Nov 27, 2014

Batman, Moses, and Donald Duck Walk Into a Bar...

Fictional Magic and Science
Pop Medicine
Travis Hedge Coke


“Never accept anything for true which I did not clearly know to be such; that is to say, carefully to avoid precipitancy and prejudice.” - René Descartes, Discourse on Method

“Magic I can take - I don’t like it, but ultimately it's just a science I don't understand. But mythology - gods — I like Thor, Cap, but his world — it violates everything I've ever believed in.” Kurt Busiek, Avengers vol. 3, #1

“The Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will.” - Basic definition of magick, both commonplace acts of will and ritual practices, by Aleister Crowley




Most of the time, we eyeball whether something is scientific or magic in a comic. We make a snap decision and our snap decision will probably never get challenged.

Distinguishing magic and science in a fictional setting is either done ignorantly or it is hard to do. Science, as a term, is fairly concrete in its definition, but not so in its practical, everyday use. The distinction is implied, it is understood, like drug versus medicine. Like “technology,” and like “magic” - whose proper definitions are also all over the place and often suspiciously lacking - “science” is a word we use most often to describe a feeling or a fuzzy set of general coordinates. Star Wars is a science fiction movie, Fantastic Four is a science fiction comic, in the same sense that people say “Batman is more realistic than the Flash” even though Batman stories have, more often, involved boojums and werewolves and Flash comics have, off and on, gone out of their way to include little presumably true science factoids, called Flash Facts. Batman feels more realistic, the way that Star Wars can feel more realistic than the same movie taking place without starships or circuitry. Unstable Molecules (Sturm & Davis) is probably the only Fantastic Four comic wherein all the science included is verifiable and functional, because it takes place in something very close to late 1950s America, but television sets and can openers in the late 50s does not feel of “science” the way rocket ships, alien’s with godlike power, and dimensional portals to an asteroid-strewn hell like the Negative Zone feel of science.

Why? Partly because science, in terms of the scientific method, or as a perspective, is political, in the same way that many churches or sects go out of their way to distinguish between miracles achieved by their own boys and home team deities and the (black) magic of the neighboring church or local doctor, lawyer, or cranky loner with a shack just past the edge of town who has all those fascinating things in jars and can do stuff with them. In terms of the English language, “magic” implies a falseness, a trick or lack of genuineness, to distinguish it from exciting Christian things that would otherwise seem to be cut from the same cloth, because otherwise it would be harder to police or belittle ones neighbors. The words carry more weight than they do definition.

The differentiation between magic and science, like those between magic and magick, magic and religion, or science and mad science, might as well be said to be primally a personal differentiation, because I’m going to prize human autonomy here and freewill. Authors are the intermediary between raw ideas or the world of influences, and the audience. While an audience is not required to interpret sympathetically with the author, what they receive in a comic (or any piece of art or story) has to come filtered and arranged via the author(s), and so, too, an author then has the central responsibility for what is presented, how it is filtered or arranged into art, into story or implication.

There is no genuine test for a person's conviction in God or a miracle, any more than there is a test for conviction in gravity or chickens. But, your personal understanding of those things, your understanding of their mechanics and their reliability can be so unconsidered, that as an author, you plug right along down a road without even realizing you’ve chosen the road from many, or that you’re electing to stray to one particular lane, at a generally stable speed, obeying both local driving laws and understood social niceties - even your road rage will occur and fall into socially agreed upon limitations and arrangements. This is true for a writer or artist portraying gravity as they believe in it, as it is for a writer or artist portraying St Paul, the Marquis de Sade, or Steve Ditko as they believe them to have been or the myths of them to be understood. Because we can do do that. We can distinguish between a Jesus Christ or Loki that we believe to autonomously exist and a Christ or Loki that we know others use as symbol or functionary in services or stories.

Christ and the Devil in Chronicles of Wormwood are cast in a modern perspective, because Garth Ennis is not producing a biography of either, but using them as characters and as pointing tools. They are semblances of things that Ennis knows are talked about, that he talks about, but which he does not believe in and cannot produce satisfactorily in some sort of flesh or brimstone or even with a nice halo and a good beard.

We have to rely on semblances in an agnostic or atheist story dealing with Jesus as much as Iron Man. What the Jesus iconography implies, it implies, and what the Iron Man iconography provides, is what we have to work with, both for authors and for the audience.

Can and cannot. Present and past. Science and magic.


Iron Man isn’t something, real-world, that is replicable or explicable in a functional way, but Iron Man is science, not magic. Society is not bothered by this assertion. Kulan Gath, however, is magic, because he is also full of powers that cannot be functionally explained or replicated in the real world, plus he is really old, tied to an old world, and wants that old world back. Magic, in a distinctly Anglo sensibility, is old and over there, unless we’re being “ironic.” Probably coming out of the rise of the Age of Enlightenment, and a cultural sense that magic, that miracles, have been lost, gone somewhere else.



You don’t see a lot of contemporary Chinese stories or Cherokee stories about how magic has gone off in a boat to a faraway land and all we have is cell phones and steak knives. Unless there’s a clear political underpinning, magic and science in manga that deal with both aren’t explicitly treated as a contemporary and ancient times dichotomy. This is an Anglo neuroticism from the Age of Enlightenment, when magic and miracles were aggressively condemned to the Past, along with such progress as forceps for baby delivery, a tool that legally only men were allowed to use, because… um… midwives… er… women are icky. Science! By which I hope, simply, to illustrate that this breakdown, this distinction, is not and was never one of rationality, but a political obfuscation which, in Euro-dominant societies, particularly Anglo societies, we've bought into through repetition and populism.

A Japanese story, a Brazilian story, wherein a wristwatch is somehow counteractive to magic, like it makes holy water explode or burns goblins, is pretty unlikely. Tempered steel counteracts magic in a ton of western European and Eurocentric fictions, though. Clockwork hurts faeries. Why? Because faeries and gods are old and like the past, in this view, they are trampled down beneath modernity. Modernity, in this model, is anti-magic and pro-science unless the author believes in the sort of magic being employed, which is where you get futuristic stories with full blown Catholic miracles or something like The Invisibles, which is explicitly wedding nominal magicks throughout an otherwise “real world” setting and future, because the author agrees with the bases of those magical orders and practices. Even as a generic rule of received wisdom or habit, steel being death to magic would be a hard trope to employ for someone who is aware of the ramifications of their own belief in, say, the transubstantiation of bread and wine into spiritual flesh and blood, the actuation of reality-altering energies through sigils, prayer or holy penance.

The Jesus or Hell that Ennis uses in Chronicles of Wormwood or Preacher are not attendant to any personally-believed-in Jesus or Hell, but do draw considerably on ideas or previous representations of Jesus and Hell, because Ennis does not believe in an actual miraculous son of a god Jesus or a physical real world Hell. But, Evan Dorkin does believe in Abraham Lincoln and the Lincoln appearing in Bill and Ted’s Most Excellent Comic Book is, as well, shaped more out of the myth of Lincoln, the stories and portrayals of Abraham Lincoln, than what Dorkin (I’m assuming) understands to have been a real and verifiable man. Bill and Ted and Wormwood are both fiction, and their President Lincoln and Jesus, respectively, are explicit characters. That, makes the difference. When dealing with an explicit character or place, we tend to be more conscious of how we use it, how we portray it, whether we believe in it or not. When we deal explicitly with places, people, ideas, we play not only to our personal understandings, but to our presumed audience; they are played for audience reaction. Thus, when we see the prominent religion of the audience dealt with in one of the big corporate-owned shared universes like the DC or Marvel Universe, we are far more likely to see sympathetic devils or varied representations of Hell, because those are traditional even inside Christian society, but an unsympathetic God or Christ is considerably unlikely, and indeed, even a sympathetic one.

So why do people have such a hard time separating Jesus, the ostensibly real guy, and Jesus, the obviously fictional character, when they can easily distinguish an obviously unreal Abraham Lincoln from the genuine article? The same reason we can buy Superman being powered by yellow sunlight and drained by red sunlight, but unaffected either way by yellow or red tinted light. Or, why we can accept Superman turning back time by flying faster that Earth’s rotation, against the rotation, but Superman singing the God of All Evil to nothingness might be too much. It is not about one being closer to reality or closer to science, what it is about is which one feels more genuine. In a sense, human history is towns laughing at the silly herbs and bone setting of the town across the river, and superhero fans scoffing at Superman singing evil to submission, while those towns use their own herbs, and those fans accept punching evil as a very real way to impede its progress.

Let us pretend that Batman is us, since we all know if we were just rich enough, dedicated enough, and lucky enough, with just the right dash of dead parents, we could be Batman. On the old TV show, and quite often elsewhere, Batman would accept anything at all as a vital clue. He would not analyze these clues critically or even pause to consider if it’s flagged by anything as a clue. Everything is a clue and the clues always reward leaps of faith and intuition with answers. We accept this as Batman accepts this, and the world he’s in seems to reward it. But, back when Batman first met Zatanna, a card-carrying daughter of a magic lineage, a sorceress, a witch, a spell-casting marvel, he accepts her accomplishments and tells Robin that they are not magic, but a genetic peculiarity allows her to access transformative energies from wood and other objects and direct it to miraculous ends. Like that makes sense.

Both in fiction and in real life, any investigator practicing this way would be a mystic, from Twin Peak’s Agent Cooper and DC Comics’ The Question to Matthew Fox or Hillel the Elder, but we do not see it thusly with Batman. Batman the “shaman” is isolated to a few Grant Morrison comics the same way that most of us, most likely, downplay our own personal mysticism and ungrounded suppositions so long as they work for us. Albert Einstein, who could just about be a patron saint of science, identified somewhat as a mystic, and he also famously rejected certain evident phenomena based on them, simply, not sitting right with him.

Which, roundabout, brings us to one o the most common unspoken distinctions between science and magic: Science is what works and magic is what cannot. In fiction or in reality, labeling either one, either way, cannot make them more or less workable, but, if Batman can explain the causal elements of a magical act than, by this distinction, it is now science. Magic that works, like science that works, are not obfuscations, but technologies. At least, this is true in-world. In-world, if someone can do something via magic-sounding technologies or science-sounding technologies, than it is a genuine thing with some ability to describe its functions and replicate them. As an audience, though, we are not receiving them as technologies, but as a symbol of functionalism, of accomplishment. The last minute save, in fiction, is not very different from divine intervention or answered prayer; these forms of desire trumping expectation are rewarding in the same fashion, but what agent the act is ascribed to has a social and personal effect that is different from the one experienced by anyone in-world.

I don’t mean to qualify either “side” of this as superior, and I realize I’m expanding this beyond comics, but it might be impossible to overestimate how much this affects comics. A christian who is not explicitly dealing with their version of christianity in a story, may wholly believe they are not addressing christian beliefs or expectations in the comic, but these expectations become nearly invisible to an author when channeled implicitly. Our self-corrector, our social-adjustment software, so to speak, bypasses the expectations and structures, the same way a metal detector that would identify a pistol, but not discussion of pistols, even if the discussion is, “Hey, I’m going to bring a gun in tomorrow and…”

Both authors and audience stop questioning readily when the structures are implicit. But, because an author predates the audience appraisal of a comic, the audience’s alarms can be set off by something implicit that does not agree with their mysticism, their moral or world order, their idea of how things work and why. The authors are, in essence, gone by then. They might read a review that enlightens them, or an editor might call it out, the artist might question the colorist, the colorist might question the writer, but that, generally, occurs before the product is out there in the world. Audiences, though, can be moved to disruption. Audiences can be shocked or dismayed. It isn’t the explicit characterizations and actions, the causes and effects or personalities in Promethea that set my teeth on edge, it’s the moral ordering, the behind-the-narrative lessons and moral causation.

This (abridged) sequence in Promethea, between our heroine, her highest spiritual self, and a cruddy old misogynist who only recently was presenting himself as a sexy younger man, screaming in her face, and trying also to murder both our heroine and her BFF



is part of Alan Moore’s effort to express what he considers very serious magical and social ideas to his audience, and… it’s all kinds of fucked up. I won’t even make apologies for that, and I have been known to make apologies for the teenage love interests in Woody Allen movies.


An astute reader may have, by this point, decided that I don’t see a great deal of difference between religion and magic, or feel that there is both a religious and a separate secular moral framework to an author’s mind. That’s part correct; I don’t believe there is any difference. What Alan Moore is expressing is both a lecture on magic using a story to get it across, it is also a moral and causal framework, a How Things Are explication. How They Should Be. How They Work. The “cuteness” of the banter regarding undressing or the wise old man’s leering bragging cues us to implicit understandings, to an implicit framework, even while there is explicit magic in the transfiguration of Sophie into Promethea or creepy old guy’s ability to cast glamours at will. The causation, here, is no less religious/political than, to take this further into the realm of implicit religious moral ordering, the scenario that Chuck Dixon, himself, describes in the Wall Street Journal as, “Chuck, expressed the opinion that a frank story line about AIDS was not right for comics marketed to children,” without also noting - presumably because he does not connect them - that Dixon was at that time doing stories for those same comics involving underage pregnancy, or positioning the rich, white American, Tim Drake, as a sort of “everyboy” character who was ethically abstaining from sex and consistent in impishly downplaying the young women in his life as a sort of secondary citizenry. These, too, are affects of a moral ordering, of a religious/political outlook.

Those religious/political precepts, which are not backed by rationality so much as habit, and therefore generally do not qualify as “scientific” suppositions or causalities, go much more easily unchallenged than, say, a comic where Heaven lands in Idaho and God’s a bit of a drunk, but it’s okeh because Jesus and St. Paul can throw bolts of radiation from their eyes and hands. You can’t prove either one, that young rich white American boys are always right about everything just because they have drive, or that St. Paul can’t cast beams of energy from his eyes. In point of fact, most comics readers have no problem accepting a myriad of demons and devil-stand-ins, but also things like Hades being an “evil” god, Loki being someone who “isn’t worshipped on Earth any longer,” but even too, Ganesh, as a deity “of the past” who can probably throw lightning from his tusks. Comics readers who took issue with Grant Morrison using angels in his JLA comics, despite his being generally respectful and decently researched, probably didn’t blink too hard when Stephen Strange, master of the mystic arts and the universe’s Sorcerer Supreme said, “There’s no such thing as chaos magick.”









It’s not about fairness, or faith, or rigorous study and conviction. The distinction between magic and science, religion and magic, can and cannot, especially when implicit, and in pop comics (and other pop media) boils almost instantaneously down to what we have socially agreed upon to unblinkingly let slide.

Nov 26, 2014

Review: Avatar: The Promise and The Search

For my nephew's birthday, I got him the Library Editions of Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Promise and The Search, which continues the now-classic animated series in comic book form and bridges the events between its finale and the beginning of The Legend of Korra. Gene Luen Yang writes, Gurihiru draws, and Michael Dante DiMartino and Brian Konietzko (the show's creators) consult. The Library Editions have special features, including character designs and annotations by Yang, Gurihiru, and in the second volume, DiMartino.

I was too lazy to read these and write reviews myself, so I had my nephew write one. And here it is.

Review: Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Promise and The Search
by the Tan Man

The Promise and the Search are continuations of the lives of the members of Team Avatar, as they run into new conflicts and daring tests once more. These two books expand and give conclusions to the already vast story of Avatar. First off, The Promise is mainly about the trouble Aang goes through in either picking his duties as a friend or as the Avatar. The Fire Nation and the Earth Kingdom face off once again, now on more level ground, with neither being clearly pure evil nor pure good. Both factions have reasonable purposes and both factions are wrong in some regard. The main city The Promise takes place in is Yu Dao, a Fire Nation/Earth Kingdom hybrid town, where the townsfolk live peacefully together, whether they be of Fire Nation blood or Earth Kingdom heritage.


The Search, probably the most-awaited story all fans of Avatar, is about the quest to find Zuko’s mom, Ursa. Team Avatar sets out again to solve a series-long mystery, now with the companionship of longtime rival, Azula, who is now bent to the bones and mentally unstable. Spirits make appearances and play a huge role in The Search. The team works together while Aang tries to help others along the way, Katara does the best she can to help the team with their inner struggles, Zuko is determined to find his long beloved mother, Azula is hell-bent in claiming the throne, and Sokka cracks his usually unusual set of jokes.

In these books, the world of Avatar is evolving into more advanced forms of technology and politics. As seen in The Promise, the city of Yu Dao is attempted to be breached by a mobile automatic drill, a creation that is at the time, out of this world.

The best things about The Promise, besides Team Avatar, are the lush world it instills to the reader, the diverse city of Yu Dao, and the fact that the Fire Nation and the Earth Kingdom come into the brink of war again. The world of Avatar was definitely and accurately portrayed in the book; it felt as if you were watching the animated series. Yu Dao was also very interesting for me because it was a city unlike any other. No city has ever been like Yu Dao, wherein Fire Nation settlers and Earth Kingdom inhabitants live not as rivals, but as comrades. Of course, we cannot talk about The Promise without the war that was about to ensue, and almost toppled the balance that Team Avatar fought so hard for in the animated series.

The Search lives up to and may have even surpassed the expectations.

The art in the books make the story feel so alive. It feels just like watching the animated series we all love. It captures the essence of each and every character as well as their personalities. The art is truly top-notch, and the portrayal of the characters is very spot on. Through the art, you feel as though you are once again stepping inside the world of Avatar.

Every single character was spot on. They captured the character’s overall personality, all the way down to the little mannerisms they all do. The characters never sway by their morals and their beliefs. The spirituality of Aang, which was prominent in the series, was captured beautifully in the books. The mother-like attitude of Katara was handled excellently, as well as the goofiness of Katara’s bother, Sokka. Toph was still the rough little girl. Zuko was still Zuko, as he is confused and he always battles with his inner demons and, the shadow of his father forever haunting him. Azula was portrayed nicely as they maintained her clever, yet maniacal nature.

The best thing about the Library Edition was definitely the side-notes of the writer, artist, and even sometimes the co-creator Michael Dante Dimartino himself. The notes gave a new perspective and a more in-depth look at the books.

I have only one suggestion: MAKE MORE.

Luckily for my nephew, they are making more. The Rift is already being released in individual chapters, and the Library Edition is out in February.

Nov 24, 2014

Civil War: Why You're Wrong About It, Part 4

Part Four – The Man with the Iron Tattoo
Ben Smith

After three grueling weeks, we reach the conclusion to my admirable, yet exhausting, quest to prove to fans and naysayers alike why Civil War rocked out with its clock out. Thusly inspired by the rumors that Marvel Studios is working to their own big screen version of the seminal crossover event, I decided to tackle the landmark comic series with the level of preparation and quality analysis that my three readers have come to expect, which is none. Yet, what I lack in intelligence or work ethic, I make up for with boundless enthusiasm. So suck it, comic scholars.

Previously, we saw the destruction of Stamford, which led to the government enacting a superhero registration act. Captain America opposed the act, and Iron Man decided to support it. Spider-Man unmasked to support registration, but then switched sides after Goliath was accidentally killed in battle. Iron Man recruited villains to his side as part of a new Thunderbolts team, and Captain America reluctantly worked with the Punisher. Both sides maneuvered and planned for the final battle, resulting in the two sides coming face to face outside the recently established Negative Zone prison.

Tensions have boiled over. Captain America is spouting tough talk like a star-spangled Clint Eastwood. Iron Man continues to be surprised about being a central figure in a Marvel event comic. Sue’s been hypnotized by Namor’s junk. Everybody loves Maria Hill. The final war to determine the future of the Marvel Universe is set to begin.

Let’s end this.

Commentary by Mark Millar and Steve McNiven has been appropriated from an interview conducted by Mike Cotton for Wizard Magazine #192, “Civil War – The Director’s Commentary.”

CIVIL WAR #7
Writer: Mark Millar, Pencils: Steve McNiven, Inks: Dexter Vines, John Dell & Tim Townsend, Color: Morry Hollowell

The fight begins.


McNiven: This was fun. I love stuff like Cap shoving Bishop’s head into the ground. It’s a bunch of guys fighting!


Millar: Yeah, I thought at least in this, I don’t know if anyone noticed Woody Allen in the New York scene where they all appear in New York and there’s an explosion of yellow cabs and Woody Allen driving to work.

S.H.I.E.L.D. shuts down the Ryker’s Island portal, but Black Panther overrides their system and finds the coordinates out, and then Cloak teleports everyone from both sides into the middle of New York City.

Iron Man sends out the order to contain the fighting and prevent civilian casualties (setting up what comes later).


(This page is pretty corny, but like I said before, I’m a sucker for Spider-Man being depicted as a force to be reckoned with. Something that doesn’t always happen in these bigger stories. Plus, he’s kicking Reed Richards.)

Captain America is in a bad situation, surrounded by Tony’s Thunderbolts, when Namor and his Atlanteans come to the rescue.


In response, the registration side is bolstered by the arrival of Clor and all the new Fifty State Initiative recruits.

Iron Man finally stand face to face on the battlefield. The Vision surprises Iron Man from behind, shutting down his armor.


(Another quick original art story. This page was inked by John Dell, who was a frequent guest of my LCS when I lived in Biloxi. The owner of the store had this page framed on the wall of the store, and after a couple weeks of us prodding him to sell it to us, he actually agreed. Thus marked the first page of original comic book art we ever purchased, and an addiction was born. It’s also the one page we get the most unsolicited requests to sell from interested buyers, which of course could never happen.)

Cap is taking it to Stark, and the Thing shows up to do some crowd control (he’d decided to remain neutral throughout the conflict previously). Hercules picks up Clor’s hammer, and uses it to smash the android clone’s head into pieces.

Captain America has Stark beaten and on the ground, arm cocked back for the finishing blow.


Millar: It is very satisfying that you’re seeing someone get the shit kicked out of them. Look back at Dark Knight Returns book 2, where Batman is fighting a mutant leader. There’s nothing better than seeing your guy come back and just kick the living shit out of a guy. And that [third] panel on that page is the most disturbing image ever, that Iron Man’s helmet just goes to that floor. That’s horrible, but really brilliantly done. At the meeting [where Civil War was planned] it was asked, “Where the hell do we end this?” Because all the specifics of it, you work out all the plot stuff and everything, all the little back-and-forths, that was easy. But it had to be a group decision of who was going to win this because it’s such a change in the Marvel Universe, depending on who won. So yeah, that was actually really hard. And as you know, we argued for a day and a half over who should win and how they should win. And Joss Whedon came in as the voice of common sense and suggested a really nice, simple ending, because one of the things we talked about was a kind of “Hey, everybody wins.” You know, you’re all winners. And he was saying that’s the most unsatisfying ending, and after seven months you have to have one guy beat the other guy. And it was a really good point.

As he contemplates his next move, Captain America is tackled by firefighters, paramedics, and military men. Initially trying to fight them off, Cap finally sees the truth when he looks around and sees the city in flames.

So Captain America does the unthinkable, and surrenders.


McNiven: I think it was the Cap crying thing. Mark really wanted him to be bawling out. And initially I was like, “I hope I can hit this right.” But I think it did. I think he genuinely has an expression of remorse and sort of stunned into silence in that way. I love that shot with him dropping the shield, and it’s really paved out in the script. It was all there. It was just done for me to draw.

Millar: Steve just picked the perfect angle on it. It’s beautiful. Cap with his head down crying, walking away in handcuffs. This is maybe my favorite moment in the book. But I’ve got to say, I should point out that there’s a line I love on the previous page that Mr. C.B. Cebulski came up with, which was, “They’re not arresting Captain America. They’re arresting Steve Rogers.”


(This was a pretty underwhelming conclusion to the fight at the time, after months of sequential comics buildup, but it’s pretty much the perfect ending. Captain America was winning the fight, but not the argument.)

All that’s left is the setup for what comes next in the Marvel Universe. Reed tries to win back his wife Susan. The Punisher ominously picks up Cap’s discarded cowl. Iron Man debuts his hand-picked team of Mighty Avengers. The Fifty State Initiative is implemented.


Millar: It was great for me to touch on all these little pieces of the Marvel Universe. So with those final eight pages or so, I got to do a blueprint for the Marvel Universe, which is the fun part, you know, coming up with the high concepts. And that’s actually very satisfying. It’s nice having to set up this new Marvel Universe and then letting other people do the hard work. And some of them get carried through and some of them didn’t. Like one I really wanted was the Punisher to become the new Captain America and we have that on some level, but I wanted him to be in costume as the new Cap, that was my idea from there. The Initiative is actually a run I was going to do at some point. My brother used to have a company called the Scottish Initiative that pulled together all of these charities from all over Scotland. So just all these little things like that. I had a very loose idea for [Alpha Flight] that Mike Oeming did a much better job with, which was that some of the heroes would flee across the border because nobody’s really interested in Canadian heroes. Sorry, Steve. [Both laugh]

McNiven: When Hank is introducing those guys, the Texas Rangers… these guys are sad. One guy’s an armadillo. [Laughs]

The public unveiling of the Negative Zone prison is met with high approval. A handful of heroes defect to Canada. Spider-Man is back in black.


(Say whatever you want to say about Civil War  itself, it set up some good ideas going forward. I didn’t follow books like The Initiative or Omega Flight, but they seemed to be highly regarded. Iron Man had never been more prominent or important to the Marvel Universe. Spider-Man’s status as a public hero on the run, wearing the black costume again, had a lot of potential that wasn’t really fully realized. Black Panther and Storm filling in on the Fantastic Four while Reed and Sue work on their marriage was an interesting idea.)

The final reveal is that Tony Stark has been named Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. He escorts Miriam Sharpe around the bridge of the helicarrier, taking time out to order Deputy Director Maria Hill to get them some coffee (something I quite enjoyed at the time) and letting her know his plans for the future, how the prison was “number forty-two” because it was forty-second idea out of one hundred ideas he, Reed, and Pym came up with to make the world a safer place.


(Stark and Maria Hill’s relationship was a true highlight of Matt Fraction’s upcoming run on the Iron Man comic. It’s what cemented me as a Hill fan for life, along with Mrs. Back Issue Ben’s undying devotion.)

With Tony safeguarding his friend’s identities, he and Miriam look off to the future, the future of the Marvel Universe.

(I remember someone wondering online if we were supposed to read this final scene with The Empire’s theme music from Star Wars echoing in our heads. I thought that was pretty clever.)

FINAL THOUGHTS:

Millar: I didn’t look at a single thing after we finished.

McNiven: I’m reading Mighty Avengers and New Avengers. Leinil Yu is doing a beautiful job on New Avengers. It’s absolutely gorgeous.

Millar: I love all the guys, but I just got too close. After all that time I had to go away and do something else. It would have felt like we were still working on the book if we read the new stuff.

McNiven: True. You have a sort of vested interest in it. Yeah.

Millar: It was like probably 10 months of a life, but it was literally in your every waking thought.

McNiven: Yeah. Well, that last issue, I did it in all of January. Like I started Jan. 1 and I drew every single day until Jan. 31, like every day. Straight through. Thank God it’s done.

Civil War  was a watershed moment for the Marvel Universe, and for the comic book publishing industry. House of M had preceded it as the first modern event comic, but Civil War is what really cemented the crossover as an annual part of both Marvel and DC’s publishing plans. It propelled Iron Man front and center in the Marvel Universe, and continued the meteoric rise of the Avengers as comic’s number one franchise. New Avengers and Mighty Avengers was probably the most organic two-book franchise in comic history, as Cap’s former allies comprised the “New” team, and Iron Man’s handpicked squad was running around in “Mighty.” Captain America (SPOILER ALERT) was assassinated while in captivity, setting Brubaker off on his epic “Death of Captain America” story arc. Spider-Man faced the consequences of his unmasking, leading to Aunt May being mortally wounded, and Peter faced with making a deal to save her life that would cost him his marriage.

The Registration Act would be a major part of the status quo of the Marvel Universe going forward, leading in to the next major Marvel event, Secret Invasion. The skrulls secretly infiltrating the Marvel Universe was as strong a concept as Civil War, but was similarly was considered not executed fully to its potential. But that’s a story, possibly, for another time.

I’ve always been all-in on these big crossover event comics. Many fans seem to get pretty upset when the comics don’t wind up changing their lives for the better, but I tend to think that’s more a fault of expectations than the books themselves. Most of these things aren’t designed to “push the medium forward,” or be overly thought provoking. They’re the equivalent of big summer blockbuster popcorn movies. They’re supposed to be fun, and I had a lot of fun reading Civil War month to month. You can analyze how Iron Man and Captain America should and would act all you want, or you can just sit back and enjoy them going at it. What you can’t deny is that Civil War was very successful. (It ended up being the book that got Mrs. Back Issue Ben fully involved in the Marvel Universe for a time, reading several books on a regular basis.) Success doesn’t always guarantee quality, but it’s pretty much the least subjective measuring stick.

Or maybe it sucks after all, what do I know?














Nov 23, 2014

Hopeful Realism and The Trick Ending

Hopeful Realism and The Trick Ending
by Duy


This column has spoilers for last Wednesday's Daredevil #10. If you haven't read the issue and don't want to know what happens, go buy it, read it, and then come back here.



Mark Waid and Chris Samnee's Daredevil is so good that I end up forgetting about it every month. I know that doesn't make any sense, but it just means I kind of take it for granted. It's like how I never go out of my way to watch a San Antonio Spurs game, then I catch one on TV and I'm just amazed by the ball movement and their execution each time. This past week's issue of Daredevil tackled the issue of depression, always a tough nut to crack because mental illness is difficult to understand, and in the eyes of some people, tough to even accept it exists. But Waid does a good job of explaining it in the first few pages, explaining that it's a physical illness that prevents sufferers from reaching back out to people, despite the fact that they desperately want to.

At the end of the issue, Matt puts on a happy face, sends his girlfriend Kristen McDuffie away, and then curls up in his bed.


And that's it. A powerful, true-to-life, realistic ending.  After that, the letters page is run.

I was going to put the book down after that, then decided to see if there was an interesting ad left on the final page, and like a post-credits scene, Matt picks up his phone, reaches out to Kristen, who turns out to have stayed behind, waiting for Matt to let her in.



That's a beautiful ending, and it wouldn't have worked so well as it did if they didn't pretend that the second-to-last page was the actual ending. It works because the heavy subject matter validates the heavy ending. Like I said, it's realistic. It's hard for people with depression to reach back out to the people who reach out to them. But the real ending is realistic too, and hopeful — the ones who understand won't leave.

The only time I've ever seen a similar trick ending is with Scott McCloud's Zot! in an issue entitled "Normal." In it, supporting cast member Terry is confronting the fact that she may be a lesbian.




This particular scene between her and Zot really gets to me.


Anyway, at the very end there, Terry runs into Pammy, the girl she has a crush on. Pammy says hi, and Terry just walks away.


After that, McCloud ran the letters page. He actually got readers coming up to him years later complaining about the ending. Apparently, those readers never turned to the final page, which involved Terry turning around.


Again, the "misdirection" is a realistic enough ending as it is. Many people hide who they are, especially in high school. But the actual ending is realistic, too, because, well, some people do take that first step to self-acceptance.

What's more, both true endings are appropriate to the superhero genre, as they highlight hope and show that there is light even in dark moments.

Still, it's probably telling that the trick ending works so well when it comes to issues based in reality, such as depression or coming out, Are we so conditioned to think that the bad stuff is what's real that ending at the down notes is what's expected? Probably so. And that in itself is a sad commentary on how we view reality.




Nov 20, 2014

A Closer Look At Some Pages

A Closer Look At Some Pages
Travis Hedge Coke


I love comics. I don’t mean I love monthly superheroes or I love daily comedy strips or I love 49ers’ boys school romances, Milk Morinaga cute girl does cute thing comics or Stan Goldberg cute girl comics. I love all of those, too, but when I say I love comics, I mean the gamut, I mean the medium, the very basics elements and that distinguish comics from other forms of artistic expression, and the ones that muddle the line between comics and prose or comics and visual art, comics and movies, comics and music (okeh, that’s a difficult one to muddle, but someone could). Part of my love of the medium is a sense that even if a comic is mostly bad, it’s almost impossible for everything to be wrongheaded or tin-eared. A movie can just be a wreck, just a decimated wrongheaded thing because directing, acting, editing, sound, visual, motion, arrangement, and script mix together so readily that one aspect done horribly can hobble all the others. Comics, in general, can support their more flawed aspects by excelling elsewhere, at least in my opinion. Great layouts can overwhelm poor dialogue, for instance, while a great plot can can cover for poor drafting. With a painting or a short story, the elements at play are by nature fewer than a comic can use.

So it comes that I like to look deeper and longer at pages of comics than I do, at least very often, movies or songs, poems or pen and ink drawings. I feel there are valuable lessons even in poorly executed comics, and that the brilliant ones can reveal so much more than their story or characterization, if a few minutes are given over to looking at technique and authorial decisions, or just happenstance that happily works.

1. Let’s have a look over this Winsor McCay strip from Little Nemo in Slumberland:



Neatly arranged in four stacks of panels, the strip is further subdivided into two equal-sized segments that just so neatly fit on a postcard which at the time was a thing that can and did happen. The even structure is further aided by each panel being numbered, something we need less of now, but at the time of original publication (1905-11) multi-panel comics were still a relative rarity in America and printings were still likely to be recut and reordered to fit a newspaper’s space allowances. The technique, however, of ordering panels by numbering can still be seen more recently in things such as Walt Simonson’s infamous issue of Fantastic Four where every page opened with a timestamp that allowed a reader to jump back and forth in the time-traveling protagonist’s adventure in objective “real time.” Even techniques that seem to have seen their day may be easily repurposed, utilizing the strength of the lessons we’ve already subconsciously learned from them.

Further, Nemo is set up for an at-sight reading, with visual elements carrying us from one panel to the next or establishing clear differentiation between things represented in ink and paint without thinking on them or relying on the more or less superfluous dialogue balloons. The moment-to-moment change in the first two panels, the visual anchor of the dirigible in panels five and six in the second tier, and the clear line of brown skyline and blue/green/white water framed by intricate blacks in that third tier of panels all give a reader an instantaneous sense of placement, keeping us rooted and routed, moving our eye along with the story.

Also, the owl is just awesome.


2. Next, we have a page from Naoko Takeuchi’s Sailor Moon:



Arranged as two vertical tiers, this page of a cat walking in on two human lovers is seemingly very simple. Cat sees people, people kiss and don’t see cat, cat runs away. But, pay attention to the cat and people in the top righthand panel, it’s obvious that the cat is not a giant or the people tiny, however on casual read, the question probably doesn’t even come up. There’s no attempt at naturalistic foreshortening or to put them in a proper real-world perspective because, in essence, they’re not part of the same panel but a panel bisected by an invisible whitespace. Similarly, the final two righthand panels are divided by a band of zip-a-tone as the page, also, become progressively filled with star flake patterns, flowers, and splotches that are not in-scene at all. Most of this page is not — and cannot be — diegetic, but it is all evocative.

The couple, as well, as both designed and arranged for maximum effect as a couple. The woman’s black hair and patterned sleeves are foregrounded, the man’s white hair (which isn’t white in-scene, but is visualized without color for us to distinguish him from her) and white clothes are used to frame his lover. The interplay of their bodies and hair keeps the two figures from blending together and encourages our eyes to remember a sense of the human form distinct to each of them.

The cat is not placed in-panel with the lovers, though she is clearly part of the same scene, and this gives us an unconsidered sense that she is separate from them in other ways, as does their remaining more or less stationary while kissing and the cat both turning and racing away, but also that her eyes (and ears) go all sorts of ways as her body goes through the dramatic contortions of running off.


3. Avengers Unplugged is one of those comics where almost everything went wrong, but even here, at least in the better issues, such as this one, there are lessons other than “don’t do that.” M.C. Wyman can be an incredible artist and his storytelling chops are pretty sound in short bursts.



The upper tier here is, I think, perfect in its pacing and framing. Yes, there is something unappealing about how Monica’s neck is drawn, and I’m not sure smoke has ever behaved as it does on this page, but the neck is a small thing and the smoke still connotes smoke; we can tell what everything on the page is meant to be. But, that upper tier of panels, slowly backing away from Monica’s frozen, unblinking face as she tells us who she is and that she might go mad, and a giant man sits behind her sewing up the back of her head, is wonderful and evocative. It’s upsetting.

The lower two thirds of the page, given over the a sideview of the villain and Monica have him dominating not only the main image, but also the inset, Monica between his legs, facing away from him, the smoke from his cigar jetting over her head as she sits still unblinking and unmoving. And, it is not until those lower panels that we have an explanation for what he did above, for why he was sewing her head and why she isn’t moving. The villain has sewn a device into her brain that makes her his puppet; her thoughts are hers, but all movement is at his discretion and order.

With the second page, we see flaws begin to enter, but they don’t kill the scene.



Monica stands before the villain, the Controller, as he commands her to put out her hand and extinguishes his cigar on her palm, then kisses her and laughs about it while her eyes never close, never wince, her arms never raise in defense or aggression. It’s very close, actually, to a scene in the Millar era of The Authority that DC ordered redrawn to be about unappreciated cooking making a rape victim cry (which is somehow both “safer” and really distressing in its own way; let’s face it, there’s no way to nice up these sort of scenes much, nor should there be).

The elaborate background of the previous page is completely gone, the color of the blank background changes in every panel, and even the Controller’s chair is just, simply, gone. Why? Did they walk somewhere else? Do the colors represent something symbolically or are they meant to evoke some emotional state in the reader? Why, in the final two panels, are Monica and the Controller reversed from their positions in the other panels? While still an essentially well-paced scene, there seems to be no reason for these distracting changes. And, yes, when confronted with something that thoroughly is not working but we can still see some competency behind or beside it, it is perfectly sensible to accept a “don’t do this” lesson.


4. Steve Darnall and Alex Ross’ Uncle Sam was not what Ross’ fans were expecting, but I think it actually shows off his chops as an artist more than painting pastiches or superhero extrapolations, not that he does those badly or can’t make a living off it.



Okeh, to start with: ignore the four inset panels in the middle of the page. Where does the top image and the bottom image end? They don’t. They join together, concrete floor blurring with concrete ceiling, separated, essentially, by those thin bars inset in the center of the whole. People talk of Ross as a Realist painter, but it’s things like that - his willingness and commitment to not-in-scene, non-diegetic imagery or combinations — along with his extensive romanticism that’s channeled into “realistic” hairlines or aging, place him, for me, squarely as a comics Naturalist. What Ross provides is reassurance. He’s never going to paint in a way that will highlight for us why other illustrations of Superman or or even Uncle Sam may be unrealistic. What he will do, is paint a Superman or Uncle Sam who are elaborations, they have textures or details, extrapolations beyond the traditional versions, but will never subvert or counter those traditional takes.

At the top of the page, it is noted in dialogue, and supported by crotch stain, that Uncle Sam has peed himself. Now, there are a myriad of ways to illustrate that, from cartoony exaggeration to leaving it to dialogue alone, visual alone, or merely implied alone. What Ross and Darnell have provided, is a version that is obvious, but not that bad. It’s not mocking Uncle Sam or disgracing what Uncle Sam might stand for. It’s subdued and it’s a bit sad.

We are invited to ally with Uncle Sam because he pissed himself. Just as we are invited to follow him because only we have his monologue, only we have him framing his situation for us, while it remains a mystery to anyone in the scene. And, note that Sam does not look at anyone in the scene, but he does, in the near-center of the page, look to us, the reader.

I’m actually not sure how the layout of the cell there is working, in those middle panels. I can’t follow the people from one panel to another, one angle to another, except for the two police and Uncle Sam. But, I am not bothered by this the way I was with the abrupt changes and lack of continuity in Avengers Unplugged, with Sam and the cops acting as visual anchors similar to those seen in the otherwise dissimilar Little Nemo comic.

Everything here, from the soft colors to Uncle Sam’s line of sight and the fact the only dirty thing in the drunk tank at all is the pee stain on Sam’s otherwise immaculate outfit, reassures us. A robust reassurance, but so are Norman Rockwell’s reassurances all ruddy and robust.


5. Which brings us to the Starjammers miniseries, penciled by Carlos Pacheco, written by Warren Ellis, and otherwise helped into being by an assortment of talent including the brilliant colorist, Ariane Lenshoek.



This is another one that looks simple, it reads simple and directly, but there is an incredible amount of thought and technique in evidence.

The main visual is framed by black bars, like a widescreen movie would be on a TV back then, evoking all the cache that carries. It’s inverted, as it’s a reflection in water, but easily still identifiable as a man and a furry, cat-eared woman. The lower black bar also holds the title, a one-word highfalutin’ term that also carries direct and simple connotations, being close to “collapse” and actually meaning a collapsed star. The upper black bar holds only a streak of water, as it is, implicitly, where the actual woman and man are standing and speaking.

The colors are bright and strong, with purple and green rubbing against one another aggressively, and red and blue, white and black. The man rests on a sword pommel, looking down the earth, the woman grabbing a handful of water in her hand. Pacheco is an excellent character artist and he does the fronds and flowers here wonderfully, as well, the whole from body language to ripples in the water giving a radiant sense of grief and listlessness enhanced by the only dialogue, “We’re dead.” Lenshoek’s base colors and especially her variations and highlights are exceedingly more intricate than you’re likely to find in another Marvel comic from that year.

Warren Ellis’ sense of style, or visual and page structure was possibly unparalleled at Marvel that year. I see no evidence even the best Marvel writers at that time other than Ellis were thinking as hard, planning as craftily as he was, in terms of what a layout or design aesthetic says to a reader. I am sure most of them weren’t, a evidenced by the average cover or opening page from a Marvel comic in the mid-90s. Here, paired with a remarkable art team, everything just comes beautifully into place and does its job with ferocious efficacy. While the humanoid figures are inverted, moving from foot to head downward, and also looking down, the water ripples out evenly to expand and frame them, and the flora all spikes upward romantically as do the reflected clothing, which, were we seeing this not in reflection, would be hanging pointedly.

The black bars and central image evoke cinema but they also add a classical sense of a frame, the black bars push the lush colors and dramatic line art into a sense of depth that the unbounded image would never achieve. This is a movie scene doing something a movie would not do (breaking the ratio), it’s a distinct isolation of text and image but they are not independent of each other, it’s breaking high school level drafting, color theory, and writing rules… and it should. They’re not in high school. These are professionals. Professionals make stuff look good. They make it work.

And, that, probably, is the final lesson these can all teach us, that professionalism, that attention and conviction and consideration can help you find ways to do anything with any scene, to achieve your goals using whatever techniques are at hand, that are possible or necessary. Creation takes a strong hand and open mind, and sometimes a hand that is confident enough to go loose and a mind that is sure enough to be fierce.

Nov 19, 2014

Techniques and Tricks: Fantastic Four #352

I was fortunate enough to get the third volume of Walter Simonson's run on Fantastic Four lately, which seems to be the segment with the most memorable portions, just based on what I've read. For one thing, it featured the New Fantastic Four.


It also featured this Spider-Man pinup by Art Adams, which has been the logo of one of my comics shops for as long as I've been buying comics.


It's got some meta-criticism of DC's approach to the multiverse.



It's got Justice Peace, making his second appearance since Walt used him in Thor.




Okay, fine, that last one isn't memorable. What is memorable is issue #352, where Reed Richards fights Dr. Doom, with both of them jumping around time. So there are two storylines running at the same time: Reed and Doom's fight, jumping around in time, and the rest of the Fantastic Four making their way through Doom's castle. So each page would have a "real time stamp" and a time stamp for Reed and Doom, indicating where they're going.

So, you could read it in the order of the timestamps, following the Thing and the Invisible Woman and the Human Torch, but with Reed and Doom jumping around (Click to enlarge):



Or you could use the timestamps to flip back and forth and read the Reed/Doom fight in the order in which it happens (these are the same three pages, but in the order of the Reed/Doom fight):



If you're so inclined, you end up doing both. You could try this on the screen, but you wouldn't be able to jump around without doing recuts. You could try it with the written word, but because it's not visual, you won't be able to take it in all at once. It's one of those fun things the medium excels in.

Does it have much practical application beyond time travel stories? Probably not, but that's why the issue still stands out 23 years later.

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