Evolution, Apocalypse, and the Arrogance of Kings: Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers, Part One

Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers
by Jonathan Hickman (duh) and A Multitude of Artists

So I’m finally getting around to the defining super hero comic of the decade: Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers. Modern comics being modern comics, of course, his run’s not confined to just one book, but two: the core Avengers title, and New Avengers. The former book deals in themes of evolution and growth, while the latter trades on apocalypse and moral dilemmas. While Avengers has lots of spandex punch-ups…

click to embiggen

click to embiggen

New Avengers is its dark twin, a sci-fi noir in tights.

New Avengers 1

It’s remarkable stuff in some ways, a super hero epic of surprising subtlety and depth. I won’t call it the best spandex comic I’ve read this decade, but it’s still pretty damn good.

At first, though, I didn’t think it was going to turn out that way. My reaction to the first year of Hickman’s run confused me. I felt compelled to keep reading it, but I wasn’t actually enjoying it all that much. Or rather, I wasn’t enjoying Avengers. New Avengers (as longtime readers should not be surprised to hear) was more my sort of thing. I live for stories about people making hard decisions, and that book delivered on those in spades. Avengers, on the other hand… I got what Hickman was doing with it, but something seemed lacking. Maybe it was just that it was the more traditional super hero comic, and my patience for those is a bit limited these days. Whatever the problem, I thought Avengers okay, but ONLY okay. Then I hit the Infinity crossover…

Kubert Infinity 1

…and everything went to hell.

Which, now that I think of it, is exactly what happened when I tried to read these books monthly. Because I did give them a shot when they first came out. I gave Avengers two or three issues before deciding that it wasn’t worth four bucks. Or rather, eight. Because it was coming out twice a month. I stuck with the monthly New Avengers four or five months longer, up through the first Infinity crossover issue. But then I realized that the two series were really one big story, weaving its way through both titles and the crossover mini-series. That brought the monthly bill for the story up to a whopping 17 dollars a month, and… Look. This book’s pretty good. But it ain’t 17-dollars-a-month good. So it had to go.

I might not have gone back to it even now, in fact, if I hadn’t found the majority of the run for 99 cents an issue. It’s worth that much. In fact, I’d say that the first year of this thing is worth exactly that much, and not a penny more. Well, okay. I did have to pay twice that for Infinity. Which I did, since I’d already dropped something on the order of fifty bucks on the rest of the cheap issues. But I wasn’t real happy about it. That may have increased my dissatisfaction with the back half of Hickman’s first year, in fact. Much, as I said, like it did when it came out originally.

But I’ve been talking in generalities here, so before I launch off into why I hated Infinity so much, I should probably explain what the story’s about. Hickman’s Avengers run is defined by one major crisis: the destruction of the multiverse. This is caused by Earths from different dimensions crashing into each other, and… Actually, you know what? This being a Hickman comic, there’s a handy info-graphic explaining the whole thing. So just read that:

click to embiggen (and render readable)

click to embiggen (and render readable)

Got it? Good. That’s the focus of New Avengers, and the moral dilemma it causes is what gives that book its punch: to save their Earth, are these men willing to destroy another? It’s a hell of a decision to make, and it’s being made by the big thinkers, the masterminds and kings who once made up a group called The Illuminati: Iron Man, Black Panther, Reed Richards, Namor, Black Bolt, and Dr. Strange.

Over in Avengers, meanwhile, we follow Iron Man and Captain America as they expand the main Avengers roster to handle escalating threats. There’s an info-graphic for that, too:

Hickman Avengers Roster

Among the new members they recruit are new versions of three characters originally from other realities: Hyperion, Starbrand, and Nightmask. Significant, considering the multiversal threat at the heart of everything. Anyway. This evolved Avengers squad initially faces off against the threat of the Builders, an alien race that travels the universe forcing evolutionary advancement on planets they deem worthy. Which is cool stuff, and thematically pleasing to boot.

But why isn’t this larger team concerned about the imminent death of the multiverse, you ask? Well, that’s because Iron Man’s keeping them blissfully ignorant of the Incursion problem. He’s expanding the Avengers roster, in fact, so that this bigger, more powerful team can handle any other threats that crop up while the Illuminati concentrates on figuring out how to save the multiverse.

But wait, you may be thinking. Wasn’t Captain America in that group Reed Richards showed the info-graphic to? Why, yes. Yes, he was. But that partnership… didn’t go very well:

Epting Illuminati vs Cap

Ouch. Yeah, see… Cap was in on the whole thing initially, but when he resolutely refused to consider the destruction of another Earth as even a backup contingency plan… The Illuminati decided that he had to be removed from the equation. So it’s memory wipe, and off to ride herd over the massive new Avengers squad for him. Which is pretty harsh, but when you’re contemplating killing an entire Earth… even if it is in the name of saving your own… erasing something from a friend’s memory to prevent him from stopping you really doesn’t seem all that extreme.

And make no mistake, Cap would have stopped them. His argument is pretty absolute:

Epting Avengers Cap

It’s also really interesting. He’s right, of course. Morally, what they’re contemplating is abhorrent. It’s something he will not, cannot, allow. But he’s also a little naïve. While no one in the room wants to kill a planet, and in fact will strive to find a solution that doesn’t involve killing a planet… They have to consider it, just in case they fail. So Cap doesn’t rally the troops for once, and the argument gets heated. As tempers flare, he becomes more hard-nosed about it, and eventually gets kind of insulting, acting as if the other men in the room don’t understand the moral weight of the decisions ahead of them. Then he delivers the line that, in my mind at least, damns him:

Epting Avengers You People

“You people.”

Jesus, Cap, really? “You people.” That’s the classic turn of phrase for anyone trying to demonize another group. Cap’s setting himself apart from his friends here, making them “the other,” building up a head of steam that’s only going to end in him taking them down before they do what they think they have to do. Now normally, I might not put so much weight on that line. But we’ll hear it again later on in the story, more than once and from more than one person. So I’ve got to think it’s intentional.

It’s great writing, either way. Because if you were ever going to concoct a situation in which Captain freaking America demonizes someone, you couldn’t do a lot better. It plays on his unwavering sense of right and wrong, and it also plays on Civil War. Not in a way that makes it confusing, mind you; nobody brings up specific events at all. But if you know that story the way these characters do… Well. That “you’re going to do this without thinking if you should” bit is a particularly well-chosen jab. It shows that Cap’s never entirely forgiven them. And it’s got to play on their insecurities, too. Because he’s right: they have done some pretty indefensible things in the name of the greater good.

(Clor, anyone?)

(Clor, anyone?)

So past ill will comes bubbling to the surface. Cap’s thinking “here we go again,” and the Illuminati are thinking, “Dammit, Cap, why you gotta be like this?” And the whole thing just blows up in their faces.

Arrogance comes into play here, too. It’s arrogant of Cap to think that his friends aren’t as morally conscious as he is. And it’s arrogant of the Illuminati to set themselves up as the guys making this decision in the first place. I mean, they’ve taken it upon themselves to speak for the whole human race. At the very least, this thing should have been put before the leaders of the free world. Of course, three of those leaders are actually in the room here: Black Bolt, Namor and the Black Panther are the kings of not-insignificant nations. Still, though. The point remains: they could have begun looking for solutions while still seeking the world’s opinion for the long term. It’s telling that they didn’t even consider it. But arrogance, especially the arrogance of kings, is a theme we’ll return to down the road. So keep it in mind.

Anyway. All of this probably makes it sound like these books were off to a pretty good start. And it’s not bad. A threat to all reality, juicy moral dilemmas, and thematically interesting (if not entirely satisfying) super hero action. Then Thanos shows up.



Oy. I’ve got so many conflicting emotions about Infinity. Conceptually, it’s brilliant. It draws on all the run’s themes and expands them out onto a much larger stage by confronting both teams with a two-pronged attack from outer space. The Builders, twisted by their knowledge of the on-going death of the multiverse, are destroying everything in their path as they make a beeline for Earth. So Cap leads the main team out into space to join the war against them. Meanwhile, Thanos discovers that the planet’s most powerful defenders are gone and decides that it’s the perfect time to attack, leaving just the Illuminati to deal with him.

So the evolving Avengers team is confronted with the forces of evolution driven mad by the Illuminati’s secret, while the Illuminati deal with a big dumb action-adventure apocalypse of the type the larger Avengers squad was put together to combat. Worlds colliding in every possible way. The space battle side of things feels a bit like The Longest Day, covering the battlefield action on several fronts, and also the strategies of the generals. And the New Avengers side digs down deep into the conflicts and Machiavellian intrigue that define that book. Thanos’ attack offers Black Bolt an opportunity to put a secret plan into motion, and it also plays right into the hands of Namor, who uses Thanos’ armies as a tool in his on-going war against the Black Panther. Before it’s all said and done, Wakanda, Atlantis and Attilan are all in ruins, due in whole or in part to the machinations of their own leaders.

The story even plays up the arrogance angle in its villains, whose insane levels of arrogance make Our Heroes’ arrogance seem pretty benign in comparison. And that, I think, is where Infinity goes wrong. Between the Builders crowing about how unbeatable they are…

Infinity Builder Arrogance

…and Thanos… well… pretty much doing exactly the same thing… It gets old real fast. I stopped reading for a week in the middle of the story, because if I’d had to sit through one more bad guy talking about how hopeless it is to even consider thinking about the slightest possibility of the idea of fighting him… I’d have thrown my tablet across the room. And them shits are expensive.

I’m also not real fond of Hickman’s take on Thanos. He writes the character as a sort of petty authoritarian sadist, a guy who gets off on lording it over enemy and ally alike, torturing them before he ultimately kills them. His followers (the “Cull Obsidian”) cross death metal kewl with bad anime, and all of it wrapped up in S&M fantasy. Terrible characters. Though I do have a soft spot for anyone called “Supergiant,” I am considerably less fond of Corvus Glaive, who might have the single most preposterous name in super villain history.

(And only slightly better fashion sense.)

(And only slightly better fashion sense.)

But, Thanos. This petty sadism seems… beneath him, somehow. I remember him being more grandly evil. I mean, his lust for genocide is motivated by LOVE, for god’s sake. That’s some pretty epic shit, and this treatment just seems too base for him. Though I will admit, his reason for attacking Earth is rather thematically pleasing: it’s home to his hidden son, who he wants to kill not because he’s afraid the son will one day rise up and destroy him, but because having created life just offends his sensibilities. HEH. That’s good stuff.

But that’s why I was so split on Infinity, I think, and on this first year of Hickman’s Avengers in general: I like the idea of it, but something’s wrong with the execution. The bad guys are annoying, and the action isn’t quite thrilling enough to make their inevitable defeat satisfying. So I was drawn to the concepts, but found the stories themselves wanting. Thankfully, however, this first year is really all set-up. Things get juicier, and a lot more fun to read, as the story continues.

Which is something to look forward to for next time, I think. Hope to see you then.

Et In Arcadia Ego

A pretentious title, perhaps, but one that seems appropriate, for reasons that will become apparent in a minute…

Arcadia 1, by Alex Paknadel and Eric Scott Pfeiffer

Pfeiffer Arcadia 1 Cover

I’m not often surprised by new comics anymore. I know what I like, and– No, scratch that. I know what I DON’T like, and I can usually spot it with a considered flip-through in the shop. Arcadia slipped past me, though. I mean, I gave it a look. The cover caught my eye, and I liked the interior art as well. But something about it made me dismiss it as “okay but not great.” Just another one of countless average to mediocre comics I don’t have time or money for. But something about the book stuck with me, so when I saw a piece about it on-line, I checked it out. Read some preview pages. And decided that I’d made a bad call.

So thank goodness for surprises. Because I liked this book quite a bit. It’s not a perfect comic, by any stretch. But it’s an enjoyable one, a cool science fiction concept approached from an interesting angle. The premise: humanity is being wiped out by a devastating virus, so people’s minds are being preserved in a virtual world before they die. The story is about life in both the virtual and the real world, and the tensions between the two.

It’s that tension that really makes the book for me. The characters aren’t terribly original, and we’ve all seen the “humanity in a can” idea before. But I like the way they’re exploring it. The mainframe everyone’s stored on is expensive to keep running, and the disease-ravaged real world isn’t terribly long on resources. Of course, the simulation is offering the living one very valuable service: they’ve got the greatest medical minds that could be saved working on a cure. Progress, unfortunately, hasn’t been great. But there’s promise. Oh, so much promise…

There’s also a rather interesting economy inside the simulation. Visual details like maintaining your living appearance or even, you know, having skin, take up processing power, and thus cost money. And if you can’t afford to pay up…

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click to embiggen

…it gets a little weird.

There are other wrinkles to the book, but I should probably leave those to be discovered by anyone who’s interested in reading it. I will say a few more words on the artwork, though. Eric Pfeiffer still has room to grow, but I like what he’s already doing quite a bit. It reminds me of early Becky Cloonan and Emma Rios, fine artists to have as influences, I think. I dig his page layouts, too:

Pfeiffer Arcadia 1

So! That’s Arcadia! Surprisingly good new funnybooks that I wanted to discuss because I was afraid it might fly under too many people’s radar. It’s not life-changing funnybooks, but it’s definitely worth a look.

Grade: B

The Wicked + The Divine 10, by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie

McKelvie WicDiv 10

I sometimes think writer Kieron Gillen is being too loose with his storytelling in WicDiv, letting events happen without giving them the proper narrative weight. The revelation in this issue of who tried to kill Lucifer, for instance, just doesn’t play right somehow. It seems almost off-hand, an “oh yeah by the way” sort of delivery that belies its importance to earlier issues. Granted, I think that’s supposed to be the point: lead character Laura’s been so wrapped up in her own angst and romantic entanglements that she’s lost track of the narrative. But it still doesn’t play quite right. Something doesn’t connect the way it should, and that bugs me.

But the book also delivers on moments of formal brilliance so stunning that I don’t really care.

(Nihilist Face Blast!)

(Nihilist Face Blast!)

It’s not style over substance. It’s style AS substance. And how can I not love a book that gives me that?

Grade: B+

Doing the Impossible: Grant Morrison’s Multiversification Policy

So last week saw the publication of the final issue of the World’s Greatest Comic Magazine. For reals, this time. Or at least, until the publicity cycle for the next movie is over.

I’m talking, of course, about The Fantastic Four, Marvel Comics’ flagship title, and probably my favorite funnybook series of all time. One of the Marvel movie executives has effectively ordered the comic cancelled. Reportedly, his blood pressure shoots up every time he sees or hears about the characters, because the company sold the rights to another studio and he doesn’t want the publishing arm giving those movies “free publicity.” So in order to prevent the guy from having a stroke, Marvel editorial has brought the series to an end.

Or something like that. I don’t really care about the backstage drama so much, to be honest. I just care about the result of it: my favorite funnybook’s gone, and that makes me sad. Sad, and a little pissed off that the book’s being cancelled because of some kind of movie bullshit. I’ve made my feelings about funnybook movies clear before, and that feeling’s only strengthened in the last week, after reading Gerry Conway’s little expose of DC Comics’ new corporate policies making it harder (or in some cases impossible) for freelancers to claim royalties. If you haven’t read that, in fact, you should definitely go do so now. Here: http://gerryconway.tumblr.com/post/117619743363/who-created-caitlin-snow-on-theflash-according# Go ahead. I’ll wait.

After reading that, I’m frankly pretty disgusted with the whole work-for-hire movie business. I’m done with it all, I think. Screw ‘em. I’ve got my own blood pressure to worry about, after all, and there’s still plenty of good stuff out there to watch that doesn’t involve me putting money in the pockets of people who might give me a stroke.

What’s really bad is that I hadn’t planned to bring up the FF business at all, honestly. I mean, that “free publicity” thing goes both ways, right? But last week also saw the publication of a comic in which Grant Morrison tackles some connected issues, and it seemed like a natural introduction. Speaking of which… I guess it’s time to stop talking about movie-related crap and start talking about something that’s actually important: funnybooks.

Multiversity 2, by Grant Morrison and Ivan Reis

Reis Multiversity 2

The Multiversity series ends with this issue, and I’m kind of sad to see it go. It’s been a blast watching Morrison tear through the multiverse, coming up with great takes on all sorts of characters, styles, and eras of super hero fiction. I kind of wish it had been an on-going, to tell the truth, with Morrison taking as many or as few issues as he liked to explore, define, and tell stories about the vast array of characters with which he’s populated the multiple Earths.

Reis Multiversity 2 Heroes

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As I’ve said before, though, that kind of misses the point. While the fun of the series has certainly been the fecundity of the ideas, this has been, from day one, a story with an axe to grind. In retrospect, in fact, it plays sort of like a funnybook political cartoon.

That may be overstating things a bit. The level of humor varies according to the demands of each individual story. It’s most obvious in the inherently silly Thunderworld, with its loving tribute to the Golden Age Captain Marvel. But the kind of humor I’m really talking about here is maybe best exemplified by The Just, Morrison’s take on the super-hero-as-celebrity approach, in which the greatest threat is the heroes’ own overwhelming sense of ennui. Much like real-world celebrity, it’s hard to take very seriously, even though it’s played straight, right down to the ultra-realist artwork.

(“Straight” being a relative term.)

(“Straight” being a relative term.)

And that’s how the series goes as a whole. There are moments of levity even in stories as relatively serious as Pax Americana and Mastermen, stuff that gently sends up the excesses of the various super hero storytelling styles as much as it celebrates them.

In this final issue, though, the jokes go from gentle to brutal as the bad guys finally take center stage. The Gentry have been silent villains to some extent, barely appearing even in stories where their influence is most strongly felt. In others, they’ve acted through agents, characters from one type of story invading others in an attempt to break down the fictional integrity of each new world.

That’s still happening here, as we see the Vampire Justice League go after the sorcerous heroes of Earth 13. But that sort of thing takes a back seat to the main action, as the heroes gathered around President Superman and Dino-Cop in the Bleed gather their forces and take the fight to the Gentry themselves. And that’s when Morrison drops the joke-bomb, the one line that hadn’t really occurred to me, but that puts the entire series in perspective:

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click to embiggen

Heh. Okay, so yeah. YEAH. Multiversity is about the Gentrification of the super hero comic. It’s about taking a marginal fictional ghetto and warping it in the most boring manner possible in a desperate attempt to appeal to the mainstream. It’s about introducing realism to a genre that thrives on wild creativity, and the injection of self-doubt into fiction that’s inherently optimistic. There’s all sorts of stuff bound up in that critique: the demands of the aging super hero reader, the sensitivity of super hero storytellers about working in ghetto literature, and of course the current biggest outside influence on super hero fiction: movies.

I don’t think I’m reading the movie thing in, anyway. Certainly, it’s hard not to see it with this issue coming out the same week as the final Fantastic Four comic. But I think it’s there, anyway. Part of the inspiration for the increased realism in super hero comics, after all, is a desire to make them more easily adaptable to film. Hollywood’s preferred three-act structure has become an expected storytelling standard, as well, to the point that some readers are confused by stories put together any other way (Multiveristy’s anthology structure, for instance, has apparently thrown some people out there in the dark corners of the internet).

But it’s the restrictions and imposed structures that Morrison’s really got a problem with, I think. It’s not that realism or noirish character flaws are inherently bad. It’s the expectation of those things he seems to be attacking, the straitjacket idea that it’s the only way to tell a super hero story. Why throw out the super-presidents and heroic rabbits when there might be somebody out there who could enjoy them?

Granted… Sales in the comics shops would seem to indicate that the market for heroic rabbits, at least, is probably kind of slim. But put in front of the right audience or, for that matter, handled in the right way…

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click to embiggen

…and you never know.

That decapitation scene is one of my favorites from this issue, I must admit. I was surprised how much I liked it, in fact, considering how much I didn’t like the first issue’s “cartoon physics” line from the same character. But I think that’s because this one’s such a great jab at the grim-n-gritty super-world where dudes get their heads chopped off on a semi-regular basis. Not that I’ve got anything against decapitations, understand (I LOVE Highlander!). But seeing Captain Carrot spend a couple of pages stumbling around comically headless is pretty awesome. It’s almost disappointing when he’s restored by a benevolent Flash.

Speaking of which… There’s a ton of Flashes running around this issue, too, and I’m also awfully fond of their role in the grand scheme of things.

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click to embiggen

I mean, is this the only comic I’ve ever read in which reality is saved by the amazing power of READS FAST? I think it might be. Hell, it might be the only story I’ve ever read in ANY medium that can make that claim. And I dig it.

Which is sort of the point, I suppose. Done right, all these bizarre concepts work just fine. The trick is finding someone who can do that, and then letting them run with it. Considering mainstream comics’ past track record using Grant Morrison concepts after he’s gone, though, I won’t hold my breath.

It’s been fun under his watch in Multiversity, though. While this final issue is far from his best work (there’s just too much ground to cover in the space allotted), there’s still a lot going on here. So much more than I’ve been able to talk about. Like the way he’s included not only the Avengers, but also Savage Dragon and Hellboy, in his pantheon of Heroes Worth Saving. Or, most importantly, the way the title isn’t just about the multiverse, but about the kinds of characters who populate it. I mean, check out this team he puts together at the end:

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click to embiggen

That’s two women, two black men, a gay man, an alien, a robot, and a cartoon rabbit. The only straight white male in the lot is Atomic Batman. And he’s… well… ATOMIC BATMAN. So screw DI-versity! The real heroes are all into MULTI-versity these days! And that New 52 Justice League is lookin’ a little weak.

Grade: A

The Spectacle of It All

So last week was a good week for funnybooks. But, as sometimes happens, life has gotten in the way of me discussing them in my usual depth. So this’ll have to be quick. And, since the four books I’ll be covering are also real pretty to look at, I figured I might as well pick one really spectacular image from each, and share those. Some of them will be SPOILERY, while others… Well, okay. All of them are going to be a bit SPOILERY. But some more than others. Consider yourself warned.

Anyway. Without further ado (’cause I ain’t got no time for ado)… FUNNYBOOKSINREVIEWAREGO!!!!!

Lazarus 16, by Greg Rucka, Michael Lark, Owen Freeman and Eric Trautmann

A taut, suspenseful issue this time out, with some really nice “artifact” pages put together by the Lazarus production team of Owen Freeman and Eric Trautmann. These are pages made to mimic actual documents, screens, and camera feeds from the story. They add depth and verisimilitude to the proceedings, and are neat to look at, besides.

But I’m not sharing one of those images. Because Michael Lark, bless him, decided to trump all that production gloss with one of the best action images I’ve seen in quite a while:

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click to embiggen


Grade: A-

Velvet 10, by Ed Brubaker, Steve Epting, and Elizabeth Breitweiser

More cool period spy stuff as this book’s second arc concludes. Or… I dunno… Actually, I guess that’s the second act of the first arc. Whatever. The story reaches a turning point here, and keeps on rolling.

As usual, however, it’s the artwork that makes the book so very good. I don’t often credit colorists here, because while their work is certainly important, it doesn’t add enough to the experience of reading the book for me to consider it worthy of authorship. Elizabeth Breitweiser’s work on Velvet, however, goes above and beyond. She’s tops.

That said, this issue’s image highlights her less than it does artist Steve Epting:

click to embiggen

click to embiggen

Sure, Breitweiser picked a nice shade of orange for the background there, making the swirls that much more psychedelic. But the framing is fantastic, too, with Velvet going down up-front, and her attacker framed perfectly by the swirls surrounding him. And speaking of the swirls… Embiggen that picture, and look closely at them. That’s some fine brush work there, the varying line qualities allowing for a certain fuzziness around the edges that add just the right touch of “gettin’ whacked upside the head” to the scene. It’s a small panel, but a masterful one.

Grade: A-

Mind MGMT 32, by Matt Kindt

An “all-out action issue,” as they used to say when I was a funnybook-reading tyke. An all-out action issue that still delivers on the weirdness I’ve come to expect from this book, but an all-out action issue nonetheless. And I don’t have that much more to say about it, honestly. So luckily, the issue’s big splash probably says enough all by itself:

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click to embiggen

Grade: A-

Satellite Sam 13, by Matt Fraction and Howard Chaykin

A pretty spectacular issue, in which we start to see the payoff on 12 issues of slow burn and character development. The shit hits the fan, in other words. Various other bodily fluids hit the fan, too. In a variety of positions and locations. In the interest of keeping the site relatively clean, however (WON’T SOMEBODY THINK OF THE CHILDREN?!), I’ve decided to just show you the blood…

click to embiggen

click to embiggen

I love Chaykin’s framing choice here. Having Ginsberg’s face being snapped back behind the floating panels just makes the punch seem that much worse. The pencil shading… zip-a-tone… charcoal… whatever-technique-he’s-actually-using around the blood adds to the impact, too. And the blood itself! Exploding out of Ginsberg’s head in a torrent that also defines the movement of the punch, making it a very dynamic shot without a single speed line or sound effect. And I don’t know if letterer Ken Bruzenak is responsible for that little grey smudge behind the word balloon or not, but… That’s nice, too.

SUCH nice work. SUCH a great comic. A pleasure to read, even as things turn nasty.

Grade: A

Fugitives From the Law of Averages: Revisit World War II with Willie and Joe

A Retro Review this week! Or, well… A Retro Appreciation, maybe. Because “review” ain’t really what’s gonna be happening here…

Willie and Joe, by Bill Mauldin

Mauldin - Willie & Joe

If you’re looking for a chronicle of the American experience in World War II, you could do a lot worse than the work of cartoonist Bill Mauldin. Starting in 1940, the young Mauldin (then an Army private) started drawing cartoons lampooning military life for his battalion’s newsletter. He kept it up, through multiple postings and into the European campaign, always championing the infantry, and (now a sergeant in the Army press corps) spending as much time as possible with the men on the front lines of the war. That experience gave Mauldin’s work a grit, and an authenticity, it would have otherwise lacked.

Authenticity was important to Mauldin. He wanted to show the real war, to capture the life and attitude of the average soldier, giving the men a voice they sorely lacked, both in the Army itself, and in the sanitized media coverage the war too often received. While he never showed the carnage of battle, he didn’t really need to. Reading his work, it’s easy to get the impression that the bodies are often lying just outside camera range.

Besides, death ain’t funny. And Mauldin’s strips almost always are. They’re especially funny once the war really gets going, and the gallows humor really starts to shine through. As one of Mauldin’s many nameless soldiers says while dodging bullets, they’re all “fugitives from the law of averages.” This kind of ugly, unvarnished truth sometimes didn’t sit well with Mauldin’s superiors, including General George Patton. But the official line on his work was that it offered the troops a much-needed safety valve, a way to blow off steam about the horrible conditions through some harmless cartoons. So Patton was over-ruled, and the pugnacious Mauldin became even more bold.

But that’s enough talk. The only way to really appreciate Bill Mauldin’s work is to read it. So here are ten of his best, what I hope is a representative sampling of one of the greatest comic strips ever made. And we’ll start with my personal favorite…

Mauldin - Up Front 1 Mauldin - Up Front 2 Mauldin - Up Front 3 Mauldin - Up Front 4 Mauldin - Up Front 5 Mauldin - Up Front 6 Mauldin - Up Front 7 Mauldin - Up Front 8 Mauldin - Up Front 9 Mauldin - Up Front 10

Okay, one bonus: Mauldin continued chronicling the lives of Willie and Joe after they returned home, but things didn’t really get that much easier for them…

Mauldin - Post War


Big Shoes to Fill: Daredevil Comes to Television

This week, we give proper funnybooks a rest to discuss (Good Lord! *choke!*) a funnybook TV show…

Daredevil Logo

So, yeah… I watched Daredevil this weekend, just like every other dork in America. What can I say? For once, we got a funnybook adaptation that actually looked like it might not suck. And lord knows the source material is impeccable. I’m not sure there’s been a more consistently good corporate spandex comic in the last 35 years. I mean, sure, it’s had its down periods. But the list of creators who’ve worked on the character since the late 1970s is pretty damned impressive:

Frank Miller
Klaus Janson
Bill Sienkiewicz
Denny O’Neil
David Mazzuchelli
Ann Nocenti
John Romita Jr
Kevin Smith
Joe Quesada
Brian Michael Bendis
David Mack
Alex Maleev
Ed Brubaker
Michael Lark
Mark Waid
Paolo Rivera
Marcos Martin
Chris Samnee

That’s a lot of serious talent, turning in a lot of really excellent stories. Even the ones I didn’t personally enjoy have a certain creative integrity that I can’t help but respect. It’s a lot to live up to. So much to live up to, in fact, that I couldn’t help but maintain a healthy skepticism going into the TV show. Daredevil is the kind of heavy noir storytelling that’s far too easy to mess up. The hero is seriously flawed, and he moves in a morally complex world of a type you don’t see all that often in heroic television drama. I hoped that they’d nail it, but suspected they wouldn’t. So I braced myself, and dove in.

Initial impressions were not good.

Actually, that’s not quite fair. I didn’t think the first episode was bad. But I didn’t think it was anything special, either. The dialogue was passable, but didn’t impress. The acting was solid, but nothing to write home about. And the plot seemed to have been copied verbatim out of the crime show playbook. I think Perry Mason cracked the same case back in the Fifties. Jim Rockford might have tackled it, too. Honestly, the whole thing seemed a bit cookie cutter to me. Other than an admirable dedication to dim lighting (the blacks on this show are DEEP), there was nothing in that first episode that made Daredevil stand out from a dozen other competently-executed but generally uninteresting detective shows.

Again, I didn’t hate it. Far from it. There’s a lot to like. The fight scenes, for instance, are crisp and brutal, and Daredevil has to struggle to defeat even the nameless thugs he encounters. I mean, he still comes off like the acrobatic martial arts badass he should.

TV Daredevil

He seldom fights fewer than three people at once. But nobody goes down to just one punch in this show. Just like real people (especially real people who make their living with violence), the bad guys get knocked down, struggle back to their feet, and keep fighting. So does Our Hero, for that matter. And those are often the best parts.

I’m also quite fond of how they introduce the audience to Matt Murdock’s super powers. Rather than explaining them, they demonstrate them and let us figure it out. When he uses his super hearing, for instance, they go in for a slight close-up on his ear as the sound of someone’s heartbeat slowly fades in and comes to dominate the soundtrack. Or we hear the exaggerated sound of a gun being cocked, accompanied by a quick head turn and a reaction that makes it look like Our Hero is dodging bullets when in reality he’s just getting out of the way before they’re fired.

So they’re handling the super hero stuff really well. In that first episode, though, little else seemed to be firing on all cylinders. It was pretty good, but not much more. And pretty good ain’t gonna cut it. I’ve got better things to do with my time. So I kind of felt like I was done with it.

Then I decided to write this review.

Swiftly, I realized that one episode wasn’t going to cut it if I was going to express any kind of formal opinion. The whole first season’s available for viewing, after all. So discussing it after only watching one episode would be kind of like reviewing the first chapter of a novel. Besides, I hadn’t seen Vincent D’Onofrio yet, and he was half the reason I watched it in the first place. So I dove back in.

And it got better. The plots became more interesting, the acting improved, the characters deepened. But the good stuff kept getting undermined by narrative missteps. The second episode, for instance, does a nice job building tension as a critically-injured Daredevil has to defend an apartment building from the men who tried to kill him. But that tension is periodically deflated by a comedic B-plot with Karen Page and Foggy Nelson. It’s good character work on those two, don’t get me wrong, and both actors are good in their roles. But the other half of the episode is so much more compelling that their scenes felt like an unwanted interruption.

On the plus side, though, that episode does end with some real bravado filmmaking: an extended fight scene in a hallway, filmed as one long take. It’s a bit reminiscent of Oldboy, I suppose, but it becomes its own thing by the end. The tight quarters give the fight a brutal, claustrophobic atmosphere. You feel the impact of every punch. It’s great stuff, and it gives the show something it had been lacking up to that point: style.

The third episode starts out even stronger. The whole thing’s a huge moral quagmire, as Murdock convinces Foggy to compromise his integrity in defending a man they know is guilty of murder. Now, Matt’s pretty sure the guy’s going to get off regardless of what they do, and secretly plans to take their client down as Daredevil once they get him off the hook. But Foggy doesn’t know that, and winds up believing that he’s taken the money because sometimes you have to compromise. Ugly. The trial itself isn’t all that gripping, but it’s fascinating to watch Our Hero manipulate his best friend in the name of the greater good. I was doubly pleased to see that, because it’s an example of the moral ambiguity I was afraid the TV series wasn’t going to deal in: Matt Murdock might be a hero, but he’s not always a nice person. So I was impressed, and ready to admit that this show had more on the ball than I’d been giving it credit for.

Then they blew it. Something happens (I won’t say what), and it’s supposed to be a huge, shocking WTF moment. But the execution of it is so ludicrous that I just burst out laughing. And I’m not talking about a bad special effect or anything. I could give a rat’s ass about special effects. It’s the event itself that’s the problem. It’s ridiculous, and I laughed, and all that hard work they did setting up moral dilemmas and thematic resonances just went right out the damn window.

At this point, I was getting frustrated. Daredevil is obviously being put together with care and intelligence. They’re paying attention to color and lighting and sound. And they’re exploring all kinds of fascinating subject matter. Crime, punishment, victimization, heroism, religion, fear, anger, control… Even the moral implication of vigilantism is getting a workout, and that’s something the super hero genre usually ignores rather studiously. This thing has all the makings of an epic noir potboiler, a masterpiece of street-level super heroics that honors its excellent source material.

“It’s so close to being great,” I thought, “but they just can’t quite get their shit together.”

I plunged onward anyway, though, determined to see Vincent D’Onofrio’s turn as the Kingpin. We finally got a glimpse of him at the end of episode three, and the next installment promised the full reveal. One more, I figured, then I’d write the damn review and be done with it.

So of course he comes on screen and immediately saves the show.

D'Onofrio Kingpin

Because episode four is where it all clicks, and it clicks because of D’Onofrio and Fisk. The character is written better than I ever could have expected, and D’Onofrio’s portrayal of him is nuanced and complicated. He’s both powerful and vulnerable. An evil thug and a tightly controlled man made uncomfortable by social situations. It’s everything I’d been seeing the potential for in the show as a whole, and not quite getting.

This is not to slight the rest of the cast. They’re all perfectly competent performers. Actually, Deborah Ann Woll is a damn sight more than competent as Karen Page. She’s giving an understated performance that I’m probably not enjoying as much as I should. But D’Onofrio’s Fisk is something else again. He immediately becomes Matt Murdock’s opposite number, a step away from the cartoonishly evil criminals we’ve gotten up to that point and toward something far more interesting.

And that’s all I’ve seen. So I’m still reviewing the first third of a novel here. But at this point, I feel confident in calling it a novel. It’s a slow-building story unfolding over the course of 13 hours of television, replete with depth of theme and character, a compelling conflict, and one hell of a villain. It has all the makings of an epic noir pot-boiler, and the potential to be top-notch super hero fiction as well. Just like its source material.

And yet I still won’t call it great. Its weaknesses are real, and mar the early episodes. But now it’s won me over, and I’ll definitely be going back for more.

Grade: B+

A post-script: I guested this week on the Too Much Scrolling podcast, where we discussed Daredevil at great length. I said a lot of the same crap I said here, but my hosts (Chip and Stephen) offered far better insights, and they’re well-worth hearing. Check it out here:  http://toomuchscrolling.podbean.com/e/they-just-can%e2%80%99t-put-a-finger-on-it/

But you should totally check out Too Much Scrolling, anyway. They’re good kids.

The Talking Dead: Jonathan Hickman Gets Verbose

This week, kind of a rarity for the Dork Forty: a negative review. As I’ve said before, I prefer to talk about things I like, rather than hate on things I don’t. Plus… I don’t buy too many comics that I don’t enjoy anymore. I’ve been reading these things a long time, and have learned what to avoid. Sometimes, though, something slips through. I’ll try something new that looks better than it is, or I’ll get an unpleasant surprise from writers and artists I normally like. The latter is what happened this week, so I thought it was worth taking some time to examine exactly what went wrong…

The Dying & the Dead 2, by Jonathan Hickman and Ryan Bodenheim

Bodenheim The Dying and the Dead 2

Too much speechifying.

That was my impression of this issue as I read it. Too many speeches. Too many old men standing around pontificating on their lives and what they mean. I mean, it’s a Jonathan Hickman comic, so you expect a bit of that. Philosophy and ideas are as important to him as plot and character. It’s part of his appeal. But there was just too much of it in this issue, and it felt artificial.

That’s down to story structure, in part. In the first issue of The Dying & the Dead, we met the Colonel, a retired military hero who makes a deal to go on a mission for some mysterious underworld elf types, in return for which they’ll cure his wife’s cancer. He knows it’s a bad deal, but he can’t stand to be without her, so off he goes. This issue, we meet the crew that the Colonel’s putting together to help him, so as we meet each guy, they get a little establishing scene. And after a couple of those, they get old real fast.

It starts off well enough, with a card game at an old folk’s home and a guy named Doyle collecting meds to aid in the assisted suicide of a terminally ill friend. Good stuff. It sets Doyle up as an organizer and a bit of a con man, but one who cares enough to want a friend to die with dignity. It also speaks to the series’ core themes about the tragedy of aging. I was impressed. Then he runs afoul of the most cartoonishly evil orderly I’ve ever had the displeasure to read about:

Bodenheim Dying and Dead 2 Orderly

And so the speechifying begins. And while that stuff about enjoying watching great men reduced to nothing is marvelous vile bastard stuff, I wasn’t quite buying it from this guy. He’s a little too porntastic, I think, to have such a well-developed rationale for his sadism. But maybe more importantly, it sets him up as a one-dimensional evil straw man. When Doyle beats the crap out of him with his cane a few pages later, my reaction is less a cheer for a well-deserved comeuppance than it is annoyance that I’m reading something so predictable.

Things don’t get any better from there. Next, we meet Moss, who’s made a lot of money in the oil business. He gives a long-ass speech about why that’s not a great business to be involved in, and how he’d like to be a good man again. Not utterly cliché, I don’t suppose, but in the general ballpark. It made my eyes glaze over a bit, anyway, and that’s never good.

Then it’s on to Finn, who’s now a senator. Finn delivers a speech about the nature of power that I guarantee you’ve heard before if you’ve ever watched a single movie about politics:

Bodenheim Dying and Dead 2 Senator

Talktalktalktalktalktalktalk. Jeez! Now, I’ve got nothing against talky books. I love talky books, in fact, and Hickman’s written some very good ones. But talkiness relies on the talking being good, and so very little of this is good. It’s a stream of clichés knitted together in service to the narrative, and it annoys the piss out of me.

The introduction of the Colonel’s final ally (the afore-mentioned Martin) is, thankfully, not talky at all. It unfolds across a single blissfully silent page detailing the guy’s 20 years of incarceration:

Bodenheim Dying and Dead 2 Prison

Like the opening card game, it’s a nice sequence that tells you everything you need to know about Martin. If it doesn’t speak directly to the book’s themes about aging, that’s okay. It’s still about the effects of the passage of time, and that’s just as good. Granted, in the wake of all the talking and cliché earlier in the issue, I wasn’t very patient with its evocation of every prison saga from The Great Escape to The Shawshank Redemption. But I’m a big enough man to admit that might be an over-reaction caused by my annoyance with the rest of the comic, rather than a valid criticism.

I’m also willing to admit that all this “been-there, done-that” speechifying I’m complaining about could just be symptomatic of the type of characters we’re dealing with. Old men are always full of theories. They always like to talk about those theories at length, too, and often their ideas really aren’t all that unique. I don’t think that’s how we’re supposed to read this, though, so I’m not giving Hickman the benefit of the doubt on that. It just feels tired. Rote. Hickman handled similar sentiments rather well when he was writing Nick Fury’s old war buddies in Secret Warriors, so I know he’s capable of better. And “better” is what I demand in my entertainment.

All that said… This is not a terrible comic. There are a couple of good sequences, and Ryan Bodenheim’s artwork is awfully pretty. It’s just that the clichés drag it down in a way they normally don’t in a Jonathan Hickman book. Because Hickman does, honestly, draw on cliché a lot. But usually he puts it together in an interesting way, or pairs it with something weird and unexpected, or uses it sparingly enough that it doesn’t grate. Here, he’s not doing that, and the comic really suffers because of it. Again, it’s not awful. It’s just… average, I guess. And I need better than average for my funnybook dollar.

Grade: C

Okay. Time for one more, just so we don’t end on a sour note…

Blackcross 1 & 2, by Warren Ellis and Colton Worley

Lotay Blackcross 1

This one kinda snuck up on me. I didn’t know that Warren Ellis was going to be doing one of these “Project Superpowers” books til issue two hit the stands last week. Luckily, my Local Funnybook Emporium (Nostalgia Newsstand, represent!) not only still had copies of issue one on-hand, but they had the bitchin’ Tula Lotay variant cover (as seen above). Pretty stuff.

Project Superpowers, if you don’t know, is a line of comics featuring a bunch of characters who’ve fallen into the public domain. The Black Terror is maybe the most famous of them, and even he’s not well-known outside of hard-core funnybook dorks. Most of the line has been average pulpy spandex stuff from what I understand, but this… This is quite different. It plays like a supernatural crime story, with the super heroes as possessing spirits haunting the normal world.

Worley Blackcross Lady Satan

Colton Worley’s interior art isn’t as ethereal as Lotay’s covers, but he’s got a solid illustrative style and a good sense of mood. There’s a touch of of Gray Morrow about him, I think. A little Guy Davis, too. Impressive inspirations for a funnybook artist, and fitting ones for a book like this.

Anyway. I like Blackcross quite a bit. It’s not as good, I don’t think, as Ellis’ recently-completed Supreme: Blue Rose, but it’s still got that book’s sense of grounded reality being invaded by something beyond normal understanding. Solid weird fiction, then. And lord knows I love me some weird fiction.

Grade: B+