Feb 4, 2016

The Supremacy of the Word

The Supremacy of Words
Travis Hedge Coke

I do not believe in the primacy of the word.

Words are powerful. The written word is, undeniably, a significant and heady thing. Without words - those seen in a comic and those that go into the scripts or notes that an audience may never see, but nonetheless generate or shape a comic - these words are important. As someone who makes his living with words, as someone who loves reading, watching movies, listening to songs and stories, and talking all hours of the day and night, I would never deny that.

But, some people treat the written word like it’s the script of gods. Some of you valorize the word like it is God. And, no. It is not.

There is a sentence just a bit above this that does not hold together at all, but I suspect many of you read through it and if you skimmed, it seemed to make sense, and if you were more careful and caught the oddity, you tried to make it make sense. Rob Liefeld, who is a better artist than I am a writer and far more successful, can’t get a break like that with his art, but words? (Note: I am not saying that Rob Liefeld or any artist is necessarily (relatively) superior to any writer at their respective craft, just me.) We can, for fun, puzzle out images that don’t represent things clearly. People like cloud-watching. Rorschachs can be fun. But we twist our brains to get sense out of a sentence as if it has to be there. Disparate thoughts and statements, phrases and anecdotes can be jammed into the same space and the audience will string them like pearls on a line as long as there is any chance they’ll sit well together.

Music can invoke, drawings can represent, but words lock down a meaning faster and easier than anything.

In academe, all narratives, representations and invocations, whether pictures, plays, movies, novels, songs, sculptures, basically anything made or presented as entertainment, education, or art is called a “text.” One, is that all of these things are “read.” They are all taken in by an audience, interpreted, interpolated, understood and responded to. And, secondly, there is an unspoken of integrity to text in our society, to our society, the written word is higher up, it is truer and stronger than the spoken word or the etched image or the copper shoulder of a sculpted woman. In order to put all kinds of “texts” on the same level, for discussion purposes, the highest form is invoked. Astonishingly pretentious, but it does its job. In our society, a person who studies a book intensely, for ages, is accorded respect and a sense of education or enlightenment, while a person who pores over a website or who stares intently at the details of a painting for hours or days, is generally not. By suspending the scale that weighs these different forms of communication, by calling them all “text,” they are - at least for the moment - afforded the same worthiness as those texts made of the written word.

We come to this appreciation bass ackwards. While it has become involuted with mystique, this faith in the written word, this exaltation, is rooted, really, primarily in the ease with which it could be replicated and transported, back in history, as opposed to acted plays, audible song, paintings, statues, and to a slightly lesser degree, in its usefulness in legal arbitration. It has nothing to do with the written word being more powerful, or more true than the drawn face or the sung aria.

A song is not sung, by a great singer, without consideration to voice, to rhythm, to accent or volume or accentuation. The words count, but the words do not count for all and they are not the only planned aspect. Nor, is written music, which is simply another language written down, more true or pure or considered than played music.

When Walt Simonson draws a shield-carrying warrior, there may be a dozen sketches that took him to the awareness of how that shield would rest strapped to their back, and that is as much “writing” a comic as the written words in the dialogue balloons. Despite a script never calling for entire scenes to be awash in blues or reds, that decision by the colorist or whomever is as significant and can be as strong as any THWAK! or TNNK! or BA-THROOOOOM! sound effect laid down on the page for us to read.

Above is a three panel sequence at the end of Gregg Hurtwitz and Mico Suayan’s Chill in the Air (Batman: The Dark Knight #0) wherein the most important words are not the narration, but the TAP TAP TAP TAP of rain that, because of the height of our viewpoint, we cannot see hitting anything, but now know that it is, because we read, and thereby in our heads hear, the impact. Our distance, overhead, high and away from Bruce Wayne in the first panel, communicates the bigness that surrounds him, more than words will. The two panels below this, as we grow closer to Bruce, show a poster for the circus melting in the rain, to approximate a Joker that is never spoken of or verbally cued. Why is an outdoors painting running that significantly in the rain? Why now? Should it not be dry? If this was in words, solely, it would behoove the writer to explain, as is our social expectation with the written word, but as a visual, it is more important that it reaches and affects us, than it is that it makes a causal sense. The transition from generic clown to specific Joker would, in words, need smooth and careful transitions, the way we want the Riddler’s riddles to be actual riddles or a pun to be a pun and not just vaguely close. Visual punning, visual intimation, can run much more abstract.

And, if we look closer at the final of these three panels, we see that not only is the paint running, but Bruce’s hand, pressed up against it, is also dissolving in the rain. The black of his hair runs across his face, his jacket and his flesh distort and run downward with the rain. Written words would make that blatant. They would push it to bathos. But, like the lighting in a movie, we do not so readily ask a drawing where it’s smallest aspects come from, even if on a subconscious level, we still take them in. Whether Hurwitz scripted that detail or the penciler put it in, it is indelibly part of the comic that we read and it would be ruined if relegated to prose explanation.

If you look at any John Cassaday comic, you’ll see that when he populates a scene, from panel one, everyone he needs is already there, in position to transition to the place and action he needs from them later. Regardless of whether Cassaday is credited as as penciler or director, and not as writer, John Cassaday is a storyteller. He is, more than that, a storyteller with a great talent and obvious interest in establishing continuity. His visual style, his carefulness in positioning characters, his full development of scenes and setting come together to carry us, panel by panel over a page with a veracity that few other comics talent can touch. That time of communication, the imparting of those sensibilities onto an audience, cannot be achieved through the written word alone, certainly not with that efficacy.

When an audience follows an artist on a comic, or buys a comic because of an artist, there are too often side remarks, as if that audience is simply dazzled by a simple light, like a cat chasing the red dot of a laser pointer across the floor, while those who follow writers or characters or a company are concerned with higher things, such as the manufacture and engineering of the laser pointer or the generation of the dot. Ridiculous! But, I’d wager, we all follow the assumption, to one degree or another. We are societally trained to do it, even if we are the one buying for the art. Writers think; artists do. This is, perhaps, too, why we dismiss artists using reference, photo reference or models or screencaps, as a kind of laziness. Why can’t they just generate from their own head how light from source X moves across faces Y and Z and changes the coloration of liquid A, window B, and hair C though E? We know, objectively, that ancient “masters” used live models, and we know that a live model sitting very very still, is essentially the same as a photographed model and vice versa, but we respond to them differently. One is accepted, the other is seen as a cheat.

This is expanded into an unconsidered assumption that drawing from a script means the artist is not authoring anything, just as drawing from a model is somehow merely copying, or that a writer who reuses a phrase they overheard once is failing to be creative.

We have a sociological anxiety for creativity that is not from whole cloth. We have a conviction in this anxiety that is so strong, we often lead condemnations of creative work or people with an outcry against their reuse or collaboration with a preexisting element or structure.

It is not uncommon to see people imply Wally Wood was lazy or just in it for the money. Or, Alex Toth. But those same critics and speculators rarely say it of Stan Lee or Edmond Hamilton, who, in a clearer light, can’t really be said to have thought deeper or more articulately, to have applied more technique and consideration to their work in comics. When Warren Ellis or, particularly it seems, Jonathan Hickman puts a comment about a genuine scientific phenomenon into his comics, people will accord him bonafides as a physicist, when these things are, by the writers’ admission, probably copped from someone’s article somewhere or received knowledge from conversations. Nobody minds, it seems, when a writer borrows from another source or outright copies a scientific theory or engineering jargon, but if a penciler copies the position of a body from a painting, movie, or another comic, it’s swiping and swiping is bad, yes, very bad. A penciler who draws a perfectly replicated real world boat or designs a plausible aircraft based on research and design sketches, it’s considered unremarkable. It’s just copying.

On the subject of Toth, I just want to slip in that most of the notes he infamously made to a Steve Rude comic are not simply art notes, they’re not about replication for the most part, they’re criticism of the storytelling. They are story, which is in a sense to say they are writing notes. When Alex Toth drew a page, he told a story. When Alex Toth designed a costume or a scene in which characters would interact, he told a story, which is why he is concerned with region and era specificity in architecture, where towers should be or where tipis should be. Toth tended to be much more careful, in his work, of ethnic caricature than his contemporaries in comics and animation, because caricature gives its own stories. Toth’s interest in what someone would, plausibly wear, versus how an ethnic stereotype would dress, won’t be addressed as “detail-oriented” or “realistic” in the way an abundance of hatching and stipple might, or - especially - how we would traditionally praise writing that took the same things into consideration.

The way Alex Toth draws a body, the clothes that Phil Jimenez puts on a body, the landscapes that Katsuhiro Otomo envelopes his characters in are storytelling beyond what words do, with a subtlety and strength that words can approximate but not achieve. We often dismiss colorists, we’re critical beyond all reason if a book is late or delayed for a colorist, but ponder this: yellow and green Spider-Man. That’s not a words issue, and no words are going to fix that, long term. Green Spider-Man fails. And, what about the subtler? Red Skies, in a comic from DC represents more than just a red sky, being tied to famous stories of alternate realities merging or being threatened. Red skies, without words, will call up these threats, will imply the existence and merging of realities or ultrareality visitations, but at the same time, to an audience not immersed in the DC Universe, it may just look threatening, implication of a coming storm, weird smog, or an amateurish and garish coloring choice.

It may not seem it, but it is harder to be literal with a picture than with words. There are ways of phrasing to tell your audience not to read too deep, or how to read, but pictures invite speculation, they invite an audience to fill in the gaps, because a picture is never the thing it represents and we often, without realizing it, feel that words are the truth, words are the truth of that thing.

It is harder to skim the visuals, too. Visuals haunt. Buried or casual details, visual pacing and framing, all this can imprint on our mind in a moment. Most people don’t sight-read, many can’t read on the fly, more than simple or dramatic words. We are not even very good listeners. We all have levels of eggcorns, mondegreens, dyslexia, misreadings, failures of vocabulary. There are words were are not sure how to interpret or respond to, because they are unfamiliar, but pictures? A picture has to be pretty special for a person to not have a near-instantaneous response of some kind.

But, we make a judgment about the accuracy of a drawing so much faster, and with weird conviction, compared to written or spoken words.

Visual elements must fit an expected framework or us, or we question their accuracy or talent. We can misinterpret the drawings, sure. But, we can’t jump over the visuals as easily as we do paragraphs of text. In a sense, written words are easier to praise for the inventiveness or consideration in them, because they spell it out for us. It is easy enough to presume a penciler did something ignorantly or accidentally, but when it is in words, we take it as planned, even when it’s an obvious error, like the issue of Flight of Bones where the dialogue was all misplaced, or the Wolverine comic invoking, in prose, “the kike called Sabretooth.”

We know that’s not the right word, or we should. It is much more offensive than a Marvel comic is going to consciously be. It also disrupts a passive narration with an emotionally charged epithet. It doesn’t fit Sabretooth, seeing as how he’s not in any way Jewish. Any one of those things should stop us, help us reevaluate what we’ve read, to see it as an error. Instead, many readers went right on speculating as to what the author intended it to mean, how, and why, without considering that it could be a typo. For many, actually, the word probably went right by them. Even those comics readers who enjoy large blocks of text tend to, in my experience, skim, especially on the first reading. But, beyond that, for most readers, the primacy of the word, the notion that once printed by an authority, a word or wording cannot be wrong or accidental but only serious, concrete, and true, prevents even a casual consideration that they may have got something wrong.

That words could be the wrong words can inspire a lapse in interpretation in an audience. They might rather not understand, to suspend awareness, than to admit that the words may not apply or apply well. But, if a leg is drawn wonky, if there is a style shift without narrative “cause” or justification, we bite down and do not let go. It is wrong.

It is common knowledge that even great comics writers often used words to communicate visual information they felt the art did not (or, if sight unseen and script done first, might not). When this is in error and the art is communicating just fine, it’s called duospecific. This happens, then, so often, when unnecessary that we have a term for it. And, generally, we believe the words. Even in the face of visuals that show us something else, we reflexively believe the words. Jack Kirby draws a character jumping but Stan Lee says they’re throwing something? They are throwing something. John Byrne draws chains wrapped around a tree trunk and a character tugging on it? If Chris Claremont says in words that the character is struggling, he is. But, how he got the chains around the trunk, and under the ground before dislodging the trunk? Probably on Byrne even if Claremont scripted it, because we don’t see the script.

I do not believe in the supremacy of the word, because the word gets the benefit of the doubt. The words can skate over the visuals, and the visuals are always working, even when we are not attending them.

It's a weird game. And we’re weirdly forgiving. And, if you note how many times I have used weird in this piece, you might understand some of why.

Feb 3, 2016

Tangle Wits With a Killer!

Archie Comics isn't known for publishing crime comics, and especially not in conjunction with another company, Close-Up Inc., which may or may not be the same company that makes the toothpaste. But publish crime comics with Close-Up Inc. they did, in the early fifties. Sam Hill was drawn by Harry Lucey and Harry Sahle, and ran seven issues, with each issue having a number of fairly easy-to-follow mysteries. You can download all the issues here at ComicBookPlus.

What strikes me about it, aside from the fact that I read all these stories in the stereotypical 40s movie voices (Sam is Humphrey Bogart), is the relatively high level of visual storytelling for a Golden Age comic. They try to play fair with the clues, so they leave a lot of the clues in the art without calling much attention to them with the words, which wasn't all that common back then, especially since comics had such low production value that it was easy for things to get lost in the art. (Hell, they had to use exclamation points instead of periods most of the time because the periods might get lost in production.)

So I present to you, in the interest of visual storytelling and in the interest of fun, straight of of the first three issues of Sam Hill, Private Eye, two-page features called "Tangle Wits With a Killer!" In each story, you're to look at the panels and see if you can spot the clues that led Sam to his conclusions. The third page features all the solutions (and some bonus crime facts), so it won't leave you hanging.

Click on each image to enlarge, and have fun!

First Mystery:

The Solution:

Second Mystery:

The Solution:

Third Mystery:

The Solution:

Feb 1, 2016

Karnilla: Odds and Ends

Karnilla The Norn Queen: An Irrational Love Story
Part 9 – Odds and Ends
Ben Smith

For the past few weeks, we’ve been basking in the glow of the great Walt Simonson, due to my ongoing and increasingly more insane quest to chronicle each and every appearance of the minor Thor character, Karnilla the Norn Queen. It was mostly because of Simonson that I developed such an irrational love of the character in the first place, so it’s no surprise that he gave us the best stories of the character. Hopefully, that momentum would carry forward into her random appearances in the future.

Let us find out together.

Writer: Chris Claremont; Penciler: Arthur Adams; Inkers: Alan Gordon, Mike Mignola, Art Adams; Letterer: Tom Orzechowski; Editor: Ann Nocenti

The X-Men and New Mutants have traveled to Asgard. They come into conflict with Loki, in a storyline famous for showing a hammer wielding Storm. Near the end of the story, Karnilla boasts from the safety of Nornkeep that she had orchestrated all the events of the day, to prevent Loki from seizing Odin’s throne.

It’s a real shame that we only get but a glimpse of an Art Adams Karnilla. Adams is one of my all-time favorite artists. That’s not really all that revolutionary or insightful, but I don’t care.

THOR #399
Writer: Tom DeFalco; Penciler: Ron Frenz; Inker: Romeo Tanghal; Letters: Rick Parker; Editor: Ralf Macchio

Asgard is under siege by Seth the Serpent God of death. Karnilla looks on from Nornheim and wonders if she should get involved.

I know Frenz likes to channel the style of the definitive artists on characters, but this looks like it could have been traced directly from one of Kirby’s drawings of Karnilla. It’s oft-putting. She shouldn’t look like a 1960s character anymore.

THOR #400
Words, Pictures, Plot: Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz; Embellished By: Romeo Tanghal; Lettered By: John Workman and Michael Heisler; Editor: Ralph Macchio

Karnilla snatches the injured Balder away from certain doom on the battlefield.

Like he has so many times before, Balder pleads with Karnilla to help them defeat Seth before he extinguishes all life everywhere.

Later, Volstagg, Fandral, and Heimdall are hopelessly outnumbered by Seth and his army, when reinforcements arrive in the form of Balder and Karnilla, flanked by an army of Trolls, Norns, and Frost Giants. (Shouldn’t all “Norns” still be magically turned into stone?)

I remember liking a lot of DeFalco and Frenz on Thor. I loved that team on Spider-Man, as covered previously. I don’t remember liking this specific storyline when I read it the first time, and now, after reading Karnilla’s history chronologically, I like it even less. They absolutely erased all the development Walt Simonson did on the characters, and went back to Balder yelling at Karnilla about helping Asgard. They even rolled back her look. I love the Stan and Jack run as much as anybody, but if I felt like reading those comics again, I would.

Writer: Louise Simonson; Penciler: Terry Shoemaker; Inker: Al Milgrom; Letterer: Ken Bruzenak; Editor: Bob Harras

The New Mutants are once again in Asgard. Hela has taken control of the Valkyries, imprisoned the Einherjar, and plans to use them to invade Asgard along with her legions of the dead. With the absence of Asgard’s heroes, Volstagg’s children seek out Balder and Karnilla for help.

Karnilla wishes she could send her army with to assist, but they are still magically trapped as stone.

Interesting casual look for both Karnilla and Balder. I almost skipped right past this page assuming them to be commoners.

Later, Karnilla once again tries to break the spell over her people, but fails.

I did skip over this page, only caught it on the second pass.

Yet, the mighty sorcerer Tiwaz watches on from his icy home, and gives her spell a little boost. Thanks to his help, her people are still made of stone, but can move and speak again.

Louise Simonson is the greatest. She is our Goddess. Let us bow our heads and bask in her greatness.

Writer: Louise Simonson; Guest Penciler: Geoff Isherwood; Inker: Bret Blevins; Letterer: Joe Rosen; Editor: Bob Harras

Balder and Karnilla lead their army of stone in the battle against Hela’s invasion forces.
Karnilla begs a wounded Balder to rest, while her magicks keep the enemy at bay.

The New Mutants are able to break Hela’s hold on the Valkyries, and Hela retreats in defeat.

Writer: Louise Simonson; Penciler: Rob Liefeld; Inker: Bob Wiacek; Letterer: Joe Rosen; Editor: Bob Harras

(This issue is famous for being the debut of the extremely popular, for some reason, mutant Cable. It’s also the first or second New Mutants comic penciled by ‘90s superstar artist Rob Liefeld. I’m not as big a hater of Liefeld as others like to be. His art is better than the artists in the previous two comics covered above, for one thing. I know most of the ire comes from his disproportionate amount of fame to actual talent, but get over it already. Cable deserves far more of our ire, and yet he continues to exist.)

In Asgard, the New Mutants enjoy a feast celebrating their victory over Hela. An ice fairy arrives carrying a mystic scroll and vial from Tiwaz. The vial is for Karnilla, to use to free her people from their stone curse, as reward for their assistance in the battle against Hela.

Thus closing a minor dangling plot thread left over from Walt Simonson’s legendary Thor run. It’s good to have a wife in the business.

Writer: Ralph Macchio; Artist: Bo Hampton; Letterer: Michael Heisler

(This story takes place after the death of Nanna, covered in part 6 of this retrospective.)

Balder mourns his dead lover, Nanna. Karnilla approaches him, attempting to explain herself. She is met with vicious name-calling instead.

She presses on and explains how he only met Nanna through her machinations, and she is sorry for how it turned out.

As recompense, she has struck a bargain with Hela, offering her soul in exchange for resurrecting Nanna.

Before Hela can begin, Balder stops them. Balder doesn’t know why he stopped her, but Karnilla believes she does.

Balder leaves, not quite ready to forgive her fully. After he leaves, Karnilla removes her illusion of Hela, revealing it was all a big bluff to try and win his forgiveness.

If one were really wondering how Balder could have gone from hating Karnilla over the death of Nanna, to the relationship that was developed during Walt Simonson’s run, this answers that little possible discrepancy.

Writer: Sholly Fisch; Art: Sam Grainger; Letterer: Janice Chiang; Colorist: Brad Vancata

The Enchantress is sour about not being invited to Balder’s reception, an event presumably to solidify a political bond between Asgard and Nornheim (I’m assuming Balder is ruler at the moment). Karnilla presents to him a gem, as a symbol of their pact.

Enchantress wants to steal the gem, leading to a wacky adventure of Volstagg stealing the gem under her control.

THOR #431
Written By: Tom DeFalco; Penciled By: Herb Trimpe; Embellished By: Al Milgrom; Edited By: Ralph Macchio

The Wrecker reminisces back to when he originally received his powers at the hands of Karnilla, in a case of mistaken identity.

THOR #437
Writer: Tom DeFalco; Art: Patrick Olliffe; Letters: Brad K. Joyce; Editor: Ralph Macchio

Heimdall has banished Thor from Asgard for slaying his half-brother Loki. Balder and Sif have Karnilla try to locate him with her magicks.

She is able to locate five traces of the missing Thor, and gives Sif some enchanted Norn Stones that will transport her to each location to search for the missing thunder god. Balder gives Karnilla a passionate kiss before departing with Sif on their quest.

For some reason Sif is dressed like Paladin in this time period. I do not wish to investigate further.

I like Olliffe’s rendition of Karnilla quite a bit. Too bad he probably didn’t get to do much more with her. Also, for some reason Sif looks like Paladin. Did I mention that? I did. Well, it’s still weird.

Well, there you have it. Karnilla didn’t get to do much in this collection of tales. Most of them were used to plug up some minor continuity holes, or to serve her traditional role as go-to source for magical plot devices. (I’m not even sure she gets the status of go-to source for that, she’s probably option B, at best.)

At least her relationship with Balder seemed to carry over from the Walt Simonson era, except for the DeFalco and Frenz retro storytelling. I understand that all superhero characters go through cycles of development. Johnny Storm goes through a maturation process under every new writer, and then is back to his immature antics when the next writer has taken over. That’s fine for major characters that will appear enough for that to happen, but Karnilla doesn’t get enough screen time for that. For a character as minor as her, I much prefer any development to carry on from cameo to cameo, otherwise I can just read the Kirby comics again and get the same thing. If you’re going to revert her, at least do something new and fresh with the take.

Will the love between Karnilla and Balder survive the ravages of subsequent creative teams? Come back next week to find out.

Jan 28, 2016

Chasing the Starting Line

Chasing the Starting Line: Five Sequels
Travis Hedge Coke

With a Frank Miller and Klaus Janson (and a load of other folks) following up on The Dark Knight Returns (serializing now! buy!), and Alan Moore’s tin-eared Glory reinvention refreshed in my head by a student who wanted to know if an issue thereof is worth any real money, sequels and catchup comics, nostalgia and re-indulgence comics are thick in my head and storming.

In terms of serial characters and perpetuated universes, “sequel,” loses much of its meaning. Is every Batman comic after DKR a sequel to it? Is the next Frank Miller Batman comic a sequel to DKR? For most, neither is true, but they do, certainly, follow up on it. Year One, which was the next comic Miller did that featured Batman is incredibly affected by DKR, as are non-Miller bat-comics coming on the heels of DKR and even Bat-comics published today today. But, no; Batman is a serial character, by invention. There is a slipstream of stories with Batman in them of which all of those are a part, but some are sequels, some are just the next comic in the sequence, and some are neither one nor the other but still connected. “Sequel,” in terms of comics, is a matter of intent and marketing, and of expectation.

The Dark Knight Strikes Again

While Year One was definitely a followup to DKR, the sequel was The Dark Knight Strikes Again or DK2. You can tell, in part, because the covers don’t say that. The same way DKR is properly titled The Dark Knight, this one’s covers say DK2. It’s branded. They want to make it clear.

But, DK2 (or DKSA, if you prefer) was not what anyone expected. I still don’t want to accept that Frank Miller’s post-DC audience isn’t his DC audience, because he’s goddamn Frank Miller, but the way the rush of vocal critics came forward with DK2, talking as if Miller had done nothing since his bat-comics of the Eighties (just as, right now, many a message board poster is talking as if Miller has done nothing since his bat-comics of the Eighties, except other bat-comics), means that, yes, for these people, that really is the only Frank Miller. He wrote a few years of Daredevil, did a handful of Batman comics, and the rest of the time, they keep him in a fridge somewhere, to be thawed out like a cyborg warrior after a long spaceflight.

DK2 was a sequel to DKR, not a sequel to what people remembered of DKR, or what they’d gotten used to. Miller is weird. Frank Miller does not get near enough credit for making flat out weird comics, but he does, and does it beautifully. But, given fifteen years, people had gotten used to DKR’s weirdness, they’d actually forgotten most of it. Remembered was Batman punching Superman. Forgotten was Superman absorbing energy from flowers and the earth. Remembered was Batman with a tank. That the tank fired rubber bullets was forgotten. Batman breaking bones was remembered. Ronald Reagan wandering off his train of thought onto jellybeans and then worrying about Batman’s affect on the national consciousness, forgotten.

DK2 was cartooned loud, deliberately garish, openly political and there was humor on every page. A lot of people had forgotten how funny DKR was, or they’d never got the jokes (or never read it, just seen posters and knew it was “important”). To be fair, sometimes it’s hard to genuinely read a comic like DKR, post-fame, because what you’re reading, instead, is the fame. DK2 was everything DKR was, turned up to eleven. Operatic, freewheeling, silly, dramatic, brutal and big and unrelenting and wild. But, it seems that a very vocal section of the readership did not want that; they wanted nostalgia. They didn’t want a comic that made them feel like a kid again, they wanted a comic that talked down to them, a paternalistic pat on the head. They saw Batman tell concertgoers to put on masks and help him dismantle the American government and its brute squad.

The Kingdom

Mark Waid’s followup to Kingdom Come, the hit he had with Alex Ross, reads to me like he had a list of amendments and corrections, and I love it for that and many other reasons. The Kingdom is a fantastically, fiercely comic-booky comic. A miniseries comprising a two-part framing story and a handful of stories focusing on characters and occurrences usually only tangentially connected to the wraparound plot, it can be read as a novella in stories or any of the comics can stand on their own (and stand strong).

The framing story concerns the Kingdom Come Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman going back in time to stop a killer who is murdering Superman then going back in time to the previous day, to kill him then, and the day before that to kill him, and so on, so that there’s still another for him to kill (until Superman’s birthdate). The pudding held by this crust range from a daughter feeling unappreciated by everyone, including her famous and famously distant father to a waitress in the big city for the first time and the heir of Batman and Talia al Ghul finding his feet in a world that doesn’t necessarily like a conquering bastard.

Kingdom Come was in Ross’ then-mind-blowing style, cleanly painted, everyone realistically aged, allusions and visual references peppered throughout without much regard to thematic unity, held together by his semi-realist naturalism. The Kingdom was done in a variety of styles, often much thematically tighter, with no bid towards realism or naturalism. Even nostalgia is treated un-nostalgically, in The Kingdom. While Kingdom Come positioned the younger generation as brutes and idiots, The Kingdom gave us an array of social positions and types in every generation. Some of the youth were thugs or dopes, but some were heroes, some were just folks. Like any real generation, they couldn’t be boxed up neatly to justify nerd rage at how the new stuff sucks and is all bad and unheroic and where are the true heroes?

And, as if to make it worse, The Kingdom introduced us to Hypertime. And, once Hypertime, always Hypertime. (“Eat it, granddad!”)

Hypertime is why someone can go back in time, a day at a time, and kill Superman each time. It’s why we can read about a Superman whose secret identity isn’t secret and a Superman whose married to Lois, one married to Wonder Woman, one who is blue and electric, one who is graying at the temples and one who’ll never gray at all. It’s why DC Comics cannot, ultimately, own and regulate Superman, because someone out there is doing fanart, someone is doing satire, SNL skits, or thinking Superman in their head. If I pitch a story, in this article, wherein Clark Kent debates supporting his union to affect change in ways Superman cannot, that story will continue to live in someone’s head, in some small way, even if DC’s legal department contacts the Comics Cube at has Duy take it out of this column.

Hypertime, at its simplest, is the condition of reading and remembering. Sometimes stories stand in opposition and you can say, clearly, “this is version X, this is version Y.” Sometimes you didn’t read the stories between story X and story Y and so they feel like sdifferent worlds completely, even though there is a smooth causal transition. Sometimes you love stuff from one version so much, you apply it, in your head, to the other version, even though the authors did not. Sometimes they do, even though the continuity in which they are working doesn’t make that reasonable. It all counts. It all happens. There is what you like, what you don’t like, but there is no “it doesn’t count.”

Hypertime was so anti-nostalgia people are still pissed off. If Kingdom Come was a handshake and a pat on the back, The Kingdom was the “down low, too slow” that, if you can’t laugh about it, might stick in a grump’s craw.

Revolutionary War

And, then there are followups that come way later as a nostalgia bid and are unafraid to be just that (and hopefully more). Andy Lanning and Alan Cowsill put together a cool selection of talent, most of whom had worked on the earlier comics, to revisit the Marvel UK imprint decades after it had stopped being published, to wrap up some outstanding plot concerns and blow up some buildings and wreck some worlds while at it. Following the The Kingdom model of two-parter for framing and interrelated one-offs between, Revolutionary War put the focus on 90s imprint stars like Dark Angel and Motormouth, peppered with appearances by British-centric characters from the normal Marvel Universe like Captain Britain and Pete Wisdom, and the occasional Wolverine namecheck, because, hey kids, it’s Wolverine!

Unlike The Kingdom, this comic was not following shortly after, and unlike DK2, it wasn’t following something widely acclaimed and hugely successful. The Marvel UK imprint was canned with most of the ongoing titles not finishing and many plot threads had been unaddressed in any form for a couple decades. What it had was love, gumption, and talent. The people working on Revolutionary War wanted to be there. It was a big, silly thank you to an era and a celebration of what made Marvel UK different from normal Marvel. Even the people who looked like superheroes, really weren’t; they were soldiers, kids, the unlucky, the enslaved, and the damned. It was an era of sneers and smiles, a generation of big jackets, magic shoes, and guns so big gods might weep to see them.

They were silly children’s comics, often with a child’s cartooned understanding, yes, but what became highlighted in Revolutionary War, too, is that sense of maturity that came from being outside the slipstream of Superhero Americana. Having superpowers and headlining a title didn’t make you a hero, but killing didn’t make you a bad guy, either. Motormouth tells the kids she’s raising, “Once upon time, there were two happy friends called Motormouth and Killpower… Killpower was brilliant at shooting people and Motormouth had a scream that could explode heads. Your Uncle Killpower had only just been created in a lab by some bad people called Mys-Tech, so he was just a big baby then, really. Isn’t that nice? Plus, Motormouth had magic shoes that could get them out of any trouble. Their evil foes Mys-Tech wanted the sneakers but could never catch them… it was brilliant, hilarious fun.”

She’s telling that fairytale while holding her legs up to her chest, on the floor beside a child’s bed, Killpower dead, everyone wrecked. Their lives, including the children, scarred irrevocably. It’s a bitter scene, and a goofy one. But she’s not whiny about it.

If Revolutionary War let something really shine it’s that these folks were, unlike their normal Marvel counterparts, not whiny. They suffered, they grieved, they laughed, drank, fought and saved, but they weren’t angsty about it.

The Authority

The first twelve issues of The Authority, Warren Ellis, Bryan Hitch, and Laura Martin made sure everything stayed loudly angst-free. While most superhero comics had become melodramatic soaps full of trauma where heroes would spend issues fighting each other in training exercises or over lovers and worry about villains or dangers that rarely presented themselves as anything beatable, the Authority beat up all the villains. The Authority didn’t sweat anything. They just won. And, looked good doing it.

The Authority put a tired old woman in charge and never had her tolerate anyone’s bullshit, and the Engineer - a young, geeky woman - was probably the most powerful person in the room, no matter what room, or who was in it, and she smiled broadly to fly, under her own power, to the Moon, on a mission to save the Earth. The Authority was such an aggressively carefree comic it didn’t even bother to spell out that it was a followup to Ellis’ Stormwatch run (drawn, in small part, by Hitch) that had just ended, featuring all of but two of the Authority team as extra governmental agents. Even readers who knew, or should know better, likely forget that Jenny Sparks, Jack Hawksmoor, Apollo and Midnighter weren’t just always that team, or that Ellis did not actually create Swift, for either title, but inherited the character along with the rest of an overly-large Stormwatch cast he mostly trimmed away immediately.

Stormwatch was about cynicism and consequences. The Authority charged in the face of world powers and even killed God when God was on the wrong side. The finest people in Stormwatch usually lost, but The Authority always won. Stormwatch ended with the death of the best and brightest, but The Authority gave us three women and four men, roughly half of whom had spent significant time homeless, two of which were openly gay at the time, and let them stomp all over ugliness, brutality, and stupidity every single issue. While beloved by fans and, apparently, those in charge of WildStorm at the time, Ellis’ Stormwatch was never a big seller, nor was it much of a critical darling. The best way you could follow on it is to strip it down, make it seem completely new, completely fresh.

Devil By the Deed

Matt Wagner is often an exemplar of what I call total comics. Total comics are comics that are executed at all levels with exceptional care and multilevel synchronicity. line art, colors, words, lettering, characterization, pacing and more come together like perfect cogs and weights in a godly machine. But, it wasn’t always that way.

The Grendel that we saw published in those early Comico issues had some artistic flourishes, and some interesting use of tangents to join shapes, world-building by relating incidental objects in a scene. But, like the story itself, it doesn’t come to a head. Grendel does not finish serializing and when it is revisited as Devil By the Deed, there is a uniform, distinctive sensibility. It is not told, illustrated, or paced in the fashion of any other comic that was coming out at the time. Devil By the Deed was its own thing and it was, and is, total comics.

It’s that meta-story that, I think, becomes more interesting, without ever cutting down the brilliance of the comic itself. This is a comic so good, that goes beyond the good original so exceptionally, it becomes the new standard and the earlier incarnation is virtually forgotten. Of course, it’s meant to do this. That is the goal. It isn’t a sequel or a retelling, it’s “how it really happened.” It’s the truth, while the earlier, unfinished comic is the story. The same characters, same basic story, Devil By the Deed is not a retelling of Grendel or a sequel, but somehow a sequel to the telling. The matter that is being revisited is less the characters or world and more Matt Wagner, human being and comic book author. While Grendel was just a comic, this is the reality of Hunter Rose, and the perfection and the limitations, it is, even, the strengths found and honed in limitations.

Jan 25, 2016

Karnilla: Balder to the Rescue

Karnilla The Norn Queen: An Irrational Love Story
Part 8 – Balder to the Rescue
Ben Smith

Last week, we established that Walt Simonson was like unto Eternity, enveloping and encompassing all that we know as our reality. His run as the writer and artist on Thor is rightly considered the greatest in the history of the character. For those that have been onboard for the previous seven installments of this retrospective, I am attempting to explore each and every single appearance of Karnilla the Norn Queen, one of my favorite characters in all of comics. Focused through the lens of this one minor supporting character, it was easy to see why Simonson’s Thor was such a revelatory experience for so many readers. It was apparently popular enough to release a mini-series featuring one of Thor’s frequent allies, Balder the Brave. Wherever there is Balder, Karnilla is surely nearby, and thus we continue our journey.

Unlike previous installments of Back Issue Ben, I have no desire to attempt to analyze a genius like Walt Simonson over the course of an entire mini-series, so I’ll merely be offering a few meager observations on the Balder the Brave comics below. (An ant cannot accurately evaluate the talents of DaVinci, after all. Unless he’s a really talented ant, or maybe allies with Ant-Man.) Walt handled the writing duties for the series, with Sal Buscema handling art duties. I’m on record for loving Sal’s rendition of beautiful women (ROM: Spaceknight!) so he’s a good fit for depicting my beloved Karnilla. And we all know Walt is our God, so we can only begin to try to comprehend portions of his divine word.

Bow your heads in silent prayer, and let us begin the scripture.

Written By: Walter Simonson; Illustrated By: Sal Buscema; Lettered By: John Workman, Jr.; Edited By: Ralph Macchio

Balder and Karnilla are enjoying getting to know each other better, when an urgent mission from Asgard pulls Balder away yet again.

The early to mid-‘80s was a wonderous time at Marvel. Not only were there many legendary creative runs all happening at once, Frank’s Daredevil, Walt’s Thor, Stern’s Spider-Man, and the continued domination of the X-Men, but the establishment of the direct market led to some pretty surprising mini-series getting the green light when they probably never would have previously. Magik, Vision and Scarlet Witch, Hercules, Cloak and Dagger, and of course Balder, just to name a few.

I liked: That Karnilla predictably tried to delay Balder’s messenger, and that Balder basically shrugged it off as her being her. This is, I believe, Karnilla’s only substantial cover appearance, and it’s a great one. I absolutely loved the exchange between Balder and Karnilla as he prepares to leave. He says, “but you would love me less if I did not ride with Thor to a splendid doom,” to which she responds:

Last but not least, I loved that despite her disappointment and anger towards Balder, she will tolerate no one attempting to harm her beloved.

Favorite panel:

Written By: Walter Simonson; Illustrated By: Sal Buscema; Lettered By: John Workman, Jr.; Edited By: Ralph Macchio

Karnilla is heartbroken over Balder leaving, and worried for his safety. Using a fake Balder as a decoy, Utgard-Loki and his Frost Giants capture Karnilla, and turn everyone in her kingdom into stone.

I liked: I continue to enjoy Karnilla’s constant emotional struggle between her love for Balder and her hatred of nearly everything else. Buscema draws the Hel out of her in these opening pages.

I disliked: If I’m being honest, it was pretty rough to see Karnilla captured and humiliated like that. Yes, she’s unrepentantly evil, but it’s still tough to see her brought low. I suppose that’s probably the point though. I feel that I should emphasize that I still love this series, and that Walt Simonson is our God, but as a Karnilla fan it’s difficult to see her in the role of damsel in distress. Then again, it is Balder’s story, and she is his love interest, so I understand the why of it.

Favorite panel:

Written By: Walter Simonson; Illustrated By: Sal Buscema; Lettered By: John Workman, Jr.; Edited By: Ralph Macchio

Balder is captured by the Frost Giants in his attempt to save Karnilla, and forced to fight for their amusement.

I liked: Balder’s tender moments with the sparrow he doesn’t realize to be a transmogrified (that reference should be obvious, but I wonder how much so for those under the age of 30) Karnilla. Karnilla healing his wounds, even in bird form.
Favorite panel:

Hagen’s face go Thunkk!

Written By: Walter Simonson; Illustrated By: Sal Buscema; Lettered By: John Workman, Jr.; Edited By: Ralph Macchio

Balder uses his golden glow (sho ‘nuff!) to melt the realm of Jotunheim, reducing the Frost Giants to miniature size.

Yet, his reunion with Karnilla is short-lived, when he is called back to Asgard to serve as its ruler.

I liked: Karnilla’s uncharacteristic empathy for Rattusk, who gave his wretched life so that Balder might save her.

Balder and Karnilla’s intimate talk in the forest about the cruelty of mercy, and the power of love. (I understand that her ordeal was probably intended to make her a more compassionate person, but I still don’t like to see my dear Karnilla hurt so.)

Favorite panel:

Instead of attempting to hide the Asgardian summons from Balder again, she angrily hands it right over with an air of defiance and resignation.

THOR #367
Writing and Penciling: Walter Simonson; Inking: Wiacek/Milgrom/Simonson; Lettering: John Workman, Jr.; Editing: Ralph Macchio

Karnilla’s last appearance under the stewardship of Walt Simonson is a replay of the end of the Balder series, with her and Balder saying goodbye before he returns to Asgard to take the throne.

I still have many more comics to read that feature Karnilla the Norn Queen in some capacity, but I can say with the utmost certainty that nobody has written or drawn her as well as Walt Simonson did. It’s almost singularly his fault that my irrational love for her burns so blisteringly hot (with a bit of an assist from Stan and Jack). Looking ahead at the list of her remaining appearances, it isn’t all that long (I’m sure some of you waiting for this series of retrospectives to be over will appreciate that). It’s perplexing with the status that Simonson’s Thor holds in the hearts of fandom, that more creative teams haven’t wanted to use her more. Maybe they feel like Simonson’s version can’t be topped, which I can completely understand. All I can hope is that the comics left to read make her as fun, engaging, and interesting as she was here.

Only one way to find out!

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