Trouble with Comics

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.

—Christopher Allen

The New DC 52 Week Four, Part One - Fishing for Compliments

And so we enter the final week of DCs reboots, with about 40 books under our belt and a final dozen to review. For now particular reason, lets start with them in alphabetical order.

All-Star Western #1 by Justin Gray, jimmy Palmiotti and Moritat is an early front runner for book of the week. I liked Gray and Palmiotti′s Jonah Hex quite a bit, so I′m happy they get to continue with Jonah here, though the title of the book suggests we′ll eventually move on to lesser DC Western heroes like El Diablo, Tomahawk and Unknown Scalper. This story brings Hex to 1880s Gotham, hired to help track down the Gotham Butcher, a serial killer of prostitutes. The immediate impression is, damn, Moritat is a fantastic artistic, recalling the old Moebius Lt. Blueberry stories in gritty but precise verisimilitude. Gotham turns out to be no less corrupt than in Batmans time, though here, there be more boobs on display. 

Gray and Palmiotti twist a typical Western character—the reporter chronicling the cowboys exploits—into a psychologist teamed with Hex, and the results are even better. Amadeus Arkham not only provides insight into Hex′s character without the writers having to show it, but he has a good grasp on the killer as well. And when the two outsiders find themselves in the midst of a conspiracy, a secret society that may very well shield the killer from their grasp, we′ve got a gripping suspense story on our hands. Excellent.

Aquaman #1 by Geoff Johns and Ivan Reis is better than I expected. I admit, when I saw the toothy, Sleestak-looking fish people on the first page, I was thinking, that Johns just can′t be happy unless someone is getting chewed up and dismembered. But with nary a drop of blood, he changes scene to focus on our boy Arthur, a regular hometown hero guy stopping bank robbers and trying to grab a lunch of fish and chips if some dumb blogger would stop bothering him. Johns does a good job showing Aquaman as tough and heroic, then countering it by having other characters voice the common conceptions and misconceptions about the guy: he has a deep bond with fish, nobody likes him, etc. And yet, he′s going to try to find a place for himself on land regardless. Nothing earthshaking but it′s well-crafted, and this is as good as I′ve seen from Reis.

Batman The Dark Knight #1 by Paul Jenkins and David Finch was okay up until the laughable ending. One-Face? Oh, Paul Jenkins. Taking away Two-Face′s duality and making him a musclebound thug is about as bad an idea as there is. Up to this point, though, things aren’t bad, although Jenkins keeps hammering on about fear being a cannibal and whatnot to the extent not much actually happens. Bruce Wayne is accosted by a GCPD Internal Affairs officer who, by definition, should be grilling other cops, not citizens, and he′s harassing he richest, most powerful man in Gotham on a flimsy premise that a guy not as nice as Bruce would end his career on. But on the plus side, new potential love interest Jaina Hudson is sassy and smart, and Finch doesn’t forget the most important attributes: her ass cheeks. Finch is okay, but still has a very limited repertoire of male faces, and all of them constipated and looking like they had nose jobs. If one more Arkham breakout and one more great lady waiting to get her heart crushed by Bruce Wayne is up your alley, then plunk down your $2.99. Me, I′m hoping for a little more.

Blackhawks #1 by Mike Costa, Graham Nolan and Lashley is like, I dunno, that movie version of The Losers. Looks like it might work, but the script isn’t very good and the talent involved isn’t meshing. Costa is new to me but I know hes written a lot of recent G.I. Joe comics, and this is sort of in that line, a fake military strike team that avoids killing, with a lot of toys and a cool logo on all of them. That logo provides the most risible plot point, as someone with a cellphone takes a picture of the Blackhawk logo on the side of a chopper during what is supposed to be a covert mission. 

Something that dumb is hard to overcome, but Costa makes a game effort, introducing two of the team members who are in a secret romance. Kunoichi was bitten during the mission and exposed to industrial waste, and now she appears to be getting meta powers, which would mean DC′s two military-themed books have superhumans in them, which strikes me as not a very good idea, twice. 

Graham Nolan returns from an even less promising gig, newspaper comics, to provide layouts for the book, and they′re fine, but finisher Lashley is committed to adding so many extraneous little hashmarks to every character that they look like they’ve been struck with wire brushes. It results in a kind of Whilce Portacio approximation, only with even less restraint. 

Other than the public relations nightmare from the logo, and the pending eruption of superpowers, there isn’t much going on in the book, unless you get excited every time you read the word ″nanocites″. This one doesn’t pass muster.

—Christopher Allen
The New DC 52 Week Three, Part Two - Turn Me On, Deadman

So now that we′ve covered the Batman related books of the week, what about all the rest? As usual, there are some old standbys and a few solo books for characters who have never been able to support them for long. First, though, we′ve got a book starring one of the heavy hitters of the DC Universe.

Wonder Woman #1 by Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang is, as expected, a train wreck. The posturing, macho Azzarello would seem an odd choice to write Diana, and indeed, shows very little aptitude for her here, relegating her to a detached role, the focus more on the human Zola, a pretty, short-haired blonde who finds herself menaced by centaurs and other creatures from Greek mythology because she is apparently carrying the child of Zeus. She is saved by Hermes, who is later wounded terribly. One of the villains has charcoal skin and would seem to be an angry son of Zeus, but as much as I loved the Robert Graves book as a kid, his identity didn’t jump out at me. 

I find mythological elements can be nice in contemporary stories but it′s easy to overdo them, and Azzarello goes full court press here, jamming the pages with magic and symbolism so that there is barely time to meet a sleeping Diana and get her dressed in a silvery, non-patriotic variation on her classic attire. How soon do I miss the ′90s leather jacket of last year′s muddled, aborted Straczynski reboot. 

Cliff Chiang does a terrific job, but with one more bad career choice like this it is getting harder to drum up sympathy for why he isn’t a superstar. As for Azz, I will say that by the end, he has stood by the courage of his trumped-up portentous bullshit enough that it almost gets over, but one comes away from this book scratching one′s head and wondering why it was more important to him to explore the mystery of how Zeus fucked this human girl and she didn’t know it, than to try to make the star of the book interesting.

Captain Atom #1 by J.T. Krul and Freddie Williams III makes me think I misjudged Krul unfairly by the secondhand reviews of his previous Green Arrow and Arsenal miniseries. Well…that Arsenal thing really did sound awful, but hey, this marks two good books from Krul this month. Part of the appeal is Williams′ art, which has evolved to a freer, sketchier style that is surprisingly refreshing when depicting all the nuclear energy blasts and such. It′s like he′s making science fun. And I′m not saying Krul is knockdown brilliant or anything, but as with Green Arrow #1 he is using a formula that works: 1) see character in action; 2) present his supporting cast; and 3) present the ongoing problem, which in this case is the reliable premise of the hero whose powers may end up killing him. I like that he gets away from the overly militaristic hardass or government stooge role that Atom is often given, and the energy hairdo lifted from Firestorm actually looks pretty good on him.

Blue Beetle #1 by Tony Bedard and Ig Guara defines workmanlike. Unimpressive artwork, a get-it-out-of-the-way flashback explaining the origin of the scarab that will give Jaime Reyes his Blue Beetle abilities, and several uninteresting scenes leading up to that contrived moment. I think the Beetle redesign from a few years back, which hasn’t changed much here, is terrific, and I′ve liked Jaime fine the few times I′ve seen him, but this was not a good start for, Jesus, is this Volume 9 of Blue Beetle?? Volume 10 should be just around the corner. 

Supergirl #1 by Michael Green and Mahmud Asrar presents a Supergirl who doesn’t know where she is, fighting for her life against guys in mech suits trying to contain her. Naturally, she′s freaked out and we are sympathetic to any creature who doesn’t know why something unpleasant is happening to them. Kind of reminds me of something John Byrne would do, and I mean that as a compliment. Simple, but good storytelling, and I like Asrars style. Hey, maybe I won′t like the character once she assimilates into the DCU, but for now, good start.

DC Universe Presents #1 by Paul Jenkins and Bernard Chang is one of the nicer surprises of the week, a mature take on Boston Brands karmic balancing journey. You may well ask why such an admitted jerk in life as Brand would get the opportunity to live on through others after death, but its clear that this is, if not a curse, certainly a burden he will have to carry for a long time until the goddess Rama finds him sufficiently enlightened and selfless. I could take issue with an Eastern deity being so on-the-nose and really spelling out for Brand what he has to do, but overall it looks like Jenkins has a good handle on things, and Chang is a good choice on art, as he is can handle the everyday stuff as well as the more mystical or superheroic elements.

OK, so while I missed getting this week′s Green Lantern Corps #1, I did find last week′s Superboy #1 by Scott Lobdell and R.B. Silva and liked it, certainly a lot better than Lobdell′s Red Hood book. I don’t know Superboy too much, so maybe having him as a kind of lab project combo of both Superman′s and Lex Luthor′s dueling DNA has been explored before, but I get the feeling the patient, calculating genius aspect of the character is new, and I like it. Silva is kind of stiff but it does fit the character so far, and the idea of Superboy in a virtual reality his creators aren’t aware he knows is fake should be good for a lot of mileage. 

Legion of Super-heroes #1 by Paul Levitz and Francis Portela was my least favorite book of the week, which may be surprising to read after how I tore into Wonder Woman, but at least that caused a strong reaction. I want to be sensitive because I know what its like to follow an artist for a long time, long enough that you can find bits of their old magic where someone less familiar cant. Like, take new Bob Dylan or Van Morrison records and old fans may fine wonders while new listeners hear croaks, grunts and wheezes. 

So Im just saying that I missed the time when Paul Levitz was good enough on LOSH to create all the warm memories that fans have of his run. In reading this (and I did read the first couple of his last LOSH as well), its not even like the feeling one may have from reading a past-prime Claremont or Miller where the style is so distinctive that if you give in you can maybe get swept up in it even if its ridiculous. I don’t really see much of a Levitz style, unless you call metronomic, low impact character introductions a style. Here is this guy talking about why he is upset to this girl who misses so-and-so and this guy cant be a Legionnaire anymore and this girl is married to this guy and this guy has almost the same powers as this other guy but lets just seem them both anyway because some folks are fans of one and some prefer the other and this one is complaining that they need to recruit more Legionnaires because we have only seen a dozen so far and theyre all sitting around doing nothing except the really smart one who is doing something with his computer and this Legion must be made of money because they can afford to keep two dozen or more heroes sitting around and waiting for something to happen that usually requires the efforts of five or six of them. 

Listen, there is something cool about the Legion. I have read pretty good runs from four or five writers, and I would give Levitz the benefit of the doubt that back in the day, his run was good, too. But it is just not happening here. This is just formula without fire. I don’t understand how you can put out two Legion books with dozens of characters and tons of history to draw from, and they can both be botched so badly. I don’t get any passion here, any attempt to do something fresh or sincere or layered or anything. ZZZZ.

—Christopher Allen

Living in the Past: Inhumans # 1-12 (1998-1999)

Boy, it’s been a while since I participated here at TWC, hasn’t it? I will offer no excuses, but I do have a plan of action. Once in a while, I dig into the Vast Bacardi Archives (sekrit location: my old bedroom closet at my Mom’s) and pull out a run of something I haven’t read in a long time. I thought to myself “Self, you could write about these rereadings on TWC, and continue to justify having your name on the sidebar roll!” So here’s the first of what I hope will be more than a few looks back at comics from back in the day, as the homies say.

Recently, I developed a yen to read a series that I enjoyed quite a bit when it was coming out,  but haven’t read since: the Paul Jenkins/Jae Lee Inhumans series that came out under the Marvel Knights banner back in the dim and distant days of 1998-1999.

I’m not exactly sure of the backstory behind this series; I do know Daredevil and Garth’s Punisher were going strong under this imprint, and I’m sure the thinking was to present a more down-to-earth look at the characters. Paul Jenkins, if memory serves, had been at Marvel a short while after a run at Vertigo on Hellblazer; I don’t know for sure what artist Lee had been doing prior; I’d guess some X-book or another. Regardless, Jenkins crafted a darker take, and Lee’s art is nothing if not dark…so one was compelled to read this under a very bright light if possible.

Jenkins didn’t exactly reinvent the wheel here; usually when you’re writing about the Inhumans, and this goes all the way back to the Kirby/Lee days, the default tendency is to feature at least two standard points of departure: a scheme to take over the throne of Attilan from the Inhuman’s king, Black Bolt, by his deranged brother Maximus (helpfully nicknamed “The Mad”), and/or the effects of the Inhuman-altering Terragen mists, which every subject subjects themselves to at a certain age, kinda like a bar/bas mitzvah, with the result being your appearance gets freaky and you gain powers, instead of just settling for just today being a man or woman. Mazel tov! Anyway, Jenkins uses both approaches, and introduces a third wild card- an previously-unheard-of attack on the super-domed “Great Refuge” that the ‘Humans call home by the outside world, in this case those sneaky Russians…but Jenkins postulates, quite correctly I’d think, that there would be little help coming from the UN simply because most of the world doesn’t know what or who the hell they are living there in that dome, with all those freaky powers, and nothing but the word of the Fantastic Four and other superpeople that they meant no harm. Interesting idea there, I thought. And Lee’s moody art, all pensive poses and 3/4-shadow faces, ramps up the paranoia and tension.

We’re introduced to a group of young Inhumans early on; all teens, all anticipating the day when they will enter the mists and realize their potential. For some of them, it turns out well. But for one fellow, named “Woz”, not so much- he seems to regress and become one of the subhuman worker caste called the Alpha Primitives, who toil and labor for the “greater good” under the Great Refuge. After much discussion, Woz is exiled to live with the Primitives…but there’s more than meets the eye with him. Turns out he does have powers, which didn’t manifest themselves in an obvious fashion- he can travel in a dimension between reflective surfaces, enabling him to enter any room with a mirror- including the cell of Maximus. Of course, Max knows about him and uses him to get out surreptitiously, working on a deal with the Russians to help him overthrow Black Bolt and take his revenge.

As the attack from the human troops begin, Black Bolt, through mouthpiece/gal pal/queen Medusa, begs the citizens to not take any action, fearing the cost to his people as well as the potential for mass human murder and the shitstorm it would bring down on their heads. But even his loyal family- Crystal, Gorgon, Triton, Karnak (sporting wicked head tats- we even get an interlude with his tattoo artist in one issue)- are doubting this course of action, and tensions escalate when cracks appear in the dome from the bombardment, and trouble from within as Maximus makes his play at the worst possible time. He’s got a plan, Black Bolt does, he always does…but it sure looks doubtful this time, and things look very bleak for the Royal Family.

I don’t want to spoil how this all turns out, and there are a few more surprises the deeper it gets; I was pleasantly surprised at how caught up in all the machinations I got, even though I had a pretty good idea how it turned out. Jenkins does a nice job with characterization- stolid Black Bolt, gruff and hotheaded Gorgon, cool and calculating Karnak, loyal Triton as well as a lot of time spent in interludes with the “regular” folk of the Great Refuge, Black Bolt’s subjects, even extending to the Alpha Primitives. The human characters aren’t treated broadly and are given some depth as well. The longish format of the series allowed Jenkins a couple of WWII-flavored digressions; one features the young Triton and his encounter with an old man and his grandson on a ship which gets attacked by Nazis- it winds up being quite touching at the end- and he also takes the opportunity, closer to the finale of the series, to work in the decision Churchill made towards the end of the War that cost thousands of lives, and draws a parallel from that to the strategy Black Bolt employs to deal with his own crisis. Pretty heady stuff, I’d say. That said, sometimes Jenkins would lapse into a ponderous and even pretentious, sometimes, narration style, making some of the scenes drag a bit more than they should. All in all, I thought he did a nice job of taking the Inhumans lore up to that point, and put a subtle twist on it, as well as introducing a few ideas of his own to the mix. Of course, he also had a sympathetic collaborator in Lee, who, despite the occasional awkward, stiff pose and inappropriate facial expression, delivered the mood and atmosphere in spades, as well as some imaginative character design tweaks.

I also look on this series fondly, since it introduced one of my favorite Marvel characters: Yelena Belova, aka Black Widow II, who is brought in early on to do a little espionage that aids the Russian plan. Not long after, she made her solo debut in the first Black Widow miniseries, written by Devin Grayson with art by J.G. Jones (Natasha Romanoff, the established Widow, was included). Unfortunately, not many people shared my enthusiasm for the character, and she was eventually dispatched in humiliating fashion by Brian Bendis, although Andy Diggle brought her back, in a way, in his Thunderbolts run.

There’s a trade collection still available, although I don’t think it’s in print anymore.

— Johnny Bacardi