Monday, September 30, 2013

Doom Patrol

I've long loved Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol, of course, but never checked out the series that first introduced the team, written by Arnold Drake and drawn by Bruno Premiani, originally as part of the anthology series My Greatest Adventure, then in their own series after just six issues. The Doom Patrol predated the X-Men by a few months, and built off the example of the Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four — with their constant bickering and sense of isolation, they always felt more like Marvel's fallible, very human heroes than DC's self-assured icons. The Doom Patrol are outcasts, their "powers" having resulted from horrible accidents that left them changed and disfigured in various ways, no longer able to fit in with normal society. Rita Farr, once a glamorous actress, is the least changed: she initially isolates herself because she can't control her size-changing powers, and would unpredictably grow or shrink, but even after she gains control of these powers, she identifies herself as apart from society, even though she could easily reintegrate. The other 2 team members, Cliff Steele (whose accident left him so destroyed that only his brain remains, encased in a robot body) and Larry Trainor (irradiated with nuclear radiation, wrapped in bandages and possessed by an energy-based "Negative Man"), are more thoroughly ostracized, considered freaks by the "normal" populace whose lives they routinely save. Drake regularly comes up with outrageous concepts to confront these weird heroes, pitting them against the equally odd Brotherhood of Evil (led by a disembodied brain in a jar) or the shape-changing Animal-Vegetable-Mineral Man.

It's got all the usual problems of comics this old, being mainly targeted at kids, so there's a certain sloppiness and repetitiveness that nobody, I'm sure, expected to matter one bit. As was common at the time, in the early issues the writer and artist weren't even being credited except when someone happened to ask about it on the letters page, a sign of the status of these artifacts and those who made them. The dialogue often just consists of the gang narrating how they're going to foil their latest threat, some of the scenarios cross over from inspired weirdness to just plain dumb, and the fact that Mr. 103 is a barely different retread of A-V-M Man (and that Beast Boy taps into a similar power set as well) is perhaps a sign of the idea well running dry later in the run, at least as pertains to concocting new superpowers. Still, there's a reason these characters and this run have endured. A big part of the appeal is just how strange it all is, and how striking it is to find a goofy kids' comic that deals so candidly with issues of self-image, ostracization, and the frustration of being trapped in a flawed body. Cliff is constantly treating his robot body as disposable, warping and destroying himself, an approach that reaches its peak in an amazingly weird story in #87 where Cliff defeats a villain by using parts of his robot body to get around traps, until he's just an armless, legless torso pinning down the bad guy with metal dead weight.

These characters are very human despite their weirdness, though, and in between the outlandish fight scenes and stiff exposition, they express some very raw, poignant emotions, ranging from Cliff and Larry's sexual frustration (they both yearn for the pretty Rita, though she never seems to even acknowledge them as romantic or sexual possibilities, much preferring the less visibly weird Mento) to the Chief's increasingly desperate attempts to get out of his wheelchair and finally participate in adventures in a physical way rather than just as an advisor. Drake even extends this sympathy to the villainous Madame Rouge, with a long-gestating subplot in which the Chief tries to rehabilitate her, getting in touch with the good side that's been suppressed by the evil Brain's manipulations. This plot reaches its wacky, visually stunning apex in a sequence where Premiani draws Rouge's face being cracked, as though seen in a broken mirror, then stretched apart, until she's literally and physically divided into two twisty, stretchy beings intertwining and fighting — it's an amazing sequence, a perfect example of the visual and conceptual imagination that flows through this series.

It's also a great example of Drake's willingness to let plots gestate over time, as the Chief/Rouge plot develops in scenes scattered here and there across months of comics before it finally takes center stage. He often plotted across issues, writing around the obligatory villain-of-the-month to develop larger plots, like the courtship and eventual marriage between Rita and Mento. There's also the green-skinned, shape-shifting Beast Boy, who's slowly introduced into the title and gradually develops over much of the run's second half, the plot with his evil guardian undergoing many twists and turns across many months worth of stories before he's adopted by Rita and Mento, forming a nuclear family of the weird. Drake's multi-issue storytelling contrasted against a lot of other comics from the time, which tended much more towards done-in-one or two-part tales rather than this kind of extended continuity. The team went out with a bang, too, in a final issue where the Doom Patrol, given the choice between their own lives and the lives of a remote fishing community, chose to sacrifice themselves for the sakes of a few normal people. It's a noble and very unusual ending for a very unusual series and a very unusual cast of characters.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Green Lantern/Green Arrow

This is an important series, a landmark of comics history in which Dennis O'Neil, assisted most notably by penciller Neal Adams, transformed the Green Lantern series into a soapbox for social commentary and polemics, many of them voiced through GL's new costar, Green Arrow, who was recast as a modern-day leftist Robin Hood. It's a pretty astonishing transformation. Before #76, the first issue tagged as Green Lantern/Green Arrow, there was no regular writer on the Green Lantern ongoing, and O'Neil was just one of several writers doing an issue or two at a time, telling generic, disposable, instantly forgettable tales of GL facing off against monsters, aliens, robots, etc. There's nothing in the preceding dozen or so issues, including those written by O'Neil, to prepare one for #76's slap in the face, in which GL and GA face off against a corrupt landlord, and in which GL is famously confronted by a black man who accuses him of doing lots for aliens with purple or blue skin, but nothing for those on his own world with black skin.

Immediately, the duo take off on a trip across America, accompanied by a disguised Guardian from Oa, encountering racism, poverty, drug use, and other social and political issues. By today's standards, O'Neil's writing is preachy, unsubtle, and often rather ludicrous, and he has a tendency for trotting out Nazi comparisons at the slightest provocation. It's politics-for-dummies, in its way as simplistic and morally black-and-white as the GL vs. Sinestro stories that had earlier defined this title. But these are still important comics, elevating these characters beyond the repetitive, thematically threadbare stories that had previously contituted their monthly adventures, suggesting that comics, even superhero comics, could have real moral content and could deal with the real world, however clumsy these efforts often are at tackling these themes.

That sense of a stab at realism is aided in a big way by Neal Adams, whose grainy, gritty art is as much of a game-changer as O'Neil's new stories. With the first O'Neil/Adams issue, this immediately looks and feels like a whole different book, its new street-level themes mirrored in Adams' realistically rendered faces and love of shadowy textures. O'Neil, for his part, doesn't really maintain the same level of commitment throughout this sequence of issues. The initial burst of socially conscious stories lasts a mere four issues before the heroes are once again confronting cosmic menaces and supervillains, albeit with a pronounced allegorical undercurrent to it all. This synthesis is most powerful in a story that casts the villainous Black Hand as an agent of a sinister conspiracy to keep people docile through consumerism; elsewhere, O'Neil offers up muddled and incoherent satires of Nixon/Agnew and women's liberation, with the latter story nearly sabotaging the whole run by making feminists into (literal!!!) harpies.

But then comes probably the most infamous story of this series, the two-part tale in which Green Arrow's "ward" Speedy becomes a drug addict. It's easy to mock now, and there's no question that, like all of O'Neil's work in this period, there's a thread of camp outrageousness here, as well as an over-the-top preachiness that makes the moralizing speeches come across like an after-school special. At the same time, the story is remarkably candid about drug use, and remarkably sympathetic (given the tenor of the times) towards the addicts, who with exceptional self-awareness lay out their reasons for turning to drugs, saying that drugs help them forget the problems of their lives, help them ignore the racism and neglect they face from their elders and the rest of society. It's probably the most morally complex of the GL/GA stories, because though in the end the heroes catch the villain who's peddling the drugs, it feels like a pretty hollow victory, underscored by having the story's last pages take place at a funeral for an overdose victim. This particular villain is caught, but there's a sense that nothing has changed, that the problem is a lot larger and can't be solved with mere fisticuffs or simplistic ideas of "justice" — a pretty mature admission from the superhero comics of the time. Adams also turns in one of his very best sequences in the form of a harrowing page on which Speedy, withdrawing cold turkey, staggers around under the watchful and sympathetic eye of Black Canary, who's helping him through his pain. It's beautifully rendered but horrifying, Adams' expert handling of body language perfectly capturing the young addict's anguish in just a few nearly silent panels.

The O'Neil/Adams run ended with #89, a hamfisted but oddly compelling mash-up of Jesus' death with an environmentalist parable, notable for unsparingly making GL's girlfriend Carol Ferris kind of the villain here, and the story ends with GL blowing up one of her airplanes in a burst of righteous anger. The series blew up too — it won awards but apparently never sold well. O'Neil continued the saga with backup stories in The Flash, with Adams sticking around for the first 3 installments, long enough to give Green Arrow and Black Canary a relatively graceful goodbye before O'Neil started churning out GL solo adventures. O'Neil revived the series years later, but without Adams (Mike Grell drew many of the new issues) and without the social commentary. The issues O'Neil wrote from #90 on, starting in 1976, have very few traces of the earlier series' political ideology or issue-oriented themes. There are scenes here and there that reference poverty or race or drugs, but never in the sustained way that the earlier run had done. Instead, it's a return to space opera, alien invaders, alternate dimensions, and so on, and it's mostly a bore in comparison to the vitality and emotional excess of the original O'Neil/Adams run. There's some camp appeal here — Sinestro disguised as a jester; the bizarre saga of Itty Bitty, a flower-shaped alien who dies and comes back as a zombie flower; Hal Jordan as a trucker who mostly stashes his rig in space while fighting alien menaces; Hal hooking up with and nearly marrying Guy Gardner's psychic gypsy girlfriend. It can be fun, and silly, and Grell (in particular among the several pencillers who rotate through these issues) is a fine artist, but the series is always a pale shadow of its former identity, and it's never quite clear why exactly Green Arrow is tagging along on all these spacefaring adventures at all. His presence was really only required to be a voice of social consciousness and down-to-earth realism, both attributes purposefully missing from the rebooted series.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Vertigo Voices

The four one-shots covered below were released in 1995 on the Vertigo Voices sub-imprint, a series of creator-owned one-offs that, by design or coincidence, were unified by a focus on warped psychology. Unlike some of Vertigo's other attempts at spin-off imprints or events, these one-shots were strikingly successful in creative terms, all four of them great examples of these creators at their best.

Face (Peter Milligan & Duncan Fegredo) - This book's depiction of a slow spiral into horror is really difficult to bear, and that's what makes it so great. Peter Milligan would later examine the questions about identity and appearance raised here in his Human Target comics, but whereas those books had more of a hard-boiled noir/detective genre approach, this is intense, unsettling psychological horror. A plastic surgeon moves out to a remote island with his wife to perform elaborate surgery on a reclusive artist, and, as such stories are apt to play out, the isolation reveals fractures in the surgeon's marriage even as the artist (and his clingy manservant) seem to be teetering on the brink of sanity themselves. Milligan's plotting is dense and unpredictable, and the story takes several unexpected twists and turns before its grisly ending, its instability aided by the fact that David, the surgeon, is a supremely unreliable narrator who keeps casually tossing out lies and half-truths to both his wife and the reader, contradicting himself at every turn. Fegredo's art is scratchy and gritty, with a fine grasp of gesture and body language, and when the story requires rapid descents into gore or surrealist hallucination, he's able to leap into the abyss with the best of them. It's a perfect classical horror tale, in the lineage of Eyes Without a Face and other horror movie meditations on identity, aesthetics, marriage, sexuality, and the nature of monsters.

Tainted (Jamie Delano & Al Davison) - Stunning, creepy, and psychologically engrossing, this is prime Delano, a sympathetic but unflinching case study of three people, each fucked-up and damaged in his or her own way. George, a wealthy orphan, rents out part of his big inherited house to Lisa, a nurse, and Steve, a strung-out addict. Alternating between these three characters, with special emphasis on George, Delano creates a potent and disturbing portrait of dysfunction and disconnection. George is a haunted character, cut off from sexuality, superficially a good man but obviously disturbed in some pretty deep ways — it's apparent from early on what the nature of his shameful secret past might be, but its gradual unfurling is nonetheless horrifyingly mesmerizing, leading inexorably towards the revelation that every reader suspects is there all along. George's entanglement with Lisa, a rape victim who sees her fantasy games with this damaged man as a way of re-empowering herself, only complicates the intense emotions and disquieting forebodings that wind through this tale. For his part, Davison is a perfect collaborator, giving these characters and their surroundings a weighty, fleshy realism that is occasionally disrupted in subtle ways by distortions, skewed angles, shapes warped beyond recognition, before snapping back to the hard surety of reality. He depicts slippages into fantasy or nightmare without the usual signifiers, preferring very subtle distortions until the horrifying visual symbolism of the ending. This is a great short story, drawing on familiar archetypes and ideas but presenting them with sensitivity, psychological insight, and a keen grasp of the unspeakable horrors lurking within the human mind.

Kill Your Boyfriend (Grant Morrison & Philip Bond) - This is probably the most famous of the Vertigo Voices one-shots, mainly by virtue of Morrison's name, though it's definitely nowhere near as great as Face or Tainted. Still, it's a good book in its own right, kind of a more grounded adjunct to Morrison's The Invisibles, which was running simultaneously. It's a portrait of a young girl who's bored and alienated in suburbia, and harbors fantasies of violence and sexuality which she finally indulges by running off with a bad boy who leads her on a crime spree. So it's a pretty familiar tale that Morrison is riffing on here, and he doesn't entirely transcend that familiarity, but he does imbue this book with a great deal of biting wit and a serious consideration of some of his usual themes about society and rebellion. He makes this story all about conforming to roles and expectations; the girl acts out because that seems to be the only outlet available to her, because even her most mild deviations from what's considered the norm are looked on with suspicion. Her father calls her a slut, with mingled disgust and excitement, while rifling through her frilly underwear, and those same underwear later lead the police to some negative conclusions about the girl; any girl who might want to explore her sexuality is automatically viewed with distrust. When society tries to suppress and hide all of this stuff, it expresses itself anyway in warped and disturbing ways, in violence and rage, and that thematic focus ties this book to Morrison's less realistic social commentaries in The Invisibles and The Filth. It's also a darkly charming book, thanks in part to Philip Bond's clean-lined, elegant art, so well-suited to rendering these attractive, sexy young people, as well as Morrison's habit of having the girl address the reader directly, justifying her actions in a running commentary that amounts to a shrugging admission that she had nothing better to do.

The Eaters (Peter Milligan & Dean Ormston) - In contrast to Milligan's other Vertigo Voices issue, The Eaters is less straight-up horror, despite its focus on cannibalism, and more a darkly comic satire that might be seen as the American counterpart to Morrison's maiming of British suburban culture in Kill Your Boyfriend. Milligan follows a family of "eaters" — they hate the derogatory term "cannibals" — as they travel around the country in an RV they won in a contest from an apple-pie company, killing people along the way for dinner. It's a scattershot and unrelenting satire, depicting this family as the quintessential all-American Christians, justifying their murderous appetites with questionable interpretations of vague Bible verses, while criticizing the junk-food culture and societal neglect they see all around them on their cross-country tour. They're Christian hypocrites, feeding the poor with stew made from the corpses of over-stuffed junk-food gorgers, convinced that their own lifestyle is the healthiest and the most morally correct. All the symbols of the American middle class are distorted here: religion, family, mom's cooking and apple pie, corrupt politicians, fast-food burgers and charity for the poor and homeless. The family is pursued by a vengeful apple pie salesman, who bathes every night in a bath tub full of sickly yellowish-green apple pie filling, obviously artificial and practically glowing neon, precisely the kind of mass-produced factory-made junk that this family has cut out of their lifestyle.

Monday, September 2, 2013

I Die At Midnight, The Geek, Prez: Smells Like Teen President

I Die At Midnight (Kyle Baker) - Part of Vertigo's pre-millennial V2K series, this is a fine example of Kyle Baker's briskly paced, animation-inspired humor comics. It's the story of a man who, distraught over a failed romance, swallows a bottle of pills to kill himself on New Year's Eve, only to have his lover return, apologizing and wanting to make up with him. The man then desperately casts about for a way to cure himself before the pills take effect, without letting his lover know that he was so unbalanced. It's frenzied dark comedy, which Baker communicates equally with his expressive, cartoony artwork and the typeset, wryly funny dialogue that he sets beside his images. As in most of Baker's work, he doesn't use word balloons as in traditional comics, preferring to set the dialogue and the occasional narrative captions beside and below the panels — the format resembles animation cells with a script running alongside them, though despite this separation, Baker's words and images definitely work together towards the overall comical effect.

Baker's work from the late '90s on tends to (over)use digital backgrounds, and in this book the Photoshop paste-ups, computerized blurring of figures to connote depth, and sporadic use of digitally constructed objects can be distracting, even if the style is arguably appropriate when Baker uses it for gaudy Times Square backdrops. But the focus, as always in his work, is on his figure drawings, and in that respect he's as great as ever, using exaggerated body language and malleable, mugging facial expressions to give his characters a rubbery energy and sense of motion on the page, a further connection to animation. Baker's humor and energy are more than enough to overshadow the occasional rough digital eyesore, and I Die At Midnight is another fine farce from a master of the form.

The Geek (Rachel Pollack & Mike Allred) - Part of the weird Vertigo Visions series that included Vertigo-ized modern interpretations of obscure old DC characters. This one updates Brother Power the Geek, an ill-fated attempt by Joe Simon to tap into hippie subculture in the '60s, and whose original series lasted just two issues. Brother Power was a living mannequin who, in Pollack's update, is enslaved by a constantly shifting evil being who embodies a carnival barker, a businessman involved in corporate takeovers, a neo-Nazi leader, and other icons of greed and violence. Pollack is presumably staying true to Simon's conception of the character as a wandering signifier for hippie ideals, fighting yuppies and racists and corporate flunkies, but it's all so bluntly polemical and at the same time incoherent in its narrative. Pollack intermingles Brother Power's journey with scenes involving the hero's friend Cindy, who is fleeing a life of prostitution to join a feminist goddess-worship protest group called PMS. Mike Allred would seem to be the perfect artist for this material, with its naive hero and the sweet relationship between Brother Power and Cindy, and his art is the main appeal here, though it's hardly his most compelling work, either. This is a forgettable look at a forgotten character; the early Vertigo era produced so many memorable new slants on older ideas that it's easy to overlook the many failed attempts to revitalize old DC properties.

Prez: Smells Like Teen President (Ed Brubaker & Eric Shanower) - This is another of the Vertigo Visions one-shots, this time focusing on an even odder Joe Simon concoction who was also part of DC's transparent attempts to appeal to teenagers in the late '60s and '70s. Brubaker's update concerns a Cobain-like Generation X-er who believes he may be Prez's son, and seeks out the retired teen president across an America that's gone way downhill in the wake of Prez's idyllic fantasy presidency. This was pretty early in Brubaker's career, and the result feels very rough and amateurish, a collection of simple political ideas expressed in very blunt fashion. It's an obvious attempt to tap into Generation X skepticism by depicting a society in which '60s-style idealism really did remake the country for a brief period, before the end of Prez's terms in office signalled a return to business as usual. Some nice sentiments, and Eric Shanower's wispy, delicately inked art is quite nice, but the wordy political conversations and complete lack of subtlety make it a slog to read.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Egypt, Girl, Mercy

Egypt (Peter Milligan, Glyn Dillon & Roberto Corona) - A seven-issue miniseries from the height of Peter Milligan's fertile Vertigo period in the '90s. It's a weird trip through time with Vincent Me, a self-loathing and self-absorbed loser who finds himself thrown into ancient Egypt, albeit an ancient Egypt that seems off in some pretty major ways. It's mind-bending stuff, and Milligan has a lot of fun pushing Vin through some pretty outrageous happenings, slowly transforming him into a better person by forcing him to wallow, quite literally at times, in shit, and to inhabit other roles and other identities, to see, again quite literally, through someone else's eyes.

The tone of the book is irreverent and often humorous, thanks to Vin's sarcastic running commentary, but there are also moments (and images) of startling violence or spiritual power. It's Milligan's look at the power and meaning of religion, about its capacity for misuse and manipulation by those who seek only a way to yoke the faithful, the gullible believers eager to subjugate themselves to a system where only the rich and powerful few have real rights, and everyone else is left to be trampled beneath the feet of gods. In the end, it's not religion or faith or spirituality that redeems Vin, but his own experiences and what he learns from them, his own willingness to change and to confront what's made him such a weak and flawed man.

Glyn Dillon drew the first two issues of the miniseries, and then was replaced by Roberto Corona. The artists have a similar enough style that the transition isn't jarring, but Corona's art is simpler, less detailed, tending to mute the outrageous ideas and intense emotions that Milligan is stirring up here, while Dillon's slightly heavier artwork isn't as prone to blank-faced characters and flat scenery. It's a shame that Dillon didn't draw the whole series, but the slight step down in art once Corona took over doesn't detract too much from the series' energetic oddness and compelling ideas.

Girl (Peter Milligan & Duncan Fegredo) - This three-issue miniseries was published as part of Vertigo's "Vérité" line, a brief experiment dedicated to more "realistic" titles without the supernatural or horror elements of a lot of other Vertigo offerings of the mid-'90s. It feels like a sister title to Grant Morrison's Kill Your Boyfriend, from a year earlier, another book about a lower-middle-class British girl whose boredom and disconnection drive her to let her violent fantasy life burst out into reality. As good as the Morrison book is, Milligan actually delivers an even more bracing, angrier, punkier variation on the theme, as well as a far more grounded examination of the everyday reality of the British working class. Milligan's dialogue perfectly captures a certain brand of slurred, insolent British slum dialect, and his portrait of the dysfunctional home life surrounding fifteen-year-old Simone is as unflinching and utterly realistic as a Mike Leigh film. It's a devastating depiction of a crumbling working class neighborhood where nobody has any hope or prospects, where bored teens ride filthy elevators up and down all day, puncturing condoms with syringes in a sick facsimile of a game, where everyone pours their only money into hopeless lotto tickets, where brutality and rape and ugliness are just part of the scenery.

It's no wonder, in this milieu, that Simone starts to crack, spurred on by her happier, healthier blonde doppelganger Polly. Milligan builds upon the grimy realism of the first issue by gradually letting slip more and more just how much of Simone's reality is a put-on or a fantasy or a skewed vision of what's really going on. It's interesting to compare Girl to Kill Your Boyfriend, because while Morrison, ever enamored of chaos and rebellion, makes his book's anti-heroine consistently charming and fun even as she descends into violence and anarchy, Milligan's vision is far darker and less open to the appeal of this empty rebellion.

The first issue opens with Simone preparing to burn down a warehouse where lottery tickets are stored, before jumping back in time to trace her path to this point. But when the story finally circles around to this point again, Milligan quickly and casually deflates Simone's fiery plans in a darkly humorous splash page, then has her retreat into a different kind of fantasy altogether. The point is that Simone is trapped: damned if she rebels, damned if she becomes just another Bollockstown burnout loser, damned if she just opts out and exists in a series of nested fantasies. The bleak poetry of Milligan's language and the dark beauty of Duncan Fegredo's art combine to make this an unforgettable portrait of working-class despair. The Milligan/Fegredo collaboration resulted in a remarkable body of work at Vertigo, a vital partnership on books like this one, the one-shot Face, Enigma, and assorted short stories.

Mercy (J.M. DeMatteis & Paul Johnson) - An obscure early Vertigo one-shot that probably deserves its obscurity. This is J.M. DeMatteis expressing his New Age spiritual beliefs in a particularly direct way, and unlike his similarly spiritual and really great Dr. Fate run, this comic comes off as vague, insubstantial, and devoid of real characters or plot. It's a study of a man on life support, his spirit floating outside his body and wandering around the world, watching as a beautiful woman who he calls Mercy intervenes in the lives of some unhappy, suffering people. The characters and situations are utterly generic, a fact that isn't helped by DeMatteis' avoidance of dialogue: the entire book is narrated in caption boxes by the free-floating spirit as he wonders why Mercy is helping these people.

Paul Johnson's painted art, similar in style to Dave McKean but somewhat less abstract at times, is absolutely gorgeous, and there are moments when he captures a smiling face bathed in light or a similar image of joy with such conviction that the book's hopeful spiritual theme is communicated in spite of the banality of DeMatteis' writing. These moments are rare, though, and for the most part, no matter how good this comic looks, it can't overcome the trite scenarios (a bitter married couple and an isolated, mourning old woman) that DeMatteis is dealing with. There's no specificity here, no real depth of character. Dr. Fate dealt with similar themes of spirituality, human change, and faith, but it did so (in a superhero context, no less) with real, substantial characters whose stories allowed DeMatteis' messages to arise organically. That's not the case here, as the narration simply hammers home these banal ideas about mercy and the spirit and a general message to be good and do good and be happy and so on.

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Atom

Sword of the Atom (Gil Kane & Jan Strnad) - This miniseries represented a radical reinvention of Ray Palmer, the Atom, a decisive break and a fresh new status quo for the character. This kind of story, taking a character out of his familiar surroundings, has often been used to provide a new perspective on a character — it seems to be popular at Marvel over the past few years with books like "Planet Hulk" or Rick Remender's Captain America — and it's rarely been as effective as it is here. Writer Jan Strnad completely destabilizes Palmer's life in the first issue's opening pages, as Palmer discovers his wife Jean cheating on him with a partner in her law firm. Enraged and depressed, instead of trying to reconcile, Palmer decides to flee to the Amazon jungle on a scientific research mission, but his plane crashes and his shrinking equipment malfunctions, leaving him permanently shrunken to six inches tall. This turns out to be the perfect size to get picked up by a tribe of tiny yellow-skinned aliens living in a miniscule city in the midst of the jungle, and the Atom becomes a warrior in an alien rebellion, assisting a group of rebels in fighting against a king whose rule has been compromised by a scheming, evil advisor. In the process, the Atom falls in love with the princess who is aiding the rebellion against her own father, and once her current lover is conveniently killed off, she immediately falls in love with the Atom too, seemingly before her previous suitor's body has even been fully devoured by the ants that kill him.

It's all somewhat silly pulp, but that's kind of the point: the series transforms the Atom into a barbarian hero, riding into battle on a frog and attacking lizards or rats or alien soldiers with a sword held aloft. It's very fun, though it wouldn't be nearly as compelling if it wasn't drawn by Gil Kane, whose sharp, realistic renderings give weight and intensity to the pulpy action. It's very dynamic work, quickly making this tiny world feel real, its over-sized animals menacing and frightening, the alien supporting cast quickly delineated into a handful of strong personalities who form the political backdrop for the Atom's adventures here. Strnad checks in every so often with Jean, who believes Ray to be dead and tries to move on with her new lover before abruptly (and inexplicably) deciding that Ray must be alive after all. The emphasis is always on the Atom's adventures in the jungle, though, and the few brief detours to the normal-sized world don't distract from the series' focus. It's not the most sophisticated series, and there seems to be an unfortunate editorial mandate to summarize the whole plot every issue despite it being just a four-issue miniseries, but for its inventive concept and Kane's elegant realization of it, it is well worth seeking out.

The original miniseries was followed over the next few years by three one-off specials that continued the story, and despite repeated editorial pleas for readers to demand an ongoing series, one never took off. The first special is an extended recounting of the miniseries with narration taken from a book written about the Atom's adventures, and climaxing with Ray and Jean calling it quits for good so Ray can go back to the Amazon to find his yellow-skinned princess again. The second special is more substantial, dealing with a war between the Atom's tribe and a rival group of aliens — though the rather contrived plotting necessary to bring Jean down to the Amazon again suggests some reluctance to truly make a clean break with the past and run with this new direction for the characters. The third special, with Pat Broderick doing a fine job of replacing Kane on art, is a bit sluggish to start and has some odd narrative inconsistencies with the rest of this material, but it climaxes with a chilling, gory second half packed with zombie horror, suggesting a desire to turn the Atom into a real pulp/genre hero, comfortable in Conan-esque warrior action, sci-fi adventures, and EC-style horror alike. It was not to be, though, and Sword never transitioned into the ongoing series that might have pursued this genre-hopping direction further.

Power of the Atom (Roger Stern, William Messner-Loebs, Tom Peyer & various artists) - Instead of embracing Sword's direction, the Atom returned in a new series that brought him traumatically back to normal-sized civilization, his lover and her alien society destroyed in a fire, leaving the grief-stricken Atom to pick up the pieces of his old life again. Written by Roger Stern and drawn at first by Dwayne Turner, the series got off to a very slow start by rehashing the Sword material and throwing the Atom against a number of generic threats while various suplots slowly percolated. Also, Turner's art over the first 5 issues is really rough and boring — once he's replaced by John Byrne (for a one-issue fill-in on #6) and Graham Nolan, the more dynamic art makes the series much more palatable. Still, despite some interesting character beats for Ray in these early issues, things don't fully take off until Stern introduced the creepy, very odd new villain Humbug in #10, and then developed the character of Jean's new husband Paul into an actual compelling, if unlikeable, character.

William Messner-Loebs then guested as writer for issues #12-13, and immediately elevated the series to a new level. His two issues explore some of the obvious ramifications of dealing with a size-changing hero, ideas that, strangely enough, had been ignored in the Stern-written issues. In #12, Ray and Paul shrink down, first so that they're surrounding by an enormous carpet jungle, then shrink even further until they pass into a strange alien universe of electrons and microscopic particles, with Nolan rendering this miniature world as outer space, with atoms as planets floating in the void. It's potent stuff, and Messner-Loebs makes this journey into the microscopic as metaphysical and emotional as it is physical. In #13, Ray enters a woman's body to stitch together some hemorrhaging blood vessels, and again it provides an opportunity for Nolan's visual imagination to cut loose, as well as really confronting what it means for a man to be able to shrink like this and enter spaces usually reserved for remote scientific study. Messner-Loebs brings to this series an emotional and thematic depth missing from the uneven Stern issues that preceded this point, as well as a strong sense of humor and attention to character, as seen especially in the comically staged riot, juxtaposed against a warm, funny Jean/Ray scene, that closes this two-issue run.

It's a shame that Messner-Loebs didn't stay with the Atom for longer, but by this point the title's impending cancellation must have been obvious. Stern brought in Tom Peyer, then a new name in comics, to write the series' final storyline. Peyer did a good job of wrapping up this 18-issue run, pushing Atom to the breaking point, bringing out darker aspects of the character not seen since the Sword days. In Peyer's first issue, he juxtaposes some dark comedy with a pair of inept kidnappers against the Atom's gradual realization that the CIA has betrayed him, and this issue climaxes when he learns the full extent of that betrayal. Issue #17, with a ferocious Atom launching himself on a mad revenge quest, is a real scorched-earth blast of a comic, doing a great job of channelling everything that was so fun about the barbarian warrior Atom from Sword. It's a strong ending to a series that took way too long to find its footing, but the second half of its run has lots of good stuff, mostly from Messner-Loebs and Peyer, though even the Stern issues in the second half are stronger than they had been at first.

The Atom Special #1-2 (Tom Peyer & Steve Dillon/Luke McDonnell) - A pair of one-shots from 1993 and 1995, during a stretch when Ray Palmer once again had no ongoing series of his own. The first of these specials is a fun, free-wheeling bit of weirdness that draws on the character's complicated recent history and approaches him with equal doses of humor and seriousness. Steve Dillon's deadpan art is equally well-suited to the wry humor and the sudden bursts of darkness or violence that dot this very odd comic. Palmer is depicted as an immature jerk, with a supporting cast — his ex-wife, the man she cheated on him with, and the friend who exposed his secret identity to the world — who are just as unlikeable. Palmer is confronted with visions of his past (drawn from both preceding series and his appearances in Suicide Squad), believing he's going crazy as he's haunted by the various deaths and betrayals that have troubled him over the years.

Peyer packs the book with wacky images: a tiny time portal with a periscope poking out of it, a man with a clock embedded in his face, the Atom judo-flipping a cat, the Atom building a microscopic house made of actual atoms in a sad attempt to escape humanity. It all climaxes with a deliciously gory end for the story's villain, and Palmer being reunited with his nasty supporting cast so they can all trade cruel barbs again. Ha ha, good times. Unfortunately, when Peyer returned with a second special two years later (this one drawn by Suicide Squad veteran Luke McDonnell), Palmer had inexplicably been de-aged to 17 years old by Zero Hour, one of DC's periodic obsessive continuity reshufflings. It's an odd choice, and it takes a lot of the air out of this issue, since much of it concerns tired fish-out-of-water jokes with Palmer not understanding the ways in which society or technology had changed since he was 17 — if DC for some reason thought this change was necessary to reinvigorate the character, it obviously did not work.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Green Arrow

Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters (Mike Grell) - This was the start of what turned out to be an epic run by Mike Grell on this character, a three-issue miniseries that revitalized Green Arrow and attempted to introduce him into the new "grim and gritty" era of superheroes the same way Frank Miller had for Batman. It's an interesting, lovingly made work with some contradictions and problems that prevent it from being a total classic, even if it is still one of the essential GA tales. Grell wrote and drew the series, and his art is gorgeous, alternating between multiple styles: some panels pop out in hyper-realistic detail, others are sketchy and minimalistic, and others have more of an in-between, conventional superhero style. The contrasting styles work really well together, and it's all held together by Julia Lacquement's sumptuous colors, which look like they're done with a mix of paints and colored pencils. The book simply looks AMAZING, even if Grell is a better draftsman than he is a designer, and some of his page layouts are somewhat cluttered and confusing.

The story is interesting, too, and Grell gets a lot right. He establishes Oliver Queen (he's never really called Green Arrow in Grell's comics except on the covers) as a character outside of his superhero identity, an aging radical who still holds on to some of his idealism, as he wonders what he should be doing as he gets older. Grell also does a great job of setting up the romance between Ollie and his longtime girlfriend Dinah Lance, AKA Black Canary. The love and tenderness and emotional connection between this pair are richly developed in their scenes together. Probably the high point of the series is the moment when Ollie, feeling old and wanting to start a family, asks Dinah to have a child with him — her devastating response is framed by Grell in one of his hyper-realistic panels, her sad face highlighted by the bold, photo-like styling of this panel.

That emotional richness is one reason why it's such a shame that Grell ultimately can't think of anything better to do besides falling back on the clichéd old trope of having the hero's girlfriend kidnapped, tortured and sexually assaulted, causing him to go on a revenge quest. The fact that the damsel-in-distress here is herself a hero with a long history in the DC universe only makes it worse; Dinah, of all people, shouldn't be relegated to woman-in-refrigerator status, a mere victim to spur on her man's violence, especially since elsewhere Grell does so much more with these characters and their relationship. There's something shallowly "dark" about all this implied rape and sexualized violence, a sense that the series is just trying to respond to the era's imperative to make every hero grittier and more violent. Moreover, such excess isn't necessary: the series is most "mature" when it candidly deals with the main characters' feelings for one another and their conflict over starting a family, not when it resorts to shock-value violence and sexual torture. There's a lot to like here, in the gorgeous art and the compelling characterization — of Ollie, Dinah and also the new character Shado, who would become very important to Grell's GA — but the more violent and sexualized moments too often feel forced and unnecessary.

Green Arrow #1-80 (Mike Grell & various artists) - Following the success of Longbow Hunters, Grell moved on to write (but mostly not draw) an ongoing GA series for 80 issues. I read it in a condensed period of time, but still, by the end, it was all but impossible to remember why I had enjoyed it at the beginning of the run. There's no getting around it: this goes way downhill after a while. At first, though, it's pretty good, not without some of the same problems that marred Longbow Hunters, but still solid enough. Nice interactions between Ollie, Dinah and, at times, Shado, who pops up for arcs at predictable intervals. Some decent issue-oriented action with Ollie taking on street crime, prostitution, drugs, the environment, and all the kinds of often-hamfisted social issue stories you'd expect from a Green Arrow series.

Moreover, the first 34 issues or so provide a nice arc and a nice resolution to some of the issues raised by Longbow Hunters — notably, a sequence that mirrors the one where Ollie rescues Dinah, except with her taking the active role this time, thereby neatly calling back to the earlier scene and this time letting Ollie know how it might have felt for Dinah to be the helpless victim being rescued by him. There's also the heartbreaking scenes that follow this rescue, when Ollie and Dinah decide they might want to start a family after all. And then, well, it all goes off-track.

The subsequent "Black Arrow Saga" is promising but doesn't live up to its potential, sacrificing drama and action to introduce the annoying new character of Marianne and her especially annoying accompanying narrative boxes. Then Ollie goes off on his own for a year, wandering the world through a series of dismally boring and predictable adventures. When he gets back, it's not much better, and except for the inevitable appearances by Shado, who shows up about once a year for a four-part arc, the series trods through one forgettable two-parter after another. There are especially abysmal stories that riff on various pop culture touchstones, like clumsy takes on Shane and Cat People. There's a very odd story about the death penalty that ties itself into moral knots trying to deal with this issue in the context of a vigilante hero who has at times killed those he felt deserved it.

The series reaches its nadir in issue #75, which throws in a ton of guest spots and tries to stir up some cringeworthy drama out of nothing. It's all over not long after that. The run has its moments, mostly early on, but it never really rises to the level of greatness, and Grell keeps sabotaging the best attributes of the series, neglecting the great Ollie/Dinah romance in favor of disposable and rushed "issue" stories, while Dinah too often disappears into the background for long stretches. The big action arcs, often focusing on Shado or the morally ambiguous assassin Eddie Fyres, are better, with Grell spacing out just enough emotional beats to keep the series from ever becoming completely brainless. It's an important and often interesting run, and it contains the seeds of a truly great and revolutionary take on these characters, but Grell is never able to bring it all together into a satisfying whole for any sustained period.

Brave and the Bold: Green Arrow/The Butcher/The Question (Mike Grell, Mike Baron & Shea Anton Pensa) - A lousy six-issue spin-off miniseries that teams up these three fringe characters. The story is a mess, involving a conspiracy between the IRA and various Native American tribes, with weapons deals and rebellions and terrorist attacks, but rather than seeming like a twisty action plot, it's just a confusing jumble that never makes much sense or really deals with its underlying issues in an interesting way. It winds up just being an excuse for some lame action. But the worst aspect of the series is definitely Pensa's art, which just doesn't work at all on any level. It's sketchy and cartoony and stylized, which is fine, and there are panels here and there where I can sort of see what he's going for — a garish, cartoonish style reminiscent of Moebius' more humorous moments. For the most part, though, it's just hideous and unclear. Pensa's terrible at character definition, so the large cast is impossible to keep track of, the Question just looks like Green Arrow without a beard, and at one point there's a villain who looks exactly like Ollie. Dinah, meanwhile, looks like Mick Jagger. This isn't a good story to begin with but the ugly art just makes it intolerable, easily the worst thing to come out of Grell's entire Green Arrow run.

Shado: Song of the Dragon (Mike Grell, Michael Davis Lawrence & Gray Morrow) - In contrast, this is a really great spin-off, featuring Shado finally on her own, without Ollie around (he appears only in a brief flashback/memory). The story is somewhat formulaic, and indeed it drives home that Shado is a great character about whom there are a limited number of stories that can be told, and most of them just involve her fighting the yakuza. But this series finally allows her a moment to shine on her own, without being a player in a Green Arrow plot, and she definitely carries the miniseries, with some help from a small cast that's assembled around her. The story touches on the usual Shado themes — particularly the driving forces of honor and destiny — and surrounds her with other characters who have their own conceptions of honor, their own ideas of the things they must do. But the art is the real star: Lawrence inked by Morrow, for a style that's thoroughly realistic in its figures and faces, but stylized in the loose, free-associative page layouts. Lawrence also provides rich color washes that give the book a very sensual and almost abstract feel. There are some occasional data dumps about Japanese history or the characters' histories, so the writing isn't always that graceful, but for the art and the overall feel of this mini, it's well worth reading.

Green Arrow: The Wonder Year (Mike Grell & Gray Morrow) - Late in Grell's run on Green Arrow, he offered up this miniseries detailing Ollie's origin. It's his attempt to do a Year One-style take on the character, but like a lot of Grell's work on this character, it falls short of its aspirations and its promise. On the plus side, it's a great-looking comic, a worthy successor to Longbow Hunters in that respect at least. Morrow is mostly inking and finishing over Grell's layouts and pencils, and the art is sumptuous and richly varied. The regular Green Arrow series often looked very good, but Grell really trotted out the big guns, artistically, for these Prestige miniseries, and the amount of work that went into making this look so good is very apparent. It's a shame the story isn't worthy of such effort. Grell, during his run, disposed of all of Ollie's trick arrows and gimmicks and attempted to make him a realistic, street-level hero. This origin story fits awkwardly with that approach, constantly calling attention to how ridiculous it is to run around with a bow-and-arrow and a Robin Hood costume fighting crime. There's a level of suspension of disbelief that Grell has to overcome here, to sell the idea that this idle rich guy, changed by his experience of being stranded on an island, dresses up as Robin Hood and runs around fighting bad guys, and he can never quite get this across. The story is nothing much, either, riffing on the 60s and 70s radical student groups as a figure from Ollie's past gets tangled up in a conspiracy stretching back to a decades-old terrorist attack by one of those groups.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Three by Frank Miller

Ronin (Frank Miller) - This was a massive early breakthrough for Miller, a Prestige-format miniseries in which the writer/artist broke lose, experimented wildly, and pointed the way forward to the industry-changing work he'd do later in the 80s. Ronin boldly combines a number of disparate influences, taking bits and pieces from Moebius' sci-fi comics, manga (especially Lone Wolf and Cub), 2001: A Space Odyssey, samurai films, and horror. But it's more than just a sum of its influences; it's the raw work of a young artist, but an artist already starting to develop his own brash, unique voice.

There's so much raw energy here, with Miller developing a style that's at once iconic and lushly detailed; there are hints of the stark minimalism he'd eventually hone in Sin City, but here the edges are scratchier, and there's a great deal of variety in terms of artistic approaches, from the dark silhouettes of the horrific underground sequences to the Moebius-inspired fine detailing of the sequences set in a futuristic living city to the explosive staging of the many action scenes.

The story is pure pulp insanity, starting from a tale of samurais and demons and then leaping forward into a near-apocalyptic future in which high-tech inventions seem poised to either save the world or finally push it off the precipice into oblivion. The storytelling is elliptical and somewhat uneven, alternating between long, nearly silent sequences in which the mood set by Miller's art dominates and bursts of wordy exposition and explanation. The writing isn't always as precise as it might be, so it's left to the art to carry the story, a task it's more than capable of fulfilling — this is visually stunning work, and Miller's experiments with layout and panels completely dictate the flow of the story.

Hard Boiled (Frank Miller & Geof Darrow) - Ridiculous, over-the-top, ultraviolent, and simultaneously a send-up and satire of a mass culture dominated by violence. Three issues of nearly context-free extreme gore, as the protagonist (who can't quite remember which name is his real one) hurtles into one excessive rampage of violence after another. He's an insurance adjuster or a tax collector, some kind of mundane paper-pushing occupation that's totally at odds with the bizarre violence that seems to result from every one of his routine assignments, and that's because actually he's a cyborg, created for murder and mayhem but programmed to think he's an ordinary man.

Miller and Darrow revel in the details of the mayhem. Darrow's hyper-detailed art allows the reader to pore over these massive double-page spreads of inventive violence: impalings, beheadings, bullet-riddled corpses, multi-car pileups complete with bodies flying through windshields, broken bones, gaping wounds, fingers bent back, and at one point the protagonist himself, stretched across two pages in gruesome closeup, his flesh mangled, his hands deformed, barbed wire wrapped around him and digging into his skin. The total lack of meaning is the point: it's a vicious satire of the kinds of thoughtless action movies and dumb violent spectacles proliferating on screens big and small, a critique of the desensitization that results from such gory sensory gratification.

Miller and Darrow also mash up violence with its partner, sex. In one key scene, the protagonist is deluged with memories of murder while his sexy pinup wife undresses to seduce him, trying to distract him but actually just thrusting her body into the fantasies, conflating violence and release. Later, once the protagonist accepts his cyborg state, he's seduced by a female robot counterpart across multiple pages where she contorts her body into pinup postures that had obviously been programmed into her right out of centerfold spreads. It's a crazy book, oddly fun and yet with an undercurrent of critique aimed at making the reader feel guilty for enjoying this so much.

The Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot (Frank Miller & Geof Darrow) - Miller's second collaboration with Darrow is an odd one indeed. It's a tribute to Japanese monster movies like Godzilla, as well as the famed manga Astro Boy, with Rusty the Boy Robot being an obvious doppelganger for Astro. In the first issue, scientists unwittingly unleash a monstrous lizard who starts stomping the city with flame breath and turning ordinary people into similar, smaller monsters by spitting digestive juices at them. Nothing can stop the monster, even when the Japanese send their new prototype robot, Rusty, at the creature.

In the next issue, Big Guy arrives: unlike Rusty, he's not a robot but a man (never seen) in a mechanical suit, an American military man piloting American military hardware. As he faces off against the monster, Miller details his wholesome, all-American line of thought, a constant stream of patriotic, God-loving decency as a contrast against the monster's nihilist destructiveness and hatred of human beings. Big Guy even goes out of his way to ensure that there are no civilian casualties, taking care to subdue and pacify the transformed humans so they can be cured, rather than taking the much easier route of simply killing them. When Big Guy inevitably wins at the end of the issue, the Japanese government officials comment on his greatness by pointing out how surprisingly mild were the casualties from such a massive battle.

It's hard not to see some kind of political commentary here, though it's honestly hard to tell if Miller is celebrating or satirizing America's status as an international power that fights other countries' battles for them. In a way, it almost seems like a fantasy of how Miller thinks the USA should be viewed around the world, as an almost superhuman but benign power that helps out everyone else in the international community. At the end of the issue, Rusty — who had been totally ineffective despite his own supposed great power — is tagging along after Big Guy promising to be his "kid sidekick." An interesting, very weird comic, though regardless of what Miller is up to, Darrow's art is as exceptionally crisp and detailed as ever.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Bandette, Reporter, Totems

Bandette (Paul Tobin & Colleen Coover) - Like a lot of people I'm sure, I checked this out since it was the only one of this year's Eisner-nominated ongoing series that I wasn't already reading. Obviously Eisner knew what they were doing with this one, because it's a total delight, a really fun and beautiful comic that's bursting with humor, energy, and sweetness. The concept and the overall attitude owe a lot to the Fantomas serials, focusing as it does on the titular robber girl, an outlaw who steals from other criminals and also helps out the police on occasion, doing it all with a wink and a cheery grin and a hearty, optimistic attitude. Tobin's writing is breezy and witty, making Bandette and her colorful enemies and rivals instantly likeable — the fourth issue's duel between Bandette and the villainous Matadori is sprinkled with so much witty, almost friendly repartee that it begins to seem less like bitter enemies battling than a couple of friends lightly sparring.

As fun as this spirited attitude is, it would be nothing without Coover's bright, cartoony art, which renders a larger-than-life fantasy Paris in which Bandette (who looks much like Coover when she's out of costume) can have her carefree adventures and innocent flirtations. It's all styled almost like a kids' book, though it's not without a few elements that suggest more adult themes. Mostly, though, it's just so much fun, a perfect mesh between Tobin's brisk writing and Coover's luscious, lively art — this is a husband-and-wife collaboration and it feels like their love and admiration for each other is encoded in these pages, perhaps in the gentle affection Bandette feels for her friend Daniel, or the more dangerous feelings that seem to exist between Bandette and her rival thief Monsieur. It's a great series, and I hope it's collected soon since it definitely deserves to be seen beyond its current digital-only format.

Reporter (Dylan Williams) - Dylan Williams was best known, before his passing a couple years ago, as the man behind Sparkplug Books, a small-press comics imprint that put out lots of fine, under-the-radar books over its years of operation. Williams was also a cartoonist and writer, and the Reporter series (started in the late 90s) was his most sustained work. It's a series of loosely connected tales centered around the town of Willoughby, set in 1956. Williams' influences are obvious, as he blends film noir and 60s European art films alongside a clear appreciation for old-school cartooning in the vein of Ditko or the EC stable. Much of the art is rough and shaky, though he gets better with each issue. His line is fairly thick and he favors lots of dense shadow, giving his pages a dense, raw, intense look. At times I'm reminded of British cartoonist Chris Reynolds, not a bad comparison point in general.

Coupled with Williams' bluntly philosophical dialogue and tendency towards pointed commentary in caption boxes, this aesthetic lends itself well to these tales of people trying to figure out their place in life, grappling with career and love and ambition and the workings of one's own mind. It's pretty good stuff. Issues 3-5 are interconnected in interesting ways: #3 shows the aftermath of a bloody robbery (very reminiscent of Reservoir Dogs); #4 shows the robbery itself, first in reverse and then again chronologically, all without words; and #5 is a flashback to the Korean War experiences of the robbers. The silent issue, #4, is a great concept that's executed a bit clumsily, but the rest of this interwoven tale is quite well done.

The highlight of the whole series is #6, the final issue, a standalone story based on Antonioni's La Notte, in which a couple — one half of which is Adam, a newspaper reporter and the closest thing the series had to a main character — go to a party and have some wordy but ultimately inconclusive conversations with the guests. It's fascinating because Williams is really risking alienation here, delivering all these lengthy dialogues about philosophy and choice and politics and religion, but instead of seeming pretentious he gets across how desperate these people are to understand themselves, how behind their grandiose words is a real desire to find meaning or a common ground with other people. No matter how much they talk, the other person in the conversation never understands, never agrees, because he or she is coming from an entirely different perspective. It's a great portrait of the ways in which we're all united in a quest to understand things, and yet separated by that gulf between our individual outlooks.

Reporter was a fine series, the work of an artist loaded with raw ambition and talent. It will now forever be unfinished, though its anecdotal structure never really seemed to be leading towards a concrete ending of any kind — what's more important, and sadder, is that the promise revealed in these pages will now never be realized, never be developed further.

Totems (Tom Peyer & various artists) - A one-shot released as part of Vertigo's pre-millennium V2K series. On one level it's basically Peyer's celebration of the Vertigo aesthetic and the characters associated with it, a massive party with Swamp Thing, Animal Man, Constantine, Robotman, Shade, and Black Orchid attending. Peyer was mostly associated with DC's mainstream universe, particularly with more lighthearted characters and series, so this was his opportunity to cut loose with something totally different. It's also a surprisingly poignant tale about how desperate some people are for meaning, excitement, something of substance in life — Peyer ties that desire to all the conspiracy theories and paranoid end-of-the-world hysteria that was in the air around the turn of the millennium.

His main character is an ordinary guy who grows obsessed with aliens and government coverups and all the other weirdness that some people want to believe is hidden beneath drab ordinary reality. In desperately pursuing these secrets and mysteries, he foresakes his own ordinary life, his family, the happiness he might have had from simply enjoying what was already in front of him instead of searching fruitlessly for something more. Apparently this was widely panned when it came out, but it's pretty fun, a slightly skewed, off-kilter look at all the Vertigo mainstays and the dark world they inhabit.

Monday, July 15, 2013

American Captain, Legends of the DC Universe, Dr. Strange: The Oath

American Captain (Robyn Kenealy) - A really charming webcomic that claims to be the diary of a certain frustrated artist and man-out-of-time named Steve Rogers. Like a more emo, light version of Millar's Ultimate Captain America, this Cap is haunted by his time displacement, baffled by the modern era and grappling with the insecurity he feels when confronted with this alien modernity. Often very funny or quietly witty, the strip also takes its premise very seriously, never resorting to a cheap punchline. Steve earnestly discourses on religion, art, gender, technology, and politics, all of which have changed tremendously in his time away. And the humor is balanced by real, sometimes startling, pathos and emotion. The simple, economical drawings, with the figures and their musings positioned in white space, both fits the faux-sketchbook format and places the emphasis on the cartoony expressiveness of these characters. A quick must-read for any fans of superhero psychology.

Legends of the DC Universe #24-25 (Jamie Delano & Steve Pugh) - As recommended by Sven. Really excellent. A punk kid on Apokolips reawakens the spirit of resistance and free will through graffiti and an unwillingness to follow orders. Really moving and poetic, especially since Delano traces much of the story through the transformation of one of Darkseid's Hunger Dogs, who is so shaken by the kid's disobedience that it totally undoes a lifetime of subjugation, of cruel deeds perpetrated both on and by him. It's hard to imagine a better ode to the persistence of the human spirit, with Pugh channeling Kirby's grandeur and bombast in the art to further convey this optimistic, heartfelt message. It's a great fusion of punk ethos with the Fourth World saga's potent morality.

Dr. Strange: The Oath (Brian K. Vaughan & Marcos Martin) - A really fun and smart miniseries that explores the Sorcerer Supreme through the lens of not only magic but science and medicine, the earthly as well as the mystical. Vaughan imparts thematic richness to the story through flashbacks to Strange's youth as an arrogant surgeon, and a plot in which the medical and the magical cross over and intermingle. Magic "has no rules," someone complains early on, so Vaughan confronts Strange's magic with the laws of nature, the laws of man, and science's constant quest to test the boundaries of those laws, and to expand those boundaries. Martin's art is dazzling, with a charming cartooniness and bold, thick lines - it's Martin, as much as Vaughan, who makes this book essential. Martin also gives the book much of its charm and energy, in the rakish wit of Strange (very like William Powell here), the simmering romantic chemistry between Strange and Martin's effortlessly sexy, sophisticated Night Nurse, and the eye-popping imagination of the book's mystical realms and magic battles.

Monday, July 8, 2013


This series spun off from John Ostrander and Kim Yale's work on Suicide Squad, where they first brought in the character of Mark Shaw. Both Shaw and various incarnations of the Manhunters had been around for years, in Shaw's case in a succession of costumes and identities, both as a hero and a villain. Shaw was created by Jack Kirby (who had also co-created the Golden Age Manhunter) for 1st Issue Special #5, part of a series of single-issue tales that could have been expanded to full series, though in practice most of them, including Manhunter, were not. He appeared sporadically after this, as the Star-Tsar and the Privateer, with the latter identity being brought back by Ostrander and Yale in Suicide Squad before Shaw again resumed the Manhunter name and costume. It is that sense of a man searching for his own identity that seems to have attracted Ostrander and Yale to the character, and it's that germ around which they build their take on him.

This idea is most pronounced in the opening four issues of Shaw's ongoing series. Ostrander and Yale originally conceived of these issues as a standalone miniseries, and indeed there is a feeling of completeness and concision in this arc, which is tightly plotted and self-contained, ending with a sense of finality. Though there are sporadic interesting moments in the ongoing series that continued until issue #24 after this opening arc, there's no question that these first four issues represent Yale and Ostrander's definitive take on the character, and nothing they do subsequently on this series comes close to matching that level. This first arc opposes Shaw, as Manhunter, against an assassin called Dumas, who similarly hides behind masks and is indeed obsessed with masks, because he has no face of his own. He is a malleable master of disguise who can look like anyone, but as a result his sense of self is shattered. He is a dark mirror to Shaw, who over time had assumed multiple masks and disguises, multiple identities, both heroic and villainous, casting around for a true form in which he could be comfortable.

These issues are all about identity, about defining one's self, and the opposition between hero and villain in that respect is perfect — Shaw is a masked man who nevertheless makes no secret of his name and civilian identity, while Dumas seems to exist wholly behind masks, with no life beyond his missions. The dichotomy becomes especially potent with the introduction of Olivia Vancroft, a reclusive and beautiful woman also obsessed with masks — and who turns out herself to be living behind a mask in the most fascinating way. These issues are rich and dense with thematic and psychological material, the real conflict between Shaw and Dumas being ideological and mental rather than physical. It all stretches back to Kirby's origin story for Shaw, which opened with the unforgettable image of Shaw's unnamed predecessor as Manhunter attacking a villain who kept a collection of severed, mask-wearing heads as trophies, even speaking through them via intercom. Ostrander and Yale expand upon that image and the ideas it represents, creating a powerful study of identity, gender, and appearance.

After this remarkable opening story, issue #5 takes a break with a story written by Yale alone and drawn by Mary Mitchell, a distinctive penciller who seems to have gotten far too little work in comics. Yale and Mitchell approach this standalone issue as a romance comic, focusing on the perspective of a police sergeant, Sylvia Kandrey, who gets wrapped up in Manhunter's adventures after some flirting at the precinct. It's an interesting, feminist take on romance comics and the often secondary role of women in comics as girlfriends and love interests to the heroes. Sylvia is a typical dreamer, and when her flirtation with Shaw leads to a date, her head is almost immediately filled with thoughts of their romantic future. Instead, Shaw, though he does seem to be attracted to her, mainly wants a source of information in the police station so he can track down the child-molesting computer hacker Interface. Yale fumbles the actual crime plot a bit — the stuff with Interface is very jumbled and confusing — but that's beside the point of this issue, which concerns the shattering of Sylvia's unrealistic, romantic dreams, and her realization that she's unnecessarily making herself secondary to a man. The issue ends with her distancing herself from Shaw and committing herself to her career anew. Mitchell's lithe, lovely linework is perfectly suited to the issue's romance comic aesthetic, even if the issue's message serves to undercut those stereotypical depictions of male/female interactions and relationships.

The Yale/Mitchell team returned to Sylvia in a backup story that takes up half of issue #11, depicting the fallout of her involvement with Manhunter, and dealing with the implied patriarchal attitude the men in her profession feel towards her. Unfortunately, in subsequent appearances Sylvia would fall more and more into the role of the conventional love interest, and the feminist undercurrent of these two stories would largely get submerged. It's a shame, because one imagines a truly subversive comic that might focus equally on Manhunter's typical superhero adventures as well as Sylvia's assertion of her own life and her own professional pride independent of the man she's involved with. Obviously, that's too much to hope for from a DC superhero book that was probably fated to be pretty low-selling no matter what, and couldn't have been helped by the presence of Yale's feminist romance comics.

Indeed, after the opening five issues, Manhunter goes severely downhill. Starting with #13, the book essentially became Yale's alone; Ostrander usually continued to be credited with plotting or other writing assistance, but after this point the scripts were mostly written by Yale alone. She'd already proved herself a capable writer in her solo appearances on the title — including an interesting "fairy tale" story in #12, updating the Sleeping Beauty tale into an anti-drug parable about parents' fears for their children — but it's also obvious that she's not particularly interested in writing a typical superhero book, and that disinterest shows through in the second half of the run. Because there's no question that Manhunter is, disappointingly, mostly just a generic superhero book at this point. In issues #8-9, the title had crossed over with The Flash and the Invasion! event, with mostly lame results, and this was followed by an arc that started out promising the kind of everyone-converging espionage plot that Ostrander and Yale excelled at in Suicide Squad, but instead became merely a big brawl between robots and armored men.

Nothing much improved once Yale took over as sole writer, unfortunately. The problem was that, beyond the mask/identity theme that had been explored so potently in the opening arc, there's not much to Mark Shaw; he worked fine in the context of Suicide Squad or in a thematically focused story with a distinctive opposing villain, but on his own he has little personality, and attempts to develop his family here mostly fall flat. So Yale falls back on action, and it's a style she seems to have little affinity for, because when she's on her own, her action and fight scenes read like mere assemblies of clichés, without any trace of the intelligence and engagement she evinced when writing about Sylvia's workplace struggles. There are still a few interesting moments along the way. At one point, Yale brings back Interface and briefly hints that Shaw is going to make an Amanda Waller-style deal with the child molester, a moment calculated to shock, calling attention to the moral dividing lines that are expected to remain sacrosanct even in comics where every other question of morality is shaded in gray. In another scene in the book's final arc, Shaw, escaping from a new version of Dumas, crashes through a window into an office, the kind of scene that's virtually routine in action movies and comics — except that here, an innocent woman in the office is peppered with broken glass and badly injured, possibly dying as a result of the supposed hero's attempt to save his own life.

Such moments hint at the complexity and unpredictability that Yale and Ostrander always brought to Suicide Squad, but unfortunately here such scenes remain rare. The final arc in particular is just abysmal, climaxing with Shaw getting tutored by an alien yeti and then engaging in an issue-length fight scene with Dumas, without any of the delicate shading and thematic overlays that characterized their earlier conflict. Manhunter is ultimately memorable for its great first arc, with only sporadic issues and moments thereafter reaching that level again.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Suicide Squad

John Ostrander's creation of a new Suicide Squad (in the pages of the Legends crossover) resulted in one of the great series of the '80s. There had been an earlier Suicide Squad that appeared in a few installments of The Brave and the Bold in the late '50s and early '60s, but though Ostrander carried over some material and characters from that concept, his own Suicide Squad was a fresh idea. The premise — a government-sponsored team which recruits imprisoned criminals for dangerous missions — allowed for characters from all over the DC Universe to be mashed together and set against one another, and also allowed for a multitude of tones and types of stories. Suicide Squad was primarily an espionage/action book, but along the way there was also plenty of traditional capes-and-cowls superhero action, broad humor, dense political sagas, wild interdimensional sci-fi, and crossovers with everyone from Batman to the Doom Patrol. Its material was catholic, both in terms of the types of stories covered and the types of characters who might show up in its pages, but what was consistent was the sharpness of its storytelling and the depth of character that was explored in virtually every villain or anti-hero who joined the Squad, however briefly.

Ostrander was joined, starting with issue #23, by his wife and fellow comic writer Kim Yale, who was rarely absent as co-writer once she joined the book. Whether written by Ostrander solo or in collaboration with Yale, though, Suicide Squad was almost always an engaging and utterly unique book. From the beginning, it was an outlet for a jaundiced, realpolitik view of world affairs and the ways in which governments function, or don't function. The Suicide Squad is representative of all the shadowy, morally questionable things committed in the name of patriotism or democracy or security, and nobody represented that idea as well as Amanda Waller, the head of the Squad and one of Ostrander's most enduring creations. The Wall was a fierce brick of a woman, without powers but nevertheless able to cow and corral her unruly superpowered subordinates. In one of the series' goofiest and craziest stretches, the team travels to Apokolips and Waller actually goes toe to toe with Granny Goodness, the only logical choice for her counterpart among Darkseid's minions. For the most part, though, she's a far more grounded character, a realistic avatar of government intrigue and hard-nosed common-sense, a woman who takes no shit from anyone. In one memorable scene, she even tells off President Reagan, sarcastically asking him if he remembers the days when the US actually had social programs to help people.

Indeed, the presence of Reagan (and later Bush I) in these pages grounds the book in the real politics of the late '80s and early '90s. Beyond Waller's sardonic put-down of Reaganomics, there was very little overt political commentary in Suicide Squad. Ostrander and Yale were never the least bit preachy or didactic, preferring to implicitly critique the whole system through their stories about political corruption, back-door deals, fiercely duelling intelligence agencies, and the moral vacuum that engulfs the corridors of power. Genuine heroes are rare here, and when they do appear — as in the character of Nemesis — their morally driven choices often drive them right out of the book's orbit. Waller herself isn't always a sympathetic figure, and she's as morally compromised as anyone else in the book; she's an anti-hero, though at times Ostrander even toys with making her into an outright villain. The group's missions aren't as clearcut as the typical superhero fight, either, in that it's often not clear if the Squad is even on the right side, or if there is a "right" side in these complex conflicts.

That's why the book was at its weakest whenever it bowed to conventional superhero ideas of good vs. bad. The epic, 11-part "Janus Directive" storyline was a crossover with several other books, primarily Paul Kupperberg's Checkmate! and Ostrander's own parallel books, Manhunter and Firestorm. The story starts out promisingly, with shadowy assassinations and obscure plots, but soon becomes mired in endless fight scenes and unfortunately delivers a far more conventional threat than Ostrander usually turned to in his own series. In the end, it seems like a poorly conceived crossover attempt, especially when the final part, in Captain Atom, turns out to have almost nothing to do with the whole preceding story.

In its early days, even beyond this crossover, Suicide Squad was occasionally hampered by being overly connected to other DC books. Ostrander was writing both Firestorm and Manhunter during the same era, and he introduced the Squad in the Legends miniseries, so the early issues especially are constantly dotted with those little editorial caption boxes pointing to issues of these other comics, as well as singling out backstories for various characters in still other comics. It makes it feel at times that Suicide Squad isn't standing on its own or telling its own story; thankfully this tendency soon fell away. In the aftermath of the uneven "Janus Directive," especially, with Yale now onboard, the book became increasingly consistent, its pacing assured, leaping from one action-packed, multi-part arc to the next without ever sacrificing the book's emphasis on character. After "Janus," there wouldn't be another crossover or tie-in until #58's installment in George Perez's "War of the Gods," which Ostrander and Yale mostly use for various character beats before unleashing the inevitable big battle in the issue's second half. (Ostrander and Yale also, hilariously, took this opportunity to kill Grant Morrison, as in the character of "the writer" who had written himself into DC continuity in Animal Man.)

Other than this, Ostrander and Yale kept Suicide Squad pretty self-contained, with its own coherent cast and concerns. Starting around the time of the "Phoenix Gambit" storyline in issues #40-43, Suicide Squad really came into its own as a globe-trotting espionage book, the characters mostly not in costume anymore, undertaking spy missions around the world. The book takes on a brilliant late Cold War tone, depicting the conservative and reactionary forces still struggling to maintain the old orders in various ways, even as Gorbachev's glasnost pushes the US and the USSR towards peace. This approach reaches its frenzied peak in issues #53-57, an extended arc dealing with multiple international forces competing over a cache of Soviet weapons stolen in Afghanistan to be sold to the yakuza. The Suicide Squad finds themselves entangled in a massive struggle that involves terrorists, gangsters, rebels, and spies representing multiple governments, all in a gray zone where crime, war, and government interests overlap in interesting ways.

At the same time, Suicide Squad was also always a character-driven book, with a host of strong personalities: troubled heroes, ambiguous anti-heroes, and villains in various states of reform, whether permanent or transitory. It was Yale, annoyed by the treatment of Barbara Gordon in Alan Moore's The Killing Joke, who came up with the idea of giving the wheelchair-bound Barbara a new role and a potential new place in the DC Universe as a disabled character, unable to reassume the Batgirl role. Yale and Ostrander's distaste for The Killing Joke was certainly not unique to them — many criticized Barbara's diminishment to a victim, a prop, a plot device, crippled for the effect it would have on other characters — but they were the only ones with the vision to actually see storytelling possibilities for the character beyond her crippling. After Killing Joke, Barbara almost never appeared in any DC comics, and it seemed her fate was to fade away into obscurity, and maybe eventually be cured by some writer who wanted to bring back Batgirl (as finally happened anyway in the New 52). Instead, Yale and Ostrander imagined new possibilities for Barbara, creating the Oracle persona and gradually weaving her into the Squad.

In her first few appearances, she's just a voice emanating from a computer, though Yale and Ostrander quickly started planting clues before revealing her identity as Barbara Gordon. She then took on a more active role with the Squad starting with issues #48-49, which put the spotlight on Oracle and provided Barbara, at long last, with an opportunity to vent her own feelings about her fate at the hands of the Joker — something which, astonishingly, no one had really bothered to do before this, two years after The Killing Joke. In #59, Barbara comes face to face with Batman for the first time as Oracle, a poignant and sharply written encounter that was their most substantial meeting in years. The fact that no one in the actual Batman books was telling these stories more or less proves how little anyone at DC thought of Barbara, how little they thought of her crippling as something that actually happened to her as a character — she was a plot device, no more, forgotten as soon as the violence committed against her had provided its shocks. Yale and Ostrander alone refused to forget her, and their revitalization of the character paved the way for Barbara's important role in future Batman stories as well as a central part in the much-loved Birds of Prey.

That Oracle had her start in the pages of Suicide Squad is indicative of the strong character work that epitomizes this series. Ostrander and Yale frequently delved into the psychologies and pasts of these characters; for a book founded on the principle of throwing expendable, washed-up villains into action, it's extraordinarily sympathetic towards these characters and much attention is paid to motivation and history. This is evident as well in the Deadshot miniseries that was spun off from Suicide Squad, featuring some exceptional art from regular Squad artist Luke McDonnell, here inking himself and really playing up the angular, angry quality of his linework, so well-suited to these dark tales. This brutal, unflinchingly grim four-issue detour took a sometimes-impenetrable enigma and opened him up tremendously without erasing his essential characterization as a remorseless assassin. Ostrander and Yale dare to exploit a familiar genre cliché — the hero, or anti-hero, tearing through ranks of bad guys to save a loved one — and subtly turn it upside-down by having Deadshot perpetrate all this vengeful violence essentially out of obligation to the convention, rather than a real attachment to his son, who's been kidnapped and threatened with death. Deadshot does what he's supposed to, he kills anyone who gets in his way, and he exacts his brutal vengeance, but he seems to care little about the boy he's doing all this for, and he doesn't so much as pause to shed a tear or reveal a shred of humanity when the series reaches its grim climax. This mini also elaborated on Deadshot's sordid family history, and all this spills over again into the main series a few issues later, as the assassin becomes even more unhinged than usual at a crucial moment. Still later, Deadshot goes through some fascinating psychological back-and-forth relating to his identity, his costume, and his name.

Even a character like Dr. Light, who is generally treated as a joke, has some poignancy in the hands of Ostrander and Yale — they too see him as pathetic, a shell of a villain plagued by anguish over his continual defeats at the hands of child superheroes, but his torment is dealt with seriously even in the context of stories that mock him. It's a delicate line; he's a subject of humor but his very status as a joke provides some degree of empathy in these same stories. This approach reaches its apex in the bonkers issue #52, which is an all-out slapstick farce (with appropriate cartoony, Looney Tunes-esque art by Jim Fern) dealing with the character's death and resurrection (and death and life and...). Captain Boomerang is another continual source of comedic relief throughout this series, acknowledging that he could basically never be anything but a joke, but also infusing him with real personality and attitude, treating him as a real character, an irrepressible rogue, rather than a disposable caricature. Ostrander and Yale extended this approach to almost everyone they dealt with; there are no wasted characters here, no cardboard cutouts, even if a particular character doesn't wind up sticking around for very long.

That's what makes Ostrander and Yale's Suicide Squad so special. The premise seems to promise mayhem and death above all, a meat-grinder for second-tier characters. Instead, this husband-and-wife team created an inventive, constantly changing title where forgotten and discarded characters were treated with respect and empathy, fleshed out and given some depth even if it they were fated to die a few panels later. And the long-running characters who defined the book — The Wall, Rick Flag, Eve Eden, Bronze Tiger, Vixen, Boomerang, Deadshot, Count Vertigo, Oracle, as well as a rich supporting cast of non-combatants — were treated to lengthy, nuanced character studies, in some cases lasting for the entire 66-issue run. Indeed, when the series was cancelled due to low sales, Ostrander and Yale dedicated much of the final issue to brief sequences exploring (and in some cases resolving) the characters' long-running psychodramas, and the last page of this last issue is memorably given over to a tense and incredibly powerful sequence at last resolving a long-gestating subplot involving Count Vertigo's contemplation of suicide.

This serial characterization was woven together with political intrigue and commentary, undeniably thrilling action, pies to the face, ghosts, devils, and bursts of horrifying violence. Who, after reading these issues, can forget Duchess killing the Manticore by ripping off his tail and beating him with it? And who could forget Barbara's silent, tearful reaction to the death of a friend? Or "Boomerbutt" stranded on an unpopulated island? Or the tense moment when a sweating, shaking Bronze Tiger must face the truth about his own history of violence and rage? Suicide Squad was a book big enough, and smart enough, to encompass all these extremes of humor, violence and emotion, and that is what made it so great.