Friday, May 30, 2008

A Contract with God

A Contract with God
by Will Eisner
Norton, 2006 (originally published 1978)

Hillary Brown:  Whew, this is indeed a tough one to jump into, considering how highly esteemed it still is, even 30 years after the fact, but it seemed an appropriate choice for us to talk about, first as a way of demonstrating that we don't just to have to review things that are timely, and second because of Eisner's role in The Ten-Cent Plague, in which he appears as an incredibly significant figure in the world of comics, one who shaped the artistic development of that field and provided an important contrast to the sleazy horror and shock stuff of the time. So, I suppose the biggest question is: just how good is A Contract with God? Is it medicine that must be swallowed (a la Theodore Dreiser), or is it genuinely enjoyable? What surprised me the most is that I found it the latter, despite absolutely dreading the book (I should trust my husband; he read it and loved it before I did). It's been held up for so long as the best of the form, and I think that, even without some mental compensation for its age and pioneering nature, it's really excellent, in both writing and art. Calling it a "novel" is a bit of a stretch, as it's really four short stories, but you could group it with short-story cycles like those of Fred Chappell, Wendell Berry, and Tim O'Brien, as the stories all portray a particular specific place, even if none of the characters overlap. And it doesn't seem to have a huge, overarching goal or a statement to make about that place. It's not a message book so much as a sketchbook.

And the art. If you had to pick either writing or art as the book's greater achievement, I don't think there's any question it's the art. Eisner's page structure is certainly novel, without panels and with the text smushed up right into the images, but it's the incredible expressiveness of the figures that stays with me. It sort of makes you realize how little a lot of comics artists can draw to see how absolutely natural the poses are in A Contract with God. There's one page in particular, in "The Street Singer," that features the title character being thrown out of a bar, then picking himself up, and, while you can't really see his face, the gestures and body weight and movements are completely convincing. The opening pages of the title story, too, which show buckets of rain coming down, soaking the rabbi who grieves his way through the streets, convey beautifully the feeling of being caught in seemingly neverending rain, mirroring inner state in outer environment. Both the people and their
surroundings slouch and bulge and ooze and, basically, feel thoroughly human and earthy. It's not gritty so much as graspable.

Garrett Martin: Yeah, I wanted you to start this discussion because A Contract With God is so daunting. I had no idea where to begin with this one. Eisner is unimpeachable, and rightfully so; he and Kirby are neck-and-neck for best comic art dudes ever, and nobody did more to expand the visual scope of the medium. Eisner's like the Welles and Hitchcock of comics, in one single solitary body. Even without A Contract With God, his importance would be recognized. And though Contract was vital for proving book-length comics dealing with adult subject matter were viable in America, and remains a really good book in its own right, I think its importance is more historic than artistic.

Now, I've got no problems with the art, of course. It's pretty much flawless, full of the fluid linework and amazing characterization Eisner's known for, along with his distinctive sense of design. It's beautiful, expressive stuff, and I wish it went along with a script that was a bit less melodramatic. Obviously, some of the four stories are better than others, and, like you mention, they don't share characters or even themes, per se, but all of them break for the grand dramatic moment whenever possible. I'm sure depression-era tenements weren't the most understated of places, but A Contract With God still would've been better served with a bit more subtlety. Also three of the four stories would be stronger if they just had more room to develop; things move too quickly in the title story, "The Street Singer," and "Cookalein." That last one, in particular, seemed to be headed towards a truly excellent examination of class and Jewish society before rushing straight to the various climaxes. It's like Eisner couldn't wait to finish off the plot after introducing the setting and the various characters. As it is, "Cookalein" is a great story cut just short of exceptional. It's the most ambitious, but also the most underdeveloped.

HB: I'd say "Cookalein" is my favorite, and, while you may be right about it seeming underdeveloped, I sort of like Eisner's desire to shove 10 pounds of potatoes in a 5-pound bag. Yes, there are moments in all the stories that are a bit overwrought, but there are also a lot that are surprising, especially "Cookalein." Sure, you see the central mistake (both boy and girl dress up fancy to catch a rich spouse and are taken for rich themselves, each by the other), but do you see what comes after that? In some ways, if Eisner had been more interested in explicitly examining class and Jewish society, the stories might not come off so well as they do. He's more Philip Roth than Isaac Bashevis Singer, and I appreciate that. There's little in the way of wisdom offered or even reflection. For example, take the title story. I kept trying to think about it literarily: what does it mean? Is it an atheistic story? What exactly is that contract? And none of the thinking really worked. What happens happens, and sometimes it goes the way you expect it and other times it doesn't. It's not necessarily that the universe is a place of complete chaos and that each of us is alone, subject entirely to the whims of fortune, but sometimes it is.

One thing I've seen from looking around online is that a lot of people seem to think the stories have incredible emotional power, and I don't know if I'd quite go that far. I mean, sure, it's sad that Frimme Hersch's daughter is dead, but it's really artistic power rather than tugging at the heartstrings that gives the book its oomph.

GM: Whatever emotional power could be here is undermined by the lack of focus on character. "Cookalein", particularly, could've used more character moments.. I mean, one character is raped, immediately falls in love with another character, and then suddenly it's two months later and they're engaged. Eisner does such a great job introducing the characters, but then doesn't follow through in his rush to the conclusion. It's disappointing, and diminishes the impact of some shocking and important scenes. That lack of character development dovetails with the lack of thematic clarity to reduce the potentially powerful into melodrama. Maybe that reinforces that the main character is the setting itself, both the tenement and the conditions that lead to and arise from living within, but, again, the text doesn't entirely bear that out.

I don't think the title story is atheistic, as there does seem to be a higher power at work. I think it's saying that God doesn't negotiate with people, and it's foolish to thing He/She/It would. God's like nature, like that storm pouring down on Dropsie; rage all you want, but there's nothing a man can do to change anything. The ending, with the boy finding the "contract", isn't hopeful or pessimistic so much as a sign that things are cyclical and people remain the same. That boy's making the same mistake as Frimme Hersch.

HB: I think you're right about the title story. I've been pondering on it more while waiting for your response. It's not that God doesn't create contracts with man (covenants, yo), but they originate from above, not below.

I suppose you're right about "Cookalein," too, but still... it's a comic and not one with the space to expand much on character. In a serial, you at least have the room to develop personalities slowly, but in a short story with a bunch of protagonists what can you really do? Even if it were a more straightforwardly literary work, you simply have to leave a lot unsaid.

Am I actually denigrating comics in comparison with literature and, therefore, doing exactly what annoys me about Eisner? Damn it. I suppose I am. But I'm doing so in thinking about truly great literature. I don't think I've read a comic book yet that stands with, say, Moby-Dick, and even the very best of the form are only reaching to the level of better contemporary novels, like The Corrections, perhaps. Still, it's a young medium yet, and at least Eisner was reaching. I certainly don't want to downplay his achievement--it's both an important book and a good one--and in some ways I appreciate his lack of restraint, his willingness to shove in sex and violence that's undeniably titillating, but assessing his creation against works in other genres does show some of its weaknesses.

GM: Like I said, it's more important historically than artistically. And you're right, it is a young medium, and was obviously younger 30 years ago. A Contract With God is one of the first comics to aspire to literature (pronounced with the toniest of PBS accents), and can't really be compared to Moby-Dick or Crime and Punishment or whatever (at least you can hold it next to Robinson Crusoe and give it points for not being the most boring thing in the world). To really appreciate what Eisner was doing you have to view it alongside other comics of the day; it's not genre work of any sort, it's not juvenile like most underground comics of the '60's and '70's, and it doesn't have to deal with the daily grind and punchline pressures of adult-minded strips like Doonesbury. It's simultaneously more personal yet more literary, and more understated yet more graphic, than most other comics that came before it. Yeah, it's not entirely successful, and a number of superior works followed, but it's still important in the way that, say, Birth of a Nation is important. But, y'know, without pissing any right-thinking person off.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

House of Mystery #1

House of Mystery #1
written by Matthew Sturges and Bill Willingham
art by Luca Rossi and Ross Campbell
Vertigo Comics, 2008

Hillary Brown: I wish I'd read the Wolverine book first and this one second, as it only intensified the problems with Lapham's stories to read them after Matthew Sturges and Bill Willingham's stuff, which is, in my experience (all of the collected Fables so far except for 1001 Nights of Snowfall; the first collection of Jack of Fables), among the best around. I've poked into the background of House of Mystery a little, and, um, it has some, but it's not important in the slightest to know it. You're a bit adrift for the first few pages, which kind of set the scene although not very clearly (of course, it's forgivable in a book with this title), but then it settles into its purpose: storytelling. The continuous narrative of Fables has always been a pleasure, but it's difficult to keep track of at times, and the shorter stories may be done even better. Jack of Fables seems even more committed to the short form, with a more picaresque long-form story going on in the background. Both have had a lot of fun with twists and turns, and I assume this'll continue in House of Mystery, which has fewer restrictions as far as the kinds of stories that can be told. Not that Sturges and Willingham seem likely to run out of fairytales anytime soon, but I'm sure it's nice to be able to flex a bit as a creator.

I wouldn't say that House of Mystery #1 is as good as Fables and Jack of Fables, but that's comparing a single, initial issue to more than ten books' worth of material. It certainly has a lot of promise and some of the same strengths. For one thing, the art, by Luca Rossi for the most part, is a pleasure to look at. There are some square jaws and a few overly simplified panels, but the coloring isn't trying to do anything fancy, and it's rarely difficult to understand what's happening visually. The cover, by illustrator Sam Weber, reminds me a lot of James Jean's work for Fables, in that it manages to be soft and pretty without ending up in faeryland and it evokes something much darker underneath, the place where those kinds of stories come from, which is concerned with bodily integrity and identity, decay, growth, and confusion. Which brings me to my favorite part of the issue, Sturges and Willingham's center story, illustrated by Ross Campbell. We've talked a little about using the form of comics to do something that's different from other media, and I think this story, in which narrative and visuals diverge widely, is a pretty great example of that.

So, enough gushing on my part. What did you, as a non-Willingham junkie, think?

Garrett Martin: You can kind of do the same with film, having a narrator say one thing while the visuals reveal another, but the trick is simpler and more direct with comics. That little four-page story stood out, obviously, and not just because it's amazingly disgusting, but because it's exactly the sort of bizarre, twisty little nugget you expect to find in a horror/fantasy anthology. It's only been one issue, but I think I'd like House of Mystery more if it was a straight-up anthology, both to let other writers experiment with the genre and also so the book wouldn't focus so much on the framing sequence. The scenes at the bar were weak, outside of that story; the characters were grating and seemed more like stock types than actual characters. But again, first issue, so I'll give Willingham and Sturges every benefit of the doubt. They do plant seeds for two long-form stories (or mysteries, I guess), both of which are intriguing and could be the start of pretty good tales. So yes, I want to see where they're headed. Still, it'd be nice if other writers were allowed to contribute the shorter stories told at the bar, if only 'cuz I'd love to see guys like Morrison, Milligan, Rucka, etc., take a crack at this type of storytelling. But so, is this something you could see yourself reading regularly, at least in trade?

HB: Oh, yes. Definitely yes. Even if only for the pretty hair curlicues. I don't know what it is about Willingham's ability to pick artists, but he seems to pick people whose stuff I can just happily sink into, people who care about details but not necessarily about realism. I find the art extremely soothing.

I think you're right that the set-up's not awesome, but, meh, it's early and I'm forgiving in this case. I also like spooky. It doesn't have to be actually scary, but I like the feel of mystery and old-timeyness and, you know, a gothic tone, but not without a sense of humor. It's not campy like Tim Burton, and it's not deadly serious like Anne Rice. It's a happy middle.

I suppose I wouldn't mind if guest writers were added as well as guest artists, but I'd like to see where Sturges and Willingham go with what they have for a while.

So, apparently the House of Mystery shows up in Sandman. Have you read any of that? I have a weird anti-Gaiman prejudice even though I don't think I've read any of his stuff. The closest I've come is watching Stardust, which I actually quite liked. And you have or haven't read any of Blue Beetle, Sturges's other series? Is that a romp like Jack of Fables or something different? Basically, what's this guy's voice? I'm not sure I have a handle on it yet. Jack is quite different from House of Mystery, but they do both have a weird sexiness to them--by which I mean not so much that they aim to turn anyone on but more that their outlook is strangely colored by sex. It's present in Jack as in pre-bowdlerized fairy/folktales, and it's fraught with anxiety in House of Mystery so far.

GM: I'm conflicted about Sandman. Much of it is great (issue #13 is one of my favorite comics of all time), but it devolves too far into new age "faerie" stuff, becomes too Tori Amosy. I have a low tolerance for gothic junk, and can't stand Anne Rice, but Sandman only periodically falls too far in that direction. Also the lead character's a total drag, but he's the focus only half the time. Sand-man is all about mythology, folk tales, fairy tales, etc., and their connection to real life, so I think you'd love it.

Sturges hasn't started his run on Blue Beetle; his first issue comes out this week, I think. I don't know if I've read anything by Sturges other than this issue, and maybe an issue or two of Shadowpact, a bad superheros-with-magic comic he briefly co-wrote with Willingham. John Rogers (with help from Keith Giffen early on) wrote the first twenty-five issues of the current Blue Beetle series, and despite a few hiccups those issues add up to one of the finest long-form superhero stories in a long time. But, like I said, no connection to Sturges or Willingham, and almost no sex whatsoever. If you wished teenaged Peter Parker was more confident, Hispanic, lived in El Paso, and had crazy cosmic alien powers, then you might dig Blue Beetle. I definitely recommend those first twenty-five issues.

Anyway, yeah, House of Mystery has some flaws, but the art is really good, the premise is promising, and the first issue is just good enough to encourage me to read more.

Wolverine: The Amazing Immortal Man & Other Bloody Tales #1

Wolverine: The Amazing Immortal Man & Other Bloody Tales #1
by Dave Lapham
Pencils by Johnny Timmons, Dave Lapham, Kelly Goodine
Marvel, May 2008, $3.99

Garrett Martin: So what's more random and inexplicable: this comic's existence, or our reviewing it? Wolverine: The Amazing Immortal Man & Other Bloody Tales #1 just doesn't make sense, at least not in this incarnation. I can understand Marvel hiring acclaimed indie guy David Lapham to do some Wolverine stories, but why wouldn't they actually advertise that fact on the cover? They've been listing creator names on covers for a decade now, but then they don't do it when the creator's name is ostensibly a selling point? And, really, why run random Wolverine one-shots, anyway, when the dude's already got two regular on-going monthlies, including one that is solely and exclusively about random shit that happened in his past? Well, obviously, for the money, but do random one-shots really sell that well? Couldn't they at least have made this an annual, or something? And do I really care enough to ask this many questions, or am I just killing time at work by being so inquisitive right now? Damned if I know anything.

But yeah, this comic isn't so good. Wolverine does work better as the walking plot-point that everybody reacts to than as an actual character, and Lapham is wise to write him as such. Flashbacks to Wolverine's tragic and increasingly convoluted past got old before he even had a series that existed solely for that reason, though. And the only story in which Lapham tries to say anything interesting about violence, the character, and comics in general, the one with the bus-driver, is similar to the only issue of Lapham's Stray Bullets that I've ever read, but far goofier and less powerful. It just adds to the "been there, done that" pointlessness of the whole thing.

Hillary Brown: Yeah, I didn't hate every page, but I kind of hated a lot of them. I looked up Lapham post-reading and was genuinely surprised to find out he's more of an indie guy--albeit an indie guy who's recognized the need for cash. These three stories are progressively more incoherent. None really has any development or interesting characters or good art. I do wonder if he's watched The Warriors lately, though, what with the middle story dealing with the seedy urban environment and the last one with Coney Island. Clearly, Lapham is interested in carnivals, but, despite the fact that I am too, the stories really didn't click. They came off like poor Tales from the Crypt episodes that forgot to include the obligatory twist (I suppose you could make a case that the end of the last one is a twist, but it's more a screwball, a weak attempt at Whedonesque freak humanizing). If I didn't know Wolverine was cool and tragic and all that, these stories sure wouldn't convince me, and they don't make me want to read any more of Lapham's stuff. Nor is any of the art particularly interesting--the best it gets is inoffensive, and Lapham seems to be the most experienced of the three pencillers, from my brief and probably shoddy research. I agree. This one-shot could so easily not exist, and the world would not suffer for it.

GM: Like I said, I've only read the one issue of Stray Bullets, so I'm not too familiar with the guy. That comic also felt like it was building to a surprise ending, but the only surprise was how brutally Lapham killed off the little girl who was the protagonist. I get the feeling that's his forte--dark, brutally violent stories about how dark and brutally violent this world of ours is. That issue of Stray Bullets was better than this, but still pretty bad; it was just as shamelessly manipulative as something like Pay It Forward, but in the exact opposite direction. It was pretty much the most ridiculously depressing comic I've ever read, and not the type of thing I like to spend much time with.

But back to this Wolverine comic. I didn't think the first two stories were awful, just boring and unnecessary. That third story, though, is just embarrassingly bad, and makes absolutely no damn sense at all. It's like Lapham loved the visual of a guy being gradually sliced to pieces while fleeing, losing one body part after another, and then decided to make no attempt to explain how or why that could happen. Or, y'know, weirdness for weirdness's sake, which also pops up in the only other Lapham comic I've ever read, Young Liars #1. And as bad as that comic is, you at least get the feeling Lapham cares about it.

HB: Yeah, but at least the last story had some pinheads in it. The first one should have much more going for it: atmosphere, nostalgia, the creepiness of an old carnival, the drama of the exploited worker, the heartbreak of him losing his wife and child. And yet it fails utterly to capitalize on any of that, leaving the reader wondering things like, "is the thief narrating the story really seven years old?" and "huh?" The middle story at least has novelty and, coincidentally, contains the least Wolverine. Anyway, people shouldn't buy this.

GM: They shouldn't even download it.

If you want to form your own opinions, you can see a bit of a preview here, of the first story.

Thursday, May 22, 2008


by various artists
Wideawake Press, 2008

Hillary Brown: It's possible that I hate anthologies. I mean, I understand the appeal. It's a sampler that might encourage you to buy other stuff Wide Awake has published by the same artists. And it's definitely a great way for artists to get started. That's sort of how the Kindercore anthologies have worked, and the one Fluke puts out is sort of a souvenir to remember going, but they almost always make for unsatisfying reading considered on their own terms. I like the idea of having a theme that ties a book of short pieces together, and it doesn't get old in this case. Most of the artists do seem to have considered it and addressed it well. But still... It's only 40-something pages and it still ends up being a little boring. So, I liked Andy Runton's contribution, I was pleased to see Athens's own Patrick Dean included, and I was vaguely amused by Pat Lewis's Archie-style two-pager, but none of the more serious stuff impressed me. What did you like, and do you think it's a problem more with the format than the execution? Or am I just spoiled by reading bigger-press stuff?

Garrett Martin: What anthologies have you read? 'Cuz this isn't really the right comic to confirm whatever problems you might have with the format. I can understand such problems, and do prefer longer-form, more complete stories myself, but holding Piltdown or the Kindercore books up as examples of what's wrong with anthologies is like saying soundtracks suck because there are twenty fucking Moldy Peaches songs on that one my mom bought. We should probably read an installment of MOME or the next Kramer's Ergot (after selling some organs, natch) and then construct our final formal critical consensus on anthologies.

An anthology's only as good as the quality of the stories, obviously, and for the most part the stories in Piltdown aren't that good. I agree that the highlights in Piltdown all succeed mostly on account of their humor, but for every legitimately funny comic there's at least one more that falls flat. Ben Towle's strip about the giant sloth is predictable, but still funny and cute without being too cutesy. Mike Miahack's single-panel strip "Before Umbrellas" is both a good gag and probably the best art in the book. Wacky Jesus humor is totally played out, but Brad McGinty's absurd "Jesus Christ B.C." is genuinely inspired. And maybe I'm biased from reading his awesome strips in the Flagpole for so long, but Patrick Dean's strip here is probably my favorite of the bunch. That guy is both a fantastic artist and a hilarious writer, and should be far more well-known than he is. Like I said, though, for each of these strips you've got something like Justin Gammon's dull superhero parody, J. Chris Campbell's insufficiently clever clip-arty strip, and Pat Lewis's "Everybody Love Thog", which does have nice, classic, cartoony art, but isn't actually funny. So despite humor being Piltdown's strength, even that is a mixed bag. And man, even though Joe Lambert's art is beautiful at times, I don't even want to touch the more "serious" stuff.

I wonder if there's a correlation between the manner of distribution and the quality of the work, or at least our reaction to the quality of the work. This is a free comic available only from the internet. I generally have lower standards for webcomics, but at the same time I tend to devalue things that are free. But then perhaps the creators didn't bring their a-game, so to speak, since this was a free download. Of course since most of them are fairly unknown, I'd think they'd want to make the best possible impression, and Andy Runton, who's probably the biggest name here, turned in an Owly strip that's just as good as his books, so maybe we shouldn't even question their commitment level.

HB: Yeah, I haven't read that many, and with the exception of something like DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore, which doesn't really count, they've mostly been disappointing, even though it's sort of the way I started out reading comics in Atlanta in high school. I can't remember the name of the book I picked up on a regular basis, just that "Dykes to Watch Out For" and "Baby Sue" were in there, but it probably suffered from the same problem: small media isn't necessarily better than big media, and sometimes it's worse because there's much less of a filter. It's great in a lot of ways that there are fewer hoops to jump through to get something in print, but it's more great for the artist than it is for the reader. I wouldn't question their commitment level so much as their talent, which is sort of terrible to do but can't be helped. Again, I think these things are useful for discovering people you like, whom you can then stalk and buy more things by. It's almost the equivalent of a tribute album more than a movie soundtrack, in that there's something that ties it all together and you're attracted either by the subject or by a couple of names.

I'll still sort of defend "Everybody Love Thog" as a parody, though. You have to remember that Archie often isn't funny either and, especially when I was younger, sometimes mystifying. Joe Lambert's thing is interesting, as far as what he's trying to do, but it's another of those wordless comics that doesn't quite get its narrative across clearly. Reading stuff like that really makes me appreciate the expressiveness of other artists, even though the spread where he gets kissed by the moon is maybe my favorite panel in the book.

Should people download it for free? I suppose I don't want to dissuade them from that. There are some things worth their time.

GM: I agree with you on Lambert: his art is beautiful, but I have no idea what's happening in that story. And I'm not talking about the moon-smooching, but a basic lack of clarity as to what the characters are doing and why and when they're doing it; ie, incomprehensible storytelling. Lambert's kind of a one-guy summation of anthologies' worth despite their mixed-baggedness: dude's got a lot of talent in need of some honing, and anthologies are maybe the best talent-hone around.

"Thog" just doesn't work for me, outside of the art. It's not an explicit parody of Archie, and if it's intended to be than it fails even more. It's definitely going for the spirit of Archie-esque teen comedy comics, but like I said, the punchline just plain isn't funny. But then I'm not a big fan of intentional camp, and it's really hard to write a genuinely funny commentary on Archie-style comics anyway, so something like "Thog" is almost destined to disappoint me.

And yeah, I would definitely recommend this to anybody who reads comics, if only 'cuz it's free and takes maybe 20 minutes to read and has a handful of funny strips amid the more mediocre stuff. Yeah, Piltdown's hit-or-miss, but it's great that Wideawake Press puts together "books" like this, and I hope they continue to do so.

Piltdown can be downloaded at Wideawake Press's website

Friday, May 16, 2008

Aqua Leung

Aqua Leung
by Mark Andrew Smith and Paul Maybury
Image Comics, 2008

Garrett Martin: Hey, this comic, let's talk about it! Aqua Leung would be nothing without the awesome art of Paul Maybury and colorist Russ Lowery. Honed through hard years of muralizing on (or I guess around) these mean streets of Boston, Maybury's art is pretty damn amazing, all fluid and vibrant and flat-out eye-catching in the most impressive of manners. It's surprisingly great work from a relative unknown, and surprises even more by not being quite what you expect. From the Wind Waker-ish look of the title character you'd think Aqua Leung would be another Western tribute to manga, a la Scott Pilgrim, but Maybury's work runs deeper than that. Yeah, there's an obvious anime influence, but also one from American cartoons, and the character designs and backgrounds make me think of European fantasy books and movies, like The Neverending Story and Tolkien. And Lowery's colors are pretty damn vital; despite the murky, underwater setting, these are some of the richest, brightest colors I've seen in a comic recently. So yeah, this here art? It's ridiculous. In it's goodness. Yeah.

Oh, wait, there's a story, too?

Hillary Brown: Yeah, I don't think there's any question that the art trumps the story, which isn't bad but is in many ways pretty standard Journey of the Hero stuff: go here, complete this task, lose this father figure, yadda yadda. It's almost not a comic at all, but a picture book in terms of the watery beauty of some of the pages. It's just that it's a little too dark for most kids, and there are allusions to the history of slavery in the United States and lots of people get killed, although it is, occasionally, hard to be sure that they've died or not. Basically, the art is lovely and carefully done, but it's not always at its best in conveying the story, and, considering the dearth of dialogue or narration, it should perhaps have been thought out more with regard to function as well as form. For example, as I just mentioned, it's not always easy to tell someone has died, and sometimes you find out a few pages later and have to flip back. It's a bit hard for me to tell if this is my own weakness in interpreting visuals or more of a storytelling problem. Did you find it confusing? Or were you actually devoting your complete attention to it as opposed to reading it while syndicated TV played in the background and your spouse asked you questions and you had to get up and add fabric softener to the wash?

The other thing I really want to know, and I haven't done any research on the matter yet, is whether there's more of this coming or not. It seems to have been published in this one burst (at least according to the colophon, which usually says), but it ends so abruptly. You can't even see it winding down because there are 20 pages of covers and pin-ups reproduced in the back of the book, so you think you've got a ways to go and then, boom, it's done, before the real fight even begins. Are they just setting us up for a sequel?

GM: I didn't really find the art to be confusing. If I'm thinking of the same character you're referring to, they do wait a few pages to confirm that death, but it's clear from the initial scene that the dude's been fucked up something fierce. I think it had to be all that stupid crap distracting you, like husbands, and shit. (Seriously, that guy? Fuck him.*)

But yeah, this story is completely nondescript. We've seen all this in countless movies, books, cartoons, comics, video games, toy commercials, etc. I used to have a few commemorative fast food glasses with more narrative depth. There are a couple of legitimately funny scenes, and those are the only moments where Mark Andrew Smith's writing really stands out. It's not bad, or embarrassing, but dull, thoroughly and resolutely. Maybury's art is great enough to make the overall reading experience enjoyable, but Aqua Leung could've been so much more. And it's seriously isapointing that Maybury's excellently designed characters are saddled with such uninspired backstories and personalities.

I have no idea if this is officially the start of a series, but I'm sure everybody involved is hoping it becomes one. And if not a series of books, then maybe a cartoon or three. That conclusion is far too abrupt and open-ended for them to not have future plans.

Lemme summarize Aqua Leung like this: it's really similar to a comic called Rocketo that came out a couple years ago. Both are aquatic-based fantasy/adventure comics that prioritize art over story. You can excuse Rocketo more, though, 'cuz Frank Espinosa is a ridiculously great artist and visual storyteller. He had a co-writer on Rocketo, but the script was pretty clearly secondary to the art all along. Aqua Leung suffers in comparison because, as good as his art is, Maybury can't match Espinosa in the storytelling department, and Smith's unexceptional script doesn't help any.

*: I mean, no, for real.

HB: Maybe it's just that I felt far too many pages were devoted to fight scenes, which I like more in movies and TV than in comics. I don't want to have to use my imagination! Keep the camera still and make me do no work but to gasp with wonder and delight. And also, I'm a fan of talkiness. That doesn't mean I don't love Buster Keaton or 2001: A Space Odyssey, but generally I'm going to pick something with some words.

I do really like the scenes that establish Aqua in our world, clearly reading or having read Aquaman and the like, getting pushed around and shoved into the pool. He may grow up too quickly in the course of the book, but then, the lack of narration means you have little idea how long all of this takes or how old he is to begin with. That's the kind of thing I get frustrated with--although I can be distracted from it by wonderfulness.

I don't exactly mean to suggest that the story is boring or too slow or whatever. It's just a lot like much anime I've flipped by on Cartoon Network (e.g., Dragonball Z), in which it's mostly very drawn out fighting that can take up an entire episode (or several) and a bit of mythology in the background. Maybe the target audience here is 13-year-old boys, who seem to have endless patience for fight scenes. It does seem, from the googling I have now done, that they're planning on doing a series of several books, but I don't know if I'll buy another one. The comparison I'm going to make, to a comic book you haven't read, is to the first volume of Dungeon, which is also Joseph Campbell stuff but without taking any of it seriously at all. I like some of that questing hoo-ha, but it can get a little heavy at times, so you need someone like Trondheim to puncture it. I read both Aqua Leung and Dungeon on the same day, and I only ended up raving about one of the two.

A couple more things: 1) My copy of Aqua Leung arrived a little bit ripply, as though it had experienced moisture damage. I don't think this is a clever promotional device, but not waiting for the pages to dry before binding. Still, it was appropriate. 2) The design of all the stuff at the back of the book with the credits is weirdly amateurish, no? The margins are odd, the font isn't good, and it just kind of looks as though it was laid out by someone without great computer skills. Is this intentional? Is it the indieness showing through the slick exterior? It just kind of bugs me.

GM: My copy came autographed by Maybury, at no extra charge.

I used to be a 13-year-old boy, so maybe that's why I didn't think twice about all the fighting. Those scenes didn't seem gratuitous or overly long to me, and they all serve the story, even if in completely expected ways. "Oh, the fish-out-of-water kid learns how to fight! Now he and a small ragtag group of warriors bond on an expedition! And here's the big showcase finale, where the youthful lead saves the day and becomes a man!", etc.

Man, I sound like an asshole. The story is not in any way bad, in fact it's utterly competent, totally serviceable, and perfectly acceptable. It's just so damn unoriginal, dispiritingly so, and thus far too easy to mock. You're right when you say it isn't slow; it's jam-packed with action. The story is boring, though, because there's nothing unique about it. It's uninspired. It'd be great for kids, though, true. Like you said, even the back-matter feels perfunctory. But, y'know, comics are a visual medium, and even though I generally follow writers more than artists, I feel weird not recommending a book with such beautiful artwork.

HB: I agree. I just want people to know what they're getting into.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

JLA Presents: Aztek - the Ultimate Man

JLA Presents: Aztek - the Ultimate Man
by Grant Morrison, Mark Millar, N. Steven Harris, and Keith Champagne
DC Comics, 1996-97; collected in 2008.

Hillary Brown: So maybe your plan to brainwash me by making me read all of Grant Morrison is working, or maybe I was in a good mood while reading JLA Presents: Aztek - The Ultimate Man, or maybe it's just got a lot of Morrison's strengths with fewer of his weaknesses. Anyway, I felt amiable toward the book. It's got a nice "fish out of water" thing going on, and it's fairly funny, in addition to containing a lot of Morrison's concerns in more subtle ways. As far as the latter goes, it's so weirdly gentle, which is always something that surprises me in his books. He's got a real knack for mixing violence to his heroes with violence not committed by his heroes, and this comes through even in the first issue of Aztek in which he fights not with a bad guy but with an ostensible good guy, Bloodtype, who is exactly the sort of vigilante jackass with no concern for collateral damage that, I suppose, was popular in comics in the 1980s and early 1990s. It's a good way of doing anti-gritty without getting preachy about it, partially because Aztek screws up kind of a lot. He fails to protect people often, and he falls into traps because he doesn't think too much about ulterior motivations. Basically, there are good things and bad things about being an innocent, which he clearly is (e.g., not ever having eaten in a restaurant before).

Okay, so now the problems, of which there certainly are some. The dialogue can be clunky. The sound effects seem as though they're supposed to be hilarious and vintage, but it's not entirely clear. I'm pretending all that is Mark Millar's doing (and you can certainly fill in some details on Millar, whom I haven't read anything by before), not Morrison's. There's a little much crossover, although it's woven into the plot fairly well, and that can make the series feel jumpy, as does the fact that it ends at ten issues (not their fault). And I'm not nuts about N. Steven Harris's art, which is a little heavy on the square jaws and people being too close to the front of the frame. It's as though the actors can't hit their marks.

Garrett Martin: A lot of on-line commentator types complain about how critics often neglect to mention the art when discussing comics. I think that happens because mainstream superhero art is hardly ever more than mediocre. There are maybe a dozen consistently active superhero artists who deserve notice at any given time, and N. Steven Harris, who I've never heard of outside of Aztek, most likely wasn't one of them back when Aztek was being published. His art is clunkier than the dialogue ever is; his action is a little too hard to follow a little too often, and even scenes of people standing still and talking can be confusing. His character designs for Aztek and the various villains (assuming he designed them and not Morrison or Millar) are pretty good, but for the most part he's just another in a series of underwhelming artists attached to Morrison comics.

Aztek is definitely a bit like Morrison Lite, probably both because Millar co-wrote it and because it's trying to be an accessible superhero series set solidly in the mainstream DC Universe. Some of his themes pop up, like the Silver Age admiration, the anti-grittiness, commentary on the comics medium, the play with various levels of depth or perception (Aztek's "four-dimensional" armor), etc. Even though these elements are there, and Morrison and Millar do present a compelling and unique character in Aztek, I think what they were most interested in was creating this weird new city of Vanity. Vanity is like if Gotham was inherently evil, a city specifically engineered to maximize wickedness. Instead of an asshole dressed like a bat struggling to save some nebulous concept of a city's soul, though, there's this untested naif who focuses squarely on saving both the lives and souls of the individuals unfortunate enough to live in such a miserable city. Batman has hope in Gotham, but distrusts almost every person he's ever met, whereas Aztek realizes Vanity is a lost cause while retaining faith in the underlying goodness of humanity. The Batman guest appearance was a great way to contrast not just the two titular characters, but also the cities that they operate in, and that are both characters in their own right.

It's hard for me to suss out Millar's contributions from Morrison's. All I've read by Millar is Civil War, which was amazingly idiotic. I'm familiar with his on-line persona, though, and he frequently comes off as obnoxious, self-aggrandizing, and entirely too cynical. Apparently he shares Morrison's completely uncynical reverance for Superman, though, and wrote some great Superman comics for kids a few years ago. That's kind of surprising, because everything else I've read by or about him makes him seem like the kind of guy who'd create a character like Bloodtype with no irony whatsoever.

Hillary Brown: Well, many of them do good cover work. It's just that the stuff between the covers can be a problem--lots of standing around awkwardly or, god forbid, absolute hideousness when the artists try to be experimental. I try not to think I'm spoiled by good art, and it doesn't have to be completely realistic, but is it too much to ask even to have the effort that someone like Mark Buckingham puts in? Even when he has the occasional oddness, it's rarely unclear what's happening. Maybe it's the equivalent of shitty, green-tinted, shaky cinematography?

Are you sure Aztek thinks Vanity is a lost cause? I'm not sure he spends all that much time pondering, partially because he's constantly being tested by this or that, which can throw the comic off-balance at times. The Joker episode, for example, has some good elements, but why does it exist? Sure, supposedly to get Aztek involved with the Justice League, but isn't it really to sell comics?

I would have liked to see more on just how and why Vanity is evil. Or, um, why anyone wants to live in a city called Vanity anyway? Is the name too ridiculous? Or are you going to say it's some sort of clever comment by Morrison on the unreality of the comic book universe? Also, why did they start doing the page or two of found text of some sort at the end of the issues and then stop? That stuff is full of interesting, geeky things to figure out. Once it goes away, you think far less about the background (who built this city? why? did they build it on rock and roll, causing its evilness? why do these powerful people want Aztek on their side?) or you try to suss it out from the main narrative, in which it's either really obvious (Luthor and pals discussing it) or nonexistent.

There really are some lovely jokes, though, including ones about comics that I'm pretty sure I even got, as in Green Lantern's guest appearance, in which there's a gag about his ring malfunctioning and creating super-lame stuff. I'm not opposed to a har-har, wink-wink bit. Mostly, I think of Aztek as being like The Return of Jezebel James, Amy Sherman Palladino's last series, which was canceled after three episodes aired. It wasn't quite as cut down in its prime, but both had hints of greatness without really ever getting to achieve it, some good character work, an interest in messing with your expectations, and flawed execution. Neither should be over-romanticized, but there's definitely some charm there.

GM: Vanity is a pretty bad name, I won't disagree. They try to give it some sense with the Charles Vane backstory, but still. And I might be mistaken, but doesn't Aztek know the truth about the city? About how it was planned and why? He's sent there because it's where he's supposed to face the ultimate evil, the city was designed specifically to bring forth the ultimate evil, and Aztek is one of the few who specifically knows that, so that's why I said he's written off the city itself. But maybe I'm misremembrin'. I imagine they would've developed Vanity a lot more had the series not been cancelled so quickly. The freshly cancelled All New Atom series had a similar setting, with Ivytown becoming this offbeat, Twin Peaks-ish 'burg all full of that there whacked-out craziness. Gail Simone wrote it, but it was launched with an "ideas by Grant Morrison" credit, so maybe some of the ideas for Vanity were being recycled.

Crossovers are a fact of life for a young series, and invariably they play out as an established hero making sure the new guy's dick is long enough to handle whatever shit is going down in Whereversville, US of A. Obviously that's the business reason for the Joker / Batman cross-over, but Morrison and Millar made that work in a way that seamlessly furthered what they were already trying to accomplish. Most comic writers don't care enough to make crossovers or guest appearances work as smoothly as this one.

And man, yes, it is a funny comic, and without being overly quippy. The humor comes from the weirdness of Vanity, and from Aztek's unfamiliarity with mid-'90's American livin', and from situations and stuff. Things happen in Aztek that aren't supposed to happen in superhero comics, and those things often made me chuckle and/or guffaw. In that regard it's not like a sit-com with mid-air punching; it's a humor that's specific to the medium in which its distributed. But not in a totally-for-fanboys way like Fred Hembeck (who is thoroughly awesome of course). Like we were talking about earlier, Morrison can be fucking hilarious when he wants to be, but it's rarely ever in the form of "character makes intentionally funny and/or witty remark". The humor's situational, and also based on the reactions of everyman characters like Animal Man and Cliff Steele to all the crazy bullshit that's breaking out around them. So maybe Morrison treats humor like he does violence, as you noted above; it's something that his lead characters react to or have perpetrated upon them?

HB: Yeah, it's really not that clear, I don't think, in the comic that Aztek knows exactly what's going on with the city. He definitely knows some evil is coming and specifically there, but I'm not sure the line's drawn causatively for him. It also sort of makes me think of Dark City, although I don't remember that awesomely--I just remember stuff about evil and the city having a kind of organic life of its own. So... does Glasgow suck or something? Isn't that where both of these dudes are from? The whole "evil city" thing doesn't seem to fit particularly well with Morrison's usual concerns (except, I suppose, that it's dehumanizing).

I'm not sure that Morrison treats humor like violence, unless you also mean that he thinks there's too much of it and it's too glib, so he tries to make it come naturally from situations rather than applying it on top like a gloss. I'm pretty much okay with both humor and violence no matter where they come from.

GM: I don't think anybody paying attention to the superhero comics of the last thirty-odd years could ever think there's too much humor in 'em. I was only comparing how Morrison uses humor and violence in relation to his characters, and how they're rarely intentionally responsible for either.

I've never seen Dark City. And I think you maybe focus a little too narrowly on what seem to be Morrison's "usual concerns". Yes, there are themes that have been running through his work since the '80's, but he's also written hundreds, if not thousands, of comics since then, most of which, like Aztek, are basically corporate work-for-hire. Not all of them are going to be about personal philosophies like The Invisibles or The Filth. Of course the power that environment has upon the individual is one of his recurring themes, and the concept of an evil city can easily fit into that. Makes sense that Morrison would be excited to muck about with Kirby's Fourth World, since Apokolips and New Genesis are the DCU's ultimate extension of "you are where you come from".

HB: How does that work, though, as far as corporate work-for-hire goes? Does someone else come up with the story, and he just writes the script? Credits of all sorts, not just on comics, could stand to be more comprehensible, even if that made them much longer. I really do want to know who's responsible for those Don Martin-esque noises that result from Aztek hitting a wall, for example.

I really don't know anything about this Fourth World stuff. Do you think that hurts, as far as enjoyment of this comic goes?

GM: There's absolutely nothing Fourth World-related in Aztek. That could hurt your enjoyment of Final Crisis and Seven Soldiers of Victory, although Kirby was dealing greatly in archetypes straight out of Joseph Campbell, so even without reading his thousand or so pages of comics you can maybe tell what's going on.

Okay, with work-for-hire, the writers generally come up with everything, both the plot and the script. The editors let 'em know what they can and can't do, what characters they can use, what they can do with those characters, etc., but generally the credited writer does actually write the comic. Now, editors do often come up with ideas, and those ideas are often forced on the writers, but that usually happens more with cross-overs and with books or characters that have been around for a long time and are very central to the company's fortunes. I doubt there was much editorial interference with Aztek, beyond them requesting appearances from Green Lantern, Batman, and the Joker. And nowadays both Morrison and Millar are big enough names to probably force through almost anything they want. But when Morrison started on JLA in 1997, I bet he had to work with editorial more than he was used to. Other than the quick cancellation, Aztek is probably pretty close to the story Millar and Morrison wanted to tell. What I meant by calling it "corporate work-for-hire" was to contrast it with Morrison's semi-creator-owned comics at Vertigo, which theoretically are more personal and thus better examples of his themes. Plus, again, he does have a co-writer, who I'm sure came up with much of what happens in Aztek. And even among Morrison's DCU stuff, Aztek is an anomaly, and maybe not the best example of his themes, since the "superheroes as inspiration / evolutionary advancement of humanity" bit works better with iconic folks like the Justice Leaguers than with some anonymous dude in a pointy helmet.

And oh, Letterers draw in the sound effects, but writers often request specific words to be used. So no idea who was entertaining themselves, Chris Eliopoulos or Morrison and Millar.

HB: So, to boil down what you're saying, this book is okay if you know nothing, pretty good if you know a little bit of the very very basics (who the Joker is, how superhero stories tend to work), and maybe not that much better if you know a lot? Also, it has about as much to do with South American ancient religious mythology as Q the Winged Serpent does. If people want to be mildly elated while reading a smart mid-90s superhero book, then sad that it flickered out too quickly, they should put down their dollars for the paperback.

GM: Yeah, pretty much.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

DC Universe 0

DC Universe #0
by Grant Morrison, Geoff Johns
DC Comics, 2008

Hillary Brown: So, um, why do you hire Martin Scorsese to direct your trailer? That is what this is, right? A bunch of two-to-four-page ideas of what will be happening in some stupid cross-comic event designed to sell more DC stuff? I hate this. I don't hate the comic so much as I hate the idea. Crossovers don't have to be bad, but thinking about having to follow a story through more than two books stresses me out. And considering trying to figure out what the heck is going on in all of them without knowing what's happened? Ugh. It all seems very much for the benefit of loyalists, who probably would have bought the comics anyway without the event. 

This style of writing (it's almost "in a world..." but less clear) also does not point up Morrison's strengths. One of the reasons I'm not fully on board with the dude is that he has a slight tendency toward pomposity, which can bring benefits (a great sense of the gravity of events and the greatness of superheroes, which is why it works very well in All-Star Superman) but also can seem puffed up. That is, when he starts making obscure pronouncements from the POV of the universe (that is what's going on here, right?), I start to lose interest. I know that being willing to go big is where you get really great art a lot of times. And I certainly know that my heartthrob Joss Whedon has this tendency as well. But Whedon puts more jokes in. Morrison totally couldn't have leavened DC Universe #0 with humor. It would have been completely inappropriate. But the whole picture--the heavy nature of the script, the packed frames, the number of comics this event appears to be covering, the history one seems to have to know--ends up being a turnoff and, really, a great stand-in for the way comics in general can seem. Not that everything has to be accessible to everyone--not at all--but even the cover of DC0 suggests both the potential and the intimidation of the medium.

Garrett Martin: I'm honestly not trying to make you hate superhero comics in their uncollected form. DC advertised this as a good jumping-on point for new readers, which it obviously isn't. Unless you're a nerd who spends half his workday reading comic websites (um, like me) you'd have absolutely no idea what's going on in all but maybe two of these vignettes. And even I'm completely baffled by that Green Lantern thing. So it's pretty much a complete failure in that regard, which sucks, especially since it starts off really well. Those first three pages, where they quickly introduce the concept of the multiverse and the previous Crises and the Justice League, etc., should've been a blueprint for the entire comic. Even that section foreshadows how widely the book'll be missing the mark, though, by failing to name any of the secondary Justice Leaguers. If the book was honestly about expanding the reader base, they should've put little name tags next to secondary / tertiary guys like the Atom and the Elongated Man, and the fact that they didn't was the first sign the book wasn't going to fulfill its supposed purpose. But, still: as a collection of trailers directed to confirmed comics readers, it's not that bad. And if DC had marketed it as such, and gave it away instead of charging 50 cents, I'd have no problem with it at all.

I don't think all your criticims are necessarily valid, although, again, you might have to be a longtime fanboy well-versed in pointless bullshit to realize that. The narration isn't from the universe, per se, but from a guy named Barry Allen, who was the Flash from the '50's through the early '80's, before sacrificing himself to save whatever etc. etc. during DC's first huge crossover thing, the Crisis on Infinite Earths. The big hook of DC Universe #0 is Allen's return, which is hinted at but maybe not shown. Understanding Allen's death, his dispersal across the universe (or whatever), and the similarity between that and the apparent death of the character Libra (who also reappears in this issue's final vignette) blunts some of the pretension of that narration, I think. And you're right, Morrison couldn't really fit any humor into this comic, because there really isn't any room for it, but it's not like he never has humor in his comics. Would you rather he be quippy and "witty" like Whedon or Brian K. Vaughan, both of whose dialogue and humor are often as annoying as they are funny? Also, keep in mind Morrison didn't write the entire comic--Geoff Johns gets co-credit, and I wonder what input Gail Simone and Greg Rucka had on the previews for their comics. And finally, according to DC (and granted they're not the most reliable source of late), the main Final Crisis series by Morrison and JG Jones will be a complete story that doesn't require any crossovers to understand. They're actually being somewhat restrained with Final Crisis, keeping the tie-ins to three spin-off miniseries and (potentially, they're being kind of cagey on this) Morrison's Batman RIP arc.

But so, I totally see how a comic like this would be completely impenetrable and exclusionary to a non-reader. Did any of the individual trailers interest you at all?

HB: I like quippy and witty. So, yes, maybe? Vaughan really probably is my favorite guy working right now in mainstream comics. He knows how to keep a narrative going without bogging you down, and he can do pretty effective drama too. The climax of the first big Runaways hardback is super impressive. Whedon's TV work is better than his comics work, but, yes, he also manages to balance humor and drama. I shouldn't characterize Morrison as humorless, though. If he were, I wouldn't like him at all. I just think he should sometimes bring it down a little more to the human plane (something he does really well in Animal Man).

So, which of these am I interested in? Prime Evil seems to have a little much going on. Batman R.I.P. seems to be full of oblique chatting. The Wonder Woman book seems maybe too simple, but it is pretty. Mostly, it's too hard for me to tell if I'm interested or not. I'd rather read a single book of each than decide based on a few pages full of callouts to superhero mythology I may or may not know. Honestly, I can't even tell exactly what's a book and what's not. Is Show No Mercy the title of a book? Is it a series within a book? Again, I'm not necessarily saying they need to make it clearer for me--I'm just saying it's not working on me and that may be my fault as much as anyone else's.

You're not making me hate superhero stuff, by the way. I'm still willing to read pretty much anything.

GM: Vaughan and Whedon have written some great comics, but they don't grasp and exploit the medium as thoroughly as Morrison. Every thing I've read by the former two writers could easily be transposed to TV or the movies, whereas Morrison's work often focuses squarely upon the foundational elements of comics in ways that wouldn't make sense or even be possible in other media. Vaughan and Whedon write enjoyable, funny stories with slightly idealized but believable dialogue that often happen to be told via comics, whereas Morrison at his best transcends and redefines what a comic can be. Yes, that might sound naive, and infinitely fanboyish, but it's also totally true. I have probably just embarrassed myself.

Anyway, I don't have my copy of DCU #0 on me, but I don't think the titles after each trailer necessarily correspond with actual story names. I don't remember what Prime Evil or Show No Mercy are--maybe Johns' Final Crisis: Legion of Three Worlds tie-in, and Rucka's Spectre series Final Crisis: Revelations? Both are among the "official" Final Crisis tie-ins, all of which are written by Johns, Rucka, or Morrison. The Wonder Woman thing is apparently unrelated, so it really makes no sense to bring it up in this comic, especially considering how unexceptional it looks. But yeah, there must've been a way to work these glimpses of the various tie-in series into a satisfying, unintimidating whole, but Morrison, Johns, et al, totally bungled it.

Only the first three pages and the last three pages worked for me. That final preview, for Final Crisis itself, is easily the most successful of the bunch, both as a prologue and on its own merits; still, though, as often happens with Morrison's comics, it's clearly a part of a greater whole, and hard to evaluate in isolation. But even with only three pages it hits on many of the primary themes that have appeared throughout Morrison's career: superheroes literally becoming modern-day gods; attaining self-awareness; contrasting the two dimensions of a comic book with the three of our real world; etc. Morrison claims that Final Crisis will be the summation of his work within the DC Universe (even though he'll be continuing on Batman indefinitely), and that all along he's been trying to turn the DCU into a sentient, living being; that sounds ridiculous, but with this preview you can kinda see where he's headed, and he might actually pull it off.

HB: That's a somewhat fair distinction, but it also doesn't change my mind. I'd certainly put Morrison in the upper echelon of comic book writers, but he hasn't made me constantly hungry for more, either. I also think that your take on him is more popular than mine. Or maybe I just don't care about history as much as people who love Morrison. He can occasionally be the comics equivalent of the kind of concept art where you have to get the concept to appreciate the art. You might need to know some Renaissance tropes to appreciate Milton fully, but it's awful pretty even if you don't.

I would agree about the first three and last three pages, though. Even if I'm often mystified by them and a little annoyed by the two pages of thin, vertical strips of images, they do kind of capture my imagination. My guess is that I probably won't pick it up as it comes out, and I'll be skeptical even when it's collected, but I wouldn't be opposed to reading it if it just showed up in front of me with no effort on my part. Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but I'd sort of rather read Spiderman Loves Mary Jane.

GM: I think that's a fair assessment of Morrison, and probably the main reason he doesn't get the same mainstream love lathered all over Moore, Gaiman, Miller, etc. 

And man, Spidey Loves Mary-Jane was great. It's a shame McKeever left for DC. It's also not quite as diametrically opposed to a Morrison comic as you might think; the love both have for comics and its history is palpable.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Iron Man: Enter the Mandarin

Iron Man: Enter the Mandarin
by Joe Casey, Eric Canete, and Dave Stewart
Marvel Comics, 2008.

Garrett Martin: Iron Man was one of my favorite superheroes as a kid, even though I never liked his comic. "Human robot that shoots lasers" has an utterly primal appeal for young boys. He was the best figure in the old Secret Wars toy line, and was one of the big reasons I bought a random issue of West Coast Avengers at the Quik Stop back when I was nine, with the first of maybe a half-million quarters I'd drop on comics over the next twenty-plus years. But his own title always bored the hell out of me, and as I got more and more into comics I cared about the character less and less. I really like what they've done with Tony Stark over the last couple of years (at least when he's portrayed more sympathetically and with some nuance by writers like Brubaker, Fraction, and Bendis, and not as the mustache-twiddler you see elsewhere), but Iron Man: Enter the Mandarin is the first shellhead-specific comic I've read since whatever issues of his own title tied into Operation Galactic Storm back in '92. It's another one of Joe Casey's head-first dives into nostalgia and ancient continuity, and like Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes, it's enjoyable and well-made and probably completely superfluous. But so, had you ever read an Iron Man comic before? Had you even heard of the character before the movie was announced? And did you know his primary arch-rival was a potentially offensive racial stereotype?

Hillary Brown: Ooookay. I don't know if it's a good thing or not that I didn't read your initial take on this six-issue series before I dove into (and finished) it. Basically, I've done a little research after the fact to discover that it's a retelling of a very early Iron Man arc, and that helps to some extent, but I still sort of hated it. I mean, it pretty much combines the storytelling skills and character development of an old comic book with the shitty digital coloring and annoyingly blurry/sketchy art of a new comic (not to mention the political comprehension of a 13-year-old). I really wanted to like it. I dig Iron Man. I've never read an Iron Man-only book, just The Order and some things like New Avengers in which he appears, but the character is interesting. It's just that this book doesn't really do anything with him. The repeated emphasis on the fact that no one knows Tony Stark is Iron Man is pretty silly, and his vaunted intelligence doesn't come into play in any real way. I mean, he makes new armor, but why? What's different and/or better about it? I see that his armor is continually calculating this and that, but it's not very comprehensible or interesting. The Mandarin's powers coming from rings isn't clear until the intro to the second issue unless you know the original story. And the debate that's set up between American military might and freedom (albeit with a few bits of skepticism) and "ancient Chinese secret" is pretty laughable and insulting. Is all of this too harsh? Maybe. I didn't completely hate it while I was reading it, but the lack of any real twist or conclusion or exposition or character evolution or interesting dialogue or creative fights added up to a lot of irritation on my part.

GM: Yeah, old-school superhero stuff is kinda what Joe Casey does whenever he writes for Marvel. This was basically a six-issue retelling of a 30-page story from 1964, and although it's not nearly as antiquated as the original, it definitely reads differently than the typical modern-day superhero comic. And maybe it's because I've read about 30 Marvel Essential books over the last 2 years, but I didn't have too much of a problem with the moldy storytelling. Many of the character problems you have (the emphasis on the alter ego, the lack of emphasis on Stark's intelligence, etc) can be chalked up to the book's calculated nostalgia. Even the political aspect is a barely updated rehash of the original's 1950's / early '60's view of American rightness. Shit, other than the "creative fights" bit, every complaint you voice in your final sentence can partially be explained away as purposeful homage / genre exercise. Characters didn't really evolve under Stan Lee so much as stay exactly the same for years at a time before suddenly changing ever so slightly when a new status quo was deemed necessary. But the thing is, like I said, old Iron Man comics were boring, and probably don't deserve being paid tribute to in this way. The appeal in those old Marvel comics rests in the action, Lee's dialogue and hucksterism, and, most importantly, the huge crazy ideas that pop up in comics like Fantastic Four, Dr. Strange, and The Mighty Thor. Iron Man never had a genius artist like Kirby, Ditko, or Steranko to generate those ideas, and so the book and Lee's breezy words were stuck with the good but uninspired art of Don Heck. Even the original Mandarin storyline, which is probably the best in Essential Iron Man Volume 1, is somewhat dull and lackluster. So maybe it's not the best idea to update it in a fairly faithful fashion?

HB: And at least the old books have beautiful art. I'm pretty sure
you're wrong about Kirby not being an Iron Man artist (In fact, he at least did the cover for the Mandarin's first appearance. Even if I'm not nuts about the lack of character development in old books, they have an excuse and they have something to make up for it, as well as plenty of exposition (often to excess, but it's clear what the heck is going on, as opposed to the Crimson Dynamo showing up randomly and confusing the heck out of someone like me, who has to google him). Basically, yes, either they need to put a warning on the cover ("Dudes, only buy this book if you know the original story and would like to see it expanded upon a little") or they perhaps shouldn't have bothered with this series at all. I did enjoy the many ads for cakes featuring Iron Man, though, which brings up another point. Is it a nostalgia-fest or is it an attempt to introduce Iron Man to new, young audiences? The ads (Spiderman pajamas, costumes, watches, pretty much everything else you can think of) certainly make it seem like the latter, but maybe it's just trying to reach both audiences at the same time.

GM: Kirby was basically the art director for Marvel in the '60's, and did covers and sporadic issues of almost every comic they published at the time. Kirby shares co-creator credit on Iron Man with Lee, Don Heck, and Lee's brother Larry Lieber because he designed the initial suit of armor and (I believe) drew the cover of his first appearance. Heck was the primary Iron Man artist, though, until the late '60's, when Gene Colan and George Tuska both had notable stints. Marvel artists were all basically co-writers at the time, so Heck plotted most of those early Iron Man comics, and shares the creator credit on the Mandarin with only Stan Lee. And since Heck's stories, both in Tales of Suspense/Iron Man and The Avengers, hardly ever match up to anything Kirby or Ditko did with Lee, I think it's safe to say that Heck is one big reason Iron Man's comic wasn't too impressive back then.

Frankly, I don't know what Marvel was angling for with this series. On one hand it makes sense to retell the origin of Iron Man's major arch-rival for newer readers, especially since the movie hints at the Mandarin a bit, but then it doesn't make any sense to present it in this way. It's not a straight-up renewal of '60's superhero narrative, or anything, but it does skew closer to that than the "wide-screen", decompressed style of today. I think Casey was trying to bridge that gap a bit, trying to appeal to newer readers while still paying tribute to the past. Like I said, that's a large part of what Casey does, and usually he does it quite well. But you're right that this comic seems uninterested in winning over readers completely unfamiliar with that past. Between this, last week's DC Universe Zero special, and other recent attempts at widening comics readership, I think it's safe to say that Marvel and DC don't know and maybe don't care to win over new readers. If they were hoping to do that with this series, they didn't do a good job.

HB: Yeah. I want an Iron Man cake a lot more than I want to read anything else by Casey/Canete. I figure whenever I spend more time looking at the ads than at the comic, that's a bad sign (although I am admittedly distracted by advertising). So, let's talk about the art real quick. I'm really not happy with the way Canete fills his panels, with his sketchy line, with the weird, exaggerated way in which he draw characters, and there are a couple of panels that are pretty terrible as far as Asian stereotypes go. I just don't get why you wouldn't shoot for a vintage feel in the art as well as in the storytelling.

GM: Unfortunately readers of the trade paperback won't have all those ads to entertain them.

Canete's art is definitely vexing. I mostly like his character designs, and many individual panels. Everything's kind of flat, which occasionally provides some nice art deco moments and scenes that resemble old Communist propaganda posters. That flatness ruins the action, though, and for every good panel there's at least one more that looks sketchy and rushed. He's got promise, but wasn't a good choice for this series. His covers were excellent, though.

And hey, you seriously shouldn't hold this against Joe Casey. He's written some really great stuff, and
Gødland is a perfect example of superhero homage done right, without being crippled by nostalgia. And as someone who does know and appreciate the material being referenced, I enjoyed Enter The Mandarin for the quick, easy read that it is.

HB: Yeah. The covers are really nice. Kind of art deco and remind me of Tony Harris's stuff.

Have you seen the movie yet or not? I guess we should both go see it and then reconsider how the comic book leads into it.

GM: I've seen it, it's good, and this comic doesn't lead into it at all. There are a couple of references to the Mandarin, but they've been reconceptualized into something very different. It's possible they could be planting seeds for Mandy's appearance in the sequels, but I really doubt the character would be especially faithful to the comic. Although they weren't afraid to let the terrorists be Middle Eastern in the first movie, so perhaps they won't scare easily at potential disquietude over such a stereotypical Asian villain.

So the more you read superhero comics, and the more you realize how thoroughly they're written for long-time readers at this point, do you find yourself less and less interested in the genre? Like it's not worth the effort?

HB: It definitely gets frustrating at times. If I'm in a good mood and I'm intrigued, it makes me want to read everything out there. I can be a bit of a completist in other fields (last summer I read The Song of Roland and three monster-sized Italian epics just to get more background on The Faerie Queene) so why not this one? But if I don't like the comic to begin with, I tend to be annoyed by having to know all the backstory. It should be good upfront, without the need to know. For example, I thought The Order did an excellent job. I knew just enough and I learned just enough to be able to follow what was going on and care. I liked Joss Whedon's X-Men stuff and Bendis's New Avengers decently, as well as the storyline (if not the art) of the latter's Daredevil. But, yes, I suppose I would rather not have to know. I like being able to dive in, and I don't care when people do different things with characters; in fact, I'm pretty intrigued by fresh takes. Whether or not it's worth the effort probably depends on the balance of increased quality to extra effort.