Jul 19, 2018

Jacen Burrows: Be Vocal About The Things You Love

Providence, Crossed, Moon Knight… Jacen Burrows has been turning out nothing but high quality work for years. Known for drawing brutality, from the action-adventure to horror varieties, he can also just draw the hell out of a room. There is an intentionality to his art that many of his contemporaries often lack, and a commitment to communication, whereby he can draw almost anything and have it register as plausible.

Jacen Burrows on Fans, Character Work, and Building a Comics Page
Travis Hedge Coke

Travis Hedge Coke: Recently, I saw your work praised as “cerebral,” and realized I think of you as a very physical, sensorial artist. What are your main goals with your art?

Jacen Burrows: One of the things that was drilled into me when I was still in Art School was clarity.  You want anyone to be able to follow the action on the page, even without the dialog and narration, even people who are largely unfamiliar with comics.  So, for me, that means clear, clean lines, consistent backgrounds with realistic perspective, and recognizable "acting" for the characters.  I really want it to be possible for anyone from child to grandmother to be able to understand the flow of the narrative.  Not that they are necessarily the audience in mind for most of my work!

But stylistically, abstraction has always been difficult for me to pull off and even though I admire a lot of artists who excel at throwing off the binds or rigid perspective and anatomy to add layers of expression to their art.  So I tend to stick to my own version of "realism".  I feel like if I can deliver a solid, tangible reality, then when things get weird and that reality bends, it feels more intentional and I hope it sells those moments better.  Providence, for instance, is a rigidly grounded and clinical approach until it starts to get surreal and I hoped that juxtaposition would enhance the creep factor and moments of revelation.

Hedge Coke: What excites you most about the comics you agree to work on?

Burrows: Every issue always has a couple of big money-shot scenes, be it a big fight, a splash image of some important environment, or a character reveal.  Those are always the most fun because you spend previous pages building toward those moments.  Most of the work I have done hasn't been super actiony so I have actually been really enjoying trying to hone my own approach to action scenes.  With Moon Knight, I really wanted to have a sense of brutality and consequence in the fights.  I feel like it is important to depict violence in an uncomfortable, realistic way in order for it to have an impact.  I want readers to think, ouch, I bet that hurts!  I always had trouble getting into the major super-powered characters that can move buildings and fly into suns and stuff is because the action isn't relatable, it is just like a cartoon.  The physical action of a character like Superman, for example,  is no more relatable to me than a Roadrunner cartoon.  To each their own, but I prefer street level characters for that reason.  Although, I'd welcome the challenge of trying to figure out my own approach to that kind of action.  I also get excited about set dressing the environments when I get interesting places to draw.  It has always been one of the more fun aspects of the job for me.  I love a good, interesting looking background scene or establishing shot.

Hedge Coke: Do you have a way that you could make a character like Superman (at least visually) interesting for yourself? Could you bring what’s of value to you into the overpowered superheroes?

Burrows: I think I'd try to change the focus from the close up actions of the characters to the effects of their actions.  Tiny figures surrounded by massive destruction or POV shots of regular people witnessing the surreal events.  Most of the time, it seems like the action is depicted with dynamic close in shots of power poses and gritted teeth, which is very comicbooky and fun, but I feel like it is pretty predictable.  I'd just play with shifting the perspectives to try to give things a different energy.  It would be fun to try some different things, visually.

Hedge Coke: What comics do you currently enjoy? (New releases, old stuff, just current for you personally.)

Burrows: I'm reading a lot of Marvel stuff these days to stay current with what the company is doing and I enjoy a lot of the books.  The Immonen Spider-man stuff is mindblowing.  He could draw piles of rocks for 20 pages and I'd still be floored.  So good.  All of the Waid/Samnee collaborations are a masterclass in pop comics.  Dr Strange and Iron Fist have both been favorites of mine lately.  I've been buying a lot of Image titles.  Sex Criminals, Paper Girls, the Old Guard, Extremity, Head Lopper...they just have a ton of really fun books.  And I loved Jupiter's Legacy.  Millar and Quitely do amazing work together.  Hell, Quitely could make anything good.  There's an Image book called Isola that is, for me, probably the prettiest thing on the stands right now.  And one of my all time favorite artists, Enrico Marini, just did a couple of Batman books for DC that were a joy to read.  A lot of great stuff out there right now.

Hedge Coke: How do you plan a comics page? As a whole page, around one panel/image?

Burrows: Everyone I've worked with has always written in full script so a lot of that is already thought out as part of the storytelling.  A panel with a lot of dialogue or an establishing shot is going to need more space.  Talking head panels generally take up much less space.  The pages just sort of instinctually Tetris themselves together through following the logic of the script.  Sometimes I shift stuff around based on a compositional preference.  Like, instead of a small square panel for a talking head shot that would make logical sense, I'll go with a long narrow horizontal panel to create a visual break line or to steer the eye a specific way.  But it is all kind of a gut feeling thing.

Hedge Coke: Do you work out figures or backgrounds first?

Burrows: In the thumbnail stage, you really have to work out both simultaneously in order to figure out your page flow and storytelling.  Sometimes the backgrounds are every bit as important as the figures and you need to know your perspective points to draw the figures at the right angles while also figuring out where you expect the word balloons to go.  Once I'm drawing the real page, I tend to think foreground-to-background and build it depthwise.

Hedge Coke: Have you ever refused to draw something, specifically?

Burrows: No never.  If a writer puts something in the script, I'll put it on the page.  They asked for it for a reason and I have total trust in the writer's vision.  And I'm completely comfortable with any content.  The purpose of the content is really going to be the writer's responsibility at the end of the day and I want to tell their story how they envision it.  Even if I found something personally offensive, I would assume the writer is doing it to explore important topics.  It helps that I work with really great writers.  I might be a little more apprehensive if I was working with writers I didn't trust implicitly.

Hedge Coke: What do you add into a comic that is not scripted?

Burrows: If you think about it in movie terms, the comic artist has to be the art director, the director of photography, the costume and set designer, the casting director, the location scout, etc.  If it isn't the plot and dialogue, the artist has to figure it out.  Even a writer who takes a more active role in the visual direction is still only able to point in the general direction.  For every issue I draw, I download hundreds of photos of all sorts of stuff, in order to bring it to life.  For example, if a story has a scene in Redhook, Brooklyn, I might go on Google street view and do screen shots of buildings so I can make it feel like real Redhook.  The more references, the more real a story feels.  But I don't like to copy the references exactly.  A traced photo reference feels exactly like what it is and it often takes me out of the story when I'm reading comics so I just lift details and apply them to my own compositions.

Hedge Coke: What do you think audiences most often misinterpret about your artwork?

Burrows: That's a tough one.  I guess when it comes to the more extreme stuff like Crossed, I worry that some audiences, particularly the ones who judge without reading it, will assume it was nothing but degenerate shock value.  Being extreme just to be extreme.  But I'm quite proud of the Crossed stuff I drew for Garth Ennis, particularly volume one.  People remember the hardcore moments, but it was actually a pretty slow burn series about loss, humanity in the face of tragedy and the costs of survival.  Splatter horror has real depth for those who seek it...while also throwing in some humor and ridiculousness.  The series certainly became more shock oriented as it went on but I stand by the stories I drew.

Hedge Coke: What has been the hardest thing, in your professional career, for you to draw the way you wanted it? To get just right?

Burrows: Probably heads and faces, honestly.  I've always been ok at the features but getting them the right size and the right place to make the faces look accurate can be a challenge.  I feel like a lot of the wonkiness of my early work comes from trying to decide if I want to be cartoony or realistic.  Your personal look is something you just get better at as you do more pages, naturally, but you always question, is this a stylistic flourish or a mistake?  Aside from that, the biggest hurdle is time.  You always need to be pushing forward and finishing pages.  That's the nature of the business.  But there are times you really wish you could take all the time you need to really do the best work you are capable of.  Unfortunately, if I did that I would probably end up taking a week to draw every page and I'd go bankrupt, the company would lose money on the title or it would just never come out.  And I suspect, you'd lose some of the immediacy and excitement of the medium.  Things might end up feeling stale if they're too meticulous and precious.

Hedge Coke: If you could go back and teach yourself one or two techniques, when you were first starting as a professional artist, what would they be?

Burrows: I've always worked in a sort of European influenced clean line style, in part because I wasn't great at applying black and rendering shadows and stuff.  Now I use high contrast stuff sometimes for effect and I wish I had spent more time developing that early on.  Similarly, I always struggled with whether or not I wanted to try to add mid tones through hatching or feathering or whatever.  The clean line style can end up feeling a little empty or flat without mid tones and spotted blacks and I always wished I'd worked out a way I was comfortable with to do more of that.  As an example, you see a lot of beautiful, complex middle tones in the works of Art Adams and Moebius while still essentially being the clean line style.  But I don't want to lose what I feel works with my style either.  Art is an ever evolving process, though.  Who knows what my stuff will look like in a few years!

Hedge Coke: Do you have any advice for the comics-reading community?

Burrows: Be vocal about the things you love.  If a book really speaks to you, talk about it, spread the word.  Also, and this can apply to everything these days but specifically with comics;  Don't take the internet too seriously.  There are some lousy, toxic people out there, but if you actually go out to conventions and local comic shops and meet real comic fans you find a rich community of passionate, inclusive people who love the medium making up the vast majority of fandom.  And make it a point to share your books with friends who don't necessarily read comics already.  We can always use a few new faces!

Jul 14, 2018

Incels, MRAs, Supremacists: The Hellfire Cult

A decade ago, Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction created a villainous menace, drawn by Greg Land, whose threat has only increased with time, but they didn’t seem to notice. The Hellfire Cult are a gang of men, led by the most butthole-water-flavored pick-up artist in the Marvel Universe, Empath. They are based on a gentleman’s club (the Hellfire Club), based in a strip club. And, they beat up young people, mostly young queer women, for having (presumed) sex without them.

That's their deal, in toto.

Incels, MRAs, Supremacists: The Hellfire Cult
Travis Hedge Coke

Doesn’t that smell like today? That’s our typical school shooter. That’s, hell, our typical spree shooter. That’s your average engagement with any group online who want to talk comics.

Flaws on the table, Brubaker and Fraction manage to write an unnecessarily sexist intro for the Hellfire Cult. And, one that is almost naively racist. I don’t mean, in the sense that the villains they portray are bigoted. The heroes, and the actual structure and machinery of the story are sexist and racist, regardless of how highly I and others think of either writer.

Women, in the comic, are victims or bait. The characters who get the most play, the most dialogue, are men. In an average comic, that might not be so bad, but it’s most X-Men comics, sadly, and on top of that, this is a story about beating up women.

In a scene of three young X-people in a bar, the white boy insults a black bartender by declaring himself, “Free, white, and twenty-one!” And, the bartender, off-panel, explains to him why that’s a problem.

“That’s not racist, T!”

It’s not, on its own.

The white guy returns to his table, with two queer women of color, and starts to tell them about oppression and voting rights.

Yeah. The white guy who just insulted a black man, is taking his small piece of education, turning around, and laying it on two queer, nonwhite women as if they know jack.

And, so the entire scenario gets held back. Cheapened and restrained.

This awesome idea of the Hellfire Cult is downplayed for stuff like that and repeat commentary on what hot thing Emma Frost is wearing or has taken off.

All of Emma’s scenes are her showing off clothes or skin for Cyclops.

That’s a situation that should make anyone pause and rethink where they’re going with their comic. But, especially a comic about girls and women being beat by angry men who think they deserve more sex.

And, the following storyline is a man rescuing a boatload of women impressed into prostitution, who is then in conflict with his male boss over what to do with them. Issue after issue, none of these women are given names, personalities, anything to distinguish them as anything more than “Russian slave women our boys have to deal with now.” The only woman given any personality in that storyline is Emma, and she doesn’t know what to do, or get involved until men tell her to get involved.

Superheroes have a real-world power, these icons of childhood and nostalgia have real-world impact. If you work with them, playing Superman in a movie, writing X-Men, it behooves to channel that power responsibly. To take the weight and the strength of decades of previous appearances, prior uses, and wield them in a way that positively impacts today.

So, let’s do it over! Marvel, bring back the Hellfire Cult. Focus on the people they’re hurting, gay people, young girls out clubbing, not on Cyclops in his big new house, flexing while his wife takes her million dollar top off for him.

Jul 8, 2018

In Pace Requiescat: Steve Ditko

Steve Ditko (November 2, 1927-June 29, 2018) has passed away. Known mostly as the co-creator of Spider-Man, he had a storied career that encompassed multiple companies and properties, including his own, until the day he died. In light of this, the Cube got together and said something about one of the greatest artists of all time.

In Pace Requiescat: Steve Ditko
Comics Cube Roundtable

Ben: I remember getting the Amazing Spider-Man Masterworks as a kid, and even without realizing yet that comics were made by specific people, I was absorbing that the early Spider-Man comics had a specific look and style.

I’m grateful to him for all the characters and stories, I wish I had a chance to thank him. But most of all, without him, Spider-Man would have been your standard Kirby bruiser with powers that came from a magic ring. He had an impact on the entire world through artwork and storytelling.

JD: I think Amazing Fantasy 15 is the Mona Lisa of comics.

Matt: Yeah, I’m torn. The guy could create amazing art in the medium, but his personal beliefs were abhorrent. A duality in himself he denied in his later creations. I do respect his absolute desire to not engage with the fandom.

Duy: There is a part of me — the part of me that is governed by my personal taste in comics — that wants to put Ditko at the top of the rankings for the greatest comics creators of all time, over Jack Kirby. By saying that , I know I've derailed my own premise, because I can't talk about Ditko and his legacy at length without talking about Jack. Even the thing he's best known for, Spider-Man, debuted with a Jack Kirby cover that he inked. 

But I love his work, and I love his peaks even more than I do Kirby's. He was the perfect complement in Silver Age Marvel. Where Kirby brought the power, the impact, and the heroism, Ditko brought the motion, the movement, the neuroses. I think it's harder to emulate Ditko than Jack; you have to be keyed in to a certain frequency.

Ditko's personal beliefs made me uncomfortable; his comics espousing those beliefs — from Hawk and Dove to the more personal comics he'd make in his later life — made me cringe. And it's hard for me to reconcile such a conservative, presumably atheistic man drawing so many things that look like he'd been influenced by hallucinogens, and bringing to life metaphysical concepts such as Eternity, the embodiment of the universe. But create them he did. He created Dr. Strange, which seemed to me, to be more about exercising the limits of your imaginations than actually developing a character. He created the Creeper, who seemed to come out of some hysterical daydream. He created Captain Atom, the Blue Beetle, and the Question, and from the Question came Mr. A, all of whom led into the creation of Watchmen, a comic that changed comics in 1986, the same way Steve Ditko changed comics in 1962. He created offbeat characters such as Speedball and Squirrel Girl, and even did a couple issues of WWF Battlemania, which was a huge plus for a wrestling nerd like me.

But most of all, he created my favorite superhero of all time, and his rendition remains my favorite. It's amazing how much of Spider-Man changed once Steve Ditko left. The edge was gone for sure. But his Peter Parker remains my favorite version for the stuff that he brought and originated. Even my favorite Spider-Man artists since Ditko left are the ones who would tap into some of that neuroses and that weirdness, whereas most artists would tap more into the commercialized John Romita version. We're talking Todd McFarlane, Erik Larsen, Steve Skroce, and Marcos Martin; for me, those are the true descendants of Ditko.

If you want the perfect Spider-Man story, read Amazing Spider-Man #1-33. You don't need to go beyond that. That's enough.

Miguel: Without Steve Ditko, I wouldn't be the same person as I am now. He and Stan Lee taught us that with great power must also come great responsibility.

Travis: A genius of comics, who spent his life making them the way he wanted. The more he cut loose, the more I loved his work, his compassionate, experimental, fearful, brave, unyielding comics.

Peter: Rest in peace. The man may be gone but his impact lives on. I know my life is definitely much more interesting because of his work.

LaMar: My first experience with Ditko's work came from his lesser known properties-I was a Creeper and Question fan as a child and I got a lot of those comics from flea markets and thrift stores-but it's weird because his Spider-Man was the one I liked the most, but the third or 4th I encountered (Romita, 70s show and Electric Company). His Dr. Strange was the one I had the fondest appreciation of though, and to this minute it's my favorite iteration of the character. Very rarely do you cone across, in any media or medium, the sort of unreckless recklessness and sense of far reaching scoped integrity that can be found in those books.

But even more than the characters he created, I admired the way he, as an artist and as a man, chose to exist on his own terms. That level of self-definition always made me feel like it was up to the world to fit around me, more than it was about me fitting into it, and it's a place that fewer of us seem to have the audacity to even reach for. I may not have agreed with most of the personal convictions he held, but that one we could definitely meet in the middle on. 

He gave the best of himself, assuredly, in his art. And when I say that I don't mean he put forth his best effort, he literally offered up the greatest aspects of himself, seemingly without fear, right on the page if nowhere else. If he did nothing else, if you took away everything else as far as his accomplishments and his place as a master of the medium, that one thing is enough.

Jul 3, 2018

Osamu Tezuka’s Alabaster: Sex, Race, and Ugly Things

Osamu Tezuka despised Alabaster, some time after its creation, said he hated every character it contained. A lot like Jack Kirby pitching unproduced “what the audience wants,” it has a 70s seedyishness at odds with its author, and like produced 70s Kirby, even when the author was unhappy with having to say it, it might still be worth it to us that they did. Alabaster is pretty; even by Tezuka standards, it is a pretty comic, and that prettiness both softens the immediate blow of the ugliness of its content and makes those concerns hyperreal by the requisite and omnipresent contrast. Alabaster would be Maus if I liked Maus and if Alabaster was more freely attacking to Poles and Poland. It’s Quentin Tarantino’s Osamu Tezuka, except not as actually racist as that would be.

Sex, Race, and Ugly Things in Osamu Tezuka’s Alabaster
Travis Hedge Coke

Tezuka, despite the shortcomings of the era or of him as an artist and human being, means for Alabaster to decry something real, to stand for something genuinely worth standing up about, as well as dealing with things in a conveniently commercial fashion.

Ralph Ellison opens his Invisible Man, with as vainglorious a supervillain setting as any mad ne’erdowell could hope for. Or, any super-intelligent, driven by justice Man of Bronze, because Lex Luthor and Doc Savage are in these ways, fellows. Invisibility, an innate ability to terrify lesser men, an amazing underground lair powered by stolen electricity. The opening of Invisible Man is delightedly unapologetic, both in its explanation of what is, and in its aping and building upon the earlier The Invisible Man, by H.G. Wells, wherein the invisible man in question is brilliant, daring, and virulently angry at the world.

Tezuka’s invisible man is an Olympian from Wisconsin whose marriage proposal to famed, white TV actress Susan Ross is rejected on the basis of, a) she only dated him because he was a six-time gold medalist, and b) he’s black and she’s a bigot. He also is not invisible; his skin is transparent, showing us all that lies beneath. James Block, nicknamed after his transformation, “Alabaster,” is a genius, a marvel of strength and speed, has a luciferian passion, but an almost unbelievable patience.

Man has plans. Get revenge, particularly on the woman who used him. Get hold of the actually-invisible daughter of the scientist whose technology made him revealed to the world. Form a gang of children. Teach kids to hate and kill. Dot dot dot profit. Or, dot dot dot retire to Castle Kigan.

So, not as much plans as, agendas and lashing out. He’s passionate, remember?

Ami, who is entirely invisible, has been raised alongside a young boy, as the child of a famed prosecutor, named Ozawa, a woman who believes in justice, truth, compassion, and maybe is a bit of a social climber. It is only in her teens that Ami discovers more of the truth of herself and her origins, when she is impressed into minor theft and then major theft by a delinquent from a nearby school. When she sees how destitute the boy lives, and that he willingly takes the rap for both of them, she gets involved in the clumsiest way possible, and they are both taken in by Alabaster, who will do what he can to disabuse them of ideas that people are kind, fair, good, or really all that worth living.

The lofty ideals devolve into caustic lashing out, conflicts with a sadistic FBI agent who has come to Japan pursuing Alabaster (illegally?), and even a classic and clear case of rape-revenge narrative.

Alabaster is not an enlightening work. The morality is muddled and sometimes virtually artificial. Alabaster has a tiger-striped sports car, a speedboat, and can throw peanuts or pebbles just the right way, so that if they strike a moving object it explodes, but still objects are only traditionally impacted. He talks a great game of ethics and strength, but he also recruits kids and blows up the head of a bird as part of a demonstration. He spends three years teaching kids to flick peanuts at birds to blow them up, and normalizing both super-princessy clothing and absolute nudity to the teenaged Ami.

Alabaster is not about being fair. It’s a horror comic. A crime comic. A crass comic. The criminal mastermind seems sane and promising because the local law are restrained and the foreign law, embodied by FBI Agent Rock Holmes, are racist, mirror-humping, obsessive rapists. Love is conditional and always subject to revisionary removal. Truth is faceted and the facets may be chipped. Hope is for people with no memory.

Jun 28, 2018

How the Dark Phoenix Saga Made Me the Kind of Fan I Am

I first read X-Men: The Dark Phoenix Saga in a trade paperback published in 1991, meaning I had just really started getting into comics. Trade paperbacks weren't common at the time, so they only collected the landmark issues with high demand. Dark Phoenix came out in 1980, meaning 11 years had passed and it was still in high demand.

How the Dark Phoenix Saga Shaped Me as a Fan
by Duy

First of all, I want to point out this beautiful cover by Bill Sienkiewicz.

Seriously, in the mid-90s, we loaned this comic out to a friend, who promptly lost it and only found it again 20 years later. I refused to buy a new copy of the book, because Bill's cover was no longer issued, and I refused to buy it with any other cover. I think it's that gorgeous.

Rereading it now made me realize how much this one particular story truly shaped me as a fan. There is so much in here, and most of it is gold. It's got the introduction of the Hellfire Club, including Emma "The White Queen" Frost. It's got the debut of Dazzler and Kitty Pryde. And it's got Wolverine and the sequence that's so famous as being his breakout moment.

Wolverine wasn't Wolverine yet, not yet the franchise player for Marvel that he'd later become, meaning that he could lose, he could be hurt, and it's really just that he didn't fear death.

But most of all, it had Jean Grey and Scott Summers, and their love for each other holding the story together.  When Jean is mind-controlled by Mastermind and becomes the Black Queen, flirting with the other members of the Hellfire Club, Scott manages to keep his cool and his patience, waiting for Jean to break out of it and save him.

When Jean finally loses control and takes down the X-Men, Scott shows up to reason with her. You can almost hear background music shifting from something fast and suspenseful to something soulful and emotional.

When Jean's life is in the hands of the Shi'ar for killing a whole solar system, the X-Men all go through internal debates as to whether or not they can fight for Jean. Scott never wavers.

And when Jean loses control of herself and becomes Dark Phoenix again, she saves Scott, and the universe, by sacrificing herself.

Yes, I know that this may constitute as fridging, the story of the woman who can't control power, and it's very possible that if I'd read it for the first time now, I'd feel differently. But back then, and still now, all I saw was a love story with life and death repercussions. And the entire ending sequence still gets to me, today, 27 years later. The fact that a bunch of this isn't shown from the characters' points of view, forcing you to fill in the blanks yourself, makes it more powerful. John Byrne tells a dynamic enough story with the rest of the details; Chris Claremont's prose brings it home.

Once upon a time, there was a woman named Jean grey, a man named Scott Summers.
They were young. They were in love.
They were heroes.
Today, they will prove it beyond all shadow of a doubt.
I loved it.

Soon after I read the Dark Phoenix Saga, I read X-Men: X-Tinction Agenda, published in 1992. The first scene had Jean Grey back. Not only that, it was explained that Phoenix was never Jean Grey at all, but a completely separate entity that thought it was Jean. In the interim, Cyclops had married Madelyne Pryor, a woman who looked exactly like Jean, had a child with her (he grew up to be Cable), and then she turned evil. Much later on, Jean would die again and Cyclops would get into a relationship with Emma Frost, and by the time I'd read Avengers: Children's Crusade in 2013, I thought, wow, Cyclops is a jerk.

Except none of that matters to me.

I get that because of these changes, some readers may think Dark Phoenix was cheapened. That it wasn't really Jean; that Scott isn't really a character to sympathize with. That it may as well not have really happened.

Except it didn't really happen. It's fiction. It's as real as you make it, as real as what you put into it. And in my book, Jean Grey died as Dark Phoenix, sacrificing herself to save the universe. In my book, Cyclops isn't an insufferable tool. Any stories I enjoy afterwards with them in it are bonuses. They're nice to have. And it's not hard to reconcile them in my head, because it's fiction. They fit together however you want it to. I guess I could have said they ruined the story and that I could never read The Dark Phoenix Saga again because of what happened, but I can, because I do genuinely love that story.

The Dark Phoenix Saga impacted my comics reading habits in many ways. It taught me that, yes, you can judge a book by its cover. It taught me the importance of character development, of establishing character dynamics so your readers can pick up on anything, any scene, with just the visual shorthand. It taught me that you didn't need to start a comic at the beginning in order for it to have an impact on you. But most of all, it taught me that stories can be powerful, and that the only person who can take that impact away from you is the person looking back at you in the mirror.

Jun 26, 2018

The New Warriors Revisited, with Fabian Nicieza

I read more New Warriors when it was serializing in the early 90s than I realized at the time. There was always a lot going on, but I was never lost. A superhero team book, it constantly felt like it was moving forward somewhere, that it was branching out in stories that counted towards something. It felt kid-friendly and just on the edge of being “adult.” Rather than fictional nations, Cambodia showed up and seemed, at least to me, newly in doubly digits, plausibly Cambodian. There were mixed race characters. Silhouette was mixed-race and not something and white. Not a thing in superhero comics, not back then, not really even now.

Legal Thriller, Political Thriller, Teens on the Edge
Fabian Nicieza and I Revisit New Warriors
Travis Hedge Coke

Silhouette, young, female, mixed, disabled, learning the world and a badass. Silhouette could have come from Kids or Do the Right Thing, more than she was likely to have debuted big in Fantastic Four or X-Men.

The arc that first got my attention involved the Sphinx altering the history of the world, creating an afrofuturist present where familiar elements were echoed, but in a new style, with new politics, as North Africa and nearby regions were given a prominence and preferenced the way Anglo culture and pillaging was in traditional superhero books and our Anglo-colonial culture.

“A tremendous amount of work and research went into the Forever Yesterday storyline,” said Fabian Nicieza, who wrote the arc, and for over four years, what became the bulk of the original New Warriors comic. “It was pretty obvious that if the world had been expanded based on Egyptian influence, that absolutely everything about it would have to be different than our more Euro-centric existence. So that meant everything from architecture to fashion. We tried to maintain naming conventions that would be more recognizable to readers so that we didn’t make the transition too much of a struggle (so Captain Assyria automatically connoted Captain America for simplicity’s sake).

“That storyline exhausted Mark, but unlike today’s artists who need six months off after a challenging three-part story, Mark was right back at it without missing a beat!”

Looking at it, now, crystalized in that initial fifty-plus issue run, written by Nicieza and drawn primarily by Mark Bagley and Darrick Robertson, encapsulated the best of its decade. It was Goldeneye, Spike Lee and Gregg Araki; John Grisham and Michael Crichton in their most exciting time. It was Public Enemy and Alice in Chains.

To me, anyway.

When, I asked Nicieza if any of that was an influence, or intentional, he said, “I had none of those particular genres influencing me when I wrote it. I really just wanted it to be what it was meant to be: Marvel’s version of Teen Titans. I wanted to tell fun, exciting stories grounded in the Marvel Universe using these great untapped characters that had a world of potential.”

Can I write off my interpretation to zeitgeist? A spirit of a time, moving my interpretation, my perception, even if not Nicieza's scripts?

“I had no say in the original line-up,” said Nicieza, “Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz had put the team together and a basic working bible for who they were and what the dynamics would be. Once I was offered the book, I inquired about changing Night Thrasher and Kid Nova’s names, but that wasn’t going to fly.

“We knew that the Kid Nova name was solely a trademark and duplication issue. Frankie Raye in the Fantastic Four had assumed the name at that time, though we assumed that wouldn’t last forever. We weren’t going to need to call him that in the book, just any cover copy so you could trademark the name.”

"It was far less of an issue for me than it was for readers, since outside of a joke within the book, he was never called anything but Nova. I also knew that gave me a good opportunity for the logical story arc, which was Rich Rider reclaiming and ‘earning' the name he thought he didn’t deserve anymore. The fact the original blue and gold costume went along with those story plans was icing on the cake.”

And, of Silhouette, “I also wanted to add depth to Night Thrasher so you see the creation and introduction of Silhouette very early on. I wanted to see how comfortable Mark would feel drawing a character who needed braces to function but was also very acrobatic, and once I did I knew I’d make her a regular part of the team.”

I am fascinated with how stories come together, narrative art. There are always changes, always fait accompli elements and negotiations. The Nova/Kid Nova deal bugged me back then. There is a light hand wave  in the comic, and that explains it fine, but that they kept putting in on the cover or in the indicia… I took indicia so serious as a kid.

I took comics seriously. When Marvel Boy went to trial for killing his father, I was shocked that the trial did not get interrupted after a page or two. It kept going. I had never seen a trial in a superhero comic keep going. Dude! Someone could get convicted!

He was convicted. Of manslaughter.

“I knew all along I wanted him to go to jail for what happened,” Nicieza said, “because I knew that would differentiate it from other court trials in comics. I had a lot of research help from lawyer/comic industry writer Bob Ingersoll at that time. I sent him a list of things I was hoping to do, details on the crime, etc. and he advised me every step of the way to try and make it as realistic as feasible in a comic.

“What helped that entire storyline as much as the ‘realism’ of it, I think, was the fact that we were running two lead stories at the same time. This allowed us to cut away from the trial to more action-packed stuff going on with Thrash in Cambodia, which only helped maintain the sense of suspense and scene cliffhangers that propel a legal story in more interesting ways than if you are ONLY focusing on a trial.”

Those dual plots made things seem so huge as it was going on, and it does not dampen in rereads. Nothing But the Truth and other arcs blew up what could have been a very provincial New York superteam comic into something international, generational, something that genuinely ran the gamut of class.

When I asked him, at what point Cambodia entered the picture as a setting, as something integral to a major plot line, Nicieza told me, “I knew that the Nothing But The Truth storyline would deal with Thrash’s past, along with Chord and Tai, and for all of them, it was the Vietnam War that brought them together. I forget why I decided to set it in Cambodia other then it was a fun, ‘exotic’ location and a logical extension of our military operations in the region. I might have seen a National Geographic article on Angkor Wat or something that appealed to me visually and that’s why I went there.”

Of the poetic, unusual and alluring super-names new characters, developed for this comic, could have: “I never thought of them as ‘poetic names,’ I just thought they were kind of cool. I was looking to come up with interesting names. Naming comic book characters is one of the toughest things about the job, so you are always looking for differentiators. I thought names like The Left Hand, the Spearmint Dragon (for Tai) and the Smiling Tiger had an exotic, Asian, ‘cult-like’ fantasy feel to them. I still like those names to this day!”

They are the best thing. Smiling Tiger — that there is a character, who looks completely different from anyone else, called Smiling Tiger is cool as cool gets.

The comic wrapped up, in part tying-in with solo titles it helped launch for two of its core characters, throwing the cast through time and space, pitting Marvel Boy against the father he killed, when his father was closer to his own age, and dealing with issues like homophobia and systemic self-recrimination that were not to be expected in a Marvel (or DC) superhero book at that time, without some form of “this is for adults” labeling.

New Warriors never stopped developing its characters, its world, the entire time Nicieza wrote the book. And, he wrote the book on the New Warriors. Every take since has echoed his, drawn from his, even if the cast wasn’t his, or the basic conceit slightly different. What may have started as a preassigned cast and an attempt to ape the better parts of New Teen Titans, Nicieza’s New Warriors quickly became its own animal, and has since spawned or encouraged an entire species of comics. Descendants of the run come in the same name, they come without any commercial connection. It was a smart book, cool and strong, worldly and timely in ways that make us want to label, “before its time.” Others, who never really read an issue or an arc, might write it off based on the presence of a skateboarding hero or an infusion of real world maturity with superheroics as par for the course or too much of its time. Both are true, and neither is accurate. New Warriors was the best of its time.

And, New Warriors is a damn good, and relevant read today.

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