I’ll always remember my dad

godzilla

Godzilla in Hell surrounds the character with threats his height (or taller), undercutting his advantage of size. This evens the playing field for the fights James Stokoe stages throughout the comic. More importantly, though, it shows the audience a Godzilla that is at their level who must fight his way across a landscape anchored by various obstacles. These obstacles represent possible demons plaguing Godzilla (his nuclear origin, the people he’s killed, himself), and they trigger emotional responses from a character that’s typically shown as an unstoppable force, confident of his chosen direction.

The final battle, in numerous instances, features Godzilla being thrown around like a chew toy at the whim of an attacker. Stokoe draws the character’s body from low angles in this sequence and focuses more on the whole mass of Godzilla together, in the air, spinning out of control. He elevates this idea by composing the scene through a series of smaller panels that constrict the character. Godzilla’s true size is never far from the audience’s mind, though, because of a prior scene, in which a storm cloud of human beings nearly wipes him away. The cloud itself is huge, but Stokoe shows the tiny grains of its make up, which lends perspective. So when Godzilla breaks loose of the creature in the final battle and smashes him, you think about the absurdity of a 500 foot beast body slamming another 500 foot beast from what’s likely a 3 mile fall, and you’re at once aware of the mega-status of these characters, as well as their shared territory with us. 

The best moments are Stokoe’s brief pauses, where he breaks away from the action and provides us a quick shot of Godzilla’s foot or face reacting to the violence (either in surprise, pain or strain). He does this a few times, and they emphasize the severity of the conflict the character must face. It’s easy in a story like this to do spectacle and excite an audience with colorful images, but it’s an entirely different game to do that and characterize the spectacle with nods to the character’s internal process, even if momentarily. It says more, too, that these nods are close ups. They intimately lend an eye to the actual struggle of these battles, and some even show a physical tole. But Stokoe is smart to keep these leaps short as that’s how they are most interesting. As asides. The audience reads this comic book for the spectacle, mostly. The existential glimpses work as smaller pieces of a whole.

That said, Godzilla in Hell implies opportunity for a deeper reading, if you really wish to, but it’s identity as a battle comic is really enough because of the quieter visual touches Stokoe uses to elaborate Godzilla’s character. They’re proof of Stokoe’s thoughtfulness, even when drawing a Godzilla fight comic set in Hell. The brief, poetic nature of it, too, is all the more special. It reads with a certain pride, though one affected by reality. You can tell he’s thought about all this a long time.   

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Rob Liefeld died for us

photo (2)

Granted, so much of Bill Sienkiewicz’s work on The Shadow is the fact that it’s he who does it, but unlike Elektra: Assassin, which was published only a year before, The Shadow isn’t painted by the artist. Sienkiewicz strictly supplies pencils and inks, approaching the assignment in a fashion more typical of work-for-hire commitments. Where Assassin bleeds some sense of artistic dedication, The Shadow, while still quality stuff, isn’t as individualistic. The artist handles two-thirds of the work, and the third, and (in Sienkiewicz’s case) crucial step is trusted to someone else.

This someone could have really dropped the ball, colored this thing like any other book on the stands, but Richmond Lewis, colorist behind Batman: Year One and David Mazzucchelli’s wife, didn’t. A painter herself, she comes at this thing with a particular intuition. She’s conscious of Sienkiewicz’s use of blacks, and knows how to work against that in order to attribute color to them and enliven a field of depth in his drawings.

The above image (though poorly photographed) is possibly a cheap example, but is a clear encapsulation of this. Sienkiewicz starts us on the left side of the panel, steeped in solid black, focusing on the Shadow, but it’s Lewis’ hot pink that moves the eye away and over, revealing a character in the background, opening the image up and shifting our focus. It’s the concisest their collaboration can be summed up, showing Sienkiewicz set the ground work for her to capitalize on.

By 1987 other comics were colored with such craft, but this work on The Shadow shows artists still staking a piece of the coming frontier. It’s interesting to see this amount of thought spurred by advances in technology and the companies’ investment in printing. The script on this book, at best, feels like the work of very trying young writer. It has attitude and energy, but is unnecessarily dense. Yet Lewis and Sienkiewicz ease it, give it charm, and despite the flaws have it come across as a special project. You forget the obvious attempt it made to revamp a Pulp hero and look on it to experience the thing only they can create.

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When the door shuts, just know it

3_original

Retrofit Comics sent a few of their latest. Here are thoughts on one of them.

– – –

Theth
Josh Bayer

I’d originally thought the protagonist of Theth was an abnormally large Yeti, crossing some landscape to escape whatever is over its shoulder, but in actuality it’s the small guy wearing the space suit dreaming below, at the bottom of the cover. His name is Seth. Theth, pronounced with a lisp. He’d like to be a Yeti.

The misunderstood ape fits Seth, an adolescent trapped in his own cage of excommunication. They’re both outcasts, kept on the outside by themselves and their dispositions to what surrounds them. Though they survive, they only survive through withdrawal, pulling into primitive means, or in Seth’s case, fictitious delusions sponsored by comic books. And there’s the difference between them. The mountains in that Yeti’s grasp are at least physical — an external force to conquer. Which is why Seth fantasizes this crypto-counterpart. He, too, would enjoy pushing past the terrain inhibiting him, and though this day dream is of something Seth finds alluring, it’s also telling that his go-to allusion is of someone ultimately lonely and forsaken. The cover, if read as so, summarizes the two-sided perspective Josh Bayer brings to Theth. Where what’s shown is understandable as it is horrific.

In the book, Bayer shows us someone incapable of dealing with reality, yet is still affected by it. The main effect is Seth’s spiral into comic book fiction as a means of coping with parents, bullying and wondering whether or not a girl will ever fuck him. A few comics have dealt with this idea before (Farel Dalrymple’s The Wrenchies is a recent one), but Bayer’s take doesn’t seek sympathy as others tend to, especially in terms of the lead character. Because while Seth is pathetic enough at times to feel for, he’s also a member of a world not entirely terrible or just (much like ours), where John Lennon can be murdered though still mourned. In comparison to our actions, Seth’s appear extreme. His step-mother, though unlikable and rough, is still shown as human rather than a cartoon villain responsible for a teenager’s demise. She wants some sense of a connection to her step-son, and her open remorse for Lennon’s death points to someone alive inside the plump, white case her shitty suburban hairdo hides. The very nature of their relationship explains Seth’s distance from her, yet Bayer’s willingness to stop and place more than a-typical exclamations in the step-mother’s mouth, layering little extra pieces of character, shades their interactions differently. It says Seth is not a helpless victim but a coward who’s unable to confront the imperfection coming for him.  Where Bayer could have oped for the empathetic, though unrealistic, nerd in need of our tears, he crafted someone tough to digest.

Other examples within Theth shine a similar light on Seth, but you can read the book for those. If anything, I find Bayer’s complicated take to be a mature one, and one that I’m not sure many other cartoonists would do. Because Seth’s distance is arguably comparable to that of a cartoonist or someone like myself who’s way too obsessed with this shit. There is an element of Theth that celebrates comics. A drawing published in the back of the book, a splash of famous comic characters like Nancy, Dick Tracy and Garfield charging the reader, holding a banner that reads “Make Comics Forever”, certainly implies victory. Though that victory rings differently knowing the ending Theth has is only on the other side of the page. So the conclusion, overall, is confused. It’s great to love comics — to implant them within your life — but at what cost? Or is there a cost? Comics are more the outcome of all the other shit we’ve seen. Their salvation is both wonderful, yet annoying. Because imagine if we didn’t need them. I think Bayer is giving that some thought.

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And then we drove away

superman-2

Lately, I’ve found myself geared and ready to spend the money on Marvel and DC super hero comic books. I wouldn’t say this interest is spurred by any deep sense of “giving it all another go.” It’s more like an understanding of what’s available, and yet being interested enough to engage with a system of predictable odds, just to watch men and women of talent rise or fall.

There’s something joyful of when those little, callous hands between the gears slip through and gesture something pure. Even if they get caught in the machinery and bleed, the color red is a sign of life. The job of comics is probably, ultimately, a heartbreaking one, but it must be rewarding when brief moments of success come to and resurrect something cold and dead inside the 9 to 5er. That’s always meant more to me than the lone cartoonist taking all the time in the world to say something calculated; it’s more lifelike to stumble through something. It’s not as if we’re provided forever to sit around and get it together. You have to leave the house by 8 if you’re to make it to work on time, and mainstream grind comics reflect that by they very virtue of what they are. So when something good happens in the scope of all the shit inherently fused to that system, it’s sort of miraculous.

It doesn’t seem that anyone cares about the John Romita Jr. drawn Superman, despite the fact that John Romita Jr. is drawing it. But I get it. Until last week, I really didn’t either. It’s hard to fucking care about a DC comic book when aware of the company’s mostly awful content and treatment of people. It’s also tough to care about any sort of super hero project, currently, when the genre suffocates all others as well as the men and women working in creative industries. Let alone our larger cultural identity, a subject many have thought and written about. But I like the super hero stuff, just as someone may like crime dramas, pornography or Aphex Twin records. It’s a thing. It’s just a thing that’s wildly popular, marketable and obnoxious in this moment, but surely that will pass, taking us to the next obsession. And when that transition happens, I’ll still like the super hero stuff.

Superman from John Romita Jr., Klaus Janson, Laura Martin and Geoff Johns isn’t something I’ll always remember, but it is good meat and potatoes comics, easing some of the natural, early-20s pain I’ve experienced of late by entertaining me for minutes. It’s also an example of four talented people – talented enough to have found financial and professional success in a system made to exclude nearly everyone – making something unexceptional, though still good. I could sit here and try to decorate some grand reason for this, but in all actuality, it’s a matter of the script these visual artists were given. Johns’ story only calls for so much. A month-in, month-out Superman romp. A fun one, sure, but still a romp. And maybe I shouldn’t even blame Johns. Superman is a DC comic produced for an audience of a particular caliber, sold by a company maintained by consistent product. In fact, there probably isn’t one entity or individual to blame for its regularness. This is most likely a small, left-field detail affected by the world we live in – a world we created in order to always, hopefully, be comfortable.

But if I’m to sit here and type reasons for its faults, I’ll then point to Geoff Johns and say, despite the guy’s ability to write consistent, plot-driven machines (perfect for the market of super hero stories), this one isn’t necessarily very interesting, nor is it uninteresting. Numerous times Superman has met and foiled powerful beings similar to himself. The character of Ullysses marks another addition in that roster.  The only real change in “The Men of Tomorrow” is that Johns drags out the inevitable switch in the character from good guy to bad guy, making you wonder if he’ll keep Superman and Ulysses as allies in order to explore other thoughts. With the end of the latest issue, #35, that doesn’t seem likely, so we’ll go back to the usual program.

The program distinguishes things. Mostly, what goes against or isn’t the program. Romita Jr.’s style and storytelling feels that way to me, especially in this context. At Marvel, despite the objective difference in his work, his contributions come across as something rooted in the company’s history, naturally arrived at through time and evolution. His work is the boiled down effort of Kirby, Miller and his father, Marvel Architects, encapsulated in the plastic figurine of a boy nurtured from day one. But at DC, the antithesis, his work isn’t foreseeable progression but, instead, his own. You can really see it in the way he draws their characters. His Superman, besides the controversial costume adjustment, is still different as this lean and energized version believable in a bar fight as well as outer space. Romita Jr. gives the character a range that’s unfamiliar, that’s against the certain stature of broad shoulders and photo taking Superman usually portrays. Yet the artist never forgets the power essential to this icon. The splash piece above (which in it’s proper form, is actually part of a great layout of panels) conveys exactly the alien force beneath the red and blue carnival clothes, and by covering the pupils of the eyes with solid red, it’s not a moment of lifting a boat to trap a villain, but an instance to release what’s really inside.

You can call this run of Superman a few issues of Romita Jr. doing Romita Jr., and historically, yeah, that’s how we’ll look at this. But that’s essentially why they’re interesting and enjoyable. Because we’re watching an artist simply do his thing, and do it to a highly profitable and recognizable piece of corporate intellectual property. Not everyone in comics gets to this level, and even when the work may feel ordinary for the circumstances, there’s still something amazing about it when you step back and actually look.

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Hawkeye #1 | Fraction, Aja, Hollingsworth

You cannot help but feel just a tad cynical when you read this one; you know that in an estimated six issues, Marvel will drop the ball, and “Hawkeye” will just turn into another crossover whore, pushed to double ship each and every month.

You know all of that, and in some sense it dampens the experience, but if anything, we’ll all be able to look back at this one example and know we read a good Hawkeye comic book once, and that in fact, Matt Fraction may not have lost it all, after all.

All we can hope for, right?

“Hawkeye #1” came out better than I expected. Aja was sure to show up in my mind, but to have Fraction hustle as well and write a tight enough script managed to sway opinion and place the thought in my head that “maybe Marvel can still produce something worthwhile.” It’s a script clearly in work with its artist, showing characteristics similar to a “Marvel-style” production effort. And why not? When you have David Aja drawing the book, that seems to be the only smart move. Leave the pacing to the draftsman; leave the tone to the color wheel. And although the palette resides closely to something of a Mazzucchelli Daredevil book, it does lift the environment from basic background filler to more of an organic character.

And Fraction writes to that, connecting Barton’s characterization to the territory he frequents. It’s his way of saying “Hawkeye a.k.a. Clint Barton. Avenger. Human being. No super powers” without going the route of a cheap caption or bad narration. Instead, he seems to lift a little bit from Miller’s Daredevil, blending setting and character together, and arriving at this conclusion that Hawkeye is down to Earth because of where he lives.

The first scene does the most, though, as Fraction puts Barton in the hospital and has him exit in an annoyed rage. That scene boils down who Barton is, introducing the mythical new reader who picked up this first issue, without slowing everything down for the rest of us already aware. It also presents Fraction’s take and the angle that he and Aja are coming from in terms of their run.

He’s put into the hospital because he can be – he’s a somewhat normal guy – but get under his skin, and you should watch out. There’s a fire in that character, or a frustration, and kicking the wheelchair gets that idea across in this nice, sort-of poetic way.

Separate the sequence from the rest of the book ,and you could even consider it a nice little vignette.

“Hawkeye #1” represents more of what I want to see from Fraction as he does his little stint at Marvel: Tight pop comics. I know this won’t last, and “Hawkeye” will just end up the “Daredevil” of this year once Aja departs, but for now I’ll just call this a nice super hero comic book and enjoy it. Maybe part of its appeal is that its just an above-average exception to the super hero rule set these days, but if so, at least it’s some sort of step up.

I’ll silence my cynicism for now.

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Casanova: Avaritia

Casanova / God-Fucking-Dammit / COMICS / How Bout That Last Issue?

This isn’t a piece of criticism or an essay. These are thoughts working toward a conclusion.

– Where Do I start with this? I’m not even sure how I feel.

– Avaritia’s just this giant guilt trip, spiraling down, way past the gluttony and filth of Gula into this whole new pool of dirt, puss and dank tears.

– Where do I fucking start?

– Fraction wants Casanova to be something other than what we perceive it as. He’s driven toward said goal, and in essence Avaritia exists to wipe away everything in order to establish the book as something else.

– That something else just seems to be something I’m a little unsure of.

– Hollywood.

– Fuck, do I now resent him for that last page? Do I join the mob and sharpen the pitchfork? Do I lose all faith in Matt Fraction?

– Questions.

– Why go to Hollywood? That seems like a place to start, to kick off this little mental exercise.

– Somewhere in the back matter of those Icon reprints, Fraction made it clear he’s not uncomfortable with the idea of “selling out” and making the pig fat. He admits it.

– Avaritia begins with a Casanova who hates his job, but by book end, may possibly like it once again.

– An arc.

– The last time Fraction wrote Casanova, Marvel just began for him. Avaritia, as he notes, took many false starts to finally find its footing. I’m guessing the dude had a rough start at the company and finally reached a point of comfort. Avaritia starts then.

– “It had to be lived.” – Fraction, letter page, Avaritia #4

– The book burns away old Fraction and introduces us to a new man. A man with responsibilities to up hold, who can no longer fuck around.

– Or does it?

– All we know is that last page. But is Cass happy on it? Home in Hollywood? Does he want to be there?  Or, objectively, is that just where he is?

– Avaritia’s all about escaping those past volumes and crashing the expectations of a Casanova comic. The ending seems to suggest more of a change and signal a new era than it does suggest “selling out.”

– Though, that location is no coincidence.

– But, again, objectivity. That’s where Fraction is: The big time. Yet he’s still making comics – he’s just making them at a different point in life.

– If anything, this book’s the work of an older man who’s killing his younger self in order to leap forward. Can’t say I dislike that.

– As actual comics, they very much vary from the previous volumes. References no longer make up the DNA. There’s more space within the plot. Wider color scheme. More brutal. More of its own thing. Some of the quirk, charm and spirit has been lost, though. Been traded in for the upgrade Fraction’s after.

– A transitional volume.

– The Charles Dickens bit made me laugh.

– The last pages, the destruction – those pages buuuuurrrrrrnnnn.

– I still love this book.

– At the end of the day, it’s all just about life, being a good person and owning up to your shit. All through comics and genre thrills. And while this volume might suggest running away from your problems as an answer, well, the story isn’t over. This isn’t the period.

– As for references, glad to see Fraction get a bit away from them. Yes, still there to a degree, but they don’t define the book as they used to. Now we’re at a point where Casanova can stand on its own, without piggy backing as much on other works.

– There’s a line in the letter pages of issue four about guilt:

Guilt for what?

Previous Casanova? Going “Hollywood”? Changing the book up?

Or was he guilty about going as far with this volume as he did, but then got over it, citing the bit “and that was what I needed to wrap Avaritia #4.”?

That’s going to stick with me. That last minute change of mind. That he had to be talked out of it.

– I hate that I’m doing the whole “personal reading of the author” thing right now, but I cannot help but not take the author out of this one. Casanova’s about that dude. At least, to a degree. Or, at least, it’s about creating the book.

– Casanova is about itself.

– Casanova is about life.

– I still love this comic.

– This is probably my Invisibles.

– How would I rank?

Gula, Avaritia, Luxuria

– If anything, it’s bold.

More on the next Chemical Box podcast.

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Prophet | Graham, Roy, Dalrymple, Milogiannis

Like everybody else, I too am reading Prophet and find it to be quite an exceptional example of what mainstream comics can do and be. Unlike the mass of creator-owned or faux-indie books that jump out and scream their separation from Marvel and DC, Graham and company wish to join up with the mass culture and beat it at its own game. A noble effort, and while the “play the system from the inside” routine usually grows old and results in little outcome, the Prophet crew seem be to A-OK as of now, playing the cards they have and letting the bait be taken. And it’s being taken. By you and me and the the mix of general readers and Comics Journal crowd who nod their heads and note this Prophet comic as a decent, pleasant item to receive each month.

In some sense, Prophet feels more like a gift, digging up some of that initial excitement we all felt at the start of our great comic book binge, rather than adding to the same old sludge of new releases we, for some sad, pathetic reason, feel the need to study. The creators have brought back that enthusiasm we all once put toward genre comics, and they’re making the month long wait mean something again. That’s so important for comic books. Especially now when it seems all genuine love, lust, fun or concern, theory and debate happens off the page and in some movie theater somewhere  or through some industry Op/Ed. Comics has reached a point where the comic books almost don’t even matter, and I for one find that a little scary. But Prophet’s battling back against that, leaving all the magic and thought among those panels to make its speech mean a little something more. That speech … it says, “look, yo, remember these trashy things? yeah, we don’t have to give up on them.”

And to be clear, I don’t mean to say Prophet is alone in this effort or that Graham is really the first guy to consider this mission, but rather Prophet stands out. Through its various, almost now trademark tools of storytelling, this book has shown in a matter of seven issues that more can be done. And by more, that would mean the mainstream genre comic, where it seems now little substance, energy or thought resides: the creators have split; the bloggers and pundits have spit their contempt; and I, who for  months watched the rest of the Comics Internet burn its bridge and squash any hope of good mainstream books, have finally brushed off my own excuses and now see at least the corporate side of comics as the cold, fake void it really is.

Maybe it’s a good thing. Maybe now we’ll all be able to move on and challenge ourselves with something a little greater and complex as well as expand our own horizons on what exactly comics can be. Maybe the only thing stopping us all along was our allegiance to childish fantasies and their lowbrow construction. Maybe we needed to ditch this shit all along in order to push our medium forward.

Maybe.

But there is this push from certain creators to keep the thrill and octane alive: guys who say fuck legitimization for favor of poop jokes and violence. Though it’s also these guys, like a Marra, Ryan or DeForge, who while diving into the trash bring forth a careful and considered sense of craft, and it seems Graham wants to join the effort with Prophet and mix and match the adventure and cliffhangers of mainstream pop comics with the sense of craft, function and theme better comics are capable of.

So far, the approach seems to be working.

The most distinct quality of Prophet is its sense of atmosphere and place and how subtlety, versus blunt interaction, can build such a grand thing. This comic lives and breath “show don’t tell,” and while Graham’s stoic narration does play a large part of the series’ development  and tone, he really seems to embody his spirit as an artist here more than a writer, even though he doesn’t draw much of the comic, at all.  As the writer though, Graham lets his artists and the pictures they produce tell the story because he understands when to let his prose interject. Like a good comics writer, his bursts of narration come at the opportune time when a scene could use an extra push, and if he does describe or detail it’s always to compliment the visuals or catch something they cannot. But besides just knowing how to contribute to the book, the approach makes a lot of sense for what Prophet is: a visually intricate science fiction series. Why tell when Simon Roy can simply show you?

Prophet becomes a highly collaborative work that way, again, offering up some courteous advice to the rest of the comics mainstream. Graham works with his artists, and they in turn output something far more exciting, turning the book into more of a whole than a writer simply having a hired hand draw his words. A confidence exudes from this, as well, and rather than you, the reader, questioning the value of the book, you just kind of know this is good and roll with it. The confidence, though, does just really come from the subtlety of the work as Graham and Company trust the story gets across what it needs to without having to feed it to you via spoon.

We’re at a point with the book where visual styles are becoming characters themselves. Graham breaks his sub-plots up by artist assignment: Roy draws the initial John Prophet clone, Milogiannis presents Old Man Prophet, or the original, Dalrymple to John Prophet with a tail and Graham does the robots we see in issue twenty-six. All of these characters are established in Prophet’s initial story arc – or what makes up the first trade paperback – and it seems safe to assume these characters will be the major players of the plot Graham intends to spin. In one fashion, this works to separate a group of clones in order to make them decipherable to the reader, but the choice also suggests a pure attention to the visual presentation and what each individual artist can bring to the work.

That’s something a majority of mainstream comics have forgotten how to do as most of the industry still rides the wave of writer-driven series. The Prophet crew are transitioning away from that, creating this new set of cues for a reader to read by when they visit the book each and every month. Depending on the artist, a reader can take a guess at what plot point any specific issue may center around, and if it’s a new artist on the issue, well, you’re in for a surprise.

The whole thing brings the visual component of comic books back into the fold – especially for the genre driven side of the industry. That’s refreshing but also intelligent because it takes the reading experience of a comic book up from common slum activity to more of an area where your brain is involved with the process. You have to think about those visuals, for once, and ponder how they connect and contribute. Granted, it’s not exceptionally brilliant or worthy of intellectual study, necessary, but that much of a push in mainstream genre comics means a great deal. Take a look at most of them now; many are astoundingly dumb and easy to read. There’s no challenge or even involvement whatsoever. Prophet’s going back against that.

And while visually involved, Prophet does present some thematic elements of interest, whether its the boundaries of human potential or imperial conquest, this science fiction comic does seem to have a core group of ideas its commenting upon. And the level of imagination is off the charts. This thing didn’t stop at “what if humans were the enemy and not the zombies?”.

Where Prophet stands in ten years, who knows. It may not even rank at the end of this decade, but for now it feels significant, and if anything, it’s pushing mainstream comics into a more respectable territory. I’m in favor of that, because while I can get down with art comics, I do want a sense of bombast and fun in this stuff. That’s an essential aspect of the medium, I feel, and if we forget that we will lose something. Creators just need to work to hold this stuff up to a higher standard. Just because it’s adventure, doesn’t mean it’s stupid.

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