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.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

"Buddy Longway" - How an homage was done

"Buddy Longway" was a long standing revisionist western series, published by Belgian's Le Lombard. Written and drawn by Swiss-born Derib, it provided the francophone creator with a platform to tell kinder, and more realistic frontier stories, done by purposefully ignoring the classic adventure tropes, and trying for a style that had more in common with the writings of Jack London then a typical pulp western yarn. Still, it's hard to find an European western series that was not cognizant of Charlier and Giraud's classic "Lieutenant Blueberry", if not wholly referential.

Thus, even a comic that was so calm, assured and in tune with the nature as "Buddy Longway", came to exist almost in relation to the best seller, with the art alone making it impossible not to draw comparisons. And while it could be argued that beyond the stylistic similarity the two series had little in common, Derib's brushwork seems so alike to that of pre-Moebius Giraud, that it could only have been a conscious choice on the part of the Swiss born creator to present his work using the same template.

Interestingly, the series' eight volume, "Firewater" seems to dispel any notion of Derib simply utilizing a similar style to connect to the same audience, firmly declaring himself on the page as a Giraud fan. Interestingly, this was done in such a blunt way so as to actually insert the veteran comics creator into the album as a supporting character! Thankfully, Moebius receives just a cameo role, but he is such a famous figure that calling him by name and using a very close likeness of the artist actively takes the reader out of the story to ponder the back story behind the two page gag, and the kind of relationship the two creators enjoyed at the time.

The whole scene featuring Jean Giraud, a tradesman living in an army outpost actually serves the story, and resolves a subplot involving Buddy's wife convincing the trapper to purchase some of the farm animals, so that in itself, the use of Blueberry's co-creator doesn't seem gracious beyond the obvious idea of employing such a famous likeness to illustrate a bit player. Yet, even before the cow trader is mentioned by his last name, his appearance seems particularly distinctive, even for such a realistically drawn book that features a wide variety of physical models.

Derib's style is usually a bit looser, that when it comes to Giraud's cameo appearance, just seeing a character wearing eyeglasses in such a rugged setting triggers all but the newest of Franco-Belgian albums to the in-joke. Furthermore, even the use of a French name breaks from the pattern of deliberately using English names for the cast, in order to provide a distinct American western experience.

By the time the reader turns the page and discovers Jean's last name (an almost unprecendented feat for the characters fulfilling that kind of a role in the story), there is no room for doubt. In his earnestness, the writer/artist somehow diminishes the poignancy of the story, but thankfully, he has chosen a reasonably lighthearted scene to subvert.

Classical Franco-Belgian albums have long been continually praised for their accessibility, as they typically stick to a successive formula that leaves room for improvisation and individuality. Even as such, books such as "Asterix the Gaul" typically play around with in jokes involving both historical figures, as well as the references to then current real life events, but "Buddy Longway" has the distinction of not being a comedy book.

Seeing caricature after caricature of Goscinny in his and Uderzo's classical series plainly works when coupled with the book's tongue in cheek humour. Yet, even Derib's closest genre comparison, "Lucky Luke" (another Goscinny co-creation) steered clear of such visibly direct homages to French comics scene. Compared to "Blueberry", the Morris pencilled cartoony western, with a complete comedic shorthand of western lifestyle is a complete antithesis to the realism of "Buddy Longway", which makes Derib's addition of Giraud even more indulgent then it seems at first glance.

What is the most problematic with Swiss born author's decision is simply that it has no place in what is otherwise a very mature presentation. There are plenty of other comics, both primarily for younger readers and those that are not, that continue the medium's long tradition of using gimmicks and in jokes to create a playful sense of community which enables the readers to connect with the creator's vision and political commentary. "Buddy Longway", with it's archetypal stories of understatement, the struggle and coexistence between the man and the nature, the basic naivety and kindheartedness of it's protagonist, all seem resistant to such practice.

Derib must have felt so obliged to his creative predecessor that he deemed it fitting to formalize the connection on page, but the story involving the odd behaviour of young Native Americans causing distress in nature and the population of the region seems a wrong place to place his homage in. No doubt Charlier and Giraud's stories, many of them starring very sympathetic version of Indians, must have served as a direct inspiration for this, and no doubt several of the earlier entries in Derib's series, but perhaps an another two page sequence disconnected from the standard narrative would have illustrated the point much more directly, without trying to wink at what must have been an overlapping audience between the two titles.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Isle of 100 000 graves

This year, Norwegian cartoonist Jason's annual effort has been a collaboration with script writer Fabien ("Seven psychopaths") Vehlmann, marking the first of the creator's original work that has not been completely authored. The master stylist has been behind some of the more amusing albums in recent years, such as "I killed Hitler" and "the Last Musketeer", providing an easy entry point into the world of avant-garde comics publishing. "Fantagraphics" provides the American edition, translated by Kim Thompson, and lettered in a signature style the publisher uses when it comes to the France-based creator's works.  Breaking for a more mainstream presentation, Jason eschews using a genre mash up technique, preffering to simply apply his deadpan minimalist style to a pirate story.

Just utilizing his signature antropomorphic characters seems enough for the artist this time around, with even the usual gags inspired by silent movies and early animation gone, perhaps due to the presence of Vehlmann. In a way, the addition of a separate writer leads to a natural reliance on dialogue as the source of the book's humor, but it's clear throughout that "Isle of 100,000 graves" is primarily a Jason vehicle. Fabien seems simply content to spice up the atmosphere and provide a bit of a break from Jason's traditional work routine, providing the artist was happy with the collaboration.

In any case, what registers on the page is some very strong and confident storytelling, in service of a purposefully generic, and in turn widely accessible story (albeit one that still offers its fair share of distinctive eccentricities). In a way, such honest and wholesome production leads to pages that work both as pieces of narrative contained to their own frame, as well as chapters in a longer work, that is paced somewhat slower and more traditional than Jason's previous albums. The simple emotional truths concerning lonely people finding love in unusual circumstances, again lead to surprisingly heartfelt melodrama. It is unfortunate than that the somewhat uneven tone proves the "Isle of 100,000 graves"'s biggest problem.

Despite the plot clearly following an updated pirate story, the creators see fit to introduce a secret society of expert torturers, who come to dominate the proceedings to such an extent that the pirate connection disappears until the very end. In a way, seeing the cute little torturers with their red caps learning about killing and maiming almost turns the whole work into a typical webcomic, aimed at playing an unorthodox occupation as completely mundane. Somehow the extended focus on these faceless characters never amounts to anything approaching the wit and charm it's supposed to project, and comes of as long-winded and largely tangential to the point of the story.

Considering that the Hangman society has actually devised the legend of the Isle of 100,000 graves with the specific idea of luring the pirates to delight in their pain, perhaps the main plot was simply too brutal to begin with. Yet, with the protagonists being little Gwenny the wanna be pirate and Tobias the torturer in training, it stands to reason why there is little actual violence in it. Vehlmann and Jason do eventually end up showing the brutality behind the faceless bureaucracy, essentially dooming the pirates whose torture has previously mostly been referred to as off panel in-joke. Yet, for all of the trouble with balancing the torturers into comedic foils, little Tobias emerges as a very believable and likable character, justifying his role of the co-protagonist. The underachieving student at Hangman Academy has trouble with his emotions getting in the way of his duties, making the connection he strikes with "the ugly little girl" that much more believable.

Gwenny is likewise depicted as very smart, with a clear agenda of searching for her missing father using all possible means, which Vehlmann and Jason turn into a real emotional center of the story. Likewise, the book falters into stylistically uneven in an early scene involving her psychotic mother, that seems far too cruel and harsh for what follows, so that when it's eventually referenced in the epilogue it seems to have come from a different comic altogether.

Considering the many charms of the comic, and the continuously strong craft employed every step of the way, perhaps it's protracted length seems to have ended up going against it. The establishing of the premise, the arrival on the island itself, as well as the subplot concerning Gwenny and Tobias, along with the aforementioned final scene, all seem very strong and sweet, maintaining the typical Jason presentation. It is only in some of the excesses trying to exploit the most of the premise that the album works against the reader's goodwill.

Perhaps the greater focus on pirates would be placing an expectation for a more traditional story that in itself would be to asking to have Jason undercut his offbeat style. Yet, such as they are, the story's key roles of master Hangman and the ship's Cap'n still seem underdeveloped, with their quirks noted but not really elaborated upon.

Most fascinatingly, the creators seem to have instinctively spotted and commented on this shorthanding of characterization. Where a lesser narrative would have artificially added depth to these authority figures by revealing the connection to the girl's father, Jason and Vehlmann actually use it as the premise of perhaps the best joke in the book, working to considerably reassure the readers into being patient with the work. Interestingly, the very elaborations that outside scripting gives to a typical Jason story also serves to smoothen some of the quirks that have left a portion of his audience unsatisfied with some of his previous efforts, categorizing them as slight and jarring stories ending in a very abrupt way.

That kind of disconnect is avoided here, as Fabien Vehlmann makes the story very accessible to the reader who is not already in tune with Jason's sensibilities.This kind of commercialism often leads older readers to feel left out in view of a less risky and more typical presentation. And while it's hard to criticize artists for wanting to reach a wider audience by refining their style to appeal in a more traditional and obvious way, "Isle of 100,000 graves" thankfully sidesteps the more egregorius examples due to his newest album still being a pleasant surprise, as well as a primer for the new readers who will earn a lot by discovering some of his previous work.

Perhaps his latest effort can best be summed up by focusing on the development of Gwenny's unnamed pirate friend. The one eyed man playing a typical sidekick role is introduced as a lout who her due to a charming bit of trickery on "the ugly little girl"'s part, but quickly outlives his usefulness as anything other giving her someone to talk to. Yet, even after Gwenny meets Tobias, the older pirate remains a dim witted grown up, clinging to the gag that introduced him as the sole remaining point of characterization. Even his ineptitude doesn't serve as a set up for more then a few throw away gags. Once the protagonists finally get off the island, their pirate companion is disposed of in a strangely final way that contributes to the uneven tone of the album. Having finished their work, the creators opt to leave behind an unnamed character whose potential was wasted on account on giving faceless torturers a few more chances to fascinate the reader with a concept that never sets off, no matter the color of headgear.

Worse still, the pirate's very presence leads to a sense of confusion, as Jason uses a very similar looking design of a dog-like character appearing in a crucial new role, risking to confuse the reader in the otherwise flawless epilogue. As noted, the very ending redeems many of the story's problems, leaving behind a largely satisfying experience, surprisingly showing a mature outcome of Gwenny's search. That Vehlmann and Jason manage to bridge the huge climatical action set piece with a finale that wraps up the book's emotional arc with sweetness and dignity, shows them both as mature storytellers, whose upcoming work is certainly worthy of the reader's attention.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

"Mystic" volume 2 #1-4

Perhaps the creatively most interesting part of the Marvel’s acquisition by Disney so far, was the company’s decision to relaunch the “Crossgen” imprint. Conceived as a mainstream alternative to DC and Marvel, the original Mark Alessi business venture unceremoniously wrapped up in 2004, before the still new publishing venture really endeared itself to any kind of significant audience. The company’s assets were subsequently bought out by Disney, chiefly with the goal of rebranding “Abadazad”, a late in the day Crossgen book as a series of children’s storybooks. Following the 2009 Disney/Marvel merger, there was little clamor for the publishing arm to return to characters broadly defined by Alessi’s original plan for the Crossgen universe, with most of the comics fans chiefly preoccupied with the eventual plans regarding the original Disney characters, and by the extension Muppet related projects.

Thus, there was little reaction to be heard when the company announced the return to some of the Crossgen properties, particularly as the announced four issue mini-series seemed calculated to test the market’s pulse in the safest possible way cost wise. That the shape of the market has gotten so restrictive and conservative that the relaunches no longer warrant even traditional trade paperback friendly six-issue arcs, for fear of cancellation due to the lack of the retailer’s confidence and general reader disinterest in the little promoted and underdeveloped new titles. Considering the recent news of several more mini-series cancelled few issues shy of their projected length is reason enough to understand why the company didn’t even toy with the idea of launching “Sigil”, “Ruse” and “Mystic” as ongoings.

Yet despite these properties pretty much being the action adventure comic book ciphers to the existing audience (with the exception of “Ruse” that has garnered attention outside the circle of the original Crossgen readers), even back in 2004 Marvel was much more interested in extending the offer for collaboration with some of the talent involved with them. With Tony Bedard perhaps the most famous of the writing talents that have come to prominence under Allesi’s watch, the artistic part of the equation has proven invaluable to the look of some of the best looking Marvel books for years since. Both Joshua (“Meridian”) Middleton and the more controversial Greg (“Sojourn”) Land made their names working on the company’s titles, but more importantly, Steve Epting and Butch (“Ruse”) Guice were some of the veterans that blossomed under the traditional genre constrains into even greater craftsman, which along with the presence of talents such as Mike Perkins and Jim Cheung really helped define Marvel’s house style into the clear, well crafted look some of their best drawn books pose even today.

Interestingly, the current Crossgen relaunch is primarily writer led, with the greatest prominence given the only original Crossgen contributor Mark (“Kingdom come”, “the Flash”)Waid, who relaunched “Ruse” with a new artist, while Mike (“Lucifer”, “X-Men: Legacy”) Carey and G. Willow (“Air”) Wilson working on the other two titles. And while Brandon Peterson is nowhere near “Mystic” this time around, the Egypt-based creator was paired with the somewhat less prominent, but apparently more reliable David (“Fallen angel”) Lopez, whose style is very completely different, yet complementary to the aforementioned computer oriented artist. Lopez is first and foremost a traditional penciller, working with his brother Alvaro to achieve a look that is closer to the animated cells images than his previous work on, for example “Catwoman”. Yet for all of the innovation that his brother uses to highlight his soft pencils, David is committed to simply working from the script in a fairly conventional, if somewhat more subtle fashion.
That is not to say that few of the characters ever seem static and detached, the way they appear in many a action oriented artist’s more showy work, but this seems to be at least a choice prompted by Wilson’s script. The primarily teenage cast is simply so giddy, earnest and expressive, that even the sternest of the adults manage a range of emotions conveyed primarily through Lopez’s character work. In a way, such spirited reactions seem akin to some of the manga character types, but beyond the same basic idea, there is little in Lopez’s work that belies a direct Japanese influence.

Namely, if this interpretation of “Mystic” is inspired by shojo, what registers in it’s pages is a much more well thought out product, that corresponds with the reader on it’s own terms, and not simply as a collection of appropriated story beats from another school of cartooning. Because, this 2011 Crossgen revamp is nothing if not well thought out, using the loosest foundation of the original title, but quickly establishing itself as it’s own project primarily due to the stylistic choice involved. As a writer, Wilson approaches the world building from the point of view of the new readers, throwing out bits and pieces of the setting’s magic and mathematics, but is ever mindful to keep the city of Hyperion as archetypal as possible, making it easy for the reader to view it as a modern day metropolis, masked by just enough background exotics to justify the fantasy tag. This is very important considering the political undertones that are at the heart of the story, mimicking such contemporary topics as Arab spring and social unrest that will stay a global hot topic for much longer then they seemed only a year ago.

And yet, in order to make all of these disparate ideas work, Wilson insists on making “Mystic” character based, starting out as a simple story of two laundry girls in an orphanage. Giselle and Genevieve are close as sisters, but their different personalities make them interesting from the start, particularly as they are both coming of age as friends and confidantes, whose social roles are still to be determined outside of the limited confines. The subtle French influence is mostly contained to the character names, as little in “Mystic” calls directly to mind of Jules Verne, for whom the whole of their planet is named, but another, much more contemporary Young Adult author seems to be the story’s chief inspiration. Saying that once the story gets by the introductory issue the bulk of the plot takes place in Hogwarts inspired school for wizardry seems somewhat disenchanting on the face of it, but the reader can be hardly at fault for making the comparison considering that the book is marketed with the tag “two teenage wizards, one destiny – can their friendship survive its greatest test?”.

The little bits of the presentation, such as lovely Amanda (“the Pro”, “Power girl”) Conner covers, with the “Magic can happen… but only for one of them”, as well as a typical Young Adult backcover blurb evidently didn’t force the retailers into changing their mind when it comes to ordering the series (seeing the released numbers online), but the effort made to help the item of purchase seem unique in the contemporary comics market is laudable on its own.

The decision to package the series in a way that echoes the much more popular novel efforts seems like a sensible decision, considering that Willow’s approach mimics J K Rowling in a lot of ways crucial to her signature series’ popularity. Namely, just like with “Harry Potter”, “Mystic” endears the reader to itself by showing a clear compassion to it’s fictional cast, who are all so earnest and full of life, with their thoughts and ambitions freely given and shared between them, that the reader cannot but feel drawn to care for them first and foremost, and only then for the mechanics of the plot.

To that extent, the idea to spotlight Giselle so heavily in the latter three issues seems like a slight to first Genevieve, and then to the many secondary characters that all seem to have a life of their own, as well as a funny reaction to each of the situations they collectively find themselves in. In fact, it’s easy to see that the whole arc might have been stretched a few issues longer, primarily so that the symmetry of the two friend’s lives might work better, as well as utilizing the rest of the cast to the full extent. And yet, most of the themes tackled by the writer seem so universal and interesting, that slighting them with tighter focus on the main plot strand still doesn’t crush all the life out of them. The relative lack of on page spotlight on Genevieve still serves a narrative purpose, as it keeps the reader in the dark considering progress in the underworld of Hyperion city’s politics, even as the reader is occupied with the much more genre suited magical adventures of her best friend.

Willow actively makes their split the heart of the series, as the bookish, more fascinated by magic Genevieve falls on the wayside with the high society and Academia’s acceptance of her street savvy friend into the ways of magic as a natural talent. Precisely what makes “Mystic” different than Rowling’s work is precisely that it was influenced by its publisher’s world famous oeuvre, that for once being classical cartoons, and not overdeveloped superhero universes. The Young Adult nature of Wilson and Lopez’s work takes a hint directly from it’s storybook inspirations, making it’s protagonist an unlikely Disney princess, and not a swashbuckling adventure knockout. What action there is in the dialogue heavy series seems much more natural and even whimsical, compared to the today’s typical male oriented teenage entertainment.

In Wilson’ hands, Giselle and Genevieve talk and behave like actual women, and even at their most confident, betray a range of emotions that have little to do with teasing their fans in what has long become a typical approach when it comes to the subject. It goes without question that both girls are beautiful, as theirs is a tale meant to inspire it’s audience by example, not direct representation of high school cliques and teenage mentality. Likewise, the high positions both sisters aspire to (or don’t, which is the chief plot contention) and attain in the fastest possible way, may seem somewhat far fetched, but are completely realistic given the fact that they are devised as characters in a story so romantic that the reader is geared to except them to be revealed as long lost children of the princess of the Realm as soon as the climax of the second Act.

That Wilson continually avoids the redundancy of the over familiarity in this genre exercise, while at the same time perpetuating time and again the oldest of clich├ęs in the gentlest possible way, once again speaks out to the sheer positivity and enthusiasm with which this under the radar series is presented with.

In “Mystic”, the plot seems as lively as it’s protagonists, whose hopes and dreams keep the reader wondering several times in what precise direction the book will head in, seeing as the project is so wonderfully detailed and full that any of them could provide for a very engrossing read. That the writer decides on both the most dramatic and emotional once again speaks for how well thought out this, some of her earliest Marvel work has been designed as. The writer is clearly in love with her story and the possibilities it provides, inspiring her to show of all sides of her work, once again making for a compelling read overall.

This is not to say that the book is without it’s problems. As mentioned, the brevity of it robs some of the moments of their power, chiefly Giselle’s budding romance with a fellow student, but even her rivalry with the deliciously scene stealing Felice feels short changed, as the rich and spoiled student doesn’t factor in the high stakes finale, except for the mention that she is doing her part to foster the protagonist’s part in no less than saving the world’s financial and functional well being, off panel, in another part of the city.

Considering there is a very real doubt that Marvel will return to the Crossgen imprint in this iteration, given the sales and general disinterest (the books have launched at the worst possible time, when the majority of their potential audience pondering preoccupied with the possibilities of the much hyped DC relaunch) it is regretful that the reader will probably be left without ever seeing the two character’s conflict brought to fruition. In a way it is understandable given the role Genevieve and, through her, the crucial role of social unrest in the story. Simply put, while the talented Giselle is off in a the elite school for tomorrow’s Verne financial leaders, the rest of the society is falling into chaos, that has little to do with the immediate concerns of it’s leaders, no matter how well funded they may be.

Once again, as much as the high school drama setting may be directly familiar to the social life of “Mystic”’s potential readers, the world wide financial crisis is a much more serious concern that Wilson chooses to use as the real foil in her high fantasy series. To understand the implications, one must read between the lines involving the use of aether that powers the high magical society, which for most of the story aptly substitutes the electrical power in this Crossgen relaunch, but later on reveals itself as the major point of contention between the rival factions in society.

In a way, seeing revolutions in fantasy stories is nothing new, but watching what is actually nothing less than a socialist uprising in the vein of French revolution that the material calls to mind with its francophone tone, actually seems intellectually stimulating. It’s true that it’s the revolution portrayed chiefly by displaying graffiti on the few medieval-like buildings, as well as a couple of crowd scenes set around a makeshift Robespierre, but this is where again David Lopez serves as a short hand to indicate the wider context. Seeing his designs for the background characters in these scenes, all of them rich, complex and, most importantly, individual, actually brings to mind that these are actual impoverished people exploited by a system that is unfair and exploitative.

 And while an easy solution to the predicament of both the ruling elite and the subjugated many seemed in cards all along, Wilson has enough common sense to go for a more realistic ending, or at least its closest approximation when realized through the climax that involves with preserving the aether behind the world’s magic, that is being unjustly divided between the classes.

Admittedly, it’s a slippery slope, as once the Giselle reconnects with Genevieve perhaps the fairy tale nature of the story is too fragile to handle both their growing rift and the wider theme of the implications of the financial crisis, leading to the wrap up that is functional and somewhat more sobering, yet at the same time at least several pages shy of seeming natural. The subplot with Giselle’s whimsical romance with one of the students does manage to bring some levity to the proceedings of otherwise grim last issue, but it seems that the story was robbed of a better resolution involving on some level the manager of the orphanage that has figured so prominently in the debut episode, or for that matter given a larger role to another student of the arcane that helps Giselle fit in her new surroundings.

Just like the sexual tension between Genevieve and the leader of the revolution, these details seem to fall by the wayside due to the short length of the work, which still manages to make all of it’s points in style without them. There can be no higher praise for a Young Adult series than that it leaves the reader wanting for more, no matter how unlikely that may be. With reports everywhere of Marvel refocusing on it’s largest superhero brands, it’s very doubtful that the company will proceed with paying for another run of “Mystic”, which justifies the brevity of the work in the way of making the title into a cohesive whole, even if it was designed as being the first in the tentative series dealing with the previously established Crossgen originals. G Willow Wilson and David and Alvaro Lopez’s work still manages to display all of its strength and complexity, even if some of the exhibited designs and various implied paraphelia seem perfectly poised for further elaboration and continuation.

Hopefully, Marvel will see fit to collect the finish work, enabling it a longer life in its trade paperback program, and a chance to connect with a broader audience, no matter how slight. Even if this incarnation of “Mystic” proves a great blueprint for a very entertaining cartoon Disney never ends up making, it still provides a delightful run of books that will surely serve to entertain any but the most cynical of the readers that come into contact with it, expecting a piece of genre entertainment with a soul of a fairy tale.