Aug 20, 2018

X-Men Grand Design: When One Panel Brings You Down

Before the release of Grand Design, we were seeing preview images, some released by the author, and thank you, Ed Piskor. Honestly, thank you. The issues we had so far are fun, I love this concept, and it’s like a funnier, terser Marvel Saga. Thank you. (He’s not reading this.) Thank you.

When One Panel Brings You Down
Travis Hedge Coke

And, there is this set that he posted himself, online, cool single panel introductions each of the new X-Men: Storm, Nightcrawler… Each shows something unique about the character and has some punchy sentences explaining them.

“Africa. She brought crop-bearing rains to her neighbors. They worship her like a god.”

“Russia. The immense strength of his metallic form is a big help on the family farm,” and there’s Colossus, painting a picture and filling out a t-shirt. Cool. I know this guy now.

I read Storm’s, okeh, things she did. His, things he’s done. She looks cool in hers. He’s actively doing something in his.

And, there’s Thunderbird. Thunderbird is the one who’s going to die. And, stay dead.

So, do we presage that with coded prose? Is the focus on his military career? What he does for a living?

Fingers crossed. Don’t be wrestling a buffalo. Fingers crossed. Don’t be wrestling a buffalo.

He’s not wrestling a buffalo!

He’s standing with his brother in some very green, green place with mountains. And, above him, the text reads: “USA. Strong as an ox. Fast as a horse. Stubborn as a mule.”

Wolverine is a “crown jewel.” Colossus is a “big help.” Storm is worshiped as a goddess.

Thunderbird is a handful of generic animal comparisons.

And, be real, in the comic, in Grand Design, Thunderbird has a minimal presence in a handful of pages, then he dies and is never brought up again.

Aug 13, 2018

Infinity to Secret War: Jonathan Hickman's Epic Avengers Story, III

Jonathan Hickman first gained notoriety in the comic book world as the creator of the Image series The Nightly News.  Marvel brought him in to collaborate with Brian Michael Bendis on the excellent Secret Warriors comic, and it didn’t take long for Hickman to take over as the sole writer.  As the writer of the Fantastic Four, Hickman developed an ambitious long-form style of writing, full of complex big ideas.  This style would be used to even greater effect when he was handed the Avengers franchise in late 2012.  Hickman took over as the writer of the Avengers and New Avengers series, beginning an epic three-year long storyline that would eventually culminate in the massive crossover event Secret Wars.

Infinity to Secret War: Jonathan Hickman's Epic Avengers Story
Part Three
Ben Smith

The Illuminati watch as a noble team of heroes (analogues of the Justice League) successfully avert three incursions.  However, their worst fears are realized when this universe is on a collision course with their own.  The two teams, out of ideas on how to stop the incursion, fight to save their respective universe.  Dr. Strange uses the darkest magic to defeat the heroes, clearing the way for the Illuminati to use their antimatter bomb.

Yet, none of the Illuminati can actually follow through and destroy an entire planet, even if it means their own destruction.  As they wait for the end, Namor grabs the remote detonator, and activates it, destroying the opposing Earth.

Black Panther is livid, and has to be prevented from killing Namor on the spot, but the hostilities are interrupted by the notification that another incursion will occur in just three hours from now.

The heroes make their final rounds, not willing to build another bomb, and resigned to their ultimate fate.  As the final moments tick down, and arrive, and then time passes after without any consequence, the heroes of the Illuminati are left to wonder what happened.

What happened was that Namor, frustrated by the inaction of the heroes, re-forms a new version of the Cabal, full of individuals that won’t hesitate to do the dirty work of killing others to save themselves.


The story continues after an eight month time jump into the future.  Both Avengers and New Avengers now have a banner across the top of their covers, “In 8 Months… Time Runs Out.”  The entire world now knows about the death of the multiverse, and has fully sanctioned the actions Thanos and the Cabal are taking to save their universe.  Because of this, the world granted them the use of Wakanda as a base of operations.

The Marvel heroes are now divided into factions.  Most of the scientists have joined the Illuminati.  Captain America and a few of his most devoted friends have joined S.H.I.E.L.D. in an effort to find and prosecute the Illuminati.  The remaining Avengers not wanting to be involved with either side have joined Sunspot, who purchased A.I.M. and is now using their scientific might for good.

A.I.M. sends an assault team into the multiverse in an attempt to discover the true cause of the incursions.  This team consists of (the Unworthy) Thor, Hyperion, Abyss, Nightmask, Star Brand, and a group of Ex Nihili.

Namor makes a plea to Dr. Doom to help him corral the out-of-control Cabal, but he is busy investigating the incursions himself with (and this is where I get really interested) the Molecule Man, one of my favorite obscure villains.

The three disparate Avengers factions eventually come back together to try and maroon the Cabal on an Earth about to be destroyed by an incursion, at which time Black Panther takes an extra bit of (he thinks) revenge against Namor by trapping him with them.

However, Namor and the Cabal are saved when a second incursion happens at the same time, so they are able to save themselves by escaping to this third universe, where they are greeted by the Ultimate Reed Richards, aka The Maker.  This Reed had successfully saved the Ultimate universe over thirty times, all by himself.

Meanwhile, A.I.M.’s multiverse assault team has encountered the home base of the Black Priests.  They fight, but the conflict ends when the leader of the Priests reveals himself, Doctor Strange.  Doctor Strange explains that he and the Priests are merely caught in the middle of a conflict between the Ivory Kings and Rabum Alal.  The Priests kill worlds during the incursion in the hopes that if enough worlds are destroyed, the multiverse will heal itself, like “triage surgeons.”

Inspired by Valeria Richards’ suggestion that they need to stop trying to win, and start figuring out how not to lose, Black Panther and Reed Richards create a “lifeboat,” that will survive the destruction of the multiverse, and begin hashing out who will get to board it.

Yellowjacket (Hank Pym) finally returns from his covert mission into the Multiverse with the stunning identity of the Ivory Kings.  It turns out they are Beyonders, godlike beings from outside of the Multiverse bent on its destruction.  They’ve been busy killing all the Celestials and omnipotent beings across all the galaxies, finishing with the Living Tribunal, and now they’re ready to finish off the Multiverse.  (Molecule Man, Beyonders, this is right in the wheelhouse of my 8-year-old self.)

Dr. Strange and the Black Priests find the Library of Worlds, where they are shocked to learn that Rabum Alal is Dr. Doom.  (Marvel Super-Heroes Secret Wars, baby!)

The Multiversal assault team actually succeed in killing two Beyonders, with only Hyperion and Thor barely surviving that monumental clash.  They soon find out how hopeless things are, when a dozen Beyonders appear soon after.  They rush headlong into battle, and to their deaths.

After all the incursions, only two universes remain.  The Ultimate Universe, and the 616.  With the end drawing near, Captain America has only one goal before everything goes white, to beat the hell out of his old friend Tony Stark.  The battle is brutal and petty, and continues up until the universe goes white.

Before the white event, Dr. Doom explains to Doctor Strange exactly what is happening.  All beings are different in each universe across the Multiverse, except the Molecule Man.  The Beyonders created the Molecule Man to be a universal bomb that when they detonated, he would simultaneously destroy every universe across the Multiverse.

The Molecule Man and Dr. Doom traveled back in time to the origin of a Molecule Man on a separate Earth, and killed him.  Dr. Doom then spent the next 25 years trying to kill every Molecule Man in every universe, in an attempt to destroy the Beyonders weapon against the Multiverse.  Eventually, the death of a Molecule Man started the incursions.

Along the way, Doom inspired disciples to assist him in this task, the Black Swans.

The Beyonders created the Mapmakers to mark the movements of the Swans, seed sacrifice worlds, and chart each universe where a Molecule Man was destroyed.

Eventually, a faction of the Black Swans lost faith in him, and unwittingly began assisting the Beyonders in their goal by destroying Earths at each incursion point.  One of these Black Swans is the one that was held captive by the Illuminati.

With only two worlds remaining, Dr. Doom executes his final endgame.  He had worried that when the Beyonders found out about him traveling back in time, they would simply do the same and stop him, but Doom discovered the one weakness of the Beyonders is that they’re linear.

So, Dr. Doom and Doctor Strange travel to face the Beyonders atop a weaponized time machine, and when he throws it at them, all of reality goes white.

Thus begins Secret Wars, the true spiritual sequel to one of the most important mini-series of my young reading life, Marvel Super-Heroes Secret Wars.  Because of that series, Molecule Man, Dr. Doom, and Beyonders will never fail to inspire the utmost joy in me as a fan.  If you’re new to all this, and the idea of multiversal bombs and weaponized time machines don’t excite you, then comics really are not for you, and that’s okay.

However, if it does, then Secret Wars is truly one of the most ambitious comic events ever created.  Most of the regular Marvel publishing line was suspended for the duration of the event, and every significant storyline in the history of Marvel was revived in the ancillary tie-in issues.  Secret Wars was as grand in scope as it was in a publishing initiative, and while it wasn’t perfect, it was highly enjoyable.

But like I said, I’m the exact kind of fan this storyline was devised to appeal to.  I still think it’s well worth checking out for yourself. 

Aug 6, 2018

Infinity to Secret War: Jonathan Hickman's Epic Avengers Story, II

Jonathan Hickman first gained notoriety in the comic book world as the creator of the Image series The Nightly News.  Marvel brought him in to collaborate with Brian Michael Bendis on the excellent Secret Warriors comic, and it didn’t take long for Hickman to take over as the sole writer.  As the writer of the Fantastic Four, Hickman developed an ambitious long-form style of writing, full of complex big ideas.  This style would be used to even greater effect when he was handed the Avengers franchise in late 2012.  Hickman took over as the writer of the Avengers and New Avengers series, beginning an epic three-year long storyline that would eventually culminate in the massive crossover event Secret Wars.

Infinity to Secret War: Jonathan Hickman's Epic Avengers Story
Part Two
Ben Smith

In New Avengers, the Illuminati use Reed’s Bridge machine to observe other incursions as they happen, and eventually find out they can witness past events on a limited basis. Black Panther and Namor continue their uneasy partnership, a blood feud continuing on from the Avengers vs X-Men event, where Namor used the Phoenix power to devastate Wakanda. Elsewhere, Dr. Strange barters with his very soul to gain the kind of power it would take to move planets.

As the Illuminati watch more incursions, they begin to learn more about the various factions involved in the Multiversal events.


The Black Swans are the disciples of Rabum Alal (the true identity of whom is very exciting). The Black Swans operate out of the Library of Worlds, a place that exists between universes. The purpose of the Black Swans has not been revealed as of yet in the story, so stay tuned. A group of Black Swans rebelled against Rabum Alal, destroying Earths during incursions as an offering to him, and to buy more time for other universes.


Mapmakers were created by the Ivory Kings to chart worlds and mark the movements of the Black Swans. They travel the Multiverse through the incursions, stripping each Earth of all usable materials. Their occupation is marked by blue skies, instead of the usual red that signifies an incursion event. The Sidera Maris are their bridge builders, and are used to hold each incursion zone. What exactly they are charting is something that is revealed later, and involves one of my favorite obscure Marvel characters.


The Black Priests destroy intrusive Earths during incursions, with the hopes that destroying enough could stabilize the Multiverse. They are not truly alive, but are instead “animated things that feign life.” Their leader is — wait for it — another surprising twist in the storyline, but seems pretty obvious in hindsight.


The aforementioned creators of the Mapmakers, in direct opposition with Rabum Alal. The reveal of who and what the Ivory Kings really are is a moment that hits me right in the core of my longtime Marvel fandom. It builds directly off of a crucial storyline from my childhood, a comic that played a major part in my lifelong love of the Marvel Universe.

Over in the core Avengers title, many things are happening, and to be completely honest, I find them much less compelling than the incursion story happening in New Avengers. I’m going to do my best to explain what happens, because it is quite complicated in parts, but feel free to skip Avengers #24 - 34, because they do not have my recommendation.

Franklin Richards sends Tony Stark’s granddaughter backwards in time, to help them deal with a rogue planet that has been removed from it’s orbit and fired like a giant bullet towards the Earth. Instead of destroying the weaponized planet, she helps them to build a machine that will phase it into alignment with the Earth, creating a massive source of power that Stark can draw from to use in the coming months.

We learn later on that this planet was purposefully shot backwards through time by the Avengers from 5000 years in the future, a time when the Avengers consists of billions of universal superbeings. More on that in a minute.

A.I.M. is doing what they do, experimenting with the multiversal rifts that have been happening. They successful create a bridge between the 616 universe and one that is in the midst of an incursion, pulling that world’s Avengers over, only this team of Avengers is very much evil. The real Avengers end up battling the evil Avengers, until A.I.M. corrects their mistake and sends the evil Avengers off into an entirely new dimension where they can be happy, maiming and subjugating to their heart’s content. After successfully creating a door between universes, A.I.M. creates a new group of Adaptoids to send out into the multiverse to explore. However, the Adaptoids, well, they adapt past their programming, and end up meeting with and becoming Mapmakers.

Ultimately, the primary result of this story is that Bruce Banner absorbs enough clues between A.I.M. and Stark’s actions as of late to determine that Stark has reformed the Illuminati, and that the multiverse is indeed dying. As a result, Banner joins the Illuminati.

Captain America finally remembers the incursion events, and how the Illuminati wiped his mind after he accidentally destroyed the Infinity Stones. He grabs a group of the Avengers to confront Stark, and just as things are getting physical, the time stone reappears and throws them all into the future. First it’s 48 years ahead, then 5045, then 51,028, and so on. 5,000 years ahead is when they meet Franklin Richards, and he explains to them about the rogue planet, and he also explains to Cap that the Illuminati will fail. They will fail because the task is impossible, but also because they will be opposed by him.

Captain America is the only one that reaches the end of the line, as each jump sends more and more of his Avengers back to the present day, while he continues on. At the end of time he finds Iron-Lad, Kang, and Immortus waiting for him. They explain to him that they are all stuck in a temporal loop, and this journey has all happened before. Last time, they claim they told Captain America to go back and convince Stark to find a better way to combat the incursions, and it still failed. This time, they plan to have him help them destroy worlds to live. But all this journey through time has taught Steve, is to remember who he is. He fights to save people, he fights against monsters, and he doesn’t kill for the greater good.

Captain America tells Kang to shove it, and then returns to the present day, where the Avengers (minus Stark) are waiting for him. He knows what he has to do, and he declares their former friends in the Illuminati to be the worst enemies they know.

Most of those events and ideas sound much better in summary than they were to actually read. Not that they were terrible comics at all, but I remember reading the comics when they were coming out every month and it felt very much like they were stalling, and it still does. The main points to take away from this stretch if you decide to skip these comics, is that A.I.M. is up to no good, Bruce Banner has joined the Illuminati, and Captain America is more convinced than ever that the Illuminati must be stopped.

Next week, the countdown to “Time Runs Out."

Jul 30, 2018

Infinity to Secret War: Jonathan Hickman's Epic Avengers Story, I

Jonathan Hickman first gained notoriety in the comic book world as the creator of the Image series The Nightly News.  Marvel brought him in to collaborate with Brian Michael Bendis on the excellent Secret Warriors comic, and it didn’t take long for Hickman to take over as the sole writer.  As the writer of the Fantastic Four, Hickman developed an ambitious long-form style of writing, full of complex big ideas.  This style would be used to even greater effect when he was handed the Avengers franchise in late 2012.  Hickman took over as the writer of the Avengers and New Avengers series, beginning an epic three-year long storyline that would eventually culminate in the massive crossover event Secret Wars.

Infinity to Secret War: Jonathan Hickman's Epic Avengers Story
Part One
Ben Smith

Personally, I think it’s one of the best recommendations you could give any fan of the Marvel movies that might be interested in reading some of the comics.  It’s full of big threats, great moments, and fantastic characters, many of which were used in the Infinity War movie.  Not to mention the beautiful artwork provided by some of Marvel’s best artists at the time, including Jerome Opena, Steve Epting, Mike Deodato, Dustin Weaver, Jimmy Cheung, and Leinil Francis Yu, among others. Let’s take a look, shall we?

Hickman’s Avengers begins with Iron Man and Captain America deciding they need to expand the idea of the Avengers into a worldwide planet-saving force, an Avengers World.  Good timing, because two powerful new beings have landed nearby on Mars.  Ex Nihilo and Abyss arrive on Mars and terraform a portion of it to contain a breathable atmosphere and vegetation.

Ex Nihilo and Abyss are Gardeners, tasked with accelerating the evolution of species by their creators, the Builders.  The Builders are the universe’s oldest race, and created many races to help cultivate the universe, to include Alephs, Gardeners, Curators, Abyss, and Caretakers.  They seeded worlds and directed the evolution of civilizations, or passed judgement on what they considered failed species and exterminated them.

Ex Nihilo fires an Origin Bomb at the Earth in an attempt to make the planet sentient, affecting millions of lives, prompting the intervention of the Avengers.  The Avengers lose the initial confrontation, prompting Captain America to expand the roster of the Avengers to win.

This expanded roster includes heavy hitters like Hyperion, Smasher, and Captain Universe (along with Sunspot and Cannonball of the New Mutants).  Ex Nihilo and Abyss surrender to Captain Universe because she is revered by the Builders as their creator.  Captain Universe tells them to stop what they are doing, and the two agree not to leave their terraformed portion of Mars.  As a result of all these events, Nightmask and Star Brand are added to the Marvel Universe (two concepts that had previously only existed in Marvel’s failed New Universe line from the ‘80s).  Ex Nihilo’s failure to repair the planet attracts the attention of the Builders.     

Hickman’s New Avengers series begins in Wakanda with the Black Panther (in a wise bit of foresight years ahead of his blockbuster movie).  After witnessing the first incursion event (more on that in a bit) T’Challa reassembles the Illuminati, a secret cabal of Marvel’s significant heroes that have been meeting in secret for years to covertly eliminate threats or shape events in the Marvel Universe.  The group consisted of Iron Man, Mr. Fantastic, Dr. Strange, Black Bolt, Namor, and Professor X.  T’Challa had initially been invited but declined.  At this point in time in the Marvel Universe, Professor X was deceased, so The Beast would eventually be brought in to represent the Mutant race.  The Illuminati had previously been exposed, much to the disgust of the rest of the Marvel heroes, so this time Captain America was included, perhaps in an effort to appear more noble as a whole.

Incursions are a result of the contraction of the multiverse causing two universes to collide, with each universe’s respective Earth as the point of impact.  There is a short period of harmonic alignment where the Earths exist next to each other, before colliding and destroying both universes.  The only known way, or maybe just the simplest way, to avoid the destruction of both universes is to destroy one of the Earths before impact, saving both universes, but obviously only one Earth.

T’Challa witnesses a mysterious character named Black Swan destroy another Earth during this incursion event, saving the universe from destruction.

The Illuminati capture and question Black Swan, who gives them all the above information about the incursions, and that the incursions began after the death of an unknown universe 25 years prior.  Also, she is a servant of Rabum Alal, the Great Destroyer, which will be important later.

The Illuminati do their best to come up with any solution that doesn’t involve destroying an entire planet.  Having previously assigned themselves the task of safeguarding the Infinity Stones, they decide to reassemble the Gauntlet and use that power to keep the planets from colliding during the next incursion event.  They nominate Captain America to wield the awesome power and responsibility of that task.  He succeeds in pushing the invading Earth back, but is unable to control the power in his grasp, resulting in the destruction of all but the time stone, which disappears.

Even with no other ideas to prevent the next incursion, Captain America still refuses to accept destroying an entire planet as an acceptable solution, and subsequently has his mind wiped of the entire matter and is removed from the Illuminati.  This will have negative consequences for them in the future.

The Illuminati have no choice but to create a weapon capable of destroying an entire planet, to save their own.  Elsewhere, the incursions have attracted the attention of the Builders, who have decided that to save the multiverse, every Earth must be destroyed.

As part of the fantastic Avengers event Infinity, the Builders cut a path of destruction through the universe, annihilating entire worlds in their path towards the Earth.  The Avengers led by Captain America leave for space, recruiting Ex Nihilo and Abyss to come with.  They join a council of worlds including the Kree, Shi’ar, Brood, Skrull, and Spartax Empires.  The Illuminati stay behind on Earth, as the secret threat of the incursions still remains.  Meanwhile, Thanos decides to invade a much less protected Earth, accompanied by his ruthless Cull Obsidian, aka the Black Order.

The Black Order consists of Corvus Glaive, Ebony Maw, Proxima Midnight, Supergiant, and Black Dwarf.  They did not, and could not, get their just due in the Infinity War movie (except for Ebony Maw, who was spot-on) due to time constraints, but they are much more entertaining in the comics.  Proxima Midnight in particular is wonderful.

The war is not going well for this coalition of forces, as the Builders are far more powerful and strategically superior to anything they have ever faced, even with the Avengers on their side.  Early on in the war, Captain Universe is incapacitated.  Meanwhile on Earth, Thanos is executing a two-pronged goal of killing his secret Inhuman son (long story) and waging war on Wakanda to (he thinks) acquire the Time stone.  (Atlantis and Wakanda are at war with each other, creating much tension between T’Challa and Namor.  Shuri at this time was Queen of Wakanda.  Namor attempts to sue for peace, but is instead tricked into a meeting with T’Challa while Wakanda executes a devastating attack on Atlantis.  Faced with the complete extinction of his remaining kingdom at the hands of Proxima Midnight, Namor instead surrenders to Thanos, and tells him that the time stone is currently hidden in Wakanda.) 

Black Bolt knows that Attilan will be destroyed if Thanos invades, so he has his brother Maximus build a bomb that will release Terrigen all across the Earth, transforming every human with Inhuman genes, including Thanos’ son Thane.  (This would thrust the Inhumans into a much more prominent position in the Marvel Universe, as Marvel attempted to replace the X-Men with the Inhumans because of movie licensing issues, whether they want to admit it or not.)

In space, Spartax flees in an attempt to save themselves, and the Kree surrender to the Builders, in hopes of being spared.  After a few small victories, Captain America appears to request a parlay so that he can surrender to the Builder left in command of the Kree on their home planet of Hala.  Thor is sent as the representative of the coalition.  The Builder broadcasts what he assumes will be the surrender of the resistance to most of the universe, but instead is killed by Thor’s hammer after he hurls it around the Kree sun, sending it hurtling at incredible speeds back to his hand through the torso of the Builder.

This is one of the best moments of recent Marvel comic history, I can picture this in my mind happening to the raucous cheers of an adoring movie audience. So of course some fans on the internet complained that Captain America and Thor murdered an opponent after essentially waving a white flag, making them dishonorable. These fans don’t know how to enjoy things.

This victory emboldens the united Empires, proving definitively that the Builders can be beaten.  Ronan kills the Kree Supreme Intelligence, and leads the Kree back into the fight.  Strengthened by a recently revived Captain Universe, and an unleashed Star Brand, the Avengers and their allies successfully defeat the Builders.  The surviving Builders retreat to the Superflow, a waystation between universes.  The Avengers do not have much time to celebrate, however, as they almost immediately learn that Thanos is on Earth once communications are restored. 

The Avengers and their allies return to Earth, defeat the armada Thanos has fortified in orbit around Earth, and a glorious battle is had with Thanos on the planet below.  In the epic battle, Corvus Glaive is killed by Hyperion.  There is an especially thrilling moment when Thanos and Thor battle head-to-head, a moment that would be adapted for the climax of Infinity War, seen at the top of this column. Despite all their efforts, Thanos and Proxima Midnight push the Avengers to the brink of defeat.  However, Ebony Maw turns on his master and manipulates Thane into using his new Inhuman powers to freeze Thanos and Proxima Midnight in amber. 

That’s where we will end this week.  If universes smashing into each other and exploding doesn’t intrigue you, then comics just aren’t for you.  If Thor throwing his hammer into space so that it hurtles back to him through the torso of a sadistic alien being doesn’t excite you, comics are not for you.  It’s okay if they don’t, there are plenty of other things to do.  But if these things do excite and intrigue you, then you definitely want to give these comics a try.

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.

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