Saturday, December 20, 2008

Grant Morrison - "In every style and fashion" part 3


Yet, it was Morrison's stint on "J.L.A." that made him so interesting to Marvel's new editorial. Proving his worth to the company on 2000's "Marvel boy" and "Fantastic Four: 1234" mini-series, he was paired with Frank Quitely, and given wide-berth to reinvent the company's second biggest franchise, "the X-Men" (retitled "New X-Men" to mark the occasion). Once again, Morrison devoted his energies to telling a complete story in the span of several years, with perhaps the biggest amount of creative freedom he enjoyed until that time on a major superhero title.

The fans immediately took notice, and Morrison was bold enough to try and pitch a "Nick Fury" ongoing series in 2002. The attempt got so far as to have the short story prologue in an anthology title, but was shot down quickly before his plans gestated into a finished new first issue. Once again reminded of the corporate-organized mindset that makes even the most daring publishers fall in the overprotective state when it comes to their decades old superhero licenses, Morrison re-tooled his submissions and published his story in Vertigo, as "the Filth", penciled by Chris Weston. To this day, this maxi-series remains one of Morrison's most ambitious works, and while it doesn't rely on the readers' outside knowledge the way "the Invisibles" did, it's still full of mad ideas fired at a rapid succession in midst of chaotic plots and the whole that is anything but easy to understand.

Thus it was that restricted to only writing one ongoing series at Marvel, Grant Morrison focused all his attention on "the New X-Men", doing his own take on the characters' most famous story-arcs, while turning the book into a real SF comic with evolution as it's main theme. The stories were well-received by a large auditorium, prompting Marvel to experiment with a bi-weekly schedule during most of his run on the title, in the process losing Frank Quitely as the main artist. Editorial decision led to cases of uneven art produced by some of the freelancers working extremely short deadlines.

Still, Morrison was determined to further develop some of his ideas back at Vertigo, such as "We3", a concept originating in one of his "New X-Men" arcs.

Grant Morrison - "In every style and fashion" part 2


By the time Morrison's run on "Doom patrol" ended in 1993, it was clear that Morrison was not only a fan of superheroes in all their multiple incarnations, but a deep thinker with a penchant for writing experimental works, that challenge their readers and serve as the examples of the medium at it's very best. It was logical then that he was made part of DC's new mature readers oriented "Vertigo" imprint. Morrison started out with "Sebastian O", a steampunk mini-series that used Oscar Wilde's writings as a starting point, instead of the usual Conan Doyle/HG Wells motifs. It was another collaboration with "Zenith"'s Steve Yeowell, and although fun and very witty, it is definitely the 1994's "Mystery play" graphic novel that shows us the most of Morrison's versatility at the time.

Writing a slow-building drama with deep religious undertones, with "Mystery play" Morrison presented us with a detective story that takes a simple idea and makes the most of it, in the stark contrast to his usual kaleidoscopic storytelling. The work shined under John J Muth's painted approach, in a way not seen since "Arkham asylum".

It is at the same time then, that Morrison attempted his most-ambitious creator owned work, the much-debated "Invisibles". At all times both heavily referential to Morrison's inspirations, and deeply personal, Morrison's three volume magnum opus stands to this day as a series that is extremely hard to understand. The ever changing staple of artists did nothing to help the book settle into a specific atmosphere, except for the period when it was penciled by Phil Jimenez. And yet, the basic plots, while often very complex, could be understood as easily as a new James Bond adventure. Prepared to present his readers with his own take on conspiracies, magic and religion, Morrison was always careful to keep the characters front and center, layering his meanings beneath the bed of psychedelic spy thrillers. And yet, while most of the series is notoriously hard to understand for someone uninitiated in Morrison's reading background, it also spotlights perhaps the first notable example of the writing style that is currently leaving his readers so perplexed.

"The Invisibles" v1 #12, "the Best man fall" is a single issue story focusing on the bit player henchman dispatched in "the Invisibles" v1 #1. What is interesting about this tale, beyond the gimmick that could have made it a mere fill-in issue in a lesser title, is that Morrison makes himself work in a very odd format, presenting every scene as it flashes before the dying man's eyes. This makes for a very haphazard storytelling, that is at the same time engrossing on its own, as the readers are witnessing the scattered memories of one whole life. Steve Parkhouse's artwork is at the same time very realistic but still distorted just enough that Morrison's bitter-sweet dialogue comes through in a way that the complete experience is that of a success, largely because of the focus on the main character whose fears and relationships we visit in such a novel way.

The remaining years of Morrison's first staying at DC, since 1997 and until the completion of "the Invisibles" were spent concurrently writing "J.L.A.", DC's flagship superhero title, with Howard Porter's passable but unremarkable art. And yet, for all the fame that assignment brought him, along with his collaboration with Mark Millar on "the Flash" (they were asked to do a short run while Mark Waid takes a break from the regular scripting duties), the more technically innovative Morrison could be read in the reprints of another early Vertigo oneshot.

"Kill your boyfriend" debuted at roughly the same time as "the Invisibles", but brings to the fore a wholly different side to Morrison's writing at the time. A fierce tongue-in-cheek farce, "Kill your boyfriend" is another very British offering, mixing together the teenage side of the rebellion to the society's norms Morrison so often writes about, with the Bonny and Clyde satire satire right out of Terrence Mallick's "Badlands". Rarely has Philip Bond illustrated a script so in tune to his own quirky sensibilities, and the creators collectively brought to fore a story so innovative that it brings to mind "the Clockwork orange".

Grant Morrison - "In every style and fashion" part 1

Grant Morrison has always been an inventive storyteller, with something of a heady and ambiguous note to his scripts. This made his already ambitious comics something of a hard thing to get for a large portion of the audience. Yet, it seems that as his profile has been increased, that the complaints have gotten louder, to the point that now, when he writes DC's flagship titles in a very stylized way, even some of his old-time fans are protesting. So how did Morrison end up with his current narrative tics that cause such controversy?

the Early years

The most acclaimed and popular of Morrison's British works, and what eventually brought him to attention of DC comics, was "Zenith". Starting in 1987, "Zenith" was serialized in four "phases", story lines that ran in the US weekly anthology "2000 AD". It consisted of Morrison and artist Steve Yeowell turning the genre conventions upside down, while presenting the readers with a superhero acting like a rockstar. "Zenith" was a complex tale, consisting of monsters straight from the stories of P.H. Lovecraft invading the bodies of superheroes, along the way tying together everything from Captain America homages to rock stars and magic. In its third phase, "Zenith" spotlighted a "Crisis"-like event, gathering homages to most of UK's comic book heroes, which is seemingly what made the American superhero publisher seek him out.

Benefiting from the attention Alan Moore had gained to the UK writers, Morrison was asked to pitch a reinvention of one of DC's superheroes. He opted for "Animal man", producing a 1988 mini-series that remade the character as an animal activist. DC chose to continue with the series, but Morrison had much more ambitious plans. Plotting a course for the next two years on the title, the writer went in for a very ambitious post-modern take, taking the previously light-hearted meta fictional elements of Silver Age to the extreme. The stories were penciled mainly by Chas Truog, starting the trend of fast and sketchy artists illustrating Morrison's stories.

Still, despite not opting to pair him with an A-list penciler, DC liked Morrison's approach so much, they made him a writer of another concurrent ongoing title, "the Doom patrol". Starting in 1989, Morrison, aided by Richard Cased on the art, did his take on one of the weirdest superhero teams, digging in whole-heartedly at the characters' core as freaks and outsiders, all the while employing even more elaborate literary techniques. Still, despite all of the philosophical themes that he exposed his readers to, exploring the comparisons between reality and fiction, Morrison still stuck to the genre conventions, building all of his narrative structures atop the traditional superhero storytelling conventions.

Taking these multi-year epic stories into account, it's interesting how a simple tale, serialized in Trident (a British anthology title at the time), can shed a lot of light on Morrison's creative process. "St. Swithin's day is a short semi-autobiographical story, illustrated by Paul Grist in an alternate style that brings to mind Hernandez brothers and other independent comics at the time. A very moody and sincere piece, "St. Swithin's day" reads like a stream of conscience piece, dealing front and center with a position of a young man in Thatcher's Britain. Thus, it stands in stark contrast to Morrison's superhero deconstructions and the heavily detailed and layered approach that has characterized so much of his work before and since.

"Arkham asylum", a Batman graphic novel Morrison wrote and Dave McKean gorgeously painted is perhaps the best example of the state his writing style at the time. The story is rich with details and allusions, common to all of Morrison's work that just bursts with creativity, and yet a lot of ideas are shown briefly in passing, as he maintains the basic plot, that of Batman trying to find his way out of the lunatic asylum his enemies have barricaded themselves into.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Criminal "Bad night"

Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' "Criminal" has just concluded it's latest storyline, and considering that the book's going on hiatus while the authors develop the "Incognito" project, I thought it was a good time to look back on the storyline as a whole.

By now, it's apparent that "Criminal" is a critical darling, even though it's selling modestly, making it's readers always consider the threat of the book's cancellation. Fearing this, the authors have gone on and re-branded the book in the new volume, starting off with three inter-connected issues, that examined some of the previously seen minor players. Starting with #4, and continuing until the just released #7, the authors have once again dug their teeth into a more traditional neo-noir story, similar in execution to the two tales featured in the first volume of the series.

Once again, "Bad night" spotlights one of the bit players involved with the previous protagonist's shady dealings, which is a bit of a risky move. Having a creator-owned book in American superhero-dominated comics publishing is a very brave move, but the lack of editorial concern seems to have pushed Brubaker and Phillips to really try their luck, going against all the commercial considerations, with starting a new volume that does not immediately continue with either Leo Patterson or Tracy Lawless.

In fact, all of the "Criminal" arcs so far, expertly paced as they are, take as much time to read, as one needs to watch a movie. Continuing with this line of thinking, what the creators have given us three stories that can stand on their own, but are also meant to be continued at the later date. Craftily put, and soaking in just the right atmosphere, "Criminal" does manage to hide this quirk very well, but the "stop and start" manner with which Brubaker has told his story so far has certainly made it's mark on the book.

Getting to "Bad night" specifically, the first cover almost tells the story itself. The ones that follow are nice to look at, but the first one continues in the tradition of iconic covers that the preceding three issues started, although they were painted pieces to boot. Right on the first page one is treated with the heavy narration that serves to set up the story's feel, much alike to "the Watchmen"'s opening monologue. It's eventually revealed that it's no accident Brubaker started his story at that exact moment, but going from panel to panel, the reader can't escape getting back into the creators' capable hands, as the faces of Sean Phillips' scratchy and evocative figures serve as a great reminder of the strength of Marvel's lone realistic series.

Continuing on, we are eased into the captions, as they are our only way in getting to understand the main character Jacob's introvertive mind a little bit better. A former counterfeit, he has since changed his ways, and has become a reclusive writer/artist of the newspaper strip seen from the start of the first volume. We are taken on Jacob's daily routine, and can't help but sympathize with the self-pitying intellect forced into an insomniac's recluse. Staying true to the noir conventions, a femme fatale and hints of violence soon threat to break his exile, making us think that the story will proceed with the "will he or won't he" get back to his murky past.

And, that's where the book starts to show itself for the deeply-layered and heavily thought out piece of fiction that it is. We are treated with more and more information about Jacob's past, his wife and the tragedy that left him crippled, but even though he soon gets finds himself in midst of some very turbulent events, the twists just keep on coming. Thus, we are forced to deal with both constantly revaluating Jacob's complex character, all the while fearing for his life as the complex scheme in which he has run into keeps getting more and more familiar, as it starts relating more and more to the events that made him the man who he is today.

And that's the kind of book "Criminal" is. In "Bad night", Brubaker and Phillips keep with the more realistic take seen in the preceding three issues, making what's left of the violence past the numerous threats horrible and wrapped tight with foreboding consequences. The characters remain human throughout, struggling with neuroses and sexual impulses, as they long for another second chance, before making yet another mistake that makes it slip away again. The book retains the surface stylings of the genre, but just like men that hound them at every turn, the women are anything but perfect, as the objectification is skipped for a realistic take most signified by the strip-bar and the sad hookers that make their money there.

For all of the narration, Brubaker chooses his words expertly, and "Bad night" is never boring or cumbersome. Just the opposite, in fact, as the writer's so skilled at the way he tells his stories, that he repeatedly keeps the reader going with him until he pulls a twist on us, seemingly from nowhere, yet perfectly fitting the story he's telling. Sean Phillips, pressed as he is to deliver his story in small panels, makes the most of it, giving us all the claustrophobia and grime he is able to conjure with his pencils.

The pace is unrelenting up to the final panel, slowing down only for the moments of gradual realization as both the parts us readers and Jacob, try to get to the bottom of the mystery forced upon him. It's a very painful experience for the protagonist, though, as he is made victim to a series of events, seemingly interconnected with him. As they keep on piling, Jacob himself is urged to snap from the shell he's retreated in, as the links to his past are made more and more apparent. It's impossible to imagine this story being told through any other protagonist, but Brubaker and Phillips are more than capable of turning him inside out, along with the femme fatale Iris that he concentrates on saving, oblivious to the hurt directed towards him, for his past misdeeds.

Thus, "Bad night" ends up an expert character study, that starts protagonist viewing himself as a victim, and goes a long way towards making him responsible for the mistakes in his life, along with a healthy dose of irony heaped his way.

It's unfortunate that the book is forced to take a hiatus, as Brubaker and Phillips proceed to develop the "Incognito" mini-series, but we as readers have every hope that afterwards they will pick up on this excellent story and continue along the book's seminal "Lawless" arc.

"Criminal" continues to be one of the rare cases of solid storytelling all around, making for the book that stands shoulder to shoulder with Vertigo's "Scalped" as one of the best comics currently published in American market.

Friday, December 5, 2008

the Mortal Iron Fist

The just concluded "Mortal Iron Fist" story-arc numbers #17-20 of Marvel's Immortal Iron Fist comic, an action book working closely to it's original martian-arts films inspiration. It's also the first storyline of the new creative team, Duane Swierczynski and Travel Foreman. The duo had a difficult task, seeing as how the preceding run by Brubaker, Faction and Aja made such a big impression on fans and critics, in the process rehabilitating Marvel's long-time 2nd tier character. In his departing oneshot, Matt Fraction left Swierczynski with a great foundation to build on, ending on a cliffhanger that the new writer immediately picks up on. Avoiding huge changes to the already working set-up, Marvel has ended up with a book that proceeds smoothly from what went on before, not forgetting a single plot tread left in the air.

Nevertheless, the story is framed around the event that supposedly takes place 10 years in the future, that serves as little more than the window-dressing to try and achieve a bit of the tension right from the start. Knowing how the comic book business is run, it's clear that the succeeding writers won't have much respect for such restricting story-telling conventions, rendering the whole exercise superflous. Thankfully, very little space is taken with this exercise, as the story moves back to present-day, rendered in Foreman's style concentrating on bold, stylized, that brings to mind Leinil Francis Yu. From then on, save for the one page devoted to it in the last issue, the story stays in the now, undercut only by a few standard flashbacks depicting the troubles of Orson Randall, as well as the extended recollections of the final days of Kwai Jun-Fan, a 19th century Iron Fist.

The book flashes back to these short 4-page sequences every issue, all depicted by Russ Heath. Contrary to the previous creative team's used of this convention, Swierczynski uses it to tell a story that not only parallels Danny Rand's tribulations, but brings also depicts the new villain's history in a very organic way. Indeed, this whole segment of the book functions much better than what was established before, it does not suffer from the slow pace and the sense of false importance that the previous team's flashbacks carried. Kwai Jun-Fan's final fate is depicted in a manner that grabs the reader's attention from the start, without making us wish the creators should just get on with the present story already.

Danny Rand's front and center of the creators' attention, with a supporting cast made up mostly of a small circle of his superhero friends, along with a few employees of the Rand corp. Celebrating his thirty third birthday (which roughly corresponds with the number of years since the character was created, hinting that the plot originated with the first issue of the current series), he's shocked to discover that none of the champions that preceded him have managed to live past that point in life. In typical superhero fashion, he does not waste too much time on pondering the mid-life crisis, as the villain of the piece shows up to help Danny externalize and confront his fears.

Everything we are introduced to in "the Mortal Iron Fist"'s beginning pays off until the end of the arc, be it the true alliances of Danny's two new employees, or the state of his on again, off again relationship with Misty Knight. Of course, the book doesn't fail to entertain with the obligatory fighting sequences, but they are usually spaced in complicated double-page layouts, that lack energy and the kung-fu action movie flair that David Aja depicted so well.

The only major problem lies with the villain of the piece, who remains a bit bland despite all of the threat he poses and is defeated in a way that feels to easy. The critical part of the story-arc somehow drops the ball on Danny actually being in grave danger, largely due to the supporting cast, that takes gets dragged too much in Danny's fights, stacking the odds in his favor a bit too much. Still, the creators promise that the villain will be back, hopefully in a manner that is memorable in a way that is not only visual.

The overall feel of the book is very entertaining, and the new creative team goes out of their way to include as much of previously established characters as settings as possible. In the process, the seeds are sown for not only the return of the villain and the Danny's blossoming relationship with Misty, but also for his compatriots' other Immortal weapons search for the Eight mystical city, that all seem very promising. These plots points, and indeed, the whole manner of storytelling at hand is very fast-paced, and jumps around a lot, but is always kept very clear, as Swierczynski goes out of his way to assure the readers that the book they like remains in capable hands. In fact, at one point he overdoes this, as the book could have done without the sequence featuring Orson Randall's confidante Ernst.

Travel Foreman's art remains strong and steady, a relief after the art jam that made reading the previous story-arc so difficult. The sparse backgrounds are hidden from the readers' eyes by the palette of colors that is both energetic and aggressive, ie. perfectly suitable for the book involving kung-fu superheroes. There are some panels where Foreman's angular style works better than in the others, as some of the exaggerations don't come off as looking too sleek, but overall the book is in good hands, and we can only hope that Marvel finds a way to prevent the delays that characterized the first couple of years of it's existance.

Throughout, the story retains it's particular feel, one that is wholeheartedly in synch with the Iron Fist mythos, proceeding briskly with twists and turns. A lot of exposition is told in a really accessible way, all the while Swierczynski prepares the foundation for future stories. Let's hope that both creators continue their hard work on the book, as the Ed Brubaker's, Matt Fraction and David Aja's re-imagination of Iron Fist continues in a really solid way.

Judging by the recent Orson Randall Special, the readers have nothing to fear, as both Swierczynski and Marvel seem very clear on the fun, pulpy tone that is making this book stay one of the best and most innovative titles among the superhero comics.