Friday, November 29, 2013

1987 and all that 018: a villain who defeats himself

by Matt Derman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 11, 2013

diary of a guttersnipe 11/11/2013: chital

by Shawn Starr

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

Spotting Deer: A Conversation between Shawn Starr and Joey Aulisio

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

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

Dudes got chops.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(this piece originally was posted here)

Friday, November 8, 2013

1987 and all that 017: gerbil pellets

by Matt Derman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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