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Thursday Comics Hangover: The Bedrock of our society

You guys, I kind of hate myself for even writing this, but the new Flintstones comic book?

It's pretty good.

I know, I know. I've complained at length about the way publishers have dredged up licensed properties for children and turned them into grim fantasias for psychically injured man-babies. But this is not that. This is something else again.

Let's be clear up front that The Flintstones, as a premise, has always been completely nut-bustingly insane. They're a modern sitcom family dropped against a bizarre stone-age pastiche featuring animals who are tortured in order to emulate modern-day technology. It's a one-punchline joke that the wizards at Hanna Barbera somehow stretched out into six seasons of popular TV.

All the new Flintstones comic does, is it takes the premise seriously. Within reason, mind you: author Mark Russell and artist Steve Pugh understand that the idea of a couch made out of a giant prehistoric otter is impossible to take seriously. But they're trying to build a coinvincing mythology around the city of Bedrock: Fred and Barney are veterans of a war to create civilization (they attend a veterans' group where everyone shares stories of atrocities they committed) and everyone worships a god called Morp.

And yes, the book is full of caveman puns (a bar called Homo Erectus, a restaurant called Wammoth Bammoth, Thank You Mammoth) and bad caveman technology jokes (a turtle waiter is a terrible idea.) But there's some sharp comedy, too: Fred's boss is trying to exploit cheap Neanderthal labor, and there's a suggestion of a larger story about the military-industrial complex and the way it keeps the masses in line.

The Flintstones comic is remarkable in the way it ties familiar sitcom tropes together with modern social issues. It's more sharply satirical than the Simpsons has been in decades, and it feels like a premise that could continue for a good long while, though I have no idea who the intended audience for this thing is. (But as an aside, I love artist Steve Pugh — his facial expressions and eye for detail are a large part of why the book is such a treasure — but I have no idea why he's chosen to give all the characters hyper-muscular superhero bodies. Everyone, even Fred's boss, the doughy corporate jackass known as Mr. Slate, is built like an Adonis or a Venus, and it's kind of distracting.)

Part of the Flintstones allure is that it's a comic aimed at an adult sensibility that doesn't ignore important parts of everyday life like family, or love, or friendship. It respects its characters and aims its comedy at targets that feel broad enough to be recognizeable, but specific enough to feel important. It's incredibly weird that this comic book works as well as it does, but we live in an incredibly weird world.

Thursday Comics Hangover: Cruising for nerds

Above all else, most superhero comics should aim to be entertaining. Sure, it’s nice if you get some commentary in there, or a little bit of a political message, but superheroes aren’t the ideal messengers for heavy themes. (Sorry, people who think The Dark Knight Returns counts as deep political satire.) By the entertainment-per-page ratio, Portland author Chelsea Cain’s run on the Mockingbird series for Marvel is leading the superhero pack these days.

From the (pretty funny) John Roderick joke on the front recap page to the page of suggested daily yoga poses (including “tripped by corgi”), the sixth issue of Mockingbird is what old-timey radio hosts used to call “a hoot.” It’s a story about our hero, a spy with a long and somewhat unglamorous history in Marvel Comics, investigating a curious lead on a nerd cruise where half the attendees are fans dressed as superheroes. (We’re helpfully informed that “Defibrillators are located near the Cinnabon™ on level two.”)

This issue of Mockingbird ostensibly ties in to Marvel’s grating and graceless summer crossover, Civil War 2, but all you really need to know going in is that Mockingbird’s ex-husband, Hawkeye, is on trial for the murder of the Hulk, and the cruise is hosting a large contingent of Hawkeye fanatics. Any woman who has found herself in close quarters with hundreds of nerds dressed up like her ex-husband will be able to relate to this truly universal situation.

Penciller Kate Niemczyk and inker Sean Parsons are intensely interested in making every single background character their own human being, which makes scenes at a Dungeons & Dragons tournament especially fun to read. The lettering, however, is pretty ugly: extra-dialogue elements like a crowd’s chanting and spy-to-English translations are represented in multiple ugly fonts that float on the page, unmoored to the rest of the comic in an annoying way. Some pages look like someone used the “Draw On” tool in MacPaint to slap a few elements on top of otherwise professional work.

The rest of Mockingbird is geared toward maximum reader entertainment, with jokes and clever asides and misdirections. But toward the beginning of the book, as Mockingbird boards the ship surrounded by nerds greeting each other with Vulcan salutes, the observes that she’s alone in a crowd: “If I had hoped to get away from my ex-husband’s troubles, I had come to the wrong place. The good news was, I didn’t need the disguise. Hawkweye fans? They like to pretend I don’t exist.” It’s a clever commentary on the fact that superhero comics fans tend to marginalize and ostracize women characters (and the fans who dress up like them) from their culture. Maybe there’s more to these superhero comics than just entertainment, after all.

Thursday Comics Hangover: Money is power

Midway through the first issue of The Black Monday Murders, a master of finance lectures a class full of eager young geniuses who are about to enter the stock market. He asks them, “you want real advice? Here it is. The first million dollars you make is self-financed. You earn it with your blood. The cost is your health, your family, your friends. You pay, understand?” It’s not quite as splashy as Gordon Gekko’s “greed is good” monologue from Wall Street, but it’s a speech that resonates with the same kind of honesty.

Written by Jonathan Hickman and illustrated by Tomm Coker, Monday is high on its own high concept: what if the top one percent of the top one percent — the wealthiest American families — understood that economics is a black magic? What if a secret society of literal financial wizards were in charge of controlling the entire world’s wealth? What if the power money holds proved to be more than just psychological?

Monday is an impressive package of a book: at five dollars, it’s packed with lots of story pages and also pages full of text and Hickman’s signature graphic design flourishes — some character dossiers, a family tree, an intriguing twist on, a few typographic larks. It’s a deep, immersive dive into a world that Hickman has undoubtedly outlined down to the finest detail. (Hickman has proven to be a meticulous planner; almost all of his Marvel Comics work—hundreds of comics, issued monthly over the course of years—can be read as one single story with a beginning, middle, and end.) We learn about the Caina Investment Bank, the shadowy cabal formed in the wake of the stock market collapse of 1929, and we meet Detective Theo Dumas, an unconventional police officer who is called in to investigate a bizarre murder scene in New York’s financial district.

Coker’s art is exactly right for a book like this: it’s reminiscent of the photorealism of Alex Maleev without the smoky obfuscation. Coker is a stickler for detail: the corkboard in Dumas’s office is laid out with all kinds of tantalizing hints and details that will no doubt play out in issues ahead. The elaborate murder scene in the climax of the book is portrayed unflinchingly without feeling exploitative, and the facial expressions, if a bit stolid, are clear and easy to understand. Colorist Michael Garland gives each scene its own palette, from the slightly sick fluorescent lights of a classroom to the warm, burnished wood of a multi-billionaire’s apartment.

It’s easy to be swept up in the promise of a first issue, before the story plays out and the possibilities start closing up, one after another. But Monday left me feeling hopeful for the future of the story in a way that most first issues do not: the confidence and the depth on display in this issue make it one of the most promising debuts I've read this year.

By attacking the idea of economics as a dark art with its own set of rules, Hickman opens up a world of metaphors that, to my knowledge, has never fully been explored before in comics. He could make high-level economic concepts understandable to a general audience through artful allegory familiar to almost every reader of American comic books. If any writer can successfully translate the dynamics of modern economics to popular culture via a mystery/fantasy mashup, it’s Hickman.

Thursday Comics Hangover: Make Captain Marvel Great Again

On his 45th birthday, Chris is on the cusp of a few different disasters, each one more mundane than the last. His mother died, so he’s moved in with his ailing father. His body seems to be falling apart all at once. He’s been the music editor at a starving alternative weekly (the latest issue is just 28 pages, which in alt-weekly terms is basically a death sentence) for at least two decades, so his employability is questionable at best. But he’s out for a celebratory beer with friends, and he feels grateful for his schlubby nondescript white-guy life. It could be the beginning of a Stephen King story, or an off-brand Springsteen ballad.

On his way back from the bathroom, a young woman grabs Chris’s arm and starts yelling at him. With accusing body language, she snaps: “Why be old when you can be young?...Why be human when you can be more? Stop wasting time. You have the power.” The is fraught with a deeper social meaning: a young woman who appears to be African-American telling a white guy he has the power is a kind of on-the-nose moment.

But Captain Kid is a superhero comic, and the power she’s referring to has a more literal meaning, too: some time before the opening of this issue, Chris discovered that he can turn into a superhero. Specifically, he can turn into a super-strong teenage boy who can fly. It’s a reversal of the classic Captain Marvel formula — in case you’re unfamiliar, in the Captain Marvel comics, a prepubescent boy turned into an in-his-prime Superman-type. It’s a premise that’s been played with before — in Alan Moore’s Marvelman comics, a sidekick character turned the age dynamic on its head — but as traditional superhero fandom continues to slide into middle age, a reverse-Captain Marvel seems especially topical.

If I didn’t know any better, I’d say that Captain Kid presents a play on Donald Trump’s campaign promises to return America to the days when it was “Great” (the subtext, of course, is white, and male.) Much hay has been made of Trump’s messaging being directed at older white men, who feel disempowered by the diversity and city-centric focus of President Obama’s America. Of course, Captain Kid was likely in the works long before Trump’s rise, but the comic still feels very of-its-moment.

Writers Mark Waid and Tom Peyer have been playing clever games with superheroes for decades now. (Waid most recently launched a very successful Black Widow series at Marvel with artist Chris Samnee.) Captain Kid has one foot planted firmly in postmodernism, but the other is in traditional superhero storytelling, with a plot revolving around a mysterious man who runs a potentially shady lawn and garden company. You won’t find the rawness of Marvelman here, or the grit of some of the more unfortunate Captain Marvel reimaginings of the last decade. They seem to like their main character, even as they challenge his own ideas about what he is.

And the art by Wilfredo Torres resembles the clean lines of Chris Sprouse, paired with the dynamic facial expressions of Samnee. This is good stuff — much better than some of the overwrought artists on mainstream superhero titles. It all combines into a slick, enjoyable package, the kind of book you wish mainstream superhero publishers were putting out.

Captain Kid packs in more than enough clever inversions of traditional superhero ideas to capture my interest, and if the book continues to pick at the political and racial ramifications of its premise, it will very likely become a monthly must-read. Waid, Peyer, and Torres are stomping on some hallowed ground here. They have the potential to create real mischief in future issues.

Thursday Comics Hangover: Jeff Bezos, destroyer of worlds

Sam Henderson’s Magic Whistle comic recently transitioned from a one-cartoonist show to a humor anthology comic, and it’s very much been a delight. But you should know that the latest issue, number 3.2 — no, I have no idea what kind of numbering system he’s working on — opens with a comic that every Seattleite should read.

Seattle cartoonist Tom Van Deusen’s six-page strip “Bezos” opens with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos pouring himself a coffee in a nice-but-not-extravagant kitchen. He talks to his cylindrical Amazon Echo device in the corner. “Good morning, Alexa,” he says. “Good morning, Jeff Bezos,” Alexa replies.

Bezos takes a sip of coffee. He stares at his e-reader. Then he exclaims: “I love reading on my Amazon Kindle! Why would anyone want to read a book? All those pages — BLECH!” He turns back to the black cylinder on his kitchen counter: “Alexa, did I ever tell you that I hate books?”

“Yes, Jeff Bezos,” the Echo replies.

The strip goes on from there, opening as a parody of Amazon-style consumer technology but then spinning into outright farce as Bezos goes on a rampage around town. Van Deusen packs a lot of stuff into six pages, and I’d hate to spoil it all. But without giving too much away, I want to tell you that — and in a year that saw the end of Intruder, this is really saying something — this is one of the most important Seattle comics to be published in 2016.

In these six pages, Van Deusen renders the creator of Amazon as a pathetic figure, an egomaniac, a narcissist, a loser, a needy creep, a conqueror, and a sad sack. His Bezos is a prism depicting nearly every single popular belief Seattleites hold about the man, an inconsistent enigma who barely seems aware of the disastrous consequences of his actions because he can barely hold his own fragile identity together.

“Bezos” is sarcastic, furious, funny, and more than a little bit mean. It doesn’t feel like a goofy comic strip about a popular figure. It feels, somehow, like journalism. Somewhere in this spray of black-and-white panels about giant robots and the horror of modern interior design, Van Deusen managed to squeeze in the entirety of Seattle’s current dilemma.

Thursday Comics Hangover: The Super-Man of Shanghai

The thing about writing a Superman story, I remarked a few months ago after watching the dreadful Batman V Superman movie, is that the conflict should be based in exploring the concept of morality. All the superheroic trappings — the laser eyes, the flight, the strength — are basically just window-dressing. This is why Superman is a character who easily splinters into many different personalities: when the character famously died in the 1990s, he “returned” as four distinct characters, each with their own variation on the Superman theme, and each with their own spin on what it means to be a moral person.

The new DC Comics title New Super-Man is yet another variation on Superman, and it’s one of the best I’ve seen in quite some time. It doesn’t demand that you understand the internecine continuity of modern DC Comics, or really much of anything beyond the rudimentary idea of Superman. And the idea behind the series is deceptively simple: it takes the concept of Superman and transplants it to modern-day China.

Written by cartoonist Gene Luen Yang and penciled by Viktor Bogdanovic, New Super-Man is narrated by Kong Kenan, a young Chinese man. When we first meet him, Kenan is bullying a nerdy classmate and stealing his lunch. Through a coincidence that is probably more than a coincidence, Kenan is mistakenly labeled a hero. We meet his supporting cast including a nosy reporter named Laney Lan; Kenan’s father, a writer who is preparing to reveal a “secret government agency doing…evil stuff”; and a mysterious woman named Dr. Omen. One of the characters alludes to a slightly modified version of Superman’s credo — Truth, Justice, and rather than the American way, just plain old Democracy — and Kenan gets Superman’s powers.

So far as origin stories go, New Super-Man is not breaking new ground, but Yang manages to convey a lot of information in a small amount of space. This is obviously a book that is set in China, but it’s not over-the-top; no landmarks like the Great Wall of China are cartoonishly alluded to and nobody discusses their relationship with the United States. We’re told by a caption that all the dialogue we’re reading is translated from the Mandarin, with the exception of words printed in blue, which are spoken in English. It’s a full-immersion technique, and it works. This isn’t a book that could be set in Poughkeepsie. It’s very much of its time and place.

Bogdanovic’s art is more than a little stealthy: using some straightforward visual vocabulary like superhero anatomy and sci-fi elements, he relaxes readers who expect something traditional, but he sneaks in some extra exaggerations here and there — a ridiculously large gaping mouth, say, or some heavy shadow on a brooding Kenan’s face — to introduce a looser, more cartoony feel. The Shanghai in these pages might as well be a science-fiction city, the way Bogdanovic draws it, with its high-spire Jetsons architecture and the bright orange and turquoise palette provided by colorist Hi-Fi.

Because New Super-Man is so, uh, new, it’s hard to say exactly where Yang is going with all this. Will this be a political book? Is it a commentary on superheroes, or a relatively straightforward tribute to earnest heroics, like G. Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel? It really could go anywhere from here, which is exciting. The one theme that is absolutely clear from this first issue is that Yang is going to be using the character of Kenan to explore morality, both as a universal concept and what it means for the individual. In other words, it’s already apparent that it’s a very good Superman comic.

Thursday Comics Hangover: The third Panther

It's been three months since the first issue of the Ta-Nehisi Coates/Brian Stelfreeze Black Panther was published. You can tell that the series has become a runaway bestseller because it's the first monthly comic that local bookstores like University Book Store and Elliott Bay Book Company are carrying as they're released, rather than waiting for the hardcover graphic novel compilations to be published.

Yesterday, the third issue of Black Panther arrived in stores. How's it going so far? I'm still happy. Coates seems to be playing up a Hamlet vibe with the Black Panther character. The King of Wakanda has been in a couple of superhero fights so far, but he mostly mopes around, feeling bad about himself and wondering what he should do to save his nation. The action to this point is purely decorative, illustrating the Black Panther's interior life through visual cues. He's wracked by indecision, but to Coates's credit, the story still feels as though it's speeding along. (Irregular comics buyers should be warned that the scene on the cover of this book does not take place in the book; that's a fairly common event in comics, but it might throw new buyers for a loop.)

The most interesting characters in this series, though, are Aneka and Ayo, the lovers who have vowed revenge on the Panther as the Midnight Angels. They've demonstrated the most emotional range of all the characters, and they seem to have devised a complex plan to take down the Black Panther. It's quite possible that Coates is more interested in them than he is in the book's supposed protagonist, which is perfectly fine. The Panther's magisterial longing for peace and acceptance is better off in the background of his own book. The supervillains, after all, often steal the show right out from under the hero because they're allowed to want more interesting goals.

Unfortunately, the monthly schedule seems to be grinding down Stelfreeze's art. The striking layouts and refreshing chiaroscuro of the earlier issues is slowly disappearing, replaced by a much more standard superhero comics illustration. (I had to check the credits page while reading the issue because I wasn't even sure Stelfreeze drew the comic.) Only occasional scenes, such as a sequence set in a Wakandan afterlife, demonstrate the kind of verve that he brought to every page in the debut issue.

The thing about monthly comics is that they're a long haul. If a creative team cannot sustain its energy all the way through a story, the story suffers. You can't take back a book's chapter once it's already been published. For now, Coates is still demonstrating the same intellectual excitement for the material that he did in issue number one. The question is whether Stelfreeze will be able to join him across the finish line.

Thursday Comics Hangover: Outside the prison walls

It’s probably just a coincidence that the eighth issue of Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro’s sci-fi women-in-space-prison comic Bitch Planet was published less than a week after the fourth season of Orange Is the New Black arrived on Netflix. But, for the sake of people who write weekly columns about comic books, it’s a happy coincidence. From the very beginning, Bitch Planet has been compared with Orange, and it’s easy to see why: they’re both about womens’ prisons, they both feature diverse casts, and they’re both feminist-minded sociological studies of modern incarceration culture.

That comparison, though, only goes so far. It’s pretty clear now that Bitch Planet has grander storytelling ambitions than Orange, partly because it features an unlimited special effects budget, and partly because Orange is based on a memoir and so must occasionally nod to realism with its structure. One isn’t better than the other — the fact that we have two popular stories in two very different media about womens’ prisons that are non-exploitative in nature is kind of a modern miracle — and in fact when both are done they may even run in thematic opposition to each other.

Anyway, the eighth issue of Bitch Planet is easily the best issue yet. The series has always been entertaining and confident — that first issue was easily one of the best series debuts of the last decade — but issue #8 hums with a special kind of power. It’s hitting that sweet collaborative spot where a writer and an artist sync together into a team that is greater than its parts.

De Landro is using more complex panel layouts in the service of more nuanced storytelling. An early scene in which a transgender woman (sentenced, an information box informs us, for “gender falsification, deceit”) undergoes a medical exam works as a microcosm of the series so far: in four pages we see dignity in the face of institutional demoralization, rebellion, pride, anger, and kindness. Another sequence in the middle of the book is heartbreaking and creepy, using a sci-fi backdrop to magnify a parents’ grief. It’s the most memorable image in an issue packed with memorable images.

(A quick aside: If you’re waiting to buy Bitch Planet in collected trade paperbacks, you’re missing out on something great: the back issue of every issue is packed with pages of interviews, columns, fan letters, and essays that expand on the themes of the issue. It’s like getting the modern version of a 90s riot grrrl zine for free with every issue of the comic.)

It’s hard to say where Bitch Planet will end up. This latest issue brings some political intrigue that suggests the story may be about to burst out of the confines of the prison. That would be just fine with me; Deconnick has made it abundantly clear in previous issues of this series that prisons aren’t the only way women are kept captive. Here’s hoping we’ll see a lot of breakouts before the series is through.

Thursday Comics Hangover: Glaciers move faster than this comic book

In 2010 and early 2011, writer Brian Michael Bendis and his frequent collaborator, artist Alex Maleev, published the first five issues of a comic titled Scarlet. Bendis and Maleev have always been ideal collaborators: something about Bendis’s propensity for including too much Mamet-style dialogue on every page works well with Maleev’s photorealism, which often fails to convey action in any convincing way. Their comics — particularly their long run on Daredevil — tend to be wordy dramas that feel more like plays than the usual action movies you’ll find in superhero comics. They're better together than they are apart.

Scarlet is built on an intriguing premise. Set in Portland, the comic stars a woman named Scarlet Rue who targets the corrupt Portland Police Department in the hopes of starting a revolution. Scarlet frequently breaks the fourth wall to talk to the readers of the comic, and early in the series she promises to use the readers as a part of her plan, somehow. The book read like a cross between Fight Club, Occupy Wall Street, and a childrens’ TV show, and those first five issues were fairly vibrant examples of what Bendis could do when he focused his attention on expanding the medium in interesting ways.

Then nothing happened for two years.

In 2013, Maleev and Bendis published the next two issues of Scarlet.

Then nothing happened for three years.

Last month, Bendis and Maleev published the eighth issue of Scarlet, which was immediately followed by the ninth issue of Scarlet. Yesterday, they published the 10th issue. This wraps up the second story arc of the series, which will be collected soon as Scarlet, Book 2. This flurry of publishing came with the news that Scarlet was in development as a TV series for Cinemax. (Generously assuming one episode per published issue of the comic, it’s highly likely that the series will be very loosely based on the book, given that they’ll have to come up with their own stories in less than a single seasons’ worth of shows.)

The 10th issue of Scarlet kicks off with one of the best sequences in the book, a personal account of sexism within the Portland PD that opens up the interior life of a supporting character. The passage is illustrated in a sketchy, almost childlike, style unlike anything else Maleev has done, and it adds to the tremendous sense of stylistic potential that Scarlet has carried with it since the very beginning.

Unfortunately, the story then reverts to form, with Scarlet playing crowds of angry people against the Portland Police Department again — I’ve honestly lost count of how many times variations on this scene have played out, because I haven’t re-read the series in the six years it’s taken these ten issues to be published. And then on the last page of the issue come the words that will make all but the most cynical of readers throw up their hands in defeat: “TO BE CONTINUED…NEXT YEAR.”

Okay. It’s clear that Scarlet is not a money-maker of a series. (In addition to Scarlet, Bendis is also writing two Iron Man series — one of which is illustrated by Maleev — a Spider-Man series, a Guardian of the Galaxy series, and Marvel Comics’ big summer crossover event, Civil War II.) But this publishing schedule is ridiculous. There’s no point in publishing a story in individual issues like this if a reader could earn a graduate degree in the amount of time it takes for two full chapters to dribble out in ten comics. If the book is a labor of love for the two creators, why not just publish Scarlet in collected form? As it is, Maleev and Bendis are just frustrating the few loyal fans they have left with this erratic publication schedule and squandering the considerable good will they built with those striking first issues.

Thursday Comics Hangover: The Vision keeps getting better

Writer Tom King’s The Vision series from Marvel Comics is such a weird, wonderful thing. It’s a superhero comic that features virtually no superheroics, a domestic drama about superheroes that’s more interested in the psychology of its main characters than their powers. It’s a Cheeveresque suburban drama where the secrets that the main characters keep from each other manifest in the form of murder and the deeper issues of faith and existential angst materialize in the form of the convoluted Gordian knot of comics history.

The eighth issue of The Vision pushes along the plot of the series, after a seventh issue that reveled in the characters' deep and occasionally contradictory history. The synthezoid superhero and his family have settled into an uneasy tranquility, and they’re enjoying a visit from their “uncle,” a superhero created by the power-mad evil robot Ultron. Things seem positively cheery for a while, until, of course, they stop seeming cheery. Artist Gabriel Hernandez Walta portrays all the characters with a wide-eyed innocence, and he underplays the science fiction elements beautifully. He puts such attention into the detail of Vision’s family’s somewhat preppy clothing that you almost forget their skin is a radioactive pink-purple.

The best parts of the issue are the scenes that don’t necessarily have to do with advancing the plot. The Vision’s son reads the trial scene from The Merchant of Venice — the passage about justice and salvation not being the same thing — as he absentmindedly plays fetch with his robot dog, Sparky. Meanwhile, Vision’s malfunctioning wife is plunking away at a piano and slowly falling apart. Her housewife’s lament touches on the core themes of the series, the question of reality and synthetics, of tools and humanity:

When when I simply access the notes and play play play them well...I seem to feel that I am not playing them. I have… simply…become the piano. I am perfect perfect perfect I am the piano. I am I am I am.

There are very few comics that compare to The Vision. It’s a dense and literate story that celebrates its pulpy superhero roots. It’s not a deconstruction, the way Watchmen was. It’s not one of the hyper-serious re-imaginings we’ve seen time and again in Watchmen’s wake. It’s not a winking postmodern joke. It’s a book that has its own rhythms and its own uncomfortable vibrations. It’s heartbreaking to think that King is leaving The Vision with issue 12. He claims that his story will be complete with that last issue, but it’s easy to imagine 50 or 60 more issues of this, collected into something dense and weird and creepy: the great American superhero novel.

Thursday Comics Hangover: Coming back to Captain America

Last week, Marvel Comics published the first issue of a comic book titled Captain America: Steve Rogers by writer Nick Spencer and artist Jesus Saiz. At the end of the comic — uh, spoilers, I guess — the superhero Captain America is revealed to have always been a double-agent of Hydra, a super-villain analog to the Nazis. (You can read an explainer here.) People on the internet wrote a lot of posts and tweets and Facebook updates expressing their dismay about the reveal. Also last week, I wrote a flippant post on this site telling people not to get upset about it, that it was just a comic book and that there was no point in being outraged.

In retrospect, I shouldn’t have written that post, because it was a bad post. It was flip and unthoughtful, which are two qualities I dislike when they appear in my writing. What I was doing there was applying my own experience — both as a lifelong superhero comics fan who has become jaded about plot twists, and as a white guy — to a situation without any consideration of what someone else’s experience might be. A couple of our readers alerted me to some writing which helped me realize that I was being boorish and insensitive to these other experiences. I particularly learned from a post by Megan Purdy at Women Write About Comics and a pair of posts on the Tumblr Tea Berry-Blue.

Another post that helped me realize I was being a jackass was Devin Faraci’s rant on Birth.Movies.Death about so-called “fan entitlement.” Faraci’s post reeked of establishmentarianism; he was defending the poor, put-upon corporate entertainment from the mean old fans in a way that instantly made me realize how dumb I had been. I reject Faraci’s claims that “fandom is broken.” I dislike the idea that there are good fans and bad fans, or that you need a certain level of understanding to truly enjoy a piece of entertainment. By railing against the responses to a piece of art, you are actually taking a stand against cultural criticism. And I am all for cultural criticism in all its forms; it’s why I co-founded this site. (That said, some basic points about fan responses must be made: death threats are absolutely never okay, and burning a book to protest a character’s Nazism is unbelievably stupid.)

Recognizing my worst traits in others is a theme in my life right now. As a straight white guy of a certain age — I turned 40 last week — I’m very sensitive to the predictable ways in which my generation is becoming terrible. People I went to high school with are now writing outraged Facebook posts complaining about PC culture, vocal fry, and coddled millennials, and it makes my fucking skin crawl. I do not want to be one of those people who reflexively assumes that The Kids Are Up to No Good simply because I’m not one of the kids anymore. I do not believe that my youth was the Good Old Days, or any kind of a golden age. That is a cheap and easy worldview. It’s lazy and self-affirming, and it’s anti-empathy.

As a writer, my deal should always be that even if I don’t agree with you, I should always make an effort to at least understand where you’re coming from. I did not do that in my post last week. That was a mistake, and I regret it. And I certainly am in no place to pass judgement on people who regard this story (and Marvel's promotion of the story) as anti-Semitic or cavalier about the perception that it might be anti-Semitic. My insensitivity on that last point, in particular, is especially egregious; it's not my place to dictate to any other group how they respond to art.

That said, as a book critic — and as someone who reviews comics in this space every Thursday — I do have some thoughts on the story that might be relevant. Reviewing ongoing comics is a tricky business, because you’re basically reviewing a book one chapter at a time. And it’s perfectly within your right to abandon a book because something in the first chapter offends you. But here’s why I think this storyline might be worth reinvestigation later on down the line: Between this Captain America comic and its sister title, Captain America: Sam Wilson, Nick Spencer is writing a comic series that is very much centered around the America of today. His comics are very overtly responding to the racist insanity of the Republican presidential primaries and the unhinged anti-immigrant sentiment on the right and the rise of Donald Trump.

Captain America has, through the years, always embodied America’s self-regard: in the Watergate era he abandoned the name of Captain America; during the amoral, business-friendly Reagan Administration he was forced out of his job due to a copyright dispute that eventually led to a murderous maniac taking on the Captain America title; the steroidal Bush/Clinton years saw Captain America becoming a tool of excess, wearing gaudy armor and having ridiculous adventures; the shameful conclusion of the George W. Bush presidency saw Captain America bound in chains and assassinated. Is it too much to consider that perhaps in a time when the Republican presidential candidate is a buffoonish reality TV candidate preaching fascism to packed stadiums of howling, fearful Americans that a story about the moral corruption of Captain America might be worth telling right now?

When Spencer finishes telling his story, it might be worth reinvestigating to see how successful he was. But if the ham-handed way Marvel Comics handled the publicity for the story made a reinvestigation impossible for you, that’s totally understandable. If you dislike or are offended by the premise so much that you simply can’t stomach the book, that’s okay, too. You can respond to the story however you choose — you can write about it, boycott it, tweet your opinions. It doesn’t make you a bad fan, or a symptom of a broken fandom. It means that you care, and that you’re responding to your culture as a fully empowered human being. It is your right, and that right is something to be celebrated.

Thursday Comics Hangover: William Gibson comes to comics

All the cool literary people are writing comics now. Ta-Nehisi Coates is doing an excellent job with Black Panther, Margaret Atwood’s comic Angel Catbird is coming out sometime this year, and yesterday the very first issue of sci-fi legend William Gibson’s very first comic, Archangel, hit the stands. Co-created with screenwriter Michael St. John Smith and illustrated by comics veteran Butch Guice, Archangel is closer to Gibson's previously published work than, say, Black Panther is to Between the World and Me, but Gibson is definitely marking new territory here; this is not a lazy cash-grab Neuromancer sequel in comic form or anything so crass.

It’s not always easy to discern the long-term plot of a comic from its first issue, of course, but Archangel, as it stands right now, seems to be a time travel story that is largely set during World War II. In short, a dystopian, ruined America from the year 2016 is secretly invading the past and colonizing it.

The first issue of Archangel introduces several complicated concepts with ease: time travel, UFOs, espionage, and international relations during the second World War. In the first five pages, it also evokes that classic time-travel cliché of murdering your own grandfather, just to let you know that Gibson is aware of the tropes of the genre, and to warn you that he’s not messing around.

And neither is the artist. Guice is one of those rare comics professionals whose work is noticeably improving as he ages. The stiff realism of his work in the late 1980s/early 1990s has loosened into something a little simpler. He still pays close attention to the fashions and surroudings of his characters, but the looseness of his work allows the faces on the page to show more unforced emotion. His characters aren’t posing anymore, as they were in the days when Guice worked for Marvel Comics, they’re emoting and moving and interacting. (Some of the credit for this evolution must go to inker Tom Palmer, of course, and Palmer definitely provides some of the Bryan Hitch-like confidence in the finished art. But a few pages of reproduced un-inked pencils in the back of the book prove that Guice’s art is consciously evolving.) He’s packing as many as ten panels on some pages, but the layouts feel unforced and cinematic.

Gibson does have some lessons to learn about writing for comics. Though he trusts Guice to relay information visually, some of the pages are a little too verbose, with word balloons unbalancing and obscuring the art. Writing for comics, particularly in dialogue, has been described by Seattle author G. Willow Wilson as haiku and by Coates as poetry; Gibson occasionally falls back into prose in some of his dialogue. He doesn't desroy any single page with expositional walls of text, but some sequences are remarkably wordy when compared to most modern comics. It would be nice in future issues to see Gibson lean back a bit and allow Guice a few splash pages and widescreen sequences to really show off his genius for creating settings that a reader can practically walk through with her eyes.

These are relatively mild complaints. As a first issue, Archangel is interesting, provocative, and a hell of a lot of fun to read. Gibson is clearly having a good time translating his skill set to a new medium, and it’s thrilling to see him take on a couple subgenres of sci-fi that he’s never written before. Part of the appeal of these polished literary talents approaching the serialized storytelling format is getting to watch them learn the rules of the medium in real time. It’s as close an experience as we’ll ever get to sitting behind Gibson at his writing desk, watching him over his shoulder as he writes his newest novel..

Thursday Comics Hangover: Class war is hell

The illustrations in the new comic from Kaare Andrews, Renato Jones The One%, resemble Frank Miller’s artwork — particularly from his Dark Knight Returns era. Throughout, you'll find chiaroscuro layouts and plenty of exaggerated, pinched facial expressions. Andrews has bitten Miller’s style in just about every way imaginable. But Andrews’s art, once you look deeper than the surface, doesn’t really have any life to it; his art resembles Miller’s without the years of hard labor that made Miller such an icon. It’s got all the pizzazz and energy of a pencil sketch on a piece of tracing paper.

The book gets worse when you start reading what’s inside the word balloons. The first issue of Renato Jones is the titular character’s origin story, which is a riff on Batman: when he’s a child, Jones’s wealthy parents are killed in a home invasion. With the help of an older family friend, a hardcore Alfred Pennyworth figure named Church, Jones declares war on the corrupt wealthy even as he pretends to be an idle one-percenter in his secret identity. (Presumably, Andrews has some twists in store, because this premise is so clearly a rip-off of standard comics tropes that it’s embarrassing.) Here’s a passage from early in the comic, broken up in captions over a silhouette of Jones standing with a comically large gun:

For twenty years, they’ve been murdering the working class. Decimating wages, destroying benefits and killing jobs. They’ve crashed the economy, destroyed families and stolen their homes. They’ve turned the middle-class poor and the poor into convicts. Still you won’t find any of THEM serving time. The “ONEs” have bought their way out of judgment. With that kind of money, that kind of power, how can anyone stop them? How can anyone make them pay? Who will make them pay?!

Okay. I’d argue it’s been forty years and not twenty, but most of the first part of that quote is correct: the wealthy have changed the contract for working-class Americans, and our current economy is unsustainable. What Andrews is playing with here is populist outrage, which is obviously a correct reading of the American political climate. Look at the support that Bernie Sanders (or, hell, Donald Trump) has garnered and you’ll see an America that is fed up with income inequality and its attendant political inaction. But Andrews’s sausage-fingered attempts to capitalize on this divide are laughable, and though he’s seemingly coming at it from the more liberal side of the aisle, Andrews brings all the wit and grace of a Sean Hannity to the political conversation.

Jones’s first target is Douglas Bradley, a “Hedge fund manager and self-described philanthropist” who hosts Jones on a “yacht” that is drawn to look more like a cruise ship. Bradley is so obviously a bad guy that he might as well shoot a child in the head the first time we see him. He cozies up to Jones immediately, saying “Let’s hit the hot tub, dude. Talk some GMOs. This hybrid crop shit isn’t gonna solve world hunger, dude, it’s gonna monetize it.”

If that’s not a clear enough indicator that he’s a bad guy, soon Douglas is kicking a maid in the stomach, telling Jones “they’re not even people. Not at ten dollars an hour, dude.” Then, Douglas sees Jones’s alter ego, a gun-wielding hit man named The Freelancer, murdering his staff, and he’s in disbelief: “Thought this dude was a fairy tale,” Douglas says, “Like government regulation.”

Eventually, we learn that Douglas is even worse than Andrews has led us to believe. (Which is remarkable, considering he starts at reprehensible and only gets worse from there.) And then we learn Renato Jones’s catchphrase when he blows away the bad guys: “Choke on thi$.” Yes, with the dollar sign. No, I’m not sure how “thi$” is pronounced, though I like to picture it as the chime on an old-timey cash register as it opens.

Let’s lay this out as clearly as possible: Renato Jones is a terrible comic. Andrews’s art is punishingly ugly, his dialogue trots past laughable into cringeworthy territory, and the story mangles serious issues with what seems to be a dunderheaded earnestness. I’m not saying that class warfare is a bad idea for a comic — hot-topic political issues have always blended well with comics, ever since the days when Captain America decked Hitler on the cover of his first issue, back when America was trying its damndest to stay out of World War II.

But this hideous book wants to have it both ways. It wants to claim the moral high ground on income inequality while also glamorizing the extravagance of western hyper-violence. It wants to rage against the corporate machine while blatantly ripping off corporate superheroes like Batman and the Punisher. It wants to address economic topics without actually having to talk about economics. And it wants to profit on the zeitgeist-y loathing of the status quo while promoting an aesthetic that celebrates the worst of the last four decades of mainstream comics. If I could describe Andrews’s style in one word, it would be Reaganomics: it’s bloated and shallow, ahistoric and nihilistic, gaudy and vapid. This is a serious contender for the worst comic book of 2016.

Thursday Comics Hangover: Everything you need to know about Free Comic Book Day

This Saturday is Free Comic Book Day, the day when, duh, participating comics shops give away free comics to anyone who walks in. You can find the comic shop closest to you here. Some things to know:

  • If you’re looking for a good book, try the FCBD edition of the first issue of Archie, by Mark Waid and Fiona Staples. I reviewed it when it came out back in July of last year. It’s a surprisingly great high school drama with interesting characters and it drops you in the middle of a compelling story.

  • Other must-grabs include Mooncop, a sampler of comics by the very funny cartoonist Tom Gauld; Help the CBLDF…Defend Comics, a promotional book from the free speech advocates at the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund including comics by Craig Thompson and Lucy Knisley; the Love and Rockets Sampler Edition from Fantagraphics — if you haven’t read Love and Rockets, this is the one you have to take home — and March, a comic book history of the civil rights movement by Congressman John Lewis.

  • Some other intriguing titles include Z2 Comics Lab, We Can Never Go Home/Young Terrorists, and Camp Midnight, an all-ages story about a girl who accidentally gets sent to a summer camp for monsters. Really, if something looks interesting to you, you should grab it. After all, it’s free.

  • Also, as I mentioned on this site earlier this week, you should absolutely be reading Ms. Marvel, which is written by local author G. Willow Wilson. Wilson will be signing books at Phoenix Comics on Broadway from 12 to 3 pm on Free Comic Book Day, and she’ll be joined by Brooke Allen of the very fun comic Lumberjanes and Zach Davisson, a translator of Japanese comics.

  • If you’re looking to visit Arcane Comics this FCBD, you should be advised that earlier this week, the shop moved from Ballard to 152nd and Aurora up in Shoreline. Their new address is 15202 Aurora Ave N, Shoreline, WA, 98133. Arcane has always been one of the friendliest, best-stocked comics shops in town, and so you should definitely drop by and show your support.

  • If you regularly buy comics, you can absolutely take part in FCBD. But you should also remember that Free Comic Book Day isn’t free for shop owners; they have to buy the comics you’re taking. So if you're already a comics supporter, it’s polite to buy something — the first issue of a graphic novel series you’ve been interested in trying, say. Think of it as a subsidy: your purchase is helping to pay for the comic books that are bringing in the new readers who will help keep your comics shop thriving for years to come. Most local shops make FCBD easy on your wallet. Comics Dungeon in Wallingford is having a fairly expansive sale, for instance, and so is Dreamstrands Comics in Greenwood. Phoenix Comics is letting customers roll the dice to determine their discounts. And Fantagraphics Bookstore and Gallery in Georgetown is serving wedding cake.

  • Visit more than one shop. Seattle has a vibrant comics community in large part because it’s packed full of well-stocked comics shops staffed by friendly salespeople. FCBD is a time to celebrate this wonderful resource. Have fun. Be an unapologetic nerd. Go find a new comic to love.

Thursday Comics Hangover: Super weird

Superhero comics are supremely weird. What started out as a simple formula — every issue features a fight by page seven, a little bit of soap opera, and the beginning, middle, and end of a battle between good and evil — has now become a weirdly self-reflexive vocabulary that pretty much is only used to describe itself. Even as superhero movies have become the most popular genre at the multiplex, it’s hard to understand modern superhero comics without comparing them against years of knowledge of the genre.

This doesn’t mean they’re necessarily bad. The sixth issue of The Ultimates, written by Al Ewing and illustrated by Christian Ward, is an almost impossibly weird comic book. Unless you’re familiar with fifty years of Marvel superhero history, you’re almost guaranteed to be totally lost. The main character of the story is Galactus, a giant space god who wears a ludicrous helmet and eats planets for a living, as he tries to discover who has chained up the living personification of the universe. Along the way, he hits a giant disembodied space-head right in the face. (“On our level, combat is metaphor,” Galactus explains, “A clash of ideas.” Okay.)

What Ewing is doing with The Ultimates is pushing comic book physics to its limits, examining superhero time travel and its repercussions, and dissecting the impossible sci-fi physics created by Jack Kirby in the 1960s. It’s almost impenetrably postmodern, a wild and weird journey through four-color quantum physics. If you spent years of your youth wondering how the Marvel Universe doesn’t collapse in on itself from all the time-travel and alternate-dimension hopping its heroes do, this is the book for you, a metatextual journey through gaudy superheroic philosophy. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, you should probably give it a miss.

This week also saw the end of writer Scott Snyder and artist Greg Capullo’s run on Batman. Their Batman has been one of the only roundly applauded creative runs of the DC Comics "New 52” reboot initiative, in which their entire line was relaunched in hopes of finding a new audience. (Given that DC is about to reboot their entire line again next month, the New 52 seems to have mostly been a failure.)

Much of Snyder’s reign as writer has, frankly, not appealed to me — his interpretation of the Joker as a psychopathic butcher whose face was removed, dried out, and then worn on top of the exposed muscles of his face as a mask was, uh, a little over-the top. But other parts of Snyder’s run have been incredibly fun, most notably the last stretch, which featured Commissioner Gordon stepping in as Batman in a goofy superhero fantasia.

Thankfully, Batman issue 51 — the final collaboration between Snyder and the highly competent Capullo for the forseeable future — leans more toward the fun superhero side of Batman than the pair of overly grim and gruesome Joker stories Snyder wrote into the run. This is a Batman who has time to joke around with Alfred. He’s confident enough in his masculinity to walk around in Capullo’s smart redesign of the Batman costume, which features splashes of color like yellow and — gasp! — a purple lining to his cape. Sure, the story gets a little hammy, but a Batman comic without operatic symbolism isn’t much of a Batman story, after all.

In the end, Snyder and Capullo are leaving the character in better shape than when they started. Rather than the ridiculously obsessed Batman of the 80s and 90s, their Batman is a little looser, a little more vibrant, and a lot more fun. What’s the point in doing a superhero comic, they seem to be asking, if you’re not going to get a little weird with it?

Thursday Comics Hangover: Mini comics, big love

It was kind of a boring new comics Wednesday from the mainstream publishers, so I decided to dive into the minicomics section of Phoenix Comics & Games to see what local cartoonists are working on. Or, in one case, what local cartoonists were working on; I had never seen the 2014 Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg fanzine Notorious R.B.G. before, so it was new to me. (It also predated the 2015 Christmas bestseller Notorious R.B.G. by a year.)

The zine from poet Amber Nelson, cartoonist Colleen Frakes (author of Prison Island) and cartoonist Neil Brideau, which is “Dedicated to Ruth Bader Ginsburg with apologies to Beyonce,” is a collection of song lyrics rewritten from Ginsburg’s perspective. (“My mother told me two things;/to be a lady and to be independent.”) As a tribute to Ginsburg, and to the other women on the Supreme Court, it’s a delight, and at two bucks, it’s a steal. My favorite bit is the two-page comic-strip cover of “Flawless” that caps the book. (“Woke up like this/Flawless/Supreme Court steps/Flawless…”)

Joseph Laney’s Iron City Shorts is a $4 minicomic collecting two short stories set in and around the fictional Iron City. The setting is a kind of retro-sci-fi groove, with giant robots and goggles and dirigibles. The first story, “The Big Knockover,” feels a bit slight, but the second story, “Escape the Past,” more than makes up for the first in terms of storytelling strength. “Escape” begins with a prison break (from, as a caption helpfully informs us, “Gargantua Island Prison: one of City Harbor’s most notorious landmarks”) and continues with a twisty tale of revenge that incorporates several moral shades of gray. Laney’s sense of design is excellent. He packs a lot onto every page, and his chunky cartooning style — which kind of reminds me of a sci-fi Dean Haspiel — serves the subject matter very well. He’s obviously put a lot of thought into Iron City as a setting and a theme, and hopefully this sampler will function as a springboard for more adventures soon.

Finally, Eli Tripoli’s Me and the Muad’dib is a demented mashup that somehow makes perfect sense: it’s a Chick tract-style evangelical pamphlet extoling the mythology of Frank Herbert’s Dune series. While Tripoli’s art is primitive, the glorified stick figures ably serve the narrative — a pair of supporters of Paul Atreides try to convince a skeptic to believe in the Emperor of Dune. The language is spot on for a Chick tract parody: “Paul Atreides isn’t a giant fish, he’s the Kwisatz Haderach! He’s a person like you or me. And he was born here on Calderan, just like us!” As a celebration of Herbert’s super-weird mythology, it’s glorious — a respectful work of fandom that’s clearly born from a deep and abiding love. Come to think of it, that describes all three of these books.

Seattle shows up for the 2016 Eisner Award nominations

The 2016 Eisner Award nominations have been announced — the Eisners are basically the Oscars of comic books — and Seattle is well-represented this year. Fantagraphics Books is the most-nominated company of the year, with a whopping 17 nods. (One of Fantagraphics' most-nominated titles is The Eternaut, which I reviewed here at the Seattle Review of Books back in December.)

Other Seattle-area nominees include The Oatmeal's Matthew Inman, who was nominated for his strip "It's Going to Be Okay," and G. Willow Wilson, who was nominated for Best Writer for her work on Ms. Marvel. Other Eisner nominees that have been reviewed by the staff of Seattle Review of Books includes:

Congratulations to all the nominees, and here's to Seattle making a strong showing as the great comics town we all know it to be. It's great to hear, too, that this is a record-breaking year for women at the Eisners.

Thursday Comics Hangover: The Fix is in

Last week’s big book news was obviously the first issue of the Black Panther from Ta-Nehisi Coates and Brian Stelfreeze, but there was another debut that deserves your attention, too. Nick Spencer and Steve Lieber’s new series The Fix is a crime comic with relatively small stakes, but it’s entertaining as hell — funny, dirty, and charming all at once.

Spencer and Lieber earned a cult following with their work on Marvel’s Superior Foes of Spider-Man series, which was a funny heist comic featuring some D-List Spider-Man villains. Foes was for a while my favorite book from the big two superhero publishers, with its self-effacing sense of humor and twisty plot. Spencer’s script doesn’t skimp on the words; the pages are full of word balloons and captions that amplify our understanding of what’s on the page. (He never over-explains, or steps on the artist's job.) And Lieber’s art is clear, character-based, and packed with fun details.

The Fix is a heist comic starring a pair of terrible human beings. It’s basically Foes with all the superhero pretenses taken out. (And let’s be honest: the superhero trappings were the worst part of Foes; the story only fell apart when characters had to explain why they were dressed up in funny outfits.) And because it’s published by Image, Lieber and Spencer get to cram all the sex talk and violence and swearing they want in there.

I can’t give away too much of what The Fix is about without ruining the fun, but it opens with a heist gone wrong, continues with a character study of a dirty cop, and then raises the stakes into a caper that can’t possibly end well, with a perfect little cliffhanger ending. Every twist has a second twist layered on top of it, and none of those storytelling reversals feels manufactured or cheesy. Spencer’s dialogue — kind of Elmore Leonard-y, though with more semen jokes — keeps things running smoothly. (Seriously, there’s a lot of sex talk. You should be warned that occasionally the chat leans in the direction of gay panic, but it always skitters away at the last minute.)

The Fix is at the very crest of a tidal wave of heist comics coming at us. This week saw the first issues of Jackpot (a decent heist comic that suffers a bit from terrible art) and Heartthrob (a very promising ghost story/heist comic), and the next few weeks will see the debut of another series called 4 Kids Walk Into a Bank. The question has to be whether an ongoing serial medium like comics can sustain the amped-up pressure that the crime genre demands. I’d expect at least half of these series to flag after a few issues, but Lieber and Spencer proved with Foes that they could keep a crime story going for at least three fairly thick trade paperbacks. I’d expect The Fix to keep running on high power for the next few years.

Thursday Comics Hangover: Everybody's talking about the Black Panther

The first issue of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Brian Stelfreeze’s Black Panther was published yesterday, and it was one of those rare moments — like the time DC Comics killed Superman, back in the 1990s — when people who never go to comic book stores suddenly care about a single issue of a comic 1. The staff at Phoenix Comics yesterday estimated that they’d be sold out of all five dozen copies of the comic on their shelves by the end of the day. (That number doesn’t even include the issues that regular Phoenix customers like myself had reserved months ago.) Clearly, Black Panther is pulling new and long-since-lapsed readers into comics stores, a feat which not even a seemingly relentless onslaught of comic book movies can manage.

With all due respect to Stelfreeze, who is one of the best cover artists in superhero comics, those sales are due to the fact that everyone is anxious to see how Coates does with a new medium. Readers expecting a superheroic sequel to Between the World and Me — whatever that would even look like — will be disappointed. Coates has indicated repeatedly that he’s a lifelong fan of Marvel Comics, and that he’s interested in writing a superhero comic.

And so Black Panther is a superhero comic, through and through. It opens with a big fight, packed with laser blasts and super-powers and costumes. It’s dramatic, even operatic, and it’s a lot of fun to read. But even Coates at his nerdiest is still Coates, and his day-job interests are on display here: politics, race, violence, capital punishment. Even the plot seems of-the-moment for a United States whose political structures are hemorrhaging themselves to pieces: the Black Panther is a king of a high-tech African nation called Wakanda, but after years of turmoil his people seem ready for a new ruler.

Like some of the best superhero comics, Black Panther proudly waves the banners of its influences: Kanye West lyrics, tributes to other comics creators, elements of Afrofuturism. Coates is slathering the pop culture on thick, here, and it’s delicious. He's especially gifted at dialogue; the economy of word balloons and captions often escapes writers more used to the vast expanse of prose, but the words on the page in Black Panther strike just the right mix of portentousness, exposition, and brevity. Here’s the Black Panther’s internal monologue from early in the issue:

I came here to praise the heart of my country, the vibranium miners of the Great Mound. For I am their king and I love them as the father loves the child.
But among my children, all I found was hate.
The hate spread.
And so there is war.

You can practically hear the soundtrack ramping up behind those words (Brum-BAUMM!!!!) It reads like Stan Lee-style overblown dialogue, but with more natural poetry to it. The cadence has a majesty, a foreign rhythm, and the condescending tone — thinking of his citizens as children — indicates that perhaps the insurrection has a point to it. Those few words do a lot of work.

And so does Stelfreeze’s art. It’s been years since I’ve seen Stelfreeze do the interior of a book, and I missed his skill at storytelling. Take those first few pages where the Panther faces a crowd of angry Wakandans: every aspect of the melee is laid out plainly. Actions have consequences that we can see, and it’s possible to follow faces in the crowd throughout the fight. Later in the issue, Stelfreeze’s designs for Wakanda incorporate a whole host of visual vocabularies — African art, Egyptian design, weird Jack Kirby technology —to create a corner of the Marvel universe that we’ve never seen before.

In the end, Black Panther has to be one of the strongest first issues from a superhero comic publisher in a long time. It doesn’t feel too slight, or too weighty. It’s a ridiculously stylish package, with production values that put most of Marvel’s other output to shame. And it firmly situates a long-standing Marvel character into his own corner of the world, finally giving him a role and a purpose and a voice after years of disuse. This is what superhero comics should be doing all the time: crafting cultural moments around unique characters who resonate with the politics of the day.

  1. It will be interesting to see what new comics readers make of Black Panther. They might not know that you should read the comic over a few times in order to fully appreciate it. The advertisements spread throughout the issue might prove to be too jarring for them. They might consider the years of backstory to be off-putting, rather than intriguing. In fact, a good portion of prospective Black Panther readers should probably wait for the trade paperback to come out this fall, because collected editions tend to be closer to the traditional reading experience than monthly episodic comics.

Thursday Comics Hangover: The Superman trick

In case you were staring out at sunny skies and planning what to do this weekend, let me just make one thing abundantly clear: Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice is every bit as terrible as you’ve heard. It is not so-bad-it’s-good. It’s just bad: inept, crass, soulless, mean-spirited, and dumb. Don’t pay money to see it.

But this isn’t another review of that movie (the world doesn’t need any more of those) and it’s not another middle-aged white dude whining about his childhood being stolen from him (the world didn’t need one of those). Instead, I want to talk particularly about one commonly held belief: the concept that Superman is hard to write. If you Google the phrase “Superman is hard to write,” you’ll get over 2.6 million results, featuring articles with titles like “The Difficulty of Writing Superman” and “3 Reasons It’s So Hard to Make Superman Interesting.” This idea is absolute bunk, and I’ll explain why.

Here it is: A good Superman story is an inward-facing story. The conflict in a Superman story is almost never external. In fact, they’re almost always internal. Everyone imagines that Superman is hard to write because he’s invulnerable, and super-strong, and has super-senses, and so on and on and on. That doesn’t matter. When you’re writing a Superman story, you’re not trying to find his toughest opponent, or his most difficult physical challenge. None of that stuff—super-speed, laser beams—matters at all. Instead, you’re trying to challenge the idea of morality.

The greatest era of Superman comics were the books edited by Mort Weisinger in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s where most of the core Superman concepts came into being, and it’s where the greatest Superman comics of the modern age (the ones written by Alan Moore and Grant Morrison) found their inspiration. And if you read any Superman story from that time, you’ll find that very little of the plot has to do with Superman fighting anything.

Instead, Superman has to confront moral problems. Often, the cover of the comics would have Superman behaving in some amoral way — robbing a bank, say, or treating Jimmy Olsen terribly — and the drama would be in finding out how the most moral person in the universe could possibly have gone bad. (The answer is usually a trick, or Red Kryptonite.) The story would introduce some sort of possible gray area, and then Superman would find some way to render it black and white again.

Think about the strange ideas those comics delivered on a regular basis: Superman. Supergirl. Beppo the Super-Monkey. Bizarro Superman. Superman Red and Superman Blue. Superboy. Comet the Super-Horse. Streaky the Super-Cat. The Legion of Superheroes. You could easily argue that there were no characters in Superman comics aside from Superman himself; everyone else was a reflection of his psyche and an exploration of his themes. It’s as interior as a Beckett novel.

The over-literal interpretations of Superman that followed the Weisinger years are to blame for making Superman boring. The New 52 reboot of Superman has never been interesting. John Byrne’s sad attempts to create sci-fi justifications for Superman’s powers were about as fun as counting each individual piece of gravel in a driveway.

At least the much-reviled Death of Superman storyline, which many blamed for launching the comics bubble that almost destroyed the superhero industry in the 1990s, delivered four different Superman characters to comics, including a new Superboy and John Henry Irons, who was later known as Steel. The creators of those comics understood that Superman was only compelling when his basic goodness was reflected and distorted onto other personas.

So listen: Nobody cares about how much Superman can lift, or how hard he can punch, or whether he can beat Batman in a fistfight. The trick is this: think about the most decent person you can. Put pressure on that person. Imagine what would happen if that person happened to be, say, from the poorest one percent of the USA, or from a part of the world ruled by a tyrant, or raised by an Objectivist. What happens then? Is he still good? What if he’s in a situation where he has to confront a mistake he’s made? How does he behave then? What happens next?