Wednesday, 26 September 2012

On Happy! #1, The Ultimates #16, & Justice League Dark #0

Reader, beware; two of the following three reviews are very not positive, and spoilers are most definitely ahoy. If you don't want either surprises ruined or a contrary opinion expressed, then please, save yourselves!

   
Bullet-shattered skulls, angel-administered blow-jobs, by-the-numbers gangsterism, and an ardent, persistent display of Olympian-level profanity. With its opening 15 pages seeming not so much daring and thrilling as improbably over-familiar and wearisome, it’s hard to bother persevering with the first issue of Grant Morrison and Darrick Robertson’s new mini-series Happy!.  Could this be nothing but an enthusiastically fond nod of respect towards Garth Ennis' least restrained comics indulgences, or even a cut’im-off-at-the-knee satire of Mark Millar at his most desperately keen to offend? Yet having slogged through the first 60% of Happy!, all that hyper-noir’s revealed as set-up, and what we’re then eased into is the kind of 21st century, Rabelaisian reworking of Harvey which James Stewart would never have considered starring in. Having held back the slightest trace of humour and hope for such a protracted introduction, the appearance of Robertson’s perpetually-cheerful, pooka-like Happy The Horse into this washed-out, meaningless world of scum and scummier transforms the book into a laugh-outloud buddy comedy. The snare of whether a conscienceless killer and a quite possibly imaginary blue flying talking horse can outwit, and most probably out-murder, a hospital packed with mobsters means that the second issue of Happy! eventually appears far more enticing than initially seemed possible.

      
From a comic which playfully chuckles at the worst indulgences of genre fiction to one which seems to have no idea of what it's doing at all beyond hypefully attracting headlines, The Ultimates #16 sees Captain America sworn in as the new President of the Republic. According to Marvel's Editor In Chief Axel Alonso (*1), the Ultimate Universe's new Chief Executive doesn't just "transcend partisan politics", but “politics” itself. As James Stewart might've been asked to say; golly gee. Obviously the politics of the Ultimate Universe have as much to do with those in the real-world as does its science, given that the idea of transcending politics is one that belongs in a Zen riddle and nowhere else. And as with any other effort to pretend that politics can be risen above and something ethically objective achieved instead, Sam Humphries’ script for the no-doubt team-Marvel-plotted The Ultimates #16 ends up seeming to carelessly peddle some particularly dubious myths indeed. 

*1 - In an interview with Kiel Phegley at CBR

       
Too timid it seems to take the idea of President Cap and use it to discuss anything of America's highly polarised politics in a way that might offend or even amuse, United We Stand Part 1 presents us with a nation which seems to have been shattered by a perfect storm of selfish individuals, interest-serving politicos and super-villains. The solution, it appears, is for the everyday folks of the Republic to be inspired by President Cap's folksy rhetoric about duty and tradition while the man himself heads off and delivers a damn good ass-kicking to everyone he disagrees with the name of the common good. Well, aren't all our problems really down to just a few bad people and a huddle of easily influenced fools, and wouldn't it good to think they could be dealt with through the application of a thoroughly virtuous beating? Why, all the good folks could just settle down to getting along with each other, and everything would be peachy. How easy is that? Frontier-justice + mum's apple-pie neighbourliness = problems solved, and without any of those politics too.

Why, what's political about Captain America forcing people to obey a Constitution which he himself is violating with every punch he throws?


The result of all of this is a thick-headed celebration of a Constitution-shredding Great Man Of Destiny, who, for all of Marvel's attempts to avoid those rotten, controversy-causing politics, emerges as a reactionary brute charged up with super-soldier serum and set on saving democracy from itself through super-force. America's been betrayed, you see, which in itself is a highly charged enough concept in a time when so many folks appear convinced that that's true. Some subtlety - or even, gulp, satire - might have been due here, but instead, we're presented with the menace of corrupt elected officials and an entirely noble, superhumanly prescient and fearsome Cap. It seems that the inspiration lent by a politics-transcending bloke in a flag-waving costume who's been elected by an entirely impossible procedure will make everything better. At least, it will, we seem to be being told, as long as he's allowed to inflict as much violence as he wants without any trace of accountability at all. It's all worryingly reminiscent of a fundamentally fascist world-view, which is, of course, one of those utterly reprehensible ideologies which claim to be above politics. And though The Ultimates #16 is too insipid, ignorant and quite frankly mediocre to accidentally contribute anything to such a cause, that's exactly the world-view that this story seems to most sympathise with. No, this isn't an evil book, and it doesn't come wearing a black shirt in any shape or form; it'd take a hysterically disordered world-view to generate any such an opinion. But it is a stupid and cowardly tale, and the myths it appears to indulge itself in express values that would be far better off being challenged, or, at the very least, left well alone.

         
Perhaps this is all a wonderful feint on the part of Marvel, and perhaps we'll soon be shown how much sharp-edged, well-informed satire was being set up in this power-worshipping, politics-loathing issue. Yet modern-era comics are full of such hopes. Perhaps the Amazons won't turn out to have to murdered their lovers, perhaps Spider-Man really didn't willingly collaborate with the Sandman's torture. Whatever, if there is to be a politically-engaged reversal heaving into sight, it'll be an entirely unexpected one. There's nothing of any subtlety, or even fun, to be found in The Ultimates #16, although that's hardly the fault of artist Luke Ross, whose pages are reliably, if unspectacularly, competent throughout.

      
But then, comics-fans and comics-pros alike do often bear a strange obsession with the supposedly virtuous character of Captain America. That's true, it appears, no matter what universe we're in and it seems to hold regardless of what he might actually say and do. Of course, Benjamin Franklin held an opinion of patriotism which might have productively come into play when this storyline was being brainstormed, and yet it's one that Mr Alonso seemed to be ignoring when he asked Comic Book Resources, "...who’s a more attractive Presidential candidate than a guy dressed head to toe in red, white and blue?". I would have thought pretty much anyone and everyone, but that's those pesky politics again. I've obviously not transcended them yet.

        
I've not transcended my problems with the idea of John Contantine as the leader of a troop of - save me - "dark" super-heroes either, and regrettably Jeff Lemire, Lee Garbett and Cam Smith's  Justice League Dark #0 has done nothing to change my mind. Though it's possible that some of the quality of the well-regarded Lemire's script has been frittered away by Garbett's not-ready-for-prime-time efforts, neither creator can be said to have come out well of Young Bastards. Certainly all but a very few of Garbett's panels are stiffly framed in mid-shot and close-up at eye-level, meaning that he's hammering the same basic options over and over again. Sadly, all the one-dimensional clarity in the world can't compensate for a lack of dynamism, emotion and mood, and that means that Young Bastards lacks any convincing sense of the necessary menace, character, and - crucially here - sexual tension.

    
As such, it's hard to see how any writer could flourish, and yet there's more than a hint that Lemire's hamstrung himself by trying to tell far too much of a story in far too little space. He introduces us to a mentor of Constantine's, sketches out their relationship, establishes a love triangle, and then brings the affair to its inevitably unpleasant conclusion all in twenty pages, and the result is a tale that refers to many of its main plot-beats while failing to make anything convincing of any of them. People fall in love because the plot demands it, and betray each other for the same reason, but there's nothing to make us feel that these events have any substance to them at all. Information is delivered far more through exposition than action, with Constantine's drift from disciple-hood to Judas all sketched out in a single conservation with Zantanna. As such, the first hint we have that Constantine has turned against the dubiously-named Necro is when Lemire has him say so. There's a similarly perfunctory air about the supposed crackling romance between this unconvincing take on the Hellblazer and Zatarra's daughter too. They declare it's so, and so it must be, although the story has sidestepped showing anything of how they became so besotted with each other.

       
All in all, it reads as if someone mistook the bare bones of JLD#'0's plot for its story. It certainly doesn't help that, with so much emotional ground to cover, the script throws away a page on the irrelevant-to-the-plot business of Constantine's arrival at JFK, and another on an almost-splash of a sexed up goth-Zantanna, while seven sides are tossed in the direction of a closing punch-up starring three characters whose relationship has barely been established. Surely some of that clearly frittered-away space ought to have been allocated to the business of making us care about the folks who end up fighting each other for their lives, but no. Given such obviously counter-intuitive choices, all Young Bastards can do is impose a sense of purposelessness, and it's hard not to suspect that the script at the very least was produced in an unhelpfully short amount of time.

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22 comments:

  1. The "United We Stand" storyline reminds me of Action Comics Annual #3 (1991), written by Roger Stern, in which we see a future in which Superman becomes president. Surprisingly, it dealt with the issues of a super-president in a relatively realistic manner, from the question of eligibility to the economic impact. Good thing his rocket didn't land in Hawaii!

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    1. Hello Rabbi Joe:- I remember that tale, and I'm a huge admirer of Mr Stern, one of the most professional writers I can think of in the very best senses of the world.

      I suspect that if RS had been in charge of United We Stand, I suspect strongly that I'd never have written the above :)

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  2. on The Ultimates #16 i wonder how will they handle this:http://media.comicvine.com/uploads/12/123120/2390381-ult._cap_a_for_france_3.jpg

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  3. Hello H:- I was trying not to digress into how unsuitable this Cap is to the role of politics-transcending President. Not because it isn't relevant, but because I wanted to keep things as concise as possible. Bless you for adding the evidence as you have. This is not a nice bloke in terms of 21st century diplomacy, is it?

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  4. Ya know, when I saw the cover to that classic Stern & Byrne Captain America for President issue from circa 1980, my initial thought was, ugh, what a terrible idea! The story itself was pretty good though, and it was in perfect keeping with Cap's character that he declined. I won't be reading Ultimates #16. Yeah, it's all fantasy, so why not have a superhero take over? Well, Alan Moore told a great tale in Miracle Man #16 (hmm, that number again) of the superhero taking over the world as benevolent but absolute dictator (Mrs. Thatcher: "This simply cannot be allowed!" Miracle Man: "Allow?") with no pretense of adhering to any constitution, simply his own will.
    In the Ultimates scenario, it appears this Cap and his colleagues have similarly taken over, overturning everything the Captain America many of us got to know in the Silver and Bronze Ages would have stood for. That Cap would have stood up to and fought against this Cap setting himself up as dictator. Hell, even the Clint Barton we knew would have smacked this faux Hawkeye around. Well, maybe in the Ulitmates universe things have gotten so rotten that the people think they need a tough guy in a mask & costume inspired by Old Glory but is otherwise a mystery to rule over them. Of course, that sounds more like a recipe for national disaster than for making a utopia.

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    1. Hello Fred:- I of course agree with you about Miracleman, and still have my fingers crossed that Neil Gaiman and Mark Buckingham will be able to finish their own take on the character. At least then, we'll have something new - to our eyes at least - which we can trust to deal with the fact that power corrupts without seeming to reflect to some unfortunate, reactionary politics.

      I've only read a few issues from the past yeat in the Ultimates Universe. To be frank, they've not been particularly enthralling. But what they're peddling in really seems to a quasi-fascist fantasy. Everything is corrupt, but the super-people will save us. Now, perhaps we'll see this really is a set-upn for a discussion of how politics is endlessly more complex than a matter of a few baddies and a team of goodies punching them out. But anyone from outside the hardcore of superhero readers is going to read this issue and conclude this is a dumb, thick-headed comic which plays with politics to get into the press without dealing with them in a smart, responsible way.

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  5. Did you not know the "twist" in Happy!? Because while I totally agree with you that Morrison was channeling the worst excesses of Ennis and Ellis in the beginning, I was also reading it wondering when the horse was going to show up. So I dealt with it. But if you didn't know the horse was coming, I can totally get your reaction.

    I don't know if you read Batman, Inc. #0, but while I did enjoy it (not completely, but it was pretty good), Bruce Wayne seems to act like Captain America in it - intimidating anyone who doesn't think his "Batman, Incorporated" idea is the greatest thing ever. It's kind of strange. Comics writers (even good ones like Morrison) seem to think that characters do what the good guys say because, well, they're good guys. I mean, why would Batman ever have a bad idea?????

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    1. Hello Greg:- Nope, I made sure that I knew as little about Happy! at possible. I try to do that as much as I can, though it's a tough business in these days. If I can't avoid knowing that UU Cap's going to become President, then at least I can make sure that the process by which it happens comes as a surprise. It's not that I mind spoilers; they don't diminish my enjoyment at all. But I find it's easier to both enjoy and make sense of the storytelling if I read things with as few preconceptions as possible. If I know what's coming, I tend to notice the plot-beats being counted off rather than the story and the way its told.

      I've got Batman Inc #0 to read today. Your point about might+costume=right in today's superbooks indicates a serious problem in the sub-genre. It's unpleasant to see it, but few folks seem to even recognise that it's a problem. Sigh and sigh again ....

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  6. Odd. The new issue of The Ultimates felt very much like satire to me, and I thought it was terrific fun. Ultimate Steve Rogers has always been a pompous military asshole, and his behavior here was perfectly in character. It seems sadly plausible to me that a big-shot superhero like Captain America could get public support from Americans even as he's pissing on everything the country stands for. Basically, I didn't see the tone of the comic as respectful of Captain America at all, but more a skewering of the whole "Let's save the world through punching!" concept.

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    1. Hello Mory:- You could well be right :) I didn't get that from the comic, but - shall we say - I have been wrong before. Certainly the context which Marvel EIC gave suggests that the work's meant sincerly, and yet, that could be a canny misdirection.

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    2. In the press, they're trying to get people to read the comic. Pointing out that this isn't the Captain America people know, and that he's not really an uplifting symbol like the Captain America in the movies is supposed to be, would diminish the message. I think we need to differentiate between the story itself, in which a writer is trying to entertain, and a news article whose purpose is simply to advertise.

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    3. Hello Mory:- Oh, I see nothing in the story which screams that it's satire. If it is, it's poorly done. Or at least, it is according to my own taste.

      I do assure you, I'm not confusing an interview with the story. I'm just looking beyond it to try to find any clue I can.

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  7. I don't really think it's entirely fair to compare the Ultimate Universe Cap as Prez to the Batman Incorporating Bruce Wayne, I think some of that nervousness you may be seeing can be attributed to Frazer Irving's art- the man does great work, but sometimes there is a disconnect between the story and the emotions expressed.

    Sad to say I'm not a fan of Jeff Lemire, even when the man lives in my area and I've seen him at conventions multiple times, it just isn't enough to get me onboard. His stuff is all too by the numbers, beat beat beat, but in a soulless manner where you can't help but sit back and ask WHY these series of events are happening? And the answer is always, well, he's writing a comic. Writing!

    I'm reminded just now of one of my favourite comic series- Invincible- despite its propensity for blood and gore, it has a lot of fun playing with cliches and just, you know, communicating to us. Had Lemire been writing the opening arc of THAT series, Invincible would've adopted the costume and codename when he got his powers because that's just what you did, missing out entirely on the feelings of wanting to be like his super hero father and more than anything to finally be something other than normal.

    Ah, sorry Lemire, I should maybe stop picking on you.

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    1. Hello Isaac:- I've still not made it to Batman Inc #0 yet, so I fear I can't comment. I'll keep both your and Greg's POVs when I do read it.

      I am finding it hard to engage with Mr Lemire's work at the moment. Yet I'm aware that quite a few creators I admire think highly of his work. I've read New 52 books and The Underwater Welder, and though I admire his intent and his perseverance, I struggle to feel that I'm involved rather than watching aspects of a plot being placed together on the page. I suspect I need to sit down with a run of issues on a specific book and try to absorb what's going on.

      I have an Invincible collection waiting for me to launch into. Perhaps this weekend will be the time to do that.

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  8. Those are some creepy panels in Ultimates #16, more so because they're clearly not meant to be - Cap is all stoic and the focus, Hawkeye is presented as being cool and stopping the nasty suit - but what they're doing is ignoring and scrapping parts of the legislative branch, in the early days of a strongman elected to reunite the country with violence against Bad People. That is incredibly political and not the sort of politics Marvel seems to think (I can't believe this is satire because Marvel are promoting this as "yay President Cap"). There's also that scene floating around the net where Cap says the whole country is his White House, which sounds stirring but means in real terms that he's not going to DC, where he can properly run things, but personally doing the violence. That's a dereliction of duty!

    I doubt Marvel intended to give us a tribute to fascism, so we're back to Al Ewing's dictum: everything you do will be 'political' in some way, so keep your eyes open. But in this case, it's a story about a character becoming President of the United States during international emergencies and the collapse of the union! Keeping eyes open here should be obvious!

    Dear oh dear. This week's ABC Warriors was also shockingly black-and-white and naive in its politics (only the US would veto a "No War Ever" resolution, never mind everyone agreeing there's no just cause for a humanitarian intervention?) but that's what Pat Mills actually believes, he is deliberately putting forward a view and being consistent. Marvel can't do that?

    - Charles RB

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    1. Hello Charles:- There are indeed creepy panels in TH#16, and your mention of the "America As Cap's White House" matter is a telling one. The idea of a President striding around beating sense into folks is, as you rightly say, incredibly political. I've heard it said that this must be satire, but if so, there's three problems.

      One, that would require the tone and content of the book and the line to have suddenly changed without warning.

      Two, that would presume that Marvel was actually attacking right wingers, which would seem out of character

      Three, it asks the reader to accept as satire a book which rewards its targets for their behaviour in every possible way. When a satire is indistinguishable from its target, it really does run the risk of being misinterpreted.

      I too doubt Marvel meant to say the things it seems to be here. Perhaps we'll find that everything here was all set-up and what comes is a deconstruction of this issue's set-up. But here again we arrive at the curse of so many monthly books; because a theme is going to be presumably developed down the line, individual issues with dubious meanings seem to be considered acceptable.

      I'm so weary of ABC Warriors in story and art that I don't even want to pick up a prog with the script in it. Yet your point is a FINE one. Mills does believe in what he's saying and he's in control of his material when it comes to those politics. I might disagree with him, and be bored by these endless dull stories, but your point stands; he's committed and he's producing a highly committed political strip. In that, more power to his elbow.

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    2. To address points 1 and 2: The tone and content did change rather drastically when Humphries took over a few issues ago. From his very first issue, it immediately took on a surrealist approach where Tony Stark can suddenly have an aneurysm that he uses as a superpower. I don't care for that plot point one bit, but there's no denying the tone has radically changed from the sci-fi world-building Hickman was doing. It has also gotten extremely political: in the last few issues, Texas -led by a cartel of business leaders- declared independence and started threatening the U.S. government with nukes. You could argue that that's not anti-Republican, but you might have a hard time of it.

      If anything, the political leanings are going back to the concept of Millar's first Ultimates, with superheroes as a symbol of the American government's arrogance. If the "heroes" win at the end, that's cynicism, not a sign of writerly immorality. Characters like Hawkeye and Nick Fury have been portrayed very consistently since the beginning of the Ultimate line as immoral assholes. For instance, Ultimate Comics Hawkeye ended with Hawkeye doing something that he knew was wrong, because he'd been ordered to do so, and showed no remorse at it. If the scene here with Hawkeye using Mafia tactics on a politician was intended to be seen as heroic, I'll eat my yarmulke.

      I also don't believe for a second that this is just set-up for something that'll come later. This here is the story, and it's damned good.

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    3. Hello Mory:- We do seem doomed to disagree, don't we? I have been following the Humphrey's issues, I simply don't perceive them in the way that you do. In the above, I was however referring to the specific issue I was reviewing, which I know is, again, a stance that you feel is unfair. I wouldn't deny that there is a strand of the story over its run of issues which identifies - as I said in the review - the UU America's problems in part as being down to a few individuals whose heads need bashing. That's not sophisticated satire, it's a gross over-simplification of a complex situation which allows Marvel to appear as if it's having a go at everyone. Indeed, by making America's structural problems seem to be - for the sake of satire or anything else - something which can be represented so simply, I'd argue this is still reading as a predominantly - if not entirely - right-wing text. The myth that everything would be alright if the bad folks were dealt with a decent strong leader in place is a reactionary myth, and it avoids dealing with any of the deep-set structural problems which any satire of the period really ought to be dealing with.

      If this is a satire, it's a different beast to Millar's in his two Ultimates books. Millar wasn't so apparently keen to avoid offending, for one thing. For another, Millar - for whatever reason - loaded up his text with broad and contradictory satirical points, which created an immediately confusing and yet strangely entertaining brew of right and left wing thinking. That's particularly obvious in Ultimates II. On the one hand, and by his own admission, he wanted to write something which captured the spirit of the times in terms of America's sense of mission and how typical folks - including soldiers - perceived that, and on the other, he wanted to criticise the war itself and the futility of attempting to solve such problems through armed force ill applied. So, instead of thin, safe message, Millar's was actually fierce and contradictory. Different beasts indeed, I'd argue.

      I couldn't say as to whether the scene of Hawkeye and the politico was intended to read as heroic or not. I can only say how it seemed to me. If that was satire, it is - by my own lights, though I fully accept not yours - poorly done. It's all too safe, and that's if it's even satire at all.

      I guess we'll just have to respectfully disagree with each other again. Still, that aside, I hope the day finds you well.

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  9. I thought Happy was just painful. Would have much preferred someone like Palmiotti and Grey have a go at this sort of thing.

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    1. Hello Emmet:- I thought those first 15 pages were terrible. I assume that the appearance of Happy shows that they were intended as set-up and satire. As such,. I enjoyed them. If that's meant as grim'n'gritty seriousness ....

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    2. Felt to me like Morrison having his cake and eating it. I enjoyed The Filth, because there was this suggestion that all the horror and misery was like a body fighting off infection - what the story was really about was a man, his cat and his best friend, ending on a moment of pure hope. Beautifully done. Of course that could be entirely cynical, intended as a way of selling the preceding horror as more palatable.

      Say what you while about Morrison erstwhile former mate, but when Millar throws crap at us he doesn't pretend it's roses.

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    3. Hello Emmet:- You've got me heading back to read Happy! again with a degree of concern. I of course have a great deal of regard for your opinion. I guess I'm reading a significant degree of satire into Happy! and its opening 60%.

      By coincidence, I've just taken The Filth out from the local library. If your concerns for Happy1 have made me uneasy about my response to it, your fondness for The Filth means that this afternoon may well see a very sparsely attended Morrison-con going on out here in the cold, cold East Of England .... :)

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