Friday, 27 April 2012

Anxiety & Optimism In Frank Hampson's Dan Dare: (Part 1 of 2)

The first issue of Eagle appeared this month some 62 years ago;

1. Anxiety

There are very dark things going on here. From the perspective of 2012, it can be hard to grasp just how challengingly bleak the set-up of the first month of Frank Hampson's Dan Dare was. There's  little point in relying on the characters themselves to express what a terrible situation planet Earth's in, for these are men who've been mostly trained from birth not to express their thoughts and feelings in anything other than the most discrete and modest of ways. Even Digby, the strip's resident comic relief, can barely bring himself to utter anything more than blunt, pithy, largely impersonal comments in response to the calamities he finds himself in. But if we pay attention in the way that a curious child might to the lowered voices of unconvincingly calm parents, then the magnitude if not the precise nature of the disaster facing this Earth of "some years in the future" gradually becomes more and more clear.

Underneath the professional detachment and obvious competence of the men of the Interplanet Space Fleet lies a suppressed and yet all-too-obvious sense of emasculation and foreboding. When Sir Hubert graciously wishes the crew of the exploratory spaceship Kingfisher a final-sounding "Goodbye and the best of luck", Spaceman First Class Digby caps the comment with "They'll need it". Fatalism appears to grip all concerned, and the slight fractures which appear in their collectively stoic manner work to accentuate how anxious their mood is. Men like these don't tend to express their doubts in public in any fashion at all, and the boys who first read Eagle would have been well aware of how the stiff-upper lip was supposed to function; the slightest tremor of concern indicates a massive degree of worry, and there's certainly a few tremors appearing here. And so, as Colonel Dare quietly and yet conspicuously wonders whether his spacebound colleagues will "ever come back", and as Sir Hubert counsels that patience and keeping "our fingers crossed" is all that can be done, the weight of everything that's obviously not being expressed creates an air of brooding anxiety. 

But then, there's more than just a few moments in the first month or so of Dan Dare in which we're given that sense of men striving not to discuss the challenges before them."Hush!" Dare tells himself in the largest single word presented on either of the opening episode's pages, a comparatively large, bold, italicised reminder to himself that he mustn't openly express his frustrations. It's a tension between the apparently benign surface and the disturbingly threatening reality of Dare's future world which Hampson's work constantly stresses. And so, the reader's shown a tomorrow of obvious comfort and scientific achievement, and yet Dare longs for a simple breakfast of "bacon & eggs" when faced with nothing but a meal of clearly unappetising "vitamin blocks". The contradiction suggested by a technologically advanced society weighed down by material shortages was one which the boys of 1950 might well have on one level or another recognised. Theirs was a culture fetishically concerned with the promise of fantastical developments, and yet one that was also marked by a grey and grinding austerity. Sweets and sugar rationing wouldn't end for another three years, although the war itself had been over for half a decade, and yet the Eagle of the period often featured child-entrancing double-page cut-away spreads of mechanical marvels from fighter jets to prairie-flattening tractors. The terrible and nobly-fought past, an uncertain and yet beguilingly incredible future, a mono-chrome present very occasionally lit by bright flashes of innovation and promise; the unease and excitement, frustration and banality of the mid-century were in a strange way captured by chance and design in the very first appearances of Dan Dare.

In Dare's third chapter, we're finally presented with the reason why the Interplanet Space Fleet is struggling so desperately to reach the planet Venus; the Earth's soil is exhausted, its people are starving to death. It's tellingly Digby, the working-class Yorkshireman and comic sidekick, who's given the key, despairing lines to speak here. Of everyone who's present on the page in the strip's very earliest days, it's Digby whose role leaves him free to express himself with a touch more humour and a little less restraint;

"It all seems very ironical like to me, sir. We get a world government that ends wars, the doctors have nearly every disease taped, and nobody's really poor any more - in fact, everything in the garden's lovely - except there's nothing to eat."
It's a wonderfully written speech, delivering as it does the "ironical" nature of the situation with exactly the right sense of resignation, good humour and frustration. Hampson's artwork for the three panels which carry Digby's words is exquisitely judged too. (See scan below.) Nowhere are we shown the slightest sign of starvation, and yet, as the reader is pushed further and further away from Digby and the flying craft he's in, the sense of an empty, peaceful and yet doomed world is created simply through the absence of human activity. It's a subtle effect which Hampson doesn't dwell upon, but it captures an air of a peaceful and well-ordered globe which can't possibly survive, and in doing so, it suggests the disillusionment which for so many folks followed the end of the war. The War was over in the East as well as the West. The United Nations and the World Bank had been set up, the Welfare State created. So many impossible dreams had been achieved, and yet for all that sacrifice, Britain still seemed to exist as a nation afflicted by perpetual crises mixed equally with eternal hardship. What if we finally did everything right, asks those first few Dan Dare chapters, and it turned out that we were too late. What if a Malthusian end was waiting for us even when we'd all finally pulled together and done the very best that we could?

The spectacle of the Kingfisher's rockets powering her vertiginously skywards may have also brought with it a strange, disturbing collision of emotions and thoughts to the young readers of 1950. Rockets may have been the fictional marvels which carried the likes of the American pioneers of 1950's Destination Moon into the heavens, but they were also real-world weapons of mass destruction such as the V-weapons which had rained down upon London and its surroundings in their thousands and thousands just five years before. In their functionally convincing designs and regretable habit of becoming marooned and destroyed in deep space, Hampson's rockets were rarely the entirely safe and unchallenging genre conventions of either earlier or later pop sci-fi. Indeed, they often suggested that anywhere but their vicinity was the safest place to be. The very presence on the Eagle's cover of the Kingfisher's ominous departure might therefore inspire more complicated and contradictory responses than the plot of Dan Dare alone could provoke. Similarly, the culture of the time was saturated with tales of how desperately-needed weapons such as the Spitfire and the bouncing bomb had been developed under nerve-shredding conditions of urgency and jeopardy by brilliant back-room boys and stoic, courageous test pilots. The launch of the Kingfisher and her mysterious mission drew upon histories and fictions which suggested beleaguered nations and desperate, last ditch projects bolted together with super-science, sticking-plaster, and wing-and-a-prayer improvisations. These were imaqes which a Britain still struggling to recover psychically and physically from six years of total war might immediately recognise and identify with, meaning that no matter how futuristic Commander Dare's world might appear, it always felt recognisably 1950 too.

The horrors of Hampson's set-up become more obvious and explicit in the strip's second chapter, which shows the Kingfisher exploding in space in a scene which remains, for all its restraint, uncomfortably raw. Just before the expedition's catastrophic and impossibly lonely end, the reader's introduced to the ship's "Commander, Captain Crane, a space pilot of vast experience", a calm and benignly smiling officer whose very presence seems to promise the mission's success. Then we're shown four panels in which one disaster arrives hard on the heels of another; a terrible flash of light; immense heat radiating from the "impulse engines"; crewmen beaten back as they clamber for extinguishers; and then - "Too late!" - the Kingfisher's destroyed in an immense, structure-rendering explosion. It's a conspicuously all-ages and yet powerfully despairing portrayal of a spaceship's end, drawing as it does upon a broad variety of narrative traditions used to represent the destruction of technological marvels. The plight of the crewman in the second panel in the sequence suggests a stoker struggling far below decks with an out-of-control furnace.  The stumbling men seen from an angle which suggests the Kingfisher is diving out of control in the third frame summon up memories of Lancaster's and B-17s tumbling hopelessly from the skies above Germany. "Poor old Crane - I feel like a murderer." declares a sternly sorrowful Sir Hubert, his face displaying no more emotion than a tightened lip and a severe frown mitigated by his refusal to allow his eyes to close. Lost airmen, hopeless crashes, desperate wireless operators striving to communicate with comrades who are suddenly silent; this wasn't just the stuff of soldiering epics and disaster pulp fictions. It drew from the traumatic fabric of the nation's common experience of war too.

It's sixty-seven panels and three weeks worth of adventures until the first signficant sign appears that Dan Dare is going to be a strip more concerned with idealism and positivity than self-control in the face of a terrible end. But the optimism isn't allowed to arrive without just a touch more stage-setting despair being introduced into the piece. Just before the closing panel of the Dare strip in Eagle of April 28th 1950, we're shown a brief sequence of the Space Fleet craft flying high above the green fields, cliff-faces and shore-line of England. It's a backdrop which even now is associated with the Few and the Battle of Britain, and there's never been any doubt that Dare and his space officer fellows were obvious takes of World War II R.A.F. pilots thinly but touchingly transposed to a fantasy future. Yet in these few panels, Dare and the others are presented flying above the aerial battlefields of 1940 without the slightest sign of an enemy to dog-fight with. They're warriors with no war to fly off to, and that creates a compelling enigma at the heart of the tale; what's the point of even the bravest warriors when there's nobody to turn a gun towards? Part of what makes these first few chapters of Dan Dare so surreptitiously unsettling is the sense that the martial achievements of the past have been for nothing, and that everything which was sacrificed in the two great wars will ultimately fail to help carve out a better world.

Of course, a recognisably fiendish fascist enemy to dog-fight the hours away with was waiting for the men - and soon women - of the Interplanet Space Fleet some 26 million or so miles away closer to the Sun. And with the imminent arrival of a series of improbable challenges which actually could be successfully grappled with rather than merely endured, Dan Dare swiftly became a comic strip characterised by a particularly British, Fifties form of optimism, as I hope to discuss next time here at TooBusyThinking.


Wednesday, 25 April 2012

One Last Look At Wonder Woman # 8 (Part 2)

In which the blogger rounds off a discussion of Wonder Woman #8 which began here;

Whatever you do, just don't ask questions. Sense is the real enemy in Wonder Woman #8. As long as you keep jumping from panel to panel, turning from page to page, you might just get away with it. After all, Casting Shadows does contain perhaps the single most innovative and unsettling version of the underworld ever to have appeared in a super-book. That's no little achievement in itself. A foreboding, protean shadow-world of ever-changing land- and city-scapes, composed of the souls of the dead as marshaled according to the schemes of its God Hades, there's an air of anxious unease bordering upon terror which radiates from Cliff Chiang's pages. As a backdrop for Wonder Woman's army-of-two invasion of the after-life, it's a notable, unsettling achievement. Just don't go back and re-read the comic in an attempt to discover how this hell works, because all you'll find is smart-sounding gobbledygook. Everything in the domain of Hades is "made of souls", we're told, with the form that they combine to create being "governed by Hades' whims and imagination." It's an interesting conceit, but then it's further complicated by the revelation that the dead aren't "being used" by the God of the Dead, but rather choosing to collaborate with him. As Hermes "explains";

"Imagine dying, and gaining the ability to be anything, Anything for just a piece of time, knowing that your time to reinvent is your forever. Not existing in a world, but being the world .. "
It all sounds rather poetically convincing, but scratch at the words and there's so many questions that even the illusion of logic collapses. What does the second sentence in the above actually mean? What's this "piece of time" he's describing? Indeed, who are these dead, and why have they ended up here? Why would they be so willing to spend eternity being forever rearranged as part of the underworld's furniture? Do they retain anything of what we would regard as individuality? As an idea, the world-made-of-souls is at first glance thoroughly compelling. But don't concentrate on it, because it just comes to pieces in your hands, with the questions so outnumbering the facts that the story itself starts to tear like the most fragile of spiders webs.

A single mystery, or even a cluster of them, is one thing, but Azzarello's scripts for Wonder Woman are often created from little else. A string of enigmas can suggest an air of mystery, but a constant stream of imprecision and confusion simply wears the reader out. Weaving together an entire world from a shower of such shallow and showy stuff produces a foundation for the narrative which all too easily fractures. And so, if Hades is in such control of this world, why does he need to play with Hermes and Wonder Woman as he appears to? His creations seem remarkably easy to defeat, his own ambitions strangely simple to side-step. His form as a skinless warrior, for example, is quite useless in defeating Diana; could he construct no more powerful and effective a form to take? Is he lulling the visitors into relaxing their guard? Is he genuinely unable to fight Hermes and Wonder Woman off with the entirety of Hell at his command? Is he trying to somehow direct them towards Zola's imprisonment? In the absence of any explanation at all, the mysteries wearingly pile up, and the strain on the reader's willingness to care increases and increases upon just looking over the page is a chore. Why ever does Hades first appear in skinless human form, hidden beneath a statue no less, before assuming his identity as a small child with a candle-topped head? Why does he attempt to so harm Diana when his plan is really to take her as his Queen? The answer, it seems, is that Azzarello simply doesn't care for why things happen so much as he enjoys the prospect of events looking interesting and compelling. In short, it's all about a particularly fan-pleasing fusion of horror and cool. This is spectacle trumping sense, as if the first can only be achieved at the cost of the second, as if the audience doesn't deserve both for their entrance money.

It's a shame that Chiang's expressive, imaginative art should be gilding this spectacular if predominantly benign fraud. His work is beautifully staged, his establishing shots evocative and informing, his fight-scenes choreographed in such a fiercely compelling way that we're almost carried across the thin ice of Azzarello's nonsense. And then the plot staggers onwards, and we're faced with even more questions which no attempt of good-natured collaboration with the writer can answer. (*1) No, Chasing Shadows might as well have been named for its own lack of depth and carelessness, for its willingness to load up the pages with a sequence of look-at-me plot-beats rather than anything as unfashionable as a story. Diana picks weapons; Diana travels to hell; Diana is attacked; Hermes tells Diana to go without him so he can later save her; Diana finds Zola; Diana seems to escape; Diana is shot, according the New 52 doctrine of shock; Diana is left in jeopardy as the cliffhanger arrives: the end. The reason why the new Wonder Woman so often feels hollow is, quite frankly, because it is.

*1:- A poor argument has been removed here on the appreciated advice of Son Of Baldwin. You can see the point, and the speculation it inspired, below in the comments.

And then, at the heart of all this visually fascinating fast-food storytelling is the real cypher of the piece, Wonder Woman herself. Is it a fear of alienating DC's targeted male-boy readership that leads to Diana having so little personality? Is there a concern that anything other than the most blank and by-the-numbers lead draped in the star-spangled pants might raise the shadows of flakker-alienating kitsch and camp? For this Diana has no character at all beyond that of the most stereotypical indomitable hero, lacking even the ironic touches of self-depreciation which marked the Arnies and the Slys at their commercial height. She rarely smiles, she never jokes, she has no personal quirks or even expressions of individuality beyond the flatness of her tone, her persistent melancholia and her preference for ancient weaponry. (Tellingly, Diana's been stuck with the dogged grimness of the piece whereas the various members of her male supporting cast, from Hermes to Hades, get the laugh lines from beginning to end.) Isolate her essential qualities and they're indistinguishable from the checklist which might describe the least interesting action/adventure lead. Replace her with any other humourless hunk-of-power reliant upon archaic weaponry - Conan or Thor would do - and nothing much would need changing beyond a line or two and a total humour-bypass. Yes, we love this simulacra of Wonder Woman for refusing to give in, yes, we admire her for her rescue of Zola, yes, we're inspired by her refusal to put her own well-being before that of the friends. But that's not because we recognise this take on Princess Diana as having a personality of its own. Rather, it's a recognition of the fundamental virtues associated with a particularly thin and yet reassuring role being pushed through a very obvious, you-can-cheer-now-cheap-seats plot.

Azzarello's reinvention of Wonder Woman as Buffy-The-Incredibly-Grumpy-Monster-Slayer has been an absolute triumph of flash over depth. It's not that it's been an unimaginative process, but it's certainly been a hollow one. There's so much there in this new set-up to distract the eye and engage the adrenalin glands, and that's a misdirection made all the more convincing by Cliff Chiang's wonderfully eye-directing, jump-the-plot-holes artwork. But that empty-heartedness which so many folks have noted, that all-calories-no-fibre sense that the comic is exciting and yet strangely unsatisfying? That's what happens when your lead character is a one-dimensional, don't-frighten-the-fanboys, heroic type, it's what gradually dawns when your plots are designed for the sake of the water-cooler moments rather than the sense of it all. It's all impressive work in many ways, but it's not impressive storytelling in anything other than a mechanical fashion. It can be fun, it can be deftly organised, it comes with a host of smart ideas, but it doesn't feel heartfelt and it's certainly not satisfying.

Just don't look back, don't ask questions, don't expect sense to anchor the spectacle or character to inform the cardboard cut-outs, and everything will fine.


Tuesday, 24 April 2012

On Dan Dare by Garth Ennis & Gary Erskine

I've done my best to leave no evidence of my tearfulness, but tearfulness there most certainly was. Convincing expressions of decency are so rare in today's adventure fiction. Modesty, restraint, honour, honesty, respect, self-sacrifice; these are untypical qualities in our bad-ass obsessed media, and the simple fact of their presence can entirely defuse a body's cynical defences and well-up the tear-ducts with all the relief of a friendly smile at a moment of weariness. To feel that inarguable decency is being expressed in a way that's neither cloying nor regressive, embarrassing or cack-handedly manipulative, is an incredibly rare experience. To realise that such culturally verboten principles are suddenly being openly discussed is to be reminded that it's not a shameful business to believe in the most fundamental of values, no matter how unspohisticated, conditional, and supposedly naive they are.

And so, 2011's Captain America movie can always reduce me to snuffling when Steve Rogers quietly declares; "I don't want to kill anyone. I don't like bullies. I don't care where they're from". That's my political ideology right there, stripped of cant and the cold-hearted cleverness of spin. It's exactly the same with Ennis and Erskine's 21st century re-invention of Dare Dare, a little-discussed masterpiece of political idealism wrapped up in the big-budget trappings of top-notch  military sci-fi. It's a tale which always causes me to repeatedly choke up, and which always leaves me wishing that I didn't feel so fundamentally alienated from the self-serving popularity contest that so often seems to pass as the politics of my own culture. Isn't that what a polemical yarn is supposed to do? Of course, Utopias fit for heroes - let alone the rest of us - are conspicuously absent from human history, which means that any moment in time would most probably inspire the same sense of alienation. But it is inspiring to be reminded that we all could choose to do just a little bit better, at the very least.

Dare Dare by Ennis and Erskine is the subject of current The Year In Politics piece over at Sequart - here - and I hope you might consider popping over and taking a look. There's also something of a respectful if all-too-brief glance back at Dare-creator Frank Hampson's glorious achievements on the strip in the 50s too. I think I've kept the tearfulness out of things over there, but I suspect that there are still traces of eye-dabbing and snuffling to be found. Reader, beware.



Monday, 23 April 2012

On Wonder Woman #8, Fanboy Flakkers & The Sanctity Of Myth (Part 1 of 2)

What's happened to all that apologist outrage? Last month’s revelation that the Amazons are now to be regarded as a nation of men-murdering, midnight-naked canoeists brought a phalanx of fanboy flakkers bent on defending the historical validity of the revisionism. With all the passion of the deeply committed matched with the knowledge and understanding of the unknowingly ignorant, the decision to recast Wonder Woman’s people as every male chauvinist’s worst nightmare/sexual fantasy was deemed to be perfectly in line with the original depictions of the Amazons in the myths and legends of the Ancient Greeks. It was a totally misguided contention, of course, but the principle was clear; a Wonder Woman story which reflects the ideology and narrative details of the folk-tales of the long-distant past is an ethically unchallengeable, artistically superior comicbook. 

We might logically expect that the opposite of this would be true, and that any Wonder Woman tale which ignored the great mass of the beliefs from the Greece of so many tens of centuries ago would be regarded as an outrageously inferior and offensive desecration. After all, if it’s unacceptable to expect Azzarello’s work to reflect a modern-era feminist perspective because of the loathing for women expressed in those old, old  stories from the Eastern end of the Mediterranean, then it must be equally unacceptable for any other radical 21st century reworking to be superimposed over the culture of Hellas and her peoples. Yet Wonder Woman #8 presents us with an innovative version of Hades and the Greek underworld which bears no relation to anything in ancient records. Surely this must be a source of considerable ire to the flakkers, so concerned as they are to respect, protect and propagate the form and content of the culture of so very long ago?

Apparently not. It seems that Azzarello has been granted free reign by the flakkers to reinterpret anything at all except for those aspects which serve to perpetuate misogyny. The supposed vileness of Queen Hippolyta and her brutally emasculating sex-killers ought to be forever respected, it seems, but everything else is apparently up for grabs. And so, there’s been not a murmur of discontent - let alone any spittle-flecked raging - about the innovative if hyper-real rendition of the Greek underworld and its ruler in this month's Chasing Shadows. It’s something which really does leave the suspicion that all that rage and indignation about the sanctity of those old myths, about the necessary rightness of portraying the Amazons as despicable man-murderers, was nothing more than a desperate attempt to shout down anyone who might have pointed out how unpleasantly sexist, and indeed profoundly stupid, Wonder Woman #7 was. 

Or: it was never about the sexist myths of times gone by and everything about the sexist myths of 2012.

Eros's love pistols? A hell whose landscape is physically constructed from the changeling souls of the dead? Hades as a malicious little boy with his head crowned by burning candles, the wax from which has melted across his eyes? As shocking as it might be for the inexpert, obstinate and righteous flakker to realise, I really don’t think any of it’s to be found in Homer, Hesiod or Herodotus. 

Quick, fanboys, push away those unsettlingly enticing panels of naked, beautiful women paddling across the moonlit oceans at night in search of semen and blood-letting. The hallowed continuity of the myths and legends of Ancient Greece is being desecrated in Wonder Woman #8!

None of the above is to suggest that Wonder Woman # 8 lacks quality, or indeed, problems too: on the whole, I enjoyed it. Perhaps you might care to pop back on Wednesday, when TooBusyThinking will be chatting about "Casting Shadows", or tomorrow, where the blog discusses one of the greatest space heroes ever.


Friday, 20 April 2012

On "Scalped: Casino Boogie" & "Hoka Hey" by Jason Aaron & R.M. Guera

Poverty as a character-testing challenge for the hard-done-by and noble-at-heart protagonist to rise above. Poverty as the terrible crucible which strangely differentiates the decent and hard-working poor from the weak-spined, self-indulgent, and undeserving gene trash. Poverty as the easy excuse for a life of wastrelism and crime, poverty as the excuse-all plea of mitigation given by society's predatory scum. Poverty as the sinfully deliberate creation of the raptorial capitalist classes, poverty as an unfortunate accident which might be overcome if only well-meaning citizens from the more affluent stratas knew just a little bit more about it. Poverty as the purgatory whose poor damned souls can only be saved by the super-citizen from a higher social plane. Poverty as a backdrop for class-voyeuristic slumming, as a cliched stage-set for creators and readers alike to indulge in the thrill of brutally powerful men and wilful, sexually-transgressive women, in the prospect of mugger-packed mean streets, rapist-clogged cul-de-sacs and crack-den-filled apartment blocks. The way in which poverty's both depicted and put to use in the mass of comic books is nearly always as woefully predictable as it's facile and patronising.


Jason Aaron's scripts for Scalped discuss poverty is a way which few comics have ever thought to. He's clearly far too smart to swallow crass situationalist theories which reduce individuals to mindless victims of class structures, but he's also no interest in perpetuating the politically-convenient, hand-washing myth that the right sort of folks will always find a way to work themselves out of the worst of circumstances. From the very first chapter of Indian County, Aaron and his artistic collaborator R.M. Guera make it absolutely clear that life on the Prairie Rose Indian Reservation presents its inhabitants with deprivations which can't be wished away or conquered with nothing more than a willingness to work hard matched to godly good thinking. The Reservation is a monster of oppression and exploitation which exists beyond anyone's capacity to substantially reform, let alone redeem, without their first committing the most appalling of acts. Though the pages of Scalped show us a number of women and men who are working to make their community as good a place as they can to live in, the spine of the tale always emphasises that the Reservation has been established and maintained in such a way that its people can only at the very best survive there. In that, Scalped very much isn't a comic book concerned with the usually comforting pablum of how the individual can rise above the world if only they fight hard enough, if only they're true to this principle or that. Instead, it seems to be Aaron's purpose to discuss how the choices before his characters are framed by forces which are largely, and despite their very best efforts, beyond their control. They can attempt to wrestle sense and advantage out of the world that they've through no fault of their own been condemned to, but the cost of doing so is always exhausting and appalling.

Even the most apparently powerful members of Aaron's Native American cast are shown to be at least as much prisoners as masters of their situation. And so, Lincoln Red Crow's made sure that he's risen to a position of political preeminence, dreaming as he does so of bringing prosperity in the form of the Crazy Horse Casino to the community. Yet in order to achieve this, he's had to embrace and perpetuate decades of soul-shrivelling gangsterism. The corruption of Aaron's America is so complete that even the most herculean of feats by his characters can only affect the fundamental structure of the Reservation and their lives within it if they're willing to behave in ways which violate the most fundamental ethical values. The choice seems dispiritingly clear from the perspective of the reader; either these characters have to accept a life as a citizen of what's effectively a Third World state or abandon any claims to a culture which stands in opposition to that of their persecutors. As the Bureau Of Indian Affairs Regional Director Todd Jigger reminds Red Crow, the Reservation's casino has been built using exactly the same heartlessly exploitative methods which once destroyed the Native American nations. "Welcome to the white's man's world." mocks Jigger, emphasising that the final triumph of the American state is to impose the worst of its values upon the most oppressed and powerless of its victims. Or: in order to compete with America, you have to become America, and not the shining blameless America of the least discriminating patriot's dreams either.

As Aaron writes in the very first panel of Scalped, the Prairie Rose Indian Reservation is "where the great Sioux Nation came to die".  At the heart of his scripts is the fact that the Reservation's people simply don't have the resources to take control of their lives and prosper a community. They can survive, more or less, but that's mostly the best that they can achieve. No matter what they do, they can never legitimately access the weight of opportunity and wealth that's needed to transform their society into something other than a poverty-stricken periphery. What's left to them is scraps and shadows, leaving them little but a soul-withering outland in which a debilitating degree of the day-to-day economy runs on welfare and crime.(Guera's panels often seem to be describing a desperately hopeless post-industrial waste, all ramshackle shacks and deserted rusting cars, and yet the Reservation's never managed to reach a state which might ever accurately be called industrialized in the first place.)

Yet as if to make sure that no-one mistakes Scalped for a work that's nothing but despairing, if not even entirely nihilistic, Aaron also introduces to us to citizens who are doing the very best they can to create a world in which the community might hold together if not exactly prosper. There are the teachers encouraging their students to aspire to jobs such as "marine biologist", and there are the policemen such as Officer Falls Down who deliberately stands up in public to Red Crow and his all-too-obvious corruption. Small victories and passing kindnesses they might be, but it's implied that they're essential to the everyday well-being of the community. Yet despite these momentary sparks of hope and even defiance, we're also constantly being shown how terribly wounded the society of the Reservation is, and in that, Scalped stands as a rare example of a contemporary comic book which is explicitly designed to refute the argument that the Republic's social ills are largely the fault of a mass of  utterly selfish, anti-social individuals. This isn't poverty as the cumulative effect of the selfishness and idleness of a mass of scroungers and criminals, but poverty as an inescapably objective fact of life imposed and perpetuated by a political system which is, it seems, largely beyond the people's influencing.


No matter how fierce the exasperation and disgust which Aaron directs towards the Republic's  treatment of Native Americans in Scalped, he never resorts to idealising the citizens of the Reservation. Of course, his point is that even the best of women and men can and most likely will be corrupted to a lesser or greater degree by degrading and grindingly difficult situations, so any casting of his predominantly Native American characters as shiningly innocent and noble proletarians would hardly help his case. Yet a great many of his characters are given moments which humanise them and suggest that, were the world just constituted in a fairer and more humane fashion, they'd most likely be far better people than they've ended up. This process doesn't mean that Aaron and Guera ever expect us to side with the likes of the ultimately reprehensible Red Crow, but by the same token, it's impossible not to empathise with his awareness that he's committed a host of the most terrible crimes. Time and time again, Aaron presents us with characters who it'd be easy to portray as threatening and irredeemable outsiders. Dino and his friends drinking away the day in a landscape of beer cans, wrecked cars and crows, for example, have their ruined lives represented in a way which emphasises the waste of their potential without it ever being suggested that they've chosen the existence which they're self-medicating their way through.

It's in this context that even the most hazardous and stupid-minded of long-shots on the part of Aaron's characters become somewhat if not entirely understandable. It may be completely impossible to see how Dash's affair with Carol can ever end in anything other than a great deal of trouble and blood, and yet it's also immediately obvious that they're two broken individuals grasping for anything which might make something more of their blighted, alienated lives.Of course they're inevitably going to invite even more disaster into their lives, for what else do they have to live for except for the moment between aiming themselves at calamity and it arriving? In these circumstances, even Krystal's crack habit becomes as understandable as it's an obviously catastrophically bad choice - to say the least - for her and her unborn child. If the surface of Scalped appears at times to be profoundly Old Testament in the way in which eyes and teeth are returned with compound interest one for the other, then its sub-text is often tellingly Old Testament in its essential compassion and reluctance to judge without sympathy. None of the cast are portrayed in a way which means that they can dodge responsibility for their actions with a cry of "society's to blame", and yet, it is too.


It's hard to imagine Scalped ending on the happiest of notes, for the structure of the society it describes simply doesn't allow for anything other than the rarest and most isolated of individual triumphs. The only solutions for the Reservation's deprivations which Aaron implies might work are those which would demand an incredible investment of national resources over the longest period of time. In the absence of any such commitment to restorative social justice, Aaron's characters will surely remain largely compelled to operate as chess pieces do, with their rank determining where and when they can move, with the form of the board and the rigidity of the game's rules ensuring that the opportunities for achievement are mostly incredibly limited. Scalped is a comic that's congested with characters attempting to move in directions which the rules proscribe, and the more they attempt to do so, the more tension and foreboding accumulates on the page. What will ultimately happen to each individual member of the cast is of course the reason why the book's readers keep returning, and yet, part of Scalped's fascination and power also lies in that element of its set-up which can't be allowed to be resolved, which has to remain on the page at the tale's conclusion in pretty much the shape that it was when the story began. Whatever catharsis the reader enjoys where the ultimate fates of the comic's characters are concerned will most probably stand in contrast to the unchanging realities of life out on the margins of society. All in all, Aaron's is a brilliantly designed set-up, allowing for the possibility of the reader being satisfied with the climax of the overall story while still carrying the awareness that all is very much not right with the Republic and its Native American citizens.

Where so many of the comics that populate the mainstream  focus largely upon the mythically "deserving" individual's ability to escape from poverty, if poverty is touched upon at all, Scalped appears designed to ensure that its readers remain unseduced by any such evidence-denying, heart-hardening nonsense.

Your restraint with spoilers, dear reader, would be appreciated from the blogger who is at yet just 2 books into Scalped:


Wednesday, 18 April 2012

On Avengers Versus X-Men #0: How Brian Michael Bendis Never Disappoints

When it comes to his Avengers scripts of recent years, Brian Michael Bendis never disappoints. His work is always terrible. It's that very lack of quality which has made me such a fanatical follower of his work on the various Avengers titles. Where else can the reader enjoy the certainty of such imperial levels of authorial indolence when it comes to characterisation and plotting, which other books can ever match the idle mix of wilful first-draft/last-draft sloppiness paired with a lordly contempt for common sense? Bendis's Avengers books are so utterly, inexcusably wretched that they're an absolute joy to experience. No matter how hard the reader works to imagine the depth of incompetence that'll mark the next issue, no-one can ever anticipate the endlessly dull-minded ways in which Bendis manages to cheat his readers while undermining what's left of his reputation with everyone beyond the Rump. Those who accuse him of writing only for the least discriminating of fan-zealots have quite missed the fact that his Avengers work now appeals to a highly-selective niche which only a tiny fraction of writers have ever conquered. As such, we few readers who actively seek out those rare comics which consistently disappoint even the very lowest of our expectations salute the man who sold himself to us as the David Mamet of comics, but who's since been outed by the evidence of his own work on the Avengers as the super-book's very own Michael Bay.

A prime example of exquisitely boneheaded Bendisness can be found in the recently-released, and reassuring awful, Avengers Vs X-Men #0, a comic which has at least helped to prove how Rob Liefeld's recent work for DC isn't actually the nadir of modern-era super-books at all  In AvX #0, Bendis presents us with a scene in which the Scarlet Witch embarks on an ill-advised social visit to Avengers Mansion in the company of Ms Marvel and Spider-Woman. Wanda's reluctant to do any such thing, and understandably so, but Carol throws a sisterly arm around her and declares;

"Everyone's been worried about you. Just come back and say hello and get your hugs and let everyone know you're okay."

Of course, the trip to the Mansion goes particularly badly for the Scarlet Witch. Not only is she denied entry to Avengers HQ by her ex-husband The Vision, but she's also cruelly and publicly berated by him, and then effectively ordered off of the premises. A plot-furthering example of character-driven conflict, you might assume, but it's actually nothing more than the cheapest, the most stupid, of logic-less melodrama. For one thing, the audience has previously been given no reason to believe that the newly-reborn Vision feels any such way about his once-wife. (He expressed no such sentiments in his solo appearance just last month in Avengers 24.1, for example, though that was written by BMB too.) As such, the Vision's pronouncement of perpetual, irreversible exile upon Wanda erupts without the slightest foreshadowing, It's a common enough trick in Bendis's Avengers tales, to sidestep narrative logic in favour of great extravagant strokes of ham in order to capture the reader's attention. Here, Bendis decides that the Vision, the most kindly, the most sympathetic, the most purposefully human of Marvel's characters despite his android origins and appearance, shall suddenly become a vengeful, nasty bully. What can possibly be the reason for the Vision turning on the woman he once loved so in this particular fashion? It can't be the trauma of the temporary death which Wanda subjected him to, because Bendis has given us not the slightest evidence of anything but a certain degree of angst and frustration afflicting the synthezoid since his return to life. (He's been dead before, and utterly deconstructed in Byrne's regrettable West Coast Avengers run, so he's not even facing an entirely unfamiliar experience here.) Yes, we might expect that being transformed into a robot killing machine, after the way of superhero tales, might profoundly upset even an Avenger who's somewhat used to such things, but what Bendis is showing us in AvX #0 is a complete transformation in the Vision's personality, and there's been no sign of any such thing until this point.

That in itself might not have pushed AvX #0 all the way to the breaking point of its logic, but Bendis's story also relies, as we'll see, upon two other entirely unexplained, unforeshadowed and profoundly nonsensical conceits. Firstly, he expects us to believe that a number of the Avengers would be capable of holding Wanda personally responsible for the acts she committed in and after Avengers Disassembled, and, secondly, he expects us to accept that none of Earth's Mightiest Heroes will stand up for the Scarlet Witch while the Vision berates and then exiles her. In that, Bendis takes the Avengers and once again reduces them to either idiots, bigots or faithless friends, an act of careless revisionism which leaves the reader struggling to think well of any of the "heroes" on show.

For whatever the Avengers have decided was the cause of Wanda's first murderous and then reality-warping behaviour, the fact is that Wanda had obviously suffered a catastrophic breakdown of her ability to control her own actions. Whether it's seen to be the result of an unfortunate disorder or the consequence of the influence of Dr Doom, or even, according to She-Hulk, the paternal malignancy of Magneto, Wanda herself is blameless. She didn't decide on a whim to kill, she wasn't undergoing a brief moment of self-willed weakness. People don't just suddenly shrug, surrender to self-indulgence and decide to wipe out both their family and their closest friends, and you'd think that that would be a given for the smart, well-educated, supposedly compassionate members of the Avengers. That the Vision and his comrades suffered terribly because of the madness of how Wanda behaved is beyond doubt. Yet nobody who's at all rational, empathetic and well-informed would blame Wanda for the acts which she committed when she wasn't fully in control of her own mind. As such, she's every bit as much a victim as the rest of the Avengers are, and perhaps even more, since she has to bear the memories of what's been done as well as being constantly exposed to the ill-judgements and distrust of others.

It would have been an excellent moment, you might think, to emphasise the realities of psychological disorder and criminal responsibility in a pop-culture form, but of course, nothing of the sort occurs. For as Bendis showed in his treatment of the Sentry,  he's little if any interest in the social ethics of psychological disorder, and here he's at his callous worst again. A strange business from beginning to end, of course, since if Wanda was in any way personally responsible for her own actions, then the Avengers would be both bound by honour and law to ensure that she's dealt with in a humane manner which also ensures that society's protected from her too. Yet she's seemingly free to run around half-naked firing off hex bolts and doing exactly as she wants, which surely indicates that the Avengers now consider her sane. Either the Avengers should be striving to constrain and help her, because she's mad and desperately needs their help, or they should be doing all they can to help her adapt again to everyday life, because she's sane and she desperately needs their help. Yet the Avengers choose to seem to consider her both sane and blameworthy, and to regard their obligations as being confined to ignoring her.

But where would the drama be in having the Avengers behave in a rational and kindly fashion, when Wanda can be treated so very cruelly, can be abandoned by her friends and left to fend so cod-tragically for herself? Where's the pathos, where the easiest of plotting short-cuts, to be found in having plots make sense and characterisation count for anything other than convenience?

Cheap, stupid drama with a considerable degree of ethical cold-heartedness directed against the blamelessly disordered: Bendis does not disappoint those hoping to find third and fourth rate work in the pages of the Avengers.

Of course, Bendis has a serious problem with his plot for AvX #0, because he's presenting supposedly sympathetic and smart-minded characters behaving in an ignorant and despicable fashion. The solution which he settled upon appears to have been to simply ignore logic and good conscience entirely, while loading up the the strip with flat wisecracks, reader-distracting asides and, on the part of the Vision, dialogue which only sounds deeply revealing and sensible until the actual sense of it is considered. And so, Bendis has the Vision declare that he "cannot forgive" his ex-wife for using his "body as a weapon against my friends and my home". It sounds like a reasonable, if hardly rational, motivation until the reader considers what it is that Bendis is actually having the Vision say. At first glance, the Vision appears to be stating that he considers Wanda to be at fault for the terrible things which happened to him and his fellow Avengers, but of course, Bendis can't have the android saying any such thing, because the reader would simply wonder why the Witch was being blamed for something that clearly wasn't her fault. So Bendis has to complicate the issue and obfuscate the fact that  the Vision's unfairly berating Wanda. And so, the Witch's sin becomes clumsily twisted until it becomes that of her choosing to use the Vision's body to harm his team-mates.This clearly makes no sense at all. Why is it that the Vision cannot forgive Wanda for the highly specific matter using his frame "as a weapon against my friends and my home"? If he regards her as being responsible for the ill events, then it doesn't matter how Wanda used him to attack and kill her comrades. 

And yet, as we've said, that would be a ludicrous charge, so Bendis has to throw in the misdirection of the overpowering and mis-use of the Vision's body. "That I cannot forgive." declares the Scarlet Witch's ex-husband, a remarkably poorly reasoned argument which the rest of the Avengers - including two super-geniuses - simply swallow whole. Who could possibly line up behind the Vision, or at the very least shamefully avoid challenging him, when he's declaring that Wanda's unforgiveable sin is not hurting the Avengers, but using the Vision to do so while, as the android himself says, she was at her "lowest". What does the maddened Wanda's seizure of her husband's body have to do with her culpability, why is it such an important and unforgivable issue when all else goes unmentioned, and why is it that none of the Avengers notice how stupid this argument is? At the very least, they might have noted that the folks who were hurt and murdered during Wanda's attack were also her "friends" too, that the Mansion was her "home" as well.Yet Bendis gives the android some very specific words and phrases to speak which ought to have inspired the other Avengers to speak out, and it's particularly noticeable that he has the Vision declare twice in separate word balloons that Wanda "chose" to do what she did. So, can it be true that the Vision believes that Wanda was capable of controlling herself during and after the Disassembled period, even as he also says that she "may have endured" the manipulations of others? Is he saying that she did have free will, and yet she possibly didn't? Is it that she is responsible, and yet only to a degree? Because she can't be both blameworthy and potentially blameless if the Vision is going to say the things that he does. Why, given the astonishingly weakness of the Vision's argument, do none of the Avengers suggest that no-one in their right mind commits the acts which Wanda did? Could it be because that would mean that Bendis's story would then trundle peacefully off into a scene of the Vision being quietened down in a darkened room while Wanda is offered a cup of tea?

It's another example of Bendis delivering highfalutin phrases which just don't stand up to any kind of scrutiny. It would be lovely to think that Bendis is outing the Vision as a man who's an overpowering phobia about the control of his own body. That would be an interesting spin on the character, given how his man-made frame has been mocked, reviled and even repeatedly torn to pieces before. Such would be a fascinating business, to present the android as a man who's so profoundly neurotic about the association between his artificial substance and his free will that he just can't bear the thought of losing control over his own actions. Yet of course, Bendis doesn't seem to be saying anything of the sort, for if he was, it would be the Vision and not Wanda who was being portrayed as the blameworthy party in this scene. Instead, it appears that Bendis is saying nothing more meaningful than that the plot needs the Vision to hurt Wanda at this point, and so that's what he has the Vision do. The android's behaviour makes no sense, his very words are piffle strained through psycho-babble, while everything that Bendis has him say and do violates the character's entire life-history without any explanation being offered for the while sorry affair. But given that character means little if nothing at all to Bendis in these Avengers tales, and accepting that all that counts is soap-operatic effect, then why shouldn't the Vision behave so despicably? What does anything matter beyond the latest reader-shocking twist of the arc?

Yet it's not just the Vision who's bent deliberately and ridiculously out of shape in the scene. Bendis has the Vision coldly spit at Wanda while the whole business is being watched by six other Avengers; Ms Marvel, Spider-Woman, the Beast, Thor, Wolverine and Iron Man. None of them - not one - speaks for Wanda or attempts to reason with her persecutor with any conviction at all. Carol Danvers, who cajoled Wanda into visiting the Mansion with the promise that "Everyone will be very happy to see you" doesn't even step forward to stand beside her friend and lend a shadow of support until after it's all over, when she finally offers a token "Wow! Could you be any more of a --?". (Are we really supposed to believe that Ms Marvel would respond so cravenly? After all, and despite her token resistance, she simply does what the Vision commands and flies Wanda away, a contemptible business. Still, it is the women who do what they're told here, and the blokes who make the decisions about who gets to do what with whom.) Indeed, all of these apparently noble, if understandably compromised Avengers stand back while the clearly irrational, and genuinely irrational, Vision takes control of all of their affairs. Who is and who isn't welcome at the Mansion surely isn't a matter for the Vision alone, and yet here everyone chooses to wash their hands of any responsibility while allowing the emotionally fragile and entirely innocent Wanda to suffer. Even if they are all in support for the Vision's stance, and Ms Marvel for one clearly shouldn't be, you might think that they'd be exceptionally wary of upsetting a woman who once rewrote reality in order to try to reduce her own anxieties. Old abilities have a habit of returning in the super-people universes, after all, and common sense if not kindness would dictate something other than allowing her to be sent to Coventry in such a cold-blooded fashion.

But no, it appears that the likes of the Beast - the compassionate, empathetic Henry McCoy - and Thor - who once welcomed the Swordsman back into the fold despite the latter's habit of trying to murder the Avengers - are unable to even suggest that a touch of politeness, compassion and group decision-making might help. "His call." declares Wolverine as Wanda leaves, which begs the question "why?". Why is the Vision to be granted such power, such freedom from moral responsibility and even sense? That he's suffered terribly is beyond doubt, but then Wanda herself has been twisted and broken by outside influences and psychological troubles herself, and all of the Avengers must surely know - if I may be forgiven repeating the key issue here - that we do not regard those who've lost their free will as the authors of their own terrible misfortune, no matter what they've done. Yet apparently the Vision is the injured party here, as if he was a patriarchal husband cuckolded by his irresponsible wife, and so whatever the Vision wants must happen. It's shameful stuff, and whether Bendis's intention is to show the Avengers as a shower of cretins and bigots, that's what he's achieved. How is it that not one of them spoke and fought for her with any conviction and spirit, how can it be that not a single Avenger sought to lend her any substantial comfort at all? 

There are two other wonderfully pathetic moments in Bendis's script for these few pages, and it ought to be said that we're only discussing five sides here. The first is the sight of the Vision weeping after he's driven Wanda away, a closing panel which seems to demand that we see him as a kind of brave martyr to his own suffering rather than either a brusque bully or a resurrected and yet traumatised, and therefore also blameless, android. It's typical of BMB's work on the series, in that what counts in his scripts is not who the characters are or what their motivations might be, but the sentimental and sensationalist impact of their behaviour upon the reader. Finally, there's another one of the supposed master of dialogue's impossibly clunky, stupid lines, in which Tony Stark concedes to Wolverine that the Vision quite rightly possesses the right to treat Wanda pretty much however he wants, before whimpering: "I just - - always liked them together." One of the most brilliant men in the Marvel Universe, who is himself a survivor of a savage addiction which caused to do some profoundly terrible things, isn't, it seems, concerned with either Wanda's well-being or that of her ex-husband. Indeed, he's not even capable of wondering about the rights of the Avengers themselves, for it's surely not up to the Vision to assume the ad-hoc power to pass judgement on any other member of the team. But instead of anything which might reflect either his personality or common sense, Tony just simpers that he liked the Witch and the Vision together, as if that had anything to do with anything at all. Again, if that really is the most important, the most pertinent and caring thing that Stark can say at that moment, then he's as much of a miserable excuse for a human being as his fellow Avengers in the scene are.

But then, every single character in this five page sequence except for the Scarlet Witch herself is entirely repugnant. Earth Mightiest Heroes? Earth's most conspicuously bigoted and gutless ignoramuses might be a more appropriate tag-line for the series. When even Carol Danvers doesn't have the guts to stand up properly for her friend, the reader's capacity to feel the slightest admiration or even liking for these straw women and men entirely dissipates. Even in the unlikely event that Bendis has set all of this unpleasantness up in order to later reveal how emotionally blighted and psychologically ill-informed these Avengers are, the truth is that none of them beyond perhaps - perhaps - the Vision should be feeling and behaving as they are in that scene. But then, that's not the Avengers, that's a bunch of hard-hearted, self-interested, keep-your-head-down know-nothings, and I hope the Phoenix does for them, I really do.

When it comes to his Avengers scripts of recent years, Brian Michael Bendis never disappoints. His work is always terrible. I look forward to his How-To-Write-Comics book next year, secure in the knowledge that it'll explain the principles of graphic storytelling for the super-team comic-book as helpfully as Grant Morrison's Supergods illuminated quantum physics.


Tuesday, 17 April 2012

On Marvel's "The Evolutionary War" (1988)

If the superhero comic's dying, then it's been lingering on its death-bed for a long, long time. Today's The Week In Comics piece over at Sequart - here - takes a look back at The Evolutionary War, Marvel's 1988's summer event crossover, and suggests that far less has changed over the past quarter-of-a-century or so than nostalgia might suggest.


Saturday, 14 April 2012

Superman & The Ti-Girls; Preaching To The Unconverted (Part 4 of 3)

Continued from here and here and here; "The superhero comic is an impossibly tough sell, so how to convert the blissfully unconcerned heathen who isn't already predisposed towards the adventures of the cape'n'chest-insignia brigade? ... Which books might just convince a broad audience of folks who aren't adolescently-minded shlock-shock addicts to buy into the super-hero habit" 

8. Superman: Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow? by Alan Moore & Curt Swan

A man convinced that he's soon to die slumps and weeps with despair while his steadfast pet dog lies by his feet and looks up in concern. Presented with a restraint which trusts the reader's capacity to empathise without a heart-clogging injection of schmaltz,  it remains one of the most quietly anguishing images ever presented in a superhero comic. For those who know anything of the history of the characters, the sheer impossibility of such a situation simply accentuates its power. After all, Superman neither weeps nor crumples - even temporarily - under the weight of an inescapable fate which he can't out-punch, out-think or even escape. To all but the most disinterested of those who lack the slightest familiarity with the backstory of Kal-El and his Kryptonian hound, the moment remains at the very least an intriguingly unresolved situation. The juxtaposition of the strongman in his circus tights and cape with his own hopelessness; the landlocking of Superman's slumped frame far from the eye's natural exit point from the page; the presence of an exhibit of a metal girder once bent and twisted by some unimaginably powerful process, a symbol of a remarkable and yet now quite apparently useless measure of strength; the looming shadowed presence of an alien pterodactyl-like creature suggesting nothing but the worst of ill-fate ahead; Curt Swan's design for the largely wordless full-page shot is exquisitely well-judged, complimenting the pathos of Moore's script without curdling the moment with an easy excess of syrupy sentimentality.

Unlike the previous selections in this list, Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow? is a comic that's saturated with the weight of continuity and peppered by super-people who can't possibly be regarded as anything other than entirely absurd. It is possible, with a considerable denial of reason, to find something of the everyday in the acrobatics and super-science of the likes of Batman and his various costumed street-fighting progeny. But Superman is an essentially all-powerful character who the literal minded will always struggle to empathise with. From his capacity to fly faster than the speed of light to his less-exploited gift for super-ventriloquism, the Silver Age Man Of Steel and his bizarre and crowded pantheon of supporting characters remains a quite obviously poor fit for any tilt at comic-book realism. Yet only the smarter-than-thou snob and the irredeemable idiot conflates a fiction's lack of realism with an inability to express emotion and ideas.  

Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow? draws a great deal of its power from the discussion of the loss of potency and purpose with age which underpins the beats of Moore's script. Faced with the accumulating and psychotically-threatening consequences of his years spent at war with petty criminals and tyrants alike, Superman finds himself impotently watching on as his friends are threatened and murdered, as his own life and its achievements appear destined to end in failure. Yet what appears to be at first a superhero Gotterdammerung concludes with the sight of the now powerless Man Of Flesh And Blood attending in anonymity and good humour to the business of being a husband and father, having become a far less self-obsessed individual who's found a host of less conspicuously planet-saving ways to contribute to the everyday world around him. If our imaginary would-be reader of super-books could be presented with a single example of how a labyrinthine mythos with its army of logically preposterous characters can produce a tale that's entertaining, moving and gently thought-provoking, then Moore and Swan's Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow? should surely be it.

9. Ti-Girls Adventures by Jaime Hernandez (Love & Rockets #1, 2008)

Whatever the typical sluggardly modern-era super-comics is, Ti-Girls Adventures very much isn't.  Exuberant, smart, politically vibrant, inventive, hilarious, ambitious, it's a joyous rush of a tale which refuses to accept that the superhero's adventures ought to be anything other than consistently entertaining and constantly inventive. In that, Jaime Hernandez taps once again into the imperatives which drove the storytelling of the very best of the sub-genre's creators in the Golden and Silver Age. Most of today's writers and artists tend to imagine that their responsibility is to write to the page, as Warren Ellis once said of Alan Moore's method, and it's a way of thinking which has somehow resulted in the belief that a side of a comic need really only carry a moment or two that's in any way noteworthy. There's no little irony that Jaime Hernandez understands his super-book history in a way which so many of the Big Two's current curators have clearly never cared to grasp, because he knows that the work of the Lees and the Kirbys and Ditkos, to take but three examples, was concerned not with what the page might be made to say so much as what each individual panel could be designed to shine with. For the artists and writers of the best Marvel superhero books of the High Sixties, to name one conspicuous high-point in the sub-genre's history, the worst sin of all was to risk losing the audience's attention before their eyes leapt the guttering between one frame and another. Every panel had to count, every row had to shine, every page had to strobe with distraction and novelty. The super-book is at its best when it's at its most fiercely ingenious, when it's most captivatingly densely-packed, and that's exactly how Ti-girls functions.

To enjoy Ti-Girls is to find many of the prejudices which underlie most of the Big Two's product becoming even more obvious, inexplicable and incisor-grindingly frustrating. Here there's no age barrier to the rank of costumed protagonist, let alone a taken-for-granted fatwa on the respectful, playful representation of a broad range of female body types. There's also nothing of the oh-so-common whitebread machismo or the doctrine of stab-'em-in-the-guts-shock on show, of course, but what there is a delightfully imaginative tale depicting generations of super-women drawn together by the threat posed by an old friend who's now both super-powered and "beserk". Super-book aficionados faced with the first few chapters of Ti-Girls might choose to dwell upon the best nine-panel fight scenes for several decades at least, while others will find themselves seduced by the friendships which develop, and on occasion don't, between the various members of the book's compelling cast. Along the way, readers will find the strip's pages saturated by the kind of smartly ludicrous inventions which Grant Morrison has often complained are almost entirely absent from the superhero narratives of the 21st century; a tiny one-inch high baby living in the belt buckle of its super-heroine mother; the shriek of Penny Century growing louder at ground-level as she nears Earth from space; drunk super-powered arm-wrestlers mind-controlled into believing that their sole good-for-bar-fighting limb has been severed from their shoulder.

The truth is that Ti-Girls is joyously good fun. In establishing how wrong-headed a great many of today''s super-book creators are, it re-establishes how dynamic and delectable the superhero comic still can be.

Superhero Books To Convert The Unconverted

1. Catwoman: Wild Ride by Ed Brubaker & Cameron Stewart
2. Batman: Year One by Frank Miller & David Mazzucchelli
3. Batman: Mad Love & Other Stories by Paul Dini & Bruce Timm, and esteemed colleagues
4. The Amazing Spider-Man by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko (Marvel Masterworks #2, #11-19, Annual #1)
5. Spider-Man Loves Mary-Jane by Sean McKeever & Takeshi Miyazawa
6. Men Of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters & The Birth Of The Comic Book by Gerard Jones 
7. Daredevil by Mark Waid, Paolo Rivera, Marcos Martin, Kano et al

8. Superman: Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow? by Alan Moore & Curt Swan
9. Ti-Girls Adventures by Jaime Hernandez (Love & Rockets #1/2, 2008/9)