Friday, 30 November 2012

On Batgirl #12, by Gail Simone & Ardian Syaf (Part 1 of 2)

In which the blogger, who's several times been asked about the matter, explains something of why he had Batgirl #12 in his Top 10 superhero books list for 2012;
Everytime I Fall is in part a study of the ways in which two very different individuals fulfil the responsibilities they've assumed as costumed vigilantes. In establishing the similarities and differences between Batgirl and Batwoman, Gail Simone has opted to make not a single reference to either their gender or sexuality. Anything that's not directly relevant to how these two characters attempt to fulfil their missions here as crime-fighters has been excised from the script. It makes perfect sense that this should be so. Barbara Gordon and Kate Kane are already recognisably distinct characters in terms of their personalities and everyday lives. But there is the problem of why Gotham should need two red-haired Bat-heroines when each is no more remarkable in terms of power-set and appearance than the other. Given that DC Comics obviously intends to keep both of these profitable properties in print, how are they to be differentiated one from the other, and how is their mutual presence in the same city to feel fascinating and compelling rather than repetitious and devitalising?

To focus on two super-women largely in terms of how they fight crime and little else is of course hardly unheard of, although it is comparatively rare. But it's a sign of how cliched the representation of women still tends to be in the superhero book that I can't recall another comic which has so completely pushed aside all the traditional markers of unblokeishness where its female leads are concerned. More so, it's notable that that's true for the whole issue where it comes to the interaction between Gordon and Kane. At the same time as Simone is emphasising how tremendously able Batgirl and Batwoman are in their campaign against Knightfall, there's simultaneously the deafening absence of anything of home and family, love and sex, fathers and partners and mentors and friends, self-consciousness and trauma, gender roles and the negotiation of them, and so on. In that, it's not that the story is suggesting that such influences are unimportant. There's no suggestion at all that female characters should for one ideological reason or another be entirely abstracted from anything that could suggest the social construction of identity, and I'd hate to suggest that's so. But Simone does seem to have narrowed her focus to the business of how these two superheroes approach the task of imposing their own particular definition of order. In doing so, the fact that super-women are rarely defined exclusively in terms of their approach to attaining justice becomes all the more obvious.

There's certainly none of the blustering of the hyper-sexualised superheroine sold as a symbol of empowerment, or even of the considered example set by the super-matriarch who expresses a sincere and laudable opposition to misogyny in thought, word and deed. (*1) Instead, the admirably able and - in their own contrasting ways - passionately committed Kane and Gordon are defined with a tight focus which, if it had involved two super-men, wouldn't have been noteworthy at all. Men are, after all, regularly characterised according to how they perform and nothing else when they pull the long-johns of justice on. And yet, to define two headlining female members of the cape'n'chest-insignia brigade exclusively in terms of the job that they do as vigilantes is still something of a surprise, and, quite frankly, a relief too.

*1:- Though if you want a brilliant example of how each type can be used to terrific effect and admirable insight without worthiness or prurience, try here.

With nothing else to distract us from the way in which Batgirl and Batwoman pursue what's effectively their vocations, Simone's plot serves as a kind of controlled experiment, in which two very different characters respond to the same situations. Though this is only part of what's to be found in Batgirl #12, it's for my money the most intriguing part of an enjoyable process. As is typical in Simone's stories, we learn about who Batgirl and Batwoman are in contrast to each other through their behaviour rather than via info-dumps, soliloquies, narration and so on, with character and action being very much inseparable. And it quickly becomes obvious that there's no question of either of them being redundant in the new DCU because of the other's existence.

Gordon, for example, is a woman who considers both means and ends as being vitally important, and the relationship between the two is constantly something that's she's concerned with. To her, everything that she does is an uncertain and yet essentially sacred expression of a desire to do as much good and as little harm as possible. Because of that constant process of self-reflection, Batgirl lacks something of the short-term, mission-centred clarity of purpose and method that Batwoman holds to when in the field. Yet Simone shows us that what Gordon lacks in absolute focus is more than compensated for by her ability to step outside her preconceptions and avoid hidebound thinking. When viciously attacked by Kane, for example, Gordon's able to immediately over-ride pain, anger and pride despite having received a fearsome, nose-threatening head-butt. In doing so, she succeeds in bringing a purposeless punch-up to a swift close. In a woman who was less fundamentally strong and principled, such a degree of doubt might led to hesitancy and an unshakeable despair. It could certainly create the impression that such a character was unlikely to be useful in a comic-book war against crime.Yet Gordon's determination to do the right thing while refusing to be defined by uncertainty and fear means that she uses rather than submits to the same qualities. In that, she brings a unique fusion of compassion and independent-mindedness to her campaigns. It's a quality that enables her empathy to stay engaged and her mind to keep processing even when circumstances might threaten to demand a thought-wiping fight-or-flight response. Even when her thoughts are almost obliterated by pain, she's able to over-ride instinct and act with restraint and purpose. This is not, in the world of the super-person, a common or negligible trait at all.

By comparison, Kane is every inch the soldier. For her, the shortest distance between two points - after whatever consideration time allows - is always the most compelling road to take. Although she's obviously a careful planner when opportunity allows, she's far more likely to aggressively pursue a pre-arranged strategy than Batgirl is. If Gordon aspires to justice decently achieved, then Kane fights to attain the most acceptable outcome she can with the maximum of efficiency. While the women's two agendas strongly overlap, as we'd expect from folks occupying the same side of the line, they've clearly different ways of getting thing done. And so, Kane's tendency to forcefully respond to the possibility of a threat is, as we've mentioned, shown in the way in which she attacks and beats Gordon in the book's first few pages. Where Batgirl would have hesitated in the absence of evidence of a threat, Kane opts to put the mere possibility of one out of action. And in most any other story, the question of Gordon's beating and Kane's violent methodology would form the spine of the plot, with the matter of apologies and forgiveness dominating the tale's conclusion. But these are in essence professionals, and the misunderstanding between them passes without any further comment when the evidence of their common cause arrives. Once again, it's the fact that they are quite distinct individuals that's the point of the exercise. More important to them than ego in the short-term is the fact that Knightfall's "going to make Gotham an abattoir". Needs must, with Gordon recognising a potential ally and Kane a imminent disaster.

These are, after all, superheroes for whom the greater good is everything, and Simone elegantly furthers the point by never having a scene in which apologies are made and accepted, nascent friendships begun and flowering respect expressed. Where it's been traditional to associate female characters with the expression of emotional truths and difficult thoughts and feelings, here we have an untypical focus on women for whom immense responsibility and a lack of intimacy almost entirely over-rides sentiment. Those in the blogosphere who've complained that Kane and Gordon don't seem to bond over their shared experiences have surely missed the point. Instead, it's the quiet touches in the book which show a developing respect if not affection. The fact that it's Gordon and not Kane who takes the lead in the operation to free the imprisoned Rickey, for example, shows that there's a measure of appreciation that's quickly developed on Batwoman's side. After all, Kane wouldn't ever let an untrustworthy amateur take the point in a mission that's as dangerous as this, and Simone trusts us to note this without her having to ladle on the schmaltz.

The clear differences between the two remain obvious even when they agree to combine forces. For example, Gordon is shown hesitating to leave Kane behind as a trio of super-villains threaten, and that's despite the fact that their agreed strategy demands that she does exactly that. "We have this! Go!", shouts Batwoman, and we can see that these two would baffle and irritate each other if they were forced to spent too much time in the field together. Where Gordon puts compassion above nearly everything else, Kane reveres efficiency in the name of a necessary cause. To Kane, Gordon's concern is a mark of a dangerously inefficient approach, and even a moments delay to express concern might have catastrophic consequences. It's a point that Simone establishes concisely in a single panel - see above - and again, it's an example of how she can define aspects of character without slowing up the forward momentum of the plot.

Yet, since Batwoman's fierce focus comes combined with such an admirable sense of discipline and honesty, it's quite impossible to regard her as the lesser of the two. Simone's purpose, it seems, isn't to suggest that either Batgirl or Batwoman is the better person, or the more estimable superhero. Instead, each is established as a formidable prospect, and their choices reflect quite distinct points of view rather than any overall practical or ethical superiority. Though Kane does seem far more self-contained and stand-offish, she also bears no grudges, plays no games, and never thinks twice about working with the women she's so recently suspected of ill-doing. Similarly, Gordon's willingness to accept without returning Kane's blows in the name of the greater good might make her seem less formidable in a physical if not moral and practical context. But Simone undercuts any sense of Batgirl being the weaker of the two through a variety of strategies, including that of having Gordon ready at any moment to begin the fight with Kane again on her own terms if that's necessary. There's nothing starry-eyed and naive about the ceasefire she negotiates, given that she's holding a Bat-a-rang behind her back in case negotiation fails to achieves her ends. She abandoned the brawl because it placed in danger the people she longs to help, but fighting itself is a necessary evil that she'll embrace if she has to. (Of course, it's also Batgirl who stands alone against three super-villains later in the tale so as to adequately bait a trap, a fact that again establishes that discretion on her part really is the better part of valour, rather than an alternative to it.)

Time and time again, the strength and limitations of each character's approach are sketched out, and in what's actually a remarkably small number of pages for the mass of information that's delivered. Instead of offering two-dimensional caricatures from which one can be chosen as "the best" or "the nicest" or "the toughest", Simone presents us with two superheroes whose skills and mind-sets leave both seeming as capable and as interesting and as different as the other.

What was the point of the team-up, asked some reviewers and commentors, when supposedly so little happened and so little was achieved? What did Batwoman add to this comic at all? The mind - to use a phrase that's rarely entirely appropriate - boggles.

If you've a moment a kill, you can find the second part of this here;

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

On Indestructible Hulk #1

It's so much easier to have exceptionally intelligent characters behaving like psychologically damaged idiots. Why should a writer worry about constructing a convincing storyline when they can just have their supposedly brilliant protagonists perpetually behaving like oblivious fools? In a Marvel Universe that's top-heavy with the notably bright as well as the super-genius, it's a struggle to think of a single one that's consistently displayed the self-awareness and emotional maturity of anything more than a teenager. After fifty years and more of adventures, Reed Richards is still excluding his wife from the truth of his schemes despite all the misery that his obfuscation and lying has previously caused. Similarly, Peter Parker remains the world's oldest adolescent despite being an experience-saturated decade or so out of high school, and so on.

While much of Marvel's appeal has always been down to its protagonist's angsty flaws, there's an obvious difference between a character with a compelling human limitation and a perpetually oblivious, self-hamstringing idiot. While it would obviously make no sense to remove the conflict-generating failings from a super-person's nature, it's far too easy to ratchet them up to the degree to which a character's entirely helpless before them. The exceptionally clever and supposedly heroic character who never learns, and who actually seems to become stupider and more dangerous to themselves and others with time, is a cheap and grating way to stir up jeopardy. As the same old problems are recycled in ever more hysterically concentrated ways, the process inevitably wears away at the reader's capacity to believe, to care.

Bruce Banner has just been driven into a momentary rage by the very thought of his super-intellectual rivals and, in doing so, triggered a concern in an experienced SHIELD agent that he's going to transform into the Hulk. What can we tell of this in this subsequent panel? Does he even doesn't appear "sorry", or in any way regretful about his lack of a legacy, in terms of the dialogue in this panel? If pushed, we might see something sinister or manically focused in his expression, although how that relates to the script is a confusing business. So what is being suggested in the art here? The more the reader stares at a typical Yu panel, the less precise sense it makes, with frames which appear at first glance to be telling the story revealing themselves to be far less focused and helpful than might be assumed.
Thankfully, Mark Waid appears to have embarked on a campaign to credit Marvel's brightest heroes with the very intelligence that's supposed to define them. He's already presented us with a Matt Murdock who's determinedly working to mitigate the effects of his obsessional and depressive tendencies. (Although Daredevil may not be a hyper-brain capable of throwing together an interstellar spacecraft from the contents of an average household kitchen cupboard, he is a first-rate lawyer and an acutely bright individual. He may not be able to think away his psychological problems, but he can at least recognise and mitigate them, as Waid's brilliantly had him do.) Now, in Indestructible Hulk #1, Waid offers up a Bruce Banner who, after more than five decades of denial, finally accepts the overwhelming evidence that the Hulk will inevitably be part of him forever. His green-skinned alter-ego is an expression of an "incurable", "chronic" condition, Banner declares, which means that the only rational way forward is for him to manage the situation while trying to make the most of his life. Though it's hardly a deduction which requires a super-intellect to reach, it's still a remarkably sensible one to find in the pages of the superbook.

Pushing aside my concerns about Banner appearing to be a rather super-cool, handsome bloke here, many of the key problems with Yu's work are present on this page. Take Banner's expression in panel 5, for example. What emotion is Yu's work actually expressing there? Furthermore, what are those shadows doing in the frame? Whose silhouettes are we looking at and why? It's all very slick, but there's nothing specific about the meaning of the art.  Heads and arms break through panel borders for no narrative reason at all beyond creating the impression that something - whatever it might be - is going on. Strange choices abound; the first panel features Banner's latest invention in a way that actually undermines its potential risk and pushes for its status as a hi-tech soup maker or some such. Oddly enough, You chooses to present the supposedly-anxious Hill from a worm's-eye angle, which actually empowers her, as such a shot nearly always will. As for Hill's expression, it barely seems to change from panel 1 - where she seems just a little concerned about what might be a bomb - to panel 3 - where there briefly appears to be the imminent possibility of Banner turning into the Hulk. To be cool under pressure is one thing, but she gives no impression of anything beyond being a tiny bit little concerned while looking very toothfully attractive. In panel 2, the sense appears to be that the guy who "thumps" into Banner does so deliberately, given how it looks like he's gleefully aimed his elbow at Banner's head. (There's no information there to indicate that it's an accident.) Then there's the matter of Banner's assailant's hand, breaking through as it does into the third frame, where it gives every impression of stroking Hill's forehead. (It even seems to be casting a shadow there.) Although the necessary events appear to be all present in some form on the page, there's an almost complete lack of context in terms of character, action and feeling, while the panel to panel continuity is awkward and unsatisfying. 
Sadly, the imprecision of artist Leinil Yu's work makes it impossible to know what we're to make of this at least partially clear-thinking Banner on any emotional level. Though Yu's work is fan-pleasingly glossy and packed with bold, static poses which appear to be very, very meaningful indeed, trying to deduce what his characters are thinking and feeling is an exhausting business. Characters reach through panel borders and pose without any context or purpose at all on his pages, as if the suggestion of activity and spectacle is more important than effectively transmitting the inner as well as the outer lives of his characters With very few exceptions, his frames carry at best a vague and puzzling sense of how his cast are experiencing and interacting with the world around them. Anyone following the story-opening meeting between Banner and Agent Hill, for example, will be stumped to know much about either person beyond what's carried in the word balloons, and even there, Waid's script is often made to seem confusing because of the way in which the art fails to clarify the writer's meaning. Given that's so, the fact that we're shown a Banner who's capable at moments of rational thought is more than cancelled out by the absence of any consistent, convincing sense of who he is as a person. Whether it's the lack of any precise emotion in individual panels, or the absence of an easily understood continuity of feeling between one frame and another, Yu's focus on isolated moments of eye-catching comic-book cool constantly derail proceedings on anything but the most facile of levels. And so, where Waid's words have Banner declaring that he's "sorry", Yu delivers a face that's anything but, while the artist's depiction of a supposedly-surprised Banner actually transmits all the concern of a man idly checking his watch against the time given by a wall-mounted clock. Because of this strange narrative-killing preference for the fannishly obsessive moment over the narratively specific, we just can't tell whether this Banner's genuinely cheerful or putting up a playful front, a brilliantly Machiavellian operator or an almost-overwhelmed victim attempting to cobble together a grand strategy. Beyond a single frame in which Yu shows Banner hammering his fists on a table in what might be jealously or frustration at the very thought of Tony Stark, it's hard to know anything much about him at all that might lend us give a reason to empathise

Agent Hill is here standing before a mostly-naked and partially-buried-by-masonry Banner as she offers him a job in SHIELD. What does that expression mean, or even hint at? Why does she look like an unnaturally attractive teenager who's challenged by nothing more demanding or interesting than what fruit juice might be ordered from a breakfast menu? Beyond "stereotypically attractive", what does Yu's art here contribute to either the basic events of the story or its meaning in terms of character, sub-text, foreshadowing etc etc.
As with Banner, so with Hill, who's presented as a sweetly blank-faced if exceptionally beautiful and very young woman with a remarkably constricted range of responses. There's little sense of intelligence, guile, or heart in how Yu presents her at all, with the artist choosing instead to represent her as nothing more and nothing less than pretty if hard-edged. And so, she looks no more engaged or moved when she's just discovered Banner half-buried underneath a mass of rubble than she does when she's swinging a conveniently-placed wooden plank at his head. If the idea is that Hill possesses a remarkably good poker-face regardless of circumstances, then it's down to Yu to provide the subtle and telling variations which transmit her character and intentions underneath the mask. But between the modelesque, blunt-effect front of Agent Hill and the oddly unreadable Banner, the reader's left wondering what could be possibly be going on. Yes, Banner is looking to strike a deal with SHIELD, but why is he doing so? After all, his plan to work on improving humanity's lot while allowing SHIELD to put the Hulk's rampages to use is a clearly flawed one. Are we supposed to believe that either Banner or Hill believe that the Hulk can be let loose on a target and the consequences of that controlled? Surely not. And yet Yu's art lends us no sense at all of what to make of a Banner who seems to be both very smart, in terms of grasping his medical condition, and self-deluded, in terms of the Hulk's capacity to serve anyone else's agenda. Is this a transformed Banner who's gleeful when blackmailing Hill, or one putting forward a front while masking how desperate for sanctuary he is. Is this a man who's barely hanging on, or entirely in control, or perhaps a mixture of the two? Who can tell? The promise of the script, and that includes the potentially beguiling contradictions in Banner's plan, evaporates when it's superimposed over the constantly underinforming art.

Hill's first sighting of Banner, and for once there's an uncompromised sense that Banner's now is a jaunty, confident individual who's taking some pleasure in his situation.. Furthermore, there's at least some little response in Hill's face in panel 1 when first sighting Banner. It's the most informing sequence in the book in terms of emotion, although Hill's passive body language and focus on her tablet in the third panel is puzzling and undermines the drama of the moment. Why has she shifted from a measure of shock to an utter lack of interest?
Despite the weariness inspired by SHIELD's ubiquitous presence in yet another of this week's Marvel books, the basic premise of the Hulk as a WOMD in the hands of America's own law-unto-itself para-military is a fascinating one. So too is the idea of a Banner trying to create a life for himself while striving to cope with the intimidating shadow of the Hulk. But in the absence of the pathos which Yu's shiny, busy, dead-hearted pages fails to create, it's hard to care.

Waid's new direction for the Hulk is a potentially enthralling one, full of fascinating ideas and laced with forward momentum. Sadly, the art's nowhere near as smart as the script is, which leaves writer and artist working as well together as Banner and the Hulk have usually tended to. Indestructible Hulk could've been far more than its headline beats of Banner Schemes, Hill Calm'n'Pretty, Hulk Smash and Mad Thinker Bad, but sadly, that's pretty much all the reader's left with once it's finished.

Monday, 26 November 2012

On "Captain America" #1

In a world that's ever tending towards the post-modern, it's inevitable that just about every fictional hybrid that's conceivable - no matter how ludicrous and counterproductive - is eventually going to appear. Slamming together the qualities of previously distinct and apparently incompatible work in the search for novelty and sensation will inexorably inspire the kind of ill-worked fusions which would previously have been considered fit only for media-mocking parodies. So it is with Rick Remender's new take on Captain America, in which the writer and his artistic collaborators have appropriated a great deal of Jack Kirby's latter work on the character for a comic featuring not just super-adventuring hi-jinks, but also graphic wife-beating, physically invasive torture, and childhood trauma. It's a bizarre, enervating collision of substance and surface, in which the reader is pushed from a savage beating of the youthful Steve Rogers' mother - by his drink-sodden father - to a  battle with a crew of clearly pathetic eco-terrorists spouting later-era Kirby-speak. "You're far too late, Prince Protector of Pollution." embarrassingly shouts one of the Earth-threatening minions of the "Green Skull" at the entirely indomitable Captain, who's capable of clinging onto a vertically crashing bomber with a single wounded hand. How disconcerting, to find a grab-'em-by-the-pants, Saturday-Morning-pictures punchup following on from a sincerely meant if hammy kitchen sink mini-drama wherein a mother's face is beaten to a pulp by her drunken husband. From a scene in which we're faced with the traumatic consequences of one man's brutality to one in which there's no physical consequences of any importance for the brave and true Captain at all. It's a case of narrative whiplash which leaves the book's scene of spousal abuse feeling at best out-of-place, and at worst a gratuitous self-indulgence. Similarly, all the planet-saving punching in the world can't make the physics-defying powers of the adult Steve Rogers seem impressive, or even interesting and worthwhile, after his mother's been shown suffering such an excess of domestic violence.
Above is from scene 1 in Remender's Cap. It's a full-on, realistic depiction of spousal assault delivered in what appears to be a well-meaning and committed mix of cliche and sincerity. In the panels below the following paragraph is the scene which succeeds Mrs Rogers' beating. In that, very bad and entirely unrealistic super-people behave with a maximum of kitsch and a minimum of sense.The two scenes appear to come from quite different stories, with each of them following quite different rules. Put them together and the two seem to come from quite different planets, with the trivial content of most of the book finally seeming to swallow up everything that's anything but.

It's not that there's the slightest suspicion that the book's creators are approaching their work cynically. In fact, quite the opposite seems true. Although the excess of torture which appears later in Captain America is regrettably framed as just another playful marker of heroism and villainy, there's no doubt that all concerned are horrified by the idea and meaning of the beating at the beginning of the issue.  And yet, the shift from the tone and content of the first scene to that of the rest of the book means that Remender might as well have added a caption between the two stating "Don't take anything of what you read in this comic seriously at all". The rightfully serious shifts on a penny into the totally ridiculous, and little so undercuts the value of a depiction of savage domestic abuse as does it leading straight into a jamboree of absurd characters and out-there, deliberately silly plots. This is a book which is trying to mix and match form and content that just doesn't belong together unless a tremendous degree of care is invested in the matter. As such, everything in Captain America becomes reduced to popcorn entertainment, because most of it's so self-consciously daft and purposefully unconcerned with logic that it's impossible to take seriously. Yet. domestic violence is far too serious an issue to be used as the soap operatic seasoning for a superhero potboiler, no matter how Kirby-referencing it is, and the deleterious structure of the book works against its maker's best intentions.

Later, Remender has his artistic collaborators - John Romita and Klaus Janson - present us with several pages in which Steve Rogers is brutally tortured by Arnim Zola. As a very long metal probe is fearsomely thrust into our hero's chest, blood spurts and howls echo, and yet nothing will stop Captain America from wrenching himself free and escaping. It would be a shocking business if it wasn't so blatantly manipulative. In the foreground of the most explicit of the panels concerned - see the bottom of the page - we're presented with the appallingly violated and screaming superhero, while behind him is the patently silly figure of Zola spieling out his B-Movie villain banalities. What's both remarkable and depressing about all of this is that Remender and Romita have again made no serious attempt to reconcile the gratuitous use of real-world concerns with the comics-for-boys fun of it all. At the book's beginning, domestic violence was followed by light-hearted heroic adventuring. Here the appalling and the daft are all mixed in together. Consequently, torture is reduced, as it so often is, to a trope to show how butch and brave the victim is, and the silliness of the situation reduces the whole business to thrill-a-panel conflict and nothing but. (As with torture, so with wife-beating, as catastrophic social problems are reduced to drop-in melodramatic seasoning for the important business of showing how tough and admirable Roger's is.) That's particularly obvious when the tortured superhero hauls himself out of the hi-tech he's been insecurely strapped to and stumbles before a monster crying out, "I tried to tell! Why leave his body with arms?" Of course, why would any super-genius leave Captain America's arms largely unrestrained while he's being tortured, and how can we take anything seriously if that's so? For when the majority of the plot is actually a celebration of the nonsensical aspects of the super-book, everything in the book is tarred with the same brush. As such, Captain America is nothing but a parade of the most enthusiastically-presented and shallowly-constructed fannish cliches, with the reader being left to mash it all together - or not - into a consistent and satisfying narrative.
Above, we have explicit torture, and below, we have the gag that's supposed to make the whole business of Remender's I'm-only;y-playing-so-why-should-the-plot-make-sense approach amusing. Because torture in this context is, it seems funny, which leaves the sense that it and spousal abuse only exist to spice up and thicken what's otherwise a grimly thin comic.
It's not the logic-be-damned, anything-for-sentiment'n'thrills storytelling that so condemns this Marvel Now title, although it does mean that Captain America really isn't a comic that's for anyone who likes their books tightly-plotted and internally consistent. (Start listing the plot-holes in Remender's script and you'll be at it for a very long time indeed.) What ultimately sinks the comic is the suggestion of emotional and moral depth that the presence of the wife-beating scene combined with Rogers' "liberation" of Zola's child attempts to create. We're clearly supposed to associate Captain America with the boy he's escaped with, and the implication is that they've both been abused and they'll both end up bonding over their common suffering. It's a suggestion of meaning that seems designed to ground all the go-for-broke spectacle in a vague, eye-moistening air of emotion and importance.

But it doesn't succeed in achieving anything of the sort. The attempts to lend weight to Captain America #1 are as awkward and ill-judged as they're saccharine and unconvincing. For this isn't a book that actually deals with the real-world horrors which it tries to put to use. Instead, issues which should only be raised in order to be discussed in their own terms seem here to exist simply to make the superheroics of it all seem more substantial and affecting.  In truth, Captain America's an enthusiastic if paper-thin and shiny shoot-'em-up  which - inadvertently, no doubt - exploits serious social problems which ought to have been been left alone or treated with the immense respect they're due.


Friday, 23 November 2012

On "The Phoenix: The Weekly Story Comic"

James Turner's Star-Cat

In which the blogger, taking it for granted that you're well aware of how splendid the contents of The Phoenix are, digresses a touch to discuss a little of what makes it unique in today's market;

The Phoenix is so purposefully targeted at such a specific audience that it can be hard for the rest of us to remember that it exists. Outside of a relatively small number of branches of Waitrose and a sprinkling of eclectically-minded specialist shops, it's rarely seen on the shelves in the company of its comicbook peers. I can't even recall ever seeing a single advert for it. Instead, it depends in large part upon individual subscriptions in order to reach its readers, which allows it a significant degree of independence when it comes to how it presents itself to its audience. It doesn't have to both largely conform to and yet subtly stand out from the broad mass of children's comics dedicated to licensed TV product and the regrettable blokeishness of repackaged superhero books. Instead, it has to appeal to the parents who'll be stumping up the subscription fees while beguiling the core audience of literate and inquisitive 8 to 11 year olds who it'll be bought for. As such, it's a comic that's not only rarely seen in the mass market, but one which immediately stands out from its peers when it is. In short, The Phoenix doesn't particularly look or read like other comics because there are no other comics that it's directly in competition with.

From John & Patrice Aggs' "Zara's Crown"

Despite featuring an ambitiously wide variety of strips and editorial content, there's a clear - and perhaps deeply unfashionable  - theme which runs through and binds everything in The Phoenix. Unlike so much else in comics that's supposedly targeted at younger readers, nothing in its pages relies at all on the glorification of brute force or the kneejerk pleasures of opposing authority for opposition's sake. Conflicts in its pages aren't closed through the convenient cheats offered by the likes of indomitable fist-fighters or convenient dei ex machina. Instead, the comic's creators seem convinced that their mission to entertain comes hand-in-hand with the opportunity to encourage independent thinking in their young audience. Even in what might deceptively appear to be the most invigoratingly absurd of parodies, such as James Turner's quite wonderful Space-Cat, the reader's faced with the likes of smartly-plotted time-loops and alternate futures which constantly encourage the audience to wonder what could possibly come next. It's a mixture of a fundamental respect for the consumer's intelligence matched with idiosyncratic, ambitious and transparently clear storytelling, and it's used to emphasis the virtues of bright-mindedness over violence. Whether it's Zara and her friends being shown planning and executing the theft of the Crown Jewels, or Cogg and Sprockett's showdown with the Sun Emperor, there's always a smartly judged array of plot-elements in play which encourage the second-guessing of the story. At its most obvious, this fundamentally Reithian philosophy shows itself in the presence of playfully-framed maths problems, code-breaking exercises, and a checklist to be completed after studying a double-page spread full of the zombies of famous historical figures.

But wherever you turn to in The Phoenix, the content's designed to encourage the reader to think for themselves rather than passively waiting for the closing punch-ups to occur, and that's done in a way which takes it for granted that the audience wants to be challenged as well as entertained.

From Adam Murphy's "Corpse Talk", in which the dead Guy Fawkes is interrogated on the lack of professionalism inherent in his famous attempt upon the life of King James and Parliament.

The idea of a children's comic with a specific educational mission is hardly something new. Even in my lifetime, there's been the likes of the Eagle, with its distinctly Christian ethos, and Look & Learn, with its fundamentally conservative agenda. Yet no matter how dubious such driving purposes might seem now, both comics were of course massively successful and spawned undeniably classic strips such as Dan Dare and the Trigan Empire. To want a comic to be pedagogically productive isn't necessarily something's that antithetical to it being innovative and enjoyable too. Even the famously free-spirited 2000AD, which has always been associated with a determined reaction against the establishment-friendly comics of the Seventies, quite deliberately represented a radically left-wing way of seeing the world.
From Jamie Smart's "Bunny vs Monkey", in which the challenges of cloning drives the conflict in this splendidly farcical strip.
Where The Phoenix steps away from its forebears is in the accent it places not on the virtues of either conformity or resistance, elite values or mass culture, tradition or radicalism, but instead upon the central worth of independent-mindedness. And so, in Paul Duffield's The Heart Tree, the boy who's seeking to save his King learns that "no single man should be as important as an entire nation". (*1) In the Eagle, the saving of a beloved monarch would have probably been presented as a very fine thing indeed. In 2000AD, his death might well have been seen as a blow against privilege and tyranny. But here, the strip's meaning is a far more complicated one. What is a nation if it's not, as the traditions of fairy tales suggest, the extension of its ruler, and how has assuming that's so harmed both the powerful and the powerless? Duffield doesn't answer the question directly, and it'd be against the whole point of The Phoenix for him to do so. (In fact, he suggests that his youthful protagonist will spend the rest of his time alive without ever truly coming to grips with the problem.) For what's here isn't life reduced to them vs us, or to fight or be forced to grovel! For all that there's some rip-snorting adventures in The Phoenix, it's very much a 21st century approach to the idea of what it means to be an individual, and its strips brings with them no definitive answers beyond a gently enthusiastic exhortation to think more and think harder. In that, the comic's all about encouraging imagination and curiosity through the use of smart-framed enigmas embedded in bright-minded, good-humoured storytelling.

By which I mean, if I did have a kid or two of my own, I'd be buying them The Phoenix on a weekly basis. In the absence of any such a worthy excuse, I suppose I'll just have to keep buying it for myself instead.

From Robert Deas' "Troy Trailblazer", a sequence chosen just to emphasise that The Phoenix is first and foremost a comic designed to be a great deal of fun.

*1:- I wish I could've referenced the various strips in The Phoenix. It's hard not to give credit where credit's so obviously due, and from Simon Swift to Emperor Penguin, from Good Dog, Bad Dog to Gary's Garden, the comic's full of very good things. 

Find The Phoenix Comic here.

Next; back to the world of superheroes, where chance, muscle and stubbornness all too often drives and closes the plot. And yet, not always ....      

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

On Alex Raymond & Don Moore's "Flash Gordon: On The Planet Mongo"

It would be far easier to discuss those relatively few aspects of sci-fantastical fiction which haven't been in any way influenced by Alex Raymond and Don Moore's Flash Gordon. Even those genre creators who reject the associated traditions which Flash Gordon helped to shape are to a lesser or greater degree still reacting to the omnipresence of the strip's innovations. Yet the inspirational DNA that's shared by a host of sub-genres from space opera to the superhero is so saturated with Raymond and Moore's storytelling that it can be hard to notice just how influential they still are. After all, when the evidence of a team's achievements can still be seen in so much of what's current some 80 years later, it's all too easy to take the source material for granted. As such, re-reading the first three years worth of Raymond and ghost writer Moore's Sunday strips - as reprinted in Titan's Flash Gordon On The Planet Mongo - can all too easily become a process of noting how much of their achievement has appeared elsewhere in the stories of subsequent generations of creators. To be suddenly faced with the ur-text again is to counter-intuitively run the risk of losing sight of its importance, with the storytelling on the page being all too easy to reduce to a game of spot-the-influenced. There is, after all, no greater compliment than for an innovator's work to become a significant part of the taken-for-granted template for how a particular type of story is told. Yet that same process can also create the sense that the very best of work is all-too-familiar and unremarkable.

It's not just that the raw material of these stories has been used over and over again to represent Flash Gordon to new generations of consumers in a series of different mediums. (Anyone familiar with the 1980 movie, for example, will recognise a great deal of the narrative from 1934's strips that are reprinted here, although there's much - from the savagery of the Hawkmen to the shocking degree of racism - that will also be new to them.) Yet far beyond the Flash Gordon industry itself, Raymond and Moore's ideas and techniques are indisputably still at work. (Raymond is quite rightly remembered as the genius of the partnership, and yet there's no doubt that the quality of Flash Gordon improved once Moore came on board in August 1935.) That influence is nowhere as obvious as it is in the superhero book, where no month passes without scenes appearing which seem to be little more than a spit'n'polish update of the team's mid-Thirties triumphs. That the first few waves of comic book creators idolised and emulated Raymond is of course well known. To look again in particular at the earliest pages by Kirby and Kubert, Eisner, Fine and Kane is to see how adored and imitated Raymond's storytelling was. Yet even today, strange flashes of what he and Moore once created appear, as in the clear conceptual lineage which links the very first costume that Flash adopted on Mongo and Jamie McKelvie's inspiring new costume for Captain Marvel;
I'm not suggesting that the new Captain Marvel costume is a homage to that of Flash's. But there does appear to be a clear if distant line of influence, with Raymond's work having helped to establish several conventions for the superhero's costume which are still relevant today. In particular, there's the more-or-less ubiquitous chest insignia in place in the above frame from February 4th, 1934. Of course, the low collars cut from the shoulders to the chest are a far less commonly used element, and that's part - although only one aspect among many - of what makes JM's Captain Marvel costume feel so fresh and impressive.

Yet no matter how familiar much of Flash Gordon now appears to be, the phenomenal pace at which Raymond's work in particular developed helps to constantly jolt the reader out of any sense of complacency. Though much of the subject matter, and indeed some of the specific sequences, are so recognisable as to be almost invisible, the enterprise as a whole is powered by the most remarkable sense of ambition and progress. To read these stories is, as with few other strips, to recognise that the grammar of the adventure tale was being developed in ways which few other creators had ever pursued, let alone equalled. The 17 months which separated Raymond's first competent, promising steps on the strip and the unsurpassed comic-strip wonder that's the Hawkmen's attack upon the army of Azura - below - seems far, far too little time for the artist to have developed from admirable craftsman to master storyteller.

Just a detail of the Hawkmen assault referred to above, I fear.  But the original can be in all its original, innovative glory on page 107 of On The Planet Of Mongo

Just as fascinating as the extraordinary improvement in Raymond's skills are the less obvious, gradual changes in the attitudes which Flash Gordon appeared to represent. Of course, these are not stories which project anything of what today would be regarded as a liberal agenda. At times disturbingly racist and misogynistic, the Flash Gordon of this period was repeatedly the kind of cartoon whose values Fitzgerald's Tom Buchanan would endorse even as he condemned the vulgarity of the form itself. Yet there's a distinct if only partial decline in the most explicit aspects of the strip's attitude to race and gender over the years covered in On The Planet Of Mongo, and that's perhaps most obvious in the changing way in which Raymond and Moore presented Dale Arden;
7/1/34: In the first panel in which either character appears, Gordon is given a backstory that's as active as its advantaged. He's highly educated, a famous sportsman and, it seems, a rather privileged and prestigious gentleman too. (Later versions of the character which recast him as a naive, none-too-bright footballer or still-at-home ex-track star do seem to have been scarred off by the original Gordan's elite status.) By contrast, Arden is tellingly described as nothing but a "passenger", though her clothes, her plane ticket and her proximity to Gordon do strongly suspect that she's a wealthy member of the elite too. In the very next panel, of course, the plane's left wing will be sheered off by a comet and Arden will immediately step into her central role, namely that of lady-in-jeopardy requiring Gordon's saving attentions..
14/1/34: By the second strip, Gordon and Arden have been kidnapped by the deranged Dr Zarkov and taken on a suicidal rocket attack against the approaching Planet Mondo. (Academic learning - and it's always a male trait -  is often a sign of some kind of mental perversity in these early tales. The over-stressed Zarkov twice succumbs to mania while Ming's super-science has provided him with a fiendish dehumanising machine and the power to conquer worlds.) Though Arden is never allowed to actually land a blow on poor maddened Zarkov here, she does at least show herself capable of threatening - somewhat unconvincingly - physical harm. But overall, she's all too often the helpless female pining to be the recipient of one of Flash's heroic sorties.
14/1/34:- Just 5 panels later, Arden makes her debut as an unconscious victim needing Gordon's saving. Interestingly, there's a suspicion in this frame that there's already a romance burning between the two. When it started, we're never told, but the two of them are absolutely devoted to each other from this point onwards. It may be they bonded after their escape from the crippled, crashing plane, or perhaps they fell for each other while trapped in Zarkov's rocket-ship. (We're never told how long the journey from Earth to Mongo takes.) For my money, I'd like to think they were already lovers when we first see them, and that they were just pretending not to be intimate with each other while travelling because of the threat of scandal. The celebrity sportsman Gordon caught up in an unmarried tryst with the youthful socialite Arden? It would have been front page news in the quality as well as the gutter press.
21/1/34:- Both Gordon and Arden are to prove irresistible to the opposite sex of the various Mongian aristocracies that they encounter. There's just something about elite white Americans which entrances the various stereotypes - racial or not- who the Earth-folks run into. The Princess Aura - Ming's daughter - the water-breathing Queen Undina and Queen Azura all fall for the very sight of Gordon, while Arden captures the heart of both Ming and King Vultan, who lays aside an entire harem of Hawkwomen for her after a good leer and a single conversation. The solution to these various entanglements will - during this period - typically prove to be Gordon's derring-do or the quick thinking of one of his distinctly male sidekicks. While both are adored and often captured by their would-be lovers, one is forced to wait to be rescued while the other is perpetually the rescuer.
11/2/34:- Arden may have at first lacked anything at all of Gordon's heroic powers, but she was always as indisputably brave as she was 100% wet. Only ever begging for her beloved's well-being rather than her own, Arden was absolutely stoic even when chained up and threatened with terrible tortures, as she frequently was. Yet when convinced that Flash was dead, her will to resist the likes of Ming entirely departed. It's impossible to believe that Gordon would abandon all resistance under similar circumstances, but Arden obviously considered life without her beloved to be a meaningless business. Admittedly, Gordon did relax his reserve later in the year and declare to Princess Aura that he'd rather die than live without Arden. Yet, it's still hard to picture him simply giving up and marrying Ming's daughter if his Arden was to die.  (nb: It's worth noting that Ming wants to remove all "kindness, mercy (and) pity" from Arden before marrying her. His driving attraction towards her has nothing to do with anything beyond her "beauty", it seems. As mentioned before, the superior physical allure of the white American carried all before it.)
5/8/34:- It takes almost 8 months for Arden to start to develop beyond her lovelorn passivity. With Gordon cruelly locked up in the torture chamber of the Hawkpeople, Arden decides to seduce silly, brutal King Vultan. (This is not Brian Blessed's beloved rebel leader.) This is the first time that Arden has made use of her sexuality in the strip, but that and her blatant dishonesty are of course ultimately all necessary and virtuous deceptions. For the first time, Arden seems to be relaxed in her own body, playing with her hair and practically slouching. The irony, of course, is that she's a woman who's true character is most truthfully expressed through the use of more formal, demure body language. Though adopting the role of faithless temptress is hardly in itself a blow for equality, it does mark the point at which Arden begins to take an active role in the politics of the madhouses that she finds herself in. (At the same moment as she's beguiling Vultan, the enchained and largely naked Gordon is being threatened by the Princess Aura and a pair of hot-poker wielding state torturers. Arden does appear in less and less clothes from March 1934 onwards, but so too does Flash. The difference is that Gordon tends to loose his clothes during mortal combat, whereas Arden is so dressed by the various reprobates who've control over her.)
14/7/35:- A year has passed and finally Arden is starting to assert herself. Having become the whipped serving girl of the despicable Queen Azura, who's also drugged Gordon into becoming her lover, Arden steps forward and shows not just fortitude, but steel. Up until this point, Arden has been the eternal victim, forever being rescued by everyone from Thun the Lionman to the now-he's-dead, now-he's not Prince Rogo of the dwarfs. As such, this frame marks a considerable turning point for Arden. Though she never becomes anything which might be considered a feminist icon, she does become considerably more argumentative and determined. She's far more likely to complain to or even argue with Gordon, and at moments she's the only member of the cast who'll say a word to cross him. (Given that Gordon - the great American hero - has rather despicably embraced the role of King without a care for democratic principles, Arden actually becomes the closest thing to a loyal opposition, though she too seems remarkably unconcerned for the rights of the folks she lives amongst.) The rare appearance of what might be mistaken for a brief sparring match from a screwball comedy also playfully sparks up the narrative. Similarly, her body language becomes - according to circumstance - both more relaxed and more forceful. Rather than a perpetually passive focus for romantic and sexual longing, Arden finally begins to occupy the role of an individual of sorts rather than nothing but a type.
11/10/36:- Three months pass, and with Flash having finally earned the return of his ability to survive above the waves from Queen Undina, Arden briefly appears to have assumed the role of the strip's shrew. Yet Gordon and her are absolutely in agreement about the need to avoid any more bloodshed, and it's an agreement which quickly recasts her as the voice of sanity rather than the girlish avoider of struggle and, quite frankly, blokeish fun. Comfortably and sensibly clothed as an adult rather than a sex object, Raymond has also provided her with a far less passive, doe-eyed appearance.
6/12/36:- Almost three years after her first appearance and Arden is finally swinging a weapon at the same time as her fellow exiled Earthmen. True, she's wielding the least impressive rodent-skewer on display, but in the last frame of the previous Sunday's strip, she'd lacked even that. (It' had looked as if she'd have to cower behind the menfolk, as she had so many times before.) Furthermore, it's poor Zarkov who proves unable to keep the fearsome flying rodents at bay, and who succumbs to a savage mauling and temporary madness, while it's Arden who survives and attempts to treat his injuries.
10/1/37:- In one of the final strips in this collection, Raymond and Moore present the reader with the evidence of an at-least partially transformed relationship between Arden and Gordon. After all, there's no more symbolic gesture of a sharing of power between the genders than a man being told to throw his gun to a woman so that she can save him. (We may not get to see Arden using the gun, but there's no doubt that she does so.) Though it was Arden who'd originally been caught in the quicksand which now holds Gordon, it's the mutual respect and cooperation between the two which allows them both to survive. This isn't, of course, the arrival of an equal relationship between the two of them, as is indicated by Gordon's attempt to praise a grown woman through the insulting throwaway, "good girl". But it does shows that their relationship, and Arden's character, has come a considerable distance since the strip began some thirty-six months before. As a reader who's not familiar with the strips from beyond this date, I can only hope that the couple's relationship continued to develop in the same way.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

The 10 Best Superhero Comics Of 2012?

Of course, 2012 isn't over yet. Hopefully, there's tens of wonderful superhero comics yet to come. But as with last Wednesday provisional list of the best original graphic novels of the past 12 months - here - I'd appreciate your nominations for the most outstanding superhero tales as published this year.

And so, in no order of preference and as an encouragement to your own suggestions, here's my own top 10 of 2012 where the cape'n'chest-insignia book is concerned ....

Uncanny X-Men #14, by Kieron Gillen, Dusty Weaver et al, Marvel
The Bulletproof Coffin, by Shaky Kane & David Hine, Image,
"Hawkeye" # 3, by Matt Fraction, David Aja et al Marvel
"Batgirl" # 12, by Gail Simone, Ardian Syaf et al, DC
"Daredevil" #16, by Mark Waid, Chris Samnee et al, Marvel
"Thor God Of Thor", By Jason Aaron, Esad Ribic, et al, Marvel
"Gods And Science", by Jamie Hernandez, Fantagraphics
"Journey Into Mystery" #645, by Kieron Gillen, Stephanie Hans, et al, Marvel
"Batman Incorporated" #3, by Grant Morrison, Chris Burnham, et al, DC Comics
"Wolverine And The X-Men" #17, by Jason Aaron & Michael Allred, et al, Marvel

That was my year where the superhero book's concerned, or at least, the year so far. Tell me yours.

On "Thor God Of Thunder" #1 & "Fantastic Four" #1

In which the blogger reviews several of Marvel's  new Now! titles, a business that inevitably involves spoilers;

Jason Aaron's script for his first issue of Thor focuses on the not inconsiderable drawbacks of a prospectively eternal life. Portraying his protagonist during three key moments of his past, present and future, Aaron succinctly sketches out Thor's absurdly powerful capabilities while simultaneously suggesting their limitations. To the ninth century's God of Thunder, what passes as immortality has brought with it an overconfidence bordering on arrogance. To Thor's future self, besieged alone in the Great Hall Of Asgard by an army of terrors, century upon century of life has brought incalculable loss, senility and infirmity. And where today's Odinson is concerned, nothing so accentuates the pitfalls of the possibility of athanasia as the sight of a room full of the corpses of giant alien gods, left hanging from meat hooks for several hundred years after having been slowly tortured to death. Artist Esad Ribic's impressively disturbing depiction of the relatively tiny and agoraphobically isolated Thor faced with a room of murdered colossi is perhaps the single most unsettling sight in any superhero comic this year.

To the reader who's either unfamiliar with Thor or unconvinced about why they ought to be interested in his adventures, this debut is an impressively tense and engrossing introduction. To those of us who've enjoyed something of the character's adventures before, this innovative and fresh take - far more Robert E. Howard than Hal Foster or Stan'n'Jack - suggests a fusion of outright horror with fantasy that promises to be well worth the sticking with.

Matt Fraction's script for Fantastic Four #1 makes for an awkwardly disjointed if often undeniably charming experience. It jumps backwards and forwards through time and situation as if Fraction had been concerned that his tale just wasn't as compelling in itself as it ought to be. As such, it's far easier to remember the issue as a number of discrete and on-occasion entertaining scenes than it is to recall being caught up in the forward momentum of it all. At moments, it's even hard to tell what the relationship between a particular incident and the story as a whole might be. Why, for example, were three pages given over to the Thing's interruption of a street-fight in his old neighbourhood, and why was he so very concerned about footage of his doing so appearing on the net? The intention appears to have been to give each cast member a defining moment of their own. Sadly, doing so reduces Ben Grimm to an easily embarrassed and largely ineffective old curmudgeon, while Sue Richards is portrayed solely in terms of her being a loving and attentive mother to the Baxter Building's extended family of super-kids. Though the scenes of her matriarchal duties are the most touching in the book, they also carry the unfortunate sense that the Invisible Woman's defining characteristics are those of a housewife. She's in charge of meals, comforting distressed nippers and even supervising the kid's pre-bedtime rituals. Anyone new to the Fantastic Four could be forgiven for thinking that they were being told Sue Richards was the ideal homemaker and little else. Even when the formidable artistic team of Mark Bagley and Mark Farmer show her touchingly tucking in one of her charges while Dragon Man sweetly reads in the background, it's hard not to wonder why the men of the household aren't helping.

Yet threaded through the longueurs and miscalculations are a series of undoubtedly fascinating enigmas. How will Reed Richards save himself and his team-mates from the fatal condition which is afflicting him and threatening them? What will the planned voyage through time and space in search of a cure involve, and why has Richards decided to hide the truth of both illness and mission from his wife, his brother-in-law and his best friend? Match those narrative snares with the appeal of scenes showing, for example, the Human Torch dining Darlo in a flying saucer in the Negative Zone, and there's an inarguable agreeableness about much of what's on show. It may not be enough to convince the curious and as yet uncommitted to return next month. But it will most probably encourage a significant number of readers to keep an eye on things in the hope that reports of tighter storytelling on Mr Fraction's part begin to appear..