Nov 30, 2012

The New Teen Titans/Uncanny X-Men Connection

In 1975, Marvel Comics had a breakout hit with their revamped Uncanny X-Men, written by Chris Claremont and drawn by Dave Cockrum and, later, John Byrne. This new X-Men team featured classic X-characters like Cyclops and Jean Grey, new characters like Storm and Colossus, and a pre-existing character who had never been an X-Man in Wolverine. The series emphasized group dynamics and had a soap operatic approach, highlighting personal relationships as much as the good guys fighting the bad guys.  People ate it up.

The crown jewel of the Claremont/Byrne X-Men run was The Dark Phoenix Saga, in which longtime X-Man Jean Grey, possessed by the ever-powerful Phoenix Force, turned evil. It was a tragic story and is also touted as the tale in which Wolverine became a superstar.

The Dark Phoenix Saga ran from January to October 1980, and in November 1980, DC Comics launched The New Teen Titans. Utilizing much of the same formula — classic Titans (Robin, later Nightwing; Kid Flash, Donna Troy), new characters (Starfire, Cyborg, Raven), and a pre-existing character who had never been a member (Changeling) — Titans also emphasized character development and interpersonal relationships. That's about it in terms of similarities, but since it went head to head with the X-Men in terms of sales, it is still, to this day, mentioned in in comparison to the X-Men.

New Teen Titans was very successful. It was the comic where Dick Grayson shed his Robin identity and became Nightwing. It introduced three new characters that are still used today (Cyborg is in the Justice League). The Titans cartoon in the early part of the 21st Century was based on that very team. It had an incredibly popular crossover with the X-Men, and was scheduled for a second. And its creative team, Marv Wolfman and George Perez, was the same creative team on Crisis on Infinite Earths, DC's first big (and to this day, I'd say biggest) event.

But it didn't make the same kind of mark the X-Men did. By that, I mean that people can speak of the Claremont and Byrne's X-Men for hours on end without ever bringing up the New Teen Titans, but talking about the New Teen Titans (the comics, at least), it seems almost inevitable that the X-Men will be brought up. When people talk about the New Teen Titans, their crossover with the X-Men gets brought up much sooner than when people talk about the X-Men. I've always had a bit more affection for DC than Marvel (and even then more of an affection for the rest of Marvel than the X-Men), so I acquired in the last few years a complete collection of Wolfman and Perez's Titans, and have thought about the whys and wherefores regarding their constant comparison to the X-Men.

One possible reason for this is their choice for pre-existing character not then affiliated with the team. The X-Men used Wolverine—also known as Logan—a Len Wein creation, to great effect—he was the perfect superhero for the Dirty Harry archetype that was so popular in that era. The New Teen Titans utilized Changeling, formerly known as Beast Boy, and gave him a lot of screen time. Not only was the shapeshifting Changeling originally from the Doom Patrol, a team that's always been associated with the X-Men, but his real name was... Garfield Logan.

It's so weird. You almost wonder if that was intentional on Wolfman and Perez's part.

From The Uncanny X-Men and the New Teen Titans

I don't think it was, though I do think it's a gigantic coincidence.

Changeling, loved as he is today by creators and hardcore fans alike, never became the breakout star that Wolverine did, nor did he even come close to it, but he did get a lot of screen time, and in fact, was almost the central Titan in what's considered to be the crown jewel of that run, The Judas Contract.

The Judas Contract is the culmination of the story that kicked off in the first Titans arc. Early in the book's run, Deathstroke the Terminator, the world's premiere assassin, inherits his dead son's contract to bring the Titans to terrorist group H.I.V.E. To help him out with this contract, he enlists the help of Tara Markov, Terra, a teenage girl with the power to cause shifts in the earth.

Terra was always a villain—there was no part of her that was redeemable, and she constantly lied to the Titans. When she reveals herself as a spy (not a traitor; she'd have had to be one of them to be a traitor), she just goes out of her way to kill them. The narration makes it clear that it's that simple: she's evil and there's no redemption. The end result has Deathstroke actually looking like the bad guy with the good heart in comparison.

Deathstroke and Terra capture all the Titans except for Dick Grayson (Robin/Nightwing), who then teams up with a new character to save the rest of the team. It results in Tara's death.

When I first read this story in trade paperback form in 2004, I was actually really underwhelmed. It didn't help that the TPB started with Terra already on the team, so the big reveal that she was actually working for the Terminator wasn't there (that's just the nature of collections of 80s comics; they're meant to be read without any gaps and in serialized form), but the utter one-dimensionality of Terra just did not make for captivating writing, or at least not writing that was so captivating as what The Judas Contract's reputation made it out to be. When the Teen Titans cartoon did the same storyline, they wisely had Terra as a more empathetic character, which gave more meat and depth to the story.

After putting the book down, it didn't take all that much thought to figure out why it made such an impact. It turned over superhero conventions at the time, showing the seemingly innocent little girl as the irredeemable insane villain. "We knew that if George drew Tara as a cute little girl, everyone would assume she'd reform," says Wolfman in George Perez: Storyteller. And indeed, that's what happened.

Perez says in his Modern Masters volume:

I wanted her to be cute, but not beautiful. She looked like a young girl. I gave her a very substantial overbite, her eyes were wide, her body was slim, she wasn't particularly busty. I wanted her to look almost elfin, so that when you see her for the first time wearing full makeup and dressed in a provocative outfit where you know she's just been in bed with Deathstroke that it does jab you a bit. "Whoa, good God! This little girl is a slut!"

But that's a semiotic effect; it works because it inverts the semiotics that's carried on Terra's visual. But why did it work so well back in 1983? Well, in the aforementioned The Dark Phoenix Saga, Claremont and Byrne introduced a cute-as-a-button teenage girl named Kitty Pryde, who would later be known as Sprite and Shadowcat. She was hugely popular, and remains so to this day. Wolfman decided to capitalize on that.

In his introduction to the 2003 TPB of The Judas Contract, he says:

"Now, I love puncturing balloons, and I decided if some fans thought we were an X-Men clone, then why not play with them a bit? The X-Men had just introduced a new member to their group, a 14-year-old cute-as-a-button girl with incredible powers. I'd do the same. I'd play her as a villain, then seemingly reform and have her join the Titans. Only I'd have her constantly lie to the Titans, change her stories, do suspicious things, and, in general, make her a louse. I could do that, I knew, because comic book convention would demand that readers ignore all the evidence and assume she was a good girl. After all, the X-Men's Kitty Pryde was a heroine, so even the lying, cheating, conniving Tara Markov had to have a heart of gold, right?"

So it did make an impact out of overturning convention, but as it turns out, a convention the X-Men had perfected and were using to great effect at the time. And The Judas Contract, as stated before, introduced the new character Jericho, Deathstroke's mute son who had the power to take over other people's bodies as soon as he made eye contact. He made his costumed debut in the same page as Dick Grayson's Nightwing identity did, actually undercutting Dick's big moment. He goes on to be the one who saves the Titans and was heavily pushed.

Sorry, I love Wolfman and Perez as much as
any kid who started reading comics in the 80s,
but what ever made them think Jericho could share
the same amount of space as Nightwing?

Jericho's powers are innate. He's a mutant, and the text calls him so. When he and Nightwing go off to rescue the Titans, Dick makes the following remark:

"A mutant, eh? Well, we've got aliens, witches, shapechangers, and cyborgs.
So why not a mutant? 'Sides, I hear you guys aren't half bad."

Although there are never really more than superficial similarities between The New Teen Titans and the Uncanny X-Men, the former just doesn't seem able to shake the comparison, and it doesn't help that the X-Men's fingerprints are all over what's supposed to be the crown jewel of the Titans' golden run. So there's a What If for you guys. Would the Titans have stood the test of time better (which is not to say it doesn't stand the test of time right now; just if it would do so better) if the Judas Contract never happened? The impact was certainly there back in 1983 when the Titans and the X-Men went head to head, but would The Judas Contract be more powerful over time, the way The Dark Phoenix Saga is, than it was if it didn't play off the X-Men so much?

We'll never really know. What I do know is this: reading the entirety of Wolfman and Perez's New Teen Titans in one go, I definitely found myself enjoying it, finding things in it to both love (this has my favorite version of Dick Grayson and Donna Troy ever) and hate (for a character I love so much, I certainly want to punch Wally West in the face a disproportionate amount of times here, and Terry Long). But getting to the culmination of that run, The Judas Contract, I couldn't stop comparing it to the X-Men. Maybe it's because Wolfman and Perez always talk about Kitty Pryde when they talk about the story; maybe it's because the plays on the X-Men are so palpable. But whatever the reason, it's hard to take The Judas Contract in a vacuum—and in fact, when I did, I found it underwhelming—and I think that's a shame.

On the Titans' side though, Deathstroke would go on to be the inspiration for Deadpool, who counts as an X-character... and who ended up being one of the most popular creations from the 90s onward. Wow, even when the Titans are the ones getting ripped off, they can't seem to win!

From Superman/Batman Annual #1. Deadpool is never named,
but he's the one on the left.

Despite everything I said here, I really do recommend reading Wolfman and Perez's The New Teen Titans. It's great superhero fun, and if nothing else will introduce you to the horror that is Terry Long.

Nov 29, 2012

Pop Medicine: All the Fancy Artistic Goals

Pop Medicine is a "visiting" column by Travis Hedge Coke for the Comics Cube! Click here for the archive!

All the Fancy Artistic Goals
Pop Medicine
Travis Hedge Coke

“The real story was people who started breaking things.”

“You’ve got to be outside it, to see it for what it is.”

Just how realistic and direct is Marvels? Much is still made of Marvels as the breakthrough moment of Reconstruction, a supposed opposition to Deconstruction in comics. The moment comics gave up trying to be artsy and meta and went for genuine-ism, for naturalism. Marvels has been held up as a return to older styles of storytelling and the presentation of ethics. It has been lionized for its glorification of the superhero in their simplest and distanced presentation, as well as its consideration research and arrangement. It’s been praised for not being too meta or symbolic, but foregrounding realistic portrayals, for its direct artwork and clear, unpretentious script.

The four issue (and one zeroth issue prologue) comic by Kurt Busiek, Alex Ross, and diverse talented hands, was a watershed for painted comics, which had previously been less than commercially viable even when as awesome as the Lazarus Churchyard shorts by Warren Ellis and Disraeli. It was a watershed for wold newtoning in comics, which already had shared universes at various publishers, but tended to be haphazard and carefree about the contiguity of events and individuals as they related to chronologically simultaneous, but narratively separate stories. And, it did a lot to push to the fore the idea that Marvel’s superheroes were inherently awesome. Its place, historically, is pretty sound.

But, is it as straightforward and unpretentious, as un-artsy and hard-hittingly realistic as so many seem to believe?

D Aviva Rothschild called it out for being unrealistic in terms of dialogue (no hardcore swearing) and for scenes of characters looking up at superheroes doing amazing stuff overhead (which, I can’t rationally judge, since I still look up at clouds and airplanes and neither of those might throw a pumpkin bomb at me). She also had trouble with how many other stories and characters were referenced in passing and compares it to trying to cram the entire American Civil War into two hours of musical, when, really, if we’re going to extend the during wartime metaphor, here, this is The War At Home or Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore not Patton or the aforementioned Robert Wilson musical, The Civil War. The superheroes are background here, the events of previous comics are treated as historic incidents, not as the central plot here, which happens to be occurring simultaneous to those old comics, but with our protagonist and his family at the fore.

Marvels is not, I think, ever meant to be accepted as a true fairytale, to coin a phrase, a story which though fiction we are meant to believe happens the way it does by nature and necessity and not craft and puppeteers. Marvels is puppeted by Ross and Busiek, but also by the entire backlog of comics to which it owes its structure and earmarks. Deconstruction is, at heart, a series of techniques for identifying the elements or perspectives that are privileged, which are erased or ignored, and Marvels, at its heart, draws to light much of what is subject to erasure or privilege in the comics and eras with which it is dealing. We are meant to know it is the product of many influences, many many authors and controlled not by any inherent nature or moral framework, but by the caprice of decades of old comics by so many of those authors.

Marvels is not a history book. And, it behooves me to say that firmly, not simply because of Rothschild’s criticism but also for the many critics who praise Marvels as if it is so. If it was a history book, it’d be a terrible one, for moving events around, exaggerating or shortchanging them as it helps the story at hand, the comic that is Marvels. But it pretends to be historical, to have a historical setting, even though that setting is an imaginary and unplotted history of a thousand different comics rubbing against one another in a shared universe. And the references and research can be intimidating, just as it might be welcoming to others. Further, it by necessity makes Marvels as meta as all get out.

Metatextuality is a kind of intertextual discourse in which one text, such as Marvels, makes comment or causes us to understand another text differently, as Marvels does with the hundreds of comics it references, alludes to, or otherwise connects by nature of its setting and intent. There’s not a page in Marvels that does not refer to another comic. Some refer to several other comics all at once, and so, too, are there references and direct relations to films and novels that go back and forth, one coloring the next perception of the other.

Marvels does not strive to make us forget that this is the result of a thousand single issue comics, decades of publications. Marvels reminds us on every page, with each step, that this is a metatextual and experimental game, part pastiche, part chronology establishment, part social commentary, part comics commentary, and part detournement, reversing the looser abstraction and hard lines of inked over pencils with gouache and realistic lighting effects while flipping the focus from the all-too-human superheroes of the Marvel Universe to the all-too-not-super man on the street in that same world. The great Stan Lee innovation of two-dimensional characterization in superhero stories is flipped so that superhumans are seen for the most part only at a distance, as forces of nature or otherwise dehumanized entities, while not surrendering the technique entirely, and instead transferring it to Phil and his family. That’s a radical departure from the traditional Marvel methodology and it does, again, draw attention to this comic as an artifact.

The first page of Chapter One, is our introduction to the wonkiness of Marvel-time, a pattern of progression that does not match our real world time and cannot. J. Jonah Jameson and our protagonist, Phil Sheldon, are alive and adult in pre-WW2 New York and by the last page of Chapter Four, Danny Ketch, introduced in our real-world Nineteen Nineties and the Marvel Universe’s Nineties, is a kid with a paper route, when Jameson and Sheldon are at best twenty, twenty-five years older by those last pages, and Jameson will be virtually unaged by the time young Danny Ketch has reached adulthood and become a Ghost Rider. The child of Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Girl, who arrives off-screen, but implicitly, towards the end, will not age more than a few years for the decade Danny Ketch will have weathered away before becoming possessed by the urge to ride through your town with his head on fire.

If that is not intentional, why draw attention to it? It is not naturalistic in the sense of forcing the conviction of a natural occurrence. It does not make the Marvel Universe “more like ours,” more realistic. It is detrimental to the mechanics of a naturalist story. I posit that it has to be intentional. And it has to come from the authors poring over various Marvel comics and recognizing the disjunction between how time operates in that shared universe and how it is generally acknowledged to function in our reality.

The second story page of the collected Marvels, opens with a quote from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein that applies simultaneously to the character pictured alongside it (Jim Hammond), and potentially to the approach of the comic at hand, to the shared universe in which this comic takes place, and the era that in this comic will be called The Age of Marvels, but if also to those things, then the “I” of the quote is essentially the text itself, the comic, the universe, and the age speaking as if aware.

Two pages later, of the six overlapping sections that make up the page, one is given over to text with no representational illustration, and two are wholly symbolic, abstract to the events pictured in the other three but relevant to them and the story as a whole; da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, and a schematic of blood vessels in ropy reds. Half the page is nothing inherent to the scene, nothing of an emic perspective.

The page between? A collage of three distinct moments in the creation of Jim Hammond, as Professor Horton extinguishes a cigarette and looks to the heart and lungs of the Human Torch he will present to the world. Oh, fraught with potential symbolism and relevance, to be sure, from fire to carcinogenic and of perspective, but nothing is drawn out loudly, so let that pass as a naturalistic, unassuming presentation. The pages delineated above, though? On either side of that possibly unassuming page, pages that cannot be read and still denied their exercising of non-naturalist techniques.

And, now, with the prologue completed, we have the first of several interruptions to the world of the comic, in form of commentary by the talent of our world (in order, essays by Stan Lee, Kurt Busiek, Alex Ross, John Romita, and Marc McLaurin). These are lovely, and informative, with beautiful spot illustrations, but they do not take place in the world in which we are otherwise immersed, in Marvels. Each is a reminder that even the marvels and newsmen of the world are but tools for collaborative authors far beyond them. It’s a little bit creepy, but awe-inspiring too. In Marvels, intended or otherwise, we witness one godlike creator dedicate an entire chapter to another godlike creator. Too, one of these beings from beyond the Earth Marvels primarily deals with, looks down into that world and sees the death of a person he has been familiar with for more years than she has had, in her world, life, and finds that this death is wrong.

That cab driver is based on John Romita, watching the Green Goblin
carrying off Gwen Stacy.

The death of Gwen Stacy is wrong according to a being from beyond who had a hand in bringing her life, to the world. That’s immense. It’s immense, it hangs over the entire back end of Marvels, and it is not even generated by either of the two (as it is generally agreed upon) authors.

Perhaps not every disjunction of this sort is intentional by the authors. Why place the interrupting nonfiction throughout the story, if they are not part of, or meant to interrupt the story? Probably not planned as world-expansion or meta-reference. However, as the footnotes in the back show, and the extensive annotations folks not paid by Marvel have compiled, there is an awful lot of meta-referencing, allusions, borrowed characters (Clark Kent! Popeye!), and consideration to how chronologically synchronous but initially unrelated stories parallel and enhance one another when it is acknowledged that they happened simultaneously and at close distance. The majority of the allusions, deliberate detournements, reappraisals, valorizations, and attempts at differentiating cannot be disregarded as unintentional or unconsidered and to continue to do so is a disservice to the talent and efforts of all those who made Marvels what it is.

Nov 27, 2012

Easter Eggs: The Filipino Heroes League in Skyworld

Welcome to another installment of Easter Eggs in Comics! Click here for the archive!

Today's Easter egg comes from Skyworld: Testament by Mervin Ignacio and Ian Sta. Maria. Testament is the second chapter in the Skyworld series, so in the new editions, it's the second half of book 1. But I have the old editions and this is the cover.

There's a scene in it where our to-be protagonist Andoy runs down the street just as Rianka's aswang army is invading the city. Check out the left side of the panel.

Why, that's the Filipino Heroes League! Yep, that's Kidlat Kid, Invisiboy, Flashlight, and Maria Constantino the telepath on the left side of that panel. (I guess Maria's getting overwhelmed by all the soon-to-be-really-dangerous action.)

Huh, I wonder where they were during the big fight... Maybe Mervin, Ian, or FHL creator Paolo Fabregas can answer me!

Nov 26, 2012

Back Issue Ben: Iron Fist, Part 3

Back Issue Ben is a column written by Ben Smith for the Comics Cube! See his archives here.

Part Three: Finally, Colleen Wing!

As I’ve told you before, Iron Fist is arguably my second favorite superhero character of all time. He’s got a cool yellow mask, and a dragon tattooed on his chest. All that, plus his first solo series was handled by two of the all-time best in the business, Chris Claremont and John Byrne. The results have been average at best so far, but the best is yet to come.

Previously, on Back Issue Ben: Danny Rand was raised in the mystical city of K’un-Lun learning the martial arts, one day earning the power of the Iron Fist. Harold Meachum, responsible for the death of Danny’s parents, is dead. His daughter, Joy, blames Iron Fist for his death. Danny attempted to acclimate to modern life with his friend Colleen, who was suddenly kidnapped. Together with her private investigator partner Misty Knight, they are trying to hunt down her kidnappers. However, Colleen has been brainwashed to hate Iron Fist.

Now that everyone is all caught up, let’s dive on in.

Nov 23, 2012

Gateway Comics: Criminal

In the past year, I discovered Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' Criminal, a series set in a seedy city and revolving around a rotating cast of characters, mostly criminals. It just kind of went under my radar for a long while, and I'm surprised how much I enjoyed them, finding myself buying one trade paperback collection after another until I had all six books. As recently as a few years ago, I wouldn't have even given it the time of day.

As I read it, though, it became clear to me that one of Criminal's greatest strengths is that it would make a great gateway comic. Let's look at some of the reasons.

It's well-written. The Criminal series consists of the following books:
  • Coward, the story of Leo Patterson, a small-time hood who has made a name for himself by running away from the scene of the crime when things get hot and never getting caught.
  • Lawless, the story of military man Tracy Lawless returning to the city in which he grew up to find out the story behind his brother Ricky's death.
  • The Dead and the Dying, three closely interconnected short stories delving into the history of the city.
  • Bad Night, the story of Jacob Kurtz, cartoonist, who gets caught up in a terrible racket.
  • The Sinners, a sequel to Lawless
  • Last of the Innocent, an award-winning story that can quickly be described as (although this doesn't really do it justice) "Archie gone bad."
Tracy is the one
character who's
headlined two
The first five stories have protagonists who may not be likable, but we end up empathizing with them. The key difference between empathy and sympathy is that empathy is when you understand where a person is coming from, even though you don't feel the same way. These protagonists don't have the loftiest goals, and we may not agree with their actions, but we root for them to somehow get out of the mess they're in (although, Criminal being noir, you know they probably won't), and that's a testament to Brubaker's characterization. We know that Tracy is a good guy born into bad circumstances, and that while everyone else calls Leo a coward, ther's something in him to root for, and we want him to show us that. We want him to let it out.

In other words, in these noir stories that by nature have little to no hope, Brubaker makes us hope, and every ending is satisfying and rewarding. If that's not well-written, I don't know what to tell you.

Last of the Innocent is a bit different in that the protagonist, Riley Richards, is a dirty rotten scumbag to begin with. Getting rid of his wife is his big plan to make himself a happier man so he can indulge more in his vices (women, gambling). The Archie-style flashbacks to show these characters at a seemingly (but not really) more innocent timeand the use of the Archie analogue characters (Riley is Archie, his wife Felicity is Veronica, the girl next door Lizzie is Betty, his best friend Freakout is Jughead, etc.) appeal immediately to that part of the reader that responds to these archetypes. As such, it's okay that Riley is immediately portrayed as unsavory, because the flashbacks immediately tug at your heartstrings in a visual manner. (As an added bit of trivia, many visuals in Last of the Innocent were specifically made to play off of Fredric Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent. See how many you can spot.)

Speaking of visuals...

It's well-drawn. There's not much to explain here. Sean Phillips can draw, and he can sure draw noir (and he's ably assisted by the colors of Val Staples). The mood setting he does is remarkable, and what's more, every character he draws is distinct. They each have their own identity, their own body language, and their own unique features. They are instantly recognizable despite the fact that they don't wear costumes. That's remarkable.

Of course, Phillips may not get all the credit he deserves, because...

The storytelling is straightforward. There seems to be a trend recently in comics where the more powerful a story is or the more it's described as "well written," the artist doesn't get much credit, while fans are only all too willing to praise the writer (the best example of this is still Watchmen). I think this is a shame, of course, because those artists don't get recognized by the mainstream fans, but in some way I think it's a testament to their craft and dedication that they can communicate the story in a clear and effective manner without overpowering it, or feeling the need to overpower it.

Sean Phillips is such an artist. Adhering to a strict three-tier structure, one wouldn't quite be wrong in calling his work on Criminal cinematic, and that's actually what turned me off from the series. I went through a stage where one of my main criteria for trying out new books and creators what that the comics should utilize techniques that were exclusive to the medium—in other words, things that are difficult to adapt into other media. (My reasoning was that comics were expensive, and if they were adaptable into other media for a cheaper price, I'd get the cheaper version, so the storytelling was a more important factor than the story itself.)

Criminal reminded me not only that a good story is a good story, but straightforward comics storytelling is itself a comics-exclusive technique. By deciding on the sizes and composition of the panels, Phillips highlights the scenes that need it and lets the reader fill in the gaps between the panels. I had been so turned off by purely cinematic comics for such a long time that I had forgotten how involving and interactive comics was at its very core, and Criminal reminded me of that. Just because it's cinematic doesn't mean it has to be only cinematic.

And that's why people who are looking to get into comics would easily be able to get into Criminal. Look, I love fancy which-way-do-I-go-now layouts as much as the next guy who's read comics since he was three, but the fact is that some people aren't used to it. Not everyone can intuitively read comics—some people just don't have the mindset for it, and get confused by your JH Williamses and Marcos Martins. Newer readers may need something straightforward to ease them into the medium.

Criminal does that. It's well delivered and doesn't call attention to itself. The story comes first. It's easy to read, and what's more, it's a joy to read.

Speaking of which...

The world building is fun. The very nature of Criminal makes it even more fun and interactive for readers. With different protagonists all set within the same city, it's inevitable that each story would be interacting with the others. As a result, you get the history of the city piecemeal and your mind can't help but put them together bit by bit. For example, in Coward, a man named Teeg Lawless is mentioned. We never see him, but it's clear he's a big part of the city's history. The protagonist of the next volume, Tracy, is both Teeg's son and Ricky's brother. Coward shows a Dick Tracy–type comic strip in the local paper, by a guy named Jacob Kurtz (I wonder if that's intentional). He becomes a pivotal character in Lawless, and is the protagonist of Bad Night. Little things like this enhance the experience  and really reward recursive readings. It all connects, but they also all stand alone, and you can read them in any order (except for The Sinners, which is a direct sequel to Lawless, and even that's debatable, because it still feels like its own story).

In this way, it gives way to the same kind of fun experience that a shared superhero universe does, without—I think—any of the problems with continuity and different conflicting accounts of the same event (that's where having just one writer helps). If you're the type of reader who likes to find connections between different stories and figuring out how things fit, you'll love this.

And of course, the final reason this would make a great gateway comic...

People love crime fiction. I could probably even have omitted "fiction" from that last sentence. Crime's just a pretty popular genre, with a lot of shows dedicated to it and a whole channel on our cable service just for crime. Perhaps most tellingly, one of the biggest and most successful movie franchises of all time, The Godfather, is about crime.

And that's cool with me. I do feel that in American comics, people feel the need to use superheroes too much, even when they have other stories to tell. It's nice to see something like Criminal around, showing that human characters work just fine as protagonists and antagonists for human stories.

So if you're looking to get into comics and you love crime stories. Criminal is the place to start. And if you're looking for a Christmas gift for someone who fits that description, you'll have your choice of formats: six trade paperbacks or two deluxe editions.

Or you can hunt down all the single issues. They have extra features, and from what I've been told, it's worth it.

Nov 21, 2012

Trese 4: Last Seen After Midnight wins National Book Award

Need any more reason to get into Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo's Trese? Read on.

“Trese” wins National Book Award, Best Graphic Literature for 2011

Trese Book 4: Last Seen After Midnight, written by Budjette Tan, illustrated by Kajo Baldisimo was awarded Best Graphic Literature for 2011 at the National Book Awards.

The award was received by Tan, Baldisimo and their publisher Nida Ramirez of Visprint, Inc.

This is the second time that National Book Development Board and the Manila Critics Circle have recognized and awarded the works of Tan and Baldisimo. Last 2010, Trese Book 3 won the same award.

Budjette, Kajo, and Nida Ramirez
Trese follows the adventures of paranormal investigator Alexandra Trese. She is the main consultant of the police whenever they encounter crime involving supernatural creatures. In Trese Book 4, she is called to solve the murder of a manananggal, stop a plant elemental from committing a massacre, investigate a case involving a bangungnot, and reveal the secret of the country’s champion prize-fighter.

Ruel de Vera of the Manila Critic Circles, wrote in his introduction for Trese 4: “With each case, Budjette and Kajo raise their levels of artistry to new heights without ever resorting to gimmickry, relying instead on an expertise in the unexpected twist and self-awareness, a feat that transcends the tropical islands Trese originates from. From a cult hit, Trese has now become a true mainstream success—which it deserves—and the next step should be widespread international recognition—which it deserves as well.”

In the past two years, Trese has received much praise from here and abroad.

"Trese continues to impress and surprise, daring to go where no Filipino comic book dare to go," said Gerry Alanguilan, creator of the award-winning graphic novel Elmer

Leinil Yu, artist of Marvel’s Indestructible Hulk said, "Trese excites the little child in me which used to believe in the wonders of Filipino folklores, and my adult self who enjoys intelligently written and drawn tales.  Budjette and Kajo's Trese is a gem"

Aaron Rahsaan Thomas, Executive Producer of Southland and writer/producer of CSI:New York, had this to say about the graphic novel: “The late Steve Sabol of NFL films once said, ‘Tell me a fact and I’ll remember. Tell me the truth and I’ll believe. But, tell me a story and it’ll live in my heart forever.’ It is a unique and admirable skill to craft a well told story set in an intriguing world, inhabited by compelling characters. Yet, every time I open a chapter of the Trese saga, I’m blown away by Budjette’s imagination and by Kajo’s imagery. They’ve created a series full of swagger, featuring one of the most dynamic heroines you’ll ever see. Trese is thrilling, engaging and epic.”

"From the first moment I got a glimpse into the world of Alexandra Trese, I was hooked,” said Shanty Harmayn, CEO at Salto Film Company, Producer of the award-wining Indonesia film “Sang Penari” (The Dancer) “It was wonderfully new and exciting, yet somehow familiar as many of the supernatural creatures and their stories were similar to the tales I grew up hearing in Indonesia. With Budjette's masterful ability to weave a great mystery and Kajo's beautiful graphic imagery, I look forward to visiting Trese's world many times over."

In 2011, after Trese 4 ended up on National Book Store’s Best Seller List, Tan received this email from Neil Gaiman, “So ridiculously proud of you! When I came out all those years ago for the first time, that was what I wanted to see happen... I feel like you and all the smart Filipino writers and artists out there are doing something really brave and powerful, making a whole new wave of Filipino art and story. Well done!”

National Book Awards was held last November 17, 2011 and was presented by The National Book Development Board and the Manila Critics Circle in cooperation with the National Commission for Culture and the Arts. The event was held at the Old Senate Session Hall of the National Museum of the Philippines.

TRESE Books 1 to 5 is now available book stores and comic shops nationwide. For more information, visit:

Nov 20, 2012

Comics in the Classroom: Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth

I'm a pretty firm believer in the idea of using comics as educational material. By this, I mean beyond the English lit and art courses, which have used comics such as Watchmen, Dark Knight Returns, and Maus for years. The idea is that a lot of students find textbooks dense and hard to grasp, so why not present the material in a more inviting, entertaining, and digestible way? Why can't we use comics for history classes, for science classes, for math classes?

Oh, right, there aren't really that many. So I'm gonna take the opportunity here to start a new column talking about comics that could be used conceivably within a classroom setting. Welcome to the first edition of Comics in the Classroom.

Today I'm gonna talk about Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth, by Apostolos Doxiadis (writer), Christos H. Papadimitriou (consultant), Alecos Papadatos (illustrator), Annie Di Donna (colorist), and Anne Bardy (letterer). This book tells the story of Bertrand Russell, the famous mathematician/philosopher/logician, and his quest for logic, which he had hoped would lead him to the foundations of mathematics, which he equates with the search for truth.

As a mathematics and economics major, I was always distanced from but fascinated with the mingling of mathematics and philosophy.  As citizens of the 21st century, we take machines like computers and concepts such as numbers and infinity for granted, but that wasn't always the way, and in fact those concepts — as well as the concept on which computers run, logic — have driven many an intelligent man to asylums and been so consuming that entire lives have been devoted to the study of their origins, foundations, and inner workings.

At the heart of Bertrand Russell's career as a logician is the Russell Paradox, which asks the question of whether or not a set containing sets that are not members of themselves, contains itself. (It works under the same logic as someone saying "This statement is false.") It's self-referential, and as such, the Logicomix team makes the book self-referential. It shows Russell in the United States on September 3, 1939, the same day Britain declared war on Germany, about to give a talk about logic when protesters tell him to stand up for pacifism and non-involvement. He then uses this lecture to relate his life story, the main story of the book. But it's also framed in another story: that of the Logicomix team putting the book together, displaying the arguments that they had in the direction of the book and how they made certain creative decisions and discussing what certain bits oft he book mean. Yes, in any other book with any other type of subject matter, this would seem quite a clumsy, sledgehammer type of storytelling, but since self-reference is intrinsic to the very topic of the book, it works nicely here. The arguments presented by Doxiadis and Papadimitriou also work toward emphasizing the futility of looking for a set, unchangeable answer when it comes to certain aspects of life (or life, in general).

The art by Papadatos is appropriately cartoonish, because some of the subject matter (namely how logic leads into insanity) is pretty heavy. (See: the masking effect.) He also employs multiple styles depending on the subject matter, using a more exaggerated, slapstick style when Russell explains mathematical theories and ideas. The color palette is vibrant and brings to life what may otherwise be a dull subject, making it more inviting.

Although the Logicomix team openly admit that they take liberties with the history and the facts (for example, Russell had a brother, who is not at all in the book), hoping for this to be more of a story than just a cold look at facts, the ideas behind the scenes and the explanations of the theorems and ideas set forth are, while not in-depth and detailed, accurate (as far as I know), and that makes this book a pretty good one for some math or philosophy courses hoping to introduce these concepts (sets, infinity, logic). Complete with a glossary in the back comprising concepts, mathematicians, and philosophers, Logicomix is a pretty good introduction to the connection between math and philosophy and could be used in colleges as supplementary reading material for courses that deal with these topics.

Nov 19, 2012

Back Issue Ben: Iron Fist, Part 2

Back Issue Ben is a column written by Ben Smith for the Comics Cube! See his archives here.

Part 2: Enter Claremont and Byrne

As I told you last time, Iron Fist is arguably my second favorite superhero character of all time. Mystic Kung-Fu cities with martial arts action, combined with superheroics as only Marvel comics can portray, make for a winning entertainment formula. Plus he wears a cool yellow mask and has a dragon tattoo. Chris Claremont and John Byrne take over as writer and artist on the character during this time period, and as near as I can tell, through half-hearted internet research, this was the second time they worked together on a comic book. (The first being an early Starlord story, who would go on to much fame as a member of the modern day Guardians of the Galaxy.) Byrne was still a relatively new artist as well, still learning as he goes. So, witness it here, the beginning of what would eventually become a legendary creative team.

Previously, on Back Issue Ben: Danny Rand was raised in the mystical city of K’un-Lun learning the martial arts, in order to gain the advantage he needs to get revenge upon the man that killed his parents. When he finally gets his chance, he walks away, as Harold Meachum had become a broken, legless man in the years that passed. Unfortunately, a mysterious ninja killed Meachum anyway, and Iron Fist was blamed for the murder.

Most of the stories that finished up Iron Fist’s appearances in the Marvel Premiere title are pretty pedestrian (practically Tobey Maguire-ish), so I’m going to do us both a favor and just hit the highlights, so we can skip on to the good stuff.

Nov 16, 2012

Voodoo Child: The Will Eisner/Bill Sienkiewicz Connection

The story of life is quicker than the blink of an eye.
The story of love is hello and goodbye.
Until we meet again.
-Jimi Hendrix

I'm not exactly what you'd call a fan of either Jimi Hendrix or Bill Sienkiewicz. I like them, I respect what they did/do and what they mean to music and comics, respectively, and when something of theirs hits me, it really hits me. But still, their work isn't really something I seek out, and as such, I wouldn't really call myself a fan of either.

But in a perfect example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, when I found out years ago that Martin I. Green and Bill Sienkiewicz did Voodoo Child: The Illustrated Legend of Jimi Hendrix, I instantly paid attention and went on Amazon and bought a used copy (it was our of print), and read it when it came days later and it blew my mind. There was just something so perfect about that matchup, probably because they were two truly innovative and experimental artists. Sienkiewicz on Hendrix. Wow.

Just over a year after I discovered this book, Will Eisner died. Soon after that, Comic Book Artist #6 came out, and it was a tribute to Eisner, with testimonies and sketches from a lot of writers and artists, including Art Spiegelman, Alan Moore, Gerry Alanguilan, Rick Veitch, and yes, Bill Sienkiewicz. This is what Sienkiewicz had to say:

In Voodoo Child, the illustrated biography of Jimi Hendrix, Will Eisner is listed as creative consultant, a catch-all title. He had so many facets worth catching: Sensei, guru, inspiration, author, visionary, icon, friend, peer, mentor, consummate professional, comic art evangelist, true artist... and a dozen other worthy descriptions. So "creative consultant" it is.

It may not be common knowledge, but it was Will — not I — who was first approached by Berkshire Studio, the book's packager, to be the artist on Voodoo Child. He had completed page layouts for much of it already. Still, he chose to turn the project down... and he'd recommended me, feeling that my style was better suited to visually convey the passion, energy and emotion of Jimi's music. I can't ever thank him enough for that gesture. He generously gave me a tremendous vote of confidence that instilled gratitude.

I was given Will's layouts to use as page guides on the book but I had the freedom to either use them or not. There were times I did and times I didn't, but regardless, the layouts were always fun to look at, the storytelling sharp, and the characters alive... fluid, expressive, and clear. Will just made it look so easy.

Now my reaction upon reading that was, wow, that must be the greatest ego boost ever, having Will Eisner turn down a project and hand it over to you, saying you're the right man for the job. (And Sienkiewicz absolutely was the right man for the job. His ability to paint realistically really captured Hendrix's likeness without sacrificing expressions and emotions, as often happens with likenesses, and his layouts captured the spirit of Hendrix's music.) But then I wondered if I could spot which pages were laid out by Eisner and which ones were laid out by Sienkiewicz.

Some of Eisner's layouts

Sienkiewicz loves small panels, constrained grids, and polyptychs, and he also loves breaking them and going off the rails to depict motion and the sense of being out of control. There are a lot of them here, so the entire comic is clearly Sienkewicz-steered.

Well, that's just an awesome use of the polyptych.
And that's hard to do, too. A continuous background is one thing.
A continuous foreground element makes it more impressive.
Eisner at this point in his career loved doing "open" panels, often without borders, and putting maybe three or four moments in a page at most. Going by this, I'd assumed that the pages that were more "free" and "open" were Eisner's, but looking at Eisner's layouts, I realized how I'd boxed them both in. My mind was on "constrained = Sienkiewicz; open = Eisner," but that's not the case at all. Check out this scene where Hendrix is arrested for heroin possession. Yes, Eisner's panels are bigger, but the "stat" indicates that he would have repeated the panels, while Sienkiewicz's moves the narrative along at a faster pace.

And then there's this one, where Hendrix learns about soul. Eisner's layouts had this scene take two pages, but Sienkiewicz is able to do the entire scene with even fewer panels. I would have assumed this one was an Eisner page, but it's apparently not.

In fact, this is the only one among Eisner's eight given layouts that I could see coming close to Sienkiewicz's final product.

I really couldn't imagine Eisner's style making this book work, and I think it's a testament to Sienkiewicz's skill that Eisner passed this project on to him, but I think it's even more a testament to his skill that he took layouts given by Will Eisner and either changed them or did away with them altogether. He achieved a perfect Hendrix biocomic. Looking at this makes me feel proud and fortunate to be reading comics in a time when someone like Bill Sienkiewicz is active. Maybe I don't seek out his work all that much, but there's only ever been one Bill Sienkiewicz, just like there's only ever been one Jimi Hendrix. And despite the Dave McKeans and the James Jeans, I'm going to bet it will stay that way.

I kept typing "Hendrix" instead of "Sienkiewicz" throughout this article. I'm sure that says something.

Nov 15, 2012

Pop Medicine: Six Critical Terms We Need to Stop Wielding Ignorantly

Pop Medicine is a "visiting" column by Travis Hedge Coke for the Comics Cube! Click here for the archive!

Six Critical Terms We Need to Stop Wielding Ignorantly
Pop Medicine
Travis Hedge Coke

I’m getting comics-specific, ‘cause, hey, this is a column about comics, but all these terms are used elsewhere, and the point holds elsewhere, too: don’t misuse critical terms, and dammit, don’t do it because you need an excuse to whine. Yes, “whine.” Whether a professional critic or an armchair critic, print journalist or messageboard junkie, don’t bust out “Deconstruction” because you need a word to hide behind and it sounds negative to you. Don’t tell us Calvin and Hobbes or Peanuts is not mainstream and expect anyone to take you seriously.

I am calling no one out specifically, here, and citing no single moment of criticism, because the individual cases aren’t the concern, the prevalence is. If you believe those don’t apply to you, perhaps I’m not talking about you. They both apply to criticism I have put forth in the past, at times, as applicable with a few of these terms. So, don’t write and point out where I screwed up before and assume I don’t know I’ve screwed up.


Term One: Nonlinear

If you are thinking of referring to nonlinear storytelling as “newfangled” or “artsy,” stop yourself before it’s too late. Nonlinear storytelling goes back to at least the Iliad, and has appeared in every narrative medium, from theater to prose to virtually any sitcom you care to mention. It is not new. Types of nonlinear storytelling, such as in media res (beginning the story in the middle), flashbacks (telling/showing something that happened earlier than the beginning of the story, flashforwards (telling/showing what happens far ahead of the present day moments of the story before and after this scene), and a scene transition that takes us to another character, shortly before the timeframe we just left, to follow that character until they reconnect with the scene/time we transitioned away from are so artsy Married With Children used them on a regular basis. Every CSI episode and Guy Ritchie movie you’ve ever seen has utilized at least three of these four techniques.

Very rarely, even when the nonlinear techniques were used poorly, have I seen anyone genuinely confused by them for more than a moment. More often, criticism comes in the form of “I didn’t like being confused for a moment by something designed to throw me off balance for a moment” or “how dare they make me wonder?” Which, is akin to being angry that a ham sandwich had ham in it and made you think about eating it.

Term Two: Deconstruction

I had a sort of epiphany about a month ago, and had to share it with Duy. One of those things where you know, vaguely, what’s wrong, but you can’t articulate it sensibly, and then it leaps at you in brilliant clarity. When, in comics circles, we talk about Deconstruction, what we most often mean is detournement. I knew that it wasn’t Deconstruction, and that’s why we have the whole “reconstruction” BS term in comics, but that it was simply Deconstruction being used to mean detournement had not occurred to me.

Think of the last four comics you heard referred to as Deconstruction. Did they essentially just flip a familiar thing around to show you the stinky, usually covered ass-end? That’s detournement. The comics, or parts of comics that are referred to as “reconstruction”? Those are Deconstruction.

The ugly motivations, post-trauma disorders, and general weathering of the superheroes in Watchmen? That’s detournement. Laurie and Dan rescuing people from a fire, then passing out cups of coffee is Deconstruction. Deconstruction is a set of techniques for taking apart information, most often fiction/entertainment, to see how the language and focuses privilege certain information/positions over others, and ultimately arrest or detain the piece from achieving honestly, and more fully its goals or ultimate state. The love story, for instance, is most often actually the story of everything that separates the lovers, not any real evidence of their love or present culmination of their love. If we absolutely believe their love or have a story where they are happily together without separating factors from moment one, there is no story and we simply care less. Most political doctrines, to give another example, or superhero comics, presume an opposition. Without an opposition, they become less workable as they are arranged, because that is the position that is privileged. Deconstruction is not flipping the thing around for the sake of pessimistic realism.

Term Three: Superstar

Whenever you complain about someone working in comics thinking they are a “rockstar” or acting like a “superstar” because they dress nicely for speaking engagements or signings? You sound like an insecure, whiny idiot. Stop it. Stop whining about Grant Morrison’s suit or Alan Moore’s rings and beard and refusal to write fucking Batman for you. I don’t even know you and I know it’s beneath you, because it’s beneath all of us.

There are no superstars in American comics and there have not been since, maybe, Todd McFarlane left Marvel and created a massively successful character and comic that today, almost no one is really sure is still running or not. Since the Image breakaway from Marvel and DC, since Charles Shultz died, since Bill Watterson has been out of the game long enough, there is no A-list of comics talent, in terms of business behavior or in terms of real mainstream awareness. By which I mean that the business does not treat anyone as a “superstar” in the way film or prose treat their star talent, and the average person on the street has no idea who any of these people are.

Neil Gaiman is not the hottest thing in prose fiction, but he knows writing a novel will get him better pay, better business treatment, and probably better advertising and sales, than writing a new comic. That does not mean he’s acting all rockstar by not typing out scripts for a monthly Terminator vs The Tick comic even though you, the fan to whom he should be singularly and personally loyal, really really want that comic. Warren Ellis was not being an unruly upstart provocateur trying to act big when he wrote those Come in Alone columns, all those years ago (provocateur, stipulated, but not the rest that qualifies it). And, no, Alan Moore is not a furious, crybaby hermit diva who left comics, simply because he does not feel beholden to DC for anything and hasn’t got a great deal of nice things to say about the company.

Term Four: Mainstream

I know you, hypothetical reader, really like Geoff Johns. He made Aquaman cool again. Round of applause. But is Geoff Johns mainstream? No. He’s big in our little niche of low-selling comics. How about Aquaman? People know Aquaman. He’s mainstream. Well, he’s closer, I’ll give in to that. But there’s exactly two jokes you can make about Aquaman, two references, that the average English-speaking person will understand or connect to Aquaman, and those are “swims” and “talks to fish.” Plus, how many people have read any comic with Aquaman in it? You do recognize the name, Aquaman, if I say it, though, and so does your cousin who doesn’t read comics, your boss at work who doesn’t know they still publish a monthly Aquaman book. That is a degree of mainstream.

The Charlie Brown Cafe in Busan, South Korea

I can make a thousand Peanuts-related references, though, and you’d get most of them. Your cousin knows who Snoopy is. Your boss could probably draw at least three faces from the comic, no matter how poorly, if someone put a gun to their head. When I went to buy dishes for my new apartment in Weihai, China, the first shelf of cups I found was mostly mugs with Snoopy, Lucy, Charlie Brown and the little red-headed girl on them. That’s mainstream in about the fullest that English language comics get; people recognize the characters and they have actually read some of the comics.

It probably happens to any niche market, but the self-identifying comics market has got so insulated we don’t see the forest for the occasional Batman-writing tree.

Term Five: Canon

There is no canon. We can, and have, ordered certain comics into several different, sometimes overlapping canons. Further, belonging to a canon does not ensure that works are aligned by a shared chronology or continuity. Canons are personally established, or they are established for business reasons, for marketing purposes, and that’s about it. It’s not a magic thing, it only means, at essence, “these works count towards...” whatever you want them to count towards.

Canon is not a judgment of total value or relevance to all things. And canons are rarely permanent, both the personal and the business sorts.

Term Six: Indie

Indie, in terms of movies and TV, means something produced independently, and I assume that’s how it should work in comics, too. Indie doesn’t mean talking heads, it has nothing to do with being published by a small or foreign press, and it does not mean either quality or amateurish. It just means that it was independently produced, and either independently distributed or via an established firm. It does not imply integrity. It has nothing to do with being artsy. It does not – repeat this with me – indie does not mean that the talent or anyone other than the publisher owns the copyright or trademarks involved in the comic.

There is a different tradition in print than in film, in that small production companies tended to be set up at the mercy of big companies in film, whereas in print, many small presses exist autonomously and functionally, and that's pretty much where they've fallen in comics. Troma and Troublemaker Studios often use other distributors, to list two small film production companies, but the companies exist primarily for self-promotion purposes, not as producers of a broad array of material not directly related to the central owners and operators of the company. A small press magazine – like with comics – is not beholden to a larger publisher, by necessity. Raw wasn't getting its money from Marvel, DC wasn't distributing Tundra's comics, and it isn't so today, either.

So, in print terms, Warrior, Comico, 2000 AD, or Raw, can't count, because they're set up as an organized effort to run other people's work, not as a vanity exercise or purely for self-promotion. Alan Moore wasn't bankrolling Warrior or 2000AD when he worked for them, and he didn't approach them with pre-existent material, looking for distribution, they were paying him to generate content.

The Invisibles, Zippy the Pinhead, Sailor Moon, Maus, Ampney Crucis Investigates, and Judge Dredd are not indie comics. X-Files, Robotech, and Predators comics are not indie, regardless of how few superheroes they feature per page. Peanuts is not an indie comic. Early Axe Cop and Megatokyo were indie comics, but when they began to be produced for an established publisher they stopped being indie, because they stopped being independently produced.


And, in the end, yes, you should use these terms. They are applicable to many things, and they are aspects worthy of discussion. But there is no excuse for you to be ignorant in your usage, now that you’ve read this, if you even had the excuse before. Canon and Deconstruction have more staying power, more value, when you use them correctly and fairly, anyway. Words are given meanings for reasons, and it’s not so that they can be confused for other things or conflated with other terms because you have a beef with a creator or you are so far up your own niche you can’t even remember the broader measures and bigger shapes of the world that surrounds you and yours. Take these, brother, and use them well. From hereon out, use them fairly, and use them right..

Nov 13, 2012

Reviews: Jim Henson's Tale of Sand

Jim Henson's Tale of Sand, the lost screenplay (i.e., it was not made into a film) by the legendary Jim Henson and Jerry Juhl, adapted in comics form by Ramon K. Perez, won multiple Eisner Awards this year, including best graphic album, beating out, among other things, Craig Thompson's long-anticipated Habibi. So when Comic Odyssey had a sale, I decided to go buy myself a copy.

This book's a hard one to review, mainly because it's a surrealist story, so it requires a lot of interpretation and interaction on the part of the reader. It's the story of a guy named Mac, who is chosen by a town to cross the desert armed with only six dollars, a record, flowers, a cigarette that he so desperately wants to smoke, a gigantic key, a small key, a stop sign, and a few other things that couldn't possibly be useful...or could they? He's chased by a man named Patch and his girlfriend/lover/partner-in-crime, and along the way runs into all sorts of things: cowboys, Arabs, football players, a lion, a tiny shack that somehow houses a big fancy restaurant, poachers, deathtraps, and soldiers, just to name a few. You'll see things like a cement truck pouring a martini, a wolf howling in the middle of the crescent moon, and sharks in a pool. Throughout this entire ordeal, Mac's two goals—to get to the finish line and to smoke that cigarette—don't change.

Perez employs an entire bag of tricks to keep this mostly silent comic from going too fast as well as to keep it visually interesting. The colors, by Perez and Ian Herring, are varied. They are, at different times, muted, monotone, vibrant, and bright. Sometimes the figures have outlines, and sometimes the artists employ color holds. Regardless, the color choices for each scene are always appropriate for whatever they're meant to convey, and there is a unity to the palette, in spite of the seeming incongruity.

Perez uses a collage technique throughout the book, with panels constantly overlapping each other and borders at times done away with. This technique, combined with the already surreal story, allows Perez to insert some of the pages from Jim Henson's actual screenplay into the story, as seen below. In fact, the actual book starts off with a foreword, with Henson's screenplay in the background, so the book is unique in that the story actually began before its actual starting point.

The typewritten font of the screenplay provides a sharp contrast to the font used in what little dialogue is actually in the story. The font used for dialogue is based off of Henson's actual handwriting, which is kind of cool in its own right, but doesn't take anything away from the story if you didn't know it. Deron Bennett, the letterer, also outdoes himself in a couple of aspects. When the Arabs speak, it's in Arabic, so the lettering reflects that, and when the football players speak, it's in Xs and Os, which is just one of the funniest things I've ever seen, but also if anything, emphasizes the visual nature of the story.

With that, I want to segue into another element of the book: production design. This book won the Eisner for best publication design as well, and it's not hard to see why. It's beautiful! It's a hardback with a gorgeous cover. The inside front cover shows Mac and Patch in front of a camera (I think that's Jim Henson there too. Can anyone confirm?), with Mac reading the script. The next few pages, with the book's frontispiece, use detail from the typewritten screenplay in the background, segueing into the start of the story, which also incorporates the screenplay until the screenplay is in a panel, as part of the story. All of these, including the elastic strap on the back that I don't know the purpose of, combine to make the actual, physical book feel like a genuine artifact. It has to be read this way. It just wouldn't feel the same otherwise. It may be a stretch to say Archaia's putting out the best books right now, but I don't think I'd get much argument if I said that they put out the best-looking books right now. (There's a reason that Mouse Guard from Free Comic Book Day 2012 is going for as much as $15 on eBay.)

And I guess that's the final judgment on the story. Will you like the story? I can't answer that for you. It depends on what kind of reader you are, or what mood you're in. It requires too much interpretation and interaction on the part of the reader for me to make a sweeping statement like that.

But it sure is pretty, it sure has energy, and it sure has heart. And if you appreciate effort, I think you'll very much appreciate Tale of Sand.

Nov 12, 2012

Back Issue Ben: Iron Fist, Part 1

Back Issue Ben is a column written by Ben Smith for the Comics Cube! See his archives here.

Like Unto a Thing of Iron
Part 1: Fighting Crime with Kung-Fu Billionaire, Iron Fist

When I was a kid, Iron Fist was arguably my second favorite character in all of comics. To this day, I couldn't even tell you how I discovered the character. (Those of you that pay attention know I was mostly a Spider-Man and X-Men kid.) I imagine I either saw his entry in the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, or I found an issue of his in the quarter boxes. (Man, I miss quarter boxes. 25 cents for a comic, or 5 for a dollar. And they were good comics too, not just old 90s comics the store is trying to get rid of. So many new characters were discovered through the quarter box. Off the top of my head, The Flash and Captain Carrot. How can you go wrong with Captain Carrot? You can't, I say.) Regardless of how I discovered him, I'm sure I would have been drawn to the cool costume, sweet dragon tattoo, and the fact that every kid growing up in the 80s loved Kung-Fu. (Ninjas, especially, were everywhere. Movies, cartoons, Milwaukee.)

So, what's so darn great about Iron Fist? Let's find out...

Nov 9, 2012

A Sense of Wonder: The DC Multiverse

Welcome to the a new installment of A Sense of Wonder, a feature of indefinite length in which I detail the wonderful (and I mean that in the purest sense of the word) and imagination-inspiring aspects of the characters in the comic book medium, which would emphasize the superheroes, but would not be limited to them. Click here for the archive.

I can't say I'm a fan of big events in comics. It's not that I hate them; it's just that I mostly can't muster up the emotional investment to even really get excited about them as early as they're announced. I'm aware this isn't the common mentality among comics fans,  but that's the way it is with me. I still haven't read Secret Invasion, barely remember anything about Civil War, have no idea what in the world Fear Itself was about, hated Genesis, and so on and so forth.

But one set of big events I always end up tuning into is whenever the DC Multiverse is involved. I love the very concept of parallel worlds and the idea of doubles on other earths.

To this day, Crisis on Infinite Earths is my favorite comic book event. That's not nostalgia—I didn't read the entire thing or even most of it until I was 14. (My first real big event was Infinity Gauntlet, which I still love. That's nostalgia.) It starts off with a great character moment in the Crime Syndicate, the evil Justice League from Earth-3, sacrificing themselves to stop a wave of antimatter from destroying their planet.

That's Ultraman, finding his nobility in the last moment of his life.

Nov 8, 2012

Pop Medicine: Fight!

Pop Medicine is a "visiting" column by Travis Hedge Coke for the Comics Cube! Click here for the archive!

Pop Medicine
Travis Hedge Coke

Whenever someone criticizes superhero comics for a moment of unnecessary racism, xenophobia, sexism, or poor execution, at least five other someones will pop up to insist the criticism should not be leveled, superhero comics don't have to be better about those things, because they are superhero comics. Virtually any time someone says superhero comics could do with less of this, or less of that, a small army will begin to amass to defend the superhero comics right to do just that thing without any hindrance or responsibility. But, I can think of one exception, and if an army won't stand up to it, this column will. (Because it's important goddammit.)

Fights! What is wrong with superhero fans? Collectively we seem more than interested in defending Black Widow's perpetually unzipped top, but when it comes to someone criticizing the basis of the superhero story—costumed superdude in big, astonishing, tooth-loosening fights—with throw up our hands and admit defeat. Any time someone does an article or pops on a message board and insists the way to do Superman is have him only deal with problems that he can't punch away, you get some nodding heads, some examples of just that are rushed for, and this giant vacuum where the counterargument should be, but it isn't. We are, collectively, so busy arguing that the robot and the alien are examples of ethnic diversity, that we are apparently too exhausted to even bother defending the action.

Maybe it's because mainstream coverage of superheroes still tends to headline with Biff! Bam! Pow! Does comics culture, do superhero fans feel they have to retreat from that aspect to ensure Time Magazine or MTV take seriously the emotional drama and romantic surges of Spider-Man? Is it that superheroes arguing points vocally is more mature than when stuff blows up and some super-strong, tights-wearing dude, probably from Brooklyn or an imaginary city (those are your two options), grabs a spaceship with both hands and swings it ‘round to smack another tights-wearing, overpowered ham in the face? Did we get hung up on the realization that might doesn't make right and just stop there? Because if you can find three hundred words to explicate how a keyhole top or a thong helps someone fight crime, you can give up the bid for maturity.

"Well," some of the more rational of you may say, "it shouldn't be fights all the times." And, I agree. But when I go see a kung-fu movie, I want someone to get their ass kicked. When I see a horror movie, I want something to scare or disturb me, and if the killer's main attraction, if the special thing about him is that he has a big machete, I want him to at least make the effort to jam it into someone at some point during the movie. The main attraction about Spider-Man isn't that he can't stop whining about his life while beautiful women throw themselves at him and his aunt proves over and over she's a very sickly immortal. The main draw is that he can swing on webs and beat up criminals. Superman is essentially very specifically designed to handle problems he can beat up, jump over, or that he can protect us from by standing in front of us like a spitcurled shield of awesome. Everything else is secondary. People were way too freaked out when early in the new Action Comics, it was referenced that Supes broke a man's ribs for beating up his wife, which is actually straight up from one of the earliest Superman comics ever and if the guy had a raygun and tights on nobody probably would've felt sorry for the guy (but they still, probably, wouldn't have wanted Superman to hit him; hitting people is wrong). You really liked Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird? Fair enough. Go watch it again. Go read the book. You think Superman should be Jesus. Fair enough; movie; book; wash, rinse, repeat. But why take away what makes Superman a different guy than that dude?

And, no, not all fights are equal. We should know this. I don't want to see every hero beating on every other hero, especially if they're meant to be the grounded, serious or mature one. I do have a problem with fights that don't mean anything, have no consequences, or attacks between friends or colleagues who're supposed to be stable. Johnny and Ben can destroy a room going at each other, but they're not stable. Batman and Catwoman have to punch each other a few times before they can start kissing, because that's their kink. Hawkeye shooting an arrow of any kind into Captain Britain's face to demonstrate why he should be leader of an Avengers team should've got him laughed off the team. But the day fans overwhelmingly want Hawkeye to spend more than two issues at a time without shooting an arrow at somebody or really wanting to, the battle is lost.

But you can go for mostly-responsible and still have fights, still land blows. When the Authority were stomping all over governments they disagreed with, ten years ago, even the talent on comics were calling them the villains. They were villains we were sympathetic with, but they were setting themselves up as the lords of the Earth. Now, I'm seeing Ultimate Captain America set up as President I-Don't-Care-About-Laws of America and no one working on the comic seems to think that's a little messed up. Black Panther, who I love thanks for asking, beat up a villain's therapist in Man Without Fear, to get information out of him. Not her accomplice, not her supervillain buddy, her therapist. Someone in-world will refer to Panther as "the most honorable man I know" tomorrow, guaranteed. That's not fictionally-responsible, or genre-responsible violence, it's asking us to agree with it. So, yeah, the fights can go wrong, they can be immaturely presented or irrationally instigated by the talent doing the comic.

Back in the day, there was this cool, but nonsensical fight when a severely PTSD Mr. Fantastic tried to stretch and punch Namor, the Submariner, into submission and there's pages of exchanged blows and pissy dialogue regarding the woman they're both into. And, just when you're wondering how a stretchy guy is hammering on a super strong Atlantean hardass anyway, it's revealed Namor is throwing the fight. When Wolverine fought Galactus, he did not try to claw to death, because Galactus is a giant god of planet eating and Wolverine is four foot tall and has old beer drying in his body hair. Superman did not look for someone to punch when he circumvented a suicide attempt in All-Star Superman. Some things you cannot fix by blowing stuff up or backhanding it.

But some things are. Superheroes know how to pick their fights, and maybe we should, too. Sometimes, kneeing someone in the gut does solve the immediate problem. Occasionally, a well-placed and carefully timed explosion does some good. Random fires look good and add danger, cheaply but effectively. And if you're working with a character that was specifically built for action sequences, for fight comics, maybe that's the first route you should try unless there is a very good reason to do a different kind of story with them. When you're looking for a story to highlight a superhero, maybe a fight we can feel, some action we can remember, a spectacle that captures attention isn't a bad thing. And, it's definitely no less mature than the combat thongs, submissive threatened-in-a-shower scenes, bad foreign accents, or Batwing monologuing to himself that he's "in Africa" or how things are "in Africa."