Monday, October 31, 2011

Karl Kesel is a Mad Genius

Just here plugging Karl Kesel's new web project, Mad Genius Comics, which currently features "Johnny Zombie Christmas," a take on the 12 Days of Christmas (so, in poem form!).

I've been a fan of Karl Kesel since his Superman work in the 1990s, and generally of zombies since they first walked onto the scene (feel free to laugh at that). I love that he's taken a kind of Shaun of the Dead approach to "Johnny Zombie."

Definitely something to keep an eye on!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Green Lantern: A Reappraisal

Readers of this blog will already know that I loved this past summer's Green Lantern, now released on home video. The reappraisal in the title of this post isn't intended to suggest I've changed this opinion, but that I continually hope others might change theirs.

I've suggested previously that Green Lantern may have suffered because of its ambition, to introduce a whole franchise to mass audiences and be expansive about it, and that is a statement I will stand by. I think another problem is that it's such a hard property to reconcile with the other big screen superhero adventures audiences have enjoyed to date, a little more context is needed to understand it and what it was meant to accomplish.

The movie is similar in many ways to The Departed, the Martin Scorsese gangster flick about a dualogy centered on Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon working opposite ends of a case that hopes to bring down Jack Nicholson. DiCaprio is the good cop who is disguised as a bad thug; Damon is the bad thug disguised as a good cop. The parallel structure of the storytelling continues throughout the film; as Damon grows in confidence and unfluence, DiCaprio unravels to a breaking point. Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds) and Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard) are set about a similar trajectory.

Hal is the privileged son who keeps screwing up his life because he lacks full confidence in himself. Hector is the privileged son whose life keeps getting screwed up because he has failed to earn any respect in his life. Both pivot their emotional lives around absent fathers and Carol Ferris (Blake Lively), a potential love interst neither truly deserves, because they themselves won't allow the possibility.

Hal of course becomes a hero, and Hector a villain. The difference truly comes when Hector embraces his new role, and Hal doesn't.

Green Lantern is a different hero from what audiences have traditionally been presented in that he is thrust into a tradition and alliance. It's his ability to understand this that sets Hal apart, and the failure of the audience to do the same that spoils the film's chances of being considered a success. Hal's real allies are Carol and Tom (Taika Waititi, who deserves a shoutout for his scene-stealing role), not his GL Corpsmen Sinestro (Mark Strong), Tomar-Re (Geoffrey Rush) or Kilowog (Michael Clarek Duncan), but that's just for now (but don't tell anyone!), and his relationships with them are as important as anything else in the story.

His relationship with fear is also why the villain is the "big gas cloud" Parallax, why the climax involves willpower more than anything, because that's what Green Lantern is all about, both the concept and the film (wisely).

If The Departed is about identity, then Green Lantern is about self-knowledge. It's a superhero film but it's also a comedy and a drama and a sci-fi epic. And it handles all these aspects so well it's confusing to anyone who thought superheroes were only one-dimensional (even after The Dark Knight), who counted on them to be flashy action flicks with colorfully-dressed individuals colliding in big explosions.

So, I beg for further consideration of one of the year's best films.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Quarter Bin #20 "Another Flashpoint"

I became something of a eager cheerleader for Geoff Johns’ FLASHPOINT this summer, enjoying not only the alternate reality and the ways it shed new light on familiar characters, but how Johns shaped everything around Barry Allen, The Flash.

Do you want to know something funny? There was another FLASHPOINT more than a decade ago that did exactly the same thing.

I became aware of this other FLASHPOINT by digging through the back issue bins at Heroes & Dragons late in the summer. That’s one of the great things about comics, how you can discover something totally new about a character you thought you already knew everything about, because creators in this medium are constantly and fearlessly reexamining and reinventing the mythology (which is I suppose another reason why I prefer DC over Marvel, because of its willingness to do this on a near-constant basis, as evidenced most famously recently by the “New 52”).

During the 1990s, DC made a habit of this instinct with its series of Elseworlds specials, many of which focused on Batman and Superman (naturally), which more or less culminated in KINGDOM COME (though for some fans, SUPERMAN: RED SON is a more recent exemplar), alternate versions of familiar characters from a post-CRISIS era missing multiple realities. SUPERBOY and THE KINGDOM introduced the concept of Hypertime, and that was the first chink in the armor and dignity of Elseworlds, and then 52 came around and brought back the traditional concept of multiple earths that had come to symbolize the greater DC approach to storytelling, and became a heavy feature of COUNTDOWN TO FINAL CRISIS. When Elseworlds more or less became mainstream, it lost all forward momentum as an independent entity (let that be a lesson to Marvel’s Ultimate line, but that’s really a completely different story) and disappeared from the publishing schedule altogether.

Before that happened, however, before the most recent FLASHPOINT altered reality to a kind of event Elseworlds, there was another FLASHPOINT. Officially:

From December 1999 to February 2000.

Considered the first regular format Elseworlds mini-series (KINGDOM COME had been prestige format; even THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS might be considered a retroactive Elseworlds tale), this FLASHPOINT also featured Barry Allen, deep in the heart of Wally West time, after Mark Waid had successfully transformed him into one of DC’s hottest characters, and before Geoff Johns formally claimed him for the next five years. Written by Pat McGreal and featuring art by Norm Breyfogle (not to mention covers by Stuart Immonen) , the original FLASHPOINT examined an alternate timeline where Barry was paralyzed early in his career, which resulted in a drastically altered reality in which he struggles to make science instead of The Flash to be his lasting legacy.

Before I talk too much about it, though, I want to return to the subject of how I ended up discovering it. I say “discover” because until I found it in the back issue bins, I hadn’t been aware of its existence, since it was originally published during the early period of my first and most permanent (at the time) break from comics, which began earlier in 1999 and lasted roughly for the next five years. Though I tried to keep tabs of the major developments during that time, something like FLASHPOINT would have been hopelessly unnoticed, something only active readers would have been aware of, especially since it didn’t feature Batman or Superman.

I didn’t know what I’d found, obviously. I bought only the first issue, even though the first two were available. After reading it, I felt like a fool, because the storytelling and art were timeless, just as relevant in 2011 as when they were originally published. Frantically, and because at the time I only had access to Escape Velocity on the other side of Colorado Springs, I hoped I might find the remaining issues, but to no avail. At the next opportunity, I revisited Heroes & Dragons, and as I’d hoped, the second issue was still there, but then, only that one. The third and concluding chapter remained elusive. I visited the Internet in hopes of remedying this, but it appeared that I would be out of luck. That issue was either unavailable or prohibitively priced. I believe some readers were mistaking one FLASHPOINT for another at that time. A little while later, though, I tried again. This time FLASHPOINT #3 was reasonably priced. I didn’t hesitate. Soon I’d read the whole story.

There are several intriguing elements to FLASHPOINT, not the least that it features Barry Allen, and Wally West only in a marginal capacity. It pivots around the assassination of JFK; actually, in this Elseworlds tale, Kennedy lives, because Barry saves him, at the cost of his own paralysis. While a part of the reader (assuming they’re as happy as I am for Kennedy to receive a second lease on life) is happy at this change in the timeline, there’s also a permeating sadness that the Fastest Man Alive has been confined to a wheelchair (not specifically for the first time in comics lore; consider THE FLASH ANNUAL #7 from 1994, part of a year that featured Elseworlds across all the annuals), that he still makes a difference in the world, but from a position of impotence. His partner in science is none other than Vandal Savage, a specter over most of the stories, since he is most traditionally depicted as a villain. Those expecting McGreal to spring his villainy in a typically over-the-top manner will be pleasantly surprised. It’s the restraint of the tale that truly brightens it.

Pat McGreal is not a creator I was previously overly familiar with, so FLASHPOINT serves as a touchstone to a brilliant career that has otherwise been obscured by the passage of time. That alone is reason enough to publicize the existence of this other FLASHPOINT. The book itself deserves recognition. As popular or talked-about as The Flash has been in the past twenty years, it’s a franchise that has remained remarkably restrained in spinoff material (which makes the fact that Geoff Johns made his FLASHPOINT all the more remarkable). When the existence of something like the 1999-2000 FLASHPOINT becomes known, it’s understandable but lamentable that it has been allowed to sink away from memory. I don’t know whether the competing FLASHPOINT will compound that error or make it easier to overcome. If someone creates another FLASHPOINT a decade from now, maybe the legacy will lift them all up together.

Until such point, it may simply remain a treasure of the back issue bins.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The New 22

Confession time: this reformed Comics Reader comics junkie has been relapsing in the past month, thanks to the dastardly “New 52” from DC Comics. I’ve made several trips to Heroes & Dragons, and even bought some comics at Barnes & Noble (the evil remainders from the loss of Borders). Heroes hasn’t exactly made (or perhaps been in the position to) a solid effort to support the “New 52,” so there are notable omissions from the comics I intended to at least sample, including NIGHTWING, RED HOOD & THE OUTLAWS, WONDER WOMAN, and BLACKHAWKS). I’ve heard plenty about the supposed controversy surrounding “sexy” Starfire in OUTLAWS, disappointment that DC didn’t take the opportunity to align their comics version of the character with the cartoon variation kids enjoyed last decade. Maybe I was concentrating too much on Jason Todd finally getting his own series, but I never saw this one coming. If none of those kids picked up an actual regular DC comic in all the time since TEEN TITANS animated itself on the small screen, “New 52” would never have made a difference. Starfire in OUTLAWS is perfectly consistent with the character as comics fans have known her since her debut. Why should that have changed? Because some Internet commentators wanted to draw attention to themselves?

Anyway, so as suggested, I bought twenty-two new comics over the past handful of weeks, not all of them from the “New 52,” so let’s dive in without further adieu.

Kyle Rayner debuted eighteen years ago in the aftermath of Hal Jordan’s descent into Parallax. Writer Tony Bedard, charged with launching a new series featuring Kyle, figured it was a great time to remember the circumstances fans first got to know him, as a recipient of a ring from the apparent last Guardian of the Universe, Ganthet. The thing I’ve liked about Bedard (career highlight: THE GREAT TEN) is his sense of context and continuity, not just continuity itself, but how it fits into a given story. Here he continues the same general continuity the Green Lantern franchise enjoyed before the “New 52” reboot, with a story about various members of the spectrum corps (Red Lanterns, Sinestro Corpsmen, Star Sapphires, and the Indigo tribe) losing their rings, which come into the possession of Kyle Rayner. Naturally, none of them are very happy about this, and just as he was eighteen years ago, Kyle is just as confused by events. I heard this comic referred to as a reboot of Kyle’s origin, which it isn’t (though, sadly, the iconic NIN shirt is gone), since it clearly moves a different story along, a new one, which expands and develops things we’re already familiar with. That’s what makes Bedard so valuable a commodity at DC, that he’s able to do this with a wide variety of characters most creators and readers wouldn’t even have considered briefly, certainly not in the way he does. I look forward to the day his skills are widely appreciated. Being a part of the “New 52” certainly can’t hurt those chances.

Formerly the home of indy superhero comics, Bluewater has reshaped its identity in recent years as the biographer of choice for pop personalities, hoping to carve out a niche in a crowded market. Like the above title, I got this one at Barnes & Noble. Conan is certainly a remarkable figure, a cult favorite among humor aficionados and subject of the latest TONIGHT SHOW controversy. Most fans are already familiar with the outlines of his career, including his stint as writer for THE SIMPSONS, but this is a nice summary of his life to this point.

As an earlier blog indicated, I’ve become a fan of James Robinson’s STARMAN, and so eagerly anticipated an announced Shade follow-up mini-series, though I had no idea when it was scheduled to be launched, being somewhat out of the loop these days. As it turned out, earlier this month, which I found out with perfect timing. The Blackest Night STARMAN #81 issue was a great reminder that Shade is a worthy and engaging subject in himself, and this first issue of his own book more than supports that belief, both supporting his mystique and subtly pushing at its boundaries. Given that this will be a full twelve issues, one might almost wonder why DC didn’t make it a part of the official “New 52” slate, given that it’s hardly likely all fifty-two titles will survive to even that length, but I guess “optimism” was the word of that particular day.

The subject of so many attempts at ongoing series that a cornerstone of DC became a very public joke (as Raj on THE BIG BANG THEORY says, “Aquaman sucks”), it’s a wonder this guy was tapped by none other than Geoff Johns to be his next big project, beginning in the pages of BRIGHTEST DAY. Here, as in that book, we have ample reason to believe Johns knew exactly what he was doing, since once again he seems to have grasped what so many writers before him failed to, and that’s the intrinsic worth, and not just the mythology, of the character. That is to say, Johns understands what Aquaman is, what he’s about, and his potential as the star of his own series, not just as the dude who talks to fish and is associated with an underwater kingdom. So many writers have attempted to do everything but (the cosmetic changes Peter David created were a good effort, but didn’t really affect the intrinsic perception that Aquaman himself wasn’t interesting), even replacing him with an heir (Tad Williams did a good job to that end, to little credit), it’s refreshing that someone the caliber of Geoff Johns is finally taking the direct approach, while Aquaman actually has some momentum (both from BRIGHTEST DAY and a key role in FLASHPOINT).

Jeff Lemire is the latest of the fresh faces to be called up to the big leagues, and this book absolutely has the feel of Grant Morrison’s own ANIMAL MAN, a piercing look into the character’s greater potential, not just “dude who can mimic animals.” Ever since Morrison, DC has had some idea that Buddy Baker is a worthwhile property, and since 52 he’s been the subject of perennial efforts to keep his name in the air, even the subject of a “last days” mini-series that was mildly intriguing, but seemed to take him back a step, keeping the focus on his apparent Starfire obsession and off his potential. Lemire seems to have done everything possible to take Buddy back to the land of Morrison, short of actually copying the metaphysical ambitions. Instead, he seems to have discovered that Animal Man, at his best, may in fact be ideal material for horror.

This was a freebie (always nice!) advertising the company’s 2012 slate of “season one” graphic novels, which seem to be as much about giving readers a starting point for Marvel’s most popular characters as providing a spotlight for creators they might expect to join their “Architects” in the future, including writers Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Anthony Johnston, and Cullen Bunn. I’m not convinced these things are going to be anything but fairly standard origin rehashes, based on the previews, which is kind of disappointing, but the idea may yet be worth keeping in mind, especially for a company apparently convinced, Ultimate comics aside, that continuity is something that fits in a comics bin.

SEVERED #3 (Image)
Scott Snyder is a writer everyone seems to have become excited about. Whether in the pages of AMERICAN VAMPIRE, DETECTIVE COMICS, or the “New 52” BATMAN, he’s being hyped as the next big thing. This is a more modest-sized work, but has a ton in common with AMERICAN VAMPIRE. Co-written by Scott Tuft, it’s another urchin’s tale of running into unexpected danger, and on that score is a little disappointing to see so directly reflected in other work, no matter how engaging this particular iteration may be.

AVENGERS 1959 #1 (Marvel)
Howard Chaykin is one of those veteran-of-many-decades creators who just keeps working, seemingly any way he sees fit (DIE HARD: YEAR ONE was a recent favorite), regardless of how little acclaim he unjustly seems to enjoy these days. This book is set in the Marvel proper, so features Nick Fury as he’s been traditionally depicted (how confused fans of the movies and comics must be, far more than those disgruntled Starfire fanatics!), so no Ultimate Samuel L. Jackson here, and comes packaged with a bunch of known historical figures, including Victor Creed (Sabretooth), Sergei Kravinoff (Kraven the Hunter) and Aquaria Nautica Neptunia (Namora), a sort of full-Marvel version of Jonathan Hickman’s S.H.I.E.L.D. As usual, Chaykin dives right into his adventure, all fast and loose, allowing the clash of male and female impulses drive his scenes without concern to unwarranted feminist complaints. Any time there’s new Chaykin, there’s cause for celebration. Anytime an Avengers project doesn’t follow the Bendis Expansion Principle or cater to the upcoming and extant film work, it’s got to be worth applauding.

VENGEANCE #3 (Marvel)
Joe Casey must be some kind of madman, since he’s unleashed this madcap superhero adventure and nobody seems to have noticed. “Madcap” is the only way to describe it, and “madman” is the only way to characterize Casey, since there’s no other explanation possible, for work of this quality that has gone completely under the radar. VENGEANCE is one of those comics that hopes readers will somehow be able to keep up, because it proceeds at a breakneck speed, exactly how real superheroes in the traditional comic book sense would probably be operating, with all typical restraints finally loosed. The “Brand New Day” Doctor Octopus is featured here, along with a slew of new heroes. All of it would probably make more sense if I’d read the first two issues first. But the energy is catching.

Mike Johnson and Stephen Molnar make an ideal team to begin the further adventures of the J.J. Abrams-verse, adapting episodes of the original STAR TREK TV series, beginning with “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” Introducing Gary Mitchell into this reality is the most interesting aspect of the issue, since this new Trek needs at least one character to draw upon to work properly. It’s a little disappointing that the comic ends up feeling episodic, especially since it’s the first new adventure featuring characters who spent most of their time defining themselves in a fast-paced quest, but if Mitchell is to be our anchor, it’s at least appropriate.

I was disappointed to learn, initially, that Geoff Johns wouldn’t be continuing with Barry Allen into the “New 52,” but FLASHPOINT was such a seminal story for the character, it would almost have been a backwards step for Johns to try writing the way he had since FLASH: REBIRTH, since Barry had finally overcome the death of his mother. Francis Manapul, who was Johns’ artist on the last relaunch, instead gets to drive Barry along a kinetic new arc, one that hues to the spirit of the character’s latest incarnation without needing to be mired in the same morass writers not named “Mark Waid” or “Geoff Johns” could sometimes tend to recently. If the “New 52” is all about getting to the heart of its featured characters, then this book is, as it should be, a prime example.

For the second time, the Ultimate line ended a major event with the death of Spider-Man. The difference this time is that it appears to have stuck, with Brian Michael Bendis continuing his adventures with the name, but this time with a different face underneath, the much-publicized Miles Morales. I often seem to criticize Bendis as being something of a hack, but the truth is, I’m simply not invested enough in Marvel to follow his stories, not because they’re too dense but because they require more love for the characters he uses than I have to give. His Ultimate Spider-Man was always an exception; Bendis alone seems to have understood the potential of this line, and that’s no doubt a prime reason for why he’s most identified with it. The chance to redefine Spidey, then, must have been irresistible, after more than a decade setting a new record in more ways than one (not just the Lee-Kirby FANTASTIC FOUR count, but overall dedication to a single character), to add to his legacy by replacing the iconic Peter Parker in the only venue readers would have accepted it as anything but temporary. So how is Miles in reality? His seems to be a story ripped straight from LOST, a youth caught in the middle of a struggle between father figures (or, Walt between the dueling Michael & “Mr. Locke”). This could very well define Brian’s legacy.

Peter J. Tomasi has gone from editor to one of DC’s most important writers, so it’s no wonder that he’s among the prominent names of the “New 52.” Relaunching the title that sheds a little more expansive light on the Green Lantern mythology, but putting the focus on Guy Gardner and John Stewart, Tomasi uses the opportunity to take a look at their character in ways that haven’t been seen in a while, not just as members of the Corps, but as humans who had regular lives and concerns outside of their identities as role models and heroes. There’s also a quintessential galactic mystery they join their colleagues in discovering, but it’s nice to see Gardner and Stewart receive some attention.

I had a goal to read all four of the Green Lantern offerings from the “New 52;” this was the one I was most skeptical about, since I wasn’t sure the Red Lanterns deserved their own series above some of the other spectrum corps (how interesting would it have been to follow Saint Walker on a monthly basis?). Peter Milligan, like Geoff Johns, seems to have appreciated Atrocitus as a worthy tragic figure, though, and in this issue even suggests an origin for a human member of this vengeful corps, which may prove the greater hook for the series, once the early issues play out. There’s definite potential in this one.

Geoff Johns, the incredibly busy man that he is, stuck around one of his signature series after the big reboot, with the improbable redemptive arc for Sinestro continuing, as he offers a unique bargain with Hal Jordan by the end of this issue. Hal, meanwhile, also does a good job of screwing up his ring-free prospects, including a date with Carol Ferris that ends badly. It may seem redundant for viewers of the recent movie, to have this relationship misfire again, but in the comics, they’ve been apart literally for decades, even though in their first appearances Hal and Carol promised to be typical comic book romance material. Well, all those other relationships eventually ended up in marriage, while this one hasn’t. I have a feeling that Johns is driving at an eventual happy culmination. The one criticism I’ve had of his Green Lantern work is that he’s often had Hal a slave to the latest crisis, but with “War of the Green Lanterns,” he was once again stripped of his duties as space cop, forcing him to resume a normal life. Geoff understands character too well (see his work with Barry Allen) for this to be a coincidence.

Kyle Higgins was announced as the writer of the NIGHTWING “New 52” relaunch, which I initially found underwhelming, since I’ve been a big fan of Dick Grayson for as long as I can remember. If he wasn’t going to be Batman anymore, and reclaimed the Nightwing identity, then I hoped DC would continue to show him the same support he’d gotten as the Dark Knight, when he was written on a monthly basis by Grant Morrison, Scott Snyder, and Tony Daniel. Who’s this Kyle Higgins, anyway? So I eventually found out. Higgins had a number of projects he was working on recently, including this latest iteration of Marvel’s Squadron Supreme. Published under the MAX line, this one’s an adult read, as mainstream superhero comics go, but Higgins seems to have concentrated all his attention on the characters in the story, their psychology. It’s a good indication that Dick Grayson is in good hands.

This was one I was tremendously excited about, since Michael Holt is one of the most important characters of modern DC comics who hasn’t until this point gotten his own book. Imagine my slight disappointment, then, when writer Eric Wallace spends a cursory among of time establishing Holt’s undernourished backstory, and instead plugs him almost directly into a fairly generic adventure. This isn’t to say that I’ve lost faith in Mister Terrific as a lead character or this series in itself, but that as introductions go, it was probably the least impactful of the “New 52” I’ve had a chance to read. There’s also the whole future son thing and the Power Girl/latent Justice Society connection which prove fruitful, the real upsides of this debut.

Kyle Higgins again, plus Scott Snyder (again!) revisiting Gotham City’s past, plus famous fathers like Thomas Wayne. As an origin for the Architect, it’s certainly one of the more compelling projects the Batman mini-series pool has developed in recent years, something Paul Dini easily could’ve done in STREETS OF GOTHAM (which I say as a compliment), and serves as a credit to both Higgins and Snyder.

The last time I read a Hulk comic, it was when Jeph Loeb finally revealed the secret origin of the red version in the franchise’s other ongoing series (strange that there was finally more than one), and I’ve been no great devotee of the jolly green giant, believe me. This issue was really no different, but what made it special was that it was Greg Pak’s last, and through his and Fred Van Lente’s work with Hercules and Amadeus Cho, I’ve come to be a great admirer of Pak’s efforts. There’s a lot of celebratory essays in this one, expounding his legacy on the title, and I confess that I felt kind of bad not having read some of the truly memorable adventures I found recounted. Well, there’s always tomorrow. In the meantime, cheers, Greg Pak!

One of the bad things about having cancelled my Midtown subscriptions is that I’ve effectively cut off my link to the best G.I. Joe book being published, which was recently relaunched without the enemy’s name in the title. Writer Mike Costa (who began these efforts with Christos Gage, but has been flying solo for a while now) and iconic series artist Antonio Fuso continue their great psychological games with Major Bludd, another key but often underrepresented member of the brood, as the search for the new Cobra Commander continues in the midst of the Cobra Civil War. The impact of this series, through its several incarnations, is so great that it forced the tie-in Civil War arc across IDW’s Joe line, even though its has yet to receive its critical or popular due. I remain an enthusiastic champion, no matter if I read it regularly or not.

Phil Hester concludes J. Michael Straczynski’s “Odyssey” in the final issue of the series (I was interested in but missed the “New 52” relaunch). Though still laden with bluster rather than intrigue and development, Hester’s version of the story is more rewardingly detailed, which just begs the question of what he might have done if he’d had free-reign on the franchise. Maybe some day.

Reprinting ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN #33 (in which the Venom saga begins), ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN #97 (in which the Ultimate Clone Saga begins), and ULTIMATE COMICS SPIDER-MAN #1 (in which the last reboot began), this is a fine sampler of Brian Michael Bendis’ work as I was indicating earlier, and was no doubt printed with exactly that retrospective aspect in mind.

I have also read and enjoyed ACTION COMICS #1 (with Grant Morrison in full force refashioning the Man of Steel for modern times), BATWING #1 (with truly exceptional art from Ben Oliver), JUSTICE LEAGUE #1 (Geoff Johns and Jim Lee going All Star, as I’ve stated in the past), DETECTIVE COMICS #1 (Tony Daniel introducing a creepy new Batman villain in the most effective way possible), STATIC SHOCK #1 (featuring Scott McDaniel unleashing his full creative force), and STORMWATCH #1 (Paul Cornell melding Martian Manhunter with WildStorm’s Finest).

But, I’m a recovering addict. Really!

Friday, October 14, 2011

Quarter Bin #19 "Bloodwynd"

God, so sometimes it must seem like I yack on about Grant Morrison constantly, so I’m just going to briefly mention him here: in his book SUPERGODS, Morrison briefly mentions the character Bloodwynd as one of those forgettable members of the Justice League before his epic 1996 relaunch. For a lot of readers, that’s probably exactly what they think of Bloodwynd, a superhero who if he’s appeared in the last decade at all, it’s for a minor appearance as part of a forgettable alliance of supernatural figures.

SUPERGODS is replete in popular opinions (which is pretty weird, since Morrison’s reputation is basically as something of a cultural contrarian), so it’s a safe bet that he nailed Bloodwynd’s legacy (the fact that he mentioned him at all is more than two versions of the official DC ENCYCLOPEDIA managed), which for me is pretty sad, since at this point I am probably the character’s biggest and only fan.

From April 1992.

This is Bloodwynd’s debut, along with Dan Jurgens’ debut as the successor of the Giffen/DeMatteis era, which is mostly known for its eventually participation in the “Doomsday” event. Maybe it’s because I have more experience in Jurgens’ League than the famous “Bwahaha” days, but my interest in Booster Gold and Blue Beetle (Ted Kord) can be traced directly back to this run, not to mention my interest in Fire, Ice, and even Guy Gardner. Along with Superman, Maxima, and Bloodwynd, they comprise my classic Justice League line-up. Bloodwynd, and the central mystery he represented, was an integral element of this chemistry, with Beetle driving himself crazy trying to figure it out. Where Morrison saw a useless figure, there is a classic example of how comic book creators used to introduce new characters, by drawing out their origins, rather than coming right out and explaining everything about them.

From June 1992.

By necessity, Bloodwynd served as a deus ex machina in his early appearances, the wild card villains hadn’t counted on. Maybe that was more annoying than Jurgens realized. It’s always hard to introduce a new character, whether in their own book or as additions to an established team. Countless heroes have faded into obscurity this way. Since there was no effort in the early days to do anything with Bloodwynd other than be featured in the Jurgens League, history was almost doomed to repeat itself.

From May 1993.

Though prominently featured on the cover, Bloodwynd has already been virtually forgotten by his own creator, Dan Jurgens, who at this point has been juggling the aftermath of “Doomsday,” which reshaped the League prematurely, leading to a rebuilding process that basically never came to an end, until Zero Hour ushered in a whole new line-up (the crux of this incarnation was later featured in EXTREME JUSTICE, a book that never got the respect it was due).

From July 1993.

It also didn’t help that when his origin was finally revealed, Bloodwynd became hopelessly entwined with Martian Manhunter. This one’s the first of two issues that explain how J’onn J’onz had unwitting been masquerading as Bloodwynd since the character’s first appearance, with the real deal trapped inside the distinctive red gem emblazoned on his chest (for those who won’t immediately track down their own information on the character, Bloodwynd was an African American hero whose costume was entirely white, with the gem and a black cape making up the rest of it; he definitely had immediate presence). Readers apparently didn’t read this story in its entirety, since years later most of them still seemed convinced that Bloodwynd was in fact Martian Manhunter. All the momentum that Jurgens had built in the early days of his run, besides, were already over. The mystery of Bloodwynd had lost its impact.

From July 1994.

Once “Doomsday” ran through DC, the League books in general suffered, through no real fault of their own. Morrison later proved that fans really liked the big guns, but previous to that, the franchise enjoyed something of a Justice Society period, which reached a culmination in the epic “Judgment Day” arc, which killed off Ice (temporarily) and basically pushed everyone to their limits, forcing characters like Booster Gold and Blue Beetle to finally grow up in the process. But although he participated, Bloodwynd was an afterthought, whatever role he might have had usurped by that era’s Amazing Man (who dominates the cover for this issue, though Bloodwynd is one of several figures featured in a negative image seen battling the arc’s villain).

Featured in the pages of SHOWCASE on his own, Bloodwynd might have interested some people for a brief time, but he was quickly identified as belonging to a bygone era before long, and was quickly erased from the ongoing continuity. The fact that nobody seems to fondly recall Dan Jurgens as a creator of the Justice League can’t possible help matters, or the fact that Jurgens himself abandoned the character, even after finally revealing his origin about a year too late, and never seemed all that interested in revisiting him, even after returning in a full-time capacity to DC.

Why care about Bloodwynd, then? As a character with gothic potential (forged in redemptive fire from his slave heritage), he remains mostly untapped, while many similar characters with less direct magnetism have gotten second and third chances since. As a member of the Justice League, he is, with all due irony, second only to Martian Manhunter as someone with considerable power and an outsider’s perspective. He didn’t just keep to himself to maintain his mystery, it’s because that’s the way he was naturally, but he also had a fierce dedication to his teammates, whether they always appreciated it or not. He’s not the Spectre, bent on some holy mission, but he is a kindred spirit of vengeance, someone who is ideally suited to comment on the complexities of our modern times. There’s so much that could be done with him, and it just seems as if no one has bothered to notice. A good writer can do some exceptional with anything, but with material this rich, you’d think someone would have bothered by now to remember Bloodwynd exists.

Mired by his own publishing history, Bloodwynd has remained in comics limbo for years. But he doesn’t have to stay there.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Graphic Novel Review: Dear Creature

Dear Creature is a graphic novel by Jonathan Case and was recently published by Tor Books. I would have to say I strongly recommend it.

Like a strange mix between the work of Jeff Smith (BONE, RASL) and Grant Morrison (JOE THE BARBARIAN, WE3), it's the tale of a sea mutant who comes to love Shakespeare and a woman who's been placing the Bard's plays in soda bottles and setting them into the surf. Case's art style (he covers all the creative bases here) is both realistic (the human characters) and cartoonish (Grue, our fearless sea mutant, and his crab friends), without seeming disjointed in the least.

In fact, Grue's love of Shakespeare results in his speaking in iambic pentameter (there's a great bonus feature about this for those who might need a refresher), and in fact the story almost seems like something Will might have written in modern times. Of course, it's also a monster story, from the monster's perspective (shades of David Maine's brilliant novel MONSTER, 1959, concerning King Kong). This is not your typical graphic novel material, and that's half the charm.

Almost as if he was inspired as much by comic books as the recent spate of computer animated movies (the best of them, like Pixar without the outright commercial bent), Case seems to have sidestepped all the usual handicaps creators tend to bring to the table when they work in the comics medium but don't do superheroes. He doesn't do arcane, or slice-of-life, or quirk-for-the-sake-of-quirk. He's got a genuine piece of inspiration behind this project, and it's all the more refreshing to have it in graphic novel form, rather than in monthly installments, so you have all seven chapters at once.

Like I said, there's a strong BONE vibe here, without the cuddliness and the fantasy elements, just a clash of cultures, a romance, and a great story. Also, Case has a great sense of humor.

Probably one of the best things you'll read in 2011.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

A Serious Place on Serious Earth

I don’t want to mince words when I say Grant Morrison is the most important writer of modern comics.

Many, many fans would tend to argue, Alan Moore, as if it were perfectly obvious, Alan Moore the creator of WATCHMEN, of many, many projects that have become legendary, crossed over from comics to movies (even if he himself never seems remotely satisfied with the results), whose mystique is so great he can get away with disavowing his legacy and everyone will respect him more for having done so. Moore can do less these days and get away with it, call his shots, determine exactly where he wants to publish, and he has a guaranteed audience, ready to proclaim his next project another unabashed success. Is Morrison so lucky?

Still, I say that Grant Morrison is more important. He’s a writer whose material remains so maddeningly obtuse he has as many detractors who say he’s a self-obsessed hack as those who proclaim his genius with every new piece of work. I will begin my defense by admitting that at this point, the only authority on the mind of Grant Morrison is Grant Morrison himself. Where Alan Moore’s passions can be traced back to the pleasures of his youth, Grant Morrison continues to mystify in the ways he assimilates not just ideas but whole metaphysical mythologies, combining superheroes with the divine without so much as a backward glance. He made himself God in ANIMAL MAN. It was only fitting.

Today, however, I intend to concentrate on three works: VIMANARAMA, THE MYSTERY PLAY, and ARKHAM ASYLUM. It’s fair to say that only the last of these is actually well-known. Most fans associate Morrison with ANIMAL MAN, DOOM PATROL, THE INVISIBLES, JLA, NEW X-MEN, WE3, ALL-STAR SUPERMAN, or his ongoing epic Batman saga, sprawled across the last half-decade. There are other notable works, SEVEN SOLDIERS OF VICTORY, THE FILTH, and smaller projects (but Grant Morrison doesn’t really do small, does he?), like KILL YOUR BOYFRIEND, JOE THE BARBARIAN, SEAGUY, even his latest Superman project, the relaunch of ACTION COMICS. For brevity’s sake, a little constriction is necessary.

Because he’s remained in the realm of monthly comics for so long, and even backpedaled, it seems, from his early ambitions (ZENITH, a complete deconstruction of superheroes), there’s a tendency to assume that Morrison has gone soft, given in to the demands of mass audiences and assured work. But perhaps it’s necessary to understand what he’s done before to fully appreciate what he’s doing now.

VIMANARAMA is like a Hindu JOE THE BARBARIAN. The central hero is a man named Ali, who frets about the bride his father has found for him, throughout a crisis that could easily result in the end of the world, even as he and this bride, Sofia, work side-by-side against cosmic-scale forces that at the very least threaten to overwhelm them. Ali has felt like an underachiever his whole life. The art of Philip Bond is a cheerily cartoonish contrast to the real world concerns Ali handles, underscoring the human scale of the story even as events spiral into surreal proportions. For anyone who wonders if Grant Morrison truly has his feet grounded in reality, VIMANARAMA should probably stand as proof-positive.

THE MYSTERY PLAY, meanwhile, is lavished with the painted work of Jon J Muth, an unpretentious, neatly stylized counterpoint to the work of Alex Ross, himself renowned for making superheroes seem real. Here, Muth is given the challenge of grounding another surreal Morrison tale, about a murder mystery and a series of figures that seem to see the world in terms of metaphor, who can’t quite distinguish fact from fiction. It’s an ideal primer for anyone still struggling to make sense of Grant Morrison’s ultimate ambitions as a writer. For someone often accused of overly complicating his stories, Morrison is surprisingly effective at minimalism, and that impulse is on full display in THE MYSTERY PLAY. It’s easy to view this graphic novel as something an artsy Hollywood director might have conceived.

Perhaps the template for everything you ever needed to know about Morrison, ARKHAM ASYLUM may still yet prove to inform his enduring legacy. Created in the wake of Moore’s WATCHMEN and Frank Miller’s DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, it’s a graphic novel adventure that thrusts Batman headfirst into his psychological demons, in the one place where they will best find company. The ringmaster is the Joker, but instead of taking center stage, the Clown Prince instead gives way to the story of Amadeus Arkham, the founder of the asylum, and an exploration of sanity itself. Fittingly, the art by Dave McKean is the most unhinged of anything featured in a Grant Morrison story.

The edition of ARKHAM ASYLUM I read contains the script and commentary from Morrison himself, and adequately represents both his creative process and inspirations. In some ways it’s like a deconstruction of a work of deconstruction. It’s a story of almost as much minimalism as MYSTERY PLAY, with much of the narrative as suggested as the imagery Morrison draws on from his own experience. You don’t need to be versed in Batman lore to understand it; in fact, you can almost read it as a standalone adventure in psychology. This is not a Batman you’re likely to find anywhere else. Those who were turned off by Miller’s brusque Dark Knight in ALL-STAR BATMAN AND ROBIN, THE BOY WONDER (it seemed to be just about everyone) might be surprised to find their hero even less forgiving of his foes here, even if the Joker is needling him at every opportunity. Isn’t Batman supposed to be noble, as close to human perfection as humanly possible? That’s how Morrison himself has written him in recent years.

Yet in ARKHAM ASYLUM, even Bruce Wayne’s father, traditionally depicted and most notably in Christopher Nolan’s BATMAN BEGINS as a paragon of virtue, comes off as an unyielding perfectionist, ashamed that his son was frightened by a piece of entertainment, moments before he and his wife are murdered in Crime Alley. Batman remains trapped by these deaths, even in the throes of his ideal in Arkham, ignoring his weaknesses while simultaneously failing to hide them (even if those who hear his confessions fail to comprehend them). As the founder of the asylum realizes his own insanity, Batman must either overcomes his weaknesses, or admit that he has finally come home. The man who fights crime in the guise of a bat has finally come to a reckoning. Commissioner Gordon tries to dissuade him from going to meet this fate.

The minimalism of ARKHAM ASYLUM doesn’t stand up to the same scrutiny as THE MYSTERY PLAY. Morrison by necessity plays fast and loose in this story, allowing its distortions play by their own rules. For once, the idea of Batman can’t hide behind an audience that’s in on the joke. It’s why Morrison can get away with all those layers he can’t pretend the readers will fully understand. The layers don’t matter, only the central conceit, that madness and sanity are a duality as necessary as Harvey Dent’s ability to choose his own destiny, no matter how he reaches it.

Taken together, VIMANARAMA, THE MYSTERY PLAY, and ARKHAM ASYLUM (wistfully subtitled A SERIOUS HOUSE ON SERIOUS EARTH), represent the central challenge of Morrison’s stories, to either accept that the world is more complicated than we can known, or that even the most ridiculous behaviors are still recognizably human. Clearly he intends for his readers to accept both, and so he continues to tell his stories. He’s already tripped the light fantastic, working in a medium where that’s an everyday occurrence. But Grant Morrison simply wants to see just how far down the rabbit hole really goes.