In which the blogger reviews Kiss #1, a title nominated by the splendid Adrian upon hearing that he'd won the runners-up berth in the recent TooBusyThinking name-that-merchandise competition. Dear gentle reader, please consider yourself warned; things do not go well. Long-suffering visitors to TooBusyThinking may even recognise something of a return for The Beak in what follows;
"You wanted the best, you got the best!" runs the selling line at the
head of the cover of the first issue of IDW's new Kiss title. It's the knowingly vainglorious boast which has of course
traditionally been hollered to announce the band's we're-going-to-nuke-the-kitchen-sink arrival on stage. Cue smoke bombs, flame throwers, blood capsules, stadium-tall digital screens, an improbably elongated clapper and, most probably, the lumbering glammisms of Detroit Rock City. It may not be the real thing as far as the credibility cognoscenti are concerned, but it will at least stun you back into your seat for a moment or two until the kitsch of it all threatens to catch in your throat.
But then, if you don't want kitsch, what are you doing watching Kiss?
I certainly did want the best, but where Chris Ryall and Jamal Igle's Dressed To Kill Part 1 is concerned, I would have actually settled just for competency. Sadly, it wasn't to be. Far more Music From The Elder than Alive II, and without even the credibility sheen of the equivalent of a lacklustre Lou Reed couplet or two, IDW's Kiss does at least offer its readers the spectacle of what's perhaps the least enticing opening page in comic's history. For those looking for a book which shows exactly how not to kick off a new series, Kiss is a terrific place to start.
It's not that the opening side of Dressed To Kill Part 1 - above - is the most obvious, cover-your-eyes car-crash of a curtain-up moment ever. It's actually the comic-book equivalent of death by a thousand apparently irrelevant cuts. The eye can skid across the largely enigma-less, action-absent panels on show without registering anything more fundamentally wrong than the urge to turn the page and find something worth paying attention to. Yet take a few minutes to treat this side with the respect of a reader who assumes that what's on show is both worth having paid money for and paying attention to, and one miscalculation after another quickly starts to become obvious. One or two examples of complacency and sloppiness are perhaps always going to sneak into a pop serial fiction, though the reader could be forgiven for expecting that there wouldn't be this many screw-ups, and in such close proximity one to the other too. And if it's easy to regard one or more of the problems I'm going to raise as not being worth the worrying about, there's surely a point at which nothing but torpor and imprecision pushes the reader's tolerance to its limits.
Ryall and Igle bravely kick off their tale with a page that's almost entirely irrelevant to the story that they're going to tell. Beyond the information that the tale's set in 1929, there's literally nothing that the reader needs to see and process here at all. It's not just that these three panels lack anything of character, challenge, action, or jeopardy., although they do. There's quite literally nothing here to capture the reader's attention at all, unless the perusing gaze belongs to someone with the hots for what appear to be poorly-traced photographs of the end of the Twenties. Still, it's not just useful to note what's missing here. It's also illuminating to pay attention to what's been pushed our way in the absence of what over-demanding readers, rather than skimmers, have traditionally call the story.
The first panel is undoubtedly supposed to work as an establishing shot. Who could deny that the Chicago of 1929 is a promising scenario for an action/adventure tale, and yet the problem with Igle's establishing shot is that it doesn't actually establish anything. There's absolutely nothing in the artwork to help us identify either time or place, which means that Igle's panel could be entirely removed and the story wouldn't be affected at all. In fact, what we've been given looks remarkably like a modern-era if peripheral and rundown, seen-better-days metropolis, and the shot could be used to represent any such city in any part of the world. A sense of a specific time and place is therefore entirely absent. Even immediately recognisable markers of the period which could have been used to help inform the reader of roughly when if not precisely where they are, such as the sight of a dirigible moving across the sky, are absent from view. The reader's therefore compelled to rely entirely upon the text, which in itself brings some not-inconsiderable problems, as you can see in the following scan;
Quite why Mr Ryall has decided to state that the story's set in 1929 twice in a single panel is a mystery, but perhaps it's for the poetry of it all. It's a very minor problem, but it's still an example of a writer who's not concentrating fully on the discipline of only delivering information that the reader will benefit from knowing. Still, there's nothing confusing about having the year underscored twice in immediate succession. Yet the statement that 1929 was "A period of economic strife" certainly is baffling. All eras are marked by economic strife. Human social life is forever characterised by groups and individuals fighting in one way or another over economic resources. What does it actually mean to say that 1929 was such a period? There's no reference to any kind of "economic strife" in the rest of the comic, so Ryall's not setting up anything that's yet to come in Dressed To Kill Part 1. Yet worse than being irrelevant, he's being obtuse. If his comment could apply as much to 1890 as to 2012, then it's no place here at all. It makes as much sense to say that as to say that the year was marked by effort on the football field, or that the sky was sometimes covered by cloud. There is a suspicion that Ryall might be referring in some vague way to the effects of the Wall Street Crash, and yet that only began on the 24th of October. Although the consequences of the ongoing economic collapse swiftly spread throughout the financial system and beyond, the country wasn't marked by it in a way that created a notable excess of strife until October was gone, and it's in October that the events of this issue are set. It's all rather confusing. What can Ryall mean? Does he mean that 1929 was marked by an exceptionally high level of "economic strife" in the period up until October? If so, he's either confused about matters in general or focusing on specific issues which he ought to have mentioned. For until the Crash, 1929 was a relatively prosperous year for the majority of Americans, although of course power and prejudice limited the degree to which that prosperity was shared.
Still, an unnecessary repeat of information, an imprecise and confusing attempt to describe the socio-economic conditions of the time and an establishing shot which doesn't establish hardly amount to a title-killing problem. It's not good work, but I'm sure my concerns could be seen as pedantic. And yet, we've barely started to note how the death-by-a-thousand-cuts is begun in this single frame with its single text caption. Is it possible, for example, that Ryall then means to refer to "Prohibition" rather than "alcohol prohibition laws"? After all, if the term "Prohibition" has been thought too challenging for the readers of this book, and that would seem to be the only reason why it's been avoided, then "alcohol prohibition laws" aren't going to be very much more useful either. Perhaps the splendidly named Mr Waltz might have suggested to Mr Ryall that it doesn't help to be vague, and that precision is always what a writer ought to aspire to. Even a sentence as stiff as "Federal laws preventing the sale of alcohol for anything other than medicinal purposes" could have made the point a little clearer, although again, the illegal production and distribution of alcohol isn't specifically mentioned in any other part of Kiss #1 either. Why then are we being told about it?
But perhaps the most obvious example that two Editors together aren't always able to make sense on the page comes in the closing four words of the caption, where we're told of "rampant crime and smuggling". Here's where Mr Ryall and Mr Waltz's struggles with both English and history become even more excruciatingly obvious. As you've no doubt immediately recognised, "smuggling" is a "crime". There is no such thing as "smuggling" which isn't illegal. So, it should have been just "rampant crime", or perhaps "rampant crime which includes smuggling", or even "smuggling". Given that the implication appears to be that the reader ought to twig that the smuggling is all about the previously mentioned "alcohol prohibition laws", then that might have been clarified too.
We're faced with another example of redundancy in the second text caption which directs the eye into the next panel. Here, we're told about "gangsters and thugs", as if these are two distinct classes of human beings. But of course, many if not most gangsters were and are thugs, and many thugs were and are gangsters. It's really not a difficult business. As such, these supposedly minor problems start to pile up for those of us who actually read the words in comics rather than treating them as vague prompts to inspire vague impressions. Yet at least Igle's artwork in the second panel expresses a sense of the time. There's sadly nothing of human interest here to those not fascinated by what's presumably a herd of mostly Model T Fords. Because of that, it feels as if the shot has been obviously and unimaginatively lifted from a photograph, and it's as lifeless as the preceding panel, with only Romulo Fajardo Jr's sunset colours to bring it to life. Still, it would take a curmudgeon even more curmudgeonly than me to to suggest that we've not now been placed somewhere in the years between the wars. As for Ryall's words explaining that "Chicago is overrun by gangsters and thugs who spread their influence across the city", we're again in the world of murky, unhelpful English. The control of Chicago by the underworld wasn't spreading during this period so much as it was as complete as it ever would be. Al Capone, for example, was at the zenith of his power. Chicago was a Mob-Town. That word "spread" is the problem then, of course. It creates a confusing impression by implying that a process is underway far more than it's fundamentally complete. Still, the sentence is poorly phrased rather than incontrovertibly wrong, unhelpful rather than explicitly inaccurate, so surely only the little-league blogger out for his pint of blood after feeling that his $3.99 entrance fee was a rip-off would even mention the matter?
But the cuts are adding up, regardless of how unimportant they might be judged to be, and the death by a thousand of them,. as it were, is coming quicker than might have been imagined at the point of purchase.
Finally, we find ourselves bumping down this strange page marked by boredom and imprecision to the third and closing panel. It's one which it seems Ryall and Igle intended to be seen as particularly important, given how the size of each subsequent panel on the page has increased. And yet, once again, it's also as if Igle has been asked to present the most tedious frame possible. There's no human interest in the scene at all, and the scenario is again apparently lifted from a photograph without any attempt to make the composition distinct and interesting. Passers by? Mobsters? A stray dog, a parked car, a cousin of Jack Kirby walking home from a day on a building site? Why not a shot at some clever manipulation of perspective and shadow? And yet, there's not even a hint of rubbish on the street or of an advertisement stuck or even painted onto the brick walls. It is, quite frankly, shatteringly dull, and the uniformed reader would never believe that this is the first page of a new series. But what's even stranger, and in its own odd way rather amusing, is the fact Mr Igle appears to want to draw our attention to the street and the track lines running up it as we leave the page, though neither street not tracks play any part in the story. Why would anyone leave the bottom forty-five per cent of their panel so utterly devoid of interest? The store front may have been presented in an entirely perfunctory fashion, but there's at least a few cans and approximations of what seems to be fruit there. By contrast, the last chunk of the frame is utterly absent of anything of interest at all.
It's not that there's a weak page-turner here, so much as there's no page-turner at all beyond the speech balloon placed uncompellingly at the top-right of the frame.Yet that's positioned so far from the exit-point of the side at the bottom-right of the panel that any faint interest in what an unseen, unknown character is saying evaporates long before the side can be finished. With the eye having to travel several undirected and tedious inches down from the hardly enthralling enigma contained in that balloon to the page's exit point, it's hard to believe that Kiss's creators were too bothered about compelling their reader's attention. This is work which reflects either a lack of understanding about the basics of the craft of the comicbook, which seems unlikely, or a complete lack of concern about the same. Indeed, I'd nominate this final frame as the very worst single panel in any comic book this year, and I challenge anyone to explain why it shouldn't be regarded as evidence of the most flaccid degree of ambition and skill.
Unless that street, and those rails, are to be considered compelling viewing in themselves, and were designed to make the reader wrench the page over in order to discover whether a newspaper might blow into view, or the toe of a pedestrian stray just into sight.
It'll come as no surprise to find that obscurity and obtuseness is then added to by the frame's accompanying caption, where we're told that the "emergent sounds of jazz can't mask the sinister plans being made within a certain facade ..." Firstly, it's confusing what's meant here by "within a certain facade". By this point, the mind is retreating further and further into the literal-mindedness of pedantry with frustration at Ryall's inability to simply be precise, relevant and entertaining. Is Ryall suggesting that there's people hiding in a false front to the building we're looking at, as the phrase "within a certain facade" would initially suggest. On the balance of probabilities, and with the lack of any visual information to help out here, it's to be presumed that the food store is something other than it seems. Since it appears to be the most boring scene that's ever been encountered in comics, there's little information to suggest what might hide behind the "facade". Speculation is killed stone-dead by a lack of information and an excess of tedium. All in all, it's such an awkward way of suggesting the point that it's hard to grasp how it escaped the editorial red-ink. It sounds as if it's intended to sound clever, or even, help us, to evoke the period, but it adds little but confusion.
However, perhaps the most confusing aspect of this final frame is the phrase "the emergent sounds of jazz". It doesn't seem to refer, however awkwardly, to any music actually being played in the scene before us. Was there ever a panel which appeared to be more bereft of the presence of music than this? Yes, there's a shapely dancer and woman of mystery who appears to sway around in her undies over the page, as I suppose ought to have been expected, but there's no sign here or there of either record player, radio, musicians or hired hummers. Could it be that Ryall is suggesting that Jazz is a form which was just then becoming notable and influential in American culture? Is this once again evidence on his part of an attempt to help the reader come to terms with the broad outline of the history of the period? Economic strife, smuggling and crime, thugs and gangsters, emergent jazz? Yet that can't be right either. F Scott Fitzgerald coined the phrase "The Jazz Age" in 1922 to characterise the America of the period, meaning that the music was by 1929 anything but "emergent". Indeed, it was such a well-known and recognisable form that it had served as the shorthand for the way in which the age thought of itself for more than seven years by the time of the events of Kiss #1. By coincidence, 1922 was also the date when Chicago itself had become the undeniable epicentre of Jazz culture. Rather than being "emergent" in Chicago at the end of the decade, it was massively popular nationally and internationally. Of course it was. There's certainly an irony in the fact that Jazz had taken the forms that it did in significant part because of the cultural hothouse that was the Chicago of the period. Bix Beiderbecke had arrived in the city in 1921, Louis Armstrong in 1922; whatever jazz was by the decade's end, "emergent" wasn't it.
Do we dare turn the page, dear reader? Are we motivated to push onwards, to force our eye down from that unenticing and ill-placed word balloon, across that lifeless panel to the interestless corner of the side? Life is short, the hours we have will never come our way again, and we haven't even the time to read but a fraction of the masterpieces which constitute the very best of the medium of comics.
Let's not bother then, ah?
Reader's Roulette Rating: Kiss is a glossy insult to all but the most undemanding of readers. Though Mr Igle's artwork perks up and becomes undeniably competent and even pleasant, the script is over-stuffed, stiff, pretentious and incredibly uninteresting beyond the second and third last panels of the story, where a mildly amusing destruction of a door occurs. Small mercies.
I would, however, appreciate extra marks for not making any jokes about how appropriate it is that a comic about Kiss should be all flash and little content. I'm rather fond of the idiocy of the early Kiss, and of those Steve Gerber stories starring the band from the Seventies.
We'll be returning to IDW with the up-coming and rather enticing "Red Shirt" issue of Star Trek and the James Stoke Godzilla book. Until then, other things!