So we’re back! After taking a month off to rest and recharge the nerd batteries, we return refreshed and… wiser, maybe? Because I’ll tell you the truth: much as Dork Forty was feeling like a job before I took a break from it… I also feel like I mostly spent my month off wasting time. I mean, I KNOW it was a vacation, but looking back, it seems like all I did was fart around on-line, watch professional wrestling, and read opinion pieces on crap that doesn’t really matter to me very much.
I mean, seriously… Do I really care why Dan Didio got fired at DC Comics, or what the consequences of that firing are going to be? No. No, I don’t. Sure, there’s a “peek behind the curtain” gossipy thrill to it all. And I hope his removal doesn’t mean that they’ll abandon things like their recent spate of continuity-free 12 issue series. I’ve enjoyed a couple of those, and I’m starting to think that’s the format the Big Two should be moving towards in general (more on that later). But otherwise? Eh. Why do I care about this? Or at least, why do I care enough about it to read and engage in multiple on-line discussions of it?
Because I didn’t have anything better to do, that’s why!
Except, of course, to read funnybooks. And I read a fair few as I slid into burn-out and took my month off. So for this return edition of the weekly Dork Forty, I thought I’d hit the highlights of the last couple of months, focusing particularly on beginnings, endings, and returns. Which, of course, means that…
(Feels kinda good saying that again…)
Black Stars Above 1-4
by Lonnie Nadler and Jenna Cha
This, so far, is my favorite new book of 2020.
It’s cosmic survival horror, weird fiction that reads a bit like the love child of HP Lovecraft and Jack London. Which, I suppose, makes it more like Algernon Blackwood than either of those two. But nobody reads Blackwood anymore except for hardcore weird fiction aficionados like myself, so I’m sticking with that initial comparison for clarity’s sake.
(But seriously, go read “The Wendigo” sometime, if you haven’t. It’s pretty awesome.)
Anyway. Black Stars Above is about a young woman named Eulalie, coming of age as the rugged frontier lifestyle of her father (a fur trapper) is giving way to civilization. In an attempt to escape an unwanted arranged marriage, she agrees to help a man she meets in town, who offers her a large sum of money to deliver a box to “the town north of the woods,” a nameless place she’s never been to, but which she’s sure exists because people talk of it. So she sets off north, swiftly getting lost as the real world she knows disappears behind her, and she finds herself wandering a trackless snow-covered wilderness that’s freezing her, body and soul.
Things get even weirder as she realizes that there’s something alive in the box she’s carrying (the nature of which I won’t spoil here), and she finds an abandoned diary that looks like a normal book at first, but reveals itself to have infinite pages once you start flipping through it. This sort of dreamlike imagery takes over the narrative, as she meets a crazed family of hermits who are in some ways a twisted mirror of her own family, and the arranged marriage she’s running from (but who are also real, separate people with an existence referenced outside the dream). It also becomes apparent that this unreal territory she finds herself in is growing, slowly overtaking real geography over time. Or at least it seems that way. But you can never quite be sure. It could be that she’s just crossed over into some sort of liminal space that reflects the real world without actually being part of it. Or maybe the whole thing is just a vision she’s having as she slowly dies of hypothermia on her ill-advised winter journey.
At this point, I really couldn’t tell you, and I really don’t care. In this sort of story, that blurry line between the real and the unreal is the point. So by issue four, when Eulalie encounters a serpent/DNA helix ladder leading up to a blazing black moon…
…and it’s unclear when she climbs it whether she’s actually climbing, or crawling through an icy tunnel of some sort (perhaps through those seemingly impassable mountains in the background there)…
I’m cool with it.
Because the point isn’t the reality of it. The point is her experience of it. This is her inner reality reflected in her physical reality, and perhaps tampered with in some unknown (unknowable) way by the people with whom she’s made this strange business arrangement.
If those people are real at all.
Because they might not be. And that’s okay, too. Because that’s just the kind of story this is. Which is to say, the kind of story I like best.
East of West 45
by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta
So this one’s been a long time coming. Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta’s tale of an alternate America, shaped by myth and super-science, and heading toward an inevitable apocalypse, ended with this issue, and they did their best to wrap up the many themes and threads woven together over the previous 44 issues, to give readers a satisfying conclusion.
In the end, I… think… they succeeded. I felt vaguely dissatisfied that certain lingering questions of plot were never quite explained. Like, where did the Four Horsemen come from? There seems to be some super-scientific means of reviving/rejuvenating/rebirthing them, but how did all that come to be? It’s not like the more mystical side of the series, with Native American gods and totems and spirits. We don’t really learn the origins of that stuff, either, but it’s myth. It’s magic. You don’t need as much explanation there. But introduce science into something, and it indicates a human hand of some kind, rather than a divine origin. It leads to questions, and those are not questions we ever get answered.
Unless we did, and I missed or forgot it. The lag time between issues on this rather complicated book has caused me to forget important details before. And its surface breezy action-adventure tone sometimes made me read less deeply than I should, too. So I suppose it’s possible. But as it is, I was left with a vague sense of disappointment on that front.
But in most of the important ways, they stuck the landing. The bulk of the issue deals with various grudges being settled. That part of the book was very satisfying, and can perhaps be best summed up with this rather pointed and Milleresque splash page:
But then the story moves on. As those grudges get settled, the book’s themes all dovetail down into them, and the apocalypse comes to pass. Just not in the way many thought it would. And then Hickman reminds us of the most important thing about endings: they usually lead to new beginnings. And so, in spite of everything, East of West winds down in the most unexpected way possible: with a happy ending.
I wasn’t entirely satisfied with that on first reading, but in revisiting it, I think I am. It’s not the only way this book could have ended, but it may be the best. Sacrifices (and lord knows there’s a ton of those here) have more meaning when there’s a point to them. And on that front, Hickman delivers the goods.
Giant-Size X-Men: Jean and Emma
by Jonathan Hickman, RB Silva, Matteo Buffagni, Leinil Yu, and Russell Dauterman
This one’s less a new beginning than it is a rebirth of my interest in an on-going title.
As I think I may have said before, I really loved Jonathan Hickman’s X-Men relaunch, but the monthly book that followed has left something to be desired. He’s been telling the story in a series of connected single issues, which is fine, but the first three or four of those issues were simplistic and kinda dumb. I could see that they were planting seeds for later, but the stories themselves just weren’t doing it for me.
Well, these issues have changed all that.
What we’ve gotten is a series of stories told with experimental narratives, important back-story, veiled references, dark implications for the future, unexpected developments for the brave new mutant society, and a wordless story that tips the hat to a classic issue from the Grant Morrison run. Any worries I had that this thing was going off the rails have been assuaged. There’s too much to discuss in detail here, but my favorite bits involve Mystique and Apocalypse.
The former, we’ve discovered, is only working with Xavier and Magneto because she wants them to bring Destiny back to life. But they’re holding that resurrection over her head, in part because it’s the only way they can trust her, and in part (I think) to punish her for her many crimes against mutantkind. But there is, of course, another problem here. If you’ll recall from House of X, Destiny could see across all of Moira X’s various timelines, and thus is the only other person who knows (or could potentially know) the truth about her. So they’re obviously not going to bring her back, regardless, and are just holding the idea over Mystique’s head to use her. But there’s one thing they don’t know: Destiny foresaw all this, years ago…
…and because of that, Mystique is very likely to make things difficult for them.
Also: Kudos to Hickman for making a spoken thing of the relationship that Claremont only hinted at between those two.
It’s about damn time.
The Apocalypse thing is potentially even juicier. Issue 7 (out last week) is essentially an issue-long conversation between Cyclops and Nightcrawler about the moral and religious ramifications of Xavier’s mutant rebirth program. Along the way, we learn that some mutants are writing wills requesting that, in the event of their death, they be brought back in the body of, say, Magneto (!), and that the subject of mixing and matching various mutant genomes for replacement bodies has been broached, too. Those ideas go expressly against the rules Xavier has established around the resurrection process, of course, but… Now there’s a mutant council, made up in large part of people who lack Xavier’s strict moral fiber. So who’s to say where this will lead?
The thing that issue 7 is really about, though, is the issue of mutants who’ve been stripped of their powers (such as in the Scarlet Witch’s infamous “No more mutants” moment). If those mutants die and are resurrected, their powers will be restored. So a lot of them, understandably, now want that to happen. But there are literally millions of dead mutants to bring back, too. So who gets preference? The solution is something they call “Crucible,” a monthly ceremony where one de-powered mutant faces Apocalypse in a fight to the death. If he deems them worthy of rebirth, he kills them, and they get moved to the front of the resurrection queue.
The way it’s presented is both barbaric and beautiful, and it is precisely the kind of sticky social issue I’ve wanted this book to deal with from the beginning. So I’m happy to see it finally happening.
Martian Manhunter 11 & 12
by Steve Orlando and Riley Rossmo
I haven’t written a lot about this book over its year-long run, in part because, though I’ve been enjoying it, I haven’t loved it. And so I often found that I didn’t have much to say. The execution was always just a little off. Though I understood the story in grand terms, the actual issue-to-issue storytelling was disjointed, and I often felt like I had missed something. I don’t think I had, mind you. It just felt that way.
On the other hand, I did love a lot of the ideas in it. It deals with the moral issues inherent in J’onn J’onnz’s appropriation of detective John Jones’ identity, and throws the fledgling detective hero into a case influenced by the first season of True Detective. It also gives us one hell of a character in Our Hero’s partner, Detective Diane Meade. She’s tough, smart, and funny, and her story as a closeted lesbian afraid to come out because of backlash from a conservative small-town police department mirrors J’onn’s own fears of coming out as a Martian on Earth.
Most importantly for me as a life-long Martian Manhunter fan, though, this book recreates the character’s past. I love the character because of his weird look and power set, but I’ve always been frustrated that he didn’t have a richer back-story. And every previous attempt to give him one has, frankly, been dreadfully dull.
This book changed that. The Martian society we see in flashback here is vibrant and weird, similar enough to our own that we can identify with it, but alien enough to keep things interesting. Orlando and Rossmo have built social structures around both the Martians’ shape-shifting and psychic abilities, and the result is charming, fascinating, and even kinda fun. They have, finally, conjured up a Mars that’s worth missing. And that’s great.
Rossmo’s artwork is also pretty great. I know some have complained because it’s not typical super hero art. But I think most typical super hero art kinda sucks, so… The idiosyncratic cartooning on display here is a welcome change to my eyes. Rossmo excels at the various psychic mindscape sequences, but his fluid style also makes him great at the shape-shifting stuff. And this big two-page spread from issue 11, where Our Hero finally confronts the Red Martian villain of the book…
…is ten shades of awesome.
(And, yes. That’s Miss Martian down in the bottom corner. Because they not only gave us a revamped origin for the Martian Manhunter, they also gave us one for his distaff teenage counterpart.)
So, yeah. In spite of some storytelling weirdness, I really liked this book. It’s one of those continuity-free 12-issue series I was talking about at the beginning of this column, and I increasingly like that format. I like the freedom it gave Orlando and Rossmo to take this character and rebuild him from the ground-up, staying true to his essentials while also making him, after more than 60 years, actually interesting.
But these 12-issue series also make sense from a publishing standpoint. You line up an impressive creative team to tell one story that takes a year to come out, and which can then be collected into a book with enough length and complexity to satisfy readers the way good prose novels do. And because these things tell a single story with a beginning, middle, and end, and aren’t beholden to decades of complicated continuity, any interested reader can pick it up and enjoy it.
That’s one of the reasons Watchmen is still a best-seller 30 years after it first came out in book form. Of course, in that case, it’s also still a best-seller because it’s an incredible work from an incredible talent. And Martian Manhunter, frankly, ain’t that good. But as I’ve said many times before, “Not as good as Alan Moore” really isn’t much of an insult.
Anyway. This is a format I could see the Big Two successfully transitioning to in the future. It satisfies the monthly reader as well as the casual fan, and it tends to produce better work. It may also produce better sales in the long run, since the book collections can continue to make you money on the back end long after the monthly has finished its run. I’d think that would be a more profitable long-term model than what they’re doing now, with crossover “Events” interrupting the story every few issues and compromising any long-form book collections they might do. And not for nothin’, but these longer, more coherent stories also lend themselves better to film adaptation, too.
But I’m not a funnybook accountant, so maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about.
Anyway. Martian Manhunter. I dug it. Maybe check out the trade when it comes out, if you haven’t been reading.
Aaaanndd… Wow. That’s all we have time for tonight. And I still have a stack of comics to go through here, so I guess we’ll pick this back up next week. In a couple of days, though, be on the lookout for the Dork Forty review of Firepower, the new martial arts comic from Robert Kirkman and Chris Samnee. My local funnybook store let me borrow their advance copy for review, and after I got a look at that beautiful Samnee artwork, I couldn’t turn it down.