Monday, September 30, 2013

Learning to Walk with Jusay Pulp

Jusay Pulp is a newish self-published anthology from cartoonist Jeremy Jusay. Jusay has self-published a small handful of comics over the past few years but this is my first exposure to his work. The debut issue has a lot going for it - mostly the nice production values and killer price.  At twenty oversized black and white pages with a glossy cover for just three bucks, many mini-comic makers and self-publishers should learn from Jusay's example of how to reasonably price an independent comic.

Jusay Pulp 1 features a self-contained short story ("Ghosts of New Wave") about a depressed NYC art student who conjures imaginary friends that are zombie versions of various New Wave bands who help her through life. The narrative is a cute enough diversion, if perhaps a little too precious. I liked the art style, a bold Jaime Hernandez line with nice detail in cityscapes. But, and its a big but, it's one thing to have nice figures and to nail the architectural detail  of life in this City, it's another thing entirely to tell a story with your art, and Jusay's stuff stumbles hard on the mechanics of comic storytelling, and especially, most definitely in body movement.

Three locomotive sequences from the comic.
The framing of too many scenes falls flat with unnecessary closeups that are engulfed in word balloons (Jusay should really check out Wally Wood's 22 Panels That Always Work). He needs to set the scene with a little more clarity and most importantly, pull back. The biggest problem, and it's a whopper that makes the comic very difficult to read, is the stiffness of the basic action. Jusay, at lest here, doesn't seem to be able to draw anyone in movement. Every single panel of people walking in this comic is a breathtaking example of how not to draw someone walking. Characters appear to be rigidly marching, every single form an inflexible pose of someone pretending to walk, or doing the Captain Morgan pose, more reminiscent of an alien from another world trying to mimic human movement. An action scene where someone swings a guitar looks like someone simply holding out a guitar. Even a fanciful sequence of characters in flight has an odd rigidity too it.

Jusay kills it with his wonderful, clean line, his details like subway cars and City streets (likely photoref'd but that's fine), the gorgeous fashion, the faces... But the flow of the story is interrupted by rough staging and really, really bad kinesiology. As first issues go, as self-published comics go, I've seen much worse, and it's a damn good value at three bucks. But the problems with the art are unavoidable and cannot be overcome by the strength of the fairly twee story. But these problems are something that can be fixed, and hopefully he can tweak his movement in future outings.

Jusay Pulp 1 is in finer comic shops now, and available from the author's website.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

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

The Comic Pusher Presents The Run: Ex Machina Part Two

In The Run, I review long-form comic works across multiple parts. In Part Two of my series on Ex Machina by Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris, I look at the next three stories, State of Emergency, Tag, and the short story "Fortune Favors." For the other reviews in this series, click here.

State of Emergency

In State of Emergency (from the first volume of the series, The First Hundred Days), we move into the third week of Mayor Mitchell Hundred's young term with a snowstorm and an artworld controversy. A snowstorm in a City this size has long-term effects and can be a logistical nightmare for any mayor. It costs a million dollars per inch to remove the snow and mass-transit can be crippled, but the day-to-day business of the city must go forward, including dealing with public relations nightmares stoked by the City's thriving tabloid press and equally thriving cadre of lampreys who feed off the spotlight controversy affords.

Hundred is at a press conference with Police Commissioner Amy Angotti, one of the few holdovers from the prior Administration. The first time Hundred met Angotti, it was as The Great Machine. He had decided to run for Mayor and introduced himself to her by flying down and scooping her up to a roof. She reaches for a weapon and Hundred notes that guns won't work on him. She's already ahead of him though, and pulls out a nightstick and beats Hundred with it. She wants to arrest him, "You are terrorizing New York City, and you are going to get someone killed! ... I will start arming my people with fucking bows and arrows and order them to shoot on sight!" Despite saving Tower Two on 9/11 where her husband was working, she's not remotely happy to be working for Hundred now, especially considering he used his powers during the assassination attempt last issue.

Right after the press conference Hundred is called to the Brooklyn Museum, outside the prying eyes of the press and in through the service entrance. A painting, paid for by the City, is about to set off a racial furor dampened only slightly by the weather. Hundred promotes Journal Moore, his young, artsy intern, to the position of "Special Adviser of Youth Affairs" to deal with the matter. (Wylie objects, "You cannot suddenly put attractive young female interns on the payroll!" Hundred, with a sly smile: "You think she's attractive?") But to compound the problems with the weather, someone has started killing the sanitation workers who have been cleaning up the mess of the storm, and Hundred has reason to believe it is Kremlin trying to draw him out as The Great Machine.

For Hundred to accuse Kremlin of murder is a big betrayal, but its made clear that Kremlin is still obsessed with the work they did as The Great Machine, and has dropped some oblique hints to Hundred after breaking into Gracie Mansion, focusing on an old "arch nemesis." Ultimately it is Kremlin who susses out the killer, and the art problem solves itself after a fashion. State of Emergency does a good job of painting a few days in the life of the Mayor of New York while weaving in mysteries of Hundred's past and exploring the complex relationship that exists between Hundred and Kremlin & Bradbury, the "heart and brain of The Great Machine."


Tag is an explosive story arc that reveals a great deal about Hundred's superhero vigilante past while revealing even deeper questions - including the series' most complex and enduring mystery - all the while exploring sociopolitical issues that may have a nationwide impact.

The present-day story opens at the end of March, 2002 with Hundred performing his nineteenth wedding. He goes upstairs to get away from the festivities and has a minor argument with Wylie about school vouchers. The next day they agree to disagree, then Journal lets slip that Wylie's brother, an FDNY firefighter, wants to get married and wants the Mayor to perform the ceremony. Despite all the marriages for donors and political allies he has had to perform lately, he'd make the exception for Wylie's brother: "You know I promised every rescue worker I'd do whatever I could for them after... ah... What I mean is, those are the only marriages I don't mind officiating." Wylie responds, "Well, you can't do this one sir." Hundred asks, "Why the hell not?" Wylie: "Because my brother wants to marry his boyfriend." Hundred's response as presented by Harris and Vaughan is as funny as it is surprising:

Hundred often makes surprising decisions. He has no immediately definable political inclination. As he tells someone, "My mind sometimes makes tactical decisions before the rest of me." This goes a long way to showing the internal gears of how The Great Machine works, how we get this far and how we get to the inevitable end.

So he decides to start officiating gay marriages, or at least one of them, between a liberal and a Log Cabin Republican, of course. (It's Fall 2013 and there is no question about the moral, ethical, and legal righteousness of same-sex marriage - but when this was published in the Fall of 2004, the debate was still in its very nascent stages. Vaughan essentially has Hundred, in March 2002, take the same steps Gavin Newsom took in San Fransisco in March 2004.) But Hundred may be digging a political hole for himself because he is single and even some of his staff may be questioning his sexuality. Hundred clearly doesn't care what they or anyone thinks - he says his personal life is as off limits as his past as The Great Machine, a naturally ridiculous wish for any politician to have. Suzanne Padilla, the Voice journalist from the first issue, drunkenly hits on him at the story's opening marriage reception, so he asks her out on a date, a date where the press conveniently shows up. Is he asking her out to distract from his bachelorhood during a same-sex wedding controversy? Is he covering for his sexuality? Or is he really interested in Padilla? And how much of it is tactical decision making that even he doesn't know he's doing?

Tag has multiple meanings, per usual for Ex Machina, the most obvious referring to graffiti, specifically graffiti that shows up in the subways and causes a woman to stab her brain with a pen. Indeed, there's all kinds of weird going down underground, and it's connected to Hundred's past. The feds show up to handle the graffiti issue and its revealed that the symbols are similar to one Hundred found attached to the thing that blew up in his face in 1999, giving him his powers. In July of 2001, The NSA got in touch with Hundred after he outed himself. Hundred's contact with the agency was through Analyst Jackson Georges. Over the months that follow, he'd become friends with Georges and his family (his wife and young daughter). But when the terrorists began attacking in September, Georges' reality (and his sanity) began to crumble around him. Georges blames himself - and Hundred - for the intelligence failures that lead up to the attacks: "Instead of worrying about the real world, I've been playing games with you, with your shrapnel, with this sci-fi bullshit."

In Georges we get a microcosm of the sick feeling in the pit of every stomach of every intelligence official in the country, and it drove him mad. In the months that followed he would grow increasingly obsessed and paranoid, but it may be enhanced by the shrapnel from The Great Machine, a madness that may be infecting his family, and may come back around to Mitchell Hundred.

In flashbacks we're shown various governments trying to get their hands on Hundred's shrapnel, trying to unlock the mysteries of what makes The Great Machine work. At one point, Mitchell tells someone that the shrapnel actually broadcasts a song from Nirvana that was never recorded. Is it a song from the afterlife? Another world? Or is Hundred messing with us? As the story draws to a close, and all the threads come snapping together, the apparently mad ramblings of a crazed individual connected to Hundred's past may end up revealing the true face of the power behind Mitchell Hundred. Pay attention: Vaughan is telling us volumes while making us look the other way. Who is Mitchell Hundred? How did he get his powers? What is actually going on in his head? How much of him is him? The answers will be told, and the first part of the answer is here.

"Fortune Favors"

"Fortune Favors" (collected in Volume 2, Tag) is a one-shot story that is one of the weaker outings in the series. It's July 2002, and Hundred orders Agnotti to start shutting down fortune tellers across the city. Vaughan often shows off his geeky knowledge of New York City minutiae throughout Ex Machina, and one of those things is a never-enforced ordinance outlawing fortune tellers. (If we're taking stands, and why not, I agree with Hundred here - they're charlatans and con-artists who prey on the weak.) Kind of a random issue to tackle for 22 pages, but its mostly an excuse to have Hundred visit a Roma seer who may have predicted 9/11 or somesuch. She seems to predict his future, and Hundred decides to go ahead with the round-up anyway. As I've said before, there is no wasted space in Ex Machina, and what she tells Hundred may indeed come true, but not quite how she, Hundred, or indeed we may think. If the story has any redeeming factor, its the bracing opening flashback sequence. But otherwise, "Fortune Favors" is dull and slightly manipulative.

Touched upon several times through these stories is Hundred's relationship to 9/11. The subject makes him uncomfortable. As seen in "State of Emergency," he still has nightmares of that day, obviously symptomatic of post-traumatic stress, haunted by memories he doesn't want to relive. He stammers in Tag when bringing up his promise to first responders. In State of Emergency, Agnotti brings up Hundred saving Tower 2, knowing it made Hundred uncomfortable (and causing him to end the press conference early). This is in stark contrast to the scores of politicians from Giuliani to Bush and many more who gleefully attached their legacy to the September 11th attacks in the time frame of Ex Machina, using it as a cudgel to beat their opponents and a crutch to gain sympathy from their supporters. Hundred goes out of his way to avoid the disgusting political exploitation of the tragedy rampant everywhere else, despite his own genuine heroic role in the events of that day.  Maybe it's part and parcel of his efforts to separate himself from The Great Machine, to focus on the business of serving The City as Mayor. Or perhaps it is simply just another political stance in a life now dominated by political maneuvering.

Vaughan and Harris, throughout these stories, are able to capture the terror and confusion of September 11. Though the events presented take a radically different turn, the effects of that day are presented with an almost startling vividness. There are a few works of art that try to cope with 9/11, and Vaughan explores the attack and its after effects on New York in visceral, unblinking detail. He and Harris use the fiction of Ex Machina to put us in the shoes of the victims of that day and the City of New York herself like few works have.

And in the middle of all that, Vaughan and Harris are playing a long-con that we are only just getting a taste of. Harris's stuff is really phenomenal, and Vaughan is weaving a tapestry right in front of us, showing us his cards, all the while enhancing the multiple mysteries at work.
State of Emergency was serialized by DC/WildStorm in Ex Machina 2-5, and collected in Ex Machina Volume 1: The First Hundred Days (February 2005).

Tag was serialized in Ex Machina 6-10; "Fortune Favors" was published in Ex Machina 11; both are collected in Ex Machina Volume 2: Tag (September 2005).

All three stories are also collected in Ex Machina: Book One (Hardcover, June 2008; in softcover from Vertigo January 2014).

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Comic Pusher Weekend Roundup for September 27

Here's what's been happening over the past fortnight:

Here on The Comic Pusher, I examined Steranko's seminal S.H.I.E.L.D. run, and I posted my advance review of Ellen Lindner's The Black Feather Falls #1.

In last week's Wednesday Review, I wrote about Ales Kot and Michael Walsh's Zero #1 (good), Bendis and Oeming's Powers: Bureau 7 (best issue of Powers in years), and Waid and Samnee's startlingly dreadful Daredevil 31. This Wednesday I reviewed the phenomenal Sex Criminals 1 by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky, and also briefly covered about a baker's dozen of this week's new comics.

Last week marked the return of The Run to The Comic Pusher. As New York City lurches toward its first new mayor since 2001, what better time to examine Brian K. Vaughan's political NYC sci-fi masterpiece Ex Machina! The first part of my Ex Machina review series is here. The next part goes up Sunday, with new installments each weekend through the election.

On twitter, I groused about the plagiarist Roy Lichtenstein, lamented the whiteness of the S.H.I.E.L.D. teevee show, geeked out over seeing Rafael Grampa on that selfsame teevee, and marveled over the actual not-just-Captain-Haddock-swearword existence of Bashi-bazouks.

And finally, introducing The Full Index of All Comic Pusher Reviews. Sorted alphabetically, with creator info, publisher, publication date and review date, for easy reference.

Comics News and Notes

There is a Waling Dead teevee spinoff coming; Tom Spurgeon covers SPX as only he can; on the Hooded Utilitarian, Osvaldo Oyola takes a really interesting look at Killing Joke; on CBR, Brian Hibbs goes over the maths of the unsold (the scourge of the direct market); and BatDad wins parenthood.

Via tumblr, here is a stunning lost Ray Bradbury/Mike Mignola comic from NBM in 1993; on Comics Alliance, Andrew Wheeler goes over the ceaseless clusterfuckery at DC; Rick Geary's got a Kickstarter; and here's a pretty cool article on writer Kelly Sue Deconnick

And #FollowFriday, Todd Klein's wonderful blog. (LETTERING MATTERS.)

Tomato Can Blues
Not Comics

Lot's of folks have been linking to Mary Pilon's article from The New York Times, Tomato Can Blues. The article, about a cage fighter who fakes his death, is quite good. Making it better are the interactive comic illustrations by Attila Futaki that pop up as you scroll down the article. This is the latest in a series of long-form, interactive multimedia journalism from The Times inspired by their Pulitzer Prize winning interactive presentation, Snow Fall - I would also recommend last month's The Jockey.

And finally, how far away are the twin Voyager spacecraft? Exactly this far.

As always, you can follow me on Twitter @B5Jeff and on Tumblr at, Like The Comic Pusher On Facebook, and subscribe to The Comic Pusher by RSS and Email.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Wednesday Review: Bring on the Sex Criminals

Sex Criminals 1 by Matt Fraction & Chip Zdarsky
New today from Image
I hadn't the slightest clue what to expect about Sex Criminals 1 from Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky. I knew the title, that bloody genius possibly misleading title; I knew that a bunch of creators whose work I love have enjoyed the first issue; and I know Fraction and Zdarsky did a ton of interviews about it in every corner of the internet, none of which I read. Now I have a solid idea what Sex Criminals is and what I can grokk about it is brilliant-touching-sexy-cool.

Suzie tells the story of her adolescence in flashback. One horrible day in the mid-1990s, a coked out disgruntled employee marched into the bank her father worked at and randomly killed him. Losing her father at such a young and formative age would be traumatic enough. Her mother would get lost in sadness and alcohol, and so she lost her, too. And right as she was losing her parents, she began to find her sexuality. Those perfunctory changes we all go through are hard and weird and confusing enough, more so when we have no guidance or frame of reference, yet even more so when your orgasms can stop time. Actually stop the actual flow of actual time.

Suzie would find a home in libraries, and would grow up and go through the normal trials of teenagehood and adulthood and then her favorite library was about to be closed down by the bank, always the goddamn banks shitting on her life in their own way (in all our lives in their own way). So she threw a fundraiser and at the fundraiser she meets Jon, and Jon's not her first boyfriend, but there's been no-one else quite like him. And then they discover something about eachother and here the title of the comic finally comes into play on the last page. Jon and Suzie aren't sex criminals as much as (maybe) criminals who use sex as... well, you'll have to read it.

And you should read it. Zdarsky's art is pitch-perfect throughout. The sequences set in the past are whimsical and elegant and the sequences in the present are sharp and emotional. The story Fraction weaves - and especially the character work - are all frankly astonishing. He finds the balance between sexual coming of age and the depths of loss and the heights of love and being a kid and being an adult and everything in between (with possible supernatural powers thrown in, why not). What a fascinating, wholly unexpected, totally unique work. (And what better time to pick up a book called Sex Criminals than during Banned Books Week.)

FF 12, East of West 6
Also new this week, Fraction kindof sortof had FF 12, but he's largely off the book now and I was worried it wouldn't have the same pop. Those worries were unfounded, of course. Lee Allred joins Mike Allred and Laura Allred and everything is decidedly all Alright. There are a couple of really cool moments here, and Allred-cubed nail the awesome.

Just as much as Jonathan Hickman has been making game changing superhero comics in Infinity (Avengers 20 out this week), East of West 6 continues to redefine the science fiction western (if it was ever defined at all). Nick Dragotta continues to absolutely kill it with this series. Now is the time to dive into their world - pick up the first trade for ten bucks and dive in with issue six, better and cheaper than a movie.

The Wake 4 continues to be a little too silly, Unwritten 53 continues to be frustratingly uninteresting (it's main virtue being Peter Gross tackling Fables art, but the story is still falls flat), Ultimate Spider-Man 27 was fun, and Dark Horse Presents has lost its mojo. Speaking of Mojo(jojo), Powerpuff Girls 1 by Troy Little from IDW was delightful (but I'm a sucker for the PPGs), Jupiter's Legacy 3 had Frank Frickin Quitely, Young Avengers 10 was gorgeous (as usual) and fairly substantive storywise (not always usual), and Fatale 17 was the best of the '90s story so far.

Finally, Saga 14 and Mind MGMT 15 continued to be Saga and Mind MGMT, which are guarantees for quality that exist pretty much nowhere else.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Evaluating Steranko

Jim Steranko is widely regarded as a legendary figure in the history of the comic medium, despite his relatively small output in the late 1960s. But the handful of comics he did produce for Marvel proved to be wildly influential. At least that's the idea. Most of his stuff has been out of print, because as we've established, that's how Marvel rolls. Thankfully, Marvel finally reprinted his Nick Fury run a couple of weeks ago, which I finally got to enjoy. (Ignore the shitty scans that I scrounged from the internet below, the art presented in S.H.E.L.D. By Steranko: The Complete Collection is gorgeously reconstructed, modern printing able to live up to Steranko's vision.)

Who is Jim Steranko? Born during the Depression and raised as a street tough during the War, he's a former escape artist and magician that was one of the influences behind Michael Chabon's Kavalier and Clay.  He played in rock bands in the 1950s, may have invented the Go-Go Girl, and inspired several Jack Kirby creations. An inveterate raconteur that puts Mark Millar and Kanye West to shame, if you believe any of his elaborate stories told on twitter, he is in the running for actual Most Interesting Man in the World whose accomplishments wildly outstrip the fictional construction.

He swooped into Marvel in 1966 and was assigned the superspy series Nick Fury Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., at the time published as a split-book with Dr. Strange in the long-running Strange Tales. Like many new Marvel artists at the time, he began working over Jack Kirby pencils and Stan Lee and Roy Thomas scripts, but very quickly became the first at Marvel (and one of the first in the Silver Age) to write, illustrate, ink, and even color his own stories. One of mainstream comics' first true auteurs, he quickly developed his own voice, the first truly fresh voice at the House of Ideas at a time that Lee, Kirby and Ditko were already changing the face of pop culture.

After getting the gig, so much of his output is very clearly Kirby influenced, which is not remotely surprising. But Steranko would also begin to weave in and effectively distill influences from the pre-silver age art of Will Eisner and Wally Wood, the superspy sex appeal of Bond and Emma Peel, the surrealism of Salvador Dali and M.C. Escher, and the pop-art of Andy Warhol. He used Kirby's dynamism and exploded it out, into massively staged epics of visual astonishments, single page splashes to double page spreads to the first quadruple page spread, to outre photocollages and kaleidoscopic psychedelia.

The Four Page Spread. It looks way better in the new S.H.I.E.L.D. trade.
His over-the-top stories and dialog leave a little to be desired, but fit in just fine with the more ridiculous narrative excesses of the time. The real point of Steranko is his art. He wasn't the first to do the things he did, but certainly one of the best. He approached storytelling as syntheses of art and design, with innovative whole-page layouts and figures that were far sexier than anything being produced by anyone else. (The sheer sexiness of Steranko's art got him in trouble with the Comics Code on more than one occasion.) The best analog of what Steranko was doing at the end of the sixties is the art that JH Williams III has been doing since he began to redefine the mainstream in Promethea and Desolation Jones.

Steranko began illustrating the 12 page Fury stories in Strange Tales with issue 151, first over Kirby, then over his own pencils with 154. By 155 he was the full author of the Fury stories through the end of Strange Tales in 168. (About midway through Strange Tales he was assigned inkers such as Joe Sinnott, Frank Giacoia and Bill Everett, which can't hurt.) In an unprecedented move, he was given his own title, Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. in 1968.

From Strange Tales 168
The true high point of Steranko's Fury run is Strange Tales 168. Steranko had memorably wrapped up the epic, winding superspy fable he'd been weaving for multiple issues in 167 (I won't ruin the brilliant twist ending). Taking a break from the expanded story that came to include G-Man Jimmy Woo (Woo!), 168 is a surrealist sci-fi nightmare, stylish and sexy in a way that no comic had ever really been. But when Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. started, he began to lose the trappings of the Bond-like superspy stories, making Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. an almost EC-like anthology title with ghosts and dinosaurs and various un-S.H.I.E.L.D.-like trappings. That first memorable issue, a stunning, complex sci-fi spy drama wrapped in a tragic crime comic, stands the test of time better than any other Steranko narrative. But it also marks the beginning of the end for Steranko's short meteoric ascent.

There would be a fill-in on issue 4 leaving 5 as his final work with Fury. He would turn in several astonishing covers for S.H.I.E.L.D. and a few issues of Captain America shortly afterwards (as well as the seminal Steranko History of Comics), but beyond cover work throughout the 1970s and a medium-bending illustrated novel from 1976, Steranko would largely leave the world of comics behind. He exploded into the world of comics and mostly rocketed out of it by the age 30 (younger than I am now as I write this).

But regardless of Marvel's stingy reprinting of his work, Steranko's influence would have lasting impact. His work played hand-in hand with the most popular visual artists in art and film and television of the day, they feeding off his work as much as he fed of theirs. The level of impact is debatable; it's not quite to the level that Steranko plays it up to be nowadays, but that hyperbole is now part of Steranko's legend, a legend he has been stoking like a forest fire, embellishing with an evangelical zeal.

Steranko simply is Steranko, and the stories, as alternately ridiculous and divine as they are, mark a cultural and artistic turning point for the genre and the medium. Lets just hope Marvel manages to keep it in print.

Buy S.H.E.L.D. By Steranko: The Complete Collection on Amazon.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

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

The Comic Pusher Presents The Run: Ex Machina Part One, The Pilot

In The Run, I review long-form comic works across multiple parts. In Part One of my series on Ex Machina by Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris, I introduce the series and look at the first issue, "The Pilot." Click here for my other reviews in the series.

Like so many Brian K. Vaughan creations, Ex Machina is a high-concept series with an easy-to-boil down premise - per Vaughan's own pitch, The West Wing meets Unbreakable - that stratospherically outperforms whatever reductive descriptions are applied to it. With the extraordinary efforts of illustrator and co-creator Tony Harris, Ex Machina is many things: it's an expansive science fiction epic grounded in the day-to-day grind of New York City politics, a parable about the corruptive effects of political power, the cost of the quest and exercise of powers (both political and supranatural), a portrait of a City and its People in the aftermath of its greatest tragedy, a ground-up reconstruction of the very concept of superpowered vigilantism, and above all else a profound tragedy.

Published between 2004 and 2010 by DC's moribund WildStorm imprint as one of its last marquis creator-owned works, the narrative largely focuses on the first term of political wunderkind Mitchell Hundred as Mayor of the City of New York between 2002 and 2005. The series chronicles New York's actual history of that time as well as the fictional history of Hundred's rise to power that begins as the world's only unlikely superhero. (Indeed, as the series was published, it overlapped with the actual history it chronicled.) As the series progressed over its 54 issues (or ten graphic novels encompassing the story's 21 chapters of varying lengths), Ex Machina proactively touched upon the hot-button political issues of the day that frequently intersected with the New York City Mayor's office, examined the role of power and the price that quest has, told one of the few truly original modern superhero stories, and wove a unique and utterly absorbing mystery with mind-bending science fiction undertones that transformed the series' very identity and opens up even more layers of storytelling on the second readthrough.

The importance of Ex Machina for both creators is pretty significant. Harris was already well-known for his Starman comics with James Robinson, but Ex Machina would prove to be his best, and longest cohesive work. Vaughan, by this point was well regarded for his work doing superhero comics with Marvel and DC. Ex Machina, remarkably produced at the same time as Y: The Last Man for Vertigo and Runaways for Marvel showed Vaughan to be one of the brightest and most original new stars working in American comics. It is this trio of works that would make Brian K. Vaughan the writer that would co-create Saga and The Private Eye.

There are just a small handful long-form comic works from the previous decade that so fiercely capture the confusing and frightening sociopolitical aftermath of the September 11 attacks on the American identity, none as magnificently as Ex Machina. With Garth Ennis's Punisher Max, it is one of the two definitive works of the 2000's that question the role of power in our lives, a fiery masterpiece unequaled in its numerous literary achievements as a political drama and a piece of post-superhero science fiction commentary. As New York City approaches its municipal elections this November and its first new mayor since the aftermath of 9/11, I will be examining Ex Machina, sequentially over several weeks followed by analysis of its many themes. Ex Machina is a nuanced, complex and multilayered masterwork of contemporary American literature that merits close examination and multiple reads, and we begin with its extraordinary first chapter, "The Pilot."

Ex Machina's opening pages take place after the events of the series have concluded. On page one we see an image of a man in a sci-fi gee-wiz rocket-suit, and an airplane sharing the clear, blue sky with that man. We pull back to see that image on a wall in front of a man, scarred and alone, drinking in the dark. Talking directly to us, he references the image and the effects on history of what is depicted there. "This is the story of my four years in office, from the beginning of 2002 through godforsaken 2005. It may look like a comic, but it's really a tragedy."

The story begins to jump around in time. It's November, 1976, and the man, Mitchell Hundred, is a young boy reading superhero comics while his mom runs a polling station. Kremlin, a craggly Russian emigre who works out at Coney Island, shows up to take the kid off his mom's hands. Kremlin is a surrogate father to Mitchell, and one of the most important people in his life... It's January, 2002, and Hundred is at a press conference, Mayor of New York, talking about small-town political minutiae that even the mayor of this massive, shining Metropolis must endure. A cry rings out, an irrational sounding accusation from a man with a gun. Hundred speaks, not the voice of a man but of something else, something very other: "JAM." And the gun jams, and the police take down the would-be assassin. Hundred's chief of security and his best friend, Rick Bradbury is angry at Hundred for using his powers - but even more furious when a reporter for The Village Voice sneaks into the escaping motorcade... It's October, 1999, and Hundred is a civil engineer, investigating a strange glow coming from the Brooklyn Bridge with NYPD marine patrol officer Bradbury. There is an explosion - half of Hundred's face is blown off. He screams at Bradbury, "Your radio is talking to me. The engine, your wristwatch, the entire City! Tell them to shut up!" In agony he screams, "SHUT UP!" and New York goes black... It's February, 2000, and Hundred sits in a workshop with Kremlin, unemployed and making machines, the designs for which come to him in his dreams... Months later, Hundred is flying around New York with a jet-pack as The Great Machine, plucking a skylark off off the 9 train, only succeeding at injuring the kid he meant to save and shutting down the subway system for hours... It's June, 2001, and Hundred's a notorious if somewhat dubious superhero, revealing his identity in the offices of the City Councilman who would become his Deputy Mayor, the smart and skilled Dave Wylie. Wylie knows Hundred is more likely to simply end up in prison instead of Gracie Mansion, but is swayed by Hundred's seeming earnestness, independent streak and potential celebrity...

Throughout these vignettes are effortlessly interlaced sequences taking place in the present day of January, 2002. Despite the assassination attempt, Hundred is more concerned with getting to the grind of running the City. There's controversy about a proposed smoking ban (Hundred is against it even though his staff is for it), he's just gotten a package from Kremlin (his old flight helmet), and someone from the Governor's office wants to meet him (with ulterior motives). The issue closes with Hundred meeting Kremlin in the shadow of Ground Zero, the wreckage of the World Trade Center still being cleaned up nearby. Hundred is returning the pieces of The Great Machine. He's left that part of his life behind, but Kremlin won't let it go. "I've done more in one hour at City Hall than The Great Machine did in a month." Kremlin objects, "How many more lives would have been lost if you had not put this on one last time?" Hundred, looking away, replies "No, I was a failure. If I were a real hero...
Everything that Vaughan and Harris will come to achieve in the years following the premier issue can be found reflected and brilliantly foreshadowed in that first issue. There is not a single action - not one panel of art or line of dialog - that is out of place or that won't have seismic consequences in the years and chapters to come. Evident are all the elements that would come to define the series: Hundred's independent political voice and his upbringing marked by political activism and superhero comics, the minor and major crises that arise daily in the Mayor's office, his role as a superhero of dubious stature, the relationships and traits of the main cast of characters, the overarching mystery of the source of Hundred's powers, the setting and history of post-9/11 New York City and Hundred's profound impact on that history, and even the series' frequent use of misdirection and wordplay. In a modern tradition of long-form (fifty or sixty issue) stories, in Ex Machina Vaughan reveals himself to be a storyteller of uncommon vision and skill.

Examples of Vaughan and Harris's intricate storytelling.
Ex Machina has two notable storytelling trademarks immediately evident from its first chapter: Vaughan's complex nonlinear narrative, and Harris's vivid photo-referenced art. The issue opens after the conclusion of the series' narrative, and jumps around in time between the present of Hundred's mayoralty beginning in 2002, multiple looks at his career as an erstwhile superhero from 2000-2001, his origin in 1999, and his childhood in the 1970s. Vaughan effortlessly weaves in and out of these seemingly disparate narratives and connects them into a brilliant and subtle superstructure.

Harris's art is vivid and expressive. Using extensive casting and photographic referencing, Harris produces dynamic set-pieces without ever falling into the traps of formal stiffness that so many photoref'ed artists fall to. Aided by the bold lines of inker Tom Feister and the masterful coloring of JD Mettler, Harris skillfully bounces between long stretches of character dialog and short bursts of explosive action.

In the past I have often described Ex Machina as "incidentally a superhero comic." Ultimately, Ex Machina, despite its high concept, is not a book that is inclusive or exclusive of the many genres it comfortably flirts with. It's nature as a superhero work is vital to the book's identity - Mitchell Hundred is superpowered, with the ability to communicate with electronics and even simple machines. But the way the series approaches the idea of superheroism is unique. By anchoring the events of the comic in the real world, or as close a facsimile as this reasonably can be called, the approach to vigilante justice done with an eye to the logical implications of such a being interacting in the world. It is immediately evident that Hundred is well-meaning but more often than not is a bumbling fool who occasionally just gets in the way rather than being the hero of his superhero comic reading youth. The shocking twist that he stopped the second plane on September 11 and parlayed that genuine heroic effort into political gain is something that will be touched upon at greater length as the series moves forward to its brilliantly foreshadowed tragic conclusion.

It is the tragedy Hundred straight-out tells us about on page two that is almost never referenced, which is part of the series' genius misdirection. It isn't forgotten about, the business of running the City just takes center stage. But after the series concludes, the shockingly subtle foreshadowing at work in this issue and throughout the entire series adds layers to the storytelling that cannot be guessed looking at these thirty pages. As a stand-alone work, Ex Machina #1, "The Pilot" - a triple meaning referring to Mitchell Hundred the character, self-referentially to the first episode of a series, and to something else yet to be revealed - is a nearly perfect comic that adeptly introduces the cast, the past, and the conflict going forward. But within the context of what will ultimately follow, "The Pilot" is a breathtaking, flawless, visionary comic, a stunning masterpiece and an auspicious beginning to one of the finest long-form comic stories ever told.

Ex Machina #1, "The Pilot" (DC/WildStorm, June 2004) is collected in Ex Machina Volume 1: The First Hundred Days (February 2005) and in Ex Machina: Book One (Hardcover, June 2008; in softcover January 2014 from Vertigo)

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Wednesday Review: Moebius in the Year of Chaykin

Powers: Bureau 7, Daredevil 31. Please judge these books by their covers.
Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming's Powers is often wildly uneven. The series often falters when Bendis and Oeming go into world-building or epic all-out event-style superhero spaff, and it works best when it embraces its procedural, street level roots. (Coming out regularly helps, too.) Powers: Bureau 7 is a one-shot focusing on a Madrox (or, sure, Dupli-Kate) style multiplier whose dupes keep on ending up dead. Bendis doesn't get (too) out of control with his dialog and Oeming reins in his often unnecessary blank space; the story plows forward a little too quickly, but that doesn't take away from the overall quality in what is the best issue of this series in many years. 

Mark Waid and Chris Samnee's Daredevil has been consistently superb, thus the mild shock from the colossal missteps in this week's issue 31. After a hamfisted Foggy/cancer sequence, the issue quickly cuts to Matt and associates watching the news for a controversial verdict. See, a racist white woman killed an unarmed black teen and the case has been the center of a media firestorm. The verdict comes down as not guilty. (This is a transparent ripped-from-the-headlines mirror of the Trevon Martin case.) Things take a turn when The Jester (of all people) hacks the live feed of the post-trial press conference of the (black) District Attorney to make it appear as if the D.A. wants everyone in New York to hunt down the jurors who miscarriaged justice. And of course the city erupts in violence and riot. Waid assumes the worst of New Yorkers of all races, here, and of humanity in general. The solution to the riots, involving Daredevil getting Ant-Man to seed the clouds to make it rain, is as as dumb as the entire setup is offensive. Samnee's usually delightful art is dragged into the gutters by Waid's almost obscenely stupid story. The issue is clunky and exploitave, an unnecessary excersise in misplaced topicality, and a pretty bad comic by any measure.

Zero 1's three covers.
I'm still warming up to Ales Kot's comics, I guess. Wild Children was a little too explicitly Grant Morrisonesque and I couldn't stick with Change beyond the incomprehensible first issue. Thankfully, today's new Zero #1 with artist Michael Walsh is much more approachable while being no less high-concept than his earlier stuff. After a killer opening sequence we flash back to 2018 where the eponymous Agent Zero is in Gaza neck-deep in the middle of all-out war between Israel and Hamas. Each side has unexpectedly developed supersoldiers and each side's soldier is beating the holy living hell out of the other. Zero's mission is to grab the tech for (apparently) England before anyone else gets their hands on it (and without anyone noticing). What ensues is a brutal and dirty fight between the supersoldiers with Zero on their tails caring only about achieving his objective. Walsh's art is completely in the vein of the expressive, minimalist, Mazzucchellian trend spearheaded elsewhere by Aja, Samnee, Pulido, Leon and the like, which is helped even more by Jordie Belaire's superb, muted color pallete. Zero is Kot's best comic yet, down and dirty high sci-fi war and badass spycraft.

I've been saying for a while that this is the year of Gilbert Hernandez, but it might also be fair to say its the year of Howard Chaykin. Satellite Sam is one of the year's best books, he's also doing an out-of-the-blue Buck Rogers series (the first issue of which was entertaining in the Ennis reboot mold), and today Image released Century West, his western graphic novella originally produced for the European comic market. The year of Chaykin, perhaps?

But the biggest release this week/month is Madwoman of the Sacred Heart by Moebius and Alejandro Jodorowsky. This isn't one of the Jodoverse sci-fi works like Incal but a good ole fashioned Eurocomic erotic thriller. This is one of the few Moebius works now available in English, and each time any of his work comes back into print there should be parades down Fifth Avenue and exhibitions at The Met. This is MOEBIUS. Madwoman reprints all three albums of the 1990s Crowned Heart stories in yet another gorgeous hardcover presentation from Humanoids.

Also good this week is the still-pretty-amazing Infinity by Hickman and his talented crew of top flight artists (in New Avengers 10 and Infinity 3). I'm loving this damn comic event thing, and Hickman is blowing up everyone's spot showing the mainstream superhero world how an event should be done. Meanwhile Bendis over-Bendises on Battle of the Atom (in Uncanny X-Men 12), but thankfully there's Chris Bachalo on art. And DC continues to put out more pointless plastic trash than the Pacific garbage gyre.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Advance Review: The Black Feather Falls by Ellen Lindner

The Black Feather Falls #1 by Ellen Lindner
Soaring Penguin Press/ACT-I-VATE, 2013
Ellen Lindner, NYC-based author of The Undertow and editor of The Strumpet anthology, will be releasing the first issue of her new 1920s murder mystery The Black Feather Falls next month to comic stores in the UK.

The comic opens, first-person, with American Tina Swift swigging from a flask in Cairo, reminiscing. We flash back to her time in postwar London working as a shopgirl in a nice part of town. She finds herself investigating the circumstances behind a mysterious death of a man found right outside her door. Part of her motivation is that the murdered man was one of the masses of war veterans forced to live homeless, unthanked, a death that the police aren't too keen on caring about. She goes to the offices of a newspaper editor, Mr. Pertwee, who seemed to promise her a job but flaked out on her. Pertwee is a no-show, but Pertwee's secretary, Ms. McInteer takes an interest and eventually Swift and McInteer agree to investigate the case.

The comic seems to start off promisingly as a slightly hardboiled period mystery but the overall execution doesn't quite hold together. Black Feather Falls is in the long tradition of the amateur detective, but the actual nuts and bolts of Swift's investigation are far too transparent. The minor story turns that drive the duo forward - the far-too coincidental connection between the victim and the absent Pertwee, or very conveniently running into someone who has a unique sweater that a friend of Swift's just happens to know about - it's all too neat, all too d.e.m.-y. I do like the setting, and the view of the recent Great War that still hurts like an open wound. And I really like Lindner's visual style (check out a few pages below). But I just don't think the art style really jives with the attempted tone of the story, nor that the tone consistently holds up.

Maybe when the story is finished I could be moved to recommend it, but the first chapter presented here is just too perfunctory and sloppily constructed. Perhaps if Lindner produced this as a graphic novel with the pacing such affords, she could have avoided the narrative traps she sets for herself here. But as a piece of serialized fiction, it just doesn't work.

Lindner debuted The Black Feather Falls 1 this weekend at SPX, and it can be read online at ACT-I-VATE. The print comic will be released in the United Kingdom from Soaring Penguin Press and in the United States direct from the author at on October 22.

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Comic Pusher Weekend Roundup for September 13

This week on The Comic Pusher I posted my advance review of the Marvel OGN Avengers: Endless Wartime by Warren Ellis and Mike McKone, as far as I can tell the first review for the book posted online. In the Wednesday Review for September 11 I looked at Resident Alien, Prophet, Avengers, East of West and a bunch more. And I posted Commentary on The Cost of Intervention, Via Mike Baron & Steve Rude's Nexus.

Finally, in On Fiction, Briefly, I reposted an essay from the writer Christel Pond and pointed out a lengthy comment of mine from a Hooded Utilitarian thread.

Comics News and Notes

This eye-opening overview of creative turmoil at DC over the past two years has been posted all over the place, for good reason. Dynamite is apparently ripping off IDW's Artist Editions with their new line of Art Editions. If it has the same production values as IDW's extraordinary full-art collections, more power to them, I guess. Marvel announces another Marvel Now initiative replete with pointless and ridiculous renumbering schemes.

Very cool: Ryan North, Shelli Paroline and Braden Lamb - the team behind the Adventure Time comic - will have a new book from the new Boom! Box imprint, Midas Flesh. Comics Alliance interviewed North about the project.

And you can now follow The Comic Pusher on Tumblr at

Not Comics

Conan O'Brien celebrates 20 years on the air Friday. I have been a loyal fan of O'Brien's irreverent humor since about 1996, and his work is probably the second most important creative influence in my life after J. Michael Straczynski's. Congrats to Conan, Andy, and the entire crew behind Team Coco on the well-deserved milestone. Here's to twenty more.

The Annals of Improbable Research awarded the 2013 Ig Nobel Prizes, Voyager 1 left the solar system, and The New York Times published an article tracking the Boston Red Sox's success through the lens of the history beards.


As always, you can follow me on Twitter @B5Jeff, Like The Comic Pusher On Facebook, and subscribe to The Comic Pusher by RSS and Email.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Commentary: The Cost of Intervention, Via Baron & Rude's Nexus

Nexus is a being of great power. He dreams of mass murderers, then goes out and executes them. He is wanted throughout the galaxy for his executions.

His dreams compel him to Alpha C, Planet Darius. The planet's ruler, the Warlord, prepares his speech while his audience laments the non-elite, the inhabitants of The Flatlands, "the uneducated, avaricious, diseases-ridden pox." And then Nexus breaks through the doors...

(Open in new tab for bigger.)

Down below, Nexus saves a young rebel boy from the violence breaking out at the Warlord's death.

Despite assassinating the Warlord, but he will not get involved in their civil war. Nexus agrees to take the boy's family with him to his homeworld, but no more. The rebels have a different idea, though...

The consequences of intervention, Nexus drawn down into war, war begetting war begetting war.

"I am in another war."

Then things spin out of control.

The entire planet at war. "The rebels have unexpected weapons. No clear end in sight. No clear end."

Excerpted from Nexus 31, "Flatlands" written by Mike Baron, illustrated by Gerald Forton, published by First Comics (1987). Created by Baron & Steve Rude, available in Nexus Omnibus Volume 3 from Dark Horse (2013).

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Wesdnesday Review: Worlds, Worlds, Worlds

Happy Wednesday - this week, some of the year's best, all wonderful science-fiction at that.

Resident Alien 2: Suicide Blonde #1 (Dark Horse)
Harry, the doctor of the small town of Patience, is looking at the body of a young woman lying dead in her own filth in a hotel room, an apparent suicide. Harry is assisting the police in their investigation - he helped catch a murderer once before, and as the town's only doctor he also doubles as a forensic expert, of sorts. But there's more going on, and what appears to be a suicide may be a murder. And the girl, a unknown stranger in this small town, may have connections to the mayor. As Harry looks at her body, we get his narration that opens the issue: "There are less than a million inhabited worlds in the known Universe. Life is so rare, so precious..."

Resident Alien 2: Suicide Blonde #1 marks the return of Harry Vanderspiegel, one of comics' best and most compelling new characters. (Confusingly, this is the second part of the story after the initial chapter serialized in Dark Horse Presents, but you can dive in here.) Harry is a stranded extra-terrestrial, roped into being the doctor of a small town. He uses telepathy to mask his appearance, and his powers help him in his reluctant investigation. He knows the girl is not a suicide, that she was pregnant, and that the Mayor, despite his connection to this stranger, is not responsible. With his firebrand assistant, they go off to Seattle to follow a lead, all the while in the background the U.S. Government tightens its dragnet following their own leads in search for this stranger, far from home. Once again, Peter Hogan and Steve Parkhouse deliver a fine, even elegant murder mystery noir with a subtle sci-fi bent grounded in wonderfully executed straightforward character drama. What a fantastic comic.

Prophet 39 (Image)
Most of the time - well, all of the time, who am I kidding - I haven't the foggiest idea what the hell is happening in Brandon Graham, Simon Roy, and Giannis Milonogiannis's Prophet. I just know that I always like it. It's always a profoundly weird, often almost hallucinogenic science fiction somethingorother loosely based on, of all things, Rob Liefeld's stuff. (Whatever.) Today's Prophet 39 puts whatever overarching story they've been doing to the side (not that I would have noticed) and goes for a multimillennium chronicle of one of the Prophets (the ten thousand year old Diehard) in an astonishing jam-issue one-shot featuring a dozen great alt-creators smashing our brains against the wall. In twenty pages Graham and crew look at episodes from Diehard's truly epic life as friends die and empires fall and loves are found and lost and Diehard lives a hundred lives. Wow. And how. A veritable masterpiece of concise psychedelic scientification, if we fire something into space as a final ark with examples of the comic artform on it as the Earth is crumbling around us, this should be on that boat.

Oh, and they throw in Graham's script and breakdowns in the back, just in case it wasn't already awesome enough.

Avengers 19 (Marvel), Manhattan Projects 14 and East of West Volume 1 (Image)
Jonathan Hickman's big ole Marvel superhero event thing Infinity continues, this chapter in Avengers 19 with Lenil Yu. We're back in space splitting time between the captured Captain Marvel and crew and Captain America pow-wowing with the Galactic Council. This issue is all tension and plot, an expansive space opera written in conversation and betrayal. There's a lot of dialog in this issue, and sparse but explosive action, but it never gets bogged down thanks to Hickman and Yu's superb execution. We learn a ton about the Builders and their motivations, and Captain Marvel, even in captivity, shines. Everyone wonders aloud what the hell makes those bloody humans so special and then shit hits the fan in the (slightly silly, sure) final panel  Hickman is effortlessly juggling a lot of storylines in Infinity, between way outer space and Earth drama, and each chapter nicely ups the stakes and moves the whole enterprise forward.

Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra's Manhattan Projects 14 came out today, as well. A most different kind of sci-fi nigh-on space opera, Kennedy's other shoe drops as the various Manhattan Projects come under Oppenheimer's noose. But even cooler, just to outdo himself, the first trade paperback of Hickman and Nick Dragotta's East of West came out today, and it's really one of the best comics of the year. About the Four Horsemen, a conspiracy, and a tripped out sci-fi western alternate history America, East of West is stylish and completely riveting, and worth thrice the price at just ten bucks.

Also worth checking out this week: Sidekick 2 from Joe's Comics was some more vicious fun playing with the whole sidekick idea, Walking Dead 114 nicely sets up Skybound's functional equivalent of an event for next month, Jeff Smith's superb dimension hopping noir thriller RASL came out in a glorious full-color hardcover omnibus, and Marvel finally put back into print the inimitable Jim STERANKO's complete seminal Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. run.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

On Fiction, Briefly

The writer Christel Pond, a talented memoir-essayist (and also my sister for you full-disclosure wonks out there) posted a brief, elegant little essay on the role of fiction in our lives that I feel is worth sharing:
What is it about our favorite shows and novels that tangles us up in the stories of people and places that don't even exist? Is it simply because it is an escape from our own reality? Or is it because for a moment, that fictional character pulled a truth out of us that we cannot express and played it out for the entire world to see, revealing our secrets in their own lives, freeing us, liberating us, if even in an unseen way? Is it that we find a connection with them, a faith among them, our imaginations mingling with their worlds in an almost mirrored way? Are we ourselves with them? Or are we who we wish we were?

These worlds, these people, these stories... none of them are real. But they are our link to forever, to the words we cannot find and the voices we cannot allow to escape. They are our escape from the present, and our push to the future, breathing life into an empty part of ourselves that often goes unseen. Life is tumultuous, but we survive. But their lives... well, their lives are up and down and sideways and inside out and backwards and completely unbelievable. And somehow, despite all they experience and feel and see, they keep going. They are the teachers we look up to. Because if they can do it in their impossible worlds and impossible lives, we can do it... right?

Don't be afraid to lose yourself in a story, in a character, in a view of an alternate reality. It is through this walks of imaginary places we find comfort and strength to forge on in our own realities. These trips down fantasy road gives us a much needed break from our own lives, our own worlds. Whether it be through words on a page or pictures on a screen, these are the epitome of a treasured escape. For a moment, live among them, feel with them, be them. Then close the book, shut off the tv, and tackle your life with the same endless vigor and strength of the make-believe people you have come to admire...
Somewhat related...

The power that fiction has on our lives can be immeasurable, as are the connections to those characters and settings we love. Over at Hooded Utilitarian RM Rhodes questions fans who complain about recent editorial and creative clusterfuckery at the Big Two. The discussion that follows on the comment thread goes into greater depth.  My own thoughts from the thread lean towards embracing both the complainers and those who explain the alternatives, especially those in Direct Market Retail best positioned to guide those wayward sons and daughters. More here.

Finally, apropos of nothing, you can now follow The Comic Pusher on Tumblr, if that's your thing. Check it out at

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Advance Review: Avengers: Endless Wartime by Warren Ellis and Mike McKone

Avengers: Endless Wartime
By Warren Ellis and Mike McKone
Marvel Comics, October 2013
Avengers: Endless Wartime, coming this October, is Marvel's first genuine go at capitalizing on the original graphic novel market that has otherwise passed them by. Marvel has tried OGNs in the past, namely the Season One graphic novels which retold various characters' origins, to absolutely no avail. Endless Wartime is clearly meant to capitalize on the crossover popularity of the Avengers franchise while telling a story set solidly in the 616 Marvel Universe, an in-continuity superhero OGN for the casual bookstore crowd. Sadly, the book is a complete dud.

With the surfeit of superhero material out there from the Big Two, surprisingly little is as pure graphic novels. Of course there are plenty of serialized stories that are collected as graphic novels (or trade paperbacks or what have you), but long form, non-serialized superhero graphic novels are few and far between. DC Comics made a huge splash with J. Michael Straczynski's Superman Earth One graphic novels, a critical and commercial success among superhero fans and general audiences alike. The qualities of the work by Straczynski and artist Shane Davis in their modern retelling of the Man of Steel's origin, as well as the unique pacing afforded to an OGN - where you don't have a forced story beat or cliffhanger every 22 pages or so - gave the book a decidedly fresh feel not replicated anywhere else in the mainstream. Marvel's Season One books were their transparent attempt at replicating Earth One's success, which is perhaps why they failed; trying to copy something jusy leaves you with a bad copy. Avengers: Endless Wartime, written by Warren Ellis and illustrated by Mike McKone, is but the first in a wave of "Marvel OGN" branded original graphic novels that take a decidedly different approach, featuring acclaimed creators tackling A-List properties telling accessible superhero stories in OGN format within the Marvel Universe proper.

And Endless Wartime certainly accomplishes most of this. The strengths in the work jump out right away. I have been highly critical of Marvel's graphic novel/collection program in the past, not just in terms of back catalog availability but also factors like production design. Often with Marvel's product, collections are just dumped into the market with little regard for the overall visual feel and long term viability of the finished product. DC is not much better. With the exception of writer/designer Jonathan Hickman's extraordinary work and the valiant efforts of the overworked and underfunded in-house design department, Marvel's cheap and quick ethos usually shows most in their collected editions. This is not the case with Endless Wartime, which features original production design from the prodigiously talented artist/designer Rian Hughes. Hughes' work designing a complete package - sleek, modern, and attractive - really makes the work jump out. So many original graphic novels outside the mainstream are complete productions where every facet outside just the cover and story matter, and Endless Wartime is the first Marvel book (aside from Hickman's) to accomplish this feel. And the qualities of Warren Ellis and Mike McKone as creators cannot be understated, and it is vital to have big guns on a work like this. I just wish the finished product reflected each creator's track record.

Colonel Carol Danvers, Captain Friggin' Marvel!
I've been on a bit of a Warren Ellis kick lately. (I am a huge fan of his usually amazing work across so many different genres.) I just read DC's new releases of his seminal Stormwatch/Authority output, a few months ago I reread his and John Cassaday's masterpiece Planetary, I just finally finished buying all the Transmetropolitan trades, and am about to finish rereading his wonderful Global Frequency. His Secret Avengers run from a couple of years ago and Nextwave with Stuart Immonen are some of my all-time favorite Marvel books. And so on, and so on. But Endless Wartime falls short by the two measures most important to a book like this, both as a stand-alone work and as a book set within the Marvel Universe.

The book has a promising opening with guerrilla mercenaries trying to destabilize a U.S.-friendly third world regime bitching about drone attacks ruining their warmongering. They manage to shoot down a newfangled sci-fi drone replete with US Air Force markings and alert the press. Captain America is watching this on teevee with Iron Man, Captain Marvel (Carol Danvers, hell yes), Hawkeye, Wolverine and Black Widow. After some research, he makes the connection to old Nazi voodoo in Scandinavia and Thor shows up connecting it to his old battles against some dragon worm thing that used to feed on the World Tree. Thor's pissed, Cap's pissed, and the Assembled Avengers hop in the Quinjet and go off to collect the drone. But they run into a bunch of living weapons; pieces of this evil Norse creature have been melded with U.S. weaponry into semi-autonomous artificially intelligent drones by a shady contractor and used for American geopolitical purposes. They double back to New York where the rest of these things are being staged and much battling ensues.

It's clear Endless Wartime is trying to have sly back-door commentary about the use of American power abroad, but the whole thing is just silly and falls flat. A ballsier move would be to explore the implications from the war torn opening pages, but instead the villainy is shunted off to closet Norse/Cthulhu Nazi changlings running megacorp military contractors manipulating back-door S.H.I.E.L.D. ops. Although S.H.I.E.L.D. is made to be the kindof-big-bads, the corruption really isn't governmental, it isn't corporate, it isn't military, it isn't even strictly human. Which isn't a problem in itself, it just doesn't work.

Warren Ellis has shown himself very adept at setting up and solving conflicts in short spaces - the aforementioned Global Frequency and Secret Avengers, for instance. And he nails the different pacing needed for an OGN. He does a fairly competent job of introducing each of the different characters, establishing their personalities and power sets. Each character has a moment to shine and more than a few one-liners. But the overall execution lacks. The monsters are dull, the motivations behind their use are tired. Even worse, the character interactions just get repetitive. Clint calls Steve an old man, Steve feels like a Man out of Time, Tony jokes about being rich and about the weird combination of shit they're battling, Tony's suit breaks down, Logan's gruff, Widow's badass, everyone rags on Clint, Clint can't fly the plane, then repeat all of this two or three times. And Ellis's cynical charm just breaks down into annoying verbal repetition with each character talking with the same undifferentiated attitude in the same insufferable way that Brian Michael Bendis far too often lurches towards where his characters all talk like Peter Parker (or perhaps Abumrad and Krulwich). As a self-contained, original work, Endless Wartime is tiresome and monotonous.

Marvel's preview... uh...  "motion comic" video thing, of Endless Wartime

Another gauge of the book's quality is how it works as a Marvel Universe book. Now, if Marvel is solely aiming for the non-cape comic crowd, it probably doesn't matter how the characters are presented. But the book is being marketed and presented as a Marvel Universe book - this is not the "Movie Avengers," after all, but the actual honest-to-goodness Avengers Avengers (Wolverine! Captain Marvel!). So it is important to apply additional judgement as such, within the confines of a shared superhero universe using characters established by years of storytelling. I'm less concerned about the dirty c-word - continuity - than established interpersonal dynamics which don't hold up to what we know of these characters. Wolverine, otherwise wonderfully presented never in-costume, is on edge and constantly whining about how he's a killer who's willing to do the dirty work and how Captain America and Thor are always on his case when they are never really on his case here. This ignores the long and respectful (if sometimes grudging) relationship with Steve Rogers, and makes him seem petulant, sticking it to Thor and Cap in some weird backhanded way. The characterization is just nonsense. And Bruce Banner, when he finally shows up, is presented as having no control over his Hulk powers. Ridiculously, Hulk apparently pops up on some silly schedule that the Avengers have to rush against. Bruce constantly, constantly talking about the Other Guy, the Other Guy being on some kind of schedule, and then crying when the Other Guy kills some mindless bioweapons is just dumb. Really, really dumb.

The failings of the story cannot help but hurt the art. To be fair, Mike McKone does a fine job with what he's given, but what he's given is visually dull, the monsters and villains and staging uninteresting at best. He nails the money shots: Hulk hulks, Captain Marvel shows, Thor throws (including a cool hammer/shield combo I don't think we've seen in an Avengers comic before). But when the story is as tired as this it takes some pretty magical visual astonishments to pull the story above its script and that just doesn't happen here. The muddy coloring certainly doesn't help either.

In contrast to their biggest competitor in DC, Marvel has a track record of taking risks in their creator-driven storytelling. And in contrast to DC, Marvel tends to be gutless and restrictive with their collected editions. Avengers: Endless Wartime flips the dynamic by telling a DC-mediocre story in a ballsy OGN release. Indeed, in an unusual step for a mainstream superhero comic, the book will be released globally - in comic stores and book stores domestically and in various international markets - on the same day, October 2. The look of the overall package and its very nature will certainly garner the book much attention. But Endless Wartime's middling, lackluster execution sadly does not match the Marvel OGN project's grand ambitions.