accidentally demolishes ancient stone letters, and Freeda an arrogant, bossy bully whose reckless bravado is why they end up stranded in the first place. I see no reason to like them, and in fact I'm not positive if Cohen wants me to. They might be good guys, but they could just as easily be criminals who Sally is trying to arrest. We don't learn any of their history with Sally, or really much about her at all, so the easiest assumption to make is that the title characters are the heroes and Sally is therefore a villain. But other than Sally being kind of mean, there aren't any in-story clues as to why she and the Washouts are at odds with each other, or what the heck the Washouts are trying to accomplish as a group at all. Cohen doesn't try to make his stars sympathetic or three-dimensional, each of them only capable of displaying maybe two or three different emotions. There is no context for this narrative, no reason to care about the stakes, even though what's at risk is literally the lives of two of the protagonists. If your main characters can be hours away from death without it sparking the least bit of excitement in your reader, then you need to go back and get the basics down before diving into the details of the plot.

Which is basically my whole problem with Washouts top to bottom: Cohen never covers his bases. He lays no groundwork, has no foundation on top of which he can construct these tales. Things just happen with no rhyme or reason, and we're never told why we should give even the smallest shit about it all. The Washouts do stuff and we have no insight into why or even how. Again, I assume some of this has to do with this kind of introductory material being covered previously in Strange Attractors, but Washouts is its own series and deserves to have its reality freshly established, even if that info does technically exist elsewhere already. This is a comicbook that throws its readers into the deep end of what ends up being a very shallow pool overall.
The second story, "Another Day with Astra," is an utterly simplistic day-in-the-life story about, you guessed it, Astra, who I assume is a Washout (but who really knows/cares?) and is definitely a superhero. At only two pages, this section is essentially just an excuse for Cohen to draw a handful of disconnected stereotypical superhero scenes that are all too short to be the least bit effective. It ends with her relaxing after this long day of heroics to watch a TV show based on her life of heroics. A sort of funny ending, but none too original, and it's the conclusion of a non-narrative story, anyway. There is no plot here, just a string of events capped off with a lame gag.

Finally, there's "Make Way!" a X-page piece about a Washout named Phoebe racing against the clock to make it...somewhere on time. We don't actually know where she's headed until the story's last page reveal that it's just a hair appointment, making all her anxiety, selfishness, and law-breaking on the way there seem way more annoying than it already did. She evades law enforcement and steals a transportation pass off of a guy she knocks unconscious after carelessly plowing into him in her hurry. All so she can get to her haircut on time. It's extremely petty, and it makes Phoebe seem spoiled and vain and intensely unlikable. Not that she was all that endearing before the haircut reveal, because the whole story is pretty inane. From the start, it's just her worrying about being late, trying to use different shortcuts in this unexplained, confusing, futuristic sci-fi setting and getting more and more lost and flustered until she decides that picking the pocket of a dude she flattened is an acceptable means of getting what she wants. While the other Washouts give us no reason to root for them, Phoebe actually has me rooting against her by the end of her story, a terrible way to close an already underwhelming comicbook.
I'm not sure what Michael Cohen thought he had in Washouts. Is it meant to be a comedy? A ragtag group of young misfit space ladies having goofy/madcap escapades? That's as close to reality as I can get when trying to imagine a more enjoyable, viable version of this project, but that is still too bland and trite and lightweight. Even if the humor worked and the characters were fleshed out and the world was explained, I still don't see what would make Washouts stand out from the crowd. It reads like something that was published not because anyone really wanted to see it, but because Cohen happened to find the scripts in the bottom of some desk drawer right when he had a bit of extra free time on his hands. There's no attempt here to establish an ongoing series, or even really to carry the reader's interest from the start of any one story to its end. Washouts is empty and boring on a level I rarely encounter. But hey, it exists.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Monthly Dose: December 2013 (Belated)

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

100 Bullets #14: This is an especially tough issue to take on its own when I know what's coming down the road. Because it's something like 95% Branch being extra cryptic when talking to Dizzy about The Trust, but I know who they are, because I've read this all before. Branch identifies them here and gives a vague sense of their reach and power, but provides no solid answers, instead always evading the incessant questions Dizzy throws at him. That's been their dynamic all along, I guess, but there was some action and some silence to break things up before. In this issue, it's literally all talk, and the only change is that they go from being in a park to Branch's place to outside again at a monument. These setting switches don't mean much, and seem to happen only so that Eduardo Risso can find new ways to show Dizzy and Branch conversing, something they've done for the better part of two issues prior to this one. To his Credit, Risso keeps things interesting and emotive. Branch and Dizzy have a nice physical contrast, and he moves his face a lot more than she does, too, so they play well together. That can only ever go so far, though, especially when they're not really doing anything. Yet even with all the excessive wordiness, Brian Azzarello doesn't tell us much. We get a bit of background on how Branch knows what he knows about The Trust, and...what else? Cole meets Dizzy? That, admittedly, is a great moment and an important one, but neither its greatness nor its importance can be fully understood until later in the series. Same goes for the dialogue between Cole and Branch. It's interesting and it lets the reader know that Graves defied The Trust. But we don't know why, how, or what that means, yet, and Azzarello isn't letting us in on the secret at all. This is just a tease, and I've had better, even in earlier issues of this very book. There's not enough here to latch onto, and while I can appreciate how well-structured and well-planned this series is in hindsight, seeing some of what Azzarello already includes this early on, as its own individual chapter, this was too full of words and too void of information. Particularly for the conclusion of an arc.

Nick Fury vs. S.H.I.E.L.D. #2: The thing that stood out to me most in this issue was how often the same words or phrases got repeated right next to each other. The earliest and most irksome example was, "The Headquarters of the Supreme Headquarters International Espionage Law-Enforcement Division." Just lose the first three words, or call it, I don't know, "The heart of..." or "Command central for..." That is a confusing enough name for S.H.I.E.L.D. without adding an extra headquarters to the mix. There were a handful of other instances I don't remember word-for-word, like two characters using the same phrase one right after the other, or the evil shadowy council that runs S.H.I.E.L.D. repeating themselves over and over about how without stopping Nick Fury all of their careful scheming might well be for naught. That was a very repetitive part of the story, as were a lot of the scenes with Fury's allies. The Countess is made into this lovesick, confused, helpless wreck, very uninteresting and unappealing as a character. All of Fury's friends are frustratingly inactive, not so much because it makes sense, but because the story needs to fill a lot of pages and there isn't that much going on. In between Fury's various underground fights and adventures, there have to be other scenes, so there's a lot of Dum Dum and Gabe being passively upset about what's happening, and the bad guys talking about their new recruit and what a perfect specimen he is. Spoiler alert: it's revealed to be the recently-deceased Clay Quartermain, confirming once and for all that things are not what they seem. That information is actually significant, but it may be the only truly relevant event here. The rest is incremental character development of Fury's allies, plus Fury himself running from S.H.I.E.L.D. and barely surviving, which happens like three times in this issue alone. So Bob Harras' script spins its wheels more than anything, which is a drag, especially in an oversized comicbook. Luckily, Paul Neary's art and, more than that, Bernie's Jaye's colors make the action look great. And they do the S.H.I.E.L.D. board of directors in an effective, simple, neon-green noir aesthetic, which I like a lot. Jaye colors the gunshots and explosions in soft bright purples, and it gives the bigger fight scenes a strange beauty and urgency that works quite well. As for Neary, he's not the most precise artist, but he choreographs his fights well, fitting a lot of action into a small space. Maybe too small, actually, since it leaves so much room for the needless blah blah. As a final point: It was painful having to read actual scenes of two S.H.I.E.L.D. agents going to visit the Avengers and the West Coast Avengers and the Fantastic Four (all three of which had great lineups at this time) just to tell them not to help Fury. That didn't need to happen at all, really, and it certainly could've been done off-panel. Hell, the last half of the FF conversation, a.k.a. the important part, did happen off-panel.

X-Force (vol. 1) #14: Man...what a difference having an artist I genuinely like makes. Terry Shoemaker brings such a fun-loving energy to this book, it makes Fabian Nicieza's writing funnier and the whole cast more likable. As Nicieza begins to burn away all of Liefeld's leftover plot point as quickly as he can, Shoemaker shows up for an issue to jumpstart the book visually, too. This wasn't a stellar issue, necessarily, but it was so much better than any of its predecessors. Shoemaker's characters are bulky and sturdy, but they move fluidly and with determination. They seem like they are enjoying themselves for the first time, not smiling but going after their opponents and their freedom with such gusto that it swept me up. Rictor joins the team, which is great. Cable seems to be leaving the team, or rather, they're leaving him, which is also welcome. He's still in the title for now, but this is where everybody else officially breaks off from him, and it's fantastic to see. They all get to have a voice, play a real role in what happens, and be more than just the back-up squad for the beefcake star of this comic. You can feel the very nature of the book shifting with each new page of this issue. It's not an overt reboot, but it is a sharp turn taken at a high speed. And easily the best part of the ride up to now.