Thursday, 3 January 2013
On "Arrow" #2 & "My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic" #1
It's a more-than familiar tale in its broadest outlines, but it's told with energy, invention and conviction. The community has been insidiously corrupted, its citizens reduced to the status of dead-eyed zombies, and only a tiny cadre of valiant souls can perceive the threatening evil for what it is. Dearly-loved friends and family have been taken hostage, the few safe refuges are surrounded by furious, menacing antagonists, allies and weapons have been desperately collected together, and there's even mention of ninjas as the thoroughly compelling first chapter comes to a close.
But enough, for the moment, of writer Katie Cook and artist Andy Price's splendid My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic #1. First, let's deal with DC's successful attempt to reduce the dullardathon that's The CW's Arrow to even more facile levels of bolted-together-from-cliche storytelling. Ironically, Green Arrow's comicbook adventures have often featured both a conspicuously liberal agenda and the highest quality of writing and art. By contrast, the TV show has wallowed in dull-minded spectacle informed by the brutal, simplistic myths of frontier justice, seasoned only with a saccharine fix of lowest grade soap featuring glamorously beautiful actors struggling to bring the most wooden of stereotypes to life. But even the tacky glamour of all those beguilingly gym-toned, taut-abbed actors playing at being impossibly rich and implausibly troubled dissipates on the comic-book page, where many of the artists involved struggle to represent recognisable likenesses, let alone physical allure. Similarly, the hyper-kinetic indulgences of the TV series where it comes to action set- pieces - all jump-cuts and slow-mo in carefully over-shadowed sets - aren't available to the comic take on the property, meaning that what's at least mind-wipingly distracting at first on the screen is here just two-a-penny super-heroics. Without that befuddling froth of sex and violence, what have the creators of DC's Arrow brought to the mix in order to ensure that the comic book excels in its own right?
The answer, sadly, is nothing at all. As you can see from the opening page of Wendy Mericle and Sergio Sandaval's "Fathoms", the experience of reading Arrow - whether in a digital or printed form - is often as flat and alienating as can be. As with so many of today's comic books, an attempt appears to be being made to replicate the experience of watching television. And so, there's our all-too-familiar friend the horizontal panel being used to present the most literal, straight-forward narrative that's imaginable. Why anyone would feel any kind of interest in the above sequence, for example, is difficult to imagine. On the screen, and passing at a rate of knots, it might serve as a mildly diverting scene-setter. But here, it's a waste of space, lacking pace, fascination, action or emotion. For the reader who's already avidly consumed the TV series, there may be some flicker of recognition at the events in play, but even there, it's a great deal of space that's consumed by very little of any consequence at all. In short, the reader's being treated as an idiot, who's presumed to be so easily satisfied that they'll swallow the thinnest of fare.
Similarly, plots whose fundamental weaknesses might have been partially obscured by the Sturm und Drang of Arrow on TV here immediately reveal themselves to be at best hackneyed and at worst quite overwhelmingly stupid-minded. From the first category - if we're being charitable - comes Marc Guggenheim, Andrew Kreisberg and Mike Grell's "Moscow", in which our hero just jets over to the Russian capital and heroically shuts down a sex slave ring simply through being exceedingly bold and courageous. Quite where his ability to speak and understand fluent Russian under extreme duress comes from is unexplained, as is his astonishing knowledge of how to get around Moscow with nothing but a rope-arrow and a bow. At best, a cack-handed homage to thriller strips such as Modesty Blaise, it does at least succeed in containing not a single moment of the slightest individuality beyond Mike Grell's ever-idiosyncratic artwork. Indeed, "Moscow" is embarrassingly shameless in its lack of ambition, seeming as it does to suggest a belief that the audience will pretty much swallow anything that it's given so long as its been industrially premasticated before being sold to them. As such, the closing caption, which ends with a particularly unrousing declaration that " ... as long as there's evil in the world, my role will be to fight it", sums up exactly how smugly cynical and lazy the script is.
But even its complacency pales before the unalloyed imbecility of the same writers' work on "Diggle". In it, the reader is presented with the supposedly heartwarming tale of Sergeant Diggle's service in Afghanistan, in which he's shown ignoring the most basic aspects of his responsibilities and causing the deaths of at least five vehicles-worth of his fellow Green Berets. Of course, this is sold not as less of a crime against his comrades, and more of an ultimately inspiring drama designed to counter-intuitively fire up our pity and respect for the man who so needlessly caused this disaster in the first place. And just so we don't pay attention to the substance rather than the sentiment of what we're being shown, we're also offered Diggle's solo, uber-macho massacre of a troop of Taliban, who have, we're told, "No humanity!" at all. (Diggle, who's obviously saturated with the quality, kills them all while bearing the apparently redeeming burden of "rage" at his own mistake.) It's a sequence which is apparently designed to fire up our blokeish admiration while obscuring as best as can be achieved the fact that there'd have been no combat at all if not for the idiot Sergeant himself. As unpleasant as it's utterly unbelievable, as manipulative as it's mindless, it can be bought as a 0.99c download from Comixology, and I can only encourage you to enjoy its parade of nittwitnessness, contrivance and ethical vacuity.
Producing a worthwhile comicbook tie-in of a TV show is of course no easy matter, requiring as it does the ability not just to grasp what makes the original product appealing, but the skill and good judgement to adapt it to a quite different medium. IDW's reprinting of last year's My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic #1 shows exactly how the trick can be played. Rather than falling back on the short-cuts of genre banalities and a less-is-less evocation of the source material, Cook and Price have enthusiastically embraced the opportunities of the comic while - unlike Arrow - working to entrance the neophyte reader as much as the died-in-the-wool fan. The result is nothing other than an unqualified triumph, and I speak as a reader who not only lacks any previous experience of the franchise, but who instinctively blenches at the slightest mention of the likes of "cuti-points" and "Ponyville". But here, the audience is presented with storytelling which delights in offering much more than a shallow suggestion of mood tacked onto to the slimmest of plots. Cook and Price delight in making sure that the world they present has depth as well as action, character as well as plot-contrivances, wit in addition to witticisms. and their panels always contain layers of information and emotion rather than single, naked plot-beats.
As such, Ponyville is alive with detail which suggests that, should we able to step into each frame, the world depicted there would continue on and on off-panel. (To see just one millimetre beyond the bounds of Arrow's borderlines would, it's hard not to suspect, only reveal otherwise-empty studios and a skeleton crew with their minds on being somewhere else.) The careful, gleeful aspects of world-building which Cook and Price's use to bring their sets of kitchens and battle-grounds, libraries and street-scenes alive never distract from the plot, but they do constantly ground events in an society and an environment which always seems fascinating, and, therefore, well worth being concerned about. From the imperiously disinterested sight in the background of the lion Mr Mc-Bitey Pants at the tale's beginning to the undeniably creepiness of the emergence of the evil duplicates at its climax, MLP:FIS #1 carries even the cynical observer along with the authority of its creators' skill and conviction.
Unlike the hermetically-sealed Arrow, which refers only to itself and to the least taxing of genre conventions, The Return Of Queen Chrysalis is considerably strengthened by its creators' determination to reach out to and adapt aspects of the broader pop culture. And so, there's more than a slight suggestion of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers and even Aliens in the scenes of abduction and replacement, while there's walk-ons from the likes of the Blues Brothers and Magnum PI and even the appropriation of Ben Grimm's well-worn battle-cry. (*1) Harnessing the mechanics of their sturdily-built quest plot to an invigorating range of broader influences gives the work a series of jump-on-here snares for the more unfamiliar, if not actively cynical, reader, while also adding a unique value to the comic-book adventures of a property that's typically presented as a cartoon. In short, what's been lost in the jump from TV to the page has been compensated for by an attention to the strengths of the comic book form.
I may not know my Cheerlee from my Celestia, or understand anything of how such disturbingly overcute horses could have constructed an advanced culture without opposable thumbs. But I do know enough to recommend that unless Arrow makes an appearance in My Little Pony, the horses' solo appearances are a far, far better bet for your time and money when it comes to heroic, action/adventure comics.
*1:- Though the "g" has been returned to its place at the end of "cloberrin'".