Sunday, 27 January 2013
On Young Avengers #1, Minutemen #6, Jennifer Blood #20 & Masks #3
How can Before Watchman still be staggering on? What could possibly be left to strip-mine from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' work? There's certainly nothing but homoeopathic traces of Watchmen's quality to be found in Darwyn Cooke's Minutemen #6. Instead, there's everything you'd expect from a soulless and mercenary ransack of a best-left-alone classic. In short, Minutemen has ended exactly as it began. The persistent reliance on a consistently counterproductive nine-panel grid. The enervating dependence upon entirely inessential aspects of the original's backstory. The lethargic, space-filling pace of the storytelling in the absence of anything substantial to say. Cooke hasn't just failed to add anything at all of value to Watchmen over the course of Minutemen's run. He's even forgotten to convincingly flesh out the bare bones of his own hackneyed endeavour, layering as he has one cliche over another as if that might pass for a well-worked story. No matter how much sentimentality and bluster Cooke's struggled to trowel over its pages, he's never succeeded in making Minutemen seem like anything but a corporate-mandated, trademark-exploiting stunt. In The Last Minute, he offers up the destruction of secret base, the murder of a super-bloke, and the revelation of an undreamed-of string-puller too. You'd think that there'd be something in all of that which didn't feel forced, irrelevant and shallow, but nothing of the sort arrives. Even those moments when Cooke's undoubted ability to evoke a genre-savvy, film-set sharp sense of the past feel almost entirely hollow, since all he's really doing is filling up space on the way to fulfilling his quota of pages. If anything at all is transmitted by Cooke's storytelling, it's the air of a determined and professional slog to obscure the lack of a worthwhile yarn with 140+ pages of empty-hearted distraction. At the very least, a pot-boiler ought to give the impression of simmering every once in a while, but Minutemen never once threatened to do so.
There's nothing of Before Watchmen's cynical, coin-counting ennui to be found in Masks #3, but there is something of the former's lack of distinctiveness and purpose. Unlike Cooke's superficial and apparently disengaged work, writer Chris Roberson's enthusiasm for his own gathering of crimefighting vigilantes seems evident. But though Roberson's set-up of a fascist coup in the New York of 1938 is an undeniably fascinating one, there's little of city, era or indeed anything but pantomime fascism to be found here. Instead, Masks quickly reveals itself to be a stultifyingly formulaic tale of how a small cadre of virtuous and hard-fighting vigilantes join together to counter overwhelming odds, etc, etc, etc. It's an efficiently crafted narrative, as you'd expect from Roberson, and it's heartfelt too, with a obvious and touching respect for the source material that's constantly on show. But in focusing on the traditions of the by-the-numbers comicbook team-up, Masks comes across as little but more-of-the-same. So much of the potential for distinctiveness which the setting of late-Depression New York offers is squandered on a story which, with a little effort, could be set in any city and at any time with just about any stereotypical cast of day-saving protagonists. As such, Masks seem hardly any different from the most typical of modern day superhero fare.
To be fair, some of the reasons for the book's lack of individuality are clearly beyond Roberson's control. With so many of his cast sharing a similar appearance, power-set, ethnicity, gender, and even class identity, he's reliant upon the collaboration of an artist who can ensure that everyone appears both distinct and engaging. Regrettably, that's not something which artist Dennis Calero appears able to achieve, while there's also little of the age to be experienced in his listlessly photo-referenced scenes of the period.Without anything but the comicbook equivalent of a guide-vocal to follow in Calero's art, the third issue of Masks is finally sunk by its lack of any notably compelling sequences. In truth, it's mostly just a comicbook's worth of exposition and foreshadowing, and although that may perhaps work as a dry but essential part of a collected edition, it makes for a thin and unengaging read in an issue that's cost $3.99. Given how promising the idea of a pulp-era super-team is, and considering the beguiling possibilities of a tale set in that particular time and place, Masks is an expensive and disappointing under-achievement
By contrast, the creators of Young Avengers #1 seem totally unable to resist the compulsion to infuse their work with a great exuberant mass of pop culture, social politics and creative ambition. From the ethics as well as the pleasures of sex with partners and strangers alike to the emotional temptations of access to a multiverse, Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie appear set on describing the experience of late adolescence rather than just the comicbook traditions of the same. In that Young Avengers is a superhero comic where the requisite costumes and powers and brawls are smartly put to use to playfully discuss everyday life in the 21st century everybit as much as they're enjoyed for their own undeniable virtues. It's a dual purpose which means that Young Avengers is grounded in character rather than type, and driven by an outward-looking curiosity and enthusiasm rather than a fannish longing for yet more comfortably pre-masticated product.
At times, there's a vivifying desire to innovate that sparks up off of the pages of "I Have No Powers...". The fractured, multi-panneled and wordless double-page spread which shows the book's first melee, for example, succeeds in being surprising and yet perfectly transparent and compelling too. Similarly effective as well as innovative is the counterpoint provided by a slowly unspooling, Ellison-referencing title, which makes for a considerable belly-laugh when its punchlines are reached. Yet the point of the storytelling is always to precisely describe the experiences and responses of Gillen and McKelvie's cast. This is anything but change and novelty for the sake of it, and often the most impressive aspects of the writing and art are the less immediately conspicuous aspects of it. Rarely, for example, has a mass of first-issue exposition been channeled to an audience in a less conspicuous and more entertaining fashion. Similarly, there's few if any artists at work in the super-book today who can inspire so much empathy for a cast through the panel-to-panel precision and subtlety of their character's emotions.
Those who know what they like and like only what they know may be wary of such an idiosyncratic project. Where are the tie-ins, where are the Events? Where does all of this fit in the MU's broader context? They may even suspect that crimes even worse than being peripheral to the continuity could be being perpetrated. What if Young Avengers arrives complete with an elitist's hijacking contempt for traditional super-heroics? Nothing could be further from the truth. There's not a panel that's arch and excluding to be found here. Instead, there's a sincere regard for the super-book in addition to the conviction that it needn't be so disconnected from everything but itself. And so, there's no rejection of the decades-worn tropes of other-worldly analogues, for example, but there is a belief that they ought to be used for matters of emotional substance as well as golly-gee-wow spectacle. True, the politically reactionary may well find reason to resume bleating about the supposedly liberal bias of the Big Two's output. Both writer and artist are clearly disinterested in labelling any of their diverse cast as immoral or inferior, and homophobes in particular will be just as appalled by what's shown here as they will have been by Allan Heinberg's incarnation of the title. But then, that's just one more reason to enthusiastically applaud the arrival of this new volume of Young Avengers.
If only Al Ewing had as able an artistic collaborator to dovetail with on Jennifer Blood #20. Eman Casallos' pages are competent enough, and in places they're unarguably effective, but they're sadly not the equal of Ewing's remarkable script. In what's a celebration of the American thriller tradition everybit as much as a satire of the crimefighting-psychopath trope, Storm's A-Coming depicts Jessica Blute's inevitably futile and incendiary attempts to start over in the isolated rural town of Revere, New Mexico. As always with Ewing's work here, horror and laughter tend to co-exist on the page rather than taking turns to dominate particular scenes. On the one hand, Blood's attempts to hide away her family and resume what appears to be a typical existence is a clearly farcical and frequently hilarious business. Yet it's also a tale of a clearly baffled and perpetually deluded serial killer whose children have been reduced to traumatised trophies by their mother's psychoticism. Though Ewing succeeds in making something pathetically vulnerable out of Blute's inability to make sense of the world around her, he never suggests that's she's anything other than a curse to herself and everyone else she encounters. When he has her declare that Revere's hungover, street-vomiting county sheriff is a bad example to her children, it's impossible not to laugh. There are, after all, few worse examples than Jennifer Blood. Yet the very fact that she's expressed such a judgement is thoroughly chilling too. Does Blute ever disapprove of somebody that she doesn't also end up killing, and what is it that Ewing's suggesting lies at the heart of the will for conformity in small town communities? To have ensured that the reader pities Blute for her abnormal psychology without ever once considering it as a marker of order-establishing heroism is no little achievement.
But there's no place to hide in the thrilleresque realism which Ewing's script demands for an artist who at times struggles to convincing portray the forms that he's depicting. Though the emotions of Casallos' characters tend to be clear, his still-evident struggles with anatomy mean that they're rarely as compelling as they ought to be. Similarly, his backgrounds often suggest barely-functional stage-sets drawn largely from the imagination, and that again undermines Ewing's purpose. (Unlike Calero's similarly under-par work on Masks, Casallos lacks the opportunity to hide his weaknesses behind noirishly dark scenes dominated by muscular superpeople.) At moments, Casallos does succeeds in catching the nature of the characters he's describing. The final shot of Sheriff Carter suggests a man who may just be as formidable as he's an alcoholic liability, while Pruitt's role as Blood's personal fury is both underlined and undermined by the presence of the intravenous drip that she's forced to wheel around behind her. In both cases, Casallos succeeds in convincing evoking the physicality of the characters while also emphasising the particular mix of tragedy and comedy which distinguishes them. Yet Jennifer Blood is currently one of the best-written comics on the market, and it will sadly never generate the sales and acclaim which Ewing's writing deserves until its art becomes exceptional rather than adequate. If a Steve Dillon or a Jamie McKelvie or a Henry Flint were contributing to Jennifer Blood, I suspect that there'd be talk of Eisners and prestige hardbacked collections. As it is, it's a comic whose potential remains in part unrealised on the page, even as its scripts ensure that it's a must-read monthly.