In which the blogger continues his review of 2011, which was begun here, and continued here and here and here. For anyone just popping in by chance, there's a brief recap of how the "best" and "worst" were chosen at the bottom of this page;
6. Problem The Sixth:- An Obsession With The Soap Opera Of The Superhero Class
What if it all got way, way, way past the point at which there were far too many comics in which everyone was a superhero? What if these superheroes weren't being typically used as metaphors for the human condition at all, or as symbols of this ethical dilemma or that,
but as objects of fascination if not veneration in themselves? What if the wonderful
absurdity which marks out the superhero as
something that's both entirely ridiculous and yet so strangely telling had been seriously diminished by how ubiquitous and interchangeable the
breed and its adventures had become? What if their affairs were
removed from everyday life to the point at which any world which the likes of you and
I might recognise rarely appeared at all, and even then as if from the wrong end of
the telescope, far away and improbably abstracted?
What if this class
of super-people were shown forming their own closed societies, their own privileged and inter-locking classes and sub-cultures and nations, in which they
lived with and married and worked with no-one but those of their
own kind, until the only typical human beings that they ever met seemed to be
either victims to be saved, helpers to be won over, or antagonists to
be defeated? What if all the countless possibilities of the sub-genre
became blanded out with an obsession concerning which costume might join
which team, and which super-people might fall in love, and which might end up fighting apparently to the death for the next month or two? What if everybody knew
everyone else, and what if each successive year seemed more and more
like an endlessly purposeless excuse-me, in which everyone eventually
exchanges partners and roles until everything returns back to where it
was before, meaning that little ultimately makes sense except for the mechanics of the melodrama of the same-time-next-month superhero soap opera?
An obsession with the incestuous social relations of the superhero class is obviously one fetish which (11) Warren Ellis has avoided becoming habituated to. His Secret Avengers
issues are entirely unconcerned with anything other than the broadest
details of his character's backstory. Similarly, there's no suggestion of any
continuity which binds his done-in-one issues together with either each other or the Marvel universe beyond in any way which diminishes the value of each single issue as a stand-alone. (*1) Each month finds a rotating cast of Avengers under Steve Rogers's leadership charging off to play out a series of notably not-so-covert secret missions in what reads as a hybrid of G.I. Joe with Mission Impossible. If there's at times just a touch too little story that's been woven been over his plots, Ellis's smart melange of pop science and 21st century politics, Saturday-morning cartoons and bleak post-Bourne thrillers, succeeds where so few other superhero comics do; it entertains as a self-contained pleasure rather than functioning as a way-station along an endless trudge of continuity. As it does so, it displays once more Ennis's often under-appreciated skill for imaging and describing a uniquely promising widescreen scene which his collaborators can then bring to life according to their own individual gifts. Of these, Jamie McKelvie's graceful, and almost-agoraphobic, double-page splash of Moon-Knight gliding over a darkened, empty sci-fi cityscape in Subland Empire is the most impressively affecting. There's so little story that's being delivered there, and yet the scene has been so precisely designed that there's an almost overwhelming sense of vertiginous lonesomeness at work there..
*1:- Michael Hoskin quite rightly called me on this sentence in the comments, and I've amended it according.
Yet the best of Ellis's Secret Avengers stories is to be found in Beast Box, his collaboration with Kev Walker in Secret Avengers # 17, though it's an issue which hasn't always proved to be the most popular of the run across the blogosphere. Its portrayal of a mechanised,vampiric truck roaming across a fractured Serbia and kidnapping its citizens is as knowingly preposterous as it's entirely chilling. To use the ridiculous conceit of a demonic mind-thieving freighter in order not simply to entertain, but to touch upon the ghosts and spectres of former and present real-world terrors grounds - but not mires - all those superheroics in something endlessly more disturbing and tragic.
Don't be misled by the cover to the collected edition of (12) Gail Simone and Horacio Domingues's Welcome To Tranquillity: One Foot In The Grave. It may well appear to be describing just another closed community of costumed superheroes, but One Foot In The Grave
is anything but yet another comic concerned with a society of
super-people and little else. Similarly, the meta-aspects of the story's
six chapters may seem to suggest a cape'n'chest-insignia book
concerned with nothing but the playing out of the most over-familiar and
threadbare aspects of the sub-genre; the community transformed into
super-people in order to end an overwhelming threat, the return of
apparently-dead and well-loved characters, the representation of
backstory in the form of anachronistic comic-strip pages, and so on.
Yet it's all a great deal of a double-bluff, as a knowing - but never
arch - Ms Simone uses some of sub-genre's most bromidic conventions in
order to gently but definitively illustrate the fundamental difference
between comic-book melodrama and drama, between conflict for its own
sake and conflict that helps play out an ethical dilemma. In doing so,
Ms Simone appears to be arguing that it's not the superhero comic itself
which is in risk of exhausting its appeal, but rather the lack of an moral purpose in the tales which are told with it. With everything
that occurs on the pages of One Foot In The Grave serving the overall
theme of the virtues and limits of unselfishness and forgiveness,
there's never a sense that the book's love-affairs and shoot-outs and nightmare snacktime horroshocks
are either sensationalist ham indulgences or thin retreads of a
thousand cold-in-their-Mylar comicbook tales.
No, there's nothing of the
super-soap-opera here at all, or at least there's not to anyone who's
not a macho fundamentalist, regarding any sign of emotion and intimacy
as a disgracefully spine-weakening indulgence. Assisted in no little
measure by a laudable leap in Mr Domingues's achievements where the emotional clarity in particular of
his work is
concerned, One Foot In The Grave delivers a thoroughly enjoyable example
of how the superhero tale can describe the lives of a broad community
of individuals without ever falling back on either cliche for its own
sake or bathos as a substitute for emotion and smart-thinking.
Is it full to the brim of super-people? It surely is, and the fun of it all is a match for anything else that there's been out on the stands from an American publisher this year beyond its soul-mate and equal Knight And Squire. And yet it's really not that
"super" part of the equation which matters the most in the end. For all the entertainment offered by the spectacle of the hyper-conflict and the cleverness of the
inter-texuality, it's Ms Simone and Mr Dominques's characters that remain
with the reader at the story's close, as well, of course, as the conclusion to the theme
which all those super-folks have helped play out.
TooBusyThinking Offers Its Sincere Thanks To The Following Creators For Their Having Made 2011 A Better Place To Live In;
in no order of preference, since all involved are entirely splendid;
(1) Robbie Morrison & Simon Fraser's Nikolai Dante: Bad Blood (2000ad # 1732-1736)
(2) Roger Langride & Chris Samnee's Thor The Mighty Avenger
(3) Rob Williams & D'Israeli's Low Life: The Deal (2000ad #1750-1761)
(4) Damon Lindelof & Ryan Sook's Life Support (Action Comics # 900)
(5) Mark Waid, Paolo Rivera & Marcos Martin's Daredevil
(6) Paul Cornell & Jimmy Broxton's Knight And Squire
(7) Gail Simone, Jim Calafiore & Marcos Marz's Secret Six
(8) Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie's Generation Hope # 9
(9) Al Ewing & Leigh Gallagher's Judge Dredd:The Family Man (Judge Dredd Megazine # 312/3)
(10) Kieron Gillen & Richard Elson's Journey Into Mystery # 630
(11) Warren Ellis, Jamie McKelvie & Kev Walker's Secret Avengers # 16/17
(12) Gail Simone & Horacio Domingues's Welcome To Tranquility: One Foot In The Grave
Numbers 13 to, er, 15, are, of course, still to come, as well as the last 2 - boo-hiss - problems ...
Tomorrow, there'll be the concluding part of this blog's chat about Knight And Squire, for which I'll have to rescue the tpb from the Splendid Wife's side of the marital bed. Between that and a weekend's watching of the first series of Misfits, there may just be a second superhero-friendly member of the family for Christmas ...
A Brief Recap Of What's Going On Here
If you've not read either of the first two parts of this piece - and why should you? - then here's a quick recap of how this
best-and-worst-of-2011 has been put together;
"I've tried to make what follows a relatively brief summary of a year's
worth of blogging. There's 8 sections to come, each of which in turn
deals with a series of problems which seem to be commonly afflicting
most of today's comics. At the end of each section, I've mentioned one
or more of my favourite comics from the past twelve months, each a
notable and much-appreciated exception to whatever rule it is that I'm
trying to establish. Most of the comics which I mention favourably could
have been used to contradict any of the general criticisms I've made,
and I've shared them around more with a desire to break up the moaning
than to suggest that each of them is characterised by just a single and
specific virtue. Nothing could be further from my mind."