So I pride myself on being able to spot comics I’ll like, and avoid comics I won’t. And I’m not often wrong. But sometimes I do make a bad call, and have to play catch up. Recently, I’ve done that with writer Tom King. I’d heard a good buzz around the guy last year, but when I sampled a comic from him, I decided that it was a little too disjointed, and gave his stuff a pass. Looking back at that comic now, I still think I was right about it. But continued good buzz made me give him a second look, and it appears that King got better fast. So now that I’m up to speed… TOMKINGINREVIEWISGO!!!
by Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta
I’ve heard this book called “Marvel’s Watchmen,” but… No. Its not that good.
I’ve also heard this book called “The Best Thing Marvel’s Published in Years,” and that… That’s an opinion I can get behind.
The premise is pretty simple: the Vision, android (excuse me, synthezoid) member of the Avengers, has built himself a family, and tries to live a normal domestic life in the suburbs.
Now, when I say that to anyone who’s even remotely familiar with the character, I always get the same response: they pause, their eyes go wide, and then they say some variation on, “I don’t think that would go very well.”
Then I laugh a nasty little laugh, and say, “Oh, yeah. Yeah, it doesn’t go very well at all.”
That scene, featuring the Vision’s wife Virginia killing the Grim Reaper with a cookie sheet, probably seems a bit spoilery. But seeing as it came at the end of issue one (the series is now on issue 8), I don’t feel so bad about that.
Which, backing up a bit… Yes. It doesn’t even take a full issue for the Vision’s dreams of domestic bliss to go off the rails. Now, Virginia killing the Reaper is completely understandable. He burst into their home, breaking through a wall and impaling their daughter Viv with his scythe before anyone even knew what was happening. Virginia responded in defense of herself and her children. And if she attacked with deadly force, well… Who can blame her, really? The guy had just, as I said, impaled her daughter on a scythe. I sincerely doubt there’s a jury in the world that would convict her.
But she doesn’t think about that. All she thinks about is how much the Vision wants them to be a normal human family. How much normal humanity is, in fact, the entire point of their existence.
But killing a super villain with a cookie sheet is NOT the sort of thing a normal suburban housewife gets up to. So she does the only thing she can.
That’s right: she buries her victim in the back yard and tells everyone he got away. This inciting incident tells us pretty much everything we need to know about what’s wrong with the Vision’s perfect family. They’re not bad people, by any stretch of the imagination. They’re rather endearingly good, in point of fact. But they’re new. They don’t know how to human. And while they seem more than capable of learning, the Vision is hardly a good teacher. Because while he certainly has human emotions (even an android can cry, and all that), it’s clear that he doesn’t entirely understand them. Or at least, he doesn’t understand them well enough to raise two teenagers AND a wife.
That’s another problem, of course: the Vision made himself a wife. King hasn’t delved into her creation too deeply, but there’s something troubling about that. Near as I can tell, the Vision made Virginia and the children more or less at the same time. She just has an adult brain pattern, while theirs are immature, formed from a combination of the Vision’s brain pattern and her own. This makes her incredibly inexperienced, but otherwise just as much an autonomous, fully-functioning adult as the Vision himself. And yet, it seems that she’s had no choice in being his wife. He created her to fill that role, and so she does.
There’s also a question about the… quality? …of the brainwave patterns he used to create her mind, but that’s not what I focus on when I’m reading. No, I focus on that tremendous gap in life experience. So as they fluctuate between funny robot versions of day-to-day marital spats, and the Vision instructing her on how to be like a human (see the “kind vs nice” discussion above)… It all starts to feel pretty creepy. He’s acting as both husband and father to her, and questions start to crop up in my mind. Like, does she love him? She seems to. She’s devoted to him, at the very least. But if she does love him, is that the result of getting to know him and falling in love, or is it the result of her being programmed for it? Or, worse, is it the desire of a creation to please its creator, the way a child likes to please a parent? That last possibility becomes particularly troubling to me in this scene:
Of course, the morality of Virginia’s existence isn’t the only thing making the synthezoid sex creepy. Because what’s also happening here is that Virginia’s seduction is distracting the Vision from subjects that might lead him to figure out that she killed the Reaper. So is it seduction born of love and desire, or seduction born of duplicity? If the Vision’s wide eyed stare is any indication, this is not normal behavior for her. Of course, she’s still learning. So this could be a natural, healthy part of her personal growth. But with everything else that’s floating around this scene, I have to wonder.
I do know that, thus far, this has been the story of Virginia’s gradual deterioration in the face of unbearable pressure. She’s wrestling with a lot of conflicting emotions, without the context or guidance to deal with them properly, and over time it breaks her. It kind of breaks the children, too. Viv and Vin seem better-balanced than either of their parents, but that may just be because they’re teenagers, so doubts about how to act are fitting. But Vin is an accomplice to his mother’s murder, and Viv has a heart-breaking crush to deal with. So they’re not necessarily handling things all that well, either. Virginia is the linchpin here, though. As she breaks, so breaks the family.
Of course, King tells us right at the outset that the Visions’ dream of domestic bliss is going to end badly.
It’s a nice gambit. Knowing that it’s all going to go wrong, everything takes on a sort of wistful black humor, a sense of dread and regret that you nonetheless can’t help laughing at even as you feel bad. That’s not an easy reaction to elicit, but King’s pulling it off with aplomb. I’m as excited by his craft here as I am by the story he’s telling, and that’s a sure sign he’s a writer I need to be paying attention to.
So, yes. The Vision is great stuff. A suburban drama with murder and robots. Not as good as Watchmen, but easily the best thing I’ve read from Marvel Comics in a good long while. It’s many-layered, philosophical, and entertaining. I’m glad I picked it up before it ended.
That’s not something I can technically say about the other Tom King work I’ll be looking at today, since its final issue hit the stands before I actually read most of it…
by Tom King and Barnaby Bagenda
The first issue of Omega Men is the book that made me decide not to follow Tom King’s work. And looking back on that issue, I can still see why. King’s narrative in that first issue is disjointed. The action is confusing, there are sequences with dialogue that’s almost entirely in an untranslated alien alphabet, characters are introduced in a way that would seem to indicate that we’re supposed to know who they are, but we don’t.
On first read, it seemed like a bit of a mess. But going back to it with more faith in Tom King’s writing ability, I think that’s entirely on purpose. I think that he’s trying to drop you, cold, into an alien culture. He wants you to have to scramble to catch up, giving you just enough that you’re not completely lost, but not nearly enough that you feel like you have a handle on what’s happening. That’s an effect I often like, but I don’t think King quite pulled it off, even now. Actually, let me rephrase that. He was very successful in immersing the reader in a confusing alien culture. He was less successful in doing it in a manner that made me want to keep reading.
Of course, being dropped cold into an alien culture is not an experience I’ve ever had. If it was, I might have recognized it and thought it was brilliant. And I have no doubt that it’s an accurate portrayal of the sensation. King spent much of the Noughts working for the CIA, and his introduction to the Middle East probably felt very much like the first issue of this comic. But not knowing that about him on my first read, and not recognizing the experience, I thought it was just sloppy writing. So I decided to give King a miss.
Luckily, though, the premise of the book appealed to me a great deal. The Omega Men, if you’re not familiar, are traditionally a group of freedom fighters battling against the tyranny of the Citadel, a galaxy-spanning empire that rules the Vega system with an iron fist. But the line between “freedom fighters” and “terrorists” can be pretty thin, and how you draw that line often depends on which side of it you’re standing.
So King, again drawing on his experiences in the Middle East, decided to cast the Omega Men as space terrorists. His first story, a short piece given away for free in digital format, features an Islamic State style video in which Omega Men stalwart Tigorr cuts the throat of White Lantern Kyle Raynor.
It’s shocking, it’s bold, and it sure as hell got my attention. King’s not playing, either. Tigorr really did cut Raynor’s throat. They saved him after the cameras went off, mind you. But only because they wanted to use him. And besides, they needed to make an incision anyway. How else were they going to implant the bomb?
So, yeah. When King pitched “Omega Men as terrorists,” he wasn’t kidding around. Using Raynor as his point of view character in the early issues, he keeps the ostensible heroes of the series at arm’s length and slowly, over time, reveals the situation in the Vega system. The more we learn, the more human the Omega Men become, and the more Kyle is converted to their cause. By the series’ halfway point, he’s joined their fight.
But we know they’re using him before he does, and that moral conflict is what really powers the series from that point on. The Omega Men’s fight is just, but their methods often aren’t. Their ranks are made up of cynics and thrill-killers, disgraced priests and fallen pacifists. Their leader is a grand manipulator who keeps her alliance with them a secret until she can’t anymore. Raynor steps into a moral quagmire when he gets involved in Vegan politics, a situation where even his attempts to reveal the Citadel for what it is lead only to more and greater conflict, and ever-muddier morality.
It’s one of the more conflicted and unsentimental perspectives on war I’ve ever read, informed on every level by King’s knowledge of conflicts in the Middle East. And yet, it’s not a story about the senselessness of war. The Citadel is a threat worth fighting, and for the people of Vega, the alternative to that fight is obliteration. So Omega Men is, instead, about the sad necessity of war, and the horrible things it demands of everyone involved. It’s about grudges and rivalries and destabilization, and the very personal reasons why it sometimes seems the conflicts will never end. Because everybody’s got reasons, on all sides, and nobody sees themselves as the bad guys.
Don’t think it’s all cold philosophizing, though. I mean, if I have a criticism of King’s work (both here and on the Vision), it’s that there is a sort of clinical distance to it at times. But he knows how to make you feel what his characters are going through when it counts, and in Omega Men, he weaves all the conflicting philosophy in layers through an exciting adventure story, riveting enough that I read all 12 issues in one day. Some of that was a re-read, of course, but still. I felt compelled to move on to the next issue, and was satisfied with the conclusion. While I think The Vision may be slightly better, Omega Men is the goods as well. So much so that I’m going to give it the same grade…
Tom King has one other on-going book out there right now: Sheriff of Babylon, a crime/detective series based more directly on his time in the Middle East. It may wind up being the King work I’m most impressed with, but my plans to read it for inclusion in this week’s column fell afoul of time restraints and, if I’m going to be perfectly honest, laziness. So it, like all the really fantabulous funnybooks that have come out over the last two or three weeks, will have to wait til later…