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Trouble with Comics

Spy Vs. Spy - Zero Vol. 1 and Velvet: Before the Living End

In the interests of declaring my critical biases upfront, let me first state that in the past couple years, I’ve seen the time I’ve spent reading comics diminish substantially, in favor of this Golden Age of TV many agree we’re living in, as well as catching up on movies old and newish. When I buy comics, I’m pretty much a wait-for-the-trade consumer, and more and more those dollars go to projects from creators whose work I trust, with the occasional flyer taken on something with good buzz. 

That good buzz led me to take a chance on Ales Kot’s Zero Vol. 1: An Emergency, and I liked Ed Brubaker’s and Steve Epting’s work, together and separately, enough in the past that the first volume of their new creator-owned series, Velvet, subtitled Before the Living End, was a no-brainer. Both happen to be spy series, quite different in execution but both hitting beats familiar to anyone who has seen one or two spy movies.

Zero is set around 20 years in the future, at least in its framing stories in issues #1 and #5, where an old spy, Zero, is about to be murdered by a young spy perhaps on one of his first assignments. Being a hired gun, basically a tool rather than a person, means you’ll eventually be replaced. The rest of #1 through 4 show us Zero at various points, completing an assignment to retrieve a piece of technology from some sort of augmented soldier or perhaps just a kind of robot, and as a boy being indoctrinated and trained to be a master spy and assassin. If you guess that at one point, this coldblooded super-assassin may feel a twitch of emotion, and that that emotion makes him a liability, then good for you, you’ve seen Hanna or any of dozens of other films dealing with this theme. It’s not that Kot does a bad job with it, not at all, and I’d be willing to follow this to another volume based on its baseline competence and an intriguing, perhaps genre-mashing twist at the end, but it’s nothing really special, either. My main problem is that Zero is, so far, an undeveloped character, and that’s one of the hazards when you create a character raised in a kind of bubble where all they know is killing: they have little interior life, few points of reference other than weapons and heartless slogans. Often, you want to give them some kind of life before they’re put in a program, or get them away from the action for a while where they can interact with, and learn from, regular people. I also wasn’t really knocked out by any of the five artists used (a different one for each issue/chapter). The first, Michael Walsh, I liked the best, and would have preferred he handle the entire arc. I think when you have multiple artists on one story arc, it can be distracting for the reader, pulling them out of the story as they recalibrate their expectations and their understanding of what the characters look like.

Velvet's first volume, on the other hand, while the same length (and both go for $9.99 each), is much more efficiently structured, as one should expect from seasoned pros like Brubaker and Epting. In its five chapters, we learn about middle-aged intelligence administrator Velvet Templeton as she investigates the death of a respected agent. It leads her to a seeming frame-up, so she's now on the run, quickly scraping off the rust of her previous career as a field agent, in an unfolding tale that keeps twisting and doubling back to put what Velvet previously believed into question. 

Brubaker and Epting settle on a great design for Velvet, physically in better shape than average for her age, but nonetheless aged in face, a woman who has known not just 50 years but some of those years being sad ones. The white streak in her hair is a theatrical touch, reminiscent of Countess Valentina, the occasional girlfriend of of Marvel’s Nick Fury, but it also marks her as dangerous. 

The elegant structure, carried through each chapter, has a short suspense sequence, then credits, and then the rest of the story, ending with a cliffhanger or twist each time. Brubaker portrays Velvet never as a cynical spy nor particularly as a zealot or blind patriot. She’s a professional but one able to separate work from personal life, until such time as they mix and she’s fighting for her life, stung by guilt and the realization her unassuming professionalism has made her a perfect target for a frame. Crisply illustrated and written, Velvet is more satisfying and surer in its craft, but Zero, with a lead character arguably more challenging to give dimension, shows promise.

—Christopher Allen

Aside from the needlessly overblown title (Moore makes it clear he’ll be game for more interviews in the future when it suits his purposes; he’ll just be more selective now), this is a typically excellent, and even more hilarious than usual interview with the fine, put-upon author. At the same time, it’s depressing, because this is Moore agreeing to answer the “questions no one has dared ask before,” seemingly because they’re so sensational and crudely posed that one supposes they could only get to Moore through the Trojan Horse of O’Mealoid, who’d already established a convivial professional relationship with Moore. If you’ve ever wondered when Moore would get tired of remaining mostly mum on the subject of Grant Morrison, this is that moment, though thankfully it’s more than that, including thoughtful explanations on the controversial (to some) use of the Golliwogg in his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and whether he agrees with the unqualified assertion that his body of work contains a prevalence of rape against women in it. 

comixace:

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Last week, Frank Santoro and Sean T. Collins engaged in a discussion of contemporary comics criticism, that raised several issues on the lack of in depth criticism of newer cartoonists and the lack of outlets for the same. This is related to my own call for critical and cultural…

This is a terrific piece by Heidi. Sometimes, anger can cause one to write at too high a pitch, causing the reader to pay attention but miss the finer details, kind of like blaring a speaker in their ear, but this one is nicely controlled. A couple things it makes me realize is that never once in the thousands of reviews and columns I wrote did I try to really focus on female cartoonists, which I think is a failing. I could rationalize that some relatively well-known ones like Hope Larson and Lilli Carre I find pretty overrated, but honestly, I find most cartoonists overrated these days. It’s hard to name any work that arrives without flaws or deficiencies, regardless of gender. Lisa Hanawalt’s book was one of my favorites this year, a laff riot but also honest and uniquely weird. I do think comics criticism is barely into adolescence, at best, and the relatively small impact comics as a medium has on the culture means appreciation for female cartoonists will be slow-going. Even in the huge film industry, there are few female directors getting their shot, but no doubt the likes of Kathryn Bigelow has inspired many young women to make their own films. In a sense, I’m more worried about the comics industry and comics medium themselves first, the state of criticism second. At the same time as I’m acknowledging my own foibles, I have to say, in this context Marc Sobel’s line about a “distinctive female perspective” seems awfully patronizing. It sort of reminds me of a comment I read last week on Facebook where a guy took issue with my use of “African-American” just because Morgan Freeman on The Today Show said he prefers to be called “black.” I guess Mr. Freeman provided the distinctive black perspective and there are no others. 

As far as the Santoro/Collins piece, I had a very different reaction, more about why criticism has stagnated a bit and what factors drove me to mostly abandon writing about comics in favor of writing about other media at my own blog, even if it’s a much larger pool. I wrote to Santoro about this and he replied that he wanted to get back to me on some of it, so I’m waiting for that response before I publish that rant. 

brianmichaelbendis:

Bill Sienkiewicz ~ “the Shadow Portfolio”, published by DC.

I don’t know who has the license now, but this series (including Kyle Baker’s work after Sienkiewicz left) should really be collected.

—Christopher Allen

(Source: ungoliantschilde)

spx:

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.

Here is all the info you need.

I will be there, hope to see you!!

Warren

image

Congrats to Heidi on this. Very cool.

DC PR FU

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? 

—Christopher Allen

Supermag (2013)

By Jim Rugg, with Brian Maruca

Publisher: AdHouse Books. $9.99 USD.

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.

—Christopher Allen

snakeoily:

Hey Oilers,
See this lovely machine? That is Oily’s new (used) Risograph. I had to plunk down a hefty chunk of change to get it. Last week, the old risograph malfunctioned and it was beyond my know-how to get it back up and running (if anyone wants a GR 2700 for parts get at me). So luckily there was a machine for sale a couple hours away and I jumped on it. Why am I annoying you with this? Well, this really ate into Oily’s budget for the rest of the year so, so I have decided to keep the subscription offer open until the end of July. Since I have had to push back printing since my old machine broke, I have more time to let more people in. I didn’t hit my goal of 200 subscribers this time out. Currently, we have about 150. If I can get 50 more, I would be a happy camper. Maybe I didn’t push this subscription campaign as hard as I could or maybe you all are just sick of Oily. I don’t know. So yeah, if you want to subscribe to some cool comic books, now is the time. Get 5 comics in the mail every month. Quality shit. Some names I of cartoonists, I have coming down the pike are: Leslie Stein, Sam Gaskin, Melissa Mendes, me, Michel Fiffe (interview zine), Ben Urkowitz, Darryl Seitchik, and more.
Thanks for reading. I never take your support for granted. 
Chuck
subscribe now

Nice deal for a bunch of interesting mini comics from Oily. $20 for 3 months’ worth, $40 for six months, and you may want to add another $5 for Josh Simmons’ 52 page Habit #1 as he’s always worth checking out. Note to self: don’t let anyone know I thought a Risograph was a kind of pen, because they’ll think I’m dumb.
—Christopher Allen

snakeoily:

Hey Oilers,

See this lovely machine? That is Oily’s new (used) Risograph. I had to plunk down a hefty chunk of change to get it. Last week, the old risograph malfunctioned and it was beyond my know-how to get it back up and running (if anyone wants a GR 2700 for parts get at me). So luckily there was a machine for sale a couple hours away and I jumped on it. Why am I annoying you with this? Well, this really ate into Oily’s budget for the rest of the year so, so I have decided to keep the subscription offer open until the end of July. Since I have had to push back printing since my old machine broke, I have more time to let more people in. I didn’t hit my goal of 200 subscribers this time out. Currently, we have about 150. If I can get 50 more, I would be a happy camper. Maybe I didn’t push this subscription campaign as hard as I could or maybe you all are just sick of Oily. I don’t know. So yeah, if you want to subscribe to some cool comic books, now is the time. Get 5 comics in the mail every month. Quality shit. Some names I of cartoonists, I have coming down the pike are: Leslie Stein, Sam Gaskin, Melissa Mendes, me, Michel Fiffe (interview zine), Ben Urkowitz, Darryl Seitchik, and more.

Thanks for reading. I never take your support for granted. 

Chuck

subscribe now

Nice deal for a bunch of interesting mini comics from Oily. $20 for 3 months’ worth, $40 for six months, and you may want to add another $5 for Josh Simmons’ 52 page Habit #1 as he’s always worth checking out. Note to self: don’t let anyone know I thought a Risograph was a kind of pen, because they’ll think I’m dumb.

—Christopher Allen

Hawkeye Vol. 1 (2013)

Writer: Matt Fraction

Artists: David Aja, Javier Pulido, Alan Davis

Marvel Comics $16.99 USD

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.

—Christopher Allen

Chris Sprouse Off Card Superman Story

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.

—Christopher Allen