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.