Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Mighty Fine Comics

If you take Bill Watterson (Calvin & Hobbes), Grant Morrison (Animal Man), Erik Larsen (Savage Dragon) and Michael Jantze (The Norm) and locked them up until they completed a superhero comic, the final outcome would be something like Ratfist. Or a bloody mess as they kill each other but for the sake of the review, we'll go with the former.

Ratfist is a webcomic (http://ratfist.com) by Doug Tennapel (Earthworm Jim) and colored by Katherine Garner who did a fantabulous job. It starts off pretty much as the exact opposite of what I want from superhero comics. First is the artwork which is obviously very cartoony and exaggerated to the point of being completely over the top. Ratfist's ears aren't even attached to his head for goodness' sake! Then there's the story as it starts in the middle of things setting the character up as being not only eccentric (he has a pet rat that he talks to and takes on his adventures fighting crime) but as the typical loser/loner that retreats from reality by putting on a lame costume, taking a lamer name and fighting crime while the creators can sit back and mock the genre and show off how much more intelligent and sophisticated they are, modern day Cervantes with all of their fifth-rate attempts at recreating Don Quixote with less than an ounce of talent.

However, the comic quickly shows that it's not that at all. Sure, he's a bit of a loser, a man-child that has some growing up to do, but his taking on a superhero identity isn't that much of retreat from reality. His reality is one with comic-book science, where people do get bit by strange things and gain powers and put on costumes, or are victims of bad magic mojo or science experiments.  Deciding to be a supehero is that context is less insane than appearing on "Jerry Springer" because you are told someone has a secret to share with you. Or appearing on "Big Brother". It may be stupid, ill-advised, and a tactic to avoiding some problems, but it's not insane in and of itself.

And, Tennapel is actually truly funny, writing and drawing hilarious scenes. He moves from one improbable, absurd scene to another. He's not making fun of superheroes, he's reveling in them and the concepts and scenarios they allow. Notice the creators I listed above? It has Morrison and Larsen's sheer creativity on their good days unbound by cynicism and self-importance, it has Watterson's exuberance and sense of whimy and humor coupled with Jantze's gentle, wry humanity and outlook on the life of the modern adult male.

What makes this truly stand out, though, is the transformation that takes place. As the character goes from one absurd situation to another, there's a point where your point of view changes. You'll recognize it when you get to it. You get to the point that you realize that Tennapel has a real story that he's telling, this is not just random events to merely see what happens next and what corners he can write himself into and out of. Underneath the humor, the absurdity, the jokes, there's an actual story being told here that has real emotion to it. And, you realize Ratfist may just have it in him to be one of the greatest, noblest heroes of all.

Do yourself a favor and don't read the characters tab first. It'll give away some of the surprises in store for you. And if you don't know who Michael Jantze is or "The Norm" comic strip, head over to thenorm.com as well.

Until last night, I would easily have said this was the best comic I have read in a year if not more. But, that's because last night, I read the following book.

Beasts of Burden: Animal Rites
This is a hardcover collection of the Beasts of Burden stories by Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson with the exception of the Hellboy crossover. Which works out fine for me because that is the one issue I have. When I read that, I promised myself to keep an eye out for the trade when it came out. I was a little put off by it appearing in hardback but the price for it is equal if not better than many trades.

The stories concern a group of dogs and one cat in suburbia who protect their neighborhoods from various strange ie supernatural and increasingly deadly occurrences. Dorkin's writing keeps the animals looking and acting just appropriately animal enough but with distinctive personalities and their own sense of magic, faith and mysticism. Likewise Jill Thompson's watercolors are lush and balance being realistic when need be without sacrificing sense of expression and well placed sense of whimsy.

The look of the book at first glance would lead one to think it's one for kids, but it treats the supernatural and mundane in honest ways. There's deaths by monsters but also by cars on the highways and it treats both with equal somberness and detail. You never forget that as much as the animals act human and they face supernatural threats, some of the biggest dangers are the everyday ones that pets and strays face. The familiar grounds the fantastic and you feel for them.

If the book does stray it's that there's an occasional crude or crass word that seems completely at odd with both the artwork and the characters. It's far less colorful language than in most of today's comics, and only happens three or four times but each time the word choice stuck out like a sore thumb. Probably because otherwise the language was clean and the storytelling was so intelligent, it didn't really need such language to seem adult. Instead, it came off as suddenly trying to sound adult, "look, no one will take this book seriously if we don't add at least one cuss word in here."

The Defenders: From the Vault
Since I ragged on the storytelling of The Canterbury Cricket as to how not tell a one-shot comic, I feel I should lift this comic up as how to properly do it. The CC comic had the hurdle of having to fit into a larger story, a company-wide event. This book had the problem of having to fit into another creative team’s run on a title without seeming like too big of a hiccup. Then there were further problems. Fabian Nicieza plotted the book and Bagley drew the book, but neither could recall what the actual script was to be and copies were lost. Nicieza was also now on exclusive with another company so Kurt Busiek, the writer of the run the comic was to fit in, was hired to basically come up with a story and script that matched the artwork already done.

He does so to the degree that it’s hard to envision the story being substantially different any other way. While it is to fit into the run he and Larsen had on the book, other than a single panel and a few artistic stylings, the story is such that it could have been in any Defenders era. The one panel inclusion actually does a good job at just summing up the purpose of the four heroes as the Defenders for any that are totally lost.

What makes this story really stand out is that despite the characters visibly being the Hulk, Namor, Dr. Strange and the Silver Surfer, for the most part it’s a group of roleplaying gamers whose minds are in those bodies and they carry the show. In typical Busiek fashion, he makes the story be one about human emotions and interactions, what ties us together. It’s both a superhero story and a human interest one. Even though we never actually see the four gamers that we know of, we are left kind of wishing to see a short-story that followed up on the events and character revelations revealed here. But, you aren’t short-changed. The plot is addressed and resolved, new characters and concepts were introduced and developed. It runs the gamut of humor and pathos, superheroes and villains and every-day people, science-fiction and magic, love lost and love from afar. An old joke was told along the way (though left out the follow-up joke). When done, you’re left wanting more but not needing more like a delicious meal that satisfies.

Captain America Corps
The premise of this mini-series written by classic Captain America writer Roger Stern is that someone is removing the Avengers finding Captain America across the various timestreams. An Elder of the Universe called the Contemplator seems to be the only one seeing the timelines being manipulated so he calls forth various heroes that have been the mantle bearers of Captain America to make things right. The heroes called are Captain America from 1941-42 (he still has the triangular shield), Bucky when he was Captain America, USAgent from shortly after his stint as Cap, American Dream who is the daughter of Sharon Carter in the MC2-verse, and Commando A who stands about seven feet tall and is from centuries in the future.

The timeline they travel to is one where the heroes are strangely absent and the Americommand, a group of dark reflections of Captain Americas, hold the country in the control such as Americop and his legion of Americops, Major America, the Ameridroid and two women called Broad Stripe and Bright Star who from the get go seem to know more than they let on.

Each issue starts off focusing on one of the Captain America mantle-bearers, what he was doing when called by the Contemplator. Under Stern’s hand, each issue is a dense read, full of story, characterization and action with twists and cameos along the way. Effort is made that each member has their own style and voice. As one of the Americommand is revealed to be a somewhat minor grandiose villain that fought Captain America a couple of times and seems to be behind it all, the question rises are any of the others somewhat familiar faces? Could Major America be this timeline’s John Walker (USAgent) or Jack Monroe (Nomad/Bucky) or even a former Captain America such as Jeff Mace or the 1950s Cap?

A minor quibble or two with the characters Bright Star and Broad Stripe. The former is depicted a little too similar to DC’s Stargirl. Some similarity is almost unavoidable as their costume and name are pretty much from the same source. However, to give her the same hair style, color and mask was something that could have been easily modified. With Broad Stripe, I don’t know if it was meant to be a pun or not, but as “broad” is a somewhat crass slang word for “woman”, the name is not really flattering. And, considering who she is supposed to be, a little uncharacteristic. It’s not a name that a woman would choose for herself.

This is an old-school mini-series. It’s not tied to any mega-event. It uses continuity and plays with it, but everything you really need to know is covered in-story. And, despite playing with an alternate time-line, it’s not really about rewriting present continuity and history to suit the writer’s preferences. The characters are all on model.  It’s accessible to new readers while showing off the rich tapestry of the Marvel U. and the role Captain America plays in it. Most of all, the title is fun, enough so to make me actually enjoy Bucky-Cap for once.

John Byrne’s Next Men
The last two issues didn’t really work for me. The penultimate issue explores the life of Gillian, the Next Man who only exists as a separate consciousness in other people’s bodies. The issue speeds forwards through generations as it shows the different lives (s)he led, usually staying with a body for years until eminent death or circumstances require that Gillian move on. As such, the reader is really only shown two points in each life, the point that (s)he moves in and the point (s)he moves out.
This issue would be the best place to really explore why Gil is obsessed with changing the past, mostly to wipe out Sathanas’ existence. But, it doesn’t do that. In fact, other than a single war, humanity’s future and Gil’s present does not seem that bleak and Sathanas’ impact seems minimal. After doing a great job in past issues of showing bleak and barbaric moments of humanity, the issue is one of relative peace of people living their ordinary lives. Sathanas is not mentioned at all.

The final issue actually mentions Sathanas and touches on that history. There’s a brief aside as Jazz flees to the past to meet with an older Jack and we see Tony one more time. Other than that and Jazz’ ultimate decision to not travel with Nathan and Beth to the past to undo Sathanas’ time loop, there is no actual hiccup to the plan. Everything goes exactly according to plan without a hitch. This makes for a final issue that’s full of great character moments and characters not necessarily making the decisions you’d expect but is otherwise very lackluster and boring in the plotting. There’s no real story twist or even feeling of personal danger or jeopardy to the plan succeeding. Even Jazz’ decision is admitted to not really changing or jeopardizing things as she didn’t really have a role to play. It would be more dangerous if she went and decided at the last moment to not risk non-existence and started fighting Nathan and Beth, trying to prevent changing the past. Instead, she just simply takes herself out of the equation.

Then you have the whole thing ending there, at the moment that time has been changed. Of course this leads into the next series titled “Aftermath” but I still feel a bit cheated as to not knowing even in general terms what any repercussions are for their actions. Does Aldus become Sathanas another way (maybe the whole time loop just made the transition easier and cleaner than his original history)? We know through Nathan’s experiences in WWII Germany the doctor that created the Next Men was already doing research in that area before the involvement of Sathanas and his examination of Nathan may have set off other changes. There’s Mark IV and Cornelius Van Damme to consider. And, poor Jack was just simply wiped from existence. I am content to know that a lot of that may be answered in the next series, but just felt that if the story is going to end with them changing time, we should see some little hint of what that actually resulted in, at least on the personal level.

Everything we’ve seen was to build towards this moment. But, while the first Next Men arc was largely about Sathanas, this one hasn’t been and it’s been too long between arcs. It fails to build the case in the readers’ minds why it’s necessary to stop Sathanas as opposed to Christopher Columbus’ trip to the New World or Hitler or Genghis Khan or World War I. It then fails to show or even suggest any of the fallout of the characters’ actions. And, it fails to provide any twists or real jeopardy to the plan, which might allow for the other shortcomings. If carrying off the plan has significant problems and jeopardy, the success of the mission is a reasonable resolution because the story is “a caper”. But, even though there’s this massive explosion in the end, it ends with a whimper, not a bang.

There’s also problems with Gil’s plan. While Nathan and Beth are given a cover story, it isn’t one that actually will bear up under any kind of scrutiny. This is Antarctica. You don’t have unknown helicopters with unknown persons on board crashing. Every person on the ice or flying over it is known by someone or some agency. Especially two people carrying quite a bit of cash on them. The holes in their story and that much cash would be uncovered before they ever have a chance to leave the continent.

Kirby’s Genesis
This is a schizophrenic book and my feelings are likewise divided. Busiek excels at and delivers the common man feel and characterization of the main viewpoint characters. The Kirby characters are kept mostly intact and delivered in proper grandiose style (although I don’t like the Secret City heroes neon lit black costumes, the premise is this is the characters as Kirby designed them, go ahead and give them to us).

Part of the problem is the plotting. There’s a lot of effort of presenting an everyday world and then all this madness hits at one time. Silver Star is rumored to have existed before but is just now being confirmed. Confirmed sightings of Thunderfoot aka bigfoot. The discovery of the Secret City and its heroes. Space heroes and villains suddenly popping up all over the globe. Etc. I am sure it’s supposed to be part of the plot but it serves as a dividing wall between the reality of the everyday world and the Kirby world. No time is really spent on developing any of the ideas other than to seemingly throw them at the reader as fast as possible.

The viewpoint characters are distractions and annoying (doesn’t help that the central character is visibly based on an actor whose whiny nasally voice and emoting makes him almost as annoying as Woody Allen) especially when they break the fourth wall, thus breaking even the relative realism they already exist in. Characterization and relationships between the characters are great, but it should come through the scenes and the action and the plotting, not through expositional scenes of the characters addressing the reader. Leave those out and get to the actual characters and plots that we are chunking our money down to see.

The artwork carries the schizophrenia through. It’s hard to tell just how much is Alex Ross’ underlying pencil or Jackson Herbert’s re-penciling and slightly too heavy inks. The realistic sections are done well. The grandiose, fantastic parts are done well. But, the two don’t really jibe together well here. It may be because the story itself is already setting up that wall between the real world and the unreality of the superhero world and it just carries through with the artwork.

Kirby drew the epic as if it was everyday stuff. But, he also drew the everyday as if it was epic. Under Kirby’s hand, ramshackle buildings, ill-fitting clothes and garbage was larger than life. There was a consistency of style and approach. Thus, when police officer Dan Turpin battles Kalibak in an effort to arrest him, you believe it and you feel it. I think that’s why this misses when it does. Kirby gave everything the same level of realism and convinced you of the central integrity of his vision and world. The gods talked in grandiose ways but they struggled with love and fitting in. They felt as real as the everyday people. Kirby dealt with the clash of the fantastic with the everyday, but there wasn’t a lot of naval gazing about it, as usually there was some war or cosmic event occurring. So far, this is about the unreality of it all as if there needs to be an explanation for the presence of all these disparate characters, acknowledging the unreality of magic, super-science, etc in a real world situation. That’s not really what I buy superhero comics for.

I’m willing to cut a little slack, because I get so few comics and this is still better than most out there. It’s still with good guys who are good, and bad guys who are bad while being true to the vision of Kirby without simply being a pastiche of his surface style. The characterization is strong, and it’s setting up a world of wonder and possibility without resorting to graphic violence or language. Sophisticated without being crass. And, the book has the hurdle that it is introducing a ton of characters in a very short span of time.  It's better than the dark superhero comics offered by the other companies, and better by far than the decompressed storytelling that plagues most of Dynamite's Comics. If the plot is slow in developing it's in part because there's so many characters and concepts to set up. The chance to see so many of Kirby’s characters and creativity, even if distilled through other hands is too good a chance to simply pass up.

Mystery Men
Another mini-series by Marvel, this one explores several masked men coming together in the 1930s America. As the name implies, this group draws largely from the heroes and adventurers of the pulps. David Liss does a good job at credibly reproducing the time and attitudes and a story that straddles the world of the pulp heroes with that of the Marvel U. and a modern look at the attitudes.

The central character in many ways is the man known as The Operative. Born of wealth and privilege, he carries a certain amount of guilt in the time of the Great Depression. Part of it is knowing what kind of man his father is and him setting out to be the opposite.  So, he steals from the wealthy in order to give money to the needy. But, when he’s framed for the murder of his fiancĂ©, to prove his innocence he ends up teaming up with a group of odd would-be heroes and adventurers: The Aviatrix, inventor and sister of his fiancĂ©; The Revenant, African-American stage-magician turned masked man; the Surgeon, a doctor horribly scarred and driven insane by the actions of the cabal they are up against and who has a case of hero worship of the masked men; and Achilles, an archaeologist hired to find an artifact and discovers himself thrust into the role of hero with fantastic powers but at great cost.
Liss is primarily a novelist and maybe it’s because of that background and writing in comics for almost the first time that the mini-series does have the few faults it does.

The problem is that everything is actually too tight and neat, many things presented in the most obvious and simplistic terms that betrays an artificiality to the world he is setting up as if he is giving us a shorthand version of world creation because there’s not enough space to develop further. First the names. Other than Achilles, all of the names betray the hand of a single creator not giving too much thought to it or used to developing colorful code-names. The pulps gave us the Shadow, the Spider, Doc Savage, Thunder Jim Wade, G-8, The Phantom, The Green Ghost, Domino Lady, Black Bat, Park Avenue Hunt Club, Secret Six, the Green Lama, the Picaroon, the Crimson Clown, etc. What we have here are not names, but generic titles, one word descriptions and not identities. They come across more like names given to serial killers on “Criminal Minds”. Even the title “Mystery Men” becomes the default name of this specific group as opposed to a general term applied to a larger sampling. Keep in mind, this is the Marvel Universe. They have seen masked heroes before, in the Old West and in WWI.

In the case of the Operative, the name doesn’t even make sense. According to the notes, the name is meant to reflect the Continental Op, and in the backdrop of the pulps, the name conjures up the likes of Agent “X”, Operator 5, Secret Agent X-9, G-8 and so on. Only, he’s not a masked spy, freelance or otherwise. He is actually drawn from the likes of characters written by Frank Packard, Frederick Davis and Johnston McCully: a crook who breaks the law in order to serve a greater justice.

According to this story, all cops are corrupt or at best, lazy. Again, this makes the world seem smaller and obviously being viewed by someone writing today. It’s an easy shorthand and able to paint the heroes as being obviously right and not worry about the dangers of fighting cops.

The General, the bad guy is then linked to the Operative. Makes it easy to connect the dots and solve the mystery when the heroes already know the identity of the man behind it all.

The latest issue then has the one white woman hooking up with the single African-American guy who she’s known for just days at best. Again, it’s too easy and obvious to go for that particular race card. And, it just happens without any build-up of any romance between the two, that all happens off panel.

The Revenant himself is a bit of conflicting. It’s interesting to do a reverse-Shadow, an African-American dressed all in white. However the writer of the Shadow and several other pulp writers were magicians and understood magic. They could convince us of reality of what the heroes did, when they used magic tricks to pull off their stunts. Again, here Liss seems to use the stage magic background as a shorthand to explain things without actually selling it to the reader. How does a man dress in white sneak up on people at night and attack from clouds? How does he present multiple images of himself in the Operative’s apartment? The idea of the character and his background is interesting. He falls down as being presented as being credible.

But these are minor quibbles against the backdrop of the story and comic itself.  The story is intriguing. Since Liss is a novelist and not someone whose credentials are primarily writing comics, he delivers an actual story. Despite being set in the past and in the Marvel Universe, it’s not actually about continuity and comicbook history. The heroes are active and pro-active though most are driven by circumstances to become heroes. The villain is frightening. The third issue cranks up the danger as the supernatural elements come into play and the heroes are suddenly out of their depth. Against normal crooks and men, they excel but actual horrors are another thing entirely. It is taking what was part pulp and weird menace and reminding the reader this is the Marvel Universe. Things like this can and do happen. But, it doesn’t break the mood and atmosphere of the story that is being crafted by Liss and ably executed by Patrick Zircher. The world has corruption and is dark and dangerous, but it’s not a cynical or dark comic. The heroes are less than perfect without actually having the concept of heroes being mocked or treated cynically. It understands that not all pulp or crime stories need to be urbane or noir just as all horror stories need not be gore fests (a distinction that many “pulp comic” fans don’t seem able to make).

Something that struck me interesting was that in many ways, this story could easily be set in the modern day. The issues and themes that root this story in its time, racial and class inequality, the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, economic downturns and future instability at home and wars and unrest abroad, they are all elements that would make the same story and the pulp heroes relevant today. Maybe that’s part of the reason why we’re seeing a resurgence in popularity and interest in them.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Aquaman already sinking

I was actually looking forward to the Aquaman book. Not crazy about the trident, mind you. Afraid it will be like Bucky and guns. What good is a weapon if he's not going to use it and often? I should listen to my inner voice more often, as this cover for issue 3 shows.

And, my interest just dropped, seeing Aquaman spearing a foe through the chest with blood spurting out in both directions, and on the cover no less. The cover could be just as interesting and far more all-ages appropriate with him just fighting them off with his fists, without the gratuitous depiction of lethal violence BY THE HERO! And, if you don't know what Mera's powers are, you'd have no clue what she's doing in that pic as she doesn't seem to be interacting with that arc of water at all which is taking out a foe she's not even looking at.

Welcome to the new DC, same as the old DC. Bleh.