Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Review: Secret Invasion: Black Panther

Secret Invasion: Black Panther

Jason Aaron (w), Jefte Palo (a)

I’m sure you all have opinions on Secret Invasion and its Dark Reign aftermath status quo, but I’ll always remember Secret Invasion for this little tie-in arc of Black Panther by Jason Aaron and Jefte Palo.

In this little look-in on Wakanda during the Secret Invasion event, we find a team of Skrulls taking on an entire army of Wakandans.  Due to some aggressive computer hacking from both ends, both the Skrulls and Wakandans find themselves without access to their advanced weapon systems, which means we get three issues of up-close-and-personal-style bludgeoning and stabbing as the only weapons left around are those that don’t run on any sort of advanced Wakandan or Skrull super-technology (You’d think someone would have thought to pack a pistol or whatever, but I’m not really complaining) as T’Challa takes on a small group of Super Skrulls on his own.  Don’t worry, though.  T’Challa has a plan.  I mean, of course he has a plan.  He’s like if Batman and Captain America got together and ran their own country funded by Bruce Wayne AND Tony Stark.

Jason Aaron gives us a face to the Skrull invaders in the form of K’vvvr, the Commander of this contingent of hapless Skrulls.  K’vvvr is one mission away from retirement, and guess what?  K’vvvr doesn’t even care about the Skrull Empire!  All he wants to do is finish up this mission, conquer this little country, and go home to retire on a quiet planet with his wife.  Bummer that this little country is Wakanda, the only country on earth that has never been conquered by anyone, a country inhabited by fierce warriors and brilliant minds armed with the most durable mineral resource in the world, a country that is protected by its King and Queen, who just so happen to be the Black Panther (the aforementioned super-rich cross between Captain America and Batman) and his bride Storm, of the X-Men, a team of people who’ve made it a habit of ducking and defeating anybody trying to hunt them.  As if claiming that this would be his last mission before retirement wasn’t enough, K’vvvr has to take on Wakanda.  It’s like this dude hasn’t even heard of “Retirony.”

Make no mistake, this a fight comic, pure and simple.  Where I think it differs from something like a War comic is that war comics usually concern themselves with making the audience connect with a group of soldiers by looking into their motivations or reasons they’re in this war so that we are provided with an emotional stake in their survival.  Secret Invasion: Black Panther does this with the previously mentioned K’vvvr, but it’s ultimately pointless.  This is because the book is not called Secret Invasion: K’vvvr.  The story is taking place in the Black Panther book.  Through the simple virtue of not being the Black Panther and not being a Wakandan, we automatically identify him as the enemy.  In a similar vein, Aaron gives the audience the benefit of the doubt and assumes that we, the discerning consumers who purchased a book called Black Panther, already know enough about the how superhero comics work to know that we are rooting for him.  Whatever internal monologue he gives T’Challa is only preaching to the choir.  If not, then we’ve got a bunch of murderous looking aliens who at one point threaten to beat his wife “until she is no longer recognizable as vertebrae” to really bring the point home.  As such, we don’t really get any insightful peeks into the psyches of these characters that will emotionally invest us in their continued survival (or in the Black Panther’s case, we were rooting for him anyway), so all we’re left with is some moments of the Black Panther and his Wakandan soldiers acting like hard dudes, a couple of twists (one of which is kind of horrifying when you think about it, but horrifying things just kind of happen when a full-scale invasive assault is on your doorstep), and a whole lot of fighting -- which, you know, is perfect for a fight comic.

So what we’ve got on our hands is a bona fide fight comic, but I wouldn’t sweat it –– it’s a really entertaining fight comic.  As they should be.  It’s long been a belief of mine that fight comics are to comics in general what candy is to a balanced, healthy diet: you know you shouldn’t, but fuck it, right?  You’ve earned yourself a little treat.  In the context of fight comics, “a little treat” means “moments of badassery and kinetic action/fight sequences.”  Here’s an example:

This arc, and any good fight comics worth its ink, is filled with these sorts of moments of tough confidence, which are usually followed by a pretty exciting set of fight panels.  Brainless?  Maybe sometimes, sure, but good fight comics do serve their purpose; in general to entertain, and within the context of the particular comic, to make a statement about a character, or in the case of the bloodier scenes in fight comics, to evoke an emotional, visceral response from the audience.

The only thing that bugs me about this particular comic is Storm.  She doesn’t use her powers in the battles as per T’Challa’s request to stick to his plans, and I guess I can get with that, but there’s a part where she and T’Challa escape their captors and move onto the Skrull ship where they stab K’vvvr through the chest with their swords.  I’m no expert on Storm, but straight up murdering someone, even during wartime, seems uncharacteristic, and I wonder why T’Challa didn’t just send her away to spare her from getting blood on her hands. It's as if Jason Aaron didn't even really need Storm so much as he did some other female Wakandan warrior.  But I mean, whatever, I can go with it for the sake of the fight comic and think about how I can get my No-Prize later.  It’s a fight comic, and as such, I’m too busy enjoying myself to get hung up on something as silly as how I think Storm would act during a Skrull invasion.  The answer’s right there on the page: she’ll stab a Skrull through the chest if she needs to.  Okay, fine.

So what does three issues worth of fights and stabbings and tough-guy talk have to tell us about the glorious nation of Wakanda?

Wakanda is like the Wu-Tang Clan -- ain’t nothin’ to fuck with.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Parlor Games For Comics Enthusiasts

Congratulations! You're having a dinner party! What? What do you mean you're not having a dinner party? That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard! I already RSVPed and bought a dress and told you (I told you) I'd be bringing the wine!

So it's settled! You're having a dinner party! What a mad tasteful way to spend an evening!

But what's that you say? You don't know what to do to keep your guests entertained, apart from feeding a meticulously chosen and lovingly prepared selection of dishes? Don't worry, broseph. (May I call you "broseph"? *polishes monocle while awaiting an answer*) I have compiled a number of delightful games to amuse the elite group you have invited to dinner.

(Presented to you in no particular order.)

DC Exposition: Maybe you all know each other, maybe you don't. Either way, you sure will by the time you finish this amusing game! You have one hour to carry on a conversation as a group. The goal is to reveal as much information about the history and relationships of yourself and the other guests within this time. No direct questions may be asked pertaining to these matters. All information must be delivered in expository style. 1 point for everything you reveal about yourself. 2 points for everything you reveal about someone else (discretion advised). 3 points for every relationship you explicate. Subtlety encouraged but not rewarded. Tally the points at the end of the hour. Whoever has the most, wins! Their prize to be determined by the editors of DC Comics.

Example of gameplay: "I should know a thing or two about untenable roommate situations! After all, when X and I lived together two years ago, we were always at each other's throats. Luckily, we remain friends to this day."

Model X-Men: Everyone writes down the names of several noted mutants and puts them into a hat. Each guest then draws out a name (discard and redraw if it is a duplicate name). The name they have drawn is their character. Assuming their respective characters roles, you will all form a model mutant U.N. and proceed to sit around the table debating policy. At some point someone will get angry and start banging their shoe on the table because that joke will never die. Let's be real, the winner is whoever opts for the eradication of humans, I'm sorry, but that's just probably what it's gonna come to, you know? Prize is a dystopian alternate future.

Example of gameplay: *Magneto walks around the table collecting everyone's forks, returns to his seat holding all the forks, glowers threateningly* (I don't think I know how diplomacy works???)

HULK SMASH: Just something to yell if you accidentally break a glass or whatever. No winners, obviously.

"I've Taken the Liberty": In this game, everyone is Alfred Pennyworth. The goal is to be the best butler to Bruce Wayne as you possibly can, and as everyone knows, that means anticipating his every need! Therefore, you will each take turns telling Master Bruce what you've taken the liberty of doing to make his life a little better. The person with the best answer gets to help clear the table because they have proven themselves such a talented servant.

Example of gameplay: "Master Bruce, I've noticed you seem a little bored and restless lately, so I've taken the liberty of removing the lids from all the vats of acid in Gotham City." (Credit to one Vince Reyes, who has neither a blog nor a Twitter to link to. PROBABLY FOR THE BEST.)

Daredevil Murder Mystery: Basically just the same as those murder mystery parties, except you have to solve it blindfolded and then actually convict the murderer in a court of law. Winner is whoever accomplishes this, and their prize is having Mark Waid finally giving them a fucking break from their years of unrelenting misery.

Example of gameplay: "Counsel requests another drink?" (Just because you're solving a high-stakes murder mystery doesn't mean it's not still a party!)

Frank Miller Screed: Each guest at the table is assigned a number, one through however many guests you have in total. Each guest's number represents the order in which they will take on the role of Frank Miller. A series of timers/alarms is set, such that one will go off every twenty minutes. Conversation goes on as normal. When the timer goes off, the guest whose turn it is to be Frank Miller will respond directly to the topic of conversation immediately preceding the timer with a hateful rant. Any guest who fails to mention Al Qaeda in their rant will be disqualified. Game goes on until everyone has had a chance to be Frank Miller. Whoever has the angriest and most Milleresque rant will be determined the winner, and their prize will be the disappointment and outrage of the other guests, tempered by a grudging respect for the winner's (still problematic) earlier work.

Example of gameplay: "And this enemy of mine - not of yours, apparently - must be getting a dark chuckle, if not and outright horselaugh - out of your vain, childish, self-destructive spectacle. In the name of decency, go home to your parents, you losers. Go back to your mommas' basements and play with your Lords of Warcraft."

Alright, you guys! Have fun! I'll be expecting comments/emails about how these games went over at your dinner party/explanations as to why I wasn't invited to your dinner party!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Matt Furie, Johnny Ryan, and The New Juvenilia

Oh dang, that was probably the most academic sounding title that’s ever popped up on Death-Ray Ozone.  Rest assured, I’m not here to talk to you about school.  You know how it works because you’ve been there:  School sux.  Homework sux.  Girls are weird.  And all I wanna do is hang out and blow shit up with my friends.

Discussions about both Matt Furie and Johnny Ryan’s work will eventually circle back to reminiscing about the doodles drawn in the margins of your English notebook in Junior High School while you were trying to look busy as your teacher droned on about The Giver or whatever, which I suppose is fairly accurate, but I think we can refine this discussion a bit further when we consider the idea that Ryan and Furie’s comics voices belong to the same young man at different stages of immaturity.

I like to imagine that Johnny Ryan’s voice in Prison Pit belongs to the ugliest, angriest twelve-year-old boy in the world.  He’s fascinated by blood and gutz, swearing is awesome, and the very idea of sex is a weird, gross mystery to him.  Prison Pit is the voice of the angry id-child in all of us, screaming for more violence, more cursing, more bodily fluids spewing out of EVERYTHING because it would be so cool if that happened.  That Prison Pit offers all of these with the added bonus of the violence begetting more bodily fluids, which in turn begets more cursing, which leads right back into more violence speaks to an indulgence that can only be enjoyed by kids with barely a shred of self-awareness and luxury yacht owners.

Matt Furie’s Boy’s Club has the same sort of immature indulgence, but the voice is a little bit older.  With Boy’s Club we’ve got a group of fine young anthropomorphic men who, through some sort of magic or clerical error, have managed to pay rent on a modest house where all they do is hang out, do all kinds of hallucinogenic drugs, and try on different hats and t-shirts.  The sense that I get from Boy’s Club is that Furie is using the voice of a young man who graduated from high school and just decided that he didn’t need to go to college because he was just done with going to school.  If Ryan’s Prison Pit is an angry twelve-year-old kid’s wish fulfillment, then Furie’s Boy’s Club is wish fulfillment for the burnout slacker crowd.  The same sort of indulgence is still there in Boy’s Club, but the priorities and tastes have *ahem* matured.  Blood and gutz have been supplanted by drugs and snacks, swearing is just a part of the day-to-day vocabulary, no different than a writer casually throwing in masturbatory asides, and girls are still a weird mystery, but at least they’re not so gross anymore?

It just occurred to me that with the exception of Ladydactyl in Prison Pit, there are no female characters in either of these books, which I suppose makes sense when you consider that the voices that Ryan and Furie use in their respective works are informed by the idea that girls still largely remain a mystery.  Ryan’s voice in Prison Pit sees girls as a mysterious other, not necessarily an opponent or a “bad guy.”  Since Ryan’s voice doesn’t know how to interact with girls, or even people at large for that matter, Ladydactyl is depicted as some sort of shrieking, irrational beast who is dealt with like everyone else is dealt with in Prison Pit: EXTREME VIOLENCE. 

Boy’s Club is a bit friendlier to women in the sense that women can’t be violently assaulted if they aren’t even there to begin with.  I don’t think there’s a single mention of a female character in Boy’s Club.  I suppose if we were to apply this to what this means for Furie’s voice in Boy’s Club, it would mean that Furie’s voice, via the boys of Boy’s Club, is not all that concerned with girls to begin with.  The characters in Boy’s Club are all too busy hanging out with each other to even consider what having a girlfriend would mean.  Hang out with only one person who’s probably only gonna be grossed out by my fart pranks and tremendous drug use?  Um, no dude, I’ll stick with the fellas.  You know, the guys that actually appreciate a good fart in the face.

What I’m getting at is that Prison Pit and Boy’s Club both tap into that id within us, but each work speaks to a different id with different priorities that change in us over time.  Both Ryan and Furie are skilled comics creators and artists who are able to expose that immaturity to us, the grown men and women of taste and a degree of class, and have it be simultaneously appealing and repulsing in the sense that we enjoy this, but we should know better, shouldn’t we?  Blood and guts are gross, drugs are illegal, and cursing isn’t polite.  

Girls, however, might still be a mystery.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Co-Review: Wolverine and the X-Men #1, Uncanny X-Men #1

Tessa: X-Men!
Geoffrey: Yeah.  The world still hates and fears them.  Like, A LOT.
Tessa: Because, as with money, people apparently think it matters how you get your powers.  Unlike with money money, they don't prefer for you to be born with them.
Geoffrey: So did you choose sides, or what?
Tessa: I did, although my sympathies are, admittedly, divided.
Geoffrey: I liked that about the conflict of ideologies that Schism presented.  A sort of civil-war-style thing that didn't have that sweaty Mark Millar all over it.
Tessa: Yes, and I think it gets to the heart of something that has always been a part of the X-Men, which is the division of people with a common goal and different ideas of how that is to be achieved.  You saw it with Xavier and Magneto, and now it's playing out, albeit very differently, with Wolverine and Cyclops.
It's both progressive and a return to form.
Geoffrey: It's not entirely the same conflict as Xavier/Magneto, which is nice.
Tessa: Yes, exactly.  Because that conflict is fairly outmoded at this point.
Geoffrey: We get Wolverine as the new Xavier, albeit more isolationist, and we get Cyclops as the new Magneto, but acting more on the defensive.
So the question remains (well, two questions, actually):  1. WHOSE SIDE ARE YOU ON??  and 2.  Whose face will it blow up in first?
Tessa: 1. In spite of the fact that most of my favorite mutants are going to be living in the pages of Uncanny, I like Wolverine's angle better.
2. Obviously Cyclops because that guy cannot catch a break.
Geoffrey: The only reason you're conflicted is because Emma Frost is in Uncanny.  But, 1. I picked Wolverine too. And, 2. I think it's going to be a real slow burn for Cyclops's inevitable face-to-palm at humanity.
Tessa: Yeah, I think Cyclops has chosen the more difficult mission for himself.  Wolverine is fun dad, but Cyclops is forever the guy concerned with the X-Men's image.  He wants so badly to be seen like The Avengers or the FF, and his resentment that he can't make it happen really eats away at him.
Geoffrey: But it looks like now he's kind of taking that back and folding that in to the new image of mutants he's crafting with The Extinction team.
Tessa: Yeah, which is no mean feat.
Geoffrey: Especially with a name like "The Extinction Team."  Still, though, leaps and bounds beyond "The Science Club" or “The X-Club” or whatever stupid name Beast came up with.
Tessa: Indeed. One thing I appreciate about both books is how clear the guiding mission is behind them.  I think it's easy to get a little lost with the X-Men if you don't come out strong, so Schism was a good opportunity to define those directions for the two teams.  That said, it got a little Red Rover-ish during the transition.
Geoffrey: Yeah, I didn't bother with the Regenesis special. How'd that work out?
Tessa: If you read the infographics at the back of Wolverine & the X-Men and Uncanny, you basically know.  The only part I enjoyed was Cyclops meeting up with Dazzler at a cafe.
Because who does the militaristic half of the X-Men need? DAZZLER. Love it.
Geoffrey: Whatever, Dazzler is great.
Tessa: I agree!
Geoffrey: She's a mutant superhero disco ROCKSTAR. She's the "Rain" of X-Men. OH MY GOD CAN WE PLEASE GET RAIN IN THE NEXT X-MEN MOVIE??
Tessa: And for this we at Death-Ray Ozone commend her. Speaking of characters I was pleasantly surprised to see, I am so glad that Doop is an administrator at the Jean Grey School of Higher Learning.
Geoffrey: Oh yeah, I hope there's more Doop.
All of the characters that Jason Aaron got for Wolverine and the X-Men are solid gold.  Plus I'm always onboard for some teen hero school antics, and it's great seeing these characters in teacher positions.
Tessa: Absolutely, and it's fitting that they'll be going toe-to-toe with the Lil' Hellfires, because that's the horrible name I have given them.
Geoffrey: That is horrible. I'm more excited for the football match with Avengers Academy, actually. I really do hope that we get more of the school angle than the big action superheroics from this book, though.  And I’m not saying it should be left out, but I like that Jason Aaron is bringing back this group of X-Men to those spots in the Claremont era when he would just let the X-Men hang out and run with it.  Plus, it seems like we'll be getting plenty of dudes hitting each other in Uncanny X-men.
Tessa: Yes, that one's all about the big ideas and the big action.
Geoffrey: Wolverine and the X-Men seems like lower, more personal stakes, which I'm fine with, but Uncanny seems like the "important" book in terms of how mutants are going to be seen by the rest of the Marvel Universe
Tessa: Right.
Geoffrey: Both are fun, though. Wolverine in a more sit-commy, light hearted way.  Uncanny in a "Namor just punched that giant floating Mr. Sinister head to the ground / I wonder how the humans are going to find a way to hate and fear them this time” way.
Tessa: One thing I like about Uncanny, re: the characters on the team, is that Kieron Gillen excels at writing bitchy, supercilious characters, and Uncanny has Emma Frost, Magneto, Storm, and Namor.  So as far as characters are concerned, Gillen should be able to play to his strengths.
Geoffrey: Jeez, how great was that bit where Storm asks everyone to raise their hands if they weren't formerly villains?
Tessa: It was a funny moment, but it also did a good job of revealing the stakes.  The team in charge of the X-Men's image is full of PR nightmares.
Geoffrey: But that's the point. And it's really effective.  As I was reading Cyclops's train of thought on the Extinction team, I was simultaneously nodding my head in agreement, but also thinking, "Oh, this only can end horribly."
Tessa: It's pretty clear that both teams are in over their heads.
Geoffrey: Sure, but I think Wolverine's team less so by virtue of it being a bit lower stakes than Cyclops's team.  But there's a lot of potential for all of Jason Aaron's characters to just end up hating each other anyway. Also I thought it was interesting that he chose a team with a good number of new characters
Tessa: I think that's a smart move, given that he's placing them in a more familiar context.  Granted, it has been rebuilt and altered, but it's still the basic "school for mutants" formula. Fresh blood is a necessity to make that work.
Geoffrey: I'm pretty excited about this new era of the X-Men mostly because it actually does feel like some new ground being tread.  The world still hates and fears them, but the different angles to the whole central conflict of ideologies is something that I don't think has been touched upon in the forty-ish years of X-Men comics.

Tessa: Yes, it's nice to see distinct and meaningful conflict in the mutant community and well-defined missions for those factions. Which is, as we discussed, isn’t really a new formula, but it’s being revisited in a new way.  I think veering too far into outside threat/inside bickering model over the past years has caused a lot of stagnation in the X-books, so this is a necessary jolt.
Geoffrey: Being the victims of countless attempts at genocide is bound to steer any group towards isolationism.
Tessa: Anything else we want out of the X-Men before we sign off?
Geoffrey: I just hope Cyclops can get a day off sometime.  Because it looks like he's headed down a path that Matt Murdock previously walked, and it didn't really work out too well for him -- Although Daredevil IS being written by Mark Waid now, so maybe if things take a turn for the worse, we can take comfort in the hope of a Mark Waid / Marcos Martin Cyclops series.  WHICH I WOULD READ THE SHIT OUT OF, BY THE WAY.
I don't think I have anything else to say about these books except that I'm excited to see where both are going.
And I can't wait to see more of Quentin Quire to start REALLY being a snotty shit.
Tessa: And for Emma Frost and Namor to totally get it on.
Geoffrey: Namor and Emma aren't going to get it on.

Tessa: Shhhhhhhh, let me have this.
Geoffrey: She likes the power too much to give in to his Atlantean seduction techniques (read: being shirtless ALL the time).  If there's one thing Emma Frost enjoys more than shirtless pecs, it's power.
Tessa: Gurl, I feel you.
Tessa: Correct, Geoffrey.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Tessa Paraphrases Swamp Thing, Vol. 2

OH GURRRRL, looks like like Swamp Thing really stepped up to the plate this issue (check that cover--it has both a gun AND a motorcycle) and stopped being an exhausting yet promising catalog of exposition. I'm going to recap it anyway for reasons that are semi-justified but mostly self-indulgent.* Here goes.


We open in a hospital! A doctor is being condescending to a kid in a hermetically sealed bubble, telling him he needs to make more friends and have more fun. Said kid (William) is allergic to chlorophyll (SUCKS), as the doctor explains to him for what must be the thousandth time.** Doctor tries to use a metaphor as an excuse to brag about his trophies from scuba fishing because he is completely intolerable. Also he has a tiny ponytail. One of the mounted fish starts speaking to William even though it does not seem to be a Big Mouth Billy Bass.*** Terrifying.

During fun social time, it becomes clear that the reason William has no friends has everything to do with the fact that his fellow patients are sadist bullies who are constantly threatening to cut open William's bubble.****

Now we are in the woods with our ol' pal Alec Holland and the sexy white-haired lady on the motorcycle. She has, unequivocally, the nicest eyebrows I have ever seen. She threatens Alec with a gun, saying that if he doesn't prove that he's "The Real Alec Holland" (Gurl you never knew the real Alec Holland! Did you not read Issues 1 & 2 of Swamp Thing or at least my recap?!), she will shoot him in the face. Alec responds by restraining her with vines that he apparently can control in times of stress.

White-haired lady is sufficiently impressed, and introduces herself as Abigail Arcane. Abigail and Alec reminisce about how they totally dated in Alan Moore's run on Swamp Thing (except Alec knows these aren't really his memories and it's weird). She's all "Come with me if you want to live" (just kidding, but not really?), and Alec jumps on her motorcycle because they are going to go save a hospitalized boy (I WONDER WHO IT WILL BE) "with the power to end the whole world."

Meanwhile at the hospital, William is instructed by the dead fish on the wall to mangle the everloving crap out of his horrible bullies, which he does, to appallingly gross effect. Then smug ponytail doctor shows up and starts coughing up blood because William what have you done now?

Back on the motorcycle in the woods, Abby informs Alec that just as he is connected to "the green," some are connected to "the black" (the rot), and that this kid is one of them. It is worth noting at this point, that if you picked up Animal Man this week, you are also aware that "the red" (fauna) are marshaling their forces against the rot. Looks like we're all going to learn the true meaning of Christmas this holiday season.

So Abby apparently has a family history of the rot, and ever since she stopped making out with Swamp Thing***** the rot has been calling to her, and it's saying "MY TEAM." It's pretty imperative that they get to this hospital to rescue this boy or else he will become the king of the rot or something, and it will be biblically catastrophic. Also he's Abby's brother. So there's that.

They arrive at the hospital and find mangled bodies and the smug doctor literally vomiting his guts out. Abigail makes the same concerned/disgusted face I made when I found out how highly rated a show NCIS is.****** Apparently it was Abby's smart idea to "keep him safe" in a hospital, because it's always a smart idea to keep a ticking time bomb of armageddon somewhere you can't keep track of him. And boy can't they! Because homeboy has made off with smug doctor's scuba gear and is off to cause destruction. (I'm going to add here that if William's chlorophyll problem were respiratory alone, he wouldn't have needed the bubble in the first place, and if Snyder doesn't address this later I am seriously going to flip my shit.)

BOOM. To be continued.

*Whoops, I described all of blogging.

**Fun dinner party game, I call it DC Exposition, wherein you and your cohorts find excuses to tell each other things you already know.

***I had a high school English teacher who had a Big Mouth Billy Bass in her classroom that she would activate every so often, to her students' horror.

****Whoops, I described all of the internet.

*****Dendrophilia seems to be having a cultural moment. See also: Rihanna's recent Esquire cover, where she is naked but for a piece of wilted lettuce on her shoulder.


Sunday, October 9, 2011

Review: Elektra Lives Again

Elektra Lives Again
Frank Miller & Lynn Varley

Yes, I understand that I'm about ten years too late for this party, but I was inspired to pick this up at a used bookstore after reading David Brothers's excellent Frank Miller pieces on 4th Letter.  Say what you will about Frank Miller (I'm sure some variations on "racist" or "misogynistic" are included in there), but the man has had a long career filled with A LOT of comics that have done a significant amount of work to move comics forward (and also set it back, sure).  His work can't be ignored.

Anyway, I was pleasantly surprised with this book.  Miller's work with Elektra is very well-regarded, and much different from the "whores whores whores" kind of mentality that's been so commonly associated with Miller in the past few years.  What we’ve got here is about seventy-five pages of watching a man work through the grieving process.  Elektra is dead, and Matt Murdock is having a hard time sleeping.  He’s being kept up by dreams of his assassin girlfriend being chased down and killed by the ghosts of everyone she’s ever murdered.  In order to deal with it, Matt goes down all the dead end roads of calling an ex-girlfriend, working out, confession, and general brooding.  One morning after having coerced grievance/pity sex out of a client (just another, more unethical, dead end road), Matt wanders over to Elektra’s grave, and because this is comics, he gets attacked by a group of ninjas demanding he tell them where Elektra is.  Before he can even think to be like, “Did you even read that issue where Bullseye stabbed her through the chest with her own sai?”  Matt has to defend himself from a ninja assault.  Which he does, because he’s Daredevil, and beating up ninjas is kind of his thing.  Captain America has Nazis, Spider-Man has muggers, Thor has frost giants – Daredevil has ninjas.  The battle’s in full swing, and Matt’s probably just happy to have a problem he can hit when Elektra explodes out of her own grave, killing something like at least thirteen ninjas in the space of about seven panels before she stares down Matt and knocks him out with a poison throwing star.

Let’s take a second to appreciate the art here.  One thing I love about Frank Miller’s art is that it’s so heavy and bold.  Everyone looks like a physically strong person.  Miller makes everyone look just the right combination of ugly and hard, but it works for the characters and the stories he puts them in.  One thing that is especially good in this book is how big and open the art feels.  Elektra Lives Again is mostly composed of very large, wide panels, giving Miller’s art some space to breath, allowing for some very beautiful scenery.  The pages where he chooses to use many smaller panels are perfect for those pages where Matt is alone, crowded by his own thoughts, the many small panels reflecting Matt’s immersion and entrapment in the space of his own introspection.  Miller is incredibly skilled at using his panel layouts to best reflect the pacing of his stories, and this panel where Matt and Elektra see each other for the first time since her death is a perfect example of Miller’s great sense of rhythm and pacing.  The previous seven pages are set at two panels each, creating a very steadily paced action sequence.  Each panel is a steady beat of Matt’s heart as we see the violent snapshots between Matt’s controlled heartbeats.  When this panel comes up on the eighth page of the scene, there are no borders, meaning this panel is meant to be big, something that will force the reader to stop and breath it all in.  Matt sees Elektra, and his heart stops cold.  His reflexes are quick though, so it doesn’t take him an entire page to get back into it.  Within the space of the same page, Matt’s regained his footing, and we’re back into it with four quick panels, four quick little heartbeats, bringing the action to an abrupt halt with the help of a poison throwing star.  It’s a thoughtful layout that really works to pull you in deeper to Matt’s confused and grieving mind.

And this is where the comicbook does what all good comicbooks do – this is where Frank Miller uses the art of the superhero story to present a hyperbolic look into our own lives.  The best superhero comicbooks are the ones in which we see ourselves.  We see our heroes, idealized and exaggerated versions of ourselves or at least who we want to be, tackling our own problems and our own emotions that have manifested themselves on the comicbook page as alien invasions, tyrant gods, and resurrected ninja ex-girlfriends.  Elektra Lives Again is a story about facing the pain and the grief of loss, and this is where it comes out to face our hero.

Except at this point, Miller’s been at it for a while, and subversion is a fine tool at his disposal.  This is not to be confused with subtlety, which is a tool that Miller may have lost at the bottom of his toolbox since forever, but if there’s a place where a lack of subtlety is at least a little bit acceptable, it has to be superhero comicbooks, right?  What sets apart Elektra Lives Again from all those other hyperbolized confrontations on the comicbook page is that while Miller does give a tangible form to the confrontation of grief and loss in the form of a resurrected Elektra, it’s not something that Matt can flip around and billy-club into submission.  This is because Matt is never really let in on the more fantastic, comicbook-y elements of this particular story.  Elektra is back from the dead, she’s being hunted by The Hand, and Bullseye is killed and resurrected to be more powerful than ever, but for all his determined bluster and skill with a billy club, Matt Murdock is set apart from the inner workings of the mysticism centered around Elektra’s resurrection, and he doesn’t get a lot of answers.  Sure, we get some hints as to why all of this resurrection and murder is happening, and Matt has to deal with some ninjas trying to kill him, but the central conflict exists between Elektra and The Hand – Matt is just an incidental inconvenience.  However, because Matt is the main character that we are following around, the last half of the story is not about Elektra vs. The Hand, but rather it is still about Matt’s dealing with the pain of losing Elektra, although now with the added element of unanswered questions about how and why Elektra is back.  Matt’s futile investigation and bath tub introspection about Elektra’s resurrection acts as a version of our own search for meaning behind our own pains of loss, be it from losing a loved one or a relationship ending.

By the end of the book, we have a big Elektra vs. Bullseye rematch that doesn’t end well for either party, and as Matt looks into Elektra’s eyes as she once again dies in his arms, we realize along with Matt that the only way to deal with grief and loss is to move on.  It’s difficult to say goodbye, but it’s something that must be done if Matt is ever to continue his life.  When Elektra says goodbye before dying, we get Matt’s pain and acceptance of letting go, and maybe further, we see Frank Miller saying goodbye to his time writing Elektra.  He’d created a great character and he’d told some great stories, but it was time to move on and make something new.  His determination to push his art further and his willingness to lay his bare emotions on the page are why, even if I may not much care for certain items in his catalogue of work, I will always have respect for Frank Miller.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Tessa Paraphrases Swamp Thing [As Best She Can] - Vol. 1

It's no secret that we at Death-Ray Ozone love Scott Snyder, bless his opening comic books by reflecting on something a mentor once told him heart. But guys. Guys. I am having a hard time figuring out what the hell is going on in Swamp Thing. Which would be something I'd take for granted if it weren't part of DC's New 52, which is laughably supposed to introduce new readers to the DC Universe. So (presumably) the only rule is that the new series have to stand alone, no wait the only rule is do whatever, no wait the only rule is do whatever but you have to put Superman in that dumb new costume. Zing! Those are the rules.

Swamp Thing is among those books that was all, reboot=retcon, right? (NOPE.) But the universe itself is rebooted (we know this because of, say it with me, Superman's dumb new costume). So it can be best described as a retcon within a rebooted universe? (DC, I can't believe you made me write that sentence.) I know. I KNOW. Shhh, shhhhhh, I'm here now. And we're going to make sense of this together, one issue of Swamp Thing at a time.

ISSUE ONE (The McLaughlin Group? Anybody?*):

The first line is "My father was a florist," so don't worry, you guys--Scott Snyder is definitely writing this book. Some sort of metaphor seems to be happening in the narration while Clark Kent is in the Daily Planet building (which according to George Perez, doesn't exist anymore, so does this take place before page one of his rebooted Superman? Must be! REBOOTS. Love it.) with Lois Lane & Perry White, watching a whole mess of pigeons fall out of the sky dead. It's super gross because pigeons are gross and so is death.

Meanwhile, in Gotham, Batman is distressed to see the same thing happening to bats. In addition to being a personal thing for Batman, bats are also more useful to society than pigeons because they eat pests, so this is objectively sadder. Under the sea we join Aquaman for some dead fish action. Also presumably sad (though who knows with Aquaman these days).

We are now at a construction site in Louisiana, where we realize that Alec Holland has been our narrator all along, and boy does this guy have feelings about plants. We are meant to think he has put his plant doctor life behind him for a life of construction work, with occasional allusions to plant doctoring. In Arizona, both recently (lizard!) and long-dead (mammoth!) animals are becoming mysteriously disinterred.

Back to Alec! He's hitting us with some more Plant Facts (like Flash Facts, but for botany and horticulture enthusiasts). And then, IMPORTANT EXPOSITION. While working on a bio-restorative formula that could grow plants wherever, there was a lab explosion, and Alec straight-up died. What? Yes. He woke up alive six weeks ago in a swamp with memories of being, ahem, a SWAMP THING during the intervening time.

Superman arrives! I won't tell you what he's wearing, but I'm sure you can guess.** He couldn't find Alec because bro quit his lab job (SWAMP THING NO MORE). Superman is concerned about the dead animals, Swam--I mean Alec thinks it's kind of no big deal because this stuff happens (like in Magnolia or the Bible). He also denies ever having been Swamp Thing. No sir, not him. Superman gets down to brass tacks and is like "I'm worried about you, bro." And Alec is like "RIGHTLY SO." He has weird swampy memories and a crush on a white-haired lady he's never met. Superman suggests Alec goes back to being a Superbotanist but he's not having any of it.

In Arizona the guys who were excavating the mammoth are like, "Where's our mammoth?" One of them sees something disgusting and unspeakable and then a fly flies into his ear even though he kept saying that he was a scientist! At which point his head twists backwards, his eyes go white, and he becomes a disgusting fiend. Same thing for everybody else in the party. Then we glimpse this huge corpsey monster.

Back to Alec, who is chilling in a motel that Original Eyeball of the Mindless Ones pointed out is named after former Swamp Thing artist John Totleben (good catch!). Alec is beset by vines to the point that he's all set to throw away his bio-restorative formula when he meets, a creature I can only describe as a Swamp Thing.


We open in a WWII flashback, where A. H. Rogers is flying a fighter plane. He is killed in a crash and pretty unhappy about it because he became a pilot to avoid his swampy destiny and now he's in a swamp, being overtaken by destiny.*** So this is the Swamp Thing standing before Alec right now. He was Swamp thing for awhile, then took root at the Parliament of Trees and is only now hauling his ass away from said Parliament to have some words with Alec, who is being a good ol' fashioned Joe Campbell reluctant hero. Swamp Thing Rogers is pretty insistent about having this chat, so Alec relents.

So there is this amorphous plaguey villain called Seethe that Swamp Thing Rogers is pretty worried about (we can assume said villainous plague force is responsible for the gross stuff we saw in #1). Seethe has a long history of pulling horrible, life-destroying stunts like what it's doing in Wrightson Diner (hey, paying attention to the signs now, that one's Bernie Wrightson, another former Swamp Thing artist). And he's gathering an army! Like those paleontologists whose heads he twisted! Seethe looks an awful lot like the Hunters Three we've been seeing in Animal Man, so it looks like we're inching into crossover territory (which make sense given that Snyder and Jeff Lemire are buddies, and that Animal Man and Swamp Thing are natural hippie allies--we'd invite Aquaman but he thinks he's too cool for that shit now).

So Swamp Thing Rogers is pulling the prophecy card and saying that it's time for Alec to step up and join the fight. Alec is miffed because he insists he was already a Swamp Thing, but Swamp Thing Rogers says that actually what happened is that the explosion prevented Alec from becoming Swamp Thing. So basically the Parliament made a facsimile Swamp Thing Holland with Alec's memories (the one from Alan Moore's run), and somehow Alec is now alive again and has those memories but they aren't really his but they kind of are. They...swapped memories? I think? So each has memories of a time when he was not alive? Tradesies?

Swamp Thing Rogers starts dying (because he uprooted himself from the Parliament, which is apparently a pretty serious thing), still with his "Don't write off this Swamp Thing thing, we think you'd be pretty good. Either way, avoid that white-haired lady you've never met but have a crush on." Sounds easy enough. Alec goes back to the motel, feeling weird. The manager? Owner? Something? of the motel gets attacked by the super gross flies and then shows up at Alec's door all head-torquey and bearing an axe. To kill him! Everyone else in proximity: same deal.

Alec responds, as any rational human would, by jumping on a motorcycle with a stranger who will no doubt turn out to be the very lady Swamp Thing Rogers warned him about, because come on. They outrun Seethe's hordes, and Alec wants to stop the bike. Motorcycle person is like, "No big deal, because not only am I the white-haired lady you were warned about, but I have a gun and am totally pointing it at you."


So that's where we are so far. Thanks for joining me! I'll be back with future editions unless Swamp Thing becomes really straightforward somewhere down the line.

*Hey, it's a totally relevant allusion because The McLaughlin Group made a cameo in Watchmen, written by former writer of Swamp Thing and guy with formidable beard, Alan Moore. BOOM.

**Credit where credit is due, Yanick Paquette gives us the least terrible rendition of Superman's new costume that I've seen so far. His art on this book is pretty damn exceptional.

***We get into the whole Swamp Thing mythos with successive Swamp Things who are born as humans with fancy special earthy blood and are selected by the Parliament of Trees and when they die they get Swamped and when they're done Swamping they join the Parliament where they can hang out forever and presumably choose future Swamp Things?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Review: Wonder Woman #1

Wonder Woman #1
Brian Azzarello (w), Cliff Chiang (a)

Wonder Woman is in many ways a sterling example of everything that is right and wrong with DC. Here is a character noteworthy more because of her legacy and her potential than anything else. Here is a character with a long history of being more iconic than well-rounded. Here is a character who has become notorious for being difficult to write or to understand. Here is a character the public (even the non-comic-reading public) is invested in but doesn't know why.

In short, Wonder Woman is the kind of character the DC reboot was made for: an iconic character with a long, confused history who would benefit from a fresh start. That said, given all the missteps and regressive creative decisions that have hampered the reboot so far (barring a few extraordinary exceptions--like the rest of the internet, I am smitten with Animal Man and certainly onboard with a few other titles), I had very low expectations for Wonder Woman.

Boy was I wrong.

Wonder Woman #1 is as straightforward and intuitive a reboot as I could have asked for. There are a million things this book does right, and nearly all of them stem from the fact that Azzarello has put Diana in a context that actually makes sense for her and her varied influences. It's what we in the biz* would call "mad coherent."**

The first instinct in dealing with Wonder Woman always seams to be "run screaming from her mythic origins" or else "flashback to Amazons playing badminton near a babbling brook where some of them are swimming and giggling, delightedly, to (ONE WOULD HOPE) every reader's embarrassment." Happily, Azzarello doesn't fall into either trap. Instead he acknowledges both the strangeness and grimness of the Greek mythological landscape and grounds them in a contemporary American setting (kind of like what Jason Aaron's run on Ghost Rider did for Judeo-Christian mythology). It's simultaneously gritty and fantastical (and hey, so is the phrase "warrior princess," taken at its most literal meaning), and it lets readers flex those "Greek mythology allusion-spotting" muscles.***

More than that, drawing on Greek mythology gives Azzarello a straightforward plot that can be as self-contained or expansive as he chooses. "Diana protects a mortal woman impregnated by Zeus from Hera's wrath." LOOK AT HOW UNFUSSY THAT IS: instant threat, instant world-building, instant direction, instant relationships. Almost as if he were writing the first issue introducing a character and storyline!

His approach to Diana as a character is also refreshing in its clarity. Her compassion is tempered with a soldier's terseness. Zola on the other hand (the woman gestating a McGuffin), is hot-headed and impulsive, making her a good foil to the guarded and dutiful Diana. Sensing a pattern? Azzarello isn't breaking new ground here; he's just telling a tight, clean story with boldly drawn characters. And he makes it look easy.

Cliff Chiang's standout art is a big part of that. His character designs for the mythical figures are clever and imaginative (Hermes as a bird/man hybrid, Apollo's sunlit brilliance peeking out of what appears to be a dark metal suit), and his action scenes are violent and kinetic. My only complaint (and it isn't really a complaint because I actually loved it) was a scene where Diana is awakened while sleeping naked under the sheet. In the space of one panel she fashions said sheet into a smart little outfit, which she then uses for the sole purpose of walking across the room and dropping the sheet to change into her armor. THAT'S RIDICULOUS. But if a Wonder Woman comic isn't a safe space for bizarre and campy moments like that, then I don't know what is.****

Wonder Woman #1 is smart, simple, and a ton of fun--the kind of comic I hoped the reboot would foster. Next time on Death-Ray Ozone, I show everybody how to make their very own Wonder Woman duct tape wrist gauntlets!*****

*Blogging for free
**I'm so sorry
***Want to know one of the cheapest ways to get a laugh at a college improv show? (Not dick jokes, surprisingly.) Break out your damn Greek mythology references. Everyone gets it, everyone feels smart for getting it, everyone is so excited that they got it that they laugh (if for no other reason) because they are totally pleased with themselves.
****Answer: every episode of Gossip Girl.
*****No, I don't.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Review: Prison Pit, Book 3

Prison Pit, Book 3
by Johnny Ryan

If you're onboard for the third installment of something so purposefully vile as Prison Pit, you know what you're getting into.  You're not going to be shocked by violence and gore, but you're still going to have a great time, and as you flip through Book Three you're still going to be muttering middle school interjections to yourself to the tune of "oooh GROSS" or "siiiiiick" or whatever you would yell out when Rodney Hagelman put mustard on cottage cheese during recess.  What makes this book different is that now that we know that we've got the stomach for it, we're going to need something more than just an increased level of brutality, and fortunately for us, Johnny Ryan gives what our sick minds didn't even know we needed from something like Prison Pit.  He gives us some beginnings of what may be... a plot?...

Man, the more I'm thinking about it now, I'm wondering if I'm just being an asshole reaching to find meaning in the depths of the Prison Pit abyss.  On the surface, we get the incredibly enjoyable and somewhat mindless game of a strong guy mangling other strong guys with ridiculous violence and cursing at a ninth-grade level, but beneath that I suppose we get a blank space to bring in whatever meaning we can dig up from Prison Pit.  And maybe there isn't anything more to it than a bunch of ugly things smashing each other into uglier, bloodier things.  Sure.  Fine.  But Johnny Ryan makes sure that that surface take on the material is entirely enjoyable in its own right.  We get a collection of creatures and monsters beating the shit out of each other in the most juvenile way possible, but Johnny Ryan does such a handsome job of designing these creatures to be as ugly and awful as possible.  It's an ugliness that you see in the margins of your seventh-grade notebook when you were drawing pictures of horrible things because this was the only thing that could excite you during social studies or whatever, and it's exciting to look at because you never know what you're going to see next.

Anyway, there seems to be some semblance of a more complex plot forming here in this volume, which is a good move since it'd be futile to try to make things more violent.  The violence curve had been set so high in the first two books anyway, it'd be impossible to top it now that the audience is expecting this kind of caliber of violence from this book.  Instead, Johnny Ryan takes the unexpected route of hinting at a plot bigger than "Some mean motherfucker fights other mean motherfuckers while trying to escape the desert wasteland he's trapped in," and he does this with the introduction of a new, unnamed character who we are led to believe is the archenemy of our *ahem* hero, Cannibal Fuckface.  With the introduction of this new character, Johnny Ryan hints at a few new possibilities for the story of Cannibal Fuckface.  We are left with the potential for some sort of backstory or history between the two characters, and more importantly there is the hint of something resembling consequences to Cannibal Fuckface's actions.  It also helps that this new character carries himself in a way much different from the rest of Prison Pit's inhabitants.  While everyone we've seen so far is aggressive and over the top, this new character is quiet, understated, and driven only to find and, presumably, kill Cannibal Fuckface.  The new character and the new plot elements he hints at are a well-timed break from the usual 100+ pages of violence.  I mean, it still is 100+ pages of some of the goriest violence out there, except that this particular volume gives you a little bit more substance in the form of the loose outlines of plot.

But none of that is why we pick up a book like Prison Pit, is it? We can intellectualize Prison Pit all we want, but the real appeal of Prison Pit is that it's fun on a purely visceral level.  It doesn't require a lot of work to enjoy it because we don't really care about something so trite as a plot.  We pick up Prison Pit for the carefree thrill of wonton violence and escapism.  We pick up Prison Pit to feed our id, deeper meanings and criticism about form and structure be damned.  We pick up Prison Pit to remind us of that time when we could've beat up Gregory Clauss if we'd just held our ground, but instead we ran away and drew pictures of him getting his throat stepped on.  Maybe that says more about us than it does about Prison Pit, but c'mon, man.  This isn't about us, this is about some ugly dudes beating the shit out of each other, and if that's not your thing, don't worry about it, I'll be around later to talk about that new issue of Optic Nerve that came out this week, but for now, fuck off for a second, I think I see a guy getting his guts pulled out through his dick.