Sep 20, 2012

Pop Medicine: On Worldengine

Pop Medicine is a column written by Travis Hedge Coke. Travis is the founder of Future Earth Magazine, and his writings can be found all over the place, including in Renderwrx Magazine in a column called "Pop Mechanics." He is currently a visiting professor in China, and for the next year, the Cube will be giving his columns a virtual home. Be sure to visit his personal website if you would like to read more of his work.

On Worldengine
by Travis Hedge Coke

For a few moments in the mid-Nineties there was magic in Marvel Comics' THOR ongoing. Like lightning, it struck hard and brilliant across the sky, and as happens when lightning splits the sky that way, everything was still for a moment, and then, as the after-illumination from the strike faded, everything went back to normal. The lightning, in this case, was the cumulative power and direction of Warren Ellis, Mike Deodato, Marie Javins, Matt Idleston, and Jonathan Babcock on four issues, a story called Worldengine. At some point, this got a trade paperback, most likely on the strength of Warren Ellis' name, more than anything, but it's not a story that's likely to make it in a hypothetical Reader's Top 10 Thor Stories or Best of the Nineties, not because it isn't quality – it's damned good quality, especially for Marvel at that time – but it isn't in the bounds of what the Thor-diehards insist on and at the time, I don't think too many people were willing to risk picking up a Thor comic if they weren't already a Thor-diehard.

The trade's beautiful, and it's the version I own, so I'm going to talk about that version, that artifact. To start with, the cover is gorgeous and features a massive, shirtless Thor breaking the frame with his burly arm, mighty hammer, and flowing fierce Fabio-esque hair. Thor had not been portrayed as expressly sexy in a Marvel comic since, approximately, Nineteen Sixty-Four, when the Wasp would sometimes comment on how he was the God of Beefcake or somesuch. Thor-diehards, in general, don't like a sexy Thor and the mostly-shirtless Thor of Worldengine is something they were still grumbling on message boards about when the movie hit and roughly a quarter of the entire planet flipped over shirtless Chris Hemsworth as Thor. "There's no market for flashy sexy Thor!" was the common wisdom up to the point someone marketed that concept to a demographic who'd eat it up.

Aside from our man from Asgard, there's nought on the cover but "Thor" and the title, "Worldengine," and a small logo for Marvel. It amuses me that in a comic featuring multiple typefaces, there are four separate typefaces, including the two of the logo, on this cover. But, no credit for the writer, the penciler, the colorist, editors, or letterer. Legally, Marvel is the author, so fair enough

Now, I've addressed before how I believe one of the sadder leitmotifs in contemporary American comics is a lack of organization and quality control between the writers, pencilers, letterers, et al. Worldengine does not have that problem, possibly because, as Ellis relates in his Intermission, halfway through the book, Idleston helped him instigate elements from the production and design up and, apparently, the talent were communicating with each other. So, unlike BATMAN RIP, for example, where the letterer could not write text that matched the lines of the faux notebook design he used, and the penciler failed to communicate as elegantly (as I would've liked) a few key visual elements, Worldengine features art and color in synch with each other and shifting, along with the various typefaces deployed by the letterer, to complement and further the dialogue and narrative.

Mike Deodato

Mike Deodato had an immense, romantic, Sturm und Drang script to pencil into comics form, and he owns it. Channeling Jack Kirby, Alan Davis, and the new gothic that was much the rage in the cinema of those years, Deodato rocks Worldengine with innovative and varied panel arrangements, well-considered character (re)designs, a great sense of fullness, and purely visual motifs that carry the story like arpeggios sustaining the chord progressions of the narrative.

When Thor is collapsing, his world disjointed, in the opening, the panels fall against and over one another. When Thor first appears, we see his shadow on the wall and a bit of his cape and that's it. That's what a dying, small Thor is, in that panel, a shadow on the wall and a bit of a red. When he pleads with his father, Deodato illustrates Odin as larger than skyscrapers, occupying most of the page, driving his son to a speck, a sketch, or a cramped panel in the corner. When Thor embraces the Enchantress, the panels move around their bodies as their hands move around their bodies.  When it's obvious the end of the world has begun in earnest, the panels on the pages fall away from order and a flat plane, pointing out at us like sheaves, in ways Frank Quitely will be praised for ten years later.

Figures and panels are articulated to work together to a greater effect than their individual parts. Elements within a panel are arranged with deliberate mise en scene and potency. And while the comic deals with two settings, Manhattan and Asgard, neither is presented entirely in stock or familiar fashion. Manhattan is impressing, dominating planes of the faces of massive skyscrapers, omnipresent manufactured chasms and heights. Asgard, on the other hand, is overbuilt thrones made by ramming decorative stone against a giant skull, towers with unbalanced protrusions, asymmetrical arches, ice, and mountains. Even the Rainbow Bridge, so often and gently illustrated, is here a jagged, again asymmetrical, treacherous path. It's deliberately difficult as is everything in this Asgard we see.

Deodato may have flaws, but he wasn't shying off difficulty in Worldengine.

There is a twenty-panel page in Worldengine. Twenty panels. Most of the panels make up three separate polyptychs, but it starts you off reading from the upper left to upper right and downward, tier by tier, even though, when you read the first panel and see Thor's terrified eyes, you can obviously see his mouth in a silent scream in the polyptych part below, the clawed zombie hands rising in the panel to the right, and the lighting kittycorner (which is the leftmost corner of the largest of the polyptychs, the zombie warrior with sword drawn). Those tiny panels and the multitude of them seems to impose an inevitability, but also to stretch out time and make the scene on the page last an unbearable length of narrative time.

Deodato also suspends time, though in much warmer and happier tones, giving an entire page over to Thor and the Enchantress in bed, surrounded by portraits of her, each holding a wine glass, both naked, wrapped in a thin blanket. It's really a beautiful flourish and the sort of moment that mid-Nineties Marvel just did not typically afford its characters.

When Thor leaves that bed, the opportunity is taken to give him new clothes, a costume that does not look superhero much, and has no shirt. In-story, this outfit is arranged by the Enchantress, who comes into Worldengine wearing less than usual, thigh-high boots, a simple and very short black dress, and over the course of the story loses her braids and gains a choker. In an era where sexing it up in comics meant adding more pouches, these stripped down outfits are even more dramatic.

And, all this in counterpoint to our human perspective in the story, the transplanted British police, John Curzon, who is in suit and bowtie, with his hair pulled neatly back into a ponytail, except for one scene of him rising from bed, putting on deodorant, and getting dressed before going out. Everyone else is getting dressed down and he's making conscious effort to spiff up, despite presenting himself as a schlub and misanthrope. Thor and the Enchantress are gods; they don't need to spiff up. Curzon has to put on deodorant, he regrets leaving bed, even spends a scene sitting on the toilet. Gods don't. Gods are impressive, because they are gods, and Deodato sells that with every line.

Marie Javins

Marie Javins is fantastic and her work on Worldengine, while it has some funny "enhancement" by Malibu that dates it a bit, is great, dramatic, and considered. Rather than pick a tone, or small range, Javins extends her palette to all effective shades and combinations, using realism where most potent, abstraction and impressionism where it fits better. Dark depths are sufficiently muddled and dimmed, but everything else is high contrast, loud constrast, even if the contrasting element only appears in a small space of the whole.

Javins makes her reds noticeable, throughout. Intense. Assertive. Mostly, red is the color for Thor's cape, while he has one, and the capes of other Asgardians, Odin and Sif. Tiny splashes of defiant red surrounded by stormy darkness, a flare of red breaking a dull brown or green wash of sickly New York night. But it is also the color of the setting sun, and the sun and moon are echoed throughout the comic by Deodato as big and distant from the gods and mortals as the gods are from schmucks like our suited cop, Curzon. Red is the color of capes, the sun, fire, and when the World Ash believes the Earth is dying, it is the color behind the panels that should be making up the comics page, the panels Deodato has drawn slipping away and turning wrongly.

The bed, in which we find Thor and his new lover, the Enchantress (a traditional "enemy")? Red pillows, red sheets, red blanket. Big as the whole page, with the two gods lush on in its embrace.

Red is warm, its inverse is not. The zombies are wood and putrifying flesh, so they are green and brown. The sky and the shadows are almost always green and brown, particularly while Thor is dying, but it supercedes Thor.

The bulk of the comic is greens, blues, browns. Night is almost entirely sickly, dark shades of green, with the occasional waft of lighter greens and seedy browns. The moon, seen in one of its most dramatic appearances, is a soft swirling mass of green that only becomes a pale yellow, detailed moon panels later, as if establishing its place and rightness, just as the setting dark red sun is a sharp yellow when rising. The skies and their orbs are sickly and omnipresent, presiding over the all scenes, even as the awkward buildings wrought by humans and gods stand under them, sometimes glowering, sometimes beaming with their own strange brightness, as windows let in light or throw it outward to an uncaring night sky.

By the final pages, the reds are gone out of clothing, as is most color. Everyone from Thor to the villain to Curzon are dressed darkly and simply. The new, post-Ragnarok humans the villain has produced have dark blue skin, their eyes entirely black.

If it were not for the yellow hair of the three main characters, and the brilliant blues and whites of lightning, the end of the comic would be unbearably controlled by the dark, but it's a stylish dark and the hair and the lightning get wilder by the page because something has to break the control that dark clothes, that dark skies and dark rooms exert.

Jonathan Babcock

Not counting the trade dress or in-scene logos and signs, there are at least nine different typefaces utilized in Worldengine. And none of them are obtrusive.

A handful of the typefaces are to distinguish excerpts from books Curzon reads to educate himself on Thor and the Agardians, but there are also different sets used to enhance Odin's speaking, the words of the undead warriors, and Thor's inner monologue. The rest include the titles, and of course, the in-scene sign for the Ash Hotel, the signs for both the NYPD and Code Blue, where Curzon is temporarily working, sound effects. There's a lot to handle and Babcock dolls them out sweetly and with the air of truth to every presentation. The changes are cosmetic, but cosmetics should never be underestimated. There's a reason everyone in film or politics is painted up before they're shown to us mere mortals.

Odin has to feel different if he's to be more than Dad. So, Deodato's drawn him gigantic and weighty, dressed in overcomplicated jewels and armor, and Javins has painted him with more colors and contrasts and conflicts than anything else in the comic, and Babcock pushes it past all that by simply shaping his words different, far more ornate and deliberately a little hard to read. That's not a surface affectation, that's Odin in textual form.

Dying, abandoned, rejected and finally feeling small and mortal Thor that the comic opens with? His internal monologue has the only spoken lower case lettering in the book. Actual mortal and relatively small time Curzon's inner monologue has none of that. His internal speech is rendered just as his spoken words.

Warren Ellis

"I'm alive. It feels disgusting," is an Ellisism put into Thor's internal voice.

"What's your dad do now?" asks Curzon, and the response from the other cop is, "Pushes up daisies." It sounds misanthropic, but it's bitter veneer amidst an expression of admiration for the man's father. It has to sound misanthropic, or it'd be acknowledged as romantic, and neither the characters nor, perhaps, the author, want to be caught in that.

"In heaven, everything is fine," is an Ellisism, too, this time narration of a scene in Asgard, but it's an Ellisism not because of its phrasing, per se, but because it's notably a borrowed song lyric from "In Heaven," written for the film, Eraserhead.

There's a cranky, out of his element British smoker. There's sex and violence and bright lights. There's science and magic and broad romance pervading every pretense of cynicism. Thor even gets to have an Ellisian lecture, on his emblem, letter, and representation in abstract, the rune, thursiaz. This is after several pastiches of nonfiction speculation about Thor and Asgard, after ninety-five pages (or thereabouts, including the Intermission) of trying for a grand unified theory of Marvel Thor, which is a typical way for Ellis to approach a comic owned by someone else.

Ellis tends to shoot for the encompassing the whole of a corporate character and then paring them down, as quickly and smoothly as possible, to the best bits, glossing them up and reevaluating as necessary. Marvel Thor talks in a faux Shakespearean dialect, but that cuts out a lot of potential audience, so Ellis finds a story reason to excise it. There are several people running around also essentially Thors, so Ellis finds a story reason to start paring the tree to keep our Thor unique. Thor's got a bit far off from both the Kirby flourishes of the original Marvel Thor comics, and the ancient Norse stories and sagas, so Ellis reintroduces both hardcore and in your face. Odin's going to be a domineering and reactionary old man, golden humanoids will toil and gigantic gleaming machinery, and at the edge of an early Ragnarok, Thor will fight zombies with bits of wood and electric wires in their faces.

The gods, in Worldengine, may walk the human world, but they are not beholden to do it as humans.

The Marvel Thor has an origin, too, a base concept: he is being punished by his dad for hubris, by being crippled and stuck on Earth. So, here, in Worldengine, that is revisited, shorn of everything that would make it feel repetitious or old-fashioned, but essentially the same. This is the story of Thor being beat down and planted on the Earth, and how he rose up and reclaimed his godliness and the lightning. It is the story of a man with long blond hair, trapped in Manhattan, learning to tone down his hubris, but that man, quelle surprise, is Curzon, not Thor. Thor has, by the beginning of this tale, shed his hubris fairly well, and is set in his quite traditional role as well-intentioned and heroic patsy for the other gods. It's a good role for Thor, which is why it is the traditional one.

The story sheds so much dead weight off Thor and his cast, his concept, and sadly, within issues Marvel had put it all back and then dropped him into an alternate reality where Rob Liefeld turned him into a big goofy parody of his worst tropes. But for a moment, for those four issues that make up Worldengine, it was beautiful. A moon above a million riverside campfires. A shout amid thunder.

1 comment:

JV said...

Yup, totally agree! Ellis/Deodato came up with a Vertigo-like vision of Thor that broke the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby mold. It was innovative and dark and was a surprisingly good fit for the character. It looked promising but Warren Ellis left (I never knew why he left) after those four issues, with Bill Messner-Loebs taking over script duties. I was looking forward to it because I enjoyed the work he and Deodato did on Wonder Woman. Unfortunately, they couldn't seem to find their footing creatively. Between this short stint and Mark Waid's Captain America, I had high hopes that this would lead to a new creative renaissance at Marvel. It was delayed for a year thanks to Heroes Reborn XP. Still, Ellis' take led to Thor eventually getting rid of the faux-Shakespeare speech which was a good thing cause it alienated prospective readers.

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