Tuesday, 28 February 2012

On Seth's "It's A Good Life, If You Don't Weaken"


Of course, prejudice operates on a level that it's hard for the unwittingly prejudiced mind to monitor. Take It's A Good Life, If You Don't Weaken. Consciously, I'd no doubt at all that I'd be glad to have read it. But having so enjoyed Seth's "picture-novella", I'm suddenly aware of how completely it contradicted my expectations, which is something of a surprise, because I didn't know that I was carrying those expectations in the first place. Now I can see that I'd unconsciously pigeon-holed it as a potentially elitist, point-scoring celebration of a more supposedly adult and artistic approach to graphic storytelling than that typically found in the common-or-garden action/adventure comic-book. Whatever its more positive qualities were undoubtedly going to be, some fragment of my pathetically wounded inner fanboy had already decided that Seth's work would prove to be at least in part an expression of disdainful snobbery matched with indy-cartoon one-upmanship.

It's not, as anyone who's visited this blog before will know, that I'm a rabid apologist for the superhero book, but I do refuse to damn the sub-genre's worth and potential just because of the poor quality of most of the product inspired by it. Similarly, I cringe at would-be hipsters measuring out their aesthetic distinction over that of the dumb masses in terms of how intellectually Olympian and challenging their preferences in comics are, and yet, there's a clear distinction between the value of a work of art and that of the snobs who associate themselves with it. Why would I pre-judge Seth's books according to the way I've seen them used to sneer as the proles with their super-blokes and wonder-chicks? I've a well-practised, deliberately maintained loathing for anyone's art or criticism which expresses the superiority of one particular medium over another, or of any one genre over all of its competitors, and with such a high-handed neutrality, it seems, has come a temptation to judge work as snotty and self-aggrandising long before the evidence of any hauteur and pseudo-intellectualism is in.
I could, perhaps, squirm out a defence that I spent my youth knowing that the art I most adored was regarded with contempt by the mainstream media and academia alike, or by describing a life in teaching spent forever bumping against the highbrows to whom the bloodless Hampstead novel was the highest expression of creative worth. I could even point to times when the only comics readers I knew were so against the very idea of a panel without a costumed crime-fighter in it that the likes of Jonah Hex and Nick Fury: Agent Of S.H.I.E.L.D. were regarded as heretically pretentious. (Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, or so I thought.) In short, I admit to being weary of the fact that a great deal of the pop culture I most value has been consistently defined as being either pablum for half-wits or pretentious artistry for the chattering classes. It's always either what Gore Vidal called the P-Novel or the U-Novel, the unashamed and populist or the self-conscious and excluding, and I've never felt comfortable with either front in that particular culture war. In fact, I've always failed to be able to distinguish between the ultimate worth of, say, Ditko's many super-men and the novels of Jane Austen, despite knowing how ridiculous the dilemna will appear, and I rather resent feeling as if I ought to be able to do so. As such, the unexpressed suspicion that Seth's work might read as yet another example of one kind of cartoonist establishing his superiority over less exalted product was enough to keep me unwittingly away from It's A Good Life, If You Don't Weaken without my ever realising that that was so.

Or, to put it in its least complimentary and most objective way, I'd matched the snobbery I detested so thoroughly that I wasn't even aware of my own mutton-headedness. Worse yet, my prejudices were entirely unfounded, as I'm sure that everyone reading this has long known. It's A Good Life, If You Don't Weaken couldn't be less of a book designed to show the inherent superiority of a small cadre of art cartoonists and their rarefied, exclusive tastes. In fact, Seth's story is as touchingly critical of any such monominded high-handedness as it's hauntingly moving on the topic of how pop culture obsessions can intensify our alienation from the positive human aspects of the world around us. That Seth has no time for the action/adventure comic book, with its emphasis, as he told the Comics Journal, upon "confrontation", is entirely irrelevant here, for this is a story of how any life-swallowing infatuation can leave its bearer isolated and dysfunctional. That would be as true for the entirely besotted acolyte of widescreen superhero books as for the nostalgically-befuddled lover of fifties New Yorker cartoons and obscure romance titles. Rather than a fetichisation of the exalted taste and fashionable emotional despair of the art-cartoonist, It's A Good Life, If You Don't Weaken is a smart and compassionate critique of any such a proposition.

It's not just that Seth's work quietly but forcibly woke me up to the shameful presence of my own bias, though for that alone I'd be exceptionally grateful that I'd read his book. For it's such a wonderfully judged examination of a man who's attempting to live his life through his art rather than through his relationships with those around him, and in that, it's a moving wake-up call for all of us who are too busy thinking about anything at all that isn't directly connected with real, solid, dangerously individual human beings.  "Pretentious" and "elitist" are the very last words that I'd use to describe this genuinely moving and, at times, disturbingly telling tale, and yet something in me was sure that that's what I'd find.

How more wrong could my lurking suspicions have been? What were they doing lurking there in the first place? Mea culpe.

This week's instalment in The Year In Comics series over at Sequart concerns Seth's It's A Good Life, If You Don't Weaken, which I really have been touched by in a way that I didn't foresee at all. You can visit that piece, and I hope you'll consider doing so, here;


Sunday, 26 February 2012

On Mark Millar's Tyrannical Justice League, "Wanted" & "The Secret Society Of Super-Villains" (Part 2 of 2)

Continued from last Friday's piece, which can be found here;

The flashback scene by Millar and Giordano in "Wanted" #6 makes it plain that the world before the super-villains took over was a distinctly Silver-Age one. "The skies were so blue in those days" remembers The Killer, and it seems certain that "Wanted" is in part a commentary, if not a criticism, on the post-Crisis, post-1986 tendency towards bleak and bloody super-books.
In order to shift his reader's sympathies from the side of the traditionally noble super-gals'n'guys to that of their typically abhorrent opponents, Millar makes sure to avoid presenting most of the various members of the Secret Society as the entirely murderous and often flat-out psychopathic creatures they really are. It's not that they're mischaracterised, but rather that Millar carefully chooses the moments at which we encounter them. They're shown functioning as a community of ill-conforming individualists, characterised by relatively friendly bickering and telling bursts of sociable good humour, as well as by an entirely understandable air of uncertainty and fear.  As such, Millar makes it hard for the reader not to empathise just a touch with the intense anxiety shared by each of the super-villains, while being careful not to mention that the same super-villains wouldn't ever empathise with the fear that they themselves inspire in the typical inhabitants of the DCU.

Millar uses the idea of children once again to suggest that the DCU's super-villains are far kinder and more generous-hearted individuals than we've previously considered. No matter how facile Amos Fortune's concern for "the youngsters" is, it helps pull our sympathies just a little further in the direction of the Society rather than the League.
In their responses to the reunification of the League and its new pro-active policies, the super-villains put forward the same political arguments that you or I might in response to the unlimited power wielded by this new super-national crime-fighting agency operating outside the bounds of any national code of law. "Is the President going to argue with the fastest man alive, or a kid with the most powerful weapon in the cosmos on his fingers?" they ask each other, and though they're only thinking of themselves, they're also expressing the fears which anyone with even mildly democratic sensibilities might express. As the Martian Manhunter announces while masquerading as the super-villain Brainwave; "I think we all agree such awesome power in the hands of the few is undesirable ..".  And of course, that's true, just as the possession of such power by the likes of the Secret Society Of Super-Villains would be an even more terrifying prospect. Superhero comics work on the premise that the politics of their worlds would be pretty much the same as ours, and yet it's obvious that nothing of the sort could ever be true. A world where the Justice League could travel anywhere and detain anyone they chose to would be an entirely different globe to ours, and the causes of super-villains and adherents of civil liberties alike might just happen to coincide there

The over-people.
In the end, the effectiveness of Millar's script for The Secret Society Of Super-Villains lies in its capacity to make us frightened of the folks that Alan Moore called "the over-people". The superhero narrative typically relies upon the collective delusion on the reader's part that power rarely corrupts where the sheriffs in the white hats are concerned, and that that's true even when so many of the over-people are showing consistently behaving in appalling ways . But even if the reader's happy to accept the premise that Morrison's JLA is both entirely trustworthy and perpetually incorruptible, it's obvious that somewhere down the line, as the Justice League evolves and new members join, Lord Acton's Dictum is going to apply, and absolute power will corrupt absolutely.

The Martian Manhunter, disguised as Brainwave, makes a profoundly dangerous suggestion to a room full of super-villains ...
We do know that Millar  made a serious attempt to pitch The Secret Society Of Super-Villains as a limited series to DC Comics in the years leading up to the turn of the century, although whether the story which was printed in the first JLA 80 Page Giant #1 was anything more than a one-off tale eludes us. Millar has said that little remains of his original proposal for the Secret Society in the pages of Wanted, despite his explaining that the first very much led to the second project. And yet, there are clear connections between the only Secret Society story of Millar's that ever saw print and Wanted. In particular, the super-villains in Secret Society accept the Martian Manhunter's bait of a plan to join together into a great army to slaughter their right-serving costumed opponents, which is exactly how the world of Wanted ended up entirely denuded of super-heroes.

While in the first issue of "Wanted", we discover that the same strategy as J'onn J'onzz proposed to the Society has been adopted to wipe a planet free of super-heroes.
To the Justice League, the suggestion that the various super-villainsof their world might subsume their individual interests in a war upon the JLA is nothing but a scheme to fool the Society into gathering together in a convenient trap. Yet Wanted shows us a world in which such a design was adopted and did result in the extinction of the more benevolent super-people. Over time, the Justice League and their various allies had succeeding in convincing their various opponents that the combined likes of Superman and Batman couldn't ever be overwhelmed by force of numbers, for, as the Wizard says to Brain-Wave/Martian Manhunter when the plan to "finish these clowns once and for all" is announced; "Odds of five to one haven't made any difference to our fortunes in the past." What an irony it would be, if the obliteration of the costumed crimefighter class in the world of Wanted had been the result of a similar ruse that the super-heroes there had once arrogantly spun.

Having given the Society a plan for the extermination of the DCU's super-heroes, the JLA then proceed to terrify, mock and assault their opponents. Not, it might be suggested, the most prudent of policies.
We don't know the details of Millar's proposal for The Secret Society Of Super-Villains, but unless he'd suggested an Elseworld tale, there's of course no possibility that his original story could have ended with the deaths of all of the DCU's super-heroes. But it's hard not to believe that the small, and yet wholly enjoyable, 10 page story printed in 1998 isn't intimately connected to the notorious Wanted. Doing so means presuming a through-line between short feature, series pitch, and limited series, but Millar is well-known for never wasting a promising idea. In The Secret Society Of Super-Villains, the super-heroes surrender to hubris and create a united, fearful and murderously committed opponent out of a previously loosely-affiliated network of largely intimidated antagonists. In Wanted, versions of the same Justice Leaguers are defeated by a well-marshaled army of super-villains, before being mind-wiped and reduced to tortured, helpless amnesiacs. The line from the product of one publisher to that of another, from 1998 to 2003, may be an illusion created by hindsight, but it's a convincing illusion all the same.


Friday, 24 February 2012

On Mark Millar's "Wanted " & "Secret Society Of Super-Villains" (Part 1 of 2)

In which the blogger continues his discussion of 10 comics to recommend even to the most Mark Millar-adverse of readers, which began here with Swamp Thing, and continued with Zuariel and Old Man Wolverine;

Chris Jones and Mark Stegbauer's rejection of comic-book realism for "The Secret Society Of Super Villains" strengthens scripter Mark Millar's purpose. For unlike the purposefully intimidating antagonists in JG. Jones' work on "Wanted", the super-villains of the 1998 tale are as endearingly odd as they're threatening, as amusing as they're disordered, which leaves the reader free by contrast to distrust the intimidatingly powerful ubermenschs of the Justice League.  (There's something of a smart nod to the first team-up of the super-people in 'Crisis On Infinite Earths" #1, pages 26-27 in the above, and that's true down even to factors such as the figures on the balconeys and the casual chit-chat among characters who're rarely seen together as the main event threatens to begin.)
It's a shame that the 10 page The Secret Society Of Super-Villains feature from 1998's JLA 80-page Giant won't ever, for obvious reasons, be collected together with Wanted. Because in so many ways the former reads as a prequel to Mark Millar and J. G. Jones' deliberately provocative tale of how the whipped Wesley Gibson is converted to the do-as-you-will side of the hero/villain divide. For all that it's an in-continuity, comics-code authorised, and apparently throw-away extra feature placed nearer the back than the front of the book it appears in, Millar's The Secret Society Of Super-Villains is a genuinely thought-stirring story of an Earth that's apparently falling under the control of an authoritarian superhero elite. It more than explains why the DCU's super-villains would bind together as an army to entirely eliminate their opposite numbers, and because of that, it appears to begin the story of the criminal seizure of the globe which serves as the backdrop to the events of Wanted, where such a rebellion has succeeded in wiping reality free of the very idea of the super-hero. (*1) Because of this, it's hard not to believe that the universe of Wanted and that of Secret Society are really one and the same, with the names and the faces changed just enough to save Millar from a we'll-take-your-own-eyes-too law-suit. After all, the characters in Wanted are nearly all precise analogues of DC's own trademarked-to-the-hilt properties, and much of the force of its narrative relies upon the reader recognising, for example, that it's really Superman who's been left brain-damaged and tragically abandoned in a home, and that it's truly Batman and Robin who've been shown being fed to a giant octopus. (*2)

*1:- Of course, Millar also tried to pitch a Secret Society of Super Villains series to DC at the turn of the millennium, and that proposal eventually became "Wanted". It's something which we'll turn to in the second part of this piece.
*2:- The date that Millar gives in "Wanted" for the extermination of the superheroes - 1986 - suggests that what we're seeing there is the fate of the pre-Crisis DCU. It's tempting to wonder whether the transformation in "Wanted" of the universe by the triumphant super-villains isn't a writerly comment on the DCU of the post-Crisis period. ("By morning, all the magic in the world had gone ...") Certainly the young Millar expressed in the UK fanzines of the late Eighties a disillusionment with the grim'n'gritty super-comics of the period. A long-shot of an idea, of course, which is why it's here, in italics, in a foot-note.) 

The success of Millar's super-heroes in dominating the ideas of their culture as well as its streets and air-lanes is shown in how even the children of their opponents play with toys of Superman and Batman, at war with Darkseid, in front of their parents.
The plot of The Secret Society Of Super-Villains is a transparently straight-forward one. The JLA have reformed, and the story begins with Superman announcing to the world that;

"A permanent watchtower has been erected on the moon with surveillance equipment unlike anything the world has seen for maximum global security. Your leaders have given us authorization to ... "

His sentences are loaded with words which we might more normally associate with state oppression; "surveillance", "permanent watchtower", "maximum global security", "authorization". To the less conservative mind that's experienced the consequences of the War On Terror in the wake of  9/11, the Justice League's global mandate to endlessly intrude into everyone's privacy in order to serve the greater good carries a sense of the profoundest unease. When Superman states that "The basic philosophy behind the new league is zero tolerance of all super-crime. A radical membership drive has been launched to increase (the JLA's) numbers so that Earth can be protected more effectively ..", the reader becomes immediately aware that such a policy involves the League perpetually overseeing everyone else's business at every level while endlessly expanding its own numbers. The JLA will be forever watching from their secret base high above the world in what's effectively a new nation-state existing quite independently of any Earthly power, and whose self-selecting citizens will be endlessly primed to descend on even the slightest crime which they define as unacceptable. As Per Degaton quite convincingly argues, "Democracy has just been given a death sentence. The world has a new cabal of masters now."

Part of Millar's success in partially shifting the reader's sympathy away from the Justice League lies in his decision to place apparent liberal sympathies into the mouths of super-villains who are of course anything but liberal. Yet it's entirely feasible that Per Degaton would view the power of the new Justice League in such a political sense. He's not suggesting that democracy is a system he supports, but rather expressing his belief that the human race had just lost the choice to choose which of the two classes of super-rulers it wanted to grovel to.
It was of course Grant Morrison's 1997 reboot of the Justice League which Millar was playing with here, and it's notable how very different the two men's take on the same situation is. As with his scripts for Wanted from five years later, Millar was constantly encouraging the reader to view events at least in part from the perspective of the catastrophically anti-social. Where Morrison consistently, and deliberately, presented the JLA as gods, as noble creatures who by their very nature occupied the ethically laudable uplands of virtue (*2), Millar encourages us to see them as the super-villains would, as fascists imposing terror rather than order upon a defenceless world. It's not just that Millar is suggesting the perspective of the likes of Deadshot and Crazy Quilt might be closer than we might expect to our own: he's also challenging Morrison's view that the Justice League could ever be regarded as an implicitly and entirely benign organisation. Until the tale's conclusion, the superheroes of the DCU are a constantly-seen presence intimidating their fearful opponents at a distance, They declare their intentions through the media while the various members of the Secret Society sit with their children, or bed down as lovers, or congregate and gossip on roof-tops beneath colourful advertising billboards declaring that "The League Is Here For You!". There is, it's being made apparent, no escape from the new pro-active Justice League Of America, and no-one to ensure that the JLA fulfill their mandate in an ethical fashion.

*2:- With the exception of The Huntress, and the occasional hissy-fit from Orion, of course.

There's a great deal of the totalitarian in the JLA's determination to stamp out the threat of super-human crime. When Amos Fortune is shown discussing "supervillain clearances" that have been "organised on this scale", it's impossible not to wonder about the League's means and ends. For what's being transmitted is the sense that there's a new world order which cares little for traditional notions of politics and law, and which might not care for any long-established notions of due process. Even when the League finally bursts into the narrative as actors rather than distant presences, they're shown to us as arrogant, terrifying bullies, sneering at their prey, smiling at their suffering, hammering their enemies into unconsciousness. That the Martian Manhunter had infiltrated the Society disguised as Brain Wave and entrapped the super-villains accordingly, inciting them to a murderous assault on the Watchtower before smilingly enjoying their capture, only makes the whole business feel all the more disturbing. What the Manhunter is doing there is redolent of an agent provocateur in spirit if not fact, and regardless of the fact that the super-villains are guilty of conspiracy to murder at the very least, there's a sense that the difference between right and wrong isn't anything like as clear as Grant Morrison's work in the period would have us believe.

Of course, Millar's skill here lies in how he has us sympathise with human beings who'd never care to sympathise with us, and it's that deliberate misdirection which we'll return to next time.

The world in "Wanted" after the super-villains have taken over, with all the silver age colour and magic gone.
To be concluded on Sunday 26th February;

The Martian Manhunter unsettlingly enjoys watching the members of the Secret Society get theirs.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Saying Hello Again To Howard The Duck

In The Year In Comics this week, I'm running with the opportunity to discuss Steve Gerber and Gene Colan's Howard The Duck #24, which was first published in this week some 34 years ago. The piece is, as always, up on the Sequart site, and, as always, I hope you might take a chance and visit it by clicking here.

I'm beginning to believe that I'm one of those folks who doesn't really understand much about their own taste until they take the time to work through their thoughts and feelings on paper. I've always loved Howard as a character, and the first and last four issues which Steve Gerber wrote for Howard's comic in the seventies are particularly dear to me. But I don't think I was ever able to say with any confidence or precision why I felt that way, or understand why I tend to feel so uncomfortable when I read most other writer's takes on the refugee from Duckworld. Yet the chance to discuss Howard over at Sequart has left me feeling as if I've just become reacquainted with a dear old friend, which of course sounds shamefully sentimental, and yet it's also entirely true.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

On "Daredevil: Born Again" & "Marvels": What Makes It Obvious That A Comic-Book Isn't A Masterpiece?

Just how much is enough? It's one thing to complain that the overwhelming majority of modern-era mainstream comics appear to be seriously lacking in content, but it's quite another to suggest what content actually means in quantifiable terms. Saying that the post-Image widescreen book is patently failing to deliver a satisfying read which justifies the cover-price seems to be stating the obvious, and yet, hundreds of thousands of readers are still buying into what seems to many of us to be a worryingly emaciated product. Clearly, one reader's love of narrative density is another's loathing for an over-demanding, self-indulgent slog. As such, trying to nail down with even a pretence of objectivity what Mark Millar called "value for money and bang for your buck" is, of course, simply impossible. In that direction lies all those wearisome fan-debates about the length of a piece of string and the number of those itsy-bitsy angels dancing on pin-heads. If DC's apparent editorial preference for the likes of face-stripping, disemboweling, and dismembering shocks in the New 52 books can show us anything, it's that excellent comic-books can't be described, or indeed inspired, by any prescriptive definition of what is and what isn't vital storytelling.
Yet I have been worrying about how difficult it is to review the worth of so many of today's super-people books. It's not that I'm at all concerned with the hubris of attempting to nail down some objective definition of an issue's worth. But I would like to be able to develop some effective if ultimately chimeric shorthand for communicating what density means where the contents of a particular comic book are concerned. Yet how much is it fair and reasonable to expect of a superhero comic in terms of content? What actually constitutes an acceptable, let alone an outstanding, return of incident and effect? For some of us, twenty pages of money-shot splash pages, all spandex and steroids and energy beams, works as comic-book catnip. Even if that's arguably a post-modern collapse of meaning into spectacle, what's wrong with that? (*1)

*1:- Beyond the fact that it's money for old rope which alienates everyone beyond the tiny Rump of super-book acolytes, of course. There'd be nought wrong with a niche market of such books, but there's something catastrophically dangerous about an industry which regards such excluding methods as the norm.

One entirely personal and yet perhaps helpful approach might be to simply identify how many individual moments of any notable quality appear in each individual comic. How many times does the reader encounter a panel, a phrase, a flash of insight, a sequence of events, which makes them glad that they were reading that comic at that time? Even if the story as a whole alienates the person reviewing it, that would still allow room for an acknowledgement that there are mile-stones along the way which make the journey more or less worthwhile. After all, there are few books which don't reward the reader in one fashion or another. As delusional a conceit as it is, I'm still tempted to suggest that an interesting juncture every two or three pages helps to redeem a comic, helps to separate its quality from those books which are nothing but irredeemable cape'n'chest-insignia porn. But the same problem of definition remains. What stands as "rewarding", what might be defined as "redeeming"? It's all very well to suggest as a rough rule of thumb that a twenty page book ought to contain at least 6 or 7 purchase-justifying scenes, no matter how brief and minor, but it's still clearly an entirely arbitrary criteria.

How quickly do the acknowledged classics of the sub-genre manage to rack up these supposedly absolving  characteristics?  How relevant, how helpful, is such an idea anyway? I certainly can't recall ever making an attempt to number the incidents which marked out the value of the likes of The Fourth World or Phonogram, All-Star Superman or Nemesis. In fact, the very thought that I might have read Marvels, to take but one example, and have registered that there were 8 or so such high-points in the comic's first 7 pages, or whatever, is entirely ludicrous. And yet, I have just taken down Ross and Busiek's Marvels down from the book-case and, even while attempting to be parsimonious, there really are those 8 examples of fine, fine storytelling in the opening 7 pages of its first chapter. Some of them are playfully fan-indulgences, such as the appearance as background characters of Clark Kent, Lois Lane and Billy Batson in the New York of 1939. Most are unimpeachably effective incidents, such as that of the burning Torch staring straight at the shocked Phil Sheldon, which would surely speak to anyone who's in the least bit susceptible to the sub-genre's charms. Regardless of how those moments are defined, Marvels is undeniably saturated in them. Of course, a string of smartly-told incidents complimented by a few knowingly-chosen Easter Eggs don't in themselves indicate excellence, and yet, it's hard to imagine excellence existing independently of a deliberate attempt to provide the reader with such a parade of quality.

It's the same with Miller and Mazzuchelli's Daredevil: Born Again, which by chance sits next to Marvels on the shelf. In its opening 8 pages, there are 8 moments which make it hard for me to put the collected edition aside without reading it through properly. You and I might disagree on my choice of incidents, but I doubt we'd fall out over the fact that there's a mass of them on the page. Whether it's the narrative snares which follow one after another, with Karen's reappearance followed by her bartering Daredevil's secret identity and all that follows powering the story on, or the sumptuousness of Maazuchelli's art combined with Scheele's exquisite colours which describe the meeting at sea of the Kingpin's crimelords, Born Again: Apocalypse is as rich as it's fast-moving, as visually compelling as it's immediately emotionally involving. This is no rush through an opening and empty spectacle in the no-stops direction of a closing "shocking"  cliffhanger.

Take a step back in time a few more decades and even a relatively unsung Spirit seven-page short by Will Eisner and his studio can contain 4 or 5 such arresting moments on a single page. (There are indeed 5 on the first side alone of The Fix from May 5 1947, for example.) It's not a trait which the best short stories, or tales told in short chapters, have lost. Morrison and Fraser's final Nikolai Dante serial currently running in 2000AD carries audience-winning scenes on every page, and even last week's double-page splash rewarded the reader not just with spectacle but with character and detail, since head-shots of the story's cast were added to show their various responses to Dante's latest inspired and grandstanding feat. Perhaps the fact that the shorter-length story has so little time to make its point encourages both concision and ambition, or perhaps the discipline of producing such unsprawling work helps creators recognise their obligation to reward their readers without lapsing into obvious cheats and complacencies. Whatever, there's absolutely no reason why the longer-form story can't carry the rewards to the reader which its less page-heavy counterparts can at their best deliver. If creators wanted that to be so, if editors and publishers saw it as a priority rather than an unnecessary indulgence, the typical superhero book could be something other than a thin, flaccid, man-child pleasing little pamphlet.
I've always thought it ridiculous to reduce reviews to the hogwash of pseudo-empiricism, of marks and ratings and the like, and yet, the crisis in storytelling today is so very serious that it seems to demand that we all pay more attention to it. A comic book which racks up a moment of excellence every page or so is quite likely to be one which rewards the reader's investment in it, and the fact that we so rarely discuss things in these terms may have something to do with the fact there are so few comics which might pass any form of "density test". And while it's certainly unlikely that any two of us would agree exactly on what is and what isn't an "incident" which makes the reading of a comic worthwhile, that shouldn't stop us trying to do so. The very fact that such a debate existed would help to mark out those books which deserve our respect, as well as those which, for whatever reason, are created by the folks who are taking the dollars and running.

Should the rule be an incident a page or two, or perhaps 7 moments per 20 page tale? Should shorter tales be allowed to offer less than their more lengthy counterparts? None of that is relevant at all. For one thing, the sheer number of events in a comicbook tells us little about their quality. This isn't about rules, but about our awareness that the industry and a great number of its consumers have sleepwalked into a situation where density is no longer expected, let alone treasured. What counts isn't the ratio of pages to reward, but the concept that the superhero comic is so often cheating itself almost as much as it is it's customers. What matters is that the super-person book should be alive with invention and ambition and Pop!, and yet, all too often, it simply isn't.

Or, to purloin a phrase: if we tolerate this, then what's left of the super-book industry will be next.


Thursday, 16 February 2012

Do You Understand Men?

In which the blogger, re-reading his battered old edition of the DC/Fireside romance collection "Heart Throbs" for a pending blog, notes a profoundly dodgy old questionnaire at the very back of the book;

I wish I'd had a copy of Test Yourself: Do You Understand Men? when I was teaching research methods to my exam classes. Just one ten minute session working through its flaws would've done wonders for the confidence of my students. At the very least, they'd've realised how difficult it would've been for even the most careless, unmotivated, or even fundamentally challenged of them to match the incompetency of this questionnaire. For a playful editorial feature claiming to have been designed to help girls who've "trouble figuring out just what's on a guy's mind", it was obviously slapped together by somebody who either didn't understand men or women, or who didn't want to let on what human beings of either sex can really be like. In particular, there's an obvious concern at work in this "test" to avoid emphasising to any young and presumably potentially vulnerable young women the fact that men, like any one else, can be selfish, deceitful, and entirely self-deluding dicks. For example, here's the wonders of question 4, which deals with one of the least troublesome of the 12 examples given,:

Suppressing an ex-teacher's urge to discuss half a dozen other obvious design flaws in the question, it's notable how any less charitable readings of this man's character are notably absent from the choices given. It's not that my own and perhaps over-concerned option for (d) would be considered suitable by everyone, for I'm sure that most people would regard it as being a touch hysterical to suggest;

(d) there's a possibility that he's a psychopath, as 1 in every 100 Americans are, with most of them being men, so get away from him as fast as you can!

But the chance that such a man might be fundamentally dishonest doesn't seem to have occurred to the framer of these questions. That it might have been best, if not actually ethically mandatory, to advise girls to consider staying as far away as possible from relationships with habitual liars certainly doesn't seem to have been thought relevant here,

It's not that the questioner has always avoided pointing out that men who behave badly might actually be vile people, though the possibility tends to be underplayed even when it's not entirely avoided.  There's a chance offered that a boy who teases a group of girls "in a way that's almost mean" (2) might well be "a nasty person", for example, while the fury of a man who "gets very angry with you over something trivial" (9) could be explained, it seems, by his being "a disagreeable person". But these options are weighted in a way that we might think is rather perverse. In each case, the most careful response on the part of the girl answering the "test" earns the lowest marks. So, the girl who opts to interpret cruelty as evidence for the "nasty man" thesis, for example, starts to disqualify herself from a praiseworthy result at the test's end, which relies on gathering as many points as possible. A necessary corrective when it comes to the young not jumping to conclusions in their courtships, you might imagine, for a girl who always falls back upon the worst opinion of another may well already have trust issues, and that shouldn't be encouraged. As the advice which follows the test suggests, girls who "tend to jump to conclusions about a guy's character too quickly" aren't accepting that "things aren't always as they appear". Yet, what if things are exactly as they seem? What if a young woman's judgement of a man's poor behaviour is unimpeachably objective?

Another problem here is that there are human beings who do display a great many if not all of the negative behaviours expressed by the boys and men portrayed in the test. There's a fair few of the given situations which in themselves ought to immediately warn off a young woman from the potential lover concerned, but there's a considerable spectrum of human beings who display a range of such behaviour. These are the folks who are jealous and cruel, manipulative and bullying, tantrum-prone and secretive, changeable and generally anti-social. At the worst end of the spectrum, and of course all joking aside, these could very well be psychopaths, and even though they're quite possibly not, they're still hardly the sort of partners, potential or otherwise, who ought to be being given the benefit of the doubt.

It's regrettable, therefore, that a laudably careful young woman working through these questions would have earned the least possible marks on offer and secured the least favourable feedback at the end. For it's one thing to suggest that a single possible marker of a poor choice of boyfriend shouldn't be allowed to obscure his virtues, but quite another to suggest that a tendency to distrust dubious behaviour is actually dysfunctional. The former is a dubious recommendation at its very best, but the latter is surely far, far worse. It's in the lack of concern for the fact that these various actions tend to display themselves in combination with each other that the test unwittingly falls down. In essence, the cumulative effect of the test is to discount the possibility of each scenario being worth the worrying about, and since each problem is regarded in the same way, the end result is that all warning signs, whether considered separately or not, end up defined as unimportant. For example, the reader who's already in a relationship with a psychologically abusive man, or indeed women, could very easily end up generating a result which suggests that the problem is their fault, that the sin lies in their perceptions rather than the other's choices.

By contrast, the girl who jumps to the most optimistic readings of the various situations can end up having her lack of judgement, which cumulatively adds up to a dangerous naivety, reinforced. Little in a comic could buttress a less careful way of judging the value of a relationship than a process than the following, which does more than strongly suggest that it's the girl herself who "sometimes" is "the reason he acts the way he does";

In short, the test encourages women to blame themselves for any negative assessment of a boy or a man's behaviour, while suggesting that redefining such behaviour as excusable due to other factors is the most fair and, by implication, love-winning approach. It is, in truth, an abuser's charter, and though it clearly wasn't designed as anything other than a piece of fluff informed by good intentions and cultural norms, it is somewhat disturbing to consider the message that the test was transmitting.

It's not that I'm suggesting that the genre of romance comics was engaged in a deliberate process of softening up the Republic's women for the attack of social predators, although that would make for a really interesting EC-esque horror short. For one thing, a single questionnaire isn't proof of anything but itself, and these were undoubtedly throwaway editorial extras designed to enhance the enjoyment of the reader while lowering editorial costs in general. What's more, the ethical values which appear to underlie the test seem to be compassionate and well-meaning.Young women shouldn't "jump to conclusions", shouldn't "forget that there are other things in his life besides you", and shouldn't "always look for deep psychological causes"; as misguided as these principles appear to be in combination today, they're hardly the product of a writer who wants anything other than the best for the girls who read their work. But in suggesting that the behaviour of what might be a profoundly unsuitable partner should be blamed on a young woman's misconceptions, and in implying that being mature and romantically successful relies on learning how to put up with the unacceptable, Do You Understand Man? ended up effectively suggesting that blokes can do a great deal of what they like, and that women ought not to object when they do so.

In fact, it's a test which implies that young women create the illusion of a suitor's unsuitability, and in that, the centuries old practise of blaming the victim for their own oppression was quietly, and quite obviously unintentionally, perpetuated.  


I hope no-one will mistake the above for a critique of romance comics per se. As decades of study has illuminated, the romance comic was often an engine for radical values, even as it tended to be a fundamentally conservative genre. In 'Heart Throbs', for example, there's some genuinely radical social commentary, such as in 'Forbidden Future', which takes on prejudice against divorced women, and the anti-racist 'Full Hands Empty Heart'. Even in many apparently regressive tales, there can be moments of contentious social issues and the possibility of readings which suggest something far more progressive than the story itself seems to suggest. Folks who might be curious about such things and who've never given into their inner romantic might think of visiting of Jacque Nodell's excellent Sequential Crush, a fine starting point for the net's thriving community of rom-comic fans.


Tuesday, 14 February 2012

On "Mister Wonderful"


It's Valentine's Day, it seems practically mandatory that I should be discussing the romantic obsessions of the moment in this week's instalment of The Year In Comics. That's why I'm discussing the mid-life rom-com Mister Wonderful by Daniel Clowes over at Sequart right now, and, in particular, talking about  how brilliantly the strip makes us care for characters who have so little chance of happiness together. I hope you'll consider popping over and taking a look. If you've not read Mister Wonderful yet, the original version of the tale can still be found, and for free too, on the New York Times website here. I'm sure you don't need me to convince you that it's a book that's more than just worth the reading.



Sunday, 12 February 2012

On "Secret Six: The Darkest House"

No other comic has emerged from the mainstream since the cancellation of the Secret Six that's in any way as compassionately and as combatively concerned with social issues as Gail Simone's scripts for the Six always were. For all the windbaggery of conservative pundits whinging that the super-person comic is saturated with leftist propaganda, the truth is that there's a great ignorant silence that lies at the ethical heart of most of today's cape'n'chest-insignia books. Instead of conviction and curiosity, there's so often the taken for granted absence of anything that's smart and passionately relevant to the wider world beyond the soap-opera and the strurm und drang of the superhero tradition. Because of that, the occasional desultory token of social difference matched with a typically porn-faced representation of sex and gender knits together in the mind like a picket-line protesting the possibility of anything but more of the same escapist mind-rot. Torture as an unchallengeable good? Murder as a facet of nobility? Politics as a concern of no-one but the office-chaser and the psychopath? That there are a few other books which work as something more than adolescent-minded piffle puffed up with a sheen of sixth-form pretension is undeniable, but so too is the fact that there's hardly any of them, and not a single one is as controversially insightful and moving and decent-hearted as Secret Six was. Today's is a marketplace where the super-person comic-book of ideas, rather than that of self-absorption and spectacle, is practically, if not entirely, extinct, and there's sadly very few creators who know enough to care about anything other than the broadest cliches of character and emotion. Because of that, the cancellation of the adventures of Scandal Savage and her partners in psychological disorder still rankles and festers, and in part that's because nothing else of comparable ambition and quality exists to obscure the fact of the Six's absence from the shelves.

The last of the wine, The Darkest House collects the contents of the final seven issues of Secret Six, and adds the conclusion to the crossover with Doom Patrol to the package. Nothing makes it more apparent than this collection that the very last monthly book that the sub-genre could afford to loose was Secret Six.To those who'd dismiss the book's politics as reflex liberalism, or worse, red propaganda, it's worth pointing out that Gail Simone's long been engaged in a subtle if substantial challenge to one of the traditional rank-closing shibboleths of the left. For Secret Six has always been founded on the principle that there are criminals and norm-breakers who are fundamentally incorrigible. Nowhere is this made more obvious that in Caution To The Wind, in which the Six decide to follow Bane's crusade against Batman for a variety of fundamentally irrational reasons. From the catastrophically low IQ of King Shark to the psychopathy of Deadshot, the Six are all brutally and irreparably broken. Love certainly won't cure them, and it's unlikely that therapy could do anymore than slightly inform the rationality of a few of their ranks. In that, Simone's work is anything but an unthinking expression of the peace and love branch of the international anti-American conspiracy.

Of course, Secret Six was also a comic written to challenge the reactionary assumption that crime is always a question of free will and individual responsibility. Each of the prominent members of the Six was assigned a specific and severe pathological disorder by Ms Simone, and the clear implication of this was that the degree of culpability that each bears for their crimes was anything other than absolute. Many of the Six were marked by psychological conditions rooted in profound and protracted childhood traumas, and though the degree to which they might be defined as rational and blameworthy differed from character to character, Simone's scripts constantly emphasised that these were deeply damaged human beings just as they often behaved as monstrously dangerous individuals. They can't be reformed, and it would be a challenge to ensure that they are in one way or another restrained, but it would take a heart of stone and a mind constructed from the same to consider that the Six are nothing but inhuman creatures to be culled in the name of a greater good. It's in Simone's brilliant portrayal of individuals who are still recognisably human while retaining their profoundly anti-social disorders that the book's bravery became most obvious. For Simone's scripts constantly suggested a more humane if entirely challenging option to those offered by the typical public debate about mental health and crime. In Secret Six, the reader was perpetually compelled to feel compassion for the book's fundamentally dysfunctional and irrevocably dangerous cast. No matter how much harm they were shown inflicting upon the world around them, we were still encouraged to note the fierce similarities as well as the appalling differences between them and us.

Simone certainly didn't frame her apparent beliefs in stories which were fixed to allow her basic principles to shine without contradiction or conflict. She constantly emphasised how terrible the deeds of the Six were, and the reader was never asked to unthinkingly take the side of the murderous through the presentation of a comfortingly Disneyfied take on disordered thinking and it's terrible consequences. In The Jagged End Of The Chainsaw, for example, the Six murder Lana's kidnapper and torturer despite his victim's conviction that he should be allowed to live. "He may not have a relationship with God ... But I do." argues Lana, and yet Scandal still murders the man by driving metal claws through his brain. This is exactly the opposite to propaganda into which moral debates are reduced to simple problems and even simpler solutions. Simone demanded that we regard the Six as human even when they're committing the most despicable of crimes. This was as confrontational a definition of moral responsibility as can be found anywhere in pop culture. For in the way that the cast endlessly betrayed one another, and in the limited and yet life-affirming comfort that they each took in their constant reconciliations, the reader was being challenged to recognise the worth of folks who can only occasionally express themselves in ways which are recognisably compassionate and unselfish. They were, we were always being made to see, often doing their very best despite their terrible crimes to be something more, something better, than predatory and atomised.

Month after month after month, Secret Six didn't just deliver the requisite hyper-brawls and astute character moments, the good if often perverse humour and a significant measure of deliberate unpleasantness too. It also continually provoked the reader to think about what it was they were consuming, and about their own political convictions in the light of that. For few characters and institutions come out well from Simone's stories across the run of Secret Six, and the light that the book shone on the wider world was rarely one which could encourage complacent thinking. Even the reader who was simply out for a measure of wish-fulfilment in the form of brawling heroes and sexual fantasies, as symbolised by Eric in Suicide Roulette, was continually being confronted about what their preferences in fiction said about their own ethical good health. Actions had consequences in Secret Six, and the venting of the machismo of powerful men always carried with it a cost rather than just a celebration of one bloke's capacity to violently lord it over another. The Six were repeatedly presented as examples of exactly what not to do in life, while their few friends and lovers were sympathetically revealed to be flawed and fractured themselves simply through the fact that they were so needily willing to trust to the ultimately untrustworthy. As such, the reader who might not tend to question the behaviour of the leads in more typical comics might here find themselves wondering about issues of power and responsibilty, about more than just who wins and who seems to be the toughest brawler on the block.


Because of this attention to psychology and character, principle and politics, it's impossible not to wonder what will happen to the characters from Secret Six now that Ms Simone is no longer their custodian. With DC's comics now concerned with a quite different continuity, what came next for the likes of Ragdoll and Jeanette? Where the capture and imprisonment of other criminals in the typical superhero comic serves as the end of events, here the reader is too involved with the characters not to think of what followed after the drugged-up Six fell in the super-villain equivalent of the last scene of Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid.. Just as Simone's characters allow us to consider the degree to which we're responsible both for ourselves and for others, so too does their obvious moral incompetence inevitably inspire thoughts of how the police, judicial and prison services will deal with them. It's telling to recall, for example, that the state in Ms Simone's Secret Six stories seems repeatedly content to throw the super-villains of the DCU away into the medieval likes of Arkham Asylum, or to even draft them into the Suicide Squad. It's hard to imagine that such a regime would be likely to do anything than throw the Six into the deepest and most secure hole that it could find to dump them in. What reason is there to feel any faith in the willingness and capacity of the DCU's jails and hospitals to care for the Six? The utter irresponsibility of the pardon for the Six which Amanda Waller once secured stands as evidence that criminal psychology and its inevitable consequences was never a real concern for the powers-that-be in these tales.

Certainly the superheroes who nobly congregated to pummel the Six into submission in Blood Honour seemed unconcerned, with the exception of the Huntress, about the consequences of leaving their opponents to the mercies of a system which patently can't either restrain, reform, or enrich the lives of those it incarcerates. (How impossibly high must the recidivism rate be in the superhero universes?) The pummelling seemed inevitable and necessary, but that which followed probably wasn't. There's barely a stitch of evidence that the criminally irresponsible in the DCU are ever treated with any measure that's compatible with respect and compassion once they're finally locked up. Because of that, the Secret Six will surely always break out and terrorise both the ill and good of society again, and the reader knows it. Whether as individuals or as the most dangerously unpredictable of collectives, their inability to take responsibility for their actions matched with comic-book society's refusal to appropriately take responsibility for them means that nothing but the worst can ever happen.

And so, in its own way, Secret Six points its readers outwards to their own world and asks how it is that we treat our own disordered fellow citizens, and how is it that we justify the treatments and the punishments our governments administer in the name of the greater good. Who would dare to argue for the rights of the irreparably criminally disordered in this day and age?


Wednesday, 8 February 2012

On "Fantastic Four" #600

In which the blogger, with his apologies to the friends of TooBusyThinking who're passionate fans of Jonathan Hickman's work, finds himself getting terrible shirty about the first 5 pages of FF #600. Best, no doubt, for everyone not to proceed any further;

If Jonathan Hickman's scripts didn't make such a play of his work belonging to a more deliberately adult approach to the super-person comic-book, then the lack of sense in a great many of them wouldn't be so obvious. But Hickman's style is one of never-apparently-ending stories which proceed at a purposefully ponderous pace, with the reader's attention quite intently drawn to the reputed layering of meaning and the slow accumulation of momentum in the plot. The pleasure lies, it seems, in the reader actively enjoying the delayed gratification offered by a tale which requires the retention of the details of months if not years of backstory combined with a willingness to indefatigably persevere for months if not years more. These are, Hickman's scripts seem to declare for themselves, comics for the more literate, the more laudably patient reader, who's concerned with the virtues of subtlety and guile and the nuance of character rather than the matter of who-hits-who and how hard? Yet if this is so, and if Hickman's work is to be taken as it seems to be intended to be, then why is so often difficult for the less-committed reader to just work out what it is that's actually happening on the page? For Hickman's eye seems to be so focused upon tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow that he repeatedly ignores the imperative to explain what's actually going on in his stories to anyone other than the month-by-month diehards. Worse yet, a great deal of the little that Hickman does deign to spell out in any particular single issue can often appear, at second glance, to be little more than careless nonsense, and that's especially true of the opening five pages of Fantastic Four #600.

"Forever" hits its stride with a shot of an Avengers Quinjet powering through a sky full of Kree warships. Yet who's on the ship, or where they're going, or why the scene is important enough to be a focus of  the first story-page of the issue is never explained. That's not even a red herring. It's a cheat.
I will admit, at the inevitable cost of seeming to be neither literate nor patient, to having been repeatedly defeated by the first 5 pages of the appropriately named Forever, the lead and yet very much not finite and self-contained feature in the title's "100-page 50th anniversary 600th Issue Extravaganza".  To be frank, the book's opening sequence isn't just obscurely told, but it's also profoundly unconvincing too. This would, of course, be of no real consequence in a typical silly superhero story, where all the spectacle and energy can compensate for the sheer and essential daftness of the sub-genre. But the work of Hickman and artist Steve Epting sits poorly with the conventions of the aliens-invade-NYC story. On the one side the creators are dolling out great dollops of cod-sci-fi goofiness, and on the other, there's the comics-realism of the art and the dopey empty solemnity of the script. Nothing makes the lack of energy and sense in Hickman's work seem so obvious as the presence in it of a great super-heroic set-piece. The qualities of verve and fun necessary to obscure how stupid the very idea of such an alien assault is are entirely missing here, and so all the reader can see is how poorly-constructed and utterly implausible - even by the logic of a superheroic universe - the whole set-up is.

We might expect that the introductory text page of Forever would have provided the essential minimum of backstory for the reader who selfishly consumed the preceding issue a few months before without bothering to take and memorise a few sides of notes, but nothing of the sort is so. It's not that there's a lack of information on the text page, but it's almost utterly unhelpful in the context of the story which follows. And so, the editorial staff responsible for this issue informs their audience that "The Supreme Intelligence orders the Kree Armada to burn the Earth, leaving nothing alive". Why this should be so isn't explained, and so it's impossible to know what anyone's motives and ends are beyond the issue of the attempted destruction of the Earth and the efforts on the superheroes part to prevent it happening. Yet even that apparently straight-forward aspect of the plot collapses into confusion when the story itself eventually kicks off on pages 4 and 5.
As you can see from the scans above, the first two pages of "Forever" are taken up by 6 panels explaining where the comic's cast are. (The single frame repeated here is as useful, or useless, as any of them.) These pages constitute an entirely spurious exercise. Only those who've been keeping up religiously with the book will be able to make sense of the information that's being given, and there's very little of that anyway. In truth, it's the return of our old friend from Mr Hickman's previous issues of the FF, the pages of backstory which don't explain the backstory. Remove them and nothing about the tale changes, just as nothing about the story has been illuminated. Why someone didn't suggest that the background of Forever might have actually been explained here escapes me.Nothing else was going on anyway. Perhaps everyone involved thought the text introduction would do that, but then our old friend the unhelpful text page is back again too. (Anyway, if the text page was designed to explain what was going on, why were these first two pages and six panels commissioned in the first place?)
For the dastardly determination by the Kree to "burn the Earth" apparently involves using highly advanced alien craft to attack and bombard New York City just as a squadron of bombers might have attacked London, Berlin or Tokyo in the Second World War. It's such an entirely unconvincing portrayal of hi-tech warfare that it carries a deep sense not of absurdity, but stupidity. Whyever would a "full Kree armada .. in orbit" assault New York with weapons no more powerful than the standard payload of a Lancaster Bomber circa 1944? The attack is well underway as the story opens, and yet all that's been achieved for such a massive investment of interstellar forces is the blowing away of a few top stories of skyscrapers. This isn't mass destruction, and it's certainly not the end of the world, and, as such, it makes no sense at all. That's a fact that's particularly obvious given that the Supreme Intelligence cannot help but be aware that NYC is home to a cadre of Earth's most meddlesome and powerful super-people. There's simply no excuse for the Kree not nuking the entire planet, or raking it with death beams from orbit, or using whatever science-fiction conceit might be pressed into service to do the world-scouring job.

At a moment of absolute peril, Tony Stark calmly reels off some quite irrelevant information. Not the behaviour of a super-genius contributing to a life-or-death situation then. It sounds worryingly close to showing off, or is the use of the phrase "old school" intended by Hickman to explain why the Kree ships are behaving like primitive fighter planes rather than as super-scientific weapons of war. Whatever, the plot's neither forwarded or clarified, so we have to assume Hickman was presenting us with dialogue which helps us understand Tony's character. Given that Stark also has the temerity to ask begin to ask Reed if he knows where the Kree have come from, which indicates he suspects Reed might well have key information he's not sharing with the group, Hickman's take on Stark appears to be of a man characterised by egoism and paranoia.
Yes, the scene as depicted by Epting makes a pretty enough picture, and if the antique space operatic riffs had been played with a tongue in the cheek and some relish in the script, then who would have noticed or minded? But Hickman is determined to play this ridiculous scene straight, and so he has Iron Man declare that these ships are "Kree warships. Configuration suggests the central shipyards -- old-school." Gawd knows how Stark would know which interstellar shipyards produce which particular types of Kree ships, but then, gawd only knows why Hickman has the character say all of that in the first place. It doesn't advance the plot a whit, but it does immediately throw the reader out of the story. It's cleverness for the sake of cleverness, and it tells us, with a deeply meaningful frown, that we're in a cleverly written story. When Hickman wants to produce a story which is profoundly dumb, he chooses to present it with a facile covering of seriousness, as if the latter quality won't actually accentuate the former. 

My Gawd!! They're bombing the water towers!!!! What will Ditko say? How will the Earth survive? (One single antique B-52 armed with cruise missiles could've been well on the way to wiping out several cities on America's East Coast before the superheroes even made it up the steps onto the Baxter Building's roof. Why should we care in the slightest for the un-menace posed by the Kree? If we're going to have endless scenes of stereotypical aliens attacking in an entirely stereotypical fashion, then can creators either put some thought into the process or just crank it out without the deeply serious air?)
It's a statement that sets a tone which demands that we take the events before us entirely seriously, and in doing so, it simply draws attention to the essential implausibility and hollowness of events. Why aren't the alien ships at the very least bombarding the Baxter Building? If it's protected, why haven't we been told? Why don't the Kree have bunker-busters to take out cities or even continents? (How couldn't they have developed such technology?) Why are the Kree wasting time knocking over water towers and apartment buildings when their mission to raze the Earth as a whole? Are they going to blast the entire surface of the globe flat using such ineffective and fourth-division weaponry? How will they ever get the job done? Why are they dropping troops into New York anyway? (Did they have some shopping to do first? Are they going to execute Earth's people one by one, starting with the citizens of the Big Apple?) Look again at this apparently spectacular and supposedly informing establishing shot by Mr Epting and it simply defies the logic even of the wonderfully absurd Marvel Universe.

Yet another example of Hickman's dialogue seeming to make perfect sense until the reader thinks about it. Here Hickman counter-productively diminishes the threat of the Kree attack by having, as now is canon, the eternally arrogant Captain America express contempt for their threat. Note that the apparent super-strategist of the Marvel Universe incorrectly analyses the situation as well, so that Reed has to correct him; we'd expect such a master of warfare to at least look for expert opinion before opening his vainglorious mouth, but he doesn't. Indeed, the master of America's defences doesn't even choose to check in with any of his own forces as far as we can see, let alone the irrelevancy of the President. But then what kind of battlefield genius is Rodgers? He seems to think that the Kree have picked the wrong time to attack. Yet the heroes already face a power so great they've had to combine together to challenge it, which must suggest the possibility of war on two fronts, an obvious military catastrophe. Not only that, but by the coincidence of their arrival, the Kree now have a great many of their most dangerous foes concentrated by chance in a single place. One nuke and that's it for the Avengers and their friends, but the not-so-good Captain thinks his side hold all the aces. He's obviously never to studied military history at all.

The problem lies in Hickman's lack of interest in making his work as transparent as possible. From the evidence of just about everything I've ever read of his, from Fantastic Four to the Ultimates to S.H.I.E.L.D., the author just doesn't seem to care too much about such trifles. In these first few pages of Forever, we see all the well-established habits of this exposition-adverse, funophobic writer. In avoiding the responsibility to be clear and rational in the context of his own stories, he's presented a script which focuses on spectacle and moments of supposed character insight when he might have been more productively focusing on the basics of storytelling. Why didn't he consider the events on these pages as a sequence of plot-points which need to be established in as transparent and as logical a fashion as possible? In such a situation, Hickman and his various collaborators might have managed not to have undermined his own narrative with so much that's quite obviously dysfunctional. There might even have been time for a touch of a brief info-dump to explain why the Kree have sent such ineffective warships to destroy the Earth that they're being effectively resisted by the masonry of central Manhattan even before the super-people come out to play. But for all his reputation as a man who focuses on character and upon the subtleties of plot, Hickman consistently produces work which seems simply daft. But of course, he isn't really concerned with logic, anymore than he's concerned with sense. Instead, he appears to be fixated with the clever-sounding moments, the supposedly breathtaking scenes, and, presumably, the long-term twists and turns of his plot. But what his work doesn't often seem to suggest is a great many of the virtues which are commonly associated with it.

Again, it looks like Hickman's giving Sue Richards some valuable respect as she dominates the congregation of the MU's great and super-bright here. Yet her words, and those which follow on page 6, are those of well-meaning idiot. To Ms Richards, defending the people and property of NYC is the first priority and it's to that cause that the superheroes commit.  Yet if the Earth is being invaded, then the well-being of New York isn't the priority at all. The priority is defeating the invasion, and given that the reader has been told the genocidal purpose of the assault, that's especially true. Yet all of these battle-hardened super-people bow to Sue Richard's strategically nonsensical proposal. They don't even decide to split their forces so that some of them can gather intelligence, liaise with the armed forces, contact the government, collect as many super-people together as possible, establish an evacuation point in another dimension/planet, and so on.(Even Dr Strange is shown bringing down space-ships. That's obviously the best use of his skills in the situation.) No, the symptom rather than the cause of this problem takes absolute priority for every super-person present. This is patent balderdash from beginning to end. It sounds noble but it's actually piffle, and it utterly demeans the characters it's intended to illuminate. They're all, it seems, well-meaning simpletons, as are those in charge of the American state, who make no apparent effort to contact these superheoes and incorporate them into the Republic's defence plans.
The sequences which focus on the super-kids of the Baxter Building are as enjoyable as always, and Hickman does have a knack for making it seem as if his characters actually do know each other in an intimate fashion. But that's hardly enough to justify buying one stupid, portentuous, short-changing issue of the Fantastic Four after another. My apologies to the friends of TooBusyThinking who carry a sincere and substantial regard for Mr Hickman's work, but if I can't make it past 5 pages of a comic without despairing, without its plot being quite obviously ill-thought through and poorly explained, then I don't think that I'm going to be back.

Here's another prime example of why the superhero comic-book of today simply doesn't sell beyond a tiny number of acolytes. And yet this book is apparently a symbol of excellence, of value for money, of the best that the industry can produce. Either I've gone absolutely mad, or several hundred thousand others have, and I know which explanation I'm sticking with. I've read and re-read the beginning of Forever and, no matter how I try, I simply can't shift the conviction that the necessary backstory for this issue is absent, that the Kree's invasion is 100% implausible, and that the behaviour of every single superhuman shown in those first few word-balloon bearing panels reflects an unbelievable ignorance of even the very basics of military strategy. In short, in just a few sides, Jonathan Hickman's work has sent me ricocheting out of his narrative and off in search of a quiet room and a calming cool drink of water.

How are we ever going to sell the superhero comic to anyone who isn't already a fully paid up member of the Rump, when the so-called best of the sub-genre is so often profoundly lackadaisical, so often lacking in either winning wackiness or even storytelling sense?
If you tolerate this, the rest of the mainstream comics industry, or what's left of it, will be next.