For most of the first four decades of my life comics and graphic novels gave me a great deal of pleasure. From the ages of 6 to around 14 or 15, nothing occupied my time more happily than running off somewhere quiet (usually my bedroom) with a stack of new comics, in the pages of which I would lose myself in the imaginations of writers and artists far more creative than I was, or likely ever would be.
Since the ascension of celebrity fan-fiction writers like Geoff Johns, Mark Millar and others, superhero comics have become an imagination-free zone of ever-escalating violence with no thought, theme or theory in evidence anywhere. The apotheosis of this dire state of affairs was the publication of Before Watchmen. Wretched in intent and criminal in execution, its existence, and worse, acceptance in the marketplace, definitively ended my interest in superhero comics as an ongoing enterprise. The disgrace of it prompted some badly-timed comments about one of its creators at a time when all of fandom was in grief over his passing, and I regret the incident, but do not deny the truth behind my foolish utterance. The people who worked on Before Watchmen, from the writers and artists to the editors, publishers, even the “journalists” who “covered” it — all are complicit in a betrayal of whatever ideals superhero comics might once have laid claim to. The existence and acceptance of the books — now sickeningly available in hardcover, like bronzing a momentous bowel movement for posterity — is a scorched-earth moment in comics history from which there is no going back. And it killed my interest in superhero comics as if that had been its very intent. Perhaps, in broad strokes, it was. After all, the industry has little use for independent thinkers who question authority and call bullshit when appropriate. I was just one little comics blogger, but I’m sure I’m not the only one driven away by the horror implicit in the publication of Before Watchmen.
The thousands of dollars a year I once spent on comics will now be spent on other things. Rent. Groceries. Maybe the occasional movie. I still crave works that fire my imagination. I am as fascinated by the process of creating art as I am the art itself. Moreso, really. The mysteries of imagination seem like a puzzle too complex for human minds to ever fully decode. I can’t just watch a movie or TV show and lose myself in it, I am constantly pondering the process of its creation. There aren’t any superhero comics anymore that beg that question the way Kirby’s did, or Ditko’s, or whatever genius you think of when you think of the gods of comics creation. I do know that few walk the earth anymore. Fewer still seem to aspire to the heights those gods once reached.
SPX Presents HEIDI MACDONALD at the LIBRARY OF CONGRESS!!!
OK, as you may or may not know, Heidi, the Goddess of The Beat and other realms of the comic world, graciously donated her entire mini-comics collection to the SPX Collection at the Library of Congress.
As part of of this act of deified munificence, she is going to give a lecture there this Friday September 13 at Noon.
Seriously, here are a few sale prices that strike me as absolutely bonkers; as in, you would have to be nuts not to buy these great comics and graphic novels at these prices:
* ALL of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century, each volume is five bucks, so the whole awesome story for 15 dollars.
* Alan Moore’s Unearthing softcover — normally $29.95, just $3.00. That’s 90% off for Moore’s latest work!
* The Surrogates Owners Manual is $10.00. This was originally published at $75.00 if I recall correctly, and provides hours of intense science-fiction entertainment (and also inspired a movie).
* Eddie Campbell’s excellent The Playwright is just a buck!
There are many, many more prices, so low it’s nuts. Buy some for friends, get some great reading for yourself. Top Shelf is an advertiser on this site (and I’m grateful for that!), but I’m telling you about this sale because it’s your one chance to sample some of the greatest graphic novels of the past 15 years or so without having to worry about how you’ll make the rent or pay for groceries. Click on over, get yourself some awesome graphic novels, and sleep well knowing you’re helping one of the best publishers in the industry keep doing what they do so well. And sure, if you like, tell ‘em Trouble With Comics sent you.
So last week, there were two different DC Comics-related news items that received instant scorn and outrage. First, Batwoman writers J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman quit the series as of issue #26, citing DC’s decision not to allow the long-planned wedding of Batwoman Kathy Kane and her girlfriend, Maggie Sawyer. It was seen by many as an anti-gay marriage stance. Since then, DC co-publisher Dan DiDio has explained, at a comics convention, that DC is very committed to the character of Batwoman (and challenged the audience to name a publisher who has shown more commitment to a character, before he quickly answered his own challenge that there was none), but that superheroes should not have happy personal lives, so it’s more of a general policy against marriage for superheroes in the New 52. As with most things DC, there are inconsistencies, as Aquaman is currently married, but if this is now their stated policy I suppose it’s fair to accept this as true for the moment and see if they live up to it. Personally, I think their superheroes would be a lot more interesting if they were more diverse, and I don’t just mean having more ethnicities represented. How about a married superhero, a superhero with an adopted kid with M.S., a superhero with a deaf boyfriend, a superhero in couples counseling? Of course, superheroes can’t have endlessly joyous lives and still be fun to read (although on second thought, DC sold its most comics back when that was the case, but I know there were other factors), but aren’t the traditional personal life problems of the single superhero (girlfriend in distress, girlfriend suspects you’re a superhero, no time for romance because crime fighting) pretty well played out by now?
The other item was a kind of tryout to be in an upcoming Harley Quinn comic, where prospective artists would illustrate four seemingly unrelated panels, most consisting of Harley in suicidal situations, the fourth panel also describing her as nude. So people complained that it was exploitation, sexist, and hey, since when has Harley been suicidal? Psychopathic and murderous, yes. Suicidal, not so much.
Co-publisher Jim Lee had damage control duty on this one, tweeting examples of how panels taken out of context can appear very different than their intent, and that this wasn’t exploitive and the writers were actually poking fun at themselves, or something. Fair enough. But both of these stories illustrate how poor DC’s PR department is doing at anticipating negative reaction and getting in front of a story. Obviously a big name like Williams III quitting a book over an editorial decision is going to get out—why wasn’t DC letting people know about their anti-marriage thing, and pointing to their, um, one other gay superhero character as proof of their LGBT friendliness? Why announce a contest that makes drawing a female super villain naked a requirement? That seems like a case where they mentioned the nudity precisely to get a reaction, but it wasn’t the reaction they wanted. After all, they certainly aren’t really going to show Harley Quinn naked in one of their comics; it might be suggestive, but undoubtedly most of her naughty bits will be submerged in bathwater. So even if the original intent was tongue-in-cheek, the announcement ends up being skeevy. And note that in neither case does anyone at DC apologize. No, it’s the fans who misunderstood what they’re doing. For his part, at least Lee acknowledges his writers, though when he talked about the Batwoman debacle, he basically said the talent has to follow the editorial direction laid out for them, no matter how late in the game, tough shit, creators. He said it in his affable Jim Lee way, though.
It’s a bad situation for fans of DC’s characters these days. There’s still some talent there and despite everything, some good stories will make it through relatively unscathed. But look, I’m currently reading nothing from DC, and I tried over 90% of the initial New 52 titles, and several that debuted after that first wave. With Before Watchmen and their treatment of many other creators, and retrograde decisions like this anti-marriage thing, how can anyone feel good about buying these books? I feel bad for someone like Marc Andreyko, a decent writer (I really liked his Manhunter in the pre-New 52 days not long ago) who is stepping in as the new writer on Batwoman. It should be noted that Williams III, a co-creator of the character, started writing her when original writer and co-creator Greg Rucka abandoned DC and their interference. Andreyko is inheriting maybe the only interesting, well-designed character in DC’s stable in the past decade, and yet she’s been sullied and abused, an important part of her cored out. I was joking (bitterly) to a friend the other day that it was “about time she (Batwoman) got back to her roots as a superhero not in a loving, committed relationship.” Sounds fun, huh?
Here’s a handy list of all the comics makers who participated in Before Watchmen. I refuse to buy or read anything by these folks: Neal Adams, Rafael Albuquerque, Michael Allred, Brian Azzarello, Lee Bermejo, Jordi Bernet, Tim Bradstreet, Massimo Carnevale, Cliff Chiang, Michael Cho, Amanda…
ADD Reviews Star Trek: The Original Topps Trading Card Series
Neither comics nor art, Abrams ComicArts has nonetheless done a spectacular job compiling Star Trek: The Original Topps Trading Card Series into a delightful, compact hardcover. I can remember seeing these trading card packages in my childhood. I was ten the year they were originally issued, in 1976. That was ten years after the original series debuted, seven years after it was canceled and three years before its second life began in earnest with the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. But I don’t remember for certain if I ever owned any of them; I suspect I did, because some of the individual cards seem familiar to me, but certainly I never had a complete set. So the nostalgic and historic value of this book to me, as someone with an enormous interest in Star Trek (especially the original series) is huge.
Abrams has some fun with the presentation; the dustjacket of this little hardcover (by Paula Block and Terry Erdmann) is made of wax paper, the same kind the cards were wrapped in. So there’s a tactile thrill from the first time you pick up the book. They also include four new cards in a packet inserted into the book, in the style of the original cards, both as added-value and to remedy the strange fact that George Takei’s Mister Sulu is not featured on any of the original cards, only the back of his head in one shot of the Bridge’s viewscreen from the Captain’s perspective. The back of Billy Blackburn’s head makes it into that shot too, Trek Trivia lovers. If you don’t know who Billy Blackburn is, you’re probably not a Trek Trivia lover, but that’s okay. You might still find it amusing that Blackburn is found on two of the cards, unless of course you’re George Takei.
The book presents the front and back of all 88 of the original Topps Star Trek cards, featuring a little over half of the 79 episodes of the original series; an interesting introductory essay explains a lot of the history behind the set, including the fact that a second set would likely have covered the remaining episodes, but no second set was ever issued. An explanatory paragraph discusses some aspect of each card, providing background, insight or trivia.
The cards are featured warts and all, so typos like a misspelling of Walter Koenig’s last name or including Lt. Uhura on a list of “The Men of the Enterprise” remain charmingly in evidence. If you love the original Star Trek, whether you have any interest in trading cards or not (put me in the “not” category), Star Trek: The Original Topps Trading Card Series is a fascinating piece of history, educational and fun, brilliantly packaged in such a way as to authentically evoke the era and the artifacts. The only thing missing is the gum. (Actually, they thought of that too, but I don’t want to spoil the surprise.)
A copy of this book was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.
If you don’t know, Jim Rugg is a fantastic artist who happened to make one of the best graphic novels of the past decade, Street Angel. The thing is, that was in 2005, and quite frankly, he hasn’t done a lot since as far as comics. I doubt it was for lack of effort. He did a book called The Plain Janes targeted at a tween audience that had no way of hearing about it, shortly before the economy collapsed and DC canceled the imprint. Afrodisiac was a lot of fun, but a blaxploitation parody seemed to be treading water a little creatively.
Now, there’s Supermag. Like his Notebook Drawings, it’s a showcase for Rugg’s immense illustrative talent, along with a number of short comics strips and stories. Rugg shows how much he’s learned from adventure comics of the ’30s and ’40s, the EC horror and crime comics of the ’50s, funny animal strips and cartoons of the ’60s and ’70s, as well as the influence of cartoonists like Daniel Clowes and Jaime Hernandez. Rugg has a dazzling command of his craft and is skilled at all manner of styles.
He’s a good writer, too. There’s a voice here, only partially obscured by the spoofs and genre mimicry, and it’s one of dread and fear and helplessness about the dark forces that churn the world. It’s a noir voice, a horror voice, but here we only get brief glimpses of either genre.
On rare occasions, critics can be a buoy to a creator, give them that lift when they need it to keep going. A lot of times, though, we can be perceived as terrible people for our demands. I mean, I recognize that the market is not the same as what it was when Rugg started. The days when a Dan Clowes or Chester Brown could work through things in a serial comic book are largely over. One is expected to come out with fully-formed graphic novels nowadays. Adrian Tomine continuing with Optic Nerve is a cute gesture, and we look at it with varying degrees of admiration and condescension, like a band issuing a single only in vinyl. This is an astonishingly impressive calling card for Jim Rugg, Jack of All Genres, but it’s also a stopgap measure. An unreflective survey. His superhero ape strips are fun, but you wouldn’t want a whole book of it. His short horror and suspense pieces are great, but it’s not terribly difficult to create nameless dread in one page. They’re exercises, a dipping of toes into genre waters, but there’s a lack of commitment here. As a critic, one has to set aside the likely realities that this is a not-very-well-known illustrator presenting a collection of bits of some of his best material from the past few years and ask whether it’s a great collection of comics. As great an artist as he is, the answer is no, it’s not. It’s impressive, but it’s more tantalizing than satisfying, small plates and spoonfuls of what could turn out to be a number of good to great meals. I recommend it on that score, as a sampling of a very talented guy giving indications of doing a lot of things really well, but one is still left wanting at least one really good story.
I’m told there’s a Kickstarter for Sabre, an ancient, creaking sci-fi bloatfest that was also a trailblazer in the era in which independent comics were first gaining a toehold in the market.
I’m sure it makes me a terrible, terrible person, but I see Kickstarter as a real negative for comics, as counter-intuitive as that is. It encourages projects that the marketplace should really decide the value of based on the actual work, not on PR, past work by the same creators, or fanboy delusions of patronage.
Kickstarter is a nice idea in the abstract, empowering creators and readers and adding further irrelevancy to the most venal, malingering publishers. In reality (I’ve see no evidence otherwise, years now down Kickstarter Road) it devalues the idea of patronage by making quality and worthiness secondary ideals to noise and hubbub. Instead we find a mediocrity-empowering dynamic of 10,000 entitled fanboys with five bucks each burning a hole in their Paypal accounts’ pockets, and the biggest unknown not being whether the work will be any damn good at all, but whether it ever even gets created in the first place.
Good article on The King’s collage work in the ’60s and ’70s, with his famous Fantastic Four pages and a few unpublished pieces. I love when great artists also do other art aside from what they’re known for/expert at.
I’ll be honest; as much as comics have meant to me in my 43 years on Earth, I don’t read that many new ones these days. The landscape is such a minefield. Too many crossovers and stretched-out arcs. Good creative teams either move on from a title too fast, or the writer gets so inundated with work that the quality of the work suffers. Way too much editorial interference without actual constructed, educated editing. But I try to keep my eyes and ears open for the good stuff.
Matt Fraction is an interesting case. The world of genre comics (superhero, crime, horror, fantasy—basically anything but art comics) is filled with bland voices and poor craft, and so anyone with a hint of freshness can be “called up to the majors” before they’re ready. Somehow the initially overpraised Fraction, despite smug tweets and the unironic wearing of a cowboy hat, has developed into a champion writer under the dubious auspices of Marvel Comics, navigating the event-driven, continuity-resetting, crossover-driven waters quite admirably. He reminds me a little of Mark Waid in that he’s able to find a take on a character that’s a little different than anything that’s been done before, while not being so drastic that it’s a new character. And like Waid, usually humor is a key ingredient, which is why Fraction’s Iron Man run reads as more deeply felt, deeply thought-out, and just plain more fun than his run on Thor.
Hawkeye, like Tony Stark, is historically kind of a wiseass, and that’s one of the characteristics that Fraction can work with here, but he goes a lot deeper. We meet a Clint Barton who’s the world-saving Avenger Hawkeye in his day job, but is more comfortable living in a New York apartment with regular folks. He’s got no quit in him, to an obnoxious extent at times, but basically, he’s just a guy who’s really good with a prehistoric weapon. In the first, three issue arc, Fraction and Aja scale things down so it’s a hero book, not a superhero book, with Hawkeye mixing it up with Russian mobsters when one of them, the landlord, wants to sell the building and evict Clint and his neighbors. Action is slowed down, with inserts of types of arrows to get the reader into the nuts and bolts of what he does, humorously. Matt Hollingsworth’s use of violets and earth tones gives the book a unique look, which I appreciate and think is important, especially for a solo title. Most of his offbeat ideas—giving the villains matching Mini Coopers, giving Clint a Dodge muscle car, having Clint try to buy rather than beat his way out of a problem, making his lack of labels for his arrows a running gag—work quite well, and some choices are terrific, like Clint’s no-quit attitude reflected in his saving of a massively injured stray dog. Yes, the dog-saving superhero may be a shameless bid for sympathy, but it works. I also really liked the dynamic he develops between Clint and Kate, the young woman who became Hawkeye during a questionable period where Hawkeye was (secretly at first) a sword-slinging hero named Ronin. It goes beyond typical meet-cute, sarcastic-banter-covering-growing-attraction stuff. Clint has made a lot of mistakes with women and is mature enough at this point to realize it, plus Kate is much younger and he’s her mentor. So he’s set up mental barriers for himself that for the most part he’s honoring, even if it means he’s unwittingly hurting Kate’s feelings in the process of keeping this distance.
The fourth and fifth issues of the series find Pulido as the artist in an arc with more of an international flavor, with Clint attempting to buy back a videotape of him apparently assassinating someone on S.H.I.E.L.D.’s orders. It’s mainly got a lighthearted tone, appropriate for a caper story, and there are some fun lines and moments of derring-do, but there’s also a sobering question running through it: is Hawkeye a murderer? Fraction balances the tones very well, while also continuing to develop the Clint/Kate relationship. We get even more of this in a flashback story drawn by Alan Davis from Young Avengers Presents #6 (which I didn’t even know was a thing), where we see the genesis of their relationship is with Clint being a protector and mentor, someone who wants Kate to learn from his mistakes, as she will eventually take his place. It also establishes that Kate is a pretty impulsive, romantic girl, so Clint would be wise to tread carefully in regards to her feelings.
A very enjoyable collection that, unlike most comics today, is good enough that I’ve read it a few times now, out of pleasure. I don’t want to go on a rant here, but one of the big reasons comics don’t sell the way they used to is that comics of this level are harder and harder to find. Comics with tight story arcs, fresh storytelling strategies, wit, layered characterization, emotional engagement, and high quality draftsmanship. When you find it, support it.
A giant in comics publishing and editing, a fine translator and interviewer, and a wickedly funny man, Kim Thompson has died from the lung cancer the public was informed of just a few months ago. Working alongside copublisher Gary Groth, Thompson exposed me, quite simply, to some of the most important artists and art of my life. We’ll miss you, Kim.
“[Geoff] Johns built his career and set the mold for contemporary DC Comics with the way he took Green Lantern’s entire stupid, shitty history and turned it into one long nasty, blood soaked epic laced with heavy dollops of Joseph Campbell and wish fulfillment audience worship, turning an obnoxious and unpleasant comic book into an obnoxious and unpleasant Saga of Graphic Novels, and now, for the final bow of a nearly ten-year run, the best the guy can muster is an eight-dollar comic that resolves almost nothing but includes a page where his personal assistant and his boss tell him he’s special? That’s awesome.”— Tucker Stone
The Albany Comic Con returns to the Holiday Inn on Wolf Road in Colonie, New York this Sunday, June 16th from 10 AM to 4 PM. The show has grown larger and attracted a more impressive list of comics professionals with each passing year. This year’s lineup includes J.M. DeMatteis, Todd Dezago, Fred Hembeck, Joe Jusko, Rick Leonardi, Ron Marz, Matthew Dow Smith, Joe Sinnott, Joe Staton, and others.
The Albany Comic Con always features benefits for local charities, and this year there are two to raise funds for the Albany Ronald McDonald House. The first is a charity art auction that takes place at the convention, as artwork created by the pros attending the con will be auctioned to bidders during the show. All of this year’s pieces are based on Marvel’s Avengers movie. The second fundraiser is the Albany Comic Con sponsoring the Tri-City ValleyCats (the Class A affiliate of the Houston Astros) game Saturday, July 6th, at Joe Bruno Stadium on the campus of Hudson Valley Community College in Troy. Albany Comic Con will honor legendary comics artist Joe Sinnott. Dubbed “Meet Joe at the Joe,” the event will give fans a chance to meet Sinnott, receive an exclusive baseball card, and get autographs from Joe and other local comic professionals. Albany Comic Con will be selling tickets to the July 6th baseball game during this Sunday’s convention. Tickets are also available at Excellent Adventures Comics in Ballston Spa, Comics Depot in Saratoga Springs, and other local comic shops around the Albany area. Game tickets are $5, and come with the Joe Sinnott baseball card. Proceeds from the tickets will benefit the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Albany.
In this edition of the Five Questions, Albany Comic Con organizer John Belskis weighs in with his thoughts about what has become an annual Albany tradition.
1. What is your overarching philosophy or vision of the Albany Comic Con?
To provide the regional area with a convention based on comic books and comic book art, that can be affordable and family-friendly. I think most of the larger shows have become major media events that have left comics a distant second. They can also be tremendously expensive to attend, especially for a family. Our show is more intimate, and even though smaller, is well-attended enough to give it a real sense of what a bigger convention is like. We also have kept our prices affordable which allows for a more family-friendly environment.
2. What have you learned from the past few years of holding conventions in the Albany area?
How talent-rich this area is. I’m amazed at how many professional comic book creators live within a short drive of Albany, and how willing they are to attend and always contribute to the convention. I’m also grateful to all of the local stores who help promote, and attend the convention. Many shows use the city’s name they are located in, but have many vendors from outside the city, and little support from the local shops. Our show is truly Albany Comic Con, with a local following that’s hard to match, anywhere else.
3. What one thing would you like someone to know, if they’re considering coming but have never been?
If you’re a comic fan, then this show is for you, but even if you’re not a comic fan, this is six hours of fun and nostalgia, and it’s all for only $5.00. It may also inspire your kids to want to read. What parent wouldn’t feel good about their children wanting something to read. People who have never explored comics would be amazed at the variety and complexity this hobby has to offer, for kids, and adults.
4. What is the most fulfilling thing about organizing this show year after year?
Seeing kids loving the comics, and the convention. Comics today sorely lack a next generation to continue reading and loving them. There is so much competition for the attention of kids these days. Our show in its small way gets the word out that comics are still alive. Hopefully we are inspiring another generation that will want to keep buying, reading and collecting them, for many years to come.
5. How would you like to see the show evolve in future years?
I’m happy with the slow and steady growth the show has had. I like the idea of more smaller events throughout the year, than just one large event once a year. I don’t know if we will ever grow into a major multi-day convention, but if we get there, it will happen when the time is right. I would be happier, if in 20 years, the Albany Comic Con is still going strong, with two or three shows a year, that everyone can still attend and enjoy.
Total female creators credits for Forever Evil announced to date:
Total female credits for writers:
Ann Nocenti (Justice League Dark #23.1: The Creeper and Batman: The Dark Knight #23.1: Joker’s Daughter)
Gail Simone (Batman: The Dark Knight #23.1:The Ventriloquist)
Marguerite Bennett (Justice League #23.2: Lobo)
Total female credits for art:
That’s right 0. With 52 different covers and 52 books to be drawn, the total number of female artists with credits (that have been announced) is 0.
That gendercrunching guy has his own take on the numbers—I don’t usually quote these because I find comparing a female assistant editor to a female artist misleading but the metric is constant.
Is this concerning? Well, in the abstract, of course it is. With women drawing more comics, more bestselling comics and getting more acclaim everywhere in the mainstream world, its troubling that they’ve made so little headway at DC. In a larger sense, I find it far less remarkable. When the New 52 launched it was supposed to be “new” and female artists at DC were a new concept and thus part of the freshening up mode, so leaving them out seemed like a giant step backwards.
Two years later we kind of see where this is going, and getting new voices is not as much of a priority for DC as character management.
Still, meet the new boss, etc.
(Aside: I’ve heard people going “where is Amanda Conner??!!??” which is understandable because she’s an amazing artist but she is always working and FUN FACT there are scores of women artists around the world working on comics right this minute besides Amanda Conner. Women in Comics does not begin and end with Conner, Thompson and Doran.)
§ Where are the great female comics journalists? On a somewhat similar note, while I’m super thrilled to see Comics Alliance back, this Reservoir Dogs-style staff pic did make me sad.
Can you guess why?
I’ve always been baffled why a site that has contributed so much to the notions of diversity and gender equality in comics hasn’t been able to develop more female writers. When I ask this kind of question I’m usually told, it’s because none have come forward, and I’m sure it’s true. You see a site where 95% of the posts are written by men and you might suspect it isn’t a welcoming place, even if it isn’t true.
At The Beat I’ve assembled about equal numbers of male and female contributors. (I should note that ComicsMix also has a lot of female writers.) I didn’t set out to do it that way, I just noticed writers I liked or who came to me. Over at PW Comics World, Publisher’s Weekly’s comics newsletter, we had way more female reporters than male. In recent years, with the internet allowing women to be more vocal about their interests, and the (mostly male) gatekeepers who decided women didn’t belong at the big table neutralized, I’ve had no problem finding competent, insightful women to write about comics and other nerd topics. (To be fair, at the Beat I don’t have to answer to corporate goals for traffic, so I have far fewer concerns about content than a blog like Comics Alliance.)
That said, I do notice that women, even online, tend to segregate themselves into places where they feel more welcome or safer like Tumblr. Maybe it is time for women themselves to reach out more? And also not just write about gender issues. It’s important to jump on the outrage of the day, but if all you write about is gender, that’s how you will be branded, and only women “have gender” in the eyes of men. It’s a Catch 22 and a losing scenario.
Is it worth pointing out that none of the books are written by a woman, and, in fact, there’s only one female artist who has work on that list—Y: The Last Man’s Pia Guerra—although Lynn Varley’s Dark Knight colors and Karen Berger’s editing of some of the best books on that list are a good reminder that this list isn’t quite as male as it may appear simply by looking at the writers, pencil artists and inkers (Any suggestions for something written or drawn by a woman that DC has done that belongs on this list? The down side of not hiring many women to write or draw for you means that few classic or essential comics have been generated by them in the past. The few women in DC’s employ at the moment—Christie Marx, Gail Simone, Nicola Scott—are just working on continuity-heavy, unexceptional work).
So yeah, on DC’s list of 25 essential graphic novels—a list that represents an incredible body of lasting work—there is only one female writer or artist. And you know why there is ONE? Because I hired her. When I was an editor at Vertigo, I saw Pia’s samples, loved them, showed them to writers who loved them, BKV won the lottery to use her on a pitch and the rest is history. (And yeah, I’m sure BKV has a little to do with Y the Last Man being considered a classic than anything I ever did.) I don’t believe in quotas or affirmative action, but I do believe to live in a more diverse and interesting world you have to actually do something about diversity.
§ Behind every woman…: There was also this this week. It’s so stupid that I hesitate to bring it up, but basically some idiot thinks Kelly Sue DeConnick only gets writing work because she’s marred to Matt Fraction. I can testify that when I met them (separately, before they even started dating) Kelly Sue was better known in comics than Fraction was, and sometime you marry someone who has common interests that you are both pursuing and it’s a lot of fun.
But the reason I brought this up because it made me flash back to about 25 years ago when a still-very prominent and much loved comics publisher told me “All the women in comics get work because they’re dating a guy in comics.” And then this guy laughed because it was all a joke and I shouldn’t be offended. Maybe this was stupid of me, but that moment was part of the reason that I resisted having a serious relationship in the comics industry for years. I knew the minute I was part of a “couple,” everything I did would no longer be my success but because of the “couple’s” success.
Now that I’m in a wonderful relationship with a wonderful man who is also in comics (and I’m also a little wiser) I see that being with someone who really understands what you love is one of the best situations you can be in. But idiots will take it as nepotism no matter what. Keep fighting, Kelly Sue, keep fighting.
Why do you think there’s a lack of female superheroes in film?
Toymakers will tell you they won’t sell enough, and movie people will point to the two terrible superheroine movies that were made and say, You see? It can’t be done. It’s stupid, and I’m hoping The Hunger Games will lead to a paradigm shift. It’s frustrating to me that I don’t see anybody developing one of these movies. It actually pisses me off. My daughter watched The Avengers and was like, “My favorite characters were the Black Widow and Maria Hill,” and I thought, Yeah, of course they were. I read a beautiful thing Junot Diaz wrote: “If you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.”
§ Women in Hollywood gain a scrap of influence: AND WHILE WE’RE FINISHING THIS UP: here is what I consider a must read, The Hollywood Reporter’s Revenge of the Over 40 Actresses. The bottom line for this story is “The audience is aging and so are the stars” as the Baby Boom generation continues it chicken-in-the-snake ripple through demographics. But there are some surprising stats in the piece:
Even so, the industry still reacts with surprise whenever a female star demonstrates box-office clout. On March 15, The Call, an otherwise routine thriller, opened as that weekend’s top new wide release thanks to the presence of Halle Berry, 46. The TriStar film bowed to $17.1 million, trouncing the heavily promoted Steve Carell-Jim Carrey comedy The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (in which Carell, 50, was paired romantically with Olivia Wilde, 29). Female moviegoers made up 56 percent of Call’s audience, and 48 percent of the overall audience cited Berry as the reason for turning out.
Making sure older female moviegoers — in Hollywood’s marketing lingo, “older” means those over 25 — have someone to root for in a movie even can factor into the casting of tentpoles looking to attract all four quadrants. And so, Gwyneth Paltrow, 40, became a key marketing hook for this year’s top-performing film to date, Iron Man 3. (It’s worth noting that when Marvel and director Jon Favreauwere assembling the first Iron Man, they sought McAdams, then 29, for the role of Pepper Potts, which Paltrow eventually made her own.) “Ever since I’ve turned 40, I feel younger than ever and more energetic,” announced Paltrow at the Iron Man 3 premiere in Hollywood. “I’m ready. I’m ready for action now.”
There’s also advice that mirrors what I was saying a few graphs ago — you gotta make your own opportunities.
“I advise any actor to take control of your career,” says Feig. “Start doing stand-up. Start writing roles for yourself. When you’re sitting around waiting for the town to have an epiphany, you’re going to sit forever. Look for the parts, chase the parts, but at the same time, seize control.”
Kristen Wiig did just that when she co-wrote and starred in Feig’s Bridesmaids. She finds herself among the town’s most in-demand despite being on the precipice of 40 (she turns 40 this summer). “She’s definitely someone who can get a movie made on her name alone,” notes Gabler.
Of course, all this positive thinking gets rebuffed when you really dig down into the numbers:
But not all the news is encouraging. A recent USC study tracked characters appearing in the 500 top-grossing films from 2007 to 2012 and found that the percentage of females between the ages of 40 and 64 has not changed meaningfully over time. The majority of all female characters onscreen in the 100 most popular films in 2012 were between ages 21 and 39. And, among characters in the 40- to 64-year-old range, males outnumbered female characters by nearly 4-to-1.
§ The politics of cosplay: Now here’s where I get into trouble. I’ve avoiding talking much about cosplay here because a) it’s not my major field of study and b) I think my opinions differ from those of many on the cosplay scene. Anyway there was a long and very smart article by Emily Finke called Slut Shaming and Concern Trolling in Geek Culture about a woman who went to a con wearing a mini skirted Star Fleet uniform and was castigated for it:
Dragon*Con isn’t perfect, and in most ways, is a much less safe convention for a woman. However, at Dragon*Con, I am accepted as a costumer. At a con like Balticon, I’m celebrated as eye candy. I felt like I was placed in the role of Convention Booth Babe, receiving both the objectified interest from the men and the scorn of the women.
While I don’t think anyone should be abused, touched or treated like an object no matter how they are dressed as a con—even the guys in tights with no underwear—I’m far more fired up about other gender related issues than I am about the right to wear costumes that were designed by men specifically to objectify women. Those Star Trek costumes were stupid and meant to make women look sexy not to make a statement about empowerment—even if wearing a mini skirt was considered a form of empowerment by women in the 60s. Finke says a lot of women told her her skirt was too short and ascribes the motives to jealousy (probably true) and bringing her down a peg (also true.) We do live live in a society where wearing a skirt that’s too short—or wearing tights with no underwear and your franks ‘n’ beans showing—means you aren’t taken seriously and that’s hurtful.
Unfortunately, the default assumption of convention space is “male space” The really annoying thing about this whole discussion? Convention space has never been a space that was solely the domain of men. From the very beginning of the fandom that I chose to represent at Balticon — Star Trek — conventions had women. Women creating costumes, dressing as Klingons. Women discussing gender and racial politics in the series. Women participating in collaborative remixing of the canon. There have always been women objecting to “warrior women” on the covers of books and magazines and protesting the misogynistic habits of male writers who enjoy pinching and groping. There have always been women using science fiction to rewrite gender assumptions. They were there. They are there. They’ve always been there. The history of geekdom is not a history of men, it’s a history of invisible women.
The “invisible woman” syndrome is really what I’ve been writing about in each and every item in this list: not getting hired, not being noticed, not getting credit.
Being attractive and wearing costumes that enhance that is a good way to get attention—you’re certainly not invisible. While I support the right of every women to show off her confidence and lore by wearing whatever costume she wants—and not to be quizzed and questioned, let alone harassed and abused. But it only goes part of the way, and it’s only part of the struggle.
Okay out of time and room. Next time: why a female Doctor Who would destroy society as we know it.
Good stuff here from Heidi Macdonald. DC Comics is always worth discussing because of their prominence in North American comics, but as Heidi points out, there are a lot of women doing comics for other publishers, self-published, as illustrators and animators, or doing comics in other countries. When it comes to minority representation, one must always keep in mind that old publishers like Marvel and DC created most of their characters (for the purpose of this point, I’m calling them the creators) in times when they were targeting young, usually white, males, with minimal effort over the years to be more diverse, both with the characters and stories and the talent hired to make them. It echoes the Diaz quote by Whedon; when women or other minorities don’t see themselves truly reflected in the comics, the comics don’t take hold in their hearts, and they move on to other things. This is not to say there aren’t many female artists, writers and editors who could do great work for DC, but I do think there is a smaller percentage than the guys who grew up with 40-50 male heroic role models or analogues every month. I think with some of these eligible women, not having drunk that superhero Kool-Aid when they were young, they see through a lot of the bullshit at these publishers and don’t think it’s worth it to try to fit within these restrictive systems that seem more and more to be chewing up talented people. And you know, if Amanda Conner’s begets project in 2012 is Before Watchmen, I’d rather she go elsewhere, anyway.
Excellent interview with veteran comics scribe Jenkins on his choice to work for BOOM!, describing the culture at Marvel as too event-driven, continuity-shackled and inconsequential, and DC as much worse, with bullying, uncommunicative and incompetent editing. Jenkins is a guy who’s had his ups and downs, more downs of late, and this perhaps puts some of that in perspective. I should note that when I say, “excellent interview,” this is mainly to Jenkins’ credit, as he’s able to reasonably and thoughtfully navigate through Rich Johnston’s caustic, accusatory style of questioning. Johnston seems not to recognize the appreciably different ways Jenkins describes Marvel and DC (he’s much more measured about Marvel and isn’t saying farewell forever), delighting in his perception of Jenkins’ possible burning of bridges, and at one point he challenges Jenkins to “present evidence” that his detailed, lengthy and reasonable accounting of conditions at DC aren’t just “sour grapes”. He does ask intelligent questions about BOOM!, though, which does have some business practices worth questioning even if the creative environment seems healthier.
Jim Rugg’s Supermag (published by AdHouse Books) is kind of like the AdBusters of comics magazines — it takes a familiar format and recontextualizes it to display Rugg’s many and varied illustrative modes. There’s no single narrative; short stories and random pages from hypothetical comics co-exist within Supermag’s pages. Readers of Rugg’s Afrodisiac graphic novel will be comfortable with the approach, although Supermag lacks the laser focus of that book. Rather, Supermag seems to be a summation of everything Rugg has learned about creating art and comics, a “Where Is He Now?” moment that begs the question, “What comes next?”
I loved Rugg’s work on Street Angel a few years back, a five-issue alternative superhero comic that was strong on story and featured bold cartooning and some early hints of the various styles that Rugg often utilizes, from ballpoint ketches to fully-realized paintings. There’s a lot of pastiche and homage at work in the pages of Supermag, as well as some one-off illustrations and Photoshop wizardry. The comics content shows a lot of Dan Clowes and Charles Burns inspiration, but if you’re going to be inspired, you could do far worse than Clowes and Burns.
The magazine’s visual virtuosity suggests a budget-friendly coffee-table art book, something Rugg’s art has earned and probably would have achieved by now if the economy hadn’t taken the turn it did five years ago. The non-superhero comics industry has adjusted to our new reality in a number of ways since then, and if Supermag is an answer to the question “How can we affordably present a dazzling array of Jim Rugg artwork and remind people of just how powerful and witty a cartoonist he is?” then, I am glad someone asked. At a smidge under ten bucks, you get a lot of stunning design and memorable eye pops for about what you’d pay for a crappy lunch at Wendy’s.
Me, I’ve quietly been waiting for more Street Angel for a long time now, but Supermag indicates that Rugg has a lot of other interests (although Jesse Sanchez, and Afrodisiac do both pop up in the pages of Supermag), and its implicit promise seems to be that whatever Rugg does next, it should be fun and beautiful to look at. I hope it happens soon.
Somebody Said Marvel's "Secret Invasion" Was A Story
It isn’t a story, it’s the bare bones of an idea for a plot that a story could have been built on (but was not). What you describe (“shape-shifting aliens invaded years ago”) is what Gaines and Feldstein called “springboards,” and they kept them on 3x5 cards at EC Comics so they had a place to start. (Pro tip: a story doesn’t fit on a 3x5 card — not a multi-issue epic story, anyway.) That’s the problem with Bendis and many corporate superhero comic book “writers,” these days — they consider the job done when they have a nugget of an idea, rather than blowing it up and exploring it and revising it and making it into something well-written, professional and occasionally even memorable, like Moore, like Morrison used to do, like Gaiman and Ennis and Ellis are sometimes capable of, like Millar and Straczynski had the potential to do before they disappeared up their own asses, like Hickman and Snyder might be capable of in another five or ten years if they don’t get better-paying jobs writing even worse-reading material outside of comics. Story is what the original Image creators thought either didn’t matter or they could fake on their own. Erik Larsen faked it until he made it, the rest hired other writers, some of whom knew what they were doing, some of whom were Jeph Loeb.
A story by definition has a beginning, middle and end, with structure and character arcs and theme and other stuff that someone who didn’t drop out of high school and then college (like me), would be better capable of mapping out.
Story isn’t that fucking Robert McKee book, and it isn’t something you can do just because you READ that fucking book. Storytelling is a skill and an art; it’s something you can learn, but the passion to do it is something you’re born with or at least is evident very early on. It’s something, honestly, that I personally don’t have in me, but I fucking well recognize it when I see it, and Secret Invasion ain’t it. A missed opportunity? Yeah. A huge disappointment? You bet. A story? Hell, no.
Fantagraphics co-publisher Kim Thompson has just released a statement that he’s been diagnosed with lung cancer. I’m sure I speak for my partner in crime, Alan David Doane, in saying that Kim is a huge inspiration and influence, and we wish him a speedy recovery.
Lots of people are congratulating Chris Sprouse for asking DC to replace him on hatemonger Orson Scott Card’s upcoming (or not) online Superman story. And yes, he did the right thing. But when you read his statement, which even in this headline is misconstrued, Sprouse says nothing about DC’s decision to hire Card, nothing about gay marriage or gay rights. He is merely uncomfortable with the negative attention. He just wants to draw comics that are discussed for the comics themselves rather than the creators’ beliefs, and that’s fine, though it’s a little weird to me he goes out of his way to make clear he’s cool with DC Comics and will continue to work with them. So he’s fine with them hiring Card, just not with people who don’t like Card now not liking him if he works with the guy. It’s a career-based decision. Understandable, especially in a tough comics industry that isn’t growing but continues to have new talent coming in, competing for work. But let’s not call the guy a hero.
My name’s Michael Hartney. I’m as big a Superman fan as you’ll ever meet. I have bought Superman comics every Wednesday since I learned to read, which was nearly 30 years ago. Superman was the subject of my blog and my one-man show. My name is tattooed on my arm in Kryptonian, for Zod’s…
“What makes [Superman] interesting other than that he’s really, really strong? That question led me to want to redefine Clark in ways that made him more interesting and more flawed as a person. Not in a dark, mean, cynical way, because that’s way too easy. But as a true outsider whose heart is vulnerable. I wanted to emphasize the loneliness of a kid growing up knowing just how different he was from everyone else, who had to keep his distance for their protection and his own.”—
To quote Orson Welles, “the right reading is the one I’m giving (and not David Brothers’)”. The “feeling like an outsider” part is, yes, typical of all children and indeed, many adults. But that’s not all the quote is about. Superman is a “true” outsider, as opposed to just feeling like one. He’s an alien, and he has to keep his distance to protect others from his powers. The trick is to mix the relatable aspect (we all feel out-of-place) with the different (real alien with powers).
Since we’re on the topic of creative changes, one of the things that was a big discussion point for a while was Gail Simone being on and off “Batgirl.” With Gail now reinstated on the title, I have to ask — how much was fan outcry and fan support part of that creative editorial decision?
Harras: What we had was Ray [Fawkes] coming on for two months to help out, schedule-wise. We’re very happy Gail is back; she’s on the book moving forward, so to me, that was a moment in time where we were just looking for Gail’s next plot to come in and we’re moving forward.
Follow-up question: “When the news broke, Simone herself said that she was informed she was no longer the new writer. That doesn’t sound as temporary as simply waiting on her next plot. Can you expand on what happened here? Was there a miscommunication?”
Don’t let these people rewrite history and use your platform to do it.
Such patent nonsense, so obviously false and easily disproven. There are good journalists covering comics, for sure, but so many are clowns who accept crap like this and post it without confrontation. Is Bob Harras now considered a forthright, truthful guy? It’s insulting to both Simone and the fans to present this farcical version of whatever the real truth is. Simone doesn’t have a reputation for being late, but even if she was, the standard procedure would have been to schedule someone, Fawkes or whoever, to do a little fill-in arc to help her get back on schedule. She announced she was removed from the book. There was no benefit to her saying that, so we can assume that as far as she knew, it was true.
Comics writer Peter A. David suffered a stroke while on vacation with his wife. He cannot move much of the right side of his body and is experiencing vision problems. Please consider sending him your best wishes for a speedy recovery.
Grant Morrison's Eroding Significance Apparently Bothers Him Very, Very Much
I understand completely why Grant Morrison is so insecure about his place in comics history in comparison to Alan Moore, but someone should really explain to Morrison how much weaker and more inferior he ironically makes himself appear with such verbose defensiveness. The work of the two writers should speak for itself, Grant, and let history decide how much you did or didn’t matter. This piece reminds me, more than anything, of Straczynski’s desperate, pathetic need to justify his participation in Before Watchmen by tearing Moore down, despite the fact that the worst thing Moore ever wrote is twice as interesting and enduring as the best thing Straczynski ever did. The last couple sentences of this article at The Comics Reporter really say all that needs to be said.
I think this is Vol. 6 of this comic, right? I’ll be brief. Kieron Gillen has written books I’ve liked, and Greg Land has done some art I’ve liked, but as he’s a Photoshop artist that is to be expected. Oddly enough, the scenes I imagine to be more “drawn” than posed, the stuff with Iron Man flying around in his new black and gold armor, is the most appealing. When Gillen switches to talking head scenes, the book screeches to a halt.
One problem is that I just finished reading Matt Fraction’s run as writer of Invincible Iron Man a couple days ago. Fraction pretty much returned the toys to the box, with Tony Stark wrapping up his Stane/Hammer/Mandarin conflict and heading to space in modified turd-recycling armor to clear his head and get some fresh ideas. So why doesn’t Gillen spend even a moment with this great premise? Marvel’s supposed to be more seamless, editorially. No, instead, Stark’s back on Earth, in different armor, and instead of seeking inspiration he’s only looking to bang another blonde bimbo with big ’90s hair in a club (I think?) while Pepper Potts tags along morosely, trying to untingle any vagina that falls for Tony’s rap.
I had to take a quick look again to remember just what this issue’s main story was about. Somebody selling an old version of Tony’s Extremis armor, which he’s already surpassed and beaten, so there’s no drama. Speaking of turd-recycling…maybe Gillen needs to go to space for inspiration, because we’ve seen all this before, and better. A year or two ago, I’d have closed with something like, “I’ll give this another issue or two to see if it finds its feet,” but life’s too short for comics that are just okay, you know? NEXT.
David Brothers on Cerebus: High Society Digital Edition
Excellent, detailed, and (unlike the product itself, clear) piece on the Kickstarter-funded digital edition of one of the more highly regarded stories in Dave Sim’s Cerebus epic. Unlike David, I didn’t fund this project, but like him, I’ve read very little Cerebus and was curious whether this would be a good place to start. This sounds like too much information, or at least a ton of ephemera presented in such a way that it distracts from reading the story. Add to that that you’re only getting one issue’s worth of story so far, rather than the entire story, and it sounds like a drag for all but the hardest-core fan. I don’t know Dave Sim enough to lecture, but it does kind of sound like one of those cases where, when an artist is used to listening only to his own inner voice, he can end up really closing himself off from his existing fanbase as well as possible new fans.
Brian Michael Bendis has taken his share of knocks as a writer over the years. Those distinctive stylistic tics that marked him as fresh over a decade ago have settled into formula, some might say self-parody, not unlike other distinctive writers like Chris Claremont or Frank Miller. I’ve taken my shots, too, and honestly am looking forward to his departure from the Avengers books. But I think his Daredevil run, while flawed, like anything, is still a pretty impressive accomplishment. And as with Claremont’s return to X-Men books or Miller going back to Batman, there is incredible risk in returning to past triumphs. Do you really have something left to say, or can’t you really go home again?
I was really worried with the first few pages here, an ugly fight between Bullseye and Daredevil that results in D.D.’s death, captured on cameraphone. It’s meant to be brutal, sure, but the combination of Janson and Sienkiewicz is surprisingly off-putting. As great an inker as Janson is, he’s often a stiff penciler, and finds in Sienkiewicz a finisher so eager to add pizzazz to the page that he ends up cluttering it with too many blood spatters and tendons and wrinkles and speed lines that it’s a mess. Try as he might, the opening splash page just doesn’t actually convey the feeling of a punch being thrown, because no matter how much he slops on or whites out, the angle of the pose is just wrong. Janson defeated him before he started.
On page 3, it’s a different story, a well-composed Janson page undone by excessive detail and shading that makes Matt Murdock look like he’s in blackface, not just bleeding and bruised. It’s not all bad, but there are several pages of fights in this issue, and Janson is hit-or-miss in dynamic action, and so, something like the last battle with the Kingpin, which leaves him dead and Daredevil disgraced, is actually anticlimactic and draggy.
I’m not really for superheroes killing, except in extreme circumstances, but I would have to admit that the final Daredevil story is one of those circumstances. And yet, Bendis does really set himself up for disappointment here, challenging the reader to recall the old, pure-hearted, non-murderous Daredevil to make us accept this new one. There are no scenes of that old Daredevil in the book, which I think was a mistake. We need to be reminded of what Daredevil was, so we can accept and understand what he becomes. As it is, storming into a restaurant and ordering the Kingpin to leave town forever or he’ll kill him, is unacceptable. That the Kingpin chooses to fight instead of run doesn’t justify Daredevil beating him to death with his billy club, and Daredevil shouting to the horrified onlookers that he’d “tried everything else” just feels hollow. He came there and made a death threat that he knew he would likely carry out.
What Bendis and Mack get right is Ben Urich. Ben had been the custodian of Matt Murdock’s secret identity as Daredevil, knew him as well as any man, and so is the only one to tell of his final days. And of course, it’s the last thing he wants to do, because it makes him feel even worse and he doesn’t want to engage with it. But J. Jonah Jameson is not going to see the end of print media by putting out a half-assed paper, and so he’s damn well sure the right writer is on the story. This is all good stuff, and Bendis/Mack write Urich as well as anyone has. It reminds me of their first Daredevil collaboration a decade ago, in that that story also found Urich as the protagonist, an investigative reporter hunting down leads. It seems the video shows Murdock uttering a mysterious name before he dies, and it’s not Bullseye’s real name or anyone we’ve ever heard of before. So that’s what we’re in for, a murder mystery—or is it? There’s some suggestion that maybe Daredevil is still alive somehow.
Later in the issue, Janson and Sienkiewicz seem to get a little more in sync, though it’s still uneven, with some pages looking much more like Sienkiewicz and others mostly Janson. Again, both terrific artists, but very different styles.
So is it any good? It has some parts I liked, some I didn’t like at all, but I’m interested in seeing it develop. When you review first issues, it’s hard to walk that line between condemnation and faith. The fact is, Bendis is an old pro and is good enough at his craft that there should be enough going right in a first issue for it to basically work. At the same time, when was the last time he wrote a gritty mystery that was light on conversation and absolutely absent of humor? There might be some rust there; for me, it’s most apparent in the fight scenes, where it feels like his brain kind of shuts off. There’s nothing in those scenes that’s unusual or containing important information; you get the idea those script pages are very basic, allowing the artist to figure out the staging. It’s in the Urich stuff where he feels engaged, and so far it’s not bad.
“Grant Morrison’s latest creator-owned series is already in motion as a feature film and rapper/director RZA is set to direct, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Happy! debuted at Image Comics late last month, and was reported Tuesday as in development with RZA as director, Morrison writing the script and Reginald Hudlin — who’s worked on comics including Black Panther and Marvel Knights Spider-Man — producing with RZA. The plan, as reported, is to develop the film and then take it to a studio or financier. With one issue out thus far, Happy! tells the story of a down-on-his-luck hitman who receives inspirational advice from a blue horse. RZA’s directorial debut, The Man with the Iron Fists, is out on Nov. 2.”—
Newsarama has always been terrible, the movie will be terrible, Reginald Hudlin is over, and David Brothers is physically unable to resist making a passive aggressive or aggressive diss against Grant Morrison. Now you have context.
And so Marvel’s latest carnival ride grinds to a halt, creaking with metal fatigue, bolts scattered across the fairgrounds. I don’t know if it’s the long or short straw, but Aaron draws the one making him wrap it up.
In full disclosure, I haven’t technically read all of this series. That is, I’ve read the bulk of every issue, but as of #7, I’ve been skipping pages, and it turns out it doesn’t really make much difference. The reason is that, like so many pamphlets these days, there’s not enough story to justify its length. We get some of that even in this ultimate issue, with several pages of unimportant heroes flying around to no purpose, without dialogue. Early in the series, you could kind of get away with this kind of thing, but by now we all know that anything Nova or Avengers Academy do will contribute fuck-all to stopping Dark Cyclops.
Speaking of whom, when Cyclops ends up as a visorless, enflamed figure with what appears to be a glowing toilet seat around his neck, you just know that mistakes were made. I had been wondering for years why nobody seemed to “get” Cyclops, such a potentially interesting character. Had anyone got right what a self-righteous prig marrying a former villain might be like? Did Cyclops ever try to be a better brother? A better son to Xavier? No, for the past few years, he’s just been the dictator of his own island, arguably a worse leader than Magneto was for Genosha. A guy who never considered that he might be wrong, that other methods might work better. And now he’s just a big bunch of power in human shape.
Much of a film’s success has to do with its editing. We don’t think about it in terms of comics that much, except in cases like this, where the scenes are sequenced in such a way as to make several pages les interesting than they should have been. That is, we see Hope turn on Scarlet Witch, and the next thing we see, they’re going up against Cyclops. THEN, we get several pages of them fighting and then learning to work together, and nobody cares by then. Add to that that, let’s face it, it’s a little late in the game to explore the very understandable conflict between the last hope of mutantkind and the mutant who made her necessary. I can’t entirely blame Aaron, since several Marvel writers plotted this whole thing, but there’s more thought put into nonsense like Hope mimicking Scarlet Witch’s hex ability and combining it into the Iron Fist, than in exploring how any of these characters might feel about all this crazy stuff going on.
The denouement has elements of a good scene between Captain America and the now-incarcerated Cyclops, where Cyclops at first expresses some remorse over killing Professor Xavier, but then rationalizes his actions as a win for mutant kind, since Cap is going to form a new, mutant-heavy Avengers and do more to forward the cause for peace and understanding. Perhaps due to crosscutting between panels of other developments in the superhero world, Aaron never pulls together the scene coherently. It’s just crap banged into publishable shape quickly. Andy Kubert has never been and never will be an A-list artist, but at least starts off okay in this one, with a polish that’s probably more to do with whoever inked those pages, before obviously grinding it out at the end. If this was a baseball game, you’re supposed to put in your closer in the 9th, not the 6th inning journeyman reliever. Well, what was a basically sound story at its core was botched and stretched and padded until it lost all meaning and momentum. But maybe down the road, a movie or cartoon will use this, cut the fat, and make it actually work.
Vertigo Comics, from The Invisible Omnibus $150 USD
I have to hand it to Morrison: only half a year into the series and he spends a issue on Sadeian cruelty and depravity, challenging material for a publishing imprint very early in its lifetime, its “edgy” material thus far mostly to do with extreme but not overtly sexualized violence. The title is an English pun on the Marquis de Sade’s famous, unfinished novel, 120 Days of Sodom, in which four rich noblemen in an inaccessible castle commit unspeakable acts of depravity on teen girls and boys, with the assistance of brothel keepers and studs, servants and others. The book was only found in 1904 and almost destroyed by the French government in 1955, though it has come to be respected by some as a satire on the lofty goals of The Enlightenment.
King Mob, Boy and de Sade himself, who we saw plucked from his timeline and plunged into their time machine, find themselves observing this fiction, which, while not part of the plan, is according to Mob unavoidable. They just have to get through it until they find the exit, or the next stage on their journey. And yes, I’ve already forgotten just what the journey is about, but I think it had to do with getting away from the murderous Orlando, who had appeared in their time. They’re only metaphysically successful, as Orlando has found their corporeal forms, and has cut off the pinkie of the awakened Jack Frost. His protestations awaken Lord Fanny, who fights Orlando to no avail. He seems beyond physical pain, a malevolent force. Again, he appears like a dark half of King Mob, also bald and fashionably dressed.
We also find Ragged Robin on her own, meeting a man at Rennes-le-Chateau who tells her of the church’s history, explored in 2003 in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code but long before then legendary for various conspiracy theories relating to treasure and certain odd features of the church, such as the Devil figure supporting the holy water stoup (rare but not unique) and a Latin inscription Morrison translates as “This place is terrible,” but is more accurately, “This is a place of awe.” As I’ve written before, I find Morrison’s knowledge dumps pretty entertaining, and I like his enthusiasm to try to tie whatever he’s been reading into this work, though he is starting to build up enough of a Jenga of famous people and places that it seems in danger of falling apart if he can’t pull it off.
We catch up with Lord Byron and The Shelleys, Percy mourning the death by dysentery of his daughter and speculating that Byron should be proud to be proved right, his cynicism trumping Shelley’s idealism and naivete. But Byron takes no pleasure in this, and attempts to take Mary Shelley’s mind off her grief with talk of his new romantic poem, Mazeppa. an interesting choice, as the poem is a transitional one for Byron, marking an uneasy end of his romantic period and the start towards the irony of Don Juan. It will be interesting to see where Morrison’s sympathies lie most, as so far, The Invisibles has been mostly earnest, with humor not generally of the ironic type.
Mary is here made of sterner stuff than Percy, but at the same time a staunch defender of the right of the poet to suffering (essentially, navel-gazing and obsessing), as, “They steal the power of creation from the gods. They remake the world with words and in the image of their dreams.” Through Mary, Morrison is giving himself license to embroider his growing tapestry of conspiracy, philosophy and sexuality as much as he wants, as it’s nigh unto a holy calling. And, you know, what writer wouldn’t agree?
The degradations of Castle Silling take up a large portion of this issue, and they’re about as unpleasant as intended, though it’s still probably PG-13 or a soft R. There’s an interesting decision, presumably by colorist Daniel Vozzo, to render most of these scenes in browns and tans, thus muting the impact of the cruelties performed. That is, it’s all still there, not obscured, but the coloring fits Morrison’s idea that these noblemen, trying to push the limits of Reason, reach a creative dead-end. Perverting or willfully disintegrating their humanity, they lack the necessary tools (love, compassion, imagination) to reach true Enlightenment. Their stagnancy is represented in rather simple visuals as a harsh winter giving way to the Spring flowers emerging from the snow, the true Enlightenment that The Invisibles represent.
We end with Robin seeing the mole-like Ciphermen again, who, while ostensibly enemies when we first met them, nonetheless lead her to something they believe she wanted to find: the head of John the Baptist, lost treasure of the Templars.
There are parts of this issue I loved. Those would be pages 1-3. We seem to be seeing the story of a Swamp Thing prior to Alec Holland, a skinnier one who lived in a cabin in Manitoba and helped grow the crops after the spring thaw. I would’ve been quite happy learning more about this guy and seeing how Kano drew him.
But then Snyder goes for what I don’t think is absolutely a mistake, but for me, an unnecessary and less interesting choice, which is to show that Anton Arcane is not just this bad wizard who continues to haunt the life of Alec Holland and those he cares about, but that he’s this agent of Rot, the forces of decay and entropy always at war with the Green (plant life) and the Red (animal life). I don’t have a problem with the whole Red/Green/Rot thing, though I think it’s occupied too much of both Swamp Thing and Animal Man, and it’s not that I have a strong attachment to an earlier characterization of Arcane. It’s not even that I’m against a fatalist approach. But man, it’s just gotten so overdone. I remember back, about ten years ago, when John Byrne did it in Spider-Man: Chapter One, rewriting history so that Norman (Green Goblin) Osborn was tied to Spider-Man’s origin and retroactively his primary nemesis. It wasn’t the primary failing of that series, but it just seemed kind of an easy, uninteresting idea. And since then, lots of comics have done the same thing when they rebooted. It’s completely unfashionable to just have bad guys show up and screw with your life because they feel like it and you’re in the way. No, it has to be destiny, some connection that goes back to primal forces beyond your control. So now we have an Arcane who seems to live for nothing but killing Swamp Things or future Swamp Things (in fact, he really enjoys killing them in the neonatal ward). He’s not a brilliant antagonist now; he’s just a monster who takes pleasure in what he does but doesn’t seem to have a choice in doing it. He’s just the biggest cog in a machine, just another agent in another shadowy group like the ones that made a decent show like True Blood into an embarrassment in a few seasons. Or, to bring it back to not only comics but Scott Snyder comics, why The Court of Owls are boring as shit. They’re just shapes and costumes and vague, sinister plans. Not a character in them. Characters are more interesting when they’re self-directed and unique and pursuing individual goals or compulsions. Anton Arcane is basically mold that talks out loud about how much he’s enjoying ruining your bread.
Vertigo Comics, from The Invisibles Omnibus $150 USD
As with the middle of the first story arc, Morrison gets a bit jammed up with a multitude of ideas and attitudes he wants to get across, leaving artist Thompson with some crammed pages she does her best to make interesting. The Invisibles are in Revolution-era Paris, looking for a local agent who will take them to the Marquis de Sade, whom they will then transport back to their timeline, presumably to help counter enemy Orlando, who we find at the end of the issue going on a kill spree. Why de Sade? Who knows? He doesn’t know anything about The Invisibles, but perhaps Morrison is choosing historical figures (artists and authors—creative types—it should be noted) who thought outside the box relative to their era, so maybe the idea is that free thinking is a kind of superpower.
Jack Frost is sick, which King Mob says shouldn’t be happening, as they aren’t even corporeal, so maybe there’s some kind of psychic malaise which affects neophyte Jack more strongly. We meet Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, author of Frankenstein and wife of Percy from last issue, and a mysterious, unaging man boards her carriage and expresses admiration for her work as well as the work of her mother, a suffragette. He’s creepy but again, on the right side of supporting the power of the intellect vs. traditional notions of the way the world works, what women can achieve, etc.
There’s a new menace introduced, The Ciphermen, which sound quite a bit like the Cybermen from Doctor Who and aren’t thematically that different. They have lost their humanity, in this case by subliminal transmissions, though why that causes them to dress up in leather and gas masks and create illusions, Morrison doesn’t explain. They look good, though. But of course, King Mob is prepared, with a weapon that disintegrates the illusions, called the Ghostbuster. There’s a bit of action, and then The Invisibles meet de Sade, who is obese and useless, self-pitying, and nonplussed at seeing the Ciphermen feed on a female corpse, even though he has imagined and written about various outrages on female flesh. They grab de Sade and hightail it back to 1995, whereupon Orlando is waiting, taking Jack’s pinky finger off with garden shears for fun.
The issue opens with King Mob witnessing an Indian puppet show, the Dalang (puppeteer) depicting a battle from The Mahabharata. Mob’s friend, Agus, tells him that the Dalang is more than just a puppeteer. He makes you believe you are witnessing a war, but there is no war, only the Dalang. It’s a testament to Morrison’s belief in the storyteller as God, or how a man—not just a writer, any man—can will their own reality into being.
He follows this with a full page of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Julian and Maddalo, a naturalistic, conversational poem/dialogue said to be inspired by the different viewpoints of Shelley (optimistic, Atheist) vs. his dear friend Lord Byron (cynical, raging). We then see Byron and Shelley holidaying together, drinking wine on a beach and then in a gondola, Shelley claiming that the present is not important, because their words will live on, will make them immortal, and that man can make his own utopia if he doesn’t succumb to despair, while Byron argues that all utopias (Arcadia is another word for paradise) are built on human suffering. If you’re wondering what happened to The Invisibles, well, we’ll get to that, but these sections are vital to the series even if they don’t necessarily move the plot forward.
There’s nothing writers hate worse than critics trying to discern their motives, but I’ve read enough of Morrison’s own words about himself in countless interviews to have an idea what’s going on here. Now, while this section reminded me a bit of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, in how Gaiman opened the book up from horror and fantasy to bring in real-life dreamers like Shakespeare, I have no idea if Morrison was inspired by that. At the least, though, it’s probably reasonable to assume that the wide-ranging Sandman (and Morrison’s editor, Stuart Moore), let him know that virtually anything was fair game for The Invisibles, as Gaiman had already found success with the approach.
I recall that somewhere around this time, Morrison was traveling a lot, doing drugs, and searching for knowledge. That’s what this feels like, a writer being very open to all sorts of stimulus, reading a lot, trying to find kindred spirits. I don’t know that Shelley and Byron are integral to the Invisibles concept, though later in the issue there’s a mention of the the Invisible College, not an actual college but a group of philosophers in the 1600s, a couple hundred years before Byron and Shelley. In the dialogue between the two, one might see a battle between two sides of Morrison, the utopian and the opportunist, but I think most of us have similar battles. For anyone paying attention, it’s difficult not to try to put oneself in Morrison’s shoes, but without coming down on either side we can fairly say that his curiosity and willingness to ask some of the big questions (or is it more that he starts throwing out some answers here and the questions are inferred?) make this issue stand out as more progressive than the previous arc.
We do catch up with The Invisibles after this, and not to pick on poor Steve Yeowell again, but damn, it turns out Boy is an attractive woman when Jill Thompson draws her, not a man at all. She and Dane (Jack Frost now, though he dislikes the codename) have an exposition-laden conversation while doing yoga, no doubt another thing Morrison was into at the time, and also a decent way to make a lot of talking look not so boring. Boy explains that each Invisible sect has just five members, based on the five elemental symbols of earth, air, fire, water and spirit. Seems kind of limiting to me, but we’ll see how it goes. She says Jack has some latent psychic ability, too, so there’s that to look forward to, and that Jack needs a haircut, as it will get in his eyes while fighting. There’s the same old homophobic antipathy to Lord Fanny from Jack, which is annoying, but I guess it’s necessary that there be certain negative traits hanging on that he’ll have to shed later. Jack does seem to be on the right track of questioning his surroundings, asking Boy how he really knows he’s not on the other side.
We return to King Mob in Egypt, meeting a scrawny friend and her cyclopean, mutant baby. When he leaves, she calls out that he reminds her of Gandhi. Maybe it’s the bald head and round glasses. I’m not sure what the baby was about, other than maybe it represent’s one’s third eye, that ability to see different realities than the one seen by our other two eyes.
We kind of get into either Gaiman or Moore territory with a man in a park who is approached by a shadowy man in a white suit, who then seems to somehow become the first man by putting his parchment-like skin over the man’s face. It’s all well and good, though it would seem that early on, Morrison has realized that pitting The Invisibles against groups of people with the exact opposite mission—trying to spread lies and illusions—would get pretty boring, so instead, let’s keep a steady stream of monsters coming.
Just as King Mob is Morrison’s comics avatar, so too is Ragged Robin the spitting image of Jill Thompson. Unfortunately, he still hasn’t given her much to do yet but talk about King Mob and how great London shopping is. There’s some more exposition, needlessly explaining that the villain from Harmony House, Mr. Gelt, was a myrmidon on the side opposing The Invisibles, and that there are badges and other ways to identify allies. King Mob shows up for dinner with a ridiculous crop top mock turtleneck with plastic rings over the nipples, explaining that they need to make a trip through time, as the enemy assassin, Orlando (one of The Fleshless, so I guess he’s the guy we just saw with the white suit) is in London. Why they have to run away isn’t clear, but nonetheless, Jack has to hold Fanny’s hand as they all concentrate and leave their bodies. They arrive in what appears to be Bastille-era Paris, just as a man is beheaded on the guillotine. What better way to inculcate Jack in the need for a revolution than by exposing him to the one carried out by the French?
Although it’s hard to imagine many people preferring this to what Thompson’s art style would develop into, the storytelling is quite good and she doesn’t take any shortcuts. Morrison throws a lot at her in this issue, and under all the changes in scenery it’s a very talky issue, but the enthusiasm with which Morrison tries to share everything he’s been learning about is infectious.
It’s that time of year again — time to stock up on amazing comics from one of the industry’s best publishers, at rock-bottom prices. Here’s the scoop, from Top Shelf’s Chris Staros:
For the next two weeks — thru Friday September 28th — Top Shelf is having its annual $3 web sale. When you visit the site, you’ll find 170 graphic novels and comics on sale — with over 100 titles marked down to just $3 & $1! Each year we use these funds to help clear the decks on our current amazing releases, and “kick start” a full rollout for next year. So, thank you in advance for your support, as we wouldn’t be here without you!
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Christopher Allen on The Invisibles Vol. 1 Interlude: "Hexy"
Absolute Vertigo 1995
Writer: Grant Morrison
Artist: Duncan Fegredo
Vertigo Comics, from The Invisibles Omnibus $150 USD.
"Hexy" is a short King Mob solo adventure, from an anthology special highlighting then-current Vertigo series with exclusive original material. Fegredo has a much more aggressive style than Steve Yeowell’s on the previous Invisibles story arc, changing the position of the "camera" with every panel and using black borders around each panel, sometimes changing to a full bleed page with panels inset. Morrison has talked about King Mob being his avatar, the man he would will himself into being, and one has to believe Fegredo gets closer here than Yeowell did, as this Mob is more overtly violent and sexual, crotch thrust forward in tight trousers, torso exposed under open spiky leather jacket, and Mob is completely comfortable speaking with dominatrix Joni.
The reason he’s speaking to her is that someone has left him a fetish, a cursed object that will bring a bad hoodoo on him in short order, and he thinks Joni might have some answers. The story is packed with magical details, as if young magician Morrison is breathless to tell readers everything he’s learned so far. I found it kind of charming, but some might find it show-offy.
Joni says he could reverse the hex current if he found the appropriate sigil of his antagonist, the implication being that when you’re an Invisible, you’re attuned to this kind of thing and will certainly find the right sigil eventually, but it just might not be in time to save you. Mob takes a drive, offering Morrison the opportunity to make a nice point in a radio broadcast Mob listens to about how easy it is to erode civil liberties when you get the public scared enough of boogeymen in their midst. Points for prescience.
Morrison also has Mob making an assertion that the English have a kind of inherited sadomasochism within them. It’s not explained, but really just serves as an aural trigger for the observant Mob to realize that his tormentor was actually Joni all along. He finds her torturing a politician and confronts her, her reason for betrayal simply money, in true ’40s film noir femme fatale fashion. Slipping down the wall, her hands staining it with her own blood, Mob finds in the blood the sigil he was after. He kills the dangling politician after finding the same sigil on his person, so apparently he was the one trying to kill Mob, not Joni? The politician weakly threatens that they’ll get Mob and the Invisibles in the end, before Mob suffocates him in his gimp mask.
It’s a good-looking, moderately successful story that could, for all I know at this point, stand as a microcosm of The Invisibles series: lurid sex and easily justified ultraviolence against faceless villains mixed with esoteric philosophies and sparse social commentary. It will be interesting to see the comic’s battle between big dick and big brain.
Vertigo Comics. From The Invisible Omnibus $150 USD
The first story arc of the series concludes this issue, with few surprises but it’s executed well. After a sweet scene of Dane and Tom O’Bedlam tossing the ol’ Frisbee around like best mates, Dane bids goodbye to his angry, ignorant childhood by firebombing his last stolen car. Tom, as expected, is ready to move on or die, having taught Dane as much as he can, but there has to be one very real leap of faith to complete the journey to becoming Jack Frost, his Invisibles codename.
They ascend to the top of a London skyscraper, Dane having already smoked some more of that magical blue mold, and then Tom grabs Dane’s hand, imploring him to trust him. And down we go. Dane lands alone, in the park, a huge red sun seemingly floating just above him, showering him with transforming radiation. It then changes colors and seems to follow him, reminding me of that horrific white ball from The Prisoner, before it finally changes into a facsimile of Saturn, burning orange and rainbow-ringed.
Tom left Dane an address, and he finds the place, an empty schoolroom with a pink grenade with “Smile” on it sitting on the teacher’s desk, so much more useful than an apple. King Mob reappears (presumably the teacher), as does Ragged Robin, and the rest of the team is introduced: Boy, an African-Briton who so far only stands out for having one or two more earrings than King Mob, and the much more flamboyant Lord Fanny, the transvestite from issue #2 who gave Dane a five pound note.
It’s kind of fun that King Mob says, “It’s a man’s life in the Invisible Army,” because having one woman and one transvestite (could be transsexual, not sure yet) on the team announces that we’re going to be handling superheroes and espionage and whatever kind of typically-macho genre story material in a different way, that the notions of what being a man is will go deeper than being virile and brave and being good with one’s fists or a gun.
There’s also more interesting coloring in this issue, the lavenders offsetting the Saturn carrying over to the walls and signage on the next page as a sign that Dane has truly crossed over. Yeowell’s art looks about the best it has on the series, not so much that he’s changed much, but Morrison has given him more things to draw on each page. What I mean is, a page of Dane reacting to this moon/planet following him is more difficult, as it’s different angles of basically the same thing. But a page with Big Ben, then a close-up of a gold phone on a table with bloodstains, then a shadowy figure using that phone, with candelabra behind him, then a shot from outside the window looking in, and then outside the door—that’s diverse. Things are moving and changing. It gives Yeowell a better chance to succeed. When you give him a page that’s mostly talking, interest flags, because his staging is flat, he uses very ordinary grids, and they’re not always well-chosen, often leaving lots of negative space that drains the life from the panel.
Anyway, the rest of the issue is mostly exposition and little teases of information. We find out the fox hunters were actually King Mob and the rest of the Invisibles, which I didn’t catch before. The shadowy figure name-drops Rex Mundi (which translates not so different from King Mob). We find out Harmony House was connected to this bad guy, so there are apparently some evil things they do that are pretty out in the open in the so-called real world. The bad guy (who is also, like King Mob, bald) dispatches agents Ragged Robin refers to as Myrmidons (which basically just means minions) to get the Invisibles. Dane is given a choice of taking off with the team or trying to survive on his own, and of course he makes the choice to go with the guys from the title of the book. We see Tom walk off down a darkened subway tunnel, and then the myrmidons show up, finding the Invisibles gone, but having left behind the Smile grenade with the pin pulled. Win. It’s not an elegant or startling issue, but everything in it was intriguing and the issue was much better paced than the previous two.
Vertigo Comics. From The Invisibles Omnibus, $150 USD.
I noted that the second issue seemed to be a sort of rethink or regression from the first issue, a way to approach neophyte Dane’s entrance into the world of The Invisibles from a different angle. I suspect that part of the reason may be because Tom O’Bedlam makes for a better tour guide than King Mob, as a) he can couch his truths in enigmatic verse, and b) he’s old and probably expendable, his death showing Dane that the world beneath the world he knows is very real, and very dangerous.
Now, Tom is very much alive here, and as I’ve said, this is all new to me, so I could be wrong. This issue is relatively free of action and conflict, as the cliffhanger last issue regarding the evil men in fox-hunting garb is resolved for the moment with them capturing Dane but letting him go, telling him they can kill him any time they want, when he least expects it. Tom isn’t there to protect Dane, leading to an argument, but soon Tom starts to show Dane more of the power and knowledge at his fingertips, and this lasts the rest of the issue. Tom touches Dane, giving him black eyes like a pigeon, telling him that he and Dane are like the pigeons or rats, small, scurrying creatures who can get around because they’re hardly noticed. Not seeming to pose a threat is the essence of subversion, the foot in the door. He then puts Dane through a kind of primal scream therapy, removing the emotional dampeners “they” give us so we don’t feel anything and don’t question why things are the way the are (or seem to be). Dane is returned to a state of grace and innocence and awareness.
Although not much happens in terms of moving forward the plot, this transformation is obviously important enough to Morrison that he even uses a full page of whiteness to depict it, a real luxury for a 22 page comic book. Yes, we do get a few bits filled in, such as confirming that Tom is an Invisible and a peer of King Mob, as well as hints that Dane’s father’s disappearance may have more to do with an evil plot than irresponsibility, but it’s enough that we finally break down Dane enough that maybe he can accept what he’s been shown and taught and then become a force against evil. I still have my misgivings about the artwork, but while it’s not all it could be, it works.
I hadn’t read any Locke & Key before, but I read a tweet or something that said this was a great done-in-one story. It isn’t. Who thought stiff, EC Comics lettering was a good idea? The art is fine but cramped due to Hill’s overblown dialogue. We get that three bad French-Canadians have invaded Keyhouse and intend to rape the women living there, and perhaps the children, too. The art tells you enough, we don’t need all the description. The inevitable grisly payback is played for laughs, and it might be funny for regular readers. For newcomers, it’s incomprehensible until one reads the back matter: annotated architectural drawings that explain that there’s a room that causes people to change gender, and I guess there is one that is basically a huge jaw. I can’t say whether Locke & Key itself is good or bad. I like the idea of a huge, weird house full of strange and horrific rooms. People seem to like the series a lot, and there are some one-shots from my beloved Hellboy that aren’t very good. But this one doesn’t work, and doesn’t make me keen to read more.
Vertigo Comics. From The Invisibles Omnibus $150 USD.
This issue feels like the first episode of a television series after the pilot, when some changes have been made. That’s not what happened here, of course; this issue was probably written before the first issue was drawn and it came out a month after the first issue was published. Still, after the first issue introduced Dane McGowan and got him together with King Mob, his would-be Invisibles mentor, one would expect that issue #2 would pick right up from there.
Instead, we find Dane a little older, homeless and begging on the London streets. King Mob did disappear at the end of the first issue, but it’s still a bit of a surprise that he’s been on his own since then. Before long, he meets a middle aged bum named Tom O’Bedlam, who’s prone to reciting verse—classics, limericks, and original rhymes that may or may not be meaningful or germane to what’s happening—and Dane follows Tom on a tour of a London he’s never seen, after Tom proves his credentials by somehow making Dane invisible to a policeman. During this, we see a young woman hunted like a fox by red-jacketed hunters, apparently murdered.
Tom tells Dane that there are layers to London, different Londons than the one he sees, and he helps him see this when they smoke some blue mold growing in an unused underground train line. Up to this point, Steve Yeowell’s art has been suitable, as we’re still dealing with the mundane world of right angles and rigid lines that we think of as reality. But Morrison has written a drug trip scene here. While it doesn’t have to be swirly and psychedelic, necessarily—this hidden London is after all said to be as real as the clearly visible one—it nonetheless must be a revelation to the reader, a dazzling invitation to a deep, fascinating world that Morrison is going to be realizing and developing from here on. We get a sufficient, intentionally confusing sequence of small panels, in which it seems that Dane goes through some kind of initiation involving being scarred on the forehead by an alien. It’s okay. Having it as small panels makes them harder to stand out or have much detail, but making them small makes you look closer at them, studying, so it works as storytelling rather than attractive art. It’s functional. But when druggy Dane marvels at the colors emanating from a streetlight, and to us it just looks like any other streetlight, something is wrong. When they pass a statue of a bearded, sitting, crowned man named Urizen floating in the harbor, that needs to stand out as unusual, marvelous. I don’t know London, but it wouldn’t be hard to convince me that this statue actually exists. Again, something is wrong. It reminds me of a couple weeks ago, when I wanted to show someone Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life, which is a visually stunning film that also has some challenging sound design, with long stretches of operatic music and some almost whispered, extremely important, voiceover. We were at a house she was watching, and since they didn’t have a blu-ray player, I brought the dvd version that came in the blu-ray package. So that’s a slight downgrade right there. But then, since she hadn’t played a dvd on this setup before, we were somehow only getting sound through the TV speakers or the middle channel or something, barely audible. It just wasn’t going to work until we finally figured out the right button to press. I just didn’t have the right method of delivering this experience properly. That’s what Yeowell’s art is here, the wrong method of delivery for Morrison’s ideas. It’s not that he’s bad, but he’s not up to the task.
The issue ends with the fox-hunting villains finding Dane, imploring him to make a run for it so they can have a bit of sport. There are two more issues to go with this storyline, in which I’m guessing Dane will find out not only more about these hunters, but that he can’t make it on his own without the help of The Invisibles. One thing I did like about the issue was a bit where Dane is selling a newspaper and gets a fiver from a transvestite. He makes a homophobic comment to Tom, who seems to be beyond such things, so it looks like Morrison will be exploring this subject as well, like if you’re an Invisible and see beyond the illusions meant to keep us in line and unquestioning, you’ll evolve beyond these limiting prejudices. Again, though, even beyond the artistic shortcomings, it felt like Morrison has sort of lost the momentum of the first issue for what amounts to not a continuation of that story but more of just another version of the same story—the punk kid being taken in hand and shown there’s more to life than what he sees. It’s doubly odd that the events in the first issue—the horror at Harmony House—took place in the “real” world, and yet was much stranger than the fox hunters or anything else seen here in the unseen London.
A shameful secret, but I sort of never read The Invisibles. Actually, maybe worse, I read the first nine or ten issues when they came out but dropped the book. Sometimes you’re ready for stuff and sometimes you aren’t. I think a lot of it had to do with being in a serious relationship and thinking that meant cutting out the comics. That was seventeen years ago? Now, we’ve gone through the cycle of Morrison being a comics messiah to maybe a semi-embarrassing egotist, a shameless self-promoter who doesn’t have a lot of kind words to say for many others, and what was considered his masterwork, this lengthy series, is now just a thing that happened to some, part of a career arguably built off the efforts of folks like Michael Moorcock and Robert Anton Wilson. Could be. I haven’t read either. My thing has always been that artists are going to disappoint you now and then, and that’s just part of being an artist. Look at Martin Scorsese, not just his filmography but the way he studies other filmmakers. He’s effusive in his praise for Elia Kazan. Others may discredit Kazan’s work due to his shameful naming of names during the ’50s Communist witch hunt, but Scorsese focuses on the work. Anyway, I waited long enough for some sort of hardcover reissue of The Invisibles and finally got it in a huge one volume omnibus tonight, so I figure I might as well get started and see what all the fuss was about.
This first issue is relatively straightforward, focusing on one Dane McGowan, a Scottish teenager who’s bright but burning with anger at the world he finds himself in. He’s on a bad path, throwing Molotov cocktails with his friends, but people are watching him, people who need him. These are The Invisibles, a secret society led by King Mob, a bald man in leather modeled on Morrison himself, but cooler. Morrison’s 1994 editorial, as well as his memoir/comics history Supergods, let me know this was a kind of magickal act, depicting a fictional avatar having adventures he wanted to have, meeting women the Morrison in our world wanted to meet, and lo, it worked.
Dane is a special young man, and likely the reader’s entry point into the weirdness behind our everyday illusions. Interestingly, Morrison doesn’t give him that special girl to love or lust after, that symbol of innocence or unattainability. Dane really has no interests other than destruction. He’s a hotheaded blank. One night, on a Liverpool pier, he spots young John Lennon and Stuart Sutcliffe smoking and discussing their futures, before they disappear. Dane tries to deny what he’s experienced, but we know he’s probably in for a whole lot worse and more amazing than this. We get a psychedelic scene, with a sort of prime-era Lennon being summoned in a magic ritual by King Mob. Seems he wanted some advice about Dane.
After getting caught trying to firebomb his school, Dane is sentenced to Harmony House, a grim reformatory, where we soon see the headmaster serves some horrible dark god. We’re more in Clive Barker territory than Dickens or Orwell. All the kids in Harmony House have their individualism, their souls, burned out of them, leaving just a servile shell. I thought it was interesting that Morrison also has them all neutered (“made smooth down there”), and I’m expecting maybe there will be more examples of sexuality being an aspect of personal power and identity. We may have already seen another example in Ragged Robin, another Invisible who looks to be traditionally attractive but makes up her face like a doll or female clown.
Steve Yeowell has always been an underrated artist, with not the most attractive style but distinctive. He’s quite good at hair and body language, not bad at body language and drapery, but not very exciting at page design/composition. As with the recent Flex Mentallo collection, the colors here are not just gradated but in a cooler palette than the originals, but the choices are more effective here, the gradations adding richness without diluting power. The first issue cover, redone here for the omnibus cover, is still one of the more effective, striking comics covers I’ve ever seen, a simple image of a hand grenade framed by bright colors to make it pop, a promise of a mental explosion within.
Double-sized, it’s a very effective introduction to the series. Young Dane, a boy of promise who needs a guiding hand, rescued from certain death by a future mentor in King Mob. It’s true, Morrison might have come up with some other ways to foreshadow and build interest for King Mob aside from just having his name show up as graffiti several times, and maybe he could’ve held back that appearance longer, but it works pretty well. We get just enough of Mob and Robin to be intrigued, and enough of Dane to at least be interested in him finding a better outlet for his anger. There are some signs and portents, such as an explanation that beetles are symbols of death and rebirth, but Morrison takes a sound approach of establishing the characters and the grim real world before unloading all the crazy ideas, theories and conspiracies. He could have justified Dane’s anger by having all the adults around him be horrible, but he is more balanced and mature here. Dane’s mom is the main problem, but there’s a caring teacher who goes out of his way to help Dane, and Dane rejects him. Obviously he’s got a ways to go before he becomes what he’s supposed to.
This is a graphic novel about a bunch of kids at a summer camp sponsored by the Boy Scouts of America. It could be straight-up comedy, it could be an earnest coming of age story, and it could be a critique of the BSA philosophies. And it turns out it’s all of these things. I’ve enjoyed Dawson’s work since his co-authored indie series, Gabagool, which also dealt with adolescent angst, humiliation and competitiveness. It’s more accurate to say that’s the only other work of Dawson’s I’ve read, though I really like it and want to catch up on what I missed. That said, yes, there are some problems with this overall enjoyable book.
First, though, let’s be clear that Dawson has a really appealing line. There are over half a dozen important characters in the book, and he’s able to make them distinctive without resorting to caricature. The settings are drawn fairly realistically and he gets all the details right, but everything’s reduced to its essentials. Eyes are dots, eyebrows are thin, singular lines, hair is usually an outline with a few lines rather than a lot of lines. The camp setting serves him well because he can use black for nighttime backgrounds, and simply rendered bushes and trees for daytime. Which isn’t to say he’s cheating; he’s just an efficient storyteller. When he needs to draw a rainstorm, it looks like a rainstorm. Woodgrain looks like woodgrain. The details are there, but used sparingly.
There are a number of minor stories here, or let’s call them incidents. Dawson’s funny. There are some good setups and payoffs here involving typical camp stuff, drug stuff, horny teen stuff. Better yet, he really remembers and understands adolescence. At any given moment, you might be called upon to compete with someone, maybe a footrace, feat of strength, or putdown contest. You can want to kill your best friend for not having your back when another kid makes you feel like shit. Your parents are always an embarrassment, and if they’re not, you have deeper problems. All the kids in this story are trying to navigate their week at camp to make it the best as possible, with strategies to either do their best, stay under the radar, or look for distractions in drugs, porn, pranks or the few females present.
Into this mix, Dawson also explores some adult characters, mainly a hardass veteran camp counselor who’s very by-the-book, and the nebbishy, liberal new counselor who’s mainly there to bond with his sons, and is hypersensitive to unfairness or faulty logic. You feel like he’s experiencing camp, or at least his adolescence, all over again by being here, which just makes him even more awkward as a short-term leader of men.
Most of this is played for laughs, but the anger and betrayal is real, too. Whether it’s at camp, a couple’s vacation, or work retreat, who hasn’t had that early screw-up that is all the worse because you’re stuck with these people who are pissed off at or freaked out by you for several more days, and you have to try to redeem yourself?
Dawson doesn’t have one main narrative, nor do the stories build to one big climax. It’s messy and inconclusive, like life, and I appreciate that, though of course some people look for their fiction to be tidier. There might be a character or two too many. And there are some difficulties discerning Dawson’s point of view, particularly during a last night campfire speech from the head of the troop about the creeping menace of homosexuality. That is, it’s pretty clear that Dawson thinks this is an outdated, negative view the Boy Scouts of America hold, but there’s no further discussion of it, no repercussions. There’s a lot of homophobic, and homoerotic, words and incidents in the book, because it’s set in an indeterminate era (it could be the ’90s, it could be today), and for some youths, calling other kids “queer” and “fags” and making gay jokes or performing some homoerotic hazing is all part of adolescence and figuring out one’s sexuality and how one wants to treat people.
But whereas that aspect of the book was disappointing, Dawson brings some real depth to his characters. The “good” kids are guilty of some heinous shit, while our liberal adult stand-in dad character totally loses it and crosses the disciplinary line, while the hardass dad has more going on than that. He’s just trying to relate to his son and the other kids in his own way, and he fails in a different way than the liberal guy fails, but they both fail and both succeed to some extent, because at least they’re there with their kids, experiencing something with them. It’s hard to come up with good jokes while at the same time exploring various shades of humanity, exploring pain and fear and shame in a meaningful way, but Dawson does a pretty terrific job here.