Monday, December 12, 2011

XIII Mystery #2 - Irina

Following up on the first XIII spin-off volume, Mongoose, Dargaud published "Irina" in the october of 2009. Done as the collaboration between veteran writer Eric ("Song of the Stryges") Corbeyran and artist Philippe ("Pin-up) Berthet, the second episode had a much harder task. Considering that the title character is showed up in the other half of the series, as Mongoose's lover and a trained killer who XIII disfigures, the creative team had a very unenviable task before them.

How does one expand an extremely unsympathetic supporting character's story into something gripping and interesting? As a starting point, Corbeyran takes Irina's relationship with Jessica Martin, another late addition, that ended up being co-star for several of the last XIII volumes. The character's bisexuality seemed somewhat forced when it appeared in the main title, and could arguably have been considered a shortcut to update the series into something edgier and more contemporary, but here it provides a key to understanding the character, along with the Eastern European milieu.

Similar to Mongoose, the follow up XIII Mystery volume takes place during the Cold war, this time from the point of view of KGB. And while tying up the series into concrete dates somewhat complicates the status of the continuation of the regular XIII title (considering that XIII should by now by all accounts be a middle aged man well past his prime), the historical context was always one of the main features of the title, and one can hardly fault Corbeyran for finding the inspiration in USSR wet works. The story is framed around a sequence that precedes Irina's role in the Vance and Van Hamme XIII volumes which is clear from the context. Likewise, the album tells a complete story that is entirely accessible to the new readers, especially considering that Irina herself was hardly developed during the parent series albums.

Similar to "Mongoose", the story covers her formative years, starting out in Belarus, when she was 16, and dating back to the horrible event that scarred her life. An incident in the orphanage involving the death of her best friend permanently impresses itself on the young girl's psyche, causing her to obsess over it to the point of literally subjecting everything in her life to the goal of finding the alleged perpetrator of the crime. Following the girl's escape, KGB agents get on her trail and act out on her ruthlessness by offering her to join the organization.

Corbreyan's script is continually narrated by Irina, which manages to puncture her emotional detachment and reveal the bitter humanity behind the gorgeous features. Berthet is given a task to alter between several designs, given Irina's role as the spy, as well as the changes she undergoes throughout the years. It's difficult to judge the consistency of design given the rapid jumps in the story, especially considering that even her final look differs from William Vance's version, considering that he portrayed a more unbalanced and physically scarred woman, which is difficult to connect with the more typically beautiful and understated Irina of XIII mystery, who only seems to come to life in the action scenes, where the focus shifts from her green eyes to the applying of KGB's brutal training.

On XIII Mystery, Berthet opts for a very paired down and classical style, featuring clear layouts and easily recognizable characters, with pages that are dynamic and easy to follow. Yet, the economy of his figure based style, coupled with Dominique David's use of sharp browns and grays, leaves a strange impression. Despite the traditional nine panel oversized format of a European comic album, Philippe's work almost invites to a smaller and denser presentation, with something like a manga digest perhaps being best suited for his work. His work filtered through David's cold colors even reminds of comics formatted for mobile devices. It is certainly in contrast with Vance's labored and detailed style, but despite the craftsmanship involved, seems very much in tune with Irina's quiet melancholy, leaving the reader with a sense of detachment.

Perhaps it's only fitting that the audience should warm up to the protagonist only so much, considering that despite Corbeyran's elaboration of Irina's motivation, she still chooses the role of a trained assassin to get close to the man whom he blames for her childhood's friend's death. The writer doesn't mince words, and he portrays USSR as a poverty stricken military dictatorship, that proceeds to make a monster out of Irina in order for her to survive and get back at her enemy. Her physicality defines each of her executions, as Corbeyran goes one step further then a typical "Nikita"-like narrative, and depicts her seductions as routinely involving sex, and not just the tease, as is typical with the media that employs such modern day femme fatale tropes.

Irina is equally adept at both seducing and killing men that KGB points her towards, but her heart is only in the steps that lead to the eventual capture of her prey. The brief moments of intimacy usually involve women, and even then largely involve manipulation on some level. Otherwise, she maintains complete control of herself, and basically sleepwalks through her assignments while she makes her play to officer that abused her friend.

The resultant story is as cold and efficient as Irina herself, but it still ends up with plenty of distractions. For all the work done in working on the protagonist's appearance, the resultant body type still seems uneven, as Berthet eventually endows her with a body type that simply seems too buxom, particularly given Vance's original design for the character. Likewise, the object of her search is depicted as on the model handsome officer, with little visible signs of aging, which is certainly not a deliberate creative choice, but a clear oversight on the part of the artist. Despite the presence of wrinkles, the elusive KGB officer looks somewhat close to his age only in the very last scene, where he finally confronts Irina on her own terms.

Most commendably, Corbeyran closes of the volume with a flashback depicting young Julia's death in a way that challenges Irina's motivation, and adds a sense of ambiguity to her single minded pursuit. Otherwise, the subplot involving Jessica feels somewhat slighted and mostly exploits the emotional foundation between the relationship of Irina and her orphan friend, that continues to define the protagonist, leading to a logical extrapolation regarding her sexuality. Otherwise, Corbeyran does little more then set up Jessica's role in the wider XIII story, with most of the pages given the two lovers being ultimately plot oriented.

Mongoose likewise appears late in the story, but he at least impacts directly on it, which cannot be said for Colonel Amos, whose role is little more than an extended cameo that could have been used to bring closure to the other most important relationship in Irina's life, that of her and her KGB husband. Colonel Wladimir Svetlanov is presented as a fairly complex figure, a company man who arranges marriage with Irina in order to further his own interests, which bring her closer to the officer that she blames for Julia's death. The complex dynamic between the two characters is somewhat cut short as Corbeyran arranges the Colonel to help her get to America, where she starts receiving orders from another father figure. That the familiar elements of Van Hamme and Vance's XIII eventually take over the story come as no surprise, as Mystery is primarily designed as a series of prequels by different creative teams, and the volume certainly contains a regular the resolution that climaxes the plot, enabling it to work as a story in its own right, its just that it feels like a misstep not to return to a very interesting dynamic that gave a little color to the otherwise familiar revenge story.

Another missed opportunity can be seen in abandoning the angle of Irina's attraction to her quarry, as some of her narration at one point hints that she finds him attractive. This is an angle that could have made the story of a woman as a spy more unique in itself, but Corbeyran ultimately decides to use it to realize the tension in their final confrontation, providing a definite mix of sex and death to the volume that features copious amounts of both.

It should be noted that "Irina" containts two very brutal torture scenes involving female body that serve to justify the protagonist's hatred toward the KGB officer that robbed her off her friend and her childhood, which might seem logical, but still strike the reader unprepared. As for the sexual content, it feels very subdued, despite being graphic. The creators opt to depict sex as the weakness on the part of the characters, but even then they shy away from using it as fan service. For what it's worth, Corbeyra and Berthet's take on XIII Mystery contains about as much exploitative poses as a typical genre representative (with the exception of a hotel room fight that deliberately goes overboard on cheesecake, and thus stands apart in what can hardly be called a light hearted story). For the most part, the creators maintain an even depiction of sex and violence as basically being tools of trade of a damaged woman, exploited by the intelligence agency. Irina goes through with it as long as it furthers her own agenda, but as soon as her relationship with her superiors changes, she chooses to go her own way, which naturally means taking her place as a XIII supporting character, which is how she first came to the attention of the audience.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Red Skull - Incarnate 1-5

Along with Joe Johnston's summer blockbuster "Captain America - First Avenger", Marvel launched a slew of mini-series. Hidden among them was Greg Pak and Mirko Colak's "Red Skull - Incarnate", a project that was the spiritual successor to the writer's previous "Magneto - Testament" mini-series. Pak and Garmine di Giandomenico's 2008 effort garnered some acclaim as an unorthodox Marvel mini-series, exploring the plight of Jews in World War II through the lens of the X-Men's premiere antagonist.

In "Red Skull", Pak sets out to do the same, by writing a well researched period piece looking at the pre-World War II Germany, albeit centered on Captain America's chief villain. On one hand, the Red Skull's lack of superpowers naturally leads to a story without the supernatural elements that come with the mutant metaphor. Yet, where Schmidt differs from Magneto is in that he's a very over the top villain without the benefit of Chris Claremont's measured characterization.

On the face of it, there is a clear need for a somewhat more measured Red Skull story, given the heavy push that Marvel gave Captain America in the face of the movie. It's all the more commendable that the editorial saw fit to support Pak's version, as the writer sidesteps the typical problems by simply focusing on Johann before he became Red Skull, in turn creating a piece of historical fiction that is both accessible and informative.

Editor Warren Simmons, who recruited Carmine di Giandomenico to illustrate "Magneto - Testament" has long since left the company, paving the way for penciller/inker's subsequent engagement on "All-Winners Squad - Band of heroes" (the book that was unceremoniously cancelled after the fifth issue of the projected eight). Despite both "All-Winners Squad" and "Red Skull" being edited by Alejandro Arbona, the original series' assistant editor decided to support Mirko Colak as the penciller on Pak's follow up project, breaking with the painted, European-style look of the 2008 mini.

The change is more then noticeable, as the two minis otherwise act as parallels, and even crossover at one point. "Incarnate" follows the same five issue format, where each episode takes place at least a year apart, as the protagonist slowly comes of age in a time of great turmoil for the German republic. The chief problem inherent in following Red Skull's point of view at any point but from his childhood would have been accessibility. Magneto as a prosecuted boy is inherently a more sympathetic character, while watching young Schmidt come into his own as a psychopath could have been a hideous experience. That Pak manages a nuanced portrayal, one that makes the reader actually care for, and even try to understand Johann speaks for the quality of the characterization, as well as Colak's propensity for drawing children as believable characters.

Young Red Skull is realized as a child with a pageboy haircut, whose dark brown hair rounds out his head in a way that both differentiates him from his friends, and even hints at the man he will one day become. Likewise, Pak could have chosen to simply use the more sensible Dieter as the protagonist, which would both enable him with a real narrator, as well as a device through which the reader gets to know Skull by proxy, which was the technique used by Derf in "My friend Dahmer". Pak bravely sidesteps such narrative crutch and persist in simply using Dieter as a link to Johann's humanity, or simpler, with their bond being the closest thing to a family that two boys share.

Interestingly, where Magneto goes through the horrible ordeal with his whole family, as well as his Gipsy girlfriend, Johann has a much different experience. Chiefly, despite the poverty, he stays in Germany throughout, with the conflict being which side he will chose, or more realistically, how he ended up with the Nazis being his only option. Pak covers a swath of years that lead the country through several governments and great economical and sociopolitical changes, in most issues devoting a single page that narratives some of the key historical points, but the main ideas remain clear.

Even the reader who is largely uninformed of the pre-war history will be able to follow the clash between German left and right, and the rise of extremism. That Johann spends the drab twenties looking for a father figure seems like an obvious plot, but Pak executes it in such a way so as to refrain from the easy choices. The hard, even intentionally cruel man he looks up to still want to teach him a lesson, albeit in the child's eyes it continually boils down to the conflict between the weak and strong.

Considering how easily the subject matter lends itself to cliches, it's commendable that Pak finds realism in simply drawing out the conflict, and letting real world events set the pace. Matthew Wilson's shaded browns violently punctured by reds likewise seem like an afterthought, and certainly have little in common with Matt Hollingsworth's rich blues and purples, that added the painterly feeling to "Magneto". The distinction is notable as the subdued hues over Colak's pencils create a completely different visual. Mirko is a traditional comic book artist in a way that he solidly composes his panels, having his characters act through carefully studied anatomy instead of Giandomenico's exaggerated expressionism.

The effect is a much more subdued and carefully posed work, with clear layouts carrying over the storytelling without the direct effectiveness of Giandomenico's work. As for the crossover, it consists of a scene in the penultimate issue that is completely logical given the context of the story and doesn't in any way penalize the reader who is not familiar with "Testament". Moreover, having made his holocaust story, Pak puts the Jews front and center only in the book's second episode, as a family tries to care for Schmidt as an orphan child find on the streets of Berlin. Of course, throughout the story there is no question that the Jews are constant victims of Nazi's bullying, it's just that the writer opts to present a wider take on the mania that lead Germany to invade Poland and the horrible excesses that followed.

Johann is shown to be bullied child who endears himself to the family through a mix of desperation and trickery, with Pak depicting his actions as stemming out of the survivor's instinct. Despite the blood on his hands, the writer maintains that a ten year old Schmidt is not defined by a malevolent streak, which is at this point still mostly a defense mechanism. Yet, he is continually being shown society in which there is no place for kindness, symbolized by his Jewish caretaker, and more importantly, where there is no direct reward for his own acts of humanity and caring.

In contrast, violence offers an easy answer, and hardens an orphan at a time of depression, where the society slowly devolves into barbarism, paralleling and empowering the growth of a young boy's darkest impulses. The space available to creators helps the story foundation from becoming too simple, and the time frame further contributes to a believable psychological make up that at the same time looks up to authority and seeks to destroy it.

The Skull's chief two impulses thus end up his desire to act like an adult and protect the people he cares about, while still trying to find an authority capable of withstanding his hate and nihilism. His repeated desire to destroy his mentors, whether they be a teacher at the school for wayward children, the local mobster, and eventually the Nazi leaders (culminating in his plot to kill Hitler), speaks out not for the evil in him, but for a world view of a child driven to madness through the collapse of society and the traditional role models.

The realization somewhat falters in the crowded scenes, as the abundance of figures goes contrary to Colak's carefully posed work. It's not that the scenes don't carry out the necessary actions in clear terms, as well as the period clothing, but that the backgrounds still suffer from the need to complete pages in a set amount of time. Colak is simply too young to adopt to Marvel's pace in a way that even his hurried lines maintain the style without sacrificing the quality to improvisation.

Otherwise, a motif of red borders for panels bursting with violence sometimes lead to the unintended effect of scenes seeming like they take the place in the protagonist's head, with the change of coloring seeming very abrupt and unnecessary. Colak's work is distinctive and brutal enough that there is no real need to saturate it in such heavy reds, where the whole series could simply have worked with a more creative choice than Wilson's familiar overreliance on the red.

Perhaps most emblematic of the writer's approach is the way in which he portrays Schmidt's association with the Nazi party. Where a lesser writer would simply jump at the opportunity to marry Johann's obsession with knives and violence into making him a perfect member of the party from the time he could read, Greg Pak chooses to return his school friend into the story. Dieter's presence goes beyond the need to complicate the story for the sake of tying into requisite real world events, once again bringing out the man in Johann and seeing how much he has changed in the intervening years.

At first, Johann is shown murdering a Nazi who was blackmailing his gangster boss, with the young man still weighing his allegiance in the forthcoming battle between the Socialists and the Nazis. As Hitler seizes power, Dieter ends up imprisoned with communists at Dachau, with Johann proceeding to work for the meanest boss around, the Nazi party. As the plot moves to 1933, Colak ages the character believably, with Johann both taller and more confidant, hiding his pageboy haircut with a uniform cap.

Tellingly, the cap falls down in the moment where he squares off against the SS, continuing his love/hate relationship with the authorities. At this point, Schmidt is still the outcast and though his superiors recognize the ruthless streak in him, they still manage to beat it out. He reacts the only way he's thought, by plotting their deaths, and proceeding to carry the insult all the way to Hitler himself. Dieter decides to join in, but it's quickly apparent that Johann's politics are a mess of personal injury and sick ambition, as he sabotages his own plan at first sight of absolute power, as exemplified by the presence of the Nazi leader and the actions of his bodyguards.

As his petty plan breaks down, and instinct takes over, the balding young man is finally confronted by someone who recognizes the cruelty behind his reaction, and simply accepts it. It seems that only by standing on the side of Reich's architect and supreme leader Schmidt finally feels secure, and part of something that is strong and durable. It goes without saying that this is where the series ends, as Red Skull sacrifices his childhood and friendship for the privilege of meting out violence and being protected from life's harsh repercussions.

Everything that follows could be said to deal with Captain America, whose complete absence legitimizes the story. The reader knows that Johann Schmidt eventually becomes Red Skull, but if not for David Aja's striking, propaganda style covers, as well as some of the symbolism pointing towards Jack Kirby's design incorporated into Colak's layouts, the story reads like a little boy's plunge into the negativity that his nation unleashed upon the whole world, which has nothing to do with superheroes. Simply put, Marvel's predecessor published a propaganda American comic during World War II, but Greg Pak and Mirko Colak choose to revisit the pre war years from a historical perspective.

Thankfully, the assistant editor of "Magneto - Testament" saw fit to help its follow-up came into being as an unassuming movie tie-in mini-series, yet despite the creators' success it is very doubtful that another similar venture will be forthcoming any time soon. Alejandro Arabona, former assistant editor to Marvel's EIC Axel Alonso no longer works for the company, as its currently restructuring to further concentrate on their most successful superhero properties. The cancellation of the aforementioned "All-Winner Squad" mini-series after five published issues currently serves as the signifier of the trend that will likely lead to the lack of tolerance when it comes to projects that are primarily a labor of love for the talent involved. In a certain way, the reader has gotten to see both sides to Pak's vision of the conflict that has come to define the 20th century, and hopefully Marvel will keep both books in print long enough to help them connect to the audience that may have missed them at the time of the original serial publication.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Adieu Brindavoine

Before establishing himself as a versatile author either by the pulp adventures of "Adela Blanc-Sec", or the more serious efforts dealing with the war and human condition, Jacques ("It was the War of the Trenches") Tardi tried out his hand with "Adieu Brindavoine", a complete narrative in the style of Herge. Published in 1974 by Casterman, the pre WW1 adventure story was later fitted with an epilogue and linked to the "Adele" series of books, with Brindavoine joining the cast after the fourth album. Clearly, by then Tardi was feeling assured by the success of his new series, which explains the presence of several of the antagonists of "Arctic Marauder" in the climax of Adele's fourth adventure.

The eventual reprint of "Adieu Brindavoine" must have brought Tardi a belated sense of satisfaction, but despite the addition of the somber epilogue, the book still reads differently then the "Adele" cycle. Sure enough, the very beginning, with the mysterious caller coming to a detailed early 20th century mansion, filled to the brim with period objects, feels exactly like his most famous work, but what follows the exposition is markedly different. The elderly Basile Zarkhov encountering Brindavoine's model in full theatrical gear feels delightfully strange and oft-kilter, while his proposition to young Lucien seems as unlikely as the "Flash Gordon" inspired caller's immediate demise. Yet, the abruptness of the introduction imbues enough energy and directness into the plot that the reader feels engaged to stick with Brindavoine as he tries his luck in the Middle East.

Even at this stage in his career, Tardi's boards were meticulously detailed, albeit with a looser inking line, and fewer panels on the page, leading to a more natural and faster paced read then his later comics. Getting to the streets of Istanbul, Tardi uses most of the two pages to slowly zoom in on his arriving protagonist. Starting out with the establishing shots, the writer/artist follows Lucien's walk through the city streets, managing to incorporate some of the landmarks of the Turkey's largest city while never crowding out the page or slowing the plot down to a crawl.

The designated color scheme of reds and browns feels perfectly suited to the subject matter, and Tardi's style feels completely wholesale and integrated, whether depicting down on their luck journeyman, the detailed architecture that surrounds them, or the complicated machinery that they use to travel. Despite 44 pages probably being more than enough to tell a pretty straight forward adventure story, the writer/artists opts for a leisurely pace, deliberately leaving the elements of the plot in a strange balance.

On one hand, this means that even Oswald Carpleasure, the co-protagonist ends up being a delightfully hammy caricature of a bored colonialist Englishman, where there was clearly more then enough space to develop the character into a slightly better realized figure. Interestingly, Tardi is content to leave the moral ambiguity to Brindavoine, who emerges as the only realistic character, to the detriment of the rest of the cast, particularly the bizarre criminals seated in the Iron city.

On the other hand, it's very easy to explain away these kind of details given Tardi's artistic background and training in fine arts. Simply put, he approaches each of the panels as a completely realized sketch for a more expansive illustration, all the while never losing the continuity of the page. The Herge influence is perhaps most apparent in scene transitions, as he employs the device of the characters proclaiming surprise right before the reader turns the page to identify the reason of their sudden nervousness.

Other than this most direct of the story techniques that "Adieu Brindavoine" shares with "Tintin", the rest are present at an instinctive level, as any kind of Franco-Belgian comics narrative that stars a young man going to a different country on the chase of adventure operates from Herge's elaboration of Golden age storytelling. Yet, Tardi's characters speak in a much more natural way and their Middle Eastern adventure is much less meandering then those of Tintin and Haddock.

To show such a mastery of the form at such an early age, and not to receive the audience's attention justifies the talented creator's efforts to get Casterman to move the volume back into print, otherwise it's doubtful that it would still be debated, forty years after it's initial publication.

With the remote desert setting of "Adieu Brindavoine", the writer/artist actually always has a choice of blanking out backgrounds to concentrate on the figures. Again, that he uses it solely during the skirmishes in the desert, and later on, in the fights taking place behind closed doors in Iron city, goes to show the thinking that went behind each of the choices made during the production of the album. The action sequences are perennial fast reads, and additional background details are typically justified only when they are specifically needed for the fight, otherwise they slow down pacing in much the same way as the advent of unnecessary and unnatural sounding dialogue during the proceedings.

For such a commercial offering, with a couple of very long action pieces along several shorter ones, the overall tone is very strange. Tardi details all the equipment, with particularly vibrant vehicles always clearly posed on the page, likewise the weapons being appropriately threatening despite their antique make, yet a note of pervasive cruelty, and the protagonist's ambiguous approach hinting some of the themes the writer/artist will elaborate elsewhere, starting with the epilogue.

Starting with the opening set in France, Lucien is depicted as someone who is a victim of violence, an adventure seeker that doesn't want to hurt anybody and is actually mostly searching for himself, albeit in dangerous terraine, as a part of what eventually reveals itself as another's horrible plan. Given his defensiveness, the cruelty of his enemies seems that much more stubborn and pervasive, and one can hardly think of a more mischievous gallery of characters then ones offered by Tardi here.

After the initial terror fostered by a black assassin, who gleefully and demonically metes out nightmarish punishment, Tardi chooses Olga Vogelgesang as the direct antagonist, leading Brindavoine and Oswald to Iron city. The choice of a crazed German seems deliberate given the proximity of Great War, revealing the intelligence behind the employment of pulp tropes, but this still doesn't prepare the reader for the helter skelter feel of the last act. Simply put, following Lucien's expertly rendered nightmare and the sequence leading to his awakening in the Iron City, Tardi introduces the master plotter behind Zarkhov's mission, and it turns out a very puzzling choice.

It takes an expert stylist to creatively justify the use of intelligent apes and horribly disfigured villains in an otherwise relatively realistic scenario, and it's hard to say that Tardi accomplishes what he sets out to do. In this aspect, "Adele Blanc-Sec" works much better, as the whole work is stylized in such a way that the cast of mad scientists and assorted esotheria lends itself to a variety of strange phenomena, whereas "Adieu Brindavoine" climaxes in a very rushed ending that introduces character after character, each over the top and plotting demise of the other. The cumulative effect is still very problematic, as it breaks from the previously established tone and goes for the high camp, only to emerge back to the somewhat more internal narrative at the very end.

Unfortunately, despite the powerful ending sequence introducing the misguided Brindavoine to World War I, it's hard to imagine the series succeeding as Tardi envisioned it. Utilizing Herge's approach of featuring expressive characters in the dynamic adventures filled with well realized backgrounds, Jacques Tardi simply hasn't brought enough of his own identity and ideas when it came to developing "Adieu Brindavoine". In itself, the album is above average, in fact fairly entertaining and endearing, but despite the considerable technical prowess behind it, it treats the reader to a familiar story.

Thankfully, the epilogue, "La Fleur au Fusil" ("The Flower in the Rifle") hints in a different direction, as it puts the writer/artist's thoughts on Great War center stage. Considering the strength of an offering like Tardi's "It was the War of the Trenches", it becomes clear that the album is all the better for its inclusion. Starting out with an acquaintance of Lucien recounting his last days and the tragic conditions he ended his life in, it's clear that the reader won't be treated to another adventure story, and that the ten following pages aim for a completely different effect.

In many ways, Brindavoine's service shows him the war as seen by Celine and Remarque, as well as Tardi's own grandfather. The reader reconnects with Lucien just several months after the events of "Adieu", but Tardi offers a completely different character. Brindavoine's short hair and previously gaunt stature seems downright sickly and poised for short and messy death, the fate that his companion shares in the opening of the flashback. As the grenade bursts towards Lucien carrying his wounded friend, Tardi illustrates it as a typical comic book special effect, represented chiefly by bright colors and bold type face. What separates the writer/artist's work is the expressionism that the senseless death carries, as Brindavoine emerges from the smoke painted in water colors before coming to grips with the situation.

This short sequence of only four panels makes all the difference even from the rich, if somewhat minimalist  longer story that preceded it. Brindavoine suffers a nervous breakdown right after, which turns the story to another flashback, followed by a long dream sequence depicted with a powerful surrealistic streak. Tardi feels so confident in his abilities that he goes to show his protagonist remembering a brief idyll at the start of the war in Russia (exhibiting the last of his "Adieu Brindavoine" self), followed by scenes of his recruitment before the disillusionment fully set in. These somewhat typical flashbacks are quickly set aside, as the writer/artist links them to his protagonist's earliest happy memory of playing a soldier for his parents' sake, before confronting his last patriotic feelings in a scene that borders on operatic.

To see Brindavoine find solace in a church with other deserters, making friends with the German that the French company proceeds to murder from behind upon entering the premises, exhibits a much more complex worldview then that shown by having Olga Vogelgesang as the antagonist beforehand. Thus, like millions of young men sharing his fate in the Great War, Tardi has his protagonist come of age in a way that damages him for life. Lucien is too smart to accept the reasons given for war and the behavior proposed by military as a way of coping with it, but at the same time powerless to stop the conflict, which in many ways rounds him out as the man cynical enough to confront Adele Blanc-Sec on even ground.

With the addition of "The Flower in the Rifle" epilogue, Tardi felt he could use Brindavoine to help revive Adele from the cryogenic sleep she was put to at the conclusion of "Mummies on Parade". The writer/artist felt that the Great War was no place for a female lead, deciding to preserve her adventures for its aftermath, where she could be joined by his other adventurer, whose colorful youth was cut short by the conflict. Simply put, Tardi's strong feelings on the matter benefited bringing together both of his serials, and contributed to the form by producing some of the most passionate comics art on the subject.

"Adieu Brindavoine", a very interesting piece of genre fiction that ended up serving as a prequel to "Adele Blanc-Sec" was serialized in America in the pages of "Cheval Noir" anthology #24-28, with the English translation of "The Flower in the Rifle" epilogue appearing in the 29th issue of Dark Horse's anthology.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Moon Knight v6 #1-7 "The Kingpin of Los Angeles"

In a time when Marvel books are routinely underperforming, with a wide swath of cancellations affecting the lower tier titles, it’s doubtful what kind of future a title like “Moon Knight” has. Similar to their persistence with Black Panther, whom Marvel have tried everything to keep publishing for the last ten years, Moon Knight sticks to the pattern of volume after volume of new number ones, new creative teams, rejiggerings and a general feeling that the company is really behind the title, and would like it to suceed, no matter the logistic problems involved.

Therefore, employing Brian Bendis and Alex Maleev, the creative team behind a highly acclaimed run on “Daredevil”, and getting them to try and make sense of Moon Knight was a sound decision. In this day and age, such high profile launches are practically unheard of, with Marvel hesitant to keep the high profile A-rate earning pencillers on the art chores of low selling series for very long. Yet, at least for the time being, “Moon Knight” will be kept in the same configuration past its introductory arc, continuing the stance that the character could be as valuable to the company as Daredevil.

In the past, Marvel have tried a variety of approaches, with all of them to some degree following the basic premise of having a psychotic Batman-like superhero with a complicated operation designed to take down the most extreme of everyday threats. The writers were adamant to respect the continuity that came before them, while offering an accessible title with a special flavor. Typically, and starting with Bill Sienkiewicz, the company employed strong artists, but somewhere in the execution, actual stories usually felt uneven, not able to really carve out their own niche, and generally meandered through strange plotlines usually involving mysticism and hyper violence.

Despite all this, modern Marvel seems unable give up on the concept for the time being, despite the character lacking the appeal of the Punisher, or at least the novelty value of Ghost Rider, both of whom have proven valuable to the company outside of the publishing line. With Black Panther, it’s somewhat easier to understand the Marvel’s stance, as the character is by and large the first black superhero, a Kirby original capable of supporting different types of stories, while still operating from a simple functional foundation. Moon Knight has none of these things, and is at best the publisher’s most dangerous vigilante, whose psychosis the company is trying to turn into a selling point without the traditional appeal of colorful villains or a set-up truly unique to him.

In fact, when it comes to his continuing adventures, the company has always been content to head on without a concrete plan. In recent years this meant sticking with the title for a few meandering arcs before yet another cancellation. The Charlie Huston reinvention, trying to update Moon Knight’s operation for a new audience still felt too claustrophobic to catch on, leading to more extensive tie-in with the company’s event crossovers. The character was subsequently relaunched under Rick Remender into an even more Batman-like status quo, which Marvel quickly shied away from, trying to commit to a more thorough revisioning, perhaps the last one before putting Moon Knight to rest until the audience actually starts to miss him.

What Bendis and Maleev propose is a reading of a character as yet another Marvel superhero, integrated in the Marvel universe as a perpetual outsider, inspired by his past as a member of the West Coast Avengers. Thus, his new series is easily grasped by the new reader, as it transports Moon Knight to Los Angeles and a different status quo, where he starts forming a new supporting cast, without any real references to previous continuity. In fact, the creative team routinely comments on the action movie set up of the series’ original incarnation, today a distant past that a very Matthew McConaughey looking Marc Spector is trying to franchise as a TV series.

Clearly, both Bendis and Maleev are fans of the Doug Moench and Bill Sienkiewicz issues, and the parody is only meant as a tongue in cheek tribute. Alex Maleev particularly seems to work in a style that is a more articulate Siekniewicz homage, lending itself more to the feeling of an ongoing Marvel monthly series, while still retaining the chaotic beauty of the original. At the same time, Bendis is substituting each of Moon Knight’s classical neo noir tropes with a detail that would be somewhat more accessible to the fans of the company’s regular superhero titles. Clearly, the writer feels that getting the focus back on New York and Central Park (featured in the fight between Spector and his brother at the beginning of the character’s first ongoing), would be a mistake. Instead, Bendis seeks to avoid turning the title into something too closely akin to “Daredevil”, twisting the premise almost until it breaks.

Now a resident of LA, Spector is cognizant that any kind of superhero work in Marvel universe still works in relation to it’s mainstay Avengers members, leading to perhaps the greatest change in the series, that of substituting his regular alter egos with that of Captain America, Spider-Man and Wolverine. Clearly, this is a huge and very controversial decision, as the original Moon Knight more or less managed to be stay completely away from the dynamics of a superhero universe, (withstanding a fill in issue starring Daredevil and Jester), except for a Werewolf by night two-parter that made sense given the character’s origins. Bendis and Maleev’s outdo even the Tony Isabella written Moon Knight, that featured a nebulous crossover with Spider-Man and Gold Bug, before receiving assistance from Dr Strange to get a better sense of the Egyptian mysticism that haunts him.

Bendis is very aggressive in forcing the subsequent interpretations nods to the broader Marvel universe continuity into the new foundation of the character, one that is completely defined by his status as a C-lister that has stuck around the Avengers. It is a very strange take, dismissing with Khonshu and traditional flirting with the occult, to focus on what at first seems a very random series of circumstances, where Spector even impersonates two well known Marvel characters to further his own investigation.

The basic idea is that Moon Knight leaves New York to fight crime in an environment where he will basically be a hero in his own right, which makes sense on one level but completely fails on another. In Moench and Sienkiewicz’s hands, it didn’t matter that Moon Knight was just another in a series of vigilantes covering the same ground, as for the purposes of his series, he was the city’s only defender. For the duration of their run, the reader was getting the creators’ best, with the wider Marvel universe back drop alluded to, but never at the sake of upsetting the series’ own rhythm.

As long as he is in the shadow of better and more successful superheroes, Bendis posits that Spector is unable to get over his self-defeating personality and the mercenary past. As the long standing writer of "the Avengers", Bendis' solution is to tie the series into his other two ongoing team books, and force Moon Knight to present himself in the better light, so as not be looked won by the more experienced heroes. The cumulative effect is not that of a spin-off, but something akin to "Alias" tying in with his and Maleev's "Daredevil" work. The company's head writer has steadily built up the inter title continuity of his work for the publisher, thereby his featuring Avengers foe Ultron so heavily in the opening issues of "Moon Knight" works to get the attention of the broader audience that he's been teasing the "Ultron war" story arc for at least a year and a half.

Despite his success, the writer is regularly criticized for creating better stories when working on a solo title (as evidenced by his run on “Ultimate Spider-Man” that has been continually published since 2000), with his work on team books regularly coming into question despite the strong sales it has been enjoying for years on end. Bendis and his editors seem to be hoping that once the initial hook of the Avengers tie-in plays out, the readers will stick around for Moon Knight’s more traditional solo adventures.

Yet, by introducing Spider-Man, Captain America and Wolverine as colorful aspects of Spector’s troubled mind, there to debate each of his more complex decisions, as well as positing a long standing Avengers villain as the character’s new arch enemy, it’s clear that at least a semblance of an Avengers spin-off will stay around in his and Maleev’s work, however long the duo may actually turn out to work on the title.

Further complicating things is the addition of Echo, the Joe Quesada and David Mack created vigilante, that Bendis has continued to use outside of “Daredevil”. Serving as almost a more sympathetic version of Elektra, Maya Lopez was even a member of New Avengers during Bendis’ original team, before she fell on the wayside during one of the many reshufflings of the roster (with the actual fight against Elektra marking her last notable appearance). Yet, for all of the good will in giving prominence to newly created Marvel characters such as the Hood and Marvel Boy, Echo wound up being particularly ill-served, introduced as Ronin in a widely ridiculed ploy. Due to fan speculation, Bendis replaced Daredevil with Maya, making the big reveal of the new character’s identity turn out to be deaf vigilante wearing the male body suit, instead of the original idea involving Matt Murdock.

The Ronin controversy aside, Bendis persists in bringing Spector and Maya together, with their disabilities and ex Avengers status to connect them. Again, it’s a very unorthodox choice, but introducing it in the series from the start forces the readers to consider it, especially taking into account the craft behind it.

Simply put, where Bendis actually draws inspiration from isn’t his “Avengers” work, or even “Daredevil” for that matter, but “Jinx” and the creator owned titles that brought him to industry’s forefront, which makes all the difference. Using unusual double page layouts, and vertical panels that commonly feature repeated panels may seem common place to his fans, but seeing these techniques employed on the outside, and in the process of trying to build an entertaining Moon Knight series, creates a very solid new superhero title.

Unlike Maleev’s instantly affecting work filled with gritty details and very characteristic heavy inking, Bendis’ story at first seems meandering and non traditional, but when read as a complete unit, it works as more than the sum of it’s parts. The leasurely pacing and long dialogues attribute hugely to developing new characters, such as Buck the former SHIELD agent (consciously integrating Moon Knight even further into the Marvel universe) that quickly starts having his own identity resists type casting. Thus, Spector’s new technical consultant on the Legends of the Khonshu TV show feels uneasy about his role of moonlighting as Moon Knight’s back up, taking a realistically long time in getting used to the vigilante’s operation.

Likewise, Echo actively rejects the role of a girlfriend and damsel in distress that Marlene previously played. After the faliure of Bendis and Maleev’s long teased "Spider Woman" series, Bendis must be completely aware that Maya would not be capable of supporting anything but the shortest of limited series in today’s market, and considering Marvel’s recent cancelled of their last books starring female leads, perhaps having Echo play such a strong and self determined role in “Moon Knight” might not be a worst case scenario.

In a way, the title’s traditional focus on supporting cast elevates the series to almost an ensemble piece, which it would be if Moon Knight and Spector were one and the same. Such as it is, the book is definitely a solo title, that despite the semblance of reality sticks to the familiar superhero cliches. Therefore, Buck fakes going along with the villain's plan to gain their confidence, the up and coming kingpin obliterates his goons when they fail him after interrupting Echo and Mark's date, with Maya even introduced posing as an erotic dancer, a hoary old cliche that keeps reappearing in genre fiction. Yet, the little touches of humanity, like Echo phoning Carol Danvers to ask her opinion about dating Spector recall the best moments of "Alias" and the Jessica Jones and Ant-Man relationship depicted there.

Throughout Matthew Wilson's relentlessly grim coloring helps carry over the neo noir atmosphere, but fails in restoring clarity to Maleev's inks that routinely lead to a lot of confusion when it comes to the fight scenes, which flow in complete chaos of overbearing lines whenever there are more than two combatants involved. The artist's rendition of Mister Hyde likewise seems bland and uninteresting. The design used in the duo's "Daredevil" run was likewise very primal and savage, but the addition of the cape and shorter cape makes it too generic and uninspired. Hyde's role in introducing Ultron's body to the story could have been played by any villain, which feels like a misstep considering the much more inspired redesigns of the rest of the antagonists.

Despite the odds stacked against Moon Knight and the visual stylings that seem almost tailored made for a horror book, Bendis maintains a tone that forgoes the brooding insanity of the character’s previous darkest moments to have Spector at least try and function by focusing on the positive emotions. Remender and Opena’s previous take on the character helped smoothen out the transition, considering that Moon Knight’s optimism was a major concern during the Heroic age relaunch.

The idea of the main character striving for positivity without a clean bill of mental health on one level recalls the major post Shadowland relaunch, that of Mark Waid’s “Daredevil”. And where that book seems to be getting all the praise and accolades denied the lukewarmly received Bendis and Maleev’s new title, it’s still no reason to ignore the perpetually slighted Crescent Crusader. Perhaps part of the problem is that Daredevil is simply a better executed concept than Moon Knight, with Frank Miller’s run serving as a much better blueprint for dark anti hero storytelling than Moench and Sienkiewicz work, or the readers have simply already seen Bendis and Maleev working in a very similar configuration. In 2011, Waid working with Paulo Riviera and Marcos Martin seems a breath of fresh air, precisely due to the abandonment of the grim and gritty aesthetic, no matter how well executed, for a more retro modern style.

Bendis seems certainly writing a somewhat lighter story than the one Maleev is illustrating, and the readers have seen time and again, most recently on "Spider Woman". What Bendis is doing is actually 
giving the readers a close approximation of what an intelligent, innovatively directed Moon Knight TV series might have looked like, if the producers ended up greenlighting the 2006 proposal. Waid and Riviera seem content to present their work as a classical Marvel comic, integrating the techniques that would work in no other medium, and presenting a very unique experience down to the lettering. On the other hand, Maleev is working with models with the captionless and dialogue-heavy script diverting attention from some the traditional stiff posing inherent with the approach. 

Taking into account “Torso” and other work he both scripted and illustrated, it’s clear to see why Bendis has such an affinity for artists such as Maleev and Micheal (“Alias”, “Manhunter”) Gaydos. They have the talent and the ability to produce the exact kind of work he was striving for when he was still a full time cartoonist. 

Maintaining the kind of layout that carries over his dialogue in the most natural way actually enables Bendis to have such a strong creative voice and command over his comics. When employed in his prolific work set in the shared superhero universe, this technique is exactly what irritates the long standing Marvel fans. In "Moon Knight", Bendis avoids the common complaint of all of his characters speaking in a similar cadence, by maintaining a strong individualistic streak in Marc Spector.

The vigilante spends most of his time obsession with taking down the up and coming LA kingpin, and proving himself to the superhero community symbolized by the Avengers. Yet, unlike Daredevil, he is not above admitting his failings, that extravagantly manifest in the scenes of his consulting with the Spider-Man, Captain America and Wolverine parts of his personality. The character tries his best to ignore the psychosis, but the execution falls short of the supremely demented supernatural excess personified by Charlie Huston's Khonshu. Bendis' troubled protagonist tries his best to drown out the voices of the Avengers, while enlisting allies to help with the plan of using the head of a deactivated Ultron robot to locate and confront the LA’s new leader of the underworld. 

When it comes to the underlings of this elusive figure, the writer employs a wide variety of 1980s Marvel villains, redesigned by Maleev to better play the part of believable henchmen. The book treats the obscure super villains as characters in the story first and foremost, with their previous pasts regarded to plot lines in the other writers books from more then two decades ago. Snapdragon, a beyond the obscure character plays the role of the kingpin’s lieutenant, working out of a brothel and exhibiting both fighting skills and the connections needed to help her recruit muscle to oppose Moon Knight and Echo. In place of standard bodyguards, Bendis places the Night Shift. The West Coast Avengers foes receive extravagant Maleev redesigns that liven up the proceedings. 

Foregoing the usual cacophony of shouted names of the bit players fighting for space during the fight, the writer spotlights Tick Tock, a more intelligent member with interesting superpowers, that still ends up living up to his unceremonious name.When it comes to the actual villain that seeks Ultron’s head to further his plans, his identity is perhaps the one element of marketing Marvel specifically designed to play up as a secret. The immensely powerful figure is actually shown in more detail each time, before actually saying his name in the final part of the arc. By that time, a long time reader had every opportunity to recognize the flamboyant design, which makes for one time that a character reveal was executed in a way that actually makes sense. The character has seen a broad use in Silver Age and has since continually appeared in the wide variety of the more typical superhero stories, yet the fact that he’s new to Moon Knight once again maintains that the uninitiated reader won’t be penalized due to their lack of encyclopedic knowledge of Marvel continuity.

The conflict itself is drawn out, with large portions of the story given to subplots concerning Echo and Buck’s gradual acceptance of the much flawed Spector into their lives, but Bendis finds a way to tie all of the plot threads into the character’s plan to confront Snapdragon and forcing her benefactor out of hiding. The Ultron’s head is used strictly as a McGuffin in these pages, but will no doubt have some wider implications on the upcoming Ultron war “Avengers” storyline.

Having proven himself as a hero in his own right, and forcing his adversary to a temporary retreat, Moon Knight has made his debut in LA a successful one. Despite the presence of a traditional police detective whose disdain for the recent outbreak of superhero violence in LA will no doubt have further consequences, Spector is at present left with a much more direct problem with Echo having stumbled upon one of his secrets. The final scene is not really a cliffhanger per se, as it expands on Maya’s supporting role in the confrontation with the criminal organization, teasing the forthcoming drama in the duo’s unlikely romantic dynamic.

Hopefully, a dedicated audience and the editorial’s continued support for having such a distinctive team of creators working on the low selling book means that Bendis’ and Maleev’s story will be brought to it’s natural point of conclusion. It would be a shame if such an above average book didn’t manage to last a year in the Direct Market, fueling the decision that the company should stay away from their less commercial titles. At the moment, the possibility of equaling the success of DC’s line wide relaunch with Marvel titles starring lesser known heroes seems beyond even the most skilled of the company’s creators. The forthcoming months will no doubt force some of the readers to return to their traditional reading habits, but for now it seems that the massive promotion their competitors have granted their entire line of superhero titles seems impossible to replicate on a smaller case. It seems a missed opportunity when even such names like Brian Bendis and Alex Maleev fail to draw a bigger audience solely for the fact that they are working on a book that is well out of  the fans’ usual consideration, but there is hope that their continued good work will garner further notice and distinguish the effort at least when it comes to critical reception.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Secret Avengers #19 "Aniana"

Marvel has already revealed that they won't be extending their collaboration with Warren ("Authority", "Transmetropolitan") Ellis on Secret Avengers, having announced the new creative team for February's #22. Meanwhile, the celebrated writer's six issue stint still has two issues awaiting publication, with solicitations listing Alex Maleev as the illustrator.

This week debuted "Aniana", the writer's fourth consecutive issue, done using Michael ("Gotham Central", "Daredevil") Lark's layouts, finished by Stefano Gaudiano and Brian Thies, previously responsible for Secret Avengers #5, a done in one story by the series original writer Ed Brubaker. Lark is a strong stylist whose work has somewhat fell under the radar due to his commitment on Marvel's "Dark Tower" adaptations, making his return to the superhero mainstream a welcome one. The penciller'r neo noir stylings have benefited both Batman and Daredevil families of books, lending a sense of reality to the crime/superhero genre hybrids, in turn making him a very solid choice for the spy fiction inspired "Secret Avengers".

The troubled title has come a long way from being a colorful companion to Brubaker's "Captain America" work, with the company's decision to keep on extending their support based primarily on the fan's continued support to the tertiary "Avengers" series. After Nick Spencer's short run, and Warren Ellis' decision not to stick with the series following the six oneshots, it's up to Rick ("Fear Agent", "Uncanny X-Force") Remender to try and retool Secret Avengers in a hopefully more cohesive and appealing title, but before he attempts what may well be the last shake up before Marvel dismisses with the title, Ellis has a few more chances to exploit Brubaker's line up to the full effect.

For the use in their East European mission, the writer uses Steve Rogers, Black Widow, Sharon Carter and Moon Knight, once again dismissing with Valkyre and War Machine, the extravagant heavy ordnance superheroes that have proven such ill fits to the book. When the full line up including the Beast and Ant-Man was announced, it was expected that Brubaker would somehow bring the disparate characters together, but in reality he felt more interested in teasing new members such as Nova and Shang Chi, then actually integrating the main cast into a believable fighting unit.

And while a lack of subplots might have been abridged by more strongly defined personalities, what appeared on a page was a strange hybrid of Avengers and GI Joe, where the Captain America served as a commander of anti terrorist unit, tasked with fighting Shadow Council, a secret society flirting with the occult. Ultimately, the writer left the book after the initial two story arcs, leaving the follow up to newcomer Nick ("Morning Glories", "Jimmy Olsen") Spencer, who ended up sticking around only for the "Fear Itself" crossover tie in. Once Ellis debuted with the first of his six short stories, it was clear that any kind of series continuity was largely abandoned to make for at least serviceable storytelling, while the company makes sense of where next to take the franchise.

In "Aniana", Ellis returns to wringing out spy action out of Eastern European conflicts, but decides to substitute #17's Serbia for fictional Symkaria (located on Marvel's map so as to take up a portion of northern Serbia territory). And while still tangently related to the battle against Shadow Council, the story is a classic example of stand alone fiction. Designed to have a band of Marvel's grittier characters team up to take down a narcotics cartel in a former political hotspot, it purposefully ignores any references to current continuity, offering accessible spy action, done without the company's typical reliance on overwriting and garish superhero costumes.

Starting with a scene that has Black Widow and Sharon Carter trying to infiltrate the building by posing as a couple of dim witted party girls, Ellis calls to attention the series debut. And while under Mike Deodato jr.'s pencils, Black Widow and Valkyre's masquerade quickly turned into a full blown superhero melee, Ellis prefers the subtlety of moving the characters to the restroom where they plan their next move. Captain America, who had flamboyantly dropped in to save his team mates Brubaker's series opening, proceeds to secure the back entrance dressed in plain clothes, fitting the bleakness of the crime stricken old country capital.

Recalling the first issue of his run, and moreover the "Global Frequency" creator owned maxi-series that serves as the blueprint for Ellis' take on "Secret Avengers", most of the action is centered around a single locale, that the cast has to pass through, recalling a typical video game level. The resemblance is further reinforced by the uniform design of the antagonists, that starting with the enforcer Captain America fights in a couple of pages utilizing the nine panel grid, before opening up to the double pager revealing the larger then life element justifying the fantastical backdrop of Marvel universe.

Namely, each of the bodyguards recalls the stereotypical biker thug, coupled with sideburns, long hair and leather clothes, much like the Shadow Council ninjas in Ellis' first issue all designed the same way, almost recalling "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" foes Foot-Soldiers. The hostility of the cold, unforgiving Symkarian climate is illustrated by Jose Villarubia's, who chooses the different hues of yellow, gray, brown and green, so that the occasional splash of red has the desired effect of standing out from such a drab lifeless backdrop.

Fittingly, Ellis calls for a costume redesign that dismisses with most of the costumes, boiling them down to realistic gear that maintains by preserving the color scheme. Thereby, Captain America's costume ends up represented on a T-shirt with his symbol on it, while Moon Knight spends most of the story in a white suit. By time Marc Spector puts the mask on, the story beat seems right out of a crime film, not a typical super hero slugfest.

Posing as millionaire Steven Grant, Moon Knight gains admittance to the brothel level of the boss' den, completing Ellis' positioning each of the primary players. Starting out in different parts of the building, they coordinate their attack by steadily climbing higher through the legion of thugs, until they get to Shadow Council's contact, and Symkarian arms dealer. The video-game level set-up serves the story well, enforcing clear goals that Lark and Gaudiano proceed to illustrate with clarity and the requisite dynamic. Moreover, Lark's layouts and figurework is impeccable, enabling the fights to exibit the requisite body weight of combatants needed to get over their running through the corridors and bumping into each other. Lark's work is precise and typically a bit stiff, but the layering Gaudiano and Thies add helps solidify the figures in finely composed panels, leading to a very satisfying reading experience.

On the other hand, Ellis purposefully introduces the supernatural element to liven up the dynamic of the fight with the bikers, foregoing the banality of the staircase as the backdrop, and adding a touch of mystique to the proceedings. The build up benefits the showdown with the head criminal, making the power hungry thug somewhat more interesting due to his dabbling with mysticism, while also making him a credible threat to the four veteran superheroes.

In order to make the story more believable, Ellis frequently casts one off antagonists in such a role that they seem somewhat forgettable following the fight's conclusion, and Symkarian crime lord certainly fits into that category. The self perpetuating cycle of episodic storytelling frequently leads to tales designed merely to carry over the property until a more memorable commercial period, and "Aniana" certainly fits the bill. Of course, Ellis is completely aware of conditions involved with working in pulp entertainment, with good reviews following his "Secret Avengers" stories precisely due to his commitment in making each story a complete unit that maximizes the entertainment.

Working in superhero industry, Ellis has to stay within certain bounds, hence the addition of flachette guns replacing the live ammunition as a way of dispensing with the countless generic goons. This is what separates Moon Knight's James Bond approach from either the movies or the Ian Fleming original, as the Secret Avengers' tactics hew more closely to the non lethal strategy of GI Joe then that of an actual black ops squad. Ellis was contracted to simply breathe some life into an already unworkable premise, which is exactly what he set out to do with the help of a cadre of strong genre artists. Issue 19 is a fine example of creators working their professional best, in the process creating a piece of solid entertainment that has already proven popular with the jaded readers of "Secret Avengers".

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Captain America and Bucky #622

As it currently stands, Marvel is in a very strange place when it comes to publishing Captain America. With the advent of Joe Johnston's "Captain America: The First Avenger" movie, the main title has effectively been renumbered to appeal to potential new readers, and hew closer to the film's continuity, albeit still written by Ed ("Criminal", "Gotham Central") Brubaker, who has helmed the title since 2004. Meanwhile, the original numbering was carried over to make a new ongoing title, co-written by Brubaker, and titled "Captain America & Bucky". Seemingly little more then a spin-off book set in the past and somewhat similar in concept to "Captain America: Sentinel of Liberty", it was to be co-written by Mark ("Torso", "Manhunter") Andreyko and drawn by Chris ("Thor - The Mighty Avenger") Samnee, spotlighting the role Bucky has played in the Marvel universe - from the point of view of Brubaker's somewhat edgier and more grounded interpretation. There was a brief period of confusion pertaining to Bucky's status when it comes to the role he played in the "Fear itself" crossover, but now that Marvel have seen their summer event to its conclusion, it became clear that "Captain America" will be spinning off another new title, that of the long in development "Winter soldier", focused on Bucky's current adventures.

Taking all this into account, and seeing that with the end of the original five part arc of "Captain America and Bucky" Andreyko and Samnee are already replaced with new talent, it seems unlikely that Marvel will be keeping the book around for too long. Yet, for all of the original arc's focus in providing some continuity to the many retcons that make up Bucky's current continuity, it can be said that Andreyko's narration is the chief link that connects the five stories, all set at different points in Bucky's career as Captain America's sidekick. It can be hard to infer to what extent Brubaker has worked on the title (and will continue to work with the new co-writer), it can safely be said that his role must have been in extending the context of his earliest issues of the title, and probably co-plotting the books with Andreyko, who seems to be in charge with the actual dialogue and breaking the script down to panel descriptions.

In any event, ever since the original Joe Simon and Jack Kirby original issues of the title, Bucky's role has been retconned. First it was Stan Lee that dismissed with the character in order to provide the reintroduced Captain America with a somewhat more poignant origin, and paving the way for Brubaker's eventual return of James Barnes as a much more jaded and realistic character (in the context of the Marvel universe). This is not to say that Bucky was entirely missing from since the early days of Silver Age, as Lee's Marvel successor, editor and writer Roy Thomas featured the character in his "Invaders" ongoing series, which #622 of "Captain America and Bucky" draws back on, highlighting the role of a non-superpowered combatant in a World War 2 allied commando unit.

And while flashback scenes featuring teenage Bucky ruthlessly paving the way threw German forces featured quite heavily in Brubaker's early issues, they were still in service of setting up the wider story including Red Skull and his allies, that is nowhere to be seen in this stand alone issue. As a rule, today's Marvel is very conscious of providing new readers with accessible stories wherever possible, making "Captain America and Bucky" completely accessible to a reader that has a basic understanding of the Captain America concept, therefore eventually making an ideal trade paperback to go with the purchase of the DVD, if historically the launch of a new ongoing title to coincide with the film mostly works on carrying over the existing audience that has likewise been hyped with the attention the character has enjoyed this year.

In addition to a full page recap recapping the previous two issues, Andreyko goes on to spend three of the story's twenty pages summing up the Invaders by using a familiar new reel presentation further elaborated by Bucky's narration. This kind of heavy exposition somewhat slows down the story, as it's naive to believe that many of the readers will find it useful, yet it fulfills the aforementioned role of introducing the central players in the story that could hardly be considered one without it. Samnee struggles a bit to integrate the different designs into functional layouts, as each of the characters feels pasted in from a different image, with the prologue's gray tones actually sapping some of the energy and flow of the drawings.

 Thankfully, once Bettie Breitweiser comes to support Samnee's inks with a carefully chosen palette, most of the clarity problems disappear. Yet, Brubaker and Andreyko's decision to cut the provide a lengthy flashback just two pages into the actual story contributes to the jumpy feeling of the narrative, as the reader comes to doubt that Bucky's telling a story within a story won't entirely add up to a fulfilling reading experience. Thankfully, any doubt is quickly assailed as the flashback to three weeks earlier proves integral to the theme of the story despite consisting mainly of a well coreographed fight scene. By the time the conflict between Bucky and Namor is established, the reader has already seen these heroes launching twice into battle, yet the real suspense is saved for the story's third act.

What animates these typical genre scenes then is Samnee's art, depicting actual human beings with believable and even understated emotion. Invaders are by the definition garish characters, as they were grouped together years after their debut, having been designed by different artists to star in a variety of different Golden Age comic books, thus their grouping always seems random and visually contradictory. That Samnee manages to depict them as something resembling the team, aided by Breitweiser's blues, reds and greens, and actually have them seem just fantastic enough to provoke Bucky's response, and yet still somewhat fit in with the actual soldiers in Poland, speaks of his talent and the level of profession applied to what is little more then an origin mini-series.

And if the new reader picks up on Brubaker and Andreyko's "Captain America and Bucky" arc before getting to read the Simon/Kirby originals, or any of the related material, it can hardly be said that they are getting a workmanlike effort, slap dashed to fulfill a small niche in the bloated market. Seeing Namor's sneer and Captain America acting almost completely with his steel chin, makes clear the intelligence and subtlety behind the project. More importantly, Bucky comes over as a completely realized character, one moment seeming like a hurt child, and the other jumping into fray with the overjoyed boy's face, while all the while maintaining the unease and genuine surprise that comes with his lack of experience, and the plain unreality of coming of age in a grisly conflict, further complicated by the addition of superpowered soldiers.

Again, it's the attention paid to the details, such as Toro flying Bucky into action (with the Human Torch's sidekick's arms being the only part of his body that is not on fire), or the great care taken to ensure that Captain America's shield is highlighted just enough making the reader both surprised and delighted when it acts a turning point in the climatic battle. Bucky's bravery and respect for his mentor turn out as adequate substitution for his lack of super powers, but getting to such a common sense morale ending could easily have inspired a lesser story.

Where Andreyko and Samnee actually make the set piece worth reading is in their craft and commitment to the assignment. After all of the exposition and set up, actually reading the final eleven pages of the story feels flawless in execution and pacing. Gone are the expositions and character development expressed in nuanced dialogue, at the face replaced by a typical "Hellboy"-like Nazi castle with a customary mad scientist. Seeing the movie-inspired dr. Arnim Zola redesign could tip off readers that they are potentially reading a restrained, designed for children episode that merely clashes the notable characters into a familiar cliche, but Andreyko and Samnee are poised to prove more ambitious than that.

For a start, Zola's plan perfectly dovetails into Bucky's insecurities based around his place on the team, while at the same time providing him for a clear goal by which to prove himself. And while the Ubermensch he sets off against seems once again purposefully generic, designed to instantly recall Steve Rogers and proceed to establish himself as a physical threat for Bucky, the clever use of his powers, countered by Bucky's smart thinking leads to a very satisfying action sequence, that makes the only possible ending feel both earned and poignant.

Fitting for a story focused on James, even Captain America's contribution to Zola's defeat doesn't steal the scene, and merely continues their relationship in a believable way. Rogers is a stronger and more experienced fighter, and in this way he helps Bucky's plan, but doesn't work to undermine the closure Bucky's dialogue with Namor brings to the story.

Simply put, in Andreyko and Samnee's hands (and no doubt under close supervision and collaboration with Ed Brubaker) "Captain America and Bucky" was a very adequate read that justified the reader's trust in the quality behind Marvel's longstanding direction of Captain America. #622 serves as a prime example of this, as it recalls the impact of Mike Mignola's "BPRD" and assorted art centered Hellboy spin-off titles, that provide very fulfilling genre reads cognizant of the importance that pacing and careful attention paid to details can lend to a short story that substitutes shocking reversals of the status quo for commendable style, endearing the reader with classical comics entertainment.

Bucky's adventure with the Invaders leads to him coming to terms with the worst horrors of war in the very next issue, yet #622 shouldn't be looked down for it's lack of focus on Holocaust and the unspeakable cruelties committed by the Axis. In a weird way, "Captain America" had a genuine impression on the mind of American boys during the war, making for recalibration of real world events into this issue's pulpy fantastic completely justified, especially when produced with as much professionalism as displayed by Brubaker, Andreyko and Samnee.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Black Orchid #1 "One thing is certain"

Following Alan Moore's initial success as a revisionist superhero writer, DC comics recruited several other distinguished British creators, among them Neil ("Sandman", "American Gods") Gaiman and Dave ("Cages", "Mirrormask") McKean. The latter have previously collaborated on the experimental "Violent cases", and they collaborated with the editorial on finding the existing DC property to revitalize. Gaiman picked Black Orchid, a character anecdotally unknown even to his editors, who eventually agreed on the proposal and accepted the project as a three issue prestige format mini-series. Essentially designed as three double sized issues reproduced with higher production values, the original "Black Orchid" mini-series has remained notable through it's connection to Swamp Thing, as well as being the project that brought Gaiman and McKean to attention to the American audience.

And while it goes without saying that both creators have since enjoyed high acclaim in the media beyond the superhero comics, Black Orchid has remained associated with what had become Vertigo's shared supernatural continuity, her appeal still coming largely from the fans' good will directed towards the 1988 series. Once again, it's hard to discuss the project without stressing the role Alan Moore's work has had on the medium at the time, with "Swamp Thing" particularly introducing the readers to smart, well layered writer-oriented comics.

Taking a subtler approach to a long dormant DC property, Gaiman followed his protege in taking (even demanding) what might have otherwise be regarded as a thankless assignment, and turning it into a chance to do passionate, experimental, creator oriented work. The chief difference in regard to Swamp Thing was that the Moore written vehicle was still being reasonably popular, as it served as a basis for two live action motion pictures, being conceived as a monster title with a clear hook. Black Orchid, as an elusive anti hero using her mastery of disguise to sabotage criminals was seemingly designed as a perpetual back-up story fodder, with the gimmick of the reader never really being sure of her in story identity obviously being very limiting both in commercial appeal and potential serialization.

Gaiman and McKean start their story at precisely the ending of a typical Black Orchid feature. The reader is invited to participate in the gorgeously rendered high end crime syndicate meeting in a skyscraper boardroom, with the Orchid narrating on her role in infiltrating the organization. Yet, the strong stylings of both creators, and the unusually long introduction quickly lead the readers to believe that they're in to anything besides typical spy adventure. Basically, even before the painted, mostly six paneled black, red and purple pages break up into a splash revealing the Orchid's fate (with the four vertical panels indicating motion in a shot that tellingly has no traces of purple), it's clear that Gaiman and McKean's relaunch will be a wholesale one.

Once the dialogue heavy sequence breaks down into violence, quickly abstracted by McKean's considerable talent, the narration stops and when the familiar six paneled layout reappears, Gaiman's new Black Orchid starts introducing herself to the readers, and the wider DC universe. And when scripting a scene where a lead character literally gets born through the flower's bosom, it's clear that she is anything than a typical superhero. Yet, on the other hand, having a female plant elemental in a poetic new series centered on ecological issues and insensitivity of then current times ostensibly realized as a horror title, seems completely sensible after the success of Moore's "Swamp thing".

In fact, for all of the differences in subject matter, DC's postmodern Thumbelina follows the same logic that the company operated on when they introduced Supergirl to their Superman line of titles. In taking another obscure DC backlister and turning her into a female Swamp Thing, Gaiman and McKean were basically following trends of the day, and contributing to the group of titles that will eventually form the core of DC owned Vertigo imprint. Of course, at a time, "Black Orchid" was just another prestige format mini-series, giving its authors a chance of trying to marry the more experimental tendencies in alternative comics with reviving interest in the periphery characters that have fallen off by the wayside.

Traditionally, DC and Marvel have resisted with putting such strong artistic visions behind their most successful characters. It goes without saying that the detailed, painterly approach McKean frequently employs in his comics would never be a possibility on a monthly "Superman" title, which was evident in the controversy that his next project, the "Arkham Asylum" graphic novel drew from the Batman fans.

"Black Orchid", as realized by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean was simply always designed to familiarize a new audience with their work, being a sort of bridge toward bigger and different things, even if they included a decade long commitment Gaiman had with "Sandman" at DC. Eventually, it is the attentive readers that are apt to rediscover the project, as it's hard to imagine a today's reader becoming the fan of the original iteration of the character without recognizing the Gaiman and McKean effort, and somehow acting in spite of it.

In any event, by posing Black Orchid as a larger than life character that is nevertheless the only supernatural element in the book's first issue, Gaiman resorts to a cast of somewhat more traditional genre types in order to ground the book. Using this approach, the writer enables the Orchid to maintain her appeal as a fantastical character, while still allowing for a story that reflects the reality (albeit seen through the filter of a postmodern horror series). For a start, the reader is introduced to Carl Thorne, a small time criminal with bigger designs, whose release from jail coincides with the incident involving the demise of the original Orchid. Thorne is a particularly lucid character, whose power trips are reminiscent of Moore's Matt Cable (himself an eventual "Sandman" regular), and rendered by McKean in a way that seems to rely a bit too much on photo reference.

In contrast, doctor Philip Sylvan is introduced as a much more sympathetic character, acting as a mentor to the new Orchid, with most of the first issue being taken up by her (and in turn, the reader) being informed about her predecessor. As excepted from the creators of the intimate "Violent cases", Gaiman and McKean provide an inspired and affectionate look into the past of both doctor Philip and Susan Linden (this is the name Gaiman comes up with, along with most of her origin). Interestingly, in deconstructing the character's original incarnation, the writer breaks with the spy based identity game that has provided for drama in her previous appearances, and gives her a real back story, which provides the impetus for the series' plot.

Once again, Gaiman follows Moore's ideas in separating  the plant elemental from the original character's past providing for the complete revamp, to the extent where the writers are working on a new character of their own creation. The difference being that the Black Orchid revamp is so wholesale that the link to the original is largely relegated to a distant inspiration, with even the conflict in her past invented by Gaiman and disconnected from the DC's original stories. In a way, it could be said that Swamp Thing is a much more direct and logical percussor to Black Orchid, if the connection was limited to her being a plant elemental, but the shared storytelling techniques, and overall presentation bring into mind a much deeper bond.

In a way, Black Orchid, as solicited by the then unproven creators, follows the latter's lead in such a way that it becomes a spin-off with much less integrity than "Hellblazer" and "Sandman", perhaps explaining it's current status as being a collector's item of note to fans of Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean. To their credit, the creators try their best to make the assignment their own, so that the atmosphere does not immediately recall that of Moore's swamp based series.

McKean's sepia toned pages regularly break up the claustrophobic urban melancholy with flashes of green and purple tones, avoiding the black and white look aesthetic but not really managing to integrate Gaiman's consistent narration. The characters have enough authenticity and poignancy in their monologues (because there is little actual communication in the book itself) that they escape the traditional two dimensional portrayal of a typical gangster and superhero scientist, but McKean's layouts never really manage to integrate with the prose to make the story flaw at an unobstructed pace.

Simply put, both creators seem to be too busy trying to impress the reader with their talents to really think about how well their story flows. It seems taken as granted that any of the perceived shortcomings could be explained as side effects of the experimentation. The latter part of 1980s were a period where American superhero comics were at a particularly interesting intersection, and a lot of unorthodox creators would up working on the fringes of DC and Marvel's superhero output, before finding new opportunities for their work. Thus, McKean's stripped down design of Black Orchid feels completely in tune with some of the more creative Bill ("Big numbers", "Elektra Assasin") Sienkiewicz designs, who has likewise had a very non traditional career following his Marvel debut.

Dave McKean basically presents Orchid with a teenage girl's body type, dispensing with the superhero costume altogether to focus on the female form, abstracted chiefly when it comes to her hair, and the elusive make up around her eyes. The design is not directly sexual, but instinctive and memorable, dominated by pink hues that carry over the subtlety as well as the implied sensuality that is not really touched upon in the first issue. In fact, Gaiman writes Orchid in such a way that she is mostly tabula rasa in the debut issue, as he introduces her to her predecessor's past, while implying a very different origin for her.

Gone are the genre classic hysterics typical of the new character trying desperately to come to grips with the nuts and bolts of his situation, replace by a much more intuitive and feminine approach, that is rare for a typical superhero comic. In fact, it's hard to imagine an editor actively advising against the objectification of a female form, particularly in the years since "Black Orchid" has been published.

Yet, for a comic book priding itself on it's subtlety, DC was thankfully wise enough to proceed with the subtler approach in what was essentially the protagonist spending the whole of the series completely naked. That the approach was successful and a considerable amount of fans ended up considering what has become known as Vertigo comics the epitome of the smart genre writing speaks to the strength of the creator's passion and the quality of their work.

That it would be a full ten years before DC had started to embrace the creative vision not chiefly inspired by Moore and Gaiman is an unfortunate side effect, and it's certain that a 1998 reinvention of the "Black Orchid" would have been closer to the tone of Peter Milligan's paranoia thriller "Human target" than the venerable "Swamp Thing". Be that as it may, in 1988 Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean saw it fit to realize their creative potential in a foreign market by following Moore's example and despite the common elements such as using Superman's foe Lex Luthor as an antagonist and the propensity of building up the narrative rhythm by quoting poems in the captions, Gaiman and McKean have quickly proven themselves to be outstanding creators with unique voices, whose talents have gone on to be highly recognized and rewarded in such crowded markets as Young Adult literature and fantasy movies, to name but a few that come to mind first.