Friday, November 30, 2007
The basic plot is that Christopher Chance is the Human Target, a man who not just impersonates but becomes others--usually people in danger and in need of someone who can react to said danger. In the process of being these people, Chance himself gets a little lost in the shuffle. Who is Christopher Chance if he spends all of his time as others? Is there a real Chance? Was there ever?
In the first story, Milligan has Chance confront this more directly when his assistant and protege faces the same problems. He has a wife and child, but he can be ANYONE but himself. The burden of living his own life is too great and he loses himself in other lives, including that of Chance. There's a wonderful scene where the fake Chance is having sex and requests not to be touched, for her to be on top so he can watch with minimal contact--something that Chance demands, but how did the faux Chance know this?
Again and again, Chance (or his protege in the first story) discover personality traits and secrets in the process of being these people, which raises the question of how much is given away by all of us everyday? How much of us is in the way we walk and talk and eat and whatever other mundane tasks we perform? Is it all there? And if it is, does mimicking those actions actually cause someone to become that other person?
Basically, these books are about what makes a person unique. Most like to believe it is something inate or even the soul, but Milligan seems to argue that it isn't. We are just the sum of our superficial activities.
The plots of the stories aren't that important. They're all very interesting and provide Chance with opportunity to examine himself, but they're secondary to the examination of humanity.
Of course, Milligan doesn't have any answers, so the same questions get posed again and again and again. Subtextually, the series remains at a standstill for the most part, but that's only because there is nowhere to go, really. Chance never advances, so how can we?
Next week, I'll resume my look at Jim Starlin's work at Marvel. I'm waiting on a shipment that contains the bulk of his Silver Surfer run (the remaining issues arrived this week) and the issues of Thor and The Silver Surfer from the "Blood and Thunder" crossover that linked with the two Warlock titles. But, that story is far enough down the line that there shouldn't be any problem. I will do these posts on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I will do an issue-by-issue analysis of Joe Casey and Leonardo Manco's 11-issue Deathlok series from the late '90s. I finally completed my run of the book and these posts will go along with my issue-by-issue looks at other Casey-written series. And, perhaps, when I've finished this series, I will finally get to Automatic Kafka, which is a type of sequel to Deathlok (in a thematic sense).
Thursday, November 29, 2007
Okay, I'm weird.
I was also bothered by the 3-D bit at the end, mostly because the point is pretty simple and it doesn't add a whole lot--beyond giving me a headache. Of course, I could have removed the glasses, because I wanted to do it proper and all.
The most interesting parts for me were the excerpts from Campion Bond's memoirs, which set up the first volume of the series, and the stories about the French and German versions of the League. Or or or, the wonderful bit in the Fanny Hill sequence where she recounts the story of being in the giantess' vagina and saved from certain death when her husband decided he was in the mood for anal instead. Alan Moore is a dirty, dirty man. I read that part aloud to my roommate and had a good laugh.
The Black Dossier is a fun, dense read that any fan of the series must get, literature fans will love, and newbies will... I don't know actually. I'm rather looking forward to Volume 3 of the series after this little taste.
Tuesday, November 27, 2007
This final volume is a strange beast as the writers seem to devote entire issues to wrapping up or pushing storylines in a more obvious way. Here's a breakdown:
#40--All Steel except for 2 pages of Black Adam
#41--Space heroes, Ralph, Montoya (okay, this issue balanced things a little, shut up)
#42--Ralph with 2 pages of Montoya
#43--Black Adam except for 5 pages of Animal Man/Lady Styx
#44--Black Adam with 4 pages of Montoya that tie into the Black Adam stuff
#45--All Black Adam with an appearance from Montoya and tying into the mad scientests
#46--Black Adam/mad scientists except 4 pages of Steel/Luthor
#47--A little bit of everything
#48--All Montoya with 1 page of Black Adam
#49--Black Adam/mad scientists
#50--World War III
#51--Animal Man/DCU/lead-in to end of the series
#52--Mostly Booster Gold, plus a page or two for the other stories as a wrap-up
Only two issues that really had more than two stories for a significant amount. Granted, stories converged as things went on, but ignoring certain stories doesn't work at times because this is supposed to be a book taking place in real time. Like, why do we see Animal Man in #47 viewing his wife and then not actually joining her until #51 even though it's the exact same scene? Why the six week gap between Steel taking down Luthor and Luthor getting taken into custody? Little stuff like that bothers the fuck out of me--I know, I know, I'm being picky.
Another thing that had me scratching my head: Wonder Woman's scene with Montoya--I didn't know that was Wonder Woman until I read Greg Rucka's commentary for the issue. Maybe I'm just a blind reader who should have figured it out, but why would I even think of Wonder Woman? The only clues are her appearance and the reference to killing someone--except the appearance isn't singular enough nor is the killing of someone. In retrospect, I see how it works, but at the time, it fell flat.
I did enjoy the resolution of Animal Man and Ralph's stories, though. Both were handled well.
Still couldn't muster up interest in Montoya or the crime religion whatever the fuck they are story.
Black Adam's story was decent, but mostly mediocre.
The ending of the series left me just as cold as when I read it the first time--mostly because it was a lot at once and I had totally forgotten about Booster Gold by that point. As well, I stand by my assessment that the whole 52 worlds is an unnecessary gimmick because of Hypertime, which was a much better tool. The new status quo is just a smaller, more limited version of Hypertime that seems to be servicing a story ("Countdown") that most people consider really fucking abysmal. Also, something about a Kingdom Come Earth bothers me.
The art in this volume was solid.
Still disappointed that there's no commentary by Grant Morrison in these trades. Also, I really wish they would have included the Newsarama interviews conducted with the creators after the conclusion of the series. It's not unprecedented and would have been a fantastic complement to the commentary.
52 has been a worthwhile read in that it lays out a pretty good model for what works and what doesn't in a weekly, real time series. I think it would have worked better with a smaller amount of stories (maybe three at most), more awareness of how things would unfold time-wise, and even a few more "real life" moments that I don't think we saw enough of because of the amount of story that had to be told. Part of the charm behind a series like this is seeing some mundane bits--that day where nothing really happens. Or even what happens between plot points--which would have definitely made the gaps between them seem less annoying. They were smart to focus on some of the "lesser" characters, but, really, there were just too many of them. Having the stories cross over helped that, at times, but not enough.
And that's that. Maybe someday, I'll sit down and read the whole thing in one sitting, see how it reads that way.
Saturday, November 24, 2007
Ah well. Let's get on with this anyway...
New Avengers: Illuminati #5
Alright, so Black Bolt is a Skrull and revealed himself why exactly? I read the issue and I can't figure out the logic in that revelation. There's some half-assed shit about wanting to make them not trust one another, but really. Come on. Really? That's lame. Why do that when you could do the big reveal at a better time? Or never reveal and work on the inside to make shit worse, which is what we're to assume the Skrulls have been doing? But, hey, that's me.
As well, I have to admit that the magic eight ball was wrong as it said Black Bolt wasn't a Skrull. Damn you, magic eight ball.
Finally, this issue doesn't seem like what was supposed to happen. For some reason, I remember Bendis saying in an issue of Wizard a year ago that it was more about everyone else in the Marvel universe finding out that the Illuminati exists and being pissed. Maybe I'm wrong, I don't know. Not that that's a problem really as plans change--just something that occurred to me.
The issue itself was passable and pushed the story forward, albeit in a really dumb way.
New Avengers #36
Alright, so we can skip the second Mighty Avengers arc, right?
I'm amused that the two Avengers teams are working together so quickly. The Venom virus situation was a necessity, but that last page--and the little hints to the Skrull stuff--suggests that we're in for a united front. An undoing of "Civil War" so soon? Probably not, but interesting.
All-Star Superman #9
Wow, because this issue wasn't lame at all.
Some great ideas here, but the ending was a cop-out. It was a cheap as fuck cop-out that has deus ex machina written all over it. The two Kryptonians' bodies are poisoning them with Kryptonite? Yes, yes, we all see the mirroring of Superman because he's being poisoned by his body as well, but... come on. This is an issue where the subtext and themes are given more importance than the basic plot--something Morrison is usually pretty good at avoiding.
No offence to Paul Jenkins as I haven't read his work with Penance, but why is Marvel bothering with a mini-series devoted to that character when Ellis is actually making him interesting? Not just interesting, but actually providing actual reasons for his behaviour? He's taken a joke of a character and suddenly gives him motivation and depth and reasons for being a whiny little emo kid.
Ellis continues to use this book to show exactly why the idea is an incredibly stupid one, logically. It almost reads as a satire of various ideas from "Civil War" and why they were half-baked. This book is a demonstration in why aiming for those "fanboy orgasm" moments doesn't work, really.
Batman #670, Robin #168, Nightwing #138, Detective Comics #838
Half of "The Resurrection of Ra's al Ghul" and... wow, there isn't a lot here. Lots of fighting and talking, but it leads to this: Ghul is back, his current body won't last, needs a new one, and is either going to use Damian (his grandson and Batman's son) or Time Drake. Shouldn't more have happened in four issues written by Grant Morrison, Peter Milligan, Fabian Nicieza and Paul Dini?
What If... Annihilation Reached Earth?
This issue was a lot less interesting than I hoped, but it does outline how the heroes will unite to fight the Skrulls. I don't know what I expected, but this issue does pretty much the bare minimum in imagining what would happen: the Annihilation wave is heading for Earth, the heroes unite, they fight together, they finally overcome it with Nova, Iron Man and Captain America sacrificing themselves in the process. It all makes logical sense, but... I don't know, it's just too basic. I wanted more.
The Boys #12
Not quite the direction I thought this story was taking. But, Ennis does some nice bits of dialogue and further develops Hughie's character as he adjusts to his new line of work. I enjoyed this issue, because I really like Ennis' writing. At this point, you know what to expect (in general, not specifically).
Captain America #31-32
The post-Steve Rogers world continues and we begin "Act 2" of the story. Like with the previous stories in this series, individual issues are difficult to discuss as it's about the bigger picture. Things progress, basically. Great book.
Velocity: Pilot Season #1
A nice little done-in-one story by Joe Casey with Kevin Maguire on art. I never really read Cyberforce, so I don't really know much about Velocity. Picked this up because of Casey and it's a decent read. Typical Casey dialogue--a sort of hipster casual (if that makes any sense). A story with a clever solution. A slightly downbeat ending. I haven't read any of the other "pilot season" books, but this could be a fun superhero series if it gets enough votes. Oh, and Maguire's art is excellent.
Infinity, Inc. #3
I really don't know where Milligan is taking this book. This issue moves a very quick pace, jumping forward a lot, just hitting the beats we need, never giving the reader a chance to really catch up or get a handle on what's going on. There's the potential for interesting stories with the former members of Infinity, Inc. getting new powers and, well, being kind of crazy. We'll see.
I love how Straczynski recognises at the end of the issue that his pacing is slow as fuck and needs to be quickened. The first three issues felt like what the first issue should have been. This issue should have been eight pages. I'm giving it to issue six and then I'll assess if it's worth it. So far, it's just been so slow and mechanical, in a way.
Annhilation: Conquest--Starlord #4
A nice ending to this series that always left me a little underwhelmed. I did notice how the Uni-Force acts a lot live the Hivemind that Nova has in his head. Used differently here, but found that interesting. Giffen also does something clever by having the Uni-Force assist the group by joining with a member of the Phalanx for a short period of time. I'm thinking about getting the three volumes of the first Annihilation, so maybe I'll pick up this entire story in trades at a later date.
This storyarc is lasting a little longer than it needs to. Midnighter ups the stakes against Anthem and gets his ass handed to him. Plus, looks like his support system is gone. Giffen's done things here that I didn't expect, honestly. I expected the story to stay closer to Midnighter's home town, but taking it into the world at large has been interesting. I just wish the pace would pick up a bit.
Punisher War Journal #13
Okay, I really enjoyed this issue. The opening bit with the Rhino doing it "OLD SCHOOL" is great. The inclusion of Spider-Man is always a plus as Fraction has him nailed. The Punisher is more of a supporting character here, which works. My favourite bit is after Kraven has kidnapped Rhino and Spider-Man is talking to a webbed-up Frank:
S-M: SO TELL ME THE TRUTH. IF I LET YOU GO, YOU'RE NOT GOING TO HUNT KRAVEN DOWN AND KILL HIM, ARE YOU?
S-M (adding more webs): PSH. LISTEN TO YOU.
I dig it.
Um... what? An entire issue where Wolverine fights himself, except not really himself and not in any physical sense, but he does come back to life despite not really being dead as only his soul was missing and now he knows who to kill except why we don't know so we better read next issue. Ye-ah.
Doktor Sleepless #3
This is the first issue I've really dug. It's got lots of nice moments, it advances several stories and gives a hint of the big picture. It doesn't seem aimless like the previous issues. Or, at least, not in the same way. We all knew I was going to keep buying this book no matter what, but this issue has me in as a fan.
Do you think Casey killed off Crashman because of Captain America's death? Something about the opening scene of this issue just reminded me of that. America's hero dead, everyone freaking out, etc.
This book is some good fun. Lots of action and thrills and good guys and bad guys and army guys and, yeah, you should read this book. It's good. And the Earth is doomed. Fuck.
The Order #4
It looks like Fraction has a plan for this book. I'm liking it more with every issue. It comes across as the most "mainstream" of his work--and it IS--but it's not as "mainstream" as it seemed when it began. It's subtle in its subversions and deviations. I have a feeling that it could all fall apart at any time now and that's pretty cool (and, wow, that sounds weird).
Omega the Unknown #2
This continues to be weird and mysterious, but compelling. It's offbeat in all the best ways. Plus, the end where Omega works at a church and as a fry cook--that's just funny. I think this will turn out to be a fantastic read. Or, I'm hoping.
The Programme #4-5
And I'm really liking this book, too. CP Smith's art is still a little too unclear at times, but the story is beginning to cohere and advance. The Senator Joe bit was nice and not overdone, which many writers would have fallen prey to. Another book that will be judged as a whole, but after a few issues were I was unsure, I'm in 100%. Now, watch Milligan fuck it up next issue...
Hells yes. We secretly watch Quinn who secretly watches Benday who secretly watches Toppogrosso who secretly watches many people. Asa Nisi Masa. Lots of sex. When is Casanova Quinn? BLUE! I love this book.
Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaand that does it for the singles. I also picked up 52 volume four, which I've got to read still; Thanos: Epiphany, which fits into the Starlin stuff; and the three Human Target trades I need in an awesome sale--I've read one of them, but will discuss them all later, maybe after I buy the uncollected issues. Oh, and I also managed to find Infinity Crusade #6, so when my last eBay order arrives, we're back on track with Mr. Jim Starlin up through to his most recent work--the only thing missing will be his Silver Surfer run.
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
In the final chapter of Codeflesh, Joe Casey and Charlie Adlard tell the story in a unique manner by distancing the text and visuals. The comic itself appears normal with the standard sequential images, word balloons and sound effects, but in the place of the text we expect (such as dialogue) is a letter written by the protagonist. In doing so, Casey and Adlard highlight three levels of reading a comic: the textual, the visual, and the textual with the visual. Usually, the last level is the only one considered, as comics are a medium where the interaction of words and images is central. However, as the letter and the visuals are incongruent, both essentially stand on their own, telling two separate stories that are understood independent of one another. The text and the images do work together, but in a less direct way than they do in most comics. Because of the incongruity, there is a more subtle interaction between the words and pictures, creating emotional resonances and glimpses into the minds of characters through stark juxtaposition. A close reading of the final chapter of Codeflesh shows that Casey and Adlard create a story that has three possible readings, and also draws attention to the ways in which words and images work with and against one another in comics.
Basically, it will be an expansion and update on the short essay I wrote on the subject a couple of years ago. It does seem strangely appropriate to deliver this paper in SF since that's where my copy of the Codeflesh collection came from--as James Sime at the Isotope was nice enough to get Casey to sign a copy at the launch party for the book and then send it to me. Looks like I may have a chance to thank him in person.
Wow, weirdly exciting.
In other news, some of my eBay stuff has come including the complete Warlock & The Infinity Watch. I should continue my look at Jim Starlin's work once my final one arrives as it contains issues 1-5 of Infinity Crusade, which is essential and, hopefully, I'll be able to get issue 6 when I'm in London this weekend. Then, I should be able to continue without a break until I hit Thanos (although, maybe the shop in London will have issues 2-6). Quite a lot to look at, but some very interesting stuff.
Sunday, November 18, 2007
First of all, Eisner innovated the concept of the first page of the story being an attention-grabbing splash page that draws readers in. This was in part done out of necessity, for the Spirit was being published as a newspaper insert, coverless newsprint, so the first page of the story had to do double duty as the comic section's "cover" of sorts as well. But Eisner took it a step further, by constantly changing the logo on these splash pages, so that it was never the same thing twice. If you look at the first page of stories like "Life Below" from February of '48 or "Fox at Bay" from October of '49, you can see how he played with the logo in each story, modifying it and molding it into the story so that it's part of the image. Jack Cole's Plastic Man stories later followed suit, with some incredibly arresting first page splashes of its own (only natural, really, since Cole worked with Eisner for a time, even scripting and pencilling a few Spirit stories from late '43 to mid-'44 while Eisner was in WW2).
Eisner's layouts as well were innovative with his use of silent panels to punctuate action and his tendency towards portraying moments indirectly, showing us reaction shots rather than actions so as to engage the readers' imaginations more. And of course the Spirit comics had a unique format as well. In a time when comics were frequently reprinting strips out of newspapers, Eisner was taking comic adventures TO the papers, creating his book weekly as an syndicated insert to various papers across the country.
As for art styles, Eisner was drawing from noir and German expressionism to tell "two bottle of ink" stories like "Lorelai Rox," stories so much darker than traditional comic art as to be practically dripping in shadow. Meanwhile, Cole was breaking all the rules by combining a more cartoony or "bigfoot" style of art with the muscular anatomy found in typical superhero art. If you merely look at the contrast between Plastic Man and his sidekick Woozy Winks, you can see the dichotomy between the styles Cole was combining quite clearly.
Finally, Eisner refused to follow the restrictions of the medium of comics by using the Spirit to tell stories in multiple genres, not just superhero. He did several science-fiction stories (such as "Visitor" in Feb of '49), westerns ("The Feud" in March of 1946), and fairy tales. He twice used the Spirit to adapt famous pieces of literature, and he eventually began taking advantage of the opportunity every Halloween and Christmas to tell special tales in the spirit of the season. One of the earliest examples of Eisner bending genres came in October of 1941, when Eisner did a story called "The Oldest Man in the World." It featured a frame story of archaeologists 1000 years in the future finding a Spirit section and reading the story within, about an immortal man doing battle with the Spirit and apparently drowning in the sea in the end. They dismiss the story as rubbish but are then attacked by this same man.
This story actually also illustrates Eisner's innovative approach to art as well, as he colors the frame story differently from the "actual" Spirit section. It also serves as an example of how Eisner was constantly defying the conventions of storytelling, with its story-within-a-story which serves as a bit of metafiction (Spirit comics now suddenly exist within the world of the Spirit, calling into question what is real and what is fiction).
Eisner employed the technique of breaking the fourth wall quite often in his stories, occasionally creating characters which were thinly veiled satirical copies of his contemporaries (like Al Capp and Frederic Wertham) as well as inserting himself into the pages of the Spirit more than once.
He depicted himself in a splash page once... facing his drawing board with his back to the reader as he drew a Spirit splash page. Perhaps the most famous example of his insertion into the Spirit came on December 31st, 1950. In that week's edition of the Spirit, Eisner falls asleep at the drawing board and his assistant Jules Feiffer comes in, kills him, and creates a story featuring a character of his design posing as the Spirit. At the story's end, Eisner wakes up at the drawing board, having realized it was all a dream. However, having slept so long, the actual strip he was supposed to do for New Year's Eve would not be able to run (and in fact did then run as a part of the following week's paper).
Jack Cole had Plastic Man break the fourth wall many a time by literally turning to the reader and directly addressing them. In one adventure, Plastic Man is helping a spy protect his secret device that was aiding in the war effort, and in the end of the story Plastic Man asks what the machine does. Then he catches himself and realized it isn't safe, since there might be saboteurs reading the comic at that very moment. Cole also inserted himself into Plastic Man's adventures as well, in Police Comics 20 in July of 1943. In the story Woozy Winks needs someone to compile a sketch of a criminal, and he calls in Cole, who only agrees to set aside his work drawing Plastic Man in the comics because Woozy offers to pay him a dollar. Cole is self-deprecating to a fault, depicting himself in this story as slackjawed and speaking with a stutter for the purpose of making the incident even more humorous.
Finally, both creators broke from convention in their stories often by shifting the main character into the background. Several of Plastic Man's adventures were really about the misadventures of Woozy as he went about trying to solve crimes while Plas was occupied elsewhere. The Spirit also barely appeared in more than a few adventures bearing his name. The story "Two Lives" which I mentioned previously has him appear in the background of one or two panels only. "10 Minutes" in Sept. of '49 (a story that plays out in real time, by the by, a very innovative storytelling technique for comics to attempt) place the focus, instead of on the Spirit, on a young guy in a neighborhood who makes a bad decision and is forced to pay a terrible price. And of course, there is the story of Gerhard Shnobble, perhaps the most famous story Eisner ever created, which follows a man who can fly in his final hours, as he gets caught up in the fracas between the Spirit and some crooks that he is trying to apprehend.
I then concluded my presentation with the following:
Any one of these examples taken on its own might not be seen as especially inventive or groundbreaking. Eisner and Cole were not necessarily the originators of any of these techniques, but the fact that they used them in such volume and with such aplomb in their stories made them innovators. Their works especially stand out since they were working at a time when comics were still in their infancy as an artform. Both Cole and Eisner then could be seen as the progenitors of postmodernism in comics. These artists paved the way for the experimentation with form prevalent in indie comics of the '60s and '70s, and their creations acted as predecessors and precursors to the eventual acceptance of postmodernism into the mainstream seen in the modern era of comics.
And here, by the by, is my works cited page:
Barrier, Michael and Martin Williams, eds. A Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics.
Benton, Mike. The Comic Book in
Brancatelli, Joe. “Jack Cole.” The World Encyclopedia of Comics. Ed. Maurice Horn.
- - - -. “Plastic
Cole, Jack. The Plastic Man Archives, vol. 1.
Cole, Jack. The Plastic Man Archives, vol. 2.
Couch, N. C. Christopher and Stephen Weiner. The Will Eisner Companion.
Daniels, Les. Comix: A History of Comics in
Eisner, Will. The Best of the Spirit.
- - - -. Comics and Sequential Art.
Feiffer, Jules. The Great Comic Book Heroes.
Goulart, Ron. The Comic Book Reader’s Companion.
- - - -. The Great Comic Book Artists.
Harvey, Robert C. The Art of the Comic Book: An Aesthetic History.
Spiegelman, Art and Chip Kidd. Jack Cole and Plastic
Thompson, Don. “The Rehabilitation of Eel O’Brien.” The Comic-Book Book. Eds. DonThompson and Dick Lupoff.
Thompson, Maggie. “Blue Suit, Blue Mask, Blue Gloves—And No Socks.” The Comic-Book Book. Eds. Don Thompson and Dick Lupoff.
Saturday, November 17, 2007
This time around my topic was "Plastic Man and the Spirit: Pre-Postmodern Heroes of the Golden Age." My presentation was supposed to be around twenty minutes in length, but I ended up speaking for about twenty-five. And I still had to cut stuff. For this presentation I had to do a lot more research, because I wasn't as familiar with the subject matter as in the previous week. This fact also meant that I didn't feel as confident just getting up there and winging it, so I wrote a bit more ahead of time with this one. I did a full intro and conclusion, plus a much more extensive outline of the body, complete with notes on which stories to discuss when and particular quotes from sources I might want to use.
Here then was my introduction, verbatim:
In the contemporary era of comics, the influence of postmodernism can be felt far and wide. Daniel Clowes, Charles Burns, and Kevin Huizenga spring to mind as obvious examples of indie comic artists whose works take a turn into the bizarre. More mainstream works inspired by postmodernism can easily be found in Alan Moore’s classic deconstruction of the superhero Watchmen or the metafiction of Grant Morrison’s Animal
But postmodernism’s roots in comics stretch back all the way to the medium’s infancy. Even in the Golden Age as the genre of the superhero was still forming, it was already being deconstructed. Both Jack Cole’s hero Plastic Man and Will Eisner’s infamous creation The Spirit defied the conventions of the superhero genre in every adventure they undertook, and at the same time their creators explored the ways to defy the conventions of the medium of comics and in fact all storytelling conventions as they related these adventures to eager readers.
(I chose to call this notion “pre-postmodernism” in my abstract for two reasons. First, it seems to fit in neither category as solely modern or postmodern, utilizing some modern ideas regarding form yet serving an intent that is purely postmodern. Secondly, it sounded like an interesting hook.)
So from there I dove into the body of my presentation which I had divided up into three sections: conventions of the genre of the superhero, conventions of the medium of comics, and storytelling conventions. And for each division, I broke it down further, looked at each aspect of those conventions and explored examples of how both heroes defied them.
Starting with superhero tropes, I looked at the secret identity and how neither character really had one. After the origin story of the Spirit, Denny Colt was for all intents and purposes dead, and he walked around as the Spirit all the time. Meanwhile, in Police Comics 26, Plastic Man's secret identity as criminal Eel O'Brien is discovered by his chief at the FBI, and in order to be pardoned for his crimes, he essentially must prove himself worthy by solving three unsolvable crimes in twenty-four hours. Once the task is completed, Eel is pardoned... and is no more.
I moved on to costumes then, to briefly discuss how Plastic Man's "costume" of a red leotard and sunglasses eschewed the typical cape and mask. Then I moved on to the Spirit, who of course had no costume but a domino mask. Otherwise he was just a guy in a suit, which of course how Eisner wanted it. Eisner didn't like the idea of drawing costumed heroes, and the mask was a compromise he made with his publishers.
As for origins, Plastic Man's was very unconventional. He of course started out life as a crook, but all that changed when he had the requisite accident with chemicals. Suddenly, spontaneously, and in the course of one whole panel, he decides to leave his life of crime behind and become a force for good.
As for why he makes this drastic change in character... this explanation is all we get. Just like the explanation of how he got his powers--chemicals--it's like once Cole got the result he wanted, got the story going in the direction he wanted, he just didn't care. In a story from Police Comics 24, Plas's sidekick Woozy Winks gets his powers for a day, and in the end of the story Plastic Man unzips the red and black leotard Woozy is wearing, and Woozy exclaims dejectedly that he has lost his powers. And that's it, the entire explanation of how things went back to normal. Zip, no more powers. Again, it's very much like Cole just wanted to tell his zany stories and didn't care too much about logic.
And that brings me to tone, that Plastic Man is probably the earliest example of the trickster hero. He has a lighthearted attitude toward fighting crime, like it's actually fun for him, and his victories were often rather unconventional. In his fight with Sadly Sadly, a villain whose "power" was that he made such a sad face that would make people feel so sorry for him they would give him all their money, Plastic Man defeats him... by tickling him with a feather until he laughs.
In much the same vein Eisner mixed humor with hardboiled crime stories in the Spirit's adventures. The December 1948 story "Two Lives" involves a criminal breaking out from prison, at the same time that his doppelganger runs away from a home where he is dominated by a controlling wife. The two decide to switch lives, and while the henpecked husband happily goes to jail, the escaped con lives with the domineering wife for a week or so... and tries to turn himself in to return the jail. But no one believes him and he's stuck. Meanwhile, the Spirit's victories as a hero often involved dumb luck. He would get beat up and knocked unconscious, and the criminal would make some kind of mistake to get himself apprehended or killed while the Spirit was out cold. Not very "heroic" in the end.
I'll continue on to how the characters defied the conventions of the medium and of fiction in general tomorrow. For now, this entry is long and I'm tired.
Wednesday, November 14, 2007
I didn’t write a full paper for the presentation, because I hate when people just read their papers at academic conferences. I typed up a loose outline and then added some handwritten notes, so when it was time to speak I would have a firm framework I could build off of. What follows then is a rough estimation, from my memory, of what I said when I got up there and winged it.
First, I led off with a brief overview of a major problem all English teachers have to deal with, the difficulties we have in getting students to “look closer.” Many students, especially in intro to lit courses or writing about lit courses, have an aversion to reading, and just convincing them to even open the book can be a chore in and of itself.
If they do read the material, they often want to be handed the answers. They don’t want to analyze it themselves; they want their teacher to tell them what the story means. Literature courses challenge them in ways that other classes don’t, because it’s not simply a matter of rote memorization but instead of thinking critically. They’re also guilty of looking at the literature on purely a superficial level, never moving beyond knowledge and comprehension on Bloom’s Taxonomy to deeper levels like analysis or evaluation. When they write about literature, they want to explain the story (summarize the plot or talk about the characters) rather than interpret it (explore symbolism or thematic elements of the story).
So, as I explained, to get my students thinking of literature in a new way, I bring comics into the classroom wherever I can. It’s not a revolutionary concept by any means, because if you look at any freshman composition textbook around, it’s going to have Calvin and Hobbes strips in it (or something similar) illustrating a particular point that an author wants to make. All I’m doing then is taking that same concept and enlarging it, giving them an entire story and exploring its themes.
This technique resonates with students for a number of reasons. First, it challenges their preconceived notions of what literature is. They don’t tend to think of comics as something serious worthy of study in a classroom, so simply passing these out in class does tend to get their attention. Their reactions to comics are often polarized as well. Some students love it and think it’s cool, which gets them engaged in the material, while others hate it and think it’s dumb. To those students I simply pose the question, “why?” to begin the process of metacognition.The students’ unfamiliarity with the form of comics works to my advantage as well, for it requires them to become more active readers. It takes more effort for them to read a comic page if they’re not used to following the page layout, and sometimes it even necessitates their going back to reread a few pages to grasp. It also engages their imagination more, thanks to the concept of closure that McCloud describes in his “Blood in the Gutter” chapter of Understanding Comics. Because readers of comics must fill in the gaps between the panels, they are less passive and are more involved in creating the narrative in their own minds. They move the characters around; they create the sounds and smells that fill in the background. Finally, reader identification is increased in comics over that in other media, for a cartoonish face could represent anyone, even the readers themselves, whereas a film character portrayed by an actor will always be “other.”
I then addressed those teachers willing to accept comics as part of their academic curriculum who still feel somewhat intimidated by the material due to their own unfamiliarity with the medium. Several of the instructors attending the presentation admitted to using a comic or two in their courses (frequently
Focusing on form and art style is often a step in the wrong direction, I told them, for it can make students too aware of the fact that they’re looking at artwork and thus detracts from an analysis of the story as a piece of literature. On the other hand, skimming the words in a comic and forgetting to “read” the drawings can cause the students to miss out on important details, so I urged them to make sure the students let their eyes linger a bit and don’t read too fast.
I also recommended that when teachers approach comics, they should couple a different type of literature with new pedagogy as well. Whatever methods they normally use to teach, they should try to shake things up when they bring in comics. If they normally lecture, try putting students in small groups, questioning, or whole-class discussion. Whatever methods they use, when teaching comics I find it’s important to focus on reader response first, and then use their responses as a starting point to dig further.
All of the above was set-up, essentially, for two case studies I presented involving my own experiences teaching comics. First, I discussed a day in one of my classes when I taught the Warren Ellis/Phil Jiminez Hellblazer short story “Shoot.” I had directed them to a website where they could read the story online, and then I went into my classroom the next day, sat down at the head of the class, and said, “So what did you think?” And I then only interjected a few times to call on people and facilitate; for the rest of the class period, a full fifty minutes, they led the discussion.
One of the few times I interjected was to explain the history of the story, how it was shelved by DC/Vertigo following Columbine and how that decision led to Ellis quitting the book. I then asked them how they felt about the decision, and we discussed the ethics of censorship and the restrictions on freedom of speech.
Obviously the story’s content, about an agent of the government seeking to find a cause for the recent rash of school shootings, led to discussions in class of the issues of gun control and violence in the media, especially since these issues are raised themselves by characters in the story. On page 15 of the story these are both rejected by the protagonist of the story as the central cause for the shootings, and my students addressed that dismissal. They talked about using violent video games as a way to unwind and release the tension; they explored how guns in the end are just a means to an end and not the cause of the violence itself.
They talked about who should take responsibility for these kids. Blaming the parents for not knowing what their kids are up to is pointless, my students reasoned. They each related stories of how they had fooled their parents at various times, how they had withheld information or hidden things about their lives. The students eventually came to the conclusion, as supported by the story on pages 10 and 20, that blaming any one thing is ludicrous. A variety of factors that make up the fabric of our society all contribute, and rather than looking at what to remove from their lives to “fix” the problem, we need to be looking at what we can add to their lives to give them more of a reason to live.
I then segued into a discussion of another story I teach, the Doom Patrol story “The Soul of a New Machine” by Grant Morrison and Richard Case. (If you haven’t read it, it defies easy summation, as my attempt during this presentation proved. You can check out this link if you want to read more about what the story’s about. [Long story short, Cliff Steele’s body was destroyed in an accident, and his brain was placed in a robot body. But one day, while the body is in for repairs and Cliff’s brain has been temporarily relocated to a jar, the body spontaneously gains sentience and tries to kill Cliff’s brain so that it can survive. (See what I mean? And that’s just part of the story…)])
When I teach this story I divide them into five groups and assign each group a question about the story which they have to answer among themselves and then present their explanation to their fellow students. They read the story in class, taking about 20 minutes, discuss their question amongst themselves (while I move from group to group to offer guidance) for 15 minutes, and then each group gets about three minutes to present their questions and responses to the class. It’s nowhere near enough time, since these are deep philosophical questions, but that’s kind of the point. They couldn’t answer them no matter how much time they were given; the goal is to get them to keep thinking about it after class.
Group one is assigned the question posed in the story itself: Does the body rule the mind, or does the mind rule the body? Essentially it’s asking which is more in control, our intellects or our animal instincts. In the story this question is quite literally posed when the robot body comes to life, attacking the brain, but it also is seen in Niles Caulder finding it necessary to quit his scientific work to satisfy a craving for chocolate, in The Brain’s desire to play strip chess. Many students who read the story come to the conclusion that neither one rules, that the brain and body must work in conjunction for us to not be constantly at odds with ourselves.
The second group receives the question “what is the mind?” In the story itself, the robot body asks Cliff on page 8 if his mind will live on if his brain dies or if they’re inextricably linked. This then raises questions about the nature of the soul, if it and the mind are one and the same. Cliff himself wonders this in his hallucination of his accident, as seen in the post-it note stuck to his brain. He wonders if his soul might already have departed for hell and the brain is just going through the motions of life now. My students tend to feel that the brain is the house of the mind, that they are related but distinct.
“What is humanity?” is the question I pose to group three, directing them specifically to Cliff’s character. Is a brain in a jar still a human being? Some will say no, and to those students I then ask “Is a man with a prosthetic limb still human?” When they reply affirmatively, I then ask them how much of the body must a person lose to no longer be a person, since Cliff is still a human brain in what is essentially one giant prosthetic body. I then turn them to Monsieur Mallah, one of the villains of this story, a gorilla which has been given human intelligence. Is Mallah human I ask? A lot of my students tend to say no, that it has merely been taught to mimic human behavior, but then I address them to an incident towards the end of the story in which Mallah and his master, whose brain ends up inside the robot body, kiss. I occasionally get a student who will remark that this kiss is “gay,” to which I reply that in order for it to be “gay” you MUST be thinking of Mallah as human. Otherwise, it’s bestiality.
Is the robot body alive once it can think for itself? How do we define life, simply by its physical characteristics or by sentience and independent thought? It’s a conceit they’re familiar with if they’ve approached science-fiction at all in the past, appearing in everything from The Next Generation to Short Circuit. Since the body does seem to act out of self-preservation, and has fears and desires, most students in the group assigned this question believe it is in fact alive.
The final group is given perhaps the hardest question to answer, “what is real?” In the story Cliff is essentially sensory deprived, being simply a brain in a jar, and he is prone to hallucinations. In the end, he cannot be sure that anything he has witnessed has actually happened, since he cannot trust his senses… for he has none. If the only way we know what is real is by observing the world with our senses, and our senses are damaged in some way, does this in fact alter our reality? Is it all subjective? Descartes is quoted throughout the story and of course his most famous quote is “I think; therefore, I am.” In the end, all we can be sure of is that we ourselves exist, which is why throughout this story Cliff Steele tells himself knock-knock jokes. This thought process is constant proof to him that no matter what else may seem to be happening, real or unreal, he at least still can count on his own cognizance.
I wrapped up then very quickly, as I had almost run out of time, directing those in attendance to Understanding Comics, to teachingcomics.org, and to my email address, included in all of their handouts, should they have further questions on approaching comics in the classroom. All in all, the presentation was a rousing success, as all in attendance seemed to laugh at the right spots. It also resulted in me being approached to write two different articles for a journal called Teaching English at the
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
First, the group opens a portal and fight a bunch of undead people--and bring back Shalla Bal's body, but without a soul. So they invade Death's realm, but Shalla Bal's soul is not there. So, they have to take on Mephisto with it all coming down to Warlock versus the devil basically--and who is the true master of souls. Warlock wins, Shalla Bal's soul is united with her body and everything is all great and shit.
Except the loving couple can't be together and apparently Warlock knew that this would happen and is a douchebag as a result--or because he didn't do it just to be a nice guy, but to get the Surfer to owe him one. Now, I don't really care what his motives are as he brought Shalla Bal back from the dead and, in the process, risked his life and immortal soul. Does the why really matter?
This is probably the weakest of the Starlin books I've read so far. Its plot isn't that great, the action sequences are alright and there isn't a lot of subtext. It works in that it once again shows just how powerful Adam Warlock is and how emotionless and cold he can be. It also sets up the Surfer owing him a favour.
Resurrection isn't a bad comic. It's entertaining for the most part and has a few cool moments. Starlin's use of the less-than-intelligent Drax is always good for a laugh. As is the way that Warlock goes about getting the Surfer to listen to him: he has Pip teleport Drax right into the Surfer's path, knock him off his board and then steal it.
There's also an interesting moment where Mephisto seems to lust after the Silver Surfer's soul, arguing its purity as something very desirable. However, in the years since the Surfer has been free from Galactus, his soul has gradually been tainted to the point where it lacks the purity that Mephisto craves. Apparently, Galactus continually purified the Surfer's soul in an effort to keep him loyal and not feel guilt about dooming planets. I don't know if this was mentioned before this (or if it's Starlin's idea), but it's pretty cool.
This probably could have been a Silver Surfer or Warlock & the Infinity Watch arc, but I think it got its own mini because Starlin was pulling double-duty. Probably something only completists want, but a decent enough read.
Well, I'll be taking a break from this series until some eBay orders arrive. Hopefully, Steve will fill us in on his conferences in the meantime.
Monday, November 12, 2007
One of the things I love most about The Infinity Gauntlet is that it has no tie-in issues. You want the story? You read the six issues. It follows from Thanos Quest and leads into Warlock & the Infinity Watch, but a complete story is here, ultimately. I wish more crossover events were done this way. Actually, was this considered an event at the time? I don't actually remember.
The story is very simple: Thanos has the Infinity Gauntlet and is God. Mephisto is his lacky. Death still won't speak to him. The Silver Surfer has come to Dr. Strange for help. And Adam Warlock, Pip and Gamorra have taken over the bodies of dead people.
Oops, Thanos just made half of the people in the universe disappear.
Warlock shows up finally, rallies the Earth heroes (well, the ones still alive) around him and they take the fight to Thanos, who limits himself so that he can't tell what's going to happen next, but still kicks the crap out of all of them. Warlock knows he'll slaughter the heroes, but wants Thanos distracted so the Surfer can make a grab for the gauntlet.
But, he fails.
So Thanos kills everyone, takes on the cosmic forces that rule the universe like Galactus, Chaos & Order, Love & Hate, Death, Mephisto, some Celestials, etc. Yeah, Thanos kills them. And then he kills Eternity, the embodiment of the universe and takes his place.
Except then his zombie granddaughter steals the gauntlet from his comotose body, because Thanos is an idiot.
So, everyone regroups, takes on Nebula and, eventually, Adam Warlock uses his relationship with the soul gem to fuck up the gauntlet (as she is not used to the power), she drops it, everyone goes for it and Warlock gets it. Thanos seemingly dies, except really becomes a farmer and Adam Warlock is God, fuck anyone who says otherwise.
Pretty simple plot, but a well-executed one. Spread out over six double-sized issues, Starlin and Perez/Lim manage to give it the epic feel it requires by checking in on a lot of characters, showing reactions to the same events, and, well, giving some balls out fights. Issue four is basically Thanos versus Marvel superheroes. For forty pages. And it never feels drawn out or padded or anything. If anything, the conflict is far too brief--and not in the way you would think. If you have Thor, Hulk, Captain America, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Drax, Cyclops, Quasar, Namor, She-Hulk, Dr. Doom, Firelord, Vision, Nova, Scarlet Witch and Cloak against Thanos, you would imagine Thanos wouldn't have a chance. Or, at least, the heroes would do some damage.
Well, no. He slaughters them. The battle is brief because each hero gets maybe a page or two, but Thanos just beats the shit out of them. It's 40 pages of him killing your favourite heroes without even trying. It also has one of my favourite covers of all time:
We also get an explanation for how Thanos keeps losing: he wants to. As Warlock points out, we've seen him this close to victory three times now and all three times, he fucks it up. Thanos subconsciously doesn't think he deserves to win. It's a nice little piece of info Starlin throws at us to explain why such an intelligent and powerful villain keeps losing.
As well, I've noted before how the regular Marvel heroes are useless in Starlin's stories and here is no different. Issue four, as I said, is them getting slaughtered. Up until that point, they do nothing and after, at best, they distract Nebula. Starlin doesn't just use Adam Warlock, he demonstrates why Warlock is better suited for these problems than the heroes we usually read, and why his stories are unique. Yes, Captain America is great, but having determination and grit means shit against Thanos, because Thanos is out of his league. In the same way, you wouldn't have Adam Warlock fight the Red Skull, because the fight would last the amount of time it takes Warlock to use the soul gem on the Nazi bastard. Starlin uses stories like The Infinity Gauntlet to create a hierarchy of power within the Marvel universe and demonstrate that, yes, stories must be geared towards and come out of characters. You can't just take a character and toss them into any story for the hell of it.
This series also has the distinction of finalising (for a while, at least), Thanos' obsession with Death. After this, he doesn't pursue her for another decade or so. Maybe it's when she betrays him and joins forces with the other cosmic beings that does it. Maybe it's when she won't speak to him despite his every effort to win her over. I don't know. Maybe Thanos realised that she's just not that into him. Whatever it is, good for him. There is the creepy moment where Thanos creates a female version of himself to make Death jealous, while we can see the pain in his eyes.
Starlin continues to use the mind as the primary battle ground for his characters here. Thanos loses because of his subconscious desire to fail. Nebula loses because her mind isn't powerful enough to handle the power. Warlock wins through intelligence and strategy. Physical power is useless, as is cosmic power and magic. The key is the mind.
This series also does not suffer from Perez only doing three-and-a-half issues. Lim does a great job finishing the series and manages to make his art blend well enough with Perez that there isn't a jarring shift. That's either a testament to Lim or a criticism of Perez--I'll go with the former.
Tomorrow, I'll jump ahead a little to Silver Surfer/Warlock: Resurrection as it takes place outside of tight continuity. Before I go on to The Infinity War, I want to discuss the issues of Warlock & the Infinity Watch that connect Infinity Gauntlet to it. So, I'll probably put this series on hold until my order containing that series arrives. Give Steve a chance to discuss some conferences.
For now I wanted to share some info about two upcoming conferences which I might be attending in the spring, for the purpose of... well, letting Chad know to see if he wanted to submit anything to one or both of them as well.
The first conference is held in conjunction with Wondercon in San Francisco during the last weekend of February. Their website is woefully out of date, since it doesn't even mention this year's conference at San Francisco, only last year's at San Diego. But I'm told by the coordinator, Peter Coogan, that the deadline for submissions is the end of November. If you want more info I can forward his email on to you; just let me know.
The other is held annually in Gainesville, Florida, and it focuses on a different theme each year. In past years it dealt with images of childhood in comics and world-building. This year the focus is on gender, sex, and sexuality. The conference is Easter weekend, March 21-22 2008, and the deadline for submissions is December 1st. For more info, check out this call for papers.
I've already submitted a paper to the one in SF, and I am currently trying to decide about the one in Gainesville, although I'm leaning towards going. More details on the abstracts I submitted (and whether or not they were accepted) in a future post.
(What do you think, Chad? Any interest?)
Friday, November 09, 2007
The shop here in Windsor's debit was down, so I had to rely on the cash I had on me. Thankfully, there were only five books that I wanted and I managed to walk away with seven cents in change. Really just a coincidence that I had just enough cash on me to cover it.
The Immortal Iron Fist #10
Wow, the cover price for this issue is $2.99US/$3.05CAN... Marvel adjusted it. Sure, the prices should be reversed now, but I must say I'm impressed. Of course, that's the only thing about the cover that impresses me as they only had one copy left and it was the zombie variant.
As for the issue, Danny Rand doesn't appear at all and it's still an awesome comic. I'm loving this tournament and the characters Fraction, Brubaker and Aja have created. And, as... someone noted elsewhere, Fat Cobra is a great character. Okay, not really a great character as all he does in this issue is demand that he be given ten--no, TWENTY--women that he can have sex with while drinking Davos under the table. Nice little bit there.
Mighty Avengers #5
If I learned one thing in this issue, it's this: superheroes are assholes to one another now that they work for the government. They're snippy and sarcastic and generally "fuck off, you don't know shit the way I know shit." Government work is evil.
My favourite part was how Cho subtly altered the Sentry's appearance to suggest the Void having an influence over him.
The Boys #11
Ennis writes Russians well. Funny part where Hughie drinks insane vodka while everyone else (save the giant Russian) dumps it out--the Russian's reaction of "UIQTE A KICK, LITTLE HUGHIE! WILL PUT HAIR UP THE SHAFT OF YOUR COCK!" makes me giggle.
The Death of the New Gods #1-2
And you thought you would escape Jim Starlin today. Silly, reader. The writing is pretty average, but I'm a sucker for those moments of Starlin just doing what he does. The final two pages of the first issue where Mr. Miracle reacts to finding Barda dead is such a moment. Over-the-top narration, lots of panels, hints of madness--that's what it's all about. He does it again in the second issue with Mr. Miracle sitting there as the JLA investigates. He just repeats the same panel over and over again, throwing some narration over them. Scott's struggle to resist using the Anti-Life Equation to bring her back is well done.
The story itself is interesting enough. I do like how Starlin references Cosmic Odyssey, a story he wrote and Mike Mignola drew that, well, only he remembers probably. I'll probably discuss this entire series when it's over in more detail.
Got this trade a week or two back as part of my attempt to get all of Bendis' Avengers-related stuff. It's a fine story, but didn't really wow me. I think I wanted more of the fight in Latveria. The story seemed to suffer from the attempt to create a mystery about the whole thing when a more straight-forward story about the same events could have been better. I do like how Bendis points out that a plane containing Steve Rogers, Luke Cage, Matt Murdock, Peter Parker and Logan looks suspicious to us, but wouldn't to anyone else because who the fuck are half of those people?
Doctor 13: Architecture & Mortality
Got this on Tuesday with the Gødland "celestial" edition hardcover. This collection was subject to a lot of discussion when it came out, because it has lots of goofy fun, metafiction and questions about what characters work, etc. All sorts of fun for bloggers. Eh, it didn't wow me as much as I thought it would. It had some nice moments, but... well, I hate to be nit-picky, but the Grant Morrison stuff bothered me. It shouldn't since it wasn't meant seriously or anything, but is there any writer more devoted to using any and all characters no matter how stupidly lame when possible than him? Just saying. (Sure, he JUST killed Doctor 13 in the first issue of Zatanana, but, er, shut up.) It's a nice little story, but just didn't do it for me.
On Monday... The Infinity Gauntlet.
Thursday, November 08, 2007
Starlin throws in the odd fight scene because it's a superhero comic, but it's really just one long story about Mar-Vell dying and how people react. Rick Jones is angry, Spider-Man can't deal with it, a Skrull presents Mar-Vell with a medal for being such a worthy foe, and there are a bunch of other people, too.
The bit that hit me the most (and I loved as a kid the most) is the actual process Mar-Vell goes through when he dies. Mar-Vell, bed-ridden and surrounded by friends, dies in his sleep, except to introduce what happens in his mind, Starlin, over five panels, slowly morphs Mar-Vell's face into that of Thanos. Thanos, last seen as a statue basically, comes to life and finds Mar-Vell in bed alone. He doesn't like seeing Mar-Vell weak, so he gets him up and in costume and they fight in a weird netherzone. And then, all of Mar-Vell's dead enemies attack him, including a version of himself. He then confronts Death and embraces her/it--the trio (Mar-Vell, Thanos and Death) go into the light--and, in the real world, he dies.
It's unusual (especially then) for a hero to die in such a way, which is what a few characters say. One of the reasons why this story is so powerful is that very reason: superheroes don't die from cancer or something so, sadly, normal and ordinary. They die in spectacularly stupid, grandoise ways that make for interesting reading, but little emotion often. One thing that Marvel has done right is not resurrecting Mar-Vell--although, they kind of did that during Civil War, eh? I know, I know, death isn't permanent in comics, but this one always seemed like it should be that one tha never gets undone.
The question that occurs to me is the nature of the fantasy at the end. Was it all created by Mar-Vell's mind? Is that what actually happened? Did Thanos really come and usher Mar-Vell's soul into Death's realm? Interesting choices.
The Thanos Quest is probably my favourite Thanos story. This is Thanos at his most focused, devious, intelligent and passionate. During Starlin's run on Silver Surfer, Death brought Thanos back to life so that he could correct what she sees as an unbalance: at the current time, more people live in the universe than have died combined. She wants the number of the living to be less than the number of the dead as the latter is cumulative--so, she has charged Thanos with the task of killing half of the universe's population. Sounds simple, eh?
The two-issue prestige-format mini begins with Thanos gazing into the infinity well and getting the idea to obtain the six Infinity Gems (Thanos names them that after determining the function of each, ony one of them being the soul gem). He gets Death's permission to do so and off he goes to confront six beings more powerful than himself in the hopes of walking away with the most precious items in the universe. A fool in love, you know?
In his trip to his first destination, Starlin sets up just how good Thanos is. He travels on a flying chair, basically. On one page, there is a panel of him flying through some weird dimension taking up a slim column of the left side of the page. The rest is nine panels, all straight-on shots of Thanos from the next up. In the first, third, fifth, seventh and ninth panels, he's normal. In the second, his face is warped; in the fourth, he is crystaline; in the sixth, he melts; and, in the eighth, he shatters. His narration reads:
"My trek takes me through strange myriad dimensions. / Inconceivable realities. / Different planes of existence exert different influences. / A spiritually and physically taxing experience. / For a lesser being this would be a fatal endeavor. / But Thanos endures as always. / Reality, like all outside influences... / ...has minimal effect on my being. / I always hold true to my self. / For I am Thanos... / ...a unique being in any reality."
Right there is the moment where we learn that Thanos will succeed. It also sets up the idea that Thanos really is someone to fear. Starlin plays with this idea in future projects, revealing why Thanos can (and does) lose if he's so powerful.
His first target is the In-Betweener, a prisoner of Lord Chaos and Master Order and possessor of the soul gem. Thanos pretends to betray Death and help free the In-Betweener (who plans on killing Thanos right away), except the In-Betweener finds himself powerless outside of his cell as Chaos and Order were kind enough to allow his power to work while imprisoned, but nowhere else. Thanos takes the gem and leaves the In-Betweener to suffer the wrath of his captors.
Thanos is then confronted by Death (always speaking through a thrall) about his seeming betrayal, but convinces her of his intentions. Except, he's lying. His goal in obtaining the Infinity Gems isn't to be Death's servant more effectively, he's hoping that the power of the gems will put him on par with Death, making their love possible.
His next stop, the Champion--who he beats the shit out of and angers to the point where the Champion destroys the planet they're on. Thanos then trades passage to another planet for the power gem--and then uses his tractor beam to simply toss the Champion in the direction of a planet, as he never promised a soft landing.
The last stop in this issue is the Gardener, another Elder of the Universe. The Gardener knows why Thanos is there and tries to kill him, but Thanos counters and kills the Gardener, using the power gem to turn the Gardener's own abilities against him by increasing them beyond control. Thanos takes the time gem and prepares to collect the final six.
In the second issue, Thanos takes on the Runner, possessor of the space gem. The Runner is basically a gold guy who runs through space. Knowing that he can't match the Runner's speed, Thanos allows himself to be seemingly defeated and baits the Runner into pausing to boast--which allows Thanos to use the time gem to turn this immortal Elder into an old man (he may be immortal, but not ageless) and then just take the space gem. He then turns the Runner into a baby and gives him to another elder, the Collector in exchange for the mind gem, which the Collector thinks worthless--only because it requires imagination and thought, which Thanos argues the Collector has none of. To further show what an utter bastard Thanos is, just as he leaves, the Runner returns to his proper age and beats the shit out of the Collector.
That leaves only the Grand Master, possessor of the reality gem. The two enter into a wager where the winner of a virtual reality game will gain all of the gems. The game is basically a one-on-one shooter where the Grand Master resorts to cheating to defeat Thanos. Except, it's not Thanos--it's a robot and the Grand Master just lost and is left mindless.
With all of the gems, Thanos is now a god and we get six pages of splashes, each devoted to a specific gem. The time gem's page shows Thanos' head at various stages of aging; space has Thanos' face made up of various element in space; mind has Thanos' head open at the top and various men tied to the inside of his head, imprisoned; power shows a silver Thanos roaring with anger and a weird energy pattern in his eyes and mouth; soul has his head made up of the bodies of hundreds of humanoids; and reality contains those five images plus more.
He returns to Death's realm triumphant and ready to take his place by her side. He creates a throne identical to hers and speaks of his newfound power and the reasons why he risked so much to obtain them...
And she still won't speak to him directly. Now, he is as above her as she was him before he had the gems. It would be improper for her to speak to one so powerful directly. Thanos' response is to shred the thrall that speaks for Death and sulk away.
We are left with him at the infinity well, reflecting that he could force Death to speak to him directly and to love him, but that would be meaningless. He's ponders how he could have miscalculated so greatly and the final panel is him shedding a single tear with the narraion, "Who could have guessed that becoming God would prove to be such a hollow victory?"
This is Thanos at his best and worst. His best is how he is able to confront six beings, all more powerful than him, and defeat each and every one of them, often using their own arrogance or thoughtlessness against them. He plans every strategy ahead of time and executes each with precision and skill. Is it any wonder that whenever the Avengers try to take him on, they're completely useless?
He's at his worst, because his ultimate goal isn't power or victory over his enemies--his ultimate goal is the love of a woman who will never love him. He has tried numerous times in the past to win Death's love and failed. This time, he goes beyond anything he's done before and wins the biggest victory possible, only to be rejected again. Here we see Thanos' biggest flaw: he pursues Death's love the way he attacks his enemies. He creates a logical strategy and executes it--but love isn't logical and can't be attacked like that. He never succeeds because, while driven by passion and emotion, he always acts with intellect and cold reason.
Or, it could just be that Death is a bitch. Here we have a guy who basically worships her, will do anything he can for her, risks it all to prove himself and she won't even speak to him. The guy becomes God to prove himself and she doesn't even have the decency to say a single word to him! That is some cold shit right there. It reminds me of the situation where you have the geeky guy (and Thanos is a total geek) who likes a girl, so he does all sorts of nice things for her, helps her study, does everything he can to be a decent guy so she'll like him--but then she goes out with some asshole. Mainly because most people don't want to be with someone who just kisses their ass. But still, a subtle criticism of both men and women there, I think.
This all leads into one of Marvel's best "event stories" of all time, The Infinity Gauntlet, which I'll discuss tomorrow.
Wednesday, November 07, 2007
But, anyway, I'll finish up my look at jim Starlin's original run on Warlock in the '70s by discussing Thanos' role in the whole thing. He appears throughout, but in two roles: first as Warlock's ally and then as his enemy.
He first appears to rescue Warlock from the Magus, at which point, the two fight side by side (along with Gamorra and Pip the Troll) and only after Thanos has saved Warlock and proven himself an able ally does Starlin actually tell us who Thanos is. If you knew who he was ahead of time, obviously, there's no surprise, but to a new reader who had never encountered Thanos before, this is a bit of a shock. He is introduced as a seeming good guy, but then you learn he's an insane tyrant who wants to rule the universe in order to impress Death. Starlin reveals Thanos' past to us by having Captain Marvel tell us what happened--but also shows us how he is still alive. Last we saw, Thanos was supposedly dead, but after Captain Marvel destroyed the cosmic cube, his consciousness simply returned to his body.
Thanos' role is to distract the Magus and subtly change events, so that nothing can stand in his way. His involvement creates an interesting moral dilemma for the reader as here we have two seemingly evil people in the Magus and Thanos, but they're on opposite sides. We cheer for Warlock and, by association, Thanos--except, as I noted yesterday, we're quie possibly wrong in doing so. Thanos' involvement should immediately suggest that Warlock is doing the wrong thing and should actually embrace his future as the Magus.
Later, Thanos does his standard thing and tries to take over the universe, this time using the six soul gems (or, as they're called now, the infinity gems). Here, he puts them all in one giant gem and doesn't quite realise their potential. Warlock is killed along with Gamorra and Pip. The Avengers, Spider-Man and the Thing all get involved, but are largely ineffectual as they often are. Actually, strangely enough, the only earth hero that really does anything is Spider-Man, who somehow brings Warlock back to life as a fiery being who kills Thanos. It's an odd story that contains lots of action, but most of it meaningless.
This is, perhaps, the only example of Thanos losing where it isn't really his fault. The only blame he can shoulder here is not fully realising the potential of the gems. Otherwise, the temporary resurrection of Adam Warlock by Spider-Man is a complete surprise and not something one would plan for. Something that Starlin himself overlooks in The Death of Captain Marvel is that Thanos isn't actually dead, but trapped inside his stone body. The ultimate tragedy of the character here is that, even in failure, he does not receive Death's embrace. The actual role of Death here is far less than every other Thanos story, but there is the subtle hint at the idea of Thanos' love still going unrequited.
In the end, Warlock is trapped in the soul gem with Pip and Gamorra, content with his life now. He's in an ideal world and no longer feels the pressures of being a universal saviour. His last words to Thanos are that he could not rest while Thanos was a threat to his universe, referring to it possessively--but that's contrasted with his contentment at no longer playing that role. Starlin loves paradoxical characters with conflicting motivations and desires.
I've skipped over a lot of fantastic stuff Starlin does in Warlock, especially the bit with the clowns and the metafiction, but as most of that was covered by Douglas Wolk, no need for me to repeat it.
Sorry for the short posts, but life has just been getting in the way. Tomorrow, I'll cover The Death of Captain Marvel and Thanos Quest since both are short. That will mean Friday will be Infinity Gauntlet day. Oh, the fun.
Tuesday, November 06, 2007
The copies I have of this work is the 1982 six-issue reprint series Marvel released because of the direct market and a differing audience from the newsstand. This six-issue series was rereleased in 1992 around the time Warlock & the Infinity Watch was launched, capitalising on the success of Infinity Gauntlet. Tracking down either one of these series is probably your best bet if you want these comics (I suggest Mile High Comics as that's where I ordered my copies--and a quick check reveals they have copies of everything except #5 of the 1982 reprint and multiple copies of all six issues of the 1992 one).
At the beginning of his run, Starlin quickly gets the reader up to speed with the history of Adam Warlock: created by scientists, worshipped as a god on another planet, fought Thor, maybe all of that in a different order, I don't know, because it doesn't matter really. Actually, the worshipped as a god thing does, because Starlin uses that to inform much of Warlock's character--and set up the contract between Warlock and Magus. In the first chapter of the story, Warlock first learns of the Universal Church of Truth when a woman is killed for being a heretic and he is unable to save her. The church is a large organisation that is supposedly founded on love and peace--but only to those who subscribe to that belief system and are humanoid. Here, Warlock encounters the church's god, the Magus--and learns that the Magus is him, except with a giant afro.
At first, Warlock is unsure of his relationship with Magus. He recognises and knows they are the same person, but how? Is Magus a part of his soul somehow made external? Are they linked together? Will killing Magus mean his death as well? When Warlock eventually confronts Magus, he learns that Magus is his future self driven insane and sent back thousands of years into the past. And everything he does only drives him closer to becoming the Magus--a fact that Magus repeats over and over again as Warlock does whatever he can to somehow stop Magus. It all happened to Magus this way, so...
Here, Starlin critiques orgaised religion, specifically Christianity, using Warlock as a Christ figure and Magus as a perversion of that. Especially as Warlock has already rejected the role Magus now embraces. Before this, Warlock gives numerous speeches about how people should stand on their own and not follow the word of others--how we should lead ourselves rather than be led by another. Even when the Magus is eventually defeated and removed from the timeline completely, his church is replaced with another--nothing has changed really, other than Warlock not becoming the false savior he fears becoming.
Throughout this, Starlin also does something interesting by having Thanos assist Warlock. It is later revealed that Warlock was, quite possibly, on the wrong side, that he should have become the Magus as planned. Despite his flaws, Magus was ultimately on the side of life and was a threat to Thanos who, as we already know, is devoted to Death. In defeating Magus, Warlock helps Thanos and works against life, which he strives to preserve. He fails to see that maybe the best way to do so is to actually step up and take control. We're never given a definitive answer as none is to be found, but Starlin provides and subtle and nuanced problem here.
When I was reading up on Starlin, I came across an interview where he talks about how Warlock was basically a paranoid schizophrenic version of Jesus. One of Warlock's sources of strength is his soul gem, which is sentient and can absorb the souls of others. Throughout the series, Warlock struggles against its wishes to absorb souls, decrying it as a vampire. Not only that, but when Warlock uses the gem to absorb souls, he gains access to their memories. One of the most terrifying moments of the series is when he absorbs the soul of a member of the church, a judge he sees as corrupt and evil, but upon receiving his soul, he learns that this seemingly evil man was really a good guy who was just doing what he thought right and moral. Warlock, like Jesus, takes the souls of people, but they work to drive him mad--and add to the voices in his head. One missed opportunity that I'm surprised Starlin didn't play with more is when Warlock absorbs the soul of his future self to destroy the Magus. That seems like the perfect opportunity to play with the concept of multiple personalities as then he would have a second, more advanced version of himself in his head.
As well, in the second story, Warlock faces off against an entity called the Star Thief--basically, a human born without any senses, so his mind becomes very powerful and he uses that power to destroy the universe because he's pissed off at humanity for not connecting to him or something--and, at one moment, he absorbs a piece of the Star Thief's soul. However, this isn't followed up really. For the most part, Starlin manages to remain consistent, but in those two instances, there's a lack, I think.
The theme of enlightenment is big in Warlock as the Magus is essentially an enlightened Warlock, one who has realised his potential and embraces it. As he is the villain, we assume this is false enlightenment, but the revelation that Magus is a champion of life throws that into doubt. It raises the idea that maybe there is no true or false enlightenment, just enlightenment, which is a subjective experience. The fact that the Magus sees himself as enlightened is what matters, not if we agree with his analysis of the situation.
The Star Thief seems a different take on enlightenment as he contains a mind so powerful it can destroy stars and control matter, but he uses it for meaningless revenge. Enlightenment here is false and also problematic, suggesting that a more grounded position is better, that we need all of the minor, mundane events to distract and give us things to do or else we'll simply become bored and destroy everything. As well, if he is so enlightened, why would he care about destroying humanity? Wouldn't he realise why they found it impossible to connect with a person who is deaf, blind, mute, cannot taste and cannot feel? Is his brain so powerful yet unable to process the simplest of logical problems?
Tomorrow, I'll conclude my look at Warlock by focusing on Thanos, and possibly also discuss The Death of Captain Marvel.
Monday, November 05, 2007
Jim Starlin's three-decades-long work on Marvel's cosmic books began in 1972 in Iron Man #55 where he introduced Thanos, Drax the Destroyer, Mentor and Eros (Starfox). Starlin said he introduced the characters then mostly because he wasn't sure he would ever get another opportunity to do so. The Life & Death of Captain Marvel collects Starlin's work on the character, first as artist and co-writer, and then when he took over the writing chores completely. The issue of Iron Man serves as a prologue.
Starlin does an interesting thing in the issue as he begins with a splash page of Drax--a hulking green alien with a purple costume (including a skullcap and a cape with a gold belt with skulls on it)--imprisoned in mechanical bonds at his wrists, glowing with energy and shouting things about death and desctruction--all directed at Iron Man. Now, we learn later that this "Drax the Destroyer" is, in fact, a hero, but Starlin does a nice fake-out as everything about this page suggests that Drax is a villain including his name. His warning for Iron Man is about a pair of brown aliens that we see beating the crap out of him called the Blood Brothers. Iron Man hears the warning telepathically, which imples the mechanical bonds we see Drax in are not imprisoning him, but part of his villainous plot--some sort of weird alien machine that will destroy the world or something.
Quick complaint before I continue. Apparently, The Life & Death of Captain Marvel was recoloured by a group called VLM and, well, they did a piss-poor job. Now, I don't know what "recolour" means in this case. It could simply be touching things up so the same old colours look solid on this glossy paper. But, if they went back and actually recoloured everything from scratch, they really just did a horrible job. In the Iron Man issue, Thanos looks pink. I opened up just now to a random page and his skin is blue. BLUE! There are dozens of weird mistakes like that throughout, which leads me to question exactly what was done. If I didn't know better, I would think these were the original colours from the comics, that's how poor and inconsistent they are throughout the trade. Now, obviously, recolouring the comics in a similar fashion to modern comics would be stupid and would look even worse. Recolouring comics from the '70s requires a simple touch in that the use of colours is pretty basic--but they should be consistent and complete. Eros appears on two covers of the original issues--and isn't coloured properly in either. In one, his hair is the wrong colour and, in the other, his costume is. I am mystified at what happened here. If it weren't for the fact that Marvel specifically points out that this collection is "newly re-colored," I probably wouldn't say anything, but I must wonder how much money Marvel wasted getting results this shoddy. Of course, they could mean that the old plates of these comics needed to be restored for this new edition, but that's not the same as recolouring--that's restoration. If that is what they mean, then I merely shift the blame from partially VLM's to completely Marvel's, because then it is simply false advertising that not only makes them look bad, but VLM as well.
Okay, back to the actual comics...
Actually, these comics aren't that great. They suffer a lot from the times, but Starlin makes a good go at it. The basic plot for most of the Captain Marvel issues is that Thanos needs the cosmic cube, so he can rule the universe or something. To do this, he need Rick Jones, the only human who knows (subconsciously) where the cube is. Except, Jones is bonded to Captain Marvel where only one can exist in our universe while the other is in the Negative Zone. And Thanos succeeds, because, well, Rick Jones is kind of shit.
In the process, Captain Marvel obtains cosmic awareness, gets blonde hair and manages to defeat Thanos when Thanos just leaves the cosmic cube laying around after declaring that he no longer needs it as he's sucked all of the energy out of it. Yeah, he lied. But, Thanos existing as a being of pure energy only to forget that events in the corporeal world can still affect him will actually show up again a couple of decades later. As will an explanation for why Thanos is such a shitty villain--in that he always wins and then does something to sabotage himself like leaving the cosmic cube out in the open for Captain Marvel to smash. Tacked on after that story is one issue where Captain Marvel fights Nitro and the seeds for his death are planted--but we'll get to his death in a couple of days.
These issues have some interesting moments and lay out a few of the themes and tropes Starlin will continually explore in his work. The first is his use of psychology, which is how Thanos' minions (Super-Skrull and some other Skrull) attack Marvel/Jones. They use their shapeshifting powers to continually assault Marvel as various foes (alive and dead) until they finally appear as Marvel and Rick Jones, seemingly blowing Marvel's mind. Turns out, he was faking, but it is an odd way to go about attacking a hero.
In one sequence, Drax finally comes face-to-face with Thanos, the man he was created to kill and the two battle in psychic warfare (called "TIME-MIND SYNC-WARP" which is an awesome name and something I wish Thanos would still use) where Thanos is victorious. In these few pages, Starlin plays around with page layouts and representation of battle within the mind. The final page of their battle is laid out in a very strange way. There is a border of five panels by five panels. The five top ones depict Drax going from normal to twisted as the camera closes in on his eye. The bottom five do the same for Thanos, but begin with the twisted eye and return to normal. On the left, the first panels of Drax and Thanos make-up the first and last panels of those five--the other three show an eye in space as we pull away. On the right, Drax/Thanos take up a panel each while the remaining three depict a hand crushing a red planet. In the middle of the page are various panels of characters and worlds and odd images--some of which are split in two and separate by three or four panels.
One of Thanos' aides is the Controller, a weird looking guy who uses devices to control minds, again demonstrating that the way to victory is not brute force but a superior mind. However, strangely enough, the Controller is also super-strong--and is ultimately defeated through strength.
Another idea that Starlin first advances here is the uselessness of the traditional Marvel heroes in these types of stories. In nearly every one of Starlin's cosmic tales, the Avengers eventually show up and do nothing of consequence. They try to fight Thanos and get defeated with ease. At best, they distract Thanos while the real hero (Captain Marvel here, but usually Adam Warlock) is able to defeat him; at worst, they just get beat on. I'm not sure if Starlin was told to use these characters here, but I imagine that was the case in stuff like Infinity Gauntlet and Infinity War where the heroes are utterly useless.
The most notable thing of these stories is Thanos as he is the character that is the common trait throughout all of Starlin's cosmic work at Marvel pretty much. The Thanos we get here isn't quite the one we're used to. Here, Death is more an ally than an object of affection--but that element of the relationship is there. The Thanos/Death relationship is, by far, the most consistent, brutal, and strangely subtle (mostly because no one ever seems to notice it) criticism of women I think I've read in comics. Death never comes off looking good. Here, when Thanos is defeated, she laughs with glee. In every story, Thanos is just a guy in love, doing his best to prove himself, and, in every story, Death rebuffs him somehow. I'll get into this in more detail later, but if Thanos is the common character of Starlin's work, the relationship with Death is at the heart of that character until the end of Infinity Gauntlet.
Captain Marvel's cosmic awareness is also something that Starlin tends to play with in his work--the concept of enlightenment. Here, Marvel is given it by Eon and it doesn't actually change him much. He gains a new perspective and makes an attempt at pacifism from time to time, but even Marvel points out it's nothing beyond a slight costume change and a blonde dye job. You get the sense that Starlin was trying for something meaningful, but didn't quite know where to go with it. It's an idea he struggles with throughout these comics: what is enlightenment? And, especially, once gained, how does one sustain it? Marvel can't, because he's quickly drawn back into regular fights he knows are pointless--he even uses his new awareness to fight better.
While "The Life of Captain Marvel" is the weakest of the Starlin comics I've read here, they contain a lot of the ideas and characters he will develop throughout his career, laying the foundation for much of what's to come.
Tomorrow, I'll look at his run on Warlock (which may continue on to Wednesday as well, I don't know).