Jul 30, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jul 19, 2018

Jacen Burrows: Be Vocal About The Things You Love

Providence, Crossed, Moon Knight… Jacen Burrows has been turning out nothing but high quality work for years. Known for drawing brutality, from the action-adventure to horror varieties, he can also just draw the hell out of a room. There is an intentionality to his art that many of his contemporaries often lack, and a commitment to communication, whereby he can draw almost anything and have it register as plausible.

Jacen Burrows on Fans, Character Work, and Building a Comics Page
Travis Hedge Coke

Travis Hedge Coke: Recently, I saw your work praised as “cerebral,” and realized I think of you as a very physical, sensorial artist. What are your main goals with your art?

Jacen Burrows: One of the things that was drilled into me when I was still in Art School was clarity.  You want anyone to be able to follow the action on the page, even without the dialog and narration, even people who are largely unfamiliar with comics.  So, for me, that means clear, clean lines, consistent backgrounds with realistic perspective, and recognizable "acting" for the characters.  I really want it to be possible for anyone from child to grandmother to be able to understand the flow of the narrative.  Not that they are necessarily the audience in mind for most of my work!

But stylistically, abstraction has always been difficult for me to pull off and even though I admire a lot of artists who excel at throwing off the binds or rigid perspective and anatomy to add layers of expression to their art.  So I tend to stick to my own version of "realism".  I feel like if I can deliver a solid, tangible reality, then when things get weird and that reality bends, it feels more intentional and I hope it sells those moments better.  Providence, for instance, is a rigidly grounded and clinical approach until it starts to get surreal and I hoped that juxtaposition would enhance the creep factor and moments of revelation.

Hedge Coke: What excites you most about the comics you agree to work on?

Burrows: Every issue always has a couple of big money-shot scenes, be it a big fight, a splash image of some important environment, or a character reveal.  Those are always the most fun because you spend previous pages building toward those moments.  Most of the work I have done hasn't been super actiony so I have actually been really enjoying trying to hone my own approach to action scenes.  With Moon Knight, I really wanted to have a sense of brutality and consequence in the fights.  I feel like it is important to depict violence in an uncomfortable, realistic way in order for it to have an impact.  I want readers to think, ouch, I bet that hurts!  I always had trouble getting into the major super-powered characters that can move buildings and fly into suns and stuff is because the action isn't relatable, it is just like a cartoon.  The physical action of a character like Superman, for example,  is no more relatable to me than a Roadrunner cartoon.  To each their own, but I prefer street level characters for that reason.  Although, I'd welcome the challenge of trying to figure out my own approach to that kind of action.  I also get excited about set dressing the environments when I get interesting places to draw.  It has always been one of the more fun aspects of the job for me.  I love a good, interesting looking background scene or establishing shot.

Hedge Coke: Do you have a way that you could make a character like Superman (at least visually) interesting for yourself? Could you bring what’s of value to you into the overpowered superheroes?

Burrows: I think I'd try to change the focus from the close up actions of the characters to the effects of their actions.  Tiny figures surrounded by massive destruction or POV shots of regular people witnessing the surreal events.  Most of the time, it seems like the action is depicted with dynamic close in shots of power poses and gritted teeth, which is very comicbooky and fun, but I feel like it is pretty predictable.  I'd just play with shifting the perspectives to try to give things a different energy.  It would be fun to try some different things, visually.

Hedge Coke: What comics do you currently enjoy? (New releases, old stuff, just current for you personally.)

Burrows: I'm reading a lot of Marvel stuff these days to stay current with what the company is doing and I enjoy a lot of the books.  The Immonen Spider-man stuff is mindblowing.  He could draw piles of rocks for 20 pages and I'd still be floored.  So good.  All of the Waid/Samnee collaborations are a masterclass in pop comics.  Dr Strange and Iron Fist have both been favorites of mine lately.  I've been buying a lot of Image titles.  Sex Criminals, Paper Girls, the Old Guard, Extremity, Head Lopper...they just have a ton of really fun books.  And I loved Jupiter's Legacy.  Millar and Quitely do amazing work together.  Hell, Quitely could make anything good.  There's an Image book called Isola that is, for me, probably the prettiest thing on the stands right now.  And one of my all time favorite artists, Enrico Marini, just did a couple of Batman books for DC that were a joy to read.  A lot of great stuff out there right now.

Hedge Coke: How do you plan a comics page? As a whole page, around one panel/image?

Burrows: Everyone I've worked with has always written in full script so a lot of that is already thought out as part of the storytelling.  A panel with a lot of dialogue or an establishing shot is going to need more space.  Talking head panels generally take up much less space.  The pages just sort of instinctually Tetris themselves together through following the logic of the script.  Sometimes I shift stuff around based on a compositional preference.  Like, instead of a small square panel for a talking head shot that would make logical sense, I'll go with a long narrow horizontal panel to create a visual break line or to steer the eye a specific way.  But it is all kind of a gut feeling thing.

Hedge Coke: Do you work out figures or backgrounds first?

Burrows: In the thumbnail stage, you really have to work out both simultaneously in order to figure out your page flow and storytelling.  Sometimes the backgrounds are every bit as important as the figures and you need to know your perspective points to draw the figures at the right angles while also figuring out where you expect the word balloons to go.  Once I'm drawing the real page, I tend to think foreground-to-background and build it depthwise.

Hedge Coke: Have you ever refused to draw something, specifically?

Burrows: No never.  If a writer puts something in the script, I'll put it on the page.  They asked for it for a reason and I have total trust in the writer's vision.  And I'm completely comfortable with any content.  The purpose of the content is really going to be the writer's responsibility at the end of the day and I want to tell their story how they envision it.  Even if I found something personally offensive, I would assume the writer is doing it to explore important topics.  It helps that I work with really great writers.  I might be a little more apprehensive if I was working with writers I didn't trust implicitly.

Hedge Coke: What do you add into a comic that is not scripted?

Burrows: If you think about it in movie terms, the comic artist has to be the art director, the director of photography, the costume and set designer, the casting director, the location scout, etc.  If it isn't the plot and dialogue, the artist has to figure it out.  Even a writer who takes a more active role in the visual direction is still only able to point in the general direction.  For every issue I draw, I download hundreds of photos of all sorts of stuff, in order to bring it to life.  For example, if a story has a scene in Redhook, Brooklyn, I might go on Google street view and do screen shots of buildings so I can make it feel like real Redhook.  The more references, the more real a story feels.  But I don't like to copy the references exactly.  A traced photo reference feels exactly like what it is and it often takes me out of the story when I'm reading comics so I just lift details and apply them to my own compositions.

Hedge Coke: What do you think audiences most often misinterpret about your artwork?

Burrows: That's a tough one.  I guess when it comes to the more extreme stuff like Crossed, I worry that some audiences, particularly the ones who judge without reading it, will assume it was nothing but degenerate shock value.  Being extreme just to be extreme.  But I'm quite proud of the Crossed stuff I drew for Garth Ennis, particularly volume one.  People remember the hardcore moments, but it was actually a pretty slow burn series about loss, humanity in the face of tragedy and the costs of survival.  Splatter horror has real depth for those who seek it...while also throwing in some humor and ridiculousness.  The series certainly became more shock oriented as it went on but I stand by the stories I drew.

Hedge Coke: What has been the hardest thing, in your professional career, for you to draw the way you wanted it? To get just right?

Burrows: Probably heads and faces, honestly.  I've always been ok at the features but getting them the right size and the right place to make the faces look accurate can be a challenge.  I feel like a lot of the wonkiness of my early work comes from trying to decide if I want to be cartoony or realistic.  Your personal look is something you just get better at as you do more pages, naturally, but you always question, is this a stylistic flourish or a mistake?  Aside from that, the biggest hurdle is time.  You always need to be pushing forward and finishing pages.  That's the nature of the business.  But there are times you really wish you could take all the time you need to really do the best work you are capable of.  Unfortunately, if I did that I would probably end up taking a week to draw every page and I'd go bankrupt, the company would lose money on the title or it would just never come out.  And I suspect, you'd lose some of the immediacy and excitement of the medium.  Things might end up feeling stale if they're too meticulous and precious.

Hedge Coke: If you could go back and teach yourself one or two techniques, when you were first starting as a professional artist, what would they be?

Burrows: I've always worked in a sort of European influenced clean line style, in part because I wasn't great at applying black and rendering shadows and stuff.  Now I use high contrast stuff sometimes for effect and I wish I had spent more time developing that early on.  Similarly, I always struggled with whether or not I wanted to try to add mid tones through hatching or feathering or whatever.  The clean line style can end up feeling a little empty or flat without mid tones and spotted blacks and I always wished I'd worked out a way I was comfortable with to do more of that.  As an example, you see a lot of beautiful, complex middle tones in the works of Art Adams and Moebius while still essentially being the clean line style.  But I don't want to lose what I feel works with my style either.  Art is an ever evolving process, though.  Who knows what my stuff will look like in a few years!

Hedge Coke: Do you have any advice for the comics-reading community?

Burrows: Be vocal about the things you love.  If a book really speaks to you, talk about it, spread the word.  Also, and this can apply to everything these days but specifically with comics;  Don't take the internet too seriously.  There are some lousy, toxic people out there, but if you actually go out to conventions and local comic shops and meet real comic fans you find a rich community of passionate, inclusive people who love the medium making up the vast majority of fandom.  And make it a point to share your books with friends who don't necessarily read comics already.  We can always use a few new faces!

Jul 14, 2018

Incels, MRAs, Supremacists: The Hellfire Cult

A decade ago, Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction created a villainous menace, drawn by Greg Land, whose threat has only increased with time, but they didn’t seem to notice. The Hellfire Cult are a gang of men, led by the most butthole-water-flavored pick-up artist in the Marvel Universe, Empath. They are based on a gentleman’s club (the Hellfire Club), based in a strip club. And, they beat up young people, mostly young queer women, for having (presumed) sex without them.

That's their deal, in toto.

Incels, MRAs, Supremacists: The Hellfire Cult
Travis Hedge Coke

Doesn’t that smell like today? That’s our typical school shooter. That’s, hell, our typical spree shooter. That’s your average engagement with any group online who want to talk comics.

Flaws on the table, Brubaker and Fraction manage to write an unnecessarily sexist intro for the Hellfire Cult. And, one that is almost naively racist. I don’t mean, in the sense that the villains they portray are bigoted. The heroes, and the actual structure and machinery of the story are sexist and racist, regardless of how highly I and others think of either writer.

Women, in the comic, are victims or bait. The characters who get the most play, the most dialogue, are men. In an average comic, that might not be so bad, but it’s most X-Men comics, sadly, and on top of that, this is a story about beating up women.

In a scene of three young X-people in a bar, the white boy insults a black bartender by declaring himself, “Free, white, and twenty-one!” And, the bartender, off-panel, explains to him why that’s a problem.

“That’s not racist, T!”

It’s not, on its own.

The white guy returns to his table, with two queer women of color, and starts to tell them about oppression and voting rights.

Yeah. The white guy who just insulted a black man, is taking his small piece of education, turning around, and laying it on two queer, nonwhite women as if they know jack.

And, so the entire scenario gets held back. Cheapened and restrained.

This awesome idea of the Hellfire Cult is downplayed for stuff like that and repeat commentary on what hot thing Emma Frost is wearing or has taken off.

All of Emma’s scenes are her showing off clothes or skin for Cyclops.

That’s a situation that should make anyone pause and rethink where they’re going with their comic. But, especially a comic about girls and women being beat by angry men who think they deserve more sex.

And, the following storyline is a man rescuing a boatload of women impressed into prostitution, who is then in conflict with his male boss over what to do with them. Issue after issue, none of these women are given names, personalities, anything to distinguish them as anything more than “Russian slave women our boys have to deal with now.” The only woman given any personality in that storyline is Emma, and she doesn’t know what to do, or get involved until men tell her to get involved.

Superheroes have a real-world power, these icons of childhood and nostalgia have real-world impact. If you work with them, playing Superman in a movie, writing X-Men, it behooves to channel that power responsibly. To take the weight and the strength of decades of previous appearances, prior uses, and wield them in a way that positively impacts today.

So, let’s do it over! Marvel, bring back the Hellfire Cult. Focus on the people they’re hurting, gay people, young girls out clubbing, not on Cyclops in his big new house, flexing while his wife takes her million dollar top off for him.

Jul 8, 2018

In Pace Requiescat: Steve Ditko

Steve Ditko (November 2, 1927-June 29, 2018) has passed away. Known mostly as the co-creator of Spider-Man, he had a storied career that encompassed multiple companies and properties, including his own, until the day he died. In light of this, the Cube got together and said something about one of the greatest artists of all time.

In Pace Requiescat: Steve Ditko

Ben: I remember getting the Amazing Spider-Man Masterworks as a kid, and even without realizing yet that comics were made by specific people, I was absorbing that the early Spider-Man comics had a specific look and style.

I’m grateful to him for all the characters and stories, I wish I had a chance to thank him. But most of all, without him, Spider-Man would have been your standard Kirby bruiser with powers that came from a magic ring. He had an impact on the entire world through artwork and storytelling.

JD: I think Amazing Fantasy 15 is the Mona Lisa of comics.

Matt: Yeah, I’m torn. The guy could create amazing art in the medium, but his personal beliefs were abhorrent. A duality in himself he denied in his later creations. I do respect his absolute desire to not engage with the fandom.

Duy: There is a part of me — the part of me that is governed by my personal taste in comics — that wants to put Ditko at the top of the rankings for the greatest comics creators of all time, over Jack Kirby. By saying that , I know I've derailed my own premise, because I can't talk about Ditko and his legacy at length without talking about Jack. Even the thing he's best known for, Spider-Man, debuted with a Jack Kirby cover that he inked. 

But I love his work, and I love his peaks even more than I do Kirby's. He was the perfect complement in Silver Age Marvel. Where Kirby brought the power, the impact, and the heroism, Ditko brought the motion, the movement, the neuroses. I think it's harder to emulate Ditko than Jack; you have to be keyed in to a certain frequency.

Ditko's personal beliefs made me uncomfortable; his comics espousing those beliefs — from Hawk and Dove to the more personal comics he'd make in his later life — made me cringe. And it's hard for me to reconcile such a conservative, presumably atheistic man drawing so many things that look like he'd been influenced by hallucinogens, and bringing to life metaphysical concepts such as Eternity, the embodiment of the universe. But create them he did. He created Dr. Strange, which seemed to me, to be more about exercising the limits of your imaginations than actually developing a character. He created the Creeper, who seemed to come out of some hysterical daydream. He created Captain Atom, the Blue Beetle, and the Question, and from the Question came Mr. A, all of whom led into the creation of Watchmen, a comic that changed comics in 1986, the same way Steve Ditko changed comics in 1962. He created offbeat characters such as Speedball and Squirrel Girl, and even did a couple issues of WWF Battlemania, which was a huge plus for a wrestling nerd like me.

But most of all, he created my favorite superhero of all time, and his rendition remains my favorite. It's amazing how much of Spider-Man changed once Steve Ditko left. The edge was gone for sure. But his Peter Parker remains my favorite version for the stuff that he brought and originated. Even my favorite Spider-Man artists since Ditko left are the ones who would tap into some of that neuroses and that weirdness, whereas most artists would tap more into the commercialized John Romita version. We're talking Todd McFarlane, Erik Larsen, Steve Skroce, and Marcos Martin; for me, those are the true descendants of Ditko.

If you want the perfect Spider-Man story, read Amazing Spider-Man #1-33. You don't need to go beyond that. That's enough.

Miguel: Without Steve Ditko, I wouldn't be the same person as I am now. He and Stan Lee taught us that with great power must also come great responsibility.

Travis: A genius of comics, who spent his life making them the way he wanted. The more he cut loose, the more I loved his work, his compassionate, experimental, fearful, brave, unyielding comics.

Peter: Rest in peace. The man may be gone but his impact lives on. I know my life is definitely much more interesting because of his work.

LaMar: My first experience with Ditko's work came from his lesser known properties-I was a Creeper and Question fan as a child and I got a lot of those comics from flea markets and thrift stores-but it's weird because his Spider-Man was the one I liked the most, but the third or 4th I encountered (Romita, 70s show and Electric Company). His Dr. Strange was the one I had the fondest appreciation of though, and to this minute it's my favorite iteration of the character. Very rarely do you cone across, in any media or medium, the sort of unreckless recklessness and sense of far reaching scoped integrity that can be found in those books.

But even more than the characters he created, I admired the way he, as an artist and as a man, chose to exist on his own terms. That level of self-definition always made me feel like it was up to the world to fit around me, more than it was about me fitting into it, and it's a place that fewer of us seem to have the audacity to even reach for. I may not have agreed with most of the personal convictions he held, but that one we could definitely meet in the middle on. 

He gave the best of himself, assuredly, in his art. And when I say that I don't mean he put forth his best effort, he literally offered up the greatest aspects of himself, seemingly without fear, right on the page if nowhere else. If he did nothing else, if you took away everything else as far as his accomplishments and his place as a master of the medium, that one thing is enough.

Jul 3, 2018

Osamu Tezuka’s Alabaster: Sex, Race, and Ugly Things

Osamu Tezuka despised Alabaster, some time after its creation, said he hated every character it contained. A lot like Jack Kirby pitching unproduced “what the audience wants,” it has a 70s seedyishness at odds with its author, and like produced 70s Kirby, even when the author was unhappy with having to say it, it might still be worth it to us that they did. Alabaster is pretty; even by Tezuka standards, it is a pretty comic, and that prettiness both softens the immediate blow of the ugliness of its content and makes those concerns hyperreal by the requisite and omnipresent contrast. Alabaster would be Maus if I liked Maus and if Alabaster was more freely attacking to Poles and Poland. It’s Quentin Tarantino’s Osamu Tezuka, except not as actually racist as that would be.

Sex, Race, and Ugly Things in Osamu Tezuka’s Alabaster
Travis Hedge Coke

Tezuka, despite the shortcomings of the era or of him as an artist and human being, means for Alabaster to decry something real, to stand for something genuinely worth standing up about, as well as dealing with things in a conveniently commercial fashion.

Ralph Ellison opens his Invisible Man, with as vainglorious a supervillain setting as any mad ne’erdowell could hope for. Or, any super-intelligent, driven by justice Man of Bronze, because Lex Luthor and Doc Savage are in these ways, fellows. Invisibility, an innate ability to terrify lesser men, an amazing underground lair powered by stolen electricity. The opening of Invisible Man is delightedly unapologetic, both in its explanation of what is, and in its aping and building upon the earlier The Invisible Man, by H.G. Wells, wherein the invisible man in question is brilliant, daring, and virulently angry at the world.

Tezuka’s invisible man is an Olympian from Wisconsin whose marriage proposal to famed, white TV actress Susan Ross is rejected on the basis of, a) she only dated him because he was a six-time gold medalist, and b) he’s black and she’s a bigot. He also is not invisible; his skin is transparent, showing us all that lies beneath. James Block, nicknamed after his transformation, “Alabaster,” is a genius, a marvel of strength and speed, has a luciferian passion, but an almost unbelievable patience.

Man has plans. Get revenge, particularly on the woman who used him. Get hold of the actually-invisible daughter of the scientist whose technology made him revealed to the world. Form a gang of children. Teach kids to hate and kill. Dot dot dot profit. Or, dot dot dot retire to Castle Kigan.

So, not as much plans as, agendas and lashing out. He’s passionate, remember?

Ami, who is entirely invisible, has been raised alongside a young boy, as the child of a famed prosecutor, named Ozawa, a woman who believes in justice, truth, compassion, and maybe is a bit of a social climber. It is only in her teens that Ami discovers more of the truth of herself and her origins, when she is impressed into minor theft and then major theft by a delinquent from a nearby school. When she sees how destitute the boy lives, and that he willingly takes the rap for both of them, she gets involved in the clumsiest way possible, and they are both taken in by Alabaster, who will do what he can to disabuse them of ideas that people are kind, fair, good, or really all that worth living.

The lofty ideals devolve into caustic lashing out, conflicts with a sadistic FBI agent who has come to Japan pursuing Alabaster (illegally?), and even a classic and clear case of rape-revenge narrative.

Alabaster is not an enlightening work. The morality is muddled and sometimes virtually artificial. Alabaster has a tiger-striped sports car, a speedboat, and can throw peanuts or pebbles just the right way, so that if they strike a moving object it explodes, but still objects are only traditionally impacted. He talks a great game of ethics and strength, but he also recruits kids and blows up the head of a bird as part of a demonstration. He spends three years teaching kids to flick peanuts at birds to blow them up, and normalizing both super-princessy clothing and absolute nudity to the teenaged Ami.

Alabaster is not about being fair. It’s a horror comic. A crime comic. A crass comic. The criminal mastermind seems sane and promising because the local law are restrained and the foreign law, embodied by FBI Agent Rock Holmes, are racist, mirror-humping, obsessive rapists. Love is conditional and always subject to revisionary removal. Truth is faceted and the facets may be chipped. Hope is for people with no memory.