Monday, January 20, 2014

Opinion: Looking at the New Marvel Knights

This article was originally published Sunday at The Beat.

The on-again off-again imprint Marvel Knights played a very important role in the current Marvel Entertainment empire. Started in the late 1990s as an outlet for telling edgier, more creator-focused stories within the larger Marvel Universe, the line proved to be the high-water mark of innovation and creativity in an otherwise terrible decade. Featuring cutting edge work by the likes of Garth Ennis on Punisher and Brian Michael Bendis on Daredevil (plus a dozen mini-series and parts of larger runs), the imprint was produced with a great deal of editorial independence by Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti with Quesada quickly rising to Editor in Chief of Marvel in 2000. It was the Marvel Knights crew that initiated the Nu-Marvel of the 2000s that saw the company reach the creative heights and sales success that would redefine the company and even mainstream superhero comics. It's very difficult to imagine where mainstream comics and Marvel in particular would be today without Marvel Knights and the creators and executives who worked their way up through the line.

But Marvel just doesn't handle their imprints very well. They seem to exist entirely as good ideas that are put out as perfunctory exercises in publishing diversity. After Marvel Knights lifted up the rest of the company, Marvel initiated several bold if slightly redundant imprints that used to fill the role Epic Comics once had (see below). The mature readers imprint MAX Comics and the creator-owned boutique line Icon were started around the same time as vehicles for Marvel Knight's (and by this time Marvel proper's) biggest star, Brian Michael Bendis. In the 2000s MAX and Icon would give us some of Marvel's finest work of that decade, but today stand as pale shells of their prior glories: Most of Icon's best titles (including works by Matt Fraction, J. Michael Straczynski and Ed Brubaker) are shifting over to Image thanks largely to the end of the Creator Exclusivity Wars that initiated the line in the first place, and MAX Comics sees only sporadic and middling releases of perplexing, low-quality, low-selling mini-series. Marvel has long since doubled down on focusing on mainstream material to feed Disney's Intellectual Property Mill, although that material - so much of it creator-driven - is pretty damned entertaining and the most consistent in terms of quality that the company has produced since Jack Kirby made pretty much everything. But that leaves Icon and MAX as the forgotten step-children. With Image leading the vanguard of the creator-owned renaissance there is no real reason for Marvel to put any effort behind Icon, and MAX continues to be distressingly mishandled by Marvel since the end of the line's Ennis/Parlov and Aaron/Dillon Punisher series.

Superhero limited series can be a tough sell in the Direct Market. Marvel's top editors Axel Alonso and Tom Brevoort are usually quick to point out that mini-series have verifiably smaller audiences largely driven by the perception by much of fandom that limited series aren't as "important" continuity-wise as the ongoings. The only (superhero) limited series that seem to do well in the current market are those centered around the Big Two's nigh-annual Event Things. To what point the mini-series, then? If any expectation of fitting into the larger puzzle of overall continuity is tossed aside, as often seems to be the case, then a good mini-series will allow unique creators to tell engaging stories. But there doesn't seem to be much clamoring for these types of series by fandom, which is a shame as some of these can be truly superb. I'd love to see more works like Omega the Unknown by Jonathan Lethem & Farel Dalrymple or (especially) Unstable Molecules by James Sturm & Guy Davis, stunning mini-series that represent some of the finest comics the company has yet produced. (Hell, I'd like to see both actually back in print, but that's a whole 'nuther issue.) Sadly, whenever Marvel does try to experiment with distinct creative voices in limited series, the books tend to flop. Is this because of a lack of desire of creative diversity within the direct market customer base or a failure of promotion on Marvel's part? Perhaps it's a mix of the two.

Against this backdrop of tepid reception and mediocre execution of limited series comes the revival of Marvel Knights with three limited series and an apparent promise for more. Ostensibly the very vehicle of distinct creative voices working in the Marvel Universe that I want, the actual execution of the new line is a solid dud. Outside the nifty trade dress, there is no unifying aesthetic like the one the brief Marvel Noir line had. It feels like Marvel opened up the Drawer Of Unpublished Minis, slapped the Marvel Knights logo on them and dumped them onto the market with little promotion.

Marvel Knights: Spider-Man was written by Matt Kindt, whose full-cartooning creator-owned work I adore. Sadly I cannot say the same thing about any of Kindt's work-for-hire material, and whatever benefit having Kindt on the book is made meaningless by Marco Rudy's incomprehensible art. Rudy's work here feels too disjointed and ramshackle, a bizarre mix of J. H. Williams shattered-layout flare with none of his nuance and mechanics, thrown in a blender with Brendan McCarthy. It's pretty to look at at first but nearly impossible to actually read. (In contrast, Brendan McCarthy's fucking weird Spider-Man: Fever worked not because it was a Spider-Man series but because it was actually a Doctor Strange series that also had Spidey in it.) Marvel was going for something very different with Marvel Knights: Spider-Man, which is to be applauded. It just isn't any good.

Marvel Knights: Hulk and Marvel Knights: X-Men both do simple back-to-basics tales and are entertaining enough, if not really daring. In Hulk, writer Joe Keatinge puts an amnesiac Bruce Banner in Paris as illustrated by Piotr Kowalski. I'm really digging Kowalski on the compelling Sex with Joe Casey, so it comes as no surprise that he turns in solid work in the two issues released so far. And in X-Men, cartoonist Brahm Revel competently tells a fairly standard X-tale - find the new mutant, deal with bigotry, rinse, lather, repeat. I like Revel's style, but it almost seems wasted on such standard fare. (That said, if you are looking for the quintessential X-Men story, this covers it.)  Both Marvel Knights Hulk and X-Men are as rote as Spider-Man is not, none of the three any special.

Marvel's seeming inability to handle their imprints with any consistency hasn't always been the case: it is impossible to overstate the influence and importance of Marvel's Epic line from the 1980s. Epic, which started off as a cutting edge anthology, became one of the most important mainstream outlets for publishing remarkable creator-owned work, international reprints, and mature-audience Marvel Universe material. But the promise of Epic would only be fully realized by the Distinguished Competition with Vertigo at the end of the decade. The tides of the two companies would switch at this point (for this and scores of other reasons): Marvel falling into a decade of creative stagnation and bankruptcy, DC and Vertigo thriving. (It seems those fortunes have since flipped again, with a now-thriving Marvel and moribund DC and Vertigo.) Looking at what became of Marvel and DC, it's frankly hard to imagine that Marvel was an early innovator of original graphic novels, reprints from the European and Japanese masters, mature-audience superhero work, and creator owned comics. But the House of Ideas nearly crumbled into ash in the 1990s taking it's diversity of publishing and nearly the entire Direct Market with it.

The new Marvel Knights may be a dud, MAX Comics may never live up to the immense promise of its premise and earlier works, and Icon will never be more than what it is right now, but the Nu Nu Marvel of the 2010s certainly shines. As I write this, I seem to find myself making the argument against using self-contained limited series as a vehicle for distinct creative voices to play in the larger sandbox of the shared superhero universe. Perhaps the better approach would be to let these same creators loose on the universe-proper rather than under the seemingly limiting label of the limited series. To Marvel's credit, they have recently signed up creators who have made a name for themselves in indie comics like Ales Kot (Zero), Nathan Edmonson & Mitch Gerards (The Activity), and Michel Fiffe (Copra), all to produce material within larger, more "accepted" ongoings. And I'd love to see more of Revel cartooning pretty much anything at Marvel. Of course, that's if creators even necessarily want to. In the golden age of creator ownership, with the added risk comes the added potential reward and the guarantee of complete creative freedom. But Marvel - in stark contrast to DC of late - continues to show themselves to be a publisher willing to take creative risks, supportive of creatorial versus editorial mandate. It just seems unlikely that such material will come from any of their imprints any time soon.

For my analysis of Marvel's collected editions, click here.

For my review of the first of the new line of Marvel Original Graphic Novels, click here.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Best Comics of 2013

The Comic Pusher Best Comics of 2013
by Jeffrey O. Gustafson

2013 was a year without a single marquis work that represents both the critical and commercial consensus in the way that certain monumental works seemed to overshadow previous years. This year had no Building Stories or Asterios Polyp, but that does not mean it wasn't a good year for comics. It was actually pretty great. 

Obviously this was the year of Gilbert Hernandez, but other creators had pretty prolific high-quality outputs as well. Matt Fraction - Comic Pusher's 2008 Creator of the Year - was working in a different stratosphere in 2013, and his Sex Criminals with Chip Zdarsky and Satellite Sam with equally prolific Howard Chaykin would have been enough for him to net the top spot if not for Hernandez. Mainstream superhero comics are always a mess, but Hickman's big-picture Avengers/Infinity work was especially entertaining, and his creator-owned work continued to be cutting edge. Despite no new material from the likes of Chris Ware we did get killer new indie anthologies from Los Bros Hernandez, Adrian Tomine, Michael Deforge, and Seth, and new graphic novels from Darwyn Cooke, Jason, and Fred Chao. The proliferation of high-quality archival reprint material continues to astound, and in yet another year that sees increasing in-roads into the mainstream with digital releases, 2013 saw an unexpected sea-change in how comics can be made and digitally distributed with Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin's Private Eye.

My choices for Best Comics of 2013 reflects the growing importance of web and digital comics (three entries), the Creator Owned Renaissance (over ten), and the availability of quality translated European works (including my still-surprising-to-me choice of Best Graphic Novel).  Without further ado (and about damned time, too) here are the 13 Best Comics of 2013.

Best Graphic Novel of 2013
The Initiates by Etienne Davodeau (NBM)

In 2010, French cartoonist Etienne Davodeau proposed a unique venture to his friend, the notable vintner Richard Leroy - he would spend the year assisting the winemaker in every aspect of production, from trimming in the winter to shipping in the fall, and the cartoonist would open up and introduce him to his world of comics. What transpires is told in the surprisingly wonderful non-fiction docu-comic and the Best Overall Graphic Novel of 2013, The Initiates from Futuropolis and NBM Comics Lit.

Davodeau chronicles Leroy, a dedicated artist of extraordinary commitment, his art wine. Leroy's obsessive devotion to his particular style of production - he has a relationship to the plants and the soil that borders on mystical - and the proven quality of his output year after year has won him a legion of fans across the globe. Embedded in Leroy's production, Davodeau does a remarkable job of translating, both visually, and descriptively, the entire universe of wine making and consuming that Leroy inhabits. Interwoven is the fascinating window into the world of French comic making. Davodeau introduces Leroy to Gibrat & Mathieu & Guibert and many more who appear in-person. When Leroy questions Lewis Trondheim's style, Trondheim shows up in the form of a brilliant one-page cartoon. Davodeau takes Leroy to comic conventions, Leroy sits in at editorial meetings, he reviews submissions, takes in art shows, and more.

In The Initiates, Davodeau has crafted a captivating, comprehensive, absorbing, delightful and incredibly entertaining documentary that certainly deserves to take its place in the growing nonfiction graphic canon. When you finish The Initiates, you get the sense of having spent the day with good friends, good food, good wine, and good conversation, falling under the spell of camaraderie capped off by the euphoria you can only get from a few drinks at the end of a day well spent.

Read my full review of The Intitiates Here. 

Best Comic of 2014 
Time, from xkcd 1190 by Randall Monroe

In March, Randall Munroe, the cartoonist behind the webcomic xkcd, published xkcd #1190, Time. The comic started as a single image that began to change, incrementally every hour. Some panels would feature a small change, others contained dialog and events and changes in scenery indicative of minutes or hours passing. Munroe published a new panel every hour for four months, a comic in 3099 panels, with each panel published every hour for 123 days in what is, all told, the Best Overall Comic of 2013.

The story is as unique and engaging as the format. Munroe, in his signature poetic stick figure style, weaves an elaborate, suspenseful sci-fi mystery, with two unnamed figures exploring an abandoned and troubling landscape. What transpires is akin to First Contact and a race against time to save a people from annihilation. The extreme and varied details of the comic's setting reveal Munroe to be a creator of extraordinary multidisciplinary intelligence, an innovative storyteller whose works show humanity and thirst for discovery. His art, so deceptively simple, continues to be detailed and above all else shockingly expressive for featureless stick figures, the format ambitious. The end result is breathtaking and dramatic.

The title of the piece refers to the unknowable future the characters inhabit, a future where recognizable human society has collapsed. It refers to the experience the travelers share, the time they spend together discovering things about the world and themselves they never could before guess. It refers to the unexpected deadline the travelers fall under to save their people. And it refers to the experience of reading the comic - separate from the unique temporal experience of its initial publication - the way the reader can manipulate the time of experiencing the work, one of modern comics truly monumental achievements.

Experience Time at the Munroe-approved resource Read my full commentary and analysis of xkcd: Time here.

Best Ongoing Series of 2013 - Creative Team
Saga by Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples (Image)

The Comic Pusher Best Ongoing Series of the Year for the second year running, Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples' Saga continues to be an exhilarating, utterly absorbing, completely original sci-fi/fantasy drama. The story of two moon-crossed lovers from different worlds on the run with a price on their head, the narrative slowed down to build the world and expand the cast of key players.

Vaughan's masterful pacing keeps the cliffhangers and shocks coming. Staples' fine illustration a perfect visual voice for the story. Saga uses its unique setting and extraordinary characters to explore fundamental questions about family and love while telling an absolutely riveting, unpredictable, richly layered, often funny, and always humanistic story. There are a lot of good comics leading the creator-owned renaissance at Image, but nothing that creates and fills the niches that Saga does, let along with its continued level of success.

Best Ongoing Series of 2013 - Single Creator
MIND MGMT by Matt Kindt (Dark Horse)

Matt Kindt has been making graphic novels for a while, but his ongoing MIND MGMT has announced Kindt as one of the best overall creators and most distinct voices in mainstream comics. MIND MGMT - a bracingly original work that is also the Best Single-Creator Series of the year - is an enthralling journey into a world of superspies and secret histories, unique powers and the unknown forces of global manipulation. As a storyteller in his creator-owned works, Kindt is deeply invested in the effect spying has on societies and the individuals who wage the never-ending shadow wars that steer the course of history. The unique metaphysical powers and technologies used in spying in MIND MGMT and the winding pathways of interpersonal and intergovernmental treachery share equal focus with stories of human beings giving everything of themselves for an ideal or profit, often caught up in waves of human events beyond their control, sometimes controlling those waves themselves. Kindt masterfully utilizes espionage and everything it entails to explore unique facets of human interaction and global history. The issues released this year saw Kindt take his art and storytelling to completely new levels. The story constantly one-ups itself, in ingenuity, in twists, in character, in sheer style, and weaves a deeply labyrinthine mystery whose secrets unravel like seeds blossoming into massive trees, roots like an iceberg, branches dovetailing into everything you think you know. MIND MGMT is represents some of Kindt's finest work to date.

(See also my review of Kindt's original graphic novel released in 2013 Red Handed: The Fine Art of Strange Crimes here)

Best New Series of 2013
East of West by Jonathan Hickman & Nick Dragotta (Image)

Throughout the expansive, high-concept ongoing East of West, writer/designer Jonathan Hickman and artist Nick Dragotta redefine the science fiction western (if it was ever defined at all). Hickman and Dragotta's high-concept series is, at its core, a treatise on our increasingly fractured society. But more than that it is an astounding work of arresting science fiction and high-tech fantasy, Hickman's inside-out epic love story in an unrecognizable America, Dragotta creating stunning artwork deeply influenced by European and Japanese sensibilities as much as whatever the hell comes from his head to his pen to the page. Hickman and Dragotta create and then hit the mark like few others in comics, East of West the best trippy, sweeping wonder you didn't know you craved.

Best Comic Strip of 2013
A Softer World by Emily Horne & Joey Comeau

The web photocomic A Softer World by Emily Horne & Joey Comeau is a unique and beautiful exploitation of the comics form that manages to transcend what is possible with photo comics. In each three-panel strip we get a perfect melding of Comeau's verbal poetry and Horne's visual poetry, executing works of narrative art that are concise, moving and powerful, often very funny, thought provoking, beautiful, or sad, and always an astonishing combination of images and words. Horne's photography and design is intimate, her panelization and editing emotive and dynamic. Comeau's narratives always translate pure accessible emotion in expansive narratives packed in a short space with a stunning economy of words. Both are poets of extraordinary skill who have forged a visual and narrative partnership of uncanny felicity. Strips in A Softer World often poetically explore themes of loss, sex, love, and depression in short narratives that can involve zombies and relationships and science fiction and divine absurdity, all the while elegantly commenting on the human condition. Even the slightest strips execute a timeless, efficient humor and depth. Throughout this year's best strips from the duo, Horne manages imagery both straightforward and elegiac, Comeau's prose the perfect counterpoint or illustration. Their strips continue to be vibrant and original masterpieces that transcend the comic form, narrative art in its truest sense.

For my essay celebrating A Softer World at Ten Years and 1000 Strips, click here.

Best Webcomic of 2013 
The Private Eye by Brian K. Vaughan & Marcos Martin (Panel Syndicate)

A discussion of Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin's periodical webcomic and publishing experiment The Private Eye must begin with the creators' innovative pricing, distribution and promotion of the project. A 10-issue series published by Martin on his and Vaughan's Panel Syndicate website, The Private Eye can be downloaded DRM-free, pay-what-you-want, in five languages. The series - a bold step away from every usual delivery method available in mainstream comics from two of the medium's premier talents - came out of nowhere and has proven to be a game-changer. All that, and a damn fine comic, too.

Vaughan excels at high-concept ideas, and The Private Eye is no different. In 2076, decades after The Cloud burst revealing the hidden secrets of everyone on Earth, the internet is gone, the press is law, and privacy is guarded by physical disguise. Against this backdrop is a hard-boiled murder mystery, told with humor and suspense. (The timeliness of the issues presented and the unique counterpoints with its release format are just icing.) But then there's the brilliance of the art by Martin with colorist Muntsa Vicente. Martin & Vicente present a slender, densely packed futurescape in widescreen retrofutureshock hypercolor. Martin's first creator-owned work, his art in The Private Eye is also some of his best. Now at the halfway point, Vaughan & Martin have packed a wallop in every chapter, and the series may prove to be a turning point for the medium and the creators involved.

For my essay on the importance of Panel Syndicates internationalization in The Private Eye, click here.

Best Limited Series of 2013
Adventure Time with Fionna and Cake by Natasha Allegri (Boom!)

This year's Best Limited Series and all-ages book was the fabulous Adventure Time with Fionna and Cake written and illustrated by Fionna creator Natasha Allegri. Much like Meredith Gran's superb Marceline and the Scream Queens - 2012's Best Limited Series - the auteur-driven side stories continue to be better than the ongoing Adventure Time book. Which isn't to say that Adventure Time proper is bad, indeed it is quite good. It's clever and fun and zany but it just doesn't click the same way Fionna and Marceline do. Part of the appeal of Adventure Time with Fionna and Cake is that this isn't just some all-ages perfunctory hackwork thing for Allegri: she created these characters for the Adventure Time television show, and they are clearly near and dear to her heart. The gender-swapped universe of Fionna and Cake is far more than just a Rule 63 version of the Adventure Time universe, these are fully fleshed out characters with their own unique perspective on the world of Ooo. Allegri's Fionna is a fierce, independent teenage girl who likes to punch stuff and she's pretty awesome. But wrapped in this gleeful energy and silly misadventure is a series of simple beauty, Allegri's cartooning inspired and full of love and life. Adventure Time with Fionna and Cake is a wonderful comic in every aspect, delightful, whimsical, funny, and elegant.

For more Adventure Time reviews, click here.

Best Non-Fiction Graphic Novel of 2013
March Book 1 by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin & Nate Powell (Top Shelf)

Congressman John Lewis has had a unique perspective on American history. He was on the front lines of the non-violent Civil Rights movement in the deep south. He was there at the sit-ins and the student demonstrations, even directly working with Martin Luther King. He and his compatriots received verbal and physical abuse, facing down the very weight of history and the ingrained racist culture of oppression. March is John Lewis's autobiography of his time and experience on the forefront of the Civil Rights movement, co-written by Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell. Far from rote hagiography, Aydin and Powell mold Lewis's revelatory narrative into a compelling and uplifting warts-and-all chronicle, a celebration of the indomitably of the human spirit, an exploration at once deeply personal and broadly sociohistorical. The arc of Lewis's life story extends all the way through Barack Obama's historic inauguration, which acts as the framing device of the book. Wonderfully structured, engaging, and beautifully produced, March is a vital documentary of the Civil Rights era, told by one of the most important figures of that time.

Best One-Shot of 2013
Godland Finale by Joe Casey & Tom Scioli (Image)

I know it's a bit of a cheat to call the Godland Finale a one-shot, but Godland is a series that simply defies, and as much as the Finale was the 37th issue of Joe Casey and Tom Scioli's unparalleled work, it is also a kind of a self-contained graphic novella that masterfully condenses all the epic sci-fi weirdness Casey & Scioli had been producing for nearly a decade. At this point, trying to describe the plot of Godland is like trying to collect a cup of dark matter. Imagine Kirby-Jadorowsky-Moebius cosmology siphoned through a massive temporal LSD trip and you might scratch the surface. Or not. In any event, Godland is one of those singular creative accomplishments from a creative team working at the height of their collaborative powers, a cosmic comic-comic that shatters whatever reductive labels you try to apply and becomes simply The Casey-Scioli Experience. Godland is an explosion of art and uninhibited creativity, the kind you can only get from comics, a grand visual narrative experience and experiment so unlike anything else you've ever read.

Best Single Issue of 2013
Hawkeye 11 by Matt Fraction & David Aja (Marvel)
Hawkeye from the team of Matt Fraction, David Aja & Matt Hollingsworth (with stunning assists from a murderer's row of  Javier Pulido, Fransesco Francavilla, and comics' most promising new talent Annie Wu) was once again the best superhero comic of the year. Superhero in air quotes, if you will, because Hawkeye is floating along in its own post-non-post-superhero genre landscape. No costumes, no epic superhero battles, "just" the complicated civilian lives of both Hawkeyes, Clint Barton and Kate Bishop, both lost in their own individual ways, trying to find direction, to find themselves against a backdrop of the far-from-easy Life Superheroic. Clint, always beat up and never quite healing, has an open wound he is filling with violence and alcohol and isolation. Kate, just barely an adult, trying to forge her own identity despite the increasing pressures of adulthood and quasi-superherodom. And all set against the backdrop of the pressures of Life in the Big City, be it Brooklyn or Los Angeles. But especially Brooklyn.

By the time issue 11 came out, Barton's life has come crashing violently down around his civilian identity. An innocent man is dead, and issue 11 deals with that revelation. What follows is a hard-boiled private detective story, complete with a detailed investigation and a femme fatale - except that it is told from the perspective of a side character, the mutt known affectionately as Pizza Dog. Fraction and Aja explore Pizza Dog's world through his senses, brilliantly using the natural pictographic language of comics in wholly inventive ways. Imagine of Chris Ware made a mainstream comic tangentially featuring superheroes, and that is Hawkeye 11. Not just a bold storytelling experiment, the creators utilize the issue to expand their established story and plumb the universal depth of the heart, a reflection on loss, a quest for truth. Aja and colorist Hollingsworth's work here is nothing short of revolutionary and a perfect encapsulation of the formula that makes Hawkeye the remarkable ongoing work that it is.

Best Short Story of 2013
"Translated from the Japanese" by Adrian Tomine, from Optic Nerve 13 (Drawn & Quarterly)

The second story from the latest issue of Adrian Tomine's anthology Optic Nerve is the beautiful, evocative, mysterious, heartbreaking and frankly flawless visual tone poem "Translated from the Japanese." The first page is a letter written in Japanese, and what follows over the next eight story pages is that letter from a mother to her infant son, translated and illustrated by Tomine. Tomine doesn't literally illustrate the letter's contents but shows still-lifes from the visual perspective of the letter's author: a sign at a terminal, baggage on a conveyor, a run-down apartment complex; a cityscape, towers lost in the haze. The letter opens, describing vague details of family discord, an iceberg tip of a mountain of pain hidden beneath the waves. Tomine's descriptions (through the letter's author) are straight forward, yet vivid, powerfully accompanied by his consistently remarkable illustrations. Tomine's ability to build an expansive, detailed life and give us just hints at the depths involved in such a short space showcases a remarkable gift as a storyteller. This is not a translation of a real letter, but Tomine's translation of the terror of parenthood and the indescribably difficult paths family life can take. Tomine inhabits the mother's character, and we, as readers, inhabit her, too. Here, in just a few pages, Tomine gives us a snapshot of a whole human life, one we are intimately connected to. In "Translated," Tomine takes his place with the masters of contemporary literary cartooning.

Read my full review of Optic Nerve 13 here.

Creator of the Year: Gilbert Hernandez

The Creator of the Year is without exception, and indeed without peer, Gilbert Hernandez. Beto released two new OGNs this year: the latest entry in the Palomar/Movie line in Maria M, and his wonderful roman a clef and celebration of childhood, Marble Season. These two works alone would be sufficient to cement his place at the top, but Hernandez is one of the planet's most prolific cartoonists, and 2013 saw a treasure trove of material from the Love and Rockets cartoonist, including hardcovers of his previously serialized Julio's Day and Children of Palomar, a new issue of Love and Rockets with brother Jaime, and two great Fantagraphics books about Love and Rockets including the indispensable Companion. 2013 marks yet a new high-water mark for one of the planet's finest cartoonists and literary voices. Gilbert filled the void of singular marquis comics with no less than five stunning works, collectively casting its own literary shadow for subsequent generations to wonder at. Someday you can tell your grandchildren that you were alive when the Hernandez Brothers were creating comics, and when Gilbert owned 2013.

Read my full reviews of Marble Season here, Julio's Day here, and Love and Rockets New Stories 6 here, as well as my comprehensive Love and Rockets guide here.

Twenty Honorable Mentions for 2013

Adventure Time by Ryan North, Shelli Paroline & Braden Lamb (Boom!), Best of EC Artist Edition (IDW), Chew by John Layman & Rob Guillory (Image), The End of the Fucking World by Charles Forsman (Oily/Fantagraphics), FF by Matt Fraction and Allred, Allred & Allred (Marvel), Fury by Garth Ennis and Goran Parlov (Marvel MAX), Hellboy in Hell by Mike Mignola (Dark Horse), Infinity by Jonathan Hickman et al (Marvel), Johnny Hiro: Skills to Pay the Bills by Fred Chao (St. Martin's Press), Multiple Warheads by Brandon Graham (Image), Nemo: Heart of Ice (League of Extraordinary Gentleman) by Alan Moore & Kevin O'Neill (Knockabout/Top Shelf), The Complete RASL by Jeff Smith (Cartoon Books), Resident Alien: Suicide Blonde by Peter Hogan & Steve Parkhouse (Dark Horse), Richard Stark's Parker: Slayground by Darwyn Cooke (IDW), Satellite Sam by Matt Fraction & Howard Chaykin, Sex Criminals by Matt Fraction & Chip Zdarsky, Trillium by Jeff Lemire (Vertigo), Ultimate Comics Spider-Man by Brian Michael Bendis, Sarah Pichelli & David Marquez (Marvel), Wake Up, Percy Gloom! by Cathy Malkasian (Fantagraphics), and Young Avengers by Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie (Marvel).

For the Full Index of All Reviews, Click Here.

Previous Best Of Lists: 2008, 2009, 2012

As always, follow me on Twitter at @B5Jeff. Like The Comic Pusher on Facebook at and on Tumblr at

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Index: The Comic Pusher Review of Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris's Ex Machina

The Run: Ex Machina by Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris

In my column, The Run, I review long-form serialized works over multiple parts. Last month I wrapped up my series on Ex Machina by Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris. Certainly the long-form highlight of both creators' illustrious careers, Ex Machina is an expansive sci-fi post-superhero political thriller, a chronicle of a city, and the terrible cost of Power. Serialized over 54 issues between 2004 and 2010 by WildStorm and published as ten Volumes (or five double-sized Books) by Vertigo, Ex Machina is engaging and rewarding, and a work that changes radically on reexamination.

Below are my reviews of every story in the series, in order.
For my series of reviews of Naoki Urasawa's Pluto, click here. For all installments of The Run, click here. For the full index of all reviews, click here.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Interview: J. Michael Straczynski Talks About Coming Home to the Twilight Zone [The Beat]

This interview was originally published November 3 on The Beat.

This summer, Dynamite announced that they had the rights to do comics based on Rod Serling's legendary anthology The Twilight Zone, and that J. Michael Straczynski will be writing the series. (That's part of the very busy 2014 Straczynski is slated to have, between six titles for his Joe's Comics imprint with Image, a television series with The Wachowskis for Netflix, and more comic and film work.) Joining Straczynski on the first issue, which will be released next week, is artist Guiu Vilanova, and cover artist Francesco Francavilla.

Straczynski is a natural choice for the series. After meeting Serling as a youth, Straczynski would go on to Hollywood, with his well-regarded work on 1980s The Twilight Zone revival being his big break into live-action television. For Straczynski, working on The Twilight Zone is a kind of homecoming.

In October I interviewed Straczynski about his plans for the series, and how Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone changed his life - reposted below. I also talked to Vilanova and Dynamite publisher Nick Barrucci about the genesis of the project and their personal favorite Twilight Zone stories.

Fransesco Francavilla's cover to Twilight Zone 1
First, how did the project develop and how did each of you get involved?

NB: I’ve always been a fan of the Twilight Zone TV show and it’s a license we’ve wanted to tackle for years. We had talked to CBS about it off and on. What we wanted to do was ensure when we got the license we could to it justice. So we kept in touch, followed up diligently, ensuring that we didn’t miss out on the opportunity to throw our hat in the ring, but we were quite clear that we only wanted to do it if we could do it right.

GV: I worked with my friends of Dynamite on the Dark Shadows series and Dark Shadows: Year One miniseries, and I really wanted to do something big. When Joe and Nick offered me this amazing project, I couldn't refuse. 

JMS: Nick and I had been talking about other projects, and he mentioned that he might go for the Twilight Zone title if I had an interest in writing it. Leaving aside that this is an extraordinary compliment, I've always had a strong tie to the Twilight Zone, having worked on the '88 version and growing up a tremendous fan of Rod Serling's work. I even co-wrote a guide to his Night Gallery series for Twilight Zone Magazine.

And in addition to all the Twilight Zone television work, one of the first few comics you ever wrote was a Twilight Zone comic for defunct Now Comics way back in 1991...

JMS: The book was actually an adaptation of the spec script I wrote for the New Twilight Zone that got me in the door to write the script for "What Are Friends For?"

Nick, you approached Joe about working on the book from the very beginning - what made him the ideal candidate?

NB: I've known Joe for years, and I've always wanted to work with him on this level, but there didn't seem to be the right property for us to work together on. Over the years, we've kept in touch, and I've always hoped to work with him. One day I was in the office looking over ideas from one of our editorial meetings for potential licenses, and I was looking at Twilight Zone, and thought, why not ask Joe. He'd worked on it. I knew he was a huge fan of Rod Serling, but wasn't sure if he'd feel like he'd said all that he had to say or if he would like to jump in. Worst case he would say no, right? ... I asked him if he was interested and he enthusiastically said “yes.” What made him the ideal candidate? He brings so much passion and reverence to the property yet at the same time comes in with a distinct voice and I can’t over emphasize how much his knowledge of the property, yet his ability to come up with a crisp story is important. I can honestly say that Joe is the only person we approached, and he is the right person.

Joe, Twilight Zone stories could be everything from expansive science fiction to grounded suspense thrillers. What kind of stories will you be telling in your run?

JMS: I kind of blended them all together into this one story. It's actually three separate stories told from three points of view that slowly begin to merge together into one larger, meta-story. One is a very grounded thriller, the other is a much bigger, apocalyptic story, and the other deals with time travel. Some folks online have said that the issues should be stand-alone stories, but that misses a very key point: if you extract the amount of script from the average comic book, it's equal to maybe ten or twelve TV script pages. So if you put 3-4 issues together, you have the equivalent of one half-hour TV episode. You can't do a Twilight Zone story in ten pages, or one twenty-two page comic book; you need to be able to establish and develop the character, and that takes time. You could never do a single comic book with the depth of storytelling you'd get in, say, "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street," or "The Obsolete Man." So by doing our stories in 4 issue arcs we're doing just what would've been done in one episode.

The other thing about the Zone that sometimes folks tend to forget in the cloud of nostalgia that surrounds the title was that it was a proving ground for all kinds of storytelling, from the prosaic ("Mr. Denton on Doomsday") to the more experimental ("Five Characters In Search of an Exit"). The structure wasn't there in network television to do three seemingly independent episodes that suddenly turn out to have connections to one another, and sew together into a larger narrative. The syndication market at that time aired episodes in any order they liked; it wouldn't have worked. Had this sort of technique been available at the time, who knows whether or not it would've been used, but knowing Serling's tendency toward experimentation, I'd bet good money he'd give it a shot. The Twilight Zone was about looking forward, to the future, to trying new storytelling approaches, not about nostalgia for a long-ago form (except as a subject of stories, natch).

Obviously Twilight Zone is known for its twist endings--

JMS: That's kind of the perception, but if you look at the show as a whole, twist endings ("To Serve Man," "Time Enough at Last") were generally about a third of what was actually produced. They have a lot of impact in retrospect, but there were far more non-twists than twist endings. If anything, Serling seemed to lean away from those later on in the Zone's run, because in time the twist can become predictable. Some of the non-twist episodes include "Night Calls," "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" and "Steel," among many others. So we're not specifically going for a twist ending to the stories, though there are a number of twists and turns that should surprise readers.

What will be the structure of the series and how long is your initial run?

JMS: I'm doing twelve issues in three four-issue arcs, as noted above. Each is built around a protagonist in one specific area, who know or are associated with each other. The stories are told in sequence, each starting from a common point, around that character. In the background of each story, however, we get glimpses of what's happening in the other two stories. (Meaning: in the background of a scene with a Wall Street banker in arc one, we see an investigator from the second arc following a lead.) So in essence, all three stories are happening simultaneously. (It's like telling a story about character A from Monday-Saturday; you finish that story, then rewind the clock to Monday and show what happened to character B during that same period.)

You can print the stories as three individual arcs or, and here's the fun of it, you could conceivably interleave the three stories like shuffling a deck of cards and turn the whole thing into one larger narrative that turns the whole thing around in the end. It's not a structure we've seen a lot before, so it's fun to do, though keeping track of all three stories so that the time-frame is consistent throughout is a bit of a headache.

Nick, are there plans to continue the series after Joe and Guiu's run?

NB: I'm pretty sure we will, especially since Joe will create so much awareness for the series. But time will tell. Right now the focus is on putting out a great series. Let's me put it this way. When Joe and I first started talking about this he was thinking this would be a four issue story arc, and we were elated. Joe writing four issues, that’s great, it helps rebrand the property for the comic and the market, creates great awareness, then the hard part is finding someone to fill Joe’s shoes. Not the worst problem to have, but it’s still a challenge to work with someone who wants to follow Joe up and do as good of a job. It would be tough, but again, not a bad problem to have. Then Joe was so excited he suggested writing the first four issues, we bring another writer on board to script the next four, then he would write 4 more as he had another story. Of course I said yes, there’s no doubt about that. Then he came back and said that he has a story for all twelve issues, "how about I write the first 12 issues." That says it all. That’s what made him the ideal candidate. He kept coming up with more and more ideas that kept growing, adding to the story and he just knocks it out of the park. What can I say?

Joe, what are some of the challenges in bringing the concept to comics?

JMS: As we discovered when I worked on the Zone in '88, people have certain fixed notions about what constitutes a Twilight Zone story, because we've had it in our lexicon for decades... a perception that actually didn't exist at the time because the fun of watching the Zone in its original broadcast was that viewers never knew what to expect next. So we have to address that here as well.

The other challenge is that at its heart, the Twilight Zone was about - as Faulkner said - the human heart in conflict with itself. It wasn't generally about big explosions or action set-pieces. A lot of it was two people in a room talking about really important stuff. So the challenge becomes keeping that dialogue-rich narrative without it becoming dull in comic form.

How has Rod Serling's work and The Twilight Zone specifically impacted your life and career?

JMS: Jesus, how hasn't it? Growing up I watched every episode of the original Zone scores of times; there are some episodes, like "Little Girl Lost," or "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street" that I've probably seen close to a hundred times. I studied them as a kid, and when I was in high school at a career day held at a local college, the same day that Rod was scheduled to talk, he wandered in and read a couple of my stories, giving me my first validation as a writer. Later, selling a Twilight Zone script became my first live-action sale, and paved the way for me to get the job on Captain Power (which required a minimum of one live-action produced script, which is what that gave me), and positioned me to come on as story editor a year later, where I wrote a new Zone episode based on an unproduced Serling outline. It was the Zone gig that opened up other doors for me in my career. There are more ways even beyond all that in which the Zone has played an important part in my life and my career, but it would take several more screens to tell it all.

So this is far from your first foray into The Twilight Zone. How is your previous work with the franchise coloring your work on the project today?

JMS: I'm trying to let it do so, because I'm not the same writer today that I was in '88. I learned a lot from that experience about what the Zone was and wasn't, and those lessons have had a chance to take root and mature, so my understanding of that now is quite a bit different from what it was then. Also, having run shows gives me a better understanding of what kinds of stories you can do in television, and the constraints under which Rod had to work, so that also informs the storytelling.

I know it's difficult to appraise one's early work, but what are some of your favorite Twilight Zone stories that you have worked on?

JMS: My favorite three would be: "Dream Me a Life" with Eddie Albert playing a man in a retirement home who begins to share dreams with the comatose woman next door, because of how the writing worked out but also because of what Eddie brought to that role... "The Mind of Simon Foster," about a desperate man who begins selling his memories at a special kind of pawn shop and begins to realize the cost of what he's doing... and "Our Selena is Dying," about an elderly woman who begins to draw the life and vitality out of a younger woman, which I wrote based on an outline by Rod Serling. Seeing my name on the same screen as Rod's was a once-in-a-lifetime thrill.

Guiu and Nick, what does The Twilight Zone mean for you? What are some of your favorite episodes?

GV: Twilight Zone was one of the series that marked my childhood. I saw the first five seasons, long time after the airing of the last episode in the USA. I think in 90's. The first episode I saw was "Time Enough at Last" from the first season, and I really liked the episode "A Hundred Yards over the Rim.”

NB: Twilight Zone means endless imagination for creating new stories, having the right twist from start to finish, being smart with the stories you tell. That’s really what it means to me. "Where is Everybody" is a great one for me, I would say "Time Enough at Last," "Walking Distance," "The Afterhours," "The Eye of the Beholder" and "The Invaders."

The incomparable Francesco Francavilla is doing a cover--

NB: Francesco is doing all the covers and you’re right, he is incomparable. He’s a genius and draws some of the best covers on the market today and we are very luck to have him.

Joe, what does Guiu bring to the table as an artist?

JMS: He brings a very grounded art style that works well with the stories we're doing, especially the first one, as that's the most character-oriented. You can feel the weight of the characters in his art and that's very important for the stories to work.

Bottom line: for me as a writer, but also as a fan of Serling's work, and the Zone, there are few things more exciting than to be able to return to that universe, to that title, and tell another story that pushes the boundaries and delves deep into the important questions that we all have to deal with every day. In a very weird way, writing The Twilight Zone is a lot like coming home....

Twilight Zone #1 (NOV130938) is written by J. Michael Straczynski, illustrated by Guiu Vilanova, and published by Dynamite Comics. It is currently available for order from Diamond Comics and your local comic shop, for a January scheduled release. 

Monday, December 9, 2013

Ordinary Superheroics: Dean Haspiel's The Fox

The Fox 2 by Dean Haspiel and Mark Waid
Red Circle/Archie, 2013
The Red Circle characters (the Archie superheroes) have been around intermittently since the Golden Age. The only really unique thing about Red Circle is that there have been many attempts to relaunch the characters over the last 70 years, attempts that have usually had the impact of a feather landing on snow. DC - as part of their long and recently unsuccessful history of gobbling up dangling superheroes to integrate into their own shared universe (because the existing DCU characters can't cut it, I guess) - were the most recent publishers of the line. But the DC Red Circle, which started out strong with a J. Michael Straczynski-helmed launch, simply fizzled out for the simple reason that the characters - indistinct enough in a crowded superhero landscape, certainly moreso in the densely-packed pre-New 52 DCU - weren't that interesting and no-one really cared.

Step back in Archie the publisher. Archie has distinguished itself in recent years by upping the company profile with well-produced, entertaining stories with significant crossover media attention, and by taking storytelling and marketing risks that they've never previously taken. It's only natural that they would retake the helm of The Red Circle, beginning with last year's Mighty Crusaders. But despite the line's age, for all intents and purposes these are new superheroes. And at this point in the genre's existence, it goes without saying that new superheroes always have an uphill climb in impacting the neutron-star-dense market of brightly-costumed muckity-mucks. At the very least you can only hope to make good comics and let potential market penetration come later.

Sadly, there's nothing terribly new or fresh or distinct about The Fox, issue two of which came out last Wednesday. The series is written and illustrated by Dean Haspiel with dialogue by Mark Waid, old-school hand-in-hand Marvel-style. Rather than going into origins, the story in issue one dives in with Paul Patton, ace photojournalist, getting into quick trouble thanks to his work as a photog and as his superhero alter-ego, The Fox. Patton is not superpowered but gets dressed up to draw out the story, and much to his chagrin constantly finds himself hip-deep in it. His wife, Mae, and oldest daughter are also superheroes, though Mae seems to be frustrated with Paul's costumed activities. Issue one is a little more straightforward, with Patton put up against a couple of meat-head thugs and a costumed interlude of The Fox against some kind of demon seductress with a new social media website. He easily wins both battles, but finds himself in the cliffhanger kidnapped to some diamond dimension, where we find ourselves in issue two. Issue 2 has a lot of Patton/Fox trying to figure out what exactly is happening, there's a battle with a changeling who he thinks is his wife in her superhero guise as She-Fox, and an exposition-heavy sequence where the power that shanghaied him explaining the whys and hows of the world he now finds himself in.

Patton found himself back in Impact City at series' start to reconnect with his adult daughter and to reignite his journalism career, and finds himself way over his head dealing with superpowered sci-fi magic weirdness. I guess that's the vibe Haspiel is going for: Patton completely out of his league and finding a way to win. He just wins very handily with little suspense or thought of genuine threat. Patton/Fox isn't terribly engaging or entertaining on his own, and the situation he finds himself in, forced to intercede in some alien realm's political drama - and despite the inspired weirdness of the Diamond Queen's disjointed dialogue - doesn't quite gel into an interesting story.

It's hard to peg down the series' intended audience. One the one hand, The Fox is competently produced, straight-forward superhero fare, with an accessible high-impact art style. The storytelling is simple enough with plenty of allusions and references to Red Circle heroes past and present. But the character, a married reporter in his forties with a superhero wife and an adult superhero daughter, just doesn't seem that compelling to your potential preteen audience. If you are an adult who is a fan of the creators' respective accomplishments, then The Fox (so far) is a competent cape comic of little other distinction, one of a hundred out now. But if you are new to the characters and creators, or a kid looking to dive into a superpowered funny book, there is sadly nothing about the book worth picking up. Haspiel's winning Kirbytastic art is a highlight, but simply insufficient to make the book worth it.

All-ages superhero comics have been a hard-sell in recent years. It's unfair to expect The Fox to compete on the same level as a Spider-Man or Batman with little eyeballs staring at a comic rack, a rack that apparently cannot support even popular superheroes in all-ages books. But it's also competing with dozens of other genres having greater effect in all-ages comics. Something needs to pretty special to stand out in any genre and format, and The Fox is distinguished only by its ordinariness.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

(A) Top Ten Holiday Gift Guide for Black Friday and Beyond [The Beat]

Black Friday weekend over at The Beat, I wrote (A) Top Ten Holiday Gift Guide for Black Friday and Beyond. For a pretty good list of some random comic giftables, including Sandman, Pluto, Scalped, Johnny Hiro, Adventure Time, Love and Rockets and more, click here!

As always, follow me on Twitter at @B5Jeff. Like The Comic Pusher on Facebook at and on Tumblr at And see the Full Index of All Reviews here.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Change of Art: Looking at CP Smith in Ten Grand

J. Michael Straczynski's Ten Grand had a bit of a road bump in its projected 12-issue first season when artist Ben Templesmith fell off the map a few months ago. Templesmith owned up to it and C.P. Smith came aboard to illustrate starting with last month's issue 5. Templesmith's stuff on the title was some of the best of his career, and I was sad to see him go. The essential feel of the comic was rooted in Templesmith's gritty, dark, twisted grotesqueries, Straczynski's scripting a perfect match for Templesmith's distinct brand of noir supernaturalism. The story - about a dead hit-man who made a deal with some shady aspect of the afterlife to do their bidding in order to see his lost love for a short period of time - had a perfect executor in Templesmith's particular and unique visual voice, a spot-on vision of memorable demons and street thugs, back-allies and demented afterlife. Templesmith, especially on Ten Grand, revels in shadows, not chiaroscuro but the darkness that exists underneath things hidden from the cleansing light of the sun, crawling and worming and indistinct, at the edge of your periphery, scratchy lines in deep reds and browns and highlights of un-light.

Needless to say, in art, C.P. Smith is nothing at all like Ben Templesmith. But, then again, few are. I was skeptical that the title could survive such a drastic midway change. Shuffling art teams happen far too often in mainstream comics, and always as a disservice to the larger story (where there is one). The distinctness of Straczynski's narrative, so rooted in such Templesmithian thematic territory, couldn't really be served by anyone else. So, perhaps a happy structural coincidence, the narrative feel shifts on its axis a bit in issue 5 and C.P. Smith just nails it.

Now, Straczynski isn't exactly breaking new thematic ground here. The horror-magic-noir setting, wedged between heaven and hell, both unreliable and untrustworthy, supernatural forces skittering around a wise and hard-boiled interlocutor (and so on) is far from unique. I don't think the genre has a name, but it exists in many forms. And some of the emotional thematic ground Straczynski touches upon here is also covered in his superb Midnight Nation with Gary Frank. But the overall flavor and execution of Ten Grand's story just works. A frequent (and innacurate) comparison I've seen to Ten Grand is the John Constantine character. But the goals of each book is different, the characters are different. Same genre, certainly.

C.P. Smith doesn't bother with constraining himself to the same stylistic visual territory as Templesmith, instead being true to his own freaky self. His art is a little odd - but the setting of Limbo is appropriately odd. The people caught there are presented as the negatives of weird 3D constructs. Smith uses a lot of these constructs in his art, but it's at least consistent. The story and the art really sinc up about halfway through. After Joe runs into the time-displaced Limbo-trapped version of himself ("I hate quantum existentialism," he says) he comes to a big ole metaphorical river he must cross on Death's canoe.

Death - it's probably Death, though never specified as such -  with visible skull and skeleton hands and feet, is sitting at the edge of the river, in full cloak and hood, wearing an almost glowing yellow reflective life vest over the cloak. He's wearing sandals, but they look like flip-flops on the skully surfer dude wearing a life vest and a hoodie. Death isn't presented as surfer dude, but certainly as disenfranchised, and jaded in his task. He's tired of encountering pathetic people who took the easy road in life, tried to make few mistakes, took no risks. Joe Fitzgerald has a double advantage: he's alive, and he's made so many mistakes, enough to make the trip very, very bumpy. Death relishes the opportunity, and takes Joe on a rough, surf-battered journey across, to the fork in the road between heaven and hell. The art reflects and absorbs and re-presents the potential silliness of the visuals in clever and straightforward ways. And Straczynski, in a very tight space, essentially has Death distill Straczynski's own personal philosophy and a returning theme and leitmotif in his work, that of choice and trying and never accepting and defying convention and authority. All the while foreshadowing a ton of unpleasant stuff to come. The issue ends on a nice twist, though we're certain Joe will find a way out of the predicament. (That said, Straczynski has surprised me by diving right into the all-out big story, unusual compared to his super-delicate pacing style.)

I can easily imagine Templesmith illustrating these sequences, but I can't quite imagine it working as well as it does in C.P. Smith's hands. Another artist altogether could have done better, but it seems unlikely that they could have done it as quickly or as efficiently as Smith does here. His art in these sequences reflect the very cool, slightly off-feeling, casual epicness of the story.  

Ten Grand solidly survives the art change and speeds forward in its story. Issue six is scheduled to come out next week and the trade paperback of the first six issues shortly thereafter.

As an aside, Walking Dead has also recently had the most profound art change in 110 issues with the beginning of the "All Out War" storyline. Joining the usually slapdash Charlie Adlard on pencils is the superb inker Stefano Guadiano. Guadiano gives a weight and detail to the work seen at no point in Adlard's run on the book. Cliff Rathburn's coloring (it is credited as gray tones, but it is coloring) is the unknown all-star of the series and meshes Adlard's defining take of the characters with Guadiano's powerful inking in the best looking story of the series.

[As yet another aside (a postscript!), I completely wrote this review and then somehow it got entirely deleted. Perhaps I angered the writing gods. Anyway, what you read above is a half-assed second go based on my own shifty recollections of my own dodgy writing. Your mileage may vary, especially if you are on the metric system.]

Friday, November 29, 2013

Two New Reviews from The Beat: Uncanny Avengers 14 and Infinity 6

Wednesday over at The Beat I reviewed two new Avengers Event-type books, Uncanny Avengers 14 and Infinity 6, both new this week from Marvel Comics. Those reviews are reprinted below.

Uncanny Avengers 14 by Rick Remender and Steve McNiven

I guess I'll start off by admitting I haven't really been reading writer Rick Remender's Uncanny Avengers. I read the first arc largely because of John Cassaday's presence on art, but Remender's story - involving the Red Skull stealing the recently deceased Charles Xavier's brain - left me a little cold. Indeed, most of Remender's writing at Marvel has left me unimpressed if not outright turned off. Many point to his long Frankencastle arc on Punisher as a wonderful exploration of unhinged superguy funnybook creativity, but I found the whole exercise - a story where Frank Castle is killed by Daken (Wolverine's wayward son, who appears in Uncanny Avengers) and comes back as a stitched-up Frankenstein battling/saving/something-ing various C-list Marvel monsters - patently ridiculous (to be generous). Maybe I've been spoiled by Ennis, Aaron and Rucka, but a silly sci-fi monster mag is just not what I want from a Punisher comic. (That said, I'm pretty excited about Nathan Edmondson and Mitch Gerards' upcoming run with the character.) The same general feeling applies to his most recent turn with Captain America. Following up Ed Brubaker's exceptional if too-long run with Cap is an unenviable task, but his Dimension-Z story was just too stupid for me. I can appreciate that Marvel gives their creators so much room to explore, to try weird things, to throw spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks. Sometimes you hit a pretty killer if unexpected formula, like Dan Slott's Superior Spider-Man or Fraction, Aja & crew's Hawkeye, and sometimes the spaghetti just bounces right off, leaving an unintelligible mess on the walls for someone else to clean up later. And Uncanny Avengers 14 certainly leaves a little bit of a mess that someone will reverse at some point.

It's unfair to expect creators to bend to my unknowable creative expectations, which is actually a common and slightly inappropriate long-term problem in fandom. Elements of superhero fandom seem to think that they have personal ownership of the characters, that they understand what makes characters work better than the skilled professionals whose job it is to create stories; they take personally the creative changes and outre storytelling risks with which they disagree. I find this attitude frankly repulsive. I'm a big believer in choosing one's own Continuity - oh, that dirtiest of c-words! - and if I don't like a story, or how it fits into my own idea of its place in the larger puzzle of the shared universe, I just ignore it. And anyway, I approach stories based more on who's making it than who's in it, and I also try a lot of new stuff if I don't know the creators in question. A creator's track record makes a difference, and I just don't like Remender's track record.

So: Uncanny Avengers. Launched in the wake of the AvX silliness of last summer is Marvel's go at integrating the X-Men and Avengers franchises. The X-Men, while solidly enmeshed in the larger Marvel Universe, has largely existed in its own corner with its own separate weight of continuity. Uncanny Avengers features a team of various X-Men and Avengers as a public face of human-mutant relations within the Marvel Universe, and also deals with the legacies of both organizations. Remender's first story is an example of that, featuring Captain America's nemesis dicking around with X-affairs. His follow-up stories, to the best of my tangential knowledge, features Apacolypse, then timey wimey Kang, with various rotating (and quite good) art teams. As we dive into the story at hand in issue 14, all of these elements seem to be coming together, and it's somewhat entertaining.

Maybe my experience has benefited by not having to go through the intervening 8-ish issues since I jumped off, cutting to the chase, and it's one hell of a chase. The issue opens with the somewhat clunky sequence of Kang going through all the previously established alternate-future Marvel Universes and picking up various superheroes for some task or another. There's Iron Man 2020, Earth-X Spider-Girl, 2099 Doom, and a few others. These opening pages are not addressed again as there are other pressing concerns the height of which conflict we're thrown into full-on. Something about the Apocalypse twins forcing Wanda Maximoff, The Scarlet Witch, to "rapture" the entire mutant race to their own homeworld, and Wanda's own efforts to subvert those plans. (Or something. I'm going off the recap page, here, and thank goodness for Marvel's useful recap pages.) But while Wanda's spinning her own wheels-within-wheels with the help of C-lister Wonder Man, Rogue and C-lister Sunfire have their own scheme to stop the Scarlett Witch.

And part of Rogue and Sunfire's plan is revenge. If Uncanny Avengers is dealing with the dueling legacies of the Avengers and the X-Men, the one point where they inextricably came together was House of M. Wanda Maximoff was responsible for the depowering of nearly the entirety of Mutant-kind, and there are many that understandably hold a pretty big grudge. (Mind you, Magneto the Terrorist is free to run around willy nilly instead of rotting in a cell or just plain cold-dead, but chalk my frustration with that up to my general problem with rogue's galleries - there's a relevant connection, but that's a whole other conversation entirely.) Rogue - and I'm going to ignore Sunfire here, though Remender does a decent job of upping her profile in this story - is seeking to stop Wanda from whatever it is she's doing and to make her pay for M-day in one swell foop, sugah. Remender tries to tie the events of M-day and Wanda's culpability in that into the fresh wound of Xavier's death, but I don't quite buy it. Nevertheless, it gives Rogue a chance to pull out some nifty, visceral tricks in her quest to make Wanda pay. Cue some cool superhero fighting, et cetera and whatnot. Oh, and death. Folks die. Well, superhero-die, which as we all know is meaningless and temporary.

It certainly helps that Steve McNiven (with John Dell and Laura Martin) is on the art. McNiven is a consistently entertaining practitioner of high-quality superhero art, and his stuff expectedly shines here. The combination of McNiven and the epic trans-time scale of the story gives the book an Event feel. I'm defining Event by scale of storytelling, not necessarily in the terms of over-hyped mini-series with countless pointless tie-ins. By my definition, the current "All Out War" story in Walking Dead applies, and so does the story presented here in Uncanny Avengers 14. Big Things Happen Here That Will Change The Marvel Universe Forever!(tm) including deaths and status quo changes that are bound to be reversed by another writer eventually, but nonetheless will have some lasting impact. I think. It's still all middle right now. It's a little refreshing to see such high-impact story in a single unheralded title, but it still has that Eventy tinge of Yet Another Superhero Death. I'm still not a fan of the Apocalypse/Skull/Kang stuff (which is largely minimized here anyway), but what is presented here is straightforward and entertaining enough. That is, if you are a dedicated Marvel fan. Even a Marvel Zombie may find it a stretch to really enjoy this whole thing and it will be completely incomprehensible to the uninitiated.

McNiven's art carries the story but even McNiven may not be able to save the whole thing when all is said and done. I'm not terribly inclined to keep reading after this nor to catch up on the stuff leading up, and it doesn't change my view on the quality of Remender's stuff. Nor am I inclined to really recommend it over, say, any random creator-owned book. But as a standard-fare Marvel superhero book, it's quite pretty, and if you have an affinity for the characters starring here it will either make you very happy or very, very mad.

And if it upsets you, just ignore it and pick up a better comic.

Like Infinity! Segue!

Infinity 6 by Jonathan Hickman, Jimmy Cheung and Dustin Weaver

Damn Events. Maybe it’s just a marketing term, but as I noted above, it’s a matter of scale. I’m sick of the term, and a little tired of the Events themselves, but Infinity is an Event by marketing and by definition. Going back to the cycle events that started in the age of Nu-Marvel, most have just been vehicles for launching other things, or killing characters. But Infinity is different. Sure, it’s the same in some things, but the quality is different, the structure is different, and the finished product is completely unalike any event. It’s Marvel’s differentest Event, and it’s Marvel’s best.

Strong words in a cycle that gave us Civil War, but the goal posts were/are different. Civil War was very much a vehicle for other things, and while flawed, was quite good. It also set a standard of sales and expectations that following events haven’t quite met. So I’m not really applying the same kind of standards, and looking at Infinity as its own unique order of Event storytelling. And unique is a great way to describe it. Writer Jonathan Hickman is a rare talent. His creator-owned books of the past year have been some of the best mainstream comics being published. And indeed, Infinity – the whole rigamarole that includes Avengers and New Avengers – might be the year’s best Superhero comic.

Let’s start with the art. Infused with Hickman’s distinct visual design aesthetic, Infinity features the prodigious talents of (alphabetically) Jimmy Cheung, Mike Deodato, Jerome Opena, Dustin Weaver, Lenil Francis Yu, and more. I can get frustrated with inconsistent art. But different is not always inconsistent and the art teams were consistent with the different stories Hickman was naturally telling. And damned good at it, too. Yu’s stuff suffers a little in the end, but otherwise the entire team is flawless, even Deodato (who I usually don’t really get, I guess) who changed up his style. Any series with 100 pages of Jimmy Cheung is a graphic-novel’s worth of content, more than worth the trip. Infinity 6 stars Cheung with an assist from Weaver, who give the work detail and care, the flash and energy they bring to the proceedings, the scope and execution of the grand space-operatic Epic and superpowered battling. Hickman and Marvel give them a ton of space to play and they tackle the proceedings with glee. If you haven’t been reading Infinity to this point, then picking up issue six might seem like a pointless exercise if not for the visual astonishments, and there are plenty.

The story in issue six is all action and it’s big big BIG. By this point, Hickman’s already pulled out all the stops. The twist of Inhumanity came a couple of issues ago, the juicy space opera elements have come and gone, the incursion has been averted. But Hickman keeps creating more stops to pull. This is all in the genius of the series’ structure. Secret Invasion, another invasion story as a point of comparison, was all decompressed middle and a silly twist to set up some other nonsense. But Infinity is so much more and then some. There’s been so many amazing visuals from the falls of Wakanda and Attilan, to the glorious space battles, to the Illuminati’s machinations, to every single thing involving Black Bolt. There sheer amount of story that is going on, has gone on, so masterfully juggled and interwoven by Hickman, complex yet accessible, all funnels into this finale issue.

Infinity is dense, thrilling, beautiful, intense piece of superhero sci-fi comic storytelling. The final main chapter is the capstone to this grand epic. Hickman’s vision with this story was clear and the execution flawless. And this is a fun, visually stunning (in story and art and Ideas) mainstream productions, written by one of the comic medium’s best talents.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Why Shaolin Cowboy 2 is A Terrible Comic

Shaolin Cowboy 2 by Geof Darrow
Dark Horse Comics
Geof Darrow's Shaolin Cowboy has always been one of those legends told in comic book circles, described with reverence and awe, the truth getting lost in the legend enhanced by its unavailability. The first series was published as seven issues intermittently between 2004 and 2007 by long-since-shuttered Burlyman Entertainment and has been subsequently out of print since. When Darrow started doing spot-illustrations for the revived Dark Horse Presents and was subsequently announced as reviving the title, there was a great deal of buzz and anticipation. I haven't read the originals as, perplexingly, neither Dark Horse nor Darrow saw fit to reprint the first series as a lead-in to the current one (maybe the reprint rights are all weird, as can happen with creator-owned books pulled from limbo). But I was aware of the legend, and eagerly anticipated the first new issue which came out in October. And needless to say, I was suitably impressed. Darrow's hyper-detailed art style and unhinged story involving slackers and zombies and pop culture and all kinds of crazy shit with the badass eponymous character were unique and delightful. Darrow's exhilarating work in Shaolin Cowboy 1 was quite stunning, and the detailed, manic nature of the work invited continual reappraisal.

Now knowing what to expect, I was very happy to see issue 2 drop without delay, and was floored for a completely different reason: Shaolin Cowboy 1 is one of the best comics of the year. Shaolin Cowboy 2 is one of the worst.

First, Shaolin Cowboy 2 isn't really a "comic." Sure, it quacks like a comic and looks like a comic, but when you open it up all you get are 33 images of a dude attacking a horde of zombies by swinging a large stick with a chainsaw at each end. And that's it. For 33 pages, Geof Darrow presents the Cowboy swinging his contraption and bifurcating many, many zombies.

I know more than a few people who would make the argument that 33 uninterrupted splashy pages of Geof Darrow-illustrated widescreen zombie annihilation is worth the price of admission. The level of gruesome detail Darrow lavishes on his undead horde and the physicality of the Shaolin Cowboy are all without par. Individually, each panel is a frankly masterful display of deliciously delineated violence. But there is no variation to the ceaseless butchery. None.

Every single panel is staged from the same angle. There is no sense of setting or threat, just repeated image after image: Panel: The Cowboy swings the contraption, kills some zombies. Panel: The Cowboy swings the contraption, kills some zombies. Panel: The Cowboy swings the contraption, kills some zombies... One panel of Darrow illustrating this is like fine caviar. 33 pages of this is like having fish eggs shoved down your throat for breakfast, lunch and dinner for a month.

The structure, the staging and the storytelling are all atrocious. Every single panel, with the exception of the first, can be interchanged with any other, making them all pointless. Look at all the images I've included with this review. They include the second panel, the final panel, and a random selection of others, all completely out of the order from the published thing. Could you tell? Could you put them in order without reading the comic? Could you do it after reading it? There is zero sense of progression. Comic books are sequential storytelling, but there is nothing sequential about Shaolin Cowboy 2. Of course many comics and many cartoonists can manipulate the language and mechanics of comics in daring ways to tell different kinds of comic stories. But that is not what is happening here.

Within the context of the larger eventual graphic novel, one could see these pages as simply an elaborate illustrative sequence, and within that context it is a forgivable excess that is quickly breezed by on the way to (presumably) actual plot and storytelling. But the appropriate context for this piece is as it was released, as a comic book - and as a comic book it is an abysmal failure and a waste of money. Whatever wow-factor we get from the first issue turns into an again?-factor. Like Darrow had one idea and stretched it about twenty times longer than it should go.

If the scene was the same - The Cowboy swings the contraption, kills some zombies - throughout the issue, but presented with some actual visual dynamism, from varying angles or panel constructions, (maybe, I dunno, sequentially!), then maybe it would be tolerable. But reading this, I'm struck by two things: that Darrow spent a great deal of time drawing all of this, and that he essentially chose to draw the same thing, over and over. If you are going through the trouble, when you have proven skills as a visual storyteller, why do this? It would be wrong for me to try to divine the artist's intent without knowing his true feelings, but this feels like simple, hollow artistic masturbation in four colors, stapled with a barcode for the suckers to lose three fifty on.

Ad nauseating ad nauseum ad infinitum.