Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Escapist

For a lot of comics fans, the publication of Michael Chabon’s THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER AND CLAY in 2000 was like mainstream validation, insofar as literature is considered mainstream in the 21st century.  Anyway, it made comic books slightly more legitimate for mainstream literature.

Chabon’s tale was about a couple of Jewish kids (much like the creators of Superman) who end up making sense of their lives by becoming involved in the Golden Age of the budding medium.  The book chronicles the rise and fall of a superhero known as the Escapist, who only existed at this point in the pages of this story.

Naturally, it didn’t stay like that for long.  Dark Horse became the publisher gifted with the rights to translate the book into its native territory, and presented two separate projects: THE ESCAPISTS, Brian K. Vaughan’s extrapolation of the same conceits involved in the original story in a modern setting; and MICHAEL CHABON PRESENTS THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF THE ESCAPIST.

As you might imagine, AMAZING ADVENTURES OF THE ESCAPIST is the only work to date to actually feature superhero adventures of the Escapist, as well as a few of his allies, including Luna Moth.  It’s a little surprising in 2012 to report this, and to further acknowledge that Chabon has done little since the release of his own book in the comics field, something e easily could have, in any manner he chose.  It is an irony that the champion of comics in the mainstream has shown little interest in them since a very visible show of support.  I guess it’s not really for me to judge his decisions.  As a contributor to literature in general, he’s arguably more essential.

What to make of actual comics featuring a superhero with a fake lineage and pedigree?  It’s a little surreal, especially as the Escapist chiefly battles vague notions of freedom and against the forces of a conspiracy known as the Iron Chain, rather than conventional notions of supervillains.  In this collection, it’s stressed that the Escapist is himself a product of legacy, much in the same way so many DC characters are (which makes it all the more ironic that in the fictional versions of his publication history that litter this volume, frequent reference is made to DC’s legal battles against the character, in the same way Captain Marvel faced the music in his similarities to Superman).  It’s a little funny to have the constant suggestion that these stories are “reprints,” even though the styles are never accurate to their intended eras.  It’s a fun conceit, and I don’t mean to quibble, but it’s a legitimate observation.

Would I like to read more stories featuring the Escapist?  Of course.  Was this collection really good enough a tribute?  Probably.  But Dark Horse, or some other publisher, could do better.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Flex Mentallo

As a mark of consistency, Grant Morrison has no real equal in terms of superhero reconstruction.  Since his Zenith stories, Morrison has made a career with a wide variety of characters examining what superheroes are and how they got that way.  He has gone boldly metaphysical several times, and one of the more famous ones has been out of print for years, until this year, when DC finally released a deluxe edition of FLEX MENTALLO: MAN OF MUSCLE MYSTERY.

A Vertigo mini-series that spun out of Morrison’s work in DOOM PATROL, FLEX MENTALLO was originally published in 1996, the same year Morrison launched his visionary JLA.  Again and quite foolishly, I failed to understand at the time that I would one day become a devoted fan of the writer, so I didn’t read it at the time, though it quickly became legendary and I kept hearing references to it, which grew increasingly frustrating because it was so hard to find afterward.

Like his work in ANIMAL MAN or even THE FILTH, Morrison is in full metaphysical mode writing the four-issue MAN OF MUSCLE MYSTERY (and the new collected edition keeps in-step, including an essay that suggests Flex has been published since the Golden Age, when in fact he is a Morrison creation), deconstructing every objection to comic books imaginable while building up the need for superheroes.  One of the characters believes he’s overdosing on drugs throughout the story and tries to justify his obsession with the medium during an extended phone conversation, saying that it is the only thing worth talking about now.  It’s worth noting that in the essay I referenced, it’s suggested that the original (fictional) Flex Mentallo stories were created under the influence (much as 1960s pop music was, notably by the Beatles, among others), which makes Morrison’s story metatextual as well as metaphysical and metafictional (I am not trying to give you an headache).  Many people have argued that drugs are ideally a gateway to a greater understanding of reality, and Morrison writes in such a way (deliberately) to give his narrative the free-flowing feel that one might associate with tripping, so that the narrative feels like the world as seen through the lens of someone creating the story in the kind of mindset necessary to make sense of it in the first place.  (SEAGUY and JOE THE BARBARIAN are versions of this Morrison impulse in a more innocent sense; THE INVISIBLES is a world where the fringe are the mainstream.)

Maybe I’m succeeding in making sense of FLEX MENTALLO and maybe I’m not.  It’s worth reading for all the reasons one might have assumed based on its reputation, in that it’s essential reading.  If you read only one Grant Morrison vision of superheroes in our modern world, this must be it.  Morrison seems to be the only writer capable of countertextualizing everything one might expect from a superhero story, so that he not only writes it brilliantly, but subversively and insightfully, so that he isn’t shocking for the sake of shock but rather to bring all the elements to the surface, using them as necessary. 

In a way, FLEX MENTALLO is necessary to understand what Morrison is achieving when he writes Batman, or truly flexes his own ambitions in projects like SEVEN SOLDIERS OF VICTORY or FINAL NIGHT.  Flex is not a parody of Superman and Charles Atlas and Captain America, he’s what they could be if they were thrust into the deep end of their own realities.  And since writing Flex, Morrison has gotten to play with those characters in their own realities.

Now, see what I’m saying?

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Wasteland, Book 6: The Enemy Within

Collects WASTELAND #s 26-31

Individual narratives tracking the experiences of Yan, Jakob, Skot, Dexus, and Golden Voice, the movers and shakers of Newbegin, across six months push the story of WASTELAND ever forward.  Writer Antony Johnston covers the same basic framework in each of the stories, but never loses the fascinating thread of those who are trying to survive the insane politics of a fallen world.

Yan is the son of the late fallen Primate of the Newbegin governing council, Heddor, who died in the recent Sand-Eater attack.  The boy betrayed his own father to the benevolent tyrant Lord Founder, Marcus, and was easily one of the more despicable characters in earlier issues for it, though not a particularly major one, hence the reason I have not yet mentioned him in any significant fashion.  Ironically, his narrative thrusts him into ever more complicated relationships, with Marcus putting him in the household of the near-treasonous Neelan, who ailing daughter Lyndder holds the key to awakening Yan’s compassion, and his ability to see nuance in the world.

Jakob, meanwhile, has been on the opposite trajectory, becoming more embroiled in the messy politics that have him betraying his own people, the Sunners, in return for serving as High Disciple of the Watch under Dexus, all because he believes his adopted mother Abi has been killed (she wasn’t, and is presently traveling with Michael to fabled A-Ree-Yass-I).

As he always is, Skot is the pivot upon which everything turns.  Serving as Primate on the Council, he holds authority he doesn’t want and can’t use because he loyalties lie with the Sunners, who at the beginning of this six-month period have just won their general freedom, though they’ve traded oppression under the lash for oppression by occupation (little difference) and have reacted by turning to terrorist acts to express their unrest.

The only one pleased about any of this is Dexus, Watchman, who is increasingly unrestrained in his activities, even though like everyone else he’s complicit in events that have only complicated matters, having been witness to Skot helping Michael and Abi exit Newbegin and participating in the web of lies over Jakob and he was thusly manipulated in working against his own people.  Imposing more civil restrictions, Dexus actually achieves his goal of learning the identity of the Sunner leading the revolt, who turns out to be Golden Voice.

Represented early on as leaving Newbegin in disgust over the Sunners willingly submitting to service in the Watch, Golden Voice actually stuck around and prepared to usher a revolution, and he might have been successful, too, or at least lived to tell about it, if he weren’t in Newbegin.  His execution is the single dramatic moment that pushes the story of WASTELAND definitively forward after so many issues of fascinating quagmire and moral ambiguity.

That makes THE ENEMY WITHIN a turning point not to be missed.  Everything is about to change, and anyone interested in the best comic book in the market ought to take notice.  WASTELAND also officially bids adieu to Christopher Mitten in this volume, a fitting transition moment for the original series artist, whose art is noticeably altered in these pages compared to his efforts in other collections.

Wasteland, Book 5: Tales of the Uninvited

Collects WASTELAND #7, 14, 20, & 25

Four separate tales comprise this collection from writer Antony Johnston, artist Christopher Mitten, and guests.  Filling in some missing pieces of the mythology as readers have thus far learned it, TALES OF THE UNINVITED features a heavier concentration of the mysterious Ruin Runner known as Michael than other volumes, and thus might be a good place to start for new readers looking for a way into the masterful Oni Press series.

Before you reach Michael, however, there’s the strange relationship between Newbegin watchman Dexus and Skot, a member of the governing council under Lord Founder Marcus who is chosen to be the new Primate thanks to the kind of political maneuvering that would make any election season proud (or something akin to it).  After a half dozen issues (directly following the events BOOK 1: CITIES IN DUST, actually), readers received a little break from the action.  Skot is caught up in just about everything.  He’s secretly a homosexual, something that’s more taboo a hundred years after the Big Wet than today, probably because society has shrunk down to its most manageable roles, and Dexus is the only one who knows, discovering by accident and thereafter using it as leverage over Skot so he can wield more power.  Skot is also a secret Sunner, making his position all the more precarious if Marcus, who centers religion preferably on himself, were to find that out.

In the third story, some Newbegin youths trade stories of just how Marcus assumed authority over the city, none of them really questioning whether or not Marcus should be in such a perpetual position of power.  He’s always been there, and so regardless of how he got there he obviously deserves it and probably did something great.  Tellingly, not one of the kids suspects anything more sinister, though there is room for doubt as to whether the citizens of Newbegin really know more than strangers who travel by caravan and can offer some alternative thoughts.

Anyway, Michael stars in the two remaining tales.  In the first, there’s a good example of the kind of life he’s typically led up until the start of the series.  Published between the issues collected in the second and third volumes, it’s a little insight into the hardiness required to survive when so few people trust him, even those who might know better.  It begins as he arrives in Providence, the town destroyed by Sand-Eaters in the first issue, years before that time, a generation earlier, in fact (though life is pretty much exactly the same, as is Michael, because he never ages).  He’s asked to explain how he came into possession of a Bible, but he decides that everyone’s better off if he doesn’t.  Not only would he have to admit that he killed the priest it belonged to, but the sad truth of the exact circumstances don’t reflect well on anyone.  Instead he just makes his purchases and moves on.  WASTELAND is a harsh world, and Michael is the one character ideally suited to live in it on his own terms.  They’re just not terms most people would find comfortable.

The last story is taken from the anniversary 25th issue of the series, the only one to date with color (more like tinted accenting on a golden scale), an extra-sized tale that has a look back at Sultan Ameer, who rules the caravan that brought the survivors of Providence to Newbegin.  Ameer and Michael had a rocky relationship at that time, and here’s where we find out why.  It’s no surprise that the harsh realities everyone’s just trying to survive are the cause, but it’s a fine thing to experience, the best entry in the collection.

It’s also the issue that burned out Mitten, who hadn’t considered the impact of the effort to produce the art required for the tale.  It’s the best art of the series to date, but it came with a cost, as it directly led to Mitten’s later withdrawal from WASTELAND.  Sad as that is, at least the achievement is there for fans to enjoy.

Everyone’s a misfit in a time when heroes are as ambiguous as Michael and villains like Marcus are both celebrated and feared but never challenged.

Batman without Grant Morrison, Part 2

Last year I wrote about Batman comics from the perspective of someone who could just barely at that time accept that there were other writers in 2011 capable of writing a compelling story and not be named Grant Morrison.

Yes, I’m part of the Grant Morrison orthodoxy.  At that point, he’d just launched BATMAN, INCORPORATED, the last stage of an epic saga that had already delivered “Batman R.I.P.” and the launch of BATMAN AND ROBIN.  In 2012, BATMAN, INC. is slated to finally begin its endgame, returning as part of the second wave of the New 52.  Other writers have been able to dominate the bat-sandbox in the meantime.  You may have heard of Scott Snyder, for instance.  Before we reach him, let’s just go over the two books I’m not actively reading.  DETECTIVE COMICS currently features Tony Daniel continuing his fairly traditional version, while BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT is the comic any fan who isn’t already invested in the character can enjoy if they’d like.  I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Daniel’s work in the past, but in an effort to streamline my comics purchases, I haven’t really attempted to keep up with his stories since last fall.

Scott Snyder: right, then.  This issue probably does a fine job of summing up exactly the approach he’s taken with the franchise.  Where someone like Morrison takes in an expansive look at what others have done and what can be done on top of that, Snyder has built something of his own.  The issue actually reads a lot like Frank Miller’s Batman, with art from Greg Capullo that could easily be mistaken for pages from THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS (probably intentional).  It’s a little disappointing that the story in the issue falls into the same basic territory Morrison touched on in “R.I.P.” and can also be found in “Knightfall,” or otherwise an enemy that seems to not only have outsmarted Batman, but outmuscled him as well.  Yet Batman outlasts his foe Talon, embodiment of the Court of Owls, a layer of intrigue Snyder has added to the Gotham City tapestry (building on what he and Kyle Higgins established in GATES OF GOTHAM) that may or may not become a permanent addition to the landscape (depends on what’s left to play with once the big crossover’s done).  Let’s get another thing out of the way: the cover of this issue is a classic, and was something I needed to have in my collection.  But yeah, Snyder is at the head of a major crossover arc while Morrison’s feet are still in the sandbox.  It’s not sacrilegious, but it’s definitely interesting.  Will fans ultimately remember this Court of Owls business with as much enthusiasm as what Morrison is on the verge of completing?  Well, that’s what I’m talking about, Batman without Grant Morrison.  It actually has happened before, and it’ll happen again, and it’s actually happening right now. 

I was as big a fan of Peter J. Tomasi and Patrick Gleason in the pages of GREEN LANTERN CORPS as anyone, and so was pleased as punch when they were tapped as the regular successors of Morrison in the pages of the book he launched to further the adventures of the new Robin, Damian Wayne, and whichever Batman happens to be under the cowl.  But I didn’t really expect much from it.  I mean, it’s Damian.  Who writes Damian better than Grant Morrison?  I think I can now confidently say, Peter J. Tomasi.  I happened to stumble across this blockbuster story in total by complete accident.  I had no idea it happened until I looked at one issue, then another, until I had all three.  Basically the son of Henri Ducard tries to seduce Damian to the dark side, years after failing to impressive the formative Bruce Wayne.  Ducard, as BATMAN BEGINS reminded fans, was one of Batman’s main influences as he developed the skills necessary to wage his war on crime.  (Strangely, very few comics have used Ducard since the 2005 film that elevated his profile.)  Damian is no dummy, but he becomes more manipulated than he expected, leading to a shocking event the last of these issues dedicates itself to resolving, a major development in the life of the two heroes in the title of the series.  You don’t expect something like this, because most writers skirt character development as much as possible, and yet that’s what this whole story is about.  It solidifies Tomasi as arguably more important to the ongoing legacy of Batman than Snyder in the foreground of Snyder’s big moment, and makes BATMAN AND ROBIN a must-read.  At the very least, you must read these issues.  They’ll tell you everything you need to know.

I’ve got some other comics to talk about, too:

The problem with Superman is that most writers think of him more as an ideal than a functioning character, even when they’re working with all of his most traditional elements.  Do you really think Grant Morrison would make the same mistake?  Concluding his opening arc on this New 52 reboot, Morrison forces the Brainiac connection to its best possible results, forcing Superman to face his human and Kryptonian heritages in ways only Grant Morrison is capable of doing.  The conclusion is perhaps more fascinating than the rest of the storytelling, leading Superman in a typical Morrison direction, exploding all conventional wisdom, leaving him muttering in Kryptonian, and the reader wondering just where else Morrison intends to go. 

Geoff Johns finally gets around to exploding mythology with Aquaman, meanwhile, introducing, brilliantly, a whole different league of allies that will hopefully allow readers and writers to finally acknowledge that Aquaman is not just some schmuck who talks to fish and serves as a de facto member of the Justice League.  If you’ve been waiting for an excuse to check this one out, this is it.

Paul Cornell, meanwhile, is doing that kind of work in this overlooked series.  In this issue, Jason Blood and Etrigan are thrust into the spotlight, their weird and complicated relationship explored, all in the greater context of this brilliant comic.

Hal Jordan is not one to accept limitations, and Geoff Johns has been exploring more of Hal in the pages of the New 52 relaunch than he managed in most of the past six years, where the most famous Green Lantern got swept from one momentous development in the greater mythology after another.  There are still big things happening, but Hal seems more ready to try and be himself again than at any point since his REBIRTH.  Too bad things like the Indigo Tribe finally playing its hand keep getting in his way.

Geoff Johns has secretly reshaped the Justice League into a team that supports the story of Wonder Woman, and this issue he gets to get back to that, spending considerable time with her forgotten lead association, Steve Trevor, who serves as official liaison for the team with government officials who are just as awestruck as the general public.  Only Steve sees things clearly, and now there’s someone who looks to exploit his budding cynicism…

One of the perks of writing GATES OF GOTHAM with Scott Snyder is that Kyle Higgins gets to put Dick Grayson close to the front of the Court of Owls saga, as this conclusion to the first arc of the New 52 NIGHTWING relaunch helps make clear.  Finally discovering the awful truths behind the assassin Saiko and all the complications he discovered in returning to Haly’s Circus, Dick learns that he was supposed to be recruited as one of many Talons who are now being activated to challenge Batman’s control of Gotham’s future.  And to think I originally feared that Dick would lose all the respect he’d gained in his several years as Batman…

I’ll be the first to admit that there’s no real way to hide the fact that I haven’t supported this series as much as I’d like to, despite vigorously opposing the ridiculous backlash that built up against it almost instantly.  I love that Jason Todd has his own book, and that it’s being done intelligently.  This is probably the most important issue to date, with Scott Lobdell exploring how Jason met Starfire, the center of all that controversy given that she apparently still dresses in the comics the way she didn’t in the cartoon.  Starfire’s prior relationship with Dick Grayson becomes just one of the fascinating focal points of the issue, how Jason reacts against it and then accepts her as an ally, and how this is probably the first time anyone has addressed the fact that Koriand’r is an alien who has basically been marooned on Earth.  That’s why you should ignore what you’ve heard and read this series.

SUPREME #63 (Image)
Alan Moore’s final script is much the same as his other heavily-inflected Supreme stories, but it at least provides a really convenient segue to what comes next in this latest Extreme relaunch.  Worth a look.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Wasteland, Book 4: Dog Tribe

Collects WASTELAND #s 21-24

The shortest collection so far sets aside the intrigue of Newbegin for the moment and redirects attention to Michael and Abi, our strange humans with supernatural abilities neither is eager to advertise, as they make their way to A-Ree-Yass-I, which may either hold the key to salvation or prove as big a disappointment as Newbegin was for the survivors of Providence at the start of the series.

Much of the action still centers around politics, however, this time around competing Dog Tribes, intricate creations of Antony Johnston (once again ably illustrated by Christopher Mitten) that further reflect how society can splinter and grow eccentric from what we now consider normal, given circumstances extreme enough to demand it.

Basically, as Johnston’s own outline included in the collection details, Dog Tribes take their cue from canine behavior, but are otherwise elaborate versions of Indians as they might appear a hundred years after an apocalyptic event like the Big Wet.  And like medieval European societies, intertribal associations can be fixed with strategically arranged marriages, which is exactly the occasion Michael and Abi stumble into.  The whole collection tells you everything you need to know about Dog Tribes and the events that lead to another fine mess that quickly devolves into opportunistic chaos, in case there was any doubt that Newbegin was an aberration in these times.

The bad news is that this detour proves a wicked opportunity for someone else, Gerr, the assassin sent by Marcus to finish the job interrupted by the Sand-Eater attack, who manages to worm his way into the unsuspecting good graces of our heroes as they struggle to extricate themselves from the Dog Tribes.

Gerr is so successful that Michael actually invites him along on their journey.  Michael has already admitted to reaching A-Ree-Yass-I once before, and he confesses under duress to Abi what is likely an unreliable version of that experience during their captivity. 

There is much decompression of the basic narrative in WASTELAND, but Johnston is endlessly inventive and immersive in his own mythology, so where this kind of storytelling can be a problem in other comic books, here you don’t really mind.  In fact, the more you read of WASTELAND, the more you hope the stories continues however Johnston wishes to tell it.  DOG TRIBE is a perfect example of how brilliantly he can do just that.

Wasteland, Book 3: Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos

Collects WASTELAND #s 15-19

Fascinating developments abound in these further issues of Antony Johnston and Christopher Mitten’s epic post-apocalyptic vision from Oni Press.

The first issue in the collection is a particular treat (as well as something of a challenge), as the story left off in SHADES OF GOD picks up with the Sand-Eater siege of Newbegin, from the perspective of the Sand-Eaters themselves.  What exactly does this mean?  Listening to their dialogue, and yes, their perspective, which is a fun little challenge.

What amounts to heavily-accented English may be translated into workable dialogue with a little work, and helps explain the Sand-Eater perspective.  They call their rivals “Nasties” and blame them for the destructions of the cities.  Very quickly, grotesque monsters that in any other story would have been left as voiceless enemies are transformed into another facet of the grander scheme of things.  Think of Sand-Eaters, if you must, as the Orcs of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books as consequential creatures, who speak a little like Golum, or Jar-Jar Binks (I bet you’d prefer Golum).

Anyway, the siege is just one of the problems facing Newbegin.  As featured in previous volumes, there’s political intrigue to spare, motivations driving the actions of watchmen Dexus, Primate Skot, and Jakob, a survivor of Providence who finds ample opportunity to improve his own circumstances thanks to the chaos.  It doesn’t hurt that he feels he has nothing left to lose, believing his adopted mother Abi to be dead.

The Sand-Eaters have another surprise.  Their leader is secretly Mary, another of the mysterious people with abilities far above those of normal men, who transforms her appearance even to the astonishment of Marcus.  The resulting exchange between them helps BLACK STEEL IN THE HOUR OF CHAOS keep readers invested in the greater threads of the plot being woven by WASTELAND, as well as remind everyone that Abi and Michael are still out there.

Marcus also dispatches an assassin, Gerr, to pursue them.  Ah, and Golden Voice takes advantage of the situation, too, leading a revolt of the Sunners against the tyranny that has been imposed on the citizens of Newbegin (that’s why he’s on the cover of the volume).

As an example of the long-term storytelling style of the series, BLACK STEEL is another indispensable volume, proving beyond a doubt that the ambition of the story is well worth your continued investment.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Wasteland, Book 2: Shades of God

Collects WASTELAND #s 8-13

Antony Johnston and Christopher Mitten continue and deepen their exploration of America 100 years after the Big Wet, digging deeper into the city of Newbegin and its hidden connections to both the past and the future.

After the loss of Providence and journey to what once seemed like salvation, Abi has been left with mortal wounds, locked in a cage and waiting to be processed.  Her adopted son Skot and mentor Doc are struggling, too, Doc being too old and Skot separated against his will from his only friends.  And where is Michael, the mysterious Ruin-Runner who inadvertently led them to this fate?  That’s something Sultan Ameer, who led the caravan that got them to Newbegin, would also like to know, since he plans to betray Michael to Marcus, the Lord Founder with secrets of his own.  Both Michael and Marcus, and Abi, too, possess strange abilities that link them to the world as it once was.

At Newbegin, there are those caught up in the politics of life in this wasteland, too.  After Heddor was ejected from his post as Primate on the city’s council, no one counted on the intrigue that would follow in the search for his successor.  While Marcus delays, ambitious watchman Dexus seeks to manipulate Heddor’s apprentice, Skot, into the position, blackmailing him to seek the position so that Dexus himself can wield the power behind the scenes, despite it not being officially available to him.

What Dexus doesn’t know is that Skot is subversive in more ways than he realizes.  Marcus holds himself to be the center of religious observance in Newbegin, but there is a Sunner underground, and Skot become a secret adherent.  The Sunners, condemned to be slaves and the lowest caste of society, have their own secrets, a connection and awareness of things as they really are, which may be the very reason Marcus seeks to suppress them.  For instance, they have also liberated Golden Voice, a Sun-Singer who was among the refugees of Providence.

Their interest in him rests in the fact that he is the grandson of Fire Walker, who is among the few people to have seen fabled A-Ree-Yass-I, which may hold to key to salvation.  It is a place that soon draws the attention of Michael and Abi, once they escape the clutches of Marcus, who struggles to deny the truth even to himself.

The second book of WASTELAND expands on the mythology of the story by revealing new clues and exploring in greater depth things and people we have already met.  SHADES OF GOD ought to make it impossible for anyone who reads it to deny that WASTELAND is a seminal experience, or resist the urge to continue reading.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Wasteland, Book 1: Cities in Dust

Collects WASTELAND #s 1-6

The first six issues of WASTELAND effectively set up everything you need to know about Oni’s epic work of post-apocalyptic fiction from Antony Johnston.  Artist Christopher Mitten provides art for most of the first few dozen issues, and is essential in the vision of America as it exists after the Big Wet, a hundred years after a disaster shrouded in legend but powerful effects on society.

Basically, everything has changed.  Most of the cities are ghosts of themselves, and anyone living in or around them has been affected by the need to exist in a world that is no longer welcoming.  There are predators everywhere, and not the least are the opportunists looking to exploit their positions of power.

We begin our journey in the community of Providence, where we quickly learn the fragility of everyday life.  We meet Abi here for the first time, and she’s one of our main characters.  She’s the sheriff of this town, trying to maintain order.  Her adopted son Jakob is fiercely loyal to her, and so is Doc, who runs the local pawn shop.  On this fringe of this community is Golden Voice, the Sun-Singer, main representative of the Sunners, who represent the main religious reaction to the new world, where Mother Sun and Father Moon once more dominate understanding of how everything works.

Their lives are all affected by the appearance of Michael, a Ruin-Runner, mysterious in his knowledge, his associations, and his ability to navigate the land on his own, and hardly trusted.  His encounter with Sand-Eaters inadvertently draws more of these creatures to Providence, which effectively obliterates the town, forcing everyone to evacuate to the new piece of salvation, Newbegin.

What no one suspects is that Newbegin is an empire unto itself, run with an iron fist by Marcus, the Lord Founder, who has lead it for eighty years.  He holds sway over Dexus, the lead Watchman, as well as Primate Heddor, Skot, and others willing to follow him.  Except Heddor has learned that it isn’t so easy to blindly follow Marcus, and quickly pays the price for it, betrayed by Skot in exchange for new power.

Michael helps the survivors of Providence catch a ride with a caravan run by Sultan Ameer, at least until dark secrets are discovered about the nature of the caravan.  Wulves attack, Dwellers are encountered in a precity, but finally, they reach Newbegin, where Jakob holds some sway, at least enough to get them in, but they discover a big surprise.

Marcus has his own religion, and Sunners are not particularly favored as rivals.  The survivors of Providence are all Sunners.  Marcus has other surprises as well, as do Michael and Abi, who possess supernatural abilities they are careful to conceal.  They are probably the only ones capable of challenging Marcus.  The first six issues see all of this unfold, the introduction of these complicated matters at the heart of WASTELAND, which is like WALKING DEAD a hundred years later, a peak at the nature of humanity when pushed to the extreme, of what comes next, and how all these problems we grapple with today might look with just a little push, a little time to be absorbed, and how we might still have a chance to triumph over them.

CITIES IN DUST is an invaluable primer on the best comic book being published today.  So much of what WASTELAND is can be summed up as world-building, so much of the storytelling immersed in the middle of what the characters are themselves experiencing, so much of the thrust of what makes it great is slowly revealing the bigger picture, it’s impossible to read WASTELAND without becoming intrigued.  I think part of the reason that it does not yet have a significant following is that WASTELAND is a challenge, it isn’t simple, but rather so bold that it expects readers to catch up with what it already knew before the first issue was published, that Johnston has envisioned something with unprecedented scope for a comic book.  There’s a whole mythology that’s unveiled in the first six issues that mixes the familiar with the unexpected, something entirely new and a story that will constantly amaze you.

If that’s not something you’re interested in, then by all means, continue to pretend that WASTELAND doesn’t exist.  But if it is, please take this as an opportunity to see where the story began, so you’ll better understand where it’s going.

Yo, Cobra!

Collects G.I. JOE: COBRA WAR #0 and COBRA #s 1-4

The relaunch that followed on the heels of the shocking assassination of Cobra Commander and helped reshape IDW’s entire G.I. Joe line, this is the perfect starting point for anyone who hasn’t yet discovered the brilliance of the COBRA comics.  IDW got the rights in 2009, and G.I. JOE: COBRA, launched by creators Christos Gage, Mike Costa, and Antonio Fuso, was an immediate sensation, at least for me.  It was a revolution, a comic book that fully embraced the concept of putting character first.  Anyway, you can read those early issues, or the quick recap of what they led to in this volume.

Suffice it to say, but COBRA is the first time the bad guy has been fully embraced as a driver of the narrative.  In an age where the bad guys are flaunting their ability in the real world to drive things, sticking it to anyone who saw how the Great Recession was caused by blatant greed worse than anything twenty years ago, COBRA is the exploration of the mentalities that help justify these decisions.  In fact, this volume spells it all out pretty nicely.

Cobra Commander is dead, and Cobra is an organization that abhors a vacuum, but has no idea how to fill it.  Everyone involved is a rampant narcissist.  From Crystal Ball to the Baroness to Serpentor to Major Bludd to Tomax Paoli, and others besides, including a double agent working within G.I. Joe itself, this volume is a primer on everything Costa (Gage departed the project a little while back) has been doing so brilliantly with very little fanfare.

Anyone else would have buckled under and started doing the expected years ago, but Costa has maintained a consistent level of excellence, and that has in turn dictated the course of IDW’s entire Joes line.  DC got Costa to do exactly the kind of generic book in BLACKHAWKS that he has contradicted with every twist of this fascinating exploration of motivation and justification. 

Any self-respecting comic book fan ought to be reading COBRA by now, yet I can still find those on the Internet who find it easy to dismiss this material, which astounds me, and just goes to speak to the power of tradition that leaves some capable of following material that doesn’t even come close to this depth, but flashes the expected in lieu of inspiration.  Maybe it’s for that very reason, that COBRA defies logic in every way, features a measured, deliberate approach that may actually convince the skeptical that it’s more safe than it actually is.  Some people will only respond to bombast.  Well, when it counts, COBRA can do that, too, and affect the course of things it has long defied.

I know, I’m making it all sound grandiose.  That’s because COBRA is.  It’s essential reading, and a seminal experience for our times.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Quarter Bin #38 "Band of Heroes"

From July 1993:
Matt Wagner is one of those great comic book writers who’s managed to float through the medium for years without having been locked down by DC or Marvel.  He’s perhaps best known for GRENDEL, which he’s done for Dark Horse, and MAGE, which he’s done for Image.  He actually has written for DC on a semi-regular basis, but as I said…he’s a floater.  SANDMAN MYSTERY THEATRE is one of those books Vertigo was publishing when I first started reading comics but wasn’t old or experienced enough to be interested in reading at the time.  I always thought it had to have some connection to Neil Gaiman’s SANDMAN, but then, at the time I didn’t have any experience with that one, either.  But no, MYSTERY THEATRE starred the Golden Age Sandman, Wesley Dodds, whose last major appearance was KINGDOM COME.  This is the first issue I’ve actually read of the series (late to the game, I know), and now I can appreciate it as a kind of monthly crime thriller that TV features in infinite combinations these days, sometimes in franchise variety, a period comic book that was another of the Vertigo books at that time that featured experienced DC properties in new and interesting ways.  I wonder why it’s been forgotten since then, left out of print, and not even a legacy character who’s trusted to be anything but a bit player in team books.  I think given influence I’d probably change that.  This being an early issue, I get to read letters reacting to the very start of the series, too, which is always fun.

From June 1998:
Part of the “Girlfrenzy” skip week event, this was a one-shot spinning out of James Robinson’s STARMAN.  Fans reading it today may find the references to Hal Jordan villains a little quaint, especially since BLACKEST NIGHT star Black Hand is featured as an obscure curiosity.  It should be no wonder that I purchased this issue around the same time I was reading the omnibus last year, in an effort to steal some extra STARMAN goodness without spoiling some of the rest of the story I’ll be reading once those collections are printed in paperback later this year.  It’s funny, because THE SHADE is helping to keep one of Jack Knight’s foes in the headlines, while the one featured here has kind of gone into the very obscurity that Robinson was playing with here.

From June 2011:
The conclusion of Geoff Johns and Peter Tomasi’s follow-up to BLACKEST NIGHT was something I missed last year when it was first published, thanks to my semi-retirement from reading new comics, which at that time was more semi-permanent than it is today, since I only really started to try and be semi-active once FLASHPOINT began.  To me, BRIGHTEST DAY was on par with 52, certainly leagues better than the meandering TRINITY, and better focused than COUNTDOWN (though I am probably COUNTDOWN’s biggest fan, just as I remain one of 52’s biggest supporters).  With a tightly focused core of characters and a smaller slate, BRIGHTEST DAY was like the catch-all version of Johns getting to do all the characters he’d really love to work with, and will probably go down as the best Deadman story to date (which made it all the bigger a shame that Boston Brand only received the first story of an anthology title in the New 52, rather than his own series).  The biggest shame of BRIGHTEST DAY was that Johns and DC so quickly went about rebooting everything, so that there was no real momentum from what occurred in this story.  As a big-concept culmination of the previous incarnation of the DCU, however, it’ll be worth relishing for years, or simply as an excellent sequel to BLACKEST NIGHT, to which BRIGHTEST DAY is probably superior.

From May 1998:
J. Michael Straczynski and the fans of BABYLON 5 are guilty of worshipping a TV series that did not actually live up to its reputation.  Like a long series of B-movies, it was a show with a grand vision that could not in execution match its ambitions.  Still, there are legions of fans out there.  Perhaps one day it can be redone as an epic trilogy of movies, and Straczynski can be present to help guide it once more.  For now, its legacy is what it is, and that can be seen in spin-offs like this comic book, too.  Valen, if you didn’t know, is the Minbari name Jeffrey Sinclair assumed after he traveled back in time to help end the war he couldn’t prevent from happening in order for the resulting Shadows conflict from ending in disaster.  Sinclair was the first lead character in the series, and was quickly replaced in the second season.  This is the story of how his reputation meant everything (except anything practical to the weekly episodes).  Straczynski has become known as someone who believes in total creative control, and BABYLON 5 was the project that helped him get that reputation, yet the irony is that a critical analysis suggests that he flew by the seat of his pants, making it up as he went along (even if he didn’t, that’s exactly what it looks like now, regardless of how well-documented the transition between the fourth and seasons is), rather than deliberately shaping the series from a pre-plotted roadmap.  It’s funny, too.  Every time a BABYLON 5 or STARGATE or BATTLESTAR GALACTICA appears and starts usurping the Star Trek audience and makes them believing they’re actually the hot new thing that’ll endure forever, they can never really launch an enduring franchise.  Maybe they all try too quickly, I don’t know, but it’s always funny to see them collapse (even X-FILES did it).  Just thought I’d mention that.  It amuses me.

From February 2004:
This was a twelve-issue series that Chuck Austen did in the year before I started getting back into comics, and something I’d never heard of before stumbling across it at Heroes & Dragons.  Starring the intrepid Jimmy Olsen and featuring a strong technological theme, I kind of wonder why it’s been so thoroughly forgotten, given the extreme nature of smart phone obsession we now endure.  You’d think if DC sanctioned a twelve-issue mini-series, the company believed it enough to keep it in print.  Jimmy is a character who’s been famous for so long that he can be easy to take for granted.  Me, I’d keep him active in the paperback collections, and I’d have plenty of suggestions on how to fill them (not the least being his “I found out Superman’s secret identity!” debacle from the late 1990s), and I’d definitely have him starring in his own book.  Of all the Superman characters, he’s the most relevant to the average reader.  If DC wanted to start somewhere in picking up that slack, they can reprint this story.

From fall 1995:
In the ’90s, it was impossible to escape Superman and Batman on the stands every week, and eventually even the skip weeks were covering in BATMAN CHRONICLES and this title, published quarterly for a handful of years.  At the time of this one’s release, Lex Luthor was just coming back from an extended period of being his own son, via a surrogate clone sporting a full head of red hair, thanks to UNDERWORLD UNLEASHED (which had not yet begun), and years away from being elected President of the United States (yes, it happened), and he was matched by the mysterious Contessa, a character I’d keep around as a permanent addition to the Superman mythos.  I’d also retain Alpha Centurion, who was still working his way into the Superman comics of the time after a false introduction during Zero Hour.  The Centurion was so rich in potential, and was years ahead of the Hollywood curve that with GLADIATOR brought back the appeal of the historical epic, yet he disappeared soon after his arrival, never to be heard from again.  He’s another character I would unquestionably revive, with probably a few modifications.  I thought I’d read most of his appearances, but I guess I wasn’t quite as religious with Superman at the time as I thought I was, since I skipped the second issue of MAN OF TOMORROW, with the Contessa and Centurion clearly on the cover.  It was another happy discovery.

From November 2007:
Mr. Terrific’s early loss in the New 52 of his first ongoing series was a mercy killing.  The book was terrible, baffling in its lack of understanding of just how awesome Michael Holt really is, and how relevant he is in the modern world.  Arvid Nelson, one of my favorite writers, wrote this spotlight that has the rest of the Justice Society backing him in one of his periodic wars with Nazis (a crossover with Atomic Robo is inevitable!).  It’s still weird to think that the JSA has had so many books in recent years, but was ignored in the first wave of the New 52, and still won’t have a book with its name in the title in the second.  But then, Robin doesn’t have his own book, either, so there’s at least some consistency.  I hope DC hasn’t given up on Mr. Terrific as a character who can command his own stories.  We’ll see.