7/24/2016

Comic-Con Album Pt 35

G.I. Joe  Baroness, Star Wars Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker cosplayer, Comic-Con International, San Diego Convention Center, Marina District, San Diego, California. Kodak 160VC color negative 35mm film.
The Baroness and Darth Vader cosplayers, Comic-Con exhibit hall

Cobra forges an alliance with the Galactic Empire. That's going to end well.

Pt  29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34,

7/22/2016

Webcomic: Cracks in the Foundation

Cracks in the Foundation, by Andy Warner
Go to: The Nib, by Andy Warner

Comic-Con Album Pt 33

Star Wars Yoda PVC Figure, Comic-Con International, San Diego Convention Center, Marina District, San Diego, California. Nikon n90s SLR Body. Fujifilm NPZ800 color negative 35mm film.
Yoda, Comic-Con exhibit hall

Remember the time when fans debated on whether Yoda was any good with a lightsaber? And then everyone found out in Attack of the Clones that his fighting style mostly consists of him hopping around like a mad bunny.

Pt  29, 30, 31, 32,

7/18/2016

New Super-Man #1

New Super-Man #1. Story: Gene Luen Yang Art: Viktor Bogdanovic Covers: Kelsey Shannon, Bernard Chang Inks: Richard Friend Colors: Hi-Fi Letters: Dave Sharpe  Superman created by Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel.
Story: Gene Luen Yang
Art: Viktor Bogdanovic
Covers: Kelsey Shannon, Bernard Chang
Inks: Richard Friend
Colors: Hi-Fi
Letters: Dave Sharpe

Superman created by Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel.

With the launch of New Super-Man, DC is hoping to replicate Marvel’s successful attempts to generate more diversity in their lineup through the use of legacy characters. A new Chinese Superman is being shepherded by no less than Gene Luen Yang. On the surface, this sounds like a move reminiscent of hiring Ta-Nehisi Coates to write Black Panther. Yang is an award-winning author known for his stories tackling the issue of Chinese identity. Furthermore, he’s got a much better comics pedigree than Coates. Yang was already writing for the New 52 Superman, a tenure which was negatively affected by the turmoil surrounding the DCYou initiative. With Rebirth, he's been given an opportunity to examine the larger world beyond America’s shores.

Clark Kent has been interpreted a hundred different ways, but he’s always been viewed as fundamentally a decent guy. Not so the new protagonist Kenan Kong. The reader’s first impression of him is that of a teenage bully. In an obvious subversion of reader expectations, Kenan is first shown harassing a stereotypical nerdy Asian classmate. It’s soon revealed that Kenan's reasons for picking on him aren't just because he’s a weakling. Kenan is carrying a lot of barely repressed rage over an untimely death in the family, exacerbated by a sense of helplessness caused by being a member of China’s overlooked working class. The story unfolds like an alternate timeline where Flash Thompson was bitten by the radioactive spider and got superpowers instead of Peter Parker.

New Super-Man #1. Story: Gene Luen Yang Art: Viktor Bogdanovic Covers: Kelsey Shannon, Bernard Chang Inks: Richard Friend Colors: Hi-Fi Letters: Dave Sharpe  Superman created by Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel.

Kenan exhibits only one sign of heroism. When a supervillain pops out of nowhere and attacks the very classmate he was just harassing, Kenan bravely but unwisely challenges him. His actions are enough to earn Kenan the attention of intrepid reporter Laney Lang. Naturally, he initially responds by hitting on her. But he’s also approached by another woman whose unsettling leer and black trench coat immediately marks her as a member of a nefarious shadow organization She then makes an offer that apparently Kenan can’t refuse.

Yang utilizes enough classic tropes that the comic almost reads as one that could have taken place in one of the many parallel worlds of the DC Multiverse. Kenan may be a douchebag, but he’s still an underdog. His supporting cast embody several familiar archetypes. And the process that gives him his powers parallels many a dangerous procedure that was used on a Steve Rogers or a Logan. But it takes place in another country, not another Earth. Kenan lives in Shanghai, but he’s one of the people who've been left behind by China’s rapid economic growth. And while Kenan appears to be largely apolitical, his dad pontificates about the need for greater freedom.

New Super-Man #1. Story: Gene Luen Yang Art: Viktor Bogdanovic Covers: Kelsey Shannon, Bernard Chang Inks: Richard Friend Colors: Hi-Fi Letters: Dave Sharpe  Superman created by Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel.

Setting the comic on the mainline Earth allows Yang to engage in some meta-commentary about cultural imperialism and soft power. Most of DC’s characters live in the United States, and that bias is horribly skewed given the comparatively few characters that come out of Asia. This doesn’t reflect China’s own status as world’s most populous country and emerging world power, so the Chinese government decides to do something about this baffling metahuman gap by manufacturing their own superheroes. As befitting China’s real-world position as a manufacturing powerhouse,  their homegrown products look and sound like cheap knockoffs of their American counterparts. Even Kenan’s first costume gives the impression of an inexpensive action figure.

This is an intriguing setup from a respected creator finally working on a project tailored to his talents. But it's let down by mediocre art. DC has so far been pairing Yang with artists who don’t mesh well with his comic sensibilities. Viktor Bogdanovic gets that Kenan is meant to look like a cad, but otherwise his style is so unremarkable that the comic comes across as just another disposable superhero title. Is this effect a deliberate choice? If it is, it doesn't bode well for the New Super-Man's future.

New Super-Man #1. Story: Gene Luen Yang Art: Viktor Bogdanovic Covers: Kelsey Shannon, Bernard Chang Inks: Richard Friend Colors: Hi-Fi Letters: Dave Sharpe  Superman created by Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel.

7/09/2016

Superman: American Alien

Story: Max Landis Art: Nick Dragotta, Ryan Sook, Tommy Lee Edwards, Joëlle Jones, Jae Lee, Francis Manapul, Jonathan Case, Jock Colors: Alex Guimarães, Rico Renzi, June Chung, Lee Loughridge Letters: John Workman  Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.
Story: Max Landis
Art: Nick Dragotta, Ryan Sook, Tommy Lee Edwards, Joëlle Jones, Jae Lee, Francis Manapul, Jonathan Case, Jock
Colors: Alex Guimarães, Rico Renzi, June Chung, Lee Loughridge
Letters: John Workman

Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

The seven-issue series Superman: American Alien is the best Superman story published in the last several years. That isn’t necessarily saying much. While I hesitate to describe it as a great story, it easily surpasses the Superman comics being published within the current DC Universe, not to mention the character’s more morose onscreen version. It’s a prime example of how something competently written can work when not strapped to the tight stylistic constraints of a shared universe. Screenwriter Max Landis makes an impressive comics debut by simply making his Superman act and talk like a real person. This doesn’t sound particularly extraordinary until a cursory glance at the pages of a typical mainstream comic from DC and Marvel reveals how everyone likes to communicate in exposition-heavy dialogue.

Given his approach, American Alien is less like a superhero comic and closer to a YA television series featuring adolescents struggling with how to use their superhuman abilities. Landis treats each of the seven issues as individual vignettes - A peak into a day in the life of Clark Kent. Each day marks an important turning point: the first time Clark learns to fly, his first attempt to fight crime, the first time he leaves Smallville, his first meeting with Lois Lane and Lex Luthor, etc. It basically amounts to a retelling of Superman’s origin story. The novelty of American Alien is that it allows for an even more intimate look as the story charts the course of Clark’s life from childhood to young adult. The reader gets easily pulled into the arc of his personal growth as a hero by Landis’ sympathetic representation of youthful indiscretion.

Story: Max Landis Art: Nick Dragotta, Ryan Sook, Tommy Lee Edwards, Joëlle Jones, Jae Lee, Francis Manapul, Jonathan Case, Jock Colors: Alex Guimarães, Rico Renzi, June Chung, Lee Loughridge Letters: John Workman  Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

The narrative effect is further enforced by having each issue be visually distinguished with a different artist at the helm. Needless to say, Clark never looks the same with each issue. But they’re all excellent at conveying the relatively grounded quality Landis is trying to express in the story. Actually, the story is light on testosterone-filled violence and heavy on goofy behavior as Clark bumbles his way through life, gradually getting a handle on his abilities and figuring out his place in the world. Though events give way to the fantastic in the later issues. There is one gruesome scene where Clark unintentionally burns off the arms of one bad guy with his heat vision that serves as a reminder that DC Comics is still being run by Geoff Johns. Thankfully, the effect is far less graphic than if this were a comic drawn in the usual house style. And the scene is mercifully short.

Landis avoids portraying Clark as the lonely outsider found in the DC Cinematic incarnation. He’s not the classic paragon of heroism. He’s not a nerd. And he’s not the activist fighting for the underdog Grant Morrison yearned for during the inception of the New 52. Apparently, this is a Superman for today’s youth. So he leans a little heavily on the bro archetype, and this means that sometimes he nudges close to the image of millennials as being too self-absorbed. Clark is full of good intentions. He wants to use his abilities for good, but is not quite sure what that means.

Story: Max Landis Art: Nick Dragotta, Ryan Sook, Tommy Lee Edwards, Joëlle Jones, Jae Lee, Francis Manapul, Jonathan Case, Jock Colors: Alex Guimarães, Rico Renzi, June Chung, Lee Loughridge Letters: John Workman  Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

The title’s comic might suggest that Landis is interested in exploring the immigrant experience. Sadly, that’s so not the case. Clark’s got a whole host of freaky powers that make him feel different. And he’s carrying all the insecurities of an adopted child still searching for his biological parents. But he’s not coping with dueling identities. He’s not traumatized by memories of the destruction of his native home. He’s not dealing with racial prejudice. In fact, he passes quite effortlessly for a caucasian Kansas-born American. In case none of this is clear, the last issue’s set piece is a knock-down-drag-out fight with Lobo. The Czarnian is the antithesis of Superman, and their fight only underscores Clark’s very American loyalties.

Ultimately, Landis’ iteration of the Superman origin story feels somewhat diminished. Clark’s altruism is still his defining character trait in an otherwise average personality. The comic’s facsimile of its American setting is largely inoffensive, even leaning towards nostalgia. Smallville and Metropolis appear somewhat generic in nature. The only person-of-color of any significance is Jimmy Olsen, and he shows up only briefly. No real-world politics intrude into the proceedings. Clark goes through a process of self-actualization, but doesn’t develop any accompanying robust sense of social justice. He’s a disconnected hero for a more self-indulgent age.

Story: Max Landis Art: Nick Dragotta, Ryan Sook, Tommy Lee Edwards, Joëlle Jones, Jae Lee, Francis Manapul, Jonathan Case, Jock Colors: Alex Guimarães, Rico Renzi, June Chung, Lee Loughridge Letters: John Workman  Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

7/06/2016

More NonSense: Hail Hydra!

Captain America: Steve Rogers #1. Writer: Nick Spencer  Penciller: Jesus Saiz  Cover Artist: Jesus Saiz. Captain America created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby.

A recent reminder of the disconnect between the comic book industry and the wider world is the firestorm over the revelation that the Captain America of the comics is now a Hydra agent in Captain America: Steve Rogers #1. Many veteran readers, including myself, were inclined to treat this as just another plot point that wouldn't actually change anything in the long run. But Marvel completely failed to anticipate how offensive this could be to those people still facing anti-semitism and other kinds of prejudice, or their newly acquired mainstream audience. Then there's the risk that these arguments might get conflated with traditional fan rage.

Sean T. Collins on the moral binary found in the Game of Thrones episode The Broken Man.

Ed Brubaker remembers when Alan Moore's Watchmen was treated as a victory for creators rights.

Ronald Wimberly on why publishers should pay artists for sample pages.  Seems obvious enough on the surface. But I forget that comic books are such a marginal part of the publishing business.

With Star Trek celebrating its 50th Anniversary, it's especially terrible to hear that actor Anton Yelchin has died from what sounds like a freak automobile accident.

Ben Judkins on Chinese martial arts as a vehicle of female empowerment, and how a young Captain America cosplayer was introduced to kickboxing.

7/02/2016

6/28/2016

Hellboy in Hell

Hellboy in Hell Vol. 1. Hellboy created by Mike Mignola Colors: Dave Stewart Letters: Clem Robins Design: Cary Grazzini. Hellboy in Hell Vol. 2. Hellboy created by Mike Mignola Colors: Dave Stewart Letters: Clem Robins Design: Cary Grazzini.
Hellboy created by Mike Mignola
Colors: Dave Stewart
Letters: Clem Robins
Design: Cary Grazzini

Hellboy in Hell is not only the official end (for the time being) for one of the comic industry’s most successful characters within the last twenty years, it also marks the return of creator Mike Mignola to his role as Hellboy’s principle artist. Even now, that Mignola chose to conclude Hellboy’s narrative arc on his own terms, is something of a triumph. It must have been tempting to simply hire new creative talent to maintain the present continuity and cash-in on the character’s ongoing popularity. That Hellboy himself retains considerable name recognition after most of the comics published under the Legend imprint (remember them?) have faded from memory is damn impressive. So if Mignola wants to spend more of his time painting watercolors, the choice is more than well-earned.

Not that Hellboy’s retirement would end the larger universe that Mignola has already wrought. Since Hellboy quit the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense (B.P.R.D.) in 2001, Mignola has collaborated with an expanding circle of writers and artists. The titles now include (but are not limited to) the B.P.R.D., Abe Sapien, Lobster Johnson, Baltimore, Sir Edward Grey, and a prequel called Hellboy and the B.P.R.D. As for the Hellboy comics themselves, Mignola would gradually allow Hellboy’s post-B.P.R.D. adventures to be illustrated by other talents. It almost looked as if Mignola was making a slow exit while handing the reigns to his universe to other, capable hands.

Hellboy in Hell #1. Hellboy created by Mike Mignola Colors: Dave Stewart Letters: Clem Robins Design: Cary Grazzini.

The initial phase of Hellboy’s career was spent as a paranormal investigator/monster hunter, working under the direction of the B.P.R.D. These were the stories where Mignola laid the ground for him as a gruff, well-meaning figure, staunch defender of humanity, but haunted by ancient prophecies and visions that foretold of him as the harbinger of the Apocalypse and the one being capable of freeing the Lovecraftian horror known as the Ogdru Jahad from its deep space prison. The second phase had Mignola cede his artistic duties while Hellboy would lead a vagabond life in an attempt to learn more about his origins. This ended when he died battling the mad sorceress Nimue (who was channeling the Ogdru Jahad). With the descent into Hell, Mignola reunited with longtime collaborators colorist Dave Stewart and letterer Clem Robins. A new phase for Hellboy was poised to commence.

The first half of Hellboy in Hell certainly operates under that conceit. While Duncan Fegredo was a more than able to play the role of principle artist, Mignola’s signature style has since further evolved. Few artists working today are able to convey gloom with so few strokes of the pen. His characters have become flatter, more impressionistic through the years. But with just the right amount of linework and chiaroscuro to suggest their inner state. Mignola is a master of the kind of decompressed storytelling that places just as much focus on mood and atmosphere as on action. A favorite device is the use of small, rectangular, inset panels to control the pace and reveal tiny details that would be otherwise have been overlooked. With the realm of Hell, there’s more than enough wierdness fighting for the reader's attention. Mignola’s understated approach will forever be associated with Stewart’s equally nuanced use of colors, which keep the panels eminently readable with subtle shading and a minimal palette that maximizes emotional impact.

Hellboy in Hell #2. Hellboy created by Mike Mignola Colors: Dave Stewart Letters: Clem Robins Design: Cary Grazzini.

All of this serves as a counterpoint to the comic’s very dry sense of humor. Hellboy and his supporting cast are so constantly beset by the weird and terrifying that it’s become characteristic to cope by wearing a deadpan expression while emitting a stoic shrug. Arch-enemy Baba Yaga summarizes her venomous relationship with Hellboy like he was just another annoying coworker: “I never liked him, but even I have to admit he ended well.” Hellboy describes his initial impressions of the underworld like a typical day at work: “Let’s see… I got killed, fell into a hole full of giant bugs, and a big iron guy beat the crap out of me with a hammer. Considering the day I’m having, I think I’m doing pretty good.” Unsurprisingly, his message to his demonic family (who obviously feel betrayed by his life choices) is similarly irreverent: “Well screw you guys!” And don't think that someone wouldn't notice the incongruity of the hero with demonic ties being named after the very place where the wicked are condemned to in the afterlife. Longtime readers will already be familiar with how humor is often used to offset the grim nature of the threats the protagonists usually face. But with Hellboy, it now keeps him sane given his unusual circumstances.

Once he’s got his bearings, Hellboy quickly resumes his wandering ways. He explores the geography of Hell, encounters its varied denizens, dukes it out with numerous demons, even becomes infected with a mysterious ailment, and does his best to save lost souls from eternal damnation. This might have been a pattern that Mignola could have tried to sustain for the next few years with his fertile imagination He even seems to be finding his groove in the episodic nature of events. But then, he chooses instead to end Hellboy’s infernal adventures in an unexpectadly abrupt manner.

Hellboy in Hell #4. Hellboy created by Mike Mignola Colors: Dave Stewart Letters: Clem Robins Design: Cary Grazzini.

Ending Hellboy’s story means ending the struggle that’s always defined him - his coming to terms with the apocalyptic destiny set upon him by his demonic brethren. He would have continued this struggle by feuding with all the princes of Hell. But that would change nothing. In a chance encounter with a demon he once knew in life, he receives some pretty good advice on finding a way out: “You want to start over? You want a new life? First you have to finish the old one.”

It's advice Hellboy takes to heart. He finishes the old in the most spectacular way possible. The climax is an unbelievable series of panels composed of stark landscapes dwarfed only by monstrous forms battling like kaiju. In one fell swoop, Hellboy finally breaks free of his fate by embracing it in a way that ends up laying waste to the infernal kingdom’s fragile balance of power. It’s a masterpiece of low key storytelling. And yet, it's still a gloriously epic display of Mignola's penchant for inky shadows and Kirby crackle. In the final chapter, Hellboy never speaks. His actions are narrated by a lone surviving demon witness. This distancing effect is maintained to the very last page. The demon eventually falls silent. And with his task done, Hellboy continues to wander an abandoned Hell alone before finally settling down in a quiet corner. Even here, he finds there is a light in the darkness to show the way. It's an ambiguous, even mysterious, but hopeful conclusion.

So it ends. No fanfare, happy reunions with loved ones, celebrations with allies, or victory speeches. Not even a wry comment coming from Hellboy. Could he return to action in the future? Sure. This is comics, after all. The B.P.R.D. is still desperately fighting to prevent the Apocalypse from happening on the earthly plane. Supernatural forces are constantly at work in this fantasy mileau. But for now at least, Mignola has given his character a fitting, if melancholic sendoff.

Hellboy in Hell #10. Hellboy created by Mike Mignola Colors: Dave Stewart Letters: Clem Robins Design: Cary Grazzini.

6/25/2016

Comic-Con Album Pt 30

Cosplayer, Comic-Con International, San Diego Convention Center, Marina District, San Diego, California. Kodak Kodacolor Gold 400 GC Color Negative c-41 Film ISO 400, 35mm. Sunpak 4000AF Flash.
Cosplayer, Comic-Con exhibit hall

For some reason, I shot this particular event exclusively in color. This may not have been a smart decision. Transitioning to digital was still a few years away in the future, so I was handling several rolls of color negatives. Not a preferred medium of mine, but I figured was still easier than having to expose for slide film.

Pt  29,

6/22/2016

Comic-Con Album Pt 29

PVC Figures, Comic-Con International, San Diego Convention Center, Marina District, San Diego, California. Kodak Kodacolor Gold 400 GC Color Negative c-41 Film ISO 400,
Anime PVC figures, Comic-Con exhibit hall

It's time for another round of images for the growing  Comic-Con Album. Another year, another annual pilgrimage to Comic-Con International at the San Diego Convention Center. By this time, I was taking the train from Los Angeles instead of flying cross-country.

Previous photos of the series:
Pt  1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28,

6/12/2016

Warcraft (2016)

Warcraft (2016). Director: Duncan Jones Starring Travis Fimmel, Paula Patton, Ben Foster, Dominic Cooper, Toby Kebell.
Director: Duncan Jones
Starring Travis Fimmel, Paula Patton, Ben Foster, Dominic Cooper, Toby Kebell.

Feature films based on video games are usually terribly plotted, and Warcraft is no exception in that regard. It’s a bit of a mess to attempt to follow, and filled with paper-thin characterizations. But unlike many films falling into this category, Warcraft is bolstered with a considerable degree of storytelling ambition. Director/Co-screenwriter Duncan Jones does his best to create a highly textured fantasy milieu, implying a rich history for the kingdom of Azeroth. This world-building will probably energize many pre-existing fans of the Warcraft video game series, but it won’t be enough to draw in the general audience.

Warcraft lives or dies on its hyper-real aesthetic. Like 300, or Avatar, or Sucker Punch, the stylized but highly detailed setting is meant to draw the viewer into a completely made up world that bears little to no resemblance to any real location. With Warcraft, the film replicates the virtual world of the game. Everyone and everything is bathed in an evenly applied luminous glow that flatters and smooths over surface features. It’s studio lighting taken outdoors. Every magical spell cast involves the release of colored glowing plasma, kind of like the energy outbursts usually associated with Green Lantern. As with the digitally rendered environments found in the aforementioned past movies, the live actors still look a little out-of-place in it. But advances in motion capture technology make the CGI denizens look pretty convincing, especially the weirdly proportioned orcs.

But there’s too much going on. There are a lot of characters being moved around onscreen, and the story suffers from it. The basic conflict revolves around a war between a human-led alliance and an invading orc horde. But muddling things are the type of magic being used by both sides, shifting allegiances, some inter-warrior rivalry, some family melodrama, some coming-of-age tales. Certain characters, particularly the women, hardly receive enough attention. The orc horde gets less screen time than the humans. And the cast playing humans consistently fail to to make any of their roles particularly compelling or sympathetic. Warcraft isn’t complex, it’s just cluttered.

6/04/2016

R.I.P. Muhammad Ali (January 17, 1942 – June 3, 2016)

Superman vs. Muhammad Ali, by Dennis O'Neil, Neal Adams,  Dick Giordano, Terry Austin, Gaspar Saladino,, Cory Adams.
Superman vs. Muhammad Ali
DC - The New Frontier by Darwyn Cooke
DC - The New Frontier
Muhammad Ali - Amazing Améziane by Sybille Titeux de la Croix.
Amazing Améziane
Muhammad Ali vs. Sonny Liston II, photo by John Rooney / The Associated Press.
Muhammad Ali vs. Sonny Liston II
Muhammad Ali vs. George Foreman "Rumble in the Jungle", photo by Associated Press.
Muhammad Ali vs. George Foreman "Rumble in the Jungle"
Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier III "Thrilla in Manila", photo by Mitsunori Chigita/Associated Press.
Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier III "Thrilla in Manila"

"My conscience won't let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn't put no dogs on me, they didn't rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father... Shoot them for what? ...How can I shoot them poor people, Just take me to jail."
"I am America. I am the part you won’t recognise. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky, my name not yours. My religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.” 
“If my mind can conceive it, and my heart can believe it—then I can achieve it.” #MuhammadAli

Like many a star athlete, Ali was known for making outrageous and self-aggrandizing statements. But as a child of the Civil Rights era, the "Louisville Lip" also developed a reputation for speaking truth to power. His eloquence on these matters has become just as memorable as his actions in the ring. Or on the comic book page.

Farewell, champ.

6/03/2016

DC Universe: Rebirth #1

Dave Gibbon's response to Watchmen's role in DC Rebirth and his thoughts on Batman V Superman (via Alexander Lu). 

Here were my initial thoughts on the announcement of  DC Universe: Rebirth #1:

Does Geoff Johns even hear the words he's spewing when justifying the use of Doctor Manhattan as the antagonist for DC Rebirth?

“It felt like there were things that had gone missing — not the characters but an overall feeling of hope and optimism... ” 
“If you’re going to have a conflict between optimism and pessimism, you need to have someone who represents a cynical view of life and also has the ability to affect this. I know it’s crazy but he felt like the right character to use.”

This is about as ethically and creatively challenged a statement as Johns can make - pinning on Watchmen the trend of dark and cynical comics while ignoring his own complicity in DC's creative output during the last two decades. I haven't forgotten his abuse of the characters from Crisis on Infinite Earths in the horrible Infinite Crisis. Not to mention the gorefest that was Flashpoint. And others could probably point to his time on JLA, JSA, or Blackest Night. So Johns is either being extremely cynical himself, or is demonstrating a staggering lack of self-awareness. Or he's misleading his readers for some reason.

Heidi MacDonald points out that there's a behind the scenes struggle between Johns and co-publisher Dan DiDio. DC Rebirth apparently represents Johns asserting more control over the entire lineup, as Johns has used the "Rebirth" tag on two previous stories which were written as course corrections to what he perceived as mishandlings of those properties. Both stories were characterized by their nostalgic approach. Hal Jordan and Barry Allen were brought back from limbo to reclaim the superhero mantles from their replacements. So it's not hard to read in his call for hope and optimism as code for a repudiation of the whole DC New 52 enterprise (and the DCYou initiative) in order to return to his cherished fundamentals.

This is the first time that Watchmen will play a central role in a mainstream crossover event. From a continuity standpoint, there's no real precedent for using Doctor Manhattan (or any of the other Watchmen characters) as the in-universe antagonist. So the only reasons for DC to make such a move are: (a) to keep pissing on the ashes of their relationship with Alan Moore by taking the final step of reducing his characters into just another mediocre corporate property (b) to grab headlines. For the last two decades, DC's stewards have been swinging back and forth between the two poles of being embarrassed by the company's own superhero properties, and celebrating their childlike appeal. The stakes for this infighting are a lot higher, now that Time-Warner is paying a lot more attention to what happens at their HQ. But coming after so many soft reboots, corporate reshufflings, and marketing gimmicks, this latest move feels like a tacit admission that the DC Universe is broken in such a way that it can't be fixed anymore with yet another editorially mandated change.

.......

DC Universe: Rebirth #1: Story: Geoff Johns Art: Phil Jimenez, Ethan Van Sciver, Ivan Reis, Gary Frank, Alex Sinclair Colors: Brad Anderson, Jason Wright, Joe Prado, Gabe Eltaeb, Hi-Fi Inks: Matt Santorelli Letters: Nick Napolitano.
Story: Geoff Johns
Art: Phil Jimenez, Ethan Van Sciver, Ivan Reis, Gary Frank, Alex Sinclair
Colors: Brad Anderson, Jason Wright, Joe Prado, Gabe Eltaeb, Hi-Fi
Inks: Matt Santorelli
Letters: Nick Napolitano

Having now gotten around to reading Rebirth. I'm struck by how much the comic is aimed at DC's core fanbase. There's an overwhelming sense of familiarity for anyone who's been following DC crossovers since 1985: the time travelling/dimension hopping shenanigans, a speedster delivering an ominous message, a mysterious antagonist with the power to threaten all of existence, the universal timeline needing to be fixed, yet again. And this is also marks Geoff Johns going back again to the well and returning a character from limbo, in this case Wally West. Not to mention that the artists employed here are among the most capable exponents of DC's house style within the last decade.

What is new is the unprecedented level of backtracking on display. The whole comic is basically a parade of ideas that were discarded by the New 52 relaunch five years ago, but whose absence is now being presented as symptoms of how things having gone very wrong since then. The whole spectacle doesn't feel so much an apology as Johns unleashing his venom on his colleagues for letting things get so out of hand. Change is being invoked for the sake of returning to some previous status quo (represented by a teenage Wally), and opposed by unseen forces (Doctor Manhattan). The ham-handed symbolism is only surpassed by the depressingly conservative* message designed to appease the preferences of entitled fans. Furthermore, this backward looking approach has the unfortunate effect of rendering every recent attempt to update, expand and diversify the DC lineup appear insincere in retrospect.

And Rebirth probably won't accomplish streamlining the DC Universe. Johns might believe that returning Wally to his long-abandoned Kid Flash role marks the return of hope and optimism. But this just seems to indulge his usual habit of engaging in intertextually dense storytelling meaningful only to the initiated.
___
*by that I mean that superhero comics are incredibly resistant to change/character growth, not their politics.

5/28/2016

Ultraman Vol. 3

Story: Eiichi Shimizu  Art: Tomohiro Shimoguchi.  Ultraman created by Eiji Tsuburaya & Tsuburaya Productions.
Story: Eiichi Shimizu 
Art: Tomohiro Shimoguchi

Ultraman created by Eiji Tsuburaya & Tsuburaya Productions.

This was an appreciated change of pace. Unlike the previous two volumes, Ultraman Vol. 3 doesn’t feature an extended battle sequence between the titular protagonist and a rogue alien. The book engages in more fan service and some much needed world-building. This results in a somewhat disjointed narrative. The first half of the volume fleshes out the relationships between Shinjiro Hayata and the members of the Special Science Search Party (SSSP), particularly taciturn agent Dan Moroboshi. The second half shifts its attention to detective Endo and his unsanctioned investigation into the serial homicides he correctly deduced were committed by aliens. This further deepens the impression that Eiichi Shimizu and Tomohiro Shimoguchi are reimagining Ultraman as some kind of Men-in-Black inspired conspiracy story about extraterrestrials infiltrating human society.

The first thing Moroboshi does when throwing Shinjiro into the deep end is introduce him to a city populated by aliens, hidden somewhere on Earth. The SSSP supposably controls access to the city’s entrance. But that’s probably not true. Alien's might be getting out without their knowledge. And the city has at least one human resident, who goes by the alias Jack. Fans might recognize that the names Moroboshi and Jack refer to other bearers of the Ultraman mantle, so expect the SSSP to assemble an Ultraman squad in the near future.

Despite the euphoria from his successful battle in vol. 2, Shinjiro has reverted back to vacillating about whether he wants to be Ultraman. Moroboshi continues to give him a hard time while his dad Shin Hayata not so subtly pressures him into continuing his legacy. Meanwhile, colleagues Edo and Mitsuhiro Ide mysteriously plot his possible future. Shinjiro has no peers he feels comfortable enough to confide in and process the mixed signals coming from his various authority figures. His character arc is starting to contain shades of Neon Genesis Evangelion.

Story: Eiichi Shimizu  Art: Tomohiro Shimoguchi.  Ultraman created by Eiji Tsuburaya & Tsuburaya Productions.

And what about Endo and his famous teenage daughter Rena, who were introduced last volume? Their one face-to-face interaction involves a short argument over whether Shinjiro’s Ultraman, who saved Rena’s life, is the real deal. I wouldn’t be surprised if their relative positions reflected a real-world generation gap among fans about this manga, back in Japan. It’s also obvious that Shinjiro and Rena are being set up to be romantically linked, over Endo’s initial objections. But for now, Shimizu and Shimoguchi are taking more time advancing the plot than I would have preferred when getting their “New Age” off the ground.

5/22/2016

Wonder Woman: Earth One

Wonder Woman: Earth One, Story: Grant Morrison Art: Yanick Paquette Colors: Nathan Fairbairn Letters: Todd Klein, Wonder Woman created by William Moulton Marston and H.G. Peter.
Story: Grant Morrison
Art: Yanick Paquette
Colors: Nathan Fairbairn
Letters: Todd Klein

Wonder Woman created by William Moulton Marston and H.G. Peter.

[this review contains spoilers]

Among comic book fans, Wonder Woman continues to be strongly linked to her original creators William Moulton Marston and H.G. Peter. After almost 80 years, their version of the character is still considered definitive, which is sort of an issue. Since Marston’s death in 1947, DC Comics has been steadily moving away from their peculiar vision to make WW a little more compatible to an entertainment industry not always friendly to modern feminism, let alone a female supremacist social order prominently featuring female bondage and a veiled form of lesbianism.

Wonder Woman: Earth One is an ostensible return and update to her classic origin story. The writer chosen for this task, Grant Morrison, has a reputation for revitalizing iconic characters like Superman and Batman while retaining their core ideals. So it seems like a foregone conclusion that he’d eventually turn his attention to the last and reputedly most problematic member of the DC “Trinity.” To assuage any concerns, Morrison’s given interviews where he’s stated his admiration for the work of Marston and Peter, as well gone through the canon of feminist literature. So is that why the creative team for this book is all-male? Is it some kind of faithful imitation of the 40s workplace?

Wonder Woman: Earth One, Story: Grant Morrison Art: Yanick Paquette Colors: Nathan Fairbairn Letters: Todd Klein, Wonder Woman created by William Moulton Marston and H.G. Peter.

At any rate, Morrison and artist Yanick Paquette get many of the details right. The kangas, Purple Ray, Holliday Girls, Festival of Diana, a voluptuous Etta Candy and her “Woo woo!” catch phrase, and the numerous scenes of bondage, both voluntary (“loving submission”) and involuntary. Even Paquette’s ornate cover image of a regal-looking Diana wrapped in chains promises something different from the usual warrior woman interpretation. And yet, there’s something off about the story. A harshness that fails to capture the compassion at the heart of Marston’s vision of femininity (which was strongly informed by his polyamorous relationship with Elizabeth Holloway Marston and Olive Byrne).

Part of the problem is that the politics tend to get a bit reductive. The comic opens with a triumphant Hercules standing over a chained and kneeling Queen Hippolyta. He refers to her by the b-word, then spends several pages insulting her before she finally breaks free and kills the Demi-God, liberates her fellow Amazons, so they can slaughter his invading army. The deed accomplished, Hippolyta swears to live in a world without men. The story then skips 3,000 years ahead to reveal Paradise Island, a glittering utopia without a single male presence. The story itself is faithful to Marston’s original tale, but rendered more shocking by the explicit language and more detailed art. And with it, an uncompromising black-and-white view of gender relations begins to form in Hippolyta’s mind.

Wonder Woman: Earth One, Story: Grant Morrison Art: Yanick Paquette Colors: Nathan Fairbairn Letters: Todd Klein, Wonder Woman created by William Moulton Marston and H.G. Peter.

Paradise Island, as drawn by Paquette and colored by Nathan Fairbairn, is a gorgeous, pastel-colored wonderland that mixes gleaming classical architecture with curvaceous futuristic technology. The floral designs found on the flying motorcycles, invisible planes, and some of the fashions are suggestively vaginal. The Amazons, unsurprisingly, are all perfect specimens imbued with a casual sensuality found in fashion models and pin ups as they cavort on the pristine beaches and verdant forests. Morrison and Paquette underline this sultriness with much more open portrayals of lesbianism than found in Marston and Peter.

But perfection has a habit of quickly turning oppressive. Unlike Marston's creation, Hippolyta is dead set on maintaining her kingdom’s splendid isolation. There’s no outside threat (e.g. the Nazis of Marston's era) she feels deserves her attention, let alone requiring intervention by sending a champion. When she looks into her magic mirror and spies on the rest of the world, all she sees is a “wasteland beyond our perfect shores. The dreadful din is man’s nightmare of unending conflict… Their ’masculinity’ is a sad, broken aberration of nature. Genetically incomplete man. Always yearning for what he cannot be or own.” It’s no wonder that when the plane piloted by Captain Steve Trevor crash lands on the island, Diana is forced to hide him and concoct a plan to smuggle him out, lest he face summary execution. What’s Hippolyta's response to her daughter’s unexpected disobedience? She sends the gorgon Medusa after them both.

Wonder Woman: Earth One, Story: Grant Morrison Art: Yanick Paquette Colors: Nathan Fairbairn Letters: Todd Klein, Wonder Woman created by William Moulton Marston and H.G. Peter.

Her contemptuous attitude is shared by the rest of the Amazons. They react similarly to Diana’s actions with anger and aggression. And their view of the rest of humankind is equally unforgiving. Instead of treating the women in man’s world as worthy of their respect, they’re seen as being almost as debased as the men. When Diana’s jilted lover Mala first sets her eyes on the Holliday Girls, she remarks with obvious disgust “These are women of man’s world? Deformed, shrunken, bloated — domesticated cattle.” After listening to Elizabeth “Beth” Candy, the updated version of Etta, passionately defend Diana’s actions to Hippolyta, the physician Althea dismisses her testimony with “This is absurd. This girl is sick — her body mass grotesquely distorted.” That’s right, the Amazons are a bunch of pampered, body shaming mean girls.

Not that Diana does much better upon arriving in America. Her first contact with the U.S. military results in her tossing a hummer and questioning the masculinity of the soldiers, just because of their clean-shaven faces. She’s haughty and belligerent, demanding that “This broken man’s world must submit to the merciful authority of the wonder women of Amazonia. Then all will be well. Trust me.” It’s only due of the influence of Beth and Steve that she learns to moderate her views. “It’s not just man’s world out there… Sure, the patriarchy sucks, but we ain’t shy about telling ’em!” declares an always upbeat Beth. And Steve, who’s been recast as African American, admits to not entirely trusting his military commanders and points out that “My ancestors were enslaved by men with too much power.” His speech is a little on the nose, but both supporting characters come across as truly sympathetic, which is more than can be said for the supposably superior immortals who populate this book. When the Amazons insult Beth for being overweight, they become a metaphor for the kind of economic privilege needed to meet society’s unrealistic beauty standards. That doesn’t seem right for a Wonder Woman story.

Wonder Woman: Earth One, Story: Grant Morrison Art: Yanick Paquette Colors: Nathan Fairbairn Letters: Todd Klein, Wonder Woman created by William Moulton Marston and H.G. Peter.

This makes for a intertextually complicated read. On one hand, it’s impressive how eagerly Morrison uses so many of Marston’s classic elements. But the end results are as much a deconstruction as a homage. Instead of being paragons of empowerment, the Amazons express so many militant ideas they practically become the kind of man-hating straw feminists whose objections will be overcome by the understated nobility of Steve and the infectious optimism of Beth. Their perfection is an ideological conservatism to be surpassed by the wealth of experiences found in the outside world. And their Queen Hippolyta a 3,000 year old tyrant and overbearing parent any child would want to escape from, eventually.

Diana is a child of that isolated civilization. She’s spoiled and clueless. But she’s willfully looking for any pretext to rebel. In what is a complete reversal of the spirit of Marston's Amazons, Diana learns towards the end that she's a weapon created by Hippolyta to conquer man’s world, should the need ever arise. So Morrison’s Wonder Woman isn’t a saviour sent during a time of need, but a byproduct of Diana's rebellion against a narrowly defined role, and a self-conscious attempt to bridge the gap between the exceptionalism of the Amazons and the inclusiveness of Beth and Steve. But as with many rebellious kids, Diana still has a lot to learn.

5/20/2016

More NonSense: Dawn of the Civil War

Captain America: Civil War

Critics and fans have observed that a common theme connecting the much-derided  Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice ( leading to a corporate reshuffling) and the more well-recieved Captain America: Civil War is how both comment on the current political climate in the U.S., namely the issue of America's descent into authoritarianism. Some have noted, with some dismay, that the titular hero Steve Rogers has now become an un-American douchey libertarian/unilateralist. It's also a 180 degree turn from the days when Tony Stark was the jerk telling Congress and the military to kiss his @$$, but is now willing to work with more government oversight because he once unintentionally created a genocidal AI called ULTRON who almost destroyed the world. On the other hand, unwieldy bureaucracies (the U.S. army, World Security Council, S.H.I.E.L.D.) have consistently let Steve down, and the government tossing his pals into a maximum security prison located in the middle of the ocean without due process isn't helping him change his mind. Good or bad, it's not entirely out-of-character for Captain America's cinematic incarnation. For all the hype, the filmmakers doesn't necessarily side with him on this.

Superheroes may not be real. The Manichaean world view the genre espouses doesn't quite fit the real world. But their central themes of authority and violence seem to have struck a familiar chord with film viewers. Or maybe it's the cool special effects that only the studios can afford.

Some have noted that with the release of X-Men: Apocalypse, the X-Men film franchise has not kept up with superhero movie trends. With Civil War's reveal of a dorky, bright spandex-wearing Spider-Man and the unexpected success of fourth wall breaking Deadpool, there's greater pressure on filmmakers to be faithful to the source material. Alas, Superman's red trunks will probably not be making a comeback given that they've been banished from the comics.

One of the more noteworthy features of Civil War was the number of Black superheroes on screen. Particularly important was the introduction of Black Panther. Unlike the Falcon and War Machine, he's clearly a hero who goes through his own character arc, and not just a sidekick. This primes the audience for the upcoming Black Panther movie, which reportedly has now cast Michael B. Jordan and possibly Lupita Nyong'o. That's a pretty strong cast. There's also an article on how Nate Moore, the lone African-American producer in Marvel Studios' film division, helped bring these characters to the screen.

DC Comics released a statement regarding their sexual harassment policies. While not addressing specific incidents, this is clearly an attempt to address regarding the allegations against Eddie Berganza and the firing of Shelley Bond. Honestly, the banal wording feels like an attempt to downplay/bury the controversy over DC's less than ideal workplace culture. It's the kind of culture which finds it acceptable that Berganza can be the editor for Wonder Woman: Earth One, a book about a feminist icon created by an all-male team.

Wonder Woman #37 by Darwyn Cooke.

R.I.P. Darwyn Cooke (1962-2016), who lost his battle to cancer. His family has indicated that donations can be made in Cooke's name to the Canadian Cancer Society and Hero Initiative. Cooke's distinctive style didn't ape trends toward more complex and murkier art, but often evoked a more classic age, making him one of the most recognisable artists working in mainstream comics. He's perhaps best known for DC: The New Frontier. and his adaptations to the Parker book series.

R.I.P. Maurice Sinet, a.k.a. Siné (1928-2016), French political cartoonist and activist known in his home country for his anti-colonialist, anti-capitalist, anarchist views. He founded the short-lived journal, Siné Massacre, in 1962, and L’Enragé in1968. He worked for a time at Charlie Hebdo until he was controversially sacked after being accused of anti-semitism (Siné was a strong supporter of the Palestinian cause). Siné died after undergoing surgery at a hospital in Paris on May 5th.

There's an article on why Kate Beaton recently decided to return to her hometown of Mabou, on Cape Breton island, and how the move has changed her perspective. This piqued my curiosity about her planned book about Fort McMurray.

Here are some photos and panel recordings from the Toronto Comics Arts Festival (TCAF), which took place from May 13 – 15.