Jan 31, 2013

Alan Moore at Awesome, Day 3: Glory

Welcome to Day 3 of The Comics Cube!'s retrospective series on Alan Moore's time at Awesome Comics. You can read about this series here.

Not quite the greatest Wonder Woman story never told

Just as Supreme was Awesome's version of Superman, rooted firmly in the source character's Silver Age roots, Glory was supposed to be Wonder Woman, rooted firmly in the source character's Golden Age roots, which Moore must have deemed the most essential part of Wonder Woman's considerable history, as his entire proposal for Glory is based on it.

Here's the interesting thing about Moore's Glory "run," for me. After Awesome folded, the ideas and setup in Glory would quickly be revised and altered to fit Moore's new Wildstorm series, Promethea, which would go on to become my favorite ongoing series ever. That fact, combined with the fact that this utilized, at least on the surface, the same approach Moore used in Supreme, should have been a formula to ensure that I would enjoy Glory. But I didn't.

Jan 30, 2013

Pop Medicine: We Keep The Masks On

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

We Keep the Masks On
Pop Medicine
Travis Hedge Coke

Dedicated to Jenny Olsen, another iteration in the long legacy of Superman's pal, Jimmy, steadfastly ever-changing, always upsetting the sort of fans it's good to upset, and like life and superheroes, always finding a way.

Only the most self-conscious of fans bridles at reference to a superhero costume as long underwear, a union suit, body condom, pervert suit, or go-to-work clothes. Speedball there had his lined on the inside with spikes to excite himself into action, for Crom's sake. And with a new Superman movie rising up, the world feels once more compelled to discuss Kal El's package, do we wrap it in red or blue, and whether he should even have one. Of course, the accepted thing to do, is pretend as if that bit of showing off is equal to and same as the helium balloon chests and sexy martial arts poses that showcase as many sexual characteristics at one time as possible.

It was the toning down of sex that got us here.

Once upon a time, the Comics Code prohibited licentious content or anything that might casually inspire sexual speculation in loyal readers, but the embarrassed excusing that leaped into late 50s superhero comics does not seem to be so prescribed. With the commandment to avoid and repress in force, the superhero comic both becomes the mainstream of American comic books by the end of the 60s and shows a predilection for apologizing for nonfight sensuality. As standard sexual contacts and practices were either erased entirely (for all intents and purposes, the old DC method) or, when mild, reflexively apologized for on-page, starting I'd wager with Stan Lee, generations of superhero fans were being trained not to sublimated the drives into violence as some might worry, but to transition to looking elliptically and widely at sexual and sensual practices in the absence of heteronormative options.

The erasures of standardized sexual practices in superhero comics encouraged the solid fans to be creative. And, so too, the talent and publishers to get creative with their supers.

You can't trip up a dyed in the wool superhero fan with a way two loving people cannot have a satisfactory sex life or produce and raise children. We will think around every barrier, even if the barrier, itself, has to be turned into a tool. One of them is a robot (as happened in The Avengers, with Vision and the Scarlet Witch)? Magic babies and marriage as a civil right! Can't procreate (as happened in Action Comics, with the Kents)? Adopt! Live and work apart (like Professor X and his non-ex Lilandra in Uncanny X-Men)? Be adult about it and don't fault a wandering eye between video calls or visits.

Where no Code made these roundabout considerations der rigeuer, non-comicbook-comics, other mediums, the incitement is lacking. You could not sustain, for example, the frustration of Pushing Daisies conceit of lover's who cannot touch, in a superhero comic, because the fans wouldn't have it. The frustration, not the lack of direct contact. Every superhero fan I know who watched that show was succinctly pointing out they probably make suits for that sort of thing and even if they aren't manufactured, you could make one yourself.

When regular news media had a panic at on-page confirmation of sex between Catwoman and Batman a year ago, the missed out on the on-page sex in another title from that relaunch, JLD, because it was not heteronormative sexual engagement and despite keeping the costumes on, the sex in Catwoman appeared as mainstream media expects it. Justice Leaguer Zatanna and former Trenchcoat Brigader John Constantine have fingertip sex in JLD, which is explicitly intense and orgasmic (and work related) touching of fingers to fingers and nothing else, not a sexual practice as the average person has been trained to accept as sexual or qualifying.

This is what comes of never allowing Superman to kiss anyone he was not actively tricking or apologizing to the reader any time Mr Fantastic and his fiancee held hands. Man Without Fear's orgasm comes on the page in front of not only the reader but also a love audience, since Elektra climaxed playing piano at a party in direct response to knowing her beau Matt "Daredevil" Murdock is being shot at and bit at by pursuing security goons and guard dogs. That's Frank Miller for you, in a comic that also features a post-sex room and its occupants as a post-combat scenario of broken furniture and bruised smiles. Miller, who elsewhere gave us a Batman and Black Canary make out where they keep the masks on because they know it's better that way. Miller who gave us... hugs?

I'm playing sensual and intimate close to sexuality here, for the sake of brevity and bemusement, but let's not mistake that aspect for the only or the only that was restrained by the Code. Frank Miller has written Batman hugging two different Robins, embracing two separate children, and I can't think of anyone else who has written or drawn him holding any Robin even once. Robins are, by and large, children that this guy is raising. To avoid appearing pedophilic, he is rarely ever shown touching them at all since the 50s. Male, female, preadolescent or adolescent, there is minimal nonfight physical contact. Because it might be sex.

More accurately, it might appear sexual to a non-readership, to casual media or the average mildly paranoid person who's heard two dozen homophobic Batman jokes from TV or coworkers. And, we superhero fans, have learner to fear the amazing reach and strength of that non-reader audience. After all, its non-readers who were so worried about pedo Batman and bondage-gaming rodeo lesbians in Wonder Woman that drove the government into instating The Code to begin with. Except that, as I and others have covered before, no such moral panic crowd did enforce such a thing, no one really came out with pitchforked and torches and the really bad legal dramas regarding adult content in comics have come since we bought and perpetuated that myth.

Jan 29, 2013

Double Helix: The Unbearable Lightness of Pym: Giant Man and the Girl with the Heavy Hand

Double Helix is a new column written by Rachel Helie for The Comics Cube! Click here for the archive.

The Unbearable Lightness of Pym: Giant Man and the girl with the Heavy Hand
Rachel Helie

Janet Van Dyne is one of the sexiest of comic fandoms female characters. She is independent and strong-willed, seeks out adventures and fears nothing. It was going to take a lot to interest her. She, the dilettante child of a privileged world, hit the "princess jackpot" when she met Hank Pym.

It was writing on the wall, to pun it a bit. Janet would have pursued Hank regardless of her father’s calamity, in my opinion. I mean, as a woman, I would have. But she would have bored of the pursuit much sooner if not for their shared tragedy.

Hank was bereaved, mourning a much loved wife.

After the accident that brought Janet and Hank together, the incentive to avenger her father was all-consuming and Hank was the only man who had the means and the intellect to make that happen. Not to mention he felt a sense of duty and responsibility. It was that sense of responsibility and not romantic love (in spite of her many charms and impossible to miss signals) that inspired Hank’s feelings for Janet at a very early stage in their relationship and that modus operandi never quite changed. Janet seems to have pursued Hank as a means to an end at first, then as a sort of father substitute. Call it the Electra complex, but something wasn’t quite right with that whole business from the get go.

Hank saw Janet in terms of a victim, someone who could understand loss. Janet wasn’t that sort of girl. Everyone wants to talk about Hank and his mental fallouts over the years but Janet was a classically neurotic sociopath. She had learned it from her breeding and pedigree. Janet reminds me of one of the trivial young things from Bret Easton Ellison’s American Psycho. A man could be telling her that last night he dismembered her neighbor and was keeping her head in the freezer at home; totally consumed by her own vanity and ego, her only concern would be the placement of her lipstick and whether she had ordered a kir or a good champagne. Janet doesn’t hear what she doesn’t want to hear. She was going to get what she wanted and that was that. And she ultimately did.

Thriving on attention, using every tool in her kit to ensure that Hank could not ignore her, she relentlessly set about gaining his affection. He only came around to the idea begrudgingly. It is the old saying all over again “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.” Well, Janet was going to hold Hank’s head underwater until he came up for air with the words “I love you, marry me” on his tongue. Poor Hank had no idea what he was in for when he met Janet. The girl was tough as nails, bold as brass, had more than her fair share of sass and she was never going to let Hank go. At least not in the beginning.

Jan 28, 2013

Back Issue Ben: Iron Fist, Part 10

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

Part Ten: The (Actual) Return!

With the traumatizing death of Iron Fist at the conclusion of the Power Man and Iron Fist series, and the crushing disappointment of his teased but not real return in Namor: The Sub-Mariner, I had successfully given up on the character of Iron Fist. For reasons unrelated to these setbacks (girls) I walked away from comics for a few years. So it wasn’t until many years later that I learned what happened not too long after Byrne ripped my heart out of my chest with his Super Skrull trickery. Could it be that the one true Iron Fist had finally returned to the Marvel Universe? There’s only one way to find out, true believers. (Actually there are probably several ways to find out, but reading the comics is the best way. Though, I guess for everyone reading this that hasn’t read the books, then this is the way you’re going to find out. It’s a labyrinth of myriad possibilities, and I just made my own head hurt thinking about it.)

Come along with me, as I relate to you a tale, a tale years in the making. A tale, of a hero reborn! (This intro sucks, but I’m ready to end this thing, so let’s do this.)

(Remember that movie Labyrinth? David Bowie’s package made me very uncomfortable as a child, but in the plus column, Jennifer Connelly. If you haven’t seen her riding a mechanical horse in Career Opportunities, you’re missing out. That’s all I have to say about that.)

Jan 24, 2013

Alan Moore at Awesome, Day 2: Judgment Day

Welcome to Day 2 of The Comics Cube!'s retrospective series on Alan Moore's time at Awesome Comics. You can read about this series here.

Judgment Day

Today, we focus on Alan's Awesome big event, Judgment Day. It's drawn by a variety of artists and utilizes a bunch of flashbacks in much the way Supreme does, to give the Awesome Universe a sense of history. It's kind of unusual for a big event, because it doesn't really involve a big supervillain brawl or threaten the world as we know it. Essentially, it is a courtroom drama featuring superheroes, and that's why it's called "Judgment Day."

Jan 21, 2013

Back Issue Ben: Iron Fist, Part 9

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

Part Nine: The Return! (or is it?)

Last time, you saw me reveal the comic that caused my mental breakdown as a child, the final issue of Power Man and Iron Fist. For years I mourned the death of quite possibly my second favorite superhero character of all time, Iron Fist. Finding consolation in X-Men and Spider-Man comics, never even wondering for a second there could be a day when he would return to the world of comics anew.

And then, there came a day unlike any other…

John Byrne had returned to work for Marvel Comics in the early ‘90s. In the years since he worked on Iron Fist and the X-Men with Chris Claremont, he had become one of the superstars of the industry. He had successfully established himself as a writer/artist, with most of the books he worked on receiving universal acclaim. He left Marvel to reboot and revitalize Superman for DC, to various levels of acceptance. Byrne eventually made his way back to Marvel, and began work on a new Namor book, as writer and artist.

I don’t remember exactly how I learned about what happened next, but I imagine wandering into my local comic shop one unsuspecting day, only to receive a figurative kick to the face. Right there on the new comic releases shelf, on the cover of Namor: The Sub-Mariner #16, rendered beautifully by John Byrne, was Iron Fist punching Namor right in the face. Could it be true? Was Iron Fist finally returning? I’m fairly certain I immediately plunked down my dollar to find out.

So, was this the long-awaited (by me at least) return of Iron Fist? Read along with me, will you?

Jan 17, 2013

Alan Moore at Awesome, Day 1: Supreme

Welcome to Day 1 of The Comics Cube!'s retrospective series on Alan Moore's time at Awesome Comics. You can read about this series here.

Today, we focus on the first volume of Supreme, by Moore, Joe Bennett, Rick Veitch, Chris Sprouse, and a host of other artists!

Supreme: The Story of the Year
The Greatest Superman Story that Never Was

The first comic Alan Moore got from Rob Liefeld was Supreme. (At the time, Liefeld was running Extreme Studios under Image Comics and Maximum Press as a separate publishing line. Supreme was published under Maximum Press at first. Both companies would be consolidated later on as Awesome. I'm just going to say "Awesome" for the rest of it, okay?)

Anyway, Supreme was a 90s Superman analogue who at that point had a tumultuous undefined (and soemtimes contradicting) past. Moore decided to use this to his advantage, and when he jumped on the series with issue #41, that basic setup allowed Moore to pull his usual trick of rebuilding a character from the ground up. Moore had used it in the prior series where he took over an existing character, such as Captain Britain, Marvelman, and Swamp Thing, but in this case, he didn't have to tear down the already-existing foundation to build a new one. He just had to go with what was already there, and what he decided to go with was an homage or love letter to the Silver Age iteration (that's around mid-50s to late 60s/early 70s; there's not really a set demarcation) of Superman, as evidenced by the first page of his run.

The blurb, shaped like a scroll and starting with "Beginning a great three-part novel!!" is a distinct callback to the Silver Age, in which stories that spanned a full issue were divided into three parts and hyperbolically called "novels." There is also the use of the thought balloon, a device that Moore himself helped make archaic and outdated with his 80s work, and tried bringing back in his later superhero work, such as here.

Jan 16, 2013

Pop Medicine: Underwear on the Outside

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

Underwear on the Outside
Pop Medicine
Travis Hedge Coke

"Superhero fans take the hyperbole as literal. The fastest man. The strongest woman. The madder Hulk gets, the stronger Hulk gets."

"Superheroes and villains wear their underwear on the outside!"

"Superheroes and villains are nothing but gendered concepts. Spider-Man. Invisible Woman. Miss Martian. Sun Boy."

"Embarrassingly Freudian!"

"Modern superheroes are just exciting words made proper nouns and drawn excitingly for no reason except to be extreme and exciting!"

"It's all been done before. Why do they even pretend it's new?"

These are some of the most common things one can hear about superheroes or superhero comics. And, with slight adjustments, I can make every one of them say exactly the same thing but in a positive, forward-facing fashion that thrills, at least, me, with the potential, the frisson, and with a good execution.

"Embarrassingly Freudian"? The only good way to be Freudian is to be embarrassingly so. Nobody cares about the unembarrassing Freudian ideas, the comforting pop psychology or reassuring character psychology. The good stuff is squicky. The exciting stuff, the the psychoanalyses and trumped up tropes that get a story moving or make a character intriguing are the sublimated embarrassing psychological motivations. Or, more relevantly here, their denuded cousin, the public psychological motivation, because, as above, superheroes aren't a place to avoid airing dirty laundry, but a technique for proudly and loudly putting the underwear on over the clothes.

One of the great advances in superhero characterization was in Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's early Spider-Man. While most superheroes prior to this, behaved essentially the same in both their normative identities and their superhero lives, Spidey was, from the get-go, not Peter Parker in tights, but this freed persona, a performance for himself, and while his origin story has him facing up to the fact that Spider-Man also has consequences and debts, those early comics show time and again that Spider-Man will always have less debts than Parker, because Parker is defined by the build up of his life and associations, and Spider-Man can change his dynamics with much more ease. Spider-Man can be a clown, a hero, a snarky bastard, a carefree avenger, at a time when Parker is a professional wallflower whose snark only comes out in thought balloons.

And, within a few issues, what do we find, but that Parker is becoming less a wallflower, more outspoken, and closer in his Parker-life to Spider-Man's most functional range of behavior. Spider-Man is Peter Parker's anonymous yet loudly named and highly identifiable test run for better behavior and more enjoyable interpersonal interactions.

In retrospect, we can look at 50s and 60s Superman's constant pranking of Lois Lane as something similar, if more insular and unhealthy, but only, really, in retrospect. As Elliot S! Maggin put it, it's a love triangle: Clark loves Lois who loves Superman who loves Clark. Superman is Superman, he masquerades as Clark Kent and he's virtually a jealous, unrequited lover of Clark. When he aggressively lies and cheats to protect his secret identity from Lois Lane, it's because he's preserving his special relationship with Clark Kent.

When Daredevil made up an identical brother for himself, he didn't use the ruse to confuse the mob or deflect a supervillain, but to prank his friends. "Prank" is a necessary word here. Matt Murdock, Daredevil, invented Mike Murdock out of whole cloth, more or less to see if he could snow his friends in a major way, and eventually he stages a death of Mike, just putting one over on those friends, his colleagues in business and closest companions in life. This manufacturing of identities and impish defense of their sanctity isn't to progress in their daily un-dragged life, as Peter Parker, but Superman or Daredevil delighting in fooling others, and in maintaining secret liaisons with imaginary people everyone else believes in.

Embarrassingly Freudian, but only a stepping stone away from Peter Milligan's The Extremist, with Ted McKeever, a comic about a costume and identity that is transferred or adapted from wearer to wearer. The Extremist name, in fact, was not generated by either Milligan or McKeever, but Brendan McCarthy, who gave it to Milligan in a nice bit of art echoes life echoes art. People can get all kinds of bent out of shape over legacy heroes or villains, characters who adapt a name or concept from a previous character to their own ends. Imposter heroes or replacement characters who take a super-mantle and do it wrong are a mainstay of superhero stories, and almost always there is a vocal part of the readership who are dead certain, no matter how horrific the replacement may pervert the ideals of the original, that the talent creating those comics mean for it to be an earnest and permanent replacing.

No one cares if Bruce Wayne is running the family business or not. Whether Ollie is the mayor or an industrialist isn't going to rile up fans the way whether or not he's in green and shooting arrows at injustice does. Not to make superheroes sound like a kind of Marxist ideal, but the job of superheroing (or supervillaining) rewards and celebrates these folks in ways their genuine, paying professions do not - at least, from our, audience, perspective. The look is important, the basic agenda, and it's better when we can forget who the wearer is. When attention is drawn to who is wearing the suit, as is frequently true of performative drag or much any kind of theater, we are, by and large, distressed. Half the people reading Wonder Woman right now can't seem to tell if she is still an ambassador of anything, but they're thrilled she's not wearing leggings and no one else is calling themselves Wonder Woman.

You get some comics talent who would prefer these aspects not be explored. You see artists take the heroes out of obvious costumes, or writers downplay basic drives or novel psychologies, in attempts to make things more realistic or gritty. But those tend to be, a) not that good to read, and b) likely to fall out of print and fall from fan-memory and contemporary discussion. Attempts to make apolitical comics, for instance, haven't the legs of openly politicizing comics, or the teeth, despite a sometime fan insistence that this is what's needed, because apolitical comics are not, they are, rather, unexamined politics in comics. Pulling sexualities you are unfamiliar with out of a comic does not de-sex the comic, it simply presents a false sexual landscape as default. Erasing certain nations, ideologies, or political schema from your comic does not, similarly, mean you have no ideologies or arrangements of this nature, only that you have deliberately eradicated those you aren't so used to that you are self-blind to them.

Unexamined anything, in entertainment, tends to be of only temporary interest, and significantly limited range. Fiction is, at its base, manufactured. We may be encouraged to forget that, but it's inevitably the case. (Nonfiction, too, but we are definitely encouraged to instantly-forget and never acknowledge that.) We can psychoanalyze or ship characters after a story is presented, to add novelty or relevance, but that makes the conversation about the story interesting, not the story itself. The application of pop psychology or predetermined relational alternatives, be those of a sexual or platonic nature, make stories interesting when they are part of the manufacturing of the story. Comics, like any medium of entertainment, tend to be better when the talent know what they're doing and aren't pretending to be not doing anything.

I really like the technique that, to come back to a guy who's been doing interesting comics for decades now, Peter Milligan has been using in some of his team books, of putting what are usually sublimated drives or neuroses to the fore in a most blatant fashion. X-Statix or Infinity Inc were chock full of characters whose internal motivations were announced so loudly, so obviously by their superhero names, their affectations, their powers, that we start to look for traditional foreground characteristics and about the time we realize they aren't there, at least for me, the idea kicks in that maybe, when we're talking tights and superpowers, they aren't all that necessary. That, once you have accepted the basic aspects of the superhero, which are so blatant and close to the bone in refutation of the masking technologies of maturity, like tertiary character tics, childhood traumas, the deep-seated secret reasons for wearing bowties, fictional but exact chronologies and fictional and exact bank statements - once you've embraced that those things are protection from the pleasures of the simple core elements of the superhero, you don't need them anymore.

Knowing why Peter Parker can't budget for the life of him is of infinitely less reward than that Parker is always worried he won't have enough money. And that's secondary, always, in the best of worlds, to Parker putting on his mask and tights to talk trash to supervillains and muggers while kicking them in the ear. It's immature in the same sense as pop psychology talks of "immature orgasms" or when your health-conscious friend berates you for enjoying cheeseburgers regardless of what's in them and what it does to your body. Pleasure is substance, a kind of substance. What we most often mean by depth is the deflating of pleasure, it's the avoidance of tasting and acknowledging the taste. And it's desperately arrested-adolescence that tells us abstaining from tasting, that instead understanding all the ins and outs and never enjoying them, makes us more mature. A listing of chemicals and measures, or a considered treatise on the history of beef and bread, is perhaps more informative, but it isn't as rewarding as biting down into the cheeseburger.

Jan 14, 2013

Back Issue Ben: Iron Fist, Part 8

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

Part Eight: The Death of the Dragon

If you’ve been tuning in for the past seven weeks, you’ve witnessed my slow descent into madness. It has not been a very long fall from where I already was, but it has taken forever, and I’m sure many doctor-type individuals will be studying these writings like the notebooks from Se7en. My exploration of the history of Iron Fist continues with the end of the Power Man and Iron Fist comic book of the ‘80s. Along the way, I’ve developed an unhealthy fixation on supporting character Colleen Wing, to the point where I am considering ways to convince my wife to dress up like her on a daily basis.

I have been taking a look at key issues throughout the series, but now that we’re here at the end, I’m going to look at all five issues that closed out this series. If you’ve stuck with me for this long, congratulations, you’re as crazy as I am. But also, you’re far more dedicated than those Rom: Spaceknight fans.

Let me cease blathering on, and give the people what they want. What they want is hardcore Iron Fist-ing action.

Jan 11, 2013

Retrospective: Alan Moore at Awesome

For the next five weeks, I'll be doing a five-part retrospective series on Alan Moore's time at Awesome Comics. You guys might remember that I did a similar series on America's Best Comics, Moore's imprint at Wildstorm. That entire imprint came about because at the time, Moore was working at Rob Liefeld's Awesome Comics, which was a consolidation of Liefeld's two companies, Extreme Studios (which published titles such as Youngblood, Supreme, and Glory, all part of the larger then–Image Universe) and Maximum Press (which published titles such as Avengelyne, which were thought of to stand on their own).

At Awesome, Moore was working with artists such as Chris Sprouse, Brandon Peterson, Steve Skroce, and Liefeld himself to create a whole new universe of superheroes that would play off the classic archetypes. Supreme quickly became a riff on the Silver Age version of Superman. Glory was intended to be their version of Wonder Woman. There were analogues for the Justice League and the Avengers both. It was fun to spot which characters corresponded to which archetypes, but more than that, it was fun to see Moore try his hand at it and reading the stories that came out of it.

Then Awesome lost a bunch of money and pretty much folded its comic line, leading Moore and his collaborators to Wildstorm. He'd written, at the time, 22 (or 23, depending on how you counted) issues of Supreme, two issues each of Glory and Youngblood, and the miniseries Judgment Day, intended to be their "big event" as well as the laying down of the foundation for future stories. Awesome also published Moore's proposals for Glory and Youngblood.

Unlike ABC, I discovered Moore's time at Awesome after the fact, and I'll be talking specifically about the products I own (the two Checker TPBs for Supreme, the TPB for Judgment Day, and the single issues for Glory and Youngblood). I also don't have a universal love for it, but that's part of the fun. Here's the schedule.

January 17: Supreme: The Story of the Year, Awesome's Superman and how Moore found the right riffs and tweaks to make this work.
January 24: Judgment Day, Awesome's big event and the foundation for its universe.
January 31: Glory, Awesome's Wonder Woman, and why it didn't work as well as Supreme did. I'll also be talking about Moore's proposal for the series and its connection to Promethea.
February 7: Youngblood, Awesome's young superhero team, a la Teen Titans. I'll also be talking about Moore's proposal for the series.
February 21: Supreme: The Return, the rest of the Supreme series after his history had been laid out, and how it ends with a tribute to the King.

Let me know what you think in the comments section, via email or via the Facebook page!

Jan 10, 2013

Easter Eggs: Desolation Jones in Batwoman

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

In Batwoman #2 by W. Haden Blackman and JH Williams III, Kate Kane (Batwoman) heads to a party and immediately finds herself standing in front of a familiar-looking fellow.

That's Desolation Jones, the star of a short-lived series that Williams worked with Warren Ellis on!

Got an Easter Egg for the Cube? Send it to comicscube@gmail.com!

Jan 9, 2013

Pop Medicine: Ghost in the Shell vs. Watchmen

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

Ghost in the Shell vs. Watchmen
Pop Medicine
Travis Hedge Coke

“You choose the reflection in the mirror… because the universe is asymmetrical.”

Why is Ghost in the Shell so rarely discussed in these “Nothing is better than Watchmen” bouts? Ghost in the Shell 2? The Ghost in the Shell Cycle? It’s no less intricately and poetically arranged, no less mature, and arguably no less sexist or classist than Watchmen, about as equal in breadth of relevance and limitations thereof. The characters seem more genuine to me, and certainly attract me more. The world and political machinations are more plausible and less a stacked deck, to my way of thinking. It has better action sequences. And, no one has ever made the argument that Ghost in the Shell or its sequels require a working knowledge of anything it metatextually comments on.

I’m not saying Ghost in the Shell is perfect. I’m not saying Ghost in the Shell 1.5 or 2 aren’t without their flaws. But Watchmen is hella flawed even in respect to the structuralism and constrained comics aspects, which most can agree to admire it for (myself included), as it does not adhere to any of the constraints issue to issue unflaggingly. Everything has flaws. Watchmen’s gape, to me, like suppurating wounds. While, I sort of like Ghost in the Shell’s lapses. The cut pages. The altered plans that necessitate 1.5. The disregard for preserving the fourth wall much at all, allowing Masamune Shirow to talk directly to the audience at length in a thousand little footnotes, even apologizing when he goes for a dramatic layout or avoids plausible scenarios because he would rather draw something else. Shirow’s addresses to the audience buoy me along the primary story, truth be told, while even when I was younger, if I tried to reread some Watchmen, I’d mostly stick to the backmatter.

The consistent techniques of Ghost in the Shell are fantastic and feel fresh to me each time because they never feel desperate for attention the way some of Moore and Gibbons’ can. Looking at chapter 02, Super Spartan, I can see so many echoes happening and they all flow and seem almost unintentional, from our protagonist, Major Kusanagi’s hurting hand paralleled in the hand injury of a worker, to that same worker receiving a zap to the head while she’s suffering her headache. Her body language in that chapter and others is constantly echoed by others in adjacent panels or the mirroring page. This was often the argument for keeping in the sex scene of a later chapter, as some of it is mirrored on the preceding page by a colleague of Kusanagi’s, Batou.

Still in Chapter 02, when Kusanagi is spying on kids in the teaching-machine, she appears at the top of the page in a panel that has a clean straight gutter leading down, not across. While you should read across, then downward, if you follow that line, you find the youth she’s spying on, who then freaks out, yelling, “The universe is falling in on me!” in echo of where and how Kusanagi will end up at the end of the comic, but also visually, they share body language and panel placement, and… Kusanagi’s on the next page has her staring into a monitor not showing the youth, but her own reflection in the glass.

This sort of echo seems, to me, at least as beautiful as the smiley faces and streaks echoed in Watchmen, and considerably more subtle and plausible in the moment. Not that there’s any way to prove the second, there; it just feels that way to me.

And, the ending? The big plan and its after effects? Does anyone believe the plan in Watchmen worked? At all? And have any of you sat with it and really considered the philosophical and sociopolitical implications of both the plan and it’s potential success? For any real length of time? I kinda doubt most have. But I don’t know anyone who’s read Ghost in the Shell, its sequels, or seen the movie, without at least one night where the branching and bleeding and breeding of shared, copied, and splintered identity was mulled over.

Let me remind you, this is a comic where the only pages without speed lines on them have explosions instead. It’s not a dry philosophical treaty, or tight, intentional political allegory in play-by-play. But, again, Watchmen isn’t, either.

We treat Watchmen, sometimes, as if it is this self-sufficient world Gibbons and Moore built, that it’s a substantially intricate allegory. It’s not. Nixon-for-life should tell you that. It’s a stacked deck designed to make us feel squicky and depressed, so when a few small nice things happen we gush. If love changed the world for Doctor Manhattan in a happier story, we wouldn’t much care. It’s big stuff in Watchmen, because it happens in the wake of tons of shitty events and things like Manhattan letting someone be shot and killed in front of his face decades, but mere pages, earlier. But it’s, again, a stacked deck that he’s drifting off from his lover anyway, the easiest way all love triangles go in fiction (and that, for what it is, is alright).

We are not allowed to treat Ghost in the Shell as self-sufficient. Shirow invades the comic and reminds us, especially in the sequels, that he’s deciding this stuff, and sometimes he re-decides. It still has a wider range of genders, ethnicities, nationalities, and identifiable economic classes than Watchmen. (For what that’s worth.)

So, is it that Watchmen avoids spectacle for slowly entering a situation as often as it can? We see things in cinematic, slow slices, or after the fact, before the bomb, but rarely does Watchmen take us through a fight, a flight, a flare up in a way that’s meant to incite excitement or appear bigger than life. It’s intentionally subdued and often ironic. Does Ghost in the Shell get cut out for being an action comic with a lot of romantic visuals? Or, is it simply that Watchmen’s release was a watershed moment, and since Ghost in the Shell was not, by that comes the tendency to disregard it as a comparable work?

They’re both widely recognized as thought-provoking, intricate comics. They are frequently lauded and of the few comics I’ve noticed the English-language manga camp and American-comics camp will at least acknowledge the one not belonging to them. It’s sometimes thrown in as a contender for the “As Good as Watchmen” or “Better Than…” prize, but a comparison is rarely, if ever, considered at length, turned over in depth, and why not?

Jan 7, 2013

Back Issue Ben: Iron Fist, Part 7

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

Part Seven: The Red Fist of Death

If you’ve been tuning in for the past six weeks, you’ve witnessed my slow descent into madness. My exploration of the history of Iron Fist has brought us on through into his co-starring role in the Power Man and Iron Fist comic book of the ‘80s. Along the way, I’ve developed an unhealthy fixation on supporting character Colleen Wing, to the point where I threaten any of the fictional characters that try to date her.

I’ve been taking a look at key issues throughout the series, because not even I am crazy enough to try and cover all 75 issues of their co-starring run. Not after Rom: Spaceknight.

Enough foreplay, let’s get to the good stuff.

Jan 4, 2013

Comics in the Classroom: The Cartoon Introduction to Economics, Volume Two: Macroeconomics

Welcome to another edition of Comics in the Classroom! Click here for the archive.

Today I want to spotlight The Cartoon Introduction to Economics, Volume Two: Macroeconomics by Grady Klein and Yoram Bauman, Ph.D.

Despite being an economics major (I co-wrote this for fun), I'm much better with microeconomics (the study of individuals and firms) than I am with macroeconomics (the study of the economy as a whole). I never really quite understood why, but it sure is awkward when I tell people I'm an economics major and then they ask me about things like wages, the inflation, and unemployment, since I struggle to explain such things.

Enter The Cartoon Introduction to Economics. In 240 pages, Klein and Boram take the basics of macroeconomics, from unemployment to the role of government, and explain it to the readers in a fun, entertaining, and digestible manner. They make all sorts of jokes that make the ideas easier to understand, such as likening fiscal policy to feeding a child. One of their running jokes is a lighthearted mocking of the Nobel Prize.

Think about it: how much of how the economy works do you really know (if you're a macroeconomist, please don't answer that question)? Do you understand the need for unemployment, or why you can't have zero percent unemployment? Do you understand how much impact the government actually has on the economy, and how much of it is actually just damage control? Do you know that economics isn't an exact science?

Shouldn't this be the kind of things we know, and so, shouldn't this be taught in such a way as to make people want to read it?

As with my most comics I will feature in Comics in the Classroom, I'm not suggesting that The Cartoon Introduction to Macroeconomics should be used as a primary textbook, but it would be great supplementary material and useful for students who are struggling with the main textbook. A student having trouble grasping GDP can easily turn to this comic's chapter on it for more clarification. A student not understanding the connection between inflation and unemployment can glean more insight from reading this. It's a handy book to have around, and for that, I think it should be in the classroom.

Jan 3, 2013

Pop Medicine: There Are No Rockstars in Comics

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

(Duy's note: Travis wrote this on December 22, 2012)

There Are No Rockstars in Comics
Pop Medicine
Travis Hedge Coke

So, the hating is in force on Gail Simone for being all rockstar diva and daring to tell people she was fired by email – and then being reinstated as writer of Batgirl after people were soundly echoing “That’s shitty treatment!” around the interwebs and probably in person, too. But, let’s get it straight. Wanting to be treated better than to be casually fired by email, expecting to be treated like you’re an essential part of a business equation when you’re the writer or penciler is not being a rockstar diva. It’s not a power play. It’s not getting too big for your britches.

Seriously, folks: stop this shit. If you are doing it, stop doing it. If you see it going on, the calling out by overly-entitled fans, the idiot corporate defenders who’re still proudly trying to use “Jack Kirby got screwed too” as a firewall to block out criticism of a company’s behavior, stop it there. Stop letting it slide.

There are no rockstars in comics, and what the fuck if there were? Even actual rockers who get into comics aren’t given star treatment in comics. The best-selling writers or artists we have, the legendary editors and letterers that win awards every year and make these publishers good bank, they’re not treated as royalty, they’re not given star treatment the way you get for being remotely connected to a film coming to theatres near you. Pretending otherwise, or letting some idiot next to you blather on and on about it as if it’s reality is cheating us of what we could have if publishers did start treating comics talent as stars, or, more bluntly, just giving them what’s fairly due. Showing some gratitude and decency.

The late 70s to mid-90s showed great strides in the rights of creators, the rights of talent, to be included in adaptation money, to be treated fairly in terms of medical insurance and royalties. Hate on Image or Mirage all you want, make fun of Neal Adams all you like, they made things better. Even when something went sour, like the McFarlane/Gaiman business, the majority of the changes, the majority of what companies like Continuity or Image contributed has been positive and empowering. It’s probably been more than ten years now, since Frank Miller said we should say “Thank you” to Image and, maybe it’s time to say that thanks again.

I’m not the world’s biggest Alan Moore defender, but I think it’s time to say “Thank you” to Alan Moore for not being quiet and subservient while producers lie about him, he’s dragged to a foreign court to testify that not only isn’t one of his comics stolen from a screenplay by others, but the movie made of his comic doesn’t actually much resemble his comic in the first place, when he’s pilloried by self-described fans because they know he secretly is dying to write Batman again and just can’t get over himself to do it. Thank you for not being a bleach and ammonia douche or a completely weak-willed, ultra-serious company man.

Thank you, Grant Morrison, for being flashy as hell, for giving entertaining interviews, and for being fairly balanced about a lot of things the majority of comics fans won’t remember you were fair about in the first place.

Neal Adams, thanks for continuing to push. Thanks for being clear you expect to be treated as a valued professional or the company can go find someone else. For not harping on any debt anyone owes you, but being forthright about how decent treatment of talent should work.

Thank you, Dwayne McDuffie. Milestone looked good when it hit, and it made a lot of the other major publishers look sad without ever directly attacking them. Static’s hat made Marvel, DC, the Ultraverse and whatnot look so backwards and insultingly insulated, and it’s just a hat. It’s the hat my brother used to go to school in and take off before he got inside, every day. Marvel was still pretending Magneto had anything to do with Malcolm X, or resembled him in life or methodology, as of a few years ago. Dwayne MacDuffie’s dead, Milestone’s pretty much subsumed into the DCU rarely to be heard from again, but I can look back at Hardware, at Static, at that hat, and go “fuck yeah! That happened.”

Thank you, Karen Berger, for continuing to be all manner of awesome and productive while comics criticism and journalism erase your name too regularly with any discussion of Vertigo or late Eighties DC progressiveness. Heck, the average Vertigo write up still pretends it was borne on the backs and in the minds of British men, and didn’t start out with old hands and newcomers, British men and American women, as a wide array of comics, wrangled and supported by the – and that the is important – the Karen Berger.

Thank you, actual rockers and other celebs who do comics because you like comics. If you’ve got a name elsewhere, and better treatment, it’s cool that you want to do comics regardless, and best when you insist a comics publisher step up and treat you decently, too. Neil Gaiman, KatieJane Garside, Alejandro Jodorowsky, you’re alright. It’s appreciated.

Thank you, Jim Lee. Thanks Gene Colan, Greg Rucka, Matt Baker, Kurt Busiek, Larry Hama, Erik Larsen, Trina Robbins, Marie Javins, Peter Laird, Orrin Cromwell Evans, Warren Ellis, and so many others.

Gail, thanks for being cool and being you. I was a vocal critic of some things in the new Batgirl series, but by all public accounts, you were fired unfairly and your rehiring and your decency and balance in the whole matter will hopefully set a major precedent.

And, for the rest of you out there (ha! you thought I’d be content to drift into rhetorical conversations with talent who mostly don’t read this column?), let’s curb the “they think they’re special” bullshit, okeh? So what if someone declares a “Year of Ellis” or hosts a convention based around Grant Morrison? That’s not the person getting too big for themselves, that’s other people appreciating, in the best way they know how, what those people are doing, what they have done.

When Igor Kordey apologizes for substandard pages he shot through in days because the original penciler and his replacement were both late, and Kordey because he has family and, like normal people, needs money sometimes, he’s not being a diva. When Alan Moore says he’s taking a job for the cash, that’s not a slight against fans of the work, it’s just why most people take most jobs. If Neal Adams says he wants to be paid equal rates to other fields for relative work, that’s not because Neal Adams is full of himself.

If you truly enjoy the work these people are bringing forth, you should laud them. If they’re providing big time for their publisher, the publisher should probably treat them as fairly as other industries do, at the least. “I’d like not to starve and die in a fee clinic” isn’t really asking too much, nor is “I want to be treated fairly as an employee and informed of things that affect me in a timely and reasonable manner.” We need to stop acting like that’s reaching for the moon. We reached the moon already, and in comics we reached it and made friends with the locals. Comics put Batman on the moon. We can put some respectable standards into practice.