Meme Magic – A Review of Memetic Issue 1 (2014)

This sloth is just... great.

Given that we live at a time in which a presidential candidate’s website has warned against the dangers of a cartoon frog and a bunch of devotees of the aforementioned frog believe that they have ‘memed’ another presidential candidate into the White House (various recounts notwithstanding), it’s probably worth having a proper look at Memetic, James Tynion IV and Eryk Donovan’s adroit and (probably) hip examination of humanity’s current obsessions with, on the one hand, social media and, on the other, the zombie apocalypse.

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The opening of the first issue of Memetic is suitably grim. We silently follow a young man, deaf or hearing-impaired if the hearing aid is anything to go by, as he trudges down an alleyway littered with the remnants of civilization – an empty can and a cracked mobile phone on which the young man, perhaps significantly, steps – before we see dead bodies and blood-splattered walls. Something has gone seriously wrong with the world. The opening page tells us that this is Day Three so whatever has happened has done so reasonably quickly.

The next double page spread is really quite impressive. The top half of the spread reveals the world as it is on Day Three – wrecked cars, dead bodies hanging out of windscreens or strewn across the street, fitful fires blazing on the road. And, in the background, hovering over the scene are three pillars of black smoke or ash feeding up into some kind of whirlpool in the sky. Whatever’s going on, this is frightening stuff. Even more frightening, in its own way, is the scene on the lower half of the spread. It’s exactly the same street drawn from exactly the same perspective, but here everyone is going about their daily business, blithely unaware of the apocalypse lurking just a few days away. What is especially significant are the various texts and tweets we see hovering over people’s heads. They are a forceful visual reminder of the way various devices and the social media they enable have insinuated their way into and subtly changed our lives. That this change leaves us uniquely and terribly vulnerable in ways that would have been unthinkable without that technology is one of the main themes of the story.

In any event, this is an intriguing and oddly unsettling way of opening the series. The creators don’t give us much time to dwell on its implications, though, as we quickly move on to some character development with Aaron, our young hearing-impaired hero who is having boyfriend trouble. While he’s trying to deal with his boyfriend Ryan blanking his texts, he starts checking message boards (‘raddit’? Really?[1]) and comes across the kind of hyperbolic fluff-fest you tend to find on social media – someone enthusing wildly about an image that “will change everything”. Being a curious young man, Aaron clicks on the image and the ‘happy sloth’ is revealed in all its mesmeric glory.

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This sloth is just… great.

In terms of its function in the plot, the ‘happy sloth’ doesn’t need to be either happy or a sloth. It could be anything really. It was Alan Moore who revealed (perhaps mischievously) that he was once told that comics with either apes on the cover or people crying tended to sell well, a trend he subtly sent up in Promethea with the Weeping Gorilla comic. Something similar is going on here. The ‘happy sloth’ is just that – an image of a sloth apparently smiling with its arm raised across its body, one thumb extended in the universal ‘thumbs up’ sign. The hypnotic circles behind it are weird to be sure, but the image itself is totally innocuous. Its effects, however, are considerably less so.

Aaron doesn’t respond to the image, but his friends do. They talk (or text) about a ‘tingling’ sensation throughout their bodies, a sense of euphoria, an overwhelming and unaccountable feeling of positivity. The reason for Aaron’s lack of response to the image is explained in a somewhat clunky piece of dialogue between Aaron and his friend Sarah – he is effectively colour-blind. The rest of that conversation is nicely done, though. Sarah feels somewhat upset that she can’t share in the experience of viewing the image with Aaron, while, with an outsider’s perspective, Aaron begins to get some serious misgivings at just how quickly the image has spread.

We then get the obligatory TV news spot on the image. I’m honestly not sure if the American TV news would pick up on something like this quite so quickly, but the creators do a pretty good job of conveying how completely useless the mainstream media are at handling anything outside their experience, while simultaneously projecting an almost entirely specious aura of ‘expertise’. The meme itself is set up to take advantage of this, of course. It’s up to our next protagonist to analyse the phenomenon more sceptically.

Marcus Shaw is a retired Pentagon officer whose eyesight is deteriorating to the extent that he can’t make out much more than the rough shape of things. Which is unfortunate if you want to see, say, photographs of your family, but invaluable if you’re dealing with a mysterious meme that’s being spread virally through the internet. Shaw’s retired Army buddy has seen the meme and is powerfully affected by it – as is the Colonel that Shaw calls as, suspicions aroused, he tries to find out more about the meme. We leave him as he asks to be connected to Barbara Xiang, a consultant who’s published a paper on ‘weaponised memetics’.

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The sloth is everywhere.

Okay, so we’ve got two characters who, for different reasons, can’t see properly and are thus not affected by the meme. So far, so good.

The sense of things escalating grows as Aaron walks past a college noticeboard plastered with printouts of the happy sloth, the words ‘praise him’ scrawled underneath each image. Aaron’s isolation from the rest of the world is almost complete at this point. In a knowing nod to the way we tend to isolate ourselves from face to face interactions, Aaron walks past groups of people glued to their phones, lost in a collective euphoria from which he is excluded. His texts to Ryan continue to go unanswered.

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Things are getting a bit… intense.

While Tynion uses Aaron as our main viewpoint character, it’s Marcus and now Barbara who provide the exposition. This division of labour is fine up to a point, but it is noticeable when Marcus gets a visit from Barbara that the word count increases dramatically. That said, Tynion’s dialogue is actually pretty good – even when he has Barbara explain what a meme is to someone who should already be very familiar with the idea. During their conversation, however, we get a picture of Marcus’ neighbour crying uncontrollably in his yard, a strange smile fixed on his face. We’ve already seen someone crying at the image a few pages ago; the sense of things changing, of escalating, is uneasily clear.

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There’s a lot of crying in this issue. Not all of it blue.

This is reinforced by the following panels of television spots about the meme, which include a smiling President Obama revealing that, yes, his daughter had shown him the meme earlier in the day. One of the panels is in Chinese; another in Russian. The meme is a world-wide phenomenon.

But it’s the next section that sees things come to a disturbing and bloody head. Aaron, Sarah and a couple of other friends meet in a café and, as you might expect, they’re talking about the meme. One of the friends has just been to a philosophy lecture that comprised staring at the meme for a full hour. He’s excited about both the ‘lecture’ and that he was one of the first people to see the happy sloth. The perils of being an ‘early adopter’ become horrifyingly clear, however, when, right on the 12 hour anniversary of seeing the image, he starts bleeding out of his eyes and screaming incoherently, and killing one of his friends with his bare hands. Horror, panic and further violence ensues.  The apocalypse has begun.

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See what I mean?

This section is handled pretty well. The speed with which a conversation turns into a murderous rampage is terrifying and Donovan’s art proves to be especially adept at conveying raw violence. My one minor quibble is that it’s not immediately clear precisely how the ‘screamer’ has killed his erstwhile friend. The blood spurt suggests some kind of knife, but closer inspection reveals that the ‘screamer’ is killing with his bare hands.

Aaron is a low-key hero, fending the killer off with a chair while he and Sarah make their escape. There are, to be fair, some standard horror tropes on display here. 911 is constantly busy; news site headlines are used to demonstrate how widespread the crisis is. There are one or two curious moments, though. Would you really stop to take a photograph of your homicidal brother, complete with a bloody trophy in each hand, and then upload that photograph to the internet?  An expert in a TV studio reveals that one of the ‘screamers’ has been subdued long enough to scan its brain, where no activity was found. While his plaintive reply, when asked what that meant, of “I don’t know” works from a horror point of view, it doesn’t really ring true. Most experts would at least discuss the potential implications of that admittedly extraordinary revelation. “Well, it means that, to all intents and purposes, these ‘screamers’ are dead, can’t be cured and need to be shot on sight” would be a start, but maybe that’s just me.

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As an expert, you’re rubbish. Make something up. Waffle. You’re on TV for crying out loud!

We switch back to Marcus, though, who has problems of his own in the form of his kindly neighbour turned eye-bleeding lunatic. Marcus should have more difficulty staying alive than he does here. I know he’s seen combat, but he can’t see properly and his opponent is powerful enough to break through a wooden door with his bare hands. To be fair, this sequence is cleverly intercut with both a conversation between Sarah and Aaron and a press conference from the President, who is deciding to shut down the internet. Again, this is very effective – although, after a particularly unpleasant election campaign in which Obama said a number of times that Trump would never become the President of the United States only to be proven wrong, the sight of him turning into a slavering zombie may not now have quite the impact it had in 2014.

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I guess there’ll be no more tweets from the POTUS account, then…

Sarah arguably acts selfishly in ditching Aaron in order to go and see her mum (but not before telling Aaron that she had “always” loved him – a revelation that is neither powerful nor, under the circumstances, particularly helpful), but her function in the plot was always as a placeholder for the mysteriously incommunicative Ryan who does, in fact, turn up at the end of the issue, providing Aaron, with a hug, the emotional support he needs, while with his words delivering the intellectual killer blow that circumstances might not dictate, but the ending to this issue definitely needs: “It’s The End of The World”.

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We waited all issue for Ryan to appear – just so he could say… this.

Except it isn’t. At least not yet. This is only the end of Day One, as the caption helpfully reminds us. We have already seen Day Three, after all.

You may have detected that my engagement with this issue waned a bit towards the end. You’d be right. Tynion is a good writer, but not (quite) yet a great one.  There’s lots to like in this issue – the idea of the killer meme is original and it’s explored well here. There’s already been some scientific research about how regular engagement with social media through handheld devices is ‘rewiring’ the human brain, and most of us have probably been scolded at one time or another for cutting ourselves off from people with which we are physically present in order to interact with people whose presence is digital. The viral or cult-like way certain ‘fads’ take off and spread around the world is also used here to good effect. As an introduction to the threat, the issue works. By the end of the issue, we understand the nature of the threat well enough. What we don’t understand is its origin or how to stop it. Fair enough. We’ve got two more issues for that.

Where the issue falls flat is in its characterisation and pacing. Both Marcus and Aaron are engaging, but Aaron is just a little too ‘generic’ (and I know that’s an odd thing to say about a gay, hearing-impaired, colour blind college student) to truly grab the imagination. He spends the issue alternately moping, questioning and running away. These activities have admittedly kept him alive, but they’re yet to make him a compelling protagonist. Marcus, on the other hand, is almost too perfect for the story – the eyesight-impaired intelligence man who has the connections and knowledge to (maybe) get things done. As his main function in this issue has been to help the reader better understand the nature of the threat, it remains to be seen how engaging a character he’s going to be, but to be fair to Tynion he does do dialogue pretty well. That has certainly been the case here.

So, this is a good – but not perfect – start to a series that has the potential to be very interesting indeed. Does the series fulfil that potential? Roll on issue 2!

[1] ‘Reddit’ is actually mentioned later on, oddly enough.

Update: Things You Might Like To Read – I

Alright. Just a quick update. I’m working on a review at the moment, but I won’t get it finished for a few days, so I just wanted to throw a couple of recommendations at you.

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First, if you haven’t picked up Kurt Busiek and Benjamin Dewey’s The Autumnlands yet, what on earth are you playing at? Busiek has long been a favourite comics writer of mine and this book from Image is magical stuff. The central premise – a bunch of intelligent anthropomorphised animals living in the distant future reaching back through time to recover a ‘hero’ in order to help them restore magic to the world – is hook enough, but Dewey’s art is just phenomenal. Those animals simply throb with life and pathos; Dewey does an incredible job of bringing Busiek’s thoughtful and often subtle characterisations to life. The Autumnlands is the best Busiek I’ve read in a long long time. (Mind you, I’m not reading his new Astro City at present, so I’m very much open to being corrected.) As is usual with Image books, the first trade is available at a special introductory rate. I highly recommend it.

Secondly, if you haven’t checked out Marvel’s ongoing Epic Collection series, then, again, you probably should. Each volume clocks in at around 450 pages, features extras like editorials and concept art, and aims to present a pretty comprehensive archive of a particular hero or group. I finished reading the first Moon Knight one Bad Moon Rising a few months ago. This was a particularly interesting example of the line. Moon Knight’s origin was not something I was familiar with and this volume collects not only his first appearance as a mercenary-turned-hero in Werewolf By Night but also guest stints in The DefendersMarvel Two-in-One and Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man. As you might expect, the quality is variable, but once the collection begins includmoon-knight-bad-moon-risinging the back-up strips from the Hulk! magazine, creators Doug Moench and Bill Sienkiewicz  really hit their stride and both the character and the storytelling itself start to shine. (The story in which Moon Knight is pitted against his unhinged brother is particularly impressive.) The Epic Collections are coming out at a fair clip. My advice is to choose a character or three and stick with them. You’ll end up with a nice quality collection of reprints of your favourite Marvel characters from the 60s, 70s, 80s and early 90s. If I had the time, I’d give you a complete run-down of the volumes released by Marvel so far, but it’s easy enough to find on the net in any case. Doctor Strange, The Defenders and Daredevil have all had excellent releases this year, though. Again, highly recommended stuff.

Hitch and Miss – Justice League issue 5

The new league’s first big adventure comes to an end in spectacular – and frustrating – fashion.

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So far, this series has been something of a disappointment. Like a jigsaw made up of pieces that seem to come from slightly different puzzles, the opening story arc has been disjointed and awkward to read. The League, too, has been presented in a fragmented way, members acting mostly singly or in pairs and communicating with one another only intermittently. Then there’s the threat – or rather threats – with which the League has been dealing.

Firstly, there’s the Purge, a seemingly infinite number of flying, swarming bio-weapons disgorged from much larger ship-creatures that travel through a wormhole from their destroyed, shattered world to Earth. Green Lanterns Jessica Cruz and Simon Baz have traveled through the aforementioned wormhole to cut off the flow of bio-weaponry at the source while the Flash takes care of the Purge on the ground. So far, an adequate explanation of either what the Purge is or why it’s attacking the Earth has not been forthcoming. We have, however, had hints. Cyborg is connected to them via some sort of frequency he’s detected and… hacked? Subverted? Commandeered? We’re not really told. What we are told is that the Purge has been doing this sort of thing for some time and the Earth is “screwed” if the League don’t thwart their plan to turn human beings into things that aren’t human. This has been happening all over the galaxy, apparently, for, it is implied, a very long time.

Then, there’s the Kindred. The Kindred are four giant humanoid gestalt entities formed from the bodies of normal human beings. The jury is still out on whether those bodies have to be living at the time of their absorption. It’s entirely possible they don’t. These Kindred are getting together for a good old sing-song, a Fab Four if you like, although without, presumably, the side journey into eastern mysticism and mind-altering drugs. (Mind you, if you want mind-altering, you could do a lot worse than this issue, actually.) This singing will, perhaps, stop the Purge. The Kindred have already started singing apparently, but it’s difficult to tell, because although we get to hear what they’re saying to each other, we don’t get anything other than a visual representation of their song. Wonder Woman is currently inside one of the Kindred and the Kindred have also been responsible for siphoning off the heroes’ powers. Or at least some of them. There have been references to “stolen power” from the Kindred, which seem to tie in with some of the JL’s heroes, whose powers have been fluctuating during the story at inopportune times whenever they’ve come into contact with the Kindred. What happens when the Kindred finish their song is unclear; we suspect it might be good, but it’s hard to be sure. On the one hand, they will stop the Purge. On the other hand, they only really seem to care about doing so just before…

The four doomsday devices at the Earth’s core go off.

Four? Yep. That’s where Superman comes in, pushing those big blank balls of nothing from the Earth’s outer core into the Earth’s inner core. These are the same doomsday devices that set off the quakes in the very first issue and set off a quake “off the Richter scale” last issue. We have no idea what’s happening in the rest of the world but the rhetoric is all about the escalation and the JL barely dealt with the last quake. If Superman doesn’t get to those doomsday machines quickly, then… Hang on a moment. Just how fast can Superman move through molten super-heated magma? No, I have no idea either, but it’d be nice to know, wouldn’t it?

Right. That’s three threats that are connected in ways which we understand only imperfectly. The Kindred want to prevent the Purge, but they are also aware of the “breaking of worlds”. Is this some sort of contingency plan to prevent the Purge taking over humanity? If so, who put it there? And why is the prospect of the Purge’s corruption of humanity so terrible that it would necessitate their installation in the first place?

And then there’s Aquaman and his singing crystals. This is where we come in this issue. Aquaman’s listening to the singing crystals and they’re telling him where he should bury them. The problem is Aquaman’s narration is big on certainty but there is just so little to go on. The crystals say he’s “family”. Erm… okay. If there’s some kind of mind-influencing going on then fair enough. If Aquaman’s so freaked out about the end of the world that he’s desperate enough to take a chance on telepathic crystals that no one has paid much attention to before, then again fair enough. But there is no sense from the narration or the art that either interpretation of his actions is appropriate here. He’s just taking a chance on the voices in his head. And that’s… astonishingly weak.

Anyway, Aquaman plants one of his (four – again!) crystals and then heads off to plant the others. As with Superman, the question of just how quickly Aquaman can traverse the planet springs to mind. We are forced to assume it’s not very long.

We then move back to the Kent Farm, where a shaken Cyborg reveals that… somehow… he’s not just in touch with the Purge but controlling it. Why? How? We don’t know. All we know is that Cyborg intercepted a mysterious signal last issue and somehow used it to take control of a bunch of alien creatures he’s only just encountered.

Somehow.

You’ll be hearing that word a lot this review.

Batman finally gets to do something, boom-tubing with Cyborg to where the Flash is being swarmed by more Purge critters as the four Kindred continue their song nearby. Wonder Woman, of course, is also present inside one of the Kindred. There is yet another page of ambiguous dialogue before she is ejected from inside the Kindred’s body with a promise that, when she works out who she is, then she “will understand”. While this is undoubtedly a reference to the events of Wonder Woman’s own series, the Kindred’s pronouncements are simply too elliptical to have any sort of dramatic weight. As readers, we need to understand things now – not at some unspecified point in the future. If all Wonder Woman is going to do is have a largely pointless conversation consisting of threats, vague but portentous declarations, and a promise that things will be explained later, then what was the point of putting her in there in the first place?

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Read the dialogue. Read it again. Read it as many times as you like. It’ll still be rubbish.

The following page features perhaps the single most representative panel of the entire issue. Four JL-ers – The Flash, Batman, Wonder Woman and Cyborg – standing around talking to each other, watching events unfold around them, doing nothing.  The two TV reporters at the bottom of the page only make things worse. “Where are the Justice League?” Well, four of them are in a field somewhere watching the end of the world. Nice.

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When in doubt, stand around and pontificate about events you should be trying to understand a heck of a lot better than you’re currently doing.

The following conversation between the heroes highlights the crushing silliness of the last few issues. It is worth reproducing in its full glory below.

Batman’s point is not coincidental. Why hasn’t the League tried to work out what the Kindred want? We’re five issues in and even now it’s not clear.  Where does Wonder Woman get her really rather incredible – and not particularly well thought out – insight about the Kindred and their relationship to the League from? Most incredible of all, though, is the Flash’s sudden revelation that all he has to do to regain his speed is… take it back. Somehow. No ruby slippers to click together, no magic words to say – just a look of determination and a snatch of macho dialogue. Will to power in its purest form. Who needs silly things like plot devices and challenges for the hero?

What follows is nonsensical plot point after nonsensical plot point: the Flash takes his speed back, the most iconic female superhero in the world reduced to the role of cheerleader as he does so; Cyborg continues to exercise his unexplained ability to control the Purge and directs them at the Kindred; Aquaman swims; Superman pushes; Wonder Woman finally does something useful although with still no clear idea that it will be the right thing to do (“think” doesn’t cut it); Simon and Jessica siphon off the Purge from their ruined world, forming a construct tube to funnel them through the wormhole and onto the Kindred. That last bit is actually pretty cool, but, as has been the case throughout this series to date, the wow factor is diminished considerably when the reader isn’t entirely sure what’s going on or why what’s going on matters.

The fast intercutting between characters is meant to provide that sense of breathless desperation that would be entirely appropriate to the finale of a five-part world-threatening epic if the build-up to it hadn’t been so appallingly mismanaged. As it is, we’re left with Superman not having the strength to push the final ball-of-apocalyptic-nothingness into the Earth’s inner core (oh, no!) while Aquaman races to bury his final zodiac crystal in the “final corner of the Earth”, a ‘corner’ which is, appropriately enough, right where the Kindred are.

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“Seem”, “maybe”, “mostly”, “might”. We don’t have a clear idea of what’s going on, but let’s act like we do, eh? That’ll be good.

Aquaman saves the world (a good job, because Superman’s failed at this point – not that anyone else knows that yet) – and the Kindred think they get to finish their song. Batman, not being that much of a music lover apparently, has other ideas. To be (maybe too) fair, the final confrontation between the League and the Kindred is pretty dramatic. Batman’s point that the Kindred are made up of people and thus those people need to be saved is an entirely valid one. For the first time in the five issue run, it is made clear that the crystals are also dedicated to stopping the Kindred – providing a counter-song to what the Kindred are doing. That the reader still doesn’t have a clear idea of what the Kindred are trying to achieve renders the whole things less tense and involving than it should be, but Hitch and Daniel together do provide one of the best pages of storytelling I’ve seen in a long while.

Yep. This page is rather special…

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This is why comic books are great. Even when they’re not.

A shame then that it’s followed up by a page in which Batman says the worst piece of dialogue in the issue (and that’s saying something) and a double page spread in which Superman unleashes and (somehow) directs the power of an omni-directional doomsday device that can apparently destroy an entire planet at the Kindred, freeing all the people within without killing a single one of them.

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Oh, Batman, you didn’t…

Well, you either buy that or you don’t. One of the problems with the entire story is the way the focus has shifted away from the JL protecting civilians in the first couple of issues to dealing with the Kindred and the Purge in the later ones. Rather belatedly, they remember those civilians. “There still may be casualties,” says Flash. May be? Do you think? But, you know what? The final page shows that the League don’t really care too much about that. The Flash flirts with Jessica, Superman and Batman have a conversation that just reinforces the sense that they really didn’t know what they’ve just been dealing with and we end on a nice shot of Lois and John wearing Superman’s cape about them waiting for him to return which, in a better-told story, might have some emotional resonance but here just feels completely superfluous.

So, what to make of all this? It’s clear that Hitch has a long game in play, but it’s equally clear that he hasn’t plotted it sufficiently well to tell a good story while holding enough information back to lead up to the big reveal. I get the impression that he’s aiming for a Hickman style run, but his command of contextual detail is sadly lacking and the story feels far too detached from the wider DCU to have the kind of impact of, say, Hickman’s Avengers run prior to Secret Wars. For an action comic, the League spend a lot of time standing around telling people what they don’t know. Action without context or with barely articulated purpose makes for poor storytelling which is, the impressive artwork notwithstanding, pretty much what we’ve got here.

The frustrating thing is that this could have been better. The notion that the Kindred can affect the entire universe is intriguing, but their background and purpose need to be much better defined than what we get here. Questions that aren’t even asked but desperately need to be addressed include: Who are the Kindred and what is their connection to the JL’s powers? Who put the extinction machines in the Earth’s core? How long have they been there? Why are they there? Are such machines in place in other planets in case the Kindred visit them? What is the Purge? What does it want? How does turning the population into something ‘not human’ disrupt the Kindred from doing… whatever it is they’re doing? What are the Zodiac Crystals? How do they work?

Perhaps more importantly, though, who thought it was a good idea to give DC’s flagship team to a relatively unproven writer with a grand vision but an insufficiently clear idea of how to bring it about?

The Kalaz’an Conspiracy – Prologue (part 5)

Floating…

No direction. Aimless. No certainty.

No time.

A single attenuated moment.

Or.

A cocoon of identical instants, each one throbbing with the same warm humming, the same absence of difference, the same…

Bliss.

Contentment.

Now.

Content…

Now.

Con…

 Now.

A tugging. Urgent. Insistent. The eternal moment shatters into discreet instances of raw, unmediated time. The time is now. A demand is made. Action is required. Action is required now.

“Brother.”

The word floats in as if from a great distance. He turns his back on it. No words. Not ever again. This word is insistent, however.

“Brother. Not-brother.”

What do the words mean?

“Listen, brother.”

He listens. Despite himself, he listens. This is, after all, the first voice he has heard in… he doesn’t remember…

“I am coming, brother.”

The voice has gained timbre, register – a breathy hushed quivering.

“Soon…”

Hunger, desire, slow crooning warmth.

“Soon you will be free.”

*

“Forster?”

Gordon forced his voice to remain even, pushed back against the panic gathering in his gut.

“They… they have made contact…” Forster whispered, her eyes loose, unfocused. She wasn’t plugged in, Gordon noticed. This was raw psi-spill, mediated only by Forster’s language and the hermeneutic power of her imagination. “The child understands… On a very basic level… the child understands…”

“Sir! Incoming!”

Tearing his gaze away from his communications officer, Gordon stared at the holo-tank. The Kalaz’an ship had, at some point in the last few seconds, unfurled perhaps a dozen thin appendages from its aft bulk and now they stretched across the void towards them. The panic was at his chest now. Gordon could feel it reaching for his vocal cords. He swallowed. Like every other officer on the bridge, he knew what these things were and he knew what they meant.

“Gunnery stations,” he ordered, flipping the intercom. “Address those feeding tubes now!”

He was dismayed to recognise the high-pitched taint of alarm in his voice, but his officers either failed to notice or at least had the good grace not to acknowledge it.

A few tense moments passed during which all the bridge crew could do was watch the thin, organic appendages continue their painfully slow journey towards the Valiant.

But then a salvo of beams and plasma erupted from the Valiant’s batteries, obliterating the first few metres of the tubes entirely and, in the case of a few of the more developed tendrils, igniting the foul mix of acids that they contained, gutting their entire length. These tubes would be unmoored from the Kalaz’an ship in the next few minutes and new growths would replace them. The tubes that had already been deployed and survived the bombardment would regrow on their own.

Gordon licked his lips, glanced over at his gunnery officer. “Damage?”

“Four of the tubes destroyed completely, the remainder will grow back in approximately three minutes, sir.”

“Gunnery strength?”

“Recycling now, sir. 15% charge currently.”

“And in three minutes?”

Hunched at his station, Ensign Schofield paused for a second. “Approximately 38%, sir.”

Gordon nodded. That matched the quick calculations he’d made mentally. He turned to Parkinson at the helm.

“Take us three points to starboard and a further seven points yaw down. One-tenth iss[1]. Gunnery stations, concentrate fire on the enemy’s aft section. Tachyon burst only. On my mark.”

Schofield looked up sharply. “We’re about to deploy the maintenance drones, sir.”

Gordon scowled briefly. “How are we looking in the affected areas?”

“Hull integrity in 12-D is down to 51%. The observation blister on 13 has been space-sealed. It’ll be open in approximately four and a half minutes.”

His fingers stabbing at the controls set in the small touchscreen in front of him, Gordon called up the relevant schematics file and noted with satisfaction that evacuation of the area had been completed a full two minutes ago.

“Fine,” he said. “Complete the manoeuvre and then release the drones. We won’t be moving for a while anyway. It will take the Kalaz’an a while to plot alternative vectors.” He refrained from adding the phrase ‘I hope’ to his final statement.

Dismissing the schematics with a flick of his finger, he returned to the tactical display in the holo-tank, watching ShipMind plot the course he had just given to Schofield and feeling the gentle lurch as the ship began to move with almost comical serenity to its appointed position. By the time the Valiant had completed the manoeuvre, it would have moved closer to the Kalaz’an ship and achieved a position that would make it much more difficult for the Kalaz’an feeding tubes to reach them while still giving the batteries a clear shot at the alien vessel. For its part, the Kalaz’an ship was reduced to extremely limited manoeuvrability. As arcane and terrifying as their weapons and defences were, the strange squid-like creatures did not engage in the kind of space combat favoured by races like the Qissenti and The Crimson Shadow, preferring instead to anchor a large portion of the physical mass of their battleships in the non-Euclidean space that remained a maddening mystery to Earth Fleet scientists and from which the Kalaz’an derived much of their strange technology. Their phase shield technology rendered them virtually invulnerable. Or at least invulnerable enough for the time needed for their offensive weapons to do their work.

Receiving acknowledgements from both the firing deck and the helm, Gordon watched the holo-tank alertly, straining to see any movement from the Kalaz’an ship as the Valiant slowly changed position.

And, not for the first time, he wondered how his captain was faring eight decks below.

[1] Iss: in-system standard speed

Hitch’s Brew – Justice League issue 4

In which our heroes continue to do pretty much all the things they were doing last issue. No, really.

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We start this issue with our rookie GLs who are still trying to prevent alien space critters (the Purge) travelling through a wormhole towards Earth. And already on the first page we have a curious conversation in which Simon (sort of) admonishes Jessica for (sort of) suggesting that the Flash isn’t up to his self-appointed job of clearing the Earth of the aforementioned critters before (sort of) agreeing with her that they do indeed need to keep the wormhole clear of them. Simon realises the broken planet below is somehow producing the Purge and goes down to investigate leaving Jessica (lest we forget a rookie GL who still doesn’t have full control over her construct-building abilities) to deal with the remaining Purge creatures. While I understand that Hitch is going for the ‘one hero demonstrating her heroism against a swarm of smaller creatures’ approach, this requires a suspension of disbelief that’s difficult to pull off.

But that’s okay, because we shift back to the Kents’ farm where… Cyborg is doing pretty much exactly the same thing. Except this time Cyborg, through the wonderful power of technology, gets to find out what’s going on. This being the Justice League, though, does he tell Batman (and us) straight away? No. Of course not. Instead, he simply tells Batman that the entire planet is “screwed” and we return to the four Kindred who are standing facing out to, I assume, the four compass points and speaking cryptically to themselves. Or possibly to Wonder Woman who’s still trapped inside one of them, not that you’d know that at the moment.

What the Kindred are saying is potentially interesting. Their presence on the Earth has significance for the whole universe, not just the planet. There is reference to the breaking of worlds (presumably the doomsday – no, not him – devices buried deep under the Earth’s crust) and there is reference to the song the Kindred must sing “before this planet shatters”. There is no indication that singing the song will save the Earth either. Interestingly, the Kindred view the JL as their protectors.

I wonder if the JL see things the same way…

Aquaman’s still under the sea. Well, that makes sense, I suppose, but it’s the only thing in this section that does. Aquaman’s function here is to gather up the zodiac stones, singing (not that anyone else can hear them) crystal artefacts from some time in Atlantis’ distant past. The problem with this section is that Aquaman is receiving instructions from a song (the same song the Kindred want to sing?) that only he can hear. Having surrendered any scepticism or critical thinking in service to the plot, Aquaman just does what the song tells him. Aquaman asks, “Why can I hear it, understand it?” This is not only a reasonable question for the character to ask, but an absolutely vital one for the reader to get answers to. So, obviously, we don’t.

And Hitch’s script makes things worse. You can get away with a fair amount of ropey plotting if your actual writing is entertaining and interesting. “They can fix it. The crystals. They can fix the world!” fails on so many levels it’s difficult to know where to start. While the fragmented language is probably meant to convey excitement, it simply comes across as incoherent. Using a word like ‘fix’ instead of something like ‘mend’ or ‘repair’ (or, even better, ‘restore’) means an opportunity to lend this dramatic moment some gravitas has been passed up, if not actively undermined. And are we really meant to believe that a bunch of obscure crystal statues that we’ve never heard of before is somehow meant to provide the solution to a problem that threatens to destroy the whole world and this failsafe relies on Aquaman obeying voices in his head?

Never mind. At Clark and Lois’ farm, Batman continues to not do very much while Cyborg explains the plot. Sort of. Well, not very much at all, actually. We finally get confirmation that the wormhole-traversing space critters are the Purge and that their purpose is to transform humanity into something “not human”. That, according to Cyborg, is the “important bit” – so important he can’t actually explain it properly. The quake things are a failsafe to destroy the world. How this is related to the Purge, the Kindred or anything else that’s happening in this comic remains maddeningly unclear.

If you, like me, at this point want to screw the comic up into a ball and launch it at the nearest unsuspecting family member, you might be advised to go ahead and do so now. Who knows what you might be tempted to do once you’ve read the next section. Superman is at the Earth’s core being rubbish. But that’s okay, because the creative team are also being rubbish. Apparently, the best way to portray ancient prehistoric doomsday devices implanted in the Earth’s outer core is… not to bother. Superman’s efforts to stop the quake-inducing devices are meeting with failure, but not as much failure as that displayed by Hitch’s imagination. Because these epic potentially planet-fracturing machines are, apparently, big balls of blanks space. When Hitch ends this page on the word ‘nothing’, he is being surprisingly and horrifyingly honest. ‘Nothing’ is what this page has been, in the end, all about.

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Nothing to see here.

Then we’re back with Batman and Lois who, almost as if she knows her husband’s in the process of failing his big JL Rebirth audition deep below her feet, tries to convince Batman not to give up on Clark. (That said, I’d love to know what his other plan would have been!)

The Flash, meanwhile, is single-handedly defeating the Purge when he comes across the four Kindred staring up into space, their mouths still resolutely shut. (Maybe they’re just waiting for that big intro.) Once again, he finds his speed stolen, though. We finally get some Diana inside one of the Kindred. It’s always nice to see Diana, but it would be nicer to get some answers, or at least more solid hints to them. We get more grand verbiage instead – “The Eternal Return”; reclaiming “stolen power”; “we are a memory of so long ago”. It’s clear at this point that Hitch is building up to something big, but it’s equally clear that that something big is not going to be revealed – or even clarified – any time soon. If the entire run of the JL so far is simply set-up for something else, then Hitch (and, by extension, DC itself) is expecting readers to take an awful lot on trust. At this point, I just don’t know that I can give it.

At the Earth’s core, Superman hits on the idea of pushing the doomsday device into the Earth’s inner core, despite the toll it’s taking on his body. His heroism would be impressive if we had a clear idea of what he was actually doing, but we don’t. Jesus Merino’s art is good (as it has been all issue, to be fair) but can’t really disguise that there are some pretty significant problems here. It’s notable, for example, that the only time the doomsday device gains any sense of detail is when it’s being collapsed by the pressure at the Earth’s core. Superman realizes he’s going to have to destroy the other three devices to make sure the Earth is saved. Well, at least they’ll be easy to spot. There can’t be that many spheres of nothingness down there, can there?

We lurch and stumble towards the end of the issue with Diana ranting and threatening, the Flash falling and failing, Batman deciding that now would be a good time to get Lois and John somewhere else, Cyborg having some sort of fit and, finally, Simon and Jessica on the alien half-planet being confronted with a horde of aliens that all look suspiciously like Cyborg. Which should be a cool way to end the issue, but instead feels like yet another curveball thrown at us to fool us into thinking that something exciting might be going on. And, as any baseball fan will tell you, if all you throw is curveballs, eventually you’re going to be found out.

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He can’t hear you, Diana, and even if he could, you’ve got nothing to tell him.

To say this issue is frustrating would be an understatement. The big questions have (mostly) still not been answered and, while the League members have moments of individual heroism, the whole story is too disjointed to provide the context necessary to make that heroism really stand out. The only possible exception to this is Superman who does, to be fair, seem to be facing a genuine challenge. The cover by Fernando Paserin and Brad Anderson is actually pretty awesome. The problem is that it portrays a unified League that simply doesn’t appear in the comic. There’s still too much fragmentation of focus, too many ‘massive’ threats that the League members are facing singly or in pairs instead of doing what most people have probably bought this book for in the first place – coming together to pool their talents and resources against a formidable, credible foe. Perhaps that’ll come next issue. Who knows? In the meantime, this issue continues to present a messy, somewhat incoherent storyline that remains big on spectacle but frustratingly short on explanation.

 

Tomb of Dracula: Throne of Blood (2011)

This is just a lovely image. Absolutely lovely.

A blood-drenched Japanese tragedy with plenty of bite, this one-shot from 2011 is worth seeking out.

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Now that is a cover!

I must confess that I know very little about the current state of the vampire clans in the Marvel universe. I’m currently working my way through the Wolfman/Colan Tomb of Dracula on Marvel Unlimited and I read (and thoroughly enjoyed) the Hulk vs Dracula Fear Itself mini (also written by Victor Gischler) a few years ago. I am also aware that Dracula is (although perhaps not anymore) dead, if the title of the Death of Dracula trade paperback collection on my shelf is anything to go by. Beyond that, it all gets a little sketchy.

The decision to make the literary figure of Dracula a part of the Marvel universe and then give him his own comic series must rank as one of the strangest but most richly productive decisions made by the company’s editors in the 70s.  Dracula has gone through a number of revisions and iterations in the intervening years until we see him now as almost a supernatural supervillain reigning over his kingdom through sheer power and the careful political balancing act of managing the ambitions and expectations of a number of rival vampire clans or sects.

This is the situation at the start of Throne of Blood, when Dracula is approached by a member of Claw Sect for background information on Raizo Kodo, a renegade vampire who has somehow escaped the Claw Sect and whom the clan want killed. What follows is Dracula recounting Raizo Kodo’s origin story precisely as Kodo has, at some earlier point, related it to hm. It is a tale which is, as both the title and cover suggest, set in feudal Japan and steeped in both blood and tragedy.

It’s a bold move naming your story after an Akira Kurosawa film based on perhaps Shakespeare’s most violent play, but both writer Victor Gischler and lead artist Guran Parlov are more than equal to the task.

Raizo’s story starts with him and his brother Ryuhei approaching the camp of Jakkaru, a mysteriously powerful warlord who has grown in influence and now threatens the Kodo clan. In the first page of the story proper, Gischler uses dialogue and first person narration economically to set up the fateful confrontation that is about to take place as well as make clear the mutual respect the two brothers have for one another. What is striking, however, is the art which portrays the brothers’ progress through the bucolic landscape in wide swathes of yellow and light brown. When the conversation moves on to the second page, we are presented with a two-thirds of a page image of the brothers looking down on Jakkaru’s camp. It is impressive, not just for Parlov’s art, which presents the sheer size of the camp and thus the scale of the task facing the two brothers, but also for Lee Loughridge’s colouring of the camp in a lurid yellow, punctuated only by thin, wavering white wisps of camp smoke. The colour yellow is, of course, a strangely ambiguous one, associated with value and brightness but also sickness and corruption. While the yellow here could represent golden corn fields, the productive farmland of the Kodo clan which Jakkaru is threatening, the sense of interpretative uncertainty remains.

Disguised as peasant farmers, Raizo and Ryuhei infiltrate the camp but get challenged by Jakkaru’s elite guard when they try to enter his tent. The resulting combat is short but entertaining. On entering Jakkaru’s tent, however, both the mood and the colour palette changes. Gone are the bright yellows and greens of the external camp setting. Instead we are given dull reds, dirty pinks and muted midnight blues. Jakkaru is considerably more formidable than his guards. The ensuing combat is powerfully drawn and narrated. The brothers have to work together and it is Raizo’s reckless bravery that provides the opening for what should be a final killing blow.

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That probably smarts.

But, of course, it isn’t, because Jakkaru is a vampire and, although sticking your katana through someone’s chest is generally a great idea, unless it’s made of wood in this instance, it won’t make a bit of difference. With a grim sense of inevitability, we see Jakkaru rise from the ground and bite Ryuhei in the neck. If the combat that preceded this moment was desperate, what follows it is downright grim. In a nice serendipitous twist, Raizo is so freaked out by what’s happening that he grabs a wooden practice sword from the rack by mistake and, noticing that it actually seems to have some effect, rams it through Jakkaru’s back and out the other side. While Jakkaru is… ahem… dismayed by this development, Raizo decapitates with him with a normal sword, thus ending his threat to the Kodo clan for good.

Readers who have been paying attention, though, will be worried about that bitemark on Ryuhei’s neck. And with good reason.

Ryuhei is weakened and Raizo manages to get himself and his brother on a horse and escape the camp evading the arrows of Jakkaru’s enraged minions along the way. The dialogue between Ryuhei and Raizo on their homeward journey is brief but it is enough to make clear the close friendship between the two of them. That it takes place in the context of panels whose yellows are more muted than those on the outward journey hints at the sickness already taking root in the family. The brothers’ final approach to their family home is beautifully rendered by Parlov and Loughridge. The brothers are in the foreground and their home is laid out before them in a valley that looks wonderfully bucolic. But the yellow is in the foreground, almost as if threatening to engulf the two brothers, and its vigorous but subtly sickly colour is considerably more vibrant than the dull greens and browns of the valley. The sense of threat, of inundation, is palpable.

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This is just a lovely image. Absolutely lovely.

Over the next few pages we are introduced to Raizo’s family and servants, all of whom come across as well-rounded and well-scripted characters – although, for purely plot reasons, Raizo’s father is far too dismissive of everyone’s fears about Ryuhei and his mysterious listlessness. Time passes and things become more tense. We meet Suzume, Raizo’s betrothed for whom he clearly has strong feelings. But his desire to get to the root of what is happening in his family leads him to leave it and embark upon a three day ride to Jakkaru’s castle.

These panels are yellow-drenched works of art, eerily atmospheric and positively throbbing with foreboding. Gischler’s narration is suitably gothic, too. Raizo says he feels an “oily dread oozing over [him]” as he makes his way through the deserted village on his way to the castle. He is not, of course, wrong. On entering the castle (a sequence that is suspenseful in a wonderfully economical way), Raizo is attacked by Jakkaru’s erstwhile servants, a pathetic bunch whose unwillingness to act on their suspicions about their master is presented as being as immoral as their lord’s depraved violence. We get an intriguing reference to a Dutch trader which suggests that the curse of vampirism is imported to Japan rather than flowering there independently, but Jakkaru’s origin story is not really the main focus of this section. Instead, it is Raizo’s understanding of what must be done that is important in carrying the story forward. Jakkaru’s servants act as a stark warning to him of the perils of inactivity, of the failure to grasp the nettle of duty no matter how painful it may be.

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Again, lovely artwork.

And so we move on to the comic’s final act. Raizo, still wrestling with the obligation that has been made clear to him in the last few pages, prepares for his final visit to his ancestral home, determining to start his assault in daylight.

What follows is some wonderfully atmospheric art. The panel featuring Raizo’s mother and father waiting for him in the blue-grey light of the house’s dim interior is genuinely chilling; the moment in which Raizo kills both his undead parents is shockingly kinetic by contrast, all parallel lines of speed and force, punctuated by simple almost abstract splashes of red. Raizo’s decision to set fire to the house means that the yellow returns with a vengeance, this time angrier and somewhat darker. Its ambiguity remains, though, and, although Raizo is surprised by Suzume’s sudden appearance and biting of her lover, the reader most assuredly is not. Raizo dispatches Suzume quickly enough, the beheading rendered in silhouette and thus giving it a distinctly surreal air. The following confrontation between Raizo and Ryuhei, though, is considerably more brutal and grounded.

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We’re going all Def Leppard now.

I’m not sure how I feel about the Raizo/Ryuhei fight resolution. To be fair to Gischler, having established vampires as a more physically powerful foe, it makes sense to have Ryuhei stopped from killing Raizo by a falling beam of burning wood. The subsequent decapitation is satisfying enough, but, by this point, almost a formality. Now that Raizo himself has been bitten, what happens to him is actually more important.

And Gischler portrays that very well. Raizo sits under a tree, about to kill himself with a stake through his own heart and finds he simply cannot do it. The opportunity for ending the curse passes as the vampirism takes hold of Raizo’s body and mind and the legend of one of the more important members of the Marvel vampiverse is born.

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Today’s lesson is… don’t procrastinate! (Or you might turn into something truly horrible.)

There’s a nice coda to finish off the framing sequence with Dracula himself authorising Raizo’s death, while a few panels later opining that it will be very difficult to enact. It is to the credit of Gischler, Parlov and Loughridge that surely very few readers will disagree with his assessment. The comic does an excellent job of introducing Raizo Kodo and presenting his tortured background in both an exciting and sympathetic way. Topped off by a simply magnificent, brutally visceral cover from Bryan Hitch, the comic is highly enjoyable in its own right. Vampires may be a relatively obscure corner of the Marvel Universe, but they are more than capable of producing compelling, dramatic and thoroughly involving stories. This is most certainly one of them.

 

The Kalaz’an Conspiracy – Prologue (part 4)

Like the rest of the ship, the Genetics Research Suite was bathed in red emergency lighting. Here too, archipelagos of dirty white chemical foam stood out from the dark flooring. Streaks of the stuff glistened on nearby workbenches and analysis stations.

Marris and her men scanned the area. Wherever the Kalaz’an missile had struck it wasn’t here. This was the GRS’ hub, a large atrium, in which the research team had met, shared data and findings, and monitored the remote experiments taking place in other parts of the suite. There was no sign of impact nor of any of the dozen personnel that had been stationed here.

Marris felt a twisting in her gut. The notion that the Kalaz’an had known not only exactly what they were looking for, but also exactly where it was, was beginning to become an ugly and disturbing certainty in her mind. Had she been set up? Were she and every crew member on this ship merely pawns in a wider game? She prayed not, but had to concede at least the possibility. Only she and the research team had known the full implications of what was hidden down here. Even Gordon and Garrison hadn’t been told everything.

Marris glanced across at the tall, stoop-shouldered science officer and felt a pang of envy. How pleasant to be ignorant…

“No sign of impact…” Garrison’s helmeted head swung her way, the flashlights embedded either side of the faceplate blinding her for a split second before the reactive plastiglass of her own helm darkened. “Hang on.”

But, Marris’ infofeed, displayed to one side of the helm’s visor, had already alerted her.

“Phased particles,” she snapped. “Over there. Just enough to form a trace.” There were five doors leading out of the atrium, including the one through which they’d just entered. The Kalaz’an missile had phased through the atrium wall just a few centimetres away from one of the security doors leading into the inner recesses of the suite. Marris was unsurprised to see that that particular door opened on a corridor that would eventually lead to a laboratory that did not officially exist. A laboratory which housed a project on which the hopes of an empire rested.

“Hendrickson, Gomez…” Marris nodded to two nearby security officers. “Through there.”

She, Garrison and the other four guardsmen watched as Hendrickson overrode the security code with his keywand and the heavy metal door began to slide upwards. The space behind the door was shrouded in shadow. There was no emergency lighting active in that part of the suite, no lighting of any kind.

Crouching low, Gomez took a step forward, her phase rifle parallel with the floor. Hendrickson was a couple of steps behind her, standing taller, so that his plasma gun had an unobstructed field of fire over her shoulder. Their helmet beams criss-crossed each other, dispersing the shadows, illuminating an empty corridor, its identification markings picked out in bland, official blue and red script.

Centimetre by centimetre they made their way down the corridor.

“Looks clear,” came Gomez’ voice. “Hold on. There’s something…”

Both the audio feed and the two security officers’ helmet lights cut out at the same time. The darkness returned with a vengeance. To Marris and the others, it appeared that the two officers had simply been swallowed by the shadows.

There was a moment of shocked silence.

“Gomez?” Marris said, taking a tentative step forward towards the shadowed entrance.

With a fizzing hiss, the audio feed snapped back on. And then the screaming started.