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?