Wednesday, June 26, 2013

interview 004: ales kot

by Shawn Starr

I had the opportunity a few months back to interview writer Ales Kot about a bunch of topics but mostly we focused on the mini-series 'Change' he was working on with artist Morgan Jeske from Image Comics. Now that the collection is getting released i figured it was a good time to share this conversation.

You were born in Eastern Europe right? I was wondering what kinds of comics you read growing up.

Czech Republic, so I guess that's Eastern Europe? Feels more right in the middle of Europe to me, always did, but I suspect it's officially classified as the Eastern Europe. 

Growing up, the first comics I remember reading were Ctyrlistek a.k.a. 'Four-Leaf Clover', which was this off-the-rails kids comic about a cat scientist, a tough pig, a pretty bitch (she was a dog) and a nervous rabbit. That thing was large in the Czech Republic for a very long time. So that was one, reprints of the Disney stuff would be another - I remember reading the adventures of Donald the Duck when I had pneumonia, I might have been about four. 

Add Kaja Saudek, the comics-making brother of the world-famous photographer Jan Saudek (Tarsem Singh put a homage to his work in the film "The Cell"), whose comics are probably the most accomplished Czech comics that ever came out and I was off to a decent start by the time I was four or five. Then my grandfather, who was a truck driver, brought some comics -- oh wait, there's a whole another story here, specifically a story about my sexual identity being completely rewired that I love sharing. My grandfather took me to Netherlands when I was about five years old, via truck. It was great. I spent most of the time reading 'Conan The Barbarian' stories (the first two Conan books I ever read, I think) on the backseat and then one day I discovered a porn magazine underneath the backseat, most likely forgotten there, either by my grandfather or one of the other drivers. The magazine was full of very hardcore sex acts and the king, the queen and everything in between of all of the entire magazine was a very detailed three-way between a man, a woman and a hermaphrodite. My mind was blown. Walls melted. Which probably explains why I'm answering this interview in a motel in Palm Springs in between fascinating sex acts and writing scripts. My point is, I love it when most walls prove to be non-existent and that connects to every kind of art.

And with that, back to, comics. Here's some pictures:

And then. One day, my grandfather was transporting comic books - basically overprint stuff, lightly damaged or even completely okay issues of the Czech translations of 'Spider-Man', 'Conan the Barbarian', 'GI.I.Joe' and others. I was in. Then came video game magazines like 'Level' and 'Score' and through the reviews within came more culture shocks. The gentlemen who used to write for the 'Score' magazine created a comics magazine called 'Crew' (which is in Czech similar to "krev", which means blood) and oh my, were they serious about this. 

Lewis Trondheim, reprints of the best '2000 AD' stuff like Johnny Nemo and Slaine, the best 'Lobo' comics by Alan Grant and (usually) Simon Bisley, shorter things from Vertigo, Frank Miller's comics, 'Hellboy'…explosions inside me, imagination firing up. Obviously, none of this would happen that easily without my parents, who were incredibly supportive of my reading from early on. I knew how to read really well by the time I was three and a half thanks to them. I also made a 48-page comic when I was six or seven. Completely forgot about that until recently. Work ethic!

I've seen a list of your favorite comics before, and i think one of you favorite writers also, but i haven't seen you mention your favorite artists before, can you name a couple and what you take away from them?

Winsor McCkay, Jim Steranko, J.H. Williams III. and David Aja for their mastery of inventive layouts. Paul Pope for the energy with which he created his style and still continues to move it forward. The 'Battling Boy' stuff looks and reads amazing. Frank Miller because his work taught me that there is no right and wrong when it comes to the number of panels per page - all it comes down to is what you want the page (and the story) to achieve. Brandon Graham for his playfulness.

Chris Weston is the quintessential '2000 AD' artist to me - 'The Filth' and 'Ministry of Space' are full worlds, detailed and moving and dirty and beautiful. Junji Ito, Brendan McCarthy; for their tendency to go surreal. I love Ito's line work, its density, its weight on the page - the way he layers it makes me feel slightly physically ill, which is perfect considering the kind of comics he makes, and McCarthy is a perfect freak. Jerome Opena perfectly updates the 'Heavy Metal' magazine era Sci-Fi comics and merges them with superhero comics. Kevin O'Neill for being one of the most hilarious and dedicated storytellers out there. Same goes to Eddie Campbell.

Will Eisner. Alex Toth. Jack Kirby. Bill Sienkiewicz. Howard Chaykin. Jacques Tardi. Frank Quitely. Katsuhiro Otomo. Newer creators like James Harren, Sean Murphy, Morgan Jeske, Ron Wimberly, Tomer Hanuka, Jason Latour, Chris Burnham, Fiona Staples. Many more.

What are you currently reading/watching/listening to, and what has had the greatest effect on you recently?
'Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said' by Philip K. Dick. Having a hard time figuring out how much of Jason Taverner I am. Or how much of me Jason Taverner is. Or how much of us is Philip K. Dick. The walls are flinching and I just stopped in Fullerton yesterday. Edit: I actually finished the book now and I have to say it might be my favorite P.K. Dick novel. The way it ends…I woke up with the last line echoing in my head in the middle of the night in San Francisco, on a sofa, just a few hours after I finished reading the book, and the sentence was still working itself into me and rewiring me. It changed something in a beautiful way. The journey and the last sentence. All of it.

I am also reading the script for the adaptation of Ellroy's 'White Jazz' written by the Carnahan brothers. I am looking forward to catching up on Kieron Gillen's 'Young Avengers' and 'Uber'.

A documentary about Crips and Bloods on Netflix. It's called "Crips and Bloods: Made in America". Worth noting: these gangs started when the Boy Scouts enforced racial segregation so black kids had no chance of getting in. Other than that, I am excited about seeing the "Evil Dead" remake tomorrow and also "Sightseers", which is a new film by Ben Wheatley who made "Kill List", one of the most horrifying horrors/thrillers of the past decade. Wheatley is a very accomplished director and I suspect he is only going to get better.

My fiction diet is pretty noir-heavy these days, so I balance it with process books, plenty of scientific articles, Psychology Today stuff, reading up on Buddhism, astrology and else.


Greatest effect recently: 
Seeing my complete family after nearly four years and figuring out a lot more about our history and how the attitudes in the family were formed and shared throughout many decades by the internal decisions and the external circumstances. Interrogating everyone so I could determine how to better understand us and change my own life through that understanding - and hopefully also help others live their life a little bit better than before. There was a trauma from seventy years ago that clearly got carried through time and space and influenced every generation of my family since and I know I figured out a way to transcend it. Which is a pretty amazing feeling.

You have a well defined Internet presence, how important is the Internet to you as a creator, both in getting your work out there and taking in others work ?

About as important as it is to most relatively well-off of the people in the world today - a lot. I love the Internet. I love the deep web. I love that I am here, now, seeing the new infrastructure being built as many old ones crumble. I don't love the way many corporations are approaching the Internet - as something to be controlled, something to be squeezed dry. The Internet is expansive, by definition. It can be used as an evolutionary tool, as a way of sharing, it can be used as a creation tool for a more honest society. I mean, look at Wiki-leaks. Look at Kickstarter. The spreading of knowledge. The ways we now connect. And what is post-Internet? Tell me. Show me. I am interested.

I could say that it's easy to be overloaded and to overload, that it's easy to pay attention just for five seconds and move on then it is to read a solid essay, and so on and so on…but you know what? That's not on the Internet. That's on us. The ways the Internet changes us are the ways we choose ourselves. And I choose honesty, mystery, complexity, simplicity. I choose excitement and astonishment. I choose quiet, sometimes too. The Internet is a toolbox unlike any other we had before and I choose to create a better now with it. And the way to do that, for me, is to be as honest and loving as I can be at any given moment.

Prose has had a long history of utilizing short stories as vehicles for political philosophy, and while there is no lack of comics about politics, 'Wild Children' is the first comic since 'Flex Mentallo' to try and change the idea of "comics". As your first published work, was it a conscious decision to come out with such a firm mission statement, and why did you think it was necessary?

Yeah, it was a conscious decision, but if I remember correctly I wasn't trying to change the idea of what comics are or can be. All of what I stated in 'Wild Children', in regards to comics theory, is stuff I already saw in, within comics - it's there, all people have to do is look for it. I thought it was necessary to come out with something that felt true to who I was at the time. That definitely worked.

One of the common critiques of your work is the amount of influences on display. 'Wild Children' was the first comic I'd seen with actual footnotes! Do you find it necessary to be upfront with your influences, and do you find that doing so helps you work through them faster than merely alluding to them?

That depends entirely on the work itself. Being completely upfront with my influences was the right choice with 'Wild Children', which was a very "this is where I come from", mission statement kind of a comic. In a different way, that was also partially true for 'Change' - a story set in LA will automatically have more cultural references because people are very immersed in it and most of the key characters are directly involved in the process of creating comics, music, movies. Is that some sort of a thing I want to focus on in every comic or movie or anything that I ever create? Fuck no. It's all about the work and the work always starts from zero, as Paul Thomas Anderson says. Or maybe I'm just paraphrasing him. Is that me being upfront about my being influenced by Paul Thomas Anderson's theory on creating stories? Not really; I knew that instinctively long before I read that quote of his, but the quote itself reinforced the understanding. It's a constant back and forth. The work always begins with nothing.

'Wild Children' definitely helped me work through some influences very fast, as I hoped it would.

How tight are your scripts and how much do you collaborate with your artists to achieve what's on the final page ?

Thank you! The scripts depend entirely on how tight I am with the artist. I always aim to do my best to create a long-term relationship that's not just about the work but also about being friends and genuinely understanding each other. The collaboration on 'Change', specifically, was like a dream for me - Morgan (Jeske) and I are process nuts and we talked about what we want to do and how in very clear terms before we sat down and started doing it, which helped immensely. We also acknowledged that the process might change as we go, precisely as it did - and being prepared and comfortable with a certain level of chaos was crucial, because 'Change' was not an easy project to pull off. I wrote the script for #1 (you can download it, as well as the significantly different final lettering draft, right here) in a fairly tight way, calling the panels and many angles, but at the same time being very open to Morgan changing things as he sees fit. I cherish that kind of a collaboration. As we went on, I started writing in a much looser style because the trust in our storytelling increased with every page Morgan delivered. By the time we hit four, I sometimes described an entire page in five sentences.

So the collaboration went approximately like this: we talked for a bit and I gave Morgan some sort of an idea as to what might be in the issue, then wrote the script, sent it to Morgan. Morgan did his magic on layouts, we talked through them - maybe adjusting something like 2-3 panels in #1 and #2, later on almost nothing. Morgan did the pages, sent them to Sloane Leong who then colored everything. Sometimes we had an idea for a particular scene/panel and we discussed colors in detail before Sloane started #1, but the pages she sent back were always even better than I hoped they would be.

Then came the lettering. Ed Brisson was very nice and a true pro - I sometimes rewrote things 2-3 times because the entire process was very intense and I was determined to always find the best way to say things. The amount of changes made between each script and the final lettering pass…well, this probably illustrates it the best: in 'Change' #4, I cut twelve pages of lettering entirely. Why? Because the art told the entirety of what needed to be told.

Can you give an example of embracing chaos in 'Change'? For me, until the final issue pointed it out and i re-read the series as a whole, i never noticed the ever present drone in the background throughout the series.

Haha, the drone! That is a good example. If I remember correctly, we made sure to have the drone in the air since the beginning because I felt it was important, but I had no idea what the exact reason for it being there was. I just knew it felt right to have it there. Then, I think it was while I was coming up with the script for #3…it clicked and I knew what the drone's purpose was.

This is symptomatic of the way I approached writing the comic. I had about two hundred pages of notes and a few different outlines for 'Change' and the story changed and rewired itself plenty of times as we went along. I knew what would happen at various points of the story, but that was it; and even some of the most (seemingly) crucial story points have changed radically. The final decision was that the story would grow out of me in real time.

A big reason for the smooth sailing is the team. Morgan Jeske ran with my ridiculous ideas and invented and reinvented himself so often that I will be shocked if he doesn't win the Russ Manning award. This was a true collaboration - the characters, the story…wouldn't be alive without Morgan, without Sloane's amazing colors that are unlike anything else in comics right now…if someone else created 'Change' and I would see it on the shelf, I would buy the comic immediately solely based on the art and colors. And that's the way I want my comics to work.

Embracing chaos, another story: Sloane turns in the colors for #4 and I look at it and eventually realize that I need to cut twelve pages of text from the comic entirely - simply because the storytelling was so strong that there was no need for words. It's all good until we are two days away from going to print and I count the pages and realize we made a rookie mistake and the pages don't follow the left/right scheme properly, which means most of the two-page spreads will be cut in half instead of presented properly. So I create two empty pages that balance everything out and then have to come up with text…which proves crucial to the end of the story and makes me rewrite most of #4 once more.

There are ways to balance order and chaos and love both when creating pretty much anything - a work of art, a relationship, a life. In fact, loving and embracing both is perhaps the key to that balance.

'Change' #1 is a dense first issue, I've read it four or five times now and it just keeps growing in my head, how important do you find the first issue of a series to be, and what do you think it has to accomplish to be successful?

That's amazing - and exactly how I wanted the first issue to feel. I don't think there's a definite formula for the first issue of a series, but I think it's enormously important. What it needs to accomplish is always different. I loved Abhay Khosla's essay on what 'Saga' did right in its first issue.

What the first issue needs to do, always, is it needs to be the right first issue. Which sounds ridiculous, but it's as simple as that. I can't quite explain it. It needs to be alive in all the right ways, in all the right ways that are true to what you have set to do.

Successful? You mean artistically? It needs to be a comic I would buy with my money. That's how I make comics. Would I buy it, happily? Would I re-read it, happily? Would I feel good about buying it? If the answers are yes, then I can release the thing. If not, it's back to the laptop until I get it right.

You have a line in 'Change' #1, "You use intuition, logic, connect ideas and symbols, and the three-act structure and the chekov's gun and all that...You put a little chaos back in the movies.... This is a cliche, but i hope you know that it comes straight from the heart...You have no future in this business darling" do you find this to be the truth as a writer, that innovation is shied away from, or at least not rewarded as it should, either in comics or elsewhere?

Partially, of course, yes! Innovation is often shied away from. Are we getting better at embracing innovation? I certainly hope so, but I have no good way of measuring it. I believe we are getting better at embracing innovation, but that might also be simply because I want things to always turn out right. As for the right rewards and who should be or get or do what, I say fuck all of it. I don't care. I am not here to judge what other people deserve and why. I want to focus on doing my best work and creating a life worth living.

There was an interview that Vice did with Bret Easton Ellis a couple years back where he described Los Angeles as an isolating city, that "There’s a lot of space for something to lurk, I guess. It’s also a weird city because it doesn't change. There are no seasons. There’s not a fall. There’s not a winter. It’s a strange city to live in." and i get a little of the same vibe from 'Change' #1. For Los Angeles to, as the title says change, does it have to die?

There is a lot of space for something to lurk in Los Angeles, yes. One wonders, though - was that interview conducted around the time when Ellis finished' Lunar Park'? Because the novel is very much about his subconscious, right? And if it is, then does his description of Los Angeles then also show the landscape of his mind at that time? No change, things lurking? Because I live in Los Angeles and I love the city. While the season thing is partially true as well, the seasons do move - they just move differently and on more subtle levels. What I wrote down just yesterday:

"Chicken, egg, biscuits, gravy. Pecan pie. Americano the size of a child's head. Read a film script at a diner, have some iced tea. Wear a well-fitting white shirt. Hit the letters, write things down. Get out. The sun, it's just enough, the Summer hell around the corner. Trees swaying in the wind, all flowers. Pretty latinas walking around with their kids, all smiles. Echo Park in the Spring."

Los Angeles in the Spring is completely different than Los Angeles in the Summer. I call bullshit, Bret Easton Ellis. I love you and you are not right about this. The seasons just change in different ways.

Death is life. Change is life and death. It's all a dance. So I dance the best I can, like I am dancing right now, around and with your questions and within my answers. And I am smiling. Because, who knows? Perhaps we are all here just to play.

You can purchase the trade paperback collection of 'Change' by Kot, Morgan Jeske, Sloane Leong, + Ed Brisson in your local comics stores starting today as well as on Amazon

Ales' new series from Image Comics 'Zero' (featuring artwork from Michael Walsh among many others) is also currently available for pre-order (JUL13 0415), and you can also catch him monthly writing 'Suicide Squad' for DC Comics with artist Patrick Zircher.

Friday, June 21, 2013

1987 and all that 009: wat-ch’ doin’?

by Matt Derman

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

Matt Champion #1 (Metro)
by Robert Loren Fleming, Ernie Colón, Elaine Lee

There’s a lot working against 'Matt Champion', the comic and the eponymous character. The book itself is the first of what was meant to be a four-issue mini-series, but as far as I can find online, nothing was ever published beyond this debut. I’m not sure if the title was canceled or Metro Comics closed shop or what, but whatever the external circumstances, this comic is trapped forever as an unfinished story. There’s not a lot of payoff or resolution, because the goal of this issue is to make introductions instead. With only the introductions to go on, though, analyzing the book becomes a bit trickier. I’m not entirely confident I know what 'Matt Champion' is about on a thematic level. I understand the plot---anyone could---but I don’t know what it wants to say or why it was created, because this opening chapter does not get that far. But does that make it a failure as a first issue? I don’t think so, but again, I’m not certain.

Matt Champion, born Matthew Chapin, is a professional wrestler and, at the start of the story, the reigning champion of the league he’s in. But Mr. Zucco, the wicked gangster who runs that league, wants Matt to take a dive and lose his belt to Beast Boolanga. Beast is a heel and Matt one of the most popular wrestlers around, so the match is meant to be a major upset, bringing in the big ratings and money that come with such an event. It could and should be a win for everyone involved, even Matt, because champion or not, he still gets a payday. The thing is Matt can’t quite come to grips with the rules of the business he’s in, the fact that all of the wrestlers are entertainers following a script and putting on a show together. He understands that’s how it works, but being forced to give up his title still doesn't sit right with him. As entertaining and profitable as it would be for him to lose to Beast, Matt does not think he deserves such a fate. In his mind, the championship is something he struggled a long time to earn, and therefore he should be allowed to hang onto it.

All of this is established almost immediately. Matt is told by Mr. Zucco on the first page to take the dive, feebly resists, and is reminded somewhat forcefully that it’s not his decision. Sad as it makes him, Matt has no choice but to agree to hand the championship over, and then the story slides into his childhood and offers a glimpse at how he became the naïve, insanely muscular man he is today. Young Matthew is very much the opposite, skinny and sickly and frail. Though the book never specifies what ailment(s) he suffers from (and I’m not positive he even has a real-world condition), what we do see is Matt’s scientist father trying desperately to cook up a cure. Mr. Chapin is on the verge of losing his home to the bank, and his wife has completely lost touch with reality, but his only concern seems to be fixing his sick child. He and Matt try a series of different injections until, we assume (but don’t actually see), they find the right combination of chemicals to make Matt grow big and strong. These shots continue today, and though the science of it is not explained, Matt’s strength has progressed over time to superhuman levels. However, the other side effect of his continued medical care under his father’s guidance is that Matt is still quite childish in his personality. He has not matured emotionally, even though physically he’s overgrown.

Matt does ultimately let Beast defeat him in the ring, but not without getting some serious shots in himself, both during and after the match. Beast, whose real name is apparently Alvin, fights with all the dirty tricks and bad attitude he should for someone cast in the bad guy role. He plays the part of heel to a T, and even though that’s the agreed-upon status quo, Matt lets it get under his skin. He doesn't want to get hurt, he’s upset about having to lose at all, and having Beast so enthusiastically beat him bothers Matt tremendously. After letting himself get pinned and giving up his title, Matt has what amounts to a temper tantrum, tossing Beast into the twelfth row of the audience out of pure anger. Furious at the perceived injustice of being forced to sacrifice the belt, Matt breaks the rules and script of the match.

Mr. Zucco is none too pleased with the performance, but because Matt at least officially lost like he was supposed to, all is forgiven for now. Well, first Zucco gives Matt’s dad a solid hit to the face for good measure, but then all is forgiven. Except by Matt, the one character who cannot let it go. He washes up after the fight still feeling depressed and cheated, reminiscing about the days when he thought he’d be a boxer. For whatever reason, boxing holds a certain romantic appeal for Matt. It’s the sport he wishes he was good enough for, but his lack of natural skill led him to wrestling instead, which he now hates. However, determined to make the best of a bad situation, Matt decides to buck up and ask Mr. Zucco for a rematch against Beast. It’s not clear why he expects that to work, but in his childish ignorance of the world, he gives it a shot. It does not go well.

Predictably, Zucco scoffs at the very idea of Matt requesting a second chance at the title. He hubristically rants about how making one idiot’s dreams come true is not his job, that he became the rich and powerful crime boss he is today by selfishly screwing people over and/or killing them. He unapologetically lays out his own lack of morality or concern for his wrestlers’ well-being, because the bottom line for Zucco is money and the control it brings. It is this speech that finally pushes Matt over the edge, transforming him from a hurt, disappointed man-child into a nigh unstoppable force of muscles and fury. No longer able to swallow the injustices and indecencies that surround him, Matt finally fights back. It would almost feel like a key moment of growth if he did not carry it out so childishly, acting with indiscriminately destructive anger.

That is about as far as this comic gets. Matt is arrested for his actions, but the police chief very quickly and foolishly gives himself away as being in Zucco’s pocket, so Matt literally breaks out of his cell. This is the cliffhanger that closes the issue, with Matt free and pissed off and only now for the first time realizing the true extent of his physical strength. Certainly an interesting state for the protagonist to be in at the end of the opening chapter, because where he goes from here, what his next move could possibly be, is anyone’s guess. He has already struck back at Zucco with a fair degree of success and effectiveness, but he didn't bring the entire criminal enterprise toppling down or anything. I’m not sure that’s even his goal. What he ultimately wants remains unclear…to ruin Zucco completely? To defeat anyone and everyone in the city who’s corrupt or dishonest? Just to get his championship title back? He never quite says, and we’ll never know.

But that’s fine, I think, for what should have been only the first 25% of this narrative. Had the other three issues of 'Matt Champion' ever been published, there’s no doubt in my mind that Matt’s specific motives and goals would have been more concretely defined. I suspect there would also have been a lot more material about his history, like why his mom was so crazy or how she died. It’s just that without that background information or a definitive conclusion to the story available, the final message or lesson of this series is hard to identify.

It could be a piece on morality. Matt is quite pure-hearted, and still sees good and evil in black-and-white terms, because he has such a childlike outlook. From his point of view, it is wholly unfair and wrong for him to be asked to give up his belt, not to get a rematch, and/or to work for a man like Mr. Zucco. Perhaps that’s true, but I think it’s a bit more complicated than that. Zucco is definitely a thug and a murderer and out-and-out wicked in other ways, but that doesn't necessarily mean I agree with Matt’s indignation at being told to take a fall. That is, after all, the business of professional wrestling. It is the job he agreed to. I root for Matt when he’s whomping on Zucco’s henchmen because I know they deserve it, big picture. But I don’t entirely empathize with the specifics of what drives him to fight them. Let’s say, though, that 'Matt Champion' is attempting to explore morality. If that’s the case, I think this is an excellent way to start the discussion. You have Matt, who is obviously good, and Zucco, who is unabashedly evil, yet the disagreement that gives birth to their larger, more violent conflict is not so easily defined in those terms. An interesting set-up with lots of potential to get into the questions of what makes a person or an action good or bad, if it is the intent or the results that matter, when violence is justified (if ever), and so on.

However, I can also see the argument that creators Robert Loren Fleming and Ernie Colón saw Matt as a clear-cut good guy. Just because I personally don’t understand why he’s so deeply bothered by losing to Beast, that doesn't mean Fleming and Colón wanted me to feel that way. The possibility exists that, to their minds, Matt was the obvious hero of this story from the start, that everything done to him was wrong, and that the reader should feel all the outrage the character does. They just don’t make a glaringly clear case for either reading.

I can also see this book as being, at its core, about the corruption that comes with growing up. To some degree, Matt represents childhood, because his own development was stunted through his father’s attempts to cure him. And he also represents a strive for fairness, kindness, and good. The adults around him, on the other hand, have all been tainted in one way or another by the world, even the people who are on his side. His mother was insane, his father lost everything to make him a champion, and the only friend of his introduced here is a has-been/never-was boxer who now works as a janitor at the gym. The villains, obviously, are the epitome of corruption, and have no time for attitudes like Matt’s. They see him as a joke, a voice to be ignored because it’s not smart or important enough to have anything to say. In my mind, that is an unfortunately typical adult-child dynamic, and one that children find themselves frustrated by all the time. They get fed up with being marginalized and, sometimes, it leads to loud and/or destructive outbursts. Which is basically all that happens in 'Matt Champion', but on an exponentially amplified level.

It could, of course, really be about any number of other things. Family plays a huge role in this first issue, and could have become a central theme had the series continued. A look at the inherent evil of money, a criticism of pro wrestling, or simply an attempt at telling a more street-level, non-traditional superhero story all feel like valid possible descriptions of this book as well, based on the issue that exists. Fleming and Colón don’t make it explicit yet what they’re aiming for, and that doesn't just extend to the narrative themes. There is a bit of overall tonal ambiguity too, in the art and writing both. Fleming’s script has a few overtly comedic moments, like one of Zucco’s goons trying to side with Matt while he beats them up, or Beast’s mother whacking him with an umbrella after Matt tosses him into the stands. Then there are some considerably darker scenes, like a flashback of a depressed and confused Matt in the shower, literally praying for guidance. Finally, there are one or two bits that lie somewhere in between, like the introduction of Matt’s mother. Is her mental instability meant to be humorous, tragic, or both? In the end I think it leans closer to tragic, but a lot of what she says is so outright goofy that it’s hard to say.

Colón’s art is even more difficult to pin down. Most of the cast are caricatures, comically exaggerated and unrealistic. This adds a lightness to the action scenes and helps solidify everyone’s broad personalities in a short space. But the lines are so heavy and the shading so dark that it almost looks like a classic noir book, and because of the seedy criminal element in the story, it occasionally reads the same way. And the black-and-white coloring also adds to the grittier, more serious visual mood of Colón’s style. This strange and sometimes uneven mix of severity and levity makes 'Matt Champion' that much more complicated to explain or fully understand.

It is a not-uncommon frustration as a comic book reader to have to live with incompleteness, following series that get canceled too soon or delayed indefinitely. And I can’t fault 'Matt Champion' #1 simply because it doesn't tell a whole story, since that’s never what it set out to do. But what makes a debut a success? If I can walk away from multiple reads without a solid sense of the book’s premise or goals, has it failed? While I can understand and even make the argument that, yes, this is an unsuccessful issue in that regard, I’m more inclined in this case to go the other way. Because the most important measure of a #1 issue, when you get down to it, is whether or not it makes you want to read #2. And by that standard, 'Matt Champion' #1 is triumphant. I don’t know what I would anticipate seeing in the hypothetical following chapters; I have no definite expectations for the final resolution of this tale. But I’m still intensely curious, maybe even more so than if Fleming and Colón had had their hearts on their sleeves from the jump. It is annoying to know that I’ll never find out what became of 'Matt Champion', or what he might have been able to teach me about myself, society, humanity, or whatever. That annoyance can’t be held against the one issue ever published, though, which in and of itself is an unusual and intriguing first beat.

Monday, June 17, 2013

diary of a guttersnipe 06/17/2013: transcend r. crumbz.

by Shawn Starr


Pixar's Cars Comics
by Patrick Kyle, Michael DeForge, and Mickey Zacchilli 

Patrick Kyle killed it on this issue.

Vaders Little Princess (Chronicle Books)
by Jeffery Brown

This is a book that your aunt or uncle, who vaguely remember you like "Star Wars", would purchase you for Christmas in addition to a package or two of socks. Existing as a sixty page collection of "Star Wars" references mixed with “dad’s just don’t understand teenage girls!” interactions between Darth Vader and a young Princess Leia (and her companions).

The books stronger material is found when Brown drops the single page illustrations and produces short sequential stories; these “extended” narratives force Brown to work past the one note nature of many of his illustrations.

This was my favorite strip.

The Manhattan Projects #12 (Image)
by Jonathan Hickman, Nick Pitarra, Jordie Bellaire

Another issue of 'The Manhattan Projects' and another issue where one of the characters turns out to be someone else than who we had thought they were. By the end of the next arc, I presume the entire cast will turn out to actually be secret Muslims from Africa bent on something....something....punchline.

Thor: God of Thunder #9 (Marvel)
Jason Aaron, Esad Ribic, Ive Svorcina

The only problem I can find in Aaron/Ribic’s run on Thor (besides the kinda too on the nose dialogue about “gods” and shit) is that i kind of hate present heroic Thor. Young brash Thor? Amazing. Old cranky Thor? More please! But with this story-line coming to a close soon, I’m pretty sure that Aaron’s not going to spin the series off into a buddy cop story about Young and Old Thor beating the shit out of people and fucking bar wenches with a band of bumbling vikings chasing after them.

But alas, life is filled with disappointment.

Red Team #3 (Dynamite)
by Garth Ennis, Craig Cermak, Adriano Lucas

I started watching "The Shield" this week, this seems like the kind of comic Garth Ennis does after watching "The Shield".  Also, art and coloring are pretty solid which is a nice step up from the recent string of Ennis non-Marvel work.

so many links
for you
to read
or ignore

It’s only led me to complete awesomeness at all times. It’s only led me to awesome truth and awesomeness. Beauty, truth, awesomeness. That’s all it is.” The Kanye West New Yorker interview is a thing of beauty.

Trailer for a possible Alex Schubert a.k.a. 'The Blobby Boys' a.k.a. 'Zine Police' a.k.a. 'Cyber Gang' animated thing for Fox’s ADHD block, which is art directed by Ben Jones of Paper Rad fame, leading me to be actually interested in a FOX animated lineup after ten years of not giving a shit ("Bobs Burgers" excluded). Additionally, here's a trailer for the new 'The Blobby Boys' book which is being published by Koyama Press later this year.

Simon Hanselmann was interviewed by Sean T Collins for The Comics Journal. It’s a strong interview on one of alt-comics rising stars, but it’s the last segment of the interview where Hanselmann discusses his cross-dressing and it’s impact on his life that this interview crosses over into definitive. Hanselmann is having a breakout year between his 'Megg and Mogg' Tumblr serial and his criticism/gag/whatever he feels like strip 'Truth Zone' for Frank Santoro’s Comic Book Workshop Tumblr. If half the things he has in the works for this year and next see daylight i can’t see him not becoming a big[ger] fucking deal in alt-comics. You can read most of his comics here.

"Girls" Season 38

An essay on Suehiro Maruo’s 'The Laughing Vampire' by Sarah Horrocks, who seems to be popping up all over my twitter feed lately.

Interview by some site i have never heard of with Johnny Ryan and Peter Bagge. The choice exchange is:

    Do you have some wisdom for young comic artists?
Draw more dicks.

Vice talks to Gary Panter about art and stuff. Panter shows some originals to 'Dal-Tokyo' and 'Jimbo in Purgatory' which look amazing. Panter always comes off as the nicest guy in comics, he drew me a dinosaur the one time i meet him. Anyways, here's a recent auto-bio comic Panter did.

Louis C.K. interview, which is kind of old but i just got around to reading it. The parts about Woody Allen are really interesting, i need to sit down for a week and watch all of that mans films.

Oily Comics started taking 3 and 6 month subscriptions again. They are also debuting their first large form work at CAKE this weekend 'Habit' #1 a 52 page comic by Josh Simmons which you should buy. Josh Simmons is the bees knees.

A video tour through the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum. That original art is bonkers to look at in video, i can’t even comprehend seeing it in person.

Friday, June 7, 2013

1987 and all that 008: the serpent, indeed

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

Star Trek  #43-45 (DC)
by Mike Carlin, Tom Sutton, Ricardo Villagrán, Michele Wolfman, Helen Vesik

Not every story has a hero, and not every moral is a good one. One side of a conflict can be wrong without their opponents being right. In situations like that, even if all of the parties come to an agreement, the results are bound to be bittersweet at best. I don’t know for sure that Mike Carlin set out to write a story in which everyone (and I do mean everyone) came across as one shade of villain or another, but that’s certainly what he accomplished in this three-issue arc. By the end of the story, a solution has been reached that is probably the best possible option for the problem at hand, but it’s still a resolution that makes me uneasy. It’s very much a lesser of two evils situation, a compelling and difficult philosophical question with no good answers.

The story is a direct sequel to a second-season episode of the original "Star Trek" series, 'The Apple'. In the episode, Kirk leads a landing party to the planet of Gamma Trianguli VI on what is supposed to be an exploratory mission. Their goals change quickly when the planet itself starts to attack them and interferes with their ship, preventing them from leaving. Meeting the locals, Kirk and crew learn that the entire planet, from atmosphere to wildlife, is controlled by an underground, super-advanced computer named Vaal. The citizens of G.T. VI worship Vaal as a god, feeding him periodically so he can stay powered up and continue to provide them with a paradisaical world in which to live. They are immortal, these people, no longer aging because of how ideal Vaal has made their environment, and all of them are in perfect health. But that also means they don’t have sex or even romance, that there is no progress or creation in their culture. They exist in a state of homeostasis, a never-ending cycle of feeding Vaal and having Vaal feed them in kind. They are perfectly content to live like that, as they have done for countless years.

It matters not to Kirk and company how happy they are, though. To the Enterprise crew, and Dr. McCoy in particular, Vaal is a tyrant robbing his worshipers of their free will. It is not life, says McCoy, but stagnation, and therefore it is the Enterprise’s duty to do something about it. Though Spock protests, Kirk agrees, and in order to free both themselves and the people of G.T. VI, the Enterprise destroys Vaal. Kirk tells the planet’s inhabitants that they’ll thank and understand him someday, and then abruptly gathers his crew and leaves. At the episode’s close, Spock argues that if G.T. VI was a paradise before, then killing Vaal was on par with the snake giving Adam and Eve the apple that got them expelled from Eden. Kirk laughs this off by saying Spock looks more like Satan than he, and the credits roll.

But Spock makes a valid point that should not be so quickly waved away, which is why Carlin names his sequel, 'Return of the Serpent'. Technically, because Vaal is brought back to life, it could be that he is meant as the titular serpent. After all, the cave that houses him has an entrance in the shape of a huge snake or lizard head. It’s far more likely, though, based on what happens and where this story lands, that the Enterprise is the serpent in Carlin’s mind. It returns to G.T. VI to check in twenty years after 'The Apple', and Kirk has to face how truly dreadful a mistake he made the first time around.

As soon as he and his team land, it’s obvious that something terrible has been going on. Where once G.T. VI was lush and tropical, it is now a barren wasteland. Looking for answers, the crew finds Makora, one of the only indigenous people whose name they learned twenty years before. He is now a freethinking man of some respect with a full harem and a bunch of kids, but his freedom has corrupted him and made him greedy, so he pulls a mad stunt to try and become the new leader of his race. Vaal was a god, and now Makora means to replace him; he sees himself as a deity and wants others to do the same. Despite the planet decaying rapidly, he is hell-bent to become the top dog of the hellhole. Or top god, as the case may be.

Not everyone agrees that Makora is a suitable replacement. Akuta, the only man with whom Vaal communicated directly when the Enterprise first visited, remains loyal to his fallen master, along with a small but fierce band of “Vaalites.” So the formerly utopian, pacifistic society of G.T. VI has fractured and is now in constant conflict. Meanwhile, the world itself is dying, almost completely uninhabitable already. It’s a dire state of affairs, which the Enterprise’s presence only exacerbates. Somehow managing to make enemies of both sides, Kirk and his crew find themselves captives first of Makora and then almost immediately of the Vaalites. Luckily, Spock decides to step in, perhaps as he wishes he’d done two decades back, and saves everyone on the planet by restoring Vaal to life. Though even then, he does it in about the most pig-headed and antagonistic way possible, refusing to explain to his friends what his plan entails. This creates needless tension and confusion, and even leads to violence between the Enterprise, the Vaalites, and Makora’s people. As I said, nobody’s really a hero.

It also comes to light during the course of all this that the entire planet of Gamma Trianguli VI was built around Vaal. A man-made world, it’s very physical integrity depends upon Vaal being able to run the show. His followers were the descendants of colonists from Arret, a planet from another "Star Trek" episode that was destroyed by war. The thinking behind G.T. VI was that, if progress was rendered unnecessary, there’d be no war, and therefore the mistakes of Arret’s past could be avoided. So the stagnation that McCoy recoiled at so vehemently was, it turns out, the whole point. And it worked swimmingly right up until the Enterprise arrived twenty years ago.

The specifics of how Spock revives Vaal in the present are a bit convoluted. It has to do with him physically and mentally connecting himself to the computer to re-power it, but that only works up to a point, because Vaal also needs to process organic matter and turn it into energy. So ultimately Akuta sacrifices himself, except somehow that leads to his spirit living on in Vaal or something. It’s not entirely clear how that works. Whatever the mechanics of it, Akuta becomes an omniscient floating head, and Vaal is returned to full power. And then, because of Akuta’s sacrifice, Makora is chosen to be the new liaison between Vaal and the rest of G.T. VI’s inhabitants. Thus peace is restored, and paradise begins to rebuild.

Sort of a miraculous solution, no? Almost religious, you might say

And that’s totally fine if that’s what Carlin was aiming for, but I don’t think it was. Or, if it was, I don’t know how convincingly he pulled it off. Because this story only favors religion insofar as religion promises eternal paradise, which is a claim nobody can definitively back up. Yes, if you could literally visit Heaven, and you looked around and it was exactly as described, milk and honey and choirs of angels, you probably wouldn't shoot God. So I agree that Kirk screwed up in 'The Apple'. He made a decision about the future of an entire race of people based on only the most superficial information, and tried to solve for them a problem that they did not agree they had. That’s hubris-tic to the point of being comical. I appreciate Carlin taking issue with that, but I’m not sure he brings me all the way over to the side of Vaal either.

Because on a theoretical level, having a planet full of sentient beings living in a weird, mindless, symbiotic relationship with a machine is a little unsettling, to say the least. All the things that McCoy says about giving people freedom of choice and opportunities for progress still stand as perfectly reasonable arguments. I understand why Kirk was convinced back in the day, just as much as I see why it so troubled Spock when they did what they did. If you visited Hell, and everyone there was blissfully ignorant of the eternal prison that was their lives, you might very well take a shot at the Devil. But would you be right to do so? It is, after all, his home you’re visiting.

Carlin does not necessarily pick a side. Though Akuta and Vaal are vindicated in the end, the former is played as a maniacal, power-hungry mad man for the length of the story. And the latter is still a computer, no matter how intelligent or important, so there’s no expectation that the reader would be cheering for him, no reason to ever feel invested in him on a personal level. Spock comes out of all this the best, but his holier-than-thou cryptic Vulcan attitude about the whole affair creates a lot of hurt feelings and hurt bodies that could have been avoided. Carlin makes him, if not the good guy, the best guy, because that’s the role he played in 'The Apple', too. Although, he still makes plenty of mistakes. As for Kirk, he says out loud at the end of 'Star Trek' #45 that he “was very, very wrong,” when he choose to kill Vaal initially, so there’s no question that Carlin isn't a huge fan of his. And Makora may be the worst of the bunch, a completely self-centered ruler who acts as a warning against the risks of free will. He is a rough collection of the basest human desires in a leadership position. And he loses all the power he’d gained, returning to the status of servant in the end. Not only are there no true heroes, there’s just no good flag to wave. Only a collection of violent men who each think they know best, trying to prove each other wrong.

The story also has a weird relationship with violence. In almost every instance, it is shown as the worst possible solution to any problem, but still a popular one. Makora’s attack on the Vaalites could not come at a worse time, and when the Enterprise’s soldiers join the fray, things only get worse. It was phaser fire that drained Vaal of his power twenty years before, and it is phaser fire that puts his rebirth at risk now, prompting Akuta’s death. Big picture, Carlin displays violence as easy, lazy, and always wrong. But then there’s Konom the pacifist Klingon, whose personal character arc sends the opposite message.

At the beginning of the story, Konom refuses to use his weapon, even against an attacking dinosaur (That’s commitment). But the longer he spends on G.T. VI, the more violence he is exposed to, and, over time, he begins to feel that he has no other choice but to use it. This progresses until, by the narrative’s close, he’s just another trigger-happy redshirt, which seems to suit him just fine, and maybe even be something he enjoys. He definitely gets encouragement from his crew mates. Also, though the consequences of violence are very much a part of this story, Konom never suffers from them too greatly himself. When he fights, he tends to win with little emotional or collateral damage. Why is he the exception? Why would his smaller story give an inverse view of violence than that of the larger story in which he’s a player? Perhaps this is just Carlin trying to be thorough, to give all sides a fair chance. Or maybe the use of violence, like so many of the ethical dilemmas raised in this comic, is a complicated thing to discuss. Rather than provide a firm, preachy opinion on the matter, Carlin presents a few points of view and leaves any final decisions to the reader.

That’s clearly his approach with the main narrative. He writes several almost equally unlikable sides, and an ultimate solution that is so specific to this situation, and settles the issues of G.T. VI so unsatisfactorily, that the larger debates are left open-ended. Is survival more important than freedom? Is happiness worth mindlessness? What is a god, and do humans need them? None of these questions are any more concretely answered at the end of this story than they were at the start. But they have all been teased, explored, and turned upside down through the singularly strange example of Vaal and the planet he was built to control.

While an enjoyable and thought-provoking tale, I don’t think 'Return of the Serpent' needs or even particularly wants to be a comic book. Not that Carlin was upset with the medium or ill-suited for it as a writer, it’s just that this specific story isn’t very interested in its visual elements. It’s a long-winded, multi-faceted ethical, philosophical, and theological debate. There is a lot of fighting, a handful of dinosaurs, and some cool details in the caves that hold Vaal, so it’s not void of visually stimulating material but there’s often a lot of talking even in the action sequences, and an almost constantly-running discussion of the past, present, and future of the planet. I wonder if Carlin might not have made even stronger points and fuller arguments if he’d written this as an essay, an overt critique of 'The Apple'. But then he’d lose the ability to put the words in the characters’ own mouths, which is pretty important.

I don’t mean to indicate that the art is bad in these issues. Tom Sutton draws highly realistic characters, and can do crowded scenes in small panels without sacrificing that level of detail. Some of the largest battles are hard to follow in places, but only because everyone from G.T. VI is more or less dressed the same, which makes sense in the context of the story. The large central cast of 'Star Trek' all look distinct and very much like themselves, and that’s probably the top priority when you’re doing a comic book based on a TV show, anyway.

So the art is never boring, sloppy, or unclear. And the story is never boring, either, even in its most talkative moments. But the two elements don’t necessarily mesh all that well. The things that are interesting about the visuals aren't the same things I care about in the narrative; they’re a bit disconnected in their priorities. The art always accurately reflects what’s happening in the script, yet it still feels like the two aren't especially worried about what each other are doing.

Carlin does not offer many solid answers, opinions, or lessons. He asks the questions and presents numerous possible reactions, but the ending he settles on leaves many of them up in the air. If there is something to be learned from 'Return of the Serpent', it’s that making a decision about anything without having all the facts first is the wrong call. Kirk did it in 'The Apple' and almost destroyed a world. The Enterprise does it again when they send down an armed team, when they follow Spock into Vaal’s cave, and when they then attack Vaal in the middle of him trying to return to life. Every one of those moves is a mistake that comes far too close to ruining everything all over again. It is the one wholly consistent truth in this narrative, that looking before you leap is a bad idea. Beyond that, 'Return of the Serpent' can function as a call to religion, an anti-violence piece, a case for humans trying to build utopia, an argument against free will, or just an interesting and thoroughly-written sequel to a decent episode of a classic TV series.