Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in an ideological battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never try to put the author “in his place,” making him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.
Hello. The quotation above is reflective of what I’d like to do with this column. It’s an idealized view of criticism that I plan to strive for in this this column. I expect to fail on a pretty regular basis, but it’s always important to have a goal. The plan? A weekly review and potpourri/linkblogging with commentary column. Warning: Spoilers below.
Fantastic Four #577 (Jonathan Hickman, Dale Eaglesham, Paul Mounts): I can almost feel Dale Eaglesham’s confidence steadily building with each issue of this title. He is producing some truly unique work that evokes a sense of wonder and limitless possibility. This is the legacy of Kirby, of the Challengers of the Unknown, of Doc Savage. Eaglesham’s distinctly masculine portrayal of Reed Richards effectively reminds the reader that the character is not just the absent-minded professor, but the curious explorer. Eaglesham reminds you (in only a few panels) of the forgotten elements of the other members of the group, whether it’s Johnny’s humor (which has often been portrayed as narcissism or immaturity), Sue’s confident, subtle brilliance, or Ben’s… Yeah, that’s been a bit of a missing piece so far.
In this issue, Eaglesham particularly shines in capturing the majesty of the ‘Universal Collective’, the third city in Hickman’s Prime Elements arc.
This is true widescreen storytelling. Eaglesham conveys the importance of the arrival of the ‘Universal Collective’ before they even utter a word. This is what I imagined when reading my dad’s old sci-fi magazines as a kid. He effectively captures the spirit of the Silver Age without indulging in mere nostalgia.
“The Fantastic Four is supposed to be about adventure and big ideas and not ponderous, long-winded issues about the environment with Mole Man. We’re not going to do that. We’re going to do big stuff, but we’re going to go fast and exciting.” – Jonathan Hickman (Marvel interview)
Unfortunately, the work that Eaglesham is putting in is paired with uncharacteristically uneven writing from Hickman, who has become my favorite Marvel writer not named Pak, Fraction, Bendis or Brubaker. I thought he showed tremendous potential with The Nightly News, Pax Romana, and Transhuman. I really like Secret Warriors, especially the most recent arc. When Hickman was announced as the new regular writer on Fantastic Four, it was hard not to feel some excitement. He did an amazing job on the Fantastic Four: Dark Reign miniseries, and hints of his long-term vision for the book in interviews with Marvel and Newsarama seemed to indicate that readers were going to get one of those sharp middlebrow superhero books that justify the habit – a contemporary, intelligent spin on a classic legend by a writer who was aware of continuity and history without being trapped by either. I was prepared for a career-defining run that would help guarantee the success of some of Hickman’s more challenging projects. The first arc, ‘Solve Everything’, fit the bill, with multiple incarnations of the Infinity Gauntlet, a room filled with lobotomized Doctor Dooms, and a plot that cleverly explored the various aspects of Reed’s personality. The second is more of a mixed bag. Some parts of this arc remind you that he’s building the foundation for the best version of the title since the Byrne run of the 1980s. He deftly nods to Abnett and Lannings’ work on the cosmic corner of the Marvel U (much of which originated in FF) without alienating non-readers. He is unafraid of making these ‘new’ Inhumans truly strange, a refreshing change from the past.
Other times it feels like the world-building undermines the storytelling. The second half of this issue consists of a rambling lecture from The Wayfinder, the Inhuman herald for the Universal Collective. He’s there to recap the story of the Inhumans, introduce the Universal Collective, and act as a living foreshadowing device. I understand why this is necessary (we have to know the players in the game), but it read like an Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entry. The plot — Something lands on the moon! The FF go to investigate! — slows to a crawl, and character development (for the Four or the Universal Collective) is non-existent. We know that the group is important, and that they all seem to be matrilineal societies, but we aren’t given any reason to care – even after the last page reveal. Hickman introduces some intriguing ideas in this issue, but those ideas should have been paired with a compelling story. This issue will probably read differently once collected in a trade – hell, it’ll probably look brilliant in an omnibus – but in this format, it left a lot to be desired.
Blackest Night #8 (Geoff Johns, Ivan Reis, Oclair Albert & Joe Prado): I don’t know if there’s anything that I can add to the great takes on Johns’s Green Lantern run offered by Zom (of the must-read Mindless Ones blog) and Chris Bird. This book was just unreadable. I’m not the biggest fan of Johns’s writing style, but was always impressed by his ability to give nostalgia a contemporary feel in the Green Lantern and Flash books, and effectively write books like Justice Society of America with huge inter generational casts of characters. There’s nothing wrong with the ‘big summer blockbuster’ style of event book, but this was a textbook example of terrible storytelling, especially when you compare it to Brian Michael Bendis’s Marvel event Siege. Both books are the end of long multi-year storylines: Blackest Night is the culmination of Johns’s Green Lantern storylines dating back to Green Lantern: Rebirth, and Siege appears to be the final link in the chain of events that began almost a decade ago with Bendis’s Avengers: Disassembled. The final arcs of both have been dominated by seemingly unstoppable villains – Nekron, the embodiment of death, and Norman Osborn, the head of H.A.M.M.E.R. (essentially the czar of Marvel’s national security infrastructure). The way that Bendis and Johns chose to resolve this central conflict – how to defeat the unbeatable enemy? – helps illustrate the problem with Blackest Night. In Siege, Bendis took a pretty original approach to ending the ‘reign’ of Osborn (the primary antagonist of the Dark Reign storyline) by simply bringing him down like a politician instead of a super-villain. Osborn presented a threat that couldn’t be dealt with in a traditional manner, and it was fitting that a public humiliation (the world seeing his true face) was the key to his downfall. Bendis has been building to this for a year, and it was thrilling to see that moment when the general public saw that the emperor had no clothes. In contrast, Nekron’s invincibility was rooted in his very nature: how can one kill the embodiment of death? I won’t spoil the answer, but it’s pretty obvious – for a clue, remember that these energy entities (Parallax, Ion, etc.) need hosts or avatars to maintain their link to the material world. The real problem isn’t the what, but the how – Hal Jordan gets the information via an info dump from a tertiary character in the miniseries, killing any momentum that the book may have had. There’s nothing worse than having someone else solve the protagonists’ problems for them, particularly when it feels this staged.
X-Men: Second Coming #1 (Craig Kyle, Chris Yost, David Finch): Sometimes I like to imagine a world where Chris Claremont never wrote the X-Men. It may have also been a world in which Iron Fist was as popular as Wolverine and Misty Knight rocked bondage gear. In any event, its a world in which X-Men Second Coming might have been an interesting book. Second Coming is a part of the seemingly endless series of books that grapple with the Claremont legacy (specifically the “Days of Future Past” and God Loves, Man Kills bits), blending time-traveling mutant cyborgs and redheads with ill-defined but near infinite powers and villains who are like some weird neo-Nazi/jihadi/Bircher militiaman mix. All this book needed was a speech that quoted Nietzsche and Martin Luther King. With all due respect to Mr. Yost, whose work I still enjoy on the stabby X-Men, I think it’s time for me to get off this ride.
The invaluable Stephen Bissette recently completed a twelve part series on his blog entitled SpiderBaby Archives: The DC/Marvel Ratings Debacle 1986 – 87 – Forgotten Comics Wars, Or: How Angry Freelancers Made It Possible for A New Mainstream Comics Era (Including Vertigo) to Exist. The series combines interview snippets, comic art from the period, and found documents for a perfect blend of memoir and reportage. It’s a long but wonderful exploration of censorship, obscenity, artistic freedom and the ever-present DC Comedy of Errors. It also inspired David Brothers to ask whether warning labels/rating systems are ever really appropriate. It’s immensely difficult to uncouple the question of whether some form of labeling is workable from questions about obscenity, censorship, and audience composition (the age-old “are comics for kids?”). However, one important lesson that I took away from Bissette’s series is that the victories of the creators of that era combined with the success of Dave Sim, Fantagraphics, and the alternative comics movement have led to the creation of a marketplace in which we really can make those kinds of fine distinctions.
For my part, I strongly believe that artistic freedom of expression is a core human right, and find most censorship abhorrent – even when imposed by a publisher in the context of a work-for-hire relationship. However, consumers should also be given as many tools as possible to make appropriate choices for themselves, and informative labels could be a part of that process – especially if they were implemented in a thorough and transparent manner. It’s tough for an outsider to discuss this in any intelligent way, though – I suspect that the sheer number of publishers and channels of distribution have reduced any one stakeholders’ ability to transform a label into a censorship system (in contrast to the film industry) and the radical expansion of the consumer base over the last twenty years combined with the huge success of a number of books aimed at mature audiences has dispelled the traditional assumption that comic books must be suitable for all audiences. In the end, it’s all just speculation. Bissette’s series starts here, and it’s pretty easy to follow the the rest of the series through links at the bottom of each post.
Here are some interesting things that I’ve come across in the last week (warning: may not be comics-related):
– Sharespost, a new website designed to “make private equity liquid” is trying to generate a thriving secondary market for private corporation stock, triggering insider trading and registration concerns.
– Nas reminds you that he’s still one of the best MCs doing it on the New York is Killing Me remix with Gil Scott Heron (!)
– Kevin (of Closet Cooking) brings us a simple recipe for Meyer Lemon Pesto and Feta Pasta with Shrimp
– Michael Cohen (of Democracy Arsenal) explains why the surge in Iraq is still a critically important foreign policy debate.
Next week? Reviews of comics released April 7th and 14th (almost certainly including S.H.I.E.L.D.). Lengthy asides about comics stuff. Random links. A brief review of Darwyn Cooke’s The Man With The Getaway Face (hint: it made me completely reconsider The Hunter). If David Brothers hasn’t already given out his extra copies, enter the contest on his site.