Eternal Empire #1

Eternal Empire coverMy experience of the Luna brothers’ work has to date been limited to Alex + Ada and a couple of issues of Girls. Eternal Empire, the latest collaboration between Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughn, is a very different beast altogether, although it does share some thematic concerns, the challenges for women in oppressive societies being one of them. Set on a world which orbits three suns, this first issue primarily deals with the escape of an unnamed girl from a work camp and, along the way, gives us enough hints about the world in which the story takes place to make giving the next issue a look an attractive proposition.

 
With comics being such a visual medium, whether readers enjoy a story or not depends a great deal on their reaction to the art. I mention this, because Luna’s art style is one about which I am a little ambivalent. It is clear, clean and crisp – almost to the point of crudeness. At times, his characters appear to display an almost mechanical stiffness. His storytelling, however, is exemplary. There are moments in this issue that possess an almost filmic quality. The fight between our protagonist and a pair of burly male guards is told in an absorbing, almost uncomfortably unhurried way that reinforces the sheer physical effort of her struggle to escape. The subsequent journey through the snow-swept night is also impressive storytelling (the page is divided up into a regular 4×5 grid and the story is moved as much by the slow lightening of colour as it is by the minimalist dialogue), as are the images of the girl supporting walking through fields of livestock and catching fish in a river. Luna’s art may not be to everyone’s taste, but it does involve the reader in the story. And the story is very interesting indeed.

 

Eternal Empire map

A map on the title page means that we’re in serious second world fantasy territory. The essay about the three suns is interesting, too.

The issue opens with a ceremony in which a young woman divests herself of her robes and stands naked before a dragon-like creature and asks it to ‘join with her’ to create a new ‘one’, which seems to refer to ‘synnians’. The text is unclear on this point, but the ‘synnians’ appear to be a hybrid race who are currently rampaging through the continent and threatening Karabon, the nation where the ceremony is taking place. The woman, then, appears to be proposing that the dragon-creature help resist this invasion by creating a new hybrid to counter the old. This prologue is appropriately mysterious and just a little disturbing. The woman’s nakedness suggests the union will be a physical one; the dragon-creature’s chains suggest that it will not be entirely consensual. Throughout the scene, the three-sun motif is present – not just in the position of the suns in the sky (they are aligned in an inverted triangle pattern, equidistant from one another), but also in the cowls that the young woman and her fellow celebrants are wearing on the first page, as well as the fact that each line of the ceremony is spoken three times. All of which helps communicate the sense that this world has a culture and history that is at least in part influenced by its unusual relationship to its suns.

 

Eternal Empire 4

Farming is hard in the world of Eternal Empire.

We then jump forward 141 years to a work camp in which ‘haam’ are forced to work the soil, pulling up root vegetables from the frozen ground with their bare hands and living on subsistence rations as they do so. We see orderly rows of plants and wooden walls and guard posts that suggest the sort of institutionalised farming more associated with 20th century totalitarian regimes than your stereotypical fantasy setting. The work is hard as is made clear by Luna’s art and the fact that we see a worker being beaten for stealing food. During this section, it is revealed that the work camp is run by the Eternal Empire which rose “to save the Eastern Three from the synnians of old”. This is a reference to the prologue. It would seem that the dream of liberation and survival has turned into something altogether more acquisitive and imperial. Hmmm. This announcement is made in the shadow of a large statue presumably meant to represent the Empress – a bronze-skinned woman with angelic wings and a neutral expression with arms by her sides palms outward in a gesture that is, perhaps, welcoming.

 
We are told that the Empress is immortal and that her armies have just conquered Kadei and will march on Nifaal to unite the continent (or perhaps the world) under her rule. All of this is interesting to the reader, but not especially helpful to our protagonist who keeps on getting visionary flashes of warmth and light that impinge upon her drab, gruelling and frozen existence and offer her a tantalising hope of something better – or at least different. When the opportunity to escape comes, she does – although it is a close-run thing – and ends the issue with a surprise meeting with a mysterious bronze-skinned man who, it seems, can shoot flames from his hands.

 
As introductory issues go, this is both intriguing and enjoyable. Much of the enjoyment comes from the undeniable sense that we are reading a story set in a world with a coherent history whose details have yet to be fully revealed to us. The main character is suffering, brave and resourceful – all of which are appealing, although she is presented to us with very little in the way of background or indication of any pre-existing family ties. She is, however, an immediately sympathetic character and an effective focus and vehicle for the issue’s main story. Her suffering is a key aspect of her appeal and Vaughn and Luna emphasise this through a number of encounters with authority. Her determination to escape through the blizzard is admirable, too.

 
I said at the start of this review that, in terms of setting, this was a departure from Alex + Ada, but there are thematic similarities nonetheless. Like Ada, our protagonist here deals with imprisonment and escape. More than that, she is determined to explore the wider world and to take risks in order to do so. The differences between this story and Vaughn and Luna’s previous outing, however, are, if anything, more interesting. Eternal Empire’s setting – with its three suns and clearly defined geography (the issue has a map on the title page – I do love me a good map on a title page), its history and religion – are, at the moment, as intriguing and involving as the story of its protagonist. In introducing both, this issue is a clear success and one that, if dystopian fantasies are your bag, I heartily recommend.

 

(This review first appeared on the Weird Science DC Comics website.)

Brief Encounter – American Gods: Shadows #3

American Gods 3 coverNot having read the novel on which it’s based, I can’t say for certain just how close to the book this comic adaptation of American Gods is, but I suspect it’s pretty faithful. The first two issues were something of a slow burn and, while this continues in this issue, at least what is smouldering slowly is interesting. This issue, while we still don’t know exactly what the enigmatic Mister Wednesday is up to, we do begin to get a clearer idea of the world in which our eponymous character, Shadow, has found himself. And it is pretty weird. And just a little bit scary.
This issue starts off exactly where the last issue left us. Shadow makes his way back to the motel, bumps into Mister Wednesday and tells him about his encounter with the strange fat kid in the limo. Wednesday says that he knows who the kid is and that “they don’t have a fucking clue”. I got the impression here that, at this point, Wednesday sees the fat kid as more of an irritant than a threat, but the narrative doesn’t give us time to dwell on that, as we see Shadow go back to his room and try to get to sleep and not think about his dead wife.
So, of course, she turns up. But not before Shadow has a satisfyingly weird, but oddly informative, dream. This is where Hampton’s understated art comes into its own. So realistic and grounded is his art normally that, when the narrative enters, as here, a dreamscape, the art feels just as ‘real’ despite its clearly fantastical subject matter – and it’s all the more disturbing for that. Shadow finds himself in a hall of statues, each statue representing a god who has been “forgotten” and “might as well be dead”. Then, he is shown a much larger collection of statues of gods whose names have been forgotten, too. These gods, presumably, have passed from the “might as well be dead” category into the “are actually dead” category. This is a useful – and memorable – bit of background provision. Gods can die. They have died in the past. Their deaths are connected with the process of being forgotten.

 

American Gods 3 pic 1

Hampton does uncannily weird and twisted very well indeed, it turns out.

This section raises a slight issue with the way the adapters have chosen to tell this story. Anyone who’s read enough of my reviews will know that I have an irrational nostalgia (all nostalgia is irrational, arguably) for the heady days of melodramatic third person narration. The third person narration here is more understated than that found in your average pre-90s comic; it does, nevertheless, remind the reader of both the good and bad aspects of the form. It is, for example, useful to know that Shadow is being spoken to in his dream by a “precise voice” that is “fussy” and “exact”. That kind of detail is difficult to hint at through relying on dialogue alone and I get the feeling it’s important detail, too. That said, being told that “there was something profoundly disturbing” about the statue in front of which Shadow finds himself is a piece of commentary we don’t really need. If you think there’s not something profoundly disturbing about a huge three-breasted, snake-headed statue with a massive vulva carved in the front of it, you might want to seek professional help.
Shadow wakes up from his vision in something of a state and goes to the loo. When he comes back, he finds his dead wife sitting on his bed. This section is astonishingly well-written and incredibly disturbing, mostly because of the jarring juxtaposition of the dead Laura’s matter-of-fact honesty and the fact that, well, she’s dead, something that, again, the third person narration helps communicate very effectively. That third person narration lets the reader down a little, though, by telling rather than showing us that Shadow cries himself to sleep. Given Shadow’s taciturnity up to now, that display of emotion might have been a useful way to cement the character’s relationship with the reader. A minor gripe? Probably. It’s more or less forgotten as the narrative is interrupted by a rather nice vignette with art by Walt Simonson and Laura Martin.
Given that this 4-page section deals with the establishing of the Nordic pantheon in the New World, the choice of Simonson as artist is a bit of a no-brainer. After all, if you want anyone to portray this story’s version of Odin, Thor and Tyr, who better than the writer/artist of probably the best non-Kirby run on Marvel’s Thor title as well as his own criminally ignored (seriously, am I the only person reading it?) take on Norse mythology, Ragnarok? This, however, is Simonson in much more restrained mood, which is appropriate given that this is not a tale of heroism, but of, to use a timeworn phrase, a clash of cultures, faith and, ultimately, betrayal. It’s grim stuff and makes the point fairly eloquently that most religions are rooted in blood, violence and self-interest.

American Gods 3 pic 2

The dead wife comes to call. A touch awkward, that.

The rest of the issue deals with Shadow and Wednesday’s trip to Chicago where they meet up with some odd characters who, my trusty googling tells me, are Slavic gods. The issue ends with Shadow sitting down to play a game of checkers with Czernobog, whose name literally means ‘black god’. Gaiman, Russell and Hampton portray these Slavic gods as old, decrepit and down on their luck. They are, perhaps, only one or two steps removed from those unmoving statues that Shadow encountered in his dream. What the significance of the checkers game might be is, at this point, unclear. As has been the case with the last two chapters, this issue ends on an anti-climactic, somewhat uncertain note. I don’t necessarily mind that, though. American Gods is perhaps a series to encourage reflection in the reader rather than the desire to read on straight away.

In conclusion, this issue delivers much more fantasy than the previous two and is all the better for it. As Shadow gets more and more entangled in Wednesday’s plans, the richness of Gaiman’s world is becoming clearer. Hampton’s art works well here and Simonson’s interlude is rather classy. This is entertaining, thought-provoking and, at times, disturbing storytelling. If you don’t mind the slow burn, it’s well worth your time.

(This review originally appeared on the Weird Science DC Comics website.)

Cheerio!

CheerioWell, this is going to be a bit self-indulgent, so bear with me. Fans of anything tend to be tribal, vociferous and irrational. I’m going to try and avoid that where possible, but ultimately this is going to be an opinion piece and, as I’m not the most rational of people at the best of times, I can’t guarantee I’ll be successful.

I’m going to outline below why, now that the Doctor is a woman, I will no longer be watching the show. I am not blind to the blatant ridiculousness of that statement and my aim in this post is to explain why, even though it may be ridiculous to you, it makes a kind of sense to me. Before I start, let me just say that, if you’re overjoyed/enthusiastic/cautiously optimistic about the casting of the rather impressive Jodie Whittaker as the 13th (or is that 14th?) incarnation of everyone’s favourite Time Lord, then more power to you. It is not my intention to rain on your parade. Enjoy yourself. I simply find myself unable to share what you’re feeling and am trying to explain why.

First, a little background. I’m 47 years old and have been a Doctor Who fan for most of my life. A couple of days ago, I posted on my Facebook feed that I used to feel that Doctor Who ‘spoke’ to me. That’s perhaps a bit pretentious, but when I was a child it resonated with me on a fundamental level that it took me quite a few years to understand. Partly, it was to do with my developing collecting instinct that well and truly blossomed once I discovered Target novelisations; partly, it was to do with the sense of wonder, excitement and fear with which I suspect most subscribers to this group will identify, when it comes to explaining their attraction to the show. Partly, though, the Doctor was an aspirational figure for me – witty, knowledgeable and, perhaps most important, articulate. As a decidedly non-sporty (my occasional flirtation with cricket and brief obsession with Subbuteo notwithstanding) bookish child, the Doctor was a perfect character with which to become obsessed.

Through that obsession, the show has actually given me a great deal and I’d like to acknowledge that here. It taught me to be analytical (and the John Nathan-Turner years provided plenty of opportunities for criticism), it fired my imagination, it inspired me to write, in primary school it gave me my best friend, in my early twenties it gave me fandom, the unique experience of contributing to and helping produce a fanzine and a group of friends who were witty, intelligent and extraordinarily kind. When I became a father, it gave me the never-to-be-forgotten experience of my three year old son arranging all my VHS Doctor Who tapes into a long line stretching from the living room into the kitchen in transmission order. I must admit, I never really thought I’d end up voluntarily walking away from the show.

Yet here we are.

The issues I have with a female Doctor are somewhat complicated. They are born out of a slowly developing dissatisfaction with the new series ever since Tennant’s overly mawkish swansong and, despite the odd triumph of storytelling (‘The God Complex’ is an incredible story for all sorts of reasons; ‘Flatline’ is perhaps the most genuinely scary story in the new Who canon), it’s only got worse during Moffatt’s tenure as showrunner. Moffatt’s penchant for overly complex story arcs whose thread he never quite manages to hang on to, his (rightly) much-derided portrayal of the Doctor as so clever he might as well be God, his elevation of ‘cleverness’ above the fundamentals of storytelling (Clara is an extraordinarily unlikeable companion because of this) – all of these have contributed to a sense that the show is no longer speaking to me, but down to me. Where the show used to take me by the hand and lead me through some scary, thought-provoking, awe-inspiring stories, now it seems to want me to stay in my seat and marvel at how wonderfully clever it is. The installation of a female Doctor is part of that trend. It’s as if the show (or certainly its most vocal supporters) want me to admire how progressive and ‘ground-breaking’ it is. More on this in a moment.

It’s worth noting, too, that I am a conservative Christian with a family and a fairly traditional outlook. While I never found RTD’s atheism especially troubling (the stories were simply too good to be derailed by it) or his sexual orientation (which is none of my business and ditto), the show in recent years has acquired a decidedly smug tone in pushing its ‘progressive’ agenda (the most egregious example being this year’s anti-capitalist fable, ‘Oxygen’) and it is a smugness that, because of the issues outlined above, hasn’t really been earned.

The female Doctor is, imho, a large part of this. She is part of a wider cultural movement in which differences between genders must be respected until to do so is deemed disadvantageous to women in which case we must pretend that they do not, in fact, exist after all and that, for example, gender-swapping roles will have no negative impact whatsoever. Not only that but it’s a change that is neither radical nor ground-breaking at a time when we’ve had a female lead in the new Star Wars trilogy, an all-female Ghostbusters reboot and Wonder Woman (deservedly so) is outperforming all expectations at the box office. In this climate, the female Doctor is a remarkably safe ‘radicalism’, a change beloved of media elites and progressive identitarians, a change whose time, apparently, has come, but, as the recent Radio Times poll seems to indicate, is not creating anywhere near as big a controversy as might be expected. In fact, I would argue (as Spiked-Online has done already) that the ploy is partly ideological and partly a cynical attempt to revive interest in a show whose increasingly opaque storytelling has been turning viewers off in significant numbers. (For reference’s sake, Matt Smith’s first episode ‘Eleventh Hour’ accrued ratings of 10 million, considerably more than the first issue of the last series which had ratings of 6.68 million.)

Whatever the motivation behind the change, to me it represents a deliberate disregard for the show’s televised history, its broader past and the unique appeal of its central (male) character. For over 50 years, the Doctor has been male. Now, after 12 incarnations of gender consistency, we are expected to believe that the Doctor can be a woman? It is hard to escape the feeling that this change has been prepared for quite deliberately and has been influenced by external social and cultural currents. Put bluntly, we now have a female Doctor because it’s ‘trendy’ and because Western culture, feeble and increasingly impoverished, is currently experiencing paroxysms of guilt-inspired self-harm, in the process casting aside or defacing anything that smacks of tradition, continuity or certainty. (Yeah, I know. I might be stretching there with that last sentence, but if you’re going to be a cultural conservative, you might as well go all in.) Neither of these reasons are worth ruining a long-established cultural icon for.

Jodie WhittakerAnd, of course, fans who have objected to the change (many of whom have been women, curiously enough) are pilloried and dismissed on social media. Most of those responses aren’t worth dealing with as they tend to display precisely the same sorts of prejudices from which this enlightened change is meant to be redeeming us. Some are genuinely funny (the Doctor Who hotline for upset fans is well worth a listen, if you get the chance), but I’d like to address one in particular. When one fan pointed out that the social justice left would be outraged if Miss Marple, Xena, Wonder Woman or any other female popular icon had their gender ‘flipped’, a social justice ‘warrior’ helpfully replied that we’ve already got Poirot and Hercules. Which rather misses the point. Hercules doesn’t come from Themyscira or fly an invisible plane; Miss Marple doesn’t have a best friend called Hastings. What has happened with Doctor Who is not the same as the Ghostbusters re-boot or the casting of Daisy Ridley as the new Star Wars lead. This is taking an already established character, a character who has accrued a vast amount of cultural capital during the course of his relatively long life, and changing a fundamental aspect of him, an aspect that has been consistent for decades, an aspect that may, in fact, turn out to be integral to his success in ways the new, short-sighted showrunners simply do not understand.

Look, at the end of the day, a female Doctor is relatively small beer. As a 47 year old adult, the disrespect for the show’s history and my own miniscule personal investment in it are things I can shrug off relatively easily. I’m not devastated by this development. Nor am I crying tears of ‘nerdrage’ as so many memes on my Twitter feed are assuming I must be doing. I’ve got a hell of a lot of DVDs, novels and comics to keep me going for the time being. (Oh, and Big Finish CDs/downloads – so many of them!) I can’t help thinking that my 9 year old Target book-collecting self wouldn’t have been able to cope with the change with such equanimity, though.

But that’s neither here nor there. As I’ve said elsewhere, I wish Jodie Whittaker every success in the world (or space-time continuum, as the case may be) and I hope people continue to enjoy the show for a long time to come. But, it’s no longer for me.

Comments are open below. Feel free to post, but I won’t be responding to abuse.

Learning To Be A Superhero With… Battlestar

What do you mean, you’ve never heard of Battlestar? He was Captain America’s sidekick, back when John Walker was wearing the stars and stripes spandex and… What do you mean, who’s John Walker? You know. John Walker. The USAgent? US… Oh, I give up.

Battlestar was a shield-carrying super with some pretty cool moves. Although, as this issue of Captain America (issue 355, if you’re interested) illustrates, not everything goes according to plan when you’re a sidekick of someone who’s essentially a slightly rubbish knock-off of a much more iconic (and competent) character.

Issue 355 of Captain America is a curious beast. Written by Mark Gruenwald and drawn by Rich Buckler, it features a Captain America who is contacted by an old flame who wants him to investigate her runaway younger sister. Cap decides to visit Sersi to de-age (and de-power) himself so he can pose as a teenager and investigate a string of teen disappearances of which his ex’s sister’s is only the latest. Because obviously that’s what you would do in these circumstances.

Battlestar features in the issue’s B plot. He’s trying to figure out what’s happened to his old mentor, the aforementioned John Walker, who Battlestar initially thinks has been killed, but who eventually turns out to have been set up with a new identity and is now hanging out at the Avengers West Coast compound in LA. Not that Battlestar actually knows that. Instead, he tracks down Val Cooper (who could have told him but doesn’t – national security etc etc) and then decides to have a chat with the Falcon who is apparently in the phone book.

Unsurprisingly, Sam Wilson’s getting beaten up by members of the Serpent Society when Battlestar finds him. I say ‘unsurprisingly’, but, really, if you let the world know you’re a super-hero then you’re kind of asking for trouble, aren’t you?

First, we get a taste of Battlestar’s detective skills…

Battlestar 1

He’s good, isn’t he? And is backflipping the best way to negotiate a flight of stairs? I’m asking for a particularly acrobatic friend, you understand.

Then, he gets stuck in to some fighting, helping an out of costume Sam Wilson deal with a couple of weirdos who seem to be interested in the costume. That he’s not wearing. I’ve decided that Gruenwald’s writing is pretty entertaining precisely because he likes weird little details like this. Anyway, Sam skedaddles into the bathroom while Battlestar tries to get out of some unpleasant metal ribbons (he’ll probably want to use a different word when he’s filling in his Superhero Villain Encounter Self-Assessment Form) that one of the bad guys has wrapped him in. After a decidedly awkward encounter with the female supervillain in the loo in which Falcon taunts the villain for liking “rough trade” (look it up in the urban dictionary, I dare you), Falcon heads back into his apartment for these two panels…

Battlestar 2

Whum! The sound of someone in a headlock getting pounded in the head. Comics. They’re awesome.

Now, I kind of like this. First, there’s the fact that Falcon and Battlestar (I am resisting the urge to abbreviate his name to BS. I really am) are still involved in the action, the former rescuing his pet Redbird from those aforementioned ribbons and the latter still struggling with the bad guy. The “nngh” in the dialogue to indicate that Battlestar’s still engaged in some strenuous physical activity is a nice touch. So is the fact that Falcon has heard of Battlestar and they (kind of) bond over this. It makes me go all gooey inside.

Then this happens…

Battlestar 3

When superheroes get together, all sorts of hi jinks ensue. Count the number of balconies, btw. There’ll be a test later.

Words can’t quite explain how terrifyingly hilarious this is. I suspect that this is Battlestar getting just a little bit carried away in front of his new friend. Bearing in mind that he had the bad guy (just about) subdued at this point and Falcon was free to help him if necessary, I can’t see this as anything more than a horrible misjudgment on Battlestar’s part. And the banter is terrible. “I’m gonna see if you’re as hard as you say you are, Rock!” “Wha…? Wait!!” Again, it’s Gruenwald’s writing that makes this work (in a non-working sort of way). Battlestar thinking that there’s “no one below” after he’s already dived out of the window with a supervillain in tow just makes things immeasurably worse.

Battlestar 4

Wrakk. I’m not sure if that sound effect is ironic or not.

And the bad guy lands on his (admittedly helmeted) head. Of course, he does. Nothing can go wrong here. At all. No lawsuits. No brain injuries. No fractured skulls. Or broken necks. Nothing.

Plus, if you look closely, you’ll see that Battlestar’s elbow also takes at least some of the impact. Let’s face it. Neither of them have Superman levels of invulnerability; neither of them are coming away from this unscathed.

Except, of course they are…

Well, Battlestar is. In one of the best examples of “I oughn’t to have done that” outside of Lennie’s regrettably slow realisation that indulging in a spot of ad hoc coiffure management with Curley’s wife wasn’t a great idea, a moderately concerned Battlestar checks his foe’s limp body for damage and, finding a pulse and not finding blood, breathes a huge sigh of relief. “No blood.” We’re all good, then! Phew! Not having heard of things like internal hemorrhaging and swellings on the brain, Battlestar can get on with what he does best – fighting snake-themed villains with a moderate amount of success.

Before we look at that, though, it’s worth pointing out that, in the time-honoured manner of people all around the world who realise they’ve probably gone too far but don’t want to admit it, Battlestar lies to himself.  That drop was way more than four storeys, buddy. Way more. I’m thinking at least six judging from that panel earlier.

Battlestar again

Ooh, you fibber!

Unfortunately, Battlestar doesn’t have time to wrestle with his conscience. Someone else wants a wrestle and it turns out to be yet another snake-themed villain who can expand his size at will and, consequently, goes by the name Puff Adder. Of course he does.

This leads to the most ignominious (and hilarious) moment of the comic (although a fifteen year old Captain America just saying no to drugs comes pretty close). Having withstood Puff Adder’s attack and holding him over his head in a classic wrestling move, Battlestar loses his grip – and his dignity – when Puff Adder expands his size, Battlestar can’t keep hold of him and our plucky hero gets flattened by the villain’s sheer weight. He then has to spend most of the fight looking on helplessly from underneath Puff Adder while the Falcon fights him. It is, indeed, embarrassing.

Battlestar 6

A couple of things. Firstly, Puff Adder hasn’t moved for several panels at this point. Secondly, the Falcon’s plan is to use the weapons of his fallen enemy to attack his current one. Despite the fact that the supervillain’s weaponry is fully integrated into her suit and therefore the Falcon needs to carry her unconscious body with him to complete the attack. Strategic genius this is not.

And that’s where we’ll leave it for Battlestar, a hero who, in a comic already brimming with bizarre twists and revelations, provides some truly classic entertainment.

And I haven’t really talked about the A plot yet. Maybe 15 year old Cap’s adventures in New York city and the YMCA will be the subject of a later blog post. Who knows?

Until then, make mine Mark Gruenwald!

Kirby Goes Savage – Uncanny X-Men #10

_20170711_095711This is going to be less a review and more an appreciation. It should go without saying that Kirby’s Marvel work is seminal, absolutely and fundamentally integral to the company’s success in the 60s. A lot of critical attention has focused (quite rightly) on his Fantastic Four run or his phenomenal sequence of stories featuring Thor. His work on Uncanny X-Men, though less successful, is still worth a look.

To me, Kirby’s work is remarkable for three things: character design, dynamism and the sheer, overwhelming fecundity of the artist’s imagination. All three are on display in this issue.

I’ll be honest with you. Uncanny X-Men plays second fiddle to Fantastic Four, The Mighty Thor and Amazing Spider-Man for a reason. Where FF and Thor manage to effortlessly conjure a pulpy sense of the sublime and Spider-Man is a wonderful character study of a young man growing up and trying to find his place in the world, Uncanny X-Men is burdened with an overly earnest approach to teenage alienation whose characters’ overly respectful attitude to the patriarchal Professor X ensures that adventures are too tightly structured for the characters to develop or be realised effectively. Even the characters’ uniforms suggest a kind of conformity. There’s definitely a sense of Kirby’s imagination being constrained here. Issue 10 is a bit of an exception.

Issue 10 introduces Ka-Zar and the Savage Land to the Marvel Universe. Evidently influenced by Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Land That Time Forgot (but still over a decade before its big screen adaptation), the issue sees Professor X uncharacteristically grant his graduates’ (not students at this point) request to pop down to the Antarctic for no good reason whatsoever. Having seen footage of a man in a loincloth, alongside a sabre-toothed tiger, wreaking havoc on a research base and having already established that the main in the loincloth is not a mutant, Professor X lets them go because… well, why not? Whatever his reasons (or lack of them) may be, the reader – and presumably Kirby himself – can breathe a sigh of relief as the creative gloves are off this issue and Kirby gets to show what he can do.

_20170711_090537 (1)

The 60s tradition of having a character describe the action as it is happening is alive and well here.

The plot is pretty standard fare. The team arrive in the Antarctic, find a mysterious tunnel that leads them to a primeval world, get attacked by savage swamp-men, rescue the too-powerful-to-actually-do-anything Jean Grey, destroy the swamp-men’s habitat in the process and then go home. Ka-Zar has a few moments as you might expect, but really there’s nothing particularly amazing here. Apart from the art and the little weird details that make everything else so much better.

The descent through the Antarctic tunnel is well done for a start; the team encounter a graveyard of gigantic bones which hints at the strangeness to come. Then they emerge from a cave and are immediately attacked by pterodactyls. Once that threat is dealt with both they and the reader are given a breather to take in the world to which they’ve travelled, a world where an ankylosaurus lumbers along underneath an archway of stone, while miniature horses get under Iceman’s feet. The sheer vibrancy of this bizarre world is fantastic to see.

It isn’t long, however, before the X-Men are attacked again, this time by barbaric-looking humans riding giant carnivorous avian mounts. Here, Kirby’s imagination rises to the challenge. The swamp men are not just savages on big birds; they are armed with rocks filled with volcanic gas and weird-looking bows that can fire four arrows simultaneously. They’re tactically astute enough to keep the X-Men busy while one of their number picks up a curiously inactive Jean Grey and whisks her off for a spot of human sacrifice.

Uncanny X-Men 10

Not only is he a great fighter (and looks good in a loincloth), but apparently he’s really loud. Rock and roll!

The X-Men have to work with Ka-Zar to free her. The interesting thing is that there is no mention whatsoever of Ka-Zar’s Kevin Plunder identity. Indeed, Ka-Zar is barely able to string a sentence together at this point (although he nevertheless manages to make his feelings about his “no touch” rule very clear). Although Zabu is present, Shanna isn’t. This prototypical Savage Land is teeming with life, a good portion of which is unfriendly, but Ka-Zar cuts a rather lonely figure in his first appearance. This may explain why his social skills are so appalling. A misunderstanding leads to the obligatory fight between two groups of people who should really be working together (this issue comes right after the first X-Men v Avengers showdown, incidentally) and the fight is only stopped when “Maa-Gor, the Killer! Last of man-ape tribe!” makes an entrance and conveniently provides them with a common foe.

Once Maa-Gor is dispatched, there’s a really rather fantastic short journey to the swamp men’s sacrificial pyramid in which Angel’s encounter with a brontosaurus provides an impressive sense of the dinosaur’s sheer size. The Angel’s subsequent capture means that he’s added to the sacrificial running order, which adds to the sense of urgency and the feeling that the X-Men are really up against it. Particularly when the tyrannosaurus rex shows up.

Oh, come on, don’t even pretend that you’re surprised!

I’ve not done much research on this but I have the feeling that ritual sacrifice by dinosaur is one of the more inefficient methods of appeasing one’s dark, unknowable gods available to the aspiring acolyte. It certainly proves so here. Although Jean can’t manipulate her own bonds because they’re coated in pitch (really?!? Does this happen in any later X-Men books? It seems like the kind of thing Mr Sinister could do with knowing about), she can free Angel, although it is, to be fair, a close run thing. She has to mentally lob boulders at it to keep it away from the pair of them until she can turn her attention to Angel’s bonds. This sequence does raise the issue of why she can’t just lob an especially large boulder at the tyrannosaurus’ head and bash its brains out. There are, I suppose, a couple of answers to this. The first is that this is a kids’ comic and they might get upset at the sight of tyrannosaur brains in their favourite (well, second favourite, probably) comic. The second is that Jean’s a girl and has a specifically female damsel-in-distress role to fill. Don’t you worry, Jean. Emancipation (via becoming all-powerful, going mad, dying and being brought back to life, all while your former boyfriend marries someone who looks just like you) is on its way.

_20170711_090440

Awesome. Just awesome.

The last we see of the tyrannosaurus rex is its backside, by the way. This is the kind of thing that’s worth knowing. Not that you really notice because the next two pages are a gloriously throbbing actionfest of Kirby craziness, which includes Cyclops being upstaged by a herd of mammoths and Iceman rolling at least four swamp men into a snowball that actually only looks big enough to hold one of them comfortably. Having destroyed the swamp men’s village, the heroes hug and…

Ah, who am I kidding?

Ka-Zar gives the X-Men the brush-off and tells them never to come back to the Savage Land again. Which is obviously something they take to heart.

But, at least in the Savage Land no one (at the moment) cares if you’re a mutant or not. The complete absence of noble angst here is remarkably refreshing. Sure, Ka-Zar and the X-Men fight, but this isn’t because he’s an unthinking bigot and they’re super-powered mutants in a world that fears them, but because he’s alone in a prehistoric jungle deep below the antarctic wastes and both his social skills and grasp of the English language are extremely poor. I can live with that.

And you do get lots of Kirby weirdness here. Gas-filled rocks? Bird-riding enemies? Sabre-toothed tigers leaping across chasms? Maa-Gor the Killer? It’s all here and it all pulses with a vitality that, even 50+ years later, is breathtaking. Uncanny X-Men #10. A fine example of comic book storytelling. Enjoy!

The Kalaz’an Conspiray – Prologue (Part 6)

Later, Marris would feel a sense of satisfaction that the first instinct of every member of her team had been to move toward the unnatural screaming darkness rather than away from it.

At the time, however, all she felt was surging adrenaline, cold terror and the fierce determination to keep both firmly under control.

It was difficult in the face of that howling void – a gaping blackness framed, almost incongruously, by the drably painted laboratory wall – but she kept her voice level, willing it to communicate a confidence and certainty she only dimly felt.  “Albright, Devereux, keep to the rear. Five metre gap. Coleridge, De Santos, Garrison with me. Coleridge, you’re on point. With me.”

Fortunately, the orders required little thought, as did the automatic flipping of her sidearm’s safety as she unholstered it. The pistol purred contentedly then settled into a barely perceptible hum. She paused for just a moment at the threshold of the corridor.

The screaming had been steadily rising in pitch since the blackness had first appeared. She couldn’t be certain, but she thought she heard distinct voices. Gomez and Hendrickson, perhaps? It was difficult to tell. She didn’t want to think about what might be happening to them to cause that agonising, desperate shrieking. She didn’t want to think about what waited for them beyond the threshold, the stark dividing line between light and…

The screaming stopped.

The silence that rushed to fill its place seemed almost obscene in comparison. There were no whimpers or sobs or moans. There was nothing. One moment their ears had been assaulted by sounds wrenched from the pain-wracked depths of somebody’s being. The next, a crawling silence flowed over them like a suffocating shroud, terrible in its implications.

She cleared her throat.

“Any readings, Garrison?”

It took a moment for the science officer to reply.

“My scanner is registering this section of the laboratory as perfectly normal. Matter consistent with the rest of this section of the ship. No unusual radiation waves. There’s a concentration of phased particles ahead of us, but it’s diminishing quite quickly. Almost as if they’re being absorbed into the fabric of the… whatever that is.”

Garrison sounded rattled. Marris didn’t blame him. She examined the darkness for a moment. It had substance, a troubling suggestion of solidity that scratched painfully on the blackboard of her mind. The light beams of her helmet seemed to sink into it, fading from her sight perhaps half a metre or so in.

She took a breath. And stepped over. Into the darkness.

She was aware of Coleridge beside her, aware of his breathing – controlled but louder than normal. Most of all, however, she was aware of the darkness, aware of the manner in which it clung to the walls, seeming to congeal upon them, seep through the fabric of them, leak out through them from some unfathomable reservoir of liquid night.

The sensation of envelopment, of incipient claustrophobia, threatened to take hold of her limbs. She made herself take the next step. And the next.

And then, like filthy suffocating curtains, the darkness parted.

In her ear, Coleridge swore; she couldn’t bring herself to reprimand him.

*

With awakening had come awareness.

With awareness had come a jumble of sensations, emotions and thoughts.

The voice continued to speak, its words soothing and reassuring, although there was an undercurrent of urgency to them that threatened to destabilise and disrupt its gentle crooning.

“Open your mind.”

It quivered, sensation rippling across its skin in soft undulations.

“You will be free…. Open your mind.”

What did the voice mean? How could a mind be opened? How could it be closed?

“Allow my thoughts to enfold yours. You will be free.”

Free?

Free of what?

“I will show you. It will hurt. Be prepared.”

Stag Party – Batman/The Shadow #2

Batman Shadow 2 coverThe first issue of this DC/Dynamite crossover did a reasonable job of getting our two crime-fighting vigilantes together and presenting the reader with an intriguing if somewhat confusing mystery about just who The Shadow is and why he might have killed Lamont Cranston, a pleasant enough man who turned out to be a descendant of the original Shadow. That issue ended with the revelation that The Shadow is actually Bruce Wayne’s old mentor, Henry Ducard. How will Batman respond to this revelation? And what path will the story take, now that the initial mystery of The Shadow’s identity seems to have been cleared up? Well, there’s only one way to find out…

The first page of this issue poses a number of questions. Why does Bruce not respond to The Shadow telling him that he has been “living in” Ducard and has always “been here… behind [him]”, one of the more startling revisions of Bat-history this tale presents to us? Why does he instead choose to speak in simple accusatory statements? Why does he decide to put his mask on for the soon-coming fight? Protection? The comfort of the familiar? It can’t be either to hide his identity or to frighten The Shadow, can it? The Batman/Shadow fight is pretty engaging. Rossmo’s good at the kind of slightly warped perspectives that in another sort of book would be distracting but here feel appropriate. His Shadow is particularly impressive. Nevertheless, the fight feels a little strained and disjointed and this is due almost entirely to issues with dialogue.

Batman Shadow 2 1

Rossmo is a good artist. His panel layouts, as here, can be exceptionally impressive.

The two characters have a curious conversation in which Batman tries to convince The Shadow (or himself?) that he is the killer of Lamont Cranston and The Shadow tries to convince him otherwise. When the dialogue is reasonably direct, it works pretty well. (The “Only a fool trusts his eyes.”/”I trust my mind.” exchange is particularly tasty, highlighting that, when dealing with a being with the power to ‘cloud men’s minds’, Batman’s mind might be a liability.) When it moves into the realms of more enigmatic pronouncements, it becomes decidedly less successful. “Reason softens you. Time slackens the mind.” is a particularly bemusing example. Even more mystifying is the fact that Batman has run “facial recognition” on The Shadow and found him a “perfect match”. How exactly, given that he is currently fighting a Shadow inhabiting Henry Ducard and the emergence of The Shadow, as far as I understand it, warps the facial features of Cranston anyway? When The Shadow actually tells Batman who’s really killed Cranston (no, not the original – the other one), Batman refuses to believe him, dismissing it as a “convenient alibi” which prompts The Shadow into launching into a potted personal history. This is fine up to a point and we do get the line that Bruce doesn’t really “know what evil lurks in the hearts of men”, a statement with which, given the various traumas that have happened to him in his life, Batman would be entitled to take issue. He doesn’t, though, instead opting to ask how The Shadow knows about him, a question that is really rather redundant given that he’s just watched his former mentor turn into The Shadow just before his eyes.

The conversation ends somewhat inconclusively with Batman vowing to investigate The Shadow’s claims that The Stag is operating in Gotham and killing “the best” of Gotham’s citizens. This is something that those who have read the recent Batman annual will already know. The Stag is a new Orlando/Rossmo creation and seems to have been devised mainly for this series. More of him in a moment. The Shadow disappears pretty much as he did last issue, leaving Batman having to high-tail it back to Gotham and the reader to ponder whether The Shadow’s claim that he “trained [Batman] for years, through Ducard, and [his] other faces” is merely a nice metatextual nod to The Shadow’s formative influence on the character or meant to be taken literally.

Batman Shadow 2 2

There is something decidedly uncanny about the design of The Stag. He’s one of the best things about this series.

The action then moves to Margo Lane’s Long Island mansion where both she and Harry Vincent are being told by The Shadow that they could be on The Stag’s hit-list. Neither Lane nor Vincent are particularly impressed with this current iteration of The Shadow and Lane in particular is horrified at The Shadow’s decidedly utilitarian approach to his associates. The Shadow’s response (that “humanity is a luxury [he] can no longer afford”) is not especially reassuring. In the meantime, Batman, deciding to assume that The Shadow is telling the truth, delves further into Lamont Cranston’s murder and discovers that it might be connected to the mysterious death of Barry O’Neill who was murdered (by The Stag, not that Batman knows that) at the end of Orlando’s story in that aforementioned Batman annual. It seems that O’Neill and Cranston were both recipients of a Gotham ‘humane’ award which is given to three deserving recipients each year. The third surviving recipient is none other than… Leslie Thompkins, philanthropist physician and one-time surrogate parent of Bruce Wayne.

Needless to say, Batman hotfoots it to Thompkins’ clinic where he arrives just in time to prevent The Stag from killing her with the ancient dagger used to kill Cranston and O’Neill. The fight is brutal but Thompkins herself intervenes, shooting The Stag in the head. Batman is aghast, but finds out that Thompkins is actually The Shadow in disguise. Another verbal and physical altercation ensues and, when The Shadow reveals that The Stag is seeking Shamba-La, the mystical place where the original Cranston took on the mantle of The Shadow, and needs one more kill to find it, Batman reveals he knows where The Stag is heading. The final page sees The Stag in (presumably) Arkham meeting up with probably the one Batman villain you don’t want an immortal murderer teaming up with. (Hint: It isn’t Kite Man.)

In some respects, this is an improvement on last issue, although the same problems that bedevilled the story then persist here. The principal one is the dialogue. There are some interesting things happening in this story. The contrast between Batman – a victim turned vigilante – and The Shadow – a villain turned vigilante – is potentially very exciting and is rich in dramatic possibilities. The Stag looks phenomenal – a pale-masked killer, horned, androgynous and evidently mystical in origin. Arguably, he’s the most interesting thing about this issue and lends a distinct air of otherworldly menace to the proceedings. But the dialogue too frequently gets in the way.

I’m not going to pretend that writing portentous, symbolically significant dialogue is easy, but when it goes awry the effects can be rather jarring. When Vincent complains to The Shadow that he’s been serving him for eighty years and wants to know when his debt will be paid, The Shadow’s “Your suffering at the yoke of culpability is an instant next to mine” has numerous problems. Firstly, you suffer ‘under’ not ‘at’ a yoke. Secondly, ‘culpability’ means ‘blame’ and feels odd here. A more appropriate word might be ‘guilt’ or ‘penance’. Things would be improved with a ‘but’ between ‘is’ and ‘an’, too. It’s not that the idea behind the dialogue is not appropriate; it’s just that the language used to convey it is simply not precise enough. That said, there are a couple of dialogue triumphs in here, too. Margo Lane’s “You spent us like ammunition” is wonderful. The dialogue isn’t all bad.

There are other issues too, though. If ‘Thompkins’ is really The Shadow in disguise, why is she seen talking into a hand-held voice recorder as if she really is Thompkins when no one else is around? Why, during that conversation with her voice recorder, does she make a reference to The Shadow? What does a surgical assistant making “stubborn mistakes” entail?

That’s not to say that the issue is terrible. It really isn’t. There’s a sense of Batman being on the edge here. This situation has rattled him – to the extent of him objecting when Alfred calls him ‘master’. His desperation when ‘Thompkins’ is threatening to kill The Stag is convincing too. Thompkins shooting The Stag in a Crime Alley clinic is evidently too close to home for him. There are flashes here of that Batman/Shadow contrast I mentioned earlier; Batman certainly seems to be aware of it and desperate to prove that his less lethal methods are superior (both morally and functionally) to The Shadow’s. The problem is that it’s all just a little too melodramatic, a little too emotionally heightened. There was an opportunity for a more emotionally grounded Bruce to contrast with the (perhaps) rattled Batman during the Batcave scene with Alfred, but it just doesn’t quite come off. Batman is a driven, almost obsessive character, of course, but hitting that one note repeatedly is going to get old sooner rather than later.

This series, then, is still not quite the out and out triumph it could be, although there are signs we might get there soon. Rossmo’s art is, if anything, more impressive this time round. That final page is gorgeous, for a start, and The Stag is one of the creepier new characters I’ve seen in quite a while. The plot continues to intrigue and the Batman/Shadow contrast, although not as expertly set up as it could be, is strong enough that this reader is interested in seeing how it plays out. Next issue… well, next issue could be very special. We’ll have to see. For now, this is worth a look.

(This review first appeared on the Weird Science DC Comics website.)