This week – Cooke shows us how it’s done, Hickman and Weaver keep us guessing, and MoCCA is predictably awesome. Note – Spoilers Below!
The Man With the Getaway Face by Darwyn Cooke (IDW Publishing)
Darwyn Cooke continues his adaptations of the Parker series of novels by Donald Westlake (under the pseudonym of Richard Stark) with this limited edition preview of The Outfit, due for release in October. According to the introduction, Cooke planned to adapt Westlake’s books in chronological order, but had to eliminate The Mourner and compress The Man With the Getaway Face to a single chapter in order to include The Score and Slayground.
One of the best things about reviewing comics is the impetus it offers to revisit a creator’s work. When I first read The Hunter for the podcast I had mixed feelings. I think that my issue with Hunter was something akin to the uncanny valley effect in cinema – the art from the first chapter of Hunter brilliantly evoked mid-century New York City –- at least the Don Draper version of it — and I unfairly expected that the narrative would match the realism of the art. As a result, I had a lot of problems with the second half of the book, when the conflict shifts to one between Parker and the “Outfit” (the Mafia). I couldn’t buy into the notion that Parker would be able to embarrass the mob in that way without suffering a quick and severe reprisal. I know, I know. In retrospect, that was as unfair as critiquing the realism of terrorists in a Die Hard movie. All the same, I didn’t respond well to the shifts in tone.
I had none of these problems with The Man With the Get Away Face. In twenty four short pages, Cooke reminded me why he is one of the best cartoonists working today. He sticks to his plan for the series to use only black and one other color; this time he switches up his palette from Hunter’s cobalt-chrome monochrome against cream paper to a tannish brown. The story here is simpler, a simple heist carried out by desperate criminals, two of whom make fatal mistakes. You know exactly what’s going to happen by the time you finish reading the fourth page. In lesser hands, this would feel generic, but the familiarity gives Cooke room to demonstrate his visual storytelling abilities. The chapter is filled with silent sequences which not only heighten tension but also focus the readers’ attention on each panel. The character of Parker is famously inaccessible, but in these stretches one almost identifies with the character, obsessing over the minutiae of the heist, trying to think one step ahead of the partner that you know will betray you. It’s a light read, but incredibly fun and flawlessly executed.
An extra thanks to David Brothers for not only telling me that this book was released at Wondercon, but pointing me in the direction of Bergen Street Comics, which brought some copies from the convention. If you’re in the Brooklyn area, you definitely need to check this store out. It’s the kind of place we all dreamed of having when we were young men. For two interesting perspectives on Parker, check out Dan Nadel’s review for Comics Comics, and Tucker Stone’s for Comixology. David explains why the Outfit was the right choice for the next adaptation, here. I’m going to go re-read The Hunter now.
S.H.I.E.L.D. #1 by Jonathan Hickman and Dustin Weaver (Marvel Comics): This is a book that should be right in my wheelhouse. S.H.I.E.L.D. explores the history of S.H.I.E.L.D., an agency that began life as Marvel’s version of the CIA/MI6, and has since become the publisher’s take on the national security establishment as a whole. This book sort of spins out of the events in Hickman’s Secret Warriors, which follows Nick Fury (erstwhile director of S.H.I.E.L.D.) and his new black ops unit, where we have discovered a dark world of betrayal nested within the more conventional spy narrative that we had become familiar with over the decades. It is revealed that S.H.I.E.L.D. is really a part of Hydra, the terrorist organization founded by Nazis and upper level officials of imperial Japan in the wake of World War Two (we later find out that Hydra itself is an agency that is thousands of years old, with roots in the third dynasty of Egypt).
But that’s not why I’ve been looking forward to the book. I’ve been awaiting this issue with bated breath for one reason:
This inspired me to dream of other historical figures as agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Odegei Khan? Alexander Hamilton? It also led me to wonder what the appropriate critical standard for a book like this should be: a pop book that focuses on the ‘great men of history’ (a commenter on 4L described this as the “[h]istorical Celebrity genre that’s arisen in the wake of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”, or something that seriously grapples with history and culture in an accessible way, more like Kim Stanley Robinson’s Years of Rice and Salt.
So, here we are. I’ve read this book twice in preparation for this review and still don’t know what to think. There’s a lot of promise here. We follow the protagonist Leonid as he’s introduced to the S.H.I.E.L.D. High Council, and is told the origin story of S.H.I.E.L.D., which can almost double as a creation myth for a world powered by thought. Hickman does a pretty impressive job of balancing the demands of the marketplace with his desire to grapple with some interesting ideas. He uses artifacts of Marvel history and flashes of familiar names and faces — Howard Stark, Nathan Richards, Apocalypse — to not only serve as a kind of safety net for readers yearning to see familiar characters and settings, but also set the stage for the kind of dialogic narratives that Grant Morrison has become famous for at DC Comics. The history of the Marvel Universe is in play, and the reader is invited to use it to theorize and impose meaning on the narrative.
This issue panders to my desire for narrative complexity and ambiguity in superhero comics. Hickman is at his most effective when he’s weaving a conspiracy, and he does some of his best work in this issue. At this point, we have been introduced to S.H.I.E.L.D., an organization that claims to “be a safeguard against the things that would stop us from becoming what we are supposed to be” – pushing humanity to reach its potential while protecting it from external threats. We also know that they have some kind of adversarial relationship with the Night Machine, who appears to stand for inspiration (“a necessary change”) and an end to secrecy (he’s there to “tear this place [the secret city] down”). We know that the High Council, along with all of the historical figures (Imhotep, Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo Galilei, Zhang Heng) make reference to the final fate of man, which could be hopeful or ominous. I think that it’s very important to remember that we don’t really know anything else. We can assume that the frame story is true, but we can’t necessarily accept the Council’s characterization of the role that the historical figures played in the evolution of S.H.I.E.L.D.
In 1952, we see an organization obsessed with secrecy (the quiet math, the hidden arts, the silent truth) in an underground city. The truth is hidden. History is secret. The weird thing is that Hickman’s historical S.H.I.E.L.D. agents are all men who weren’t just known for being polymaths or geniuses, but for being singularly inspirational figures. Imhotep brought medicine, engineering, and from some accounts the papyrus scroll. Da Vinci was an artist, scientist and inventor that “advanced the state of knowledge in the fields of anatomy, civil engineering, optics, and hydrodynamics”, among other achievements. Galileo is the father of modern astronomy and physics. Zhang Heng was a brilliant poet, astronomer, and engineer who developed the world’s first seismometer. When Hickman introduces us to them, they are all seem fully engaged with the world, all doing their work in the clear light of day – da Vinci has the weird Council helmet and Imhotep’s iconic headdress in the open on his shelf. None look like they are a part of a silent or hidden movement, which leads me to think that this may be a story of an organization that lost its way.
Dustin Weaver’s art complements Hickman’s writing throughout this issue, adding a dynamic element to what could be a static comic of ideas. Each scene, from the introduction to the Egyptian battle with the Brood and Zhang Hengs’ encounter with the Celestial, feels visually distinct. We don’t just feel like we’re traveling through time, but through genre.
The first issue also sets the stage for an exploration of the nature of institutions and authority, which brings to mind both Morrison’s run on The Invisibles and (bear with me here) Warren Ellis’s recently concluded run on Planetary. I am running the risk of doing a great injustice to the complexity of both books by summarizing at all, but one idea explored in The Invisibles is that paternalistic institutions are necessary for early stages of human development when we need protecting, and that they can be discarded when we are sufficiently evolved and self aware. In contrast, Ellis’s Planetary argued that these bureaucracies crush imagination and stifle potential under the guise of protecting us. I’m very interested to see how Hickman explores this theme in future issues.
With all that said, I still find it difficult to wholeheartedly recommend this book. It’s filled with interesting ideas, but lacks any compelling characters. Without that, S.H.I.E.L.D. is just an intriguing illustrated essay. At this point in the story, everyone feels like a type or a cypher. The dialogue feels inauthentic; there’s very little that distinguishes Galileo from da Vinci. I wish that we spent a little bit more time with Leonid before he was abducted by Messrs. Stark and Richards – I would have developed some stronger stake in the story. I have a lot of questions (especially why ‘the spear’ decided to recruit ex-Nazis and high level officials in imperial Japan, and whether it’s a coincidence that the fathers of the two most important people in Marvel history after this series takes place (think about it – Fantastic Four, Avengers, Illuminati) are Shield agents), but I don’t know if it’ll be enough to sustain my interest in the long-run.
MoCCA Wrap Up
The MoCCA Festival reminds me why I love comics. Great atmosphere, friendly publishers (especially Top Shelf, First Second and Buenaventura, even though I’m sure everyone was awesome), and an endless array of mind-blowing books that remind me how little I know about comics. I was there for a few hours this weekend, and managed to catch a pretty cool panel featuring Alex Robinson, Becky Cloonan, Douglas Wolk, Eric Reynolds and Nick Bertozzi on the best comics of the past decade, moderated by journalist/blogger Brian Heater. Although they made some conventional picks (Fun Home, Jimmy Corrigan), it was refreshing to see some unusual choices (Nick Bertozzi’s penchant for picking books that were published decades ago and reprinted in the aughts, Cloonan’s selection of BPRDM). One interesting thread throughout the panel was the relative accessibility of the featured works – with the highlight being the brief conversation between Eric Reynolds and Brian Heater about the accessibility of Jimmy Corrigan, one of Reynolds’ selections. Reynolds convincingly argued that Corrigan was the kind of comic that he would give to a neophyte reader, and that the book was not depressing, but complex.
For an official wrap up of the con, check out Heidi MacDonald’s post at Publisher’s Weekly [http://www.publishersweekly.com/article/456224-MoCCA_Festival_Bounces_Back.php ] (and don’t miss her more personal piece on the Beat).
Here are some books I picked up:
• Second Thoughts, by Niklas Asker
• Alec, “The Years Have Pants”, by Eddie Campbell
• Caboose, by various (edited by Chuck Forsman & Max DeRadigues)
• One Page Wonders Story Circles: The Plight of the Emerging Writer,
Matthew Swanson, Robbi Behr, Idiots Books. Check out this site too.
• The Here, by Eroyn Franklin
• Haberdash, by Chris Sinderson and Tim Hall
• Darjleeing Tea/Cardamom cookie, by Amelia Coulter, courtesy of Chris Sinderson (Darjleeing and Cardamom is the next jump-off flavor!)
• Drawing on Yourself, Ursula Murray Husted w/ a cool sticker.
Here are some things that I have added to my growing Amazon wish list
(1) Kramer’s Ergot 7, edited by Sammy Harkham – I always knew that this book was something special, but seeing it in person… wow. I was dumbstruck by the contributions from Chris Ware and Tom Gauld, but I’m sure that everything else in the book is equally great). Shout-out to the folks at Buenaventura that didn’t complain about me pawing over their book.
(2) Burma Chronicles, by Guy Delisle – I’ve always meant to pick this book up, and the panel (which chose Deslisle’s other book, Pyongyang as one of the books of the decade) reminded me how much I wanted to read this. If you haven’t read Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea, it’s definitely worth a pick-up.
(3) West Coast Blues (with Jean-Patrick Manchette), You Are There (with Jean-Claude Forest), and It Was the War of the Trenches, Jacques Tardi. I saw this at the Fantagraphics table and was instantly entranced.
(4) X’ed Out, by Charles Burns. You already know.
(1) Joss Whedon to direct Marvel’s new Avengers movie.
(2) David Brothers, Chad Nevett, Tim Callahan, Tim O’ Neil and Sean Witzke dissect Frank Miller in their cross-blog Bullets, Booze and Broads series. Check out the index here.
(3) Marc Ambinder tackles the socio-economic/political structural forces behind obesity
(4) Michael Cohen (of the must-read Democracy Arsenal) punctures the “myth of a kinder, gentler [counterinsurgency] war”
(6) DJ Premier’s memorial mixtape for the legendary Malcolm McLaren
(7) Christopher Walken goes home
(8) Remembering the Rwandan Genocide, 16 Years Later
Next Week – We take a look at Siege Loki by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie, Daytripper by Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba, and the Savage Axe of Ares by Gregg Hurwitz, C.P. Smith, John Barber, Jefte Palo, Ted McKeever, Duane Swierczynski, and Leonardo Manco. I’m going to also try to get through some of the books I got at MoCCA (not the Campbell book, I still have to work for a living!)