Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Marvel Graphic novel - Raven Banner, a tale of Asgard

At the beginning of 1983, Marvel editorial contracted Alan ("Alien Legion") Zelenetz to work on "the Mighty Thor". The writer was previously affiliated with the character in a couple of annuals, and the bulk of his short run (#329-336) ended up serving to wrap up the departing writer Doug Moench's plot threads. And while he was dealing with the status of Thor's former lover Jane Foster, the writer was also beginning his collaboration with Charles ("Sandman", "Stardust") Vess on a couple of related side projects.

The duo first collaborated in "Marvel Fanfare 13", on a short story featuring supporting characters Warriors Three. The simple dynamic of splitting the three archetypes before reuniting them again, in order to deal with the quest of finding an Asgaridan poet, worked in a much different way than Zelenetz's main superhero Thor stories. Namely, under Vess' inks, the fairy tale stylings came to the front and contributed to a refreshing diversion. It was a given then that the duo's next collaboration, that Vess colored "Raven Banner" graphic novel, would present the creative team in a much more prominent manner.

Restricted from worrying about Thor continuity, Zelenetz was free to craft his Norse mythology story in a way that could provide him with a unique creative opportunity. With a few exceptions, the Marvel graphic novel imprint on the whole didn't provide for a lot of lasting genre classics, making "the Raven Banner" an interesting curiosity to the modern reader, particularly a Charles Vess fan. Perhaps the shift in the industry, with the new publishers open to embrace the non superhero genre work made Marvel a less sought after home for original work, otherwise it could simply be the case of a non favorable contract, even when compared to the rules governing the company's own "Epic" imprint. In any event, by the end of 1983, in Walt Simonson the company has found a new creative force that finally brought Thor back to the forefront of the industry, with Zelenetz relegated back to writing the character in Annuals, while waiting for Vess to complete the artwork on the graphic novel.

In 1985, the collaboration finally saw print as a 60 oversize page European style album, every bit as striking as Vess' work on "Sandman" and Jeff Smith's "Bone". The chief difference being that those early creatively controlled titles allowed for different interpretations, while even the much lauded Simonson Thor stuck for a large part with the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby interpretation of the mythology. For what it's worth, Zelenetz's idea surpasses the limits of a typical "Tales of Asgard" back-up, and functions as a story in its own right, populated largely by new characters that are inspired by the context of the Norse myth.

Despite the cameos of Thor and the Warriors Three, Balder plays the largest role in the plot, having persuaded Odin to let him accompany the hero in training. The quest itself deals with the prophecy concerning the myth of Raven banner, a flag that guarantees victory to the side that wields it, at the cost of certain death of its immediate bearer. Fittingly, the book opens and closes with the red-hued scenes of battle, that suitably portray the gravity of the proceedings and the the grandeur of Norse mythology. Zelenetz's story starts as a valkyrie take the current wielder of the banner to his warrior's reward in Valhalla, forcing on his son, and her betrothed on the quest of retrieving the flag and ending the giants' siege of Asgard. Yet, despite the valkyrie's urgings, Greyval Grimson is content to enjoy the start of his marriage and leave the glory to his cousin Horskuld, who takes the ways of the warrior much more seriously.

It is only when he meets with Balder the brave that Greyval starts seriously considering the quest after the Raven banner, again only to please his new bride. The reluctant hero starts late on his quest, and overcomes his first foe through trickery and cowardice, but even this is enough to win some of Balder's respect. Unfortunately, the physical model Vess uses for both Greyval and Balder differs very little when it comes to facial features. And while the classically trained artist excels at every turn even this early in his career, his lithe fantasy characters are usually alternating between a limited set of expressions. Reading "the Raven Banner", one can't help but think that Vess' strengths primarily lie in his adequate character designs, clear compositions and beautiful backgrounds, which still convey a very rich and vivid fantasy experience.

Interestingly, both writer and artist seem particularly inspired with the introduction of a third cast member, a comic relief anthropomorphic otter Oddbrand, who takes over the increasingly heroic Greyval's former role and provides welcome comic relief. With lines such as "Oh please, master Greyval, I'm an otter of minimum courage", Zelenetz endears the simple creature to the audience, while never allowing him to undermine the plot.

Truthfully, it is only with the visit to Valhalla, where Greyval meets his brave father, that the pace picks up, and by that moment the reader is already at half point in the book. This necessitates a three page montage designed to show some of the protagonist's exploits that the book simply had no space to showcase in detail (while presenting the reader with Vess' redesign of Hela). The atmospherically paced book only then returns to Horskuld's role in the plot, as Greyval's cousin's own voyage to retrieve the banner takes a surprising turn.   The juxtaposition between the two could have provided a book with a much stronger through-line, but Zelenetz decided against it, well aware of the restrictions both Marvel and Vess' elaborate style placed on the page count.

Likewise, a long running plot involving the trolls really starts to compliment the work in the last third of the book, as they confront both Greyval and Horskuld, who react in very different ways. With Balder's exit, Grimson's hero journey is almost complete, as he confidently takes Oddbrand with him to confront the mysteries of the World Tree. In using the most prominent Norse mythology settings Zelenetz provides for a multitude of  lovely images, but at the cost of the plot that almost uses dream logic to connect these disparate surroundings. For a start, only but the most ardent fans of medieval literature will be taken aback by the copious amount of dialogue spoken in the approximation of the archaic dialect, with frequently only Vess' stunning work to tied them over to a more interesting part of the story.

By its climax, the patient reader is awarded a really uplifting sequence of high fantasy storytelling involving Greyven confronting his cousin for the sake of Raven banner as well as his betrothed's hand. Bringing the valkyrie back into the story as a damsel in distress seems somewhat forced at the start, but Zelenetz succeeds in convincing the reader of the importance of the plot point, given Horskuld's previously established affection for the beautiful warrior woman. The creative team even finds a place for Oddbrand to contribute to the adventure with his own brand of heroics, thus by the time of the final battle with the giants, Vess is allowed to brighten up his palette and depicts a clear victory for the forces of Asgard.

The graphic novel comes full circle, and while the high fantasy theme prevents further elaboration about the mortality of its principal characters, the lack of a deeper psychological depth doesn't really hurt "the Raven Banner". Zelenetz and Vess have ended up crafting a very wholesome and satisfying work breaking from Marvel's tradition of using Norse mythology in superhero stories, and it's certainly doubtful that they would have achieved such a creative success by using Thor as the protagonist.

At the time when Simonson was achieving widespread acclaim in integrating the Norse myth with the Lee-Kirby superhero formula, Zelenetz and Vess have likewise opted to trust their own creative interpretation and produce the best possible work, given the circumstances. Of his own additions to Marvel's "Thor", Zelenetz uses but a map featured in the back of an Annual, a monster defeated in passing and Gullinbursti, Freya's pig that features prominently in the last part of the story. Otherwise, "the Raven Banner" is a completely new story, feeding on the mythology and divorces from the writer's brief association with Thor, except for the fact that his role as the scripter probably enabled Zelenetz to be in the position to pitch the project.

It's easy to say that a reader drawn to the graphic novel because of Vess' contribution would tolerate almost any kind of story, but judging from the finished product, it's clear that the artist enjoyed the experience beyond the possibility of showcasing his work. The creative team collaborated once more, working in the same milieu, when they returned to "Marvel Fanfare" for a four part Warriors Three adventure. This time colored by Elaine Lee, Vess' work looks adequate but is employed to illustrate a much lighter story. Following the structure of their original "Marvel Fanfare" collaboration, Zelenetz puts each of the Warriors Three through the same fairy tale scenario, before reuniting them to combat the threat posed by a postponing of the wedding. Full of modern slang and lighthearted, the story spotlights Thor's three companions and provides some wonderful Vess imagery, but otherwise doesn't try to approach the ambition behind "the Raven Banner".

In a way, returning to the Warriors Three and the start of their collaboration, Zelenetz and Vess have come full circle when it comes to presenting fantasy through Marvel's "Thor" brand. Both have since went on to successful careers outside comics, but "the Raven Banner" definitely marks an early creative highpoint. Even if today it mainly maintains nostalgic value, as a reminder of an earlier, more experimental Marvel, that published graphic novels as a concentrated effort in trying out an European flavored approach to form, the Zelenetz and Vess effort reads like a story in its own right, and not merely a marketing ploy attempted to exploit the character's cross-media popularity. To date, only the pair's Warriors three material has seen been brought back to print, while Greyval Grimson and his much more elaborate adventure has yet to be republished.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Flash v2 #152-159 "the Dark Flash saga"

In 2000, Mark Waid's tenure as the writer on "Flash" was slowly coming to a close. Thanks to a large swath of memorable issues that redefined the character for modern audiences, the superhero scribe used the opportunity to pen such acclaimed series as "Kingdom Come", and he must have felt ready to devote more of his time to new projects. The switch in focus is apparent in the latter part of his work on the Scarlet Speedster, as Grant Morrison and Mark Millar got to script a whole slew of issues, before Waid returned with editor Brian Augustyn as a co-writer. Following "Chain lightning", a space/time epic that extended the Flash family well into the future, the writer had only a single plot element to wrap up before he could leave the series, albeit a major one.

Just before Waid got into the super science that explained how the linage of Silver Age Flash Barry Allen got tangled up with that of Cobolt Blue, and how it impacted the family tree well into the 30th century, the writer slyly took Linda Park away from the series. Thus, all the while the comic showed blockbuster action involving Wally West participating in the most expansive plot since the original Crisis on Infinite Earths, the reader was well aware that the fate of Flash's fiance was purposely left to be resolved at another time.

Memorably, the writer had created a plot that enabled even the characters to forget all about her, furthering the intrigue of how the couple that was about to be married will ever find one another. Of course, this being a Mark Waid Flash comic, the eventual resolution was bound to be smart if complicated, in turn mirroring both his original "Return of Barry Allen" story arc, and acting as the finale of the whole 100 issue run. Adding to the ambition is Waid's decision to have the arc star a new character, introduced in the final pages of "Chain lightning".

The Dark Flash, as the mysterious newcomer has quickly come to be known, presents himself as a stocky, laconic force for good, while never stopping too long to make his identity known. Considering that the late 90ies were well after the initial boom of grim and gritty successors of traditional Marvel and DC heroes, Waid is adamant in presenting a sensible portrayal of a character that is first and foremost efficient, and then brutal. The key difference is that the tone of the story stays largely the same, as the rest of the cast duly notes the new speedster's no nonsense mentality, even as they acknowledge his connection to the Flash family. Dark Flash unmasks to select superhero veterans, both in these pages and in JLA, leaving the reader puzzled as to who it was that just gained the original Flash Jay Garrick's trust. Following "the Return of Barry Allen", a longtime Flash reader is unlikely to think that Waid would even tease the Silver Age Flash's return again, especially considering the finality which he retroactively added to the character's Crisis on Infinite Earths demise. If it was Wally, then why would he act so secretive and so unlike himself, never mind Dark Flash being established as ten years older.

Likewise, Linda's abduction by Abra Kadabra becomes the main subplot that seems bound to provide some answers, albeit in a scenario that is similarly protracted, taking several issues to be completely clear. Following her escape from the longtime Flash villain, the lone Rogue that Waid completely villifies, Linda resurfaces in what looks to be like another reality, where she has been declared dead, leaving the corresponding incarnation of Wally West to take revenge on his enemies and the world in the cruelest ways imaginable. Waid's mystery is carefully planned and seeded, with a solution that makes sense only in superhero comics, with their own blend of pulp, mythology and science fiction.

Meanwhile, Waid and Augustyn use modern Flash's second entry in "the Secret Files and Origins" to set up a completely new antagonist, who once again mirrors Wally West. In a lighthearted tale the supervillain tailor Gumbi's son narrates how he grew up near the Rogues, and how following Dark Flash's fight with Captain Boomerang the young man decides to take revenge. Gumbi does this by gaining the abilities of the Rogues he has idolized since he was the child, transforming himself into Replicant, a supervillain dead bent on beating the Flash. Along with the Folded man, who is presented in the same pages of "Secret Files", Waid and Augustyn were definitely offering a year on Flash that was complete and fun in itself, enabling the writer to leave the title in a big way.

Playing coy, Waid humanizes Dark Flash by having the speedster seek out a romance with new character Angela Marigold, with Linda being remembered only by Impulse, so strong was the magic Kadabra used when he kidnapped her. For a while, Waid was writing both "the Flash" and "Impulse" spin-off, thus enabling the scenes involving Bart in this arc to be very charming and a helpful break from the saga's darkest moments. Angela, on the other hand, with her involvement with the police, bears a certain resemblance to Patty Spivot, a one time Barry Allen love interest (revived in the latest Geoff Johns-penned relaunch), and summarily fills in the role of a superhero girlfriend. Except for some initial spunk, she is all to happy to be romanced and wooed away to distant romantic places by Dark Flash, pointing out that he has rescued her from her loneliness.

That this doesn't exactly jibe with Pelletier's rendition of Angela that sports the genre typical idealized female physique. It is not very believable that a gorgeous woman would be lonely in a workplace filled with men, but perhaps Waid and Augustyn amend this by the Flash's decision to make their time together special in every way. It's important to note how during Waid's stewardship of the title, taking such a simple approach, of embracing all that is positive about the superhero genre, and using it as a center piece for a lighthearted title worked so well coupled with smart storytelling and sound recreation of the character's mythology. When even such a troubled character as the Dark Flash uses superspeed to take his girlfriend to a dinner in Paris, it betrays an innate optimism and inventiveness about the genre, that can only be catching when this well executed.

Meanwhile, Waid has Flash confronting Folded man in a two part story that doesn't outstay its welcome, and enables the character to have a complete adventure before tangling up with the dueling menaces of Replicant and Kadabra. Despite the brevity of the conflict, the story works within to provide a diversion during the larger Dark Flash saga, and present the character as a credible superhero, even if the reader's aware that his tenure won't last beyond the solution of the mystery regarding Wally's disappearance and the return of Linda Park.

As for the story behind the character with the fourth dimensional suit, it's suitably modern to provide a techno thriller diversion, but is quickly set aside as Kadabra's subplot and Dark Flash's identity come to the foreground. It is certainly commendable that Waid provides a reveal relatively early in the arc, as the implications alone maintain the reader's interest into how exactly the switch was made and how and when will Wally return to the title. To say that it's a very unique scenario would be an understatement, but at the end of Waid's run it was more than clear that this was how the writer envisioned the title. Basically, he transformed the book into a team title centered around the concept of the Speedforce, which was unique enough that it enabled the title to weather the industry's hardest period. Ironically, it was well after the grim and gritty excesses and the resultant sensationalistic phase that almost destroyed American superhero industry in mid 90ies that Waid introduced Dark Flash to the title, and structured it as a detective story involving alternate dimensions and magic.

In such a scenario it would be easy to get lost, or even worse, to have the audience reject the title due to boredom and techno babble going over their heads, but Waid somehow remains clear even when dealing with Wally West emerging from the Speedforce to fight his other dimensional counterpart over returning Linda to their own continuity. Unfortunately, this scene is also the one where Paul Pelletier somewhat stumbles, as even with one Flash wearing the hood down there is still a confusion during some of the dialogue, but this seems to be the only instance where storytelling is unclear. The artist works in a house style that is familiar, even if a bit exaggerated, and while completely adequate, it never draws too much attention to itself, the way Mike Wieringo, or even Oscar Jimenez did under Waid's direction.

The reader may well be frustrated that the fight with Kadabre keeps spanning dimensions and the whole concept of the spell that made everyone forget Linda before she ever met Wally following her initial disappearance seems mainly designed as a storytelling challenge that Waid and Augustyn use to keep the spotlight on Dark Flash, while relegating Wally and Linda's actions in the main DC reality to a denouement that works to explain how they rematerialized following the escape from the parallel dimension. That Wally remains active even when off-panel works to set up a very fulfilling moment during the final showdown with the increasingly psychotic Replicant. Namely, for a while Gumbi and Kadabra are joined by Professor Zoom, which works almost as a callback to the very beginning of Waid's work on the title, before the truth behind Thawne's reappearance and his imprisonment of the Flash family gets explained in a very clever way.

In fact, seeing Replicant's breakdown besides Kadabra's turn into a major Flash foe seems somewhat redundant, and particularly displeasing given Gumbi's initial portrayal. Then again, when juggling such a large cast of characters and plots that really needed eight issues to be properly set up and executed, it goes without saying that some of the particularities were always going to be somewhat slighted. Yet, the most controversial part happens at the very end, when Dark Flash's proposes to Angela gets subverted by the JLA declaring the speedster a threat. In itself, this is a great, if poorly set up cliffhanger (Waid assumes that the reader was concurrently reading "JLA" where the character made an appearance) that could have served to remind the Flash family and the reader that the newcomer has a history filled with questionable acts that may not be redeemed through his acting as the Keystone city's champion.

Given the background revealed through the Kadabra subplot, such a twist would be sudden, but consistent with the story so far. Instead, Waid  posits the problem around Hypertime, a "Kingdom" concept that was controversial at the time, and since abandoned. Basically, following the Crisis on Infinite Earths, DC has tries to do away with the parallel Earths that featured different characters (and different version of familiar characters) that the editorial felt confused new readers. Yet, the otherwise heavy focus on superhero fantasy, and even history of the genre continually lead fans to bemoan the lack of storytelling possibilities, and just plain disagree with the continuity implants used to explain the inconsistencies. When it came to fans who went on to became writers, all of their favorites were up for re-visitation if a sympathetic editor was to be found.

In Brian Augustyn, whose love for the character and the place "Flash" occupied in a market over-saturated with derivative books, Waid found a collaborator that understood his desire to utilize the full extent of the colorful genre. Thus, the use of Hypertime as a way to explain the need for Dark Flash to leave the mainstream DC universe seems very abrupt to a longtime reader, that has seen at least two major recalibrations of the continuity since. In any event, what's important is that the Superman's speech boils down to Dark Flash having to leave Angela and Keystone city as we know it, considering that his very presence is a threat to reality. Despite an instance of a character calling Jay Garrick Jack in the previous issue, Dark Flash hasn't affected any previous changes to reality, but it's understandable that on top of everything else that was going on during the conflict with Kadabra, Waid and Augustyn decided to leave that particular wrinkle to his final issue.

Much more importantly, the co-writers use provide a complete story in #159, using it as an opportunity to show the effects on the arc on the two couples, Dark Flash and Angela, as they try to come to grips with the separation, as well as Wally and Linda, who are trying to repeat the wedding that was sabotaged by Kadabra. The shotgun wedding proves to be a reaction to what they've both learned about the new Flash's background, and while Waid says goodbye to the characters with an appropriate send off, the other pair of wanna-be newlyweds fairs much worse. Dark Flash's frustration with losing Angela culminates in an ending that quickly changes from heartbreaking to weirdly metatextual. That Waid uses Hypertime to come to a very particular reality is one thing, but to have Dark Flash himself actually experience some kind of closure regarding Angela seems strangely inappropriate to anyone but the reader most charitable towards Waid.

Despite the epilogue, the reader would be unfair if they called "the Dark Flash saga" anything but a fitting end to Waid's run. If anything, the writer had by 2000 endeared the reader to the concept of Flash being a character with a very unique power, that he has went to great lengths to justify as scientifically possible, as well as providing a home for all of the characters connected to him. That the book was effectively taken over by Geoff Johns following several months of fill-ins (by Brian Augustyn among others), who countered with a particularly strong tenure of his own, speaks to the high quality that DC maintained with the brand for more then fifteen years. And while Johns has since advanced to became one of the company's publishers, the Flash entered a particularly infamous period. Following the reinvention of the title as a solo Bart Allen book, the property was returned to Mark Waid for a short run that met with lukewarm response from the fan base, before Johns again took to the book. For many readers, "the Dark Flash saga" remains a true ending to the writer's involvement with the character, the reasons for which are clear when taking into account the strong, competent work produced in concert with Brian Augustyn and Paul Pelletier.