Trouble with Comics

Christopher Allen on The Invisibles Vol. 1 #2

"Down and Out in Heaven and Hell Pt. 1"

Writer: Grant Morrison

Artist: Steve Yeowell

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. 

—Christopher Allen

Christopher Allen on The Invisibles Vol. 1 #1

"Dead Beatles"

Writer - Grant Morrison

Artist: Steve Yeowell

1994. Vertigo Comics

From The Invisibles Omnibus. $150 USD.

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. 

More to come.

—Christopher Allen

Troop 142

Writer/Artist: Mike Dawson

Publisher: Secret Acres $20 USD

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.

—Christopher Allen

A Very Spidey ’70s

It’s not really that important that Spider-Man is 50 years old this year, but it’s nice he’s still around. He was probably the first superhero I ever drew as a kid, and it’s really no wonder he’s the favorite character of so many comics readers, because he’s the first nerd hero. He made it okay to stick your head in books and learn about Science or anything else that wasn’t cool because hey, something might just happen and the shoe would be on the other foot. Even though that power and responsibility mantra was hammered into our heads over the years, who hasn’t fantasized about getting powers without that fantasy leading to thoughts of payback?

Before I was about thirteen, I never had many comics, but what I had were pretty choice, like Origins of Marvel Comics and those little pocket-size collections of the early issues of Amazing Spider-Man, as well as a Fireside Books collection of a handful of Lee/Romita ASMs under a painted Joe Jusko (I think) cover.

I could enjoy the after-school reruns of the primitive ‘67 Spider-Man cartoon, with its jazzy score and reused sequences, but shunned the Spidey Super Stories comic as being for babies, featuring a tame Spider-Man in line with his portrayal on kids show, The Electric Co. I did like doing an impression of that Spidey, though, when he would look puzzled and a “?” thought balloon would appear over his head, with the sound effect, “Err-REOW?”

The first actual Spider-Man comic books I had were a couple of consecutive issues of ASM featuring Nova as a guest star—on one cover they were chained to an anchor and about to plunge to watery graves in what was probably the Hudson. The only places to get comics then were 7-11s or White Hen Pantry, another convenience store chain. 7-11s had what I think were called Valu-Packs, which were three comics sealed in plastic, two in a row of a popular title, with a lesser title in the middle where you couldn’t see it. This is how I got issues of Thor and Conan the Barbarian, both of which I hated at the time. I wasn’t interested in DC, either. It was Spider-Man first, followed by maybe Fantastic Four, Iron Man and Incredible Hulk, and that was about it. Strangely, I never saw an issue of Avengers until I turned 13.

Years before that, I had memories of taking some Amazing Spider-Mans and what was probably Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #1 and cutting the figures out, so I could then paste them onto this G.I. Joe footlocker I had. I put little toys and other junk in there, never G.I. Joe. I don’t think I ever even had a G.I. Joe, so who the fuck gave me this footlocker? Anyway, I know it was Peter Parker, because I remember cutouts of The Tarantula on the footlocker. He appealed to me because his costume was this evil variation of Spider-Man’s, with the spiky (poisoned?) boots and the way the mask was cinched tight in back with ribbons. Iron Fist’s mask is basically another ribboned variation of Spider-Man, too. I would regret cutting up those comics, of course.

I remember reading the issue where Spidey had his own Spider-Mobile (I think this was a Gerry Conway idea?), and thinking it was cool. Why wouldn’t a costumed hero who can swing carefree through the city, and who lives in an apartment building with no garage, want an outlandish dune buggy to navigate Manhattan traffic? I didn’t question it at all, probably because I was used to Batman cartoons and Mego vehicles and play sets. The big superheroes put their symbol on everything, and have lots of gadgets and vehicles. Of course.

What I lacked in actual comics was made up briefly by the 1979 Spider-Man TV show, which generally had about three minutes of action per episode. Much better than this was just playing superheroes with friends, especially one really good friend I had when I was eight or nine named Brian. Brian was as gay as a parasol, looking back, but hey, if you want to play superheroes, I can put up with a little singing along to your portable record player’s Andy Gibb and Shaun Cassidy singles, or your putting on a variety show with Donny & Marie Osmond figures. And while I preferred to be Spider-Man but would switch to Thing or Hulk or Iron Man or even Green Lantern, just for variety, if you want to only and always be your own creation, Wonder Lad (Wonder Woman’s nephew), then that’s fine by me. The important thing is that we’re running around the yard, pretending to fly and beating up bad guys with “Kssh!” sound effects.

I had the original webshooters. They were blue plastic and strapped to your wrists and you would press a button and they would shoot out a suction-cup-tipped dart with a string on the other end, and you could pull stuff to you, or if you shot a window or smooth surface, act like you were swinging on your web to get to there. I remember playing like this, alone, when I spotted this girl I knew, Larissa Schmidt. Larissa lived in my apartment complex, had a dad who was a cop, and didn’t like me at all. This was entirely justified, because I had tried to look under her dress in first grade, earning me a kick in what would eventually be my nut sack. I had a red mark there for a couple years afterward, so in retrospect, I probably should have mentioned it to my parents, but then how to explain my sexual assault? It was silly to think a dad, even a policeman dad, would want to beat up a seven year old kid for liking his daughter, anyway. 

So when I saw Larissa, I hid my webshooters under some dead grass and went to show her this Corgi James Bond Aston-Martin I had, which had a working ejector seat. I guess I knew the webshooters wouldn’t impress her, but this car had a good chance. It didn’t do anything for her, and I returned to my hiding spot to find the webshooters gone as well, teaching me an important lesson about with great toys comes great responsibility, or that women are a huge pain in the ass. 

—Christopher Allen

Rolling Stone’s 15 Essential Batbooks

Sean T. Collins does yeoman work here with a tough remit. From the Intro, he admits some of the books on the list are deeply flawed, and some, like Batman: Court of Owls Vol. 1 and Batman: Earth One are too new to be considered “essential,” and I daresay neither will be considered essential, ever. But I can understand their inclusion. I would nitpick that as much as I like them, three Grant Morrison books is one too many for a list of 15 and a character who’s been around 83 years (and if you have to have three, isn’t The Black Glove better than R.I.P.?). More importantly, why no representation of O’Neil/Adams’s run, (collected in Batman Illustrated: Neal Adams or Batman: Tales of the Demon), which among other things debuted Ra’s al Ghul, upon which much of the Nolan film trilogy is based, and they also did the first really murderous, darkly humorous Joker. And what about the Englehart/Rogers run (collected in the now OOP Strange Apparitions but not hard to find), which had a Batman able to pursue a romantic relationship with his best match, Silver St. Cloud, while not losing sight of his mission, not to mention presenting a Joker as fiendishly clever as any seen before or since? Either or both of these would have been better choices than the throwaway floppy Untold Legend or Earth One, which is just the latest reboot of Batman’s origin, with a mediocre creative team and changes for their own sake that will have no impact, as the Earth One books are rather self-contained and not related to the DCU continuity. And are the Batman Chronicles really as essential as Dick Sprang or Jerry Robinson stuff that came a few years later and has more of the elements and characters most people associate with Batman, just because the very first Batman stories are more historically important? But hey, around a dozen of the most notable collected Batman stories out of a possible fifteen is solid work. At least he didn’t pick The Dark Knight Strikes Back.

Christopher Allen Reviews First X-Men, Hawkeye and Peter Parker 156.1

Marvel dropped three books this week that are all examples of their constant, never-ending and yet often contradictory mandate to keep coming up with fresh takes on characters at least 40 years old, while keeping these fresh takes from alienating the existing, aging readership.

First X-Men #1 (of 6)

Writers: Neal Adams & Christos Gage

Artist: Neal Adams

For those George Lucas types out there who think that there’s nothing cooler than filling in backstory on favorite characters, even if that backstory undoes a lot of what made them interesting in the first place, here’s…this.

So we have beloved comics legend, crusader and kook Adams apparently being shepherded by young, solid, within-the-lines writer Gage on one more retcon fiesta that noone was really asking for, and that has a subtitle, “Children of the Atom,” that at least one other retcon fiesta already bore. Here, we have Wolverine/Logan, as yet not part of Project X but still running with his bro, Sabretooth, kind of like in that Wolverine movie and Origin, but he’s not conflicted because he doesn’t seem to be an assassin. He has a friend and agrees to help find the friend’s kid, who is a mutant like himself. He enlists Sabretooth, who here is just a slightly rougher big brother and not really evil, and then the rest of the issue continues the putting-together-the-team formula. As one might expect, there are some new players, just like in that Wolverine movie, because of course they’re going to die and be forgotten and not have to be tied into modern continuity. We’ve got Holo, a teenage girl who makes people see what they want to see, and the fourth would-be member is young Charles Xavier, though he sees the murder in Logan and Victor’s hearts and won’t join them. At the end, we see the future Magneto, Erik Lensherr.

It’s all familiar, unnecessary and at best, just competent. Gage working with someone else means a professional but less personal job, and to be honest, I would have preferred Adams given more rope to hang himself than doing a mini nobody needed. Adams can still draw, with some great depth and forced perspective and his typical fetish for overly rendered hair, as well as the more recent fetish for drawing bodies torn apart by weapons, but his trademark for triangular, jagged panels has become a little stilted. 

Peter Parker, Spider-Man #156.1

Writer: Roger Stern

Artist: Roberto De La Torre

As he admits in the Afterword, Marvel asks Stern to write a Spider-Man story once or twice a decade now. Stern had a very solid run in the early ’80s with John Romita, Jr., including a terrific issue with the Juggernaut that illustrates the never say die quality of Spider-Man to a T, and a whole bunch of issues about the corrupt Brand Corporation. That provides the connective tissue to this, a .1 issue for a series that no longer exists, which finds Daily Bugle reporter Norah Winters enlisting Peter Parker to take some photos while she investigates what’s going on at the abandoned Acme Warehouse. Brand is going down the tubes with litigation and wants to get the tech that’s locked up in their labs at the warehouse. Norah doesn’t know this is the same place where the killer of Peter’s Uncle Ben was found, which has him bummed out most of the issue. 

Stern has a great collaborator in De La Torre, who has a kind of Alex Maleev-like photoreference thing going on but draws faces and figures seemingly mostly from his imagination. A lot of Matt Hollingsworth filters keep things from looking too grainy and grey. The art, and Stern’s way of writing Peter Parker capably, focusing on his core of responsibility and guilt rather than nonstop wisecracks, make this one work despite not adding up to a whole lot other than beating up some average thugs and calling back to not a classic villain but a vaguely defined corporation that was notable thirty years ago. Not to mention that Parker hasn’t been a photographer for some time now, and, past favor aside, could still be nice guy Peter and tell Norah politely that he’s got a great job he should be working at and to go find some other guy to dig around a dusty warehouse full of bad memories. It’s a nice enough book, I’m glad Stern got a gig, and you can take it or leave it. Unfortunately, by making these issues adjuncts to defunct rather than existing Spider-Man titles (there’s a two-part Sensational Spider-Man story next), Marvel’s underlying message is to leave it.

Hawkeye #1

Writer: Matt Fraction

Artist: David Aja

The thing about being a critic is that sometimes you can enjoy something the first time you experience it, and then the second time the flaws reveal themselves. To be sure, Fraction is one of Marvel’s bright lights, and any chance to see him work with his Immortal Iron Fist collaborator again is a good thing, and a smartass like Hawkeye is more in line with his strengths than Thor. This is pretty much a guarantee to be at least a decent superhero comic, and so it is, well-drawn and with some good bits in the first-person narration that paint Hawkeye as a likable, almost blue collar kind of superhero.

Unfortunately, while the choice to set uncostumed Hawkeye in an urban environment, just a regular guy who goes to work, pays his rent, and enjoys barbecues on the roof with his neighbors is a sound one, the execution is off on nearly every story beat. 

After falling several stories onto a car, regular guy Hawkeye breaks a bunch of bones like you or I would (if we didn’t die), but do we see him suffer? Do we see him go through physical therapy? No. We see him leave when he feels like it, all better, and dumping his wheelchair in an intersection to be destroyed and cause traffic delays, with a spoiled celebrity’s solution of, “Bill me for it.” And then we see him handle his Russian landlord’s raising of the rent to exorbitant levels (though legal) with a spoiled superhero’s solution of intimidation and then, failing that, a spoiled rich guy’s solution of taking out his checkbook and overpaying for the building by 50%. With Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark, that kind of thing can be very funny, but if you’re trying to establish that this is a blue collar type of superhero, a guy who came from nothing, has no powers, but somehow has the character and tenacity to stand as an equal with gods, mutants and living legends, then you need to come up with a better way than just throwing money at a problem. Maybe Fraction is going to explore this in future issues, like maybe now that the tenants know he’s rich and their new landlord, it will change their relationship with him, and what he thought he had in this low-key setup is gone. We’ll see, but for now, it kind of leaves a bad taste.

—Christopher Allen

My Comics July

I’ve been doing more of my own fiction-writing these days, as well as a lot of reviews of movies and other things at my other blog, so it really seems like a modest but achievable goal is to do maybe one or two comics posts here every month. Thus, since I’m going on vacation this weekend and not likely to write anything else for a week or so, my Comics July.

It’s just under a year for DC’s New 52, and despite trying at least the first issue of about 49 of them, the only ones I am still reading are Animal Man, Swamp Thing, Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E., The Shade, Action Comics, Batman, and Batman Incorporated (this last one having only relaunched in the last month). What you can infer from these is that I still have some affection for Grant Morrison’s writing and will see his exit from superhero comics (Batman Inc. is fun, Action more miss-than-hit, and the upcoming Multiversity stuff sounds interesting). I also somewhat enjoy Scott Snyder’s writing, though I’m not that interested in tying in old business like Arcane to the somewhat fresher Red/Green/Rot stuff. I guess it’s fair to say that’s just an expansion of stuff Alan Moore came up with many years ago when he wrote the series, but at least it’s a little new and not something that has been explored much before. I am pretty tired of the whole Court of Owls stuff on Batman, but you know, I like Batman and it’s not a bad book, though not a good one.

Jeff Lemire has done all right on Animal Man and Frankenstein, though the art on the former, while distinctive and great at the weird, disturbing scenes, is also distancing for what seems to be a comic that wants to be about familial strength and those bonds being stronger and more important to the lead character than doing superhero stuff. Frankenstein started with some interesting ideas but seems to be treading water, or maybe it’s more accurate to say it has digressed into the Rot stuff when it should be working more on making its characters distinctive. I still don’t really get Frankenstein, much less the rest of his groovy ghoulies. Overall, even with just two writers on these three series, I think tying them all together with the same menace has made each book less special.

I still read a lot of Marvel, though not much has stood out. Daredevil has regained some of its footing with Chris Samnee on art, a good choice, and Dan Slott’s Amazing Spider-Man, though unfortunately uneven artistically, has been consistently entertaining and presented a recognizable but more mature Spider-Man. Avengers vs. X-Men has improved of late, with nice Olivier Coipel art and a few chunks of issues that made sense, though a lot of the plotting is stupid and/or redundant. Why would godlike X-Men fear Scarlet Witch so much, and why is essentially dressing up some Avengers to look like her a good idea when the X-Men have telepaths who should be able to figure out who’s who?

I’m reading more Image books than I have in maybe ever, mostly creator-owned stuff. I can’t confess to loving any of it, but Saga has been imaginative and amusing if not immensely engaging yet, and I’ve also enjoyed the sort of arty take on superheroes and apocalyptic sci-fi in Glory, Prophet, while The Manhattan Projects feels so far like Jonathan Hickman going back to the well and getting S.H.I.E.L.D. right. I was into Hickman’s Secret at first, but the second issue was kind of insulting, with a cliched gangster scene and an obvious reveal stretched out to the end of the issue with four panel pages of not much going on.

I suppose, given how much his work has meant to me, that I should write more about the latest Alan Moore League of Extraordinary Gentleman book, Century: 2009, but it was just okay. Some lovely ideas, typically good Kevin O’Neill artwork and of course, it feels like good value because you read it slowly, trying to pick up on all the pop culture references. But while I appreciate that pretty much all of Moore’s work has some terrific layers to it (I’ve not doubt there’s a great story behind even garbage like Deathblow: Byblows), here, the meta-story about Moore’s disillusionment with the comics industry and the rest of popular culture is more interesting than the plot. Making fun of Harry Potter should have been more fun, right?

Having boycotted Darwyn Cooke’s latest Parker adaptation, The Score, and with no really memorable Hellboy or B.P.R.D. books this month, the only book to really excite me was IDW’s Artist Edition of David Mazzucchelli’s Daredevil: Born Again. I’m not like ADD—I don’t read even my favorite comics over and over again, so it had been probably 20 years since I read this story. It still holds up very well, with an absolutely bulletproof first issue, although I think once it gets to the Nuke/Captain America issue, Daredevil is kind of a guest star in his own book. But while you can see some signs of writer Frank Miller’s eventual shock and awe style, he keeps things relatively restrained here, relying on Mazzucchelli to convey Captain America’s disgust and shame and the mental breakdown of Nuke. The main story of Daredevil/Matt Murdock’s ruination by the Kingpin and subsequent rebirth is not perfect, either. Matt’s flirtation with paranoia and despair is a little too brief, and how does he survive for so long on the streets? Was he homeless? And sure, seeing old girlfriend Karen Page now a junkie whore may have seemed like a progressive move for superhero comics then, but now feels a little cheap and mean. Of course it’s the woman who wrecks things for the hero. Since there was nothing to really be done with Karen once she came back to Matt, better to maybe have left her out entirely and make Matt’s downfall come from his own hubris. I don’t know, maybe I’m just blaming a lot of lesser grim and gritty comics on this early example, which doesn’t get nearly the blame as Miller’s Dark Knight Returns or Moore’s Watchmen and The Killing Joke. Despite its flaws, it’s still one of the better superhero stories ever written, and Miller and Mazzucchelli work so well together they can pretty much pull off anything they try here. The presentation of this book is exquisite, with oversized, heavy-weight black and white pages and a few vellum overlays to show the reader some of the more complex effects Mazzucchelli used on covers and some interior pages. Seeing what amounts to faithful photographs of the original boards makes this not only the most exciting way to experience the story but also the most intimate. Without distracting from what is a real page-turner, one still takes away the immense effort, the will to do something memorable, on the part of the artist. I can’t really imagine reading this again in the small, color format.

—Christopher Allen

Prophet #21

Writer - Brandon Graham

Artist - Simon Roy

Publisher - Image Comics/Extreme. $3.99

I’m old enough to remember the two months that Rob Liefeld’s Prophet was relevant. Without doing any research (both laziness and in support of not supporting SOPA/PIPA), I think it was about issue #7 or 8, when the original creative team abandoned the book to a flash-in-the-pan artist, Stephen Platt, who had some major flaws but had an appealing style that was kind of a more compact Todd McFarlane. I went along with the crowd and got the book without having to pay much more than cover price, liked the art but not the story, and then waited for the next issue, which I think took over a month to arrive, and when it did, I don’t think Platt did all the work. And before too long, he was gone on to other things, and really has had very little comics work since. The series apparently made it to issue #20, but not many people really cared by that time (though in today’s numbers, it probably would be a big hit).

Say what you want about Liefeld, but he’s not an idiot, and he’s always been one to pay others to pump some life into his failing, failed or forgotten creations, be it Alan Moore, Mark Millar, Kurt Busiek, and so on. This time it’s Brandon (King City) Graham, writing, joined by Simon (Jan’s Atomic Heart) Roy on art. 

Is the book any good? Yes, and the good news is that one need not have any prior knowledge of time-lost super soldier John Prophet, and it probably helps if you don’t. Numbering aside, this is written like a first issue, and I give Liefeld and editor Eric Stephenson credit for letting Graham do what he wants here, which is to thrust Prophet into a weird world of multi-jawed monsters to kill and consume and other natives who want to kill, fuck, parley or perform surgery on him. It’s a dense issue, and Roy and colorist John Ballermann are up to the task of creating this strange, savage world. 

I’ve already seen folks calling the book brilliant, but I think we may want to pump the brakes a bit there. Graham does have a unique vision and bless him for wanting to cram a lot into the issue, but he does overload the reader a bit with all the alien names, and with an omniscient narration that actually feels kind of lazy to me. I’d prefer to find more of this out through dialogue between Prophet and the creatures he meets, as well as having Prophet make observations in his own voice, so we can get to know him better. 

Reading this issue, as well as seeing the news that Joe Casey and Nathan Fox are the new creative team on other Image series, Haunt, makes me a little bummed that talented creators like these are still being convinced to expend their energies trying to prop up or revived crappy comics somebody else owns, but hey, it’s their call to make. If someone’s going to do work-for-hire, as a consumer I still want them to put their best effort into it, and although this first issue has some flaws, it’s clear Graham and Roy are invested in the work and there’s some good potential here.

Christopher Allen

On the DC Petition

As one of the signees of my buddy Alan David Doane’s petition asking DC Comics to come to an accord with the creators of Watchmen or, failing that, scuttle plans for Watchmen prequels/sequels/spinoffs, I wrestled with the rationale of it for a little bit. I’m probably as temperamental as Alan, but not so anti-corporate, and by and large I come down on the side of the law. And as it seems to be legal for DC to go forth with exploiting what appears to be their property, as rights never reverted back to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, I was basically okay with their legal right to do so, though not interested in the results.

But I have come to realize a couple things. First, laws obviously change. What was accepted practice fifty or thirty or even ten years ago can be disputed and reversed now. But more importantly, this is an ethical issue. Although Alan’s artwork below is over-the-top, the petition itself is evenhanded. No one is calling for Occupy DC or a boycott or anything like that. It basically just asks DC to do the right thing. Obviously, not everyone has the same ethics and values, and DC is made up of many people of differing ethics and values who have to balance them with the need to make money. To me, and I have to point out I had no involvement in the creation of this petition and am only stating my own desires for the outcome, it’s not so much about if or how DC reacts to it as that it hopefully starts some sort of dialogue, plants a seed in people’s minds about the importance of the artist and how one should always make the attempt to respect the author’s wishes. It’s not unheard of but rare in the world of film (2010, the shot-for-shot remake of Psycho) for filmmakers to try to follow another filmmaker’s visionary work, but comics publishers seem to have little regard for most creators, nor shame in endlessly regurgitating old ideas. As with the New 52, it’s pretty transparent that spinning off Watchmen with different creators is shortsighted and gimmicky and not likely to produce anything approaching the longevity and merit of the original work, but admittedly, that’s not really the point here. A kickass, mind-expanding Owlman story-for-the-ages, or a turd on the scale of The L.A.W., either result is still a kick in the teeth to Messrs. Moore & Gibbons and their singular work. 

I just think it’s worth starting the discussion, both intellectually and spiritually. What benefit to one’s soul is there in championing those who reap their rewards based on someone else’s hard work and mental agility, who exploit legal loopholes that hurt others? I’m no saint and make plenty of my own questionable choices, but I don’t take pride in them, nor am I going to rally to the defense of others who do these things at the expense of others. Yes, there are more important things in the world and is involved with those things, too, but that doesn’t make it unimportant. Do you want to stand up, even in this mild way, for the Artist, or just keep lining up for more and more of the same crap? Even at one’s most selfish, it’s just common sense that the company who does right by its people is going to produce better work, more often. 

—Christopher Allen

Marvel in the ‘70s

Writer: Pierre Comtois
Editor: John Morrow
Publisher: TwoMorrows Publishing

Marvel in the ‘70s is a sequel to the author’s Marvel in the ‘60s (natch), which one would have to say had the easier route to success. After all, it was in the ‘60s that the “Marvel Age” began, with Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and others cutting loose with one fresh new superhero after another, like Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Iron Man, the X-Men, the Avengers, not to mention the villains and a distinctive, ingratiating narrative style from Lee that was part carnival barker, part pal. A book that chronicles the creation of something that was new and inspiring is naturally going to be fun to read about.

From around 1968 or so, Marvel Comics then went through a period that may be classified as growing pains. The sale of the company to Cadence Communications led to the ouster of longtime Publisher Martin Goodman, with Lee taking over the position. This role, and increasing time spent as Marvel’s ambassador, a real celebrity during this time, as well as the additional duties of expanding Marvel’s merchandizing and expansion into other media, meant that Lee was less hands-on in guiding the comic books. Even without the additional job duties, he would have had to rely more and more on new Editor-in-Chief (and writer of the most titles), Roy Thomas, because he was expanding the publishing line with ideas for new books seemingly every week.

The expansion of the line led to an influx of new talent, some of whom were impressive out of the gate and some who had to grow into the job, and quickly. Among the careers that started or at least took off at Marvel during the late ‘60s through mid-‘70s were Barry Windsor-Smith, Jim Steranko, Neal Adams, Gerry Conway, Marv Wolfman, Len Wein, Mike Ploog, P. Craig Russell, Doug Moench, Don McGregor, Steve Gerber, Jim Starlin, Steve Englehart and Paul Gulacy. At the same time, long-simmering resentments caused by Lee’s power, fame, and editorial interference led to a John Buscema essentially taking his creativity down a gear, and Jack “King” Kirby, the co-creator with Lee (and in the case of Captain America, Joe Simon), most of Marvel’s most popular characters, also gearing down, biding his time, and taking his talents and filed-away characters and concepts to rival DC Comics when the opportunity came in 1970. Other Marvel veterans like Gene Colan, Don Heck and Gil Kane (not there for Marvel’s glory years) were shuffled from one book to another, with mixed results.

It’s a fascinating period in Marvel’s history, with some failed experiments and the collision between the generation of Marvel writers and artists who got into the industry when comics were a disreputable industry where those who couldn’t become successful novelists or commercial artists ended up, and the next generation of kids who grew up wanting to make comics, and had also immersed themselves in other science fiction, fantasy, philosophy and the mind-expanding substances of the era.

Comtois takes this complicated period and reduces it to one dubious thesis, that the period from 1968 to 1980 represented Marvel’s “Twilight Years,” after which they would never again reach the previous heights of creative and commercial success. He further hinders himself with a restrictive format: the story is told within chronological reviews of selected comic books. It’s a workable, even novel, format for the book’s purpose, but requires both Comtois and editor Morrow being able to shape the text into a dramatic narrative that backs up early assertions with the accretion of supporting evidence, and develops story threads into satisfying, credible conclusions. Unfortunately, neither are working up to the level required here.

Case in point: Jack Kirby. Early on in the book, Comtois informs us that for the final 20-odd issues of his venerable run on Fantastic Four, Kirby was basically phoning it in. The geyser of new characters and concepts had dried up, and he was going through the motions with Doctor Doom and the rest, with the same old familiar poses and a decreasing dynamism. I’m not interested in arguing a subjective opinion, and the work has to stand on its own, but would it not have been fair to point out the lack of new ideas and verve on the book were largely due to Kirby’s deteriorating relationship with Lee? It’s one thing to prefer the work of Lee over Kirby, or at least Lee’s ‘70s output vs. Kirby’s ‘70s output, but quite another to gloss over widely reported tensions that contributed to Kirby’s last Marvel ‘60s work not being among his best.

Although Comtois makes little reference to developments at DC Comics or other publishers throughout the book, and indeed does little to place ‘70s Marvel in the context of ‘70s America, he can’t help but throw more darts at Kirby by dismissing wholesale his Fourth World opus, books that, while they were relatively mediocre sellers at the time, have gained in critical stature since. One doesn’t have to like them to note that the passing of time has brought new appreciation for them, or to note that almost all of Kirby’s ‘70s work for both DC and Marvel is currently back in print. It’s just being fair. Comtois complete his specious assessment by noting sales of the books dropped off early on, right after Vince Colletta was dismissed as inker (the implication being that Colletta was doing fine and was an established commodity as Kirby’s inker in the past, and that he took fans with him once Kirby fired him and started working with new inkers like Mike Royer). Comtois also claims that the Fourth World books failed by lacking humanity. There were certainly human characters in the books, like Jimmy Olsen, Guardian, the Newsboy Legion, and Oberon, with Orion’s human friends acting as a Greek chorus for the human race throughout the New Gods series. One might also note that the Orion/Darkseid conflict was just a father/son conflict on a grand scale, but suffice to say, Comtois’ antipathy to Kirby’s work from this point and beyond is a bell rung loud and often in the book, despite Kirby being absent from Marvel for most of the decade discussed.

Comtois’ biases don’t stop with Kirby. He has particular loathing for Gil Kane’s style, with his up-the-nose poses and hand-wringing characters. Only when there is a strong inker he likes, such as John Romita, Sr. on Amazing Spider-Man or Klaus Janson on Daredevil, can he tolerate Kane. There is also a bias in favor of Marvel’s fantasy and horror books and characters, which reveals itself in curious ways. Curious in that, while Comtois constantly beats the drum that Marvel was on the decline, its bread-and-butter books in the doldrums, these negative comments are most often within reviews of the horror and fantasy books for which Comtois clearly has a great fondness. While he can’t help but knock the often-rough debuts of Windsor-Smith, Ploog and others, he delights in discussing when the artists put it together, and spends much more time on favored issues of titles like Conan the Barbarian, Kull the Conqueror, Savage Tales, Frankenstein’s Monster, and Tomb of Dracula. The amount of coverage of these titles, and the short shrift given to any superhero title of the time besides multiple, redundant reviews of high and low points for Amazing Spider-Man, suggests that while Marvel’s superhero line was stagnant, Marvel was remaining relevant by expanding into other popular genres (sword & sandal, Universal monsters), as well as displaying bright young artistic and writing talent. It’s clear where Comtois’ true sympathies lie—he considers the Wolfman/Colan Tomb of Dracula one of Marvel’s best runs, and the Thomas/Windsor-Smith Conan #24 a comics peak no one would reach again. No, really, he writes this. It doesn’t really sound like The Twilight Years, does it?

When it’s a book or creator he likes, Comtois provides capable description and a fannish enthusiasm (there are entirely too many exclamation points in the book) that could have been infectious with better editing and either a more consistent, positive theme of those wild, wacky, obscure Marvel ‘70s comics, or a series of personal essays about same (maybe more in line with Douglas Wolk’s Reading Comics). As it is, Comtois’ persuasiveness rises and falls with how much one already knows about the subject. Kull and It, the Living Mummy look kind of interesting, while the antagonism towards Gil Kane’s Amazing Spider-Man or Steve Gerber’s Defenders is off-putting, and the lack of perspective (the aforementioned Conan #24 comment, or the middling, short-lived The Champions series being “for one brief, shining moment one of Marvel’s best series”) is ridiculous. And Comtois strangely makes his arguments about the quality of the superhero line from a distance, touching frequently on Amazing Spider-Man but very little on other flagship titles like The Avengers, Fantastic Four, Captain America or The Incredible Hulk.

There is also an odd, passive-aggressive tone throughout, not just in the text but in the editing and design. Most of the writers and artists discussed receive small biographical sidebars, with photos, even if the person is discussed negatively. Comtois’ text certainly makes the distinction that relatively forgotten talents like penciler Keith Pollard or inker Tony Mortellaro did not create work as notable as that of Klaus Janson or John Buscema, yet why give them the same sidebars? It’s almost cruel to shine the same light on folks like this, only to note that they didn’t do a good job on this book, or that, in the case of venerable Silver Age DC Comics scribe Gardner Fox, they were over the hill by the time they got to Marvel. And the pictures! Instead of going for the kitsch value of era-specific photos, only some follow that route, with many appearing to be taken from casual snapshots from various conventions of the past couple decades. Surely there are photos available of Klaus Janson (whose good looks were played up in Marvel Bullpen Bulletins in the ‘80s, as I recall) where he doesn’t appear to be recovering from a stroke? And although there is no doubt from the text that Comtois is a great fan of the work of Barry Windsor-Smith, he insists on calling him just Barry Smith, even in the list of creators thanked. Whether Comtois knows this is a source of annoyance for the artist is unknown, but surely people change their names for a reason, and to insist on the previous name can’t help but smack of disrespect.

The use of the review as a format to discuss Marvel in general (or at least the developments and creators Comtois is interested in) becomes wearying after a while. Part of it is the format itself, which would have benefited from the occasional break to offer a page or two to look beyond Marvel’s comics and magazines. This reviewer learned much about Marvel during this time from the crude, late ‘60s Marvel Super-Heroes and Amazing Spider-Man cartoons, the Spider-Man and Incredible Hulk live action television series, the Pocket Books collections of early issues, Stan Lee-edited reprint anthologies like Origins of Marvel Comics and Bring on the Bad Guys, as well as ephemera like the Mighty Marvel Fun Books, or even 7/11 tumblers, ColorForms sets, Spider-Man webshooter toys or Mego action figures. Although the ongoing books should be the main focus, certainly the other items helped Marvel become the publishing and merchandising juggernaut they were in the ‘70s, and at the very least would have added spice and visual appeal to the book.

The other reason the format is restrictive and tiring has to do with the poor editing. Not just the typos, of which there are several (even though a proofreader is credited), but the redundancies. While Stan Lee’s defying of the Comics Code Authority (the body created by comics publishers after the Kefauver hearings to regulate their content with a stamp of approval on all comics available on newsstands) to publish the then-controversial issues of Amazing Spider-Man dealing with supporting character Harry Osborn’s drug use (the story was clearly anti-drug) is worth discussing, and a case can be made that the erosion of the CCA’s power led to a softened stance on previously verboten subjects like vampires, the undead and Satanism led to Marvel’s confidence in expanding into books featuring these subjects, does it have to be mentioned every time one of these books is reviewed? It has to be noted here at least eight times, vying for importance in Comtois’ head with poor old declining Jack Kirby. Mentioned at least three times is the nugget that the “Crusty Bunkers” were the name given to the members of Neal Adams’ studio who were frequently called upon to ink or finish a Marvel issue up against the deadline crunch. It’s a nice nugget, once. The second time, one starts getting distracted and wondering what better (ie, not repetitive) item could have been used in its place. The third time, it’s annoying.

I’m not sure if Comtois was told of a page limit late in the writing or what, but for some strange reason, 1976-1979 (half the decade!) is covered in the final 20 of the book’s 220 pages. This amounts mainly to discussing the transition from Gil Kane to young hotshot Frank Miller on Daredevil, and a little on John Byrne on Jim Shooter’s The Avengers, as well as some discussion of Shooter himself and that great final issue of The Champions, with Byrne inking George Tuska. If one thinks of mid-to-late-‘70s Marvel as a place where superstar artist George Perez first flowered on high profile titles like Fantastic Four and The Avengers, well, you’re out of luck, as Comtois doesn’t even mention him, just like he spends little time on writer Steve Englehart’s ‘70s work on The Avengers, The Defenders or Captain America. Inker Tony Mortellaro, though, he gets a mention.

Comtois has no problem making bold assertions, like Klaus Janson’s inking of Deathlok being “perhaps the best work he’s ever done” (early in a, what, 40 year career?), or that, accusations of plagiarism aside, the prolific but now mostly unreprinted scribe Bill Mantlo was, “in reality, one of Marvel’s best writers, doing exceptional work on Deathlok, Champions and ROM,” but to say the author has trouble connecting threads would be to erroneously suggest he even makes an attempt. Does ROM springboard into a discussion of other toy tie-in books that would be ‘80s hits for Marvel like Micronauts, or G.I. Joe? No. He praises Lee for defying the CCA, leading to the expansion into horror titles, yet doesn’t criticize him for overworking his staff and abdicating his editing and publishing duties to those not fully qualified to do so, leading to “The Twilight Years”. And while Roy Thomas’ writing is routinely praised, his editing and stewardship of the line in the Twilight Years is only mildly criticized. Further, he sees these Twilight Years as an end to Marvel’s creative growth, yet doesn’t seem to recognize that the expansion into non-superhero genres led to not just other rich avenues for Marvel, but also the beginnings of many popular, influential writers and artists. To appreciate the book, one has to force one’s mind into the narrow tracks of the author’s, who feels Steve Gerber’s Defenders run was too subversive and irreverent, contributing to Marvel’s decline, while Jim Starlin’s Warlock, with thinly veiled attacks on Roy Thomas, Stan Lee and the Marvel infrastructure, is too be praised and not at all a contributor to Marvel’s decline. Another factor in the decline, according to the author, is that the monster characters such as Dracula, the Living Mummy, and Frankenstein’s Monster, are all part of the Marvel Universe, thereby undermining the realism Lee & Co had established. This is the same realistic Marvel Universe with several heroes spawned from radiation, Norse and Greek gods on Earth, several alien races, an undersea nation, multiple alternate dimensions, and a master of mystic arts, correct? What difference does Dracula make when you already have Mephisto? Why is using pulp villain Fu-Manchu just fine, when movie monsters arent? Ultimately, Marvel in the ‘70s remains a worthy subject for a book, but unfortunately this is not a worthy attempt at it.

— Christopher Allen