30 December 2011

The Wrap-Up Show - Thoughts on FMF: Criminal: The Last of the Innocent

Hello hello! We're skipping a new Flashmob Fridays post this week due to the busy holiday season (Boxing Day really wiped us out), but Christopher Allen has a few thoughts on last week's featured title, Criminal: The Last of the Innocent. Chris, take it away:

In Ed Brubaker's best work, one finds the theme of man trying to escape the sins of his past. We see this in early work such as Lowlife and Deadenders, up through Sleeper, the Winter Soldier/Bucky saga in Captain America, and other Criminal stories. In The Last of the Innocent, we find Brubaker exploring this theme once again, with the ambition and reach we would expect from a serious artist.

We meet Riley Richards, a man who finds himself stuck in a life that crushes his soul, even as it affords him all the material comforts he could want. He is married to a rich bitch named Felicia, and working for her father. The father-in-law is cruel, while Felix (her nickname) has a bit more dimension, although it appears what was once love is now curdling into pity, and maybe even that is draining away, as Riley discovers she is sleeping with his old school rival, Teddy. Riley comes back to his hometown when his dad is hospitalized, and it is there that he's reminded of simpler times, and a possible escape from his current predicament. His first sweetheart, Lizzie, is still there, beautiful as ever and still pining for him, while his best pal, Freakout, has now been sober for a full year. Riley concocts a plan to rid himself of Felix, while establishing a solid alibi, a fall guy, and a way to keep Felix' money, in hopes of soon running away with Lizzie and starting life anew.

The plot itself, while almost bulletproof (there are a couple moments where Riley unnecessarily arouses or inflames suspicions), is just the engine for Brubaker to delve into one of his more complex characters. In fact, Riley is made more complex by the shades Brubaker gives the supporting cast. Felix's dad is a heel but his pursuit of Riley is justified not just by love and grief but by Riley's actual guilt. Felix isn't all bad, and there is some implication that her betrayal of Riley was set in motion by Riley's failure to become the man she hoped he would become. Riley doesn't appear to have been prevented from becoming a better man; the opportunity was there, but instead he gambled and caroused rather than pouring his energy into either work or saving his marriage. Freakout is that fun, bad influence that many Brubaker characters have to either abandon or destroy in order to start their new lives. Except Freakout is different; he actually knows Riley better than anyone, and he was well on his way towards his own personal redemption before Riley set him back on his self-destructive course.

Aided by his best partner, Sean Phillips, Brubaker accessorizes this seedy melodrama with a series of one-page gag strips drawn in a style reminiscent of Archie Comics. And indeed, the characters themselves are stand-ins for Archie Andrews (Riley), Veronica/Ronnie (Felicia/Felix), Betty (Lizzie), Reggie (Teddy), and Jughead (Freakout), as well as amusing but not distracting nods to Moose, Mr. Weatherbee, and Valerie of Josie and the Pussycats. Brubaker has Phillips draw the gags in this similar, brightly colored style to emphasize how much simpler Riley's life was as a teenager, but he cleverly counters this conceit with the gags always revolving around either pain or seedy activity. Darker parodies of all-ages comics fare have been with us since Tijuana Bibles, so it's fortunate that Brubaker exercises restraint in their use here, and in fact, confining each flashback to a one page gag tends to sharpen his focus. However, while the Archie motif will certainly grab the attention of most fans, even those with only vague knowledge of Archie, what stood out for me was how sharp Brubaker's narration and dialogue was throughout the story. There is hardly a line or observation from Riley that doesn't reverberate with pain or self-loathing. We feel for Riley, up to a point, but his actions are unforgivable, particularly towards the innocent fool, Freakout, and so it makes Brubaker's seemingly happy ending all the better, because by now we know that Riley is the type of person who will find a way towards misery again.

Buy Criminal Vol. 6: The Last of the Innocent from Amazon.com.

23 December 2011

Criminal: The Last of the Innocent

Introduction by Alan David Doane: We have a guest contributor for this week's Flashmob Fridays, Bubba Beasley from A Criminal Blog. I started ACB a few years ago ahead of the release of the first issue of Criminal by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. I had been mesmerized by their work together on WildStorm's Sleeper series, which remains to this day a high point in the past 25 years in comics. In addition to Phillips's always lush and evocative artwork, on Sleeper Ed Brubaker proved he had major comics-writing chops by taking a character brilliantly conceived by Alan Moore (Tao, who Moore created for his Wildcats run) and utilizing him with equal, if not superior narrative creativity. If you think that's an easy feat, let me show you a few hundred bad comics by other writers who have tried and failed.

So, Criminal remains the only comic I ever felt strongly enough to create a dedicated blog around, and then Bubba Beasley came along and added his own passion and insight, and he still writes for ACB today. When looking for someone to write about Ed and Sean's latest (and very possibly greatest) Criminal emission, Bubba was the natural go-to guy. But he's not the only one weighing in on The Last of the Innocent. Members of our regular Flashmob Fridays team also have stuff to say about what I think is one of the best comics of the year, so I'll get out of the way. Let the Flashmobbing begin.

Bubba Beasley:

It is remarkable that "The Last of the Innocent" may be the most critically acclaimed story arc in Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' comic CRIMINAL. The series started very strong in late 2006, and it kept raising the bar with each of its first four arcs: the first arc introduced the introspective but brutal series, the second arc wove a different heist into every issue, the third arc presented a trio of stories that were all self-contained but intricately related, and the fourth was a surprisingly twisted thriller that worked because of careful writing rather than any cheap gimmicks.

After that, it appeared that the series might have peaked. The pair shifted their focus to two arcs of the "apoclyptic pulp noir" INCOGNITO, for which Fox acquired the film rights last year. Between those two arcs we had the fifth CRIMINAL story, and it wasn't just a sequel to the popular story "Lawless," it was a somewhat less effective retread. In both stories, Tracy Lawless investigated a murder mystery and indulged in a very imprudent affair, all while being unknowingly pursued, but in "The Sinners" these elements weren't as organic to the unfolding plot.

(Looking beyond Brubaker's creator-owned work for Marvel's Icon imprint, I've also noticed some frustration and even boredom among fans of his lengthy, otherwise crowd-pleasing run with Captain America.)

Before this latest entry, I had basically steeled myself to accept the possibility that CRIMINAL had started the slow drift from the jaw-dropping to merely the very good, and so "The Last of the Innocent" is as much a surprise as anything that has come before it. It's phenomenal even compared to the earlier, great work. It's a real achievement for Brubaker and Phillips, in more ways than most readers may realize.

1) The story arc establishes CRIMINAL as Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' collaborative magnum opus; it's hard to imagine that their working relationship, already ten years old, will produce another work that is such a sustained and ambition project. With "The Last of the Innocent," the pair have published 26 full-length issues of CRIMINAL, finally surpassing SLEEPER's 24-issue run. There's no telling how many more stories the two will end up telling in this world. Brubaker has continued to tease "Coward's Way Out," a sequel to the debut story arc, and he may still be planning to conclude the series with the story of the crucial murder that was hinted at in "Coward."

2) The story arc defines CRIMINAL as a true anthology series set in a single, shared universe. Going by the previous arcs, one would have assumed that the series would focus on a small group of career criminals, fathers and sons. A short-story contribution to Dark Horse's 2009 anthology Noir, the CRIMINAL "emission" called "21st Century Noir" was wholly unmoored from the series' established cast and locations. With "The Last of the Innocent," we have a protagonist who was neck-deep in debts to the mob, on speaking terms with the crime boss Sebastian Hyde and his enforcer Teeg Lawless, but he's clearly not part of their organization.

The series consists of self-contained stories where the focus shifts from one character to another, and this is probably one significant reason that the series hasn't maintained a single numbering sequence through its numerous arcs. It went from a 10-issue first volume to a 7-issue second volume and finally to a series of mini-series, the idea being that new readers can jump onto every new #1 issue. This is probably why readers overlooked the milestone of its twenty-fifth issue: that issue was numbered "The Last of the Innocent" #3.

Take the trade paperback for this latest mini-series, and look at its spine. The number "6" should be there but isn't, and only the description on the back cover mentions that it is "the sixth standalone graphic novel" in the series. I'm guessing that each trade collection will be treated as an essentially self-contained publication.

I personally think the best reading order is the publication order, as one can trace the continued growth of both writer and artist. With each new arc, both tend to push themselves just a little bit further. But readers really can start with any book in the series, and "The Last of the Innocent" wouldn't be a bad introduction at all.

3) The story arc plants CRIMINAL firmly and almost exclusively within the medium of comic books. It was announced just two months ago that the first arc "Coward" is being adapted to film, but in a Word Balloon podcast in April, Ed Brubaker explained that this latest arc is "belligerantly a comic book," a story that could really only be told well in this particular medium. It's about comic books, in the sense that the characters riff on classic characters from comic books and comic strips: in addition to Archie and his gang, I caught analogues to Dagwood and Richie Rich, and a grown-up Encyclopedia Brown makes an appearance. It's also about the nostalgia that comic books evoke, and it uses the tropes and language of comic books to distinguish the dispiriting present from the idealized (but far from ideal) past.

I'd argue that the entire series would be difficult to adapt. It doesn't have the high concept of SLEEPER's super-powered espionage or INCOGNITO's pulp trappings, and unlike Sin City -- noir comic's other anthology series in a shared universe -- CRIMINAL doesn't use garish images to tell simple stories, both of which made it easier to condense several of Frank Miller's stories into a single, brazen film.

No, CRIMINAL is subtle and even restrained. Notice how, in both "Coward" and "The Last of the Innocent," the most brutal violence isn't shown in detail for shock value. The violence is made clear only to those paying close attention to both the images and the text.

The series' narration frequently serves as a counterpoint to the art, and the two rarely convey redundant information, but the monologue reads far better on paper than it would sound out loud. The artwork is about as realistic as Greg Rucka and Matthew Southworth's Stumptown, but I'd argue that it's much more moody, with the shadows conveying more than just physical reality and Val Staples and Dave Stewart's colors doing more than just provide visual variety -- and none of this would be easy to capture in a film or television series.

Even the structure of the series would hinder any complete adaptation. The series spans decades, which would probably require multiple actors for the same role, and it doesn't focus on a single character, ensemble, or even location. (Midway through its run, the TV series ER had cycled through an almost entirely new cast while keeping the setting of County General Hospital.)

An individual story could be captured in a single film, but would the actors' contracts include options for their cameos in other CRIMINAL films? Is it even clear how often an actor would be needed for a comic series that's still being published? An anthology series of made-for-TV movies, for a network like HBO or Showtime, would be ideal but is unlikely in the extreme.

Ultimately, a film adaptation of a single CRIMINAL story may serve the same purpose as the flashier comic series like INCOGNITO and the upcoming horror noir FATALE. My hope is that they all point potential readers to the pure crime comic and to the stories that are best suited for the medium.

4) The story arc even arguably places CRIMINAL in the same area code as the comic medium's greatest works. Before this arc, I would note that it's simply well executed. CRIMINAL is neither an autobiographical indie comic or a post-modern approach to the caped superhero, and it's not the exercise in formalism that was a major part of Watchmen or Asterios Polyp. It's a genre comic, focused on crime and noir, and it generally uses only those techniques and tools that help effectively tell an extremely well-written but sometimes conventional narrative.

Not every great work has to redefine the medium entirely. Not even every masterpiece can be a Citizen Kane, and I used to think CRIMINAL could be a Casablanca, a classic that transcends the merely competent execution.

But then "The Last of the Innocent" hit, and here we have a story that trades on literally none of the series' strength while adding layers of subtext and meaning for those who are quite familiar with the family-friendly comics of old. The conversation about CRIMINAL's place in the canon will almost certainly begin here...

...and all of this is worth noting in addition to the story itself. Beyond establishing the series' context within the creators' body of work and the medium of comics, and beyond defining the series as an anthology that was tailor-made for the medium, "The Last of the Innocent" tells one helluva crime story.

One reason the story's so good is that its protagonist is so bad.

It's easy to miss, but the story revolves around the most purely sociopathic protagonist that we've seen in the CRIMINAL universe. The story obviously plays on the theme of nostalgia, but the main character was seduced by a particular kind of nostalgia, the ache for the teenager's hedonistic irresponsibility. He didn't miss a life of innocence or true intimacy, he missed a life of getting high and getting laid, not worrying about himself or other people. Even Teeg Lawless, who would terrorize his family, was driven to commit unspeakably violent acts in order to protect his family.

Here, the creators' restraint obscures the main character's pathology so that we end up almost empathizing with him: the amoral characterization is found most clearly in what Brubaker and Phillips don't show us: in a story that is told almost entirely from the killer's point of view, the missing pieces reflect his damaged pyche.

You don't see a sense of personal responsibility on the part of Riley Richards, all-American teenager turned cold-blooded killer. You see his bad habits in adolescence and the worse habits in adulthood -- the gambling and sexual depravity (subtly shown) -- and the reader can project a path from the teenage pot use to the life-threatening gambling debts, but the path isn't even suggested. There's the idealized past, there's the bleak present, and Riley seems unwilling to see the causal chain from one to the other, to see that it was his choices that made his life miserable.

Even after he's secured his "return to innocence," Riley promises himself that he'll keep living the high life in the big city, sowing the seeds of ruin for his new life as he tried to run away from the consequences of his old life.

You also don't see any real sympathy for the people in Riley's life. He's aware of the deeply traumatic event that probably led to his wife's acting out in youth and in adulthood, but that doesn't seem to make him more compassionate toward her; he uses her in his youth, and he resents her after they marry. He may be right that people don't need an excuse to be so screwed up, but he has no charity toward people in any case.

His father who died early in the story, his widowed mother, his friends and enemies: none of their lives truly matter to Riley, and he treats them as objects to be used or obstacles to be overcome.

Even toward the end of the story, when Riley sobs after his last brutal crime, it's not clear that he mourns for his victim or merely for the self-inflicted loss in his own life.

There might be an explanation if not an excuse: you don't see responsibility or sympathy, but you also don't see a fully formed picture of a grown man who has accepted adulthood without becoming jaded. Maybe there are no good, responsible husbands and fathers in the bleak world of CRIMINAL, but if there are -- candidates such as his own father are only barely sketched -- they are entirely outside of Riley's perception.

C.S. Lewis wrote, "It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for a bird to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad."

Maybe Riley Richards didn't see the option of hatching, so he chose to go bad.

"The Last of the Innocent" doesn't flinch from showing us how bad, but it makes the wretched man's motives understandable if not the least bit admirable. It puts a very human face on a monster.

It would deserve high praise for that even without the subtext of Archie, Betty, and Veronica. That subtext makes a great story that much more outstanding.

Scott Cederlund:

In the comics of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, characters like Holden Carver in Sleeper and Tracy Lawless in Criminal have all been sucked into the mire and darkness of cities where laws and are practically meaningless and powerless. "Right" and "wrong" have completely different meanings in these comic book pages. Brubaker and Phillips’s modern crime stories reflect some primal fear that the law doesn’t exist for anything other than to keep our own criminal instincts in check. They create comics about these hearts of darkness that exist in the men that are actually the heroes of their stories. Riley Richards in Criminal: The Last of the Innocent is a slightly different type of “hero” for Brubaker and Phillips. He has the same kind of blackish heart but he gives in to the darkness that Carver and Lawless spend their stories trying to rise above.

Returning to his childhood home, Richards gets swept up in an Archie Comics-like nostalgia for his teenage days. Memories of the girl next door Lizzie, his best friend Freakout, and the girl Felicity (along with her family money) he would end up marrying and even the lurid EC Comics he read with their injury-to-the-eye motifs make his teenage years seem so much better than his present where his wife’s father barely tolerates him while she’s screwing his high school rival. So Richards thinks that the way to get back to happier days is to kill his wife and return home. The girl next door and even the EC Comics are still there. His best friend is there too but Freakout (a nickname which should be some kind of indication) still fights his own demons that Richards has tried to ignore while he was wrapped up in his own life. It’s a simple plan; kill his wife and return to the girl next door without a care in the world.

Of all of Brubaker and Phillips characters, Riley Richards is the one who wins. He gets exactly what he wants. It’s not a dream and it’s not an imaginary story as Richards’s plan works to near-perfection. Even better yet, he gets his wife’s fortune, much to the ire of his father-in-law. He wins and that’s what makes Criminal: The Last of the Innocent so frustrating. Going back to the idea of Brubaker and Phillips’ heroes, the struggle between a desire to do good and an instinct to do bad does not exist Riley’s character. Once he gets the idea that Felicity has to go, there is no turning back for Riley as the story becomes about the journey to him finding his own happiness. Unlike other characters in other Brubaker and Phillips’s stories who have gotten dragged down deeper and deeper into the darkness mostly through their own weaknesses and failures, Riley’s story is about him rising up into that darkness, accepting it and controlling it so that he is never overwhelmed by the circumstances around his life. There is no failed heist or tragic death for him to try to overcome. There is no outside force manipulating Riley into actions he doesn’t want. There is only his plan and it’s all about his control of the world around him.

For a book about crime, Criminal: The Last of the Innocent is also about comic books in the same way that the earlier volume Criminal: Bad Night was about comic strips. In both stories, Phillips plays around with the protagonists’ views of reality and the audiences experience of their point of views. Jacob in Bad Night saw the world through the eyes of his Dick Tracy-ish character. That comic strip character was the voice whispering in the back of Jacob’s mind, pushing his action and controlling him. Riley isn’t quite that delusional but when he first sees Lizzie, for one brief moment she’s the perfect Dan DeCarlo woman, sitting behind the wheel of a convertible. While Riley’s memory of the past is filtered through Archie Comics, there’s that little bit of the present that’s still that simple and clear to him and that’s what he wants back. Other than in a dream sequence, Phillips’s scratchy reality and the clear line Archie memories never inhabit the same time space. That one moment where Lizzie brings all of the memories and feelings back to him is where she’s that perfect girl again. He sees the past as an Archie comic but he also sees Lizzie that way, a memento of an easier time.

So the killer is the hero of his own story as Brubaker and Phillips finally get to craft a Criminal story where the protagonist gets everything that he wanted. Instead of the usual sympathetic guilt we feel at the end of one of their Criminal stories, we feel a bit of revulsion as we see Riley frolic on a private beach knowing that he got away with it. Maybe it's because we're some kind of passive accomplice, not able to warn any of the victims in his way as he takes a murderous path to regain his own innocence. The Last of The Innocent is a different kind of crime story for Brubaker and Phillips. For once, they let us follow the story of a winner and it leaves you feeling guilty in the end.

Johanna Draper Carlson:

I've previously reviewed Criminal: The Last of the Innocent here, but when I did so, I resisted talking about the ending. (That's for two reasons: to avoid spoilers, and because I originally wrote about the story when only three of the four issues were out.) I'm going to discuss the conclusion here instead, so SPOILER ALERT for what follows.

When I first read the final issue of this storyline, I was disappointed by the lack of justice I perceived. Riley gets away with three murders, at least for now, and winds up with a fortune and the girl he thinks he truly loves. Then I realized that I was assuming, because this was a comic book published (however indirectly) by Marvel, that a certain moral code would be upheld, where criminals get punished. That didn't necessarily apply to a noir story. (Perhaps if I'd read any of the other Criminal stories, I'd have known better going in.)

This is also a temporary situation. We've seen, at the beginning of the book, how much Riley can screw up a good thing by, as one of the bad guys he owes money to puts it, "gambling an' whoring." Nothing's really changed about him, and the situations we've seen him go through have likely only accentuated his recklessness and stupid choices when it comes to future decisions. He's got a new temporary addiction, his new girlfriend, but how long will it take before he gets bored of her and screws things up? In such a light, the "new beginning" Riley narrates on the last page feels artificial, just like the imposition of the old-school art style over the grungy backgrounds.

The third thing I thought, and this is where I surprised myself, was "well, why not?" (This was only after the third and later re-readings, when I'd gotten over being shocked.) The promise of the modern comic industry is continual re-invention, no matter what horrible events reside in a character's past. Superman goes from being a vigilante thug to a representative of legal authority to depowered modern guy to collaborator in forced mind-erasing to young punk. Archie hangs out with the Punisher and KISS while going to prom hundreds of times and never learning not to ask out two girls at once. Given the medium, why not show a happy ending and the potential of starting anew, regardless of one's past?

The question now is, how believable do you find Riley's assertions when he's been lying to himself and others the whole story?

Joseph Gualtieri:

In A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction, Linda Hutcheon repeatedly refers to parody as being perhaps the key characteristic of postmodern art, “the perfect postmodern form...for it paradoxically both incorporates and challenges that which it parodies” and that “Parody seems to offer a perspective on the present and the past which allows an artist to speak to a discourse from within it, but without being totally recuperated by it.”

Criminal: Last of the Innocent by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips is a parody of Archie Comics in general. That’s nothing new, of course, given the age of the franchise. The most notorious parodies of it are probably “Goodman Goes Playboy” by Will Elder and Harvey Kurtzman (available for free on the Comics Journal website) and Weird Comic-Book Fantasy, a play by future comics scribe Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa originally titled Archie’s Weird Fantasy until a lawsuit forced changes to it (if anyone knows how to get a copy, please leave a comment below). As with Kurtzman and Elder, Brubaker and Philips add explicit sex and drugs to the Archie milieu with Last of the Innocent, but their parody goes far beyond such crude humour.

The bulk of the Last of the Innocent occurs in 1982, but it frequently flashes back to the late 1960s in a deft technical maneuver. In past Criminal volumes, Brubaker and Philips have used a comic strip within the comic, Frank Kafka, Private Eye, as a counterpoint to the action (and in the fourth and best volume, they introduce us to the creator of the strip). They reprise that device here in a more complex way by providing one-and two page flashbacks that are also presented as gag pages or scripts from “Riley Richards” comics illustrated by Phillips in a faux-Dan DeCarlo style. The first few of these flashbacks are largely in the “Goodman Goes Playboy” mode of adding sex and drugs to the characters, but two pages from the end of the first issue has the first real break from portrayal of an idyllic past in the flashbacks, as Richards remembers finding a dead body along with Freakout (the Jughead character). To bring Hutcheon back, the flashbacks are the primary way Brubaker and Philips, parody Archie, offering a clear way to “incorporates and challenge” the source material.

The next issue Richards makes his way into the local police records to research the death, which was part of a series, with the aim of framing his wife’s lover for her murder as well as the unsolved ones from the past. Serial murder would, on the surface, seem to be just one more element added to Brubaker and Phillips’s sordid version of Archie, but the way they use it is devastating. The discovery of the dead body comes during a long monologue by Richards worth quoting at length:

That night I have the weirdest dream… I’m flying over Brookview… But the town is the same as when I was a kid...Like I’m a tourist in my own past [...] I see all the lazy Sundays in the world. And I have this strange feeling... that I can go back and fix all the mistakes I made. Like I could do it all over again. And be back in the warmth of those endless summers...

Immediately after waking from the dream, Richards resolves to kill his wife, Felix/Veronica. There’s a clear connection here between Richards’s romanticized view of the past and the murderous decision that drives the rest of the series. Further, this is the opposite what Brubaker and Phillips do; for the creators, the flashbacks are a way for offering comment on the source material, for Richards, memories are something to wallow in and wish for an imagined Golden Age, not gain perspective.

In the final issue, the second to last flashback is from Freakout’s perspective and reveals the truth behind the 1960s serial killing — that they were done to provide cover for a couple carrying on an affair to murder the woman’s husband. Discussing the matter with Richards, Freakout tells him that they (and the police) were the only people who knew the murder weapon. Richards is rendered silent for a panel and then admits, “Actually, I forgot about that part...” His memory is exposed as not just idealized, but factually incorrect. Richards commits a second murder, leaving a tainted syringe for Freakout, and returns home to Lizzie/Betty, concluding “the last person — maybe the only person — who really knew me...is lying on a slab in the Brookview County Morgue. So now I can be whoever I want,” as the art shows Richards and Lizzie in Phillips’s usual style slowly transform into the faux-DeCarlo style even as the world around them doesn’t change.

Towards the series’ end, Richards and Lizzie are living in a beachfront house that once belonged to Felix, he thinks, “I always knew coming here with Lizzie would be better,” which is in marked contrast to his memories in issue two, where he’s sexually active with Felix while Lizzie will barely do anything with him of that nature. Looking in on a sleeping Lizzie after a day of sex at the beach house, he thinks, “How can she have stayed so pure. I hope some of that will rub off on me...” Lizzie is “pure” because she’s barely a character in the comic. Beyond asking her about dating one old classmate, Richards makes no inquiries about how she’s spent the last decade or so; he treats her as if she’s spent the whole time waiting for him, and can restore the false the innocence to him that he so longs for.

I can scarcely imagine a more devastating critique of Archie Comics than the one Brubaker and Phillips provide in The Last of the Innocent. While that franchise has always taken place in the present, it’s usually been a backward, delayed sort of present (as Flashmob Fridays readers know, Riverdale only recently had its first gay citizen move in). The Last of the Innocent exposes the cost of the nostalgia inherent in the property. It’ll survive this broadside, just as it did “Goodman Goes Playboy” and Archie’s Weird Science; that in no way decreases the power of Brubaker and Phillips’s work. They engage fully with Archie here, and delve deep within it and expose the hollow core to it like no one else.

Buy Criminal Vol. 6: The Last of the Innocent from Amazon.com.

16 December 2011

The Survivalist


Who is Box Brown, and what is his new graphic novel, The Survivalist? Get a short sketch on these subjects on our parent blog Trouble With Comics, and then come back here and see what the Flashmob Fridays gang thought of Brown's newest work, from Blank Slate books.

Roger Green:

One of the curses of being out of the comic scene is that I had no idea who/what a Box Brown was. Turns out he's a well-regarded, interesting-seeming guy who's drawn more than a few books in recent years, in a stylized manner that reminds me of some underground artists of the past.

I was gearing up to read The Survivalist, a TMI recap which is out there on the Internet. This was a triptych of a book thematically. The first part is the guy in the cubicle who listens to right-wing radio and hates Big Pharma. He's believable, to be sure -- I have relatives... But he's not all that pleasant to be around. His co-workers are banal and not all that interesting. He straddles the line between character and caricature. All of this, I suppose was the artist's intent, and in that fashion, he succeeds.

The second part is essentially a monologue, which made me impatient, and worse, bored. It could be interesting can one be sitting alone drawing comic books that, perhaps, no one will ever see, but this just annoyed me, maybe because I hadn't invested in him.

The third part, though, is primarily a one-on-one dealing with a woman. This section interested me the most by far, though her fate is foretold early on. By the end, at least, I was interested to see what the protagonist would do in this changed world. So I guess I didn't like reading it very much, yet was engaged enough by the end with the changes in the main character to want to see him again. Odd, I reckon.

Alan David Doane:

You may have noticed there are a lot of crazy people in the world today, perhaps more than at any time in history. The confluence of worldwide financial disruptions and unprecedented access to instantaneous global communication has resulted in our anxieties and fears being instantly transmitted across the world to anyone willing to read, watch or listen to them. The end result has been a self-reinforcing feedback loop comprised of legitimate outrage and lunatic hysteria in seemingly equal measure.

Noah W. is the title character in cartoonist Box Brown's new comic The Survivalist; his parents built a bomb shelter in the 1950s that circumstance forces him to he live in. He spends his free time working on comics no one will ever read and smoking pot, while listening to right-wing hate-radio broadcaster Dick March (great name!) and raging against the oppressive influence of "Big Pharma" on the people.

One day a meteor strike changes Noah's world, at once wiping out everything he knew, yet justifying his crazy life in the bunker, surrounded by survival packs of 50-year barbecue-flavour potato chips. When things have stabilized enough in the surface world for him to venture outside, he meets Fatima, seemingly the last woman on Earth, and we get to the meat of the story, Noah's dialogues with Fatima about life, the universe and everything.

The Survivalist isn't a paradigm-shifting graphic novel that will be trumpeted on NPR or in the New York Times Review of Books. It's a pretty straightforward and unassuming set of well-cartooned observations about human nature, actually, with Box Brown having a great deal of fun with his characters and with some Chris Ware-style diagrams (and in at least one panel, Ivan Brunetti-style romantic reductionism). Best of all, Brown doesn't judge his lead character too severely, but rather lets him state his beliefs and then see how they respond and evolve when they intersect with events in the real world, which operates at a scale in which we humans barely have a say at all. This technique may prove to be overwhelmingly prescient and applicable to us all in the very near future, making The Survivalist not only a fun read but one that speaks to our universal experience as human beings facing increasingly troubled and troubling times.

Christopher Allen:

I’m not familiar with Box Brown’s work, so based only on this, I call him a promising cartoonist who doesn’t quite put it all together to make a satisfying book. The cover is intended to resemble some type of end-of-days instruction book, and it’s effective at that, but also a hint at what I find to be the shortcoming of the book. More on that later. The story finds an annoyingly negative office nerd—the kind of guy who ruins your breakroom lunch because he can’t resist telling you about the chemicals in it—whose apocalyptic worldview is proven correct by some vague attack that leaves rubble and death for as far as he can see. Lucky for him, he was in his bomb shelter.

The funniest part of the book, and the part I sense was closest to the author’s life, is how this unexpected disaster affords our hero the time to finally do what he wants to do, which is to work on his comics. He’s got plenty of food stored away, so he hunkers down and finishes off that graphic novel he’s been wanting to do. I suspect that some of us in the same situation would do something like this, maybe play videogames all day long, rather than head out to reestablish society. The black-and-white artwork is well-suited to a story that seems to strive for poignance but mostly settles for dark humor.

What I found most disappointing is the lack of change in the main character. True, there are successful stories about characters faced with something that should have a profound impact on their life and yet they remain essentially the same person afterwards: Daniel Clowes’ The Death Ray is a good example of this. But with both the apocalypse and the interactions with the irradiated woman he visits, who eventually dies, Brown doesn’t show us that either event has really changed the main character one way or another. He doesn’t grow from having to fend for himself or spending time with someone he probably wouldn’t have if the rest of humanity wasn’t annihilated, nor does he seem to suffer much in the way of loss from her passing. The lack of attention to what felt to me like essential elements to give the story meaning, left me disappointed, though the craft and interesting premise of the story were enough to at least leave me interested in seeing what Brown does next.

Joseph Gualtieri

When Doane delivered this week’s assignment, I was pleasantly surprised by it, as I had never previously heard of Box Brown. Going into this with absolutely no preconceptions about the work was going to make for a fun and novel experience.

The artwork is probably the least impressive element of the book, but it’s not bad by any means. Brown’s style is very much of the Seth/Chester Brown/Joe Matt Torontoist school (not that they look alike, but there’s a similarity in terms of figure work between them, particularly the latter two), but it’s not as polished as the work of those big names. Brown’s style does differ from them a bit, as there’s one page showing protagonist Noah Wartowsky’s home and underground bunker that’s almost Wareian (as are the covers).

The most memorable sequence in the book comes on pages 9-12. Wartowsky heads to bed wondering about the visibility of a comet headed towards Earth that some in the “lamestream media” think will cause massive amounts of destruction. Brown cuts to a long panel, again showing the house and bomb shelter, with a tiny meteor apparently heading for the house in what looks like the world’s funniest parody of the ending to David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp. Brown cuts again though and we can see that the comet isn’t heading for Wartowsky’s home, but for a nearby city. Upon waking up, Brown wonderfully captures the banality of Wartowsky’s routine, with it slowly dawning on him just what the meteor hitting means.

Those pages are the high point for Brown blending words and pictures in the book, but the story is consistently good from one cover flap to the next. Wartowsky is a rabid listener of a Rush Limbaugh-like figure, spurred in that direction by the deaths of his parents years ago. At 36, Wartowsky is alone, trapped in his bitterness which is reinforced by the talk radio he listens to. After the meteor hits, Wartowsky comes across another survivor, Fatima. Now the basic as of the plot are utterly cliché, both in terms of what happens to Fatima and her effect on Wartowsky, it’s the way Brown hits those plot points that makes the comic work. I do not want to give anything away, but if the Survivalist is ever adapted into a film, their relationship will in all likelihood be altered into something far more conventional. The very end of the comic in particular stands out; as it addresses a problem I had with the comic to that point and does so in a way that clearly makes the earlier issue into a feature of the story, as it ties into Wartowsky’s mental state prior to meeting Fatima.

The Survivalist is not going to be the best comic you read in 2011, or possibly even December, but it’s quite good and well worth reading. Brown’s completely new to me, but after reading the Survivalist, I definitely want to see more work from him.

Johnny Bacardi

I'm not sure who or what Mr. Brown is weighing in on exactly with his end-of-civilization fable THE SURVIVALIST; Conspiracy theory nuts? People who buy the "wisdom" crackpot radio show hosts impart? Nerdy antisocial cartoonists? Socially awkward potheads? People who routinely ignore warnings of a globe-threatening nature? None of the above? All of the above? What was the question again? Anyway...even though it resolutely sits on the fence of objectivity and paints all its characters (well, except radio host Dave March) with a pretty even-handed brush, I still found myself fascinated by how this tale unfolded until the kinda bitter end, and that's not an easy thing to do...so kudos to Mr. Brown, whose dry Seth-meets-Charles Burns style did a good job keeping me interested. This was my first look into the "Box," and while this didn't display a whole lot of outside-the-box thinking, ha ha, I think I'll be checking out some more when I get the chance.

Buy The Survivalist from Amazon.com.

10 December 2011

The Wrap-Up Show - Thoughts on FMF: Kevin Keller #2

Hello hello! Welcome to the [FMF] Wrap-Up Show, a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Flashmob Fridays, with commentary from our group of writers on how this week's feature came together, and how it turned out.

Alan David Doane:

"In the behind-the-scenes discussion for this week's edition of Flashmob Fridays, I suggested that having a gay character in Riverdale and addressing very topical issues like gays in the military and gay marriage were inherently political. Upon further reflection, though, I think my biggest disappointment with this comic is that it is so profoundly apolitical. It doesn't seem to have anything to say about anything at all." -- Yan Basque

When I chose Kevin Keller #2 for our second Flashmob Fridays (you'll pardon the pun) outing, I'll admit as an editor I was attempting a zig-zag away from the expected; we started off with reviews of Mark Waid's generally-recognized-as-excellent Daredevil, and I suppose it would have been really, really easy to go from there to some well-regarded New 52 title from DC, assuming any of them rise to the level of well-regarded, which I'm not entirely convinced of. But with an openly gay writer onboard our FMF team, and another who is a regular reader/reviewer of Archie Comics, I knew I could count on at least a couple of really interesting takes on a fairly significant contemporary comic book, Kevin Keller.

In looking back on the published reviews, I think we all mainly agreed about the basic good of having a gay Archie character vs. the non-good (it's debatable whether it descends to the level of harmful or not) inherent in the toothlessness of it all. Yan Basque really honed right in on that aspect and conveyed perfectly the dilemma Archie's writers and artists have in trying to faithfully depict a true gay character in a universe of cheerfully sexless American icons. I don't mean to be condescending in saying I wanted the perspective of a gay writer in talking about this issue and this character -- I asked Yan to join us on FMF because I have admired his writing about comics for many months -- but I think he really brought some welcome depth and frankness to the subject. That said, I can't think of many more important issues facing the world today than diversity and acceptance of all kinds of people, and I am glad Archie is trying, but I, too, like Yan, and like most of the rest of the FMF team, wish the end result felt a little more real, a little more convincing, and a little more important to the ongoing dialogue.

Johnny Bacardi:

I didn't get anything together; I was deathly ill [the night of the deadline]. It's just as well; I couldn't really think of anything to say about it other than while it's good to have any sort of positive examples of gay people in comics, as a comic that's some weak sauce. Bland art, too concerned with staying on that Stan G./Al Hartley/DeCarlo model and doing so very stiffly and super-obvious and a super-careful script with a lead that is so carefully crafted to be NICE and LIKEABLE that he comes across as too good to be true.

I read my share of Archie comics growing up; in the '60s I really liked the Pureheart the Powerful stuff, but, like Gold Key and Harvey comics they were always second and third fiddle to the Marvel and DC stuff. Several years later my wife would buy the occasional digest at the grocery, which of course I would read, since, well, they were comics. Comics my wife bought! But overall, I've never been particularly interested or excited by Archie comics, and while I commend their forward thinking the execution leaves a lot to be desired.

Hey, that reads like a review, doesn't it?

Chris Allen:

I guess when all is said and done, Archie Comics deserves a bit of credit for introducing a gay character to squeaky clean, asexual Riverdale. Maybe it was a gimmick, maybe it was just the cold calculation of realizing there must be some sort of gay demographic they weren’t previously reaching, or maybe someone just recognized that Riverdale needed to reflect a bit of our reality, however sanitized and forced through the typical Archie filtering.

To start picking at Kevin Keller for not having a sexual life, or encountering real trauma and hatred for being openly gay, is to really just start pulling at the thread that holds all of Archie Comics together. None of these characters are meant to be real people. They’re stuck in high school, don’t have sex, don’t get in any kind of trouble with their parents, the law, or substance abuse. Moose is likely never going to have a career-ending football injury. The Lodges won’t lose their house due to poor investments. Archie won’t watch his mother die. Jughead won’t get diabetes. And Kevin Keller will probably not be seen with his tongue in another guy’s mouth.

For the record, I’m only rooting for that last example to happen. So I think we can take this one issue on its own as a well-intentioned effort that suffers from being too nice. It’s hard to appreciate the struggles of an openly gay teen like Kevin (whose father was also not around a lot when he was growing up) when those struggles are unrealistically soft, and overcome so easily. It’s a little like superhero comics when they try to tackle real world issues like war and hunger. There’s probably a way to do it that doesn’t seem pat, awkward or stupid, but it would take time and a great deal of sensitivity and talent. Likewise, I’m not sure Dan Parent is the writer, or Archie Comics the publisher, to explore anything close to a three dimensional gay character in their light, humorous escapist comics. On its own, there isn’t a lot to recommend the book. It’s inevitable that one sees it as a starting point towards something a little deeper, but expectations have to be pretty low that that will happen.

Buy Kevin Keller HC from Amazon.com.

09 December 2011

Kevin Keller #2

Introduction by Johanna Draper Carlson:

Archie Comics' traditional approach focused on capturing trends once its older writers and artists heard about them, leading some to say that you know fads are over once they appear in an Archie comic. Now, under new management, Archie seems to be chasing hot topics as a way of gaining free publicity, especially among the wider mainstream media. So, between "Archie gets married" magazines and an "Archie meets KISS" licensed story comes this political football. Kevin Keller #2 (actually Veronica #208 in indicia labeling) cover-features the new gay kid character praising (with four visual flag elements) his military dad, alluding to recent real-life events involving gays in the military and the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" several months ago.

The actual story isn't as focused or patriotic. Kevin's family wants to plan a party for dad's birthday, and since Veronica is always hanging around, she gets involved. (The two characters most often paired with Kevin in the stories he's appeared in so far are Veronica, who seems to view a gay best friend as a key accessory, and Jughead, whom Kevin has a large number of characteristics in common with, hmmm.) The family event gives Veronica an excuse to "snoop through [Kevin's] private stuff", as he puts it, including photos that result in flashback stories of Kevin's life as a military brat.

Kevin is bullied as a younger kid but learns to stand up for himself through athletic accomplishment. Kevin misses his dad, stationed away from the family. Kevin protects his friends when they get picked on. This isn't much of a story, more a collection of feel-good reminders of how one should behave in dealing with difficult circumstances.

The art is standard current Archie look, with simple lines and faces and bright, eye-catching colors. It has energy, as figures are always gesturing or posing, in spite of the stories being driven by dialogue instead of images.

Readers looking for stories specifically focusing on life as a gay teen will be disappointed, as only one of the incidents deals with hazing specifically for that reason, and it's phrased in terms of Kevin seeming effeminate, not gay. That gives Kevin's story a normality and universality that's a good thing, but it also ignores the part of his character that makes him particularly distinctive. I hope the two remaining issues of this series show Kevin dating, just as the other teens do. While we're told every issue that Kevin is gay, we have yet to see that in the visuals.

Roger Green:

I may not be reading lots of comics these days, but even I knew, from general media stories, that Kevin Keller was supposed to be this "revolutionary" character in the Archie Comics universe. I hadn't read any of the stories, though. Yet this second issue, scripted and penciled by Dan Parent, could serve as an origin issue for both Kevin and his family.

Kevin is talking with Veronica Lodge in a living room when Ronnie overhears Kevin's sister and mom making plans. Veronica, always the buttinsky, inserts herself in the scheme for a surprise party for Kevin's dad. In doing so, she unearths the Keller family history from Kevin's parents dating to life as a military family, with Kevin needing to be the "man of the house." She, and we, also discover Kevin, always the new kid in class, had been bullied, but eventually grew strong enough, physically and emotionally, to overcome.

I found the story enjoyable, even occasionally moving. Kevin had come out as gay in high school, but that doesn't even warrant a mention until the 10th page and is disposed of by the end of the 11th. Some might find Kevin's conversion from victim to protector not credible, but I did; there is always a bit of trying harder when one is the outsider. The narrative shows a level of patriotism that, for the most part, was not TOO cloying or xenophobic. The ending, though, seemed to go on a little long, and the word "musketeers" was misspelled a couple times.

As for the artwork, it looked like old-style Archie work. I mean, it's not Dan DeCarlo, but no one is. There are some long shots that are not well drawn, including one of the Archies band, but most of it is quite decent. The last Archie book I had read was a "new look" story penciled by the great Joe Staton. And while I grew to like it, I'm traditional enough to appreciate the standard look. One other thing: Kevin's eyes in this story are SO blue; Paul Newman blue, and I briefly found it distracting, but forgot about it after a while.

Christopher Allen:

In the past year or so, Archie Comics has taken steps to introduce at least one aspect of real life into their humor books with the introduction of openly gay teen, Kevin Keller. I haven’t read a lot of them, but it’s obviously a difficult balancing act, as sexuality has historically had very little place within the Riverdale universe. Archie may vacillate between Betty and Veronica, but aside from a little kissing, it’s not clear what he would do with either of them.

So, in Kevin Keller, we have a character whose sexuality as a generator of story material is restricted mainly to how others perceive him, not really what it means to him. Kevin is gay because we are told so. There are no indicators in his speech or body language. As such, he could present a broad canvas upon which readers can paint their own frustrations, pain and triumph, whether gay, straight, teenaged, pre-teen, or older, in a way that the late ‘70s-‘80s Uncanny X-Men did, young mutants as a metaphor for anyone disenfranchised or persecuted. But, at least with this issue, Kevin is instead a relatively untroubled young man, overcoming any obstacles or resistance with guilelessness and a can-do attitude.

The story for this issue, such as it is, involves Kevin, his mother and sister planning a surprise birthday party for Kevin’s dad, a retired Colonel. Kevin’s friend, Veronica, offers to help with the decorations, and the tiny bit of comedy and drama in the story comes from her going overboard and almost ruining the surprise by putting balloons and signs OUTSIDE. Ha. Equally clumsy is the artwork, which seems to have taken the tack that in order to become more relevant, let’s lose almost all traces of the recognizable Archie house style and leave only the most workmanlike elements: coloring book-style thick outlines on figures with incongruous, too-fine lines for everything else. Inker Rich Koslowski needs to keep working on his tablet settings.

But, while the surprise party plot is rather weakly structured and unfunny, the issue does succeed in certain areas. Kevin’s mother’s pride in her husband and his military service is nice, as are the flashbacks where Kevin first overcomes homophobia via superior athletic ability, and later by paying it forward and helping a younger schoolmate going through similar bullying. It’s also hard to come down too hard on the relationship between Kevin and his dad. Yes, it’s less interesting to have uncomplicated mutual love and admiration — stories are after all about conflict — but if anyone not experiencing this gets a bit of encouragement that things can get better, great. The Archie books have historically been a lighthearted escape from reality. It would probably be unfair to expect these baby steps into reality to go much farther than this.

Alan David Doane:

The primary purpose of Kevin Keller, the comic book, seems to be to send a positive message to teens and other readers that being gay isn't evil, wrong or disgusting. Kevin is a funny, good-natured dude whose life history is looked at in this issue, and although we see that he's experienced some bullying and bullshit that will be familiar not only to gays but to most kids who've been through high school (I lived a variant of the pudding incident seen herein myself, and it's the most humiliating memory of my teenage years), he and his family have survived bigotry and hate and feel like a healthy and fully-drawn family.

The depiction of a 21st century family requires a three-dimensional approach to storytelling that demands all the rest of the regular Archie characters be just a little more complex and nuanced than they usually are in their other, more solely entertainment-minded titles. It's a welcome development and a good sign for society as a whole when a publisher the size of Archie Comics makes a bold move to just be honest about the fact that it's okay to be gay, or have a gay family member, without being particular pedantic or preachy. The script even acknowledges the risk of such an approach, when Veronica says "this is like one of those greeting card commercials! Does Kevin do anything wrong?" It's a chance to acknowledge that gays are people too, with good points and shortcomings, like any other human being. The story and art are up to the usual Archie standard, in addition to being educational, positive and progressive in its nature.

When I was a kid reading Archie Comics, the only Archie offering similar to this was the vanilla-coated Spire Christian Comics featuring the Archie characters. I haven't looked at those in decades, and can't say if they were as positive a cultural development as the creation of Kevin Keller is, but it seems unlikely. Kevin Keller seems to say that we should rely on our family and friends for support and try to develop our own strength (both inner and physical) as a way to respond to life's challenges. That seems to me a far better, more humanistic and mature message to send to readers, and if the overall end result seems more well-intentioned than brilliantly executed, it's still one that the folks at Archie Comics are to be applauded for.

Joseph Gualtieri:

Ten years ago, I never would have thought that Archie Comics would not only still be around but thriving after reinventing itself as their titular franchise heads towards its seventieth anniversary in a few weeks. That’s not shabby for a property rooted in nostalgia for Depression-era Haverhill. Like a lot of comics readers, I briefly read Archie comics alongside other entry-level comics like GI Joe and Transformers. Up until the company began modernizing itself a few years ago, my only relationship with the company for about 20 years was chuckling at covers dug up by bloggers. In the last couple of years though they put out some intriguing download-only comics and I certainly couldn’t resist checking out the first issue of the new Life With Archie series (and the company smartly put out a trade for adults who don’t want to wade through Justin Bieber pictures).

That brings us to the comic up for review this week, Kevin Keller #2. Keller, the first openly gay Archie character, is another key part of the company reinventing itself for twenty-first century. The most remarkable thing about this comic is that it’s not remarkable at all; Keller’s simply portrayed as relative newcomer to Riverdale who happens to be gay and comes from a military family. The latter element is actually more a part of the story than Keller’s homosexuality. The issue of bullying comes up, but the comic depicts it was being something that anyone who’s smaller and more awkward than the bullies goes through, not just “girly boys” (as one of the bullies calls Keller).

The comic isn’t perfect in terms of representation though. While it does a terrific job of depicting Keller as normal, he’s also Cam-and-Mitchelled. It’s actually hard to tell that Keller’s gay from the comic; sure the bullies hurl insults at him, but I can’t help but wonder if someone reading the comic without knowing that he’s gay would think Veronica’s his girlfriend and the bullies were just mocking him. The Keller in Life With Archie is due to get married, but the company should make sure that the contemporary version actually dates. This is just one issue, so I’m not going to judge it too harshly for not showing Keller dating.

Overall, if I had kids I’d be more than happy to hand this comic to them. The level of craft involved is what I expect from Archie and while it could be a little better in terms of representing Keller’s homosexuality, I’m pretty happy that it shows Keller as just another part of Archie’s world.

Jason Urbanciz:

Kevin Keller is the latest addition to the ageless cast of the Archie universe. Though I don’t think I’ve ever read a single Archie comic, the basics are familiar to anyone, as if they are ingrained on the genetic memory of all Americans of a certain age. This issue, the second of Kevin’s solo title gives us a quick run-through of Kevin’s personal history and his relationship with his Dad, an Army Colonel (named, appropriately, The Colonel) while Kevin and Veronica ready his home for his Dad’s big birthday party.

Kevin relates his pre-Riverdale history to Veronica through the lens of having to grow up without his Dad around a lot. Since Kevin is gay that meant dealing with bullies, but also helping people who were in a similar situation to him and it’s all handled very well, and with kid-appropriate revenge upon the bullies (a locker full of pudding). Heck, Kevin even notes he got detention for the pudding incident, as if to tell the younger readers there are consequences for even the most well-intentioned bits of mischief.

The book definitely takes aim at communicating some heavy topics at its young audience, including an injury the Colonel incurred while in the Army (presumably on the battlefield). While writer/penciler Dan Parent generally hits the topics head-on, he does so with a soft touch, and his bright, colorful art keeps the mood light.

I’m sure that because of Kevin’s sexual orientation, some people will want to assign a political viewpoint to what is a kids' comic, but the simple message is that gay people are people too who deserve basic human respect. It says something when that in itself is a shocking message we need to shield our children from.

It’s a fun comic, with some funny jokes and a good message for kids to not be jerks and stick up for people who need it.

Yan Basque:

I read a few Archie comics when I was a kid. After that, they fell almost completely off my radar for a decade or more, but I started paying attention again last year when they introduced Kevin Keller. I was curious about how this openly gay character would fit into the world of Riverdale, which from my recollection seemed to be perpetually frozen in a 1950s nostalgia.

Kevin Keller is definitely a contemporary character. Not because he is openly gay, but because his homosexuality is both his primary defining characteristic -- his entire reason for existing as a fictional construct, in fact -- while it is simultaneously treated as being of absolutely no importance. By avoiding every gay stereotype, they've created a character who is exactly like everybody else. Had I not known before reading this comic that he was gay, I would have been very surprised when he casually mentions on page 11 that he had "already come out" about a year ago in high school. This statement and the little anecdote that follows, where his classmates call him a "girly boy" and he humiliates them by winning a race (yawn!), are the only evidence of him being gay that I found in the story.

Since I haven't read any of Kevin Keller's previous appearances in Archie comics, I don't know how much of a backstory he's been given. Has he had any boyfriends? When did he come out to his parents and friends? This comic hints at some trouble with bullies when he was younger, but the cause of the bullying is not specified. I don't want to suggest that the only stories featuring a gay character that matter is those of him coming out or making out with other boys, but I'm finding it very difficult to relate to this character when everything about his life is so... unproblematic? (I'm struggling to find the right word here.)

It's not that there is no conflict or drama in the story. It's just that the problems the characters face are impossible to take seriously when they're easily resolved in a few panels and don't have any lasting consequences. An absent father during childhood doesn't leave any emotional scars. Being bullied and beaten by schoolmates is no big deal -- you just cope with it. Your dad gets injured and feels guilty about having to retire from the army? Just write a front page newspaper article about it and make him realize that he's a hero.

In the behind-the-scenes discussion for this week's edition of Flashmob Fridays, I suggested that having a gay character in Riverdale and addressing very topical issues like gays in the military and gay marriage were inherently political. Upon further reflection, though, I think my biggest disappointment with this comic is that it is so profoundly apolitical. It doesn't seem to have anything to say about anything at all.

Am I happy that this character and this comic book exist? I guess so. I mean, if Archie comics are going to continue to appear on the stands, then I'd rather they do so with an openly gay character as part of the cast. And Kevin Keller is consistent with the universe in which he exists. I don't know if Archie comics could have done an openly gay character any differently without completely changing the rest of Riverdale.

Scott Cederlund:

Kevin Keller #2 (or Veronica Presents #208, whatever you prefer to call it) has something a lot of comic books don’t have; it has a message. And it’s a good message. Rather than assume stereotypical roles for Kevin, a gay boy, and father, a military man through and through, and recreate a typical antagonism that’s best characterized as “you don’t tell, I won’t ask,” Dan Parent writes a story about a somewhat typical suburban family that’s trying to throw a surprise birthday party for their father. It’s the stuff of 1950 era sitcoms that’s still fairly simple and easy to relate to still in 2011. “Oh, look at the antics of the Keller family. They’re like I Love Lucy only I don’t think Ricky Jr. was gay.”

Parent’s story is filled with good role models, good lessons and good sentiment. It’s “good” in the way that Mr. Rogers or Sesame Street is “good” but it’s not a story. Parent puts together a string of events and memories but there’s very little development that happens in this issue. Nothing at the end of the issue is any different than anything at the beginning of the issue other than a party is thrown. We find out a bit about Kevin, growing up as a military brat and the troubles of being gay during high school but it’s just a recital of recollections of a character that does not know how to build any drama.

At the end of the issue, you’re supposed to feel good (there’s that word again) about Kevin, his family and maybe even your own feelings about the character. And you know that you are supposed to feel that way because all of the characters are laughing, smiling, playing jangly music and feeling generally up with life. They’re doing that because they haven’t gone through anything this issue. Parent runs down the events of Kevin’s life but there’s never any drama in those events. There’s never any movement forward or growth for the characters because they haven’t gone through anything that really challenges them in this issue. Even the bullying displayed because of Kevin’s homosexuality comes across as little more than typical school bullying because Kevin always faces it with a smile and a wink as he shows the bullies just the kind of man he is. Events are on display in this issue but they are never explored to understand just how these events affect anyone involved.

This book has a good heart and the depiction of a supportive family and loving friends is admirable but it’s only a message showing us how to act without showing the consequences of our own hurtful actions to others. It’s a book with a fine agenda. Kevin Keller #2 doesn’t have much of a story but it’s got a good message for its readers.

Buy Kevin Keller HC from Amazon.com.

02 December 2011

Daredevil #6


And here we go! Starting today and (fingers crossed) every Friday, the Flashmob Fridays gang will congregate right in this space (well, on this blog) and weigh in on one particular comic book or graphic novel! For details on what it's all about, how to participate as a writer or get your comic considered for review, read my introductory post from yesterday, and thanks for checking out Flashmob Fridays! If you like what you see, please bookmark us, subscribe to our RSS feed (in the sidebar at left), tell your friends, and buy the CafePress Flashmob Fridays hoodie! (Just kidding. For now.)

And now with no further ado, because, as Stan Lee once said, we've exhausted our supply of ado, here's the first new Flashmob Fridays, a look at this week's Daredevil #6 by Mark Waid and Marcos Martin, published by Marvel Comics.

Joseph Gualtieri:

If anything good came out of Marvel’s Brand New Day Spider-Man reboot, it was Marcos Martin. Oh, Martin had been around for awhile before that, but he never seemed to make too much an impression, despite penciling Batgirl Year One. His work was sporadic, and mainly consisted of fill-ins. Marvel’s been using him as something of a pinch-hitter, but his Paper Doll arc in Amazing Spider-Man #559-561 seemed to finally win him a fan base. By contrast, Mark Waid has, of course, been one of the biggest names in superhero comics since his “Return of Barry Allen” storyline way back in 1993 (and writing that makes me feel quite old). One would hope that teaming up a well-regarded writer and a hot artist would produce a great comic; Daredevil #6, unfortunately, isn’t the best work from either one of them.

The opening sequence is gorgeous, as Daredevil saves himself after being thrown into the sea by Bruiser, apparently in the previous issue. From there though, the comic goes downhill as the characters are convoluted, the plot makes little sense, and worst of all, makes poor use of Martin’s skills. A good portion of the blame for this does not fall on Waid, necessarily, but rather on whoever’s responsible for the recap page. For some reason, despite being Daredevil, the recap page is presented, as in Amazing Spider-Man, as the front page of an issue of the Daily Bugle, and like the ASM Bugle recap pages, it’s short on information that might help a new reader. The whole point to a recap page should be clarifying things for a new reader so that the comic isn’t bogged down with unnecessary exposition. If you’ve ever read a run of Marvel comics from the late 1960s through the early '90s (say, in an Essential) you’ll probably find yourself skimming a lot as it seems as if at least a quarter of the average issue was devoted to in-text recaps. With the trade being the final form of most comics these days, it’s understandable and desirable for writing styles to change to accommodate the format change, but the recap page needs to utilized properly for the single issue to work on its own.

Daredevil and Bruiser’s motivations and reasons for being in this issue are clear, but the other three major characters in this issue are all muddled. First up is Randall, who planned to betray the Midas Corporation by exposing a deal they made with five of the evil terrorist organizations in the Marvel Universe. It’s never clear why he was doing that, what sort of evidence he had, or anything else. Overall though, those are minor compared to the other two characters. Zachary works for Midas and hired Bruiser to go after Randall. That’s clear enough, but what’s his role in Midas? Is he the head of the company? Is he a mid-level manager? Is the threat of Midas gone when he dies? I have no idea. Then there’s Austin Cao. I have absolutely no idea who this guy is, despite him being mentioned on the recap page as a client of Matt Murdock’s who was fired from Midas. He’s also referred to as being a friend of Randall’s, but the connection there on the page is zilch otherwise and he just plays the role of boy hostage in this issue.

All of that should have been covered by the recap page. Where the issue itself turns Byzantine is the plot. Brusier grabs Randall and brings him to Midas’s extremely boring and bland looking base, DD follows, a fight ensues and during that Zachary has some techs unlock security on the Omega Drive, which contains information related to the five-way deal. The Omega Drive replaces Randall as the McGuffin for the second half for the book, but it’s never clear where it came from or why Zachary had the security on it unlocked. Maybe this was evidence Randall had on him proving the deal, but that’s nowhere in the text.

While Randall is the real villain of the issue, most of the comic is taken up by a fight between Brusier and Daredevil. As I already noted, it takes place in a bland, boring base. Martin does choreograph the fight well, and there’s the occasional flourish like all of page 12, overall this just doesn’t come off as the best use of skills. Bruiser himself is a mixed bag; the idea of an up-and coming super villain seeking sponsorship is a neat idea, but he’s seemingly sponsored by every evil organization in the Marvel Universe. I don’t watch a lot of NASCAR (okay, any), but usually, one company in a certain product field sponsors someone. Having AIM, the Serpent Society, and Hydra all sponsor you is sort of like getting sponsorship from Coke, Pepsi, and Polar. Further muddling things, for Brusier has a Luchador mask, which doesn’t fit the corporate sponsorship theme. His power set is neat though; rather than being a typical super-strong type, he can focus his mass one part of his body and enhance that. It’s almost like some weird combination of the Blob and Ultra Boy. There’s some potential here, even if Waid and Martin didn’t bring it all out.

Overall, while there are some decent elements to this issue, it’s far from the best work of the creators involved, even if some of the blame falls on editorial for not properly utilizing the recap page.

Alan David Doane:

When I was 15, there was no comic I look forward to more every month than Frank Miller and Klaus Janson's Daredevil. Claremont, Byrne and Austin were doing fun, exciting stuff on Uncanny X-Men, Simonson was tearing it up on Thor, but there was something about Miller and Janson's DD that really got under my skin and kept me coming back for more, month after month.

Unfortunately, that legendary run of comics got under Marvel's skin, and the skins of many thousands of readers, too. For decades, Daredevil as a comic book has been defined either by its debt to Miller/Janson (Chichester, Bendis, Brubaker) or by its sometimes-flailing attempt to do something, anything different (Nocenti, Smith).

Mark Waid, a writer who can do truly extraordinary things when given some free rein (see his first run of Captain America with artist Ron Garney), seems to be enjoying just that privilege these days, and has reinvented Daredevil (both the comic and the character) in a manner that neither evokes Miller/Janson nor strikes one as a counter-response to same. I wouldn't call it sui generis, as stylistically the book these days reminds me a bit of the Gene Colan era (seriously, would Mike Murdock be that out of place in this version of Daredevil?), but it does feel fresh and contemporary. The current issue concludes a storyline that saw Matt Murdock protecting and defending a young man who gets in a little over his head and ends up endangered by numerous longtime evil secret groups like AIM and HYDRA. The most pleasing thing about this issue, and this run, is that Waid is actually telling comprehensible stories with a beginning, middle and end. Sure they're designed to be collected into trade paperbacks, but unlike the majority of Marvel and DC titles these days, stuff actually happens over the course of the stories, characters are built and explored, and the reader is invited to dive into the world being created and have fun along with the creators. The events of recent years -- from Brubaker's outstanding run to Andy Diggle's disastrously awful one -- were acknowledged early on, and then thankfully moved on from.

Artist Marcos Martin brings a light, visually appealing Pop Noir sensibility to the book, reminiscent of stylists like Darwyn Cooke or David Mazzucchelli without any obvious debt to any particular artist. My favourite artistic run on Daredevil of the past decade was the work Michael Lark did with writer Ed Brubaker, but that era's over and Martin really does make a nice creative partner for Waid. "Nice" is probably not the most evocative or compelling word I could use to convince you to give this title a try, but along with "fun" and "entertaining" it's my honest reaction to the current run on Daredevil. Considering how many superhero comics are not very nice these days, or any fun at all, there's many worse things it could be called.

Matt Springer:

I spend a great deal of time pondering Mark Waid. Perhaps more than is healthy. How was that mocha latte, Mark? The one I watched you purchase this morning while sitting in my riot gear and underpants outside the Starbucks on Melrose?

I think a lot about Mark Waid because he is one of those creators whose gifts are so exceptional as to be invisible. When you love a writer, sometimes there's an urge to place her into a neat cubby hole -- Morrison's the eccentric one, Brubaker's the crimey one, Johns is a blood-drenched thirteen-year-old with dual shotguns under his black trenchcoat.

There was a time, and maybe that time is still now, when Waid was recognized as the "silver age retro" guy who could whip your sorry ass at obscure Superman trivia with one hand while writing Who's Who entries about the Legion of Substitute Heroes with the other. Thanks largely to his creator-owned work on the dark superhero series Irredeemable and Incorruptible, he's been able to shed that mantle to a degree. (I'm waiting for the kids version, Incorrigible.)

So now he's encamped at Marvel where he's spearheading the latest revamp of Daredevil, a character who has become most familiar to readers over the past couple decades for enduring a parade of tragedy that would inspire the welcome release of suicide in lesser men. And at first glance, Waid's Daredevil fits into the lazy stereotype of the Waid comic -- it's a character we all love, and he's fun again! Just like in the sixties! Next issue, Foggy Nelson becomes Turtle Boy!

But it's not that simple. There's nuance here, and breakneck action, and villains distinguished by casual, naked greed. Coupled with Marcos Martin's pencils, each page is so crisp and clean you could eat off it. That opening splash alone -- Martin's pitch-perfect rendering of Daredevil submerged deep underwater at the lower right of the panel, with a single caption, "There's one advantage to being underwater."

It seems so simple but it's packed with meaning. On the first page of the issue, Daredevil's immediately in danger. Even if you've never picked up the book, you're drawn in by that simple fact. The black of the water is accented by the subdued red of Daredevil's costume. He's positioned upside down, falling through that water, and with the flatness of the page itself, he already looks beaten. Of course, he's not, but the suggestion of imminent defeat from the very first page creates suspense. One page, one big panel, practically a master class in comics.

There are great writers who are great just because they execute on the raw fundamentals of storytelling better than anyone else. They find a character, understand the fundamentals of what's special about that character, and then they simply amplify those traits. Mark Waid is one of those writers, and his Daredevil is awesome.

Scott Cederlund:

How do you classify artists like Marcos Martin? In Daredevil #6, Martin is doing something that you don’t see a lot of artists in superhero comic books doing today; he’s drawing elegantly. He’s drawing what should be a classic style where each and every line is absolutely essential to the image and to the story. It’s how the Marvel style was built by Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. It’s what John Buscema and John Romita carried on. Those early Marvel artists all knew the power of the line and applied it judiciously to the page. They didn’t go crazy and just splash ink everywhere (although there is a time and a place for that artistic approach as well) but established Marvel by drawing just what they needed to on the page. That could mean a wild Ditko dimension or a solid Avengers argument between Black Panther and Hawkeye or one of Read Richards’ other worldly adventures.

For too long, Daredevil visually has been defined by night and shadows. Frank Miller, John Romita Jr., Alex Maleev, and Michael Lark, just to name a few, have made Daredevil as grim and dark of a character as possible. Like Paulo Rivera has done of the first five issue of this latest Daredevil series, Martin draws anything but heavy heavy shadows. Martin’s Daredevil moves on the page thanks to the artist's simple yet elegant (there’s that word again) line, which defines the characters and settings but also moves with the characters. Movement is such a hard thing to convey through static drawn images, but a character like Daredevil needs to move through a page.

Martin draws a two-page spread in the first third of the issue where an image of Daredevil kicking a henchman spreads across the entire two pages. It’s one of those perfectly captured moments, like a perfect photograph to capture a boxing match or other sports event. All the power, energy and character of the moment is captured in one perfect image. Daredevil comes in from stage left, his body stretched out in mid-air as his heel connects with an AIM lackey’s jaw, sending the lackey reeling to the far right of the image. A hostage, arms tied behind his back, ducks below Daredevil as if they spent weeks practicing this move. It’s the kind of image and moment that in real life you hope you’re lucky enough to capture once or twice with a camera. It’s the kind of captured image that’s even rarer in comics.

Over the years, there have been plenty of images of Daredevil kicking a thug in the face but it’s Martin’s simplicity that makes this image and his art in the whole issue something special. The clean lines that Martin uses to draw Daredevil make it nice and easy to just follow the action from one side of the page, all the way across it and then out of the page. His Daredevil looks like he belongs in the air, not like he’s flying but more like he is an acrobat or martial artist and this is just one of his go-to moves. Martin carries that lightness and motion of the character throughout the book.

The other thing that Martin does consistently is he surprises the readers. Whether it’s through one panel or an inventive layout, most pages have at least one unique element on it that make you just stop and say “wow.” The very first page is one of those with Daredevil sinking into the blackness of the ocean, with a thin line of air bubbles leading up to the surface. It’s a different kind of darkness than the character usually knows and Martin makes it both familiar and different that way. On other pages, a brief panel shows how Daredevil experiences the world around him. It may be an interesting layout or it may be a great splash page showing that the bad guys have been set up in a Mexican standoff shown from an unique angle; Martin makes sure that at least every other page has something on it that catches your eye because it’s so different than anything else you see in a comic book right now.

I wonder if we need to come up with a new term to describe the type of art that Martin and Rivera are doing in Daredevil. The first thing that pops to my mind is “superhero minimalism.” As shown in Daredevil #6, Martin knows what he needs to put on the page to tell the story. He doesn’t put too much information and he doesn’t put in too little either. Each line is part of the storytelling process and contributes to the panel, to the page and to the whole issue. Kirby knew how much information needed to be on a page (even if some of his inkers didn’t agree with him) and he pretty much built the Marvel style of storytelling. That’s not to say that Martin is the next Jack Kirby but he understands how Kirby’s art worked and connected with an audience and he actually manages to apply those lessons to his own art. It’s not about what you’re drawing but it is about how you’re drawing it. Martin draws really well.

Johnny Bacardi:

Like (I suspect) many others, I had become so bored with the whole dreary, melodramatic, brooding, suffering, tortured Miller/Bendis/Brubaker take on Daredevil, that Mark Waid's run so far has been like encountering an oasis in the middle of a hot, endless desert. It's not so much that Waid has revived the swashbuckling, wisecracking DD of my youth, even though that was long overdue...it's that it seems like Waid just went away and actually thought about the character for a good long while- about what made him tick, what could make him interesting and engaging and dare I say even fun to read, about cause and effect and what his supporting cast should be and how they should react...and has set about to write the best superhero comic series he possibly can, with all of us as the beneficiary. I don't mean to gush so unabashedly, but I sure never saw this coming, and it's so surprisingly good that it makes me fear the fanman backlash- the same people that help keep so much Big Two junk alive won't embrace this, surely. Anyway, be that as it may, I think sales have been pretty good so far so we'll keep fingers crossed.

I haven't even mentioned the fact that Waid is assisted by two of the best of today's superhero artists, Paolo Rivera and Marcos Martin. Rivera I was less familiar with, but he's provided one clever, smart visual after another, and Martin has excelled on his alternating arcs as well...I've enjoyed Martin's work on other projects such as Batgirl Year One and the Dr. Strange mini of a couple of years ago... he has such a intuitive grasp of layout and staging, and a facile, supple way of drawing people, that he (I think) is as close as we'll get to a modern Ditko. Unfortunately, he's leaving the rotation, but Rivera's staying on, thank goodness.

This particular issue had me a bit concerned...the Unbeatable Big Bad named Bruiser that was introduced last issue seemed a bit crass somehow, and reminded me more than a little of the guy with the flag on his face from that long-ago Miller/Mazzuchelli story arc, whose name eludes me. But not to worry; the rematch between DD and the new guy was a clinic in how to make a superhero fight interesting. It was all tied in to a bigger-picture arc which had Matt Murdock striving to protect a young blind man who accidentally overheard something which jeopardized his life at the hands of five of Marvel's criminal organizations- you know, AIM, Hydra, etc., and it was resolved in exciting, even humorous (I laughed out loud at the joke on page 19) fashion. Waid even cleverly sets himself up with a plotline, should he choose to pursue it, that will lurk for next few issues, I'm sure.

I'm really trying hard to be critical here, honestly, but it's hard to be objective. I don't know what has gotten into the good but never THIS good before Waid, but I intend to enjoy it as long as I can. Along with Thunderbolts, Daredevil is most certainly, in my opinion, the best superhero comic Marvel has to offer right now, and is better than anything that its distinguished competition is throwing out there as well.

Christopher Allen:

Last week I was reading a book from TwoMorrows that collected a lot of Stan Lee ephemera (old proposals, interviews, and a number of tributes). In a 1967 interview, Lee reflected on his various ongoing Marvel titles and his only regret at the time was that he had thus far failed to make Daredevil distinct from Amazing Spider-Man. They both fought some of the same villains, and both had John Romita, Sr. providing the artwork around this time. Although Gene Colan did bring a different atmosphere, when most readers think of Daredevil now, it’s with the weight of years of Frank Miller’s noir-inspired work, which has cast its shadow on recent runs by Brian Michael Bendis, Ed Brubaker and, most recently, Andy Diggle. Evil ninjas, demons, and an increasingly tortured Matt Murdock who could be desperate or calculating but rarely having much fun or seeming in command of his faculties.

Well, superhero comics are all about change, or at least the illusion of change, and so it wasn’t surprising that with Spider-Man group editor Steve Wacker taking over the editing of Daredevil, things would come sort of full circle with a return to a brighter, more upbeat book for DD. Wacker is a pretty imaginative guy but in this case, getting Mark Waid to write the book was a no-brainer. Waid had already worked with Wacker for a few years as one of the rotating crew of writers that restored Amazing Spider-Man to not only a good book, but a good book to get every week. And although Waid is no stranger to darker superhero stories (Kingdom Come, Irredeemable), he also has a track record of coming onto books that have gone off the rails into darkness or stupidity and making them enjoyable again.

This issue concludes a two-part story in which Daredevil tries to rescue a scientist from the clutches of representatives from five of the biggest Marvel Universe criminal/terrorist organizations, including A.I.M. and Hydra. To do this, he has to first get through a new villain called Bruiser. This sounds fairly generic, but Waid is a very clever, playful writer, offering a lot of nice details and ideas. We get Daredevil’s observation (while underwater, apparently dumped overboard in issue #5) that sound travels faster in water than air. We get the fact that Bruiser is not just a tough guy but has the power to shift his center of gravity, making him not only able to strike with great force but also difficult to flip or knock down. And we get the revelation that the innocent young man used as leverage to get the scientist to comply is the scientist’s lover, not his son.

It would be easy to take the book at face value, with the clean, Romitaesque storytelling and lack of shadows as a Silver Age throwback, and indeed Waid has been guilty of this before, not that it’s anything to feel guilty about. But while the art and the Stan Lee-inspired cheek of “Simperin’ Steve” Wacker’s letters page are clearly nods to simpler times, Waid never resorts to parody or in any way dumbs down his writing. My only concern is that this is the last issue for Marcos Martin on art, with the not-quite-as-good Paolo Rivera returning. But if smartly constructed stories that only take an issue or two to wrap up, with humor, clever twists and relatively bloodless action are considered throwbacks, then I’ll take more, please.

Buy Daredevil. Vol. 1 HC by Mark Waid, Marcos Martin and Paolo Rivera from Amazon.com.