Category Archives: Comics

Legends, Southern Women, Apes and Faith: books read

According to the introduction, WE ARE ALL LEGENDS by Darrell Schweitzer was inspired by The Seventh Seal with its story of Julian the Apostate (“Second of that name.”) who in his first encounter with evil rolls over and surrenders. Denied salvation, he wanders a world of strange cults and warped Christianity (“God is mad, yes, but so is his adversary.”), hoping to escape damnation but unwilling to redeem himself. Dark, gloomy and weird, this reminds me a lot of Clark Ashton Smith’s work; like a lot of short story series, it gets repetitive at times, but it’s still well worth reading.

MOTHERS OF INVENTION: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust looks at how Southern ladies, raised to believe they were utterly dependent on men for protection, guidance and support, suddenly found their men yanked away by the war. Now it was the women who had to order slaves around, run businesses, petition the government for help and make public appearances at fund-raisers, which often left them in a state of cognitive dissonance and outraged other Southerners (even the slightest departure from their conscripted gender roles would piss someone off). The normal course of life was similarly disrupted, as young girls found themselves deprived of the courtship and husband hunting that would usually consume their time and many young widows decided lifelong mourning was not the way to go. Faust concludes that the women never really embraced their new roles, which is part of why feminism never found fertile ground in the south (Southern suffragettes didn’t demand the vote based on equality, but on the grounds they deserved it more than Negros). Not as striking as Faust’s This Republic of Suffering, but interesting.

PLANET OF THE APES AS AMERICAN MYTH: Race, Politics and Popular Culture by Eric Greene argues convincingly that the subtext (and frequently text) of the original films is race relations in America, both reflected in the ape caste system (orangutan leaders, chimp intellectuals, brute gorillas) and ape/human relations (the slaves rising up in revolt in Conquest, for instance).  Greene explores how the theme works itself out in the different films and proposed scripts, from the bleak view of the first two films to the tentative hope of the last three that racial equality might be attained, however much a long shot. An interesting read that also includes the two TV shows and the various comics adaptations, plus several 1990s attempts to revive the franchise (Greene wrote well before the current cycle kicked off).

FAITH: California Scheming: by Jody Houser and Pere Pérez is an excellent sequel to V1, Hollywood & Vine (which apparently I forgot to review). Faith is a plus-size telekinetic and extreme comics nerd (her secret identity name “Summer” is a tribute to both Summer Glau and Scott Summers) who’s just sunny as all get out about being able to use her powers to help people. Here she encounters Chris Hemsworth (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) who reveals an unpleasant secret and goes with her boyfriend Archer to a con where she faces one of the classic dilemmas (“Which of us is the evil double?”). Highly recommended.

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A few good superheroes: graphic novels read

BATMAN: The Rules of Engagement was the first Tom King Batman TPB (with art by various creators) I genuinely liked (as opposed to, say, The War of Jokes and Riddles). Batman’s engaged to Selina which leads to lots of genuinely enjoyable banter, a battle with Talia al Ghul, shock from the Robins and Bruce and his sweetie going on a double date with the Kents. This was the most lighthearted Batman story I’ve seen in years — so perhaps it’s not surprising that the wedding ain’t going to happen (the Big Twist of the upcoming wedding issue, spoiled by an NYT story).

ABE SAPIENS: Lost Lives by Mike Mignola, Scott Allie and others is a mixed bag of short stories set throughout Abe’s career; “mixed bag” puts it better than most of Abe’s series, ike the previous couple of TPBs. The origin of occultist Gustav Strobl is more interesting than he ever was as an adversary, for instance, but the final story involving Abe’s life as Langdon Caul never really comes to a point. The most noteworthy thing is that setting one story in 2013 forces me to revise the Hellboy Chronology  — I had Abe’s transformation into his new form happening a couple of years earlier. I still think 2013 is a little late, but Mignola gets to make the call.

THE BUZZ AND DARKDEVIL by Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz collects two miniseries showcasing two of Spider-Girl’s supporting cast (if they were hoping for spinoffs, alas, they did no better than A-Next or Juggernaut. The Buzz is J. Jonah Jameson’s grandson, JJ; when grandpa’s latest attempt to create a new superhero goes as badly awry as all the others, JJ steps into the Buzz suit and begins fighting the bad guys. Darkdevil has a truly loonie origin: son of Spider-Man clone Ben Reilly, transformed when the demon Zarathos tried to possess him, saved by the ghost of Matt Murdock, he now fights crime with his odd mix of spider/demon/Daredevil powers. If only for sheer weirdness, I liked this one better.

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Disappointing fantasies with female protagonists

Laini Taylor’s writing style on her Y/A DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE is really clunky (too much head-hopping, for instance) but it got me interested in the early chapters for the sheer amount of weird stuff, such as a nonhuman sorcerer collecting necklaces of teeth, a stalking angel and a teleporting blue-haired girl living in Prague. It got less imaginative as it went along, and switching to another POV character, Madrigal, for several chapters didn’t work at all for me. But the weird bits were memorably weird.

ROOK by Sharon Cameron is set in a post-apocalyptic world that happens to resemble France and England during the Reign of Terror (which doesn’t really make sense, but I’m willing to grant the premise), with the mysterious Red Rook — AKA impoverished English noblewoman Sophia — rescuing prisoners sentenced to die under “the Razor” (Cameron acknowledges the Scarlet Pimpernel influence). This starts off well, but runs too long to keep up the energy. A bigger problem is that while Sophia starts off daring and swashbuckling, once her fiancé gets involved Cameron gives him the leadership role and reduces Sophia to sidekick (as this is part romance, I wonder if Cameron was trying to create a romantic figure and just went over the top). Disappointing

WONDER WOMAN: Heart of the Amazon by Shea Fontana (and other writers and artists) suffers from some really poor art that doesn’t work at all (maybe a lighter, sweeter story). The story is stretched out too far, but the scheme to use Wonder Woman’s blood for sinister purposes isn’t bad, and the various writers play up her compassion, which the New 52 tends to forget about. Not a winner, but far from the worst WW I’ve read.

DEPT H. by Matt Kindt has a great concept — female protagonist investigating a murder at a deep-sea lab — but it really didn’t work for me. Too much time spent fleshing out the protagonist and establishing the set-up rather than getting going. It would work as the first couple of chapters in a mystery novel, but not as a standalone.

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It’s a dirty job but somebody’s got to do it … don’t they?

Researching my Screen Rant on the Winter Soldier revealed that Bucky Barnes is also (drum roll please) the Man on the Wall!

This concept first popped up in Marvel’s Original Sin miniseries. Over the course of the story, a dying Nick Fury reveals that for decades, he’s been “the man on the wall,” a special black ops guy with the best technology geniuses like Howard Stark have to offer. His mission: go into space and eliminate alien threats by any means necessary: “I’ve killed… More times than I can count. I’ve burned worlds. Destabilized galaxies. Dethroned gods. And I did it without any of them even knowing my name. That’s what it means to be the man on the wall. To be the invisible monster who keeps the other monsters at bay.” The purpose of the miniseries is to pick a new man for the job. The Winter Soldier gets the nod.

This sounds to me like a version of the bad-ass, take-no-prisoners vigilantes I was talking about yesterday. The ones who understand how you can’t protect the world without getting your hands dirty. Fighting fair, not assassinating people? That’s for idealists who have no idea how the world really works.

I presume the “man on the wall” title traces back to the play and movie A Few Good Men. In the movie, Jack Nicholson plays Jessup, a psycho, bullying commander at our Guantanamo Bay base (back before it was known for locking up people without trial) who gets one man under him killed. When the prosecution places him on trial, Nicholson declares that you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs — the dead man had to be sacrificed for the greater good. “Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns” And America needs him on that wall!

Jessup is the villain, a man blindly convinced that it’s a dirty job, someone’s got to do it, so if he did it, he’s a hero. Asking whether the job actually needs to be done never occurs to him.

But just as The Stepford Wives has become, in popular culture, not about misogyny but about the suburbs, a lot of people seem to think “you need me on that wall” is a serious statement — we do need a bad-ass hero who burns worlds and takes the kill shot, answering to no-one but his own heroic gut instinct. Which isn’t surprising, as that character type long precedes Jessup. Dirty Harry is the same, the guy who ignores all the rules because they need him on that wall, dammit!

I’ve never particularly liked this type of hero (though Dirty Harry‘s certainly a good movie). Usually I can’t suspend my disbelief and ignore the consequences in the real world. The CIA thought they were the men on the wall. They overthrew democratic government, supported dictatorships and made the world worse — without making America safer (check out the book Legacy of Ashes for a history). J. Edgar Hoover was a monster who thought being the man on the wall justified his actions. The second Bush administration insisted they had to lock up people at Guantanamo without trial because they were the “worst of the worst” (the overwhelming majority were innocent). 

Of course I could make the same point about Superman: I wouldn’t want anyone to have that much power in the real world. Power, as they say, corrupts. But Superman’s helping and protecting people; I’m cool with hand-waving the reality. When the hero is a killer, I can’t make that leap.

These characters often come off as an exercise in cynical pretentiousness rather than gritty realism — sure, naive sheeple might imagine Superman or Captain American can save us. Really smart understand that the only way to stop a bad man with a raygun is a bad-ass hero with a raygun. To grapple with monsters you have to become one. In reality, Earth has defeated the Skrulls, the Kree, driven off Galactus and the Celestials, all without the Man on the Wall. Sure Marvel can retcon it otherwise, and obviously they do, but I don’t buy that all Fury galactic dirty work was really necessary. A\

s one translation of Anouih’s Antigone put it: “It’s a dirty job, but someone had to do it.” “Did they? Really?”

Often the answer is no.

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20 Things About the Winter Soldier That Make No Sense

Bucky Barnes was there on Captain America’s first cover.

Then he died.

Then he became the Winter Soldier.

My new Screen Rant on the Winter Soldier looks at Buck’s whole career. Why did nobody notice that Bucky Barnes had the same name as Bucky the sidekick? Why didn’t the Russians dispose of Bucky as soon as they found his body? What about his brainwashed relationship with the Black Widow? Don’t get me wrong, I think Brubaker created an awesome character, but his stories have a few logic gaps.

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To all things there is an ending. Well, maybe not, but sometimes it’s good to have one

A recent post at CBR looks at 25 characters from the 2000s who looked to become the Next Big Thing, but weren’t. The one I felt worth posting about: Manchester Black.

Created by Joe Kelly, Black debuted in Action #775 (cover by Timothy Bradstreet) as leader of the Elite, a takeoff on the Authority. He and his hard-core superhero team are stunningly powerful (Black has literally world-shaking TK and other psi abilities) and they have no qualms about killing or crippling the bad guys they go up against. Superman’s PO’d they’re operating in Metropolis. He’s more PO’d that the public loves their approach, finding them much cooler than Superman’s stodgy, Boy Scout, don’t kill people way.

Finally Superman challenges the Elite to a showdown on the moon in front of TV cameras — and whichever side loses won’t be coming back down. Superman wins by playing the same hardball his opponents do; a horrified Black accuses him of being a monster. Superman agrees — if he played by their rules, he would be. But it’s all been a trick to drive home precisely that point (this later became the ‘toon Superman vs. the Elite). As Joe Kelly says, Superman’s not interesting because of what he can do but because of all the things he chooses not to do.

Black later escapes prison and ruthlessly destroys Superman’s life, all to prove the truth: Superman’s no better than Black. Push him hard enough and he’ll throw mercy out the window. But even when he believes Black has murdered Lois, Superman doesn’t kill him. Shell-shocked to realize Superman’s the hero (“Guess we know what that makes me.”), Black takes his own life.

The CBR article suggests that was a waste: “Black took the Superman mythos by storm when he debuted. His revenge plan against Superman poised him to become a Joker-like character for Superman — and then he offed himself. Good-bye, potential.”

I’d argue the opposite. By giving his fight with Superman an ending, and a dramatic one, Kelly made him a great character. If he’d stuck around, he’d become what he is in the New 52, a generic vigilante type who sneers at Superman for not making the hard call. He might be popular, because that kind of trite bad-ass often is, but he wouldn’t be as good.

It’s a comics problem many people have pointed out. Great stories have an ending. Sinbad goes on voyages, then retires happily to enjoy his wealth. The Count of Monte Cristo gains his revenge, but then ends his scheme when he sees he’s hurting innocent people. The Empire is overthrown, leaving Luke, Leia and Han free to pick up normal lives. Sherlock Holmes retires to keep bees in Sussex.

In comics (or any serial format), there’s a reluctance to let go of any intellectual property that might generate more cash. Alan Brennert gave a perfect ending to the Hawk and the Dove, but Marv Wolfman promptly retconned it away (and he didn’t even have plans to revive them). Characters get happy endings but someone eventually revives them, often just to kill them.

Kelly made the right call. Black is a bigger thing because his creator didn’t keep him around.

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Corruption, power and rewriting history: books read

Before “miasma” became a term for tainted, disease-bearing air, it had a more complicated meaning to the ancient Greeks. MIASMA: Pollution and Purification in Early Greek Religion by Robert Parker looks at the Greek belief not only were certain acts (being around a corpse, violating sacred land) inherently contaminating but that the one so infected could spread the contamination unless purified (an entire family could be forced into exile with the contaminated one). Parker concedes this is a tricky subject as the details are rarely spelled out, so cultural scholars have to derive them from off-hand references, laws, myths and drama. There’s also the problem of different, overlapping concepts (was shunning people for miasma different from shunning enages, those marked by the gods for punishment) and that different city states and eras had different interpretations (a small village has different issues with contamination than a city of 3o,000). Still, Parker does a good job look at how Greeks under spiritual pollution (which may have had a physical element too) and the overlap with disease, curses, divine vengeance and law. Interesting in its specialized way.

THE POWER by Naomi Alderman has a great concept: women suddenly acquire the ability to throw force lightning, making them able to overwhelm men for the first time. In Saudi Arabia, they rise up against the government; sex slaves in the Balkans turn on their master; and in the US, a female politician takes advantage of the crisis to rise to higher office.

Which is part of what frustrates me about this book: there’s more than enough sexism and abuse in the US, I don’t know why Alderman doesn’t show that as being equally brutal, rather than just a struggle for power (it’s like the perennial right-wing argument that women here have it so good compared to the rest of the world, they should just shut up!). And while I can buy the women turning out as oppressive as men, I don’t buy them immediately adopting male attitudes (with exceptions, like the anchor woman giving her colleague back his own patronizing treatment) or that a woman-ruled system would be identical to patriarchy, just gender-flipped. In many ways, this comes off as a right-wing caricature of feminism as The Feminists I’ve seen similar ideas done better.

THE ALTERED HISTORY OF WILLOW SPARKS by Tara O’Connor is an uninspired graphic novel in which a teenager gets the power to rewrite her life only to discover (gasp!) that there are Serious Consequences. This is a routine high-school life story with a slight fantasy element, though I admit the amount of similar stories I’ve seen probably biased me from the get-go (it’s really hard to impress me with something in this line).

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She blew the landing: Velvet Vol. 3

After reading two excellent TPBs of Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting’s Velvet I picked up the third volume with some trepidation. The story had been great, but could the creators wrap it up in just five more issues?

Yes. Unfortunately it’s like the wrap-up you get when a TV series is canceled and the show-runner squeeze everything necessary for a finish into one final episode (case in point, S2 of Blind Spot).

At the end of V2, Secret Lives of Dead Men, former ARC-7 agent Velvet Templeton has learned the murder of one ARC agent and the murder frame she’s been placed in are all part of some huge conspiracy that’s infiltrated the agency. She thought the former agent she busted from prison, Damian Lake, would have been locked up before the rot crept in; wrong! In the course of The Man Who Stole the World Velvet travels to Washington and discovers the conspiracy involved exposing President Nixon’s high crimes and misdemeanors to blackmail him (I wasn’t clear whether he refused so they went public, or if they publicized Watergate, then offered to clear him or what).

This is all revealed very fast (though Velvet kidnapping Nixon from the White House bathroom was cool), with one supporting character buying it at Lake’s hands in the process. Velvet tracks Lake back to London where she discovers ARC-7’s director, Manning, is the man behind everything. The reason Lake didn’t kill her too is that Manning sees her as a potential recruit for his cause — take over the world and run it behind the scenes, saving it from the idiots and crooks the rich and powerful put into office to do their bidding.

If we’d worked up to this over a couple more volumes, I think it would have worked. Delivered as one big expository confession? It felt like a desperate rush to tie everything up (Brubaker said in a text page in the original comics that Hollywood’s keeping him too busy to keep up with comics — I’m guessing he thought a rushed finish was better than leaving the story hanging until he could return to it), and it didn’t even manage that. We don’t know Manning’s vision for a new world order. We don’t know why he had Velvet’s husband killed.

The ending has Velvet dispatch Manning. She then shows up in the tropics taking a break but telling someone her profession is making the world a better place. Maybe she’s going to hunt down the rest of Manning’s organization, but with Manning and Lake dead, it’s hard to care about a nebulous Someone. Nor does it grab me if she’s just going to run around fighting evil. So that part fell flat too.

As I’m unlikely to wind up writing comics or TV at this point, this analysis ain’t much use to my own writing, but it’s still instructive to see how a bad ending can undercut a great story.

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My Dr. Strange Screen Rant is out

20 Weird Facts About Dr. Strange’s Body. Like the eye in the middle of his forehead.

Or whether he was Asian in his first appearance.

and the guy who found his body’s greatest weakness is … a bullet!

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Fallen angels, devils, polar explorer and women artists: books read

HUSH, HUSH by Becca Fitzpatrick is a Y/A fantasy about Nephilim that I could not get into. The problem isn’t Fitzpatrick’s writing but the lead being exactly the kind of manipulative bad-boy alpha male I can’t stand — the kind (at least in the portion I read) who gets the female lead to do exactly what he wants even though she can’t stand him (e.g., she doesn’t want to see him outside school but he won’t work on their class project unless she comes to find him at a pool hall). So, not for me, but might be for some of you.

BPRD THE DEVIL YOU KNOW: Messiah by Mike Mignola, Scott Allie and Laurence Campbell kicks off the final story arc for the BPRD very well. It turns out Johann took down the Ogrdu Jahad at the end of Comes the Hour so the worst of the monsters went with it. That still leaves a lot of creatures walking the Earth, and the demon-child Varvara has decided that with Hell overthrown, she’ll build a new infernal region here on Earth. While Kate and Johann are apparently dead, the BPRD crew is back together (Abe, Liz, Fenix and exorcist Ashley), though the organization is decidedly fractured. Looking forward to more.

SCOTT AND AMUNDSEN is Roland Huntford’s myth-busting history contrasting Amundsen, the practical, cautious Polar explorer with Scott, who in defeat and death became far more iconic. Supposedly Scott lost because of his rigid gentlemanly way of doing things; Huntford shows it was more sheer ineptitude: no margin for safety, refusing to use sled dogs (he was lousy managing dogs) and failing to recruit people with the right skill set or develop his own. This goes into more detail about their expeditions than I really wanted to know, and Huntford makes me wonder about his own biases (the only one of Scott’s crew who comes off well is the upperclass one) but still an impressively job.

A CENTURY OF WOMEN CARTOONISTS by underground artist Trina Robbins takes us from the days when Rose O’Neill created the original Kewpies (a surprise to me as I didn’t realize they had a creator) through Brenda Starr, Patsy Walker and Dykes to Watch Out For. Shows, unsurprisingly, that women have been more involved in strips, comics and one-panel gags than they’re often given credit for, and how their work has changed with the times as flappers, adorable moppets, working girls and teen romance shifts in an out of fashion. A fun read, though as it came out in the early 1990s, we don’t get anything on the last 25 years.

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