20 November 2009

Flashmob Fridays #006: Scalped, Vertigo, and the State of the Floppy

Introduction by Alan David Doane

We're back with another episode of the semi-regular Flashmob Fridays, but it's a little different this time. Usually, someone suggests a comic, and within a couple days whoever wants to participate can weigh in with their thoughts. This time, one of Christopher Allen's columns this week garnered a lot of reaction -- some from readers, but even more from the other TWCers (Troublers? Twickers?), who turned out to be big fans of Jason Aaron's and R.M. Guera's series, Scalped. First up, Chris expands on his thoughts, then the rest of the gang piles on weighs in.

Christopher Allen

My goal in reading Scalped #31 and the other two Vertigo books was pretty simple, though admittedly I didn't put a lot of thought into the ramifications of it. As I think I've written before, I hadn't been reading many monthly comics for a few years, preferring to pick up hard-and-softcover collections of things I'm interested in or that had good reviews/word of mouth. But in getting back into much more frequent reviews and enjoying the renewed practice of hitting the comics shop every Wednesday, I figured I'd check out these three series about which I'd been pretty curious. In the case of Scalped, it very well may have been a recommendation from Johnny Bacardi a month or so ago that planted that seed in my head.

So, anyway, I know the score: monthly series from Marvel, DC, Image, Dark Horse, IDW and others (you can call them "mainstream" if you want; I'll just call them genre comics) are structured so as to be fairly easily collected in hardcovers and trade paperbacks not long after each story arc concludes. But, without ill intent, I just wanted to see if a random issue of one of these Vertigo series (and Vertigo was chosen only because I was interested in those particular books) could provide a satisfying reading experience on its own, without being too confusing for a new reader. Would it be clear enough, and good enough, that I would want to go back to the beginning as well as continue forward? And so I approached the books with those parameters, which to me seemed fair enough.

I was surprised at the passionate Scalped support that followed from Matt, Johnny, David Wynne and Marc Sobel, who either thought I was too tough/unfair on the book, and/or that it was unfair to judge either that series or Vertigo books in general that way, as a) the series needs to be read from the beginning, or b) Vertigo's story arcs are intended for collection, so one should only review the collection.

I did, and do, bristle at those assertions, I have to admit, though it was throughout a respectful exchange with all of them. To me, I do believe in that old saw about every comic being somebody's first. Yes, there are plenty of series where I've taken the plunge and bought the first trade based on word of mouth or liking one of the creators, but I also pick up semi-random monthly issues, too. If I like it, I might just wait for the collection and give the one issue away, or continue with the monthly issues. I have my methods.

Although there was some attempt at a correlation between monthly comics and complex cable TV shows like Deadwood, I couldn't really agree with the idea that it would be nearly impenetrable if one decided to start in the middle of the second season. Episodic television like that, and The Sopranos, Mad Men, etc., may have long, overarching storylines, but there's always a story that begins and ends in that one episode, plus at the 46 to 50 minutes, there's a lot more room for the stories to develop, and for lots of characterization, than in one issue of a monthly comic. Is it Jason Aaron's fault that in the original format for his series, he only gets 22 pages a month to move his story and characters along? No. Is it his fault that he chooses a decompressed style where the action depicted would equate to about ten minutes of screen time, at $2.99? Sure it is. Or I should say, "fault" isn't quite the right word, but it's a storytelling choice he has to live with, just as he has to live with not putting his best foot forward on what appears to be a fairly pivotal issue of the series and instead lacks memorable dialogue and seems filled with cliched or one-note characters.

But again, I gave the benefit of the doubt to the series that what was there wasn't too bad and I might want to start from the beginning. It wasn't really about Scalped, anyway; that just kicked off a larger discussion. And getting back to that point, yes, I think it's perfectly fair to judge an entertainment product on its own terms, be it a television show, comic, book, whatever. If I had the slightest interest in Twilight: New Moon, I might go see and review it, without having seen the first or having read any of the books. It would only be fair to throw those caveats into the review, but sure, I could review it. If Vertigo, DC and any other publisher choose to continue to put out comics in this format, then they can be judged in that format.

The larger issue it brought up to me is that I really think the decompressed style you see in a lot of monthly comics are really hastening their demise. I remember a few years ago wondering if "compression" would be the next big thing -- to me a sound strategy to add more value to the expensive comic book. Aside from Warren Ellis's Fell and the odd effort here and there (I just read the first Agents of Atlas trade and it's exceptionally brisk), it hasn't really happened. I'm not asking for anthology titles with bang-bang six page complete stories, or a series with every issue a "done-in-one" story. I just think when editors and creative teams allow stories to feel stretched out, when not a lot happens from issue to issue because the writer's got three issues of story he has to make last six, then what they're doing is selling that series short. It could be canceled earlier, if enough fans get turned off, or it could be one of those books that everyone loves at first and then it overstays its welcome, like 100 Bullets, maybe Preacher. Is Fables still a passionate read for many, or more of a duty or habit now? I dunno. I better stop now before all the Fables, 100 Bullets and Preacher fans jump on me.

I promised my colleagues I would get off my soapbox and let them have the last words. I thank JB and Matt below (as well as Marc and David, who added their own sharp comments on our email group but didn't have time to formalize them here) for the lively discussion.

Johnny Bacardi

I've been reading Scalped since the first trade, and I believe that the more you get into the story, the more some of the characters and their motivations will become apparent. Chris is right in that there are a lot of standard crime-drama beats being hit, and the setting is providing novelty, but Aaron has built his characters up slowly, and it does help to at least read an arc to get a feel for them. It's kinda like judging Deadwood after watching one mid-season two episode. Guera's art had to grow on me a little, too-- it's really an amalgam of a dozen different artists, but he's good at staging and creating dynamic-looking pages, and capable of doing emotions well (something that comes in really handy, given all the angst).

Guess you can tell I'm in the bag for this series, huh!

Really, though, the gist of what I was going to say is that the corrosive Dash/Carol relationship that caused consternation is one that's been coming to a head through the last dozen or more issues, and I can see why it wouldn't make sense coming in cold. But I don't think I'd want to see a lot of expository dialogue explaining things either, so I guess that's just the nature of that particular beast and I see your point in that respect. I still hope you sample a bigger set someday!

I re-read the first issue this morning, and I was a bit surprised how clunky it came across in places--Aaron was trying to establish a lot of things through dialogue, and a lot of it read flat and obvious. Once he got established, though, I think it got a lot better in that respect.

Matt Springer

You may not know this but the Trouble With Comics writers room frequently breaks out into near-mudwrestling matches over such trivial topics as the quality of Howard Johnson's room service and the length of Wolverine's pubic hair. (It's shaved. SHAVED I SAY YOU VARLOT!)

I confess, I helped begin the latest tussle with my reaction to Chris Allen's reaction to Scalped, Air, and Northlanders in a recent
of his excellent Daily Breakdowns.

Overall, his reviews seemed to indicate that he believes any comic book series should be accessible every issue, without fail, to a new reader. Personally, I can see where that would be a virtue for mainstream superhero series but I think it's pretty well-established at this point in the comics world that Vertigo series tend to be large, rich stories told in arcs/chapters that aren't usually easily accessed randomly.

Vertigo is actually doing two things to encourage that viewpoint -- the $1 first issue and the $9.99 debut trade. It might be more fair to judge the series on their first trades since that seems to be the method they're encouraging. The issue of jump-on-ability is almost secondary to the issue of Vertigo's specific strategy, if that makes sense -- Vertigo has clearly chosen a path that emphasizes trade collections with the floppies acting as merely a secondary concern toward making back perhaps cost. At least that would be my guess based on the apparent success of something like Fables which still sells easily under 10,000 copies per issue.

So ultimately, saying you can't really jump onto a Vertigo book at any point is sorta judging them on standards they themselves reject, which gets me to the issue of floppies as a viable entertainment unit at all. I feel like we're actually watching floppies die before our very eyes. I'm not gonna value judge that statement, like "Let's set a fire to help them die" or "Let's save them with polybags and lotsa luuuv!" I'm just saying that pretty much across the board, comic book series have rejected the notion that "every comic is someone's first comic," and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Honestly, these pamphlets are
basically being sold into the same dwindling audience of obsessives, and we all know the drill, so what does it matter?

It makes me think of HBO shows; most of the long-form series I've watched in the HBO model (Sopranos, Wire, Rome, Big Love, Mad Men) are pretty damn impenetrable if you just picked up the remote one night and said, "Hey, I'll give this a try." I think you could get a really good feel for the tone and the mood of the show, and possibly decide if you liked it or not, but plot-wise, you'd be lost.

Again, let me say I don't think this is a bad thing; I think the opening of this vista in both print and television has enabled some amazing storytelling that would have been unimaginable even twenty years ago. But let's not pretend something should still be true when the vast majority of us all know it isn't: No modern-day comic book is really anybody's "first comic," and floppies are going the way of Wolverine's pubic hair.

13 November 2009

Flashmob Fridays #005: Gates of Eden #1

Introduction by Alan David Doane

In 1982, Gates of Eden was ahead of its time, an independent comic that the market didn't quite know what to do with, packed with idiosyncratic contributions from a who's who of talented comic artists, including Steve Leialoha, P. Craig Russell, John Byrne, Fred Hembeck, Michael Kaluta and others. For this edition of Flashmob Fridays, we start with a reminiscence of the title's troubled publishing history from former FantaCo employee Roger Green, and continue on with reviews by the Trouble with Comics writers. Anyone interested in FantaCo's history is invited to browse Roger's blog, as it's a semi-regular topic of discussion there.

Roger Green

Gates of Eden, which came out in the spring of 1982, was a great FantaCo comic book, but a tremendous drain on the company. Gates was very much the brainchild of Mitch Cohn, from the Dylan-inspired title (Mitch was a huge Dylan fan) to the selection of the artists, Gates really represented his sensibilities. Most, though not all, of the artists appeared in the book based on Mitch's urging. I don't know that he knew all the artists going into the project, but he had a Rolodex of potential contributors he had put together from friends and friends of friends.

I suppose Mitch was like a kid in a candy store, putting together his dream book. I recall him on the phone practically gushing to his comic art heroes. Unfortunately, the vast majority of them were not big commercial draws. John Byrne, who had done work for FantaCo's Chronicles series, had a following. So did Fred Hembeck, who FantaCo had published since 1980. But most were popular as "underground" or "ground level" artists. I wasn't directly involved in the structuring of the book, but I always thought editor Mitch was a great advocate for the artists to get as much money as possible, quite likely more than the market would generally bear. Meanwhile, owner/publisher Tom Skulan was more of a bottom-line guy, wanting to put together a package as inexpensively as possible. The one thing that they did share, however, was care for the production values; they both wanted it to look good.

If I had specific numbers, they are lost in the mist. I do know that Gates of Eden #1 was not profitable. Unlike other items were published around that time, such as the Chronicles dedicated to the Avengers and Spider-Man, we were not getting the either the distributor reorders, or the mail order/store sales we wanted/needed. Gates #1 and other situations put FantaCo in a real cash crunch that it took a couple years to get out of.

So when Gates of Eden #2's low preliminary distributor numbers came in, Tom and Mitch, with some input from me, brainstormed about what to do. Lessen the quality of the paper stock was considered, as was raising the cover price from $2.95 to $3.50. Ultimately, though, this would have meant resoliciting the title, and we didn't think that would help. So Tom pulled the plug on Gates #2. From a business point of view, it was probably the correct thing to do, but I'm fairly sure that Mitch felt he had lost face with the people he had contacted to contribute.

Ultimately, the fact that Mitch was both an employee of FantaCo's, and therefore of Tom's, and yet was an independent contractor of sorts putting together this package for FantaCo caused all sorts of muddled lines of communication. And I sometimes got caught in the middle as a sounding board for both sides.

Johnny Bacardi

I don't remember much about the whys and wherefores of the release of Gates of Eden; I probably saw an ad in the Comics Journal, which featured that gorgeous Mike Kaluta cover -- and since I was a connoisseur of all things MWK as much in 1983 as I am in 2009, I would have bought it for that if nothing else. Basically a themed one-shot, said theme being a look back at the Sixties, It features a host of contributors, many of which were stalwarts of the Underground scene of that time like Foolbert Sturgeon, Lee Marrs, Kim Deitch, Rick Geary, and Spain. The story which still stands out the most to me is Steve Leialoha's look back at Altamont, the free festival which soon turned into a nightmare as someone was stabbed by a Hell's Angel member during the Rolling Stones' set, the Angels being there to ostensibly provide security at the behest of the Grateful Dead. That show was said to be the death knell for the Hippie Dream. More than anything, I just enjoy seeing Leialoha on full art again -- he's been pretty much inking Mark Buckingham on Fables for years now, and his idiosyncratic style (which was also being brought to bear on Marvel/Epic's Coyote at about the same time) is pretty much subsumed there. Trina Robbins, who was really turning out a lot of work at the time for a number of companies, is also represented with a look at Hippie fashions, right in her wheelhouse -- it even has cutout dolls. Another enjoyable reminiscence was brought to us by Fred Hembeck, who shares a story of longsuffering Mets fandom, which culminated in their 1969 World Series win. Jeff Jones turns in one of his Idyl-style pieces, and Craig Russell also contributes an psychedelic two-page spread. I had forgotten exactly how much was stuffed in this one issue!

Guess it didn't sell all that well, because they didn't do another one to my knowledge. Too bad; there's some fine storytelling and a lot of good art in this collection. It's a look back at a time which gets more and more romanticized, and while there's a fair amount of that going on here, several of the entries also take a more level-headed point of view as well for balance, and all in all, this was a lot better than I remember thinking it was back in 1983 when I first read it.

Christopher Allen

You know, I actually own a copy of this comic -- a gift from ADD -- but I never read it until now. I have to admit I'm glad he brought it up again. Maybe I needed an audience. Anyway, this comic gave me a warm feeling, in a way, as it reminded me of my dad's side of the family. They were all kind of hippies in the '60s, and my aunt has long had an art supply shop in Haight-Ashbury. The stories in here reminded me of them because of the combination of idealism and creativity. It's one thing to see a documentary about the '60s, but quite another to have a group of cartoonists telling their own personal '60s remembrances. Although some of these guys were maybe somewhat associated with the '60s underground comics scene, none of them are particularly radical. These are not stories that push the boundaries with a lot of sex and drugs. Rather, they're stories of people who were young and trying to find themselves during one of our more turbulent times. a time of great fear and great hope. Steve Leialoha's "Altamont" is a standout. Even though I'd seen the film, Gimme Shelter, and knew the details, Leialoha brought a real artistry. Mick slings his hips just right. The tension builds. There's confusion even amid the clear storytelling. Really excellent work.

We also get a nice piece on the '68 Chicago convention riot, lots on Nixon, LBJ, JFK, communes, fashion, the miracle Mets, and an eye-opening story by Sharon Kahn Rudahl on the difficulties of trying to get an abortion in the '60s. It's almost like publisher Tom Skulan and editor Mitch Cohn made a list of everything important in the '60s and handed it out to all these cartoonists, except that kind of thing wouldn't have really worked. Somehow they just picked the right talent, and the talent knew the right stories to tell. Pretty fantastic.

16 October 2009

Flashmob Fridays #004: Planetary #27

Introduction by Alan David Doane

You may recall that Planetary was to have been finished around the same time as the 20th century. It appears that time has finally come.

Planetary #27, the final issue of the sometimes-celebrated series by Warren Ellis, John Cassaday and Laura Martin, is here at last, and the subject of this week's Flashmob Fridays. In a post on his LiveJournal, Ellis reflected on the end of the series, saying "It’s a book I associate with bad times: protracted illnesses, big arguments...my physical collapse and months in bed, and my dad’s long illness and eventual death. All of these things are intertwined with PLANETARY for me, and make it difficult to enjoy the moment."

Of course, any individual is likely to suffer some setbacks and tragedies in any given ten year span, but it did seem at times like this particular comic book was cursed -- a phenomenon that would have gone unnoticed if not for the fact that, at its best, it was one of the most exciting and beautiful adventure comics being published. Together with The Authority #1-12 with Bryan Hitch, Paul Neary and (again) Laura Martin, these two series represent a pretty high peak for Ellis's writing powers and excellent comic books that are always worth re-reading and losing one's self in.

But of course, it's been hard to judge the series as a whole as long as this one, last issue remained unpublished. Now that it's in print, the TWC gang shares their thoughts on the epoch-ending issue.

Christopher Allen

I won’t be commenting on the long-awaited twenty-seventh and final issue of Planetary. I haven’t read it. But like a baseball player, you want to get your swings in, and the reason I’m not reviewing the final issue right now is what I wanted to write about.

Planetary and The Authority hold some meaning for me, as much as any superhero comic of the past decade. I first encountered both series in mid-1999. I hadn’t been reading comics for a year or two, having gotten married, bought a house, and tried to get serious about work. One day I noticed a nice-looking comics & collectibles shop in a strip mall in my new neighborhood, and went in, marveling at such things as busts of superheroes, and wondering what this card game was that the kids were playing at a table in the middle of the shop. Well, the need to read some new comics gripped me, and I looked over the shelves, which had new releases with prior issues underneath. Being out of the loop, I looked for some familiar faces. Hey, that looks like John Byrne art, and he’s doing my favorite character, Spider-Man in a kind of Year One thing? Cool! Hey, it sounded like a good idea at the time.

But I also noticed a couple other books, nearly jumping off the shelves with their stylish covers, and these were the two Warren Ellis series. I wasn’t reading many comics when Ellis made his earlier splashes in comics, so his name meant nothing to me at the time. But these books, they really had the look of the state of the art in superhero comics, and so I picked up the first couple issues of each (there were complete runs there) and read them that night. The Authority was a glorious kick up the pants to superheroes, with stories of real scope and consequence and a fresh attitude to solving them, while Planetary was an ingenious way to pull together every cool superhero/sci-fi/horror character or concept, with either some new tweaks or a good scrubbing to get them down to what made them cool in the first place.

The Authority was great, but it had already been out for a while when I discovered it, and Ellis was just about done writing it, a rare case of a comics creator making the perfect exit, but Planetary only had a few issues out when I started with it. I recall my boss at the time, who was my age, sharing a fondness for superheroes, and I soon lent him these books, making him an instant fan as well. As The Authority passed through many creative hands and with increasingly diminishing returns, Planetary kept going, and with generally good stewardship by Ellis, aside from some less-than-stellar one-shots.

Unaccustomed to paying for high-priced hardcovers, Absolute Authority and Absolute Planetary were nonetheless instant purchases for me. As they were state-of-the-art monthly comics, so too did they lead the way towards the boom in fancy slipcased editions. It was upon my purchase of these that I stopped buying Planetary on a regular basis. It’s not that I was disillusioned at all—I forget a lot of what I read, but several years on, The Drummer, Jakita Wagner and Elijah Snow are still there for me in my mind, along with certain scenes and dialogue. No, it’s just that I felt like the next time I read them would have to be in another Absolute edition. I didn’t want fifteen minutes of brilliance whenever Ellis and Cassaday could get together to make it happen, once a year or so. It’s really nothing on them; I’ve never been one of those guys who turns on creators for missing deadlines as long as the work’s good. It’s just that I set Planetary aside, a reward of hours of images and ideas to be enjoyed fully upon its completion. Various projects, illnesses and other difficulties aside, I really think this has always been a special book for Ellis and Cassaday, and that neither wanted to do it unless they could bring their best effort to it. And so, when the time comes, I will read it in the best format possible. A thank you to both for some great memories, and more to come.

Michael Paciocco

I had become largely bored and uninterested in comic books by the time I was twenty. Not surprising really; the adolescent power fantasies and melodramas that I was all too familiar with by the time had no longer anything to offer me except the promise of the same, and I was ready to move on out of comics. However, needing some kind of stimulation that wasn’t offered by mass media, it was a combination of boredom and experimentation that I picked up issues #3-6 of Planetary from the local comic shop.

So, it’s all Ellis, Cassaday, and Martin’s fault that I’m still buying comics at all nearly ten years later. And not just because I’ve been waiting for this particular issue either, although there were a few occasions where it certainly felt like it.

At the time I started reading the series, there was nothing like it, and that there still isn’t anything comparable to this is a credit to the creators, and the strength of their vision, despite the waxing and waning of the title over the years as various, sundry reasons, both professional and personal, diverted some of the energy and immediacy from this work. Still, it was worth the wait for this epilogue and endcap for the series.

Ellis’s best works are often obsessed with “A Finer World” and the efforts, sacrifices, compromises, and rewards of the quest to create them. In that sense, this finale represents a Platonic ideal of how such a world might come about. There’s a sense of unbridled optimism and selfless altruism that is absent in most of his other writing, which makes it all the more rewarding to examine and immerse oneself in. As an epilogue, it is more concerned with wrapping up various loose ends, some of them going back a decade (in publishing time). Most of the mysteries are solved, one is left wide open, and a few more are actually created.

It’s often been claimed (and by Ellis himself) that Planetary was his ultimate meta-story about the transformative powers of fiction, and comic books in particular. If that’s the case, I’ve long held to the belief that the core members of Planetary are metaphorical stand-ins for Ellis’s own instincts as a comic fan: the ‘mad idea’ lover, the action junkie, and of course, the puzzle-maker and problem solver as embodied by the acerbic and brilliant Elijah Snow. And this final issue is, like many of the best issues, a story about Elijah, about the quests that drive him, the decisions he make to better the world, and how much of the world and its wonders he’s willing to risk for the sake of making the world a more tolerable place.

I’ll make an admission here that I’m sad to admit -– I generally don’t like Cassaday’s art on other works, as there’s just no way for me to separate his visual style in my head from this series. I can’t think of any other artist that can create the rich tapestry of worlds that seem both old-fashioned in their opulence and at the same time incredibly advanced beyond our technical grasp. I hope that he enjoys a successful career in the years to come because I do admire his work, but it is as difficult for me to imagine this series as presented by any other artist as it is for me to see his work and not immediately think of his efforts on this series.

Laura Martin is the unsung hero of this series, and her palate here, as with the rest of the series, is as vibrant as it is necessary. Martin’s colors here and in the rest of the series has been essential in setting both the tone of the series, and in subtly bringing out characterization and mood in many of the defining sequences of the book; take a look at how a shadow never falls on Elijah’s white suit, and yet it never appears to glow or reflect light. There’s a dozen unique effects just like that in this issue alone, and hundreds more over the length of the series. Martin shows how vital color can be in a story, and that makes her as indispensable as anyone else on this book.

And so Planetary ends, not with a bang or a whimper, but with the final pieces falling into place and locking together into a complete picture, as it should. I admit, I’ll miss this series, and I highly doubt we’ll see something like this from the Big Two for a long time to come. What I will miss more than this book though, was its effect on me – this series lead me to scour the net for good comics and for fellow fans to discuss the series with. It led me to Warren Ellis’s site, to that of other creators, to meet fans that I still talk to today, and of course, to Comic Book Galaxy. I will miss discussing the various mysteries and fan theories that circulated about the story over its long run, and I’ll miss the thrill of turning the cover of an issue to see something new and unexpected behind it. It was a strange world, and let’s keep it that way.

(But I think I know who the fictionaut really is, and if you’ve read the series carefully, you’ve probably come to the same conclusion. If you want to discuss it with me, feel free to contact me anytime...)

Marc Sobel

Alright, let's get the issue of the delay out of the way first so we can get to the actual comic.

I've never been one of those fans who gets too uptight when a comic I like is delayed. I understand that drawing, inking, coloring and lettering hundreds of little panels takes time, and I'd much rather creators focus on making their pages as great as possible, rather than rush to meet some corporate-imposed artificial deadline. However, there is a limit to this philosophy. When an artist leaves a title unfinished to work on other projects, this seems unfair and disrespectful to the fans who supported the series. The reality is that this book is so delayed (issue #26 came out nearly three years ago), that I have little to no recollection of what was going on in the story, and to really get back into it would require going back and re-reading the series, which is a time commitment I'm not willing to make right now.

The whole issue is basically a rescue mission to save Ambrose from some kind of time vortex he sealed himself in right after being shot. Unfortunately, I remember very little about who Ambrose is, what happened to him, or why it's so important that the others rescue him. Although there was undoubtedly a lot of context I'm forgetting in those earlier issues, the opening pages of this final chapter do little to recap what went before. One would have thought, given the delay, that it would have been common sense to add a "Previously in Planetary..." style recap before launching into this final chapter, but unfortunately, there is nothing. The script also suffer from an overwhelming amount of pseudo-science, the kind of made-up techno-jargon that sounds like it could almost be real, except that it's actual meaning lies just beyond your grasp. It's like your typical Grant Morrison comic, strung together with ideas that almost make sense, but never quite coalescing into a coherent, believable concept. What is "quantum foam?" "Chernekov radiation?" "Super-massive frame dragging?" These are just a few examples of the physics-based techno-babble that weigh-down the first half of the book. In that sense, the story is alienating and confusing.

All that being said, John Cassaday delivers in a big way. Cassaday is the best artist Ellis has ever worked with, and he's worked with some pretty good ones. The artwork in this final issue is superb! In fact, it's THE highlight, and for fans of Cassaday's work, it was worth the long wait. The amount of attention paid to every tiny detail, and the architectural precision throughout is impressive. There's also some exceptional coloring in this issue. I find most digital coloring in mainstream comics to be overwrought and eye-numbing, washing out the linework rather than enhancing it, but Ellis's script calls for bright, popping colors, crackling off the page like raw energy, and to that end, Laura Martin delivers in spades. Her electric, neon colors jump off the page in places and go far beyond just filling in the spaces demarked by the linework.

Overall, I didn't think this final issue was anything amazing, though the artwork was certainly worth the price. I suppose it was good enough to make me want to go back and re-read the series again (though I doubt I will anytime soon), and that's perhaps the best compliment I can pay it.

The rest of the issue features a 6-page "sneak peek" of Victorian Undead, and the generic title tells you pretty much all you need to know about this creatively bankrupt concept. It's yet another zombie book, this time set in Victorian England and from the preview, it looks like a hideously-colored atrocity, regurgitating the same old cliched zombie crap as if a new setting could somehow magically reinvigorate this exhausted genre. I hope it's better than it looks in this preview, but I kinda doubt it.

09 October 2009

Flashmob Fridays #003: Haunt #1

Christopher Allen

Haunt may purport to be a gritty supernatural adventure comic. It may even purport to be fun. But what it is, is a creatively bankrupt exercise in coming up with a new action figure/cartoon/movie property with a lot of corrupt pieces stitched together like Frankenstein’s monster. To carry the monster analogies onward, old vampires McFarlane and Capullo have gotten younger talents Kirkman and Ottley to give them some fresh blood. I honestly wonder why a guy like Kirkman, who is a good writer at times, would willingly give up months (at least) of his time on something so ugly and trashy as this. Marvel Zombies is pandering, but at least it’s entertaining. Haunt is the kind of book that knocks writers off the Cool List because its cynicism is so transparent it breaks faith with the fans.

Starting the story with a priest finishing up a round of sex with a prostitute is just the kind of thing to let readers know we’re dealing with a bunch of immature men trying to be edgy, especially with the addition of other trite signifiers of the priest’s degradation as having him curse frequently, have beard stubble, and Heaven Forfend—he smokes, too! Surely the Image “Director’s Cut” edition of this issue will have a scene of him dipping his balls in the baptismal font.

Shifting into flashback mode, we see the priest’s brother (no, I don’t remember the character names and don’t care to read it again to find out) as a mercenary or black operative with a conscience, killing the Mengele-like scientist he’s supposed to rescue, and getting killed in turn for spoiling the mission. If the earlier priest scene hadn’t been so loathsome, this scene might have worked a little better, but as it is, I was already repulsed by the sourness of the story and the juvenile dialogue.

All is not lost, however, as the final scene is unintentionally hilarious. The priest, who has been haunted by the ghost of his brother, is shot by killers who have come to the brother’s widow’s house to silence her, suddenly merges (with his brother) into a supernatural creature with more than a passing resemblance to Marvel Comics’ Venom. McFarlane has a thing about widows of killers, I guess; hey, it worked for Spawn. It then dispenses some sticky—one might say ectojismic—vengeance to the would-be assassins. The funniest part is when the priest, still in this new Haunt guise, calls out to his brother and finds he’s right there, sharing the same body, and he says, “I guess I’m not crazy after all.” Because when you have changed into a supernatural being with extraordinary, apparently easy to master bukkake powers, and you find this creature also contains the soul of your dead brother, the first thought is going to be relief that you are not, in fact, a raving lunatic. Aw. Ful.

Mick Martin

I was pleasantly surprised at the story quality of Haunt. It's not great, but it's not horrible. While I've enjoyed his work on The Walking Dead Kirkman's Marvel work was largely disappointing, and while I didn't hate it, the few issues of Invincible I checked out didn't convince me to keep reading.

Other than that, there's little about Haunt I liked. I didn't hate it, but it didn't impress me either. The concept seems like a tired mix between Brother Voodoo and Spawn (I think I already heard about a McFarlane project regarding an undead hero who used to be a covert-ops soldier and I don't know why covert-ops soldiers are the only guys who get to be undead heroes - Maybe they get that in lieu of a scholarship?). I didn't like the fact that there was hardly anyone in the story I felt sympathetic towards. The covert-ops brother does something supposedly brave and morally "correct", but I couldn't help thinking it was an act made A) out of a sense of self-righteous indignation B) by a character who murders random strangers on the orders of his superiors.

Two things about the art. First, while I know taking potshots at McFarlane is hardly original, I have to say it's very unimpressive that the guy couldn't - or wouldn't bother to - draw a character on the first issue's cover that didn't look like Spider-Man. I mean, the guy is NOTHING like Spider-Man, thematically or physically. But I look at the cover, and all I see is Spider-Man.

Second, the main character's costume was I think, for me, the final nail in his coffin. The costume looks horrible. It isn't even that it looks like a bad design - it looks lazy and unfinished. It looks like they came up with it in 5 minutes and never looked back.

Alan David Doane

Marvel's Venom meets 24's Jack Bauer in this unpleasant and unattractive new mess from Image Comics. Writer Robert Kirkman has the chops to create a comprehensible story, which is more than you could say for almost all of the original Image creators, so it's not like this is as unreadable as most of the comics with Todd McFarlane's name attached; but the look here is solidly 1990 Image, with all the overwrought scowls, gory action and speedlines-as-background that that implies.

More than anything one gets the sense that McFarlane felt it was time Image cash in on whatever part he had in the "creation," of Venom all those years ago, so there's a lot of angst, Catholic guilt trips and uninteresting reveals on the way to the new fake Spider-Man/Venom avatar getting up and making McFarlane Spidey/Venom poses. Haunt seems to be composed of milk or possibly semen, which splurts in the air webbing-like from the areas of impact where he is shot, while his Venom-like claws tear the heads off personality-free bad guys specifically created to have their heads torn off.

I would have thought at this late date that the bad comics I don't want to read would have moved on from material like this, but no, here it is, it's 1990 all over again. If you're feeling nostalgic for the lousy titles Image crammed the racks with in the early 1990s, most of which now crammed into quarter bins across the nation, then by all means, pick this up. Otherwise, avoid at all costs.

Matt Springer

When I was thirteen, Image Comics was the bomb. McFarlane, Lee, even iefeld...that's what I was all about. I stood in line in a tent at Chicago Comicon in the early nineties to get Todd McFarlane to sign a copy of an old Quasar issue featuring his pencils on the cover.

It's been years since I followed Image closely at all -- I'm talking the core Image creators and characters, of course. I buy Image books all the time; they've evolved into a terrific and diverse publishing label that has several interesting books on the schedule month after month, from miniseries like King City and Underground to ongoings like Chew, Godland, Age of Bronze, Elephantmen...the list goes on. They might be the most "game" publisher in comics right now, willing to take risks with one-shots and miniseries that often pay off with strong critical and cult hits.

Haunt is a new book co-created by the newest Image partner, Robert Kirkman, and an original partner, Todd McFarlane. It's got Greg
Capullo on layouts and Ryan Ottley on finishes; McFarlane inks and provides a cover. It's an absolutely Image book, in the old-school sense. Lots of crosshatching, gratuitous violence, breasts the size of bowling balls, and heaploads of "bad ass" such as a priest who hires prostitutes and a doctor who mutilates living people. The concept is reminiscent of Spawn, in that it's another dead-guy-rises-again-for-vengeance bit, except the dead guy is possessing his living brother's body to become who I assume is the titular hero -- he's not named in the book.

Kirkman is a writer whose stuff I sometimes enjoy, and other times don't; certainly I respect most of what he does, even if it's not my cuppa. Even McFarlane has had his moments; it may not be the most popular opinion but I liked his adjectiveless Spider-Man stuff for what it was. I...don't respect this much. I don't like it either.

There's occasional moments of blunt cleverness; I could see this concept having potential in other hands, even though honestly, it doesn't seem like the most original concept to me. Right now it's like Robert Kirkman is the first creator actually nostalgic for the "glory days" of Image style over substance, and the first one in a position to actually relive those days with a new book cut from the same cloth as the "classics." In many important ways, this is Spawn 2.0. I woulda loved it when I was thirteen. Today? It's not for me.

Johnny Bacardi

Oh, brother. Pun intended.

We've been blessed, so to speak, with a new Image Comic called Haunt, which is a collaboration between popular writer Robert (Walking Dead, Invincible -- but you knew that already, didn't you) Kirkman and wealthy baseball souvenir enthusiast and onetime comics artist Todd McFarlane, apparently born out of the latter's challenge to the former to stop playing with his balls and draw some more comics.

Of course, it's not really a total McFarlane art effort -- it's a Ghidrah of sorts, with someone (well known in some circles, I'm sure) named Ryan Ottley on layouts, then longtime stalwart Greg Capullo doing the penciling honors...after which the Toddster comes along and lays down inks. Where it goes next in this assembly line isn't made clear; the preview PDF I read didn't come with any actual credits. I can assume it's then Photoshopped, to give it that hightoned veneer that all comics of this stripe demand these days.

Kirkman's a decent enough scripter, although I got bored with Walking Dead after a dozen issues; here, I suppose the thinking is not to stray too far outside either's comfort zone -- there's a reason why the lead character(s) in all its costumed glory looks like Spawn's second cousin twice removed. It is a ghoul-ash of a number of different genres -- supernatural, action thriller, superspy, Catholicism, horror (with a nod to the mad doctors performing hellish experiments sub-category), and eventually superhero...and damned if it doesn't kinda work on its own terms. Of course, these terms are strictly of the straight-to-DVD, late night Cinemax kinda type, but Kirkman (despite some gratuitous profanity) thankfully doesn't get too pretentious with the dialogue, and truth be told Capullo has always been better than the company he usually keeps, and thus the layouts and pacing aren't showoffish and cluttered, keeping readabilty at a high level.

Which is not to say that I recommend this at all -- it's the kind of lowest-common-denominator supernatural superhero action horseshit that one would hope that comics outgrew years ago, but sadly doesn't seem to be the case. We've all seen this before, done better (and certainly done worse). However, if, like a mushroom, you thrive on this particular type of manure, then you will probably want to pick this up. That said, I think I'll decline to join you.

02 October 2009

Flashmob Fridays #002: Incredible Hulk Annual #13

This week, the internet's premier Hulk aficionado Mick Martin called us all at the last minute and told us to weigh in on Incredible Hulk Annual #13, and here we go!

Mick Martin

Incredible Hulk Annual #13, or "Friends," is part of what Hulk fans have come to call the Crossroads Saga. In what was the first of a long series of Hulk personality juggling, Bill Mantlo gave Bruce Banner the ability to change back and forth between himself and the Hulk at will, only to take it away later via the machinations of Doctor Strange's enemy, Nightmare. The battle with Nightmare rendered the Hulk an almost completely mindless brute, even more destructive than before, leaving Doctor Strange with the sad duty of exiling the Hulk to a crossroads with seemingly endless pathways leading to different worlds. The one thing each world shared in common was that their inhabitants were as powerful as, or more powerful than, the Hulk. The Hulk stayed in the Crossroads for nearly a year -- from Incredible Hulk #301 to #313 -- until Alpha Flight unwittingly fished him out, at which point the creative teams of Hulk and Alpha Flight switched chairs.

"Friends" is a fairly typical example of the stories Mantlo produced during the Crossroads era. Usually the Hulk would go to a world and find a damsel in distress or a new friend, and the story tended to end in death, betrayal, or both. I read this comic, along with the rest of the Crossroads Saga, as a child and by that point they were just about the most depressing stories I'd ever come across. By the time he emerged from the Crossroads to a bunch of very surprised (and soon very bruised) Canadians, it felt like finally getting home after the longest, crappiest work day of your life.

Compared to today's comics, "Friends" can feel pretty cheesy. With a Hulk who is -- for most of the story -- unable to even speak in his classic, monosyllabic, third-person caveman-tongue, the bulk of "Friends" reads like a strange nature program. The Hulk scrounges for food on a strange, alien planet while Mantlo narrates like Wild Kingdom's Marlin Perkins stranded on the Klingon homeworld. The narration is melodramatic, and sometimes awkwardly goofy. While it's clear we are meant to take the Hulk's plight seriously, it's difficult when Mantlo gets uncharacteristically silly with lines like "Amidst much guttural growling, the green goliath gorges."

The planet of "Friends" has only toxic food, and we soon learn the only way the Hulk can ingest the food is by being physically connected with the symbiote he calls "Sym." Sym, basically a crawling spine with fangs, attaches itself to the back of Hulk's neck after the Hulk angrily kills its original host. At first, the Hulk thrashes and fights to free himself from Sym. After learning he can finally eat the planet's food with Sym's fangs stuck in his neck, the Hulk accepts the creature's presence. For a while the two enjoy a tranquil life. The Hulk keeps healthy on the planet's food, Sym marvels at the feats the Hulk is capable of, and the two become friends. Unfortunately, when Sym's people learns he has merged with an alien, they demand he leave the Hulk. Sym refuses and the Hulk brings him to the top of the planet's tallest mountain where Sym can be the first of his people to see the stars. While the Hulk sleeps, Sym detaches himself from the Hulk, knowing if he doesn't that the Hulk will die. Distraught by Sym's death, the Hulk returns to the Crossroads.

In many ways, the story is unremarkable. Upon rereading it for this review, though, I realized that, if looked at in the right light, the story of Incredible Hulk Annual #13 could be seen as a highly compressed version of the character's entire history up to that point. As I wrote earlier, "Friends" is typical of the Crossroads stories. In each, the Hulk tends to find a friend who is either dead or an enemy by the end of the story. Where "Friends" differs is that the friend Hulk finds is a symbiote -- a creature who is literally, physically one with Hulk for most of the tale. And the idea of a symbiotic relationship is nothing new to the Hulk. He'd had one with Bruce Banner for years. Like on Earth, when the weaker half's people learned of what had become of him, Sym's race hounded them. Just as the Hulk had, for a time, found peace and unity with Banner, he ultimately accepted the presence of Sym. Eventually, Sym dies and leaves the Hulk alone, just as Banner "died" (the same way all comic book characters die). In fact, while Sym is still attached to Hulk, the green goliath regains his limited "Hulk like SYM!" speech, which he lost after Banner's "death" and loses again after the death of Sym.

The Crossroads stories perplex me and "Friends" is no different. Incredible Hulk Annual #13 is not a story I would automatically think to pluck out and read. In many ways, Mantlo's Crossroad stories are simply not good. But they stay wedged in my mind and I can't help but think there was something desperately important he was trying to say with them.

Alan David Doane

Gerry Talaoc was one hell of an inker, to be able to bring the sort of life to Alan Kupperberg's pencils that he did here. The book is absolutely average for the period in terms of both story and art, but I remember disliking virtually everything Kupperberg ever drew, so the fact that this book looks as atmospheric and professional as it does is a minor miracle, and one I attribute to Talaoc's gifts.

Bill Mantlo wrote a lot of Hulk comics in the 1970s, and I'm sure I read most of them, but nothing really resonates with me in this story, or in trying to evoke my own memories of reading Hulk comics when I was a pre-teen or into my early teens. It lacks the energy and punch Sal Buscema brought to the book during the time I was reading it and liked it (around age 9), not that Buscema's art ever rose much above the level of simple, effective storytelling.

I will say there's a damn lot of words in this issue, most of which I couldn't bring myself to bother to read after the first handful of pages, but that the tone of struggle and loneliness and making a connection with another soul probably would have moved me when I was 8 or 9 years old. It's too bad Marvel can't be bothered to create these sort of entry-level melodramas for young readers today, churning out instead the simplified "Adventures"-style of storytelling that DC has always been better at (in print and on TV), or the faux-mature stylings of Bendis and his colleagues. That this sort of comic isn't attempted -- or probably even possible -- anymore, is probably a major reason why kids aren't attracted to Marvel (or DC) comics in the 21st century.

Johnny Bacardi

Sometimes, one's opinion of any sort of creative endeavor, be it music, film, or even a comic book story can be influenced or informed by nostalgia or one's own experiences at the time of initial exposure; as a case in point, I offer my own example: the mix of the music on the second album by the Electric Light Orchestra, new to me at the time and which I listened to as I first read DC's 1970's Shadow #2 (also, a very early exposure to the art of Mike Kaluta as well) at age 13 have combined to form an unbreakable bond in the murky recesses of what passes for my mind. I'm sure everyone has similar experiences.

This phenomenon was what went through my mind when we were given this week's Flashmob Friday "assignment" of commentary on 1984's Incredible Hulk Annual #13, which came out at a time during which I had pretty much given up on buying Marvel Comics, which had become Shooterized (analogous to Pasteurized) to the point of bland homogeny, the occasional Miller Daredevil, Simonson Thor or Byrne Fantastic Four notwithstanding. I also have never really been much of a Hulk reader, either; I read a few issues here and there as a preteen, and didn't mind seeing him pop up in other comics that I read, but as the '70s wore on the book seemed to devolve into five hundred consecutive issues in which he's constantly hunted and hounded and fighting the super villain of the month and being called "Jade-Jaws", many written by Len Wein, who had just a couple of years before thrilled me with his Swamp Thing, Phantom Stranger and Justice League efforts at DC but had somehow been reduced to another imitation Roy Thomas Marvel hack after crossing the street; and each and every one drawn by consummate pro Sal Buscema, featuring the Hulk with a gaping mouth equal to the length of his head. I wanted none of it, and I never saw anything as the '80s came on that changed my opinion, so it's no wonder that I was completely unfamiliar with this particular issue, and was a bit surprised to see it offered up for our examination.

Oddly enough for an annual, it seems to take place in between issues of the regular title; intended as a supplement I suppose. Apparently the Hulk has completely eliminated all traces of Bruce Banner from his psyche and has been sent "elsewhere" by Dr. Strange (hey, they kinda did the same thing in World War Hulk! Oh the relevance to current events!), to a Ditkoesque (or actually, an approximation of Jim Starlin's version of a Ditko-like otherdimensional realm, but more on that later) realm where he can follow each path to a different destination, ostensibly to find one in which he can find "happiness," just as long as it's not on our Earth apparently. Doc Strange has woven a mighty spell, as it also allows for a failsafe in that if Hulky is unhappy in whatever world he lands in, it will automatically send him back to Ditkoland, presumably for another chance. He's not alone in Ditkoland, either; there are some mysterious floating glowy puffballs that are also striving to make Hulky happy in between travels, guess they're kinda like Motel 6 mysterious floating glowy puffballs. Anyway, after landing in a world full of acidic rain and dinosaurs that he can't beat up, he ends up going to another realm in which all the food is poisonous, but the animal life survives thanks to chalky white wormish parasites, that look like big spinal cords and enable their hosts to eat and survive in exchange for mobility. Of course, one latches on to the Hulk, and they eventually get to know each other and strike up a friendship of convenience. Wormy longs to see the sky and stars, and Hulk is all too happy to help him in this goal, although the results end up tragic, as you knew they would. Then, an abrupt and somewhat downbeat ending, which curiously reminded me of the old children's book Goodnight Moon.

Now what exactly writer Bill Mantlo was striving for here is unclear (to me, anyway)...is he trying to set Wormy up as some sort of muse figure, or perhaps imagination/inspiration, enabling the Hulk to survive in this hostile environment? He's not particularly written as inspiring, nor does he really inspire much sympathy. Perhaps Wormy is intended to represent something more mundane, like a brawn needs brains to be able to glimpse the stars sort of thing. Perhaps it's something that's obvious to everyone but me, who knows. Mantlo's prose is excessively melodramatic, as so many Marvel writers (and to be fair, more than a few DC scribes as well) tended to be back then -- we're a million miles away from the terse dialogue and caption style of your Moores and Ellises. It progresses decently enough, and kept me reading until the end in order to find out what was going to happen, but the payoff wasn't especially memorable to me. Artwise, it was drawn by Alan Kupperberg, who labored anonymously for Marvel during the Shooter regime to little lasting effect; if he had a recognizable style, he used it on his own work because it sure didn't look anything but generic on the few Marvel books I saw with his work. On this issue, he apes Jim Starlin in very convincing fashion; in fact, before I checked the credits I thought it WAS Starlin. So nicely done on that front, Mr. K! Inks were provided by my old pal Gerry Talaoc, whom I always considered an above-average part of the whole Filipino/South American artist movement of the '70s on DC books like Star-Spangled War Stories featuring The Unknown Soldier and Phantom Stranger. Here, he's pretty much subsuming his style to help further Kupperberg's Starlin illusion; I think he succeeds, for what that's worth.

All of which brings me back to my opening paragraph, and our individual, subjective impressions regarding the stuff we put in our heads. I have a feeling that this comic must be one which carried a special meaning or fond memory for the person who suggested it, one which I'll never be able to completely experience for myself. To me, this is just another anonymous, bland mid-'80s Marvel Comic Book, the likes of which left me unwilling to buy any but a handful of fringe Marvel titles for almost two decades until just recently. I don't get the importance. To others, those who also tend to revere the likes of Squadron Supreme and Englehart's Captain America run, this is good comics. Who's to say who's right and who's wrong...I'll leave that up to you, dear reader.

Marc Sobel

1. Well, damn, that was pretty weird!

2. Bill Mantlo basically wrote a love story between the Hulk and a disembodied spinal cord.

3. This comic peddles weirdness for weirdness's sake. I'll give Mantlo credit for breaking out of the villain-of-the-month formula, but the push to concoct outrageous Ditko-like mindscapes for the Hulk to wander through comes with only the thinnest pretense of a plot. Perhaps if read as a chapter within the broader context of the Hulk universe of the early '80s, maybe this issue might have made more sense, but read as a stand-alone, it's a bit of a head-scratcher. Where is the Hulk and why has he been banished by Doctor Strange? What happened to his human side? Why can't he utter a grammatically correct sentence? None of these questions are addressed.

4. Also, whereas Ditko's early Doctor Strange tales felt bold and original, these surreal images, particularly in the first half of the book, feel derivative and labored. The craftsmanship of Alan Kupperberg (with Gerry Talaoc on inks) is indisputable, these guys can certainly draw, but the images feel like tired retreads of earlier visionaries.

5. I will say this, though. There are at least three or four really nice splash pages, especially the double-page spread on the title page with the Hulk pinned under the foot of a huge alien dinosaur.

6. Bill Mantlo's narration quickly becomes tedious, merely describing what is visually depicted. Like a lot of Stan Lee's early Marvel stories, after a while you realize you can just skip over or skim most of it, focusing instead on the images.

7. Is there some kind of contractual requirement that all Hulk writers must use the phrase "Hulk is the strongest one there is" in every story? Same as "with great power..." for Spider-Man? Maybe it wasn't such a cliché back in 1984, but I kind of doubt it.

8. When I reached the climactic final scene, in which the Hulk had ascended the mountain with his spiny new friend so the two could gaze upon the heavens together like young lovers, all I could think about was..."Look at the stars, look how they shine for you, and all the things you do, and they were all yellow..." Maybe Chris Martin was a Hulk fan as a kid?

9. I think the real flaw in this story is that the raging Hulk is just a wholly uninteresting character. What I always loved about the Hulk when Peter David was writing it, and even in the old TV show, was Bruce Banner's struggle to be human and tame the beast within. That's what made the character interesting. Without his human side, the Hulk is one-dimensional, idiotic and frankly, irritating. Who would want to spend time watching this mindless brute stagger around searching for food, no matter how surreal and visually spectacular the locale?

10. The other thing that made David's run on the Hulk so memorable was the great supporting cast. In fact, most great superhero books have a diverse and interesting cast of supporting characters surrounding the lead. This solo Hulk story could benefited from a little Rick Jones humor, Doc Samson psychobabble, Betty Ross anguish, etc.

Matt Springer

"The Hulk ignores the puffball collective."

If that isn't the greatest line I've ever read in a comic book, it's damn close to it. That's a Bill Mantlo original, from Incredible Hulk Annual #13, circa 1984. When Mick volunteered to provide the pick for this week's Flashmob Friday, I encouraged him to "make it weird." He delivered, in spades.

Sometimes I get to thinking about the enormity that is the collected output of the comic book industry over the past seventy-odd years. So very many titles, running for so very many months, each one bringing a new round of issues with stories upon stories upon stories. So, so many plots, characters; villains and schemes; days saved and worlds that were never the same.

And we all know much of it, maybe most of it, is low-grade superhero pablum. That's good stuff, strong stuff, and it satisfies. It scratches an itch.

But we also know that as the writers and artists toiled to churn out all this material over decades spent at typewriters and drawing tables, the urge to flip the script must have occasionally loomed large. Instead of plugging new variables into tried and true superhero comic formulas, there must have been an almost physical need to occasionally create a story that practically defies description.

Incredible Hulk Annual #13 is such a story. I don't mean to overinflate its importance, or even its quality; it's a clever, creative science fiction parable with the Hulk as its protagonist. It's told mostly in narration, with only a handful of characters, and one of them an ignorant brute. It's got a puffball collective and snakes like spines that attach to symbiotes and yearn to see the stars.

Mantlo takes full advantage of the Hulk, who is particularly suited to this type of story -- remove him from the boundaries of the Marvel universe, and he's practically a blank slate onto which you can place any story you want. His fundamental desire for understanding, coupled with a continued inability to supress his rage, means that the ending of these stories may always be the same, even when the journey is new. He can never find true happiness or contentment, and it's the world's fault, and it's his fault too. This story riffs on that theme, in ways both ambitious and mundane; it's set in a pretty whacked-out fantasyscape, but at its heart it's a simple sci-fi story with the Hulk as its star. You could imagine a similar tale minus the Hulk in Weird Tales or Amazing Stories magazine.

Yet here it is, totally native to its chosen form, words and pictures and a pissed-off green guy in torn purple pants, exactly what you want, nothing you expect. Again, not overstating it (I hope), but seriously -- this book is a good single-issue argument for the oddity, the wonder, the idiocy and the greatness of the 20th Century American Superhero Comic Book. Nice choice, Mick.

Christopher Allen

Away, all this asinine alliteration. Mantlo makes a morass of the mother tongue! Actually, while it probably would have been better as a single issue instead of an annual, this isn't too bad. The Kupperberg/Talaoc team present a pretty good Hulk, along with the alien creatures. The Crossroads was a good idea, as it opened things up for almost any kind of Hulk story, although I think a lot of them mainly just gave Hulk a reason to fight aliens. The Symbiont story here led me to believe it would resolve itself with Hulk figuring out how to beat the symbiont and get him off his back, so to speak, so kudos to Mantlo for trying something a little more ambitious. It's overwrought and overwritten, but it has some charm. I may not ever read this story again, but I fear The Puffball Collective is now stuck in my brain forever.

17 September 2009

Flashmob Fridays #001: Final Crisis

Here's the deal: Flashmob Fridays here on Trouble with Comics means that every Friday, the TWC gang will receive last-minute notice that it's time to review a particular comic or graphic novel (or movie or novel or who the hell knows what? It's EDGY, baby!), and we'll aggregate them all here on Flashmob Fridays.

This week's inaugural edition covers Final Crisis by Grant Morrison, JG Jones and company. TROUBLE TEAM GO.

Johnny Bacardi:

Final Crisis? Okay, first things first -- as if we needed reminding, and apparently in some circles we did, stories are eternal, comics can be a medium "free from restrictions," Superman is the foremost avatar of the manifestation of the human imagination, and superheroes are not meant to have darker sides but should remain heroic, Alan Moore be damned.

Also, Grant really, really, really liked Jack Kirby's comics. It's hard to say what this would have been like if Morrison had had his way from the outset; this just reeked of editorial interference, which of course he denies... that would be an excuse, anyway, because even by Moz's standards, this was so chaotic and messy that it was a real chore to follow.

Sure, he at least tried to play fair with the readers by keeping everything as linear as production schedules would allow, but the storytelling style he employed was choppy and haphazard- we got glimpses of things, rather than any sort of coherent, sustained scenes, with admittedly a few exceptions, and while I am not always averse to narratives in which the reader is expected to do his or her share of work to get the total picture, I keep wondering if this message, that's he's given us before, is worth the effort. Part of this readability issue may have to be laid at the feet of this art collaborators; one wonders what a seasoned old pro like George Perez, who has lots of experience in depicting multitudes of characters, all shouting and brawling and shooting things out of their hands while rubble and cosmic energies crack and sizzle around them, would have done.

J.G. Jones is a hell of an artist in my book, capable of drawing lithe, sensual figures and telling a story well, the same with Carlos Pacheco and co., and Doug Mahnke, whom I consider one of the best, if not THE best, artist working on mainstream superhero comics today, comes along at the end and saves the day...but it's as if all of them saw Morrison's involved scripting and took it as a sign to ramp up their OWN tendencies towards obfuscation irregardless of how disjointed it all became. I suppose after all is said and done, though, this has to be viewed as a measured success, even though I have to wonder if this is what the braintrust at DC had in mind when this all got started; Morrison did, I think, say what he wanted to say and in the process gave us some FUCK YEAH moments, some of which will stick with readers, or at least this reader, for a long time -- not the least of which was Mahnke's brilliantly realized image of Frankenstein riding a hell hound to the rescue, as well as the ascension of Mr. Tawky Tawny to Chief Tiger Badass (amusing, and fitting), Batman's climactic showdown with Darkseid (I still liked it better when he dodged the Omega Beam in Justice League Unlimited) and Superman's climactic aria.

Still, after all this, I have to wonder: first of all, is a more sophisticated-in-the-telling version of Showcase #100, or even Crisis on Infinite Earths, something that we should celebrate and one of our best writers aspire to? And two, is our Grant a one-trick pony? He's been trotting out the same metaphysicalities for two decades now, from Seven Soldiers back through Seaguy all the way to the Invisibles and Flex Mentallo. Based on the odd work like the more-excellent-as-time-passes WE3, I'd say not.

But to be honest, I find myself wishing that Morrison would step away from the capes and even comics in general for a little while and take a vacation of some sort, recharge the old batteries, do a little sigil magic whilst masturbating, whatever- just think of something new. We'll see where he, and DC, go from here; one has to suppose than event fatigue will someday set in, even among the hardcore faithful, who seem to be dwindling in number.

Alan David Doane:

Oh, Final Crisis, how I so wanted to love you. When DC announced it was going to re-team the writer and artist of Marvel Boy (one of the best Marvel series of the past 25 years, brilliant and gorgeous from start to finish), I was cautiously optimistic. I knew Morrison and Jones could deliver the goods, but recent Morrison sojourns into the bowels of the DC Universe have been hit or miss; not much since Seven Soldiers has turned me on, and even that brought maybe only 60 percent of the fun promised in the premise.

No need to mince words, Final Crisis is a goddamned mess. But so's your bed after a particularly energetic round of coitus, so that's not always a bad thing. Unfortunately, Final Crisis feels nothing like sex (Morrison's best comics actually often do) and a lot like driving past a homely hooker at 70 MPH and wondering if maybe she was better looking than you thought, and maybe you should turn around and give her another look...?

Nah. I wanted to like Final Crisis, a lot. Morrison is one of the few writers left working for DC that I can ever find entertaining, never mind enlightening (you know, Morrison, and then there's that other one, you know, that guy...?), and here and there one finds moments that flash of the very best Morrison can deliver, but in the final analysis, having read the series three times through now, it's just a disaster. It starts off coherently enough, with the murder of Orion and the investigation that follows. But within a few dozen pages it's all over the map, and not in the good way New X-Men sometimes was.

Jones's art never seems as focused as it did on Marvel Boy (or even Wanted), and he disappears for the most part after the first three issues or so anyway; Morrison has too much going on and doesn't bring enough structure or order to allow the reader to immerse themselves in the story that's trying to be told. Batman's initial defeat seems tossed off and just background material, almost forgotten by the time it's called back in his eventual checkmate move; the beats seem all off on the key events of the story. One feels hard-pressed to be able to even the existence of a narrative structure, never mind try to describe it. And yet at the end, in the Monitors sequence, you have the feeling of an epic story coming to its logical, almost wholly unearned conclusion.

Morrison's best works in comics so far are WE3, JLA: Earth 2 and New X-Men; only the first two are perfect, with New X-Men losing points for its multiple artists and the rush jobs they were forced to endure. Final Crisis has that problem, and a strong sense of editorial throttling added to the mix as well. As a result, it doesn't get anywhere within a million miles of the high points of any of those other Morrison-written comics.

Matt Springer:

As a reader of spandex fantasies, I prize ideas and ambition above perhaps all other things. I will forgive many sins, from leaden dialogue to skritchy art, if there's an idea I enjoy, or if I think the enterprise had aspirations to greater things.

Final Crisis is an incredibly ambitious comic, and ultimately, I think it falls a bit short of those ambitions. But lord, what a story it tells in the trying. Darkseid taking over the earth with the Anti-Life Equation, Batman killing him by shooting a bullet backwards through time, the Flashes of three generations racing against the odds to save the multiverse (again)...and in the end, Superman shattering the grip of evil by singing just the right song.

Visually, it's a bit hard to judge the work; the rotating door of artists kicked in at some point mid-series, as it often does on an event comic, and that makes it hard to make any comprehensive critiques. I will say that I think Doug Mahnke ended up being a better fit for the title than J.G. Jones; I feel like Jones produces work that's a bit too "real" for a story this fantastic. I did like Carlos Pacheco's pages, though, and always wish that guy got more work.

Morrison's work often rewards, if not requires, multiple readings. I've only read Final Crisis once so what sticks out to me are the massive moments of genius, the frequent narrative gaps that demand filling (and often become full once that second or third reading is complete), and the sheer ambition of the piece. The guy wanted to tell the ultimate story of evil triumphing over good, and good winning anyway. He got close.

Christopher Allen:

"We have come for light
Wholly, we have come for light"

--The Breeders, "New Year"

Instant, Non-Final Thoughts on Final Crisis

* The cover to the hardcover is one of the bleakest, least appealing I've seen for a DC book. Rather than conveying significance, it feels more like Anti-Life itself. The story itself, while dark at times, is meant to be fun and ultimately uplifting. The cover feels like defeat.

* J.G. Jones's slight alteration to the design of New Gods' knowledge seeker Metron is as simple, crisp and correct a costume update as I can remember since John Byrne's smart redo of the Fantastic Four.

* Killing Orion first is a typically right-on Morrison move. The DCU's true warrior, locked in eternal struggle, until now.

* As much as we complain about decompression, some moments need some space, and Libra ends up less memorable due to his introduction being shoehorned into all kinds of plot and a meeting of the Injustice Society.

* A few other writers might have come up with The Orrery as a literal mechanical device controlling the workings of the universe, but who else would throw away the idea that time itself is a kind of virus or germ contaminating its previously unchanging workings? I'm reminded of Frank Lloyd Wright's great, arrogant quote, "Why, I just shake the buildings out of my sleeves."

* It's pretty clear even in the first issue, with the way Superman is drawn, that J.G. Jones was getting artistic pinch-hitting early on, right? Or maybe he just draws a bad Superman.

* J.G. Jones is not quite Quitely, Cassaday or Hitch, but he's a distinctive, exciting enough stylist that it's a real risk putting him on a monthly book, even a miniseries. He's like a really talented running back or wide receiver. If he's in the game, you'll see brilliance. If he's out, it's that much harder on a replacement, who's not up on the more complex packages. You almost wish for a lesser artist than Jones from the start, for consistency vs. the high points of his pages distracting from the rest.

* I like how worldly Morrison took some of the most obvious, pop culture aspects of Japan and came up with the ridiculous but appealing Super Young Team, all ready for someone else to run with them in another project.

* The Alpha Lanterns don't really feel like a Morrison idea to me. Johns? They just seem really obvious.

* Delicate balancing act, the J'onn J'onzz funeral. Somber but with the little bit of metahumor in Superman's hope for his resurrection.

* The Evil Factory - Jones has the same gift for depicting horror and weirdness matter-of-factly as Chris Weston.

* Jay Garrick with Robert Mitchum's face--good call.

* I have no real feelings about the return of Barry Allen, but it was done pretty well here.

* It seems like a mistake, the bad girl stuff with Mary Marvel. Kind of a tawdry representation of Anti-Life when Morrison had been pretty effective in building the horror up to then.

* Superman Beyond is included in the hardcover, and feels somewhat out of place. A decent, trippy multiverse story with multiple versions of Superman and forgotten heroes going against a space vampire named Mandrakk. If it had been a Quitely-drawn All Star Superman two-parter it would have gone down a treat. As a stand-alone it's not bad, and it's the best Doug Mahnke art I've seen, even without the 3D effects from the original comics. It just doesn't sit right in this collection, especially as it interrupts a story that's hard enough to follow as it is without 40-plus pages of distraction.

* The Submit story, though much more tied into the events of Final Crisis, is much worse, and though I wasn't there at the time, I'm guessing this was when readers really started to turn on Morrison. It's not a bad premise -- Black Lightning protects a family from Darkseid's Justifiers -- mentally enslaved human soldiers rounding up the unconverted. Lightning tries to convince supervillain The Tattooed Man that he can be more, be good, before Lightning himself is overcome, symbolically forcing The Tattooed Man to choose to be a hero to balance the scales. I like the basics of it, but Matthew Clark is a middling superhero artist and there's a feeling at times that his storytelling choices forced Morrison to have to rewrite some of his script, perhaps on short notice. There's no flow to a lot of it.

* Back to FC proper, and as much as I hoped for consistency in the art, Carlos Pacheco is welcome, with the delicate curve of Black Canary's chin and a rock-solid depiction of Hal Jordan.

* Darkseid as a huffing, puffing vessel of evil even he doesn't quite comprehend is somehow more chilling than the grinning, haughty Darkseid we all knew.

* From the fourth issue on, Morrison seems unable to keep all his plates spinning. The Weeja Dell/Nix Uotan thread begun in the first issue finally makes sense and turns out to be the most important part -- eternal love and devotion to a noble idea trumping Anti-Life -- but it has to fight for space amid dozens of superheroes on motorcycles, Lex Luthor deciding he'd rather try to save Earth so he can take it over later, the Tiger people from Kirby's Kamandi, and Batman of course getting the best scene, the showdown with Darkseid. The last issue has its moments, mainly Superman and Darkseid and the weapon of music, but it feels frantic and disjointed, and Mahnke, though good, is just too ordinary to wrap things up in high style. Admittedly, there's so much plot and exposition to get through that any artist would have trouble really shining. The scene hinting that Batman is alive but in another time is easy to mock, but memorable and surprising. It's a shame the Weeja Dell stuff and the other plot threads don't conclude as strongly, as if Morrison is just plain exhausted.

* All in all, the harsh criticism seems unfair. It's pretty easy to reread the book and see several simpler but perhaps more triumphant iterations. The Weeja Dell story could have been the hook, or Superman and the musical god weapon, or just a good old fashioned gathering of disparate heroes against a big menace story. All of them are here, as well as creation myth and espionage and redemption and corruption and youthful vigor and hard-earned wisdom and a just man falsely accused. Morrison is guilty only of too much ambition, of wanting to do more with a big superhero event story than most readers would have expected or even wanted. Give him credit for putting three or four times as many pieces out there rather than blame him for failing to pull all of them together.