Sean T. Collins has written about comics and popular culture professionally since 2001 and on this very blog since 2003. He has written for Maxim, The Comics Journal, Stuff, Wizard, A&F Quarterly, Comic Book Resources, Giant, ToyFare, The Onion, The Comics Reporter and more. His comics have been published by Top Shelf, Partyka, and Family Style. He blogs here and at Robot 6.
The Winter Men
Brett Lewis, writer
John Paul Leon, artist
$19.99 Buy it from Amazon.com
Whoa ho ho, this is something special, huh?
I was only ever vaguely aware of The Winter Men during what struck me as a very long run for a six-issue miniseries, though I'm pretty sure I was confusing it with Peter Milligan and C.P. Smith's The Programme for much of that time. I got the sense, just by seeing who was reviewing it, that it was a genuine critics' darling, and I feel like I also heard that the production process was an unhappy one, with long delays or editorial troubles or something. I knew it was about Russian supersoldiers, drawn by JP Leon, so I mentally located it on a continuum with Sleeper and Gotham Central and Daredevil and other books that filtered superheroes through crime and espionage and drew them in a scratchy, black-heavy naturalist-noir style. That's a subgenre people will associate with the '00s like grunge and the '90s, I think; I've still got a soft spot for its past examples even though I don't know how much more of it I really need, so I figured hey, a limited series of it would be a pleasant way to spend a couple of train rides.
What I didn't anticipate was Brett Lewis. Jiminy Christmas, this guy. I can't remember the last time I read a genre comic this in love with language, this thorough and astute at developing and deploying its own. And here's why it works: The Winter Men is about the bleed between the warriors and enforcers of the fallen Soviet Union and those of the New Russia's criminal empires, a fluid and yet impenetrable world characterized by byzantine alliances, shades-of-gray legality, and the lack of any kind of centralized authority on either side of the law. The main spider we follow around this web is Kris Kalenov, an ex-spetznaz who was part of, essentially, the USSR's Iron Man program, and who now works as a crooked cop for Moscow's mayor, who runs the city like an independent state. He gets caught up in a kidnapping case with roots in an entire alphabet soup of international espionage agencies, military unites, and Russian mafiya outfits--the kidnapping's the main throughline, finding out whodunit and all that, but it's the journey, not the destination, that matters. Kalenov and his three comrades from the war--now a soldier, a gangster, and a bodyguard--get drawn through the web to and fro, and we follow him on such diverse enterprises as working undercover for the CIA infiltrating a Russian mob in Brooklyn, grabbing a criminal for a witness ID on behalf of some judge, conducting a hit, organizing a commando raid on a remote super-science outpost, drinking with his friends, fighting back against a new organized crime outfit as it muscles in on his gangster friend's turf, taking down a couple of major crime kingpins, stealing a table from a McDonald's, and on and on. In other words, The Winter Men is like The Wire: Moscow. Everything's connected, but how is almost impossible to determine, and how to get it all to work for you instead of against you is even more remote. You work the angles you can and hope you did something right.
So, as a feat of storytelling, it's impressive. But the language in which the story is told is directly analogous to the story itself--that's the real knockout. Lewis develops a rhythm of speech that suggests a work of translation even when all the characters are talking to one another in fluent Russian. It's not a pidgin English, it's not a full-fledged Nadsat-style dialect. It's just a question of where the narration and dialogue leans into you or away from you--unfamiliar slang or jargon whose meaning is nonetheless unmistakable, unexpected formality, disarming directness, repetition, a choice of which words to use, which to emphasize, which to elide. It's a verbal map of the territory--shifting, shady, inscrutable, yet practical, impactful, something you can use to get what you want. A world with familiar elements, but arranged in a dizzyingly distant fashion, leaving you racing to keep up. In its way it's as elegant as David Milch's gutter Shakespeare or David Chase's corner koans, and as inseparable from the world being depicted, the people populating it, and the message being delivered.
Weak spots? Sure. The super-stuff is superfluous--it brings nothing to the table you haven't seen before, has no real narrative weight, and as best I can tell the only real purpose it served was "getting this book published through WildStorm." I wished it wasn't there, wished this was a straight-up crime book. The way it becomes so much more prominent in the final chapter after entire segments where it wasn't a factor at all--including a pair of mini-masterpieces in which Kalenov and his gangster pal Nikki transport a suspect and fend off a challenge, the latter utilizing Dave Stewart's where's-waldo spot color for the book's visual highlight--feels rushed and lopsided. I also wanted to see more out of Nina, the bodyguard, who never had much to do other than be beautiful and quietly pissed at Kalenov.
Mostly, though? I just wished it were longer. A nice long run of Winter Men trades could have been one of contemporary comics' consummate pleasures. But this thing feels so meaty as is, so novelistic in its ins and outs and ups and downs, that I didn't come away feeling robbed. Thrilled, more like.
I really really really liked The Lovely Bones, a movie about murder and grief funneled into a big huge emotional slow-motion close-up panoramic fantasia swirling-camera special-effects Brian Eno CGI tear-streaked period-piece whirligig. It made me cry. The serial killer material was unusually well-handled and realistic, in that greasy nauseating biting-on-tinfoil way that those men are. It used a bunch of actors I personally have an affinity for, like Mark Wahlberg and Michael Imperioli, as buttresses for a CGI-as-metaphor spectacle, something you'd seen hints of here and there in King Kong and The Lord of the Rings, but here Peter Jackson goes full-on Heavenly Creatures with it. It had a fine Brian Eno score, including a couple of cues from his weird-pop days (I heard "Baby's On Fire" coming about three minutes before it really started). There were A-class suspense sequences and a musical montage set to the Hollies' "Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress." If you wanted to read it as a horror movie that just spends an unusual amount of time with people who aren't threatened by the monster anymore, you could do that, and I actually suggest that you do. Right down to the tricky climax, it made meaning from the stuff of moviemaking. If it were nine years ago or so, I could see myself getting stuck in a k-hole with this movie, staying up past everyone else in my house and watching it and living with it night after night. I found it strange and very sad.
* TWIN PEAKS SPOILER ALERT IF YOU CLICK THIS LINK: Believe it or not it took me more than a day to mentally picture Star Sapphire Audrey Horne. I will take credit, however, for pointing out that Twin Peaks already had a power ring.
I was pretty skeptical of the decision to expand the Best Picture category from five films to a whopping ten, since it seemed such an naked studio cash grab rather than a legit reconsideration of how this process works. But I didn't realize that it would open the category up to films and genres outside the beaten path of your usual Oscar fare. A hardcore science-fiction movie like District 9, for Best Picture? That's very exciting to me. (Avatar doesn't count, because it made so much money it was BOUND to get nominated. Nothing succeeds like success!) It doesn't really matter, even, that District 9 is a flawed work--as time has gone by, that fun but not terribly interesting action climax has overshadowed all the meatier stuff earlier on for me--because, c'mon, look at what normally gets nominated. If you're going to have a contest between great works, flawed works, and sometimes out-and-out bad works, you might as well expand the pool from which you're drawing.
All in all three of my four favorite films of the year were nominated: A Serious Man, Inglourious Basterds, and The Hurt Locker. I also liked District 9 and Up in the Air. I'm pretty happy with the choices. (For the record, Best Films of 2009 as of this very moment: 1) A Serious Man 2) Inglourious Basterds 3) The Lovely Bones 4) The Hurt Locker 5) Crank 2: High Voltage--1 & 2 especially are subject to change)
I'm thrilled that Jeremy Renner got a Best Actor nod. Loved him since Dahmer, in which he was really something special. Shit, I'd have nominated him for 28 Weeks Later. (Man, that was a finely acted horror film.)
Also thrilled about Stanley Tucci and Christoph Waltz getting nominated for Best Supporting Actor for the villains they played. Tucci was maybe the best serial killer since Renner in Dahmer? And Waltz, I mean, duh.
I'm a bit perplexed that A Serious Man earned a Best Picture nomination AND a Best Original Screenplay nomination for the Coen Brothers, but they didn't get nominated for Best Director. Was that due to rules against co-directors, or was it felt that they should have done a better job?
Also a bit perplexed that BOTH Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick were nominated for Best Supporting Actress for Up in the Air. They were good, and as far as I'm concerned Kendrick should be nominated for nearly singlehandedly making the Twilight movies entertaining (her and Michael Welch), but I thought Farmiga didn't have much to do but be sexy. Nudity tends to be rewarded, so I'm wondering, was the Academy unaware she used a body double?
I tend to care about the Oscars only to the extent that I have a dog in the race. When The Return of the King swept I was over the moon; most years since then I haven't even watched. That seems to me like a healthy level of engagement with this thing and with award programs generally. So it looks like I'll be watching this year. I don't do picks or predictions, but I will say that The Hurt Locker's chances seem very strong and I'm glad of that. There were a few films I preferred, but that's a totally worthy movie, and obviously it would be a huge, long-overdue deal for a woman director and/or her film to win. It's not a terrible idea to reward an entertaining, non-didactic, but still powerful Iraq War movie, either.
* On Sunday night I went to a very cool, very swanky, very funny fundraiser held by the stars and writers of Saturday Night Live to benefit the forthcoming stage/multimedia adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner's all-time-great graphic novel The Diary of a Teenage Girl. Here's the report I did on the event for Comic Book Resources. Your takeaway should be that you should read The Diary of a Teenage Girl and go see Hannibal Burress and John Mulaney do stand-up if you get the chance.
On the other hand, I'm not sure that the mythology is the heart of the show either--at least not for me. I dig the mythology more than the Sawyer/Kate/Jack/Juliet love quadrangle (and I do have questions I want answered), but I primarily love Lost for its thematic concerns and ambitious genre-play. I've already talked about how much I get out of the predetermination/freedom business, but I also like that Lost has always been a celebration of storytelling, from the arcane to the archetypal. It's a genre-hopping story that pays direct homage to nearly every text that's ever influenced its creators. It's one long story, made up of a bunch of little stories. It's a story about how backstories encroach and affect the main narrative, whether it be via time-travel or flashbacks (which are a kind of time travel). And, finally, it's a story about the repetition of stories, and about which elements can be altered and which can't.
In the past I've said something not identical, but similar: I watch the show not as an exercise in puzzle-solving, but as an exercise in genre that does everything genre can do, very very well: sex and violence, mystery and horror, awe and adventure, heroism and villainy, the literature of ideas, genre elements used as a sort of crucible for character development. Rather than the thematic or philosophical concerns that intrigue Murray, though, I prefer the individual character stories insofar as they deal with what people do when confronted with failure.
* Lost Links #2: In this colloquy between three TV critics--the Chicago Tribune's Maureen Ryan, the Newark Star-Ledger's Alan Sepinwall, and Time's James Poniewozik--this passage stood out:
Poniewozik: Unfortunately, there's this [problem] that's inherent to sci-fi shows that "Battlestar Galactica" ran into.
In a regular, character-based drama, maybe people have high expectations for the finale, maybe they expect that closure from it, or [maybe they expect it to] wrap up in a certain way for the characters. Even when it's a finale that people really don't like -- the "Seinfeld" finale, the "Sopranos" finale for a lot of people -- I don't know that many people who said, "I hate this 'Seinfeld' finale so much that it ruined the show for me."
But there's a thing about sci-fi that they expect the finale is not just supposed to be a narrative ending. It's supposed to be an Answer, which to me is kind of ridiculous. The finale is supposed to say what it all meant, what everything was about. And you know, I'm not saying that it's unimportant. I watch these shows for the same reason, but if the show is really good, that's secondary.
Ryan: Well, I really felt like there was a left-brain, right-brain split in a way, when it came to the reaction to "Battlestar." I'm obviously being overly reductive, but it seemed like there were two sort of realms of fan responses or reactions. There were the people that wanted the whole mythology to add up correctly and make sense, and there were the people who wanted the character stuff to kind of wrap up. I was mostly in the latter camp. And so for me, I felt like there were a couple of wobbly things in the finale, but I was willing to live with them because the "Battlestar" finale really delivered, for me, on a character level.
Whereas, in the post-finale comments I was seeing, people wanted the math to add up. You know, like, the show is a math equation and the show needed to get the right answer. And in my mind, it was never going to do that -- I necessarily didn't expect that or think it was going to be possible for it all to add up neatly. I felt like, this is a show that has taken many risks. A few of them have not paid off, but I'd rather watch a show that does something crazy that has an 89 percent chance of working out down the road, story-wise, than a show that plots things out in a way that is purely logical and kind of clinical.
* And the Deadwood Cast Relocation Program continues! Please welcome Sol Star, ladies and gentlemen. John Hawkes, please say hello to Kim Dickens, Paula Malcomson, William Sanderson, Robin Wiegert, and Titus Welliver when you get the chance. Meanwhile, break open the fuckin' canned peaches, because I'm starting the Countdown To Ian McShane right here and right now.
* I'm pretty impressed by a television show that can maintain that "whaat..thee...hell?" feeling for a full two hours. So...divergent timelines, and the overlap is the whispering sound?
* Just very very nice to see Claire and Charlie and Boone and Rose and Bernard again. Even fanservicey old Frogurt and Arzt made me chuckle. I take it that negotiations with Maggie Grace broke down, however.
* Pulling for Mr. Eko's L.A. drug connection to be the recipient of Mr. Paik's watch.
* "I'm sorry you had to see me this way." Smokey, takin' us for a ride on the LOLicopter!
* Nice little shadow-and-light homage to Apocalypse Now and Col. Kurtz. I think I'll enjoy crazy evil Locke-esque person.
* The second they slowed down to give us a glory shot of the Temple, I knew we'd get a "so, I guess this is the Temple" line from Hurley and would then cut to commercial. Sure enough!
* Rough of them to double-dip on the death of Juliet. I think we sort of have to wait and see where Sawyer goes from here to judge the effectiveness of that move. If he turns into a full-fledged monster, that'd be something.
* Cindy! Cindy! Cindy! Cindy! C-C-C-Cindy and the kids!
* I suppose the big question is whether Jack recognizes Desmond because their meeting at the stadium where they both were practicing running still happened, or because the Jack of this timeline is somehow able to remember what went on with the Jack of the other timeline.
* Haircuts are not consistent throughout the timestream, as it turns out.
Benjamin Marra is an artist who lives in the city. He is utterly and completely passionate about art. "Art ... consumes me," says Marra, "It is a part of my soul. When I look at a painting on the wall and I see a brush stroke, I can see the universe in it. I spend a lot of my time in galleries and museums looking around at the artworks. I like to see what's going on in the art scene, you know, see what the new concepts are in art, see what my colleagues are up to."
--from Night Business #3
The above text is pretty much what I love about Night Business in a nutshell. It's simply a perfect encapsulation of a teenager and/or shut-in's idea of what the City is. Artists who refer to themselves as such going to galleries and museums to stay on top of the activities of their cutting-edge colleagues. The glamorous, high-paying world of stripping and stripper management. Pimps who squirrel away a small army of thugs in warehouses filled with wooden crates and barrels of gasoline. Cops who thought they'd seen it all learning they haven't, not by a long shot. One good man, pushed to the limit, taking a stand for what's right and to hell with the consequences. Streetlight people, oh oh oh.
I don't have the first two issues in front of me, but my impression is that this is the strongest yet on several levels. The insistent, grandiose stupidity of the writing reaches a delirious pitch here, my favorite example being the no-nonsense gun-toting would-be rapists who accost a pair of women on a thoroughfare broad and bright enough to be 14th Street: "Hey, ladies!! Are you looking for a party?!" "Hah, yeah! Are you looking for a party?! You're invited to our party!" "We've got your official party invites right here! Don't move." "Scream and you die." The pacing's pretty sweet too, with the climactic fight between Johnny and the aforementioned warehouse full of thugs staged with one beat per panel, like the drum intro to "Big Bottom." It ends with a glorious pin-up of Johnny flying through the air as he escapes an explosion, with knowingly wonky foreshortening, neatly symmetrical bursts of smoke and flame, and shiny inking showing off Marra's studiously hidden chops despite himself. I'd kill to hang that page on my wall, let me just tell you. I'm all about seeking pleasure in comics these days, and this comic gets me off but good.
* I'm told that Maggie Grace initially had a film commitment, but that the show was ultimately able to work something out with all the actors they wanted to return for the final season. That's really terrific news. Longtime readers know how much I hate the kind of situation where they have to create Frankie Pentangelli because Richard S. Castellano wanted too much money to return as Pete Clemenza.
* Thus it's safer than ever to assume that Mr. Eko will be back. And I'm guessing my theory that he'll link up with Jin and the Paik organization in some way will pan out too.
* Regarding Juliet's double-dip death, I assume the thinking was that they couldn't just bring her back as a dead body, that would be weird. They needed to give Elizabeth Mitchell something to do rather than just use a dummy or whatever.
* But mainly, this sets up Sawyer as the season's most intriguing character. I'm hoping he becomes a really scary guy, that we get some full on Sawyer berserker attacks. They actually did one off-screen last night, after all.
* It's never made sense to me that the time-travelers' clothes transport with them. If it's something about how anything in contact with you goes too, fine, but a) what about their shoes, those would only be touching their socks, most likely, and b) where do you draw the line? How much of the atmosphere comes with them, or the ground, or whatever? Oh well, I think we can give the show a pass for not being sticklers for pseudoscientific accuracy that would necessitate constant nudity. You can leave that to my fanfic, the title of which Nick Hornby stole for his latest book.
* Just yesterday I was telling someone I was looking forward to the inevitable Biggest Smoke Monster Attack Ever this season. I didn't expect it to come in the very first hour! Pleasantly surprised. Also, I guess Fake Locke = Monster = Man in Black is settled law now, though I imagine people will still be searching for zebras after seeing this particular set of hoofprints.
* It was entertaining to see Hurley given some agency, above and beyond "Hi, I'm the audience identification character that the creators identify as such at every opportunity." It didn't feel fanservicey, either--it wasn't the creators saying "Hey fans, now YOU get to be the hero!" I also enjoyed the way he just rolled with Jacob telling him he'd died an hour ago. You gotta get up pretty early in the morning to find a way to weird Hurley out at this point.
* I was surprised how entertained I was by the alternate timeline material. Here's a case where the only thing weird about these sequences is the fact of their existence--there really aren't any other genre staples to speak of, at least not yet. In that sense it's very much a return to the tone of the Season One flashbacks, back before the science fiction, fantasy, and series-mythology elements seeped into pretty much everything. The way they sustained interest, besides the basic "hey look, it's that guy!" stuff, was through attention to detail: the marshal getting up to retrieve the briefcase that had knocked him out from the overhead bin; playing with whether or not Locke would be in a wheelchair; some nice Rose/Bernard business; Locke still being a weirdo; Locke and Boone connecting; and so on. Little nods in the direction of things that were important way back when, bringing things full circle.
* They threw in some head-scratchers, too, of course. With Desmond on the plane and Shannon and Jack's dad's body not on it, we're left to wonder how divergent the timelines really are. We don't know if there's added significance to Jack's recognizing Desmond beyond their earlier meeting in that stadium, or to Charlie's statement that he was "supposed to die" beyond junkie melodrama. We don't know if Desmond really disappeared, or just went back to his original seat. And in a show that pays this much attention to detail, I even wonder why Sawyer and Charlie's haircuts were so different.
* When Sayid came to and started talking, I tried to determine whether or not he sounded different--mostly meaning if he started speaking in Michael Emerson's cadence. After all, Richard had said way back when they used the Temple to save young Ben after he was shot by Sayid that if they did this, Ben would never be the same. Sayid's got the same wound, was treated in the same way--what's different about him now? Is he now a vessel for Locke or Jacob?
* I'm not 100% convinced we'll never see Actual Locke or Actual Sayid again. It seems to me like the show would want to make it clear whether these characters died a "good death" or not. I don't see it as the kind of show that lets a good guy die believing he's going to Hell.
* I sure am hoping we're moving toward a "save the world from the Smoke Monster Man in Black" plotline. I fully support the Man in Black getting off the Island having the narrative significance of Sauron getting the Ring back.
When Juliet first comes to at the bottom of the pit, she's all upset, she tells Sawyer "it didn't work," that she hit the bomb but they're all still stuck on the Island. Later, after Sawyer removes the big beam pinning her down and gives her a hug, she's suddenly all smiles, she says "Let's get coffee sometime--we'll go Dutch," she kisses him, says she's got something important to tell him, and then dies, but Miles says she was gonna say "It worked." Seems to me that the line about the coffee is something she will say to Sawyer in the alternate reality, and somehow she knows about its existence and that's why she said it worked after all.
Okay, first of all, can we talk about what a lovely package you're getting for $9.99? That cover is a killer, and Larson's luminous line does nothing if not radiate "look at how beautiful this comic you're reading is!" with every glance. Her blacks shimmer and shine, and her characters' eyes glow like Influence in an old Chester Gould Dick Tracy. Seeing her art employed in a tale of familial and romantic teen angst up North gives the impression of a Craig Thompson with control instead of ecstasy as the key ingredient. For a measly $9.99, a price point even many tankubon volumes appear to have abandoned by now, the tween and teen girls who are Mercury's target will be getting a lot of art-object bang for the buck.
As for the story, I'll be honest: Going into this thing, I was ready to be at a loss coming out of it. I have zero experience with YA fiction for girls, and very little with YA fiction for boys, even when I was a YA myself; there's a degree of critic-proofing that that genre and that demographic lacquers on to any project. I was prepared to come away saying "Well, I see what's going on here, and I'm guess it will/won't work for its audience, but ultimately it's not for me." The critical white flag in other words.
And sure enough, there's some YA stuff that fell a little flat for this less-than-YA. The period setting and attendant slightly stiffened dialogue, for example, are an obstacle that the earlier of the book's two parallel plotlines have to work hard to overcome. I'm just not a bonnet-book guy, and unless you're in a village that could potentially get raided by orcs, I don't want to hear about how you have to finish your chores before Father returns from the market. To be less fatuous about it, I often find myself wishing that period fiction could just lose the dated dialect and have the characters speak like people today would, eschewing anachronisms but otherwise talking normally. I suppose you could always be a David Milch-level genius and devise, y'know, the best period speech ever, but barring that I feel like more is lost than gained with the distancing effect of the more formal speech--though to be fair, that's often part and parcel of the stricter social codes that end up playing a huge part in the story, so perhaps that's unfair. Meanwhile, the high-school setting of the contemporary half of the book is strangely sexless for a relationship-focused narrative; it's funny to think of these characters as being in the same age group as the gang from Black Hole. A librarian who'd run screaming from The Diary of a Teenage Girl is going to have no trouble putting Mercury on the shelf, and that's a sensible decision--and one for which Larson compensates with lots of finely observed detail regarding how teenage emotion can imbue everything from sleepover movie-watching to a pizza lunch with strange melancholy power. But it's also not really the high school experience I remember. In books that deal in emotional truths, that's a shortcoming, no matter how justified the sanitization might be.
But! No white flag here, no shrug of the shoulders and mumbling of "Eh, not my thing, but I bet your niece will like it, maybe." Taken on the same terms as any other comic, Mercury is still an idiosyncratic, ultimately gutsy read. The kicker is the period story, about an itinerant prospector who finds gold on a farmer's property and makes time with his teenaged daughter Josey while he helps the dad mine it. After a long rollout that has you suspecting the potential for heartbreak but not necessarily expecting it, takes a sudden and viciously sharp turn for the tragic, even the horrific. Thinking about its denouement now, I'm suddenly reminded of a sequence in, of all things, Louis Riel, that's how severe Larson is willing to get here. But what ruins the lives of the characters in the past sets up a much better life for the characters in the present, specifically Josey's teenaged descendent Tara, left with her aunt and uncle and trying to find her way among the public-school kids her single mother took her away from for homeschooling when a nasty divorce screwed her up. I won't get into exactly how, but Tara's happy ending, thoughtfully only teased rather than spelled out, is a direct result of the terrible misfortune that befalls Josey. I suppose you could read some sort of pat "circle of life, sunrise sunset, strikes and gutters, ups and downs" kind of message into that, but I saw it as a tougher, more bracing idea: that actions have consequences that reverberate down the line for decades, even centuries, enough to change entire lives. For an age group that tends to see everything, except perhaps the SATs, as somehow both all-encompassing and utterly in-the-moment, confronting the idea of legacies, unexpected ones at that, is stinging stuff.
But riding shotgun is the notion that in a world that works like that, you should take your happiness where you can get it. That's what Tara does over and over: she forces herself to overcome her jitters and befriend the cute boy she meets, she hunts for the things that will improve her life, and--she has no way of knowing this, but of course Larson definitely does--she doesn't allow the tragic legacy of her forebears to prevent her happy ending. None of this is handed to you with neat parallels or telegraphed transitions, by the way: I'm still teasing it out, and I'm glad that's what I have to do.
* Steve Ditko sure could (can?) draw too. Andrei Molotiu makes an STC-fave point about how you can use the motion of people and objects to physically describe, animate, and make real a space on the page. I sure do wish the artists of many of today's big action comics were forced to read these panels prior to sitting down at the drawing table.
The Book of Genesis Illustrated
R. Crumb, writer-artist
Adapted from Genesis: Translation and Commentary and The Five Books of Moses by Robert Alter
W.W. Norton, 2009
224 pages, hardcover
$24.95 Buy it from Amazon.com
Captivating, illuminating, at times laugh-out-loud funny, and almost belief-beggaringly gorgeous, R. Crumb's ambitious adaptation of the Bible's first and foundational book hit pretty much every note I wanted to hear from such a project.
For starters, as a showcase of Crumb's drawing chops--masterful even in his old(er) age--it's tough to top. I'm aware of the criticism that it could have been subtitled Beards on Parade, and I reject that criticism, or rather I invert it: the beard parades were among the best parts! And they're perhaps the most emblematic sections of the entire book, in that they boil Crumb's project down to its essence. Genesis' long multigenerational tale of the patriarchs of the Israelites and their large extended families necessarily includes a lot of hirsute dudes in Cecil B. DeMillian garb, and at times even substitutes litanies of their names for any actual story or plot. So what you get during the long lists of sons or what the back cover jocularly refers to as "The 'Begots'" is a bit like folding one of Crumb's sketchbooks into a comic. As the generations rattle by, Crumb draws scene after one-panel scene depicting some family activity at random: A mother nurses and laughs as her other son runs past playing; another mother breaks up a fight between two kids; people dance and drink at a party. At other times he'll simply insert postage-stamp panel portraits of each person, inventing them out of whole cloth, and the act of reading becomes a master class in how many variations of the human face can be captured by one artist. In each case, through Crumb's attention to detail, mastery of crosshatching and stippling, and rock-solid carved-from-clay character construction, an entire life, and the world that surronds it, is suggested in the space of a panel.
And that's pretty much what made the whole book so very appealing to me--another litany, that of the keenly observed and impeccably depicted moments that take the musty, revised, translated, censored, edited, politically motivated, at times inspired, frequently batshit bizarre text of the world's most important religious document and make it something fun to read. Gimli-like Abraham, never looking his (not-firstborn, not only!) son Isaac in the eye as he leads the lad to the slaughter. The denizens of Sodom, portrayed not as a bunch of mincing homos, but rather as a predatory pack of grinning good-time assholes. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, portrayed in a stand-out layout of three widescreen panels that arrange contorted bodies and black and white spaces in a manner suggestive of an un-abstract David B. The close-up on Lot's face as he begs God to let him hide out in a nearby town rather than force him to take a dangerous journey even further away from the soon-to-be-destroyed cities, his wild eyes matching the desperation in his repeated assertion that "it's such a little place!" The moving, teary-eyed embraces during the rapprochements of sundered brothers Jacob & Esau (a development I'd entirely forgotten about) and, later, Joseph & his eleven brothers. Esau dancing up a storm. The random brutality with which Crumb depicts "the wickedness of the human creature" that inspired God to flood the Earth. Shem, Ham, and Japheth drawn as Shemp, Larry, and Moe. The hoary cliche of God as a white-robed, white-bearded, white-haired old man put to graphic use as his flowing locks and whiskers become an elemental thing, echoing the radiance of the sun or the force of the rain and wind. The easy physical intimacy of Adam & Eve and Isaac & Rebekah romping, or Isaac & Rebekah cuddling on their wedding night. The sexiness of Tamar dressing up as a temple harlot, or Rachel presenting her handmaid Bilhah to Jacob, or "that scene" with Onan and Tamar. Reinforcing Joseph's ruse that he doesn't recognize his brothers by presenting his speech to them in hieroglyphics and then using a translator to relate them. The "do what now?" looks in the eyes of everyone who must get circumsized. The shocked sideways glance Eve shoots Adam as he throws her under the bus. The serpent as an anthropomorphized He-Man villain, until God curses him to crawl on his belly.
I am not a believer, and thus I appreciated the rough edges of the original text that a project like this brings out--the repeated pimping out of people's wives to save their own skin; the polygamy and incest (Where's your traditional marriage now, Moses?); God's nutso caprice throughout the entire enterprise; the frequent brutality and deception employed by God's chosen ones; the complete absence of monotheism as a concept, complete with gods mating with human and producing superhero hybrids; and so on. So if you're the kind of person who insists that a comic of this nature must reveal the pure-dee lunacy of using these stories as the basis for the self-developed narrative of mainstream Western religious tradition, let alone as a basis for a moral code, let alone as the literal history of the world that way way way too people mentally carry with them when they enter the voting booth, you'll make out fine.
But at the same time, the material is treated dead-on and respectfully, like "a straight illustration job" as Crumb puts it in his introduction. No cheap shots, no ironic image/text juxtapositions, no playing up the ugliness or contradictions. Rather you have a sympathetic treatment of these characters as people. Reading it, I got a taste of the solace evangelicals draw from these stories, and the entire cottage industry of "see, the people of the Bible are just like you!" sermons and books and so on that draw on them, if only to fit everything into a "so just believe in the God of the Trinity Broadcasting Network and everything's fine" mold after the fact. That part's absent, and instead you have a lively, living look at ancient stories that still retain their power to surprise, delight, enrage, and entertain. It's a hugely successful comic.
* Sometimes I feel like I discover stunning new comics art from somewhere on the medium's spacetime continuum every single day. Today it's the gorgeously static work of Pete Morisi, courtesy of Ken Parille.
* How did Kate find Claire after ditching her? Why the hell would a woman 36 weeks pregnant decide to be besties with the woman who terrorized her with a gun to her head and stole all her shit? Why would two of Lost's most experienced writers throw a credibility-destroying development like that into one of the show's final episodes?
* I'm pretty impressed that even after all these years, they're still finding ways to have the Others do heinous shit but still leave open the possibility that it might almost kinda sorta be justified. I just wish people would remember that the fact that Destro fought Cobra Commander once doesn't make him a good guy.
* So...the Others really are nominally servants of Jacob, but occasionally their Lazarus Pit turns people evil? Which most of them act like anyway? I guess we'll get this ironed out eventually.
* Sawyer just saying "fuck it all" at this point makes a lot of sense. Josh Holloway's handling it well. It's funny, though: The Missus asked me toward the end of the episode "So why is Kate chasing after Sawyer now?" and I had no idea.
* Always fun to see Ethan. What great casting William Mapother was! The first of many, many compelling villains on this show. (Or the second, considering how Locke was initially handled.) It took me a minute to accept that hey, he's not evil here, things worked out pretty good for ol' Ethan Goodspeed in a world without the Island.
* And see, before anyone starts, I can accept synchronicity, as in Ethan being the doctor who delivers Claire's baby. That's how the world of the show works. I can accept smoke monsters and an immortal guy in eyeliner (I think that's a Grant Morrison character, actually)--that's how science fiction and fantasy work. If they'd worked a little harder to show that Kate finding Claire was a function of one of those things, fine. But they didn't. Neither character seemed the least bit fazed by Kate pulling up to that bus stop, beyond a "Oh great, this lady again" look from Claire. It sure wasn't a "What the fuck, how did this person find me again?" look. I'm pretty much stunned it got on the air. Oh well, maybe this means they got the rotten episode out of their system early on and it's smooth sailing from here on out.
What a pleasant book this is! I've loved it for a long time. It's nothing more or less than a little scene about a husband-and-wife sock monkey and a doll made from a spoon who fight and then make up, but the specifics are just nailed. The book begins with a long wordless stretch as the couple fix a meal, with pointed silences and angry glances galore. When they finally start talking, each word is freighted with a day's worth of frustrations and perceived slights, and every choice of phrase is belabored until it loses all meaning other than "WE'RE FIGHTING": "This is pathetic " "Pathetic? Is that what you think when I say something? It's pathetic?" "I didn't say that. You're twisting my words." Lia really gets the timing of how people talk when they're arguing, too--I particularly loved how the monkey jumped on the spoon's first soft-spoken statement with an all-caps "PARDON?" But soon enough a crisis intervenes, and the two instantly drop their hostile facades to attend to one another's more pressing needs; once those have passed, they both remain in a safe enough emotional space to apologize for their bad acts and reach out to one another again. In my experience that's how fights with the person you love work: Things can get as nasty as you'd expect when you've got a whole life together from which to draw your ammo, but it's ultimately that life together that matters, and usually some part of you is just waiting an excuse to deactivate your offensive weapons and reconnect. Lia's twee-crude line and character designs prove surprisingly resilient and effective in communicating such finely observed points, and providing big grin-provoking physical beats in the process. This book has a goal and meets it with precision and panache. Here's your Valentine's Day gift, Amazon Prime members.
* Todd VanDerWerff was more patient with last night's Lost episode than I was, and I think he's largely convinced me, though I feel like we sort of need to see how things go in the next few episodes to see if this was laying the groundwork for something or just sort of anomalous. Ryland Walker Knight, by contrast, was even more dismissive of it than I was, though I think his characterization of it as feeling very Season Three was accurate. Again, though, we'll see where things go.
* After its world tour of crossovers with the X-Men, the Avengers, Thunderbolts, and Incredible Hercules, Agents of Atlas is returning as just-plain Atlas. Hooray! I'm happy to see how hard Marvel worked on this book's behalf, the apparently soon-to-be high profile of Gorilla Man being a good example.
* I really like the idea of War of the Supermen, the next big DC event, taking place over the course of 100 minutes. If the creators involved really work on packing those 100 minutes of battle in terms of memorable physical beats that are easy to follow from one to the next, it could really be something.
When I was a kid, I thought only better (lyrically) things would follow. I think that was a function of me not really understanding why most people were listening to hip-hop. Sure some of us obsessed over the words, but Dre basically had it right--"Ya'll don't wanna hear me, you just wannna dance." That's basically been the case from jump. Great lyrics were a beautiful and important side-effect, but a side-effect nonetheless.
* Incredible Hercules is being relaunched as Prince of Power in a way that would be spoilery were I to describe it to you, but I'm betting you can guess even without clicking. It's funny--I interviewed Brevoort just a few days ago, but in the interim, two of the three series I cited as examples of critically acclaimed titles Marvel couldn't get to stick have been relaunched. Again, I'm glad to see Marvel supporting books like Herc and Atlas...and I'm hoping Captain Britain & MI-13 gets revived for the hat trick.
The Death of Superman
Dan Jurgens, Jerry Ordway, Louise Simonson, Roger Stern, writers
John Bogdanove, Tom Grummett, Jackson Guice, Dan Jurgens, Brett Breeding, Rick Burchett, Doug Hazlewood, Dennis Janke, Denis Rodier, artists
$9.99 Buy it from Amazon.com
Nostalgia is an occupational hazard for comics readers. Even as I write this, there's a part of me that wonders how much of what I'm about to say is colored by the mere fact that I first read this material not as a 31-year-old, but as a 14-year-old, with a 14-year-old's understanding of the industry and artform of comics. But honestly? I'm thinking "not much," because the 31-year-old likes this comic a lot more than the 14-year-old did.
For example, back then I was deeply unimpressed by the motley crew of losers who made up the Justice League at the time, and who were really the stars of the show in the initial issues of this storyline. They're a parade of weak designs and goofy powers, from Guy Gardner's bowl haircut and leather jacket to Blue Beetle's beetle-shaped spaceship Booster Gold's superpowered spandex outfit to a character named Fire who is inexplicably green, not, you know, fire-colored. At least Ice looks icy. There's some B-plot mystery involving a '90s-tastic goofball named Bloodwynd (look at that 'y'!) whose word balloons drip blood, there's a woman warrior named Maxima who is to other, better superheroines like Wonder Woman and Phoenix what one of those cheapo greatest-hits collections you can get in a five-dollar bin at the grocery store is to the overall recording career of Johnny Cash...Man, do these guys suck.
Superman himself fared little better with me. I mean, he's Superman, he has that going for him, which is nice. But what a square, boring world he inhabited at the time! The first issue collected here sees him face off against a bunch of underground monsters who talk like Cookie Monster and present just about as much of a convincing threat. There's the usual horrible street-dialect comics writers of yore subjected any blue-collar character to--you know, "ta" instead of "to" and a lot of "in'"s instead of "ings." Gross. Finally, Superman's big character moment before the action starts is a TV interview in which they reveal a hidden power of his: The ability to avoid saying anything remotely interesting. He offers a politician's focus-group-tested, studiously bland and inoffensive answers to questions about his role as the obviously most awesome guy in the Justice League, his recent fight with asshole Guy Gardner, the fact that Maxima looks and dresses like a swimsuit model, and so on. If the writers had set out to make him unappealing to teenagers, they couldn't have done a better job.
And ultimately, 14-year-old me ended up sharing much of the conventional fan wisdom about Superman's beating death at the hands of the monstrous new enemy Doomsday. Doomsday wasn't a character, he was a plot device, created for the sole purpose of killing a character who basically couldn't be killed. (DC would repeat this trick later with Bane and Batman, introducing a huge dude to beat the unbeatable hero.) Lex Luthor got gypped. It wasn't a story, it was a mere slugfest, not the Shakesperean tragedy that would befit such a momentous occasion. Though I hadn't read any of them other than The Dark Knight Returns, I was aware of the medium's artistic masterpieces, such as Watchmen, Crisis on Infinite Earths, and Camelot 3000--did not Superman deserve a send-off of their caliber? Finally, by the time the hype died down, Superman came back to life with long hair (remember, no one used the m-word back then), and it became apparent that my multiple unopened polybagged copies of the actual death issue weren't going to be putting me through college, I just plain felt ripped off. Instead of six copies of the Death of Superman comic, I wished I bought just one of that awesome Death of Superman t-shirt.
That last part I still agree with. The rest? Oh, to be that young and naive again! Because I'll tell you what--I wish we could get an event comic as rollickingly entertaining as The Death of Superman today.
Viewed with some distance, read in the comfort of my marital bed rather than my parents' basement, stacked up against the many many many many comics I've read since then, I find that most of my teenage complaints are flipped on their head. Okay, so the dialogue stinks, there's really no bones to be made about that. (Seriously, people give Bendis a hard time over his tics, I know, but superhero comics have truly seen a quantum leap in the craft of creating believable, entertaining human speech.) But take that crappy Justice League (please!): It's their very crappiness that makes the book so entertaining in its early going, when the action consists of nothing more or less than Doomsday pounding them into unconsciousness over and over again. If I recall correctly, Doomsday's rampage effectively ended this era of the team, a consummation devoutly to be wished. It's a perfect blending of an in-story plot with a meta need, i.e. to lose these losers. I could read page after page of Blue Beetle lying prone on a pile of rubble begging for help or Maxima getting tossed around like a sack of potatoes and never ever get tired of it.
And page after page of people getting the stuffing knocked out of them is exactly what you get, which leads to my next point: An action-comics event consisting almost entirely of action is a great idea, but as we've recently learned, it can be difficult to convincingly pull off if all you do is have big spreads with dudes shooting lasers in all directions in the middle of nowhere, punctuated by approximately one memorable action beat per issue. In The Death of Superman, laser blasts are kept to a minimum, and when they're fired, they're all pointed in one direction at one guy: Doomsday, who just stands there and takes it. Most of the rest of the action is fisticuffs, a pure slobberknocker. Doomsday has a simple goal: Keep moving and keep destroying. Superman and friends have a goal that's just as simple: Stop him. In that basic set-up we have a sense of directionality, a readily understandable concept of what victory or defeat for either side looks like, and a simple way to root the combat in the immediate physical presence of the combatants.
I'm also now struck by how smartly staged the action can get. Doomsday's less a villain than your basic rampaging monster, and thus the creative team sets him loose in time-tested rampaging-monster fashion, having him smash his way through everyday environments like a highway, a Wal-Mart, a suburban neighborhood. You picture something like this happening near where you live and quickly get a sense of how friggin' cool it would look. In addition, Doomsday's always moving, which gives the fight a propulsive momentum, but when he does get bogged down for a time by Superman or the Justice Losers, the creators make skillful use of that particular place--in the suburbs, a single mother bickers with her teenage son until Doomsday lobs a knocked-out superheroine through their kitchen window and eventually lights the whole house on fire; near the headquarters of the Jack Kirby-created Cadmus Labs, Superman and Doomsday fight in a giant technoorganic Ewok village whose treelike structures they bring clattering down like Lincoln logs; the final stage of the fight is just a bareknuckle brawl in the middle of the street outside the Daily Planet, which location they quickly reduce to a slag heap. In each case, you get a sense of where you are and what's happening to it. Action has consequences.
Doomsday himself, moreover, is a great design. In the comic, he starts out in an all-over green jumpsuit and mask, festooned with looping binders, that obscures his bony spikes and monstrous face. He looks like a square-bodied Kirby creation run amok. But as the fight progresses, his outfit is torn away, revealing the very '90s everything-more-awesome-than-everything-else spikes and claws and so on we've come to know. One of those allegorical Kurt Busiek/Alex Ross/Brent Anderson Astro City character designs couldn't have done it better. Superman's thoughts throughout the fight are a stand-in for our own: a dawning realization that yeah, this guy could succeed where everyone else failed.
In the end, that success (albeit pyrrhic--Doomsday "dies" too) comes suddenly. The final four issues of the story famously "counted down" from four panels per page to three to two, until in the climactic issue the story is told entirely through splash pages. What's exciting about this to me now is that it's hard to imagine a comic doing that today, simply because splash pages aren't storytelling devices, they're pin-ups and future original art sales revenue. But the Jurgens/Breeding team actually does things with those one-panel-per-page images other than "here, look at this awesome pose!" They awkwardly shift Superman's body around: For every shot in which he's flying menacingly at the viewer, there are several more where he's being hurled into a helicopter, or where he slams into his opponent upside-down, or where he's driven by his feet headfirst into the concrete. The angle shifts dramatically as well, and the bold transitions--from a worm's-eye-view behind Doomsday's legs to a medium shot of Doomsday from the front getting punched in the back to a ten-feet-overhead view looking straight down at Superman as he heat-visions Doomsday into the side of a building, for example--create an unpredictable, gripping flow. On the page in which the two fighters ready what will be their final blows, there are no grand gestures or profound interior monologues; the last thing Superman thinks before receiving a mortal injury is just "I've got to put this guy away while I still can!" ("This guy"!) Yeah, it's a little awkward that the tableaux of grief with which we are presented are Ma and Pa Kent, Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen, and...Bloodwynd and Ice, but the melodrama of that final image--Lois crying to the heavens with her hands twisted into tense claws, Superman lying stretched-out and slack-jawed in the rubble, his tattered cape fluttering off of some nearby rebar like a flag, Jimmy snapping one last photo (from the rear, but I assume he got the angle right eventually)--is a miniature model of body language, jagged edges, and superhero spectacle. And hey, lookit that--that's not a bad way to describe the whole book.
* Comics Comics gets a lovely makeover and Fantagraphics co-honcho Eric Reynolds writes an essay for The Comics Reporter on pretty much the same day that long-time Comics Journal writers Noah Berlatsky, Ng Suat Tong, and Robert Boyd beat TCJ.com to within an inch of its life? Ouch. I imagine the temptation when receiving criticism from Noah is to grab an issue of The ACME Novelty Library off the shelf and congratulate yourself on the good company you keep, but at this point I sure hope that the people in a position to listen and act are listening and preparing to act. Because here's the thing: The Comics Journal introduced me to the very idea of comics criticism. I'll be eternally grateful Dirk, Michael, Gary, and everyone involved for giving me the chance to write for the magazine, and Gary Groth is probably my all-time comics hero. But the relaunch has been so slapdash, and Gary's attitude about it as evinced in that hideous self-congratulatory "welcome" letter so off-putting, that it's become tough to root for them. I know the Journal is a smaller part of Fantagraphics than ever before, but its web presence really could be contributing something beyond various people proclaiming how much they don't like New Yorker short stories and attempting to metaphorically reenact the video for "Beat It" with Comics Comics in the role of the sunglasses dude, and I'd love to see that happen.
* Yikes. It sure looks like something's gone very wrong with the kinds of comics that drive the Direct Market. The great recession, event fatigue, what? Marc-Oliver Frisch has more. Personally, my guess is that had "Dark Reign" lasted until early autumn '09 instead into late winter '10, we'd be looking at a different chart.
It may only be the fact that Brian Chippendale just wrote about Taiyo Matsumoto yesterday, but I'd say GoGo Monster is every bit the exercise in creating a believable, cohesive, living environment that is Ninja or Multiforce or The Squirrel Machine. In fact I'd say that despite appearances to the contrary, this is truer of GoGo Monster than of Matsumoto's Tekkon Kinkreet. TK's Treasure Town gives Matsumoto a far more obvious world-building workout, but ultimately its semi-dystopian near-future science-fiction metropolis can coast on our foreknowledge of such fictional environments and the narrative function they fulfill. GoGo Monster's run-of-the-mill elementary school can tap into our actual real-world memories of such places, certainly, but its place in a fictional narrative is comparatively undefined. Nor can it rely on the riot-of-detail school of art to accrue physical presence through a prolificacy of constituent visual parts as can those books--it's not some fantastical land, it's a grade school, and moreover that's not the style Matsumoto is employing here. So to convey the kind of place Asahi Elementary School is--or at least the kind of place it is for our main characters--Matsumoto works overtime.
And he starts right away: Before we even get past the endpapers, deep-focus drawings reveal cavernous institutional hallways and vertiginous stairways, while POV close-ups of other characters reveal preoccupied teachers (that recurring pull-back-the-hair gesture!) and hostile, slightly distorted children, their speech not tied to them in the traditional word-balloon fashion, so as to suggest their fundamental disconnect from our hero. They're not actors so much as elements, and their primary influence throughout the rest of the book is as a generator of sound effects just like wind or rain, as their near-constant disembodied chatter unfeelingly surrounds and buffets the protagonists.
Our real introduction to the school setting comes in the form of a hand-drawn map created by our main character, Yuki. It's diagrammed out like a superhero's headquarters, with all the funneling of wild imagination into cold orderly lines that that suggests. At the edges, menace creeps in, in the form of monstrous doodles that blackly snap at the border and proliferate in the school's abandoned fourth floor. That level of the building takes on a central metaphorical role, demonstrating that this school exists independent from and indifferent to the hopes and fears of the child now inhabiting it.
Similar signifiers abound. Planes fly low overhead, their departure and destination unknown. A rabbit run is the only world its furry inhabitants ever know, and one of them disappears without any of its fellows or minders able to say how or to where. I have no idea if "perspective" has the dual meaning in Japanese that it does in English, but Matsumoto frequently skews and warps it so that the school leans in on its inhabitants. One pivotal character literally sees the world from inside a cardboard box. Most importantly, except for one key sequence I won't spoil here, our heroes never leave the school grounds, and on the one occasion that parents visit, they are viewed only from a distance.
In short (haha, yeah), Asahi Elementary is the world for Yuki, who is either psychically sensitive or psychologically impaired, and Makoto, the new kid at school who befriends Yuki out of what seems more like a fascinated respect for his indifference to his peers than any kind of Heavenly Creatures-style shared psychosis, and for IQ, the eccentric-genius older kid who says he's no more capable of taking a test without wearing his customary cardboard box than a normal person would be if forced to wear one. Their problems are solely their own and completely inescapable. If they don't solve them, they won't be solved.
Which makes GoGo Monster a harrowing read, in spite of the great beauty of the art. Indeed, the beauty makes the book feel like a tragedy in the making at every step. Whether they're the product of a genuine gift or profound mental illness, Yuki's increasingly troubling visions of a world beyond this one and the sinister Others who inhabit it can only bode poorly for him; either way, they will consume him, because in this insular world, there is no authority to which he has recourse to protect him. Yet at the same time he clings to these visions precisely because of the insularity of this world, and what it has shown him about the gray soullessness of grown-ups and their inability to connect with kids like him in any meaningful way. Only Ganz the groundskeeper and gardener understand Yuki's plight from the adult world, but that understanding comes hand in hand with the conviction that it is in fact Yuki's plight; Ganz tends him like a flower, but (hey, the metaphor is Matsumoto's not mine) Yuki must blossom or wilt on his own.
In turn, Makoto and IQ are stand-ins for our own reaction to Yuki. Makoto is agnostic as to the veracity of Yuki's visions; all he knows is that he'd prefer Yuki not have them, or at least not talk about them, because they're frightening and they obscure the confident, funny, fascinating Yuki he otherwise knows. IQ is an atheist about them--he knows they're all in Yuki's head, the manifestation of various psychological complexes. But he offers this diagnosis while wearing a cardboard box on his head with an eyehole cut out, and eventually we learn this is the least of his own problems. Knowing what's real is no help when what's real appears to come crashing down.
In the book's climax, that's precisely what happens. We're really no closer to understanding what's really happening, though the nods in the direction of magic realism are as pronounced as, say, the end of Being There or Barton Fink. And we can only partially puzzle out the fate of a third of our trio, though sitting here after the fact I have my strong suspicion. No, Matsumoto is content to plunge characters and reader alike into a prolonged sequence of abstracted imagery, page after page that eventually becomes almost entirely obscured by darkness (which is itself depicted in just about the most fascinating way I've ever seen a comic do). What, if anything, emerges from the other side? Again, I'm not spoiling it here. But the journey through is a fine, emotionally accurate, uncompromising vision of the terrors of childhood. See, whether we are experiencing mental illness or actual spiritual evil here is a matter of debate--it works either way--but it definitely works as the realization that whatever meaning, safety, sanity, and comfort you can carve out of the unfeeling world, you have to carve it out yourself.
* My friend and CBR overlord Kiel Phegley reviews James Robinson's Starman Blackest Night special and Superman: Mon-El at length. This is the kind of close reading of how superhero comics work or don't work that I usually save for chats with friends over lunch or email, and Kiel is one of those friends, so getting a rare chance to see him work his review chops in public is a pleasure. If you're at all interested in this kind of comics, I think he's worth reading here even where (I think) I disagree with him.
* Comics, you can keep bleeding sales off the top of the monthly charts as long as you also keep opening up whole new wings of yourself for us to discover, like this King Aroo thing for example.
* How John Porcellino learned to stop worrying and love the Smiths. For me it was a combination of discovering that Morrisey's Your Arsenal was produced and sounded a lot like Mick Ronson and enjoying Morrisey's modern-day transformation into a beefy British gangster, and simply tracing these things back to their point of origin. Still not sure I get the Johnny Marr hysteria, but whatevs, I guess there are Moz men and Marr men same as John and Paul or Stan and Jack or Mick and Keef or whoever else.
* Goddammit, Mike Baehr's Yoda sketchbook is slaughtering my Bowie book. I know the guy works for a comic company and can threaten to shittalk artists to Gary if they fail to produce, but still. 170 entries! Goddammit! Here's Anders Nilsen's. Razzafrazza. (Via Flog.)
* CRwM dissects the extremely unpleasant-sounding Korean torture-porn film The Butcher. I've been thinking of this subgenre, or at the very least what I used to call the "brutal-horror" ubersubgenre to which it belongs, on and off ever since I tried and failed to watch the French film Inside. If you recall, I gave up when it became apparent they were gonna break a cat's neck, because that's very very much not my thing, and I didn't feel like the movie was going to be saying something in so doing that was particularly worth hearing. (No, "That bitch crazy!!!" doesn't count.) But I don't think I've seen a single horror film with a similar level of violence ever since, cat-killing or no. No Martyrs, no Frontier(s), no Asian or French extreme films, nothin'. And this is because I'm just not convinced I'd enjoy them, which is supposed to be the goal of going to the movies, right? I know that's a weird thing to hear coming from someone who loves Hostel and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre as much as I do, but there you have it. Does this make me a wuss or a lousy horror fan? I really don't know. I worry that it might, as I think I've said before. I wish I could articulate why the really awful movies that work with me work and the really awful movies that don't work with me don't, but to do that I'd have to see the latter ones, and, well, there you go.
* "Hello, Lost viewers! It was great to have you swing by last week. This week, we'll be shifting gears and focusing on characters you like doing awesome things like turning into smoke monsters, grabbing machetes, scaring the shit out of Immortal Guy in Eyeliner, climbing down Indiana Jones rope ladders, explaining the origin of the Numbers, and listening to Iggy and the Stooges. Meanwhile, in an alternate reality, we'll show them being well-adjusted, becoming besties with their archnemeses, and marrying Katey Sagal."
* In other words, ohhhhhhh maaaaaaannnnnnn that was outstanding.
* Because we're so used to how Lost works structurally and in terms of the roles of the characters, shifting those things around really makes an impact. Normally this takes the form of flipping the "flashback/forward/sideways" switch. But they can do it with how the characters are behaving as opposed to how they used to behave, too. And in this episode they did that twice: First by taking Richard, whose primary superpower has been inflappability, and showing him absolutely frantic and terrified. Instead of striding up calmly to whoever we're following, this time he sneaks up wild-eyed and panicked, and runs away mid-sentence like Tony Soprano seeing the Feds approaching across the snowy backyard. Second they do it by showing Ben actually admit that Locke shits bigger than him, going so far as to finally end his ruse about Locke's death. Not about Jacob's death, of course--let's not get crazy here. But still. You do those two simple things and all of a sudden it's like wow, new ballgame. The show even made reference to something similar diegetically, with Sawyer picking up on Fake Locke because Real Locke always had a tinge of false bravado to him. Say what you will about Real Locke, but that bravado ain't false.
* Locke's flashsideways was deeply, deeply satisfying, wasn't it? The second I saw him in a big suburban house instead of a crappy apartment, I figured Katey Sagal would be returning, and that was wonderful to see, especially when it became apparent that they had a healthy relationship. But what really made it click for me was when he fell off the ramp and onto the front yard: Instead of throwing his usual rage-filled tantrum about his lot in life, he just grinned as the sprinkler kicked in, in a good-natured "man, ain't that a kick in the head?" kinda way. Turns out he was still struggling with the same compulsion to prove himself capable of things he's incapable of that we've always seen from him, but the struggle was less severe and damaging to him, and he was ultimately able to walk away and move on.
* The kicker to the sequence, of course, was when he meets Benjamin Linus, European History teacher, at which point I was literally holding my arms aloft in triumph and cheering. Terry O'Quinn's magnificent smile at the very end--the look of a man who knows he's just met someone who'll be a great friend, which really does happen from time to time--is one of my all-time favorite Lost moments, full stop. This is what I'm talking about, man.
* The Island storyline was rad, too. I want to focus on the cave scene because I think it's the first time we've ever seen little recap-style flashbacks presented to us while characters continue to speak in the flow of the narrative. Am I right? This technique is straight outta Murder She Wrote, or Wadsworth telling us how it was all done during the various endings of Clue. In other words? ANSWERS!
* I couldn't help but think, even after they showed that the Numbers originated with Jacob's list of people, of how Cuse and Lindelof have said that viewers will continue to demand that they drill down deeper into them, like a kid repeatedly asking "Why?" until you're saying stuff like "Because God said 'because'" or whatever.
* Why only one Kwon? Why no Austen? Were these just the 42 front-section passengers of Oceanic 815, or are they 42 people drawn from all sorts of groups--the Tailies, the Others, Not Penny's Boat, Ajira, Widmore's Army unit, Desmond, Dharma, etc.?
* Jumping back for a sec, if Locke's on good terms with his dad, what happened to his spine?
* Fake Locke/Man in Black is obviously an unreliable narrator, but I didn't get a whole lot of cues that he was not to be believed in this case. Maybe Jacob will turn out to be a straight-up White Hat, but the "rival puppetmasters with pawns in the middle" theory of Lost seems a lot more thematically resonant with what's actually happened on the show.
* Sawyer joining forces with the MIB is like Wolverine going to work for Magneto.
* I'm totally buying it, by the way. Great new positioning for that character, and perfect for his inevitable heroic self-sacrifice.
* Who is the mysterious kid? I think everyone probably thought "Young Jacob" at first, especially when it seemed like Richard couldn't see him and he just disappeared. But Richard wasn't facing that direction, and he could have scooted away while Fake Locke was looking at Richard instead for that brief moment. Sawyer could see him, after all, though who knows what that means at this point. I started wondering if he's some Walt-style superpowered real-live kid currently hanging out at the Temple or something. Was he that kid they kidnapped from the Tail Section, does anyone know?
* I'm also thinking that this is where Walt's importance will lie. I'm more confident than ever that we'll get a satisfying answer for both him and the importance of childbirth and the lack thereof on the Island.
* Lapidus is priceless. Special to Kiel: Screw Hurley, that's your mom's audience-identification character.
Something I JUST thought of as I was fixing my generic cheerios that I thought deserved a post rather than a comment: Ethan and Ben were both already on the Island when Jack and company successfully blew it up in the alternate timeline--Ben was a kid and he'd been shot by Sayid and handed over to Richard and the Others, and Ethan was a little baby who'd just been born to Horace and Amy Goodspeed. So how are they walking around leading happy lives as productive members of society there on Earth X? Shouldn't they be at the bottom of the ocean, or long dead from radiation poisoning? Do the ripples of "the incident" go both forwards AND backwards through the timestream, so that things somehow changed and now they were never on the Island at all? Or is there more to their current alternate-reality incarnations than meets the eye? Or is the "alternate reality" something else entirely?
Green Lantern #43-51
Geoff Johns, writer
Doug Mahnke, artist
Ed Benes, artist on issue #47
22 story pages each except #50 which was longer
Off the top of my head, here's the stuff you'll find in these Blackest Night tie-in issues of the ongoing Green Lantern series: Black Hand, Black Hand becomes the embodiment of the Black Lantern Corps, Martian Manhunter, Abin Sur, Abin Sur's sister and Sinestro's girlfriend Arin Sur, Barry Allen, John Stewart and that planet he blew up, John Stewart was part of Black Hawk Down, the Star Sapphires vs. the Sinestro Corps, Sinestro vs. Mongul for control of the Yellow Lanterns, the new Rainbow Lantern team featuring the Flash and Wonder Woman and Lex Luthor and so on, the Spectre, Parallax, Hal Jordan deliberately becoming Parallax again, Parallax getting kidnapped by some force only Hector Hammond is aware of, the Predator escapes from Zamaron, Blue Lanterns vs. Orange Lanterns, Red Lanterns vs. Green Lanterns, all the leaders of the different Corps teaming up, Orange Lantern Lex Luthor figures out that the Black Lantern Corps works the same way that the Orange Lantern "Corps" does, Ganthet becomes a Green Lantern, it looks like the Spectre might be to the Red Lanterns what Parallax is to Yellow and Ion is to Green and Predator is to Violet and Black Hand is to Black but he's not but there's a Red entity out there someplace...It's crazy. The Yellow Lantern Scarecrow gets crucified at one point--in Siege, the weight of that one beat would anchor an entire issue, but in this storyline it's like half a page.
What you have here, in other words, is supercompressed storytelling as filtered through the sensibilities of someone who really isn't interested in formal play (unlike Grant Morrison and...uh, um, those other writers who do supercompressed superhero comics besides Grant Morrison, you know the ones) so much as just taking every aspect of the greater Green Lantern mythos and exploring every possible permutation of it in as rapid succession as possible. Having had no brief with Green Lantern before Geoff Johns started writing him, I'm surprised to find myself enjoying this stuff this much, and on this geeky a level. I mean, when I read today's issue and realized that the Spectre might be the Red Entity, I actually gasped out loud. And I couldn't care about the Spectre less! It's just that kind of comic. If you enjoy the world Johns has built from the pieces of Green Lantern he found lying around and started connecting, watching the increasingly elaborate edifice he's constructing here is a true treat.
And when you sit and read it all at once, it's not even incoherent--it's just like a constant stream of rad shit hitting your eyeballs, and provided you have the kind of brain equipped to file away genre arcana and recall it as necessary, it flows from one thing into the next with the clarity and purpose of a freight train. Artist Doug Mahnke is an indispensable part of why this works. Mahnke rapidly ascended into my half-dozen or so favorite contemporary superhero artists over the course of his past three major projects; his segue from Final Crisis/Superman Beyond to these key Blackest Night tie-ins is arguably the first smooth transition from one project to another that any of DC's event-comics artists have pulled off. (Seriously, Rags Morales, Phil Jimenez, J.G. Jones, and Carlos Pacheco all disappeared from DC after their star turns.) What makes him such a good fit here is both his proficiency with horror and monster-movie imagery (standout moments include Black Lantern Abin Sur using his ring to create a ravenous horde of giant floating disembodied black skulls, like he's Stardust the Super-Wizard or something, and the way he paced Parallax's fight with the Godzilla-sized Black Lantern Spectre to interrupt Orange Lantern Luthor's tussle with Orange Lantern Larfleeze with the fall of one mighty foot) and the way his thick line, emboldened by inker Christian Alamy, holds the bright colors that the material demands. The funny thing is that the "dudes zapping dudes in all different directions" fight un-choreography I always complain about when I see it in '90s X-Men books or contemporary Avengers titles is inherent to how these characters operate, but Mahnke's visual imagination and ability to harness those effects and make them feel consequential rather than full of sound and fury but signifying nothing gets them over as involving battles anyway. This storyline--especially when read divorced from the larger plot points of Blackest Night with which it intertwines--is one of the great gonzo thrills provided by genre comics right now.
* I wrote a list of The Top 15 Greatest Science Fiction-Based Pop/Rock Songs for Topless Robot. (Hip-hop too.) I'm very happy with how it came out, and the mix of artists and songs that are in there, though of course after I handed it in I thought of at least two more I'd have elbowed some out of the way to include. Oh well, there's always a second list. I have a blast doing this kind of writing for TR, I'ma tell you what. And as always, the comment thread is as much fun for me as the actual writing. You'd be surprised just how many variations on "Oh yeah? What about _____?!?!?" people can come up with. My favorite is the guy who called the list "EPIC FAIL" because of its lack of Uriah Heep.
* PS: Look at the tracklisting on the new Bowie live album! That's quite a career retrospective, and it's two discs for the price of one.
* Look, it's Ben Jones's Adult Swim show, and it's called Neon Knome! Scroll down to the Mon Feb 22 line to view a snippet, but on your way there, be sure to vote for Michael Kupperman's Snake 'n' Bacon in some sort of "winner gets on the air" contest Adult Swim's having for a bunch of pilots right now.
* Todd VanDerWerff on last night's Lost, a must-read as always. One thing he's very right about is that the show's best performers elevate their frequently generic--I mean that in the sense of genre, not in its usual pejorative way--characters. It's similar to how a great artist can transform a pretty good superhero comic into a "holy shit read this" sensation.
* Speaking of Lost, be sure to pop into the (much to my delight!) ever more active comment threads for my twoposts on last night's episode.
* Over at The Cool Kids Table, my pal Ben Morse does his monthly round-up of his favorite covers from the Previews solicits. Three things stand out: 1) There really are a lot of fine cover artists for the big companies these days; 2) Damn, who designed the Dazzler logo? That is killer; 3) Jeeeeesus--If you've followed Hellboy and B.P.R.D. at all, this cover for King of Fear #5 is absolutely terrifying.
* I supported these sick, sadistic monsters for years because I was too gullible, too proud, and too angry to see them for the sick, sadistic monsters they so obviously were. Shame, shame, shame.
* This video for Liars' menacing new song "Scissor" from their upcoming album Sisterworld--which I'm told is an album-length experiment in dread along the lines of Portishead's Third or the Knife's Silent Shout--reminds me at varying times of Clive Barker's "Scape Goats," Stephen King's "The Raft," and the opening of Lucio Fulci's Zombi 2. 'Nuff said. (Via Pitchfork.)
Down in the bustling comment thread for this week's episode, my brother Ryan carpet-bombed me with Lost knowledge bombs. Rather than respond to his lengthy comments downblog, I thought I'd pull them out and make a post of it. Ryan's thoughts are in italics, mine are in roman.
This episode was amazing. Ben's eulogy for Locke pretty much brought a tear to my eye. Also really enjoyed Sawyer calling out fake Locke even in a drunken stupor.
Two great, revealing character moments.
MIB's tossing of the white rock into the ocean and describing it as an "inside joke," was quite interesting as well. I guess you can draw a lot from that one action. The white rock could just symbolize Jacob in a literal sense. It could mean that with Jacob gone, the balance of power on the Island has swung back to fake Locke (and as we have been led to believe thus far, evil). Probably signifies both.
Right. The former idea is the "inside joke" aspect and the latter is the metaphorical aspect.
In reference to the creepy little boy, my best guess is that it is a young Jacob. I say this for a few reasons. First, I believe the first time MIB sees the little boy, the young boy has blood stained clothes. Jacob was stabbed to death brutally. The little kid had his hands out and, from my view, seemed to be bloodied. This is a lot like how Jacob looked when he was murdered.
Interesting. I need to check that out.
Secondly, in their next encounter, the little boy warns MIB (or fake Locke or Smokey or Esau) that he cannot kill Sawyer according to these darn "rules" that we always hear about. If this kid was Aaron or Claire (which I don't think at all) , how do those two characters no the rules that only seem to be privy to MIB and Jacob??? Whidmore and Ben also speak of rules obviously but who knows if they are referring to the same things as Jacob and MIB.
I hadn't thought of that line referring to Sawyer. Hmm! I thought of it as referring to Jacob, the implication of "you can't kill him" being "he's not really dead." But it seems to work for Sawyer as well, if as you say the MIB is not able to kill candidates.
Also, Claire is currently on the Island in the same time frame. She just shot the Others that were going to kill Jin. Why would she then show up as a little child in clothing that we have never seen her in? In addition, the leader of the "temple" Others has mentioned to Jack that Claire has been claimed much like Sayid. If that is the case, it seems logical that MIB is the person or entity doing the claiming, no? If Claire has been claimed since the time she disappeared and left Aaron, don't you feel that she is already under the influence of MIB? The real Locke was basically led to his ultimate demise while following the advice of Christian Sheppard. If dead people or dead bodies are claimed and used by MIB, I think it is reasonable to conclude that MIB somehow knew enough to orchestrate Locke's leaving the Island only to ultimately be killed by Ben and brought back to the Island so that "a candidate" (Locke and his image) could infiltrate Jacob's lair with Ben and persuade Ben to end Jacob's reign on the Island.
1) I wonder if MIB has his own equivalent of recruiting "candidates" like Jacob does. Obviously Ilyana speaks of the MIB Locke "recruiting" Sawyer, but what about before that? Is Widmore working for MIB the way Ben is working for Jacob? Or are the dead entities the way that the MIB protects his legacy?
2) That theory about needing a candidate to ice Jacob is pretty tight.
If Claire was claimed, did she physically die somehow on the Island after leaving Aaron? Maybe she actually died when the house was blown up and somehow came back to life only to carry Aaron so far and leave him to the other Oceanic crew we know so well and then went off with Smokey and Christian Sheppard.
I remember people saying something along these lines at the time.
I think that Sawyer could see the young boy (maybe Jacob) because he is a candidate.
If that's the case, then are we to infer that Jin couldn't see the Ghost Jacob who visited Hurley because it's Sun, not he, who is the "Kwon" candidate? Or is that a separate issue because that's a straight-up ghost and we've established that the dead only talk to Hurley? (Or have their thoughts read by Miles.)
Also, it seems like we can believe MIB when he says that Jacob wrote those names on the cave ceiling because of the flashbacks linking Jacob to the names on the cave walls.
However, I only remember ever seeing Jacob on the beach or in the foot statue monument. Why would Jacob be living in a very shady cave on the side of a cliff that can only be reached by braving the rope ladders of death? Could it be possible that the names were not written by Jacob at all but by MIB?
I thought the same thing when we first entered the cave--that this is where the MIB lived, and that's why, in the flashback where we first meet the real him and Jacob as they watch the Black Rock approach the Island, it's said that it's been a long time since they last saw each other. But I do feel like the show didn't give us any cues that MIB Locke was lying about the basics of his story, even if I'm sure some of the details or spin are lies.
Perhaps through his activities as the Smoke monster, he knows about all the candidates and is systematically "claiming" or destroying them? Just a thought, it could easily be that he was telling the truth but you never know.
I would guess his unspoken goal is to kill the rest of the candidates to ensure that Jacob's legacy would die with him. Why else recruit Sawyer? He needs someone to take down the other candidates since he himself is forbidden to or unable to.
Richard's frantic behavior is pretty funny. He does have the guts to stand up to fake Locke and tell him that he will not go anywhere with him though.
Ah, good point. I think we can take that as another sign of how scared Richard is by MIB Locke, though--this guy is so terrifying that Richard won't even pretend to play ball with him.
It's ironic that Ben Linus, the calculating leader of the others, could not tell that fake Locke was MIB and didn't even really believe Locke was dead until Richard shoved his face near Locke's lifeless corpse but Sawyer sniffed out fake Locke in about 1 minute of conversation.
Ha! Very true. I'd been saying that you can't con a con, but Ben's as much of a con artist as Sawyer. I suppose Ben's constant need to look out for Number One made him vulnerable to Fake Locke's blandishments, whereas Sawyer just don't give a fuck anymore and thus he sees through others' ruses. Well, at least until he agrees to team up with Fake Locke.
The alternate reality is quite intriguing. I almost think that the writers want us to believe that certain things were destined to happen to the characters no matter what but other things can be changed. Rose and Locke (both healed by the powers of the Island) cross paths again in the alternate reality and again share the bond of their significant physical problems. In Claire's alternate reality, she still seems destined to give birth and possibly raise Aaron as the adoption falls through the day she arrives in LA.
Helen mentioning that it could be destiny that Locke runs into Jack (a spinal surgeon) at the airport is eerily similar to Ben's appeal to Jack on the Island when he is trying to have the tumor removed from his spine. It is also interesting that Locke is about to get married in the alternate reality. Jack originally performed surgery on his future wife under the promise that she might be able to dance at her wedding. If Jack eventually does perform surgery on John in the alternate reality, maybe Locke will get to dance at his own wedding.
I'd noticed a lot of those resonances, but missed a lot of the others--the dancing at your wedding thing, Locke and Rose bonding through their illnesses, Jack being Locke's destiny the same way he was supposedly Ben's destiny.
Did you guys ever discuss how Ben was able to summon the smoke monster to fight off Whidmore's army of thugs? I still don't get that.
No we didn't, but I was thinking about that today too. If Ben and the Others are servants of Jacob (although they seem to have made a real hash out of his true wishes, if he is in fact the Good Guy many of us think he might be), how can they summon or command Jacob's enemy? Unless the Monster was simply playing along.
Perhaps Christian Sheppard, as he appeared on the Island, was never really the spirit or ghost of Christian Sheppard. Perhaps it was MIB the whole time. I'm kind of figuring that MIB can use the form of dead bodies on the Island. The prime example is when Yemi appears to Eko. I don't remember the tenor of the whole conversation but the main point of it was that Yemi (or MIB or Smokey perhaps) wanted Eko to atone for the live he had led up until that point. Eko wouldn't and was consequently brutalized by the Smoke monster.
Right. There was also a deleted scene that they used as a webisode that was a flashback to the moments after the crash but before Jack wakes up and sees Vincent--in this scene, Christian approaches Vincent and tells him to wake up his son because "He has work to do." Sounds like the Walt apparition that rallied Locke after Ben shot him and tossed him into the Dharma mass grave. And sounds like the MIB.
What makes it so hard to figure is that we've seen all different kinds of dead people. Ghosts appear to Hurley and talk to him conversationally. Entities like Christian, or Ben's mom back in the day, or Yemi, or Alex, seem far more enigmatic and more likely to be the Monster in human form. On top of that, Christian and Yemi's bodies both disappeared, suggesting the MIB needs the actual body to do his thing--but Ben's mom died in America, not on the Island, while Fake Locke strolled right past real Locke's corpse which was clearly not being puppeted around by him. And then you've got Walt appearing to Shannon and later to Locke. And then you've got this mystery boy this week. Tough to piece it all together!
At one point when fake Locke is talking to Richard and Richard refuses to go with fake Locke....MIB states, "Are you sure about that Richard because people seldom get a second chance?" That almost brings me back to Eko's encounter with Smokey.
It sure does. I always thought that was a great bit, even though Eko was only being written out of the show because the actor didn't like living in Hawaii. It takes guts for a show to take a beloved character and allow him to forgive himself for his sins, but then kill him for it.
Ilana later states in the Episode, I believe to Ben, that Smokey cannot change form anymore. My guess, is that now that Smokey has taken the image of a CANDIDATE, he can no longer change his image and use other bodies.
It's gotta be either that, or that he's stuck in whatever form he was in when Jacob was killed.
Smokey himself even says that he looks like John Locke so that he could gain access to Jacob. Hence, he had to take the form of a candidate.
Still think the lair where the names were written doesn't seem like a place that Jacob would inhabit or hang out.
I'm not so convinced, but it's certainly possible.
Smokey says also that he was once a man and had become trapped. So I think Smokey and Jacob have a long history together going back to when they were possibly even children. Therefore, seeing a young, bloodied ghost or image of Jacob would draw the reaction that Smokey had during the episode.
Sounds about right to me. Do you wonder at all if there were people in the Jacob and Smokey roles before Jacob and Smokey? How far back does it all go?
Incidentally, Ryan, if you like the business with Jacob and Smokey, you ought to read The Stand by Stephen King. There's stuff in there you'd get a kick out of.
* Dan DiDio and Jim Lee are the new Co-Publishers of DC Comics, and Geoff Johns is their new Chief Creative Officer. I wrote about this a bunch for Robot 6 today. Nose-tweaking over prognostications here. Highlights from the new management team's various statements here. Pondering whether the company will head to Los Angeles here. Rick Marshall gets Diane Nelson to say no decision has been made on that score here. My colleague Kevin Melrose has a good round-up and analysis post here. Heidi MacDonald tries to pin down the status of other high-ranking DC figures like Karen Berger, Bob Wayne, Gregory Noveck, and Richard Bruning here. Tom Spurgeon casts a skeptical eye on the all-in-the-family promotion strategy here. My colleagues Kiel Phegley and Jonah Weiland interview the team here. Note the in-no-uncertain-terms statement that their goal is to make DC the number-one comics publisher.
Journalist Joe Sacco's latest book is about two massacres of Palestinian civilians by Israeli soldiers in two Gaza Strip camps/towns during the Suez Crisis in 1956. I think there are several things you can point to in it and say "Joe Sacco does that very well."
The first is what you might refer to optimistically as scale or pessimistically as sprawl. There's a memorable three-page sequence in the early going tht compares what the Palestinian refugee camps looked like in the mid-'50s, the time of the events the book spends most of its time chronicling, to what they looked like in the mid-'00s, which was when Sacco did the chronicling. On the first splash page, rows of little brick houses with sloping roofs and walled-in yard-like compounds trail off into the distance; a little street crosses the page in the foreground while the rows stop short of the horizon, which is buffered by a strip of wildnerness and then another, barely visible town just at the limit of sight. On the second page, giant apartment buildings jut upward against tiny shacks whose metal roofs are pinned down by bricks, tires, and debris; the roofs and clotheslines and water towers and telephone wires begin right at the bottom of the two-page spread and keep going until the taller buildings literally blot out the vast majority of the horizon, and even chunks of the sky. The message seems clear: Things may have been pretty bad for the impoverished, angry people of Gaza back then; everything is worse now. This is driven home later in the book by a second spread that mimics the set-up of the one that established the look of the camps today: This one show a barbed-wire fence and the ruins of bulldozed homes as far as the eye can see. Sacco is fond of that temporal-juxtaposition device, never more brutally used than when we see a contemporary row of cars parked against a wall on the right-hand side of a spread where dozens of dead bodies had been shown to us against that same wall some fifty years before on the left-hand side. Sometimes Sacco uses his skill with scale not for a landscape or panorama, but for single structures: The IDF towers that oversee the town of Rafah or a nearby checkpoint on the road to Gaza City rear up to the sky like menacing robots, while bulldozed multi-story building where many people once lived dwarfs us with the absence of it that we project against the sky. Other times it's explosions and chaos that overwhelm us, swirls of stippled smoke and fire obliterating buildings and bodies alike.
The second thing Sacco does well is visual repetition. You see this in that initial page of the mid-century refugee camp and its little block houses, of course. But later, you see it with bodies. Men forced to run pell-mell through the streets of their camp by angry soldiers firing in the air, and sometimes not in the air at all. Often they are all made to strike the same pose, arms in the air to show they are unarmed; the unnatural positioning leads to a criss-cross effect as the men scramble around and past and behind and in front of one another. Sacco will shift to a bird's eye view here, make skillful use of alternating gray and white clothing there, freeze the men with their backs to us like they've been paused in the middle of a Michael Jackson video dance routine here, throw them into a morass of beatings by the Israeli soldiers like a nightmare version of that third, battle-heavy Where's Waldo? book there. Repetition leads to perhaps the book's single most striking visual: The men of the town of Rafah, rounded up en masse in a schoolyard, forced to sit on the ground with their hands on their heads for hours at a time. Sacco shows this vista from slightly above and in front, from a three-quarter angle, from behind; the men become a featureless mass of little ovals of fear and discomfort, bleeding and pissing on one another, slightly cracked eggs in a massive carton.
The third thing Sacco does well is conveying a sense of action, or intense activity if you distrust that word's genre connotations. Sacco's careening caption boxes alone can get across the sweep of a magnificent view, the interruptions of constant cellphone calls, the chaos of constant violence, the chatter of a party, the march of history, the swell of a crowd, and the dance moves of beautiful women all by themselves--and in the book's first seven pages, they do all that and more. Elsewhere he uses perspective tricks, like a swoop of flame that makes it look like a burning soldier has literally been propelled toward us. In the chaos of a sudden attack by an Israeli patrol he cross-cuts two different sentences like a giant X across an almost collage-effect collection of panels showing him and his companions as they flee in all directions; you have to read one of them backwards, manga-style. And it's all but impossible to forget the montage based on the two stick-swinging soldiers seared into the memory of every man in the town as they tee off on hundreds of terrified captives being herded through a narrow gate, or the jump-cut chaos of a black-bordered POV sequence that makes as bold a use of the cut-to-black as anything since a certain HBO TV show.
The fourth thing Sacco does well is portraiture. This book is just as much a Beard Parade (and Mustache Parade, and Grumpy Little Kid Parade, and Wrinkled Old Lady Parade) as R. Crumb's Book of Genesis Illustrated, and there's just as much care and attention put into differentiating each from the other. (The exception are the Israeli soldiers in the flashback sequences; they have a uniform build, the shadow of their pith helmets rendering them eyeless and inscrutable. Only the notably monstrous or humane gain individualization.) But even still there are standouts. Take Sacco's frequent interview subject and companion Khaled: A Palestinian guerrilla marked for death by the IDF and constantly moving from place to place, he nonetheless has a Cheshire Cat serenity in his heavy-lidded face. We frequently see him in repose, including one sequence where he lies immobile in bed, staring directly at the reader as he speaks of his utter exhaustion with his life on the run. The lines with which Sacco crafts his massive forehead, riven with wrinkles like the rungs of a ladder, and his jutting ears, and those preternaturally taciturn eyes, are all about the smoothest you'll see in the entire book; they make him look like a Dick Tracy villain.
The regional leaders Sacco shows us also have a comic-book or James-Bond heavy vibe to them. Nasser is almost always shown pensively stroking his chin or smoking a cigarette, constantly scheming and planning for the greater glory of the Arab World, by which he means Egypt, by which he means Nasser. Ben-Gurion, with his wild ring of white hair, and Dayan, with his can't-make-it-up Hollywood pirate eyepatch, point to maps and whisper in ears, goading like composite human versions of the angels and devils who appear on cartoon characters' shoulders. At one point, the Egyptian and Israeli leaders are shown in the exact same poses as their forces clash; the implication of this mirroring for the Palestinians used as pawns in their schemes to provoke one another into a ruinous war is perfectly clear.
Individual militants can look like bad guys, too. An aged fedayeen telling of his career of raids on Israel-held lands at the behest of the Egyptian military looks for all the world like the standard stereotypical supervillain image of the Ayatollah, while his evident horror at having been made to fight side by side with out-and-out murderers whose "talents" the cynical Egyptians wanted to make use of but then hopefully have put out of commission by Israeli bullets is reflected in the mad eyes and bestial unibrow of one such killer who stares right at the reader with psychotic intensity.
I'm making Sacco's portraiture seem un-subtle, I know. And in those cases, I suppose it is, to an extent anyway; his level of craft always elevates his Eisnerian-pantomime body language and facial expressions above caricature. But when he really sharpens the knife in this regard, when he puts together a sequence or assembles a moment that plays across a human face like a miniature film, that's when he's at his most dangerous and devastating. Right now I have the book open to a page where a three-panel tier at the top shows an old man, again staring straight at us, recalling how little time he had to bury his slain relatives in the first two panels, and then bam, in panel three, his eyes are closed and he's silently weeping. Below that we see the first-grader self of a woman who's old now, a look of utter confusion and dismay on her face as she watches the women of her neighborhood writhing on the ground and screaming in grief. Somehow even more frightening to me is a woman whose house is the last one standing on a block constantly being bulldozed by the Israelis as part of their policy of leveling any structure from which any kind of threat has emerged. (Sacco never says it outright, but it appears that saying that this justification is gilding the lily would be the understatement of the decade.) As the woman tells Sacco of her plight--how they'd leave their house since it's clear the Israelis want no one in this area, but they have no money to move anyplace else; how her daughter has started pissing on herself and just crawling around in terror when the 'dozers strike--she looks this way and that depending on where she's standing, but the expression of wide-eyed, slackjawed horror on her face never changes at all.
But there are a pair of sequences even stronger, to me, than those moments. They're stronger even than the rare times when Sacco makes his feelings on these subjects clear--his disgust at the grotesque, casually genocidal racism of an archival Israeli document about the displaced Palestinians; his disgust at the hypocrisy of Palestinian militants who decry the civilian casualties inflicted by Israeli soldiers even though their weapons allow for deadly precision, but disregard the fact that human explosives who enter a pizzeria or board a bus are the most precisely guided weapons of all; his digust at himself for forcing old, bereaved, desperately poor people to relive the worst day of their lives, then getting mad at them for digressing or getting their facts mixed up. These two strongest segments are sequences in which the immediately identifiable, loving connection of family to family and the unimaginable reality of violence are smashed together with astonishing power. The first is in a flashback from an old woman, picturing herself as the little girl she once was when soldiers entered her home and shot her father to death as she sat next to him. He slumps against the wall in a jacket and striped pajamas and traditional headgear, his head pointing sightlessly downward as if staring at the dark mass of blood staining his stomach; next to him the chubby, curly-haired, barefoot little girl, looking like one of those Campbell's soup cherubs, looks up at her dead father, her tiny face seeming to crumple into a black hole of utter sadness. The second is another reminiscence by an old woman, recalling how she found her husband in the chaos after the book's central round-up took place. Two panels show him fleeing for his very life, panicked and paranoid, mouth agape, eyes darting to and fro, a look of raw animal terror on his face--until in the third panel his wife literally catches him as he runs, looking up at him plaintively as he turns toward her mid-stride, the fact that he's been grabbed by the woman he loves and not by...someone else clearly still not having registered. In that moment I tried to imagine what it would be like for my wife to see that look on my face, the look of all other thought and emotion and sentience out of my eyes, the look of a lifeform's basic, primordial desire just to survive the next moment.
The fifth thing Sacco does well is convince you--or me at least--that there are no good guys in this world, only bad guys and victims, and that you're lucky beyond imagining that you've never been forced you to find out which of the two you really are.
Jonathan Maberry, writer
Scot Eaton, artist
Marvel, February 2010
34 story pages
This isn't a review so much as a couple paragraphs about how rad I think Doctor Doom is:
Doctor Doom should be King Shit of Marvel's Turd Mountain. Seriously, he should be the one bad guy that makes even all the other bad guys go, "Whoa." He rules his own country, he rivals Doctor Strange on sorcery and Mister Fantastic on science (and ranks with both of 'em on the awesome-name score), he's up there with Iron Man on the super-armor scale, he's got a great look, and he's like crazy arrogant and angry all the time. He's the ur-villain. What I've liked about his recent cameos in books like Captain America: Reborn and Siege: The Cabal is that the other big-deal villains like the Red Skull and Norman Osborn seem to realize all this but still attempt to use Doom for their own ends, because his skills make him too useful and their own megalomania blinds them to the downside of crossing him. That's about right.
However, it always feels to me like he's overused in terms of his interactions with heroes. I don't mind him constantly in sotto voce contact with the other big schemers, that seems like something Marvel's megalomaniacal mastermind-type villains would always be doing. But when he jumps ugly with the good guys, that to me is the kind of thing you save for an every-few-years jolt, not a constant string of tussles. He's just too formidable a threat to frequently use without devaluing the brand. Every appearance should be for the ages, and his every interaction with a hero or team should alter their status quo for the long term. (I actually think that's true of every A-list villain, but I understand the difficulties involved; Doom seems like the kind of character you ought to try really hard to do right regardless.)
Is Doomwar the kind of Doom-based throwdown I'm looking for? It's too soon to say. Doom himself is just a puppetmaster in this early installment, though his master plan as it's been described to us by Black Panther siblings T'Challa and Shuri, whom he has dethroned, is suitably pseudoscientifically apocalyptic. Seizing 10,000 tons of Vibranium from Wakanda and using it to unlock god knows what mystical mumbo-jumbo is the kind of thing you'd figure Doom would spend his afternoons planning. Being an ice-cold murderer in support of it, shooting a civilian every few minutes until Storm, the current Queen of Wakanda, acquiesces to his demands--yeah, that's also something Doom would do in my book. What does he care? He's a tyrant, let him be tyrannical. I understand that that's the sort of thing lots of people will just read as "icky," but villains have been killing people in genre material young people have read for decade upon decade. Saruman's goons wased a bunch of hobbits for pete's sake. I'll live.
What's interesting about Doomwar is that I didn't expect it to be so...Brubakerian, I guess is the word for it. It's "superheroes as black ops" in the Mighty Marvel Manner. Scot Eaton is drawing in that scratchy Marvel house style of the past several years; it's much more of a piece with Steve Epting and Mike Perkins and Butch Guice than with the jazzy John Romita Jr. covers the book sports, although he shares with JRJR a real knack for drawing bruisers. Colossus, T'Challa, and Doom all look like dudes you wouldn't want to mess with at all. Meanwhile, the concept could have come straight from one of Ed Brubaker's Captain America storylines, too, and insofar as it's about a sinister group that uses an appeal to patriotism to wrest control of a democracy over to a sinister outside force--the plot of Brubaker's "The Man Who Bought America" arc, with Wakanda instead of America and Doom instead of the Red Skull--that's basically what it did. It even shares with Brubaker Cap a knack for resonating with current events without referencing them outright: I can't be the only person who thought of Uganda's anti-homosexuality legislation when reading the coup leader's diatribe against mutants and witchcraft and suchlike. In turn, the Black Panthers are presented less as superheroes than as exiled leaders plotting the violent overthrow of the regime that violently overthrew them first. Cyclops and Emma Frost quietly funneling various X-Men to them in hopes of freeing Storm reads like a mutantified version of Charlie Wilson's War.
I suppose this could all come across as rather dreary and by-the-numbers. And it might be, if not for a few factors. One is the presence of Doom, so far latent rather than actualized, and my lingering hope that he'll do something totally awesome. Two is Eaton's literally muscular art--I find I just like looking at it a lot. Three, and most promisingly, is an out-of-left-field ending that short-circuited my every expectation of what the primary business of this series was going to be for the rest of its issues. The way it goes down actually gives me more faith in the future fortunes of the aforementioned Factors One and Two, in fact. Fingers crossed.
* Want to reignite interest in your bloated, overlong, shit-the-bed-in-the-third-movie Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy in two easy steps? Cast Ian McShane as Blackbeard and break open the fuckin' canned peaches.
* Though she is a supporter of motion-capture performances like that of Andy Serkis as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, Kristin Thompson writes a compelling essay about why they nevertheless shouldn't qualify for the traditional acting Oscar categories. This is a mitzvah, as the argument really should be hashed out by people with an appreciation both for the technology and the reasons why it's different than traditional acting, and not as some Internet-style "LUDDITES VS. THE FUTURE" flamewar. One thing though: Zoe Saldana was getting Oscar buzz for her performances as Love Interest in Avatar? I thought that character and everything she brought to it was just as rote as everything else in the movie.
* I haven't read George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, though it's very very high up on my list of "next big prose series I'm reading." (Right now in my head I'm going through a long digression about how there's only so much time in the day and how much my Comics Time reading and reviewing prevents me from reading long serialized works of both comics and prose, and moreover how I've had the first two discs of Mad Men Season One in my backpack for like four months, and how I'm only up to World 5 of New Super Mario Bros. Wii, and god only knows how long it's gonna take me to get through all of Naoki Urasawa's Monster now that I have all 18 volumes finally, and hey what about the long-promised revision of my anti-Jaime Hernandez Love & Rockets thing that would require me to read all those digests, and for Chrissakes I'm not even up to First Bull Run in the John Keegan American Civil War book, and on and on and on. But you can take it as read.) But it seems to me that an HBO grown-up fantasy series could be to die for, and casting Sean Bean in the lead seems like a great way to start. The whole rest of the cast can be seen at that link, too. Maybe readers can chime in as to who's good and who sucks in the comments.
* Marc-Oliver Frisch sings the praises of Soldier X. My great hope is that all this Internet attention will spur someone at Marvel into saying, "Ah, what the hell, let's collect the damn thing." Help us, David Gabriel--you're our only hope! Anyway, here's a nice bit from Marc-Oliver's review:
This is the point where Soldier X reveals its kinship with Steve Gerber and Mary Skrenes' Omega the Unknown, but also with Grant Morrison's Final Crisis. Like those works, Soldier X treats superheroes as a metaphor for the literal limitlessness of the human imagination--easily the single most compelling aspect of the genre, as well as, unfortunately, the single most overlooked one.
* A shadowy cabal of my chums from one of my ex-employers has started up a sketch blog called We Are The LAW, where we're taking turns drawing characters we like. We've actually kicked things off with two characters of our own devising: Justin Aclin's Geist from Hero House, and mine own Destructor from my comics with Matt Wiegle. I want to emphasize that only a handful of us can actually, you know, draw, but hey, what the hell. Below is Geist by me, Destructor by Ben Morse, and Destructor and friends by T.J. Dietsch. Click the links for the full-sized versions.
* Elsewhere, Rickey Purdin draws the Black Flame from B.P.R.D. The sequence where he walks into the Zinco boardroom in full Nazi supervillain regalia with his head on fire and announces "You're all fired" is one of the all-time great comic book moments I've ever read. Full stop.
PS: I wonder if Zinco and Cinco have any connection?
* Alright, another very good episode, intriguing in both timelines, lots of juicy mythology, fun performances, action, hieroglyphics, dead people, the whole nine. So far the only false note for me this season has been the Great Kate Escape episode. Three out of four ain't bad.
* During one of the initial segments of Jack's flashsideways, he seemed as taken aback by his appendectomy scar as he seemed to be on the plane by the cut on his neck and just the general way he looked in the mirror. They made a nice big deal of this this time, complete with a call to Mom asking when he had the operation, so methinks there's something fishy going on with this whole alternate timeline, that it's not as simple as "what would have happened if the Island had been nuked in the '70s."
* And I'm glad of that, because it's only now occurring to me why some part of me never quite believed that was where they were headed in the first place: I never consciously made this connection, but the idea that we're seeing what life would be like if something bad had never happened to them and they lived happy lives instead is straight-up The Last Temptation of Christ and/or "For the Man Who Has Everything." Obviously the Lost writers aren't above riffing on or referencing other big genre works--The Dark Tower, The Stand, Watchmen, we can all rattle off another half-dozen major touchstones easy. But never do they simply lift storylines wholesale. This ain't Heroes, and Jeph Loeb hasn't worked on the show since Season One. So while I had speculated that maybe this would all lead to Jack or Sawyer or whoever seeing how much better their life would be without the Island but somehow sacrificing it all for the greater good, I don't think that's where we're headed anymore, at least not in the "Christ still chooses to die on the cross/Superman decides to rip off the psychic plant and kick Mongul's ass" way I was kicking around.
* So, in each flashsideways, our protagonist character will bump into an Other? Kate and Claire met Ethan, Locke met Ben, and Jack met Dogen. Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, three times is a pattern. Or to use Ian Fleming's formulation, three times is enemy action. Dun dun DUNNNNNN! Anyway, I like this because it means we'll probably see big Tom again. Speaking of which, did you notice the last name "Friendly" on Jacob's lighthouse wheel? He really was "Mr. Friendly"! Oh, Lindelof & Cuse, you kidders.
* We've learned, if it wasn't clear already, that the Man in Black is an out-and-out liar. Obviously he was pretending to be Jack's dad. Obviously as such he only pretended to be speaking on behalf of Jacob. Claire tells us "her dad" told her that the Others stole her baby, which isn't true. Thus one can assume he was seriously fudging the truth for Sawyer too. My brother Ryan pointed out that a cave hollowed out of a sheer cliff wall over the ocean seemed like an odd place for Jacob to hang out, making him skeptical that that was ever Jacob's place to begin with. The moment I saw those 360 names written out in an orderly fashion next to each degree on the wheel, I thought, "Well, I guess there was probably no need for Jacob to have scrawled them all over the roof of a cave someplace else on the Island." Particularly if the wheel is a magic portal into all their lives, right?
* Who's the momma? Juliet?
* I loved all the callbacks to Season One. Shannon's asthma inhaler, the caves, going on a jungle quest, Jack recalling his vision of his dad...Thinking back, it really did seem like that was just a vision, for a long long time after that episode aired. Maybe an Island-inspired vision, but a vision nonetheless. I wonder how long it took for the writers to decide "You know what? That really was his dad!" Then again, the body was missing from the coffin all along, so who knows.
* I would say that Hurley's speculation that the skeletons in the cave are two of their own, as a result of time travel, shoots down the possibility that that's actually the case. But remember back in the day when they got "Moonlight Serenade" by Glenn Miller to play on the radio and Hurley said it could be coming from anywhere "or any time?" He added a quick "just kidding," and at the time I thought that was the creators' signal to us that we didn't need to bother with spacetime continuum theorizing. Whoops!
* Jacob's a manipulator too. Important to remember. What I really want to know is whether the Others' rather barbaric conduct over the seasons are a result of a more-or-less faithful interpretation of his orders, or if things are way off base due to either a communication breakdown or deliberate malfeasance by Ben or Richard or Widmore or Dogen or whoever the relevant person is.
* With Jacob looking on approvingly, newly minted leadership-position Hurley opts to be cryptic and not answer Dogen's question. So THAT'S how they learn it!
* The animal-corpse baby in Claire's basinet was the most disturbing thing the show has served up in a long time. Like, it made me really uncomfortable for the brief few seconds we saw it. That is Texas Chain Saw Massacre shit right there. I've said this before, but as we've learned more about the Others, the Dharma Initiative, the Monster, and so on, a lot of the sense of fear and horror that these things presented in the earlier seasons, when the show was often one of the scariest on television, gradually dissipated. It's nice to see them try to inject it back in.
* And hey, an axe murder! Alright.
* I don't know if this was something they thought of, but of all the characters they could have left to the tender mercies of crazy Claire and evil Locke, Jin was an excellent choice because he spent years trying to stay one step ahead of the wishes of a vicious gangster. I believe that he's someone capable of thinking on his feet and staying alive around the homicidally violent, longer probably than any other character except maybe inveterate conmen like Sawyer or Ben.
* Here's the thing, though: Fake Locke knows that Jin knows that they're both lying about who has Claire's baby. Sawyer, who's with Fake Locke, will know it too. How's all that gonna work?
* Back to the Lighthouse for a second: I thought this was a fine scene, because it delivered something we haven't seen...mmmmmmaybe since Locke refused to press the button at the end of Season Two? Which was someone getting so fed up with the way the Island's phenomena have used and abused him that he snaps. There was an interesting new dynamic in play here as well: In the Hatch, Locke really had no evidence about whether what he was doing was extraordinary or bull, he just didn't buy it anymore. Jack, on the other hand, just got a glimpse of his childhood house, and someplace in Japan, and maybe Oxford or something, in the mirrors of a magic lighthouse to which he'd been led by someone who got his directions from a dead man only he could see or talk to. Jack knows damn well that something really astonishing is happening on the Island, in reference to him specifically--and it's precisely that knowledge that's driving him crazy, not the lack of knowledge that so tormented Locke. Jack smashing the mirror (did he hear or fear or...?) was six seasons of not knowing what the hell is going on exploding into action. Good stuff. (I sort of wish the smashing hadn't been spoiled by the stupid network's next episode teaser last week, but oh well. It was at least nice of them to try to avoid making that mistake again this week.)
* I loved seeing all the hieroglyphics on the temple hallway wall, just 'cuz you know they threw that in there so that the Lostpedia folks would translate it. And translate the Japanese dialogue, and freezeframe every glimpse of the wheel, and so on and so forth.
* Who's coming to the Island? I'm pulling for Walt. I can barely fathom how satisfying that would be.
* Amy Sedaris and George Takei are among the voice actors in the amazing pilot for Neon Knome, Paper Rad/Cold Heat impresario Ben Jones's Adult Swim series-in-waiting. But it will never end up on the air for you to abuse Ambien to unless you vote for it in this contest. Team Comics already pissed away a decade's worth of increased clout by failing to get Michael Kupperman's Snake 'n' Bacon over; let's not let this happen again.
* More Destructor fan art over at We Are The LAW, this time from the great Chris Ward. Look for a tease of a future Destructor storyline in the comments!
* Looks like Zak Smith/Sabbath's Playing D&D with Porn Stars is going to be regular reading for me: Dig this entry on a creation of his called the Vomiter, which is basically a postapocalypitcally infected human who pukes a creature selected from the monster section of the guidebook with a roll of the dice out of an internal dimensional vortex. Damn.
* ADDTF fave Ross Campbell is doing a new superhero book from SLG called Shadoweyes, but because it's a Ross Campbell comic, it starts with two gothy girls lying around on a bed and eating vegan food, so that's good news. My chums at Robot 6 have an interview about it and a preview of it.
Batman & Robin #9
Grant Morrison, writer
Cameron Stewart, artist
DC, February 2010
24 story pages
I've been a bit of a broken record on this score lately, but here is another comic I want to physically force the writers and artists of other action-dependent superhero comics to read, eyeballs propped open A Clockwork Orange-style. Consider if you will the care and attention paid to the page on which Batman and Batwoman pound the stuffing out of Zombie Batman. (Okay, first consider that this comic contains a page on which Batman and Batwoman pound the stuffing out of Zombie Batman. Then move on.) Look at the way the fight choreography flows from one panel to the next. It's not just a series of random cutaways: The pivot you see Batwoman executing in the background as Batman punches Zombie Batman in the jaw of one panel leads into the kick you see her deliver in the foreground as Batman cocks his other fist in the next panel, which leads into the left hook you see him land in the panel after that. Or return to earlier in the issue, where a still-wounded Robin and out-of-his-league Alfred battle the Zombie Batman using the objects (a wireless computer mouse, a wheelchair) and environments (an elevator) available to them, each beat portrayed with crystal-clear visual logic and visceral impact. I could seriously reread that sequence where Zombie Batman gets choked with his own cape as Alfred snags it into the elevator and hits the Up button, until Zombie Batman cuts himself loose with a batarang, over and over again. God how it cleanses the palate of the umpteenth two-page melee spread.
What's still more delightful about this issue is that Stewart brings these same chops to pretty much everything he draws. Look at the knowing Mona Lisa smile on Batwoman's face as she tells the romantically interested Dick Grayson not to get his hopes up, sharing an inside joke with those of us beyond the fourth wall. Look at how Batwoman's father looks like he wandered in from another comic as he pops up in street clothes among a gaggle of costumed crimefighters, emphasizing what a gonzo concept it is to have your dad be your sidekick more clearly than anything I've seen in Batwoman's solo adventures to date. Look at Zombie Batman himself, as much a gift to the toy folks as the Batman of Zur-En-Arrh was and the Batmen of the Timestream are about to be. And I could definitely stand to see the double-punch panel become as much of a trademark element of Batman and friends as using "Bat" as a prefix.
Oh yeah Grant Morrison's involved too. What I liked best about his work here is usually what I like least about Batman comics: His army of increasingly interchangeable crimefighting tagalongs. The real Batman isn't even in the comic anymore, of course, so this book features no fewer than nine such characters, if you count Zombie Batman; four of them are direct riffs on Batman himself. But from Papa Batwoman's military jargon (via a pretty effortless and kind of funny Greg Rucka impression on Morrison's part) to Knight and Squire's jocular "keep calm and carry on" comportment to Dick and Batwoman's born-of-necessity ability to think and act on their feet and in tandem, each one seems not just like a different person, but a whole person, not just a one-dimensional reflection of some aspect of the real Batman that the writer wants to have walk around on its own for a while as these things frequently are.
I hate when people set themselves up against some largely imagined consensus, but I am going to go ahead and say that I do miss the sense of mounting mystery and menace of the Morrison material that culminated R.I.P, which I'm guessing is a minority position among the sorts of folks whose blogs you're likely to read if you read this one. But Batman & Robin, and this issue perhaps more than all the others so far save #3, is a fine, fun superhero comic, set in the milieu of the only superhero I really love in and of himself. Who couldn't use one of these now and then?
* Plenty of fun Lost links today (and don't worry, I'm gonna be keeping the Carnival spoiler-free unless otherwise noted). First up, Todd VanDerWerff's weekly follow-up post, which includes more interesting discussion of Jack--who's one of my favorite characters on the show, let me just come right out and say it--and in which VanDerWerff shares my enthusiasm regarding a potential identity for a potential someone.
* Next, Noel Murray's review/recap for the Onion AV Club struck me as particularly sharp and observant this week, regarding everything from a weakness of some of the dialogue in this episode to the throwback elements it included to a way in which the final seasons will increase our investment in the first to parallels between this episode and the corresponding installment of Season One to making fun of Doc Jensen.
* Finally, good golly, look at this "visual timeline" Olivier Lacan is building for Lost! Right now it's very much a work in progress--there are more gaps than there is timeline at this point. And it's not very well written. But it's a great idea, executed with gorgeous screencaps, and it's as good a reminder of the show's sweep, scope, and mystery as anything I've seen. Soak it in. (Via Whitney Matheson.
* Super Mario Galaxy 2!!!!!
As I watched that trailer I literally became frightened of how much time I will be spending playing this game. As Rob Bricken at Topless Robot points out, it's very very similar to the first game, but man, if it ain't broke.
* Gene Simmons is one of the worst people in the entire history of recorded music, without exaggeration. Just a loathsome creep in almost every conceivable way. Turns out the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, as his son Nick Simmons flagrantly plagiarized Tite Kubo's Bleach for his comic Incarnate--a plan that would seem to require no one reading his comic for it to succeed--and then issued denials that manage to be simultaneously insulting to manga, threatening to his detractors, and transparently bullshit to all. My favorite report on all this today is Rob Bricken's at Topless Robot, which does not hold back.
Naoki Urasawa's Monster Vols. 1-3
Naoki Urasawa, writer/artist
208-224 pages each
$9.99 each Buy it from Amazon.com
[First, a programming note. Because I read so many comics and write so many reviews, I end up reading and reviewing mostly self-contained works rather than long runs. The problem is I've been at this for long enough that a majority of the books on my "unread" shelves (plural) are part of big ol' multi-volume series. Which is exciting! I love plunging into a world for as long as it'll have me, that's one of the great pleasures art can provide. But it presents a conundrum for a critic who posts three reviews a week, because on the one hand I'm accustomed to reviewing a complete work, so a big part of me would prefer to complete a series before reviewing it. Moreover, I don't wanna bury the site in piecemeal reviews of a couple-three volumes at a time, just so no one, me or you, gets bored. On the other hand, I really like holding myself to this schedule, it's fun and it's been good for me as a writer and just as a reader too. And there's probably something to be said for posting more than one review for a given series, tackling earlier and later material from it separately, seeing how both the material and my take on it change over the duration of its run. So for now that's the direction I'm headed with this particular series, though in the future I may go ahead and stop posting reviews until I get a whole run read. Who knows? Life is a mystery. And so is...]
Naoki Urasawa's Monster, the series that as best I can tell broke him in America, is a strange beast. You've got four distinct, and perhaps competitive, forces at play in these early volumes. Number one is the elevator-pitch concept: Brilliant doctor risks his career to save the life of an orphan, only for the orphan to grow up into a serial killer. Number two is the way that high concept broadens and complicates into a globetrotting (well, Germany-trotting, so far) political-thriller pageturner/potboiler. Number three is the frothy pulpy soapy melodrama of it all, with characters yelling about the sanctity of human life and children in peril and a villain who is repeatedly labeled "pure evil" Michael Meyers-style and geniuses in their fields who throw it all away for the sake of the job and on and on. Number four, maybe the most interesting force at work, is this undercurrent of meaty and specific social issues that weave in and out of the genre business: German reunification and its discontents, being an Asian immigrant in Europe, medical ethics and hospital politics, child abuse (depicted in a shockingly frank fashion at times).
And as I've pointed out in the past, Urasawa's art plays it all totally straight. It's just pure craft, existing for the sole purpose of getting the story across and over. The people look cartoony, yes--they remind me of Disney house-style people, not in terms of their specific look but in the way they function as vehicles for immediately intelligible ideas and emotions. The clarity they comprise is so...overpowering, I guess is the word, so able to lodge in your brain, that this morning as I was thinking over Footnotes in Gaza again, the people of Rafah appeared to me in Urasawa style, not Joe Sacco style. My point, though, is that apart from their cartooniness and penchant for yelling, which could point toward the pulp melodrama as the dominant thread for the series, the character designs and the art in general really don't tip their hand as to what you "should" be making of all this. Is it "just" addictive thriller storytelling? Are we meant to take the various waxings philosophical seriously, is the thriller stuff and the in-your-face villainy and the way we've met four or five people so good at their jobs that it's broken up their marriages intended as a palatable container for it? Or is it vice versa? This is what American serialized genre-entertainment fans might call the Lost question (a comparison I've made with Urasawa's stuff before). Frankly, I think that in Monster's case the pulpy stuff wins the day hands down--the issue-y stuff is reeeeeeeally broad. But I suppose the point here, in the end, is that if you can read the first volume and not want to read the next 17, you are made of sterner stuff than I.
Everyone's wondering who Jacob wanted Hurley and Jack to summon with the lighthouse. Who's #108? The name, according to Lostpedia, is Wallace--a name we've never seen before. Lots of people are guessing Desmond, but my guess is Walt. Mostly I just think that would be awesome. It's also one of very few ways left for them to justify how important Walt was in the first two seasons. And on a purely logistical level, Walt's been raised by four different people, so it should be easy enough for him to have a surname we haven't heard yet.
But most importantly, it would also be the ultimate callback to that momentous, the-key-to-everything backgammon conversation Locke had with Walt in Season One: "Two players. Two sides. One is light. One is dark." A final confrontation between Fake Locke and heretofore inexplicably psychically enhanced Walt would bring everything full circle.