Thursday, 31 May 2012

Why I Loathe And Despise Spider-Man, That Torturing Piece Of Slime

In which the blogger starts steaming about a comic book that's long been chewed over and put away by other esteemed scribblers, including friends of this blog. His advice is that all that follows is naught but old news and spleen, and best avoided. But perhaps you might pop back another time, when the tone's more calm and topic fresher;

It's old news, of course. It happened, a few folks discussed it, there was a touch of raging and counter-spitting, and then the industry rolled right along. In Amazing Spider-Man #685, Dan Slott presented us with a scene in which Spider-Man and Silver Sable deliberately and savagely tortured The Sandman. It's a comic that I was reluctant to read, because, quite frankly, I just don't need to see yet another of my old childhood friends and inspirations transformed into one of the lowest forms of life that there is. But in the end, a possible assignment for elsewhere involved me collecting together various examples of Marvel's super-torturers from recent years, and obviously there was no avoiding Slott's Global Menace. What I hadn't foreseen is how profoundly disappointing it would be to read one example of torture-justifying super-book after another. I'd not realised quite how many of these consistently reactionary and thoroughly unpleasant polemics Marvel had produced, with all of them quite deliberately, it seems, taking an unambiguously contrary position to that spelled out in the Republic's Constitution.

There's been some idiots leaving offensive comments which contain the contention that the above scene isn't torture because the Sandman can't feel pain. To those who've accused me of either not reading the page or being plain stupid, may I present the obviously radical idea that terrorising a man with the apparent imminence of the extinction of his consciousness is, pain or not, the text-book definition of torture. (Rude comments get deleted, so rude folks shouldn't bother.)
One of the things that's most interesting to me about this toxic and stomach-turning business is how just about all of these despicable tales share the majority of the following features in common. In short, it seems that there's an established narrative which allows superheroes to behave as monsters and yet appear to be laudable, self-sacrificing guardians of security, order and decency. Indeed, Slott's script in Amazing Spider-Man #685 reads in places as something of an ur-text for this process, as a guide to how to corrupt comic-book characters while appearing to do quite the opposite. And so, these stories tend, as ASM #385 often does, to present us with the following;

1.) A certainty that the victim of the torture is undoubtedly guilty of the sin they're accused of and/or in possession of vital evidence desperately needed by the "heroes".

2.) A situation in which the victim could and should help if only they weren't so stubborn/evil/misguided etc etc.

3.) A situation in which the victim would never have suffered any harm whatsoever if they'd only behaved themselves and cooperated.

4.) The prospect of an imminent disaster so desperate, so appalling, so overwhelming and terrifying, that torture appears not only to be entirely justifiable, but unconditionally necessary. In fact, these stories are nearly always fixed so that torture actually seems to be a moral as well as a practical imperative.

5.) A situation rooted in the premise that torture both works and works relatively quickly, matched with the implication that the suffering it causes can be precisely limited and immediately treated. (In ASM #685, Sable and Spider-Man don't even discuss such matters, though time is spent talking nervously about the threat that the fiendish Sandman might escape, damn his sandy hide.)

6.) A situation in which the torture's been designed to be gruesomely compelling for the reader, because torture is, as Slott amongst many others obviously believes, an entertainment in itself.

7.) The clear suggestion that the heroic torturers are never sadists, incompetent or misguided, let alone evil.

8.) Information gained from the torture leads to decisive action which saves the day, because the torture, of course, always works and always works in an entirely productive fashion which allows the sins involved to be entirely eclipsed by the thought of all the children and puppies who've been protected.

9.) An outcome which either ignores any suggestion that the victim of the torture will suffer any lasting ill-effects or which actively implies that they won't.

10.) The sense that the hero or heroes who sanction and commit the torture will themselves suffer no lasting, dehumanising effects from their behaviour beyond a noble air of angst earned through the suffering which they - and not their victims - underwent as a result of the cutting and poking and burning and so on.

11.) The clear sense that torture is something which real heroes rise to, and which marks the truly super-heroic superhero as a figure willing and able to do anything in order to save the world once again.

Perhaps most sickening of all the many dubious aspects of Global Menace is the way in which Slott presents the bloody-handed Spider-Man as an entirely admirable human being fit to lead a superhero army in a "war" upon his enemies. "I have changed, but not that much." muses the young-ish Mr Parker, congratulating himself on the thought that he wouldn't have allowed the Sandman to be murdered. Well, torture's only torture, isn't it, and it was all in a good cause, whereas murder, it seems, would be the mark of a truly bad human being. If that beat of the story was designed to establish that Parker's a self-denying moral imbecile, and I doubt it was, then it only raises the prospect of when he's going to be tried and convicted for his crimes. Yet strangely enough, Slott seems convinced that Spider-Man remains not just one of the good guys'n'gals, but the guiding light of the costumed crimefighter's community. For in a later scene in which Parker marshals the various heroes remaining on planet Earth., Slott has him appeal for the support of his longjohned fellows from the international community of super-people with the following example of self-righteous speechifying;

"I'm asking you to take a leap of faith. To stack my character up against (that of Doctor Octopus) and ask -- "Who do you trust?"

How's that for a super-person who's quite forgotten all that hot-air about "great power" and "great responsibility", and who seems to have utterly repressed the entirely compromising fact that he connived in the torture of the Sandman just a few moments before? (Perhaps he's had his ego boosted and his conscience softened by the adoration of his partner-in-torture Silver Sable, who's quick to declare "This man is a real hero.") I'm sure that Uncle Ben would be proud of you, Peter, as would all those great Americans who, during times of terrible danger, rejected torture in any shape or form. After all, what could be more humane and American that the embracing of values and actions entirely inconsistent with, er, being either humane or American? Perhaps, and this surely is the longest of longshots, Slott intends to show us Parker re-acquainting himself with the principles of his nation and the content of its laws with a glance at the life and works of its greatest citizens? Why not begin his studies with Washington's ethics and behaviour during the War Of Independence, or with the debates of the Founding Fathers and the content of the Constitution which they framed? You know, the ethos and laws of the nation of which Peter Parker is supposedly a citizen.
It's a despicable business, this exalting of torturers, this dehumanising of their victims, this trivialising of the effects of the torturer's principles and art. A culture which creates heroes out of such men and women runs the risk of encouraging a society in which torturing becomes not just a noble virtue and a heroically pragmatic necessity in fiction, but a fact of life. Culture does tend to impact upon politics every bit as much as the reverse might be said to be true. But then, we might argue that that's a process that's long been underway. And I'll certainly never be able to look at Spider-Man and Captain America, Silver Sable and Black Widow, Dr Strange and Cyclops, Wolverine and their various collaborators, and not think that these are people whose characters I very much do not trust. In fact, for all the talk on some people's lips that this is Marvel presenting adult characters debating mature issues, the truth is that the broad sweep of this material constitutes nothing of the sort. Satire gets lost, debate is almost entirely absent, subtlety, if it could ever be claimed to exist, is buried in the tidal wave of what's effectively pro-torture propaganda.

No characters suffer beyond that sheen of self-sacrifice for their immoral and illegal behaviour, no statements against torture of any comparable force are ever published in the company's books. Can anyone name a forceful, high-profile polemic directed against vigilantes and their torturing ways in recent years? Can anyone recall a J'accuse moment directed against the monstrous Rogers and Parker and their cohorts? No, there's no debate here, no balanced investigation of ethical options where the bulk of Marvel's output is concerned. Because, let us be honest, practically the entire super-population of the Marvel Universe is a collaborator not just in the threatening and scarifying of potential ill-doers, but their purposeful torture too. An entire line of characters rendered perpetually ethically toxic, and yet still their likenesses get stamped onto kiddies' underwear and lunch-boxes. Why anyone cares to think of the modern mainstream book as an unarguably liberal proposition in the face of this consistent denigration of the most basic principles of both human rights the law is quite beyond me.

There's only one place for torturers, whether they're super-heroes or not, and that's in jail. Damn them all, and a great deal more than three contemptuous harrumphs for those creators who through principle or carelessness infest our culture with the myths of the heroic and noble torturer.A great deal more.

Does that sound too strong? And yet turning one comic-book character after another into torturers and advocates of torture isn't important enough to warrant such a response?

Do these principles really not matter? Take a moment, ask yourself. Is torture something which really doesn't matter? Or could it be a moral and practical obligation on the part of the good citizen, even when unsanctioned by law and unsupervised by anything of the state? Is it truly a responsibility which no decent human being should consider denying? And if that's not so, then why is there so little of anything other than flag-waving for the cause of the torturers in Marvel's comics?


Yes, I know. This is the worst article ever written, and it's old-old news, and DC's as bad as Marvel, and it's only comics and only fun anyway, and I've ignored key texts, and perhaps Slott has or will challenge the ethics of 685 in a later issue, and comics shouldn't be judged on the meaning of a single chapter, and torture works and the nation's been saved by it, and yes I know that many comics have contained aspects of torture, and yes ASM #385 didn't show the day being saved yet, and I'm a commie and a peacenik, and who'd want to read about wimpy super-people anyway, and Spidey did it to save the world, and blah-blah-blah. You're right, I'm wrong, and - hurrah - that's that sorted then.


Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Resident Alien #1: Reader's Roulette 2:2

There's a difference between confidence and cockiness, just as there's an obvious distinction between ingenious marketing and at-best carelessly misleading salesmanship. As if one or more of writer Peter Hogan, artist Steve Parkhouse and editor Philip R. Simon had been determined to test just how compelling Resident Alien #1's opening scene would be, the very first panel of the very first page of the title's supposedly very first issue closes with the following declaration;

"Nope, our story doesn't begin here. You need to read Resident Alien #0 before reading this."

Is this an experiment of some kind? Faced with this, will the innocent reader see the accompanying panel of a woman aiming a rifle and (a) read on, (b) wait before finding and consuming the preceding missing issue, or (c) rip the whole comic in half in frustration at the snakeoil-saleman's audacity of it all.

It's hard to think of any other popular, or even would-be popular, medium which would reward the curious punter for their not-insignificant investment of $3.50 with such a staggeringly insensitive assertion. But then, it's hard to think of another group of consumers who so habitually swallow such shenanigans that they've not even - as far as I can tell - mentioned this particular example in the blogosphere. Yet who'd be able to avoid feeling more than a little irked if, for example, they'd shelled out for a movie, settled into their seats and then been faced with an announcement that there was another film that they really ought to have paid for and watched first? Who'd put up with a book that begins with chapter two and a warning that another tome ought to have been purchased and processed beforehand, or with a single that cuts in only after the first chorus, and so on? Only in comics would we find anything so casually, and no doubt unintentionally, contemptuous of the customer. Is it presumed that there's no such thing as a casual reader anymore? Are we all supposed to anxiously research our books before we buy them, so as to avoid being deceived by that only-apparently unambiguous statement on a comic's cover promising that this is "#1 of 3"? Well, it's not, is it? "#1 of 3" is actually "#2 of 4", and $3.50's a lot to be handing over on faith for a comic which is already well under way. Was it simply assumed that the comic shop which carried Resident Alien #1 would also stock back-issues of the vital opening issue too, and that the reader handing over their dosh would have somehow noticed the short-change in set-up and felt more than happy to double their investment just to catch up with where every indication had promised they'd be in the first place?

Mine didn't, and I'm not.

It's a thoroughly bad business, and with the origin/pilot component of Resident Alien having already been told, it suggests that creators and/or publishers really aren't thinking too much about the folks who might actually be buying their product. Still, in the impossibly unlikely event that it was all designed to test whether a furious reader might still find themselves enjoying Resident Alien #1 under such infuriating conditions, my contribution to the research data is that this furious reader still did. With no little reluctance and a keen sense of vexation on my part, the unnamed tale - titles are apparently passe this season - still managed to charm and intrigue. There's a brief what-has-gone-before blurb on the editorial page which lends a skeleton of what the tale's opening chapter involved, which is broadly helpful though entirely unmoving, and the chapter itself is skillfully written so as to not depend on the reader knowing anything other than the events on the page. Yet those of us who came late to the party might care a great deal more if we knew how the alien "Doc Harry" came to have fallen to Earth before being pitched straight into a murder hunt for a serial killer. And yet, despite that, Resident Alien #1 still stands as a quietly compelling, gently-paced fish-out-of-water sci-fi thriller, in which an extra-terrestrial with the power to appear human attempts to uncover the truth of the murder of a rural everytown's well-loved doctor.

Resident Alien could so easily be lumped in with the recent wave of comics apparently designed to primarily appeal to the investment programmes of film and TV producers, real or wanna-be, but any such suggestion would unfairly imply that the comic was more of an advert for a property than a story in itself. Though it would seem hard to imagine that it wasn't designed to appeal as an optionable conceit, Resident Alien's also as sturdily-constructed a comic-book as the market's seen this year. As such, the most considerable part of its value as an advert for itself lies in the fact that it's a tale that's exceptionally well-crafted. There's a complete absence of easy melodrama on the page, with the plot side-stepping the short-cuts of violent excess and soap-operatic melodrama. Instead, the plot is carefully judged so that the pace of events gathers almost inconspicuously from the off. Most of the tension comes from off-stage, from events reported and interpreted second-hand in the various duologues which the comic's structured around, which means that character as much as plot is given the space to breathe.

Our resident alien "Harry" himself is a wonderfully subdued and yet involving point-of-view character, as new to the town of Patience as we are, although he's of course also a first-stepper when it comes to the Planet Earth too. Perhaps most impressively, the very empathetic quality which allows Harry to intuit truthfulness in those he meets also overwhelms him when he's faced with crowds. It's a brilliantly useful plot-twist, since it means that the story's living lie-detector is also forced to be absent whenever groups of potential witnesses and suspects are together. Simultaneously central to the truth of events and peripheral as an outsider to the society of the town, Harry's perfectly placed to be chasing answers while being excluded from many of the situations where it might be found. Frustration is matched against power from the off, and there's a vulnerability as well as an unearthly set of capabilities which leaves the visitor participating in and yet never dominating events. We can't stop watching Harry, because he's the only one who seems likely to forestall the disaster that threatening the townsfolks, but we can't help worrying for him as well.

In a tale of every-people set in an every-town, Steve Parkhouse's art works admirably to lend every character and setting its own distinct personality. In a book that's largely constructed from small clusters of individuals locked in private discussions, he succeeds in generating pace and emotion where others might mire the pages in talking heads. Even in a scene such as that between Harry and Nurse Asta, where little happens for four pages beyond the making of a cup of tea and a gentle chin-wag, Parkhouse captures the eye with the consistent and telling body-language of the characters combined with camera-angles which never allow the eye to either rest or purposelessly shift around the page. Asta's anxiety subtly shows itself in the way in which her left hand is in constant, unconscious motion, Harry's determination in the apparent calmness of his surreptitious interrogation. Today's media so often struggles to accept that fictions can be told about women and men who aren't in the first flush of hormone-saturated youth, but here Parkhouse's art creates unique and sympathetic characters from Hogan's untypically all-ages cast. There's a sense of individuality and, through that, dignity given to the men and women of Patience which, it's sad to note, is incredibly rare in the modern-era comic book. In the most unshowy and yet precise and story-focused fashion, Parkhouse brings to life the members of a community which would elsewhere be most likely presented as nothing more than a gaggle of types. It may seem pedantic to note, for example, that each of Parkhouse's cast has a unique and characterful nose, and it hardly sounds like the most overwhelming of praise. Yet it's not until the reader notes how carefully the artist pays attention to the essential detail as well as to the overall sense of the work that his achievement really becomes obvious. Otherwise, as with so many of the finest craftspeople, the virtues of the artist's work remain modestly unobtrusive while the storytelling serves the narrative rather than its creator's ego.

The only substantial disappointment to the pages which follow that dubious first panel is to be found in the generic nature of the town of Patience itself. It exists as one more of those characterless, backwater, semi-urban pit-stops which are so common in American visual fiction. It lacks any specific aspects of culture to lift it from stereotype into a more convincing and fascinating backdrop to events. It's America as portrayed straight from central casting, and although it's charming and well put to use, it lacks the characterful and eccentric allure of a location as specific as the North Dakota of Fargo or the Washington of Twin Peaks. In time, the reader might even start to note that there's a certain absence of verisimilitude in a world which lacks those markers of distinctiveness which characterise all real-world small communities. From road signs to turns of phrase, it would've been invigorating to get a better sense of Patience as a vibrant society rather than an efficiently crafted stage-set.

The thing about being a stranger in town is that it's easy to get the wrong idea of what sort of place it is. Persevere with Resident Alien beyond the hubris of that opening statement - about first issues which aren't anything of the kind - and what appears is a tale that's entirely involving, endearingly smart, and, despite its generally familiar set-up, thoroughly enjoyable. No, it doesn't pay to jump to conclusions, but then, it's not helpful to be rude to strangers who don't know how ultimately well-intentioned you might be either.

Reader's Roulette Rating; A smartly-told captivatingly-illustrated chapter of a story which sadly started quite a way before this particular reader took his seat. 

Tomorrow, a look at the new Ultimate Spider-Man, and then the remaining Reader's Roulette reviews from last round. 


Tuesday, 29 May 2012

On "Spandex: Fast And Hard" by Martin Eden


In the latest The Year In Comics piece over at Sequart, I make the claim that the third story in Martin Eden's Spandex: Fast & Hard collection is one of the finest superhero tales of the Post-Watchman era. (The piece can be found here. ) Of course, I'm well aware that that's likely to read as nothing more than hyperbole to those who've not read the comic, and I'm a touch concerned that I might seem to be throwing around praise that's not entirely deserved. Though I couldn't care less about whether my own judgment seems to be entirely trustworthy, I would be worried if I thought that speaking so highly of ...If You Were The Last Person On Earth seemed to be anything other than sincere and carefully-judged. For Spandex: Fast And Hard deserves to be read by everyone who believes that the super-book can still be thought-provoking and moving, political and populist. If I give the impression of over-egging the book's worth and, for whatever purpose, hyping up its quality, then I might put somebody off reading it, and that really would be something to regret.

It's not the fact that Eden's super-heroes make up the world's first LGBT super-team which leads me to speak so highly of Spandex, and of ...If You Were The Last Person On Earth in particular. Folks who've visited this blog before will probably have come across me bemoaning the lack of positive, purposeful representations of anything other straight white blokes in the superbook. Yet it's not the representations in Spandex alone which make it such an important publication. There's been many a comic with the most humane of representations between its covers which has tripped up on the central matter of providing a touching and involving story. Though there are undoubtedly points to be earned for good intentions, a fiction stands and falls on its narrative rather than its politics. Thankfully, Eden's work is at its best innovative and moving, which means that the reader can enjoy it as well as admiring the stand that it's taking. It's terrific to see there's a super-team comprised of members drawn from the LGBT community, it really is. But what's so inspiring is that Eden's embedded the laudable principles expressed in his work in thoroughly good yarns. That's especially so for ...If You Were The Last Person On Earth, and I hope that even if this particular The Year In Comics post doesn't appeal, Spandex: Fast And Hard does. 

The Year In Comics No 21: Spandex: Fast And Hard is a-waiting here.


Saturday, 26 May 2012

On "Grifter" #9 & "Cradlegrave": What's The Point Of An Establishing Shot? What's The Point Of A Story?

What's an establishing shot for? It does sound like the stupidest of questions. It's for establishing stuff, isn't it? Time, place, cast, situation; the establishing shot at even its most basic grounds the reader in the fundamentals of what's to come. There's an example of the most meagre type of scene-setting leading off Scott Clark and Dave Beaty's artwork for This Means War!, from Grifter # 9, where an extreme long shot lets us know that we're looking at a chain of snow-covered mountains. The location's defined by the caption at the top right of the frame - "The Swiss Alps" - and the action itself kicks off in the sketchy high-angle long-shot which follows. Clark's obviously as little concerned with the setting as Rob Liefeld, the story's plotter, is. Just as This Means War! uses this fascinatingly extreme environment as nothing more than a flatly generic stage-set to play out some moronically over-familiar sub-Bond low-jinks, so the art shows no curiosity at all about the world in which the coming by-the-numbers firefight will take place in. In short, Clark first tells us that we're looking at "snow" and "mountains" in the most general of senses, before giving us a super-bloke speeding across them while being followed by super-baddies, and that's all he tells us beyond implying what an awesomely cool dude Grifter is. What the scene might actually look like in any detail and specificity, what it might feel like to be there, what thoughts and emotions might be inspired from a smart-minded manipulation of the material on the page; these simply aren't things which Clark and Liefeld are concerned with.

It's not just that Clark seems to have no interest in the backdrops he's presenting, with their embarrassingly thin details apparently constructed from vague memories of Christmas wrapping paper and a postcard image generated in less than 0.33 seconds by Google. No, his fascination appears to lie solely with the secondary-art-market-friendly, full-figure posing money-shot which dominates his design to the degree to which we're not even shown Grifter's snow-board in the third panel, which is actually intended to show, yes, Grifter snowboarding. The heroic frown, the obsessive attention to the folds of the hero's trousers, his beautifully wind-tussled hair; these are the apparently vital issues which Clark frets over. All the while, the story itself appears to be something which the reader is expected to work at constructing for themselves from the few hints given on the page and whatever similar scenarios can be dredged from memories of other narratives from other fictions. Whatever, the establishing shot of this sequence doesn't just lay down the - very - basic context of what's to follow. It also summaries the scale of ambition and the sense of storytelling responsibility that Clark and Liefeld seem to share.

By contrast, Edmund Bagwell's establishing shots of the sink estate in Cradlegrave are so rich in information that the purposeful despair expressed in John Smith's script fairly radiates off of the page. Has there ever been a panel which could make a reader shudder at the inescapable, soul-corroding reek of a scene as that of the frame above? From the litter that's scattered across the landscape to the newspaper hoarding declaring "Refuse Collectors Strike Enters Fifth Week",  from the dog pissing on the concrete bollard to the mass of folks going shirtless in the heatwave, everything about this scene evokes how terribly trapped the people of the Cradlegrave Estate are in this specific situation during these particular circumstances. It's a claustrophobic hopelessness that's set up perfectly by the narrow-cropped horizontal panel, within which we're denied the sight of the horizon or the broad arc of the sky, and by the quietly audacious use of a shattered concrete post as the focal point of the frame, and by the choice of a worm's eye camera angle to place the reader in the position of a powerless, crushed-down-to-the-ground onlooker. Without a word having to be used beyond the five presented on the hoarding, Bagwell and Smith establish far, far more than just a vague sense of where the reader is. Instead, they've delivered text and sub-text, emotion and sensory detail, a deeply political sense of outrage and a fundamentally respectful attitude towards the literacy and intelligence of their readers. In this single panel, Bagwell lays to rest whatever's left of the myth that comics art which involves computer-generated imagery can't be deeply soulful and moving.

Yet what's most notable and admirable about the panel is how it never allows the poverty of the sink estate to eradicate the reader's empathy with its inhabitants. Quite the opposite is true. It's the easiest thing in the world to achieve, whether accidentally or not, to present those living in squalor as either nothing but the welfare-robbing architects of their own impoverishment or the mindless culture/gene-scum who deserve nothing better. Yet this frame accentuates both the humanity of those it depicts and the constrictions of the landlocked world they're doomed to. Bagwell places his cast at the far edges of the frame, separated by the dead-hearted destitution of the scene as the eye sweeps from right to left. These are isolated, atomised clusters of individuals living at the margins of things, and that's where they're shown; the boys playing football while largely obscured by the news of political affairs way beyond their understanding or control, the two chatting adults seen only after the eye moves past the urinating hound.Yet each group are actively trying to make something better, something more human, of their situation. The boys are playing sport, the couple to the frame's right are talking together out in the sunshine as neighbours will. While Cradlegrave never under-estimates how humans conspire in their own ill-fortune, or skates over how they can act to drag others down with them, it's primarily a controlled howl of fury at the conditions under which we expect our fellow citizens to live. In Cradlegrave, the environment corrupts and human beings are often exceptionally corruptible, yet Smith and Bagwell are always driven to emphasise that their characters are, regardless of how they act, anything but the "animals" they're accused of being.

I'm not suggesting that the solution to the ineptness of Grifter #9 is a whole-hearted embrace of social realism on the part of Clark and Liefeld and their various collaborators. The very idea of a Liefeld-driven Grifter tale powered by the need to express a complex social agenda is of course as disturbing as it's entirely unlikely. Whether the man has any such convictions is beyond my knowledge, but the evidence of his work is that he lacks the chops to express even the boy's-own punch-ups which he specialises in. Nor am I suggesting that Bagwell's meticulous comics-realism is anything more than one of a thousand thousand different approaches to storytelling. But Cradlegrave is, for all its despair and anger, a fundamentally inspiring example of how comics can be created so as to exploit rather than ignore the possibilities of the medium, and its lessons can be applied, as so many examples in comics history will testify, to the action-adventure tale as much as to the psycho-drama. Why is it then, that so much of what's being sold to us is so pathetically malnourished when it comes to storytelling? Too many of today's books are being produced by creators who are either uninterested in anything but the most facile of tales, or, more disturbingly, shockingly ignorant of the fact that anything but is possible. The comic book can - of course - express so much more than just the barest details of plot spiced up with a stabbing and an energy blast or two. Indeed, a single brilliantly created establishing shot can suggest a whole world of experience and political conviction, just as an entire comic book can be nothing more than an expression of either cold-hearted take-the-money-and-run cynicism or disturbingly low self-expectations bordering on ignorance.

But then, we know that. And yet the system still generates a critical mass of industry-shriveling, audience-alienating pap.

The next set of reviews in response to the second round of Reader's Roulette will follow soon. My thanks again to every one who nominated a comic.


Thursday, 24 May 2012

On Batman Incorporated #1: Reader's Roulette Round 2:1

There’s so much to admire about the first issue of Grant Morrison and Chris Burnham’s Batman Incorporated, so why does it ultimately feel like such an uninvolving experience? Perhaps it’s because Morrison’s script is so conspicuously technically accomplished that the artifice of it all overshadows the story itself. When a reader ends up noticing the deliberate structure of each page rather than losing themselves in the comic’s contents, there’s the strongest of senses that craft has very much won out over feeling. And so, each page that isn’t a splash contains at the very least two visually compelling, talk-about-it-on-the-blogosphere moments, while the folding of A, B, and C plots one into the other as Demon Star progresses is undoubtedly cleverly done. Who else but Morrison would have joyfully seized at the dramatic potential of a throwdown in a stockyard, who else would have a clearly dysfunctional hit-man name himself after Bill Hick's Goatboy.? And yet, there’s so little of feeling in this virtuosic performance that the whole process feels far more mechanical than moving, far less heartfelt and far more affectation.

With Morrison’s tale taking it for granted that the reader is fascinated in this particular take on the Batman’s world and its characters, it’s hard to care about the various punch-ups with ram-headed thugs and drug dealing mutants. They’re the reprobates and he’s The Batman, and that’s where the business of conflict and character begins and ends. Underneath the wonderful control of the material is, unfortunately, conspicuously run-of-the-mill content. We've seen it all a thousand times before, although we haven't seen it played out with such a hyper-realistic swagger. Even the most apparently touching of scenes starts to tarnish when a second thought's given to it. Damian’s declaration that the animal he’s rescued from a slaughterhouse should now be known as “Bat-Cow” is initially as endearing as it's touching, and Chris Burnham’s art delivers the punch line with a haughty Robin and a strangely masked-by-nature bovine companion that it’s hard to imagine anyone bettering. And yet, the whole scene feels so perfunctory that any chuckling’s short-lived. Damian may be announcing that his evening fighting knee-deep in offal and blood has turned him into a vegetarian, and yet that pronouncement comes right out of the blue. It might actually have told us something about the character if we’d known that he’d previously been a meat-eater, or if we’d been shown some small hint of his thoughts and emotions as they changed from one set of principles to another. Instead, the scene's all about the pay-off and little about the character that's being used to deliver it. It's a flippantly effective page-closer to make any script-doctor feel that they've earned their parachuted-in paycheck, but that's really all that it is.

For  Batman Incorporated is all about a blur of eye-catching scenes and grin-popping gag-closers. It's certainly little to do with Morrison's characters in anything other than the broadest sense. As such, we watch as a mobster's informed that he's just eaten his own brother, and yet it’s horror for the sake of horror, action for the sake of a jolly-big set-piece, tell instead of show. Morrison, it seems, just isn't interested in how anyone involved feels about the plight of this latter-day Thyestes, and so it's hard to care as he's hauled off by fan-thrilling Man-Bats while his colleagues continue their meal.

That Chris Burnham’s pages don’t move the reader so much as propel them speedily and impressively through the plot is no fault of his own. The challenges which Morrison has set him are often exceptionally demanding, with scenes which are regularly crowded and action which is complicated and purposeful. Yet Burnham consistently produces artwork which is both admirably eye-catching and transparent. His innovative use of a fish-eye lens design for the establishing shot of the brawl in the abattoir; the vertiginous detail of an assassin’s plummet from a roof-top in a tiny panel which few others would’ve taken such care with; the low-angle shot which shows us Damian’s daring, insouciant leap from the Bat-Plane down to a speeding meat-wagon; Burnham’s invention and achievement lends the comic a sense of momentum and substance which the mutton-dressed-as-ram story consistently undercuts. Similarly, the clarity of expression which he empathetically brings to his characters lends the book a suggestion of emotional weight which the script was never concerned to establish.

Grant Morrison’s work on Demon Star is a mostly hollow wonder. It’s incredibly smart on the level of keeping things moving and holding the eye, but it’s as flat as any knock-it-out-for-the-multiplexes actioneer franchise when it comes to anything of the slightest depth beyond a few one-note panels of Damian sulking at his father. Why Morrison should want to produce work which is both structurally brilliant and all-too-often emotionally facile is more than just something of a mystery. It’s not as if the summer popcorn movie experience is incompatible with material which expresses feelings and ideas which can touch as well as excite. After all, fun doesn't have to mean an absence of depth, as any fan of Morrison's Zenith, Animal Man or the Justice League might agree. Batman Incorporated #1 constantly insists that we’re looking at characters who deserve our attention, but look again and it's all bustle and water-cooler fan-pleasing moments and little else. An assassin seeking to prevent his daughter from being forced into a care home, a demanding father attempting to show faith in his son without being able to express tenderness; Morrison throws up the character descriptions but chooses not to give us very much of the characters themselves. When he does, the moment sparks up and quickly disappears, and the reader's left wishing that far more had been made of, for example, Damian's panic at the idea of being blamed by Batman for a thug's death. It's easy enough to see the themes of parental love and responsibility that Morrison's establishing, but since they're so under-developed, they remain structural conceits rather than genuinely moving aspects of the narrative. And so the dazzling set-pieces pile up, one upon the other, and in the end, there’s the oddest feeling of wanting to applaud a brilliant example of storytelling bravado which also seems distractingly cold and unsatisfying. Where Grant Morrison's work used to regularly move the reader in ways which few other writers could match, now it's far more likely to just impress us. This is not, despite appearances, progress in anything other than technique.

Reader's Roulette Rating: A must-read comic, but one to treasure for its form rather than its content.


Tuesday, 22 May 2012

The Super-Moby Dick Of Space & The Strange Anxieties Of The Legion Of Super-Heroes

Most if not all of us are inevitably going to snigger when we read the words "the Super-Moby Dick Of Space", and I doubt that there's any way to avoid doing so. Whether that's for literary or, perhaps more probably, scatological reasons, sniggering is simply bound to occur. And there is no denying that the Legion Of Super-Heroes feature in Adventure Comics #332 can seem to be a Big Dumb Comic, and yet that's not the half of it, and even that joyful dumbness has its own considerable virtues. Yet in contrast to the Marvel Comics which were also released in the May of 1965, writer Edmond Hamilton and artist John Forte's "awesomely mighty ... terror of all space" must have seen shockingly anachronistic. After all, this was the month in which Steve Ditko and Stan Lee's Spider-Man was shown being driven mad by Mysterio's psychoanalytical scheming, and in which Lee and Jack Kirby's original Avengers were replaced by a "kooky quartet" of second-string law-breakers. The conventions of the super-book were being vigorously shaken up with every new front-line issue published by what briefly really was The House Of Ideas, and to everyone but the youngest of readers, the Legion Of Super-Heroes must have seemed, for good or ill, the antithesis of Marvel's self-proclaimed Pop Art comics.

This week's post in The Year In Comics series over at Sequart - find it here, if you would - doesn't attempt to pretend that the Super-Moby Dick Of Space was anything other than an absurd, drama-deflating concoction. But there is an argument to make that there's a great deal of the modern-era Event Comic to be found in its pages, just as it's possible to recognise often-uncredited and even unsettling elements of social uncertainty and anxiety in the Legion tales of the first half of the Sixties.

Or; Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale...


Saturday, 19 May 2012

Reader's Roulette, Round Two

I realise that the law of diminishing returns comes into play here. I can't expect that generous visitors to TooBusyThinking will perpetually keep suggesting comics that I might review in the coming week. Yet should you have a stray moment to kill, I would be genuingly grateful if you might take a look at next week's new comics list - find it here - and nominate a book or three which you might like to see discussed on this blog. The last spin of Reader's Roulette resulted in posts on John Byrne's Trio #1, Vertigo's Mystery In Space #1, and DC's Scooby-Doo Where Are You #21. None of them were comics which I would ordinarily have read, let alone reviewed, and I very much appreciate the encourgement to do so.

I'd be as happy to be nudged into reviewing mainstream super-books as out-there taboo-busters, and any and all of your ideas would of course be very welcome. It's simply extremely good for my writing not to know what I've got to try to get my head round next. This particular round will close Wednesday 24th May at noon, Brit-time, and digressions in the comment boxes are, of course, very much welcome as part of the process.


Thursday, 17 May 2012

On Salvador Larroca & The Invincible Iron Man #512

Salvatore Larroca's closing double-page spread for The Invincible Iron Man #512 is that rarest of experiences in the modern-era monthly super-book; a comics diptych which not only brilliantly serves the narrative, but does so in a way which no other form of storytelling on the page could match, let alone improve upon.

It's not that Larroca's work on these two sides is without its problems. In the detail above, for example, the foreshortening on the Dreadnought's left leg is unconvincing, while by contrast, the left arm appears to be implausibly long. Worse yet, Larroca draws attention unfavourably to the semi-circular features clustered on the Dreadnought's thigh-armour, leaving the robot looking as if it's sporting unthreateningly white-spotted, scarlet jockey-shorts.

But those very qualities of awkwardness mostly work in the favour of the composition as a whole. Larroca's chosen to accentuate the gracelessness of several of the Dreadnoughts, and in doing so gives us the impression of machines responding by necessity to the aerial conditions they're experiencing. While much of the worth of the shot as a whole relies upon the sense of the Dreadnought's implacable forward momentum, the presence in their number of robots which appear to be attempting to jerkily adapt to circumstance suggests technology that's as distinct as it is similar to that of Iron Man's. These are creatures with their own specific body language, with their own presence and therefore their own mechanical personality. Furthermore, there's a sense of audience-involving verisimilitude created by the suggestion of the buffeting of crosswinds and updrafts which brings the scene to life, which encourages the reader to think of flying as a dynamic rather than a passive process. It's something which that the super-book rarely does. This isn't the presentation of flight as an effortless and therefore imaginatively disengaging experience. Instead, it presents it as a challenging trial which requires even the Dreadnought's programming to carry an awareness of the environment and the potential to compensate - no matter how sometimes artlessly - for challenging conditions.
In fact, the whole design works to involve the reader in the progress of the Dreadnoughts towards their target. The most distant of the robots forms the apex of what's effectively an equilateral, equiangular triangle, with the twin flanks of the robot flight arranged roughly along the two edges leading towards it. (Larroca has of course placed his figures fluidly on either side of the triangle's form so as to avoid an all-too-obvious and static arrangement on the page.) This works to create the illusion that the reader's seeing events from the point-of-view of the next Deadnought in line, and ensures that the first plane that events are perceived within reaches horizontally forward towards the sight-distorting sun on the horizon. Similarly, the fact that each robot is placed either above or below the reader's initial point-of-view suggests a great threatening number of weapons of mass destruction swarming onwards. It's a design which ensures that the very first thing which the reader perceives is the speed and strength of the Dreadnoughts as they power towards their target.

But the brilliance of this composition lies in how it also creates a second plane in which to experience events. For, as in the detail above, Dreadnoughts have also been placed to carry the reader's gaze downwards towards Sandouping below, creating a vertiginous sense of height and jeopardy. Again, Larroca's art isn't obsessively perfect here; some of the perspective work in the structures to the right of the two pylons is a touch indistinct and confusing. Yet anyone who can't disengage from dwelling on those few and largely irrelevant details is missing a rare experience in the super-book. What appears to be the addition of well-judged freehand tracings over a photograph of the Three Gorges Dam creates a mixture of precision with spontaneity, and that suggests a specific, well-observed and distinctly real-world environment. In looking down as well as ahead, the reader finds themselves enjoying one of the outstanding virtues of the well-executed post-Hitch/Authority widescreen shot; the juxtaposition of the fantastic with the mundane, of the patently unreal colliding excitingly with the obviously everyday. Here the contribution made by Frank D'Armata's colours deserve the highest praise. His well-judged use of a pallet dominated by subtle greens and browns differentiates the different aspects of the landscape without ever drawing the eye away from the action of the piece. Where a less discriminating colourist might have directed our gaze to the explosions threatening the dam's structure, D'Armata quite rightly chooses not to distract us from the forward motion of the Dreadnoughts. Similarly, he avoids making the robots in any way garish or otherwise cartoony, allowing the reader to believe that the Dreadnoughts and the Three Gorges Dam occupy the same reality. In doing so, it's actually the restrained but eye-directing glow of the robot's boot-jets which dominate the page's colour-scheme and pulls our gaze forwards into the panel towards the horizon's distant glare.

Unlike the vast majority of today's comics diptychs, Larroca's work here repays far more than a single glance. The page itself initially creates an intense sense of foreboding from those above-mentioned three key aspects of his work; the apparently irresistible drive forwards of the Dreadnoughts, the worrying and giddy sense of height, and the hi-tech destruction of the undefended damn. But there's also secondary elements of the design, such as the ominous difference in the water-level between the right-hand and and left-hand pages, which inspires a slightly delayed awareness of how appalling the consequences of the Mandarin's actions may well be. Cleverly, Larroca has also divided the page into two triangles through the placement of the line of the damn itself. As it stretches up from the bottom right of the scene, and creates another division of the frame into two sections, it suggests a world that's slightly askew, and creates the almost-subliminal impression that the waters of the lake are pressing down with terrible force upon the dam's structure, pushing the far end of it just slightly forwards even before the worst arrives.(Of course, the progress of the flight of the Dreadnoughts takes them right through the hypotenuse created by the top of the dam, which again summons a sense of a strong structure which is profoundly threatened.) Even the fact that the dam's too strong for the Dreadnought's attack to immediately breach it only emphasises how terrible the consequences of it being destroyed would be. (After all, why would any dam need to be that resistant to attack, and what would happen if it failed to hold?) Typically, the results of a super-villainous assault upon a vulnerable structure are explained in the text, or sketched out in a what-if shot containing a shorthand depiction of destruction featuring the suffering of a mass of anonymous victims. By contrast, Larroca's work unhysterically inspires the reader to create that hypothetical scenario for themselves, which more than justifies writer Matt Fraction's decision to leave the bulk of the heavy lifting for this part of the story in the hands of his colleague. 
Salvador Larroca's work isn't always to my own taste, although the man can hardly be blamed for that. It's just that I tend not to enjoy art which seems regularly sourced from photographs and, as a consequence, somewhat still and mannered. Yet here he's created a closing shot for The Invincible Iron Man #512 which in another's hands could have so easily been a cold-hearted collage of photo-shopped elements which fulfilled the story-brief without adding anything of significance at all. Yet quite the contrary is true, and my own scepticism is quite disarmed. His contribution stands as the most outstanding double-page spread which I've seen in the mainstream super-book so far in 2012.Your suggestions for examples of the breed which are anything other than bombast and space-wasting, and which I've either forgotten, ill-judged or missed, would be welcome in the comments below. (*1)


Wednesday, 16 May 2012

On Scooby-Doo Where Are You #21: Reader's Roulette #3

I may be wrong, but I strongly suspect that this is the first time the answer to "Scooby Doo, where are you?" is, "He's in the crapper with Shaggy". And no, I'm not speaking metaphorically, though I might as well be. Strangely enough, writer Scott Peterson and artist Vince Deporter's The Dragon In The Bathroom wasn't the one of the comic's three tales which DC chose to use in its solicitations for the issue, preferring to tease the readership with "Can the gang get to the bottom of the haunted stadium in time for kickoff?" rather than "Will Shaggy manage to complete his number twos before the ghost in the abandoned house's toilet gets him?". I say this not because I'm offended by the whole business, though I could have done without the scene of an apparently pleased-to-be-relieved Shaggy as he sits and enjoys the - shall we say - termination of an intensely compelling physical process. (It's been as tastefully presented as such a tasteless scene can be, but sadly the mind's eye doesn't tend to stop at the edge of a carefully cropped frame.) But unless you're in the market for a tale whose whole point is that Shaggy needs a poo not once but twice, The Dragon In The Bathroom is a perfectly pointless exercise. Worse than that, there’s an air of smugness when the toilet-occupying Shaggy declares, "Scoob! You scared me witless!". How that must have made writer Peterson and editor Michael Siglain giggle. Yes, Shaggy's on the porcelin bowl, and yes, witless rhymes with shitless, and yes, the "s" word usually does follow on from "you scared me". It's all very impressive stuff.

Perhaps if the rest of the chapter had reflected an ambition to achieve anything more daring, or even more entertaining, than a few jobby jokes, the scatological wonder of it all might have passed as an earthy contrast to some genuinely smart-minded writing. As it is, there's just the sense of the long way round having been taken for a profoundly unimpressive view. If only Vince Deporter's well-judged and evocative artwork had been polishing a - wait for it - tale which felt just a touch less pleased with itself, that offered just a little more of substance to pad out the sniggers. Never mind, any nipper, or comics creator, who enjoyed the haunted bowel-movement scene will undoubtedly howl at the tale's conclusion, in which the traumatised Shaggy and Scooby race off in desperation because "now (they) gotta go worse than ever!". Is this the first Scooby tale which revolves almost entirely around the urgently-needed use of a privy? Is this even, perhaps, a daring touch of satire? Kids today, ah? And some comicbook creators and editors too.

At least Peterson knows that a tale with only a few pages to fill can't afford to be clogged up by great ill-digested mounds of exposition. Scott Gross, the writer and artist of lead feature The Case Of The Haunted Huddle (*1), obviously missed that particular afternoon in Comics 101. As a result, his tale opens up not with an eye-catching scene designed to appeal to readers young and old, but with text-crowded panels featuring static characters eating cereal. Obviously the story's editor - Kwanza Johnson - had a different take on the comic's audience to Michael Siglain, since it seems doubtful that the same readers who'd be laughing at the feces gags in The Dragon In The Bathroom would be willing to plough through the log-jam of wordage in The Case Of The Haunted Huddle. The repeated stodginess of Gross' script isn't helped by his own habit of avoiding clear establishing shots, meaning that the very first page, to take but one example, features 5 characters talking to each other who are never actually shown occupying the same space. It did used to be a given that the reader, and the younger reader in particular, was granted the courtesy of seeing where everyone in a scene was in relation to both each other and the situation they shared. This isn't a convention which Gross always subscribes to, and when he does - with the exception of a perfectly transparent panel introducing a scene in a gym - it's often hard to grasp exactly where we are and who's involved. True, Gross has a genuinely impressive knack of suggesting that his by-necessity broadly-drawn characters have a physical presence and clearly-recognisable emotions, and there he proves to have skills which many cartoonists would struggle to match. But there's far too much going on in the story and far too little made of most of it to leave The Case Of The Haunted Huddle as anything other than a curate's egg, and not, I regret, in the modern sense of the phrase.

* 1:- I'm horrified to find my skill with typos resulting in my giving the wrong title to The Case Of The Haunted Huddle, and my shameful thanks to Mr Gross for correcting me with such tolerance.

Finally, there's John Rozum, Leo Batic and Horatio Ottolini's Gridiron Ghoul, which manages to compactly express the banality of a typical old-school Scooby-Doo cartoon. The readers who warmed to the weight of exposition in Gross' opener may well find themselves somewhat alienated by this perfectly serviceable, easy-to-digest tale of a fake zombie hiding in the bowels of a football stadium. (There's a few text-crowded panels, but Batic and Ottolini keep everything clear and moving forward.) Similarly, those looking for infant-school milk-through-the-nose hilarity may be disappointed by Rozum's straight-forward tale of an unconvincing mystery solved through a minimum of wit and effort. Still, perhaps the youngest of readers might not feel let down by the fact that the unmasked villain had never been seen in the preceding pages at all. For a gentle whodunit, that reveal certainly carried the virtues of surprise. Our mystery villain's motive had been cleverly set-up, I'll readily admit, but there was just that minor matter of our never having seen him before. Since it can't spoil the reveal, I'll let you into a secret; he's the bloke who sold Shaggy the hot-dogs before the story began. You know, the one we never see. Or hear about. What a shame that previous panels in the tale featuring the cast watching the game couldn't have featured a hot-dog or two rather than pizza and popcorn. They could even have shown us a hot-dog salesman too. Even those little details which might have established a smidgin of foreshadowing often seem to go astray in DC's Scooby-Doo, and once again, it’s tempting to wonder what a modern-era editor actually does.

We need look no further than the wonders of Carl Barks' Uncle Scrooge or, closer to the 21st century, Paul Dini and Bruce Timms' Batman: Mad Love to remind us of how the animation tie-in is capable of inspiring work of the very highest quality. (*1) Scooby-Doo Where Are You # 21 doesn't seem to reflect the slightest trace of any such ambition, despite the strength of some of its artwork and the consistently excellent colouring by Heroic Age and Jason Lewis. Perhaps the terms of the property's licensing or the constraints of the book's budget precluded anything other than what's on offer here. Oh well, never mind. I'm sure Warner Bros will be particularly pleased as punch at The Dragon In The Bathroom’s approach to nailing the currently untapped comics audience of undemanding kid compulsive-gigglers and teen slacker-stoners looking for some light reading to accompany their munchies. Crikey. File under low ambitions, generally mediocre work and lost opportunities.

*1:- Of course, Scott Peterson was one of the two editors who worked on Mad Love.

Reader's Roulette will return next week. I hope you might consider popping in and nominating a comic or two when it does. Indeed, please feel free to mention interesting titles from this week too in the comments below, show the mood take you.