08 May 2017

Catching Up On Comics: The Invincible Iron Man Part One

Over the past couple of years, I've fallen way behind on my reading. I'm working to correct that as I start focusing on conquering my to-read pile. 

The Invincible Iron Man: #1 -19:
The Five Nightmares, World's Most Wanted
I've had the first three trades of the Invincible Iron Man series sitting on my shelf for a couple of years now. Even had them signed by Matt Fraction. I thought it was about damn time I tackled them and so far, it's been a hell of a treat. Published as a response to the success of the original Iron Man film in 2008, the book embraces the tone that Robert Downey Jr. brought to the role while also adding a new flavor to the comics character. Along the way, it also tackles duel threats that have emerged to plague us in the 21st century: terrorism and fascism.

Before discussing the story, I have to talk about the art. Salvador Larroca is not necessarily the artist I gravitate to though his work with Kieron Gillen on Darth Vader is some top notch stuff. That said, his earlier work with the Iron Man series has been rough. There are some Greg Land-ish tendencies to rely on photo reference and PS filters. The shortcuts he takes can occasionally take you out of the story. One example was the use of a picture of a Little Rock news van used in a NYC setting. This tends to improve in the second and third arc but still occasionally rears its ugly head. That said, the story is strong enough to carry this issue with art on its back.

Fraction finds a way to exploit the character's new popularity on film while still embracing both Marvel's publishing history and the global world that is. Tony Stark is in position as the Director of SHIELD after the Civil War event. Maria Stark serves as his second in command while Pepper Potts is in the process of assuming responsibilities of Stark Enterprises. None of the three foresee the threat of Obadiah Stane's son Ezekiel launching terror attacks against Stark in a long-coming revenge against his dad's rival. Zeke is Mark Zuckerberg meets Al-Qaeda. A hoodie-wearing millennial capable of turning himself and others into living bombs while living it up along the way sharing drinks with his girlfriend.
Tony Stark has both the charm and dickishness that has come to define Robert Downey Jr's take while also the daily struggle of carrying the world on your shoulders. Fraction brings his history with addiction to the character that further fleshes him out. Is this the day he cracks? Is this the day his sobriety breaks? Stark is constantly pushed to the edge and is hit with failure after failure while still being able to predict the worst case scenarios and plan accordingly. After Zeke Stane's attacks and the Secret Invasion event results in Norman Osborn being placed in charge of what's left of SHIELD, Stark hits his lowest point since "Demon In A Bottle".

Norman Osborn essentially being in charge of the world's most powerful arsenal and ranting in front of cameras about the "failing" Stark Enterprises hits close to home being read in 2017. The world is gone to shit and the heroes stumble through it questioning how it could ever have gotten this bad.

Halfway through this nearly year long arc, I ordered the next collection. The story is that damn good.

19 April 2017

Scattered Thoughts On Crime Comics

Colossi writer Ricardo Mo asked on Twitter this morning: "What is your definition of a crime comic? Something like Parker or Criminal is obviously 'crime' by anyone's definition. But what about Sleeper? He is undercover in a criminal organization, doing criminal things. But it seems like some might consider it 'spy/espionage'? Where do you draw the line? Is there a line there?"

The question immediately sparked me remembering a Greg Rucka quote from some random podcast about the nature of crime revolving around people doing terrible things for money or because of passion. And while I do think that is a great way to sum it up, it is not really an acceptable answer to put in 140 characters as a response. Comics for eighty years have been about criminals, thieves, and murderers being stopped be it by Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, etc. But I would not put a "crime comic" label on most of those stories (more on Batman in a bit).

Excerpt of the Comic Book Code of 1954.
This question would've been easier to answer in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Crime comics held a big piece of the pie back in the day before Frederic Wertham and the creation of the Comics Code Authority. The CCA prohibited the presentation of "policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions … in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority", added the requirements that "in every instance good shall triumph over evil" and banned "instances of law enforcement officers dying as a result of a criminal's activities." Even the use of the word "crime" was subject to numerous restrictions.

The CCA went a long way from shutting down the Joker as a mass murder for twenty years (and any possible suggestion that something else was going on between Batman and Robin besides their already problematic nocturnal activities).Superman became everyone's patriotic father figure, giving out thirty years too son Ronald Reagan winks while just a decade removed from wrecking a slum because it was a root of crime. But while cape comics were changed to comply, books like EC's Crime SuspenStories were cancelled and EC itself was irreparably harmed by the new guidelines effects on crime and horror comics.

But then we reached a point and decided Wertham was a cranky old man who didn't conduct his supposed research on the level so thank you. Fuck you. Bye. And crime comics flowed back onto the scene. Now when someone says "crime comics", I instantly think of Brubaker and Phillips' Criminal, Aaron and Latour's Southern Bastards, Aaron and Guera's Scalped, even Azzarello and Bermejo's Joker. All of these feature a major character or characters who's whole point of being is to operate on Rucka's definition.

Criminal: The Last of the Innocent was noir thirty something Archie out to kill his wife for her money and to hook up with Betty. Southern Bastards heavily features a high school football coach who essentially runs Craw County as its crime boss. Everyone in the county is gunning for him after his brutal murder of a hometown war hero and a run of bad luck on the field. Southern Bastards can nearly come across as a deep fried Sopranos that's just missing a psychiatrist at times. Scalped is the ramifications of years of mystery and violence on a reservation catching up as a Chief launches a casino to help manage his business of drugs, prostitution and money. Azzarello and Bermejo's Joker takes a more grounded approach to Batman's rogues gallery. Joker is a crime boss using a strip club as a front and popping pills to try and make it through the day. Killer Croc serves as his heavy henchman with a unique way of getting rid of bodies. Two Face isn't robbing the Second National Bank of Gotham on February 22nd. He's a crime boss worried about his secret of bigamy. There's also a rape scene that's repulsive in a book where Batman pops up but DC gonna DC sometimes.

So what makes Joker a crime book while Batman comics aren't? I think there's a difference between the unsettling feelings you get reading a comic where Alfred Pennyworth gets his hand chopped off only to regain it six months later and a comic where the Joker has a man skinned alive because he didn't like the way he was looking at his girlfriend. It depends on violence. But there is something deeper than that. To be a crime book, the focus has to be on someone who commits terrible criminal acts for clear motivations besides "Batman made me do it!" and this person has to be viewed as a protagonist in some fashion. Southern Bastards' Coach Boss was the town's evil fuck of a high school football coach in the first arc. He murdered the star of the book in cold blood. But Aaron and Latour flipped the script and made him a protagonist in the following arc. I was actually cheering for this man who murdered his shitheel father.

And that is the key for me. A crime book is not a crime book just because it has crime in it. It's a book where the bad guys win. Not literally. But when they get you to root for them in their endeavors at some point. It is when it takes you out of the moment and say "yeah, that makes sense" only to horrify yourself when you consider the consequences. A crime book is where bad people and their actions make you reconsider (ever so briefly) your self identification as a good person.

14 April 2017

Catching Up On Comics: Black Panther

Over the past couple of years, I've fallen way behind on my reading. I'm working to correct that as I start focusing on conquering my to-read pile. 

Good Grief.

Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet Book One
"What is a king without his people?", Ta-Nehisi Coates and Brian Stelfreeze ask the hard questions in the first four issues of their run on Black Panther. T'Challa has had a rough number of years from being removed from his place on the throne in favor of his sister Shuri,  a blood feud with Namor that dominated Jonathan Hickman's New Avengers, a Thanos' led invasion of his kingdom and having his world literally ripped apart in the fantastic Secret Wars. Now the status quo has been reset with his ruling over Wakanda as its rightful king.

But A Nation Under Our Feet is not about T'Challa, the Black Panther. Instead its focus is on the women around him, both those aiding him and those who reject him. Two former members of Black Panther's all-female bodyguards, the Dora Milaje, have become vigilantes in an increasingly unstable society. That society is being stirred to revolution as another enemy begins building a militia. The Black Panther is shown to increasingly be at a loss in this age that rejects kings.

Stelfreeze excells with the visuals for Wakandan culture and technology. Shots of T'Challa suiting up are particularly a favorite of mine. With a mix of tribal and Kirby, Stelfreeze is successful at building a world booming with clean industrial possibilities while still tied to a traditional way of life. He also does some heavy lifting with making a number of "talking heads" scenes dynamic as Coates lays his story out. 

Ta-Nehisi Coates is probably the biggest crossover writer to comics since Stephen King contributed to the early issues of American Vampire. There are the expected occasional stumbles with crossing over into the comics medium, namely Coates' pacing is a bit scattered at times. That said, his story is intriguing due to its politics and efforts at world building. This is not a showcase for T'Challa, the Black Panther. Instead, it is what it means to be a woman in society, what it means to be a man in society, what happens when your government fails you, and what does it mean to be a king in this modern world? 

A Nation Under Our Feet continues in two more volumes. There are also spinoffs exploring the World of Wakanda and Black Panther working with African Americans in NYC. I look forward to diving deeper into this story as time goes on.

10 April 2017

Catching Up On Comics

Over the past couple of years, I've fallen way behind on my reading. I'm working to correct that as I start focusing on conquering my to-read pile. 

Nighthawk: Hate Makes Hate
Marvel made a bold choice in handing the keys to a post-Secret Wars Nighthawk to David F. Walker and Ramon Villalobos who take an in-your-face approach to Black Lives Matter, racism, and gentrification. It's been said that this Nighthawk is the Malcolm X to Ta-Nehisi Coates and Brian Stelfreeze's Black Panther's MLK Jr. That shows with Walker's unrelenting approach in addressing the corruption of Chicago that allows for hundreds to die while a few profit. The violence in the book could have been a turn off if not for the art of Ramon Villalobos and colorist Tamra Bonvillain. Villalobos takes the clean line approach of Frank Quitely while adding a focus on fashion and style. His art has continued to become more confident during his run at Marvel over the last couple of years. Bonvillain throws in colors of hot pink, orange and cool blue bringing a sexy Batman: Zero Year look to a very real Chicago. Martín Morazzo's work as a fill-in artist for two issues carries on an artist continuity thanks to a similar style and is not as jarring as fill-ins can oftentimes be. Unfortunately, this iteration of Nighthawk only lasted for six issues before cancellation due to lack of sales. That said, this is a book that Marvel should be commended for publishing.

The Goddamned
Jason Aaron and R.M Guera's take on the Old Testament is something I have been anticipating to read ever since it was announced at an Image Expo a few years back. Seemingly taking inspiration from Darren Aronofsky's underrated Noah, The Goddamned is a weird and ugly reexamination of the world's most famous book. After collaborating on Scalped, the two creators focus on life before the flood with the world's first murderer Cain as our unlikely protagonist. Jason Aaron is one of the best writers working today with his work on Thor and Southern Bastards. His version of the Old Testament strips it of any holy wonder and leaves behind the often horrifying implications of life created by an omnipotent and judgmental being. R.M. Guera creates a nightmare landscape where every person carries at least one mark of battle and every animal is somehow monstrous. But it's their take on a devout character that every child from Sunday school knows that makes this book terrifying. The Goddamned seems to go in and out on hiatus for months at a time but there is a promise of more to come.

And Then Emily Was Gone
Combine a missing girl mystery, a local bogeyman legend, and a touch of Lovecraft, you might wind up with John Lees and Iain Laurie's And Then Emily Was Gone. To what end would down on their luck parents go to try and save themselves? Bonnie Shaw is the answer. This comic was unsettling to say the least. Lees' pacing and Laurie's cartooning built an air of unease as I read it. Colorist Megan Wilson's use of flats over Laurie's work was a brilliant choice. Few horror comics are able to accomplish what Emily did with an intense atmosphere and commitment to story. The TPB's inclusion of variant covers from Riley Rossmo, Nick Pitarra, Joe Mulvey along with some back material from Lees helped flesh out the world as well. This is one of the true "independent" books I had in my stack and it is an inspiration to see a creative team bust their ass to put out a product this good.

24 May 2016

Top Five Batman-On-Film Moments

5. "... I fear dying in here, while my city burns, and there's no one there to save it." "Then make the climb."
The Dark Knight Rises is Christopher Nolan's flawed followup to arguably the best Batman film. But one of the better parts of it involves seeing a broken Batman for the first time on screen. In The Dark Knight, the Joker had all but succeeded in breaking his spirit and led the way to living a terrible lie for years. And then Bane broke his body. Left in some third world hell of a hole in the ground, Bruce rots and stews over what's been done to his city and to himself. After facing his failures, he finally moves to make it all right and begins the long climb back to the light and to Gotham City. Hans Zimmer's score blares as we circle back to answer the question that began Nolan's trilogy of films: "Why do we fall? "

4. "Bruce Wayne? Why are you dressed like Batman?"
A common thread running through the cinematic Batman is that he admits he doesn't want to do this forever. He's willing to quit mere months into his crusade for Andre Beaumont in Mask of the Phantasm, he names a successor in The Dark Knight Rises, and he's willing to walk away from all of this craziness in Batman Returns if Selina Kyle will join him. But his pleas with her to leave it all behind is interrupted by an incredulous Christopher Walken dropping an amazing line: "Bruce Wayne, why are you dressed like Batman?"

3. "What about escalation?"
It is bonkers to think that it took five films to get a proper Batman/Gordon rooftop scene. But this more than makes up for it with the ending exchange of Batman Begins. From the introduction to the bat signal, to Gordon laying out a core argument of the Batman mythos that the Dark Knight's presence alone leads to an escalation to the Year One nod to the Joker. But Gordon trying to thank Batman only for Batman to insist that he'll never have to seals the moment.

2. "My God!"
The Warner Bros. animation team nail an important factor in Batman: Mask of the Phantasm that hasn't been a factor in any other film with the Caped Crusader: Intimidation. Flashing back to the early days of crimefighting before the cowl, Bruce has all the means to bring war to criminals but realizes that they aren't afraid of a mere man. Down in the cave, he dons his gloves and his cape. But when he puts on the cowl, even the man who raised him and knows him best is taken aback. As Batman's eyes narrow, Alfred can only let out a "My God!" 

1. "You have nothing to threaten me. Nothing to do with all your strength."
The Dark Knight serves as a showcase for Heath Ledger's Joker. But when he has a sit down with Batman and proceeds to spout off his philosophy, the stakes are raised. Batman is able to keep his rage in check until the Joker succeeds at getting under his skin and we see abject brutality coming from Batman while Gordon and his crew look on in impotent horror. And the Joker's response is to merely laugh as he's seemingly cracked what makes The Dark Knight tick.

20 May 2016

Werner Herzog Has Thoughts On Wrestling: Undertaker and Kane

What could be more fearsome than the man who has assumed the mantle of death, vanquished giants and threatens any who yet dare enter his yard? Perhaps only the emotionless masked creature, who has had every emotion but hatred burned away, that claims to be his brother. His fury is more than enough to rip down any barrier the capitalist promoter can dream in order to unleash the most fearsome of blows upon the only other person to know the comfort of their mother's womb.

The masses are captivated by two godless colossal forces paying homage to the world's first murder while a corpulent false prophet screeches from ringside encouraging the battle as a voice for the lecherous wave of humanity assembled in the arena.

Pitched in seemingly unceasing combat, the kinsmen both drive to best the other, but little do they realize that their efforts to supplant their brethren and force them into an eternal slumber only serves to strengthen the resolve of the other, securing the notion that this prolonged sibling rivalry will not cease until the end of reality as we know it to be. The mind of the ticket buyer is an easily manipulated object, it would seem.

Werner Herzog Has Thoughts On Wrestling

Our sense of the real world today is massively challenged; I include here reality television, breast enhancement and the carefully choreographed, fake drama of WrestleMania, populated by larger-than-life characters with muscles that nature doesn't normally provide us with and who take pleasure in telling everyone how unbelievably evil they are. Wrestling matches are continually interrupted by commercials, but never those moments when the owner of the franchise comes out into the ring with two buxom, bikini-clad blondes on his arms, or when his long-suffering wife - allegedly paraplegic and blind - is wheeled out into the ring. His son then steps out into the ring and confronts his father, but not because of how his mother is being treated; he vents because his percentage of the franchise revenue isn't big enough.
...This is all a new form of spectacle, of mythology and storytelling, like the crude beginnings of ancient Greek drama, work that preceded Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides, eventually flowering into something extraordinary. It's fascinating to see how these archetypes function in modern-day culture.
You have the hero Stone Cold Steve Austin who has already embraced the cold harshness that humanity is nothing but decaying bags of flesh marching towards the cold dark that comes with the heat death of the universe by proudly sporting a head long devoid of any follicle. The dead hairs have been shed leaving nothing but the flesh that too shall die. This man represents the strife of the commoner, emulating their lives by finding solace in the expression of physical violence and inexpensive alcohol. And he asks for nothing but the contradiction of a right to do as he wishes and the vocal approval of his fellow man.

17 May 2016

Batman and The Gun

The following was previously published in Leo Johnson's pay-what-you-want Stuck In The Gutters:

I was eight years old when my grandfather was murdered. It was a week before Christmas 1994. My morning began with my aunt, uncle, cousin and grandmother gathered at my house because of a supposed power outage. Thinking it was weird but also being eight years old, I shrugged my shoulders and went off to school for the last time that year before Christmas break. Things continued to be odd when my grandmother took my younger brother and me to her house after school. Then our parents picked us up late that night and broke the news to us. In short, my grandfather was killed by a shotgun blast to the head. My dad’s half-brother pulled the trigger.

 A decade later, my mother told me about having to scrub my grandfather’s brains from the wall of his living room. “It looked like bad hamburger.”

I’ve always tended to internalize my emotions. Before that event, I never handled “real life” well. This was no different. I did what I tend to do still to this day: I hurled myself into comics. I was already a Batman nut. Bruce Timm and Paul Dini’s animated series was appointment viewing. I watched the Michael Keaton/Jack Nicholson movie so many times that I had broken the tape. I read a 350 page novelization of the massive Knightfall run my dad bought me because the book was cheaper than the fifty or so comics tied to the crossover. But a death in the family due to gun violence would go on to imprint the character on me for the rest of my life.

Nearly twenty years later, I woke up only to be blindsided by news from Colorado. Twelve people were slaughtered while sitting in a theater watching a Batman film thanks to a man with a gun. In the ensuing days, the media ran ad nauseam covering the killer they labeled ‘Joker’. Costumes were banned from midnight showings. Think pieces about violent entertainment and its impact flooded the blogosphere. An issue of Grant Morrison and Chris Burnham’s “Batman Incorporated” was delayed in order to avoid appearing insensitive. And when it came to the ability to gain seemingly unlimited access to weapons and ammunition, the politicians shrugged their shoulders and did nothing.

Eighteen months later, over two dozen people including twenty first graders were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School.. "We're going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics,” President Obama responded. The NRA, led by a literally foaming at the mouth Wayne LaPierre, launched a “School Shield” task force whose ultimate conclusion was to arm teachers in schools. The man who led the task force, Asa Hutchinson, would go on to become my home state’s governor less than two years later. The House of Representatives didn’t attempt to broach the subject. The Senate’s watered down attempt to pass an expansion of background checks for guns failed to pass a 60 vote threshold with the result of 54-46. Both of my senators, one a Democrat facing a tough reelection bid, were among those who voted against the measure. (The senator went on to lose his seat).

The dichotomy of America is astounding. One man can fail in an attempt to blow up an airplane with a shoe bomb and every person flying has to take off their shoes for a TSA screening. Over seven hundred people can die in mass shootings during the last two years and people shrug their shoulders. There have been over 250 mass shootings in 2015 alone. 

One inspired a successful movement to finally put away the Confederate flag where it belonged: a museum. Several have inspired some powerful speeches that, when all is settled, seem to only amount to a brief moment of good feelings and hot air. But for the most part, liberals stare incredulously and rumble about doing something while the right wing yell that anyone calling for the lightest of gun control measures could not wait to politicize a tragedy. Then we all just wait for the latest inevitable mass shooting and repeat.

And when that happens, I’ll pull some TPBs out of my bookcase and dive into a different world. A world in which a man goes against a world of insane violence where men can shoot up a theater, blow up a woman on the subway and rain down violence on a city that’s given up. A world in which a man cannot take it anymore. A world in which a man preps his army by snapping a rifle in half and telling them that guns are a coward’s weapon. A world in which a man has had enough and forces the world to make sense.

16 May 2016

What I'm Into: Nick Fury

Nick Fury has been an essential part of my adult life reading comic books. From his occasional appearances in Garth Ennis' years long PUNISHER run, THE ULTIMATES, the appearances in the Marvel Studios films, and across Jonathan Hickman's Marvel works, Nick Fury reigns as one of my favorite Marvel characters. He carries the weight of the world on his shoulders. A world where you cannot trust anyone. He is a character whose failures lead to disastrous consequences. Even when he wins, it tends to be at a great cost. But no matter the high stakes, Fury always rises to the occasion.

The Essentials
  • Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD (Jim Steranko)
    • Classic. Jim Steranko took James Bond and mixed it with sixties surrealism to produce the core canon of Nick Fury and SHIELD over a couple of years. His artwork throughout the run serves as a shining example of what comics can be.
  • Secret War (Brian Bendis and Gabriele Dell'Otto)
    • Failure. The first book I remember reading that served as a showcase for Nick Fury's methods. Fury recruiting a secret team to illegally invade Latveria leads to disastrous consequences that force him into hiding. Secret War also serves as an introduction to two important members of SHIELD: Daisy "Quake" Johnson and Maria Hill.
  • Secret Warriors (Jonathan Hickman and Stefano Caselli)
    • Redemption. How much further can you fall after your actions have caused terrible damage to those who hold you in high regard? How about finding out your entire life has been a lie thanks to Strucker's HYDRA. Secret Warriors is Fury gathering teams to take back what's his and make it all right. In the end (which came much too soon), Nick Fury is back and riding high in the saddle.
  • Fury MAX: My War Gone By (Garth Ennis and Goran Parlov)
    • Regret. The one constant in Nick Fury's life is war. MY WAR GONE BY looks at Fury throughout the years in French Indo-China, Cuba, Vietnam and Nicaragua. Through it all, he fights losing battles with the bureaucracy weighing over his head and unsavory characters as allies. When it's all said and done he has nothing but a bottle, a cigar and a head full of regret.
  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely and Anthony & Joe Russo)
    • Lies. Nick Fury shines in my favorite of the Marvel Studios films. Fury is forced to confront the fact that most of his life has been a lie in service of a bunch of fascist crypto Nazis. The attack on his Chevy Suburban serves as a showcase for both his gallows humor and resourcefulness. As the world he's engineered literally falls down around him, Nick is left with nothing but a determination to build himself a new life out of the ruins of a HYDRA infected SHIELD.