Adventure Time with Fionna and Cake #1

Story and Art: Natasha Allegri, Noelle Stevenson
Letters: Britt Wilson
Covers: Jen Bennett, Lisa Moore, Joe Quinones, Vera Brosgol, Ethan Rilly, Becky Dreisdadt, Frank Gibson, Sina Grace, S. Steven Struble, Colleen Coover, Natasha Allegri, Penelope Gaylord, Emily Warren, Stephanie Gonzaga, Yssa Badiola, Kassandra Heller

Adventure Time created by Pendleton Ward

The highly popular Adventure Time television episode "Fionna and Cakefunctioned as affectionate commentary on the often-used fan fiction device of gender-swapping well-liked characters (as well as a critique to fans who habitually insert themselves as a Mary Sue character into their own fiction). So it was probably inevitable that the publisher would release a comic book adaptation of this premise once the cartoon was determined to be successful in its comic book incarnation. Written and drawn by Natasha Allegri,  the character designer for that very episode, the comic seeks to be a worthy companion to the Ryan North penned series.

At its core, AT accurately maps out a kid's imagination at work. The viewer could simply accept at face value the idea that Finn the human and Jake the dog are heroes who thrive in a post-apocalyptic world. But at the meta-level, they could just as easily be thought of as the daydreams of a young boy playing in the backyard with his dog, or a group of friends entertaining themselves with their favorite fantasy-based RPG. The Land of Ooo is a comforting place where its young protagonist faces, and usually defeats, all varieties of monsters and demons while attempting to understand the mysteries of the opposite sex. The series is known for the large array of princesses Finn often interacts with, most notably by rescuing them from the clutches of the socially maladjusted Ice King. Then there's the unobtainable Princess Bubblegum whom Finn pines after, and the bewitching Marceline the Vampire Queen, whose friendship is the closest thing he has to a platonic relationship with a girl. Given how Finn-centric the show is, gender-swapping the roles significantly changes the dynamic of the stories.

Natasha does a very good job modulating the characters away from their familiar TV series portrayals. This comic begins with a bittersweet fairy tale about the origin of volcanoes which is drawn with a sensuous line not often seen in the show. Her color palette of warm reds and oranges balanced out by deep blues and pale grays is exquisite. And the type employed by Britt Wilson effectively compliments her art. The scene shifts to Cake narrating this tale to a dour Fionna, who objects to the lack of  "butt-punching" within the story. There's a lovely intimacy between them demonstrated in the humor and the body language. Cake enfolds her friend like a motherly serpent with her elastic body while an upset Fionna tightly hugs a Cake doll. While their camaraderie is similar to that of Finn and Jake, there's a certain emotional intensity that sets Fionna and Cake apart. Fionna comes across as slightly more subdued and introverted. Cake on the other hand isn't as relaxed and easygoing as Jake, and possesses a rather intimidating appearance when she bares her fangs. The funniest scene in the comic is when Cake tries to convince Fionna to choose from several unreliable-looking swords she handcrafted for her. Ever dubious, Fionna tentatively asks if the kitty litter sword still has poo in it, which sets off a comical overreaction.

The main story ends all-too abruptly with a cliffhanger as the duo is about to engage the Ice Queen in combat. However, Noelle Stevenson's silly backup story is delightful to look at, and fans will be amused at the indignant expressions on the faces of Prince Gumball and Vampire King Marshall Lee complaining about the relative value of sweaters. And hey, those two will appear in an upcoming episode to facilitate more gender-bending goodness.


Superior Spider-Man #1

Writer: Dan Slott
Art: Ryan Stegman
Colors: Edgar Delgado
Letters: Chris Eliopoulus

Spider-Man created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko
[Spoilers Ahead]

So longtime nemesis Doctor Octopus/Otto Octavius is Spider-Man/Peter Parker now? That's an unexpected development, especially for a lapsed reader like myself. But it's no sillier than any of the other recent attempts to shake-up his comic book status quo. And frankly, it's pretty obvious from page one that this won't be permanent. Otto is such a barely disguised bad guy that it's a wonder his cover hasn't been blown yet.

For one, this Peter being secretly possessed by Otto's mind is such a douche towards his colleagues, friends, and Mary Jane Watson. That's really the heart of what makes this arrangement so objectionable to Marvelites, isn't it? That the dirty old man is now sleeping with their hero's main squeeze. The dinner scene where Otto's not listening to a word M.J. says because he's too busy monitoring criminal activity while leering at her cleavage... Isn't that the very image of fanboy creepiness? And it's kind of odd that none of the cast seems to comment on the change in Peter's behavior. He uncharacteristically calls someone a "dolt". He also grins, sneers, snarls, and lurks in the shadows like so many a miscreant. He wears a darker shaded version of his uniform, and he's rendered with rougher-looking art, just in case the reader still doesn't get it.

Then there's the ruthless approach he displays when battling the new Sinister Six. Once a mastermind, always a mastermind? There's a point in the confrontation when he acts like the villain revealing his masterplan while cackling at his own brilliance. And like many villains, he has to share his triumph with the public. Only now, he's boasting about capturing super criminals. So it's apparent that this Spider-Man is no selfless do-gooder, but the vainglorious vigilante Peter has been accused off being so many times in the past. While the world gawks, it takes the supervillains to notice that Spidey isn't acting like his usual self.

And finally there's the twist ending which reveals that whenever Otto's better nature gets, well, the better of him, it's actually Peter's disembodied spirit pulling the strings. So in a way, Peter's still the true protagonist of the story, with Otto playing Jean-Paul Valley to his Bruce Wayne. This isn't about Otto adjusting to his new role as hero, it's about Peter finding his way back. I'd like to say that coming back from the dead is harder than coming back from a broken spine, except that this is superhero comics we're talking about.

It took Bruce more than a year to make his way back to donning the familiar cape and cowl. So in the meantime, get used to the idea of Otto brandishing those web-shooters. Breath deep. Relax. Maybe even try to enjoy the transition. Then witness the eventual unravelling of his new life.


The Massive #7 and Mara #1

Today's post looks at two alternate futures recently penned by the prolific comics creator Brian Wood. Let's get to it then.

The Massive #7

Writer: Brian Wood
Art: Garry Brown
Colors: Dave Stewart
Letters: Jared K. Fletcher
Cover Art: J.P. Leon

So far, The Massive has been a bit of a let down. It has a fascinating premise: A smarter, less WASPy-ish version of Sea Shepherd called the Ninth Wave finds itself in a world swamped by rising sea levels and a whole host of ecologically devastating knock-off effects, collectively referred to as "The Crash". In all the ensuing chaos, one of the organization's vessels "The Massive" has mysteriously vanished. Ninth Wave founder and leader Callum Israel and the crew of sister ship the Kapital spent the first two issues chasing down a false lead, but since then seem to have all but given up on the search. The series has them meandering from Alaska to the Antarctic with little in way of a clear purpose. There's a considerable amount of world building that takes place as the Ninth Wave faces a new local power base at every turn. But there's very little forward momentum to the plot and hardly any emotional connection being developed with any of the main characters. It's hard to care about a group of unseen people whom the actual cast barely seems to miss. And for all of Callum's exhortations that his crew continue to practice pacifism, he doesn't bother to formulate any specific policy that would help redefine Ninth Wave's mission in a post-Crash world (e.g. what is the official Ninth Wave position now that rising sea levels have flooded much of the world's coastlines?). One unfortunate side effect of the lead protagonist's passivity is that he's constantly being upstaged by his two feuding lieutenants Mary and Mag Nagendra.

In this issue, the Kapital visits yet another port, a collective of hundreds of linked oil platforms situated in the middle of the Indian Ocean called Moksha, which has recently declared independence. Brian Wood continues to work the world building angle as this would-be nation's leader explains to Callum and Mary their origins in the Indian subcontinent's longstanding conflicts, which were being exacerbated by The Crash. Hints are dropped to indicate how much of the old world continues to exist: The UN is casually mentioned as still an ongoing concern. And in another verbal exchange, the Sri Lankan Mag encounters ethnic and religious-based prejudice from some of Moksha's residents.

While the series continues on in its episodic course, this is the first time the crew has disembarked at one place for a considerable period. The plot plays to the formula that beneath the surface, the natives are hiding some very troubling secrets. This gets picked up on by both Mary and Mag, who begin to act  out in accordance to their own separate agendas, and right under Callum's nose. This is the most ineffectual he's looked in the entire series. But I'm just hoping the payoff for this story arc leads to something that eventually ties all of the disparate experiences the Ninth Wave has gone through.

Mara #1

Writer: Brian Wood
Art: Ming Doyle
Colors: Jordie Bellaire

The dystopian future of Mara is a largely recognizable one which closely resembles the media-saturated landscape of the present day United States. It's one where sports-entertainment is closely associated with capitalism, the military, and imperialist propaganda. World news coverage often relates the government's latest foreign intervention in a far away land that usually ends with the suffix "stan". Any broadcast of a high-profile match is preceded by a reading of a long list of corporate sponsors. Sports are "bread and circuses" used to appease the general population, as well as a form of military recruitment. And celebrity athletes are richly compensated for performing this task. They're also naturally obsessed with their social media status.

Now none of this is necessarily relevatory.What's a bit atypical for this type of dystopian fantasy is the complete lack of bloodsports that have become standard to the subgenre (For a recent example, read America's Got Powers). Brian shies away from such overtly warlike diversions. His choice for the country's most beloved athlete isn't some stone-faced gladiator who secretly longs to be free of the system, but a wholesome-looking seventeen year old girl named Mara, who plays indoor volleyball. Using such a tame sport might seem odd to sci-fi fans, but it does lend the story some verisimilitude since it more accurately reflects what kind of sporting event actually succeeds in drawing the largest audiences. The mainstream prefers watching basketball or baseball to mixed martial arts. Or if you prefer games with more global appeal, football or tennis. And they like their athletes looking clean-cut, not battle-scarred. To underline the point, the comic's omniscient narrator mentions that Mara even dabbled in MMA before finding her true calling in volleyball. That even her attractive but ethnically ambiguous physical features are exploited as a powerful marketing tool only adds to the believability of the premise.

It's a pleasure to see the art of Ming Doyle grace the pages of a more mainstream project. Her style has a certain awkward charm not usually found in artists showcasing a slicker look. When combined with Jordie Bellaire's saturated colors, this particular future setting is bright and colorful, even a little childlike. It's quite a ways from the more gritty urban environments that tend to accompany these kind of stories. If anything, it's ambiance is almost reminiscent of classic futuristic shows like Star Trek or Space 1999.

The thing that creates a great deal of uncertainty is a twist that suddenly interjects superpowers into the equation. My concern is that this comic could end up being a lot more conventional in the end if it goes down any of the already well-trod paths featuring tales of youngsters or celebrities in possession of superpowers.


Martial Myths: 47 Ronin #1-2

Writer: Mike Richardson
Artist: Stan Sakai
Colors: Lovern Kindzierski
Letters: Tom Orzechowski, Lois Buhalis

“To know the story of the 47 Ronin is to know Japan.” says the tag line to this retelling of an oft-repeated tale. Which brings up a salient question. Don't we already know Japan through this narrow perspective? Before the country was known to the West as the land of cosplay-obsessed otaku, it was more traditionally known as the land of honor-obsessed warriors. This image was fueled for decades by a long line of works for popular entertainment, such as the best-selling novel Shogun or the more recent film The Last Samurai. They're primarily distortions of history which helped feed into some very powerful and longstanding racial stereotypes. But I suppose nothing beats the original, home-grown product to get the point across. There's something to be said about not seeing Japan again filtered through the actions of another bewildered-looking gaijin.

The actual events go something like this: a young daimyo named Asano Naganori used his sword to attack the elderly court official Kira Yoshihisa (Yoshinaka) within the grounds of Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi's palace when its staff was busy dealing with an official visit from the Emperor's envoys. The exact nature of Asano's grievance with Kira has never been definitively pinpointed. But he failed to land a killing blow. And for his rash actions, Asano was quickly sentenced to death by the Shogun, his lands seized, and his family dispossessed. In response to this severe punishment, over forty of Asano's most faithful (but now masterless) bushi led by chief retainer Oishi Kuranosuke hatched a plan to complete the job. They bided their time for almost two years. Then on a cold winter night they raided Kira's house, slaughtered his servants, and took his life. The ronin carried Kira's head to Asano's grave at Sengakuji temple as an offering. There they waited for the Shogun's judgement, who stayed true to form and condemned them all to death.

Kira's murder was extremely controversial to its contemporaries,* but it also captured the public's imagination. The event would be retold many times, with further details added and embellished. In what could be thought of as a case of blaming the victim, Kira was vilified in future versions as a cowardly figure who provoked the noble Asano into attacking him, while the criminal behavior of the 47 ronin (the number of retainers finally settled on) was justified by the code of bushido, making them the embodiment of the virtues of duty, honor, and loyalty. When the office of the shogun was finally abolished, the tale acquired the status of patriotic myth within a rapidly modernizing Japan.

For all the years of supposed research and trips to Japan, Mike Richardson has chosen mythical retelling over history, which when taken on its own terms is a valid storytelling option. The tale has a certain noire appeal with its band of would-be criminals defying the law in order to follow a more violent personal code. Besides, who doesn't like to see the underdog overcome the odds to beat the high and mighty, or at least die trying? And on a more universal level, it's a rousing, manly tale of good vs. evil.

If there's a weakness with his version, it's the cut-and-dried quality of the narrative. The characterizations are archetypical: Kira is vain, corrupt, greedy, and vindictive. Asano is unpretentious, noble, a devoted family man, and righteous. Oishi is loyal to a fault. The pacing is a steady slow-burning dramatic arc. Part one is devoted to building up the conflict between Asano and Kira, while part two focuses on the palace intrigue leading up to Asano's execution. Dates and place names are clearly labelled with captions. And everyone, even the kids, talks in a very formal manner, which sometimes makes me wonder if Mike was trying to mimic the language of classical Japanese theater.

An artist with more baroque, sensuous, or dynamic sensibilities could have probably served to better counteract the stiffness of the script. Sadly, this job isn't quite suited to Stan Sakai. I can see why Mike describes him in the afterword as the right artist for the comic. He's a brilliant cartoonist, and he respects the setting of the story. Probably more than most artists. There's nothing exaggerated or manifestly inaccurate about his portrayal of 18th century Japan. This is clearly a labour of love for Mike. But I still feel that Stan's style would have better complimented a more satirical retelling of the myth. Mike's approach is too humorless and reverent to completely mesh with Stan's whimsical style.

Two issues into its five part run, this is a agreeable, if not wholly original, exploration of well-trod territory. It's fairly conventional and somewhat flat, and would be even duller if not for some lovely details supplied by Stan's amazing work. But so far, there's just a dearth of energy which leaves me underwhelmed.

* The samurai Yamamoto Tsunetomo questioned the motives of Oishi's group when he wrote this passage in the Hagakure:

"Concerning the night assault of Lord Asano’s ronin, the fact that they did not commit seppuku at the Sengakuji was an error, for there was a long delay between the time their lord was struck down and the time when they struck down the enemy. If Lord Kira had died of illness within that period, it would have been extremely regrettable."

Strongly implying that the underhanded methods used in the revenge plot exhibited far less honorable motives than had the ronin promptly and openly challenged Kira after Asano's execution.


Happy New 2013

And surely you’ll buy your pint cup!
and surely I’ll buy mine!
And we’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.
- Robert Burns, Auld Lang Syne

Cross-posted with photoblog