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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.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Review: Casanova - Avaritia #1

Casanova: Avaritia #1
Matt Fraction (w), Gabriel Bá (a)

It's September! The start of fall! The best and weirdest time of the year! A time of transition, new beginnings, false starts, reboots, fuck-ups, manning up, getting real! DC is pretending to start over from scratch again, we're pulling our sweaters out of storage (or fantasizing about it, depending on your climate), and Casanova is back and having a terrible time.

Are you having a terrible time? I know I am. America is. The comics industry is. If I could name the current zeitgeist, I would call it "WE'RE HAVING A TERRIBLE TIME." Suffice it to say, this new arc of Casanova feels relevant as hell.

If the first two arcs of Casanova were about pushing escapism to its limits, Avaritia is about the consequences of doing that. You can run, but you can't hide. If you're going to tear a hole in the multiquintessence, you have to rebuild it, painstakingly, at whatever cost. Doing the right thing is almost never fun, and responsibility and autonomy are almost always mutually exclusive. You start out as Diabolik and end up as George Bailey. Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?

As presaged by the death of Ruby Seychelle in Gula #3, killing is no longer fun or impermanent. Violence is mean, exhausting, and (literally) sickening, right down to the bruisey, rotting fruit color palette (equal parts gorgeous and nauseating). There are literal Xs over the twinkles in Casanova's eyes. The breakneck speed and crowded pages that made the first arcs of Casanova an exuberant romp make Avaritia like running an obstacle course with a hangover.

It's basically fantastic.

As much as, in my innocent heart-of-hearts, I would love to see Casanova keep being the fun, sexy, super-spy forever, there is something sad but heartening about watching him take the tough road, even though it means endless misery (this is why The Long Goodbye is my favorite Raymond Chandler novel--a moral compass is a white elephant of a gift). Fraction makes much, both in this issue's backmatter and in this excellent interview with Laura Hudson on Comics Alliance, of the fact that his creator-owned and work-for-hire comics are apples and oranges. That said, a lot about this issue reminds me of so much of what I liked about his run on Invincible Iron Man (especially #500). It's safe to say, between the two comics, that responsibility is a big concern for Fraction, which makes sense, given his history as a recovering alcoholic. Not to mention, you know, America. "WE'RE HAVING A TERRIBLE TIME." (Not that Fraction is having a terrible time--it sounds like he's doing pretty great, actually! Nice going, Matt! You've earned it! Your wife seems cool as well! Dinner Thursday?)

So, much as it was an unmitigated delight to run away from our problems with Casanova in Luxuria and (to a lesser extent, given the shades of darkness to come) in Gula, it is also reassuring to muscle through the shit with him in Avaritia. God willing we'll all come out of it like an army of Iggy Pops, worn and tattered but still laughing, fighting, and fucking.