Wednesday, November 28, 2012

X-Men: Schism/Avengers X-Sanction: Editorially driven (into a tree)

I rely on the splendid local library system to keep track of the big Event Comics from Marvel and DC these days, partly because they would cost hundreds of my pathetic NZ dollars to keep track of it all, and largely because these comics are just not worth those hundreds of pathetic dollars.

There is still a bit of the Marvel zombie and DC fanboy nestled deep within my soul, so I’m vaguely interested in keeping up with what’s happening, but those shreds of interest aren’t enough to actually buy the comics, so the library – which gets almost all of these comics anyway – is a fine place to see what’s going on.


The main side-effect of this is that I’m about a year behind on the events. I only just read the massively underwhelming Flashpoint, (which left such a nasty taste in my mouth that I have no desire to talk about it. At all.), and I haven’t read a single page of Avengers vs X-Men yet.

The most recent things I’ve read were an X-Men event book which launched the ALL-NEW status quo for the X-Men (which has already been thrown out, in less than the year it took me to get to it), and a lead-in to the AvX event, which mainly consisted of Cable trying to beat up the Avengers for reasons I could never figure out.

And while I wasn’t expected too much from these comics, I was still pretty damn disappointed in them, because they are fine looking books, and even have the signs of an actual story, buried beneath editorially-driven moves that render them nonsensical.


I know I shouldn’t expect much from this kind of comic, but I do want to like them because I always want to like fast, funny or fabulous superhero comics, which just makes the disappointment all the more bitter.


The Schism storyline in the X:Men books has a clear goal – split the last remaining community of Marvel mutants up into two groups – each dealing with the fear and hatred thrown at them in different ways. That’s a fair enough premise, but the way they go about it is so idiotic, it doesn’t even make sense.

It’s a shame, because the comic isn’t that bad. It’s a reasonably well-paced limited series that would actually be saying some interesting things about the psychological harm caused by the kind of death and destruction that always follows the X-Men, and it has some snappy dialogue (when the characters aren’t monologing at each other).

There is also some terrific art from some of the best modern action artists, including Daniel Acuna, a Kubert and the mighty Alan Davis – one five page fight at the end of Davis’ chapter is a brilliantly choreographed bit of fight fluff, (especially the bit where Wolverine's claws start to cut through Cyclop’s eye lasers).



So there are some good fights in this comic, in the Mighty Marvel Manner, and in many respects it’s a perfectly fine superhero comic book, but all the goodwill towards it evaporates in the face of editorially-mandated idiocy. Because it’s apparently vital for the X-line that Cyclops and Wolverine fall out spectacularly, this requires both characters to act like complete douches, while completely ignoring decades of past storytelling. And that’s no fun at all.

The first thing that comes between the two senior X-Men is Cyclops forcing one of the younger mutants to kill a bunch of nameless henchmen to save lives, and Wolverine gets upset that innocent souls are now being forced to take the same bloody path he has taken. And Logan has a point here: the X-characters’ willingness to use lethal force – even though it never actually works in a universe with a revolving-door afterlife – has become a troubling trend in the comics in recent years, and it is nice to see someone stand up to that bullshit. Even if it is the most violent X-Man ever.

But when it all comes to a head, it’s over a giant Sentinel robot that is coming to rain destruction down on the X-Men’s utopia, and it’s played up as some great threat, even though those robots have been the least threatening villain in the X-books in decades. But rather than just dealing with the problem in the same way they’ve done dozens of times before, Wolvie flips the fuck out over Cyclop’s idea of using the incredibly powerful young mutants to stop it, and it all goes pear-shaped.

It’s fake drama and forced conflict – By the end of the story, Wolverine and Cyclops have to go their separate ways, so in order to get there, they have to treat the giant robot as some great threat, (and then Wolverine threatens to blow everything up to save it, which I still don’t understand).

Nobody bothers to point out a rampaging robot is nothing new. It’s an idea that Grant Morrison made into a joke on the very first page of his X-Men run, and that was more than a decade ago. It’s just another giant step back, and all the gritted teeth and pained poses isn’t going to change that.


And then there was the X-Sanction comic by Jeph Loeb and Ed McGuiness, where it’s Cable’s turn to flip the fuck out for no adequately explained reason, in order to set up the next mega-crossover.

I was expecting even less from this comic, mainly because anybody who has been expecting anything great from Jeph Loeb in the past 10 years is either willfully blind to his faults, or just plain mental. But I did unexpectedly enjoy the last Loeb comic I read, and I do have a fondness for McGuiness’ bulbous cartooning, so it seemed worth the effort to give it a go.

And it’s the same thing all over again, characters forced to act massively out of character in order to set up the pieces for the next big thing, and no actual story – I just read the thing yesterday, and all I can remember about the story is that Cable wants to beat up the Avengers because the future says so, and that’s not a story, that’s just an action scene.

McGuiness’ art is still slick and powerful, but as nothing more than a lead-in to AvX, it’s incredibly pointless. It can’t be that hard to do this sort of thing, and actually have a point to its existence beyond ‘Coming Soon!’. Can it?


Marvel characters have been acting like total assholes to generate conflict for years, and there has been an increase epidemic of dickishness ever since Civil War.

I see enough of that in real life, and I’m not interested when that infects superhero comics and kills any further interest in following these stories, unless they do show up in the library, months after they changed everything forever.

I’ll still read the next big event, when it does show up, because I still like shiny new superhero comics, and there is always the chance Avengers vs X-Men will turn out to be more than a lead-up to the next thing, and actually have a proper story of its own.

It’s only a small chance, though, so I can wait.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Red Dwarf X: Late-night comfort food

It’s goofy and silly and the characters never really grow and the special effects were always a bit rubbish, and the science in the fiction was always a bit dodgy and it’s got the single daftest end-credits music in the entire history of television.

Smeg, I love Red Dwarf.


I always liked Red Dwarf, right from the start, but I was genuinely surprised by how much I enjoyed the latest season - Red Dwarf X

After a couple of series that mixed up the formula and just got too clever for their own good, the tenth series of Red Dwarf was a consciously back-to-basics exercise – just the same four blokes bombing around the same infinite galaxy in the same giant rusting spaceship, three million years from home. The last human, his massively annoying (and dead) best friend, a robot and a cat, all truly lost in space.

At its best, Red Dwarf can be both surprisingly subtle and totally broad – it’s practically enshrined in the show’s format. And that makes it perfect late-night TV comfort food. After all, I’ve been watching Red Dwarf in late night telly since the late eighties. I don’t think I’ve ever watched an episode before eleven at night. It would feel wrong

It was always a late night treat in this part of the world, ever since the first series was on Friday nights in the late eighties, chopped up as part of an end-of-the-week music show. And it still feels right to watch it at the end of a long day. All the weird bollocks sci-fi and morose introspection in the immensity of the universe just feels right when everybody else has gone to sleep and the world is quiet, and you’re all alone, and it’s cold outside.


So here we are, more than 20 years after the first series, and characters have barely grown or developed, and the basic situation hasn’t changed at all.

All of the stories in the tenth series could have happened in the first years of the programme. The effects are a lot better, and the art of television production design has come a long, long way, but the stories stay the same.

There is almost a checklist that needs to be filled out for Red Dwarf X – there’s the part where a crew member finds out something shocking about his family history, there’s the whole episode spent wandering around the ship processing news from home that has arrived on a mail shuttle, and there’s the bit where dodgy pseudo-science allows the crew to interact with a famous historical figure (they finally got around to Jesus this series).

It’s easy to sneer at this blatant attempt to recapture the past, but after the frankly awful Back To Earth series and various other attempts to shake up the crew, the back-to-basics approach – after 24 years! - from co-creator Doug Naylor really does work.


The main effect of this strike at the heart of the series is a renewed focus on the characters. It’s the same actors, still living in these roles, and the dynamics have changed and grown over the decades, but their relationships are eternal.

The programme does often feel like a real boy’s club, but it only really works as a total sausage fest, because a female – any female – gives Lister hope that the human race can go on, when there shouldn’t really be any hope. There’s no real defense of the fact that the only two female characters who show up in season ten of Red Dwarf are a traitorous starship officer and someone so dim she takes a walk out of an airlock, but attempts to bring females into this blokey-bloke world upset the balance.

It’s why Kochanski can to go, even though Chloe Annett was a welcome dose of beauty and new humour in the show, and why one of the many failings of the aborted US version was making Cat a female.

It’s a long story about two main blokes who are at the bottom of society, even when society is all gone. The relationship between Rimmer and Lister is endearingly complex, they are mean and snide to each other on a daily basis, but do actually care for each other. Even if they’ll never say it.

Kryten is still a three-joke wonder, usually over some kind of housecleaning attachment, but invaluable for plot movements, even if this has rendered Holly redundant. (I still miss you, Holly.) And The Cat is still the series’ ace in the hole – totally narcissistic, able to speak easy truths that others don’t even notice, and easily distracted by pieces of strong.


I got seriously hooked on Red Dwarf somewhere around its peak in the third and fourth seasons (it’s no surprise to me that Red Dwarf was most popular during the years there was no new Doctor Who). I remember one late night in the early nineties, that was just a little too late, and I fell asleep and slept right through a season three episode, and I was so fucking man with myself for falling asleep, because I had no idea when I’d get to see it again. (Remember when you missed something and that was it? Tough titty if you wanted to see it again? The past sucked, man.)

I even got the Smegazine, with its largely dull articles and some decent comics. And I can’t help feeling affectionate towards the magazine in particular, because I had a girlfriend who worked in the bookstore that sold it, and we first got talking about it, and started going out, and lasted about two weeks, because Red Dwarf was all we had in common. (But it was a great two weeks.)


So yeah, I don’t care if Red Dwarf is just comforting and silly, because it’s a harsh world out there sometimes, and a bit of comfort isn’t too much to ask. Red Dwarf is still goofy and doesn’t really develop the characters, but the special effects this time were excellent. 

And I still sing along to that end credits theme tune, every time the show ends. It’s a cheerful way to sign off on the day, especially when I’m all alone. More or less.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Boys: All you need is love

“’Cos all that macho shit – that gunfighter, Dirty Harry bollocks – it looks tasty, but in the end it’s fuckin’ self-defeatin’.

"It just leaves you with bodies in ditches an’ blokes with headfuls o’ broken glass.

“Men are only so much use, Hughie.

“Men are boys.”


Some people say there are no such things as romance comics any more. That there haven’t been any romance books ever since titles like Young Love and My Romance disappeared from newsstand shelves. I say these people haven’t been paying attention to the alternative comic world, where there are loads of unashamedly romantic comics.

I also say these people haven’t been reading the Boys. Because The Boys was as romantic as fuck.

A lot of people could never see behind all the buggering jokes that Ennis and his artistic collaborators rammed into each issue. A lot of readers understandably didn’t find the idea of gerbils up the arse that funny, actually, and who can really blame them?

But there were moments of actual tenderness and intellectual thought, in there amongst the superhero decadence. Somewhere in there, hidden behind elongated cocks and bright red gore, The Boys had some interesting things to say about the extrapolation of power, and the pointlessness of violent revenge.

The reader didn’t even have to look hard to find this stuff. Each issue of The Boys was so narratively stuffed, there were pages and pages where James Stilwell, the ultimate villain of the series – who also happens to be a straight businessman who doesn’t even really pay for his innumerable crimes – clearly explains everything.


This was, incidentally, the scariest aspect of power that The Boys ever touched upon. Sure, the Homelander could devastate entire cities with his psychopathic hissy-fits, and terrible men did terrible deeds to keep the status quo going, but the big bad guy is just a corporation in human form.

(I read every single issue of The Boys, and I can’t even remember his fucking name until I made the effort to look it up, which is kinda the point.)

The corporation that is responsible for the vast majority of horror in The Boys is still there at the end of the series. There have been scapegoats and witch hunts, but the same hands are on the same reins of power.

Because corporations don’t really care about ideologies, and you can take down the people involved, but they will usually be fall guys, and others will take their place, and business goes on. It’s more threatened by Bad Product than anything its enemies could do to it.

This behaviour can be changed – you just have to prove to the corporation that a mode of thinking is unacceptable, and not worth the cost or effort. But it’s a type of modern thinking that can’t really be beaten.


The series could have ended with this down note, but there was more to come. Most of the silly superhero stuff was dealt with in the penultimate story arc, the final story was all about consequences, and revenge, and love.

And yes, it was still taking the piss out of super-heroes, as well. The final issue comments on attempts to strip superheroes back to absolute, blank-page basics, without actually changing anything fundamentally different, and laughs at this particularly super-hero misfortune.

The whole series did spend a lot of its time gleefully ripping into many of the core ideas about superheroes. Ennis isn’t against the fundamental idea behind superheroes – he does a terrific Superman, but he hates the way they became the end-all of comics in most peoples’ minds. And since he has no nostalgia or warmth towards the concept, he rips into them, usually to the point of absolute silliness.

And then there were a lot of moments where the silliness got sublime (especially in the excellent Frenchie issue, or the part when representatives of all the big Allied countries teamed up to kick the fucking shit out a Nazi cocksucker).

But the most successful moments in The Boys weren’t the silly bits, or the parts where a superhero cliché was thoroughly desecrated, they were the moments where somebody shows somebody else a little kindness, or a little compassion, or a little goddamned human feeling, when they have no reason to.

After all, the main character in The Boys wasn’t a brutal butcher, or a big mother’s boy, or a super Aryan nightmare, it was wee Hughie, a little fellow from Scotland.


When Hughie saves the day at the finale of The Boys, he doesn’t do it with violence or anger. He still gives it a go, but he’s totally useless at it. Instead, it’s the fact that he’s a nice guy, that he’s always been a nice guy, that saves everything.

Hughie was – by far – the least violent character in The Boys. Towards the end of the series, he got the revenge he was after since #1, but he just felt a bit sick afterwards. Hughie never gets off on the violence.

At the end, Hughie does stop Butcher from doing something monstrous, and saves the world with blind good luck, and the fact that he's a nice guy, who Butcher can't let fall to an idiotic death.


Even though Hughie does lose his shit at the end (and it’s over his parents, who he also moaned and groaned about, but was finally driven to a murderous rage by the thought that something terrible had happened to them,) and even though he still plays the little political games in the final issues, and even though everybody else in the series spent half their time making fun of him, Hughie's lack of violence and anger does win out.

Because all that macho bullshit didn’t mean anything, and just ruined a lot of peoples’ lives. Hughie is one of the only characters who bothers to sit down and actually talk to people, rather than order them around, or threaten them, like everybody else does.

And by the end of The Boys, it's clear that the old ways of vengeance and blood are just going to lead to more and more bloodshed, and that it's not good enough anymore.


And the thing that saves wee Hughie, when he could have gone as dark and horrible as everybody else, is love.

His relationship with Annie has been crazy, light, funny and genuinely warm, and for the series to end with them in each other's arms is just the perfect way to cap it all off. They sort their shit out and move on together as a proper couple, and they live happily ever after. (It's notable that the phone call where they actually figure it all out for the final time isn't shown in the comic, because it's none of our bloody business what they actually say to each other.)

The Boys had plenty of empty and cruel sex, and showed that without love, men will let hate rule their lives. Ultimately, the comic takes a romantic path into the future.

And despite what all the old comics used to say, romance isn’t just flowers and dancing and restrained tears, romance is about wanting to be with somebody all of the time, and wanting to protect them, and being terrified of losing them.

Romance is hard and scary, and the comic does end with a quesy fear that something terrible happening again. (But it doesn’t. Not today.) And it's totally worth it. It's always worth it.

And seeing this comic finish with a loving embrace beneath a rebuilt bridge is one last reminder that The Boys was more than just a comic about fucking superheroes.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Thanos!


Like a lot of teenagers who wear too much black and brood too much about death, I had a fling with nihilism as a lifestyle choice. This belief in nothing was fun while it lasted, but only lasted about a week.

And like a lot of teenagers who wore too much black and spent too much time reading Marvel comic books, the first time I ever actually heard of the concept of nihilism was in a comic about Jim Starlin’s Thanos. And a love of this character has lasted a lot longer than a week.


I can not overstate how much I was blown away by Infinity Gauntlet #1 when it suddenly showed up on the comic shelf at Temuka Stationery in 1991, nestled between the expected issues of the deluxe Marvel Handbook and the Savage Sword of Conan.

A lot of that powerful impact was due to the fact that I’d never even heard of it, and had no idea it was coming. I was vaguely familiar with Warlock and Thanos from the few issues of the old seventies stuff I had seen, (and, somewhat ironically, their Marvel Handbook entries, usually in the ‘Book of the Dead’ section), but hadn’t been reading the Silver Surfer comic since the first couple of Englehart/Rogers issues. I also had no access to comic industry magazines, and there was certainly no internet. I got most of my upcoming series news from the Bullpen Bulletins and the subscription pages, and I had no idea the Infinity Gauntlet even existed until I saw #1..

But even though I knew nothing about, and even though it cost twice as much as a regular comic, I fell hard for the Infinity Gauntlet. There was something unusually moody in George Perez’s art, and Jim Starlin’s script skated a deft line between intense introspection and events on an unimaginably cosmic scale.

My tastes were a little less refined at this stage of my comic reading life – I’d never read any Crumb or Spiegelman or Clowes, and I still hadn’t even read Sandman or Watchmen. But the storytelling in the Infinity Gauntlet was so perfect, and full of such epic despair and larger-than-life characters.

Especially when it came to its main character, because this comic shows Thanos at his glorious, monstrous best.


After all, this is a character who wipes out half of all life in the universe with a snap of the fingers and a sly grin in Infinity Gauntlet #1. Using a scientist’s dedication and an artist’s improvisation, he has clawed his way to the very top of all things – as the absolute ruler of all reality, Thanos shows no remorse or pity as he bends the universe to his will.

Thanos is one of the great Marvel villains. He has the dispassionate cruelty of the Red Skull, the powerful and justified arrogance of Doctor Doom and Magneto’s unwillingness to fit neatly inside any ‘hero’ or ‘villain’ box. But while he shares these traits – and while he may be a thinly-veiled counterpart to Jack Kirby’s mighty Darkseid – Thanos is a unique character.

Because, unlike these other megalomaniacs, Thanos is not a personality built around a vivid design. While he often appears appropriately menacing, he still has a pretty goofy look – a stubbly chin is Marvel Generic Alien Feature #4 – and his blue and gold outfit is an absolutely average 1970s costume.

Thanos’ charms aren’t in his looks, it’s in his smarts, in the way he is a bit more clever and devious than anybody else seeking to stop him. In the Gauntlet prelude series Thanos Quest – which I only finally got to read last month when Marvel put out a welcomed reprint – he beats the oldest beings in the universe with guile and sophistication. He identifies a source of untapped power, and nothing in the universe can stop him from getting there.

He’s also quite polite and his brutal honesty is often funny. He wouldn’t destroy you if you had nothing to do with him, unless it suited his purpose, and then he’d wipe out all of existence, without a second thought.


(There is a solar eclipse happening right now outside, as I write these words. The light is ALL WRONG, with dark blue skies and sharp shadows on everything. It’s weirdly fitting to be thinking about Thanos in these circumstances.)


Despite his (well-earned) reputation as the ultimate nihilist, Thanos does always have goals, and always believes in something, even if it is just his own superiority. He is a big softie at heart, literally in love with Death, and willing to do anything for a female anthropomorphic representation of her.

And when he couldn’t please her, Thanos moved on. His life has become dedicated to the collection of knowledge – something that would certainly be a worthy goal if innocent people didn’t keep getting mowed down in his quest.

The fact that Thanos usually has clear and concise goals is impressive enough, but he also manages to actually achieve them. He does climb to the top of reality and becomes the supreme being. Of course, the great dichotomy of Thanos is that he craves ultimate power, and is good enough to attain it over and over again, only to lose it, usually due to his own actions.

This is what keeps him from ever being a total hero or villain – Thanos is always his own worst enemy.


The appearance of Thanos in the credits of The Avengers was a good sign that the film series was taking off into a cosmic arena, which has always been one of Marvel comic’s core strengths. Out there, among the stars, there have been some wonderful Marvel stories – doses of brilliance in the Guardians of The Galaxy or Silver Surfer or Warlock.

Still, I’d be surprised if 10 per cent of the people who saw The Avengers recognised the character (although there is a good 20 per cent who will claim they did recognise him all along, after some quick wiki-work). A two-second glimpse in a big Hollywood blockbuster exposed the character to a bigger audience than 40 years of comics.

That kind of attention is bound to mess up the character somehow. It always does. But I don’t mind, because I got mine. The most obvious benefit to me from all this renewed attention is that I finally got that Thanos Quest comic, which I’ve been after ever since I read the first issue of the Infinity Gauntlet, all those years ago, and had no fucking idea what was going on, but knew I wanted more.

And even though that obsession with all things Thanos died out two issues into the Infinity War, I always look forward to more Thanos comics. A bit of nihilism can be all right, in small doses.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Marshal Law vs…


Marshal Law doesn’t play well with others.

Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill’s ultra-violent comic creation is a hero hunter who hasn’t found any yet. He’s a complete psycho, and the only thing that justifies his murderous rampages is the fact that the superheroes he fights are even more psychopathic and depraved. And when he takes such glee in his violent retribution, the carnage ends up being quite endearing.

But he can be a dangerous character to be around. He delivers wholesale slaughter upon evil bastards who deserve it, but many get caught in the crossfire. Marshal Law’s partners, sidekicks and love interests invariably die in terribly gruesome ways, (and then their corpses are usually desecrated in some unholy way). Marshall Law doesn’t play well with others.

Except when he does, because it turns out that some of the most successful Marshal Law comics are the crossover ones.


It takes a special kind of comic character to cross over into Marshal Law’s world – the idea of a Superman crossover is truly horrific, and not in a good way. Poor Kal-El would get a kryptonite baton up his rear end by page three.

But characters from Clive Barker’s Hellraiser, Erik Larsen’s Savage Dragon and Arcudi & Mahnke’s The Mask all popped up in the good Marshal’s world, and proved to be a surprisingly comfortable fit.


They were some of the last Marshal Law stories to be published before its unfortunately ongoing hiatus – it’s notable that these three comics were published by three different publishers, (Epic, Image and Dark Horse).  But they are all more Marshall Law stories than anything else, continuing Joe Gilmore’s ongoing saga behind that mask and barbed wire armband, with major changes for the character’s status quo in these two-issue shots.

Overall, Marshal Law can be a bit repetitive, and sometimes gets a bit flabby, but in these three crossovers, Mills and O’Neill work within the rigid parameters that come with dealing with somebody else’s characters, using them to craft tight little stories. Pinhead vs Marshal Law, The Savage Dragon/Marshall Law and The Mask/Marshall Law might be all from different companies, but they’re also tight little two-issue stories.

They pack a lot of plot in those two issues, and there is plenty of Kevin O’Neill’s hyper-genius art in each 48-page story, but each book also has its own unique charms.


The first – Pinhead vs Marshal Law: Law in Hell - was published in 1993 by Epic Comics. It sees Law take on the Cenobites from Clive Barker’s Hellraiser. Epic was publishing both comics, so a crossover was obvious.

It does have a bit of that Marshal Law flabbiness – the plot is all over the show, especially when it ends with a sudden rant about how superheroes have no place in war comics.

But who cares about narrative meandering? Not when you’ve got Kevin O’Neill serving up his own demented version of Hell.

A lot of people find O’Neill’s art genuinely repulsive, and sometimes it’s hard to blame them. The only artist whose entire style was too much for the Comics Code Authority, O’Neill is the type of artist who relishes the chance to do something really, really grotesque. His love for the disgusting image has always been obvious – I still feel a little disturbed by the aliens in the first Nemesis book, especially the creature whose arm ends in a teeth-filled stump.

Apart from an eerily disturbing image he did for Alan Moore’s Dodgem Logic, O’Neill has toned down his art in recent years, with his more calculated and restrained League of Extraordinary Gentlemen work (and even then, he still got in an eyestalk-penis or three).

But in Marshal Law, with Mills happily goading him on, O’Neill is outstandingly perverse, and given the chance to go straight to Hell, o'Neill leaps in with both feet. There is techo-organic body horror, with demons who have razors where their noses should be, and musical instruments filled with human innards and giant pulsating breasts which shoot fire into the sky and the usual gross architecture. It’s magnificent, and even twenty years later, still brilliantly repulsive.


The next crossover – a fairly straightforward detective yarn with Erik Larsen’s Savage Dragon in 1997 – is significantly less repulsive. There are still some horrendously gory murder scenes, but after a decade of CSI marathons, this kind of thing is now positively mainstream.

It’s also one of the few Marshal Law stories that is printed in black and white, and without the garish reds and purples that saturate the rest of Law, the horrors are muted.

Interestingly, after all the superhero pisstakes, the Savage Dragon is treated with a degree of respect in the crossover. He might have been part of a company that set the artistic standards of mainstream comics back two decades, but the Dragon is the individual creation of an individual creator, and Mills respects that. He has no trouble slicing up thin analogues of the Legion of Super-Heroes, but he doesn’t crap all over the Dragon, and the fin-head leaves the story with that rare thing: an intact dignity.


The Mask – in the third and final crossover in 1998 – doesn’t quite get that same degree of respect, but The Mask is a vicious and incredibly dangerous force of primal nature. And that level of over-the-top madness is another decent fit with the Marshal’s world.

It’s another crossover that deals with Big Events in the Marshal Law story – it sees the return of the main villain from the very first story, and has Joe Gilmore finally get over his deep-seated hatred of superheroes (even if his alter-ego isn’t over it at all).

Mills still lets his hatred of superheroes shine through – depicting them as vain and stupid, and more interested in glory that actually helping people, while O’Neill is still firing on all cylinders

Both creators also get a chance to let their imaginations really run riot with the Mask: His brains pop out of the top of his skull, the Tex Avery wolf comes out and starts biting arms off, and an attempt to look “weird enough” to get into a club involves pinning back the stomach skin and exposing the intestines.

It’s relentlessly creative, even if, as ever, it’s like to repulse most normal-thinking people.


But who cares about the norms? A comic like Marshal Law actually has huge sympathies for the real freaks of society, as long as they’re not out to hurt other people. A bit of freakiness is good for the soul.

It’s also sadly missed. After The Mask crossover, there were no more Marshal Law comics. It ends with Law heading off on another kill-crazy rampage, and that’s where he has more or less remained for the past 15 years. (There were some illustrated text stuff, but that just proved that as a novelist, Mills is a great comic writer.)

Ever since, O'Neill has been busy with the 'project with Alan Moore for Image' mentioned on the last Marshal Law letters page, and he shows few signs of tiring of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen any time soon. But more Marshal Law would always be welcome, with plenty of new superhero cliches from the past decade to bite into. Another crossover could be a good way to relaunch the character, given the success of these previous works. 

Who knows? Maybe it's time for that kryptonite baton.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Late to the party with Jim Steranko’s Nick Fury

Even though I always like to pretend I know what’s going on, there are all sorts of holes in my head when it comes to comic knowledge. I’m still shamefully unaware of 90% of the things going on in Europe, and 99% of Manga remains completely unknown to me.

The world of comics is so wide and broad, it can take some time to get to things. Even comics that are undisputed classics, that could change my view of the world in magical ways, have to wait. Cost and availability are helpful limitations, but there is still so much good stuff to get too, and so much good stuff I never got around to. Stuff that came out last week, and stuff that came out decades ago.

This week I filled a hole in my head. I filled it with STERANKO.


Even without reading a lot of Jim Steranko’s comics, I still knew all about him. I knew all about his extraordinary past as an escape artist and musician who played on the same bill as Bill Haley And The Comets. And I knew all about his impact on mainstream comics, bringing stylistic flourishes into his art that still look fresh and alive today.

But I hadn’t actually read many of his comics, mainly because there weren’t all that many to read. Apart from the significant work he did on Nick Fury in the sixties, there were only a handful of Steranko comics – the odd 10-page Superman comic, some striking covers and bursts of brief activity on Captain America and the X-Men (which still uses his logo ideas today).

So even though I was perfectly capable of bluffing my way through a conversation about Steranko’s work, thanks largely to the copious amount of commentary produced about it over the past four decades, I had little knowledge of the actual comics.


I’ve sorted out that terrible oversight now, after buying a collection of Steranko’s Nick Fury comics that Marvel put out a decade ago from a local comic mart, a month or so back.

It’s a dense book, with the usual Marvel over-plotting of the sixties, each compressed issue bursting with ideas and action. But it’s also still slick and exciting, in a way few modern comics can match.

Reading these comics for the first time, it’s surprising how familiar a lot of it is. Steranko’s panels have been used as examples of form in books and magazines for years, showing the design possibilities of the comic page in dozens of essays and articles. There are familiar action panels that have Fury desperately reaching out towards the reader, and singular shots of bizarre machinery, crackling with unearthly energy.

I expected all the stylish psychedelia and bizarre photo-montages, but the thing I hadn’t seen before was the energy that sparks off the printed page, as characters hurl themselves against the edge of the comic panel, and sometimes break through. (Steranko is obviously told to ‘do a Kirby’ in his earlier issues, but soon ditches the obvious influences, while keeping true to the King’s lessons about momentum and power.)

All this movement and excitement is something that has been missing in a lot of Fury comics over the subsequent decades. Nick Fury is literally bouncing off the walls in Steranko’s comics, and after years of a Fury who does little more than stand in control rooms, smoking cigars and barking orders at minions with cute butts, it’s a cheerful reminder that there is a lot more to the character. That you can throw him around, and put him up against Captain America.
 

By the later Fury stories, Steranko is balls-deep in pure psychedelia, pages spinning around optical illusions and desperate fisticuffs. But psychedelic storytelling isn’t just about the pretty visuals and Pop Art, it’s also funny and silly, and pleasingly lethargic at times. And it also dips deep into drug-induced paranoia and worryingly deep thinking.

It’s the way things in Steranko’s Fury comics are always a bit uncertain, and a bit confusing. Fury barrels through his adventures like an unstoppable bull of a man – but is often lost, or misdirected. Eventually, like all the great psychedelic comics, it’s revealed that the heroes and villains are all just pawns in some unknowable game played by omniscient beings, (and like all the great Marvel comics, one of those omniscient beings happens to be Doctor Doom).

Steranko’s Fury gets close to some kind of cosmic enlightenment as he’s saving the world from megalomaniacal idiots, and sees some pretty sights on the way, but he is sometimes too small to be seen, exhausted and lost in the immensity of Steranko’s world.


But it’s okay. The drugs do wear off, and Fury does get to punch pure evil in the face and usually saves the day.

Steranko’s Fury stares into the abyss, and then drops a hand grenade into it.

To a 21st-century eye, these comics can appear to be pretty clumsy and wordy, or unfashionably weird. But they are still fine comics.

With these comics, Steranko set the template for the Marvel writer/artist, showing you could do artistically daring comics that adhered to a singular vision in the corporate comics world. Artists like Miller, Simonson and Byrne followed his lead, even if it took them decades to step in his footsteps. 
Even the King got to finally write and draw his own comics for Marvel for one brief, shining moment in the late seventies, 10 years after one of his many protégés showed the way.

Steranko was part of a generation of artists that changed the way modern comics looked at the tail end of the 1960s, joining craftsmen like Neal Adams and Jim Aparo in producing slicker, leaner and moodier superhero comics. And then he was gone, off in the world of movie production and fine art, leaving behind too few comics

But while those comics are few in number, they are gigantic in influence, and are still hugely entertaining, viscerally thrilling and undeniably stylish. It might have taken me forty years to get with the groove, but better late than never.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Black spiders and poor Bats

I’ve been overdosing on Community lately, churning through all three seasons in the past two months (mostly out of order). It’s brilliantly addictive comedy which gorges on pop culture, but never patronises its audience.

It’s got some tight writing, and some even tighter performances – each actor giving their character a life and feelings beyond catchphrases and expected reactions. From the tremendous overacting of Ken Jeong, to the desperate weight of responsibility Jim Rash gives the generally clueless Dean Pelton.

But there has been one actor on the show who has been truly impressive, and after watching dozens of episodes recently, I can honestly say that Donald Glover would make a kick-ass Spider-man.


There was a halfway decent internet campaign to get Glover the Spider-Man role a couple of years ago, and like all halfway decent internet campaigns, it soon collapsed under the weight of its own irony and smugness.

Unfortunately, the idea of a black Spider-Man was largely taken as a joke (and Glover, to his credit, maintained an air of good humour about the whole thing), and eventually faded away. It was apparently funny, because a black or Hispanic or Inuit or French Spider-Man could never happen.

But why not? Why couldn’t Donald Glover play Spider-Man? He shows his skills in every episode of Community: he’s subtle, and can convey heartbreak in a twitch of an eyebrow, but he’s also broad and charming and fucking funny – any scene where Troy breaks down in tears is comedy gold.

He would make a great Spidey. He could even still be called Peter Parker, but it would be even better if Spider-Man was something new entirely. Tell a new story with the same name and the same basic idea. There isn’t any need to get stuck in an endlessly rigid interpretation.

It wouldn’t be patronising or pandering, or disrespectful to the character and his creators. It would only really annoy racists and comic purists, and who cares what those dorks think? It’s just something they could do with Spider-Man. Something new.

So, yeah. That’ll never happen.


To be fair, Marvel has started looking at these storytelling possibilities, after nearly strip-mining the core Spider-Man story of anything narratively valuable. Marvel’s Ultimate Spider-Man isn’t a weedy white boy, he’s a weedy brown boy. And while the Ultimate version of the character is always going to be secondary to Peter Parker in the regular universe, at least Marvel are having a crack at it.

After all, even though Andrew Garfield made a great Spidey and a brilliant Peter Parker, a lot of the inertia of the most recent Spider-Man movie was due to the fact that we’d seen it all before, over and over again. There’s wise old Uncle Ben, waiting to be sacrificed, there’s that vicious spider, looking for somebody to bite. There’s the first time Spider-Man climbs a wall and the first time he goes swinging. Over and over again.

It still did well enough for there to be more films, so another reboot is probably a decade away. And the chances are it will be another weedy white boy.

But who knows? By then, maybe there will have been a Miles Morales cartoon, to get the kids used to the new Spider-Man, and then another reboot a generation down the line. It might be too late for Donald Glover by then, but it’s always a possibility.


The other big solo superhero film of the year – The Dark Knight Rises – also hints at storytelling possibilities that will never quite become actuality. By the end of the film, Bruce Wayne walks away from the Batman identity for good, but he knows it’s time for somebody new, and the film ends with a new man taking on the role.

Now that Christopher Nolan has finished his trilogy of Batman movies, the future is a bit uncertain. The next cinematic version of the Dark Knight is inevitable, after all the bucketloads of cash the previous films made, but the form it will take is not yet known. He could show up in a Justice League film (likely, after the success of The Avengers), but it could be a few years until some idiosyncratic filmmaker comes up with a new version.

But the chances are, while The Dark Knight Rises unequivocally ends with Bruce Wayne moving along with his life, the next film Batman will be Bruce behind the mask.

Which is fair enough. Bruce Wayne is Batman and Batman is Bruce Wayne. But it wouldn’t hurt to try something new.

I think it would be more interesting to stay in the Nolan continuity, and follow Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s attempts to be the Bat. A new Batman for a new century – somebody who doesn’t have the resources of a multinational corporation behind him, somebody who knows what it’s like to be poor, somebody who doesn’t have a lifetime of martial art training to fall back on.

So yeah, that won’t happen either.


This fear of change – while still pretending to do it - is there in the source material for all these blockbusters. Marvel and DC comics have been maintaining a rigid status quo for years, making illusionary movements towards change, before inevitably reverting to type.

At DC in the mid nineties, there was a noticeable burst of newer characters taking on old roles. All of this was sales driven, and some of the fates - like Hal Jordan’s - were terribly clumsy, while many of the stories themselves were plainly terrible. But after a couple of years, there was a new Green Lantern, a new Flash and a new Green Arrow.

Some of their comics were dire, but things like the evolution of Wally West’s Flash were excellent. Under the capable hands of Mike Baron, Bill Messner-Loebs and – especially – Mark Waid, it was a character who grew into the role, and ultimately made it in his own. But a boneheaded insistence that Barry Allen was the one, true Flash undercut all of that good work, and we’re back where we were, fifty goddamned years ago.

There was an attempt to do something new, but all that evolution has been wiped away now. 


Batman retires or dies or gets lost in oblivion, but he always comes back. Parker chucks his costume in the bin, but any hype for a new Spider-Man is undercut by the sheer certainty that Peter Parker will be back. They’ve been playing that tune for decades now, and it’s not working anymore.

Maybe they should give the black Spider-Man and the poor Batman a chance.