Better Doesn’t Mean Good: Revisiting David Finch’s Wonder Woman

So back last February, when it was announced that David Finch would be taking over the Wonder Woman comic after the innovative, feminist run of Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang, I wrote a short rant bemoaning the choice. You can read that rant HERE, but essentially I took Finch to task for his past hyper-sexualized Wonder Woman. I did say that the book could turn out different once it hit the stands, but mostly I just ranted. Well, Finch has been on the book for six months now, so I thought I should revisit it and see how it turned out.

Initially, he pretty much gave us the Battle Barbie I was expecting:

Finch Wonder Woman 36

Better than many of his past efforts, I’ll grant you, and probably reflective of the backlash some of that earlier work had earned him. I was far from the only, or the loudest, voice lambasting sex object Wonder Woman, of course. That debate has been heating up message boards for years now, and it seems to have had some small impact. Finch gave her a bit of muscle tone up there, at least. And he didn’t twist her around so we could see both her boobs and her butt at the same time. Also, there’s a refreshing absence of crotch-gap. But it’s still a far cry from the distinctive profile and bad-ass poses Cliff Chiang delivered in his run:

Chiang Wonder Woman 2

That ain’t no crotch-gap. That’s heroic wide stance! Straight outta Kirby, bitches!

There’s really no comparison, I don’t think. Chiang established a nice warrior woman look for the character, and Finch came out of the gate still drawing her like a swimsuit model. Now, though, he’s gone and changed her costume, and his overall artistic approach:

Finch Wonder Woman 41

So I guess that’s better. She’s showing no skin at all now, and she’s got a loin cloth thing that covers both her crotch AND her ass. So many of the worst offenses of sexist funnybook imagery are rendered null and void by this costume that I can’t believe DC Comics actually approved it. Even the pose and the anatomy are better on that cover. I am well and truly stunned, and feel I must retract my earlier cynical dismissal.

But not all of it. Because, as I said in the title, “better” doesn’t mean “good.” That face is still pretty terrible, for instance, a lifeless doll-like mask that betrays not one whit of personality. I mean, what’s that expression supposed to convey, anyway? Empty-headed confusion? Because that’s all I get out of it. And though the pose is certainly better than the swimsuit crap he was referencing before, it’s also pretty bland. It’s drawn from a dynamic angle, I suppose, but like the face, it does nothing to make Wonder Woman look like a character I want to read about.

It might help to look at a couple more Cliff Chiang Wonder Woman drawings to demonstrate why I’m so disappointed. First, a detail from the cover of issue 23:

Chiang Wonder Woman 23

(click to embiggen)

That’s worlds better. That’s a Wonder Woman who’s a total bad-ass, and also sexy without being exploitive. I mean, you’ve got the whipping hair, the cocked hips… She could be sashaying down the runway. But that face is fierce! And even if she wasn’t toting two battle axes as she walks out of the mouth of a giant bearded skeleton, her body language would still tell you she ain’t somebody to mess with. Boo-yah.

Now, check out this fight scene:

Chiang Wonder Woman Swagger

I can tell volumes about her character there, just by looking at her. That’s a woman who knows how to fight, and carries herself with an effortless warrior swagger. She’s as distinctive in her look and attitude as any male character, and a far better feminist hero than what Finch is giving us. Even if she’s not wearing any pants.

And that’s why the new Finch version still rubs me the wrong way: in its attempts to be less sexist, it actually diminishes the character from what she was in the run that immediately preceded it. And that extends right down to the writing, which is now being handled by Meredith Finch (David’s wife). She’s not awful at it, but she ain’t great, either. It reads like bog-standard modern super hero funnybooks: passable but uninteresting stuff without much to recommend it to anyone. But her rationale for why Wonder Woman’s changing her costume really strikes me as disingenuous:

Finch Wonder Woman Armor

(click to embiggen)

Oy. While that need to prove herself was certainly built into the Azzarello/Chiang run, it just doesn’t play in the grand scheme of things. I mean, who looks more like she’s ready to be a warrior queen? The chick standing blandly in her new thigh-highs and shoulder pads, or that bad-ass bitch holding the torch?

And that’s not even getting into the new costume itself. While I wouldn’t call it ugly, exactly, I would say that it’s too busy, combining too many elements that don’t work well together. Lose the shoulder pads and the kinky boots, and you’re onto something. You could probably lose the loin cloth, as well. Once again, I’d point to Chiang:

Chiang Wonder Woman 1

That’s the look she was supposed to have when the New 52 launched four years ago, before DC panicked in response to fanboy outrage over the pants. And, honestly… That’s a good, streamlined look. It honors the classic costume while getting rid of its more sexist elements. Of course, as Azzarello and Chiang proved for 35 issues, it’s really as much about how you choose to present the character as it is what she’s wearing.

So there you go. The Finches’ Wonder Woman isn’t nearly as bad as I feared it might be. But it ain’t good, either. They are to be applauded for trying to make the character less sexist. But now it would be nice if they could make her as entertainingly feminist as she was in the run that preceded them.

Funnybooks in Brief

So it’s one of those weeks.

Bit of a time crunch, and my brain’s been insisting I write fiction instead of non. So this is gonna be quick. Ultra-mega-seriously-to-the-point quick. Which is a shame, because I read some very nice funnybooks this week.

Like the haunting Russian Olive to Red King, the new OGN from Kathryn & Stuart Immonen. It came out a couple of weeks ago, but I just got around to reading it this past weekend, and man. MAN. This is the Immonens’ best work, a meditation on love and isolation. Understated, sad, and beautiful.

Also, there was the second issue of Alan Moore’s Providence. It’s not as good as the first, but it makes up for that with sheer weirdness.

Burrows Providence 2

Warren Ellis and Declan Shalvey’s Injection came around for its third issue, which may be my favorite to date. Ellis has been playing it cagey with what this book’s actually about, but this issue seems to establish that we may be dealing with some sort of quantum consciousness that’s playing at being Old English faerie folk. Or… Maybe the faerie folk were there all along, and we’re only just now coming to understand what they really are. Or… Hmm. Maybe it’s not so clear, after all. It is absolutely gorgeous, though:

click to embiggen

click to embiggen

(If you want to read more about it, this really quite excellent piece at Pop Matters is far better than anything I might have said:

We also got the fourth and final issue of Eric Powell and Tim Weisch’s Big Man Plans, which… Holy crap. HOLY crap. I’m not sure where I was expecting this book to go, but it wasn’t here. This is some bleak stuff. The over-the-top ultra-violence of the previous issues is put in context as we discover Big Man’s reasons for seeking revenge, and… Jesus. It ain’t funny no more. The violence in this issue goes so far that I don’t even feel like I should show it to you. Not that I think it’s “wrong” or anything judgmental like that. I read the book, and enjoyed it in that soul-searing way you enjoy horrifically ugly fiction of this type. But I ain’t gonna show it to you. You’re gonna have to seek this bastard of a book out for yourself. Still. Here’s the cover, just to help you along with that:

Powell Big Man Plans 4

Aaaaannnddd… I think that’s all we’ve got time for this week. Short, sweet, and to the freaking point. Hopefully, I’ll be feeling a bit more verbose next time.

Tales of Gods and Trannies: FUNNYBOOKSINREVIEWAREGO!!!

Three books to discuss this week, bound by themes of heroism and the divine…

18 Days
by Grant Morrison and Jeevan Kang

18 Days

This is kind of a curious project. It was originally conceived as an animated series offering a sci-fi fantasy take on the Hindu epic the Mahabharata. As far as I know, that version of the project never materialized. But an illustrated script book was released about five years ago, featuring a brief series bible, scripts for the first three episodes, and lavish artwork from Mukesh Singh. Then it sank back beneath the waves for a while, until a series of motion comics hit YouTube last year. Those were… less than satisfying.

Limited animation and bad acting combine to make them rather unwatchable for me. But, hey. They must have a following, because they’re still running. Episode 92 (!) went up last week. I didn’t make it past five. But to each his own, I suppose.

Of course, the same could be said of me. Because now, we have 18 Days the comic, which is far more to my taste. The artist is the same guy whose work is the basis of the motion comic: Jeevan Kang. While his work’s not as lush as Singh’s stuff on the script book…

Singh 18 Days Arjuna

…Kang’s clean cartoon lines and ability to combine Indian iconography with Kirbyesque design fit the story like a glove.

Kang 18 Days Brahma

And the story itself? That’s pretty good, too. The Mahabharata is about… Well, it’s about everything, really. There’s an old saying that goes, “If it’s not in the Mahabharata, it’s nowhere.” But the heart of it, what it builds to, is the story of two families fighting a war whose roots go far back into the past, and whose implications echo far into the future. So Morrison, being Morrison, decides to start his version with a history of the universe, from its birth to its death, and what lies beyond that. The whole cycle of existence, echoing down from the largest possible cosmic scale to the humblest of human lifespans.

And that’s just the first half of the issue. The rest is devoted to introducing characters. But starting where he did, their lives have been given the proper weight. These are mythic figures whose actions change the course of history. They deserve that kind of build-up. I won’t go into detail on who’s who and what’s what. All you need to know for now (in fact, all Morrison gives us in this first issue) is that the conflict is between the troubled, heroic Pandavas (pictured on the cover above) and the indignant, villainous Kauravas (pictured right here):

Kang 18 Days Kaurava

(click to embiggen)

Why are the heroes troubled and the villains upset? Well, that goes into the complicated background to the battle, something that (assuming Morrison follows his stated intentions from the script book) we’ll discover in flashbacks later on.

Thus far, though, it’s fun stuff. A bit melodramatic, certainly. Some of the dialogue is ludicrously over-heated, like something out of a Republic serial, or a kung fu movie. Taken in its grand, epic context, though, that stuff’s a hoot. So I can’t help but cackle a bit when Kaurava leader Duryodhana tells the Unbeatable Drona (trainer of the Pandava super-warriors), “You taught them well. I hope you taught them to die.” HEH. That’s the whole point here, after all: to present this complex and deeply spiritual story in trappings pulpy enough to appeal to the mass audience.

So far, it’s working pretty well for me. And with this first issue priced at only a dollar, why not to give it a shot? Even if you hate it… You’re only out a buck.

Grade: B+

The Wicked + The Divine 12
by Kieron Gillen and Kate Brown

McKelvie WicDiv 12

So it’s been a full month since (SPOILER!) Kieron Gillen killed off his main character in truly spectacular fashion. How’s the book holding up? Eh… Okay, I guess. From a dramatic standpoint, I’m still interested in the story he’s telling. But I have no emotional investment in it anymore. He’s not left me with very many characters I find all that interesting. And that’s a problem.

It doesn’t help that we’re starting off a six-issue run drawn by guest artists. A lot of this book’s appeal is the unique alchemy of the Kieron Gillen / Jamie McKelvie team. They’re like Lennon & McCartney: their work together is far better than their work apart. So WicDiv without McKelvie is like… I dunno. It’s like Wings, I guess. It ain’t awful, but it ain’t the Beatles, either.

Of course, it also doesn’t help that I’m not fond of initial guest artist Kate Brown. Again, her work’s far from awful. She’s got solid basics, and she pulls off a few very nice page layouts in this issue. But her stuff’s just not to my taste. There’s a heavy manga influence on it, which isn’t intrinsically a bad thing. It’s just that the manga stuff she’s picked up is the stuff I don’t much care for. So even when she turns in an obviously great page, I don’t respond to it very well.

(It's the faces.)

(It’s the faces.)

So, anyway. There’s a big god-fight this issue, and that’s kinda cool. But, all things considered, I found it hard to care. Maybe we’ll do better next issue, when Tula Lotay guests on art. I like her stuff quite a lot, so that may make all the difference.

Grade: B-

And our last book deals in imagery that’s a little Not Safe For Work, as they say, so once I tell you what it is, the review will continue… after the jump.

Airboy 2
by James Robinson and Greg Hinkle

Hinkle Airboy 2

I was going to say that this second issue’s not as shocking as the first. But in retrospect, I think that’s only because the first issue had the shock of the new going for it, while I opened this one expecting more of the same. Because, honestly… In spite of all the drugs and penises and double-teaming of bar girls going on in that first issue, none of it really beats this issue’s shot of simultaneous bathroom stall transvestite blow jobs: Continue reading

Secrets and Lies: Superman Enters the Age of Transparency

Superman 41
by Gene Luen Yang, John Romita Jr, and Klaus Janson

Romita Superman 41

Okay, so I’ll admit it: curiosity got the better of me last week, and I shelled out four bucks for the new issue of Superman. This is the story in which, if you haven’t heard, Lois Lane will reveal the Man of Steel’s secret identity to the world. That one major plot point’s been the basis of all the advertising surrounding the series for the past few months, so imagine my surprise to discover that it doesn’t happen in this first issue.

That’s not a complaint, mind you. Given how gimmicky the idea seems, I was expecting the book itself to be kinda slap-dash and rushed. The sort of thing desperate comics editors push out the door to drive sales without much thought or planning behind it. That doesn’t seem to be the case thus far, though. Yang and Romita are taking their time here, setting things up and letting the story develop at its own pace. If I didn’t know what was coming, in fact, I wouldn’t suspect it at all. I mean, Yang does signal that change is in the offing with his first page:

Romita Superman 41 Jet“After everything changed.” Interesting. If the big reveal hadn’t already been spoiled by the advertising, though, I wouldn’t know what that means. Why is Superman hitching a ride on a jet, I’d wonder. Why’d he get a haircut? And, most tantalizingly, why has he reverted to the t-shirt-and-jeans look he was rocking in his earliest adventures? The transition from that to the super-suit was kind of a big deal in the Grant Morrison issues. It was a change necessitated by his increasing power levels, but also one symbolic of his shift from dealing with small, local problems to things on a grander scale. So, in the absence of the spoiler, I’d wonder if maybe he hadn’t lost a portion of his powers, and changed his perspective to match.

Of course, even with the spoiler, I’m left with questions: why has being outed caused him to revert to his “man of the people” look? You’d think it might drive him farther from humanity instead. The power loss is still an open question, too. I haven’t been reading the series, but I’m given to understand that he’s recently gained some kind of new ultra-heat-vision power that allows him to release a whole bunch of the solar energy his body’s absorbed all at once. But using that power reduces his abilities overall until he’s able to recharge. So I assume it’s connected to that. But, hmm. Hmmm…

Knowing that the big reveal is coming also makes it easier to appreciate the themes Yang’s exploring. Because as the story unfolds, we find ourselves dealing a lot with secrets. Secrets and lies. Clark Kent gets a lead from an anonymous source who refuses to reveal their identity. And that lead takes him to a senator who’s also secretly a dealer in illegal arms.

(An aside: the sheer funnybookiness of that scene deserves special mention. This guy’s selling 3D-printed LASER RIFLES to African militants, for god’s sake! And his protection when Superman shows up? His 3D printer doubles as a giant kill-crazy robot!

Romita Superman 41 Robot

That’s great stuff. Very much in the classic spirit of Superman stories, but with the robot updated for the 21st Century. Kudos to both Yang and artist John Romita for delivering the funnybook goods.)

But, anyway. The plot thickens further when a young woman turns up with information that the senator’s not the real ringleader, but is in fact working for someone far more dangerous. Someone who, as it turns out, might very well be Clark’s secret informant. Because just before this new source shows up, he gets another message, this one urging him to turn her over to the authorities. Or else.

Romita Superman 41 Secret Identity

All sorts of ethical issues cropping up here. The parallel between Clark and the senator is obvious. But what about Clark himself? Has he really considered the implications of having secrets before? Which is more dangerous, exposing his loved ones to attack by not having a secret identity, or keeping a secret that could (and now has) put him in a position that might compromise his integrity? And what about the ethics of the whole secret identity thing to begin with? He lies, a lot, to the people closest to him, in order to keep his secret. He also uses his super powers in his job as a reporter, enabling himself to get stories he otherwise couldn’t. Is that fair? Is it ethical? If you were a rival reporter, would you think so? If you were one of his best friends, would you feel hurt that he hadn’t trusted you enough to tell you? Hmm. Hmmmmm…

Lots of interesting stuff to ponder here. Lots of questions. And that’s good. Questions are good. Questions tantalize and tease. They’re part of good storytelling. They keep me coming back for more.

Will they bring me back for more in this case? Maybe. I like the ideas that Yang is dealing with here, and the execution’s not awful. The tone of it reminds me a bit of the 90s Superman cartoon: solid, competent super hero writing that feels as if it could build up to something fun. I found it a pleasant, if not terribly inspiring, read. That four-dollar price tag is steep, though, and I’m not sure that “pleasant” enough to bring me back. I suspect that I’ll give it at least one more issue, but as for more? We’ll see…

Grade: B

DC ME?! Comics’ Oldest Publisher Re-Invents Itself (Again)

I do my best not to talk about publishers around here. I just don’t get the fascination comics fans have with them. Nobody cares who publishes the new Stephen King novel, after all. So why should I care who publishes the new Alan Moore? Just because it’s comics? That’s a terrible reason. It’s the writers and artists who make the things worth reading, so it’s the writers and artists that I focus on.

Every once in a while, though, a publisher does something that’s actually worth talking about. A change in philosophy, or a new line of books with an interesting perspective. Something that gets my attention. DC Comics is in the midst of something like that now, with their “DC YOU” campaign. It’s a terrible name, I’ll admit. The worst kind of smarmy marketing-speak, aimed (I assume) at a Millennial readership they may or may not have. It’s an easy thing to be cynical about, and an even easier thing to mock.

(They're right, of course. Don't believe for a second that this is ever anything more than one Superman Robot away from being erased.)

(They’re right, of course. Don’t believe for a second that this is ever anything more than one Superman Robot away from being erased.)

The idea behind DC YOU, though, is something I’m all for: fresh perspectives and creative freedom. Shocking the things a company will try when they’re desperate.

Now, not everything under the “DC YOU” banner is fresh and exciting, of course. It’s giving us the single worst Batman costume in history, for instance:

(Commissioner Gordon's evidently seen Night of the Lepus one too many times.)

(Commissioner Gordon’s evidently seen Night of the Lepus one too many times.)

Plus, it’s written and drawn by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo, the same guys who’ve been turning out all those Batman comics I haven’t wanted to read over the last few years. So, bleah.

But, hey! At least they’re finally letting Wonder Woman put some pants on.

(Even if they are covering them up with thigh-highs.)

(Even if they are covering them up with thigh-highs.)

And I’m all for the direction Gene Yang’s going in with Superman. Not necessarily the revealing of the secret identity; I’m not inherently offended by that, but I also don’t really care about it one way or the other. It’s the gimmick, the flashy attention-getter they’re using to get people in the door. But I’m a lot more interested in some of the other stuff he’s delving into. Because it looks like he’s actually going to pick up the ball from Grant Morrison’s Action Comics and deal with the idea of Superman as a hero to the common man. That tension between his desire to help on the small scale, while having a responsibility to focus instead on the large, is a great dramatic hook. Can’t believe they haven’t done more with it before now. Add in the “alien among us” paranoia (which is admittedly cribbed from the current film series), and it sounds like a potent starting point for a fresh take on the original super hero. I might even give this a try for an issue or two, once the digital price drops to something I’m willing to pay.

But we’re still talking about the funnybooks-as-usual stuff here. The big, splashy, headline-grabbing comics that obviously have a bit of editorial dictate behind them. What’s far more interesting to me are the smaller books. The second and third tier books, where DC’s actually taking some chances, and doing some things that are *gasp* kind of interesting. This is where the “fresh take” and “creative freedom” come in. I’m seeing a lot of series announcements that look fun. Smart. And maybe most importantly, things that feel like they might have been created in the current century.

Not all of it appeals to me as a reader, of course, but that’s okay. I’m a 46-year-old white male with rather rarified tastes. But DC’s putting out books with appeal for women, teenagers, and mainstream dork fiction fans. The kind of people who’ve made Joss Whedon a major Hollywood player, and who keep shows like Supernatural and its ilk on the air. That’s a big audience, and one that I’m really happy to see a major comics publisher trying to attract.

I’m also happy that a lot of this stuff, even the stuff I’m not personally interested in, looks like it’s really well done. Take Heath Corson and Gustavo Duarte’s Bizarro, for instance:

Duarte Bizarro

Heh. Looks like fun. The book as a whole (or, rather, the preview story that panel’s taken from) was a little cute for my taste (Dork Farm Rule Numba One: Can’t Abide Cute). But it’s well-done. Some nice cartooning, and a few moments like the one above that made me laugh. This is another one I might pick up when the digital price drops a bit.

But I’m still talking about books I like the idea of, rather than books I actually decided to spend money on. Of those, there are two I thought worth a proper review…

Prez 1
by Mark Russell, Ben Caldwell, and John Lucas

Caldwell Prez 1

For my money, the best of the lot. This is a revival of an early-70s Joe Simon series, about the first teen president. That one was well-intentioned, but felt a like something written by an out-of-touch old guy. This one feels a bit more of its time. But it’s also not trying to tap into youth culture so much as it’s offering up social satire.

Set in a near-future world of holographic interwebs and a society even more steeped in electronic culture, it’s about the major parties’ cynical attempts to find an electable candidate…

Caldwell Prez Satire…and how an Anonymous-backed joke candidate winds up taking the election. It’s funny, if not especially dangerous, satire. It’s nothing that’s going to have John Oliver looking back over his shoulder, at any rate. But it made me laugh, and had a few surprisingly dark moments.

Caldwell Prez Game Show

All in all, a pleasant way to blow three dollars on digital ephemera. The jury’s still out on whether I’ll pay that much for the rest, or wait for the price to drop. But one way or another, I will be coming back for more.

Grade: B

Black Canary 1
by Brenden Fletcher and Annie Wu

Wu Black Canary 1

A sorta-kinda spin-off of the revamped Batgirl. That book’s success is what sparked DC’s willingness to offer these fresher, lighter takes on things, and this one is written by its co-writer, Brenden Fletcher. As such, I wasn’t surprised to find that it had some of that book’s shortcomings: it’s a little too glib, a little too cute, and it has a preposterous plot element or two that we’re supposed to take at least somewhat seriously. It puts me in mind of a certain brand of serio-comic anime, mixed with some of the sensibilities of Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye. Except not as sharp.

This is not to say that it’s terrible, however. I like the premise quite a bit: Black Canary fronts a band, in hope of making enough money to get her geared up and back in the super hero game. Trouble follows her around, though, and she’s starting to get a reputation:

Wu Black Canary Zine

As an old punk rocker, I really appreciate the way they captured the feel of the music zine there. That’s not the best drawing Annie Wu turns in for the issue, I’ll grant you. But the stiff angularity of it fits the design aesthetic perfectly. And Wu gets to shine on other pages. That kick-ass cover up above is one example of that. But with her later pitch-perfect look at Canary’s band…

Wu Black Canary Band

…or in the dynamic, pop-art-flavored fight scenes…

Wu Black Canary Fight

…Annie Wu is the business. Delicate and rough-edged, all at the same time. Capable of pulling off both the comedy and the drama. She’s gotten better since her issues of Fraction’s (previously-mentioned) Hawkeye. And I liked her on that quite a bit, especially by the end of her tenure. It feels like she’s really cutting loose here, though, and that’s fun to see. She’s pretty great.

So great that I wish I liked the story more. It’s not bad, per se. I really, REALLY want to like it, and there is a lot to like in it. There’s just maybe not enough to like that I’m going to find it worth the money in the long run. But, man. I dig the visual aesthetic Wu’s creating here, so we’ll see. Between that, and the story beats I do like, that might be enough to bring me back once the price drops. Time will tell.

Grade: B-

So! DC YOU! Not the most ringing endorsement, I suppose. But like I said, I don’t think all these comics are aimed at me. They’re aimed at a younger, more female, more mainstream audience. We need that kind of diversity in comics, so I hope they find their readership. But even if they don’t, it’ll be a refreshing change while it lasts.

A Month of Wednesdays

So while I’ve been off writing about Avengers comics for the the past four weeks, the funnybook industry had the temerity to continue releasing books! Da noive a some peeple!

But, ah well. What’s a reviewer to do, except take a deep breath and bear up under their pulpy weight? So here you go: all the funnybooks for a month of Wednesdays. Or the highlights thereof, anyway…

Nameless 4
by Grant Morrison and Chris Burnham

Burnham Nameless 4

The careers of Grant Morrison and Alan Moore continue to intersect in such intricate and never-ending ways that it’s starting to look deliberate. Alan Moore, for instance, recently released the debut issue of Providence, his study of the works of HP Lovecraft (it’s the one non-Jonathan-Hickman comic I’ve written about in the last month). So of course (of course!) Grant Morrison’s in the middle of a Lovecraft exploration of his own. Moore’s take is deep and considered, heavily researched and long in the planning. While Morrison’s, though every bit as affecting and intricately-written, feels kinda tossed off, a chaotic mixture of pop fiction and stream-of-consciousness horror.

Business as usual, then.

I joke. Lovecraft has long influenced both writers, and we’re reaching a sort of cultural singularity in regards to Lovecraft’s work, a point at which (nearly 100 years after his first publications) this obscure and xenophobic pulp writer’s ideas have been thoroughly woven into the zeitgeist. So I found neither of these projects particularly surprising. But I have been enjoying the hell out of them. Both Moore and Morrison are out to reclaim the real horror of Lovecraft, to remind everyone that his sense of existential dread is perhaps not something we should laugh off with stuffed animal versions of his monsters. The monsters were just the glossy surface of it anyway, the rubbery lure to reel unsuspecting readers in to the contemplation of their own insignificance in the face of the vast uncaring universe.

But there, I’m reducing Lovecraft’s work to academic summary, just as guilty of pastiche as the purveyors of Cthulhu Claus…

(The horror! The horror!)

(The horror! The horror!)

…and every bit as un-scary. Morrison and Burnham are dealing in the real deal:

Burnham Nameless What is Human

Gah, I say! Gah! For Morrison, the horror of the Outer Things comes down to a familiar theme for him: the negation of the self. Or, perhaps, the surrender to negativity, the inability to see the positive in the face of overwhelming darkness. That’s always been part of Lovecraft’s appeal, I think: his ultimate existential pessimism is strangely seductive. There’s an undeniable truth to it, a sense that our own lack of importance is part of the spiritual firmament. That might be why we find Lovecraft’s horror speaking so strongly to modern audiences: it cuts contrary to American exceptionalism, and the pervasive idea in our culture that everyone is special.

Now, I think that Morrison might argue that the loss of self is nothing to be afraid of, in the end. That it’s the key to true ascension, and all that Eastern philosophical stuff. But in speaking to our culture, a culture that’s more about the self than ever, he’s dealing in images we understand. There’s an emphasis on being watched (as you can see from the cover above), and that conjures up thoughts of the surveillance culture. But Morrison and Burnham have terrorist horrors and fascist kink covered, too:

(Pardon the awkward cropping. It's like somebody tossed some fascist tarot cards all over my funnybook.)

(Pardon the awkward cropping. It’s like somebody tossed some fascist tarot cards all over my funnybook.)

It’s disjointed and disturbing, this issue, a relentless assault on sanity and basic human decency, all to a purpose we don’t know or perhaps can’t understand. I have no idea where it’s going next, whether we’ll get the cathartic release of human victory, or the devastating blow of spiritual extinction. I suspect that it’ll be a bit of both, with Our Hero’s “Nameless” status indicating a path to salvation through self-negation. Very Eastern. Very Morrison. Regardless, I’ll be on hand to find out.

Grade: A-

Optic Nerve 14, by Adrian Tomine

Optic Nerve 14

And speaking of existential horror… We’ve got a new book by Adrian Tomine! I joke, of course. Tomine doesn’t write horror. Not in the traditional sense, anyway. But I often find his depressing, self-defeating slice of life stories far more distressing than most horror fiction. And also a lot more boring. Lovecraft’s rubbery monster lure is half the fun of reading him, after all, and Tomine gives you none of that. Still, though, he sometimes finds a great hook, some odd behavior or strange dramatic situation, that makes his work compelling.

He’s also damn talented, which is what got me through the lead story in this issue. It’s about a teenage girl who gets interested in doing stand-up comedy, and the way her parents both encourage and caution her. The story itself is rather dull, the sort of “unlovable loser” stuff Tomine often trades in. The interest lies in what he doesn’t show you, the way the family’s lives unfold off-camera and impact the things we do see. I can’t say I enjoyed reading it, but I do admire his craft.

This issue’s back-up, though, is the sort of Tomine story I do enjoy. It’s about a disaffected veteran who comes across a key to the apartment he shared with his wife before his life went to shit. Somebody else lives there now, but the locks haven’t been changed, so he goes in while the current occupant is at work, just to… I don’t know… recapture something of a time in his life when he was happy. Now, that’s a great short story hook, one in which Tomine’s trademark distant tone is put to good use.

The back-up is an older story, I believe, and it’s not as well-crafted as the lead piece. But I enjoyed reading it more. It is, in fact, the sort of story that made me start picking up Optic Nerve in the first place. So it’s kind of hard for me to grade this one. I enjoyed half of it, and admired all of it. We’ll let that be the grade, then, and just move on…

Crossed +100 5
by Alan Moore and Gabriel Andrade

Crossed Plus 100 5

This series has, to date, seemed to be as much an outline of post-apocalyptic anarchist society as anything else. But with this issue, it’s suddenly taken a rather horrifying twist, and in the process revealed itself to be instead a zombie mystery story with massive stakes. It’s also taken the whole Crossed concept of Zombies From the Id and turned it into something I find far more compelling. I’m trying to avoid too many spoilers here, so I won’t say exactly what Moore does, or how he does it. But it involves a lot of pieces from previous issues falling into place, and it’s pretty brilliant.

It’s also got a lengthy excerpt from the diary of a serial killer who lived through the initial Crossed outbreak, which is great reading. Or at least, a mental relief from all the post-apocalyptic future-slang…

Grade: A-

Fight Club 2 #1
by Chuck Palahniuk and Cameron Stewart

Mack Fight Club 2

So I really enjoyed this book. I wasn’t sure I was gonna, to be honest. I love the novel, love the movie, but I had questions. Is a sequel really necessary? Does Tyler Durden still make sense in 2015? Can Palahniuk even write decent comics? Hmm…

Well, I’m not so sure how necessary this is, but Palahniuk’s turned in a fine funnybook script. There are some missteps. There’s an early scene, for instance, in which the babysitter mistakes Our Hero for an intruder, and it either doesn’t make any sense at all, or is a kind of comedy so broad and absurd that it doesn’t fit the tone. But he is using the medium well to pull off the kind of storytelling tricks the book and movie are famous for. I’m particularly fond of the various inanimate objects…

(rose petals in this case)

(rose petals in this case)

…spilled over the pages that obscure important details.

Now, as for whether Tyler Durden is still relevant in 2015… I have heard some criticism that the book’s political message is kind of silly. But that’s not a criticism I have much patience for. It sounds like most of the people saying that are people who first came across Fight Club as teenagers, and got really into Durden’s philosophy. But I don’t think anyone was really supposed to buy that stuff. I mean (like Lovecraft), it’s seductive because there’s an element of truth to it. Sometimes you do feel trapped by life and numbed by modern society. Possessions don’t necessarily make you happy. But, as someone who came to Fight Club as an adult, it just struck me as satire. A cleverly-told story about a charismatic madman. His spiel struck a chord, but I could also see that falling for it was a shade or two past ridiculous.

Which makes it great stuff for Palahniuk to revisit with a middle-aged Tyler Durden. Because, much as you might outgrow a teenage fascination with “feeling something real,” you never feel more trapped by life than when you hit middle age and realize that your youth is behind you, and you squandered it on silly things like job security and dental insurance. The whole Fight Club thing seems tailor-made for middle-aged men, in fact, much moreso than the jaded yuppies who bought into it in the novel.

I Am John’s Mid-Life Crisis.

So, yeah. I think Tyler Durden IS pretty relevant in 2015. Maybe this sequel has potential, after all…

Grade: A-

And as long as we’re talking about mid-life crisis and excessive lifestyle choices…

Airboy 1
by James Robinson and Greg Hinkle

Hinkle Airboy 1

This was the best surprise of the last month. I mean, I haven’t enjoyed a James Robinson comic since he returned to the industry after a stint in Hollywood. He penned a Freddy vs Jason movie while he was there, I think, and is the screenwriter responsible for adapting Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen in such a spectacularly awful fashion. His comics work since then hasn’t been a whole lot better, and I very nearly wrote this off. But Greg Hinkle’s cover caught my eye, and when I gave it a flip-through, I was greeted with scenes like this one, that’s so very Not Safe For Work that I’m hiding it behind the jump…

Continue reading

I Hate It When You Guys Fight: Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers, Part Four

Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers
by Jonathan Hickman (duh!) and a Great Many Artists

Alright. So this time, we’re gonna finish this bitch.

So far, we’ve discussed crisis, betrayal, and set-up (PART ONE); art and foreshadowing (PART TWO); and (in PART THREE) escalation, doppelgangers, and doing the unthinkable. Now we move on to conflict, fascism, and the end of all things. And doesn’t that sound like fun?

Last time, if you’ll recall, we left off with this:

Yu Cap vs Stark

That’s what happens when Captain American remembers what Iron Man and the Illuminati did to him. But before we get to the ramifications of that punch (and they are huge, let me tell you), I wanted to take a moment to praise an artist I kind of crapped on in a previous chapter: Leinil Francis Yu. He drew that panel up above, and it’s a nice piece of modern super hero art. It has its problems, sure, but it’s dynamic, it’s composed well, and that “action blur” he’s drawn at the edge of Tony Stark’s head is really nice, an interesting alternative to traditional funnybook speed lines.

And as long as I’m praising artists I previously slammed, I should also take a moment to praise Mike Deodato’s work on the run’s final year. It’s got some of the problems his work always has, but alongside that, he was turning in some really great stuff on close-ups. Great, cartoony, craggy faces, with maybe the best use of 90s-style texture lines I’ve ever seen. We’ll see more of his work later, but for now, here’s a great shot of the Hulk. Playing chess.

Deodato Chess Hulk

Anyway. That punch.

Yu Cap vs Stark

This is really the point of no return for Our Heroes, the point at which their ideological differences place them in unavoidable conflict. Cap is understandably pissed off here. The Illuminati not only messed with his memory, they obviously did it so they could do the one thing he told them he would absolutely not stand for: destroying a planet. Stark’s arrogance in the face of his friend’s anger is a lot less defensible. And that’s the Illuminati’s real sin, ultimately: arrogance. They’ve kept the Incursions a secret that they deal with only amongst themselves. And while their personal sacrifices in taking that responsibility on are great, they’re proving themselves to be elitists of the first order. The arrogance of kings, rearing its ugly head again.

So it’s on. But before the real conflict begins, Cap gets pulled off on a journey through time. The details of that story are too complicated to get into here, but the result of it is something I wanted to mention. At the end of time, Cap is confronted by three different incarnations of Kang the Conqueror, who tell him that, on the subject of the Incursions, he’s wrong and Stark’s right. Actually, they go a bit further than that:



This leads to maybe the greatest Captain America speech of all time. Seriously, Hickman knocks it out of the park with this one. It’s so good, in fact, that I’m just going to post it here in its entirety:

click to embiggen

click to embiggen

Boom. That’s Cap, perfectly summed up in just one page. Of course, there’s also something dark lurking in the middle of all that heroic awesomeness. Something jarring. It’s that phrase again:

“You people.”

This, then, is Captain America’s greatest sin: self-righteousness. And this speech crystallizes it. Not in Cap’s mind, of course. No, for Cap, that speech steels him to follow his principles to the bitter end. He gets back to his own time, and rallies the Avengers to take down the Illuminati. Speaking of whom…

Over in New Avengers, the Illuminati have learned the error of their ways in the aftermath of Namor destroying the world of the Great Society. They’ve realized the horror of what they’ve been planning, and know that they can’t go through with it. So they each retire back to their own lives, resolved to perish with their souls intact, and await the end of the world. But when the time comes… Nothing happens. The Incursion point passes, and they’re still there. Is it a miracle? No. Of course not. It’s Namor.

Walker Cabal

He’s freed the Illuminati’s prisoners, and engaged them in saving their world by destroying someone else’s. They call themselves the Cabal, and they are eager to get to work.

So there’s our status quo as we enter the final act: Cap wants to bring down the Illuminati, the Illuminati have gotten out of the planet-busting business, and Namor’s founded the Cabal to do it for them. At this point, Hickman does something really interesting: he jumps ahead 8 months.

I did something really interesting, too: I paid cover price. I was so deep in at this point, and so taken with the story, that I bit back the bile that rose in my throat at the prospect, and actually paid four freaking dollars apiece for the rest of Hickman’s run. It’s roughly a year’s worth of comics, and it cost me twice as much as the rest of the series combined. My one thought as I gritted my teeth and paid up was, “This had better be worth it.”

Thankfully, it was. Because the final year of Hickman’s Avengers is easily the best. A lot changes in that 8 months Hickman skips. Captain America is suddenly old, for instance.

(And angry.)

(And angry.)

When things pick back up, the Illuminati have gone underground, wanted criminals still trying to find a peaceful way to solve the Incursion problem. The Cabal has approached the UN, and the world’s leaders have given them sanction to continue what they’re doing. And Cap? Well, Cap’s now leading an Avengers team that’s operating as part of SHIELD, and essentially serves as the world’s super-police. How does he reconcile his mission to bring the Illuminati to justice, while Namor’s gang of homicidal maniacs is out there doing what Stark, Reed, and the rest couldn’t bring themselves to do? Well, mostly, he just gets bitter.

Deodato Bitter Cap

He brought what he knew about Incursions to the world, and his high principles were betrayed by its leaders. But that’s how democracy works sometimes. So he abides by the law, no matter how much it chafes, and channels his anger into bringing down the architects of the technology that’s saving the planet on a distressingly regular basis. The fact that he’s got a personal grudge against these men isn’t lost on him. But the unfairness of the situation kind of is. He’s so angry that he’s not entirely aware of how very much he and his military Avengers come off like jack-booted thugs. I mean, even their costumes are forbidding:

Cheung Jackboot Avengers

The propaganda art doesn’t help, either:

Avengers 37

Oh, and then there’s this shit again:

Cheung These People

“These people.” Nice, Hawkeye. Real nice.

Now, I’m making them out to be fascists (I believe I even used that very word in my intro), and that’s really not fair. If they were fascists, for instance, Cap probably wouldn’t have let the majority of the team walk away. But that’s what they did. Alienated by the new agenda, most of that giant team he was leading has scattered to the four winds.

So it seems that the Avengers are lost. One team’s driven the other into hiding, rendering both far less effective at solving the Incursion problem, and leaving a bunch of homicidal maniacs to save the world via genocide. But that’s one of the nicer touches of Hickman’s run: just when you think the heroic ideal has utterly perished, it falls to the supposed junior members of the team to keep the true spirit of the Avengers alive. It falls, in fact, to the single most unlikely character:

Deodato Sunspot

Roberto da Costa, aka Sunspot. This guy has served mostly as comic relief in this book, one half of a seemingly shallow Millennial comedy team with fellow New Mutant Cannonball. But now, when the chips are down, the fabulously wealthy Sunspot has gotten serious, attacking the Incursion problem from his own angle (via hostile takeover of AIM), and rallying everyone who left to form (dare I say it?) the New Avengers.

So yes, that’s yet another faction in play now. Cap’s Avengers, the Illuminati, the Cabal, and Sunspot’s really truly New Avengers. Then there’s Dr. Doom, and the team Sunspot sends out into the multiverse to find the source of the Incursions, and… You know what? I kept all these various allegiances straight pretty easily while I was reading, but for purposes of review, you really need a score card. And of course, this being a Hickman comic, there actually is one:

click to embiggen the multitudes

click to embiggen the multitudes

The interplay between these groups makes for great reading. The cast is huge and the stakes are high. There are twists and turns galore. Drama. Betrayal. Violence. Love. Even a little light comedy. It’s just flat-out fantastic funnybooks. Not traditional good guys vs bad guys funnybooks, mind you. It’s not even really good guys vs good guys. It’s more morally complex than that, a world of people with differing ideologies, none of whom are perfect, each of them making bad decisions right alongside the good ones. And yet, Hickman doesn’t sacrifice anyone’s inherent heroism here. Not even Namor’s. From a certain point of view, in fact, he might be the most heroic character in the bunch. It all depends on the reader’s own perspective. We’re left to pick our own side in all this, even as it becomes increasingly apparent that “sides” are pointless and stupid and wrong.

It grips me, this kind of conflict. It gets me deep down. I’m reminded of reading Civil War (almost ten years ago now), the little kid inside me watching all his favorite super heroes come to blows and getting very upset. “Don’t fight!” he was yelling. “I hate it when you guys fight!” But of course… I love it, too. Conflict is the soul of drama, and there’s nothing better (to me, anyway) than conflict between people who think they’re right. That’s the good stuff, the juicy stuff. And Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers delivers on it, in spades. That’s what makes it, to my way of thinking, the defining super hero comic of the decade.

So that’s the review, everybody! Thanks for sticking around through all that, and hope you’ll join us again next week as–

What’s that?

What happens next?

How does it all end?

Well… I was going to go into a long, drawn-out explanation of how all of Hickman’s various threads of plot and character dovetail at the end. How he draws on pretty much every series he’s ever written for Marvel Comics and turns this finale into the culmination of all his corporate spandex work. And how Dr. Doom fits into the whole picture. But you know… I really don’t want to spoil any of that for anyone who hasn’t read these books. Go out there and experience them for yourselves, I say. So for our purposes here today, all you really need to know is…

Things get pretty cosmic…

Deodato Avengers Cosmic

…the Avengers fight the Ultimates…

(Dig that lettering! Lower-case defines the dimensional divide!)

(Dig that lettering! Lower-case defines the dimensional divide!)

…and in the end…

Everything Dies

Really, it’s for the best.

Hickman Marvel RIP

Well, okay. As you no doubt know if you’re actually reading this, the story continues on past the end of all reality. Because of course it does. OF COURSE. This is funnybooks.

But that’s a review for another day.