Infinite Shades of Gray: Cloudy Morality Defines Grant Morrison’s Mastermen


A word of warning: the following review gets pretty SPOILERY, in the interest of analyzing the story. So if you haven’t read the book in question yet… Tread carefully.

Multiversity: Mastermen, by Grant Morrison and Jim Lee

Jim Lee Mastermen Cover

When I was flipping through this comic in the shop, I curled my lip a bit and thought, “Ugh! Who’s responsible for this ugly art?” So I checked the credits, and laughed. It’s Jim Lee! Nice to know I hate that guy’s work on its own merits, without being pre-conditioned to hate it because I know it’s him.

Luckily, however, he didn’t detract much from my enjoyment of the comic itself, because this is one of my favorite issues of Multiversity to date. This one’s set on a world where the Nazis won World War II, and Superman – excuse me, Overman – now rules over a fascist paradise built on a foundation of bones. Opposing him and his colleagues in the New Reichsmen (the Nazi Justice League) are Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters, American rebels who are vilified as terrorists in the press.

Of course, they do earn that label, endangering civilian lives in attacks that are more symbolic than they are effective. The Human Bomb, for instance, operates as a sort of reusable suicide bomber, hitting an annual performance of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. It serves no strategic purpose, but it sends a message. And threatens the lives of dozens of innocents. This idea of the American patriot as terrorist is, of course, a provocative one. Uncle Sam doesn’t quite come off like a home-spun Osama Bin Laden here, but the parallels to jihadists are impossible to ignore.

And that’s really the juicy part of this issue: the morality of it is hardly black and white. When Freedom Fighter attacks threaten the lives of innocent civilians, the New Reichsmen save them with heroic efficiency. And yet, they’re still representatives of a society that is demonstrably wrong. Prejudice is a defining social norm for these people, and the concept of democracy seems pretty much dead. Leatherwing (Nazi Batman) is a staunch defender of the fascist ideal…

Lee Nazi Batman

…and doesn’t hesitate to torture prisoners when he deems it necessary. Which makes him a bit of a jack-booted thug, yes, but with all that patriot-as-terrorist stuff swirling around, it also brings to mind the specter of American “enhanced interrogation.” In particular, I was put in mind of Jack Bauer, perhaps the most prominent heroic torturer in 21st Century pulp fiction.

But again, I must stress that this is not a story of bad people fighting worse people. Both sides have heroic qualities as well as ugly ones. Uncle Sam is perhaps more heroic, motivated as he is by a love of freedom. But do the ends justify the means? And the New Reichsmen, while unquestionably in the wrong, genuinely care about the well-being of society. They’ve rejected the worst of Hitler’s excesses, and have made the world into a utopia… at least for those deemed worthy. So this is a nuanced conflict colored in numerous shades of gray.

Lines of morality are further blurred when the source of the Freedom Fighters’ super powers is revealed:

Lee Mastermen Sivana

A Sivana, working as an agent of the Gentry, bringing other-dimensional technology to bear in Uncle Sam’s otherwise hopeless battle. Such a nice twist. Thus far, the Gentry have been shown working primarily with the bad guys. But that, it seems, is only because they’re easier to tempt. In this world, Uncle Sam’s desperation makes him the ideal target. And that brings the Gentry’s real goals into sharper focus. They don’t care about good or evil or any of the stuff that drives super hero fiction. They’re attacking the underpinnings of reality itself, the fictional rules that govern the operation of the Multiverse.

Because that’s what Multiversity is ultimately about: fictional realities, and the rules they work under. The world of the Mastermen is a fascist world, one in which totalitarianism is the norm and freedom doesn’t stand a chance. The Gentry interfere with that natural order, drive a wedge into the cracks and try to break it apart. Of course, it’s not enough to simply help the underdogs win. They need to infect these fictional worlds with ideas, tempt their heroes to act outside the normal bounds of the story. In Society of Super Heroes, they got the Atom to kill. In Pax Americana, they perverted the President’s attempt to create an expansive heroic narrative by driving one of that narrative’s architects to acts of desperate practicality. In Mastermen, they convince Overman to commit the sin of hope.

The how and why of that is something I won’t discuss here. I’ve been spoilery enough, without going that far. But before I go, I did want to mention a few small bits that made me love this issue, beyond the uneasy morality of it all. First, there’s this:

Toilet Hitler

HEH. That might be the best thing Jim Lee’s ever drawn.

It opens the issue with a bang, for damn sure, and is a great punch-in-the-face reminder that this series is funny as much as anything else. Literally, in fact, since Hitler’s bathroom reading is a funnybook on the cover of which he himself is getting punched out by Superman. Double funny!

Another great gag is the name of the Nazi Aquaman: Underwaterman. I chuckled the first time somebody said it, but by the third or fourth mention, I was reading it in a bad German accent. And that made it hysterical. I also got a laugh out of the reason the Nazis didn’t wipe out the Atlantean race with their reverse-engineered Kryptonian technology:

Jim Lee Underwaterman

Okay, so it’s a dark laugh for sure. But, still… Hitler. What a maroon!

And, since I always catch a little crap when I complain about Jim Lee artwork, I guess I should take a minute to explain why. Basically, he just sucks.

Thank you, and good night.

No, seriously… I think Lee’s an okay funnybook artist, but no more than that. His base style is pretty standard super hero fare, and on a good day he doesn’t get in the way of the story too much. He’s having a good day here, in fact, displaying few of the problems that drive me the most insane about his work. He doesn’t bust out ill-planned splash pages in this book, for instance, and I only tripped up on his panel-to-panel storytelling once or twice. He even, shockingly, designed some pretty good costumes for the Reichsmen:

Lee Mastermen

(Nazi Flash is especially nice)

 

So what made me instantly hate the art at a glance? It’s bland. The poses are stiff. The anatomy’s bad. The action is poorly-conveyed. And there’s freaking LINES all over everything. I think they’re supposed to be texture, but if so, it’s not being applied very effectively. It’s part of Lee’s style, sure, and all the most memorable comics artists have idiosyncrasies that define their work. But the really good ones know how to use those idiosyncrasies to best advantage, and when to reign them in. That’s not a type of control Lee typically shows, and it makes him a weaker artist than he could be. So that’s why I don’t like Jim Lee’s stuff.

It didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the book, though. Mastermen is smart, sharply written spandex comics. Well-worth your attention. Even if it is ugly.

Grade: A-

Take a Walk on the Dark Side


Vadercomic! Dark Side Represent!

Darth Vader 1, by Kieron Gillen and Salvador Larroca

Ross Vader 1

I picked this book up for exactly two reasons: 1. I like the idea of a story told from the perspective of Darth Vader, and 2. Kieron Gillen strikes me as a good choice to tell that story. I’m sure the prior has been done before, but I’m equally sure that it hasn’t been done by anyone as interesting as the latter. So it’s really the combination of the two that caught my eye. Gillen and Vader: killer funnybook tag team.

Vader, I’ve been intrigued by since childhood. He’s at once a domineering super-villain and a servant to an even worse super-villain. He seems to have his own methods and agendas, but we gain only the slightest insight into them in the original Star Wars films. And the prequels, maligned as they are…

(perhaps not without reason)

(perhaps not without reason)

…add further shadings and tragedy to him, revealing him as a good man doomed to fall, the damaged pawn of misguided men on both sides of the Force. And, if you’re paying attention, you learn that he’s also a cuckoo, a powerful child created through Sith manipulation of the Force. He gets mistaken for Jedi Jesus, and in the end brings about the destruction of both orders.

That’s pretty freaking epic, which might make some wonder why I’m so hot on seeing Kieron Gillen write the character. Gillen excels at subtle character interactions and accessibly flawed individuals. Not the sort of thing you’d expect to be a good fit for Star Wars. Except…

Larroca Vader Torture

See… See, that right there is exactly what I want out of this book: Dark deeds and webs of deceit. Machiavellian scheming between two of the greatest pulp villains of all time. And that, Gillen is great at. To understand why, and why that scene above is such a great example of it, we’ll have to cover a bit more background. This series picks up his story at a particularly interesting period in Vader’s life: the days following the Battle of Yavin, and the destruction of the first Death Star.

(It suddenly occurs to me that I’m tossing out Star Wars terminology as if everyone knows what the hell I’m talking about. Which, I mean… If you’re reading this, you probably do. I just had to marvel for a moment at the way I tossed off “Battle of Yavin” like it’s something I learned in high school history class. What a dork!)

Anyway. Vader. After the Battle of Yavin. As that battle’s sole survivor, Vader has to take the blame for… Oh, hell. Here. If they’re gonna be doing these opening crawls in these Star Wars books (and god knows I hope they keep that up), I might as well let them set the tone:

Darth Vader Scroll

Okay, so. That’s “evil bastard comic” step one: write your “the story so far” text from the perspective of the evil bastards. And this one speaks well to Vader’s mindset. In the prequels, we saw Anakin become a true believer in not only the Sith Way, but also in fascism. Is he deluded? Of course. Deluded, and arrogant.

That’s evident in his surprise at Palpatine calling him out on his own failures. Yavin was a stunning military loss for the Empire. I mean, Palpatine had started work on the Death Star even before he wiped out the Jedi. It was the culmination of 30 or 40 years of meticulous planning and resource management, the manipulation of countless billions across the galaxy, and the maintenance of a sham democracy that he only felt safe dissolving once the damn thing was operational. Then he loses it to a slight design flaw! A slight design flaw, and the failure of his disciple to stop the young pilot who made the one-in-a-million shot that destroyed his life’s work. Needless to say, the Emperor is not well pleased.

Larroca Vader Palpatine

And in his arrogance, Vader didn’t see this coming. He’s all, “Hey! I TOLD you that thing was a bad idea, man! Totally not my fault that your master plan’s in ruins!” Well, okay. Actually, he’s more like “That battle station pales in comparison to the power of the Force!” You know, just like in the movie. What’s funny to me is that Palpatine blows him off almost as dismissively as the Imperial military council does when he says it to them. It’s like, yeah… NObody wants to hear that religious mumbo-jumbo anymore.

That’s a great characterization of the Emperor, I think. That callous, arrogant practicality. With the advent of the Death Star, he came out of the closet as a full-on evil sonnuvabitch, and now he can’t even be bothered to fake reverence to his number one agent.

Such hubris. Fantastic.

But Vader. Lots of nice small touches here, little things that speak volumes about the mindset of the character. When Vader is describing the actions of the rebels he’s recently encountered (Han, Leia, and Luke, as it happens), he says that they tortured information out of some Imperial flunkie. They didn’t, of course, but Vader assumes they did. Because OF COURSE they did. It’s what HE would have done. And what he actually does do, to the same guy, a few panels later.

Which brings us, at last, back to that torture scene above, and why Kieron Gillen is a great choice to write this book. He’s writing these villains with aplomb, drawing on what we know about them from both film trilogies, and drawing the links between the two. He’s especially good, I think, at balancing the angry, impulsive young Anakin Skywalker with the more majestic, deliberate Darth Vader. That’s evident in how Vader responds to the punishments Palpatine hands down.

Essentially, he’s told that he’s now going to be kept on a short leash, and that leash chafes. First, he’s placed under the command of the one member of the Imperial military brass who’d gotten off the Death Star before it arrived at Yavin (I’m not 100% sure, but I think it’s that disrespectful douche bag Vader force-choked in that meeting toward the beginning of Star Wars. Which, if so, is doubly insulting). Then he gets sent off on a demeaning mission to parlay with Jabba the Hutt for supplies desperately needed in the construction of the second Death Star.

More good work on Palpatine, there. He’s angry, but his punishments for Vader are mental rather than physical. Physical confrontations aren’t Palpatine’s style, and besides… it’s just barely possible that Vader could beat him. So instead he manages him. Insults and demeans him. Places him under the command of someone Vader doesn’t respect. That’s far worse than a slap.

Vader responds rather… violently.

Larroca Vader Attack

That’s where the issue opens, I should mention: with Vader’s approach to the palace of Jabba the Hutt. It’s intended, I think, to play as a dark parallel to Luke’s entrance to the same place from Return of the Jedi. Something’s missing from it, but I’ll get to that in a minute. On the positive side, it speaks to Vader’s mood. He’s angry, and when he’s angry he acts out. He continues to show that anger for the remainder of his stay on Tatooine, taking his frustrations out on some Sand People (for old time’s sake, I guess). And then he really gets busy.

He conducts some personal business with Jabba, then deals in secret with some bounty hunters (which, yes, means Boba Fett). One of them, he sends to kidnap a guy who he thinks is part of some secret plan Palpatine’s not informing him of. The other, he tasks with getting him information on this Force-Sensitive young rebel pilot he’s become obsessed with. This young rebel pilot who knew Kenobi, and who’s now running around with Vader’s old lightsaber.

So now Vader’s scheming, too. Proving, I suppose, that he can wield as well as being wielded. Is this the first crack in his devotion to Palpatine? The first time he’s doubted? The first step toward that final decision he makes that sends both of them plunging to their deaths in Return of the Jedi? For now, I choose to think that it is. And I like that it’s caused, in large part, by Vader’s discovery that his son is still alive.

But I mentioned that something’s lacking in Vader’s confrontation with Jabba. There’s a fan-service aspect to it, of course, but I think Gillen covers his ass on that. Jabba’s an established power in the Outer Rim, and it’s precisely the Outer Rim that’s causing the Empire trouble after the Battle of Yavin. The Senate helped them keep the outlying planets in line, you see, and… without that… or the Death Star to threaten them with, they’re… they’re losing… their iron grip and…

I’m sorry. Did your eyes just glaze over? I know that’s the kind of stuff everybody on Earth but me thought was boring in the prequels. But screw you guys. That shit’s fascinating, and Gillen handles it well, really earning his inclusion of The Character You Know From the Movies in this case.

So what went wrong? Well, the whole sequence is honestly a little bit clumsy. Check out this dialogue exchange, for instance:
Larroca Vader Jabba

I’m sorry, but that’s too wordy by half. The same line is better-delivered in Jedi. And when your dialogue sounds bad next to George Lucas dialogue? Yeesh. That’s not good. It just sets a bad tone, coloring my opinion of what follows. So I found the rest of it, with Vader explaining that the Mind Trick is a Jedi thing, and that the Sith don’t do that, to just be kind of flat. Pedantic, even.

But there’s also something missing, some dramatic essence that would make the whole thing more interesting and fun. That might be down to the general lack of dramatic flair in the art of Salvador Larroca, who’s great at drawing hardware, but whose work can be a bit lifeless. “Plastic” might be a good word.

So, yeah. Art and dialogue neither one firing on all cylinders. That’s never going to make for engaging reading, no matter how compelling the dramatic underpinnings are. And because that’s the scene that opens the book, I was really impatient with the rest of the issue. Honestly, all that character interplay I’ve been rambling on about didn’t even occur to me until I sat down last night and reviewed the stuff between Vader and the Emperor. That’s much better, and more interesting besides. But the Jabba stuff takes up the whole first half of the issue, so… The grade’s going to suffer a bit.

Speaking of which… What’s my final word here? Half of this book is great, the Darth Vader comic I always wanted but never had. The other half, the half with the fighting and the action, isn’t so hot. It’s a mixed bag. I want to like it, but I’m not sure it was worth the five dollar price tag. Not even at 34 pages. So this one’s going to be a real wait and see kind of thing for me. My fascination with all the evil scheming might compel me to pick up the next issue. But my dissatisfaction with the lack of compelling action (also an important part of the Star Wars experience) might lead me to leave it on the shelf. Or at least, to wait til I can get the story at a more reasonable price. I mean, I’ve waited almost 40 years for this book. A little while longer ain’t gonna hurt.

Grade: B

Oh! And as a post-script…

This issue includes the cover of the next, which…

Work It!

Work It!

HAH! That is the sassiest Vader ever! It’s like he’s top model at some kind of nerd fetish fashion show!

And with that, I leave you…

And While We Were Out… FUNNYBOOKSINREVIEWAREGO!!


So while we were wrapping up the Dork Awards, the world went and hit me with two truly spectacular weeks for comics. Tons of crazy-good stuff has been hitting the shelves, so much that there’s no way I’m going to be able to cover it all. So tonight I’m just gonna start running, and see how far I can get…

Casanova: Acedia 1, by Matt Fraction & Fabio Moon and Michael Chabon & Gabriel Ba

Moon Casanova Acedia 1

CASANOVA IS BACK, MUTHAFUCKAS!!!!!

Ahem.

My apologies. But this is maybe my favorite new comic of the current century, and I’ve missed it terribly in the years since its third volume saw print. It’s pretty great to have it back on the stands, though my excitement is belied by the relatively quiet launch of this new volume. Not that they haven’t done advertising for it or anything. And they’ve lined up both Fabio Moon AND Gabriel Ba for art this time, doubling the pleasure, doubling the fun. And having a best-selling author contributing a back-up strip is certainly a sign that Matt Fraction means business with this thing.

That’s Michael Chabon, by the way, who’s really doing a nice job on that back-up, capturing the feel of the series at its most manic. It’s a nice counter-point to the more subdued stuff Fraction’s doing on the main story.

Because I’m talking more about tone when I say that this new series is “quiet.” The tone of this first issue is rather low-key, comparatively speaking. We open with an amnesiac Casanova Quinn, bloody and traumatized by his escape from the universe-shattering conclusion of the previous volume. He’s working as majordomo to a rich man, serving as chauffeur, managing parties, keeping tabs on guests… and occasionally killing somebody.

Still, it’s a comparatively quiet existence, with little of the wild spy-fi insanity this series is known for. But there’s no flying fortresses, sexy blue time travelers, or triple-brained genetic Buddhas here. No meta-fictional commentary or gender-bending double-blinds. Just a man without a past who loves his job.

Moon Casanova Acedia Fight

Well, okay. There IS a squad of possibly-identical women in cubist masks trying to kill him. But they’re in a library. So they’re doing it quietly.

Quietly.

So, yes. CASANOVA IS BACK, MUTHAFUCKAS! And other funnybooks better start upping their game.

Grade: A

And speaking of books upping their game…

Nameless 1, by Grant Morrison and Chris Burnham

Burnham Nameless 1

Grant Morrison’s latest offering is a creepy, Lovecraftian adventure story about dreams, the occult, and outer space. So I suppose it should come as a surprise to absolutely no one that it’s my favorite new Morrison book in ages. But it’s also some of the sharpest writing I’ve seen from him in a while. Not quite on the level of Pax Americana, I don’t think, but otherwise maybe the best thing he’s done since The Filth.

That’s high praise, I know, and the series as a whole may not live up to it. But this first issue is strong stuff. Moving through the first half of it, I had that wonderful, slightly adrift, slightly queasy, slightly uncertain feeling the best Morrison stuff inspires. I felt like I was missing something, like I should be putting things together better than I was. He’s dropping references to all this occult stuff that I’m just familiar enough with to understand, but not really fully grasp. It put me off-balance and, combined with all the imagery of blood and death and amphibious monsters, ratcheted my level of apprehension right the hell on up.

Which is perfect! Because this is a horror comic, dammit, and I want my horror to make me feel a little queasy and weird. And I especially love it when the form of the story, the narrative itself, works to that purpose as much as the content. That Morrison and Burnham were able to do that to me while I was sitting in a restaurant eating some souvlaki is doubly impressive: my favorite Greek greasy spoon is hardly an environment conducive to the scaries.

But I called Nameless an adventure story at the outset, and it’s that, too, with a hero who comes off as a sort of supernatural (and kinda sleazy) version of Indiana Jones. So there’s a bunch of running and jumping and hitting to go along with the amphibious horror. And as the book rumbles on, things slowly become more clear. The dream-like quality of the early pages has a very good explanation that grounds the reader just enough to make sense of things, but that still keeps those tantalizingly vague occult references tantalizingly vague.

It’s a good launch, and it has me looking forward to the rest of this series more than I have any Grant Morrison work in a long time. And considering how much I generally look forward to new Morrison comics, that’s really saying something.

Grade: A

 

The Dying & the Dead 1, by Jonathan Hickman and Ryan Bodenheim

Bodenheim Dying Dead 1

Launching the same week as Casanova was the new series from Hickman & Bodenheim, which Hickman’s billing as “the final story of the greatest generation.” Which is a pretty freaking bold statement, but what the hell. This is the guy who earned Fantastic Four back its title as “The World’s Greatest Comics Magazine,” so I’ll cut him some slack.

Anyway. It’s about a hero of World War II in his twilight years, taking on one last adventure on the promise that his employers will cure his wife of cancer. Lots of posturing here, lots of speeches about “men who say what they’re going to do and then do it.” Which I suppose is one way to define heroism, though I can’t help thinking that it could also be a way to describe a monster, a fanatic, or a crazy person. It’s all down to what they say they’re going to do, I suppose. Hickman’s usually good for exploring that kind of philosophical fine point, though, so I hope to see a bit of that before this series is done.

That’s all stuff that occurred to me only after reading, though. In the midst of it all, I was totally absorbed, dazzled by the world being created before my eyes. Because Our Hero’s “employers” aren’t some shadowy government agency or powerful corporation. They’re not even human. They’re… something else. What, exactly, isn’t clearly defined. They’re the basis for fairy legends, perhaps, and aliens and angels and gods. They live in an underground (other-dimensional?) netherworld, immortal and separate from humanity, interacting only when it pleases them, or when it’s necessary.

click to embiggen

pardon our seam, and… click to embiggen

For better or worse, I eat that kind of crap up with a spoon. Hickman’s one of the better purveyors of such fantasy concepts working in the industry today, too, putting his own spin on them and making them interesting beyond the archetype.

I’m rather pleased with the artwork here, too. Bodenheim’s work is solid and imaginative, with clean bold lines and lots of detail. He excels at faces, especially weathered faces, which makes him a nice choice for a book with such an elderly protagonist. He’s also pretty good at the big fantasy tableaus, as you can see above. He previously worked with Hickman on Secret, an espionage series that seldom came out, but was always entertaining when it did.

If The Dying & the Dead comes out at the same rate… Well, it’ll probably lessen my enjoyment of the book a bit. I sometimes lost track of what was going on in Secret, a problem in a book with a plot that complex. I’ll always wait for quality, though, so we’ll see what happens.

Grade: B+

Whoo-boy! I kinda ran off at the mouth about those, and haven’t really left myself much time for more. So let’s rattle a few off quickly here…

The 21st issue of Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Hawkeye finally hit the stands, featuring the Russians’ final assault on Clint’s building. Things get ugly. People die. Good comics.

Fraction and Chip Zdarsky’s Sex Criminals released its 10th issue, in which we see a bunch of vaginas, Jon tries to tell Suzy he loves her, and Our Heroes achieve a triple simultaneous orgasm and discover that not everybody goes to the Quiet in the same manner. Funny, sexy, touching, and good.

Alan Moore and John Totleben’s Miracleman 15, one of the most notorious comics of the 1980s, was reprinted last week to an unfortunate lack of impact. We’ve seen ample mass destruction in super hero comics in the nearly 30 years since this thing originally saw print, but nobody’s ever done it as well, or as hauntingly, as it’s done here.

Grant Morrison and a whole slew of artists released The Multiveristy Guidebook, featuring a great comic-within-the-comic-within-the-comic structure, like a Russian nesting doll in funnybook form. Morrison goes deep dork in this one, too, trotting out not only the Atomic Knights, but giving us a Kirby Earth that combines Kamandi, OMAC, and the New Gods all under one roof. There’s also a rundown of all 52 Earths, some of which sound amazing (Bizarro Earth! Earth 13, where everybody’s goth!) and others of which… are just forgotten old Elseworlds stories that were better-left in Prestige Format Hell.

The fifth issue of Morrison and Frazer Irving’s Annihilator came out, too, bringing us to a grand total of three Grant Morrison comics out in two weeks. An embarrassment of riches. We find out what Nomax’s real crime was here, and have the book’s cosmology spelled out for us a little better: Vada is God, Nomax is the Devil, and our world is a diseased universe that Nomax created in mockery of Vada’s good works. Nice to see Morrison being so cheery outside his corporate spandex work!

In the stunning 30th issue of Matt Kindt’s Mind MGMT, we learn the secret history of The Eraser (or at least have the missing pieces of it filled in around the stuff we already know). It’s the usual mix of twisty psychic spy stuff and interesting story technique that makes this book on of the best on the market today.

And… And… Good lord, there’s more. New issues of Hickman & Dragotta’s East of West, Brubaker & Epting’s Velvet (such very very beautiful art), Deconnick & DeLandro’s Bitch Planet, Fawkes & Templesmith’s Gotham by Midnight (still a pleasant surprise three issues in), Fialkov & Chamberlain’s Punks the Comic, and Stephenson & Gane’s They’re Not Like Us. Fine reads, all.

Plus! Plus! Eric Powell launched the final Goon series, Once Upon a Hard Time, and it’s taking things down a dark, dark road. AND! STRAY BULLETS IS BACK AGAIN, MUTHAFUCKAS! With the first issue of Sunshine and Roses, in which David Lapham takes us back to 1979, and an untold tale of Beth.

So, yeah. Hot damn, but that was a good two weeks! I have no idea what we’ll be talking about next time. But, holy crap, I can’t imagine there’ll be as much of it.

Dork Awards After-Party


So here we are. The Dork Awards are done. Rental on the theater’s about to expire, and they’re turning the lights out on us. Time, then, to clear out. Loosen our ties. Kick back. Have a metaphorical drink or ten, and reflect. Makes excuses and shout recriminations. And apologize for our mistakes. It’s time, on other words, for the After-Party…

Confessions

First things first: I screwed up big-time on the award for Best Funnybook. As it turns out, Supreme: Blue Rose (our winner, if you’ll recall) is actually a mini-series rather than an on-going. D’oh! Should have known better. Warren Ellis doesn’t sign on for open-ended work-for-hire assignments anymore. So… Crap. My bad. Ultimately, though, I suppose I can’t be too upset about it. I really do think it and Best Limited Series winner Pax Americana were the two best comics of 2014, and if they’d had to go head-to-head in the same category, I wouldn’t have been able to reflect that. So maybe it’s for the best. Still… Duhr.

And, as long as I’m talking about stuff I screwed up… I also forgot to discuss two series that really deserved mention: Jason Aaron & Jason Latour’s Southern Bastards…

click to embiggen

click to embiggen

…and Terry Moore’s Rachel Rising.

click to embiggen

click to embiggen

Good reads, both, but I’m picking them up digitally, and I didn’t think to check my tablet when I was coming up with my list of nominees. Of course, as soon as I came out the other side of those awards, and decided to get caught up on my reading… D’oh! Again!

Finally, I had intended to discuss Chris Ware’s web comic The Last Saturday in the Artist of the Year category. I’ve never been a huge fan of Ware’s writing. I mean, I get it, but he’s ultimately a miserablist, and I don’t generally find that style of humor very funny. Ware’s an unquestionably great artist, though, restlessly experimenting with form, graphics, and page design. The Last Saturday is not his best work on that front, but it is a pretty awesome take on the Sunday newspaper comic strip. He’s mostly sticking to the grid here, and filling the panels with clean lines, bright colors, and disturbingly effective cartoon character designs. It’s running on the Guardian’s website (http://www.theguardian.com/books/ng-interactive/2014/sep/13/-sp-chris-ware-the-last-saturday-graphic-novel), and is well-worth looking at. I just completely forgot about it.

Snubbings and Middle Fingers

Any other exclusions were (I think. I hope.) intentional. There’s my annual snubbing of Saga and Walking Dead, for instance, which is definitely 100% intentional. What can I say? They’re just not my thing. Especially Walking Dead. I’m not a big fan of the zombie apocalypse. And yes, I know that Walking Dead is really less about the zombies and more about man’s inhumanity to man. So’s Night of the Living Dead. Been there, done that.

And as for Saga… Sigh. Man, I really want to like that book. But I can’t. It’s just too goddamn cute. And, as I’ve said maybe a million times before… I can’t abide cute. But it’s also the dialogue. Far too on-the-nose, of-the-moment, American slang for a world as alien and bizarre as that one. You can get away with that sort of thing to some extent, but there are limits. And Saga crosses them, violently and often. I know, I know. But these are the things that matter to me. Whattayagonnado?

The other major exclusion, to my mind, is Jaime Hernandez’s The Love Bunglers.

Hernandez Love Bunglers

It’s a freaking masterpiece, the culmination of a quarter-century’s worth of his work. If you haven’t read it, you totally should. But… It didn’t originally see print in 2014. It came out in… 2012, I think (I’m too lazy to check right now), in the Hernandez Brothers’ Love and Rockets: New Stories annual. It was only the graphic novel reprint that hit the shelf last year, so I didn’t include it.

My Own Stupidity

Hernandez Bumperhead

I also didn’t include Bumperhead, an OGN from Gilbert, the other Hernandez brother, primarily because… I kinda forgot to read it. So it joins the likes of Charles Burns’ Sugar Skull…

Burns Sugar Skull

…and Farel Dalrymple’s Wrenchies

click to embiggen

click to embiggen

…on my list of books that make me wonder what the hell’s wrong with me. With all three of those, I was waiting for a good evening to just settle in with them so I could read them in one go, and that evening never came. That happens too often with me and graphic novels. It’s because they’re comics, I think. I’m so used to sitting down with a single issue funnybook and devouring it in one sitting that I think I should do the same with graphic novel length stuff. But too often that’s not practical, and I need to stop thinking that it is. I should just treat them like prose novels, and read them whenever I have time to sit down with them, even if it’s only for a few minutes. And if it takes me a week to finish, so be it.

Yes, I’m figuring out my life in print. It IS a blog, after all…

Print vs Digital, Revisited

And as long as I’m talking about my life as a funnybook reader… I thought I’d take a minute, here at the end, to talk a bit about the kinds of comics I enjoy, and how I enjoy them. This has been on my mind a lot lately. I’ve been trying to simplify my life a bit, get rid of clutter. And the funnybooks keep piling up in defiance of those efforts. Even after selling off chunks of my collection, I’m feeling just slightly trapped by the things, and clearly something needs to be done.

I could trade-wait, of course, in the time-honored tradition of guys who hit their 40s and realize that they either need to ditch the collection, or build the thing its own wing of the house. But honestly… I love serialized storytelling. I love a “to be continued.” I love the anticipatory thrill of delayed gratification. And besides, on a purely practical level, a lot of the books I really enjoy don’t sell well enough to survive if people trade-wait. The monthly is still the industry’s bread and butter, and if the monthly doesn’t sell, the trades may never appear. So if I want funnybooks worth reading, I need to support them issue by issue.

Which means digital. It’s not an idea I’m averse to. As I said earlier, I’m already reading some books that way, and often saving money by doing it. So I’m a-okay with adding more to the list. Some things are too pretty for that, though. With a book like Mind MGMT, for instance, each individual issue is a work of art unto itself. The marginalia, the way the pages interact with each other, even the thick pulpy paper the thing’s printed on, all add something to the reading experience, and I’d hate to give up the pleasure of that.

My Middle-Brow Heaven

And that line of thought has, of course, lead me to start thinking seriously about the kinds of comics I’m reading, and why. I’m a genre fan, obviously. But I do have standards. I don’t want things explained to me. I want to have them demonstrated. I want to work a little when I read. Something that offers a challenge while still giving me my genre fix is maybe my favorite thing of all. And if you’re not going to challenge my mind, you damn well better be of sufficient technical skill to dazzle me so I don’t have time to think about it.

But I’m also a high-falutin’ artsy-fartsy type who likes weird stuff, a genuine art-for-art’s-sake kinda Clyde. I’ll take a glorious failure over a mediocre success any day of the week. Because that kind of success is usually a polished turd, a work of art that played it safe and tried to hide its weaknesses behind familiarity and narrative comfort. At least the failure is trying, and in trying is made beautiful.

So… yeah. All that probably makes my tastes a little bit schizophrenic. In looking back over my choices for 2014, though, I see a far greater preponderance of dazzling technical skill than I do challenge and genuine artistry. I don’t know if that’s because I got lazy, or because there wasn’t as much cool artsy stuff this year. It doesn’t necessarily upset me, either way. Both kinds of art are valid to my way of thinking. It is just the tiniest bit disappointing, though. I miss my beautiful failures.

A Final Word

And that brings another Dork Awards to an end. I hope you enjoyed (or can at least forgive) my little flights of fancy there at the end (indulge me, alright? It’s been a long month).

At any rate.

Here’s to 2014, a damn fine year for comics. Maybe not as good as the year prior, and hopefully not as good as the year ahead. But a fine year nonetheless. So hoist your beverage of choice in its honor, and let’s call it a night.

Dork Awards 2014, Part Three: Best Funnybook


And here we are, back for the final installment of the 2014 Dork Awards. I have to admit, much as I wanted to avoid this thing getting repetitious, it still got away from me. Between the previous categories, and all the reviews of these books I’ve written over the course of the year, I couldn’t escape the feeling that I’ve said all this stuff before. Ah, well. Such is the way of the year-in-review column, I suppose. So, that little warning out of the way, let’s get this show on the road…

Best Funnybook

Okay, so technically this is really an award for the “Best On-Going Series.” But “Best Funnybook” is just more fun to say. Soooo… That’s what we’re calling it. Really, though, it’s an award for the best long-form storytelling, serials that operate under different pressures than you’d see in a mini-series or OGN. The creative team can take their time, develop things in more depth, and riff more around their central themes. But they also run the risk of getting stale, and if they riff too much (thus avoiding staleness), they can lose sight of the things that made them great in the first place. It’s a long, slow tightrope walk for the on-going series, but (as a life-long funnybook fan) it’s also the kind of storytelling I like the best.

And the nominees are…

Hawkeye, by Matt Fraction, David Aja, and Marjorie Wu

Aja Hawkeye 20

The best mainstream super hero comic on the stands continued its impressive run in 2014, albeit somewhat slowly. The story of Clint Barton and his on-going conflict with the mob slowed especially last year, with more forward motion happening in the Kate Bishop Los Angeles stories. Unfortunately, the Kate stuff suffers in comparison to the Clint stories. In part, that’s because Marjorie Wu’s artwork, nice as it is, simply isn’t as inventive as the stuff David Aja’s been doing on the Clint stories. But it also felt like writer Matt Fraction’s heart wasn’t in Kate’s issues quite as much. He did some interesting things, told some entertaining stories, but they still felt tacked-on, like something that should have run as a companion mini-series rather than issues of the regular book. But, publishing realities being what they are… That’s not what happened. Still. An entertaining book, and one well-deserving of a place on my Best Comics list.

Velvet, by Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting

Epting Velvet 8

Another series that suffered quite a few delays in 2014, Brubaker & Epting’s Velvet did so while maintaining its high standards of quality. It remained an exciting, hard-edged amalgam of James Bond spy fantasy and John Le Carre style spy reality, a “spy noir” made up of equal parts ugly personal realities and thrilling action. It continued to avoid the “bad girl” clichés in its second year, presenting a super-competent female lead without constantly putting her in T&A fantasy poses. Toss in the stunning illustrative work of Artist of the Year winner Steve Epting and the gorgeous colors of Elizabeth Breitweiser, and you’ve got the state-of-the-art in adventure comics. If you like that sort of thing, and you’re not reading Velvet… You’re missing out.

Lazarus, by Greg Rucka and Michael Lark

Lark Lazarus 13

Another book with a strong female lead that avoids the bad girl clichés. I discussed why I love Lazarus so much in last week’s Writer of the Year entry for Greg Rucka, so I’ll only outline it here: it’s a very well-realized future society. But the other half of the equation is artist Michael Lark. He works in the same sort of very realistic illustrative style as Steve Epting, and may be second only to Epting in that category. I’ll even go a step further and say that Lark is probably superior in facial expression. His characters are better actors than Epting’s, a skill that serves him well on a book that’s so much about the differences between what people say, do, and think. And that’s the other thing that lands Lazarus a place among 2014’s best: a complexity of character as well as plot. It’s just a great read, a multi-layered, deliberately-paced exploration of culture and power. Chillingly plausible sci-fi, with pretty pretty pictures. What’s not to like?

The Wicked + The Divine, by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie

click to embiggen

click to embiggen

Gillen & McKelvie are the Lennon & McCartney of pop funnybooks. Their work together is catchy and fun, and in its willingness to wrestle with serious issues, it captures the spirit of the age. They’re also far better together than they are apart. Wicked + Divine is their latest, dealing in indie cool and emotional sincerity while simultaneously developing an interesting fantasy scenario. This time out, they’re giving us a world in which the gods incarnate in human form once a century, briefly inspiring society to greatness (and awfulness, I suppose) before burning out completely. It’s a comic about belief, faith, celebrity, and murder, ruthlessly modern but dealing in ancient themes. Plus, there’s a chick who looks like David Bowie.

McKelvie Lucifer

She’s the devil. Or was. Because she’s dead now, sacrificed in a bit of thematic role reversal that cemented this book’s place among the year’s best.

Fatale, by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips

click to embiggenIf Gillen & McKelvie are comics’ Lennon & McCartney, then Brubaker & Phillips would have to be the funnybook Townsend & Daltrey. Which is to say, their stuff is darker and more perverse, and they may be an even more perfect team. They’ve spent the last several years exploring the depths of various pulp fiction forms, and Fatale (which ended last year) is their pulp horror entry, a sort of noir-tinged tribute to HP Lovecraft. It stars Josephine, an ageless beauty possessed of a terrible magnetism and power over men. I’ve always considered that ironic for a Lovecraft pastiche; women figured in his work hardly at all. But in retrospect, I’ve come to think that it’s actually quite fitting. Lovecraft always left the greatest horrors unseen, so by that logic, the horror of female sexuality must be the ultimate terror.

Or maybe Brubaker just wanted to tweak Lovecraft’s nose a bit. Either way, the series finale dug deep into the Lovecraftian well, trading in cosmic horror as Josephine’s powers were unleashed, and making Fatale my favorite Brubaker/Phillips work to date. Though I don’t think it was their best work of 2014, as we’ll see below…

Prophet, by Brandon Graham, Simon Roy, and Others

Prophet also saw delays this year, as its story hit ever more epic heights, but also introduced more familiar (some might say clichéd) genre fiction concepts into the grand weirdness that’s been its stock-in-trade. Don’t get me wrong. The book’s still plenty weird, as stuff like this from the Prophet: Strikefile guidebook shows:

click to embiggen the WRONGNESS

Still, that sense of bizarre inventiveness has faded a bit, and kept this series from taking the prize this year.

East of West, by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta

Dragotta East of West 11

Hickman and Dragotta’s sci-fi manga western continued to impress in 2014, maybe as fine an example of world-building as Greg Rucka’s work on Lazarus, if one that’s not quite as believable. Believable’s not the point, though. There’s room for fantasy and reality in our sci-fi funnybooks, after all, and the alternate history being created in East of West is pure fantasy, as much mythology as anything else. That’s its greatest strength, I think, that grand sweep of big ideas, and the sense of great events unfolding.

In 2014, those great events were, essentially, the apocalypse being loosed upon the land. If the first arc was all set-up, an establishment of the various nations and factions of this alternate America, the second arc was primarily concerned with watching those forces move (or be moved) toward war. It’s still early days yet. The pieces are still moving into place. But the first battles have been fought, and more seem inevitable. It’s fascinating (dreadfully so) watching the world tear itself apart. Not so fascinating that East of West wins, unfortunately. But it’s still one of the funnybooks I most look forward to reading.

The Fade Out, by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips

p27

The new Brubaker/Phillips joint is only a few issues old, but it’s already their finest work. A murder mystery set in 1940s Hollywood, the series sets the same noir tone typical to this team, but the writing seems elevated here somehow, the cast bigger and more real. Sean Phillips’ art is hitting some real highs, as well, particularly in scenes dealing with memory and the lack thereof. Series lead Charlie Parish is a heavy drinker, prone to blackouts, and he’s having real trouble remembering one night in particular. The night he was passed out in a bathtub while a movie star was being killing in the next room. Phillips renders his attempts to remember that night in deep blacks, vivid flashes of color, and graphite:

Phillips Fade Out Smoke

He’s also hitting new highs in the way he draws faces. There’s a richness in them sometimes that I’m not accustomed to seeing in his work. There’s a richness to The Fade Out as a whole, actually, and that’s the real secret to its appeal. Reading it, I feel like this team has reached a new plateau in their work. And that’s a great thing to see from guys who’ve been at the job this long.

Satellite Sam, by Matt Fraction and Howard Chaykin

Chaykin Satellite Sam 9

A great book that doesn’t get enough attention. I’ve said this before, and I’ll no doubt say it again before the series is done: Satellite Sam is Mad Men for funnybooks. Set at a TV station in the early 1950s, it charts the development of that industry, as well as the lives of the producers, technicians, actors, and egomaniacs who shaped it. The book deals with issues of sex, addiction, race, and lust in all its many forms. It released the five issues of its second arc (“Satellite Sam and the Kinescope Snuff”) spread out bi-monthly across 2014, a schedule that made me think it was running constantly late. But in retrospect, that’s obviously not the case.

I’m assuming that Fraction & Chaykin are treating this thing like one of these high-quality TV dramas I’m comparing it to, doing a limited number of issues per year, but making sure each one has “movie-quality” production values. Because that’s the feel here, really. Each issue of Satellite Sam is densely-packed, its pages crammed with information. It puts me in mind of Chaykin’s American Flagg! work from the 80s, a comic that Fraction’s cited as a major influence more than once. Their collaboration seems to be bringing some of that storytelling diligence back into Chaykin’s pages, as they’re more complex (and more enjoyable) than just about anything I’ve seen him draw in the last 20 years.

Satellite Sam is one of those books that I wish came out more often, but that I’m willing to wait for, just because it’s so very good. Not good enough to win, obviously, but that’s no embarrassment, considering the competition…

Stray Bullets: Killers, by David Lapham

Lapham Killers 2

STRAY BULLETS, MUTHA– Ahem.

I’ve made my enthusiasm for the return of David Lapham’s suburban crime series clear more than once in the past year, and he hasn’t let me down. The new Stray Bullets has been every bit as consistently smart, funny, thrilling, and downright heartbreaking as the original. Nice to see that Lapham’s years in the work-for-hire trenches haven’t dulled his abilities. It’s been a fine return to form, and one that made 2014 a very good year for the writer/artist. Not sure why I didn’t include him in my “Writer of the Year” category, in fact, now that I think about it. A terrible oversight.

Trees, by Warren Ellis and Jason Howard

Howard Trees 1

And speaking of writers having a good year… Writer of the Year winner Warren Ellis turned in career-best work on this series, a stark science fiction book about a near-future Earth living under an invasion of silent, towering, incomprehensible alien… Trees. Not literally trees, of course, but some kind of impenetrable towers that have rooted themselves in the ground in various spots across the globe, and stretch high into the clouds. Ellis has followed a variety of characters across the globe in very grounded, very human stories, examining the cultural, political, and scientific pressures of life under the Trees. It’s very good stuff, the first “season” of which has just come to a rather ugly, if not unexpected, end. I have no idea where Ellis and Howard will be taking things in the second season (literally, since so very many members of the cast are now dead), but I’ll be looking forward to it with bated breath.

Sex Criminals, by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky

Zdarsky Sex Criminals 5

What can I say about this book that I (and so very many other critics) haven’t already said? It’s a funny, honest, just slightly (okay, maybe more than just slightly) profane funnybook about sex. It grapples entertainingly with love and relationships (and the difference between the two), psychological problems, friendship, and all manner of other stuff. That’s it’s about people who can stop time with their orgasms is really kind of secondary. Tertiary, even. That it’s about people, period, full stop… That’s its real strength.

A popular favorite with wide appeal, Sex Criminals is a good comic, an important comic, one truly capable of bringing new readers to the medium. But it wasn’t my favorite of the year. There are still two that beat it…

Mind MGMT, by Matt Kindt

Kindt Mind MGMT 21

I’ve praised this series again and again over the past year, and praised it even more in my discussion of Matt Kindt’s story and art in the Writer of the Year category. So I won’t go into great detail on it now. Suffice it to say that it’s great comics, a sci-fi mindfuck of a spy story that constantly innovates in storytelling, and always to the betterment of the story being told. And Kindt’s art is wonderfully effective beyond the experimentation, sketchy and softer than the usual funnybook art, even ugly at times. But that ugliness works to its advantage, especially when he’s dealing with the sort of grotesqueries his story calls for. And even at its ugliest, it’s still softened somewhat by the delicate watercolor effects Kindt layers over it all. It’s great funnybooks. In any other year, it would have taken the Dork Award easily. But in 2014, one book impressed me even more.

And the winner is…

Supreme: Blue Rose, by Warren Ellis and Tula Lotay

Lotay Supreme 4

It feels a little weird giving the Best Funnybook award to a work-for-hire comic, but this book’s been one of the year’s best surprises, meta-fictional and effortlessly artsy. A worthy follow-up, I’d say, to the work Alan Moore did with the Supreme strip in the 90s. Even better, it answers Moore’s challenge to the comics industry to move on beyond him. Much like what Moore himself did with books like Swamp Thing, here Ellis has honored Moore’s work while simultaneously erasing it and making it his own.

Moore’s Supreme was a joyous celebration of everything great in Silver Age Superman. He even (as per usual) did funnybook memes one better by coming up with a mechanism to explain the constant reboot and reinvention long-running comics undergo. It’s that mechanism Ellis has latched onto, dealing with the confusion constant reinvention might cause those undergoing it with a “continuity reboot” that didn’t go as planned. It’s a sci-fi take, set in a world that’s not as wonder-filled as it should have been, and hurtling headlong toward oblivion and ever-increasing horrowshow strangeness because of it.

The narrative is as broken and disjointed as the world, and that feel is aided and abetted by the artwork of Tula Lotay. I’ve already spoken at length about her contributions in the Artist of the Year category, so I won’t get back into it here. But she’s the perfect artist for this book, and adds tremendously to the artistry that landed it the Dork Award.

 

Aaaannndd… That’s it. Dork Awards 2014, done and done. Except…

There’s always a few things I forget, leave out, or just plain get wrong. And those things will be the subject of what’s come to be my favorite part of the Dork Awards: the After-Party. Which is what we’ll get next time. Hope to see you then.

A Funnybook Far, Far Away…


Taking another little side-trip from the Dork Awards to discuss another comic that everybody’s talking about…

Star Wars 1, by Jason Aaron and John Cassaday

Star Wars 1 Cassaday Cover

I wasn’t sure I was going to give this book a try. The last time I really enjoyed a Star Wars comic, I was maybe in middle school. I think Archie Goodwin and Al Williamson were doing the book then. Which says less about my taste at that age, and more about how lucky I was to have such a great creative team on a comic I probably would have enjoyed in the hands of any halfway competent writer and artist. But they left, my tastes changed, and I mostly stopped reading Star Wars comics.

I mean, last year’s The Star Wars intrigued me, but that was mainly because I was curious about what George Lucas’ original script looked like. Once I got the feel of the thing, I saw that the execution was leaving something to be desired and my interest waned pretty fast. And I liked the idea of Brian Wood’s Star Wars comic, set (like this one) between the first and second movies, but I’m hit and miss enough with Wood that I just decided to give it a miss.

This one, though… It’s got one hell of a creative team behind it. Probably the best since Goodwin and Williamson, in fact. I seldom go too far wrong with a Jason Aaron comic, and I’ve picked up books I otherwise despised (I’m looking at YOU, Joss Whedon X-Men!) just to gaze at John Cassaday’s pretty pretty pictures. So I figured… What the hell? It could only suck so bad, right?

Whatever you say, Mr. Solo.

Whatever you say, Mr. Solo.

But, hey! For once, those weren’t famous last words. This book actually didn’t suck. It was a pretty decent little Star Wars story, full of action and humor and so many of the things so many Star Wars comics get so very wrong. The cast is charming, for instance. They bicker. The relationships feel right. The situations have that sort of “caper” feel to them, where well-laid plans go horribly awry, and Our Heroes have to improvise their way out. It’s fun.

But it’s not great. I didn’t find it particularly exciting, for one thing, and that’s important for this kind of pulpy sci-fi nonsense. Also, it seemed to me that Aaron and Cassaday were working a little too hard to work in familiar Star Wars stuff. I love that they took four whole pages to give us the classic Star Wars opening…

Star Wars 1 Intro

This…

Star Wars 1 Logo

…is…

Star Wars 1 Scroll

…EPIC!

…and I even kind of like that the disguises they use in the opening match the outfits Jabba the Hutt’s guards wore in Return of the Jedi:

Star Wars 1 Jabba Guards

They’re posing as emissaries of Jabba, after all, so that makes sense. But the little details kind of piled on after that, and by the time we got to a room full of Imperial Walkers, I was starting to feel like the comic was continually poking me, and going, “Hey remember this thing? And this other thing? And what about this?! I KNOW you remember THIS!” And that got on my nerves.

I also wasn’t sure about the effectiveness of space kung fu on dudes wearing full body armor.

Hi-Keeba!

Hi-Keeba!

Then there’s this thing about how often the Millennium Falcon is mistaken for garbage, which (if I can nit-pick for a moment) is a reference to something from The Empire Strikes Back, and thus happened well after the events of this story. Sorry to be the stereotypical fanboy there…

(Worst. Reference. Ever.)

(Worst. Reference. Ever.)

…but if you’re going to trade on that much specific shit from the movies, you better get it right.

Not that this ruins the comic or anything. There’s some great cocky hare-brained Han Solo scheming, an opportunity for hilarity with C-3PO, a chance for Princess Leia to get in on the ass-kickery, a pretty bad-ass Chewbacca moment…

Star Wars 1 Chewbacca

…and there’s this dude named Luke Skywalker in it, too. He’s got a laser sword and talks to people who aren’t there. He’s kind of a big deal, I guess.

I’m also pleased that I can already see Aaron delving into how things went from the status quo at the end of Star Wars to the situations and relationships we see at the beginning of Empire. That includes the Han/Leia romance, the change in the Rebels’ fortunes, and exactly how it is that Darth Vader finds out it was Luke who destroyed the Death Star.

(And, holy crap, I hope we see the ramifications of THAT little discovery….)

“Uhm, boss...? You said my son was dead, you prune-faced bastard!”

“You said my son was dead, you prune-faced bastard!”

So, yeah. It didn’t suck. But was it five whole dollars’ worth of Not-Suck? Hmm. I’m gonna have to think on that a bit. The highway robbery of that cover price IS ameliorated a bit by the fact that this first issue gave us 33 pages of story. Granted, four of those pages were given over to the classic movie opening, with an additional page devoted to movie-style end credits. But I’m okay with that. It sets the proper tone, and (as I think I’ve said before) graphic design is content. Or, at least it is when it’s done this well.

If future issues are shorter and cheaper, and if the creative team gets over its “HERE IS THIS THING YOU REMEMBER” fetish, it might be worth the money. Or it might be something I read digitally. A year or two from now. When the price drops.

Or maybe if we get more of THIS guy…

Star Wars 1 Jaxxon Cover

Only time will tell.

Grade: B

Dork Awards 2014: Writer and Artist of the Year


Aaaand, we’re back! Real life got in the way a bit last week, and so I didn’t get to the second round of the Dork Awards. But now I’ve chopped out a hollow spot in my schedule, so let’s get crackin’! This week, we’re shifting gears a bit, to discuss specific creators rather than specific books. Honestly, this whole thing was a lot easier last year, when we just did a “25 Best Comics” list. Hopefully, I’ll remember that next year. But, ah well. Live and learn.

But we’ve got two awards to hand out this time, so let’s stop dicking around…

Writer of the Year

I almost didn’t do this award. I read comics for the writing, primarily, so I was afraid that this award would wind up sounding an awful lot like the two “Best Comic” awards. But then I found my hook: discuss the writers’ work overall (their “oeuvre,” eef you weel), instead of specific stories they may have written. We’ll see how that works out. Plus, I’ve tossed in a ringer…

Honorable Mention: Jason Aaron

None of this guy’s books made it into my Best Comics lists this year (little spoiler there, I guess), and yet he’s one of the writers I think most fondly of when I think about funnybook writers (which, let’s face it, is far far more often than is entirely healthy). He’s a very masculine writer, specializing in complex tough guys and generally turning out work that smells of whiskey, gasoline, and Brut. He’s also that rare writer who can turn out corporate spandex work I enjoy (his epically stupid Thor), as well as regular writing that strikes a chord (the gloriously mean-spirited Southern Bastards). I really like his stuff. But to some extent, that’s the problem. I LIKE his work. I don’t LOVE it. That’s why he only rates Honorable Mention. But at least he got that.

Ed Brubaker

Sort of the opposite of Jason Aaron is Ed Brubaker. He wrote multiple series I loved this year, but didn’t win because, well… His work’s not particularly deep. I mean, don’t get me wrong. He writes good, complex characters in the noir style. And god knows I love me some noir. But Brubaker’s work is stuff I get on the surface, on my first reading. And I’m always going to prefer something that makes me work a little.

Greg Rucka

Another writer whose work I enjoy primarily on the surface, and not as consistently as I like Ed Brubaker’s work. But Rucka gets the edge this year, because of the frankly incredible world-building he’s doing in the pages of Lazarus. Because, much as I like noir, I am a complete and total nerd for a well-conceived fantasy world. And the dystopian future Rucka’s constructing in Lazarus is one of the most well-realized near-futures I’ve read. Sure, it’s a liberal nightmare come to life. But it’s complex, detailed, and convincing. If the world winds up under corporate rule (okay, OVERT corporate rule), I wouldn’t be surprised if it wound up looking an awful lot like this. That’s impressive, and it’s what lands Greg Rucka a spot on this list.

Jonathan Hickman

In a lot of ways, 2014 was Jonathan Hickman’s year. His series East of West is one of the better sci-fi books on the stands, he wrapped up (after numerous delays) his espionage series Secret, and his tenure as lead writer on the Avengers titles started paying off on his long-term plot goals, to reportedly spectacular results. I say “reportedly” because I stopped reading those books when the amount of money it cost to follow them outstripped the amount of entertainment I was gaining from them. But I’m told they’ve been really good, and look forward to reading them on the cheap bastard plan when the digital price drops to something closer to reasonable. East of West has been so good, though, that it lands him his spot here all by its lonesome.

Alan Moore

This one’s a no-brainer, right? I mean, of course the Funnybook Shakespeare’s on my Best Writers list. If he puts out a book in any given year, he’s most likely going to land a spot. He usually lands a higher spot than this, in fact, but Moore’s output was more limited this year than most. His League of Extraordinary Gentlemen OGN was pretty much it, except for the first chapter of a new Crossed mini-series that will most likely get consideration next year moreso than this. And that was good stuff, but for Writer of the Year, I wanted someone with a little more output.

Grant Morrison

Another shoe-in for Writer of the Year who ultimately didn’t quite take the top spot, in spite of writing what I’ve already called as the best single comic of 2014 (Pax Americana). And that’s because he’s starting to repeat himself. I mean… He’s always repeated himself. Other-dimensional incursions, transcendental awakenings, the inspirational power of the heroic ideal… About 95% of his work deals with one or all of those ideas. But in the past, he’s been better at disguising it, leaving a lot of that as subtext and keeping the details different and interesting enough that it didn’t feel like you were reading the same story over and over again. Here lately, though, that subtext is increasingly becoming text, with fewer and fewer layers of symbol and obfuscation hiding it. Unfortunately, the symbols and obfuscation, the grand mystery of it all, was easily half of what made his work so very interesting in the first place. Now, don’t get me wrong: he’s still turning out good stuff. I still consider any new Grant Morrison project a treat. But this year, at least, I couldn’t bring myself to give him the top spot.

Matt Fraction

It’s been one hell of a year for Matt Fraction. He’s handled a sudden departure from the work-for-hire trenches with grace and established a place for himself as a writer of things people want to read. And he did it with a comic about sex and relationships that appeals equally to both men and women, and features very little violence. That’s remarkable. And it doesn’t even take into account his final work-for-hire super hero writing, his other on-going series about the early days of television, or his dense, psychedelic, gender-bent take on the Odyssey, all of which have been stellar. So, yes. It’s been a very good year indeed for Matt Fraction.

But not quite good enough, because the Dork Award goes to…

Warren Ellis

The realization that this was really Warren Ellis’ year kind of crept up on me in the last month. I’ve been reading the guy for a long time, following him from Transmetropolitan through Stormwatch and The Authority, on to Planetary and Nextwave, and his recent forays into prose fiction with Crooked Little Vein and Gun Machine. Through it all, I’ve come to expect intelligence, a finely-tuned sense of the outrageous, and an even-more-finely-tuned sense of righteous indignation. That was his thing. It was what he did.

But in recent years, it turned into schtick. The outrageousness came to seem forced. The righteous indignation, less called-for. And though his work was seldom less than intelligent, a lot of it began to feel rather pointless. After a number of mini-series with promising ideas that fell apart in the third act (Black Summer and Supergod among them), I got very picky about which Ellis projects I read and which ones I didn’t.

I never entirely discounted him, though, and I’m glad I didn’t. Because this year, the man reinvented himself, offering up artsy little pop culture bon-bons on Moon Knight, high weirdness in Supreme: Blue Rose, and some very quiet, very human near-future sci-fi in Trees. It’s all recognizably Ellis. He’s done things in these veins here and there before (except maybe Supreme). But none of it feels like his schtick. The bombast is mostly gone. He’s not straining to shock, nor is he populating these stories with characters who are right, dammit, and bitter about it to boot. It’s mature work, god help us all, and maybe the best of his career.

So for that, for reinventing himself, and for giving me three of my favorite funnybooks of the year… Warren Ellis gets the Dork Award for Writer of the Year.

And now, moving right along (this time with more pretty pictures)…

Artist of the Year

A tough category this year, but a fun one to write about. There was an abundance of great funnybook art in 2014, in a wide variety of styles. Such a wide variety that it’s like comparing apples and oranges at times. But whether you go in for classic illustration, solid storytelling, pretty pictures, or experimentation, this year offered something good for everyone.

Honorable Mention: James Stokoe

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click to embiggen

Stokoe is one of my favorite artists working today. His style is cartoony and profane, and packed with great tiny detail that both fleshes out the worlds he creates in his work (he’s a writer-artist), and serves as fun comedy relief. He’d probably rank higher on this list, in fact, if he’d released more in the past year than the Avengers 100th Anniversary Special, a one-shot story about the super-team 100 years after their founding. Crazy fun and gorgeous, as all Stokoe’s work is, that single comic was enough to land him a spot here.

Nick Dragotta

 

Dragotta East of West Headshot

As artist on East of West, Nick Dragotta adds to that book’s appeal immeasurably, offering visuals and character design that’s at once original and pleasingly familiar, drawing on influences as wide as Sergio Leone, Akira Kurosawa, Jack Kirby, and Katsuhiro Otomo. And all while maintaining a style that’s recognizably his own.

Jamie McKelvie

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click to embiggen

I’m not sure what it is about McKelvie’s work that I like so very much. He’s got a clean line, certainly, but his figures are, to be really honest, a little plastic-looking. Stiff. And because of that stiffness, he’s not great at drawing action, either. But he is good at character design, and his page layouts continue to be some of the more innovative in the industry, even on The Wicked + The Divine, a book on which McKelvie and writer Kieron Gillen are consciously trying to be less experimental than they’ve been in the past. The thing that really sells me on McKelvie, though, is that he’s genuinely great at quiet moments, making talking heads interesting and dynamic to read. That’s because he’s great at camera placement and “acting.” Which is to say, he handles expression and body language well, a shockingly rare talent in American comics. So for that, as much as anything, he deserves mention.

Chip Zdarsky

Zdarsky Sex Criminals Coming

Another guy with clean lines and great acting ability, Chip Zdarsky also has another rare talent in American comics: he’s really good at drawing regular people. Fat people, skinny people, people of average looks and builds of the type you meet on the street every day. And, because he’s the artist of Sex Criminals, he often draws those regular people having sex. Which is great, and really refreshing.

Now, Zdarsky’s also good at other stuff, like page layout and camera angle and comedic timing. His pages are a pleasure to read. But the thing that always strikes me most about him is that ability to draw regular folks instead of the super-models and grotesqueries you usually get in funnybooks. That’s a rare talent, and one I’d love to see more of.

Tula Lotay

The artist on Warren Ellis’ Supreme: Blue Rose, Tula Lotay is someone whose work kind of snuck up on me. I found it unremarkable when I read the first issue. Kind of plain, even sketchy, life-drawing style figures, I thought, moving around in a sort of psychedelic haziness that wasn’t doing anything for me. But I think I was just being thrown by how different it is from the sort of comics art I’m used to. Because the more of it I read, the more brilliant it seems. Those figures I found so plain at first have started coming to life for me. She’s especially good at faces. I’ve pointed out her Doc Rocket before, but it bears repeating:

Lotay Doc Rocket

And that psychedelic haziness? While I initially found it distracting on what seemed to be “normal” scenes, it’s absolutely perfect for the reality-shifting weirdness going on elsewhere. Of course, as the story’s gone on, it’s become increasingly obvious that there is no “normal” anywhere here. This is a messed-up, ephemeral universe, and Tula Lotay is perfect to depict it. The right artist on the right book at the right time.

Frazer Irving

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click to embiggen

Irving’s been one of my favorites for quite some time now. He has a unique style, with clean lines and acid colors that just seem to glow on the page.

Because, yes, he does his own color. He works in color, as I understand it, which… It’s only striking me just now, but isn’t it weird that more comics artists don’t? All part of the medium’s origins and historical printing processes, I suppose. But these days? You’d think there’d be more full color artists out there.

Anyway. Irving. He’s equally adept at the horrific, the cartoony, and the cosmic, and he’s another guy who knows his way around expression and body language. If he has a weakness, it’s in storytelling. His sequential art is occasionally hard to follow in action scenes. And, truth be told, his figures sometimes get a tad stiff in the action stuff, as well. Still and all, though, Irving art on a book is almost enough to get me to pick it up all by itself. And that’s a rare thing.

JH Williams III

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click to embiggen

Is there a better comics artist working today than JH Williams III? I’m not sure there is. He’s a visionary, adding extra layers of meaning to a story by virtue of how he chooses to draw it. His page layouts alone can add depth. And what layouts! He’s become the master of the two-page spread, creating visual framing devices that reflect the action and still move the reader’s eye around the page in the proper order. At times it feels like he’s reinventing the language of comics storytelling with every turn of the page. He can also draw equally well in several different styles, and often does so all at once, on the same page, somehow making things fit together that really shouldn’t, and always to the betterment of the story. And that’s the thing that really makes Williams tops: he’s not about empty flash. No matter how out there his images and layouts may get, they always serve the story. In an era when many top artists (*coughJimLeecough*) insert pointless splash pages that impair story flow (but which will sell for top dollar on the original art market), JH Williams goes the extra mile to ensure that his work reads well rather than just looking pretty. Though it does that, too.

Having said all that, you may be wondering why, then, Williams didn’t take the Dork Award. Well… That’s because it’s “Artist of the Year,” and that implies a certain level of impact, as well as quality. And with only two issues of Sandman out in 2014… Williams didn’t have the impact of our winner.

Or winners, actually. Because we have a tie. I’m of two minds, you see, on comics art. On the one hand, I love classic illustration. Solid drawing skills and storytelling ability. But on the other, I’m also a huge fan of expressionism and experimentation. Art that captures the proper tone of a story, or that finds a new way to tell it. I wouldn’t say that these two loves are at odds in my head, exactly; I don’t think there’s any absolutely right or wrong way to tell a story. But I am hard-pressed to say which one I prefer. Especially when confronted with artists who are so very good at both approaches. So the Dork Award goes to…

Steve Epting and Matt Kindt

JH Williams may be a double threat, a guy who’s both technically skilled and an inspired innovator, but 2014 really belonged, for me, to these two guys. Epting is the classic illustrator, Kindt the expressionist. Both were the best at their respective approaches last year, and in the end I just couldn’t decide between them.

Epting’s work on Velvet is simply stunning, on par with past greats like Wally Wood, John Buscema, or Al Williamson. That’s high praise, I know, but I think Epting’s earned it. His skills are rock-solid in things like figure drawing, backgrounds, acting, and storytelling, as at-home drawing society parties as he is action. Plus, he has enough visual flair to lay some flash over all that technical skill, so his stuff’s also appealing to people who aren’t process junkies like myself. It’s gorgeous work, the best traditional comics art in the industry right now.

Breitweiser Velvet 3 Colors

 

Kindt, meanwhile, innovates endlessly. His work on Mind MGMT (which he also writes) lacks Epting’s slickness, but it’s still captivating, visceral stuff that captures the proper mood, an important factor in a book that’s as much about what’s in the characters’ minds as it is what’s happening around them.

Kindt Mind MGMT Scream

His storytelling innovations work to his advantage there, as well. Most obvious is the ongoing “Field Guide,” text snippets running in the margins that work as counterpoint to the action and even, at times, overrun the artwork as well:

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click. embiggen. you know the drill.

 

Both these men impressed me endlessly in 2014, with their professionalism and eye for detail. While not as flashy as some, their artwork went above and beyond to make their respective books better than they would have been otherwise. Reading their work is exciting. A pleasure. A treat. And for that, they take the win.