Archive for the '4, 3, 2, 1' Category

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2 Kings: Vagabond

August 10th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

Let me show you the strength of serialized comics.

I don’t mean the usual idea of serialized comics, either. X-Men and Superman are serialized, but they have very short term goals in mind. They aren’t one story, except in the most generous of definitions. I’m talking about one story, released in parts, with each chapter being a vital part of the overall story.

Takehiko Inoue’s Vagabond is a loose adaptation of Eiji Yoshikawa’s Musashi. I could talk about the writing (it’s fantastic) or the art (styles upon styles upon styles is what he has), but I’d rather talk about chapter 215 in Vizbig 8/Volume 24.

At the beginning of the story, Miyamoto Musashi is Shinmen Takezo. He grew up under the thumb of a cruel father, and the villagers called him a demon child. He grew up to become just that–a whirlwind of death and violence on the battlefield. He goes off to war and comes back even worse. He decides that he must become Invincible Under the Heavens, and goes out in search of challenges.

He topples everyone he encounters. He eventually runs afoul of the Yoshioka family at one point. They’re one of the most respected sword families, and by challenging them as he did, Musashi disrespected them. His fight with Yoshioka Denshichiro is cut short by a spectacularly poorly-timed fire, and he is challenged to duel him again one year in the future. Den and Musashi are both going to use the time to train and prepare for their battle.

Musashi walks around Japan, looking for challenges and attempting to get better. He destroys all comers, but that isn’t the point of the quest. He has to get better, and getting better doesn’t necessarily mean being the best at swinging a sword. He has to have the poise, experience, and knowledge worthy of a true swordsman.

He meets Sekishusai, one of the greatest swordsmen of the past, and attempts to kill the old man in his sleep. The man’s very presence stops Musashi cold, and their brief conversation completely demolishes Musashi’s idea of skill. He realizes that “invincible” is just a word, and that he has mountains left to climb before he’s as good as he will be.

The challenge was given in what, volume four? Very early on, and in the second Vizbig volume. It’s hard to keep track when you’re reading this series three volumes at a time in the Vizbigs. The second duel begins in the eighth Vizbig volume, 20 normal volumes later. That’s some four thousand pages of story between the challenge and the duel, and we have seen Musashi go through a lot. His idea of swordsman ship has broken down and been rebuilt. He has healed an enemy rather than killing him. He understands what’s worth dying for now. Immediately previous to the duel, he remembered how he approached life as a child, a period of time he spent learning from nature itself. He understands exactly how lucky he has been to survive this long.

So we have this man, this monster, ready to duel one of the most respected swordsmen in the land. If he beats him, the school’s reputation is ruined. Musashi has a reputation for being wild and violent, but he’s different now. Everyone can see it. They mistake his different nature for a lack of respect and pure over-confidence. Den draws his sword and takes a strong stance.

Musashi begins walking forward.

Scenarios play out across the page. Den and Musashi cross swords and Den’s intestines hit the ground. Except–no, they haven’t met yet. Musashi is still walking. There’s at least fifteen feet between them.

Musashi keeps walking. He begins running through possible encounters in his head. “Use the short sword,” he thinks, and his mind’s eye shows him Den’s throat opening under his blade. “No,” he thinks. “The long sword would work just as well.” Den’s throat opens again.

Den changes his stance. He positions himself so that Musashi cannot rush in. He doesn’t know what’s in Musashi’s mind, but something made him change. Meanwhile, Musashi is still running down scenarios. Den’s hands fall away from his arms after one swing. Another swing takes Den’s left leg around the knee.

Den’s stance changes again. Musashi is still thinking. A quick slice across the throat. One down the middle, leaving a gash from shoulder to crotch that severs Den’s entire left forearm.

Another stance change.

Musashi kicks off and into Den’s personal space with a fast swing. Den is caught by surprise and flinches, his sword tilting backward and his entire front side left open. Musashi’s body hits Den’s just before his foot touches the ground after his small step. He looks up. Den’s face is strained, but unbloodied. Musashi looks down at his hand.

No sword.

Den shoves him back, knocking him up a set of stairs, and rushes in with an overhead swing. He misses.

Musashi: “No wonder my hands felt so light.” He says, “My mistake,” and finally draws his sword. He steps down from the temple steps and towards Den again. And the duel that has been four thousand pages in the making finally begins.

I read this story on my way back from San Diego Comic-con this year. It fell on me like a ton of bricks. Musashi’s growth had been so gradual over the course of the series, coming in fits and starts and never quite spelled out for us, that I missed exactly how much he’d grown. Musashi began as a demon, charging face first into battle and focused only on winning and killing. He had skill, and he had style, but he was like a raw, uncut diamond. He got the job done, but he was ugly and unrefined. He bled killing intent all over the place, striking fear into peasants and making an enemy of every man he met. He was young and brash, and focused merely on being the best.

His year walking around taught him that before being the best, you must first become the best. You have to meditate and learn before you can be the best. There is a process. You have to test yourself and your sword. You have to understand that your sword is an extension of your will and be willing to give yourself over entirely to the sword at the same time. It is a way of life, not some mere accomplishment. Being Invincible Under The Sun means nothing if you aren’t worthy of that title.

And in this chapter, all of that backstory reappeared as weight on my shoulders. Like an overnight sensation who has been working at it for five years, Musashi demonstrated the amazing leap he has made in his swordsmanship. Before, he was a monster. Now, he’s good. He takes Den apart tactically, and the sheer force of his silent contemplation forces Den to adjust his stance and defend. Musashi showed no outward sign of his plans at all. He simply kept walking forward.

He beat Den without a sword in his hand.

The sheer level of growth here is astounding, and the way Inoue demonstrated Musashi’s growth is even more astounding. There’s no exposition, no onlookers explaining what’s going on, or captions filling you in. Den recognizes Musashi’s quiet strength, but everyone else is left in the dark. This is a tremendous payoff, and part of the reason why it’s so tremendous is that you don’t see it coming. You know Musashi’s better. You’ve seen the bloodied bodies he’s left in his wake. You’ve seen him have a play duel with the man who’ll soon be his greatest rival. But when he faces Den, so lost in the battle that he doesn’t even draw his weapon, and still comes through, that’s the moment.

After I finished this chapter, I felt tense. It snuck up on me as I was reading. My brain was working as I read, and when I realized Musashi didn’t draw his blade before striking, I felt genuine shock.

Comic books, man. Sometimes they’re amazing. Vagabond and King City. Brandon Graham and Takehiko Inoue. Their books are good for similar reasons (strong, character-focused storytelling, great art, great world-building) and good for different reasons (Inoue flips styles regularly and prides himself on realism, Graham plays with puns and layouts). Both of them, though, are the kind of books that make you believe in comics. They’re refreshing, they’ve got the kind of punch that comes from telling one story, and they’re just good. They’re the kind of good that’s free of caveats. There’s just one man and his tools, and the result is something beautiful.

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2 Kings: King City

August 10th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

(Some of the images in this one might be too sexy for work. If so, you should fire your boss and become a boss yourself.)

Reading Brandon Graham’s King City also sparks two thoughts in my mind. The first is “Wow, this comic is fantastic.” The second is, “Wow, that comic made all these other comics I bought this week look stupid.”

The thing about King City is that it’s a dense comic. I don’t mean dense in the sense of the opposite of decompression, if people still complain about that. I mean dense in the sense that there’s a lot to take in, if you just take the time to do so. The book is littered with puns, little bits of cleverness, and swift turns of phrase. They can be as simple as Optimus Prime Roast or a girl obsessed with painting mustaches on billboards, or brief phrases layered with meaning.

King City isn’t really about anything. I mean, sure, there’s a hero and his cat (Joe and Earthling), the femme fatale (Beebay, and in the classic sense of the term, a woman who leads men to their doom), the ex-girlfriend (Anna), the best friend (Pete), and a big fat world-ending menace. At some point, Joe and Earthling are going to have to handle the threat, but King City isn’t about that. Graham will handle that when he has to. In the interim, he’s just going to hit you with the life and times of the cast.

I don’t mind that approach one bit, because Graham’s shifted focus genuinely pays off. Every single page has something hidden or in plain sight that’s worthy of examination. One of my favorite scenes in the comic is the semi-sex scene at the end of issue seven. The scene skips from solicitation to post-coital between panels, like a jump cut in a movie. That is worthy of examination in and of itself, but what I like the best about this scene are just seven short words.

Joe, looking at Beebay, says, “This thing with Beebay is weird. Sometimes her cigarette smoke smells like flowers. Beebay is weird.” That’s one of those things that make you pause and rewind a bit just so you can read it again. I definitely did it, and it managed to get stuck in my head for several weeks. It’s an expression of that screwed up kind of attraction that you fall into by accident, where someone can simultaneously do no wrong and is still not to be trusted. It’s too right, and it’s so good that something must be up. There’s a catch, there’s a trick, there’s something going on that isn’t right. Have you ever felt that?

And I mean, that’s just one page. You can get the depth of Joe’s desire and distrust right there. Two pages later, Graham spells it out for you with another pun and a pointed remark. Beebay has a big butt, and as she walks away, Joe thinks, “Child burying hips.” As she pulls on her stockings, he thinks, “She’s a fucking snake pit though.” Desire and distrust, all wrapped up in one easy to understand package.

Two pages, two hundred words. I could go on and on about this segment of the book (the way that Beebay “leaves my room full of empty” when she leaves, the heart-on joke, the trail of clothes leading to the bed with the impeccable cereal bowl, the way whispers the word “ssex” into Joe’s ear like an old Bugs Bunny cartoon, or the Mars penetrating the Venus), but this is just spring boarding off one small scene. There’s so much to enjoy about King City. I could sit down with every issue of King City and find one sequence worth talking about at length, and then do it again and again and again. There’s depth here, and it’s fantastic.

Another thing. One thing cape comics have been doing that blows my mind, and not in a good way, is wasting double page spreads on exposition and talking heads. Who wants to see John Romita Jr draw twenty-odd headshots of people saying “Yes” or “No” to Captain America? That’s wasted page space. In King City, the spreads are used for things with actual impact, like when the big bad monster happens across Anna, or to build mood and set the stage, as in the amazing spreads that just show the kingcityscape. These are punches. Talking heads aren’t even little kid bops.

I don’t read King City when I read what few remaining weekly books I still pick up. King City overshadows them, making them look lazy in comparison. There are books that I dig quite a bit that end up looking like pointless water-treading when you read them before or after reading King City. I usually save King City for the weekend, when I can relax on the couch, read it, take a nap, wake up, and read it again. I consume King City. It’s like the difference between a fast food burger and one you make yourself. One will fill your stomach. The other will make you feel good.

When’s the last time you read something in Justice League or Avengers that resonated as strongly as “Sometimes her cigarette smoke smells like flowers?” Is there any reason why those books shouldn’t resonate, shouldn’t be as personal, as King City? Once you experience something nice, you don’t want to go back to what you had before. No one wants to go back to wearing buttercookies after trying on a nice pair of Air Force 1s. No one wants to drive a Volvo after getting behind the wheel of a Cadillac. King City is like that. It’s enormously creative, clearly a work of love, and the sort of eating that sticks to your ribs.

How can you go back to other comics after that? King City has been a big factor in my slow retreat from corporate comics over the past year. I need to keep upping the ante, and while I’ve found several books that live up to the new standard, a lot have been left by the wayside. No, let me rephrase the question.

Why should I go back to other comics after that?

Brandon Graham, man. He’s making everybody else look bad.

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3 Formative Works: Akira

August 7th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

I don’t know if I could separate the film and comic versions of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira in my head if I tried. They’re both vastly important, but for different (and sometimes complementary) reasons. Akira was one of the first anime flicks I ever watched, and it made an indelible impression on me. I still have never seen Blade Runner, but I probably feel about Akira like other people do about Blade Runner. I had a tape I dubbed from the video store, the official cassette, the special edition DVD (with the tin), and now I own the Blu-ray, except the dub is different, so I went ahead and bootlegged a 1080p video file with the old school dub, too. I like this movie, man.

I came to the comic later, and like everything I read back then, I read it in fits and spurts. I read maybe four whole issues when I was a kid, all of them set before the big disaster struck Tokyo. They’re long gone now, but they were pretty stunning. They definitely stood alongside Sin City as being comics that were vastly better than the other comics I owned, even if I was too young to articulate why. It was a little more grown-up, a little more edgy, and Steve Oliff’s colors were amazing. I don’t think I even really knew what manga was at this point–I’d heard about Japanese comics, and my comics-reading uncle had lived in Japan so I was up on some stuff, but I didn’t really know about manga as something different from regular comics. I just knew that Akira was something special, different from the movie and possibly better.

In the late ’90s, I picked up two of the hardcovers that Graphitti Designs put out. The covers are almost identical to the Dark Horse versions. The local comic shop guy was your typical comic shop douchebag, unkempt and rude, and he let the two HCs, which were limited editions and behind the glass, go for fifteen each. Today, they’re worth ten times that. I ended up with books 2 and 4, set before and after everything goes wrong. They did little to show me exactly what the series was about, because I had two sets of 400 non-consecutive pages out of a series that ran over 2000 pages, but it did just increase my fascination with the series as a whole.

Everything was interesting. The draftsmanship, the way Tetsuo swallowed pills, the insane sex scene, the flashbacks, the ruined city… it really hit me in a way most sci-fi doesn’t. I’ve only ever had two holy grails in comics, books that I absolutely had to have at any (reasonable) price. Flex Mentallo was one, but I didn’t know that existed until what, 2005? When I got grown and could afford to buy whatever comics I wanted, Akira was the first and most important holy grail there was.

Finding more of the old Graphitti HCs proved to be almost impossible. Websites that listed them didn’t respond to emails, eBay was a joke, and you’d think that these books never existed. In 2004, Barnes & Noble issued a hardcover version of the Dark Horse volume 1, and I picked that up. It sucked that it was in black & white, but hey: 1) hardcover and 2) I had to have it. I held out hope that I would find the Graphitti versions for the rest, but eventually gave up and started buying the Dark Horse editions… right after they went mostly out of print. That’s no big deal now that Kodansha is rereleasing the series, but a few years ago, it was massively frustrating.

Finding and reading Akira in its entirety has been a quest some fifteen years in the making. I only picked up the sixth and final volume in early ’08, and that was after some serious searching. I can’t think of another series I’ve pursued off and on for that long. Scooping up the complete Sin City was easy, except for finding a copy of the old school Family Values printing. Flex Mentallo took a few eBay auctions. Akira took effort, for one reason or another.

It was worth the effort, though. Akira is one of my top three favorite books, and a pitch perfect example of how to do a sprawling, huge story without screwing it all up in the end. The art is off the charts, with consistently great layouts and inventive storytelling. It’s probably akin to Cerebus, except if Cerebus was great from the beginning and if Dave Sim didn’t go insane around the middle. It works, and at some 2000 pages, it really shouldn’t work. It should be bloated and ugly and drag, but it doesn’t.

What’s interesting about the English adaptation of Akira is that it goes against conventional manga translating wisdom in a few ways. It’s both flipped and in color, already a tremendous departure from the original work. Jo Duffy’s translation was meant to be appealing to American audiences first, which allowed her a certain degree of freedom in playing with the dialogue. All of this was done with the permission and approval of Otomo and Kodansha, of course, but if you had to make a list of changes to books that manga fans don’t like, it’d probably go 1) flipped, 2) color, and 3) localization. Not to mention its trim size (or more accurately, trim sizes across the various formats) and the fact that it was a computer-colored, story-driven manga released in the early ’90s, when garishly colored, art-driven superhero comics ruled the roost. Akira, in America, shouldn’t be what it is, and yet… here we are.

(An aside: I was at New People in Japantown when I saw a familiar logo on an unfamiliar spine. It turns out that Kodansha took Marvel/Epic’s Akira volumes, reflopped them, relettered them in Japanese, and re-released them in Japan in some very nice slipcased volumes. Every time I go in that building I am tempted to buy them. They have three or four, I think. I’m far from an expert in Japanese editions, but I’ve never heard of companies doing that before. You can see the covers here, along with some incorrect data [it's definitely the Epic colorization]. Covers are ill, though, right? Someone talk me out of buying them.)

I haven’t talked at all about what Akira is about, have I? It doesn’t really matter. I could do that at any time, about any scene. The images in this post are from issue fourteen of the Epic run, one of the ones I distinctly remember poring over as a kid. The only thing the pages I’ve excerpted are missing is the crazy ill way Otomo would draw moving headlights, something that made it into the film and imprinted onto my mind as something awesome as a young age. (It only happens twice in this chapter, on Nezu’s front and rear lights.) But look at that atrium on akira-01.jpg, the body language on akira-02.jpg, the comedy on akira-03.jpg, the car on akira-05.jpg, the ridiculous camera shifts in akira-08.jpg (panels 7-9 make me swoon), Kay’s pose in panel three in akira-09.jpg, or the way Otomo keeps showing the windup and the effect, but not the impact, or–

pause

Akira is a triumph, one of those comics I try to reread at least once a year and fall in love with a little more each time. It’s over twenty years old, and while it has definitely aged some, it still beats the pants off a lot of things we consider quality nowadays.

And it has the best last page in comics, hands down.

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3 Formative Works: 300

August 6th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

Frank Miller and Lynn Varley’s 300 was probably the first comic that I really dug into and absorbed. I’d read and reread several comics before, most notably a couple of Akira softcovers I’d inherited (remember those? I ended up trading for a few) and the last chapter of Sin City: The Big Fat Kill, but I’d never really dug into them. Comics blogging didn’t exist when I was a kid, all we did was talk about how cool it was that people had guns and argue over how many copies of Brigade 1 X-Men 25 was worth.

But 300–I picked it up because I recognized Miller’s name, and didn’t care that it was in Spanish because the art was dope. Poring over it and rereading it actually helped me learn Spanish, and I ended up quizzing my teacher over words I didn’t know. “Hace apenas un año,” a caption early in the book, threw me off at first, for example, but once I got it, other words and phrases began to fall into place.

I read and reread 300. I absorbed it, and that’s corny, but really the only way to put it. If you’ve ever fallen into a book like I fell into 300, you’ll understand.

What’s weird is that I’ve been writing about comics for the past five years, slowly getting better at critical analysis, and I’ve only ever written about 300 once, and that was as part of a review of the (in hindsight) crappy movie. Everything else, every other time I’ve mentioned it, has just been in passing, or relating the story above. I haven’t been avoiding it, but I haven’t exactly felt led to write about it, either.

It’s not that there’s nothing to write about. The last time Miller made a comic that wasn’t worth examining in detail was probably his early work on Daredevil. There’s always something to look at and pull apart, whether that thing is how Miller’s changed approach to superheroes intersected with 9/11 and brought Batman kicking and screaming into realpolitik or how 21st Century Frank Miller’s biggest enemy is 20th Century Frank Miller.

(Digression: Miller’s rep in the blogosphere has been boiled down to “WHORESWHORESWHORES” due to the fact that people can’t separate jokes from actual criticism/examination. The image of Miller as a leering, super-serious sexist monster only tracks if you’re ignorant of his body of work–the Martha Washington books, Hard Boiled, Ronin, etc. He’s got a wider range and better sense of humor than most people seem to give him credit for, though he can be awfully self-indulgent at the same time. What I’m saying, I guess, is step your game up, internet. This is basic stuff.)

I think part of it is that 300 is just a very straightforward book. I’m not saying it has no depth, but it isn’t tough to suss out what Miller’s playing with in the story. If you pull 300 apart, what you’re left with is Miller’s entire career. It’s not an end point, obviously, but it is something that he had to make at some point. Just look at the chapter titles: Honor, Duty, Glory, Combat, and Victory.

300 is everything. There’s the hard Dirty Harry morality, the strength tempered with love, quiet and graceful violence, ugly violence, brotherhood, casual male and female nudity, the rejection of cowardice, some obscenely good one-liners, self-sacrifice, corrupt politicians and priests, and hey, look, what’s that at the end of chapter 4?

Ninjas.

Miller has said that he started Sin City because he wanted to draw manly men, sexy women, and old cars. Daredevil and Ronin had ninjas and samurai because Miller was into manga and martial arts flicks. Miller did covers for the First Comics editions of Lone Wolf & Cub, a series all about duty and honor and the proper application of violence. 300 has its roots in an old movie he saw as a kid. Frank Miller draws what he’s interested in at the time, and you can track those interests in his work. There’s even a 300 tease in the last chapter of The Big Fat Kill. This is clearly a story he’s been interested in forever.

While I don’t think I ever really consciously realized this while reading and rereading, 300 is where close reading began for me. I studied it closer than you usually study comics, due entirely to the fact that it was in another language. It’s not my favorite of his books, though I do like it a whole lot, but it’s kind of interesting to look back at it and everything I learned from it without being conscious of that education. I started picking up on his magic tricks (the last chapter goes first person as Leonidas surveys his enemies for a few pages, and then pulls out to show the full Spartan might) and tics (repetition of dialogue and captions for emphasis and pacing) and interests via, what, osmosis? By accident?

My relationship with 300 is weird. It never quite feels right to read it in English, the movie was several orders of magnitude less subtle than the book (“This is Sparta” was a sentence, not a scream), and the tone is strangely subdued in certain scenes. I think that, craft-wise, this is Miller’s strongest and tightest work, with very little fat worth trimming. It lacks the manic intensity of his more recent Batman work, but it also feels more grown-up. And the ending is dope–Leonidas simply saying “Stelios,” the leap that’s something of a callback to Stelios’s nickname “Stumblios,” all of it.

I’m glad I read it where and when I did.

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3 Formative Works: Wildcats

August 5th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

(with a tip of the hat to Morgan Jeske for this week’s gimmick)

It was Jim Lee and Todd McFarlane that hooked me. McFarlane was on Amazing Spider-Man, and later Spider-Man, around the time I was getting into comics. Jim Lee made a huge impression on me with X-Men #1, to the point where I even still have my issue with the crazy gatefold cover after jettisoning most of the old stuff I owned.

It was only natural that I followed them over to Image, though that was as much a happy accident of trading comics as anything intentional. I stuck with Spawn for a couple of years, inadvertently reading my first Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison stories in the process. WildC.A.T.s… I’m not sure how long I stuck with it. I definitely read it off and on, like I did everything I was into back then, and I definitely read it because a) I loved Jim Lee’s art and b) Grifter had the best mask in comics, outside of black costume Spider-Man.

Years pass. I quit comics at the height of Onslaught and the Clone Saga. I pick up a couple of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira hardcovers on the cheap in 98 or 99, fifteen a piece, and I occasionally browse the racks at my local BX, but I’m not exactly buying anything. I buy my next comic in Madrid, in late 2000, early 2001. It was Norma Editorial’s Spanish language edition of Frank Miller and Lynn Varley’s 300. I move back to the States in ’02, discover the graphic novels section at Booksamillion in what, early-mid ’03? I pick up Wildcats: Street Smart because, hey, I liked WildC.A.T.s back in the day! I know Scott Lobdell’s name! The art looks pretty neat! In the end, though, it was just okay in such a way that I didn’t bother looking for more.

I picked up Wildcats 3.0 at some point, I think partway its run. I don’t know why–at the time, Joe Casey and Dustin Nguyen were both completely unknown to me. But it knocked my socks off from top to bottom, from the covers to that weird Wildstorm angular lettering, and I was hooked. A few issues in and I backtracked to Wildcats again, this time pushing past the completely lackluster opening arc and picking up Wildcats: Vicious Circles.

And look, Lobdell and Travis Charest are gone, replaced with Joe Casey and Sean Phillips, with a short assist by Steve Dillon. It’s a dramatic change, as the art went from weird and realistic to a fault to being… ugly. I mean, there’s no flash in Phillips’s work, Wildstorm FX was unusually subdued, and cripes, man, there’s barely even any costumes. The panel borders were super thick, too, what is that about?

It took some getting used to, but once it clicked, it clicked hard for me. I got what Phillips and Casey were doing. Wildcats wasn’t a superhero comic, not in the traditional sense. WildC.A.T.s was about a Covert Action Team fighting a war. Wildcats, then, was about life during peacetime. The war that gave all of the Wildcats their reason for being is a distant memory.

Like Winter Men, Wildcats is about what happens next. The answers varies from person to person. Grifter drifts from place to place and job to job, desperately trying to regain old glories and remaining obsessed with Zealot, his former lover. Priscilla is running from life by drowning in leisure. Jeremy’s trying to prove his love for Pris by “fixing” her. Hadrian, always the soldier, stepped into the shoes of his former boss and attempted to run a company in a forward thinking way. Maxine Manchester… well, she’s more or less the same.

Rather than being about any particular bad guy or conflict, Wildcats is more like the chronicles of an estranged superhero family. Hadrian is the father, but he’s distant and troubled. Jeremy is trying to overachieve and win the approval of others. Pris wants anything but to be part of the family, but doesn’t realize that she has no idea how to be anything but part of the family. Grifter needs a cause, and he’s worthless without one.

At this point in my comics reading career, I’d picked up Ultimates and Authority. I was regularly reading Chris Claremont and Salvador Larroca’s X-Treme X-Men, Chuck Austen’s Uncanny X-Men, and I think I was just getting into Grant Morrison’s New X-Men. Wildcats, at the time, was the most “out there” book I was into. It starred superheroes, but actively avoided superheroic action. When it came time for one of the big bad guys to have his big showdown, he’s finished off with a bullet in the back of the head. There was plenty of X-Men-style drama, but very little of the accompanying continuity-heavy action and violence.

Wildcats was necessary for me. It was definitely part of the process that opened me up to different kinds of storytelling. Phillips is a personal favorite now, and reading comics about regular people doing regular things doesn’t seem so weird any more. Wildcats is story driven, maybe to a fault, and running into it face first while getting back into comics was definitely did me a favor. Of course, it’s all out of print now, though easily available used. DC’s printing Wildcats Version 3.0 Year One later this year, which collects the first twelve issues of that run, but I can’t really see them reprinting the run where Casey found his legs and setup 3.0.

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4×4 Elements: Kraven’s Last Hunt

July 31st, 2010 Posted by david brothers

Spider-Man: Kraven’s Last Hunt. Words by JM DeMatteis, pencils by Mike Zeck, inks by Bob McLeod, letters by Rick Parker, colors mostly by Janet Jackson.

I picked up a couple issues of Kraven’s Last Hunt when I was a kid and relatively fresh. It was pretty scary at the time, being that most of the Spider-Man stories I read were pretty middle of the road with regards to violence and horror. KLH is still one of my favorite Spidey stories, and one of the relatively few that stand alone, like Batman: Year One or Dark Knight Returns. Here’s four reasons why it’s great.

Mick Zeck and Bob McLeod get Spider-Man. Zeck’s really good at drawing people, and this gives him a chance to put that into action. Spidey’s a little shorter than Kraven, and a little slimmer. Spider-Man isn’t as buff as other heroes. He’s acrobatic and fast, which suggests a thin, but muscular, build. Kraven is burly, built like a circus strongman or like Superman.

There’s a surprising number of completely silent panels in Kraven’s Last Hunt, and Kraven’s face is the focus of many of them. Zeck and McLeod render him with a deep sadness. When it comes time to draw figures in action, they acquit themselves very well. The ghost of Ned Leeds looks genuinely confused after being told that he’s dead. Mary Jane’s body language when she goes to see Robbie Robertson is tired and dejected. Kraven looks insane when he’s gobbling up spiders. Vermin is creepy crawly, as he should be.

Zeck and McLeod do a better than average job of making this story work, but still manage to keep it within the Spider-Man style. Zeck’s Mary Jane is undeniably a John Romita girl. Robbie sits around smoking a pipe and he doesn’t look out of place. They jettison Kraven’s costume for the majority of the book, but when it does appear, it’s rendered just as realistically as everything else. They did this back in 1987, but I wouldn’t be mad if I saw it on a book nowadays.

Kraven’s Last Hunt placed Spider-Man within something bigger than himself. Rather than just having a hero/villain relationship, Kraven’s mad rantings place Spider-Man under the umbrella of the Spider, the source of all of man’s pain and suffering. Kraven places all of the blame for his mother’s insanity, his father’s downfall, and his own weakness onto the Spider’s shoulders, creating a totem for him to tear down and conquer.

This is a little different than a criminal telling Batman that he’s a demon or a devil. The bat is never really charged with any meaning but fear in Batman, and I’m having trouble thinking of a time when that was examined in any depth. In this story, Kraven comes to realize that the Spider represents a concept, rather than anything literal. The Spider is your enemy, something that exists simply to oppose you. It isn’t necessarily evil.

Spider-Man represents all of the hate and doubt and evil that’s haunted Kraven’s life. Due to this, and his impending death, Kraven has one goal. Kraven must prove himself better than Spider-Man. It’s the only way he can conquer his fear, his feelings about his mother’s insanity, and his own shortcomings. He dons the costume and attempts to do everything the Spider did, only better. He fights crime, but kills the criminals. He takes on Vermin, who had previously fought Captain America and Spider-Man both, and demolishes him. He even rescues Mary Jane, unintentionally repeating another of Spider-Man’s past actions, but she reacts with terror.

Kraven’s entire arc in Kraven’s Last Hunt is about proving his supremacy over his fear, and his own fear is his last mountain to climb. There’s no get rich quick, no world domination… he doesn’t even do it to hurt Spider-Man. Spider-Man is a prop in the fight between Kraven and his Spider.

She only appears on a few pages in Kraven’s Last Hunt. Despite that, Mary Jane plays the role of the average reader’s point of view. At the end of the first chapter, Spider-Man is killed and buried. For the next few chapters, we see Kraven going wild and have no idea what’s going on. She echoes all of our fears and thoughts, and when she encounters Kraven, she has the same reaction we have had: “Stop.”

Kraven perverted the idea of Spider-Man, but he also perverted the Spider-Man comics. Kraven took over the books entirely, and Spider-Man simply doesn’t appear again until the fourth chapter. I can see how this would be a little unsettling, and when viewed through Mary Jane’s eyes, it makes perfect sense. This is Kraven wearing Spider-Man’s skin, and it’s absolutely not right.

And the first thing Spider-Man does when he digs his way out? He goes directly to his wife.

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4×4 Elements: Flash: Blitz

July 30th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

The Flash: Blitz. Words by Geoff Johns, pencils by Scot Kolins, inks by Doug Hazlewood, letters by Ken Lopez, colors by James Sinclair, further art by Phil Winslade and Alberto Dose.

I didn’t like Flash as a kid. It’s probably more accurate to say that I barely knew he existed. The TV show was here and then gone and he wasn’t in any of the few DC books I picked up. I thought he was okay in the cartoon, but I didn’t really get him until I picked up a trade of the Johns/Kolins run on Flash. Flash: Blitz is the end of their run, and they go out on a high note. Here’s four reasons why this story that made Flash finally click for me works well.

The threat in Flash: Blitz is deeply personal. The closest Batman comes to a relationship like this would be his relationship with Harvey Dent. In Blitz, Hunter Zolomon is a good friend of Wally West. After being crippled by Gorilla Grodd, Hunter begs Wally to use the Cosmic Treadmill to go back and fix his life. Wally refuses, and attempts to explain that you can’t just play with time like that. Hunter takes his explanation poorly, and decides that Wally simply doesn’t understand how tragedy can change a man’s life.

After circumstances have gifted Hunter with powers that allow him to move extremely fast, he takes the name Zoom and decides to teach Wally tragedy, and therefore turn him into a better hero. A hero that understands tragedy is a hero that understands stakes, and a hero that understands stakes is willing to do whatever is necessary to protect his people. Zoom forces Wally’s wife to miscarry, ending the life of their twins. When that doesn’t make Wally break Zoom’s neck, he decides to up the ante and goes directly after Linda.

Zoom is Wally’s Green Goblin. They have a deeply personal connection, and their relationship isn’t as simple as hero and villain. They are former friends, and Zoom believes that what he’s doing will cause Wally to grow as a hero. He’s clearly a villain, but his motivations aren’t of the world domination variety. He’s focused on the Flash, and more specifically, on Wally West.

Zoom isn’t just a generic villain. He’s specifically engineered so that only Wally West can stop him. Superman can beat the Joker. Batman can beat Lex Luthor. I guess Cheetah is Wonder Woman’s top villain? Anyone can beat her. Zoom? No one can beat Zoom but the Flash. Not a Flash, mind you–the Flash. Wally West. And even then, Wally needs help from his friends to even be able to compete.

There’s always a danger of making your villains too dependent on your heroes when creating new stories. Joker’s dependence somehow turned into a story point, but for most, it just looks kind of pathetic. For some reason, maybe due to the way their relationship was set up, Zoom works because of his dependence. He makes his entire reason for being turning the Flash into a better hero.

If Superman could just pop along and throw him into the sun, he wouldn’t be anywhere near as effective. Shared superhero universes tend to introduce cracks into stories. “Why didn’t Batman just call Superman to use his X-Ray Vision to find the Joker?” is a very good question. In this case, though, Zoom is specific to Flash’s abilities, and those abilities take both of them away from anything but speedster-based help.

So the stakes become Wally’s, and Wally’s alone. His buds in the Justice League can’t help. He can’t wait around looking for a solution. He has to handle it, and he has to handle it himself.

Well, not entirely alone. Blitz also sold me on the idea of the Flash Family. There are a lot of Flashes, or Flash-like characters. Jay, Barry, Wally, Bart, Jesse, John Fox, Max Mercury, and maybe one or two others. Their legacy spans some seventy years at this point. They all have the same power, more or less, with only the magnitude of their abilities separating them.

They work as a family, too. Jay is the wise old grandfather. Barry is the first success story. Wally is following in Barry’s steps. Bart is the rebellious teen. Jesse is the black sheep. John Fox and Max Mercury are the weird uncles from out of town who are probably crazy from the war. They have their own specialties, for better or for worse, and when it comes time for the big showdown, they all have a role to play, whether that is donating their powers, giving advice, or simply figuring out what to do.

Flash has a pretty large supporting cast, and they all have a role to play. There’s his aunt Iris, Detectives Chyre and Morillo, Jay and Joan Garrick, the Rogues (to an extent), Bart Allen, Jesse Quick, and his wife Linda. They all get a moment to shine in this story, and it helps to both turn Flash’s world into a fully-realized one and show exactly how high the stakes are.

When the cops are guarding the hospital where Linda is staying after she was attacked, and one of them complains about how Flash brought all of this upon himself, Morillo and Chyre set him straight. When Wally can’t figure out what Zoom’s deal is, he goes to Jay. When Wally and Linda get together to announce their upcoming parenthood, they call the whole family.

Having a supporting cast that is made up entirely of superheroes or just close family can be toxic. JMS reduced Spider-Man’s cast to Mary Jane and Aunt May, and the book suffered for it. Batman rarely interacts with his civilian friends. It’s like when heroes never stop to eat or take a shower. You may not exactly notice it, but it makes them less than human. Having a variety of friends and family, be they human, superhuman, or otherwise, is valuable. It creates the illusion of a world outside of the comics pages and characters who have genuine relationships outside of their superhero lives.

The fact that everyone shows up in this arc, save for one or two minor characters, is notable. It shows that this is a big deal, but it also shows that Flash has a support system of friends and family standing behind him. It means that Zoom is wrong. Heroes don’t need tragedy to be effective heroes. Sometimes, all they need are friends and a strong sense of what’s right.

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4×4 Elements: Icon: Mothership Connection

July 29th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

Icon: Mothership Connection. Words by Dwayne McDuffie, art largely by MD Bright, inks largely by Mike Gustovich, assorted art by an army of creators, colors by a horde of colorists, letters by Steve Dutro.

I read various issues of Icon as a kid, though I don’t think I ever read more than one or two in a row. I think as far as Milestone went, I kept up with Static and bought the rest as I could, probably because Static was about a kid. When I got grown, I read, or re-read, Icon and found a lot to appreciate. Here are four things in particular.

Icon has a point. Stories that have no meaningful content may be entertaining, but they don’t stick with you like stories that have a point do. It doesn’t have to be a sermon, it doesn’t have to reveal some profound lesson, and it doesn’t have to use heavy-handed metaphors to examine life. There just needs to be some level of meaningful content, something you can look at and go “Oh, this. This means _______.” This is true of everything, not just comics.

Batman is about coping with grief. Daredevil is about survivor’s guilt. Spider-Man is about being better than you are. Donna Troy’s stories are about how people will read anything, no matter how bad, just because they liked a character as a kid. X-Men has gotten awful muddy, but somewhere under all of the fetish writing and laborious continuity is the metaphor that made them a hit. You can kick over most of the popular heroes and find something underneath their adventure stories that speaks to someone, somewhere.

Icon is about responsibility. Augustus Freeman is living well amongst other rich people, which has unfortunately segregated him from his history. Freeman, comfortable in his own abilities, leans toward believing that each person can pull himself up by his bootstraps. Essentially, he is responsible only for himself, and everyone else should follow that example. After all, if he did it, anyone can, right?

The problem with that is that it simply doesn’t work. Ignorance holds a lot of people back, and if you don’t know better, you can’t do better. Icon the series and Icon the hero are there to show people that they can do better. When Raquel gives icon a name, she tells Augustus that “[i]t means like an example, or an ideal.” Augustus corrects her, and explains that “it’s a symbol, something that stands for something else.” She asks him, “What do you stand for?”

You hear it all the time. “The children are the future.” (“and Wu-Tang is for the babies.”) (Sorry.) It’s both literal and figurative. The children are who inherit the future, but they are also the guides of the future. Their choices decide what’s going to happen.

Writers are the keepers of the past. They take what happens now and make sure that it lasts into the future. It’s very important to maintain a connection to your past while proceeding into the future. That is how knowledge survives from generation to generation.

Raquel represents the past, present, and future. She’s a writer, charged with protecting and judging the past, and she’s a mother, shepherding and guarding the future. Her knowledge of the past informs her present and provides a foundation for the future of her child. She names him Amistad, after the slave ship.

Buck Wild represents progress. Buck is essentially every black comics character, pre-1990, rolled into one. He’s primarily Luke Cage, from his design to his demeanor. McDuffie and Doc Bright amped up his more stereotypical accents, such as slow wit and fake way of speaking, but you know exactly who he is supposed to be.

At his funeral, we get to see Buck’s parodies of several black heroes. All of those heroes were lacking in various ways. Some were sidekicks. Others were dependent upon white heroes for powers. Some just had stupid villains. Buck represents all of these heroes, and by being presented as a backwards, but useful, hero, McDuffie and Bright are saying something very specific about black heroes in comics of a certain time and style.

Icon, at Buck’s funeral, says, “[F]or all his failures, he died as he lived, trying to do what was right. Let us hope that when our day is done, history remembers us as kindly as it remembers him.” His point is plain: Buck was not perfect, but he was an attempt to do right. Extrapolate from that: all of those stupid black heroes who spoke in fake jive and had powers that boiled down to “has muscles, hates the man” were a necessary step. You don’t get to have great heroes without having the wack ones first. Buck Wild paved the way for Icon, and hopefully, one day, Icon will pave the way for something better.

All of the meaningful content in the world don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing. You can preach until your voice goes hoarse and your congregation falls asleep in the pews, but it doesn’t matter if what you’re preaching isn’t entertaining. If you want to preach and preach and preach, go write some non-fiction. If you’re doing a comic, bring your biggest guns and entertain. Fortunately, Icon is entertaining.

There’s a wry sense of humor woven throughout the book. The citizens of Dakota are quick with a flip remark, Raquel is smart-mouthed enough for both her and Icon, and Buck Wild is hilarious, in an Uncle Ruckus sort of way. McDuffie wrote a particularly effective black preacher in Icon: Mothership Connection. Every black preacher has a little bit of James Brown inside him, and McDuffie nailed it, even down to the call and response from the congregation.

When it comes time for action, McDuffie and Bright go big, with Superman-class action. Icon‘s populated with aliens, thugs, politicians, protestors, plenty of other heroes, and inky black alien shapeshifters bound and determined to destroy everything Icon holds dear. Buildings get knocked down, cars get thrown, and people get punched in the jaw.

Make no mistake: this is a superhero comic. Icon flies, shoots beams, and beats people up. It’s a very entertaining one, too, and more than capable of keeping your interest. The meaningful content is simply icing on the cake.

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4×4 Elements: Superman: Birthright

July 28th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

Superman: Birthright. Words by Mark Waid, pencils by Leinil Francis Yu, inks by Gerry Alanguilan, colors by Dave McCaig, and letters by Comiccraft, Superman by Siegel and Shuster.

I didn’t like Superman until I read Birthright. I’d read a few as a kid, most notably the Death and Reign, and the cartoon was okay I guess, but he never clicked. He was generic and boring. Here are four ways why Birthright convinced me otherwise.


Superman gets angry. Most popular interpretations of Superman portray him as fairly long-suffering, good-humored, and kind. He punches robots and rescues children and goes home satisfied. In Birthright, he’s a little different. He’s a little edgier and, as this scene shows, a lot angrier. This isn’t your stereotypical “This ends now!” anger. It’s something smaller and much more personal. I like this, in part because it makes Superman a little more human.

Kryptonian or not, Superman was raised as a human being by human beings. There’s no way that he grew up to be completely emotionally stable at all times. Something has to piss him off at some point. This time, it was a young girl looking down the barrel of a gun because of a man’s negligence. This kind of thing puts me in mind of Action Comics 1, where Superman throws a wife beater up against a wall and generally operates on a completely different level than he does these days.

This manages to ground Superman (“He gets angry at injustice, just like us!”) without butchering him or tearing his character to bits. He has a very reasonable reaction to something horrible happening, and he wants to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. “I want you to know how this feels, because your complete lack of empathy is what allowed it to happen.” Superman is a power fantasy, and a tremendous part of the appeal of power fantasies is that they can do things you wish you could do, but cannot.

Superman has super-empathy, feeling great respect and love for all creatures. One wrinkle Waid and Yu added to the mythology is that Superman is a vegetarian. It sounds a little goofy, and is minor in the overall scheme of things, but it makes a lot of sense. If Superman really was as kind and gracious as people say he is, that obscene level of kindness would extended to all life.

What matters here isn’t that he eats rabbit food all the time. What matters is that the idea that Superman is a vegetarian shows that Waid put a lot of thought into Superman. He went deeper than “Superman is a good guy and does good guy things.” He started with one idea, “Superman is a good guy raised by loving parents,” and extrapolated from there. Superman has a deep wellspring of love for life->Superman is an alien, and is therefore as different from humans as humans are to animals->Superman would consider all life the same->Superman wouldn’t want to kill animals for food. One thought, followed through to its logical extension.

Thought counts.

Lois Lane is annoying. This isn’t the Lois who has settled down with Superman and knocks out Pulitzer Prize-winning articles twice a week. This is the Lois that has had a few minor hits, has gained a well-regarded reputation, but hasn’t quite made her name what it would later grow to be. Except: she’s very, very good. Perry White knows it. Clark Kent has known it for years. Everyone knows it. The worst part is that she knows it.

Have you ever met a really talented person who knows that they’re talented? Lois Lane is that person. She knows she’s good, and she knows that her talent lets her get away with a whole lot of stuff. Yes, she will critique the paper to her boss in excruciating detail. Yes, she will put herself into dangerous situations just because she can. Yes, she will lie and cheat her way into a building to get a story. Yes, she will hit Lex Luthor’s doomsday machine with a lead pipe.

“If you got it, flaunt it,” said the late great Notorious B.I.G. Lois has got it. She flaunts it. And she can, because she’s got the talent to back it up.


This isn’t especially deep or profound. This is just something else that wraps up Superman’s origin in a nice, neat bow. Superman gets to talk to his parents. Originally, Superman was just an orphan. He knew where he was from, he knew his history, but he didn’t know or ever talk to his parents. He was a baby.

At the end of Birthright, a wormhole through time lets him see his parents just after they launch him into space. They’re worried about his future and caught in the despair that can only come when giving up your child. And in the end, when he finally gets a chance to speak to them, he says, “Mother… Father… I made it.”

It’s sweet and it gives a certain measure of closure to a story that you probably didn’t even realize needed it. Later stories would build upon Superman’s relationship to Krypton (“Great Rao!” for some reason took off even though dude was probably raised Methodist), but this right here is the first step, and honestly the only step I need. His parents died at peace. He started his life as Superman and soon managed to make contact with his past. It’s nice.

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5 Series: Winter Men

July 24th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

-Shortest version: read Sean’s post.

-The short version is that The Winter Men is like Watchmen, only genuinely fun to read. It doesn’t need rigid formalism or a fractal narrative to keep you going. It doesn’t have a cast that is entirely unpleasant. It doesn’t need them. As far as stories about washed up old superheroes goes, Winter Men beats the pants off Watchmen.

-The other version is that Winter Men takes on one of the most tired stories in the world and manages to do something magical. Everyone has read stories about heroes that are past their prime and broken emotionally. Watchmen did it well enough, but at this point, it’s been copied so often that the impact of the original has been diluted. It’s become a status quo, or a regularly used tool, rather than a new and exciting twist. It’s like–okay, we get it. Superheroes are human, humans are terrible, shut up talking to me.

But Winter Men. Brett Lewis, John Paul Leon, sick letters by John Workman, Dave Stewart on colors… this is the real deal. This takes human heroes and puts them through a lot of the same drama other, lesser books did. Kris Kalenov is a drunk, his former friends see right through him, and his superiors see him as a tool, rather than a person. He’s something used to apply pressure, whether he wants to apply it or not.

-The difference with Winter Men and a lot of stories of its type is that it isn’t there to dwell on the misery of its characters. Sad things happen, Kris’s relationship with his wife is crap, his friend Nina is skeptical of everything he says, he spends a lot of time in the bottle, and he cold punches his girlfriend in the face at one point, but that’s just part of it. Instead, Lewis and JPL are knocking out stories of his life. It’s not about trying to be realistic or dragging these people down out of the heavens. They’re already out of the heavens, and this is about what happens after.

-In a sideways kind of way, it puts me in mind of Joe Casey’s Wildcats and Wildcats 3.0. The two series were set after the heroes were stripped of their cause and left aimless. It was about their search for a new quest and the way they dealt with the hand life dealt them. Not about their fall, not about their misery, and not about how much it sucks not to have a war. It was about finding something new. There was a cause here. It’s gone now. What’s next?

Kris Kalenov, at some point, stopped looking for the next. Winter Men is the story of what happens when someone else’s next finds him.

-The art is astounding, but I can’t do any more justice to it than Sean did. Just believe that John Paul Leon is a powerhouse, and anything he draws is worth cover price plus tax at the very least.

-There’s a lot to like in Winter Men, but I think that my favorite is the fourth chapter. If they published an issue of Spider-Man like that chapter, fans would complain to the heavens that “nothing happens!” Those fans are stupid. The fourth chapter is just a day in the life of Kalenov and his old friend Nikki, a gangster.

It’s just this stupid thing, following them around while they argue over Big Maks, talk about their marriage, and run wild over Moscow, but it’s fantastic. There’s enough sublime moments in this one issue to fill a hundred issues of other comics. There’s the time when this nerd pops off at the mouth and demands to know by what authority Nikki and Kris are hassling him. The very next panel is him in the back of a truck nursing a bloody nose. Or when Nikki admires a table in the Russian McDonald’s and then they come back later to steal it.

It’s an issue about nothing, but it’s really about everything. This is their life.

-The big blue guy in Winter Men is way cooler than Manhattan.

-I would read an entire series about Nina, “The Barricade Girl.” I mean, you thought Black Widow was the dopest thing to come out of Moooseandsquirrel spy shenanigans, but Nina is something else. She’s one of the “Olympic-Spetsnaz Killers.” That? Right up my alley. I’d settle for Brett Lewis just kinda leaving messages on my voice mail about her adventures and maybe JPL doing a weird squiggle that looks kinda like a jump kick.

-Again, John Workman’s letters? Killer.

-”I did everything I was supposed to. I followed orders. As a man, I carried joy and suffering evenly… and I only wanted what a man can expect. But if I can not have these regular things… I will instead have murder.”

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