Monday, August 26, 2013

Ugly American Retro Review: Amazing Adventures # 11

Script: Gerry Conway
Pencils: Tom Sutton

No idea why, but the Ugly American was recently curious about the particulars regarding Hank McCoy turning into the furry beast. The first time, I mean. I was pretty sure that he did it to himself in some scientific experiment gone wrong, but I think the only reason I think that was from reading What If # 37. (What if The Beast/The Thing continued to mutate?) I had never read the original story.

Comics are like the Bible – it’s easy to feel like you’ve got the gist of things, but mostly you have no clue about what’s actually in the scriptures, because you haven’t actually read them. Significant chunks of the Bible read like bad porn. Ever sat down and read the story of Lot? The guy tries to prevent the ass-rape of a couple of guest angels by offering up his daughters to the mob. After God reduces the entire area (and Lot’s wife) to a charred pile of ash for these indiscretions, the daughters decide to feed dad Jag-bombs until he bones them. The guy was lonely, what were they supposed to do? These are role models, people! But I digress.

The point is, I don’t really understand a lick about why the Beast is the way he is. I don’t recall the explanation for how he got un-furry for the X-Factor launch in the mid 80s. Don’t know what put the fur back on, couldn’t tell you why Frank Quitely made him look like a cat, and nothing on this planet could properly explain what Steve Sanders did to the poor guy in that SWORD book that lasted five minutes. So I decided, just for the hell of it….let’s go back and read exactly how Hank McCoy got all that fur in the first place.

It happens in Amazing Adventures # 11, and it’s pretty expensive to get as a back issue. Lucky for me I had a copy of X:Men Mutations lying around, and that has a reprint. Yay for reprints!

Before I get to the specifics, a few words about the story as a whole. I love bronze age comics, and I accept them as they are. Even so, Conway employs a “voice-over” technique, and it’s grating. It would never fly today in any form, but the way it’s done here is exceptionally irritating. The voice talks to Hank McCoy, not the reader, which is odd. And the voice says terrible things like “You felt the night, as you’d never felt an evening before”. Blechh.

On the flip side, a lot of stuff happens in this issue. Hank leaves the X-Mansion, develops a love interest, discovers the chemical cause of mutation and “irreversibly” turns himself furry and bestial inside of 21 pages. If that comes out today, that’s six issues minimum. In 1970 they got stuff done, baby! There’s a nice little twist at the end, too. It’s a lot of bang for the buck, and by buck I mean 20 cents if you bought it off the rack.

I was not familiar with Tom Sutton’s work, but I found the art in this issue to be inconsistent. I love almost all of the human figures, especially the faces. They look great, convey emotion, and remind me of the old EC masters. He draws a really bad Beast, in my opinion, which is problematic when penciling a Beast book. The Beast proportions feel off to me, and the posing is really awkward. You may have a different opinion, of course. So let’s dive in, shall we?

The story begins en media res, with an already transformed Beast attacking Ben, the world’s most punctual crooked security guard. We don’t know why. But we will…dun! Dun! DUUNNNNN!

Really the story begins with an emotional crew of X-Men sending Hank McCoy off to the Brand Corporation. This is actually a really great idea. People grow and change, and sometimes you have to say goodbye to dear friends while they pursue their dreams.

Plus, it fits the character. Hank looks like a big lug, but inside he’s all scientist. The X-Men, particularly as a combat team, have always been a bad fit for him. He’s slightly stronger than a regular human, and he has dexterous appendages. These are useful things while engaging in foreplay, and dialing a phone with your feet. If you’re fighting a master of magnetism, the applications are not fantastic. He can almost certainly do more good for mutantkind in a lab, and that’s a bold, interesting writing path to take.

Hank heads off to his new job doing research Mr. Grant at Brand. There’s good news and bad news. The good news is that his new assistant is the flirty Miss Linda Donaldson.
As company perks go, hot assistants are right at the top. The bad news is that he's working with Professor Maddicks, who is the world’s biggest dick. It doesn’t take Maddicks but two seconds before he starts feeling insecure about the new guy muscling in on his territory. Does not play well with others. About as much fun as dysentery. He also has a beard suggesting he comes from the evil dimension in Star Trek, so you know exactly where this is headed.

The new job starts off well enough for Hank. Other than Maddicks, nobody seems to be too upset that he’s a mutant or anything. And to be fair Maddicks doesn’t have a problem with Hank specifically because he’s a mutant – Maddicks just has undiagnosed Asperger’s. Plus, things are going really well with the assistant. You know how it goes…you slave over a hot beaker for hours on end, and things just happen. It starts with “Oh, you can call me Linda, not Miss Donaldson”, and it ends up with them making out amidst soft and salty breezes on the seashore.

Hank is pretty excited about all this. He came to Brand for the research, so scoring this hot piece of ace is well beyond his wildest expectations. Naturally, he puts on his old X-Men uniform and begins shouting and somersaulting around the Brand facility.


Yes. Not only does Mr. McCoy act out his inability to cope with standard human emotion in a manner that Tom Cruise would find over-the-top and off-putting, but he makes sure to put on his fetish gear first. Yikeez!

Lotta calls to HR on that one. Lotta calls.

The wild rush of hormones are not preventing Hank from doing the good work, though. In short order he comes up with the chemical cause of mutation, which when you think about it has been horribly underplayed in the Marvel universe to this point.

That discovery is significantly more important than Erskine’s super soldier serum, because the applications have a wider scope. Super soldier serum just makes you a little stronger in conjunction with vita-rays. Hank’s mutagenic compound could affect….anything. At potentially epic levels.

Now I certainly don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of Marvel continuity, but it really seems like nobody has played with the consequences of that little advancement. Just imagine the story possibilities that have been utterly ignored – what happens if Vic Doom gets hold of unlocking whatever potential is hiding inside of the human species? Eventually, he would. Reed Richards might have the whole species off-planet and evolving into the galaxy if he could get past the ethics of experimenting on human subjects. EVERYBODY would be madly after this little elixir.

Maddicks is certainly interested, and this is before he’s even confirmed the discovery. Apparently his mutant power is to mystically sense when other scientists are about to break through, and so he immediately starts plotting to steal Hank’s work. He does this very loudly, over the phone, with his office door open so that an eavesdropping McCoy hears the whole thing.

How will Maddicks get into McCoy’s private lab? Well, he’s got a security guard on the inside named Ben. Now, Ben has two attributes that make him ideal for this kind of seedy work. One, he’s got a lot of debt, so he’s ready to do some dirt to get out from under that. Two, he’s insanely punctual. Ben has informed Maddicks that he will be ready to move at 10:34pm. Not sometime after 10:00, or half past ten. Ben will damn well be ready at 10:34, and if he shows up at 10:35, your pizza is free. You can’t get good help like that just anywhere. This guy is good.

At this point any sane person would get on the phone with the boss Mr. Grant and let him deal with it. You just say “Hey, I just came up with a formula that could potentially make you billions of dollars, and then I overheard Maddicks conspiring with his little stoolie security guard to steal it. You might wanna have some people you can trust at my lab around 10:34pm. Just sayin’.”

Instead, Hank McCoy decides that the only option is that he must stop Ben himself, in disguise. And the only way he can properly disguise himself is to ingest the experimental formula he whipped up about an hour ago with no clinical trials on a field mouse, much less a human. Somehow, he knows that if he just takes another swig of the cocktail inside of 60 minutes, he will revert back to normal.

How he knows this is anybody’s guess. Maybe he’s an advocate of Flintstone Science. If somebody conks their head and loses their memory, the best thing to do is smash their skull again. It will all come right back. If we learned anything from Fred Flintstone, it’s that the best cure for a concussion is another concussion. Same thing with experimental mutagenics.

I don’t want to be too cruel to Hank. His gut impulse was to take matters into his own hands and problem solve instead of running to his boss or the police to bail him out. This is a “can do” attitude The Ugly American endorses. But the idea that chugging this completely untested Pandora’s brew was the only solution to his problem is galactically stupid.

But that’s what he does. When he drinks the potion, he turns into something vaguely reminiscint of the lovable furry Beast you’ve known and loved. He’s more gray than blue, and he’s got a weird part in his hair. He gets bigger, and he gets fangs and claws. Groovy.

So he puts a hellacious thumping on Punctual Ben, who showed up right on schedule for his ass whooping. Hank’s got increased physical skills, but the thought process is slowed down a bit, and for all his agility he sure does get shot a lot.

Still, the plan sort of works. Nobody recognizes him as Hank McKoy, and he beats up everybody who was after his research, including Maddicks. In fact, he almost chokes Maddicks out for good when his bestial side gets the better of him for a bit. But deep inside, Hank is a hero. He stops himself from murder and slips away into the night, so he can drink some more mutation juice and revert to normal.

One problem…his new bestial state doesn’t experience time at the same rate as regular Hank. He thought he was just beating up guys for fifteen minutes, but alas….his time has elapsed. His cells now have way too much energy to go back. What…too much energy….what??? Just go with it. He’s stuck as the furry beast now. OH, the humanity!!!

You think the story is over, there, folks, but the intrigue is just beginning. Maddicks has disappointed his masters in his failure to secure Hank McCoy’s magical formula. He is then executed by another agent of the Secret Empire, Agent 9. But you may recognize her by a different name…..Miss Linda Donaldson! Dun! Dun! DUUUNNNNN!

Now, Hank was giving it to Miss Donaldson, and presumably had full access to all of Hank’s work as his trusted assistant. So why the Secret Empire would ever go through the hassle and make an overt show of stealing that stuff is a bit of a mystery. Linda could have gotten them samples at any time with not a shot fired, and nobody aware that the work had been stolen. That might have been a better plan. But hey, that’s comics!

The important things are the lessons. We learned a lot of them in Amazing Adventures # 11. We learned that sometimes you have to follow your dreams. If you’re in love, sometimes you have to put on fetish gear and publicly jump around your workplace like a giant ass. Whatever the risk, always take matters into your own hands. And above all, never trust a dame.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Ugly American: In Defense of Monsters

Since monsters tend to dwell over in these parts, I thought it apropos to defend one of comics’ most notorious creatures; Mark Millar. I’m talking about his recent comments regarding his use of rape in that New Republic article that everybody (except Millar, of course) is so upset about. No stranger to controversy is Mr. Millar, to be sure. I don’t even think it’s accurate to say that he courts these little public relations disasters – frankly, he demands them.

And yet, things are never quite so simple or so base as Millar or his vehement critics would have you believe. There are lots of layers to the onion that is The Crazy Scottish Git, as I am fond of calling him. And there is a lot of context to parse regarding Millar, and Kick-Ass 2, and American culture in general. The Bunnies would have you believe the situation is as simple as “Mark Millar is a rape-obsessed pervert who thinks it doesn’t matter”.

That’s demonstrably absurd.

In order to paint a more rational picture, though, it would be helpful to start at the beginning, with the article that started the The Great Feces Storm. Or maybe even before. Yeah, let’s start before that, even.

All of this hullaballoo is centered on Mark Millar’s admittedly frequent depictions of rape in his comics in general, and Kick-Ass 2 in particular. I clearly remember the Pharisees wailing in the streets and tearing their robes when the Red Mist and his gang did unspeakable atrocities to Dave’s would-be girlfriend Katie in that series. “It’s time to see what evil dick tastes like”, says Mist.

That scene is detestable and loathsome….and it’s supposed to be. Here at the Ugly American we’ve already covered the basic principle of “representation does not equal endorsement”, so I won’t retread that ground here. Suffice to say that the sick feeling in your stomach when you read that rape scene is exactly what Millar intended to be there. These are bad guys doing bad things. Duh. Bunnies don’t get that, though. They just know that things they don’t like shouldn’t exist, and people that do things they don’t like should be silenced. We’ll get to the specific Bunny Briar objections to all this later, I promise.

That New Republic article wasn’t the first time Millar had to field bad press regarding Kick-Ass 2 the film, though. Right about the time Jim Carrey would have had to start doing press for the film, he suddenly grew a conscience. In light of the Newtown shootings, he could no longer endorse the film, yadda yadda yadda, insert wailing in the streets and robe-tearing here.

Mind you, the check still cashed very nicely for Mr. Carrey. No mention of giving back that “blood” money, or donating it to the victims of Sandy Hook, or anything else that would involve actual moral integrity. Like all limousine liberals, Carrey made damn sure he got the best of all worlds with the least cost to himself – he got to profit handsomely, he got his vanity stroked by a cheering throng every time he got in front of a microphone over what a wonderful person he was, and he got to sit at home with all that money while everyone else rolled up their sleeves and did the grueling work of marketing the movie.

What’s interesting to me about that scenario is Millar’s response to the cowardly little two-faced turncoat. Millar’s response was essentially “Love ya, Jim, and wish you’d reconsider, (especially considering you knew exactly what you were getting into when you signed on) but I respect your opinion and wish you the best.” Jim Carrey just took a bunch of his money and then publicly took a poop on his movie, and Millar just smiled and went about his business.

Now….does that sound like a monster to you? Or does that sound like a cat who walks the road of tolerance? Does that sound like a dude with no sensitivity for other people or their plight? Or did he just take a slap in the face that could have jeopardized a multi-million dollar project and then show empathy? We’ll get back to that later.

So…the New Republic article. Here is where context gets awfully difficult, if not impossible. That article was a phone interview combined with research. It was not published in an “I asked this question, then Millar said this in response format”. My point is, we don’t know exactly what Abraham Reisman said to Millar that prompted his much-criticized response. The article makes it appear as though Reisman got a quote from Laura Hudson about Millar’s use of rape in his work, and then brought it to Millar’s attention for a response. Here’s what it looks like in the original article:

Laura Hudson, the former editor-in-chief of the popular blog Comics Alliance and a senior editor at Wired, thought that scene was deplorable, but typical of Millar. “There's one and only one reason that happens, and it's to piss off the male character,” she said. “It's using a trauma you don't understand in a way whose implications you can't understand, and then talking about it as though you're doing the same thing as having someone's head explode. You're not. Those two things are not equivalent, and if you don't understand, you shouldn't be writing rape scenes.”

Millar is of the exact opposite opinion, saying they are equivalent, and that his depictions of sexual violence are all part of his ongoing quest to push boundaries.

“The ultimate [act] that would be the taboo, to show how bad some villain is, was to have somebody being raped, you know?” he told me. “I don't really think it matters. It's the same as, like, a decapitation. It's just a horrible act to show that somebody's a bad guy.”

OK, bear with me now, because I’m going to do a little literary forensics. I believe that the Millar quote was actually created first, based upon a question the reader isn’t actually privy to, and that Laura Hudson responded to the Millar quote.

Here’s why I think that. The key element for me is this:

“It’s the same as, like, a decapitation.”

What that sounds like to me is Millar making an argument on the fly and searching for an abhorrent equivalent to rape, not referencing a quote just shared with him.

The other thing that just doesn’t jive with me is the phrase “I don’t really think it matters”. It just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to call rape the ultimate taboo in one breath and then minimize the act directly after.

Here’s what I think really happened, and I’ll freely admit that I am now engaging in reasoned speculation, and not any kind of factual knowledge. I wasn’t there for the interview, so only Reisman and Millar know how things actually went down. But given the tone and the subject matter of that article, what if Reisman asked Millar something along the lines of:

“You sure do have a lot of rape in your stories – are you just a skeevy perv, or what’s that all about?”
Now, I’m sure my hypothetical question was posed a bit more diplomatically, but that’s the gist. At that point Millar is forced to do one of two things – A) tell the interviewer to go fuck himself or B) walk the interviewer through an explanation of why his usage of rape is about story mechanics and not a personal fetish.

I think that there is an implication of psychosis (the article’s headline flat-out calls him comics’ sickest mind) in a lot of the questions Millar is forced to field, and that response is about saying “Hey, I’m not a rape freak. It’s a story technique to make villains as bad as they can possibly be so that you care about the hero’s plight. I’m not interested in rape, I’m interested in drama, and that’s about the most dramatic thing I can imagine, because it’s terrible.”

That’s what I think happened. I can’t prove it, but it makes sense to me. Certainly a lot more sense than Reisman bouncing the Hudson quote off of him and then inexplicably focusing on the equivalency part of the argument. I would think if the Hudson quote actually came first, he would address the part where she implies he shouldn’t be allowed to write stories about rape if he doesn’t understand it properly.

We shouldn’t just gloss over that part, by the way. One of the more obnoxious tendencies of the Briar Patchers is the insatiable need to be the arbiters of things. Bunnies get to decide who is allowed to do what. If Mark Millar doesn’t think like Laura Hudson, then he shouldn’t get to write things on those subjects where they disagree. Bunnies are fascist dictators by nature. But it’s always for your own good, so you’ve got that going for you.

Hudson gives no indication about who is qualified to write about rape, how often it should come up, or what a proper rape portrayal should look like. We only ever get the negative – sexist male writers (and they’re all sexist, don’t you know) shouldn’t get to write about rape, it happens too much in comics, and it only happens as a plot device to upset the male lead.

I find it very odd that the Bunnies never have a template to point to. There is never a silver lining in the grievance cloud, there is only victimhood and the inevitable clapping for the “courage” these Bunnies show in defying their oppressors. You would think that in the history of comics, one person would have gotten their rape depiction right, even if just by accident. The comics medium has travelled across a myriad of time periods, and have been constructed by a wide variety of creators. Many of them, dare I say, with philosophies very Bunny-centric in ethos. In fact, if you’re paying attention at all, the medium is currently LOUSY with them.

So why do Hudson and her ilk never have a positive example to point to and exclaim “less like Millar, more like that?” One, because there would inevitably be disagreement on the issue, and that would put the infallibility of the Bunny doctrine into question. Can’t have that. Easier to just declare it all rotten and enjoy the applause from the cowards in the peanut gallery. The Bunnies end up eating their own in that manner, by the way. Can you imagine what it must have been like to be Judd Winnick and Scott Lobdell catching flak for their sexism when the New 52 first launched? No, even the feminists are sexist in the 21st century.

The truth is there will never be a “correct” portrayal of rape in comics, because in the bizarro 21st Century we gain cultural capital through victimhood, not victory. No matter the facts or reality, there will never be any (admitted) progress in comics because then you have to relinquish your victim status, and that’s where all the power is. If you’re oppressed, you can whine and change the books, save characters, you can even make sure that Orson Scott Card never works again. That’s power!

If you’re a victim, everybody in public is afraid of you. The trick is to always be a victim. How admirable.

As to the frequency of rape in comics, I have no data to say that it happens too often or not enough. I don’t find a lot of rape in my comics, but then again, I’m only reading about 25-30 a month. I also don’t find any female characters acting only as window dressing, waiting to be abused so that male characters get mad. I read about Carol Danvers,
and Alana from Saga, and Arcadia Alvarado from Saucer Country, (who might have been probed…but so was her estranged husband) and Officer Dana Cypress of Revival. No wilting lilies or damsels in distress waiting for men to take revenge there. How about Rachel from Rachel Rising or Cassie Hack or Hazmat or X-23 or Harper Row or Casey Blevins or Kate Bishop or Carlie Cooper or…need I go on? It’s not that I don’t find a lot of the sexist stereotypes I’m told are completely dominating comics….I can’t find ONE.

One thing I do find, and find curious – so many of Millar’s detractors cite statistics indicating that rape is everywhere, and that nobody escapes unscathed. It’s going to happen to you, or someone you know, they say, and that hardly seems like the case for decapitations, MARK! I believe in those statistics.

Well, fine, but doesn’t that make the case that rape should come up in comics, and with relatively high frequency? If that’s reality, why bury it? I think the danger would only be in promoting rape, and I hardly think Millar’s comics qualify. In Millarworld, rape is something villains do in order to prove their supreme villainy.

Listen, Millar is a showman, a carny in the old school style. His comics are over-the-top, and absurd, and if you wanted to make the case that his cartoony depictions of violence diminish the horror of it all…I guess I could listen to that argument. I still don’t think the answer is censorship, but I’ll listen. I don’t believe for a second that anyone at any time picked up a Mark Millar comic and said to themselves “I didn’t think rape was cool before, but now I think it’s awesome.” That just doesn’t exist. Quite the opposite, I would say. So relax, people.

Mark Millar is not a monster. He’s a guy with a mother, and a wife, and a daughter. He’s not promoting or minimizing rape. I don’t know why supposedly educated adults don’t get that. You know who gets it? A 16 year-old girl. Here’s Chloe Moretz, also known as Hit Girl:

"It's a movie," Moretz recently told a reporter. "If you are going to believe and be affected by an action film, you shouldn't go to see 'Pocahontas' because you are going to think you are a Disney princess."

"If you are that easily swayed, you might see 'The Silence of the Lambs' and think you are a serial killer," Moretz said.

"It's a movie and it's fake, and I've known that since I was a kid ... I don't want to run around trying to kill people and cuss. If anything, these movies teach you what not to do."

Amen, sister.

By the way, can you guess Millar’s response to this latest storm of feces? There hasn’t been one. I love that. I love that he’s smart enough to understand that he’s never going to change the mind of a Laura Hudson, so there’s no point in feeding the troll. I love the fact that he understands that the people who count know that a “monster” who takes the high ground isn’t much of a monster at all.

But most all, I love the fact that he didn’t apologize. I’m so deathly weary of good people apologizing for things that aren’t crimes, simply to appease inflated sanctimonious egos. Keep fighting the good fight, you Crazy Scottish Git!

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Ugly American: Attack of the 50 Foot Froofy Comic….and Other Tales of Horror!

Froofy comics are just not my thing. I suppose I should define “froofy”, as not everybody has listened to Chronic Insomnia, and therefore can’t properly translate Ugly Americanese.

To be froofy is to engage in haughty pretense, false airs, and an undeserved sense of superiority. You know the kind, because they’re absolutely everywhere. Nobody actually liked Echo & the Bunnymen, OK? A lot of people like the idea of being the kind of person that liked Echo & the Bunnymen. A lot of people were desperate for you to believe that they liked Echo & the Bunnymen, so they could prove how cool they were. Some people pretended to like Echo & the Bunnymen so they could get in the pants of the chick in The Cure t-shirt
with way too much eye makeup. That I understand.

But mostly people actually liked Duran Duran and just didn’t want to admit it.

In the comics medium, froofery is alive, well, and rampant. If you want to see what it looks like, just go ahead and observe pretty much anything published by Fantagraphics, and the people that read them. Of course the absolute pinnacle of froofosity is Chris Ware’s Acme Novelty Library. Now, a lot of different people claim that Acme is quality, so I’m not specifically saying that it isn’t. I’m told that you’ll probably want to kill yourself after reading anything by Ware, and the Ugly American is fully behind that concept.

I’ve read bits and pieces of Acme Novelty…and what I saw just wasn’t all that fantastic. Give me any issue of Secret Six instead, please. If Acme is an indictment of everything supposedly broken with the oppressive superhero genre, I sincerely hope the comics industry stays broken. But it isn’t even the comics themselves, really. It’s the fetid stench of attitude wafting off the clique that swears by them.

If you want to get a flavor of that attitude, I recommend stuffing an open pack of bologna under your friend’s car seat and then checking back with his or her vehicle in about a week. To get the full effect, your friend’s vehicle should be parked in a lot of direct sunlight in a scorching hot environment. That’s the froofy attitude in olfactory form. If you want it in audio, go catch an episode of the Inkstuds. Warning: the Ugly American recommends you have one of those airline vomit bags handy in case you try either.

My attitude regarding Froofy comics is equivalent to my attitude toward unscheduled butt sex. I’m not into it at all, generally. But every now and again you have to pull a Risky Business and say “what the fuck?” You get it over with, you deal with it, and then you don’t speak of it again outside of the safety bubble of your therapist.

And that’s how I approached Adrian Tomine and the latest issue of Optic Nerve, a paragon of froofervescence if ever there were.

Optic Nerve # 13 – Drawn & Quarterly
Scripts: Adrian Tomine
Art: Adrian Tomine

The first thing that will grab your attention is the cover, which is cut so that it appears to be missing 40% of its width. I’m sure that’s clever on some planet. Tomine seems to have pulled the same trick for the cover of Optic Nerve # 12, so that might be his new thing. Well, it’s sort of new. Looks like the last issue of Optic Nerve shipped in late 2007. He must have been busy or something, because Nate Simpson thinks that’s slow.

The cover mostly obscures a one page joke. (I think it’s intended to be funny?) Apparently Tomine is something of a Luddite, pining for the days of yesteryear without Facebook, tweeting, and Cintiqs. I sympathize with that bit, actually. I have successfully avoided Twitter, and have said my final farewell to Facebook….but it got me for a bit. I still spend too much time staring at my phone, and I recognize it as a problem. Generation FW stands no chance. So I get it, but the bit comes off more smug than endearing. I hope you’re all sitting down for that bombshell.

The issue is comprised of two stories. The first is an exceptionally powerful story titled “Go Owls”. The best way to read that story is to do like I did, with no framework to guide your expectations. I think the tale works no matter what, but you will certainly get a richer experience if you just fall down the rabbit hole without preparing yourself. What I suggest is that you stop reading this review right here and don’t come back to it until you’ve had a chance to get properly bush-whacked by “Go Owls”. If you’re going to read that story, I suggest you skip ahead in this column to the lovely picture of undead Archie characters by Andrew Pepoy.

So…. now that I’ve warned folks not to get spoiled, is everybody else ready?


One of the most perplexing things in life is watching otherwise intelligent, capable women chase abusive relationships, and then compound the problem by sticking with them. Why do people date losers who hit them? What kind of sorcery chains a person to a situation that is obviously dysfunctional?

“Go Owls” is the most authentic and most chilling exploration of that concept I’ve ever seen. Part of the reason it works so well is that the seeds of doom are planted so subtly in the reader’s mind, and this mirrors the problems that the abuse victim has.

The tale begins when a woman who remains nameless meets a dead beat named Barry
at some kind of a 12-step event. She’s in need of some mentoring, and Barry has some charm, and of course that’s the problem. He’s a charming loser, almost in equal doses. At least at first.

Having no preconceptions, it took me some time to find my footing in the story. Is this a story about addiction? Is this a “love conquers all” romance? Is this an examination of slacker downfall? What the hell is happening?

What’s happening to the reader is the same thing happening to the woman – this mildly charismatic degenerate is pulling you closer and closer to the black hole, and by the time you figure out the stakes involved it’s almost impossible to pull out.

Go Owls is an incredibly dark mind-jammer that lands so hard because it feels so much like life. There is a monster there, yes. But the monster also offers hope, and guilt, and humor, and affection, and weed in irregular cycles. Your standard after-school special or Lifetime Channel movie disguises the real power of the monster, because they usually make him a moustache twirler that swindles the woman with lies.

That situation does happen, of course. This story is more nuanced, and I think more true to life. Tomine paces the developing monster perfectly, and peppers the tale with genuine human moments - funny moments that demonstrate why it can be difficult to cut the monster loose. Those scenes don’t diminish Barry’s sins. They make for a far more powerful cautionary tale, though.

The ending is…problematic, but not a deal-breaker. I give Tomine points for staying outside the box. None of “Go Owls” plays to expectations. It felt a little cheap to me, because it was the first item introduced in the story that didn’t feel real. If such scenarios actually exist in the realm of law enforcement, I might feel differently about it.

Again, not a deal-breaker. “Go Owls” is a story worth your time. Is it worth the $5.95 admission price? Tough to say. Maybe. It doesn’t help that the last 10-11 pages are some kind of not-story translated from some Japanese source. I don’t even know how to categorize it other than “waste of time and effort”. Standing next to Owls, this collection of limp memories about waiting in airports and driving to diners feels exceptionally hollow. Not good.

So that was my dalliance at the Hotel Froof. I survived it fairly intact, and was actually impressed with the main feature. Still not sure it was worth $6, and still not sure if I feel tainted by it or not.

My strong impulse is to send this thing to CGC and get it graded. You know that would drive Froofites absolutely bananas. Someday I’m going to show Adrian Tomine my CGC 9.8 copy of Optic Nerve # 13 and sell it to somebody for $150 right in front of him, strictly for vengeance. Oh, sweet justice!

Afterlife With Archie

I wanted to talk briefly about Afterlife With Archie, because I think it’s an interesting beast that is flying a bit under the radar.

Just in time for October and Halloween, Archie comics is going to section off one of their titles into the direct market only and flood Riverdale with the walking dead. I know, I know, it sounds kinda lame, and way too late to the zombie ball, and all of that stuff.

Stick with me, though.

This is not a half-assed stunt or a campy throw-away. This is not Archie Meets the Punisher. This is an ongoing series, or at least as ongoing as anything is. If Uncanny X-men has to re-boot every other year, I don’t know how long this is really going to last. Point is, they are planning on publishing it as long as people will buy it.

There are some quality people handling the creative chores, too. Scripts are by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. No, he’s not Alan Moore. But he’s not chopped liver, and he’s an industry vet. His work on Nightcrawler a few years back tells me that he’s not a bad fit. Pencils are by Francesco Fracavilla, and that is phenomenal news! He’s perfect, absolutely perfect.

The thing that generates the most interest from my end is the fact that they are playing the horror straight. Archie makes a very nice living selling to kids in the retail market at grocery stores and such. Afterlife with Archie is not that kind of book. Apparently, Sabrina the Teenage Witch
is going to have a spell go sideways, and then these kids are going to start eating each other! They don’t want that in the hands of kids, and they aren’t distributing it to the retail chains. Comic book stores in the direct market only!

In just about every obvious way, this feels wrong. Why in the world would anybody try and shove raw horror into plastic, ever-bright Riverdale? Who could take any of this seriously when there’s a dude with a goddamn crown on his head involved?

The whole concept plays so aggressively against type I just can’t help but be fascinated. It might end up being a total train wreck. If so, Afterlife with Archie still has my blessing. I’m of the mind that I’d rather see an adventurous flop than a re-tread success. And part of me thinks they might actually pull this off, and it makes for the most entertaining read you never knew you wanted.

And hey, for you Market Spotlight fans out there – these might be the scarcest Archie comics ever. I can definitely see some hard-core niche appeal from the Archie crowd and the horror crowd. If you’re at all interested, final order cutoff hasn’t elapsed for Afterlife with Archie # 1. Your local shop can still order you some if you ask. I would look into it, because I predict the book is massively under-ordered and sells out quickly.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Ugly American # 38: Sci-Fi Jambalaya!

The Ugly American read a lot of comics this week, and some of the best had elements of science fiction. So let’s whip up a batch of sci-fi jambalaya comic talk, shall we?

Colliders # 1 – Vertigo/DC
Script: Simon Oliver
Pencils: Robbi Rodriguez

The most anticipated book of the year for me is Collider, and the race isn’t close. About two years ago I wrote a “Whatever Happened To?” blog post about Simon Oliver. You can imagine how much my literary loins ache at this point.

Collider is set in a world very much like ours, the key difference being that the laws of time, gravity, motion, and physics in general are now unpredictable. Time stoppages cause localized traffic jams, because everything on that piece of road just gets stuck. Sometimes a high school will lose gravity, and all the kids will start falling up. When these anomalies occur, (and they’re getting worse) Agent Adam Hardy and the Federal Bureau of Physics come to the rescue.

Like his prior Vertigo series Exterminators, Collider features flawed, blue-collar manly men who dare to go once more into the breach against malevolent forces they can’t possibly understand, much less defeat. That’s the Oliver idiom, and it’s a pretty good one.

Oliver’s work injects eccentric characters into complex high concepts, almost Hickman-esque in scope. Exterminators was punctuated with odd bits of historical research. You wouldn’t think Pol Pot would have much to do with killing bugs, but Simon Oliver worked it in there. I imagine that he’ll be injecting some actual scientific work into Collider.

There’s plenty to like about the first issue of Collides. Oliver laid some groundwork with Adam’s father sending him ominous messages from the future, adding an element of mystery. There’s tension between the FBP and the government bureaucracy that is threatening to de-fund it. (You didn’t really think a comic would get published without a little Lefty medicine in it, did you? Sucker.)

These abstract scientific issues are repaired by sealing breaches
, which appear physical on the page and operate as adventure. That was smart, I think. It gives the audience a way to bridge the scientific gap in a satisfying way. Like Ghostbusters, you know? The supernatural is great, and you can solve problems with mumbo jumbo and ethereal abstractions, but Ghostbusters works as an adventure story because they found a way to shoot spirits with guns and put them in physical boxes. Colliders fix breakdowns in science by traipsing into dimensional breaches and then effectively welding them shut.

I know Simon Oliver’s work enough to trust that this already good story is going to get bigger, more absurd, and better. So I’m in for the long haul. I worry that a newcomer might look at Collider # 1 and bail too soon, because nothing in the issue really “popped” to me. The payoff is coming down the road, people. Trust me.

Ballistic # 1 – Black Mask
Script: Adam Egypt Mortimer
Pencils: Darick Robertson

Adam Egypt Mortimer and Darick Robertson have created comics greatest imagination bomb, and they call it Ballistic. You want to talk about a comic that “pops”…this is Exhibit A.

The basic hook – Butch is a bored HVAC repairman and would-be gangster with a sentient organic pistol named Bang-Bang. The gun jacks into Butch’s adrenal gland and fires a variety of effects out of his mouth, usually smack-talking as it does so.

Butch takes an air-conditioning gig with a made Asian gangster and ends up pulling some valuable intel on a possible bank job, because of course the AC unit has been looking at everything in the building. Do you see how bat-shit crazy this world is? Butch decides to step up and hit the bank. It’s a high-risk idea under the best circumstances, but what happens when Bang-Bang’s little gun balls shrink up for showtime? You’ll have to read to find out.

Everything about Ballistic has kinetic energy. Mortimer rips through ideas like a .50 caliber rifle, and not all of them are wholly original, but they’re all interesting. We’ve seen biological weaponry synch up with human hosts before. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen characters smoke syphilis, though. Butch takes his date to a restaurant that serves cloned human meat, like it ain’t no thang.
This stuff happens on every page. And if you didn’t catch it all? There are annotated notes in the back of the comic spelling out what you missed like a “director’s commentary” on a DVD.

These are the best pencils I’ve ever seen from Darick Robertson. Maybe it’s the subject matter, maybe he’s just ready to elevate. Whatever the case, the visuals are absolutely striking and incredibly detailed. There’s a full page establishing shot where Butch is flying his bat-winged 1950s muscle car over the city that must have taken him six months to draw, and would make Geoff Darrow blush. I’m going to call the coloring by Diego Rodgriguez garish in all the best ways. Ballistic should be garish and in your face – perfect!

If you found yourself attracted to the creativity of Prophet, but just couldn’t hang on to the wispy tendrils of its high concept, you need to get on the Ballistic train. If you passed on this book or your local comic shop didn’t order it because it came from Black Mask, shame on all of you! Go back there, see if they can’t back order # 1 for you, and then pre-order the rest of the series.

Lazarus # 2 - Image
Story By: Greg Rucka
Art By: Michael Lark

I almost took a run at Lazarus a few weeks ago, but decided against it because The Ugly American is already a bit too political in its focus, and I didn’t think the column needed yet another long screed against The Bunnies just yet.

In terms of story, Lazarus is your standard dystopian future where five families have all the money, and everyone else is crying.  Each family inexplicably feeds all of their scientific advances into one defender called a Lazarus.  The Lazarus in this book is Forever Carlyle,
(I guess the name “On The Nose Carlyle” was taken?) and she's starting to have feelings for the oppressed masses and starting to question the morality of her family.

When I got done reading Lazarus # 1, I was sorely irritated, but more by the back-matter than the actual pages of comics. Yes, I find Rucka’s politics to be laughably naïve and destructively misguided. But the actual story inside of Lazarus # 1 was gorgeously illustrated and worked quite well. The seeds of mystery were planted competently, some more obviously than others. I thought the scene where the scientist sacrifices himself for the good of his family had real emotional impact.

The hard sci-fi elements were also handled in a fairly fresh and entertaining manner. The most efficient way to handle explaining the mechanics of your world is straight exposition. It’s also the most boring. Rucka solved that problem by having doctors walk through the specifics of her healing abilities during Forever’s autopsy. That’s just good writing, is what that is.

So I decided to give Lazarus a little breathing room and picked up issue # 2 as well. And I have to say…I continue to find Rucka’s politics to be laughably naïve and destructively misguided. But I turned a corner on Lazarus for a couple of reasons.

For one, Rucka’s depiction of the head Carlyle is not a moustache-twirling cipher. (although I must admit, the ascot tied around his neck is a little over-the-top) I don’t necessarily care whether Greg Rucka and I agree on everything, but straw arguments and stereotype characters don’t make for good philosophy or good stories. Daddy Carlyle makes it appear as if Rucka is at least attempting to tackle the allegory in a meaningful way. Some people in the corporate world are sadistic pricks, and some aren’t. That feels more like actual reality, and that helps me respect the story a bit more.

Secondly, the actual plot elements are moving along briskly, and I can feel some button-hooks coming. When a lot of stuff happens in an issue, and you would like to see the next bunch of stuff that happens, that’s a good comic book. In my opinion Lazarus has been a very good comic book for two issues, and I’m going to continue with the series until it stops being a good comic book. That sounds fair, doesn’t it?

If not, feel free to comment below.