Jun 28, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Except none of that matters to me.

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

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

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

Jun 26, 2018

The New Warriors Revisited, with Fabian Nicieza

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To me, anyway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was convicted. Of manslaughter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jun 21, 2018

Storm: The Battle for Marvel's Flagship Female Character

With a solo movie in production, Captain Marvel (Carol Danvers) is about to join the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe, and with that, become Marvel’s signature female hero. After all, she has Marvel right there in her codename. Marvel has never had a flagship female character in the same way that DC has had with Wonder Woman. Susan Richards, the Invisible Woman, has had a strong case for filling that role as part of Marvel’s first family. It’s that same allegiance, I believe, that prevents that from happening.

Storm: The Battle for Marvel's Flagship Character
Ben Smith

Now yes, you could argue what the point even is in having a “flagship” character, especially when you take into account the lack of gender equality in this genre. There is no need to single out only one fictional woman to carry this proverbial flagpole. But our society likes to debate the best of everything, to an annoying degree in sports specifically, so let’s just take all of this with a huge grain of salt.

As with the Invisible Woman, Storm has arguably been Marvel’s most popular female character for decades, but it’s that affiliation with one specific team, the X-Men, that has kept her from fully taking the reigns as a flagship character. Or is that just all in my head? Let’s take a look at what makes Storm such an interesting superhero and maybe then we can determine if she needs a bigger multimedia platform than what has been awarded her thus far.

Ororo Munroe is the daughter of a Kenyan tribal princess and an American photographer. As a young girl her and her parents lived in the Egyptian city of Cairo. During the Suez Crisis, a fighter jet crashes into their house, killing both of her parents, and leaving her trapped in the rubble for days. As a result, she develops a crippling case of claustrophobia that would plague her even into her days as a part of the X-Men.

Orphaned and alone, Ororo was forced to become a thief and pickpocket on the streets of Cairo, at one point even stealing the wallet of her future mentor Charles Xavier.

Some time later, after developing her mutant powers to control the weather, she is worshipped as a goddess by an African tribe in the Serengeti. It was at this point that Professor X found her and asked her to join his new team of X-Men (in the legendary Giant Size X-Men #1).

Taking the codename Storm, she became a formidable member of this new squad of X-Men, alongside Cyclops, Wolverine, Nightcrawler, and Colossus. She developed a strong friendship with Jean Grey in those early years. Later, when Kitty Pryde joined the team at the age of 14, it was Storm that took on the role of mentor and big sister to the young woman.

Cyclops eventually left the X-Men following the death of Jean, and Storm supplanted him as the new leader of the team, a role she filled capably for many, many years.

The X-Men came into conflict with a sewer-dwelling community of mutants called the Morlocks. The Morlocks were mutants who could not, or would not, be able to blend in with society above due to their mutations, unlike the X-Men who were all quite handsome and charming. To save her fellow teammates, Storm challenged the Morlock leader Callisto to a duel, with the winner being declared leader of the Morlocks. This battle would be fought without using their mutant powers, and it must be fought to the death.

Storm won, stabbing Callisto in the heart. Only the intervention of a Morlock healer kept Callisto from dying.

After this, Storm began to develop a darker side. At Wolverine’s wedding in Japan, Storm meets Logan’s old friend Yukio, and they quickly become friends. Yukio encourages Storm to embrace her wilder side, to lose her inhibitions and run free.

Storm’s emotions had always affected her mutant abilities to control the weather. Letting her emotions run wild had frequently resulted in uncontrollable and dangerous weather events. That, combined with her past as a goddess, forced her to maintain a regal and restrained personality, but with lots of warmth and compassion for the ones she loved.

It was then that she debuted her infamous punk look, shaving her flowing white hair into a mohawk, and donning lots of black leather.

This would drive a big wedge into her relationship with Kitty, who was scared by her mentor’s drastic change in appearance and attitude.

Shortly after that, Storm lost her mutant powers at the hands of a weapon fired by Henry Peter Gyrich. The intended target was Rogue, a new member of the X-Men, and a former member of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. Rogue’s ability to absorb the memories and powers of other people had gone to the extreme when she (bringing this article full circle) accidentally stole the memories and powers of Carol Danvers permanently. With two voices trying to claim the inside of her head, Rogue ran to Xavier for help, and he agreed, much to the chagrin of the X-Men. However, this affiliation didn’t mean the U.S. government still didn’t want her neutralized, so they commissioned the mutant inventor named Forge to make them a weapon that would remove mutant powers.

Storm struggled mightily with the loss of her powers, not just because of what they meant to her as a superhero, but because they had connected her to the elemental forces of the Earth in a deep and profound way. Losing that connection was almost unbearable for her.
Storm coincidentally met and developed feelings for Forge, but their romantic relationship was cut short when she learned that it was he that had created the weapon that had devastated her on such a personal level.

Storm remained as leader of the X-Men, proving herself more than capable of the task even without her mutant powers, until Cyclops returned, seeking to reclaim his status as the team leader. Storm and Cyclops dueled for leadership of the team, and in one of the greatest X-Men stories in the history of the series, defeated him without her powers.

Storm finally regains her mutant powers in the Fall of the Mutants storyline, where the whole world believes the X-Men to have died while defeating the Adversary. She is resurrected by Roma, loses her memory after walking through the Siege Perilous, and is reverted to childhood by the mutant Nanny.

Once again a child thief in Cairo (Illinois, this time) she meets and partners up with a mutant named Gambit. Her and Gambit remained as a duo until the X-Tinction Agenda storyline, where she is finally returned to adulthood and all the disparate X-Men characters are reunited as a team again.

That’s about where my knowledge of the X-Men ends. In recent years, a romantic backstory was revealed between her and T’Challa, the Black Panther. This culminated with the two of them getting married, and her becoming Queen of Wakanda. The two of them never made much sense to me, seeming a little too contrived and convenient, but I have to admit it’s much better than her and Forge, which was a pairing that lasted for far too long. I hate Forge.

Over the years, mutants would develop an increasingly hostile relationship with Wakanda, eventually causing T’Challa to annul his marriage to Ororo and end their relationship. But their love and connection with each other would continue to this day.

Storm has had a long and interesting comic book history. From a pickpocket thief on the streets of Cairo, to weather goddess, to mutant superhero, to capable leader of the X-Men, to punk-rock killer, to thief on the streets of Cairo (again) and to Queen of Wakanda. Child pickpocket was especially intriguing to me, and we got a glimpse of it in X-Men: Apocalypse. Unfortunately, she almost immediately turned evil and the rest of that movie was a bit of a mess.

Storm has also had short stints as a member of the Fantastic Four and the Avengers. She retains her prominent role with the X-Men, who at one time were the preeminent superhero team not just at Marvel, but in all of comics. She's forever linked to the hottest superhero character of 2018, the Black Panther. She's been a major character in multiple animated series, movies, and video games. The groundwork and connections are already there for her to take a more prominent role in the Marvel Universe.

The potential is there. The battle for status of flagship character may already be over once Captain Marvel joins the MCU, but Storm has a history of emerging victorious in duels against stronger opponents. She’s done it not once, but twice.

Maybe someday we’ll see a third time. Stay tuned.

Jun 19, 2018

Old Stories Alan Moore, Kevin O’Neill, and Black Dossier

- Black Dossier, pg 5

Old Stories
Alan Moore, Kevin O’Neill, and Black Dossier
Travis Hedge Coke

Originally conceived as a guidebook to whet the appetite between volumes of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s Black Dossier could have been the most disposable comic either had ever worked on. It is, in its published forms, potentially the most demonstrative example of what both can and have achieved in comics. Black Dossier is the mature beginning of what comics, taken to their sincere extremes, can be.

An epistolary novel told in the styles of William Shakespeare, Franz von Bayros, Jack Kerouac, and P.G. Wodehouse, among other artists and writers, Black Dossier is almost two comics running in relay race bursts. Or, perhaps, better to say, they are braided together. There is a throughline narrative, set in one time period, moving chronologically forward, set in the late 1950s, as a dash across England, by two immortals who have stolen a book of secrets from a totalitarian government in decline. Scattered, before, between, and outside of this, are the stories documented in that book, describing the narrative history of the human Earth, from the Miocene up to only the year before our “modern narrative” couple, H. Rider Haggard’s Allan Quatermain and Bram Stoker’s Mina Murray. One, the shape of everything, the other, the shape of now that is fifty years earlier than the comics’ date of publication. Together, they fight crime form an interpretive dance version of our collective Anglo entertainment history.

The quality of the writing (and the art) is difficult to gauge, even by the standards that we usually do, as so much of it is in mimicry of other peoples’ forms and habits, from children’s cartoons to Crowleyian treatises. I think Moore’s William Shakespeare is not bad, his Jack Kerouac is nothing like any tone or technique Kerouac employed but immense fun, and his Jeeves and Wooster story is a flub as a Wodehouse pastiche or a Lovecraft horror tale. I can at times, roll my eyes to the same scene that generates real laughter or genuine tears. I stare in awe, deep and across the surface of so many of the illustrations, then the eurocentric lens, or the male gaze of the artwork overwhelms and locks me out in a tedium.

It’s ridiculous that a two-hundred page volume could feel so monstrously big and dense and radically packed, but it is packed firm. Black Dossier blows up like a powder keg when you start it up, a machine of myriad angles and refractory reflections. Is a perfectly executed pastiche of cheap kid lit still cheap kid lit, or something “higher”? When content reflects era and mode, and not the mores and expectations of the time of publication, is the evocation forgiven or a strength? Or, is it still something you can mark down for? Is there good in me marking, anyway? Either way?

“I'd started asking the librarian if she had books with magic and spaceships and dragons and stuff in them, but with some black people, too.”
- Pam Noles, shame
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to suggest the majority of readers only ever read the 1958, with the dossier sections skimmed, skipped, or read separately, as if they were disparate narratives. This, too, is the history and present-day landscape of our literary and entertainment inheritance. “If I wanted to read a novel, I would read a novel. I bought a comic and I will only read the little boxes with pictures and dialogue balloons,” to closely paraphrase a poster on the old Comic Book Resources boards. A number of League fans seem actually offended that there are sections formatted as essays, illustrated memoir, novel excerpts, and stage play script. It bothers them.

And, “we” don’t read what we aren’t told to. Too many readers skip prologues or afterwords, even where, as with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, they are of vital, total-text-altering significance. Truism and truth. The villains of the comic explicitly do not want “us” to know what is in these documents, or how they share with us what is in them, the artistry and execution of the Shakespeare scenes or the John Cleland sequel to Fanny Hill. That would, you might believe, inspire some readers to dig into them, and to dig in them for secrets and relevancies, but audiences do not work this way. People can, but audiences do not, something I fully expect Moore and O’Neill understand.

Sad, because these dynamics of what is considered important and what is considered undesirable or dismissible are central to the comics’ concerns. The story, from the intimate to the cosmogonic, is one of trust and of trust’s abuse. On the cosmic level, the various divine forces are shaping and reshaping human existence to further their own ends, regardless of how they may implore worship or command a sense of compassion (or passion). At the personal, we have a loving couple, Allan and Mina, their compatriot and sometime lover, Orlando, and the inversion, in the three government agents pursuing them while attacking, humiliating, and using one another. Mina, Orlando, and Allan are love and love of adventure. James Bond and Bulldog Drummond are the human faces, the human hands of betrayal and adherence to the law that lets their hand fly as they like it.

Ema Night? Ema is a government agent, but she does not betray, lie, rape, cheat, or exhibit the dramatic bigotries of her associates, does she? She does not. But, it’s different for women.
“[P]eople could accuse me of wallowing in those elements under the guise of postmodernism and they’d probably be right. I don’t think you get an unpleasant atmosphere after reading the stories.” - Alan Moore, discussing scenes in which schoolgirls are shown midair, raped by an invisible man, climaxing in jokes, from Heroes and Monsters, Jess Nevins

One of the worst tendencies in Alan Moore comics, to my mind, is his reductive distinction of male and female as cosmogonic forms, and spiritual formalisms. Women simply, in Moore comics, are not the same as men, in any way. Ema Night is, in large part, consigned to the woman to be betrayed, to be infantilized and used, both by her godfather, Hugo “Bulldog” Drummond, and by James “Jimmy” Bond, who murdered her father before they team up, and will go on to seduce her and murder her godfather. Drummond is a racist, sexist paranoid. Bond is a murderer, rapist, and weasel. Night is a smart, vivacious, martial arts nightmare who… can be manipulated, used, and betrayed by men. It’s the men who have thematic agency, and that she will get hers in another comic, published a few years after, is no genuine recompense.

These are important, heart-of-us-all subjects to cover, and Black Dossier is a mature, considered push of them to prominence. Prospero, late in the comic, tells us that fiction is often our best parent, our most reliable friend, frequently our first lover, but it is, to paraphrase his paraphrase, a bead game of a guide. Trust and its abuse, truth, semblance, and deception are worthy things to consider, this comic does not, however, always rise to the consideration as it should. Bigotry can be mature and considered. Avoidance of responsibility can occur just as easily in the old as in a youth.

Women and people of color are given short-shrift in what is supposedly a model of human entertainment history. Even within Anglophone entertainment, that the first English novel is by a woman, that Shakespeare’s most nuanced and wary characters are frequently women is brushed aside in inexplicable erasure. Women appear, largely, so they can have sex with lots of people and things, or bend over for us. Orlando, who alternates between male, female, and variant forms between — and yes, I take this seriously — is good at “fighting and fucking,” and it’s all fighting when he’s male, and when female, “prostitution and small fraud,” “handmaiden,” who was both seduced as a hundreds of years old adult by a thirteen year old boy, and upon meeting the founders of Rome, “slept with both accidentally, prompting Romulus to murder his brother.”

“Seen from here I appear as a most unsightly cartoon of someone who is awful enough to begin with.”
- The Cat Inside, William Burroughs

Lesbian and straight sex will often be indulged in, in full page illustrations or lengthy, detailed relationships. Male homosexuality is almost cheesily euphemismed and coded, referred to after or before the fact. An inoffensive exercise, were it not for the conceit that this is covering all Anglo entertainment history, and to a lesser degree, all human entertainment, human fantasy from the beginning of time. Even in short form, the lack of male homosexuality or male homoeroticism draws attention to itself and never in a good way.

And, have we mentioned that virtually everyone is white? The first novel in English has more human beings of color with dialogue than Black Dossier. Sinbad the sailor, maybe a lama in Shangri-La, both of whom appear for one panel each, Captain Nemo, who appears in description by white characters and in the corner of a two-page spread detailing his submarine. Some Fantippo black citizens in a state of half-dress, no shirts and breechclouts and bowties, tophat, with a Big Ben and lamppost made out of jungle trees, for one panel. One sentence referencing “a Malay” and “a tall Negro with excellent bone structure.” The word “negro” gets played with in the excerpt from a Sal Paradyse novel, echoing era-specific Ginsberg usage, but applied to skies and streets, not people.

The most prominent black character, whose role is to talk funny, look funny, drive the vehicle for our white heroes, and have a big penis, is the Golliwog. And, the Golliwog is not human.

“Where ‘British’ was written for his nationality, a cop crossed that out and wrote ‘Wog.’ On another book-in sheet, ‘Wog' was typed in as his nationality.”
- Pam Noles, Small Update…

That is race in Black Dossier, that is our cultural inheritance, our history of fantasy and fantasizing. A white white world that sometimes as a tall negro with excellent bone structure hiding in half a sentence.

The subplot of a faery evacuation from “the world,” which is miniatured as England, is colonialism by metaphor. The locals striking a “bargain,” by which they are evacuated out of sight, so that white Britons are all you see and who own the land. The same is echoed in Orlando’s description of the “founding” of Britain and the wiping out of the indigenous peoples, giants (The Life of Orlando, Chapter 3: I Discover Britain, a section of Black Dossier). And, yes, fair, this is a good part of the history of English behavior and English descriptive warfare on other peoples.

The excuse that it is focused on Anglophone literature and entertainment would only sustain were it true. German film, French art, Roman and Greek myth and poetry are all brought into play. Asian literature, is not. The existence of black entertainment, by black Africans or black people of other nations, including those where English is most prominent, are unseen and unreferenced. Black and Asian characters are single panel cameos. And, the nonhuman Golliwog and his oiled big dick and nonsense speech-patterns are on roughly twenty of the two hundred pages comprising Black Dossier.

Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill most likely will never see what I have written here, nor am I writing it for them. They have lived long lives. They are geniuses in their fields. They know what they do.

If they want to perform sort of psychic and sociographic colonialism under the guise of sharing universality and mutuality, I have neither the urge nor capacity to redirect them. But, I can talk about their work and its effects. I can talk to our readings of their work, and what affects our readings and recapitulations may do.

If both Moore and O’Neill want to dismiss Will Brooker (“[A] Batman scholar, who… who… had difficulty in interpreting the fifteen-minute film” - Last Alan Moore Interview?) and Pam Noles (“[A]n African-American woman (if that is still an acceptable U.S. term) who had seemed upset by our inclusion of the Golliwog/Galley-Wag” - ibid), they’ll have no concern with me.

Nine panel grids, six panel grids, integral 3D fx, false documents, annotations, homages, pastiche, parody, an intense range of tones and styles, prose and illustration, artificial weathering, a dozen typefaces, different paper stocks for different effects, paratexts, the mimicry of stageplay, popular song, essay, personal letter, business report, newspaper ad, beat paperback, and government-issued pornography make Black Dossier illustrative of what genius hands and minds can do in the form and field of comics. It illustrates the strong range of what comics can be. It illustrates the sad truth of what they probably, as field and form, are.

Jun 17, 2018

George Perez's Swan Song: Sirens

George Perez has said he's basically retired. George is my favorite artist of all time, the most important artist of my life, and I've talked about him at length. I've talked about JLA/Avengers. I've gone over his Wonder Woman. I've discussed his New Teen Titans and his run on the 1998 Avengers. Sachs and Violens was one of the first comics I reviewed for The Comics Cube. Most recently, I've gone over the Infinity Gauntlet. I've even gone over Crimson Plague. Most recently, I've covered his very underrated CrossGen run. Today, I'll be going over what turned out to be his swan song: Sirens, from Boom! Studios.

George Perez's Sirens
by Duy

In 2013, George Perez left his exclusive contract at DC Comics, citing the desire for more creative freedom, and signed with Boom! Studios. In 2014, what was supposed to be his first series, Sirens (originally titled She-Devls), debuted. Sirens is like Perez's previous creator-owned work Crimson Plague in the sense that every character in it is based on a real person, but that's pretty much where the similarities end. Crimson Plague was a solo book; Sirens was a team book. Crimson Plague asked for fans to submit their photos so Perez could use them as models; Sirens uses Perez's friends, most notably a number of cosplayers whom he cast as the leads. And of course, Crimson Plague never finished; Sirens did.

Fanisha, bottom center, is based on Perez's wife, Phoenica Flynn.

The first thing that'll pop out at you when reading Sirens is that it's all over the place, mainly because it's a time-traveling jaunt. It starts in Viking times, with dragons and barbarians, and before long we're in the Wild West, Victorian England, 1980s New York, samurai-era Japan, and the Roman Empire. You can kinda tell that it's Perez writing stuff he wants to draw.

Perez clearly had fun designing these costumes as well, and he even has the Sirens' leader, Highness, providing commentary on female superhero costumes.

There's a bit of a debate among superhero fans about the appropriateness of female superhero costumes. They're impractical, and no one would wear them into battle, for the most part — but this is a series based on cosplayers, and it's obvious that they love dressing up in these things, so practicality takes a backseat to looking aesthetically pleasing, not just to the male gaze but also to what women would like to see themselves dressed up in.

For my part, I've long thought it's got more to do with posing and how people are drawn rather than the costume itself. A great artist can make anyone look imposing, threatening, and respectful, while an artist determined to be salacious can take a fully clothed woman and pose her in such a way that would still be deemed inappropriate. Adding to that argument is the character of Agony, based on professional wrestler April Hunter, and who dresses up like a professional wrestler:

I get a little weirded out with the number of scenes with sexual overtones in this series, knowing full well that Perez has always been a vocal and open advocate of sexiness in comics. It's always a little weird to see male artists put female characters into such sexually compromising positions, so often. Highness gets introduced while naked and in chains, having been a prisoner and "rented" out to various men during captivity, before she breaks out. Akira/Kage is a geisha walking away from that life. And Skywire is a Victorian-era prostitute who makes no apologies for it.

I think there are three things that ultimately make it okay for me. The first is that Perez is a friend of all the women involved, and they absolutely adore him, so presumably they all consented to their corresponding portrayals. The second is that I'm fairly certain if a woman wrote the same thing, I wouldn't even be thinking about it. And the third is the fact that all of these circumstances are an inversion of power. Kage is a geisha who's also the world's greatest samurai. Highness is introduced in chains so she can break out of it and lead this team. Skywire lures in Jack the Ripper, specifically so she can kill him.

Perez also is fairly literally ambitious with this story, employing some overt symbolism. A Macguffin in this story is the blade of a villain named Perdition, Highness' former lover:

And here's the ship the Sirens travel in:

But the true ambition comes in how Perez attempts to explain all the time travel and the alternate realities it causes. Perdition's blade cleaves time and space, so we have a near-infinite number of realities (and how fitting is it that Perez's swan song comes with a multiversal crisis?), and it's there where the character of Chan Everest, aka Bombshell, takes center stage. Here she is trying to prevent Highness in the Sirens ship from colliding to Earth:

She fails, and then we see this page:

Yep, it's a comic-within-a-comic. While hiding out in the mid-80s, Chan Everest drew comics of the Sirens, with the story ideas coming to her in her dreams.  That leads to some sequences that are depicted in various stage of comic book production:

Chan's inability to change the Sirens' fate in the comics belies another artistic debate about just how much of the narrative is in the control of the creator, and just how much of it is the characters taking over their own lives.

It does all ultimately tie together, though I won't spoil how here. Does it tie together well? You'll have to judge that for yourself, as I've read it three times and I think my answer is no, not really. I think the ambition gets the better of Perez in this one, unfortunately.

A couple more gripes I have with this book can be illustrated with this close-up of Bombshell.

The coloring is flat, with gradients looking like they have more distinctive endpoints and demarcations than a smooth fluid transition from one shade to another. In today's day and age when the colorists have more of an impact than ever, this just seems like a really weird choice.

But the other thing is not even something I can really legitimately gripe about, and that's that Perez's skill is so clearly fading that it makes me sad to see. He suffered tendinitis in his drawing hand in 2003, and before he signed with Boom!, he had eye surgery. This is, all things considered, still pretty good work, and if you're not a Perez fan, maybe nothing looks off at all. But I've read George Perez's work since I could read, and to see it get to a level below his overall standards, for reasons he can't control (it took two years for six issues to even come out), is just heartbreaking.

So it isn't Perez's best work, but you know what? If I could have my last work be something I created from scratch, my own project, and have it involve my family and friends? If I could get them all to see themselves in this thing I was doing? And if, among all that, I could place the woman I love front and center in this story?

 I'd say that's a pretty damn good way to go out.

Jun 14, 2018

Five Things Everyone Draws Weird

Some things are illustrated so often, that we accept visual shorthands or technically-incorrect representations because of how familiar we are with them, as standards. Without makeup, men and women have essentially the same lips, but we delineate between male and female lips, in line art, with subtle (and not subtle) coding. There are ways to represent alien, to represent invisible, without having to append text clarifying, “invisible here,” that just become part of our unquestioned visual lexicon, until we have reason to question them. Then, they’re weird.

Five Things Everyone Draws Weird
Travis Hedge Coke


I can only think of two comics, off hand, wherein invisible people or objects are illustrated by not showing them at all. In every other case, there is a dotted outline, or a coloring effect, a “Predator” blur, or some other indicator of invisibility.

Reasons for showing an invisible form, include very simply, that many comics want to communicate invisibility at a glance. Particularly, with superhero comics that are aimed at creating a sense of action and the eye does not often linger on panels, a dotted outline can be immediately read as invisibility while giving the reader something to focus on, something they can clearly identify as a woman or a spaceship.

The two examples of invisibility without delineator, that I can think of, are League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which is both talky and a stare-at-the-panels comic, with lots of visual references and encoded material, and Fantastic Four: 1234, which primarily used invisibility in a dinner conversation which carries a heavy tone of being ignored, feeling absent.

So, does there need to be an overriding reason to show invisibility as being invisible?


More than nine times out of ten, characters underwater in a comic, swim if they are in a lake or near the surface of the ocean, but the lower they get in the water, and almost aways, if they live in underwater, they treat the water as if it is air atop a dry surface. People drink out of open-mouth cups under the sea in comic books. They lounge in chairs at the bottom of the ocean, and I don’t mean just in kids books or something extremely cartoonish. Almost all of them.

Hair does not flow. Legs don’t float up.
The “crushing depths” of the ocean floor hardly ever put pressure on anything, or even present a problem. And, they are always sufficiently lit for human eyes.

High Heels

What is it with superhero artists, in particular, and an inability to draw the left and right heel on a pair of heels, the same? Same shape. Same height. I am almost surprised the colorists will remember to make them the same color, the way the pencilers and inkers go at it. I won’t name names, but one superhero artist who also does painted commissions, manages to paint trademarked characters (not his) with mismatched heels, or one heel, one flat, so often I almost think he’s doing it as a joke.

The real answer is probably two-part. One, most of these artists do not wear high heeled shoes, and so there is a tendency to forget that the heels are always elevated. And, two, the exaggeration of certain body parts that comes with the high heeled shoe, are so often folded into bodies in comics that are wearing flats or low heels that I think some of these artists forget that it’s an artificial support causing these effects, not a natural byproduct of “the female form.”


Pretty much, an adult over twenty-five stays the same height, until they are old and start to shrink, or something unusual occurs. Wearing high-heeled shoes or platforms can make you appear taller, as can the angle a person is viewed at, but kissing someone cannot change your height; beating someone up cannot change your height. Unless you’re a monster who changes shape or changing size is your superpower. And, if it is, that probably should be addressed in-story sooner than later.

Artists get so used to drawing a man kissing a woman as towering over her, even if the woman is definitely taller or standing on higher ground, standing while he is sitting, because we are all used to seeing it in entertainment. Real life? Not so much. In real life, for the average man to kiss the average woman on the lips while she is standing and he is sitting, he must angle his face up to her.

Biological Transformations

If a vampire or werewolf magically take on an animal form, that’s magic. But, if someone is supposed to be aging super-fast due to “science,” how hard is it to communicate that by reasonable corruption of the body, and not a cartoon of old-person-ness? If someone is physiologically changing to gain muscle mass, fur, or a rocky exterior and changing their number of fingers per hand, show it. An altering number of fingers or toes, alone, has got to be a substantial thing to undergo. Draw it!

If someone is physically, phenotypically sprouting new shocks of sudden hair, and then they revert, how do they revert to an old haircut? Maybe Wolverine’s healing factor constantly styles his hair, but Ben Grimm? How does Ben Grimm get his haircut back when he un-Things?

If Nightcrawler un-mutates and has normative human hands, are there callouses on any of the fingers?

Jun 11, 2018

The X-Men and Social Relevance God Loves, Man Kills

I'm not what you might call an X-Men fan. I've only ever read a handful of stories. And there are only really two that resonate with me. One of them, The Dark Phoenix Saga, is a story I read when I was very young. The other is one I only read around ten years ago, in my mid-20s. And I think it's telling that decades after it was released, and even today, it's just as relevant as ever.

The Social Relevance of God Loves, Man Kills
by Duy

Chris Claremont and Brent Anderson start of God Loves, Man Kills with an all-too-realistic scene of two black children getting brutally murdered in a public place.

The perpetrators call themselves The Purifiers, and their mission is simple: to cleanse the world of mutants. They're working for Reverend Stryker, so their justification is a simple one: God wants mutants dead.

The word they pin on the deceased is "mutie," the slur used to disparage and demonize mutantkind. But even if this is an allegory, it still looks familiar in today's society. Whatever the reasons, the generalization of a whole group of people and the indiscriminate extermination of them is still a present-day problem, and God Loves, Man Kills, which was published in 1982, still captures that relevance and urgency.

After Magneto shows up and condemns the Purifiers, Kitty Pryde mixes it up with a young man who sides with Reverend Stryker and his cause.

Stevie pulls Kitty off him, and tells her to pay it no mind, and that's when allegorical and real-life discrimination intersect.

Digression: Can I say I really like what Anderson does here? The slanted second panel expresses that there was an impact, and it also lets him show more of Kitty than a straight-up panel would have. Simple, but effective.

Stryker's proposal to rid the world of mutants, under the reasoning that they're not humans, or that the go against the will of God, is also resonant. I'll let Wolverine say it:

Ultimately, I actually think there's a lot of "fat" in the middle of God Loves, Man Kills, a lot of contriving to get from Point A to Point B, and a lot of Magneto trying to convince the X-Men that his way — treating humans the way they treat mutants — is the right way. (Spoiler: it's not. It never is. It never will be.) But it's well-drawn, well-executed, and the fact that it kinda drags doesn't diminish from the power of the ending, in which Stryker activates a machine that only hurts mutants, and in the process finds out that his second-in-command is one.

It's fiction, so it might be too convenient, one might say, but it doesn't make it any less realistic, as the world is a melting pot and everyone tends to be a mix of multiple things on all sorts of spectrums, racial, sexual, and otherwise.

Anyway, Stryker kills her, and the act is shown on TV, in some very fine comics-only execution.

It all comes to a head when the X-Men confront Stryker. expressing their right to exist and live as humans. Stryker singles out Nightcrawler on account of his appearance:

And Kitty fires back:

Before Stryker can shoot her, he's shot dead by one of the guards, and he provides his justification:

It's a noble justification, but it's also low-key disturbing to me. Stryker "was about to shoot an unarmed little girl." That's what sways him. It's not that Stryker was calling for genocide to begin with, or that he was decrying the humanity of the blue elf-like dude. It's that Stryker threatened someone who looked like a regular innocent teenage girl. But it's also what makes it realistic.

The comic closes with Professor X and the X-Men turning down Magneto's offer to join them, and a poignant closing exchange between the X-Men's traditional field leaders: Cyclops and Storm.

"That's what it's all about, really," says Cyclops. "Needing and helping. Caring for one another."

"And from that caring comes love," replies Storm.

"Which makes the world go round."

And then Storm undercuts the idealism of their musings with one line: "If only that were so."

There's the way the world is supposed to work, the way superheroes represent. And then the acceptance that no, that's not how it works at all.

Or to put it another way, God loves. Man kills.

God Loves, Man Kills was originally slated to be a Chris Claremont/Neal Adams project. You can see the already-completed pages here, as well as in this edition of the story: