Friday, August 30, 2013

1987 and all that 013: the loudest ninjas ever

by Matt Derman

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

Ninja High School #1-3 (Antarctic Press)
by Ben Dunn, Carlos Castro

My exposure to manga is extremely limited, at least relative to how much material is available. I have friends who are more serious about it, so I appreciate that world and have read a few great series, but it’s never been a serious part of my reading or collecting habits. My tastes just happen to lean differently. This is a brief but necessary lead-in to say that, in as much as it’s expressly parodying manga, I’m sure there are details or jokes in 'Ninja High School' that I didn't notice or get. But there’s such an overabundance of both details and jokes, I’m not sure how much it matters if you know which ones are directly referencing specific manga series/tropes and which aren't.

'Ninja High School' is overfull and manic, but I believe it’s mostly controlled chaos, intentionally hyper-stimulating. Writer/artist Ben Dunn favors absurdity and rapidity, skipping over things such as character development and logic so he can pack in more gags and/or action. Not that there’s no plot—it’s actually a fairly direct one, cleanly separated into three acts in its three issues, and making a deliberate point of addressing every loose thread, no matter how small, in its final few pages. But the plot is fundamentally ridiculous, beyond being fantastical in its content. It relies on nobody acting believably human, their motivations unconvincing and shallow, their emotions heightened to such extremes and changing so quickly that it’s difficult to invest in them for more than fleeting amusement. Again, I think this is Dunn’s goal, or at least one of them. He’s attempting to construct a narrative that does not weigh anything, and if that was indeed the plan, it’s a success. This is a funnel cake comic book: not especially substantive, but perfectly crisp and a lot of fun to consume.

The central plot of 'Ninja High School' revolves around a loveless love triangle. Two different young women are hell-bent on marrying Jeremy Feeple for different reasons, but for neither of them is it because they actually like Jeremy, at least not initially. The first one we meet is Itchy Koo, a ninja who wants to become the leader of her clan, but is told she must wed Jeremy (and only Jeremy) before she can fulfill that dream. Similarly, Princess Asrial, representative of some sort of intergalactic community called the Royal Conglomerate, is told by her superiors to marry Jeremy (and only Jeremy) as a first step toward bringing Earth into the Conglomerate, supposedly for the planet’s own good. Neither character is especially pleased about the situation, because Jeremy is an unremarkable boy, but the women’s disinterest does not dull their enthusiasm. They both make their intentions glaringly clear to Jeremy and one another, which leads to a lot of shouting and, ultimately, an official competition between them over who gets to be Jeremy’s wife.

What makes this already bizarre story especially silly is that almost everyone reacts to the ninja-vs.-alien situation as if it were an everyday occurrence. Jeremy is baffled and bothered by it, but even he doesn't protest too strongly, because the adults in his life tell him he has to accept that his fate is to marry one of these girls (and as a timid teenager, Jeremy listens to adults). It is a teacher, Professor Steamhead, who proposes that Itchy and Asrial compete, and when Jeremy looks to his mother for comfort or assistance or even just an explanation, all she tells him is that he has to respect the outcome of the contest. Rather than dig into the strangeness of these circumstances, Dunn has his characters go with the flow, and by extension asks the readers to do the same. If you start to poke at this story’s foundation, the whole thing will come toppling down; Dunn knows this, and is content with the narrative wobbling if it gives him more space for unadulterated goofiness.

For example, Professor Steamhead is more than just a funny name, it’s essentially a description of the character. The man is obsessed with steam, believing it to be the future of technology. He never delves into why he thinks that, or how it is that steam is supposed to accomplish anything, but he sticks to his guns, and even uses steam a few times during the series as a weapon or trap or similarly useful tool. The science behind this usage is questionable at best, but it’s always a fun visual to see him blast an unsuspecting bad guy.

Speaking of bad guys, the primary villains of this book are probably the clearest evidence that Dunn is not shooting for anything remotely grounded. Though at first the main conflict of 'Ninja High School' is the fight for Jeremy’s hand, there is also a B-plot that blossoms into the primary narrative by the last issue, about another ninja who wants to marry Itchy Koo. He is Rivalsan Lendo, head the Rival Ninja Clan. Though Lendo himself is a fairly nondescript angry young man, his organization and its members are outrageous and ridiculous, from their unsubtle name to their base of operations turning into a building-sized weapon to their overtly Nazi aesthetic. Lendo doesn't have a Nazi look, but most of his lackeys have German names and accents, and they dress like they’re in the SS. Eventually, this evil gang kidnaps Jeremy and brainwashes him, at which point he sports full-on f├╝hrer attire and decides he wants to rule the world, an extreme shift in personality that lasts only a few pages. The Nazi elements are ill-fitting and overdone on purpose, the simplest available shorthand for, “These characters are evil.” Dunn never calls undue attention to it, but instead lets the contrasting imagery speak for itself, humorously out of place in the setting in which it’s contained.

Between the outlandish plots, cartoonish style, and broad characters possessing even broader emotions, Dunn manages to fit multiple jokes of various sizes and levels of success on every page. This isn't just a spoof on manga, it’s an exercise in overcrowding comedy, attempting to walk the razor-thin line between hilarious and obnoxious. There’s a definite risk being run in this series that the non-stop stream of silliness could grow tiresome or grating, but it hits the sweet spot more often than not. Well-placed sound effects that literally describe the action they accompany---Imbed! Uproot! Leap!---always got a laugh out of me. As did Arnie, an almost-silent, almost-mindless character who exists only so the big action sequences can include someone musclebound. And though Jeremy isn't the world’s most complex protagonist, his endearing sincerity and trying-to-please-everyone passivity make him at least likable enough to carry such an airy tale. Itchy Koo and Princess Asrial are oversimplified and oversexualized, but I assume this comes from a place of satire, as opposed to any genuine male chauvinism on Dunn’s part. I’m familiar enough with manga to know that scantily-clad vixens are not uncommon, and Dunn has some fun with that by heightening it and aiming it at an emotionally ill-equipped teenaged boy. The women throw themselves at Jeremy strategically, not because that’s who they really are but because they figure it’s the best way to accomplish their missions. Jeremy, for his part, is too immature to respond to their advances with anything but blustering bewilderment, and it leads to a lot of humor at his expense, rather than at the expense of his suitors.

Along those same lines, the moment that solidified for me that 'Ninja High School' knew what it was doing all along came toward the very end of the final issue. Seeing that Rival Ninja Clan has transformed Jeremy into a mini-Hitler, Itchy Koo uses some sort of presumably ancient ninja magic to enter Jeremy’s mind and free him of Lendo’s brainwashing. It’s a pretty bad ass and important moment for Itchy, requiring her to use techniques outside her usual fighting skills to save the day. She proves the true extent of her power and heroism, and in doing so, she positions herself for the first time as someone deserving of the leadership responsibilities she’s been after all along. Then like one page later, Lendo grabs her in the claw of a giant suit of robot armor that he apparently owns, and she devolves into a stereotypical damsel in distress, screaming, “Jeremy!! Save me!!” at the top of her lungs. And how does our hero free his maiden from the villain’s metallic monster? By hitting it with a big rock. The divide between these two rescues is so massive, and Itchy’s transformation from capable heroine to hysterical victim so sudden and out of character, it seems impossible that it would be unintentional. Dunn is laughing (and encouraging his readers to laugh along with him) at the helpless young girl archetype by casting Itchy in that role mere moments after she proves that she’s anything but helpless.

Perhaps I give Dunn too much credit. Could be that he wanted 'Ninja High School' to be a hard-hitting, thought-provoking piece of great comic book literature, and somehow produced this laugh fest instead. But the attitude of the book feels like it’s consistently one of not taking itself seriously, of recognizing its underlying lack of realism and choosing to show it off. It’s childlike, focusing on play instead of progress, creativity over reason, and comedy above all else. Some things are sacrificed by taking this approach; there’s no one in this series I relate to, the stakes are never any higher than the future of one boy’s love life, and the rare scenes that seem like they could be places of genuine drama are forced to become jokes in order to fit. All of this comes together to create a story that’s difficult to care too deeply about yet exceedingly easy to enjoy.

Monday, August 19, 2013

diary of a guttersnipe 08/20/2013: 48/48/48 times 50

by Shawn Starr

To get things started this week, I thought i would point out that the creators of this fine website Joey Aulisio (a.k.a. my editor) and some dude named Alec Berry did a new episode of the chemical box (the podcast for which this site is so applicably named after). It’s more an elongated talk about why they have been absent than a new episode proper, but i really enjoyed it.

Anyways, here's some words....


Teen Creeps #1 (Oily)
by Charles Forsman

I like that within the first two pages, 'Teen Creeps' delivers on the titles promise. The page featuring “You taste like you eat a lot of cherries” makes my fucking skin crawl. What the fuck is wrong with teenagers.

This week, I am going to catch up with fellow C Box contributer, co-host of the greatest comic book podcast The Splash Page, and all around great human being Chad Nevett. Chad edited and contributed essays to the long awaited new Sequart book release 'Shot In The Dark: A Savage Journey to the Heart of Transmetropolitian' which is available to purchase from Amazon and other fine book retailers right now. Here's a little info on that release....

Shawn Starr: How did you come to edit a book about 'Transmetropolitan' for Sequart?

Chad Nevett: Blame that, like my other big writing gig (for CBR), on Tim Callahan. He wrote his Grant Morrison book for Sequart and they wanted him to do something for their website. He decided to do a discussion column and asked me to do it with him. That was January or February of 2008... the beginning of the Splash Page. We did that for Sequart's site and, in the process, I got added to their e-mail list when new projects would come up and they would open the call for essay pitches. I wound up doing three essays over a few years, one for their 'Watchmen' book and two for their 'Planetary' book. Shortly after the 'Planetary' book came out, I began talking with Mike Phillips about doing something for them, hopefully a book entirely by me. They had asked for three book ideas and I had two: one about Jim Starlin's cosmic work and an anthology about 'Hellblazer'. I figured that I'd give them one idea that's all me and one essay collection to increase my odds of actually getting something done. But, I needed a third idea. Really, those were the two projects that I was excited for at the time, so I threw in something about 'Transmetropolitan'. I'm a big Ellis fan and I had some ideas about the book and... well, I needed a third idea and I didn't think Joe Casey would sell, you know?

Turns out, "Warren Ellis" was the name to mention at Sequart at the time as they were looking to launch a bunch of projects surrounding Ellis. They already had the 'Planetary' book and the documentary about Ellis that Patrick Meaney had done would be coming out, and a couple of more books gave them their "Year of Ellis" project. They're a fan of the anthology books -- and I can see why given the variety of topics and writers you can utilize in anthologies -- and, since they already had a single-author Ellis book scheduled, I think they wanted another anthology to complement the 'Planetary' one. So, they asked if I'd be interested in editing it. I figured what the hell, should be fun...

Do you have a personal connection to 'Transmetropolitan'? It seems like a work that, if read at the right time in ones life, can have a lasting effect on you.

You can say that it came along at the right time in my life to make a lasting impression. I want to say that I began reading it in January 2000, so I was around 16/17 (my birthday is in January), I was politically minded, feeling trapped in a bit at Catholic school, feeling like I was smarter than everyone around me, and hungry for stuff like Transmet that would both validate and challenge what I was thinking and feeling. I had been an Ellis fan for years, first having my 12-year old mind blown when he took over Thor and, when I first tried out Transmet, was pissed off because he had just left 'The Authority', which was a comic that I was obsessed with in a big way when it was coming out. I literally carried the first four issues around in my backpack for months, randomly pulling them out and just re-reading and flipping through them. And Transmet went beyond that stuff.

I started out with "Year of the Bastard." My shop had all six issues in the back issue bin, so I plunked down my cash and was introduced to the world of Spider Jerusalem. I don't know if I had started reading the comic from the beginning if I would have been so taken with it. But, beginning with the big politics story arc was the perfect thing to hook me. And, in the process, Warren Ellis introduced me to Hunter Thompson. It's not coincidental that that's where I began the series and the essay that I wrote for 'Shot in the Face' is a look at the influence of Thompson upon 'Transmetropolitan'.

After I discovered Transmet, I'm sure the people around me found me a little more annoying. I covered my binder with quotes from the book and talked shit and talked politics like I knew what I was talking about... it was a good time. Transmet was the second half of high school for me along with Thompson and Mark Leyner (who I learned about from a Transmet letter page!) and all sorts of obnoxious self-righteousness that's yet to wear off entirely...

What was your editorial approach to the book. Do you see it as an academic piece of criticism or something more free flowing?

Well, Sequart's aim is more academic than anything and I have spent six years in the world of academia, so I think there's an academic approach/feeling that's hard to escape. However, that's not something that necessarily drives me in a project like this. I tend to be a bit more free flowing as a writer. Once you've got that smart, academic base, you should feel free to push things and chaff against it a bit. I was hoping for a book that contained a nice variety of voices rather than a more unified feel that you might find in an academic journal (though, there can be some nice variety there as well, don't get me wrong). If I had to choose between voice and adhering to an academic approach, I usually sided with voice. But, that's because I also knew that I had guys like Mike Phillips and Julian Darius backstopping me. I could afford to push things a little bit that way, because they (and the rest of their editorial team) would stop things from going too far outside of what they think fits with Sequart.

Did your opinion of 'Transmetropolitan' change during the process of working on the book? Was there any contributors whose essay’s changed how you thought about the work?

I have a pretty strong opinion/view when it comes to Transmet, so I wouldn't go so far as to say anything changed during the process of working on the book. I think it's more accurate to say that I was exposed to ideas that I hadn't previously considered. I didn't agree with all of them, but that's hardly the point. Julian's essay on the structure of the book made me rethink the way that the series was put together. Namely, I knew it could be broken down into six-issue chunks because that's how the trades were put together, but I never looked beyond that. I never noticed how Ellis used three-issue groupings throughout the run... except for year two. I never thought about how "Year of the Bastard" and "New Scum" are the only six-issue story arcs in the series. It was an angle that I had never considered that I really liked thinking about for a bit there.

Almost every essay had at least one moment like that where I saw some aspect of the book in a way that I hadn't before. I don't agree with the majority of Greg Burgas's essay (let the internet feud begin!), but he makes a good case and he made me consider the way that I viewed Spider's relationship with women. It influenced part of my essay comparing Hunter Thompson and Spider, and each of their relationships, not just with women but with men, too. That was a big appeal of the project and something that I hope readers take from the book. I know it's something that I've loved about the Sequart anthologies I've read.

The book seemed to be delayed for a while, was there a specific reason behind that?

There were two main reasons. The second one is an easy explanation: it took time to transcribe Warren Ellis' interviews for the documentary and we wanted to include what he said about 'Transmetropolitan' in this book. I love when books like these have some author interview and Sequart has a wealth of Ellis interview material in the footage that Patrick Meaney shot with him, and it's a great idea to cull the appropriate parts for books like these. Transcribing those interviews took time, so the book wound up getting delayed until those transcriptions were done.

The first reason for delay is a little tougher to explain. Basically, I learned that I like writing, but I don't like editing. It's not something that I find natural or comfortable. I can revise and rework things I've written, but handling things written by others is tough for me. I think my limit of comfort is reading an essay and making some notes on it. But, this project required more than that and it took me a long time to be able to do that. Far longer than it should have. Thankfully, Mike and Julian were both very understanding and very encouraging. I'm glad that I did this, but I definitely learned that editing is not something that I enjoy.

It's a little weird to say that, because I did love working on this book. It was a pleasure working with Mike and Julian from discussing possible topics to reading essay pitches to reading the essays to working with Kevin Colden on cover ideas... It was a blast and I am really proud of the book. I just don't want to edit another book again. Ha.

Any cool stories involving a chick?

This one time, I got my wife pregnant...


Michael DeForge has completed his 'Abby Loafer' strip for Mother News. You can read it all here. It’s the story of a fashion columnist and her day to day life. The twist though is that it’s by Michael DeForge which makes it intrinsically better than anything else being published right now.

Ryan Sands and 'Thickness' are spotlighted in The Pop Manifesto. Also, I read this interview between Ryan Sands and Frederik Schodt which originally appeared in 'Electric Ant' #1 that i really enjoyed. For context, Schodt was one of the key players in bringing Manga (and Tezuka in particular) to America.

Autopic could justify it's existence based on this Nancy gif for the next decade.

Simon Hanselmann is selling 'Truth Zone' originals (installments 1-69). You can browse them here.

New issue of Derek Ballard’s 'Cartoonshow'. This issue being #2.

Patrick Kyle’s Batman fan comic 'You Can Never Be Me' is online. I think this debuted at BCGF last year and is now out of print, so unless you own it this is probably the only chance you’ll have of reading it.

A new Kyle Baker strip emerged. Besides whatever Michael DeForge is doing, this is probably the best thing being published.

Friday, August 9, 2013

1987 and all that 012: the doctor is in/out/in/out/in

by Matt Derman

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

Dr. Fate #1-4 (DC)
by J.M. DeMatteis, Keith Giffen, Dave Hunt, Anthony Tollin, Agustin Mas

The heroes battle against the forces of chaos in J.M. DeMatteis and Keith Giffen’s 'Dr. Fate' mini-series, but for the reader, embracing chaos is the best option. The book is bananas, compressed to Gatling gun speeds, brimming with a zany energy that’s as relentless as the story’s primary antagonist. It reintroduces and then reinvents the core concept behind it's title character, expanding on established ideas in logical but unexpected ways. Dr. Fate’s status quo changes dramatically in all four chapters, sometimes more than once an issue. Some things are left by the wayside in order to keep up the pace, but it’s ultimately worth it for the fun of the experience, particularly Giffen’s madcap visuals, which might seem out of place in a more confined story.

Giffen’s lines, inked by Dave Hunt, are elastic. And not just when he draws Typhon, Lord of Chaos (or his children). The Lords of Order are represented with far more abstract images than Typhon. Even the human characters are done in flexible and elongated shapes. Panels or pages are often overloaded, the images barely held in place by the borders imposed upon them. There’s a liquid motion to the art, and a sort of jittery energy, especially with Anthony Tollin’s daring colors. All of which snugly suits DeMatteis’ frantic story.

The best visual in the book is the result of Typhon’s powers merging with Dr. Fate’s in the body of the mentally unstable Dr. Stoner. An evil Dr. Fate is created, with a fang-filled wicked grin that takes up so much of his helmet that he has no discernable eyes. Giffen gets a lot out of this image, making the most memorable part of the series a distorted version of the title character. Appropriate, since the entire narrative is about Dr. Fate becoming distorted in various ways, and fundamentally changing in the end.

When the story begins, Kent Nelson, the original Dr. Fate, is burnt out. As explained several times in this mini-series, Kent gets his powers through his bond with an ancient wizard/god/Lord of Order named Nabu. When Kent wears the signature helm-amulet-cloak combination that is his superhero costume, Nabu can possess his body and guide/control him, also allowing him access to all of Nabu’s magic and other powers. They have been fighting crime and chaos as Dr. Fate together for decades, and it has taken it's toll on Kent physically and emotionally. Including the death of his father, which happened as a side effect of Kent meeting Nabu for the first time. Also the death of Kent’s love Inza, who stuck with him in spite of the danger and insanity of his high-powered lifestyle, and was eventually driven mad by it. Now, Kent has started to openly resent Nabu, and Nabu in return psychically shouts at Kent, saying he should be grateful and manipulating him to forcibly recruit his own replacement.

Just like he did with Kent, Nabu selects a young boy to be the new Fate, ten-year-old Eric Strauss. Magically aging Eric into adulthood, Nabu tosses him into the field immediately, going toe-to-toe with Typhon himself. A tough-love kind of coach, Nabu first screams at Eric to let him take over, to trust him for no apparent reason. Then, in the moment Eric lets go of his doubts and accepts Nabu’s control, the wizard abandons him. Typhon proceeds to effortlessly trounce Eric, and takes him captive. This is most of what happens in the first issue, and Nabu is intentionally set up as a control freak and all-around ass. What seems like a grating trait for a hero at first, Nabu’s hyper-manipulative behavior—becomes the tragic flaw that almost ruins everything. It is Nabu’s greatest weakness and the motive behind his biggest personal failure. Essentially, he’s been straining under the pressure of his own addiction to control for a while, and this series is the story of him finally reaching his breaking point. Each issue, we see more and more cracks in his personality, and the supposedly wise Lord of Order reveals himself to be a liar and narcissist with too much power.

Letting Eric get beaten turns out to have been the plan all along, a hubristic move on Nabu’s part that, surprise surprise, totally backfires. His intention is to use Eric’s capture as an opportunity to infiltrate an enemy stronghold; in this case, Arkham Asylum where Typhon’s worshipper Dr. Stoner works. But Typhon and Stoner have merged in the same manner as Kent and Nabu, and use this to set a trap and steal the power of Dr. Fate. This leads to the awesome-looking evil Fate I discussed above, so it’s a win for the reader, but it makes Nabu looks like a fool on top of everything else. It’s classic superhero fiction, with the good guys up against such insurmountable odds that even they start to admit it might be time to surrender. Kent does, anyway, while Nabu is too stubborn, and Eric escapes Arkham and gets a second wind. They all meet up at the Tower of Fate, along with Linda who is…sort of tricky.

Linda is Eric’s stepmom. We meet her and Eric at the same time, moments before Kent and Nabu kidnap him. It’s stated immediately that Eric has always been too mature to comfortably play with children his own age, and that he and Linda have a special connection or understanding between them. Which seems innocent enough at first, if perhaps a bit stiffly written, but gets much weirder after he goes missing and Linda begins to admit to herself (and the reader) that she’s in love with Eric. She acknowledges how crazy that is, but her feelings seem to overcome any sense of logic or decorum. Eric, according to her, is extremely mature, and she’s drawn to him in some inexplicable, overwhelming way. She also feels sure that he’s still alive after his sudden disappearance, and sets out to find him. Instead, she accidentally finds Kent and Nabu in the Tower, arriving shortly before Eric. Who, lucky for Linda, has been transformed a full-grown adult, and obviously reciprocates her feelings.

They never do anything inappropriate in this book, but their love is key to the plot. Seeing the passion Eric and Linda have for one another, Kent realizes that Dr. Fate was never supposed to be just one person acting as a host for Nabu. The power is too much for a lone human to handle, which is why Kent has become so worn down. It’s also why his love with Inza was so strong, why she stood by him as Dr. Fate so committedly that it stole her sanity and killed her. Inza was supposed to be Kent’s partner in the role, as Linda is supposed to be Eric’s. Nabu kept it a secret because he enjoyed having complete power over a single person, rather than splitting his influence over a pair as he was meant to. But once Kent figures it out, he tells Linda to join Eric, and the two of them are mighty enough together to take Stoner down for good and send Typhon packing.

Other than being in love with each other for vague reasons, Eric and Linda don’t have a lot of personality. They are the weakest characters in the series, with their primary role just to be any two people of opposite genders so DeMatteis can shake up the foundation of the Dr. Fate character. Eric also possesses a blind determinism when it comes to stopping Typhon, but it’s not entirely clear why that is. The title of the book is 'Dr. Fate', so the best explanation offered is that Eric and Linda are simply destined to be a superhero duo. That’s well and good, but it’d be preferable if they had some meat on their bones beyond the potential to be a couple now that Eric’s no longer a child.

I think of Eric and Linda as victims of the title’s pacing. Luckily, the rest of the cast fares a bit better, perhaps because they’re all broken, depressing figures, so DeMatteis spends more time with them. I have already talked about Nabu’s problems, and to some extent Kent’s. The two of them struggle to coexist, with Kent’s bitterness deepening every second, and Nabu’s patience lessening. Their dynamic is exhausting and sad. Kent knows he’ll die without Nabu to keep him going, but at this point that’s what he wants. Nabu just wants him to stay up long enough for Eric to take over, but the more time that passes, the less likely it seems that Kent is going to make it. The ever-worsening Kent-Nabu relationship drives the narrative, as their desire to finally separate from one another getting stronger the more hopeless things become.

The richest member of the cast by far, and the most unstable, is Dr. Stoner. Once a devoted member of the Arkham staff, caring deeply about making his patients better, he lost faith somewhere and became an agent of Typhon. Now Stoner embraces insanity, loves seeing his patients get worse, and grows steadily madder himself. To some extent, he’s a sympathetic villain, but he takes such joy in being the bad guy, and he’s so insufferably smug about it the whole time, seeing him lose in the end is highly satisfying. Plus Giffen makes him so lanky and bug-eyed and generally unsettling in shape. Both Giffen and DeMatteis put more weight on the baddies than the heroes, but I think it’s by design, and it definitely pays off.

What works best about this series is seeing the less likable characters get what they deserve. Nabu has to show some humility and confess his lies. Stoner is beaten but still alive, so there’s a sliver of hope that his mind might still be repaired. Typhon runs away, spouting desperate you've-not-seen-the-last-of-me type lines as he flees. And the Lords of Order have to live with not getting their way, when Nabu redeems himself by choosing the unpredictability of humanity over pure order. These resolutions are all a long time coming, so when the pieces rapidly fall into place at the end, there is an enormous sense of relief. In the last few pages, the book finally slows down and catches its breath, having acceptably positioned everyone in the cast. But there’s enough open-endedness for more stories to follow, as they did in an ongoing series the following year.

The other thing that makes 'Dr. Fate' such a solid read is that every member of the creative team elevates the story. Letterer Agustin Mas adds some brilliant touches, specifically the way he distinguishes Nabu, Typhon, and The Lords of Order from everyone else. These are the most powerful characters, the guys at the heart of the conflict. And they each have their own dialogue styles and borders, distinct from one another and from all the human characters. Because there are a lot of telepathic communications that move very quickly from voice to voice, having the immortal characters set apart this way is helpful and, now that I've seen it in action, feels like a necessity. Also, when Nabu is speaking with the Lords of Order on their plane, the panels are essentially just shapes and colors with speech bubbles over top, so it’s important that each piece of dialogue can be immediately and accurately attributed to the right speaker.

I gave colorist Anthony Tollin the briefest nod earlier, but he deserves more recognition than that, because his work has a lot to do with the series’ lightheartedness that helps support its speed. There’s a general pop to everything, even when the colors dim to fit the more somber or reflective moments. Dr. Fate’s bright golds and blues have to mesh with Typhon’s duller greens when they fight, and even more so when they come together later. Tollin always finds the balance, and makes smart decisions about his background choices as well. And just like with Mas’ letters, Tollin’s colors are one of the most important aspects of the scenes of Nabu and the Lords of Order. The success of those sequences depends on them being captive pieces of abstract art; by changing the colors in each panel and playing with varied hues, Tollin ensures they’ll work on their own and as a whole.

'Dr. Fate' chugs along at full steam all the way through. And while Linda and Eric are diluted because of it, in its entirety the book succeeds as a piece about the dangers of extremism in any direction. Or perhaps the dangers of obsession or addiction in their many forms, though those are basically just variations on the same thing. I’m a big fan of stories that support open-minded, middle-ground thinking, and if they can be as frenetic and entertaining as this, all the better. And Giffen, Hunt, Tollin, and Mas collaborate gracefully to create a bold final product. This is visual storytelling that forces the eye to follow it, because it’s all bizarre, fascinating, and flashy.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

episode 022: we used to be friends

alec and joey return from yet another hiatus to discuss what they have been up to the last year, and the trials and tribulations that led to the (almost) demise of the show. 

music by the dandy warhols


Wednesday, August 7, 2013

train kept a-rollin' 004: what if? avx #4

What If? AvX #4 (Marvel)
by Jimmy Palmiotti, Jorge Molina, Gerardo Sandoval, Norman Lee, Carlos Lobos Cuevas, Rachelle Rosenberg

'What If? AvX' is probably the most cohesive companion 'What If...?' story to ever come out. It presents a story that bears little resemblance to the events of 'Avengers vs. X-Men' yet stems entirely from the event in such a way as to reinforce one of the dominant messages of the event. Namely, Captain America is always right.

'What If? AvX' is the worst case scenario that the Avengers try to prevent in 'Avengers vs. X-Men' when they go to Utopia and ask Cyclops to hand over Hope so they can take her away from Earth as the Phoenix approaches. They fear that she is unprepared and that the Phoenix possessing her will result in the destruction of the planet. While the planet is not destroyed in the final issue of 'What If? AvX', the entire population of the world is killed*. Hope is made the host of the Phoenix, she is unable to control it, not mature enough to wield its awesome power, is corrupted, and helps set into motion a chain of events where Magneto is made the new host and, in his dying moments, kills everyone else in a final act of spite.

(* It doesn't fit into my piece here, but the ending of this story is the one place where ambiguity exists enough that it’s almost interesting. Wolverine kills Magneto while he’s the Phoenix and, as he dies, he explodes in blinding white light. Wolverine is saved by Jean Grey who has returned and they become the Adam and Eve of Earth as they look to rebuild humanity, hopefully better this time around. What’s not explicit is whether this is what happens or whether this is all in Wolverine’s head. Did only he die and this is the afterlife? We don’t know. I like that one more because of what it says about that character. It’s more personal and less cheesy if it’s all in his head or stems from his desires. If it’s what really happened, then it’s pretty laughable.)

'What If...?' stories providing “worst case” scenarios is not a new concept. However, rarely (if ever) have they existed almost for the sole purpose of justifying the morality of characters that, honestly, wound up looking like the bad guys by the end of the story. No matter how many times characters throw the death of Xavier in Cyclops’s face, it doesn't change that he was right and that Captain America made a bad situation worse by refusing to trust in his friends. In 'Avengers vs. X-Men', Cyclops went from a crazy cult leader to the man who brought about the salvation of his race, all the while being vilified by a man who thought it best to continue trying to hit beings with the power of a god instead of working with them as they used their powers to make the world a measurably better place. So, here, we have the evidence: had Hope gotten the Phoenix immediately, the world was fucked.

Captain America was right.

Captain America was right.

Captain America was right.

This was an idea that I kept circling when writing about 'Avengers vs. X-Men'. “Captain America was right.” It wasn't my contention, of course. I always said “Cyclops was right.” But, what I wanted to say was “Captain America was wrong.” Fuck who was right just so long as that character was wrong. Part of it is my natural chaffing against unimpeachable authority figures who have authority because they have authority because they have authority, a trait that always seemed to sum up Captain America to a large degree. He’s right because he’s right because he’s right. It’s one of the laws of the Marvel Universe. It’s lazy bullshit. It allows for simplistic writing that ignores the reality it’s creating simply by saying it isn't true. Why was Cyclops a villain? Because Captain America was in opposition to him. No wonder people thought I was stupid for reading all of those comics...

There’s something both rewarding and incredibly grating about reading a four-issue alternate reality story that seems to exist to justify the original story’s core message. Four issues that could basically be a briefing by Captain America to the president on what he believes will happen should the Phoenix be allowed to possess Hope. As I said before, it fits nicely into 'Avengers vs. X-Men' in a thematic, conceptual way. It will sit there as a quick reminder that, while Cyclops seemed like he knew what he was talking about, Captain America was really right to intervene and delay Hope’s encounter with the Phoenix, so there. It supports the original story in a surprising and completely unsubtle way. It also feels cheap. This was the implied depiction of events should the Avengers fail. Why in the world did it need to be given four issues? This story already existed within 'Avengers vs. X-Men' and just needed a reader with a slight imagination to bring it forth. What happened to 'What If...?' stories that actually challenged readers and delivered something far outside their expectations? Because this wasn't that. This wasn't Spider-Man can’t shake the Symbiote loose, so it uses him all up and winds up possessing Thor and the Hulk until Black Bolt kills it, ending with Peter Parker as an old broken man (I really liked that one). This wasn't even the by rote Wolverine is the king of the vampires or “What if the Age of Apocalypse had not ended?” (turns out, it didn't...). It was “Here’s the story that was heavily implied, so give me 16 bucks, asshole.”

I always come back to that story in 'What If? Civil War' where Captain America and Iron Man stop fighting, talk things out, find a compromise that works for everyone, and the story ends with them overseeing the superhuman community together, happy that they made it okay. Civil War was one long “Captain America is right” story (where he had an actual point, I’ll admit) and that story was a big “fuck you” to the original story, undercutting its central premise, while pointing out that both sides were wrong. I don’t know why, but I really like that. I guess I’d rather read a story that tells me the official version was crap than it was for the best. It seems less like hype and advertising that way. 'What If? AvX' is an ad for why 'Avengers vs. X-Men' was better than you thought and it makes you pay for the privilege of reading it.

Captain America was right.

I’m a fucking idiot.

And the gravy train keeps a-rollin’ on and on... 

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

diary of a guttersnipe 08/06/2013: i'm going to bribe all the officials. i'm going to kill all the judges.

by Shawn Starr

Summer lovin’ had me a blast. Now i’m alone again. Words follow:


Goddamn This War! (Fantagraphics)
by Jacques Tardi, Jean-Pierre Vierney

(these are more stray thoughts than a review, but let's not get pedantic)

. 'Goddamn This War!' tells the story of the First World War through short vignettes, more journal entries than narratives, these thoughts flow forth from an enlisted french worker as he travels from front line to front line over the course of the war. There is no large narrative being told in 'Goddamn This War!', even the short stories that composed 'It Was A War Of The Trenches' are left behind, there are no beginnings, middles, or ends for our narrator; no last minute heroics during the climax to save his best friend from certain doom with a tacked on voice over about how war ruins all. The war simply begins and ends. The narrator survives, but like everyone else he is left maimed in one way or another.

If 'Goddamn This War!' could be said to have a narrative at all; it is the author's search for a reason for it all, the bloodshed and destruction, but by the books end all he seems to come up with is nothing.

. I’m of two minds towards the title 'Goddamn This War!'. The literal french translation of ‘Putain De Guerre!’ is ‘Fuck this War!’ and while that title (as Kim Thompson joked in a discussion on Tardi’s body of work) was likely to cause some problems at the distribution level, it's name rings far truer to the intent of the work than the less crude 'Goddamn This War!'. War is vulgar after all, and Tardi is well aware of this fact.

The inclusion of God in the title is interesting, it can either be read as an ironic appropriation of God similar to the way the governments and militaries appropriated ‘God’ to lure the masses to their side during the war effort. Tardi does hint at this reading in the text by turning the Tommies (English) slogan of war “‘God and my lawful right’ against the Germans” in on itself by picking the slogan apart, questioning whose God is the true God if each nation prays to him “another hypocrite with a finger in every pie” he emphatically states, eventually re-configuring the quote to fit his own view of events “Each for himself and God against all”. This leaves a sacrilegious bend to the title that, within the context of the work, puts to the forefront an important aspect of it.

The problem with the use of Goddamn though is that it elevates Tardi’s attack on institutional religion and it’s place in promoting the war, thrusting this singular aspect to the forefront. Tardi is throughout the work attacking the Military, Religion and the Government so by placing one explicitly in the title it seems to take away from the attack on the three and highlight (to the detriment of the others) the one. Fuck though, fuck this and fuck that and fuck you you mother fucker; can be related to any and all of these institutions. It is universal in its vulgarity.

. As the book goes on our narrator’s sense of detail diminishes. The first chapter, 1915, includes an elongated battle scene from his point of view, and is preceded by several pages of his company marching in near parade like fashion through various French towns on their way to the front line. We are given details of the battle, including an interesting sequence depicting an ill fated cavalry charge which (as one would suspect) did not turn out very well in the face of artillery fire. This is our narrator's first battle and it is the only one which he gives such intimate detail. The first chapter is almost wholly consumed by these two actions, a march to war and the first military engagement. In contrast during the the final year, 1918, we are treated to a series of pages illustrating the death of nearly a dozen individuals that are told in a manner that makes them seem as almost an afterthought for the narrator, each receiving at most two panels and a few lines of narration documenting their lives and death, details besides these two are few and far between. It reads like a frightful recap, a stand up realizing his ten minutes is almost up and rushing to the punchline.

. The narrator's anger though, however fragmented and rushed his retelling becomes, never diminishes.

. 'Goddamn This War!' is the first work of Tardi’s that i have seen in full color, or at least the first few pages of 'Goddamn This War!' are in full color. As the story progresses the color is sapped away, page by page, until it turns into an overwhelming grey-wash of bleakness as the murk of mud and death overwhelms the pages both visually and narratively.

It is not until the final year of the book, 1918, when victory (or whatever one wishes to call it) is achieved that color starts coming back to the narrative. Although, it is not to be seen in the idyllic fields of France where the first battles took place and Tardi’s lush color work made you think that field would be a wonderful place to have a picnic, only maybe at a different time. Nor does color return to the small towns that litter the countryside, that Tardi beautifully rendered as the French army so proudly marched through them on their way to the front line. It certainly is not in the faces of those who fought in the battles or those civilians who were subjected to long range shellings throughout the war, even though the first time we saw them, in their brightly colored and ornate uniforms, they looked so full of life.

Death contaminates them all, their color is lost.

No the only objects that regain their color are those which glorify the country and the war, the allied powers flags, which are waved in the streets of Paris when victory is declared, and the medals those who served received, like the one pinned on a man slouched down on a street corner next to his crutches begging for money. Since the country had won the war, it is they who are given the promise of a future - those who had actually fought the battles for them are not allowed to forget what they saw, but as you know it only took a few years for the governments to forget what the whole thing was about.

. Fantagraphics used a different paper stock for this Tardi collection, it’s of a glossy ilk. I presume they changed the paper to make the colors (and lack of colors) pop, which it does, in a manner in which i am doubtful their default Tardi collection paper could achieve.

. In addition to the change in paper stock this is also the first Tardi collection with a substantial “extras” section, which seems to be a lengthy history of World War One with special attention to the events Tardi references. I also believe some of his reference photo’s may be included in this section, i’m not sure if i am making that up though. As much as I enjoy the Tardi collections i always felt they lacked in this area, a nice series of introductions or a multi-part biography that spanned each collection would be something i’d really appreciate, especially since before the most recent issue of 'The Comics Journal' i’d read very little about Tardi’s life and work.

The Love and Rockets Companion: 30 Years (And Counting) (Fantagraphics)
edited by Marc Sobel, Kristy Valenti

The L&R companion is what an autistic kid who read too many issues of 'The Comics Journal' over their summer vacation created for their book report. I'm a big fan.

links links links

My friend Alec Berry (and co-founder of this site) wrote an article for USA Today College about The Center for Cartoon Studies (CCS). This was also the subject of a recent documentary "Cartoon College" ( Tim Callahan has a nice write up on it). Alec has also started a new (weekly?) column over at CBR subsidiary Comics Should Be Good titled The Workbook you can read the first installment here.

I’m not sure if this was a con announcement or just happened to be announced around the time a major con was taking place (OR! i just didn't notice it in a timely manner) but Johnny Ryan’s action manga by way of...well Johnny Ryan series 'Prison Pit'  is currently in the process of being animated.

Lisa Hanawalt interview with The Paris Review. I liked the content of the interview, but its structured weird. No questions are actually asked - or they are but they just decided not to put them in the text of the piece. I don’t really understand why anyone would do that besides it being a mistake, since it makes it read like Hanawalt is just talking to herself about elephants in high heels unprompted and may therefore be a crazy person.

Simon Hanselmann to be published by Fantagraphics.

It’s a death cult movie about demons and witch burnings.  Cultural terrorists/tourists.  White girls shooting black men, directed by white privileged men.” Sarah Horrocks review/screed on "Spring Breakers". A film i have seen four times and continues to grow on each viewing.

Picture Box is having a sale on most of their stock. 40% off book and 30% off prints/posters. I’ll probably pick some shit up from that. You should too.

Mickey Z interview. She did a comic with CF recently too, which i’m waiting to come in the mail.