Comics

Tim + Alex Get TWATD #2.1: Luci, Bat for Lashes, Superheroes

Once again, we return.Every ninety(ish) days, two handsome young writers return to this blog. They read the last three issues of The Wicked + The Divine, and they write three essays each. This time round, we’re focusing on issues #4 and #5 – and as you might expect, there’s a big focus on Laura and Luci’s relationship. Spoilers abound. Elegy for the Devil In many ways, Luci was the apotheosis of Gillen/McKelvie characters – a morally ambiguous, razor-witted woman with mythical powers, fantastic fashion sense and an asymmetrical haircut. In her swaggering DNA, we can find the traces of Emily Aster, Loki, Astrid, Silent Girl, America Chavez and more. Of course she had to die. Even in the world of The Wicked + The Divine, gods are defined by their stories. After all, while the deities manifest for only two short years, their influence stretches far beyond that. Their role is to inspire, to trigger something lasting from their brief time on Earth, and that means leaving behind tales that will drive people to obsession and fanaticism. They are defined by their stories – the ones they live, and the ones they leave. Woden must hang upon his tree. Minerva must enter the world fully formed. Lucifer must fall. So what caused Luci to fall? One could point to a number of emotions, both those that track with classical depictions and those very much unique to the book’s setting and interpretation, but in the end, I think it comes down to fear. Laura’s final visit to Luci’s cell, just before her escape, strips away all the illusions the character had held. She will be left to rot in jail for her sins until she dies, cut off from those who worship her, unable to wield any influence, alone and forsaken. Her fellow gods do not care if she is guilty or not, if she is a good person or bad, all that matters is that the (super)natural order is maintained. There is no justice. She will die, and leave little trace upon the world. It’s the throughline of the series, the Big Message Laser focused upon one character. Read that page as she comes to term with the news. Is that a tear she wipes away? We’ll never know. Look at the slow push McKelvie draws, boxing Luci in more and more. “You’re told you’re going to die…and some part of you just defiantly doesn’t believe it.” “It was never going to be okay.” In the end, it isn’t fear of death that triggers Luci’s escape, and subsequent demise, it’s fear of a death without meaning. It’s dying without a chance to make an impact on the world, to write her name in fire and blood and headlines. The Wicked + The Divine isn’t just about death. It’s about what we do with the knowledge that death is coming. Lucifer has to fall, but she has to go to war with heaven first. And of course, in those final moments, we see the young woman she originally was shine through, the one who doesn’t want to die before she’s 20. That small “Don’t”, a prayer and a plea against the inevitable. But then Lucifer is finally crowned with her halo, first one of fire, then one of blood, and her life comes to an end. But her story? That will last a lot longer.                    More Than A Superstar Bat for Lashes’ Laura is a song about loss which also finds the time to toy with ideas of glamour and fame. If you’ve been listening to it as much as I have over the past few months, you may just about be able to spot some connections with The Wicked + The Divine. There’s a good reason for that. In the Writer’s Notes for issue #1 of The Wicked + The Divine, Kieron Gillen says that Laura is one of the key songs – if not the key song – that inspired the series. It’s where our cheery (currently not so much) fangirl protagonist got her name. It’s the song Gillen posted on This Is My Jam the day issue #5 dropped. “You’re the train that crashed my heart/You’re the glitter in the dark.” The lyrics contain a pretty good summation of where we are at the end of #5 – I don’t think it’s much of a stretch so say that, in the film adaptation, it’d be the song that plays as that last scene fades to black – but it features a dark promise for the future, too:  “Laura, you’re more than a superstar/You’ll be famous for longer than them.” The end of issue #5 suggest that maybe Laura could take her place among the pop-pantheon. But the previous issues have also gone out of their way to establish that’s she different from the gods. Their fate – infinite fame, very finite lifespans – was foisted upon them. Laura seems to be actively planning for it – no friends, no A-Levels, just a dream that makes everything else not worth living through. Maybe Laura will fill one of the two remaining openings in that wheel of symbols, but I’d bet that if she achieves her dream – and it’ll be interesting to see how much she still wants it all now she’s has her first bitter taste of fame – it won’t be as a god, omnipotent and disposable, but something else. Something more, according to the prophecy of Laura. In order to rise above your influences and become something truly great in your own right, you have to kill your idols, as the saying goes. The downside of that, of course, being that your idols end up rather dead. “You say that they’ve all left you behind/Your heart broken, the poverty died.” We’ll see how that one pans out.                    Every Superhero Needs His Theme Music It was the suit that did it. Jamie McKelvie has an […]

Tim + Alex Get TWATD #1.2: Sex, Icons, God is a DJ

Every ninety(ish) days, two handsome young writers return to this blog. They read the last three issues of The Wicked + The Divine, and they write three essays each. In two years, they’ll probably still be doing this.Welcome back to Tim + Alex Get TWATD.                    The Monarchs of Fuck For a series whose core theme is the inevitability of death (as we discussed last time), The Wicked + The Divine spends a lot of time concerned with art’s other great motivator: sex. The gods, as befits their largely pre-Christian origins, seem like they can’t get enough of it. While Inanna and Sakhmet (with her lifeless, drained entourage) are highlighted by Cassandra as the most prolific of the gods in this sense, we also have Woden’s “army of ethnic mono-cultured valkyrie fuck buddies”; Baphomet and The Morrigan’s Sid-and-Nancy-esque relationship; and Luci, who seems to have tangled with most of the pantheon, and flirts relentlessly with Laura. Even Amaterasu, relative paragon of purity and wholesomeness, causes fans to orgasm with joy at her concerts. And then we have Laura, our window on the world, Virgil to our Dante. Laura is presented as neither virginally pure (she knows her way around an orgasm, it seems) nor particularly sexually experienced (she’s blindsided by Luci’s flirting). She is, in other words, your typical teen, surrounded by images of sex but not truly engaged with it yet. The gods are both her peers (in terms of age) and her idols, and are hyper-sexual in the way the world is when you are just 17. However, while the gods may talk the talk, we’re yet to see them walk the walk. The book isn’t exactly rated T for Teen (exploding heads, c-bombs, etc), but has so far shied away from any direct depictions of sex, graphic or otherwise. The sexuality of the gods is both everywhere and nowhere, inescapable yet entirely abstract. We can infer the kind of kinky hijinx Luci’s been up to or The Morrigan and Baphomet’s room-trashing passion, but so far it’s all been kept behind closed doors. Sidenote: it’s worth pointing out that while Laura has been in close proximity to five different gods (or seven, depending on how you view The Morrigan) so far, her only moment of flesh-on-flesh contact with one is giving her hand to Lucifer when they first meet (and if that doesn’t strike you as ominous, you’re not paying enough attention). The sexual nature of the gods is, at least in these first three issues, for our own interest, rather than theirs. It may be graphically detailed, but it’s there to fuel our speculation and our fantasy. The only hint of an actual stable relationship (Baal’s boyfriend) is noted as being “off-brand”. Just like real pop stars, the sexuality of the gods is there to tease, just another product for our consumption.                    Icona Pop The last work from ‘Team Phonogram’ (Gillen/McKelvie/Wilson) was 2013’s Young Avengers, a superhero comic for Marvel which attempted a whole bunch of things and succeeded at most of them. But my single favourite thing about the series was undoubtedly the promise of a double-page spread every issue. Fight scenes were rendered as diagrams or montages or some new eye-popping idea, every month, guaranteed. Comics as a Michel Gondry pop video. So I was disappointed to hear they wouldn’t be bringing the same approach to The Wicked + The Divine. Three issues in, though, it’s pretty clear that these visual experiments haven’t been abandoned . I could point to the introduction of The Morrigan, probably the nearest direct relative to YA‘s visual setpieces. Two circular panels, at opposite corners of a double-page spread, are linked by a black flurry of crow shapes, thick enough to become an abstract shape. All other panels are knocked off their axis or even pushed off the page as reality is bent. But I reckon The Wicked + The Divine‘s real visual achievement lies in a repeating set of much simpler elements. Look at those covers. The portraits overlaid with text are reminiscent of the trend for movie posters that looked like the Social Network’s, but here the concept is pared back as far as it will go. The covers are supremely confident – of how compelling a McKelvie-drawn face can be, and of the mystery of the pop-gods’ identities. That confidence is not unfounded. The covers are comfortably iconic enough that The Wicked + The Divine‘s interiors start playing with them from the very first page, echoing the face of Luci or Laura (depending on which version you picked up) with a big ol’ skull in the exact same proportions – a trick issue #3 repeated with The Morrigan’s head. Look at the use of black. For four pages, as Laura takes a journey into London’s underground, issue #2 almost turns into an illustrated prose story, each page featuring a single quarter-size piece of art and a smattering of words carefully on a sheer black canvas. In issue #3, they push it even further, beginning with black panel borders which eventually overwhelm the whole page. There’s one entirely image-free page with just ten words on it, and I’ve stared at it probably longer than any other. Like sensory deprivation, these sections highlight what’s great about each element of the creative team in isolation – the rhythm of Gillen’s narration emphasised by the room it’s given, Clayton Cowles’ ever-so-slightly-organic letterforms bringing Laura’s chatty diarist voice to life, McKelvie’s compositions toying with negative space to create a believable sense of place, Matt Wilson lighting these sets moodily to lead us down from the pinkish surface to the deep blues of the underworld – before bringing the band triumphantly back together for the end of the issue. Look at those diagrammatic scene breaks. Iconic in the simplest sense of the word, the symbols on these pages act like a wordless ‘Previously on…’. They tell us that there are 10 gods who have […]

Tim + Alex Get TWATD #1.1: Death, Parents, Needle Dicks

This is the high concept behind The Wicked + The Divine, the latest Image comic from Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie and Matt Wilson. Every ninety(ish) days, two handsome young writers return to this blog. They read the last three issues of The Wicked + The Divine, and they write three essays each. Welcome to Tim + Alex Get TWATD. Each set of essays will be broken into two posts, to save our wrists and your eyes. We might be doing close readings of particular scenes or panels, picking out a theme or character that’s caught our attention, or just speculating wildly. Spoilers will be everywhere, so if you haven’t read the comics yet, avert your eyes or, better yet, grab them and come back later. In two years, they’ll probably still be doing this. The idiots. “But not yet.” You know, given that its very first page is dominated by a skull, and the majority of its cast’s lives have a guaranteed expiration date of two years’ time, The Wicked + The Divine has actually shown a remarkably light touch when it comes to mortality. In the opening pages of #1, which take us back to 1923 and the era’s own set of deities, we get a preview of the gods’ inevitable fate. Eight have already been reduced to the aforementioned skulls, and a couple of pages later, we see the explosive murder-suicide of the remaining four. But their demises don’t weigh too heavily on us – they’re not characters we’ve had time to get invested in, despite their wonderful Jazz Age designs – nor, it seems, on their 21st Century counterparts. Over in 2014, Amaterasu (aka 17-year-old Hazel Greenaway) is asked about her imminent demise by the comic’s resident cynic, Cassandra. There is a regretful pause, a moment of wonderfully-drawn sadness in Ammy’s big brown eyes, before she pretty much shrugs it off:There are a few possible reasons for all this: They’re teenagers. Do you remember being 17? The threat of dying before 20 feels more like a promise. Amaterasu’s reaction is pretty much this. They’re also kind of immortal. After all, that elegant set up makes two promises: You will die. But, in some sense, you’ll be back, long after everyone else here is gone. It’s just like pop music – I can just about conceive that Prince Rogers Nelson will one day die. But Prince, the artist previously known as an unpronounceable symbol? He’s not going anywhere. They’re too busy making the most of being not-dead. Creation is these gods’ main business, both in the artistic being-popstars sense and the procreational one. Based on Luci’s accounting in issue #3, pretty much the whole pantheon has touched pelvises. (More on that from Tim in our next set of essays.) Simple dramatic license. If The Wicked + The Divine was wall-to-wall moping about the gaping abyss (and not the kind Badb is taking about), it’d be about as much fun as hanging out in a funeral home. Besides, with a promised run of 30-40 issues, the comic has plenty of time to reach that point yet. In fact, the one time so far that the comic has really pushed the issue – with a pure black page, lit only by the refrain “We’re all going to die” – it came from the gods’ music. (The two-page sequence being, as far as I can tell, a particularly abstract way of depicting the trance-like state of a perfect gig.) It’s a performance, and it’s the message Baphomet and the Morrigan choose to send to the outside world. So it’s probably telling that the sequence ends with three more words, lighting the darkness and breaking the rhythm: “But not yet.”                Won’t Somebody Think of the Grown-Ups? The Wicked + The Divine is a series with its eye fixed firmly on the young. Laura, our entry point into the story, is 17. The gods and goddesses are, at most, in their early 20s. Apart from the elderly and possibly immortal Ananke, the only major character that could rent a car in the US is Cassandra, who is old enough to have a Masters degree, but young enough to still be annoyed about her student loans. That said, one group of adults is very conspicuous in their absence – the parents. Laura’s parents are both seen and heard, and her interactions with them root her as a ‘normal’ figure caught up in the supernatural events of the Recurrence. In issue #2 we are presented with a portrait of their normality, as the family sits around the television watching Baal’s interview. Laura’s father gently prods at his daughter’s affection for the gods, her mother prevents it escalating beyond good-natured familial banter. In issue #3, we see the consequences of Laura being caught (quite literally) at the Morrigan’s gig, and the ensuing row, again a picture of normal teenage life.In contrast, we have the parents of the gods. Amaterasu is 17, Lucifer maybe a couple of years older. Minerva is only 12. It’s common knowledge that the gods live for a maximum of two years after they are awoken. Where are their mortal parents, lamenting their childrens’ inevitable early deaths? Or, given that we’re also dealing with pop stars and the modern cults of celebrity, where are the parents desperately trying to edge their way into their child’s spotlight, barely acknowledging their foretold doom? Granted, we’ve only had three issues, and the plot has been moving at a fair tick, but we’ve already had our attention drawn to the empty seats at the family table. Lucifer’s parents (or rather the parents of the girl who became Lucifer) are twice referenced. First in Cassandra’s interview, where she conjures a picture of Luci discovering Bowie in her parents’ “embarrassingly retro record collection”, and then again when Luci regales Laura with the tale of her transformation into a god, while her parents “were out at some awful Britpop covers band”. If her parents are at the court hearing in […]

THE WICKED + THE DIVINE #1: “People We Want”

Image’s The Wicked + The Divine #1 landed this Wednesday, bursting with the promise of being my new favourite comic. It’s too early to say that yet and, besides, reviewing single issues of a comic is a bit of a vulgar business. So let’s get our essay on.(Spoilers follow, both visual and textual.) Let’s kick off this two-part blog with a big old declaration of bias: Jamie McKelvie & Kieron Gillen together make up just about the only fandom that I’d identify as part of. Their first comic together, 2006’s Phonogram, introduced me to a whole host of ideas – formalism, poptimism, Kenickie – which make up a not-inconsiderable chunk of who I am today, and not just why but the way I’m writing this blog. Their work is the exception to the rule that I don’t buy comics monthly, and certainly not as print issues – I’m writing this having read a digital copy of issue one, knowing there’s a pre-ordered copy waiting for me in my local comic shop. Their Thought Bubble DJ sets drag me halfway up the country on an annual pilgrimage of drinking, dancing, and ill-advised behaviour. I’m pretty sure Drunk Alex has tried to make out with at least one of them. I am a complete fanboy and frankly, my opinion on any new comic they put out is not to be trusted. So why the hell am I telling you this? Because it’s one half of what The Wicked + The Divine is about. It’s a story about the relationship between creator and consumer, centering around an excellent high concept: once each century, twelve gods reincarnate on earth. In human bodies. As pop stars. The story is already in motion when we join it. The gods have been manifest for a while – or at least, based on the three blanks in the chapter’s introductory Jonathan Hickman-esque diagram, nine of them are. The public are aware of their apparent divinity and are reacting in various ways, ranging from utter devotion to the application of semi-automatic weaponry. This is a narrative-driven comic – exposition and explosions, a couple of mysteries, a cliffhanger to close – in a way Phonogram never was. My first impression was that the issue flies past too quickly, despite the doubled page count, but it actually manages to seamlessly introduce the concept and establish an incredibly broad cast across two distinct time periods without ever having to stop the story to make time for introductions. So let’s do some introductions: So far, it appears that The Wicked + The Divine belongs to Laura, our viewpoint character. For now, she’s pretty much just a Fan, with the suggestion that she’s trying to escape something in her own personality through her relationship with music. Amaterasu is the first of the gods we see, mixing Florence & The Machine and Kate Bush with an added splash of Bolan glam, some openly mystical iconography and eyes that (in a classic McKelvie/Gillen motif) turn into tiny eclipses when she’s in full performance-god mode. Luci(fer) is the first god we actually meet. She’s an androgynous Bowie-esque retro revivalist, referencing the Rolling Stones, Beatles and Philip Larkin, decked out with a white suit and a La Roux quiff. Luci probably gets the most development of any character in the issue. She’s introduced as something of a standard-issue Warren Ellis Female – sharp tongued, fearsome and permanently smoking – but towards the end of the issue that trope gets exploded, fairly literally, and again we get a glimpse of the young woman she is underneath. If Luci and Ameratsu were real pop stars, though, I suspect they wouldn’t be part of my pantheon. The god I could imagine tributes to on an alternate-universe version of this blog is also the one we see least of: Sekhmet, Egyptian cat goddess by way of Rihanna. It’s the most striking and direct visual resemblance to an actual celebrity in the comic. More specifically, though, Sekhmet embodies a particular side of Rihanna: the pelvic thrust of S&M, the stamina-and-virility-challenging super-dominatrix of Rude Boy. She’s all that good stuff stripped back to pure animal form, draped over two groupies (one of each sex, obv), uninhibited in the most literal sense, chasing red dots across the furniture like an actual cat.Then there’s Cassandra, a journalist and non-believer who probably deserves her own essay. For now, let’s just say acts as the voice of scepticism.  (Something you might have noticed – that was a lot of ‘she’s. Of the (by my count) ten potentially recurring characters, just two are boys. If that doesn’t sound too important to you, well, you’re probably not a regular comics reader.) Cassandra tries to ground Amaterasu by reminding her she’s just “a seventeen-year-old from Exeter”. It’s simultaneously a paean to the transformative power of pop and a suggestion that maybe she’s just playing the same game as Laura. Less Amaterasu, basically, and more amateur. She points to Sekhmet, saying it’s not “a dignified way for a woman to behave”. You’ve probably heard someone say a similar thing about Rihanna or one of the other pop stars in Sekhmet’s DNA, and it raises a question of control and choice. Would whoever Sekhmet was before have chosen to become a cat sex god? How much of Rihanna’s sexualised presentation is self-determined? For a comic which I said goes by far too quickly, it manages to pack in a remarkable amount of questions about the creation and consumption of pop creation, both the specifics and the universal. Here’s one more question: how much am I extrapolating? Look, I told you I wasn’t to be trusted. The Wicked + The Divine feels like a comic that was made for me, from concept to execution to the fact that, based on the caption box and the look of the houses, Laura lives a ten-minute walk from where I’m currently sat. There’s a scene early in the issue where Laura attends an Amaterasu gig. The star-god scans the audience, and […]

Person of the Year 2013, feat Tim Maytom

Happy New Year! A quick break from the Play Off tournament – which will be back shortly, narrowing the contenders for Track of the Year from 16 down to our four semi-finalists – for a guest contribution from the ever-lovin’ Tim Maytom. This is the fourth time Tim has shared his Person of the Year on this site. His previous picks have all tended towards comedy – Pete Holmes, Amy Poehler and Donald Glover – but this year, he’s talking comics of a completely different kind.  Enough preamble. Let’s find out who takes home 2013’s Person of the Year. The good thing about making the rules is that you can decide when to break them. That’s something I think this year’s choice for Person of the Year represents, and so in that spirit, I’m breaking my own rules and declaring a joint selection. Kelly Sue DeConnick and Matt Fraction are both comic writers who have had great years. They have worked within the system of the ‘Big Two’ comic companies to craft superhero stories that resonate on a personal level and go beyond folks in tight costumes punching each other (not that there’s anything wrong with the occasional spandex fistfight), as well as producing creator owned books that have pushed themselves, and the medium, into telling new types of stories. They are deft practitioners of social media, using their Twitter/Tumblr/whatever presence to interact with fans and build a sense of community among like-minded readers. They are everything a modern comic writer should be. They also happen to be married to each other. Let’s consider Kelly Sue DeConnick first. Having risen up through manga translation and the odd issue and mini-series at Marvel, Kelly Sue earned the job of relaunching Carol Danvers as Captain Marvel in July 2012. Danvers, previously Ms Marvel, was a character that Marvel had slowly been raising the profile of, clearly aware of their lack of a female superhero able to support her own series à la Wonder Woman. Ms Marvel was a natural choice, and with Kelly Sue’s relaunch, she finally took the name Captain. Like so many female superheroes, Danvers’ origin was tied to a male hero, the original Captain Marvel, but by taking on the mantle as her own, both the character and Marvel themselves were making the statement that this was no longer a spin-off, distaff companion to another hero. She had inherited his name, and so was his equal. The series proceeded to build upon the ideas of legacy, exploring the world of female aviators while Carol adventured through time and fought monsters and villains across the globe. DeConnick built a wonderful supporting cast for Carol, using established characters from her previous solo series and introducing new ones, and in one of the most exciting developments, this year it was revealed that the Ms Marvel title would relaunch with a young hero inspired by Carol’s exploits. There is a long and embarrassing history in comic books of female heroes all being based on existing male characters – Batwoman, Supergirl, She-Hulk, etc – and while many of these characters have had fantastic stories written about them that treated them as well-rounded, three-dimensional characters, that initial secondary nature hangs over them. Just as Carol Danvers had shed that idea by truly embracing her position as Captain Marvel, the new Ms Marvel, Kamala Khan, is unique for being one of the few female heroes inspired by another female character. As many of 2013’s Year in Review-style articles will tell you, we seem to be part of an exciting time for feminism, and bringing the idea of female role models, mentoring and friendship to the fore in this way is just one of the methods DeConnick has employed to create a modern feminist hero in Captain Marvel. The book is full of interesting, conflicted woman who feel real, and who deal with issues that all readers can relate to (albeit in the magnified, larger-than-life way that superhero comics tend to use). This deeply integrated feminism has created a huge and devoted fanbase online, the Carol Corps, who read, write, draw, craft and cosplay to support their hero. Captain Marvel is relaunching with a new #1 in 2014 and I can’t wait to see where DeConnick sends Danvers next. DeConnick’s other big project this year was a creator owned one, a mythical Western horror series called Pretty Deadly she made with Emma Rios, Jordie Bellaire and Clayton Cowles. Pretty Deadly is well removed from Captain Marvel‘s primary coloured exploits, for although Carol Danvers is a complex, rounded character, there’s no denying she’s a hero. As befits its genre roots, there are no obvious heroes in Pretty Deadly. Instead, there’s Johnny, the nihilistic coward, languishing in a prostitute’s bed with a bruised ego; Fox, the blind wanderer with a dark secret; Ginny, the daughter of Death, a skull-faced avenger loosed on the world. Pretty Deadly is different to almost everything out there at the moment, a lyrical folkloric tale that entrances and disturbs in equal measure. Rios’ beautiful fluid art and inspired layouts combine perfectly with the tone DeConnick creates, giving everything an otherworldly, dream-like feel. Each issue begins with the framing story, as the tale of Deathface Ginny to told between a butterfly and a skeletal rabbit, and the first issue was largely taken up with a gorgeously relayed song describing Ginny’s origins. These stylistic choices feel like acts of faith, asking people to get on board with the book’s atmosphere, accept the world the team is weaving that is so different to most other comics. I’m sure there were a fair few people who never got past the song of Death’s daughter locked in a tower, but those of us who gave the book a chance became utterly bewitched by the story being told. Pretty Deadly is DeConnick’s first creator-owned series, and that she has chosen such a bold, unique story, clearly born of her passions and executed in such a confident way speaks volumes about her as a […]

A Quick Snoop at The Private Eye

Today, Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin went loud with a pay-what-you-want DRM-free digital comic series, The Private Eye, out of pretty much nowhere. Vaughan was, as I detailed in my Saga post, my first favourite comic book writer and important to my development in a whole lot of other ways too. Martin is one of the sharpest artists in comics, his linework a potent mix of classical cartooning and modern design. I’ve just finished reading it, as the initial surprise dies down and the conversations start about how important a move it is for the industry – and, given the spirit of the whole venture, it only seemed right to broadcast my thoughts immediately. Because The Private Eye is, as the ‘Share/Follow/Like’ teasers yesterday suggested, a look at where a world saturated in social media is headed. It’s my absolute favourite kind of sci-fi, the kind that asks ‘what’s next?’. Like Orwell, like Bradbury (given a nod here), like Atwood, but with none of those pesky ties to reality – it leans closer to broad satire. (Brits, think Black Mirror with an infinite budget and a much bolder colour palette.) Nevertheless, the set-up speaks to a number of truths about our real world. As our protagonist Patrick Immelmann tells his granddad, in an exposition-dump scene that is simultaneously the one clunky note the comic hits and entirely necessary: this is a world where the internet burst open. All our search histories and deleted pics and private messages went public, and in response the world went private. Two generations later and we’re introduced to a world where seemingly everyone takes on a ‘nym’, a masked identity; where there’s no more internet; and where taking a photo of someone without their express permission is a federal crime. The set-up is perfect, the kind of thing people always used to pigeonhole Vaughan as being great at – a high concept so tight that it sings, so clean that simply relaying it tells you almost all you need to know about the comic, at least in terms of what it’s about. So all that leaves is the execution, which is glorious. It’s what Vaughan always has been great at – a taut thriller plot, with characters established quickly and sketched out just enough that you care when the stabbing starts, with a thoughtful meaning-packed core. All of which only hangs together because of the sheer craft involved. The Private Eye is built around a monitor-shaped landscape ‘page’, a format the pair do some neat things with. Vaughan never misses a chance to fill the screen with dozens of garishly-dressed individuals each tightly rendered by Martin. And so, something as simple as two people having a conversation in an office becomes the most visually interesting part of the whole beautiful comic. It’s a literal talking heads scene, where one face in profile dominates the right half of the screen, a series of close-up panels filling the rest of the space. The next page flips the layout on its head, in a way that would be slightly spoilt by having to physically turn a page. The Private Eye is never overly flashy or gratuitous in its imagery, but it’s a joy to flick through. Sitting here now, having read the whole thing, I find myself alternating between page up and page down, jumping back and forth between screens, and it’s entrancing. That’s a good word for the whole package, actually. The narrative momentum of the cliffhanger, the perfect strobe-light stills which fill each page, the odd world-building idea which catches your mind just right, the whole important-for-the-industry experiment: it’s entrancing. There’s no question of whether you should download and read The Private Eye. The only question is: what is being entranced worth to you? (The Private Eye can be downloaded from the Panel Syndicate for whatever you choose to pay here.)

2012’s Finest: SAGA

I’ve already talked about today’s pick – very briefly – in my Comics round-up post. I called it “the much-anticipated return of Brian K Vaughan, a writer who must shoulder a large part of the blame for my comics habit. The first two issues were good, but failed to blow me away. But returning to it in trade form, I found it rich, complex and … worth writing about in depth, basically.”I’m such a little tease. But I’m not one to break a promise, not least one made on the internet, so here goes: SAGA “Face it, our only choice is to lay low and stay out of trouble. We have a family to think about n–”“Don’t! / Don’t you every say those words to me! / Sorry. But ‘we have a family to think about now’ is the rallying cry of losers.” For all its sci-fi set dressing – the winged and horned main characters, the quest to get escape a warring planet, the excellent monster design from Fiona Staples – at its heart, Saga is a story about what compromises you are and aren’t willing to make in order to protect something dear to you, something you’ve created. It’s a comic about selling out. Saga starts with the birth of the series’ apparent eventual protagonist, Hazel – a character who doesn’t speak a single word throughout the first volume, due to being a baby, but does narrate the action, in borderless captions scribbled on top of the pictures, children’s book-style. In fact, she even gets the book’s first words: …Which is pretty much the comic’s mission statement (especially because it’s almost immediately undercut with the slightly more earthy “Am I [defecating]?” from the birthing mother, Alana, but we’ll get back to that). The first scene, as well as being a beautifully, brutally honest scene of childbirth, keeps drawing this same line between creating a child and creating, you know, art. “But ideas are fragile things,” says Hazel, as her parents consistently ground these highfalutin ideas with talk of sex and poo and pain. “That’s why people create with someone else.” And so the line is drawn, nice and thick, between Hazel’s mother and father, and the book’s – Vaughan and Staples, writer and artist, each providing their half of the whole. Within moments of birth, Hazel is in danger, and the book has its drive: Mommy & Daddy have to get off the planet before the various forces hunting them down can hurt Baby. And there are plenty of forces who want to cause them harm: Marko (horny dad) and Alana (winged mom) are from two warring species, and both sides want to get the results of this starcross’d union. Enter hunky bounty hunter The Will, and aimless robot prince Prince Robot IV, who will have their own matching dilemmas set up before the first volume’s out. Every character has a clear set of values, and something they want to protect – which is actually a child in every case – and are asked by the story: what are you willing to give up for that cause? Take Marko, who puts his violent past behind him to become a pacifist, a vow made physical in the sheathing of his ceremonial sword. But, with two bounty hunters, a TV-faced robot and two armies all trying to harm his daughter, that doesn’t last too long. For The Will and Prince Robot those dilemmas are only set up in this volume. (And if you don’t want to know how, skip the rest of this paragraph). Will, clearly disinterested in bounty hunting, finds a little girl enslaved into prostitution, and realises the only way to save her is by buying her freedom. His hypocrisy is constantly, and disturbingly, questioned: “it’s morally acceptable to execute people of any age, but only to make love to a select few?” Meanwhile, Prince Robot is sucked into the conflict when he discovers he has a child of his own on the way (courtesy of an earlier scene of hot robot sex) and is told he can’t return to the kingdom until this matter is dealt with. Later, his TV-screen face – which flashes involuntarily with symbols showing his thoughts – shows a rattle with a ribbon tied around it, right before he puts a big sinewy hole in the chest of another character. Violence is something the characters of Saga are forced into. For a sci-fi adventure comic, there are surprisingly few action scenes, and what it is there is ugly. The nearest we get to ‘good’ violence is Marko’s beserker rage with that sword – and any glamour is undercut by him pratfalling ingloriously out-of-panel. It might be reaching a bit to read Marko’s attempts at pacificism – and his lack of consistency on the matter – as Vaughan himself trying to avoid big action setpieces, but there’s certainly a sense of him trying to stomp down on any signs of genre convention throughout. Vaughan and Staples are drawing as much from fantasy imagery as he does traditional sci-fi, but – like Marko and Alana turning their back on their races, which happen to be magic- and science-based respectively – Saga isn’t interested in playing by either genre’s rules. Mundane real-world elements are constantly dragged in, from the aforementioned Chaucerian interest in bodily excretions to everyday technology (one character complains about auto-updating apps crashing his phone). Even the choice of Fiona Staples on art is unconventional. She draws some deeply excellent aliens (the character design of The Stalk, another bounty hunter, being an art highlight of not just this book but of the year). What she really excels in is drawing people and emotions – something Vaughan always seems to find in his collaborators. They’re the focus, not her (admittedly gorgeous) backgrounds. So often, building the world is the real meat of sci-fi, but here they’re sketchy, smudgy, watercolour-soft. It all reflects the fact that the characters, on both sides, just aren’t interested in the big trad sci-fi conflict. They’re certainly not going to be piloting X-Wings into the heart of […]

It’s the End of the Year as We Know It: THE COMICS OF 2012

Our round-up of 2012’s best pop culture continues to run off the rails of the originally planned schedule. But fear not, the final piece, on the year’s best music, will be with you in time to change your NYE playlist accordingly. In 2012, I read more comics than in any other year of my life, thanks to Comixology’s endless stream of sales and the truly excellent Canada Water library. I developed such an addiction to comics podcasts (between the industry analysis of House to Astonish, the close reading of Kieron Gillen’s Decompressed, iFanboy‘s chatty quickfire reviews, and Mindless One’s SILENCE!, in many ways its scrappy British cousin) that I’ve recently had to cut back. Moving to London meant I saw what my girlfriend describes as my ‘comics friends’ far more, hitting up the ever-wonderful Thought Bubble and owning its dancefloor with them.I’m more immersed in comics culture than I’ve ever been. …And yet, coming to write this, I find myself with a rather thin list of actual comics which came out in 2012.Buying cut-price digital issues on Comixology – plus monthly splurges on Amazon – has forced me into reading older material and collections. It means I’ve finally got past the first trades of The Invisibles, Sandman, and a wealth of other stuff I’m embarrassed to admit I hadn’t read before, but I’ve also dropped off buying monthly issues almost entirely. If I wasn’t a tradewaiter (non-comics people translation: someone who doesn’t read their comics monthly, in issue format, but waits for the bi-annual-ish ‘trade paperback’ collections) before, I certainly am now. However, it also means I haven’t read any further into Journey into Mystery, my favourite comic of last year, than I had at the time. It’s very nearly all available in trade, though, so I’ve got a wonderfully condensed period of high adventure, deep thinking and, if the internet is anything to go by, big emotions ahead of me. And it’s not all bad: regular trips to the library have furnished me with handsome editions of the first five Locke & Key volumes. It’s a story about the Locke family and their ancestral home, Keyhouse, beginning with a father’s murder and blossoming out from there. The titular keys (and nominal locks) each come with their own magical power, and a matching metaphor.In truth, despite being written by Stephen King’s son, Locke & Key‘s nearest relative is probably Buffy. It transitions deftly between tense thriller/well-drawn ensemble drama/experimental formalism/pure horror throughout, but the draw is always the characters. The series’ scope has widened, drawing in more of the family’s history and pushing towards the fantastical, as it reaches its climax but it stays anchored to the human stories of Tyler, Kinsey and Bode Locke. It all concludes next year (five more issues, or one more collection) – catching up is highly recommended. Meanwhile, the Comixology model has produced Double Barrel. Playing with the format rather than the form, the Brothers Cannon have developed a monthly digital comics magazine, centred around an ongoing story from each, but also drawing in essays, mini-comics, and how-to’s. Both stories are solid, with Kevin Cannon bringing smoother art to the Arctic pirate space adventure story Crater XV and Zander Cannon delivering my favourite story in Heck, a modern slice-of-life riff on Dante’s Inferno.Without the constraints of print, each chapter can be as long or short as it needs to be, but for just $2 (and dropping below $1 after a month) Double Barrel is the most interesting bargain in the modern comics landscape. I think overall, I’ve settled into the reading rhythm that’s best for me, grabbing #1s digitally (year’s best? Hawkeye, which promised a modern blueprint for superhero comics) and then using them to decide what I’ll pick up six months later.It gives series more room to breathe. For example, the first couple of issues of Saga – the much-anticipated return of Brian K Vaughan, a writer who must shoulder a large part of the blame for my comics habit – were good, but failed to blow me away. But returning to it in trade form, I found it rich, complex and … worth writing about in depth, basically. Living up to what people had been saying about it in the first half of the year, the first volume of Prophet made for an intoxicating read. The art shifts as constantly as the world, with little touchstones serving to link up the style of each artist: The dense alien landscapes intended to be pored over. The inventory panels stolen straight out of a videogame. The tactile gnarliness of it all.Meanwhile the story, which jumps between a number of John Prophet clones I never quite learned to tell apart, is either some higher-level narrative magic, or nonsensical. But really it’s all just an excuse to join Prophet (the one with the tail, or the one with the mohawk, or the one that’s dead inside his robot bodyguard) as he journeys through a mad, inventive, beautifully rendered world.Some of the experiences you, the cosmic tourist, can expect to enjoy – falling from the sky in the pink womb of a protective star skin; sharing a post-coital cigarette with your vagina-faced alien lover; watching the stars from the shoulder of a curled-up fetus planet. Morrison’s Batman run has been a regular feature on these end of year round-ups since I started doing them, and Batman Incorporated is shaping up to be a fitting end to his extraordinary run. The story has embraced Batman’s entire history, even the bits fans normally wince at, but it’s now been running for long enough that it can mine its own past. All the pieces are being brought together. Dozens of Batmen of all nations, and as many interweaving subplots, all battling the forces of evil in the form of Leviathan.The shadowy organisation’s even shadowier leader was revealed to be Talia Al Ghul, Batman’s onetime lover and father of his son, presently Robin and potential Devilbatman of the future. With that, the whole epic saga has […]

52 Pick Up – The Project 52 Podcast

It’s been a long time coming, but it’s finally here – Project 52’s little podcasty brother, in which the six ‘second wave’ titles of DC’s New 52 are discussed at length. Recorded in an underground bunker at some point back around the beginning of time, the podcast gathers together five of comicdom’s finest minds – Compére extraordinaire, Robin Harman, smooth of voice and shaggy of beard. The virtuous Tim Maytom, good and fair. Brett Canny, drawing from each of the seven gods whose names make up his word of power. Michael Eckett, with hair of silk and fist of iron. And hired idiot Alex Spencer. In the hot forge of debate, these five personalities became one and, lo, the 52 Pick Up podcast was born, strong as adamantium and lengthy as fifty-eight of your Imperial minutes. Doesn’t that sound magical? Doesn’t that sound like something you’d like to hear take place? Well, now you can – using the embedded widgety chap below, or by right-clicking here to download and take on your merry way.

The Avengers – What’s The What, How’s The How, and Why’s The Why, Part Three

Here we are at last, the final piece of the puzzle.  If you’ve made it through parts one and two of this overly in-depth look at Marvel’s record-breaking, block-busting summer team-up behemoth The Avengers, then I am genuinely grateful. If you haven’t … well, don’t you think you’d better catch up?  III. The Why “I don’t like to create something that doesn’t say anything.” –Joss Whedon The Avengers is, more or less, an almost-seamless machine for producing childlike joy. Given how fully it succeeds in this respect, it seems churlish to ask of it what I’m about to ask. But I’m a man who owns a 500-page book of essays on Whedon’s work and… well, see the above quote. Is it meant to make you feel anything, being awesome? Is it about anything except the maths of Iron Man + Hulk = AWESOME? Does it have anything to say? Yes. Maybe. No. Kind of. Emotionally speaking, all you’ve got is the trad. Whedon death. But here, it’s explicitly worked to fuel the plot. As well-worked into the public’s affections as Coulson is, his passing isn’t really worked for emotion the way any number of Whedon characters are (e.g. [REDACTED], [REDACTED], and, of course, [REDACTED]. Boy, that one was really something, wasn’t it?) The story, intermittently, is about a lot of the usual modern-superhero-film things – America as a superpower; the military-industrial complex; image and perception; all adding up to the question of how superheroes function in a realistic, modern world. It’s about a lot of the usual Joss Whedon things, too – outsiders vs. authority; the cost of victory; and, perhaps most of all, building a family out of what was previously just a disparate handful of people. It’s not especially about those things, though. So maybe it’s a character study? After my first viewing, I was a bit disappointed there wasn’t more attention given over to each character. You know, just time chilling with the heroes, maybe a little peek at how Whedon reckons each of their minds work. It seems likely a lot of that may have ended up on the cutting room floor, but there is still plenty there – it’s just under the surface. It’s in Ruffalo’s fidgety faux-calm performance, and little throwaway lines, and how we meet each character. I was left craving their characters’ company (Which I reckon goes some way to explain the millions of people who apparently have come out of the theatre, bought a ticket and maybe some overpriced salty snacks, and just gone right back in. They’re not, I think, going back in to see the same dozen explosions.) Really – and this should come as no surprise – the characters are what The Avengers is all about. And what the character stuff wants to talk about, mostly, seems to be control. Look at Loki. Like all the best baddies, the threat he poses isn’t solely violent, though obviously with all the explosions and the alien invasion, there is that. It’s a philosophical threat. Loki doesn’t want to destroy the earth, he just wants to impose his worldview on it – that, as a god, he is superior, and as such they should relinquish their free will. Which is precisely what he does to Hawkeye and Dr Selvig at the start of the film. (Interestingly, though, they’re not quite empty-eyed drones. Rather than being fully stripped of their sense of self, they’re just reduced to their roles as scientist and soldier – and Selvig especially seems to be really enjoying himself.) But Loki, it turns out, is part of a larger chain of command – he’s bossed over by the slightly naff-looking alien, who himself turns out to be a lackey of Thanos. And that echoes the one on the Avengers’ side, of the World Security Council – who are trying to exert power over people because They Know What’s Best (rarely a good sign in Whedon’s work) – and Nick Fury – whose most heroic moment in the film is simply resisting the control of his shadowy superiors and letting the Avengers go free. It’s a chain of people trying to exercise control over one another – and mostly failing. Control over oneself, though? That’s quite different. It’s pretty much Black Widow’s superpower. Twice in the film she shows her ability to remove herself from her emotions, and weaponise them. That that self-control is only broken by her fear of the Hulk sets up a fascinating dynamic between the two and, in breaking her outer shell a little, provides a way in for any future filmmakers dealing with her. Tony Stark sits at a balanced midpoint, having had time in two solo feature films to run through most of his self-control issues. That’s great, because it stops Downey Jr from stealing the whole damn show like he threatened to in the trailers, and because it allows him to bond with the character around which the film naturally finds its fascinating centre. The Hulk. If ever there was a character about the questions of self-control, it’s the Hulk. It’s built into his verdant DNA. Whedon finds a fresh spin on it, something more nuanced and subtle than most interpretations of the Hulk, and Ruffalo sticks the landing effortlessly. He’s treated like a poorly-stored nuclear weapon by most of his teammates but, for the most part, Banner’s pretty damn chill about everything. It doesn’t fit with our basic perception of the Hulk, but then you start to notice Ruffalo’s ever-busy hands, and then he casually drops the littlest of big reveals: “I’m always angry”. The first time, it knit my brows. It’s such a throwaway line, but in its implications – embracing that life isn’t a clean break between calm and anger, that anger perhaps isn’t such a bad emotion – those three words manage to make the job of the next Hulk director a whole lot harder. All that control stuff is built into the structure, too. It’s a byproduct of the way The […]