A Thousand Cuts: Morrison and Quitely Delicately Devastate with Pax Americana


Blink.

Blink Blink.

I think I just read the best comic of the year.

And I encourage you to parse that statement in every manner possible…

Pax Americana, by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely

I bought this book on my lunch hour today, and I’ve read it twice. Once forward, and once backward, as it kind of encourages you to do.

Quitely Both Directions

“Encourages.”

Challenges, maybe.

Quitely Bridge CircleHrm.

Actually…

Y’know, reading this book is a bit like experiencing a four-dimensional holographic download straight into your brain.

Quitely Algorithm 8Albeit in two dimensions.

Quitely 2DSo… Yeah. Maybe it encourages you to read it sideways, too.

And I definitely did a bit of that, on the second run-through. You know the sort of thing: “So he said ‘box,’ and earlier… later… on this page over here… we get an actual quantum dog, so…”

Yeah, I know I’m not making any sense.

Just roll with it.

Pax Americana is the newest chapter in Grant Morrison’s Multiversity, the big Corporate Spandex Crossover Event™ that DARES you to think Final Crisis was too “out there.” It’s a sort of quantum Rashomon, in which we see the same crisis playing out in different ways in a different alternate reality each issue. This time out, we get an Earth populated by the Charlton Comics characters, who were the inspiration for Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen. So of course, Morrison has decided to tell his Charlton story in the style of the Moby Dick of super hero novels.

“Ballsy” might be the word.

The final result, though, really is stunning. It’s a book about Past and Future. Good and Evil. Order and Chaos. Fantasy and Reality. Faith and Skepticism. Duality and Pluralism. Formalism and the Avant-Garde. Moore and Morrison.

Now, I am not remotely prepared tonight to offer a full analysis of what Morrison and Quitely have accomplished here. There’s just too much to talk about, and it’s all swirling around in my head too wildly to lay my thoughts out in a coherent manner. But in general, I see a book that functions as both an homage and a challenge to Watchmen, honoring its themes and formalist approach while making a very different argument about storytelling and the nature of heroism. It grapples… no… engages with the spandex classic, using it as a starting point from which to do its own thing.

It’s a story of small moments. Single lines of dialogue that ripple out and echo back on themselves. Tiny panels that work as much because of what they don’t show as what they do. Page layouts that lack Watchmen‘s “fearful symmetry” but that call back to other pages in a more complex manner. And a murder mystery solved not with a big revelation but with dozens of small ones that fill in like jigsaw pieces as you read.

It lacks the depth of Watchmen, as any single issue story would have to. But the compactness of it gives it a punch, an impact, all its own. It is, as I said, stunning. I’m more than a little in awe of it right now, so this grade might be a bit premature. But at this moment, still basking in the afterglow, I’m gonna have to give it…

Grade: A+

Rereading Cerebus, Part One: The Early, Funny Ones


Sorry for the lack of updates lately. First I took a vacation, then I was a bit under the weather, and between the two… I just didn’t feel like writing. But we’re back on track now. And while I was laid up, I took the opportunity to do something I’ve been meaning to do for ages: I started rereading Cerebus.

click to embiggen

click to embiggen

What’s Cerebus, you ask? Fair question. Cerebus is the 300-issue magnum opus of Canadian cartoonist Dave Sim. The series started in 1977, and ended a full decade ago. And while it was once something all comics-literate readers knew, it receded into obscurity in its final years, as Sim fell out of favor with pretty much everybody. But more on that in a minute. Following humble beginnings as a Conan parody starring a cartoon aardvark, the series went on to become a genuine funnybook classic, a heady mix of comedy and deadly serious drama that grew to explore politics, religion, literature, the comics industry, and the battle of the sexes.

It’s that last bit that got Sim in hot water. In an issue a little over halfway into the run, he expressed a particularly dim view of women, which garnered general outrage, accusations of misogyny, and a rather reactionary piece in the Comics Journal that painted Sim as a Nazi. It’s the “misogynist” label that stuck, though, overshadowing the rest of the series, even when it wasn’t dealing with gender issues at all. You can’t discuss Cerebus at this point without discussing the issue. So let me get that out of the way right now.

For the record, I disagree with Dave Sim’s opinion of women pretty much categorically. I won’t try to summarize that opinion here, however, for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it’s a long and complex argument that has to be taken in the context of the series as a whole, and summarization tends to make it sound worse than it is. And for another… That argument comes deep into the series, and has little or nothing to do with the early issues I’ll be looking at here today. When and if I get to the issue that contains the offending essay, I’ll give it the in-depth discussion it deserves.

But for now, in the interest of examining the series as it happened… and not coloring your opinion of the work with opinions its author developed later in life… I’m going to set the misogyny issue (mostly) aside in favor of looking at the incredible talent that went into making Cerebus one of the best funnybooks ever written. If you really want to know more, you could do worse than the Wikipedia entry on Cerebus, which is surprisingly even-handed and well-researched.

In the meantime, though, let’s get on with that reread, shall we…?

Cerebus 1-13, by Dave Sim

Ah, the formative years! The accepted wisdom about these earliest issues is that they’re not the best place to start reading the series, being as they are the work of an enthusiastic amateur rather than the professional Sim would become. And that’s true, mostly. The stories are pretty simple, and the art…

Sim Cerebus 1

…well, the art’s a bit crude. Not awful. I’ve seen far worse, in more supposedly professional publications. Sim was drawing backgrounds from day one, for instance, and seems to have understood perspective, which is more than I can say for (to make the easy joke) Rob Liefeld.

And there are flashes of brilliance, even in the earliest issues. But those issues are still very much the work of a young artist learning his craft and making his mistakes. Most artists are lucky enough that early work like this is obscure and seldom-seen. But the success of Cerebus was a double-edged sword for Sim: it enabled him to keep cranking out pages, but it also meant that his youthful weaknesses have survived for all to see. Of course, that’s part of the fascination of reading these comics now: watching this young punk with a Barry Windsor Smith fixation grow and develop, page by page, into one of the finest cartoonists of his generation.

I mention Barry Smith specifically because it’s Smith’s Conan work with Roy Thomas that’s being sent up the most in these early stories (right down to the helmet Cerebus wears in the first issue). But Sim keeps getting better, incorporating lessons from artists like Bernie Wrightson and Will Eisner (especially Eisner), who he seems to swallow whole on the way to forging his own artistic identity. And by issue ten, his stuff looks like this:

click to embiggen

click to embiggen

Not as good as he will get, of course. Sim keeps getting better, to this day. But an awfully long way to come in the space of ten comics.

As for the stories in these early issues, they are, as I said, relatively simple affairs. Conan played for laughs, with parodies of several other major fantasy fiction characters along for the ride. Robert E Howard’s Bran Mak Morn, for instance, becomes Bran Mac Mufin, a barbarian leader who worships an ancient stone idol that seems to have been carved in Cerebus’ image. Then there’s Elrod the Albino (my personal favorite), a melding of Michael Moorcock’s Elric and… Foghorn Leghorn.

Sim Elrod

And then, of course, there’s the Cockroach. That’s him leaping across the rooftops in that shot from issue 10 up above. In his first appearance, he’s a Batman parody: a rich merchant who at night seeks revenge on criminals for the death of his parents. Of course (this being Cerebus), he’s completely insane.

Sim Roach 2

The Merchant and the Roach are two completely different personalities, neither entirely aware that the other exists. And it swiftly becomes apparent that this murder he’s so obsessed with… probably didn’t actually happen. So he beats up random people who have no idea what he’s raving about, takes their money (REVENGE!), and dumps it in a chimney.

It’s funny stuff, and the character would go on to appear over and over again in later years, his ever-shifting personalities allowing Sim to use him as a send-up of whatever was happening in the comics industry at any given moment. Some of my favorite Cerebus moments involve the Roach, in fact, so it’s nice to be reminded of this comparatively humble beginning.

In light of Sim’s later philosophies, though, I suppose the most interesting of these early parody characters is Red Sophia, his send-up of Red Sonja. Continue reading

Giving Credit Where Credit’s (Long Past) Due


From the title page of today’s new issue of Fantastic Four:

Kirby Credit

Yes.

Yes, they were.

Bout damn time they acknowledged it, too.

 

(Sorry that’s not ten times bigger and high-def. I’m not actually buying the current lousy-ass FF run, so I couldn’t scan it in myself.)

(And this doesn’t make up for the many, many slaps in the face delivered to Kirby when he was still alive, either. As Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s publisher figured out over 30 years ago, credit costs them not a penny. But it still feels good to see it in print. I mean, after all…)

Kirby Self-Portrait

She’s a Wonder


Halloween being a national holiday here on the Nerd Farm, we’re taking a little vacation this week. But just so as not to leave you with no funnybook diversions in the meantime, we thought we’d do a little link-blogging instead…

american-scholar-image-pg.-85

Yesterday, NPR had a long-form interview with Jill Lepore, author of The Secret History of Wonder Woman, a look at the character’s creation and at her creator, William Moulton Marston. Marston was a psychologist, the creator of the polygraph, and a man with a keen interest in feminism, domination, submission, and a polyamorous lifestyle. It’s easy (and fun!) to make jokes about all the S&M trappings in Marston’s Golden Age Wonder Woman stories, but Lepore has done her research and dug much deeper, looking at the strange brew of obsessions and fascinations that made the early Wonder Woman comics so compelling.

Because, make no mistake, Golden Age Wonder Woman stories are amazing things to read. Though they’re crude by modern standards, I’m often stunned by the stuff I find in them, whether it’s characters pondering Marston’s unique philosophy on male-female relations, or villains clearly designed to show the negative side of the bondage fantasies the stories indulge in. But beyond that, they’re also crazily imaginative and fun. Marston’s Wonder Woman is the only version of the character I’ve ever read who seems like a whole person. In his hands, she’s boisterous and fun-loving, a powerful dynamo with a can-do attitude and an active libido that’s noticeably lacking in most later versions of the strip.

In the interview, Lepore discusses the mix of influences and beliefs that shaped Marston, and lead to that strange, heady mix of funnybook brilliance. It’s a great stuff, and well worth the time for any serious student of funnybook history. If I’ve piqued your interest, you can check it out here:

NPR: The Man Behind Wonder Woman was Inspired by Both Suffragists and Centerfolds

And, if that doesn’t sound like your cuppa tea… That’s cool, too. Hope you have a Happy Halloween. And we’ll see you next week.

Roses and Trees: Warren Ellis Returns to Form


So have I mentioned how much I’m enjoying Warren Ellis’ recent work? Holy crap, that guy’s on a roll. His recently-completed run on Moon Knight was fun, but it’s his other two current projects that have really impressed me. I hesitate to say this is the best work of his career, but it might just be. It’s something new and interesting from him, at the very least, and that’s worth making note of. So let’s do that very thing…

Supreme: Blue Rose 4, by Warren Ellis and Tula Lotay

Lotay Supreme 4

God bless Rob Liefeld.

No, really. I mean, the guy might be responsible for some of the very worst comics ever released by a professional publisher, but at least he’s open to letting more talented people play with his toys. I’ve gone on at length about how much I love Brandon Graham and company’s take on Prophet, but there’s also Joe Keatinge & Ross Campbell’s sadly under-appreciated version of Glory, and of course Alan Moore’s Eisner-winning late-90s revamp of the entire Rob Liefeld library.

It’s Moore’s work with Supreme that Ellis is building on here, in fact, and he’s going about it pretty much exactly how you should approach such towering work: using it as a starting point to tell a very different story that’s all his own. That’s particularly appropriate in this case, since Moore’s whole point with Supreme was that these long-running characters get revamped periodically, their realities warped and changed and turned upside-down in ways they’re only vaguely aware of, if at all.

So Ellis’ Supreme is anything but the Silver Age homage of Moore. He’s dealing in a new paradigm shift, one that’s gone slightly wrong, and the result is a grounded, human, sci-fi indie comics approach. That’s reflected in the every aspect of the comic, from Ellis’ handling of character and plot to the psychedelic realism of artist Tula Lotay, to my favorite aspect of Blue Rose: Professor Night.

Lotay Professor Night 1

 

Or should I say… Professor Night. Every issue of Supreme: Blue Rose features a two-page Professor Night strip, much like the one above. Which is to say, enigmatic, poetic, and artsy. Nearly to the point of ridiculousness. It’s been wildly entertaining and kind of funny, this stylish six-panel interruption of the story that seems to be there for no good reason other than entertainment.

Of course, with this issue, it becomes apparent that Professor Night is actually pretty integral to the larger story. The Professor is an Alan Moore creation, you see, much like Doc Rocket (pictured on the cover, above). But whereas Doc Rocket has run into the broken new world mostly intact, Professor Night is just a comic (or some form of digitally-delivered entertainment). He’s a fiction trapped in a fiction, and he’s trying to get out, two pages at a time.

Which… DAMN. That’s great stuff. Grant Morrison’s going to have to bust his ass to portray his “haunted comic book” concept any better than that over in Multiversity. And, you know, much as I love me some Morrison… I don’t think he can do it.

Anyway. This issue, Professor Night is followed by another two-page sequence, laid out exactly the same way, which gives it that same feeling of meta-fictional interruption. I won’t show you the whole thing, but it’s set in the future, and it concludes with this ominous panel of someone identified only as a “late human render ghost”:

Lotay Supreme 4 Help

Brr. Haunted funnybooks, indeed.

I haven’t heard much noise about this book in fan circles, but seriously… If you’re not reading it… You’re missing something special.

Grade: A

 

Trees 6, by Warren Ellis and Jason Howard

Howard Trees 6

None of the Trees covers thus far has been terribly indicative of the contents of the issue, this one perhaps more than most. They’ve all been visually arresting, though, so it’s all good.

What’s that? What the hell is Trees?

Well, it’s Ellis’ other current major work. It’s of a similar tone to Supreme, but has a wider scope. Its cast is spread across the globe, their stories connected only by the fact that they all live in the shadow of the Trees, towering alien structures planted on Earth by forces unknown. Whether you’re dealing with a young Chinese man coming to grips with his sexuality, a Greek woman’s political awakening, the geo-politics of the Trees themselves, or an Arctic research team’s terrifying discovery of new Tree behavior, it’s all gripping realist sci-fi of a type seldom seen in comics. Much like Supreme, if you’re not reading it, you’re missing one of the most interesting comics on the market.

Grade: A

 

Hmm. I feel like I’ve said less than I intended to here. Not about the books themselves, necessarily, because I’m trying hard not to spoil them too badly. But I maybe haven’t said as much as I wanted about Warren Ellis himself.

Frankly, I felt like Ellis was phoning it in for a few years there. The truly interesting work was few and far between, dotted with a whole lotta “Avatar really will publish anything, won’t they?” and “SUCH a great premise! SUCH a disappointing third act!”

But this stuff… This is nice. There’s a maturity to it, or maybe a calmness, that I haven’t associated with Ellis before. He’s tried something like it, I think. Global Frequency was on this tip, with its hard science action-adventure premise and focus on ordinary people saving lives. But it still had something of that shouty/sloganny angry-man-making-a-point feel that characterizes so much of Ellis’ most popular work. That’s the element that’s missing here, and its absence doesn’t hurt my feelings one little bit. I’ve liked quite a lot of Ellis work done in that style, but maybe enough is enough. Maybe it’s time to move on.

I do wonder if Freakangels might not have been in this style, too. I read so little of that, and feel like maybe I didn’t give it enough of a chance. Or maybe this new work is just the culmination of a lot of things he’s been building to in work I didn’t read.

Hmm. Whatever’s going on here, I like it. It’s a creative renaissance for one of my all-time favorite funnybook writers. And that is a very good thing indeed.

BEHOLD THE AWESOME!! Morrison and Irving Channel Their Inner Kirby


Warning: The Funnybook General’s Office has determined that the following review SPOILS THE EVER-LIVING HELL out of a comic that just came out today.

“Seriously,” their statement read, “he just flat-out shows you the three best pages in the thing, completely ruining the surprise and impact of a really great scene. And I mean, sure, the STORY is NOT SPOILED in the main, but… It’s the best pages in the book! He just scanned the damn things in and– Look, that sort of thing is fine if you’re reviewing something that’s a week old, but on day of release? That’s just no good at all. No one should read it.”

So proceed with caution, or not at all…

 

Annihilator 2, by Grant Morrison and Frazer Irving

So I’m sitting in the Hibachi place reading along in the latest issue of the new Morrison / Irving joint, when

Irving Annihilator 2 Vada

Holy crap, did I really just read that? I think I did, and

Irving Annihilator 2 Jet Makro

Omigod, seriously? That’s

Irving Annihilator 2 Jet Makro 2

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!

Ooooh, man. That’s the stuff. Morrison learned the Kirby lessons right, and he just unleashed them full-force. You just don’t get that kind of grand idiocy, that crazy-ass power-poetry, often enough. But this book delivers, and it’s a great surprise.

Or it was, at least. I… just pretty much gave you the bulk of it right up there. Sorry. But I just couldn’t do it justice describing it. “Like a Roger Dean album cover in comics form” kinda didn’t cut it. Neither did “The Mahabharata on steroids … IN SPACE!” So there was no alternative, really. I just had to SHOW YOU THE AWESOME, and let the chips fall where they may.

The whole book’s not like that, of course. I mean, my god, how could it be? So, no. It’s not all JET MAKRO(!) making AMAZING PROCLAMATIONS that CHANGE THE COURSE OF MIGHTY CIVILIZATIONS. It’s mostly, in fact, Ray and Max talking about memory and writing and brain tumors. And bad food. Then there’s a talking teddy bear, and some obscene graffiti. A black mass is mentioned, too. Or, you know… a Black Mass. Like, with Satan Robes and stuff. Not, like, rotting vegetable matter, or… Oh. You got that. Okay. So, yeah. It’s… talky and goth.

You know, more like issue one.

That’s not a bad thing, however, because (if you’ll recall) I thought issue one was pretty ginchy, too. This issue might offer the best expression yet of Morrison’s obsession with the connection between fiction and reality. He gets a bit into the nuts and bolts of the writing process, moving between reality and screenplay (or reality and… OTHER reality) with aplomb…

Irving Annihilator 2 Script

…and delving on some level into the age-old question every writer’s gotten at least once: “Where do your ideas come from?”

In this case, they come from a data bullet fired into Ray’s brain, a memory download from another reality that he has to make sense of in order to save the universe. Which is actually not at all a bad way to describe how it feels when you’re telling a story, and the writing’s going really well. It all just pours out of you, and damn your plans or your intentions, things are happening this way, dammit, because that’s just how they happen. The best stuff always works like that. And the worst… doesn’t.

So! Annihilator Number Two! Amazing prog-rock ridiculousness… gothy trappings… bee-yoo-tee-ful artwork… a meditation on the creative process… a character named JET FREAKING MAKRO… Plus, it’s funny!

If the raucous laughter above didn’t get that across. One of these days, they’re gonna toss me right on outta that Hibachi joint…

Grade: A

(A post-script: if you didn’t click to embiggen the above images, I urge you to do so. I left ‘em at extra-big screen-filling size for you, and man… They reveal detail in Frazer Irving’s art that I simply couldn’t see at printed size. I’m tempted to scan the whole issue in, just to see his work in its full glory. It is GAW-geous!)

Flagship Down: The End of the Fantastic Four


So Rich Johnston’s reporting, over at Bleeding Cool, that Marvel Comics is cancelling The Fantastic Four sometime next year. And they’re cancelling it not because sales are in the crapper, but because Ike Perlmutter’s pissed that they don’t own the movie rights, and so doesn’t want to give “free advertising” to whichever studio does. I don’t remember what studio that is, and don’t care. Because let’s focus on what’s important here: THEY’RE CANCELLING THE FANTASTIC FOUR.

Kirby Fantastic Four 51

Well, shit.

As long-time readers know, I don’t really care about most corporate spandex franchises. Nothing against them. I’ll read them if they’re written and drawn by people I like. And if they’re not rendered unreadable by corporate comics bullshit / crossover nonsense. But my days of being a fan of long-running corporate-owned funnybook characters are long over.

Except…

Except the Fantastic Four.

I mean, Batman, sure. Because Batman.

But the Fantastic Four, man.

Kirby Fantastic Four 1

I mean… The Fantastic Four!

Kirby FF

Seriously. THE FANTASTIC FOUR.

click to embiggen

click to embiggen

It’s THE Marvel comic. The flagship. The foundation stone of their funnybook empire. And they’re cancelling it because their CEO’s got his panties in a bunch about a movie contract that his company’s still making millions of dollars on.

Just don’t seem right.

Now, I could go off on a rant about how this is putting the cart before the horse, and how wrong it is that movie business is countermanding funnybook business, and how much I don’t give a rat’s ass about the movies in the first place, and how messed up it is that they’re getting in the way of my reading. But… well… Those are all bullshit arguments.

The Fantastic Four is a corporate franchise like any other (even moreso now that they’ve settled with Jack Kirby’s heirs), and it will be treated according solely to how it will make the corporation the most money. Or, you know… according to the whims of the guy in charge, whether he’s being rational about the bottom line or not. But that’s beside the point. They’re properties, not characters. And feeling attachment to them is silly.

Still, though.

The Fantastic Four, man. It’s my favorite funnybook. Hands down, no competition, my all-time favorite. It’s the one corporate spandex book that I’ll read if it’s even halfway decent. God help me, I love it. I love the mix of characters. The odd super powers. The bad guys. The focus on science and exploration over vigilantism. The ideas. Yeah, the IDEAS. I think that’s what I love most of all. At its best, The Fantastic Four was inventive. Crazy. Weird. Even idiotic at times. But grandly so.

It’s my favorite funnybook. And I will miss it when it’s gone.