Review: Casanova: Avaritia #1

Cover for Casanova: Avaritia #1, by Gabriel Ba and Cris Peter.

This is the church, this is the crucible: Casanova's back.

Writer: Matt Fraction
Artist: Gabriel Bá
Colorist: Cris Peter
Letterer: Dustin Harbin

To borrow a phrase from my friend Josette, it’s short shameful confession time. I’ve had an advance copy of Avaritia for… four months, and it’s Tuesday morning September 6th, and I’m writing my first draft of the review now. It’ll be in store for most of you tomorrow morning, unless you happened to be in Portland this weekend and already have a copy.

I have been comprehensively beaten to the punch, it’s true. Beaten by the best kind of people– folks like Joe Keatinge and Laura Hudson, Martyn Pedler and the crazy gang at Comics the Blog that made the lamb dish from the first run of Cass as part of their review. The observations, the spoilers for issue two, the squealing fangasms… all out there already. I’m trailing up the pack.

And that’s because I don’t have an objective thing in my head about this book.

First page of Casanova: Avaritia #1 wasn't, but... yes and no?

“Was it the cancer? Lotsa folks dyin’ of cancer these days.”

Right there, on page one, I lost all my objectivity– because I was less than a month out of a cancer scare myself, less than a month from discussions of CA-125 testing, biopsies, large masses seen on pelvic CTs.

I watched Cass talk to a Newman Xeno-masked janitor and realized that there was nothing I could say about this book that didn’t talk about me, about my job, about the insane things people will put themselves through to get a credit on a comic, on a book, on a movie.

I watched Casanova Quinn exterminate universe after universe across 32 pages, and I thought about the nature of client-facing for-hire production work– TV, VFX, comics, whatever. The point of that exercise is to work yourself out of a job, every show, every movie, every issue. This is what we don’t talk about when we talk about the business.

Everything you do will come to an end, eventually. You will pack your desk into another box, your scripts into another Dropbox folder, and you will smile and write your email about what an honor it was to work with this team, this material, these characters. You’ll hand in your badge and shake a few hands and you’ll walk away.

You will want it to be the last time, every time. You will come home to your own Sasa Lisi and put your head on her thigh and you will want it to be over, and you know you will go back again and again. You will work yourself out of a job again, destroy every universe set before you, make every landscape uninhabitable and unprofitable for yourself. You will hate your team and you will expect support and what you will get is Cornelius Quinn screaming in your face about the next job and the next thing and all the ways in which you need to grind harder, do a little more.

You will work when you are sick, when you know something is gravely wrong in your own body, when your pain is off the charts. You will work until you are done, you will take the screaming, and you’ll do the little more.

You’ll do the little more. It’s you or some other guy, and there’s always some other guy, right? Some other guy will take a little less reward for even more effort. There’s always another Casanova Quinn, no matter how bulletproof he thinks he is when he starts the job.

There is, as Fraction himself pointed out in that Comics Alliance interview, no union for the professional dimension-hopping voyeur.

And when you’re actually done– you’re not done, of course; there’s another shot, one more revision, another block to write, but you’re done enough for now– then you might go to the doctor, to the hospital, have your cancer scare, have surgery. You will stay up night after night waiting for the biopsy results. You will learn that you are dodging a bullet in slow motion– you don’t have cancer, but your condition is such that your overall risk is increased twenty percent for reproductive cancers. Your personal bullet time could be over at any moment; only vigilant monitoring will tell, in the end.

You’ll probably be back at your desk a month later. Someone will have forgot a shot or omitted a crucial piece of functionality, and they’ll need you, even if you can’t sit up in a desk chair for 10 hours without painkillers. You probably won’t take the painkillers anyhow; you need to be sharp to get that last thing done.

And then you will wrap up your job and go home, and you won’t know when the next job is coming, if there is another job at all.

That brutal, punishing, there’ll-be-no-shelter-here grind is the core of the first issue of Avaritia. There is nothing beyond that here for you– if you want to be uplifted, if you want to be encouraged, this is not your book.

It is an astonishing book– Cris Peter deserves a medal for her balls-out handling of a particularly audacious fight sequence, and it’s Eisner or GTFO for Dustin Harbin at this point in the game. But it is not happy. It’s about the price everyone pays when they consent to complete someone else’s missions, about what work for hire takes out of your body and your soul.

Is it cautionary? Perhaps. But does anyone ever listen to the cautionary tales of their elders?

Go. Read. Be cautioned, be enlightened, be scared. This is what Steven Pressfield and Julia Cameron will never tell you about the way of the artist or the war that is art.

Jenny Swensen and Miles Morales: Let Me Editorialize At You

Spitfire and the Troubleshooters and Ultimate Spider-Man #1 covers.

It's only been 25 years.

I think about Miles Morales and the maligning Bendis and Marvel are taking over his existence, and I end up thinking about Jenny “Spitfire” Swensen.

Miles is the new Ultimate Spider-Man; Jenny was the new… well, she was a new Iron Man. Miles is half-black, half-Latino, a New Yorker who picked up the Spider-Man mantle after Peter Parker’s death. Jenny was a white woman of privilege, an MIT engineering professor who fell into an avenging-hero role after the death of her father at the hands of his business partner.

Miles gets a lot of controversy thrown his way, much of it incredibly, stunningly racist; Jenny didn’t really get any, in her time. But they’re both products of the Marvel alternate-universe machine, that editorial gremlin that creates and destroys worlds in an unending quest for good press and higher sales figures.

Jenny had three chances to make a go of it under those rules– first in the 1986 title Spitfire and the Troubleshooters (also known as Codename: Spitfire), then in a few issues of Exiles, and lastly, as Jenny Swann in the late, lamented Warren Ellis/ Salvador Larocca reboot, newuniversal. As far as enduring popularity, though, she didn’t make the cut. Whatever it is that makes a Marvel hero iconic, Jenny didn’t really have it.

People are already arguing that Miles Morales has the same problem. He’s an alternate-universe hero. He’s a cheap attempt to grab press from the Marvel editorial machine, or the end result of some nebulous Disney-mandated diversity program. He doesn’t “count” because he’ll be rebooted or retconned away in time. In the “endless second act” model of the Marvel Universe, where nothing is certain except reinventions of the same old thing, Miles Morales is a grain of sand on an endlessly reimagined beach, already starting to roll into the narrative undertow.

Here’s the thing, though: so what? Even if all of that were true– and, given Bendis’ own family background, a lot of it isn’t true at all– will any of those theories matter to the people who will eventually read the new Ultimate Spider-Man?

I don’t think they will, and I say that because I was in the same spot with Spitfire in 1986.

Let’s say Miles Morales sustains his own title for… 13 issues. Ultimate Fallout #4 and a year of his own Ultimate Spider-Man title. He has a decent run of it, but it’s nothing exceptional. Maybe they change up his mandate after the first six-issue arc, trying to juice up the sales a little bit. They put out a TPB of the first arc for the trade-waiters, and maybe release a digest version for the kids.

And then, hey, it’s over. Bendis and Pichelli did their best, but whatever it takes to support a long-running Ultimate title isn’t there. Audiences are fickle. Direct-market sales aren’t what they used to be. Whatever the reason, Miles ceases to exist except in retrospect, plucked out of the record occasionally to support a new novelty project but permanently removed from the spotlight.

That’s pretty much what happened to Jenny Swensen in 1986… but here I am writing about her in 2011, because 13 issues of Spitfire were more than enough to cement her in my memory. Jenny was a redhead from Massachusetts, a Smart Girl, the cool professor that all the geeky kids idolized because she’d come up the MIT way, just like they wanted to.

I was a pigtailed, redheaded 10-year-old geek in August of 1986, already getting told that I’d cure AIDS or work for NASA when I grew up. I lived twenty or so minutes’ drive outside of Cambridge; MIT hacks occasionally made the front pages of the local papers. I picked up the first issue of Spitfire on a newsstand, maybe at the Bookends in the Northshore Mall, and there was a redheaded, Massachusetts-native, grown-up female geek.

(In power armor. Years before Gwyneth Paltrow became Pepper Potts, years before Pepper Potts became Rescue.)

Jenny Swensen probably meant nothing to you at the time, if you were around and reading monthly comics in 1986. That’s fair. Not all narratives mean something to everyone who reads them. I read a lot of comics that I appreciate but don’t identify with, don’t adore. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as you accept that your experience with a book probably isn’t the same as another reader’s experience with the same work.

And my experience of Jenny Swensen was that she was the first redheaded female geek I’d seen in a comic book. Jean Grey was a redhead, and a heroine, but not much of a geek… and you couldn’t just go to MIT and receive the X-gene on graduation, after all. An engineering degree, though? That was doable, if you were prepared to fight for it and work hard and realize that sometimes academia hates technical women for no reason other than that they’re women in a traditionally male field.

Some images of our future selves are more attainable than others.

As it turned out, though, I didn’t get the X-gene or the engineering degree. I struggled with serious personal and medical problems for years; there was no job at NASA, no cure for AIDS. Intelligent and compassionate scientists who hadn’t had the same struggles I had treated me compassionately and helped me sort out my shit, and I went on to a reasonably normal adult life.

(Albeit some years later than I would have if I’d been correctly diagnosed and treated earlier. Science occasionally has to catch up to the human condition.)

I wasn’t Jenny Swensen after all, but her stories stuck with me while I figured out who I was.

I’m still figuring. I expect that there are a lot of kids out there who aren’t white, who aren’t privileged, who are actively engaged with the task of figuring out who they are, too. It’s not easy, and it takes guidance and courage and investment in your own narrative.

Miles Morales will be there for them, like Jenny Swensen was for me, whether or not anyone believes in the commercial or cultural potential of a biracial Spider-Man who can’t pass for white. One issue, thirteen issues, 160 issues… 25 years later, some guy or girl in a writers’ room or a comics bullpen will say “Hey, like Miles Morales. I fucking love Miles Morales.”

I love that guy or girl already. You should too.

Grant Morrison Discusses “Supergods” at Meltdown

Grant Morrison at Meltdown Comics

That's a fine fiction suit you've got there, Mr. Morrison.

Meltdown Comics in Hollywood has been expanding their role as a geek community center in recent months, insuring their business model against the oncoming day-and-date digital-comics reality with a packed slate of D&D games, podcast tapings, and special events. On Thursday night, Grant Morrison stopped by the extremely intimate NerdMelt space at the back of the store to discuss his new book, Supergods. Comics author and My Chemical Romance singer Gerard Way, a member of Morrison’s “hippie family” and a longtime fan of the DC author’s work, hosted the discussion with the assistance of G4 host Blair Butler. (Butler has a comic coming out soon herself– the mixed martial-arts series Heart, featuring art by Department pal Kevin Mellon.)

For fans who might have been looking for an in-depth discussion of the upcoming DC reboot, or some exploration of Dan DiDio’s overly-harsh words about female creators during last week’s SDCC panels, this evening wasn’t the discussion they were looking for. Way’s questions led off with Morrison’s childhood in Scotland and went deep into topics like, his legendary drug experimentation (not as gonzo as you’d think), the influence of sunspots on Western culture (prodigious, apparently), and his approach to modern magick (which I’ll get into below). The audience, likewise, stuck to questions about Morrison’s New X-Men run, the next iteration of Seaguy, and whether or not Morrison would ever write an episode of Doctor Who.

(Yes, Xorn was always supposed to be Magneto, in a deliberate callback to the old stories with Magneto in the Savage Land; yes, he’s working on the next Seaguy and has the first issue entirely scripted; as a longtime Who fan, he’d love to, but there are no current plans.)

Way kicked off the evening with some questions about how Morrison came to his current understanding of superhero narratives. Morrison spoke of his father’s membership in the Spies for Peace, an anarchist movement that infiltrated British military installations in the 1960s. As a former soldier himself, Morrison’s father embraced pacifism and activism at the beginning of the Cold War, fearing total nuclear annihilation. His father’s fears formed one pole of the dialectic that would inform Grant’s writing career– the apocalyptic “no future” narrative that infiltrated the zeitgeist during the age of Mutually Assured Destruction and heated rhetoric from world superpowers.

The same American soldiers who brought the atomic bomb to Scotland also brought American comics with them, and it was in those issues of Superman that Morrison found the path to rejecting the fatalistic narratives of the 1960s. Superman, with his invulnerable body and iron will, represented an ultimate refutation of the apocalyptic narrative of the atomic age. In order to move beyond his fear of death and further his own self-actualization, Morrison chose to deny the narrative of “no future” and embrace the narrative power of the superhero. In his paradigm, heroes are created “to save us in case of emergency,” a concept that spans Celtic and British history back to mythical “returned hero” figures like Finn Mac Cool and King Arthur. Just as Finn and Arthur were said to be waiting in the Otherworld to return to Britain in her darkest hour, Superman and other superheroes return in cycles to reflect and refute readers’ greatest fears. Instead of asking “What happens if we all die,” Morrison said, superheroes ask “What if we get better?”

Way broadened that discussion to address the reactionary nature of the basic superhero narrative, positing that the basic approach to telling capes-and-tights stories is encapsulated in a sort of pop-culture religion that discourages provocative new angles on the existing material. Morrison agreed with Way’s premise, but noted that the ongoing work of humanity is to produce mythic narratives (a concept they dubbed “The Human Project”). In service to that project, Morrison fully immersed himself in the anarchic, drug-fueled world he depicts in The Invisibles as he wrote the book; he experimented with shamanism, cross-dressing, voudou, ceremonial magick, and other techniques to summon particular deities, archetypes, and powers he wanted to embody in the comic itself. In so doing, he lived out the book “as an art piece,” identifying so strongly with the character of King Mob that Morrison nearly died himself while writing King Mob’s own near-death experience.

It’s interesting to watch an audience of people who are both Morrison fans and somewhat skeptically-minded confront Morrison’s complete face-value acceptance of the magical workings he describes. Where the average fan might roll their eyes at summoning gods or donning a dress to explore the power of gender transgression, Morrison’s commitment to his own methods remains total and unshakable. At one point, he and Way veered off into a lengthy discussion of Iain Spence’s Sekhmet Hypothesis, a theory about the influence of sunspots on youth culture that informs both The Invisibles and Morrison’s X-Men run. This is a delicious little piece of pseudoscience for folks of a Fortean bent; Spence believes that the 11-year cycle of solar variation creates a corresponding “social chaos” in Western society. In blunt skeptical terms, Spence proposes that low sunspot influences society towards LSD-loving hippie placidity, while high sunspot activity produces a distinct shift towards crank, the Ramones, and Rob Liefeld drawing Lovecraftian human nightmares. It only works on Western society, though, judging by the examples Morrison and Way put forth. (Apparently, the sunspots find it easier to influence white teenagers living in the First World.)

Is it bollocks? Sure. It’s bollocks of the best Art Bell late-night numbers-station kind, the kind that gleefully professes an extraordinary claim without the requisite extraordinary proof. But whether or not Morrison actually believes in it, he firmly acknowledges that he has profited immensely in his personal endeavors by writing books that conform to Spence’s theories. In front of an audience, Morrison’s stated commitment to producing narratives based on utter bollocks is a bit intimidating. You may think you’re hardcore, but King Mob has you beat.

Of course, total, unwavering immersion in one’s own creative work and belief system forms the core of what Western magickal systems call the Great Work– the ability to fully self-actualize, to know your life’s goal and bring it into manifestation. Morrison believes that this power to shape reality through artistic force of will is a uniquely human technology that can be tested, verified, and distributed to everyone. An audience member questioned the ethics of such reality-altering creativity, asking Morrison how he knew when to draw the line as he worked. Morrison responded that all magic is a matter of intent, and that the power of intent is fundamentally egalitarian, available to anyone who puts in the effort to channel it. (This is where you all nod and quote Alan Moore’s encounter with John Constantine, because you’ve been here and you know the drill.) He added that rather than being addictive, the power of focused intent gets “creepier and creepier;” he’d prefer to be thought of as the guy who lives out in the country and watches the crows for omens, and not as some sort of highly-evolved magus possessed of preternatural abilities…

… so it wasn’t more than half an hour later before Morrison blandly mentioned that he really had invoked John Lennon, a ritual depicted in later volumes of the Invisibles, and that Lennon’s glowing, disembodied head had given him a song. The Q&A session and panel ended with Morrison performing that song– “Somebody Loves You”– for the assembled crowd, using a Lennon-branded acoustic guitar Way had given him. Rather like the unexpected five minutes’ meditation at the end of Morrison’s SDCC panel with Deepak and Gotham Chopra, the five minutes’ invocation provided a startling glimpse into parts of Morrison’s work that current-day fans don’t usually see.

Bollocks? Never mind the bollocks, here’s comics’ own John Lennon.

Review: Our Love Is Real

Writer: Sam Humphries
Artist: Steven Sanders
Letterer: Troy Peteri
Production: Phil Smith
Special Thanks: Brendan McFeely and Chip Mosher

“How nicely does doggish lust beg a piece of spirit when a piece of flesh is denied it.”
-Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra

Cover for Our Love Is Real.

Yup, Fascist Iconography 101. With dog.

There’s a lot about Our Love Is Real that is ambitious and admirable– it’s a self-published and self-distributed comic, for starters, only available at a tiny handful of brick-and-mortar retailers, via mail order direct from writer Sam Humphries, and via ComiXology in digital form. Despite that hurdle, it’s sold out its first physical printing in a mere nine hours (a second is on the way). It received buzz as a possible speculator’s goldmine from Bleeding Cool, and the reviews have been generally good.

It’s also a dark SF noir that prominently features bestiality as a linchpin of its worldbuilding. As one might imagine, this has caused rather a lot of “ZOMG DOG SEX” in the conversation around the book. This is the only time I’m going to mention it in my review, as a consequence: Yes, this book has one panel of PG-13 dog-on-top sex between antihero riot cop Jok and his girlfriend, the eventually jilted poodle Chyna. Chyna seems to be auditioning for a role in an eventual reboot of The Rock; the panel itself could be set to, say, “Take My Breath Away” by Berlin quite easily. If you are the sort who is easily titillated by the idea of dog sex as a societal staple, that should do you fine; if you are easily offended, you will be offended.

Since there is dog sex, though, and since it is put out there as one of several competing sexual ideologies, it’s not surprising that readers are focusing on it and ignoring the rather less savory elements of Humphries and Sanders’ dystopia. Our Love Is Real posits a world that has been so bitterly divided by the introduction of an HIV vaccine that the ensuing state focuses entirely on policing sexual morality. All other forms of expression appear to have been rendered secondary to the obsessive pursuit of self-involved sexual gratification. In short, it’s Rick Santorum’s favorite nightmare come true; every canard about gay marriage leading to sexual depravity and the decline of society has been played out in this world long before we arrive on the narrative scene.

Like any good fascist regime, this degraded society has strict rules about purity. Zoophiles sit at the top of the pecking order, and everyone else has to be brought to conformity or exterminated. Jok, being one of the privileged few, has no problems enforcing this state of affairs with joyful alacrity. Anyone who enjoys a good face-stomping and isn’t too concerned with the ethics of same will enjoy this early stage of the story. The part where we learn that society only reflects the smaller-scale desires of its members comes later.

In the line of duty, smashing faces and killing rioters with abandon, Jok encounters an enigmatic mineral-sexual named Brin. Their ensuing affair– “affair” is perhaps too romantic a word– cuts to the actual heart of the story. Jok is feral, animalistic, speaking in doggish grunts and howls, imposing his desires on Brin without regard for courtship. Brin presents as a more evolved being, careful of speech, abstinent from any form of physical sex. They’re obviously poorly matched, but what do they care for emotional concerns when there’s individual lusts to be slaked?

This is where the dark and ugly heart of Our Love Is Real comes into sharp focus. Jok and Brin’s eventual trysts– not all of which are sexual– embody what British artist Robert Lenkiewicz called “aesthetic fascism:”

[Lenkiewicz] noticed that the obsessive fascination with the beloved person could often lead to acts of ruthlessness and violence. “I often feel,” he said, “that in the most intense romantic scenarios… there is an undertone of ruthless psychopathic expectation, a curious heartlessness. If one had genuine concern for one’s partner then the first thing one would do is leave them.” He was sceptical about claims that in love one ‘cared’ about the other person in a selfless sense, quoting the German philosopher Nietzsche’s pithy expression: “How nicely does doggish lust beg a piece of spirit when a piece of flesh is denied it.”

The real transgressions of Our Love Is Real‘s fairly stock noir narrative aren’t held in its perverse, Pokemon-like classifications of sexual behavior. You’re meant to gawk at the outer coating of revolting pornography. It might even distract you from the real controversy: a society that is so focused on individual hedonism that it crushes and devalues the human spirit. Saying more would spoil an integral plot twist; suffice to say that I’m speaking both literally and metaphorically here.

Is it worth a read? Overall, I’d say yes; Sanders’ art is absolutely stunning, subject matter aside. Humphries’ script needs either tighter editing or more space to expand its narrative, but you can’t fault him his enthusiasm for the provocateur’s role. Our Love Is Real is in it for the shock value, yes, but if that’s your sole takeaway from this noir thriller, you might be missing the point.

Review: Uncanny X-Men 539

“Losing Hope”

Writer: Kieron Gillen
Artist: Ibrahim Roberson
Colorist: Jim Charalampidis
Letterer: VC’s Joe Caramagna
Cover: Simone Bianchi

Let’s get this out of the way first and then move on to the story itself:

Uncanny X-Men 539 cover by Simone Bianchi

I mean, really, it screams JUST BUY THIS ALREADY.

Yes, yes, Uncanny is getting a renumbered reboot. Yes, yes, people are increasingly voicing the opinion that lame-duck titles’ remaining issues “don’t count” and can be safely ignored. “Losing Hope,” being a single-issue story, isn’t going to sway anyone who holds that viewpoint…

…but the X-Office has, in a remarkable burst of foresight, put a fantastic Simone Bianchi Wolverine cover on this issue. That alone should distract the nerd rage and draw some of the hard cases to the book. Look, it’s got Wolverine on! I have to appreciate canny sales moves like that, since we’re mired in the mysterious Current Climate and whatnot.

Moving on. This is a fairly uncomplicated story that hinges on a dubious Claremont-era X-trope: female mutants love to shop and need to shake off their angst about their persecuted status, so they go shopping. Of course, since they’re persecuted mutants, shit goes down by the Hot Dog on a Stick, and they have to accept that their lives will never be normal enough to permit them the joys of a limeade. I estimate that I read some variant of that plotline eight or nine times as a teenage comics fan. (When I wasn’t reading that, there were mutants playing baseball.)

Gillen, to his credit, subverts the trope in this story by focusing it squarely on Hope Summers, the alleged mutant messiah around whom a great deal of recent events have focused. Hope’s teammates have to force her out of her armory and off the island; once they’re out, her fashion sense proves as nonexistent as her ability to accept critique. There are no armloads of Nagel-inspired ’80s dresses here, just one cranky, hyperfocused mutant savior and two reluctant disciples.

It’s a shame that those disciples– Laurie and Idie, two of the more interesting members of the Generation Hope cast– are cast aside as soon as Hope is kidnapped and the actual plot kicks in. Admittedly, this isn’t an issue of Gen Hope; expecting some elucidation on Laurie and Hope’s uneasy alliance, or Idie’s ongoing struggle to assimilate into mutant culture, is expecting something Uncanny’s not designed to deliver. But would it be too much to ask to let them participate in the action beyond summoning Wolverine? Watching the newer mutants participate in a mission alongside the definitive combat expert on the older team would have been enlightening.

What we get, instead, is a pretty straightforward Wolverine solo operation– he breaks into the Crimson Commando’s base and stages a rescue, and he and Hope fight their way out. Grudging respect is achieved in the heat of battle, and Logan monologues a bit about his reluctance to get emotionally involved with Hope. Exeunt all, including, presumably, Idie, whom we never see again after page 5.

It’s an efficiently told story, and Ibrahim Roberson’s art lends it a kinetic, muscular feeling. I believe this is Roberson’s first Marvel work, and it leaves me wondering what his take on Iron Fist or a similarly visceral character would look like. Certainly, he’s presented a compelling argument for his future employment.

And there’s nothing particularly wrong, per se, with a Logan/ Hope adventure that runs its course in 17 pages. The Crimson Commando has a compelling reason for his attempt to capture Hope. Logan’s reasons for keeping a wary distance from her are valid. Logan’s arrival in Hope’s cell is understated so heavily as to be both absolutely hilarious and perfectly fitting. (When a man is the best there is at what he does, there really does come a point where there’s nothing to be gained by showing him doing it over and over again.) But I was still left wanting a little more here… and the sort of thing I wanted is, ironically, laid out in an earlier throwaway scene with Logan, Hope, and the feral savant Teon.

Hope approaches Teon and Logan’s sparring practice on her way off the island, and Teon is instantly smitten. He runs to her feet. He’s immediately present in a raw, physical way. Hope puts her hand down and tells him to stay, like one would a particularly slow dog– and in Logan’s body language and stone silence, we see that he’s watching himself with Jean Grey, years before. It’s a brilliantly played moment, four panels of showing without telling. For the reader, Logan’s speech later is just exposition for Hope’s sake; it’s the subtle set of his shoulders as Teon rejoins him that tells us everything we need to know, and a number of things that Hope has yet to even guess.

“Losing Hope” is worth reading for that page alone. It’s a lesson in storytelling– you can be efficient, you can run from point A to point B along a well-traveled plot arc, you can subvert a trope or two along the way, but you have to deliver the unexpected punch to the gut while you’re at it.

Review: SHIELD Infinity

SHIELD: Infinity
Writer: Jonathan Hickman
Artists: Zachary Baldus, Kevin Mellon, Nick Pitarra, Gabriel Hernandez Walta, Rachelle Rosenberg, Dan Brown

My, it’s been a while. Suffice to say that this winter was a bit too adventurous for the Department’s tastes, and it’s not quite over yet– I may have a lot more time on my hands this summer to write than I expected, thanks to a bit of unemployment and an impending bout of surgery for a newly-discovered chronic medical issue. (I’m OK, as far as I know; if I’m not, I’ll tell you guys; yes, Wedge is taking care of me and I have very good doctors.)

That being said, I keep seeing reviews of this Marvel one-shot that don’t quite seem to grasp what Hickman’s up to here– which means, yes, spoilers galore below. You’ve been warned.

Cover for SHIELD: Infinity


SHIELD: Infinity is a bit of an odd duck as a one-shot. It’s a little bit inside baseball– if you don’t already know a bit about the Brotherhood of the Shield, its ultimate aims, and the ongoing struggle between Leonardo da Vinci and Isaac Newton as its once and future leaders from the main SHIELD book, you’re not going to pick up on everything going on in these four stories. On the other hand, I hesitate to say that regular SHIELD readers won’t miss anything if they give this pass. There’s certainly a lot of backplot here, and most of it probably won’t be covered in the main title.

Also, honestly, I have a hard time conceiving of a hardcore SHIELD fan, or a hardcore Hickman fan, who’s not going to get this book. You either really dig Hickman’s oblique nods to epic, Kirby-esque concepts, or you don’t. You probably already know if you’re in this book’s target audience.

(If you’re unsure, or, if, like me, you love this book and rarely have the mental bandwidth to grasp everything at once, you may want to read Robert Loss’s excellent review of the series, which I’m using to fill in my own gaps as I write this review.)

New readers will find the basic concepts of the Brotherhood of the Shield– a secret society of legendary historical figures sworn to protect humanity from all manner of fantastical menace, from the Brood up to Galactus himself– laid out as simply as possible in Hickman and Pitarra’s opening story, “Colossus.” Sequential storytelling doesn’t get more didactic than this, with Hickman framing a tale of classical antiquity as a Socratic dialogue between Leonardo da Vinci and his students. In ten lean pages, we’re introduced to Leonardo’s vocation as a teacher and mastermind, his inquisitive apprentices, and their fraternity’s mission statement. It’s tightly-told, with just enough action to leaven the exposition for those of us who are already familiar with the setup.

Folks who are up on their current Hickman news might note that “Colossus” is the first work we’ve seen from his collaboration with artist Nick Pitarra; they’re slated to deliver The Red Wing to Image this year, and have talked about more creator-owned work to come. How does Pitarra measure up? I’m impressed; his angular linework and muted palettes of soft pastels remind me of artists like Moebius. The sense of the fantastical Pitarra provides is well-suited to Hickman’s cosmic-level concepts. Pitarra’s panels provide clear angles on the action, whether it’s an overhead shot of Leonardo’s classroom or a pitched fight between Archimedes and an alien invader. I look forward to more Hickman/ Pitarra work; Wedge is already beside himself with glee about the time traveling fighter pilots of The Red Wing.

Zachary Baldus teams up with Hickman for the second tale, an impressionistic story of Nostradamus called “The Hidden Message.” This story falls down a little on accessibility– if you don’t already know that there’s a guy chained up in a mystical well beneath Rome, that he’s Nostradamus, and that he’s not down there for his own good, you’ll be largely lost here. That being said, the overall tone here is distant, as if this moment in time isn’t something we the readership were meant to see at all, and Hickman and Baldus carry that off ably. If it left me cold, well, I think it was supposed to– but we’ll get to that in a few paragraphs.

Kevin Mellon gets the graphic honors for the only tale of SHIELD’s most enigmatic adventurer, Nikola Tesla. The story rejoices in the Hickmantastic title “Life, the End of the World, and the Key.” The end of the world is a popular topic in the main SHIELD title– Newton thinks he has all the details locked down, and he’s enough of a total madman that he might be just right about that. (After all, he was right about elliptical orbits.) Leonardo, on the other hand, thinks that humanity can ascend and prevail over even the apocalypse– which should sound familiar to anyone who’s read Fantastic Four lately, or Hickman’s earlier Image works Pax Romana and Red Mass For Mars.

Yep, this is SHIELD’s version of the “Solve Everything” problem that’s underlaid Reed Richards’ entire arc in the old Fantastic Four and the new FF books. It shouldn’t be in the least bit new to anyone who has any prior familiarity with Hickman’s favorite concepts. That being said, if Hickman wants a constant touchstone to return to across his works, “the aspiration of man and his technologies against inevitable entropy” beats the hell out of either “smartphones” or “mind-controlling dinosaurs.”

Mellon’s work is pulpy and spare, playing in an extremely limited colorspace provided by Dan Brown. It works well to illustrate just how much of an engineer– of machines and people– Leonardo really is. Leonardo brings Tesla back to life not out of any real concern for Tesla himself, but for the sake of Tesla’s son Leonid, the protagonist of SHIELD. (In comparison, Tesla’s apparently named his only begotten son after Leonardo. I think Tesla’s really getting the raw end of this friendship.) This is a story about stark necessities, and the high-level maneuvering that characterizes the entire game Leonardo and Newton are playing out in their quest to immanentize the Eschaton. Hickman’s choice of Mellon’s strong visual style to underlie that unnerving message points back to his previous career as an art director; this is a writer who knows how to convey a visual concept, and an employer who knows how to bring his best talent to the project at hand.

The fourth story is where I took some exception to prior reviews of SHIELD: Infinity, though; I feel they somewhat understate the case for this book’s characterization of Isaac Newton. Gabriel Hernandez Walta pairs off with Hickman for “The Apple,” and this is where the book goes somewhere most mainstream Marvel comics never approach in this sort of detail. Simply put, “The Apple” is as much of an origin story as we’re going to get for Sir Isaac Newton, the dark mirror of Leonardo and the nominal archvillain of SHIELD. Not so simply put, well…

…Newton the historical figure was not well-liked in his time, and was, at best, what one of my friends calls “a class-A weirdboy.” He was extensively learned in both conventional sciences of the day and in eschatology, alchemy, and other occult specialties. (Wikipedia goes so far as to speculate that he came by all the science secondary to his love for the occult.) He thought he was among an elect group who could actually know the mind of God via Biblical study and interpretation; he was very secretive; he was combative with his colleagues and driven by a sense of vengeance. Hickman’s done the reading– more than I have, for sure– and he’s brought all of that to the fore here. How does he capture the mercurial, brooding genius of the historical Newton and align it with the chthonic, ideological evil of the 616 Newton?

Well, uh, Newton beats Gottfried Leibniz to death (mostly off-panel; this isn’t a MAX book) with the Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica. That all goes down after Leibniz reveals that, yes, he has rather noticed that Isaac Newton is a god damned serial killer who’s been murdering all of his intellectual rivals.

Needless to say, this is entirely not what I expected from my SHIELD one-shot purchase. “The Apple” is about a step shy of that whole buggering-to-death business with Hyde and the Invisible Man in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and it’s pretty stunning to see even in a T+ Marvel book. Hickman’s Newton isn’t so much a scientist, or even a mystic, as he’s a full-on Criminal Minds-style unsub, psychopathically driven to exterminate everyone who fails to find accord with his thanatic vision. Leibniz is no Batman, either; while he carries off his investigation, there’s nothing he can do to stop Newton from making him the next victim.

It would be easy to say that “The Apple” only has one purpose– to make you hate Hickman’s version of Newton, and, conversely, like his Leonardo all the more. I’d actually be happier if that was all it was supposed to do… but, like every Hickman story, it’s not that simple. Sure, Newton is certifiably beyond redemption, a spree killer with no thought for anyone or anything beyond his own intellectual glory, coldly driven to torture and exterminate his foes (as we saw in “The Hidden Message”)…

…but he might also be right about being the smartest man that ever lived. He might be right about everything, in the end, and that’s what SHIELD: Infinity wants you to wonder about as you close the covers. What hope can even the original Renaissance Man hold out against the annihiliatingly precise, logical vision of the end of the world held within Newton’s apple?

Review: Vision Machine #2

Written by: Greg Pak
Pencils by: R.B. Silva
Inks by: Alexandre Palomaro
Colors by: Java Tartaglia
Letters by: Charles Pritchett

Ahhh, the Singularity. The best friend of speculative fiction in the early 21st century, along with nanites and steampunk. Equal parts valid and dangerous to use, a crutch in the wrong hands and magic in the right hands.

Enter Vision Machine by Greg Pak. Normally this is where I’d give a brief breakdown in what’s come and gone so far in the first two parts. I don’t have to, however, because Pak is using this series to fully embrace the concepts he explores on the page; the comic is being released for free and under a Creative Commons license. You can find issue one and two on the comic’s website (as well a bunch of other great stuff, meta and not), and  via ComiXology for iPad and iPhone. Also worth noting is that he’s releasing this himself via his own Pak Man Productions label, sans help from any publisher at all, along with some help from the Ford Foundation.

Let me reiterate– this is all for free.  No excuses; there’s nothing stopping you from giving Vision Machine a look.  And you should give it a look, because…

…what Greg’s done here is nothing less than construct this generation’s Give Me Liberty. Frank Miller’s grim, fin-headed approach to having grown up in the Vietnam era is swept aside and replaced with the age of Apple and Google’s preternatural rise to domination of the societal hive mind. Laser cannons, brains in jars, and classical revolution are replaced with the hip new product launch, the dark battlefield of content ownership, and the overarching war for information. Every page and panel- wonderfully delivered by R.B. Silva with pencil work that just gets better as the series progresses-  is gleaming, sharp, Jonathan Ive clean. All of the usual dystopic trappings are cast aside, and instead of cheapening the message, the look serves to draw me closer to the characters.

Ultimately what’s winning me over the most so far is that it’s not automatically based on the premise that all of this has to suck. I wrote part of this on an iPad (take that, consumption-not-creation argument!); my iPhone goes everywhere I do. I enjoy this stuff because it honestly does bring me my information and computing experience to me in the best way possible for me, and also because it’s cool to use. Vision Machine takes the same stance; technology is a tool, like any other weapon. It’s not the concept of the iEye that’s evil here, it about the people manipulating it and being manipulated by it. Focusing on the makers and the manipulators instead of fetishizing the gear moves Vision Machine’s storytelling the essential step beyond the namedropping didacticism that characterizes a goodly chunk of probable-future SF these days.

There’s still an issue to go, but I have a feeling Vision Machine will be on my short list of books to hook new readers with, next to Atomic Robo and Thor: The Mighty Avenger. It’s an instantly compelling book, a fantastic read with no barrier to entry. There’s no reason not to grab the PDF and post it far and wide.

Just mind the EULA…

Dr. Dinosaur, On My Desk?! And An Award…

This summer’s been kind of a wild ride for us, with ups and downs. We certainly haven’t stopped reading and keeping up with things. Two things this week that I can’t let pass without commenting on.

The first bit is just a light bit of squee. The fine people behind the Department-loved Atomic Robo have announced a follow up to the fantastic Robo limited statue they made last year- the one I own I love dearly- featuring the epically insane character Dr. Dinosaur. Here’s the unpainted prototype:


I cannot begin to express the joy I feel that he’s wearing the cooler. If you missed out on the Robo statue, you’re also in luck; they’ll be doing another run of that as well. Available first quarter, 2011.

Second, a moment to issue a congratulations to Matt Fraction for winning the 2010 PEN USA Literary Award for Graphic Literature for ‘his outstanding body of work.’ This is the first year they’re offering an award in this category, so it’s an extra special honor for him. It’s always nice to see the form recognized like this in new corners, and I can’t help but think it marks a similar point in his career as it did when Neil Gaiman won the World Fantasy Award in 1991. Cheers, Matt. Even Rex Mantooth elevates us all.

Friday Night Videos: Those Dancing Days, “Hitten”

Whyever might I be posting a Friday Night Video from Swedish indie-popsters Those Dancing Days? What could it have to do with comics? What does it mean?

Which creator could I possibly have been talking to at SDCC about an upcoming series he’s working on?

Huh. Certainly none of you know any creators who are big suckers for perky European pop. Right?

Yeah, me either. I must’ve hallucinated the whole thing…

About Those Five Lights…

…well, well, well. Looks like Mr. Fraction is having a little Battlestar Galactica fun with the X-faithful.

I was discussing Uncanny X-Men #526 with Department operative Chris “Slarti” Pinard today, and he stopped and said:

“I keep seeing Laurie the new mutant’s blue skin and lines around the lips and expecting that there’ll eventually be some connection to Ol’ Pocky Lips.”

Laurie in UXM 526.

Gee, she looks just like her possible progenitor! Art by Whilce Portacio.

Being me, I hit up Google and typed in “five lights Apocalypse,” and, uh, well… I got this BSG episode recap. Which mentions “the five lights” of the eventual apocalypse in that universe, and also mentions a building called the “Temple of Five.”

Hm. Suspicious, certainly leading, but not quite enough to invoke a total nerd squeal. Let’s poke a little further.

Well, looking up the Temple of Five on BattlestarWiki gets you a swift redirect to “Temple of Hopes.” Most likely a reference both to Hope herself, back in 616 Marvel, and to the hope the new lights represent.

Is Fraction having it on with us a bit, tossing in some BSG references to send us all on a merry chase? After all, BSG is about the struggles of the last dying gasp of the human race; it’s an appropriate metaphor for the post-M-Day condition of mutantkind. Or are we being given some foreshadowing on the cause of these new, delayed X-gene manifestations?

I think “yes to all” is probably the best answer. After all, as Fraction himself said at his SDCC spotlight panel, why does Tony Stark keep digging up mandarin oranges in Stark: Disassembled?