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.