Fantastic Four Prelude: The Greatest Moment in Funnybook History


So I was working on a Fantastic Four piece for this week, but it’s taking a little longer than expected to pull it together. Just to give you something to ponder while you’re waiting, though…

THINGBEARD!!!

THINGBEARD!!!

I have often joked that this is the Greatest Moment in Funnybook History. But honestly, I really think it might be. Why? That’s a question I’ll try to answer next time…

Deja Vu All Over Again: DC Comics Relaunches … With a Twist


So Bleeding Cool ran this headline over the weekend:

DC Comics To Relaunch Everything With #1s Again This Summer With A Film/TV Bent

Now, this isn’t really the kind of news I normally feel a great need to write about. It’s funnybook business as usual, after all, as the Big Two comics publishers become more and more adept at manipulating their fans into spending too much money. There’ll be some lip service paid to how they’re repositioning the line with exciting new directions that warrant all these new #1s. They’ll move some creative teams around. Launch a few new series (some of which will really just be rejiggerings of existing books). And then business will continue as usual. Nothing worth real in-depth thought.

But something in that Bleeding Cool headline caught my eye this time. It’s the bit about “a film and TV bent.”

Flash Split

What that means, if Rich has his rumors facts straight, is that they’ll be focusing much more on characters with movies and TV shows developed around them. And I suppose that plan makes sense from the perspective of the people who own DC Comics. As the recent cancellation of Fantastic Four has taught us, after all, corporate spandex comics are now primarily seen as advertising by their Evil Overlords in the film industry. So of course they’re going to focus the publishing line on things they’re also putting in front of the cameras.

That means you can count on lots of Superman and Batman, some Wonder Woman and Harley Quinn, a smattering of Justice League and Suicide Squad, and of course plenty of Flash and Green Arrow. And, one would imagine, a bit of Supergirl, too.

Supergirl TV

I mean, they may have utterly failed to plan anything to capitalize on that character’s TV success, but you’d think they’d put something together by summer, wouldn’t you? Something more than the TV show adaptation they launched today?

But Supergirl gets me closer to my point here, and what I initially thought that headline meant: that they were going to completely reboot the DC Universe again, with an eye toward making the characters feel more like their screen counterparts. That’s what really caught my eye, because the first thing that popped into my head when I read it was…

DC TV

“They could do a lot worse.”

Seriously. Think about it for a minute.

A female-friendly Supergirl comic? One that establishes her as a character in her own right, with a tone of youthful hope and possibility?

Or a Flash comic that’s all about a fun 21st-Century remix of Silver Age craziness?

Or even a Teen Titans comic using the Wolfman / Perez team, but done with a splash of retro-mod style that hearkens back to the team’s Sixties roots?

So, yeah. Seriously. They could do a lot worse.

There would be pitfalls to it, of course. There’s always the danger that they’d wind up being perceived as second-rate versions of the television shows. So they’d have be careful to take inspiration from the screen while maintaining enough differences that the comics remain their own thing. And they’d have to remember to sometimes do things that are bigger and wilder than what you can get away with on camera, too. But it’s not an idea I’d disregard out of hand.

I’d even be all for making Superman hew a bit closer to Man of Steel. Now, I know what the knee-jerk fanboy reaction to that would be: we’d be getting a Superman who’s willing to let thousands of people die while he makes out with his girlfriend and blah blah blah.

(Granted, this... doesn't look great.)

(Granted, this… doesn’t look great.)

But screw those guys. Man of Steel is hardly a perfect film, but making the death toll the sole thing you take away from it is just bad reading. Yes, lots of people die in the battle with Zod’s army. But I’m okay with that, as a plot point. It speaks to Pa Kent’s fears, and the need for self-control he instills in the young Clark. It underscores the cost of combat, and the need for Superman to be careful with the fragile human world he’s decided to make himself part of.

So what I see in Man of Steel is a modern take on Superman built around themes of trust, heroism, and responsibility. It’s a movie about growing up, making hard choices (some of them wrong), and learning how to be a hero. It’s a Superman origin that humanizes him while laying a solid new foundation for the character everyone knows.

You couldn’t ask for a better template for relaunch than that. It offers opportunities for learning, opportunities for conflict, and for more sticky moral issues to be raised in stories going forward. Sounds like the stuff of gripping drama to me, especially for a character you have to attack emotionally rather than physically. Superman’s invulnerability makes it difficult at best to offer him credible physical threats month after month, so you attack him mentally and morally. Stab him in the heart, and you’ve got the audience’s attention.

Now, I know I’m not going to convince anyone who already hates Man of Steel, and that’s okay. I don’t like all the DC screen adaptations, either. I’ve never been much on Arrow, for instance, and don’t get me started on how much I hated Constantine. And though we can’t really judge Suicide Squad until it’s actually been released, it does seem to be perpetuating the “psycho sex-pot” masturbation fantasy version of Harley Quinn, and that’s just not something I can get behind. I’m neither a purist nor a prude, but when you’ve got a character who’s both wildly popular and not off-putting to women, there’s no need to suddenly start dressing her up like a hooker.

Seriously, what the hell?

Seriously, what the hell?

To be fair, Amanda Conner has worked hard to back off the hooker fashion, slowly changing things until it looks a bit more like athletic gear…

(...with inexplicable shoulder pads...)

(…with inexplicable shoulder pads…)

…but come on! The Joker still mostly dresses like a riverboat gambler for one reason: it’s an iconic look. So it’s hard to justify jettisoning a genuinely classic costume like Bruce Timm’s original Harley design, just to show some skin. But now I’m fighting the “sexism in comics” battle, and that’s not what I’m here to do. So let’s move on.

Now that I’ve talked this out a bit more, I think the real appeal of following in the footsteps of the screen adaptations is that they have the advantage of being able to draw on 75 years worth of stories for inspiration. They can cherry-pick the best characters and stories, avoid the things that didn’t work, and even mix and match things, putting together pieces that fit even if they weren’t originally part of the puzzle (such as making Martian Manhunter part of Supergirl). Every one of those adaptations can be a “greatest hits” version of the character, because they’re willing to start from scratch every time.

That’s something mainstream super hero comics seldom do. The reboots always feel kind of half-assed and ill-conceived. They either leave too much old stuff hanging around so as not to alienate long-time readers (as they did after Crisis on Infinite Earths), or they go with all-new takes that are less than inspired.

(Not to name any names.)

(Not to name any names.)

Which brings us back to my initial reaction: They could do worse. And in point of fact, they have been doing worse. Not across the board, certainly. But overall, I’d argue that DC’s screen adaptations in recent years have been generally better than their comics. I mean, even Gotham has given us the first version of the Penguin that’s worked since 1966. So if they were to start doing things more like the movies and TV, it might not be such a bad thing.

Much as that pains me to say.

All Good Things…


So I read way too many funnybooks on my recent vacation to talk about them all. But I did notice something of a trend: lots of books coming to an end, and lots of other books starting up anew. Fitting for New Year’s, I suppose. But whatever the cause, it made picking which books to discuss a whole lot easier. So let’s start with the endings, and move on from there. And I suppose we might as well start with the crowd-pleaser…

Secret Wars
by Jonathan Hickman and Esad Ribic

Ross Secret Wars 9So they stuck the landing. I must admit, I wasn’t sure they were gonna. While this book’s been unusually readable for one of these giant corporate spandex events, the back half of it saw some serious pacing problems. I’m not even going to try running down the plot for anyone who hasn’t been keeping up with it, but I seriously thought this thing was falling apart. Complicated political maneuverings were happening off-camera, and so much breathing room was given to the comparatively simple plot mechanic of the Submariner and the Black Panther recruiting some zombies that it felt downright airy. Granted, I was mostly entertained; I could read a Namor & T’Challa: Frenemies book for as long as Hickman cared to write it. So I didn’t mind the inappropriate number of pages they got so much.

I’m sure, in fact, that many of the problems were down to the fluctuating length of the thing. First it was seven issues, I think, then eight, then nine, then the final issue got extra pages… I’m sure Hickman started condensing, then had to stretch to make the story beats come out right. It was a mess. And honestly, with all the irons he had in the fire, I wish he’d just been given a full 12 issues to tell his story from the outset. That would have allowed more time to fully flesh out the politics of Doom’s Battleworld, and detail the havoc Reed Richards’ group sowed in it leading up to the final battle. That could have been an immensely satisfying read, an alternate reality spandex epic worthy of a line-wide reboot.

Or not-reboot. Or whatever it is that Marvel’s marketing people have decided will create that vital “illusion of change without actual change” that boosts sales figures for the quarter.

But enough cynicism about the now-endless cycle of empty events and fake change that defines corporate comics these days. As I said, Hickman and Ribic stuck the landing. And that’s all that really matters. I’m especially impressed with Esad Ribic, who turned in consistently beautiful work under what had to be a lot of pressure.

Ribic Secret Wars Reed

Also, he made Reed Richards’ beard look totally stylin’.

The artist always takes it on the nose when late changes come down the pike, and from what I hear, he had a lot of revision to do. I’m not sure how much, if any, re-drawing was required, but I have heard that pages were inserted between previously-completed pages in some of the middle issues. It was his task to make sure it all flowed smoothly, and it did. And though some of his work in these final issues looks a bit rushed in comparison to his usual high standard, I can’t really complain that much about any of it. Because it all looks better than your average monthly funnybook art by a wide margin. Considering the pressures he was working under, I’m surprised it didn’t take even longer than it did.

But Jonathan Hickman is to be congratulated here, too. Even though he wound up taking longer to do it than originally planned, he still managed to pay off the themes of not just his Illuminati series (of which Secret Wars is really the conclusion) but also of his Fantastic Four run. And that makes me happier than you can know. Because Hickman and senior editor Tom Brevoort have confirmed it: the order for the cancellation of the FF’s on-going title came down while this book was in the planning stages. So what was initially the wrap-up for Illuminati also became a farewell to the Marvel’s first (and, if you ask me, greatest) team. And as that, it’s pretty satisfying. He couldn’t possibly service all the FF’s many themes in a big splashy event comic like this one, but ultimately the fate of all reality comes down to the core FF conflict: Reed Richards vs Doctor Doom.

It’s all about Doom’s jealousy, his resentment of Reed’s intellect, which he fears may be greater than his own. This inferiority complex is so deep-seated that, even though he’s a literal god ruling over all that’s left of creation, Doom has tried to become Reed. He’s taken Reed’s wife and family as his own, their memories edited to erase Reed himself from their minds. It’s an astoundingly petty thing for him to have done, especially as he tries, at Sue’s insistence, to be a better man.

But speaking of Sue, she’s not especially well-served here. Most of the team isn’t, I suppose; the Human Torch is moved off-camera completely, and we also don’t see much of the Thing (though he’s damned impressive when he finally appears, and is given perfectly fitting role). But Sue… There’s something disturbing about her role in Secret Wars: she’s being used. It’s implied that there’s a romance between her and Doom, that he had to win her hand before she became the “royal consort.” But if he hadn’t erased her memories, it’s doubtful he could have wooed her in the first place. She’s being manipulated by Doom…

Ribic Secret Wars Sue

(Oy. See what I mean?)

…to the point that the relationship is essentially a very complicated long-term rape. Hickman doesn’t really address it as such, though. Sue seems more disappointed than angry when Doom’s treachery is revealed to her, and after he’s defeated, she’s suddenly just back to being the Sue we know.

Now, considering the shifting nature of reality at play in Secret Wars, that may be appropriate. It’s not even clear whether that’s the same Sue we saw earlier in the series. Certainly, Franklin seems changed after Doom’s defeat; he became something of a brat with Doom as his father, and there’s no trace of that in the closing pages. So who knows?

Either way, though, Sue winds up coming off like a trophy, little more than something for Reed and Doom to fight over. And that rubs me the wrong way. Now, considering the strong role he gave Sue in his run on the FF’s own title, I doubt that was intentional on Hickman’s part. I suspect it’s just something he didn’t think through as well as he should have.

But I said this was a fitting end for the FF, didn’t I? And, in spite of my problems with it, I do think it’s a good send-off. That Reed vs Doom dynamic is pretty key, and I love how this conflict mirrors the first one they ever had. Back in college, if you’ll recall, Reed and Victor Von Doom were classmates. Doom was working on some calculations, and Reed (being Reed) tried to correct his math. Doom brushed him off, and the error resulted in the explosion that destroyed Doom’s face. Well, this situation is ultimately the same thing: Doom, in attempting to find a way to stop the collapse of the multiverse, winds up causing it to happen in the first place. But in the process, he gains god-like power and pulls reality back together as best he can. Which is all well and good. But Reed sees it as a failure of imagination.

But, here. Don’t let me tell you the whole story. Instead, let me SPOIL three of the most impressive pages in the issue for you, pages that cement Doom’s jealousy and define he and Reed’s relationship better than anything I could ever say. But since they’re so very SPOILERY, why don’t I put them… after the break?

Continue reading

Hateful Heroes: What I Did On My Christmas Vacation


So we kind of took a little holiday there, didn’t we? I hadn’t really planned it, but as the actual holiday season stretched on, it became nicer and nicer to have a break from writing. Every once in a while, it’s good to spend some time away from even the things you love doing. And in the meantime, I just relaxed. Enjoyed time with friends and family. Went to the movies. Read some funnybooks. So let’s start with the movies, and see where we go from there…

Star Wars 7: The Force Awakens
by Lawrence Kasdan, JJ Abrams, and the Walt Disney Corporation

Star Wars Force Awakens

So, yeah, just like every other dork on Earth, I saw the new Star Wars movie. And I liked it. It’s fun to watch. The new characters have interesting backstories, and it’s nice to visit with the old characters again as they pass the torch to the new generation. There are intriguing mysteries and dark legacies, kinetic action and funny jokes. It’s slick and professional, just about the best continuation of a corporate franchise you could hope for.

Which is kind of the problem with it. It’s a little TOO slick for my taste, a little too… clean. Not visually; the technology looks satisfyingly lived-in, as it should. But in tone, it’s lacking something. The original Star Wars films have a bit of a streetwise edge to them, an acknowledgment of the harsh realities underlying all the space battles and heroic derring-do. Even farmboy Luke, for all of his idealism, understands how the world works. But Han Solo is the best example of this. Han is a cynical soldier of fortune. A smuggler. A scoundrel. The kind of man who really would shoot first. He’s still a hero for all that, of course. His return to save the day at the end of Star Wars is a pivotal moment, reminding us that, even if the world is kind of shitty on the whole, there are still things worth fighting for.

The Force Awakens lacks that dichotomy. It pays lip service to it, with new heroes who are both escaping from pretty shitty lives: Rey’s a scavenger on the desert planet Jakku (which is not, I repeat, NOT Tatooine. Really. No matter how much it looks like the burned-out husk of the Lars moisture farm might be waiting just over the next dune). And Finn’s been raised from childhood to be a Stormtrooper. But neither of them is very streetwise. Rey can fight (boy, can she ever fight!), but she doesn’t have much personality. Finn’s a little better on that front, but even when he’s serving as semi-competent, half-cowardly comic relief… There just ain’t much there. To be honest, they’re both kind of bland. They lack quirks. They lack charm. They don’t seem like real living breathing people, and so I don’t really care about them.

This is a problem I had with the movie as a whole: the endearing cynicism and comedic bickering that I consider as important to Star Wars as Jedi Knights and Death Stars just isn’t there. And neither is the weirdness, the uncanny menace of the villains and the monsters. It’s too damn clean. The good guys are too nice to each other, and the bad guys aren’t scary. Sure, they blow up some planets. But the First Order still comes off like a lazy Nazi pastiche. They’re almost funny (I certainly spent a lot of time laughing at them, anyway). You never feel the hobnailed boot of fascism clamping down on anybody’s throat. Not even Finn’s, and if any character ought to make you afraid of the bad guys, it’s him. The film is so busy being reverent to everybody’s memory of Star Wars that it forgets to actually do the stuff that makes me love those movies as much as I do in the first place.

Except, of course, for when Han Solo shows up. Han is among the best adventure heroes ever created, a charming mix of heroism and overconfidence that’s hard not to like. And he’s having a freaking field day here. Seriously, this is a great Han Solo movie. Almost good enough to make up for how poorly he was written in Return of the Jedi (almost). The moment he walks on-camera, the film comes to life. But that only makes the new cast’s general blandness stand out in stark relief. Han seems alive in a way that they don’t, and that weakens an otherwise well-crafted adventure film.

And it is well-crafted, make no mistake. The Force Awakens really does have a lot going for it, especially in terms of plot. Not the plot of this first movie by itself; that’s pretty much a carbon copy of Star Wars. But when you look at it going forward to the rest of the trilogy, it’s fascinating. There are intriguing mysteries to be solved, revenge to be had, and redemption to be sought. It also gets the Star Wars surface gloss right, the excitement of space ships and evil empires and the Force. And that’s nice to have back on the movie screen. It’s fun. I like it.

But I don’t love it. There’s something artificial about it, something a little too safe. It lacks attitude. It lacks a sense of danger and weirdness. It lacks soul. Ultimately, it feels less like a film than it does a product. And that’s terribly disappointing to me.

Grade: B-

The Hateful Eight
by Quentin Tarantino

Hateful Eight

This movie, on the other hand… This movie, I love more and more the further I get away from it. Like The Force Awakens, it continues a cinematic legacy: it’s the eighth film from Quentin Tarantino. Unlike The Force Awakens, it’s not a corporate franchise being continued by hired guns. Instead, it’s a personal, idiosyncratic film that could only have been made by one guy. Moreover, I’d argue that it’s his best film in years, a tightly-written Western about crime, punishment, race relations and, more than anything else, sheer damn meanness.

That’s another thing separating this film from Star Wars: there are no heroes here. The closest thing we’ve got is Kurt Russell’s character, The Hangman John Ruth. He seems a comparatively decent sort, a bounty hunter who believes rather deeply in the rule of law. But he’s also a blustering bully who enjoys watching his bounties hang, and whose rough treatment of his prisoner, wanted woman Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Lee), raises red flags of abuse.

There’s also Ruth’s fellow bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), an emancipated slave who fought for the Union in the Civil War, and who carries with him a letter from Abraham Lincoln, with whom he corresponded during the conflict. But we first meet Warren as he’s sitting on a pile of corpses in the middle of the road, and he quickly makes it clear that he’ll happily shoot a bounty in the back rather than take on the risks involved in bringing a desperate man to justice. So his sinister side comes out early, and only gets deeper as the film goes on.

But that’s the way it is with The Hateful Eight: it’s a story about complex characters who refuse to fit into neat boxes. Take Walton Goggins’ Sheriff Chris Mannix, for instance. Mannix is a craven con man and a racist. The son of a Confederate commander who refused to surrender at the end of the war, Mannix took part in his father’s continued raids (which were really just an excuse to kill black people), and has now somehow finagled his way into a job as sheriff. It would be easy to cast him as a clownish villain in opposition to Sam Jackson’s Major Warren, but instead Tarantino reveals him to be a man with some small bit of honor in spite of his flaws, a man who takes the responsibilities of his new position rather seriously. Unlike Marquis Warren, for instance, Mannix won’t shoot an unarmed man in the back. So, yes. Even the racist assholes have depth.

Which brings us to the film’s real heart and soul: race relations. And things are going to get pretty damn SPOILERY from here on out, so I’d suggest you skip to the end if you haven’t seen The Hateful Eight yet.

So. Racism. An ugly thing that was nonetheless prevalent and accepted in the years following the Civil War. Most of the white characters in this film (though never John Ruth, interestingly) utter the slur “nigger” at some point or other, and it’s kind of a shocking thing to hear in a movie these days. But it serves to underline how all-pervasive racism was at that time. So when it’s revealed that Major Warren’s Lincoln letter (the subject of much conversation and even awe among the rest of the cast) is a fake…

(Told you. SPOILERS!)

(Told you. SPOILERS!)

…it’s easy to understand why he concocted the lie. The Lincoln letter won him respect from white people. It got him into places he otherwise wouldn’t have been admitted, and smoothed his way in situations that otherwise would have been difficult for him, at best. The revelation that it’s a fake drives a wedge between Warren and John Ruth (who seems genuinely hurt at the deception). But oddly, it seems to bring Warren and the racist Mannix closer. Not that they become buddy-buddy or anything, but when shit gets real (and it gets pretty freaking real before it’s all said and done), it’s Warren and Mannix who wind up working together to get to the bottom of the whodunnit at the center of the plot.

This is all capped off in the film’s final scene, when Mannix reads the Lincoln letter out loud. In it, “Lincoln” offers hope for a better future of better relations between whites and blacks in America, a future he thinks Marquis Warren is a harbinger of. And in the strangest, most perverse manner possible, slowly dying of blood loss alongside a racist cracker who might have happily killed him only a few years earlier… he is.

So that’s The Hateful Eight. A beautiful film about ugly things, and an epic so tightly-written that I can’t say a single minute of its near-three-hour running time is wasted. I loved it so much I paid to see it twice. Once just to see it, and a second time to really sit back and appreciate it. It’s a pleasure to watch a movie this good, after all, so I was determined to make the most of it.

Grade: A

Whew. That’s a lotta movie talk. I read a lotta funnybooks on my vacation, too, but I don’t think I’ve saved any room for them. So I guess we’ll get to those next time…

Fear and Loathing in Minnesota: Fargo Season Two Delivers


A break from our usual fare this week, to discuss something I seldom if ever talk about here on the nerd farm: television. A single television series, to be precise: Fargo. TV follow-ups to successful movies seldom work out very well, but this one’s an exception, carrying on the film’s air of understated outrageousness with quality and style. The first season of the show was a highlight (THE highlight, as far as I’m concerned) of last season, and this year’s season two may have surpassed it. With one episode left to go, it’s certainly heading in that direction. There’s only a few plots and themes left to resolve, and if they bring those home, I’ll be set to call this a high water mark for television drama.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Fargo Season 2 Poster

Fargo season two is the story of a war between two crime syndicates in Minnesota in 1979, and of a young married couple who, through an accident and some bad decisions, get caught up in the action. Built around an ensemble cast of well-realized characters, and performed by actors turning in career-best performances, it’s the sort of thing that would still rank among the best things on TV if it was doing only that. But Fargo showrunner Noah Hawley has higher ambitions for this season. Because it’s also about the American moment of 1979, the nation’s lingering malaise over Vietnam and Watergate, the birth of the corporate culture, Ronald Reagan, the UFO craze, feminism, and the rise of minorities in the face of unabashed racism.

That’s a lot of weight for a semi-comic crime story to carry. But Hawley’s pulled it off with aplomb, never letting the social commentary get in the way of the story he’s telling. And that story’s a corker, a cops and robbers drama of the first order. On one side, we’ve got the Gerhardts, the blue collar mob family that runs North Dakota. Some, eyeballing their rural farmhouse compound, might go so far as to call them a bunch of rednecks. But however you want to categorize them, when the family patriarch suffers a stroke in the first episode, they’re thrown into turmoil.

Dodd, the eldest son, immediately locks horns with his mother Floyd (Jean Smart) over who should run things. Though Floyd has run the business side of Gerhardt operations for years, Dodd argues that “the boss can’t be a girl.” This is a trend for the bad guys this season: they consistently underestimate women, and they consistently suffer because of it.

This is especially true of Dodd, who’s a nasty piece of work, a vicious misogynist thug so hateful that, at one point about halfway through the season, I found myself hoping he’d die a painful death. And yet, in spite of that, he’s also an entertaining buffoon, filled with cunning, but just enough of an idiot to be somewhat endearing. There’s a part of me that almost wants to like him, and I think that’s down to the performance of actor Jeffrey Donovan.

Fargo Dodd

I previously only knew him from the good-natured but fluffy spy series Burn Notice, which I liked okay, but never enough to watch regularly. I kind of thought the same of Donovan as an actor: pleasant, good-looking, and of average ability. But he’s transformed himself as Dodd, to the point that I didn’t even recognize him for half the season. He’s pulled that off in part with a bad haircut, and a frown that wouldn’t look out of place on a Muppet. But mostly, it’s because of a broad, but convincingly nuanced, performance of the type that fits the Fargo aesthetic like a glove.

At any rate. The Gerhardts are facing competition from the Kansas City mafia, a group of mobbed-up city slickers who run their organization along corporate lines. They’ve decided to attempt a hostile takeover of Gerhardt operations, taking advantage of the strife within the family to make their move. The conflict between these two groups forms the backbone of the season, violence blooming from it in all directions and attracting the attention of the season’s hero: Lou Solverson, a state trooper and Vietnam vet who—

You know what? I’m still getting ahead of myself. The story doesn’t start with Dodd, the Kansas City mafia, or Lou. It actually starts with Ry Gerhardt, youngest son of the Gerhardt clan, who opens the season with a stunning restaurant bloodletting…

…before getting hit by a car. That car is driven by Peggy Blumquist, a beautician in the little town of Luvern, Minnesota, and probably this season’s central character.

(Looking far cooler here than she does for most of the show.)

As Sheriff Hank Larrson (Ted Danson) says later in the season, Peggy is a little touched. As played by Kirsten Dunst, she’s a bundle of middle class longing, fragile cunning, and OCD lunacy. So instead of stopping like a normal person after hitting a man on a lonely Minnesota highway, Peggy drives home with Ry hanging half out of her windshield, head and shoulders dripping blood onto the front seat. She and her husband Ed (a nice guy micro-focused on his dream of buying a butcher shop) hide the crime and dispose of the body, hoping that nobody will be the wiser.

And that’s where Lou comes in. He and Hank are the first officers on the scene of the restaurant killing, and the case haunts Lou for a very interesting reason: the surprised look on the face of one of the victims. It reminds him of a look he’d seen on the faces of men who’d been shot in Vietnam.

That conflict haunts many of the characters in this season. It’s made Lou over-protective, local lawyer Karl Weathers (played to great effect by Nick Offerman) has become a conspiracy-obsessed drunkard, and the damage it did to Gerhardt family enforcer Hanzee Dent only becomes apparent deeper into the story.

Fargo Hanzee

(An aside: I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention how great a character Hanzee is, and how great Zahn McClarnon is in the role. Quiet, enigmatic, and surprisingly complex, Hanzee goes places you don’t expect and does things you don’t see coming. Out of a cast full of fascinating characters, Hanzee may be my favorite. But to tell you why would spoil too much.)

 

At any rate. Vietnam haunts the season in general. Hank tells Lou that he thinks the men who fought there brought something back with them, and the show’s overall tone bears him out on that. There’s a certain oppressiveness and paranoia in the air, a sense that things aren’t going the way people want. Whether it’s Peggy, who wants to be more than just a butcher’s wife, or middle Gerhardt brother Bear, who chafes under Dodd’s overbearing attempts to lead the family, or Kansas City gunman Mike Milligan, who’s having to prove his worth to his bosses simply because he’s black, this season is in many ways about a longing for something better, but also something everyone seems helpless to achieve. Even the viewer is made to feel that helplessness through the plight of Betsy Solverson.

Fargo Betsy Solverson

Though she bears up bravely under the strain, Betsy is dying of cancer, her increasing weakness apparent every time we see her. She’s such a strong, smart, and genuinely good person that, even in a season with so many characters caught in unfortunate circumstances, the unfairness of her slow death hits home.

That ability to create characters the audience can genuinely care about is a hallmark of this season. I just like these people, in a way that I don’t often like fictional characters. Of course, Hawley also uses that likability to further the show’s overall oppressiveness. Anytime one of Our Heroes comes face to face with one of Our Villains, there’s a palpable sense of dread to the confrontation, a threat of violence that leaves my stomach in knots. I’m genuinely afraid for my TV Friends. That’s not an easy reaction to get from me, so I appreciate it all the more when someone pulls it off.

Further playing into the sense of oppressiveness is the controversial UFO subplot. It’s been referenced in every episode, starting from the very beginning: the reason Ry Gerhardt is standing in the middle of the road when Peggy hits him is because he’s distracted by strange lights in the sky.

Fargo Ry UFO

In every episode since, we’ve either seen the lights or had reference to them in some way, and always in a scene that conjures up a sense of the uncanny: Hanzee experiences lost time after encountering them; a guy talking in classic “Man in Black” weirdspeak (though he’s just wearing a flannel shirt) tells Lou about alien visitors while they wait in a gas line; Hank is making a study of some kind of runic alphabet and reading a book that seems in the vein of Chariots of the Gods; and Betsy falls into a strange trance while staring at a UFO in a drawing made by her daughter Molly:

Fargo Betsy UFO

(You’ll note that it’s half-made by the ring of her own coffee cup, but hey! All the better!)

Some feel that all this is out of place, a fantasy element in an otherwise-believable crime story. Noah Hawley has said only that it’s a thematic element for the season, inspired in part by an actual case of a Minnesota police officer having a close encounter out on a lonely stretch of road in 1979 (seriously; you can read about it here: http://science.howstuffworks.com/space/aliens-ufos/1979-minnesota-ufo.htm).

As for me, I’m all for it. UFO sightings were at an all-time high in the late 70s, so it fits for a show that’s trying to capture the flavor of the era. It all goes back to that sense of malaise, I think. America was reeling, from Vietnam, from Watergate, from the cultural upheavals of the 1960s, and the failure of that decade’s optimism in the face of ugly reality. People’s faith was shaken. They weren’t sure what the country stood for anymore, and were afraid of what the future held. UFOs were a reaction to all that, a fantasy that Americans indulged in to help make sense of it all. You know. Like Ronald Reagan.

Fargo Bruce Campbell Reagan

No, really. I’m… not joking about that. Reagan and the UFOs are essentially two sides of the same coin. They work similarly from a narrative perspective, interrupting the straight-up crime story with strange asides and uncanny events. But more importantly, they both represent fantasies that gripped America in a difficult time. The UFOs are a fantasy of paranoia and fear, and Reagan is a fantasy of hope. Of course, appearances are deceiving. While Reagan’s strange magnetism (captured really well by Bruce Campbell) allows him to deliver a “Morning in America” speech that drives even the cynical Karl Weathers to tears, it’s all revealed as empty rhetoric when Lou asks Reagan how he’s going to bring about this change, and all he gets in response is a pat on the back… and silence.

The UFOs, meanwhile, scare the crap out of people, but they bring about actual change in the lives of those who see them. Ry doesn’t live long enough for that, of course, but Hanzee decides that he’s tired of his life as a killer after his experience with them. Granted, it takes a few days, and the trigger for it is something else entirely, but the fact remains that he’s one of two (possibly three) characters who have a close encounter and attempt to change their lives afterward. The second is Peggy. She may or may not have seen the UFO that distracted Ry; I don’t see how she could have missed it, honestly, and something she says later (no spoilers) kind of tells me she did. But she does have a close encounter later, when she has a vision of a self-help guru who tells her how to “actualize,” and figure out how to get what she wants in life.

Of course, both those characters are, arguably, insane. Peggy may have just been seeing things. Certainly, her “post-actualization” behavior is anything but rational (though it is effective). And Hanzee might just be a man who’s been pushed too far. All I’m arguing is that maybe he and Peggy were both pushed by UFOs (Hank’s description of Peggy as “touched” seems like really significant word choice to me all of a sudden…).

Not Saying Its Aliens

The third person who I think might change his life after a close encounter is Lou. His UFO experience was very recent, but we know from season one (the aged Lou is a major supporting character there) that he gives up police work not long after the events of this season. But that’s something we’ll have to wait for the final episode to see.

And speaking of things ending… I suppose I should wrap this up now, though I kind of don’t want to. As is too often the case with fiction I really enjoy, there’s so much more to talk about. Every character has an entertaining arc, and I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface on the show’s themes. I haven’t mentioned all the great performances, either (Ted Danson is especially good). But it would take more space than I have here to cover it all (I could write a book, I tells ya). So I’ll leave it at this for now. Fargo is great television, well-worth watching. If I were given to hyperbole (which, you know, I am), I’d say it’s the best thing on TV. Don’t miss out.

Grade: A

Sex and the Starry Wisdom: Alan Moore’s Providence Hits a Disturbing New High


So I took a week off for Thanksgiving, with the full intention of writing up a big fat review of multiple comics for the week after, but then one of the books that came out Thanksgiving week drew me into its undertow, and I’ve been trying to write my review of it ever since. It’s complicated, and ugly, and compelling. The more I wrote, the more I saw in it, so I re-wrote, and re-wrote again, my opinions and impressions changing almost daily. I’m afraid that some of what’s left will be a bit disjointed and hard to follow. But I’m done with it, so I guess it’s time to share, warts and all…

Providence 6, by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows

Burrows Providence 6

Alan Moore’s dissection of HP Lovecraft continues, and this is easily the most disturbing chapter to date. I don’t want to spoil anything, but… Holy crap. This is brutal. I think I’m ultimately going to have to spoil the scene I’m talking about, just to discuss the issue intelligently, but let’s deal with some less disturbing, non-spoilery stuff first.

This issue gives us our first look at Moore’s Necronomicon stand-in: Hali’s Book of the Wisdom of the Stars. It’s a transcendent experience for Our Hero Mr. Black, one in which he has visions, and comes away with an impression that he’s known the book all his life. Though it may be more accurate to say that Hali’s Book knows him, as it’s increasingly obvious that Black is the harbinger of the apocalypse it predicts.

Black himself is oblivious to all that, though, moving through the supernatural events he’s experienced as a man in a dream, rationalizing and making sense of things in a sometimes desperate attempt to reassure himself that everything’s fine. On the one hand, that makes him seem like an idiot, especially to a reader who knows the Lovecraft stories all this is based on. But that may be too harsh; the things he’s experiencing can be a bit dream-like, especially his time-out-of-joint experiences from the previous issue. So a bit of rationalization is forgivable.

We get that rationalization mostly in the series’ backmatter, a reproduction of the journal Black keeps as he travels through haunted New England. I had mixed feelings about this part of the series early on. The journal largely consists of Black telling us the same story we just read, with his personal impressions filled in along the way. It often felt like a bit of a cheat, Moore telling us about Black’s reactions to the strangeness around him, rather than showing us in the main body of the story. As we’ve gotten deeper into the series, though, I’ve starting to see why it’s there: as a closeted gay man, Black is constantly putting on an act. He’s an outsider, not free to be himself, so he tries to fit in as well as possible with those around him. And that behavior evidently extends to racist fish-men and inbred monstrosities, too. So we’re really only getting Black’s true reaction to everything in the journal. In his writing, we see the real him.

In the story, however, we’re mostly just getting the face he shows the world. It’s only when he’s confronted with the impossible, the obviously bizarre or the genuinely supernatural, that he breaks his genteel facade. And even then, he’s polite about it, making excuses as he flees the scene. This issue tests even that, though, as the horrors are so bad that all he can do is run in abject terror. Which brings us back to why this issue is so very disturbing. So I’m going to suggest that you stop reading now, if you plan on reading the comic anytime soon. Because everything from here on out is going to be a SPOILER.

Okay. So last issue we met young Elspeth Wade, a precocious girl of 13 whose learning is sufficiently advanced that she’s attending college. Lovecraft fans in the audience immediately suspected that she was an analogue for Asenath Waite, a strange young woman who’s possessed by the spirit of her dead grandfather. Gramps uses her body to seduce a man so that he can regain the male body he needs to perform certain occult rituals. That’s right: one of the only women in Lovecraft’s fiction is in reality a man. A man wearing a woman’s flesh like a suit, just so he can turn himself into a man again.

Issues, yes. I know. We’ll come back to that.

This issue, we discover that we were right about young Elspeth, in a stunningly horrible six-page sequence that left me gob-smacked. Luring Black back to her (His? Hir?) apartment under the guise of taking refuge from a storm, Elspeth disrobes. Then the entity possessing her switches their bodies and proceeds to rape Elspeth with Black’s body, while Black is trapped in hers.

Yeah. YEAH. This is horrible in so many ways I can’t believe it. First, we’re witnessing the graphic rape of a 13-year-old girl, the shock of which is momentarily ameliorated only by the revelation that Elspeth’s personality is long dead, switched into her own father’s dying body when the thing possessing him jumped to her. But then you realize that you’re feeling better (even if it’s only very slightly better) because a little girl is dead. Which is really nothing to feel better about at all.

And once you work through all that, you’re back to what’s actually going on: Our Hero is being raped BY HIS OWN BODY, while he himself is trapped in the body of a pubescent girl. And he’s gay. Which… guh. That adds a level of wrong to the scene that I’m still not processing fully, even now.

And why is this happening? Is the rapist doing it out of some sick passion? Is this how he gets his kicks? No. It’s far more calculating than that. This rape is the culmination of centuries (yes, CENTURIES) of planning. He’s been hopping from body to body for a long time, waiting for the arrival of Our Hero, who (as I may have mentioned before) is the prophesied messenger of the apocalypse. To the Elspeth-Thing, Black is essentially John the Baptist. And this is just his attempt to make an impression on the harbinger of all the wrongness that’s going to come down the pike when the Old Ones return. As he explains this to Black (in Black’s OWN VOICE, remember, coming out of Black’s OWN MOUTH), it’s clear that he’s enjoying the act physically (yet another level of horror), but there’s really less passion to it than there is religious fervor.

That’s a lotta wrong to process in just six pages. I don’t know whether to admire Moore for conceiving the scene, or be disgusted that I was subjected to it to begin with.

Well, okay. I suppose I ultimately have to come down on the “admiration” side of that equation. Disturbing as the scene is, it’s also brilliantly constructed. I was constantly off-balance while reading it, feeling batted from one horrifying realization to the next, until it was over. And then I numbly turned the remaining pages, as Black (back in his own body once again) flees in silence out into the street. It’s masterfully executed horror writing that makes the reader feel a portion of the victim’s violation, and in that it’s a rather brave scene to have written.

Now, I’m sure there’s already a mountain of snark out there about it. Anytime Moore writes a rape scene, the folks who were personally offended by his take-downs of work-for-hire super hero comics have a tendency to start calling him a pervert. Hell, even some people who agree with him on the work-for-hire thing have started in with the eye-rolling when rape comes up in Moore’s work. But it’s one of his major themes. Rape is a far more common crime than murder, and yet it receives far less attention in our fiction, not to mention our public debate. I’m glad he’s out there reminding us of it. Especially when the scene’s as well-written as this one.

Of course, it serves a literary purpose here, as well (just as it always does in Moore’s work). In this case, it’s part of his commentary on Lovecraft. While sex is never a major topic in Lovecraft’s work, it’s still tucked away in the corners, just off-stage from the main action. It’s there in Asenath Waite’s marriage, in the begetting of the Spawn of Yog-Sothoth, in the crossbreeding that leads to the “Innsmouth Look.” Suffice it to say, there’s plenty of sex and sexual violence lurking between the lines in Lovecraft, and Moore’s dragging it all into the light.

I’m not always a fan of making text out of subtext, but in this case it seems only appropriate. Considering Lovecraft’s obsession with congenital monsterism, the sex is conspicuous by its absence. Of course, Lovecraft himself claimed to be somewhat asexual. Or if not asexual, then as someone who didn’t find the subject (or the act itself) all that interesting. Some have speculated that his disinterest may have been because he was gay, closeted even to himself.

I suppose there’s some circumstantial evidence to support the idea. In Lovecraft’s short, unhappy time living in New York, his best friend and mentor was the writer Samuel Loveman, who was (as his Wikipedia biography puts it) “almost assuredly gay.” It’s believed that Lovecraft based several of the very close male friendships in his stories on his own relationship with Loveman, and those fictional relationships are difficult for a modern reader to look at as anything but homosexual in nature (I wasn’t greatly shocked, for instance, that Moore made the Providence version of Herbert West gay).

At any rate, you have the young Lovecraft involved in a very intense relationship with a gay man, and then embarking on a somewhat hasty marriage to an older woman (Sonia Greene), a marriage that reportedly alarmed many of their friends. The marriage dissolved after only two years, with Greene leaving town to start a new business and not taking Lovecraft with her. His mood quickly deteriorated, as he became consumed with hatred for the city. Soon thereafter, he fled back to his beloved New England, to live the rest of his life single and in the company of his old maid aunts, driven by whatever demons followed him home to write the best work of his career.

Pretty easy to make that into the story of a man fleeing from his own gayness, so bothered by his true passions that he rushes into a doomed marriage before violently withdrawing into a life of seclusion, writing thereafter primarily about fear, loathing, and the dreadful consequences of sex.

It’s a tempting narrative. But it’s not one I really buy into. Absent any real proof, I tend to take Lovecraft at his word on this point: he just didn’t find sex very interesting. His obsession with congenital conditions, rather than being caused by denial of his own sexuality, can more likely be traced to the fact that both his parents went mad. With that in his past, it’s no wonder he found inherited horrors so fascinating. And his bitter withdrawal from New York, and subsequent intense period of inspired writing, is perhaps more plausibly explained by his failed marriage than any attempt to flee from the knowledge of his secret homosexuality. That might also explain his continued bachelorhood afterward; he never filed the divorce paperwork he promised Greene he’d take care of, leaving her an unknowing bigamist when she remarried. Was he just lazy about it, or does it indicate that he continued to pine for her in his later years? We’ll never know, but it seems more likely to me than “secretly gay.”

Still, though… That “Lovecraft was gay” narrative might be the most interesting story you can weave around the facts of Lovecraft’s life. So I like that Moore’s exploring it through his gay leading man.

There’s more to discuss here, I think, more angles from which to approach Providence. More about gayness and outsiders. More about victims and victimization, and how those concepts shape this apocalypse Black’s supposed to usher in. I’ve got some ideas about where the story’s going next, too, if Black does as he says he’s going to do in this issue, and visits Boston. But it’s all too much, and I don’t have time to distill it all down to something that will make sense outside my own head. So I suppose it’s time to bring this discussion to a close, for now.

So, to wrap up… Providence is strong stuff. But it’s also filled with darkly marvelous writing for anyone of a mind to tackle it. It’s neither Moore’s most accessible work, nor to be honest his best. But it’s damn fine comics nonetheless.

Grade: A

Secret Wars, Canary Cries, and Weird Little Kung Fu Bastards


One thing I’ve learned about writing funnybook reviews over the long term is that I can never be satisfied with my approach to it. When I’m reviewing everything I read, I start to feel like I’m saying the same things about the same books over and over again. And when I focus down to discuss single books in-depth (as I’ve been doing lately), I feel like I’m neglecting a lot of really great comics. Sigh. What’s a reviewer to do?

Well… maybe I could… play a little catch-up? Yeah! Yeah, that sounds good. So let’s get on with that…

I suppose, for the sake of my site traffic, that I should start with the corporate spandex stuff. It never ceases to amaze me what a spike I see when I write about that stuff. I mean, it shouldn’t. Lion’s share of the market, generations of readers invested in the characters, major motion pictures, etc. It’s the funnybook equivalent of writing about Taylor Swift, as opposed to St. Vincent.

Not that I’m equating Jonathan Hickman with Taylor Swift, exactly. I mean, I suppose any given issue of Secret Wars is sort of like Hickman’s version of a pop single: catchy, crowd-pleasing, and interesting only as a secondary concern to the first two factors. Of course, I suppose Hickman’s corporate work is really more akin to a rock anthem than a pop single. The difference between “We Are the Champions” and “Under Pressure,” then. Mindless and fun to belt out in the car, as opposed to catchy but kind of thought-provoking.

I’ve stretched this metaphor too far, haven’t I?

ANYway…

SECRET WARS! By Hickman and Ribic!

Ross Secret Wars 7

The BIGGEST CROSSOVER EVENT OF THE YEAR ™ rumbles on, expanded and delayed. I can see why it needed more issues than originally planned: Hickman’s got a lot of pieces in play in this series (all the pieces, basically) and he needs to get them into place while not skimping on the themes and character movements he’s been developing with them for so many years. Because this really does continue to read like the culmination of everything he’s done for Marvel to date. Mostly Fantastic Four and Illuminati, granted. Of course, Illuminati sometimes read like a continuation of his FF work, too, so…

Well, holy crap.

Ross Secret Wars 8

SECRET WARS IS REALLY A STEALTH FANTASTIC FOUR EPIC!

No, seriously! It’s all about Dr. Doom and his relationship with Reed Richards. He envies his foe so deeply that, when he achieves ultimate power and becomes like unto a living god, he sets himself up with Richards’ wife and children. He’s using the Thing and the Human Torch as, essentially, objects to keep the world running (Johnny is the sun, and Ben is the giant wall separating the zombies from the living). The secret to Doom’s power is fellow FF villain the Molecule Man. There’s a Galactus standing around communing with Franklin. Any bad guy who’s not a Fantastic Four staple is essentially his bitch (the X-Men villains are especially prominent servants of Doom).

Reed Richards himself, meanwhile, is leading the secret resistance against Doom’s rule. He’s got Avengers and Spider-Men and Guardians of the Galaxy out doing stuff for him. And Fantastic Four villain Maximus the Mad has been revealed as the guy put out there to rouse the peasants into revolt.

It’s the FF’s Battleworld, bitches! The rest of the Marvel Universe is just along for the freaking ride.

Granted, I suppose it’s sort of a last hurrah for the team, before they trudge off into movie-mogul-dictated cancellation. It doesn’t make up for that tremendous slight, mind you, but screw it. I’ll take what I can get. And maybe it’ll give the old bastard an extra ulcer or two, if he ever figures it out…

Anyway. Where was I? Oh, yeah. Secret Wars. Expanded and delayed. Hickman’s doing his best to move the pieces around well and keep the story flowing. But even with the added issues, I’m afraid he’s failing. There are too many moving parts to this story, and not enough pages to do them all justice. If he’d had 12 issues, he might have been able to pull it off. As it is, though, things are becoming disjointed. The reveal of Maximus as the prophet of the revolution, for instance, is so abrupt and unsatisfying that Hickman tries to make it into a joke.

Ribic Secret Wars Maximus

But it’s still abrupt and unsatisfying, even if I did chuckle a bit. It just feels like pieces of the story are missing, or at least that they’re not getting enough development to fully satisfy.

Esad Ribic’s art makes it easier to deal with that dissatisfaction, of course. It’s beautiful work, far better than what this kind of crossover bollocks generally gets saddled with. He’s not an artist you can rush through sudden additional issues, though, and I’m sure that’s the reason for the delays as much as anything.

It has pushed the Secret Wars ending well-past the starting point for the post-Secret-Wars Marvel relaunch, though, and even past the end point for many of its accompanying mini-series. That’s damaged the mystery of the thing somewhat, and in the case of the final issue of Weirdworld, even kind of spoiled the ending of Secret Wars itself. But, hey! Speaking of that…

WEIRDWORLD! By Aaron and del Mundo!

Del Mundo Weirdworld 5 Cover

This romp through the halls of obscure copyrights has come to an end in appropriately thunderous style, as all the various bizarre characters we’ve met along the way finally come together in battle against Morgan LeFey. So it’s Man-Things and barbarians and crystal warriors (including the I-can’t-believe-they-picked-up-the-toy-rights Crystar the Crystal Warrior), rendered in manic kinetic glory!

Del Mundo Weirdworld 5 Fight

click to embiggen

Really, Mike del Mundo is at least (at least!) half the reason this book is as good as it is. I mean, I enjoyed Aaron’s story, but to see this thing drawn in a less over the top style would have really diminished it. Seriously. I can’t stress that enough. I mean, look at what he did with what’s essentially a recap of previous issues:

click to embiggen

click to embiggen

With stuff like that to look at, Weirdworld ranks among the best pure fun comics I’ve read this year. It reminds me of the crazed inventiveness of James Stokoe’s Orc Stain. In fact, if I’m going to be perfectly honest, it’s kind of cribbing that book’s style. But in the absence of new Orc Stain, I’ll take it. So I’m pleased to hear that Weirdworld is one of the concepts that’s going to survive Secret Wars, with the floating double-sided island that hosts the impossible shifting patchwork landscape evidently taking up residence in the Bermuda Triangle.

Unfortunately, the on-going series won’t be done by the Aaron/del Mundo team. So we’ll see if their special brand of madness can survive in other hands. I’m thinking not, though, so that’s a creative switch I’m kind of regretting in advance. I think I’d rather read Aaron on this book than I would Dr. Strange. Speaking of which…

Doctor Strange! By Aaron and Bachalo!

Bachalo Dr Strange 2

We’re a couple of issues in here, and I’m having the same mixed feelings on this book I did when I wrote about the first issue: I’m mildly annoyed by the “magic bro” take on Dr. Strange himself, but the highly imaginative take on magic itself is cool and fun to read. Sometimes I think I like it in spite of myself. I kind of feel the same way about Black Canary, now that I think about it. I dig the fresh take, but… I’m doing it again. Here:

Black Canary! By Fletcher and Wu! And Guera and Jarrell! ‘Cause There Was a Fill-In!

As I was saying, I really like the fresh take this book represents. Putting Black Canary at the head of a rock band is an awful lot of fun. I understand that there are fanboyish continuity concerns here, and considering my feelings on Dr. Strange: Magic Bro, I can sympathize with them. But that’s not my nerd-fight. Last time I read a story with Black Canary in it, she inherited her Canary Cry powers from her mother, the Golden Age Black Canary of Earth-Two. Anything past that is new to me. But her personality doesn’t seem all that far removed from the character I remember, so I’m cool with it.

Well, mostly. The new (to me, anyway) revelation that her powers come from some kind of all-singing, all-dancing version of Wolverine’s Weapon X program…

(I'm the best there is at what I do. And what I do... IS BLOW SIMON COWELL'S MIND!)

(I’m the best there is at what I do. And what I do… IS BLOW SIMON COWELL’S MIND!)

…strikes me as more than a little bit silly. And the idea that the band’s mute pre-pubescent guitar prodigy is somehow the genetic source of those powers is sillier still. Personally, I was a lot happier when it was just a story about Black Canary’s band constantly getting attacked by people who hate her because… well because history. That was fun. The more backstory, complication, and “THIS ALL TIES INTO BLACK CANARY’S SECRET PAST!!!” we get, the less interested I am.

I’d rather the series just focus on the new status quo, the way Warren Ellis has done on his last couple of corporate spandex gigs. His Moon Knight reinvention was a blast, acknowledging the character’s past while still breaking with it for a fresh take. And now he’s doing Karnak, which… Oh, yeah…

KARNAK! By Ellis and Zafano!

Karnak 1

The thing I’m blown away by the most here is the fact that this book even exists. Because… Seriously? Karnak? I’m aware of the dictate from Marvel brass to try to make the Inhumans into the new X-Men because they don’t have the movie rights to the X-Men, but… I mean… Nobody outside of the guy who gave that order really believes that’s going to work, right? Don’t get me wrong. I dig the Inhumans. They’re great weird characters. But… I mean… Nobody thinks this is going to work. They can barely keep a single Inhumans series running. So splitting Karnak off into his own book like he’s going to be their version of Wolverine is…

Wait. Actually, that’s kind of brilliant. I’ve always thought Karnak had a fascinating super power: he can see the flaw in anything, enabling him to hit it at precisely the right point, and with exactly the right force, to break it. I’ve loved that ever since I was a kid. But too often, he just comes off like a giant-headed kung fu guy, a secondary member of a secondary super-team. Unimaginative writing has lead to him seeming pretty lame most of the time. That’s cursed the Inhumans as a group, of course, but Karnak in particular has come off poorly because of it.

Enter Warren Ellis. With the Inhumans’ new higher profile in the world, he’s got Karnak establishing a sort of monastery, teaching his mental and physical techniques to a group of willing pupils. It’s an ascetic philosophy, one that doesn’t make Karnak an especially sympathetic lead. While unfailingly moral, he can be pretty harsh, and not in a “cool bad-ass” kind of way, either. He’s kind of an asshole a lot of the time, and doesn’t really like people very much. Unfortunately, though, it costs money to maintain the school. So Karnak hires himself out as a trouble-shooter, aiding SHIELD (and, one assumes, other people) in cases where his unique skills can be of service.

It’s a nice set-up, one that allows Ellis to explore Karnak’s unsentimental, ultra-realist worldview while still offering up adventure stories. Harsh, tonally realistic adventure stories, mind you. But adventure stories nonetheless. Kind of like what Ellis is doing on his James Bond book, which…

Ah, hell. Normally, that would be a nice transition out of the spandex stuff, but I’m running out of time. So I guess we’ll have to continue catching up next week. Still a lot of good funnybooks to talk about, after all. Really, the stuff I like the most. But for now, I bid you all adieu.