Friday, September 20, 2013

1987 and all that 014: lifeline is awesome and other stories

by Matt Derman
...reading comics from the year i was born!

G.I. Joe Special Missions #3-6 (Marvel)
by Larry Hama, Herb Trimpe, Bob Sharen, George Roussos, Phil Felix, Joe Rosen

There’s not a lot of subtlety in 'G.I. Joe Special Missions'. The dialogue is clunky, with characters naming each other when it does not feel natural, describing at length the various high-tech weapons and machines at their disposal, and explaining the past and present circumstances surrounding their missions in a weirdly expository fashion. Pretty much everyone has the same voice, and it’s not a very interesting one, always either wholly factual or awkwardly angry. This lack of personality also makes the stakes feel low, and thus detracts from the action scenes, because there’s no suspense created when the reader isn't invested in the cast. Yet even with this stale writing, the comic does a few things quite well. First of all, it tells self-contained stories in every issue, and does so without needing to rush through them or compress them too greatly. Even better, every story has an actual moral underlying it (a point to make about war, violence, friendship, etc.), and despite the heavy-handed nature of the dialogue, these underlying messages are delivered more skillfully. We’re not hammered with the morals in an obvious after school special style that makes them less effective. Instead, they exist beneath the surface of the narratives, there for the reader to find but not forcefully or distractingly calling attention to themselves.

The basic format of the series, as it's title suggests, is that each issue features a select team of Joes carrying out a specific, small-scale mission. To his credit, writer Larry Hama does a pretty good job of coming up with different kinds of threats for his heroes to face and goals for them to accomplish: destroying an enemy stronghold, keeping spies at bay, escaping imprisonment, etc. None of them are especially complex, and the resolutions to each story tend to be easy to spot from a mile off because the good guys always win (and, as I said, the scripts aren't particularly nuanced). But at least there’s some variety, and Hama also uses different combinations of characters every time, though several people do show up in multiple issues. I don’t know the G.I. Joe world well enough to say if the casting choices have any special meaning by-and-large, though I suspect they do not, as the characters seem mostly interchangeable. Point being, any individual issue of this book can be picked up and read cold without it affecting the reader’s understanding or appreciation of it. They are truly standalone narratives.

The morals I referenced above are not all that original, but that doesn't make them valueless. There’s a story about loyalty, where a supposed friend first betrays the Joes and then sacrifices himself to save them. Along similar lines, one issue demonstrates the dangers of arrogance, when a villain who abuses and under-appreciates the rest of his crew pays the ultimate price for his asshole attitude. Where a lot of war fiction explores the unique brand of camaraderie and trust that combat creates between people, 'G.I. Joe Special Missions' is about more broadly applicable ideas. Everyone should look out for their friends, everyone should respect the people they work with, and no one should let their egos over-inflate to the point of hubris. These topics could be and have been discussed in many genres, but by looking at them through the lens of the military, Hama is able to cut to the chase with worst-case scenarios. The common, very human flaws and mistakes of these characters don’t just spoil their relationships, they get them rather quickly killed in horrible ways.

For me, the best of these stories is in issue #4, "No Holds Barred." When it opens, the Joes are already embroiled in a dangerous aerial fight/chase, easily the most captivating first page of any of these comics. The heroes’ enormous plane is transporting a smaller one called a firebat, from which they want to extract specific pieces of technology (referred to as black boxes, but I don’t think they are the same as black boxes on modern planes, though it’s not all that clear). The bad guys are of course trying to steal the technology for themselves. While most of the Joes attempt to shoot down the enemies’ gunship, one of them, going by the codename Lifeline, works on breaking into the firebat to get the black boxes out, and refuses to join in the fight. Even when the rest of his team gets pissed off at him, he is insistent about his non-combatant status and stays focused entirely on the task at hand. His stubborn pacifism lasts even after they are shot down, even when half of his allies get wounded. He goes so far as to actively stop one of them from killing a wild tiger. It borders on comedy how unflappable he is while surrounded by men with over-sized automatic weapons who keep calling him useless.

Eventually, a gang of river pirates kidnaps the Joes and all of their opponents. The pirates’ leader, Sarawak Sally, then forces them to battle each other in one-on-one fights to the death. At first, even this is not enough to make Lifeline participate in the violence, and he protests right up until one of the baddies gets inches away from landing a blow. Suddenly and surprisingly, Lifeline throws his attacker through the air, revealing that, though he doesn't believe in harming others, he’s a master of the all-defensive martial art known as aikido. He handily defeats the man assigned to fight him, and Sally says that Lifeline and his friends are free to go with the black boxes, but that their enemies will be killed. Unwilling to leave a bunch of defenseless people behind so they can be executed, Lifeline offers Sally an alternative: let everybody go free, and keep the black boxes for herself. She accepts, and while technically he fails the mission, Lifeline totally saves the day.

I like this issue more than the others for a lot of reasons. Partially it’s just that I’m a big fan of characters who avoid violence, especially in war (or superhero) stories where violence is everyone else’s default mode. And even though Lifeline’s decision to spare his foes’ lives isn't exactly a shock, this is the only time the Joes don’t actually achieve what they initially set out to do. They merely survive, an atypical outcome that nevertheless feels like a win.

Last but not at all least is that Herb Trimpe’s artwork is at it's best here, in no small part due to the jungle setting of much of the story. He does good, dense backgrounds, and some amazing examples of wildlife, most notably the remarkably lifelike tiger. It looks almost human, which makes Lifeline’s intervention on its behalf all the more satisfying. Trimpe also has a lot of fun with the designs of the river pirates; they’re all barely clothed, the men and women alike, and they make quite the flashy entrance when they show up in their bizarre wooden sailboats with huge mounted guns. Sally has a wild rage about her that sets her apart from every other character, and makes her an impressive and intimidating leader. Lifeline, too, has a very distinct look, dressed in all red, wearing a helmet and goggles, and generally not fitting in with the other members of his team. He’s the odd man out in the narrative, and that is reflected in the art.

Unfortunately, Trimpe doesn’t get everything right. When Lifeline is tossing around the guy he has to fight, for example, all of their poses are wildly unnatural. But even if it’s not intentional, this scene acts as effective comic relief, and in truth the whole issue is visually sillier than usual. The comedic tone helps the wobbly writing—because the art doesn't feel too serious, it’s easier to accept the overly simplistic scripting. So while he has a rough spot here or there, Trimpe provides solid work on the whole, and even his mistakes do some amount of good.

'G.I. Joe Special Missions' isn't a great series, but it does have an interesting approach to war stories. This is never clearer than in the Lifeline issue, where the book not only makes some unexpected moves for a war comic, but breaks away from its own patterns as well. Nobody dies, the mission isn't completed, and hand-to-hand combat is the most powerful weapon used. I would have liked to see more of this kind of experimentation from Hama and Trimpe both, and maybe in later issues they do try some new things. Even if that’s the case, though, this title is only fair-to-middling, telling lukewarm stories about cipher characters working toward pretty dull goals.

Monday, September 16, 2013

diary of a guttersnipe 09/16/2013: back in a civic

by Shawn Starr

I’ve decided to be proactive in treating this random cough i have had for the past few months, and i’ve begun taking cold pills and switching from whiskey + cokes to screwdrivers. Should be cleared up in a few days.


Thor: God of Thunder #12 (Marvel)
by Jason Aaron, Nic Klein

It’s difficult not to see the departure of Esad Ribic from 'Thor: God of Thunder' at the conclusion of the Grodd The Godslayer “mega-arc” (11-issues) as anything but a death nail for that title. Esad brought a heaviness to the title, his artwork carries with it a sense of weight and density that few other artists in comics can achieve - making the fight scenes (featuring overly muscular men wielding hammers punching and smashing their way across the cosmos) feel real in a sense, the hammer blows have a weight behind them and the damage they caused is felt. The other aspect of Ribic’s heaviness is his artwork's clear association with 'Heavy Metal' (both the magazine and musical genre); his artwork begs to depict these genres tropes, it needs to depict outer space and celestial bodies and Conan stand-in’s beating each other up while giving speeches on the state of the cosmos.

With Ribic’s departure, Aaron brings Thor back to earth after a little over a year (publication time) in space, promptly reinserting the god of thunder back into the Marvel Universe and leaving behind much of Ribic’s trademark imagery. This is first achieved by a series of pastiches (showing Thor with the citizenry of the 616, a pub owner noticing the once absent thunder returning and pulls out a barrel or two of mead for the returning hero, Thor meets with an inmate about to be put to death - the inmate in these last moments now realizes that if only he had met Thor earlier he could have avoided his life of crime, etc.) which are all built around the idea of humanizing and bringing him up to speed with the 616 universe. Now this is a god whom we have just watched smash his way through the universe riding on a viking ship with three time displaced versions of himself while on a quest to kill a rogue “god” (see the godslayer had turned himself into a god in his battle against the gods, ironies a bitch, huh?). The deflation is needed in the absence of Ribic, but it’s one that stops the book in it’s tracks, gone are the epic speeches and in their stead is melodrama and YouTube jokes.

Nic Klien’s artwork at times has flourishes of a cosmic scale, there are a few instances, in particular two splash pages both off world where his charcoal texturing adds a depth to the landscapes that looks promising, but his artwork for the majority of the issue is rooted in an amalgamation of house styles that he doesn’t seem completely grown out of yet, and which Aaron seems to only wish to reinforce in his search to bring Thor back “home”.


Mother News, a free newspaper out of Providence, has recently achieved their past editions. The paper itself is quite good, but the main draw here is that this archive contains monthly strips from CF, Mickey Z, Charles Forsman and Michael DeForge (along with others). With so many free alternative newspapers shutting down lately (the long standing Boston Phoenix shut down publication last year after a nearly fifty year run), it’s nice to see one still running, along with publishing strips from some of the best new creators in comics. I’m doubtful this will be possible by the end of the decade.

Speaking of Esad Ribic, he will be taking over art duties on Hickman's 'Avengers' starting in December which actually sounds pretty cool.
A Newsarama interview with Ben Marra. What Newsarama is doing interviewing Ben Marra and why they are doing a “countdown to SPX” is beyond me, but i guess it will get more eyes on Marra’s work, so it’s ultimately a good thing. This interview reminded me of a semi-recent interview with Howard Chaykin on CBR about a new-ish release of his (something about Westerns and TV) where towards the end of the interview, when the inevitable “what else are you working on?” question is asked, the answer is something twenty times more interesting than anything else being talked about in the interview. The crazy thing is the interviewer doesn’t just stop the whole process and latch onto that cool project he just mentioned, they kind of bury the lead instead (In the case of the Chaykin interview it was the mention of a 'Black Kiss Christmas Special' along with 'Black Kiss 3'). Here's the one from the Marra interview:

Newsarama: What's next for you? More blades, more lazers, what?

Marra: I'm currently hard at work on a few projects. I'm working with Josh Bayer and his brother Sam on a new line of superhero comics called All Time Comics. Be on the lookout for those soon. Recently, I wrote a comic that Michael DeForge is drawing and Dash Shaw will be coloring. It's a sequel to Michael and my story that appeared in an issue of 'Smoke Signal', a cyber/bio-punk tale called Faunamancer. Desert Island Comics is going to put that out.

It would be difficult to imagine a stronger lineup for a collaboration in comics right now, alt or mainstream. (An Aside: the interviewer's jokey and slightly pandering tone throughout the interview was really annoying to me.)

CF does “Batman”; signed Paul Pope.

Autopic reports from Secret Acres, and the Autopic organizers.

Peter Milligan and Brendan McCarthy talking 'The Best of Milligan & McCarthy' over at Robot 6.

“Whether Grace left Dogville, or on the contrary Dogville had left her - and the world in general - is a question of a more artful nature that few would benefit from by asking, and even fewer by providing an answer. And nor indeed will it be answered here."

I finished "Dogville" this week, or was it last, i’m so infrequent with these columns my understanding of time is really beginning to get fucked up. Anyways an interval of time ago, I completed a viewing of Lars Von Trier's film "Dogville", a story of a town who takes in a stranger running away from the mob and how they deal with having complete power over one individual. Their dealings leaves something to be desired over the film's near three hour run time but the ending is something i don’t think i’m going to forget. The narrator, who is so intent on explaining the feelings of each individual and their thoughts, chooses to ignore giving a grand point to the film's violent and possibly deserved ending. It leaves it up to the viewers to decide if the characters who sanctioned each of these acts was right, and if they deserved the consequences put upon them. It’s a film whose ending i will change my opinion on as time progresses, but right now i read too many Josh Simmons comics and i smiled at that shit.

“It was as if the light, previously so merciful and faint, finally refused to cover up for the town any longer. Suddenly you could no longer imagine a berry that would appear one day on a Gusberry bush, but only see the thorn that was there right now. The light now penetrated every unevenness and floor in the buildings and... in the people. "

Lack of context seems to be a big deal in comics this month.

iFanboy is dead. Fuck iFanboy.

Michael DeForge released what i am assuming to be the entirety of the fourth issue of 'Kid Mafia' online. I’m holding off on reading it until the print version comes out, but since most of the 'Kid Mafia' issues are only available from him at a con this might be your only chance to read it.

Youth In Decline had a big week in pre-orders news, they opened with a new issue of 'Frontier' which highlights the artists Hellen Jo, and then followed it up with their first T-Shirt which consists of the company logo (designed by Michael DeForge).

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

train kept a-rollin' 005: thanos rising #5

Thanos Rising #5 (Marvel)
by Jason Aaron, Simone Bianchi, Riccardo Pieruccini, Ive Svorcina

1. Growing up, I would go to family gatherings, especially Thanksgiving and Christmas, and be faced with the fact that I would have to eat the stuffing. Because I was known as the 'One Who Loves Stuffing'. And I did – I do. Well mixed and prepared stuffing is one of my favorite foods and one that I only get to eat once or twice a year. Except, my love for well mixed and prepared stuffing meant that I abhorred poorly mixed and prepared stuffing, which is what I got more often than not. I would choke it down and playact that, yes, I am the 'One Who Loves Stuffing' including the dry, wretched pap that I was struggling to force down my throat.

2. Recently, my friend and former boss-of-sorts, Brian Cronin posted another entry in a series of blog posts titled “The Abandoned An’ Forsaked” focusing on Thanos. In it, he spotlights a scene from the 'Infinity Abyss' mini-series where Jim Starlin, creator of Thanos, dismisses the stories featuring Thanos not penned by him as featuring imperfect clones of the Mad Titan. Other creators have done similar things (John Byrne and Walt Simonson with Dr. Doom, Alan Davis with the cast of ClanDestine) and I always seem to dig it. I like the arrogance of dismissing the work of others, especially when it comes to a character like Thanos and a man like Jim Starlin. It doesn't hurt that no one can fucking write Thanos well except for Jim Starlin...

3. My dad bought comics by groups of titles. He bought all of the X-books, all of the Wildstorm books, all of the Jim Starlin cosmic books... No matter what, the same slate of books, sometimes adding new groups of titles, very rarely subtracting some. That was comics in the Nevett house. 

4. When 'Thanos Rising' was announced, I wrote: “I will buy it. Partly because I’m curious, partly because I like Jason Aaron’s writing, partly because it seems like the sort of thing that would break my internet silence after less than three months. But, let’s not kid ourselves: this is clearly the broken memories of one of the defective clones of Thanos. Sorry. That doesn’t mean it can’t be good. It just means that if you’re not Starlin, you’re writing about a clone.” I stand by that today.

5. I wonder what Joe Keatinge and Richard Elson's Thanos origin comic would have been like. It couldn't have been worse than this piece of shit series.

7. Probably the biggest clue that Marvel does not understand Thanos is that, post-Infinity Gauntlet, every non-Starlin use of the character portrayed him as a villain, while every Starlin use of the character did not. From that point on, he was... not a hero, nor an anti-hero, but he wasn't a villain. He was someone who had made some mistakes in the pursuit of love and was on his way to finding a place in the universe that doesn't revolve around gaining enough power to kill enough people to make the object of his affection speak to him. When Jim Starlin wrote Thanos, the character grew and changed. Of course Marvel did not notice or understand.

8. Death pursues and seduces Thanos in 'Thanos Rising'. She begs him to love her. She begs him to love her. This is now the biggest clue that Marvel doesn't understand Thanos.

9. Death was the object of Thanos’s affections and he never considered himself worthy. That was the tragedy of Thanos. He pined after Death like it was a woman to be wooed and courted while never believing that he was actually good enough to succeed. He failed three times trying to gain enough power to please Death and put himself on her level. The most notable was an odd double-whammy of a failure: he obtains the Infinity Gauntlet in the hopes that, now, Death will speak to him directly and, instead, he is told through an intermediary that, now, he is as above Death as she previously was above him and it would be improper to address him directly. Then, he loses the Infinity Gauntlet, because he doesn't truly believe he deserves that level of power. He had already failed at his true goal; he was unworthy.

10. In 'Thanos Rising' #5, it’s also put forth as a theory that “Death” is simply all in Thanos’s head. There is no personification that appears before Thanos, commanding him to kill and to give her his love. I genuinely don’t know if that’s better or worse than Death existing and appearing before Thanos and speaking to him, seducing him, and begging for his love. Either way, it’s a complete contradiction of every Jim Starlin Thanos comic I have ever read.

11. Just because it takes place in space doesn't make it cosmic.

12. Read this series and tell me that Jim Starlin is wrong to dismiss Thanos stories not written by him.

14. Something that I have never been able to move past was an interview Matt Fraction did about 'Fear Itself' where someone questioned a piece of dialogue he wrote for Thor, arguing that it’s not something Thor would say. Fraction’s response was that it is something Thor would say, because Marvel published a comic where Thor said it. He was right, of course. Doesn't mean it wasn't a dumb-as-fuck thing to say and any grown man should know better. Anyone with something invested in stupid little cartoon characters (like he obviously is) should know better. It was a cheap answer to a question that warrants a lot of thought and something better than a glib remark that dismisses the entire idea that these characters are more than what the current editorial board says they are. 

15. I don’t go to many family gatherings anymore. There are a lot of reasons for that, but having to choke down stuffing that made me want to literally choke didn't help.