Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Crime Does Not Pay!


I can't say that I've not been affected by a week of reading old Crime Does Not Pay stories from the Forties and early Fifties. It's not that I've found myself being swayed by any of the arguments used during the period by Frederic Wertham and his fellow crusaders for decency in their war against a supposedly child-corrupting plague of comic books. But put aside the specter of the children of the West being transformed by the likes of Crime Does Not Pay into criminals, sexual perverts, and imbeciles, and there's still a great deal in the comic's pages which can leave the modern-day reader feeling just a touch unsettled.

And that's what I'll be talking about in the fifth installment of The Year In Comics over at Sequart. I hope you might consider popping over and allowing yourself to be exposed to covers, panels and concepts which the moral majority of 60 years ago believed would rot the hearts and minds of their children.

This week's The Year In Comics can be found here.


Friday, 27 January 2012

On "Birds Of Prey" #5

In which the blogger continues a discussion - begun here - of how reader-friendly and rewarding a random selection of the mainstream's super-books are;

This month's Spider-Man/Daredevil team-up by Mark Waid and his colleagues succeeds in being as neophyte-friendly as it's entertaining and touching. By contrast, Birds Of Prey #5 is an enervating, emotionally-flat indulgence of dismally underpowered storytelling. Swierczynski, Saiz and Pina's Chokepoint reminds me of nothing so much as the time I drove through and out of a Northamptonshire country town before I realised that I'd arrived at my destination. It's surely telling that Birds of Prey #5 brought to mind an entirely wasted journey to a job interview best avoided long before it made me think of any other comic-book.

The very first page of Chokepoint, for example, is entirely lacking in either emotional intensity or physical jeopardy. It's almost comical how the scene that's been chosen to lead the story off and, presumably, snare the uncommitted reader should be so absolutely uninvolving. This being a book for which the label "deconstructed" would suggest far too high a level of complexity and content, the first page consists of three panels in which a group of four super-women stand calmly in a road and discuss being somewhat confused. There's nothing of pace, insight or tension here. The fact that one character's hand should be broken and yet somehow isn't is approached with all the intensity of a discussion concerning the virtues of semi-skinned and entirely-skimmed milk. The setting is ill-observed and utterly mundane, the characters could be described as generic if there was enough on the page to indicate any character at all, and it all reads as if somebody had decided to produce the world's least enticing first page teaser. 

But turn the page and far worse awaits, as the reader's faced with one of the most unnecessary, uninformative and uninteresting double-page splashes in the history of the superhero comic-book. In that, the ennui-inspiring opening three panels really do succeed in setting the tone for the comic's remaining 19 wearisome pages. It's a desperately worrying business to wonder what principles of storytelling, let alone value-for-money, were guiding Mr Swierczynski when he sketched out the form and content of pages 2 and 3, for all that happens is that the Birds of Prey suddenly find a group of armed men appearing to one side of them. It's a business which could surely have been shown in a single panel, and yet here two sides are taken up with a scene which carries little of either surprise or jeopardy. Instead, the double-splash manages to create confusion rather than summoning up the slightest tension. Who these men are and anything specific of their purpose goes unmentioned. The reader might assume that these never-to-be-explained "Cleaners", as we later discover they're known, are attacking the Birds of Prey, but it's not even clear that that's precisely what's happening. Yes, there's two sound-effects that seems to indicate gun-shots, but there's only one character who might possibly be firing his weapon, and he seems to be aiming well to the left of his targets.
The bottom half of page 2. It's notable that this adds nothing at all to the reader's knowledge or enjoyment of the scene. There is quite simply no information or spectacle present here, unless the reader is thrilled by a super-villain's skin-tight costume. Given how little these pages do tell us, the fact that the equivalent of 50% of them is wasted on doing nothing at all would surely be off-putting, to say the least, for the uncommitted reader.
Elsewhere, many of the men who can be seen aren't even looking at the Black Canary and her allies, staring as they are in a variety of directions for no obvious reason at all. Where they've sprang from, we're not told, and indeed we're never informed of how they manage to achieve that trick in the remainder of the comic. (If they're teleporters, why aren't the Birds of Prey always uneasy about the possibility of being surprised? If they're not, how did they get there?) Even the question of how the vast spaces of the street in which they appear relate to the relatively confined area described vaguely in the very first panel of the story isn't explained either. These aren't page-turning enigmas, they're confusions, and yet, even if we include the title of the piece in the word-count for the two pages, there's just six words of story-content present. Even the most passionate supporter of content-free storytelling would surely accept that there's been, shall we say, opportunities missed when it comes to the matters of clarity and excitement.
Again, the bottom half of page 3. As with the preceeding side, 50% of what's here contributes nothing at all to the meaning or the storytelling content of the side. The reader is assumed, it seems, to simply be fascinated by young super-women in body-hugging clothes.
The fault ultimately has to lie in an editorial culture which has convinced itself that such space-swallowing indulgences are entertaining in themselves. But surely nothing is entertaining in itself when it constitutes 10% of a $2.99 book and stands as being both profoundly visually dull and almost entirely lacking in content? What's most odd about this sorry process is that the creators and editors involved in Birds Of Prey #5 appear to have internalised one particular model of storytelling and yet failed to grasp that a method designed to project shock and awe rather than story and content has to actually focus on spectacle at all costs. In these pages, the logic of widescreen deconstructionism is taken to an absurd extreme while much of the point of such is entirely ignored. What can possibly be eye-catching and thrilling about these pages, which are as still and as dull as they're absent of the slightest cleverness or emotion? "The Birds are surrounded by armed bad -guys. A few guns may be being fired" is barely enough plot to weave a single little frame from, and yet such pose'n'piffle storytelling is extremely common in today's books. The only conclusion to be reached is that this is a style of comics which a significant number of DC's as well as Marvel's editorial staff don't simply tolerate, but actively encourage.
Here we have two-thirds of page 18 of this book. Two thirds of a page filled largely by a shot of a woman standing quite still beneath some girders. Fantastic.

Perhaps the very finest of widescreen-friendly artists might have been able to make something compelling out of Swierczynski's script, but even then, its double-page non-event of a story-opener would have been little but a cheat of an flaccid offering. These unhelpful first few pages pages could've been dumped and hardly anything about the story would have been lost. There's surely no more damning comment to be made. That Saiz and Pina were unable to even raise the angle of the panel so that we might actually see the super-women being surrounded and threatened in a more exciting fashion is a sign of either an astonishingly rushed job or a worrying lack of ambition and/or skill. But in the end, who can justify burning up so much space with so little worth? It's certainly alot easier to present such a confection than to really apply oneself to the responsibilities of ensuring that the consumer's money is well spent, but why would any editorial office encourage such audience-alienating practises? Did nobody notice, for example, that that double-page's worth of confusion and space-wasting was being produced in such a static and baffling fashion? We do, after all, live in an era where an artist can send their layouts instantaneously to head office, where the experts who enable the creation of a comic can advise on how to improve a page before it's ever completed.

How little story and value-for-money extras can be included in one single side?
This farce without laughter or even momentum continues without a noteworthy improvement in quality for the remainder of its pages. We're evidently supposed to be touched by a scene between Starling and a woman who has apparently asked her to stay away, but since we know nothing of who either is or their relationship, it's impossible to care. The Black Canary discovers that her team has been fighting the wrong people all the time, and goes on to discuss exploding men and sleeper agents and I haven't the faintest what's going on. Apparently there's a mastermind antagonist behind all this confusion, but since this "Choke" has barely even been mentioned until page 17, it's a revelation that's of no use to the reader at all. Yes, the super-villain of the piece is referenced in just four sentences in three seperate panels. In the first, we're told nothing more than the fact that the Birds Of Prey have once fought on his "secret floor", whatever that might mean. In the second, Ivy refers to "this so-called Choke's lair". And then we're told with three pages to go that all the troubles in this comic are down to said bad guy. A vitally important figure, it seems, and yet one that's almost totally absent from the book. Should the reader have never picked up anything from this run of Birds Of Prey before, pretty much everything about "Choke", from his appearance onwards, will remain a mystery after Chokepoint has concluded.

Just one of an endless parade of good examples which might have inspired a far more interesting & exciting double-page splash for Birds of Prey #5. (A wonderful composition by Kirby & Ayers, image courtesy of GCD.)
Yet it can't be said that the creators and editors here lacked space to elbow in any more information. There are far more pages than just the first three in which quite literally nothing beyond one or two simple plot-points are delivered. The five panels of page 13, for example, show us a man approaching Poison Ivy as she rests, half-buried in the ground, in what appears to be park-land. (We're not told where she is, of course.) That is quite literally all that happens that furthers the plot there. The following page tells us nothing extra across 6 frames beyond the facts that (1) Ivy has infiltrated the Birds of Prey for him and (2) he's given her a mysterious suitcase with a green-glowing interior. The contents and purpose of this suitcase are supposed to serve as an enigma, but there's little point in trying to interest a reader about such a MacGuffin's contents when there's been no storytelling of any weight, wit or momentum beforehand to make us care.

If Mark Waid's work is hardly typical of many modern-era comics, then Birds Of Prey is sadly just the opposite. For here we have yet another comic that's marked by the most insubstantial and complacent of storytelling. It would be shocking if it wasn't so typical of a mass of second and third division books, though at least the interests of the new reader haven't been put substantially below those of the book's existing fans. For everybody's been short-changed by both the form and content, or rather the lack of each, in Birds of Prey #5.

My advice is to keep Chokepoint well away from any comic that you suspect stands as an example of superior storytelling. Gawd knows what will happen if the two books touch .After all, we're well aware from what we've read of comicbook science of what might happen should any two entirely antithetical objects ever even brush against each other.

I can't speak poorly enough of Birds Of Prey, and yet the comic's so very poor that the temptation is to try. Best to move on, then.


Wednesday, 25 January 2012

On Mark Waid's Spider-man/Daredevil Crossover

In which the blogger returns to the question of how reader-friendly the mainstream's super-books are, and asks how welcoming and entertaining are the first few pages of several recent comics;
Folks who dismiss the very idea of today's superhero books being anything other than market-pandering pap are going to have to explain away the excellence of the work of Mark Waid and his collaborators on this month's crossover between Daredevil and the Amazing Spider-Man. For The Devil And The Details Part 1 is a considerable pleasure even if, like me, your fondness for Spider-Man has been worn away over time by reboots and stunt marketing and the decision to make Peter Parker a rather unlikeable twenty-something nebbish rather than one of the world's unluckiest adolescents. (*1) Yet, whatever my reservations, Waid's work here is a wonder, as technically sound as it's heartfelt and involving. Any reader new to The Amazing Spider-Man with issue #677, for example, is going to have not the slightest problem getting up to speed with the spine of the relevant back-story before the second page is over. Even the text introduction, in the form of a Daily Bugle tabloid front-page, is so smartly constructed that it establishes not just the essential plot-points for what's to come, but the fundamental theme of romantic loss and gain that's at the core of these two issues.Whether it was put together by Waid himself or the editorial office is almost beside the point, for what most counts here is that everybody that's on the team is doing the job that's expected of them, and doing it well too.

*1:- The last is the decision of Spider-Man's regular writer Dan Slott, but the other far more alienating decisions weren't. My own tastes for the characterisation of Parker aside, I have a great deal of respect for Mr Slott's work on Spider-Man, as I've expressed on this blog before. To praise Mr Waid is not meant to be read as any criticism of Mr Slott at all.

The very first page of Emma Rios's art for Amazing Spider-Man #677 is an example of modern-era comics storytelling at its best, delivering the sense as well as the facts of Peter Parker's romantic woes in a way that's as funny as it's undoubtedly touching too. Life really does conspire to emphasise misery when a significant other's off being significant elsewhere, and the panels of Parker wandering past streets of embracing, loving couples and adoring breakfast-cereal families raise uncomfortable memories as well as painful chuckles for this reader. The scene-setting collaboration of writer and artist here is entirely successful, with Waid trusting to his colleague to show us Parker's misery without the need for any excess of internal monologue or unlikely soliloquy. "Where is Doctor Octopus when you need him?", Parker asks himself as he passes by a crowded-shop front bearing a sign declaring "Two for One", and that authentic mix of quippery and unhappiness grounds what's to come in character before the super-heroics arrive.

By establishing his intentions with that authentic Parker-esque tone that's part wisecrack and part despair, Waid has the reader snared, caring and page-turning before any skin-tight costume is to be seen. The temptation to kick off each half of this crossover with yet another spectacle of yet another superhero performing yet another superfeat is one which Waid conspicuously avoids. And so, even with a cliffhanger involving buried-alive super-people to resolve in Daredevil #8, Waid tellingly begins his second chapter with a costumeless and intriguing scene involving loyal Foggy Nelson at his most Dr Watson-esque and the grave of Matt Murdock's father. It's easy, after all, to skip over yet another moment of book-opening jeopardy through fisti-cuffs, but it's hard not to pay attention when the real hero of the book is resolutely investigating the matter of what might have happened to the body of Battlin' Jack Murdock.

Waid's super-people are always individuals before they're crime-fighters, and for all the fun of the roof-running and the holographic illusions, it's the moments of betrayal and sadness and self-deception which stay with the reader after the comics have been put away. Parker catching sight of his unValentine's Day becoming all the more desperately bleak, and declaring that "this is my super-villain origin"; Foggy Nelson's stoic dauntlessness in his search for the truth; Murdock's capacity to appear to be thinking clearly when he's also being driven by far less rational motivations; these are the moments that ensure that readers will return next month to Mr Waid's titles.

Waid works as successfully with the artist Kano in the concluding part of The Devil And The Details as he does with Rios in chapter 1. In fact, the creative team on Daredevil #8 manage to pull off the trick of producing a conclusion to their particular chapter which works perfectly well for the reader who's read nothing of the story's opening twenty pages. Both comics are triumphs, and they beg the question of why it is that Waid's achievements are matched by so few of his colleagues. Any fool can construct a comic-book out of shock and a mass of panel-shy money-shots, empty-hearted fireworks and event marketing. But it takes years if not decades of study and endless practise to ensure that a story such as The Devil And The Details appears to be an effortless as it is entirely satisfying. How inspiring it is, to be able to feel certain that Mark Waid's very best work is being done in the here and now, and that he's neither joined the ranks of the burnt up or the gently fading away.

It's worth noting what each of these comics don't contain. No sell-it-on-the-secondhand-market double-page spreads. No arbitrarily placed pin-ups. No hollow by-the-numbers spectacle. No obsession with a world of superheroes existing entirely separate from a more typically human one. No stroke-friendly objectification. No careless politics or ethical indulgences, no reliance on inter-textuality to add value to a third-rate story. No melodramatic excesses. No grittiness and grimness that doesn't come attached to a narrative powered also by compassion and wit. No read-it-in-a-minute stories, no mind-wearying sense of the terminally over-familiar, no witless collage of one dullheaded punch-up after another. No generic backgrounds, no I'm-getting-paid-to-doodle indulgences, no purposeless parade of horizontal panels.

Yet if I were compelled by conscience to mention any limitations of the work, then I might suggest that Amazing Spider-Man #677 contains one side-consuming, plot-light action shot too many for a book of so relatively few pages, and that it also isn't precisely clear in a single panel why the camera of an amateur paparazzi has slipped from his hands when faced with the Black Cat's hyper-lucky powers. In other words, both parts of The Devil & The Details are remarkably well-wrought comicbooks, with their opening, reader-grabbing sequences standing as textbook examples of the craft.


All pop art traditions are eventually replaced by what seem to be more attractive, and usually more energetic, storytelling forms. But there always comes a time when the core values of what once seemed staid and gravebound begin to seem revolutionary in themselves once again. For all that the creators of The Devil & The Detail have been smartly influenced by the kineticism of what's happened in comics storytelling since the high summer of Image Comics, their work here is fundamentally rooted in the traditional values of clarity and density, emotion and cleverness. In pushing aside the degeneration of the superhero book into thin parodies of the once-innovations of the "widescreen" and "deconstruction", Waid and his colleagues have succeeded in embarrassing the efforts of so many editors and creators who've rejected the hard work for the easy effects, and who've succeeded only in generating their own pay checks while running the sub-genre into and almost under the ground.

Next: DC's Bird Of Prey # 5.


Tuesday, 24 January 2012

On Garth Ennis & Gary Erskine's "Archangel"


The fourth installment of "The Year In Comics" is now up at Sequart Publishing. It's concerned with Ennis and Erskine's wonderfully tender-hearted and touching Archangel. It's a story which doesn't just put a stake through the heart of the myth that war comics can't be emotional, heartwarming and entirely free of machismo. It also cuts off the legend's head and burns both parts of its body to ashes while it's at it. As I might have let slip there, I think the world of Archangel, and I hope you might consider popping over to Sequart - here - for the spectacle of a grown man trying not to repeat "It's brilliant and I got all misty-eyed" over and over again.


Monday, 23 January 2012

A Good Man Such As Zauriel

An afternoon hour spent in the company of Mark Millar and Ariel Olivetti's JLA: Paradise Lost has reminded me once again of how narrow the range of types and characters are in so many of today's superhero books. For Miller and Oliveti's 1998 take on Grant Morrison's angelic Zauriel is such a decent-hearted and smart, stable and fundamentally generous person that it's impossible not to wonder whether such an unqualified paragon would ever be allowed to carry such a mini-series today. Practically unique even in the context of the mainstream of its day, Zauriel's Christian-spirited adventures in Paradise Lost now seem wonderfully askew and anachronistic. Where's his willingness to opt for expediency rather than principle, his shocking circumstances, his angst, his short-sightedness, and his habit of being beaten down by adversity? What's the point of a superhero who's so fundamentally good?

Perhaps that catastrophic decline in the degree of heroic diversity might explain something of why I'm so fond of the adventures of the likes of Dirty Frank and Cyril "Knight" Sheldrake. For all that Frank is catastrophically disordered, and accepting that the Knight is a man with no little sin on his conscience, they're both fundamentally kind and decent individuals. One's sadly utterly barking, one's very much not, and yet both, you suspect, would make essentially heartening company. How the wheel has turned. It wasn't so many decades ago that the superbook featured an endless parade of straight-shouldered and cheerily family-friendly moral exemplars, which left the occasional appearance of a Wolverine or a Punisher seeming as dramatic and as exciting as a leather jacket, a D.A. and a flick-knife at the gates of a rural Fifties High School. Now the typical example of the sub-genre's monthly product is quite desperately short of folks who aren't glum and traumatised, compromised and fundamentally alienated, and it seems that it's the sane and pleasant super-folks who are now the seriously endangered and dwindling minority. So antithetical have the qualities of inarguable decency and moderation become that it wouldn't be any surprise to discover a tag-line for an upcoming epic which declared that superhero-X was finally, shockingly, going to succumb to their good side. Wouldn't that be just be terrible?

The character of Zauriel in JLA: Paradise Lost seems to be heretically perverse in the good humour, compassion and unselfishness which he displays. When the heavenly Justice Leaguer discovers that the woman he's abandoned his immortality for is in love with somebody else, for example, he doesn't wither into despair or embark on a career as the Anti-Angel. Instead, he's so pleased for her that he can hardly stop smiling. In that, he's the rarest of Christian characters in comics, for he's utterly lacking in that air of resignation and seriousness-bordering-on-the-joyless which so often tends to mar the attraction of the breed to those, such as myself, who aren't religious at all. While he may well at times be worn down by weariness and pain, as all traditionally heroic characters must be, he's never likely to betray his principles or give in to whatever dark side it is that a writer might attempt to give him. Zauriel's appeal is based in his adamantine strength of principle matched to his amiable if fiercely determined nature, which leaves him looking like anything but a passive and deferrent individual. What could be done with such an intractably decent character today, when even Captain America's been repositioned as the macho-posturing leader of a cadre of keen and expert torturers?

If nothing else, there's surely space for just a few more characters who might fulfill the role of the powerful other who won't just fight to defend us, but who'll be a generous friend after doing so? I can't think of many superheroes that I even like very much anymore, and less yet that I'd trust enough to want to get to know. Yet Zauriel seems to me to have been one of the more reliable and admirable of the cape'n'chest-insignia brigade, and it's a shame that there's so few of his like. There will be those who think that such a well-balanced superhero might lack the dramatic contradictions which can drive a plot forwards. Yet it's worth remembering that the presence of an angel from a Heaven which clearly isn't a reflection of any specific Church's teachings would be the most wonderful way of discussing a host of ethical and practical problems, should anyone have the desire and will to do so.

I'm becoming more and more distrustful of a sub-genre which so often seems to draw attention to the noble and the inspiring only so that those qualities might be shown being worn away and corrupted. If the market can support the dozens upon dozens of bleak and quite frankly disheartening books that it does, then surely it might also welcome the presence of just a few more optimistic, ethically centered and good-natured superwomen and men as well? Not to replace the standard-issue superhero, and not to serve as sources of mockery either, but simply to add a touch more variety and contrast to fictional universes which are so commonly grey and dispiriting places to visit.

One Last Look At "Knight & Squire"

In which the blogger concludes his discussion of the wonderful "Knight & Squire" by Paul Cornell & Jimmy Broxton, which began here and continued here, here & here;

I don't think I can help myself, and I'm certainly not going to try. I simply love the fact that Squire's secret entrance to the Knight's underground superhero cave is hidden in the shed at the bottom of her garden. By the same token, I find it improbably touching that Beryl's progress out to the shed in an emergency involves her negotiating a cheek-pecking mother and the best wishes of Mr Kochalski, who sometimes forgets, it seems, that he shouldn't call the super-person next door by her first name when she's in costume. It cheers me up to imagine a children's TV programme in which Squire has to hide in her bedroom's fitted wardrobe in order to change into her crime-fighting costume, although the thought that a series could be produced for adults which showed the same would cheer me up even more. For there seems to be something quietly but fundamentally disturbing to a great many superhero fans about a comicbook which admits that the very idea of fighting crime anonymously in a costume is, for all that it's a playful and fascinating idea, quite simply absurd. Similarly, the idea that a comic might weave its way between scenes which are purposefully ridiculous and those which are profoundly unsettling appears to violate the rules of the superhero reader's paradigm. I'd imagine that those sequences in Knight & Squire which are simultaneously both horrific and whimsical must be seem all the more schismatic.

If whimsy and horror are "all mixed up together", as the script for Knight & Squire insists, then why not good humour and political conviction too? We discussed before how the tens of new British super-people in For Six have been entirely cut loose from a pop fiction's taken-for-granted responsibility to positively represent sections of the community. Instead, Paul Cornell chooses to devolve that responsibility onto the community itself, and he does so quite deliberately in the comic's second issue, where the reader who might think that Knight & Squire is nothing but nostalgic and even deeply Conservative vision of Britain can be reassured that nothing of the sort is intended. In fact, it couldn't be any more clear what Cornell is doing when he juxtaposes the villages of Great Worden and Yeominster Churney. Great Worden may be a "country town", but it's a conspiciously multicultural one, and rather shockingly for a comic book locale, it's actually somewhere for a hero to defend out of fondness rather than as a reluctant or even disconnected duty.

It's a community made up of the likes of both Beryl's housewife mother and the well-meaning and superhero-supporting Mr Kochalski, of the splendidly take-no-nonsense storeowner Mr Patel and Lord Cyril from the castle up on the hill. Cornell's Great Worden stands as a marker of modernity and inclusiveness every bit as much as any idealised inner-city area could, and that's of course the point. A community in Knight & Squire is defined as worthwhile according to the degree to which it can incorporate as much difference and variety as possible, rather than according to its capacity to exclude the same. Whether such an ideal is to be found in Great Worden or some inner-city housing estate is surely entirely irrelevant, though a great deal of the media tends to hesitate to associate anything that's semi-rural and peripheral to the urban centres with the best and most progressive aspects of the nation. Yet Great Worden's high-street features not just a very traditional English butchers, but Mr Patel's newsagents and FONES4U too, while the folks who walk its pavements are just as likely to be mixed-race couples are they are elderly gentlemen in Panama hats. It's a town of "golf sales" and housing estates just as it is of aristocrat's estates and country cats asleep on garden fences, and it stands as a deliberate retort to the rhetoric of both Little Englanders and big-city hipsters.

By contrast, the town of Yeominster Churney is notably untouched by anyone but the most whitebread of indigenous stock. As we'd expect of a Cornell script, that doesn't mean that its inhabitants are by definition the enemy. There's a furiously determined pub landlady, for example, who wants nothing to do with any talk of "Morris", let alone any authoritarian longing for a "Back To Basics" England. Sadly, a great many of the men of the town are besotted with the fascist Morris Major, who wraps his racism and sexism and homophobia up in the seductive and vicious cliches of a time-lost and perfectly sceptered isle. As with all of the antagonists in Knight & Squire, the tellingly-named Major represents a tendency in British culture which is at odds with Cornell's liberal humanism. Major wants to "tip the British Isles in time and space, slide it back to an era before newfangled things like -- homosexuality", and it's no surprise that his fascism is the product of a mind born in a "Hell dimension's version of Britain". After all, the British may have spent a great deal of the past eighty years and more struggling not to ignore or even tolerate one form or another of fascism, and yet fascism itself remains, as it's always been, a distinctly unBritish phenomena.
The poor doomed AI that's corrupted with solipsism and despair, the superhero sidekick who justifies his own violence and self-regard with reference to an ill-understood foreign culture. The six Kings who stand for the British obsession with the supposed virtues of tyrannical autocrats. The Joker, representing the ultimate challenge to the hope of rationality and empathy. Nazis and naval-gazers, royalty and racists, the insane and the ill-fated; all of the protagonists that we come across in Knight & Squire stand for qualities and situations which can undermine and destroy an individual's belief in the value of the community to which they belong.  And if, by contrast, Cornell and Broxton's superheroes never appear to directly represent anything specific about their fellow citizens, it's because the nation in Knight & Squire is something which shouldn't ever be defined solely in terms of  the presence or the absence of any of particular group of its citizens. Everyone belongs in this vision of Britain unless they predatorily choose not to, and even then, as with the super-villains "who don't like some blasted Yank doing our job for us", there's always an opt-in clause too. It's that business of constantly opting in that counts.
A straight-forward way of representing vice and virtue in a superhero comic, you might argue, and yet, it was surely important that the ethical themes of the comic were as explicit as they could be without reducing everything to the thinnest of polemics, to a tub-thumping diatribe directed against any narrative which reduces a society or even an popular artform to a narrow prescription of ins and outs, ideals and trash. Given the purposefully odd way in which the superheroes of Knight & Squire are presented, the other aspects of the comic's structure which might represent moral qualities needed to be as sturdy and transparent as possible. There's enough to throw any reader in the only-apparently self-indulgent and anachronistic likes of Beyfrentos and the Cidermen in the first place, so that deliberate absence of ethical types, if not ethical action, at the heart of the book needed to be buttressed with clarity elsewhere.

Yet if there's one single quality about Knight & Squire that I most admire, it's the fact that it's a book which needs no explanation at all. The reader can note how clever the gradual darkening of the tone of the book is from chapter to chapter, for example, and recognise how that's designed to appear to mimic many a meta-story intended to trace the history of the superhero from innocence to violent pseudo-maturity. And it's certainly amusing to note how that misdirection leads cleverly not to a bloody and conscienceless closing dust-up, but to a fundamentally good natured end to the book. But all that referencing of the post-Watchman tradition of comics about comics also serves a specific dramatic purpose too, for it helps to create a growing sense of menace and uneasiness in the story itself as well as playfully manipulating the expectations of comics fans. As such, there's no expert knowledge, no inter-textual mastery, required to make complete and enjoyable sense of what's going on in the narrative here. Comic books, just like communities, are evidently things which Mr Cornell believes shouldn't exclude those who'd like to get involved with them. For all its cleverness and control, for all its elegant mixing of traditional and, yes, experimental storytelling, for all that it's a deeply political narrative, Knight & Squire is first and foremost exactly what it appears to be; an entirely accessible, all-ages superhero tale. Its ethical purpose, its genre self-awareness, its layers of ambition and meaning, are all designed to work in such a way that they add to, rather than replace or compensate for the absence of, the entertainment value of story itself.
And if there's a single panel in Knight & Squire which seems to sum up the appeal of the comic for me, then it's that of the terminally ill Jarvis Poker sitting on sofa in what appears to be a furniture store. Nobody there seems excessively interested in Jarvis's unhappy soliloquy, and they're certainly not frightened of the prop that he's holding before him. But they know him, as one might recognise a near-neighbour from the far end of a street or a celebrity from local TV, and so they're listening even as they can't bring themselves to express any fake-sentimental excess of concern. They're patient and, as complete and somewhat embarrassed strangers often can be, kind too, after a fashion. It's a smartly constructed composition from Mr Broxton, for the eye's taken through the situation at the front of the picture frame before leaving with the sight of life going on in the background as if Jarvis had never been there at all. And that's sadly what's going to happen to the terminally ill Jarvis, and to all of us too. Yet in showing each of these characters, these strangers and fellow citizens together, there's so much of the essential British character that's on parade. It's what Cornell has Jarvis call the business of rubbing along with with our peers, and far from being a purgatorial absence of true feeling, it's the cornerstone of how we Brits so often get by. We tolerate each other, and at times we even pull together in quite remarkable and entirely sincere ways. It's a crowded island, as Jarvis recognises just before his death, and so that's how we survive. And it's no little thing at all.



Saturday, 21 January 2012

On Wolverine #300


I'm getting old, I know. The signs are clear. I complain about comic books not making sense in exactly the same way as my father used to bemoan the fact that the lyrics of the songs on Top Of The Pops couldn't be heard for all that other racket. The music was too loud, the musicians were too inept, and my god, that man in the Ramones was wearing jeans so tight and worn-through that he practically had his cock out. Indeed he did, and that was something of why the Ramones were as funny as they were exciting. They really did almost have their collective cocks out there, and I loved them for it. Perhaps what happened to my parents is finally happening to me. Why not? Perhaps I've lost the codes to the culture, and perhaps that's what's obscuring the wonders of so many of 2012's comic-books. Oh well. Perhaps comics just aren't supposed to make sense anymore, or perhaps the definition of what does and what doesn't make sense has fundamentally altered while I've been looking over my shoulder at the long-gone Ramones on the long-cancelled Top Of The Pops.

There's a point at which the distance between my own opinion of a comic's worth and that of the overwhelming majority of reviewers in the blogosphere becomes so great that cognitive dissonance begins to take hold. I'm struggling to believe that the copy of Wolverine #300 that I ordered is the same extra-sized, $4.99 anniversary issue which most everyone else has reviewed so enthusiastically. In fact, the difference between what I'd swear I can see on the pages of Back In Japan Part 1 and what's been applauded by so many different reviewers is so extreme that cognitive dissonance eventually begins to shadow into paranoia. How can I be that far away from the consensus? Why was I given a blogger-conning simulacrum of Wolverine #300, and who is it that wants me to publish a scathing review of a comic book that patently never existed? Who, for example, could possibly have slipped me a comic with the above page stapled into it, in which so much of an entire side is spent showing a super-villain eating a relatively small and inoffensive joint apparently sliced out of an almost-entirely-absent-from-shot bull? (Since we only ever see a single of its horns, I thought for a minute it might be an unconvincingly drawn rhinoceros, but no; it's almost certainly an unconvincingly drawn bull, or at least I think it probably is.) As an idea, I fully accept that it's both absurd, audacious, and telling. But it would have been pretty thin gruel for the events of an entire page even if it had been framed in such a way as to empathise the admittedly splendid gag. Instead, we've got nothing but a sketched-it-over-breakfast shot of Sabretooth, all belly and drool, and just the slightest suggestion of the bull's eye beneath its entirely unimpressive horn buried in the left-hand corner. No humour, no ambition, no obvious effort. It's the kind of page you might expect from a gifted art student who wants to sidestep any problem with unfamiliar anatomy and challenging perspective, and I should know. A great big mid-shot of a generic big bad guy and very little else. Oh well.

But at least that page makes sense, which is more than might be said for the above sequence of panels by Ron Garney and Jason Keith. (The publication date for Wolverine #300 can hardly have taken Marvel by surprise, but there was still apparently the need for three separate art teams to complete a single thirty-page story.) In panel one, we can clearly see Shin smashing his way out of the Hand's skyscraper laboratory, and he's quite evidently carrying his partner-in-crime Amiko with him. Come panel two and Amiko has suddenly disappeared, although this either has to have happened between the second and third word balloons as we're reading them, or we have to credit that Shin in his armour can't feel any weight or pressure from his passenger at all, leaving him unable to realise when she's hanging onto him or not. Whatever, it's impossible to work out what's happened. By panel four, it appears that either Amiko's never left the building at all, for she's being held there by two "techo-organic wall ninjas", or that she's been dragged back into it. It all makes me feel as if I'm slipping into the early stages of mental decline, as if I just can't even manage to recall whatever it was that occurred on in the page before this one, as if I've been reading a telling caption over and over and forgetting it straight away. Whatever happened to Amiko? When exactly did Shin notice he wasn't carrying her anymore? Why doesn't he return to try to save her, since his weapons seemed entirely successfully in holding those hi-tech nasties at bay just a page ago?

I have no idea. I really don't. But I do know that it's a quite mystifying business, and that if there really is a mistake that's been made here, it's hardly Garney and Keith's alone. (Their pages are, despite this particular problem, the most appealing, the most flat-out fun, of all of those on show in Wolverine #300.)  Did no-one notice that the artwork didn't actually make sense, did no-one think to have it repaired or some covering dialogue attached belatedly to the page? Shouldn't someone have pointed out that it's incredibly hard to show a person suddenly not being somewhere, suddenly mysteriously disappearing, in a single panel? To be notably there and there notably not is surely something which either takes a visual effect of some kind, or a second panel?

Sometimes the problem is that the storytelling appears entirely transparent and yet, at second glance, it suddenly doesn't make sense at all. The above panel by Kubert and Mounts shows Wolverine being blasted out of a family shrine by a bazooka, or at least that's what I think it shows. There's no surprise that Logan appears unharmed by this immediately afterwards, because that's what a super-healing factor is for. However, I never realised that a super-healing factor could also repair the clothes that were also involved in all that thooming caused by the bazooka strike, for Logan's lovely red jacket and tight manly jeans display not a hint of a burn or a tear in subsequent panels. Perhaps even more puzzling is the fact that that said bazooka had been aimed at Wolverine while he was standing beside the wheelchair-bound Yukio, who remains entirely unaffected by the whole business. I suppose it must have been one of those low impact/high impact, Wolverine-specific, flames-only-for-show bazooka shells then.

The shame of this, and it is a shame, is that Jason Aaron's script for this issue is no throwaway confection. Most of it is marked by the tone of a bleak and compelling black comedy, and some of it, such as the first chapter, is such a cleverly constructed Tarantinoesque farce that it could have been published in a modern-era Not Brand Echh without losing a beat of its value from the change in context. And that would've been something to see, because Aaron's written a thoroughly sharp satire of Wolverine here, although Kubert and Mounts don't seem to have noticed. In providing art that's largely indistinguishable in tone and content from a standard-issue superhero tale, they've created confusion where there ought to be a far more knowing and purposefully humorous - if not cartoony - style being adopted. If that doesn't happen, then the whole sequence leaves Wolverine looking like an idiot rather than the target of a good natured joshing on Mr Aaron's part. After all, only an idiot of a superhero would allow himself to be trapped on a 747 when he'd known that "there was something funny about this flight as soon as (he) stepped on board". Offer this as a playful joke and it's amusing. Dish it up as nothing but another macho Wolverine stand-off with the endless cannon fodder of the Hand and, no matter how the script later refers to such ninja strategies as being " a sad cliche" , it just results in everyone looking rather dumb and somewhat pathetic.The Hand has to know better than this, Wolverine has to have a great deal more common sense.

As drama, the scene of Wolverine wiping out a Jumbo's worth of ninjas stretches a willing suspension of disbelief to snapping point. It's just too silly a concept to buy into, as is the idea that Wolverine can simply walk away from a plane full of mutilated corpses in a major airport without even needing to break into a trot to get away. Homage or not, it's a sequence that makes little sense in the context that it appears to exist in, where the artwork is almost entirely po-faced and yet the story is often anything but. Yet, if presented with a greater degree of tongue-in-cheek, that first chapter would've emerged as a sharp and enjoyable conceit, and it's regrettable that the notable shifts in tone in Aaron's work, from absurd and loving satire to fearsome super-gangster showdowns and back again, wasn't accompanied by artwork which recognised that fact. Instead, most everything with Logan in it is blanded out until it all shares a similarly downbeat and manly air, leaving the comic often reading as if it were actually the writer who wasn't sure about either the characters or the genres that are in play.

I may not be entirely convinced yet by Mr Aaron's determination to pursue a style which juxtaposes a significant degree of the ridiculous with a mass of straight-as-a-die superheroics. Both here and in Schism, there's definitely a series of awkward transitions from the absurd to the exaggeratedly serious which jarringly threaten to throw the reader out of the story. Yet it's an admirably daring technique to develop, and I'm genuinely intrigued to see where the technique will take Mr Aaron's work. Wherever it does, it'll likely require more nimble-minded support from his collaborators than it often receives here. Not to provide slapstick cartoon gurning and elbowing for the cheap seats, but simply to ensure that there's a degree of irony present which would underscore the author's purpose. There are, after all, several panels in which Wolverine is doing little but sitting in an 747's toilet. It can hardly be a deeply serious scene, given that only the least bright ninja-fighter would paint himself into such a corner without even the opportunity to see what's going on around him. Yet nothing is made of the situation at all. Wolverine might as well be spending a free moment or two on a Central Park bench.

I know that the very thought defines me as a member of an insignificant minority here, but Wolverine #300 seems to me to be a carelessly edited comic book. The multiple artistic teams with such disparate styles? The apparently obvious shortcomings in some of the most straight-forward aspects of storytelling? The lack of an appropriately subtle degree of artistic support for the cleverness and innovation in Aaron's script at certain key moments? It all seems to mark an editorial staff which either can't or won't take responsibility for even the most prestigious of the titles for which they're responsible. (We hear a great deal about the crisis of editorial resources at Marvel, so I presume that it's the former situation which applies here.) This recurrent absence of care certainly seems to be an embarrassingly obvious business when it comes to the price-justifying extra content in the comic, which quite frankly displays either a paucity of imagination, a marked contempt for the readership, or a shocking lack of finance. For how can it possibly be that four pages - four pages! - of this value-for-money extra content involves nothing but row-upon-row of itsy-bitsy reproductions of covers from the back issues of Wolverine? The cognitive dissonance returns. The covers are too tiny to take any pleasure in looking at, and it isn't as if all of these images aren't available at the click of a mouse anyway. It all seems to be nothing more than the equivalent of a disorganised student padding out an unimpressive project with a pile of photocopied illustrations taken randomly from library books and a bibliography containing very big writing indeed.

But then, what do I know? Perhaps the music's just too loud for me these days, and perhaps I'm not supposed to be struggling to try to catch a syllable or two of the lyrics.


Thursday, 19 January 2012

On "Absalom: Ghosts Of London"

I admire the fact that the creators of Absalom haven't left their readers a great deal of choice about whether they're going to pay attention or not. If, like me, you're really not in the market for yet another dark fantasy structured around the policing of paranormal activity, then my advice is to scrupulously avoid reading rather than just skimming Ghosts Of London. I was fine as long as I was glancing at the story's pages, although "glancing" may well be over-exaggerating the amount of attention I was paying. But writer Gordon Rennie and artist Tiernen Trevallion have adopted a strategy which so many of their fellow creators appear to regularly forget to, and in doing so, they've crafted their work in order to ensure that each and every side of their story is both eye-catching and compelling. In short, they've worked hard to ensure that Absalom stands a good chance of being interesting even to those who aren't predisposed to enjoy either their style or the strip's subject matter. It's a strategy that's falling more and more out of favour on the other side of the pond, where matters such as value for money and transparent storytelling are often treated as being less terminally old-fashioned and more terra incognita. All the easier for the casual reader to stay disengaged, of course, but where Ghosts Of London is concerned, the reader who thinks they've already got more than enough to consume already really ought to beware; there's barbs and snares in place here which will likely keep you reading despite yourself.

There's a markedly individual and effective fusion of craft and inventiveness at play in Ghosts Of London. Of course, neither quality is of any use in isolation from the other where the uncommitted reader is concerned. Inventiveness on its own relies upon the reader being willing to step in and lend a hand with the storytelling on the page, while an undue focus on nothing but craft produces, of course, a stale if efficiently-told tale. Yet Ghosts Of London is constructed so carefully that it's hard for the reader to disengage with it. It can certainly offer the reader a surprise or two, but that's never a trick that's pulled off at the expense of the story at hand. Instead, as you'd imagine would always surely be the case, and is so often sadly not, every single page, with one notable exception, begins with an arresting image matched to an unresolved situation. I didn't notice that at first, because the storytelling was so energetic that I simply read on without being concerned about technique.

Even the quieter panels carry aspects which insist that the reader pay attention, such as the quietly macabre scene showing Absalom pulling worms from a decapitated head. The fact that novelty and spectacle has been woven so productively together with plot means that even impossibly cramped panels such as that depicting the Battle Of Cable Street grab the attention and propel the eye onwards. Because of all that care that's been paid to how each page begins, the single entirely restrained side-opening frame, which concerns a meeting at the London Stone, stands out by contrast as a strangely contemplative moment. Simply by not insisting that the reader be fascinated to a lesser or greater degree, an entirely static and purposefully mundane scene carries a quiet touch of magic. It's an untypical stillness which encourages us to focus upon the relationship between the characters involved as much as the exposition that's being delivered, and it does so because the creators have carved out a space for such a moment to be shown. For although Rennie and Trevallion are careful to ensure that there's a variety of moods and events in each chapter, the central business of writing to the demands of the page as a unit of storytelling is always attended to. Threatening Fascist thugs, the pursuit of Spring-Heeled Jack, the Thames washing thousands of corpse's heads ashore; these are the moments which open and close each side, and it's hard even for the doubtful not to wonder what happens next?

None of this is to suggest that technique is all there is to see in Ghosts Of London to any degree at all. As yet, it's a story of ideas and action rather than of character, and beyond its grizzled old lead, there's little of individual personality that's as yet on show. But both the ideas and the action are undoubtedly extremely enjoyable. While I'm hardly enthused at the idea of another strip concerned with psycho-geography and other Forteana, the tropes that have been chosen and put into play are unexpectedly compelling. I've never been able to understand why more attention hasn't been paid to the British Fascists of the Thirties in comics, and if Spring Heeled Jack is more of a familiar business, then the Iceni-led massacre of Londinium certainly isn't. The dialogue's smart and sharp, there's mysteries galore, and any character who can use the names of historians to show playful contempt for his colleagues is definitely worth paying attention to.

This isn't intended as qualified praise. In fact, I suspect that it's the exact opposite of a polite but essentially dishonest pat on the head and half-whispered "well done". To be arguing that I'm becoming a fan of a strip despite my reservations is surely anything but qualified. Any half-competent fool can play out their work for an audience which is already of a mind to pay attention to it. But it takes a great deal of hard work as well as talent and ambition to convince the cynical. It's something that's as true for Trevallion's art as it for his colleague's scripting. Trevallion's style often relies upon a great deal of shadow and linework, for example, and that tends to be particularly true where the faces of his characters are concerned. To a reader such as myself, who carries a preference for form rather than an accumulation of such details, it's something which can serve as a distraction. Yet that's a question of my own taste rather than any pseudo-objective judgement, and, as is typical with Absalom, Trevallion's skills succeed in quite outflanking my personal doubts. In truth, he repeatedly chooses strategies for depicting his scenes which are unexpected, unorthodox and effective.

Several of a string of notably well-staged examples of Trevallion's art come to mind. The shift from a longshot of Absalom looking upwards into a stairwell to a mid-shot of Hopkins behind a driving wheel, which so misdirects the reader's attention that the landing of Spring Heeled Jack on her car's bonnet comes as a jarring surprise. The quite wonderfully witty panel in which Absalom hangs by his fingertips from a window-ledge while the silhouette of Jack bounds away. The way in which chapter one's penultimate frame is cropped so that we feel that we're part of a mass of gawpers who can't quite see what it is that's floating in the river. The fleeing dog that's stolen a head and the policeman chasing it in the background of a shot of Absalom and Hopkins talking. That's an awful lot to admire in a story that's only seen ten pages published so far.

I'm certainly not a member of the core audience for the high concept of The Sweeney meets The X-Files which has been used by 2000AD to describe Absalom. In the terms of my own preferences - or is that prejudices?- it's not even a story which at first registered as being either written or drawn in a style which would likely appeal to me. But it's a thoroughly good read, and I've a great deal of respect for Rennie and Trevallion's achievements here. By the time the mundane reality of today's London, all Tesco and number 7 buses, has been juxtaposed with burning horses and property-clasping citizens fleeing the Great Fire Of London at chapter two's conclusion, I was sold. To any who find themselves at something of a distance from Absalom and feeling as disinclined as I was, I'd suggest a measure of caution. This is a comic strip which will insist that you read on if you give it even the slightest of chances.

"Absalom; Ghosts Of London" is currently running in 2000AD, which is continuing to provide week-upon-week of excellant fare. The strip began in prog 1764, and Amazon.co.uk states there'll be a collection of it out in this coming June.