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Me and My People Got History: Why & How I Write About Race

November 27th, 2012 Posted by david brothers

I’ve been wanting to write about Marvel’s ’70s comics for a while, especially the ones featuring Luke Cage and the Black Panther. I do it here and there, but never in depth, because I haven’t found a subject that I really want to put my foot in yet. Just a nebulous “Oh I should do this sometimes.”

I started work on a piece springboarding off an excerpt from Grant Morrison’s Supergods that was a good example of what I don’t like to read when people are talking about ’70s comics. Part of chapter 11 is dedicated to what Morrison terms “the relevance bandwagon,” the stream of socially aware or conscious comic books that began coming out in the early ’70s that included books like Green Lantern/Green Arrow and Jungle Action. It’s also the only part of the book where Morrison spends any amount of time discussing black comics characters in detail.

Morrison got it wrong when it came to why those books were relevant and good comics, basically, in a couple of different ways (factually, thematically). He got it wrong in the same way that people keep getting it wrong when they talk about this stuff. He spends more time on that stupid Lois Lane comic where she turns black for a day than John Stewart and Luke Cage combined, right? Which makes the entire affair feel condescending bordering on dumb insulting, especially when he says that Luke Cage “soon outgrew his origins to develop as a rich and enduring character, still central to the ongoing Marvel story decades past Shaft and Jim Kelly.”

Yeah nigga naw, Luke Cage has been rich and enduring ever since page one, panel one. The redemption story sucks because it erases the history of the character and the people who created him. I’m really fond of the Kurt Busiek and Jo Duffy eras, less so the Steve Englehart-scripted issues, but there’s a ton of things in there to enjoy. Not to mention the art teams, you know?

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Hiding that history behind the idea that Cage needed rehabilitation hurts comics history. You don’t get Milestone Media without black artists finally getting a chance at the big leagues in the ’70s. Denys Cowan studied at the feet of Arvell Jones and Ron Wilson, among others like Rich Buckler and Neal Adams. Years later, Cowan bugged his friends with the idea that they needed to set out on their own and take full control of their careers. Then: Milestone, a company that focused on representing the world at large, across a wide variety of cultures and orientations and philosophies.

As halting and awkward as Luke Cage occasionally was, it’s not worth losing that history to point out how far we’ve come. I guess it’s a big deal to me because we’ve already come pretty far, and it was ten years before the theoretical redemption of Luke Cage. The redemption story furthers the idea that the mainstream comics industry was adrift when it comes to this stuff until NuMarvel, and that’s just silly. We’ve been better, and then we lost it, and now we’re trying to get back.

But I can’t make this post of mine click like I want to, no matter how clear I am about the component parts of it. I want the Supergods excerpt to be a springboard, not the focus of the piece. “This book doesn’t have it right, and here’s a corrective that can stand on its own.” vs “This guy is a big dumb face who didn’t pay enough attention to this thing I like in his big ol’ dumb face book.” I do care that Morrison got it wrong — it definitely put me off the book, even after a friend was kind enough to get me a signed copy from the UK because I am the BEST FRIEND — but I’m not interested in debating how or why he got it wrong.

That kind of point-by-point rebuttal isn’t where I’m at; it isn’t what I like to do. It makes my text too dependent on his, rather than something that can stand on its own two. I just want to talk about how these colored folks from times past laid the foundation for Milestone or how Luke Cage goes way deeper than “where’s my money, honey?” pretty much from the start of his series. I want to talk about how it wasn’t the social relevance that made these comics so enjoyable and important. The social aspect was important, sure, but that doesn’t mean anything if the books aren’t good. No, when I look at those books, I see a sudden burst of inclusion, not just comics writers exploring politics. Those books gave normal people who were underrepresented in these wonderful universes sudden representation, and it oftentimes turned out pretty well. Marvel especially managed to capture a specifically black aspect of the zeitgeist very well, and married it to their continuity in a way that worked really well. When that got stale, they hitched kung fu to Luke Cage’s truck and pow, they were right back in the thick of it.

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So my springboard ended up being a stumbling block. There is no post that’s pure enough, not yet. But I’m used to this. I can’t fold, so I re-up and reload. I’m okay with having ideas that don’t make it from conception to birth. Ideas are cheap. There’s a kernel in my scrapped draft (technically 1.5 scrapped drafts) that I’ll be able to plant elsewhere and let it grow to fruition at some point. Plus, it’s nice to have crystallized those ideas over the course of writing the failed post, but that post ain’t what I need it to be. It’s not what I want, no matter how many words or secret rap lyrics I add to it. One day I’m going to find that trigger and squeeze it and blow someone’s mind, but today wasn’t the day. If you read my tumblr, you’ve probably seen a lot of ideas that didn’t quite go anywhere until months later. Build and destroy, right?

Writing about race is so weird. I often feel like I’m walking on eggshells or tip-toeing across broken glass sometimes, despite how often I’ve done it and how comfortable I feel with doing it. Like, as soon as you acknowledge that race exists and affects things in a positive or negative or in-between manner, armies of dudes strap on their fedoras and get to typing about how it’s not that serious, you’re reading too deep, why you gotta play the race card, chill out, bud, can I call you bud, my black friend lets me call him bud when we hang out, I’m down, brother. Or whatever. This paragraph got weird.

I wrote a thing about Robert E Howard’s racism a few days ago and didn’t say anything about the subtext beyond what like a moderately culturally-aware teenaged black kid would notice, like how power is clearly distributed across skin color lines or how the sexual aspects of a certain story break down and relate to its racial aspects. I talked about things that have been around and part of American culture for centuries, even if they’ve only relatively recently been named and shamed. Basic racial awareness stuff, right, like avoiding “niggardly” because it’s awkward and you’re probably a jerk if you’re intentionally using it around black people or not touching or asking to touch black people’s hair.

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Darryl Ayo said “I love when David Brothers explains very carefully and in detail about racist undertones in a work and some commenter is “uh uh, no!!”” on Twitter and I was like pshaw, I got this son, watch me do the knowledge and stunt on these bros… and then some dude told me to keep my emotions and politics out of things I read even if they are by an actual racist because I didn’t do the research and it doesn’t mean anything if he didn’t mean it and I had to slam the comments shut before I lost my doggone mind.

I think that’s part of why I try to keep the tone light when talking about race and comics, because it’s clear to me that it makes a whole lot of people (some people can’t separate what they like from who they are) uncomfortable, even if it’s something innocuous as “this racist guy wrote some racist stuff by accident.” I even brought a couple of gifs out of retirement, even though I don’t really get down like that any more. Keeping the tone light is a defense mechanism, I think, because it lays a foundation for me to laugh it off when things get stupid, as they do 99% of the time. If I poured my heart into something and kept it clean and then some schmuck came along talking about bootstraps, I’d feel much, much worse than when someone takes a lazy jab at a post with a funny gif of Method Man and Redman in it.

But I don’t think trying to lighten the tone actually works like I think it does? It makes me feel like I’m tip-toeing around what I want to say. Which, in turn, makes me think that maybe I should just go in and make things even more plain, because if people are going to flip regardless, why should I stress over how something is going to be taken? I could talk about things like how unbelievably off-putting it is that Brian Bendis and Sara Pichelli’s otherwise divine Ultimate Spider-Man features a black dude named Jefferson Davis, especially considering that the book was sold on the back of its lead being black and latino.

How do you talk about that bout of tone deafness — which should probably be explored at least a little bit within the greater context of well-intentioned tone deafness in the comics community, which I would argue is probably the biggest race-related problem in mainstream comics — without being an unfair dick to Bendis, who apparently named the character after a friend and not the dude who was a scumbag traitor to the Union who took up arms for his right to be a racist and own other people, like that’s a cool thing for people to do? (I went to a school named after Jefferson Davis for a while and basically wanted to die.)

I don’t make a conscious try at it, but I feel like I’m real layman friendly. I don’t talk about privilege or whatever other big words people are using to talk about race and culture. Not because I don’t like them or don’t understand them, but because that’s just not how I think about race. I didn’t go to college for this stuff. I’m either speaking from my own life experiences or those of people I’ve read, known, or respected. Some of it’s book-learning and some of it’s personal trauma, but you know what I’ve found is the most true and most effective when talking about race? Common sense. Racism, as a philosophy and practice, does not make common sense. It makes economic and nationalist sense, but not common sense. So, I’m just trying to say what I have to say in a way that everyone who pays attention can overstand it. It’s complicated, but it’s not complicated. You don’t have to talk about it like it’s astrophysics or microbiology or uh… precalculus. It’s best understood and discussed in basic terms. It’s thorny, I think is the word I’m trying to pull off the tip of my tongue, and complex, but not incomprehensible. “Food for thought, you do the dishes,” like an aight man once said.

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I have a voice and a platform that a lot of other writers who care about black issues in comics don’t. I don’t have the responsibility to write about that stuff, because I firmly believe in doing what I want, when I want, and how I want to do it, but I do have the inclination to do so. I enjoy it, at least at first. It’s like therapy on a budget, and a few people have written in to say I helped them figure things out in their own life, which is awesome/terrifying/awesome.

I really, really care about this stuff. I care about others getting it right and I definitely care about getting it right myself. Otherwise, you get “LOL Luke Cage” instead of treating the guy like his history is as rich as it actually is. Which I think is why I’m so careful and pointed about what I don’t. I’m playing with the cultural equivalent of a loaded gun here and throwing in a bunch of rap lyrics and jokes. But I don’t want people to misconstrue what I’m saying or get it twisted, so I pick my words very carefully. Deliberately. Some people are still going to get hot under the collar, but “fuck boys do fuck shit,” right? I just have to do what I do and keep focusing on getting better at it instead of the dudes who are mad that their favorite comic is pretty crappy when viewed through a certain light.

I think about this stuff a lot. I mean, the REH post I wrote on a Saturday morning because I was bored and felt like it, but the ideas in there definitely percolated for months before I put them to paper. At the very least since I read the first issue of the Conan relaunch. There were six or seven issues out when I wrote a post that mentioned REH’s racism in passing, so let’s call it six months. I notice something, I talk with friends about it, and then I push it to the back of my mind, where the real work gets done, until I have something to say.

Even when I’m shooting from the hip — usually on Twitter, rarely on 4l! — it’s never just to talk or something I’ve only half-examined. I think about the intersection of race and comics so much because I feel like it’s something that is incredibly important that is vastly underserved, or outright mocked, on a mainstream level.

Like, here’s a real life example: I mentioned the gross aspects of interracial (again, genre, not description) porn in that REH post, and the way it plays upon the fear of a white woman being tainted by the black penis. Some of it focuses on the shame of a white guy that a white woman would sink so low, which is the really, really gross stuff, but most of it’s about debasement. “She said her price’ll go down if she ever fucks a black guy, or do anal, or a gangbang; it’s kinda crazy it’s all considered the same thing.” if you need a topical reference and/or a reminder that Kanye’s “Hell of a Life” is a shockingly good song.

Luke Cage and Jessica Jones’s relationship began with rough sex in Alias #1, a Bendis/Gaydos joint. (I swear I’m not trying to pick on Bendis here, I’m just going with whatever examples come to mind and I’ve read a lot of Bendis comics. Probably more comics by him than any other singular author outside of Garth Ennis or Grant Morrison, honestly.) It was intended to show her at her lowest, how actively self-destructive she was being at that time in her life, back before she got married and had a kid with Cage. How do the fans refer to their hookup in that first issue?

“Interracial anal.”

Alias is a good comic. I went from Daredevil directly to Alias and had a grand old time. But how am I supposed to feel about that aspect of the series? It’s 2012, the issue came out in 2001 or whatever, so these jokes aren’t new. And that’s the go-to joke? That’s how people describe that scene? If I tell somebody to read that comic, five’ll get you ten that some schmuck is going to pop up with a dirty joke about it if that person decides to talk about it online. And that’s pathetic.

There’s already something uncomfortable about the debaser being black and the debased being white, regardless of Bendis’s motivations when writing. Bendis stuck the landing on that front in the text, but outside of it? He’s enabled his fans to run with this, make cute image macros out of it, and I’m like 90% sure he’s brought that phrase up in the Powers letter columns himself, though in a self-deprecating way.

I’m not with that. Not at all. I said a while back that one of the biggest parts of being black in America is being constantly reminded that you are black. That’s a clear example. Black is different, black is weird, black must be pointed out when you see it, especially when it contrasts with normal. I mean, white. It makes you feel like you don’t belong every minute of every day, like you’re an intruder in the only home you’ve ever known.

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And I’m not even talking about this like I think Bendis and his fans deserved to be nailed to the wall for whatever. That’s not where I’m at, and it’s not how I work. But I do think that not talking about it, not having that conversation, knowing how crappy it makes me and people I know feel, is a mistake. Having that conversation is at least as important as talking about when somebody gets something so right that you’re left amazed. Talking about race can’t be limited to just dudes in white robes burning crosses or racial profiling. We have to talk about the little things and the everyday things, too. “Don’t go to jail unless you want to be Antwan’s wife!” things, or “That’s so ghetto” things. “Storm and Panther only got married because they’re black!” things.

Race is bigger than racism. Racism, as far as I’m concerned, is a small and probably the least interesting part of talking about race.

Why do I write about race? Partly because other people are so terrible or inept at recognizing the impact of race on their life, let alone actually talking about it. When I first started, it was a lark. Then I thought I could convince Marvel and DC to do something other than pander to their audience. Then I realized that was stupid, and I’d be better off just talking about this stuff. I’ll spit hollowpoints at them them when they miss, praise them when they hit, and hopefully someone who reads me will look and go, “Oh, this makes sense” and tomorrow will be a little better.

It took me forever to come to that point, though. I figure it’s obvious if you read my posts from that first Black History salvo on through today. Maybe not. Maybe I’m the only one that pays that much attention to what I do. But I have changed and grown as a result of talking about race and comics.

I can’t really speak authoritatively on the Big Two’s racial issues any more, outside of when they step into a realm where I don’t need deep knowledge of their books, and I’ve more than dipped my toe into spotlighting black creators of all stripes. I just need to figure out where my lane is now, where I best fit in, and how I can continue the conversation.

I want to continue the conversation because it’s too important to leave alone, no matter how much I get down on it sometimes. It’s too important to me to leave alone. I had to piecemeal together black heroes and history as a kid. If I can save someone the trouble, so much the better. I want to continue the conversation because if I won’t, that cuts the number of vocal black people willing to get their hands dirty about race & comics and have a platform like I do by half. It’s me and Hannibal Tabu out here, unless someone’s slipped my mind. (There are no black women at the big sites, which sucks. But I know of one site that’s actively working on it.)

I feel like I needed to say this here so that I don’t need to say it any more. I’m working this out in public. Thanks for following along.

(Luke Cage, forever thugging. The images in this post are two of my most favorite Cage comics. The old, dirty scans are from Essential Power Man and Iron Fist, Vol. 1 (Marvel Essentials), with words by Mary Jo Duffy and pictures by Kerry Gammill and Ricardo Villamonte. The newer scans are from New Avengers: Civil War, with words by Brian Michael Bendis and art by Leinil Yu. I love that Cage, as a character, is strong enough to support stories of both types, and can be funny without being a buffoon. Luke Cage was created by John Romita, Sr and Archie Goodwin. Thank you.)

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Villains Reborn Part 4: Only the Good Die Young

April 21st, 2012 Posted by Gavok

Sorry for the extended break. Last time, I finished off Kurt Busiek’s knockout run on Thunderbolts, ending at #33. While Mark Bagley stays on board for a little while longer, the new writer is Fabian Nicieza. Nicieza is a great writer (listen, he’s posted in previous comment sections, so he might be reading this. Follow my lead) that you can usually count on. His pro is his great grasp on making characters interesting. His con is his habit of making plots a little too confusing and complex at times. Like, I loved his Cable/Deadpool run, but he had a thing for introducing maguffins that needed three pages of exposition to set up. After those three pages, I’d come out cross-eyed. Odds suggest he ghost-wrote Inception. One of the great things here is that Nicieza simply picks up where Busiek left off, not choosing to kill the setup for his own specific take. It’s very seamless.

While they are still investigating the Beetle appearances that have popped up in the media, the Thunderbolts continue to try and make themselves look better in the public eye. Hawkeye publicly states that they’re going to bring in the Hulk, a statement that the others aren’t so pleased with. Luckily, he has a plan. He has Moonstone in street clothes confront Bruce Banner and try to talk him into turning himself in for the betterment of society. Banner doesn’t agree, refusing to give up his freedom so the Thunderbolts can gain brownie points and turns to leave. Unfortunately, this guy named Clay Brickford is in town and he has a tense history with Banner and the Hulk. Without thinking, he punches Banner, who transforms and skips the scene.

The team of Hawkeye, Moonstone, Songbird and Atlas more or less fight Hulk to a draw. They use teamwork to set up an attack meant to exhaust and knock him out, he lashes out in a way that takes them all out, jumps away, then collapses and turns into Banner. Hawkeye is partially buried under wreckage and when that Clay guy shows up to kill Banner, Hawkeye fires an arrow into Banner’s shoulder, knocks him off a ledge and onto the top of a moving truck, where he rides off to freedom. The team decides to regroup, accepting that they failed. Still, that isn’t the real story of the issue.

Jolt and Charcoal are forced to sit things out so they can go to school instead. After school, they hang out with their friends – the kids who have previously asked the Thunderbolts for help – and the cliffhanger shows someone watching them through a sniper rifle.

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Villains Reborn Part 3: Eyes of a Hawk, Ears of a Wolf

February 3rd, 2012 Posted by Gavok

When we last left our sorta heroes, Hawkeye stepped into the room to alert the Thunderbolts to his presence… and to let them know that he clogged the toilet. Thunderbolts #21 follows up on that with the team making a joint effort in trying to take Hawkeye down. Much like any given Garth Ennis protagonist, the guy with no powers proceeds to clown everyone. Not just with his trick arrows, but with his ability to make the Thunderbolts trip over each other.

The deal is that if he could last five minutes, the team would have to hear his pitch. And what a pitch! He’s talked it over with Henry Gyrich and the government bigwigs and wants to lead the Thunderbolts. Sure, he was annoyed by the whole Masters of Evil façade, but was he really all that different before joining the Avengers? Suddenly the Black Widow flashback story from the first year seems like less of a throwaway issue as it’s really there to seep Hawkeye into our reader consciousness.

The team is open to this idea, except for Songbird. She desperately screams that this is all a trick and flies off. MACH offers to go talk to her and it’s a good thing, since she’s having a very public tantrum that’s brought the National Guard into this. He gets her away from the battle, but his shoddy armor starts to fall apart and they crash into a condemned building. Songbird makes a sound-based shield to keep the authorities out and MACH finally mans up and talks to her about her recent personality shift.

Songbird goes into her life. Between her parents, her first love, the Grapplers, the Masters of Evil, her relationship with Angar the Screamer and the emotional twisting that came from Zemo’s Thunderbolts plan, her life has been nothing but a series of hope leading directly into soul-crushing failure and she can’t take it anymore. Hawkeye’s idea sounds nice, but she knows it’ll only kill her on the inside yet again. MACH promises that despite her attempts to push him away, he’ll always be there for her. Which is all nice, but they also have that whole National Guard situation to deal with. Luckily, Hawkeye and the rest bail them out. This does lead to there being footage of Hawkeye working with the Thunderbolts and the media isn’t so sure how to handle that.

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Villains Reborn Part 2: Running with the Devil

January 10th, 2012 Posted by Gavok

Last time I discussed the initial stories of Thunderbolts, where the heroes were really wolves in sheep’s clothing. They all played the role of hero with different emotional impacts and now it’s all come to a head. Somebody’s figured them out and while at a press conference, SHIELD busts in to arrest them. Everyone’s shocked to hear that these guys are the Masters of Evil, but nobody more than their own member Jolt.

Zemo himself doesn’t seem so surprised and has an escape plan ready. They sneak out and split up, told to regroup at base. Atlas is emotionally gutted from having to see the look on Dallas’ face, but runs off regardless. Jolt could proclaim her innocence in it all, but she jumps out the window, feeling that there has to be something she can do to make things right. They each get to base in their own way, but interestingly enough, Moonstone gets in a brief tussle with Hawkeye, who had come back from being… Wolverine… in a brown mask… on an Earth… on the other side of the sun…?

Listen, comics are fucking weird. What’s important is that Moonstone sneaks away in disguise and thinks about skipping town and starting over. Ultimately, she decides to keep with the team.

One little touch that I’m still not sure if it was planned or if it was damage control over a writing mishap has the media point out that in the footage of the Thunderbolts fighting Arnim Zola’s creations, Techno briefly refers to Meteorite as Moonstone. Even Jolt’s realizing that she was there and that should have raised a red flag if she wasn’t so caught in the moment.

The Thunderbolts think about who could have blown the whistle on them. Black Widow, perhaps? Nah. It was Zemo, who could see that everyone was starting to come around on the hero concept and wanted to speed up the plan to take care of that. Granted, they don’t HAVE to follow him. They could play hero and be arrested or go back to the villain life and be violently ostracized for their actions as Thunderbolts. In a bit of checkmate, he’s got them right in his pocket.

They get in their plane (Thunderjet?) and fly off into space. As an exclamation point, Zemo detonates Four Freedoms Plaza. No word yet if Dr. Doom cried.

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Villains Reborn Part 1: Masters of Deception

December 29th, 2011 Posted by Gavok

In the prologue, I discussed the initial appearances of the Thunderbolts and the big hook of the series: a bunch of villains are pretending to be heroes in an attempt to exploit the world’s trust for personal gain. Months ago, I tried to get a friend of mine to read the series, but he’s a DC guy and was reluctant because he didn’t know any of the characters. Hell, I didn’t know any of the characters either! I mean, sure, I had heard of the Beetle before, but I only knew these characters as “those guys who became Thunderbolts.” Regardless, I figure now would be a good time to briefly go over our starting six main characters.

BARON ZEMO/CITIZEN V
Helmut Zemo

Helmut is the son of Heinrich, the Nazi supervillain who got the credit for Bucky Barnes’ death back in World War II. The news of Captain America returning, as well as the death of his father caused Helmut to seek revenge. At first he went with his own gimmick, calling himself the Phoenix. Cap handed him his ass and knocked him in a vat of Adhesive X, which scarred up his face something fierce. He’s since returned again and again as Baron Zemo, always aligning himself with fellow villains in hope of sticking it to Captain America. His claim to fame is the time he led the Masters of Evil into overtaking Avengers Mansion, where he had Jarvis tortured and messed with Cap by destroying his old pre-freeze belongings.

Zemo has no powers, but is an expert swordman and something of a scientific and tactical genius.

Baron Zemo is driven by his thirst for world domination and the belief that he is superior due to being a Zemo. Different writers seem to have different takes on how much he takes after his father. Can he be described as a Nazi or just the son of a Nazi? Does he feel that he’s superior because he’s Aryan or strictly because of his bloodline? Even a recent issue of Thunderbolts delves into this with Jeff Parker suggesting the latter. Personally, I like to just think of him as being a straight-up Nazi who likes to use people who he feels are inferior. It adds more emphasis to a lot of his later moments, from the subtle (the end of Thunderbolts #100) to the not-so-subtle (the last issue of Zemo: Born Better). I’ll get to those far down the line.

MOONSTONE/METEORITE
Karla Sofen

Karla was the daughter of a butler who worked for a rich family. While living at the mansion, she became best friends with the family’s daughter, exploiting her for her wealth. After her father’s death, she was removed from the cushy mansion life and her mother worked to the bone to keep them afloat. Karla was disgusted by her mother’s behavior and swore never to slave for the good of someone else. She became a talented psychiatrist and moonlighted with some bad people, ultimately leading her to convince the supervillain Moonstone to hand over the Kree artifact (the Moonstone) that gave him his powers. As the new Moonstone, Karla antagonized the likes of the Hulk and the Avengers.

Oh, and going by Brian Reed’s run of Ms. Marvel, she murdered her mother and convinced some of her patients to kill themselves. A little overboard for her depiction? Possibly, though Busiek has her doing some shady actions that land near that level.

As Moonstone, Karla is able to fly, has super-strength and can phase through walls. When using her Meteorite guise, she uses that last power at a minimum so as not allow anyone to figure out her identity. Her manipulation skills are so top tier that even Loki’s like, “DAMN!”

Moonstone is driven by selfish comfort. She’s the kind of person who would pretend to be lifting her corner of the couch while you end up putting in the brunt of the effort.

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Villains Reborn: Prologue

December 23rd, 2011 Posted by Gavok

Thunderbolts is a comic that’s like a superhero in origin. You look at a lot of the major superheroes and you see that they were diamonds that expelled from the rough. Parents gunned down led to the creation of Batman. An uncle gunned down led to the creation of Spider-Man. A planet exploding gave us Superman. A war led to the enlisting of Steve Rogers, giving the world Captain America.

Comparing it to murder and genocide might be more than a little over-the-top, but comics in the 90′s were filled with terrible shit. Nobody proved this more than Marvel, who did a nice job of chasing readers away around 1997. Thor had a laughable extreme outfit that included a blue headsock connected to a halfshirt. Spider-Man was stuck in a story about clones that went on way beyond its expiration date. A promising idea about Xavier becoming an unbeatable mega-villain led to an unfortunate story that led into an even more unfortunate story about half the Marvel heroes being vaporized and then reborn in another world. Plus Venom was in a bunch of comics and that was the worst—wait, what the hell am I talking about?

This was around the time when I stopped reading comics for 6-7 years, missing out on the gem that grew out of the Onslaught/Heroes Reborn mess. Even when I got back into comics, I didn’t have Thunderbolts on my radar. I didn’t even know what it was about, nor care enough to check it out. It wasn’t until Warren Ellis took over and gave it the New Avengers treatment (putting beloved mainstream characters on the roster and making it a jumping-on point) that I started reading it. I haven’t stopped since then and later went back to the beginning to catch up on all the stuff I missed.

I found the series to be golden, through and through. Not that it doesn’t have its flaws and headshaking moments, but for a series that’s been around for nearly 15 years by this writing, it’s pretty damn special. There are different reasons for that. Obviously, it’s because of the pantheon of great writers, from Kurt Busiek to Jeff Parker with all the other top-notch guys in-between. I’ve established many times that I’m a major fan of redemption stories and that’s what Thunderbolts perpetually is. Yet I think the main thing that Thunderbolts has going for it is that it’s a comic that’s not allowed to hold still. Most superhero comics are allowed to hold onto the same status quo for decades if the sales and writing are strong enough, but Thunderbolts isn’t able to maintain such a thing for too long, else it begins to fall apart. The comic is in constant motion with its cast developing and moving around to the point that even the mission statement gets mutated a couple times.

I thought I’d give a look at the whole series, which as of now is 167 issues in, not to mention multiple miniseries and specials. With some exceptions, I won’t go as descriptive as I was with We Care a Lot, explaining every issue in detail. I’ll probably gloss through the main plot, then focus on the characters and their personal situations.

This being the prologue, I guess it’s fitting to start at the beginning. No, not at Thunderbolts #1, but even before that. The team made their first appearance in Incredible Hulk #449 by Peter David and Mike Deodato.

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I Got My Uzi Back Linkblogging

December 1st, 2009 Posted by david brothers

-I liked this post by Euge of War Rocket Ajax. It’s not about comics- instead it’s about the Clipse and their place in rap culture. Preorder Til The Casket Drops here, ten bones. It leaked this weekend, it’s dope, get on that.

-I talk about The ‘Nam Volume 1 TPB and a little bit about war comics history over at Comics Alliance.

-Tom Spurgeon wrote a holiday gift guide. Everyone else should just go ahead and bow down, this is extra thorough.

-Matt Thorn discusses manga translation and man, I pretty much agree with him. I’ve had my issues with overly faithful translations, and he does a pretty good job of explaining why. I think approaching a translation project as simply transplanting the language word for word is a huge mistake. There’s something exoticizing about that, too, which makes me a little uncomfortable.

-This shirt is dope.

-Nina Stone’s Virgin Read is no more!

-Look at all these Marvel characters Kurt Busiek co-created!

-Brandon Thomas wraps his New X-Men retrospective.

-Timothy Callahan is basically correct in his look back at Dark Knight Strikes Again.

-Jog talks about manga and Manga. Good thing to wake up to.

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Friday Flashbacks 02: Ghosts and Rivals

June 19th, 2009 Posted by Gavok

I guess I should put down some set-up first. This is from Avengers/JLA #4, written by Kurt Busiek and drawn by George Perez. It came out a little bit before Marvel and DC made some of their bigger modern changes. The team rosters were still more classic than in recent years, still before the days of Disassembled and Crisis of Conscience. Hal Jordan was still the Spectre.

I won’t go too deep into the story, but it involves Krona making a bet with the Grandmaster that puts the two super-teams on opposing sides. Not that that needs too much extra effort, though, as Captain America and Superman seem to have it in for each other. Superman sees mutant hatred, Dr. Doom, the Hulk and the Punisher running wild and considers the Avengers a bunch of failures. Captain America sees how the people in the DC world worship the Justice League to the point of museums and monuments and considers them little better than world conquerors. This leads into more than one throwdown, including a fight where Superman beats up Thor.

Fast-forward a bit. To save reality from Krona, the Grandmaster has been pushing the two worlds closer together. Reality rewrites itself again and again. The Avengers and Justice League go from being from two distant alternate realities to neighboring realities. Then they go from two teams that visit each other’s worlds on a regular basis to two teams that co-exist in the same world. Few are able to see through the lies.

Finally, the two teams find the Grandmaster, who wants the heroes to go stop Krona from destroying both their worlds. Due to reality being rewritten over and over, the teams are both down to their more base, classic rosters and identities and want to know exactly what they’re fighting for. Using the last of his powers, Grandmaster shows them a series of screens that broadcasts their histories. Despite all their victories, it focuses mainly on these heroes watching the losses that are meant to be. Tony Stark’s alcoholism, Aquaman’s loss of hand, Bane breaking Batman’s back, Doomsday killing Superman, Captain America losing his abilities and failing in his attempt to rely on armor tech, Odin’s death, Jason Todd’s death, and so on. The more important ones here are that Barry Allen sees that he’s going to die, Scarlet Witch and Vision see that their children will be creations from Wanda’s own madness, Giant Man sees the smack that he will never live down and Hal Jordan sees his descent into becoming Parallax.

And yet, in the end, the two sides decide that it is not up to them to judge the realities they are saving. They band together and plot against Krona. Superman suggests Captain America lead them, which he agrees to.

I swear, when I was intending to write this article, I thought these pages were more than two. Three, maybe four. They’re just so dense with dialogue that it’s bursting at the seams. That’s George Perez for you, I guess.

All five of those different conversations are aces, especially when you notice the segues. Notice how each conversation ends with another character in the shot. It took me forever to see Captain America in the background window. What I really loved about this scene is the stuff with Hal and Barry.

How messed up it has to be for these two. Barry knows that win or lose, he’s going to be dead within hours. It’s depressing, but not nearly as bad as what Hal has to be going through. Barry goes out honorably. Hal knows that not only is he going to die, but first he’s going to go crazy and take out a bunch of his friends before becoming the Darth Vader of the DC Universe. And he’s fighting to preserve that! It’s fucked.

Maybe it’s just me, but you can read the weight of it in Hal’s oath. The way he seems so less enthused compared to all the other times. Is it defeat? Sadness? Intent to do his best one last time? Shame? Bitterness? Is it that he realizes that the very oath he’s reciting has been proven to be nothing more than a lie?

But there they are, Hal and Barry, supporting each other. Just by the mutual reassurance, the two doomed friends are all but removed of that weight. It’s a nice, bittersweet scene, but sadly loses something thanks to their later resurrections.

I think I decided about including these pages for this installment because of all of that going on these days. Personally, I feel totally fine with Hal coming back (Green Lantern is more of a job position than identity, allowing Kyle to thrive on his own, though admittedly to a lesser extent). I can’t bring myself to care about Barry Allen’s return, outside of a couple choice moments in Final Crisis. Unless Steve Rogers stays away from the Captain America mantle and becomes the new leader of SHIELD/HAMMER for an extended period of time, I feel like his death could have lasted another three years. And Bart Allen… shit, I don’t know. That poor guy got messed up so much since Geoff Johns got his hands on him that I can’t say what’s best for him at this point.

Bottom line: I guess I feel like in scenes like this, the finality of one fictional character’s death strengthens the quality of life. But that’s me.

Back to the Avengers/JLA comic, there was one panel I’ve always loved for a stupid reason.

Look at Captain America. That’s the moment I realized that Steve Rogers has balls made of vibranium. He goes on to threaten Superman with such confidence that even now, my brain is trying to come up with ways for that outcome to be a possibility. I’ll get back to you on that. Cool as that is, that’s not why I bring it up.

I don’t know if this was a subtle way to intentionally foreshadow Avengers: Disassembled, but let’s see what happens when we remove the guys on the right.

Hey, now!

By the way, I still miss Hal’s kickass white hair tufts.

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The Adventures of JELL-O Man and Wobbly: There’s Always Room… for Justice!

May 21st, 2009 Posted by Gavok

(Gavok note: This is an article I wrote for PopCultureShock a while back. Because I’m distracted by my inability to defeat Title Defense Piston Hondo at the moment, I figured now would be a good time to start posting some of these where they belong: at 4th Letter. I snipped the first few paragraphs, since it was more of an introduction and you already know me. Which reminds me, we need to hang like old times. Let’s hit the roller rink this Sunday. They have a Wrestlefest arcade machine there. It’ll be fun.)

Allow me to introduce you to what may be the first comic I’ve ever owned. I’m not certain if I owned this before or after I was given a copy of that Luke Cage anti-smoking comic in health class. In fact, I’m really not certain why or how I had this in the first place. All I recall is one day owning a copy of The Adventures of JELL-O Man and Wobbly.

Nobody else seems to remember JELL-O Man, I’m afraid. He was a brief JELL-O mascot during the introduction of their Jigglers. As you can see from that cover, JELL-O Man’s dog Wobbly was created by the J, as JELL-O Man himself was the E, L, L and O mixed together to create some kind of horrid demon freak never meant to walk God’s green Earth. I also notice that they each have a dash for a nose. Where’d that extra dash come from?! It’s questions like this that answer why there was never a second issue. Brevoort would’ve been all over that shit.

Other than a kid’s cookbook, JELL-O Man and Wobbly were featured in a couple animated commercials that I seem to recall as being pretty sweet. I can’t know for sure until somebody puts them on YouTube.

This comic has three stories, a rather huge insert that I’ll get to in a bit, a couple pages of games and seven different JELL-O advertisements. Our first story, The Outrageous Origin of JELL-O Man and Wobbly is written by Michael J. Pellowski, a regular on Archie Comics and its spin-offs. Richard Howell does all the art here, except for Ken Steacy, who does the cover and advertisements.

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