Friday, 29 June 2012

Why "Uncanny X-Men" #14 Is Just Too Much Bother To Review

Please do be warned; there will be spoilers and there will be dubious and disagreeable cod-intellectualising. Get away, while you can, because the blogger's going to discuss the thoughts that went through his head when he decided that he wasn't going to be reviewing Uncanny X-Men #14 after all;


There's a great big problem for the little-league blogger who's thinking of writing about Kieron Gillen and Dustin Weaver's Uncanny X-Men #14, and the problem is, where to start?

Perhaps with the audacity of a story which features a villain-centric tale without the presence of a single mutant from either Utopia or the Jean Grey School For Higher Learning? After all, that's in many ways a thoroughly perverse decision, sidestepping as it does the more obvious sales-boosting opportunities offered by the crossover that's Avengers v X-Men. Or what about a focus on the process by which an unprecedented degree of depth and fascination's been lent to that least interesting of uber-villains, Mr Sinister? And yet, the brief appearance of clones of both Gambit and Madelyne Prior, amongst others, notably succeeds in making characters rendered toxic by over-use and ill-attention appear far more intriguing than worn-through. So why not an attempt to explain how it is that the brief scene showing Sinister's progress through his "prize collection" seems so intriguing? But then, why not also touch upon the way in which Sinister's new underworld kingdom ties into the previously-established backstory of Marvel's subterranean nations? In a time in which continuity is too often thought of as a regressively archaic indulgence, there's surely a point to discussing how a shared-Earth's common history can be used to strengthen rather than smother a story's appeal?

         
But push aside the most immediately fannish aspects of how Gillen and Weaver are helping to rejuvenate the X-Franchise here, and there's some remarkable technical achievements to pay attention to. Yet where to start? Weaver's impressively meticulous and evocative world-building is an unprecedented triumph, fleshing out as it does the inspired fusion of 19th century industrial Britain and Functionalist hubris which Gillen's script presents us with. To create the visuals for such a complex culture from scratch, and to do so with such conspicuous success, obviously required a demanding degree of research and design far beyond that which the typical single-issue commission tends to insist upon. To present such work in a way which never draws attention to itself when it should be serving the beats and meaning of the script must have required an untypical degree of self-discipline. And yet, once the end of the issue's been reached, there can't be too many readers who've been able to resist luxuriating in Weaver's stage-sets, and in the twisted, sanitised chocolate-box perversion of the reality of mid-Victorian London's chaos, atavistic energy and filth which he presents. It's an accomplishment which surely deserves paying considerable and respectful attention to.  



But there’s also a quite frankly jolting degree of ambition present in Gillen’s state-of-the-nation script too. To load up the conventions of the “mainstream” super-book with this degree of intellectual relish and moral purpose, and to do so while never burying the narrative under story-miring tub-thumping, is something which hasn’t been consistently seen on this scale since Alan Moore’s DC work in the mid-Eighties. (*1) Yet it's not just the weight and purpose of the content that's being loaded into his stories that's worth recognising. For Gillen's playfulness with the structure of Uncanny X-Men #14 is similarly canny and purposeful. Resolving the conflict of the tale with 25% of the story still to go, for example, ran the risk that the rest of the issue would be nothing other than anti-climatic. Yet Gillen clearly calculated how he could best accentuate both the power of Sinister and the inhumanely repressive nature of his regime. The elongated epilogue to the issue works to hammer home how substantial an opponent Sinister is, while constantly pressing the horror and hopelessness of living under such a tyrannical, pseudo-rational rule. To avoid any sense that the momentum of the story's long over, those last pages are also seeded with enticing teasers for coming events. Because of that, the reader's directed away from noticing that the story's now free of conflict and jeopardy, and so the desperately miserable end of the coup against Sinister hangs oppressively in the air without the tale feeling as if ended long before the pages run out. It's just one of a series of strategies adopted by the writer in what could easily be read as a manifesto directed against the inexplicably narrow ambitions of the great majority of super-book creators.


*1:- Folks will no doubt have also been following Gillen's dissection of  the myths of Two Nations Britain in recent Journey Into Mystery issues too.

            

But none of the above possibilities for discussion would take into consideration the sub-text as well as the text here, the aspects of intertextuality in addition to the mechanics of the narrative. So why not take a moment to consider how Gillen appropriated aspects of 19th Century pseudo-empirical dogma here?  He's already explained on CBR, for example, that his portrayal of Mr Sinister reflects the “Victorian mindset and Determinism.” It’d take an idiot to disagree with him. In particular, Gillen’s been upfront about the influence of Notes From Underground, and that’s all there on the page too. After all, the story does kick off with a statement repudiating the utopianism of post-Enlightenment structuralist delusions, before going to paint Sinister’s newborn arcadia as a tellingly Comtean delusion. Weaver’s artwork offers us a world in which a self-perpetuating autocracy parades under Imperial architecture which evokes both the Great Exhibition, in all its cultural and technological arrogance, and Dostoevsky’s famous anti-Chernyshevskian symbol of the "Crystal Palace". Gillen even has Sinister declaring himself to be, with what seems to be a conspicuous lack of irony, Doctor Frankenstein’s heir. After all, a super-villain who can declare himself  “a modern Prometheus” without seemingly twigging the nemesis he’s calling into being is one who's far too much the faux-rationalist to pay attention to the unquantifiable virtues offered by fiction. Chance and individual meaning, it's impossible not to suspect, will eventually do for Sinister, who, for all his genius, can't even grasp the teleological flaws in his own arguments.

And yet, how to attempt to discuss any of that without seeming to be the greatest bullshit artist in the blogosphere?

         
But paying attention to Gillen's discussion of the philosophies of the 19th century brings with it the spectre of 21st century politics too. Much that Gillen has Sinister subscribe to remains central to the public discourse of 2012. The so-called scientific racism of the New Right and the reductionism and determinism inherent in the economics of austerity. The reification of society by elite members and theorists alike in order to justify the concentration of advantage into the hands of the few, and the rejection of the rights of the many in favour of the supposedly society-strengthening virtues of the elite. Even the gleaming marble of Sinister's smog-less, ordered, sickly-cosy appropriation of 1851's Imperial Britain evokes the nostalgarama of the recent Jubilee celebrations and Danny Boyle's planned John Major-friendly opening ceremony for this year's Olympics. To stare at the aristocracy of Sinister and his clones as presented on the final page of Uncanny X-Men #14 isn't to be immediately reminded of Cameron and his cabinet of millionaires and collaborators, of course, but then, that doesn't seem to be Gillen and Weaver's intention anyway. (For one thing, the Coalition just isn't competent enough to present such an air of uniformity and menace.) Similarly, Gillen and McKelvie's response to the sickening business of homophobic bullying in 2011's Generation Hope #9 didn't rely on replicating a real-world example of prejudice either. As with the story of Zeeshan, Gillen presents as much of the relevant values and behaviour of his critique as the story, genre and medium can bear, but what he doesn't do is bellow out an insulting literal and simple-minded polemic. By placing Sinister in a mock-Victorian setting while accentuating the horrors which his ideology inspires, the creators succeed in emphasising how regressive and reactionary are the lords and masters of 2012, who justify so many of their decisions with reference to disturbingly similar Victorian values. What clearly made no sense at all in moral and logical and practical terms in the context of 1851 surely makes even less in the now of some one hundred and seventy years later.

          
All of which is why it's just not worth this particular blogger writing about Gillen and Weaver's work here. A discussion of how both men have rejuvenated Sinister, for example, is something for writers with a far more comprehensive knowledge of the super-villain's career than I have. To charge in trying to say something productive about the storytelling is to inevitably appear to be laying claim to technical knowledge that I just don't have the experience and credibility to support. To delve into the literature and politics of it all brings only the strong probability of looking foolish matched with the likelihood of appearing pathetically pretentious. And to suggest that commenting on current affairs was undoubtedly part of Gillen's intentions is to court an all-mighty slapdown for misrepresenting my own beliefs as someone else's. In short, there's just too much to write about, and too little time and space - and indeed authority - to justify doing so.

       
Worse yet, whatever aspect of Uncanny X-Men #14 is discussed, there's such a risk of sounding like a cheerleading sycophant that it probably makes sense to hold back and wait for a less impressive comic to write about. Because it's the rare likes of this book which show that both the sub-genre and the monthly pamphlet itself are anything but exhausted of their value. Quite simply, this is a story that's more than just fit to stand with all those other wonderfully odd and smart, idiosyncratic and moving tales which have helped establish the super-book as something more substantial than simply wham-bam - awwwww!- thank you Superman.

And so, that's why I'm not going to attempt to review the comic as I might once have tried to. It's beyond my capacity to applaud without making an unnecessary, and quite probably contentious, mess of it all.

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Wednesday, 27 June 2012

On "Conan The Barbarian" #5 by Brian Wood & James Harren:- Reader's Roulette 3.3

In which the blogger continues reviewing the comics nominated by the splendid winners of the recent TooBusyThinking competition, with today's choice being that suggested by the noble Joe;

            
There's a radical solution to the problem of today's typically plot-light comics on show in Brian Wood and James Harren's Conan The Barbarian #5. Sadly, it doesn't involve adding any more plot to the proceedings. Instead, Wood has decided to flesh out the thinnest and flimsiest of stories with a host of indigestably uninteresting text captions. As a story-stiffening strategy, it does add a few more weary minutes of reading time to the experience of an enervatingly unconvincing plot, but it does so at the cost of both boring the reader and drawing attention to how absurdly ill-considered the MacGuffin that's driving events really is. (Hint for pirates seeking to distract attention in the middle of a "glittering city"; try not to develop a plan which involves your leader being imprisoned, condemned to death and taken to the gallows on a long-shot that you'll be able to free him and pull off your heist too. That's Saturday-morning cartoon logic, circa 1975. Why, something might go wrong!) What should have been presented as a great exciting blur and misdirecting rush of events is instead mired in a narrative strategy which does nothing other than accentuate how insultingly dumb everyone on the page is here.

        
Almost half the pages of Conan The Barbarian #5 are bogged down with these momentum-clogging captions. Into them is lobbed great chunks of largely unnecessary backstory, a discussion of  the Cimmerian's most favoured fighting tactics, the possible fate of his corpse had he been executed, the sun-obscuring properties of the city's fortress, choice cliches such as "the pits of despair", and even throw-us-way-out-of-the-narrative anachronisms such as "variables" and "moneyed social structures". If only Woods had spent the time adding a few more character beats, or even a well-honed plot- reversal or two, Conan The Barbarian #5 might have passed as an entertainment rather than a losing-the-will-to-read-on ordeal. As it is, almost a third of the issue is devoted to a profoundly uninteresting punch-up between the title character and a Mongo-sized side of beef and muscle who shows not a trace of personality beyond Mean 101 (Wordless). Still, fans of the kind of not-really-so-shocking-anymore moments which seem de rigueur in so much of today's product can at least look forward to an energetic full-page decapitation, in which the victim's expression finally seems to suggest a measure of animation and personality.

   
Two moments of excellance in Harren's always clear and at times even sumptuous artwork suggest what might have been achieved with the raw material of the story. In the first, we're presented with an imprisoned and clearly despairing Conan. Given how relatively rarely the character's ever been depicted in comics as anything other than adamantine and indomitable, the frame carries a distinctly compelling and intriguing appeal. With his flesh as pallid as a corpse and one eye swollen and bloodied and closed-up, and with the composition of the panel pushing him as far from the light as possible, this is a fascinatingly fallible Conan. Unfortunately, nothing much is done with the concept, but the panel which represents such promise remains to perhaps inspire more compelling tales. In the second of the issue's highlights, a sequence of events often unhelpfully crammed into a page-full of ill-judged horizontal frames ends with the suddenly shocking sight of the similing pirate queen Belit coated with the blood of her ambushed victims. In one shot, the idealisation of the noble savage as is typical in so many comic-book Conan tales is fundamentally undermined, and the callousness of the lawless barbarian accentuated every bit as much as the corruption and weakness of the civilisation-stunted tax-payer.

$3.50 is a considerable amount of money to shell out for two telling panels and little more, but they are panels worth the celebrating all the same.

           
Reader's Roulette Rating; If only there'd been a few more than two such remarkable frames in Conan The Barbarian #5, I'd have been happy to recommend it to you. But there wasn't, so I can't. It looks pretty, but the lily's been gilded.


Tuesday, 26 June 2012

On Kirby & Simon's Captain America, Zombie-Killer


In the first issue of 1941's All Winners Comics, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby's Captain America and Bucky fought to destroy an army of tramps-turned-zombies who were sabotaging the soon-to-be Allied war effort on the orders of Hitler himself! Something of what made that story so radical and entertaining is the topic of this week's post in The Year In Comic series over at Sequart, which I hope you might choose to visit by clicking here.

What follows below was originally part of that week's essay. Eventually it became obvious that I'd actually written two separate posts, one of which discussed the progressive nature of those early Captain American tales in general and one which briefly discussed Simon and Kirby's storytelling in the context of 1941.  The following is the latter piece, which tries to show just a little of how far ahead of their fellow creators Simon and Kirby were in 1941 when it came to creating utterly unputdownable superhero stories.


I wonder if we can ever imagine quite what a rush it must have been for a kid in the late spring of 1941 to be faced with the Timely Comics' anthology title All Winner Comics #1. The shock of the new, or at least the comparatively new, is always well-nigh impossible to convincingly, let alone accurately, evoke. Yet I do find it impossible not to wonder what was it like to come across one of Simon and Kirby's game-changing Captain America tales in the first issue of All Winners, sandwiched as it was in between far more familiar and less radical fare? For though it's not as if several of the comic's other features weren't compelling in their own right, it is that Simon and Kirby's work was considerably more dynamic and innovative than that of any other super-book creators of the time. For another writer or artist to have their work placed either side of one of those barnstorming early Captain American tales was for them to be faced with the inevitability of playing support act and second-fiddle to Joe and Jack's storytelling. For Simon and Kirby had transformed the form and content of the super-hero sub-genre with the arrival of Captain America Comics in December 1940, and they'd shown no signs of intending to slacken off the ambition and vitality of their work as the following year progressed.
 
A typical page from Carl Burgos' luridly titled Human Torch tale, "Carnival Of Fiends"
      
The opening feature in All Winners Comics #1 was Carnival of Fiends – Carnival Of Fiends! -  a Carl Burgos Human Torch & Toro short featuring several nefarious Japanese super-spies operating under the cover of a community of loyal-to-the-Republic Chinese-Americans. It’s predictably slight but exuberant, and that's in spite of its barely perfunctory art and a plot that’s not even that. The page designs often involve little more than one three-row, nine-panel composition after another, with the occasional merging of frames in order to emphasise the drama of the moment. Sometimes a hand or elbow or foot, flaming or not, will poke tentatively rather than energetically beyond a panel's border, and there'll be an infrequent and arbitrarily circular frame thrown in now and then just for the monotony-relieving hell of it all. Improvisation arrives without too much purpose, simplicity marks the storytelling for want of any other option, and yet it's all crammed with movement and incident and loaded up with cliffhangers. Secret codes! Gas attacks! Firework displays! Television screens! Flaming super-heroes! Fifth columnists! Hidden passages! Fiendishly hypnotised super-androids! Crude it undoubtedly is, but then, that's part of why it's so compelling. It crackles with conviction and commitment, like a two-chord garage band nuking a Sunday morning’s peace with endless run-throughs of the same Nuggets knock-offs.
   
         
The pace then plummets with the arrival of The Order Of The Hood, a tale of the Black Marvel produced by writer Stan Lee and artists Al Avision and Al Gabriele. With his unfortunate habit of packing less incident-crammed panels onto each page of his story than Burgos, Lee allows scenes to sprawl across several sides without anything that’s ingenious, energetic or gruesome enough being injected into the mix to charge up the rubes. Sinfully, more than a page is given over to the action-free, ennui-inspiring sight of the Black Marvel being led without struggling to a "Ray Machine", while the dullest of master-villains rambles on about how he intends to be ever more masterful and villainous in the future. Lee tries to inject wisecracks in place of incident and speechifying in place of spectacle, but that just adds stodge to tedium. Even worse than primitive, the art’s relatively polite. Too vaguely competent and sedate to be adult-baitingly perverse, too lacking in invention to be anything other than a great flat, characterless mish-mash of more of the same, Avision and Gabriele's art compliments Lee's adventure-light plot to create tensionless, interest-free panels.
   
        
But what did the reader think and feel who then turned the side and came page-to-face with The Case Of The Hollow Men? Unlike the opening salvos of the preceding Human Torch and Black Marvel tales, Simon and Kirby took the whole of their first page to trail the pop-pulp horrors that were to come. Even today, it’s a splash that doesn’t so much demand the reader’s attention so much as stab fish-hooks in their eyes in order to tug them too and fro across the artwork. Enter the page at the top left and there’s a fanged, cowled ne’er-do-well with his sinister, leering head tilted to direct the audience's gaze towards the four-storey tall zombie.You might think that we'd need no encouragement to notice that undead behemoth pierced through as he is with two longer-than-a-grown-man swords. But Simon and Kirby weren't taking any chances where a square half-inch or two of dead space at the top of the side was concerned. Then, follow the direction of the zuvembie's lurching progress and there’s the pitiful sight of a cowering Bucky Barnes, made all the more vulnerable by his lack of either a mask or any cover to hide behind. But even that’s not nearly even action and jeopardy! For tearing in from the right-hand edge of the page is the Sentinel Of Liberty himself, as yet unnoticed by his opponent, but caught for us just about a nano-second before he tightens his hands around a dead-skinned, over-sized neck. The design hauls the eye backwards and forwards across the page until the art seems dizzy with movement, and yet that's only the top of the page accounted for.

          
Cap's leap leads us to focus next on the monster's almost-parallel right and then left arms beneath him. It's a process which in its turn directs us downwards past the series of protruding sword points and hilts, beyond the flailing washing line and the undead man's own extended right leg, before finally arriving at a scene in which a spattering of doughty but helpless cops are attempting to shot down the already unliving zombie. Here the dead-bum's body serves as a spine upon which a series of eye-directing horizontal design-elements can be hung, carrying us down from one aspect of the conflict to another. Even then, the reader's not allowed to catch their breath, for before the page can be turned, there's hype to be consumed. First, the sight of the patrolman who's being crushed beneath a giant fence-shattering boot carries us away from the page-leaving edge into the text caption. Then, via the detail of a poor tumbling alley-cat, we're pushed towards the title-line at the page's base. Only when we've doubled back on ourselves and arrived at the final star-spangled "A" of the good Captain's name do Simon and Kirby relent and allow us to move onwards and over the page.

Horror of such an explicit kind has often been associated in the shorthand of comics history with the later years of the 40s and the early 50s. Simon and Kirby were producing gruesomely disturbing imagery in 1941, as the above testifies.
         
And that's just one aspect of how far ahead Simon and Kirby were in the day. Simply through the apparently hectic and yet skillfully organised elements of their page-designs, they created a sense of frantic momentum and densely-packed incident which none of their colleagues and competitors could begin to match. (It might be argued that few today could do so either.) Yes, to step back from this first page of The Case Of The Hollow Men is to notice how technically suspect the composition is when considered as a whole. The figure of Bucky seems to be lifted from another source entirely, for example, and the building he's standing upon is an unconvincing confection of a prop. In fact, the more the reader stares, the more the different elements of the composition seem to come from quite separate sources. Yet Simon and Kirby's skill lay how their work convinced the audience to read and enjoy each parts of the work in sequence. As such, of course, the reader isn't concerned with, for instance, whether the perspective of it all is convincing. Who could possibly care about the degree to which the symbolic and the pseudo-realistic aspects of the page have been convincingly combined, when there's that impossibly massive sword-cushion of a zombie lurching in the direction of Captain America's sidekick, and when that poor cat might be about to be crushed to death?

      
Ensuring that the reader's utterly captured by the events before them while also guaranteeing that they feel irresistibly compelled to read on was all that mattered here. In many ways, it's all that matters now. And regardless of how impossible it might be to re-capture what the audience of children who consumed the likes of All Winners Comics #1 in 1941 actually experienced, it's close to impossible to believe that they didn't practically rip this page from the comic in order to discover what was going to happen next.

"The Year In Comics" features a discussion of other aspects of Simon and Kirby's zombie-fighting Captain America tale here.

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Monday, 25 June 2012

On The Batman in Detective Comics #475, by Englehart, Rogers, Austin and Oda

       
The creative team behind The Laughing Fish wanted us to have to work to focus on the figure of The Batman on the splash page of 1978's  Detective Comics #475. The whole composition of this spectacular, complex, and yet subtly disorientating full page shot is designed to constantly tug the reader’s gaze away from the sight of the Dark Knight. Where we might expect The Batman to serve as the focal point of the shot, here's he's been pushed by Marshall Rogers and Terry Austin up into the top right of the frame, where he seems to have only just intruded into the scene. In a page that's layered with meticulously detailed aspects of Gotham's skyline as seen from street level, there's a great deal other than the man in the super-suit that's been placed to catch the eye and hold the attention. Up there, at the periphery of our vision, The Batman seems almost irrelevant where both the city and the on-coming storm are concerned, a distinctly human presence in what's quite rightly being made to seem an unlikely and surprising situation.

After all, folks simply don't dress up in costumes and lean out across the rooftops of buildings as if they're considering leaping into the air. If they're shown doing so, it should all seem to be the remarkable business it is.

       
It's an impression that's intensified as the eye is dragged horizontally away from the superhero by Ben Oda's captions. His text boxes carry the reader downwards, hugging the left-hand side of the page until they take a right turning at the base of the side. That results in the captions, the logo, the Bob Kane credit box and the title all serving in combination as the two legs of a right triangle, the hypotenuse of which is suggested by the lightning bolt at the top of the page. Everything within that triangular arrangement demands our attention, while all that's excluded from it seems to exist far above our heads and on the edge of our sight. It's an arrangement which creates a tension between the human interest in the scene and the eye-directing design elements on the page, and it creates the impression that we're struggling to see this Batman as he goes about his perilous business far, far above the heads of everyday folks.

Only when the reader has been guided all the way round to the bottom-right corner does the positioning of the credit box offer the option of either an undisturbed journey upwards towards Bruce Wayne, or an exit in the direction of the next page. Yet even then, there's a sense in which the reader is being asked to work in order to travel the empty distance of brick work of windows upwards towards the crime-fighter's thought bubbles. 

The Batman's world, it seems, is one that's very much divorced from ours.

       
At each step of the eye's journey down to the title line of The Laughing Fish, specific aspects of the design carry our attention briefly in the direction of the costumed crimefighter before others immediately drag it away again. The hotel flag bearing the label of Gotham City points vaguely towards Bruce Wayne, but its billowing fabric simultaneously works in combination with the direction of the lightning bolt to push us towards the second and third captions instead. Similarly, the Batman's silhouette placed under the focal point of the yellow text box suggests that we ought to be returning to his figure again, but the tilting vertical lines of the building upon which it's projected haul the eye away rather than towards the superhero. Wherever we look, we're presented with the competing attractions of the modern city, with an overwhelming mash-up of buildings representing the ambitions and compromises of a host of different periods. All of this sends the eye flitting briefly upwards and then back down again to what counter-intuitively feels like more pressing matters. In doing so, what all concerned achieve is the impression that The Batman's a sight unexpectedly glimpsed out of the corner of the eye. What we might otherwise take for granted here becomes a remarkable and somehow unexpected event which only a citizen's craned neck can help catch sight of.

The sight of a superhero on a rooftop is here taken out of its familiar, spectacle-draining, interest-neutering context, and suddenly, the very fact that a man in a costume is standing on the edge of a three story building becomes surprising and compelling.

How did he get up there? What's he doing? Doesn't he realise that that's dangerous? How can he possibly hope to leap from there and survive?
        
       
When the reader does finally focus on the title-character himself rather the design and the distracting details of the shot, what's remarkable is how purposeful and yet vulnerable he appears. Confident and calculating, yes, but hardly the kind of frame-commanding indomitable hero that's even now typical in the super-book. This is a particularly human Batman, weighing up how he's going to travel across the not-inconsiderable challenges posed by the canyons and sheer-faced peaks of Gotham's vertiginous skyline. The artists have  ingeniously played with the perspective and the framing of the scene, intensifying the sense of a subtly bewildering world. Everything here is made to tilt to one side, but our sense of how odd and perplexing this apparently typical city is is increased by the fact that the block upon which The Batman stands is apparently inclining far less to the right than its fellows. The buildings at the left of the frame seem almost to be lurching inwards, while the skyscrapers which serves as the spine running down the page from top to base feel as if they're straining not to tip any further in the same direction. Even when the eye does rest on The Batman, the effect of the guilefully. subtly addled world behind him creates a sense of intimidation and anxiety.
        
       
Matched with that is the wonderful evocation of the threat of the early evening's weather, of the storm which, as Englehart's script tells us, "refuses to break". The layers of dark, storm-bearing clouds, the flags and cape cracking in the wind, the electricity beginning to fork through the atmosphere. The more we stare at this page, the more the situation suggests a night when sane folks pull up their coat collars and head for the shelter of home as fast as possible. And yet, there's the Dark Knight, calculating how to thrust himself in a situation which we'd been more than simply keen to avoid.

Where the city-crossing superhero is usually presented in action as if leaping across streets and from building to building is no real challenge at all, here it's the perplexing and intimidating demands of all that block-hopping that are accentuated. Where the city is typically shown as a set of buildings blocks serving as a game-players board for super-heroes to bounce impressively around, here it's the most complex of systems, and that restores to the superhero comic the suggestion that super-people on roof-tops is in itself a remarkable business.

And that The Batman preparing to leap from one of those is a conspicuously beguiling event. 

       
There's absolutely nothing that's wasted or irrelevant in Rogers and Austin's work here. The Laughing Fish is a tale in which we find Wayne hesitating on the edge of a potentially life-transforming decision, caught as he is between the desire to retain his secret identity and his adoration of Silver St Cloud, whose home he'll soon be swinging towards. The decision to begin this story with The Batman preparing to leap against the direction in which such a scene is typically read leaves the character seemingly faced by a strangely disturbing challenge. The figure on the page who throws themselves into space while being shown moving from left to right is carried forward with the direction of the reader's gaze. Yet the Batman is here caught before any action occurs, and if and when he does swing over the abyss, he'll be moving in a direction which moves contrary to how we read. This suggests not speed but struggle, not achievement but conflict. We can't see where he's headed and we can't feel that he'll find it easy to achieve his way there, although we are made extremely aware of the fact that there's a long way for the character to fall so he screw up.

All of which seems to describe Bruce Wayne's personal dilemmas every bit as much as suggesting the physical challenges immediately before him.

       
By emphasising the intimidating scale of Gotham in relation to that of this transparently human Batman, Rogers and Austin  also suggest how impossible the character's stewardship of the city is. Similarly, the huge, imposing shadow of the Darknight Detective contrasts tellingly with the reality of the man in the longjohns standing on the precipice of a roof as a storm sweeps in. As those who've read Englehart's famous 1977/8 run of stories in Detective Comics will know, the writer was determined to establish that The Batman is ultimately very much a human being rather than an unassailable force of nature. (Indeed, the Joker is defeated by chance at the tale's end rather through Wayne's efforts.) That contrast between the myth of The Bat and the reality of The Batman, between the glory associated with the role and the appalling costs of assuming it, is made subtly and fascinatingly obvious here.

Finally, there's that oncoming storm. It's a classic application of the pathetic fallacy, reflecting how Bruce Wayne's life is suddenly beginning to tumble catastrophically out of his control. It's a conceit which will also serve as a spectacular backdrop and purposeful deus ex machina for the run's closing battle with the Joker, while its effects as it closes and breaks will be used to drive various members of the cast towards their individual fates.

       
The splash page of The Laughing Fish might at first appear to have a great deal in common with today's sell-it-on-the-secondary-market pin-up shots of superheroes posing before obsessively detailed cityscapes. As such, it could be argued that Rogers and Austin's curtain-opener is a proto-widescreen waste of a side, all right-angles and rendering and very little storytelling at all. Yet here the wonderfully contrived, real-world-evoking architecture suggests a battlefield that's far more dangerous and involving than the Blade Runner cliches which typically serve as the backdrop for fars too many of 2012's comic-book money-shots. There's also an exquisite attention paid by all concerned here to the specific markers of the time of day and the weather which few contemporary comics show any concern for at all beyond the broadest of gestures. In taking such care and mustering such an imaginative control of their craft, the creators show us a superhero who will have to struggle with all his might, ingenuity and experience in order to cope with the urban battlefield before him. This isn't a undefeatable superhero presented as lord of all they survey, destined to beat down all that's thrown against them. It's certainly not a member of the cape'n'chest-insignia brigade who could conceivably shake off a sword through the guts or survive the trauma of a shattered spine. Instead, Englehart, Rogers, Austin and Oda present us from the off with a Batman where the accent's upon "man" rather than "machismo". In that, he's a superhero made all the more estimable because of  how hard he has to struggle to survive, and all the more sympathetic for his inability to rise entirely above his fate.

It's remarkable how what appears to be a relatively static, story-thin shot is actually saturated with emotion, fascination and meaning.

         
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Tomorrow, the greatest superhero comic of all time, and from more than seventy years ago, with extra-value zombies!

Friday, 22 June 2012

On "Kiss" #1 by Chris Ryall and Jamal Igle: Reader's Roulette Round 3:2

In which the blogger reviews Kiss #1, a title nominated by the splendid Adrian upon hearing that he'd won the runners-up berth in the recent TooBusyThinking name-that-merchandise competition. Dear gentle reader, please consider yourself warned; things do not go well. Long-suffering visitors to TooBusyThinking may even recognise something of a return for The Beak in what follows;

        
"You wanted the best, you got the best!" runs the selling line at the head of the cover of the first issue of IDW's new Kiss title. It's the knowingly vainglorious boast which has of course traditionally been hollered to announce the band's we're-going-to-nuke-the-kitchen-sink arrival on stage. Cue smoke bombs, flame throwers, blood capsules, stadium-tall digital screens, an improbably elongated clapper and, most probably, the lumbering glammisms of Detroit Rock City. It may not be the real thing as far as the credibility cognoscenti are concerned, but it will at least stun you back into your seat for a moment or two until the kitsch of it all threatens to catch in your throat.

But then, if you don't want kitsch, what are you doing watching Kiss?

       
I certainly did want the best, but where Chris Ryall and Jamal Igle's Dressed To Kill Part 1 is concerned, I would have actually settled just for competency. Sadly, it wasn't to be. Far more Music From The Elder than Alive II, and without even the credibility sheen of the equivalent of a lacklustre Lou Reed couplet or two, IDW's Kiss does at least offer its readers the spectacle of what's perhaps the least enticing opening page in comic's history. For those looking for a book which shows exactly how not to kick off a new series, Kiss is a terrific place to start.
  
        
It's not that the opening side of Dressed To Kill Part 1 - above - is the most obvious, cover-your-eyes car-crash of a curtain-up moment ever. It's actually the comic-book equivalent of death by a thousand apparently irrelevant cuts. The eye can skid across the largely enigma-less, action-absent panels on show without registering anything more fundamentally wrong than the urge to turn the page and find something worth paying attention to. Yet take a few minutes to treat this side with the respect of a reader who assumes that what's on show is both worth having paid money for and paying attention to, and one miscalculation after another quickly starts to become obvious. One or two examples of complacency and sloppiness are perhaps always going to sneak into a pop serial fiction, though the reader could be forgiven for expecting that there wouldn't be this many screw-ups, and in such close proximity one to the other too. And if it's easy to regard one or more of the problems I'm going to raise as not being worth the worrying about, there's surely a point at which nothing but torpor and imprecision pushes the reader's tolerance to its limits.

          
Ryall and Igle bravely kick off their tale with a page that's almost entirely irrelevant to the story that they're going to tell. Beyond the information that the tale's set in 1929, there's literally nothing that the reader needs to see and process here at all. It's not just that these three panels lack anything of character, challenge, action, or jeopardy., although they do. There's quite literally nothing here to capture the reader's attention at all, unless the perusing gaze belongs to someone with the hots for what appear to be poorly-traced photographs of the end of the Twenties. Still, it's not just useful to note what's missing here. It's also illuminating to pay attention to what's been pushed our way in the absence of what over-demanding readers, rather than skimmers, have traditionally call the story.

        
The first panel is undoubtedly supposed to work as an establishing shot. Who could deny that the Chicago of 1929 is a promising scenario for an action/adventure tale, and yet the problem with Igle's establishing shot is that it doesn't actually establish anything. There's absolutely nothing in the artwork to help us identify either time or place, which means that Igle's panel could be entirely removed and the story wouldn't be affected at all. In fact, what we've been given looks remarkably like a modern-era if peripheral and rundown, seen-better-days metropolis, and the shot could be used to represent any such city in any part of the world. A sense of a specific time and place is therefore entirely absent. Even immediately recognisable markers of the period which could have been used to help inform the reader of roughly when if not precisely where they are, such as the sight of a dirigible moving across the sky, are absent from view. The reader's therefore compelled to rely entirely upon the text, which in itself brings some not-inconsiderable problems, as you can see in the following scan;

         
Quite why Mr Ryall has decided to state that the story's set in 1929 twice in a single panel is a mystery, but perhaps it's for the poetry of it all. It's a very minor problem, but it's still an example of a writer who's not concentrating fully on the discipline of only delivering information that the reader will benefit from knowing. Still, there's nothing confusing about having the year underscored twice in immediate succession. Yet the statement that 1929 was "A period of economic strife" certainly is baffling. All eras are marked by economic strife. Human social life is forever characterised by groups and individuals fighting in one way or another over economic resources. What does it actually mean to say that 1929 was such a period? There's no reference to any kind of "economic strife" in the rest of the comic, so Ryall's not setting up anything that's yet to come in Dressed To Kill Part 1. Yet worse than being irrelevant, he's being obtuse. If his comment could apply as much to 1890 as to 2012, then it's no place here at all. It makes as much sense to say that as to say that the year was marked by effort on the football field, or that the sky was sometimes covered by cloud. There is a suspicion that Ryall might be referring in some vague way to the effects of the Wall Street Crash, and yet that only began on the 24th of October. Although the consequences of the ongoing economic collapse swiftly spread throughout the financial system and beyond, the country wasn't marked by it in a way that created a notable excess of strife until October was gone, and it's in October that the events of this issue are set. It's all rather confusing. What can Ryall mean? Does he mean that 1929 was marked by an exceptionally high level of "economic strife" in the period up until October? If so, he's either confused about matters in general or focusing on specific issues which he ought to have mentioned. For until the Crash, 1929 was a relatively prosperous year for the majority of Americans, although of course power and prejudice limited the degree to which that prosperity was shared.

        
Still, an unnecessary repeat of information,  an imprecise and confusing attempt to describe the socio-economic conditions of the time and an establishing shot which doesn't establish hardly amount to a title-killing problem. It's not good work, but I'm sure my concerns could be seen as pedantic. And yet, we've barely started to note how the death-by-a-thousand-cuts is begun in this single frame with its single text caption. Is it possible, for example, that Ryall then means to refer to "Prohibition" rather than "alcohol prohibition laws"? After all, if the term "Prohibition" has been thought too challenging for the readers of this book, and that would seem to be the only reason why it's been avoided, then "alcohol prohibition laws" aren't going to be very much more useful either. Perhaps the splendidly named Mr Waltz might have suggested to Mr Ryall that it doesn't help to be vague, and that precision is always what a writer ought to aspire to. Even a sentence as stiff as "Federal laws preventing the sale of alcohol for anything other than medicinal purposes" could have made the point a little clearer, although again, the illegal production and distribution of alcohol isn't specifically mentioned in any other part of Kiss #1 either. Why then are we being told about it?

But perhaps the most obvious example that two Editors together aren't always able to make sense on the page comes in the closing four words of the caption, where we're told of "rampant crime and smuggling". Here's where Mr Ryall and Mr Waltz's struggles with both English and history become even more excruciatingly obvious. As you've no doubt immediately recognised, "smuggling" is a "crime". There is no such thing as "smuggling" which isn't illegal. So, it should have been just "rampant crime", or perhaps "rampant crime which includes smuggling", or even "smuggling". Given that the implication appears to be that the reader ought to twig that the smuggling is all about the previously mentioned "alcohol prohibition laws", then that might have been clarified too.
        

          
We're faced with another example of redundancy in the second text caption which directs the eye into the next panel. Here, we're told about "gangsters and thugs", as if these are two distinct classes of human beings. But of course, many if not most gangsters were and are thugs, and many thugs were and are gangsters. It's really not a difficult business. As such, these supposedly minor problems start to pile up for those of us who actually read the words in comics rather than treating them as vague prompts to inspire vague impressions. Yet at least Igle's artwork in the second panel expresses a sense of the time. There's sadly nothing of human interest here to those not fascinated by what's presumably a herd of mostly Model T Fords. Because of that, it feels as if the shot has been obviously and unimaginatively lifted from a photograph, and it's as lifeless as the preceding panel, with only Romulo Fajardo Jr's sunset colours to bring it to life. Still, it would take a curmudgeon even more curmudgeonly than me to to suggest that we've not now been placed somewhere in the years between the wars. As for Ryall's words explaining that "Chicago is overrun by gangsters and thugs who spread their influence across the city", we're again in the world of murky, unhelpful English. The control of Chicago by the underworld wasn't spreading during this period so much as it was as complete as it ever would be. Al Capone, for example, was at the zenith of his power. Chicago was a Mob-Town. That word "spread" is the problem then, of course. It creates a confusing impression by implying that a process is underway far more than it's fundamentally complete. Still, the sentence is poorly phrased rather than incontrovertibly wrong, unhelpful rather than explicitly inaccurate, so surely only the little-league blogger out for his pint of blood after feeling that his $3.99 entrance fee was a rip-off would even mention the matter?

But the cuts are adding up, regardless of how unimportant they might be judged to be, and the death by a thousand of them,. as it were, is coming quicker than might have been imagined at the point of purchase.
         

Finally, we find ourselves bumping down this strange page marked by boredom and imprecision to the third and closing panel. It's one which it seems Ryall and Igle intended to be seen as particularly important, given how the size of each subsequent panel on the page has increased. And yet, once again, it's also as if Igle has been asked to present the most tedious frame possible. There's no human interest in the scene at all, and the scenario is again apparently lifted from a photograph without any attempt to make the composition distinct and interesting. Passers by? Mobsters? A stray dog, a parked car, a cousin of Jack Kirby walking home from a day on a building site? Why not a shot at some clever manipulation of perspective and shadow? And yet, there's not even a hint of rubbish on the street or of an advertisement stuck or even painted onto the brick walls. It is, quite frankly, shatteringly dull, and the uniformed reader would never believe that this is the first page of a new series. But what's even stranger, and in its own odd way rather amusing, is the fact Mr Igle appears to want to draw our attention to the street and the track lines running up it as we leave the page, though neither street not  tracks play any part in the story. Why would anyone leave the bottom forty-five per cent of their panel so utterly devoid of interest? The store front may have been presented in an entirely perfunctory fashion, but there's at least a few cans and approximations of what seems to be fruit there. By contrast, the last chunk of the frame is utterly absent of anything of interest at all.

          
It's not that there's a weak page-turner here, so much as there's no page-turner at all beyond the speech balloon placed uncompellingly at the top-right of the frame.Yet that's positioned so far from the exit-point of the side at the bottom-right of the panel that any faint interest in what an unseen, unknown character is saying evaporates long before the side can be finished. With the eye having to travel several undirected and tedious inches down from the hardly enthralling enigma contained in that balloon to the page's exit point, it's hard to believe that Kiss's creators were too bothered about compelling their reader's attention. This is work which reflects either a lack of understanding about the basics of the craft of the comicbook, which seems unlikely, or a complete lack of concern about the same. Indeed, I'd nominate this final frame as the very worst single panel in any comic book this year, and I challenge anyone to explain why it shouldn't be regarded as evidence of the most flaccid degree of ambition and skill.

Unless that street, and those rails, are to be considered compelling viewing in themselves, and were designed to make the reader wrench the page over in order to discover whether a newspaper might blow into view, or the toe of a pedestrian stray just into sight.


It'll come as no surprise to find that obscurity and obtuseness is then added to by the frame's accompanying caption, where we're told that the "emergent sounds of jazz can't mask the sinister plans being made within a certain facade ..." Firstly, it's confusing what's meant here by "within a certain facade". By this point, the mind is retreating further and further into the literal-mindedness of pedantry with frustration at Ryall's inability to simply be precise, relevant and entertaining. Is Ryall suggesting that there's people hiding in a false front to the building we're looking at, as the phrase "within a certain facade" would initially suggest. On the balance of probabilities, and with the lack of any visual information to help out here, it's to be presumed that the food store is something other than it seems. Since it appears to be the most boring scene that's ever been encountered in comics, there's little information to suggest what might hide behind the "facade". Speculation is killed stone-dead by a lack of information and an excess of tedium. All in all, it's such an awkward way of suggesting the point that it's hard to grasp how it escaped the editorial red-ink. It sounds as if it's intended to sound clever, or even, help us, to evoke the period, but it adds little but confusion.

          
However, perhaps the most confusing aspect of this final frame is the phrase "the emergent sounds of jazz". It doesn't seem to refer, however awkwardly, to any music actually being played in the scene before us. Was there ever a panel which appeared to be more bereft of the presence of music than this? Yes, there's a shapely dancer and woman of mystery who appears to sway around in her undies over the page, as I suppose ought to have been expected, but there's no sign here or there of either record player, radio, musicians or hired hummers. Could it be that Ryall is suggesting that Jazz is a form which was just then becoming notable and influential in American culture? Is this once again evidence on his part of an attempt to help the reader come to terms with the broad outline of the history of the period? Economic strife, smuggling and crime, thugs and gangsters, emergent jazz? Yet that can't be right either. F Scott Fitzgerald coined the phrase "The Jazz Age" in 1922 to characterise the America of the period, meaning that the music was by 1929 anything but "emergent". Indeed, it was such a well-known and recognisable form that it had served as the shorthand for the way in which the age thought of itself for more than seven years by the time of the events of Kiss #1. By coincidence, 1922 was also the date when Chicago itself had become the undeniable epicentre of Jazz culture. Rather than being "emergent" in Chicago at the end of the decade, it was massively popular nationally and internationally. Of course it was. There's certainly an irony in the fact that Jazz had taken the forms that it did in significant part because of the cultural hothouse that was the Chicago of the period. Bix Beiderbecke had arrived in the city in 1921, Louis Armstrong in 1922; whatever jazz was by the decade's end, "emergent" wasn't it.

      
Do we dare turn the page, dear reader? Are we motivated to push onwards, to force our eye down from that unenticing and ill-placed word balloon, across that lifeless panel to the interestless corner of the side? Life is short, the hours we have will never come our way again, and we haven't even the time to read but a fraction of the masterpieces which constitute the very best of the medium of comics.

Let's not bother then, ah?


Reader's Roulette Rating: Kiss is a glossy insult to all but the most undemanding of readers. Though Mr Igle's artwork perks up and becomes undeniably competent and even pleasant, the script is over-stuffed, stiff, pretentious and incredibly uninteresting beyond the second and third last panels of the story, where a mildly amusing destruction of a door occurs. Small mercies. 

         
I  would, however, appreciate extra marks for not making any jokes about how appropriate it is that a comic about Kiss should be all flash and little content. I'm rather fond of the idiocy of the early Kiss, and of those Steve Gerber stories starring the band from the Seventies.

We'll be returning to IDW with the up-coming and rather enticing "Red Shirt" issue of Star Trek and the James Stoke Godzilla book. Until then, other things!

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Thursday, 21 June 2012

On "The Dandy": Reader's Roulette 2:5

Jamie Smart's wonderful cover to the Jubilee issue of The Dandy

There are situations which can be made funny, and situations which simply are funny. Comedy creators will invest their lives crafting quips to bring well-worn scenarios to life; “lovers quarreling over breakfast”, “criminals caught red-handed at the scene of the crime”, and so on and on. But the idea that’s so audaciously daft that it sparks off chuckling almost regardless of what’s been done with it is a far rarer phenomena. Andy Fanton’s CIB: Cavemen In Black is a prime example of the kind of apparently good-for-nothing silliness which smart cartoonists train themselves to recognise and run with. What might flit briefly across the minds of the rest of us – and that’s if we’re lucky - before disappearing forever as an idle and worthless conceit can serve as the glitter of a gag-spinning motherlode to those up to recognising the signs.  Zealous, incompetent stone-age secret agents hunting down harmless dinosaur illegal immigrants? And with these Agents B and C dressed in bedraggled jaguar-black skins and wearing slate-lensed sunglasses too, in what’s the very opposite of the sweatless cool of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones? If Fanton had done nothing but set up that premise, and he does more than that, then it alone would’ve made The Dandy worth investing in.

Andy Fanton’s CIB: Cavemen In Black
        
Yet CIB: Men In Black was only the point at which I felt compelled to concede that The Dandy is anything but a relic. There’d already been several considerable involuntary laughs before that. But I’d not read The Dandy for almost forty years, and I was never was a fan of it in the first place. It was always a given that it was a staid, archaic grind of a little kid’s comic, as obvious as it was predictable and backwards-looking. Whether that was a fair judgment or not, it’s the opinion I’ve long had filed away in that place where assumptions calcify into prejudice. And prejudice being what it is, the obvious absence of what I was expecting to see initially appeared far more noteworthy than the sequence of always-lively and often-ingenious strips I was unexpectedly encountering.

Steve Bright’s wryly feminist Beryl The Peril
       
The truth took a while to dawn. At first, I thought that the determinedly contemporary style guide which seems to influence everything in The Dandy from logos to often dialogue-dense frames might be masking the heritage industry storytelling I’d been anticipating. Yet the evidence that that’s simply not so was there on Jamie Smart’s surreal cover wink to the Jubilee, in which Desperate Dan fights to hold onto the illusion that he’s a king celebrating a public anniversary while insisting that the pig at his side is a corgi. From that point onwards, the evidence piled up as one sharp-minded, all-ages strip followed another. There's Smart’s own Mega-Lo Maniacs strip, featuring a portable tyrant of a sea-god reliant on the youthful Rory to ferry him to the beach and his chance at world domination. And there's Wilbur Dawbarn’s exquisitely cruel Mr Meecher The Uncool Teacher, presenting us with a picture of a thoroughly depressed and anxious young servant of the chalkface which seems worryingly close to my own initial experiences at the front of the classroom. As I say, it's hard maintaining a bias in the face of all this inconveniently compelling evidence.

Alexander Matthew’s Nuke Noodle
           
I certainly wasn’t anticipating such a determination to avoid patronising the audience. The comic's clearly targeted primarily at kids, but the working assumption is obviously that they’re bright and curious readers rather than passive, dull-minded consumers. (Adults who've managed to avoid that state of passivity and dull-mindedness will find much to enjoy here too.) Alexander Matthews' Nuke Noodle kicks off with what’s clearly a Jewish rabbi creating a Golem in 16th century Prague, the Dr Who parody in Nigel Auchterlounie’s The Bogies begins with a paean to the pop culture highlights of 1963, while that man Smart’s The Arena Of Awesome features a cryogenically-preserved Einstein, Zeus, and a chimp homage to Godzilla. There's also politics of an admirably progressive kind to be found here too. The word balloons alone from Steve Bright’s wryly feminist Beryl The Peril can be read off the page to a nearby meal-making Splendid Wife and inspire a genuine chortle.(*1) And while I'm mentioning aspects of The Dandy which were unexpectedly impressive to this exceptionally occasional reader, then there’s certainly a great deal that other comics on both sides of the Pond could learn from the positive and yet entirely unhectoring representations of race in both Dreadlock Holmes and Superball!

*1:- Or so she assures me. (The strip is, of course, even more entertaining if both the art and the words are consumed together.)

Wilbur Dawbarn’s exquisitely cruel Mr Meecher The Uncool Teacher
           
Today’s Dandy is a smorgasbord of bright, vigorous, canny strips, and a reader more used to consuming the thin fare served up in most American superbooks may find that they lack the stamina to work through all that’s on show in one sitting. (They might also, however, find themselves pleased by the appearance of various parodies of Marvel superheroes in the book, with Thor, Hulk and Wolverine all receiving brief but fond tips of the hat.) Though there’s an obvious editorial intent to ensure that the comic appears kinetically 2012, there’s still a range of storytelling approaches on display from the relatively sedate and good-humoured Bananaman to Jamie Smart’s purposefully crowded, thick-lined, and exuberant designs. Only the persistently bland logos seem to lack the sense of wit and determination which otherwise consistently characterises the comic’s pages. Indeed, it’s only when a reader notes that The Dandy’s biggest disappointment lies in its mostly only-adequate logos that its success becomes obvious. For if that's the worst that a finicky reviewer can find to say about it, then it seems that The Dandy really is worth a second glance from even the most cynical reader.

Reader Roulette Rating: Go buy! There's a great many strips I didn't have space to mention here, and new ones on the way, it seems, so; Go Buy!
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Jamie Smart’s Mega-Lo Maniac
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Wednesday, 20 June 2012

On Spider-Men #1 by Brian Michael Bendis, Sara Pichelli & Justin Ponsor: Reader's Roulette Round 3:1

   
Spider-Men # 1, by Bendis, Pichelli, Ponsor

If there's a how-to-write textbook which insists that a story ought to be started as far before its inciting incident as possible, I've not yet come across it. Ever the wilful iconoclast, Brian Michael Bendis drags out the moment until the Spider-Man of the Marvel Universe is transported to the alt-Earth where Miles Morales lives for a mind-numbingly long and story-stymieing time. Indeed, it's not until the comic is two-thirds over that Peter Parker crosses to a New York with a Triskellion off its shore, and it then takes the rest of the book until the two Spider-Men make the briefest acquaintance of one another. The result is a comicbook which is insultingly torpid. Events which are not only entirely irrelevant to the tale, but actively antithetical to its sense, drag by while the reader waits for the story, rather than the plot, to kick in.

          
Perhaps Bendis intended all these extraneous scenes to serve as an introduction to Peter Parker for the reader who knows nothing about him. Yet why then emphasise Parker's membership of two esteemed super-teams at the same time as presenting a police-force who are made to appear particularly anxious to point guns at him? What could be more likely to confuse a neophyte than that? Is this Spider-Man a pillar of the super-establishment or a reprobate whose presence is likely to encourage the NYPD to aim their firearms in his direction? Is this showing us how unlucky Parker is, or how careless he can be not to have his Avengers and FF ID with him? (It's certainly not explaining how his Spider sense works, because that gives him not a hint of a warning of the gun that's soon to be be pointed at him.) Are we even being told that the NYPD has no protocols for dealing with potential member of the Avengers, an organisation which is, after all, based in their fair city and one of the formal cornerstones of the National Security State? ("T-take off the mask and get down on the ground" indeed. Try saying something similar to Iron Man or Red Hulk.) In a story of just 20 pages, is this moment worth our attention or is it just twiddling away the frames in an attempt to seem cool until something more exciting if not actually important happens?  After all, the reader is entitled to presume that what's on the page actually counts for something. If Spider-Man's simply being challenged by the police because it's fun to show that and nothing much else, then what's the scene doing there?

Yes, that's an up-to-date quote of Word Up from 1986 there. Parker's a square, daddy-o, but that square? Perhaps he's quoting a sample of the track as used in one of today's trend-making platters. Daddy-O.
         
But Bendis is up to his old tricks of producing a tale which appears to be structured according to a progression of plot-points, of wouldn't it be-awesome moments, which haven't yet been weighed according to necessity and worth. To Bendis, it seems, first thought really is best thought, which makes him something of the Beat poet of what can feel like the last years of the superhero book. Only a Kerouac-level faith in his own judgement would allow an entirely irrelevant three page opening sequence featuring street level gangsters to escape the self-editing process. But then, this is a writer so confident of his own abilities that he's able to use up four largely incidentless pages on Spider-Man's search through Mysterio's darkened hideout before introducing any significant jeopardy at all. Clearly, whatever the rules of storytelling are that Bendis adheres to, they're way beyond the understanding of ordinary mortals who might prefer that he just opt for the lesser ambitions of simply not being tedious and obtuse.

An entire page showing a superhero finding a light in a building. No, that's compelling storytelling. The artwork is beautifully done, and the fourth panel is actually funny, but the reader learns nothing at all from this sequence. Remove the first four panels and the tale's affected not one bit.
         
With no effective scaffolding in place to turn his conceits into a compelling story, Spider-Men #1 wheezes and stumbles in the direction of a cliffhanger so obvious and thereby unenticing that it seems to be expressing disdain for the reader. It truly is as if Bendis had thought of what his readers would most want to see, and then set out to make sure that they got nothing but a teaser of it on the very last page of Spider-Men #1. An effective cliffhanger, you might imagine, but only if the journey towards it has seemed rewarding rather than exploitative. Instead of satisfaction, however, the reader finds themselves owning one fifth of a mini-series which will end up costing $19.96 in which the story has barely begun by page 20. All the beautifully clear and admirably energetic artwork by Pichelli, Ponsor and Petit can't hide the fact that their impressive achievements here are simply gilding a fundamentally complacent and contemptuous script.

Harsh, you say? You didn't read Spider-Men #1, did you, or at least, I'd guess, you didn't actually pay for it.

Reader's Roulette Rating: A beautifully gold-decorated nugget of piffle is still piffle.

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