Tagged: fantasy

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Black Hammer: Age of Doom, Part II by Jeff Lemire, Dean Ormston, and Rich Tommaso

OK, you know how in big superhero comics, everything needs to be back at status quo ante eventually? Worlds will live, worlds will die, Ultrafellow will be replaced by a disabled teen Latina, and the entire Evil-Fighting Gang will disband for good…but only until it all goes back to the way it was before.

Readers tend to assume that your modern passel of writers – the ones we respect, the ones who talk about loving punching-comics since they were five, the ones we sometimes think still wear Underoos to big shows – only do this because they are forced to do so by the evil rapacious companies, and that, given their druthers, they would Change Things Permanently, which Would Be Awesome.

So, under this assumption, all of those careful putting-things-back-in-the-box storylines, all of the big Events that undo the previous Event to reset for the next Event – those aren’t the fault of their writers, those are all imposed on them by the evil, evil Suits in…what is it, Burbank, now? Burbank is funny, so let’s say Burbank.

People assume that. They want to believe it. But is it true? Or do those writers just want to put all of their toys back in the box neatly, because they’re still those five-year-olds playing with Star Wars dolls [1] at heart?

Why do I bring this up? Well, you can probably guess. But I’m spoiler-averse enough not to completely fucking spell it out for you right here.

So, he said, brightly, here’s Black Hammer: Age of Doom, Part II , a creator-owned superhero comic that has been lauded by all of the Usual Suspects for the Usual Reasons. The series won the Eisner for Best New Series in 2017. It’s written by Jeff Lemire, who also writes comics about real grownups who don’t punch each other all the time, and drawn mostly by Dean Ormston, with a few issues in this book from the pen of Rich Tommaso. This particular collection gathers the end of the second main series, and – nudge nudge, wink wink – finishes up the main story begun in the first volume . (Here’s what I’ve written about Black Hammer-verse comics so far : I warn you that I have perhaps enjoyed complaining about them more than I did reading them.)

Now, I like Lemire’s non-superhero writing. I think he’s one of the great talents in comics, with a deep understanding of human behavior and a willingness to tell serious, dark stories when that’s the material he’s working with. And flashes of that Lemire do shine through the cardboard walls of the superhero universe he’s constructed here for his dolls to play in. Ormston is a solid artist in that spooky Dark Horse house style, and Tommaso has a quirkier thin-line style (here something like a ’40s comic translated through a modern sensibility) that I quite like as well.

So these guys do good work. They can tell great stories. They just, from the evidence here, would prefer to move their dolls around a few very cliched sets and ape dialogue they loved as children.

This book opens on the cliffhanger from Age of Doom Part I: our heroes are about to go back to the real universe for the first time in a decade, which will allow Darkseid the Anti-God to make the skies red for twelve issues or so and then, presumably, to destroy everything everywhere. (We don’t see him actually do anything like that: maybe the Anti-God just wants to go down to the shops and get a few things? He’s never actually on stage, or doing anything. All we know is what his enemies say about him.) So, to save the world, Lemire deploys first one, then another Standard Modern Comics Plots.

First up, one of the character has to meet his maker, in best Grant Morrison fashion, with the usual panoply of forgotten/never-existed characters for added pathos. Then we get the Everything Is Changed World, where All of The Heroes Have Forgotten They Ever Were Heroes, because That Is the Saddest Possible Thing. Both of those plots get solved, obviously: that’s how Standard Plots go in superhero comics.

And then…well, see my first few paragraphs. I’m not going to tell you exactly what happens, but if you read superhero comics, you know the drill by now.

This is deeply disappointing, and makes all of the Black Hammer comics up to this point completely pointless.

Now I’ve seen modern creators do “my favorite childhood comics, but with actual human motivations,” and that’s plausible. I’ve seen “how I would have handled my favorite story,” which is hermetic but understandable. I’ve seen a lot of “this is the right way for Character X to behave, unlike what all those dum-dums said,” which can be fun.

But this is something else. It’s a like a long car trip through boring, familiar territory with a promise of something new at the end, only to turn a corner and suddenly be back home, only the house is shabbier by our absence. If this is what Lemire planned to do the whole time, I have a hard time understanding why he, or anyone, though it was a worthwhile thing to do.

[1] “Action figure” is a term made up so that American boys could play with dolls and not feel feminine in a way that their culture embarrassed them about. All action figures are dolls. Period.

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

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Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen: Who Killed Jimmy Olsen? by Matt Fraction, Steve Lieber, and Nathan Fairbairn

I have generally not been in favor of Big Two superhero comics going “realistic.” That’s mostly because what counts as realism in superhero comics looks more like cynicism or nihilism from any other point of view, and because superhero comics are inherently one of the very most artificial artforms ever devised by the hand of man.

So I’m happy to point out that Who Killed Jimmy Olsen? is very artificial, and revels in it. The only other series I’ve seen that has as many introducing-this-character-with-their-fantastic-logo! boxes is Paul Grist’s deeply quirky Jack Staff. But this book does that trick one better: the person being introduced every single time is Mr. James Olsen himself, our hero and main character, in an unending sequence of sillier and sillier locutions about Superman’s wingman.

(I’m pretty sure I remember “Superman’s wingman” somewhere in the middle there. Nearly every way you could think to describe the Olsen boy are already in this book.)

Perhaps I should back up slightly.

Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen was a famous Silver Age title, from the era where comics were flagrantly artificial and their audiences were assumed to be entirely made up of children who would age out within a year or three. It ran for twenty years, and regularly turns up in random internet “have you ever seen this insane thing?” collections. (Two words: Goody Rickles.)

And Jimmy, as a character, is closely associated with that era. He doesn’t get the full-force opprobrium directed at some kid sidekicks, since he was intermittently depicted as an actual adult (if a juvenile, silly, easily-distracted one) and had an actual job that made sense in the context of the comics. But he was often comic relief in core Superman stories, and his own title was, to use a technical term, regularly batshit crazy (in the best possible way).

So Mr. Jimmy Olson comes with some baggage. And the 2019 series about him – by writer Matt Fraction, artist Steve Lieber, and colorist Nathan Fairbairn; collected as Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olson: Who Killed  Jimmy Olsen?  – leans heavily into the silliness, providing not just a goofy Jimmy, but a very weird take on Batman, an extended Olsen family with shocking connections to Lex Luthor (who also gets an extended family), the aforementioned massive number of story-introducing boxes, and a lot of just plain goofiness.

For example: the book opens with a story from some piece of product entitled Superman: Leviathan Rising Special #1, which I gather from context was some kind of crossover event thingy. (“Crossover event thingy” is a technical term in corporate comics.) In that story, Olson wakes up in Gorilla City, surprisingly married to an interdimensional jewel thief after a long night of drinking gorilla-strength champagne, and ends up in the possession of a cat that vomits astoundingly large and sustained streams of blood. Complications quickly ensue.

This all seems like random goofiness. Nearly all of it will become very important to the overall plot of Who Killed Jimmy Olsen? Note: I am not saying any of it becomes any less goofy.

The actual plot of the main story takes a while to coalesce, and is told out of chronological order. My sense is the playing-with-time stuff isn’t to be daring or stylistically inventive; it’s just another way to be randomly goofy and confusing. I liked and appreciated all of it; those who like more straightforward superhero stories may be annoyed or bored.

So we get Jimmy causing trouble, having to flee Metropolis for Gotham City, having his Life Model Decoy (named something slightly different I don’t want to dig through all the pages to find) “murdered,” and hiding out as an oddball “modern” version of himself (Timmy Olson, cringe YouTube sensation!). We also see Jimmy’s fabulously wealthy family (stuck-up brother, boho playwright sister), Jimmy’s deep family history (return to the frontier days of New Obsterstad with the feud of the Olsson and Alexander families!), Lex Luthor lurking around the edges of the story doing that I-am-such-a-villain hand-wringing gesture, Jimmy’s landlord/lawyer, a very silly very minor villain, an interdimensional would-be conqueror, and a rapidly-increasing death count of people close to Jimmy.

Again, we don’t get any of that in order: we get bits and pieces of all of it, smash-cutting from one Jimmy Olson story intro to another, and it all coalesces about halfway through this twelve-issue miniseries.

To my mind, if you’re going to do a superhero story, or even a story set in a superhero world (this is more of the latter; Jimmy is always central, and most of the important characters don’t have powers), you need to be at least halfway lighthearted. We all know every ending will be happy, all deaths are temporary, and all drama is momentary. And Who Killed gets that tone right: it doesn’t make fun of its own story too much, but it doesn’t try to pretend this is about the fate of the world, either.

To my mind, this is what good comics in a superhero milieu looks like: fun, with consequences to actions but not overly invested in them, full of random oddities and an overall sense of possibility.

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

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Black Hammer: Age of Doom, Part I by Jeff Lemire, Dean Ormston, (and in smaller letters) Dave Stewart and Todd Klein

Hey! Shit actually happens in this book! And those things largely validate my “get off the pot and actually say XYZ” grumblings from the previous books, which also makes me happy. [1] Once again, I’m not claiming any great powers of reasoning or insight: this is a pastiche superhero comic, and the plot beats are thuddingly obvious. They were just massively delayed for reasons that I tend to believe owed more to “I want to tell some only vaguely related stories first” than “this Other Stuff is actually important.”

This book follows the first two Black Hammer books (one and two ) and the very much sidebar (and baroquely-titled) books about Sherlock Frankenstein and Doctor Star Doctor Andromeda (my post will go live in three days as I type this; let’s see if I remember to add the link!). And it leads pretty directly, I expect – with the caveat this this series has been all about the fakeouts leading to extensive unrelated flashbacks up to this point – into the next volume, which is titled Age of Doom, Part II.

(There’s no third volume of Age of Doom, which could be ominous, but there are seven more volumes after that. They could all be flashbacks – Black Hammer ’45 pretty obviously is, for one – but I choose to believe that even this series will move forward in time once it exhausts all other options.)

Anyway, this is called Black Hammer: Age of Doom, Part I  but, as I just pointed out in tedious detail, it’s not actually “Part 1” of anything. It’s either part three (of the linear story) or part five (of all previous volumes). Like the rest of the main series to this point, it’s written by Jeff Lemire and drawn by Dean Ormston, assisted by colorist Dave Stewart and letterer Todd Klein.

And it’s still stuck on the moment at the end of the first volume, when the new spunky female Black Hammer arrived on “The Farm” from Spiral City, discovering the five or six superheroes living there (do we count Talky Walky? I do) after The Event and we the audience saw one of those supposed heroes, the witchy Madame Dragonfly, immediately steal Hammer’s memories for what we have to assume are nefarious purposes.

(Note that we get a different flashback version of that scene in this volume, following the big “everything you know is wrong” moment, and the new version means that the old version could not have possibly happened that way…which is really annoyingly lazy storytelling.)

So we open  this book with another return to the moment where Hammer announcing she’s remembered everything and is going to have a reckoning, and she of course immediately disappears. (Gotta keep the tension up somehow!) From there, we get a couple issues of Hammer in various weird worlds (first a transparent ripoff of the bar between worlds from the end of Sandman, then not-DC Hell and a couple of other mystical places, just in case any of the slower readers aren’t convinced Dragonfly is behind it), while the main cast decide to figure this out and get sidetracked by their various inamorata deciding that, yeah, OK, we can have sex now.

Again, Lemire is making it clear, even to the slower kids in the back, that the two reality-warping characters are…what’s that again? oh, yeah, warping reality.

Eventually, in time for the last of the five issues collected here, we finally get to see Everything We Know Is Wrong. (Well, Everything We Know about the Farm. I bet we know some wrong things about the death of the previous Hammer, and maybe the Anti-God, too.) And we get a big cliffhanger moment on the very last page, as we must when a Part I is going to lead directly to a Part II.

As before, I can appreciate the storytelling and character work – both Lemire and Ormston do good panel-by-panel and page-by-page work here, making engaging people, moving them around convincingly, and making them all interesting – while still finding the overall structure silly and ungainly and massively derivative and entirely airless. I still think Black Hammer is a very well-done version of a thing I would be hard-pressed to say is worth doing.

[1] Trust me, this is me happy. At least as happy as I get about manipulative third-hand superhero tales.

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

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Thirsty Mermaids by Kat Leyh

Sometimes you get into something it’s hard to get out of – now that sounds ominous, doesn’t it?

But all of life is a sequence of things you get into and can’t easily get out of: relationships, jobs, places to live, family. And fiction, especially fantasy fiction, can be metaphorical about those things, and not need to be tied down to dull reality.

So when I say that Kat Leyh’s graphic novel Thirsty Mermaids  is about three young people who do something fairly dumb on short notice and without thinking it through, and end up deeply stuck in a place they don’t understand at all, you can see how that could go in a million different ways. In this case, it is fantasy. The title is not a metaphor: they are mermaids.

Or, actually, they were. That was the fairly dumb thing: transforming to human so they could get more booze in some unnamed tourist-y seaside town. (It’s hard to find alcoholic beverages underwater!) They know nothing about human society, as is traditional, so they’re in for some shocks both immediate (humans need to wear clothes!) and longer-term (capitalism! money! rent! jobs!).

So, anyway, Tooth, Pearl, and Eez had that awesome idea — they could get a lot more booze if they went on land, where the humans are, and then they could come back afterward to their regular awesome lives under the sea. And the night of drinking went well: they did find some clothing, which came with a card they used to buy drinks the whole night at a bar amusingly named the Thirsty Mermaid.

Sure, they ended up passed out in an alleyway, but that’s a thing that could easily happen to humans, too.

But then Eez, their witch, realized she had no magic as a human – which means she can’t turn them back.

Oops.

Luckily, the bartender they drank with the previous night, Vivi de la Vega, is a soft touch. They end up crashing with her – the narrative wisely stays silent on whether she actually believes their drunken story about being mermaids – as Pearl and Tooth learn about human life and jobs, and Eez spends her days investigating human magic and figuring out how to get things back to normal.

Leyh isn’t emphasizing the drama here: their situation is serious, but only desperate for Eez, for reasons that the characters, and Leyh, will explicate as we get deeper into the book. Tooth and Pearl could fit in reasonably well on land: they’re loud and goofy and still deeply ignorant of human ways, but they have skills and their human bodies, if weird, work and are comfortable. Eez, on the other hand, finds human skin and the open air strange and disconcerting all the time, and it’s not going to get better.

So Leyh’s plot first throws them into possibly the most fish-out-of-water moment ever, then ambles around having them do fun clueless-about-human-life activities in this town that I keep wanting to say is Santa Barbara cosplaying as Key West, and then makes it clear that return is important.

Do they make it back? I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the ending.

Thirsty Mermaids was published by S&S’s Gallery 13 imprint, meaning that it was basically aimed at adults, unlike Leyh’s previous book Snapdragon . What that means is that there’s some incidental nudity – mermaids don’t wear clothes, remember! – that focus on alcohol as the source of and solution to all of life’s problems, and perhaps a quieter, more naturalistic story structure and a cast that have complicated depths like real adults. But it’s clearly another book by the same creator, with a lot of the same concerns and the same energy. So if you are a young reader who loved Snapdragon, or if you are in the business of getting reading materials to a young person who loved Snapdragon, I hope you are not shocked by a few cartoon boobs and, well, three very thirsty mermaids. This is a lovely, bright book full of fun moments, wonderful characters, and a deep concern for friendship and belonging.

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

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Sherlock Frankenstein and the Legion of Evil by Jeff Lemire and David Rubin

Names come with expectations. If a biker gang has members named Trash, Jocko, Bonecrusher, and Fluffy, you’re going to expect there’s a story there. And if the names are references, you’ll already have preconceptions based on the originals.

So when a major character is named “Sherlock Frankenstein,” you’re going to expect a detective who is a monster – or, maybe, if you’re more of a purist, a detective who creates monsters. If you’re told this Sherlock Frankenstein is a villain, that might be a little confusing at first, particularly the “Sherlock” bit, but you assume the creators know what they’re doing.

Until you realize they mean “Sherlock” in the kid-insult sense: this guy is kinda smart, but it implies no more than that. And they mean “Frankenstein” at about the same level: it sounds cool, and he’s old, like the Frankenstein story. Both words here signify “vaguely 19th century dude,” and the man with those names is a tinkerer-type supervillain with a silly circa-1900 origin (hero! villain! random transatlantic journey!  long years as an always-failing villain! hero once more many decades later!) and no motivation other than “a sad thing happened to me, and so therefore the world is horrible and I will make it worse.”

Well, that’s disappointing. But superhero comics traffic in disappointment as much as they do in punching: it’s in the top five ingredients on the label. So it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that “Sherlock Frankenstein” is much duller and more generic than his name implied. That’s how superhero comics work.

And then we come to Sherlock’s big story: Sherlock Frankenstein and the Legion of Evil ! You can’t even say it out loud without adding a “bwa-ha-ha!” on the end! Surely this will be an epic story of villainy (presumably thwarted, but maybe not if he’s the title character) full of epic battles with do-gooders and prominently featuring the battle aftermath we see on the cover. If we like superhero stories – and why the hell else would we be reading Sherlock Fucking Frankenstein and the Motherfucking Legion of Evil if we don’t? – we’re keyed up for it.

Reader: that scene appears nowhere in the book. There isn’t a plotline that could lead to that scene. It presumably depicts some old battle of Sherlock against whatever the hell the WWII superhero team is called in this universe, in which some other superhero then came in from off the cover to save the day, hurrah! It’s purely a bait-and-switch, which sadly is also in the top five label ingredients of superhero comics. [1]

No, Sherlock Frankenstein and the Legion of Evil (bwa-ha-ha!) is actually a story that would more honestly be titled Black Hammer II: Lucy’s Quest or something along those lines. It is a sidebar to the main Black Hammer storyline – this phrasing implies there is a main Black Hammer storyline, and I’ve seen very little evidence of that in the first two volumes, but I’m willing to be generous – in which Sherlock is the McGuffin, not the main character. He’s the guy the narrative circles, and eventually shows up onstage at the end for an extended talking-heads sequence, but engages in exactly zero world-conquering plots and at no time uses an insectoid mechanized thing to defeat Golden Gail and whoever the hell the rest of the people on the cover are.

In the main Black Hammer story, a small band of heroes were transported to a farm on the outskirts of a rural town – which itself is in a pocket universe or something, so they can’t get out – a decade ago, after defeating not-Darkseid in the not-Crisis. The hero actually named Black Hammer was physically disassembled attempting to cross that pocket-universe border and get back to Spiral City, main venue for all the punching. Everyone in Spiral City believes all of the heroes were killed in “the event,” but the rest of the main cast is sure only Black Hammer is dead. (And we the readers realize he’s only as dead as any superhero character ever is: until his triumphant return.)

Black Hammer had a young daughter when he “died,” Lucy Weber. In the Black Hammer comics, we saw her, now a reporter in her early ’20s, do the spunky-reporter thing, find a way into the pocket universe, and take up her father’s hammer to become what has not yet been inevitably named Black Hammer II [2]. None of that is surprising or new.

This Sherlock Frankenstein series tells more of Lucy’s story: some of the things she did to learn about her father’s life before the final success we’ve already seen. Yes: it’s yet another fucking flashback. At this point, the entire Black Hammer saga is a loose tapestry of flashbacks held together by the thinnest possible “present-day” (probably actually mid-90s) story.

I’m half-expecting the gang will never leave the pocket universe, that every Black Hammer story will flash back more and more to tell smaller and smaller stories about things we really don’t care about. How Abraham Slam found boots that are comfortable and long-lasting! Barbalien’s first epic love story on earth in the 1950s! Talky-Walky’s brief spin-off, The League of Super-Robots! Mildly Unsettling Tales, hosted by Madame Dragonfly! All of them with titles that imply much more action and punching than we actually get.

Look: Jeff Lemire is an excellent writer. His people talk like human beings and have understandable motivations, which is rare in comics about punching. But this whole Black Hammer thing is a two-finger exercise that he seems to be doing in his sleep. There is nothing surprising or new or exciting about any of it; it doesn’t even have the usual energy and forward momentum that’s one of the major draws of the superhero comic.

It all also looks very nice: for this story, David Rubin provides full art and colors, and his dynamic layouts mostly hide the fact that this is a superhero story entirely about people talking to each other.

But I just don’t get it. I gather the appeal here is the “superhero universe” thing, to see Lemire spin out more variations on (mostly) DC Comics history, but there’s a gigantic actual DC Comics universe out there, with probably thousands of issues of comics (admittedly, written and drawn much more for socially maladjusted pre-teens of the 1970s, but with stories that actually go places and include vastly more of the punching that superhero fans crave) that people could be reading instead.

And naming this Sherlock Frankenstein and the Legion of Evil instead of Black Hammer, Vol. 3 leaves a bad taste in my mouth. This is not a standalone, it’s not about Sherlock, and he’s nothing like what “Sherlock Frankenstein” would imply to begin with. Frankly, it all feels like Lemire is trying to build an entire superhero universe out of the avoidance of finishing a single story.

But maybe it’s just that I don’t get how superhero universes work these days. Maybe this is all the point. It’s confusing, it doesn’t go anywhere, the character names are deliberately misleading, you have to follow the thinnest thread of story through a dozen books with confusing and changing titles, and you never get the big scene on the cover. Maybe Lemire is either just really good at doing what usually takes a whole Big Two bureaucracy or the whole thing is a deeply meta piss-take.

I doubt it. But maybe.

[1] What are the other two ingredients in the top five, you ask? Let’s say “silly costumes” and “problematic social attitudes,” today. I reserve the right to pick five entirely different ones tomorrow. Well, except for punching. Punching is like sugar in kid’s cereal: people who know better will always point out how unhealthy it is, but it’s the whole point of the thing.

[2] I think she will actually be the third, but I’m calling her Black Hammer II in all my Black Hammer posts because otherwise it’s just too damn silly and confusing. (Although “too damn silly and confusing” is roughly my take on nearly all superhero comics nearly all of the time.)

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

Black Orchid by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean

It’s a cliché now: the superhero story that makes a startling new origin or explanation for a character. But there was a time when it was new. There was even a time when it was reserved for minor, unimportant characters – it was too much of a risk to radically change anyone important.

We’re very far from that world now: it’s been gone for almost thirty years. Perpetual transformation of the most profitable characters is the standard. I assume the Big Two have wall-sized whiteboards to keep track of who’s currently dead, when they’re coming back, which are swapping races or genders or powers or doing heel/face turns, just so they don’t trip over themselves.

And if they don’t have whiteboards like that, they should. They need them.

But 1988 was the other side of that wave: it had just started. Alan Moore had done it with Swamp Thing, most obviously. And the glimmerings of the all-crisis-all-the-time world, of eternal reboots, was faintly visible in the passel of Secret Wars and John Byrne Superman. And the conveyor belt of all-new! all-different! minor characters was just starting.

One of them was Black Orchid , a three-issue series in the newly hot Prestige Format (forty-eight pages, perfect-bound, on fancy paper with a fancy price tag to match) by two British creators making their American debut: writer Neil Gaiman and artist Dave McKean.

Black Orchid was a definitively minor character: she didn’t even have an origin, she hadn’t had a comic named after her before. She was some kind of mob-infiltration expert, a mistress of disguise with some other powers (flight, toughness, giving and taking punches – the usual stuff). So she was perfect for the soon-to-be standard British Creator Makeover — there was very little to worry about.

So Gaiman killed Black Orchid in the opening pages. (Spoiler, I guess, for the set-up of a thirty-five year old story. Citizen Kane is about an old rich guy who owned newspapers; Star Wars is about this space farmboy named Luke; The Usual Suspects are criminals.) He connected her to a bunch of other DC characters, mostly through the Alan Moore Swamp Thing (probably because that was the current model of “treating superheroes seriously” or “making comics for adults”), giving her an origin that’s not a million miles away from Swampy himself.

Oh, the first Black Orchid was dead. And the woman she was based on was dead long before that. But you grow orchids. It’s not like there’s only one of them in the world.

There are supervillains doing supervillainy and some vague ecological stuff in the background, but this is mostly about new Black Orchid trying to figure out who the heck she is and what the heck she’s supposed to do. (In the end, it will be: fight crime in a skintight costume that shows off her tits, because DC wants to sell more comics. But that’s after this series is over.)

In some ways, Black Orchid is “The Anatomy Lesson” writ large, with the General Sunderland role broken up into several people, the “principle” one a much more important DC character. This is all origin story for a character we didn’t realize needed an origin.

It is lovely and mostly thoughtful: the adventure-story hugger-mugger sometimes tonally clashes with the “as a newborn plant-woman, who am I?” soul-searching. Gaiman admirably keeps his heroine from violence for the course of this story. (I have no idea what happened afterward: I assume she used her plant-based barely-covered tits to batter miscreants into submission like every other female superhero with strategic cutouts in her outfit.)

These days, Black Orchid is most interesting as a warm-up for The Sandman, which began soon after. It shows that Gaiman was already eager to dive into the obscure corners of DC lore, and that he wasn’t happy with the obvious story choices that universe provided. And McKean’s art is simply stunning: this was the high point of his realistic style, fully painted and drop-dead gorgeous in every panel, just as stunning as the better-known Arkham Asylum.

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

Hypnotwist / Scarlet by Starlight by Gilbert Hernandez

I feel like we’re all just supposed to know how to read Gilbert Hernandez’s “movie books,” even though they’ve never been clear, and their publisher (Fantagraphics) has stopped even mentioning the movie connection. These days, it seems to be just the distinctive end-papers that give us a clue, and then we’re on our own.

You see, Hernandez has been writing stories, in the various comics mostly named Love and Rockets, about a group of people, originally centered on the residents of a small South American town of Palomar though in recent decades shifting to the extended Southern California family of a woman named Luba who lived in Palomar for a long time. Luba’s younger half-sister, Fritz, had a career as a film actress: not a great career, and not a lasting one, but she made a bunch of movies. And Hernandez has not just told stories about Luba and Fritz and others – stories in their world, meant to be “true” as much as any fiction is – but also told stories retelling those movies, telling stories that are meant to be seen as fictional from a fictional world.

It’s complicated and knotty, and not explaining it in the books themselves makes it even weirder and complicated. The most recent, and most major, Maria M. , was the height of convolution, telling the movie version of Fritz’s mother’s life (with Fritz in that “role”), which readers of Love and Rockets had already seen the “real” version of, years before. Prior movie books were from “earlier in Fritz’s career,” when she did pulpier, less ambitious….OK, let’s say bluntly bad and derivative and exploitative movies: Chance in Hell and The Troublemakers  and Love from the Shadows . (And I can’t explain explain clearly how Speak of the Devil fits into this schema, either — I think it’s the “real” version of a story not about Fritz and Luba and company that was also made into a movie with Fritz, and maybe we saw some parts of that movie made in the main series.)

Hernandez was most active with these stories just over a decade ago – the first burst came out roughly every year, 2007 and ’08 and ’09 and ’11. Maria M. took longer to gestate. And, along the way, Hernandez also made two shorter movie stories, which have now been collected together in flip-book format.

That is Hypnotwist Scarlet by Starlight , both of which “star” Fritz as a major role, though (and maybe this is meaningful?) she doesn’t speak in either story. One is a pretentious movie that I don’t think Hernandez expects us to take entirely seriously. The other is a pulpy genre exercise.

And I still don’t get the point of either book, or of this entire sequence. Is it meant to be some kind of parallax view of specific events in the “real” story? Are they just goofy, clear-the-decks stories that Hernandez wants to get out of his head, and this is a way to tie them in? Or what?

Hypnotwist is the longer story, 59 pages long: it’s some kind of art film with no narration or dialog that follows a woman who may be dreaming, or sleepwalking, or hallucinating, or something. A sequence of surreal things happen, some of them sexual and/or violent, with some other characters reappearing and a central image of a creepily smiling face. Oh, wait! I forgot the magic shoes! She gets magic shoes at the beginning, and that might explain it all. If anything can explain anything here.

(You might have gathered that I don’t get this at all. Hernandez has done a bunch of dream-logic stories in his career, and I like looking at them and appreciate the visual inventiveness but never get anything specific out of any of them.)

Scarlet by Starlight is tighter, a ’50s-style space opera movie in 37 pages of comics – though, in the world of L&R, I guess it was made in the late ’90s. Three Americans are on an alien planet, researching something or other, two men and a woman. There are two seemingly-sapient races here, though neither can speak: the human-height and furred Forest People and the dwarfish pinkies. The humans have befriended the Forest People – well, at least the couple Scarlet (female, Fritz’s character) and Crimson and their children. The pinkies, though they seem to be more organized – they have a village with buildings, and a much deeper curiosity about the human’s technology – are considered basically vermin.

But then Scarlet comes into heat, I guess, and tries to have sex with one of the Americans, and it all goes to hell. There’s a lot of Hernandezian violence until the survivors are able to regroup with a Hollywoodesque happy ending. Again, Hernandez is not trying to present this as a good movie: rather the reverse.

I get the sense that Hernandez makes these stories either to scratch an itch to tell junky stories or to comment on junky stories, but I have no idea which, or if it’s both, or if those are the only two possibilities. I enjoy the way he moves characters around and evokes junky movies without ever getting a clear sense of why he thought spending months of his time to do this would be worthwhile.

It’s weird, man. The “movie books” are just an odd sequence of stories, and these two are the very weirdest of that sequence. People who like weird should dive in here; this book is about as bizarre and random as Hernandez gets.

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

A Gift for a Ghost by Borja Gonzalez

I’ve tagged this book fantasy, but that’s overstating it. This graphic novel has two storylines, in two different times – 1856 and 2016, in the same place, wherever that is – and the first scene has a mysterious character appearing in 1856.

I probably shouldn’t say more than that. But that character’s appearance is the fantasy element. It’s not otherwise a fantasy story. I say that in case it helps calibrate expectations.

That’s A Gift for a Ghost , the first full-length comics story by Spanish cartoonist Borja Gonzalez. This edition was translated by Lee Douglas. The character I alluded to is the ghost.

Well, maybe. That’s one way of interpreting it. There are many ways to give a gift to a ghost.

Teresa is the oddball sister in an aristocratic family in 1856, the one not named after a flower. She’s coming up on her debut, but would much rather write Poe-influenced poetry and spend time in her own head than practice her piano and brush up the other skills that will get her a proper husband. She likes to sneak out to walk in the quiet at night; she meets what looks like a talking skeleton in the first scene. Her story is about what happens next in her life: what her family demands and expects, or what she actually wants, if she can figure out what that is.

In 2016, there are three girls – probably about the same age Teresa was in 1856, sixteen to seventeen. Gloria, Laura, and Cristina. They hang out, wander around, try to figure out life. They’re forming a punk band, the Black Holes, and one of the girls is writing songs – they squabble about that, maybe, a bit. Their story is about secrets and their interactions: there’s less at stake, maybe. 

The two stories – they are both quiet, subdued stories, for all the teenage angst in both of them – intertwine, in ways that one would not expect across a hundred and sixty years. Gift is subtle and will not make itself obvious: if you’re looking for something flashy and obvious, you will not enjoy it.

Gonzalez’s art is equally subdued and quiet: he draws all of these young women (and all of the characters are young women) without faces. Does that make them unknowable? Or just distanced that much father, so the reader has to spend more energy to figure them out? That will for each reader to decide.

I found this book deep and resonant; I don’t think I got all it had to give, but I got enough to want to see what Gonzalez does next.

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

Black Hammer, Vol. 1: Secret Origins by Jeff Lemire, Dean Ormston, and Dave Stewart

So this is much more of a conventional superhero thing than I thought it was. Oh, it’s pretty good – Lemire is a strong writer, as always, and Ormston does that pseudo-horror look that is nearly a Dark Horse house style (or maybe just rules the Mignolaverse). But I was expecting something quirkier. (Note that Black Hammer is four years old. I had plenty of time to get more details; I just didn’t bother.)

It’s not clear if this was really a team. No name for the group is given in this first collection. But a half-dozen of the superheroes who used to defend Spiral City have been stuck on a farm somewhere in the middle of nowhere for ten years, after a battle with Darkseid “the Anti-God”. They saved the world, and ended up here. The creators don’t tell us how or why in this story – I’m sure it becomes clear later.

None of them are Black Hammer. Black Hammer isn’t the name of the group either. Black Hammer was another guy, the one who died as part of the whole saving-the-world thing. (Or maybe afterward, discovering that they really can’t get out of this small bit of farm landscape with one small town.) The actual hammer he used – this is a superhero comic, so obviously “Black Hammer” is a large Black man who carries a hammer to hit things with until evil is vanquished, because superhero comics are still written for the particularly stupid children of 1938 – is lying on the ground in a field, as if to shame Chekhov into thinking a gun on a mantlepiece could ever be sufficiently obvious.

Black Hammer, the series, is not exactly a pastiche – it’s not “doing the favorite superhero stories of my youth, only as if written by a functional adult” like Astro City has generally aimed for, or “I want to tell stories of these existing characters, but the IP owners haven’t hired me to do so, so decipher this really transparent code” like a dozen others. The characters are pastiches, though — most of them very obviously so:

  • Golden Gail is Mary Marvel, with the serial numbers crudely altered
  • Abraham Slam is the standard WW II strong guy, powered by gumption rather than magic or superscience
  • Barbalien, Warlord from Mars is J’onn J’onz lightly run through a Edgar-Rice-Burroughs-inator
  • Madame Dragonfly is Madame Xanadu with details changed, your standard ’70s horror host with weird and mysterious powers (and a tragic backstory involving accidentally creating a muck-monster boyfriend and eventually losing him)
  • Col. Weird is an ’80s-style reimagining of Adam Strange, transformed by his journeys through the Anti-Zone into a distracted, ghostly, transitory presence
  • Talky-Walky is Weird’s robot sidekick, more or less an equal member of the group on the farm
Black Hammer: Secret Origins  collects the first six issues of the main Black Hammer series, beginning when those six have been living on “The Farm” for ten years. Some of them may have been aging, such as Abraham (though this is unclear: we don’t know when this story takes place and he’s been around since 1939 without any powers to keep him young), while Gail has definitely not been aging, which is a plot point.
Speaking of the unclear timeline: Gail and Abe are clearly WWII heroes, with forty or fiftyish years of history behind them. That puts us in the ’80s or ’90s. Weird and Barbalien are ’50s characters with some history as well, Weird specifically a ’50s character with a later (’70s or ’80s) spin put on him. Dragonfly was probably the “newest” character if we think of them as being part of an established universe. But all of them probably had at least a decade’s worth of adventures behind them, and most of them multiple decades.
This is a combination “introducing the team” arc – they each get an extended flashback to show their origins and life back in Spiral City – and examination of how well they’re all getting along here on the farm. Abe is doing best: he’s making time with a local age-appropriate waitress (ex-wife of the unpleasant local sheriff) and finally gets into her pants during this story. Gail is doing worst: she’s stuck in the superhero body of her nine-year-old self and has been repeating the same grade in a crappy rural school every year. Barbalien might be becoming a churchgoer. Dragonfly is mystical and detached, and clearly has Deep Secrets that readers will need to wait to learn. Weird is barely sane at the best of times, fading in and out of reality. Talky is just keepin’ on keepin’ on.
Near the end, there is a Shocking Event from Outside, and everyone who has ever read a superhero comic will immediately see the next three or four plotlines coming out of that. (Most obviously: Black Hammer II! The sensational character find of whatever-the-hell-year-this-is!)
I’m being pretty dismissive here, because this is all very deeply derivative stuff. Lemire makes that clear in the sketches and other materials collected after the story: there are even ’80s DC Universe-style character sheets for all of the major characters (and several who didn’t make it in). The derivative-ness is the point. This is a story for people who want more stories about superheroes like these, written by someone who understands how actual human beings talk and drawn by someone who has experienced actual cast shadows, studied the ways clothing actually drapes, and experienced the touch of actual human women.
That is not my particular jam, but I’ve started this, so I think I’m going to try to read it far enough at least to see how they get back to Spiral City. (And how long Black Hammer I stays dead: my bet is not all that long.) But know that this is very much a “wouldn’t it be cool if Jeff Lemire could write without those suits at DC screwing it all up?” book.

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

Ascender, Vol. 1: The Haunted Galaxy by Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen

So I was, to put it mildly, not happy with the way Descender ended . I knew that there was a sequel to that series — this is it, Ascender — but I figured I would not be coming back after writer Jeff Lemire set up a Backswing Fantasy larger than any seen previously. (Larger both in the backswinginess and the fantasy: this is full-bore dragon-starship goofiness here.)

But the local library had a copy of Ascender, Vol. 1: The Haunted Galaxy , and that last Descender volume was literally the only time I’d read a Jeff Lemire comic and not really enjoyed it, so I thought I should give it a chance.

I tend to suspect the Descender/Ascender transition was the plan all along, since Ascender is not so much a thematic riff on Descender, or another story set in the “same” (vastly changed) universe, but a flat-out pure sequel. The main character of Ascender is Mila, the roughly nine-year-old daughter of Andy and Effie from Descender, and the main action of this volume is Andy and Mila running away from danger to get to another character we recognize from the previous volumes.

That is to say: you could start here, but starting here is not the point, and not the expectation. This is for people who read Descender. (And that makes me think, with my old fantasy-editor hat on, that this will want to be a trilogy eventually — what would that make the merged science/fantasy galaxy’s story? Leveler?)

You may have also noticed that Bandit, the robot dog, is on the cover along with Mila, so mentioning it shouldn’t be a spoiler. His arrival sets in motion the plot, which so far is running on the same kind of rails as Descender, with two cases of “that person has got to be dead” already showed prominently, one immediately subverted and the other obviously going in a very specific direction. It’s all a bit lazy and obvious, I’m sorry to say.

In related news, the Big Bad is a vampire queen named Mother – I guess it’s positive that she’s of the old and morbidly fat style of evil vampires, not the slim and seductive type? – who is the latest in a centuries-long series of vampire queens who apparently immigrated in from some other universe between the end of Descender and this book. (Seriously, there’s nowhere in the universe shown in Descender they could have been. I’ll buy “the universe flipped to magic, and now we have vampires!” but not “oh, and they’re centuries old, because they were actually .”) She is casually cruel to her underlings and rules the galaxy with a bloated fist, because of course she does, and she somehow did all this in less than a decade.

There are Rebels, because any Star Wars-inspired story worth its salt has to have them, and they are obviously the good guys. Mila will join them, eventually, but probably not until book three – my guess is that she meets them in passing in book two, maybe with her keepers at the time getting into a violent disagreement with the Rebels, and then that has to be papered over later. The Rebels have a secret Sorcerer leader, whom the evil vampire queen is of course insane to find and kill, but said sorcerer does not seem to be actually good enough at the sorcery thing to make the Rebels any kind of match for the Forces of Evil.

(Oh, and the sorcerer is almost certainly a robot. My money is on Tim-21, but it’s definitely not going to be a new character. I expect his big reveal will be at the end of one of the volumes: maybe two, more likely three.)

Ascender looks wonderful, moves quickly, and is full of action, adventure, and vigor. It’s also hugely derivative and barely exists as a thing of its own, being a Descender remix by DJ Star Wars using beats from several hundred years of generic horror. I may read more of it, if I can keep getting it from the library, but I’ll be damned if I’ll spend money on this.

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