“A politician can roar for war. For peace he can only plead.” (Joseph Heller, from Picture This)
I had a rough month in March, so I didn’t have very much time to review anything. Now it’s May, and I didn’t get this done in April, but I figured 1 May is good enough! So let’s check out what’s what!
The Assignment by Walter Hill (story/screenplay), Denis Hamill (story/screenplay), Matz (adapter), Jef (artist), Charles Ardai (translator), and Tom Williams (editor). $19.99, 126 pgs, FC, Titan Comics/Hard Case Crime.
The Assignment is a comic based on an almost-40-year-old screenplay that Walter Hill tried to rewrite, failed to, set aside for over a decade, decided to have another go at, turned into a comic, and finally made the movie. It’s utterly ridiculous in the most John Wooian way – a hitman kills a target, and the target’s psychopathic sister, who happens to be a surgeon, kidnaps the hitman and changes his sex to female. The hit(wo)man, Frank Kitchen (now that’s a hitman name!), is understandably upset about this, so (s)he goes on a bloody trail of revenge. Good times!
I’m using parentheses to describe Frank because, as Hill pointed out in a recent interview, Frank doesn’t consider himself a woman and doesn’t want to be a woman. Obviously, many people have already bashed this movie as being insensitive to transgender individuals, and I can’t speak to that, as I am not a transgender individual, but it’s not like Frank hates himself and wants to kill himself because he’s now a woman. He doesn’t like it, obviously, because it’s been done against his will, and he asks about being changed back, but he doesn’t throw himself off a cliff when he finds out the change is pretty permanent (in other words, he could be made to look like a man, but his penis is history). He accepts it and moves on. The tale is a pulpy B-movie of a comic, with Frank tracking down the person who did this to him and exacting bloody vengeance along the way, and Hill/Hamill/Matz (I’m not sure who put this in) gives us the object of his vengeance early on, talking to a psychiatrist while sitting in a cage, so we’re fairly certain Frank doesn’t kill her. The interview is interesting – I guess it’s supposed to put us in mind of The Silence of the Lambs, but the psychiatrist introduces the possibility that Frank doesn’t actually exist, which we’re pretty sure isn’t true but adds an interesting element to the plot. We do get some nods toward the fact that Frank is a woman in a man’s world, as people underestimate him/her when (s)he buys weapons, for instance, or even when the surgeon has him/her at her mercy. It’s not terribly deep, but it’s neat that the writers put it in there.
The art is quite good, too. Jef (I love these European artists and their pseudonyms!) gives it a good, gritty feel without obscuring anything – it’s not bright, but it’s not as dark as mud, like a lot of old Vertigo comics used to be. His characters are slightly distended, so they don’t look too “realistic” but they fit nicely into this strange, not-quite-real world. He uses some unusual angles to show some of the violence – the page layouts are fairly standard, but some of the angles inside the panels are twisted well – and bursts of violent color when Frank has to get really tough. As this is a pulpy exploitation kind of book, there’s a decent amount of nudity, including a sex scene that’s a bit more graphic than I expected, but you can handle all that, right? It’s a very neat-looking book.
I had an issue with the comic following Pop Culture Rule #1 and what should probably be Pop Culture Rule #2 (if you don’t know what those are, they spoil things, so I’ll see if I can answer in the comments with the text blocked out if you really want to know), but that happens so much that I’m kind of inured to it. The Assignment certainly doesn’t break any new ground (I mean, even Frank’s situation is just a gimmick), but it’s a good, pulpy tale of revenge, and those are always fun!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆
De Campi is a pretty good pulp writer, so I figured this story about hippies who are really Soviet spies would be right up her alley, and it’s drawn by Tony Parker, who was once a Phoenix local (he’s since moved to Portland, because of course he did) and is not only a hell of a nice guy, but he has become an excellent artist. De Campi wants to do a series of mini-series about her main Russian, who is codenamed Felix, and this is the first one. Based on this, I’ll be in for any more that she and Parker want to do, even if this series didn’t quite come together perfectly.
The plot is straightforward enough – the MacGuffin is a list of Soviet agents in Vietnam (the book is set in 1971), which a defecting Russian general is going to give to the U.S. Felix and his partner, codenamed Rose, kill the general and steal the list, and they have to get from Palm Springs (where they kill the general in an FBI safe house) to San Francisco, where the KGB Resident can get it and them out of the country. Needless to say, complications ensue. Rose wants to get wasted in the desert with some hippies (which she later blames on Felix, in a classic case of Pop Culture Rule #1 rearing its head – it’s everywhere, people, and that’s why it’s Pop Culture Rule #1!!!!), which turns out to be a bad idea when they drug her and Felix and rob them, although Felix left the list behind in a gas station bathroom because he was distracted by a completely naked lady … look, it’s a spy story, so there are a lot of moving parts, okay? Anyway, complications keep ensuing, as Rose and Felix know that they’re in trouble with their superiors, but they also know that they can’t just defect. De Campi makes a good point about defection – the Soviets would kill members of their families, which makes their brief thoughts about going to the Americans not an option. De Campi gets to use the time period well, as Felix uses an anti-war demonstration in San Francisco on 24 April 1971 (which was apparently the largest such protest ever) to escape the American agents and make his play to get back into the Russians’ good graces. De Campi does a decent – not great – job in unraveling the knot Felix and Rose have gotten into, and it’s one of the big problems with any spy story, as the lengths both sides go to get back the list seems ridiculous, especially from the Russian point of view. It’s never said if this is the only copy of the list, but for an oppressive bureaucracy like the Soviet Union, it seems unlikely, so why do the Russians want it back? Felix should just burn it. So the ending is a bit weak, because it doesn’t really explain how Felix rescues his reputation. But it’s a minor point, because the machinations of the plot are so much fun to get to the somewhat limp ending. Such is life. Endings are hard.
Worse is de Campi’s insistence on including music in the book. She wants to capture a time period, which is fine, but comics writers should be strongly discouraged by editors (the book has two!) from including “music” in their books. In an early scene, Rose puts an 8-track of “Black Dog” in the car’s cassette player, and Parker letters the opening lyrics over the drawing of the car peeling out. That works fine, and there are very few other examples like that, but mostly de Campi writes the name of the band and song in the margins, and then in the backmatter, she discusses the music and why she used it for that scene. That annoys me to no freakin’ end, because comics can’t do music. I know writers love putting their musical tastes into their comics and writing about what music they were listening to when they wrote it because look how cool they are, but comics can’t do music. The only recent comic that managed to pull it off was Jem and the Holograms, and that was pushing it. Comics are a unique art form, and writers need to stop trying to make them movies or television shows. Listen, great music choices in movies and television shows are amazing, I agree, but that doesn’t mean they work for comics, because it’s a different art form. If I don’t know what the music sounds like, it will mean nothing to me, and if I bother to look it up (do people read comics with their phones at the ready and immediately play the music the writer suggests? because that seems idiotic), it won’t mean the same because I won’t be reading the scene at the same time. It bears repeating: comics can’t do music. It stands out in this series because de Campi seems to attach so much importance to it. If she wanted to make a television show with these music choices, she should have sold it to a network.
Okay, now that I’ve ranted, I must say that Parker’s art on this book is stunning. He takes big steps forward each time he draws something, and last year’s This Damned Band was his best-looking book yet, and this blows that away. Parker’s figures have become more lithe and limber over the years, and they twist and slide through the book beautifully, especially as they’re constantly getting shot or beaten or run over by cars. He uses this litheness very well – Felix is almost like a snake, able to escape seemingly impossible situations because he can slither between panels and avoid larger, burlier men, as we see in issue #2 when he beats an FBI agent either to death (or close enough to it), then manages to kill several more agents who should be ready for something like an escape attempt. Without being as obnoxious as de Campi’s music choices (sorry, not letting that go!), he manages to ground the comic in 1971 with good clothing and hair styles, and he does a good job differentiating between the “old school” of the government agents on both sides and the younger, undercover spies, as Felix and Rose have completely adopted the free-living hippie style. Parker does some amazing things with experimentation, too. In issue #1, the evil hippies drug Rose and Felix, and the naked woman who distracted Felix at the gas station seduces him, and Parker and Blond go nuts with the experience – Parker uses bubbly panels with the girl’s hair flowing around to make the borders, he softens his pencils to make the scene a bit more ethereal, and Blond gets to use a swirling palette of psychedelic colors to make the scene even weirder. When the demonstration begins, Parker gives us a double-page spread with several small panels showing violent images from the protest, which Blond colors an angry pink, while the bigger panels show the chaos of the protest on a bigger scale, including the government snipers looking for Felix and the racist cops looking to bust some hippie heads. It’s a terrific spread, and it makes the subsequent violence at the rally, both because both governments (there are KGB agents in the crowd) are trying to stop Felix and because the cops are trying to break up the protestors, hit harder. I’ve always been a fan of Parker’s work, but he’s recently turned into a superb artist, and I hope people begin to recognize that.
Even though I’m the tiniest bit disappointed with Mayday, overall it’s quite a fine comic. De Campi keeps the throttle down, which is a good idea, and while she doesn’t quite stick the landing, the journey there is wildly entertaining, so I can forgive her a bit for that. And the book looks damned amazing, so that’s a huge plus. The trade is out this month (today isn’t a Wednesday, but 1 May would be the perfect time to release it), and it’s something you should consider. Plus, there’s already another series in the works, so that’s nice, too!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Batman volume 2: I Am Suicide by Tom King (writer), Mikel Janín (artist), Mitch Gerads (artist/colorist), Hugo Petrus (inker), June Chung (colorist), Clayton Cowles (letterer), and Robin Wildman (collection editor). $16.99, 140 pgs, FC, DC.
I didn’t love the first volume of the latest iteration of Batman, but Tom King has written some great comics recently and a guy at my comics shoppe who loves all things Batman (to the point where that’s what we call him) told me that this was better than the first trade, which even he didn’t love, so I decided to check it out. Boy howdy, is this thing a mess. First Scott Snyder wrecked the character, and now King seems to want to wreck him even more. Poor Batman!
So at the end of the first trade, Gotham Girl was permanently petrified because the Psycho-Pirate messed with her emotions. P-P is holed up on Santa Prisca, which is hilariously called a “sovereign state” in this comic even though it’s a rock with a prison on it – I know that Bane is utterly ridiculous, but I do recall that in the Old DCU, Santa Prisca was a horrible place but at least was an actual, you know, place. So Batman assembles a “suicide squad” to go to Bane’s prison country and get P-P. It’s a stupid plan, even though it works, because it relies on people acting exactly the way Batman wants them to, even though he has no control over them. And it relies on Bane being stupid. Whenever you have to rely on your villain being stupid, your plan is stupid. Sorry, but that’s the way it works.
I’m getting angry just thinking about this, so I’m going to break it down a little. I probably won’t mention Janín’s art too much, but he does some very nice double-page spreads that show Batman fighting his way across the prison and he also gets to draw a double-page spread of Batman standing in front of Arkham Asylum looking up at it. Yes, it’s very exciting. Gerads gets to draw a double-page spread of the night sky with Batman and Catwoman crammed into a small corner of the page, so there’s that, too. Both Janín and Gerads are fine. They don’t piss me off. But let’s get back to my rant. First of all, DC still can’t decide what “happened” in both the DCnU and the DCReBU (that’s the “New 52”-verse and the “Rebirth-verse”). I mentioned in Batman: Rebirth that we got a version of the Calendar Man that has never been seen before, yet Batman treats him like he’s always been that way. Now we get a new Bronze Tiger and a vaguely familiar Punch and Jewelee, but then we get a Catwoman who is in prison for murdering 237 people. This is ridiculous. Either King is introducing a brand-new character and using an old name that is guaranteed to piss people off because why turn a thief into a mass murderer, or it’s actually Catwoman, and we know she’s not a murderer (she’s not a murderer, by the way). Later we learn that the real murderer apparently killed all of these people one at a time, which is idiotic. Where the fuck was Batman during this? He couldn’t have figured it out after, say, the first 20 people were killed? Idiot. Anyway, the idea of Batman going into Arkham and taking inmates for his field trip is idiotic, as well. This is someone who gets twitchy if a vigilante who’s just slightly tougher than he is shows up in Gotham, and we’re supposed to believe he’d let killers – scratch that, insane killers out of the asylum for his mission? Why didn’t he just call the Joker? Jeebus. The dude knows every super-person in existence and he’s relying on the Ventriloquist, Punch and Jewelee, and the Bronze Tiger? Really? Bane makes a point that the Justice League can’t interfere because Batman has broken some sovereignty laws, but there is no way in hell that a rock with a prison on it gets recognized by the majority of nations on the planet, and the Justice League, last time I checked, hadn’t been an arm of the United Nations in over 20 years. So even if he doesn’t get the Justice League, the dude knows everyone. Are you telling me this is the best he could do?
Then, his plan. Let Bane capture me and hope that he throws me into a Dark Knight Rises cell instead of, you know, shooting me in the head. Yes, Batman builds Bond-villain stupidity into his plan, relying on Bane to not kill him. Motherfucking Fancy Moses, you moron. The original Bane story wasn’t great, but it took a while to develop, and by the time Batman got to Bane, it was believable that he could be broken because he was so pooped from fighting all of the escaped convicts and Bane’s minions. Here, he gets beaten up by Bane’s army for two pages, and that’s enough to make him vulnerable (although I guess that was part of his plan, too). And then, to top it all off, he chiropractics his back back to health in the cell, simply by popping it against the wall. So not only does he have to rely on Bane not shooting him in the motherfucking head (I always feel like Seth Green when that situation comes up) but also on Bane not being able to break his back successfully. Motherfelching really, Tom King? Are you fucking shitting me? Then, of course, he has to rely on these completely unreliable criminals doing their part. Of course they do, but why? It makes no damned sense!!!!!
So then we’re back in Gotham, and Batman decides that banging Catwoman is more important than returning her to prison. Fair enough – the dude doesn’t get a lot of nookie, and Catwoman wears a lot of leather and carries a whip; you do the math. But he decides to prove her innocence, except he’s so blinded by the sex haze that he makes a rookie mistake. I mean, come on, Batman, you had to see the knife coming! He’s so stupid he doesn’t realize he’s about to get shivved and he doesn’t take precautions in case he does – he gets a knife to the throat, which should be impossible given his uniform, but of course he doesn’t bleed out. How does he not die? King also notes that both Selina’s technical first appearance back in the 1940s and the Frank Miller version from “Year One” are “in continuity,” which makes the idea of her being a mass murderer even dumber, because it’s the same character who has never been that evil. Batman also takes Selina out on a “typical” night of crime-fighting, which is where the book turns from bad into possibly genius satire. At least I hope it’s genius satire, because if not, it’s just as dumb as the rest of the book. Batman, I shit you not, takes out FIFTEEN minor villains from his past in ONE IMPOSSIBLY BUSY FUCKING NIGHT, and he still has time to bang Catwoman. The problem is, of course, that some of these villains have no reason to be wandering around Gotham, so this is just a fanfic wankfest so readers can go, “Hey, I remember that guy!” If King is making fun of the fact that Batman seems to be everywhere fighting everyone all the time, I suppose it could be satire. It doesn’t feel like it, though. It’s just stupid.
Man, this comic pisses me off. King’s actual writing varies from self-indulgent gobbledygook (Batman’s internal narration as he fights his way across the prison toward Bane, which does the unforgivable by pointing out how stupid superhero comics are even as it tries to show how great they are – listen, everyone reading knows a man dressed as a bat is ridiculous, but we go along with it and don’t need the main character to articulate it) to some nice turns of phrases – even in the middle of a plotting catastrophe the dude still knows how to write. It’s just that the plot is so very, very bad that it overwhelms everything else, from the annoyingly charming (or charmingly annoying) banter between Punch and Jewelee to the pretty good art. This is just a mess from page one, and so I bid farewell to Tom King’s Batman. When he writes something else, I’ll check it out, but I shan’t be back with this!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
I take a bit of pride in the fact that when it comes to my entertainment, I’m not bound by one genre. I like a romantic comedy as much as anyone, as long as it’s well done. I always try new things just to see if I’d like them, even if I fear I won’t. I didn’t think I’d like a comic about a motorcycle racer addicted to a strange drug, but because of the creative team, I figured I’d give it a shot. Fletcher, Stewart, and Tarr did an excellent job making Batgirl a good and fun comic, so I was curious to see what they would do with an original creation. Hence, my purchase of Motor Crush, a comic about a motorcycle racer addicted to a strange drug.
The three principals are listed as “creators” without breaking down their roles because, at least for some of Batgirl, Stewart did the breakdowns while Tarr provided the finished art. I assume for this book they all had a hand in writing it and perhaps even drawing it, which is why they’re listed as such. It’s definitely Tarr’s artwork, though, whether or not she did all the page layouts. And her art is really good. She has a cartoony style that means everyone is ridiculously expressive, which means subtlety – at least in this book – is not her strong suit. But that doesn’t matter, because Domino and everyone else in this comic feeeeeels stuff so deeply that they don’t express themselves in subtleties, and therefore Tarr’s art fits the bombastic style of the book. I mean, seeing a dude’s torso and head explode because he’s been dosed with a strange drug doesn’t lend itself to subtle expressions, knowwhatimsayin? Tarr also does a phenomenal job with the racing scenes in the book. She uses tilted panels, rough panel borders, and Dutch angles to heighten the speed of the racers and the energy of the race. She designs a new city, Nova Honda, as a mix of Rio de Janeiro and Monte Carlo, and she makes sure to create a divide between the flashy, rich parts of town and the slums. The biggest problem with that is her clean style doesn’t lend itself to grubbiness too much, so the slums don’t really look that bad, but it’s still a good contrast of class in the city. She designs fascinating characters, beginning with Domino and Lola but really taking flight with the various racers in both the sanctioned races and the illegal ones, which also shows the difference in class between the haves and the have-nots. She does nice work with the coloring, too – there is a lot of pinks and reds in this book, making Nova Honda feel more tropical and making sure that the illegal street races look more menacing, as they take place in less light (at night) but also bloodier reds, keeping the color scheme intact but making it a bit more dangerous. Tarr also does some nice work with the “special effects” of the book – there are some places where she smears the lines a bit to imply speed, and it works very well.
Unfortunately, Tarr’s art is in the service of a pretty lousy story. Domino Swift (yep) is a motorcycle racer in a futuristic world, where she competes on the legitimate circuit but hasn’t made much of a mark yet and she also races illegally, where the prize is usually a cache of crystal vials filled with “Crush,” which is some kind of engine catalyst. The fact that Fletcher, Stewart, and Tarr made Domino a black lesbian is nice, but making your lead character a triple-minority (although Nova Honda seems fairly diverse, so maybe she’s not a minority, but the fact is that Domino isn’t created for Nova Honda, she’s created for our world) doesn’t mean you can just forego anything else that might make her interesting. In the grand tradition of these kinds of stories, Domino is:
- A wise-ass;
- Far better at racing than everyone else, but …
- So cool about breaking the rules that she can’t win in the stodgy, “corporate” racing circuit;
- Horrible to people who love her, but who still love her because, I suppose, of her sheer awesomeness;
- A bad-ass who never compromises anything, because she’s too awesome, man
In short, she’s kind of like Dominic Toretto, to extend the racing metaphor, but she’s really a stereotype of every “bad-ass” clichéd character you can think of. The first time we meet her she’s breaking her adoptive father’s record for practice laps, then we find out she’s addicted to Crush, even though it appears to be dangerous to people (making her mysterious, because she apparently needs it – again, it’s an engine additive – to stay alive). She’s an absolute asshole to the woman she used to love, Lola, who still helps her out because Domino is so awesome and Lola can’t help herself. If Domino were a man, people would be writing thinkpieces about how horrible it is that Lola is enabling her (maybe those thinkpieces exist and I’ve just missed them). She makes bad decisions and gets people killed, but doesn’t actually try to change her behavior. Granted, her adoptive father is kind of a dick, not telling her about her origins until it’s almost too late, but even though he’s just another cliché, the book could survive it if Domino, its dominant character, were better written. Finally, the actual plot of this arc is weak. It ends with nothing much having happened, except to set up the second arc. It took five issues to get to a semi-interesting point, which is fine because it needed some set-up, but that doesn’t mean the creators couldn’t have made the journey a bit more interesting. Domino spends so much time being an asshole that by the time we reach a point – on the final few pages – where something semi-interesting happens, I was glad she was in the confused state that she was. Given what we find out in the final page, I hope everyone has had time to come to grips with the fact that the central presence in their lives was causing them nothing but grief and they’ve moved on. Probably not, though – I’m sure everyone will be fawning all over her in issue #6 (which will be out in August).
It’s kind of sad. The entire racing plot turns out to be not terribly important, and unlike the Fast and the Furious movies (to return to an earlier metaphor), where racing has become the tiniest part of the series, this book didn’t introduce a dude who flexes out of his cast to make up for that. Motor Crush takes itself far too seriously, which would be fine if the book didn’t have, you know, flying glowing pyramids. Domino could use a bit of self-deprecating humor, because she’s such a jerk that it’s impossible to like her once you get past the idea of her being the kind of protagonist of which there are still far too few in comics and entertainment in general. Just making your lead character a queer black woman doesn’t make her a good character. All Motor Crush really proves is that a wildly diverse character can still be as boring as a white, heterosexual man. Now that’s progress!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Jeremy Iversen got out of college (Stanford) in, I guess, 2003, and couldn’t decide what to do with his life. He writes in the introduction to this book that he was on a “track,” like almost all of his peers, but he didn’t want to be on a track, but he dreamed of going to a “normal” high school – from a John Hughes movie, he explicitly writes – and in a flash, he decided he was going to follow in Cameron Crowe’s footsteps (another thing he explicitly references) and do it. He managed to find a principal and a school board that would allow him to do so, and he joined the school for the spring semester of 2004. This book is the result of those months spent undercover. It’s kind of odd, in that Iversen notes in the very first sentence of the book that it’s “a true story, within limits.” He compares it to mapmaking, where some things are sacrificed for greater clarity. Fine. He defends this by saying that he had to fit everything in the book and that many of the people he interacted with weren’t eighteen yet, which, fair enough. But then he writes that “almost every word was spoken exactly as you see it.” Ah, that wonderful and ambiguous word “almost.” I could “almost” be an NBA player if I were taller, could actually shoot a jumper, could actually make a layup, and could dribble the ball without looking at it, and I weren’t 45 years old. But I’m “ALMOST” there! Frankly, I can’t remember things I said 15 minutes ago verbatim, much less months ago. Iversen could scan the school newspapers for quotes, as he claims he did here, but unless he was wearing a wire, there’s no way he transcribed everything people said over the course of a day. Have you listened to teenagers talk recently? Even more than adults (and adults are wildly guilty of this, too), 90% of what comes out of their mouths are just random words to fill the silence. My daughter cannot stop saying “like” every few words, even when I tell her it’s okay to slow down and leave noiseless spaces in her speech. Now, she’s 11, but I taught teenagers around the time this book was being written, and if Iversen thinks he’s writing down everything these kids said during the day, he’s fooling himself. Most of the time, the kids in this book actually sound coherent!
Iversen portrays a world that he thinks ought to shock people, but it’s not really that surprising. I think the most surprising thing was the implication that gang bangs are common and that consent is often a very fuzzy concept. The drug and alcohol use, the constant attempts to skip class, and even the horrid teachers are not terribly surprising. Iversen went to a place in Orange County he calls Mirador High School in Emerald Valley, a place with 3000 students, and he deliberately tried to get in with the popular kids, so it’s not that astonishing that they’re more concerned with social hierarchy than school. He does present a fairly decent cross-section of the school, but he’s still a bit limited by his own biases – there are very few minorities in this book, for instance, and I can’t believe that “Mirador” is that homogeneous. The one major Hispanic character, with whom Iversen became friends, is expelled with only a few weeks left of school, which Iversen presents as a cautionary tale because so many Hispanics don’t graduate high school (slightly over half). It does seem a bit strange that there aren’t more minorities in the book, but Iversen himself is a middle-class white “boy,” which would make it difficult to ingratiate himself with other groups (he does note how tribal high school is, which I don’t know is a surprise to anyone, but it’s fascinating because when I was teaching, the school was largely minority students, and the so-called “tribes” were not based on ethnicity – the white kids hung with the Hispanic and black kids easily, and the divisions were based on more arcane things like personality). So while his scope is limited, he does try to include a large number of students, some of whom take high school a lot more seriously than others, but many of whom are taking drugs or dealing drugs or just generally engaging in foolish behavior. Kids, amirite?
The problem with Iversen’s book is that it’s difficult to believe that he is privy to all of this. He writes very often in the third person, claiming that it’s necessary to separate himself from the narrative, but in the book’s longest chapter, he delves into the lives of several students with great depth, and it’s impossible to believe he’s reporting everything accurately. He records private conversations between students and their parents, for instance, and even if the student told him about it later, it gets back to the problem of verbatim reporting. So it calls into question the entire book, and while Iversen might be accurately telling us what happened, would the girl who gets sexually harassed by a teacher really tell the new kid about it in such detail? If she didn’t care enough to report the teacher, would she care enough to tell the boy she just met? And if he heard it from someone she did tell, it gets into hearsay territory very quickly, and so it’s hard to trust him. It’s frustrating, because the sexual harassment is certainly vile, but if Iversen is right about some of the teachers in the book and their extremely lax methods, it’s a bigger scandal, in my mind, than some perverted old man trying to grab a 17-year-old’s tits. That’s horrible, but it’s something that can be confronted and punished. If Iversen is right about the teaching at Mirador, what is to be done about the terrible teachers, and why do we blame students for how they turn out? Iversen skims over this, but it’s the crux of the book, in my mind, and it’s too bad he didn’t do more with that. It’s certainly not sensational enough, but students need good teachers, and if they don’t get them, it’s not shocking that they turn to drugs and alcohol and sex to enjoy the present when the future looks so shitty.
Iversen’s book wasn’t published without some controversy, of course. This article is about the reaction to Iversen by the students of the school he infiltrated, and it’s quite interesting. The writer hates the book itself, which is fine, and he also claims that the students figured out he wasn’t a real student early on – Iversen writes about this because the students thought he was an undercover policeman, and he had to convince them otherwise, but according to this article, they still believed he wasn’t “real” – and fed him fake information. One of Iversen’s friends at the school – someone who still thought of him as a friend even after he learned his identity – says that the book is very accurate. So, of course, there are two sides to every story. The book itself is not bad – even as I was reading it, it felt too sensational, but it also had a ring of truth, so it’s hard to really pin it down. Even if half of it is true, Iversen has done a good service, at least for parents who should pay a lot more attention to what their kids are doing (which is something no parent should have needed Iversen’s book to know, but such is life). But it’s not the greatest piece of journalism in the world – I found the footnotes more helpful occasionally than the actual book. It’s entertaining, but it leaves a bit of a hollow feeling in you, because you can’t really decide if you should believe it and what should be done about it. Iversen wanted to go back to high school. He succeeded. Other than that, the book doesn’t tell us too much that we couldn’t infer already. But it’s certainly vivid!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Conan the Slayer: Blood in His Wake by Cullen Bunn (writer), Sergio Dávila (artist), Michael Atiyeh (colorist), Richard Starkings (letterer), Jimmy Betancourt (letterer), Rachel Roberts (assistant editor), and Chris Warner (collection editor). $19.99, 132 pgs, FC, Dark Horse.
Bunn takes over for the 21st volume of Conan, this time called “The Slayer” because Dark Horse isn’t sure that you get that Conan, you know, kills a lot of people. This is a particularly bloodthirsty collection of Conan – not that he hasn’t killed bunches of people in the past, but Bunn and Dávila really have fun with the killing in this one. Dávila does a very nice job with the art – he uses a much stronger line than many of the recent Conan artists have, which adds some heaviness to Conan, and I wonder if Dávila specifically tried to make our hero “older” to show that he is growing up. This is still a young Conan, but he’s not quite the callow youth who starred in the earlier versions of this series, or even the one who pirated around with Bêlit not too long ago. I guess it still sells fairly well, but it would be nice to see Dark Horse gradually move Conan toward the king that Tim Truman has written about recently. That would be cool.
There’s never much to say about these books, as I noted last time I reviewed one (which wasn’t too long ago; Dark Horse put out the most recent one in January, so perhaps that one was a bit late and this one is right on schedule) – Conan gets involved with something he really doesn’t want to get involved in, occasionally there are supernatural forces in play, someone betrays someone else, Conan usually gets laid, lots of people die, and Conan ends up in a situation that seems better than where he began but might actually be worse. In this case, leading a group of nomads called “Kozaks,” which are not like Cossacks at all. AT ALL! It’s wildly violent, twisty in just the right ways, and Bunn does some nice work showing how Conan is beginning to grow up a little, which is neat. But generally, it’s an entertaining Conan comic. You know, like they all have been!
I don’t know how long Bunn and Dávila plan to work on Conan – issue #11 was solicited last month, but there’s nothing in this month’s Previews – but like all the others, I’ll get the trades when they come out. We shall see!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Black Widow volumes 1 and 2: S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Most Wanted and No More Secrets by Mark Waid (writer), Chris Samnee (writer/artist), Matthew Wilson (colorist), Joe Caramagna (letterer), and Jennifer Grünwald (collection editor). $35.98, 243 pgs, FC, Marvel
Mark Waid is a fine writer, with many great comics on his resumé, so I’m not here to disparage him, but Chris Samnee is the true star of Black Widow, which didn’t last quite as long as the creators’ collaboration on Daredevil, for whatever reason (Black Widow is more recognizable from the movies, of course, but Daredevil is a more core character in the comics, so maybe that’s it). In the first issue, for instance, there are very few words, and they’re just a variation on “Black Widow stole something from S.H.I.E.L.D. and we need to stop her!”, yet Samnee makes it a gorgeous ballet of violence, as Natasha jumps from the helicarrier and manages to make it 40,000 feet down to the ground, which doesn’t lead to her escape but more pursuit until she finally gets to thrash it out with one S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. It’s magnificent, and it sets the tone nicely for the entire series, which is heavy on beautiful art and light on words. Maybe that’s why it didn’t last as long as DD – are comics readers still bound by the notion that a “good” comic has more words than a “bad” one because it takes longer to read? Are comics readers still unable to “read” art so that a wordless comic can take as long to read as one with a lot of words? I don’t know, but if you’re just reading for words, yes, these comics don’t take very long to read and might feel like they’re ripping you off, but I hope comics readers aren’t that unsophisticated anymore. That would be too bad. Samnee creates amazing pages, composed wonderfully, which lead you easily through the issue and never leave you without enough information about what’s going on. He uses shadows excellently, which fits Natasha’s dark world really well, and his violence is brutal and palpable. When Natasha, in a flashback, kills her first victim ever, Samnee shows the terror on her own face as she realizes what she’s become, and it’s gut-wrenching. When she meets Nick Fury on the moon (remember, Nick Fury is no longer Nick Fury), Samnee gives us just enough visibility of Fury to imply the weird thing he’s turned into. The finale of the book, which takes place underneath the Antarctic, is full of blackness, but Samnee’s precision means we can follow the action perfectly well (with one weird exception when it appears that Natasha stabs someone through the gut, but the person later shows up completely unharmed). Wilson, who is one of the best colorists in the business, complements him very well, using lots of blues instead of blacks so that the book never gets drenched in darkness, allowing us to still see everything even when Samnee uses a lot of black chunks. Wilson colors the main flashback – of Natasha’s first kill – in sepia tones, which is a cliché but feels right, as it takes place in the drabness of Communist Yugoslavia (probably – we’re on Marvel time here, so who knows when exactly it’s supposed to take place). He uses warm colors very well, not only for the explosions (for which he kind of needs to), but for some of the more passionate moments, and it works even though it’s manipulative. Samnee uses blacks so well that his art looks amazing uncolored (although it’s been years since he’s done that), but Wilson’s presence gives the art a lusher, more organic feel to it. They’re a good team.
Waid (and Samnee, who is credited as co-writer) gives us a thrilling story that doesn’t really matter too much. There are plenty of MacGuffins, which are there just so Natasha can go on the run from S.H.I.E.L.D. and come to terms with her past – the two main villains are characters from her formative years, each with a particular grudge against our hero. It doesn’t really matter that much – Waid comes up with a redemptive arc for Natasha, but we’ve known for years that she’s not the evil assassin she used to be, so it rings a bit hollow when she restates it here. There’s a weak conflict with Iron Man just so Tony Stark can show up and be Tony Stark, but he gets angry about some really stupid, unfortunately. Meanwhile, Waid does that thing that a lot of Batman writers do – make it look like Natasha is completely adrift, but that was her plan all along! I get that these characters are often “the best!” at what they do, but if writers keep going to that well, it makes it hard to believe that the character would ever be bested. Natasha has contingencies on top of contingencies, so neither of the bad guys ever seem like too much of a credible threat. The first one tries to blackmail her, but with stuff from her villainous past, which I thought everyone knew about, so of course she did villainous things! The second villain is dismissed by Natasha early on, so when she shows up again, why should we believe she will be able to defeat Black Widow? It’s an exciting story, to be sure, but if you poke it a little bit, it begins to collapse, so you should just read it, enjoy it, and gaze long and hard at Samnee’s amazing art. That works, right?
Oh, and Waid/Samnee and/or Caramagna spell Natasha’s last name both “Romanoff” and “Romanov.” Can we please get a ruling on that, and perhaps editors could, you know, do their jobs and make sure it remains consistent. Is that too much to ask?
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆
Mosaic volume 1: King of the World by Geoffrey Thorne (writer), Khary Randolph (artist), Thony Silas (artist), Emilio Lopez (colorist), Andres Mossa (colorist), Joe Sabino (letterer), and Jennifer Grünwald (collection editor). $15.99, 110 pgs, FC, Marvel.
Mosaic is a pretty good comic about a basketball star/asshole named Morris Sackett (he’s such an asshole he doesn’t even really pretend not to be one during interviews, which is where most professional athletes try to sound as non-assholeish as possible) who gets Inhumanized (man, I will be so happy when Marvel finally gives up on trying to make the Inhumans a thing; Regina George would scorn them for it) and turns into a character who can jump into another person’s consciousness and kind of “drive” them for a while. He gains all their memories and retains them after he leaves, and he can’t return to a body once he’s left it. He discovers horrible things about his girlfriend and his father, and he finds out that an evil corporation (remember, there are no other kinds of corporations in comics) is trying to figure out his powers so they can duplicate them, presumably. This kind of power would be good for corporate espionage, right?
The book is written by Geoffrey Thorne, who’s a pretty good writer, and drawn partially by Khary Randolph in his frenetic, scratchy style and partially by Thony Silas in his almost-but-not-quite Khary Randolph style. It’s not long for this world; this volume collects issues #1-5 and it seems like issue #8 is the last one, so it might not even get a second trade. So there it is.
But this isn’t about Mosaic the comic and its quality, it’s about Mosaic the symbol of what Marvel is doing. This comic represents almost everything that Marvel is doing both right and wrong at this moment. Marvel sales, in case you didn’t know, are in a funk. WHY they are in a funk is what everyone is all hot and bothered about. Of course, the most regressive people say it’s because of “diversity,” which Marvel has been cramming down readers’ throats. Bad Marvel! Mosaic represents this very well. It’s a black character written and drawn by black people. How dare Marvel try to sell to ethnicities other than white people! Only white people should decide what books Marvel produces!
Marvel’s funk has, of course, inspired people to write about it. Here a writer bemoans that all her favorite female-centric comics are getting cancelled because Marvel doesn’t do a good enough job promoting them, which seems to feed into the idea that most Marvel readers don’t want such “diverse” comics. But, as a retailer pointed out to me, Star-Lord is getting cancelled too, and that features a heterosexual white guy, so what’s up with that? Over at Bleeding Cool, I found an article about the Great Retailer Summit that was held in March, during which Axel Alonso apparently claimed that Marvel doesn’t have superstar artists that can move the needle on sales, which prompted Erik Larsen to mock them for creating that situation with their constant shifting of artists from book to book and (I would argue) their ridiculous shipping schedule, which they seemed to have eased off of but wrecked the visual continuity of almost every one of their comics. Also coming out of the Summit was this story in which David Gabriel, Marvel’s Senior VP of Sales, said that readers don’t want diversity. (The story has been updated to reflect Gabriel walking back the comments a little, which is a bit ridiculous. People jumped all over Gabriel for his statements, but if you actually read them – I know, what a concept of the hawt taek interwebs! – you see that he’s very frustrated by the reaction against diversity, not that he’s agreeing with the readers. He just responds to what he hears from readers, and it’s obvious he wishes it were different.) Anyway, G. Willow Wilson, who writes Ms. Marvel, responded with her own thoughts, although I’m not exactly sure who she’s responding to. She makes very valid points about how to “sell” “diversity,” though, even though it boils down to “write a good comic.” I know, shocking! Sales are at the heart of all of this, as this article points out, and Brian Hibbs, as he usually does, gets into the nitty-gritty very well. I’ve been saying what these guys are saying for years: there are too many Marvel comics, and they cost too much. So don’t be surprised when sales tank.
What does this have to do with Mosaic? As I noted, this is the perfect representation of what’s good and bad about Marvel right now. I’ve never met Thorne, but I’ve followed his career for a while, and it’s great that he got a gig at Marvel. He’s a new voice and a minority one, and Marvel and DC could use that. It’s wonderful that Marvel has tried hard to expand the diversity of their line, giving a lot of great creators a chance with their books. Much like always, some of them sell and some of them don’t, but it seems like a female-driven superhero movie in some ways – if one fails, they all stink and studios won’t give them a chance. Even if Ms. Marvel and Squirrel Girl have sold well for a while and proven that an audience exists for books like those, if one fails, it seems like everyone points at that one and says “Diversity doesn’t work!” Thor didn’t have his own comic for, what, four years, yet nobody thought he couldn’t get another shot. The Fantastic Four haven’t had a series for a few years – does anyone believe that Marvel won’t revive them at some point? The white guys always get a bunch of chances, but even when “diverse” comics prove themselves, one slip-up is all they get. But Mosaic is an example of Marvel trying something different, and it’s very cool that they did so.
However … it’s also an example of what Marvel does badly. Both Marvel and DC do this – they hire writers and put them on books that they know are going to die quickly, just to give those writers some experience on Marvel books. Thorne hasn’t been working for Marvel long, and he doesn’t have the cachet yet to work on one of the big books, so he has to take his lumps. Marvel launches new books with poor targeted marketing, too – I was just reading about how well How to Be a Latin Lover and Baahubali 2 did at the box office this past weekend, because the makers of those movies targeted Hispanic audiences and Indian audiences, respectively. If Marvel has a marketing strategy (you can’t convince me they do), it’s to get as many die-hards to read as many of their comics as possible. Hibbs makes this point well – if people are excited about the new Black Panther comic (which, to Marvel’s credit, they did push pretty well), the answer is not to give them four other Black Panther comics, because the people who are excited about Black Panther are not necessarily the “Marvel Zombies” of yore (which Hibbs notes don’t really exist anymore) but people who like Ta-Nehisi Coates (for the record, I didn’t read Black Panther, so I’m not talking about its quality here). Marvel always does this – they see that people like one title, so they immediately flood the market with titles starring that character or those associated with it. People don’t buy that way anymore. The days of everyone buying every Marvel title because they wanted to know how it all holds together are over. Even someone like me, who used to read a lot of Marvel, has lost track of what’s going on in the Marvel Universe. The weakest part of the Black Widow series above was when Natasha and Bucky Barnes went to see Nick Fury on the moon. I knew vaguely that Fury had become something like the Watcher, but that’s only because I spend time on-line. Even then, I’m still not clear on what was going on with that scene, because Waid didn’t really explain it. Imagine if you’re someone who’s reading that series solely because you think Scarlet Johansson is awesome and you heard the Black Widow series was cool, but you’re not a regular Marvel reader. Bucky’s appearance in the book doesn’t need too much backstory – if you don’t know who he is, Waid and Samnee give you just enough so you can fill in the blanks – but Fury’s appearance is just weird. It drags the story to a halt, even if there are some cool visuals to go along with it. ANYWAY, Mosaic exists in its own part of the Marvel Universe, even though Spider-Man shows up, so you don’t need to be a “Marvel Zombie” to read it. However, Marvel didn’t seem to launch it with any kind of fanfare, as it just threw the book out there and hoped it would survive. Really, Marvel? This isn’t new – everyone remembers my lament about S.W.O.R.D. a few years ago, right? – but it takes on added poignancy when it’s a comic starring a black man written and drawn by black men.
The other thing Marvel (and DC, too) does badly is launch new characters. It’s been noted before – what was the last original character that Marvel launched that has lasted and had a big impact? Most people would say Deadpool, and he debuted in 1991. I might say the Runaways, although they haven’t been quite as successful, even with a television series in the offing, but even so – they first appeared in 2003. Marvel has tried new characters over the years, and that’s great, but it’s very hard to make them stick, and launching them in a brand new series instead of in an existing comic is almost a guaranteed loss. In that sense, Mosaic was doomed before the first issue even shipped.
Finally, of course, there’s the price. I still have no idea how Marvel can justify charging 4 dollars for 20 pages of comics. Yes, this pay the talent well enough, but Marvel is making boatloads of money right now, so you’re telling me that they can’t charge $2.99 or even $3.25 for a comic? The flood of product and the ridiculous cost means that I simply don’t buy Marvel single issues anymore (I make an exception for Hawkeye because I want Kelly to succeed). So we have a comic that is probably not being marketed correctly, starring a new character by a writer who doesn’t have the reputation to sell a book just on his name, in a sea of other comics, for 4 dollars. The people at my comic shoppe are old-schoolers, so they want Steve Rogers and Tony Stark and Manly Thor and Bruce Banner and Peter Parker, and so I don’t expect them to embrace something like Mosaic, but even to a receptive audience, this would be a hard sell. And the sales for ALL Marvel comics are down at my store, too, so it’s not like they’re racists rejecting the “diversity” of Marvel. They’re rejecting the crappiness of Marvel!
Marvel is going back to original numbering and apparently “original characters” after “Secret Empire” runs its course, which is fine for public relations but won’t mean much if they keep flooding the market and charging too much for comics. In the meantime, a neat little comic like Mosaic – which isn’t great, no, but which is pretty good – get lost in the shuffle. Will Marvel learn any lessons from these debacles? NO MAN CAN SAY!!!!!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
So back in 2011, 12-Gauge Comics released Loose Ends, which was a “4 issue Southern Crime Romance,” according to the cover. I bought it because I like Jason Latour, even though back then I liked him as an artist and these days he seems to be just writing comics, but it sounded neat and I figured I’d take a chance on it. Three issues came out. Then … crickets. 12-Gauge’s web site is still around, but it doesn’t look like they’re producing new comics, at least not without some help (maybe they moved to digital-only and their print comics are getting done through Image?), and Loose Ends languished. Latour got more work, but I rarely saw Brunner’s name in credits, so maybe he quit the business because he couldn’t make enough money doing it? It was too bad, because while the story was a nice, pulpy slice of noir, the art on Loose Ends was spectacular. But I just assumed that it would be one of those comics that never finished – I have batted around a topic for this blog (and the one before this one, that’s how long I’ve been thinking about it!) that is about comics I miss, not because they got ended when they were supposed to, but because they vanished. Maybe they got cancelled and weren’t done with the story, but a lot of comics just never finish because the money isn’t there. Loose Ends seemed destined to be one of those when I finally get more time to write more for this blog (I’m really sorry about not writing more; next school year the kids won’t need chauffeuring as much and I should have more time!).
But hark! Image decided to publish the entire series, including the final issue, probably because Latour writes for them now and his work sells okay. I was happy, and I skipped the first three issues hoping that nobody decided to go back and rework some things just to make them different form the original issues. As far as I know, that didn’t happen, so I just bought the fourth issue and I have now read the entire book! It took, I think, several years for Latour, Brunner, and Renzi to get it off the ground (the book is set in 2007, and I think that’s when Latour started working on it), and then it took several more years to finish it, so huzzah! Of course, the questions is, Is it any good?
Well, yeah. It’s not a life-changing comic by any means, but Latour is a decent writer who enjoys a good, twisty plot, and this book does well with it. The title is appropriate, as it gets messy and convoluted and not everything gets resolved, much like real life. Sonny Gibson and Cheri Sanchez, our heroes (or at least our least morally reprehensible characters), get caught up with drug dealers and dirty cops, and things get violent and people get dead. Sonny has a kid with Kim, who works in the same dead-end bar in North Carolina as Cheri (they all knew each other in college, which is where Sonny and Kim hooked up and where Cheri developed a crush on Sonny), but Kim gets killed in issue #1 and Sonny and Cheri have to go on the lam (which doesn’t make much sense, but again, it’s like real life – people who did absolutely nothing wrong panic in weird situations, and get themselves into worse situations). Meanwhile, one of Sonny’s old friends from their military days gets in trouble with some crooked cops, who lean on him to bring down a big dealer, but they need Sonny involved too. It all goes pear-shaped, of course, and really the only problem I had was the way a knife gets into someone near the end, which seems really unlikely. Other than that, it’s a neat story that jumps back and forth in time, revealing information and the connections between all these people slowly, so that the burn to the final confrontation builds the tension really well. We don’t have high hopes for any of the characters, but Latour does a nice job getting us into their sad lives enough so that their fates resonate well.
Brunner and Renzi are the real stars of the show, and it would be a shame if Brunner can’t get more work in the industry, because he’s such a talent (Renzi works pretty steadily). I can’t even write about all the ways he and Renzi make this book a dazzling one to behold. Brunner draws with incredible details, so that every location is perfectly realized, from the grunginess of the bar where Kim dies to the glitz of Miami to the dustiness of Iraq. Brunner uses innovative page layouts to create moods, as every character experiences a lot of ups and downs during this series. He does the lettering, too, so he occasionally drops word balloons to emphasize the volume or urgency of the dialogue, and he uses pictograms quite often to express various emotions the characters are feeling. He uses thick borders often to create panel boxes, into which he then drops small packets of information while the rest of the page has a separate scene going on around it. There’s a harrowing full-page splash in issue #1 that is broken up into a 15-panel grid so that we can focus on each individual panel and get the full sense of the horror of the scene. Brunner also does a superb job in issue #3 when Sonny and Cheri have sex, using a full page, but one almost entirely black (while Renzi lights it very low, so that we see very little), implying that even as these people have found each other, their pasts continue to haunt them and they know their futures are fraught. For the flashbacks, Renzi uses a single color palette, which separates them quite nicely from the present, while either he or Brunner uses a Zip-A-Tone effect to set the flashbacks apart even more. It’s a stunning book, one that rewards close inspection, because Brunner and Renzi do so much to amplify the script. I really hope Brunner gets to do more comics work now that this is back from a larger publisher.
Loose Ends, as I noted, doesn’t break new ground, but it’s an intense read, and the trade would look nice on a bookshelf. It’s coming out in July, apparently, so keep an eye out for it!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
So that’s all the comics for this month – I tried to get this done yesterday, but real life conspired against me, so the first day of May will work, especially as I reviewed a comic called Mayday in this very post! I’ve seen some interesting stuff on the internet recently, which I thought I’d share. First, here’s a depressing story about Natalie Wood’s sister, who’s homeless these days. You may know Lana Wood under a slightly different name:
Yep, Lana Wood’s most famous role was as Plenty O’Toole in Diamonds Are Forever, in which she died (of course she did!). You can also find nekkid photos of her on the internet, but that’s for you to Google! It’s too bad that people end up in these situations, especially because she and Robert Wagner, Natalie Wood’s husband, are estranged because Lana thinks he had something to do with Natalie Wood’s death. Anyway, Plenty O’Toole no longer has plenty of money. It’s too bad.
In more fun news, Tom Hardy caught a moped thief and declares that he “caught the cunt.” This makes me so happy, especially because there are so many questions unanswered by the article. Come on, British newspapers, step up!
And this just in, in case you’ve missed it: Donald Trump is talking again, so we get to puzzle out what’s going on in his brain. He’s wondering why the U.S. Civil War “had” to happen, and he also thinks that Andrew Jackson – the genocidal slave-owner – would have prevented the Civil War from occurring. I mean, I know Trump is a dimwit, but this is really out there. The Civil War is probably the most dissected event in American history, and plenty of historians know why it happened. I can’t even write down why it happened because it’s so self-evident. Of course, Trump being an idiot means no one is really talking about the fact that he invited Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte – you know, the guy who claims to have personally killed drug dealers and has encouraged people to do the same – to the White House. Of course he’d admire Andrew Jackson!
Anyway, that’s the month (plus) of comics. Have fun in May, everyone! Remember, if you want to buy any of these comics or just anything from Amazon in general, if you use the link below, I’ll get a bit of coin from it. No pressure or anything, but my 11-year-old needs gold grills for her teeth, people, and those things are expensive!