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
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:
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:
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:
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.
Okay. Time for one more, just so we don’t end on a sour note…
Blackcross 1 & 2, by Warren Ellis and Colton Worley
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.
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.