Aug 19, 2017

Only Silly Comics: Perception and Personal Responsibility in The Multiversity

Only Silly Comics
Perception and Personal Responsibility in The Multiversity
Pop Medicine
Travis Hedge Coke

The smartest monster in the room, in Grant Morrison’s The Multiversity

I am only now getting around to understanding The Multiversity as a whole, single, cohesive work, and not as a collection of related short stories or themed larks. When it was being serialized, there was frequent hype about how each issue stood on its own, frequent responses along the lines of this issue being impenetrable, this other, too easily understood. We all missed a lot. All of us.

The Multiversity is composed of a wraparound story and a series of nested, smaller stories, most taking place on one or more alternate reality. An army of evil scientist doubles from each reality have banded together to move, reality to reality, conquering. Simultaneously, ultra-cosmic monsters, called the Gentry, haunt and stress-test the worlds, infesting the minds of individuals and corrupting whole cultures and nations. Fear of the masses. Overintellectualization convincing you that you’re secretly an idiot pretender. The fear of mortality and underachievement. The fear that the world is a madhouse. And, the only clues to save us all are in the form of comics somehow moving from the world of their creation to alternate worlds, seemingly at random.

Nothing on its surface told us it would be about colonization, except, everything. The baddies talk of gentrification. The characters experience and engage in bigotries. There are colonizing wars and the fall and rise of empires. The monsters specifically infest people’s minds and alter their behavior.

In They Make Us Like Them, Kelly Kanayama wrote elegiacally and disturbingly about the gentrification of place and of souls, of how The Multiversity brought her to tears, how a long game development upset her and proved a revelation. And, over on comics message boards and social media, she got made fun of and dismissed, a lot, mostly — and yeah I’m saying this because it matters — by white men.

That's how we, as a broad community of readers of the same piece of work, reading and digesting at the same time, in union, understood the comic. Broadly, we looked for the same comfortable touchstones, and we made the same trained and generic assumptions. And, we missed a lot.

If someone saw more than us, we shut them down. If we saw ourselves in the villains, if we saw our weaknesses in accusations, we flinched, and denied, and decried. Annotations sprung up immediately, and all the annotation attempts were incomplete, many of them were half-assed, most attempts didn’t even make it through every issue/story in the graphic novel/relay race that is The Multiversity.

The scale of the story was a bit beyond what we were trained to expect and what solicits sold us. We knew it was about multiple realities. We knew that so well, we really didn’t look for anything deeper than “it’s about alternate realities” and, “it’s about comics.”

The comic anchored itself on readers being able, eventually, to acknowledge logical fallacies. We can fear all these things, but we have to know, ultimately, that the fears only go so far before they become ridiculous and untrue. It’s okeh to fear death, but stuff dies. It just does. It’s good to worry if you’re being too pretentious, being too critical or not critical enough, but eventually, you have to take stock and trust yourself.

Largely, though, as we read these comics upon each release, and again even, when the collected edition first arrived, we did not take fair stock. We did not acknowledge the fallacies, but like the Gentry, themselves, we got stuck fast in the morass and muck of those fallacies.
None of This is Real

The biggest thing I’ve realized about The Multiversity, lately, is that the story that seems the most “realistic,” the most trapped, claustrophobic, bounded and intricate, the Watchmen riff entitled Pax Americana as well as In Which We Burn, isn’t real. I know it’s not a true story. I understood none of the characters breathed or were born for reals for real, but it’s a story about it not being real.

In In Which We Burn, The Question invoked “the hunchback” and “the soldier,” which are metaphors for the question mark and the exclamation mark, and thereby, synecdoche for the question and the answer. He does this during an investigation, so naturally, it seems like he is simply looking to turn his question into a conclusion. But, here’s the thing: The Hunchback and the Soldier is an Aleister Crowley essay about how, we know this world is false, an illusion, when we become enlightened, but even when enlightened, while we are in that illusion, we get caught up and treat it as if it is real and therefore of the strongest significance. Added to that, the answer, the exclamation to the Question’s line of questioning, his investigation is, it seems, the same as the ultimate answer in the Crowley essay: None of this is true. None of this is real.

Another story/chapter in The Multiversity, is explicitly a fictitious document. Ultra Comics is a comic that exists on our Earth, our world, that can be read by us. It’s that in our work and in the fiction of The Multiversity. While the other stories represent many alternate realities that exist within the context of the whole story, in what is termed the “local multiverse,” that comic is just an artifact. The fictional world within is less real than the other fictional worlds, because it’s just a fiction.

That comic, then, draws attention to its irreal nature, it’s superfluousness if the only important thing is whether something is in continuity with and has physical, causal affect on other stories. The characters from any other two chapters of The Multiversity can meet, shake hands, kick each other, but the characters from Ultra Comics are fake even in the context of The Multiversity.

I was prepared for that. I could take that in. But, the irreality of In Which We Burn is different. And, the only difference is that other comics verified it’s “truth,” and that In Which We Burn did not at any point tell me, explicitly, that it was a work of fiction. That the closest to physical reality it will ever come is that there are ink on paper copies and there are digital reproductions that shine across screens.
We Are All Biased

The next thing I realized is that it is not only one small bit in this story, another angle in another story, that are about race or culture, but that The Multiversity is about ethnicity. And, it is about not only the biases of others in this respect, but our biases. We judge these worlds. We judge them on sight, and only slightly revise, for the most part, when confronted with elements we had not considered, but laudatory and condemning.

In #earthme, Sister Miracle, a young black girl, tweets about her life and, on learning of real alternate realities, ponders what it would be like to meet another her. And, as readers, we condemned her. We condemned her for throwing a party. We condemned her for tweeting — often in tweets. We were encouraged to with the selfish-sounding title of the story and a world where superheroes were unnecessary and people are, instead, painters and doctors, where children are simply children, who go to school and parties, who play video games and talk to one another.

And, in a later story, Captain Marvel and the Day That Never Was!, which is tonally structured as a nostalgic, simple, genuine superhero story, a white girl, Mary Marvel, literally writes out good deeds in a “good deed ledger” and, on learning of  real alternate realities, ponders what it would be like to meet herself, we cheered her on. We were ecstatic. So good. So pure. Just what the world needs.

Now, this Mary Marvel lives on an Earth that, in the 21st Century, has only just sent astronauts to the moon. It’s a world that is, according to what we see of one American city and a few other locales, exclusively white except for a couple time-displaced racial caricatures.

“Just what the world needs.”

We got fed biases and, largely, we accepted them. Those who did not were dismissed or made fun of.
We Can Discern

In The Multiversity, many characters read comics to learn, as well as to be entertained. They read to understand. Kyle Rayner flips through a comic in #earthme to see just what’s going on in modern comics. Characters try to solve mysteries by looking at the paper and ink quality as well as narrative content. A Flash (DC jargon for someone, usually heroic, who moves at super speeds) reads the set of comics that make up the majority of The Multiversity, to deduce the baddies’ plans and how to best thwart them. Reading for information and for tone is a common occurrence throughout the overall story.

We could follow suit.

Our first read does not have to be our last. It doesn’t even have to be the map we use.

We all have biases, just as the characters in The Multiversity, but just like them, we can look past our biases, we can feel a bias, feel internal tug of what feels right or believable, and still analyze that feeling and the situation, to judge appropriately and be fair.

Feeling that characters are real is not the same as knowing they are flesh and blood or believing so. It’s okeh to find one kind of characterization more believable than another. It’s okeh to recognize one kind of racism, but not another. To identify one kind of paternalism or sexism, but miss a different paternalism, a different form of colonizing dominance.

“There’s a sliding scale to what civilization will tolerate at any given time,” says Ultra Comics (the character) in Ultra Comics (the comic and chapter of The Multiversity). He is speaking to us, the readers, who are invited to see this fiction through his senses, with his perspective, and he continues, “Civilians who murder are criminals, while soldiers who kill are heroes.”

And, on the same page, the comic itself, or the narrator who is not the protagonist tells us, “Think, man with the multi-mind — Think!”

If all readers are Ultra Comics while they read, why is he a man, and why is he a white man? Why is that our global avatar?

If Ultra Comics is the narrator and Ultra Comics, the character, is the comic, too, the pages and ideas of Ultra Comics, how can there be narration talking to him and us?

Because these are biases we accept with little question until we are made to question them. Pretty much, until we are told to. Even if you aren’t a white man, there's a part of anyone from an anglophone culture that expects to see white men as the realest and at the fore, as the majority, in anglophone entertainment. That expectation is a colonization.

Most of our anglophone entertainment, despite the sad cries of a few pathetic loudmouths, is through white male eyes, ears, and privileges. Even when it has a black face or a female voice, it’s often still dominantly a white male perspective. Because that perspective has more effectively colonized many of us, including flesh and blood white males, than any physical, societal colonization has accomplished. It’s not the voice of a real, or individual straight white generic male, but a voice that is in their heads, too, a voice some of us created and all of us have, in our way, fostered. Straight white guys have less reason to question it or see outside what it allows, in anglophone cultures, but it’s talking through all of us. It’s a colonization beyond nationalism, and more subtle than physical invasion, but no less warfare, no less about finance and control. Our brains are territorialized.
All Comics Are Ultra Comics

All comics are Ultra Comics; all stories. It’s all fake, it’s all unreal, even when we try to tell the truth of things. Perspectives are misinterpretation and riddled with assumption. Criticism has an angle. Every criticism has an approach and drive behind it. We achieve desires.

When the evil Dr Sivanas from multiple realities converge to conquer the heart of the multiverse, they do so by turning it into a pop up. They build something crassly mimicking the original architecture and shove track lighting and cubicles inside. They turn the mundanity of evil into a cartoon that seems harmless, except they’re destroying us all. And, they’re beat by condescending, self-congratulatory strongmen. That’s the moral axis of Captain Marvel and the Day That Never Was!

The Nazis, in splendour falls, aren’t only in the past or over there. They’re the world. They’re us and everybody else, because Nazi conquest became everything, and then, has to be nothing. The world has to appear to not have a unifying politic. That’s why some people get so bent out of shape when you say racism is global or talk of “the Patriarchy” or “patriarchies.” Nazi is so much nothing/everything, that the German agent, Dr Sivana, finds modern naziism not Nazi enough, and wants to overthrow Nazi Earth, to return to a purer, directed Nazi Germany.

The thing is, that’s not an alternate Earth, in the broad strokes. That’s us. All these Earths are us, the worlds, these realities. We are an overly simplistic didacticism of good vs evil. We are layers of racism and conquest slapped atop each other over generations. We are video game player and doctors, child laborers and soldiers. This is a world of naive magic and ceaseless variations of war.

And, we are also, not purely or solely any of these things. The same way, each of the fictive worlds is portrayed and embodied by a single comics story in The Multiversity, but our world is without, is outside the story, and the element we contribute is a document, and artifact we can read and they can read, but nobody can go down into because it is not, in that fashion real.

The smartest monster in the room, who doesn’t realize he only exists in comics

It is often difficult for us to reconcile the irreality of fiction and that it still all matters. That existing and mattering are not the same. That factual and felt are neither contrary nor reliant on each other.

We either continually think and accept new ideas, approach new data and interpolate it, or we resist that development and growth and remain stagnant. The stagnancy probably breeds fear, teases it to monstrous proportions, but learning and changing also puts us at potential risk. It’s hard for any of us to admit when we were bigoted or missed something. When we made an ugly assumption. When the wrong call felt, to us, to be the most reasonable.

We can be discerning if we want to be. We can be better. Can, is not is. It is not are. For that to be, we need to be vigilant, to be accepting, and to take action.

Jul 29, 2017

Marvel Needs to Rebrand Jack Kirby

Jack Kirby is the greatest superhero comics artist of all time, the one from whom every modern telling of the genre has come from. And his impact is bigger than ever, as Hollywood has finally caught up to him and the innovations he was coming up with decades ago. And yet, for someone who made his name primarily on Marvel Comics, the company has done very little to celebrate him this 2017, the year of his centennial. And I've finally concluded that...

Marvel Needs to Rebrand Jack Kirby
by Duy

I love Jack Kirby. I didn't get him until I was older. But that's what youth does to you; you like what's available then and there and dislike the older stuff. I loved George Perez and John Byrne so much, and back then they counted as "realistic" (how weird is it that they'd probably be described as "cartoony" now?), that anyone who didn't fall into that vein was "bad" to me. It was decades before I realized Jack Kirby wasn't going for "realistic." He was going for expressionistic power.  The impact lines, the unorthodox layouts, the way he would "cramp" everything into one panel... check out the splash page below and note how Thor and Hercules occupy virtually the entire space, emphasizing how huge they are.

Still, to this day, no one draws a fight like the King drew a fight. But Kirby's influence was so big that it's unbelievably easy to take him for granted, and can usually be more easily demonstrated when you look at comics pre-Kirby's prime and post.

Kirby made his name on Marvel Comics, especially on Thor and the Fantastic Four. His influence is such that the movies have finally caught up to him, with his fingerprints all over the Thor: Ragnarok trailers.

He's felt in all the Marvel movies, and he's even felt in the DC ones, with Justice League using his greatest villainous creation, Darkseid. But considering that his name was built on the Marvel brand, it's really strange to me that this year, when he would have turned 100, there's really little the House of Ideas is doing to celebrate him. And it's not even just their new products; it's the smaller things like their search engine optimization. Take a look at this first page of Amazon results when I type "Jack Kirby."

There are three Marvel books on that list: a retrospective about his contributions to Marvel, Monsters, and Machine Man. Everything else is DC or an artbook. So is this how Marvel is going to use Jack Kirby? They're only going to use him as a selling point if the character of the book isn't good enough to sell themselves?

That seems like a giant waste of an opportunity. This is the greatest superhero creator of all time. And meanwhile, the bulk of his Marvel work is kept in formats such as Omnibuses and Epic Collections, which are friendly to longtime collectors and collectors with money. They're pricey and they look good on a shelf, but they're also missing a very easy but important target: a new audience.

This ties into another thing I've been thinking a lot about lately, and that's the evergreen status of DC books compared to Marvel's. DC has a lot of backlog that's great for a new reader. They're only one or two volumes long, for the most part, and they're self-contained. Think of Watchmen, Kingdom Come, and The Dark Knight Returns. There's nothing in there that means you have to read anything else in order to enjoy it. And in-universe, think of The Death of Superman, which yes, plays heavily on Superman continuity at the time, but can be enjoyed completely on its own. DC is really, really good at finding a new audience, and it's because of their stand-alone hits.

Read More Below...

Marvel? When you look back at its entire publishing history, Marvel has had better runs. They have had better long-running series and creators who made their mark by staying on a book for a long time. Frank Miller's Daredevil. Roger Stern's Spider-Man. Roger Stern's Avengers. Kurt Busiek and George Perez's Avengers. Chris Claremont and John Byrne's X-Men. Chris Claremont and Paul Smith's X-Men. Walt Simonson's Thor. Steve Ditko's Dr. Strange. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's Spider-Man. John Buscema and Alfredo Alcala's Conan.

Jack Kirby's Thor and Fantastic Four.

This makes it more difficult to get into than a DC stand-alone book because it's so overwhelmingly large in terms of both size and monetary value. With their landmarks being more episodic, it's more important for Marvel to distinguish their entry points. And since the comics market both in comics stores and bookstores ends up being skewed towards the older readers now, there is a section in the bookstore that I think Marvel should very proactively target: the children's section.

You know what they sell in the children's section? These books:

Asterix and Tintin are arguably Europe's two biggest comics, and these are their omnibuses, each collecting 3 of their original volumes. As of this writing, the first Asterix Omnibus is #30 in "Comics & Graphic Novels -> Graphic Novels -> Historical & Biographical Fiction", #32 in "Books -> Children's books -> Literature & Fiction -> Historical Fiction -> Europe," and #351 in "Books -> Children's Books -> Comics & Graphic Novels." It is #28,190 overall in "Books."

Tintin's first "omnibus" is #5 in Books > Children's Books > Comics & Graphic Novels > Action & Adventure," #562 in "Books > Children's Books > Classics," and #1493 in "Books > Children's Books > Action & Adventure." It is #27,050 overall in "Books."

Now Thor Epic Collection: God of Thunder? (We're using Thor, by the way, because Kirby is best known at Marvel for Thor and the Fantastic Four, and Thor's the one with the successful movie franchise and the movie coming out. But we could use any Kirby work and the trend would be similar.)  It's #698 in "Books > Comics & Graphic Novels > Publishers > Marvel," #1626 in "Books > Comics & Graphic Novels > Graphic Novels > Superheroes," and #114,851 in "Books." It's not even in the top 1,000 in the genre it's actually in, while both Tintin and Asterix crack the top 100 in certain categories.

What this says to me is there's an opportunity here to tap this section of the physical and virtual bookstores and repackage Kirby's work so that its primary audience is a new, young audience, the way it was meant to be. Print them in thinner formats with larger dimensions, and you could very well expose a young aspiring artist to the power innate in Kirby's work. Imagine these pages in the paper size of an Asterix or Tintin, around 9 by 11 inches:

Celebrate the art, cut the unit costs by making it thinner, and you'll have around 20 small collections instead of three or five huge ones. You'll also have multiple entrypoints, and this section would be relatively new that it could tap that audience much more easily.

Imagine this scenario: a kid goes to see Thor: Ragnarok this November and tells his mom they want to buy a Thor comic. The mom goes to the TPB/graphic novel section of the bookstore (or Amazon), and is overwhelmed by the options. She ends up buying him either nothing or takes a chance at any of them. The chances of the thing she buys being of high quality are fairly small. However, if the children's section had a carefully curated selection of Thor comics, with specifically assigned entrypoints, then the chances of that mother buying something that would turn their kid into a longtime fan go up higher.

Aside from careful design, branding, and curation of these collections, Marvel also needs to make sure that the remastering is on point. My biggest issue with Marvel's Omnibuses, which for the most part seems to have been fixed by the Epic Collections, is that there seems to be little to no care put in the remastering. To demonstrate, here's a sequence of Odin in a bathtub as it originally appeared in Kirby's comics:

And here's that same sequence, "remastered":

Thinner lines and less considered coloring just remove the life and weight from the drawing, and we need this to be better executed for this plan to work.

Other than that, I'm only using Kirby because he's the greatest and it's his centennial, but successful implementation of this could theoretically be a proof of concept to have similar collections, such as Ditko's Spider-Man, Claremont's X-Men, and more.

Comics is a collectible market. But there's no reason it can't still be open to the masses, not with all this backlog, and all this marketing power.

Happy 100th, King Kirby.

Jul 28, 2017

Marvel Needs to Reboot

As human beings we have no choice but to grow older, move on, and say goodbye, but one of the great things about comics is that they don’t have to. There are certainly some of us that pine for the days of high school or college or that special workplace, that time or place you look back on fondly. Comics can go back and live in those special times again, and the only thing stopping them is a devotion to a fictional timeline. With that being said...

Marvel Needs to Reboot
Ben Smith

I was reading a comic recently with the Kingpin, and what I assume to be his wife Vanessa was standing behind him. It make sense to have them together, with her being a part of the Netflix Daredevil series, but it made me wonder if she was supposed to be dead, or in a coma, or estranged from Fisk, who can remember. Ultimately, it got me to a reoccurring thought I have, that it shouldn’t matter. Permanent change should really be a rare thing in comics, yet its something the publishers and fans seem to believe they want. I’ve always thought that the Spider-Man and X-Men I read as a kid, should be roughly the same as the Spider-Man and X-Men my kids would read some day.

Marvel had the perfect opportunity to reboot following the Secret Wars mini-series (the Hickman one) but they didn’t do it. They probably should have. Superhero comics, and Marvel in particular, are stuck in this place between comfort food, and an idea factory for multimedia intellectual property. There’s little doubt in my mind that most comic book consumers want comfort food, to read familiar-looking exploits. Yet, lately Marvel has seem determined to discover the next big television or movie property by a massive game of trial-and-error. This is not a veiled knock on their diversity push of late. All-New Wolverine with X-23 as Wolverine has easily been my favorite Marvel book of the last few years. Silk, Jane Thor, and Spider-Gwen are some of my favorite Marvel characters and books. I love Riri and Miles. But too much change at once leaves the landscape too different to be comfort food; it becomes something you’ve never eaten before.

I’ll attempt to explain more clearly by using a specific franchise, Spider-Man, since it’s the hero and comic series I know best. I’ve always believed that a strong supporting cast is one of the keys to a successful comic book franchise-level character. Superman has Lois, Jimmy, Perry, Krypto, Ma and Pa. I think few would argue against the claim that Spider-Man’s supporting cast was at its strongest in the Romita years. You had Gwen Stacy, Mary Jane Watson, Flash Thompson, Harry Osborn, Robbie Robertson, Aunt May, Captain Stacy, and J Jonah Jameson. I’m not sure if Liz Allen, Betty Brant, and Ned Leeds were around at the same time, but include those in the mix too.

Now, after over 50 years of publishing, Harry and Liz got married, had a kid, and got divorced. (Side note, I am completely against fictional babies. There’s almost no situation where they’re an asset.) Harry died for a bit and came back, and then had another kid and left again. Flash lost his legs in combat, and is now wearing an alien super suit and fighting aliens. Gwen died after having the Green Goblin’s love children. Mary Jane and Peter were married and the marriage was erased after a demonic pact. See where I’m going? One of the greatest supporting casts in comics history, is now forever relegated to a memory because of a strict adherence to years of stories that were arguably questionable to even publish. One of the subtle underlying aspects of the marriage is that Peter and Mary Jane were basically the only ones left of the group by that point. Some might see that as inspiring or a natural progression, I found it to be depressing. Why can’t we roll back the clock? There’s no reason Marvel can’t. Instead, we’re stuck with Peter has a billionaire tech mogul overseeing his global empire. (Like my illustrious editor-in-chief told me, Peter having success as a tech genius is the end of his story. It’s fine to explore for a little while, but it’s gone on way too long at this point.)

Pick the franchise, and you’ll inevitably find a golden era of the comic that the publishers refuse to exploit for whatever reason. Teen Titans should never not be a team of Robin, Raven, Cyborg, Starfire, and Beast Boy. Bruce Banner should be trying to find a way to cure himself of the Hulk, with varying levels of control over his green alter-ego. Maybe I’m getting too old and cranky, but they’re classics for a reason. To use a really simplistic analogy, nobody wants to read teenage Charlie Brown and Linus, reminiscing about the good old days before Snoopy died and Lucy drowned in the lake. (It might be interesting for a short time period, as a curiosity, but you’d have to go back sooner than later.)

So, the question becomes should they do a hard reboot, or a bunch of soft reboots. Not every character has the baggage that Spider-Man has that needs to be fixed on a grand scale. Even then, we’re talking about restoring some supporting characters to a simpler time. I think back to when I was reading a comic with Psylocke, right around the time Secret Wars was out and there was some buzz about if Marvel was rebooting. Psylocke is a good example of Marvel’s claim that they don’t need to reboot. In their opinion, nothing was that broken. Psylocke began as Captain Britain’s sister, became a meek telepathic mutant, joined the X-Men after facing Sabretooth and surviving, and then eventually became an Asian bondage ninja. I love every word of writing that sentence. She doesn’t really need a reboot overhaul (unless you want to get rid of the probably problematic race-swapping stuff).

The problem with a linewide reboot, like New 52, is you’re absolutely going to get a few excellent launches, a whole lot of good, and then a whole lot of awful. As an example, Ultimate Spider-Man was pretty great, but Ultimate X-Men was pretty damn mediocre. Good or mediocre or awful isn’t really an enticing option when compared to Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko as the original starting points for your universe and franchise. So, I really do think soft reboots is the way to go, because most of Marvel doesn’t really even need fixing and the fixes they do need are just rolling back some unnecessary history. That’s what the soft reboot was created for.

What’s clear is that Marvel needs to do something. They really have to decide if they’re going to be a story workshop for the movie studios, or a place of familiarity to comic fans that are steadily getting older and dwindling in number. Or maybe they don’t. Maybe they can do both with no problem, and I’m completely wrong. I really don’t have the solution. Pundits have been predicting the death of comics for catering to an aging fan base ever since I got back into comics 17 years ago. So either that’s 17 years of more and more aging fans giving up the hobby, or 17 years of an ever-rotating mid-20s fanbase. All I know is that the quality of comics coming from Marvel right now is the worst I’ve ever seen it (I missed the ‘90s) and I want to read great Marvel comics again. All-New Wolverine excluded because it’s already great.

Jul 24, 2017

George Perez and the 1970s Romantic Revision of Inhumans

Recent Hall-of-Famer George Perez is more known, now, for Crisis on Infinite Earths and the Infinity War cycle, which will soon be a two-part Summer blockbuster for Marvel and Disney. But back in 1975, when just starting as a professional penciler, Perez quietly revolutionized how the Inhumans were portrayed.

Romancing the Inhumans
George Perez and the 1970s Romantic Revision of Inhumans
Travis Hedge Coke

Perez's elegant layouts, articulate line art, and constantly flowing visuals smoothed away the blocky, design-heavy patterns of Jack Kirby’s original portrayal. This was followed in kind by Gil Kane, and intentionally or not, ultimately has shown beautifully through in Jae Lee’s and other more recent takes.

With layouts more reminiscent of European albums than many of his superhero-drawing contemporaries, each page of Perez’s fives issues (1-4, then 8, our of a 12 issue series) looked like a complete experience. There were Steranko-esque triptychs of mobile figures walking or flying, stacks of motion that would ricochet your eyes to the right with a punch, then left as living hair flung someone away, only to settle, dead center, afterwards, with something directed straight at the reader. And, the panels would line up like glorious architecture, like fitted, purposeful mosaics.

Perez was not committing to the amazing scenes where a dozen or more characters would interact in novel yet sensible ways, but his work with individual characters, already had a sheen of brilliance. His mastery of body language led even to individual characters not falling or passing out in the same ways. Conscious and mobile, figures were individual, personality and accoutrements defined posture and gesture.

Even as almost every issue had a different inker, a different colorist, the underlying pencil-work gives a coherence and a sense of development to the changes wrought by other hands. Diane Buscema and Janice Cohen’s sense of balance and flowing contrasts seems to me to compliment Perez’s elegance and orderliness more than later colorists’ sometimes garish or monochromatic execution, but these were produced fast and without any expectation of reprint or permanence. The move from subtlety to directness almost carries a narrative arc to it, anchored by the solid tone of Perez’s art, and that of his replacements, Gil Kane, and then Keith Pollard.

Pollard and Kane are their own artists, their own selves, but on Inhumans, they seem straight in line, not so much with the Kirby version that preceded, but very much with the Perez new view. The Inhumans, as a book but moreso as a trademark, as a grouping, had become Perezed, had become Romantic, lush and living, almost languidly actioning, and any reductions, since, to a four panel, icon-heavy puncher or to more “realist” standing in a field versions (such as the otherwise great Paul Ryan did during his tenure on Fantastic Four) leave something missing, a vital aspect stolen away. You can’t take bricks out of the base of a building and hope it to stand and represent as well as it did when whole, and that’s what Perez’s art did. George Perez made the Inhumans whole, made every brick count and every brick hold its weight.

Jul 18, 2017

Some Are to Be Solved, Some Are to Be Mysteries

Some Are to Be Solved, Some Are to Be Mysteries
Travis Hedge Coke

A great point of contention, for many x-fans (that is, fans of X-Men-related entertainment) is that the original five students called the X-Men were brought to the present a few years ago, have been living lives that diverge radically from those experienced by their normally-aged, non-time-displaced selves, and yet no good argument has been put forth as to why there is no paradox, no retroactive erasure of incompatible history, and no attempt at all to put that genie back in its bottle. It is a huge mystery, seemingly without given clues or a recognizable structure of revelations. That rankles some fans as much as it does anti-fans or casual speculators.

This is not particular to comics. A quick survey of clickable lists or discussion boards for tv shows will reveal a plethora of complaints regarding unsolved mysteries. The most agitating of these tend to be those mysteries that no one responsible for the entertainment seems to have ever planned on explicitly solving.

The point, and the major draw of keeping those time-displaced X-Men around and neither resolving not explaining away the seeming impossibility of their situation is just that. They answer may be interesting, but it would, almost certainly, stop you wondering, stop you from getting excited. Agitation is good, in an audience. An audience that craves answers, stays aware. That audience pays attention. That audience pays for issues.

Brian Michael Bendis keeps writing characters saying time is not linear, or that contradictions in causality might not be, but then some other character he's also writing will worry about those seeking contradictions and feel all panicked. The characters can be certain of some things, but never all certain of the same things at the same point.

Not every mystery needs to be solved. Not every crisis needs to be resolved. A universal certainty would kill of our uncertainty as an audience. More than solely a hook for readers, that this particular situation worries characters motivates and drives whole stories, entire trajectories. But, it drives different characters in different ways. It can drive even one character, alone, in different ways.

Younger-Beast, for instance, is troubled as a scientist, but he's also a young man with a crush, and a teenager confronted with his own future, the tragedies of his friend's futures, and being gifted an escape from a present that, now made past, probably felt more real, and therefore more dangerous.

Kitty Pryde isn't a character with a time-displaced double, but as someone who has experienced mild, but upsetting May/December romances, she is — as a teacher and a human being — wary of connections between time-displaced and local-era individuals, who have had romantic feelings or relationships with some version of the other person.

As long as a mystery can engage an audience, even in distress, and can keep propelling characters along new or, at least, partially unexpected pathways, that mystery probably earns its continuance. To kill the mystery would provide temporary relief, but need to be quickly replaced with yet another mystery. Especially in serial fiction, the only perfect reason to kill a big question, is when enough of the audience get so bored they don't care. Hopefully the resolution arrives before that boredom sets in.

Beyond that boredom, there is really no professional reason to wrap things up. While contrary to the common fan-understanding illustrated by these frustrations at prolonged or externally -unresolved mysteries, it is the unanswered that resonates the strongest and, ultimately, the longest. Audiences will continue to speculate and argue, to worry out the unsolved, when all the answers and revelations, charts and explanations are so forgotten don't even mentally cache them as things to not be further worried over.

Jul 17, 2017

Why Grant Morrison Will Never Be the David Lynch of Comics

Why Grant Morrison Will Never Be the David Lynch of Comics
Travis Hedge Coke

David Lynch is the David Lynch of comics.

We forget that Lynch made comics. He was in and out, one strip proper. And, it wasn't for everybody.

Unlike Grant Morrison, David Lynch has, even in such an inglorious format as the newspaper comic strip, refused to give us immediate or traditionally-formatted satisfaction.

I love Morrison and his work, but the Lynch comparison is made because of certain direct appropriation of tropes and a tendency to namecheck Lynch. To reduce Lynch to these blood of visual weirdness or a red and black pattern on a floor, or to ignore Morrison's wonderful and dedicated commercialism, misunderstands both authors.

I love Morrison, and his work is for nearly everyone. Wants to be read and loved. Asks to be. Waits for it.

Morrison would never burn a general audience the way that Lynch has shown himself to be entirely comfortable with. This is identifiably true in their music and visual art, as well as, as is our focus, their comics.

Morrison is one of the biggest names in comics because he makes money. David Lynch is spoken of in reverence, despite his movies not making the big bucks. Exaggeration on both fronts, but a worthy truism.

So, why do we say it?

Lynch, with his nerdy style and his quaintness as a shield, is punk to bones. He is accepted as one of the cinema signposts of our lifetimes without fanfare or sell.

Morrison has to say he's punk, or no one would believe it. His press has to push him as a "spokesman of the counterculture" (which counterculture?) or it probably would not have occurred to us. To me, even, as an old Lither.

David Lynch's comics work is outside the comics mainstream, and outside of mainstream expectations, so much that it is easy to forget it exists. When reminded, it is still a simple matter to deny that it is genuine, that it is real comics.

Simultaneously, Grant Morrison is massively mainstream within the realm of comics readers. He is no more an outsider or non-pop comics author than Steven Spielberg is not a mainstream movie director. His mystique as an insider-outsider is engineered. He talks of when he left comics behind as a young man or when he temporarily out comics away, but an attentive person will notice that he never put all comics away, nor could even this temporary cessation of solid fandom have gone on long, as he launched into his comics-making career quite young.

Of course, Grant Morrison is not a shill or a revival tent litigation of words and pictures. David Lynch is and is not who he is sold as, and he is sold. He has a coffee beans and announced the weather as a novelty act. To make yourself an act of art and promotion is as necessary as making your art an act of promotion. Let’s not pretend there is no commerce of money and ideas, memory and love.

Both frequently have characters speak plainly and directly without cues or the hallmarks of exposition. Both Lynch and Morrison are gone of allusions and resonances that are narratively tangential, but which set the tone of a scene. They like resonances. It is important to stress that they are not dissimilar; certainly, Lynch is a genuine influence on Morrison.

Both embrace "equivocation and totality," as Jacques Derrida calls it, but Lynch 's totality is small, almost cramped into personal space, whereas Morrison's equivocation is rarely demanding. Without devaluing either, I don't think we would make the Lynch comparison of Morrison did not, so often, himself. But that citation and loud allusion is the purest Morrisonian to me. It would hardly be Morrison of there were not constant, shorthanded shoutouts and echoes reminding us of other things.

David Lynch seems to delight in presenting ineluctably unnavigable experience. Morrison wants his audience to navigate. While Lynch has shown distaste for chapter breaks, author annotations, fast forward and external distractions, Morrison most often encourages readers to hit search engines as they read, to flip back and forth between pages, between comics, and to ultimately map their own territory out of his street signs and storefront logos.

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