Friday, December 11, 2009

Immortal weapons #1-5

Marvel's decision to solicit "Immortal Iron fist"#27 as the series' final issue caused quite a bit of confusion with the fans. The new creative team had worked on the book for less than a year when the company apparently decided to cancel the title, without any kind of advance announcement. This kind of behavior is standard when it comes to low-selling titles, but "Iron Fist" has thus far been a very well reviewed book, whose latest incarnation had actually received quite a bit of care from the editorial. By the time #27 was published, Marvel had made clear that they plan to continue the property through a spin-off mini series.

In any event, it was hard to read the issue itself and not draw parallels to #16, the ending of the Brubaker/Fraction/Aja era. Once more, the reader was treated to multiple pencillers working on a single story, albeit with a very clear purpose. By tying up the Hydra subplot, the series' regular writer Duane Swierczynski, made for an action-packed story, that served as a temporary ending. Yet, providing the finale to a cancelled book that was both unrushed and filled with a proper sense of closure seemed a far cry from Matt Fraction and David Aja's last issue, published a year before. Certainly, by #27 the creative team of Duane Swiercynski and Travel Foreman's seemed to have given their best to tie up all of the plot strands introduced since the series' beginning.

For all intents and purposes, the immediate future of Iron Fist was to be decided by the success of the "Immortal weapons" mini-series.

In many ways, it made a lot of sense for Marvel to green light the project. After all, as supporting characters, Immortal Weapons were very well received, with Fat Cobra particularly standing out as an early favorite. After months of rumors around some kind of Special issue devoted to Iron Fist's fellow champion, it only made sense that he was the first to be spotlighted when the mini-series was finally announced. Interestingly, the company opted to have a different creative team tackle each of the episodes, with the departing Iron Fist creators providing a back-up story that linked the five parts together.

Interestingly, despite the attachment of Jason ("Scalped", "Ghost rider") Aaron on writing the debut issue, the pages were still divided amongst seven different pencillers, thus providing no break from the artist mash up that has characterized so much of the parent series. Nominally, Mico Suayan lent his talents to visualizing the present day sequences, which ended up as being little more than a frame around which Aaron structured his writing to encompass a wide variety of characters and events.

The writer tried for a very peculiar combination of comedy and pathos to create a unique story, that mashed perfectly with the Iron Fist mythology. By presenting Fat Cobra as a more fully developed, Aaron set himself a potentially risky task of ruining the comic relief that has characterized the Immortal Weapon thus far. He tried to smoothen out the balance by paying homage to various historic highlights, both real and Marvel universe-related. In any event, the controversial story managed to clearly set up the character's native Capital city of Heaven, and his rise to power as the martial arts champion.

Jason Aaron's contribution stands out as the strongest and best structured of the bunch, as the rest of the creative teams seemed much more concerned with working in almost an anthology format. This is perhaps the clearest in the mini-series' second issue, centered around the Bride of Nine Spiders.

By pairing the novice writer Cullen ("the Damned") Bunn, with the industry veteran Dan ("the Nocturnals") Brereton, the editorial seemingly gave them the freedom to flesh out a mysterious and largely underdeveloped character. Unfortunately, the resulting work brought fourth some of the mini-series' largest flaws, both in the concept and the realization.

Nominally, the story pays tribute to the mysterious lineage of exotic warriors, which is tied to the present in a much more active way than the Fat Cobra outing. Unfortunately, all of this ends up as mere window dressing for a traditional pulp tale that aspires to nothing much as entertain readers before it ends on a very predictable note. Contrary to Aaron, Bunn limits his world building to the tropes necessary to sell his McGuffin, in the process shortchanging the title character. Not only does the writer forgo to use this first chance to shed light on Bride of Nine Spiders' origin and her rise to power, but he effectively turns her into a one-note villain in this glorified haunted house scenario. Instead, the focus is shifted to a bland team of mercenaries caught up in the dealings of shady occult connoisseurs, previously unheard of in the Marvel universe.

Clearly, when introducing so many new characters in the space of a single plot-oriented 30-page story, the weight of the character building falls on the shoulders of the artist. In his place, Brereton tries his best to live up to his creative partner's strange edicts, adding his warm and fluid style to the proceedings. Considering that the story takes place entirely in our world, the artist's tries his best to add some suspense to the typical surroundings of a mysterious mansion. The reader only has Brereton to thank that the story this filled with hallucinations works as clear as it does. The artist is particularly to be commended for his ability to delineate the faces of four mercenaries so that there is no confusion among identifying the principal players in many of the story's strange twists.

Unfortunately, the production seems to have had endured some problems, as no less than three different inkers were brought in to help smoothen out the story. Combining the work of Tom Palmer, Stefano Gaudiano and Mark Pennington brings a very uneven result. Perhaps the problem was as simple as the penciller needing more time with the story, forcing him to send some of the pages over to his collaborators in the layout stage. Whatever the reason, colorist Paul Mounts tries his best to make for a cohesive experience, but in the end the story simply never rises above it's humble aspirations.

The third story at least gets back to the mini-series' presumable intent, introducing Dog Brother #1, and explaining the concept behind him. Rick ("Black metal") Spears and returning "Immortal Iron Fist" artist Timothy Green II go even further to distance themselves from the previous issue, as their story draws heavily from a particular historical milieu.

By placing their story in Hong Kong, following the First Opium War, the creators set out to work in as much real world elements, hoping for an emotional climax that stems from the confrontation of the characters' hopes and dreams against their cruel reality. This is a very peculiar place to set a story featuring an Immortal Weapon, in a way trying for the opposite effect when compared to the Fat Cobra issue. Unfortunately, Spears' story doesn't feature a new Capital city of Heaven at all, as the concept of Dog brother #1 seems completely tied up with the urban legends of Hong Kong's underworld. And while it works to propel the story, it makes it very unclear as to how the title character even ties to the concept of Immortal weapons, as established in the previous Iron Fist stories.

Still, taken on it's own, it does make for an emotional comic. Green II's wispy detailed figures strike an almost mathematical balance between the simple moments of hopeful conversation and the complicated chaos that separates the main characters' dreams from reality. Edward Bola's coloring works to give the story an added sense of urgency and atmosphere, always set on highlighting the penciller and inker's distinctive art style. This leads to perhaps the most visually innovative issue of the mini-series, which so far seems to happen with all of Timothy Green II's work.

In the end, the creators end up trying their best at telling a coming of age story in the confined space of an extended comic-book issue. While this might make for some simplifications, they only add up to the mythical dimensions their tale achieves in the end.

Interestingly, the fourth issue features the regular "Immortal Iron Fist" writer Duane Swiercynski extending his commitment above the back-up strip. Working on the main feature, spotlighting the Tiger's beautiful daughter is also Khari Evans, no stranger to the mythos, and actually one of the fill-in pencillers of the very first issue of the "Immortal weapons" mini-series.

Unsurprisingly, the writer uses his chance to really spotlight the character's origins and birthplace, setting all of his story on a different plane of existence. Unfortunately, this is exactly the reason why the story becomes one of the weakest entries in the series, albeit for some very peculiar reasons. Perhaps the writer felt slighted at the fact that the tale of Tiger's beautiful daughter stands full seven pages shorter than any of the main stories of her four fellow Immortal weapons. Or it just may be that he found little to relate to with this particular Brubaker/Fraction creation, but it's no excuse for turning in a surprisingly underdeveloped premise.

By placing most of his story on a particular event, Swierczynski obviously opted to make it very clear how the defining events of a future champion's life took place. Still, setting the tale in the distant past doesn't become a problem by itself, it's just that the basic idea behind it needed a lot more work to succeed in this particular form. And while the writer certainly lays in the necessary character work and some heavy foreshadowing, it's just that the big reveal still makes very little sense. Choosing to unravel a horrible secret hidden from an exotic civilization is always a hard proposition in a fantasy story. With Tiger's beautiful daughter, it certainly seems that the creative team decided to forgo spending more time on depicting the deep cultural implications realistically involved with a centuries' old civilization to center on a quick, character-oriented piece.

And even as such, it's hard to take the story seriously. Because, for all of the distinctive character work Khari Evans does with depicting the faces of the islanders, the book suffers from the typical problems with the depictions of females in mainstream comic books. Namely, and predictably, it settles for depicting the title character's famed duty in the constant state of near undress that is supposedly in keeping with her place at the start of the story. The problem is that, for all of her character arc, there is no real excuse for the bevy of familiar heavily poised work that has traditionally done a great disservice to the medium's wider acceptance. Moreover, it lends the book a feeling of a "Witchblade" clone, that the near constant lack of backgrounds only works to accentuate. Unfortunately, this also leads to the lack of any kind of distinctive ambiance to the otherworldly locales, that end up becoming little more then an abstractly rendered generic tropic paradise.

Taken as a whole, it could be even said that the story actively undermines the Tiger's beautiful daughter's potential by robbing her of whatever mystique she had, while saddling her with a very problematic back story in an issue that seems to under perform at all counts.

Finally, the series' last creative team end up being a combination of veteran David ("Stray bullets") Lapham, and Arturo Lozzi, once again a penciller/inker who helped out with the initial episode spotlighting Fat Cobra. They are tasked to spotlight Prince of orphans, ironically the only one of the Weapons that has actually been a subject of a special focus. Following the "Orson Randall and the green mist of death", that extensively featured John Aman, a reworking of the Golden Age character of Amazing-Man.

For their credit, the creators present a perfectly serviceable kung fu comic, that might have worked seamlessly as a fill-in in the "Immortal Iron fist" ongoing series. Interestingly, Lapham decides to use the Iron Fist himself as the reader identification figure, perhaps to preserve some of Prince of orphans' spectre-like intrigue. Interestingly, the superhero version of Danny Rand he writes at the beginning of the comic is much more in tune with the classical take on the character. Ignoring his appearances in New Avengers, Lapham initially has his wise-cracking Iron Fist teamed up with Power Man. By having the New York based Danny travel to China by plane the story's tone actively clashes with the current version of the character, that is very much in keeping with the Orient of pulp traditions.

Truthfully, all of the script guidance Lapham gives his penciller seems so iconic that it appears somewhat simplistic compared to the regular series' particular well-research blend of fiction and mythology. Interestingly, none of this hinders Lozzi, who turns out page after page of well-rendered and richly detailed adventure comics. In fact, aided by June Chung's effective coloring, his work takes a particularly special sheen that makes the last issue in the mini-series somehow most fitting when judged by traditional standards of superhero comic book art.

Yet, for all of it's striking visuals and general competence, the Lapham/Lozzi collaboration ends up being defined by what it could have been. For all of using John Aman in a perfectly capable way, perhaps the editorial should have taken note to spotlight a completely different character, namely Iron Fist's nemesis Steel Phoenix. By utilizing what has become a complex moral figure, Marvel could have shed more light on his current position. Ideally, this last could have become a perfect vehicle for Duane Swierczynski and Travel Foreman to provide a clear picture of where they would be willing to take the mythos next to, providing Marvel entrusted them with another take on the "Immortal Iron fist".

On the other hand, getting to review their own back-up strip as a whole reveals some rather unexpected surprises. In order to ensure the fans' continued support, Marvel thought to add the canceled series' creators' new Iron Fist story as a recurring feature in the back of the five otherwise unconnected oneshots. Duane Swiercynski's work on the Tiger's beautiful daughter story notwithstanding, the 'Caretakers' seemed poised to prove why this creative team should be handed back the direction of a new ongoing series, should the editorial decide to try again with the concept anytime soon.

Bizarrely, the result is a very simple tale, about a neighborhood superhero and his influence on the community. In some ways, with the Harlem children relying so much on Danny, it brings to mind the Spears/Green II's Dog brother #1 outing. "Caretakers" strives for a much more realistic approach though, in keeping with the "Powerman and Iron Fist", but again ends up being something else altogether. With it's melodrama and the intense social focus, it brings to mind nothing less than the heavily handed moralizing of Danny O'Neill and Neil Adams' "Green Lantern/Green Arrow".

It doesn't help that artist Travel Foreman gets abruptly replaced after only two installments of very slick and controlled linework, giving way to a completely different art style. The mid-story replacement by Hatuey Diaz works to somehow bring the story's simplicity to the fore, revealing a fairly typical plot at it's heart. With a focus on expressing the turmoiled feelings of his morally conflicted protagonists, the replacement artist works to show a realistic atmosphere, centered on the characters' anguished faces, as they are trapped in the claustrophobic panel layouts. Interestingly, the action packed Foreman installments similarly change up as the loftier concerns start dominating the story.

Diaz's rendition of the Iron Fist's shaggy, ill-fitting mask drives home the uneven quality of the story, as it's heart wrenching slice of life elements feel somewhat stinted and cliched when placed in the milieu of a 30-page Iron Fist adventure. Interestingly, Swierczynski fails to utilize Misty Knight's pregnancy as the plot point, preferring to make what could be his last take on Danny Rand a very unsubtle outing trying for social relevance. In comparison, the Dog brother #1 outing had at least shifted the real life circumstances to a more unique historical perspective, while never forgetting the myth of mystical warriors implied in the book's premise. It's puzzling to see it all traded for a scenario in which a friendly teacher hopes his enthusiasm will make up for the incompetence when it come to helping the neighborhood childrn in a situation he inadvertly created.

Perhaps the Swierczynski/Foreman creative team's original decision was to balance the more fantastic Immortal weapons lead stories with a more down to Earth approach, but it never truly materializes into an honest piece. More importantly, the Caretakers' natur as low-key sid story happens in a very speciic time in the title's history, hen the creative team's single purpose shoud be nothing less than trying to keep the book published.

Taken as a whole, the "Immortal weapons" mini-series unfortunately doesn't rise above the level of a disposable Iron Fist anthology. By hiring diverse creators with varying degrees of care for the concept, on the whole Marvel seems to have got a little more than several generic pulpy Asian tales. In the current market, the book seems to have needed the direction of a singular creative team in order to make it clear why the story matters and where is it going next. By hoping to experiment with using several different combinations of freelancers, the editorial seemingly failed to attract any of the new creators to really invest in the creative overhaul, leaving the stories to stand on their own. In effect, this has made "the Immortal weapons" less than a sum of it's parts, which didn't even try to make a case for a potential ongoing series starring the new characters, but in turn the mini has quite possibly damaged the overall Iron Fist publishing plan.

The only indication into the property's future past the completion of the limited series, seems to lie with the ambiguous role Danny Rand recently played as a guest star. "Thunderbolts"#137, by all accounts a fill-in issue providing a break between the passing of the old creative team and the start of the new direction, ended up featuring the Heroes for hire. Working from a "New Avengers" plot line involving Luke Cage, Rick Remender and Mahmud Asrar provided for a seemingly one-time reunion between Powerman and Iron Fist.

The controversial issue aside, it's doubtful that Danny Rand will remain a part of the Dark Reign centered title, as the event has almost finished. However, only time will tell whether Marvel finally breaks down and leaves Iron Fist in the hands of the new writer. The Thunderbolts roster has already found a place for the Irredimable Ant Man of the Robert Kirkman and Phil Hester's cancelled solo series, but it remains to be seen whether Danny Rand will be delegated to a supporting role in a team book, while the editorial decides on how they should reapproach the concept of "Immortal Iron Fist".

Judging by the sales, and the lacklustre nature of the "Immortal weapons" mini-series, it would be hard to fault the publisher for not rushing to another concrete venture, before severely rethinking their next move.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

A whole new world

An interesting thing happened while I was searching through the reviews of the some of the 'Jack of Fables' story lines. The engine gave me a slew of results concerning the spin-off of one of the industry's best selling non-superhero works, and unsurprisingly, very little of the links had to do with any kind of established critical venue, or indeed some of the more commercial sites considering the medium. For whatever reason, a large portion of comics fans seem intent to focus on continually analysing their love/hate relationship with Marvel and DC's superhero titles, but this was to be expected. What genuinely surprised me was that I found a bevy of commentary from the completely new source - that of the new readers that have managed to elude the market for so long.

This is no small thing, especially considering the overall quality analysis that covered all the fundamentals of the book's writing. The newcomers mostly shied away from a detailed comparative analysis of Tony Akins' art style, but they provided a very nuanced and informed perspective of the complex plot heavy series. Covering the book's general direction, and discussing the comedy angle, the readers patiently shared their thoughts regarding the controversial protagonist, and going to great lengths of contrasting the book to the main Fables title. Picking up on all the layered nuances, the new readers, presumably without access to the comics criticism, still provided an informed look at 'Jack of Fables'' back story, with the eye of gouging the creative team's future direction. All this, without a concrete platform to launch their opinion, the sheer enthusiasm for the story making them post semi-anonymous on the pages listing dozens of reviews, usually with the eye of selling their trade paperback back stock. It can't be overstated how rare this is in today's comics climate, and it's interesting to try to understand the reason.

It should be noted that these seem to be primarily readers who found the trade paperbacks through the means of book stores and libraries, seemingly avoiding the contact with the month to month Direct Market serialization. As such, it's unclear whether they discovered 'the Fables' brand slowly through the spotlight that the superhero movies, or through the more direct fantasy connection that the Neil Gaiman adaptations presumably brought to the Vertigo line. These new readers seem content to follow this manga-like distribution model, tracking down new volumes of the series they already like. Which brings us to the chief point, why is it that Fables seems currently the imprint's only title capable of drawing in the wider audiences, in a way reminiscent of the line's smash hit, 'the Sandman'.

It's deceptively simple to claim simple accessibility as the answer, as it seems notoriously hard to replicate the success, at least judging from the publishing history. For some reason, comics have a tendency on focusing on the obscure, fighting the uphill battle of reviving long dormant genre properties. Is it any wonder that 'Sandman mystery theatre' failed to engage the audiences of it's parent title, with it's noir-ish interpretation of a Golden Age mystery man's period piece adventures? Matt Wagner, the series' principal writer is currently facing similar problems with 'Madam Xanadu', and it's doubtful that the title will mimic the seven year life span of the Sandman spin off, launched at the height of the 90-ies comics boom.

Nowadays, there is nothing wrong with launching a series geared toward existing audience, providing that it includes the new readers. When starting a genre title that is not a spin-off though, the publishers should try to present a mainstream offering that uses the creators' craft and talent to tell a story first and foremost. That is, if they seriously attempt to attract the customers outside of their traditional, aging base. Focusing on the revamps of decades old superhero character minutiae doesn't seem to appeal to a modern, literate audience that wants to start at a ground level, with a clearly labeled first volume of a title that attracts them conceptually. Publishing a series with a concrete goal of tying up continuity trivia and half-heartedly revamping the ideas behind the original superhero team, that was the "Justice Society of America" before Bill Willingham and Matthew Sturges took over the writing reins doesn't get the new readers to post their reviews on online bookstore websites.

Instead, their "Fables" audience evidently doesn't want to crossover, leaving the publisher to hopefully try again to engage their attention, before they get too disillusioned with the self-referential nature of their new hobby.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Noir: a collection of crime comics

October the 14th saw the release of "Noir: a collection of crime comics" antholoy from Dark Horse. The publisher has a long tradition of providing high quality genre work, particularly horror, done in the way so as to echo the pulps of yesteryear. With their newest effort, they revive the format of the short story collection, while billing the top crime fiction creators in comics. The industry's greats were given the space of eight pages each, to construct black and white morality plays, with a harder edge, and it's interesting how they responded to it.

Surprisingly, for all the diversity in the lineup, some similarities still appear, as most of the stories end up presenting an ordinary man forced to turn to crime because of his financial difficulties. Perhaps it was the limited space that forced the creators to opt for the generally more realistic approach, instead of featuring a traditional noir PI in the lead role. The writers and artists more or less stick to the familiar locale of urban 21st century America, but the tension and violence at their heart keep the stories from becoming too much like their independent comics cousins.

Universally, the shorts are at least visually innovative, presenting solid storytelling, which is more often than not, very appealing stylistically. There are almost an even number of pieces both written and drawn by the same person, as those that are not, but still a general air of cooperation permeates the book. Simply, due to the brevity of the vignettes, the stories are made to be highly atmospheric and distinctive, leaving the artist to get the point across. Not surprisingly, this leaves the anthology as something of an art showcase first, no matter the quality of writing involved.

Generally speaking, "Noir" features two types of stories - the more numerous ones feature new setting and situations, while the others tell of an episode set in the fully realized worlds of it's authors' previously published creator owned comics. It is the latter ones that will probably drive most of the readers to try the book.

On the whole, all of the creators providing side stories to their original work suceed in featuring their established projects in a way that is accessible to the new uninitiated, while functioning as episodes in their own right. The anthology actually opens with a "Stray bullets" short, featuring a very violent incident in the life of David Lapham's protagonist. It is disturbing on several different levels, while maintaining the series' tone of analyzing the criminal behavior from the point of the victim. The effective tale concludes much more organically than most of the others in anthology, leaving the fans to hope that Lapham's involvement might mean that more "Stray bullets" work awaits him in the future.

On the other hand, Paul Grist's story relies on cliffhanger to put the events in their proper context. The writer/artist uses the chance to tell perhaps the most traditional comic-book crime story of all the creators, by having his "Kane" character tackle a gimmick crime. Utilizing traditional cartooning, Grist manages to get across a complete case, pacing it so well, so as to even include a long and climatic chase scene in the end.

Still, no doubt the most attractive story in the book is Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' "Criminal" short. The duo are without a question the highest profile crime comics creators in the industry at the moment, and it's intriguing to see their work appear in a black and white format. At only five pages, theirs is also the shortest of the stories in the anthology, but nevertheless switches the point of view no less than three times, as the reader gets the picture of a whole criminal operation. "21st century noir" is Brubaker and Phillips' definitely most contemporary outing to date, which even goes a bit too far in using the Internet slang. Still, the sheer mean-spiritedness and wicked irony that reveal themselves once the scheme is completed, stand out as traditionally black-hearted and perverse as some of their darkest moments so far in "Criminal".

On the other hand, Dean Motter presents a much more stylish tale, and his depictions of the art deco-inspired Radiant city definitely stand out among the generally more realistic stories. The "Mister X" story deals with a part of the past of the writer/artist's retro-future comic book series, and is perhaps the densest of the shorts involved, as it directly references several of the trappings of the cult series. Still, a discerning reader will recognize that the various oblique terms are merely there to give background to the proceedings, which remain engaging on their own. Once again, it takes a seasoned comics veteran to get across so much information and plot using a limited amount of space, which Motter manages to pull off very convincingly, still delivering a complex narrative. "Yacht on the Styx" might not be to everyone's liking, but it remains a strong and very distinctive entry on it's own.

Having discussed the hyphenated entries, the anthology surprisingly offers several more pieces whose creators' voice is so familiar, that it renders them a part of their existing work, in all but the name. Jeff Lemire, the creator of "Essex triology" thus offers nothing less than a spin-off of his most famous work, albeit not titled as such. "the Old silo" once again focuses on human drama strewn between the country life as defined by the borders made up of barns and farm houses. The only difference lies in sheer malice exhibited by a familiar Lemire figure, that somehow rings contrary to the honesty inherent in the writer/artist's sketchy and emotional approach. The desperation of an infirm relative sitting in front of the window reminds of "the Country nurse", but it somehow seems much more artificial, a mere prop to explain the main character's motivation. Using a whole page to depict "Essex County"'s unmistakable wind vane as the sign of the passage of time is perhaps the best reminder that Lemire's a creator used to utilizing long form to set up his own sense of pacing, and create the sort of melancholy that defined his most famous work.

Rick Geary is another creator who utilizes a similar story mechanic in his contribution to "Noir". Perhaps it's a little unfair to consider "Blood on my hands", a story clearly defined as fiction, as some of his more famous work, but it's easy to see why the creator would see it as a compliment. In many ways, "Blood on my hands" is the most controlled of the stories, as it features no dialogue balloons, and sticks to using the six panel grid format throughout, using the captions to speak of the events in first-person. It is through sheer banality and frankness that the little details making up the story of a horrible crime sneak up on the reader as the closest thing to the truth. This was no doubt Geary's intention, the veteran illustrator that has gone far to legitimize the comics medium with his adaptations of non-fictional court cases. Considering the talent that's brought forward "the Treasury of Victorian murder", it's best to look at his contribution to the anthology as a counter point to his most famous work, which still manages to be one of the strongest entries in the book.

The last work that offers direct reference to the previously created characters and situations is perhaps the most problematic. Featuring the celebrated "100 bullets" creator Brian Azzarello on writing and the art team of brothers Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon on art, it will no doubt be the story that most of the readers will want to get to first. And, by and large, it is a typical period piece showing a heist being planned in a crowded 1930s bar. Azzarello's dialogue makes both of the main characters distinctive and their plan very clear, while Moon and Ba proceed to masterfully illustrate a very complicated set piece. Starting with wide shots, they slowly start breaking the story in smaller and smaller panels, gradually focusing on the relevant pair of con men, while still keeping rotating the view so as to keep up with the dynamic expressed in the writing. Still, all of that work feels somewhat shortchanged with a twist ending that provides a sinister context, going so far as to tie in with a very popular superhero's origin. This kind of unauthorized tongue in cheek approach costs the story of all of it's previously established momentum, as the characters so individualized through Azzarello's speech patterns, and distinctively built by Moon and Ba's artwork break down to become ciphers in order for the punchline. This is made all the more controversial considering "the Bad night" is the last short in the anthology, and will no doubt leave some of the readers with a bitter taste in their mouth regarding the whole enterprise.

As far as the pieces that are presented in "Noir" without the previous publishing history, "the Last hit" is probably the most typical of what could have been expected to be found between the book's covers. A collaboration through and through, it still manages to remind the reader of a "cold" movie opening, serving to quickly introduce the players in the most action packed way possible. Chris Offutt still caps off writing the very moody genre piece into a morality play, thus culminating the philosophy of the practical gangster that is at the heart of the short. It's expertly realized by Kano and Stefano Gaudiano, into a tense and exciting story that manages to work with the intended realism.

On the other hand, M. K. Perker's contribution is perhaps the most ill-constructed, seemingly failing to make use of all the set pieces it introduces. This is particularly puzzling, as the Turkish artist's previous "Heavy metal" magazine work exhibited a firm command of both the quirky atmosphere and pulpy narrative structure at work here. "the Albanian" is certainly meant as more of a straight forward work though, but it seems strangely disconnected from the traditional form of short story makeup. For example, the person introducing us to the title character in the opening is never seen later on, no matter how logical his appearance in the next several pages would be. Similarly, after the tense culmination, the plot goes on for two more pages that each convey very little information, and seem somewhat tacked on and unnecessary. The pacing problems are unfortunate because Perker's protagonist is certainly among the most memorable in the book, as it seems somewhat unfair to leave him after a very anti climatic finale. The story achieves it's goal of being off-putting and featuring strange, uncommon characters, but it remains slightly ambiguous as to what the reader is to make out of their encounter.

Following "the Criminal", several other stories seem to draw upon the same idea of featuring a femme fatal character in the lead role. Without a doubt, "the Fracture" is the most innovative, experimenting with the comics form to achieve a very unusual effect. Alex de Campi starts out narrating a seemingly mundane slice of life piece, that quickly turns into a silent postmodern daydream, featuring multiple points of view, and a very unorthodox use of a double page spread. Hugo Petris tries his best to keep up with her script, adding a somewhat Adam Hughes-like polished sheen, trying as clear as he can to make sense of the confusing proceedings. Still, despite the creators' best efforts, this seems like the only story that would have actively benefited from the use of color, as the differences in the panel borders fail to truly distinct between various events running through the girl's head. Even though the enigmatic ending mirrors the opening page and effectively forces the reader to return to the story over and over again, it remains a highlight due to sheer ambition involved in the presentation.

As is the case with all their anthologies, Dark Horse has felt obliged to include an illustrated prose story in "Noir", that stands out only in contrast to the comics that surround it. "Trustworthy" is a plot-heavy episode, that probably wouldn't work as an eight page vignette, but could perhaps have functioned given the space of a standard American comic book pamphlet. In any event, Ken Lizzy writes a very visual story, featuring an ordinary man that has found himself in a situation with a femme fatal, forcing him to make a choice that could alter his whole life. Strangely, the writer opts to describe the locale where the pivotal moment happens first, along with the protagonists, before beginning the plot in earnest. Otherwise, the prose is grounded in urban slang and moves quickly, centered on flashing out each of the characters' psyches as deep as possible. All this makes Joelle Jones' illustrations largely unnecessary, as they not only erode the reader's imagination, but actively spoil several key plot points. Still, this is nothing compared to the ending which features a controversial MacGuffin that manages to challenge the realism that makes the already very unlikely criminal scenario work in the first place.

Truthfully, the unlikely elements were set up in a deliberately careless way from the beginning, but unlike the "Mister X" vignette, the unorthodox resolution still actively clashes with the tone of the piece. This is illustrated even better in the finale of another short, that embraces the strange, but going much further with the campy elements. Gary Phillips starts writing his story as a slice of life drama of a woman enlisting the personal trainer to help her achieve better results in the gym, although he does hint to a deeper conflict from the start. Eduardo Barreto picks up on it, trying to keep the working out equipment as detailed as he can, while concentrating on the idealized bodies with sleazy facial expressions. In many ways, in "the New me" their collaboration seems like a porn comic, with the female protagonist exhibiting wholly unrealistic physical makeover in mere five weeks, just in time to get ready for the big finish with her fitness instructor. The story ends up being by far the most disposable in the book, which is made even worse considering that it was no doubt intended as a satire on some level.

Finally, "the Lady's choice" rounds out the last of the original stories, once again focusing on a woman under very peculiar circumstances. Fillabach brothers' contribution doesn't center on a femme fatal per se, as she is merely an observer that doesn't affect the plot. This is deliberate, as the creators set out to bring across the point of view of a particular part of a criminal's entourage. Her spontaneous narration does help guide the plot along, but it's the art that finally seems to label the whole presentation slightly amateurish. Still, it remains a thoroughly readable affair, albeit somewhat superfluous in setting the expectations so low that the creators seem content at having presented any kind of functional story that carries across the simple premise.

Taken as a whole, "Noir" leaves a very strange impression. Perhaps it's the lack of the really strong, groundbreaking stories that would have made up for the blandness of others. But truthfully, it seems like the format has defeated the creators across the board, as they more or less end up with knowingly creating pulpy yarns, no doubt smirking at the thought of the twist ending. In effect, the shorts feel a bit patronizing, as if a cheap bit of campy fun is all the reader can expect from a single eight page installment. In not taking the task seriously, most of the authors in turn give in to presenting underdeveloped stories of femme fatals, botched crimes and some random swearing, seemingly oblivious to their own shortcomings.

Once part and parcel of comic book form, and indeed the original format of a Golden age story, the shorts are treated here as an experimental venue the writers and artists have little experience in. In turn, they seemingly submitting their most solid craftsmanship, largely devoted to what becomes almost a pointless exercise in this day of decompressed storytelling. But the readers willing to pay for the collection certainly deserve more care, and this is not a case where a new "Sin city" or "Hellboy" vignette might have smoothed out the overall package. Dark Horse should have taken note that they aren't publishing a print version of a web comics anthology, but a collection of original content that deserves all of the creators' strength and talent.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Planetary #27

Back story

Today saw the release of the long-awaited last issue of Warren Ellis and John Cassaday's "Planetary", for DC's Wildstorm imprint. "Planetary" was first published in 1999, and shipped on an irregular schedule for more than two years, before the publisher decided to give it another push in late 2002, choosing to with a bi-monthly schedule. By then, both it's writer and artist have found success in the more traditional DC and Marvel superhero comics, thus the series once again started to come out infrequently.

The second to last issue of "Planetary" was published three whole years ago, with Wildstorm openly declaring that the finale will be some time in coming, due to the creators' commitments. In the time since, the news about the eagerly awaited #27 were rare, but what was finally established was that Ellis had turned in a script a couple of years ago, leaving the series to wait until Cassaday found the time in his schedule to commit to pencilling the issue.

For it's fans, "Planetary" was in many ways a special series. Debuting side-by-side with Ellis' more commercial "the Authority", the Cassaday-drawn series was something of a cult favorite. Nominally utilizing the premise of inventing new superheroes to explore the Wildstorm universe Cold war continuity, the creators were quick to establish the series as it's own thing. Thus, every issue of "Planetary" worked as a self-contained chapter, featuring a very lush and expertly-paced mix of superhero homages as seen through it's pulp origins. The special care used to develop the project manifested itself through memorable covers, and every adventure having a somewhat different feel, while slowly creating the book's mythology.

More than that, Ellis managed to inject his stories with his own commentary on the pop culture referenced, but never in the way that would slow the book down, or encumber it with unnecessary references. Cassaday's distinctive artwork saw fit to integrate all of the pieces into a unique whole, that was still very accessible and stylish. Basically, "Planetary" never stopped being a post-superhero book that targeted a more mature reader bending toward science-fiction with a lot of character, but it was remarkably successful in what it set out to do. It stands to it's creators strengths that in the 10 years since it debuted, there has been so few of the books that managed to come close to it's level of craft and entertainment.

Last issue

"Planetary" was always designed to be a finite book, though, and over the course of it's run, a clear pattern slowly and naturally emerges. Thus, the later issues in the series focus firmly on the team's mission, which is trying to eliminate their opposite numbers. Interestingly, "the Four" that the protagonists set out against, turn out to be a more cynical version of Marvel's Silver Age pioneers, "the Fantastic Four". Yet, the anti-climatic final confrontation with the malevolent scientists took place in the issue preceding #27, enabling Ellis and Cassaday to focus on showing the difference between the two groups. The last issue of the series is thus completely devoted to a benign act of trying to save the long thought dead fourth member of the main Planetary cell, Ambrose Chase.

In order to accomplish this, the book's central character, Elijah Snow uses not only the strength of his own team, but all of "the Four"'s resources that the team's come into possession. Contrary to Marvel analogues, the Planetary organization utilizes all of the knowledge available to benefit the humanity, gained by following their motto of preserving "a strange world". Due to the nature of Ambrose's predicament, the issue serves to spotlight the group's mutant scientist, and artist John Cassaday's self-portrait, "the Drummer".

As with some of the later "Planetary" issues, #27 doesn't exist as a concrete parallel to a particular piece of pop-culture, but it still comes with a heavy does of science-fiction. Warren Ellis makes all of the pseudo-science convincing on the plot level, even if some of it seems dense at first. This is very important considering that the operation Elijah and his team partake on makes up the whole of the 32-page story. If some of it seems heavy, thankfully, the comics format enables the reader to go back and reread the confusing section in order to obtain a clearer understanding of the proceedings. Even then, just continuing on with the story may prove a better option, as the construction of the life-saving machine and it's function is adequately explained at every turn.

Ellis is careful not to sideline the team's powerhouse, and provides enough space for Jakita Wagner. The team's female member with a scandalously low boredom threshold ends up not merely commenting on the plan for Ambrose's rescue, but plays the integral, and very much in character, role in the finishing stages. Likewise, Ellis finds enough space to feature some of the series' more colorful supporting characters, showing the reader their role in the next step of the Planetary organization, but never at the expense of plot.

Because, if nothing else, the reader could have expected the series' send-off to be a retrospective, providing another look at some of the hinted-at lore behind Planetary's world filled with decades of superhero history. Ellis and Cassaday forgo such sentimentality and keep true to form, by concentrating on a single science fiction idea, and making it work in the larger context of the series. This makes for a much more cohesive and wholesome experience, that actually stands up as a story on it's own. Considering that the issue was three whole years in the making, it's remarkable how clear it is in reminding the reader of the characters and the situations, providing just enough of a reminder so as not to intrude in the complexities of the plot at hand.

Strangely, for all the drama regarding such a time-oriented rescue operation, the question of Elijah Snow's own mortality never comes up. It's interesting in itself, because as set up by Ellis, "century babies" end up perishing at the end of 1999, or at least undergoing a transformation into another incarnation of the planet's immune system. This particular bit of trivia seems incidental only when considering that a simple line of text could have justified the protagonist's continued existence. Still, the seeming anomaly points out to a hazy sense of time that surrounds the events featured in the issue. Ambrose's incident, previously clearly shown to take place in 1997, is referred to as happening "a few years ago", while it was previously clear that all of the Planetary's twenty seven issues, including the specials, take place in a relatively short amount of time. Considering this being the last episode of the series, it seems unlikely that the editorial would push to blur the timing of events, so as not to confuse the readers.

Sadly, this plays out in concert with the promise that the closing pages of the issue make. Ever optimistic, "the Planetary" just begs to be continued upon, but it's creators once again prove right in their decision. Taking into account that all of their series has been one wider arc, it's a relief to see it come to it's natural conclusion without further spin-offs, no matter how interesting the glimpses at Ellis and Cassaday's superhero world may have been. The many interesting concepts and new versions of pulp phenomena, no matter how colorful, were always employed with a precise goal, of getting across the idea of a fully functional fictional reality. And, looking objectively, having beaten their rivals, the Planetary team have achieved a kind of superhero utopia that is by it's nature devoid of the kind of drama that has characterized the series, the question of Elijah Snow's lifespan excluded.

Perhaps this is a reason why Ellis and Cassaday chose not to feature Ambrose Chase's family, declining to give them even a cameo in the last issue's pages. They are simply not integral to the wider plot, no more than the several other Planetary cells glimpsed throughout the series' run. "Planetary" ends up being a story of Elijah Snow, a nearly hundred years old superhuman that resurfaces to try and adapt to new times, while figuring out how to deliver a final blow to the enemies of humanity that have arose in his absence. Having unlocked "the Four"'s secrets from the world at large, the Planetary organization has introduced their reality to the 21st century, which largely brings the plot to it's conclusion. Thus, the series' last issue acts as nothing more than a personal coda to the difference saving one life makes to the team, and in turn the humanity they are indebted to saving.

In the end, "Planetary" remains a superhero series at heart, once again proving that the decades old concepts can be refreshing even now, if utilized with intelligence and flourish. Hopefully, it will have a long life in collected form, showing the result that the difference the skill and knowledge of Warren Ellis and John Cassaday have made in the over-crowded comic book market, that regularly struggles when it comes to similar ideas.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Love and rockets: Ti-Girls adventures number 34

With the publication of the second issue of the second issue of the latest incarnation of the "Love and rockets" magazine, Jaime Hernandez's latest story arc comes to a close. "Ti-Girls adventures number 34" was the de-facto leading feature in the first two issues of the now-yearly Hernandez brothers publication, and it is certainly a very controversial choice, for multiple reasons.


Firstly, "Love and rockets", have been published in multiple formats for almost three decades, being home to stories by both Gilbert, Mario and Jaime Hernandez. The latter has to this day more or less stuck with basically the same set of characters he began his career writing stories about, in the process becoming one of the most solid and accomplished cartoonists. And while his stories, dubbed "Locas" because of their focus on a colorful bunch of female friends in Californian punk milieu, have started with heavy genre elements, that has not been the focus for some time. Truly, as the artist started drifting away from the alternative music scene in America, so did his stories mature to encompass the day to day life of his ageing protagonists.

Just like the subject matter, Jaime's art style became more subdued and instinctive, with his mastery of the human form being the chief attribute through which he conveys the feelings of his cast. Over the years, Maggie and her friends have been through a lot, but the personal dynamics was never played as a soap opera, with Hernandez focusing on the subtle and nuanced characterisation. In recent years, the stories have gotten even more introspective, with heavy use of the captions for narration. This doesn't mean that the unreal was completely abandoned, as the fantastical elements kept sticking to the background, with horror always disguised as surrealism by the way of dreams, or mind-altering drugs. The nods to the superhero genre were likewise, more or less, always present, but never really elaborated on.

In the closing days of the title's previous incarnation, Jaime Hernandez' work was on the surface the familiar solid storytelling. Yet, it was really hard to predict in what way his future tales would take shape, as "the Education of Hopey Glass", collecting his latest work, had a bunch of disparate surface elements, despite concentrating mainly on two very distinctive stories. On one hand, it certainly seemed that the writer/artist would in some way continue with one of his two female leads, Maggie and Hopey, whose lives have gotten increasingly grounded. It was somewhat unlikely that he would continue the heavy focus on Ray, Maggie's one time boyfriend, having just featured the character in what was for all intents and purposes, the middle aged version of "Death of Speedy Ortez".

In fact, Hernandez's latest work, serialized first in "the New York Times magazine", seemed to offer no easy answers. Deliberately structuring the story to echo the Sunday newspapers strip format, the writer/artist had decided to tell a distinctively special story. Using no word balloons, but relying more than ever on caption boxes, Jaime had placed his every day protagonist in a story flirting with adventure elements, that are a part of Maggie's past. Still, the reunion with her old friends, no matter how strange and even dangerous, served to capitalize the difference in the character, as told in a very literary and realistic manner.

Thus, it was more than surprising, to discover the shape that the "Locas" stories would resurface once more. It bears mentioning that in relaunching the magazine, Gilbert Hernandez, the other Love and Rockets co-creator, had decided to make a clean break from his previous "Palomar" stories, and the vignettes featuring Luba, and her sisters, the characters that he has been associated for so long. His brother Jaime decided not to surprise his fans in any similar way, and the genre-shift was certainly foreshadowed for a long time.

Still, having the magazines' lead-story be a superhero send-up is really off-putting, no matter how many times he has managed to previously make mention of the superheroes existing on the periphery of his characters' "universe". They were never really a part of the magazine, being merely a part of Maggie's nostalgic reading material, and her friend Penny Century's life-long fantasies. In fact, Jaime Hernandez' "Locas" stories featured a much more extensive focus on female wrestling, which was at the same time much more realistic and distinctive, making the series all the more charming in turn.

Because, "Love and rockets" have from it's inception been at the forefront of the independent comics scene, being an rare example of the creator-owned magazine, published for years with the same creative team, that is in every way at the top of their game. The Hernandez brothers were rewarded for their consistency and hard work with a career that amazingly did not necessitate their working for the traditional superhero publishers. It was by sticking to his established series that Jaime Hernandez managed to stay in the spotlight for nearly three-decades, producing work that was always relevant and topical.


It is possible that the writer/artist decided that a more freewheeling tale would be exactly what he needed to maintain his interest in the medium, and "Ti-Girls adventures number 34" could very well been the result of such an experiment. In any event, the three years spent developing the story resulted in 100 pages of material, divided by four chapters of retro superheroics.

Starting out as a continuation of his standard "Locas" work, the series immediately picks up on a plot-thread hinted earlier in the previous incarnation's history. The ambiguity behind a bit player's nightly activities is resolved within pages, as Hernandez story makes it clear that this is not another of Maggie's stories. In fact, it centers around the latest addition to the cast, that of "Angel of Tarzana", a younger, more athletic version of Jaime's heroine, that is also her current roommate. She quickly finds herself in the centre of a superhero adventure, starring no less than three all-female superhero teams, and a plot that rushes on with nearly non-stop action.

After the slow and measured pace of the recent "Locas" stories, "Ti-Girls adventures" couldn't be more different. Gone is the caption-heavy narration, substituted for rapid fire expository dialogue that revels in the details of the non-existing superhero universe Jaime Hernandez was hinting at in the long years of his stories' publication. Considering his place in the comic-book community, it was always clear that this superhero story would have much more in common with the somewhat simplistic genre tales of 60-ies and 70-ies that the writer/artist grew-up reading. It's very difficult to actually compare this "Love and rockets" offering to the revisionist tales of Alan Moore and Grant Morrison that have memorably tackled some of the similar themes.

Jaime Hernandez may tackle the same subjects of scientific and magical origins of the superhero characters, their eternal youth, and the sexism in comics, but he does it in a completely different way. Perhaps the closest comparison could be made with Michael Allred's "Madman", in that it routinely introduces the reader with scores of completely new superhero concepts, that are at the same time representative of the genre's Silver Age past, while keeping a healthy amount of madcap energy of their own. Of course, the reader is never meant to take the story on it's own as nothing more than a reenactment of the Marvel and DC's comics, but it's steeped in so much of the superhero iconography that it provides for little space for the cynicism to creep in and make a real distinction needed to provide the much-needed distance.

For instance, teamed-up with writer Peter Milligan, Michael Allred had managed to turn "X-Force" (later renamed "X-Statix") have managed to make the title into both a vehicle for their retro sensibilities, as well as a much needed, razor-sharp critique of the genre. "Ti-Girls adventures number 34" takes a much fonder look at the material.

If anything, it concentrates on the idea of the female role in the white-male dominated genre. Little is made of the racial subtext, but most distinctively, Jaime Hernandez offers the readers a rare book featuring scores of women in spandex, being as capable and prone to misunderstandings leading to non-stop fighting, as their male counterparts. This is one idea that is developed throughout the story, especially in a section detailing the history of Jaime's superhero universe, as told around a rare male character involved in the proceedings.

That aside, most of the comic is taken up by scene after scene of fighting, with multiple locale changes, and different powers exhibited. It's difficult to remember any kind of superhero comic that exhibits this number of slug fests, particularly since the reader quickly realizes that no permanent damage seems to come to the characters, rendering the squabbles without much point. With no stakes, comes a lot of campy banter, which is made all the more tedious by Jaime's adherence to a large number of panels, doing away with the dynamic that the splash or even double-pages could have given the comic. Being an expert storyteller, Jaime always makes sure that the actions his characters take are clear, but it still makes for an experience that is neither dramatical nor really humorous.

The chief problem exists with the characters, as the sheer number of them makes it hard for them to develop any kind of charm of their own. Maggie's friend, codenamed Boot Angel is meant to be the reader identification character, who is new in the world of established female superhero teams, and she certainly reacts to both the hardships of constant struggle and the emotional distance of the long-time heroines. It's just that she never develops into a distinctive character in her own right, and it will be strange seeing how her creator decides to use her after "Ti-Girls adventures". Nonetheless, Angel spends the most of the story looking up to Alarma, the other previously established "Love and rockets" character. The "Fenomenons" team member is actually given an actual character-arc, parodying the bad-girl makeovers of classical female superheroes. As for Angel's mentors, "Ti-Girls", they all get some time in the focus, making for more defined characters. Both Weeper and Golden Girl are possessed with interesting gender-based gimmicks, but it is Espectra that takes the spotlight. Sharing more than a name with Maggie's cousin Xochitl, the elderly super-woman is the victim of a very Silver-Age like physics, actually making for some rare emotional moments in the story.

Still, Jaime's idea of mapping out even more of his super-hero universe's history meant that both "Fenomenons" and "Zolars" get to play roles in the plot, which still makes way to reference the previously mentioned "Love and rockets" superheroes Space Queen and Cheetah Torpeda. Not only that, but ultimately, a villain team appears beyond the story's direct antagonist, eventually making way for explanation that even the mothers of a couple of team-members are former heroes. This ties into the writer/artist's chief theme, along with the explanation of inherent female superhero "Gift", but ultimately takes away from the focus on the "Ti-Girls".

In retrospect, the book may have worked better if it was paired down to a less complicated plot. The quest for finding the components to defeat the super villain had run it's course around the half of the book, after which a prison break diverts the story even more, adding yet another character to an already over-crowded cast. From that point forward, it's hard to believe that anyone except the book's author cares enough to make sense of the whereabouts of all of the superheroes, which might serve as an echo to the "Crisis"-like events, but ends up as making the reader indifferent.

It's especially hard to fathom Maggie's role in the plot, as she returns to the proceedings to complicate matters more by adding the meta-element. Her being a comics fan who has read about all of the superheroes present makes for an unclear metaphor, that should have been better developed. Like many of the developments in "Ti-Girls adventures", the idea that the final showdown takes place in her apartment must have seemed like a hilarious concept at the level of breaking down the story, but the final script doesn't really cohere into the enjoyable tongue in cheek romp it desperately tries to be.

Just like Maggie, the reader is constantly tugged in two directions at once, forced to both try and make sense of a new superhero mythology, and at the same time not take it seriously enough to care about the drama behind it. In the end, she is written out of the mythical world of urban crime-fighters, and it's hard to imagine that many readers wanting to see these characters revisited. Jaime Hernandez ends his tale by driving a line in the sand, seemingly promising that his series will never again cross paths with superhero cliches. All told, "Ti-Girls adventures number 34" remains as a very peculiar experiment that the writer/artist has gravitated towards for years before breaking down and giving it his best. Hopefully, now that he has in every way made his parody as overblown and distinctive as possible, he will return to the more grounded style that characterized his "Locas" stories, and brought him to prominence as the master storyteller.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Soul kiss #1-5

"Soul kiss" is the name of the just-concluded Steven Seagle and Marco Cinello mini-series, packed as part of the "Men of action" creative studio and published through Image. Seagle is a veteran writer, mainly known for his genre-bending work on Vertigo's "Sandman mystery theatre" and "House of secrets", as well as the more personal "It's a bird" graphic novel. His creative partner on "Soul kiss" is a long-time animator Cinello, who participated in projects as diverse as "We're back" and "Rob Zombie's Superbeasto". Together, they have collaborated on a very unusual project that ended up as a 5-part "Men of action" mini-series. It's published by Image as a part of the wave of the studio's other projects, such as Duncan Rouleau's "the Great unknown", and two new Joe Kelly projects, "Bad dog" with Diego Greco, and "Four eyes" with Max Fiumara.

From the start, "Soul kiss" is a project that instantly grabs the reader by it's spontaneous narration, acknowledging the weirdness of a tale that it's about to tell. The hints are supplemented by surreal images, that serve to further entice and establish the air of fantastic possibilities that Seagle and Cinello's story could evolve in. Lili, the book's female protagonist, quickly establishes herself as a complex individual, but also one that is thoroughly accessible by the virtue of her young age, and the constant focus that the creators put on her movements. It's her own insecurity and self-doubt in a defining moment of her life that make both Lili and the audience share all the excitement and mystery of a modern fable that she finds herself living.

And that's a very accurate definition of the comic, because the authors paint a tale that surpasses the supernatural trappings of the genre and hearkens back to the earliest age of the storytelling. By featuring the deal with the Devil as the motivator for the tale's morale, the creators obviously tried to achieve an ambitious goal with their experimentation. Seagle's script is thus very modern, with fast pacing and slang dialogue. The post-graduate lifestyle he surrounds Lili with is likewise both current and believable, albeit highly stylized. The hysterical vibe Cinello took from the writer is only amplified by his dynamic artwork. As is the case with Scott (Elektra: Glimpse and Echo) Morse, his work is at all times very fluid, distinctive and attractive. The artist exhibits a very particular look at the page layout, that exemplifies unity and ties in very organically with the script.

The closes thing the comic itself feels like is a Sam ("Maxx", "Four women") Kieth effort. Having a female lead amid a very chaotic story, that manages to retain the reader's interest by a strong adherence to internal logic, somehow ends up serving a very relatable young adult parable, just like with "the Zero girl". In that respect, "Soul kiss" seems almost better suited being marketed to a manga audience.

No matter the situation, and they are increasingly grotesque, Seagle's narration maintains the feeling of getting to an objective truth, with every detail on it's way a metaphor for the depth that is gradually being revealed. This is maintained by the events that are always related to the everyday life, integrating even the most bizarre happenings with a flick of the Devil's wrist. The rush that Lili finds herself in, and her propensity for finding the fastest solution available, are maintained from the very beginning, and the first choice she makes at the "Soul kiss"' beginning.

This explains the various liberties the creators take with depicting the plot's progression, such as mind wipes and reality alterings. The settings are all part of the fable structure, to be torn and rearranged after they have made their point, and another part of the story is about to commence. It's really difficult then to discuss the book as anything other than the sum of it's pieces. Because keeping up with "Soul kiss"'s energy means that even the work's shortcomings are hard to really concentrate on. Somehow, all of Cinello's figures seem a bit shortened, and appear as if the caricatures are hindered by the character's strange proportions. At the same time, the distinctiveness in those very same faces make them stand apart as almost archetypal, to the point that they start perfectly complementing the social roles they play in Lili's life.

Similarly, some of the dialogue feels a bit too hip, but that's instantly made forgettable through a powerful bond made between the narrator and the reader. The storytelling on the whole is so enticing and wholesome, that just like the oddities in the plot, it makes all the rest of the comic's elements feel very deliberate and actually inseparable from everything that is "Soul kiss".

And it ends up being a modern fable, all around, that makes it's points definite, speaking of love in a very dirty and semi-realistic way. Of course, all the while Seagle and Cinello foreshadow their conclusion with all of the energy and creativity they can muster. The epilogue that the creators leave their readers with is once again a very stylish vignette, reestablishing the confident beginning of the story. Having made their tale of inter-personal dynamics, sex and relationships, they prefer to make their final mark a subtle goodbye, using all of their charm to thank the listeners for their time.

Anyone expecting a different kind of weird and sexy comics should be pleased to give "Soul kiss" a try, as it's the most personal and creative take on ages-old story that Seagle and Cinello could have delivered.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Fantastic Four #554-569

The end of July saw the ending of the Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch's run on Marvel's "Fantastic Four". The creative team celebrated for changing the face of superhero comics with "Ultimates" has spent a lot of time preparing for their run on Marvel's first superheroes. This resulted in a run that went on for a year and a half, without any major delays that plagued Millar and Hitch's previous work. Still, for some reason, their latest effort hasn't resonated with neither the critics nor the audience.

"Fantastic Four" is Marvel's first Silver Age title, that in turn gave birth to their larger superhero universe. Moreover, this means that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's initial run on the book has to this day remained creatively unequalled, not only setting the mark for the later creators to try and achieve, but usually also rendering it as little more than an homage to the first 102 issues. The basic concept of a group of science explorers who are also a family has proven to be a superhero classic, but also seems highly resistant to change. In the recent memory, seemingly only Mark Waid's run on these Silver Age icons has managed to stand out and remind readers of the potential for new stories starring the Fantastic Four.

Going into the book, writer Mark Millar has extensively researched all the other stories starring the characters, determined to update the franchise for a new generation. Likewise, penciller Bryan Hitch lent his skills in not only modernising their costumes, but also designing whole swaths of new characters he co-created. By all accounts, their resulting run is a professional effort, devoted to channelling all of their energy into telling the best "Fantastic Four" story they could.

Starting out with the covers, the creators have decided to dress the book in the style of general interest magazines. This provides the readers with a first glimpse of the creators' mission statement, to render the title into an soap-opera meets the superheroes approach, that is made very clear in the first issue. The creators aimed not only to establish the broader style of their work, but spend a fair amount of the issue setting up "World's greatest", the first story-arc, and in turn, all of the run. In effect, it's a very plot-based approach that still manages to make the first half of the assignment an above-average superhero comic. The problem was that Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch are arguably the most successful creators working in American superhero comics during the last decade, which naturally raises the expectations when it comes to their work.

The way they envision the Fantastic Four, at least initially, centers around Reed Richards, who is presented as both a leader and a truly wondrous science-fiction figure right from the start. Similar to Mark Waid and many writers in recent years, Mark Millar finds Mister Fantastic the most interesting member of the quartet, and in turn disposing with the absent minded professor characterisation that Stan Lee favored, to concentrate on making the character feel new and exciting. The initial storyline is tailor-built to serve as a vehicle for selling Reed as an inspired super genius, a veteran superhero, and it succeeds in that aspect. By bringing in Alyssa Moy, the character's former flame, Millar manages to ground the science fiction concepts in a realistic situation, that forces conflict both on the inside and the outside.

On the other hand, the elaborate set-up boils down to a very one-dimensional threat, that still manages to cut a swathe through most of Marvel's major heroes, before even confronting the team. Interestingly, a couple of lesser known superhero names keep showing up in the crowd scenes, that of Doc Samson and Gravity, who guest-starred in the Dwayne McDuffies' previous run on "Fantastic Four". More importantly, the man-made other-dimensional threat recalls Alan Moore's run on "Captain Britain", with robotic Fury decimating ranks of superheroes. If it's not clear by the end of "World's greatest", the second storyline leaves no doubt that alternate universes are as much the part of the creator's mission statement as the family dynamics at the heart of the title. Clearly, even without dealing with obscure bits of continuity, the run is meant to be read by long-time Marvel reads, and presupposes a familiarity with the characters and their usual modus operandi.

Of course, Millar's ambition is matched at every turn by Bryan Hitch's meticulous art-style. Again working in the "wide screen" format of his "Ultimates" days, the penciller employs a somewhat more open style, that seemingly devotes more attention to setting up the scope of the scene than the characters involved. As such, most of the establishing shots are textbook examples of either detailed research on the part of the artist, or a testament of his skills in design. Unexpectedly, it's the characters themselves that Hitch shows problems with, and despite his detailed approach, somehow ends up depicting insincerely. A lot of times, they look on their faces clashes somewhat awkwardly with Millar's dialogue, leading to some uninspired conversations. Leaving aside strange mistakes in proportion that crop up time and again, the other major factor that seemingly goes against Hitch's interest is in the Fantastic Four's body types. The template he uses for the lithe figures of Reed, Johny and Sue is somehow both skinny and fragile, reminding that his art looks much more powerful when depicting stockier characters, like Captain America. Still, when taking into account the busy and elaborate set-ups that Hitch was given to illustrate, it's difficult to imagine any other penciller matching the slick, highly energetic look he has given the book.

By the same principle, the creative team's second storyline, "the Death of the Invisible Woman", nominally resolves around Susan Storm. She has always been a somewhat under defined character, and unfortunately, Millar and Hitch don't have such a firm idea of what exactly defines the Invisible Woman. In the first issue of their run, they have her set up a charity for victims of the superhuman attacks, leading to both the Wasp and She-Hulk appearing throughout the run. Still, this aspect of the character never comes to the forefront of the plot, and by the end of their take on "Fantastic Four", it's almost like the creators have given up on it.

It's not even that she's defined by her children, as both Franklin and Val keep playing minor roles in the series. She comes off best as being formidable in the fight, but there is very little other development with the character. It's telling then, that even in the storyline with her name in the title, the creative team manage to make Reed Richards overshadow her. This is because "the Death of the Inivisible Woman" mostly serves to build upon the first arc, dealing with the new characters, before tying back to Millar's big idea for the first half of the run.

Since the start of their take on the title, the Marvel's first family was given to making new friends all of a sudden. In Reed's case, this development came as the most spontaneous, building upon the relationship with a previously introduced character, but the rest of the cast are forced to make sense of three other female characters, all at the same time. Sue is the first to put to test the role of her new babysitter, and ending up with a startling surprise.

Her brother is in for a shock himself, as he finds out the truth about his racy new girlfriend. Once again, this is an aspect of the plot that has been developed since the beginning of Millar and Hitch's tenure, that gets completely resolved at the end of this second storyline. The family-oriented approach meets superheroes is truly put to a test here, as Millar consistently portrays Johny as shallow as he was in his brief scenes in the writer's "Civil war" event. The resultant innuendos most certainly lead to a pencil corrections in #556, but moreover betray an unclear status of the book. Showing Johny's promiscuity while dealing with sleeping with a girlfriend who is also a super-villain certainly clashes with the idea of "Fantastic Four" as an all-ages title.

In any event, despite giving mixed signals to the audience they are working for, the creators present Sue's brother with a defined status quo right from the beginning of their run. And, just like with her superhero trust, the idea of giving him a second career as a rock star and the subject of the reality show gets slowly forgotten about by the end of the run. At least, in Johny's case, this could be explained as part and parcel of his irresponsible behavior, that plagues his menager, who is constantly trying to get force a schedule on the superhero. Interestingly, Mark Waid's attempt on giving Johny some responsibility by giving him a corporate job was also dismissed with as the plots started becoming grander.

As for the story behind the second story arc, it is strangely familiar to that of a Fantastic Four special. The similarly titled "a Death in the family" was little more than a fill-in the company promoted as a separate one shot, but it deals with a very similar time-travel paradox that informs Millar's narrative. Still, the creators' ambitions regarding the arc were much higher, as they positioned it to be no less than an introduction to the new super team, along with a complete alternate universe, that ties in their first arc and resolves all of the questions left hanging behind. At five issues, Millar and Hitch saw fit to complicate matters even more by feature the return of Doctor Doom, setting the seeds for the other half of their run.

Featuring a return of another very famous Fantastic Four character, the arc also feels the most like a typical storyline featuring the characters. The creators deliberately evoke the classical characters to contrast them with their own additions to the mythos, both in terms of super humans and distinctive locales. Thankfully, both authors are so skilled that they manage to turn out a fast-paced story, but it still witnesses the glaring problems with their approach.

The New Defenders featured in the arc are original characters only at first glance, with most of their appeal being in the reader figuring out the mystery behind the Hooded man. Once their alternate reality status is established, it's quickly made clear what ties them to the existing Marvel properties. Hitch's designs are of little use while coupled with the characterisation that can only be described as broad. Perhaps if Millar kept building upon the one member introduced in "World's greatest", the character would've ended up being better of. Because, by introducing the rest of the group in a very crowded and complicated science fiction scenario doesn't help them stand out. This goes hand in hand with "the Old man Logan" parallel Millar works in regarding his work on "Wolverine" with Steve McNiven, that is so slight as to be both inconsequential and unnecessary.

As with the Hooded Man's eventual identity, the appearance of Doctor Doom and the other classic Fantastic Four villain is foreshadowed in the previous issues. In fact, the latter threat is dealt of in an off-putting manner that, while happening to an alternate reality version of the character, should have at least reverberated with the titular heroes. By tying in their new creations with the existing Marvel Universe lore in such a way, Millar and Hitch do themselves a disservice. By now, a long-time reader is well-versed with disregarding most of the parallel universe elements, especially when presented in a way bordering on inconsequential, especially when compared to the innovation Lee and Kirby brought to the title. The original "Fantastic Four" was a proactive team of explorers, whose adventures spanned the space and time, in the meanwhile introducing whole portions of the original Marvel universe. In retrospect, Millar and Hitch's work, with it's heavy focus on alternate realities, and the reactionary aspects of the characters, feels much more derivative.

In the context of a "Fantastic Four" series, this has not been a problem for a long time, as the creative teams have felt comfortable with not changing the basic set-up. It is highly relevant when applied to trying to spin the new characters in a new ongoing series, as Marvel has tried with "the Fantastic Force". The fans acted so indifferent to the New Defenders that the project was first downsized to a five issue mini, and then further shortened to it's current four chapters. Thus, the publication of Joe Aherne written and Steve Kurth pencilled mini-series seems as part of the same editorial decision that developed the Millar and Hitch run, beforehand, sold on the promise of the repeat of "the Ultimates" stellar performance.

The next issue is a standalone, bringing into focus the Thing, and his new relationship, that has until then remained in the background. Once the most popular member of the team, the character has since been somewhat sidelined, with Mark Waid going so far as to give him the role of the team's most stable member. Millar and Hitch bring back Ben's traditional hotheadedness, recasting him back into the comic relief role, by going so far as to alter his dialogue to sound even more rough.

They proceed to introduce him to Debbie, a school teacher living in Brooklyn that unfortunately fails to develop beyond the stereotype. She is the Thing's normal girlfriend with a possessive fiancee, and the series is all the more weaker for rushing out their relationship. Perhaps with the added focus, the space given to developing Sue's superhero foundation and Johny's music career, Ben and Debbie might have established more of a chemistry of their own. This way, she is not given enough of a chance to develop a charm and personality of her own, as Millar keeps up with the plot-heavy approach, even during the quiet scenes.

Worse still is Johny's reaction, as from this point forwards, the character ceases with a constant frat boy mentality, no doubt once again thanks to the ominous tidings slowly beginning to prey the family, as depicted in the issues' final pages. Thus, the constant horseplay between the Human Torch and the Thing is entirely missing from the series that is trying it's best on convincing the reader of the seriousness of Ben's relationship.

By this time, Hitch's art has gotten looser, with no less than three inkers working on finishing an issue. Even with all the lead time before commencing the project, the design-heavy and extremely detailed art has changed into a more familiar look of a standard superhero comic. Yet, the next two issues spelt the return of the heavily embellished style that has characterised his work in the past. Perhaps he had started the work on these issues before the one published preceding them, but the story of the Fantastic Four's vacation still feels like something the creators really wanted to tell.

The story is a gorgeous two-parter, taking place in Millar's Scotland homeland, which will surely remain as a part of the run that will stand out as symbolizing it's creators among the bulk of the "Fantastic Four" tales preceding it. In terms of the plot, it's an usual aside, playing out as a Lovecraftian horror story. Yet, by putting the Richards children in the spotlight, it brings into focus the treatment Millar and Hitch have devised for them.

Franklin is once again depicted as an ordinary child, with very little space devoted to him, and no other development. Valerie, on the other hand, is advanced into becoming more capable of being a part of her family's adventures, which is in keeping with the previous teases of her special nature. This reverses the 90s dynamic of Franklin as a mutant who not only played a crucial role in the "Heroes reborn" event, but is destined to become the superhero Psi-Lord.

The story ends with another tease for the final Millar and Hitch storyline, this time promising grave reprecautions by setting the vignette several months into the future. After hinting about the resolution of the Doctor Doom conflict, and the fate of Ben and Debbie's relationship, the stage is set for the end of the run's second half, working to bring together all of the somewhat scattered plots into one storyline.

This would be "the Master of Doom", a four-parter beginning with a bizarre crime involving an iconic Marvel character, followed up by Doom's release from the prison. No doubt hoping for a classic, Marvel decided not to interfere with the creative team's run, thereby allowing it to exist in it's own continuity bubble, unencumbered by the events taking place in the company's other books. Thus, the main "Fantastic Four" book ignored both "the Secret invasion" crossover and it's "Dark reign" follow-up, with the company hiring other creative teams to produce the relevant tie-in mini-series, starring the characters.

On the other hand, when writer Brian Bendis decided on extensively using Doctor Doom, the editorial decided to provide an in-story explanation. Still, Marvel would have been better off by not using the captions to delineate the chronology, as the story is already very clear on the character's whereabouts. It only serves to potentially confuse the reader with mentions to the specific "Mighty Avengers" and "the Dark Avengers" issues.

In any case, continuing the family parallel the creative team strived for, Doctor Doom ends up as somewhat of a rival to Reed, akin to an evil twin. By now, with each creative team wanting to use him extensively, he's become almost a regular supporting character.

When the man who taught Doctor Doom finally appears with his new apprentice, it is as a reality hopping despot. After months of hinting his power, the reader is treated with an ill-defined caricature, who proceeds to spend as much time fighting Doctor Doom, as he does tackling with the Fantastic Four. In between, Millar and Hitch present an unexpected vision of the future, using a similar technique to that of Paul Cornell on "Captain Britain and the MI13". This time around, the effect is much duller, as it's obvious that the changes shown will never take effect.

Millar tries to make Marquis of death more unique, by revealing the connection to his and Tommy Lee Edwards "1985" mini-series. Unfortunately, the character ultimately still ends up playing a typical evil wizard role. Similarly, the identity of his apprentice feels contrived, despite tying in with the already forgotten over the top scene the storyline begins with. Bryan Hitch on the other hand defines provides the characters with fitting costumes, Doom's teacher literally seeming like an embodiment of death, while his apprentice's very design betrays a clue to his identity.

Its seems that for all of the creators' hard work, Marquis of Death will end up being remembered as little more than an alternate reality Doom analogue. Interestingly, the way he is eventually defeated ties him even closer to Victor, almost certanly rendering him as a footnote in the classic villain's biography. In effect, the franchise has proven so resistant to change that it's ironic that the time proven adversary ends up literally absorbing the new character.

On the technical side of things, by the end of their run, neither Milalr nor Hitch manage to devote more time out of their busy schedules to provide a finish for their work. Thus, "the Fantastic Force"'s Joe aherne completes the script for the last two issues, with Hitch leaving all of the work in the last issue to Stuart ("New Avengers") Immonen, after working with no less than four inkers and sharing the workload on the previous issue with Neil Edwards. They do an adequate job, working in their peers' styles, but still provide the reader with an unexpected finale.

Most of the last issue is spent on having Fantastic Four fight their alternate reality analogues, which seems illogical, considering the power levels involved. Perhaps a more convincing, and visually diverse, sequence could have been achieved had the team been attacked by an array of their previous temporary members, which ranged from She-Hulk to Luke Cage.

The run finishes on a more down to Earth scene, as the Thing's relationship with Debbie Green reaches it's culmination. Unfortunately, none of the other subplots regarding his teammates get any kind of resolution, with the threat of Marquis of death being such a large factor in the series' second year, but Ben Grimm ends up providing some very needed emotional closure to the greater arc. The Millar and Hitch run would have definitely turned out more accomplished if they spent more of the time on scenes like those, considering they started with just such a promise.

Unfortunately, due to the relatively short time they worked on the title, and the very plot-heavy approach involved with their take on Fantastic Four's adventures, the real family elements ended up as little more than window dressing. Perhaps it's possible that in the end neither Mark Millar nor Brian Hitch are the creators best suited to work with these characters. The writer himself has had previous experience of transforming the Fantastic Four for new audience with their "Ultimate" incarnation, which ended up with a run that was nowhere near as lauded as his work on the modern version of "the Avengers".

As for Hitch, it's clear that he spent countless hours realizing all the elements of their vision, but somehow the work just doesn't call as much of attention to itself, as it does on "Ultimates". The artist provides a much clearer example of the editorial's decision, as he was just coming off the more modern take on Marvel's properties. Considering his profile, it was certainly much discussed on which of the company's regular books he should continue to contribute, and "Fantastic Four" must have seemed like a novel idea. The problem is that the Marvel's mainstays are all decades old, severely limiting creative development after being revamped so many times, by some of the most accomplished writers and artists in American comics.

Having the Great Britain creative team on Stan Lee's first major superhero ongoing series was actually not the company's first decision. The original plan was to have Millar reconstruct the X-Men for a thrice weekly format, similar to the current version of "the Amazing Spider-Man", with Hitch possibly being one of the many artists to collaborate on the company's best-selling franchise. It's difficult to predict the results, especially considering the writer's preference for shorter runs on an established title, but as it stands, it's hard to predict when the creators will be reunited again.

Millar is already working on the new version of Ultimates with Carlos Pacheco in "Ultimate Comics Avengers", and Bryan Hitch art can be seen in "Captain America: Reborn", the project that he left the final issues of their "the Fantastic Four" to concentrate on. It's a unfortunate then that the comics industry is so focused on the new project, as there are surely many lessons to be had in the example of the pair's run on the title.