Friday, December 27, 2013

1987 and all that 020: x-mental

by Matt Derman

...reading comics from the year i was born!

Uncanny X-Men #213-224 (Marvel)
by Chris Claremont, Alan Davis, Barry Windsor-Smith, Jackson Guice, Marc Silvestri, Bob Wiacek, Dan Green, Glynis Oliver, Tom Orzechowski, et al.

Something that comes up a lot in X-Men comics is the idea of a mutant community, whether or not it exists and, if so, what it’s like or should be like. In these issues from 1987 though, Chris Claremont is less interested in that idea of group identity as he is in exploring what happens when a single person’s identity is threatened, stolen, or lost. The team’s shared objectives and attitudes are relatively stable. The X-Men get attacked directly a lot in this period, and constantly being on the defensive makes it easier to work together toward a common goal: survival. Yet while as a unit they’re fairly reliable, several individual members of the team have some sort of identity crisis during this run, from emotional and mental breakdowns to having their minds controlled to the even worse fate of poor Madelyne Pryor (see below). It’s not a theme that is openly discussed or always present, but there are pretty regular reminders in these comics that one’s sense of self is a fragile thing, and that the results of damaging or removing it can be severe for the person affected and everyone around them.

Though other, smaller problems pop up along the way, the X-Men’s primary opponents in these issues are the Marauders, a gang of evil mutants secretly working for Mr. Sinister. They go after not only the current X-Men, but their friends and former members as well, and the Marauders don’t limit themselves to strictly physical assaults. Their leader, Malice, is a bodiless psychic force that invisibly enters other people and takes control of them. At first, she uses this power to make several of the X-Men fight one another, but eventually Psylocke’s own psychic abilities combined with Storm’s willpower are able to temporarily defeat Malice. So instead of just body-jumping anymore, Malice sets up camp permanently in Polaris, who’s not even an active X-Man when this all goes down. But she’s still their friend, so having her become a foe but knowing she isn't in control of her own actions presents an especially difficult challenge for the heroes. Most of all Polaris’ boyfriend Havok, who pretty much falls to pieces when he sees that the woman he loves has been mentally hijacked by his enemies. Torn between his powerful affection for Polaris and his just-as-strong fury toward Malice, Havok breaks down.

Malice also does a number on Dazzler, the first person she inhabits and controls. Like Polaris, Dazzler isn't’t technically one of the X-Men at the time, trying instead to make a go at a music career. That dream is quickly cut short by Malice, even after she’s been driven out of Dazzler’s body, because the whole affair forces Dazzler to rejoin the X-Men rather than staying out on her own as an unguarded target for future Marauder attacks. So Dazzler becomes a superhero again, even though it’s not the life she’d choose for herself, and though she does it well and with great determination, it takes it's toll on her. She’s on edge, constantly second-guessing herself and losing her temper at the drop of her hat, acting rashly and arrogantly for no reason. The lifestyle thrust upon her is not one that is necessarily a good fit for her or that she enjoys. There’s some satisfaction to be gotten from doing good, but it’s not nearly the same as what she gets from singing and performing and doing all the other things she truly loves. Yet fighting alongside the X-Men is better than dying alone, so she sticks it out despite her unhappiness and emotional instability.

Both Havok and Dazzler see the lives they were trying to build suddenly and unexpectedly demolished, one personal and the other professional. They have to start from zero, trying to find meaning in the incessant violence and fear of life with the X-Men. Along similar but even more dramatic lines, Madelyne Pryor, not even a mutant but married to one, is put through absolute hell by the Marauders, only to end up, like Dazzler, with no options except to stay with the X-Men indefinitely for her own protection. After putting her in the hospital and stealing her baby, the Marauders go further and erase every trace of Madelyne’s life, making it so that, according to any and all available records, she never existed. With no way to prove who she is, and no real leads as to the whereabouts of her stolen child or her M.I.A. husband Cyclops, Madelyne’s situation is dire to say the least. She knows who she is, and so do the X-Men, but the rest of the world refuses to acknowledge it, making her a strange sort of non-entity. Powerless to change what has happened to her or to do anything that would significantly improve her future, Madelyne’s stuck, still alive but without a life. It’s torturous and hopeless and huge, driving her, quite understandably, to the point of nearly committing suicide.

Even Wolverine, the super-experienced, cool-as-a-cucumber veteran of the team, loses himself for a time. While investigating the scene of one of the Marauders’ many crimes, he picks up Jean Grey’s scent, the woman he loved unrequitedly for years before she died (it’s really Madelyne he smells, because she’s a clone of Jean, but nobody is aware of that yet). With all his painful memories of Jean flooding back to him all at once and out of nowhere, Wolverine is overwhelmed and freaks out completely, becoming the most animalistic version of himself, a being of pure instinct. It doesn't last for more than a few days before he snaps out of it, but Wolverine is the only X-Man to have this kind of breakdown due to his own senses betraying him, as opposed to the machinations of the story’s villains. Yes, the Maraduers are indirectly involved, since it is in searching for them that Wolverine goes nuts, but they don’t do it to him on purpose. It is his own already fragile and fractured psyche that shatters his self-control.

Not everyone in this book has their identity upturned like this. Both Longshot and Psylocke manage to avoid the kinds of personal crises their teammates have to deal with, for very different but equally logical reasons. Longshot is by nature a bit unpredictable, the token wildcard of the team. This is not to say he doesn't have a personality, but as an outsider in our world, he has a naiveté and curiosity that leave him on slightly less sure footing than the rest of the cast to begin with. Add to that his own ignorance of the exact workings of his luck-based superpowers and corresponding lack of control over them, and it becomes clear why messing with Longshot’s sense of self would be trickier and maybe less interesting than it is with everyone else. He’s already trying to figure out who he is and his place in this world, so there’s no need to introduce those dilemmas again.

As for Psylocke, she keeps her wits about her by virtue of being the X-Men’s resident telepath. She is their most useful defense against Malice, their communication system, and the most stable mind among them. It’s hard to be effective with psychic superpowers if you don’t have a good connection with your own mind, and Psylocke is nothing if not effective. The first issue of this run, 'Uncanny X-Men' #213, is all about Psylocke proving her worth by facing Sabretooth one-on-one and living to tell the tale. After that, she’s firmly cemented as the team’s sturdiest pillar, and it’s a role that suits her. She’s considerate, intelligent, self-reliant, and able to tap into the thoughts and insecurities of all her allies and, if needed, soothe them or bring them back down to Earth. With the other X-Men losing their grips to one degree or another, it’s important that the team have a rock, and Psylocke’s the perfect person to fill that slot.

The only X-Man I haven’t addressed—other than the handful of members who are comatose for all of these issues thanks to severe beatings from the Marauders—is Rogue. She also manages to avoid any serious loss of ego or sanity, but Rogue’s whole power set is based on her draining the abilities and personalities of others and absorbing them into herself. She’s a walking identity crisis even when she has her act together, because she’s always got the powers and psyche she permanently took from Ms. Marvel rattling around in her head in addition to her own. That’s never exacerbated by the events of this run, but it’s not assuaged at all either, so she fits in with the theme of the fragility of identity through the very concept of her character.

There are several sprawling, near-fatal fights between the X-Men and the Marauders, all of them scripted, choreographed, and drawn quite nicely. Both sides take some heavy beatings and have a few close calls over the course of the long-running conflict. But the more significant threat to the titular heroes is the vulnerability of their personal identities, the fine line between sanity and madness, confidence and doubt, of which the Marauders are smart and sadistic enough to take advantage. It’s not the high-powered, theatrical superheroics that hold the most danger and intrigue in these comics. It is the resulting melodramas the characters are put through where the real excitement is found, impactful depictions of people who have lost track of themselves but have to move forward with their lives anyway.

Friday, December 13, 2013

1987 and all that 019: x-mettle

...reading comics from the year i was born!

Uncanny X-Men #213-224 (Marvel)
by Chris Claremont, Alan Davis, Barry Windsor-Smith, Jackson Guice, Marc Silvestri, Bob Wiacek, Dan Green, Glynis Oliver, Tom Orzechowski, et al.

Earlier this year, the X-Men celebrated their 50th anniversary, so now seemed an appropriate time to go back and revisit the 1987 issues of 'Uncanny X-Men' for this column. This post will actually be the first of two devoted to the title, since it’s a fairly dense book with a lot going on, thanks in large part to Chris Claremont still being the writer at that time. His style may not be to everyone’s taste, but you can’t deny that the man is a great storytelling multitasker, able to have numerous threads of every length and thickness running through his comics simultaneously without bogging things down. That’s as true as ever in his X-Men stories from ’87, because for all their complicated concurrent plots, these comics do a damn fine job of keeping the two most significant narratives on track and weighted evenly. Next time, I’ll look at the more action-packed of these two storylines: the team’s ongoing struggle against the Marauders. Right now, though, I want to talk about the more intimate, engaging, and unusual plotline of a depowered Storm proving to herself and the reader what a noble and bad-ass hero she is, even without being “super.”

When this particular run of issues begins, Storm has already been robbed of her mutant abilities. She’s used to being non-powered by now, though not necessarily at peace with it. She’s still an X-Man through and through, and is in fact the team’s leader at this point, she has to deal with superhero dramas all the time despite not technically being a superhero herself anymore. It’s a lifestyle she chooses to keep up instead of having it thrust upon her like most other mutants, and that’s an admirable choice that makes sense for her character, but it also makes regaining her powers an appealing notion no matter how good she is without them. When all of your problems are nails, it’s mighty helpful to have a hammer around.

The desire to have those incredible powers again is brought to the fore by the first small story arc in which Storm is the central player. After being accidentally knocked unconscious by an out-of-control Wolverine, Storm wakes up imprisoned in the none-too-secure dungeon of some strange hunting lodge in the middle of the woods. She soon meets her captors, three superpowered WWII veterans named Crimson Commando, Stonewall, and Super Sabre, who kidnap people they deem criminals in order to hunt them for sport. Mistaking Storm for an arsonist because they find her passed out in a burned building, the trio of murderers pair her up with a teenaged drug addict/dealer whose boyfriend they have already killed, and give the two women a slight head start out of a weird blend of fairness and sadism. Unlike their usual prey though, Storm is determined, intelligent, and fit enough to cover a lot more ground than her pursuers anticipate, which allows her to set some traps and ambush them instead of merely fleeing. She’s also experienced enough in combat to actually hold her own when the time comes, even though her opponents all have enhanced abilities. They’re used to killing scared, confused criminals; she’s more than familiar with handling supervillains. So all of her moves catch them off guard while nothing they do surprises her in the least.

Though it’s a struggle to fully defeat them, Storm is always a step or two ahead of Crimson Commando, Stonewall, and Super Sabre (who obnoxiously don’t have a team name here, but do join Mystique’s Freedom Force later in the series). She manages to stop them without needing to kill them as they planned to do to her, and even talks them into turning themselves in. This story demonstrates how little Storm really needs her powers, but also reminds us why she still wants them and how undeniably useful they would be if she could get them back. It would've taken a few seconds at best for her to demolish all three villains if she’d been able to control the weather. Or heck, she could have just flown away first thing, since none of them had any means of following her in the sky. As impressive as she is with nothing but her wits at her disposal, some part of her brain no doubt spent the entire conflict wishing she could just snowstorm the bad guys into submission. She even openly pines for her old powers a few times. So once she’s free and back with her team, Storm sets out almost immediately to find a way to retrieve her lost abilities, beginning by finding the man who took them from her, Forge.

Once her search for Forge begins, it becomes Storm’s entire life, a distinct and wholly separate solo adventure she embarks on while the rest of the X-Men do their own thing. And with the exception of Wolverine playing a small role at the start and end, the story I described above about the three superhuman people-hunters was an all-Storm story too. She’s such an interesting character, extremely forceful when needed but otherwise quite serene and composed, so giving her some time in a spotlight all her own is a smart and enjoyable move. And it’s necessary to split her off from the other X-Men for this Forge story, because it’s not really a superhero tale. It’s more fantasy than any other genre, and even simpler than that, it’s a classic overcoming-various-trials-on-the-path-to-a-noble-goal narrative. To tell it properly then, Storm had to be removed from her usual environment so she could be gradually transitioned into the appropriate setting for this story. In many ways, the Crimson Commando (and friends) arc was a small sampling of what would come in the Forge arc, at least insofar as they’re both stories about Storm taking on insane odds with only her inner and outer strength to help her. But the Forge plot is thicker, more emotionally and narratively complicated, and far more tragic in its conclusion.

Storm begins at Forge’s old base of operations, but finds it dilapidated and mostly abandoned. The only person there is Naze, an old shaman and Forge’s former mentor. He tells her two things, both of which completely derail her effort to get her superpowers back. First, Forge’s guilt over taking away those powers drove him insane. Second, that insanity subsequently led him down a path of darkness so that now, rather than being the perfect instrument to prevent the end of everything, he’s going to cause it. Forge was apparently meant to battle a great force of existence-erasing evil called the Adversary, but instead his madness has turned him into the Adversary. Because Naze has the knowledge and Storm has the skills, and because they’re both so close with Forge, they team up (after Naze pretty much forces Storm to work with him) and begin an arduous trip through the wilderness and their own minds to reach Forge and stop him from undoing the universe.

They’re attacked by all manner of monster, usually some sort of oversized and slightly warped/enhanced animals. There are also some unpredictable and insanely harsh weather patterns, an insult-to-injury type of obstacle considering the weather used to totally be Storm’s wheelhouse. The closer she and Naze get to Forge, the more huge and difficult their challenges become, but Storm consistently keeps herself together and comes out on top. She acts quickly and with confidence, because she’s never given a moment to rest and over-think things. Luckily, Storm is the perfect person to deal with these kinds of incessant, fast-moving threats, because she’s self-aware and self-assured enough to trust her instincts and survive. As she and Naze make their way to Forge, she learns to rely on these instincts, so that when they finally find him, she tears through the horde of demons that try to stop her in something like a berserker rage. She gives in wholly to that part of herself, because it’s the part that has gotten her this far.

And when she’s standing before Forge, she stabs him with the same decisive haste, only to learn in his dying moments that she’d been tricked by Naze from the beginning. Forge wasn’t the Adversary, but was in fact trying to defeat the Adversary as he was always supposed to do. Storm, in her attempt to save existence, made its destruction considerably more likely. With Forge dead in her arms, Storm throws herself and the man she loved (and then killed) off a cliff, and that’s where we leave them at the end of 1987.

Of course, both characters would be seen again soon and many times thereafter, but the moment of their deaths is still a heartbreaking one. Because in all the issues leading up to this final fatal confrontation, Storm is such a pillar of self-reliance and intelligence, the revelation that she’s been a dupe and a puppet all along is a tough pill to swallow. To his credit, Claremont hints pretty heavily at it in earlier chapters, but even then, there’s an expectation that she’ll grow wise to Naze’s deceptions in time to stop herself from doing what she does. To actually watch her lose, to see her manipulated successfully, is painful and powerful. As she discovers she was wrong about Forge, the reader discovers that even Storm can be bested and blindsided, despite her unflappable disposition and, usually, the talent to back it up.

Of course, the fact that it feels unnatural to see Storm so thoroughly defeated says a lot about how awesome she is most of the time, including everything she does during her journey to find Forge. Those efforts may have been in vain in the end, but that doesn’t change the fact that she was impressive as hell when it was all going down. Swap out supervillains for magical forest beasts, and she’s no less in her element. Remove the safety net of her powers and the other safety net of her team, and she can still take all comers. If only she’d been a little less willing to so quickly accept that Forge’s agony over what he’d done to her had made him insane. I can see why it’d be appealing to think she mattered so much to him, and because she still had some lingering anger over the loss of her powers and his role in it, the idea of causing him pain might also have held some allure. She allowed herself to buy into this lie, and she trusted Naze from her own past with him, and it led to her kill a man she loved before he could save the world. At least when she screwed up, though, she kicked ass along the way.

Storm’s story is about the value of independence, indeed I’d call that the core of her character, but it also exposes some of the dangers of working alone. Maybe another set of eyes, belonging to someone not quite so close to the situation, could’ve seen Naze for the liar he was. Yet Storm’s lone wolf approach is what makes this narrative possible, because it needs to be a one-against-all kind of story. Her many victories are entirely hers, establishing her as one of the most capable X-Men around. But the enormous failure at the end is all hers, too, providing the gut-punch finale to her personal arc.

Monday, December 9, 2013

diary of a guttersnipe 12/09/2013: "hicksville or bust!"

by Shawn Starr

yea this is way late but i am lazy and sad so give me a break....

my CAB report
(** If i use two asterisks its not stealing Tom Spurgeon's format.)

** Drove to New York on Friday morning after not sleeping the previous night because I am a fucking moron. That drive is much better than the one to TCAF though, surprisingly enough.

** I went down with my Mother/Sister who were doing a joint vacation the same weekend in New York, this was possibly designed so i didn't have to pay for a bus/train ticket.

** I watched a marathon of "Boy Meets World" in the hotel room before Joey picked me up, it was the episode where Corey and Topanga get married. I like that the actor who plays Corey decided to play him as an old jewish man from the start. I also don’t understand why all their friends refuse to left them live with them, and actively get them kicked out of their residencies, just to teach them a lesson about hardships.

** Site Editor Joey Aulisio picked me up at a hotel after being in traffic for six years due to my poor understanding of time and how traffic works. He didn't know what i looked like since there are no photos of me online, so our first interaction was me leaving the hotel bar after he’d told me he was in the lobby and him walking by me and stopping to compliment my Youth In Decline shirt. I found it charming.

** We went out and got Chinese food while i was dozing off in his car. Once we got back to his house we got a series of texts from Alec Berry asking for directions. You see Alec had driven from West Virginia to Long Island without a GPS and no minutes on his phone and had (on the last leg of the trip) gotten lost. After a few tense minutes (a.k.a. us calling him a fucking idiot because who the fuck does that) he arrived and ate some soup that Joey had gotten for him.

** Me and Alec talked about how we both don’t write anything anymore, and how we should write more. Also that Sean T Collins / Frank Santoro post because that was the hot topic in comics at the moment.

** Joey limited the number of water bottles Alec could drink after Alec had mildly destroyed the recyclability of the one he had given him. Here is a picture of the bottle:

** Here is a picture of Joey trying to fix it:
(Alec gave him 25 cents for the destroyed bottle)

** I slept on the floor.

** I’m told i snore very loudly, but i didn't really feel bad since Alec took the couch. That piece of shit.

** We got to the show without much hassle. We only hit traffic when getting off the exit to the venue and  i think we spent more time trying to find parking then we did driving.

** I still don’t understand this bars' sign.

** The show’s in the same venue as last year, a church gymnasium which still elicits terrible catholic school memories. I pretty much be-lined it for the DeForge table to buy everything he had with him because that's how i start every con. 'Ant Colony' had sold out before we even got in the car to head out, which is kind of insane.

** The next thing i grabbed was 'Life Zone', Hanselman had a solid line for most of his signings. He seemed very charming for the 30 seconds i talked to him.

** I really like Frank Santoro’s set up, at TCAF and the Boston Comicon I talked with Chuck Forsman about how someone would clean up at the TCAF’s if they showed up with long boxes of silver/bronze/early-Image comics. Based on the purchases i saw while being there, that seemed true (I bought seven volumes of 'The Drifting Classroom' for $20 from him which is a god damn steal). 'Comics Workbook' #1 seemed to be going over very well, i had some mild issues with it once i read it but for $2 its worth a look through (Also, seeing criticism in print outside of TCJ once a year is nice).

** Joey doesn't understand my need to get my books signed, i don’t really either but David Mazzucchelli was in the building and…

**Artists really need to bring a bank to cons, i don’t think I've been to one yet where i don’t have at least five interactions where breaking a bill larger than a ten isn't an issue that takes several minutes to figure out.

** While less oppressively than last year, that venue still gets uncomfortably hot as the day goes on and the crowd gets larger.

** Me and Alec went outside to get some air and talked to Chuck Forsman for a bit. This guy was doing some art-show /music thing. I made a post-fort thunder joke about him, but no one laughed.

** When we went back in we couldn't find Joey, but after a few minutes we found him sitting behind Michel Fiffe’s table. He’d somehow swindled someone into giving him a place to sit down. He stayed there and shit talked with Fiffe for the remainder of the show while i gave both floors a few more passes and left knowing i’d missed something important that i’d always regret not buying (turned out it was John Pham’s book).

** I enjoyed the show, although this year's lineup seemed to be lacking a bit of the international feel that last years had (And a lot compared to TCAF).

** I have yet to catch any of the programming at BCGF/CAB in the two years I've attended, i think having it as a one day show and putting the programming in a separate building inhibits me from wanting to go to it. Also the early time of the 'City of Glass' panel, and the almost guarantee that it’d be filled by the time i got there kind of killed that one for me.

TCAF does a similar thing, on an even greater scale (i think last year had 3-5 offsite locations) but it being a two day show and in a much bigger venue (trying to walk the floor at CAB after 2pm is not very easy or pleasant so you kind of need to of bought everything you want before that and then just drift around after that) makes it feel less of a burden. Also the 3-5 locations are spread out enough that, if you were to go to panels at 2-3 of them you’d get a very feel for that area of the city (also could probably find someplace nice to eat on the way).

** We left and got burritos in long island around 3pm. Joey chastised me for getting a soda and drowning my burrito in hot sauce. That man's a stickler for health.

** Me and Alec read each other's comic purchases while Joey took a nap or something. I shoved my copy of 'Life Zone' into Alec's hands off the bat, he hadn’t read any of Hanselmann’s work before but seemed to really enjoy it. I’ read his copies of 'Beach Girls' which was a fun comic and one of the Andrew White books he got (Deconstruction?) looked interesting.

** I think that's it...we watched "This Is 40" which is probably the worst Apatow film, i slept on the floor again and was told i still snored.

** Oh, on the way home i stopped with my mother/sister at a wine tasting and it was the most awful things I've ever done. If you want to see the demographic that watched "The Newsroom", go to a wine tasting.

Mini-Reviews
Ant Colony (Drawn & Quarterly)
by Michael DeForge

Do newspapers still print Sunday strips? Not cartoon strips that run on Sunday, but those strips that require Fantagraphics to print up giant 'Kramer's Ergot' 7 sized reproductions that have a base cost of $75 because any smaller reproduction would destroy your ability to read/fetishize them. Anyways, if they do then good for them, but 'Ant Colony' is (without even bothering to look it up) the best Sunday strip of the past decade.

That's a completely uninformed opinion, but i feel like it will stand the test of time.

In an era when even historical underground newspapers are folding, DeForge took one of the key legacies of cartooning and print which is the Sunday Strip, and re-purposed it for a medium that could still support it, Tumblr.

The plot of 'Ant Colony' revolves around a black-ant colony attacking a neighboring colony of red ants driven mad(der) by a substance secreted by spiders during copulation. DeForge creates a highly structured and complex world for the black-ant colony to live in, and while the story is centered on a couple of male worker ants as their relationship falls apart due to the red ant attacks, it does not shy away from introducing additional characters including a cowardly cop, a vision seeing child, or a female ant that has been repressed by society which keeps the male and female populations separated for fear of usurping the queen, and that doesn’t even mention the entire world outside of the colony DeForge is weaving.

DeForge’s story is large, it is ambitious both narratively and thematically, and at no point does it falter.

Last Letter (self-published)
by Hellen Jo

Catharsis.

That's the only word i can think of after reading Last Letter. The books design and narrative revolve around destruction and point towards the freeing nature that the act brings about. 'Last Letter' arrives inside a sealed envelope, the return address penciled in by hand reads HELLLLLEN.org / On the Internet, a place where a physical letter can never be returned. One must consume it's contents or discard them, but never send it back - the object has achieved physicality from a realm that exists outside of the physical and it utilizes this new found existence to bring the reader into the narrative and creative process.

To read 'Last Letter', one must tear open the envelope which it is housed in (Not the envelope that it is mailed in, it is physically housed inside a smaller envelope). What could initially be seen as a cute production idea takes on additional meaning though once one actually opens the envelope; inside a small sixteen page silent mini comic. The first image contained within depicts a female sitting on a curb covering her face with one hand as a letter dangles in the other. This first illustration turns the nonchalant red envelope into the cover of the work and creates a real time prologue to the comic. This prologue is not illustrated by the artist, but instead acted out by the reader as they open the envelope. As harshly or carefully as the reader chooses to open the envelope, the act carries an energy over to the first panel which the artist could never anticipate, but that the work relies upon to provide a greater context. One could rip it open like an excited child receiving what they think is a birthday card containing money; or they could open it slowly and methodically, taking great care not to damage the envelope or the letter it contains in anticipation of what they hope will be good news one would want to preserve. Both of these actions, and the multitude of the variations in between them, all lead to the same answer though. A girl slumped over.

The content of the letter is never revealed, the comics title hints that it is a last letter, but from who and concerning what is not divulged or even hinted at. What is depicted though is the nameless female character working through her grief. In sixteen pages, her character cycles through each of the five stages of grief, and on each page that emotion is conveyed clearly and with feeling. Even the journey of the letter is a story in of itself, shifting from being covered in tears, being thrown on the ground in frustration and ultimately shredded and set ablaze. It’s journey mirrors the actions of its recipient, as they both move on to another place being consumed by flames. That Jo can realistically convey a wide range of emotions over the course of so few pages, without the aid of dialogue, but simply through her relying on her strength as a cartoonist and ability to manipulate body language is impressive.

you can purchase 'Last Letter' here.

Uber, Volume One (Avatar)
by Kieron Gillen, Caanan White, Keith Williams

The back matter in these issues where Gillen struggles with the idea of writing a comic which is based at it’s core on real people and real events (and in particular Nazism) is by far the most interesting part of these comics. The book itself is fine. It’s Avatar so the art is so-so and the writing is good enough, but it’s that struggle with one's own ethics that takes place between the back matter of each issue, along with the years that this book has been gestating within him which lifts the work to another level.

Read the comic, but digest the backmatter.

Moon Comic
by Blaise Larmee

A comic told through photographs. It begins with a single white light, which depending on the speed you are scrolling through, is quickly joined by a group of three yellow lights which mirror the white lights movements. These lights move around -disconnected in between panels which the vertical instead of horizontal reading structure only further highlights - coming together and repulsing each other until the four lights combine and then explode into dozens. The final image reveals these are all just lights from an airport.

Ascribing narrative is weird. Ascribing narrative importance is even weirder. Especially when they’re lights from an airport. This comic reminded me i’m fucking dumb.

There is also Shower Comic and Cat Comic.
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links

Jog on Frank Woodring's 'Fran'

an art style that started with 'First Year Healthy' takes on new heights in 'Flu Comic'. A comic that was spawned by a 24 hour flu that DeForge once suffered.

Chris Mautner interviews Frank Santoro, as did Publishers Weekly.

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Alec Berry is writing again. Alec wrote me a few times telling me i needed to write something to kick his ass back into gear, but i just couldn't. When Alec isn't writing (as he wasn't this past year), i’m not at my best. Which means i could barely kick my own ass into writing something feigning intelligence. Hence the past year’s scatter-shot output. Anyways, he has three essays out in less than a week's time and based on our privileged correspondences, he seems determined to keep up the pace.

Here are links:

Alec on 'Internet Comics'

Alec on Sam Alden’s 'Backyard'

Alec on not writing
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I liked this Rob Liefeld piece, the first paragraph in particular.

"Jeet Heer, I like to call him the “Derek ‘Jeet’er of comic books" .................*sigh*. Heer was also involved in a much better and less groan worthy pun laden interview with Tom Spurgeon. The takeaway quote was:  “As a friend says, doing superheroes for adults is like doing porn for kids”

A piece about the soon to be ramp up to re-re-re-extended corporate copyrights.

Tom Spurgeon on 'Frontier' #2 and his piece on this year's CAB.

Friday, November 29, 2013

1987 and all that 018: a villain who defeats himself

by Matt Derman

...reading comics from the year i was born!

The Flash #5-6 (DC)
by Mike Baron, Jackson Guice, Jack Torrance, Larry Mahlstedt, Shelley Eiber, Steve Haynie

I’m not a real big Flash guy, but I’ve got nothing against the character either. I respect him from a distance, appreciative of what he can do and stand for as a superhero, but not especially drawn to him for any reason. As a result, my experience with Flash comic books is limited at best, and there are, I’m sure, many classic stories I’ve missed out on over the years. How, exactly, this seemingly minor two-issue arc from 1987 stacks up against the greater Flash library is impossible for me to say, but taken on its own, it’s a visually bold, conceptually compelling, and structurally unstable read.

At the time, Wally West was new in the role of the Flash. He’d been Kid Flash for years until his predecessor, Barry Allen, died at the end of 'Crisis on Infinite Earths' and Wally got to drop the “Kid” from his name. Whatever his moniker, though, he was still very much a kid, only twenty years old and also newly rich. Early in his days as the main Flash, Wally won the lottery, so suddenly he’s an A-list superhero and millionaire before he’s old enough to drink. His youth and relative inexperience are evident throughout this story, in which he half-bumbles through a few failed attempts to stop the villain before the villain accidentally stops himself. It’s not perfectly clear how much of Wally’s ineptitude was intentional on the part of writer Mike Baron, and how much of it is just a side effect from the script’s poor pacing. Whatever the case, Wally’s not too impressive a hero or even a man here, but lucky for him, he doesn't need to be in order to win in the end.

The plot of this narrative, which does not have a name but takes place in two issues titled “Speed McGee” and “Super Nature,” revolves around Wally being romantically involved with a married woman, and her completely insane husband’s misguided attempts to get revenge/win her back. She is Tina McGee, who the Flash met in a previous issue during some speed tests they conducted together in Utah. Her husband is Jerry McGee, a brilliant scientist whose most recent experiments have stolen his mind. He’s been researching steroids in an attempt to create new super-humans, and has even gone so far as to inject himself with the drugs, which have eaten away at his sanity. Now a rage-filled madman, Jerry finds himself losing Tina, who has become quite enamored of Wally since their initial encounter. Convinced that Wally is a threat to his marriage (which is essentially true) Jerry decides to do something about it, and creates a costume designed to regularly dose him with the experimental steroids and also uses various additional bits of sci-fi technology to further enhance his physical abilities. The result is a hulking, crazed beast of a man in purple-and-yellow spandex with super speed, ridiculous levels of strength, and a seemingly impenetrable tolerance for pain.

It is Jerry as a supervillain—the cover of issue #6 names him “Speed Demon” but nobody ever says that in-story so I’m just going to keep calling him “Jerry”—that provides the most impressive visuals. Jackson Guice (before he went by “Butch”) makes Jerry a truly horrific figure, his massive, warped body straining against the weight of its own might. When he bleeds, which is often, it is a viscous black, which may be partly thanks to colorist Shelley Eiber, but the sickeningly sticky texture, if not the dark hue, is certainly Guice’s work. In addition to his overstuffed size and shape, Jerry’s maniacal anger and over-confidence make him dominate every panel he’s in. He also dominates every fight, despite the Flash’s best efforts. No amount of high-speed punching is enough to even phase Jerry in his drug-enhanced state, so he trounces Wally a couple times, once to kidnap Tina back, and then later when he tries to murder his former boss, Dr. Bortz. Though Jerry doesn't succeed in getting Tina or killing Bortz, in neither case is it the Flash who actually foils his plans. No, it is Jerry’s own superpowers that thwart him, or rather his inability to keep them under control. When he snatches Tina and tries to run away with her, he accidentally charges full speed into a fuel depot, causing a massive explosion that, though Jerry survives, forces him to drop his wife. Later, the Flash tries to defend Bortz, so he and Jerry get into a fierce melee. Jerry quickly gets the upper hand, and is mere seconds away from snapping Wally’s spine when, all of a sudden, his body finally craps out on him after days of extra-strength steroids and reckless violence.

I’m quite fond of the idea of a supervillain who’s too powerful for his own britches. It’s pretty common for bad guys to seem impossible to beat at first, usually because this makes the hero’s eventual victory all the more satisfying. In this case though, Baron goes the opposite route, and I appreciate his commitment to making Jerry such a massive threat that the Flash never does figure out a way to save the day. Baron takes the common approach of creating an apparently insurmountable obstacle at the start of the story, but then surprises the reader by having the problem solve itself. The Flash is almost incidental to this tale, except that without him, Jerry would have no reason to become a ‘roided out super-lunatic. Also, Dr. Bortz might have died if the Flash was not around to defend him, though even that’s not for certain, since Bortz already had a weapon on hand specifically designed to deal with Jerry’s new powers. Having the Flash be such an insignificant player in his own book might turn some people off, but I don’t have a problem with it here because it fits with Baron’s general characterization of Wally as immature and inexperienced. He’s rash, he lacks forethought, he gets involved with a married woman eleven years his senior, he handles his newfound riches poorly, and so on. Failing to defeat Jerry goes right along with the rest of Wally’s shortcomings.

That’s the core of this narrative, and it’s a solid one. Baron and Guice construct Jerry as a convincingly terrifying new villain, and his brief, brutal story is atypical and artistically interesting enough to support the two issues it takes up. Where these comics fail to deliver, though, is in all the non-Jerry material. Baron can’t quite seem to strike a balance between the Jerry-vs.-Flash scenes and all the other storytelling that needs to take place. Wally’s scenes with Tina are consistently too short for their relationship to develop the way it ought to for this narrative to be at its best. Their romance is so new, their bond so thin, that without more room to see them get to know and care for one another, it’s hard to feel invested in them as a couple. This in turn makes the stakes seem lower, since the whole conflict is based on Wally and Jerry both wanting to be with Tina.

This is the most obvious example of Baron mismanaging things, because it’s a problem throughout the entire story, but there are other, more isolated instances as well. Wally’s dad shows up suddenly to crash at his son’s mansion with a flimsy-at-best explanation as to why. Then, once he’s settled in, the narrative forgets about him completely, and he’s not seen again for the duration of this story-line. Later, after Jerry’s first attack, Wally contacts his teammates in the Teen Titans to have them protect Tina, which they do for about three pages, even flying her out to Titans Tower. But almost as soon as she arrives, Tina decides she doesn't want to stay in the safe, secure environment if it means being apart from Wally, so he agrees to take her back, making the entire trip essentially pointless. It comes across as Baron feeling obligated to address why Wally isn't turning to his friends for help, rather than having a legitimate story reason for including them. The ending leaves a lot to be desired, too. While, as I said, I’m a fan of Jerry taking himself down, it does happen rather abruptly. Afterwards, there’s a rushed, jumpy final few scenes, hurriedly tying up the story’s loose ends before charging right into a teaser for the book’s next arc. It’s a bungled closing beat, not given the proper space to do everything it wants to do.

Basically, anything in this narrative not directly related to Jerry’s destructive (and self-destructive) streak is given the short shrift. Which is too bad, but better a lack of balance than a lack of anything interesting at all. Jerry is an intense, fascinating villain who brings some unusual and unexpected elements to this comic, and that on its own makes these issues worth reading. They’d be even more enjoyable if Baron could more deftly juggle all the balls he has in the air, but both he and Guice put their focus on a single character instead, making him memorable and immensely entertaining, but only at the rest of the tale’s expense.

Monday, November 11, 2013

diary of a guttersnipe 11/11/2013: chital

by Shawn Starr

Recently damned by the faintest of praise by The Hooded Utilitarian, a re-posting of an old discussion between me and this website's editor Joey Aulisio on Michael DeForge's 'Spotting Deer'. Lets turn a post from an obscure blog into a post on a slightly less obscure blog (and also save me from needing to write anything new for another week). I'll be back next week with my write-up of my experience at the recent CAB fest in Brooklyn.

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Spotting Deer: A Conversation between Shawn Starr and Joey Aulisio

Shawn Starr: Michael DeForge straddles the line between the alt-comics premiere horror creator and the next Clowes. His primary book, 'Lose', is probably the clearest example of this. 'Lose' #2 tells the story of a child befriending an animal and finding happiness. While that sounds like a made for Disney Channel movie (I’m fairly certain that’s the plot to "Air Bud" only without basketball and an evil clown), DeForge depicts the child not in the Disney-fied “I just moved to a new town that banned Basketball because the preacher didn't like all the gyrations” pre-teen angst way, but instead as an insular and bullied child. But, not to be reduced to a pure Clowes-ian mix of depression and cynicism, DeForge injects a horror element. The child’s new best friend is a severed horse's head piloted by an “alien” spider who infects the child’s tormentors with a horrendous rash and whose offspring eventually overrun the city.

In a review, Stephen Bissette said he would have loved to publish 'Incinerator' in 'Taboo', which is a perfect way to describe DeForge’s output. A horror artist / anthology that became so much more (from a re-imagining of EC to the publisher of 'From Hell'). Even his short in 'Thickness' #2 ('College Girls By Night') takes the genre tropes and overt social commentary of old EC horror stories and adds layers of depth that those stories could never achieve. It’s a simple werewolf story that’s inverted into a commentary on transgender sexuality and gender identity.

Dudes got chops.

'Spotting Deer', like 'Lose' and 'Thickness', takes on a familiar format and twists it. Riffing on old nature documentaries (the kind you watched when your Biology teacher is out sick), DeForge creates a near perfect homage. All the story beats are there, the uncomfortable section on mating rituals (DeForge’s depiction of the “Sexual Aqueduct” perfectly captures that feeling of awkwardness experienced in a sixth grade classroom) and the oddly nationalistic / hyperbolic statement on the animal's importance in popular culture and the ecosystem. The book is even designed to emulate an old CRT monitor, and its use of the four panel grid is reminiscent of a slide show presentation. Even the close up of the “Snout” resembles one of those cheap plastic anatomy figures you’d find in a high school science class.

So, Joey, what makes this your favorite work by DeForge?

Joey Aulisio: It’s not just my favorite work by DeForge but probably one of my favorite comics period. I told a story on a chemical box episode about how I read this comic and nothing else, every single day for about a month. Something about this book just hooked me like few other books in recent years have. That said, I have found it difficult to explain why it resonated with me so much. What I can figure is that at the time I read it, I was going through a phase where I was just sick of comics and “comics culture” and really contemplated disengaging with it permanently. I don’t know what your interpretation of the story is, but I saw it as Deforge going through that same line of thought.

I think DeForge started out trying to make a book savaging the “fanboys” and then by the end realizing he was just like them, which was the real horror of it all. That moment of realization rendered by DeForge is truly chilling, nobody draws disappointment and disgust quite like him. A turn of the cheek says a thousand words.

Shawn Starr: I hadn't considered that reading. It certainly makes the last page hit a lot harder. Obsessing over 'Spotting Deer' (or comics) for years and writing a book, just to be asked “Why?” during a reading. Then to add insult to injury, watching your life’s work end up on a bargain table and ultimately the dump being picked over by wildlife.

I think the “savaging” is too intimate to be from a fanboy. My reading of it is more as an affirmation of DeForge's place as a cartoonist. He may have started as an outside figure (the writer), but once he (the writer) appears it moves away from the first half’s exploration of “herd” (nerd) culture and becomes explicitly about cartooning.

The panel when the writer takes a picture of the spotted deer reminds me of those old sci-fi shows when people switch bodies or imprint their conscience on someone else. From that panel on, I think DeForge realized he was one of the spotted deer. A part of the “study group”. It’s even more explicit on the next page when all the “deers” social anxieties are superimposed over the writer’s image.

Then there is the “Deer in Society” section, moving away from home to the city (but not before being ostracized by your family / community), the “ink spot” neighborhoods, the livejournal communities and the “pay farms” where their “psychic meat” adapts the characteristics of other products; It seems to all be there, the artist communities, the livejournal groups (now twitter), DeForge’s work as a storyboard artist (along with countless other cartoonists).

Joey Aulisio: Maybe you are right in that a “savaging of fanboys” is too easy a way to reconcile this work, and it’s actually just about being a cartoonist/working in comics or maybe just working in a creative field to paint with a broader brush. It still seems like what DeForge is talking about is very specific to comics though (and how could it not be considering it was presented in comic form).

Comics have a certain stigma to them that other mediums do not have, you get the impression that if you worked for 20 years in comics and weren’t successful, most people would say “well why did you waste your time on these silly things” (you would probably get that reaction even if you were a success in comics, let’s be honest) whereas replace comics with film, literature, music, etc. the response would be “well at least you gave it a shot, you tried to live your dream”. Failure in other mediums is still viewed as more a triumphant than a success in comics which is still viewed as tragic or sad.

Now take Deforge, clearly a master of his craft just a few years into the game. He’s someone that sits heads and shoulders above his peers, and I guarantee he has been given more attention for working on "Adventure Time" (or his 5 page 'Adventure Time' story) than anything he has done in comics. That has to get to you after awhile. When the writer at the end stands on that podium and gets asked basically “why do you keep doing this?”, it really hits that point home and must be hard for you to reconcile after a certain point.

I am sure working in comics can be fun, but from all accounts it seems to be rather exhausting most of the time with little reward. “Depression. Anxiety Attacks, Migraines. and Sleep Disorders”, comics will destroy you if you let them. Now you sit in front of a desk drawing away at things that mean so much to you, and you put out something you feel proud of just to have someone in an audience ask “this is alright, but when are you going to move onto a real thing like a novel or a film?”, and then knowing your work is probably going to end up lining a litter box one day. It’s a sobering thought.

Shawn Starr: Yeah, it difficult to watch Ware and Hernandez remain in relative obscurity, while Mark Millar and Stan Lee are household names. No matter how much talent they bring to the craft, they’re always just making funny books. That is, until those funny books become movies.

Since I like to end things on a down note, I guess we’ll end things here

(this piece originally was posted here)

Friday, November 8, 2013

1987 and all that 017: gerbil pellets

by Matt Derman

...reading comics from the year i was born!

Tales of the Cyborg Gerbils #1 (Harrier)
By John Jackson

On a conceptual level, there’s nothing wrong with the premise behind 'Tales of the Cyborg Gerbils' : a team of intelligent, anthropomorphic, partially-robotic Gerbils from the future trying to survive in modern times. It’s not the most original or enticing idea, but there’s something vaguely amusing about it, and surely it’s a workable starting point. The problem is that the comic stops there, without adding any purpose to the Gerbils’ lives aside from not wanting to be discovered or killed. They’re not trying to get back to their own time, or establish a stable home in ours, or accomplish much of anything beyond making it from the start of the day to the end of it without dying. In the four short stories contained in this comic, the Gerbils see their fair share of action and danger, but they never go anywhere or give the reader much of a reason to get into their adventures. It’s not all that clear why this comic was made, and why these stories had to be told. They are too airy and brief, with a laziness to the humor and structure that makes me wonder how seriously writer/artist John Jackson even took this project. It feels more like a half-baked gag that was accidentally published than a legitimate attempt at comic book entertainment.

This 1987 issue published by Harrier Comics was not the first appearance of the Cyborg Gerbils. They began life a couple years earlier at Trigon Comics, until that publisher went under. I’ve never read those original issues, but according to the inside cover material of the Harrier book, they were drawn by Jackson but written by Brian Cuffe. Apparently, Jackson decided he worked better alone, and took the characters to Harrier for this solo outing once Trion had collapsed. I’d be curious to see how his writing stacks up against Cuffe’s, because visually, 'Tales of the Cyborg Gerbils' is not as bothersome as it is narratively. On stronger scripts, I can see Jackson’s art making for an enjoyable, lighthearted read about these high-tech animals bumbling their way through our world. His style is goofy and broad, and the Gerbils are nothing if not expressive, so if the stories surrounding them were a bit richer, this might be a much stronger product. Not that the art is astounding, because it’s too simple and straightforward for that. It’s black-and-white, involves a lot of blank backgrounds, and is generally sparse even when we do see the details of the setting. But Jackson seems to be aiming for something in the vein of a classic kid’s cartoon, where the animals are built like people and the people all look rounded and doughy and off. In that, at least, he succeeds, making the comic look like a lot more fun than it really is once you dig in.

The first story is pretty much exactly what you’d expect, almost an obligatory introduction to who and what the Cyborg Gerbils are. On the very first page, one of their number (Jezz) is captured by a wicked professor and his equally wicked assistant to be dissected and studied, so the rest of the gang has to save him. Luckily, they have super advanced weaponry on hand to get the job done. In relatively short order, they find the professor’s lab, burst in guns blazing, decapitate the assistant with a blast from their most powerful weapon, and escape intact. It’s a brief but brutal bit of violence, almost ill-fitting in the otherwise tonally comedic narrative, but the sheer ridiculousness of the image of the professor’s assistant having his head blown off makes up for its underlying intensity and overlying gore. Once the skirmish is over, the Gerbils regroup, and wonder if they’re truly safe from the professor just because they got away this time. It’s a valid question, even interesting, but they quickly push it aside because it’s time for this story to conclude so that the next can start. The potential future foe/threat for the Gerbils is hand waved out of existence to make room for something truly mundane.

Following the eight-page opener is a four-pager about the Gerbils’ failed attempt to inconspicuously steal food from a supermarket. Not surprisingly, someone notices them, since they choose to raid the store during it's normal business hours for poorly thought-out reasons. The woman who spots them is understandably quite startled by the sight of cyborg rodents climbing up the shelves, so she screams about it, drawing the attention of everyone in the store. The Gerbils quickly hide from anyone else’s view, so by the time store security shows up to help the frightened woman, she seems like a lunatic, rambling about “rats, in uniforms…with rifles.” The security guard assumes she’s crazy, which I suppose is the natural reaction, so rather than seriously look into her claim, he condescendingly shuffles her out of the store. The Gerbils watch with some amazement as the person who nearly blew their cover is insulted and removed, then laugh indulgently at both their own good luck and the woman’s misfortune, closing the story on a note of “better her than us”. It doesn't cast them in the most sympathetic light, but under the circumstances their behavior makes a certain amount of sense. What were they to do, run out from their hiding spots and declare that the woman wasn't nuts, that in fact there were gun-toting gerbils among the canned goods? No, remaining unseen is certainly the right move, and I can see why the immense relief they’d feel at not getting caught would lead to laughter. What bothers me about this story isn't what anyone does, then, but the overall pointlessness of the whole thing, start to finish. The main characters almost have something happen to them, but then the problem solves itself at the expense of an innocent woman, and the story’s over. Who is this for? What value could anyone imagine it holds? It’s a self-defeating narrative where the protagonists barely have a role to play, acting more as mere catalysts than proper characters.

The strongest characterization comes from the third story, six pages wherein the Gerbils take it upon themselves to murder some drug dealers. That’s pretty much a summary of the plot right there. One of the Gerbils, Edam, protests for a few panels, but once he decides to go with the plan of killing the dealers, he commits completely, and ultimately sets their house on fire too. I’m not sure what the intention is here, but I have to assume that Jackson thought drug dealers would be universally disliked enough that nobody would mind watching them get shot to death repeatedly. Whatever his aims, what he achieves in this section is to paint the Gerbils as psychotics who murder for sport whenever they can cook up a flimsy argument about why their victims are bad guys. Maybe that’s the goal though, and whether Jackson wants it or not, those are the most memorable character portraits he offers. Four Gerbils who are bored, crazy, mean, and well-armed enough to shoot random dudes for little to no reason.

Somehow, almost impressively, Jackson puts the worst and best of his writing into the final tale, also six pages long. After four painfully empty pages of the Gerbils killing time on the hood of a car with activities like shadow puppets, fly-swatting, and yawning, suddenly comes the smartest, most self-aware dialogue in the comic:

It happens extremely late in the game (two panels from the end of the book), but that seems like a pretty clear declaration that Jackson’s meandering, off-putting narrative style was more on purpose than not. Which almost alleviates some of the effect, except for that all-too-familiar “Sigh,” at the end there. That’s exactly the reaction this comic provokes. Not a chortle or even a scoff but a sigh, a tired admission of defeat at the hands of boredom and disappointment.

To the best of the knowledge that my Internet research skills can provide, this volume is the last Cyborg Gerbils material to ever be published. And for all I know, that was the plan. The cover matter I mentioned above indicates as much in some of what it says, and there’s nothing about “next time” anywhere that I can see. I doubt if anyone missed this when it was gone. As for Jackson, I can’t dig up anything on him, so if anybody’s aware of what he got up to after this, let me know. I can imagine reading and enjoying him in a comic strip format, where the stories would come in shorter bursts, if he could find content that inspired him a bit more. Alas, 'Tales of the Cyborg Gerbils' was not that.

Friday, October 25, 2013

1987 and all that 016: costumed crime mongering

by Matt Derman

...reading comics from the year i was born!

Vigilante #37-48 (DC)
by Paul Kupperberg, Tod Smith, Dave Cockrum, Steve Erwin, Rick Magyar, Greg Brooks, Rick Burchett, Jack Torrance, Tatjana Wood, Liz Berube, Bob Le Rose

There’s something fundamentally crazy about the whole superhero thing. Putting on a weird disguise and using a fake name to inflict violence against criminals is not the behavior of someone who’s totally sane. I’m not at all the first person to acknowledge this, and in fact it’s become something of a common trope in superhero stories. But in 'Vigilante', or at least in the issues from 1987, the title character’s madness isn't just something that’s occasionally recognized or discussed. It is the key component of the series, the concept on which the rest of the narrative is founded. The book is about what happens to a lunatic when the people around him enable his lunacy, endorse it, even, for their own gain. And when he embraces it as well, committing himself to his mania with no desire for any return to normalcy. It’s not a pretty picture, because mental instability never is, but it’s an honest, enticing, thorough look at the fluctuating patterns of the protagonist’s craziness.

The titular 'Vigilante' is judge Adrian Chase, and I guess if you want to get technical about it the word “superhero” does not really apply, since he’s neither super nor all that heroic. He has a mask and an alias, but no extra-human powers, just a couple of guns and a wild determination in combat. Though he chooses criminals and terrorists as his primary targets, he pays no real mind to collateral damage, because what truly drives him isn't a sense of justice but a love of violence. He’s so furious at the world over the death of his family, the only real pleasure he has left is the joy of killing. It makes him feel powerful, in control, and alive. Then the most shadowy, morally backward part of the government grabs ahold of Chase and transforms him into a living weapon for the USA. The fictional agency that recruits Vigilante isn't actually ever named, I don’t think, but all of their missions are unsanctioned killing sprees. When they assign something to him, there’s an understanding on all sides that he’ll run in guns blazing with little to no preparation, and that seems to be exactly what his bosses want. It’s certainly what he wants, so everybody’s happy, save for the dozens of people Vigilante shoots to death.

That’s the frame upon which the stories in these issues are built: mad gunman hired by the government to be an agent of destruction against their foes. Everyone is upfront about the fact that Chase is bonkers, including Chase himself, and they all evidently agree that rather than trying to help him find some peace or sanity, the best thing to do is point him in the direction of the bad guys and let him go nuts. He gets lucky and manages to do some good once in a while, shutting down a major drug operation and thwarting an enemy spy from stealing sensitive information. These positive achievements are tempered, however, by all the hate and chaos he spreads around in the name of his unfocused cause. Shoot first and never even have questions— that’s the Vigilante approach. On the rare cases he does have some questions, he brutalizes the person he’s asking, torturing them sometimes even after they have told him what he wants to hear. He loves his new job as self- and government-appointed executioner, and his enthusiasm makes him dangerous and (in his world) famous. Or infamous, depending on who you ask. He kills a police officer at one point early on, and when he finally gets arrested for it some time later, his handlers break him out right away, so he never truly has to answer for the crime. A gang of angry barflies with makeshift masks and improvised weapons takes to the streets to emulate Vigilante, their new icon of hate. Vigilante kills a houseful of child pornographers and self-satisfactorily declares the problem solved, when in fact he’s failed to significantly affect anything. But since he got to gun down a bunch of people in a really showy way, he’s satisfied, and moves onto the next randomly selected (or invented) threat. The problems he creates or exacerbates greatly outweigh the few-and-far-between solutions he provides.

I clearly don’t approve of Vigilante’s tactics or their results, but I appreciate that Paul Kupperberg is intentionally writing a flawed, delusional lead character who’s only partially fooling himself into thinking he’s a good guy. The book is not bashful about its protagonist’s broken mental state, lack of self-control, or ugly inner rage. It overtly paints him in many negative roles: aggressive thug, callous loose cannon, self-aware serial killer, self-righteous hypocrite. No one is expected to like him or cheer him on, because he doesn't even care for himself enough to be concerned with whether he lives or dies. He understands the immense risks of the profession he’s chosen; he expects and even sometimes wants it to kill him. As long as he survives, he’ll keep on trucking, but his recklessness in the field is fueled by a death wish. He recognizes his own emotional damage, and the damage he causes in the world, and he’d be perfectly happy to be put out of his misery. Until that day comes, he’s determined to murder as many baddies as he can.

'Vigilante' #37 was the first to be published in 1987, and it has Chase stepping back into the costume for the first time in a long while, after his bailiff and predecessor Dave Winston is killed in action. From the moment he commits to being Vigilante again, Chase’s moral compass and connection to reality steadily worsen. We see him sign up with the aforementioned government agency, leave behind his former life entirely, slay countless crooks with intense zeal, and hide from the law (and the rest of society) in a series of squalid apartments. He immerses himself in his alter ego and his misguided war on crime, and the few “friends” he has all support him in these horrid life choices. All of which culminates closer to the end of the year, in September ‘87’s 'Vigilante' #45, the first appearance of Black Thorn.

Thorn is, for all intents and purposes, the female Vigilante, taking it upon herself to decide who lives and who dies in the criminal underworld. And even though their missions are so obviously aligned, before he meets her Chase sees Thorn as an enemy, another villain to be taken out by his overeager hand. To her credit, Thorn realizes right away that the two of them should be allies rather than opponents, so she convinces Chase to see things her way through rather aggressive sex, kicking in his door one minute and seducing him the next. It’s clear from the beginning that Thorn is at least as messed up as Vigilante, enjoying her kills as much as he does and throwing herself into dangerous situations with even greater abandon. The more we learn about her, the more unhinged she seems, like when she invents on the fly a very detailed and moving back-story about her father sexually abusing her as a child. She tells this huge, complicated lie because Chase pushes her to reveal more about herself, and though she’s not willing to actually let him in, she is determined enough to keep him on her side that she’ll make up a history designed only to play on his little remaining empathy. By the time she arrives in the series, Thorn is the perfect, inevitable love interest for Chase, a more confident but less trustworthy version of himself. Perfect because she’s precisely what he’d be attracted to (i.e. she agrees with his extremist views and methods), and inevitable because the more insanity he puts out into the world, the more he invites into his own life.

Thorn isn’t the only member of Vigilante’s supporting cast to mirror the title character in some way; she’s just the last to join the book and the most extreme example. Others include Peacemaker, sometimes a friend but usually a foe, who also believes he’s killing the right people, but has very different reasons for doing so. Or Harry Stein, a former cop hired to be Vigilante’s handler by the government. Stein isn't necessarily crazy, but he operates with the same absence of planning or strategy as Vigilante does, so that he’s more often cleaning up messes than preventing them. Valentina Vostok is Stein’s superior, herself a former superhero who now, as the head of a shady government organization, uses secrets, misinformation, unstable operatives, and other ethically questionable tactics to defeat her perceived enemies. Like Stein, Vostok seems to have her wits about her, but what she shares with Vigilante is a lack of concern for other people, be they good, bad, or in-between. Her supposedly noble ends justify any means, and even when she screws the pooch, she emphatically defends her actions and refuses to acknowledge her mistakes.

The point is, the people around him only add to Chase’ personal problems. There’s no one in his life who was there before the mask, so nobody has any vested interest in seeing him sort himself out. On the contrary, pretty much everyone is actively working to keep him the way he is now, broken and furious and sliding ever downward into deeper darkness. So he gets more and more blood on his hands, quickly creating a pile of bodies that does nothing to quell his anger. The futility of his efforts is apparent to the reader all along, as each new criminal he kills is replaced by several others, like the scariest and most depressing hydra ever. Yet Vigilante incessantly keeps up the fight, lying to himself that he’s helping the world when all he’s really doing is contributing to its chaos and pain.

I shouldn't technically mention it, (since it doesn't take place until February 1988) but in 'Vigilante' #50, Adrian Chase commits suicide, turning his gun on himself for a change. It’s a terrible way to go, but not one that surprises me considering the character. As I said before, he was never overly worried about dying, only about first killing as many opponents as possible. When that kind of self-destructive attitude is given such ample room to fester and grow, nurtured by anyone and everyone in a position to do something about it, then it’s only a matter of time before the person feeling it is irrevocably ruined. Chase reaches that point of no return fairly quickly, and the rest of these issues show the hideous results of him rushing past it to even lower lows. He’s not the uplifting, hope-inspiring role model many of his costumed comic book contemporaries are, but his story is well worth studying for the opposite reason. It’s a warning against ignoring our limits or indulging our worst impulses. That way lies madness, inescapable and deadly.

Monday, October 14, 2013

diary of a guttersnipe 10/14/2013: okay look, i'm seventeen years old...

by Shawn Starr

Mini-Reviews
The CBLDF presents Liberty Annual 2013 (Image)
by Fabio Moon, Richard Corben, Corinna Bechko, Gabriel Hardman, Jeremy Atkins, Alex Cox, Andy Owens, Mike Moreci, Steve Seeley, Joe Eisma, Joshua Williamson, Dennis Culver, Franco, Art Baltazar, Paul Tobin, Juan Ferreyra, Leah Sottile, Emi Lenox, Tim Seeley, Andy Kuhn, Ron Chan, Dave Stewart, Michelle Madsen, Zac Atkinson

I really wish one day this anthology wouldn’t just be the repository of one or two decent artists (in this case Corben and one of those Ba/Moon brothers), and a series of stories written where the twist is always (fucking always) the power of the written word. That or some irrelevant political sounding tidbit that the author read about once on Huffington Post and Aaron Sorkin had not quite gotten around to yet.

Forever Evil #2 (DC)
by Geoff Johns, David Finch, Richard Friend, Sonia Oback

Geoff Johns has a weird writing tick in his event books. Within the first two issues, he will devote an entire page of the comic to the ritualistic murder of a small woodland critter. I assume he chooses which one will be nixed by putting his copy of "Bambi" into his DVD player, hitting fast forward with his eyes closed, and then arbitrarily pausing the film and then subjecting whatever poor soul is caught on screen to whatever act of violence he saw on "CSI: NY" last week.


Zero #1 (Image)
by Ales Kot, Michael Walsh, Adam Gorham, Jordie Bellaire


(a review by way of notes)

*     On Twitter, Kot called this comic his Kendrick Lamar 'Control' verse. This was most likely a joke, but there is an aspect of ‘up your game everyone’ that can be found in the pages of 'Zero'.

*    I read a review where the “critic” talked about the randomness of the sex scene in this issue, in that it didn't need to be in there. I disagree, the sex scene takes the standard first encounter between two characters and adds a depth to their characterization and relationship that couldn't be achieved except with such an intimate moment.

*  I like that 'Zero' is equal opportunity in it’s nudity. Also, at no point in Walsh’s depiction of sex did it feel grimy or disgusting, unlike just about every other comic artist's depictions. His use of simple panel structure and avoiding pinup shots were key to this (His use of negative space throughout the issue was also very nice).

*    In their initial meeting we see Zizek, a fat disheveled older bureaucrat trying to convince Cooke that sending Zero back into the field was a good idea. Zizek begins to insult Cooke for her lack of experience before being reminded by Cooke who the boss is. This scene sets Cooke up as the hard ass boss to Zizek’s experienced but fading company man.

The next time we see these two characters they are having sex. We see Cooke telling Zizek to go faster, but he says can’t, he’s getting a cramp. Cooke begins to berate him, to threaten him, but then, following a panel of her biting her upper lip, and mid eye roll she pleads for him not to stop. His hand grasps hers and they go on. The following page they lay naked and Zizek talks about how time has passed him by.

Zizek’s cramp and Cooke’s plea shed’s additional layers on their previous interaction. As their hands interlock you can see how Zizek is trudging along even though he is past his prime because Cooke needs him. He may be old and washed up but he gets the job done, and how he needs Cooke to give him meaning, to push him past the cramp which would end in him fading away to nothing. The sex scene allows for these subtle pieces of characterization because of the implicit intimacy of the moment. This scene is vital.

*    Cape comics have a tendency in their most melodramatic and unfeeling way, to spend a few pages going over the destruction that their epic battles have wrought. I’m told there's a touching  moment in the Zack Snyder Superman film where (following an aerial battle that destroys much of the city) Superman is confronted with a family about to be killed by Zod. These moments tend to be unfeeling and purely cynical attempts at humanity, in the face of an million dead we are supposed to latch onto these three unnamed individuals. 'Zero', in contrast, uses these moments to discuss the politics of state sponsored terrorism and it’s effects on civilians.

In 'Zero' civilians are a presence throughout the book, whilst the area the two “super-powered” beings are fighting in was supposedly evacuated (which would allow the damage caused by the two hero’s to proceed without needing to worry about collateral damage), they can be seen huddled in their homes as they are being smashed through during the climactic fight scene. These asides take on a more implicit political aspect, due to the fight taking place in Palestine which is one of the most densely populated area’s on the planet, and one which is routinely subject to violence by an occupying force. The two “super-powered” individuals are explicitly creations of the two major organizations attempting to run Palestine (Hamas and the state of Israel). This gives the collateral damage many comics use as filler a real world counterpart with implications one has to think over.

*    I like that Ales Kot continues to come back to the idea of Drones in his work, they have become a staple of his comics. Ever present

*    'Zero' will have a new artist each issue, but will retain the colorist Jordie Bellaire across the series. I have seen this technique become more and more prevalent as colorists become stronger in staking out the visual continuity between issues and art styles. Dean White was the first major example of this (to my knowledge) on 'Uncanny X-Force', coloring many inferior artists within an inch of their lives so that their issues would not stand too far out when placed next to Opena in the subsequent collection (If one looks at the Billy Tan issue White colored in contrast to the one he did not, they are night and day). This technique was also implemented on Daredevil when Rivera and Martin were trading off arcs, and continued as other artists were subbed in; along with the current 'Hawkeye' run. The continuation of this technique continues to show how important coloring is to the overall tone and feel of a series.
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links

MOCCA announced their “Guests of Honor”. That’s probably the most agreeably bookstore orientated guest list i have come across in a while. It also has the intelligence to vary between the more literary authors like Alison Bechdel to the more sci-fi /comic shop orientated Fiona Staples which should bring in a large audience (The ticket price being significantly reduced is also a major plus).

Michel Fiffe originals. Both for sale and to gawk at. Looking at my bank account i’m squarely in the gawking category (UPDATE: these all sold out so you can’t see them anymore. Losers).

Andrew White is also selling originals, if i’m reading this right for $15 he will draw you an original page based on a word or phrase you send him, and then give you another five pages of previously drawn material that he thinks relates to that phrase. An original mini-comic of sorts.

Q: What happened to the dog that swallowed a firefly?
A: It barked with de-light!

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Oily Comics subscriptions have opened back up offering a 3-month subscription for $20. In other Oily related news, Oily contributor Melissa Mendes has a "Friday Night Lights" fanzine out, and two interviews on 'The End of the Fucking World' went up over the past few weeks. One by TJC contributor Chris Mautner at Penn Live and another by CBR writer Alex Deuben. I really need to finish transcribing my interview with him, but here's a teaser.....

an interview teaser
(context: the post office lost joey's oily comics)

Joey: Was their any difference between the first printing and the second printing [of 'Habit'].

Charles: Nah. It's just the papers a little thinner, i ran out of the good stock and i had some of this other stock...

Joey: Goddamn post office...
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Frank Santoro did a process post on his new book 'Pompeii'. 'Pompeii' is a book where the production is as much an aspect of the story as the artwork and plot. The texture of the paper, the art's reproduction size (100%), the discoloration of the page, they all contribute to the book's overall aesthetic, which i appreciate (and, as a trend, seems to be on the upswing). Jim Rugg and Dash Shaw are both credited for book design, which makes sense when one looks at both of their most recent works and the place production has in them ('New School' as a replica of an high school yearbook, and 'Supermag' as a high-gloss magazine).

John Porcellino posted pictures of some original art of his that he found laying around his house.

Woody Allen on Ingmar Bergman.

Ed Piskor interviewed by Tom Scioli about 'Hip Hop Family Tree'. Also a short documentary type thing about Piskor by the Times.

Kevin Huizenga on 'Palookaville' #21 and Seth’s Stamp comic. I’m only a few pages into the new 'Palookaville', but i do want to comment on how much i like the reproduction of Seth’s stamp comics. Instead of scans of each individual page, they are reproduced via photographs of the journals themselves, this gives them a heartfelt quality that i don’t think they would convey as well if they’d simply been scanned (The Seth story on this episode of CBABIH is also worth listening to, Pacific Rim, man. Pacific fucking Rim!)
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a real conversation
 Shawn Starr: What was that Von Trier with Bjork movie that you recommended?
Joey Aulisio: I didn't recommend it, all i said was it would ruin your day.
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New Jonny Negron comic. I hear good things about it. But then again i hear good things about everything he does. The shipping does seem a little high though, i live a state over and it costs $5 to ship, and for just $2 more ($7) you can ship it to Germany.

Gary Panter talk at CCAD. Also, The Rozz-Tox Manifesto.

Joe Sacco interview. It’s weird that i did not know there was a new Sacco book until  last month.

A Kanye West interview which people were talking about and i watched.

David Mazzucchelli interviewed by Dan Nadel.

Watched "Masters of Sex". Very good first episode, although the title leaves a bad taste in my mouth after learning the main characters' last name is Masters. Low hanging fruit people.