Saturday, January 26, 2013

Darwyn Cooke's final word on "Before Watchmen"

"It'll never be like it was when it was new, but there's still plenty of life in this old baby."

This is how Darwyn ("Parker", "New Frontier") Cooke ends "Minutemen", the linchpin of the first wave of "Before Watchmen" books. The prequels were controversial while they were still in the concept stage, with the original "Watchmen" co-creator openly denouncing them, while deriding the company for opening a new channel for exploiting the comic book classic. DC countered by touting the talent involved with the relaunch, announcing a slew of mini-series that revisited the 1985 series, purporting to be a faithful to the original.

The ones that have seen completion so far have maintained a respectful attitude towards "Watchmen", paying close attention to plot details, and genuinely picking up on the stray threads, but staying away from a serious attempt to challenge (or even try to attempt) the original's formalism. "Night Owl", "Moloch" and "Silk Spectre" have settled for providing the back stories to some of the original "Watchmen" players, elaborating on the character motivations while maintaining the quasi-reality of the original.

The "Silk Spectre" was even co-written by Cooke, but it doesn't stray too much from the coming of age model mostly adopted by the other two series. And while there's still as many tie-in mini-series that have yet to conclude, it is the just finished "Minutemen" that is arguably the most important. Even among the line-up of solid mainstream-oriented creators signed by DC to revisit "Watchmen", Darwyn Cooke sticks out as the most potent creative voice. Brian Azzarello, the writer of "Rorschach" and "Comedian" is also a very influential writer, but one that remains a presence in DC's ongoing "New 52" initiative, despite his bias towards working with superhero material.

Cooke has, on the other hand, enjoyed a career that used the "New Frontier" prestige format series' success to ensure that he could be much more selective when it comes to his forthcoming projects. The writer/artist was the one DC turned to when they relaunched Eisner's "the Spirit", another major contribution to the medium, leading to his producing a series of graphic novel adaptations of Donald Westlake's "Parker" novels, garnering him even further acclaim, and cementing him as one of the Direct Market's strongest creative voices.

The decision to create a flagship "Before Watchmen" title came with the writer/artist announcing that he had a particular story to tell. Citing this as the only reason for his participation might have made his involvement with the "Silk Spectre" series slightly dubious, but it seemed to strengthen the sympathetic fan's decision to keep up with "Minutemen". If Darwyn Cooke was willing to devote his time and energy into a editorial-lead initiative that revisits the themes he worked with in "New Frontier", he would not go on to produces something that would only besmirch his reputation in a part of the comics culture that wanted nothing to do with "Watchmen" comics produced without Alan Moore's consent.

Yet, it's hard to look at the resulting series as a major argument, both for the creator's participation, or the continued existence of more unsanctioned "Watchmen" related material. While revisiting the Silver Age past of Moore and Gibbons' "Watchmen", the writer/artist takes a thorough approach and crafts a multi-layered narrative that jumps through different time frames, revolving around Hollis Mason, the original Night-Owl's desire to publish the book he wrote detailing the true history of the 1940s superteam. The manuscript shows up as a back-up in "Watchmen", fleshing out the alternative history and providing a better understanding of the dynamic between the various superheroes alluded to in the main narrative.

In the original, Moore and Gibbons use these pages to parody the genre's past and further embellish the unreality of the superhero ideal, when brought out in the open. The superheroes of the comics' idealized past were no paragons of virtue, but a dysfunctional band of misfits, satisfying dark cravings under the masks, and more often then not failing spectacularly to live up to any kind of ideal. Their story existed as a little more than a backdrop for a major reveal between two of the book's characters, with the rape scene shattering away all semblance of nostalgia.

In the original "Watchmen", the men and women of the Minutemen were highly sexual individuals, with the hideous incident being the final proof that they could never exist as a functional band of heroes. Having a superhero rape his team mate could never have happened in the comics' Golden Age, which is precisely why the original creative team proceeded to depict it, in their attempt to present the genre with deeper characterization and actual human violence.

The original Minutemen's villains are likewise completely forgettable - the whole point of the back-up material was in presenting the origins of these superheroes as people, full of human flaws but never outright evil and villainous. Cooke picks up on this, and his characterization of the Comedian as an anti-hero, and a deeply complex individual pertains throughout these six issues, but it also leaves him without the plot.

Thus, the writer/artist resorts to making "Minutemen" the coming of age story of Night-Owl, detailing his Minutemen years. In order to provide a sense of mystery, Cooke resorts to inserting an artificial plot involving a serial killer, which picks up on some of the hints regarding the team's characterization. The only way to make this prequel relevant is to draw out some of the original "Watchmen"'s side characters and build them up into fully realized people, while hinting at a dark secret of their mutual past.

Thus, "Minutemen" attains a strange relationship with the original text, that has relegated these characters to little more than one sentence cameos, parodying the stiffness of the Golden Age characters. Cooke takes these as a starting point, and uses them almost like a bad reputation these characters must escape, while proving themselves as real people. Night Owl, Silk Spectre and the Comedian, are obviously the strongest when it comes to this (as they all had supporting roles outside the back-up strip), but Cooke tries his best at elevating the characters such as the Mothman and Sillhouette, who were specifically designed as being miscast in the superhero community.

The writer/artist's insists on referring to them by their first names, adds a lot of personality to their make-up, trying to convince the reader that they are capable of supporting the narrative as key players. This counter intuitive approach is best illustrated when it comes to Dollar Bill, a man who dressed up in superhero suit to entertain the customers of a chain of banks he worked in. In the original "Watchmen", the character was presented as merely the butt of a dark joke on the part of the creators, but Cooke insists on him being a capable superhero, whose life ended in bizarre irony.

Narrating the story, the Night Owl begrudges the reader for assuming that the Dollar Bill was only a superhero who met his end because of his stupidity and the sheer impracticality of the traditional superhero uniform. At first, this seems like a misreading of the material, concerning the character that got his personal name out of a tie-in RPG sourcebook, but it proves crucial to understanding Cooke's effort. If the writer/artist was to acknowledge the ridiculousness of the situation, he would also acknowledge the key problem of the whole project.

Thus, "Minutemen" largely shies away from making any kind of meta commentary regarding the comic book medium, aside from presenting a few panels in the mock Golden Age artistic style. These act as excerpts from the superhero comics that idealized these character's adventures in the world of Watchmen, in contrast to the harrowing realism that supplanted them in the true story of Minutemen. In effect, Cooke insists that "Minutemen" tells the story of "Watchmen" in half the length, making the same juxtapositions that Moore and Gibbons depict in the characters' 1980s future.

The writer/artist seems to be saying that the rape of Silk Spectre wasn't the only notable event in these characters' past, but that there was a heretofore unknown whole other story boiling around the team's largely uneventful existence. Cooke uses the intrigue and ambiguity in Moore and Gibbons' portrayal of the Hooded Justice to get to the center of the child killer case, but the plot remains extraneous precisely because it's contrary to the group's original conception.

Dramatizing the Minutemen's pointless clashes with gimmick villains while the team collapses under its own weight could be considered a creatively dubious mission. Having the detailed flashbacks and flashforwards inside the Watchmen narrative while building to the climax around the Comedian's assault might be on par with the various re-visitations of the typical superheroes' origins, but DC was adamant that their "Before Watchmen" prequels amounted to more than that.

The resulting story has the requisite density, a high level of craftsmanship and a definite love for the original, but it fails to make a case for its existence, outside the commercial concerns. "Watchmen" was a success on the plot level, but it's applauded for its style and the ground breaking ideas it brought to the superhero genre it was deconstructing. Returning to the story after more than 25 years, and concentrating on tying up minor concerns from it's back-up strip is hardly the ideal vessel for producing major work in the medium.

In Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' hands, the story of a serial killer hunting superheroes quickly transformed itself into a major reexamination of the long dormant medium, while Darwyn Cookes' narrative involving a child killer inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson's children songs never transcends the tie-in format. In his homage to the original, the writer/artist has produced a capable tale, one that reads better than the genre's average, but basically amounts to fan service, giving the reader a continued look at the interesting situations teased in the Moore and Gibbons' back-ups.

There is a clear attempt to provide a working thematic framework and believable characterization, but the writer/artist's work ultimately puts the minor "Watchmen" plot concerns before the people who have created it. And while there would certainly have been a poorer "Minutemen" spin-off without Cooke's involvement, it speaks ill of the whole "Before Watchmen" initiative, when even the creator of his caliber isn't able to provide a potent enough reason for its existence.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Vampirella Lives #1-3

In 1996, Harris comics, then-current owner of the Vampirella licence, commissioned another in a series of mini-series starring the former Warren publishing phenomenon. The publisher was apparently happy to continue working with Amanda Conner, who had become a go to artist for all things Vampirella, sporting a very appealing cartoonish style, that nevertheless succeeded in capturing the darker edge of the property. At that point, she had already collaborated with the up and comer writer Warren Ellis on a short story that ultimately served as a prelude to their "Vampirella Lives" mini-series.

And while Ellis went on to write a couple of other, crossover-related Vampirella stories, it was the three-parter that served as the central attraction of Dynamite's 2010 "Vampirella Masters" series. The property's current owner was wise to market the story on his name (even if it's no excuse for leaving Conner out of the title), as it certainly helps orient the uninitiated reader to an entertaining piece of entertainment starring the character.

In recent years, Vampirella has proved a hard character to update, but what this series proves is that she can work just as well the mainstream publishers' darker titles, if given proper attention. This is not to say that the mini-series is a completely stand alone entry, as it follows up directly from the previous work with the property, but the creative team try their best to limit the number of references and stick to the premise as established in the opening pages.

Following her defeat at the hands of a villainess, and her brief sojourn in the afterlife, Vampirella returns to Earth with a new purpose and outlook on life. In order to ground the story in a semblance of reality, and provide a reader identification figure, the creative team offers Sam Feaveryear, a paranormal investigator of Whitechapel, a US town with a dark secret of its own. The veteran detective serves as Vampirella's guide to her new surroundings, but Ellis and Conner never let his quirks detract from the fact that this is Vampirella's story.

The title character, on the other hand, is far too caught up in the mythological struggles of her own kind to serve as a typical relatable protagonist, but her larger than life persona still serves to effect sympathy from the reader. This is no mean feat when it comes to a property that is defined by her sexuality, sporting a sensuous costume and body language designed to constantly provoke the audience. The mini-series certainly doesn't go as far as subverting the title's main appeal, with Conner continually depicting the voluptulous anti-heroine in a way that emphasizes her physicality, even in scenes where she's overcome with heartbreak and tragedy.

This kind of artificiality has become so traditional with American superhero comics, that it's hard to single out the Warren original as being at fault. The character was always marketed as a seductress and her sexuality is a much firmer part of her appeal than her always shifting origin story. The creators accept this and proceed to make a dark and sexual story of their own, which is the primary draw of the mini-series. Simply put, no matter the excess, and the obscure mid 1990s continuity, Warren Ellis and Amanda Conner make sure that the story is first and foremost.

Their three issues are nothing like the badly paced, aggressive juvenalia that characterized so much of the 1990s superhero output, switching from one subplot to another and generally forming a very unsatisfying whole. "Vampirella Lives" is instead a revenge story, a story of a town beset by vampires, which largely succeeds on the strength of its central mechanism. Ellis and Conner set up a lot of the story in an expertly paced manner and continue to entertain until resolving all of the plot threads in the explosive finish.

Their story is a testament to the best of the genre comics, a complicated narrative which fulfills all of its many requirements, while remaining thoroughly fair to the reader. Ellis doesn't begrudge his audience for their aesthetic choices, he doesn't talk down to them, instead offering a smart and very functional collage that is neither too campy, nor too scary to be actively repulsing. Conner likewise understands that she is illustrating a horror thriller, one that continually fetishizes its protagonist, but she is at least as concerned with panel layouts, clarity of storytelling, and keeping a sense of humor about the whole thing.

These are comics featuring a vampire resurrection, psychokinetic assassins, and above all, a town called Whitechapel. Yet, the storytelling is so strong that it manages to be much more than a sum of its parts, and ultimately ends up making a real story. The protagonist's return is contrasted with her brethern trying to bring another of their own kind back to life, while Vampirella's selfless actions are continually compared to that of Nyx, her self-serving nemesis. This kind of thematic resonance is typically instinctive in the material of this kind, but it is anything but accidental when it comes to Ellis and Conner.

Both of them were at an early stage of their careers when they collaborated on Vampirella, but they still demonstrate a high level of craft in every aspect of the book's production. Ellis' dialogue is highly idiosyncratic and functional, the characters finely chosen genre archetypes serving to accentuate every part of the protagonist's unique nature. Conner  visualizes them in her own animated style, placing them in a seedy, cynical world which she makes sensual and inviting.

Despite both creators' subsequent ventures in the world of mainstream publishing, their early collaboration still remains one of their most potent genre offerings, avoiding the headier concerns of their more ambitious material to provide what Dynamite has rightly recognized as highly commercial material selling on the strength of its creator(s).

Friday, January 4, 2013

Best of Comics in 2012

When it comes to new releases, 2012 was a year where I had access primarily to mainstream American publications. The bulk of my reading consisted of older material, which I found of much higher inherent value than the current works I came in contact with. That said, these are some of my 2012 reading highlights, broadly categorized with my comments underneath the images.

Best Event Series 

I felt that "Everything Burns", Marvel's crossover between "The Mighty Thor" and "Journey into Mystery" managed to tell a reasonably entertaining story that also served to wrap up the current incarnations of the two Thor-related titles in a satisfactory way. The Kieron Gillen/Matt Fraction nevertheless chose Loki as their focal point, and used the series to finally explain the supposed paternal relationship between Loki and Hela. The Asgard/Vanir war looked delightful in the chapters illustrated by Alan Davis, but suffered when paired with the imcompatible work of Carmine di Giandomenico.

Best Storyline

"The Court of Owls" debuted as the most dynamic of DC's "New 52" opening storylines, featuring a well done Batman mystery that managed to slowly build a very ominous mood, threatening to undermine the underpinnings of the company's most marketable character. Following up on the episodic nature of his previous "Detective Comics" run, writer Scott Snyder proceeded with a much more concentrated narrative, that was illustrated in a remarkably fitting caricatural world of Greg Capullo. Unfortunately, the arc was continued with a mini-event in "the Night of the Owls", and ended up setting up a new villain, whose inclusion swiftly overshadowed the events leading up to it.

Best Ongoing Title:

I felt that Image's "Prophet" best fulfilled the role of an ongoing series where each issue was both a dense, self-contained read, as well as part of the greater whole that worked to update Rob Liefeld's character in a way that made him truly relevant to the medium. What was once a clone of Cable, modified to enable the writer/artist to continue with the character he created after he left Marvel, became a much different title in the hands of Brandon Graham and a cadre of artists sympathetic to his art style. Starting with Simon Roy, Brandon Graham continued to write scripts for Farel Dalrymple, Giannis Milogiannis, as well as illustrating his own stories, all informed by a truly idiosyncratic aesthetic. Bringing to bear influences ranging from "2000 AD" and "Heavy Metal", Graham has found a way to tell his own stories using the long dormant 90-ies property, presenting a title that is continually challenging and entertaining.

Best Album

Dark Horse's reissue of the latest "Blacksad" entry counts as perhaps the most visible reprint of a Francophone mainstream  publication. Abandoning the more political themes of the series' previous two entries, "Silent Hell" features the return to the traditional noir of the title's debut. This time, the anthropomorphic characters play out their crime drama on the streets of mid-century New Orleans. Once again, Juanjo Guarnido's gorgeous artwork presents the absolute highlight, but Juan Diaz Canales' still gets to write an interesting story, that stays true to the characters, allowing the Americana elements to slip in the background as the book's heart continues to center on sociopolitical issues.

Best Mini-Series

In deciding to publish James Stokoe's proposed "Godzilla" series, IDW has given the independent sensation his first high profile release. The "Orc Stain" creator charts the story across the decades of the kaijo movies continuity, grounding the story in the relationship between a soldier, who gets to know the monster through decades of rampages. The story's primary appeal lies with the visuals, which are both impressively detailed and highly personalized takes on the original Toho property. That the writer/artist (who for the most part also colors the work) still serves a solid story, which forgoes the fan service for a respectful and entertaining narrative that stands on its own, serves to round out the project as a rare licensed comic that truly stands out as an artistic achievement.

Best Webcomic

2012 was the year Koren Shadmi turned to Kickstarter to fund the second part of his webcomic. Having secured the financial support, the writer/artist continued with his Sartre-inspired story, once again pairing flawless cartooning with a curious, very accessible story. Hopefully, "Abaddon" will soon continue to grow his audience once it's finished and finally collected, but until then, it remains of the most interesting free sequential offerings on the Web.

Best Single Issue

Last year's Angouleme Festival saw Boulet try another 24 hour comic experiment. The result was "Darkness", a complete and endearing story, every bit as potent and well realized as a typical indy comic. The French cartoonist's highly subjective and charming narrative regarding his roommate's romantic persona was a definitive highlight when it comes to successful stories told in short form. Hopefully, we'll hear more from the artist born Gilles Roussel in the years to come, whether it comes to work in short form, or longer stories.

Best Graphic Novel

After taking 2011 off to complete his work on "the Score", Darwyn Cooke and IDW prepared the new Parker adaptation for the San Diego Comic-con debut. Designed as a heist story on a grand scale, the book shows a writer/artist's consolidating all of his talents in service to storytelling. The reader is entertained with a complicated story told in the clear and playful manner, assured at all times that he is in the hands of a veteran visual stylist. Cooke is literally doing the work of his career on these adaptations, in the process bringing Westlake's writing to a whole new audience, and "the Score" might just end up being the best of the series.

Best Colorist

As part of their "Marvel NOW!" initiative, the publisher has formally acknowledged the quality of Dean White's work. By reuniting the "Uncanny X-Force" colorist with the series' original artist Jerone Opena on "the Avengers", the company has fully embraced the layered painted style which has brought consistency to the former title, even when it was pencilled by artists as diverse as Billy Tan and Greg Tocchini. White currently enjoys the profile previously held by Richard Isanove, and it will be very interesting to see how he continues to improve his craft and his profile in the medium. 

Best Inker

Tom Palmer has enjoyed a long career as inker and embellisher, working on titles such as "the Avengers", and providing visual continuity between genre greats such as John Buscema and John Byrne. His continued efforts in helping Mark Millar and John Romita jr. round out the most potent version of the "Kick Ass" franchise (along with the "Hit-Girl" spin-off) serve as yet another reminder of the importance an inker can make to the final product. Credited with both finishes and ink washes, at this stage in their collaboration, Palmer is just as responsible for the final look of Romita jr's art, as was Klaus Janson, who has inked so much of the artist's output.

Best Writer

Finishing "The Boys" for Dynamite and starting the critically acclaimed "Fury MAX" series for Marvel, Garth Ennis has been having a very strong year in writing genre comics. The writer has firmly stuck with his interests, and has continued to hone his own unique creative voice, while staying away from typical opportunities provided for his peers. And while his brief run on the "Shadow" may count as the closest he gets to a typical work for hire assignment, he has continued to write passionate, well realized scripts, that make use of his gifts for characterization and dialogue. "Fury" is yet another example of the unique blend of highly personalized, historical fiction inspired genre work from Ennis, who has still to announce his new next long form creator owned project.

Best Artist

In the year in which he has reworked "Building stories" from an interesting side project to a full blown major work, Chris Ware has once again come to the forefront of the medium that has long hailed him as one of its premiere innovators. In the years since coming into his artistic prime, the writer/artist has even seen such important figures as Daniel Clowes and Seth producing work following the same storytelling techniques, and it's tempting to say that at this point Ware works in a league of his own. In any event, the Pantheon published box of comic and artistic objects presents the creator continuing to work out his themes and obsessions in an even more ambitious form, bridging the gap between comics and fine art in a way that is both widely successful and completely personal.