Winning and Losing – American Gods: Shadows #4

American Gods 4 coverWell, this is good. After two issues of slow burn and a third issue that was much more promising, it feels like this series is finally hitting its stride. Last issue, if you remember, ended with Shadow being invited to play checkers with a retired slaughterhouse worker who was really the Slavic god Czernobog. As issue endings go, it’s not exactly riproaring stuff, but if you’ve read enough fantasy – or folklore, to be fair – you won’t be at all surprised to find that wagers are made very early on in this game and that things turn out both well and badly for our main character. Nor is the game the only interesting thing to happen this issue. Throw in Colleen ‘A Distant Soil’ Doran into the mix for this issue’s back-up and you’ve got a pretty tasty proposition. Let’s taste and see what our creators have lined up for us…

 

Like, I would imagine, most people, I was first introduced to checkers as a kid. I used to play the game with my grandfather and, like, I would imagine, most grandfathers, he let me win with such a degree of regularity that I ended up failing to appreciate the game. Ah, well. At the start of this issue, Shadow is up against an opponent who is nowhere near as generous. In fact, with an obscene amount of relish, Czernobog proposes a wager. And things get tense. What has been, up to now, a somewhat flat, almost sedentary tale becomes suffused with a sense of danger that is rather compelling. Wednesday’s warning is the clincher here. If even he is worried about Czernobog’s wager (if Shadow loses, Czernobog gets to bash his brains out with his sledgehammer), then the reader should be, too. And this reader, at any rate, is.
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The creative team do a great job with this section. Czernobog, who had last issue been a forlorn, almost lugubrious, character, here becomes much more sinister and Hampton’s artwork successfully portrays the idea that, despite his declining status, this is still an extraordinarily powerful – and capricious – entity. Shadow comes across well here, though. He is cool but when, after losing the first game, he has to persuade Czernobog to play another, there seems to be an element of urgency underneath the unruffled exterior that only adds to the tension. It’s a very effective piece of storytelling.

 
After Shadow duly wins the second game by playing in a reckless, unpredictable manner (if this isn’t a recognised fantasy trope, it should be), everyone retires for a bland dinner which is followed by an enigmatic but rather affecting conversation between Shadow and Zorya, the third of the sister goddesses who, up to now, has been sleeping. Again, the creative team do a rather fine job here. Zorya is presented as a luminous, slivery character; her conversation is focused on the stars, a poetic, mythic explanation of her and her sisters’ function in Slavic mythology. It’s a beautiful, unhurried piece of writing and ends with Zorya giving Shadow the moon in the form of a coin. Awesome stuff.
This section of the issue ends with Wednesday bursting into Shadow’s room in the morning, grinning manically and announcing that the pair of them are going to rob a bank. Compared to the previous issues’ endings, this is almost a cliffhanger. But we’re not done yet. Oh, no…

 
American Gods 4 6Colleen Doran is exactly the kind of artist a Gaiman story about an 18th century Cornish immigrant’s life needs. In this issue’s ‘Coming To America’ story, she manages to combine a rich level of detail with clean lines that could have come out of an Edwardian book of fairy tales. Her heroine, Essie, is beautiful and capricious, tragic but scheming, and her men are, on the whole, coldly handsome as befits Gaiman’s incident-packed biography. For Essie is a girl for whom her youthfulness and femininity are both an asset and a curse. She is not above using both to get out of tricky situations; at the same time, though, she does find love when, eventually, she ends up in the new world, settles down and starts a family.

 
Gaiman offers no judgement here. Her life is what it is. At times, she is unjustly treated; at others, she turns situations to her advantage. Her ‘gods’ are the Cornish pixies (or ‘piskies’) for whom she leaves each night a saucer of creamy milk outside the kitchen door. The last two pages of the story deal with her finally coming face to face with a ‘pisky’ who she credits for both the good and bad fortune she’s experienced throughout her life. Finally at peace with what she’s experienced, she takes his hand and is found dead a few hours by her family.

 
As a way of ending this issue, this story is really rather beautiful. Perhaps even more powerfully than issue 3’s tale of Norse gods, it highlights that, in Gaiman’s world, gods can be immigrants, too. With Doran’s art, the tale assumes a stylised simplicity that belies its more profound implications. Essie’s ‘god’ has been forced, by her belief and observance of custom, to accompany her to a new world that, Essie aside, is not especially receptive to him. Despite the unpleasant things that happen to her, Essie maintains an equanimity that is almost noble. The question remains open, however, to what extent Essie’s superstition has affected her life. The function of ‘Jack’, the red-haired ‘pisky’ who shows up at the end of the story, would appear to be to add a supernatural gloss to a life of both tragedy and joy. The story’s final image – of the half-shelled peas – would seem to suggest that, while Essie has lived a long life, it is not a complete one, that she had more to do. But perhaps I’m misreading (always a possibility with writing like Gaiman’s). What does seem clear, though, is that America offers Essie a stability and security she never really knew in Cornwall. Whether it offers her accompanying ‘god’ the same remains to be seen.

 
This was an impressive issue on a couple of levels. The checkers game is appropriately tense; the meeting between Zorya and Shadow mysterious. The back-up, however, is simply beautiful and transforms the issue from being merely good to being excellent. Highly recommended.

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Broken Chords – Astro City #46

Astro city 46 coverPierogies are, apparently, boiled dumplings with either sweet or savoury fillings, and Wikipedia helpfully tells me that they originated in central and eastern Europe. This is just one of the things I learned from reading Astro City #46, although by no means the most important. Or interesting. No. Perhaps the most significant thing to be gleaned from this issue is that, after 30+ years in the industry, Kurt Busiek remains a master storyteller and his ability to surprise, intrigue and delight remains highly impressive. In some respects, Astro City #46 is a less than ideal starting point for anyone wanting to read this title. It’s the second of a two-part story and, while not absolutely essential, it is highly recommended that you read the first part before attempting this one. That said, this comic is a lot of fun and is exceptionally thought-provoking, too. Allow me to explain…

 

Astro City has been around for a long while now. Debuting in 1995 on the now defunct Wildstorm imprint, Homage Comics, the series is an extended love letter to and exploration of the superhero genre. In fact, considering its initial on the nose riffing on already established superhero archetypes (The Samaritan is a Superman analogue; the First Family is a thinly disguised version of the Fantastic Four), it seemed that the banner under which it was printed was tailor-made for it and it is tempting to view that initial run of six issues as a straight homage to the comics Busiek grew up reading (and writing fan letters to!) as a teenager. But there was always something more going on in Astro City than simple affectionate pastiche. There was excavation and exploration, too – a generally sympathetic attempt to scratch beneath the surface of some of the more worn superhero themes and tropes, and breathe new life into them principally through a startling, almost Kirby-esque fecundity of ideas, and an exemplary skill with characterisation. Both of those are on display here.
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Issue 46 picks up where the previous issue left off. It is some unspecified time in the 1970s and famed chronicler of the counter-culture Tom O’Bedlam is hosting a special ‘coming out’ party for his lover, androgynous music-themed superhero Glamorax who, we found out last issue, changes his/her identity, persona and power-set in response to the changing rhythms of popular music. This in itself is a radical idea, and it’s one with which Busiek has considerable fun. It’s clear that the Bowie/Bolan-inspired Glamorax identity is going to give way to something much more visceral and angry and, indeed, he’s in the process of transforming into a punkier persona when the event is gatecrashed by knife-wielding cultists who want to stop the transformation.

 

A passing Jack-In-The-Box helps deal with the cultists but, even as their bodies dissipate, it’s clear that they’ve achieved what they set out to do and the entity formerly known as Glamorax is no longer to be seen. The story continues, though, with the narration of the Broken Man, a purple-skinned, green mullet-sporting chap in white tails and trousers with a NASA t-shirt underneath. This is a character who has been popping in and out of Astro City stories for a while now. His most remarkable characteristic is that, in the Astro City universe, he appears to be clinically insane, but in the Astro City comic he is a character who has a disconcerting habit of talking directly (and cogently) to the reader. (Think more Grant Morrison’s Ultra Comics than Deadpool.) This is, in fact, what the Broken Man does throughout this issue’s narration. Busiek’s writing here is really… heartfelt. There is an emerging critique of the corporatisation of culture, specifically music, in the Broken Man’s description of music executives’ talk of “market penetration” and “sales velocity” as something he “couldn’t make sense” of. But the tone is less satirical, and more a lament for lost potential, a suggestion that the commercialisation of music has led to a neutering of its power to shock, and both speak to and for the young people who should be its target audience.

 

The linking of music and superheroics is not exactly new (the Vertigo comic Greatest Hits is well worth a look if you like that sort of thing), but Busiek here manages to intertwine the two pop culture genres in a unique and interesting manner.
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I don’t want to spoil the issue’s ending, because it manages to be both clever and rather touching. Suffice it to say that, for all its superhero trappings, this issue is actually a commentary on the anaemic quality of much of popular culture and it’s one that ends on an optimistic, if somewhat uncertain, note. Add in a distinctly Lovecraftian monster, some clever metafictional touches (the page in which the Broken Man is staring out of a transparent comic panel is just phenomenal) and some very affecting characterisation and you have an extraordinarily enjoyable story.

 

In some respects, this issue is an atypical one, but it does demonstrate why Busiek’s world is well worth visiting. His protagonist is mysterious, sympathetic and very well-realised. While some readers might find the brief cameos of The First Family, The Irregulars and Honor Guard a little overwhelming, there is nevertheless a clear sense of the richness and scope of Busiek’s world despite the story’s much narrower focus. Brent Anderson’s art is perhaps a little less fine than it was in, say his run on Marvel’s Ka-Zar back in the early 80s, but it does the job here very well indeed. His facial expressions in particular – so important in a character-heavy issue like this one – are excellent. The Broken Man’s distraught features when considering the dangers of alerting other heroes to the dangers of the Oubor are a great example.

 

It is impossible to deny the very personal nature of this title – and issue – and it’s difficult for this comic fan, who can remember picking up Busiek’s first ever Justice League story in Justice League of America 224*, to be all that objective about it. For inventiveness, great characterization and a warmth that clearly comes from the creators’ genuine love of the genre, it’s hard to beat a visit to Astro City and this issue, despite its somewhat overly talky – and inconclusive – ending, is a stylish and enjoyable vehicle to take you there.

 

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

 

*The original version of the review wrongly stated that this issue was Kurt Busiek’s first DC story. It wasn’t. That honour goes to Green Lantern #162. Thanks to Mr Busiek himself for the correction.

The Wild Storm #5

The Wild Storm 5 coverI am beginning to wonder if Warren Ellis is deliberately structuring this series on a three issue cycle in which we get two issues of conversation-heavy set-up and world-building followed by an issue of balls-to-the-wall full-blooded action. Last issue was impressive more for its art and dialogue than anything else. This issue is no less skilfully written but is less impressive and (say it quietly) just a little monochrome compared to the last couple of issues’ technicolour spectacle. That is not to say it’s poor. By no means. But it is a more cerebral talky instalment and, while this series continues to be one of the most intelligent and well-written comics currently on the market, there are nevertheless niggles here. Allow me to explain.
This issue is all about character interaction. There are four key conversations here and a promising fifth that gets interrupted by the story’s conclusion. The first one is between IO’s chief Miles Craven and Deathblow himself, Michael Cray who is still coming to terms with his brain tumour. With the promise of IO paying for his medical expenses as an enticement, Craven persuades Cray to go after and execute Angie ‘Engineer’ Spica. Although, at just two pages, this conversation is relatively short, it is nevertheless impressive for making Cray a fully three-dimensional and likeable character, despite his assignment pitting him against the one character in this series so far that we can say without too much quibbling is ‘good’. With Craven having just left him, Cray’s final two panels of dialogue (“Strange damn world. I love it. …I don’t want to die.”) are rather touching. I’ve waxed lyrical about Warren Ellis’ writing skills before, but this is worth noting as a powerful example of the dictum ‘less is more’.
The Wild Storm 5 2The second conversation is between Zealot and a ‘daemon’. I am assuming that this is an introduction to Ellis’ re-working of the Kherubim/Daemonite dynamic that formed the foundation of WildCATs’ initial run in the 90s before being so gloriously subverted by Alan Moore a few years later. Zealot has been charged with investigating Camp Hero in Montauk, the mothballed IO base that formed the setting for issue 3’s jaw-dropping action set-piece. I must confess that I’m slightly surprised that there’s that much of a base to investigate, but I’m willing to let that slide given how stylishly the Daemonite encounter is presented.
In the same vein as my regular praise for Ellis’ writing, this is as good a moment as any for my likewise regular acknowledgement that Jon Davis-Hunt’s artwork is glorious. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that he may well be one of the top five artists currently working in comics. He reminds me of a slightly more refined Liam Sharp (and there’s no slight intended to the inestimable Mr Sharp); he has the same ability to work in meticulous detail while sacrificing none of the dynamism required of an action comic artist. In fact, if anything, his line work is somewhat clearer and, while his panel layouts may be more restrained, his faces are a little more expressive. Page 5 is a great example. Zealot’s exploration of the wrecked IO base becomes a perfectly paced exercise in suspense, largely due to Steve Bucellato’s subtle colours and Davis-Hunt’s framing and perspective. When the Daemonite emerges from the shadows at the bottom of the page (a moment rather given away by the impressive cover), it is beautifully, spine-tinglingly disturbing.
That conversation between the Daemonite and Zealot represents a further opening up of the WildStorm universe and provides some subtle hints as to the nature of the relationship between Daemonites and Kherubim. Satisfyingly, it would appear that Ellis is not content merely to replicate the rather simplistic dynamic between the two races that first appears back in the original Image run. In that sense, the conversation is a prime example of what Ellis is doing with this series, balancing respect and innovation pretty much perfectly.
The Wild Storm 5 3The centre piece of the issue is the next conversation between Adrianna ‘Void’ Tereshkova and Angie. It’s here that we see Adrianna’s origin and get a better feel for her character. I’m not going to spoil that conversation here other than to point out that we get an explanation of the Bleed that is typical high concept sci-fi from Ellis and that, again, Davis-Hunt’s artwork is clear and appealing.
The final major conversation is the second one between Miles Craven and Michael Cray, in which the latter says he’s not going to eliminate Angie because she’s a “bad target”, a conclusion at which he’s arrived because he’s been able to review the raw footage from the Razor CAT’s attack and interpret it himself. This leads to a moment when (finally) Craven’s mask of oily politeness slips and we see a ruthlessness that is belied by what we have previously seen of his more human relationship with his boyfriend. The issue ends with the promise of (hopefully) some action next month, but that ending is resolutely low-key, entirely in keeping with the ongoing tone of this series.
Some random observations to finish with: we get more Voodoo (yay!), even if it’s only one page (boo!); Michael Cray’s had one hell of a life; Davis-Hunt draws cars, leaves, alien demon-creatures and Angie Spica extraordinarily well; speaking of Angie, I still love her and would like to give her the hug she so obviously needs.
Whether you will enjoy this issue depends almost entirely on your attitude to slow-burning stories that prioritise character interaction, a slow incremental exploration of an expansive universe, and a multi-layered plot over gratuitous action sequences. We’re five issues in and we’re getting a clearer idea of who’s doing what and why they’re doing it; we’re also getting a much better feel for what makes the various characters tick and how they got their powers. All of which is fine. Up to a point.
I mentioned niggles at the start of this review. I shall spell them out here. At the end of last issue, we left Angie alone and somewhat emotionally bereft. This issue we see her steal (quite a bit of) money from a cash machine (do AMTs really issue $100 bills???); it would arguably have been nice to see her try to cope on her own, to see her, actually, involve herself in a bit of superheroics. Instead, Adrianna locates her pretty easily and we get a conversation that, although interesting in its own right, moves the focus away from her. Now, it may seem a bit counter-intuitive to suggest that the plot slow down at this point, but Angie’s currently our most sympathetic viewpoint character and I think there’d have been some mileage in showing her coming to terms with her suit and also taking at least some steps to finding out who she is becoming. The Adrianna conversation is just a little too neat.
The Wild Storm 5 4As good as the dialogue is here, it’s neither as witty nor as awe-inspiring as what we had last issue. The stuff about the Bleed is interesting, but we don’t get anything near as impressive as the slow build-up to the double page spread of the Skywatch satellite last issue. The action quotient is down to pretty much 0 here. I don’t mind that so much myself, but I wouldn’t want to see it become too regular a thing. Neither would I want to see a book this self-evidently good lose readers because of its slow burn. That said…
I still trust Ellis. He continues to write engaging, interesting characters and continues to give us a masterclass in how to introduce a world in a layered, reasonably organic way. While this issue is not an especially ideal jumping on point, it is nevertheless entertaining, well-written and well-paced. And, it should go without saying, exceptionally well-drawn. Its ending suggests that we’ll have some action next time. We shall see. For now, this is still recommended reading. It’s comic book storytelling of a very high calibre and I’m still very interested to see where it’s going.

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

Going Ape – Planet of the Apes/Green Lantern #4

 

Planet of the Apes-Green Lantern 004-000

Feel the rage!

 
The issue starts with the kind of ‘Tales of the Green Lantern Corps’ story that used to appear as a back-up strip in the main comic back in the 80s. Except this one ends with neither a neat clever twist nor a moment of poignant heroism. The first three and a bit pages of this issue tell the story of an unnamed female Lantern, naïve and altruistic, who is recruited by the Guardians to take the Universal Ring to the Planet of the Apes Earth. On trying to return to her own space and time, she realises that she has essentially been shafted by the Guardians (why anyone ever thought they were suitable beings to run the universe’s police force, I really don’t know) and decides to do her best to save this Earth from its nuclear-powered self-destructive tendencies. Fairly obviously, she fails and you can’t help feeling sorry for her. In the few panels the writers and artist Barnaby Bagenda give her, she comes across as a noble character. In terms of her function in the story, however, it seems to be only to enable Sinestro to take her Green Lantern ring along with the device that enables it to function in this reality. This section ends with Sinestro becoming a Green Lantern once more (for some reason, the ring is at full charge), which, let’s face it, no one wants to see at this point.

 

 

Planet of the Apes-Green Lantern 004-013

Hal looking heroic; Guy looking, well, like a man who’s trying to pretend he hasn’t transported Gorilla Grodd to an Earth ruled by apes.

Then, the focus moves to Hal, Zira and her ape friends who are looking for Cornelius and the strange ring that he’s been analysing. Their search is interrupted by the appearance of Ursus’ army, who, demoralized and dishevelled, are fleeing from their battle with Cornelius and his mutant ring-slingers and, thanks to some rather nice Bagenda artwork, look thoroughly traumatized by their experience. Hal eventually meets up with Guy and the other Lanterns who have (just about) survived their encounter with the Reds last issue. Guy gives Hal one of the ring-enabling devices and Hal gratefully ‘lanterns up’. During this conversation, however, it turns out that Zira has disappeared, taking Nova and a couple of other apes with her, to continue the search for Cornelius.

 
They cross into the Forbidden Zone, encountering exactly the same kind of psychic ‘warnings’ that appear in the second film, and are finally confronted by a red mutant-lantern who attacks them before being warned off by Cornelius.

 
What follows is kind of touching, although also a bit confusing. When Cornelius first appears to Zira, he is on what appears to be a yellow construct gurney, presumably an indication of the severity of the injuries inflicted on him last issue. When he turns into a Star Sapphire (because he loves Zira and, you know, is pleased to see her), the gurney disappears never to be seen again. There are, however, signs that he is hurting, not least the thin cracks that are appearing on his costume(s) and his hands. I suspect that wearing the universal ring may well have some unpleasant side effects.

 

 

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Bagenda does dramatic rather well.

There’s a nice bit of conversation between Zira and Cornelius, who grants a universal ring to his beloved. Against her better judgement, she takes it and turns her attention to Ursus who is held captive (and presumably has been prisoner all this time) floating above them. It is at this point that the issue ends with the revelation that Grodd has taken control of the remnants of Ursus’ army and the Red Lanterns have allied themselves with him. I would imagine that we’re all extraordinarily shocked by that. No? Oh, well.

 
This was a decent enough issue, but, to use a phrase beloved of Weird Science‘s Jim Werner, it’s a lot of set-up. There are props and characters moving all over the stage. They’re dancing around each other for the most part and have yet to interact in any meaningful way. There are, as I see it, four key factions developing here. There’s Hal and the other GLs, of course. Their job is to try and stop Sinestro and (pretty literally) put the Universal Ring back in its box. Then there’s Cornelius, the current wielder of the Universal Ring, intent on bringing about a peaceful utopia through dishing out as many rings as possible to those he deems worthy. There are hints that this is not entirely his own idea. The Universal Ring, remember, does have a desire to reproduce itself. The third faction is Grodd and the Reds, bolstered by Ursus’ army. The Reds want the Universal Ring, too. What Grodd wants is unclear, but I’m guessing that bananas are not as high on the list as Guy seemed to think last issue. I would imagine escape, power and revenge are a bit more prominent. Then, finally, there’s Sinestro who kickstarted this whole thing and, four issues in, still hasn’t got what he wanted but doesn’t seem remotely bothered by that. Next issue is the second to last one, so I’d imagine these different factions will start to come together in interesting and hopefully entertaining ways then. We shall see.

Taken on its own, this issue is a little disappointing. While Bagenda’s art remains very enjoyable and the story is easy enough to follow, its focus is almost entirely on characters meeting other characters and alliances forming and/or changing as a result. That said, I am looking forward to where we’re heading, not least because I want to see what Sinestro’s really up to. This meeting of the Planet of the Apes universe and the Green Lantern one remains intriguing and entertaining enough. I’m fully expecting things to pick up next issue.

No Laughing Matter – Batman/The Shadow #3

DBatman Shadow 3 coverepending on how things turn out with this limited series, it might well be that this issue is seen as a real step up in both impetus and overall quality. It might be that this issue turns out to have significant implications for both Batman and The Shadow for some time to come. At this point, I have no way of knowing for sure. What I do know is that I enjoyed this issue quite a bit more than I did the previous two. Allow me to explain.

 
In many ways, The Stag is the perfect partner for The Joker. As this issue’s opening couple of pages demonstrate, The Stag has nothing to say beyond his enigmatic catchphrase and The Joker is loquaciousness personified. I know I’ve expressed my disappointment with some of the dialogue in this series, but the introduction of The Joker has seen a marked improvement in its quality. There are still some problems but even the opening pun, weak though it is, is enjoyable. The Joker is, after all, a character you should have fun with if you’re a writer and the Snyder/Orlando combo go to town here and do a pretty decent job of conveying The Joker’s mercurial mania.

 

The Joker and The Stag, however, are not this issue’s only double act. While you might think that The Batman and The Shadow would be this issue’s other compelling partnership, you’d be mistaken. Batman has The Shadow in chains and imprisoned in an underwater base; he has a brief conversation with him in which The Shadow reveals some interesting information about The Stag (like the fact that he’s descended from Cain – a House of Mystery reference? Hmmm…) and that he’s been ritually murdering ‘good’ people for decades in an effort to get to Shamba-La, the same place in which The Shadow was ‘born’. But Batman doesn’t stick around much after that initial infodump, leaving the Unexpected But Surprisingly Interesting Conversation of The Issue award to go to… The Shadow and Alfred.

 
Batman Shadow 3 1Now, this just worked for me. While it is true that Alfred’s tale about his time as an MI6 agent chasing down a fugitive in the Canadian wastes could do with a bit of fleshing out, there is nevertheless a clear sense that Alfred is prepared to accept the more esoteric elements of The Shadow’s story in a way that Batman simply isn’t. Although there is still an occasional niggling problem with the dialogue (“I have never seen pitch as dark as in that place” – black; it really should be pitch as black), there is a gravitas to this section that serves to anchor the book a little more thoroughly in, if not the wider Batman universe, then certainly in the Alfred-Bruce relationship that forms an important pillar of it. That this rather serious conversation is contrasted with The Joker’s more flippant dialogue makes it all the more effective.

 
When Batman interrupts (almost as if on cue) that conversation, the resultant battle is rather satisfying. Rossmo’s artwork (which hasn’t always impressed this issue) is excellent here, particularly when The Joker starts choking Bats from behind and his vision starts blurring. That confrontation ends badly for Batman and he wakes up bound and surrounded by a rogues’ gallery of his villains.

 
All this is intercut with that Alfred-Shadow interaction and it is in these pages that the boldness of Snyder and Orlando’s vision for this series is made clear. Now, I know there’s a spoiler warning at the top of this review, and I know that I’ve just told you a fair bit about the plot of this issue, but in the next couple of paragraphs I’m going to get into some nitty-gritty including Easter eggs that have profound implications for the rest of the DC Universe. If you’d rather not read them being imperfectly explored by a raving Englishman, you might be better scrolling down to concluding paragraph, where you’ll find a more general summary of my thoughts. If you’re still here, let’s get stuck in…

 
During his conversation with Alfred, The Shadow makes clear a number of things that had previously only been hinted at. And goes quite a bit further than that, too. To Alfred’s consternation, The Shadow repeats his claim that he has mentored Batman before. Not only that, but he has done so in a variety of guises. In a way, that he is confiding in Alfred is entirely appropriate. Both of them, it would seem, have adopted a somewhat paternal role to Bruce. The Shadow, however, drops an intriguing and shocking revelation. Bruce is not the only hero whose development and training he has supervised. In a really rather impressive full page, it is revealed that he has trained many other heroes. These include heroes I don’t recognise, but some I do – Green Arrow, Catwoman and the Crimson Fox. Now, that is quite some claim. The notion that The Shadow has been training some of DC’s established heroes to fight against The Stag is, on the one hand, pretty bold and exciting; on the other hand, it does mess about with established continuity to a degree that may well be unacceptable for some.
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My own feelings are mixed. I’m prepared to go with it for now. It does raise the stakes for this series and that’s all to the good. I’m just not sure about how this works out in practice. The Shadow tells Alfred that his plan was to raise an “army” to combat The Stag; in the next breath, though, he reveals that each one of his soldiers has been cut down by The Stag before they could complete their training. With Catwoman and Green Arrow included, though, that claim is demonstrably false. It is, to this reader at any rate, a confusing moment in the comic.

 
The Shadow then reveals that Batman is his last student, before going on to say that Batman is, in fact, The Stag’s final target. There are, I suppose, objections that could be raised here, not least whether Batman qualifies as a ‘good’ man. Commissioner Gordon’s closing monologue in ‘The Dark Knight’ is echoing in my head at this point, though, and The Shadow makes a valid point that, in giving up a “human life to protect others”, Batman has certainly proven himself to be one of “Gotham’s best”.

 
But there’s one more revelation. And it’s one that ends the issue. Now normally, I don’t like spoiling issue endings, but I need to here. As The Shadow leaves to go and save Batman, he announces that he had been ‘training’ Batman to become the next Shadow, a claim that is so bold as to be almost ludicrous. Coming hot on the heels of all the other things the Shadow has supposedly done in the background of Batman’s history, this seems overly sensationalistic and almost disrespectful to the character. That said, it does suddenly make this series matter in a way that, say, the Planet of the Apes/Green Lantern series doesn’t.

 
Where we go from here is unclear. The Shadow will presumably find Batman and rescue him, but, beyond that, I’m not sure. My gut tells me we’re going to end up in Shamba-La by the time issue 6 rolls round and that The Stag’s true nature (and possibly identity) will be revealed at that point. What’s of greater interest now, though, is to what extent The Shadow’s interventions in Batman’s past (and, indeed, in the wider DC Universe) can be regarded as canonical and how exactly his plans for Bruce can be reconciled with what we already know about the character. Getting those answers is something of which I’m much less sure.

 

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Say what you like about Rossmo, but he knows how to lay out a page.

In the sense that it has dramatically raised the stakes for Batman and provides some clarity as to what this series is actually about, this issue is an improvement on the first two. That is not to say it is perfect. Rossmo’s art leans towards the sketchy side of things at times and the dialogue, although considerably better, still sometimes lapses into characters talking at rather than to one another with perfectly reasonable questions left unanswered by the people who have the answers but are too enamoured of their own verbal cleverness to give them. That said, some of the dialogue works rather well. The Shadow describing himself as “a glint in the peripheral vison of [Bruce’s] mind’s eye” is rather elegant, for example.

 
Whether you enjoy this issue will probably depend on how receptive you are to its rather bold central revelations. The plot is more sharply focused than in previous issues and dialogue is, for the most part, clear and accurate and, in some cases, memorable and emotionally engaging. The addition of The Joker is enough to mix things up in terms of plot and action and The Stag remains an enigmatic, interesting villain. In addition, this issue injects a sense of urgency into the narrative and, although the ‘surrounded by villains’ ending might be overkill, the prospect of seeing The Shadow and Batman take them on is appealing. In short, with this issue, this series might just have turned the corner.

 

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

 

Eternal Empire #1

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

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

 

Eternal Empire map

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

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

 

Eternal Empire 4

Farming is hard in the world of Eternal Empire.

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

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

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

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

 

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

Brief Encounter – American Gods: Shadows #3

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

 

American Gods 3 pic 1

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

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

American Gods 3 pic 2

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

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

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

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

Cheerio!

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

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

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

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

Yet here we are.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learning To Be A Superhero With… Battlestar

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

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

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

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

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

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

Battlestar 1

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

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

Battlestar 2

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

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

Then this happens…

Battlestar 3

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

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

Battlestar 4

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

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

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

Except, of course they are…

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

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

Battlestar again

Ooh, you fibber!

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

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

Battlestar 6

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

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

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

Until then, make mine Mark Gruenwald!

Kirby Goes Savage – Uncanny X-Men #10

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

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

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

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

_20170711_090537 (1)

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

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

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

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

Uncanny X-Men 10

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

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

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

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

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

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Awesome. Just awesome.

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

Ah, who am I kidding?

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

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

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