So as you probably know by now, writer Geoff Johns and artist Gary Frank are publishing a sequel to Watchmen titled Doomsday Clock. I don't really know what to say about the first issue of the book, except it is drenched in nostalgia. It's the kind of book that ten thousand teenage geeks dreamed they'd get to write after they read Watchmen for the first time. Doomsday Clock reads like a cover version of Watchmen, a mimicking of Alan Moore's tone without the intellect to back it up.
At least the art is pretty. Frank is one of the best contemporary superhero artists, though it must be said that his work is changing in an unpleasant way with each passing year. The faces of his characters are getting tighter and more pinched; the poses seem more coiled with every new page. The looseness and excitement of his early work seems to be replaced with a dour and puckered over-rendering, and it's kind of sad to watch. I want to start a GoFundMe to send him on a nice relaxing vacation or something.
DC Comics published a prequel to Doomsday Clock in a Batman/Flash crossover called The Button, which is out in hardcover with a fancy cover that changes when you tilt the book. I enjoyed parts of The Button — writer Tom King's segments of the story, particularly a slow-motion battle between Batman and the ridiculous Flash villain Reverse-Flash, is laid out with King's customary attention to the rhythmic power of comics.
But The Button isn't just a callback to the Watchmen: it also homages the 1980s crossover Crisis on Infinite Earths, which suggests that perhaps there's even more of a callback to 1980s nostalgia in DC Comics today than Doomsday Clock lets on. It seems that every single book DC is publishing has to hearken back to its 45-year-old-male readership's childhoods in some form or another.
I can't really recommend either of these books, even though they're definitely appealing to a certain kind of reader. It doesn't really feel like there's anything new here, but unfortunately there are plenty of readers who might take that as a recommendation and not a criticism.
The first issue of Now, a quarterly comics anthology from Fantagraphics, begins with a text page that falls just shy of manifesto territory. It's by Now editor Eric Reynolds, and it argues that "The anthology format can be an inherent force for good."
Reynolds makes a compelling argument. Anthologies are a great way for young cartoonists to get exposure and to experiment with styles without committing to a longform project. But nobody's really doing anthologies anymore. It's been years since Fantagraphics last dipped into the format with their gorgeous Mome series of bookshelf-ready paperbacks.
While still very substantial, Now seems more magazine-y than Mome, and that's a good thing: comics anthologies like this should feel of-the-moment and maybe not so permanent. And a good anthology needs a real reason to exist — a point to make, an argument to bear out, a fight to win.
So does Now live up to its name? Is it of the zeitgeist, or is it more of a nostalgia trip for a time when the comics industry was choking on anthologies?
The best comics in Now look like nothing else on the stands. The first page in the book, a strip called "Constitutional" by Sara Corbett, is absolutely gorgeous, a cross between a mannered kid's book from the 1950s and a deck of art deco playing cards. Nothing much happens in the six panels — an old woman and her cat go walking in a city park — but you can't stop staring at it, trying to figure out how a human hand could make something so eerily perfect.
Tobias Schalken's "21 Positions" feels like a magazine illustration from another time. It's just 21 borderless panels of a man and a woman dancing — or are they fighting, or are they fucking, or all three at once? — but as a comic it's something stripped down and raw and totemic. It's hard to pull your eyes from it.
A few comics veterans contribute pieces to Now. In "Scorpio," Dash Shaw tells a story of a couple whose baby arrives on election night, 2016. Gabrielle Bell's "Dear Naked Guy In the Apartment Across from Mine Spread-Eagled & Absent-mindedly Flicking his Penis While Watching TV" is pretty much what it says in the title. (It begins, "I know that you know that I know that you see me seeing you seeing me back.") Neither of these strips feel especially groundbreaking in relation to their respective artists' careers, but they're both haunting little vignettes.
There are 17 different pieces in Now, and they're thematically all over the place. Sammy Harkam's "I, Marlon" imagines the plight of mid-career Marlon Brando as he luxuriates on his private island. "Widening Horizon," by Malachi Ward and Matt Sheean, portrays a parallel history of space travel in a strip that might not be out of place in an especially adventurous issue of Popular Mechanics. Antoine Cossé's "Statue" is science fiction told in loopy, minimalist sketches. You never know what's going to come with the turn of a page, and every reader will find that some pieces of Now work better for them than others. (That's the whole point of an anthology.)
The most successful strips feel like they come from a slightly different universe, one where the lush aesthetics of magazine illustration fused together with comics. Given that magazines are nearly dead now — the Kochs will likely deliver the death blow to the long-suffering medium — it's heartening to see the mannered and deeply designed illustrations from magazine culture's heyday take refuge in the (relative) safe harbor of comics, where cartooning has held sway for over a century.
It's been years since I've seen someone in the comics world draw a line in the sand like this. Even Fantagraphics, which was practically a manifesto-producing factory back in the 1990s, hasn't made a declaration like Now in a while. Hopefully Reynolds will continue to explore this aesthetic in future issues of Now. This first issue proves he has the ambition, but it remains to be seen if the can turn that potential into a movement.
Ben Affleck is the perfect Batman for the era of Donald Trump. He’s huge and he often looks like he can barely move his arms. The nose on his mask is doing something weird that looks odder and odder the more you stare at it. He’s prone to saying gruff things that don’t really make sense. His plans involve talking a lot and not doing anything of value, and they almost always result in the situation getting worse. This is a Batman who is unintelligent, aimless, and way past his prime. Trumpy Batman is supposed to be the guiding light of the Justice League movie, which lands in theaters tonight. The team he puts together is a perfect reflection of Affleck’s surface-obsessed and unthoughtful Batman.
Let’s talk about Cool Aquaman. For decades now, Aquaman has been the butt of easy jokes: he’s got no personality and he talks to fish. Most writers have responded to Aquaman’s laughing-stock status by trying to make him extra-cool. (A recent Aquaman reboot saw the hero order fish and chips at a bar in order to demonstrate that he doesn’t give a shit about his finny friends.) Jason Momoa’s Aquaman, though, is Cool Aquaman taken to his extreme: he’s like a heavy-metal Yukon Cornelius, and he’s such a try-hard that all his coolness veers around into uncoolness again. He’s so fucking desperate to be seen as bad ass that he’s just an embarrassment.
Ezra Miller’s Flash is only slightly better. He’s supposed to be the funny wide-eyed can-you-believe-this-shit audience surrogate, but only about one out of every four of his jokes lands cleanly. The rest are awkward or just plain unfunny. And there’s not really anything to say about Ray Fisher’s Cyborg, a character who is noteworthy only for his ugly body of silvery CGI chunks.
So that leaves Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman. Rumor has it that after Justice League director Zach Snyder stepped off the film to deal with a family tragedy, fill-in director Joss Whedon added a bunch of Wonder Woman scenes to capitalize on her recent film’s fantastic reception. That was a smart move; Wonder Woman is the best character in the whole DC Comics film universe and Gadot is vastly improving as an actor from her wooden Fast and Furious days (though she does a few too many intense glares in this movie that all look exactly the same, and the male gaze lands on her multiple times in this movie, lingering on her body in sleazy ways that highlight the need to get more women directors behind the cameras of blockbusters immediately.)
These characters ostensibly get together because the world is awash in fear and loathing after the death of Superman in Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. (One early scene seems to hint that anti-Islamic racism is on the rise because Superman is gone, which certainly is one way to try to seem relevant, I guess.) We never got to see this cinematic Superman as a figure of hope, but I guess we just have to take Batman and his pals at their word about this, because they keep talking about Superman as a figure of hope whenever the plot stops dead, which is pretty often.
Justice League is a fucking mess. The plot makes no sense. The special effects aren’t half-baked so much as shoved under a heat lamp for a minute or two. There are quite a few poorly shot close-ups of characters saying funny things that clearly happened in reshoots. Those shots are then wedged into the movie willy-nilly, with no regard for pacing or flow. It’s ugly and abrasive and dumb, dumb, dumb.
But maybe the worst misstep of Justice League is its villain: Steppenwolf. Canonically in the comics, Steppenwolf is big bad guy Darkseid’s uncle, and he’s not a major player by any means. In the film he’s a poorly animated all-CGI character who rants a lot about MacGuffins and conquest. He has no motivation, no physical presence, and he makes no sense. He’s chasing after some magic boxes that could mean the end of the world as we know it, and his tools include a large axe, a fleet of interchangeable flying monkeys who eat fear, and some tendrils of purple crystals that are supposedly a threat because they’re filmed in a slightly menacing way.
Justice League is so dumb, so obviously broken on a fundamental level, that it’s an insulting viewing experience. You’ll likely be seeing apologists on the internet saying that it’s “not a perfect film,” but that it “gets the characters right” and so it “sets the table” for future installments. To that faint praise, I say “bullshit.” Justice League isn’t a better movie than the disastrous Batman V Superman or the excrementitious Suicide Squad. It’s just tonally different from those movies — a desperate attempt to course-correct into brighter, more hopeful territory to quell fan complaints — and some overly forgiving souls may interpret that pandering as an increase in quality.
But trust me: This movie will not age well. You won’t watch it fondly on your own TV at home. It will look like a smear of gilded pixels on a tiny screen when you half-watch it in discomfort while sitting on an airplane. You won’t remember anything about it six months from now. One year from now, the silence that will surround this nearly half-billion dollar debacle will be a vacuum so deafening, so all-encompassing in its nothingness, that it may drive humans mad when they hear it. This is a void, and it consumes souls. Watching Justice League is like staring Donald Trump in the eyes and wondering at the nothing you find there.
The newest issue of Marvel's The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is billed as a "special 'zine' issue," which immediately grabbed my attention. I've always been a fan of alternative sensibilities applied to superhero comics — the Coober Skeber "Marvel Benefit Issue" is one of my all-time favorites, and DC's Bizarro Comics trade paperback is a lot of fun, too — and while I haven't read that many Squirrel Girl comics, the character is an appealing meta-take on the superhero genre, and I'd been wanting to read more.
The premise of this issue, laid out in a series of framing pages at the beginning and end of the comic, is that a library was destroyed in a superhero battle, and Squirrel Girl has assembled a benefit zine to raise funds to rebuild it. The comics are supposedly by Marvel heroes and villains, though it's really an anthology of one-and-two-page comics by a variety of cartoonists.
The concept is fine, but the execution is a little disappointing. There's nothing really zine-y about the comic. The creators are, for the most part, mainstream. Hell, Garfield creator Jim Davis is listed as a contributor, and you can't get any more mainstream than Garfield. (Davis's contribution is a series of strips replacing Garfield with Galactus and replacing Garfield's owner Jon with the Silver Surfer. That's it. That's the joke.)
A few of the strips in the issue are very good, particularly a self-help book narrated by a brain in a jar and a short little tone poem from the perspective of Thor's trickster brother Loki. And one strip drawn by Anders Nilson, involving Wolverine and a giant robot, gets the alternative spirit of the enterprise just right.
But I wonder what this issue of Squirrel Girl would have looked like if instead of summoning a fairly well-known ensemble of talent, the editors had gotten the contributors to the newest issue of Seattle free comics newspaper Thick as Thieves, instead?
Marie Hausauer's contribution to Thieves, a bar scene featuring a few trashy patrons hitting on each other, is creepy and true-to-life and beautifully rendered. On the next page, Travis Rommereim contributes a little gag strip about a man who abuses a talking severed head on a chain that taunts him with bad jokes and dares. ("Are you gonna shoot some arrows at me or what?")
Most of the strips in this issue of Thieves seem fairly well grounded in realism. There's a conversation between two young women, and a kid who plays with guns. Gil Rhodes tips things over into absurdity with a fantastic strip about a grandmother who repeatedly gives the worst advice ever, but even that strip doesn't beat you over the head with its surrealism. It's relatively quiet, and it's comfortable with the quiet.
I'm willing to bet that none of the contributors to this issue of Thick as Thieves are dying to work on a mainstream superhero comic. But that's part of the reason why they should have been asked to contribute. Marie Hausauer's Squirrel Girl really would have been an alternative comic to behold.
Portland cartoonist Anders Nilsen is a special guest at the Short Run Comix & Arts Festival at Seattle Center this weekend. You might know Nilsen from his Peanuts-meets-Tolstoy epic bird comic Big Questions, or his heart-rending memoir of grief and loss, Don't Go Where I Can't Follow. But at Short Run, he's debuting his latest ambitious project: the first issue of a projected series called Tongues.
Nilsen describes Tongues as "loosely based on a trilogy by the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus, of which two plays are lost and only dimly reconstructed by historians." This first issue is loaded with references to the Prometheus myth, but projected through a fractured lens of American military action in the Middle East, and with a talking bird and a monkey thrown in for good measure.
Tongues is the most beautiful thing Nilsen has ever made. The pages are colored in rich pastels that absorb your attention. The overturned and ruined military vehicles in these stories aren't left out to rot in a garish yellow comic-book wasteland; these deserts are pink and shimmering, with whipped-cream mountains looming off on the horizon.
The illustration in Tongues surpasses just about everything that Nilsen has ever done before. His characters are finely wrought, but they feel secondary in the narrative to the oddly shaped geometric panels and the dreamy backgrounds. We're more invested in what a lippy crow has to say ("The humans are an object of fascination to me, too," he says to a Prometheus figure) than almost every human in the book.
The stories in Tongues are short, but they do resonate with the throbbing weirdness of myth. The obvious Prometheus allusions are one thing — it's hard to see a bird eating the entrails of a still-living man and not recall the Prometheus myth — but these pages of finely wrought military SUVs overturned in the desert recall the devastation of the Iliad. The ruins of the US Army look not unlike the battered Coliseum of Rome. In those broken cars, a monkey argues with a human over a dwindling supply of rations. In this context, it's a clash of the titans.
Nilsen's great skill is finding the depth and the adventure in any subject, no matter how small. With Tongues, he's re-envisioning his place in the cartooning firmament. His sense of scale has changed; whereas before Nilsen obsessed over tiny interactions, he's now ready to create some myths of his own.
Victor LaValle is one of the most underappreciated novelists in America today. His debut novel The Ecstatic was less a shaky first outing and more a spectacular announcement of a singular talent. His last three novels — Big Machine, The Devil in Silver, and The Ballad of Black Tom — have addressed America's complicated relationship with race through the lens of horror fiction. (And before you ask, LaValle began exploring this relationship years before Get Out was anything more than a figment of Jordan Peele's imagination.) When it comes to genre fiction, he's one of our most fearless adventurers.
And now LaValle has conquered another medium. Yesterday saw the publication of the sixth and final issue of LaValle's very first comic series, Destroyer. Illustrated by Dietrich Smith, Destroyer is a modern-day recasting of the Frankenstein story. But this isn't a reboot; Destroyer is a sequel to Frankenstein. The original monster from the Wollstonecraft novel is still alive and menacing the characters of this story.
Destroyer's protagonist is a black teenage boy named Akai whose mother brings him back from the dead after he's slain by police. The book explores the mother-son dynamic and, since the mother is a descendent of Victor Frankenstein, the monster serves as a kind of lingering ancestral wrath. It's a story of grief and tradition and learning what you can and can't control about the things (and people) you create.
This sixth and final issue of Destroyer combines all those threads into one climactic scene. Every character gets an opportunity to make their case. ("Must be nice to be a father," Akai's mother notes bitterly, "Mothers are weighed on a broken scale.") The dynamics shift and realign and play out against a backdrop of America's forgotten history.
LaValle and Smith are creating high-level comics here. It's a book that is as personal as a love-letter, as brutally honest as a confession, and as of-the-moment as your Twitter feed. The final confrontation between Akai, his mother, and his father is just as internal and complex as any literary novel, but — because this is comics — it involves a giant, lumbering mech-battlesuit in mortal combat with a reanimated monster and a severed head.
The collected edition of Destroyer is set to arrive in bookstores in March of next year; if you've enjoyed allegorical takes on race in America like The Underground Railroad or Get Out, I urge you to reserve a copy at your favorite independent bookstore today.
This week I want to talk about a book that isn't actually a comic book, but which wouldn't exist without comics. Catherynne M. Valenti's young adult short story collection The Refrigerator Monologues is an attempt to give voice to the often-neglected women who serve in supporting roles in superhero comics.
Refrigerator is structurally a riff on the Vagina Monologues with a superhero twist, and Valenti clearly knows her source material. The name comes from a superhero comic trope known as "fridging," in which a love interest's grisly death serves no greater purpose than really pissing off a hero, thereby giving him the motivation he needs to defeat the villain of the story. The book examines, satirizes, and deepens the cliches that women must endure in comics.
These are riffs on Spider-Man's first girlfriend Gwen Stacy (thrown off a bridge to her death by the Green Goblin) and Cyclops's girlfriend Phoenix (committed suicide after being tempted to the dark side by a cosmic being) and the Joker's girlfriend Harley Quinn (not dead, but often reduced to a punchline about codependency.) Valenti gets deep into the characters' heads, adding motivations and complex emotional responses to the crude stories mapped out in superhero comics of the past.
The framing story in Refrigerator, a club in the afterlife where wronged women can gather and tell their stories, doesn't quite go anywhere. And the book feels a little slight; it could use one or two more stories. But Valenti definitely ties together a thesis here, and she vindicates a whole rainbow of characters who have only gotten short shrift for the last fifty years. Hopefully next, she'll write a comic that puts these women front and center — without the men around to ruin everything.
In the 1990s, a ton of male cartoonists made their careers by writing stories about schlubby men with huge egos. These self-important losers — from Buddy Bradley to Adrian Tomine's protagonists to Ivan Brunetti's self-portrayal — were important at the time: they poked necessary holes in the idea that the only stories worth telling were stories about straight white men of a certain age.
Cartoonist Noah Van Sciver's newest book, Fante Bukowski Two, seems to desperately want to be from the 1990s. It's designed to look like the Black Sparrow edition of Charles Bukowski's Factotum, and it has a completely realistic facsimile of a Borders price sticker on the back cover.
And the content of the book, too, feels ripped from the 1990s. It's a book about a bearded loser who believes himself to be the next Outlaw American Novelist, but who is in fact a talentless hack. Bukowski drinks too much, he lives on donations from his too-tolerant parents, he refuses to get a job. In this book, he lives in a flophouse and makes tons of zines and fails to sell copies all around town.
But the question that Van Sciver fails to answer is: who is this book for? Do we really need another book that skewers bloviating mediocre literary white men? Bukowski feels from the start like the alternative comics from the 1990s, and it never really stops wallowing in nostalgia for that era.
To be fair, Van Sciver is a talented cartoonist, and he has a great sense of comic timing. Parts of Fante Bukowski 2 are very funny. But I expect more than “funny” from a Fantagraphics title — the Seattle publisher has such a stellar publication history that I expect some sort of a point from all their books. Unfortunately, Bukowski feels like an exquisitely crafted fan fiction tribute to Fantagraphics titles from a bygone era.
And this question might seem petty, but it’s actually quite important: Do people like the person this book is supposedly satirizing even exist anymore? Do Bukowski acolytes still talk about the authentic human experience and produce zines to distribute at open mic nights? To me, this feels like a time-capsule, a skewering that arrives twenty years too late.
This is not to say that Van Sciver shouldn’t satirize white men, or that white men aren’t a relevant target anymore; quite the contrary. We live in a time in which mobs of bored white dudes are starting riots because their preferred flavor of corn syrup isn’t available at their local McDonald’s. If the self-entitled jackass star of Bukowski were alive today, his obsessions and behavior would likely be very different. With its obsessive backwards stare, Bukowski feels stale and hopelessly retro.
I was 13 when I first read Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, and in retrospect I realize that it fucked me up for years. I wasn't mentally prepared to handle Miller's deeply conservative dystopian Batman comic, and so for a long time afterward I confused violence and nihilism for "serious art."
So many years later, Returns reads like a clunky piece of satire by a man who was teetering on the uncomfortable razor's edge between artistic curiosity and self-loathing regressivism. But the one thing it has going for it is its obvious merit as a work of art: when he wanted to, Miller could really put together a brilliant sequence panels. (Although I'd argue that the first Sin City collection, and not Returns, is his true masterpiece.)
Miller has now gone back to the Dark Knight well twice, with diminishing returns each time. The latest volume, Batman: The Dark Knight: Master Race, is out in a collected edition now, and I can't really think of a single redeeming value for this book. Supposedly co-written by Miller and Brian Azzarello, and drawn mostly by Andy Kubert, I'm almost unwilling to attribute Master Race to Miller at all — Miller himself says he had little to do with the actual inspiration for the thing — but his contributions to back-up stories in the volume seem to indicate that he at least had some say as an artist.
The most generous interpretation of Master Race is that Miller is trying to revive the fun high-concept sci-fi of the comics he read as a youth. The book, which depicts a war between older versions of Batman and Superman and an army of pissed-off Kryptonians, features DC mainstays like The Flash, Aquaman, and the Atom.
But the lack of technical proficiency defuses the reader's enjoyment on every page. This book is lazy and uninspired, like Dark Knight Returns fan-fiction written by someone who thought the only problem with Returns is that it didn't co-star the whole Justice League. Way too much of the book consists of sloppily rendered figures standing in front of empty backgrounds, which are then filled in with muddy reds and browns by colorist Brad Anderson.
Even worse are the backup stories, many of which are drawn by Miller himself. These stories are entirely non-essential, usualy explaining what some minor character from the main story is doing when he or she is off-panel. And don't get me started on the art. I think this is supposed to be the Eiffel Tower:
Sure, Returns was a story about a deeply fascistic rich man having a midlife crisis, but it was at least a well-rendered story about a deeply fascistic rich man having a midlife crisis. And Miller's overt acceptance of the underlying fascist tendencies in superhero comics was at least novel at the time.
Master Race doesn't even have the werewithal to take a stand on fascism. There's nothing pleasurable about this book. It's like a boy who melts his action figures with a purloined cigarette lighter and then bashes the disfigured toys all together until he randomly determines a "winner." The thing is a mess from the bottom up.
Aside from Ms. Marvel, my favorite Marvel title these days is Nick Fury, a spy comic written by James Robinson and drawn by the acronymical comics artist ACO. Fury is unlike just about everything else Marvel is putting out these days: every issue is its own stand-alone adventure, every page is visually adventurous, and the book isn't interested in crossovers or events.
Fury is a smart callback to the stylish Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD book that Jim Steranko drew for Marvel during the late 1960s. It's not an homage, or a rigid tribute book: instead, it imagines what those SHIELD books would look like if they were drawn today. The result is a splashy, vivid, wildly attractive book that feels like a rich hit of pure comic joy. (Of course, Fury is not as subversive as Steranko's run, which still stands as some of the sexiest issues published by a mainstream American comics publisher. Fury is, unfortunately, rather sexless.)
The most recent issue of Fury, number 6, was published yesterday, and it continues the formula established in the previous five issues: Fury is on a mission in some exotic locale (this time he's in gothic Scotland) and he tangles with evil agents of Hydra. There's a plot twist that's so easy to predict it must have been planned that way, but that's not really what the book is about, in any case.
Robinson seems to have smartly designed this book to show off what ACO can do. A two-page spread reveals a hummming "Hydra enclave" buried underground, and ACO depicts a buzzing base full of drones and weird laser devices and all kinds of mysterious tanks full of evil stuff being carted around. Later, ACO delights in taking the whole base apart, piece by piece, as Fury unravels their plans. I haven't stared this intently at pages of art from one of the big two publishers in a very long time. Here's a spread from an earlier issue of the comic, which shows Fury examining every possible threat on a wide-open casino floor:
Unfortunately, the last page of Fury delivers some bad, if predictable, news: number 6 is the final issue. It figures: Fury was too beautiful to live in this world. Hopefully, ACO will land a gig that offers the superstar status he deserves. Until then, lovers of over-the-top spy fiction will have to keep their spirits up with the trade paperback collecting every issue of Nick Fury, which is due out this December.
I try not to give Birth Movies Death any web traffic these days due to the noxious way the site's owner protected former BMD editor Devin Faraci in the wake of sexual assault accusations. But it's impossible for me to separate my viewing of Kingsman: The Golden Circle from a 2015 essay on the original Kingsman film by Film Crit Hulk.
I found the first Kingsman movie to be boorish and awkward in its handling of James Bond satire, though I did appreciate the way the film addressed the inherent classism of the Bond mythos. Hulk's essay didn't necessarily convince me to reappraise Kingsman as a brilliant work of art, but he did argue that the filmmaker, Matthew Vaughn, knew exactly what he was doing with the film: that Vaughn was producing, essentially, the world's only honest blockbuster movie — one that embraced the political discomfort of Bond movies.
Kingsman, of course, is adapted from a comic book series written by Mark Millar, an amoral dolt who has lowest-common-denominatored his way to great success. (I wrote about Millar in this space not so long ago.) Vaughn has taken the basics of Millar's premise — what if a poor kid became the next James Bond? — and made all the class issues entirely overt. Young Eggsy (a charismatic Taron Edgerton) is a chav who gets recruited by a Bond-like agent (Colin Firth, clearly having a lot of fun) to join a secret organization of spies who defend England from outsize global villains.
Despite a few missteps, (Samuel L. Jackson offers maybe his worst performance since Frank Miller's Spirit adaptation) even the most skeptical viewers had to admit that Kingsman was entertaining as hell, a skosh of R-rated blockbuster ultraviolence to while away time in the multiplex.
The Golden Circle will likely not invite a high level of investigation from writers like Film Crit Hulk. It is, to put it bluntly, a bad movie. It's boring and it's weighed down with exposition and the attempts at humor don't land successfully. If the first film was a sly investigation of class, the second film can't even convincingly sell itself as an investigation of how awful sequels usually are.
Of course, parts of The Golden Circle work really well: Vaughn's action sequences are buttery-smooth and boundlessly fun to watch. Julianne Moore, as the breathlessly chipper drug-dealing villain, is fantastic. Her character's plans to change the world are more interesting than your standard movie bad-guy dreck. Edgerton and Firth maintain their excellent rapport from the first film.
But most of The Golden Circle is self-serious and overblown. Channing Tatum shows up for about ten minutes of screentime, total. Some of the action sequences feel weirdly weightless. Other scenes fail to keep the plot moving forward. I have a hard time picturing any serious claim that The Golden Circle is another showcase of Vaughn's sly satirical skills. The class elements of the first film have basically disappeared, and the Bond nods feel less playful and more obligatory.
The Golden Circle is one of those rare sequels that actively diminishes the film that came before it. It's a film that's just as dumb as the comic that inspired it.
On Labor Day, I argued that we need more blue-collar novelists. The thing that I didn't note in that essay is that there are plenty of contemporary blue-collar cartoonists — not because the comics industry is so forward-thinking but because the comics industry does such a poor job of compensating artists for their work. Unless they're a superstar name or someone who works on a number of different gigs simultaneously, the odds are good that your favorite cartoonist is either A) indepdendently wealthy or B) working multiple angles to make ends meet.
Mimi Pond's fictionalized memoir The Customer Is Always Wrong is about as blue-collar as they come: it's the story of a young woman who works at a diner in 1970s Oakland. Nobody in this book is a jet-setting millionaire. In fact, they're all just barely getting by, and it shows: the people who work and eat at the Imperial Cafe are almost all one paycheck away from disaster. They soothe themselves with drugs and melodrama. They dream of ways out of their cycles of poverty, but those dreams never quite come true.
Madge feels pretty grown up when she scores a job at the Imperial. She's living with roommates, she gets a boyfriend, and she falls for the eccentrics who frequent the Imperial — on both sides of the counter. But soon enough, people start ODing on heroin, or doing too much coke and getting violent, or having brushes with the law. It's a coming-of-age story set in the school of hard knocks.
Tying together all of the anecdotes that make up Wrong is the work: waiting tables is the baseline of the book. Madge walks around with a carafe of coffee in one hand, chatting with customers, learning what she can about the world from the booths of the Imperial. Sometimes the kitchen is slammed and Madge has to try to charm her tickets to the top of the to-do pile. Other times it's slow and she shoots the shit with regulars. It's a book that's intrinsically tied to the dignity — and indignity — of work.
At nearly 450 pages, Wrong is a mammoth-sized comic. You'll have to take your time with it, and that's how it should be. It's a memoir that takes you through the days and nights of its main character, and it slowly transforms Madge in such a way that the reader barely notices until the transformation is complete.
Pond's art is perfect for this kind of serialized novel of a story: her art is cartoony but finely detailed. Madge's face is just a couple of lines, but Pond draws every stave in the row of chairs in the background. This makes the run-down glory of the Imperial, and of pre-tech-boom Oakland, an additional character in the book. You're not likely to read another comic this year that immerses you so deeply in the lives of a cast of characters, and these are lives — endearing, aggravating, tragic — that you don't see enough in modern fiction. Cartoonists like Pond are happily taking up the space that novelists have abdicated.
Next week, editor J.T. Yost will debut his new comics anthology, Bottoms Up! True Tales of Hitting Rock Bottom, at the SPX alternative comics festival. In his introduction, Yost identifies the book as a labor of love, an “attempt to humanize addiction through real stories told by actual addicts.” The book features a wide array of contemporary alternative comics talent, including Seattle cartoonists Tatiana Gill and Max Clotfelter.
Addiction stories can be formulaic, in part because audiences intimately understand every rise and fall of the narrative. If things are looking good for the characters in the story, astute readers know that the next decline is just around the corner. Yost’s decision to focus only on the worst possible moments is canny: all the buildup and false promises of traditional recovery narratives are trimmed away, leaving only the central pivot of the story.
The definition of “rock bottom” varies wildly from artist to artist. Some of the moments are funny (the protagonist of Clotfelter's story realizing that the woman he slept with has a full-back tattoo of the Confederate flag and the words “Dixie Bitch”) and others are horrifying (Matt Rota’s long story “That Summer, Way Back” involve a heartbreaking case of animal neglect.) Others, like Victor Kerlow’s “The Big Joke,” depict rock bottom as an abstract emotional state — the complete falling-apart of ego as depicted by a body slicing itself into meaty slivers in an almost-overdose.
Not all of these stories are autobiographical; many are anonymous tales told to the cartoonists, who then interpret the stories in their own styles. Daniel McCloskey depicts one man’s account of a near-suicide through the lens of Taylor Swift’s single “Shake It Off,” and the story blissfully skirts the line between bad taste and good comics. Adam Pasion’s adaptation of another anonymous storyteller’s descent into digital voyeurism somehow manages to portray the creepiness of the addiction while not feeding the reader’s prurient interests. Two of the stories involve imaginary pets. At least one involves regrettable hot tub sex.
Even if you’ve never woken up from a blackout haunted by a familiar gnawing fear in your gut, you’ll likely find a reflection of yourself somewhere in Bottoms Up! There’s no single thread through all of these stories except that most basic human failing: our frustrating ability to let ourselves down, despite our own best intentions. There’s something incredibly comforting about reading a whole book of failures — funny failures, sad failures, tragic failures — told by people who lived to tell the tale.
My favorite writing podcast isn’t about poetry or novels or non-fiction. It’s about screenwriting. John August and Craig Mazin’s Scriptnotes is a long-running podcast that takes listener questions, offers industry interviews, and occasionally pulls screenplays apart to see how they work. While Mazin and August are sometimes a little too conventional in their advice — the film industry does love a formula — they’re great hosts who cheerfully provide useful information, and they’re terrific in the way they treat writing as a craft and not divine inspiration. Any writer could learn a lot from the way they discuss their jobs.
In their most recent episode — embedded above — August and Mazin discuss the script for the Clint Eastwood masterpiece Unforgiven. It’s one of their best episodes, because their obvious enthusiasm for the script shines through in every moment. They rightfully praise Unforgiven for its economy: every line in the script either advances the story or establishes theme and character, or (most likely) both. They discuss why the screenwriter, David Webb Peoples, made decisions that contradict every piece of advice you’ll read in screenwriting guides, and they debate decisions that Eastwood made as he translated the script to screen. I encourage any writer to listen to this podcast.
So. What does all this have to do with comics?
I’ve been thinking a lot about comics writer Mark Millar lately. Millar made news earlier this month when it was announced that he sold his creator-owned comics line, Millarworld, to Netflix in a development deal that has been rumored to be somewhere in the neighborhood of $50 million. Millar has been praised as “the Quentin Tarantino of comics,” likely because his books are generally full of “adult themes” like violence and swearing in a way that superficially resembles the aesthetic of Tarantino films.
If you enjoyed the X-Men spinoff film Logan that was released in spring of this year, you probably know that it’s based on a Millar comic called Old Man Logan. Logan is far superior to Old Man Logan, in part because it’s handled with a maturity that continually escapes the comic. Millar’s Old Man Logan is a trashy joyride through a dystopian Marvel Comics future — one in which the Hulk fucks his own cousin, Spider-Man’s daughter is repeatedly ogled as jailbait, and the Red Skull dresses up in Captain America cosplay for cheap shocks.
At the time of its release, and repeatedly in years since, Old Man Logan has been sold to audiences as Unforgiven starring Wolverine. Superficially, that connection makes sense. Old Man Logan centers around an old man who was once a fearsome warrior but who hasn’t taken up arms in years. He’s reluctantly pushed back into his old life, and he’s eventually subsumed by the violence that swallowed his youth. In both stories, the hero is a threat, one that is teased from the very beginning of the story and only rolled out at the very end. It’s the same basic plot structure.
But listening to Mazin and August enthuse over what makes Unforgiven special really hammered home everything that’s terrible about Old Man Logan in specific, and Millar’s writing in general. Unforgiven is thematically about the stories we tell each other, and the distance between stories and reality. Old Man Logan is nothing more than a string of “cool” moments. It’s not about what it means to be a killer — Old Man Logan is a celebration of violence, written by someone who seems to think that Unforgiven exists so that Clint Eastwood can, in the end of the movie, shoot a bunch of people and look badass while he’s doing it.
And ultimately, that’s what all of Millar’s books are: bad misreadings of popular culture. His books build on premises that every 15-year-old comics nerd has idly wondered: What if Batman was actually the bad guy? What if Flash Gordon starred in Unforgiven? What if the bad guys killed all the superheroes? And then it does nothing more than revels in the “coolness” of the premise, providing a string of money shots that forcibly injects chills into the cerebral cortex of fanboys.
Of course, I suspect this off-brand hucksterism is not a bug for Netflix, but a feature. Comic book movies and shows based on Millar’s comics will appeal to the penny-pincher in all of us. They look enough like the real properties to be enticing to our basest instincts, and they’re stuffed full of enough violence and nasty thrills to keep us watching. And sometimes — as in Logan — talented filmmakers might be able to transform Millar's doggerel into verse.
As an investment, I'm sure Netflix feels pretty good about the content they bought. Unfortunately, Millar — who always reaches the most facile decisions — will only be emboldened by their purchase. He's just getting started.
Most modern superhero comics feel like action figure catalogs. Every story involves a new costume, or an alternate-reality version of a character, or a new character taking over the title temporarily. It just feels like the creators are stewards of an IP, adding value to the original concept by spinning a variant into existence that will one day be molded into plastic and sold.
The first issue of artist Greg Capullo and writer Scott Snyder's DC crossover comic Dark Nights: Metal is basically everything modern audiences want in superhero comics: wall-to-wall action, decorated with a bunch of Easter eggs that call back to decades of convoluted continuity. It opens with the Justice League in outer space, being forced into gladiatoral combat, and it expands into a secret society revealing the imminent invasion of a grave threat that might destroy the universe or whatever.
Snyder and Capullo create at least two sets of likely profitable action figures in the first ten pages of this book: Gladiator Justice League and Voltron Justice League. Later, we see silhouettes indicating yet another variant: Evil Alternate Universe Batman Justice League. Plus, Batman rides a dinosaur and he almost says the word "ass," both of which are sure to wind up in some listicle on some zombie comics news site as one of the Top 15 Most Awesome Moments In Comics This Year. (You can practically read the breathless copy now: "Four words: Batman. Riding. A. Dinosaur. 'Nuff said.")
There's an obvious high level of competency in the actual craft of the comic. Snyder is very good at getting information across in a very small space, and Capullo is better than most superhero comics artists at designing a page. They seem to work well together, and the book is technically very proficient.
But the last page involves a character who simply shouldn't be there. I won't spoil the big surprise, but let's just say it's akin to the revelation that DC Comics is incorporating Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's Watchmen comics into mainstream DC continuity. It feels like another pointless violation of another barrier, and it cheapens a much-loved comics property by turning it into a plot point. But hey — at least it'll make a really cool action figure line one day.
You've gotta love a comics anthology built on a theme. There's something so conversational and warm and inquisitive about collections of short comics, particularly when they're all examining a particular idea from a wide variety of perspectives.
The 19th issue of Not My Small Diary — part of the My Small mini-empire created by Delaine Derry Green (the zine creator known best for her long-running series My Small Diary) — is an anthology of 43 autobiographical comics about unexplained events. As you might expect, the stories range from the outright supernatural (lots of ghost sightings) to the merely coincidental (immediately after having a dream about a mugger stealing $20 from them, a cartoonist is handed $20 by some random guy on the street.)
This particular issue of Not My Small Diary is loaded full of Seattle cartoonists including Noel Franklin, David Lasky, Kelly Froh, Donna Barr, Max Clotfelter, Colleen Frakes, Mark Campos, Ben Horak, and Roberta Gregory. It's with more than a little pride that I note that Seattle contributes some of the strongest pieces in the book, including Franklin's creepy crow story, Campos's short tale of the six words you'd least like to hear from thin air in the dead of night, and Frakes's account of the time she accidentally entered into a family's haunted living situation.
Ranging in tone from skepticism to avid believer, these comics combine to form a wide-ranging study of experiences and feelings about paranormal activities. It's kind of like a long sleepless night swapping stories around the campfire. Some of the stories are total bullshit; others feel a little too true for comfort. No matter where you stand on UFOs and ghost stories, you'll find something to appreciate here.
Aside from Charles Schulz's Peanuts, American comics aren't great at melancholy. I've read plenty of depressing comics, and many upbeat comics, but the gentle downward slope of melancholy seems too subtle for most American cartoonists to capture.
The 20th issue of Chip Zdarsky and Matt Fraction's series Sex Criminals is about a breakup. Neither party seems to want to break up, but they both understand that they have to do it. They have sex, even though they know they shouldn't. They have trouble articulating the things they know they need to say. They are uncomfortable in the moment, and they both know it.
Meanwhile, in another scene, a middle-aged man and woman have sex. She's a retired sex worker. He's an academic. His reaction to her past is getting in the way. She's seen this before. She's tired of it, but she explains it to him anyway.
Sex Criminals has always been a special comic. It's based on a one-note gimmick of a plot — a man and a woman find that they can stop time with their orgasms, so they go on a fuck-fueled bank-robbery spree — but it has somehow expanded to incorporate a rainbow of sexual interests, personalities, and questions about what it means to be human. It's explored adult romantic relationships with a subtlety that most modern literary novels can't touch. The depiction of depression in an early issue felt truer and more honest than most memoir. For those reasons and more, the series continues to be a miracle of the American comics industry.
But issue number 20 is something else again. It has the feel of a deep-autumn Charlie Brown strip (albeit one with explicit illustrations of adult genitalia) and it perfectly captures the responsibility and difficulty of adult life. New readers will be entirely lost — hell, I can't keep track of who all these characters are, and I've been following the book since the beginning — but those who have read the whole thing will find a remarkable maturation in the book's already-mature themes. If Sex Criminals keeps up like this — and if it, uh, climaxes in a, uh, satisfying way — it could be one of the all-time great serialized comics.
I have to admit something: I loved the first issue of Ta-Nehisi Coates's Black Panther, but the series has largely lost my interest in the intervening year-and-a-half. That first issue was a perfect balance between pop-culture philosphy and superhero action, and Coates seemed to be attempting a more stylish version of a text-heavy style of comics writing that we haven't seen in mainstream comics since the 1980s.
But gradually, over the next few issues, Coates's writing went from wordy to overindulgent to bloated. Long stretches would happen where people would talk in self-important prose and all the important story beats seemed to be happening off-panel. The recap pages would contain more palace drama than the actual comics pages.
And to cap it all off, Brian Stelfreeze, the artist who started Black Panther with Coates, seemed to entirely disappear. Stelfreeze has always had difficulty hitting a monthly deadline, but this book used so much of his visual language that when he stopped drawing the title, the characters seemed to lose their motivation with him. I ordinarily adore Chris Sprouse, the artist who has taken Stelfreeze's place, but Sprouse's superheroic figures, who always seem ready to leap off the page their impossible musculatures and lantern jaws, feel badly mismatched with Coates's action-free scripts.
All that said, the latest issue of Black Panther, #16, is the most exciting issue in a long time. In just a few pages, Coates manages to reinvigorate a background character from the Marvel Universe in a way that feels entirely authentic and thought-provoking, yet still true to the character. The few scenes with this character combine social commentary, some fun writing, and a genuine passion for the Marvel Comics framework.
But it's not enough to salvage the whole issue. Back-up characters appear and disappear with no explanation. The story wants to raise stakes without actually investing in building the drama, and Coates can't seem to find a working rhythm for the book.
Perhaps Black Panther reads differently in trade paperback; it's possible that it flows better when given the same attention one would apply to a novel. But as a monthly comic, it's consistently the least interesting book in the stack I bring home from the comic shop. The great promise of that first issue feels squandered.
A considerable portion of Seattle’s comic book talent is in San Diego this week at the corporate pop cultural orgy known as San Diego Comic Con. It makes sense to take stock of comic culture at this time of year, because it’s the closest thing to a High Holy Days in the nerd calendar year. Look anywhere on the internet right now and you’ll probably find an equal share of breathless odes to SDCC and vicious takedowns of everything having to do with the crass commercialism of nerd culture.
The thing is, I do enough whining about corporate comics in this space. And so for Comic Con, I thought I’d point out seven comics series that I’m genuinely excited to read every month. Prepare for niceness:
Ms. Marvel is the best comic that Marvel publishes. It’s consistently great — a deeply personal celebration of the superhero myth.
Paper Girls from Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang evokes a wide array of sci-fi source material — Stranger Things, Lost, Steven Spielberg and Stephen King — while still feeling completely original. It’s a time travel comic that has seemingly been planned down to the last detail, an adventure comic that places character at the forefront of the story, and a touching story about growing old while combating nostalgia.
Giant Days is a perfect sitcom of a book, about a group of young women trying to navigate the adult world. It’s funny, but not in a way that sacrifices the dignity of its characters. It’s sweet, but not cloyingly so. Giant Days is about as likable as a comic can be.
The Black Monday Murders imagines a world where money is power. Okay, but like magical power. It’s a murder mystery set in a world where America's wealthiest families have amassed dark magic along with their wealth, creating a metaphor for income inequality that is perhaps more vivid than any I’ve ever read.
The new comic by underrated novelist Victor LaValle, Destroyer, is a fresh take on the Frankenstein story that addresses race and police violence in a meaningful way. It’s the second-newest comic on the list, but it looks to be a work that will add to LaValle’s shelf full of novels that use genre to investigate the black experience in America.
I just wrote about the first issue of Calexit last week, but I’ve thought a lot about this book in the past seven days. It’s not often that a single issue of a comic lives in my head like this.
Kill or Be Killed is the closest thing to Taxi Driver I’ve read in comics form. It takes vigilante justice to its logical conclusion in a story narrated by a damaged man who murders people he believes to be criminals.
And here’s a bonus comic: yesterday I picked up the first issue of Generation Gone, an Image series written by Ales Kot and illustrated by André Lima Araújo. It’s very promising. The story is about three young hackers who are preparing to steal an obscene amount of money from an obscene too-big-to-fail bank. The class struggle is real: “These children are millennials,” someone exclaims in the middle of the issue. “Men like you have taken their future away from them. They are getting ready to steal it back.”
Araújo draws a diverse cast with expressive faces and he lays out the action through a wide variety of perspectives. It’s a kind of realism that draws you in and lulls you into complacency. Just when you think this is a book about normal people in normal rooms doing fairly straightforward computer-y things, the twist kicks in and you understand that Araújo has a wider range than you first expected: he’s a rare horror artist whose work is genuinely scary.
This first issue of Generation Gone is all set-up. It’ll make for a compelling first chapter in the inevitable collected volume, but readers of the first issue might be annoyed that just when the book gets started, it ends. Still, if you give it a chance you'll find a well-written and superbly illustrated high-concept first issue of a series — one that could well wind up on your list of favorite monthly comics.
Volume two of Françoise Mouly and Nadja Spiegelman’s comics anthology Resist! Grab Back! was sitting in the free stacks at Phoenix Comics last night. Even though it says “FREE” in big block letters on the front of the book, it still felt a little like shoplifting to walk off with it: it’s a 48-page full color anthology of anti-Trump comics by cartoonists from around the world. If you were to roll it up, it would likely be thicker than your wrist. It feels substantial and raw and pulpy, like an old issue of Maximumrocknroll, back in the days when people paid money for tiny classified ads.
Resist is a woman-centric collection of anti-Trump comics, and Seattle is well-represented here with artists including Linda Medley. You’ve very likely seen some of these strips online, because political comics circulate faster than venereal diseases on social media nowadays. But when taken in aggregate like this, even the repeats gain a certain kind of power. The quality of the comics vary, of course, but they amount to a cartoon manifesto of sorts, an enthusiastic nose-thumbing at the Trump administration.
Many of the strips focus on menstrual blood as a sign of resistance. (One of my favorites is an anonymous strip encouraging readers to mail bloody tampons and pads to Mike Pence and Paul Ryan.) Others are pieces of journalism. A few of them are gag strips. Not all of them work — Art Spiegelman’s strip depicting Donald Trump as a literal pile of shit has a whiff of desperation to it — but even when a strip doesn’t appeal to the reader, there’s likely a better one just a page turn away. An omnibus of this size and this intensity simply cannot be ignored.
Still, Resist! does feel a bit like an artifact. It’s full of accounts of the Women’s March, which seems like eons ago in the hyper-speed perpetual news cycle we’ve been trapped in all year. A few of the strips are from the days when Steve Bannon seemed like the biggest problem we’d face. And that early sensation of #Resistance depicted in the book — that early idea that we’ll keep up with a relentless schedule of enthusiastic protests every weekend — has faded into a grimmer sense that we’re trudging forward, learning from our mistakes, and preparing for a long haul.
If you’re looking for a piece of comics art that feels as fresh and as lively as a spray of breaking news from Twitter, you’ll have to turn from the free shelf at Phoenix Comics over to the new arrivals wall. Yesterday, the first issue of Calexit was published, and the book couldn’t feel more immediate if it was drawn right in front of you. If you’re the kind of person who avoids the news, author Matteo Pizzolo and artist Amanday Nahuelpan’s story of what happens when liberal parts of California and other West Coast cities secede from the union after a fascist takes control of the United States might make you nauseous.
In a note in the back, Pizzolo explains that Calexit predated the election of Donald Trump, but it certainly leans into the imagery now that we’re here. The second panel of the book depicts a small-handed president announcing that “it’s been two big league years since this nation re-elected me, and I realize California wasn’t smart enough to side with the winner, but I’m still gonna take care of all you citizens.” That’s the only Trumpian appearance in the book, though one character does bear a striking resemblance to Steve Bannon.
So, what’s life like in California and the Pacific Coast Sister City Alliance? It’s pretty tense. The book opens with a delightful conversation between an armed Homeland Security agent and a Californian drug smuggler named Jamil just outside Mann’s Chinese Theater. “As your pharmacist for many weeks now, I’m a bit concerned about this move for you from uppers to anti-depressants,” Jamil tells the soldier. “You feeling okay?” They’re chummy but slightly antagonistic, and their relationship is a good metaphor for the city of Los Angeles as it prepares for a visit from the President.
The atmosphere in Calexit isn’t one of out-and-out civil war. It’s more like the Balkan states: heightened tensions everywhere, pockets of resistance bubbling up here and there, and the promise of a never-ending battle skulking around every corner. There’s even a schlubby Captain America wandering around in the background to remind us that it’s all taking place in Hollywood.
The pacing in the first issue of Calexit is excellent, the characters are well-defined, Nahuelpan’s art is detailed and expressive, and the world established in the story is entirely too believable. The incident that triggered the Calexit of the title is a hardline immigration ban, and the creators address issues of race with compassion and intelligence. The book takes its intellectual responsibility very seriously: Pizzolo interviews various political thinkers and actors and publishes transcripts of the interviews both in the back of the book and on the book’s website.
It’s always hard to predict where a series will go on the basis of its first issue, but I am fully on-board after reading the first installment of Calexit. It’s a highwire act that could go wrong at any moment, but Nauelpan and Pizzolo seem like the right team for the job. They’re not just responding to Donald Trump’s actions like the cartoonists in Resist!. Instead, they’re creating their own world and examining a framework — however fictional — for revolution.