thanos-2016-001-020-2

Death Comes To Call – Thanos #1

Lemire and Deodato conjure 70s sci-fi magic, as the big purple bad guy’s solo series gets off to a strong start.

thanos-2016-001-000

Thanos and a big pile of skulls. Enough to encourage you to buy the issue? Oh, yes.

I was a kid in the 70s. Gawky, goofy, obsessed with Doctor Who. And, like, I suspect, most boys of my generation, World War II. The pervasive effects of the Second World War on popular culture in the UK during the 70s really can’t be overstated. In film and on TV, Britain and its allies defeated the Nazis and theirs with varying degrees of realism, drama and earnestness. As a boy, Commando and Warlord were my comics of choice. (Until Marvel finally got their act together, acquired the rights to Doctor Who and started publishing Doctor Who Weekly, of course.) Published by D C Thomson, Commando books were (and still are, for that matter) digest-sized, single-story comics offering intense blasts of action-peppered storytelling with art that ranged from almost frenzied rough lines to beautifully detailed realism. They were a staple of my childhood years, thanks largely to my grandmother faithfully buying an issue for me every week.

So, what on earth has this got to do with Thanos? Well, every so often, the newsagent’s would be sold out of Commando books, so grandma would buy me an issue of Starblazer instead – same format, same publisher, but mad sci-fi/science fantasy instead of gritty war stories. This first issue of Thanos reminds me rather powerfully of some of those 70s sci-fi comics. This is largely due to Mike Deodato’s (I guess he doesn’t need the Jr anymore) artwork, but Jeff Lemire does a fantastic job of creating an exotic, alien setting for his story – and in a wonderfully economical way, too.

thanos-2016-001-001

Scene-setting. Very nice.

I must confess I’m not what you would call a Thanos ‘fan’. I like the character, but have yet to read the original Starlin Infinity Gauntlet stories. The cosmic side of the Marvel universe remains something of a mystery to me. That said, Thanos #1 is a good place to dive in and immerse yourself in the madness. We start off with a rather nicely done bit of narration[1] introducing us to the Black Quadrant, the moon from which Corvus Glaive rules his band of mercenaries (known as the Black Order), who in turn enforce his will throughout the territory that had formerly belonged to Thanos, Glaive having been Thanos’ right hand man when the ‘mad Titan’ had sat on the throne. Both Deodato’s art and Lemire’s words combine rather beautifully here; the images of the moon complex and tower, a group of Black Order mercenaries, and Glaive himself sitting on the throne surrounded by arcane tubing and wires echo are impressive both for their detail and ability to evoke the weird sci-fi comics of my childhood. Having explained that Glaive has usurped Thanos’ seat of power, no time is wasted in showing us Thanos returning and the entirely predictable carnage and devastation that follows. It is to Lemire’s and, particularly, Deodato’s credit that none of this violence feels remotely run of the mill. On the contrary, it is spectacular and dramatic stuff.

thanos-2016-001-003-2

‘THOOM’. That’s not going to be good, is it?

The sense of grim inevitability these moments produce is important for the action that follows. Once Thanos arrives, Glaive chooses to try to defend ‘his’ throne – a decision that, I must admit, rather surprised me. I expected abject grovelling and some sort of guff about how he was keeping the seat warm for his newly returned boss. The fight that follows is brutal and short. Having destroyed the weapon from which Glaive takes his name and to which his life force is tied, Thanos gives his former lackey a choice: kill himself or let Thanos do it for him. And, as much as I can recognise that, yes, this is all a bit contrived and obvious, the moment when Glaive chooses the former option and plunges a shard of his shattered weapon into his stomach remains both dramatic and remarkably powerful. Thanos really is a scary guy.

The build-up to and depiction of the fight is broken up by the introduction of Tryco Slatterus, Champion of the Universe, who is hunting the Titan Eros, otherwise known as Starfox. Former Avenger Starfox is doing what Starfox does best – having romantic fun with a… ahem… diverse range of lovers. (Well, he does have euphoria-inducing powers…) The story here becomes just a tad predictable: mysterious, buff-looking, tough-talking chap turns up to whisk Starfox away from his life of self-indulgent pleasure. A combination of threats, snark and exposition ensues. The dialogue, for the most part, is serviceable enough, although I’m inclined to say that Starfox describing Tryco’s ship as a “space turd” is a genuine highlight. Tryco’s news that he’s been asked by Thane, Thanos’ son, to help him kill Thanos is intriguing enough and that sense of intrigue is deepened when Tryco reveals that there’s going to be one more member of the Thanos-killing team they need to pick up on the way back to Thane.

thanos-2016-001-010

Starfox having fun. I think he needs a bigger bed…

Speaking of which, the final section of the issue deals with Thane and Death discussing their plan to kill Thanos. This is some nice stage-setting. Anyone who’s even only superficially acquainted with Thanos knows the role of the girl Death in his origin and ongoing psychopathy. (If you haven’t read Jason Aaron’s Thanos Rising, you really should – and not just because of the quite amazing Simone Bianchi artwork either.) What she’s doing here with Thane (a character with considerably more moral scruples than his father) is perhaps the biggest mystery of the comic and the greatest source of uncertainty in the story so far. Is she to be trusted? Almost certainly not. Why does Thane trust her? I’m not really sure. Her issue-ending revelation, however, does appear to be genuine. Throughout her conversation with Thane, we’ve seen images of Thanos obviously in some sort of physical distress and the issue ends very dramatically on a full-page of him bleeding (purple blood, naturally) from his nose and mouth and looking almost pathetically shocked. “Thanos is dying” we are told. While this does raise the question of why, in that case, Thane wants to kill him, it is a pretty shocking way to end the issue and primes the reader nicely for the rest of this opening story arc.

thanos-2016-001-018

On the whole, then, this is a very good comic book. We get to see all the major characters in action including Thanos at his most brutally powerful and, at the end, shockingly vulnerable. Lemire gets Starfox absolutely spot on and the relationship between Thane and Death is interesting. In this issue, he does pretty much exactly what any writer should with a first issue of an ongoing title. He provides action, clear characterisation and hints of an unfolding plot that is comprehensible and bold enough (the title character is dying, everyone!) to hook the reader. He is ably assisted, though, by Mike Deodato whose layouts and character work are simply phenomenal. The simple decision to frame some of the action in a rectangular border grid lends the whole comic an elegant but futuristic feel and the interplay of light and shadow is also very striking. In addition, Frank Martin’s colours are impressively alien; he uses a palette of dirty oranges and muted purples for the Thanos sections, that manage to feel strange without being garish. A strong, highly enjoyable issue, Thanos #1 is a highly promising start to what I hope will be a fascinating and exciting exploration of Marvel’s wider sci-fi universe.

[1] Who precisely is doing the narration remains a mystery to me. I did think it was Thane at one point, but I don’t think it is. Is this a sneaky return for third person narration? If so, I am a happy man.

Weird goth girl is weird. White on black word balloons are always a bit of a giveaway too.

Hitting The Ground Running – Red Hood and the Outlaws (New 52) Issue 1

Lobdell and Rocafort’s New 52 effort is visually spectacular but leaves the reader hanging.

red-hood-and-the-outlaws-01_00A team featuring Red Hood, Arsenal and Starfire would not be high on my list of things to read, but, having heard good things about the current iteration of Red Hood and the Outlaws, I thought I’d check out the first issue of the title’s New 52 run. And, yes, as the Rebirth team features Red Hood, Bizarro and Artemis, that probably is as silly as it sounds; it’s just the way I roll.

 

The first thing to point out is that Kenneth Rocafort’s artwork is generally jaw-dropping. This is the first time I’ve encountered him and to say that I was impressed would be an understatement. His character work is detailed but clear, his facial expressions appropriate and evocative, and his action scenes easy enough to follow. Plus, he does cheesecake pretty well, too. (More on this in a moment.)

Scott Lobdell’s story is fun enough, too. We start with the Arsenal formerly known as Speedy stuck in a jail in fictional Middle Eastern country Qurac after helping its people overthrow their government and then falling foul of the inevitable turmoil that followed. Lobdell has Red Hood narrating at this point, which is a pretty big clue that the character is about to become part of the action. What follows is a pretty exciting rescue with Red Hood disguised as an overweight pastor in a moment that is influenced by Total Recall. The escape takes place over two double-page spreads, the art laid out in a crazy-quilt of shards and slivers that does a reasonable job of conveying the frenetic action. And violence. (Many of Arsenal’s erstwhile captors will not be doing the prison rounds ever again.)

The pair break out of the prison compound and drive away in Red Hood’s jeep. There is a chase, there is banter, there are tanks. There is a bad joke. (“Tanks!” “Don’t mention it.”) And there is a pointlessly sexist and unfunny joke that leads to the introduction of probably the most problematic element of this issue. Starfire.

Now admittedly, I am almost entirely ignorant of everything that’s happened to the character since 1991, but her portrayal here seems off. Visually, she’s as impressive as ever. Rocafort’s artwork presents her as beautiful, powerful and emotionally detached from the carnage she’s wreaking on the Quraci tanks. The splash page that introduces her is poster-worthy; the joke much much less so. And this, I think, is the point. Starfire has always been an attractive character – and explicitly sensual too. She has always been seen as uninhibited and free with her sexuality in ways that proved to be awkward or embarrassing for her more uptight friends in the Teen Titans. At the same time, though, that sense of self-confidence and freedom led to a rather touching naivety that is wholly absent here. Partly this is because society itself has arguably become more relaxed about sexual morality and, as a result, there is less mileage to be gained in that frisson between sensuality and decorum. This poses challenges for any creative team taking the character on, but Lobdell and Rocafort’s approach is to sexualise her more obviously while at the same time presenting her as having divorced emotion from sexuality completely. That combination is… unsatisfying. There are hints of more going on with the character (not least with the introduction of a shady character who appears to be on the look out for Tamaraneans), but they’re almost drowned out in a blizzard of crass one-liners and eye candy.

red-hood-and-the-outlaws-01_10

Say “cheese”!

That’s not to say that there isn’t interesting stuff going on here. Once the story moves on to the island of St Martinique (and the obligatory swimsuit shots – thank you, Mr Rocafort), it diverges into two branches: the Roy-Kori plotline that is there primarily to establish the ground rules about Starfire (alien, ephemeral connections with humans, promiscuous), and the Jason-Essence plotline that provides the impetus moving forward. Essence is a character about whom I know nothing. Clearly she has a strong connection with Jason and there’s some intriguing stuff about the ‘All Caste’, which appears to be an organization with which Jason has close ties. The references to bodies with organs removed long before death is interesting enough to make me want to read on, too. Jason’s journey to the Himalayas to find out what’s been going on with the All Caste leads to a closing confrontation with nameless robed and blade-wielding bad guys and a “To Be Explained” note at the end.

“To Be Explained” is a less than ideal way of ending a first issue, though, and does, I think, highlight a problem with the pacing of this story. While the opening few pages are fun and easy enough to follow, the later pages are much more opaque, requiring prior knowledge to understand and a willingness to wait for more explanations. On the whole, then, this first issue of Red Hood and the Outlaws is, despite its beautiful artwork, less satisfying than it should be. Partly, this is due to the portrayal of Starfire, but it’s also to do with pacing and structure. Hopefully, issue 2 will see things improve.

red-hood-and-the-outlaws-01_15

Weird goth girl is weird. White on black word balloons are always a bit of a giveaway too.

Update: Things You Might Like To Read – II

the-sentry-issue-1I’m re-reading Jenkins and Lee’s The Sentry on the Marvel Unlimited app. This is partly because of Reggie Hemingway and Chris Sheehan’s just-released Weird Comics History podcast on the series. I wanted to read the comics again prior to listening to it. The first issue is beautifully drawn (Lee’s art is always amazing, always atmospheric) and the various Golden Age and Silver Age homages are great, too, but the issue as a whole is, because of its introductory nature, a little low-key. While those homages are enjoyable, they also break up the flow of the narrative to an extent that is a little jarring. Nevertheless, I have fond memories of this series and am enjoying revisiting it. While Robert Reynolds’ introduction is more than a little reminiscent of Micky Moran’s in Alan Moore’s Marvelman, Jenkins and Lee are taking a much more considered, deliberate approach here, hinting at the connections between The Sentry and his arch-nemesis The Void while also building up a clear sense of Robert’s rocky relationship with his wife, Linda. The links with the wider Marvel universe are hinted at rather than spelled out and, reading it again, I wonder if that was a bit of a mistake, as the story almost seems too isolated, too self-contained for a first issue that introduces (potentially) a major Marvel character. That said, there’s nothing in recent Marvel history that quite has that mix of psychological darkness and post-modern playfulness. I might blog about future issues as I read them.

dc-holiday-specialThe DC Holiday Special is pricey but rather fun. As is to be expected with an anthology title, the stories are variable in quality but all have something to recommend them. The linking narration from Harley Quinn is suitably funny and the artwork throughout is pretty good, with special mention going to Robbie Rodriguez for a breathtakingly breezy Flash story. That Flash story is perhaps the highlight of the issue for me with an ending that hits you right in the “feels” as a certain son of mine likes to say. The Green Lanterns and Batman/Superman stories run it close, though. The former is a rather strange, but nevertheless entertaining, take on the Christmas story of the Three Kings; the latter is an amusing game of one-upmanship between Damien Wayne and Superman, which is deliciously funny at times. Also worth a mention are the Constantine/Wonder Woman story and the Teen Titans story both of which feature some great art and character interaction. All in all, it’s an awful lot of fun and, although Christmas may have well and truly come and gone, if you can find it, it’s still worth picking up.

 

Another Epic Collection worthy of consideration is Avengers: Judgment Day, which features the conclusion of Roger Stern’s really very under-rated tenure on the book in 1987. The main meat of the collection is the story that follows up the Under Siege storyline which has itself been collected in an Epic Collection of its own. The art is mostly from the rather excellent John Buscema and the issues feature the team having to cope with the implications of a brain-damaged Hercules and a visit to Olympus to deal withjudgment-day an enraged Zeus who blames the Avengers for his son’s condition. It’s slightly bonkers stuff, but Stern’s skill has always been in playing the silly stuff straight and relying on interaction between the characters to provide the levity and/or drama. And this is certainly the case here. This isn’t quite the seminal Avengers team for me, but it’s close – Captain Marvel, Black Knight, Hercules, Captain America, The Wasp and a magically-weakened Thor. The Wasp hands over the chairmanship to Captain Marvel (Monica Rambeau) during this run and CM proves to be a very good choice. The collection also includes the Avengers/X-Men mini-series and the Emperor Doom graphic novel. As is always with these collections, it represents exceptional value for money and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Stable duty proved to be a bit more wearing than usual.

“They Took My Dragon” – Travels and Travails in ‘Weirdworld’ issue 2

Underwater apes, an insane crystalline warrior and a whole load of dragon puke feature in this highly enjoyable and stunningly gorgeous story.

weirdworld-2015-002-000After an absurdly entertaining (and entertainingly absurd) issue which ended with Arkon, our straight-man hero, being captured by the underwater-dwelling monkey-men of Apelantis, you might expect issue 2 to feature escape attempts and/or some Planet of the Apes-style social commentary and/or the reuniting of Arkon with the rather impressive dragon he encountered in issue 1. And you would be partly right.

There is indeed an escape attempt.

First, though, I think we need to revel in some inner monologuing of a kind that balances adroitly on the dividing line between homage and parody. “They took my dragon. They took my sword and battle-bolts. They took my map. But they did not take my life. The fools. I am Arkon, lord of the warlords. And so begins my destruction of the kingdom of the Water-Apes.” That Arkon is uttering this over a gorgeous double page spread that emphasises just how large and impressive Apelantis is, to the side of which is set a much smaller panel in which a bound Arkon is being led in chains to a dungeon, highlights both his determination and, perhaps, just how out of touch with reality our ‘lord of the warlords’ is. Aaron is a damned good writer and I’m inclined to think that at least part of the attraction of writing a book like Weirdword and a character like Arkon must lie in the opportunity presented to send up, albeit lovingly, the kind of rugged, individualistic hero that Arkon is meant to be. That would certainly seem to be the case here.

weirdworld-2015-002-002

Arkon is not getting out of there in a hurry.

After attempting to break out of his stone-walled prison by literally banging his head against a wall, Arkon is interrupted by a voice from the next cell who suggests they escape together and turns out to be Warbow, hero of the Crystellium and character from the short-lived Crystar comic of the 1980s, an appearance that might well give my comic-buying school friend from that decade a jolt of excitement were he still buying comics. But I digress. Aaron handles this exchange remarkably well. Warbow for most of this section is an eye seen through a gap in the wall, an urbane and civilized voice speaking to an Arkon who, despite his wanderings around Weirdworld, persists in believing that Warbow is weaker than he is. He is disproved in dramatic and amusing style as Warbow punches through the wall (he’s escaped numerous times, but needs someone to help him get through the city’s upper levels). Arkon agrees to help him and the story moves into the kind of carnage that, in the hands of Mike Del Mundo, becomes a thing of beauty.

“The water swirls with blood and gore and animal screams. But all I see around me are the streets of Polemachus.”

weirdworld-2015-002-008

Del Mundo shows us what pornography for sharks might look like.

Del Mundo’s Arkon is an avatar of focused brutality, the centre of a double page spread that presents underwater combat as a strange ballet of grace and desperate violence. Around our barbarian hero swirl the bodies of defeated apemen; directly in front of him is another apeman, its face contorted into a grimace, its hands brandishing a wicked looking harpoon. In the background, Warbow is fighting his own battle. The artwork is busy, but also astonishingly pretty to look at. It’s more than just the air bubbles that indicate the action takes place underwater. The positioning of the dead or wounded apemen, and the clouds of blood dispersing through the ocean do too. It is impressive stuff.

In the following page, Arkon is depicted wrestling a final apeman, but while the action is bloody and visceral, the accompanying inner monologue simply reiterates Arkon’s almost monomaniacal determination to find his home. Arguably, it is this obsession that makes the character worth reading about. Certainly, he is not a laugh-a-minute wisecracking superhero in the vein of Spider-Man, nor is he an especially complex figure. Instead, Aaron is using him as a straight man, a muscle-bound foil for Weirdworld’s craziness. His determination to find his home, however, means that Arkon never quite descends into the realm of Conan-parody, although he does skirt it perilously at times. We never stop feeling some sort of sympathy for him, though. His anguish at losing his map of Weirdworld is compelling and leads to the next step of his tortuous journey; Warbow promises to give Arkon his own map, provided he helps the crystalline warrior rescue his prince from the prison that holds him. Arkon doesn’t have much of a choice at this point.

weirdworld-2015-002-011

Stable duty proved to be a bit more wearing than usual.

Before we see him embark on this new side-quest, we have a couple of pages with Morgan LeFay, ruler of Weirdworld and current ‘owner’ of Arkon’s erstwhile mount. Again, del Mundo’s art is phenomenal. The power and ferocity of the dragon is shown clearly as it tosses its ogre handlers around and, in at least one unlucky case, biting them cleanly in two. LeFay is made of sterner stuff, however, staring the dragon down, not flinching at its phlegm, slobber and body part-filled bellow. We don’t get to see Morgan tame the beast, but that’s not really the point. In facing down the dragon, she proves herself every bit as determined as Arkon and the following panel’s depiction of her riding the creature, soaring through a blood red sky, only reinforces the impression that she will be a formidable antagonist for our surly warrior king.

weirdworld-2015-002-012

She’s a sorceress; she can sort her hair out later.

Her leaving on that maiden flight is handy for Arkon and Warbow because it gives them an opportunity to infiltrate Le Fay’s stronghold and find Warbow’s prince who is being held within it. This builds up to a sequence that is both funny and disturbing. Arkon assumes that the prince will be held in the prisons, but Warbow tells us that he’s held in the vault, the significance of which becomes all too apparent once they fight their way to the vault and find out that Warbow’s ‘friend’ and prince is now a bag of collected gemstones. Del Mundo does a great job of depicting Warbow’s insane delight on discovering his friend and there’s a nice sense of the disturbingly absurd when he lifts up the bag and introduces Arkon to his friend. Arguably the narration is just a little heavy-handed here, but having a partner whose sanity Arkon doubts raises the stakes just that little bit more and reminds us that Weirdworld really is a place that can’t be trusted.

weirdworld-2015-002-017

The game of pass the parcel took an unexpected turn…

Issue 2 of Weirdworld, then, ends as it began – in adversity and solitude for our main character and in a gobsmacking reminder that Weirdworld is a dangerous, unpredictable place. But, it is entertaining too and the sense of Aaron and Del Mundo having a lot of fun with both the character and the setting is very clear and, to be fair, deeply infectious. The art is, at times, breath-taking and the dialogue is never less than snappy and engaging. In short, this is a great comic.

Happy New Year!

Yes, I know it’s a couple of days late, but I do sincerely hope you have a fantastic 2017. My 2016 was pretty good, all told. My granddaughter is gorgeous and healthy and it’s a joy seeing her grow and begin to explore the world around her. Although teaching is as hard work as it’s always been, I’ve enjoyed it more this year than I have in a long time, despite the efforts of government, OFSTED and other related personages. I’ve also been honoured to help out at my Mum and Dad’s church doing some preaching, teaching and ministering to some great people. I hope to be doing a lot more of that over the coming months. For the last couple of months, I’ve been doing some voice work for a fantasy and sci-fi publisher that I’m very excited about and still can’t quite believe is happening. When I’ve got something more concrete to tell you (or, more accurately, show you), I’ll let you know.

I’d also like to very quickly give a shout-out to the group of people who have made the last few months of 2016 much more enjoyable than they really should have been – the fine folks at Weird Science DC Comics and the Get Fresh Crew of assorted fans, contributors and followers. If you haven’t heard a 10+ hour podcast about the week’s DC Comics output and have the curious desire to do so, the Weird Science DC Comics Podcast is for you. I’ve loved listening to their podcasts and chatting with some great people on a dizzying variety of platforms. Weird Science post a huge number of reviews on their website (and not just of DC Comics either) and also host not only their own podcast, but an excellent series called The Cosmic Treadmill which looks at individual issues from the past, hosted by Chris Sheehan and Reggie Hemmingway, who are two of the most knowledgeable comics fans I’ve come across. For fun, thought-provoking comic analysis, and a great sense of community (and a fair amount of nonsense along the way) Weird Science DC Comics is the place to be.

This year I’ve tried to do more with the blog. I’m not really interested in making it a premier comic book or science-fiction site on the ‘net (there are plenty enough of those already) – I’m just using it as a place to discuss comics, books and films that have interested me in one way or another. To those who have taken the plunge and decided to follow me and/or comment on the reviews and articles, a big “thank you”. Your views and comments are very much appreciated. Hopefully, this year there’ll be more regular content and, perhaps, more varied content, too.

All the best! Roll on 2017!

Do you know what the most disturbing thing about this image is? That Meredith's drinking the tea.

Meme Merging – Memetic Issue 3 (2014)

James Tynion IV and Eryk Donovan’s social media apocalypse tale steamrolls towards its epic conclusion and manages to raise some interesting philosophical questions along the way.

The tension bmemetic-003-000etween human beings’ desire to assert individuality while at the same time finding comfort and strength within a group remains both one of the fundamental conundrums of human nature and one of the most fertile inspirations for art. In the internet age, it is clear that the conflict between individualism and collectivism has been won by the latter. Individuals across the globe are able to find people with similar interests, communicate and share with them, form virtual communities and, perhaps more importantly, produce and replicate ideas through a dizzying range of publishing platforms including blogs, vlogs, message boards and online magazines. That said, we still experience the world as individuals. We are connected, but not identical. We co-operate rather than suffer coercion. But what if we could be persuaded to join the group? What if that group had its own agenda to which our own will and desire was inevitably subordinated? History is littered with examples of the power of the mob, the “tyranny of the majority” to use a phrase that has recently (and somewhat suspiciously) gained currency, resulting in the infringement of the liberty and rights of those outside the powerful group. This issue of Memetic addresses, plays with and sometimes skirts around these ideas. In the process, it finds moments of true horror that are rooted in and, to some extent, expose our sometimes overwhelming desire to fit in.

We open issue 3 following an older woman, one of the last remaining people unaffected by the meme (although, now that it’s mutated into a song, how she’s managed to remain unaffected is unclear), who meets a traumatized child and tries to keep him safe. Together, she and the child hide under a wrecked car, but are spotted by a ‘screamer’ who drags the woman out of hiding and, rather unexpectedly, kisses her before shedding his clothes, making his way towards one of the three pillars of people now climbing towards the sky, and joining it. The kiss is a curious moment in a comic series already full of them; it does, however, suggest a shift in the meme and the behaviour of those affected by it. We’re moving away from the destruction and murder of the ‘other’ to the assimilation and coming together of the group’s disparate parts. The ‘other’ is gone or at least so diminished as to now be irrelevant. We’re moving on to the final stage of the collectivist utopia – the plunging of the individual into the group, the ultimate surrender of self to the primacy of the whole.

memetic-003-005

The game of mass twister had taken a decidedly disturbing turn.

At this point, it’s hard to see a way back from this. The towers are too big, their component parts numbering in the thousands if not millions. Civilization is more or less over. And we’ve still got most of an issue to get through; the big questions – how did this start and why? – remain. So let’s get them answered, eh?

First, we need to find Aaron a reason to live on. Having seen his boyfriend fling himself off a building rather than become a ‘screamer’, he is contemplating doing the same thing. He is prevented from doing so by the unexpected intervention of a disembodied voice emanating from a walkie-talkie we (and Aaron and Ryan) haven’t seen before. The voice belongs to a young girl left by in a locked safe place somewhere nearby by a father already succumbing to the meme’s effects but retaining just enough of his individuality not to want his daughter to go through the same thing. It is possible, I suppose, that Tynion is commenting on the ‘do as I say, not as I do’ hypocrisy of the average parent, but I think it more likely that there is a simple narrative imperative at work here. Find something for the character in which we’ve invested two issues’ worth of energy to do or one half of the story simply becomes unsustainable. So we follow Aaron as he makes his way through streets and alleys, taking in the towers of singing human flesh along the way and also making contact with Barbara Xiang who is still waiting in her office for word from Marcus and the others. How he manages to do this really isn’t explained. The range on the walkie-talkie isn’t explained either. What is made clear, however, is that, in trying to find the girl, Aaron has found a sense of purpose that is utterly confounded a few pages later when, having located her, Aaron is told by the girl that she doesn’t want to be rescued but wants to be with her “mommy and daddy”. Her parting shot is to tell Aaron that she doesn’t “want to be alone anymore.” She wants “to be with everyone”. This whole section may, with some justification, be seen as a bit of a pointless discursion, but it reminds us that the larger the crowd, the larger its pull. And that the young are, in many ways, more susceptible to that pull than adults – not, it should be acknowledged, that adults are at all immune to it. It’s hard to argue with a little girl when she says she wants to be reunited with her parents and, although Aaron tries, it’s clear that his heart just isn’t in it.

memetic-003-017

Do you know what the most disturbing thing about this image is? That Meredith’s drinking the tea.

Intercut with this narrative is the Marcus storyline. Marcus and his team find the maker of the meme and their hopes of finding a ‘cure’ to it are, perhaps predictably, utterly dashed. This section is a bit talky, but it’s important. The meme’s maker appears to be a madly charismatic cross of Walt Disney and Mark Zuckerberg, a digital artist who believes he has been inspired by ‘angels’ to create the meme and transform humanity with it. It is during his conversation with Marcus and his team that he reveals the overall plot before, in a move that is as shocking as it is pointless, taking his own life. There are problems with this, which I’ll get to in a moment. For now, let’s look at the heart of the mad genius’ thesis, because it is, in fact, the philosophical heart of the series.

“This is what we’ve been building towards from the very beginning. This is what we’ve always been supposed to become. We’ve spent millennia perfecting the art of spreading information.. it’s our drive. It’s all of what we are…”

This is an interesting premise but I’m not sure if it really stands up to scrutiny. Is “spreading information” all that humanity is interested in? Tynion’s madman makes it sound like the signal is more important than the message it conveys; indeed, his plot hangs on it. In doing so, he has to dismiss or ignore centuries of political thought, scientific advance and bloody history. Now, it is true that the 20th and 21st centuries have seen an explosion in communication technology and Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum that the “medium is the message”[1] may well, to some extent, apply here. But, the notion that “[i]ndividuality is a myth”, that “[w]e’re no more individual than the neurons in our brain” is one most readers would find truly horrific. (Which may, of course, be the point.)

“We’re a swarm of thought computers designed to receive a signal, and transmit that signal out to the heavens. Calling down our makers, and telling them we are ready to do what they need us to do.”

What’s interesting about this is the appeal to an external creator, albeit one with unknowable intent. The creative team does a great job of presenting this particular part of the argument, the mad meme maker’s words appearing in captions accompanying images of naked screamers/singers converging on and then merging with the towers of human flesh reaching to the heavens. The maker goes on to talk about “[i]nstantaneous unlimited knowledge. Singularity”, which sounds impressive, but isn’t what’s been going on in this series. The screamers ‘know’ nothing and their experience is limited to the song that they are compelled to sing.

The maker’s suicide is dramatic, but also strange, given that he talks about ‘joining the angels in their eternal song’. Suicide, as we’ve already seen with Ryan and are about to see with Meredith, is the ultimate assertion of individuality. If the maker was going to join ‘the angels’, surely he’d be better off becoming a screamer and merging with the flesh towers?

memetic-003-030

A new day dawns. The towers are waiting.

After his death, all that remains is an anti-climactic cleaning of house. Meredith shoots herself rather than becoming part of the group-mind; Marcus submits to the song because he thinks it’ll be interesting; Peter is left to wander around, all his expertise and snark ultimately rendered completely irrelevant. Which just leaves us with Aaron, who, by a quirk of genetic fate, is rendered immune to both the meme and the song, but joins the flesh tower anyway simply because he wants to feel like he truly fits in. If the issue ended on his manic euphoric blood-streaked face, that would be horrific enough, but the issue has one last shock for us. The only unaffected human left (that we know of – I have no idea what’s going on in North Korea right now and the issue never tells us), Barbara Xiang, is… somehow… monitoring the Earth’s atmosphere and sees ‘something’ (and then hundreds of somethings) entering the planet’s atmosphere. The following page shows the flesh towers falling silent, the faces embedded in their surface looking upwards with hopeful anticipation. The next page shows the arrival of some huge black starfish-entity that is suggestive of the creatures of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos. The final page is entirely black apart from the words ‘DAY FOUR’ scrawled across it in white lettering.

And that’s it.

So, how does Memetic stack up? Well, if Tynion and Donovan’s goal was to tell a story that would be both thought-provoking and disturbing, there’s little doubt that they succeeded. Memetic raises issues that should, in our current, increasingly social media-dominated age, concern us: the way rumours can outrace facts; the way ‘official’ news narratives are undermined or exposed as partial by one-man operations on the internet, which are, themselves, resistant to scrutiny; the way memes become substitutes for detailed argument. That said, Memetic itself is both inspired by and contributes to suspicions about new technology that have been with us since the age of steam. And, as I’ve already mentioned, it raises wider issues about the way we, as individual humans, relate to bigger groupings and structures. In this sense, Memetic is very good indeed.

In terms of its story-telling, however, Memetic’s success is much more qualified. Aaron is probably our best developed character and even he is somewhat anaemic, although Tynion and Donovan have done a good enough job with him to make his final decision at the end of this issue believable. Certain things happen (this issue’s magic walkie-talkie is a good example) for plot convenience; other things happen but don’t really lead anywhere. Then there’s the meme itself. At times, its influence seems impossible to resist, but, like the doctor in book 2 and the meme maker himself in book 3, if your mental coherence is required in order to advance or explain the plot, you become immune to its effects. This lack of what the guys on the Weird Science DC Comics podcast would call “rules” undermines the book at times – not fatally, but enough to make it less compelling than it could be.

Having said all that, I’m still glad I read the book. Donovan’s artwork is sketchy but kinetic enough to convey emotion well; some of his panels are very dramatic – or disturbing as the case may be – indeed. And, although Tynion’s script can sometimes be on the wrong side of loquacious, he has nevertheless crafted a thoughtful and, at times, very troubling tale. The collected edition is available from Comixology for £5.49 and I’d say, at that price, it’s worth checking out.

[1] McLuhan’s idea that media in and of themselves change the way, for example, stories are perceived, that media can effect structural changes that go largely unnoticed by consumers concentrating on content, may well have informed Tynion’s story.

See that gooey stuff hanging off Despero's ship? That's billion year old proto-matter, that is. That's going to take an age to clean off.

Conway Shows How It’s Done – Justice League of America (vol 1) 251 Review

Can a well-plotted blast from the past shed light on where the current series is going wrong?

The Justice League of America has been with us in one form or another for over 50 years and I have both loved and been exasperated by the comic book in more or less equal measure ever since I first encountered it many moons ago. The book in its current form, Bryan Hitch’s Justice League, most definitely falls into the ‘exasperation’ category. While I’ll continue to bljustice-league-of-america-v1-251-page-1og it (as soon as I’ve caught up), I thought it might be useful to look at an example of Justice League storytelling from an era when I was buying the book regularly.
Issue 251 of the original run is interesting for a number of reasons. It comes towards the end of long-time writer Gerry Conway’s second stint on the book, although, in fairness, he didn’t leave the book for very long between his first run and his second one. The League featured in this book is effectively Justice League Detroit, although it had been forced to move to the ‘secret sanctuary’ outside Metropolis a few issues ago. The members include established ‘second stringers’ (a term here I’m using to refer to those members who did not have their own books at this point) Martian Manhunter, Zatanna and Elongated Man as well as ‘newcomers’ Vixen, Vibe, Gypsy and Steel. And Batman, who, after last issue’s anniversary original League get-together, has decided to stay on as team leader in order to try and lick the team into shape. As with the forthcoming Justice League of America Rebirth series, Batman’s inclusion may well be down to marketing, but either way it’s a savvy move for reasons I’ll get into in a moment.

The book opens with a full-page splash of this issue’s world-threatening menace Despero – an old JLA villain whose appearance here has been trailed and teased for several issues – along with the kind of writing that makes you long for the return of third-person narration in comic books. “Rage seethes inside him, as constant as a heartbeat.” While my inner pedant wants to point out that heartbeats aren’t technically constant, my inner fanboy loves this kind of stuff. Comics are a form of culture open to a range of styles and tones, but the form of grim high melodrama remains one of my favourites. Conway takes time, too, to show us just how grimly driven Despero is at this point. On the second page, he introduces us to The Torq, an amorphous alien entity that has drifted peacefully through the universe observing things and absorbing information. Despero flies his ship right through it and, as Conway’s narrator spells out for us, “a billion years of wonderment are snuffed out in an instant”. This is followed by the almost unbearably clichéd “He has places to go, things to do. People to kill.” But that is, I think, the point. The vengeance that drives Despero is as petty and banal as it is mindlessly destructive.

justice-league-of-america-v1-251-page-3

See that gooey stuff hanging off Despero’s ship? That’s billion year old proto-matter, that is. That’s going to take an age to clean off.

The book’s title is “Hunters and Prey”, a phrase we’re about to hear and will hear again before the issue is finished. Batman is putting Vibe and Vixen through their paces. Vibe is having a rough time of it, but, as Batman says, “without concentration, you’re not a hunter… you’re prey.” Well, I’m glad that’s clear. It’s difficult to avoid the fact that Batman is making the same mistakes with Vibe as Aquaman made with Steel during the Detroit run – and for much the same reasons. And with much the same results. Vibe doesn’t appreciate the constant lecturing, but the scene does lead to a nice follow-up scene between Vixen and Batman that bears fruit later on. The one difference between Batman and Aquaman would appear to be that Batman is at least willing to listen to criticism.

justice-league-of-america-v1-251-page-6

“Ridin’ me like your own personal donkey”??? There’s an image it’s going to be difficult to scrub out of my brain…

Batman’s inclusion as team leader makes sense here for a number of reasons. Firstly, the ‘new’ League had been controversial (some of those letters pages in the early Detroit run are well worth a look) and having Bats leading the team raises its profile in a way that having Aquaman leading never really did. Secondly, Batman is the archetypal loner and that instantly guarantees the kind of conflict with the younger more impetuous characters that, indeed, we get here. Thirdly, no one does ‘grim’ quite like Batman and ‘grim’ is what we’re heading towards. The tone of the book begins to change subtly this issue. Batman is both serious and astonishingly competent. And Conway gets the character very well, having written him in his own series in the late 70s and early 80s. Batman’s presence also frees up Martian Manhunter to take more of a mentor role with Gypsy, more of which later. I can remember at the time being rather grateful for the return of Batman to the team. Reading this issue again, I still get that sense that the team just went up a level in quality.

A couple of observations here: nothing like either the introduction of Despero or the character interaction between Vixen, Vibe and Batman has appeared in any of the six issues of Rebirth-era Justice League I’ve read to date. In the Hitch League there doesn’t appear to be much ‘down-time’ and the restricted narrative choices available to current writers preclude something as on-the-nose as the Despero intro. (There are ways around the third person narration taboo, of course, but none of them are quite so… satisfying.) None of Hitch’s villains have yet displayed as much drive and motivation as Despero does in those first two pages. Unlike, say, the Kindred or the Purge, Despero’s motivation is not a mystery here – how his vengeance against a League that no longer exists will play out is, however. And Conway is in no great rush to get to that point. And, yes, that is another way in which this issue differs from the Rebirth ones.

Because issue 251 is a character issue. While the Gardner Fox days in which League members would formally pair up to fight disparate threats before coming together to solve the overall ‘case’ are gone, Conway effectively revives the format by having Gypsy and Martian Manhunter informally team up with Gypsy using her camouflage powers to tag along as J’onn tries to get to the bottom of a mystery that was introduced a few issues ago. This is Conway indulging in a slow burn which, while short on plot development (it takes us three pages to find out something that could have  – and nowadays probably would have – been revealed in a handful of panels), is rich in characterisation. The developing friendship between Martian Manhunter and Gypsy is beautifully handled, although the decision to have J’onn narrate this section in character gumshoe-style is a little odd, especially when he drops his John Jones persona once outside the office of the PI he’s nominally working for. His pride at Gypsy taking off on her own, though, is a nice touch. With her mix of vulnerability and trusting nature, it’s hard not to like Gypsy and J’onn, too, comes across as very likeable here. It’s a very effective bit of writing.

justice-league-of-america-v1-251-page-9

Look, no fingerprints! And for my next trick, I shall be doing my best Philip Marlowe impression during the next section of the book.

And it’s not the only sub-plot in the issue either. Sandwiched in the middle of the J’onn-Gypsy storyline is a sequence that features Zatanna, who has been abducted by the mysterious Adam and subjected to some nude experimentation – complete with conveniently placed restraints to preserve modesty, naturally. Adam is an interesting antagonist, not least because his superpower appears to involve playing on the insecurities of intelligent, well-educated people who, in the mid 80s, find themselves talented in a range of fields but deeply unsure about whether that talent will lead to the kind of material success promoted and glamourized in American culture at the time. In a decidedly weird moment, Zatanna’s erstwhile tenant (who’s been instrumental in capturing Zatanna) delivers pretty much the same ‘hunter/prey’ line as Batman earlier. The difference between the two moments is that Batman wants Vibe to find the strength within himself to be the ‘hunter’, while Adam’s acolytes are looking to Adam to provide the strength they need. Adam is a compelling but decidedly creepy villain. We’ll have to wait a few issues before we get to see him receive his comeuppance, unfortunately.

Steel gets a nice moment of down-time too as he inadvertently displays his strength in front of a date. Then we return to Batman and Vixen with the latter offering the Bat some sympathy and advice. This has been an unusually low-key issue, but by no means a boring or empty one. It is most assuredly not the template for JL issues past or present, but it is the kind of useful one-off issue that allows readers to catch their breath and be reminded that our heroes are not just power sets and costumes but living, breathing characters in their own right. And that that’s why we love them.

When Despero reappears at the end of the issue, touring the wrecked shell of the old JLA satellite, we understand more clearly just what’s at stake. While it seems somewhat perverse to suggest that it’s more than ‘just’ the world, there is an important truth here that, for all its spectacle and threat, the Hitch Justice League has yet to understand: it’s the relationships between characters that are important; it’s the sense of those characters being in danger that at least partly engages us in the story. The Despero arc is a classic, but this issue is in no small part responsible for its success precisely because Conway has taken the time to make us care about the characters who are about to be put through the wringer.

justice-league-of-america-v1-251-page-24

It occurs to me that I’ve said virtually nothing about the art up to now. Let me rectify that oversight here. Luke McDonnell and Bill Wray are an excellent team. Their style may not be to everyone’s taste, but every so often they pull off something gloriously spectacular. Like here, for example.

Of course, it’s perhaps easier for Conway to do that with those second-stringers than Hitch can with the current League, the members of which all have their own series. That doesn’t mean he shouldn’t at least try, though. There are plots within plots here and, although you can argue that this issue is purely a ‘set-up’ story for the big event to come, the sense of a multi-faceted ongoing narrative is actually quite satisfying. Arguably, this is a large part of the appeal of superhero comics. Readers are treated to an unfolding multi-layered narrative in which, when it’s done well, character and plot combine in generally affecting and sometimes unpredictable ways.

It’s that sense of numerous sub-plots moving at different speeds that can give a team book a lot of its richness. That’s certainly the case here. I’m not suggesting that this kind of issue would necessarily work for the modern League – it is pretty much entirely ‘set-up’ for the next few issues – but at least some attention given to meaningful character interaction[1] (and, perhaps more importantly, the development of relationships between team members) and a more considered  approach to plotting would certainly help. Next issue sees things get a lot hairier for the JLA and, for that matter, some random dude out hunting with his dog. See you soon.

[1] I know I’ve not made much of the Batman/Superman/Lois/John interactions in the first Justice League story arc. They are, of course, the exception that proves the rule, although even then, the John “cookie” line notwithstanding, those scenes’ dialogue is a little awkwardly phrased. (Although, to be fair, nowhere near as poor as everyone else’s dialogue in that story.)