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  www.facebook.com/ComicPusher and on Tumblr at ComicPusher.tumblr.com. 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.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Thoughts on the Lack of Comics Critic-Practitioners

Over on The Hooded Utilitarian, Ng Suat Tong (whose work I rather enjoy if not always agree with) had a post about the state of comics criticism, and Caroline Small had a fascinating follow-up questioning the lack of critic-practitioners in comics. My own thoughts (on what is a very, very interesting issue in the comics art form) are copied below.
The lack of comic criticism from comic professionals is something that struck me when I read Jonathan Lethem’s review of Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge in The New York Times a couple of months ago. I read reviews of well-known authors by well-known authors all the time, but it was the first time I seriously considered an equivalent concept for comics. (Perhaps that lack of consideration is a failure of imagination on my part, or maybe Lethem’s own association with comics tickled that nerve just enough for me to notice it.)

I think the biggest problem in establishing such a culture of criticism in mainstream comics of mainstream comics professionals by mainstream comics professionals, is that mainstream comics in the larger Anglosphere is very much a closed shop (or at least a small town where everyone knows, or at least knows of, everyone else). To make your way to the big boys, you have to play ball, and part of that game seems to include general congeniality amongst mainstream creators. Aside from the usual barbs thrown across publishers’ bows and the occasional twitter tiff, creators don’t want to rock the boat because there are only so many boats. But then again, I don’t think there is an expectation of practitioner-criticism in other mainstream arts, either. It’s not like Aaron Sorkin is writing about Vince Gilligan and vice versa. It’s more likely we’ll see current comics pros dissecting some classic work before we see them bringing a detailed critical eye to some current work.

But this being [Hooded Utilitarian], I reckon the mainstream isn’t even in consideration for this discussion, which is fine. (Though, establishing a culture of critic-practitioners in the mainstream can’t hurt its chances elsewhere.) But another major limiting factor that equally effects non-mainstream work and mainstream work alike is the availability of viable venues for comic critic-practitioners. It’s one thing when The New York Times calls Lethem to review Pynchon, because they can pay him for the effort, and well, too. (And he gets to plug his own new book in the process.) But to expect (or hope) for a rise in critic-practitioners in comics may be a stretch because, outside a handful, most comic creators and associated professionals are bloody broke. And most current venues of comic criticism simply cannot afford to pay.

To create a culture of critic-practitioners in comics, we need more coverage of comics in mainstream publications that cover other arts. Of course that coverage has been increasing exponentially year by year, but (to be consistent in my example) The New York Times seems to cover, say, opera more than comics. And by any measure – mainstream cultural penetration, variety and accessibility of contemporary works, sheer number of people consuming it – comics far outrank the so-called fine arts that mainstream cultural publications like to get off on. When outlets like The Times (New York or Washington or London) or Slate or The New Yorker start having daily, comprehensive, meaningful and intelligent coverage of our art and medium is when the rise in critic-practitioners in comics will come.

Our other hope in establishing a culture of critic-practitioners may lie, for the time being, in the small handful of comic news media that now exist that actually can pay for content, like CBR or Comics Alliance. Organizations like those, which already have connections to so much of the industry must start pushing for such content. (Yes, there is a frustrating lack of non-mainstream coverage in such places, but we have to start somewhere.) That isn’t to discount the outlets that exist now for comic criticism. Venues like HU or The Comics Grid are doing astounding things for moving the cultures of comics forward. But until Noah can afford to hire Spiegelman to write about Urasawa or Ware to write about Hickman or all four to write about Moebius (for random disparate examples), we have to wait for mainstream outlets to do it.

And I have frankly discounted The Comics Journal in all of this, because it is so easy to.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

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

The Comic Pusher Presents The Run: Ex Machina Part Eight

In The Run, I review long-form comic works across multiple parts. In Part Eight of my series on Ex Machina by Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris, I look at the finale, "Vice." For the other reviews in this series, click here.

As I finish this piece on Election Day 2013, results are in and New York has elected its first new mayor since 2001. In the weeks leading up to today's election, I have been covering the entirety of Vaughan and Harris's masterpiece - a visionary post-superhero, science fiction, New York City political character drama. Ex Machina is one of the finest long-form mainstream comics ever produced, and the finale, "Vice," is its crowning achievement. As with last week's entry, there will be significant discussion about plot details and the ramifications of what happens in the story.  We have reached the end of our journey; be warned, this is not a review, but commentary and interpretation, and all significant plot points will be revealed. 


In the space of a few days, Mitchell Hundred lost his mother to unspeakable violence and found out that he is enmeshed in an interdimensional war. He fought what he thought would be the only battle in that conflict, destroying The Voice and the means of invasion. But the war is not over, and there are consequences for his actions. By suiting up to defeat the menace facing the City, he put his freedom in jeopardy. And there is still the business of the city, and a future political run, and the future itself.

The cliffhanger from Pro-Life is resolved by a bait-and-switch. Bradbury and Hundred switched places at the last second after Hundred killed Padilla. Angotti doesn't get her man, and Bradbury gets the punishment meant for Hundred. From there, the story leaps forward...

The framing sequence is Hundred, sitting alone in the dark, talking to his old jetpack, the exact scene from issue one where he warns of the tragedies to come. But the tragedies he spoke of in "The Pilot" were not the battle, or the Horrors that Padilla unleashed, or the terrorist attack that took Journal, not even the death of his mother. The real tragedies are about to unfold before us.

In the days following the Horrors, Wylie and Hundred talk about what happened. Hundred is still a lame duck, and Wylie is still set up to take over Gracie Mansion. And Hundred, as he leaves the position from which he changed the face of the city forever, has one final plan. We skip forward a year and a half....

It's September 2006, and Hundred is speaking before the United Nations General Assembly, as United States Ambassador to the U.N. He has an idea for the future, one that honors the City and the victims of all the attacks that have occurred over the last five years: a new World Trade Center, rebuilt exactly as it was before. And we skip forward to March 2007...

To a nightmare. Hundred is standing in the burning ruins of what was once New York, behind him the shuttered United Nations hovering in the shadows of demons and monsters. "No. I stopped you!" Hundred screams. And another Hundred, perhaps the one that gave Mitchell his powers, answers him: "Did you really think you wouldn't get hit again?" He tells the Hundred we know (or think we know) the truth, that he's always been an ambassador for the Invaders. That it's only a matter of time. And Hundred wakes up, at night, with an intruder in his room...

"Easy, Boss. Just came to give you this back." It's Bradbury, with The Great Machine's rocket, Bradbury, broken, drunk, unrecognizable. After the Horrors, Bradbury took the fall. He lost his job, lost his family, lost his friends, and was reduced to signing autographs at conventions. The night he shows up in Hundred's room, he hit his wife. "I hit her, just like I hit Suzanne. I remember things now. I remember everything we did to her. To Pherson. To us." He needs help. Hundred responds: "Bradbury, you have to get away from me... Don't tell anyone you came here. This is a very delicate time for me. I'm about to announce my candidacy for--"

"But I love you" Bradbury says. He professes his love for Hundred. He takes Hundred in his arms, looks him in the eye. Hundred almost gives in, but he can't. There is too much to lose. It can all fall apart. He rejects Bradbury, tosses him out at the time of his greatest need. Bradbury strikes Hundred and leaves. And we skip to October 2007...

Hundred and Candy are standing in a field in the middle of Iowa, on the campaign trail. As Hundred grinds out the small indignities of a Presidential run, he finds himself abandoned by old allies, Wylie and Angotti. He gets a message from Kremlin, saying it was time to talk. Three months later, Hundred meets Kremlin in his workshop on Coney Island.

Kremlin has the file that proves (or at least strongly alleges) that Hundred stole the election in 2001. Hundred pleads with Kremlin; in Hundred's eyes, the very fate of the world is at stake. But Kremlin only cares about The Great Machine. He irrationally believes he can blackmail Hundred into returning. Hundred goes for the file, and Kremlin pulls out his gun. Hundred refuses to give in, and Kremlin, despondent, puts the gun to his own head. Hundred tries to calm Kremlin down, and then he asks him if he showed the file to anyone else. Kremlin said no, and at that moment Hundred used his power to set off the gun killing Kremlin.

And back to the present, the middle of 2010, Hundred reminiscing, talking to The Great Machine's machines. He gets a phone call, and on the other end is the man working on health care reform, his boss, the president.

Vice President Hundred puts down the phone, and picks up a picture of the three men that made The Great Machine. He smiles, there, in the dark, at his old friends. The only men who ever knew him if they knew him at all, rewarded for their loyalty with death and destruction.

And then, fade to black. An end.

"Vice" is an emotional roller coaster of undiluted heartbreak and despair. It is a tragedy of the highest order, where no-one really wins. Hundred, who dreamed he would be president, who did everything he could to get in power to protect the world, finds himself both a heartbeat away from absolute power and mired in absolute powerlessness. The jolt of those last pages is one of the series' wonders.  Ex Machina is about worlds: our own, the fictional one the characters inhabit, the worlds waiting at the edge of reality, bracing to invade. The alternate history, the alternate now of the series reaches it's stunning apotheosis, Hundred's impact in the universe reflected in the series' dark mirror of our own world. 

But the tragedy does not really lie in Hundred, though it's undeniably tragic. The tragedy is in the lives ruined on Hundred's path to nowhere. He justifies every sin he commits at every turn as necessary to protect the people of the City and the Earth. But there is an ambiguity - has all his sacrifices been for naught? He came so far, only to end up short. It could all have been meaningless. He stole an election and changed history. He killed his friend and mentor. And he rejected his greatest ally at his time of need.  

In these final pages, Vaughan and Harris rip out your heart and stomp on it. Because that is what you get by believing in something, let alone something as dirty and inhuman as a politician.

Harris's final art here is astonishing. All the strengths he showed throughout Ex Machina shines in "Vice." Eschewing an inker, Harris completes the full art (with Mettler's expectedly superb colors), turning in page after page of stunning line work. It is an issue largely filled with emotionally laden dialog, and Harris kills it scene after scene. Vaughan's scripting and storytelling is without peer, but it wouldn't have been worth a damn if Harris couldn't execute.

The emotional moments in this issue are masterfully executed. The issue's (and the series') two most heartbreaking sequences are just stunning. Look at the emotionally wrenching, difficult scene where Bradbury professes his love for Hundred. The pain in both of their faces breaking through the the rush of emotions and thoughts the scene evokes.

And of course there is Kremlin's death. The look on Hundred's face when he commits the act. Even subtler, Harris's presentation of the moment the gun goes off, Hundred's face, carefully framed in a shop mirror, the shock coursing through the reader's mind at the suddenness, the unforgivability, the finality, the intent. The reader coming to terms with the act at the same time as the one who committed it. The trauma of the event and Harris's unparalleled realization of it.

Harris's original art to Volume 10
And for a series with a pretty impressive run of consistently brilliant covers, the final two collected edition covers are some of Harris's finest work. Volume 10: Term Limits is uncharacteristically minimalist, featuring a lone Mitchell Hundred with piercing eyes, the ghosts of past blending into the background. For a character whose powers are machine based, where technology plays an important role, Harris flips that dynamic and has Hundred sitting in quiet thought, with a book and quill pen in stately surroundings, in muted colors, only the slightest hint of a gear in sight, the suggestion of regality betrayed by what Hundred really achieves.

The fifth Deluxe edition cover is even more reserved and minimalist. Absent are Harris's highly designed, lushly crafted, stylistic cover designs, and what remains are understated, elegant, and exceed the high bar Harris set for himself, and defy the very expectations of the genre.

They are striking images. Images that take on a new meaning after reading the story. What you think of Hundred, his actions, and his role in the story gives new meaning to how you approach the art.

The cover to Ex Machina: The Deluxe Edition 5 Hardcover
I especially love the Deluxe cover art and the weight of meaning it now holds, all storytelling hands and expressionless face, the coloring and otherworldly lighting adding dimension throughout. The meaning of that face, as cold and ambiguous as Hundred himself. The hands hiding his true face like a mask, the hands holding up the weight of the head, swollen with pride, heavy with the responsibility of his position and his crimes, the hands, containing the dark power hidden within. Harris's blacks and Mettler's greens, at the highest level individually, combine into a massive visual punch.

What Vaughan accomplishes here is his masterwork. The wonders of his story structure up to this point have been jaw-dropping, and Vaughan takes it even further with his audacious time jumps as he bounds forward towards the alternate present of the story's publication. He does a similar thing in the finale of Y: The Last Man, but where that finale was a coda to a journey's end, Ex Machina is a radically different thing entirely.

Again, the series plays with its relationship with superhero fiction early on in "Vice." Hundred opens with a monologue, contrasting the unreality of fiction with the stark, dark reality of life, always ending in pain, regret and loss. "Happy endings are bullshit. There are only happy pauses... That's why I like superhero books." In superhero comics, there is stasis, where every wrong has a chance to be righted. "Those stories never get to become tragedies." Ex Machina is the anti-superhero superhero comic, specifically rooted in a version of reality that mirrors our own, that changes and develops quickly. "Vice" is the antithesis of the what is presented in most superhero fiction, specifically and explicitly showing change and death and loss in a heightened shot, leaping forward years at a time, shattering our perceptions and the status quo with every jump.

Vaughan, through Hundred, also makes clear that what was chronicled in Ex Machina is but a small window into the darkness, the leap forward through time just a heightened version of what we've already been through. But it also has the remarkable effect of distilling who Hundred is, revealing that everything we thought we knew was wrong. This isn't a cheap soap-opera twist where it's revealed that Hundred is the villain, but a revelation born through complex characterization, a revelation that forces us to reexamine and reinterpret everything that came before. Vaughan reveals the truth about what's been happening in front of your face the entire time and his and Harris's accomplishment with this is nothing short of monumental.  

There are two distinct ways to reinterpret the events of Ex Machina in light of these revelations. The first is Mitchell Hundred, the political beast; the second is Mitchell Hundred, the potential enemy agent of another world. That both of these interpretations are inextricably intertwined is one of the book's remarkable achievements.

The first reinterpretation: Every single action Mitchell Hundred has taken since throwing his hat into the ring has been with the sole goal of attaining and maintaining political power.

As originally presented, Hundred is shown to be apparently honorable, seeking power to serve the people of the City he loves. Despite his popularity, he abdicates power by giving up a second term, to ostensibly focus on the business of City Government. He supports no political party and his actions as Mayor cover all ends of the political spectrum. 

But despite the narrative's omniscient point of view, we the readers never really get a clear idea of just who Mitchell Hundred really is. As the series moves forward, we get the sense that Hundred engages in a great deal of political maneuvering. That every decision he makes, every facet of his being down to his very sexuality, is tied to achieving and maintaining power. That, like all politicians, despite whatever front of public service he may provide, he is a politician and thus a right bastard.

The moment, the very panel Hundred sends out Bradbury to cover up the White Box affair in Ring Out The Old is the moment that the series really changes. When Bradbury reveals that Padilla might uncover its secret, his reaction, a simple, all lower-caps "what?" speaks volumes. He panics and sends Bradbury out right away, leading Padilla right to its location, and to her and the city's fate. Why would he care about the White Box? Certainly there is the perception that it may have played a role in stealing the election in 2001. But Bradbury believes Hundred when he says it was necessary for the safety of the city, indeed, he believes in Hundred. But does Hundred believe himself? He does the knee-jerk, guilty thing. He seeks to destroy the object that made it look like he stole the election, in the process making it look like he stole the election...

Because he did steal the election. There is just the matter of degree to which he lied to Bradbury and to himself, and the context of that lie. Throughout Ex Machina we are never given reason to assume that Hundred is anything but a straight-laced, honest man. But when he kills Padilla, sending her through the gateway to the malevolent realities beyond, he tells her the most important piece of truth uttered in the series: "I'm a politician. I lie."

Those last two words put everything that has occurred into a completely different light. "I lie." What are you lying about, what have you been lying about, 100?  This revelation is not all that surprising, of course. Everyone lies, all the time. But there is an important qualifier to Hundred's statement, and that was tying his lies to Politics and Power.

What happens in "Vice" is a heart-shattering extension of Hundred as soulless politician. Rick Bradbury's life has been shattered by his association with The Great Machine and with Hundred. The last we see of him, his is a completely broken man, with no family, no job, and no future. He dedicated his life to Hundred after 1999. He sacrificed as much of himself as Hundred at any point over the preceding eight years. He was unquestioningly loyal throughout, even taking the fall for his friend and boss. And he is repaid with destitution and abandonment. At his lowest, he comes to Hundred for help, and Hundred discards him like so much trash. Once an honored friend and associate, now a liability. He used Bradbury as a stepping stool and then as a patsy on his rise to power, and now he has no use for him. Mobsters and gangbangers have more honor and loyalty.

The emotionally destructive sequence of Bradbury's fall is amplified by the even greater tragedy of what Hundred does to Kremlin. Hundred confronts him, perhaps to only talk him down from whatever thoughts of blackmail he may harbor, perhaps to shut him up for good. Either way, he kills Kremlin at the first chance he has, once he knows Kremlin's death and Hundred's election-theft can't be traced to him. Kremlin, the man who largely raised him, his oldest friend, one-third of The Great Machine. Kremlin held the gun, but Hundred pulled the trigger, and no matter what his intentions were going in, that was the outcome.

The message in this is pretty clear: politicians lie. They cheat, they steal, they even kill to gain and keep power. They are simply a different class of criminal. Some politicians are corrupt and serve others' bidding in exchange for power. Others will crawl over whomever they can on their way to the top. But all put on airs of honor, and all honorless.

It's a cynical view of the universe, certainly. There probably are elected officials who wish only to serve, who attain power honorably. But Mitchell Hundred is not that man. Despite whatever protestations he may make about protecting the city or the country or humanity, the ultimate ends for all of his horrible means is political. It was always about Power.

And in the end, the only superhero in the world, who used his powers to gain ultimate political power, who sacrificed everything including his friends and himself, ends up Powerless.

The second reinterpretation: Every single action Mitchell Hundred has taken since becoming The Great Machine has been at potential service to the hidden programming from his unknown masters.

His power over machines was created by an alternate universe version of himself, with the intention of taking over this universe. There are many, many versions of Hundred who have willingly paved the way for their universes to be overtaken by these forces.

Hundred-prime, the great designer at the center of all Great Machines, makes it crystal bloody clear that Hundred is meant for one thing, and one thing only, even if he doesn't realize it. "You've always been an ambassador for us... For every Parallel that had you trying to stop me, there were two where you were first in line to help... I'm not your reflection, Mitchell. I am he, as you are he, as you are me, and we are all together." And a money shot:

There is a certain indomitability of character Hundred evinces throughout the series. At every turn, it appears Hundred is rejecting the expectations of his benefactors. He was given superpowers with the sole purpose of paving the way for an interdimensional takeover. But every time someone tries to tell him what his powers mean, he usually rejects it outright. He simply doesn't seem to care. It's not unreasonable to believe that he doesn't care, that he is immune to the programming which effects Pherson and Padilla and nearly every other alternate-universe version of himself, that he wants to stop the invasion and save his world. That certainly plays into Hundred's role as the hero throughout the series - he intervenes in 9/11, stops Padilla's takeover of humanity, and everything in between.

Indeed, when Padilla gives him the option of ruling humanity on behalf of the invaders who gave them their powers, Hundred says "no." But it's not a definitive, action-hero go-fuck-yourself, it is a contemplative, shaky no. Hundred clearly considers Padilla's offer, and he rejects it knowing it may mean his death. But he considers it. Perhaps that is illustrative of Hundred's heroism, that he has the same human weakness, and when tested rejects that power and what it means.

But any thought of Hundred's inviolability seems to be banished by what occurs in "Vice." He seeks ultimate political power under the self-justification of stopping the interdimensional invasion. Perhaps he sees his actions as ends justifying means. He rejects Bradbury and kills Kremlin - were these political acts or elements of his programming? His heartbreaking "What did I do to you" while standing over Kremlin's body mirrors Padilla's own questioning of her actions after she kills Hundred's mom - "I'm doing the right thing. Right?"

Everything Hundred does comes with the possibility that he is acting through the hidden programming of his makers, the alternate-himselves. Multiple times in the series he notes the role that dreams play in his ascension. The designs of everything from The Great Machine to the raygun that opened the door to the other universe to the White Box that stole the election came to him as an echo of the programming that came with his powers. Far from absolving him of the responsibility for his actions, it simply adds layers to the potential malevolence at work. That this isn't just your typical scheming politician and all the associated evils of that, but an enemy agent in deep cover, fighting against his programming, perhaps an ultimate slave to it when he doesn't even realize it.

When he kills Kremlin, it's almost like an automatic response from some element of him deep within. He looks at Kremlin's body in disbelief at what he did. But this isn't to absolve Hundred of his crime. Even if it was some buried element within him that pulled the trigger, Hundred commits the act only when he knows he's in the clear. And he leaves his fallen friend to rot, ignominiously, forgotten, alone. Be it some deep cover programming or basic survival at all costs, Hundred is utterly complicit in this act. In all of his acts as The Great Machine and beyond.

His murder of Kremlin is one of the hardest things to reconcile - Hundred has repeatedly shown himself to be rejecting the influences of his makers. But both interpretations I propose above have profoundly negative consequences for the future. If it was just an element of his programming that caused him to steal the election and murder Kremlin, what else is going on, what else could happen? But if it was just a larger symptom of Hundred's true nature as political beast willing to do anything in his quest for power, no matter his motivation, then what else is going on, what else could happen?

Who else is going to die because of Hundred? Who else is he going to kill? Will he even succeed at his Quixotic task of protecting the Earth from invasion? Will he be the cause it?

Beyond these interpretations, "Vice" forces a full reconsideration of all the events that came before. I have never quite encountered a piece of fiction that creates this effect so stunningly. The twist at the end of Sixth Sense and the revelations of the Shadows and Vorlon's true intentions (not to mention Garabaldi's betrayal) in Babylon 5 come to mind. But they don't come close to the impact "Vice" has on the reader, both emotional and intellectual and downright visceral.

Ex Machina is commentary on Power. It examines the consequences of superpowers through a logical and reconstructive lens. It explores the role of power in our lives, especially political power. It asks fundamental questions about the type of person that would seek that power, and the effect that quest has on those around them.

Ex Machina is vital and important work, effective as a superhero story, a political story, a science fiction work, all beautifully executed throughout. Certainly uneven in some parts, in the end it comes together in the pièce de résistance of "Vice."

Thank you for reading this far. This is the end of my story-by-story examinations of Ex Machina, but I'm not quite done yet. In the coming weeks I will have two more pieces on Ex Machina - one on the book's unique role as reconstructive post-superhero fiction, and finally a look at sexuality in Ex Machina.

Ex Machina 50, "Vice" is collected in Ex Machina Volume 10: Term Limits (November 2010) and in Ex Machina Book 5 (Hardcover, April 2011) from DC/WildStorm.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Nice Art: Twenty Years of Conan Bumps by Kevin Frank

Conan O'Brien, by Conan O'Brien
For about two weeks now Conan O'Brien has been celebrating twenty years on the air, showing best-of clips from all three iterations of Conan's long-running late night franchise. Through next week on TeamCoco.com they are also hosting a slew of classic Conan clips, including a significant amount of material from his many years at NBC. As a huge Conan fan from almost the beginning, watching these clips again has been a genuine thrill; so many memories, so many feels, as the kids say.

One of the niftier things currently up is a full gallery of bumps (title cards) from the entire history of the show by artist and designer Kevin Frank. Over the course of the series, Frank designed hundreds of clever, funny, and even striking images that weave the peculiar Conan iconography into well-known pieces of art, historical images and pop culture memes before meme was a word.

Some of the best, of course, were Frank's use of popular and obscure comic imagery. Here are four of his killer comic inspired Conan designs:

I love the more obscure Chris Ware references, especially in the final image. If you weren't familiar with Ware's work, it would be just a cute little sequential drawing of Conan and guests; knowing Ware's work and styles adds a distinct punch to the image.

Frank created hundreds of these images, showing a chameleon like ability to seamlessly absorb and subvert dozens of different artists', photographers' and designers' styles. Many, many more Frank-designed bumps are online at TeamCoco.com/Conan20 through November 15. For more on Kevin Frank, visit http://kevinfrankpaintings.com

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Opening Night at the Jack Kirby Pop-Up Museum [The Beat]

This article was originally published Monday on The Beat.

As Rand Hoppe, founder and Director of the Jack Kirby Museum told me tonight, "Jack Kirby hated the Lower East Side." Kirby would tell World War II stories and talk about the creation of his art all day, but when it came to the L.E.S., all he wanted to do was get the hell out. The Lower East Side of Manhattan was a very different place in Kirby's youth, and the neighborhood has had more than its share of ups and downs in the nigh-Century since the King was born. However, it is not irony, but Kirby-cosmic kismet that as part of the neighborhood's recent resurgence, her greatest son found a spotlight here. As part of the Kickstarter-funded Made In The Lower East Side's Storefront Transformer Project, the Jack Kirby Museum has been given a storefront "pop-up" gallery for this week only, dubbed Prototype: Alpha, the opening of which was Monday Night.

A pretty decent crowd of supporters, NYC comic professionals, and a few curious onlookers, braved the chilly autumn evening to attend the opening-night festivities at the gallery tucked into a storefront at the base of the Williamsburg Bridge. It's a tiny space, put together quickly but efficiently by the Kirby Museum's small band of organizers, specifically Hoppe and Museum secretary and digital guru Tom Kraft. As Kraft told me, everything Hoppe and Kraft and the other museum supporters do is entirely voluntary and largely out-of-pocket, a true labor of love.

To date, the non-profit Kirby Museum, which has been in constant development since 2005, has not had a physical space to exhibit. This temporary "pop-up" space is the Museum's chance to show what it can do, raise awareness for Kirby and the Museum, and to raise funds to someday find a permanent home. That is still some ways off, though. There are few permanent comic museums in the United States, and the costs of finding and setting up a permanent space are enormous. But if there is any significant American artist who deserves it, Kirby's the one. And it is evident that Hoppe, Kraft and crew are the ones to someday achieve this.

Funding is not the only hurdle to overcome, of course. The biggest is the availability of original art to display. It's no secret that one of the great tragedies of Kirby's career was the scattering and destruction of so many of his original pieces. What remains is in the hands of collectors spread across the world. But the folks at the Kirby Museum, at least in this pop-up exhibition, have come up with a pretty decent compromise. While the amount of physical art in the Museum's possession is small, their digital holdings are enormous - to date, they have full-color, full-page high definition scans of over three thousand Kirby pages, plus five thousand more scans of copies. For this exhibit, the museum has produced high quality prints of some key pieces in their archive.

If anyone might be disappointed in the concept of looking at a "copy," they need only look at the quality of work produced in IDW's extraordinary Artist Editions as an example of the work displayed this week. By going to prints, it allows the Museum to display important pieces at full-size with no loss in visual quality. Looking at the pieces on display this week, including some Fantastic Four pin-ups, about a dozen pages from Silver Age Marvel and a handful of DC material, if you didn't know they were prints you'd think they were the real thing. And as it is massively unlikely that you will ever be in the same room as original Kirby art, seeing these full-size prints, with the white-out and corrections and Kirby's extensive marginalia, is still pretty thrilling.

There is just a small handful of pieces on display, but there is also a pretty killer oversized print of trippy Kirby painting, some copies of pencils of the one story he did about his youth, and a small piece connecting Kirby to the Lower East Side, replete with census records and classic photos. The big windows to the street feature a glorious, massive Silver Surfer drawing, enticing you to come in.

Far from being a staid, dry exhibit, the Museum actually encourages hands-on exploration of Kirby's art. You can get as close as you want to the prints, and even flip some of them between the finished comic image, Kirby's full page art, and copies of his pencils. There are iPads presented to explore just a small fraction of the Museum's digital holdings. The potential for interactivity with this technology as we can see right now in museums across the world is immense.

Hoppe, who has very clearly made it his life's mission to spread the Gospel of Kirby, was very pleased by the success of Monday Night's inaugural turnout. There will also be a couple of fascinating talks given at the site later this week. A highlight looks to be "Ya’akov Kurtzberg – King of Comics," a lecture from Arlen Schumer. Schumer is known for his engaging and entertaining lectures, and if his enthusiasm Monday night was any indication, it looks like it will be a lot of fun. Also available are a small selection of Kirby books and t-shirts donated to the Museum for this event by Two Morrows, Fantagraphics, Arlen Schumer, and local NYC retailers Forbidden Planet and JHU Comic Books. (Perfunctory conflict notice, I worked for JHU for about six years until last week.)

As kind-of a full-scale mock-up of the possible, the exhibit is very effective. But tiny. Very tiny. Even taking your time, which you should do, it will take less than ten minutes to peruse the offerings. But that is all part of this exhibit's importance. This isn't the Museum but what the Museum could be. This is a What If in its purest form. What If there was a museum dedicated to one of American art's most important figures? What If we could celebrate his achievements and his seismic cultural contributions in an accessible, interactive way? What If The King had a Throne? This exhibit isn't a dream given form, but a dream given the notice it deserves. This is the first baby step in the mountain that will need to be climbed, but an important step nonetheless. And it is a good example of the work being done diligently by the Museum to archive Kirby's artistic legacy, and to spread the word on Kirby.

The Jack Kirby Museum's Prototype Alpha pop-up installation is at 178 Delancey Street in Manhattan through November 10th. Admission is free with a suggested donation of $2. For more on the Jack Kirby Museum and Research Center, visit http://kirbymuseum.org/