MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE
Here’s an odd little rant:
I’m a pretty severe Type 1 nerd. I don’t just collect comic books, I obsess about all kinds of weird stuff, from cartoons to detective movies to video games to toys. It’s a strange relationship with late capitalism, I’ll freely admit; I think normal people play FIFA or Call of Duty and watch The Big Bang Theory and have fuller social lives than I do. There are days I like to think of my own tastes as more sophisticated and self-aware than the people who crochet wool Hulkbuster armor to go to San Diego Comic Con, but they’re not, really. They’re reflexive, and those reflexes have to do with growing up during a period when advertisements during children’s television programming had been aggressively deregulated by Ronald Reagan’s head of the FCC, and a host of other environmental factors I’m probably not in close enough touch with my own psyche to identify, except generalized loneliness, which is apparent even to me.
But among a bunch of the weird artifacts of being a kid I still enjoy, even as I grow out of a lot of the superhero stories I loved and sell back issues to buy actual art that I put on the walls and so on, are Transformers toys. I don’t care about the cartoon, I throw away the comics that come as inserts in the packages, but I really enjoy and find soothing the act of turning a little plastic robot into a little plastic car or airplane or tank or bug.
As with most things I’ve liked for a long time, I will, if provoked, deliver a multi-point seminar on Transformers toys: how in the early 1980’s they were several loosely-related lines of Japanese transforming robots bought by a single holding company called Takara and distributed in the US under names dreamed up to give them a unifying story by the then-editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics, Jim Shooter; how they’ve changed in the past 10 years or so to uniform scales and price points and are largely marketed to men my age; how shortly after the Transformers movie – the first one, which is arguably a pretty fun popcorn flick – the company that makes and distributes the toys in the US, Hasbro, was so flush with cash that it vastly overspent on design and production and even the modest $15 Deluxe-class figures from that era, as opposed to the larger Voyager, Leader, and two-foot-tall Titan class figures that came later, are bizarrely complex and troubling little works of art crafted to release the maximum number of whatever weird sub-endorphin is also associated with finishing a puzzle or assembling an Ikea bookshelf. Fans whose interest runs even deeper than my own know the names of the top designers and have strong opinions on who is the best.
One extremely weird feature of Transformers toys – and I mean nonsensical, not merely unique to the rules of this already eccentric world – is that there are maybe two female characters in this whole universe of intellectual property. Two: Arcee and Blackarachnia (I know. Never mind). A few more have been added but those are the two with personality.
The company, as it has aged, has more or less embraced the thirtysomething nerdity of its customer base and allows third-party fan-run companies to produce accessories and limited runs of finnicky and crazily specific action figures and parts of action figures; it also makes a breathtakingly expensive line of “Masterpiece”-class toys totally inappropriate for children, which closely resemble the cartoon TV show versions of both robot and vehicle modes by virtue of brain-destroyingly complicated transformational procedures that combine interlocking series of hidden panels and joints adjusted to the decamicron like a puzzle box from a Hellraiser movie. So the toymaker is very much in touch with its consumers and those consumers are few enough in number – but associated with the high-grossing film appendage of the product – that their various ideas are considered carefully.
As with most people devoted to mechanical engineering, one salient feature of Transformers fandom is lack of internal drama. Recently, at the end of that flush period – the company had to negotiate less favorable terms with Disney on two of its biggest licenses, Star Wars and Marvel, and its other film projects like Battleship and the second GI Joe movie failed abysmally, so it probably won’t do this again – Hasbro held a poll to “create” a new character from a bunch of preset options: what should its new Transformer look and act like? Should the character be secretive? Grumpy? Wild? A motorcycle? Orange? A girl? And the fans spoke, and they said, “We would like a girl Transformer, please,” and then they gave her a bunch of other characteristics: she’s a telepath from the city of Kaon, with a sword, who turns into a jet, and is valiant. Her name is Windblade.
The toy itself is a little plastic marvel, which is why I have one, and I mean, they’re all fucking robots, man, if they contribute to anyone’s romantic fantasy life that’s not on Hasbro, but Windblade is curvy and pointy where Starscream and Drift are boxy and paneled, and is kind of wearing high heels in a nontraditional way, and her face is a stylized feminine face. She has a big-ass sword and a scabbard that clip seamlessly into her sci-fi jet mode and looks like a miniature samurai warrior, in the way most of the really cool Transformers do.
The funny thing here is that there was no outcry about her. Nerds get a richly deserved bad rap for taking collective action when some poor author or artist trying desperately to stay interested in a job working in the corporate IP salt mines creatively misgenders or racebends a character from whatever transnational entertainment combine’s “classic” period is being celebrated this week, and for engaging in that action with a vigor that could change the world if it was deployed in the service of a political candidate. I think a lot of their fury has to do with the way those companies emphasize nonsensical continuity over decades of stories by thousands of writers and artists to prevent fans from following the people who actually create the work from company to company or, God forbid, medium to medium, but there’s no getting around how much of it is down to the basic shittiness of men to women. I honestly didn’t even know there WERE women Transformers fans until I bought Windblade at Toys R Us. She was part of a small, all-female “wave” of toys (Transformers is a brand, Combiner Wars or Titans Return is the line for, say, fiscal year ‘15-’16, Wave Four ships in June and is all helicopters or trucks); when I went to the checkout counter I made small talk and the clerk said she, too, had gotten Windblade as soon as she could and said proudly that she’d made sure to snap up the Arcee from the same wave. She barely managed it, even working at the store – they just didn’t make that many of them, because action figures are considered “boys’ toys” where dolls are considered the corresponding “girls’ toys.”
There’s a lot of reinforced historical sexism in the toy industry, as people briefly discovered and then rapidly forgot when Disney mandated underproduction of Rey action figures for the Star Wars movie, even though Rey was the film’s protagonist. The thesis was that boys wouldn’t buy them because boys don’t like girls, and girls wouldn’t buy them because girls don’t like action figures, which are notions that are basically correct because they’re enforced from an extremely young age by toy manufacturers. So Hasbro slowly admitting that the categories are arbitrary is a larger win than it may at first appear to be.
I found that several of the young women who worked at the comic book store near my office had largish collections; then I found whole websites devoted to female transformers that had been there all along. I just hadn’t been looking for them.
I suppose my point here is that in the same way that you don’t have to have a swastika tattoo to contribute to structural racism, you don’t have to be a rapist to contribute to institutionalized misogyny. In tiny ways, every day, men and women make easy choices to simply not consider women just this one time. Maybe it’s because we just have such a deep personal connection to Ghostbusters or because we love The O’Reilly Factor even though the guy who runs Fox News is probably kind of a scumbag; I’m not saying the reasons aren’t good, I’m saying they’re not good enough.
This is not a call to go campaigning against individual bad actors. For one thing, it’s not up to any of us to personally decide who those bad actors are beyond personal preference, which, as I say above, is reflexive to a large degree and unrelated to any but the broadest notions of quality (see files under: Goonies, The; Hook; and Land Before Time, The). Instead, it’s a tentative request to quiet down about needs that aren’t vital and personal. Were we to ask only for what we need, we might find ourselves talking less often, and we might hear other people asking for what they need, which might surprise us. We might also be ashamed to hear people asking to be represented just this once in places where we hadn’t even seen them being excluded, and rather than shout out their needs as we understand them, we might finally be quiet enough for them to be heard.
Hey, I haven’t updated this in a while, largely because things haven’t changed much in my personal comics-buying habits, but I thought I’d just put up my pull list in case people are interested. I recommend all these.
– Sex Criminals – Just broke down and started getting this as soon as it comes out. It’s amazing. The gags in the background are so great it bears multiple rereadings just to catch them all (fave at the moment, on a jar of petroleum jelly: LUBICROUS: WAY TOO MUCH LUBE). Also the dirty variant covers in the most recent story arc are uniformly terrific, especially the Jaime Hernandez one.
– Howard the Duck – This is my favorite Marvel comic, maybe ever. It is to funny comics as Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing is to horror comics. The crossover with Squirrel Girl in the most recent issue is just truly excellent.
– Silver Surfer – Mike Allred’s ability to keep up with this comic monthly is pretty astonishing. I don’t know if Marvel is fudging ship dates here and there to keep it pure Allred from start to finish, but it remains a really wonderful, beautiful book.
– Kaptara – More Zdarsky. Fun, funny space jam, nice art.
– Providence – The most disturbing thing Alan Moore has ever written. Can’t look away, can’t wait to see how it ends.
– Injection – Declan Shalvey and Warren Ellis’s magical espionage book. Really beautiful, and really intense and fun. The detective-story arc that’s just about to end is totally delightful.
– James Bond: VARGR – More Ellis, on Bond. It’s the only licensed book I’ve read in years and years; the art is a little workaday but it’s getting progressively better. Ellis is one of those writers who has good panel layout ideas and you can see Jason Masters getting into it. The irony is that he tried to do basically this exact book on Jack Cross a few years back with Gary Erskine, a much, much more accomplished penciller and it went AWOL after four issues and can only be read in reprint when DC revived briefly the “100-page super spectacular” format about five years ago in an uncharacteristic fit of good sense.
– Black Panther – Ta-Nahesi Coates, Brian Stelfreeze. I think it may be the first time the character has had an all-black creative team. The jury is out, but it’s interesting so far. It’s good, in fact.
– Archie – Yeah, it’s great. Don’t make it a thing.
– Jughead – Better than Archie, if anything. Erica Henderson’s art is terrific.
– ODY-C – Matt Fraction and Christian Ward’s insane genderswapped retelling of the Odyssey. Every time I think I can wait on the trade paperback I see the cover to the new one.
– Black Widow – Holy shit, this book is amazing. The work of Chris Samnee’s career (which is saying quite a bit) for which he very rightly gets coauthor credit with Mark Waid. Samnee’s storytelling chops are just unparalleled; he can guide your eye across the page like nobody else.
– Klaus – Grant Morrison and Dan Mora’s ironically grimdark Santa Claus: Year One tale, done up like a really happy episode of Game of Thrones. Mora’s art is excellent.
– Hellboy in Hell – The final Hellboy story. This will really have been an amazing body of work when it finishes in a couple of months.
– Karnak – This book comes out once every million years but it’s really solid. Gerardo Zaffino is a gloriously talented artist but his replacement Roland Boschi keeps the aesthetic without being swallowed up by it (Zaffino had some kind of family crisis, hence the interminable delays, so fingers crossed the last three issues arrive without incident).
– DKIII: The Master Race – I am reading this entirely for the Frank Miller-drawn minicomics in the middle of each issue. Brian Azzarello’s writing is unbearably hacky, sorry. I care not even a little about anyone in the story, but I am happy to see new Miller art.
– Strange Fruit – Sue me, I like this book. I realize the Art Police have chewed on its ankles a little but its heart is in the right place. Mark Waid’s vision of the Jim Crow South is a little hamfisted but the concept is quietly brilliant and is right in the wheelhouse for his superheroic gifts. I can’t say enough good things about J G Jones’s painted art; it’s like a particularly grim edition of the Saturday Evening Post.
TREES: Warren Ellis and Jason Howard’s near-future alien invasion book. It makes 10x more sense in collections and Jason Howard’s art is basically only okay; it’s also been really spotty coming out lately so I’m giving it until the end of the next arc before I buy it again.
ALL-NEW, ALL-DIFFERENT AVENGERS: Waid, Andy Kubert and Mahmud Arsar, whose stuff is not even slightly of a piece with Kubert’s. It’s an interesting counterpoint but there’s no thematic consistency to what Kubert draws and what Arsar draws. But the story is fun and I love the lineup.
DOCTOR STRANGE: Basically dropped down on this one last week because there’s some kind of crossover going on; Chris Bachalo is the best thing going and he’s not doing all the art on the new story, so we’ll see how it shakes out when it hits the stands as a collection. Often they leave out the little ancillary bits if they’re not super-central to the story, which I hope for dearly.
LOOKING FORWARD TO:
SNOTGIRL – New Brian Lee O’Malley. I will read it, even though it’s called Snotgirl.
BETTY & VERONICA – Adam Hughes is doing a serial comic, which will probably come out once every nine years, but I’m still into it. because I really like Adam Hughes.
KILL OR BE KILLED – Brubaker and Phillips’ new project, essentially a film noir Punisher.
I suppose it was only a matter of time before Alan Moore’s formally brilliant, painstakingly crafted horror comic PROVIDENCE went so far in its efforts to disturb readers that it precluded my recommending without huge, all-caps caveats, despite enjoying the vast majority of it myself, but I was holding out hope, which was dashed about as awfully as possible with the sixth issue.
Two further issues have been published since I first started thinking about this; they’re both good and continue the unusual, accretive plot structure, which looks for hundreds of pages like a series of disturbing anecdotes and turns out to be a huge, horrifying, interconnected superstructure. “It’s like a maze you can’t see,” as one of the characters observes.
Here’s a brief explanation of why I care that the book is so aggressively problematic:
Moore is a genius. Like Stephen Sondheim or the Coen brothers, I am happy to be alive while he is creating new work. He is one of my favorite authors in any medium and I’m a moderately well-read guy, which is to say that I don’t just read comics or comics and sci-fi. He’s a virtuosic comics writer in the same way John Ashbery is a virtuosic poet or Tom Stoppard is a playwright; their work may be a little cold at times but it is underpinned with incredible and genuine depth of feeling and supported by tremendous, intricate knowledge of literary structure, which is why the final phrase of Moore’s has become such a disappointing one to his devoted fans, among whose number I of course count myself.
(I’ll get to the troublesome passage in a minute.)
A lot of Moore’s work has been derided by the weird internet morality police for depicting violence against women in what those readers think is a prurient way, notably The Killing Joke, an okay Batman graphic novel that’s not even in my top twenty Alan Moore stories. It’s apparently of no use to these people how well or sensitively Moore depicts sexual violence – and in the cases of, say, Watchmen and Top Ten, to pick what are probably the two best stand-alone volumes he’s written, I’d say he does it with extraordinary sensitivity.
This is very scary to someone who loves Moore’s work and thinks it’s valuable; we live in a time of such unparalleled idiocy in arts criticism that I often worry great works and great bodies of work will be consigned to the dumping ground of history by people who lack not just the understanding of but the slightest interest in the way art works. Fandom has no use for quality. Its objective is competitive, and its medium is intensity: all there is for the fan to do is to love or hate something harder than all the other fans.
Which is to say that when fans try to write criticism they do it badly. “Alan Moore’s work is RAPEY!” is not a criticism; it’s a description of subject matter. Law & Order: SVU is also rapey; so is Nabokov’s bibliography. The latter is better than the former.
But what these critics are gesturing at, again, badly, is in fact something legitimate. Alan Moore’s work is structured like clockwork, and it is designed to elicit emotions on this page and realizations on that page and to pull together in the readers head into a kind of larger structure you can hold in your mind only upon finishing one of his books. Many great writers do this; if it’s done well it’s often the reason a good book with many plot twists is worth rereading.
And, again, like many writers, Moore has a limited bag of tricks. Serial possession, intricate time travel, triadic romantic relationships, evil wizards who turn out to be nice, if horny, old men – these are things that show up in quite a few Moore books, and there are others besides.
One of those is rape as punishment.
Moore excels at writing cruelty. He also excels at writing heroism, and so his pitched battles tend to have higher stakes than most. But lately he has given up completely on heroism, or at least turned it down, and he has turned up cruelty as far as it will go, and so, as a writer good at weaving complicated ideas for his readership, when he has returned to horror in this latest and likely last stage of his career, he seems bent on crafting despair, using all of his tricks.
What’s odd is that his books are still enjoyable. His plots are twisty and his characters are sympathetic but (and here if you are easily disturbed or feel worried by anything you have read so far in this piece I would entreat you to stop reading) in the latest issue of Providence, his comic about a gay Jewish man learning the secrets of vicious racist horror writer HP Lovecraft’s New England, he has his hero, Robert Black, encounter a 13-year-old girl who turns out to be possessed by a creature that can move consciousnesses between bodies – its own and other people’s – as it wishes.
And, in order to teach Black a lesson, it traps his mind in the 13-year-old girl, possesses Black, and viciously rapes him with his own body, which on the page is depicted as the brutal and explicit violation of a teenage child.
There’s a tremendous amount going on in Providence. It’s drawn very cleverly; it’s clear that there are images in the background to which the reader will need to return to understand the way Moore is subtly bending time over the course of what appears at first blush for several issues to be a perfectly normal road trip story.
But this most recent scene is so utterly horrible, so carefully designed for maximum disgust and so painstakingly demonstrative of sadism, that it’s hard not to receive it as authorial sadism. And I think that is on some level what the complainers (at least those who’ve read the work in question) are getting at: Watchmen and Top Ten take place in worlds where there is hope and the possibility of peace, or at least brief love. Providence does not. The Killing Joke, which might actually be Moore’s most widely read work, doesn’t really, either. V for Vendetta, largely for reasons of amateurism, is pretty hateful. The mechanics are not much different from any other Moore story; the trouble is that he’s intentionally cranked the volume up too high. He undoubtedly has a reason; in fact the reason is starting to become clear in the subsequent issues, but the question is not whether Moore can justify it to himself, it’s whether the reader can be reasonably expected to endure it. That the question is still open is a mark of Moore’s genius, and his willfulness.
I’ve considered not publishing this review until the series is finished. I still enjoy Providence tremendously and am anxious to read it to the end, no matter what Moore has coming next. I have a lot of faith that he will tell me something complicated and worth understanding about the way he sees the world; he has lost none of his cranky, crazy, unceasingly brilliant edge in the last ten years. Even his brief takeover of his friend’s mildly lame zombie series, Crossed, was excellent. But I am worried that this darkness in his work will engulf not just the author, but his place in posterity.
Anybody know anything about this cartoon? Artist, publication?
BATMAN V EVERYBODY
1. One of the few interesting things about BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE and its director Zack Snyder is that, in the way of similarly stylish hacks like Michael Bay and David Fincher, he’s become obsessed with whether or not the hoi polloi, by which I mean newspaper movie critics, think he’s a genius or not (he’s not). Repeatedly, he’s told interviewers he thinks his films have more going on in them than reviewers have given him credit for putting there, and so it falls to me to give him at least that much: Snyder’s movies are not actually brainless popcorn-flick trash overburdened by special effects and kneecapped by directorial incompetence, they’re the work of a furious intellect trying to communicate ideas so big they overwhelm all notions of story, character and theme, in large part because those ideas are fucking stupid.
Snyder reveres the work of popular novelist and widely derided philosopher Ayn Rand, and if you watch Dawn of Justice, you will, whether you like it or not, witness something like the very first Objectivist superhero film. (Snyder tried to do this with Man of Steel but was thwarted by Superman himself, a pacifist force for altruistic good so strong in the viewer’s mind that his merely letting death happen somewhere during the film, let alone murder at the end, is derided by lovers of the comics, myself included, as Snyder refusing to deal with the character as written and instead fobbing off his own tainted version on a skeptical public. Good job, Superman.) Here’s how it breaks down:
In Batman v Superman, Lex Luthor, the villain, has no real ideas of his own and is driven by whining resentment for power, especially Superman’s power, so he steals it and uses it against Superman in Wagnerian fashion. This is pretty much perfectly redolent of Rand’s own whining, resentful villains, impotent to act except by stealing the work of their betters, who are unafraid to use power to make themselves still awesomer, like Snyder doubtless does basically all the time.
Batman, of course, works beautifully, because Snyder absolutely adores Frank Miller, the alcoholic genius whose minimalist reinvention of Batman as a vigilante psychopath poisoned the well for decades to come simply by being compelling to adult fans of the character’s exploits in an unapologetic way that few of his contemporaries dared to attempt in the fundamentally silly world of superheroes. (It may also have to do with Ben Affleck, the only person involved in the movie who’s ever won anything for his writing, who reportedly rewrote chunks of his dialogue on-set.) I’d also put to you that Snyder understands Miller; that it’s no accident his film of Miller’s 300 is such an insightful adaptation of that beautiful, jingoistic book and such a full realization of its grotesque themes.
In Dawn of Justice, Snyder goes so far as to frame several shots so that they recreate key moments from Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns; I have no idea what this does for people who haven’t read an unhealthy number of comics but as an artistic gesture, it’s pretty cool if you’re in the know. Both artists are attracted to Rand’s work as subject matter; Miller’s Martha Washington series of graphic novels loosely adapts Atlas Shrugged, Snyder will direct a big-budget version of The Fountainhead in years to come.
The hardest and least successful reckoning is between Objectivist fuckery and
Superman, because Rand’s ugly philosophy is devoted to making virtue of selfishness, and Superman’s most basic quality, beyond even the big red S and the cape and the ability to bend steel in his bare hands, is selflessness. It becomes very difficult for Snyder to give Superman some kind of compelling motivation to do the right thing, because Snyder, like Rand, doesn’t believe people can ever really want altruism. They just want favors. So, in the movie’s ugliest scenes, he has Superman’s parents tell him that: “You don’t owe this damn world a thing,” Martha Kent tells her son. “Be whatever you want to be.” It’s supposed to sound like motherly support for a guy who needs to embrace the ultimate good of self-interest, I guess, but of course it sounds monstrous. Plenty of good Supeman comics take the view that Superman only becomes Superman because his parents are good people who raise him right. What we’re actually hearing, I think, is Snyder himself screaming at the character to want something, anything, beyond to be asleep next to Lois and to make sure everyone is safe. Where could that sense of responsibility possibly come from? What does Superman have to gain by helping people who might -often, who do – hate and fear him? It’s a question too big for Snyder.
Miller, a smarter writer who lacks Snyder’s open contempt for his audience (which is a little bit funny because Miller’s audience is much smaller and a hundred times more irritating than Snyder’s), dealt with it by reducing Superman’s conscience to thoughtless patriotism, which scans for the length of his Dark Knight comics, where Superman is mostly used to show the superiority of Batman’s will. But that perspective still isn’t quite right, and that’s perhaps why Miller is on record saying he hates Superman. He’s a hard character to write if you exclusively believe people have no capacity other than selfishness within them.
The movie mashes up The Dark Knight Returns with The Death of Superman, a really dumb story that doesn’t say much of anything except “buy this special edition comic, it will be worth something in a few years.”
2. DEADPOOL, another sneering, mean-spirited, ultra-violent superhero movie, is loads of fun, entirely because it embraces the cheapest and most juvenile thrills available and makes no apology for them. It tries to say nothing, it lives only to make you laugh, its performances are uniformly wonderful and it gives its actors room to maneuver in the way that the last few big-budget comedies have wisely done with their writer-performers. “You look like an avocado fucked an older, more disgusting avocado,” Weasel (TJ Miller) observes to Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds). “And it wasn’t gentle, either. It was like, hatefucking. Like there was something seriously wrong in the relatioship and it was the only catharsis they could achieve without violence.”
I would rather watch that line on a loop than think about Zack Snyder’s idiot Superman movies for another minute.
3. The anti-Snyder comic, WORLD’S FUNNEST, finally got its very first reprint this week. It’s so wonderful. Its by the underrated Evan Dorkin, who wrote quite a bit of Superman: The Animated Series and the late, lamented 90′s hipster indie humor comic Milk & Cheese. It’s illustrated, hilariously, by a who’s who of grimdark 80′s and 90′s comics, including but not limited to Watchmen co-creator Dave Gibbons, Miller himself (see picture), Dave Mazzuchelli, Alex Ross, wonderful workaday guys like Phil Jimenez and Mike Allred, and then a ton of indie comics people from Jim Woodring to Jaime Hernandez. The plot, briefly, is that Bat-Mite and Mr Mxyzptlk, fifth-dimensional foes of Batman and Superman respectively, travel from parallel universe to parallel universe killing their counterparts every time they encounter them. The collection has a bunch of other rarities in it, like Kevin O’Neill’s incredible Bat-Mite comics and some Silver Age Mr Mxyzptlk stories. I hope I live long enough for a Mr Mxyzptlk to show up in a movie. Or at least Brainiac.
4. Things that remain pretty good: Warren Ellis’s bajillion projects are still great (Injection, James Bond: Vargr, which has settled in nicely, a couple others), Matt Fraction and Christian Ward’s borderline unreadable, unbearably beautiful ODY-C remains glorious, Howard the Duck is still solid, oh, and I owe the world a long, nerdy post on the Ellis/Moore/Brubaker years at Wildstorm. I’ll probably also put up my rant about Providence, which got super dark two issues ago, in a few days. Oh and there’s a fun Joss Whedon/John Cassaday story in the new CAPTAIN AMERICA, and Mark Waid and Chris Samnee’s BLACK WIDOW is just totally boss.
5. Almost forgot: I did a long feature on Clowes. I put my back into it and I’m proud of how it came out.
I owe you an apology. It’s been too long, but I promise, I have been reading comic books.
1. Will Eisner’s The Spirit: The New Adventures, which is in no way by Will Eisner, has had a new printing from Dark Horse. It is half the price of the original printing, on better paper, at slightly larger trim size and now includes a never-before published story by a very interesting Australian writer/artist I’d never heard of in addition to the rare Alan Moore-Dave Gibbons/Neil Gaiman-Eddie Campbell/Kurt Busiek/Paul Pope/etc stories that made up the original volume and if that’s not a deal I’d like you to tell me what is.
2. Karnak is back! I have missed this book and while I’m terribly sorry this will be the final Gerardo Zaffino issue – I can see very clearly why they hired him, his work on here is astonishing – it’ll be nice to get closer to something approximating a regular publishing schedule. Speaking of which:
3. Miracleman appears to have been pushed back. Again. I’d be less upset about this but TWENTY YEARS. It’s a long time to wait. They’re renumbering the book for each of the Gaiman arcs, so the next issue is to be The Silver Age #1 and then presumably The Dark Age #1 and so on. The full collection of the first Gaiman story is out; it’s wonderful and has a great Mark Buckingham collage cover of the kind he did in imitation of Dave McKean the first time around and then with a bit more authority on the reprints. It’s lovely and finally has the backup stories that lead into the next sequence in it, which the editors left out of the collection the first time around. It’s just a brilliant thing to have in my hand and it makes me all the more anxious to have the rest of the story before, I don’t know, a meteor strike the Marvel offices or something awful happens to Neil Gaiman. I realize how weirdly selfish that sounds but there are artists, Gaiman among them, who have unfinished work I’m very partial to and with which I’m happy for them to take as long as they want with the the sole caveat that they not die first. It feels like a good compromise; Stephen King said people relievedly walked up to him after his car accident and told him they were glad he’d survived which, if memory serves, King said “beats the hell out of ‘why aren’t you dead yet.’” He was in the middle of The Dark Tower at the time, into which he incorporated said car accident, incidentally.
4. Dan Clowes has finished his masterpiece Patience and I got to read it early and hang out with him for a feature on same which I have to say was a strong exception to the Never Meet Your Heroes rule. Eightball, Clowes’s crazy, id-driven humor anthology comic that read (and still reads) a little like what would happen if Mad and Zap had a baby, imprinted on me like a newly-hatched chicken when I was a teenager. Patience is his crazy, id-driven scifi comic; he’s gotten a lot less discursive with age and so his new book doesn’t have that funny character who intemperately hectors the reader but it does feel just as strangely personal as anything in the Clowes canon. I can’t say enough good things about the art; it’s just staggeringly beautiful, with these huge two-page spreads of the hero traveling through time. His work always sort of dares you to analyze it, but it’s very hard. His narrator’s self-image is such a typically heavy presence in the world that it often overwhelms the reader’s ability to figure out how many of his perceptions are accurate and which of the ones that aren’t are colored by rage or fear or lust. A few times his mind will wander during what are obviously vital conversations and Clowes will realize this by letting the dialogue he’s not listening to carefully enough go off the borders of the panel. A lot of contemporary indie comics are just gorgeously drawn but hardly written at all; Patience has both halves of this weird hybrid medium fully realized and it’s a real watershed. I’m sorry we live in such a shitty, awful time for criticism because it’s so finely wrought it bears a lot of unpacking. The TCJ review of the book was conspicuously awful and that’s the highest-profile an in-depth treatment the book is going to get, at least until arts writers all suddenly collectively get over themselves.
5. The medium needs some new ideas. Clowes has quite a few; the mainstream superhero titles are just so horribly deracinated with a very few exceptions. I was reading the new Doctor Strange, a book I really like largely for the artwork, and I suddenly realized that the writer, Jason Aaron, was doing a riff on Alan Moore’s first big Swamp Thing story from thirty years ago and then about five pages later started pillaging the first issue of The Sandman. Those are both great books but they’re an average of thirty years old!
Great Caesar’s ghost, I love this book. It’s the funniest thing going. I think I’ve finally got a handle on its weird, weird world: a gay astronaut crashlands on an alien world and runs into… wait for it… the Masters of the Universe. Well, sort of. The whole thing is kind of Errol Flynn-does-He-Man, which is a very strange idea, I’m sure you’ll agree, but the way it works is just really ingenious. It’s like of Saga made some sort of sense (I’m okay with Saga. Not super high on it, not a hater, but it doesn’t make a lick of sense at the moment and I’m skeptical that it will call come together. I’m still reading it, though!). Anyway, Chip Zdarsky is now in a class with Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore and Warren Ellis and Grant Morrisson as a writer whose work I will read, no matter what book it’s on. What a fantastic story this is; I wish I could describe it in more detail but really all I can do is ruin the jokes. Kagan McLeod, the artist, is a real talent, too; his work doesn’t look like anybody else’s in action comics and it’s totally delightful. There’s a spread from the current issue, #5, that I kept trying to find and couldn’t; it’s some of my favorite comic art this year, and it was a good year for comic art. I demand that you all go read it immediately.
DARTH VADER ANNUAL #1
I’ve continued to surprise myself by liking pretty much every Star Wars book I’ve picked up; I just discovered that the fantastic Simone Bianchi did the second arc on the main series so I’m guaranteed to pick it up this week. I have to say the only exception to this rule is that I started Star Wars proper and didn’t particularly care for it – John Cassaday is a really wonderful artist but (as with most people) his work suffers when he’s rushed and the first arc had some horrifyingly dodgy anatomy. There’s some crazy editing going on at the new imprint (Disney took the Star Wars license back from Dark Horse last year and gave it back to Marvel): essentially every hot writer and/or artist who works for the company is getting paid a premium to work on the books – the catch is very obviously that the books absolutely must come out each month, mustmustmust, on the same week every month, no backsies. Comics have gotten kinda laissez-faire about publishing regularity, entirely to the good as far as I’m concerned, but the Star Wars books are essentially part of a massive advertising campaign for the new films as Disney tries to make the Star Wars purchase pay back its $4bn cost. And poor Jordan White, the editor on the imprint, clearly has carte blanche to hire whoever he wants and an absolutely cast-iron schedule. So the Cassaday stuff got really ugly, which is a shame given how great his work elsewhere has been. (I mean get serious) But the Darth Vader annual, written by Kieron Gillen and drawn by the great Leinil Yu, is my favorite single-issue comics story I’ve read in months. It’s highly reminiscent of the old eight-page stories guys like Alan Moore used to write for the UK anthology series. Go pick it up.
HAVE TO RESPOND TO THIS STUPID THING, SORRY
This NYT piece was just the trolliest troll that ever trolled. I liked reading this guy’s reminiscences of his own childhood collecting
superhero comics but found the article weirdly trolly on the whole.
Sure, okay, superheroes are an American idiom, but they’re an American
*immigrant* idiom. Siegel and Shuster were both born to Russian
immigrants. Kirby’s family was from Austria, Stan Lee’s is of Romanian
extraction. Gil Kane was *personally Latvian* by birth for godsakes. Beyond
that, English, Scottish and Irish writers have had some of the most
perceptive takes on the whole idea in the last twenty years (in fact
you could argue pretty persuasively that Moore, Morrison and
Garth Ennis are the three most popular writers in the genre); manga,
contrary to the author’s assertion, is incredibly rich. I mean, really?
Tezuka’s Astro Boy is just a “rip-off?” Pull the other one. Further
still, Jim Lee was born in Korea and he is the highest-ranking creative
executive at the company that created the superhero; he’s also
best-known for illustrating a book at his main competitor, called the
X-Men, which includes as prime cast members Jubilee (Asian-American),
Storm (African), Colossus (Russian) Armor, Thunderbird, Dust and so on
ad infinitum. Diversity and unlikely heroism is *the entire point,* the
whole idea of Superman is that he’s an illegal immigrant with curly
black hair and looks like a nebbishy dork who can’t get a date but kicks
the stuffing out of bullying ubermenschen at a time when people thought
that Hitler guy had some fresh new ideas. So no sale on this one. At all.
THE YEAR IN REVIEW
2015 was a very strange year in the kinds of art I love; not much I was looking forward to was worth my time and a great deal I was prepared to dismiss or avoid ended up making a lasting impression on me. Here’s what I liked a lot:
This is primarily a comics blog, so we’ll start there. I read several books from Avatar that I really enjoyed, especially Alan Moore’s Crossed +100 and Providence, and a lot from Image, and almost nothing from DC beyond The Sandman. Somehow I remain reading several simultaneous Marvel books (Howard the Duck! HOWARD THE DUCK!) despite not really knowing nearly as much about Marvel, and I met some nice indie comics people, and then I tried writing about comics for my newspaper a little bit.
This experience was profoundly depressing, because while our readers seemed generally to appreciate it, more than once I got surprising, disproportionately furious responses from artists trying to find followings on social media and people in these horrifying little critical enclaves that think identity politics and aesthetics are the same thing. A lot of the writing in these places and by these people ends with the exhortation to “do better,” which I think is probably all that needs to be said about the complexity of the philosophical and artistic systems at work behind the thinking that goes on there.
Occasionally this writing on comics attracted very strange pitches from other comics people. Often it would simply be folks offering me a look at their work or work they publish (which I love to hear about), but more than once I was approached by people who wanted to destroy another artist, either for political slights or for misbehavior. A couple of the pitches were concerned with the state of the industry and actually had merit – there’s a lot of evidence that editors in comics act very badly around female staff and freelancers, and that’s worth covering – but often the truth was inextricable from petty grudge-holding, from self-righteous moralizing, and from omnipresent self-promotion.
The overlap between struggling artists and a critical class that scorns technical skill in favor of checklisty politicking goes a long way toward explaining why I think the state of the art is suffering when it comes to experimental and unusual work. That bothers me, primarily because that’s where the discoveries that will enrich the future of the form will come from, and its growth, at the moment, is so rapid it’s hard to keep up even as a voracious reader. I want that to continue; demanding that artists hold acceptable opinions or have some kind of quirky identity in order to get a hearing will kill all that wonderful diversity of thought stone dead very quickly.
I realize this isn’t a problem exclusive to comics, but I know more about comics than any other medium so I have more insight to it there than I do in, say, film. The most outspoken and political artist I interviewed this year was Kate Beaton and she was of course very funny about all the subject matter she addresses in her work, but she had opinions of a superhumanly brilliant variety on work ethic and what makes a good drawing.
What’s a little baffling to me is that a lot of comics people who are jaw-droppingly wonderful at their craft – Jim Woodring, to pick a name – have fascinating, compelling, sometimes devastating personal stories that they don’t really spend much time thinking about or trying to tell. They’re preoccupied with other parts of their experience that require more work to tease out and turn into art. Whereas an increasingly angry underclass seems desperate to paint everything it does as fascinating, avant-garde and dangerous, though to the untrained eye they appear mostly to be very normal (though perhaps less happy than most) people.
Here’s my perhaps less than humble opinion: politics are easy. Polishing your own life story and sharpening your moral compass on hypotheticals or incomplete information about other people’s lives is not actually a difficult process (or, perhaps, a process at all) and in fact I would argue that it doesn’t really make you a better person a lot of the time. Craft, by contrast, is very, very, very difficult, and if you devote all your energy to the former, you won’t have developed the intellectual muscles to thrust home your painstakingly honed ideas about how everybody else should behave.
You also might find that those ideas are not worth the paper they’re printed on, but perhaps that’s an argument for another time.
These comics, by contrast, are worth quite a bit. I have fairly traditional tastes in a lot of ways but it was such a rich year in all sectors of the industry you could really have just picked a direction and set off. If you like experimentation and non-narrative work, there’s a lot out there for you this year; also if you like really deep, insidery superhero comics, there were a bunch of events, as usual, and at Marvel there was some amazing stuff around (okay, in spite of) them. I tend to fall somewhere in the middle, so here’s what I liked out of a vast crop:
1. KILLING & DYING – Open the champagne for this one; it’s one of the most formally ambitious books anyone has produced in the last few years and yet it’s simultaneously as inviting a volume of literary short fiction as Alice Munro’s Open Secrets or Raymond Carver’s Short Cuts. Comics are hard to get into; they’re their own language in a lot of ways. Killing and Dying is a wonderful way station between comics and prose and it deserves attention and respect.
1a. BEST WRITING: Tomine controls everything in this book on so many obvious visual levels that it’s possible to miss how accomplished the writing is. And it is inspired.
2. BLOOM COUNTY – Berkeley Breathed’s return to cartooning at one of the worst and most embarrassing times in American electoral politics is like getting a birthday present from someone you thought was dead. Breathed is such a profoundly gifted and skeptical humorist, and his work flirts with criticizing the unpleasant parts of liberal culture while it skewers the utter barbarism of people like Donald Trump. It never fails to astonish me how calm Breathed appears to be in a world where everyone involved in politics on any level makes virtue of anger.
3. STEP ASIDE, POPS – Beaton’s second collection has her Straw Feminist characters, her amazing gives-no-fucks Wonder Woman, and strips the pretense away from Canadian history, the Brontes and everything in between. Her visual style remains utterly perfect and her sense of humor is keen and friendly, and it’s very hard to feel sad after reading this book.
4. THE SANDMAN: OVERTURE – It’s hard to tell when Neil Gaiman is going to stop writing The Sandman given how often he lets DC entice him back but I will certainly continue to read it if he keeps up; Overture is a beautiful, magical tour of the world of his character, which fits into the DC Universe in the strangest possible way, and it answers nagging questions left over from the main sequence of the series. It’s a total delight, and the art by JH Williams III is unbelievably good.
4a. BEST ART: Seriously, I cannot even tell you how visually incredible this book is. The whole thing is just a feast for the eyes. I want to mainline it.
5. SUPREME: BLUE ROSE – An attempt by Warren Ellis to reboot the occasionally great Superman pastiche comic at Image, Supreme, this is maybe the weirdest book I read all year, which makes me really happy. It’s great science fiction primarily for its devotion to the unexplained, something too many SF writers leave out in their haste to explain everything.
5a. BEST NEWCOMER: Tula Lotay, the painter who illustrated this book, is so accomplished already, despite her youth. She easily the coolest kid in the business; she likes doing stylized versions of old giallo movie posters and big watercolor close-ups of people from Tarantino films, and she’s apparently working on a new thing with Ellis; her website is here and it’s well worth your time.
Film was easier. The kinds of offbeat science fiction and fantasy film I really love were all the rage this year and I couldn’t be happier about it. A few others I desperately want to see – The Hateful Eight and Anomalisa – don’t open until the 31st, and I haven’t seen Star Wars, so I might update this list after I see them. So many people write about film that I feel pretty free to go as far sideways as possible with these picks. Enjoy.
5. EX MACHINA – A terrific, intimate sci-fi movie about the literal objectification of women: in it, a fratty roboticist makes a menagerie of hot ladies and they turn on him and his hapless assistant in the scariest possible way. The themes and sub-themes are kind of endless here, but it’s all to the good. Solid performances all around, especially from Oscar Isaac as the Smartest Dudebro, and a number of great twists, chief among them being the slow-burn realization that a robot woman might want totally different things from a human woman. Scary, robot-woman things.
4. IT FOLLOWS – What a great movie this was. A slick, spare, 90-minute horror film that relies not on gory special effects or cheap jump scares but really adroit camera work from director David Robert Mitchell. Set in Detroit, the monster follows whoever had sex with the person it was most recently following. It can look like anyone, is supernaturally strong, and only the stalkee (and sometimes the viewer) can see it, so it’s often seen in the form of an extra staggering toward the camera off in the distance. Wonderful young unknown actors, amazing visuals, and so scary it feels like it takes no time at all. Probably the most original film I saw all year.
4a. BEST DIRECTION: I can’t think of a movie this year that makes more efficient use of the camera than this one. Mitchell has you frantically scanning the background of every single scene in case there’s some detail they’ve missed that might cost the characters their lives; he’s also a remarkably gifted director of young people and manages to tamp down the natural energy you get off a 21-year-old actor (not to downplay the work Maika Monroe does here, which is stellar).
3. CRIMSON PEAK – There is a surprising friendliness to all the Guillermo del Toro movies, in spite of the gore, the rage, and the monsters. Here, in Crimson Peak, he’s made one of those period costume dramas your aunt is always telling you are wonderful, complete with opulent sets and a quivering, repressed English heartthrob (Tom Hiddleston, doing what passes for an old-fashioned American accent). Mia Wasikowska does excellent work as the heroine but as soon as Jessica Chastain shows up as the Hiddleston character’s creepy sister, Chastain just saunters off with the movie.
3a. BEST PERFORMANCE: Chastain has you craning your neck to see around the edge of the frame in case she’s doing something unspeakable in the next room.
2. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD – What an incredible-looking movie, and what a great way to tell an interesting story about revolution and rebellion in the midst of dwindling resources. Also the film is just a 90-minute car chase, which is essentially impossible to film. Of all the movies I saw this year, this was the one in which every single aspect of the film was polished, sturdy and reliable the whole way through; there’s no “most competent” award but in a year when the primary Pixar offering (the cloying “Inside Out”) sputtered at the starting line, Miller’s film was a visual feast with a narrative engine in perfect repair. A lot – too much, really – has been said about its politics, but the Molly-Hatchet-album-cover aesthetic is enough all by itself.
2a. MOST COMPETENT: Eh, what the hell.
1. WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS – Jemaine Clement (the Flight of the Conchords guy) and Taika Waititi write, direct and star in what is easily my favorite movie this year, and the one I’ll go back to most often and recommend to the most friends. It’s a mockumentary about three vampire roommates and the fourth guy who kind of ruins things for them; it’s also the best-written film I saw this year, with so much happening on a bunch of different subtle levels that there’s always something else to see. The mash-up of a bunch of different vampire-lore styles is plenty of fun, especially Clement as a pervy Gary Oldman-in-Dracula type and Jonny Brugh’s turn as Vladislav, the Anne Rice-style “sexy” vampire who’s getting a little, uh, long in tooth.
1a. BEST WRITING: You heard me.
From the day I bought it I only really played one video game this year and that was BLOODBORNE on PS4, Hidetaka Miyazaki’s astonishingly lovely horror RPG. Aesthetically it’s light-years ahead of horror film and the depth of its world beggars belief. For a game that is so determinedly individual, it bends toward the classical in a surprising way: its settings are decaying city, a dark forest, a haunted castle, and a university whose students have discovered the unnamable – all places you might visit in a fairy tale or an HP Lovecraft story.
Bloodborne’s monsters are often beautiful in weird and surprising ways; there’s a multi-armed angel guarding a baby monster at the end of the game, and a tragic fallen warrior-priest who turns into a werewolf near the end of your fight with him. It’s instructive how well the game’s themes play into what people are starting to call the “ludonarrative,” that is, the story told by the gameplay: in the fight with the mad priest, Father Gascoigne, for example, his transformation into a monster comes during the final third of the duel (most boss monsters in Japanese games have three phases to them). When this happens, there’s a sickly yellow light that shines up from underneath him and he shivers uncontrollably, as if in pain, as he grows and sprouts hair. This was honestly so scary that I ran away from him every time, and of course in his vulpine form he’s much stronger and faster than the player and he disemboweled me easily three dozen times. That’s when I learned that the point of the sequence was to teach the player to run toward danger – Gascoigne, as a wolf, has great long-range attacks, but can be dodged and carved up at close range with minimal effort. The game is about bravery, on at least one level, and being willing to leap into the jaws of a monster is often the only way to beat him or her. (Incidentally: this game passes the Bechdel test if you choose to play as a woman.)
Thematically there’s a great deal going on below the surface; every character who seems pure, holy, or noble turns out to be evil or insane and a few of the game’s corrupt or evil-seeming characters turn out to be, if not good, better than the “good”-seeming ones. This isn’t a Last of Us-style trick where the player turns out to be the bad guy, but the game does ask you to question why your character needs to slaughter all these monsters, especially when many seem to be human on some level and the ones that aren’t often seem pathetic in addition to being terrifying monstrosities.
I’d like to say, also, that I have beaten Bloodborne. I conquered the two secret bosses, I explored at least five of the catacombs under the city, and I’m now hacking my way through the expansion in my fabulous armor, rapier-that-turns-into-a-flintlock in hand. It took months for the main game to get old; I expect I’ll get a few weeks out of the expansion, as well.
The gameplay is unimpeachable. There’s no “easy” mode, no trick to the most difficult parts of the game, so you simply have to master it, even when it feels unabashedly punitive. There’s a squad of masochists who play through the entire game without leveling up; I could never do this but I completely understand the impulse to not just beat the game but dominate it, to find all of its secrets on the harshest of its own terms. It’s one of the richest fictional worlds I’ve ever had the privilege to explore and as a lifelong sci-fi and fantasy nerd that makes me very happy.
I liked all of these so I’m not ranking them; I didn’t read much literary fiction that was new this year so this is pretty much all SF.
THE VORRH, by Brian Catling – One of the best fantasy novels I’ve read in a very long time, with an extremely strange and unknowable world populated at surprising turns by historical figures and a big, sprawling series of subcultures in a fictional English colony city in West Africa. I enjoyed it enough that I was surprised and thrilled to learn that it’s the first book in a trilogy; much of the book refuses to answer the questions it raises and that’s fine by me, but the prospect of sequels suggests that some of its less uncanny mysteries might be solved later.
THE BURIED GIANT, by Kazuo Ishiguro – Ishiguro always surprises. In The Buried Giant, he’s managed to write a book that uses Arthurian legend as a metaphor for the nostalgia that poisons ideology, and he does it in such a distinctive, subtle way that his book’s plot twists – and maybe that’s too simplistic a term – are genuinely shocking. It’s a beautiful book, and ineffably sad in the same way that the stories of Tristan and Isolde or Arthur and Guenevere are. It is, in fact, a perfect Arthurian legend and one that belongs on the shelf next to Mallory and White.
SLADE HOUSE, by David Mitchell – I ate this book. I swallowed it whole; I think I read it in two sittings. It’s essentially an appendix to The Bone Clocks, Mitchell’s last novel, but that’s fine with me. I loved The Bone Clocks, and I particularly liked Mitchell’s sketches of suburban Englishmen and -women in various kinds of trouble. Slade House brings back all of that and it demonstrates again Mitchell’s unmatched skill at getting his story up and running within pages and then refusing to let it stall or even slow down for a moment. It’s hard to write in period like that; it’s even harder to write in several period like that. It’s a lot of fun.
THREE MOMENTS OF AN EXPLOSION, by China Mieville – This book is a sea change for Mieville, whose short fiction didn’t really do it for me in Looking for Jake but whose novels I really love. This time he just knocks it out of the park; I’d read some of the flash fiction (Three Moments of an Explosion, 4 Final Orpheuses, The Crawl) on his great blog, but I was unprepared for how good a lot of the other stories are. He’s so good at finding an inexplicable, insane idea and then poking at its logistics. What would happen if there were literally mountains in the clouds? What if you could catch made-up diseases? There’s the occasional misfire here but as always with Mieville the sheer volume of great ideas is easily worth the investment of time and money, and more besides.
TRIGGER WARNING, by Neil Gaiman – I love Neil Gaiman. He’s never anything less than readable, and his short stories are his best work. I’d call this one better than Smoke and Mirrors and perhaps not quite at the height of Fragile Things, which is my favorite of his collections, but it’s very, very good. The Sleeper and the Spindle and “The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains…” demand multiple rereadings and half a dozen others are worth going back to whenever you just want to be entertained or moved. And there’s an American Gods story at the end, which is a treat.
DAREDEVIL HITS THE SPOT
1. Mark Waid’s DAREDEVIL is finished. It’s one of the best runs the book has ever had, up there with Frank Miller in the 70′s and 80′s (and I understand people really love the Bendis run from the early aughts, though it leaves me a little cold). What’s interesting about this run is that it could just as well be called Marvel Comic Book. It’s an engagingly PG take on the character with reliably lovely art from Chris Samnee, who is of the J H Williams III school of innovative panel layouts, and so it hums right along at a reliable pace for years, never stalling out or overheating, until Waid has Daredevil’s final showdown with the most interesting villain of the run – an erstwhile hero, naturally – pan out in exactly the right way, despite impossible odds. One of the qualities that makes Waid such a clever storyteller is his ability to stack the deck against the hero and then solve the problems he’s created in a satisfying way. It’s easy to either give away the coming solution or beggar belief with a ludicrous denouement, but Waid keeps avoiding that pitfall. Waid’s take on a Daredevil love interest, his version of Foggy Nelson, his contributions (and twists on) the villains pantheon – all of them make for a really fun, polished book, and it’s one I’ll reread. And the first villain in the run, The Spot, is one of my favorite Marvel creations in a while.
2. KLAUS, Grant Morrison and Dan Mora’s reimagination of Santa Claus is a Conan the Barbarian-style swords-and-sandals avenger, is very fun. It’s only just begun, but I recommend it already. Fingers crossed, but I think Morrison has finally stopped setting his stories in the fevered brains of characters who’ve been hit on the head or revealing the imagination is the only real superpower, so I have high hopes for this one. I really enjoyed his and Darick Robertson’s piss-take on ultraviolent superhero comics, Happy, last year; props to him for trying something similar here.
3. Here is a disappointment I visit on myself every few years: Garth Ennis, an undeniably talented comics scriptwriter, has been appallingly limited in his interests and ideas for a long time. I wish this was not the case, given how well Ennis can pull together a story and how rich his characters often are (though he often reuses them). I wish I could tell you how the things I loved about Garth Ennis overwhelmed the things that make me nuts about him, but they absolutely don’t. They are starting to get there, though.
3a. CALIBAN, an Alien-style horror story of interdimensional space nonsense, features as its heavy – the character Ennis likes best, since his work is reliably competence porn of the rankest vintage (or the first water, depending on how you feel about competence porn, and I’ll be honest, my opinion on this weird subgenre is somewhat fungible. I like Ratatouille) – happens to be a gay woman, which is kind of nice considering how awful he is about gay people in Preacher and how clumsily he tries to non-apologize for it in The Boys. Anyway, the book is violent and weirdly vindictive about people who have done nothing worse than sleep together, but it’s also pretty compelling and the central emotional relationship is wonderful. Our heroine (not the badass gay woman, a different woman on the same crew) never declares her sexuality despite the fact that the badass character is in love with her, and that, not the alien kungfoolery, is the heart of the story. I normally resist this kind of checklisty politicking by someone who’s trying to disguise his predilections but Ennis truly appears to be trying to change as a person, or perhaps to understand that he is changing. It’s quite interesting.
3b. Who’d have thought that the Crossed universe, of gross murderzombies, would be so long-lived and so consistently interesting? ROVER RED CHARLIE, Ennis’s most recent contribution to this truly disgusting universe (or his personal creation, naturally), is another improbable winner, right up there with Alan Moore’s Crossed +100 from earlier this year. I mean, I’d really like to be recommending different books to you guys. I understand that these are really gross. But Ennis seems to have a solid handle on how far he can go in these books and in this one he’s had an admittedly fantastic idea – Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey set during the zombie apocalypse. It’s often adorable, and has a happy ending, and features cute talking animals. Of course it’s also super R-rated and has some really disgusting stuff in it (no rape) but it’s a lot of good animal jokes, one after another, and if it gets a little too vile in a couple of places it redeems itself pretty handily. Also the way Ennis translates his animal characters exclamations (Dogs barking: “I’m a dog! I’m a dog!” Chickens clucking: “Shit! Shit! Shit!”) and so, you know, for the Unconventional Zombie Box Set you’re putting together, may I recommend Rover Red Charlie?