Here we are. The comic that made me care about the whole New 52 reboot in the first place, because I’d worry it was going to get in the way of Grant Morrison’s five-year Bat epic. But I’m playing my hand early. Read on, but beware of spoilers. (Guest-starring in today’s post is Michael Eckett, who described the two of us in an email last week as “the Batman and Robin of Reviews, Inc”. ‘Nuff said.)
Today’s second injection of undiluted Review straight to the base of your spine. This time, it’s some of the big boys: Superman, Batman, African Batman and …er… Static Shock. Action Comics #1Written by Grant MorrisonArt by Rags MoralesReviewed by Alex Lex Luthor: “The brown tree snake, introduced to the U.S. territory of Guam right after World War Two, caused dozens of indigenous birds and reptile species to become extinct. The cane toad, sent to Australia as a pest control agent, decimated local biodiversity.” And Grant Morrison, put on the first issue of Action Comics after the rebooting of the entire DC universe, gets to overwrite the entire history and metaphor of Superman. The first issue from a writer like Morrison, is pretty much a guaranteed Statement of Intent. Last time he touched the Man of Tomorrow, Morrison wrote him as an omnipotent Sci-Fi Jesus. He came down from the skies and cared for all of humanity, and sacrificed himself to save us. This isn’t quite that Superman. Apart from being younger and less all-powerful (and wearing jeans! Can you imagine Jesus wearing jeans?), the central metaphor is different. It’s laid out pretty clearly on the first page: “Rats. Rats with money. And rats with guns. I’m your worst nightmare”. This is Superman as the champion of the oppressed, delivering social justice. It’s something Morrison has often discussed being at the heart of the character from his very first appearance: smashing a car on that iconic cover from 1938, the last time Action Comics had a #1. And so Superman’s targets are corrupt businessmen who take advantage of cheap labour, men who hit their wives, and xenophobes. Being honest, the metaphor and the Brand New Direction are more interesting than the actual plot. It’s thrilling enough, and well-told, but there’s nothing about the story that leaves me craving the next issue. It’s not even that heavy on Morrison’s trademark Big Ideas. What will bring me back is faith in Morrison, and Morale’s gorgeously cartoony art (why couldn’t all the new books look like this? This is what Accessible Comics in the 21st Century should look like). Most of all, I want to see where the book’s going to go with all the underlying stuff, what it has to say about social justice and inequality. Rating: A- Batwing #1Written by Judd WinickArt by Ben OliverReviewed by Batwing is the first solo title I’ve reviewed, and the difference it makes to the pacing of the comic is immediately felt. Rather than having to cram in multiple introductions (or, in the case of Justice League, only introduce a few characters and leave the reader feeling short-changed) it has one central figure to build a story around, and while a supporting cast and recurring villains are also introduced, their characterisation isn’t so essential, so can be dealt with at a more leisurely pace. Batwing doesn’t feel nearly as rushed as other titles have, and as such feels more like a story in its own right, rather than a preamble to the real meat of a title. I haven’t been reading the “Batman Incorporated” arc (I can already feel Alex tutting at me across the Internet) so this is my first encounter with Batwing. I must admit, the concept of “Batman of Africa” struck me as both a little hokey, and lodged in the Silver Age (people do realise Africa isn’t one big country, right? Tell me I’m not in the minority on this…) but Judd Winick makes it work by highlighting the similarities between Gotham and Batwing’s Tinasha (such as a corrupt police force and a brazen criminal culture prone to theatrics) without sacrificing the cultural identity of the Congolese setting, or falling into stereotypes. The universe relaunch works in the title’s favour – with superheroes reinvented as a more recent phenomena, the huge disparity in global distribution is easier to accept, and Winick and Ben Oliver seem to be addressing this ever further by building a superheroic mythology for Africa in the DCU. More than anything, the art sells me on this book. Ben Oliver’s pencils and inks are gorgeous; astonishingly detailed, with realistic expressions and great costuming without sacrificing dynamic layouts or a sense of weight and movement in the action sequences. It’s a truly beautiful comic, aided by Brian Reber’s painterly colouring, which gives the daytime sequences a kind of heat haze while adding a moonlight glow to the action at night. Time will tell whether Batwing will generate enough sales to keep it going far beyond its first arc, but if the standard continues to be this high, it deserves a long and healthy life. Rating: A Detective Comics #1Written by Tony S. DanielArt by Tony S. DanielReviewed by Alex Detective Comics #1 is a very competent comic. That’s a virtue, no doubt, but when it’s the main thing that stands out, it’s also a limit. Don’t expect anything transcendant or life-changing, don’t expect to be grabbing your friends by the lapels and saying, look! read this!. It’s a fairly by-the-book Batman story, told well. You know: there’s a criminal on the loose, the cops don’t trust Batman but Gordon does, Bruce Wayne breaks hearts, Batman punches the Joker repeatedly in the face… It doesn’t use the relaunch to do anything new, and the story would have fitted just as neatly in the status quo six months ago. Everything’s the same, including Tony S. Daniel, who’s been a regular artist and/or writer on Batman for nearly five years now. Except, okay, the police don’t trust Batman, which, as someone commented on the JL review, feels a little like a character being brought more closely in line with his film counterpart. Nevertheless: I’m pretty hooked on the central whodunnit, which is at it should be in something called Detective Comics, and that last page is seriously ballsy. Daniels’ art is looking better than I’ve ever seen it, and he makes a surprisingly good writer. He manages to fulfill both ends of the […]
I’m kind of falling out of keeping up to date with comics at the moment, diving instead into huge multiple book series either that can be grabbed on the cheap (most recently Morrison’s New X-Men, about which I need to think further and maybe reread) or rereading stuff I’ve already got (Y: The Last Man, which probably has a post forthcoming). I don’t know if this is a comment on the quality of comics at the moment, or on my lifestyle, but just some background on the choices below. Neil Young’s Greendale Sometimes, the term graphic novel actually manages to hit a nail right on the head. Small immersive pockets of pure fiction. Okay, it’s wrong because a work like Greendale isn’t anywhere near the length of a novel. It is, in fact, about half a film in a length. To pick one, it’s Donnie Darko minus the Lynch. But that breathtaking feeling of emerging the other side is exactly the same. It makes sense, perhaps, to talk about it in these terms, comparing it to other media. After all, this was apparently a film already, as well as (obviously, I guess) a Neil Young album. But I know nothing about that, and nothing about Neil Young beyond … Young Neil from Scott Pilgrim. But the magic of the book – and magic is the word that I would hammer repeatedly and forcefully, were this a full-length review – is somehow novelistic. It’s open ended. It’s got the big stuff – the world – and the small stuff – being a teenager – all knitted together. It deals with the weird in a casual, magical-realism-ish way. Most impressively, it makes an interesting story from subjects I’m not necessarily that interested in. The Bush administration and the mess that was ’00s America got chewed up so thoroughly by the culture of that time that I’m not able to take it all that seriously. But that is intertwined with characters that are easy to care about, especially as illustrated in Cliff Chiang’s … okay, I have to say it again … magical brushstrokes. The story opens with a stock tragedy. The composition and colours and lines somehow make you immediately care about it. That’s a perfect microcosm of this book, I reckon. I picked it up quite by accident, nonchalantly, and emerged an hour later breathless. Magic. Batman & Robin/Return of Bruce Wayne It’s boring, because this was the centre-piece of my choices three months ago, but this has been undeniably the dominant force in my reading for a while now. And comics move slower, anyway. A ‘Quarter’, our chosen measure of time, contains 3 titles of a comic if you’re lucky. I’d ban myself from talking about it, but for wanting to talk about it forever and forever like a man infected with a particularly chatty strain of the Joker virus. Morrison’s run on Batman* has been interesting all through, but this is it finally reaching narrative maturity. All the plot threads are finally coming together, and answers to all the craziness that has been the last half-decade of Batman comics are promised. We’re at the perfect point of any story like this, where ideas begin to crystallise and rush around your mind. In rollercoaster terms, we’ve just climbed that final ramp and can just about see the big drop. If it all pays off – and it’s difficult to pay off so much, and Morrison rarely manages fully satisfying endings, and working in an endless serialised story doesn’t help – this will be possibly the greatest superhero story ever told. It’s stunning in its scope and ambition. But for now, all that doesn’t matter, because it’s the story and the mystery that keeps bringing me back. It’s the thing I impatiently check the weekly listings for, every week. That’s thanks to breathless cliffhangers and tightly-cut-together Big Moments, just as much as it is the trademark Morrison craziness. By the next time I write about this, it’ll all be over and I’ll have the scalpel to go at what it all means. See you there. *For more on the idea of ‘runs’ in comics, see last Quarter. And that just about wraps everything up, by my reckoning. I’m leaving games out for now, as it’s hard to be succinct about every game I want to talk about. They’ll get their own pieces, in time. And besides, this has been the biggest one yet, I think. As if I haven’t wasted enough of your time already…
I don’t know if you know (frankly, I’m not sure why you would) but recently the Superman comics reached the 700 mark. They took the opportunitity to begin not only a new story, but a new direction for Superman. He would be walking the length of the USA to reconnect with its people. Walking. As in, on foot. The idea has been pretty thoroughly mocked. And rightfully so: it’s a bit stupid, really, like the time Captain America gave up on Civil War because he was out of touch with the modern American man. It’s been pointed out that the writer, J. Michael Straczynski, has done a very similar idea with his last three major iconic-superhero stories, bringing Thor and Wonder Woman to ground so he can get a handle on them. Thing is, it also kind of makes sense. Superman is a power fantasy figure. He was designed by two fanboy kids, from not-well-off immigrant backgrounds, as their protector. Superman is the genie in the bottle of guys like them, the bespectacled awkward working-class guy. He is the purest example of superhero as Metaphor. I have to admit that these thoughts are all tangled with the fact I finally read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay this summer, and Shuster and Siegel have become stand-ins for those two characters in my head. ‘Escapism’ is a word I am trying to avoid.* Meanwhile: It’s a fairly accepted maxim that good Superman stories are thin on the ground these days. If it weren’t for Morrison – more on him later – I believe it would go ‘noone’s written a great Superman story for decades’. The last film was a wreck. The big touchstones are ‘imaginary stories’ (aren’t they all) which rework Superman (Red Son: as a Commie, Whatever Happened To The Man of Tomorrow: as a disappeared legend). One possible reason? Nowadays, the average comics reader doesn’t have much to fear. The geek is king. We sit atop culture, defining the newest trends. We’re able to snobbily say, huh, you’ve only just heard of Scott Pilgrim? like the indie-gurus of yesteryear. And, as all those Bam! Pow! headlines will tell you, they’re not even kids anymore. There are no bullies to fear, at least no more than their average fellow man has. Ladies and gentlemen, the metaphor at the heart of Superman has been spent. We don’t need him anymore. Grant Morrison did the best possible version of the Kryptonian Super-Jesus for the modern age in All-Star Superman, taking the idea to its logical extreme, as Morrison is wont to do, and painting him as just that: an outer-space saviour for the entire world, never faltering in his love. But that can only be done for so long and so, as the Superman serials roll on and on and on towards the next one thousand issues, writers have to make do with what’s left. In this case, Straczynski has chosen ‘he’s one of us’. The jocks are no better than us, anymore, and Superman is no better than the Common Man. Looking from the outside, testing with one foot, we can see that the metaphor bends a little under strain, but holds. To go further, I need to examine the Metaphor in its natural habitat: Issues #700 to 702 of Superman. The metaphor, and the couple of ways JMS chooses to bend it, are fascinating. The line between Clark Kent and Superman is blurred – Clark Kent casually chats on the phone, as Superman strolls down a street. Superman, the old immigrant, asks new migrants: “Could you possibly have picked a worse time to immigrate here illegally?” Clearly, it was different when he did it. Or is he drawing a line between him and his past? The Superman iconography is testing the waters, trying to reinvent himself so he can remain a successful icon in the modern world. Elsewhere, though, it’s business as usual. Superman gives a lot of speeches, without really saying much about the metaphor, or himself, or the ideas behind the story. They seem to work their magic on the people Kal El meets, though, who are consistently inspired by his presence. Which comes off a little cheesy, particularly when he helps the skinny little kid who wants to play basketball. It’s predictable, but does return to the idea of Superman as liberator of the weak geek (in this case, the geek who wants to, and successfully manages to, integrate into normality.) Meanwhile, there’s some disturbing ‘fighting for over here, over there can look out for itself’ rhetoric from Superman, which seems a bit contradictory both with the character – it’s the kind of thing that makes sense out of the mouth of Daredevil or Batman, overcome men doing what they can for their slice of land but not an all-powerful alien who has come to save us all – and the message of these comics. An attempt to tie it back into that idea, that ‘there’ can become ‘here’ only compounds the issue. It’s all a bit confused. The life of the everyman isn’t below Superman – he’s happy to clear out a stockroom to pay for a steak sandwich** – but he’s also treated reverentially by both the public and the text. His opinion is treated differently to that of the man on the street, he’s the only guy who can stop a girl from suicide (which might sound familiar to anyone who’s read All-Star, where it actually makes 100% sense). I think it’s an attempt to bring human concerns and stories back to Superman, but only manages it in a temporary, revolving supporting cast. Not in the big man himself, or even his human friends. Straczynski takes a genuinely interesting idea, but one that requires following through straight and clear. Here, he muddles it and interesting ideas fail to translate into interesting comics. And you have to be reading as a meta-fictional thing, a setting I can really only tune my brain to because […]
FILMS Kick Ass I’ve written about already. It already seems weird, looking back, how much the world was taken aback by it. Its impact has been somewhat reeled in since. I’m hoping Scott Pilgrim is going to deliver the finisher on comic-book-movies-blowing-peoples’-minds-a-bit, minds softened up by 10 rounds with Kick Ass, Watchmen, and chums. Cemetery Junction seemed so likely to disappoint. Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant finally doing a film together, after Ricky did The Invention of Lying (which, though I’ve never seen, maintains a certain … reputation); the long-discussed move into drama (which was definitely the most interesting thing about Extras, in the end); the words “Hollywood does small-town England” apparently supposed to sell it to me. We’ll do small-town England our own way, thankyou very much, and that’s small-minded and depressing. And then it had the gall to go and be really, really good. Full of charming, well-drawn characters; warm in just the right way (a very English way, edged with the right amount of cynicism); a genuinely – damnit – a genuine feel good film. Uplifting and memorable and reinvigorating and traditional but somehow fresh… I eagerly await the next Merchant/Gervais surefire-disappointment. The ‘Staying True to the Source Material’ Award has to go to Iron Man 2 Good solid superhero film which, like a good superhero comic, kept me entertained as I flipped through but has now more or less slipped from my memory. I liked it more than some people I expected to like it more. Sometimes the tone of a film can be completely changed by who you watch it with. Otherwise terrifying horrors become hilarious comedies of errors. Watching Four Lions, the screening swelled, my eyes getting wider with disbelief: a full house for a comedy about suicide bombers? Maybe they were here for the outrage? But, no, an entire cinema screen, fuller than I’ve ever seen in the West Midlands, making the air thick with laughter. I’d gone in expecting that sharp Morris satire, some serious drama and a bit of thoughtfood to chew on otherwise. I got those, in various portions. I just hadn’t expected it to be so funny as well. COMICS Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men being one of the most endlessly recommendable superhero comics I’ve ever read, I was a bit suspicious of the use of the monicker. I’m protective of that comic, in the way of possessive comic book nerds. I don’t really like Wolverine. Yet, here I am, about to call Jason Aaron’s Astonishing Spider-Man & Wolverine, on the strength of its first issue, one of the best comics I’ve read in a while. …Astonishing Spider-Man & Wolverine is one of the best comics I’ve read in a while. It out-Morrisons Grant Morrison’s (excellent) Batman & Robin in finding a fresh, weird take on the straight superhero story. It’s full of ideas, both in content (I don’t want to give away any of the set up of this issue) and form (there’s some really nice use of layouts and symmetry which is the kind of thing only comics can do and really isn’t done enough). I write this having only read one issue, but it’s brilliant. It left me, in a way I haven’t had since the early days of Ultimate Spider-Man, dancing round the house and wanting to be Spider-man. Thwip! And, having mentioned it in a way that might, to the unobservant eye, seem negative, I am legally obliged to say: damn, Grant Morrison on Batman (in all its forms: Batman & Robin, Return of Bruce Wayne, even that not-quite-great anniversary issue) is absolutely killing at the moment. We passed the point where you start to realise, oh, this is going to be one of the character’s defining writers a few miles back: a peculiarly comics idea, I must say, this peculiar hall of fame, and one that comes dangerously close to deserving its own essay. In superhero comics, example after example rolls off the tongue, even for stuff I’ve never read. Ennis’s Punisher; Miller’s Daredevil; Simonson’s Thor. You just get to know this stuff after a while. To non comics-reader readers, I’m trying to think hard of an analogue. Occasionally, a writer (generally, one who has already had success elsewhere, often sporadic) clicks with an existing character (often one who has languished out of the spotlight for a while), and the issues shared by that character and that writer are gold, in a way that doesn’t even necessarily align with the quality of the stories. It’s alchemy of the highest order, essentially. GAMES Shh. I’m playing Mario Galaxy 2. Bugger off, I’ll talk to you later. Just need to finish … this … level … Be with you in a minute.
(If you’re not, ask to borrow it. Instead of reading this. I’ll wait for you to come back addicted…) It was the shiny cover that did it. I waited ages for my copy of Scott Pilgrim Vs. The Universe (aka SP5), and when it finally came, I tore open the package to discover a land of shininess and awesome design. It promised so much, after the pure joy of Gets It Together (that’s SP4). Nothing had warned me about the cover, which was already bringing back the joy of discovering an all-new shiny in your Pokemon card booster pack. I admit that I hoped a little that it was only mine that had it, as a special gift for being so patient and awesome. I was ready to revel in all that freshly-discovered love as it accelerated towards some infinite joysphere.On the other side of the book, I am in a world of emptiness. When I reread the series to prepare for SP5, I began to place it in Comics History- the current movement, led by Morrison and Fraction, that seems to be moving away from the early ’00s tendency towards what Morrison called “a showcase …that they can actually write convincing TV and movie scripts”. And embracing the colourful Pop Insanity comics do so well. (Or, as he puts it: “the raw and the primitive and the ‘who gives a fuck, this is the shit!’ element”, in a surprisingly good IGN interview.) Scott Pilgrim is a character defined by the fact that things do work out for him. He exists, pretty much, in his own world, but the world he’s placed in works for him too. He gets all sorts of stuff thrown at him but, like Kim says: C’mon, it’s Scott Pilgrim. And maybe it’s a fantasy, but the same rules, generally, seem to exert themselves on my life. The morning before I got down to reading SP5, a friend reminded of my ability to luck out on stuff. Which just meant the bad times hit more personally. Up till now the classic story’s played on, boy meets girl, beats baddies (and has at least a couple of times in his lifetime) because that’s just how he rolls. But 5 throws a whole batch of stuff at him, for a whole book- the title should’ve warned me: Scott vs the Universe, Ramona’s face should have warned me. But I was too busy looking at the darned shininess of that cover. As it stands, this is definitely the Empire Strikes Back episode of Spaced. Which makes me appreciate the serialised format. As a person, I tend towards discrete chunks of culture: I watch TV on DVD so I can just jump straight to the next episode, I don’t like picking up comics I know will never end. I like albums. So maybe I’m a little spoilt. Film can throw all the misery it likes at you but, presuming there’s a happy ending, it’s never more than 2 hours away.I finished the book and sat around, feeling a little empty, waiting for the next book to arrive and make it all better. Then remembered, it won’t be in my life for a whole year at least. So, somewhere out there, Scott Pilgrim’s stuck in a limbo of misery. And the only way I can rescue him is by reading the next book. COME ON SCOTT PILGRIM 6! (The next thing I did, instead, to fill that hole, was read the awesome articles on it here, by Kieron Gillen and especially here, at Savage Critics. That also inspired another thought, which I might get round to today…)
In this post-Watchmen-film era, with a whole subculture finally able to exhale (and, possibly, roll their eyes) in unison, the usual mutterings in the common press have risen. What to read next, perhaps comics are acceptable, who Alan Moore is and why he’s clever. I joined in, writing an article on music and comics for my beloved Redbrick. Wherein, I compare Alphabeat to Spider-man; kiss relevant, talented arses; say a few things I already regret (not proud of the phrase “mainstream dirge”.)But I digress: I really enjoyed doing the “research” on this one, ans am pretty proud of it, in general, though it’s not as pretty online as it is on the page.And, okay, I used the phrase “post-Watchmen” with deliberate pretention up there. I had a brief moment of reckless optimism the other day: this is getting comics into peoples’ hands, and for a film that’s not doing that extraordinarily well, it feels like Watchmen is a bit ubiquitous at the moment: in all the bookshops, especially. I don’t think I’m one of those comics fans who is too bothered (anymore) about the medium having any kind of credibility, but I have to admit, the idea felt nice.On reflection, I think I was just being silly, though.