Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Mathemusical Cartooning Magic of Vi Hart

The wildly popular YouTube videos of Vi Hart - in addition to their most important element, music - have displayed a consistent use of comic illustration as visuals of Hart's ideas. (I've previously philosophized on the idea of comics as visual performance art in a video by the comedian Jenna Marbles.) Hart, a self-described "Mathemusician," uses beautifully composed original musical numbers and her lively cartooning to produce brilliant videos that describe even the most complex mathematical and scientific ideas in accessible and entertaining ways. She regularly espouses a philosophy of non-standardized learning, improvisation, and creativity in learning about math, science and history over rote scholastic methods. Her unique talents as an expert in mathematics, as a skilled musician with a beautiful singing voice, and as a visionary visual educator, make her charming and wildly entertaining educational videos a must for people of all ages.

I've been taken by Hart's videos for a while now, not just in the cartoony illustrations she uses and her wonderfully expressive music, but in the sheer amount she is able to communicate with those combined factors. In Twelve Tones (embedded below), her most recent, longest, and most ambitious production, she starts by detailing the mathematical qualities of Stravinsky's oeuvre, spinning off into the very concepts at the core of human creativity. While educating about complex musical and mathematical concepts, Hart simultaneously explores the idea of the human perception of art, shattering boundaries while passionately imploring you to shatter boundaries. Twelve Tones is a masterpiece of music & illustration, education & entertainment, math, science & art.

My favorite of Hart's videos is her inspiring and illuminating series on Fibonacci sequences in nature. In Doodling in Math: Spirals, Fibonacci, and Being a Plant she produces an engaging and remarkably accessible exploration of the how and why of certain natural phenomena. Her other videos range from the wrongness of pi to the oddness of Pythagoras to her constructions of hexaflexagons that have been viewed more than five million times. In all of them lie a core of nonconformism and discovery, and completely wonderful cartooning. Hart's videos, cemented by her cartooning and her passion, open up a universe of possibilities in how math and science are taught to millions.

Friday, August 30, 2013

The Comic Pusher Weekend Roundup for August 30

It's Friday, so welcome to the first edition of The Comic Pusher Weekend Roundup.

This week on The Comic Pusher I reviewed Charles Forsman's stunning feature-length debut The End of the Fucking World, I reviewed two radically different responses to lives marked by epilepsy, Sacrifice by Sam Humphries & Dalton Rose and Epileptic by David B, and I took a good long look at tragedy and the perils of subjective reality in Adventure Time 19. In the Wednesday Review for August 28 I reviewed nine new books including New Avengers 9, Unwritten 52, FF 11, Itty Bitty Hellboy 1, Young Avengers 9, The Massive 15, and more.

Elsewhere on The Comic Pusher I looked at the first six months of The Comic Pusher including favorite articles, most viewed reviews and more. I was also a robot, which was pretty awesome. And I updated my comprehensive Love and Rockets guide to include two things I missed (courtesy the frankly indispensable Love & Rockets Companion by Mark Sobel and Kritsy Valenti).

Comics News and Notes

It was Jack Kirby's 96th Birthday on Wednesday. We are, because he was. 

Everyone I know is freaking out about Ben Affleck playing Batman in the next Snyder Superman movie. I have no real opinion on the matter because 1) I still haven't seen Snyder's Man of Steel, which will be a greater indication of what is to come, 2) I can't judge it because I haven't seen Affleck as Batman yet and neither have you because it's two years away. Chill out.

Over at Robot 6, Tom Bondurant takes a detailed look at DC's editorial structure. This is a fascinating analyses for me as I've long known who's who and where in Marvel editorial (where editorial structure and responsibility is not just more clear but more open thanks to letter pages and easy fan access all over the place to editors like Axel Alonso and Tom Brevoort).  I've long been critical of DC's top-down editorially heavy (interfering) creative process, and this pegs down some of those names. And that doesn't even scratch the ceaseless clusterfuck that is the Villains Month allocations. Not speaking for the retailer that I work for but from a vantage point of common sense, DC screwed the pooch pretty badly on this one, in a way that will only harm direct market retailers, many of which are on a knife-edge of profitability as it is.

On CBR, Joe Casey talks about the end of his and Tom Scioli's G0DLAND (my favorite of his works).  Ng Suat Tong has a phenomenal essay on xkcd: Time at the Hooded Utilitarian; he brings up many great points about both Time and the critical reaction to it, including and especially my review. The Beat released new sales analyses for July, always an interesting read. Robot 6 looks at 25 years of the Eisners, and its heartening to see Alan Moore, Chris Ware and Todd Klein as the most honored. Hannah Menzies has an excellent breakdown of the factors that make Saga so unique.

This review of sorts at The Comic Journal, and especially the discussion that follows, perfectly illustrate two things: The Journal is frequently hopelessly out of touch in its blind rejection of mainstream comics and equally blind championing of even the shittiest indie books; and it's okay for a creator to defend oneself, but there is a line where one gets defensive and only succeeds at proving their critics right.

Very cool to see that the A Softer World Kickstarter wildly exceeded its goals.

#FollowFriday: If you don't read Tom Spurgeon's Eisner-winning Comic Reporter every day then you are flying through this universe of comics blind and deaf. Get on it.

Not Comics
This week, ESPN pulled out of the Frontline documentaries about the horrible effects of concussions on NFL players that it has been working on for years with PBS. The sadly unsurprising reason is that they didn't want to piss off the NFL. ESPN has long since abdicated any genuine journalistic role, despite the efforts of those on Outside The Lines and some of their web properties. ESPN is an entertainment venture, their "news" programs just arms of that venture. The New York Times had an absolutely riveting series of unrelated but still relevant series of in-depth articles about ESPN's incestuous control of the market, the first part of which is here. (Assuming, y'know, it hasn't been hacked by angry Syrians.)
As always, you can follow me on Twitter @B5Jeff, Like Comic Pusher On Facebook, and subscribe to the Comic Pusher by RSS and Email.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Wednesday Review: Sex and Crossovers

In the last couple of weeks there have been some more than a few discussions about the role of depictions of sexual violence in comics. Joseph Hughes on Comics Alliance had a good rundown of the controversy revolving around Mark Millar's use of rape in his Kick-Ass comics, and Millar's dismissive opinion of that use. Warren Ellis has made a good argument elsewhere that violence in fiction is a necessary outlet and artistically valid. I've long been bothered by fictionalized rape in comics, but don't blink when someone gets decapitated (like in the new Lazarus 3) or blown up or whatever horrifying sci-fi violence cooked up by creators the world over. But Laura Hudson is right: rape and other forms of violence are simply not equivalent. But. And there's always a but: The discussion has been focused on sexual violence against women, as it should be, but what about sexual violence against men?
Sex 6
Well, depictions of men being raped almost never happens, outside of (usually) jokes about prison rape. So I was mildly startled by the brutal rape of a male character is Joe Casey and Piotr Kowalski's Sex #6. I've written about Casey & Kowalski's Sex previously in the Wednesday Review; I dig this title more with every single issue. A delicately paced corporate future-shock post-superhero character crime drama with the occasional sex scene, everything that has been drawing me further into this compelling and unique comic is on full display in this issue. But there is also a sequence where the big bad of the series has a male computer wiz - described as a "bitch" on the recap page - beaten and raped for information. If this same scene involved the torture and rape of a woman, everyone and their non-comic reading cousin would be calling for Casey's head and coming at comic shops with pitchforks. But because the rape is of a man, will anyone even care? And, hell, do I ultimately care? Sex has been so good, while this scene took me out, everything else just drew me back in. Rest assured, the sex in Sex is not of a violent type, and the consensual sex scene in the comic is pretty hot and not remotely gratuitous. But the rape scene in Sex is pretty damn uncomfortable and I can't tell if Casey is trying to play it up for laughs, and if he was, then that may be the nail in the coffin for this book - which is a damn shame because it has been excellent up to this point. The jury's still out I guess. I just wish it didn't have to be.

FF 11, Young Avengers 9
Switching gears, please/thanks, are two absolutely wonderful superhero comics from Marvel. I've gushed about FF by Matt Fraction and Mike Allred before, and - just as Fraction's leaving the book to get his Inhumanity on - the team produces yet another one-shot mini Marvel masterpiece in issue 11. Packed with the series' wonderful humor, compassion, logic and flair, the Replacement Four go off to find the Fantastic Four, but get shanghaied by the Impossible Man looking for help with his son. Elsewhere, the robots continue to steal scenes and Maximus the Mad runs into Julius Ceasar. Oh, and Mike & Laura Allred owned This Week in Superhero Comics. I''m being light on details, because this is a book to be enjoyed, not told about, so go out and enjoy it while the getting is good. In the same league is Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie's Young Avengers 9, brimming with inventive energy, character moments fraught with high drama, stunning art, and plot out the wazoo. Featuring endings and beginnings and twists to spare, this is a good point to jump on if you haven't yet. Or better yet, pick up the first trade paperback out today and see what all the fuss is about. 

Unwritten 52, New Avengers 9, Wolverine and the X-Men 35
There are three key kinds of crossovers in American mainstream comics: the first where two titles from different universes cross over into each others stories; another is where a bunch of different titles in a shared universe tie-in with a common storyline (nowadays usually called an Event); and the third is where a one sequential story is told across multiple titles. The current storyline in Mike Carey and Peter Gross's usually superb Vertigo ongoing Unwritten 52 is an example of the first, with Tom Taylor (well, a Tom Taylor) and crew popping up in Bill Willingham's Fables. As Unwritten is very much a long-form closed story and not an open-ended superwhatever comic, this crossover isn't the type seen most often with this format where different protagonists just get mashed together for a few issues - we can be assured that the events that transpire are part of a long-held plan. But "The Unwritten Fables" still feels unnecessary, despite the fact that this will be the last arc of The Unwritten before a hiatus and perfunctory renumbering this winter. The Unwritten are bouncing around the Fables-verse when Mr. Dark was still the main villain (so, like, a year and a half ago) and the long sequences focusing on the Fables and their dealings with Mr. Dark, despite the thrill of Gross's interpretation of Mark Buckingham's Fables, just seem tired and irrelevant. I used to anticipate new issues of The Unwritten, now I can't wait for this story to be over so we can get on with business as usual.

Then there is the Event, oh, the Event, the accursed, money-grabbing corporate Event. Right now in the Marvel Universe, its Jonathan Hickman's Infinity, but in Hickman I trust and he doesn't let me down in New Avengers 9. A superb, riveting superhero comic playing an integral part in his cosmic epic, it manages to also provide the next chapter in his long-running Illuminati-heavy arc while pumping out a ton of action from Wakanda to Westchester, really spectacularly illustrated by Mike Deodato within Hickan's impeccable production design. And I don't usually like his art, but Deodato and colorist Frank Martin are a lot more detailed, a lot more accessible and a lot less muddy here. I've long preferred the New amongst Hikman's two Avengers titles, and this continues to hold up.  I wish I could say the same about other books in the crossover, or, more properly the dreaded "Tie-In": Avengers Assemble and Captain Marvel just cover the same tracks as Hickman's Avengers 18. But some amount of filler is to be expected in Events, and to be avoided. Stick to Hickman throughout Infinity and you won't be disappointed.

The third type of crossover will be happening soon in all the key Marvel X-books (which tend to be the books that usually do this kind of crossover). Starting next month is Children of the Atom, where its revealed that Astro Boy has fathered every mutant in the Marvel Universe. Or not, I don't know what its about. I just know that it will be disrupting Wolverine and the X-Men, which concluded one hell of a story in issue 35 today. Jason Aaron and Nick Bradshaw are firing on all cylinders together, and Aaron's lighter, poppier, high-fun superhero style is always a delight to read from the increasingly chameleonic creator. I know Aaron will handle this crossover with the same skill he has others, I'd just rather see him continue to do his own thing.

Lets close with a Dark Horse three-pack: Itty Bitty Hellboy 1, the Aw Yeah-ification of Mike Mignola's Hellboy/BPRD-verse by all-ages impresarios Baltazar and Franco was sadly disappointing. I really enjoyed their Tiny Titans comics, and am genuinely looking forward to their upcoming Kickstarter-backed creator owned book, but their Hellboy outing just falls flat. ... What's with Brian Wood and nuclear weapons in New York City? DMZ pretty much jumped the shark when the nuke showed up there. In Wood's Massive 15, the pissed off guy with the stolen nuclear submarine faces off with what's left of the U.S. Army while people on the Kapital reminisce about melodrama, and it all just breaks down into a sequence about as riveting as Itty Bitty Hellboy. And then the nukes got launched, but were stopped by Clarke's star child like in 2001 (the novel). No, but, seriously, the Earth just gobbled them up, according to the news channel that is somehow still broadcasting post-Crash. Massive continues to alternate between intriguing and patently ridiculous. ... But Matt Kindt's MIND MGMT 14 was pretty damned good as usual, so there's that.

Happy Wednesday, everyone!

Monday, August 26, 2013

Visions of Epilepsy from David B and Sam Humphries

Looking at two radically different responses to a life marked by epilepsy, Sacrifice by Sam Humphries & Dalton Rose and Epileptic by David B.

Epileptic by David B
L'Association/Pantheon, 2005
Epilepsy, a blanket term for a range of varied but related neurological syndromes, often involve seizures that can range from minor to completely incapacitating, sometimes accompanied by hallucinations, often having adverse emotional effects on the sufferers and those around them. Two completely different graphic novels deal with this in their own ways: David B.'s ground-breaking memoir Epileptic deals with the effect his brother's condition has had on his family, and writer Sam Humphries' Sacrifice, a fictional take of one epileptic's journey from a writer who suffers from the condition himself.

Epileptic by David B. (the pen-name of L'Association co-founder Pierre-Francois Beauchard) was serialized in France between 1996 and 2004 as L'Ascension du Haut-Mal (The Rise of the High Evil) and released as one extraordinary volume by Pantheon in the United States in 2005. A memoir of Beauchard's upbringing and his brother Jean-Christophe's debilitating epilepsy and the profound effect that had on Beauchard's life and that of his family, Epileptic sits at the vanguard of the modern graphic memoir movement.

The memoir opens up with Beauchard visiting his family as an adult, and encountering his brother, a physical mess, his face and body racked with scars, out of shape and all but unrecognizable to Beauchard. Things then process chronologically from early childhood, beginning in Beauchard's idyllic youth in Orleans, France. But the innocence of childhood is shaken up by his brothers frequent seizures, and Jean-Christophe is diagnosed as epileptic. Sometimes his crippling seizures, which can last seconds or hours, are triggered by stress or high emotion, and sometimes they just happen randomly. Jean-Christophe's condition casts a pall over the entire family as they come to terms with their capricious, random effects and the lack of understanding from friends, neighbors, and authorities.

The time frame of the events in the book begins in 1964, and the public and medical understanding of epilepsy was scant and even contradictory, at best. Differing diagnoses and treatment schemes all fail to work on Jean Christophe's condition for very long, and soon the family finds itself repeatedly trying the services of obvious quack physicians, far-fetched dietary restrictions, and full-on cults replete with hippie communes and restrictive living practices. Jean-Christophe's condition is all but untreatable, and soon the darkness of his condition draws him down a path of depression and anger. Jean-Christophe withdraws into himself, lashing out at his family and pursuing dark obsessions, shutting himself off from the world. The entire family suffers through Jean-Christophe's disease and increasingly useless treatments, and soon have to suffer Jean-Christophe himself, a shell of a person given over to a darkness that spreads out all around him.

There is a repetitiveness to the family's cycles of quacks, cults, and diets, but whatever narrative deficiencies are made up for in Beauchard's consistently astonishing art. Beauchard's hyper-dense, stylized art frequently breaks down into abstractions of breathtaking artistry, visually representing both the horrible effects Jean-Christophe was suffering as well as the shadow the disease cast over the whole family. As Beauchard grows up, he is shown developing his artistic style and coming into his own as a fiercely unique artist with an original visual style unseen anywhere else in comics. The visual poetry of Beauchard's work in Epileptic is anarchic, bracing, explosive and always astounding.

But there is a certain self-absorbed coldness to the proceedings as Beauchard begins to remove himself from his brother's enormous influence. At one point it is mentioned that his sister, barely a supporting player in this drama, tries to kill herself. This event, which by any measure should be a significant turning point in the family's history, is glossed over without further comment, with ever increasing weight given to how this is all affecting Beauchard himself. This is a memoir of Beauchard's experience, after all, not a biography of Jean-Christophe or anyone else. But it seems Beauchard, in suffering under Jean-Christophe's shadow and the weight of the disease on the family, has gotten to a point past acceptance to one of complete removal. It would be oversimplifying things to suggest that there is a vein of resentment in Beauchard's approach, but perhaps this is all an understandable coping mechanism, a natural reaction to the first part of his life given over to another's suffering, then to the weight that person's increasingly negative personality.

Epileptic is a vivid chronicle of one epileptic's mental and physical deterioration and the effect the disease and the sufferer's experience had on those around him. It is a vibrant artistic response to a persistent, ceaseless trauma and a history of both a family and the medical and social approach to a complex condition at a place and time now passed. In Epileptic, Beauchard has crafted a masterpiece of graphic nonfiction that captures the physical horrors and emotional turmoil of a ravenous disease that will not release its stranglehold, and of a man who gave in to the suffocating darkness, taking those who love him down with him.

Sacrifice by Sam Humphries & Dalton Rose
Humphries 2011-2013, Dark Horse 2013
Writer Sam Humphries has epilepsy, but unlike  he has it under some level of control. It was his experience with epilepsy (and an apparent obsession with Aztec history) that fueled his self-published mini-series with artist Dalton Rose, Sacrifice, now out in hardcover from Dark Horse. Hector is a suicidal epileptic slacker obsessed with Joy Division who finds himself having psychedelic visions during his seizures. Things quickly take a trippy turn during a particularly severe seizure when Hector finds himself captured by warriors from the Aztec Empire in the early 1500s. He's taken to Tenochtitlan - a city-state and an Empire founded on repeated human sacrifice - just prior to Cortes's conquest. More than just a brief seizure-induced hallucination, Hector's trips to Tenochtitlan become increasingly elaborate, lasting days, then weeks, then years. He learns the Aztec language Nahuatl and ends up playing an unwitting role in the sociopolitical and religious conflicts engulfing Tenochtitlan.

And its these conflicts that end up bogging down the book for a pretty large portion of the narrative. Humphries seems clearly well-versed in all things Aztec history, and there is a significant portion of the plot given over to the political struggle between the cults of Quetzalcoatl and Huitzilopochtli. It's a bit too uninteresting and clunky (not to mention all the bloody long Aztec names and words), and the only saving grace is Dalton Rose's wonderful, highly colored art. Rose is able to capture the visually engaging setting of Columbian Mesoamerica as well as the psychedelic experience that Hector (and soon enough, the audience) goes through.

The more time Hector spends in Tenochtitlan, the more he is convinced that he is time traveling to the period, not just engaging in elaborate vision quests (as the Aztecs call his seizures). He resolves to change history, using his knowledge of the coming Spanish armada to take control of Tenochtitlan and attempt to defeat the Spanish and preserve and expand the Aztec Empire. Things don't necessarily turn out how he wants, and soon enough the plot takes a very Grant Morrison turn. The time traveling Hector, unmoored between the Aztec past he is trying to manipulate and the future in the 21st century he no longer wants, is given an ultimate choice that may result in seismic religious and cultural changes that will reverberate through centuries and entire divine pantheons. Ultimately, the slog through ancient Aztec politics is a bit much to endure, but Humphries and Dalton bypass any attempt at open-ended interpretation and deliver a whopper of a conclusion in the unexpected final chapter.

Both Epileptic and Sacrifice use the comic medium to cope with the subjective and often terrible trauma of epilepsy. David B.'s by-proxy experience and the impact on his family fueled his highly artistic memoir of the pain suffered by those who have to deal with the most severe forms of the disease. Humphries fictionalized his own experience, using it as a springboard to explore his passions and tell an odd little historical melodrama that morphs into a psychedelic journey to godhood. These are two completely different works attempting completely different things - David B. succeeds wildly, indeed being one of the best comic memoirs yet produced, where Humphries and Dalton fall a little short. But both have value as unique takes on a condition that effects millions of lives.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Charles Forsman's World Ending Comic-Noir

The End of the Fucking World by Charles Forsman
Fantagraphics, 2013
A few weeks ago, DC released a hardcover album of Jack Kirby's lost pulp-crime magazine from his second Marvel interregnum in the early 1970s, In The Days of the Mob. A weird throwback to EC-style crime comics and published by DC as a (quickly canceled) magazine to bypass the comics code, Kirby's art is, of course, stunning, where his writing, of course, leaves much to be desired. Anyway, Kirby scholar and archivist/fan-publisher John Morrow (of Two Morrows fame) wrote the forward to the collection, giving some much needed background to the oddness to come. But the thing that stood out to me about his introduction was his stunningly stupid claim that crime comics are a thing of the past and that the only recent practitioner of this supposedly lost art was one Frank Miller. In just a couple of sentences, Morrow reveals himself to be out of touch to a frankly astonishing degree. Anyone not with their heads in the sand of suffocating nostalgia knows that there has been a glorious renaissance of crime and comic-noir storytelling in mainstream comics in the last decade or so. From the popular noirs of Brubaker & Phillips, to European imports like Blacksad or the more avant-garde recent works by Jason, back around to Cooke's Parker adaptations and true masterpieces like Aaron & Guera's Scalped and so much more, there has never been a better time for quality, accessible crime comics in the medium's history. (Hell, I noted this four years ago, adding, "if anything, the continuing rise of the crime comic may hold more fascinating, deeper, long-term parallels with the state of the world.")

From The End of the Fucking World
Philosophizing aside, in this wave of challenging character dramas that delve into the darkest aspects of the American experience comes Charles Forsman in The End of the Fucking World. Originally serialized by Forsman in self-published mini-comics, TEOTFW (as it has been bowdlerized) was released this week as a stunning full graphic novel from Fantagraphics. TEOTFW tells the story of teenager James as he mutilates himself and kills animals and pretends to fall in love, all just to feel something, anything, the roots of his madness running deep in childhood tragedy. He runs off with a girl, Alyssa, across featureless desolation, squatting in peoples houses in dull small towns while they are away on vacation. In one of the houses, the owner returns home. James asks Alyssa if she trusts him. And as the owner stumbles across Alyssa, naked in his bed, James comes up from behind him and slits his throat. But there is a deeper darkness bubbling under the surface of the apparent domestic tranquility that James has slashed, and the young couple find themselves on the run from the authorities and forces beyond their imagining. What is disguised as a rote teen disillusionment melodrama about two kids acting out their Bonnie & Clyde moment is in reality a powerful story about sociopaths, abandonment, cults, crime both petty and murderous, and unquenchable emotional hollowness.

Forsman's minimalist, spare art in TEOTFW is very simple but expressive, in dimension and detail owing more to the bare, cartoony style of newspaper comic strips rather than the flashy, stylistic comic-noir of Risso or Phillips or Cooke. But the simplicity of his art plays a dual role: disarming the reader, increasing the shock of the thematic darkness; and playing very much like a spare, low-budget but emotionally and narratively arresting indy film. The deaths that occur in the story are more impactful specifically because of the movement away from graphic detail and literalism. The story meanders through aimless ennui and first-person psychosis, only to hurtle forward, spiraling down in betrayal, violence and tragedy, ending in loss and pain in a way that sticks to your guts when you put the book down. Charles Forsman has been self-publishing his work for several years now, but this marks his first full, completed work, an auspicious and accomplished debut. The End of the Fucking World is a superb graphic novel, poetic and gripping, a pure crime-noir page-turner that will stop you dead in your tracks and leave its mark on you like a hot needle burned into the skin in the mourning light.

The End of the Fucking World (and, sure, In The Days of the Mob) are in stores now. Charles Forsman's mini-comics can be found in finer comic shops and at

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Tragedy and The Perils of Subjective Reality in Adventure Time 19

Overture: In lieu of The Wednesday Review, I take a look at the remarkable Adventure Time 19's approach to tragedy, loss, madness, and issues of subjective versus objective reality and its thematic similarities to Lem/Tarkovsky/Soderbergh's Solaris.

It's a volume-light, quality-unremarkable Wednesday for single issues (for me, anyway), but one remarkable stand-out comic makes the calm before next week's likely flood of new books worth it: Adventure Time 19 by Ryan North, Shelli Paroline & Braden Lamb.

I've mentioned Adventure Time (the show and the comic) quite a bit here on The Comic Pusher, and for good reason. Pendleton Ward's remarkable creation is an inventive character-based action-adventure comedy with consistently superb storytelling in a richly detailed fantasy world populated by entertaining and emotionally realistic characters. Throughout the subtle and effective continuity of the series are woven increasingly complex stories of heartbreak and loss, madness and despair, love and friendship and mysteries of science and magic and the heart. Despite being fiction aimed at younger audiences, Adventure Time often presents a level of emotional maturity and humanism that one would be hard-pressed to find in most fiction of any stripe. The best Adventure Time comics reflect this duality of accessible high-energy storytelling interlaced with thematic maturity. Where the ongoing Adventure Time comic is always entertaining but can be sometimes uneven, two mini-series -  2012's Marceline and the Scream Queens by Merdith Gran and Natasha Allegri's Fiona and Cake from earlier in the year - each represented some of that year's best comic storytelling. And today's issue 19 from writer North and artists Paroline & Lamb ranks with the very best we have yet seen in this remarkable universe.

The last part of a story arc, the issue opens at the conclusion of the previous one with Finn, Jake, and Ice King on a dungeon quest, scattered across the multiverse by the remnants of The Lich. The dimension Finn ends up thrown into is the "Farmworld" dimension (from the season five three-parter), a reality where Simon Petrikov stopped the Mushroom War a thousand years earlier and where Finn has a human family and Jake is just a dog. Finn can easily see through the benefits in this dimension as nothing more than an illusion set up to entrap him. He escapes and breaks Jake free from his counterfeit reality (where everyone has Jake powers; "Oh, so that's what this feels like!"). They end up in Ice King's reality, and try to convince him to leave. But he doesn't want to.

Early on in Adventure Time, The Ice King was an annoying villain of the week, set up again and again to get punched down by Finn and Jake. But nothing is ever quite what it seems on Adventure Time, and Ice King was slowly changed from the central villain - at first presented as a wizard king with ice-ninja powers, more goblin than human - to the central tragic figure (and occasional ally of Finn and Jake). A full thousand years before the events of the series, Ice King was a normal human, Simon Petrikov. Simon was an archeologist who was in a happy relationship with the love of his life, Betty. At some point, he discovered the mystical grimoire The Enchiridion and the Ice Crown, an object not unlike Tolkein's One Ring. He puts on the crown and is granted immense power, at the expense of his relationships and career. Betty leaves him, and soon afterwards the Earth is engulfed in biological and nuclear war. Petrikov survives thanks to the Ice Crown, and encounters the young vampire Marceline Abadeer in the mutating ruins of the Earth. While trying to protect Marceline, Simon repeatedly resorts to using the Crown for the powers it gives him. But the cost on his psyche and his soul is too great. He and Marcie survive, but Simon falls completely under the Crown's spell - he looses all memory and develops his current malicious persona. He would survive, immortal, but at the total cost of his humanity, forever plagued by unrelenting hallucinations, with no memory of his past.

What transpires in Adventure Time 19 would be no less powerful on its own, but is even more moving in light of the knowledge of Ice King's immutably tragic past. Finn and Jake come across Ice King and his fiancee, Betty. They try to convince Ice King that Betty and the world aren't real, but an illusion of the Lich. "Betty" recalls details of their shared past to prove her actuality, but Finn asks how Ice King can possibly know that what she says is true. Ice King reveals that "Here, I can remember. Here I can think clearly ... There's no cost, no price" to the Ice Crown's powers. Betty takes the crown and makes an ice-construct, emblazoned with the words "Everything is beautiful and nothing hurts." As the world around them bursts into flame, Ice King single-mindedly pleads his case: "This feels like reality, only better. This Kisses like reality, only way way better. ... It's a paradise ... I can finally BE that person I remember." But Finn and Jake won't let Ice King fall victim to this reality - despite whatever Ice King feels and believes, the subjectivity of his experience, the true reality is darker, a controlled illusion, and they break him free. As their world burns down around them, "Betty" screams in pain and Ice King reaches out to her. "Simon, I-I don't feel fake-" she pleads. "You're just as real as I remember," he says as she crumbles into dust in his arms.

These few pages of illusory reality speak volumes. Ice King has spent the last thousand years as cold and broken and alone as a human could get, to the point where he is so far from his humanity as to be physically no longer human. He is presented a reality where he not only regains his memory and is free from the psychosis which has plagued him for centuries, but he can retain his powers and be with the last, lost love of his forgotten life. The best comparison is to one of my favorite movies, Steven Soderbergh's Solaris, based on Stanislav Lem's novel and Andrei Tarkovsky's film. (I'll restrict my comparative analysis to Soderbergh's Solaris as I have not read Lem's novel and Tarkovsky's film is beautiful but maddening and not nearly as concise as Soderbergh's vision.)

In Solaris, a psychologist, Chris Kelvin, is sent to a space station orbiting an alien world, Solaris, where something very wrong has happened to the crew of the station. When he gets to the station, the surviving crew reveal that the planet is living and reaching into their minds and creating constructs of people from their pasts. These constructs are not human but look and act human. Or at least some version of it. It doesn't take long for Kelvin's construct to arrive, his dead wife. But this isn't his wife, no matter what his senses tell him - just like Betty in Adventure Time 19, she is just a simulacrum of his memories of her. But in the end Kelvin chooses death on the planet to be with this copy of his passed wife rather than go back to the objective reality of loss and pain.

Indeed, Ice King consciously makes the same exact choice as Kelvin in Solaris, completely acknowledging the objective artifice of the subjective reality he is experiencing. Both Solaris and Adventure Time 19 raise powerful questions about choice and reality. Ice King is plugged into the Matrix and is fine with it. And can you blame him? For the first time in centuries, Ice King can be Simon Petrikov, he can be sane and sound of mind, and live happily ever after with the woman he loves. Even if this is not objectively real, even if Betty is a construct made from his own buried memories, for him it is undeniably subjectively real. And subjective reality is no less real to the one experiencing it as supposed objective reality. He chooses painless suicide wrapped in the entrancing embrace of love and sanity over pain and loss and madness because who wouldn't make that choice. This isn't a matter of Ice King not knowing the consequences of his actions but accepting them with open arms.

Finn and Jake break Ice King free, but not without a note of recognition of pain and sadness from Finn and Jake. In a brief moment of lucidity when he doesn't have the Crown infecting his mind, Ice King recognizes the necessity of their actions. And he puts on the Crown and goes back to the only world he knows. If there is any silver lining to Ice King's tragedy, the effects of the Crown will make him forget the brief moment of happiness he felt. That reality is wiped away from existence completely, objectively and subjectively.

This isn't the first time the Adventure Time franchise has played with the themes of subjective reality. In the episode Puhoy Finn falls into an elaborate pillow fort and finds himself transported to a pillow world where he grows to be an adult, gets married, raises a family and dies of old age, only to come out of the fort. The memories of that time melt away like a dream, but it is more than suggested that Finn lived out those decades fully and completely. It was real to him for that entire lifetime whether or not it was an objective reality.

There's even more to this issue as Finn, Jake and Ice King team up on the remnants of The Lich, in what is clearly a parable about the fight against depression and encroaching madness that many people battle every day. Capturing the insidious manner that depression can be used as a weapon against the Self, the Lich taunts Ice King: "I knew your secrets. I knew your failures. I knew the people you've hurt, and better, the people you've let be hurt. Why do you fight? It's hopeless." Ice King, after acknowledging his failures, notes "Giving up is easy. You know what's hard? To believe in your own worth, to know you've got something special in you ... even when you can't see it." North, in a small space that seems like pandering feel-good philosophy to get out of the conflict, really captures the infective echo chamber of depression and the first steps to escaping it. Whether or not in the long term Ice King can find peace, free from madness and amnesia, is to be seen, but increasingly as the series goes on you hope more and more for him.

Many live action dramas and long form comics cannot do what Adventure Time frequently accomplishes. It is elements like these that give Adventure Time a unique place as a hugely popular and hugely entertaining fantasy-adventure comedy that tackles complex themes with the amazing maturity and subtlety of literature.

Adventure Time 19 is in stores today, and airs Mondays and in frequent re-runs on Cartoon Network.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Looking at Two Recent Fantagraphics Anthologies from Hans Rickheit and Tom Kaczynski

Folly by Hans Rickheit and Beta Testing The Apocalypse by Tom Kaczynski, Fantagraphics 2012
I've said it before, but anthologies - including collections focusing on work by a single creator - by their very nature can be hit-or-miss. (Of course Love & Rockets is the exception to that rule, and most other rules, too.) Two recent releases from Fantagraphics are good examples of this.  And these releases are also excellent examples of two creators who could not be farther apart thematically or visually in Tom Kaczynski and Hans Rickheit.

Folly (meaninglessly subtitled The Consequences of Indiscretion) reprints Hans Rickheit's unique and disturbing self-published comics from the last few years. The stories in Folly feature some of the most grotesque nightmare imagery seen in comics. Rickheit revels in producing interpretive phantasmagorias of monstrous and impossible biological constructions painfully interacting in a usually senseless horror-world. Most of the stories are narratively unconnected short black-and-white comics of varying quality. (There are a few connected color comics, too.) Usually when I encounter comics like this, they just don't work as narrative art, but there is something about Rickheit's storytelling that compels further reading (though not every piece presented in Folly works beyond an excuse to look at some really weird shit). The benefits of short-story anthologies are that when you run into a story that doesn't quite work, you don't have to put up with it for long. And I highly doubt I could read a longer sustained narrative of similarly disturbing imagery - a creator like Rickheit (or Fletcher Hanks or those Axe Cop comics) is best served in short chunks that you can digest or block out depending on what moves you. Something like this isn't for everyone, but there are enough intrigues and really funny short strips to warrant at least a look.

On the complete other hand is Tom Kaczynski's Beta Testing The Apocalypse, reprinting a bunch of short strips from Mome. Featuring a ligne claire style and monochrome coloring, Kaczynksi's narratives are often grounded in stories of people trying to interact with each other and the increasingly cold world in the mysterious modern metropolis. Kaczynski excels at the architecture and design of modern life and the best stories in Beta Testing The Apocalypse explore people lost in a world outside of their control. Works like "100,000 Years," "976 Sq Ft," and "Cozy Apocalypse" are true highlights and some of the best very-short-form comics of recent memory, whereas  the longer "Music for Neanderthals" and the previously unpublished "The New" are a bit of a drag. Indeed, the mix of good and not-so-good is pretty evenly split in Beta Testing The Apocalypse, with the tighter shorter stories outshining the unfocused longer works.

Both of these eclectic collections were released last year by Fantagraphics in wonderfully designed softcovers, and represent two unique and disparate voices now working in independent comics.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Bayeux Tapestry: The 1000 Year Old Proto-Comic of the Norman Conquest

Narrative art has existed for dozens of centuries and early in Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud details several early narrative pictorial works, which tended to be histories or religious in nature. While there is no straight-line connection between these works and the modern conception of comics - which came from the centuries-old political cartoon and Randolphe Topffer's seismic innovations of sequential narrative art in the 1820s - one such work, The Bayeux Tapestry from circa 1077 CE, deserves wider attention as a stunning proto-comic hundreds of years ahead of its time.

Scene 38, "Here Duke William in a great fleet crossed the sea"
The two most remarkable things about The Bayeux Tapestry that jump out right away are its monumental nature and its level of preservation despite its age. An embroidered cloth of about 20 inches wide and 225 feet long, it has survived in relatively pristine condition despite the countless brutal wars and political upheavals that racked its home country of France for centuries. The other striking features about the Tapestry (which is not an actual tapestry) is the stunning artistry and craftsmanship of its production, and the extraordinary clarity of its sequential narrative.

L to R: Scene 44, brothers Odo, William I and Robert
Scene 32, "These people marvel at the star" (The Star is Haley's Comet)
Scene 55, The stunning moment during the Battle of Hastings where William shows he is still alive
Possibly designed by Scolland, a St. Augustine monk, commissioned by Odo, Earl of Kent, Bishop of Bayeux in the North of France, and de facto regent of England, the Bayeux Tapestry chronicles the recently completed Norman Conquest of England by Odo's half-brother, William the Conqueror. In the mid part of the first century of the new millennium, England and her new King, Harold II, found itself racked by Viking invasions in the North and designs on the throne from French forces in the south. William, The Duke of Normandy, had a tangential claim to the throne and invaded England in 1066, defeating Harold's forces and killing Harold in the Battle of Hastings that October. The Norman Conquest and the reign of William I and his successors resulted in the societal, political, judicial and linguistic transmogrification of England, forever changing the course of Western Civilization.

Scene 51, "Here Duke William speaks to his knights to prepare themselves manfully and wisely for the battle against the army of the English"
The Tapestry is a remarkable primary political and historical document. Reading left-to-right, without panels but told in one long continuous narrative with scenes separated by stylized fauna, the Tapestry features a detailed history of the events leading up to and through William I's conquest. (As it was produced in the middle of William's reign it is slightly propagandist in parts but surprisingly neutral for most of its narrative.) Featuring exquisitely detailed figure work and frequent captions in slightly Anglicized Latin (the tituli), the work is a remarkable documentary of medieval history, culture, and warfare. The artistry is breathtaking. The craftspeople who produced the Tapestry used rich colors and fine stitching of wool on linen, telling the main story down the middle of the Tapestry. The borders of the Tapestry feature smaller illustrations that sometimes compliment the main action of the center of the piece, sometimes just illustrative, but consistently remarkable.
Scene 53, The Battle of Hastings in all its violence; "Here English and French fell at the same time in battle."
It's hard not to see the parallels with the forms of narrative art that would come centuries later, mainly that which is closest to my heart, comics. Looking at the Tapestry, I am continuously struck by the level of detail and the power of the images. From the scale of the combatant armies, the violence of the battles, the detail in clothing and animals and armor, and even the small details like quiet meals on the eve of battle. It is a remarkable and stunning work of art, historically and aesthetically significant.  It uses the intuitive language of comics that would be developed centuries later to stand on its own as one of Western Civilization's most important works of art.
The entire Bayeux Tapestry
The entire Tapestry, via Wikimedia Commons

The Bayeux Tapestry can be seen at the Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux, in Bayeux, France. Or, you can just look at it in many, many places on the internet. I highly recommend, which (like the Wikipedia article on the Tapestry) is an excellent overview with many links to online resources for further study.

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Comic Pusher at Six Months

Thursday, August 22 is the six-month anniversary of The Comic Pusher blog. Many thanks to my friends and family for the support, and many more thanks to those who read and link to my various ramblings about the things that I love.

Below I list some random stats from the past six months of The Comic Pusher. Of note, my writing output since February when I started this has gone far beyond anything I have done previously - to date, over 95,000 words. In the 12 months between December 2008 and December 2009, I wrote just over 12,000 words, all for the JHU Blog. But in the three plus years that followed, I wrote nothing - not one word.  My newfound ability to write is a result of many factors: a recent hospitalization, a refocusing of priorities - but more than anything, for the first time I am able to translate my passions about comics into the written word, and people have responded.

When I started The Comic Pusher this February I committed myself to a blog that reflected the depth and breadth of my comic and graphic novel knowledge, with the goal of writing thoughtful reviews and commentary on the medium and art form I love. Hopefully I have come close to achieving this with The Comic Pusher. I still have far to go before I am truly satisfied with my work here, but it I'd like to think I've made a pretty good start.

Thanks for reading - now some stats.

The ten most viewed reviews on The Comic Pusher, sorted chronologically:
My most read article to date, across the JHU Blog and The Comic Pusher, is my Definitive Love & Rockets Guide. Even Fantagraphics and Jaime Hernandez have commented on its completeness - if you have ever thought about getting into Love & Rockets (comics' supreme masterpiece) then this is the place to start.

My ten favorite articles, in chronological order:
My piece on The Incal is a close runner up, and my essay on Superman and Superheroes is a pretty good read. Usually whatever article I have just finished is my favorite, but I think this is a pretty representative list of the work I'm happiest with, warts and all. Not on the list, but by far my favorite thing I have written for The Comic Pusher, is my 10 articles on Naoki Urasawa's Pluto. I'm immensely proud of my writing about Pluto and I hope you can check those articles out. Also of note is my early article on Marvel's ridiculous trade policies. That article got reblogged by everyone under the sun and had a bunch of unforeseen consequences, and as such ranks highly for me.

Top articles by Word Count (excluding multiple-book reviews):
I left all of my Pluto reviews out of this list; all told it is the book I have written the most about (16,388 words). Quantity does not always equal quality, but there is a fair amount of overlap between this list and my list of favorite writings. Make your own judgements.

Top ten most reviewed publishers:
  • Marvel
  • Image
  • DC
  • Misc Book Publishers
  • Misc Self Published
  • Dark Horse
  • Viz
  • Fantagraphics
  • Boom
  • Drawn & Quarterly
All told I have reviewed books from thirty different publishers including a half dozen international publishers. I have also reviewed webcomics, books, movies,videos, art exhibits and more here at The Comic Pusher. I don't review everything I read (and I read quite a lot) but I try to reflect the broad diversity of my comic intake. However, I have always and will always honestly review material sent to me by publishers and authors. If you are a publisher or author who would like me to review your work, feel free to email me at

Going forward I hope to continue to review whatever moves me, and I hope you all continue reading. I believe I continue to get better at this, and I always appreciate feedback from readers and creators. Feel free to leave comments on any blog post, email me, or contact me on Twitter or Facebook. Thanks for reading. As always, Like The Comic Pusher on Facebook at, and follow me on Twitter at @B5Jeff. You can also subscribe to The Comic Pusher via olde timey RSS and Email!

The Comic Pusher by Jeffrey O. Gustafson - and

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Wednesday Review: Sagas and Epics

I really love Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples; issue thirteen came out today after a small hiatus. 126 day hiatus, but who's counting? Anyway, back in April - when JHU Comic Books was still Jim Hanley's Universe - I wrote a fan letter to Saga, my first letter to a comics letter page (snail mail, no less). To my utter geeky glee, that letter saw publication in today's new #13, which you can see it to the right, and everything I say there still stands.

Clearly I'm in love with Saga, and there is more than enough of a critical and popular consensus that shows that lots of folks are just as enamored with it as I am. And today's new issue illustrates all the reasons why this comic has been such a critical and commercial success (outside of the only reason that really matters: being a damned good comic).

First and foremost are the creators and the quality of their collaboration. Vaughan's story would be meaningless without Staples' flawless execution. She captures everything Vaughan asks for - character work and completely remarkable setting - with a unique and wonderful style. But while the creators got me in the door, what keeps me coming back are the characters. Every single character in the comic is complex, entertaining and relatable, and like all the best stories the characters drive the plot rather than simply fall victim to it. The pacing of the plot is intricate and clearly playing a very, very long game while making each chapter a riveting stand alone tale often featuring breathless cliffhangers. But as much as anything, Saga's greatest strength is its attitude.

I'm talking about the attitude of the characters and the attitude of the setting. Despite being aliens far, far away, the characters talk and act like people talk and act now. Despite the mixture of space opera and high fantasy, so many elements of the plot can best be described as reflective of 2013 rather than whatever world Vaughan and Staples has built. The trap with science fiction and fantasy is to spend too much time and energy on world-building something radically other. Which isn't to say, with its mix of magic and space-alien sci-fi, that there aren't radically wonderful and unique elements that follow their own internally consistent logic in Saga. Vaughan and Staples just don't get bogged down in unnecessary details, choosing the understandable and accessible wherever possible. There's the red-tape infused veterans hospital at the beginning of the issue (replete with shopping-cart pushing whino) and the presence of shady tabloid reporters and The Will's frustrations with trying to get his ship fixed (after being put on hold he's told he's out of the coverage zone), just to name a few things. There's also magic and bone bugs and hallucinations of lost loves and mourning and hilarious first impressions.

Saga uses its unique setting and extraordinary characters to explore fundamental questions about family and love while telling an absolutely riveting, richly layered, often funny, always true to character, and completely unpredictable story. There are a lot of good comics, but nothing that creates and fills the niches that Saga does, let along with its continued level of success. I'd like to think that - as someone who sells comics for a living and writes about them as a passion - I can approach it objectively, that if there was a bad issue that I could say so. There just hasn't been a bad issue yet, and it somehow manages to get better.
Saga, Infinity, Thor
Over in the Marvel Universe, one epic saga came to a close, and another got started. (It's unfair to compare these to Saga, and I'm not. Apples and durians and cashews; just some convenient thematic grouping on a light Wednesday.) In the premier of Jonathan Hickman's event thing, Infinity, we get a metric ton of superhero comic bookery that sets up the big ole conflict that will soon engulf the Marvel Universe. Featuring rather obtuse plotting from Hickman beautifully illustrated by Jimmy Cheung, by the end of the issue the conflict comes into sharp focus making the pretty but initially uncompelling proceedings worth it. Hickman's been rolling towards this for a while and in Hickman I trust. And if 55 story pages for five bucks wasn't enough of an enticement in today's overpriced market, then at the very least pick it up for Hickman's impeccable design work throughout the issue. It's easy to forget that Jonathan Hickman is one of the best illustrators in comics because he doesn't draw that much; but what is easy to see in everything he touches is that he is, without exception, the best designer working in comics, and in a visual storytelling medium, design matters as much as writing and art and lettering.

Thor #11 saw the conclusion of Jason Aaron and Esad Ribic's massive opening storyline. And make no mistake, this is a decisive full-stop conclusion, one featuring astonishing imagery at the end of a fantastic and exciting story. It's always remarkable to see Aaron stretching so many diverse creative muscles in his career, and Ribic pulls off some really breathtaking stuff here. If you've been reading the story up to now then you are already getting this issue, but if you have been on the fence, then go out of your way to get the graphic novel when it is collected. For the Thunder God, this whole storyline ranks with the best of Straczynski/Coipel/Djurdjevic and Simonson runs, and as a concise complete work is second only to Oeming and Di Vito's often overlooked Thor: Disassembled.

A bunch of other good books came out  today, too. East of West 5 from Hickman & Dragotta was astonishing, with downright arresting imagery. Wolverine and the X-Men 34 from Aaron and Bradshaw continues to be really fun, lushly illustrated and fabulously entertaining. And Fantagraphics continued their gorgeous line of EC reprint hardcovers with new Al Feldstein and Johnny Craig collections.

Happy Wednesday, everyone!

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Advance Review: Dogs of War by Sheila Keenan and Nathan Fox

Dogs of War by Sheila Keenan & Nathan Fox
Scholastic Graphix, November 2013
Dogs have played a role in human affairs for 150 centuries, so it is no surprise that as long as humans have been at war, dogs have been at our side. In modern military parlance, they are Military Working Dogs. Similar to the use of dogs in civilian life, they play roles in search and rescue, law enforcement and the like. But military dogs also serve other roles. They are advance scouts, can sniff out bombs and booby traps, and go places humans can't. And just like pets in our lives, they are part of the family, man's best friend and an honored part of the military unit. In Dogs of War, a new original graphic novel coming out this November from Scholastic Grafix, writer Sheila Keenan and artist Nathan Fox tackle three stories from recent military conflicts that involved man's best friend in some of man's darkest hours.

The first chapter takes place in the trenches of the Western Front at the end of 1914. Focusing on a Scottish medic and his dog (Boots) who get separated from their unit, we are witness to the unrelenting mud and muck of tench warfare. Boots has been trained to sniff out survivors in the no-mans-land of the hell between the trenches, allowing medics to treat the wounded. Getting progressively better, the second chapter involves a secret U.S. air base in Greenland and one soldier's attempt to turn an unruly sled dog, Loki, into a valuable member of the small force plugging away above the arctic circle in early 1942. There is a suspenseful sequence involving a downed American plane and a race against the clock between German and American soldiers in white-out conditions.

But the best chapter is the third. Opening up in a small town in North Carolina in August 1968, a young boy and his dog befriend a Vietnam veteran. But the veteran, Lanford is troubled. Troubled by the war, troubled by what happened to him when he returned, troubled by what he left behind. We get glimpses of what Lanford went through in Vietnam with his Dog, Sheeba, interspersed with vignettes of the boy and his puppy interacting with Lanford back in the World. Where the main humans in the first two chapters are largely blank slates off which to bounce the dogs' stories, the Sheba chapter is about a palpably real person and the effect that one dog has had in his life. There is no tidy bow at the end of Lanford's story - the boy and his puppy do not cure him of his nightmares, the scars of what he saw and did and experienced just run too deep. But there may be hope for him in the future, and wherever his path may take him has been eased by his brief encounters with dogs of war, and dogs of peace.

In a graphic novel intended for middle school-aged kids, there is only so much blood and gore you can show. But Keenan and Fox do not shy away from the realities of the situations the soldier's and the dogs find themselves in. They manage to vividly capture the horror of trench warfare without getting too graphic. And they do not shy away from the even deeper mental turmoil of PTSD felt by so many of our soldiers after the confusing nightmare of Vietnam and its aftermath.

Sheila Keenan's writing is clear and straightforward, rife with historical detail, and Nathan Fox's art is expectedly superb, emotive, stylish and accessible. So often with such efforts, the results can seem overly academic or too toned down for the work to stand on its own, and the book has that feel in parts of the first two chapters. But thanks to the closing chapter and largely overall, Dogs of War is an entertaining and very well-made graphic novel intended for general audiences that adults can enjoy and slightly older kids can read while learning new things about history that may be not be in their history books. 
PROCEDURAL NOTE: This is an advance review of an uncorrected proof of a graphic novel coming out in November October 16. What that means for me is that some parts weren't totally finished and it wasn't in color. What that means for you is... well, nothing. It's a good book, that's the important bit. Buy it now on Amazon here.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Finding Grant Morrison's Lost Superhero Epic, Zenith

Zenith, by Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell
2000AD 1987-1992, Rebellion 2013
A few weeks ago at The Beat, Laura Sneddon wrote a great series of articles covering the legal drama surrounding Rebellion UK's reprinting of the lost Grant Morrison/Steve Yeowell 2000AD superhero epic, Zenith. In short, Rebellion feel they have the right to reprint it - and are doing so in a limited edition £100 deluxe hardcover this winter, which has already sold out its limited print run - while Morrison believes the work is his and Yeowell's. (Yeowell appears cool with the Rebellion reprint.) Sneddon's articles - which you can find here - are a fascinating read, going into great detail about the legal issues behind the conflict between Morrison and Rebellion and comprehensively discussing the finer points of UK copyright law and their differences with US copyright law.

I've long been interested in reading Zenith, but haven't been able to. Originally serialized between 1987 and 1992 in the long running UK comics anthology 2000AD, Morrison and Yeowell's Zenith has been out of print since the initial Titan reprint albums produced during the series' initial run. (And I sure as hell wasn't dropping $160 on the hardcover.) Luckily I'm friends with many folks with extensive collections of hard-to-find things, and industry veteran Steve Bunche swooped in and let me read his (very valuable) copies of the Titan albums.

Despite the influx of superstar writers from the British Isles - like Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Garth Ennis and of course Grant Morrison - who spearheaded the creative surge in American mainstream and superhero comics starting in the mid-1980s, the United Kingdom did not have (and largely still does not have) its own unique tradition of superhero storytelling. There were minor exceptions, such as the wogbogglingly complicated Marvelman, but the main focus of British comics was on (usually sci-fi) anthology magazines like the weekly 2000AD. It was in light of this that Morrison and Yeowell (with Brandon McCarthy) created Zenith. 2000AD's first superhero work, Morrison saw Zenith as an opportunity to forge a new tradition of British superhero storytelling. While it did not ignite an influx of superhero stories, Zenith manages to stand as one of the influential 1980s superhero stories that redefined what superheroes (and superhero comics) were.

The titular Zenith is a superpowered British 19 year old. The last of a short line of superpowered individuals going back to the 1960s (but with its roots in the Second World War), Zenith, rather than being a superhero, chooses instead to be a pop star (not that there's really that much to be a superhero against). With bestselling albums and television interviews, Zenith is far from the heroic ideal. He could care less about saving the day and would rather chat up starlets and get smashed at parties. He is abrasive, whiny, and completely ignoble. He parlays his abilities and stardom into a payday and he has no interest in any greater service to country or humanity.

In Zenith, the tradition of superheroics from the 1960s was snuffed out when the prevailing superteam of the time turned hippy and pacifist and split up after some disappeared (or were assassinated by the CIA). One of them, Peter St. John, the former master mystic Mandala, is now a highly positioned conservative in British Parliament. As the series progresses, he would eventually find his way into the Prime Minister's seat, no small thanks to his powers. There is some overarching mystery as to what happened to Zenith's parents and some bubbling conspiracy theory that goes back to World War 2, but nothing remotely resembling most superhero comics of then or now, no cape on cape fights or attempts at taking over the world (too much work to maintain power, according to one). But that isn't to say that there was no conflict in the book - indeed, there was, one which would come to envelope the entire globe and thousands of parallel universes.

Many of Morrison's superhero works deal with the potential of the genre and of the comics form. At the time he was making this, though, his creative endeavors reflected a certain cynicism - see my comprehensive look at his Dan Dare comic with Rian Hughes from the same period, for instance. As I've noted elsewhere, superpowered beings doing the superhero thing (be it vigilantism or facing off against other superpowered muckety-mucks) is a uniquely American idea and pursuit - in Zenith, Morrison presents an early post-modern examination of the "realities" of superpowers. With St. John's conservatism and his use of powers to attain political power and Zenith's apathy and obsession with celebrity, we get a slightly harder edge from Morrison then we're used to with his superhero work.

But commentary on superpowers is not Morrison's intent with Zenith's four phases. Telling a massive, epic, and completely original superhero story, one unencumbered by preexisting continuity and featuring wholly original characters, is his intent. And in that, it succeeds. As much as I would have enjoyed a tale about the frankly irredeemable Zenith, the book is ultimately about an effort by heroes dragged from every corner of every parallel Earth to save the multiverse. Throughout much of the book, Zenith hardly plays any active role at all; during the climax of one of the phases, he was hilariously off minding his own damn business drinking a soda. So the conflict, as it stretches across the four volumes: an ancient, nearly infinitely powerful Lovecraftian evil (The Lloigor) is infecting the entirety of the multiverse and it must be stopped. There's a lot of expansive, trippy science fiction and horror, and some genuinely funny and unique characters. (I particularly liked Maximan's fractured monologues). This is early Morrison and feels like it, not quite as polished as he would become, naturally. But overall, the story is unique and entertaining.  

Much of 2000AD's art from this period featured cramped black and white art packing as much into the magazine-sized page as possible in large part because of 2000AD's limitations - each chapter is just 6 to 8 pages long, for instance. Too often with 2000AD art, the sci-fi subject matter demands more room to breathe, room usually denied by editors or creators stuffing as much story as possible into each chapter. As enjoyable as Alan Moore's work for the magazine from the same era is, in works like Skizz or Halo Jones the art distractingly cannot live up to the demands of the narrative. But thanks to Morrison's broad pacing of the tale, Yeowell's art throughout Zenith's four phases features clear, bold, and fantastic superhero visual storytelling (although parts of Phase 3 seem a little rushed and hard to follow). And Yeowell and McCarthy's design work is immaculate, focusing on more functional outfits for the various heroes, eschewing tights and capes and other such nonsense. (As much as I love superhero comics warts and all, I just hate superhero outfits. They're just stupid.) Thanks to Yeowell's efforts, the story only feels like a 2000AD work because of the unavoidable six-page chapters.

Zenith stands with such 1980s classics as Watchmen, Squadron Supreme, Marvelman/Miracleman and The Dark Knight Returns as part of the wave of innovative and influential superhero stories that deconstructed, rethought, re-imagined and redefined the very idea of the superhero in its own way. And while it has not penetrated the larger superhero comic culture because of the lack of reprints, and while it is not either creator's strongest work, Morrison and Yeowell's accomplishment is historically significant for this reason; if anything, significant as an enjoyable, completely original and self-contained superhero epic. Hopefully someday it can be reprinted in a fashion agreeable to all parties so that its influence can be recognized by the larger audience it deserves.