Jul 28, 2014

They Were Only Grey, Slow Moving Ghosts

They Were Only Grey, Slow Moving Ghosts
Travis Hedge Coke

Joe Kubert's Yossel is the greatest comic of the last ten years.

Oh, sure, there are funner comics, sweeter comics, more exciting, slicker comics. There are comics that are equally emotive, just as inventive or intuitive, as well-drawn or implacably paced. But, for total package, Yossel is the best. The greatest comic of the last ten years.

I don't mean "greatest" only to imply it's swell, that it is a quality comic. I mean that it is more great than greater, that it is an immensity of quality, a giant of accomplishment and affect and meaning. A beautiful song in words and pictures and arrangement that fights to draw tears from me, with every page, that makes me feel both miniscule and heroic just for reading it.

Yossel doesn't sell significant numbers. I'm not sure that it is, just now, in print. (It is. -Duy) And when I have seen it discussed it is almost as an addendum to the more widely-known and critically lauded Maus. Not the same author, same tone, same techniques, but they share a period of history and they are both, in their way, a remembrance and celebration of family.

I don't like Maus. The subtitle, My Father Bleeds History? Makes me want to shout down at the pages, "Fuck you. My mom bleeds history. My grandparents bleed history. The guy who bags groceries stone drunk on Thursday evenings even though he's well past retirement age, he bleeds history."

I've never felt talked down to by Yossel, by Kubert in general, an exceptional man and magnificent talent. An exploration of how the author and his family might have fared had they not been able to leave Poland for America before the Nazi invasion, Yossel is a humble work executed with such integrity and bravado it lionizes no one and makes so many seem so immense, as if their integrity, their potential towers, and that towering is the more important kind.

In it, men and women are brutalized, coerced, corrupted. Children are confused, manipulated, starved. People are often scared, often cruel. It is people on all sides of every human engagement, after all. While often easier to think of history as something merely done to those who suffer, it is right that we acknowledge no genetic difference worth appreciating, between humans who are used and those who make you march. It's a stupidly simple precept, but we can never easily hold onto it.

Joe Kubert — who my autocorrect is determined to call "Joe Liberty" — is not going in for handwashy or waggling varieties of "moral relativism," nor is he indulging in the myths of "that is just how people thought back then." But Yossel is drawn in quick pencil, often rough, mostly first draft,and then shot high contrast so that flaws in the paper crinkled up and white out is glaringly brilliant, and that, too, is how he characterizes his people.

Even the purest, smoothest human being is flawed, if you look, our roughs and tentative first ideas are always happening, always there. Whitewash shows. Shadows are made of elements just as limbs and eyes and old comics are resultant from their parts. And, in sharp contrast to life, to motion and agitation and soul, perhaps also to highlight all that, sometimes there are fired shots.

Yossel is a love letter and a thank you to countless human beings. I think it's unlikely anyone could read it and think, "this is a man who doesn't love his family," but Kubert hammers on his mother, his father and sister, as hard as he gives to anyone. He doesn't saint them, simply because they are of his blood, or because he knows their birthdays. Kubert is intensely fair, in Yossel, and it is the horror of what some of the characters accomplish, horror reflective of true history, that can condemn them, not a blanket dismissal.

Good and bad are not genetic. There is no wicked gene to be inherited. As the narrator himself points out, as a child, those inflicting suffering on his family were, some of them, once his neighbors.

The rape scene, about halfway through, is the most unsalacious abuse. The sex is off-panel. The primary image is of a shamed, young but horribly aged woman, clutching her belly and staring to the dirt, while two uniformed men stand by looking at her, not noticeably cruelly or with cartoon sadism in their eyes, just sort of smiling. Which, frankly, is what most rapists probably look like. It's why it's so easy to say "he's young and immature" or "boys will be boys." "He doesn't look like that sort."

I am in awe of what Kubert can evoke with even his simplest drawings, with his flowing layouts that don't seem genuinely paced or planned because they're not six panel grids. He knew entirely what he was doing with Yossel, with each image, every panel, every page and scenario. There is, in this hundred and twenty page comic, a lifetime of perception, a lifetime of sketching everything, of paring details and highlighting beauty. In this comic there is perpetual "why?" and "what if?" like a kid doodling along the side of their notebook in a boring afternoon class. There is the directness and commitment of a child, tempered always, but never curtailed by well-earned and adult awareness.

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Review: Supreme: Blue Rose #1

I'm reading Supreme: Blue Rose #1 and the first thing that comes into my mind is, "Tula Lotay's gonna be huge."

Lotay draws Warren Ellis' story about Supreme, the Superman archetype that may best be known for the time Alan Moore used him to write a love letter to Silver Age comics. Unlike Moore's take on the character, which was to intersperse a modern superhero story with flashbacks set in the Silver Age style, Ellis gets rid of the superhero altogether, focusing instead on Diana Dane, Supreme's equivalent of Lois Lane.

Diana Dane, a journalist, is hired by Darius Dax, a businessman, to go to a town called Littlehaven and investigate a crash site. What exactly fell on Littlehaven, no one knows, but Dax believes a man named Ethan Crane has something to do with it.

It's a first issue so it's pretty much all setup, but it's very rich in terms of setting the scene. Diana has dreams, and you know the dreams are going to mean something. Diana watches a serialized show on her phone while waiting for a meeting, and several characters that you can already tell we'll be seeing more of. Ellis and Lotay are able to introduce characters in just a couple of pages each and somehow have you feel like you already know who they are and the role they're going to play.

Ellis uses concepts Moore introduced, but starts from the beginning, rebooting this universe almost from the ground up. If you read Moore's or Erik Larsen's subsequent runs, you'll have an idea of what's going on, but that actually makes me jealous of the people going into this cold, because I think Ellis has successfully built up an atmosphere of mystery and intrigue that will make anyone curious about what's going on and wanting to buy the next issue.

Even so, it's common for a setup issue to feel like it's just going through the motions. That's not the case here. Not only do Ellis' words evoke a sense of mystery, but Lotay's art is just unbelievable. There isn't a single page of the comic that didn't blow me away. The dreamlike nature of the entire book, with the small waves of color operating outside and over the panels, gives it just enough of a feeling of magic that even if we're following the most grounded, "real" character in the story, you're always reminded something more is going on.

I know in a review I'm supposed to add a negative point that could be improved on, but you know what, I got nothin'. Just go buy and read it. It was the best comic I read this past week and I can't wait for the next one, so just, you know, go. Go already!

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Jul 27, 2014

Review: Ragnarok #1

I finally received my copy of Ragnarok #1 yesterday, and I did not find myself disappointed. Walt Simonson's return to Norse myths was exciting and action-packed, with the first issue focusing on a Dark Elf assassin named Brynja in a post-apocalyptic fantasy world. Leaving behind her husband Regn and their daughter Drifa, Brynja takes on a very dangerous assignment: killing a dead god. Assembling a team of assassins, Brynja takes on the quest, looking for their mark.

It's difficult to say what you will or won't take into the comic as you start reading it. The first five pages, which Simonson showed in its entirety months before the release of the issue, illustrate the battle between Thor and Jormungand the Midgard Serpent as it was supposed to occur according the the prophecy of Ragnarok. In these pages, however, it's told as a folk story. People following the interviews and previews (here's one) for the series know what's up, but going in cold will leave you wondering what the big picture is, and in a good "Man, I gotta get the next one to see what's up" way.

I find myself increasingly attracted to badass female protagonists lately, and Brynja fits the bill to a T. A confident take-no-prisoners fighter, her command of the room makes for a compelling read. The initial scenes with her family are enough to get you to root for her and feel some sympathy, even if you don't really know what it is she's tasked to do. She carries the story well.

It's amazing to me that at 67 years old, three decades after what most fans would probably consider his peak, Simonson is still as skilled as ever. If anything, the glossy paper and today's production values just ensures good line quality, and the inks are confident and bold. Simonson's breakdowns are as solid as ever, as everything is paced to maximum effect. There's also no shortage of background detail, and you really feel the texture and weight of this world as Brynja and company go around it. Simonson does a particularly cool effect near the end that never fails to impress me, which you'll have to see to appreciate.

Colorists are often unsung heroes, but I don't think that's going to be the case in this series. Laura Martin's colors pop despite the bleakness of the story and the situation. It's truly a feast for the eyes.

There isn't much negative to say about Ragnarok that wouldn't be centered around unfair expectations for the series, likely brought in by Simonson's association with Marvel's Thor franchise. If you're looking for Marvel's Thor, well, this isn't it (Marvel's Thor is kicking ass right now, by the way), and you're never going to get it. But if you like the fantastic, if you like action, kickass protagonists, a sense of wonder, even in the bleakest of atmospheres, and beautiful art, then you should give Ragnarok a shot.

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Jul 24, 2014

Fallen Ash #2 Is Out Today!

The second issue of Fallen Ash, the fantasy comic about the residents of Aldergilt, dealing with the loss of their warrior, Ash, is out on Comixology today! In case you missed my interview with the creators, Kimberly Smith, Benjamin Bartolome, and Sam Gungon, have no fear! I've got you covered right here.

Here's some preview pages to get you guys amped up! Just click on each image to see a larger copy.

The first issue of Fallen Ash has received some excellent reviews from BleedingCool and Comic Book Resources.

You can download the two issues at the links below. If you're using a Kindle, the third issue is actually out on Amazon as well, although it's not on Comixology yet:

Fallen Ash #1: Amazon / Comixology
Fallen Ash #2: Amazon / Comixology
Fallen Ash #3: Amazon

Jul 22, 2014

Women in Comics aka Ragnarok aka Thor is Going to Be a Woman for a While

Women in Comics 
aka Ragnarok 
aka Thor is Going to Be a Woman for a While

"Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor." Those are the word inscribed on Mjolnir, the Hammer of Thor. Recently, Marvel announced that sometime later this year Thor would be portrayed as a woman. Essentially, the only thing changing about Thor (according to the sources) would be the character’s shape and appropriate personal pronoun. Grandiose speech, lightning, butt-kicking won’t change. Naturally, such a change produced Internet Outrage.

First off, Marvel was very clear to point out a few key pieces of information I think are particularly relevant:

  1. This new character is Thor, not some female variation of Thor, just straight up Thor
  2. They proudly announced it, this isn’t some gimmick (well, no more than usual promotional gimmicks) or cheap stunt

These are good points to remember because, when all is said and done, this change won’t be permanent. Male Thor isn’t going away and will obviously be back from some reason, most likely regaining his worthiness. That, sadly, is another function of the main universe of any comic, things eventually revert to normal. Very little is “permanent” or even permanent forever (ahem, Barry Allen).

Second, I think the haters have forgotten a few key principles of comic books. The first is that they are a work of fiction, ergo of imagination. The fault of a comic changing and you not being able to keep up is not necessarily a failing of the particular artist or writer, but rather a failure of imagination to follow along. Unless the art and story are horrible (which, lets be honest, happens) the characters and design are there to be shaped, molded and, yes, changed by times and the needs of the story. Whatever a character’s color, shape, size, sex or gender, there is a core truth to the character that a writer and artist articulate to make the character a success.

Spider-Man and Batman are on a quest to right a past wrong. Batman wants to stop other eight year old boys from ever having to lose their parents. Spider-Man is attempting to make up for a single mistake he made that cost him his uncle and father figure. What in these descriptions required the protagonist to be male? Nothing. Superman is an orphan from a distant star, sent to Earth and gifted with extraordinary powers. He choose to use those powers to benefit all of humankind. But Superman does not have to be a man to do this, the character just needs to be Kryptonian.

Third, it might be hard to admit this fact, but comics might no longer consider you a target audience. I don’t think I am. I may infrequently buy comics (very, very infrequently) and primarily seen 2/3’s of the movies (GotG, you’re number 2 of 3 for the year), but I know that there are people who aren’t reading comics who might give DC and Marvel a shot if the person being drawn as Thor/Iron-Man/Batman/Aquaman/Green Lantern looked even a little like them.

Readers want to be able to see themselves in the characters and situations. The true essence of the character remains, avenging a loss, making up for a mistake, flying around in a billion dollar piece of tech you designed to hide your alcoholism. The point is a reader of comics chooses them for a variety of reasons. One is nostalgia, but another is to use one's imagination to live the life of a superpowered being.

Fourth, and to reiterate, the changes to Thor will obviously not be permanent. Why? Because Big Blondey isn’t disappearing, he’s been found “unworthy.” So, you can get all upset that Thor won’t be exactly the same as he’s always been, forever unchanging and never, ever being a crippled doctor. Or, you can give something new a try and maybe, just maybe, it might be good. Now, you’ve just carved out a space for the possibility that comics can be a dynamic medium and not a static one.

Being temporary doesn’t diminish the change being made to Asgard. Rather, it challenges the comic, the story and the environment to welcome something new. Give it space to breath and see if it will work. If a woman being found worthy makes Thor a better book, a better story, a better place for readers to park their eyeballs for a while, who is really hurt by this change?

Finally, comics are escapism in a pretty blatant sense. If you can’t escape into the characters, why would you read and pay money for the stories? Moreover, comics - especially those in the Marvel universe - are about embracing those who are different, imperfect, and (ok, some not actually) human beings. They are about embracing change, with superpowers.

Without change, we would live in a world without Days of Future Past, a world without either Phoenix Saga, a world without any sort of Crisis. Our world, as comic book readers and society as a whole would be less because change was not allowed to happen. There is always going to be a vocal minority that wants comics to reflect an imagined past of art, story and characterizations. They desire the familiar, but it always just makes me think...
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Jul 21, 2014

The Embarrassing State of Comic Book Fandom

The Embarrassing State of Comic Book Fandom
It's Not Me, It's You
Ben Smith

I don’t think I’ve ever been more embarrassed and frustrated to be a comic book fan, and it has absolutely nothing to do with the comic books themselves. I try my best to be a positive source of comic book information and conversation on the internet, because there certainly is no shortage of negativity, and I’d much rather share the books I love than complain about the ones I don’t. Unlike the past, comics have arguably never been more socially acceptable as they are now, and yet I find myself increasingly embarrassed to be associated with the comic book “fans” that populate the internet. This is not a commentary on comic book fandom as a whole (if the following words don’t apply to you, then don’t take offense) but the annoying subculture of online fans that are as annoying as they are ignorant.

It was bad enough with all the rampant racism following the announcement of Michael B Jordan’s casting as Johnny Storm in the new Fantastic Four movie. Now, that same racism has reared its ugly head with the announcement of Sam Wilson, formerly the Falcon, taking on the mantle of Captain America. Not to be outdone, some fans have decided to show how sexist they can be too, in regards to the announcement that a female will soon wield the power of Thor. These basement-dwellers often hide behind words like tradition, never realizing that if we steadfast held to traditions in the United States, there would still be slaves and women wouldn’t be able to vote. (I don’t mean to suggest that comic book characters are important as either of those two things, only that racists and sexists have historically hidden behind the same excuses.)

I understand the trepidation that can come with a favorite character being altered from the version that made you a fan of them in the first place. The thing about comics (and it’s shocking to me that anyone that has read comics for more than a few years continuously fails to grasp this) is that no changes are ever permanent. Thor will be a man before long, and Steve Rogers back in the red, white, and blue.

On the opposite side, would it really be so bad to have a woman and a black man as part of the unquestioned “big three” of the Avengers books? I happen to think these changes would arguably be better for the long-term viability and health of comic books. (It’s funny, many of the same commenters that are so irate about these changes, are the same people that complain that no change is ever permanent in comics.) The Avengers and the Justice League are a little too lily white to be accurate representations of it’s readership, and society as a whole.

Another criticism often lobbed by the perpetually angry, is that Marvel and DC should just create brand new characters, as if it is that simple. The only characters created by Marvel or DC in the past 30 years that have proved viable enough to sustain an audience, are probably Deadpool and Lobo, and that’s about it. Cranky Editor Man will point out that Ben missed Cable, as if adding Cable to this short list makes a difference to his point. Fans have repeatedly shown they aren’t interested in supporting new characters, so publishers really have no alternative if they are truly going to try and portray the varied demographic that buys their products. (Never mind that writers and artists are going to save any truly inspired creations they have for comics they can own and profit off of, such as Hellboy, and they should.) That cannot be done if they continue to rely on the same all-white, all-male characters created, at minimum, 50 years ago.

I know comic books can never be as great as they were when you were 10 years old, not many things can. If comics are no longer enjoyable for you (and they are supposed to be fun; remember, it’s entertainment) then it’s time to move on to other things. If you have nothing nice to say about comics as a whole, and not just a specific comic you found disappointing, please do us the favor of shutting up about it. You’re making the rest of us look bad. The world is a far too negative place as it is, your energy is better spent talking about things you enjoy. But that’s trying to reason to with the unreasonable, and the perpetually unsatisfied. It’s the main reason I will now be more cautious when talking online about the medium I love, something I could only have dreamed of having the capability to do when I was a little boy. That seems like a tremendous shame.

Cranky Editor Man has to wonder how anyone reading comics for more than a few years still gets worked up about these things, remembers how people went insane when Bucky replaced Captain America, then went insane again when Steve Rogers came back. It's fiction, folks. There's other stuff worth getting pissed about. I talk more about it here. But in general, how can a Thor fan not look forward to badass unworthy Thor? 

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