Saturday, 31 March 2012

On The New Deadwardians

      
There’s one shocking, despicable moment to be found in the first issue of Dan Abnett and I.N.J. Culbard’s The New Deadwardians. In fact, it’s one of the most inexplicable and dispiriting things that I’ve come across in a comic for a long, long while, and that's saying something. How much lower, you might ask upon catching sight of this aberration, can DC/Vertigo go? Because, and you’ll no doubt find this as difficult to sympathise with as I do, the cover to The New Deadwardians declares – deep breath, brace yourself – that this is the first of just eight issues. Yet if  ever there was a comic which demanded year upon year of uninterrupted publication, then this is it. Eight issues and nothing more is a scandal.

        
Without wanting to give anything away of the plot itself, much of the book’s strength lies in the way in which its creators have chosen to ignore so many of the givens of modern-era comics storytelling. They’ve presented us with an authoritarian, iniquitously unequal and yet ingenious and resilient society struggling desperately to cope with not one but two Biblically Fortean plagues, and yet they’ve done so in a way which avoids the over-familiar unless it’s been subverted to serve their purpose. Accordingly, the zombies of The New Deadwardians are no less terrifying than we'd expect as they munch away at their living prey, but they’re also a banal given of the cast’s everyday lives. There are procedures to be followed, phrases to be put to use, responses to be politely avoided when dealing with them. The end of the world arrived, it seems, only for the British class system to swallow it (almost) whole.

Abnett and Culbard sidestep the typical narrative affectations of so much of today’s fantastic fiction. They avoid both the melodramatic excesses flavoured by a hard-boiled, cod-Chandleresque world-weariness and the melodramatic excesses flavoured by a sub-Gamainesque whimsy. Instead, they offer a culturally repressed, profoundly private and understated cast whose emotions touch us far more because of what they don't say and do. When some expression of feeling does momentarily crack through their considerable reserve and resolve, it counts with the reader in a way which the typically obvious soap-operatics of  so much of 2012 's genre fiction cannot hope to equal. Less really is the new as well as the old more.

         
Don’t we all tend to try to pretend that a bedrock of routine and reliability still exists even when the very worst of times arrive? We all live in a world which perpetually totters on the abyss for an endless array of reasons, and yet we tend to think of our lives as remarkably ordered and predictable. Abnett's triumph is to suggest but never overstate the alienation and suffering of his characters in this fundamentally traumatised and yet apparently well-ordered alt-Britain, and it's an approach matching restraint with compassion which Culbard’s art works wonderfully well to compliment, creating a world in which horror is ever-present and yet almost entirely taken-for-granted too. It’s impossible not to care for these people because their experience of the world, for all its difference, is remarkably similar to that of our own.  

        
You might not be sold on the premise of a world in which the upper orders have by necessity embraced vampirism in order to survive a society-fracturing plague of zombies. But perhaps you might be interested in a series concerned with how we strive to create the illusion of normality even during the most unstable and challenging of circumstances, and with how we try to cope when denial and catastrophe collide.

        
A comic-book police procedural, a social drama concerned with class and family and authority, a rich alternative-Earth created from a compelling collision of history and horror, an untypically smart use of the supposedly idyllic and yet politically tumultuous years before the First World War, a very British chiller with welcome echoes of Brian Stableford and Kim Newman; The New Deadwardians feels like nothing less than a classic comic-book from the very off. It’s an achievement made all the more impressive because, save us, it’s concerned with yet more vampires and yet more zombies. To create something this inventive, unsettling and touching out of the beaching pop-culture obsession with the undead is a considerable achievement. 

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Thursday, 29 March 2012

On Wally Wood's Daredevil

    
There were a brief few months in the mid-Sixties when Marvel's comics featured not just the work of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, but that of Wally Wood too. It's scarcely conceivable that 47 years have passed since Wood and Lee's masterpiece "In Mortal Combat With ... Sub-Mariner" was first published in Daredevil #7. It was the high summer of the Marvel Revolution, and within a year both Ditko and Wood would be gone. This week's The Year In Comics piece over at Sequart - to be found here - focuses on Wood's short but glorious spell on Daredevil, and considers what it was that Wood brought to the company's books, and what may have been lost when he moved from what really was The House Of Ideas back then to the relative autonomy of Tower Comics.

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Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Q Magazine And Me

       

I remember finding the first issue of Q. Rain on a grey autumn day in Richmond, a weary search for something to read on the train home in the poky newsagents opposite the ticket office in the station, and then a music magazine that I'd never seen before, and I read everything; Smash Hits and Blues & Soul, all four Inkies, Rolling Stone and Hot Press and The Face. I can recall flicking through this Q-thing as I trudged down the steps to the platform, I really can remember thinking that this was smart and fun and inclusive and perfect for the long, commuter-saturated journey home.

I've never stopped reading Q. There have been times when I've found it more or less interesting, but it's not something that I'd ever give up reading. There are things we do which are no more and no less than a part of the everyday bedrock of our days. I listen to the Radio 4 news as I awake, I read the Guardian over breakfast, I always look forward to new comics day, I'll always check out the new 2000Ad and I'd never not watch each successive series of Dr Who. And now it's more than a quarter of a century since I first bought Q, and I'm sitting in a garden far away in space and time from the drizzle of a West London Eighties October, and in front of me are two copies of the magazine's latest issue. One of them I picked up from a newsagent in a small Norfolk country town yesterday morning, one was added to the night's shopping by the Splendid Wife from a supermarket passed as she drove home from work. And there, absurdly, unbelievably, on page 119 of the May 2012 edition of Q is a new comics review column, and underneath its title are three words;

"by Colin Smith"

And that, I keep having to remind myself, is me.


           

I don't know what I could have possibly have said to the young and even-more-stupid me of 1986 if, by some impossible science-fiction conceit, I had the chance to travel back and speak to him. I wouldn't want him to know what was ahead, because he'd never have got out of bed and he had hard lessons to begin to learn which couldn't be coped with tucked up under the duvet. But perhaps, if I were in a sentimental mood, I might have just said that in another quarter of a century's time, he might just have a chance to contribute a comic's column to an issue of Q. And while just about everyone else on the planet might justifiably see that as a minor achievement to hang on for through 25 years and more, I think he'd have understood. In fact, I'm convinced he would have.

Do I sound sentimental here? I know I do. But there we are, some things round off circles that we weren't even aware of. Getting a chance to contribute to Q has been a tremendous experience. I look at every line I write differently now.

Alot of folks would see this as a matter of no importance at all. I absolutely understand that. But it's my by-line in this month's Q, and I'm so pleased to have had the chance to see such a thing come true. I can see it here in front of me now, on two different page 119s in two different copies of the same issue of the magazine.

Wonderfully, every time I look at them again, the article is still there. Reality, said Philip K Dick, is that which will not go away when you cease to believe in it, and I've doubted that such a thing could ever have happened so often that this must be real. So shoot me for caring, but I can remember the first issue of Q in 1986. It was a bloody awful year, and things wouldn't get better for a long, long, long time. But they did, and that's especially true now.


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Monday, 26 March 2012

On Wonder Woman #7

      
Of all of the flak fired up to obscure the mean-spirited, thick-headed sexism of Brian Azzarello's script for Wonder Woman #7, the most stubbornly effective has been the claim that his recasting of DC's Amazons is true to the warrior women's mythic roots. Resorting to such an argument has a particular appeal to fanboys, of course, because it calls upon the sacred pseudo-objective principles of continuity, which justify the side-stepping of any reasoned ethical debate in the name of fictional precedent. As such, Azzarello's decision to portray the Amazons as sexual predators who murder their partners, and who would have slaughtered their male offspring too if a kindly male god hadn't taken the be-testicled babies off of their hands, can be excused simply by saying Them Greeks Said That's What Them Amazons Did A Long, Long Time Ago. Fanboys who'd never expect the details of the origins of the Fantastic Four in 1961 to be taken literally today have no problem, it seems, in falling back upon the suddenly sacred canon of long-dead myth, and using it to beat off the pernicious attacks of those persistently joy-killing pedants of the politically correct too.

Oh, those silly, and often considerably worse than just silly, flakkers.

Look fan-boys! Naked women having sex with strangers, some of whom aren't even handsome!
      
There'd be no point in denying that the Amazons weren't always portrayed as the threatening, inferior Other in the myths which survive from Bronze Age Greece, just as it'd be daft to push the idea that later Greek historiography failed to show the Amazons some measure of respect. Where their fighting power is accentuated in myth, it's never to make the point that the free-spirited and war-like Amazons were an admirable nation. Whenever the Amazons encounter the Bronze Age heroes, they're always defeated, leaving the respect that's granted to their skill with the bow and as horsewomen functioning in the same way as any villain's fighting prowess does; it builds up the threat of the antagonist in order to make the protagonist's victory all the sweeter. As Phyllis Chesler wrote; "Amazons are a universal male nightmare, exorcised by ridicule or disbelief", and that certainly describes the Amazon's part in these myths. They were an exceptionally bad lot, an example of unnatural foreign ways which had resulted in a matriarchal culture that was inferior in every fundamental fashion to the self-image of the men of Hellas. In that, the mythic Amazons represented the threat of contamination posed by women who refuse to do what they're told. Even when we come across pseudo-historical reports of the Amazons from later periods which don't take the despicable nature of their culture entirely for granted, such as in Herodotus, there's no suggestion that their freedoms should be extended to the women of Greece.

But after you've been thrilled, lad-fans, do feel reassured that those blokes lucky enough to be baby-making with the Amazons suffer for their brief pleasure. Strong, sexually independent women are bad for you, you know, even if they make you feel strangely tingly too.
       
And that, of course, is the whole point of why the "myths and legends" defence of Azzarello's work on Wonder Woman is so phenomenally ill-judged. Not only are there a host of ancient takes on who the Amazons were and how they behaved, meaning that "continuity" is a far more problematical business than the flakkers assume, but the Amazons were a creation of a profoundly sexist culture. To take William Moulton Marston's benevolent, humane take on them and replace it with patriarchal propaganda informed by the overwhelming bigotry of the distant past is to make an exceptionally forceful, and presumably deliberate, sexist statement about women's rights today. Azzarello's Amazons are evil. Beautiful and remorseless seducers, they use their phenomenal beauty to trick poor defenceless men into impregnating them before not just murdering their lovers, but, in the words of Wonder Woman #7's script, draining the lives from them. (I'm not sure what that means, but we have to credit Azzarello as a writer who makes his choices on the page deliberately, and so it must indicate something other than simply "death".) In this, Azarello actually makes the Amazons worse than those of the Bronze Age myths, and far far more despicable than the reports of the later histories.

It's fascinating how Azzarello's script plays to both male fantasies and fears. The Amazons are super-powerful killers, but they don't capture and rape their poor helpless and yet horny prey. Instead, they seduce, they prance about naked, they row without any clothes out to ships in iceberg-filled waters rather than .... undressing when they're there!!! This makes no sense unless it's designed to make the Amazons even more evil than their murderous behaviour will prove. They're the fearsome figure of the woman who traps a man through sexual attraction outside of a stable relationship, they're the lovers who'll kill your bunnies and then you too. (Heavens only knows how Paradise Island avoided being the STD capital of the DCU. Magic I suppose, the same magic which can't be used to produce babies in any way that doesn't involve such exploitation movie sexism.)
      
To my knowledge, there are three dominant portrayals in ancient myth and history of the Amazons mating habits; they visited their male neighbours once a year for procreation; they mated with the male slaves they've captured during their endless wars against mankind once or twice a year; they created a new society with the men of Sythia and formed families in which the Amazon women retained their previous freedoms. Astonishing as it sounds, Azzarello has either invented a new and yet-more derogatory spin on the Amazons, or he's opted for the most woman-hating ancient take on the myth that he could find. Either way, it's a despicably regressive business, and those who support Azzarello because of his fealty to ancient sources ought to know that they're talking piffle. It would be hard to imagine that anyone would want to take the myths of Ancient Greece and use them to make a baby-killing race of women even more despicable, but Azzarello's managed the feat, merging the traditional blokish fear of sexually active and independent women together in a toxic mix of sexism and tacky fan-boy thrilling sex scenes.

Replacing Paradise Island and its community of female artists, warriors and scientists is a forge of kindly male artists who would've been slain at birth if not for those beastly women. The only people who display tenderness in Wonder Woman #7 are the men.
        
When modern-era experts argue over the degree of anti-female prejudice in any of the periods and locales associated with Ancient Greece, the debate's concerned not with the possible existence of oppression, but with its degree. Nobody suggests that any of the cultures we associate with the catch-all term "Ancient Greece" bore any measure of what we'd today recognise as equality. In whatever class a woman found herself in, her freedom to participate in decision making and the broader affairs of society was always markedly inferior to those of the males who shared a similar social position. (Sarah B. Pomeroy study of classical antiquity's women is tellingly called "Goddesses, Whores, Wives & Slaves".) The women of Sparta, for example, may have lived lives which were in terms of power more expansive and fulfilling than those of Athens, but neither ever inhabited worlds which anyone but a standard-issue M.C.P. would regard as fair and equal, or anything close to it. The visitor to Athens during its supposed height of the 5th century BC would find a deeply patriarchal culture which, in its treatment of women, was far, far closer to that of a fundamentalist Islamic nation today than one that's recognisably Western in the modern sense. And yet Azzarello has chosen to implant the ideology of that women-loathing culture into Wonder Woman. DC Comics has been undermining the essential feminist virtues, the fundamental decent-heartedness, of its Amazons for years now, but Azzarello has taken that drift towards gender bigotry and left no-one, beyond the die-hard denialists, in confusion about where DC stands on the issue of women's rights. After all, Wonder Woman is the most famous super-heroine of them all. Whatever might be achieved in the pages of, for example, Batgirl and Batwoman can't hope to publicly counter-balance the unpleasantness that Azzarello has chosen to pump into the pages of Diana's own book.

Who are the heroes of Wonder Women #7? The caring community of male brothers saved from the Amazons by the god Hephaestus. Who are the villains? The Amazons, lock, stock and barrel, with the sole exception of a single panel showing a grieving Amazon mother having her male baby removed from her at birth. (She's just a hypocrite, of course, weeping when the culture she chooses to inhabit treats her just as it does her fellow man-slaughtering sisters.)

Wonder Woman's comrades and allies on the trip to Hell: a gang of blokes!!! Diana is surrounded by a small army of fantastic men, leaving the reader to wonder why Azzarello couldn't add even one female fighter to the team. But - oh, no - this isn't a sexist text, and you'd be a fool and a peddler of political correctness if you argued that it was.
        
Gloria Steinem once wrote: "Wonder Woman's family of Amazons on Paradise Island, her band of college girls in America, and her efforts to save individual women are all welcome examples of women working together and caring about each other's welfare. The idea of such cooperation may not seem particularly revolutionary to the male reader. Men are routinely depicted as working well together, but women know how rare and therefore exhilarating the idea of sisterhood is. Wonder Woman's mother, Queen Hippolyte, offers yet another welcome example to young girls in search of a strong identity. Queen Hippolyte founds nations, wages war to protect Paradise Island, and sends her daughter off to fight the forces of evil in the world ... Wonder Woman symbolises many of the values of the women's culture that feminists are now trying to introduce into the mainstream: strength and self-reliance for women, sisterhood and mutual support among women, peacefulness and esteem for human life: a diminishing both of "masculine" aggression and of the belief that violence is the only way of solving conflicts."

Well, now the Amazons kill their lovers, and they would be killing their male babies too if a kindly male god hadn't saved them from their own vileness. And, of course, it's fine, because the Amazons were baddies in those centuries-old myths from long-dead, repulsively repressive cultures.

I have no doubt that both Marston and Steinem's hearts would be broken by Brian Azzarello's Wonder Woman #7. As daft and perhaps even contemptible as it will sound to the cynics and the flakkers, the sexists and the apathy-mongers, mine feels similarly shattered too.

        
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Friday, 23 March 2012

That Comic Book #2: Harvey Jerkwater on How "Captain America" #284 Turned a Comics Reader into a Comics Fan

       
In which I'm privileged to present a guest blog from the ever-insightful Harvey Jerkwater, a.k.a. Brad Reed, whose Twitter feed you can find here. I was a dedicated visitor to Brad's thoroughly splendid blog Filing Cabinet Of The Damned. Though it closed more than half a decade ago, it's always been an inspiration for what gets written round this way. He's one of the most smart-minded analysts of comics there is, and it's always a buzz when he drops into the comments here, as those who visit TooBusyThinking on occasion will of course already know;

At the age of five, I pretended to be Spider-Man so often that my parents could always find me by listening for my voice mimicking the sound effect of web shooters.  At least once per day, I would barrel into a room, raise my hands towards whomever was present, curl the two middle fingers of each hand onto my palms, and yell "THWIP! I webbed you!" before running off again, determined to prove that today I would at last be able to stick to walls.  I loved comics.  I loved superheroes.  I was mad for them.

At age nine, the madness entered a new phase.  Perusing the comic book spinner rack of the local bookstore in my small town in western New York State, an attractive cover featuring one of my favorite characters leapt out and demanded my sixty cents.



Captain America #284, August 1983, written by J.M. DeMatteis, drawn by Sal Buscema, cover by Mike Zeck.  To me, the single most important comic book ever published.

The main story was a simple one:  Captain America is rushing to the hospital to visit a retired WW2 superhero and friend, now an old man dying of cancer.  Along the way he stumbles across a standoff between the police and a man atop an apartment building roof who has a handgun and hostages.  Cap, without a second thought, moves in to help.

The shooter is a drunken, angry man and that the hostages are the man's own wife and children.  Driven to despair and shame by losing his job and his savings, the man is taking out his rage on anyone he can.  He screams that he's a disgrace, the world is a trap, and everybody should pay. 

Our Hero draws the shooter's attention.  Then, rather than beat the hell out of the guy, Cap talks to him, and listens to what the gunman says.  Cap talks about his upbringing during the Great Depression, and that no matter how bad it gets, you have to hang on.  It was neither a rah-rah speech nor a scolding one, but a talk that acknowledged that the man is in real pain, and that times are hard, but also that surrender to shame and anger is no answer, and that hope was necessary.  Amazed that a national icon would bother to listen to him and that the superhero seemed to understand, the shooter wavers in his rage.

                 
During the pause, Cap notices that a police sniper on a nearby roof has taken aim at the gunman. Cap leaps towards the gunman to shove him out of the path of the rifle shot.  In a classic example of a once-popular and now thankfully dead trope, the sniper's bullet "creases Cap's skull," rendering Cap unconscious but not seriously hurt.

The gunman, enraged by the act, levels his gun at the unconscious Captain.  The superhero's just another lying bastard, out to keep him down.

Before the gunman can fire, his wife stops him.  If life is so awful, she says, if the world is so irredeemable, so hopeless and cruel, he should instead kill her and the kids to spare them the suffering of existence.

The horror of the idea shocks the shooter, and his rationalizations come crashing down.  He collapses into sobs.  Cap wakes up and takes the man into custody.  The end. 

         
In addition, the story had scenes that wound up earlier stories (Dum-Dum Dugan is promoted to deputy director of S.H.I.E.L.D. after last issue's Viper incident; Jack Monroe, a former superhero recently awakened from decades in suspended animation, becomes Steve Rogers's new roommate; Jack and Steve attend a party thrown by Steve's girlfriend, a normal woman) and a scene that led to the next issue (the encroaching death of a mostly forgotten WW2 hero, Jeff "The Patriot" Mace).

As an adult, I can see it as a simple story, but for nine year old me, it was mind-expanding.  DeMatteis set aside the "good versus evil" for a more nuanced view, where just because a man is doing horrible things doesn't mean that he's a cackling devil or beyond redemption.  He inflicted pain and suffering because he was lashing out in pain and suffering himself, not because he was a soulless beast.  He needed to be stopped, but he was not a villain who was best dispatched with a right cross and a quip. 
 
            
That small advance in complexity in a superhero punch-'em-up book both shocked and impressed me.  Moreover, while the story was pure, standard-issue melodrama, I don't recall that it ever descended into scolding, threats, or patronizing, as one would expect from a superhero comic.  The story, and its hero, demonstrated decency, compassion, and large-heartedness, and did so in defiance of the genre's demands. 

That issue showed me that comics don't have to be empty-headed exercises in spectacle or overwrought soapy melodramas.  It wasn't a notable issue in the grand scheme of comic book history, but it was for me. 

If a single issue of Captain America could display the beginnings of moral depth, what could the larger world of comics hold?  I had to know.

Lo, and my Great Madness began. 

         
Postscript 1:

Not long thereafter, I found The Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics at my local library and met the works of Will Eisner, Sheldon Mayer, and Bernie Kriegstein.  Cap #284 gave me hints of a larger world; the Smithsonian collection presented me with that larger world.  Inflicting The Spirit on an eleven-year old comics-mad boy will have an effect, lemme tellya.  Kriegstein's short story in the collection, "Master Race," I still insist is one of the most amazing comics ever made – arguably the very best six or seven pages of comics ever.  The artistic innovation, the sheer skill demonstrated, the power of it all...unbelievable.  (Plus, Mayer's Scribbly comics in the volume, starring Ma Hunkel as the "Red Tornado," well, that's just excellent comics right there.)

Postscript 2:

A cliché among pop culture fanatics is that everything peaked when you were twelve.  With that caveat in mind, I'll insist that the J.M. DeMatteis run on Captain America (#261-300, from 1981-1984) was brilliant and unjustly forgotten.  DeMatteis, first with penciller Mike Zeck and later Paul Neary, created a run that was not afraid of asking difficult questions or evoking emotions rare in superhero comics.  All while delivering the whammies one expected of that era's comics.



His version of Captain America is the one who lives in my memory.  At that Captain's core is not patriotism, or courage, or strength, though he had all of those things.  What Steve Rogers had was "enormous decency".  He was compassionate without being weak, proud without arrogance, a patriot but not a nationalist, and a man who inspired all around him not by his record or his ties to a supposedly glorious past, but by the trust he earned.  Steve Rogers was a man always committed to doing the right thing, no matter the cost, and everyone knew it.  If you stood with Cap, you knew you were on the right side.  He was the most humanist of superheroes.

And he never, ever lost.  No matter the odds, no matter the forces against him, Steve Rogers always came out on top.  That's no small thing.  Each superhero has a particular appeal, an itch they scratch.  Captain America in the DeMatteis period was a dream that Right Makes Might.  Steve Rogers won against all odds, time and again, not because he was stronger or better armed or better prepared than his foes, nor because he was Righteous with a capital "R" and beamed with moral superiority.  Rather, Cap won because what drove him was too strong.  He embodied the idea that each and every life has value; the dream of justice and freedom for all; and the hope for a better tomorrow.  Nobody can defeat that.

In comic books, at least.


(Brad and I were discussing comics by e-mail a few days after he'd kindly sent me the above, and his reflections on Cap then and now were so interesting that I asked him if he'd mind me adding them to his "That Comic Book" piece. After all, it's a blog for folks who like thinking too much about comics, so what could be more appropriate than more thinking?)

A few scattered thoughts that don't fit the piece: 
 
--Just seeing the covers of Captain America #261-300 when researching this piece gave me a charge.  The covers from the super-long Mark Gruenwald run that followed (after a brief run by…Mike Carlin, I think) don't create the same reaction.  Gruenwald's Cap was admirable, and I liked the comics well enough, but that Cap…well, he was a superhero who had superhero adventures.  DeMatteis's Cap was Steve Rogers, a tremendous man who was a superhero because that's what was needed.  DeMatteis's Cap faced far graver dangers than "man turned into armadillo."  In my memory, the DeMatteis issues loom large, and everything between them and Mark Waid's run (so about 1985-95) is a blur of decent but not exceptional comics.  Yes, even the "The Captain" period.  (Gruenwald fans, my apologies.  His stuff was good, but it never generated that same reaction in me.)

--My memory is spotty and there are holes in my collection, but I think DeMatteis may have been the last writer to give any thought to developing Steve Rogers as an individual.  Gruenwald never bothered, and I don't recall later writers doing much with him.  I recall reading that there was a brief flirtation with Steve Rogers having a civilian life again, in Brooklyn, but wasn't that right before the "he's dead, no he's time travelling" period?

        
--My first ventures into the back-issue bins were to find the storyline that preceded #284.  The Viper storyline that ran from #281-83 and introduced Nomad?  Pure gold. 

--Since it was only 1983 or so, people from Steve's pre-war past could plausibly still be around.  In one issue, Steve's childhood friend, the local tough kid who protected young Steve from bullies, found Our Hero and asked him for help.  (I don't recall how he knew the secret ID, but Steve was never too careful about it.)  The childhood friend was Arnie Roth, a fat, balding, Jewish man with a combover who was openly gay.  As open as you'll find in Marvel Comics in the early eighties, at least.  His sexual orientation was telegraphed so hard that even I could pick up on it as a kid.  Cap did not care about that in the slightest.  A person was in trouble -- Arnie's boyfriend had disappeared -- and that was all that mattered.  Nor did Steve make a big deal out of it.  Hell yeah. That's Captain America.
--A funny thing in the DeMatties run is how many of the villains come across less as evil than damaged.  Baron Zemo was defined and warped by his father; the Scarecrow too.  The Porcupine was nothing but a sad sack who wanted respect.  Viper was a nihilistic lunatic, but she was also the product of a horrible unnamed war.  The Slayer was a friend of Steve's who'd been mentally broken by the Skull's daughter and tortured into becoming everything he hated. 
   
--The exception was the Red Skull, Steve's exact opposite.  Yes, he came from a terrible past, but as the Skull explained it during the retelling of his life story, his evil was intrinsic.  Just as Steve Rogers couldn't help but be a man of enormous decency and compassion, Johann Schmidt couldn't help but be a vicious, cruel monster.  He embodied all that is foul within us.

--Another nice touch was that the Skull created a warped "family" around him, including his actual biological daughter.  They all feared him and wanted desperately to please him.  They could not, of course, because nothing could.  The Skull of those issues was one of the few convincing megalomaniacs in comics.  Damn, he was scary.  What he did to Arnie Roth... a Nazi super-villain gets his hands on a fat gay Jew who is also close friend of the hero The Skull didn't stab him or flay him or do anything physical and obvious.  No, instead he torched the dignity out of him.  It was awful.  Then there's what the Skull did to his own child.  Monstrous.
--How about the Skull's "real" name?  Prior to DeMattis, the Skull had no pre-villain name.  "Johann Schmidt?"  Isn't that the German equivalent of "John Smith?"  Yeah, not symbolic or nuthin'. Nice.
         
--In 1984, as the Skull storyline rose to a climax, I was convinced that they were actually going to kill Captain America at issue #300.  My best friend and fellow comic reader thought I was ridiculous, but in my wee bones I could feel it.  DeMatteis was going to do it.  This was itOf course, it didn't happen, and I felt like a dope.  Courtesy of the internet, however, I recently found out that I WAS RIGHT.  DeMatteis was indeed planning on having Steve Rogers killed in Cap #300.  Nomad was going to do it, for political reasons.  The new Cap would be Jesse Black Crow, a Native American character introduced in #291.  I don't know if it would have worked, and it certainly wouldn't have stayed the status quo, but dammit, I can't get over the fact that I WAS RIGHT.  HA!
--Published around the same time was the Spider-Man original black costume storyline and the climax of a big Hobgoblin story.  Perhaps it was because I was ten at the time and thus my opinions are distorted, but damn, that was a fine, fine era of comics.  (Mid-eighties "Amazing Spider-Man," up to and including the "Gang War" storyline, is another run I treasure.  SO GOOD.)
--DeMattis went on to dialogue yet another of my favorite runs in comics, the "bwah-ha-ha" era of the Justice League.  It's remembered for the comedy, but what people forget is how well the moments of drama worked.  Because we'd been laughing, enjoying silly adventures with Booster Gold chasing a mangy cat or Blue Beetle opening a casino, that when Despero shows up and starts killing people, it's far more shocking and powerful.

       
--In one issue, Despero kills former JLAer Gypsy's entire family and is about to kill her too, until J'onn J'onzz shows up to stop him.  You can feel J'onn's barely restrained rage, and it moved us.  Because of the contrast.  This wasn't a teeth-gritting vengeance seeker swearing to go all stabby on Bad Guy #43, just has he had on the previous forty-two.  This was a beloved, exasperated patriarch, a gentle soul who loved Oreos, a poet who had lost his family and his world, facing a monster who threatened the life of his surrogate daughter.  The Manhunter was ready to kill, ready to die, ready to do anything to protect the girl.  We'd never seen him like that.  Dude, what a story.  Then consider how the story ended and what that said about J'onn and…dude.  Dude.
-- DeMatteis knows the value of contrast -- highs and lows, super and human, comedy and drama.  I love that.  I wish more writers did.  Gives the whole affair so much more texture and power.
       
--Back when I was a blogger, I wrote a couple of pieces on Cap I'm still fond of; this one, about early eighties Cap and my political awakening; this one, where I describe his many deaths and rebirths (written in 2005, it lacks his most recent death and resurrection – the man can't stop dying); and this one, where I create retroactive continuity to create Captains America for the eras where current Marvel continuity doesn't have one.  (Writing that miniseries is my Secret Fanboy Wish.  Ah, well.)
--Modern writers have switched Cap from what America wants to be, the position staked out by Steve Englehart and J.M. DeMatteis, with what the writers think America is.  He no longer embodies "the Dream," but the reality.  Thus, he is at his core a very different character.  That's why Bendis's Cap doesn't angry up my blood. (That, and he's fictional.)  The change is a respectable artistic choice that opens up different possibilities, though it can be even more obnoxious and blinkered than the "I believe in the Dream(tm)" version, and contains many difficult pitfalls.  Still, it could work.  I do miss my version, though. 

The scans of interior panels in the above were appropriated with gratitude from http://www.supermegamonkey.net/chronocomic/entries/captain_america_284.shtml  with the exception of the black and white Sal Buscema art, which came from the sadly defunct Captain Ameriblog, and the shot of Vixen from http://idol-head.blogspot.co.uk/2010/12/justice-league-america-38-may-1990.html
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Thursday, 22 March 2012

On Batman # 6


Please be warned: spoilers and, for those weary of such, venting too.

Deliriously celebrating the rare goals they score, while blank-mindedly ignoring the deluge of the same pinging in at the other end,  the mainstream comics industry continues to obsess about market share while alienating everybody beyond the habituated fanboy consumer. Intrigued by wave after wave of ecstatic reviews and evangelical recommendations, I finally took a punt on Snyder and Capullo's Batman #6, having felt unmoved to sample the title further after its unremarkable debut issue. After all, the com-critics of the blogosphere are untypically united in their reverential recommendations; "A triumph!"; "incredible awesomeness"; "near flawless"; "a real tour de force". What could be less convincing, and therefore more intriguing, than such uncommon unanimity in the Babel of comics reviewing?

Perhaps I might add to the heavenly chorus a few lines of my own, ready to be snipped and added to any poster advertising Batman #6 for all but the month-to-month die-hard reader? "Entirely baffling", "incredibly stupid" and "overwhelmingly macho-humourless" would be my discordant offerings to the choir. With Batman being such an obvious entry-point to New 52 experience, and with The Dark Knight Rises primed for its July release, we might expect that Beneath The Glass would at the very least make sense to the casual reader. Please let me assure my fellow consumers from the adventitious tendency; Batman #6 makes absolutely no sense at all. In that, it's a spectacular own goal, since all but the devoted Bat-adherent are going to find the experience of Snyder and Capullo's work an overwhelmingly excluding one. Even with my 44 years worth of reading Batman under my ever-lengthening belt, I honestly - honestly - don't have the faintest what's going on. Wha'ppen? Though I've no doubt at all that the regular reader understands everything that they're being presented with, the rest of the world's potential Bat-readers will be entirely perplexed even before they're pole-axed by the bleakly blokish hyper-violence of it all.

        
Beneath The Glass opens with the yamnsomely over-familiar sight of yet another DC headliner with a sword sticking out of the front of him. The New 52 doctrine of shock generates less and less gasps and adrenalin-surges now that it's getting hard to remember all the disemboweled, and yet strangely still prospering, superpeople from the past few months. (There was even a similar fate portrayed in Bat-Wing just six months ago, meaning that somebody in editorial's not even paying attention to the Bat-books, let alone elsewhere.) Not only has that character in Batman's costume received a blade right through the guts, but he's then shown crawling across the ground before being lifted into the air, hurled to the floor again, and, to add wearisome excess to wearisome excess, savagely beaten too. We would, I'd presume, assume that that's it for Bruce Wayne. Given that much of the appeal of Batman has always been that he isn't superhuman, that he can't survive the likes of such a brutal and protracted assault, his death is surely assured. If not, then Batman has degenerated into a character who can not only improbably recover from a broken back, and indeed death, but who quite literally cannot be stopped by any degree of physical injury at all. If there's no remarkable and convincing reason for Batman's survival here, then what we're being presented with is the thick-headed, testicle-tingling cult of the indomitable hero taken to its deplorable extreme.



After several more pages of Wayne being beaten so fearsomely that he's actually kicked right through a wall, we arrive at the page above, in which, it seems, Batman's been transformed into a giant vampire creature. It makes for a typically eye-catching, high-prices-on-the-secondary-market pin-up, but it does leave just a little plot-hole needing to be closed, namely, what is happening here? 



Jump anxiously with the suspense of it all to the very next panel and there's no answer to be found. Batman's engaged in some seriously silent-movie-villain, strike-a-pose voguing, but there's no explanation of how he became the world's tallest Bat-Thing. More confusing yet, he appears to have seriously shrunk since the previous page, meaning that either he's gotten smaller while the reader was turning the page, or those Muchkin Owl-fellows grow a touch when they're terrified.


Read on and there's some evidence that this Batman really has been physically transformed. His unnamed -  yes, entirely unnamed - adversary states that Batman is "beating (his) "wings", which. given the lack of any such thing does add confusion to confusion, but he also declares that the Dark Knight is "gnashing (his) little fangs". We may care to disagree about whether those great rhino-hide-piercing chompers are "little" or not, but they do seem to have an objective existence in the story. 

      
However, all signs of possibly-giant, possibly be-winged, probably fang-full Batman disappear without explanation or even attention within a few more pages. In the middle of the next chapter of Batman's brawl with Ninja-Owl Man, or whatever he's called, Batman suddenly shifts back into human mode. The pointy teeth, the ferociously broad jaws, the I'm-a-beast affectations; they literally disappear between panels, although our hero's ability to outfight a ferociously able super-baddie isn't in any way held back by either his return to only-human status or his previous and cataclysmic wounds. In fact, Batman, despite losing his apparent super-powers, is now well enough to hurl his opponent through a wall in return for previous assaults rendered, which you'd think even a painful stitch would have prevented. Only with the defeat of his nemesis does Batman, now also suffering from being knocked flat and set alight by an explosion, appear to have been weakened by his obviously not-so-consequential experiences.

Is this Batman a mutant, a vampire, a super-giant, drugged, hallucinating, telepathically-controlled, disordered, a Bat-spirit, or even, perhaps, somebody other than Bruce Wayne? I couldn't tell you the answer, although given his upset at the sight of  a photograph of a terrified "Alan Wayne", I presume that it is Master Bruce. But how he could manage to pull off what he's shown to be doing in this story, and why he behaves as he does, is simply never once explained, or even hinted at in passing. Even in terms of comic-book logic, Batman #6 is entirely baffling.


     
Fanboys will no doubt exclaim that no-one should expect recaps in the last chapter of a long-standing story, but then, how is the curious but uncommitted reader to know Batman #6 contains any such thing? The cover doesn't warn the innocent consumer of what's inside, and there's no text page to either help the reader into the loop or comment to advise them to hunt #5 down first. Instead, what we have here is yet another comicbook produced by a ferociously complacent industry which can't grasp how its product might exclude those casual readers who'd really quite like to understand what they've just invested $2.99 in. In that, Batman #6 doesn't so much express a sense that the trusting occasional reader is of no importance at all, so much as the air of them being entirely unwelcome. Beneath The Glass appears to stand as an expression of a belief, whether conscious or not, that only the insiders, the believers, the folks who've memorized the catechism, are welcome here. Gentlemen of the Bat-Office, the point, I do assure you, has been taken.

The New 52 was supposed to be a welcoming fresh-start of consumer-friendly product in which stories wouldn't be written for the trade, in which narrative clarity and invention was king, and in which each and every single issue would reward the consumer who trusted DC at its word. It seemed to be a gold-standard promise cut with 90% flim-flam even back at the end of the Summer when the line was launched, and nothing's changed for the better since then at all.

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Tuesday, 20 March 2012

On Alan Moore & Travis Charest's "WildC.A.T.s" #28


In a thousand-page doorstop collection of Alan Moore's finest work, WildC.A.T.s wouldn't even deserve a mention as an also-ran. But it's impossible to conceive of an Alan Moore comic that's entirely without distinction. This week's piece in The Year In Comics series over at Sequart - find it here - discusses the unavoidable smartness which underpins the often slack'n'slapdash widescreen-o-rama that's Moore's WildC.A.T.s.

It's remarkable how often today's mainstream comic-book mirrors the form of the fifteen scripts by Moore which span out the adventures of superhero knock-offs Grifter, Spartan, Zealot and co. We so often assume that the root of 2012's standard-issue, thin'n'stupid comic can be found in a corruption of Ellis and Hitch's work on The Authority matched with the fan-onanisms of the early Image book. Yet Moore's work on Wild C.A.T.s, and in particular his last half-a-year on the title, fits the bill far more precisely. His attempts to work within the default-flatulent Image style while unavoidably informing his scripts with his intellectual ambitions seems the model for the limp storytelling later adopted by far less adroit, far less inspired, and far more callow scribblers. Replace Moore's smarts with a smear or two of pretension, retain the overstretched-for-their-own-sake superheroics, and there we have it; the brave new comics world of 2012.


  
The page above, from WC#28, is perhaps the most exquisite example of storytelling in Moore's entire run on the title. It's a glorious example of a skill that's been almost entirely lost in today's mainstream, namely that of constructing a page which is appropriately composed of a sequence of widescreen horizontal panels. It's a design which also stands as Travis Charest's finest contribution to the series. Rather than simply, and simple-mindedly, presuming that the horizontal panel's always a good idea because it shares a similar frame to a modern TV, both writer and artist recognise the importance of the rule of thirds. The eye inevitably reads such an elongated panel in three sections, and here the central third of the frame is left purposefully empty. That repeatedly emphasises the lack of communication between the team-members on their space-craft's deck, accentuating how great the alienation between Lord Emp and Warblade is. At the same time, the sequence's background subtly signals how monumental and fascinating the ship's return to Earth from orbit is, meaning that the scale of the distance travelled by it is constantly being contrasted by the inability of the characters to move even an inch towards each other. Even in the presence of an experience as awe-inspiring as this, and even after all the recent disillusionment that the WildC.A.T.s have suffered, the two of them remain entirely estranged. Incredible things are happening around them, and none of them can find a single word to share.
          

 
The manipulation of time here is fantastically impressive. The abnormally broad gutters, which create the sense that the voyage down to the surface has taken far longer than a succession of four normally-divided panels would,  transmit the air of a painful, lonesome silence, of colleagues who've lost their common purpose and thereby their friendship. In that, the page's design fulfils a specific and story-furthering purpose which no other composition could. Though the composition  contains so many aspects associated with the very worst of modern-era books, from the frame-type to the cut'n'paste static figures, it's an example of the very finest comics storytelling. It even succeeds in recasting that most familiar of super-book scenes - the descent of a spacecraft to Earth - in a new and fascinating form.

Alan Moore's WildC.A.T.s contains fitful flashes of brilliance mired in page after page of Image-era storytelling sludge. But the brilliance is there, which is more than might be said for the vast majority of superhero books. In every medium, in every genre, the rule of thumb that's Sturgeon's Law always applies, and that can be true of a single run of a comic such as WildC.A.T.s as much as anything else. 90% of Moore's work on the title might well be, in Sturgeon's words, "crud", but the other 10% is inspirationally fine, and well worth the persevering for.

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Sunday, 18 March 2012

Those Cowardly, Ignorant Avengers: On The New Avengers #21 (Part 2 of 2)

In which the blogger completes his venting in the direction of The New Avengers #21, concerned as he is at the fact that the comic simply fails to make sense to the casual reader. The first part of this can be found here;

David Mamet, hang your head in shame. That's naturalistic dialogue
        
It's a commonplace to liken the dialogue written by Brian Michael Bendis to that of David Mamet. Even Grant Morrison does so in Supergods, while also being sure to point out how disappointingly poor the likes of House Of M and Secret Invasion really were. Yet the reader would surely be hard pressed to make a case for BMB's script for The New Avengers #21 being anything other than barely competent, and I'd be astonished if anyone thought to favorably liken the contents of this issue's word balloons with the work of any acclaimed contemporary dramatist. For a writer who seems keen to leave as much of his work up to the understanding of the expert super-book reader, so as to presumably avoid slowing down the narrative, Bendis seems terribly keen to add exposition at unnecessary moments. "Wait, wait. The door to Avengers Mansion is opening." says an unseen protester at the story's opening, a cringe-worthy back-of-the-hand stageism which is also entirely unnecessary. (The art is showing us two of the book's cast walking away from the Mansion towards the crowd.) Throughout the book, characters are given dialogue which seems so unlikely and/or unwieldy that the reader is bounced right out of the story. For example, when faced with the anti-Avengers activists outside the team's Mansion, Jessica Jones breaks improbably into a speech so cringe-worthily purple that it's hard to believe anyone who wasn't both impossibly naive and disturbingly self-regarding would make it;

"My name is Jessica Jones. And yes, I am "one of them". And guys, listen, anger I get. Anger is my  ... well, it was my sole motivation in life. Before the baby. Misplaced anger? I get that too. And I'm telling you that's what this is."

In which Jessica triggers a riot by patronising a crowd of very irate people. What a fantastically inappropriate choice of words she makes. She was angry once too, she was ignorant, but she's learned better and now she knows far more than the people she's lecturing. She's here to tell them what to think and do, and it's no surprise how some of her listeners respond. It'd be fascinating to think that the whole scene is there to show us what an egoistic twit Jones is, but, sadly, that doesn't seem the point. It appears that we're supposed to empathise with her, to regard her as speaking for us, and to feel pity and concern for her invulnerable hide when the trouble kicks off. 
         
There's no sense that Bendis wants us to perceive Jones as an arrogant idiot, although that's exactly who she proves herself to be. Yet, with her baby in her arms, she presumes that a crowd who don't know her as either an individual or a public figure will put away their anger and frustration about The Avengers and listen to her speechifying. Worse yet, her haughty and solipsistic spiel is so self-involved and superior in tone that there's no surprise she ends up with a bottle being thrown against her diamond-hard head. "And I'm telling you ..." she declares to her already-furious audience, projecting the air of a woman who believes that her own experience is central to everyone else's existence. "Of all the things in the world you could focus your anger on ..." she adds, adding contempt to her assumption of moral authority. (Surely it's understandable that the private citizens in the Marvel Universe would feel overwhelmed by the traumas caused by a world full of super-folks? Lecturing them as if they were nursery school kids isn't ever going to resolve their quite legitimate confusions and fears.) Though Bendis clearly intends the reader to side with Jones, his script tells us that she effectively provokes the disturbance which breaks out while she's speaking. To say that isn't to excuse those who kicked off the melee which followed, but it's hard not to cringe at "Power-Woman" and the conceit expressed in her well-intentioned, patronising, and practically incoherent stab at public speaking. Had those oddly-absent NYPD officers been present at the scene, there's no doubt they'd have been trying to shut her up for fear of disorder from the very first moment she began to babble.

" ... it looks like he made it look"; there's a difference between effectively naturalistic dialogue and using pretty much the same word twice in what's no space at all. What might just work in an aural medium through the skill of a practised public speaker simply doesn't cut it on the page.
         
Still, as saccharine and insulting as her impromptu address is, it can't match the awkwardness of the dialogue Bendis gives to Daredevil at the book's end. It really is worth savouring Matt Murdock's attempt to explain to his fellows how Norman Osbourne conned them all, just as it's worth remembering that Murdock is supposedly a lawyer whose career depends upon his eloquence;

"And, stepping back from it, it looks like he made it look like we beat him up for being heroic."

Crammed into the bottom of a small and already word-heavy panel, that's a sentence which it's hard to get to the end of without having to return to the beginning again. (Having "look" and "looks" in the same clause-heavy line separated by just four words is a recipe for confusion in itself.) A particularly skilled actor might be able to pull that dialogue off without making it sound clunky, but this is a comic book, and the reader shouldn't have to struggle to make sense of what the last of the five word balloons in a single frame actually means.

Why do The New Avengers run away from the Dark Avengers, leaving the latter free to behave as they like ? The entire explanation is placed in the above panel, in which Cage's determination to fight is seemingly out-argued by Spider-Man's eloquent "Dude, we're done."
        

Yet the stupidest aspect of BMB's work here, and that's surely saying a great deal, is to be found at the unnamed story's climax, when Mockingbird decides that she and her fellow super-heroes should flee Miami and Norman Osborn's "Dark Avengers". The fight with Osborn has been, it seems, a public relations disaster, a conflict that the Avengers too late realise they "couldn't win". With no other explanation given beyond the fact that Osborn has somehow made his association of super-criminals more popular the good gals'n'guys, the Avengers turn tail and run for New York. To say that this makes not a whit of sense at all is surely obvious. The "real"Avengers may be tired and, after a fashion which the script mentions but doesn't explain, something other than the nation's favourites, but Osborn and his people are largely psychotic super-villains who've committed more than just a few hundred appalling crimes. Why would the likes of Luke Cage, Ms Marvel and Spider-Man abandon Miami for the safety of their fortified Mansion some 1725 km away? It's simply inconceivable that they would do so. Would a team of policemen abandon the pursuit of a gang of ferocious terrorists in such a way, excusing themselves by stating that they were both tired from hunting down the criminals and concerned with being poorly represented in the media? What would we think of them if they did so?

When the New Avengers decide to flee from Miami, each of these super-villains is not only at large, but standing unharmed directly beneath the super-heroes's minicarrier. No explanation is given for the Avengers running away, and run away they do, all the way up the east coast to NYC. (It's no "strategic retreat". The Avengers are still trying to work out the first details of a plan when they arrive home.)
        
It's worth taking a moment to consider all the things that the New Avengers might, and indeed should, have done rather than tearing away from Florida without even the filmiest of justifications for doing so. (None of the Avengers think to develop a strategy before retreating; they just decide that, yep, they really ought to leave. When they arrive back at New York, Spider-Man is shown suggesting that they might "call Captain America and figure out how to --", an indication that they've all left the battlefield for no sensible reason at all.) Surely they ought to have at the very least stayed put in Miami in order to ensure that the Dark Avengers are deterred by their presence from causing any further harm? They might even have chosen to keep track of their opponents, making sure to keep Osborn and his crew within sight until reinforcements arrive. Of course, that presumes that the New Avengers might have had the sense to call in help from the other Avengers teams and reservists, from the broader community of super-people, from S.H.I.E.L.D, the armed forces, the intelligence community, the police force and so. (As is typical, there's not a single shot of members of the emergency services or even the National Guard during the book, even as Miami is flattened by brawling super-thugs. The America of the Marvel Universe certainly is a lawless, state-less place.) They could even have stayed to assist in helping with the mass of destruction which their battles with the likes of the clone-Thor had resulted in.  But, no, despite containing in their number career military officers such as Carol Danvers and longtime members of the intelligence community such as Bobbie Chase, who at least ought to know better, their decision is to simply run away, despite the Dark Avengers actually choosing not to attack them at that moment.

Not the brightest pennies in the pocket. Though you'd never tell from this establishing shot, which marks the New Avengers first appearance in the comic by  (1) not establishing where they are and (2) not showing the character everyone is looking at and talking about, they are the top of a tall building facing a hovering evil clone of Thor. The clone is shown in the next panel, the fact that they're high above street level remains either unestablished or ambiguous for the rest of the page.
     
Worse yet, the New Avengers are then shown taking a deliberate detour as they escape to fly their mini-carrier over Osborn and his super-people, heaving out the body of the defeated clone-Thor as they go, and thereby returning one of their most deadly opponents to the folks who might just have the capacity to revive him. We might imagine that they'd at least consider dropping their super-scientific aircraft onto the heads of the Dark Avengers too, but no, they just tear off. They have some of the greatest criminals on Earth directly within their sights and they don't even hang around to monitor what follows. They know exactly where the Dark Avengers are, but they do nothing at all about it beyond heading for the hills. Under similar circumstances, any member of the armed forces would almost certainly be tried and convicted for deserting the field of battle, while surely any police officer displaying the same lack of guts and purpose would be cashiered.

Norman Osborn doesn't need to out-think the New Avengers. They're idiots. All he has to stand and stare at them and they run away. They're not beaten, they're not humiliated, they've just taken down a clone of Thor; they appear to be as fit for purpose as any hard-done-by team of super-folks. Earth's Mightiest Heroes? America's dumbest superheroes, more like it, and that's putting the most positive spin on events possible.
   
Let's not even worry ourselves about the premise that public opinion could be in any way swayed by Norman Osbourne, the oft-convicted criminal psychopath responsible for the wholesale subversion of the American state and the mutinous appropriation of the Republic's forces to war upon Asgard. It's too daft a concept to even begin to swallow, unless BMB has brought in some kind of Silver-Age hyper-hypnotism macguffin to explain what's going on. Let's certainly bin the proposition that the Avengers care anything for public opinion while they're still sanctioned by the state and present at a location where known super-terrorists are congregating. Whatever the justifications that Bendis hints - and only hints - at, the contents of The New Avengers #21 present an entirely unconvincing, nonsensical string of events. Worse than that, Bendis has reduced every single one of the super-protagonists on show to the status of, at best, ignoramuses, and, at worst, cowards. The writer doesn't seem to realise that he's done so, but that's exactly the meaning which his own work conveys.

The Avengers deliver the body of the Thor-clone back to Osborn. We're not told if the clone is dead or not, so it seems a remarkably dangerous, as well as a pathetically vainglorious, gesture. The Avengers fly over to their enemies, drop a body out, and then race off? Isn't Osbourne a mortal enemy not just of the Avengers, but the Republic itself? Isn't the body of the Thor-clone evidence relevant to the super-brawl that's caused so much damage in Miami? Could it be that BMB just liked the adolescent bravado of the clone-dumping scene and couldn't be bothered to ensure that it made sense? (Style over substance, hyper-reality over common-sense.)

Brian Michael Bendis has stated that his experience of "critics" is one of them failing to understand what his intentions are. I'd have to say that he's at least pegged this amateur-hour "critic" pretty well, for I quite literally can't imagine what his writerly ambitions were for this story, unless it was it to present his readers with a cast of stupid, incompetent Avengers posing as admirable superheroes. Whatever the Head Architect's intentions were, his work for The New Avengers #21 is nothing other than shamefully, shockingly slipshod. There's a contempt for the reader, whether new or entirely dedicated, expressed on these pages which saps any hope that the superhero book might be reinvigorated by the mainstream creators at the very top of today's corporate pecking order. Mr Bendis on The Avengers, Mr Johns on the Justice League. Ten years ago, that would've sounded like a delicious prospect. But now, meet the new boss .....

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Friday, 16 March 2012

On The New Avengers #21 (Part 1 of 2)

In which the blogger, caught up in trying to hit the deadline for a piece which may - unbelievably -  appear in supermarkets and newsagents across the nation, finds himself unable to suppress the need to vent about the industry's lack of interest in anyone beyond the hard-core, buy-every-issue fan. The visitor is warned, there will be considerable spoilers.

    

You'll find this hard to believe, I know. But there are writers and artists, as well as presumably editors, who don't seem to care about whether their work makes sense to anyone beyond the die-hard fanboy. Pity the guileless consumer who decides to shell out for a copy of, to take but one prominent example, The New Avengers #21, in the naive expectation that they'll be able to both understand and enjoy what's going on within the comic's covers. Sadly, neither sense nor entertainment awaits them. Writer Brian Michael Bendis has artist Mike Deodato open the issue with an shot of the Avengers Mansion surrounded by thousand of New Yorkers protesting against the presence of trouble-magnet superheroes in their city. We're then shown Jessica Jones, her baby and Squirrel Girl leaving the Mansion and walking into the crowd, an act of apparent bravery matched with a supposedly touching vulnerability which eventually inspires some of the protest's more volatile elements to riot. It's a scene designed to pluck, pluck and pluck again at the reader's heartstrings. There's the brave super-heroines, the beastly swarming mob, the obligatory fight-scene, the humorous and yet strangely impressive attack of a swarm of squirrels clearing a path for our plucky female leads, and there's even a genuinely amusing punchline to close the sequence.

Jessica Jones, helpfully lining up herself and her baby for any super-villain's assassination attempt. After all, with Norman Osborn free again, why wouldn't Jessica be wandering around in the open in such circumstances?
       
But the problem is that the scene doesn't make sense. It's all sensation and no substance. As unbelievable as it sounds, we're never told why Jessica Jones is behaving as she is in the first place. Why has she chosen to inflame an already obviously combustible situation? Where is she going and why is she headed there? She's presumably going away for quite a while, given the size of the suitcase she's carrying, and yet there's no sense of what she's doing or how it makes her feel. Is she pleased to be leaving, is she concerned about those folks she's left behind? Is she determined not to allow the crowd to intimidate her, or even striding out to try to talk sense to them before she moves on? Who can possibly say? The situation is never explained to us, which means that we have no idea at all of what the point-of-view character's motivation for the scene is. Worse yet, the little information we have been given by the preceding text page has informed us that:

"Norman Osbourn has escaped from prison and has previously threatened Jessica Jones' baby. This has rattled her to the core."

Lets leave aside the possibility - suggested by that last sentence's phrasing - that Jessica's baby is somehow smart enough to be exceptionally nervous about her own safety. (Many of Marvel's text introductions are apparently written by folks who'd struggle to attain clarity with a four-item shopping list.) Instead, let's consider the probability, based on the little information that the causal reader's been given, that only an idiot in such circumstances, "rattled" or not, would (a) make a such a clear target of herself and her child in the open while (b) plunging into a massive crowd of discontented ne'er-do-wells so obviously opposed to The Avengers. Had Jones discounted the probability that it's no coincidence such a demonstration of hostility has boiled up just as Osborn's regained his freedom? Is she so impossibly thick that she doesn't consider that such a crowd would be perfect cover for any number of villainous individuals intent on causing the Avengers hurt? Hasn't she the wit to glimmer that such a congregation of folks raging against The Avengers might not take well to one of the super-team's own striding into their midst?

Apparently the only way out of Avengers Mansion is through the big gates where the thousands of angry people are. This is, it seems, true even so for a super-heroine who can fly. (What? No back door, no other gate?)
     
To show somebody behaving so irresponsibly surely requires an explanation? After all, Jones doesn't need to be behaving in this way. She can actually fly, for one thing, which means that she could pop across the field behind her home, slip up and over whatever boundary marker exists there, and be gone without attracting very much attention at all. But then, the Avengers possess Quinjets which would allow her to exit the Mansion without putting herself in a fraction of the danger which she chose to face, and there's a host of members and associates who could, one way or another, ensure her, and her baby, safe passage. Even if for some reason Jessica herself can't take to the air, it still seems unlikely that the huge expanse of parkland which is shown surrounding the Mansion lacks any other exit except for the one obvious set of gates surrounded by the folks with bullhorns and placards. Why would Jones ever choose to head right into the only significant source of jeopardy that's in any way threatening her, and why would she do so carrying her child with her as she goes?

There's no good answer available in the pages of The New Avengers #21 to any of those questions, apart from that suggested by the fact that Mr Bendis' script needs Jones to behave stupidly in order for events to pan out as he wants. Common sense, it seems, would only get in the way of all that citizen-bluster and squirrel-pandemonium.

It's funny. They're squirrels. But what if you've never heard of Squirrel Girl? What if you'd never recognise her costume, what if you knew nothing of her powers? (How many of these squirrels ended up maimed if not squished flat? Since the script plays on our sentimental fondness for cuddly lil'squirrels, it's worth remembering that many of them would've ended up as uncuddly, flat lil'squirrels. Or are they super squirrels?)

These aren't the only problems with this four-page opening sequence, though you'd think that would be enough for any writer concerned with the plight of irregular or even unfamiliar readers picking up The New Avengers. There's also the fact that a huge, antagonised public demonstration has gathered outside an institution central to one of the most important components of America's Nation Security State, and yet there's not a single police officer in sight. How is this possible? You'd expect the NYPD to be out in numbers if that many people appeared anywhere in town, and yet somehow there's nobody at all supervising this mass of discontent. That actually seems even more unbelievable that the appearance of what seems to be dozens of massive, crowd-suppressing super-squirrels at the scene's conclusion. Who knows where that scury of cutesy terrors has leapt from. Amusing as it might be for anyone so meta-conscious of comics history that they can playfully swallow the idea of Squirrel Girl's rodent army clearing a path for nanny, mother and child, it's also an entirely opaque matter to everyone else who's so unforgivably ignorant of the minutiae of Marvel lore.

Luckily for BMB's plot, the thousands of demonstrators around the Mansion don't actually know anything about much the Avengers and their extended family. (Public protests in the super-universes do tend to be the province of the unruly, the ignorant, and the bigoted.Those rotten citizens moaning about their elite betters.) This ignorance of even the current membership of the Avengers extends, in celebrity and race-obsessed America, to Jessica Jones, whose marriage to Luke Cage would surely have been a longstanding water-cooler topic in the USA of the Marvel Universe.
       
What we have in this scene is an unnecessary complex and contradictory set of challenges being thrown at the less-than-regular reader of The Avengers. Perhaps those folks who've been following the series know why Jessica Jones is behaving so stupidly, or even where she might be going and why, but for the rest of us, the sequence is baffling. (The neophyte reader really is left entirely without safety wheels. To take but one example; Squirrel Girl isn't even named in the text, and nor are her super-powers mentioned, let alone explained.) On the one hand, the reader's being expected to know who these characters are in terms of their identities and their powers, and yet on the other, the reader's required to forget that they've ever seen Jessica behave in anything other than an entirely imbecilic fashion. A touch of the relevant details explaining clearly what's to come on the textpage might have helped, just as a degree of plot-seeding and foreshadowing in the story proper would have. Yet The New Avengers #21 is the product, it seems, of creators who just don't care whether their work means anything other than noise to those of us who (a) don't belong to the fannish, buy-every-issue Rump, and yet,(b) have tried to pay attention to what we've previously read.

To be completed on Sunday;

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