Tagged: fantasy

By Night, Vol. 1 by Allison, Larsen, and Stern

I am unabashedly a John Allison fan; I’ll say that up front. I may not have been quite as much of a long-term Allison fan as some — I discovered him around the time Scarygoround begat Bad Machinery, if I remember correctly — but I’ve been reading his stuff for a decade or two and writing about it here for nearly as long.

So if I say that his new-ish series By Night , whose first volume I just read, is slightly disappointing, I want to be clear that I mean that I am not gushing about it in the manner I usually do for Allison projects. It’s fun and zippy and quirky and interesting; it’s a good comic. It’s just not as Allisonian (at least to me) as I hoped.

So, now that I’ve just deflated the whole thing before I even started, what is this By Night comic, anyway?

Well, it’s written by Allison, as I implied. Art is by Christine Larsen (probably best known for a stint on the Adventure Time comic; possessor of an awesome website with lots of excellent art) with colors by Sarah Stern (whose website is only very slightly less awesome). It began in mid-2018 and seems to have ended with issue #12.

It’s about two young women, former friends from school who meet again in their dead-end town in their mid-twenties and go on a quirky supernatural adventure together, eventually pulling in a larger cast of oddballs from that town. So far, it sounds very Allisonian.

But the town in question in By Night is Spectrum, South Dakota, and Allison is exceptionally British. (One might even say quintessentially so.) There are other parts of By Night that made my editor’s red-pen hand twitch, but the core of my uneasiness is that Allison’s dialogue and phrasing here is often not quite American, while also not quite being as sprightly and clever as his usual. He is definitely aiming to write Americans, and it was a grand experiment…I just think that it doesn’t play to his strengths.

Anyway, Jane Langstaff is the studious, serious one and Heather Meadows is the free-wheeling wild child (as we have seen often before in Allison’s work). They meet up again in this dying town, and Heather convinces Jane to go along on her mad scheme to investigate the newly-unprotected Charleswood Estate, which was once the commercial heart of the town, back before its founder and driving force disappeared mysteriously. They go there, and discover a portal to an alternate world populated with fantasy creatures and various dangers, wandering in and out a couple of times, guided by a goofball local, and…well, that’s about it in these four issues.

I assume there’s a larger story about that mysterious founder, and probably Deep Secrets about the fantasy world, and these issues have plenty of plot, but it doesn’t end up going in ways that makes much of a story. Things happen, then other things happen, and a few more people learn about the portal — but what, if anything, any of that means isn’t clear at this point.We also don’t see much of the fantasy world; the story tends to cut away from it to go back to our world — either because Allison is more interested in the real-world end, because he’s setting up for a bigger reveal later, or just because, I can’t say.

There’s one more collection available, of the next four issues, and I expect a third will be forthcoming to finish it up. (Well, maybe I hope it will be forthcoming; from the publication schedule, I would have expected it last fall.) I plan to see where this goes; it’s not a long story, and the creators are all doing good work. So I reserve the right to later say that I’ve changed my mind, and this is just as awesome as other Allison works. That would be a nice outcome, actually: I want to love things.

If you’re less of an Allison fan than I am, I wouldn’t pick this as your entry point. Giant Days or his webcomics (which have the advantage of being free) are much better for that. But if you want to see how he handles Americans: here you go.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

Mage: The Hero Denied Vol. 2 and/or 6 by Matt Wagner

So this is the end, huh? After thirty-some years and around twelve hundred pages of comics, Matt Wagner’s comics fantasy autobiography is done.

(If you don’t know what I’m talking about, the earlier pieces are the two volumes of Mage: The Hero Discovered  from the mid-80s, the two volumes of Mage: The Hero Defined  from the late ’90s, and the prior collection of this 2017 series.)

Almost anything I could say here would be spoilers of one sort or another, so I will try to be vague without being totally pointless. Mage: The Hero Denied, Vol. 6  has a confusing volume number — it’s the second half of Hero Denied, and only number six of the overall series — and should encompass the lowest point of hero Kevin Matchstick and then his triumphant conclusion.

It does that, reasonably well, and gives space for the rest of Kevin’s fictional family to shine: wife Magda, son Hugo and daughter Miranda. They’re not allowed to be heroic in the same way Kevin is, perhaps because they are not comics-makers in the real world, and so can’t actually fight nasties in the metaphor the way he can. But they’re active, and useful, and not just people who Kevin needs to save — which is nice. He’s the one who has to do the important stuff, since he’s the one who looks like Wagner.

The metaphor is still very vague: I don’t think each series is meant to be about a specific comics project or time in Wagner’s life; just a transmutation of “sitting at a table writing words and drawing lines” into “wacking evil with a baseball bat just like the characters he draws.” And the Big Evil of all three series is the same: the middle book was slightly different, in a generational way, but Denied goes back to the original Big Bad. And the Big Bad doesn’t relate to the real-world end of the metaphor at all: there’s no force or entity conspiring to stop comics creators, unless it’s something universal like Death or Entropy or Watching Cat Videos Instead.

Also, at the end of this story Kevin Matchstick is explicitly done with heroing. I want to leave it vague exactly as to why, but that’s another way the metaphor diverges strongly from Wagner’s own life — his own kids are old enough to collaborate with him on comics (his son Brennan colors this book), and he’s clearly still working.

In the end, Mage is much more superhero comic than it is transmuted autobiography. It’s the story of a guy who looks like Matt Wagner but does comic-book stuff instead of creating comic-book stuff. And Wagner is not the kind of creator, it appears, that cares about digging into the wellsprings of creation to tell stories about that act: his shtick, like most of modern commercial comics, is making pretty pictures of people hitting each other until the world is saved.

So, after three stories and more than a thousand pages, Mage ends up as just decent superhero comics with a vague mythological shell and a this-is-me conceit that doesn’t go much deeper than the surface. It might still be too weird for a lot of superhero-comics fans, because they are stunted and blinkered individuals, but sucks to their assmar.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

Book-A-Day 2018 #368: Michael Moorcock’s Elric: The Balance Lost, Vol. 1 by Roberson, Biagini, and Downer

I looked at a Michael Moorcock “Eternal Champion” comic — primarily by other hands — a couple of months ago, and noted that Moorcock made several attempts overt the years to end that series. Well, I’m back with another EC book, from 2011. And that era is, as far as I can tell, well after the point when Moorcock realized the EC would outlive him, and that he only needed to give it as much attention as he felt like at any moment.

What I mean is: he seems to have given up on closing out the series, which is all to the good. What sense does it make to have an ending for the Eternal Champion?

This series is titled for the most popular (and first) incarnation of the EC, Elric, but he’s joined by several others — Dorian Hawkmoon, Corum of the Silver Hand, and a guy from what I probably shouldn’t call Earth-Prime named Eric Beck — to make this another multi-EC story like Sailor on the Seas of Fate and several others. Writer Chris Roberson is clearly a serious Moorcock fan, so he knows these characters and does them all well.

But what I have here is just the beginning. As I understand it, Elric: The Balance Lost  ran for twelve issues, and this Vol. 1  just reprints the first four issues (plus the prologue from a Free Comic Book Day giveaway). So the very last pages here see those four heroes, each holding a big pointy sword, probably about to meet through some interdimensional hoo-ha of the kind the Moorcock Multiverse is so full of.

But it hasn’t happened quite yet.

So this first volume is all set-up: Elric is wandering between worlds, somewhere in the middle of his career [1], and Hawkmoon is suspicious that his insect-helmeted enemies are resurgent somewhere, and Corum saves his old companion Jhary-a-Conel, and Eric gets caught up in the street thuggery of the Law Party. All are told by a companion that the Balance — the comic force that keeps either Law and Chaos from completely taking over — has been endangered, and may be capital-L Lost.

We see that some worlds are overrun by Chaos, and those are full of bizarre monsters and about to collapse into nothingness. Others are overrun by Law, filled with fascists like the ones we learn are led by Eric’s evil twin Garrison Bow. And both of those things are Bad, so our four heroes will eventually need to band together to hit things with swords to make the universe better.

For now, though, they’re each out on their own, in different worlds, hitting things with swords individually, under the care and tutelage of various mentors, friends, and mysterious personages.  Some of them are hitting Law-things, some of them are hitting Chaos-things, but it’s all part of the same problem, and eventually — around the end of Volume 3, I expect — they’ll manage to find one big thing they can all hit with their swords at the same time and save the balance.

Eternal Champion stories do get pretty formulaic: that’s just the way they are. It’s fantasy adventure of a particular kind, and generally quite entertaining. Roberson clearly has a deep knowledge and affection for the Moorcock Multiverse, and throws in a lot of little bits from other stories to show that this is one of the big stories that effects everything. Artist Francesco Biagini does the script justice, though I do think he has the standard problem of making Elric look too strong and powerful — Elric can barely stand up without his sword, and only survives because of it.

So Elric: The Balance Lost is a good EC story, with lots of Easter Eggs for long-time Moorcock fans — or, lat least, this first third is. Let me see if I can find the other pieces to find out how it comes out in the end….

[1] Elric’s timeline is a little muddled because Moorcock wrote his death first and has been filling in middle ever since. There probably is someone — maybe even Roberson — who knows how all of the Elric stories are related in time, but that person is not me.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

Book-A-Day 2018 #331: The Swords of Heaven, The Flowers of Hell by Michael Moorcock & Howard Chaykin

Michael Moorcock has “ended” his Eternal Champion cycle many times over the past decades — I think he did it for the first time back in the late ’60s, when it was still almost entirely Elric and just a bit of those other guys. But none of those endings have taken; he’s come back time and time again for more stories of Elric in particular and other incarnations as well.

One of the earlier endings was in the mid-70s, after two “John Daker” novels, about an incarnation of the EC that remembered all of the other incarnations. Those felt like summings-up, and were a little heftier than some of the EC novels (Dorian Hawkmoon, I am looking at you). But of course a working writer will work, and he’ll come up with more ideas — particularly for the central project of his career.

So, in 1979, Moorcock, in whatever way and for whatever reason, wrote a treatment for a third Daker story, which he gave to Howard Chaykin, then very early in his career, to adapt and illustrate and turn into a graphic novel. (I don’t think that term existed yet, or at least wasn’t in wide use, but this was one of the first created-as-a-book comics in that first burst in the late ’70s.) It was published as The Swords of Heaven, The Flowers of Hell , missed its market almost entirely, and has been a sought-after collector’s item for Moorcock completists since then, but little-remembered otherwise.

But Titan is doing a big series of all of the Moorcock EC comics, in more-or-less uniform editions, so earlier this year they reissued Swords of Heaven into a market where it actually could find the intersection of Moorcock and Chaykin fans.

The best Eternal Champion stories have quirkier, less obviously heroic plotlines — particularly the Elric stories. But a whole lot of them from the ’60s and ’70s take that essential sword-and-sorcery plot — evil forces are threatening {insert place}, which is generally where {hero}’s love {hot girlfriend} lives, and often where he’s from, too, and so he must battle their {fiendish weapon} against overwhelming odds and win out in the end despite great losses to his forces and/or allies. Better versions of that story turn up the woe and bleakness; what made Moorcock’s epic fantasy stories distinctive was the attitude of his stories and protagonists — they’re depressive and tormented and unlucky and nearly incapable of happiness.

Doing the same story in comics form means less of the woe-is-me narration, which could be a positive or a negative, depending on your point of view. But it does tend to make Swords of Heaven a little flatter and less distinctive than an equivalent Moorcock novel. By this point in his career, Moorcock’s language was stronger, and often more of a draw, than his epic adventure plots. (His plots outside of epic adventure had gotten substantially better — this book came out only a year after one of his best novels, the World Fantasy-winning Gloriana, and just before a burst of interesting early-’80s novels including the Von Bek books.)

In this case, the transform table goes thus:

  • {insert place} = The Dream Marshes, a lush and rich land about to be invaded by the barbarians of the desert realm Hell on their way to invade an even richer land called Heaven, ruled by aristocratic assholes
  • {hero} = Urlik Skarsol, bodily dropped into the body of Lord Clen of the Dream Marches
  • {hot girlfriend} = Ermizhad, the wife of Erekose, which was our hero’s name three or four books ago, and who he’s trying to get back to in the sense that he pines for her and has no way to actually control his travels
  • {fiendish weapon} = mostly human-wave attacks, though they’re also the usual mix of inventively bloodthirsty and maniacal

So Swords of Heaven does have a faint whiff of the generic to me — not as much as the first Hawkmoon series, luckily, but less distinctive than the first two Daker novels The Eternal Champion and Phoenix in Obsidian. The names in particular are a bit on the nose, aside from the odd “Lord Clen.” Clen does not have a sword that steals souls, does not massacre his entire race, and does not lose his homeland or One True Love. He’s a smartish guy who wins a brutal war against an overwhelming enemy, though only after his side takes horrific losses. So, not entirely devoid of woe.

Chaykin is working in fully painted pages here, without a lot of black lines. The characters look like Chakyin people, but the overall look aims for more of a classic-illustration look, vaguely in the Howard Pyle vein. And that’s very appropriate for a very traditional adventure story like this one. It’s difficult to tell what of the writing is his and what is Moorcock’s, but it’s all plausible and sturdy, with no major problems.

This is not a great lost Eternal Champion story. It’s a pretty good late-70s EC story, that links Phoenix in Obsidian to 1986’s The Dragon in the Sword. That’s fine for me; it might be fine for you.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

Book-A-Day 2018 #285: High Society by Dave Sim

I don’t have an accurate record of when Dave Sim first said Cerebus would run for 300 issues. But my guess is that his plans became real during this storyline.

The first volume of Cerebus, which I covered last month , saw Sim moving rapidly from an amusing Thomas/Smith Conan parody with an oddly funny-animal main character to something more detailed and particular, and those twenty-five issues moved from standalone stories to trilogies and ongoing continuous plotlines.

No one expected Sim would then embark on a new story that would be as long as all of Cerebus to date. My guess is that not even Sim knew, when he was writing and drawing issue #26, “High Society,” that that would be the title for a much longer story. Somewhere in those first few High Society  issues, though, it clicked: he wasn’t just making a somewhat longer story: his narrative would stick around the city-state of Iest for more than two years of serial comics, over five hundred pages, and more political machinations than anyone had ever seen on the comics page.

So it became High Society. And a storyline many times longer than the previous ones posed a problem to Sim in the mid-80s. He was already a pioneer in reprinting his comics in permanent book editions, with the Swords of Cerebus series. But the sixth volume of that was already longer than the previous ones, reprinting five issues instead of four. Swords of Cerebus Seven would either be five times as long as the previous book or would break in the middle of the story.

Obviously it didn’t. Instead, Sim invented the “phone book” format — one little-used by other creators since, mostly because very few comics-makers have series with multiple five-hundred-page long plotlines to begin with. (He also annoyed the comics distribution network by going entirely direct-to-consumer for the High Society first printing, an innovation that made him money immediately but caused hassles for a while afterward.)

We tend to forget all of the business things Sim pioneered in independent comics, but there’s no Image without Sim, without that model of doing your comics your way, and then collecting them permanently. And this is the era when Sim was still exciting and vital and fizzy and Zeitgest-y, telling his own story and making sarcastic comments on the current comics scene at the same time.

High Society is probably the single highest point of Cerebus: a graphic novel that can stand alone and that a new reader can come into cold. Cerebus is this guy arriving in a new city, and then stuff happens to him: you don’t need to know more than that, and the first page tells you that much.

“Stuff happens” gets very baroque very quickly: Cerebus is caught up in other people’s schemes, as had been more and more central as the comic Cerebus went on the early ’80s, and the ultimate mover of those schemes was Sim’s brilliant re-imagining of Groucho Marx as Lord Julius, ruler of Palnu. [1]

High Society is a story about money and power, and particularly the power of money. Palnu is the only fiscally sound city-state in the entire Feldwar valley; every other country is running massive deficits and getting further and further in debt to Julius. Cerebus is the perfect counterweight to Palnu’s soft power, since he’s instinctively a creature of hard power: he knows armies and mercenaries and war tactics deeply, and his first instinct in any situation is to find and army and conquer something.

(This is not a good impulse in a modern world, obviously. But that raises the question of how modern Cerebus‘s world is. Is it modern enough that wars of conquest primarily smash economic activity and leave everyone poorer, or is it still medieval enough that conquest can be lasting and profitable?)

So Cerebus is first the Ranking Diplomatic Representative of Palnu to Iest, named as such without his knowledge. And then there’s a confusing plot where he’s running to keep that title, even though it’s pretty obviously a role that is going to always be in the direct remit of the ruler of the sending country. (How could it be otherwise?)

But that campaign ends up being the warm-up for the real one: Cerebus runs for Prime Minister of Iest, a job that has first slowly and then suddenly transformed from being a minor adjunct to a theocracy to being the center of secular power in the city-state. And that “suddenly” is because of Cerebus personally, in the sideways complicated manner common to Cerebus plots.

Like the best Cerebus plots, High Society is a one-damn-thing-after-another story. Cerebus is always his own worst enemy; he’s never satisfied with what he has and is the epitome of the guy who hits on sixteen every damn time. And Sim was notably never on Cerebus’s side, which is rare for a creator so closely identified with a single character. Cerebus is a horrible person in a whole host of ways, and was like that right from the beginning: Sim made him that way, and kept putting him in plots that exploited his flaws and worst tendencies. For about the first half of his adventures, Cerebus is the greatest anti-hero in comics.

Alongside all of the politics and plotting is Sim’s characteristic humor: he was the most consistently funny comics humorist of the early ’80s, and this volume has a string of his greatest hits. Sure, a lot of that humor was odd adaptations of other people’s characters — every funny character in Cerebus is based on a comedian or outside source — but Sim turned it all into comics, made it all work in his specific invented world, and gave all of those characters new, setting-appropriate jokes to tell. It’s hugely idiosyncratic, but it works amazingly well.

If you’ve never read Cerebus, and you’re willing to give Dave Sim one shot, this is the shot to take. Some parts of it are more meaningful, or funnier, if you’ve read the stories in the first collection, but I don’t think anything will be incomprehensible or particularly obscure. This is a great story about a grumpy, self-destructive guy who falls into politics in the worst way, in a vaguely late-medieval world where parts are rapidly modernizing, and has a masterful mix of humor and seriousness. If any of that sounds appealing, give it a try.

[1] Julius would make an interesting contrast to Terry Pratchett’s Patrician: both rule completely and capriciously, and both are shown to be master manipulators who always come out on top. But the Patrician works by extreme clarity and veiled threats, while Julius is his world’s master obfuscator and equivocator and either is the most Machiavellian planner of all time or just extremely good at thinking on his feet.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

Book-A-Day 2018 #241: The Tooth by Cullen Bunn, Shawn Lee, and Matt Kindt

Reading comics digitally is weird for me: it’s so disconnected from the physicality of a real book, and (at least the stuff I have, mostly publicity copies) generally lack covers and explanatory copy, so it dives right into story without any explanation as to how or why or who.

I also tend to have stuff that’s been sitting around for a while, since I was getting digital review copies for most of the last decade but not actually reading more than a couple of them. (I very easily forget that I have a particular collection of electrons sitting in a folder somewhere; real physical objects on a shelf are much better at reminding me they exist and are waiting to be read.)

For example, I just this second tracked down a cover for this book, so I could slap it into the top left of this post. It looks completely unfamiliar, and The Tooth  is a book that was published in 2011 and which I presumably have had since then (or maybe slightly earlier, given publishing schedules).

I also don’t have much of a clue how The Tooth was positioned — it’s clearly a pseudo-retro superhero comic, the mid-70s rebirth of a Silver Age hero, but how serious we were meant to take it isn’t as clear — or who the audience was. And it seems to have disappeared without a trace since then, so whoever the audience was supposed to be, I don’t think they embraced it as fully as the creators [1] expected.

What this book supposedly “reprints” — I don’t think it was published separately beforehand, but I never bet against serialization when talking about comics of giant things punching each other — is issues 34 to 39 of The Tooth, the fourth series featuring that character (after Journey Into Terror, Savage Tooth, and The House of Unknown Terror), just a few issues before the title apparently ended. (As we find from some kid’s “The Tooth Want List,” interpolated between two of the “issues.”)

It is, of course, the All-New All Different Tooth, with a new supporting cast and what’s probably supposed to be a slightly different take on his origin and purpose. So some schmo inherits a haunted house from a creepy uncle, and learns that he’s also inherited…um, well, that one of his teeth grows to a massive size, leaps out of his mouth, and fights evil.

As one does.

The schmo finds a knowledgeable fellow — who is the one hold-over from the prior cast — to give him the silly comic-book background, which is pseudo-mythological in the Thor vein. The Tooth and his compatriots are the warriors grown from the teeth of the dragon Cadmus slew in Greek mythology (the ones who founded Thebes, though that part doesn’t come up here).

There is, of course, also a villain, who wants to resurrect the dragon whose teeth those warriors originally were, and whose plot very nearly comes true. But, obviously, righteousness wins out in the end.

All this is told on what’s supposed to be yellowing newsprint pages — including letter columns — tattered covers, and some interpolated material. (There’s also what looks like some kid’s increasingly-good drawings of The Tooth in the front matter — I think he’s supposed to be the kid who owned these comics.)

So it’s all Superhero Comics, subcategory Deliberately Retro, tertiary category Goofy. It’s all presented straight on the page, like a real artifact from nearly fifty years ago, but it’s impossible to forget that it’s a story about a tooth that enlarges to fight evil through mega-violence.

I think I was originally interested in The Tooth because of the Matt Kindt connection; he’s made a lot of good comics out of various odd genre materials. But he’s just drawing here. This is a very faithful recreation of a kind of comic that was deeply silly to begin with: I appreciate the love and craft that went into it, but I have to wonder why anyone thought this would be a good idea. It’s the comics equivalent of a novel-length shaggy dog joke.

[1] Cullen Bunn and Shawn Lee co-write, Matt Kindt does all of the art and colors and apparently book design.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

Book-A-Day 2018 #238: Girlfiend by The Pander Brothers

I have never been so tempted to take Jacob and Arnold Pander’s surname so literally.

Perhaps it’s because Girlfiend  started off as a screenplay, but this thin (but stylish) story of a runaway vampire girl and the boy she meets in the big city (Seattle) feels like a collection of second-hand attitudes and moments in search of a coherent plot or reason for being.

Don’t get me wrong: it looks great, as always with the Panders, full of speed lines and slashing shadows and evocative eyes. They get into some complex page layouts, too, with negative effects overlaid on shard-like panels on big double-page spreads, to give comics the eyeball kicks of a big-screen movie. And this would be a lot of fun as a movie, though it feels like something you’d see in the second-run theater in about 1988. (The Panders have always felt like a window into a superstylish ’80s; that’s what they do.)

So a young woman gets off a bus in downtown Seattle, sometime that could be now but doesn’t really feel like it. She’s distracted and maybe a bit overwhelmed — and she’s killed, messily, in a car crash.

Cut to the local morgue, where tech Nick is working on her body. And she comes back to life after he removes a nasty piece of rebar from the middle of her chest. Her name is Karina, and, inevitably, she moves in with him within another scene or two.

She tries to hide her secrets, but it all comes out quickly: she’s a vampire, one of the special “next-generation” kind who can go out by day, but otherwise has the usual vamp details — fangs, needs to drink blood, young and beautiful forever, strong and agile and powerful.

Meanwhile, in the B plots, there’s both a crew of criminals who have heisted something very valuable and dangerous (and keep getting themselves killed in various ways trying to open a safe and maneuver for control of it), and two detectives who spend a lot of time talking about justice and showing up after those criminals and others die in bloody ways.

Nick gets Karina to go after criminals for the blood she needs to drink — which means, mostly, the gang I just mentioned. The two cops are more familiar with vampires than you’d expect. And a team from Karina’s “family” is heading to town to return or eliminate her: no one is allowed to escape.

They all collide in the end, as they must. Since this is a comic, we don’t get a Kenny Loggins song under the big fight, but we can imagine it. There’s a happy ending for the heroes, since that’s how ’80s movies have to end. And, again, it all looks great, even if the story is nothing but B-movie cliches as far as the eye can see.

But if you’re looking for the great lost Seattle vampire movie of the late ’80s, you just might have found it in this comic.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

Book-A-Day 2018 #212: Ms. Marvel Vol. 6: Civil War II by Wilson, Alphona, Miyazawa, and Andofo

I don’t know if superhero conflicts are required to be based on the stupidest possible interpretation of premises, but it certainly seems that way. Subtlety or nuance don’t exist in superhero universes; in a world where people can punch each other through brick walls, that’s the only way to do anything.

Ms.Marvel Vol. 6: Civil War II  is another piece of crossover, which means it’s substantially stupider than a standalone Ms. Marvel story. I’m not claiming they’re brain-teasers in the best of situations, but they generally consist of believable characters doing understandable things for plausible reasons.

Before I go on to talk about the story, here’s who brought it to us: writer G. Willow Wilson continues as usual, with original series artist Adrian Alphona taking the first issue and flashback scenes in the next four, Takeshi Miyazawa doing the non-flashbacks for those issues, and Mirka Andolfo drawing the last one collected here.

Those first and last issues (numbers 7 and 12 of the 2015 Ms. Marvel series, for those of you scoring at home) are standalones, and I’ll get to them later.

The main story here spins out of the big dumb [1] crossover Civil War II, which apparently triggered when someone discovered a new Inhuman — yeah, they were still on that kick in early 2016 — named Ulysses, who, well, I’ll let Captain Marvel [2] do the honors:

It’s more like mathematics — he can determine, to within a fraction of a percent, the probability that certain events are going to take place.

As described, this covers any event, of any kind. And, since it’s a superhero power, it’s declared to be absolutely, totally reliable all of the time. Extremely improbably, Ulysses is not already the richest man on Earth from stock-picking or craps or sports book. Nor will his powers be used to, oh, predict earthquakes and hurricanes for the betterment of all mankind. Nor to fiendishly predict the weak spots in other nations or corporations for the power-enhancement and enrichment of his friends and bosses. Nor to turbo-charge scientific development by focusing attention on the areas most amenable to breakthroughs. Nor to do a million other things that you need to actually take five minutes to think through.

No, instead Ulysses’s vast powers will be used to predict street-level crime in Jersey City, New Jersey so a group of teen vigilantes can go beat up people a day before they would have done something bad, and/or vaguely “citizen’s arrest” them, holding them down until after the time they were going to do the thing they were just stopped from doing.

Mere human language cannot adequately convey how deeply, utterly stupid an idea this is, nor now vastly it undervalues Ulysses’s powers. I am in awe of the weapons-grade idiocy here, and wonder if Ulysses is actually some idiot-savant who is just endlessly shouting out things like “John Smith of 331B 25th Street, New York, has a 37.562% chance of shoplifting a fun-size Snickers bar from the Sunny Day bodega on the corner of 24th and Market at 4:52 PM local time today.” The story would almost make sense if he had no control of his power and was psychologically focused on stupid minor crimes close to him for some plot-sufficient reason.

So, yeah. Ms. Marvel, the girl of stretch, is brought in by the senior Marvel, Carol Danvers, to supervise a random group of gung-ho crime-fighting teenagers in her neighborhood, because of course that’s how serious government projects work. (The other crime-fighting teens are all people we’ve never seen before, and probably mostly people we will never see again: utterly plot furniture.) They get random updates from Ulysses, run off, and punch people generally mere moments before they’re about to do something naughty. These updates only come in when they’re not in school or sleeping or doing homework — they’re foiling convenient crimes.

Their MO is wildly inconsistent: one actual supervillain who stole a government tank is told he’ll be held for fifteen minutes until the unfoilable super-security system blows up the tank, because they apparently can’t arrest him for stealing a tank, or driving it down a city street, or attacking civilians, but only could stop him if it blew up with him in it when he didn’t realize it would. But then when an otherwise honor-student teen boy might — Ulysses’s supposed “fraction of a percent” predictions are never actually cited; everything is a sure bet every single time — cause a power surge the next day that would start a fire, they grab him and throw him into some kind of black-box high-security private prison.

This makes no fucking sense. Not for a second. Ulysses isn’t providing percentages for anything, and the focus on teenagers in Jersey City is deeply ludicrous. And the outcomes go so far beyond arbitrary and capricious that they turn into the opposite of anything reasonable. Even assuming crime-fighting was the best use of these powers — and, again, it totally isn’t — this is quite possibly the single worst way of doing so.

But wait! The whole stupid plot seems to be designed to make our Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan, realize that, hey, y’know, maybe beating up people and locking them up without due process just might be a bad thing…as long as it’s purely based on something they haven’t done yet, of course, since doing that to people otherwise would be totally fine! And that realization is purely to fuel her break with Danvers, the current Captain Marvel.

Danvers is a former military test pilot and big fan of the chain of command…except when an ill-defined group is using a random superhuman for bizarre crime-fighting activities, but it’s her ill-defined group, and crime-fighting is the only thing these caped lunatics know, so let’s go with it — and so barks out the kind of cliche conversation where she talks down to “junior” superheroes and calls them things like “soldier” using random Army jargon picked up from Full Metal Jacket.

Because military people in comics are all about “shut up and do as you’re told,” since the question of legal and appropriate use of force never comes up in fictional universes. Obviously.

So The Lesson Kamala learns here is that your idols sometimes assholes who aren’t going to do what you want them to, and also that semi-fascist panopticons are not as cool an idea as they might seem. I know! Who would have thought! (Presumably somewhere in the actual Civil War II series it all ended when we learned that Ulysses’s powers can’t handle vibranium, or he’s a Skrull spy, or some such stupid bullshit, so everything could go back to normal.)

Oh! Also another Lesson: it is your fault if your best friend does something you warn him is really dangerous and gets seriously injured, because you are A Superhero and should be able to make everything nice all the time. (Well, maybe there’s also a bit of “You went along with something that didn’t smell right and it turned out horribly and crippled your best friend.”) But, as a bonus, Wilson is totally setting up ex-best-friend to return as a supervillain in another 5-10 issues. So we have that to look forward to.

This book also contains two single issues untainted by crossover, and so therefore relatively intelligent. The one up front is a cute science-fair story, with a side order of Millennials Have It So Much Worse Than Other Generations (Even the Ones That Had to Go To War and Stuff) Because Student Loans, and guest appearances by Spider-Man and Nova, to underline how much they are all basically the same damn character.

And the closing story sees Kamala take a trip back to her native Pakistan. This seems unlikely to happen during the school year for a student as much of a grind as Kamala, but it’s not clear when any of these stories take place during the year, so maybe it’s suddenly summer? And there she Learns Things, though she doesn’t notice that her new friend is also totally that local superhero she runs into. Oh, and the local society is corrupt and riddled with bad actors in multiple ways, but she shouldn’t be judge-y about it! Let the locals deal with it!

I’m beginning to think I only read Ms. Marvel because the different ways it annoys me amuse me. It may also be that I had all the superhero bullshit I could stand about twenty years ago, so even “good” superhero comics are so full of crap they make me break out in fits of swearing. Either way, my relationship with this comic is not particularly healthy. Luckily, I just get collections of it from the library about two years late!

[1] I haven’t actually read anything else from Civil War II, so it’s possible that I’m maligning its intelligence. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

[2] No, not the one you’re thinking of . Not that one , either. Definitely not that one . The one who’s getting a movie .

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

Book-A-Day 2018 #202: Saga of the Swamp Thing by Alan Moore and various artists (6 volumes)

I wouldn’t say that all of modern mainstream comics comes from Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing. Frank Miller’s work on Daredevil and The Dark Knight was just as influential, alongside the Claremont X-Men and the event frenzy kick-started by the Wolfman/Perez Crisis. And there have certainly been major developments in the thirty years since then. But our modern adventure-story comics world was formed in those days of the mid-80s when the Direct Market was strong and growing, when the outside world was reading “comics are growing up” stories every few months (with new examples each time), and the expectations of both readers and publishers started to bend to shocking revelations and long story arcs and Worlds That Would Never Be the Same. And that world was strongly molded by Alan Moore, starting with Swamp Thing in late 1983.

Thirty-plus years later, those Moore stories are both shockingly modern and shockingly old-fashioned: cold-eyed about humanity and the place of superbeings alongside it, but utterly besotted with their own wordy narration. These are intensely told stories: Moore in the ’80s was the culmination of Silver Age style, all captions and explanations and background and atmosphere, cramming all of his ideas and poetic descriptions into each twenty-three page issue, exhausting every concept as soon as he introduced it.

Swamp Thing, the character, was a scientist named Alec Holland, working on a “bio-restorative formula” with his also-scientist wife in what looked like a barn deep in the Louisiana marshes. (This all made sense in the early 1970s, when ecology and back-to-the-land were huge.) The usual evil forces of international business sabotaged his work: his wife was killed and Alec, permeated with the formula and burning to death from an explosion, fell into the swamp. He arose, a few days later, as the slow-talking Swamp Thing, to stop those evil businessmen and battle weird menaces around the world for at least the duration of the early-70s horror boom. His first comics series ended after 24 issues of slowly dwindling sales and quickly increasing gimmicks to try to reverse the sales drop, and was revived about a decade later when a cheap movie adaptation came out. The same slow-death started setting in, with similar results, and the second series began to look like it would run only about as long as the first.

And then Alan Moore took over writing what was then Saga of the Swamp Thing from Martin Pasko with issue #20. His first outing was a clean-up effort, tying off “Loose Ends” from the Pasko run, like a concert pianist running a few scales to warm up before diving into the meat of the program. A month later, he delivered one of the most influential and iconic single issues of any comic, “The Anatomy Lesson,” where he carefully explained that Swamp Thing’s origin and explanation made no sense whatsoever, and started the path to what he declared was a better foundation for the character. (He was right, and he shouldn’t be blamed that a thousand others have tried to do the same thing to a thousand other characters since then, with not necessarily the same level of rigor or success.)

Before long, the title had simplified to Swamp Thing — the same as that original Len Wein/Bernie Wrightson series a decade before — grown the tag-line “Sophisticated Suspense,” and quietly become the first Big Two comic to ditch the Comics Code seal. It was also a huge hit, both critically and commercially. By the time Moore ended his run on Swamp Thing with #64, almost four years later, the Crisis had come and gone, he was in the middle of Watchmen, and the landscape of American comics had been radically changed.

(As a sidebar, it’s interesting to note that the editor on those early Moore Swamp Thing issues was Wein himself — it’s a fantastic example of a creator nurturing stories that reinterpret, even replace, the work he did earlier.)

That Swamp Thing run was one of the first to be collected in a comprehensive way soon after periodical publication, as the comics industry started to realize what the book industry had known for several generations: a creative property you can keep selling in a fixed form for years is vastly more valuable than creative properties that you need to refresh every month. The complete Alan Moore run is currently available as six trade paperbacks, under the overall title The Saga of the Swamp Thing , reprinting all forty-five issues with introductions by various people. (Not including Moore, though, as anyone who has heard about his contentious relationship with DC Comics since will expect.) If you’re looking for those books individually, have some links: one , two , three , four , five , six .

The first thing to note is that the divisions between books generally make sense: they each collect eight issues, except Book Five has only six, and they tend to break at important moments. This is partially an artifact of comics-storytelling norms of the time: then, a three-issue story was an epic, and anything longer than that was remarkable. (Of course, subplots would run longer than that — I mentioned Claremont up top, and he’s one of the major originators of the throw-in-hints-of-the-next-four-stories-in-each-issue plotting style — but the actual conflict in any issue would be done within fifty or seventy pages nearly all the time.) But Swamp Thing also tended to run to story arcs, more and more as Moore wrote it; it’s one of the origins of that now-common structure. So it’s partially luck, partially planning, and partially the nature of these stories that makes them break down as cleanly as they do into volumes. It means that a reader can come to this series thirty years later — it’s now impossible to come to it any earlier, if you haven’t already — and take it one book at a time, as her interest is piqued. (Or you can run through all of them quickly, as I did.)

Book One leads off with #20, “Loose Ends” — not generally included in Swamp Thing reprints for the first decade or so, as DC presumably wanted to start with the bigger bang of “The Anatomy Lesson” — and runs through the continuation of that story with Jason Woodrue and then a three-part story featuring Jack Kirby’s The Demon. These are the foundational stories, in which Moore resets everything about the series: tone, cast, mood, atmosphere, even genre. (There were horror elements in the earlier stories, obviously, but Moore moved it definitively from “superhero story with horror villains” to “horror story with a muckmonster hero.”) The Woodrue story also has a nice cameo by the Justice League, cementing Swampy’s place in the “real” DC Universe. Swamp Thing, and the Vertigo imprint that eventually grew out of it, would have a complicated relationship with that continuity over the next few decades — as that continuity itself got more complex and self-referential, in part driven by the work Moore did here and other writers did in a similar vein — but, when it began, it was just the weird corner of the same universe.

Book Two is anchored by the return of Anton Arcane, Swampy’s greatest villain, who Moore made even more infernal as he threw Arcane into Hell and brought him (briefly) back. I’m not sure if this is the first time we get an extended look at DC Comics Hell — there were a bunch of vaguely Satanic comics in the ’70s, though mostly on the Marvel side — but Moore’s vision of Hell, as amplified and extended a few years later by Neil Gaiman in the early issues of Sandman, was the model for DC for a generation from this point. This second book also has the first visual breaks from the main look for the Moore run: the majority of the early Moore issues are pencilled by Stephen Bissette and inked by John Totleben, but they have a very detailed, intricate style and Swamp Thing also tended to have heavily designed pages — which all added up to mean that getting twenty-three pages done, at that level and in that style, tended to take longer than the month between issues. So this volume has two issues drawn by Shawn McManus: the first a coda to the storyline of the first volume, the second a homage to Walt Kelly’s Pogo. And another issue reprinted here brings back Cain and Abel, the mystery hosts from DC’s horror-anthology comics of the early ’70s, in a framing story drawn by Ron Randall to showcase the original short “Swamp Thing” comic by Wein and Wrightson that served as a tryout and model for the ’70s series.

Book Three is the bulk of the “American Gothic” storyline, introducing John Constantine — who has gone on to fame on his own, with a very long-running comic and a movie that was at least higher-budget than any of Swampy’s — and sending Swampy cross-country to see and confront growing horrors in the world: nuclear waste, racism, sexism, and (of course) aquatic vampires. Here the art continues to move around a small team: Rick Veitch pencils one issue (he also helped out on some pages in two issues in the first volume), Alfredo Alcala inks another, and Stan Woch pencils a third. The team is clearly moving resources around to maintain a consistent visual look and at the same time maintain that punishing monthly deadline. These stories are the heart of Swamp Thing as a horror comic: Moore is taking individual concerns of the then-modern world (mostly; the aquatic vampires aren’t particularly emblematic of anything) and showing how they can be twisted and made horrible.

Book Four finishes up “American Gothic,” which leads into the double whammy of Crisis and Swamp Thing‘s own fiftieth issue, which was explicitly positioned in the story as a crisis after the Infinite Earths one. (Evil South American wizards — the same ones mentioned in Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia , which I coincidentally read recently — knew the whole “worlds will live, worlds will die” thing was coming, and planned to summon Primordial Darkness to take over Heaven in the tumult.) This is one of Moore’s largest-scale stories, and from that era when he aspired to write big superhero-universe crossovers: Watchmen started out that way, and the aborted Twilight of the Superheroes project from 1987 was an even bigger take on the same idea. So Swampy almost becomes a supporting character in his own book, with the Demon and the Phantom Stranger and Deadman and the Spectre and Dr. Fate and John Constantine with a roomfull of minor DC magicians all demanding their time in the spotlight. It does all come together, and tells a strong story — even if the ending is strangely muted, with characters explicitly saying things like:

Happened? Nothing has happened. Everything has happened. Can’t you feel it? Everywhere things look the same, but the feeling…the feeling is different.”

One can admire Moore’s writing and plotting and still think this is a remarkably deflating denouement.

Book Five is another group of transitional stories. First, because the art team switches to Veitch and Alcala, except for one issue in the middle drawn entirely by Totleben. And, more importantly, because it moves from the aftermath of the “spiritual Crisis” through the arrest and prosecution of Swampy’s girlfriend Abby in Gotham City — and Swampy’s subsequent assault on that city through a massive green-ification project — before Swampy sets off, unexpectedly and not by choice, on his next story arc. At the risk of spoiling thirty-five year old stories, he’s catapulted off into space, where he needs to learn how to modulate his wavelengths (more or less) to get back home.

And Book Six is when he does so. By this time, Moore was also working on Watchmen, and was getting to the point where he’d nearly said all he wanted to say with Swamp Thing. So this last volume has stories explicitly planned as transitions to the story-sequence that would follow: Rick Veitch would take over writing (on top of pencilling), and so he writes one story here. Bissette writes another, a sidebar set back on Earth, in which Abby is reunited, for one last time, with her ill-fated father. One issue has a quite experimental art style from Totleben, all chilly mecanico-organic forms, and the big conclusion is something of a jam issue, with art from nearly everyone who contributed to the Moore run: Bissette, original Saga penciller Tom Yeates, Veitch, and Alcala, under a Totleben cover.

It all ends on a happy note: Swampy is back where he belongs, having learned more about himself and the universe and having found something like peace. If the series had ended there, it would have been an ending — but popular comics didn’t end in 1987 just because they had a good place to do so.

Instead, the next month there was a Veitch-Alcala issue, launching a new plot arc. Veitch continued the concerns and manner of the Moore run — though with somewhat less of the overwrought narration, which was becoming outmoded even in the late ’80s — but ran afoul of DC brass a little over a year later, during a time-travel storyline that was to culminate with Swampy meeting a certain religious leader in Roman-occupied Palestine.

But that’s all another story: a story not collected in the books I’m writing about here, and in fact never collected, since it was cancelled and twisted and broken in the process.

Moore wrote forty-three issues of Swamp Thing over a four-year period, including at least three double-length issues (and, again, Veitch and Bissette also each contributed one script as part of the overall plot line). He worked with a team that ended up being fairly large — Bissette, Totleben, Veitch, and Alcala most of the time, McManus and Randall and Yeates and Dan Day stepping in here and there. But the whole thing does hang together — it’s not quite one story, but it’s a closely related cluster of stories, with consistent themes and concerns, that took a fairly conventional “weird hero” and turned him and his world into something new and strange in American comics.

Others have built on this foundation since then: most obviously, Neil Gaiman with Sandman, who got the luxury of a real ending and who was able to take a stronger hand at choosing art teams to go with specific story sequences. But Sandman could not have happened without the Moore Swamp Thing, as a thousand other comics could not have happened — all of Vertigo, for example, and most of what Image currently publishes, and Mike Mignola’s Hellboy universe, among many others.

Modern readers might find the Moore Swamp Thing much wordier than they expect: he was the last great Silver Age writer, a decade or two out of his time, when he wrote these comics. They’re all good words, deployed well and to strong effect — but we have to admit there are a lot of them. The coloring is also clearly ’80s vintage: very strong for its time, and pushing the limits of what could be done with newsstand comics in those days long before desktop publishing, but still clearly more limited and bold than what we’re used to today.

All those things are inherent in reading older stories. And all stories are “older” before too long. The strong stories are worth the effort — frankly, even new strong stories require some effort, since that’s one of the main things that makes them strong.

You should read the Alan Moore Swamp Thing, if you have any interest in comics or horror or superhero universes or ecology in literature or spirituality or transcendence. If you’re not interested in any of those things, well, it sounds like a dull life, but good luck with it.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

Book-A-Day 2018 #171: Demon by Jason Shiga (4 volumes)

When religious people talk about the dangers of pure scientism, they’re talking about Jimmy Yee. Maybe a bit about his creator, Jason Shiga, too.

But Yee is the poster boy for why believing in only what you can prove is really, really bad: he murders an appreciable fraction of the entire human race during this story, mostly because he sees no reason not to. And the only possible ethical justification is that, most of the time, he’s only killing himself.

Without getting into the traditional arguments against suicide, I think we can all agree that killing yourself is at the very least generally less bad than killing someone else. But what if every time you kill yourself, you also kill someone else by taking over their body?

Demon  is a very Jason Shiga comic, which is to say it takes a particular premise and then inexorably rolls out all of the entirely logical consequences of that that premise, leaving human feeling (except for a certain glee in destruction and mayhem) entirely out of the equation. The worldview here is a kind of happy nihilism: nothing matters, everything is disposable, and that’s wonderful for our viewpoint character.

Or, to put it another way: Demon is Miracleman #15 from the viewpoint of Kid Miracleman, going on for several hundred years.

Actually, that’s another thing that’s annoyingly cartoony about Demon: it goes on for well over two hundred years, but society and technology don’t change in the slightest. Oops, that might be a spoiler.

I should probably explain all of those disjointed thoughts.

OK. This long, multi-volume graphic novel [1] opens with Jimmy Yee, in a cheap motel room. He hangs himself. He wakes up in bed in the same cheap motel room, and slits his wrists in the bathtub.

And wakes up in the same cheap motel room. And kills himself with the gun he finds in a drawer.

And wakes up in the same cheap motel room. And takes an overdose of pills.

And wakes up in the same cheap motel room. And runs out into traffic to be hit by a semi.

And wakes up in Intensive Care, with the truck driver’s daughter crying over him. And manages to go for several hours without killing himself.

Eventually, Yee figures it out: he’s a demon. (Why a “demon?” Metafictionally, for shock value on Shiga’s part. In-universe, it just seems to be the word Yee randomly fell upon to describe himself.) When he dies, he instantaneously takes over the body of whoever is closest to him. He wasn’t waking up in the same motel room — he was serially possessing, and then killing, every single person staying at that motel.

There are a few other rules to his demonic self — and it turns out to be a SFnal rather than fantasy explanation, as one would expect from Shiga — which come out in time. But that’s basically it: live forever, take over other bodies when you die, do whatever you want without consequences as long as you can find a way to kill yourself.

The Javert to Yee’s Valjean is “Agent Hunter, OSS,” part of a super-secret US government operation designed to control and utilize demons…of which Yee is the only one when the OSS finds him. (OK, it’s not quite that dumb, but it’s close — Shiga is rolling out complications at speed and not worrying a lot about how plausible any of them are.) As usual, Shiga is good on complications and logical extrapolation and sometimes shaky on worldbuilding — “but what if” is generally good enough for him.

Hunter wants to use Yee, and any other demons there may be — and Shiga isn’t going to let the opportunity to add more baroque complications pass him by — for a grandiose and supposedly humanitarian purpose. But, of course, to do that, he needs to set up fiendishly complicated control structures to keep Yee confined.

And it’s that fiendish complication, both of control and of breakthrough, that Shiga really cares about. Demon is not about what it’s like to live forever, to be be able to be anyone, it’s about how to do the seemingly impossible using just the demon ability. Even when having the demon ability would let one find more elegant and interesting ways to solve problems, Demon always comes down to “kill lots and lots of people, often but not always yourself repeatedly.” Yes, Yee does have his Sad Jaded Immortal moments, since those are required of any story like this, but at least Shiga gets them over with quickly.

What Shiga does take joy in is those complications, and the megadeath is really just a way of keeping score — for all the gore and horrible things here, Shiga’s cartoony art and relentless eye for a weirder, more complicated way to keep demons out or fight their way in is what makes it exciting and fun.

It’s a borderline sociopathic kind of fun, admittedly. But it is fun nonetheless.

I don’t think the ending entirely makes sense — Shiga makes one more twist on his demon concept, and I don’t see how that actually works — but he needed to do something like that, just to make an ending for this thing. It’s certainly as plausible as anything else in this crazy story.

Fort many, many readers, Demon will be too much. That may include a few of you who think it’ll be just fine — it’s the kind of story that just keeps going, and hits places you might not want to go with it. But it’s an interesting book by a great comics creator, and it’s in many ways the purest Shiga book yet. It is horrifying and laugh-out-loud funny and nutty and goofy and appalling in its inventiveness. It’s all Shiga, bless his heart.

[1] It was originally serialized as a webcomic, and then collected. In fact, it seems to still be available online , though I think it’s not supposed to be.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.