What I’m Reading 0010: 8/30/13

Welcome to the final August edition of What I’m Reading! This week features quite a few comics whose stories are ending, or in the case of Thor: God of Thunder, featuring an epilogue to the recently-wrapped story. All this so the companies can get a move on ahead with Fall’s bunch of books and pave the way for next year’s offerings. It’s almost like the movies: summer has the big explosive tentpole CGI flicks, while the Fall, with its lead-up to the holidays, gives us more cerebral fare. Generally speaking. Then again, we still have one last big ol’ X-Men X-over to get out of the way in “Battle of the Atom,” DC’s Forever Evil villainpalooza, and the ongoing space opera that is Infinity, so that comparison maybe doesn’t hold up so well. Screw it. This is comics. Rules be damned! Let’s get down to this week’s batch o’ goods!

1. The Massive #13 (Dark Horse, W: Brian Wood, A: Garry Brown). Here’s a comic that’s been in my peripherals for awhile now, but it took Wood’s successful X-Men turn for me to finally relent and check the damn thing out. Like his previous Vertigo odyssey DMZ, this book takes place in the near future, in a United States radically transformed. But instead of DMZ‘s civil war being the catalyst for change, in the world of The Massive, assorted natural disasters have left America with roughly 15% of its land mass underwater, including most of the Eastern Seaboard. I tried to find a little more backstory for what preceded this issue, but surprisingly, both the Dark Horse website and the book’s wiki were extremely low on details (they were actually nonexistent in the website’s case). So forgive me if it sounds like I’m winging it a bit here, as I had to cobble the backstory together from the issue itself, which was only marginally helpful. The comic follows the crew of the ship Kapital as they attempt to navigate the vastly changed sub-aquatic landscape of New York City while trying to find their sister ship the Massive, which is obviously where the comic gets its name. In this particular issue, a former crewmate has stolen a nuclear sub, and for all intents and purposes is joyriding around the sunken ruins of NYC. The crew of the Kapital are determined to get it back before the lunatic who stole it does what lunatics do and fires off a nuke. However, just as they find the sub and are preparing to enter the city, the US navy shows up to stop them before they violate the US’s “no trespassing” signs. Similar to the aforementioned DMZ, Brian Wood has created a detailed, intricate world in which he slowly paints a larger picture with expository texts that sound like news reports: “On July 9, the year of the Crash, the entire Eastern Seaboard lost power. It’s not been restored. Subduction in the mid-Atlantic and Appalachian Mountain tectonic plate convergent zones caused damage impossible to mitigate, or in some cases, even to live with. In short, the earth settled into the mantle. The sea rose to complete the job. From the Carolinas to the eastern provinces and inland to I-95, the earth itself is completely compromised. The economic nerve center of the hemisphere, Manhattan, was abandoned fourteen days after the event. The government of the United States of America was relocated to high ground in Denver, Colorado.” And there are three more pages just like that throughout the issue, giving a true feel for the climate and geography for the situation now that nature has turned against us. I’ll need to read more to see if this book holds up on its own or if Wood’s just repeating his DMZ work, but as far as random introductory issues go for a comic that seems to hold a lot of promise, you could do much worse. Score: 7/10.

2. Lazarus #3 (Image, W: Greg Rucka, A: Michael Lark). Forever Carlysle’s journey into the Family Morray’s territory continues here, as her secret mission brings her immediately into her opposite number, Joacquim. Joacquim is not at all as expected, i.e. Forever With Boy Parts. He’s cool, confident, unafraid to assume command of a situation, but most importantly, he’s more comfortable with displaying his emotions than Forever. When they meet, it’s not as rivals or enemies, as you might assume, but rather almost as former schoolmates who haven’t seen one another since childhood and are impressed to see how each other have grown up. When the time comes for Forever to meet with the head of the Morray family to issue a new set of peace accords, the mood takes on a stately, Francis Ford Coppola feel, as these two characters who are ostensibly enemies meet on common terms. The entire scene seems to be holding its breath, as opposed to the previous scene’s easy camaraderie. Terms are met, and all seems to be going well until the last page, which I’m loath to spoil. This issue is a master class in taking expectations and subverting them, along with subtle characterization. Without any frivolous exposition, we immediately gain a deeper knowledge of who Forever is, who her siblings are (who continue to both scheme and fuck behind the scenes), and how the Morray and Carlysle families interact and regard one another simply through the virtue of their acts, words, and responses. Character work and plotting like this shows that Greg Rucka holds a deep understanding for sequential storytelling and how it can manipulate the characterization for the reader, rather than lazily conveying information to the reader via outdated and clunky text boxes. For anyone looking for the comics equivalent to the maturity of an HBO original series, I cannot recommend this comic highly enough. Score: 9/10.

3. Captain America #10 (Marvel, W: Rick Remender, A: John Romita Jr.). The Dimension Z opus finally comes to a close, and holy shit, what close it is! Rick Remender pulls out all the stops and (along with the previous two issues) more than makes up for the serious sagging this story took in the middle (roughly issues 4-7). Cap’s desperate attempt to return home takes an unexpected, tragic turn (nope, not spoiling), a TRUE final battle with Zola turns epic in scale pretty damn quick, and all the while, the pace simply doesn’t relent. I can’t say enough good about this issue. The set up for the next story is awesome in its obvious simplicity, and the word-for-word perfect epilogue guarantees we haven’t seen the last of Dimension Z. Romita Jr. is doing some of the best work of his career, and despite having three different inkers this issue, remains consistent throughout. The detail, the scope, the raw emotion– all of it hits like lightning in Romita Jr.’s hands. It’s too bad this is his last issue on this book, because as talented as Carlos Pacheco is, who takes over next issue, Romita and Remender really got a good tandem going, giving this book an extremely unique look and feel. This (again, along with the previous two issues) proves what I thought all along: despite its flaws, Remender had a grand plan for his arc and DAMN did he pull it off. This book couldn’t be anymore different from Ed Brubaker’s previous, character-defining run, but that’s NOT a bad thing. Remender has his own plans and ideas for putting What Makes Cap Tick on full display, and despite an extremely unorthodox approach, I love where he’s going now that the basic groundwork has been laid. Score: 10/10.

4. Wolverine and the X-Men #35 (Marvel, W: Jason Aaron, A: Nick Bradshaw). Jason Aaron more than makes up for last issue’s cock-up in this, the final chapter of “The Hellfire Saga.” With Kade Kilgore’s master plan falling to pieces around him, it’s hail mary time, but as the myriad X-Men, students, and even the other members of the Inner Circle close in, it’s too little, too late. All the various subplots that have been percolating throughout this arc (and before) are tied up in both pleasing and surprising ways, just in time for “Battle of the Atom” and the next move forward for this title. In brief: Toad’s struggle against mentally-imbalanced ladylove Husk comes to a bittersweet end. Quentin and Idie get their teen-hormone-love on as they overcome insurmountable odds in battle. The Philistine proves there’s more to him than meets the eye, which is one plot thread left hanging. A resolution is met concerning Broo’s current feral mindset. Wild card Wilhelmina lives up to her promise as the crazy kid your mom warned you about. Kade even shows some childlike humanity. And oh yeah, those bamfs… Very rarely do single comics wrap up so many dangling plot threads, yet feel so unforced. With this issue, Jason Aaron has effectively wrapped up everything he’s had on the boil since issue one, which is saying something (this book is nothing if not busy). If I had to gripe about something, it’s my by-now perfunctory complaint that Nick Bradshaw’s lighthearted pencils are wrong for this book, but at the same time, even I have to admit the raw energy coming off each page thanks to his art was exciting. Some of the Hellions come off as merely being jokes for Aaron’s amusement rather than fully thought-out characters, such as Snot, whose power is pretty much what you’d expect; and recurring Aaron punchline Master Pandemonium (a holdover from his grindhouse-inflected Ghost Rider run), whose presence here is utterly unrelated to anything mutant-centric. Minor complaints aside, it’s exciting to see what Aaron does for a follow-up. This title has once more reclaimed its title of Marvel’s funnest X-Men book, and that’s a great thing. Score: 8/10.

5. Uncanny Avengers #11 (Marvel, W: Rick Remender, A: Daniel Acuna). Rick Remender wraps up stories in two books this week, so maybe he had a quota to fill. Unfortunately, this issue of UA, which winds down the Apocalypse Twins arc, doesn’t have even half the awesomeness his issue of Captain America does. That’s due at least in part to the fact that this arc is really just a lead in for the next arc, “Ragnarok Now,” so it doesn’t have the same sense of closure in any sense that Cap’s exit from Dimension Z does. Picking up where we left off last issue, our various Avengers and X-Men unity squad members have their individual showdowns with the Horsemen of Apocalypse, which as you may recall are the resurrected Daken, Sentry, Banshee, and Grim Reaper. Heroes dealing with emotional baggage by fighting someone they thought was dead, whom they have a personal connection to? No, never seen that before. It all plays out fairly predictably, too, and it’s that straightforward lack of surprise where Remender stumbles. The Twins, Eimen and Uriel, approach Scarlet Witch with their master plan for solving human/mutant tensions, which is a nice pipe dream that sheds no blood: have Scarlet Witch create a whole ‘nother Earth for mutants to inhabit, thus negating the entire issue. Wanda bucks, of course, since she’s a staunch supporter of Xavier’s cohabitation dream. And then, on the last page, for no discernible reason, she… changes her mind? Wha? Why? When? Hopefully this will be explained in the next few issues, but the manner in which the change of heart is conveyed is so drop-dead dull it makes me think Remender just wanted to throw a curveball at us without thinking about the inherent lack of continuity behind it. A weird, off-beat issue that has me wondering whether or not Remender can pull this one off. Time will tell. Score: 5/10.

6. Thor: God of Thunder #12 (Marvel, W: Jason Aaron, A: Nic Klein). How do you provide an epilogue to so epic a tale as the recently-wrapped Gorr saga? Bring it all back home. This issue is essentially Thor’s love letter to Earth, as he reconnects with the people of Midgard, and Jason Aaron explores just why the Son of Odin loves this realm so much. It’s a wonderfully executed story (until the hiccup halfway through, more on that momentarily), with several unforeseen twists and turns: Thor visits a watering hole in New York that brews mead the way the vikings used to. He visits a repentant man on death row on the evening of his execution. He makes it rain somewhere in the Middle East, he disrupts a gathering of a Westboro Baptist Church analogue, honors the request of a graduating SHIELD agent to join her at a cadet’s ball for a dance, and so on and so forth. If these vignettes had comprised the entirety of the issue, that would have been more than enough. But halfway through, Aaron abruptly shifts the focus on Thor’s visit with Jane Foster, who is suffering from breast cancer, and then that becomes the focus of the remainder of the issue. It’s still a beautifully told story, as Thor wrestles with the fact that there are things that even he cannot fix or fight, but the sudden shift in focus is a bit jarring. Nic Klein does a decent enough job on the art duties, but he’s no Esad Ribic. His art has a bit of an over-inked look to it that I can’t quite get into, and his faces lack definition. Those complaints aside, this issue does a fantastic job showing the human side of the god of thunder, something we definitely need more of in between these all-encompassing, cosmos-shattering stories Aaron’s crafting. Though a bit lopsided in its execution, this is still a stellar comic, a quiet change of pace that allows Thor (and the readers) to catch his breath before being plunged into whatever cosmic craziness he’s in for next. Score: 9/10.

7. Ultimate Spider-Man #26 (Marvel, W: Brian Michael Bendis, A: David Marquez). This issue, and by extension this storyarc, could have been so much better executed, it’s sickening. It’s the classic “Spidey must get off his ass, stop feeling sorry for himself, and get back in the game” tale, but of course with Miles Morales in Peter Parker’s place. Last issue did a ho-hum job of giving Miles a reason to pull back on the costume and get a-swingin’, but this issue, which sees him (of course) back in costume and back to the business of kicking evil’s ass, is just all over the place. First of all: did this arc really need to show the origin of Bombshell, a character we’ve seen in only a handful of prior issues? And did Bendis just have to shove Ultimate Cloak and Dagger into the mix, too? And did both of their intertwined origins have to be a retread of the “shady corporation/morally questionable scientists trying to recreate the super soldier formula” cliche? Couldn’t Bendis have at least tried for something more original? The answers are “no, no, no,” and “yes.” If Bendis really wants to me to feel the urgency required for Miles to re-don his Spidey outfit, there are better ways of doing it than shoehorning all of these pet ideas into this story. David Marquez’s art is solid as usual, but even he can’t elevate this mess too significantly. This issue is an overstuffed mess, and it’s even harder for me to care since it’s becoming more and more apparent that the Ultimate universe probably won’t exist anymore after the upcoming Cataclysm event. Wake me when things get less self-indulgent and more interesting. Score: 4/10.

8. New Avengers #9 (Marvel, W: Jonathan Hickman, A: Mike Deodato). Let me be clear right off the bat: Mike Deodato is the true star of this issue. I’ve been watching him grow as an artist for almost twenty years now, and these days, he’s in a master class all of his own. Gone are his exaggerated female physiques, the stock ’90s poses, and the ridiculous muscular proportions. In their place is one of the most self-assured artists in the business, whose style is a genuinely accomplished blend of Neal Adams and Jim Lee, with a dash of Terry Austin inks for good measure. His characters have a natural look to them, and when they move, it’s like a human anatomy book brought to animated life. Watching the Black Panther defend Wakanda against the invading alien hordes is like watching an Olympian track star invent new ways to run the 200-yard dash that defy all known logic. The sneer on Namor’s face as he comes to grips with the slaughter of the Atlanteans last issue (perpetrated by Wakanda as a part of their ongoing war) is that of a man, a king, fighting to keep his composure in the face of atrocity. Deodato’s panel layouts run the gamut between classic compositions when the scene demands a more measured pace, to diagonal and slashing during action sequences. Quite simply, he may be the best in-house artist Marvel has right now. So, how ’bout the story itself? As Thanos’s assault on Earth commences, the members of the Illuminati find themselves in the position of being very specific targets, as they are each in possession of one of the six Infinity Gems. Thanos sends his core badasses, the Cull Obsidian (whatever that means), after each Illuminati member individually, with mixed results. Dr. Strange is defeated before his scene even begins. Black Panther wallops the unholy hell out of his foe. Reed Richards and Iron Man fight like the hero scientists they are. Beast and the rest of the Jean Grey Academy find themselves in a pitched battle. But Namor? Namor gives in to the perpetual devil on his shoulder and  finds a very, very crafty way to turn the situation to his advantage in his war against Wakanda. Black Bolt and the Inhumans remain a giant x-factor at this point, but their role to play seems to be coming up soon. This is just an outstanding issue, and it should shut the mouths of any naysayers who proclaim that just because Infinity is an event comic, it won’t be any good. Hickman is proving all of ’em wrong, at least at this point in the game. Score: 9/10.

9. Uncanny X-Men #11 (Marvel, W: Brian Michael Bendis, A: Frazer Irving). Uncanny X-Men has very suddenly eclipsed its sister title, All-New X-Men, in every way imaginable. Frazer Irving’s art has snapped into razor-sharp focus while Stuart Immonen’s pencils remain serviceable at best. All-New has meandered along, aimless, while, in the wake of the disastrous Limbo arc, Uncanny has become tightly-scripted and completely focused in purpose, getting better with each new issue. This is the book that gives voice to the anger and frustration so many mutants must feel in a world that perpetually finds reason to discriminate against them, and that frustration is given a perfect voice by Cyclops this issue. As he fights like hell on wheels against the Nimrod-esque robot that ambushes them at a human-led mutant rights rally, his interior dialogue finally gives us a solid reason to understand why he’s been acting the way he has since the events of AvX. It doesn’t absolve him of Xavier’s murder–he’s still in denial of his culpability in that–but at least Bendis is pushing for us to empathize with the guy nonetheless. All the supporting players, the new kids in particular, are given a voice and a reason for existing in this comic here, as these kids, who have only been mutants for a few days at best, band together to help defend themselves and their supporters against the power-adapting robot. Hell, even GOLD BALLS has his moment to shine! Freakin’ GOLD BALLS! There’s a confusing subplot involving Mystique, who is posing as newly-deputized SHIELD agent Dazzler (yeah, right–sorry, still not buying it), getting into trouble in Madripoor as she also poses as Viper and manages to piss off the Hand. But other than that, Bendis finally manages to make this comic utterly enjoyable. It’s been awhile coming, and he’s still going to have to work hard to make up for the lapses in the first seven or eight issues, but this is a great start in the right direction. Score: 8/10.

10. Aquaman #23 (DC, W: Geoff Johns, A: Paul Pelletier). Geoff Johns is a master storyteller, but he’s not without his flaws. Take this issue for example. For all the steam he’s built up over the last few issues, the sheer number of subplots brought to head in this one bog it down to the point that nothing feels particularly exciting in its conclusive execution. Atlantis’s first king is practically shoved to the back of the back of the background, for all he actually accomplishes here. The Scavenger’s assault on Atlantis comes to an anticlimactic conclusion, as Johns needlessly segues into his next arc without giving heed to the current one. Hell, even Murk, Tula, and Swatt’s attempted jailbreak of Ocean Master comes to an abrupt halt as they must choose between springing him and turning back to aid Atlantis in its time of crisis. Despite a facing-death liplock/affirmation of love with Mera, Aquaman himself is oddly stilted throughout the issue, his usual passion coming off as dull and muted. Page one: “SWIM, MERA.” Page two, as we see the hordes of Xebel mercilessly chasing Arthur and Mera down: “FAST.” I suppose Johns is trying to illustrate Aquaman’s cool head under pressure, but it just comes off as unconvincing and flat. Paul Pelletier’s art, usually serviceable only at its worst, comes off as rushed here, as definition is lost at key moments, while amped up at others, like when Arthur summons Topo to defend Atlantis. This artistic inconsistency serves to underscore the overall problems with this issue, as the “untouchable” Geoff Johns proves he’s mortal after all. Score: 5/10.

11. Batman Incorporated Special #1 (DC, W: Various, A: Various). This mash-up love letter to Grant Morrison’s quirky Batman run is fun, but is also definitely for die-hard devotees only. You’ll have a hard time convincing the casual fan that a comic with short stories featuring characters named Squire, Raven Red, Nightrunner, Dark Ranger, and El Gaucho is anything worth getting excited about. And then there’s Batcow. Yes, Batcow, that bovine joke of an incidental crimefighter, even gets her moment in the sun. The stories, like the characters, are a mixed bag, although thankfully there are no absolute duds. Chris Burnham starts off the affair writing and drawing a tale staring Jiro, the Batman of Japan, which effectively captures the sheer lunacy of Japanese pop culture without resorting to anime/manga nonsense. It also features a villain called Dr. Inside-Out, so you know you’re in for a goofy-fun time. Joe Keatinge follows that with a tale of England’s own Squire, still grieving over the death of Knight in the monthly Batman Inc. book. It’s something of a pro forma walk through the former sidekick coming to terms with grief. This story is also hobbled by the pedestrian art of Emanuel Simeoni, who frankly just doesn’t look ready for prime time. After that is Indian reservation hero Raven Red, chasing down a criminal across the skyline of what’s I guess supposed to be Gotham. This is cut between a sequence that flashes back to his time on his rez, trying to talk down what he believes is a suicide jumper, but instead getting a life lesson. The rudimentary story is pulled together by the greatly unappreciated John Paul Leon (Earth X), whose strong line is furnished with an even stronger finish. Next up finds Nightrunner, Dark Ranger, and El Gaucho teaming up in what was my least favorite story of the bunch, which finds the three mismatched heroes tackling crime and dark magic among sitcom-esque misunderstandings when it comes to El Gaucho’s hearing. Meh. Rounding out the book is a silent tale of the Batcow by Dan DiDio, who manages to foil a kidnapping just by standing in the road. It’s a breezy, fun story, and they even got Ethan van Sciver, usually reserved for high-profile event work, to draw the silly thing. Like I said, this won’t make a believer out of anyone who wasn’t already a fan of Morrison’s Bat-run. But it’s a nice tip of the hat to a handful of characters who, unfortunately, we probably won’t see much more of in the future, as Morrison is really the only writer who can pull them off entirely. But this issue’s mere existence confirms that DC at least believes that someone wants to read more of these misfits, so maybe there’s hope. Score: 7/10.

12. FBP: Federal Bureau of Physics #2 (DC/Vertigo, W: Simon Oliver, A: Robbi Rodriguez). The comic formerly known as Collider (the original title was apparently held by an Australian magazine which threatened to sue for copyright infringement) really snaps into focus in the second issue. My complaints from issue one are mostly resolved: the story takes the central focus while also allowing the characters to come into their own, and the funky indie-style art gets less loose and more certain of itself. Simon Oliver has put some serious research into astrophysics, theoretical physics, string theory, and probably some stuff I’ve never even heard of into this story, which centers around a “bubble reality” popping up that threatens to harm our boring ol’ regular reality. Our main everyman character, Adam, is sent in to resolve the situation with Jay, the senior agent, who has a hell of a secret that may wind up costing Adam his life. Oliver’s magic touch is in putting regular, blue-collar guys into this fantastic situation, which gives FBP a very Ghostbusters feel to it, only with less humor and more science. This title’s poised to swiftly gather steam by turning into a trippy head-bender a la The Invisibles, but minus the LSD-inspired Eastern philosophy and more Steven Hawking. Here’s hoping Oliver succeeds, because Vertigo could really use a hit in its waning arsenal. Score: 8/10.

So long, summer, and hello, fall! See you next week for “Battle of the Atom” #1 and a whole lot of other assorted goodies.

BOOMER SOONER!!!

~ILL DIABLO~

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When Scotsmen Confuse: No, Batman Did NOT Kill the Joker

A clip has surfaced recently over on bleedingcool.com of Kevin Smith interviewing the one and only Grant Morrison, and holy shit does it open a can of worms. Go on, listen to the clip. It’s only about three minutes in length. I’ll wait.

So, you got all that? (It’s a little hard to decipher Morrison’s Scots burr at times.) Yep, that’s right: Grant Morrison honestly believes that Batman kills the Joker at the end of Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke. Now, this is one man’s interpretation. But it is an interesting one. Interesting and COMPLETE AND UTTER BULLSHIT.

Only Alan Moore knows for sure, and he's more of a lunatic than the Joker these days!

Only Alan Moore knows for sure, and he’s more of a lunatic than the Joker these days!

Morrison’s argument hinges on his interpretation of panels five through nine on the above page. In panel five we see Batman, in silhouette, placing his hand on the Joker as they both laugh from a gag the Joker just told as the police drive in for the arrest. Joker’s latest plot has been undone by Batman, and in the wake of the unspeakable evil Joker has just unleashed on Commissioner Gordon and his daughter Barbara, these two mortal enemies, forever locked in a circle of violence and yin-yang oppositional definition, the two foes share a genuine moment of humanity over this bad joke. Batman’s slow response of laughter indicates that Moore wanted to show the humanity behind the artifice of the Dark Knight persona, as though Bruce Wayne had to stop a moment and remember how to be human.

So here we have, in panel four, that hesitant “heh” turn into a full-on guffaw, even as the police close in. Moore’s point here is that these two men, despite being polar opposites, really do have a basic humanity that they share, and more importantly, that they know each other better than the other thinks. This is key in understanding why Morrison’s argument doesn’t work.

Back to that fifth panel: Now silhouetted, Batman and Joker lose themselves as the chorus of laughter rises. Batman reaches out and places his hand on the Joker, not at his neck as Morrison insinuates but rather on his chest (probably grabbing him by the lapel) or maybe even on the shoulder. But even a cursory glance at the fifth panel reveals that in no way, shape, or form is Batman breaking the Joker’s neck, nor is he making any movement that would give that indication.

Panel six pulls the shot in closer, so that we cannot tell, based on that panel alone, who we are looking at. These two shapes could be Laurel and Hardy just as easily as Batman and Joker. This is also the last panel with the “HA HA” onomatopoeia sound effect. Note that the font size of the letters of “HA,” as well as the “EEEEEE” of the police siren grow progressively larger throughout panels four through six, coinciding with the tightening of the shot as it closes in on Batman and Joker. But that’s all it is: a cinematic tightening of the shot, a steady zoom as we fade out.

In panel seven, the laughter has stopped, but the police siren sound effect remains. According to Morrison, this is the moment where Batman kills the Joker, made evident by the cessation of laughter but the continuation of the siren. But other than choosing to interpret this panel this way, there is nothing to indicate that’s what is actually happening. The only thing we can be certain of is that the laughter has stopped, the police have arrived and turned their siren off (we know this because it’s here the siren SFX ends). The end of the laughter could be explained as the Joker being subdued so that he can be turned over to the now-arrived police, but that certainly doesn’t mean he’s been killed.

And finally, panels eight and nine are silent portraits of the rain puddling on either a street or a parking lot. No sound effects, no dialogue, no dead Joker. The silence is supposed to be an indicator that the Joker has died at Batman’s hand, and that that makes this the “last Batman/Joker story,” in Morrison’s words. The inevitable ending to their storied clashes.

But look at that page again. It’s pretty damn ambiguous, and pretty damn open to interpretation, something Morrison DOES cede. And despite the fact that killing–and in this case, outright murdering–goes against EVERYTHING Batman is about,  Morrison is all too willing to gloss this fact over by saying it’s an Elseworlds story because it features Batman killing. Kevin Smith has a perfect opportunity to call bullshit at this point in the podcast–after all, the effects of The Killing Joke were played out for years in post-Crisis continuity–but he’s too busy shoving his tongue up Morrison’s ass at every possible opportunity to consider this.

Again, let me make myself clear: the last page of The Killing Joke is nakedly ambiguous and, if I know Alan Moore, was written very intentionally so. Which means, by the very definition of the word, any reader can interpret it as they please. HOWEVER…. and this is where my sticking point with Morrison’s hypothesis lies– there is only the flimsiest of evidence to support his interpretation. It doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. I’ve made my personal convictions on this ending perfectly clear throughout this post, so I won’t bother restating them. But before you go and buy into Grant Morrison’s interpretation of events just because he’s Grant Fucking Morrison, remember one thing: this is the same guy who wrote Final Crisis. A story which he freely admitted in his book Supergods only he understood. ‘Nuff said.

~ILL DIABLO~

 

Erik Larsen on Change and Death in Comics

Death in comics is as hot-button a topic as you’re likely find these days. Used to be, death was a rarity, and it was intended to stick, as was the original intention with Jean Grey, Gwen Stacy, and Bucky.* These days, in our bubble-driven comics industry, death is merely a commodity, a tool for temporarily boosting sales on a given book. It’s a mixed bag of a practice, because of course there is the underlying commercial crassness beneath it all. But there are also some excellent stories being told using death as a plot device. Which stories with this aspect you choose to enjoy are ultimately up to you, the reader, and the debate over which of these stories are “good” or “bad” is an argument I’ve already made in this blog.

Regardless, my feelings on the matter of death in comics is still pretty cynical. How many of us truly believe Professor X won’t at some point be magically resurrected? (And since this is an X-Men character, the resurrection will no doubt be highly convoluted.) The resurrection of Nightcrawler, slain a few years ago in the “Second Coming” X-crossover (or is it X-over?), is meriting a whole new upcoming ongoing monthly comic, Amazing X-Men. The crassness of the death is now only overshadowed by the callous shilling of the resurrection. This formula is nothing new, Marvel Senior VP of Sales David Gabriel even codified this mentality when his admission that the company would be pursuing a policy of killing a character each quarter in order to artificially inflate sales was leaked back in 2011.

So, great. It’s a sales gimmick. Nothing we didn’t already know, right? And there are certain times when good stories do come out of it. But there’s an underlying problem with the killing of characters (and the inherent nature of change at all), one which I feel has never been better illustrated than by Erik Larsen waaay back in the dinosaur era of early 2001, when we were all recovering from the shock that Y2K didn’t doom our society, George W. Bush was no more than a bad punchline, and people actually admitted to enjoying N*SYNC.

Larsen had recently had a letter published in the now-defunct Wizard magazine, which caused quite a stir, and even lead to him helming a panel on change in comics at that year’s Wizard World con. Unfortunately, I can’t find a copy of the letter anywhere online, but its major themes revolved around change and death in comics, and how these were being abused by Marvel and DC. HOWEVER, the overall incident DID prompt Larsen to expand on the topics at hand in the lettercol of issue 85 of Savage Dragon. Larsen has a lot of good, valid points he makes, which largely echo my own sentiments on the matter of death in comics. So, with the author’s permission, I’m reprinting the section of his essay that deals with this topic for your own enjoyment. (This sucker is long, so I’m excising a bit of the intro and skipping ahead to the portion pertaining more specifically to the larger point.) To give you a time frame for reference, this essay was published shortly after Kevin Smith “killed” Mysterio in the penultimate issue of his Daredevil run. I’ll let Larsen take it from here…

…On another topic, I’ve heard arguments that killing characters can be a valuable and valid technique for telling stories and I agree to an extent. Not all characters deserve death, however, and when a character does die, it should be something that is thought out long and hard. I think, in most circumstances– it simply isn’t and the people doing the killing are not thinking about the rich history of the characters that they’re killing and just what is being taken away from the company which owns the characters when they are killed. The example I’ve cited recently is Mysterio. Mysterio appeared in numerous comics over the course of 35 years and he had a unique look and power which is not endlessly duplicated by other villains. Kevin Smith killed him in a Daredevil story along with Karen Page, another character who had been in numerous comics over 35 years. Now there are those who would say that their death was worth it, that the story was amazing. I’m not going to argue with anybody about the merits of the story itself– what I am going to argue about is that I don’t feel it’s worth keeping them dead no matter HOW good it was! You see, many feel that one of the worst things a comic book company can do is bring a character back from the dead, especially when the death of that character was even remotely meaningful. And yet, if the character WILL be used in cartoons, in movies and in all other forms of media forever more– shouldn’t the comics themselves have access to that character?

Was resurrecting Superman a slap in the face to those who supported the storyline that killed him or a stinging slap of reality to those who thought DC was stupid enough to kill the goose that laid the golden egg?

I noticed that Kevin Smith REVIVED the DEAD Ollie Queen (Green Arrow) over at DC and ruined whatever story, whoever killed him, had concocted. You CAN’T have it both ways. Is it okay for Kevin Smith to revive Green Arrow because he’s Kevin Smith? Is it okay for Kevin Smith to revive Green Arrow because the original story in which he was killed was lousy? Would it be okay for another writer to revive Mysterio and Karen Page if he thought Kevin Smith’s story was lousy? Where do you draw the line? WHO is to make those decisions? You? Kevin? Me? Frank Miller killed Elektra– TWICE– he killed Bullseye– chopped his head off in the graphic novel (and was it EVER graphic) Elektra Lives! Yet Elektra is getting a new series and Bullseye is still running around feeling just fine.

Those companies invest MILLIONS of hours and dollars in these characters– these are their properties. DC would be STUPID to kill Superman and leave him dead– he’s their cash cow! Superman carries five comic books and sells a lot of underoos and yo-yos. There WILL be more Superman movies and cartoons and merchandise– and keeping him dead would be stupid. As for why they killed him– it was (in addition to fodder for a lot of stories they couldn’t tell otherwise) a desperate plea for attention and it WORKED. if DC’s job is to sell comics (and it IS) then they did their job– they sold a ton of books. One could certainly argue that they killed the market in the process as well with his oversold resurrection that did NOT generate the news attention that his “death” generated and forced some retailers out of business. Still, as long as Superman is an icon and people merchandise the hell out of him– he will endure. Marvel revived Elektra for the same reason– sorry, Frank– nice story but Marvel OWNS your creation and it’s in their best interest to make money from the use of that character.

The thing is, creators AREN’T GOING to give Marvel or DC their next Superman or Spider-Man– they’re not even going to give them the next Hellboy, Savage Dragon, or Spawn! And if all these companies are getting given to them from creators who have seen Jack Kirby, Frank Miller, Joe Shuster and the others get screwed over the years are Cable-clones then they’re in big trouble. ESPECIALLY if they’re letting those same creators KILL OFF their properties WITHOUT contributing anything of equal value. Kevin Smith wrote a swell Daredevil story– but what CHARACTERS did he give to Marvel to compensate for taking away Mysterio and Karen Page? What CHARACTERS did HE leave behind that will endure for 35+ years?

In Savage Dragon the guy making the changes and killing his characters is the same guy who created those characters and the same guy who wrote those previous stories. I’m not messing up anybody else’s stories– I’m not wrecking anybody else’s plans. And ultimately, because it’s a one-man show, I’ll rebuild it into something else entirely.

This is apples and oranges– at marvel we’re not talking about Stan Lee and Steve Ditko killing Mysterio or Stan and Bill Everett killing Karen Page. Savage Dragon really is a different kettle of fish.

I have, for instance, had more time pass in Savage Dragon than has passed for the Fantastic Four or Spider-Man. My book is set in real time and so nine years have ticked by– it would be a really lousy idea for Marvel to do the same– the characters would be destroyed in the process. The BIG DIFFERENCE is that there’s ONE GUY in control of Savage Dragon who is both WILLING and ABLE to create and contribute NEW CHARACTERS to this world as it ages. You can SEE what vital new creations have been added to the Marvel line in the last ten years– NOT MUCH. How many icons that will endure like Spider-Man? ZERO. How many villains which will hang in there for as long as Mysterio and have as many appearances as he has had in the previous thirty-five years? NONE.

IS Savage Dragon “done right” as some readers have said? I think it’s a worthy experiment, to be sure, but we’ve just seen nine years’ worth and that’s a drop in the bucket compared with the 60+ years at DC and 40+ years of Marvel history. (okay, nitpickers– I know that Marvel goes back 60+ years as well but MOST of their continuity dates back to 1961 and not before.) What happens when [Savage Dragon character] Alex Wilde turns fifty and is no longer the cutie that broke a million hearts? What happens when Ricochet grows out of her role? When gravity hits [abnormally large-breasted] Rita? When Beast Boy is no longer a “boy?” How will the series endure as character after character either pass away or get old and ugly? Are readers going to be quite as excited to see Dragon trying to pick up a 60-year old floozy in a bar in 40 years? Certainly, if sales are any indication, Savage Dragon is anything BUT a superhero series “done right.”

Certainly there can be lasting changes in any series– just not aging or killing the main characters. Those are not the ONLY CHANGES that need to take place in order for a book to be vital. The characters can still GROW– they just won’t GROW OLD. I’m told the worst thing a about death in American comics is that it never lasts. My question is, why kill a character when the next slob can bring them back? THERE CAN NEVER BE the kind of control at Marvel or DC that I have on Savage Dragon— on Savage Dragon ONE GUY is in charge and it will ALWAYS be the SAME ONE GUY. At the “big two” editors come and go as do owners and creators. One editor in chief can write adeath certificate insuring that characters will NEVER come back AND put it in the letters page but once that editor moves on– POOF! The character is brought back to life (brownie points to any readers who knew I was talking about Dracula, who “died” in the pages of Dr. Strange.) Sure, a resurrection may “cheapen” a death but that’s ALWAYS going to happen at the big two so get used to it.

People argue that perhaps kids don’t want comics anymore when they have TV and video games and that maybe, we should try to shift the core market to older readers. They say that there are comics aimed at older readers in other countries and that we should do the same here as well but I’d remind people that WE ALREADY HAVE books aimed at older readers here– we even have SUPERHERO comics aimed at older readers here! Japan and France have comics for kids AND adults just like WE do. There have ALWAYS been TV and movies vying for kids’ attention and video games have been around for YEARS. Shifting the focus is ultimately self-destructive. Superhero comics are, by their very nature, inherently silly and appealing to children and to make them incomprehensible and too mature for them is to intentionally limit their potential audience and in this market– that’s foolish. On some books– yeah, you might WANT this– Planetary and Promethea and The Authority are designed for older readers and sold to older readers. But Spider-Man is NOT and PARENTS KNOW that these books are SAFE for their children to read and by violating that trust they’re asking for a boatload of trouble.

Most writers are failing to make books accessible for all readers. Identifying the disease is the first step toward coming up with a cure. Right now there is a very vocal group of teens and post-teens making all the noise and, as they say, the “squeaky wheel gets the grease.” Books are being changed to meet readers’ demands but young readers have no voice because they don’t have Internet access and they’re less prone to writing letters.

The solution is NOT for Marvel and DC to progressively become companies that allow creator-owned characters to interact with their universes, while classic heroes become classics, who survive through reprints of a finite run. The solution is to KEEP THEIR CHARACTERS YOUNG  and NOT to SCREW THEM UP. Allowing them to age and to let in all the guys with their creator-owned characters who would replace the older characters would cut into their bottom line. There is NO NEED to age their characters. Reprints DON’T SELL all that well and intentionally destroying their cash cows would be a HUGE mistake. Plus– WHY give creators rights when you can keep it all yourself? Especially when the characters you own are proven bestsellers? NOPE– not gonna happen.

Having hot creators wreck everything is stupid– it’s detrimental and self-destructive and ultimately it will be undone by whoever takes over after the current regime moves on. What SHOULD happen for the companies themselves to stay strong is to tell coherent, compelling stories and restore the characters to their intended iconic versions as much as possible.

They should not kill any character who doesn’t completely suck ass. Hell, you want death?– kill Solo– he’s a third-generation Punisher clone– but don’t kill Mysterio– he’s the ONLY character who does what he does!

The Fantastic Four are currently very close to their original look and they have much of their old trappings yet modernized for today’s market– don’t mess it up by killing off the Mole Man and Doctor Doom! Spider-Man could be restored in a few issues– I’d have Peter get a divorce rather than kill off MJ or have them get kids. A divorce would turn him into a loser again AND make him single. MJ could then go off on her own and Pete wouldn’t be cheating on her and MJ wouldn’t HAVE to be dwelled on! It’s NOT that hard, folks.

Aging characters ADDS NOTHING. EVERY TIME Hollywood tackles these characters they use the ICONIC VERSION. And every time the Big Two want to USE that attention to pull in a new generation of readers you’ll have those readers seeing comics where the characters are NOTHING LIKE what they are in the movies and that’s a mistake. Readers are being VERY SELFISH to want these chracters to age WITH them and deny their youthful iconic versions to the next generation of readers. Had the PREVIOUS generation of readers demanded this ALL books would be like Spider-Girl. ALL of them. And while you may LIKE Spider-Girl I’m pretty sure this would NOT be cool for the entire line (as an aside here, Spider-Girl would have graduated from high school by now so even using THAT book is a bad example). And even if your solution is age the characters yet add a new book like Ultimate Spider-Man– a new title where the hero is youthful and the trappings are reinterpreted for today’s market, THAT book can only go a few years before it’s in the same boat! How many years can Ultimate Spider-Man stay in high school? If it is set in real time as well–four, tops, and if a new Spider-Man book has to pop up every four years so that we always have a high school version aimed at attracting younger readers we’re in for an even BIGGER mess than we have NOW!

 

So there you have it, one man’s (somewhat rambling) thoughts on the subjects of death and change in comics. Even if you don’t agree– and even I don’t entirely, and if you DO, may I suggest weighing your own feelings and formulating your own opinion?– it’s a well-thought out piece that I thought touched on a pretty potent nerve in today’s market. Writers and editors will come and go, and all of them want to leave their mark on a given character or property. Unfortunately, today’s comics climate seems to dictate the “logic” that killing characters is the only way to do this, at least in a manner that will generate the most media attention. That’s an unfortunate fact of life and one that hopefully, the medium outgrows soon.

Then again, it’s been two years and DC shows no signs of resurrecting a perfectly good continuity they killed in order to embark on the New 52.

~ILL DIABLO~

*Of course, even these seminal deaths didn’t stick. Jean’s death was undone by then-untouchable John Byrne, all too eager to undermine his former X-Men collaborator Chris Claremont and play ball with Jim Shooter’s more commercialized concerns wrought from Jean’s resurrection. As for Gwen Stacy, legend has it that Stan Lee himself objected to her death to such a degree that writer Gerry Conway concocted the original clone saga as a means of resurrecting Gwen in the form of an ersatz clone, a move which both appeased Lee and allowed him to maintain some semblance of writerly integrity. And as for Bucky, he was of course brought back by Ed Brubaker in the critically acclaimed 2005-06 “Winter Soldier” arc in Captain America, a brainwashed operative for the USSR. In comics, the finality of death seems exclusively reserved for Uncle Ben and Thomas and Martha Wayne.

When Creators Give a Shit

Sometimes, it’s just the little things that blow me away. One of the great things about comics is that, despite our differences of opinion, there’s generally a sense of community among our little group of fans. That extends to the retailers and on up to the creators, too–the guys who put in the appearances at the cons, who shake hands, sign autographs, and happily (and sometimes not so happily) dish on whatever questions you have to ask, even if they’ve heard the question a thousand times before. A few years ago, I had the privilege of meeting artist Darick Robertson at a regrettably underattended local signing, and he was more than gracious enough to sign more than one pieces, grant me with not one but two original sketches, and put up with my sputtered, star-struck “line” of unrelated and no doubt overasked questions.

This sort of thing goes a long way with me, and I think, anyone in the funnybook community. It humanizes the creators and creates an almost-tangible link between them and their readers. It goes a lot further than, say, ranting and raving online and alienating your readership, or avoiding cons altogether like Alan Moore and becoming a spectral recluse, a figment of the imagination only glimpsed in passing from the corner of the eye.

But then there’s the sort of thing I experienced this morning in the wee hours. Quite a few years ago (the year 2001, to be exact), Erik Larsen published an essay in an issue of Savage Dragon that dealt on the subject of change and death in comics. It’s an extremely well-thought out opinion piece, and it has always struck a chord with me for hitting the nail so well on the head. So instead of trying to rephrase Larsen’s own words as I broach the subject on this blog, the idea struck me: why not just reprint his essay and let him do the talking for me this time?

It’s admittedly not a technique for conveying my opinion I want to get comfortable with using in this blog, because it’s admittedly pretty lazy to just reprint something and say, “See? Look here at what this guy’s saying. This is what I believe.” But it just so happens this piece is a mostly-apt summary of my feelings on the matter to a tee.

So I went ahead and emailed Mr. Larsen, requesting his permission to reprint his twelve-year-old essay. Frankly, I expected no response, or a response from an office lackey, or at least not one for awhile (especially seeing as I sent the email at about one in the morning). But then something really, really cool happened: less than an hour later, THE Erik Larsen took a moment to respond! In the dead of the night! The fanboy in me felt like he’d just gotten laid for the first time, this was so cool. Actual contact with not just a comic creator, but one of my most-respected and favorites, and the guy was awesome enough to respond to my missive over my stupid blog just like that!? First contact had been established and I was on the winning end!

Okay, so right now I’m gushing a bit. It’s not really a big deal… except, to me, it kind of is. When a guy who writes and draws his own monthly comic (and has inked/colored/lettered it as well in the past!) takes a second, in the dead of night, to holla back at some schmo from the Bible Belt about a twelve-year-old essay… well, that’s pretty validating. But it also confirms for me that Larsen is one of the top class acts in the game, a guy who genuinely loves his fans for what they give him (other than money, I mean). If more creators had this level of commitment to their fanbase, comics might not be in the freefall they’re currently seeing. I mean, nothing can halt the march of the digital age, but still….

In other words, asshole creators out there who ignore their readership: STOP BEING ASSHOLES! Take a moment to touch back with your readership, and come down from Mount Olympus to mingle with the common folk! There will be time for absinthe and LSD later, Grant Morrison. Alex Ross, you can paint yourself blue, but don’t forget about the people who are the basis for your canvases of work. And Neal Adams, stop being absolutely bugfuck crazy RIGHT THIS INSTANT!!

My point is this: creators who give a shit are much, much more important to me than the ones who are clearly in it only for the paycheck. Guys who work hard, sweat it out month after month, and take a minute to keep in touch with their fans will always, always endure longer than the Todd McFarlanes* of the industry. And they will remain respected members of our extended comics family, because they actually care. A tip o’ the hat to you then, Mr. Larsen, for proving to be one of the good guys.

Watch for my reprinted Larsen essay in the next couple of days.

~ILL DIABLO~

*Seriously, fuck that egomaniac.

What I’m Reading 0009: 8/25/13

Shit be poppin’ and lockin’ this week, folks, as an eclectic bag of goodies comes to mY hot li’l hands courtesy my local comic book store/drug pusher. I even gave a title a second chance I’d written off earlier this year, not something I’m prone to doing. So without further ado let’s get into the review for the latest issue of…

1. Chin Music #2 (Image, W: Steve Niles, A: Tony Harris). I admit it. I hated the first issue this book. HATED IT. It was 87% silent, and I really had no idea what was going on. Even Tony Harris’s normally-glorious art was rougher than usual. I was totally ready to write this book off as a self-indulgent mess, but then the second issue came out (three months later… GRRRR….) and my anger had subsided enough to give it another shot. And dude, was it worth it. I’m entirely willing to buy the notion that negative fan reception to the first issue caused Niles to retool this one, because so much is made clear that suddenly, we have one potentially hot-shit book on our hands. This is a book that requires patience, and an ability to follow visual clues rather than exposition or dialogue to get a feel for the story. What the hell’s it all about, then? Here’s what I know, bearing in mind I may have missed some clues: at some point in the past in Egypt, a man is condemned by some evil mystics for doing… something that irked them. That man is flayed down to minimal meat and skeleton, where he is eventually found by the one and only Elliot Ness, somehow still alive. Cut to years later, sometime in the late ’30s or early ’40s, and that man is now known as Daniel Shaw, covered in occult tattoos (including every inch of his wing-wang, much to my dismay). Shaw has, for reasons unknown, cut a load of occult symbols into a bullet and used it to assassinate Al Capone just before Ness can bust him on tax evasion. This leads Ness back to Shaw, who cuts a deal with Ness to raise Capone back from the dead, lest he become a legend and become the tipping point for a full-scale gang war. There’s mood galore in this issue thanks to Tony Harris’s always-lush linework, although I’d be lying if I said it didn’t look like he’s inking with a Sharpie marker these days. His faces are less detailed than usual; it’s often difficult to tell the difference between Ness and Shaw, especially since they dress pretty much identically. And then there’s the cover: the lack of contrast between background and foreground color makes it difficult to comprehend without a great deal of staring first, which is the type of rookie artist’s mistake that Harris should be well past at this point in his career. There’s a lot of potential to be had in this comic, with its oddball blend of classic, old-school gangsters and the occult. Steve Niles does a great job of making sense out of the first issue here; his next move needs to be pulling it all together and getting some forward momentum, not just utilizing a bag of nifty tricks. Score: 7/10.

2. X-Men #4 (Marvel, W: Brian Wood, A: David Lopez). And here we have Brian Wood doing what he does best: having characters talk about mundane things, simply relating to one another, and in doing so revealing themselves completely. The conversation in question is between Wolverine and Jubilee, as she pals around SoCal with her father-figure Logan and revisits old haunts as a means of coming to terms with her current life changes. It’s a good, solid, genuine moment between two old friends, loaded with heart and humanity (even if Wood doesn’t quite have Logan’s signature cadences down just yet). If that were all this issue was, it would be perfect, a nice catching of the breath after the rollercoaster of issues one through three and before the upcoming “Battle of the Atom” wackiness. But wait! There’s more! We also have a fun bit of daring-do afoot as the X-ladies return home from last issue’s Arkea nuttiness and run across a passenger plane that’s having more than a little trouble staying aloft. Our women of the X spring into action, acting with all the certainty and authority of the Avengers, which is a nice about-face from the usual “oh-we’re-mutants-so-we-should-keep-quiet-about-who-we-really-are” nonsense. Storm, Kitty Pryde, Rachel Grey, Psylocke, and Rogue are fearless, fast-moving, and confident as they act to keep the plane from crashing. Despite some back-and-forth grumbling between Storm and Rachel over Storm’s recent decisions as leader, these ladies cohere quickly and effortlessly, trusting one another instinctively to do the right thing in the face of impending doom. It’s that understanding of character that, despite what’s really a by-the-numbers action sequence on the surface, gives it an overall honesty that saves it from being dull. Rogue in particular seems to be having the time of her life just being a superhero, a welcome contrast to her near-constant bitching over in Uncanny Avengers. I wish David Lopez’s art were as good as the simplicity in this story, but after the awesomeness of Olivier Coipel, he just can’t hold a candle. His figures, Storm in particular, are a little too stiff for my tastes, his expressions a bit too vacuous at times. And his Wolverine looks WAY too nice of a guy, almost the sort of guy a girl would want to bring home to meet her parents. In other words, NOT Wolverine. Art aside, this was a particularly well-done, low-key issue, showcasing Wood’s strengths as a writer: characters who feel as real as the neighbor next door. Score: 8/10.

3. X-Factor #261 (Marvel, W: Peter David, A: Neil Edwards). Peter David’s leaving a LOT up in the air as he wraps up the penultimate issue of X-Factor, which, coupled with last issue’s mysterious twist of an ending, leads me to believe he has a trick up his sleeve and isn’t as done with these characters as he would have us believe. Take this issue for example: we catch up with Monet and Darwin, both on the loose in Las Vegas. Darwin’s searching for Hela, who can lift his connection to death, thus restoring him to a semblance of a normal life. While on his quest, he stumbles onto longtime crush Monet, who came to Vegas more or less because it felt like the right thing to do in light of the rest of her team being blown to the four corners of the universe. They have a brief Hero Misunderstanding Fight, then eventually fall into bed together, at which point Hela shows up and Darwin tells her to shove off because it’s the darkness within him that Monet was drawn to. The issue ends with the two of them in bed, smiling, content. See? Nothing really seems to be ending in this book, but rather setting the stage for something else to come. That’s a hell of a cop out, not to mention a cheap shot at the readers’ expectations. With only one issue to go, I’m expecting David to pull some awesome mutant rabbit out of his hat. If not, so be it. It’s been a fun ride anyway. Score: 6/10.

4. Avengers #18 (Marvel, W: Jonathan Hickman, A: Leinil Francis Yu). In what’s essentially the second chapter of the Infinity saga, Hickman takes a sidestep from the main action for a moment to illustrate the severity of the Builders’ arrival. A desperate alliance of alien races, including the Shi’ar, the Brood, Annihilus, and yes, even the Kree and the Skrulls, come together to unite against the oncoming threat. Hickman, no slouch in either the dialogue or the impending-sense-of-doom departments, very neatly conveys the feeling of us sitting in on an actual war council, with all the fear, bravado, and back-and-forth strategizing that entails. The sparks then fly as they connect with Cap’s Avengers group to launch their initial assault on the Builders, which also has all of the frenzy and scurrying of an actual battle. I have no idea what Hickman did to research this sequence, but it feels more real, more legitimate, than any other space-battle I’ve ever read. And it’s big in scope, too: one other thing Hickman does exceedingly well is to convincingly sell us on the sheer size and gravity of the battle being played out. It’s great, solid stuff, proof positive that event comic tie-in issues can not only matter, but be just as good as the main event. Score: 8/10.

5. Daredevil #30 (Marvel, W: Mark Waid, A: Chris Samnee). After last issue’s pitch-perfection, I suppose Waid had nowhere to go but down. That’s not to say that this issue’s at all bad, but it does feel inconsequential. Daredevil is approached by an alien named Ru’ach, who tells him of a being hunting him down to kill him without mercy. He comes on strong, playing DD like a fiddle, knowing exactly what to say to appeal to his sense of justice. That being, of course, turns out to be the Silver Surfer, who bursts onto the scene rather uncharacteristically angry and out of control. It seems this Ru’ach is of an alien race known as the Achians, who specialize in manipulation and persuasion. Realizing he’s been duped, DD sets out with the Surfer to capture the by-then-fleeing alien. This sets the stage for Daredevil to ride around on the Surfer’s board and for the something-of-a-stretch realization that Daredevil’s radar sense and Silver Surfer’s cosmic awareness are similar in nature, in that the owner of said power is being constantly barraged by incoming information. And that’s the underlying theme of the issue, so when Ru’ach is handily captured, it feels less like the end of a story and more like the completion of a connect-the-dots picture. Like I said, it’s a bit of a stretch, as if Waid were searching for any reason to justify these characters crossing paths. Not exactly a bad issue, but one that’s utterly skippable and is therefore devoid of purpose or meaning. Score: 5/10.

6. 100 Bullets: Brother Lono #3 of 8 (DC/Vertigo, W: Brian Azzarello, A: Eduardo Risso). I suppose this series will make quite a bit more sense in the end, as Lono continues to struggle to carve out a new, violence-free existence for himself south of the border in a monastery. He’s more hired help than monk-in-training, but the violence of his past continues to beckon as a particularly nasty drug cartel spreads their evil to his doorstep. As we move forward, Azzarello uses his signature brand of back-and-forth dialogue to paint a gritty picture of life in Mexico, where the law is impotent and the cartels run everything. A satisfying piece of noir, this, and as the violence is knocking on Lono’s doorstep, all that remains for us fans is to wait and see how long it is before he’s back to his sadistic ways. Or will he be? Leaving us wondering is another tool in Azzarello’s box he’s utilizing to great effect here. There’s a part of everyone reading this issue that wants to see Lono unleashed, but that may not be quite what’s up Azzarello’s sleeve here, and leveraging that uncertainty may be his slickest trick of all. Score: 7/10.

7. Wonder Woman #23 (DC, W: Brian Azzarello, A: Cliff Chiang). Azzarello pulls out all the stops here, as the second arc of his Wonder Woman opus concludes. It’s full-on ass-kicking time as Diana and company throw down with the First Born, and it’s an epic battle indeed. One by one Diana’s comrades fall to this seemingly-unstoppable force (he and Juggernaut should form a union), until finally it’s up to the old, bitter, and weakened War to pull a ghostly Return of the King out of his ass and save the day. It’s a truly epic finish, although I’m not sure I buy it one hundred percent. Azzarello’s spent too much time building up the First Born to have him dispatched so easily. The issue closes with a quiet, reflective moment, as yet another of Wonder Woman’s allies pays the ultimate price in the effort to protect little baby Zeke. First Born and Cheetah take center stage in the next two issues, which fall under the (stupid) umbrella of Villains Month, and then it’s off to the races for Azzarello’s next arc. The man is simply on fire here, producing DC’s best book, even if its sales don’t reflect that. Do us all a favor and buy this comic! Score: 8/10.

And that’s it for this week. The good, the bad, the not so bad, but not the hideously bad this week, fortunately. Keep reading those comics, folks!

~ILL DIABLO~

THIS JUST IN: Fanboys “Not Happy” With Casting of Ben Affleck as Batman

Okay, internet trolls, I get it. You’re not happy about Ben Affleck being cast as Batman in 2015’s Batman/Superman movie. To paraphrase Affleck himself in Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back: “The internet has given everyone in America a voice, which they use to talk shit on movies.”

And oh, have the fanboys gone off. You’d think Affleck had murdered George Lucas and raped his corpse with a lightsaber prop, the vitriol is flying so thickly and quickly. And I get the kneejerk response, really, I do. It’s an out-of-left-field casting choice that absolutely NO ONE saw coming. The mind’s natural response to the unknown is repulsion.

But seriously: SHUT. THE FUCK. UP.

It’s a done deal and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Deal with it, you sad bastards, lest you wind up repeating yourselves as you did when you found out Heath Ledger was playing the Joker. Whoops, too late.

Warner Bros. had a serious dilemma on their hands: anybody who got the unlucky job of following Christian Bale as the Dark Knight was going to be immediately condemned and doomed to endless scrutiny and disdain. Especially since whatever schmuck they wrangled would be following up Bale’s final performance a mere three years later, when the latter’s take on the Dark Knight would still be fresh in the public’s mind. Seriously, Warner’s could find a way to bring the actual Batman to life from off the comics page, and there’d still be vocal opposition at every turn. Thus is the very nature of the internet: nobody’s happy, and every 400-pound basement-dweller with an online account has the steel gonads needed to talk endless shit (and spell and use apostrophes with the accuracy of an illiterate eighth-generation inbreeding casualty) behind the safety and anonymity of their laptop.

So the smart money for Warner’s was to go with a big name. This isn’t a retread of casting George Clooney as Batman, a move done solely to capitalize on his then-current popularity as Hollywood’s favorite it-actor. This is Warner’s, Zack Snyder, and Christopher Nolan saying: “Here’s a guy who loves comics, is a great actor, and, after a big Oscar win and proven ability as a director, coming onboard our crazy-ass project to become a piece of our puzzle.” In other words, the casting choice isn’t about pimping Affleck as a leading man. It’s about integrating an accomplished star, who happens to have the star power to bring his own gravitas to the role, into their body of work. It’s inspired, and it’s crafty. It’s also a smart business move.

Too bad the Batman/Superman movie is two years away and we’re going to all have to hunker down and listen to the constant barrage of bitching and just hopefully tune it out. I get the complaints about Daredevil and Gigli, folks. But those turds were a long time ago, and Affleck’s been appropriately brought back down to Earth, matured, and proven to be worthy of all the hype in the ’90s and early ’00s. It turned out to be for different reasons than we thought at the time, and surely that’s a good thing, as Affleck in his prima donna years was an insufferable douchebag who just happened to be pals with Kevin Smith and therefore got a lot of latitude.

Thankfully things have changed, which means, internet, you need to quiet down for awhile and go back to picking apart the minutia of The Hobbit. Now there’s a crass Hollywood subject worthy of a bitch-fest.

In Nolan We Trust,

~ILL DIABLO~

GOT THAT INDIE FEELIN’!! Part 1: Rob Schrab and Scud: The Disposable Assassin

Welcome to a new recurring feature on Ill Diablo Loves Comics. As you probably guessed from the title, it’s called GOT THAT INDIE FEELIN’!!, and it’s about, um DUH, indie comics. I realize that I spend a lot of time talking about stuff that mostly pertains to Marvel, DC, or Image, or broader topics about comics in general, but haven’t spent a lot of time discussing many of the kick-ass indie books I’ve loved over the years.

That ends now! I’m doing a disservice to you, my readers, by not broadening your horizons, to myself for not thinking about those horizons sooner, and frankly, to the creators I’m giving a fist-bump to who have given me so many hours of entertainment over the years. Not cool. Not fucking cool at all.

Today I’m going to dive into the topic of Rob Schrab’s outstanding, yet erratically shipping, 1994 to 1998 (and 2008, more on that shortly) series Scud: The Disposable Assassin. If you haven’t heard of Schrab, he’s the rather esoteric genius behind channel101.com, the extremely underrated kids’ movie Monster House, a writer and occasional director on The Sarah Silverman Program, and a few other various and sundry things over the years. But before all that, there was Scud.

Scud was about a hyperkinetic, crazy-as-fuck future world where a person could purchase a robot out of a Scudco vending machine to exact vengeance on a someone. Anyone, really. Once the target was destroyed, the Scud robot self-destructed, its mission fulfilled. Right off the bat, Scud is hired by a Mr. Spidergod of Marvin’s Mannakins to assassinate a hideous creature named Jeff who’s been murdering his employees. Jeff, who by the way is female, has a giant plug for a head, tentacles for arms, mousetraps for hands, a tiger torso with a squid strapped to it, and legs with mouths on the kneecaps and hands instead of feet. Oh, and she only speaks in quotations from film, TV shows, video games, and other various pop culture.

En route to assassinate this weird-ass fiend, Scud discovers his impending death upon the successful completion of his mission to kill his primary target, realizes he wants to live, and sets out to incapacitate Jeff however he can without murdering her and thus hastening his own demise. He succeeds by shooting all her limbs off, and has her placed into a life support tank not dissimilar to the one Luke Skywalker was floating in on Hoth after Han found him out in the frozen wastes. But the hospital bills required to maintain Jeff’s homeostasis are epic, so Scud embarks on a life of assassination for hire in order to pay the ongoing tab.

And that’s just the first issue.

Schrab’s world is the most craziest, most completely random mish-mesh of anything and everything ever put to page. The corpse of Jack Kirby wishes he could cram as much tight-knit lunacy into one comic. Most of the world’s denizens are robots of some sort, awesomely thrown-together mutant creatures such as Jeff, or shit that can’t even be designated such as Scud’s buddy Drywall. Drywall looks like a vaguely-human shaped living blanket with zippers all over him, from which Mickey Mouse hands emerge with whatever item he needs from the infinite storage space contained within him. Characters who could otherwise be pale throwaways are made all the more interesting visually by the sheer amount of unhinged imagination Schrab put into them: take Nathan Twist, for example. A drug dealer who’s secretly cut a deal with the mayor of a small country town, Twist is virtually no different from any other hardass drug lord since Tony Montana. But the fact that the guy is a flying giraffe with a tiny spaceship for a head that shoots a devastating laser immediately sets him apart from the crowd. Another typical Schrab creation is Pavlov, an associate of Twist’s, who is a man with a dog for a head. Not a dog’s head on a human neck, mind you–an entire dog plopped on his frame! There’s the Grittities, a cult of personality who worship TV and movie cowboy personality Hank Gritt, and give heed to “manliness and unnecessary explosions.” Other great Scud characters include:

– Tony Tasty and La Cosa Nostroid: robot Mafiosos who, in Schrab’s own words from the Scud: The Disposable Assassin – The Whole Shebang omnibus, are “Voltron as directed by Martin Scorsese.” These characters briefly spun off into their own series, which lasted nine issues and was written by Schrab writing buddy Dan Harmon.

– Drywall’s brothers, Mess and System: the former a walking pile of drawers who is a first attempt at the technology that created Drywall himself, and who is also Drywall’s brother due to the fact that they both share the soul of the miscarried baby their creator lost; and the latter is the Drywall storage technology (read: tesseract) perfected and taken to its utmost, dispassionate extreme. System actually manages to “store” Satan inside him and takes over Hell. Both characters are crucial to the series’ finale.

– Sussudio: Scud’s would-be girlfriend, another assassin for hire who can only be sexually aroused by robots thanks to a freak incident with her nannybot when she was a child. This, however, works out well for Scud.

– Oswald: The ultimate smooth-kiiller badass, this older model Scudco robot resembles a giant bunny-man, but cross him at your own risk. He also has a serious love of porn and the fairer sex. Oswald and Drywall starred in their own spin-off series that only saw two issues published.

– Voodoo Ben: The series’ other heavy outside of Jeff, this is Benjamin Franklin, “master of sex and voodoo,” to use the character’s own words. Although it’s never explained how he’s still alive, apparently at some point he turned to the dark arts–which generally involves raising zombies of whatever the hell dead thing is around him, such as cattle or dinosaurs–and is out to help his lord and master, System, rule the world.

So, that’s a pretty eclectic mix no matter how you slice it. How in the hell did Schrab pull it off? It wasn’t easy, and the earliest issues show that. Despite an excellent sense for John Woo-style action sequences and a mastery of panel placement to help them along, the first Scud issue has some pacing issues otherwise that shows Schrab was still a novice at the art of writing comics. So he quickly brought in buddies Dan Harmon and Mondy Carter to help with the writing duties as of issue two, with them rotating in and out of the credits and occasionally getting all the writing credit themselves.

But they were a potent creative team. Although everything spun out of Schrab’s cracked-out imagination, there was never really a feeling of discontinuity when the writing credits would regularly shift from issue to issue. Scud himself, despite being a robot, has as much heart and lust for life as anyone. He cares about his friends, he’s random and silly and has a great sense of humor, he gets angry. In other words, he’s human. And that’s the glue that holds this whole thing together: no matter what Scud’s up against, be it an army of zombie dinosaurs or a Shakespeare-quoting werewolf who devolves into a black hole, Scud is a blue-collar guy we can all relate to and even like, despite the fact that he kills for a living. Drywall is another great example of this. Despite the fact that his dialogue consists only of, “|||||||||,” through his mannerisms and gestures we get a sense very quickly that he’s just a little kid, and a sweet one at that. We root for him without even knowing a word he’s saying.

But the shift in writing credits, however, was reflective of where Schrab himself was at the time. Scud, you see, was very much an outgrowth of his personal life. The comic was created as a means of working through a breakup he’d recently suffered, but as the series wore on, he was getting burned out both by it and by his poor experiences trying to break into Hollywood.  Oh, and he and another girlfriend broke up, making his despondency even worse. So he withdrew more and more from the comic, and its already-poor shipping schedule grew even more erratic, until, with issue twenty, he finally just gave up and shelved the book.

Which in 1998, after four years and only twenty issues, a Drywall origin one-shot, and a handful of other spin-offs to show for it in the four years of the comic’s existence, sucked. Especially since issues 16-20 were so random and unfocused. Especially since #20 ended with such a drastic cliffhanger. And especially since, as time wore on, it seemed to become increasingly apparent that Schrab had no interest in finishing what he’d started, since his Hollywood prospects were beginning to finally take off. As he seethed vehemently over his lot in life, and fell into therapy and antidepressants, he even admitted to hating comics entirely, his own most of all. And although in retrospect it feels like he was being too hard on his creation and his abilities, issues 16-20 are definitely the series’ low point, a fragmented tale involving a robot horse that keeps showing up out of nowhere and teleporting Scud and Sussudio to other worlds for an issue at a time for various misadventures. In the above linked essay by Schrab, he rips apart every aspect of issue twenty as an angry “there is no god” screed with bad art that was nothing more than an ugly reflection of his own life.

And so he just walked away. No more Scud.

Cut to 2008. After a decade away, Schrab finally, finally concluded his story, with Image picking up the publishing rights from Schrab’s own long-defunct Fireman Press, for a four-parter that wrapped up damn near everything.* Wrapped it up as though ten years hadn’t elapsed, actually, which was a great accomplishment on Schrab’s part. Sitting down and reading the Whole Shebang omnibus front to back, I found that the concluding issues synched up very, very well with the rest of the series in terms of tone and continuity. Granted, it helped that Schrab had ten years pass in-story just as it had here in the real world, but still. And he even managed to end the series on a happy note, a welcome affirmation that he had bested his personal demons, or was at least happy enough for his depression to not be seeping into every page of his comic.

Scud was a comic that was a true anomaly at the time of its main publication, 1994-1998. This was the Chromium Age, after all, and although the collectors’ boom allowed for more than a few independent publishers to thrive, most of their successes were brief at best. (Remember Cyberfrog? How about Creed? Me neither.) And although Scud certainly represents a small slice of the comics-reading demographic, it holds up amazingly well nineteen years after it began. It’s funny, exciting, warped in all the right ways, has astounding action sequences, and some of the most freewheelingly imaginative creative flourishes I’ve ever seen anywhere, in any medium. Rob Schrab may not have ultimately wanted to spend his career toiling in the trenches of writing and drawing comics–but he certainly created an original, applause-worthy world that stacks up against anything else out there in terms of originality, characterization, and heart. It’s not a Pinocchio story, either, talking down to its audience by jumping the shark and having Scud want to be a real boy. Scud likes being a robot. Scud loves the crazy-ass world he inhabits. And it’s awesome for me to find out, with my latest birthday looming and my childhood growing ever further away, that I still love that crazy-ass world, too. All due respect and props to Rob Schrab. He’s welcome back in comics anytime he wants.

~ILL DIABLO~

 

*A few glaring omissions: Whatever happened with the prison guys who relentlessly tracked Scud for most of issues 5-15? Whatever became of Tony Tasty and La Cosa Nostroid? Why is Benjamin Franklin hundreds of years old and totally evil now? And what the hell is Hank Gritt’s deal, anyway?